An Imperial Family in Space

Lady Felicia Sorensen, a brilliant microengineering student, finds herself pressured to date Emperor Victor Sinclair, for he has fallen madly in love with her! Despite being showered with extravagant gowns and attention, she longs for a fascinating life as a scientist, instead of the stressful and dangerous destiny of an Empress The social pressures of being the Emperor’s Betrothed, from gossip and manipulation to an assassination attempt, cause her to weigh her love for him against her personal goal, to do research in her own lab someday. Will Felicia choose her Imperial lover and tough out the extreme political and social pressures with the supreme ruler of the Empire, or will she choose her goals and help thousands, millions, possibly billions of people through her intellectual achievements?

Dignity is the first of Eva Caye’s thirteen-book series “To Be Sinclair”, a romance in a science fiction setting. Everything that happens in the plot revolves around the relationship between thirty-one year old Emperor Victor Sinclair and his paramour, Felicia Sorensen. When we meet Victor, he is despairing of ever finding the woman to help him secure his dynasty.

Felicia is something of a maverick. Although of high-born status, unlike her female peers, she has no interest in pursuing a suitable mate and becoming, effectively, the manager of a household. She wants to be a scientist, and do something to improve the lot of humanity.

Introduced to Felicia, Victor finds the young woman refreshingly different. Felicia, for her part, is well aware that a relationship with the Emperor may well mean the end of her ambition to be a scientist. The story evolves as Felicia learns more about Victor, while at the same time growing to a greater understanding of how she might fit into his life as Empress, without giving up her own goals.

The juxtapostion between the essentially solitary role of a scientist and the glaringly public life of the Emperor’s fiancee is taxing. Felicia constantly struggles with her ambitions and her feelings for Victor. Increasingly, her position in Victor’s life attracts envy, duplicity and hate, emotions Felicia must learn to deal with.

The characterisation is excellent. I liked Victor and Felicia, and wanted their relationship to work, despite the trials. It was nice to see that neither was perfect, tripping and falling and making mistakes. The subsidiary cast – quite a few – were sufficiently fleshed out, with plenty of jealousy, back-biting, and plotting, as well as support from friends and family. Both main characters develop and grow, and the ending is as satisfying as one expects from a romance.

I found the world building to be an interesting mixture of high tech, low tech and no tech, ranging from space travel via wormholes, to computer systems which seem to be no better than we have at present, through to hand-written letters on exquisite paper. But then, the feel of the society smacks of Georgian Britain, with high-born ladies vying for eligible men of rank. Indeed, the author’s writing style is more reminiscent of an earlier time. There’s a formality about it. For instance, Lady Brighton, who runs the hostel for young ladies where we first meet Felicia, is frequently referred to as ‘the good lady’, and the author tends to use the word ‘for’ instead of ‘because’ or ‘since’, a rather old fashioned construction. Although we’re in (mainly) Felicia’s head, often the narrator steps in to explain something, or to summarise a discussion, telling instead of showing. That said, there’s plenty of exquisite detail to bring the scene to life. I particularly liked the descriptions of Felicia’s gowns, which she wears to various court functions. She has no interest in fashion, so Victor commissions the dresses for her, sometimes to make a point to an audience, sometimes to make a point to her. The security arrangements surrounding an Emperor and his court are detailed and totally convincing. Privacy is hard to come by in that world.

There are a number of low-key sex scenes in the book, nothing much more than suggestion. However, the author has included a short story at the end, something she calls an Easter egg. It’s fun – but it’s hot. You have been warned.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s leisurely reading, not a full-on, action-packed space opera. But it’s a book I kept going back to, and something with sufficient depth to make me think I might well read it again. If you like series, then after you’ve finished this one, there are eight other books as Victor and Felicia’s family grows and matures.

You can find Dignity at:  Amazon   Smashwords

Crocodiles and coastal scenery

For our penultimate day at Cairns we hired a car so we could do some touring in our own time. Just the drive from Cairns up towards Port Douglas is worthwhile. The mountains rise up virtually from the ocean, with only a narrow strip of flat ground before the beach. The road is commensurately narrow, snaking around the coastline and affording wonderful views up the coast.

We were on our way for a visit to  Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile farm and zoo for a close-up look at Australia’s greatest predator.

Looks peaceful – but there are 21 crocs in that lagoon

Salt water crocodiles are ancient, clever, sneaky, and as far as they’re concerned, humans are just another sort of meat. Crocodile hunting was banned in the 1970’s because their numbers were so low. They were an easy target and their skins were worth a fortune – so much of a fortune that they were nearly wiped out. Since then, they’ve re-established themselves with a vengeance and become a tourist drawcard. So we went to look at crocs, as you do. This link will give you detailed information about the species. For Americans, alligators are similar in appearance to salties, but they don’t get as big. Here’s a comparison between alligators and salties. A four-metre alligator is big, a saltie has a way to go. According to the rangers, alligators are also not as nasty.

In Australia we call the salt water, or estuarine, crocodiles salties. The name is misleading because ‘salt water’ crocodiles can live very happily in fresh water, as well as in the ocean. In the wild they can become very large, and a danger to people and livestock. A big croc will take a cow, let alone a dog, a kangaroo, or a man. Farmers can’t shoot them anymore, but rangers will trap them and relocate them to a croc farm, where the big boys will live out their years making baby crocs. You might think it would be enough to relocate the big males to a different, uninhabited part of the world but scientists have discovered that crocs will find their way home just like birds and other animals. Here’s an interesting article about a croc relocated from on side of Cape Yorke Peninsula to the other and went home, swimming 400 kilomteres around the Cape to get there.

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures used to have one male (Ted) who was over five metres long – the second largest croc in captivity. They reckon he was around one hundred and three years old. He’d lost all but one of his teeth and one eye, and the eye he did have was blind. He died of natural causes several months ago. Last time we came here we were told about a four and half metre male called Snappy Tom, which was caught on the golf links at Port Douglas, where it had taken to lunging at golfers. The ranger also told us about one big male (Spartacus) who had been placed into solitary confinement after he’d bitten off one female’s leg. Bottom line: crocs are not nice. Every big saltie has bits missing – tail, claws, teeth. They fight for females and territory, the females fight to protect their nests. They grow up ornery. They’ve also evolved to handle injury. The female croc which had her leg bitten off is just fine without any need for antibiotics or bandages. And then there was Douglas. He was captured at Port Douglas. The thing about him is he has no teeth. We were told crocs will go through forty sets of teeth and more in the course of their lives but Douglas doesn’t have any. They don’t know why his teeth haven’t grown – but it doesn’t seem to have set him back,

Crocs are harvested when they reach 1.8m (6 ft)

We were taken to see the croc farm where salties are raised for leather used for handbags, belts, and the like. There’s a demand in Asia for top quality hides to be made into handbags that sell for as much as $38,000. (Pass) The meat is used, too, and any leftovers are ground down for fertiliser, so there’s no wastage. Our guide told us it’s the same as running a beef property, or a chicken farm. The animals are raised as a commodity.

We were taken for a boat ride on the lagoon. It’s shady and dirty, perfect for the twenty-one crocodiles who live in there. They behave as they would in the wild, and any eggs the females lay are collected for the farm, where they are incubated at 33 degrees. Our boat guide told us that most of the babies are male, but the incubation temperature is more about getting healthy crocs. Half a degree either way makes a difference.

Crocodile at Cairns

Our guide brought along food (chicken heads and wings) so the reptiles would actually show up. They are usually stealth hunters, sneaking up and lunging. But they can move very fast, and jump quite high. And of course, they knew to expect a meal. They’re smart. Up in Northern Australia the bushmen will tell you never to go fishing at the same spot three nights in a row. If you go back that third time, there’ll be a croc waiting for you.

After the boat trip the rangers showed us salties in a different setting where we could get a better feel for their size and speed. That’s a female croc, and she’s not especially big. Quite often the guide would lure a croc in, then whip the food away before it could be taken. It might sound horrid, like Lucy lifting up the football when Charlie Brown takes a kick, but crocs, being poikilothermic, don’t need a lot of food. A chicken a week is plenty for a large male. It’s more about keeping the animals active and alleviating boredom in a captive environment.

Douglas – note no teeth

The jaws are very powerful. They kill by grabbing hold of the prey and drowning it, rolling over in the water.

After a quick look around some of the other animals in Hartley’s zoo, we drove down to Palm Cove so John and Sue could see the magnificent paperbarks growing up through the buildings. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch, then drove back towards Cairns, stopping off at the intriguingly named Yorkeys Knob. It turned out to be a beach suburb with a prominent headland. ‘Yorkeys Knob, or “The Knob”, as it is affectionately called, receives its name from both a natural topographical feature and a British immigrant from Yorkshire, named George Lawson, who lived in the area in the late 1800s. Because of his Yorkshire origins, locals gave Lawson the nickname “Yorkey”.’ [1] There’s some very expensive real estate on that headland with some amazing views.

That night we had dinner at C’est Bon, a French restaurant not far from our hotel. It was nice, but we all agreed the wonderful dinner we had at Dundee’s, on Cairn’s waterfront, the previous evening was better. Tomorrow we’d all be going home.

 

A mini-break at Cairns

The waterfront at Cairns

It was supposed to be an all-girls chill-out – just my best friend and me, but the boys decided they wanted to come, too, so we booked flights and headed off to meet in Cairns, FNQ (Far North Queensland). Pete and I left on a respectable 10am flight. We had a slight scramble at Brisbane when we discovered our flight to Cairns was in ‘final boarding’ pretty much as soon as we got off our flight from Hervey Bay. We made it – but our luggage didn’t. This was all about mis-communication – the flight had been changed but we presented the piece of paper with the original flight, imagining that Qantas’s flight system would have had the correct details. Oh well. Luggage was delivered to the hotel in due course.

Sue and John had a rather longer flight from Perth, up at 3am to catch the plane to Sydney, wait for several hours, then fly to Cairns, arriving around 5pm. Dinner that night was pizza.

One of the fun things to do in Cairns is to take a ride up into the tablelands on a the historic railway, and come back down again on a Skyrail cable car after you’ve pottered around at the quaint little town of Kuranda. (or vice versa – here’s all the info) Kuranda is one of those very touristy places, with cafes and restaurants, and markets filled with didgeridoos, T shirts, postcards, artwork, tea towels, stuffed kangaroos… you get the picture. But it also has some other attractions, such as a bird sanctuary, a butterfly house, and a wildlife exhibition where you can get your picture taken holding a koala (for a price, of course). Here’s the Kuranda website.

On a warm humid day we caught the train up to Kuranda. It’s an old train with antique carriages where the air conditioning is you opening the windows. The train laboured up the steep gradients, passing through hand-dug tunnels and over bridges spanning deep gullies, the track curving so much several times we could see the end of the train from where we sat in carriage three.

Cairns from the train

We crept past Stoney Creek Falls thundering down the mountainside to the Barron River far below.

We also stopped for ten minutes at Barron Falls, which was just as disappointing this time as it had been on the other occasions I’ve been here. I think those waterfalls from close-up would be pretty spectacular, but they’re dwarfed by that mighty chasm. I expect that after heavy rain when the whole gorge is full of churning, roaring water, anyone standing on that viewing platform would get wet. All the way, we learned about how this railway line had been built in the 1880’s, opening in 1891. Here’s a little of the history. OH&S hadn’t been invented then. All the tunnels (there are fifteen) were dug by hand after initial blasting, and the workers were expected to bring their own tools. Many men died of disease, snake bite and accidents.

A close-up of part of Barron Falls

After we reached Kuranda we pottered around the markets for a while, then Sue and I headed for the bird sanctuary, a large, free-fly aviary with an assortment of native and exotic birds, many of them very friendly, especially if you brought in food (sold by the sanctuary). We were warned before we went in that the birds would be attracted to jewellery, buttons on caps and the like.

Here’s a selection of pictures.

Female eclectus parrot

After the bird park Sue and I wandered through the butterfly house. The enclosure is warm and very humid, the setting a beautiful tropical garden surrounding several pools. It was worth the admission just to enjoy the garden. Butterflies flittered around, sometimes settling on a leaf or a person, sometimes performing graceful duets in the air.

I’m pretty sure that’s a Cairns bird wing, largest butterfly in Australia

Later we found the boys (or they found us)  and we took the Skyrail cable car back down to sea level. There are several places on the way down where people can get off and look over the rain forest. It’s interesting comparing what you see going up in the train with the very different views from the cable cars and the board walks over the forest.

We hopped off the cable car at Red Peak, the journey’s highest point, and took a walk along a board walk through the top of the rain forest. Tour guides take groups along and explain the ecology, and you can admire the view for as long as you like before you jump back into a car to continue the journey to the viewing platform for Barron Falls.  I’d seen some pictures online from just a few weeks before, showing the falls thundering down into its gorge. It wasn’t doing that now. Still, there’s a weir at the top and the water is used for hydroelectricity, so not all the water comes down in normal circumstances.

Barron gorge. That’s the train on the opposite side to give context.

It had been a fairly long day for tired people. That night we relaxed over a few drinks,

 

Horses and space ships – woohoo

Copenhage, Denmark – November 05, 2017: Group of horse riders at the annual Hubrertus fox hunt event

When we talk about Science Fiction – at least when I do – I immediately think of space ships. Having established (for me) that given, SF seems to be a comfortable home for just about anything else. Romance, shape-shifters like werewolves, vampires, weird creepy things. As long as whatever it is can be explained scientifically (even if the science is beyond our current comprehension) it’s okay in SF. Vampires and shape-shifters could be aliens, weird creepy things could be alien weird creepy things – as long as it’s not magic or fantasy.

I guess one of the last things I expected to find in a space ships book was a strong story arc about a woman riding in fox hunts, much as depicted in the phtot at the head of this post. But I have, and I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party.

For Heris Serrano, nothing gave her life as much meaning as serving the ruling Familias Regnant in the Regular Space Service. But after defying a vindictive superior officer in order to save the lives of her men—she’s cast off from the crew and finds herself struggling to retain her sense of purpose.

Now, she finds herself in the civilian world and at the helm of the ‘Sweet Delight’—an opulent interstellar space yacht owned by the wealthy, powerful and irascible matriarch Lady Cecilia de Marktos. After a disciplined life in the Service, Heris doesn’t anticipate having many problems captaining a flying pleasure palace.

But she didn’t count on her crew comprising some of the most incompetent degenerates she’s ever had the displeasure of commanding. Or that her predecessor had been using the ‘Sweet Delight’ for criminal enterprises…or that their final destination will bring Heris face-to-face with the man who ended her career.

This isn’t an action-packed story with danger at every turn – although the danger does happen further down the track. There’s no space battle. It’s very much character driven, with lots of extra interest as we wonder why Heris resigned from the Regular Space Service. She’s a member of a powerful military family, often referred to as the Serrano Admiralty and whatever she did has finished her career. She certainly hadn’t seen herself ending up captaining a rich old lady’s yacht.

Cecelia Marktos, having sacked her previous captain for making her late, isn’t one to accept Heris’s rules and regs approach to captaincy lying down. It’s fascinating to watch Heris and Cecelia move from mutual disdain through to respect and even friendship. Having lost a wager, Heris agrees to learn how to ride a horse using Lady Cecelia’s simulator and later ride in a hunt with her. In return, Cecelia learns about her ship, how it works, and how her previous captain and crew had taken advantage of her hands-off approach.

There’s lots of technical detail as Heris checks out the ship’s hydroponics and environmental systems, which have been allowed to deteriorate to a dangerous condition. Her investigations lead to animosity with some of the crew. Her insistence on holding emergency drills which involve Lady Cecelia and her four spoiled rich kid passengers creates animosity with the twenty-something lads and lasses – though not with Cecelia, who has been lumbered with them against her will. Ronnie, in particular, decides to pit himself against Cecelia’s ‘little captain’. There’s also lots of technical detail as Heris learns to ride, first on Cecelia’s very realistic simulator, then on real horses at Lord Thornbuckle’s property. The hunt is very much copied from traditional hunts held at aristocratic properties on Old Earth, which gives a hint at the politics of the Familias Regnant world,s dominated by well-bred, wealthy families.

Not being keen on hunting, Ronnie, George, Bubbles and Raffa sneak off in one of Lord Thornbuckle’s flitters for a jaunt to the islands where they used to camp as children. Things don’t go as planned and the four young people are forced to grow up – fast.

What makes this a compelling read is the characters and the unanswered questions. Why did Heris resign? The explanation comes out in dribs and drabs, in realistic discussions as the two senior women get to know each other. We learn more about Cecelia, too, an unmarried aristocrat who decided to make her own way against her family’s wishes. She’s the crazy, eccentric aunt who used to be a champion horsewoman and is now facing old age.

The four spoiled rich kids go on a journey, too. At first it’s easy to despise them. What is there to say about a young man whose favourite expression appears to be, “it’s not fair”? How can anyone take a girl with the name ‘Bubbles’ seriously? How can they survive when there’s no one to help them?

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion and the promise of a second book about Heris and Cecelia. Following the vaguely horsey tone, it’s called Sporting Chance’.

I’m off for a re-read.

 

Notre Dame will rise again

When I first saw the news about the fire destroying the spire of Notre Dame de Paris I was sickened, appalled, and ultimately grief-stricken. My post on Facebook said it all – “Notre Dame. Oh no, oh no, how tragic”.

Although I was raised in a Christian (Protestant) household, I have been for many years an atheist, so my response might seem a little odd, so let me explain.

I had always been interested in history when I was at high school, but the history teacher inflicted upon my class in my final year did his level best to beat that out of me. Even so, when I enrolled for my first year at Uni, I decided to take one unit of history, in an area we hardly learned anything about in school – Medieval Europe. That is, the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the Renaissance. The lecturer was one of those rare academics who could make the subject come alive. It wasn’t just a string of dates and dynasties, she talked about the people and their lives in those very different times. The world was divided into nobles, artisans, and peasants. Jobs and skills were handed on from father to son, mother to daughter. The only tall structures were castles – and they weren’t very tall, either, once you’d walked up the hill on which they were built. Everybody believed in God and the Devil, and the Catholic church, having survived some turbulent times, was wealthy and powerful. It was in this context that the great Gothic cathedrals were built.

I was entranced. Our lecturer showed as slides of the great cathedrals, the soaring vaults, the wonderful flying buttresses to keeps those walls upright, the wonderful gargoyles spilling rainwater from the roof to the ground, the statues of saints and nobles carved into the stone above the entrances, the magnificent carvings around the pulpit, the choir, the organ. And the statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Apostles, all decorated with gold leaf and bright paint. Just being inside these places with their towering arches three and four storeys tall is a humbling experience, even to a non-believer like me.

Notre Dame is much more than ‘just’ a Catholic cathedral, it’s a monument to the ingenuity of mankind.

It was built by humans equipped with nothing but hand tools, building on the foundations of structures that had stood there before, combining two earlier basilicas into one. Think about it. The two bell towers are sixty-eight metres tall, and the roof is thirty-five metres high. The work was carried out without cranes or hydraulic lifts, each stone and oak beam put into place by hand. And it’s not just a matter of placing blocks of stone on top of each other. Figures are carved into doorways and windows – saints and kings and characters from the scriptures. The incredible rose windows were put in place high above the ground, each piece lovingly created before it was fitted into the whole. Women wove tapestries. Artists painted murals and paintings. Generations of craftsmen worked on this project. Some of their skills we’ve never been able to reproduce – at least not the way they did things then.

I’ve been to Notre Dame many decades ago when cameras had film. I’m sure the pictures are somewhere, but it’s easy enough to find photos of this French icon, as I’ve shown on the post. However, I recall the wonderful rose windows which still (and thankfully even now) have their 13th century glass. We’ve lost the art, you see. Crafts were handed down from father to son. Nothing was written down. And when many of the lower windows of the cathedral were damaged during the French Revolution and the 20th century wars, they were replaced with modern glass. Compared to the original glass, the new glass lacks… something. An inner glow, a lustre.

Now, a few days after the fire, we know the organ has survived relatively intact, as have the irreplaceable rose windows. The main structure has survived and many of the statues and holy relics were removed to keep them safe while the main spire was renovated. So there’s much that has been saved.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame will rise again. After world war II many buildings in Europe were resurrected, including cathedrals. That was because the people thought they were worth the effort. The ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden – not much more than one wall and a pile of rubble – were carefully guarded by the citizens of Dresden until after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when they could finally rebuild.

There are those who point fingers at wealthy firms and billionaires who pledged hundreds of millions to a restoration fund within days of the fire, asking why the money didn’t go to feeding the hungry and other worthy causes. This IS a worthy cause. The cathedral is part of the soul of Paris. And remember, those donations will pay artisans, purchase raw materials, put factories to work. Those donations will make their way through the city, the country, all of Europe – and bring a community closer together. And that has to be good.

 

 

Children’s books aren’t necessarily just for children

Some books are without a doubt aimed only at children. They’re short, the printing is often larger, the language is simple, and they’re not full of sex and violence. But even books like the immortal Winnie the Pooh can be enjoyed by adults. Winnie the Pooh is full of humour that would zip over a lot of kids’ heads. There are plenty of books aimed at younger readers that are just as attractive to older readers in the same way that quite young kids can enjoy books meant for an older audience.

Many adults don’t care that much about labels. I believe one of the biggest audiences for Twilight, a book about a senior high school student being stalked by a hundred-year-old fellow student vampire, was middle-aged women. It’s an excellent example of ‘whatever floats your boat’.

Now before anybody thinks I’m acting all superior and flounces off in a huff, rest assured I’m not being judgmental. I have several confessions of my own to make. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan – and let’s face it, the first book (HP and the Philosopher’s Stone) was a kid’s book aimed at eleven or twelve-year-olds.

Enough has been said about Mister Potter, though, so this post is about a wonderful mash of fantasy and science fiction, all mixed up in a ‘children’s’ book. Mind you, it was written by Sir T. Prachett and I’d read a shopping list if he wrote it.

Three books – Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, together make up the Bromeliad trilogy. Sir Terry is famous for his many Discworld novels but this story is set right here on Earth in fairly recent England. Imagine a large department store like Marks & Spencers in a country town. It’s been around for years but it’s out of date and management have other plans for the site, which will impact a community they don’t even know about.

In a world whose seasons are defined by Christmas sales and Spring Fashions, hundreds of tiny nomes live in the corners and crannies of a human-run department store. They have made their homes beneath the floorboards for generations and no longer remember — or even believe in — life beyond the Store walls.

Until the day a small band of nomes arrives at the Store from the Outside. Led by a young nome named Masklin, the Outsiders carry a mysterious black box (called the Thing), and they deliver devastating news: In twenty-one days, the Store will be destroyed.

Now all the nomes must learn to work together, and they must learn to think — and to think BIG.

Part satire, part parable, and part adventure story par excellence, master storyteller Terry Pratchett’s engaging trilogy traces the nomes’ flight and search for safety, a search that leads them to discover their own astonishing origins and takes them beyond their wildest dreams.

Please understand that ‘nomes’ is not a typo. The nomes are not the gnomes of human fantasy although there is a superficial resemblance. They are about four inches high, very fast and very strong. Humans for them are vast and slow and unintelligible, much like one of the larger herbivore dinosaurs would be to us. The humans don’t see them, don’t know the tiny nomes exist, so they live their lives quite separately, even having minor wars between the inhabitants of various store departments.

When Masklin and his small band arrive in the Store it’s hard to know who is more surprised – the store nomes or the ‘wild’ nomes. There’s much consternation and suspicion about the refugees but eventually Masklin and some of the younger nomes come up with a remarkable plan to escape the Store before it is destroyed.

In the first book, Truckers:

Imagine that all around you, hidden from sight, there are thousands of tiny people.
They are four inches tall, brave, stubborn and resourceful.
They are the nomes.

The nomes in this story live under the floorboards of a large Department Store and have never been Outside. In fact, they don’t even believe in Outside. But new nomes arrive, from – where else? – and they bring with them terrifying news: the Store is closing down and Everything Must Go . . .

And the adventure carries on from there. Although the nomes manage to escape and setup house in a quarry, they’re still not safe. That story is the plot of Diggers.

This is the story of Jekub, the Dragon in the Hill with great big teeth and a great loud voice.

(Well, that’s according to the nomes, but they are only four inches tall.)

When humans threaten their new home in the quarry, the natural thing would be to run and hide. But the nomes have got the wild idea that they should fight back. After all, everyone knows that nomes are faster and smarter than humans, and now they have a secret weapon . . .

Of course the nomes survive but they’re getting sick of running, so we move on to the last book, Wings.

When you’re four inches high in a world full of giant people, things never go very well for long.

After running into trouble at the quarry, the nomes want to go home. The problem is, ‘home’ is somewhere up in the stars, in some sort of Ship.

Masklin must find a way to get to the ‘launch’ of a ‘communications satellite’ (whatever that is).

And so begins an incredible journey, filled with peril, planes, honking geese . . . and a walking sandwich.

I can imagine some of you wondering what bromeliads have to do with it? Well, in the stories you’ll hear about a tiny, tiny frog that lives in the little pool of water inside a bromeliad perched high on a tree in the Amazonian rain forest. The little frog’s entire galaxy is inside that pool. But if the little frog wants to know if there’s a wider universe out there, it will have to leave its safe pool.

Hey gosh! It sounds like us humans and Mars! Maybe.

By the way, that’s a photo of a small native toad sitting in one of my bromeliads, just to give you a taste for what I’m talking about. The frog in the Amazon is much smaller and the bromeliad is much larger.

The three books are full of delightful jokes and snide parallels. Here’s a quote from Truckers. The store nomes have taken surnames based on which department they live in and the text is taken from The Book of Nome (there’s always a Holy Book).

“I. Woe unto you, Ironmongri and Haberdasheri; woe unto you, Millineri and Del Icatessen; woe unto you, Young Fashions, and unto you, you the bandits of Corsetry. And even unto you, Stationeri.
II. For the Store is but a Place inside the Outside.
III. Woe unto you, for Arnold Bros (est. 1905) has opened the Last Sale. Everything Must Go.
IV. But they mocked him and said, You are an Outsider, You don’t even Exist.

From The Book of Nome, Goods Inward v.I-IV”
― Terry Pratchett, Truckers

Yes, it’s a book for younger readers – as well as for older ones with a sense of humour. The nomes are forced out of their comfort zone and have to learn to live in a hostile world – so hostile it doesn’t even know they exist. And you know, maybe aliens aren’t necessarily human-sized creatures with bulbous heads, huge eyes and no hair…

There’s a thought.

 

 

 

Why I’m not giving up on Facebook

Everybody who uses the internet has heard about how Facebook collects private information and uses it to target advertising. Nobody likes it, especially when email addresses and telephone numbers are sold off to other parties. I’m with you – something needs to be done to prevent this abuse but if it’s a choice between giving up some of my privacy and giving up Facebook (FB) – I’ll stick with FB.

My Facebook profile provides as little personal information about me as I can get away with. Facebook’s goblins know my date of birth (although I could have fudged that) and nothing else. No address, no phone number, no interests, no religious views etc. I use FB Purity to remove sponsored posts and advertising. This doesn’t mean FB knows nothing about me. Of course they know I’m an author and an amateur photographer, and that I’m interested in science. I’m okay with that. The system collects data from what I post and my reaction to what others post. For instance, I mentioned that Billy Dee Williams is to appear in the next Star Wars movie, so he’s listed as somebody I’m interested in. Frank Oz is another – because I quite often refer to Australia as ‘Oz’ so the goblins got that wrong. You can find all this stuff by digging through your FB settings and clear it if you wish. They use it to target ads. Before I got onto FB Purity I used to get ads for older men wanting to meet women, weight-loss options, beauty treatments and the like. Everything an elderly woman might want from life.

I use FB because it gives me a whole new, real and vibrant, social world. I wasn’t an early user. I guess I started using the app regularly after the writer website Authonomy became a snake pit. Quite a few of us retired hurt and joined up again on Facebook, so it’s no surprise to know that many of my friends are fellow scribes. Pretty soon I connected with family members I hadn’t seen for years, old friends from the Palaeolithic I’d lost touch with decades ago, people I worked with in Perth and Melbourne and a few (a very few) locals. They were joined by extended family in the Netherlands and then, over time, people we met on holiday.

I don’t accept every ‘friend’ request I get. For a while I got a whole slew of American military officers (generals and such) and medical doctors. They were all older gents, either widowed or divorced. I was flattered, of course I was, but none of them had any other friends (poor souls) or if they did, they seemed to be either all women, or African. Somehow I wasn’t convinced they were genuinely interested in ME.

In some cases I met people before we became FB friends. In others, I got to meet FB friends in real life. In each of the latter cases, it was as though we already knew each other – because we did – through Facebook.

Through FB I learned what it was like for people affected by the floods in Townsville and cyclone Veronica which hit the Karratha area, or the effects of the Californian fires and the American floods and hurricanes. I’m hearing all about Brexit from the people who will be impacted, and from both sides. I hear opinions about Trump, Bernie Sanders, Pence, Mitch McConnell (and in the past Obama et al). I discuss writing and publishing with my author groups and recipes and cooking with quite a few, especially those getting great results from the keto diet.

And just like any other community, I hear about births, deaths, and marriages. I’m sure MM Bennetts, who was invaluable to me when I was writing To Die a Dry Death, was ill for a long time but that was never shared with the FB community until she died. The outpouring of grief when we heard of her passing was remarkable. At the moment we’ve all been watching one of our colleagues as he undergoes a heart transplant. This very healthy man in his late fifties had a pacemaker fitted a year ago. When it failed about a month ago doctors diagnosed him with a very rare, incurable heart condition. His only option was a transplant – although, this being America, his name wasn’t added to the transplant list until his insurance company undertook to pay the bills. He was lucky he had insurance. Many Americans don’t. He discussed his situation with humour, sharing the tribulations of being in an intensive care unit as he waited for a donor. He endured endless tests, IV tubes, providing stool samples, blood samples etc at all hours of the day and night. A suitable donor heart became available remarkably quickly and our patient shared the ordeal of waiting for surgery. Then his wife took over and kept us up to date while she sat in a waiting room for hours on end. The doctors had him sitting in a chair not much more than a few hours after the transplant. And we’re all thinking of him – and the nineteen-year-old whose heart is now beating in another chest.

Some people died suddenly, or without fanfare. I knew two ladies who were struck down with cancer and blogged about their treatment. They both used FB as a place to connect with people and share their stories. At the end, surrounded by family, one of them shared posts with her online friends (I guess one of the family did the actual typing). The other woman was someone I met online because of a shared interest in gardening. At the time she lived in Victoria but by then we had moved to Queensland. She later moved to Maryborough, 40km from Hervey Bay, so we finally got to meet. After she was diagnosed with cancer and sent home for the last stages, I visited her in Hervey Bay hospital. She wrote a last blog post, which her husband posted to FB after her death.

I hear about new pets and the loss of much-loved pets. I see pictures of people when they were young and fit. One lady’s husband passed away, another lost her daughter, aged in her late twenties, to cancer. I’ve known three men who decided to become women, had the operation and everything. They’re still the same nice people they were before. I’m friends with men who are married to other men and women in relationships with women. I know people suffering from depression, anxiety, and fibromyalgia among others, and know people who have Asperger’s or who are autistic.

Sure, I’ve removed a few ‘friends’ who turned out to be not the sort of people I want to share my thoughts with but not very many. And I’ve run the occasional ‘purge’ where I removed people whose names I don’t recognize because I’ve had nothing to do with them.

But all in all, for a confirmed introvert Facebook has been a great way of staying out in the people world. In fact, that incredible mix of people from all walks of life would be impossible for me in the real world.

So I won’t be giving up Facebook anytime soon.

 

Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

Last week I talked about covers and their importance in selling a book. I shied away from discussing the elements used in a cover except to mention that romance covers using images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. That’s a reader expectation which will attract some potential buyers and repel others. If you have animals on the cover with humans, and your book is listed under ‘paranormal’, people will expect a shifter novel. My own White Tiger is an example.  And if you’ve written in a certain category before you’ll earn a label as that sort of author. I’ve made that mistake myself, picking up an Elizabeth Moon novel expecting military space opera and finding (to my disappointment) that it was nothing of the kind.

One of my favourite authors is Nya Rawlyns who writes in a variety of genres which often overlap. Several of her more recent books seem to be classified as gay romance even if they’re not listed in the romance category. Which is sad, because often it isn’t true. Take The Eagle and the Fox. At first glance you might think it’s about an eagle and a fox and in a way it is. Let’s read the blurb.

TEaTFJosiah Foxglove is given a second chance when he takes over his family’s spread in the shadow of the Snowy Range. A veteran of the Gulf War, he came back broken in body and spirit.

Marcus Colton buried his long-time lover and best friend three years ago. Lonely and still grieving, Marcus finds solace in protecting Petilune, a girl with learning difficulties, who will surely become a victim of abuse and neglect without his help. But that doesn’t help him get through the long, dark nights.

When violence wracks the small community of Centurion, WY, it’s easy to place blame on Petilune’s mysterious new boyfriend, Ojibwe teen Kit Golden Eagle. It looks open and shut, but for Josiah and Marcus the facts simply don’t add up.

Something’s rotten in Centurion, something that smacks of a hate crime…

Unfortunately, this excellent book is diminished by reader expectations. Some look at the cover and expect a paranormal with shape shifters. (The eagle and the fox, you see.) Others will read the blurb and realise Kit Golden Eagle and Josiah Foxglove might be the eagle and the fox. That, and the fact no mention is made of shape-shifting and the book isn’t listed as paranormal. Heck, it’s not even listed as a romance, yet it has been judged as one.

Expectations, you see.

If it’s listed in gay literature, it has to be a romance, it has to be steamy. Except it’s not. Sure, there’s a romance arc – with sex, even. Life tends to be like that – love will find a way. But it’s a loooong way short of the whole story.

What this book is is a slice of life in a small American town, where the drought hits hard and despair hits harder. Foxglove is a war vet with PTSD. Marcus is an in-the-closet gay man who has lost his partner. Petilune is a vulnerable young girl with a learning disability and Kit Golden Eagle is an embittered Native American kid making his way in the world as best he can. And, as the blurb says, something’s rotten in Centurion which will enmesh the whole community.

The relationship between Marcus and Josiah develops slowly, helped by the mystery surrounding Petilune and Kit which brings them together in other ways. But it’s not a romance. By definition, a story can only be called a romance if the romance is the centre of the story. In this case, it’s not. Like it says in the sub-title, it’s ‘A Snowy Range Mystery’, with murder, kidnapping and violence.

I love the way Rawlyns brings the tiny town of Centurion, overshadowed by Wyoming’s Snowy Range, to life. You don’t have to be American to relate. Transfer the story to a dusty wheat belt town in Western Australia and it’ll still make sense. Because it’s about the characters, you see. It isn’t a boiler plate, paint by numbers romance, it’s a slice of life with all the complexity that involves. Nothing like the nasty, fantasy world of Christian Grey or the one-hundred-year-old vampire who’s re-enroled in high school.

This book is very difficult to slot into a box. I’ve spent some time considering where I’d put it on a bookshelf. Let’s see now… a slice of life starring a range of disadvantaged, damaged people. A small town mystery, hope and despair, starting again, love and loss… <Sigh> I guess it’s just going to have to go into Literature.

Oh – and for those to whom these things matter, it’s beautifully written. Go on, give it a try. There’s a link on the cover.

Baby Boomer Bashing

It seems it’s baby boomer bashing time again. Apparently us old farts are increasingly a drain on the national purse. We don’t pay tax and we want pensions and healthcare. All those poor young people earning wages and paying tax right now are forking out for us. We’re an undeserving burden. And we shouldn’t come out with all that rubbish about how hard it was for us. These days it costs half a million to a million to buy a decent house in a reasonable location. Both parents have to work to pay the mortgage, too.

Look, I get it. I feel sorry for young people saddling up to a mortgage with eye-watering numbers like $650,000, even with interest rates at an all-time low. And if both parents work and they have children, half their income goes on childcare. For many, they’re better off if the wife doesn’t work. And then, if you went to university you’ll have to pay back your HEX debt as well.

But let’s get all this into perspective.

My first fulltime job was as a graduate clerk in Canberra where I worked in the Archives office. It’s one of the few salaries I actually remember because it seemed like such a lot of money to a kid from a poor family. It was a little over $5,000pa, around one hundred bucks a week. Back in Perth a few years later, as a clerk in the public service I earned a bit over $8,000, which was around the median wage of the day. [1] Most married women didn’t work. Although women were no longer obliged to resign from Public Service jobs when they married, that was a recent change.[3] Around the same time (1976) the median house price in Perth was $33,000, which was roughly four times the median salary.[2] Sounds cheap, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at what that house was. Around then 7-800 sqm blocks were common. The house would have been fibro or increasingly, double brick because that’s what they build in Perth. It would have had two or three bedrooms, one bathroom, a laundry, kitchen, lounge, maybe a family area. No games room, ensuite, reverse cycle air conditioning, outdoor kitchen, theatre room, swimming pool etc etc. Maybe not even a garage or car port. And a new house would be out in the sticks with no gardens, no schools, and very little public transport. These days those little houses which used to be out in the sticks are coveted inner city properties worth near on a million because of their location. In Manning, where I grew up in the fifties’ and sixties in a little State Housing Commission (these days Homes West) house, home units are being sold for $700k and up. Home units!

Interest rates in the mid-seventies were around 9%, soaring in the eighties to over 18%. [4] Actually getting a loan was hard, and near on impossible if you were a single woman. And a lot of things today’s generation take for granted didn’t exist. For instance the only financial assistance the Government offered families was a tax deduction for a child.

The ageing workforce is not something we’ve only just recognised. Paul Keating as treasurer in the Hawke government saw the writing on the wall. He introduced a compulsory superannuation scheme for all tax-payers, with contributions taken from their salary. The rhetoric said the employer paid but at the end of the day it was part of employee remuneration. Keating intended that as far as possible, tax payers would pay for their own retirement. We tax payers were encouraged to contribute extra to our super fund and many of us did just that because there were tax breaks. In fact, we were encouraged to retire to make room for the next generation needing jobs. My mum didn’t want to retire at 65 but she had to. Those were the rules. In the mid-nineties a lady I knew at Australia Post went to the tribunal because she didn’t want to retire at 65. Like most women, she didn’t have much superannuation so she would have had to survive on the old age pension. Nevertheless. She was forced to give up her job. Those were the rules. As an aside, women aged over 55 are the fastest growing group among the homeless in Australia.

Australia’s big super funds are very, very wealthy. The Government has been eyeing off these riches and trying to devise ways of getting access to some of that money. Bear in mind that the super funds derive income from tax payers (our money) and then invest those funds to grow the profits for us. The super funds pay tax on monies earned. Some people with private funds derive income from dividends paid by companies in which they own shares. Some of these are franked credits which can be used to offset tax payable – because the company has already paid the tax.

Because the big funds expect significant fees from their members, people were allowed to set up their own, self-managed super funds (SMSF). There were rules and regulations that had to be followed, of course, like any other business, and at first it was a great idea. I had my own fund, associated with my consulting business.

Pete and I made our plans, worked out how much we’d need to have on retirement day to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle, and put those plans into action.

And then the Government started moving the goal posts.

Pensions in Australia are means tested. If you’ve accumulated too much wealth, you don’t get a pension although you are entitled to medical benefits (so far, anyway). The Government has (so far) refused to include the family home as part of the asset test. But there’s pressure on to change that. The argument is that a couple of old farts living in a house in Manning or Morley that’s now worth a million bucks should sell up and use the proceeds to fund their retirement. It’s the same little house they bought back then, maybe with an extension and an air conditioner. They’d have to leave the neighbourhood they know and relocate – somewhere. A nursing home? Some place on the outskirts of town a cut lunch and a compass from anywhere? If that’s brought in, just about anybody who saved enough to buy a house will be struggling to be entitled to any pension. There’s also pressure on to tax franking credits, because it’s income. But if it’s taxed, what it really means is the government will be receiving tax twice at the expense of retired people generating an income from those funds.

Over time the rules governing SMSFs became more and more draconian and the costs of maintaining a SMSF were such that it wasn’t finacially viable unless you had a LOT of money. It actually cost more to pay for accounting, reporting, and auditing than the profits generated from the investments.

When we first retired, Peter and I received a miniscule pension from the Government. But because of that, we were entitled to claim for discounts for council rates and car registration. Then the Government changed the way the asset test was calculated and reduced the amount above which claimants were not entitled to a pension. Since we no longer qualified for a pension, we  lost the other benefits. The financial impact of the change was much larger than anybody had anticipated. As usual, the bureaucrats had a good idea but didn’t carry out any proper analysis. (Some of those benefits have now been widened to cover all retirees.)

What’s so unfair about these changes is that they are effectively retrospective. The plans we made in the past no longer fit because the rules we worked under no longer apply.

There are considerable financial pressures on the Government to provide benefits for many people. Payments to help families pay for qualified childcare so mothers can work, payments for disabled people, increasing health care costs etc etc. And us old farts live so much longer these days. Instead of encouraging people to retire early, now the age at which people will be able to claim a pension has been raised and we’re all encouraged to work longer. Needless to say, the cost of living goes up for retirees as it does for everyone. The difference is we have a fixed income and even if we wanted to find work, if you think being over fifty is a disincentive to potential employers, try being over sixty-five.

I’ll admit I wouldn’t like to be saddled up with a half a million dollar home loan to go on top of HEX repayments to pay back the thousands I might owe the Government for financing my education. But then again, young couples don’t need to buy a first home at City Beach or Peppermint Grove. House and land packages on the edge of cities or (heaven forbid) in larger towns outside the main capitals are much more affordable. Visit the display homes at new housing estates on the fringes of the big capitals and you’ll find two-storey houses with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a theatre room, a family room, and an outdoor kitchen on a tiny block. What’s wrong with a small, older-style house until you can raise enough equity for something grander? Or perhaps move elsewhere, where there’s more room and less traffic. Here in Hervey Bay you can buy decent-sized homes for $300k+. All you need is a skill for a job so you can get work. Trades people are always welcome. That’s what we had to do back in the day.

I’m too old to expect ‘fair’. But we Baby Boomers worked and planned for a comfortable retirement – paying tax all the way. Hang in for another decade or so and we’ll have shuffled off. Then you can all look forward to getting similar complaints from your own offspring.

 

Covers are important – in more ways than one

I used to haunt bookshops. I loved them, aiming invariably for the fantasy and science fiction aisles and maybe the crime aisles. Oh, and the cookbooks. And anything else that took my fancy. I’d pick up anything that attracted my interest and read the blurb, then maybe a few pages before I decided whether to spend my hard-earned readies on that particular book.

How did I decide whether to pick up a book and look more closely?

The first thing was often the author’s name. If I’d read their work before and enjoyed it, I’d certainly look for other titles. Terry Pratchett (may he rest in piece) was an auto-buy for me. Another factor might be that I’d seen an ad that looked interesting, or had a book recommended. Those aside, I’d look at covers.

My process for buying an e-book is no different. Except that maybe the cover is even more important. In a bookshop most of the books are arranged spine out because there isn’t room to do anything else. In an e-book store, it’s covers all the way. The covers have to attract the right sort of readers and tell a little story in their own right. For example, if you’re looking at Romance books in any sub-genre, images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. If that’s not your reading taste, move on. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Fifty Shades of Grey et al didn’t have steamy covers but if you didn’t know that was what you were buying, you must have just lifted that rock off your head.

But this post isn’t about what elements you should use in your covers, it’s more about how they’re portrayed. I’ve recently discovered a website called Covervault. The owner has created some great free templates that people familiar with Photoshop CC can use to create 3D book cover images and posters. I’ve had a wonderful time messing about with them, pretending it was ‘work’.

3D images are very important for boxed sets because they show the customer what they’ll get for their money.

Here’s an example. The 2D version tells you you’ll get three stories – but the 3D version shows you and gives the names. It’s a classic example of ‘show don’t tell’.

 

When I publish my books I deal direct with Amazon, but distribute to Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks through Draft to Digital (D2D). After I’d created my nifty 3D boxed set covers I loaded them up to Amazon and D2D. A day later I got a message from D2D saying that Apple would not accept a 3D cover. Frankly, I thought that was crazy. Amazon was happy with the 3D version. I wrote to D2D asking if the other stores would not accept a 3D cover, and if there was a way of submitting both versions of a cover.

D2D offers great support. I received a response that only Apple will not use 3D covers. I was asked to provide 2D versions for the boxed sets which D2D would manually switch for the listing at iBooks. That’s great customer service and a large raspberry for Apple. You’d think they’d be interested in giving their customers the best information available.

Here are some of the posters I’ve created. I hope they tell you a bit more about the books, which is, of course, the idea. If you’d like to know more, click on the poster.