Mixadventures with chicken cacciatore and creme brulee

Ohmygoodness I’ve turned into a food blogger. Except not really, because this isn’t about the recipes and it’s definitely not about the food styling. It’s basically about the Thermomix exploits of someone who doesn’t usually cook. You’ve been warned.

week 3 – Chicken Cacciatore

After a most impressive opening fortnight with my Thermomix, I was on a roll, and when the next weekend arrived I perused the Basic Cookbook with gusto. World. Oyster. All that…

But the thing is, some of those recipes, albeit simple, use a helluva lot of ingredients. (Der, that’s what happens when you cook things from scratch.) All those herbs and spices. What are they exactly? Where do you even get them?

I decided to work up to all the herbs and spices and selected Chicken Cacciatore for my second Thermomix meal. It looked manageable in terms of both ingredients and procedure: chop, saute, a few stages of cooking… All done in about half an hour.

And it came out really well, even if I messed with the recipe again. (It called for white wine, but I have dozens of cases of red. Which turned out to be more than fine.) It made enough for four generous meals, so I was eating it all week. Not that I was complaining.

I ate it initially with a microwaved potato and fresh leaves — yum. But then a few nights later I was ready to put the Thermomix into action again to make… RICE.

week 3 – Boiled rice

I don’t eat a lot of rice, mainly because I can’t be bothered cooking it. That could be about to change.

The ‘recipe’ called for 350g of rice in the ‘simmering basket’. However, I cooked half a cup (105g), which typically does me for two meals, and the reduced amount worked fine. It took 20 minutes and came out fluffy and fairly perfect.

I did freak out during the cooking, when the goopy water burbled out the top, but the lid is clearly designed to deal with this type of behaviour, because there was no overflowing.

week 4 – Torta caprese

It was only a matter of time before I got into the cake section of the cookbook. And since I’m a chocoholic from way back, it was a no brainer to try out this flourless almond chocolate cake. The excuse was a family dinner. (Much as I would have loved to make it just for meee.)

The fun thing about this was I got to grind almonds into almond meal! In six seconds. The recipe called for the chocolate to be ground up as well (10 seconds), then everything got mixed together before baking in the oven.

Stage two was making a chocolate ganache icing, which I had never made before. It involved grinding more chocolate and then melting it into cream at 50C for three minutes.

To my mind, this type of thing is where the Thermomix really shines. The ganache was quick as anything to make, and took no time at all. I like the fact the Thermomix controls everything and there’s no chance of stuffing it up!

week 6 – vegetable soup

Oh no, I missed a week! But I have an excuse: I went away for Easter. Which brings me to my sixth week of mixadventures. On Friday night I made vegetable soup for me and a couple of friends who came over for Gin Night (that’s another story entirely).

Since I don’t make a habit of cooking for other people, this was kind of a big deal… but not really because it was very casual and, well, I was cooking soup. It’s hardly cordon bleu. And since Thermomix soup is one thing I can see me making rather frequently, I was keen to give it a go.

Once again, it was extremely quick and easy. I even had a kitchen helper to peel and chop the vegetables, so all I had to do was chuck them into the Thermomix and press the right buttons: dice (onion and garlic) and saute to start, followed by cooking/stirring for some 25 minutes, then blend for 1 minute. Voila! Soup! All while hanging out with friends.

It tasted pretty good too. Not to mention I went ‘manual’ for the first time — that is, I didn’t rely solely on the pre-programmed recipe chip to tell me what to do. The cookbook gave optional instructions for chopping and sauteing the onion/garlic before adding the rest of the vegetables… Negotiated successfully! (Again, hardly rocket science…)

week 6 – creme brulee

I mentioned in the previous mixadventures post that I am rather partial to custard. Which is something of an understatement. More to the point, I became a huge fan of creme brulee (crema catalana) when I was in Spain several years ago. Yum yum yum.

But I’ve never actually made creme brulee before. It’s not like I’m going to make it for myself, right? Right? I mean, what would I do with six serves of creme brulee sitting in my fridge. Eat them ALL?

Ahem. I had a pint of cream I needed to use before it expired. That’s my excuse. (Ohmygod, how embarrassing.)

The worst/best of it is that it was so ridiculously easy that I will now need to control myself of there will be more. (Add cream, eggs, sugar –> cook for 15 minutes at a controlled temperature.) Once again, there was no chance of it going wrong. And it didn’t. I ended up with several ramekins filled with delicious yum.

Of course, the key thing with creme brulee is the torching and caramelising of the sugar on top. Needless to say, I do not have a blow torch of any kind, so I attempted the ‘under the grill’ method — which took far too long and with limited success. I did it once (see photo), but I think I’ll just eat the rest as they are!


You may note I ended the last post intending to make a risotto. This hasn’t actually happened yet. Maybe next month?

Right now, I’m off to eat soup and creme brulee – heh.

Mixadventures in Thermomix

It’s time for a new series of adventures (misadventures?) — this time along culinary lines. I recently acquired a Thermomix and will now proceed to torment you all with accounts of my hapless kitchen exploits.

I say “hapless”, because I am not a “foodie” in the sense of creating — only in the sense of consuming. (And I do LOVE to consume.) But that is all about to change (kinda).

thermomix1

First, why a Thermomix?

I have to admit people are asking why I, who doesn’t cook a lot, now have a $2000 mega-appliance sitting on my kitchen bench. It was, in fact, a very generous gift from my parents, but I thought long and hard about accepting it.

In the end, I was convinced by a few things:

  1. I really like the idea of getting back to basics — i.e. preparing foods from natural ingredients, rather than relying on jars etc from the supermarket. Examples of processed foods I’m hoping to eliminate from my diet include stock, pesto, dips, relishes, cakes/slices…
  2. I want to cook more frequently and more diversely. I’ve become too reliant on Lite n Easy meals (which are healthy and good quality for frozen foods, but still…), and when I do get around to “cooking” it’s very simple. (I always try to ensure I’m eating fresh salad/vegetables whenever possible, but my repertoire is not large.) If a Thermomix can cut out a few steps, not to mention time, then I’m more likely to make the effort.
  3. My sisters each had one and I got jealous.

Now, I know that most things made in a Thermomix can be made using more traditional tools — food processors, saucepans etc. If I wasn’t making the effort before, what would make me change?

I figure it’s all about habit. And confidence. Both of which could be acquired without a Thermomix, but probably with more rigmarole. After all, I’m far more likely to adopt new habits if they are more efficient.

OK, that’s enough rationalising. I have a Thermomix now. Deal with it. There’s no going back.

My pledge

To help create my new habit, grow confidence, and avoid my fear of harboring a dormant Thermomix, I have pledged to create at least one thing every week from one of the Thermomix cookbooks.

These do not need to be new — it’s OK if I repeat recipes, but I figure the more confident I get with using the machine and creating particular dishes, the more I’ll want to try new things. Simple is fine as well. As long as I make something.

So how did the first two weeks go?

Day 1 — Vegetable stock

My Thermomix was delivered on 16 March. As part of the commissioning process, we made vegetable stock. This involved roughly chopping a bunch of vegetables and herbs and throwing them into the Thermomix with a little oil and a heap of salt.

veggiestock

It cooked for 20 minutes, then we zhooshed it while still hot. I now have SO MUCH vegetable stock for soups, casseroles, pasta sauces, risottos etc. It will last in the freezer for months, and because of the salt doesn’t freeze solid. It’s freaking cool.

  • I was really really glad I made this under supervision, because that thing growled and nearly jumped off the bench when pureeing (which took a minute). I would have freaked out and turned it off.
  • The ability to cook and blend all in the one machine is magnificent. It’s quick and easy and I will be using this functionality for soup repeatedly. Can’t wait!

Day 3 — Vitality Truffles

I went for something really easy for my first solo effort. Vitality truffles are essentially blended dried fruit (apricots/peaches, dates, figs, raisins), hazelnuts and rolled oats. The most time consuming part was the (manual) rolling into balls.

vitalitytruffles

  • I daringly made these under some time pressure, since I was taking them to our afternoon D&D session. The making of them was fine. What I neglected to take into account was the cleanup time. (Note to self!)
  • Not that cleanup was particularly arduous or time-consuming. But it was the first time, so I was naturally more tentative and careful.
  • My D&D team enjoyed the vitality truffles and I would definitely make these again as a quick and healthy snack for when I need to take a plate of food for some event.

Day 11 — Chocolate custard

I’m going to get so fat. The Thermomix has three built-in, fully automatic recipes, one of which is custard. Thick and creamy custard. I adore custard. Basically, you follow the prompts when adding ingredients (milk, cornflour, sugar, eggs, cocoa – if desired) and then press “go”. Less than 10 minutes later, there is thick and creamy custard. Noms. (You still have clean up, though. Bleurgh.) But custard!

Day 12 — Pasta in tomato sauce with ham and chorizo

Made last night, pasta in tomato sauce etc was my most daring mixadventure yet. I diligently went shopping for all the ingredients on the weekend, and made sure I started cooking before I was tired and hungry. It involved more steps than the previous recipes — grating parmesan and setting aside, chopping the meats and setting aside, then a few chopping and cooking steps involving onions (sauteed), canned tomatoes, pasta. But everything was cooked in the one vessel and it tasted delicious. MUCH more tasty than it looks. (Food styling is clearly not my thing.)

pasta

  • I’m still using the “assisted cooking” process via the Basic Cookbook electronic chip. In other words, the Thermomix touchscreen steps you through the addition of each (weighed) ingredient and cooking stage, and automatically sets the temperatures and times.
  • Even though I know you’re not supposed to mess with the recipe the first time, I messed with the recipe. I added additional vegetables and meat and considerably less pasta. It came out a little more runny than it should have (I didn’t adjust the water), but cooked perfectly and tasted delicious. It will still do me three meals. (I didn’t particularly want four meals worth.)
  • It took me an hour from start to finish — at which point I stuck it in the oven with the parmesan cheese on top to make a pasta bake. The recipe says it should take 20 minutes. Considering there is more than 20 minutes cooking time in the recipe, I think the book is delusional. You still have to gather your ingredients, wash the bowl after the parmesan, peel the onions etc. I daresay I would get quicker, but 20 minutes? No.

So I think the first two weeks went pretty well!

I’m serious about my pledge to make something at least once each week, and will continue to work my way through the Basic Cookbook (which comes with the Thermomix) as a starting point. I might try a risotto next.

My intention is to drop in from time to time to let you know how I’m going! Until the next mixadventure…

D&D Chronicles: To Kyam by water and dust

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESThe haft of the Flail of Wind and Rain is to be found in the Tomb of Horrors. Or so the wizened creature Oramoot says.

The Tomb of Horrors. The very name makes me shiver.

Oramoot has produced a map to the tomb, which is a long-forgotten Vhadrim testing place near the town of Kyam, just outside Vhad. It lies deep in the Dust Plains — another name to give me chills —  beneath a hill shaped like a skull.

I can hardly wait.

After a few days of rest, we leave the relative safety of Kham Jhara for our long trek to Kyam and the tomb. First we head to the river and arrange for some locals to take us downriver on a barge.

luca-bravo-149740

Downriver by barge

The river soon borders the Dust Plains, the air blowing hot and bleak. But our journey passes swiftly and uneventfully until the second night, when we are attacked by three fearsome eight-limbed creatures, while Blizzard and I are alone on deck keeping watch…

SQUIRREL

When it works, it’s magnificent, isn’t it?

Raised as a spellcaster, then left to make my way with the resident miscreants, my path has been akin to that of two men hobbled together, Faldhu god of thieves and Elloran god of knowledge not being the best of buddies.

But on the river, in the dead of night, it all came together.

We were asleep inside our cabin on the barge deck, Zillah and Blizzard minding the way forward, the young chap on the tiller. The alarm was sounded – we’d been boarded! And then, Zillah, yelling, “there’s one of the roof”.

In the light of my hastily cast spell, beaming out the door, we could see the foredeck messed in webs and in the midst, Zillah in battle with two spider-like beings. No sign of Blizzard. A couple of magic missiles helped Zillah dispatch the two against her opponents. And then she was trying to throttle Blizzard! And doing a pretty good job of it, looks like.

Charm spell, eh. Cast by the one on the roof. In the kill zone, above our door, most like. Exit there, get stuck, get garrotted. Not bloody likely.

I’d been wanting to use the gaseous form spell for months. Conjuration cast, and me and all my gear were vapour. Weird, but somehow invigorating. Out I snaked through the port hole, and onto the roof. In time to see the spider thing return to its perch, enjoying the battle on the foredeck.

Closer I drifted, unseen in the moonlight, until I was right behind it. I coalesced into flesh and blood once more, and – wham! My new dagger, minted by the master smith Astra Khara, slid smooth as you like into the thing’s back. A twist for good measure. Blooded!

That got its attention.

I dropped the daggers, dodged and ducked, and conjured – magic missiles. It didn’t like that. It swiped me, and I staggered, felt some poisonous itch that failed to penetrate, then cast again. The creature fell, Zillah snapped out of it, hugs all round.

And I had the satisfaction of seeing two paths combine, spell and blade in deadly concert. Finally, I think I’ve found my calling.

ZILLAH

Blizzard hasn’t yet forgiven me for trying to throttle him the other night. At least I didn’t kill him this time. The way he’s acting you’d think I attacked him intentionally, despite him knowing I was under a charm. I think he just doesn’t like the fact he was bested by a woman. But I wish he would forget about it. Since his conversion to Emrys, we have been almost in accord.

We arrived in the (mostly) abandoned city of Reyim Baal today. The city, which is engulfed by the Dust Plains, is currently home to a few dozen priests of Bahal and their attendants, who have invited us to stay with them. For worshippers of the god of death they are surprisingly mellow.

We have learnt that Elliana and Tob entered the Temple of Bahal some weeks ago and never emerged. While there is a chance they left via the portal, it is believed more likely they fell to the darkness infesting the temple. The priests believe the temple is overrun by the spectres of priests – those priests of Bahal who remained to defend the temple during the great war with the Vhadrim. After two decades, they are powerful and malevolent — even to their own kind.

To make matters more complex, we now believe the Left Eye of Varrien, which Elliana stole, also lies within the temple of death. We briefly entertained notions of liberating the temple, finding the Eye, but the dangers seem more than we can handle. Particularly since apparently most of our spells will not work inside its walls.

So tomorrow we head deeper into the Dust Plains towards Vhad and, beyond it, the Tomb Of Horrors — which is probably just as bad.

dustplains

Into the Dust Plains

*

Vhad. Once the mage’s city, the city of Vhadrim. Now a cloud of darkness engulfs it, and we are taking care not to get too close to its dark magic.

It has taken us several days to get here from Reyim Baal. Days in which Blizzard managed to get himself killed by foolishly falling for a deception — requiring Alix to resurrect him. (More gold owed to Shadrath.) We also encountered a great burrowing earth elemental, giant skeleton creatures and more besides.

Oh, and apparently a couple of days ago was the festival of Vash. I am now twenty years old.

But there is no time to dwell on naming days…

As we circumnavigate the city of Vhad, yet more strange creatures launch themselves towards us, throwing up dust. These look like giant scorpions, about thirty feet in length. Their poison is debilitating and almost does for Squirrel, but ultimately we prevail against them — only to see them dissipate into thick black smoke. Their poison, alas, is real.

Monster_dust

Creatures out of the dust

After meeting one of these scorpion creatures, and then two more, we eventually make it to the town of Kyam by nightfall. Poor Squirrel is staggering, barely able to walk, and we are carrying his gear among us. But Kyam promises to be a refuge for tonight at least. It is surprisingly intact, given the war that happened here two decades ago, and we bunker down for the night in what looks to be a community hall.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to find the Tomb of Horrors.

SQUIRREL

I am reminded again of the weakness of flesh –- my flesh –- by comparison to the mind. Although it was the mind that cast me into the hand-to-hand battle against the scorpions when my magic was low, some ill-considered thought of helping Blizzard as he looked to be dying alone.

As if my dying with him would have been an improvement! He is already polluted by his turn to the treehuggers, all pragmatism lost. Just look at his suicide in the old inn, despite the warnings about the waiting trap. And now I have been infected as well, so desperate to “be of one accord”?

If ever there was a warning from the god of thieves to remember my calling, it was there, in the thin veil between life and death. Here on the doorway to the tomb of trials, it is a good time to remember it as I await my poison-leached strength to return. Bravery is for the bold; survival is for the cautious. I am alone in the shadows, but that is the way of the shadows. There can be no light without them.


Next… the Tomb of Horrors, and hopefully the haft of the Flail. We can only hope.

Thanks again to Jason Nahrung for channelling Squirrel. Check out the D&D Chronicles page for a full list of posts in order.

D&D Chronicles: In the hanging gardens

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESAlas, the Derros still have the skystone. The lump of star metal needed to forge the flail.

Our party is forlorn but, thanks to Alix, intact. Fleet’s purr rumbles with life against my chest, Squirrel’s mutterings echo against the rocky ceiling. I wish he would be quiet. Alix resurrected both him and my cat. It matters not in what order.

Once we are all at full strength we head after the Derros, determined to gain our skystone, deeper into the tunnels under the mountains.

We defeat a small party of the creatures awaiting us at the chasm, but not before they blow up the bridge. The rest of their party is easy enough to track, even in the darkness, and we eventually arrive in a chamber of light, filled with green.

Fortenbrand gasps and declares this place the legendary Hanging Gardens of Athengar. His tone suggests it’s a place to be revered, and I can see why. From the entrance we can see huge raised tiers of abundant foliage — many different varieties, all bearing fruit. The music of running water fills the chamber, which is naturally lit by some amazing feat of dwarven engineering.

It’s beautiful. Bountiful. A place of calm and spiritual peace.

It is probably the place where the Derros have set up an ambush. I enter the chamber, head to its centre. Within seconds, a barrage of quarrels fly out of the foliage. Ouch. I’m glad we all loaded up with poison protection spells.

The Derros have arranged themselves up on the tiers, so after Squirrel clambers up on one side, I head up the other. The foliage is so thick I can’t see much of anything else, but I progress along the tiers in search of the enemy, all the while praying Squirrel will not use a fireball in this sacred place.

hanging-gardens

The skystone is ours

It was a shambles, but the Derros are all dead. And we have the skystone.

Squirrel managed to forebear using his beloved fireball, but he did use the wand of cold to kill a bunch of Derros — as well as a bunch of plants. Nightshade, Blizzard and Alix ended up doing battle with a bunch of Derros in the centre of the chamber, Blizzard’s greatsword swinging mightily. After battling mostly foliage to get to the enemy, I managed to not fall on my face for long enough to kill a few near the end. Then Alix was almost killed by a massive lightning bolt the Derro mages let off… and it was all over.

Fortunately Blizzard was able to heal Alix somewhat, then she set to in her usual unflappable manner and doled out healing spells to everyone else.

Now we are taking stock of the weapons and armour the Derros have left behind, and gathering food from the gardens. We’re going to recuperate here for the rest of the day, and begin the long trek back to Kham Jhara with the skystone tomorrow.

In truth I am more than happy to sleep here tonight. There’s a statue of Ashengar here in the gardens and, although dwarfish, she bears a strong likeness to my god of the forests, Emrys. If these gardens are a shrine to Emrys, then there’s no place I’d rather be.

BLIZZARD

I’ve always believed that the measure of a man is his loyalty, and I have been brought humiliatingly low. This story starts many moons ago when the Elders of my church laid their geas on me: for the glory of Kaltan and your eternal position at his side, bring us back the Eye of Varrien. Even then, the weight of prophecy lay heavy on my shoulders, some mantle of doom that I must draw close, but a man does not argue with his god, not even with the sycophant leaders of his church, who seem to serve themselves more often than their god.

Even then, even as the words fell from their mouths, I knew I wasn’t the man for this job. They made it sound easy. Infiltrate some party. Pretend you’re there for treasure. Or glory. When they succeed, steal the Eye –- no matter how. Bribe them. Bewitch them. Assault them. Murder them in the night if you have to.

And while murder at three am isn’t exactly my style, it’s not something I’d baulk at either. But murder a friend? Now, that’s an altogether different thing.

So, with misgivings, I joined the group. Me and Abra both. We kept to ourselves, me at my abrasive best. After all, Kaltan does love his chaos –- more glory to him –- and I didn’t want friends.

But then Abra deserted me for his studies, and gradually… Well, Squirrel is more akin to me, more brother to me than Abra ever was, and Nightshade and I, we have a blood bond and are forever linked. And despite my dislike of Shadrath, Alix has won my respect with her quiet courage and dignity. And Zillah, she is some mean fighter –- I too well know the strength of her hands as she’s choking the life from me. A man has to respect that.

Over time, they’ve become more family to me than any I’ve ever known. I let down my guard and found my loyalties –- church or friends? –- pitted against one another.

Then the prophecy. All must be of one accord… But we weren’t, and no-one else knew it. So when we kept failing failing failing, I knew why. It was me. All me.

Troubled, I sought Alix’s advice. What is more important: faith or our mission? And though she offered hope that I could, indeed, have both, she reminded me of what our failure would cost.

In truth, I am not the clear-sighted cleric who set out on this mission. I am conflicted. Changed. Torn. Church or friends? And, strangely, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the forest, the splendour of trees, the freedom of climbing, swinging on a vine.

So when Emrys came to me in a dream and offered me the wonders of the natural world -– and then Kaltan’s hand closed on my shoulder, leaden with the weight of chaos, trying to rein me back, I wanted to pull free. But a man is only as good as his pledge. Still, Emrys beckoned.

The trees.

My friends’ lives.

The most bitter of truths: the widening chasm between Kaltan and me.

And an answer. Only one more betrayal, the biggest betrayal.

Prising those fingers from my shoulder was the hardest thing I have ever done. And I have paid. My armour gone. My greatsword gone. My god-given powers gone. I have been brought low, and I deserve it. Welcome the pain and humiliation to scour away the guilt. Now, a humble warrior, I must square my shoulders and take what the coming months bring. Kaltan has exacted vengeance, and if I know anything about Kaltan, he has only just begun.

ZILLAH

Return to Kham Jhara

After many weeks, we have finally returned to Kham Jhara. Astra Khara, the master smith, is delirious with excitement, and he has whisked the skystone away, after paying us in impressive amounts of gold and weapons for our efforts. Tonight there will be feasting and celebrations, but all I really want is a bath and some sleep.

The journey back with the skystone was not without incident.

First, Blizzard has changed. And I mean changed.

Emrys visited each of us in our dreams that night in the hanging gardens. He was glorious. He blessed me and confirmed I am on the right path in this quest to stop the rise of Varrien. The relief I feel after receiving his benediction cannot be described. I know little of the others’ experiences — save that of Blizzard, who awoke transformed.

He has abandoned Kaltan, the god he has vociferously served for as long as I have known him, and pledged his loyalty to Emrys. None of us saw this coming — how could we? But he says he’s been troubled for some time. Confession upon confession poured out of him, and I think we never saw the true Blizzard until that day. His admission that he always intended to steal the Eye for Kaltan was not entirely unexpected. I have always known he had secrets and could not be trusted. But now? Time will tell, but I suspect he may now be a true ally. After all, we now share a god.

Fortenbrand the dwarf guided us back through the mountain tunnels towards Jeverd Dhar. Even so, it was a difficult journey, with many battles against metal-hungry xorns, which devoured Blizzard’s weapons and most of his armour. We might have thought it Kaltan’s retribution, had not Nightshade’s weapons not also been devoured.

But we’ve made it this far, and that chapter of this quest is over. Next we will head out again to find the pieces of the Flail of Wind and Rain, created by the goddess Gallea, said to be the only weapon that can stop Varrien, the goddess of destruction.

I pray to Emrys we succeed.


Thanks to Tracey Rolfe for Blizzard’s contribution.

More D&D Chronicles on the page.

Shannara isn’t perfect, but gives me hope

Ever since the movie versions of Lord of the Rings appeared, I’ve been living in hope more epic fantasy novels will roar to life onscreen.

I love the LOTR movies so much, will never be tired of them. They represent everything I most love about the fantasy genre (and value in life) — adventure, discovery, magic, heroism, deep friendships… The fantastical world first envisioned by Tolkien is brilliantly brought to life by Peter Jackson and his team in those movies. I wanted (still want) more!

Next came the HBO TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. I was excited by this at first — a whole multi-book series of big fat fantasy in TV serial format. It had me salivating at the prospect. It didn’t matter that I never really liked the first book much, back when I first tried to read it it 1999. A TV series would prove a far more digestible format and save me from reading them…

As it turned out, no. Despite the fact that half a world of non-fantasy enthusiasts have become obsessed with GoT, this lifelong fantasy enthusiast could NOT get into it. I tried. Desperately, I tried. The production values are incredible — brilliant acting, fabulous screenplay, amazing visualisation and representation of GRRM’s imagined world on the screen. For those alone, I resolved to watch it, even if there weren’t any characters I actually liked…

In the end, I couldn’t go the distance. The violence — sexual, psychological and physical — did me in. Like several people I’ve spoken to, I made it up until the point where Joffrey gets killed (huzzah! oops, spoilers) and then gave it away.

So disappointing.

The Hobbit movies came and went. I didn’t hate them — they do have the same amazing artistic production values as LOTR; but the plot is shallow compared with the depth and complexity of LOTR. They cannot compare.

There are so many amazing fantasy stories out there. Books I absolutely adore. How about a super sexy adaptation of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series? Or a vivid imagining of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders? Or a poignant depiction of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan?

They would all make brilliant television.

It often seems, however, to be Young Adult or children’s books that are adapted into movies… Not counting the current trend for YA science fiction movies, I can think of Eragon (fantasy) that was made into a movie… And of course, Harry Potter.

Much as I do love Harry and friends, can we have more adult fantasy adaptations please? Preferably without the excessive violence of GoT?

This all brings me to the Chronicles of Shannara, which is what prompted me to write this post.

I got Netflix last week. (Yes, a bit slow on the uptake, I admit.) I was exploring all the options (where to start? OMG) when I came across the TV series, Chronicles of Shannara, which had been mentioned by a friend of mine, just the week before.

Ha! A new fantasy series on TV! Yesssss.

The Chronicles of Shannara is a recent fantasy TV series based on the “classic” books of Terry Brooks (the first books were published in the 1970s). (Actually, technically it’s not fantasy, being set in a post-apocalyptic earth that has lost all tech, but it feels like fantasy, with elves and magic and stuff.) So I thought I’d check it out.

shannara2

I almost didn’t make it past the first episode, which was… pedestrian. Visually it’s quite an attractive and interesting representation of our technological world gone to the vines, but the acting was pretty wooden and the screenplay kind of stilted. Not to mention a derivative plot (which is why I never did read these books).

A couple of things stayed my hand from pressing the stop button — and indeed drew me through the entire 10-part series to the end.

Female main characters — not one, but two. Young women who are enterprising, resourceful, determined, competent, fully clothed (mostly — but discreet nudity is shared among the genders). In this TV series, female characters are not an obligatory afterthought, nor limited to a single main character. At the end of the series it’s these two young women who save the world, through trial, friendship and sacrifice. There’s a guy there who helps a bit.

Quest and adventure — Quest-based fantasy may be considered passe these days, but I still love it. I love exploring new worlds — or in this case a post-apocalyptic north-west America that’s now dominated by elves, trolls and gnomes. And I love the dynamic of a group of characters, finding their inner heroism, struggling to fulfill some sort of mission to save the world.

shanarra1

Don’t get me wrong, this show is still B-grade on all levels. It will never compare with GoT or LOTR screen adaptations. But it does have a whole lot of heart and a cast of heroic, likeable characters. I would still rather watch that than GoT any day.

What I really want is a TV adaptation of epic fantasy that combines the slick production of GoT with the heart of Shannara. Please?

Journal: In search of new

New year, new words… I hope. (Can it really be February already?)

I’m in that weird place I haven’t been very often in my creative writing career — between novels. And it shows, because I don’t quite know what to do with myself.

flowers-1911205_1280

The “completed” novel has been with readers for feedback for the past few months. Most of the comments are now in, and I have many good suggestions for improvement and clarification. So far, no one has suggested anything that demands a full rewrite (phew — I’ve already written three drafts). Most of the feedback aligns or complements each other, with few conflicting views. This is a good thing!

So, on the whole, I’m pretty happy. And I’m rather keen to get stuck in and fix it all up, make it prettier.

But I’m holding back on the final revision… for two reasons.

The first reason is that I have a tendency to work on the same thing over and over and over. I much prefer to revise than create anything new. For me, new is really really hard. It’s unknown and I feel out of control. There’s no guarantee of meeting my own expectations with a first draft, let alone anyone else’s.

Refining an existing story, on the other hand, is still hard, but ultimately more rewarding, because I can see things taking shape as I work towards achieving a certain vision.

But I recognise that the whole point of being an author is to write new things to satisfy the voracious appetite of readers (or so I hope) — so I need to get better (and faster) at writing new things, instead of getting fixated on revision and perfection.

The idea is thus to write a follow-up novel right away, so that it’s past even first draft form by the time I publish the first. This will be beneficial whether I am successful in obtaining a commercial publisher (who will be more confident in me as a debut author if a follow-up is on the way) or decide to indie-publish (where publishing frequency is one of the keys to success).

The second reason for holding back on revision is even more practical. I want to be able to foreshadow any elements I introduce in a follow-up novel, which will be related to the first. After all, I may create some amazing thing that needs to be at least present in the initial book. (In fact, I already have.)

The next book

Which brings me to the next book. You may recall I was going to tackle a direct sequel to the first book during NaNoWriMo last November. So why isn’t it finished already, dammit?

I wrote about 21.5K words during NaNoWriMo and then conked out. This is partly because NaNo pace is a very fast pace for me to work. It’s a big effort for me to churn out 1500-2000 words a day on a regular basis. I really really wish I was one of those authors who could churn out 10K words a day, but I’m just not. Alas.

Even if I have an idea of where the story is supposed to be going, I still need lots of rumination time between scenes to make sure it stays heading in the right direction. (I guess I don’t trust my subconscious enough to let it have free rein.)

But with my current daily cafe writing routine, 1500 words a day of rough draft isn’t impossible… There was in fact a second reason I conked out.

One of the goals I set myself during NaNo was to not worry too much about what I was writing. I wanted to see if I could give my right brain control and see what came out of it. I was completely prepared for a whole lot of junk with some nuggets of gold.

And this is essentially what I got (or so I thought). The problem was that, once I decided I didn’t like where the story was headed, I lost interest in it and my creative juices stopped flowing. I could see a few things I liked buried in a whole lot of drivel. So I stopped about two weeks into the challenge.

Another book entirely

After a few weeks break, I started thinking about a different character entirely. A new character. And I started to wonder whether the next book would be something other than a direct sequel. Definitely linked and keeping to the overall major themes, but coming at the “big picture” story from another angle.

As a result, I’ve spent the past couple of months ruminating on how to approach the follow-up book as part of a mosaic series. Whose story is it? What is the major conflict? What’s the best way to link it directly to the first book? How does it key in with the overarching series story? Which of my existing characters get to play? (Who doesn’t?)

So far all I know is that I want it to explore a particular corner of this world I’ve created. But I don’t actually have the discreet story yet. Gah!

And then last week I read over the 21.5K NaNo words to discover they’re not as bad or irrelevant as I thought. Maybe I was onto something after all?

So NOW I’m pondering how to mesh the original follow-up story with the new ideas I’ve been having… Yep. Circles. Round and round.

One of these days — hopefully soon — I will get my act together and start writing this accursed follow-up book. It had better be soon, because I really really REALLY miss my daily writing sessions.

D&D Chronicles: Operation Skystone not going too well

Race for the skystone

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESBefore us lies a massive circular depression, rock and soil churned up in chunks, vegetation flattened for hundreds of paces all around.

The skystone. It’s so close, buried at the heart of this crater where it fell. We’ve travelled far to reach this place, crossed the treacherous dust plains with its unnatural creatures, entered the mountains, driven by our need to retrieve the skystone to fulfill our quest. When we came across the first felled trees marking the impact zone, my blood sang, the memory of the prophecy sharp in my ears.

The skystone is here. Right before us. But we’re in a race with a horde of dwarfish folk to unearth it.

Beneath our feet lie the caverns and tunnels of dwarven mines. Every so often, the ground shudders and a muffled boom rocks the air. The little folk endeavour to dig out the skystone from below, while we dig desperately from above.

Our worst fears are realised when another explosion racks the earth and a hole appears. Sunlight shines down onto a cart and dark shapes moving about it. They have taken the skystone. We cannot let them have it.

I leap into the hole with Blizzard. In the dark we’re at a disadvantage, but Squirrel’s light spell ensures we can at least see. The strange little men are gone, so we follow them through the tunnels until the poison arrows start flying and we are outnumbered.

We retreat, but they do not pursue, and after a time we creep back down the tunnel to find the cavern empty. We continue through the tunnel and emerge into daylight in time to see a familiar-looking fireball tear a great hole in the rising sphere of an airship. It crashes to the earth in flames.

SQUIRREL

So there’s this prophecy about how five must act in one accord to save the world, and I’m not sure it’s actually referring to us. The two god-touched northerners have their heads in the clouds, Blizzard is rather belligerent in his pragmatism, and Nightshade appears at best nonplussed, to say the least. Which leaves me trying to do what has to be done without fracturing the whole party. Unlike Blizzard, I know there’s a time to keep one’s hands in one’s pockets, and another to take them out … and cast that fireball. Sure, sometimes I get it wrong. No one said saving the world was easy.

Case in point. We stumble across these dwarves — what we think are dwarves. I’ve certainly never seen one before, but they match the general description (short, hairy, unhelpful). If they’d been orcs or goblins, no problems: Blizzard’s call to take out their scouts and send the rest of them packing would’ve been unanimously supported, I’m sure. But no. We try to negotiate. We need what you’ve got, we say. We’re trying to save the world, we say. But these little tunnel diggers, too caught up in their own greed to even bury their dead, aren’t having any of it. There we are, the ball of star metal within our each, and we’re still talking about the rights and wrongs of taking it. So: fireball time. Didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, but hey, no one died. No one important, anyway.

Which leaves us here, cooking up a plan to get into the dwarven tunnel and retrieve the rock we need to save the world. We’ve shed their blood, blown up their weird airborne contraption, caused them grief. There’s no time now for hands in pockets. Let’s hope we are at least in accord about that.

Cavern of doom

ZILLAH

Having escaped with the precious skystone into another tunnel, the horde of enemies now awaits us in a vast, dark cavern, on the far side of a chasm spanned by a narrow bridge.

Or so we believe. Our sight cannot penetrate the darkness. Nor can the sight of our new companion, Fortenbrand, a pale dwarf who the dark ones imprisoned. After we liberated him, he agreed to help us retrieve the skystone from the ‘half-breed black fuckers’ he names ‘derros’. Since Fortenbrand’s priests have also foreseen the skystone is needed to forge the flail, he is now our ally.

We attempt to cross the bridge. The derros are great in number and their poisoned quarrels continue to fly. We reach a fortification in the centre of the bridge, dodging the strange arrows as best we can.

A terrible screech rips through the air and my heart almost stops.

Fleet. Fleet!

I spin to see my beloved Fleet plummeting downwards into the depth of the chasm. Her body twists and writhes for purchase that isn’t there. Her howl freezes my blood.

Oh no no no. Fuck fuck fuck.

I drop my weapons, heave my pack onto the stone at my feet. Pitch myself over the edge into nothing but endless air.

The drop is about fifty feet into cold, dark water. Gasping, I reach the surface and swim towards the motionless form of my beautiful cat. She’s a dead weight in my arms, fur sodden, green eyes closed. Sobbing now, I haul her out of the water, check her vital signs, refuse to believe what I already know. Desperately I paw at her, my hands shaking and useless.

Another splash in the water behind me, and I sense someone else has fallen. And then another. I don’t care. Nothing matters anymore, but Fleet who is unresponsive and immune to all my entreaties. My mind spins with chaotic nothing.

Then I hear Alix’s faint cry. Alix. I need Alix!

Alix is in the water and I plunge in after her, grab hold of her arm and drag her to Fleet. Help her. Please help Fleet.

The action has cleared my mind. It is Squirrel flailing in the water, weighed down by his pack, his struggles growing weaker. Nightshade is descending on a rope to help him and, although my chest feels as though it must split in two, I go to her aid. But my limbs feel like lead and I can barely breathe. By the time we retrieve Squirrel, he has been underwater too long.

Licking wounds

ZILLAH

As I hunch over Fleet, whose body is already losing warmth in my clutching arms, I’m barely aware of Alix using her airwalking boots to transport all of us and our gear upwards and away to safety. Somehow I put one foot before the other, stumbling back the way we came until we reach a safe chamber.

I lay my cat down gently, stroke her fur, gaze pleadingly at Alix.

She comes over. Says Blizzard has cast a spell over Squirrel to preserve him until the next day. This means she is able to bring Fleet back right now, and Squirrel tomorrow. I throw my arms around her until she fends me off and settles at Fleet’s side to work her magic. I stroke my cat’s fur, lay my hand over her heart. Life returns — a flicker of pulse, a faint inhale of breath. I gather Fleet to me and bury my face in her neck.

SQUIRREL

Back on Mycross, running with Ribald’s crew, we had a saying: it’s not the fall that kills you, but the landing.

How true it is. There was the plummet from the bridge into the chasm, then the save of the feather fall spell that lowered me ever so gently … into the river. Where the burden of pack and clothes bore me down. For someone raised on an island, I’m a useless swimmer — the ocean was a widowmaker where I lived. Besides, I couldn’t slip the pack, not when it had my spell books in it. I had to hope I could somehow make it.

You’d think I’d learnt better than to hope by now.

I remember drowning. The panic of it, the water and the darkness. Then waking, choking on that memory. I reached for my pack, as weak as I was, newly brought back from the great nothingness. (I know it too well.) My books and scrolls were thankfully secure inside their watertight bindings, the best gold I’ve ever spent — what is a magic user without this magic?

And my companions, abashed from the disaster of our defeat by the derro at the bridge, urged me to take up arms despite my power being spent, as though to die was no big thing, as though Alix had done no more than heal me of a scratch and set me back on my feet again.

I DIED, and only Blizzard seemed to care. Though his delight in telling me that they’d resurrected the damned cat before me was perhaps out of order. He needs an ally, that one, and it seems, as the only other pragmatist in the party, I may be it. Certainly not Nightshade, who seems to care not one whit for man nor mission.

There is a lesson here, one I should have learnt long ago on the island. Yeah, it’s not the fall, but the landing that counts.


Well, that was eventful. Actually it was farcical. We (the players) were mostly in hysterics as our characters floundered about in the water at the bottom of the chasm, while the DM shook his head in bemused disbelief.

Retrieving the skystone was not supposed to be this hard. We were not supposed to destroy the hot air balloon (that was our ticket home, says the DM). We were supposed to make quick work of the derro and return with the skystone in time for tea. Hmm.

More Operation Skystone soon!

Thanks to Jason Nahrung for Squirrel contributions.

More D&D Chronicles on the page!

Hiking the Three Capes Track

tct2_munroellenSo, I went hiking a couple of weeks ago. (Yep.) And, despite apprehension about my general fitness, I survived four days of schlepping around the Tasman Peninsula with only a few blisters and a mild case of sunburn.

(I did wonder a few times — muscles burning, lungs wheezing — what the hell I was doing, but that’s enough said about that.)

The Three Capes Track in Tasmania is one of those new hiking ‘experiences’, where you pay some money for the privilege of using a well-constructed track and staying in beautiful new eco huts with kitchen facilities, dorm beds, and other, er, facilities. (Let’s just say, this was a far cry from toileting Mongolian style… They might have been long drop toilets, but there were stalls with doors and everything.)

It had been a while since I’d gone hiking. The last time I carried a full pack was January 1999 for Tasmania’s Overland Track. Then in around 2005 I spent eight days trekking in Nepal — but that time I had porters to carry my gear (thank the stars).

For the Three Capes Track we didn’t need to carry tents or stoves, but we did need to carry other gear and food — and we ate (and drank) extremely well — so it was kind of a halfway deal. I just gritted my teeth and told myself it was yet more research and, as I went up and down more steps than I cared to count, realised that Zillah (my kick-ass Dungeons and Dragons character) I am most definitely not…


Three Capes Track – Day 1

The first day is just 4km, starting from Denmans Cove near the historic Port Arthur site. We took the later scenic boat ride (sea eagles perched in the trees!) from Port Arthur, to arrive at the cove at around 3pm. We then took our time and climbed up through coastal forests to arrive at Surveyors Hut in time for a pre-dinner cup of tea.

The walk is somewhat up and down (and up) to the top of the cliff, but not difficult. It was a good length just to get me into the mood of carrying my pack. And the first sight of Surveyors Hut, as we came around a bend out of the bush, took my breath away. That thing is so huge! It’s beautifully designed, with broad decks and lots of space — not to mention a gorgeous view.

tct1_surveyors-hut

Surveyors Hut

That night we dined in impressive style, thanks to one of my hiking companions: chicken curry with rice, steamed greens and poppadoms. And red wine (decanted into a bladder for carrying). And brownies for dessert. As I said, we ate well!

Day 2

We began the second day in leisurely fashion, taking our breakfast (instant oats with dried blueberries and sweetened condensed milk) and coffee (one of my companions carried a stove-top espresso maker!) with easy conversation. It was so nice to hang out with fellow hikers. We headed off walking at about 10am.

The second day’s walk is 11km, undulating along clifftops towards Cape Pillar, including up and over Arthur’s Peak and Crescent Mountain. The views are staggering — back towards Cape Raoul and Crescent Bay, where dune-surfing takes place, and to Cape Pillar in the other direction.

We again took our time, stopping at each of the marked “Encounters” to read from the guide book about some aspect of history, or geology, or vegetation, or wildlife etc of the place we had stopped at. These encounters are one of the great aspects of the hike — and they are the thing that makes it an “experience”, rather than a simple hike. They are marked most often by some form of creatively designed bench seat, offering a good excuse to rest for a few moments.

More than that, though, the encounters really made us stop and look and think about where we were. They made me notice the changing vegetation and look out for things I might not have noticed otherwise. The little book containing all the information is a really fabulous initiative.

We arrived at Munro Hut late afternoon, and spent the hours leading up to dinner relaxing on the deck and admiring the view (see photo with me at the top). More wine that night, and some whisky I’d been carrying. Plus a Thai vegetable curry with tofu. And Lindor balls. Yum.

Day 3

Lots of good things about day 3 (17km) — including the fact that most of it involved leaving our packs at Munro Hut and taking day packs out to the tip of Cape Pillar, where there is a rocky feature known as The Blade.

You can see from the above photos that we had glorious weather — in fact, it was hot hot hot. Again, it’s not a difficult walk, although there is plenty of up and down (and steps). We clambered up to the tip of the Blade, which overlooks Tasman Island, just to say we’d done it, but the views are better from elsewhere. There’s a lighthouse on Tasman Island and a weather station. And seals frolic in the rockpools at its feet.

The Blade and Tasman Island

The Blade and Tasman Island

After the return trip from Cape Pillar, it took less than an hour carrying our packs to reach Retakunna Hut, which sprawls and nestles in a bushland setting. It’s serene and beautiful there. Finally it was time to eat the dinner food in my pack, and I was glad to get rid of the potato, carrots, snow peas and half a dozen fresh eggs I’d been carrying! This was combined with tuna and couscous and other bits and pieces to form a hiking version of nicoise salad.

Day 4

We rose early on Day 4 (dawn! I swear it’s true!), because although only 14km it’s actually the longest day from a time point of view and walkers need to be finished by a certain time to catch a bus back to Port Arthur at the end. We were on our way by 8am and reached the top of Mount Fortescue by 9am, once the morning drizzle cleared and before the clouds had burnt off.

Once the clouds did burn off, the day turned scorching hot. Day 4 is only 14km, but I admit to being generally fatigued by the final day (unfit, remember?) and this was the hardest day for me without doubt. It’s a gorgeous walk, though. The first climb of Mount Fortescue and its descent is through beautiful rainforest. Then we came out onto the clifftops on the other side, where the views are again stupendous. The geology of this part of the world is certainly striking.

tct4_cliffs

Towards the end of the walk, we all downed packs for a side trip to the tip of Cape Hauy. This was not really too far, but it was hot, I was tired, and there were steps. Steps up and steps down. More steps.

Steps.

And hot.

This was definitely the hardest section of the entire walk for me, most likely a combination of the heat and fatigue. But it was all over in a couple of hours, and then it was time for the final descent to Fortescue Bay, where the bus was picking us up at 4pm. We arrived by about 3pm, which gave us time to relax before getting transported back to Port Arthur.

3CT Map


Overall, the Three Capes Track was a fabulous experience and it was a privilege to see such a beautiful and remote part of the world. We did have some discussions about the model for the hike — the section from the start to Munro Hut can now only be done as part of the Three Capes Track Experience, meaning independent hikers are excluded. However, they can still get to the tip of Cape Pillar, and Cape Hauy is a day hike from Fortescue Bay.

I’m not sure I’m on board with excluding independent hikers, but I do feel that these facilities make it possible for a greater breadth of people to participate. It certainly suited me at this stage of my life. I absolutely love trekking and adventure, but I do not absolutely love carrying a full pack. Moreover, sleeping on memory foam mattresses certainly beats my old and very thin thermorest. (Interestingly, the most popular demographics for the Three Capes Track are 1) over 50s, 2) women, 3) families.)

It was fabulous to explore another corner of my country, but there are still many many walks around the world I want to do. Some of them wilderness hikes, others through more civilised areas. On my radar at the moment are: the Mont Blanc circuit in Europe, the Appalachian Trail in the USA, the South West Coast path in the UK (plus many others), and the pilgrims way through southern Europe.

Which one shall I do next?

Reading highlights from 2016 – part 3

So the final reading tally for the year is 242 novels and novellas, of which 204 were new (clearly I got some reading done in the last week or so, some of them ‘holiday stories’).

I was going to write a single post about my favourites from the year, but I had too much to say it turns out, so it became three posts. This final post covers September to December. (Read part 1 (January to April) and part 2 (May to August) if you dare…)

September

weightoftheworldI spent much of September (and in fact August) re-reading Alexa Land‘s massive First & Forever series (13 books and counting…) in preparation for reading the latest ones I hadn’t yet read (10.5, 11 & 12). Of these new ones, I was pretty blown away by Who I used to be (12), which dealt with themes of heroin addiction and HIV positive status. Both the main characters are introduced in earlier novels, and although it was an intense book to read in parts, it was also incredibly uplifting and accented with many wonderful and familiar characters. This series deals with all manner of issues — some serious as in this novel, some much less so — and it’s like sitting down with a bunch of old friends every time. (The 13th book in the series just came out and is sitting on my kindle…)

The other memorable book for September was Weight of the world, by Devon McCormack and Riley Hart. Riley Hart is one of my favourite m/m authors, so it was pretty much a given that I’d read this. It’s written alternating first person POV (I think, from memory) and is about a guy (Zack) who was talked off the ledge (literally) by another guy (Rob)… who ended up jumping himself half an hour later. Shocked and trying to understand what happened, Zack seeks out Rob’s brother Tommy and the two become, er, friendly. It’s a fairly simply but deep story about dealing with grief and healing and love.

October

overexposedI read quite a few good ones in October… The first I want to mention is The Game Changer by Kay Simone. It’s about a ‘straight’ quarterback who gets injured and has to undergo physical therapy — and the relationship that ensues with his physical therapist. It’s a fairly simple story, but it deals with the issues of intolerance when it comes to sports stars and I really liked the way it was written.

I also really liked Overexposed, the fourth book in Megan Erickson‘s ‘In focus’ series. I’ve liked all the books in this series a lot — this one was set mostly on the Appalachian Trail and made me want to walk at least some of it.

Model Citizen by Lisa Kasey features an interesting main character who is both a male ‘femme’ supermodel and unlicensed private investigator, a bit out of his depth trying to run his brother’s PI business after his brother is killed. It’s both mystery and interesting character drama, with a love story developing with his brother’s friend who helps with the PI business.

Three’s Company by N.R. Walker is about two guys who are running a hotel and invite a male guest, Wilson (who’s just out of a relationship), into their bed for fun… and things get a bit more serious than anticipated. Wilson is a chef, and naturally there’s ample opportunity in a hotel for him to step in and make himself indispensable.

Finally, It was always you is an anthology featuring novellas from several of my favourite authors along the theme of ‘best friends to lovers’. I don’t read a lot of anthologies, but I really really liked this one!

November

daringfateThe fourth book (this time a novella) in Riley Hart‘s Crossroads series was Jumpstart. I love this whole series, especially Crossroads (one of my top 5 for last year). I’ll automatically buy anything Riley Hart (and her alter ego Nyrae Dawn) writes.

I also really enjoyed Megan Erickson‘s m/m paranormal, Daring Fate. This was set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humans have completely died out, leaving only werewolves (human/wolf), weres (which have three forms: human, wolf and scary beast thing), and zombie weres. I thought the world setup was great, with the weres and werewolves living in pack-based compounds, each headed by an alpha, trying to avoid getting killed by zombie weres. The story itself is your classic ‘fated mates’ trope you find in shifter romances (which I don’t mind), and I liked the way it was handled.

Finally for November, there was Heidi Cullinan‘s fourth book in the ‘Minnesota Christmas’ series, Santa Baby (although it’s a stupid title). I found this book really interesting, because it takes the couple from the second book (Sleigh ride) and adds a third man to their relationship. But it isn’t an equal menage m/m/m relationship. Basically the new addition (Dale) is polyamorous, which seems to mean for him that he prefers to be with men who are already in a relationship. He falls in love with Gabriel… who learns that he seems to be polyamorous too. It takes a bit for Gabriel (who is a fairly conservative librarian) to come to terms with this, but surprisingly his partner (husband?) Arthur is remarkably accepting of this new development. And this may be because Arthur (a dom) recognises that Dale is a sub, so they end up in their own non-romantic D/s relationship. Confused yet? Well, it may not be your cup of tea, but I found the character dynamics really interesting.

December

sevensummernightsMy favourite book in December was Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox. I love love loved this book, which was definitely one of my favourites for the year. Set post WWII, it’s a complex weave of archeological and mythological mystery, the after-effects of war and post-traumatic stress, and a passionate love story between Rufus, an archaeologist, and Archie, a most unconventional vicar. It’s multi-layered and wonderful and I reviewed it in full here.

I was also thrilled to discover Lucy Lennox, who published the first three novels in her Made Marion series. Borrowing Blue and Taming Teddy were swiftly followed by Jumping Jude. Each book is completely different, but each features one of the Marion brothers.

Borrowing Blue mostly takes place over a week at a vineyard where Blue’s sister is getting married, with Blue falling in love with the brother of the groom, who happens to be the owner of the vineyard. Taming Teddy takes place over several months, with Blue’s brother Jamie, a wildlife expert in Alaska, being pursued by wildlife photographer Teddy for a photographic feature. Jumping Jude takes place concurrently with both these books, and is about the relationship between Jude Marion, a country music superstar, and his bodyguard, Derek. These books are sweet and simple love stories, but there’s something about them that elevates them above much of the genre fodder.

Finally, I have just finished The Aftermath by Kay Simone. This was sitting on my kindle for at least half the year, because it’s loooong (>600 pages) and I was admittedly avoiding the time commitment. But I’m glad I finally read it. The central premise is the relationship between a high school senior (Daniel) and his young English teacher (Will). Some of the conflict is derived from fear of discovery, but just as much is the result of Will’s baggage. It’s written from a third-person omniscient perspective, but gets well into the heads of both main characters. I loved all the literary discussions — the novel references many great works in some detail as part of English classes and also general discussions between the two men — and the almost literary narrative style. I do think it’s too long, but overall I found it beautiful.


And that wraps up the annual highlights! From all the novels I’ve mentioned in the last three posts, I thought I’d make a top ten (in the order I read them):

  1. Adrien English mysteries (series of five) – Josh Lanyon
  2. Out of Focus – L.A. Witt
  3. Kings Rising – C.S. Pacat
  4. Broken – Nicola Haken
  5. The Society of Gentlemen (series of three) – K.J. Charles
  6. Absolution – Sloane Kennedy
  7. In the middle of somewhere/Out of nowhere – Roan Parrish
  8. Priddy’s Tale – Harper Fox
  9. Between Ghosts – Garrett Leigh
  10. Seven Summer Nights – Harper Fox

I’m still a huge fan of Harper Fox, Josh Lanyon, L.A. Witt, Megan Erickson, Santino Hassell, Alexa Land, Riley Hart, Heidi Cullinan… and was pleased to discover Sloane Kennedy, Garrett Leigh, Kay Simone and most recently Lucy Lennox (among many others).

And now it’s 2017 and I have kindle full of more books… I wish you all a glorious year of reading.

The other two 2016 highlights posts: January to April | May to August

Reading highlights from 2016 – part 2

Climbing out of my post-Christmas stupor (and read-a-thon), it’s time for the second installment of my annual reading highlights. You can read January-April highlights in the previous post. This post will cover May-August. Once again, all the highlights are from the m/m romance genre.

May

inthemiddleofsomewhereThis month is noteworthy for the discovery of Roan Parrish, whose books In the middle of somewhere and then Out of nowhere are wonderful. The first is about Daniel, a guy who takes a college teaching position in a small Northern Michigan town, where he meets the reclusive Rex, a local furniture maker. In addition to being a gorgeous love story, it’s about Daniel’s struggles to connect with his auto-mechanic father and brothers (who live in Philadelphia), and reconcile their differences. Told first-person present-tense (which I love), this story is not high action drama, but instead deep and soulful and character-complex. It’s a beautiful book.

Out of nowhere is about Daniel’s brother Colin, portrayed as excessively homophobic and vicious towards Daniel in the first book, but who is in fact dealing with his secret developing relationship with social worker, Raphael. (That was probably a bit of a spoiler for In the middle of somewhere, but it can’t be helped — sorry!) This book runs in parallel for much of In the middle of somewhere — and I loved seeing some of the same events from the opposing viewpoint. Set in Philadelphia, much of it around a youth LGBT centre, Out of nowhere a very different book from the first. Colin’s journey is more angst-ridden, and his transformation more profound than Daniel’s. This is also a fabulous book, but I think as a pair these two make more than the sum of their parts.

iftheseascatchfireAnother fabulous book for May was If the seas catch fire by L.A. Witt. (Yep, she’s definitely one of my favourite authors.) This one is high action and high angst, involving the forbidden romance between two hitmen. It’s set in an Italian Mafia-ruled American town in which Dom’s is one of the ‘ruling’ families. Meanwhile, Sergei is a lone wolf assassin with his own quest for vengeance. The two cross paths, fall in love, and although it’s not exactly a Romeo & Juliet scenario, there are plenty of conflicting agendas. Dom is actually a gentle and decent man trapped by circumstances, while Sergei is the victim of past wrongs in need of redemption. The road to these two finding a way to be together involves plenty of assassinations (some of them heartbreaking), plenty of danger (I was shaking in my boots), the highest of high stakes and OMG it is soooo good.

But wait, there’s more! Another memorable read for the month of May included Saving Samuel by Nicole Colville. This is m/m/m about Daniel (a firefighter), Samuel (who Daniel rescues from a burning building), and Milo (a cop who’s in a casual relationship with Daniel… and who is also investigating the case of the burning building). Samuel has a mysterious and tormented past that sees him in need of protection, and who better than a hunky fireman and police officer, who find their difficult relationship just needed the addition of a third to make it work?

June

giventakenMore L.A. Witt in June, this time a paranormal menage trilogy involving werewolves and vampires… The Tooth & Claw trilogy comprises The given and the taken, The healing and the dying, and The united and the divided. The premise of these books sounds so unlikely, and the covers are not so great, but despite all this I decided to trust in LAW and I ended up loving the whole series.

It’s set in a alternative NW America (both USA and Canada), in which werewolves are accepted in human society and hold a fair amount of power, but vampires are hunted and reviled. These books involve road trips and car chases and plenty of werewolves with guns. There are also betrayals and hidden sanctuaries and a vampire turned into part werewolf and a werewolf turned into part vampire… and it’s just so crazy it’s awesome. Not to mention an interesting m/m/m relationship.

My other favourite book in June was Strong Signal (Cyberlove – book 1) by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell. This was about two gamers — one who is a reclusive gaming genius with a live feed on one of the gaming channels, and one who is deployed in the Middle East. They fall for each other online, but the second half of the book is what happens when they meet in person. It’s fabulous.

July

priddyIn July I absolutely fell in love with Priddy’s Tale, a gorgeous new novella by Harper Fox. I loved this so much I immediately read it again and wrote a full review. It’s a fantastical tale about a lost young guy who lives in a Cornish lighthouse and falls in love with a charismatic merman. Set in the wild and exciting south-western tip of Cornwall, Priddy’s Tale filled with magical and impossible things, and infused with beautiful language and an abundance of ocean-themed imagery. I would recommend this book to anybody and everybody. Utterly beautiful and one of my highlights of the year.

I discovered the English author Garrett Leigh in July. The first I read was Misfits, which I loved. It’s another m/m/m, this time involving a chef and his restaurateur lover/business partner, who have an open relationship that leads to the addition of a guy who turns out to be the missing link in their relationship and partnership.

betweenghostsEven better, though, was Between Ghosts, which is set among a British SAS unit in Iraq during 2006. Connor is a journalist embedded with the SAS unit, who is seeking closure and answers related to his brother, killed in Mosul three years earlier.

Nat is the commander of the unit, and their love story takes place amid the drama and blood and terror of war. I loved the vivid setting — it gives amazing insight into the conditions faced by the British troops. And there’s plenty of danger and intrigue as the SAS unit seek out certain sensitive information and attend to their duties. I loved this book so much.

August

It was a quieter month of reading in August, but one of my favourite books for the month was yet another by L.A. WittRunning with Scissors. This one is set around a popular rock band. I also enjoyed the first three books in Santino Hassell‘s Five Boroughs seriesSutphin Boulevard (which was a re-read), Sunset Park and First and First.


So many great books — I just want to re-read them all right now! I’ll publish the final installment of 2016 reading highlights in the new year.

(Read January to April)