Reading highlights from 2016 – part 1

Gosh. How many books have I read this year? (So far 235 books and novellas, of which 198 were new and 37 were re-reads… and still counting.) My inner bookworm continues to devour and my finger continues to madly one-click. In fact, there’s been more one-clicking, because someone introduced me to bookbub.

Bookbub is a website that sends me emails with daily e-book deals in my selected genres (and authors), with direct links to Amazon. There’s many a $1 (or free) book sitting on my kindle, just waiting for me to get around to reading it… I do realise this still adds up in $ terms, but I just tell myself I’m supporting the authors. And if I don’t like a particular book, I don’t have to finish it.

I’m no longer trying to kid myself that I’m reading much of anything other than m/m (or m/m/m). I could probably count the non-m/m books read this year on one hand. (Actually, I did branch out and try some f/f this year, but so far that hasn’t captivated me much.)

But one of the fabulous things about m/m is that it spans all genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, crime/thrillers, historical, deep angst-ridden drama… even comedy, although that’s not my thing. So I bounce around from genre to genre, depending on my mood.

This year, there have been some fabulous new releases from favourite authors, and I’ve discovered some new authors as well. Over three posts, I’m going to summarise my favourites month by month, with some wrapping up at the end. This post covers January to April.

January

fatal-shadowsThe absolute highlight of January — and maybe the year — was Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series (Fatal shadows, A dangerous thing, The hell you say, Death of a pirate king, The dark tide). I do not have the words to say how amazing, fabulous, wonderful this series is, in terms of the love story arc across five books. Each book is an individual mystery, but it is not until the end of the final book that the relationship between Adrien and Jake resolves — and it’s breathtaking. I was numb the afternoon I finished The dark tide, and poured out my feelings onto the page in a post I never did publish. I was so raw. Nothing I wrote encapsulated what I felt. Even now, 11 months later, my heart still rushes as I remember the ending. Aaaaand, there’s a sixth Adrien & Jake novella due out in mid-January. I will be feverishly re-reading these books and slipping straight into that one. My heart rushes just thinking about it.

coldfusionJanuary was also the month Cold Fusion by Harper Fox came out. This book has wonderfully complex, flawed characters who transcend themselves by the end, Harper Fox’s beautiful poetic language. And, as always with Harper Fox’s books, the fabulous sense of place — in this case the northern wilds of Scotland. Love it. (See my full review here.)

And I also loved Out of Focus by L.A. Witt. This one is m/m/m and deals with a couple of guys who have been together for a decade, and who like to bring submissives into the bedroom from time to time… and they find an adorable guy they decide to keep. It’s not heavy BDSM, and deals more with the relationship side of things. I’ve come to adore m/m/m books where I can believe in all the sides of the relationship. LAW has started a series where she writes the prequels for couples who feature in her menage stories, and I would love to read how Dante and Angel first got together.

February

kingsrisingThe highlight for February was the much-anticipated Kings Rising by C.S. Pacat, third book in the Captive Prince fantasy trilogy. I was so worried this wouldn’t live up to the anticipation, because I adored the first two in this series — which I re-read prior to launching into the third. Aside from a few wobbles at the start and the end, Kings Rising was awesome and I love love love this fantasy trilogy so much. Like with the Adrien English series, I had a major book hangover once I finished. To quote myself: “Damen and Laurent. Oh. My. Fucking. God.” I reviewed Captive Prince/Prince’s Gambit here and Kings Rising here.

Other great reads for February were Shifting Gears by Riley Hart (the sequel to Crossroads, one of my top 5 for last year, and still one of my all-time favourites), Lonely Hearts by Heidi Cullinan (book 3 in the Love Lessons series), and Tough Love also by Heidi Cullinan (book 3 in the fabulous Special Delivery series).

March

brokenIn March, the best book I read was Broken by Nicola Haken. This is an example of deep angst-ridden drama/romance, and deals with triggery themes of self-harm, depression and suicide. It’s incredibly intense and well-written. I felt pretty wrung-out at the end, but the wonderful thing about this genre is that the books usually end with hope and healing and the power of love. I will definitely be reading this one again.

I also read Us by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, which is the sequel to Him. Him was probably one of my favourite reads last year (new adult, ice hockey players). Us didn’t reach the same heights, but I enjoyed it.

April

More brilliance in April! This time from K.J. Charles and her Society of Gentlemen series (The ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh (novella), A fashionable indulgence, A seditious affair, A gentleman’s position). These are English historicals, and not the usual kind. There is a whole host of upheaval going on, with a dash of political activism and class conflict and of course the terrors of discovery. Oh my, this series is brilliant. It’s exquisitely researched and crafted from both a plotting and writing perspective. And each book is completely different. A must for fans of historicals.

absolutionAnother of my April favourites was Absolution by Sloane Kennedy. This was my first encounter with this author, who is a veritable machine when it comes to her publishing frequency. I’ve since read most of her books — Absolution is the first in her Protectors series, another of note is her Barretti Security series — but Absolution is probably my favourite. It’s m/m/m and deals with Jonas (an artist with a traumatic past), who is the target of hitman Mace (don’t hate him; there’s a reason), and Cole (an ex-Navy SEAL whose sister Jonas once knew). The fates of all three men intersect around a thriller-style plot, and… aw, they are so sweet together. This one works for me, because Kennedy takes the time to build the three sides of the relationship and I believed in them.

I also enjoyed Imperfect Harmony by Jay Northcote, not least because it’s set around a community choir, which reminded me of my own singing experiences of the past few years. She’s another new author for me this year, and I’ve enjoyed several of her books.


Stay tuned for Part 2: May – August reading highlights between Christmas and New Year. I’m glad I started writing this early!

If you’re interested, read my Reading Highlights from 2015 post as well.

D&D Chronicles: A prophecy and a falling star

Five must fight with one accord
Ere the lost eye be restored
Ere the drums begin to call
Ere the lost stars shine again
Ere the mighty golem falls
Ere the fighting on the plains
Ere the lost eye be restored
Five must fight with one accord

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESThe words revolve around and around my mind like a washing stone. A prophecy. A prophecy too closely aligned with our own activities to be mistaken.

My skin prickles, beginning at the base of my neck and spreading down, as it does every time I remember the words spoken by that strange little creature as he read from that ancient and magical book.

And accompanying the words, a drawing, forever imprinted in my memory. A fiery ball rushing towards mountains. A weapon split in two, alongside a forge. All overlooked by two disembodied flaming red eyes.

For the first time in a long time I feel like an arrow flying through the air to its target.

The night is warm and clear, and starlight glints over the barren Dust Plains of Jhevherd Dhar as Fleet and I watch over our sleeping companions. We are some weeks north and west of Kelsen now, our purpose renewed. Our course recalibrated.

This may seem like a fool’s errand — retrieving a star that fell from the sky into the hills somewhere north of here. And indeed I don’t know how we’re to carry such a thing — which, being made of sky-iron, must surely be large and heavy as boulders. But it is written now into prophecy — the drawing is testament — and although I don’t know what part it is to play, the star must somehow be found.

And then we will search for the two halves of the flail that will defeat Varrien, Goddess of Destruction, whose Eyes have by now most likely been found by those who would raise her.

The Master Smith, Astra Khara, clearly has a role to play too. It was he who commissioned us to find the fallen star. And he who took us to see the wizened creature of prophecy, Oramoot. And it will be Astra Khara, Oramoot decreed, who will forge the two halves of the flail into one. It is also Astra Khara who has detailed maps showing the locations of the two components of the flail, based on years of research.

If we must find this star to prove our worth to the Master Smith, to gain his aid in finding the flail, then that is what we must do. Although I believe this mission has an importance we are yet to discover.

The priest in Udral Abbas, Durleth, saw the star fall into the mountains. To the mountains we must go.

But first we must somehow navigate these cursed Dust Plains. We have taken the longer path from Udral Abbas, heading east first and now following the river; but the way is treacherous. Trees that move and attack and devour. A flying terror that almost carried me aloft in its talons. Winged manticores bearing spikes and stings.

They look almost innocent bathed in starlight, deceptively serene spread out all around our camp.

All posts on the D&D Chronicles page.

Seven Summer Nights – Book Review

seven-summer-nightsSeven Summer Nights is another wonderful novel from Harper Fox — a complex weave of archeological and mythological mystery, the after-effects of war and post-traumatic stress, and a passionate love story.

This book filled me with wonder and fear and horror and joy as we follow the story of Rufus Denby, a celebrated archaeologist and WW2 veteran, whose PTSD and amnesia are giving him nightmares and violent blackouts, leaving his career — and his life, really — in tatters.

The first two-thirds of the novel, which is set in the summer following World War Two, are told in third-person from Rufus’s point of view (Part 1 – Into the Labyrinth). He’s broken and desperate, barely holding on, when he travels to the tiny Sussex town of Droyton Parva to take a look at its ancient church. There he meets the Reverend Archie Thorne, a most unconventional vicar who loves motorbikes and cars, and housing people who have nowhere else to go. Archie is far from the crusty religious specimen Rufus expected to encounter, and the two strike up a friendship based on Rufus’s ability to fix Archie’s Norton motorbike and Rufus’s work at the church.

Rufus’s discovery of an ancient and important artefact in the church, along with his interpretation of some of the murals, set off a chain of mystical events and archeological discovery that are simply thrilling. (Several of Harper Fox’s works involve archaeological and/or mystical themes, and they are among my favourites. For example: The Salisbury Key, the Tyack and Frayne series, even In Search of Saints.) As with all Harper Fox’s work, the setting of Droyton Parva (and its various inhabitants) is fabulously well-drawn and forms the heart of the story itself.

Woven through and around this is another plotline revolving around Rufus’s wartime experiences and a memory he has suppressed involving his deceased brother-in-law. The effect this has on Rufus’s mental health, and the pressure brought to bear on him to undergo shock therapy to retrieve the memory, plays out beautifully through part 1 until Rufus finally cracks. I particularly loved the labyrinthine theme woven through both these plotlines, which binds them together tightly.

And then, of course, there’s the beautiful, slow-burn romance between Rufus and Archie. (Although, since it happens in just ‘seven summer nights’, I guess it’s not that slow.) Rufus is about as openly gay as you could get in the 1940s — which is to say, not at all, but he has lived with a man in the past, and a few trusted people know his orientation. He starts falling for the adorable Archie almost right away, but they are hindered by general bigotry and fear of arrest if such proclivities are discovered. Needless to say, they find each other eventually and Archie’s care and compassion for poor, broken Rufus is heart-meltingly beautiful. Here, I loved the recurring use of one of W.H. Auden’s poems, quoted between Rufus and Archie.

Which brings me to Part 2 – Into the sun, comprising the final third of the novel. Having written such a masterful, tightly woven piece to the end of part 1, I can imagine the author tearing out her hair trying to figure out how the end should play out. And so we switch to Archie’s point of view, first as he charges to Rufus’s rescue, and then as the church mysteries play out.

If I’m honest, part 2 didn’t resonate with me to the extent part 1 did. It’s action-packed, dramatic and eventful… and everything is wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion. And I absolutely love the fact this labyrinthine tale curls around on itself at the very end. However, part 2 somehow lacks some of the magic of part 1. Despite being mostly in Archie’s point of view, I didn’t feel as though I got enough new depth of insight into his character — although he does prove endearingly resourceful and determined and loyal. I think, after experiencing Rufus’s painful journey in part 1, I wanted to be in his perspective as the big events played out and resolved. Rather than the tightly woven tale of part 1, part 2 events played out in more linear fashion… I think maybe the amnesia plotline got a bit too complicated for the story.

But these are minor quibbles, really. Seven Summer Nights is still a fabulous book, even if part 2 doesn’t quite stand up to the marvellousness of part 1. It’s rich in theme and history and language and complexity and character.

It has a large supporting cast of characters, all well-drawn with a part to play. And, unlike many male/male love stories, a huge number of the supporting cast are resourceful and independent women. In fact, this is another theme explored in the novel — the effect of WW2 on the role of women in Britain. Yes, there is a huge amount of stuff going on this book!

I could keep going on about all the wonderful layers in Seven Summer Nights, but it’s probably better if you just go read it. Highly recommended.

Buy at Amazon | Smashwords

Mongolia Journal ~ 3 Getting into the swing of things (with eagles!)

This is the third edited extract from my Mongolia Journal, covering days 3 and 4 of my two-week horse trek. With photos!


27 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 3

selfie_ellen with Sir PlacidWe’re at lunch in a long flat valley with a train line and a town in the distance. The night was wild and cold, and it rained heavily. I wore a fair few layers, plus dragged out the Mongolian blanket to put on top of my sleeping bag. Since I used that as a pillow the first night, this left me without a pillow, which wasn’t too comfortable. Hmm.

This morning we visited the ger of Ganaa’s friend. They served us Mongolian tea (salt, milk, water, some herb) and a range of homemade snacks: a bread/cake thing, milk curd (not very appetising) and some milk cream/half butter. It was lovely hospitality, but strange, because our hosts wouldn’t make eye contact or even try to communicate with us. We stayed about half an hour.

Since then, we’ve cantered and trotted quite a bit, before watering the horses just near today’s lunch stop. We’ve just watched a herd of horses come up to the shallow waterhole near where we’re sitting. A couple of them rolled in the muddy water as though having a bath; but, since they are decidedly not clean now, they were probably just trying to cool down.

It’s wonderful watching the horses interacting, gaining an appreciation for herd dynamics. The stallion is very much the dominant presence, making sure all his mares are together, actively rounding them up if they wander too far. One of the horses stood in the water splashing it up onto his stomach with one of his front hooves. Another (a chestnut) stood in the water with his head on the shoulder of a beautiful grey. Among the mares, the foals are often lying flat on the ground beside their mothers, out for the count.

Day 3 - lunch stop

Day 3 – lunch stop with freight train

Evening – Day 3 (near the town of Nalaikh)

Our camp is on a sloping grassy hill where the horses are grazing. I’m still temporally challenged. Ganaa (our horsewoman) asked us if we were tired and we said we were fine (perhaps a slight untruth on my part). Turns out it was probably closer to 6:30pm than 4pm as we thought. We continued on to this campsite and have just eaten. It’s after 9pm. (Yes, OK I’m struggling with the time thing. Everything is taking longer than it seems. Apparently we left our lunch stop at about 4pm. I’m just going to try to accept the routine — such as it is — and stop obsessing about what time it is…)

Our post-lunch ride was great. Lots of cantering and trotting. We also had to cross a main road, which was quite scary.

Day 3 - camp

Day 3 – camp

Day 3 - sunset

Day 3 – sunset

28 June 2015

Early afternoon – Day 4 (near the town of Nalaikh)

It’s sometime in the early afternoon and we haven’t left camp yet. But that’s OK… there’s a very good reason.

First up this morning was the dawn. We were both woken by the call of some sort of magpie (we think). Unlike Australian magpies, which have a beautiful call, this did not. Anyway, the light outside looked reddish, and I had the sudden urge to see dawn breaking over the steppes. Unzipping our tent, I found we were perfectly oriented to witness a magnificent dawn display — all pink and gold. We watched it for about 15 minutes, took photos and thanked the magpie (which we dubbed the “tourist bird”, assigned to wake campers to see beautiful dawns). I slept some more after that and I think we woke quite late.

Day 4 - dawn

Day 4 – dawn over the steppes

After breakfast, we went into the nearby town of Nalaikh for a shower. This was an interesting — albeit wonderful — experience. The water was hot, pressure fine; all in all perfectly adequate for getting clean and washing hair. Yay! (It had, after all, been four days since our last shower.) The facilities, on the other hand, were pretty ramshackle. Although they did seem clean. But, contrary to our expectation of a facility offering running water, there were no toilets!

OK, so by Mongolian standards, there was a toilet. Upon asking for it, we were directed out the door into the lane out the back, where we found a ramshackle hut. Inside this hut — which had no door — was a hole.

Yep. A thunderbox with no door. Opening onto a laneway.

No. Just NO.

Sigh.

After our shower, we found a shop with bananas! And then a cafe latte! With our clean hair, banana and coffee, we were pretty happy by the time we got back to camp.

Evening – Day 4 (Tuul River)

After leaving camp, we rode for a while before stopping at a roadside bazaar. (We were asked if we wanted to detour to see a camel. I was ambivalent.) In the end I was glad we went, because, camel aside, the roadside attraction had eagles!

Day 4 - roadside eagles

Day 4 – roadside eagles (L-R black vulture, golden eagle, white tailed eagle, black vulture)

There were a golden eagle (Mongolian hunting bird, approx 8kg), a white-tailed eagle (Mongolian fishing bird, 7kg) and two black vultures (Mongolia’s largest bird, 15 and 20kg respectively). For a modest fee, we could hold the golden eagle — the most beautiful bird, soft feathers. Amazing. (Yes, it was all a bit tacky, and I wasn’t comfortable seeing these glorious raptors tethered on posts at the side of a main road; but how else to get that close?)

Day 4 - Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

Day 4 – Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

The other thing that happened this afternoon involved Ganaa going off in the car with David to “get products for dinner”, leaving Burmaa (our fairly novice guide) leading Ganaa’s horse. Our instructions were to “keep following the road until we catch up”, which we did until we reached a point (a town and a river) at which we had to stop and wait. And wait… And wait.

Day 4 - while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

Day 4 – while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

It was a bit uncomfortable, because they’d left Burmaa without a phone and we were waiting for at least half an hour, probably longer. They eventually turned up in the car at around 7 or 8pm, having had their own showers back at Nalaikh. Fortunately our current campsite was nearby. It’s on the side of a hill overlooking the Tuul River, which winds its way through the steps towards UB.

For dinner we had the most delicious thing — a fried noodle dish with spices called tsuiwan. Easily my favourite dish here so far. The sunset tonight was beautiful to match the dawn.

Day 4 - camp above the Tuul River

Day 4 – camp above the Tuul River

As a side note, the steppes are littered with rubbish (broken glass, plastic bags) and bones. We’ve seen many horse skulls and the skulls of other animals, plus severed limbs and heads. In fact, there’s a dead foal on the hillside not too far from our camp. That’s the natural cycle of life, I guess.


In the next post we ford a river and head towards Terelj National Park…

D&D Chronicles: In which we leave Tippa in a tight spot

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESWe never should have answered the summons from Tippa. She blinded us with gold and an express carriage ride, and I was actually happy to be returning to our house in Kelsen — even though I never wanted to purchase it in the first place. I was also keen to see whether Tippa had managed to unearth some of the magical items we’d requested.

But then she made demands of us, demands I couldn’t in all conscience meet. And everything fell to pieces.

My heart aches for the defeated little girl we abandoned in Kelsen. Gone was the confident young woman heading up the thieves guild, soaring high on the laurels we’d gained for her on our last visit. I remembered too late that her authority still largely depended on our strength. Or the rumour of it.

I do not regret the stand I took. I could never have done the deeds she demanded. Killed people simply as a show of strength. Acted as an enforcer to artisans struggling to feed their families.

But I do regret my naivete about the situation we left in Kelsen the first time, the deal we did indeed strike with Tippa. And I regret not leaving Kelsen as soon as I heard what Tippa wanted. Because I fear by showing our faces there — my recognisable features in particular — we only made things worse.

I have to tell myself that, although Tippa might not survive our recent actions, her life must always have been precarious if she was relying on us to give her credibility. I do not think we will be back this way. Our house in Kelsen is a dead investment. Our path lies north and west. And north.

ALIX

Kelsen. Whose idea was it to buy a house there? What a trap just waiting to be sprung.

I’m glad to be gone. We all have more important things to do than be a little girl’s weapon of choice. Circumstances being what they were last time, there was benefit for us in having Tippa in a position of power in the thieves guild. But she is still a child, with all the tempers and tantrums that go along with being a child.

How dare she whistle and we run. How dare she point her finger and expect us to do damage. As for demanding we attack those leather workers, whose families are starving, simply to set an example… Would coin have magically appeared in their pockets as their blood ran down the cobbles? Foolish, foolish child. I protect homes and hearths, I do not purposefully destroy them.

The others say Tippa is an old head on young shoulders. There is some truth in that, or she would not have risen to head up the guild, but she still has the vanity and insecurity and anger of the young. No matter. About now, I imagine she has no head at all.

And that is a shame. For she was an urchin who dreamed of more, a daughter who loved her mother, a tough girl who got to lead for a short while. But until the end she remained a frightened, vicious child, and perhaps there would never have been a space for her in this city. Not the way she was trying to carve it.

And so we are away. I imagine Tippa’s mother gathering her daughter’s body close, bereft, crying as we ride. As much as it saddens me, in truth I do not see how it could have been another way. Not if she wouldn’t bend when she feared it meant ending on her knees.

Gods! What a mess. How I long for the North.

SQUIRREL

This is all damned inconvenient, I have to say. We were onto a good business in Kelsen. Tippa was keeping the money flowing, even digging up a few handy magical items for us. And all we had to do was slit a throat once in a while to keep her position shored up. Of course our Northern, god-touched heroes paled about that. It’s business, innit? What’s so hard to understand? And now it’s flushed out to sea.

That pair, Zillah and Alix, walking out on us in the face of a couple of dozen het-up leather workers out there on the street; that could’ve gone bad for the three of us with the stones to do the job. We had to cut our losses — and Tippa loose. Didn’t we?

So now poor old Tippa is probably gonna wind up in the sea, and we’ve lost our safe haven (most like) and our income from the guild. All because of a bit of squeamishness.

And, to pour salt in the wounds, I still haven’t had a chance to transcribe the spells that are burning a hole in my backpack. Honestly, is a week of peace and quiet in a well-lit room too much to ask for? Maybe at the Dharian Hills we’ll have some RnR and I’ll finally be able to hit the books, salvage something from this mess. Maybe.

BLIZZARD

I dreamt of Tippa again last night: her face open with innocence, smiling, but then her eyes scrunched up and tears of blood streamed down her cheeks.

Perhaps it is Kaltan punishing me, these dreams. Perhaps he is reminding me that I serve at his pleasure. Or is Tippa herself castigating me for not doing more? She is dead. If not now, then soon. And that knowledge is a boot in my guts. I should’ve done more.

Tippa’s requests were simple. Kill some men who’d been fleecing her. Fleecing us, really, because we left her in Kelsen, managing our affairs. Kill a couple of men and beat up the ringleaders of a guild for refusing to pay their fee. Easy enough.

But then it started: Alix’s and Zillah’s blunt refusals. Their calling on morals. Fuck me – we kill for a living. It’s what we do. But no amount of sweet-talking, reasoning, arguing could sway them. I’ve never seen the party so divided, so fractured. For a while there, I thought this might be the anvil that shattered our steel.

And so it was up to Nightshade, Squirrel and me. We cornered the first upstairs in his office, until he escaped through a trapdoor. Zillah was guarding the backdoor but didn’t give chase. I could’ve knocked the smugness from her face.

Tippa insisted on accompanying us to the next place. I should’ve seen it coming, of course: she’d done it before. But to actually see her, all of fourteen years old, walk right up and open the woman’s throat with her dagger… I was gobsmacked – a little in awe. It was then I recognised her as a kindred spirit, the baby sister I’d never had.

It was the final task that did it. After much arguing, we persuaded Zillah and Alix to accompany us to the guild. This was just a dusting up. Nothing too serious. But these weren’t a people who were trying to subvert anyone’s rule – they were just struggling to subsist. Zillah walked. Alix followed. They left us stranded.

When we returned to Tippa, her eyes went wide and her face blanched. And we knew – all of us – we’d screwed her over royally. This wasn’t just a matter of one guild, but all guilds. We’d snuffed out her authority, as if it were a lantern wick.

Late into the night, we tried but failed to find her a way out. I even lit upon the idea of marrying her. The faces of my party… But if we were married, I could put her under Church protection.

She returned the next day, so brave and so collected. I blurted it out – offered my hand. But she refused. She came across to me, stood on her toes and kissed me on the cheek. “You are a beautiful man,” she said – rather ironic seeing I’d never felt more ugly.

And with that, she walked away, young, poised and radiating a fear she obviously didn’t want to show. And that was the last I saw of her, until she came to haunt me in my dreams.


Thanks to Jason Nahrung (Squirrel), Lita Kalimeris (Alix) and Tracey Rolfe (Blizzard) for the very different perspectives of some interesting events…

All posts on the D&D Chronicles page.

Journal: Nail art and NaNo

I have always liked colour and fun. I wear bright colours. I have purple streaks in my hair. And now I have little flashes of colour on my fingernails as well.

The craze that seems to be sweeping through my social circles is Jamberry nail stickers.

Look:

Those are my fingernails!

I confess this post is merely an excuse to share the above photos — I’m enjoying the challenge of nail/hand photography (for social media) as much as running around with decorated fingernails. A good photo comes down as much to creative cropping as anything. But it’s also so much fun deciding what I’m going to ‘hold’… And natural light is a must.

The lowdown on Jamberry is this: They are vinyl stickers sold online and/or via individual consultants. I’ve found them pretty easy to put on and take off, and they stay on for up to two weeks. There are heaps of designs. However, I’m not doing a full sales spiel — check out DebK or Kirstyn if you are in Australia. (Both good friends of mine and highly recommended as consultants.)


In writing developments, I am in the last week of planning before NaNoWriMo starts. (This is where writers spend November trying to write an entire novel or 50K words.)

It’s been four years since I participated, and this year it comes at a good time for me. My plan is to spend the month churning out as much as I can of the next book in the fantasy series I’m writing. At best, I’ll have the beginnings of something good. At worst, I will have some words down that can be worked into something useful. Win win!

I’m really looking forward to NaNo actually, because I’m in need of some self-discipline, and this will provide some much-needed structure. I also have a five-day writing retreat in the middle of it, which is awesome!

The planning is coming along OK. I have a starting point at least. And I have a very rough idea of the overall arc. I need to decide whether to trust my subconscious and go with whatever NaNo produces, or whether I’m better to have more of an outline. Today I had something of an epiphany, which could affect some things…

I’ll let you know in a month how I go — plus more Jamberry!

D&D Chronicles: Ghostly encounters

Picking up where we left off, Squirrel has just collapsed after attempting to dispel the ward applied to a border of trees around a strange villa in the middle of the desolated Dust Plains…


ZILLAH

The ghost in the villa

D&D CHRONICLES(18 April) Squirrel takes a huge breath and attempts to dispel the ward again.

It’s the third time he’s tried. The last two times he overcast and wasn’t much use for anything for at least a day. As a result we’ve been stranded outside the villa for three whole days. That’s three days of food and water we’re probably going to need on our journey to and from the Temple of Death.

Three days of keeping an eye out for the monstrosities that inhabit the region. Three days in which some unknown person is ransacking the villa, according to Alix, who has been listening in using a clairaudience spell. Smoke rising from a chimney suggests things are being burned. Will there be anything left for us to find? (And how the hell did said person get past the ward?)

Squirrel suddenly gestures with his arms and grunts, “I can hold it for about 20 seconds.” With that, we’re running through the gap in the trees towards the villa courtyard and its dry and dusty fountain. Squirrel arrives looking relieved and rather pleased with himself.

The door to the villa is open.

We gather near the door, uncertain at the sound of footsteps within. It sounds like someone is pacing back and forth. Blizzard uses a spell and detects high intelligence, seething anger and frustration. The footsteps approach and a warrior appears in the doorway. He’s wearing beautiful full-plate armour, black, bearing the markings of the Church of Elloran. He’s wielding an impressive greatsword and looks as though he knows how to use it.

“Help me, or die,” he says. Then tells us he’s looking for a particular book and gives us exactly one hour to find it.

We decide to oblige him, figuring we might discover other things of interest as we go. The villa itself yields nothing, other than a fireplace with the remains of burnt books. We turn our attention outside, and Alix eventually uncovers a hidden door leading to a tiny cellar. Inside are some items of extreme interest: a ring, a dagger, a box containing a wand, an empty backpack, and a… brick. Hmm.

The brick turns out to be a spellbook in disguise. It’s undoubtedly the book the Elloran warrior wants; Squirrel undoubtedly does not want to part with it.

The Elloran warrior strides up, takes the book out of Squirrel’s clutching fingers and leaves. We follow him around the building, into the villa and up to the fireplace. Squirrel almost swallows his tongue as the man throws the spellbook on top of the charred heap of burned books and kindles a fire.

Peace descends upon the warrior’s face as the book goes up in flames. He explains the Vahdrim mages killed his family… then, in the middle of speaking to us, he dissolves into thin air. His armour and greatsword clunk onto the ground.

Defeated by the Dust Plains

(24 April) In the end we’ve put it to the vote: to continue on towards the Temple of Death, or retreat to Issimbaal.

After the villa, we persevered onward through the Dust Plains for several days, encountering strange creatures and abandoned villages. But by my estimate we’re making much slower progress than we envisaged. The road is hard to make out in places, and although we haven’t encountered another dust storm, I don’t think we’ve come even halfway in our journey.

We simply don’t have enough water and food to get all the way there and back without starving… and, although there’s a chance we may find water in Baal, and a chance there’s a portal we can actually use to leave, do we risk our lives on that? Besides, we still need to find a cure for Nightshade.

We’ve voted and we’re heading back to Issimbaal. It’s frustrating as hell, given the time and effort we’ve invested trying to get there. But I don’t think we have much choice.

(26 April) Another night in this cursed barren waste that is the Dust Plains. We’re camping out in the open, when five swirling air elementals attack us out of nowhere. None is as big as the gigantic elemental that almost defeated us last night, but these five also look bent on our destruction.

The encounter doesn’t start well for me. One after the other, my two weapons fly off into the darkness. Nightshade thrusts the hilt of her longsword towards me, but the battle is rapidly escalating out of our control. One of them is pummelling Blizzard. I can’t see what’s happening to the others, because I have my hands full with the one attacking me.

It seems air elementals are to be forever my nemeses. This one is relentlessly gaining the upper hand and I’m growing weak. A healing potion revives me for a bit, but soon I’m slumping to the ground again and blackness descends…

I’m clasped in the embrace of Emrys, my god. He holds and comforts me, infuses me with love and peace and understanding. And a sense of wellbeing. Is this the end? I didn’t think I’d meet my god again so soon after Issimbaal. He is majestic and great...

When I open my eyes, Alix is hovering over me anxiously. I blink up at her, confused. How am I back here? The night sky is resplendent with starlight and I’m sure we’re still out on the Dust Plains. I was dead. I know I was dead. Who has brought me back…?

“Hush, rest,” Alix says and smooths unruly hair back from my brow.

Fleet snuggles up against my side, purring as she nuzzles my face and neck. I wind an arm around her and draw her to my side.

zillah_death3

A success of sorts

(29 April) Geretam, the cleric of Phanator, greets us warmly when we finally arrive back in Issimbaal. His people have created a potion they believe will cure the zombie virus.

Nightshade has deteriorated considerably over the past few days. She was nearly killed in the same battle that did for me. But Blizzard’s quick thinking saved her (I heard afterward). He force-fed blood into Nightshade’s mouth, which brought her around, but then she attacked him viciously. It seems recent events progressed her disease almost beyond recall, and it was only Blizzard’s ability to control undead that enabled us to bring Nightshade back to Issimbaal with us.

The clerics feed a ravening Nightshade the potion… Gradually the fury leaves her, colour returns to her cheeks, the redness leaves her eyes and she rasps a request for water. Food. Not blood. She realises the truth and smiles in relief.

Cheers erupt among the clerics who have witnessed Nightshade being cured. Then they all start talking at once. Their work here is done, they say. Time to leave Issimbaal and return to civilisation.

(5 May) The city of Toressen is wondrous after all those weeks of dust and decay and death. We arrived with the clerics’ party to the news that armies in the south are disbanding and returning home. There’s an air of joy and hope that the 8-year war might be finally over.

We visit the Church of Elloran to try to get a message to Vamis, the cleric who sponsored our quest to Issimbaal, about what happened with the renegade cleric, Elliana. Another cleric (Mikka) gives us a coded message from her, and we reply that we will continue our mission.

The Elloran priests are extraordinarily excited about the armour left by the ghost warrior. They recognise it immediately as belonging to the fabled warrior Olesh, who disappeared 30 years ago. They ask all sorts of questions. In return for restoring the armour to the church, they’re going to outfit us with provisions and other magical items for the next stage of our journey.

And so it continues. Our quest to prevent the rise of the goddess Varrien. Where will it take us next?


This brings our adventures around Issimbaal and the surrounding Dust Plains to a close (a total of six playing sessions). With four deaths and subsequent resurrections, plus a zombification and revival, it was rather a costly exercise. Next session will see us heading out on another phase of the adventure…

How many more lives does Zillah have, I wonder?

Links to all posts in order on the D&D Chronicles page.

Mongolia Journal ~ 2 Into the steppes

I’ve finally got my act together and have started blogging edited extracts (and PHOTOS) from my Mongolia travel journal. If you missed the first post, it’s here — First Impressions.

This post covers the commencement of our two-week horse-riding expedition. Owing to the nature of journals, events are not necessarily presented in sequential order, so I’ll include the ‘day 1’ etc references for the days of the trek.


25 June 2015

Stepperiders camp

Morning, 8am. Hot sun climbing in the sky. Horses roaming free around the site, grazing, snorting, whuffing contentedly. We’ve just watched mother cat stalk, kill and eat a ground squirrel. She brought it over (still wriggling) near to the shelter we’re sitting in, before she bit its skull and then proceeded to munch her way through the entire animal head to tail. It took her about 5 minutes. Now she’s back at the stalking.

The horses here just roam free when they’re not being ridden, mares with foals among them. Currently a whole herd is grazing around and through the camp — frantic munching and snorting and occasional biffo. They are such beautiful colours. We’re going to watch them get rounded up this morning, among them the ones we’ll ride for the next two weeks. Only the geldings are ridden, but Stepperiders has three stallions, each of which has his own herd. Today, they are rounding up the geldings from the ‘Palomino’s’ herd…

(Later) They rounded up the horses, with one rider first driving them down the hill towards the camp (amazing to watch him ride), and then along a valley into a rickety corral. Because the horses are half wild, they lassoed the horses they wanted, bridled them, then led them to the shed for saddling. This all took rather a while, and it was about midday by the time all the horses were saddled.

stepperiders_roundinghorses

Rounding up the herd

stepperiders_horsecorral

Selecting the riding horses

Meanwhile, mother cat caught another ground squirrel and gave it to her babies. So cute (and slightly disgusting) to watch kittens gnaw on a dead rodent.

26 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 2

Too exhausted to write last night, but what a day! The first of our horse trek. We didn’t leave the Stepperiders camp until almost 1pm, but eventually we got away and rode out onto the steppes. I am riding a dark brown horse with a white star and two clipped ears. He seems to have a lot of gas, so we’ve been calling him ‘Sir Gasalot’. (The Mongolians do not name their horses; they refer to them by their colour and markings only.)

My horse, Sir Placid

My horse

It’s just me and Kirstyn on our expedition, accompanied by a guide (Borma), a horsewoman (Gana), and a driver (David), who appeared at camp last night and brought us lunch just now. We’re a little overwhelmed at having three Stepperiders staff for just two of us — they wouldn’t let us help with setting up camp last night, although we did dismantle our tent this morning. Right now, we are sitting down relaxing, while our three attendants cook us lunch. We already requested hot water for coffee (which we have) and I think they probably consider us crazy Westerners. We feel so spoilt.

Back to yesterday: We set off late, but stopped for a quick lunch of sandwiches about an hour later. Then we rode for about four more hours, winding through hills and valleys, into Bogd Khan National Park. Along the way, Gana sang us a wonderful local song (in Mongolian) about a mare and her foal. It was really hot, the sun relentless. I wasn’t sure my sunscreen was going to hold up, but I don’t appear to be burnt. (I’m really glad I brought a couple of light long-sleeved shirts.)

Day 1 lunch stop

Day 1 lunch stop

We stayed mostly at a walk, although towards the end of the ride got the horses up to a canter. Bogd Khan National Park is forested, so we were able to relax in shade while waiting for our support vehicle to bring water and dinner — by which time it was apparently 7pm. It didn’t feel that late, because it’s high summer here and it doesn’t get dark until around 10pm. I have to confess I was absolutely exhausted and, aside from an easy walk around the camp, didn’t do much for the rest of the evening.

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Evening – Day 2

It’s night, and we’re in our tent at the end of day 2, listening to the wind howl. This camp is in a saddle, where there’s a stand of rocks and pines and scrub (meaning: plenty of cover for outdoor toileting). It’s pristine and the view is amazing. We got in late again, set up camp (we were allowed to help put up our tent this time), then sat with a coffee while dinner was cooked. After dinner, it turned out to be 9pm! I couldn’t believe it was so late. But we still had time to climb up to the top of a nearby hill to appreciate the view over the steppes.

Day 2 View over campsite

Day 2 View over campsite (dusk)

I love camping with horses. They are hobbled and tethered together in pairs, just beyond the pines we’re camped in. They have plenty of grass to graze upon and despite the howling wind, they seem pretty happy.

Back to this morning… We started late again. I have no idea what time it was, but maybe around midday. I think we probably had breakfast around 10am. We have come up with the concept of Mongolian time, which comprises very slow mornings and late finishes — not what I expected at all. Means we may find ourselves utilising mornings for exploration. Likewise, our lunch stop today was long and leisurely, while they cooked a full meal (some rice thing). I honestly don’t know where the time is disappearing to. But we like it! It’s very pleasant just sitting on the steppes, enjoying the view and the sounds and the smells.

mongolian-time

Anyway, first up this ‘morning’ was a short ride to a nearby Buddhist monastery in Bogd Khan National Park. A visitors centre houses a collection of stuffed animals that can be found on the mountain — including bears, wild boar and pole cats. We also discovered that the ‘hawk’ we’ve been seeing is some sort of kite. Beautiful. The monastery, which was destroyed by Russian communists in 1937, was very picturesque.

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

The post-lunch ride took us through the steppes, including up and down some hills. We watered the horses in a valley where there was an actual watering station, and where other ‘wild’ horses and other animals were drinking too. Afterwards we moved a bit faster — the horses even galloped. I had never galloped before, so this was exciting.

Day 2 watering station

Day 2 watering station


This post covers Days 1-2 of our two-week horse-riding adventure in Mongolia. I’m on a roll now…

Journal: shaking in my boots

I finally sent the novel I’ve been working on to some writing friends for feedback. Huzzah! Now I’m shaking in my snazzy red boots.

redboots

It’s amazing how my mind flipped after clicking ‘send’.

Before hitting ’send’, I was pretty happy with the general shape of the draft. I’ve been dying for someone to read it — to tell me what’s working and what’s not. I’ve been hungry for suggestions for improvement. I’m ready for and in need of external perspectives. Even so, I was confident the story was holding together. Not terrible. I read it through over the past couple of months (while I was procrastinating over the final scene) and parts of it even made me smile.

Immediately after hitting ‘send’, all my insecurities surged to the fore and now all I can see are the holes: the pedestrian narrative, the mundane dialogue, the trite story. I feel like my soul is laid bare ready to be flayed. Why would anyone waste time reading anything I wrote?

And did I mention I sent this to friends?

I really have forgotten how nerve-wracking it is putting your work in front of people. How exposed it makes you feel. The purpose of writing anything is to forge a connection with readers — but what if you fail? What if your work is completely crap and no one ever, anywhere in the entire universe, likes it? WHAT IF —

OK stop. This is stupid. It can’t possibly be as bad as all that… (fingers are crossed)

To maintain perspective, I keep telling myself the following:

  • Nothing is ever perfect. The whole point of asking people to read it is to identify the areas that need improvement. (It takes a village, right?)
  • Every reader is looking for something different. So, my book might not be Game of Thrones… but, guess what? I don’t even like GoT. It’s too dark and violent and filled with unlikeable characters for my taste. Some readers might want that. Others might prefer a gentle fantasy with moral dilemmas, a bit of romance and a happy ending.
  • Not everyone can win the Booker. It’s easy to read an amazing book and self-flagellate because there is no way in hell I could ever write like that. Even though this does happen often enough, the truth is that many authors do not inspire such envy in me… While I certainly don’t aspire to be mediocre, I can’t help but notice that a great number of published authors are. (I guess my point here, in a roundabout way, is that story is more important for most readers than writing craft.)

Bottom line: Once I’ve taken feedback on board, made this book the best it can be, (figured out the best way forward from a publishing perspective…), I just need to find my readers. I aspire to be regarded as a good writer. But, more importantly, I ultimately want to connect with that sub-group of readers who like what I like.

(Having said that, if this is how nervous I am when friends are reading it, how much worse will it be if/when strangers get their hands on it?)

Meanwhile, my thoughts are now turning to the next book in the series (this is, after all, fantasy, folks!). My intention is to spend October planning, ready to tackle a draft (or part thereof) of a sequel during NaNoWriMo in November. I think it’ll do me good to write something new for a while. First drafts are so damn hard.

Mongolia journal ~ 1 First impressions

It’s over a year since my Mongolian adventure, and I haven’t got near all the blog posts I was going to write. Thank goodness I kept a daily journal, or I’d have forgotten so much already.

I always intended to write themed posts about my experiences, rather than simply transcribing my journal. But… I’ve left it too long now, so my journal is what you get. It’s not verbatim, though. I’m cutting out the boring bits and re-interpreting a few things based on later experiences. I’m focusing on my reflections of the Mongolian horses and culture and horses and landscape and… did I mention horses? (Also, in some cases, kittens…)

It’s also giving me an excuse to finally go through my photos. Some I have already used in earlier posts, but I think many will be shown here for the first time.

So here we go!


Ulaan Baatar, 23 June 2015

Arrived Ulaan Baatar late morning and were whisked away to our hotel by a driver. The journey from the airport was fascinating. The architecture is blocky (mostly) and exists in pockets of conformity and multicoloured madness. Everywhere is badly maintained — cracked concrete, abandoned buildings, scraggly weed-infested gardens, faded and jumbled every which way — but quite clean, as in devoid of litter. Today was overcast and dusty and (when the wind picked up) thick with fluffy plant seeds.

We spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the city — there’s not much English, and things are hard to find, but the mix of architecture is interesting. The traffic is mad and, like in so many Asian cities, crossing the road is terrifying. I braved one of the non-traffic-lit pedestrian crossings… and survived.

I can’t wait to get out of the city and onto the Steppes. As the plane flew in, the view of the crumpled landscape was amazing. It’s really NOT flat. The drive from the airport also gave us a glimpse of the undulations at the edge of the city. I’m so excited to get out into the wilderness and experience the landscape properly! I think I’ll gain just as much insight about that as horses (to inform my writing) from this trip.

We have internet here in our hotel, but otherwise my phone is in flight mode. For the next two weeks, we won’t have any internet at all. Nor will we be able to charge our camera batteries, so we’re going to have to be conservative. It’s going to be interesting!

Steppe Riders camp, 24 June 2015

It’s after 7pm with such bright sunlight that it feels like the middle of the afternoon. We’ve had a relaxing day at the Steppe Riders camp, after being picked up from our hotel at 10am. The camp consists of several permanent gers, including one central common/dining ger, where we were greeted with traditional Mongolian tea. This is milk with rice and salt and bits of dried meat… one eats it with a spoon… very odd, but edible. Then we had hot tea.

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

We were left to our own devices for several hours, while they prepared a ger for us to sleep in and awaited the return of another riding party. We loitered in these gorgeous surroundings — rolling treeless hills, dotted with gers in the many valleys. The hilliness of this part of Mongolia has surprised me. The ground is also rocky in parts, and the grass is very short. Kirstyn and I walked up to the top of one of the hills to see the view — more hills and gers, also cows, horses, sheep, and many falcons hovering above the steppes.

Lunch was served at around 3pm (!) when the riding group returned. It consisted of fried pastry parcels (either filled with meat or vegetables) known as “hoosh” with salad (“gatherings”).

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

This afternoon, we went on a “training” ride for around 2.5 hours. I was a bit nervous to start with, and suddenly it was borne upon me what a big deal this is. Horse riding for 14 days! (OMG) Riding here is a bit different. The command for go is “chu” and the command for stop is “osh”. The horses are quite small and hardy, with a really smooth trot.

We rode in a loop out from the Stepperiders camp, stopping halfway for a visit to a neighbouring ger, where we tried fermented mare’s milk (“airag”). It’s only just become available as they start to wean the foals. I’m not sure I like it too much; it’s like a mix of yogurt and beer. Not really my thing, but pleased to have tried it. They keep it inside a massive open leather bladder hanging on the inside wall of the ger.

While riding, I tried the Mongolian way of trotting a few times, which involves standing up in the stirrups, instead of rising to the trot. It’s quite fun actually, and by the end of the ride I was feeling much more confident in general.

The sleeping ger we have been allocated is also home to a mother cat and four kittens! They are so cute. The mother cat is still suckling the babies, which seem to live in a pipe under one of the beds. There are five beds in here, but so far Kirstyn and I are the only inhabitants (along with the cats). This is a good thing, because we’ve just spent an hour (and all the available beds) re-packing our bags for tomorrow…

IMG_2717 kittens

The cuteness!


That’s all for now. I’ll try to keep the Mongolia journal posts coming every month or so. To see the earlier posts about the trip (and there were a few) click on the Mongolia tag.