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Use it or lose it

When I first left home I could cook almost anything and I did. Want roast lamb, I’d turn it out beautifully, with perfectly cooked potatoes, pumpkin and beans alongside. With fresh, home-made gravy that was just right. Even mint sauce if it was a lamb roast. Cakes, too. I could whip up a lovely sponge or a cinnamon-sugar dusted teacake in seemingly no time. Moist Anzac biscuits (think oatmeal cookie) that melted in your mouth. As for pastry, I made my own pies and pasties, and everything from scratch.

Everything except steak, which for some reason I have never been able to cook well.

Use it or lose it, they say.

I ran out of frozen pastry sheets the other day (so useful), so I decided to make my own pastry. Not only did it take forever to do, it was so bad we scraped the pastry off our little egg and bacon pies and ate only the filling.

I can’t even cook eggs any more. I like my yolks runny but my whites cooked (over easy for a fried egg). Oh man. I can get hard whites and hard yolks, or runny whites and runny yolks. Ugh.

As for my roasts. The only way I get the potatoes to be ready at the same time as the meat is to microwave them first.

Too many years spent cooking quick meals or eating take away when you’re too tired to be bothered. Then along comes COVID, and curfews, and it’s harder to duck out and buy something so you start to cook again. And you realise how much skill you have lost.

The worst thing is, I’ve been ‘cooking’ again for two years now, and it’s not all coming back. I’m too slapdash now, not prepared to take care in preparations.

Not that I’m a bad, cook. I’m okay, but I’ve come to realise I am nowhere near as good as I used to be, and that’s because I stopped doing it for so long. It certainly makes me appreciate good cooks more.

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Update

My chatty AI is part of a grandiose, futuristic house

I am seized with a horrible desire to add a chatty AI house to the story we are currently writing. 60,000 words in and I want the house to talk to my protagonist.

It’s going to change the whole story. Worse, it will change the tone of the story and probably mean a massive rewrite.

I still want to do it.

First drafts are always exploratory, and they do change. We didn’t add Josune to Stars Uncharted until a later draft. Even so, adding Josune didn’t change the basic story.

My chatty AI will.

Decisions, decisions.


Outside of writing, I’ve been re-reading some of the Diana Wynne Jones books. Not so much the ones I read and reread in my earlier years like the Chrestomanci books, Howl’s Moving Castle and Dogsbody, but the ones I never read as often. Deep Secret, The Merlin Conspiracy and The House of Many Ways so far. I’m enjoying them.

These are her books for older children. There’s even a little romance in some of them. I don’t know if it’s true, but I always imagine that the age she was writing for increased as her children grew up, and then when her grandchildren started to get old enough to read, she started writing for them, because her later books were for younger readers again.

I used to think no-one, but no-one, could tell a story like Diana Wynne Jones.

Naturally, I’m wrong. DWJ is a grand master, of course, but there are plenty of good writers out there who tell stories in similar ways. A quick glance at my Kindle shows me Sage Blackwood’s Jinx, T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Sarah Prineas’ The Lost Books and Kari Maaren’s Weave a Circle Round, to name a few.

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Black roads

Concrete trucks and other building deliveries do take up a lot of road, unfortunately.

I’ve discovered our house is on what builders call a black road.

Our house is around 50-60 years old now, and needs some major repairs done soon.  A new roof, new plumbing. We have a garage that will fall down when the next major wind blows though.  Plus a huge tree in the front yard that has one branch alive and the rest is totally dead that needs to be removed.  (We have to thank covid work restrictions for this. Otherwise we’d have been leaving the house in the dark and coming home in the dark and not really noticing that most of the tree didn’t have any leaves.)

That’s not even mentioning the interior, which hasn’t been painted for a long, long time, and our cream carpet isn’t exactly cream any more.

Here in Australia it’s as common to knock down your house and rebuild as it is to renovate.

“Let’s find out how the rebuild and renovate prices compare,” I suggest.  “At least we’ll know rough figures, then.”

So we go looking at houses to build. 

Ouch.  Prices have effectively doubled since we last thought about doing this.  I think I’m living in the past.

Then there’s the extras.  “You’re on a triangular block.  Our standard houses won’t fit, so we’ll have customise.”  Extra.  “You want a lift?”  Extra. (We were expecting that one, but we have old knees, and stairs are a problem for both of us.)

The biggest extra?  “You’re on a busy road.  We might not build in your street.  I’ll have to check.  Let me get back to you.”

One person outright said they wouldn’t do it.  Another said they would, but it would add costs.  At least $50,000 for traffic management.

The problem, apparently, is that on a busy road like ours there are restrictions on the hours that builders can block off the road for deliveries of materials. Most times you can block it off from 7:00am and go all day, but for a site like ours, it’s only 9:00am – 2:00pm.  This cuts into the hours you can organise things like concrete trucks, and delivery of building materials.

Compounding that problem, we’re on a T-junction, and if the builders block off the road, they need people manning stop signs on the main and side road while deliveries are happening.  All of it adds to the price. Who knew that traffic management would be a deciding factor in whether or not a builder would choose to build your house or not?

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When the bad guy is not really bad

We are currently watching The Sleuth of Ming Dynasty. We’re up to episode twenty-eight, and all I have running through my mind is, please let Wang Zhi be a good guy. Please, please. He’s got to be.

Wang Zhi isn’t one of the two ‘true’ good guys in the story. When you first meet him he’s torturing someone. Not much later you see him threatening a fellow government official telling him that he knows the official accepted bribes and one wouldn’t want the emperor to hear about it.

Bad guy alert.

But Wang Zhi grows on you.

So much so that by episode twenty-eight, which is a bit over half-way through, I’ll be devastated if he turns out to be bad.

I’m not saying he’s a true good guy. He’s not. He’s scheming, manipulative and a whole lot more. He’s just … loyal, and I want him to stay loyal. I don’t want him to turn out to be working to overturn his boss. And I also want his boss—the emperor—to stay loyal to him and continue to trust him.

So far, Wang Zhi seem to be on the side of the other two protagonists. He’s giving them work, trusts one of them to do the job. But … I’m still worried the whole story will have this awful twist. Someone at Wang Zhi’s level or higher has to be involved the overall plot. Well, we already know for sure that some of them are, but I think we’re still missing one of the key players.

Putting on my reader’s hat now. As a reader, I love characters who seem bad but aren’t really. Not that Wang Zhi is bad so much as he is manipulative. But I also expect that the characters I like to be ultimately be ‘good’. And I like Wang Zhi. There’s a point of no return in a story where if a character turns bad after you have truly become invested in him, it doesn’t work.

A perfect example of this is Anakin Skywalker. (Or maybe not so perfect, but an example, anyway.) Enough said.

I love stories where you don’t see the end coming. Stories that are so logical that after the twist, you say, “Of course, this is so obvious.” Having said that, however, if it’s a character I love who turns out to be evil then that twist has to be spectacularly good to overcome that betrayal I feel.

A reader wants to finish a story feeling satisfied, not betrayed.

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Tax time already

31 October is tax-crunch time here in Australia. It’s the final date to lodge your tax return if you’re doing it yourself. (Unless you take it to an accountant, who can get an extension to May.)

I’m not one of those people who lodge early. I leave it to the last minute, which usually means I’m frantically gathering receipts and bank statements around now.

The whole of the 2021-22 tax year was impacted by COVID-19. Looking at my bank statements there were only about three places I spent any money. One of them was the 7-Eleven next door to my place. It was somewhat shocking to realise that the bulk of the money I spent over that 12 months was at the 7-Eleven.

I have to do better this year.

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Serial quiz answers

So, finally, the answers to the quiz on our last post. Congratulations, between you, you got all five.

Series 1

Protagonist ‘finds’ lost things. He started off looking for a spaceship, but he’s really worried about the bike stole from his cousin and used to run away to space when he (protag, not the cousin) was sixteen. In book three, he’s looking for lost sheep.

Our protagonist here is Fergus Ferguson, of Suzanne Palmer’s Finder Chronicles. The third book, The Scavenger Door, came out on 17 August and guess what I was doing the night of the 17th. Our type of book, a rollicking space opera with lots of action, alien mods and great characters.

Highly recommended.

Series 2

Progatonist can’t remember much about her past before the pirates picked her up. All she knows is that she has a dragon tattoo that moves around her body.

The protagonist here is Tate, from T. A. White’s Dragon Ridden Chronicles. It reads as a fantasy, but its bones are science fiction, set in a world that has forgotten its origins.

The first book was published in 2012. Book 5, Where Dragons Collide, came out in July of this year.

I enjoyed the Dragon Ridden books, but I love more another of T. A. White’s series, and that’s her Firebird Chronicles. It’s A space opera, three books so far, and there’s a fourth to come, I hope. If you like Suzanne Palmer’s Finder Chronicles and, dare I compare, Ilona Andrews Sweep of the Blade, you’ll might enjoy the Firebird Chronicles as well.

Series 3 (sort of)

Our protagonist can pick out things about what happens when a person dies. He’s used in cases where someone is murdered but they don’t know who committed the crime. This time he’s looking to find what happened to a young elven woman who was thrown into the river. Politics and murder at a leisurely pace.

A couple of people picked this one out. The protagonist here is Thara Celehar, and the book is Katherine Addison’s Witness for the Dead, which is the second book set in the world of the Goblin Emperor. I enjoyed the book—love all of Sarah Monette’s (aka Katherine Addison’s books). Not as much as I loved The Goblin Emperor, but that book is a hard act to follow, because I loved, loved, loved that book.

Series 4

Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games in this coming-of-age boarding school story, where students are dumped in a boarding school and they survive, or don’t.

Easy book this one. Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate, from her Scholomance series. This one came out last Tuesday, and I held off reading it during the work week (especially after my August 17 readathon). I cracked it open first thing after work on Friday and kept reading till I finished it.

I thought it was a two-book series—after all this is their graduate year—but after that ending there had better be a third. That’s all I can say.

Series 5

Our protagonist returns to the village of his birth, having failed out of university, already infamous because of his father’s betrayal in the army, and gets dragged into capers with his best friend. A light-hearted historical series where two young men solve magical mysteries, all based around a theme of food.

The protagonist here is Jemis Greenwing, of Victoria Goddard’s Greenwing and Dart series.

I confess it took time to get into this series. I bought Stargazy Pie, the first book, a couple of years ago but I didn’t finish it at the time. Another book of hers, The Hands of the Emperor, caught my eye recently. I read that, then the follow-on book which had just come out and looked around for other books of hers to read. Turned out I already had Stargazye Pie, so I gave that a go, enjoyed it enough to read the next, and then went though the rest. I don’t know if I just got to know the characters better, or if the storyline appealed more as it went on but I really enjoyed book five, and hope she’ll do a book six.

Thanks for participating. Hope you enjoyed the quiz.

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Serial quiz time

We’re all spending lot of time at home nowadays, so here’s a book quiz to help while away the time.

As per the title, these are books that are part of a series, and I’m looking for the author and the name of the series. All books are speculative fiction.

Series 1

Protagonist ‘finds’ lost things. He started off looking for a spaceship, but he’s really worried about the bike stole from his cousin and used to run away to space when he (protag, not the cousin) was sixteen. In book three, he’s looking for lost sheep.

Three book series, last one was published recently.

Series 2

Progatonist can’t remember much about her past before the pirates picked her up. All she knows is that she has a dragon tattoo that moves around her body.

A five-book series, the first book is nine years old now.

Series 3 (sort of)

Our protagonist can pick out things about what happens when a person dies. He’s used in cases where someone is murdered but they don’t know who committed the crime. This time he’s looking to find what happened to a young elven woman who was thrown into the river. Politics and murder at a leisurely pace.

Not a sequel, but a follow-on book using one of the minor characters from the first book. The first book is much-loved.

Series 4

Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games in this coming-of-age boarding school story, where students are dumped in a boarding school and they survive, or don’t.

Book one was out last year. Book two is coming soon, and it’s on my pre-order list.

Series 5

Our protagonist returns to the village of his birth, having failed out of university, already infamous because of his father’s betrayal in the army, and gets dragged into capers with his best friend. A light-hearted historical series where two young men solve magical mysteries, all based around a theme of food.

This author’s latest books aren’t part of this series, but these five books are part of the same world.

A couple of these are somewhat obscure. See if you can work out what they are.

Answers next week. Have fun.

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Let me be me

I grew up near Ned Kelly country.

Ned Kelly was a bushranger. This is an Australian term for a highwayman, a bandit, or an outlaw. Someone who used to rob people to survive.

Ned Kelly is famous—or infamous, if you like—for wearing homemade metal armour to protect himself in his final battle. More, he was considered a folk hero. A man victimised by the rich squatters in the area, and by the police.

Times change. People change. I have changed. My attitude to Ned has changed.

He and his gang were thieves and murderers. They stole cattle. They robbed a bank. They killed people. But it all started when he and his family were treated poorly by the police, so I have sympathy for him, too. I know the story isn’t that simple, and there would be incidents leading up to that whole first incident where he shot a policeman, but there was also poverty, racism, class and power imbalances involved.

Not that long ago I watched a television series—I can’t remember the name—about a stuntwoman and a rich young man who swapped in and out of each other’s bodies. I loved the show to start with. The stuntwoman was strong, with a good sense of self; she knew who she was and what she wanted.

Then, about six episodes in, while he was in her body, Rich Young Man (let’s call him Rich) started buying her clothes. Expensive clothes. Feminine clothes. For a girl who lived sneakers, jeans and t-shirts.

I used to love make-over stories where the rich man would come along and sweep the girl off her feet, buying her fancy clothes, changing her appearance, making her look like he wants her to be.

Times change. People change. I have changed. Nowadays, I find stories like that creepy. Controlling. Particularly when, as in this case, it’s supposed to be a romance. She’s gradually falling for him—as he is—while he’s supposedly falling for her but at the same time he’s trying to make her into a different person.

Having said that, I have no objection to anyone buying their partner clothes but have some respect for that partner and their likes and dislikes. In this case Rich ditched her old wardrobe and replaced it. Her original clothes were pretty good, by the way, with a smart, Asian chic. The clothes he replaced them with were totally not the person she was. Frilly, feminine dresses. Nor, might I add, did they suit her job. She does stunts, for heaven’s sake.

Yeah. Definitely controlling and there’s no half-way either. He doesn’t expect to change at all, but she’s expected to make herself into a different person.

I don’t remember finishing the series.

The girl being made over at the command of someone else is a common trope in many stories. Sometimes it works—I read one the other day where it did—but so often for me it’s a case of someone imposing their will on someone else. Oh, and it’s so frustrating when they throw out all the other clothes. Me, personally, I like my current clothes.

Around two years ago I got so frustrated by stories like this that I started to write my own story based around this very trope—where a rich main character ends up buying a whole wardrobe of new clothes for another character—but twisting it so that the reason they were buying the wardrobe was logical, trying to eliminate the creep factor altogether.

It was harder than I thought to come up with a good reason to do this. Like I say, times change. People change.

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Desirable residence, central heating

We’re in the middle of eating dinner when the heater kicks in.  (It’s the end of winter here in Melbourne, Australia—getting warmer, but not warm enough to do without the heater.)  An awful smell assails the room.

“What the?”

We go hunting.

First place, of course, is the windows and outdoors.  Something dead outside, or from the petrol station nearby.

Nothing.

Then our rooms.  Maybe it’s dirty shoes.  Although believe me, it has to be truly bad to smell like this.  Then Sherylyn’s art bag.  She has been known to bring back lemons and grapefruit from classmates and forget about them till the next week.

Nothing.

“It’s kind of musky,” I say.  “Possum?”

We had a possum in the ceiling once.  It smelt a little musky.  But believe me when I tell you the smell of possum is nothing to compared to the smell of possum urine.  That is a stink you never forget and even once you get rid of the possum it takes months to get rid of the urine smell.  Months!

Incidentally, possums are a protected species here.  You don’t actually get rid of them.  You pay the pest control man to find out where the possum is getting in and out, then they put a one-way door on the exit, and go around the rest of the house blocking off any other possible entry points.  They come back a few days later to block off the exit altogether.  Assuming the one-way trapdoor has been triggered and the possum is now establishing a new home in your garden, of course.

They also put down rat bait, because as cute as possums may be, they bring rats.  Having possums in your ceiling means you’ve also probably got rats.

Yes, well.  Now we know that—and we know just how bad possum urine smells—we get the whole house checked every six months.

But the last check was only a few of months ago.  And it’s certainly not possum.

“Tomcat?” We keep the windows open, and neighbourhood cats have been known to jump in through the back laundry window.

No.  Not that smell either.

The smell has died down by then, so we go back to dinner.  Maybe it was a truck going past.

We have floor vents for the heater, and the heater is thermostatically controlled.  Half an hour later the heater kicks in again.  So does the smell.

It’s coming through the vents.

“You know what it smells like,” Sherylyn says.  “Mouse.”

I’m taken back to days in the country and mouse plagues through the stored wheat.  Of course it’s mice.

So now I have visions of this family of mice, in their cosy, centrally-heated home, living the high life while we struggle to work out how to get rid of the pests in the middle of a lockdown.

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Jargon

I’d just finished making notes on a work meeting I’d had. It contained a lot of jargon.

“We can pull from the [redacted] up to every fifteen minutes but if we do it too often the company will throttle us and force us onto overnight push feeds.”

After which I went out to get some lunch.  Sherylyn was in the kitchen watching a demonstration video.

“That’s a lot of puddle in the middle,” she murmurs. “I’d be stretching that out.”  And a little later, “Which piggy is he using?”

It’s a jargon-ridden life, that’s for sure. Sometimes I’m surprised we write even semi-coherent novels. 

Speaking of novels, we have just hit 50,000 words on the first draft of the novel we are working on. No, not the only novel we’ve been working on for the last 12 months (progress has been slow during the pandemic), that’s put aside waiting for some distance. We always like to give our novels time between drafts if we can. This is a new one, and the writing has been faster.

Usually, if a story we’re writing makes it to 20,000 words it’s a goer (more jargon, or is that slang 😊), although we do have one or two novels sitting above that waiting for either more input or a final ‘under the bed you go’ decision, but if it’s 20,000 words we generally keep writing. 

When a story gets to 50,000 words however, we finish it. Even if we don’t like it when we’re done. Even when we hit that dreaded middle-book slump—around the 60,000 word mark for us—we’ll push through. This one has been fun to write so far, and so much easier than anything else in the last two years. Maybe one day you, too, will get to meet Augustus Aurealis.