Solaris book review

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My alien mascot

Solaris by T.M. Catron is a quick, fun read setting up what I hope with be a run of future adventures. It’s the first of a new space opera series.

It’s about a small crew on an independent ship that are smugglers anonymous transporters. In need of a new crew member, they stop over on the Captain’s home world. We are introduced to her home based complexities and why she’s chosen life on a ship. A new crew member is found with a too perfect resume just as they are forced off world.

I like a strong female protagonist and the Captain is certainly that. Her new crew member is intriguing with special skills that could make for interesting future plots. The book (novella?) is pure escapism – and sometimes that’s exactly what I need.

A Close and Common Orbit book review

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The closest picture I have to an alien

I’m suffering the consequences of my gleeful debut working in the garden for the year. It was so nice to be out there and get mud on my hands that I stayed out too long. As I sit here, I can feel that I paid the price in my back, hands and glutes. So, since then I’ve been spending my evenings couch sitting doing a lot of reading.

I don’t consider myself qualified to discuss writing – if I don’t stumble over the words, or have to wade though overly verbose language, I won’t notice the words just the story. I recently heard this sentiment described more eloquently – prose is like a window pane, it can be a beautiful stain glass window atop a story or clear glass (or anywhere in between). Some people like looking through the stained glass masterpiece, but I like the clear glass.

However, since stories are a fundamental part of being human, I am qualified to discuss stories I like. And I’ve recently found one – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

It’s a sequel of sorts to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, (which I was going to write a review for and still might), but I just finished A Closed and Common Orbit last night and something about it really resonated with me.

Recently, I’ve been feeling inundated with news of public figures trying to exclude entire groups of people, it was so nice to read a book with such a sense of inclusiveness with vastly different sorts of people (and aliens) living together in a working society.

It’s a world with sentient AI’s, but they are not considered people and it’s illegal for them to take the form of a sentient being. The story follows an AI newly in a human form struggling to fit into her world. The book is science fiction, but not action. Even though they live on a tidally locked moon far off in the galaxy, it’s a very human story.

The world is complex and not without conflict, but it’s a future could live in. The characters are complex and flawed enough they could really exist. I hope she writes more stories set in this future.

Settler Chronicles – just a taste of the first chapter

I’m going to be brave and share the first chapter of my book. I’m still wordsmithing the text, but I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m aiming to launch the entire thing as an eBook later this year.

Part of the reason I’m ready to share is because I submitted this chapter to a podcast run by two professional editors. They read it and gave a critique here. I found their comments helpful (although it was weird to hear someone read my words aloud) and they left me feeling ready to share.

Settler Chronicles is about a group setting up a colony on a far away world. Nothing goes according to plan then they discover a conniving plot one of the settlers has set up to ensure the colony fails. Will they catch the saboteur before it’s too late…

14:21hrs Day 114
“Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

Hovering by the control room door, Gary Holbrook kept his eyes glued to the monitor as Joan Taggart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“Right engine’s down, left’s responding sluggishly. Have to land. Over,” said Joan sounding infinitely far away—and for practical purposes, she was. Outside, beyond the safe colony walls she was piloting Shuttle 2.

In the control room, the main monitor displayed Joan’s forward cockpit view. Towering spires of rocks extended towards the sky in all directions and Shuttle 2 was losing altitude bringing the rough terrain closer and closer. Acting Captain Craig Spares leaned over the duty officer, Lucas Ordaz, to get a closer look at the landscape.

Gary took two more paces to towards the main video feed. As the ship’s doctor, he felt outside his element, but unwilling to leave. He happened to be walking by when he heard his wife, Margo’s voice over the radio – she was on the shuttle with Joan. Taking a deep breath, he tried to forget that he hadn’t taken time that morning to ask Margo why she was going.

“There,” Craig said, pointing to a piece of landscape that looked the same as the rest. He picked up the microphone and pressed the transmit button. “Shuttle 2, there’s a flatter region at your 2 o’clock, aim for that. Over.”

“Margo get your helmet on,” Joan said, unaware she was transmitting. “Control, say again about landing site, over.”

“Your 2 o’clock.”

“They don’t have helmets on,” whispered Gary, his eyes fixed on the screen displaying the shuttle’s forward view. All sensors showed that Thesan’s atmosphere lacked oxygen. If the bubble of the shuttle’s hull was compromised, their atmosphere suits were all that would keep the two people on the shuttle alive.

“Dr. Holbrook, get ready to receive casualties,” said Craig without looking away from the monitor.

Gary didn’t move; rescuing Joan and Margo was impossible. The colony’s only other shuttle lay trapped beneath a mangled hangar door.

The three of them in the control room watched helplessly as the shuttle’s flight pattern grew more erratic, creating the illusion that the pillars of rocks were dancing and twisting. As the shuttle got closer, the rock formations appeared to be grabbing at it with Lovecraftian tentacles. Watching made Gary feel sick to his stomach, but he couldn’t turn away.

A single rock tower loomed in the display. In a split second, the monolith of pock-marked grey consumed the view. The display went black, and Joan’s life sign monitor winked out.

“Can you get any visuals?” demanded Craig. Lucas looked down to the secondary screen in front of him and began searching the video feeds. “Margo, can you hear me?” transmitted Craig, seeing that Margo’s life signs remained strong.

“It appears she got her helmet on in time, but she only has 25 minutes of air. No, make that 20 minutes,” said Lucas reading Margo’s suit sensors. He turned to Craig. “Her suit has a leak. She needs to fix it right away.”

“Margo, do you hear me?” said Craig into the comms system. There was no reply.

“Can you bring up her helmet cam?” Lucas turned back to his display.

“It appears to be damaged, look.” Lucas switched the main display view. The screen showed mostly black with a few patches of smudged light.

“Okay, keep trying the other cameras.”

Lucas flipped through views until he came to the shuttle’s cargo hold view. The camera, once showing the shuttle’s interior, now surveyed the grey landscape. Harsh blue light from the brighter sun illuminated the area. They could see a slice of the valley floor surrounded by finger-like rock formations. The crushed forward section of the shuttle could just be seen at the top of the screen. Debris littered the landscape between the two sections.

“Margo, please respond,” transmitted Craig.

The three of them stood in silence as they waited. Gary closed his eyes hoping to hear Margo’s voice.

“There, movement,” said Lucas pointing to where the valley floor moved. Gary too another step closer to look. A grey mass extended upwards. Thick waves of what appeared to be viscous drips slowly revealed the mass to be a human form.

“Is the valley floor liquid?” asked Craig.

“It shouldn’t be, but I can’t get any in situ details,” said Lucas. “All the shuttle sensors died in the crash.”

To Gary it looked like thick mud coated Margo’s suit. With muddy gloved hands, she was trying to wipe the sticky goo off her visor. After a few moments, she must have got enough muck off to see the aft part of the shuttle wreck. With viscous fluid reaching halfway up her shins, she started wading towards the wreckage.

“Ten minutes of air,” said Lucas.

“Margo, respond,” said Craig again.

Gary watched Margo emerge fully from the sludge and walk to the aft section. Mud clung to every surface of her suit.

“There’s no way she’ll find a tear in her suit covered in gunk,” said Lucas, checking the sensor readings once again.

Margo stopped and stared directly at the camera. Gary couldn’t make out her face under the smeared surface of her helmet. Alarms must be going off telling her she was leaking air. Why isn’t she trying to fix her suit?

“Five minutes.”

Margo turned and stepped out of view.

“Bring up her helmet camera,” snapped Craig. “Margo! Respond!”

“Leave her alone,” said Gary his eyes fixed on his wife’s life signs. “Let her have some peace.”

“She’s out of air,” said Lucas slumping into his seat.

On cue, Margo’s life sign monitor winked out.


And that’s all I’m sharing at this point. What do you think? Please comment below.

A years worth of food (2016)

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Baskets of beans

There are good reasons to garden revolving around food security, ethics and reduced environmental impact which matter a lot to me. Some of these issues come with a rabbit hole worth of depressing information that can suck me in. Discovering more about all the nasty ways corporations are dissecting our worlds to make a profit does not leave me feeling empowered or even motivated. Part of me thinks I should write about these things but in all honesty, they leave me wanting to put my head in the sand and ignore the issues entirely.

So, positive reasons to grow my own food include flavour, variety and quality (for example, I grow the best cabbage I’ve ever eaten). Gardening also gets my family outside and covered in soil. Just spending time being still surrounded by nature and I notice things I wouldn’t normally see (like ladybug sex).

Food production is also a constant human problem that will always need to be solved. It’s an old problem, going back perhaps more than 10,000 years. It’s also a current problem urban dwellers mostly avoid. And, it’s a futuristic problem if we’re going to go off an inhabit new world (this is where my geek-dome comes in).

So on to the numbers: In 2016, I grew 120 kg of food, less than 2015 where I grew 196 kg. The biggest difference was I purposely didn’t grow many squash (I still have squash in my kitchen from 2015). I also got a full time job in April which combined with being a grad student made planting everything I intended to difficult, as a result many things didn’t get planted or harvested (my bad).

All the below, works out to feed a person requiring 2000 calories a day for 50 days – a few days less than the 62 days worth of food from last year. That extra 12 days of food was likely all squash, so no loss really.

Eggs – 149 (just over 12 dozen), these numbers are low because I sent the hens to a farm in the spring (a real farm, honest).

Roots – 6.1 kg (down from 13.54 kg in 2015), I never got around to planting carrots. I do however still have plenty of beets yet to dig up.

Greens – 5.2 kg (down from 10.49 kg in 2015), this year I lumped the kale and collards in with my brassica category.

Oniony things – 9.3 kg (up from 3.75 kg in 2015), there was a bumper crop of onions and shallots.

Sprouts – 1.8 kg (up from 0.99 kg in 2015).

Brasicas – 14.3 kg (up from 0.5 kg in 2015). I had tones of broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Peas/beans – 4.1 kg (up from 2.6 kg in 2015)

Herbs – 2.6 kg (up from 1 kg in 2015)

Fruit – 11.1 kg (down from 16.6 kg in 2015)

Mushrooms – 0.8 kg (up from 0.5 kg in 2015)

Tomatoes – 33.6 kg (similar to 2015)

Peppers – 2.4 kg (down from 4.8 kg in 2015)

Cucumber – 5.6 kg (up from the pathetic 0.5 kg in 2015)

Dried beans – 12.9 kg (up from 5.75 kg in 2015)

Potatoes – 2.8 kg (down from 33 kg in 2015, but I planted them as an afterthought)

Squash – 2.5 kg (down from the ridiculous 67 kg from 2015)

Amaranth – 2.1 kg (got almost nothing in 2015)

Sunflower seeds – 1.4 kg

Popcorn – 1.2 kg

Changes are coming

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I took this photo on a recent trip to the local butterfly gardens

I started this blog shortly after going back to grad school after more than a decade away from anything academic.

At first, I didn’t think academic writing would be a big deal as I’d been writing fiction and journaling since I was a teenager. My supervisor suggested I start writing early (good advice), so I quickly produced a text destined for my thesis. Well… that first chuck of text got handed back to me covered with red ink and I was accused of being a taciturn writer (a word that I had to go out and look up).

Standing there with my massacred text, it hit me that I had to make myself into a better writer. All the research I could find suggested the best solution was to practice writing more – and (gulp) send my writing out into the world. I’d written 4 novels by that point which very few people had been allowed to read. Perhaps those books suffered from taciturnity, but my readers were kind enough not to mention (Some day I might work up the nerve to re-read those stories).

After an unnecessarily long time spent pondering the issue, I decided starting a blog was the best solution. I was both afraid to share my writing and worried I wouldn’t have enough ideas. But, ideas beget more ideas and writing this format is fun. I ditched thoughts of fiction and started focusing exclusively on non-fiction. I even stopped reading fiction – a state I stayed in for years.

One day, my husband’s co-worker loaned me The Martian. I loved the book, then I remembered some notes about a story idea I’d had years ago. I dug out the notes. It was an outline for a book with themes similar to The Martian (Even if I’d come up with the exact same idea, I would never have been able to execute it as well as Andy Weir). This got me thinking… maybe my story ideas could be good, maybe even good enough to share.

The Martian had the side effect of getting me to start reading fiction again – The Night Circus, Wool, Station 11, The Girl with all the Gifts and on and on. I’ve been reading fiction like mad since.

And (in case anyone noticed my blog posts have gotten a bit sparse) I started writing fiction again. I’m now three drafts into novel number 5 and one of my major goals for 2017 is to finish it and (gulp) publicly share it.

So now that I’ve admitted that I’m going to publish my book, I’m going to start shifting the focus of this blog (it is about tangents after all). There’ll still be some science-y stuff, still some mucking about in the garden and I want to start sharing some of the fiction I’ve been reading and loved along with some thoughts (not necessarily mine) on creativity.

I’m also going to share some fiction.

Buried in beans and amaranth – beginning of September update

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The garden at the beginning of September with the household berry monster at the raspberries.

In the last week my amaranth and beans had to be harvested – the two crops are my main plan for winter eating so I’d planted what I thought was a reasonable amount. Well… the amaranth decided to do well this year giving me twice as much as I’d expected. Good news except I didn’t have enough containers to harvest it all before rains were predicted. I got the orange amaranth in, then the rains came. My black amaranth got harvested a couple days later. A kind local farmer let me come over and clean my amaranth with her gear – in future if I’m going to keep growing this amount or more, I’ll need to come up with my own way to clean the grains. I think they look rather pretty.

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Black amaranth as clean as I could get it considering it was slightly damp

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Orange amaranth – sadly it was the plant that was orange not the grain.

Next up was my beans and I was a week late in harvesting them – so I’ve lost a fair amount to rot. Here’s what we’ve cleaned so far:

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Beans in baskets drying. There has be enough for a family of three for a year there.

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More beans drying.

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More beans drying in the greenhouse

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Popcorn drying.

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Brussels sprouts growing

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Kale for winter

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One of my sunflowers.

beginning of August update

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I actually took this picture on 1 Aug 2016.

We are now in my favourite time of year – late summer to early fall. Most meals now contain home grown veggies from broccoli to tomatoes. And for the first time I’m getting enough cucumbers at the same time to make pickles. Soon I’ll be able to harvest my many varieties of dried beans.

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Here’s a view of my front ‘lawn’. A neighbour asked me what my secret is … horse shit. We spread a load over the area early spring.

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My onion and shallot harvest – I’m not really sure which is which, but they all look good.

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Purple rain beans (named after the song) ready to start drying down.

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Some of the last of my tasty summer broccoli. I’m letting them flower now with the hope of collecting seeds for next year.

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Baby Brussels sprouts forming. They should be purple and hopefully tasty.

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Green zebra tomatoes

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Hot peppers

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Self-seeded black amaranth heading for orbit

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Popcorn in the sun

Beginning of July Garden Update

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Here’s the back yard. Sadly, the raspberries are almost done for this year – but I spotted the first blackberry changing colour this morning.

Everything is growing! This year I’m growing lots of normal stuff, like potatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, and some oddities, like masha, chuffa, and job’s tears.

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Here’s a view of my new front bed safely behind the deer proof fence 2.0. It contains brassicas, beans, corn, amaranth, and sunflowers.

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Cabbage is cabbaging

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Hot peppers in the greenhouse are coming!

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Purple tomatillos – also in the greenhouse. I also have an assortment of tomatoes on the way both in the greenhouse and outside.

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My four stevia plants are trying to take over the world. Most of what’s here is in the dehydrator right now.

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My chamomile is flowering – now I just have to figure out when to harvest it to dry to tea.

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Pretty shiso – some of which I’ve already fermented.

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Onions are looking good.

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Black amaranth in the back. I’ve also planted an orange variety in the front.

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A chuffa plant in the food forest.

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Job’s tears – they look healthy, but I’m wondering when they are going to flower.

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Here’s an awesome combo that’s sprung up in a newly planted part of the back – toad flax, valerian and random kale.

Some tidbits

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Black amaranth growing in a random place.

Here are some tidbits of science-y garden bits I’ve come across in the last little while.

Blue Food
I grow blueberries and blackberries. My brassicas all have a nice blue-ish tint. Last year I grew blue tomatoes (not tasty enough to bother growing again) and this year I’m trying to grow blue popcorn. I have black amaranth from last year volunteering itself everywhere, which I’d argue fits into the same colour category as those above – which is really more purple than blue. So, Why are so few foods blue?

Along the same vein of blue, I stumbled across this berry eons ago – too bad it isn’t edible (it sure is pretty).

Space Grass
We’ve been actively converting grass to vegetable garden here. This spring, we doubled my veggie growing space by taking over most of the front lawn (the area in front of the food forest). It has the most sunlight of anywhere on my lot, so I’ve filled the space with beans, corn, amaranth, sunflowers and brassicas. What I don’t want is grass, so I was surprised to read about astronauts growing grass on the space station. Why not more food? Lettuce has been grown successfully up there. Or more flowers? There has already been zinnias in space.

Hot Peppers
One of the podcasts I listen to recently had an interview with one of my favourite authors – Mary Roach. The interview was about her most recent book (Grunt) which came out earlier this month, and I ordered. The book is about the science behind keeping soldiers alive, I’m hoping to start reading my copy this weekend. It turns out she was inspired to write Grunt after a research trip to study the science behind hot peppers. Here’s the article.

Although, I have no plans to weaponize my hot peppers, my plants are growing big and healthy. Hopefully I’ll get a bumper crop to turn into hot sauces.

a saga of imperfect timing

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I captured a shot of this guy while on a recent trip to our local butterfly gardens – I love its eye.

In April my PhD funding was scheduled to officially end. My awesome supervisor had scrounged extra money for a few more months, to the end of the summer at most. But, I was suffering from financial angst, i.e. a fear of being unpaid which would quickly become a problem. I’m progressing on my dissertation, its mostly just writing now. Most of my first draft is done, but I expect to be revising for quite some time. I knew I was very unlikely to finish before my funding ran out. The best case scenario I could come up with would have me finish early fall. Timing that just didn’t match my funding.

To abate my financial angst, I started dabbling in freelance writing, actually found a few paying gigs (I discovered a secret talent for creating logic puzzles). It was an interesting experience, but there was no way I could earn ‘enough’ doing it in the short term.

I planned a massive garden as groceries cost. We turned most of what was left of the front lawn into food garden – effectively doubling the annual veggie beds at the house. Plus, there was my parent’s garden to plant and I signed up for an allotment with some friends. Because I wasn’t busy enough, when I came up with an idea for a novel last summer I decided to start writing. It’s a science fiction who-done-it with lots of plants (and butterflies), and writing it has been a fun diversion from dull academic writing. And, my busy three-and-a-half year old deserves plenty of my time.

In the midst of everything, a job in my field came up. I got it and with rather short notice started in April. It’s a perfect fit for my skill set and has removed my financial angst and much of my free time. It’s all good – however, adding full time work onto my already full plate left me overwhelmed. I had to let some things go (unfortunately this blog was an early casualty). I dialed back my garden plans, backed out of sharing an allotment, and gave my chickens to a friend with a farm (a literal farm, not a figurative one). I stopped freelance writing and cleaned up many of the ‘experiments’ I was running around the house.

I’ve managed to keep puttering on my dissertation. I no longer have to be in a rush, hopefully I’ll be done in a year. Surprisingly, I’ve finished a first draft of my novel and am puttering away on the second. It turns out, for me writing fiction is a nice late evening task. I like my story and am planning on self-publishing it, maybe late fall.

The garden is looking organized, beds are dug over, sprinklers on timers are set up and plenty of things are planted. I lost a few pepper plants due to not re-potting them in time, so I just bought replacements. With my husband’s help we are in good shape to finish planting in the garden. Plus, we’ve created a small plot for my daughter which she has chosen to fill with strawberries and flowers. I’ll try to keep posting updates here, but I don’t promise to be regular for a while.