My Best Garden Photos of 2018

I admit I’m not a good photographer. I use a ten year old point-and-shoot camera, many of whose features I haven’t bothered to learn about. I take a bunch of pictures, look at them with the Windows photo viewer, keep the ones that look okay, and use some of the best ones in my posts. I almost never enhance my photos.

Here are some of the best from the past year.

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Smashwords Christmas Sale!

There are deals to be had at the Smashwords store from December 25th through January 1st. Thousands of ebooks are discounted or free, including mine. And the Smashwords store has a new, improved look that’s worth checking out if you haven’t been there lately.

All the books you see above are included in the sale. Browse and buy right here.

Happy Holidays greeting, robins at cotoneaster

Good Wishes to All

To all the bloggers I’ve grown to know over the past few years — you’ve visited, liked, commented, and reblogged. Some of you have read and reviewed my books, and I’ve read and reviewed some of yours.

To writers — inspiration, time to write, and success with the WIP.

To bloggers — ideas for great posts, and lots of likes and follows.

To self-publishers — good (or at least decent) reviews. And sales, of course. And to those of you who dare to do your own editing, formatting, and/or cover design, success with your DIY projects.

To readers — a TBR pile full of delights, and time to read them.

To gardeners — enough sun, enough rain, and may your garden be blessed with earth magic.

To everyone — peace, good health, and good will.

The New Sword by Ada Robinson cover image

Local Author Book Review #15: The New Sword, by Ada Robinson

Yes, here’s yet another book review. I decided to pack December with reviews of indie authors’ books I’ve read recently.

The New Sword is the sequel to The New Fire, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. The two main characters, Sakela and Francisco, are now married, but their happiness is imperfect.

“The reserved soldier does not enter into family life the way Sakela wishes he would. When he swears allegiance to a corrupt viceroy, she suspects he has abandoned the values she cherishes. Then rebellion threatens to tear apart their marriage and their community. In spite of his love for Sakela, Francisco feels isolated from her. He sees a way through the coming conflict, but only at the cost of his honor and possibly his life.”                                        (Quoted from the back cover)

Although the narration is in third person, the point of view alternates between Sakela and Francisco, so the reader knows what both of them are thinking. Scenes with both characters present are relatively rare, emphasizing the central issue of the novel, which is the disconnect between them. For the most part, each follows a path determined by circumstances and personal principles, unable or unwilling to explain their choices to the other.

To a certain extent, this works, especially when Francisco’s way of dealing with a number of unpleasant choices becomes evident. As his strategy plays out, the man himself is taken in a surprising direction that results in a fundamental change. In the meantime, Sakela is left in the dark, dealing with conflict and danger while she fears her marriage is falling apart. A swashbuckling sea captain enters the picture as a not altogether unwelcome, but disturbing, diversion.

This book, like the first one, The New Fire, does not fit neatly into any genre category. It’s not really a romance, although the relationship between Sakela and Francisco is one of its primary elements. It’s not historical, because the setting and peoples are entirely fictitious, although based on the Spanish and native peoples in California and Mexico. It’s not a fantasy, because there is no magic or supernatural elements. 

Moreover, the author’s intent to show different approaches toward government and social organization is quite close to the surface of the narrative, giving the story a gravitas quite removed from escapist fiction. Some readers may find this disconcerting. To me, the characters and their conflicts were realistic enough that I was eager to find out how things turned out for them. This carried me through to the end, which is both satisfying and thought-provoking.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

Find out more about author Ada Robinson, along with background information and where to buy her books here.

Book cover for S O S at Night by M.A. Wilson

Book Review: S O S at Night by M.A. Wilson

“Ryan and Kendra are unexpectedly back in Maple Harbour with their cousins Claire and Nathan. Adrift in the fog, they stumble upon an abandoned lighthouse located on an island that is an important bird nesting site. But why is the island for sale, and who are the mysterious buyers? As the community rallies to save the island, the four children and their dog Meg investigate a series of puzzling clues. Is there more to the old lighthouse than first appears? Join the four friends as they attempt to unravel another Maple Harbour mystery!”

The third book in the Maple Harbour Adventure series is packed with all kinds of interesting goodies: an abandoned lighthouse, an old shipwreck, a crucial deadline, and lots of sailing.

This time, the four kids (Claire, Nathan, Kendra,and Ryan), with the help of Meg the dog, make an important discovery while visiting an abandoned lighthouse on a rocky islet. Next thing they know, they’re involved in a community fundraising effort to save the islet and its seabird habitat.

As the children investigate and do research, the reader gets to learn along with them – about lighthouses and how they work, a bit of British Columbia history, about organizing a community around an issue, and about solving problems and taking risks. It all happens in the delightful surroundings of Rainy Bay and the village of Maple Harbour. As always, the adventures are punctuated by picnics, barbecues, home cooking, ice cream, and cinnamon buns.

The author makes a conscious effort to present positive role models. The children (who I assume range in age from about 10 to 12) spend no time at all with electronic devices. Instead, they ride bikes, swim, and sail. Uncle William participates in meal preparation. Aunt Jessie is on the town council and takes a leading role in organizing the community. The kids engage in active problem-solving to get out of tight situations. Feelings of inadequacy are acknowledged and dealt with.

As with the two earlier books in the series, this story plays out in a safe, reasonably prosperous, middle-class environment. There are no gritty issues, although (given that it’s a mystery) criminal activity is mentioned.

On the whole, S O S at Night is an entertaining read, with a tense timeline and a thrilling discovery.

A review copy of the book was provided by the author.

American robin and cotoneaster bush full of berries. Blurry bird image.

Book Review: Encourage a Child to Watch Birds, by Denzil Walton

I’m not a birdwatcher, except in the sense of noticing who’s hanging around the bird feeders in the back garden. I don’t have a life list, nor even a decent pair of binoculars. And as can be seen from the two photos accompanying this post, I’m not that great at taking pictures of birds either. (That blurry shape in the featured image is a robin (American type) landing on a cotoneaster bush full of berries. Robins have been feasting on those berries for the past week.)

Despite the above, I like birds, and I’m keen on helping out the ones that live around here. A pair of Bewick’s Wrens nested in an old shoe on my back porch in 2015. So I hope that gives me some credibility for this book review.

This is a short, well-organized, and clearly written book intended for adults with a child or children in their lives. Its main intent is to help them develop an interest in observing and learning about birds in the natural environment. The introduction specifies that the suggested activities are screen-free, and this is true, although internet resources are mentioned peripherally. Otherwise, each chapter takes the child and adult companion outside to experience birds in a variety of ways.

Ten chapters, or “Ideas,” start with the most basic activities – looking at birds in parks, gardens, and urban environments – and progress to relatively advanced projects, such as keeping detailed notes on bird observations, or dissecting owl pellets to investigate owl diets! Topics include buying binoculars, obtaining books about birds, learning to recognize birds’ songs and calls, and setting up bird feeding stations. Each one is dealt with in simple, clear language. The author’s introduction says it’s not necessary to follow up the ideas in the order presented, or even to work through them all. The reader is encouraged to respect the child’s interests and use the book accordingly.

Each Idea provides basic facts about the topic, summing up with a list of projects to do together and questions that may be asked to help focus the child’s attention on details. It’s clear that this book is intended for people who are eager to spend time with children and act as guides and resources. This is not a book for someone looking to send kids off to amuse themselves.

The author points out how the bird-related activities may kindle other interests in children, such as photography, drawing, writing, music, even astronomy. Observing birds may present opportunities for using math skills, or discussing life-and-death issues such as the fact that some birds kill and eat other birds. The broader topics of conservation and environmental issues may also be approached.

The language is clear and the formatting excellent. In keeping with the “non-screen” approach, the reader is encouraged to use their public library as a resource for books and other materials. Many of the birds mentioned specifically are those of the UK and western Europe, but the book is intended for readers anywhere in the world, referencing organizations and resources specific to North America and Australia.

Altogether, this is an excellent book for anyone who wants to introduce children to birds and the outdoors, and even to learn more about these things themselves. More information about the book and author is available at:  https://encourageachild.org/

Bewick's wren
Bewick’s Wren
Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and Santolina

Falling into Winter

I’ve just been looking over some of my old posts tagged “fall.” Many of the same scenes that struck me as photo-worthy just a few weeks ago also did a few years ago. It’s easy to forget, because every year some combinations of colour and light seem to be the best ever. So there’s no harm in revisiting them.

The featured image at the top of the post shows “plumbago” ( Ceratostigma plumbaginoides ) foliage turning red, with a few fading blue flowers, and silvery grey Santolina foliage.

Front garden featuring Stipa gigantea
The blooms on the ornamental grass Stipa gigantea are still a feature of this bed, months after they finished.

I’m pretty tolerant of our urban deer. Even though I thought I had their preferred plants figured out, I was surprised to find most of the yellow chrysanthemums eaten. And even geranium (Pelargonium) flowers, despite their earthy smell.

Chrysanthemums and Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria)
Good thing I took this photo, because most of the flowers became snacks for a browsing deer. It left the Dusty Miller alone, however.

When something in the garden catches my eye, I grab the camera and run out to capture it before it’s gone. Light effects, like this one, are especially fleeting.

Stipa gigantea and fading aster foliage lit up by morning sun
Stipa gigantea and fading aster foliage lit up by morning sun.

Then I race around snapping whatever else looks good. Like this foliage combination.

Lambs' ears and periwinkle foliage
Fuzzy lambs’ ears foliage with periwinkle and other stuff.

And just so this isn’t all “same old,” a surprise visitor this fall was this single Amanita mushroom, lurking behind the bench near the pond, at the foot of the weeping birch.

Amanita muscari mushroom at foot of birch tree
Amanita muscari mushroom on birch trunk

Osiris image from replica of Sennedjem tomb RBCM Egypt exhibit 2018

A Quick Visit to Ancient Egypt

On Saturday, November 24th, I spent a few hours surrounded by objects from ancient Egypt. After a couple of years immersed in researching and writing a novel featuring such items, I was delighted when the Royal BC Museum hosted a travelling exhibit called Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs. (It continues until December 31st, for anyone who might be in or near Victoria, B.C.)

And I was intrigued to hear that on this particular day, an anthropology class at a local college was to stage a mock ancient Egyptian funeral right in the exhibit space. The project was part of a course called Anthropology of Death. The students did a lot of work to create the atmosphere and physical objects. They had even mummified a chicken, which was on display just outside the exhibit space.

A human dummy mummy (not a real one!) was carried along the twisting path through the various dimly-lit rooms, into a life-size replica of the tomb of Sennedjem, an artisan of Thebes. It was placed into a coffin (a borrowed theatrical prop), and the correct ceremonies were performed, including the all-important “Opening of the Mouth.”

Mock ancient Egyptian funeral in the RBCM Egypt exhibit
You can just see the “mummy” in the bottom of the coffin. Offerings have been placed at the left end and the participants are holding scrolls with the ceremonial words.

Photos taken with a phone in dim spaces with lots of reflecting glass (exhibit cases) and small spot lights, among crowds of people jostling around, aren’t the best. (That’s my excuse, anyway.) I focussed (yes, indeed!) on items of special interest to me, either because they appear in my recently published book, or, in the case of the cat statue and mummy, just because.

This photo of the Bennu Bird was one of the best, along with the one of the Osiris image at the top of the post.

The Bennu Bird, from the replica of the tomb of Sennedjem.
Bennu Bird in the replica tomb

This stone sculpture of the head of an unknown queen was in a dark corner, and my photo (somewhat enhanced) makes her look quite creepy.

Stone sculpture of head of unknown queen from RBCM Egypt exhibit.
Sculpture of unknown queen.

False doors (or “spirit doors”) appear in my novel, so of course I took a photo of this one. It dates back to the Old Kingdom, which makes it about five thousand years old.

Old Kingdom false door, made of limestone with hieroglyph inscriptions, from RBCM Egypt exhibit.

Shabtis (or ushabtis, or shawabtis) are small human figure sculptures that were placed in tombs so they could work for the deceased person in the afterlife. They were pretty much mass-produced, but sizes and materials varied somewhat. This one struck me as looking quite sinister, so I touched up the image to emphasize that.

Shabti from RBCM Egypt exhibit 2018
You wouldn’t want to meet this guy in a dark alley.

Most people know the Egyptians had a reverence for cats. At least I think it was reverence, since there was a cat goddess, Bastet. Many cat mummies have been found, and this exhibit included one. My photo makes it even weirder than it looked in real life reality. The covering is quite intricately patterned, and the fake eyes and ears are touching.

Cat mummy from RBCM Egypt exhibit.
Sad kitty…
Bronze cat statue from RBCM Egypt exhibit.
Detail of bronze cat statue. Really, it’s an elegant piece, but this picture makes it look more like the cat mummy above.

As always, one exits through the gift shop. I couldn’t resist buying a pair of fake shabtis. (You have to read my book to find out why.)

Reproduction shabti figurines from RBCM Egypt exhibit shop
They look a bit apprehensive, don’t they? Right now they’re standing near my computer, wondering what jobs I’m going to make them do.

I’ve always been a sucker for blue glass, so this little jug was an obvious choice. I like that it was made in Egypt (as were the shabtis) from recycled glass.

Cobalt glass pot with small handles, Baladi glass from RBCM Egypt exhibit shop
“Baladi” (which means “local”) glass

Book Review: The Crux Anthology compiled and edited by Rachael Ritchey

First, I’ll note that I have a story in this anthology. It’s called “The Blue Rose.” That’s all I’m going to say about it.

Here are links to pre-order the ebook. It’s $0.99 now, but goes up to $5.99 after the end of November, so act fast!

AMAZON   Barnes & Noble   Apple   Kobo

And here’s my review. This contest-based anthology is grouped around the theme of adventure as prompted by the picture on the cover. Most (but not all) of the stories recognizably incorporate the picture’s elements – a youngish bearded man, a woman with white-blond hair, a white temple-like structure on a steep green hill, suggestions of a cave, and a hint of the supernatural. It was interesting to see how closely authors adhered to the picture, and what forms the elements took in their stories.

The quality of the prose is uniformly good, although the authors’ styles vary, as might be expected, since they hail from widely scattered parts of the English-speaking world. The stories range from magical fantasy to grim dystopia, and include humour, mystery, romance and tragedy. Most readers will find something in this collection to captivate, intrigue, thrill, and entertain.

Specifically, these are six stories I especially enjoyed:

“The BUSS Stop” by K.R.Ludlow, for its unabashed goofiness and fast pace.

“The Cave of Legix” by David Jesson, for the realistic depiction of an expedition’s interpersonal dynamics and an ingenious mystery in a tropical jungle cave.

“The Paths We Choose” by R.J. Llewellyn, for its characters’ strong emotions and tragic choices made under extreme duress.

“Daddy Forgot Water” by Barb Taub, for its unflinching presentation of a horrific but plausible scenario.

“The God Strain” by Gary Jefferies, for a darkly humorous look at the beginnings of what might turn out to be a similar scenario.

“The Forever Door” by Rachael Ritchey, for fast-paced thrills in a vividly imagined setting, with a compelling quest, a remorseless villain, and a relatable sibling duo as protagonists.

I was delighted to be included among this group of authors and to work with Rachael and other members of the “Crux Crew” to let the world know about this worthwhile book.