A boy, a sphinx, and an unanswerable riddle

I have a new story out! It’s only a short story (quite tiny at 4,000 words), but it makes me feel all accomplished and author-y to have two books to my name—even if they are only ebooks at present. (Don’t ask my why the paperback of Twiceborn isn’t out yet. Sigh.)

So, new story: it’s called “The Family Business”. Here is the cover. Cute, no?

The Family Business small

The blurb is:

“Renardo and his brothers are up to their eyeballs in debt, with one last chance to save their merchant business (and their gonads) from the moneylender. The great city of Tebos is holding its Festival of Song in three days’ time, and they have a wagonload of songbirds to sell.

There’s just one large, man-eating problem: the bored sphinx who guards the city’s gates, and her deadly riddle game. Renardo doesn’t even want to be a merchant, but somehow it falls to him to outwit the sphinx. No pressure. All he has to do is come up with an unanswerable riddle.”

It’s on sale at Amazon for only 99 cents. Grab a copy and fill in a happy fifteen or twenty minutes on your next commute, or while you’re waiting at soccer practice/the doctor’s surgery/whatever.

And speaking of 99 cents: Twiceborn is also on sale at that bargain basement price for the next few days, so if you’ve been meaning to grab a copy of that but haven’t quite gotten around to it, now would be a good time! It was featured on Valentines Day on the Kindle Books and Tips blog. Not exactly your typical Valentines Day fare, unless your idea of romance includes homicidal dragons, but oh well. Not being much of a romantic myself, the significance of the date had slipped my mind when I made the booking!

So, you may be wondering why “The Family Business” has suddenly appeared. Weren’t you supposed to be working furiously on The Twiceborn Queen, Marina? You never mentioned anything about some random short story being published in that big long list of things you were going to achieve that you blogged about recently.

Well yes, that’s true. Life, as they say, is full of surprises, and one that landed in my lap mid-January was a sinus infection that is still ongoing. Surprise! At its worst I was getting maybe three hours’ sleep a night, and let’s just say that the revision schedule fell a little behind.

I decided to call it early on and shift my deadline with the editor from 1 March to 1 April, which meant that it would be four months between releases instead of the three I’d planned. So I decided to put out a short story instead, one that had already been published a couple of years ago in a magazine, so it didn’t need any work from my end apart from organising a cover and the formatting.

I’m still on the first revision of The Twiceborn Queen, a little over halfway. That’s not where I’d like to be, obviously, but all the new scenes I had to add were in the first half, so hopefully progress will be quicker from here.

The Carnivore even took the ducklings out on Valentines Day so I could work without interruptions. To a writer, that’s the best Valentines Day present ever!

When they came home, Drama Duck presented me with a single rose, nicely gift-wrapped.

“It’s from Dad,” she said.

They were both grinning like idiots, and she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“We totally didn’t find that on the train where some guy had left it behind,” she added.

The Carnivore gave me a fond smile. “You’re worth it, honey.”

Hope you enjoyed Valentines Day, if you celebrate it. Did you get anything nice from your significant other (scavenged or otherwise)?

Merry Christmas!

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Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope Santa brings you lots of nice books to read. I was lucky: I have a new Benedict Jacka, a new Guy Gavriel Kay, and a lovely quilting book so I can plan a whole bunch of new quilts to join the unfinished pile.

Christmas was very yummy at our house. The girls made these gorgeous Santas that featured in the Sunday newspaper last weekend. Aren’t they cute?

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And here’s a couple of photos for the Dr Who fans. Don’t blink! There’s a weeping angel on the top of our tree this year:

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Fortunately my husband’s traditional tree-topper is a great defence against their deadly gaze:

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Hope you have/had a lovely day, full of friends and family and good cheer!

Happiness is …

Happiness is walking through your childhood fantasy world.

I was ten years old the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. It caught my imagination as no other book had done before, and few since. I wrote stories set in the world of Middle Earth, using my favourite characters. I forced my uninitiated (and probably bored) friends to play endless games of make-believe where we dressed up as Elvish princesses in my mother’s old dancing petticoats and lamé dresses. I committed many of the poems to memory, and reread obsessively, adoringly.

It’s safe to say that The Lord of the Rings is The Book that started my lifelong love of fantasy, and when the movies came out and – oh miracle of miracles! – they didn’t suck, I fell in love all over again with Aragorn and Sam and the elves and the Riders of Rohan, with the glories of faded Gondor and the sweet green fields of the Shire.

So you can imagine my excitement when I got to walk those green fields and see the Shire FOR REALZ on our New Zealand trip. (Actually, you probably can’t. I was so ridiculously thrilled to be there I didn’t stop grinning like a loon the whole time. Is it shallow to admit it was the highlight of my trip? No offence, New Zealand, you’re beautiful and all, but you can’t compete with the love I bear the Shire. Even though you kind of are the Shire. I know. Don’t try to use logic on me.)

It was a picture-perfect day for a trip to Middle Earth, too. Bright sunshine, beautiful blue sky, absolutely glorious.

Oh, those hobbit holes! They were divine! They had the sweetest little cottage gardens:

Such attention to detail! Each one had unique features: bellpulls, woodpiles, letterboxes, tools left lying around. Some front doors were weathered-looking with faded or peeling paint. Others obviously belonged to houseproud hobbits and were painted bright yellow, red or blue.

Bag End, of course, had a handsome dark green door and stood high on its hill overlooking the rest of Hobbiton. It was very large by hobbit standards – no wonder the Sackville-Bagginses coveted it! – and had thirteen windows, whereas the most any other hobbit hole had was four.

The oak tree on top of it was the only fake tree on site, and boasted over 250,000 fake leaves imported from Taiwan and individually hand-wired on.

 
The tour was very informative, with lots of inside info about the making of the films. Highly recommended if you’re ever in New Zealand!

Now, if only they’d build a real Lothlorien, my childhood dreams would be fulfilled!

If you could pick any fantasy world to visit in real life, what would it be?

Cheeky beggars!

On holidays recently, the Carnivore was cooking bacon for breakfast on the balcony when a whole host of interested parties turned up to supervise the process and loudly demand a share. Who could blame them? Nothing beats the smell of bacon cooking!

Naturally the Carnivore refused to part with any of his breakfast – this man takes meat seriously. That didn’t stop the raucous squawking. There must have been thirty of them. Believe me, thirty rainbow lorikeets make a lot of noise.

 
Pretty little beggars, aren’t they? We shooed them away repeatedly, but they kept coming back, at least till the bacon was gone. Clearly this was a regular gig for them.

 

Some people do encourage them, feeding them bread and other things that are bad for them. We were good and hardened our hearts, except for one member of our party, who offered a single piece of bread to see if he could get one of them to feed from his hand.

 

No problem! If he’d had a bigger hand, there would have been even more willing to oblige. They were fighting for landing space.

And the views from that balcony?

 Spectacular!

 Lucky rainbow lorikeets, that get to live there all the time!

And now I shall put on my English nerd hat: While writing this post it occurred to me how strange it is that “beggar” is spelled with an “ar”. The verb is to beg, and the person (or, in this case, bird) who does it is a beggar. But every other word constructed like this that I can think of ends in “er”: rider, runner, walker, keeper, scorer, chaser, drinker, shooter, killer, knitter, builder, etc, etc.

Damn, but the English language is a squirrelly beast. Can anyone think of any other words that use the “ar” construction?

New Zealand through a quilter’s eyes (Part 2)

New Zealand is a beautiful country, and I took scads of touristy photos of all the gorgeous places we visited, but as I mentioned in my previous post on New Zealand through a quilter’s eyes, I also took some that appealed to the quilter in me and left my family scratching their heads.

At the Waitangi Treaty Grounds we saw a 35m waka or war canoe, built in 1940 for the centenary of the signing of the treaty between the British and the Maori. Its name was almost as long – Ngatokimatawhaorua. Old skills had to be relearned to construct the canoe in the traditional way, including intricate carving like this:

Such gorgeous texture and pattern.
 

More texture caught my eye in Waipoua Forest. The mighty kauri trees had such interesting bark, almost like dinosaur skin. 

You can’t see the effect so well on this one, but I loved the contrast of the fluffy, almost velvety green moss against the red whorls of the trunk.

More colour delight at Huka Falls:
 

Can you believe that fabulous clean blue-green water??

For a different shade of blue, here’s a shot across Lake Taupo, the biggest freshwater lake in Australasia, formed in the crater of an old volcano, which must have been truly enormous.

 You can see the peaks of active volcanoes in the background. When Taupo itself last erupted, about 2000 years ago, it buried the country for miles around in 200 metres of ash. The red light of it in the sky was seen as far away as Rome and China. I sure wouldn’t like to be around if it ever went up again!

In the town of Taupo itself I embarrassed my children enormously by taking photos of the garbage bins. I have to admit, even I felt a little peculiar about it, but look – they were so gorgeous! – how could I resist?

 
In Hamilton, there was lots to admire in the very pretty Hamilton Gardens.

Gorgeous repeating patterns:
 
and an absolute riot of colour:


How eye-popping is that colour combination? Wouldn’t it look sensational in a quilt?

Then there was this café at the glow worm cave at Waitomo. It made me think of quilting too, with the diamonds formed by the lovely arching lines of the overhead shelter very reminiscent of a quilting pattern.

 

Really, there’s quilting inspiration everywhere. If only there were enough time to make all the quilts I can imagine!

In which Turnip Brain does her best impression of a mummy

No calamities have befallen anyone here at Duckling Central, touch wood! My recent silence was due to nothing more serious than a prolonged case of holiday brain and general laziness. I have read a lot of books lately, including rereading some old favourites, and even finished a most beautiful crochet blanket, which I’ll show you soon, I promise. But every time I even contemplated posting on my blog, my brain cells dribbled straight out my ears and lay weeping on the floor.

The Carnivore swears he was hoping for some calamity to befall poor Two Planks, mind you. You may remember she went under the knife just before Easter to remove a few metres of ribbon from her insides. The Carnivore often talks big, about how much he loathes this dog – and yet, whenever you hear her barking hysterically, you can be sure it’s because he’s playing some crazy game with her.

He used to talk like that about our old dog too – yet who was in tears when the dog finally died? He’s not fooling anybody.

The fluffiest member of the household in fact made a miraculous recovery from her latest ordeal. She came home on Easter Saturday (after the operation on the Thursday), a little sore and slow, all bandaged up like a furry mummy. Next day the little turkey was bounding around the back yard full of beans again. And you should have seen the scar when we finally unwrapped her – it was a good foot long, held together with a million staples. This dog bounces back so fast she could be made of rubber.

In fact with this many lives she’d make a great cat.

New Zealand through a quilter’s eyes (Part 1)

Lines, patterns, colours. Sometimes a quilter’s holiday snaps focus on things that don’t interest the average tourist.

Take this wall down by the docks in Auckland, for instance. It looked like it had been made out of old weathered packing crates.

The Carnivore just shook his head. Why are you taking photos of this piece of junk? But I thought the soft aged colours were beautiful.

Then there was this building nearby. Patterns of lines and colours. Very cool.

At the aquarium the jellyfish looked like an abstract painting, softly glowing.

Or maybe some kind of alien life form? So pretty!

We took the ferry to Devonport quite unexpectedly, having to fill in a couple of hours before our harbour cruise one morning in Auckland. Imagine my delight in finding a whole row of poles along the street covered in crochet! Naturally I had to embarrass my family by taking scads of photos.

Aren’t those frogs just the cutest?? I just love that there are people out there who see a whole bunch of plain poles and think wouldn’t it be great to cover those suckers in crochet? So whimsically pointless, but why the hell not?

Further north I was taken by the light through foliage, particularly the marvellous umbrella-like spokes of the ferns.

Out on the beautiful Bay of Islands I loved this pop of bright orange against the blue water. This photo doesn’t do justice to the colour of the water there, though, which was a glorious deep blue, shading to a clear green in the shallows.

So much colour everywhere! And of course I’m all about the colour, so I loved it. I have lots more pretties to show you, but I’ll save them for another post lest you die of old age waiting for the page to load.

Baby Duck’s guide to Auckland

Hi there! We’ve just returned from a couple of weeks touring the north island of New Zealand. Very pretty place, lots to see – we didn’t even cover the whole north island, much less get a chance to see any of the south island.

I tortured the kids, as I did on our Japan trip last year, by making them keep travel diaries. There was much complaining, but I hope one day they’ll be glad to have them to look back on and help them remember. Baby Duck’s is often unintentionally entertaining, so I thought I’d share a few extracts.

Baby Duck’s Guide to Auckland

15/1/13
Today we went to some café. Then we left, walked, and went to a park. [Ed: I hope you weren’t expecting actual useful details] But it started raining, so we went back to the hotel. But on the way there we were stopped by a bridge we had walked over that had gone up like this.

But the bridge lowered a little while later and we decided to take the SHARK-BUS to the Aquarium and set off yet again.

[Perhaps you can guess from the excited capital letters that the shark bus was pretty impressive to a certain nine-year-old tourist.]

When we got there the Aquarium looked really small but the person driving the SHARK-BUS told us the actual Aquarium was underground. [It was Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World, and well worth a visit if you’re ever in Auckland.] There were rays, sharks, a giant squid that’s head was coming off so you could see its brians [very nasty, being able to see a creature’s brians, you know. Probably goes without saying that it was a dead giant squid], fish, jelly fish, shrimps, sea horses and a octopus and also some penguins.

Don’t eat the yellow snow, penguins!

There was also a little stall that had water in it with a sign above saying “Arctic water see if you can put your hand in for thirty seconds”. My sisters touched the water, said it was too cold, but I put my hand in for thirty seconds.

[I shall spare you the regular descriptions of what he had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He hasn’t quite got the hang yet of only including the salient points. Or maybe food is very important when you’re nine.]

16/1/13
One Tree Hill – long drive up the hill, no tree. Should be called “no tree hill, instead of tree, big monument”. Boring.

Dad’s office: extremely boring!

After One Tree Hill we went to a museum. It was boring.

[Are you sensing a pattern here? Yes, sadly, dear readers, Baby Duck has little appreciation for cultural experiences. Or sightseeing. Or shopping. Or pretty much anything you do when visiting a foreign country other than checking out its amusement parks.]

Then for dinner we had Mongolian [one of those restaurants where you select your own ingredients and they cook it in front of you on a big drum]. I liked how you could serve yourself.

17/1/13
After breakfast we went on a ferry to Devonport. Then we went on a harbour tour. The captain was very funny “Please don’t fall overboard because it creates lots of paperwork wether I find you or not”.

When we stopped at an island the captain said “If you hear this sound (HOONK) you’ll know to start walking back to the boat. But if you hear this sound (honk honk honk) you should have been running because you just missed the last boat back.” Since there were no houses at all nobody would want to sleep there. Dad got off the boat but got back at the last minute. [His timing gave me a few anxious moments …]

But when we got to dry land nobody started kissing the ground. (Well at least I didn’t see anyone doing it.) Then we went to Lord Nelson’s for dinner. [He didn’t mention the shopping that came in between, but I can assure you he found it boring.] When we got out we saw two girls get on the bungy ride across the road. I think it looked really fun, but mum and dad said “NO”. So that was decided.

The ducklings’ big Japanese adventure: Tokyo

Konichiwa! The ducklings have had their first-ever overseas trip since last we spoke – eight days packed full of temples, shrines, trains and theme parks in the Land of the Rising Sun. (You have to guess which of the aforementioned they enjoyed most. Hint: it starts with “theme” and ends in “parks”.)

In many ways Tokyo was much like Sydney. Skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, cars and people everywhere. Starbucks, McDonalds, Subway. Yet in other ways it was very different. So many, many people, and hardly a non-Japanese face to be seen. Temples and shrines popping up among the office towers. Businessmen riding bicycles, their briefcases in the basket on front.

And just. So. Big.

Sydney is tiny in comparison, a little doll-sized city. There are two people per square kilometre in Australia, 300-and-something per square kilometre in Japan overall, but an eye-popping 5,000-plus people per square kilometre living in Tokyo.

“So help us out,” said one tour guide, “and take some Japanese people home with you!”

Our first day in Tokyo was a beautiful clear day, and Tokyo Tower looked stunning against the blue sky.

I thought this place was meant to be smoggy? Why are all these people in the street wearing face masks?

We had a sweet park on our doorstep.

And a stunning temple just around the corner.

There are Shinto shrines everywhere, some big, some small, like this little one nestled on the side of a hill in the park.

In the afternoon, after admiring the expansive view from the 40th floor of the World Trade Center, we glided up the Sumida River, passing under twelve brightly coloured bridges.

I was fascinated by the patterns everywhere: looking up under bridges, the ornate roofs of temples, railings, columns. Lots of things to inspire the travelling quilter.

We did some souvenir shopping for the girls’ friends at a rather touristy marketplace at Asakusa, then visited the big Kannon Buddhist temple and neighbouring Shinto shrine.

Most Japanese happily combine the two religions in their lives.

“We are born Shinto and die Buddhist,” our guide told us. “And in December we all become Christian to celebrate Christmas!”

There was a large dog statue on either side of the Shinto shrine, which is common. The one with his mouth open is saying “ah”, the first syllable, representing birth and beginnings.

This one, with his mouth closed, is saying “mmm”, the last syllable, representing death and endings.

After our long overnight flight and busy day touring, we started to flag by dinner time. Finding somewhere to eat was a little challenging, as many places had no English menu, and the ducklings had had enough foreign adventures for one day. We ended up at a little Italian place where the owner spoke English (as well as Japanese, Italian and Spanish!). The food was great and comfortingly familiar, and we got to admire the Tokyo Tower in all its nighttime glory on the walk back to the hotel.

All in all, a most satisfying first day in Japan. But what inspired the most awe and wonder in the ducklings? Was it the magnificent gold-encrusted Buddhist temples? The endless vista of Tokyo laid out at our feet seen from on high? The insights into an exotic and foreign culture?

No. It was the toilets.

So fascinating were the plumbing arrangements they deserve their own post. So stay tuned for “True Tales of Tokyo Toilets”.

Playing tourist at home

We had a weekend in the city recently. Check out the view from our apartment:

Admittedly the weather could have been better, but we couldn’t complain about the location! In the heart of The Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney, we were surrounded by picturesque old sandstone buildings, quaint twisting alleys full of tiny galleries, gorgeous harbour views at every turn … So of course the kids wanted to go see the lego at the Sydney Aquarium.

And the lego was quite impressive, if lego is your thing. Moby Dick here had nearly 400,000 pieces of lego. The aquarium is always fun, if a little pricey. I love the seahorses

and the ugly dugongs. How drunk would a sailor have to be to mistake one of these babies for a beautiful mermaid??

Of course, I would have preferred less aquarium and more galleries – but that’s life with kids in tow. They were pretty patient and put up with a few galleries and a lovely Sunday morning stroll through The Rocks markets. Bribery with ice cream always helps!


We also spent a lovely hour or so browsing a couple of big bookshops. Dinner on Saturday night was at the Summit, a revolving restaurant on top of one of the city’s taller buildings. The views were great, despite the rain, and the kids had a great time stickybeaking at everything. The food wasn’t half bad either.

Even breakfast is an adventure when you’re staying at a swish place. All sorts of yoghurts and juices presented in tiny glasses made a tempting display.

Throw in a bit of time swimming in the hotel pool, and you have a pretty satisfying weekend all round. Sometimes it’s fun to play tourist in your own city.

Now if I could just convince the kids there’s more to Sydney than the aquarium …