The Dragon Slayer’s Son–cover reveal

dragonslayer004d-smI’m thrilled to be able to reveal the cover of The Dragon Slayer’s Son–a middle-grade fantasy set in modern-day New Zealand…with dragons.

Nathan is shocked to learn that his father is dead, and even more shocked to learn that he died in the line of duty as a dragon slayer. Everything he thought he knew about his father was a lie. But he has no time to think about what it means before he is whisked away to the Alexandra School of Heroic Arts to train as his father’s successor.

At school, Nathan and his new friends soon learn:

Dragons are not what they thought.

Neither is the schoolmaster, Claus Drachenmorder.

And Nathan’s dad might not be dead…yet.

Nathan and his friends escape from school and embark on a journey through the mountains to find Nathan’s dad. To succeed, they will need to survive the dangers of the mountains, evade Drachenmorder’s henchmen, seek the aid of the dragons, and unravel an international ring of wildlife smugglers.

Coming soon to an online retailer near you…

Sorry.

dsc_0064-2-smTwenty-four years ago, I was in the Republic of Panama working as a Peace Corps Volunteer–an official representative of the United States of America.

Panama had recently been invaded by the United States in a clumsy attempt to remove Manuel Noriega from power. The operation left an estimated 3,500 Panamanian civilians dead and 20,000 homeless. Noriega was ultimately captured, but at great cost.

It wasn’t the first U.S. atrocity in Panama. In 1964 U.S. forces killed 21 Panamanians in response to protests over the flying of the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone.

One day during our service, my husband and I were in a bar in Panama City. We met a young serviceman and, when we explained we were Peace Corps Volunteers, he said, “Oh! So, we shoot ’em, and you apologise.”

Yep. That’s about right.

I feel like I’ve been apologising for my country my whole adult life. As a people, Americans can be great. They can be generous, kind, openhearted, and open-minded. I like Americans–some of my best friends are Americans.

But America as a nation is often a bully, stuck in out-of-date ideas, selfish, arrogant, close-minded, racist, sexist, and uncaring. It was founded by people seeking religious freedom, yet is stubbornly intolerant of religious diversity. It was founded on the premise that ‘all men are created equal’, and yet has never treated all men equally (and don’t even ask how the nation has treated women…).

As a child, I was taught that America provided equal opportunity to all, and benevolently gave aid to those in need. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school, and believed in the words ‘with liberty and justice for all’.

But so much of what I saw, even as a child, revealed the lie in what I was taught. I have now spent half my adult life living outside the United States, seeing America from many different perspectives. None of them are flattering.

I don’t say this to bash America. I say it from a deep belief that America has the potential to live up to its ideals. I say it from a fundamental need to see my country do right by its people and the world. I say it in the hope that maybe someday I won’t have to be ashamed to admit I’m an American.

Until then, to the rest of the world, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Nīkau Palm Gully

img_3044-smWe spent the weekend on the Banks Peninsula. Saturday we kayaked around Akaroa Harbour all day, and today we hiked out to Nīkau Palm Gully.

The track out to Nīkau Palm Gully is easy walking, as it follows a farm track. It’s pleasant, but not exactly wilderness. The views out over Akaroa Harbour, however, are spectacular. And at the end of the track is the steep drop down into Nīkau Palm Gully.

The gully is a tiny V of land, hemmed in by cliffs, and sporting one of the few remaining remnants of original Banks Peninsula forest.

Most notable among the trees are the palms which give the valley its name. The nīkau palm is the southernmost palm in the world, and New Zealand’s only native palm. It is found in coastal lowland areas, and the Banks Peninsula is as far south as it ranges on this coast. There are nīkau scattered around the Peninsula, but the population of them in Nīkau Palm Gully is impressive.

Nīkau palms are slow-growing. They begin as clusters of leaves growing on the forest floor. It may take forty to fifty years before they begin to form a trunk, and up to two hundred years to reach their maximum height of 10-15 metres. There are individuals of all sizes in Nīkau Palm Gully.

People have been visiting the gully for many years. One tree still bears the mark of a visitor who carved the year–1907–onto its trunk. A pair of amusing (to a reader over 100 years later) letters in the Akaroa Mail in 1909 indicate that the gully was, even then, considered a special place. In the first article, a member of the Beautifying Association writes a scathing indictment of the Akaroa Boating Club for having cut down several palms in the gully to use as decoration for an event. In a subsequent issue of the Akaroa Mail, a member of the Boating Club explains that they only removed a few leaves, not whole trees. The letter writer then goes on to accuse the Beautifying Association of removing entire plants (seedlings) from the gully for their gardens.

Thankfully, the landowners whose farm once encompassed the gully understood its significance, and gifted it to the Department of Conservation (in exchange for one 10-cent stamp presented to them on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen). It is now protected as a scenic reserve, and has been linked to other patches of native vegetation through a number of land covenants on adjacent properties.

 

Greengages

2017-01-25-14-58-09-smWe don’t often get many greengage plums. Our tree is small, and it sits in a windy location, so many fruits blow down before they are anywhere close to ripe. This year wasn’t too bad–we harvested about three kilos of fruit. Plenty to enjoy.

One of my favourite things to do with summer stone fruits is to make upside down cake. Indeed, I’ve blogged about it three times in the past two years. So today I’ll ignore the cake, and mention the plum, instead.

I didn’t know a lot about greengages before coming to New Zealand, where I found a fair number of people had them growing in their yards.

Greengages are named after Sir William Gage, who imported them to England from France in 1724. The cultivar he imported had another name, but apparently the tag was lost in transit (These were the days before anyone considered biosecurity…Importing a strange plant? Whatever). They were popular in America in the 1700s, but fell out of favour in the 1800s.

According to a 2004 article in the New York Times, there’s good reason greengages fell out of favour. The trees take longer to mature than other plums, they fruit erratically (I thought it was just our tree), the ripe fruit is fragile, and they’re prone to cracking and rotting on the tree. Not exactly an easy plum for commercial production.

But the greengage is considered one of the finest plums for flavour. Grown commercially, it fetches a high price. According to the New York Times article, in 2004 fewer than 100 greengage trees were harvested commercially in the United States. They are more common in Europe and New Zealand. New Zealand exports a small quantity of greengages to the US each year, where they are sold in specialty markets.

So I feel much better about my 3 kilo harvest of greengages. They are wonderful, and if they’re a bit finicky to grow? Well, that just makes them all the more special when we have a good year.

Crazy Cake Season Begins!

2017-01-26-21-49-17-smWoo hoo! My favourite time of year–the time when I have lots of excuses to make ridiculous cakes–has begun with the daughter’s birthday.

I like to try new cake decorating techniques, and this year I’m using Mexican paste. It’s surprisingly easy to make and to work with, if you don’t mind remortgaging your house to pay for the gum tragacanth that gives it the right texture. I expect the stuff is dirt-cheap elsewhere in the world, but here the price was shocking (about $10 per tablespoon).

Great fun to work with, though. I’ve already gotten my money’s worth in entertainment.

Combine 227 g (8 oz) icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) and 1 Tbsp (15ml) gum tragacanth in a bowl. Add 2 Tbsp water. Stir until it becomes crumbly and damp. Turn out of the bowl and knead until pliable. Place in a plastic bag and leave at room temperature for 12 hours until firm. When you’re ready to use it, break off a small piece and knead until softened.

The paste can be moulded into shapes, or rolled thin and cut with cookie cutters. It works a lot like modelling clay, though it tends to stick. I rolled mine out on a non-stick baking sheet, and would have appreciated a non-stick rolling pin, too, but with care I managed with an ordinary wooden rolling pin. I picked up a cheap set of fondant shaping tools that proved very helpful for producing the shapes I wanted.

After you’ve made your shapes, you need to let them dry and harden for about 24 hours. Then they can be painted with paste food colouring thinned with gin. You can also knead food colouring into the paste.

Once the paste hardens it is quite tough, but thin pieces are brittle (reminds me of unfired ceramics). I didn’t plan very well for my leaf and flower stems. I made the leaves and flowers, and only considered what I was going to use for stems after they’d dried. In hindsight, I should have attached the stems while the paste was still pliable. Nothing a little gingerbread icing, used as glue, couldn’t fix.

So, where was all this sugary sculpture heading?

My brief was an alpine scene atop chocolate cake.

Failure

2017-01-21-09-23-03smI’ve been in a veritable frenzy of pickling the past couple of weeks. Before that, there was a good stint of jam-making. I’ve had a brilliant run. I’ve been able to run a full canner-load almost every time, every jar has sealed, and the jam has been the perfect consistency.

Until two days ago, when a jar of dill pickles exploded when it was lowered into the canner. Then yesterday, I ran fifteen jars through the canner, and FIVE of them didn’t seal. What? FIVE? I never have that sort of failure rate. I did what I always do though, upon reflection, maybe my lids or jars weren’t quite as hot as they should have been, because I was doing two batches at once, and my attention was divided.

Today I reran the five unsealed jars, making sure they were nice and hot, and they all dutifully sealed.

But it made me think about failure and my response to it.

I fail a lot. I have hundreds of rejections of my writing from agents and publishers. I’ve thrown away entire rounds of cheese that just didn’t work properly. I’ve made loaves of bread that could be deadly projectiles. I’ve made birthday cakes that didn’t look anything like what they were meant to be. I’ve taught lessons that have flopped completely. I’ve made clothes that have gone immediately into the rubbish upon completion. The list of my failures goes on and on.

When we fail, we have a number of options.

Option 1: We can pout, blaming our failure on the weather, the phase of the moon, the person next to us, the wrong tools, millions of illegal immigrants, or whatever. This might make us feel good, because it allows us to pretend our failure was not our own fault. But it doesn’t make us likely to succeed next time.

Option 2: We can get angry, blaming our failure on our own stupidity, clumsiness, incompetence, or lack of innate ability. We can believe that, because we failed, we are a failure. This is an easy response, because it allows us to justify not trying again. “I’ve tried that, and I can’t do it.”

Option 3: We can critically analyse what went wrong. Maybe it was poor tools–I’ve had cheese fail when a thermometer was inaccurate. Maybe we got sloppy–I’ve ruined garments by rushing to finish them. Maybe we didn’t understand enough about what we were doing–the first time I taught preschoolers, they chewed me up and spit me out, because I had no idea how they related to the world. Analysing our failures takes time. It requires a willingness to critique ourselves in an honest and constructive manner. It requires us learn new things. It requires us to get back on that bicycle and try again.

It’s hard.

But it’s the only option that leads to success.

Celebrate January

2017-01-24-15-13-32-smThe golden month is nearly over. January is the sweet spot of the year.

The Christmas frenzy is over. The kids are o vacation. much of the rest of the population goes on holiday too.

Even I get a break. By January, the plants in the garden are large enough to suppress weeds, so there’s little weeding to be done. Te early crops are winding down and the summer crops are ramping up. Full-scale bottling (canning) and dehydrating will come later. January is mostly a time to enjoy the garden’s summer bounty.

There is work to do, of course. Peas, pickling cucumbers, and green beans all peak in January, and they need to be processed. But they are relatively quick and easy crops to preserve.

Along with the garden respite usually comes sunny summer weather. We can go camping and backpacking, and take trips to the beach. January is a month of sand, sun and effortless meals.

February will come, with school, work, and a mountain of vegetables to process. The nationwide party mindset will end, and we’ll all settle in for another year at the grindstone.

But there’s still a week left. Enough time for a bit more fun…