Cover Reveal–Demonic Summoning for the Modern Woman

I’m thrilled to be able show you this fabulous cover (designed by the awesome Jenn Rackham) for my upcoming cosy urban fantasy!

Alex Blackburn is not a witch.

So how the hell did she summon a demon?

More importantly, how is she going to get rid of it?

When Alex Blackburn returns to small-town Rifton to settle her grandmother’s estate, she doesn’t expect to uncover Gran’s secret affair or to accidentally summon a giant centipede from the netherworld.

With a pet-eating demon on the loose, Gran’s things to dispose of, and only two weeks off work, she doesn’t have time to waste. Getting rid of the creature is her first priority. 

Shelby Saunders, grandson of Gran’s lover, might just be the one to help her. If she can convince him the demon is real.

Can two people who don’t believe in magic conjure enough of it to send a demon home? In Rifton, you never know what might happen.

This cosy urban fantasy set in small-town New Zealand will have you checking under your seat for centipedes and cheering on Alex and Shelby as they bumble their way around magic and each other. The first in a brand new series of magical adventures set in Rifton.

Coming April 2023!

A Perfect Hike–Mount Bealey

A few days ago, my husband, son and I went for a hike up Mount Bealey. This was my husband and my second trip up, but the first was a hastily planned late-autumn post-lockdown get-us-the-f@*k-out-of-the-shed hike, and we ran out of daylight to make it to the summit. This time, we had plenty of time to reach the peak.

The day was absolutely perfect, with early low cloud burning off before we reached the tree line, and just enough breeze at the top to cool off.

The climb up is fairly steep in places—the track more of a ladder than a trail. But that’s to be expected around Arthur’s Pass, and I prefer an interesting scramble over a steady upward slog anytime. The beech forest is lovely, with tantalising peeks down to the ever-receding village of Arthur’s Pass.

Breaking out above tree line makes the scramble worthwhile, with views of multiple 100-metre-tall waterfalls in the valley below, and the snow-covered peaks above.

We had lunch on the summit and spent a long time simply enjoying the 360-degree landscape of jagged peaks and vertiginous valleys. We had the summit (and in fact most of the track) to ourselves. Not even a kea came to visit us on the peak—no doubt they were hanging out with the hoards of people on top of the more popular Avalanche Peak. 

One of the best things about being on the summit was the chance to see other places we’ve hiked and put them all into a cohesive understanding of the landscape. There is satisfaction in that intimate knowledge of a place—to know the chill of the icy river below as well as having the bird’s-eye perspective of the river’s braided channel from the mountain above.

The trip took us a bit under seven hours, with the long lunch break on top, and we reached the car by 4pm. An ice cream at Arthur’s Pass was the perfect end to a perfect hike.

Panorama of the view to the west from the summit

Christmas Adventure

This year’s pre-Christmas tramp took us to the Lewis Pass area for four days of forests, mountains, and lots of water.

Day 1 was up the Nina Valley Track through beautiful beech forest. We bypassed Nina Hut, planning to camp below Devil’s Den Bivvy. Unfortunately, recent rain had rendered the area below Devil’s Den Biv into a swamp. There was no place to pitch a tent, so we carried on to the biv. Then we had to figure out how to bunk four people in a two-person hut. With three in the biv and one in a tent blocking access to the loo, we managed. It was … cosy.

Day 2, we left the biv in dense fog, hiking down to the Doubtful River on a track that has clearly seen no maintenance for a decade. At times it felt like bush bashing, and there was lots of windfall to clamber over, under and around. 

Once at the Doubtful River, a cruisy 40-minute hike took us up to the confluence with the Doubtless River, and shortly thereafter, to the Doubtless Hut, where we had a spacious six bunks to ourselves. Well, almost to ourselves. As we were packing up to leave, we found a beautiful young female Wellington tree wētā in the hut. 

On day 3 we climbed up to Lake Man Biv—another 2-person hut, thankfully with a little more camping space nearby. Lake Man Biv is hobbit-sized. The door is about three-quarters height, and the bunks were so short, even 160-centimetre (5-foot, two-inch) me couldn’t stretch out on them. But in spite of its size, the biv is perfectly appointed, with a small table for cooking (complete with a drawer full of cooking and cleaning supplies) a set of tiny shelves, a fold-down bench, and an empty ammo box for additional seating and mouse-proof storage. Cords along the ceiling provide clothes drying space, and there are even clothes pegs fashioned from beech tree branches. The overall effect is a tidy, fully-functional space, in spite of its size.

After dropping our gear at Lake Man Biv, we hiked up to Lake Man, an alpine lake where we found our summer solstice snow and had a lovely lunch in the sun, surrounded by awesome alpine vegetation and some cool bugs.

After a cosy night in Lake Man Biv, we hiked out via the Doubtful River. The hike ended with a couple of crossings of the thigh-deep Boyle River and a long river-valley slog—easy hiking, but not terribly exciting.

The trip wasn’t our most strenuous ever, but after having spent the better part of the last six weeks sick, first with Covid, then with a nasty, lingering not-Covid, I was seriously out of shape and thankful for the relatively easy hike.

A Kiwi Halloween

October is nearly upon us. For me here in Aotearoa New Zealand, that means springtime planting, flowers, and lots of weeding! But for many of my readers, it means colourful autumn leaves, pumpkins, and the spooky season of Halloween. And for writers of fantasy, like me, it means story inspiration too (even if my witches aren’t always who you might expect …).

When I was a child in the United States, Halloween was one of my favourite holidays. Yes, the candy was a draw (I’ve always had a weakness for candy corn), but what I liked most was the chance to make a costume and then walk around after dark wearing it. 

Halloween imagery is all about darkness and things that go bump in the night. It’s meant to be scary, but I quite enjoy the night and all the creatures that inhabit it. 

As an interpretive naturalist in America, I led a lot of night hikes. ‘Spooky’ owls and bats are old friends I’ve had the privilege to not only observe in the wild, but teach with in classrooms and nature centres in a variety of places.

Spooky enough for Halloween?

And those nocturnal animals can be helpful. When I lived in Panama, there was a sizeable gap between the top of the walls of my mud house and the roof. At night, little bats would swoop into the house through the gap, zipping around snapping up mosquitoes. I used to lie awake at night waiting for their arrival before falling asleep, knowing they were keeping guard against the little blood suckers that wanted to disturb my rest.

New Zealand is blessed with a fabulous array of nocturnal animals. If Halloween had originated here, the icons of the season might be a bit different …

  • Kiwi—Imagine this beach-ball-sized bundle of fluff with a deadly beak spearing hapless hikers in the dark. Maybe there would be vampire kiwi.
  • Kakapō—What could be scarier than a nearly invisible nocturnal parrot with a booming voice that echoes through the night?
  • Wētā—Okay, lots of people already find these giant crickets spooky. And some of them bite. They’d be a perfect candidate for Halloween horror.
  • Owls … maybe not—The morepork and the little owl might need to up their game to be Halloween mascots. Their cute factor is pretty high, and their calls are far from scary. I’d even go so far to say that the morepork’s call is soothing.
  • Bats—Unfortunately, New Zealand’s bats are all endangered, so you’re not likely to encounter them frequently. However, they have some interesting habits that would play out well on the spooky scale. Short-tailed bats don’t hunt from the air like many other bats. Instead they scramble around on the forest floor, using their wings as legs. What’s that rustle in the undergrowth?
  • Moa—Yes, these giant birds are extinct and were probably only partly nocturnal, but maybe their ghosts or skeletons could haunt a New Zealand Halloween. Their diet was mostly plants, but I still wouldn’t want to meet up with a 3.5-metre-tall bird in the dark.

Of course, a Southern Hemisphere Halloween would have to fall in April or May, during the autumn here. We could all dress up as kiwi or moa and eat pavlova …

A Hobbit Adventure

As a writer of fantasy and adventure novels, it’s important to me to get out and have my own adventures. My adventures provide the inspiration and the gritty details for my characters’ escapades. I especially enjoy true wilderness adventures—the less sign of human impact, the better.

view from Mt Isobel
The view from atop snowy Mount Isobel

Of course, not every adventure can be a wilderness experience. Sometimes you want some fun with a little more luxury.

My husband and I recently spent a lovely weekend in Hanmer Springs. While the town is known for its hot pools, we’re not the hot pool type. What we appreciate about Hanmer Springs is the ability to step out the front door of your holiday home, climb a mountain, and end the hike at the pub a few blocks from the holiday home.

It’s hardly a wilderness experience, especially given that Hanmer Springs is surrounded by pine plantations, rather than native bush, but on a winter weekend during the rainiest month on record, it’s just right.

Our main hike for the weekend was up Mount Isobel. This wasn’t our first winter trip to the peak, but it was the first time we’d followed the ridge from the peak in order to descend via Jollies Pass. The last time we were on Mount Isobel, the wind was so fierce, there was only enough time to race to the top, snap a photo or two, and race back down before we froze. This time was entirely different.

It snowed the previous day, so we hiked through a winter wonderland. Light wind and full sun made it a stunning hike. The snow was an easily hikeable fifteen centimetres deep on the ridge—just enough to ensure our feet and lower legs were thoroughly soaked by the end.

There was nowhere dry to stop for lunch, so we ate in short snatches standing up. That was really the only downside to what was a delightful seven-hour hike.

And when your hike ends in Hanmer village, with beer and good food on offer, and a roaring fire at the holiday home to warm your toes, it’s hard to complain about anything. I think of it as a Hobbit adventure—a bit of fun without skipping second breakfast.

Matariki Hike–Tiromoana Bush Walkway

Nature pulled out all the stops last weekend for Matariki. All three days of the long weekend were stunners, with temperatures more like mid-autumn than mid-winter.

On Saturday I worked in the garden in a t-shirt, and we had all the doors and windows open for most of the day. On Sunday, with both kids home for the holiday, we headed out for a hike.

Avoiding the snowy mountains and crowded ski fields, we headed to an unlikely spot—the Kate Valley Landfill.

Well, okay, not the landfill itself, but the restoration area next to it on Transwaste land.

Tiromoana Bush Walkway wends through a patchwork of restoration planting, old paddocks, plantation forestry and regenerating bush. An active predator trapping programme has clearly done its job, and the air teems with bellbirds and pīwakawaka.

Access to the beach cuts through a steep valley between limestone cliffs busy with welcome swallows. The beach is narrow and overshadowed by actively crumbling cliffs of limestone and clay—definitely not a place you want to be during a storm, but quite fascinating on the blue-sky day we enjoyed.

The hike was only about three hours long, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the beach, even on a short mid-winter day.

We had relatively low expectations of the hike when we started out, but it ended up being quite a pleasant mid-winter outing. Not very strenuous, but with enough ups and downs to be interesting, and with some intriguing landforms along the coast.

Celebrating Matariki–making new traditions

This year is the first year Matariki is an official holiday here in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s about time. 

Matariki is the Māori New Year celebration. The holiday is named after the Matariki star cluster (also known as the Pleiades), which disappears from our night sky for a time, and reappears in late June, around the winter solstice. 

Matariki is a time to celebrate autumn’s harvest, remember friends and family who have died the previous year, and plan for the new year.

This year, my husband and I will celebrate the harvest with pizza topped with vegetables from the garden, and pie filled with fruit from our berry bushes.

I will remember my grandmother, who passed away in May, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Rugs braided by her hands will warm my feet during the chilly days of Matariki.

I will plan for the new year by assessing my seed stock and drawing the 2022-2023 garden map. Although I won’t plan my planting around how the stars of Matariki look when they first appear in the sky, as Māori used to (just as I never planned by Punxsutawney Phil and his Groundhog Day predictions), but I am pleased to note the sky has been crystal clear for the past few days—clear, bright Matariki stars signify an early planting season. Just as a shadowless groundhog used to make me hope for an early spring, bright Matariki stars do the same.

Celebrating Matariki feels natural and right here in Aotearoa. When the children were young, we always celebrated the winter solstice. I made special solstice cakes, decorated to celebrate darkness or welcome the soon-to-be-lengthening days. We’d give the kids little gifts—a flashlight, or some winter-appropriate craft supplies. We made candle holders and dipped beeswax candles. We had a special dinner in the light of the candles we’d made. It wasn’t a huge celebration—just something to mark the season and look forward to during the short, dark winter days.

As the kids grew older, they weren’t interested in candle making or other crafts. We still enjoyed candlelight dinners on the solstice, but most of the other parts of our celebration fell away. Now that Matariki is an official holiday, I expect some of our solstice celebration will make its way into our Matariki celebrations.

Like us, many New Zealanders will be creating new traditions this year, mapping out what Matariki looks like today, mixing traditional Māori celebrations with the myriad cultures that make up modern day New Zealand. I hope as we all move forward with our celebrations, we can resist the commercialisation that has plagued other holidays and remain focused on the deeper meanings behind Matariki and its intimate connection to the land.

Aftermath: Stories of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand

Aftermath: Tales of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is SpecFicNZ’s new anthology.

The anthology explores Aotearoa in a post-apocalyptic world. Disasters have occurred around the country and the world. New Zealand, in our isolation down under, may have escaped most of what happened around the world, but it was pretty bad out there. As Kiwis are apt to do, though, we’re “getting over it”. You know, she’ll be right …

This is not just an anthology of disaster stories. The pages are filled with hope in the form of short stories, poems, flash fiction and artwork about what comes afterwards. The contributions are exclusively from SpecFicNZ members and reflect the diversity and breadth of this country we love to call home … even if the edges are a bit torn and tattered.

I have had the pleasure of working on this anthology for the better part of the past year as a co-editor with Gary Nelson and Jill Winfield, and I can heartily recommend it.

Pick up your own copy today!

Autumnal Buzz

As an entomologist, I love early autumn. Insect numbers are at their peak, and most insects are adults—their most active and visible life stage.

As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, early autumn nights were nearly deafening with the cacophony of cricket and katydid chirps. Days buzzed with the sounds of cicadas and grasshoppers.

New Zealand is quieter, but autumn still has its distinct voices. Our katydids’ sharp ‘zit zit’ seems to echo from their favourite ake ake trees. Crickets twitter in the grass on sunny days. Cicadas and grasshoppers buzz from trees and bushes.

Bees and butterflies are particularly active on autumnal blooms. Many of our showy butterflies overwinter as adults, so they can be seen flitting about on warm days into late autumn.

Of course the clouds of invasive cabbage white butterflies on the brassicas and the German wasps swarming the compost pile aren’t terribly welcome. But still, I enjoy the leggy hum and flutter of the season.

Late Summer Garden

March first is considered the start of autumn here in New Zealand. As far as the garden is concerned, it’s still late summer. It’s been a cool, wet February, which has delayed crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The extra moisture has meant bigger watermelons, though they’re ripening slowly. Sweet corn is coming on, and we’ve had some lovely meals of it, along with the first of the melons. I’ve harvested the potatoes, dry beans, and most of the soy. The pumpkins are looking gorgeous, and I’m sure we’ll have more than we can eat this winter. 

Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the garden this year. Plants are showing nutrient deficiency, for sure, but they’ve done remarkably well, considering where I started two years ago. It’s clear my applications of manure and compost are having a positive effect. And it’s just as clear it will take quite a few years to build this soil up to full productivity. 

I thought I’d treat you to a selection of images from around the garden on a beautiful crisp early autumn day. It may not be as productive as I’d like, but it’s still glorious.