Thursday, May 17, 2018

Not dead, just buried

On the one hand, I can't believe we're almost halfway through the year already. On the other hand, it feels like the last 6 months have had a decade's worth of happenings crammed into them, and not just in terms of dismaying politics. If you're wondering why I've not only been silent here, but also pretty quiet on my more regular haunts of twitter and r/Fantasy, it's because I've had a lot going on. In the past 6 months, I've:

1) Applied for New Zealand residency (which required a mountain of further paperwork)

2) Organized repairs and other preparations for selling our house in Boulder. Everything to do with selling a house is stressful at the best of times, but my husband and I have found the stress increases exponentially when you have to deal with contractors, real estate agents, etc, while not living in the same country. I currently hate everything to do with houses.

3) Returned to Colorado in April to resign from my job in the space industry. Except at the last minute I was offered the chance to work remotely on a cool new project at the company, so I ended up NOT resigning. Heh, of course this change of plan came after I'd already sent my "Farewell, dear colleagues..." email out to all my coworkers. Cue a lot of telling people, "Um, about that? Never mind..." (My coworkers didn't blink an eye. The joke at our company is that it's the Hotel California. Nobody ever really leaves. Go ahead and try. You'll be back, we all know it.) Anyway, so I still have my job, which I'm quite happy about! But starting a new project does mean more time working and less time doing everything else.

4) Said a wistful farewell to my beloved literary agent of 8 years, Becca Stumpf, who is leaving agenting to take up freelance editing. It's not farewell for long, I'm sure, because if I ever need an editor, I will hire her in a heartbeat. (Becca is amazing, and I don't say that lightly. She's one of the best and most professional people I've worked with in publishing.)

5) Continued working on draft 2 of my new fantasy book The Dreaming Sea. It's going slowly, thanks to all the other demands on my time, but it's going, at least. Once our house in Boulder is sold, I'm hoping to also squeeze in some more work on the Shattered Sigil novella, The White Serpent. Oh, for more hours in the day!

6) And occasionally I've been trying to get outside. What's the point of living in a stunningly beautiful country if you don't take time to enjoy that beauty?

The famous Wanaka tree. It's an old fencepost, apparently, that wasn't quite dead yet when the lake inundated it. Since then it's blossomed into one of NZ's most photographed trees. Cue labored metaphors about life...
View from the Rob Roy Glacier Track, one of my favorite local hikes
Coast south of Dunedin, about 3 hours away from Wanaka (but worth the drive)
I expect the infrequent posting will continue for the near future. But I'm still alive and checking emails and twitter and r/Fantasy threads, even if I haven't much time to contribute. Can't wait for the day I can say I've got a new book or novella all polished and ready! Until then, it's nose to grindstone.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Riversurfing on the Kawarau

Part of the fun of living in New Zealand is the chance to enjoy some totally new adventures. Way back when we first visited Queenstown in 2006, I remember seeing some flyers for "riverboarding"--aka, riding on a boogie board through whitewater rapids--and thinking, "Wow, that looks crazy and yet extremely fun." (This is the theme for most activities in Queenstown.) Alas, we didn't have time on that trip to try it.

Now we do! Or at least, I seized the chance this week when my Australian sister-in-law and her family came over to Queenstown wanting to try some fun new activities. We signed up with Serious Fun Riverboarding for an afternoon "river surfing" excursion. I'd worried my son might be too young to come riverboarding with us, but nope. Serious Fun takes kids as young as 8, since they assign each kid a private guide who stays right with them and helps control their course through the rapids. (Adults are on their own! Under the watchful eye of the lead and tail guides, anyway.)

Going on a guided trip like this isn't cheap--it's more of a splurge activity, at least for us--but for the price, you get a full set of gear (wetsuit, booties, fins, helmet, bodyboard, lifejacket), and basic instruction on how to use the board and "read" the river, after which you get guided down twice through the "Roaring Meg" section of the Kawarau River. Each time, you go through 3 major rapids: Maneater, Roller Coaster, and Dead Cow (named for the unfortunate animal some early whitewater enthusiasts found stuck against a rock mid-rapid). These are Class 3 rapids; not so pucker-inducing as the Class 5 monster rapids we once rafted in the Grand Canyon, but containing more than enough standing waves and churning water to make a raft-less ride quite exciting.

Getting a lesson from the guides before we enter the water. It's more strenuous than it first seems to exit the eddy in the foreground. You have to kick hard with your board pointed upstream, or else you get swept right back into the shore.

Entering the water. Bring on the rapids! (I wore goggles to protect my contacts. Otherwise I'd have lost them in about 5 seconds flat once we hit the first rapid.)
The first time through the rapids is both thrilling and disorienting. Waves slap you in the face, you're frantically kicking to try and follow the guide, hoping you don't get swept out into an eddy or tumbled into a hole, as you bounce up and down and all around. I confess I totally fell off my board during our second rapid. (The board is attached by a leash to your wrist. It's not a big deal to pull yourself back on, but you certainly get an interesting ride until you do.)

One of the Kawarau rapids we traveled
My husband, navigating like a pro
My son having a great time, thanks to the skills of his guide
Entering the rapid: woo hoo!
Ack, get on the board!
We all made it in one piece.
We stopped along the way to do a little cliff jump--the hardest part of the trip was climbing up the rock in our swim fins! Once through the rapids, we hopped back into the company van and headed right back to our start point to try them all again. The second trip down the river felt a lot more comfortable (but still exciting!). With a better idea of what to expect, you don't spend all your time frantically kicking and bracing. The guides showed us cool extras like standing waves to try and surf (harder than it looks), and underwater currents you can duck down and catch for an even wilder ride. So much fun!

Second time through: oh hell yeah!
A wild ride through Roller Coaster
This time I didn't fall off my board!
More, please!
Definitely a great adventure, and hey, I'm sure it'll come in handy for a book scene someday. Maybe I'd better try it again sometime, just to be sure I can properly convey all the sensations of tumbling through a rapid. Write what you know, right?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

2017 in Retrospect: Writing and Books

After yesterday's big announcement, I thought it was time to take a break from huge angsty life decisions and instead share some more mundane highlights of my 2017.

Writing-wise, I'm gonna be honest: this was not my most productive year. Moving overseas is a ton of work, both before and after the move happens. I will spare you from a giant list of logistical and bureaucratic tasks accomplished. Suffice it to say that even now, I'm still working on a thousand things related to making our move permanent, and I feel like the end of the task list will never arrive.

As always, it's really a matter of priorities. A lot of time I could have spent writing, I was skiing and hiking and biking and exploring various cool New Zealand places with my husband and son. I have zero regrets about that. Life is for living.

Yet I did write! Just at the speed of an aged sloth. Still, I've got some accomplishments to celebrate:

1) I finished a rough half-outline, half-horribly-messy-draft of a new fantasy novel, tentatively titled The Dreaming Sea. Right now I'm working on turning the mess of words and ideas into an actual readable draft. I just sent the first chapter to my former critique group. Onward ho...

2) I finished a Shattered Sigil novella, The Outrider's Challenge, that tells the story of Dev's first (and near-disastrous) convoy trip. This was one of the stories I owed to a kickstarter backer who got my "Ultimate Fan" reward. The backer says he intends to share the novella with everyone via his blog sometime in the next few months. I'm really excited for that! I had a lot of fun writing the story, and I think those of you who loved the Shattered Sigil books will thoroughly enjoy the read.

3) I finished a draft of another Shattered Sigil novella, The White Serpent, that tells the story of Cara's attempt to climb the highest peak in the Whitefires. But after getting feedback on the first two parts from my critique group, I had an idea for how to make the story a whole lot better--but it requires rewriting most of the novella. I decided I wanted to finish my brand new book before diving into the novella rewrite. (Publishing is slooooooow. Once I finish a decent draft of The Dreaming Sea, while my agent tries selling it I'll have tons of time to work on the Cara novella and the two other Shattered Sigil short stories I had planned out.)

4) My Lizaveta short story "A Game of Mages" was published in Adrian Collins's Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, and got some very nice mentions in reviews. Hooray!

As for reading, I had a really weird year. Usually I have no trouble finding tons of new books to love. This year, many of my reads never got beyond the "meh" level, and some of my most anticipated books I found disappointing. I've never quite had this kind of reading slump before. It was extra frustrating because reading has always been my great comfort in times of stress, and boy was 2017 a time of stress. My difficulty in finding good reads did ensure I treasured all the more the few books that fully captured my heart, standing out like brilliant mountain peaks above a sea of gloomy cloud. I already talked in an earlier post about Curt Craddock's wonderful An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, which I was so delighted to see hit the shelves at last. Here's the rest of the books I loved this year:

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Terrific novella about a cranky, snarky cyborg/AI who's sneakily subverted its corporate programming yet just wants to be left alone so it can watch entertainment videos. If only its new crew would stop treating it like an actual perosn! Wells nails the narrator's voice, infuses the story with lovely dry humor, and pulls off some beautiful affecting moments. I can't wait for the second installment of the Murderbot Diaries.

All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater

This is magical realism set in 1960s desert southeastern Colorado, in a tiny community founded by a Mexican family with the power to work miracles. The prose was so powerful and lyrical and beautiful it made me despair of my own authorial abilities. (Some books you read and think, "Maybe one day I'll write a story as good as this!" Some books you read and think, "Holy shit, I could never in a million years write like that.") I see from reviews not everybody feels like I do about the book; some people couldn't get into it. Maybe it worked so well for me because I love the high desert. All I can say is that while I've liked some of Stiefvater's previous work, particularly the Scorpio Races, this book is the first of hers I've loved.

Guns of the Dawn, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This one starts off feeling like a Jane Austen novel, but then transitions into a grimly realistic battlefield war story somewhat reminiscent of the better Vietnam novels I've read (albeit in a Napoleonic-era secondary world setting, and with a female protagonist). I loved the practical determination of the protagonist, and thought her emotional journey was handled quite well. If all Tchaikovsky's many novels are this good, I need to read them.

Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren

I bought this YA fantasy after seeing a review recommending it particularly to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, and oh gosh yes yes YES! This book was quirky and warm-hearted and wildly imaginative and wonderful in all the best Jonesian ways. Complex time travel shenanigans, Norse legends, prickly family dynamics, dryly humorous juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical, oooh, this is just the sort of YA novel I love best to read.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

This novella had intrigued me ever since I heard its premise. A school for children who've been kicked out of the magical worlds they once found? As someone who always found the idea of outgrowing Neverland monstrously unfair, I wanted to see how McGuire would tackle this. Yet the hefty ebook price for a novella made me hesitate, albeit guiltily. I know how much time and heart authors put into their stories. Yet as a fast reader, I do have to watch my book budget, lest I put us out on the streets. Happily, the novella eventually went on sale. I snatched it up, and loved the dark fairy-tale feel of the story so much that I immediately bought the sequel, hell with the price. So yes, publishers, nice low sale prices on a first book do work to increase your profits.

The Eternal Kingdom, Ben Peek

A worthy finish to Peek's dark and excellently unique epic fantasy trilogy. This is literary-style fantasy, with a focus on theme as much as character or plot, but still with plenty of awe-inspiring magic and bloody battles to go with the questions of power and religion. It's the sort of read that leaves you chewing over thoughts and implications for quite some time afterward. One of Peek's great strengths is the realism he brings to the complex tapestry of his world's cultures and political relations. But what I loved best about the trilogy was the sheer glorious variety of characters, all of whom feel like real people struggling to navigate a world as messy and difficult as our own.

Winter of Ice and Iron, Rachel Neumeier

Ever since I read and adored Neumeier's House of Shadows, I've been buying everything she puts out. Yet while I have enjoyed her other novels, they didn't quite reach similar heights for me...until this one. The weird part is that I can't quite put my finger on why the story so captivated me. Winter of Ice and Iron contains story elements that I usually don't like (for instance, a romance where a woman's calm "goodness" is lauded as the key to controlling a man's savage impulses).  Yet I enjoyed the character conflict and intriguing magic so much that I didn't care one bit about tropes or flaws. Fair warning: this book is darker than Neumeier's other work. She's never graphic, but the story does include sexual abuse and torture. It's not grimdark at all, though; the main characters are honorable people working for the good of their respective peoples.

Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister surely hits the sweet spot for a whole lot of fantasy readers. I've seen it described as Arya Stark (a badass yet likable/sympathetic character) gets to go to magic school and make interesting friends and grow up into even more of a stone-cold badass. All of this told with Lawrence's gift for sharply poetic turns of phrase, with some hints of intriguing worldbuilding added in to spice things up. Anyway, if you're allergic to school stories and training sequences, steer clear and try one of Lawrence's other series instead. But if you're like me and enjoy some classic fantasy tropes with a bit of a modern twist, jump on in.

Destiny's Conflict, by Janny Wurts

I haven't actually read this one yet, although I bought the book the instant it released in late 2017. It's the conclusion to the fourth arc of Janny's beautifully rich and complex Wars of Light and Shadow series (only one more book to go to complete her 12-book magnum opus!). These are dense, layered, ornate books that beg to be read when I have a proper swath of time to savor them. I use them as rewards for completing writing milestones; this one, I'll read (along with a re-read of its predecessor) once I reach the halfway point of my current draft. I highlight it here anyway in my 2017 post because the series is such a monumental achievement, it's a shame so few fantasy fans have heard about it.

I make no further promises for 2018. I don't have any lofty lists of goals for writing or reading. I plan to take the year as it comes, achieving whatever I can, enjoying as much as I can.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Leaving America

When we first arrived in New Zealand, our intent was to stay for 9 months. A sabbatical spent enjoying new mountains, new adventures, in a country that neither me nor my Australian husband had ever lived in before.

That 9 months is almost up, and we've made a big decision: we are not going home. Or rather, New Zealand will become our new home. 

It hasn't been an easy choice. Staying here means giving up my job in the space industry, a job that I love and that pays better than any work I'm likely to find here. It means we'll be far from friends and from my family. It means we have to sell our car and our home and figure out what in the heck to do with all our stuff in storage back in Colorado. It means saying farewell to all the wilderness areas we loved so much while we lived in Boulder, from Rocky Mountain National Park to the rugged San Juans to the glorious desert canyons of southwest Utah.

But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and I don't just mean because New Zealand's mountains and lakes and beaches are amazing. 

It's because I haven't yet talked to a single New Zealander who worries over medical bills or has had to declare medical bankruptcy. Because here innocent people don't have to fear getting shot by over-aggressive police. Because schools teach children the importance of caring for the earth and fighting climate change. Because even when NZ's political parties disagree sharply on issues, they still seem to agree on the importance of intelligence, reason, and respect. Because country over party is still the expected norm, not the other way around. 

You know the classic boiling frog analogy? I honestly did not realize just how crazy life in America has become until we moved here. Don't get me wrong, New Zealand is not a problem-free paradise. They're struggling with drug addiction and racism and pollution and inequality just like so many other countries. 

The difference lies in how New Zealand handles the struggle. Facts still matter here. So does integrity. I had not realized how deeply I missed that until I came here and saw truth and principles still in action. 

I grew up hearing the good old catchphrase of "America: love it or leave it." I still love America. I weep to think of my country falling ever further into greed and hypocrisy and corruption and lies. I honor everyone at home that is fighting for honesty and fairness and justice, the ideals that form the true American dream. I will do all I can to help that fight. 

But I want my son to grow up in a country where his medical issues will not mean that he struggles to get healthcare. Where he can have a childhood not steeped in a cultural miasma of tension and fear. (I remember the lockdown drills at his school where kids practice hiding from shooters. The letter we got from the school district discussing their policy on deportation. The little friend of my son's who said he hoped Trump would start a nuclear war, because then the school would get vaporized and nobody would have to do classwork ever again. Haha, kids are so funny, right? And yet, and yet. A thousand little things add together into an ever-rising water temperature, slowly boiling us until we accept all kinds of craziness as a regular part of life.)

So, like my own ancestors that came to America searching for a better life for their children, I, too, am emigrating with my family.

I know we are tremendously lucky to have emigration as an option. The "love it or leave it" crowd often ignores just how difficult gaining residency in a foreign country can be. It's a little easier if you're young. Many countries, New Zealand among them, offer "working holiday" visas for the under-30 crowd that allow you to live and work and seek an employer willing to sponsor you for a longer-term visa. The older you are, the more difficult it is to get approval in "skilled migration" categories. Plus you have to be able to pass the health exams. (That said, those with chronic conditions like diabetes often assume it's impossible to pass when it may be very possible. If your condition is well-managed, you have a chance.) 

In our case, I lucked into the easiest path by marrying an Australian, lo these many years ago. Aussies are allowed to live and work in New Zealand without visas, and after a certain period of time living in the country, apply for permanent residency. My husband is able to sponsor me for a partnership-based work visa and then for residency, although this is not cheap (the residency application fee is almost $2K). It also requires a mountain of documentation to prove that our relationship is real. Pictures, joint bank accounts, utility bills, cards, letters, text messages, proof of shared residence, etc. Doesn't matter how long you've been married (15 years, in our case). You still have to prove your relationship remains valid and stable. We went through this process once already, back when I was sponsoring my husband for US permanent residency, so we're familiar with the drill. (There's a certain symmetry in each of us taking our turn under the microscope of immigration. Except I'll say that so far INZ is far, FAR easier and more friendly to deal with than US immigration ever was, even 15 years ago in happier times.)

Just yesterday I read Kameron Hurley's powerful, moving post on her own decision to emigrate. The hope she talks about, the sheer relief of having hope, is what I've also experienced. Ripping out our roots and replanting them is a huge change. I've done plenty of agonizing over the decision. But when I recently opened the letter from NZ immigration that contained my brand-new 2-year work that moment, it felt like the best decision I've ever made. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Revitalizing in dark times

Feels like a million years have passed since I last posted here, in a whole lot of ways. I had a bad bout of back trouble after an ill-advised skating session at a rink in Queenstown, which meant I had to limit my time sitting at the computer (or doing anything else fun or useful) until I got my back calmed down. For a long time I was trying to fix it myself with stretching and such, but after several weeks of pain I broke down and went to a physical therapist in Wanaka. She did dry needling to force the knotted muscles to release, and holy hell did that work miracles. No more pain, and I've got my full range of movement back, hooray!

Next time I won't wait so long to go. I was worried that it would cost a lot to see a PT here in New Zealand, since as a foreign visitor, I can't enroll in the public health system. Yet even paying full price, the cost was half of what therapists in Colorado charge. More evidence of just how crazy and broken the US system really is.

I was raised in a super-conservative family, and even as I slowly grew disillusioned with that conservatism, for many years I still believed the rants and dire warnings I'd always heard from US folks about socialized health care. Long wait times, bad doctors, no choices, substandard care, oh, the horror. Then I married an Australian, and my assumptions began to crumble upon hearing his quite different experience of a universal health care system. Especially when contrasted with US friends burning through their life savings to pay for treatments for chronic and/or major illness, despite having "good" insurance. My experience in NZ so far with the great spectre of socialized medicine is reminiscent of this conservative woman who moved to Canada and was shocked by how much better a universal health care system works for everyone. Hey, Americans: we're getting shafted. There is a better way. You deserve to enjoy it along with the rest of the first world. 

Yet in this current political climate, I fear the US won't be heading anywhere near that better way for a long time. I don't say this lightly: I am genuinely terrified of what's happening back home. The normalization of corruption and hatred, the refusal to believe or even consider objective facts, the erosion of democratic processes, the ever-more-flagrant disrespect for rule of law...I keep thinking of this chilling passage from Milton Mayer's book about 1930s Germany. A condensed version:

"Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse... But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked...But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D. And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you...The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves..."

Yeah. On the up side, I know many people are fighting the slide toward fascism, and fighting hard with all the tools our democracy provides, everything from votes to calls to lawsuits to protests. Many honorable people yet remain in government service; I pray that the tide can still be turned. I know it's equally important to fight despair, lest we lose all chance of recovering.

And so I find that good books of any stripe are all the more important to me. I desperately need the mental revitalization (and infusion of hope and determination) that reading a great story can provide. It makes me think of the St. Patrick's rune from Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet: "...all these I place between me and the powers of darkness."

If you're looking for more good reads to put between you and darkness, I've got some suggestions. You may recall the Readers of the Lost Arc series I've been doing on under-read books at Lady Business. The last post just went up, so now all four parts of the series are available:

To that I would add two recently published books that really lifted my spirits lately:

  • Maggie Stiefvater's All the Crooked Saints, a lyrical magical realist tale of darkness and miracles and forgiveness set in the southeastern Colorado desert. 
  • Kari Maaren's Weave a Circle Round, a YA fantasy full of sharp insights, wild imagination, complex time travel, and quirky, warm-hearted humor in the style of Diana Wynne Jones. 
For those like me who take further comfort from nature's beauty, I can also point you to pics I've been sharing on twitter of New Zealand's amazing wilds: beaches, glaciers, waterfalls, snowy mountains, and rainbows

May you find new sources of strength in this time of darkness. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What I've Been Doing Instead of Posting on this Blog

Believe it or not, I haven't been spending ALL my time here in New Zealand like this:

Charging down a slope at Treble Cone
Or this:

Hiking up to Treble Cone summit
Or even this:

Enjoying a gorgeous winter's day with my husband and son on the shore of Lake Hawea
Some days I actually sit my ass down in a chair and write. Admittedly, it's hard when the view from my window looks like this:

Getting up early doesn't help me focus, because the sunrises look like this:

Staying up late doesn't help either, since there's a chance of seeing the aurora australis, plus the stars are absolutely incredible. (Sorry, no star pics to show off. My camera isn't good enough to manage long exposures. But for the first time in my life, I've wanted to take up astral photography, because holy CRAP, you can see zillions of stars here thanks to very little light pollution. I didn't know such views were possible except on 14,000-ft peaks like Mt. Whitney. But here, you can see the Milky Way glowing bright amid a whole universe of crystal-clear stars right from your back porch.

ANYway, back to talking about writing. Yes, it is happening! Just, you know, with a lot of interruptions. (Not all fun ones, I admit. Even in New Zealand, I can't look away from all the craziness going on back in the US, from hurricanes to political horrorshows. What's at stake is too important to ignore.)

But I'm plugging through a first draft of a totally new novel, the one with the coral atolls and sea magic and spies. Plus I'm working on revising the Cara novella, since I had this great idea for how to make the action more engaging and the climax much more exciting. The only drawback is that I have to rewrite a bunch of the early scenes and rework some side characters. The result will be worth the effort, I feel. (But boy do I wish I were the sort of writer who had all the great ideas *before* writing an entire draft of the story. Ah well.)

Also, I took a little time out to write up a post explaining why everybody should read veteran fantasy author Barbara Hambly, for r/Fantasy's series on under-appreciated veteran authors. If you've never read her work before, then head on over to see what you've been missing out on! She's written in so many genres that she's got something for everyone.

Speaking of great books, Curtis Craddock's wonderful novel An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is finally out in the world, hooray! If you've enjoyed my Shattered Sigil series, Curt's one of the critiquers whose keen eye for flaws helped me make my final drafts a thousand times better than my first. He also drew the beautiful maps for Labyrinth of Flame's illustrated edition, because he's disgustingly talented in art as well as writing. But I'm not recommending his book because of all he's done for mine. Even if I didn't know him at all, I'd want anybody who's seeking fun, hopeful fantasy rather than bleak/grimdark to jump on this read.

Mathematician princess Isabelle is a wonderful protagonist, clever and logical and constantly curious about the world. Jean-Claude the aging musketeer is likewise a delight, thanks to his wry, sarcastic humor. Plus the magic is so inventive, and the villain so imaginatively creepy, and the action rollicking, and honestly I could just rave about the story for ages but I'll stop here.

If you're looking for more great reads, check out the recently-released 2017 r/Fantasy Under-read and Underrated list, which has many excellent lesser-known books on it. (Including Whitefire Crossing, which has held steady in the #2 spot ever since the first list was done in 2014, how cool is that!)

Also, for those seeking books with LGBT+ content, Canadian author Krista Ball has put together an excellent spreadsheet database containing 278 SFF books/series, marked out by what type of characters the book contains (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, asexual, etc, and whether they are major or minor, or later in the series, etc).

That's all the news for now. Back to the mountains I go...

 Looking north from shore of Lake Hawea

View of Lake Wanaka from Treble Cone

Black Peak (left) and Mt. Aspiring (center background)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

10 Things I Learned in my First 10 Days in New Zealand

We made it! All the way to Lake Hawea, New Zealand. Every bit of effort and stress and bureaucratic hoops involved in getting here feels 100% worth it looking at views like this:

View from our rental house. I've got my eye on the peak to the left--looks like quite an interesting climb.
The Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa, means "Land of the Long White Cloud." I'd say that's accurate!
Lake Wanaka, which is another huge lake about 15 min drive away. The town of Wanaka is the main hub of the immediate region, and has all the shops (and tourists).
We didn't head to Hawea right away upon arriving in NZ. First we spent a little over a week in Christchurch, during which we opened bank accounts, bought a used car, switched over cell phones, and tried to handle all the minutiae of setting up a temporary new life in another country. This process wasn't always easy, so I thought I'd share some of the lessons we learned:

1. Friends are worth more than gold

Okay, likely you know this already. Yet I can't emphasize enough what a difference it made to have a friend hosting us during our "landing week" in Christchurch. My eternal gratitude goes to New Zealand author Helen Lowe, who opened her home to the three of us, patiently drove us around town and provided all manner of helpful advice, plus organized a fun get-together with local SFF writers and fed us many wonderful home-cooked meals. (Helen is not only an excellent writer but a terrific cook. Speaking of her writing, if you like epic fantasy and you haven't read her Wall of Night series, you really, really should. I've talked before here about why I love the books, and the series remains one of my favorite currently-running sagas. While we were staying with Helen, I felt tremendously glad for her help and yet regretful that we were taking her away from working on the next installment. I'm so eager to read what happens that I'd hate to be the cause for even the smallest of delays!)

Helen and I enjoying a wintry beach walk in Christchurch
2. Changing a Verizon phone over is NOT as easy as swapping a sim card

I must have read a hundred times in travel articles that switching your phone over to a local provider is as easy as putting in a new sim card.

HA HA HA no. Or at least, not with a Verizon phone. I dutifully made sure before leaving the US that my Samsung S5 was not "locked" by Verizon (i.e. that the phone would accept a new sim card). So when we got to Christchurch, we compared plans from NZ providers, selected one, and bought new sim cards. My husband also got a new phone, since his was pretty old and he'd never liked it anyway. His setup went fine. Mine did not.

Turns out you not only have to swap the sim, you have to dig deep into your phone's settings and change the preferred network type and enter a bunch of new APN info and make all kinds of other adjustments, all of which I had to figure out myself with the help of a lot of google searching. Even after all that, my phone still spits out constant warnings that I'm not using a Verizon sim card and keeps trying to reset back to its old settings. It's so annoying that I'm teetering on the edge of breaking down and buying a new phone.

3. Food in New Zealand is expensive, but the treats are very tasty.

I'd braced for the high food costs before arriving, but still, it's a bit of a sticker shock when lunch in a mall food court costs $50 NZD for 2 adults and a kid. (Burgers + fries + drinks + one ice cream.) We'll be cutting way, waaaaaaay back on eating out, and budgeting our grocery shopping very carefully. This is pretty darn hard when so many tasty treats are on offer. Everything from butter chicken pies to cheese scones to tuna-salad-and-cucumber sushi rolls (why can't you find tuna salad sushi in US stores?). Don't get me started on the actual desserts. As a fan of caramel and white chocolate, the shelves hold far too many temptations like this:

4. New Zealanders are a laid-back crew, but bureaucracy is taken seriously

Individually speaking, New Zealanders seem pretty laissez-faire when it comes to matters of payment. When I arranged to rent a house in the town of Lake Hawea, I was startled when I asked how much the owner would need for a deposit, and she told me there was no need for a deposit or signed paperwork, we'd just work out payment once we moved in. We've had similar experiences with other services (like firewood delivery). "Oh, just send me the money when you have a chance." (Payments here are made by bank account transfer, not checks.) People seem a lot more trusting of each other, which is a refreshing change.

Yet when you encounter bureaucracy, it can be quite rigid. For instance, when we went to open our bank account, the bank required proof of an address (either in the US or here), and the proof had to be a bank statement or utility bill. I dutifully handed over a copy of our joint account statement showing our names and Colorado address. But in Colorado we do all our banking at a credit union, and apparently credit union statements aren't accepted, only BANK statements. What about a mortgage statement? Nope. 401K? Nope. Our utility bills are almost all in my name with my husband as a secondary, which means his name often doesn't show on the statement. I was beginning to panic over how in the world I could provide proof, until I managed to dig up a City of Boulder water bill that showed both of our names along with our address. Whew!

5. The playgrounds are as awesome as the scenery

Even tiny towns can have some pretty nifty play structures. My husband theorizes this is because NZ, much like his home country of Australia, doesn't have a lot of personal injury lawyers. Our son's favorite playground so far is the Margaret Mahy playground in Christchurch (first suggested to us by the ever-awesome Helen Lowe). The park features trampolines, rope structures, massive slides and seesaws, a zipline, and an extensive "water engineering" play area.

Now that's a slide
In the US, water features are often turned off in winter. Not so here. (I suppose because it doesn't get cold enough for the pipes to freeze solid?) In the dead of winter, with temps hovering not far above freezing, kids were still happily playing with water features. Many of the kids wore shorts. Some of them were barefoot. I thought as a Coloradan used to blizzards and freezing windchills that I was tough, but clearly I have a ways to go to match a Kiwi.

6. Buying a car: timing is everything

When buying a used car, negotiate first on price before you get an inspection done. (We did this the wrong way around. Oops.) Also, don't expect to get anything car-related done on a weekend. Dealerships may be open, but registration offices, mechanics, and parts stores are usually not. We finally finished negotiating to buy a car on a Friday. We'd planned to leave Christchurch the next day. But we couldn't leave, because the car was an import and had to be registered, which couldn't happen until Monday. Thankfully Helen and her partner Andrew were kind enough to let us extend our stay with them at the last minute (this, after already imposing on them for a whole week).

7. Snow chains aren't just a quaint memory from the past

When I first moved to Colorado, I remember marching into a tire store and asking to buy chains. The guy at the counter looked at me like I was crazy. "Chains? You don't need those. We don't even sell them. If a road gets so bad you'd need chains on a passenger car, the state closes it."

He was right. In twenty two years of driving mountain roads in Colorado in winter, I never used or needed chains, even in near-blizzard conditions. Colorado's famously dry & fluffy powder packs down into a surface that provides decent traction; ice, especially black ice, is relatively rare. Plus, an army of snowplows crawls over the highways 24/7, plowing and sanding and dumping antifreeze. All you need is a decent amount of tread on your tires, and you're set, especially if you have a Subaru.

Not so in NZ! Driving the passes in winter, you're required to carry chains, even if your car is an Outback or even some huge honking 4WD off-road monster. And you may well have to use the chains. NZ snow tends toward the icy variety, and their plows may only work the road once a day (often first thing in the morning).

Ice on the road. No problem on flat ground like this, not so fun on a steep windy pass
Also, some of the ski field roads (such as the road to Treble Cone) are crazy steep with no asphalt, no guardrails, no room to pass, and a hell of a long drop off the edge.

Road to Treble Cone ski area. We are riding the bus because then I can enjoy the scenery instead of keeping white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel
So for the first time in my life, I own a set of chains. Haven't had to use them yet, but at least we're ready.

8. There's an art to tending a woodburning stove (we're still learning it!)

Most NZ houses don't have central gas-furnace-based heating. You keep warm in winter the old-school way, by burning wood in a cast-iron stove. In Christchurch, Helen instructed us in the art of lighting a fire in the woodburner (use newspaper, paraffin fire starter, and kindling) as well as other tips and tricks (you can clean the glass of the door by spitting on a paper towel, getting some ash on it, and scrubbing). The part we're still learning is how to manage wood and damper (the sliding control on the vent to the outside) such that we stay warm without burning through our entire firewood supply too quickly.

Time for another log for the fire
 I admit I'm a little ambivalent about the woodburning thing. It's kinda nice to have a fire on chilly winter nights. Yet the smoke haze from whole neighborhoods of houses burning wood is quite noticeable already in mountain valleys. As NZ's population grows ever larger, I have to wonder if the pollution will get to smog-awful levels. (Helen told us that Christchurch has quite strict rules about types of stoves and how to use them, in an effort to combat the pollution issue. Out here in the Wanaka area, I don't think they have such regulations yet, but looks to me like they'll need them soon.)

9. Even not-so-scenic NZ routes are still pretty damn scenic 

When we drove from Christchurch to Lake Hawea, we had a choice of routes. The shortest goes through Tekapo near Mt. Cook (NZ's highest peak), and over Lindis Pass, and is said to be gorgeously scenic. However, wintry weather was forecast for our traveling days, and we didn't want to risk the pass and roads being closed, which happens often in snowy weather.

So instead, we took the "Pig Root", driving down the coast to Palmerston and then heading inland toward Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Reading up on this route before leaving, I found many discussions online that disparaged the scenery compared to the Tekapo/Lindis Pass route. I felt kind of downhearted that we apparently would miss out on all the good views.

I shouldn't have worried. I'm not sure NZ has any non-scenic routes.

Yeah, not scenic at all
These mountains aren't scenic either. That's why I couldn't take my eyes off them.

This section of the drive actually reminded me quite a bit of northern Colorado

Somewhere near Cromwell
Heading toward Wanaka and Lake Hawea

10. Don't be in a hurry to get anywhere

Because you might get stuck behind an entire house being trucked along the road.

House-truck inching over a bridge. My favorite part is the car with the "House Ahead" sign on it. In case you didn't notice the GIANT HOUSE. The pic is a bit deceiving--there is no room to pass on the other side of the road. The house took up the entire road. Cars coming the opposite way had to pull off into ditches and wait. 
Creeping along behind this house added an extra hour to our drive between Oamaru and Lake Hawea. It was actually kind of fascinating to watch the truck driver negotiate the windy road. (The truckbed had hydraulic stabilizers to keep the house flat as the truck inched around banked curves.) But man, I was glad we'd allowed plenty of time for the drive.

Besides, you need time to enjoy all that scenery.

Lake Wanaka
Anyway, there you have it! The first ten lessons we've learned, out of what will doubtless be many more. Next I might do a post on some of the differences between NZ and CO skiing...but I'll get in a few more days on the slopes first. Gotta make sure I know what I'm talking about, right?

Skiing at Treble Cone