Comfort reading and food for the stressed soul

There are so many sayings that apply to weeks like this. They involve hope, sacrifice and cute concepts like the way the tough are expected to handle life. The trouble is that life can be too big to handle. This doesn’t mean I escape all the time. I don’t and I can’t. It does mean that I have certain types of comfort reading to remind me of what life can be like on other days. Or maybe in other decades.

Different types of crises require different types of comfort reading. When my father died, I re-read every Swallows and Amazons book – I was only 7 years removed from my teens and I needed to remind myself of who I had been as a child. When I was unable to type or do housework for 18 months, I read Regency romances. I would walk back from the library carrying as many as I could, and reading as I walked, to distract myself from the pain. When the bushfires dominated my life and then the pandemic began, I put up a list of (sometimes supportive and sometimes quite edgy) comfort reads for people who needed them . I have so many types of comfort reading and they all match my needs at a given time.

Today, with the war and the pandemic and Too Much Stuff Altogether, I wanted to find one single book that exemplified the kind of writing I am looking for right now. I thought that if I did this, maybe you would also find those single perfect volumes and we could share our comfort reading. If I get a big enough list, I’ll put up a 2022 comfort reading page on

It wasn’t that hard to find two perfect books, both by the same writer. I live in one of the world cities that’s plagued by demonstrators. Those demonstrators tell us to be kind to them and then proceed to hurt our lives. I was just getting out of lockdown and their careless for the health of others means that I can’t do quite a few things. They’re ensuring that this city is not COVID-safe for people like me, no matter how much care everyone else takes.

This means I needed quiet suburban joy. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City and Tales from Outer Suburbia are that. My mind lives in a strange universe and Tan sees it and paints it and writes about it and I feel comfort. So much comfort.

Separation Anxiety (Human, not Dog’s)

It’s been a stressful week (month), even by the standards of the 2020’s. And in four days, I’m going to do something I swore I never would.  I am going to hand my dog over to a trainer, and walk away.  For three weeks.

Three. Weeks.

They call it “board and train.”  We’ve been referring to it as “puppy boot camp.”

I’m stressing out about it, hard.

I know that I’ve taken Max a long way in 20 months.  She’s a sweet, loving, playful girl with excellent leash manners, she knows all her commands (even if she still has trouble with her recall), she’s a great car-ride companion, and is A+ at letting me know when she has to go out (and holding it, if I can’t get to her right that second).  And she hasn’t destroyed a single thing other than her own toys since she finished teething. She’s practically perfect, and the not-perfect….well, that’s just a matter of fine-tuning.

But she still reacts with fear-aggression under certain circumstances, and while I can handle it, that’s beyond my current paygrade to fix.

Part of me feels like I’ve failed, that I wasn’t “good enough” or attentive enough to be and do everything Max needs.  That somehow it’s my fault she has that particular quirk.

It’s not.  I’ve had trainers reassure me on that fact: dog brains are mysterious things, same as human brains, and sometimes they just… get wired a certain way.

Part of me believes if I’d put in a little more time, studied a little more, done more exercises, I could have done the rewiring myself.

And maybe I could have.  Probably I could have.  I know the basics, it would just require, well, a lot of time.  Constant, dedicated time. And I have a job (several, in fact) and a real need for sleep.

I’m reminding myself that just as writers need editors and copyeditors, sometimes puppies need a little extra help, too. Nobody’s good at everything, and we don’t have to be.

And Max isn’t going to love me any less for it.

So she will go to Puppy Boot Camp, spending three weeks with S., who will give her the 24-hour professional care and training needed to erase old habits and build new ones.  And when we are reunited, S. will teach me how to maintain and build on those.

It’s a good thing. It’s also a bloody expensive thing, but it’s a good thing.

And maybe, rather than boot camp, it will turn out to have been Officer Training School.

I’m going to miss her, a lot. But I also suspect the time will be well-spent, reconnecting with (spoiling) Castiel the Kitten of Thursday, and also writing a LOT in the time not spent exercising and training.  Which is good, because  I’m supposed to be writing the follow-up to SOMETHING PERFECT next month….

But until then, Max and I are keeping each other chill.

cream-and-red dog at oceanside during low tide

Author Interview: Louise Marley on The Great Witch of Brittany

Award-winning author Louise Marley has long been one of my favorite writers. From the chillingly prescient The Terrorists of Irustan to the deeply touching The Glass Harmonica, to the YA “Horsemistress” series (as Toby Bishop), to the music-themed Mozart’s Blood and The Brahms Deception, the scope and insightfulness of her writing mark her as a major voice in fantasy and science fiction. Her newest novel, The Great Witch of Brittany, will be released in February 2022.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?

Louise Marley: Like so many of us, I was an avid reader as a child, and it followed logically—since I am by nature a performer—that I wanted to write stories myself. My musical ambitions dominated the first part of my life, but I always meant to return to writing. It has been amazing to learn how much the two careers have in common.

DJR: What inspired your book?

LM: There is no one factor that inspires any of my novels, but the witch novels definitely had their origins in my fascination with witchcraft and the practice of it. I had fallen into the habit of writing historicals, and so the historical settings for A Secret History of Witches and now its prequel, The Great Witch of Brittany, came naturally.

DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing?  What about them do you find inspiring?

LM: I love many writers, from the Western authors I read as a girl to the Golden Age gothic mysteries to the great feminist science fiction writers of the latter half of the 20th century. I’m often inspired by the most recent really good novel I’ve read, and I find that enriches my own imagination. I’m not tempted to copy, fortunately, but I learn and absorb from some of the amazing prose and incredible plots I find. Thrillers have been my most recent indulgence, and wow! do those writers know how to plot!

DJR: Why do you write what you do, and how does your work differ from others in your genre?

LM: I’m extremely lucky to be in a place where I can write what I want to write. My last four books have featured witches and witchcraft, and I do hope they have my own particular stamp on them, which is working witches—women who have to study and practice and explore to make their magic work. I’ve found that the witch genre has many facets, and lots of excellent writers are working in it, with results that vary from terrifying to downright funny. Continue reading “Author Interview: Louise Marley on The Great Witch of Brittany”

Before My Brilliant Career

I escaped my flat some days ago, with help from a friend. Of course I thought of a book, and today I took it from my shelf so that it can talk to me while I write. Let me give you a single picture from my trip across the border into rural NSW, and then I shall introduce you to one of my favourite books about this region. There are many books written by local writers. This region has produced writers from the moment anyone who knew the alphabet lived here. This particular volume is by Miles Franklin who, according to her Sydney writer friends, was one of the most generous people imaginable, and had enviable hair.

Canberra region
picture: Gillian Polack Feb 2022

Canberra the city has mountains within it and mountains nearby. We’re so high above sea level – I’m typing from just below 650m above sea level right now, and I live at one of the lowest points – that the mountains look like hills. Before this region was decided upon as the capital of Australia, it was a place where several peoples me (today we call it Ngunawal land because the Ngunnawal are the traditional owners of more of the ACT than the other groups, but the Australian Capital Territory is more complicated than that. Our borders don’t follow the custodial boundaries. A map may help. (My favourite map is a Ngarigo map. It’s an extraordinarily lucid map that makes everything very clear– but I can’t find a copy of it online.) European settlement was mainly farms, with a church, a schoolhouse, and a couple of villages. Most of the people who lived on this land were, in fact, not European until this area became the national capital.

The Franklins were one of the local families in the nineteenth century. I have seen the old rose bushes from the Franklin property (they’re now quite wild) and been stared down by kangaroos in a part of the national park that Franklin would have known as a farm. I’ve been atop Mt Franklin (named after Miles’ family) and climbed (a little) of Mt Aggie (named after her aunt).

Miles Franklin, herself, lived in this region for the first ten years of her life. She was born in 1879, and the 54 years she lived elsewhere was mainly in cities.

Miles Franklin (actually Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was a fascinating person. My personal favourite of her noms de plume (for she had several) was Brent of Bin Bin. There’s so much in her life that’s not generally talked about: how she supported other writers, what she did with her life outside the most famous books. The edge has gone off the fame of the novels. Most people recognise the name because Franklin’s name is on one of Australia’s most important literary awards (we all dream of this award, but I’m the wrong kind of writer for it, so dreaming will have to suffice).

Neither My Brilliant Career (the famous novel that was turned into a movie) and My Career Goes Bung (its sequel) are on my desk right now, for Franklin used her post-childhood experiences to write them. The book on my desk is tiny, and full of colour. Childhood at Brindabella is my comfort-book and is not an autobiographical novel, but an actual autobiography. Franklin’s childhood at Brindabella Station is at its heart. This book is where I discovered that we are low in lyrebirds in this region because of the US trappers in the nineteenth century, who wanted to feathers for hats. It’s where I learned about how to transport sewing machines to places that still don’t have sealed roads.

I could tell you favourite bits of it until the cows come home. It’s under 160 pages long, however, so it’s better to read it yourself. Then come to me and I will tell you how this region has changed and find you recipes from Miles’ childhood. Despite all the changes, we still have more writers per capita than we ought. Miles Franklin will always be one of the best.

A Plea for Better Movies

In a December piece in The New York Times, Nikita Richardson ( a Times staffer) says that The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies was for millennial women what Star Wars was for an earlier generation.  She cites the gentle scenes between characters — not just Aragorn and Arwen, but between Sam and Frodo as well as other male characters — and notes that she and her sister and her friends rewatched it countless times.

I gather  she means that both series were a touch point for those who were teenagers when they first saw them. Both series were compelling, so this makes sense.

I was older than that even for Star Wars, and in truth my love of the first three of those movies had a lot to do with them being well-made space opera with incredible special effects at a time when the movies didn’t do that.

My fondness for the Lord of the Rings movies had more to do with my love of the books, which dates back to my college years. (I re-read the entire trilogy every semester during law school finals. I am not exaggerating. It kept me sane.)

Plus I’m a fantasy and SF writer and reader and remember all too well when those things didn’t get noticed beyond the cons. So it makes me happy to see them shared far and wide.

But on the whole, her essay broke my heart, because if teenage girls fixated on Lord of the Rings — a story in which there are only three women of any note among a multitude of men — it is one more reminder of how utterly our popular culture has continued to fail women. Continue reading “A Plea for Better Movies”

Something New, Something…Perfect?

I am, at heart, not a particularly patient human being.  Reading romances, especially, as a teen, brought that element of my personality to the fore: “why don’t they just TALK to each other?  Why are they being so STUPID?”

As i got older, I understood that people are often broken in ways that make them stupid.  Especially when it comes to matters of the heart.  If only, I thought, there way a way to see your perfect partner, the one who actually will fit you, will love you, and you’ll love…

But even then I knew it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be that easy.

And when you bring not two but three personalities into play…

It’s going to take more than magic to make things work.  It’s going to take courage, patience… and a writer who’s got your back.  🙂

On Valentine’s Week, I offer you this new bit of feel-good (sweet-AND-spicy) fluff, SOMETHING PERFECT.

Letting Go, Website Edition

I have rituals in the morning. Getting up is hard enough without making a bit of a routine of it. So there is the shower ritual (with various subsets), then the coffee ritual, and then the email-and-internet ritual. The last mostly involves throwing out a virtual ream of political emails and ads, scanning for the one or two emails that actually should get to me (most of them are things like contacts from the doctor or pharmacy–like the olden days of mail, you rarely get something personal that you should actually, like, read). And then I do my morning web-crawl.

This sounds like it should involve a blue-and-red spandex outfit, but sadly it mostly involves me sitting crosslegged on the couch, checking in to the websites I look at every day. Some sites I’ve been checking on for over a decade. Some are newer additions to the crawl. And every now and then I have to pull a site from the rota, and it makes me sad.

When Jay Lake died it took me months to stop checking his page for the roundup of odd and interesting links he posted every day. I mean, I knew Jay was gone, and yet… checking in was part of the ritual. But rather than making it feel that Jay was less gone, it made his loss more felt. Eventually I stopped. Then there are the sites I look at that don’t change every day–Stonekettle Station can go for months without a post (Jim Wright appears to be mostly on Twitter these days) so I’m always taken aback when there’s a new post up. And then there are the formerly active sites that just go silent. I go back and go back and there’s no one there and eventually (like this week) I cut them out of the rota. But not without a feeling of loss.

Since I’m usually doing the blog crawl in between showering and leaving the house for work, having less rather than more material to read is probably a good thing. I have the order in which I check things pretty much reduced to a superstition–I’m not proud of this, but there it is. Which means that not typing in the address of a site that has left the rotation takes thought (at 8am, when I’m still drinking coffee and trying to persuade myself that I can think). My fingers hover over familiar keys and I have to say, aloud, NO, before I go to the next one. I learn, eventually, and the new order of reading becomes second nature–until I have to add something new or, as is more likely, admit that a website that was a source of amusement or information is no longer there. I hold on to things longer than I should, I suppose.



Pivotal times and their books

I’ve been thinking all day about Louise Lawrence’s first novel, Andra. I read it when it was first released in 1971. I was ten and there was one scene where Andra (the protagonist) was addressing a crowd and winning them over. That scene helped me become a bit more political and when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, I could hear some of the devices used in Andra’s speech in what he said. Whitlam was an amazing speaker and very witty, so the combination of the book and the politician were big influences on me.

This isn’t why I was thinking of Andra today, however.

Andra is a political novel. It’s science fiction, about how teenagers handle authoritarian governments and about how governments talk and listen and where everyone fails. That was my reading of it when I was a child then again when I was a teenager, anyhow. It was a novel I read for comfort whenever anything politically challenging happened.

For two weeks now, my city has been visited by protesters. The unruly mobs causing problems in many capital cities have not spared Canberra. We normally support demonstrations here, but this one is different. If you want to know just how different and why it’s so very uncomfortable, find me and chat about it. While many of the protesters are probably exceptionally nice and simply want a better world, there are enough seriously disruptive and difficult people among them to turn a crowd into a mob. A mob during a pandemic is not a good thing.

I need a novel that’s as important to me now as Andra was in the 1970s. I don’t know if one exists, or whether I need to write it. If I have to write it, I haven’t reached the moment where I know what is critical in it. All I know is that something in me needs a book that touches that emotional trigger and makes it possible for me to think past the politics of this strange situation and to reach the heart of it.

It’s funny, because when I was ten I needed the opposite. I needed a novel that taught me that politics existed and that words could address it and that not everything worked out well all the time.

If I find that book that I need, I might have to compare it with Andra and to discover how fifty years of my life has shaped me. Or maybe I’ll discover what fifty years in the world has done to our image of politics. Andra was written soon after the 1968 student protests and in the middle of the Cold War. In years leading up to Andra humans travelled in space and landed on the moon. The Chicago Seven were put on trial and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty changed international relations. The Beatles broke up and Hutt River Province seceded from Australia. I didn’t know any of this, of course, but Andra was published in one of those pivotal times when everything changed. This is why Whitlam became Prime Minister, in fact. We used to sing “It’s time”  – the election jingle that helped persuade voters to choose a different party to the one that had ruled for 23 years.

We’re in one of those times now. No-one told me when I was ten just how uncomfortable pivotal periods can be. I hope I find that book.

The Future Is Starting Right Now

The Ministry for the FutureKim Stanley Robinson is an optimist.

If you only read chapter 1 of The Ministry for the Future, you might not believe that. But even though his novel opens with a horrific and all too realistic disaster caused by climate change — and later describes several others — he isn’t writing a dystopia.

Rather he’s writing a story in which human beings find ways to deal with climate change without pretending that the process won’t be messy.

I called him an optimist, not Pollyanna. (Do people still read Pollyanna?)

He knows how bad things are and how much worse they can get, but he also knows we are capable of making things better. In this book, the efforts to address climate change include everything from economics to politics to geoengineering to violent actions against those who refuse to take action to stop carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

There’s also what happens with climate refugees, mental breakdowns among those who have suffered from disasters, and violence against those working for real change. It’s a long book.

I have no doubt that we’re going to see something similar to the disorder he chronicles here over the next 30 years or so. I hope he’s right that we’ll get some of the positive changes, too.

He has more faith in political change than I have, but Wikipedia reports that Francis Fukuyama, who was notoriously wrong about the end of history, has called the book “ludicrously unrealistic.”

If I have to choose between Stan Robinson and Francis Fukuyama, I’m going with Stan every time. Continue reading “The Future Is Starting Right Now”

I Survived a Nigerian Scam Part III: Disaster Mode

As 2021 drew to a close I realized that I had fallen into a scam I hadn’t heard of: befriending a person on social media and then inducing them to set up a GoFundMe for a medical emergency. Fortunately, I came to my senses before I sent any money from that campaign. Until then, it had never occurred to me that I had been manipulated over a year and a half. As embarrassing as the experience was for me, I’m going public in the interests of educating others.

Part I: Setting the Hook.

Part II: Raising the Stakes


Donations to the GoFundMe I had set up for C’s sister came in as I promoted it on social media and directly to friends and family. C ramped up his emotional manipulation and shifted to urgent/disaster mode.

C: Dec 3, 2021, 10:57 am. The doctor called today and  i went to see him. He said he’s going to help talk to the financial department to allow us pay part payment so they can schedule S’s surgery but he said the surgery will likely be January because of the Xmas break and that there are many patient awaiting sugary who has completed all payments. So he asked me how much we have to make deposit and i told him and he said the financial department will only accept a part payment of $7000 and we should make available the balance before the surgery will be carried out

C: The reason why he gave the suggestion is because he said if we make available the full payment Sarah must have to wait because other patients have already been scheduled for surgery and it might take a little bit long. He said it is better we have a date fix for the surgery why will raise funds instead of raising the full payment and still wait for the hospital to fix a date for the surgery

Commentary: C sent a phone photo of a one-page statement with a flat fee for dialysis and surgery. That struck me as odd, given the itemization by American hospitals. The other dubious thing was that the statement was signed by the nephrologist. Do Nigerian doctors handle hospital financial arrangements? And what hospital closes for the Christmas break? I wasn’t yet suspicious enough to try to verify details with an internet search. When I did that, I was unable to find the hospital (the name was a for-profit chain, but I didn’t see this specific location or specialty). The nephrologist was a real doctor who practiced in India. I found no mention of S in the entering classes of her medical school.

 What happened next was indeed fortunate. In the midst of C’s increasingly frequent and importunate pleas, Western Union declined to process the transfer twice. I went through two phone interviews, since apparently they flag all transfers to Nigeria, and as I answered, I could see the warnings go up, one after another. C began urging me to send the money through another, cash-based service, but I had to wait for Western Union to refund the money to my account. Then, almost by happenstance, I spoke with the manager and one of the tellers at my local bank. I do mean, “local.” We’re a close-knit community, and I’m on a first-name basis with the manager. The teller, upon hearing the situation, got very emotional about it being a scam. It turned out that a relative of hers had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to a romance scam. I wasn’t thrilled with her warnings, but her words caused me to step back and ask myself, “What if this really is a scam?”

Once I started questioning, the red flags went up everywhere. Most of them are mentioned above in my comments. What clinched it was this email from C:

 C: Dec 7, 6:18 PM. Please, don’t allow anything happen to my only sister please am begging you with the name of God. The hospital management agreed to accept part payment which is not their policy but it was the help of the resident doctor who plead on our behalf because he saw how things was really bad for us and the expenses of keeping S much longer at the hospital. Please take it within yourself to go to the MoneyGram so we can at least add the money you want to send and the one we already have with us to at least get a date for the surgery while we still look out to raise the remaining balance for the surgery, thanks and God bless you.

I didn’t reply. Continue reading “I Survived a Nigerian Scam Part III: Disaster Mode”