Sunday, January 10, 2016

Some Fun Fantasy Reads From 2015

Swords and Scoundrels, by Julia Knight. Published by Orbit Books.

This story centers around Kacha and Vocho, a sister and brother who have been exiled from the Duelists Guild because Vocho killed a man he had been hired to protect. They're making ends meet as highwaymen until they rob the wrong carriage and are plunged into a conspiracy. This story is set in a flintlock and Rapier world where people worship a clockwork god and live in a city where the buildings rearrange themselves at set intervals. It's a really fun read, filled with plot twists, conspiracies, and divided loyalties that will keep the reader guessing until the end. The tale continues in the sequels, Legends and Liars and Warlords and Wastrels.

Black Wolves, by Kate Elliot. Published by Orbit Books.

Set in the same universe as her Spirit Gate Trilogy,  this novel stands alone and does an excellent job of pulling a new reader into the author's rich and complex world, which centers around a kingdom called The Hundred. It has several pov characters, but the connections between these characters keep the story from meandering the way some fantasy epics do. It's not easy to give a thumbnail sketch of this book, but it centers around the power struggle between the current King of the Hundred, his wives, their sons, and their various allies. A major theme in this book is change within a society and conflict between cultures. And don't let the cover and blurbs that focus on male characters fool you. Three out of five of the protagonists are women, and the author does an excellent job of portraying women, even ones who are from cultures that cloister them, as major players with agency and goals. I'm looking forward to the next installation.

Dust and Light, by Carol Berg. Published by Roc Books.

Set in the same universe as her Lighthouse duology, this book book can be easily read by someone unfamiliar with Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone (though those are well worth reading as well). Magic is hereditary in Berg's world, and sorcerers occupy a privileged, yet constrained position, as the use of their magic is controlled and contracted by the restrictive pureblood registry. The story centers around young Lucian de Remeni-Masson, a pureblood sorcerer who has been stripped of half his magic for unseemly conduct with an "ordinary." He and his sister are struggling to survive after the rest of their family was murdered by savage Harrowers. When he's forced to accept the contract of Bastien, master of the local dead house, Lucien's talent for creating portraits that tell the truth about the dead lands him in a world of trouble.  Like with Berg's earlier books, the narrative is in first person and she does a fine job of portraying the voice and personality of her protagonist and making the reader care about him and his problems. The second book in this duo, Ash and Silver, was released in December, and I plan on reading it soon.

Finn Fancy Necromancy, by Randy Henderson. Published by Tor Books.

I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this author came to my attention when I attended the Cascade Writer's Conference in 2014. The protagonist, Finn Gramaraye, was framed for the crime of dark necromancy 25 years ago, and the story begins as he ends his exile from his body to the Other Side (an ethereal place of existence populated by the fey) and returns to his body, which has been helpfully occupied by a changeling to keep it alive during Finn's sentence, in the mortal realm. But the person who got him in trouble last time doesn't want him back in the mortal world, and Finn, with the help of his eccentric family, are going to have to find out what really happened and prove it to the Arcane Enforcers. The story has got a great voice and plenty of dark humor. The next book in the series, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, is coming out in February.

The Waking Engine, by David Eddison. Published by Tor Books.

This novel was published in 2014, but I didn't read it until last year. As someone who is a fan of classic fantasy, I wasn't sure if this book would appeal to me, but the author did a good job of drawing me into his basic premise, which is somewhat similar to that of the Riverworld series. When you die, you awaken in another world, where you live until you die again. Rinse, repeat. Until you awaken in the City Unspoken, which holds the gateway to true death. But Cooper is an anomaly. He seems to have skipped to the end of the line, and he awakens in the City Unspoken without ever having died at all (his navel from his "first birth" is still intact). He may be the only one who can solve a problem that threatens to unravel the metaverse: the gateway to true death seems to be malfunctioning and the Undying City is thronged with people who have nowhere else to go and are repeatedly dying and being reborn in the same place. Cooper is no kick-butt protagonist; he's more like an Arthur Dent--confused, bemused, and in over his head--but he never lost my sympathy. The author also made good use of the omniscient pov, something I haven't run across much in fantasy lately.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

New Car Attained

To update, we settled on a car last weekend. A local Toyota dealer still had some 2015 Rav4s, and they were willing to go well below invoice price on them. Since there's not much difference between the 2015 and 2016 models, and I couldn't get an outback or Forester for anything close to the price I was able to get on this Toyota, we went with it. The fuel efficiency isn't quite what I would have liked, but there's enough space in the back for the dog crates, and it's got the other features I was hoping to get in a new car. As an added bonus, it's red (not the easiest color to find among the endless parade of silver, white, charcoal, and brown cars everyone seems to prefer these days). My first two vehicles, both light pickups, were red, so I was always a bit disappointed that the best color I could get for my 2001 Legacy wagon was boring whit (the only other color any local dealers had back then was a sort of alligator-colored gray green).

So I'm reasonably pleased so far. I'm hoping that it proves to be reliable and all the fancy electronic features they have on new cars won't be a thorn in my side as the car ages. Only time will tell there.

The new wheels

Austin and Wiley's crates from the rear

Flick's from the right passenger door

Magnetic doggie "decals" duly installed
On the homeowner front, we finally got that toilet flange patched, so the hall bathroom is functional again. And our new heating/cooling system is installed. Doug and I are a good deal poorer than we were this time last month, but driving is much more comfortable than it was, and our house is toasty warm again.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Time To Start Car Shopping

I've had my Subaru Legacy Wagon for almost 16 years, and it's time to replace it. It's served me well for the most part, but it's definitely got some issues that are going to cost more to repair than they're worth. And I can't deny that I've got a hankering for a car with the newer bells and whistles (my Legacy has a cassette deck and no hands-free smart phone interface or anything), and I'm sick of dealing with a manual transmission too. I want driving to be a little more fun, or at least less of a chore.

Room for Flick's, Wiley's and Austin's dog crates is non-negotiable
But it's the car I use to take my dogs to agility in, so I have to be able to fit their crates in its replacement. I can fit three med crates in the back of this little wagon by placing one sideways facing the passenger side door, and the other two facing the back. This leaves about 18" of space between the crates and the lift gate for other gear, plus it's sort of a "buffer" between the back of the car and the rear. It means my dogs' crates (and more critically, my dogs) are less likely to be crushed in a rear-end collision.

Most crossovers have a shorter, taller, and wider cargo box, so I'd have to check if the three crates would still fit in any replacement candidate (the exact dimensions of the cargo areas is something car manufacturers are very coy about, I've noticed). Extra "headroom" above, and space to the sides of the crates is of less use to me than a somewhat longer, but not so tall and wide cargo area.

Another thing I'd like is to get a car that gets better than the 24 mpg my current vehicle averages. I'd really hoped that there would be a selection of small wagons, minivans and crossover SUVs by now that averaged, if not the 40 mpg of my husband's Ford Focus hybrid, at least somewhere in the mid thirties. My car is the dog mobile on the weekends, but it's the car I use for commuting and driving to work the rest of the time.

The vehicles I've been considering include:

Prius v Wagon. Higher mpg, above 40 average. Very sluggish performance compared to the other vehicles on my list (and compared to the Ford Focus hybrid), but maybe worth it to save fuel costs and to help the planet. Not sure if the cargo space is sufficient for my crates, though, and that would be the real deal breaker.

Honda CRV. Decent fuel efficiency and the cargo space looks good on paper (about 71 cubic feet behind the front seats). Generally a well-reviewed little mini SUV. But I've a feeling the cargo area is too short and tall for my crates.

Subaru Forester. A bit worse than the CRV for mpg, and maybe a bit better space wise. A well-regarded car overall, but it may still be the wrong dimensions for the dog crates.

The Subaru Outback. Similar mpg to the Forester with a bit more omph and a slightly higher price tag. Similar to my Legacy Wagon, but taller. The cargo area is longer with less headroom than the Forester.

Toyota Rav 4 hybrid. Brand new, so there's that buying something when it first comes out thing. Plus it's kind of pricey, and there are the same possible space issues as other crossover SUVs.

All-gasoline Toyota Rav 4. The 2015 was panned by reviewers, but rumor has it there are some improvements with the 2016 model. I've noticed the 2015 models are being priced dirt cheap on clearance right now--same price I paid for my wagon 16 years ago. Might be a good deal if the 2015 model isn't a complete pig.

Honda Odyssey. The best minivan on the market, according to many sources. Also rather pricey and cruddy mpg (better than most other minivans, but still no improvement over my current car). It has tons of space, but is rather large for day to day driving and parking.

Honda Pilot. The next crossover step up from the CRV. It costs about the same as the Odyssey and gets similar mpg but has less cargo space (though a lot more than the CRV). So not sure why I'd buy one instead of the minivan.

Ford Transit Connect wagon. It comes in two wheelbases and has more space than a crossover SUV but less than most minivans. It's cheaper than the pilot or Odyssey, more comparable in price to small crossover suvs. But it's ugly as sin (really just a very small work van with windows and kitted out for passengers) and probably klunkier to drive and park than a crossover or smaller wagon. And it gets terrible mpg.

So, the sad truth is, there's nothing on the market right now that really fits my desired criteria: room for three dogs crates with a bit to spare, over 30 average mpg (preferably higher), and affordable (as in less than, say, 28k). So I'll have to compromise on something. The next step is to start test driving. And of course to bring a tape measure to investigate the cargo space dimensions.

And I may have to consider getting the next new car sooner than I normally do if there's some technological breakthrough in the next few years that puts a high-mileage dogmobile on the market.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Tedious Home Owner Stuff

It's been a rough week or so on the home ownership front. A little more than a week ago, I accidentally flushed a washcloth down the hall toilet. Don't ask, but it was in the bucket of mop water. The plunger didn't get it out, nor did the snake. The loo was well and truly plugged. It was either pull the toilet or call a plumber.

So, I got this bright idea; since we've been meaning to replace the old water hog with a more environmentally friendly model, why not go to Lowe's and pick up a new toilet? One was duly researched and purchased.

But when we pulled the toilet up and scraped away the remains of the old wax ring (one of the most disgusting home repair jobs in existence), we discovered that the iron flange was cracked on the right side. So it's not possible to bolt the toilet down on both sides without doing a repair. We made an appointment for a plumber to come by to repair the flange and install the toilet.

This furnace is 37 years old.
 Then the furnace broke. Not a great thing this time of year. So we researched repair companies, and called one with the requisite rave reviews and ratings. He was able to get it working again, but unsurprisingly, he discovered that the heat exchanger is starting to develop a crack. Turns out our unit dates back to 1978, so it's at almost twice its life expectancy. It's not dangerous yet, but it's only a matter of time. So we're now researching and taking bids on a new heating and air conditioning system. We also need to replace the ducts and put more insulation in the attic.

This isn't going to be cheap.

And to make things more exciting, the plumber came when we were talking to the furnace repairman, and he said he's not allowed to repair the damaged toilet flange. All he can do is replace the whole flange for 700 bucks (this involves crawling under the house and cutting the cast iron pipe and welding a new one in place), or we can do our own easy repair with a flange plate from Lowe's or Home Depot on our own.

The bolts would be in the wrong place here.
 We opted for the latter, but we soon discovered that the flange repair plate from Home Depot didn't line up with the holes in the cast iron flange (which were at exactly 12 and 6) in a way that allowed the slots on the side to be in the correct position for tightening the bolts. There's no way to screw the flange repair plate in the correct position.

So I went to Lowe's this time and found a different plate with different hole positions, but it still didn't work. I did manage to take advantage of a post-Thanksgiving sale to purchase a new washing machine to replace the one that was in the process of dying (no longer draining water properly), so the drive wasn't a total loss.

When I got home, I went online to Amazon and found a flange plate that had the holes in the right place. I purchased it (the hall bathroom has been sans toilet for over a week now), and two days later, the thing arrived and it was the wrong one--identical to the plate I'd already purchased from Lowe's that didn't work. It was not the one pictured (instead looked like this product, which is a different shape and has holes in a different position). So I returned it and asked them to send me the product pictured, and they sent me the same one again! At this point, I gave up and asked for my money back. Clearly they had the wrong picture displayed for the product they were selling.

These two products are not equivalent.
I finally found a different product on Amazon that looked like what I wanted. This time, they sent me what I ordered, and hallalujah, it was the correct one and the holes lined up.

Except now we can't screw the plate cover to the flange, because the holes in the cast iron aren't threaded, and the wood underneath is old and in cruddy condition with what must be old water damage, probably dating back to when previous owners replaced the house's original toilet with ye olde 70s-era water waster (something else that will need repairing/replacing in the future and may push up the date for our projected bathroom remodels). So the whole plate wobbles. Not a good thing unless we want a rocking toilet.

So we're doing what we'd hoped to avoid all along. Drilling holes in cast iron, a very slow process. And it involves another trip to Home Depot tomorrow to purchase some self-tapping metal screws tomorrow.

All in all, it's been an expensive and harrowing week. It doesn't help that this all started right before Thanksgiving, and it's the busiest time in the semester for us, and it's my birthday week (all I want for my birthday is a working hall bathroom and a new and much more energy efficient furnace/air conditioning unit).

It looks like we're having the kind of fun people who own older homes do sometimes. This house was built in 1958, and it's very solid in most ways, but we've had to do repairs over the years--a new roof a few years back, and a replacement sewer main three years ago. Now we have the dying furnace and some issues with ancient plumbing.

And my car is on its last legs too in that it will soon need repairs that are so expensive that we're better off getting a new one, so the search for a replacement is in the works. That nice, secure feeling people get when they actually have savings for a rainy day is rapidly dissipating. This relentless parade of expenses is cleaning out the bank accounts.

Still, we're lucky. For many, dying appliances and plumbing mishaps are expenses they can't handle at all.

Monday, November 30, 2015

New Dog Progress Report

Austin is settling in nicely. He's an energetic, active young dog with a personality that is far more border collie than cattle dog. He's getting on well with Flick and Wiley and shows a lot more ball fanaticism than any dog I've had so far. Flick loves playing ball. It's FUN, and tossing a tennis ball on a rope at the end of an agility training sequence is a definite motivator. But for her, part of the fun is playing a little keep away at the end. Bite, bite, giggle. Come and get it if you can.

You're going to throw that, right?
For Austin, the ball is very serious business. He runs after, brings it back,  tosses it down at my feet, and backs away. If I don't throw it again, he'll nudge it towards me. He doesn't want me to interrupt him with treats in the middle of BALL. Just throw the damned thing. Ball is not a game. He pretty much ignores other dogs when he's playing ball at the dog park. Yes, I finally have one of THOSE boring (to everyone else) dogs.

It's a bit weird, but that's how border collies are a lot of the time. His only issue so far is a bit of cat obsession. He's fascinated with Leo and Merlin and will chase them. It seems more herdy behavior than serious "I want to eat them" predation. But it's still upsetting to them, and intense herding can drift into more predatory behavior. So we're trying to find a way to redirect this obsession.

I've done a bit of jump and tunnel work in the backyard with him so far, and have bought the materials to make a small wobble board for him. He definitely is fast and is going to need to learn how to collect and pay attention to his body when he jumps so he doesn't knock bars. I've ordered a copy of Suzanne Clothier's natural jumping book on Amazon.

He's a nice dog, though, very affectionate. He's pretty level headed and cerebral for a 1.5 year old male BC/cattle dog mix.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy US Thanksgiving

Here's a picture of a Mount Vernon turkey my husband and I saw a few years back when we visited the home of our country's first president. They didn't let us get too close, but somehow they seem like a fitting picture for today's holiday.

Hope everyone celebrating Thanksgiving today has a great feed with their loved ones.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Because We Couldn't Be Sane, Normal People With Just Two Dogs

When Roxy passed, I wondered if I was up for getting another dog in the near future. With Wiley and Flick, we are hardly dogless. And with my late-night writing schedule, I've been kind of bleh about dragging my butt out of bed before dawn on weekends for agility trials lately. And there's no question that walking two dogs is much easier than walking three.

Then Doug started to ask when we were going to get another dog. And I realized that some of the reason I've been less than enthusiastic about agility lately is that Wiley's getting older and slowing down quite a lot lately, and Flick (who is a hyper vigilant dog who occasionally decides she just doesn't like someone or other) will never be the kind of dog I can just relax with in noisy, chaotic trial environments.

Still, I wondered if it was the right time to start looking. School's kicking my butt this semester, and some nagging and vague health issues have robbed me of my energy and motivation lately. And the universe seemed to be telling us to wait too. We narrowly missed out on a couple of prospective dogs at our local shelters (Other people beat me to the adoption). And while perusing petfinder for kelpies, border collies  and their mixes, I realized that the canine population had really shifted in our state. Herding breeds are increasingly rare (it's nearly all bully breeds and Chihuahua mixes all the time there for some reason).

Not that I'm complaining. It's nice to know that the owners of herding breeds are getting more responsible in our neck of the woods. A friend suggested a McNabb breeder to me and the person who hooked me up with the shelter that had Wiley back in 2006 said she'd recommend me to them. But I wasn't quite sure I was up for buying a dog. I really want to save a life, or at least clear up a slot in one of our local rescue groups that keep dogs out of shelters. So maybe it would be best just to wait for a while.

Then I saw a picture of a 1.5-year-old border collie/Australian cattle dog mix on petfinder. He was at the Wags and Whiskers rescue group down in Modesto, and he sounded very promising. Our application was accepted, and the people were very nice about agreeing to hold him for us on Saturday, so we could drive down without worrying about losing out to someone who got there right before us again. He interacted nicely with Flick and Wiley, and is really just an awesome boy. Evidently, his original owner purchased him from a breeder of what are sometimes called "Texas Heelers," because they intentionally cross cattle dogs with border collies or Australian shepherds for ranch work down there.
Flick seems to like Austin a lot so far
So we adopted him and named him "Austin," in honor of his Texas roots. He's really sweet. Energetic and loves to play ball, but he has an off switch and is willing to lie quietly and chew on a toy too. He's got a nice, sound structure, and he's got a touch of that border collie focus and eye without the over the top edge that some of that breed have, yet he's softer and more biddable than many purebred cattle dogs. When he gets interested in something, like another dog or a cat, he redirects easily. Flick loves him so far (which was a worry I had), and Wiley is slowly coming around to the notion of no longer being the only boy dog.

So life just got complex again.

Roxy would have liked him too, I think.