Wasps in the bathroom

When you live in the tropics, you live with the wildlife. Especially if – as is the case here in Malaysia – there are no screens on the houses. I also have a family of civets living in the roof, and a myriad of hyperactive, anxiety-ridden treeshrews (which don’t live in trees and aren’t shrews) in the garden.

Sometimes the animal life is not as welcome. Cockroaches are part of life, and the war I declared on them when I first arrived will never be won. At least not by me.

For the last couple of days, a wasp has been building a mud sarcophagus, rather like an inch long turd, on the back of the bathroom door. Six turds in fact, built into a packet shape and doubtless containing not only an egg but also a paralysed victim whose fate is to be eaten alive. I tried removing the first effort, but she just came back and built another, so I shall wait until she is finished.

Wasps and I have a chequered history. After a number of painful encounters, I developed an allergy to the sting of at least one variety, and a single sting results in an inflamed lump six inches long. In fact, when people speak of the dangers of the rainforest, it’s the humble wasp that sends shivers of fear though me, not tigers and leopards.

The worst encounter I had was when we were walking though a mangrove swamp in search of the nesting colony of some Adjutant Storks. The guide, a local boy of about twelve, brushed against a wasp colony in a rotten tree stump. By the time I realised what had happened, I was being stung. I fled, yelling. No more picking my way through finding solid ground -I just plunged towards the bund, leaving my shoes sucked off my feet by the gluey grey mangrove mud. As I fled, I was taking my anti-histamines out of belt pouch and swallowing the strongest dose…but in truth, I thought I was going to die.

By the time we had left the wasps behind, I had thirty-five stings, more than my three companions put together. I was also caked in mud and barefoot – even my socks were gone, and there was no way I was going back there to have a look for my shoes! Luckily, I didn’t appear to be allergic to this particular wasp.

All of us washed up in the brackish drainage channel and began the long walk back to the car feeling very sorry for ourselves. There was a single house on stilts there next to the bund, and the owner took one look at our sorry band and invited us in for a drink. We sat on the bare boards of the floor (there were no chairs) and drank incredibly sweet tea. My friend produced a packet of imported biscuits from his pack – they probably cost as much as the owner of that hut earned in a day – and we shared them with the family.

Why is it that the poor always seem to be the most hospitable? When I remember that day, it’s that moment – sitting on the floor, wet and dirty and sore, drinking black tea-flavoured sugar – that resonates.

Havenstar sells…!

There has been one copy of Havenstar on sale at Amazon.com for ages now, not surprising seeing as the price was a colossal $US 107 for a paperback. (See my remarks on Feb 19th ). The sales ranking was well over one million.

Well, the darn thing has sold. The sales ranking is now 300,000 plus, and there are no more on sale – and my bottom jaw is down near my knees somewhere. Someone paid $107 for a book of mine? I am beginning to eye my two copies and wonder…

Orange in April – Heart of the Mirage

Had a lovely surprise this morning when I saw that HarperCollins Australia has released a pix of the cover of my up and coming book: Heart of the Mirage, book 1 of The Mirage Makers, due out in April. I’ll say more about the book later, but for the time being, here’s the cover. My thanks go to Shane Parker (artist) and the HC design team.

And believe me, this might be my fifth published book, but you never stop getting that wonderful rush of excitement as publication approaches. Especially when the book is the start of a new series.

As yet, it hasn’t been sold on to any overseas markets. However, for anyone who doesn’t live in Australia/NZ, once it is out downunder, I shall be running a competition here and on my website for overseas readers so that they can win a copy, so watch this blog…

Writing at a Lighthouse – or is it raptor watching at the keyboard?

I have a busy couple of weeks ahead. I have just received editorial feedback for my latest submission – the second book of The Mirage Makers trilogy. A prologue to be written and a few tweaks to be made (I am utterly delighted that there was so few) and two weeks before the manuscript should be back at HarperCollins.

The book is called Exaltarch and has proved to be one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to write. I ended up doing a number of very major rewrites – I reckon I must have turfed at least 50,000 words along the way, possibly more! Somehow the structure would not come right at first – while the deadline passed further and further into the past, but it seems I finally nailed it as I now have a happy editor.

Now, as I do the sprucing up suggested, I am at that wondrous stage when I finally begin to think, “Hey! This is not too bad after all!”

And then there’s the raptor watch coming up. I shall be spending a number of days sitting at a lighthouse on a Cape, watching over the Straits of Malacca for the arrival of the honey-buzzards, bee-eaters, swifts, bazas, sparrowhawks and such. We are doing a count. If we get bored because nothing is coming in, then we can look straight down onto a coral reef and watch the turtles. Or I can write, laptop on my knee… I can think of worse ways to spend a few days! I’ll even get some exercise: to get to the lighthouse there is a very steep walk through the rainforest.

When the birds do arrive, of course the two of us counters will be busy – counting and identifying.

I find the whole event amazingly moving. These birds choose this spot to cross the straits because it is the narrowest point between Indonesia and Peninsular Malaysia. This is particularly important to the larger raptors – they need thermals to travel long distances because their weight to wingspan ratio is such that they tire easily if they have to flap over long distances. And you don’t get thermals over water.

As they approach the lighthouse, they are exhausted. If the wind conditions aren’t good, you can actually see them panting as they struggle the last few metres – and then they hit the rising warm air over the land, they stop their flapping and gradually rise as they circle… maybe I just imagine the look of relief on their faces. And they still have thousands of miles to go.

Malaysia Boleh!

I was blocked from adding a comment to the Live Journal of a pal the other day. The reason? My ISP was known to be the origin of too much spam. And my ISP is…TMnet, who else. Which is – I assume – Malaysia’s biggest ISP. Once again, Malaysia boleh. Or maybe I should say, Malaysians boleh.

Maybe I’d better explain for the benefit of my overseas readers what that means, because I’m bound to use this a lot. Literally: “Malaysia can”. It is supposed to be an optimistic assessment of the country’s ability to tackle anything, whether it be to win a Nobel Prize, perhaps, or host a future Olympics.

Unfortunately it has come to be used much more cynically by Malaysians themselves, to mean “Yeah, we can do anything – silly stuff like ski across Antarctica, or drop cars on the North Pole, or sail around the world single-handedly,” all of which have successfully achieved to great fanfare, believe it or not.

And it seems that we can also rank among the world’s best spammers.

Writing in the tradition of….

Yesterday I was preparing material for a total revamp of my website, and as I ran through a slew of past reviews, I was amazed to see how many compared aspects of my writing to other writers, all much better known. An embarrassment of riches, in fact.

I remember the very first time this happened. Not a reviewer, but the editor of a sff imprint in the UK who read a couple of my books and turned them down, told my agent my writing reminded her of Sherri Tepper. Being a lover of much of Ms Tepper’s work (although as far as I know, not a copycat!), I thought that was an enormous compliment. But note -– I was rejected.

So I learned a lesson: one should take such compliments as pretty meaningless.

My second lesson down that road was when the editor of my first book compared me, in a press release I think, to Ursula LeGuin. A reviewer then shot back -– quite rightly too – with something along the lines of, Hey this is an enjoyable book, but LeGuin? You’’ve got to be kidding!‘’ Which was nicely deflating to any pretensions my ego might have considered developing.

Oddly enough, two other reviewers have mentioned my work in the same breath as LeGuin, but I think that was simply because my first trilogy was set in an archipelago. So there you are, if you want to be compared to the master of fantasy writing, use a string of islands as a setting!

Another author I seem to bring to mind (3 reviews) is Lois McMaster Bujold. That is apparently because of my strong female characters. Stephen Donaldson has cropped up twice, once from that that same first editor (a really over-optimistic fellow, I think), and the second comparing the emotional torture I subjected my hero to as being something Donaldson would be proud of. I liked that comparison, I must admit.

Other writers who have been mentioned are Mercedes Lackey (strong heroines again), and (one I just love) my books being ‘written with self-assurance, insight and guts – much tradition of Robin Hobb, Carol Berg and even Elizabeth Moon.’ (If ever I meet the gentleman who wrote that, I shall buy him dinner at the very least.)

Now if only all that was true. I suspect, though, that I just write like me.

What I am looking forward to is the day that someone says, ‘New author Aloysius Muddlesworthy has written a book in the tradition of Glenda Larke…’”

Then I will know that I have really made it!!

What’s the hardest part of a novel to write?

The action scenes? The dialogues? The beginning? Climax?

Nope, none of the above. It’s those horrible dull bits. Because you’ve got to write them so they aren’t dull.

It’s the bits that, if you leave them out, readers are going to ask: “But how did he get to town when the last scene was back on the farm?” or “But how did she know that the boy was named Martin, when we haven’t read a scene where she was told?

They are the necessary bits that explain the grounding of your plot, yet are intrinsically dull in their explanation. You don’t really want to have to explain, “Well, first he walked to the main road, then he hitched a ride with the farmer down the road who just happened to be going into town to buy some chicken feed even though it wasn’t market day.” Or, “She went to the dressmaker’s, and while she was there, this woman called Annie came in, and she happened to mention in a passing conversation with the dressmaker that John’s son was her gardener and his name was Martin.

Leave out the explanation, and you’ll get creamed by your readers; put it in and you’ll bore them the tears. They are the hardest bits to write!

A Day in the Land of the Surreal…

After four days of teeth-grinding frustration trying to make an online booking to New York, I made a second attempt at a local travel agent – the only one in my area registered for the ongoing MAS cheap travel fair.

I walked in and was utterly delighted to find that this time, yes, they could give me the dates I wanted at a price I thought was brilliant, considering what else I had been offered. I didn’t even think about it. “I’ll take it,” I said. I couldn’t believe my luck. Huh. I might have known it was too good to be true. When it comes to getting to New York cheap, I am jinxed. Or maybe I should reword that: I am a jinx.

Immediately after I said “I’ll take it” – words with far reaching consequences when uttered by the magically jinxed – every piece of electronic equipment in the agency blew up. That was, need I say, before my purchase was entered into the system.

I kid you not. The lights went out. Computers, monitors, fax machines and printers all went “PHHHUTTT!!” and smoke poured out of everything. I left before anyone found out I was to blame.

I decided to take Liz’s advice, and off I went to the central railway station where there is a MAS office. I decided to avoid the KL traffic horror by catching the commuter train. So I stuffed my copy of The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl into my bag and off I went.

I sat on the station and watched several trains going the other way on the other side of the tracks – but nothing going to KL. The electronic sign above my head uttered a continuous stream of make-believe : (train due in 6 minutes …5 …4 …3 …2 …1 …30 …) Finally, just when it seemed no more people could fit on the platform, a train did appear. On the other side of the tracks, but going to KL. It horned. A hundred or so people exchanged glances and wondered whether we were supposed to cross the overhead bridge and risk getting on to a train going north on the southbound line…

Anyway, there we all are on a train, going the right way but on the wrong tracks, packed in like brown rice in a vacuum pack – when it becomes increasingly obvious that the aircon is not working. And there’s no way to open any windows. It is just past midday in the tropics. And I am reading a book that vividly describes various ways of being murdered a la Dante’s Inferno. Talk about surreal.

It is two hours later by the time I finally arrive at my turn at the MAS desk. And was there any sign of that cheap seat the travel agent had mentioned? Nope, of course not. In the end I was just so tired of wasting so much time on this whole booking thingy, that I bought a ticket (supposedly bargain price) which was just $RM 52.00 cheaper than the regular economy MAS fare. At least the computers didn’t blow up.

I am going to New York. Well, to Virginia actually. To see the little guy above. And I refuse to think how much I am paying to do so…I am sure he will be worth it.

Bird Flu in Malaysia – guess where?

The first cases of the bird flu have been found in Kuala Lumpur among domestic chickens. That’s right, not in wild birds.

One wonders why wild birds always seem to take the rap, when there is still no evidence to show that the spread is caused by migration and the pattern of spread doesn’t really seem to follow migration routes all that closely. Wild birds appear to be more victims than anything else. After all – would you embark on a 5,000 mile journey, without the benefit of an airplane, if you had the flu?

Perhaps migration plays a part, but I am more inclined to think people have an even bigger role. There has been suspicion that this particular outbreak in KL might have originated in the smuggling of cockfighting birds from Thailand.

What really struck me about this outbreak was the elderly man – and remember, this guy lives in the city, not some remote kampung – who was quoted in this morning’s The Star newspaper as saying :
“My chickens died and it never occurred to me that they could have been killed by disease. I thought someone was poisoning them.”
The first of his birds died back in January…

Even with all the publicity given to bird flu, still the message doesn’t get through. Still people (not, of course, necessarily the gentleman just quoted) think it’s all right to smuggle in birds from another country where people have died. I am reminded of the Nipah virus in pigs, where exactly the same thing happened and people died in Malacca as a result of the illegal movement of diseased animals.

The problem is not birds; it’s people.

If you want to know more about bird flu,
there will be a free public talk

NOTE: You can’t get the flu from looking at birds!

Place: Tanjung Tuan
Why: to watch the migration of raptors and other fun stuff.
Date: 4th and 5th of March
Time: daylight hours, especially btween 10.30 am and 3 p.m.
Place: the beachfront of the Ilham Resort,
near the entrance to the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve and Lighthouse

Cost: Free

Watching the World’s Greatest Journey

In the middle of the nineteenth century, my great-grandparents set sail from England and Ireland, seeking a better life in Australia. They had no guarantees that they would ever arrive, let alone ever go back again.

Photo by Lim Kim Chye & Yian

Every year millions of birds make a journey that is even more dangerous and uncertain. They aren’t driven by despair or hope, as my ancestors probably were, but by instinct — and they have even less chance than my great grandparents had of making it safely. Some estimates say that fifty percent of migratory birds on their first round trip don’t get back again to the place where they are born.

Poverty made my ancestors take the risk; migratory birds don’t really have a choice. From the moment of birth they are programmed to take that journey repeatedly. So why has nature inserted a programme so inherently risky into their genes? It’s fairly obvious why they leave their birthplace — it gets too darn cold and food resources vanish. But why, once they are enjoying the balminess of tropical forests, do they go north again? It doesn’t get cold here, the food doesn’t suddenly disappear; why not stay, nest, and forget about that dangerous trip back?

The individual bird, of course, doesn’t have a choice. His instincts tell him to get going and he goes…but nature does things for a reason. In this case, the abundance of nutritious, high-protein food in the short summers of the north makes the journey worth the risk. If he stayed here, he would be in competition with the locals — who would be feeding hungry youngsters too.

The simple truth, then, is that for the species as a whole, the benefits outweigh the risks, and the kids profit. Probably my ancestors thought along the same lines, although in more personal terms. (Risk-taking worked for them, I’m happy to say!)

Over the next couple of weeks you are going to see me writing a lot on this subject – because our local Raptor Watch is coming around again, organised by the Malaysian Nature Society.

If you are in Malaysia, make a date to be in at Cape Rachado (Tanjung Tuan) on the 4th and/or 5th March down in Malacca (Melaka), just south of Port Dickson. Look this website for more info: www.raptorwatch.org

Or watch this space.