Thursday, February 27, 2014

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

I just entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.

I've been thinking about doing it since last year, and now I've finally done and 9,999 other people. Now I'm wondering why I even bothered. That's 10,000 of us, which means I have a 1/10,000 chance of winning...I might as well pull the sheets off my bed and try parachuting out my window. I'd probably have an equal chance of success.

But, after all, what can I lose? It's free and the rewords are very exciting for the person who happens to squeak through and win.

There's still time to enter, if you're interested. The contest closes March 2, or whenever the 10,000th eligible entry is accepted (which could be any second).

If you want to enter, you will need:

  1. A CreateSpace account.
  2. An original, fictional novel manuscript between 50,000 words and 125,000 words
  3. The first 3,000-5,000 words of that manuscript
  4. The complete rights to that manuscript (it could be self published, but you cannot have signed a contract with a publisher).
  5. A pitch (which is basically 300 words marketing your story to the judges)
Happy writing...or not; maybe you're not all as crazy as I am. ;)


PS: I wrote a limerick...yeah, I know it's bad, but everyone was writing one on the contest forum. Here goes:

I came across an Amazon contest
(You can probably guess the rest)
My sanity I forsook
And entered my book
And now I'm expiring from stress.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

14 Unusual Animals

There are more than one million non-insect species on the face of the earth and new ones are being discovered every day. The biggest creature is the Blue Whale with a heart the size of a small car and the smallest is the Pigmy Shrew that can apparently die of a massive heart attack if touched. In between, are a host of creatures, both great and small. Every animal is extraordinary, but Rose and I have complied a list of some of the most unusual (none of the images below belong to us; all rights to the very talented people who captured them ).

1. Jerboa
Image of a Northern three-toed Jerboa, courtesy of Montarano Nature Photography

When I first saw footage of this, when I was very small, I was under the impression that it was a sort of miniature Kangaroo. Now I think it looks a bit more like a long tailed Rabbit. Jerboas live in deserts anywhere from Northern Africa to Northern China and everywhere in between. Despite their small stature, they can reach speeds of up to fifteen miles per hour.

2. Chinese Water Deer

This is where Bambi meets the Saber-toothed Tiger... and Water Deer are not the only deer with fangs, other small species, such as the Tufted Deer and Muntjac, have fangs as well. Because the fangs are held loosely in place, they can be drawn out of the way when eating, but when danger threatens, they present a frightening site. Water Deer lack antlers...but I have a feeling they don't need them.

3. Clouded Leopard

This shy, Himalayan cat is more beautiful than strange, but its coat is remarkably unusual. Speaking of teeth, the Clouded Leopard has the longest canines in relation to their body size of any living carnivore, even though they are the smallest of the big cats. They aren't related to Leopards. 

4. Fossa

Not a cat, nor even a dog, the Fossa is its own species, existing only on Madagascar. It looks like a small Puma and even has retractable claws, but its head is more like a mongoose's. They are fairly rare, mostly solitary and cathemeral; which means they are sporadically active day and night.

5. Aye-Aye

The Aye-Aye perpetually looks as though it has had a very bad fright. Like the Fossa, it exists only in Madagascar and is known for the unusually long fingers that it uses for prying bugs out of holes in tree trunks. It's a kind of Lemur, which means it's a primate. 

6. Elephant Shrew

Rose thinks this is a cross between Piglet and fact it has no relation to either. All Shrews have unusual noses, but the Elephant Shrew is particularly unusual. They use their strange proboscides to find food, then flick it into their mouths with their long tongues. There are several versions of the Elephant Shrew, all native to Africa. 

7. African Civet

No, it's not a Raccoon, but it's the best known of its species, which isn't very well known. It bears a resemblance to a hyena, but its actually of the family Viverridae. Civets are named because of the musk they produce, which is often used as a perfume base...weird, right?

8. Saiga Antelope

He looks fine until you get to his nose. The Saiga Antelope once lived in the vast Eurasian Steppe, from Hungary to Siberia and was even found across the pond in North America. Today, there are very few of them left in a handful of places in Kalmykia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. 

9. Proboscis Monkey

Speaking of noses, this is a nose...maybe we have a theme, here. The Proboscis Monkey is one of the largest monkey species in Asia. They are pot-bellied and often times their toes are webbed. They live almost exclusively off leaves and fruit. 

10. Emperor Tamarin

Named because of his striking resemblance to Kasar Wilhelm II, he and his mustache, live in the Amazon Basin. The Emperor Tamarin is affectionate and friendly and lives in large family groups. Does he look like something that could wage the First World War?...I don't think so, either.

11. Manx Loaghtan

This odd sheep looks like he couldn't decide on a set and ended up settling for both. Originating on the Isle of Man, the Manx Loaghtan can come equipped with up to six horns. Even though it is a rare breed, it is considered a gourmet delicacy and is known for its soft, brown wool.

12. Maned Wolf

Something like a fox on stilts, the Maned Wolf is native to South America. It isn't a wolf at all... nor is it a fox. Like the wolf and the fox, it belongs to the family Caninae, but has its own Genus. Because of its strong odor, it's sometimes referred to as the 'Skunk Wolf'.

13. Duck-billed Platypus

You've all heard of this one, I've no doubt, but I still think its fascinating. It's a Monotreme, one of only a handful of beaked mammals that lay eggs. They're all from Australia, or New Guinea, and sometimes their babies are called puggles. Despite the fact that their young are hatched, they are still true mammals, being warm blooded and producing milk.   

14. Okapi

Finally, the best (and probably the rarest) for last. The Okapi is likely what you'd get if it were possible to cross a Giraffe with a Zebra. A small number of them live in central Africa and in zoos around the world. They are so rare, it wasn't until 1901 that the species was formally recognized, but the Egyptians knew about them thousands of years ago.

Monday, February 10, 2014

14 Most Adorable Animals

I've always been an animal enthusiast and I used to amuse myself by watching countless hours of nature movies and reading vast tomes on various fauna from around the world. Rose and I have complied a list of fourteen animals we think are the cutest and most heart-melting (and if they don't melt your heart, you must have a heart like a rock).

1. Fennec Fox

These little creatures, belonging to the genus Vulpus, are indigenous to North Africa, but aren't uncommonly found in homes around the world. They make energetic house-guests, but can be trained to some extent and apparently have a weakness for strawberries (I don't have a source for the last one).

2. Red Panda

Not closely related to Pandas at all, Red Pandas have been classified as anything from Raccoons to Bears. Nowadays it's thought they are more closely related to Weasels. They are shy creatures and mostly nocturnal as they roam the forests in the foothills of the Himalayas.

3. Skunk

Skunks may not be your first choice as cutest animals, but once you get past the smell, we think they definitely rank (no pun intended). They apparently love honey and their thick fur guards them from getting stung when they're stealing some.

4. Kiwi

We're still not sure whether the bird is named after the fruit or the fruit is named after the bird. We love them both (in different ways). Kiwis, of course, are indigenous to New Zealand, but we're not sure if there are any specimens in Middle Earth.

5. Squirrel Monkey

These are New World Monkeys, meaning they can be found in Central and South America. When they're not hanging around in the jungle, they are often kept as pets. However, they are very mischievous and demand a lot of care.

6. Chinchilla

The last time you might have seen a Chinchilla might have been in a fur coat. During the Victorian age, they were renowned for their remarkably dense and soft fur. I've felt it before, it's like a gray cloud. They live in the Andes and apparently maintain their fur by rolling in the superfine dust of volcanic pumice.

7. Rock Wallaby

Wallabies are smaller relatives of the Kangaroo. Rock Wallabies live where their name suggests; in rocks and caves. They're agile and quick, often with colorful coats, but you probably won't get to see one, because they are nocturnal. Which, considering the hot and arid climate of  their habitats in Australia, is probably a good thing (for them, anyway).

8. European Robin

As I was growing up, the only kind of Robin I knew was the American version, which, apparently, isn't a Robin at all. Our version is from the thrush family, while the European Robin is considerably smaller and rounder and more closely related to flycatchers.

9. European Red Squirrel

Speaking of Europe, apparently their squirrels are different from ours, too. Over here, we seem to be overrun with gray squirrels that can grow to be the size of small house cats. Red Squirrels are fewer and farther between and over in Europe, Red Squirrels come with an accent. Ear tufts. Makes me want to get a pair myself.

10. Pygmy Hippopotamus

The scaled down version of the Hippopotamus never gets more than three feet high at the shoulder, but it can  still manage a whopping 600 lb in rare instances, which is still a far cry from the 4,000 lb of its full sized relation.

11. Pygmy Marmoset

Pygmy and cute just seem to go together. The full sized Marmoset was cute to begin with, but smaller is even better. They live in Amazon rain forests and exist almost exclusively off tree gum...that's resin, you and me.

12. Fruit Bat

Rose thinks all bats are cute; I think some may disagree with her, but the Fruit Bat is unarguably darling. There are only three bat species that drink blood; they exist only in Central and South America. The rest eat fruit and insects and are perfectly harmless.

13. Hedgehog

In this case, spines just add to the effect. I doubt they're very cuddly, but they look like they'd like to be. As the name implies, hedgehogs are frequently found living under hedgerows, or hedges laid and trained from young trees. Hedgehogs will eat pretty much anything they come across, from mushrooms to you might not want one in your garden.

14. Highland Cattle

Last is not least. Highland cattle are an ancient breed, with long, dense coats to keep out the rain and wind of Highland Scotland. Sometimes, at shows, they become poofy after being washed and brushed and some people refer to them as 'fluffy cows'.

Note: None of the images above belong to us; all rights to the very talented people who captured them.

Monday, February 3, 2014

George Washington vs. Robert E. Lee: more in common than you might think

“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

- Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee


File:Portrait of George Washington.jpegMany people think of George Washington as a man larger than life. They know he was the first president of the United States under the present Constitution and that his white hair on the dollar bill can be turned into a mushroom when folded the right way. But few people really know the man.

When Colonel Washington stood before the Continental Congress in 1775, he was forty-three, and in a day when the average man was five feet, seven inches, George Washington towered above them at six foot, three. He had flaming red hair and a temper to match and he wore the uniform of the Virginia militia, red with blue facings.  But the Continental Congress was interested in his military record, not his appearance. They knew that he had been in the French and Indian War and had been the only officer to survive the Battle of the Monongahela under General Braddock unscathed. Nominated by John Adams, Colonel Washington became a general, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Robert E. Lee is another man few people know about. On the eve of the Civil War, Colonel Lee quelled John Brown and his hooligans at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. A little over a year later, he was offered command of the Army of the Potomac by Abraham Lincoln’s administration to quell yet another rebellion. Colonel Lee refused; no power would compel him to invade his own state. On June 1, 1862, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and proceeded to repel everything the North could throw at him.

Robert E. Lee was born in Stratford Hall, to one of the first families of Virginia. His father, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee had grown up near George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, looking on Washington almost as a father. He had served in Washington’s cavalry, becoming a general as he fought brilliantly alongside the Swamp Fox in the South.  But in the years after the Revolution, he became restless and proceeded to gain and lose large fortunes. In poverty Robert E. Lee’s family left Stratford Hall, when he was only four. Like his father, Robert pursued a military career, graduating second in his class at West Point. He was known as the “marble man” for his perfection and never once received a demerit. But Lee, too, had a temper he tried to curb all his life.

Lee grew up surrounded by Washington, not the man – he died eight years before Lee was born – but by his image. The country loved Washington; he was the hero who led them through the American War for Independence, presided over the committee that drafted the Constitution and finally served two terms as President of the United States, guiding the fledgling country through her first tumultuous years. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think that Lee tried to model himself after Washington.

Arlington, the Custis mansion, overlooked the Potomac, not far from where Lee lived. It was built by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s step grandson and it was filled with Washington, too – his furniture, his paintings and the very bed he died in. In 1831 Robert E. Lee married George Washington Parke Custis’ only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, and in a way, became George Washington’s great-grandson.

In many ways, George Washington and Robert E. Lee were alike. They both were tall, well-made men, expert horsemen and had a way with people. They fought in a similar way as well. Their armies were often half the size of their opponents’, but what they were lacking in size, they made up for in speed and tenacity. They both specialized in orderly retreats and lighting strikes, completely taking the enemy by surprise. In 1776 Washington crossed a freezing river and attacked Trenton in Delaware only a few days before his men’s enlistments expired. The smashing victory raised the moral of his army so much that many men stayed in the army. Striking around the left flank of the enemy at Chancellorsville, Lee earned the reputation of invincibly with his men. Each commander had an almost godlike status in his armies.

Aid came to the Americans in the form of the French in the Revolution, but the Confederates had no such help. The North had more than twice the land, more than twice the people and far more money than the South. Lee fought until he could fight no more. His men were living off dried corn when he surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

File:Robert E Lee Edward Caledon Bruce 1865.jpegThough Washington never surrendered, he, like Lee, was in his fifties at the end of his war and like Lee, his hair had gone completely white. Washington went on to become the president of a country, while Lee became the president of an obscure little college in the Shenandoah Valley, Washington University (now Washington and Lee University).

Lee’s father, Light Horse Harry, penned those famous lines about George Washington when the latter died in 1799, “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington is the most beloved president of the United States, but Robert E. Lee, too, lived up to his father’s lines. He was the first in war, first to surrender when he saw the cause was hopeless, and was more beloved in the South than the confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

Whatever the cause they fought for, George Washington and Robert E. Lee are honored and respected by friends and enemies alike. They had an aura of greatness, integrity and honor that cannot be veiled by prejudice.   

Stephen Vincent Benet wrote some lines to Lee in his poem, John Brown’s Body; somehow, they seem to describe both Washington and Lee equally well.

“For he will smile
And give you, with unflinching courtesy,
Prayers, trappings, letters, uniforms and orders,
Photographs, kindness, valor and advice,
And do it with such grace and gentleness
That you will know you have the whole of him
Pinned down, mapped out, easy to understand-
And so you have.
All things except the heart
The heart he kept himself, that answers all.
For here was someone who lived all his life
In the most fierce and open light of the sun,
Wrote letters freely, did not guard his speech,
Listened and talked with every sort of man,
And kept his heart a secret to the end
From all the picklocks of biographers.”