Letters from Mars (Blog)

Bristolcon!

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I’m going to Bristolcon tomorrow (Saturday 29th October, 2016). This is the first convention I’ve been to for quite a few years (Rare Appearance of Reclusive Author!), due to having little kids, but our wonderful niece, Freya, is coming down from Manchester to babysit for the day, so we actually get to go to a con for once!

Here’s my schedule (I’m doing a panel and a reading):

Panel: Under the Covers

4pm – 4.45pm

We all know how important covers are to books. Whether or not you judge a book by its cover, marketers assume you will, and cover art is a key part of how a book is marketed and received. Our panel reveals the process by which cover art is commissioned, from writers and publishers selecting artists to the challenges of rendering the writer’s vision artistically, with reference to examples of the good, the bad and the ugly of cover art.

With Terry Jackman (Mod), Jaine Fenn, Fangorn (Chris Baker), Kate Turner (KS Turner), Patrick Samphire

Programme room 2

Reading: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb

4.50pm – 4.55pm

Programme room 2

The rest of the time I’ll be either in the bar, the dealers’ room, or watching one of the other panels or readings. Say ‘hi’ if you see me!

Randomly, a Recipe: Scrambled Tofu

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I don’t normally post recipes because, well, I’m not a particularly great cook. But this is my go-to for a quick (vegan) meal. It has a great flavour and it’s really, really easy (and healthy).

I found the original recipe here but I thought the flavours were a bit anaemic, so I changed it around a bit. Here’s my version of the recipe:

Scrambled Tofu

Serves 2 – 3 people

Time: 20 – 30 minutes, depending on how distractible you are

  • 14-ounce / 400g package firm tofu
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium red pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon chilli powder (choose heat to match your taste!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 4-6 tortillas, warmed
  • Fresh salsa
  1. Remove the tofu from its package and set down on a plate lined with paper towels.
  2. Cover in another layer of paper towels and press and blot well to remove as much moisture as you can (this will help the tofu absorb the flavours).
  3. Place in a bowl and mash well with a fork. You’re looking for a crumbly consistency.
  4. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion then, a minute later, red pepper and cook until soft, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Stir in the coriander, cumin, chilli powder and salt and cook until just incorporated and fragrant, 1 minute or so.
  6. Stir in the mashed tofu and the turmeric along with the 3 tablespoons water, and cook until the mixture is warmed completely through. 2 minutes should do it.
  7. Warm your tortillas then scoop in a generous portion of the scrambled tofu and garnish with fresh salsa, or, you know, whatever other weird stuff you like.

You could make the fresh salsa yourself, of course, but I just buy it, because I’m like that.

Music Monday: Cover Versions that are Better than the Originals (Arguably)

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Don’t you wish you could sometimes write cover versions of books, in the way that bands cover each other’s songs? I was listening to a bunch of cover versions on Youtube and all I could think was that it would be way easier to do that than to have to come up with anything original. And, yes, I am trying to write a new book. How did you guess?

Well, rather than get on and just do the new book, this seemed like an excellent excuse to write a blog post about cover versions of famous songs, and in my personal opinion, these cover versions are better than the originals. You can disagree of course. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. 😉

Nights in White Satin, by The Moody Blues, covered by Rock Goddess

Rock Goddess were one of my favourite heavy metal bands from the 80s. They never hit it really big, but they are still going and they are still awesome. This is their live cover of Nights in White Satin, done originally by The Moody Blues:

How can you not love that rough, powerful vocal?

And, for comparison, here is the original:

I’m right, right?

Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez, covered by Judas Priest

Of course the original is absolutely brilliant, but I love how Judas Priest kept so close to that original while making their version entirely their own. (Priest were enormous fans of both Baez and Bob Dylan, of course.)

Here’s the cover version:

And the original:

Rasputin, by Boney M., covered by Turisas

Okay, this time I’m not going to claim the cover is actually better, because I have a big soft spot by Boney M., but Turisas are, well, they’re Turisas, and I love the idea of blood-soaked Vikings covering a Boney M. song.

Of course, Boney M. were a bit of a fraud in that the male ‘lead singer’ didn’t actually do the singing because he wasn’t a good enough singer, but.

Here are Turisas:

The original:

That’s it for now. I have proved myself entirely right, and I’m glad you admit it.

Now off to write that damned book.

Header photo from Dark Rider on Unsplash.

Book Quote Wednesday

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So, some writers (including me) on Twitter have been doing “book quote Wednesday” (#bookqw), where each week we post a quote from one of our books that includes a particular word. (Thanks to Mindy Klasky for running this.) It occurred to me that not all of you actually follow me on Twitter, so I thought I should post here too. (I’ll actually do it on the right day after this.)

Here are the ones I’ve done in the last couple of weeks.

“Might”

Here’s my quote using the word “might”, which comes from my novella The Dinosaur Hunters.

“Work”

And for the word “work”, from Secrets of the Dragon Tomb:

I have no idea what the word is going to be next week, but maybe I’ll chose one of my forthcoming books instead.

Now, go check out everyone else’s quotes. There’s some fantastic stuff there, whatever type of books you like.

The Quantum Internet

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Have you ever gone online, read something, and then wondered why someone else who has read the ‘same’ thing seems to have apparently read something completely different?

In general, you might think that this is because other people read carelessly or with different assumptions (or that they’re stupid…), and of course that could be true, but it’s not all there is to it.

The truth is that you experience an ever-so-slightly-different version of the internet to everyone else. In fact, everyone experiences their own unique version.

This is a relatively recent development that has come about due to quantum computing.

As some of you know, I have a PhD in Quantum Field Theory, so I thought I would try to guide you through the basics behind this cool new development. (This is my thesis, if you really must know, but don’t read it; no one else has…)

To understand how using quantum mechanics in computing has led to such an odd outcome for the internet, we need to understand a few basic things about quantum mechanics. (Follow the inline links for far more detailed and complicated explanations.)

The Science-y Stuff

Firstly, let’s talk about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. What this tells us is that you can’t completely know everything about a pair of properties of some thing. For example, the more you know about the position of a particle (for example, an atom) the less you will know about its momentum, and vice versa. The particle is basically a bit fuzzy. You’ll know stuff about it, but you can’t know everything.

The second, related, thing you need to understand is the Schrödinger equation. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, experiments proved that particles (atoms and suchlike) actually behave like waves. They weren’t like, say, a tennis ball, that you could pin down exactly. Schrödinger came up with his equation to tell you mathematically how likely at particle is to be at a particular position.

The final things you need to know about are Wave Function Collapse and the Observer Effect. Basically, if you observe or measure a particle (or set some instrument or machine to do it) then the uncertainty in the Schrödinger equation for the thing being measured disappears. The wave “collapses”. Before you observed it, the particle was in a lot of different places. When you observe or measure it, it is just in one place.

This isn’t just a philosophical principle. You can actually prove it with experiments. No doubt most of you have heard of Schrödinger’s cat, where a cat locked in a box is both simultaneously alive and dead until you open the box and find out which. Physicists are not (in general) horrible enough to actually experiment on cats, but you can do the same thing with atoms or electrons and prove that this is something that really, really happens.

Want more on this by someone much smarter than I am? Watch this video:

So What?

By this point, you may well be wondering what the hell this has to do with anything, particularly the internet.

Well, quantum computing makes use of exactly the same principles. The information on the internet is saved in quantum states. Until they are observed, these quantum states and the information in them exist as a waveform. The information could be anything. When you observe it, it collapses into a fixed form.

How do you observe ‘the internet’? Well, you simply connect to it using your computer or phone or whatever. That very act of connecting (observing) collapses the waveform of the information on the internet into a single, fixed, measurable (readable) form. The exact nature of the information on the internet was previously a bit ‘fuzzy’ (remember the Uncertainty Principle?). Now it has been observed, it is exact. You can read it.

Of course, the wave function of the internet, is quite a narrow one. Remember, the wave function is basically the probability that something will have some property, that an atom will be in a particular location, for example. The probability that the information on the internet will be a particular thing is actually very high, but it’s not 100%. There is some uncertainty.

Now, of course if you collapsed the entire internet, you would lose those important quantum mechanical properties that quantum computing relies on to be so powerful. Take those away, and the computing power of the entire internet would be massively reduced just by someone connecting to it, which would be crap.

So what do the quantum computers do to avoid this problem? Well, it’s quite simple. They generate a ‘child universe’ that isn’t part of our universe at all, but is connected to it through a wormhole. Now, these child universes are not massive things like our universe. They are absolutely miniature. All they contain is the information in the collapsed version of the universe. (This isn’t difficult to achieve; the universe is basically just information, and you can argue that our universe is simply a quantum computer.) Like all observed quantum systems, they maintain their state until they are no longer being observed (or connected to, in this case), after which they decay.

So the quantum computers that run the internet keep their waveforms intact, and your particular version of the information in the internet exists in its own child universe that your computer is connected to. The next person to access the internet then causes the waveform to collapse again into another child universe. But this time, because of the uncertain nature of the waveform, it collapses to a slightly different form.

In other words, the new user of the internet experiences a slightly different internet to the one that you are experiencing.

The difference could be tiny. A comma missing, for example. Or it could be massive. An article that says a completely different thing. And, because of the way probability works, there is an infinitesimal chance (which may occur only once in billions of years) that the internet you experience is 100% different to the one that someone else experiences, causing great confusion.

And this is why, when you read something on the internet, you genuinely may be reading something completely different to what other people are reading. It’s not just they are stupid (although they almost certainly are).

Achievements Unlocked

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Today I got to finish writing two books in one day. How often does that happen?

Okay, I’m spinning this a little.

I finished my last major edits of THE EMPEROR OF MARS, which is the sequel to SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB and sent it off to my editor. There’s still the copyediting and the proofs (and possibly more proofs…) but that’s it for any big changes. Basically, the way the book is now is the way it is going to be when it’s published, other than the odd fix to sentences here and there.

THE EMPEROR OF MARS is set eight months after the events of SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB and features more deadly danger, thrilling adventures, and terrible peril.

As a celebration, here’s the opening sentences of THE EMPEROR OF MARS:

The Emperor of Mars

Mars, 1817

I was twenty feet underground, surrounded by glowing blue sandfish crystals, with my head jammed in a beetle-vine warren, when I realized that vine-mining wasn’t for me.

I had seen the notice pinned up outside the local office of the Imperial Martian Airship Company:

Volunteers Needed!
Root Out Beetle-Vines! Save Lunae City!
Sign Up Today!
Before it’s too late!

Perfect, I’d thought. What a great idea.

I had never been so wrong.

The book is out on July 18th, 2017, but advance copies will obviously be out sooner. Keep an eye on this blog if you want to know when you’ll get a chance to win one. :)

My Work-In-Progress, which I have also “finished”, is the first draft. That means, of course, that it’ll have to be rewritten many times, and so it could be completely, utterly different when it actually is published (and, of course, it might not get published at all). But here is a very brief taste of the opening. This may or may not be in the final version.

The Mystery of Firelake Hall

London, England, 1924

On the day that Miss Wellington was given the job of governess to the Stone children, she learned two absolutely unshakeable rules.

Firstly, nobody – absolutely nobody – talked about magic in the Stone household.

More on this one if and when it progresses!

Music Monday: Music I Missed

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I used to blog about music a wee bit on here, but I’ve realised I haven’t done if for, wow, over a year.

One of the great things about YouTube is that, if you use it enough for listening to music, it starts to suggest things you’ve never heard before.

I got into heavy metal in about 1985, or perhaps early 1986 (it was a long time ago now…). By that time, what was being called NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) had been going for quite some time. It started in 1979 (well, the name was coined then; some of the bands had been around for a few years) as a little bit of a reaction against punk. It had the same energy as punk, and some of the same attitude, but it put a higher value on musical talent and melody, and it grew as an underground musical movement, without any real coverage from mainstream media, with news of bands being spread by word-of-mouth and hand-produced fanzines.

Well, because I didn’t start listening to it until 1985-86, I missed a lot of bands that didn’t break out of those underground scenes and were essentially gone by the mid-80s. Which brings me back to now and YouTube. I’ve been exploring around, clicking from band to band, exploring the music I didn’t get a chance to experience the first time around.

There’s an awful lot of it, and I don’t have space to talk about it all here, but here are a few highlights I’ve come across.

Tokyo Blade

Tokyo Blade were a band who really should have made it. They had the talent and their music had enough potential. There were certainly similarities with Iron Maiden in the guitars and vocals (although Iron Maiden had a more complex, full sound). But they, like a lot of bands, went through far too many line-up changes and didn’t kick on as they should have done.

Nonetheless, they put out some good stuff and are, in fact, after disbanding several times, still around.

Here’s one of their songs, “If Heaven is Hell”:

Virtue

Virtue were formed in 1981, right when NWOBHM was at its height, but they didn’t actually release anything until their single, “We Stand to Fight”, in 1985. This was unfortunate because, to be honest, if they had released it three years earlier they might have had more success. But by 1985, the genre had shaken itself out a little bit. Iron Maiden had already released their first five albums and were a global phenomenon. Ozzy Osbourne had released Bark at the Moon and Diary of a Madman. Dio had put out Holy Diver and The Last in Line. Def Leppard, Accept, Queensryche, Warlock, and so on were all becoming big.

Even if you don’t know who these bands are, what I’m saying is that the major bands were already becoming superstars and releasing what would later be acknowledged to be the best albums in the genre. Virtue’s single felt just a few years too late.

Nonetheless, this is a classic bit of early NWOBHM that just happened to not appear early enough.

Praying Mantis

To be honest, I think I was vaguely aware of Praying Mantis, but I don’t think I ever actually listened to anything they put out. Which is a shame, because I think I would have liked them, and they were putting out good music. They were on the slightly ‘softer’ end of the heavy metal of the time – more AOR influenced, perhaps.

Praying Mantis had a reasonable amount of success and, although they broke up for a while, are now back together and playing again.

This is “Children of the Earth” from their first album.

Randy

For this last band, we’re going really obscure. This is a Danish band called (rather unfortunately) Randy. They only put out a few songs, and their best work came out as the two sides of their single, “Shadows are Falling / The Beast”. So, I’m going to put both here, because I really can’t decide which I prefer.

Here is “Shadows are Falling”:

And here is “The Beast”:

There are a lot of other great bands from the same era that I didn’t catch the first time around and which didn’t make it big, bands like Overdrive, Crucifixion, Excalibur, Mendes Prey, Cloven Hoof and so on. You can hear a bunch on this playlist (the playlist includes a couple of bands that were relatively successful, too):

Enjoy!

New Middle Grade Books for 2016: April – September

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Time for a bunch more great-looking middle grade books coming out this year. I blogged books coming out from January to April and from January to June. Now it’s time to look at books coming out from April to September. (Yeah, the dates overlap, because I don’t always know about books far ahead of time.)

All of these books are by new voices in middle grade, debut authors in other words.

Here we go again!

Treasure at Lure Lake, by Shari L. Schwarz

Published: April 12th, 2016.

An epic adventure—that’s all Bryce wants this summer. So when he stumbles upon a treasure map connected to an old family secret, Bryce is determined to follow the clues to unearth both, even it means hiking in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. Bryce must work with his bickering brother, Jack, or they may never see the light of day again!

This one is already out, so no need to delay. Get it now!

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Artifacts, by Pete Catalano

Published: May 17th, 2016

Jax and his friends have been planning the summer of a lifetime at Camp Runamuck. However, when one of them is facing summer at a school desk for failing English, they watch those plans crash and burn!

At the last moment they’re given a way out. An extra credit assignment to find several fake artifacts for a fairy tale display their teacher is presenting at the local library. But soon they realize that they’re searching for one real artifact that can rewrite fairytales. Now they’re in a race against actual fairytale villains to get their hands on it first.

Imagine The Goonies meets Peter Pan.

This one has also been out for a while so you should have no trouble finding it!

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Voyage to Magical North, by Claire Fayers

Published: July 5th, 2016

This is already out in the U.K. I know that, because I’m reading it right now, and very good it is too! Those of you in the U.S. have to wait a few more days. :D

Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.

When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Sticks & Stones, by Abby Cooper

Published: July 12th, 2016

Ever since she was a baby, the words people use to describe Elyse have instantly appeared on her arms and legs. At first it was just “cute” and “adorable,” but as she’s gotten older and kids have gotten meaner, words like “loser” and “pathetic” appear, and those words bubble up and itch. And then there are words like “interesting,” which she’s not really sure how to feel about.

Now, at age twelve, she’s starting middle school, and just when her friends who used to accept and protect her are drifting away, she receives an anonymous note saying “I know who you are, and I know what you’re dealing with. I want to help.” As Elyse works to solve the mystery of who is sending her these notes, she also finds new ways to accept who she is and to become her best self.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Last Cherry Blossom, by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden fom its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Rat Prince, by Bridget Hodder

Published: August 23rd, 2016

The dashing Prince of the Rats–who’s in love with Cinderella–is changed into her coachman by the Fairy Godmother on the night of the big ball. And he’s about to turn the legend (and the evening) upside down on his way to a most unexpected happy ending!

I don’t often enjoy fairytale retellings, but this one looks like enormous fun. Can’t wait.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Howard Wallace, P.I., by Casey Lyall

Published: September 6th, 2016

Twelve-year-old Howard Wallace lives by his list of rules of private investigation. He knows more than anyone how to work with what he’s got: a bathrobe for a trench coat, a makeshift office behind the school equipment shed, and not much else—least of all, friends. So when a hot case of blackmail lands on his desk, he’s ready to take it on himself . . . until the new kid, Ivy Mason, convinces him to take her on as a junior partner. As they banter through stakeouts and narrow down their list of suspects, Howard starts to wonder if having Ivy as a sidekick—and a friend—is such a bad thing after all.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee, by Erin Petti

Published: September 6th, 2016

Eleven-year-old Thelma Bee is never bored. In fact, she has curiosity and adventure in her blood. She spends her time running science experiments, practicing Spanish, and daydreaming about exotic landscapes. But Thelma gets more than she bargained for when a strange woman sells a jewelry box at her father’s antique shop.

That night, a ghost kidnaps her father, and the only clues are the jewelry box and a word the ghost whispered in her ear: “Return.” Now it’s up to Thelma to get her dad back, and it might be harder than she thought—there’s someone wielding dark magic, and they’re coming after her next.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Poppy Mayberry, The Monday, by Jennie K. Brown

Published: September 13th, 2016

What if your teacher could read your mind just because she was born on a Thursday? Or the kid next to you in class could turn back the clock just because he was a ‘Wednesday”? In the quirky town of Nova, all of this is normal, but one thing is not—Poppy Mayberry. As an almost-eleven-year-old Monday, she should be able to pass notes in class or brush her dog, Pickle, without lifting a finger. But her Monday telekinesis still has some kinks, and that plate of spaghetti she’s passing may just end up on someone’s head. And if that’s not hard enough, practically perfect Ellie Preston is out to get her, and Principal Wible wants to send her to remedial summer school to work on her powers! It’s enough to make a girl want to disappear…if only she were a Friday.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes, by Wade Albert White

Published: September 13th, 2016

A thrilling debut novel where fantasy and science fiction meet, dragons aren’t as innocent as they look, and nothing is quite what it seems.

Anne has spent most of her thirteen years dreaming of the day she and her best friend Penelope will finally leave Saint Lupin’s Institute for Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children. When the big day arrives, a series of very curious happenings lead to Anne being charged with an epic quest. Anne, Penelope, and new questing partner Hiro have only days to travel to strange new locales, solve myriad riddles, and triumph over monstrous foes–or face the horrible consequences.

Packed with action, humor, and endless heart, this debut novel marks the first volume in an irresistible and original fantasy series.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

That’s all I’ve got for now. I will probably do one more of these round-ups for the end part of 2016. But check on the books from this list and the previous ones. There’s great stuff there.

The Dinosaur Hunters: Out Now

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Today, my new novella, THE DINOSAUR HUNTERS, was published. I’ve been really looking forward to sharing this with you. For me, this story was just pure fun. I wanted to throw everything I love about science fiction adventures into my story: strange, alien civilisations and technology, spies, mysteries, deadly peril, adventure, and, of course, dinosaurs. Who wouldn’t want write a book like that?

THE DINOSAUR HUNTERS is set in the same world as SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB but it takes place a year earlier, and it’s entirely a stand-alone novella.

Buy now: Amazon | Kobo | Nook | Smashwords (all formats)

Here’s the blurb:

Mystery, murder, and adventure on Mars…

Mars in 1815 is a world of wonders, from the hanging ballrooms of Tharsis City to the air forests of Patagonian Mars, and from the ice caves of Noachis Terra to the Great Wall of Cyclopia, beyond which dinosaurs still roam.

Sixteen-year-old Harriet George has never had the chance for an adventure. Now her older sister is determined to marry her off. Harriet can’t think of anything worse.

Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, Bertrand, has a problem. He’s never been much of a police inspector. As far as Harriet knows, Bertrand has never caught a criminal in his life. But now the famous jewel thief, the Glass Phantom, has come to Mars, and Bertrand has been given the job of tracking him down. If he fails, Bertrand will lose his job and the whole family will be ruined.

Harriet will not let that happen.

So she comes up with a plan: she will capture the Glass Phantom herself. Even if that mean that she and Bertrand have to follow the thief’s intended victim, the Countess von Krakendorff, on a dinosaur hunt in the perilous Martian wilderness. But there is far more going on in this expedition than mere robbery, and the dinosaurs are not the greatest danger.

If Harriet cannot solve the mystery, her family won’t just be ruined. She and Bertrand may not make it out of the wilderness alive.

Buy now: Amazon | Kobo | Nook | Smashwords (all formats)

Or you can read the opening right here.

The Emperor of Mars Cover

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The cover for my second novel, THE EMPEROR OF MARS, kind of snuck its way out into the world last week without telling me. So, it’s time to officially give it its freedom here.

Without further waffle, here it is in its full glory:

The cover art is by Jeremy Holmes, just like for book 1. I think it’s great.

THE EMPEROR OF MARS is out on January 10th, 2017.

You can pre-order it now: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Barnes and Noble | Book Depository (International)

Add on Goodreads