Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Shadowlord: Book Three of the Shadow Born Trilogy

Shadowlord, the third installment in the Shadow Born Trilogy, is slated for publication this October:

Just as D.A.S. finally had the Shadow on the run, all the rules changed.... 

The Shadowlords have been waiting ten thousand years for this moment. The doomsday machine has been activated, reuniting the worlds of light and dark matter. The planet Niburu has returned. Shadow creatures walk among humans and magic is once again real. Gabriel and his companions thought they were ready, but nothing could have prepared them for the final conflict.

Coming this October!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Project: Canoes! (Yes, I did.)

Okay, I wasn't going to get into another project right now. I had other things to do. Three books to edit. Maintenance on the house and the cars. Three kids home for the summer. I'd have to be insane to start another project, right? That's a rhetorical question, by the way, and I prefer the word eccentric if you please. 

 Here's the thing: I can't write a lot during the summer. With the kids home, I get maybe two hours of writing time in the early morning. Occasionally, I can sneak away to a quiet corner of the house and do some editing, but children have a sixth sense for that kind of thing. They can happily play video games and watch Netflix for hours on end, but the moment I start working on a book, they NEED me. Almost without fail, I get one or two paragraphs edited before somebody is screaming. So I found myself with some time on my hands and just a little bit of money... not enough to buy some canoes(as discussed in a previous post), but enough to build some. (And of course, I really wanted some canoes for my family. Who doesn't?)

Yeah, I do have another project I'm working on, but it's a secret project, so no more hints until it's done... At any rate, I couldn't help myself. God love my poor wife, she actually let me do it: I made two canoes. Being a complete amateur at this, I did my research and then decided to break all the rules right off the bat. Naturally, I started by building two canoes at once. Why bother cutting one sheet of ply when you can do two? Of course, I didn't want to make two canoes exactly the same, so I changed the plans for one. 'Cause I'm like a genius or something. Oh, well. Give a guy credit for trying. 

For simplicity's sake, along with budgetary concerns and a complete void of experience, I decided to go with the stitch-and-glue method. This basically means you take a set of measurements from plans, and mark them onto sheets of plywood, which you then cut to shape, glue (with epoxy) and stitch with wire or zip-ties. 

As the canoe takes shape, you fill the gaps with wood filler and epoxy, and then fiberglass the seams. 

Hopefully, at some point, it begins to resemble an actual canoe. I can't even describe how exciting it is when this actually happens!

After many hours of cutting, gluing, and fiberglassing, you spend many, many more hours sanding. And then you sand some more. After several coats of epoxy inside and out, you sand again. Then, at last, you can varnish it to a nice gleam, stand back, and admire your own Frankenstein's monster.

That's my beautiful daughter in the background of course, and (ahem) my slightly under-irrigated lawn in the fore.

Happily, I have gotten a number of nice comments on these canoes already. The first guy who saw them at the lake said "Wow, that's an old canoe, isn't it?" Naturally, I explained that it wasn't actually old, it just looked like crap because it was homemade. He laughed, and appeared genuinely impressed with my first-time build. I know what he meant, though. There really is something about the character of wood, and the shape of an object like this brings it home. My plywood canoes don't just look old, they look historical. They have presence. For an inanimate object like a canoe, that's saying something.

 I had a lot of fun building these boats, and it only took about a month. I did have to buy a few tools (terrible, that-lol) and I did spend a little more than I had planned, in both time and money, due in part to my decision to make two at once and -like a good amateur- redesign the plans on my own. Another result of this re-design is the fact that the smaller canoe, which is narrower and has considerable rocker built into the design, really works best with just one person. The more weight you put into it, the more unstable it behaves. It's also got an unusually high center of gravity, so it paddles best when kneeling rather than in the sitting position. It floats and it goes from point A to point B, but it's not a very practical design and next time I'll know better than to start changing things right out of the gate.

So now, I'm all set for the next project. (Heh, heh.) Not really. I'm going to spend some time enjoying these with my family. We have lots of good canoeing and camping weather before winter comes. I would like to move up to a strip canoe next. They're more work, but I don't mind taking my time on a project that I know I'll treasure for years to come. Unlike these plywood canoes, a strip canoe is made of valuable hardwood and is an exacting, painstaking process by comparison. Then again, it's also possible to build rowboats, kayaks, sailboats, and even catamarans and fishing boats using this stitch-and-glue method... some of those ideas sound awfully tempting...

If you're interested in learning more, here are a few canoe and boatbuilding resources:

 And a stitch-and-glue fishing boat you won't believe!:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Life Without Eggs (part two)

Last week I wrote about my egg allergy, the revealing incident, and the things I learned in the wake of that fateful hospital visit. This week I want to focus on how I've learned to completely bypass eggs in my life, but still enjoy most of the foods that I used to love. Even wine! I'll be talking about eggs in particular, but if you or someone you know has a different food allergy, you can take similar steps to continue living more or less like a normal person. Obviously, I spent a lot of time researching my allergy. I learned to identify eggs in ingredient lists by other names: globulin, lecithin, albumin and so on.

Once I had isolated the foods of concern, I went about finding brands that lacked egg  ingredients. One shortcut for me is to look for vegetarian or vegan brands. Most of these don't use any animal products, including eggs (Always check the ingredients, or ask the manufacturer if you're unsure). Similarly, I found that wines listed on Barnivore as vegan friendly do not use eggs as a fining ingredient and can generally be considered safe. Do note however, that Barnivore's database is updated irregularly and many of the updates are submitted by users. It's an imperfect system, so be careful. Again, it's always a good idea to contact the manufacturer if you're in doubt. 

And if you are exposed to eggs or another allergen in a food that does not label the ingredients (like wine and other alcoholic beverages) be sure to let the manufacturer know. Until they hear from us, they won't change a thing. At the very least, it would be nice to have a small warning on the label! I know at least two people who have shellfish allergies, both of whom occasionally break out in hives after drinking wine. Until I explained about the fining process, they had no idea what caused this unusual reaction. Unfortunately, no business is going to change anything they do out of the goodness of their hearts. If their products make us sick, we have to let them know. We don't necessarily have to threaten lawsuits, but if we let them know we were sickened, they'll take the hint.

Okay, so I had determined which foods I could eat, but what about the ones I couldn't? Like cake, and cookies, and eggnog? I didn't want my snacking life to end just because I couldn't have eggs anymore! Well, there are ways around the traditional use of eggs. I've learned for example, that most ready-mix cakes will do just fine with 2 or 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil instead of eggs. Of course, that was after going several years without cake. Eventually, my cravings overwhelmed my laziness and I hit the internet in search of recipes.

Here are a few of my old favorites that I had to rediscover/reinvent:

  • Eggnog: 1 package of vanilla instant pudding with 5 or 6 cups of milk (add or subtract to taste) and some sprinkles of nutmeg is almost indistinguishable from the store-bought stuff. Warning: modern thickeners in this stuff will eventually thicken no matter how thin you make it, so just make enough for the evening! If you thin it too much trying to get a consistent thickness, you'll just water down the flavor.
  • French Toast (!): A flour paste consisting of water, flour, salt, sugar, and cinammon is a great replacement for eggs. Mix it to a thin gravy-like consistency and then dip and fry the bread like usual. Wheat flour works great, but plain white flour works, too! This one really surprised me with how convincing it was. Does it taste like eggs? Not so much. But the consistency is close, and with your favorite toppings you'll hardly notice the difference.
  • Pasta/ Egg Rolls: A simple homemade pasta can be used to replace traditional egg roll wrappers. Flour, water, and a pinch of salt make a great wrapper (also use this recipe to make your own raviolis!) You will need a pasta roller to get the thickness right, or be prepared for a lot of rolling by hand. (Eggroll filling is easy. Stir fry some chopped cabbage with diced onions, garlic, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. Sausage is a standard meat filler but many meats will suffice - or you can go vegetarian. Season with a bit of soy sauce and ginger. Fill the wrappers, roll them, and deep fry.)
  • Bread: In breads, egg is used mostly as a glaze on the crust. It's not needed for baked (yeast) breads. If you really want a glaze, try butter instead! Better yet, season the butter. Try some garlic and oregano. Or for a sweet bread, cinnamon and honey. Use your imagination. Perhaps someday I'll post my own personal bread recipes...
  • Meatballs and/or Meatloaf: A touch of olive oil is all you need. Maybe not even that.  Crackers or dried bread crusts are common fillers. Mix these with your ground beef, some onions, garlic, ketchup or tomato sauce, and a dash of Worcestershire. Don't use too much filler, and you can make a nice firm meatloaf without any egg replacement whatsoever.
  • Cakes: As mentioned above, skip the eggs in instant cake batter and add a little olive oil. If you're baking from scratch you can try adding a bit of corn starch as well (just a teaspoon or so).
  • Cookies: A little extra olive oil or butter will improve the consistency. The lift comes from the baking powder, so the eggs aren't really necessary in many cases. In some recipes eggs are hard to replace, others work great. It's all about trial and error with cookies.
  • Omelets: Seriously, it is possible, but it's not the same. A light flour paste much like the one used in French Toast above can be fried on a griddle (like a pancake). Toss in some mushrooms, onions, cheese, or whatever else you like. When it's ready, flip it over just like a regular omelet. It's not a perfect replacement but you can't really ask flour to replace a dish that's 99% egg, right? Even so, it's not bad if done right and it can fill that void if you really miss your omelets.
  • Eggs Benedict: Skip the eggs. Mix up a thick gravy made with chicken bullion/base and lemon pepper or benedict powdered mix. Grill some ham and English muffins. Slap it all together. It's good enough that you won't miss the eggs too much.

And so on. Obviously, kitchens do vary, as do altitudes. You will have to experiment a little to replace your favorite foods. The good news is that in many cases, it is possible. The important thing is not giving up. Food is one of life's greatest pleasures, so don't automatically assume a food allergy is some sort of prison sentence. is a site dedicated to this subject. I haven't spent much time there yet, but they seem to have a good selection of recipes, so it's worth a look! I know my wife and I will be perusing the site regularly in search of new ideas.

For more information on food allergies in general, WebMD has a good article.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Are food allergies making you ill? How about that wine? Are you sure?

A quick aside before I get to the topic: Thanks to everyone who participated in the Darkling giveaway. It was a great success. If you happen to be one of the winners, your book is on the way! I've had a few requests for additional review copies, so this is a good time to remind everyone that I do provide review copies free of charge when I have them available. If I don't have any in stock there may be a short wait, but don't let that discourage you. Send an email with your name and address so I can add you to the list. 

Also, note the link at the top of the page: I've just started a Shadow Born giveaway. Be sure to sign up at Goodreads for a chance to win a signed copy.

Now, onto the matter at hand:

The topic of food allergies may seem a pretty far removed from my usual subject matter, but it's something that has had a profound effect on my life. Truth be told, food allergies nearly killed me, and I didn't even know I had them. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but I assure you I'm not exaggerating. I didn't even know I had these allergies until I was in the hospital fighting for my life.

The problem with the symptoms is that they are not uniform. They manifest differently depending on the food as well as the person, and they may be as subtle as a change in mood or difficulty concentrating. I experienced symptoms of depression, mood swings, mild anxiety attacks, difficulty concentrating and/or subtle changes in my perception (as if the world had suddenly, literally, become dark and gloomy). Occaisionally, I would even get sick... But then, we all get sick once in a while, right? That's why my parents chalked my frequent illnesses up to what they called my "weak stomach."

My silent killer is eggs. Yep, good old farm eggs - the kind you scramble up for an omelet or serve on the side with biscuits and gravy. I enjoyed them for most of my childhood. I had reactions of course, but unfortunately the symptoms were so subtle that I never drew a connection between the symptoms and the food. That's why no one else - not even my parents-ever realized I was suffering.It's hard to explain how these things can affect a person who has never experienced then. It's even harder to understand why something like this can go on for years without the victim even realizing what's wrong. The problem is that a person who has lived his or her entire life this way tends to assume that's just how life is. Moods go up and down. Anxieties sneak up on you and then go away as if they never existed. Frequent stomach flues and occaisional panic attacks are just part of life... The sufferer doesn't realize that feeling like this isn't normal, especially in the case of a child or young adult. To make matters worse, some allergens give very minor symptoms at first, and only increase after repeated exposures. In other words, eggs might make me moody on day one, make me nauseous on day two, and kill me on day three. Or, if the stars align just right, they might go ahead and kill me on day one.

My symptoms affected my family life, my friendships, and my education. My mood swings made it difficult to manage relationships, especially within my own family, and the other symptoms made concentrating on classroom lectures or homework all but impossible. Not to mention my frequent absences from school, or the fact that I frequently became ill or uncomfortable after lunch because I had eaten something that had eggs as an ingredient. I eventually quit eating breakfast altogether because I realized that for some reason I always felt lousy in the morning, but again, I thought that was just the way my body worked. Nothing unusual there. Lots of people don't eat breakfast, right?

Then came the day a nurse gave me an antibiotic shot that had been cultured in eggs. I remember her specifically asking if I had any allergies, to which I naturally responded "No." Then she stuck the needle in me and I immediately began shaking violently. I fell over and my body involuntarily curled into a fetal position. My vision went black and I lost consciousness. I woke in a hospital bed a few hours later, half-delirious and completely baffled as to what had happened. The doctor tried to explain it all to me but my brain was so cloudy I may as well have been on drugs. My head was in a fog for the next few days. It took years to finally remember the sequence of events that led to that hospital bed. The attack was so bad, it had given me temporary amnesia.

Since then, I have learned to live without eggs. Believe me, it ain't easy. I rarely eat out because it's difficult to find menu items that don't have eggs as an ingredient and it's a hassle to make the waitress go back and forth checking everything. Here are a few examples: Restaurant pasta usually contains eggs as an ingredient. Bread products and hamburger buns often do, and sometimes even crackers contain eggs. Soup and sauce bases may have them as an additive. Cakes, cookies, and other bakery desserts almost always have them. I found out the hard way that A&W's cheese on their burgers is made with eggs (or was at the time) and Pizza Hut's sauce also contained egg ingredients. And another surprising item that's off my menu: WINE.

It's true. Winemakers use eggs as a fining agent. If the wine doesn't clear satisfactorily, wineries use eggs to remove some of the proteins and force the wine to clear. This is done by mixing the fining agent straight into the wine, where it clings to other proteins and settles to the bottom. The wine can then be bottled and shipped.

After having an allergic reaction quite a few years ago, my wife and I made an exhaustive list of every item I had consumed over the last few days. We then verified that everything was egg-free. The only unconfirmed item was a red wine we'd shared with a friend over dinner. That sent me into research mode, and it didn't take long to confirm my suspicions. I was shocked to learn that wine could indeed have eggs in it.

I contacted several local wineries to verify this process. They all confirmed that they used eggs occasionally, but assured me that no eggs remain in the wine. How they manage that, I don't know. After spending several years researching and learning to make my own wine, I've still not found a sure way to remove eggs from the final product. It doesn't take much imagination to see how an allergen -a tiny protein in eggs, for example- could remain in the finished product. Any filtration that could remove this protein would not only negatively affect the wine, but also render the use of eggs redundant. In other words, if you have a filter good enough to pull egg proteins out of wine, then you don't need eggs at all. Just filter the wine!

I learned that wineries use not only eggs, but also products derived from milk and shellfish. As far as I know, eggs are the only fining agent they use completely unmodified, with all allergens fully intact. I also learned that there had been a movement to label alcoholic beverages with allergens, but wineries lobbied against this labeling on the grounds that it would turn off consumers, and also argued that since no one has died of anaphylaxis after drinking wine, that must mean no one gets sick. Labels are already required in Europe because even tiny particles of allergens present an inherent danger to the highly sensitized. 

Surprisingly, winemakers don't need to use these known allergens. Hypoallergenic fining agents have long been available that are cheap and just as effective. However, these hypoallergenic products aren't traditional fining agents, and therefore some winemakers tend to look down their nose at them. Winemakers also tend to gravitate towards techniques they're familiar with, and eggs are something of a time-honored tradition. Still, it's hard not to conclude that some wineries would prefer to poison some of us rather than using safer alternatives, or simply adding a few words to the back of their label so that we know which wines to avoid. Apparently, this will never happen until people are made aware of the problem so they can begin reporting their reactions to the proper authorities and -yeah, I'll say it- Lawyers. Because when you get down to the nitty-gritty, no big business is going to go to any extra work or expense unless it involves their bottom line.

I've gone a little off-topic here, so I'll get back on point. I may return to the wine issue in a later post, but for now I want to focus on the subtle symptoms of food allergies that you or someone you know may be experiencing. If you suffer any of these, pay attention to the foods you've eaten in the last forty-eight hours. You may be able to draw a parallel, and change your whole life for the better simply by avoiding something in your diet!:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating. This can be hard to pin down. Struggling to read or to calculate math problems (that you could do yesterday) may be a sign, for example, or being a whiz at crosswords one day and unable to answer the simplest questions the next.
  • A sudden change in perception with no reasonable explanation, as if the world suddenly became very gloomy (or alternatively, very bright)
  • Unexplained mood swings. Do you start the day in a normal mood and suddenly find yourself depressed, for absolutely no reason? 
  • Unexplained panic attacks. Have you ever been in a perfectly comfortable place (a meal with friends, a restaurant, a picnic perhaps) and suddenly felt an urgent need to get away?
  • Any of the above, possibly accompanied by a tight-chested feeling or a sense of foreboding.
 These are just a few of the symptoms to look for, but if any of these sound familiar, please look deeper. Do some research and start keeping a food diary to help you isolate possible culprits. Ask for help. Sometimes, when you're not thinking clearly, you can't even remember what you ate yesterday, much less keep track of it. It's also a good idea to consult with your doctor and schedule some allergy tests. In fact, if you have any of these symptoms, please see a doctor ASAP. Be wary of attempting to fix any health problem on your own. This is just asking for trouble.

Milk, eggs, shellfish, soy and wheat products are some of the most common allergy culprits in food. You can find a more exhaustive list here, along with more info about food allergies and symptoms.