Whimsical Woodlice (Porcellio laevis)

I bought woodlice on a whim, as you do. This wasn’t quite as random as it sounds, as I do know the basics of looking after them, I already had the stuff to set up a basic tank, and I was thinking of maybe getting some millipedes. But instead, I ended up with woodlice. They have the advantage of being small, so it doesn’t take much space to have a colony.

They’re Porcellio laevis, the swift woodlouse (named because they tend to run pretty fast when things are bad… they’re not ball rollers). They’re Porcellio laevis “Dairy Cow”, a colour/pattern morph kept in the pet trade. They’re mainly white with patches of dark grey, in contrast to the plain grey of most wild ones. I ordered six and ended up with seven. But that’s jumping ahead…

The first step was sorting out a tank. Woodlice need a humid environment, so it’s better to have a tank with less ventilation. Almost all of my tanks are the style with well-ventilated plastic lids. It’s debatable how much ventilation, but I didn’t want to go too low. Very low, such as just drilling a couple of holes, can run risks if fungi or bacteria get going. They’ll use up all the oxygen and the woodlice will suffocate. But my current lid was clearly too much the other way.

I used aquarium sealant to put some net curtain material on the underside of the lid (this is to discourage flies from getting into the tank). I made it bigger than I thought I needed, so I could adjust things with the next step. Then I covered the top with cling film, leaving two holes of about two inches square over the net curtain area.

Tank top

Image Caption: A view of the top of the tank. It’s a blue plastic mesh lid with a clear feeding hatch. Cling film covers most of the top. Two square areas are uncovered on each side, to provide ventilation.

I had some organic compost lying around, so used that to make a layer of two to three inches. Then I covered it with leaf litter and old wood (I baked this before use). I drilled some holes in half a coconut and buried it slightly, so it would be a hide. At the last minute, I remembered I had a cuttlefish bone, so I threw a piece in as a calcium source.

A woodlice tank

Image Caption: A view of the inside of the tank seen from above. Dark compost is covered in dead leaves and old wood. A coconut with two holes drilled is buried to the right side. The right side also has water droplets and a few pieces of vegetable (sweet potato, mushroom stalk and cucumber). On the left side, there is a white piece of cuttlefish bone, and there’s no water.

Then the exciting part: the woodlice arrived. I moved them out into a glass pot, so I could check they were fine and take a quick photograph. As they might be breeding, I wanted a record of my founders. The transfer went smoothly and they soon found hiding places.

I did put a thin layer of Vaseline around the top of the tank, to discourage climbing. I’d heard conflicting reports about whether they could climb glass/plastic or not. As it turns out, this species really can’t. They were unable to climb the sides of the plastic pot they came in or the glass pot I used to transfer them.

Seven woodlice

Image Caption: A collage of the seven woodlice, with some dead leaves, soil, and white kitchen roll in view. The woodlice are white with dark grey patches, especially near the edges of their body and in a line down the centre of the body. Some are a little brownish near the front, though others are more pure white. Each one has a unique spot pattern.

I’ve been spraying one side of the tank only, near the coconut, to give them a moisture gradient. I sprayed the first few days, but I think the humidity is about where it needs to be now. I’m aiming to spray once or twice a week. If that doesn’t work, I’ll close the holes down a bit, but it looks like it’s about right at the moment.

It was a tad hot the first few days, though I did see them sometimes at night. Today was a little cooler, meaning that I saw six of the seven out at once. The cuttlefish bone and algae wafers are the current favourite foods. Now, it’s just about waiting for baby woodlice to appear.

The Terrible Trio of Nymphs

It’s baby cockroach time! I don’t breed my hissing cockroaches, so sometimes it’s time for some new ones. I ordered two and got an extra free. All of my cockroaches have come from Virginia Cheeseman. They’re always well-packaged and healthy, and I like being able to choose the general age (a lot of places only sell mixed tubs, which isn’t suitable for non-breeding pets). I also bought some woodlice this time, but that’s a tale for later.

The first nymph has a slight kink in their antennae, but this shouldn’t cause them any issues. They’ll also get new ones when they moult.

They’re one of those rarer few who like water enough to wade in it. Most of the cockroaches avoid going in the water at all, but I have had a small number before who will go in on purpose. They’ll only do that when it’s shallow enough that they can hold their abdomen over the water. This can also be filed under why I don’t worry about having open water bowls, because hissers are smart about water. I do use stepped reptile bowls, so they can easily climb in and out.

A hissing cockroach nymph

Image Caption: A top view of a hissing cockroach nymph in a clear plastic tank. They’re brown with some white at the edges of the abdomen segments. One antenna has a noticeable kink in it.

The second nymph has been pretty average in behaviour and looks so far. They’ve spent most of their time in their egg box.

A hissing cockroach nymph on cardboard

Image Caption: A hissing cockroach nymph on a yellow cardboard egg box. They look very similar to the previous nymph, but have more white on the top of their legs and straight antennae.

And the third escaped. I always open packages over an empty tank, so that any escapees will just end up in the tank. This one had other plans. They jumped from the pot to my arm, then jumped to the tank wall, then went over the top. This is like being the jumping spider of cockroaches. Most just try to crawl out, rather than setting up a multi-point jump to get out. They’re not good jumpers, as they tend to make a rush for it and hope the momentum carries them, but it was enough to get out in this case.

Inside a set of drawers

Image Caption: A view inside a set of drawers, with the drawers removed. A plastic tank, egg box, and kitchen roll, have been placed on the floor in the space. An envelope leans up against the wooden board at the back of the space, making it harder for a cockroach to climb out that way. A green arrow points to the corner of the space, where a cockroach nymph is hiding.

Before I could grab them, they climbed under the shelves under my bed. Fortunately, there’s a backing bit to the shelves, so they stopped at that point. I managed to coax them onto some kitchen roll and then got them in a tank.

A dusty hissing cockroach nymph

Image Caption: The escapee cockroach nymph in a plastic tank. They look much like their companions, apart from a layer of dust from running around under the drawers. The edge of an egg box is in view. Through the tank sides, two other plastic tanks can be seen.

Excitement aside, all the nymphs are doing well. They’ve all been drinking water directly, which isn’t a surprise given the heat. I noted before that I have a lot of nymph pictures, but not as many of adults, so I will try to be better about photographing them when they’re older. They’ll most likely be a solid dark brown, as the white markings don’t last to adulthood.

I haven’t named them yet. Suggestions are welcome!

All the Stars Left Behind – Ashley Graham

Stars CoverFirst Published: 6th June, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Leda moves to Norway after her father’s death. Roar is an alien looking for a weapon to stop the destruction of his world.

Aliens in this setting are basically human. There’s a reference to humans being “almost another species” compared to Aurelites (Roar’s people). So there are differences, but they’re not that huge. The only oddity is blood colour changes depending on where someone is born. It’s probably best not to worry about the science of that too closely.

The early part of the novel had some odd jumps and inconsistencies. My guess would be there were some heavy cuts in the beginning during editing and the rest wasn’t changed to match up, but it means it’s a little confusing at times. Things settle out when the space elements gets going.

The book has instalove, which is not really my thing. I did like that Leda and Roar have to consider life beyond instalove. I wasn’t so fond of the idea that sex is mandatory for relationships (this comes mainly from Leda). I also don’t like over-protective and controlling behaviour from love interests. Roar does this less often than some, but he still ends up climbing into her bed and hugging her without asking, not letting goes when she struggles, and it’s fine because that’s what she wants after all. This is scary, not romantic.

There’s a fair bit of representation in this book, but some of it is rocky. Early on, there’s a microaggression about a woman having shoulders that are too broad for a woman, which sets the tone. There are a lot of little things and some big things. I’ll discuss a few of them, but it’s not a complete list.

Leda has spina bifida and uses crutches. The good sides are that she isn’t magically cured when the alien stuff gets going and she can’t suddenly run around without crutches when the plot demands it. There is also a mention of having limited energy, such as walking without crutches for a short distance making it hard to walk at all. However, I wasn’t fond of her constant self-hatred. She’s internalised a lot ableism, which may well be realistic, but it is somewhat constant during the story. She wants people to see past her disability, as though it’s a negative thing that overlays the real person inside.

Leda appears to be non-white. She’s described as having light brown skin and black hair. Roar considers that she looks “Spanish-meets-Arabic”. So she’s likely someone who has ancestry that is not clear. I didn’t like that Roar considers her “beautiful in an exotic kind of way”. This is not a compliment. Worded another way, this is saying she’s pretty for someone of her race, not properly pretty like all the pale blondes.

Roar’s friend Petrus is mute and uses sign language. Both norsk tegnspråk and Aurelis’s sign language. It’s unclear how he became mute, though it’s implied that he hasn’t always been.

One of the characters is a trans boy. The reveal was through misgendering and deadnaming the character, which is repeated several times. Also, it avoided any issues that would be specific to Aurelites. Namely that males have living tattoos that develop at birth. There is a brief mention of the trans boy having tattoos, but it’s something I’d have expected to be much more of a big deal in this context.

Some of the supporting characters are either gay or bi/pan. There’s not a lot to say on that, as not a lot happened, but they’re there.

The central issue is that this book copies some tropes that are popular in mainstream books, without critically looking at those tropes. It’s great to have a more diverse cast, but not so great to copy harmful tropes relating to that diverse cast. It’s painful because a lot of these things were on the surface. They could have been sorted without changing the main plot. It did feel like the author was trying, but wasn’t able to get there.

All this aside, I thought the book was reasonable. It passed the time and there were some bits I liked. The concept of aliens hiding out in a remote part of Norway was an interesting idea. The space conflicts make it clear that there’s more going on. There’s the potential for a series tackling some colonial political issues. Note that the book does have an ending, but it’s written as though it is the first in a series rather than a true standalone.

Fillius Glint – Ditrie Marie Bowie

Fillius Glint CoverFirst Published: 31st January, 2017
Genre: Science Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A universe is attacked by hackers who want to destroy it. Meanwhile in the universe, three people find some magical colouring pencils.

There are four viewpoint characters and a frame story. The frame is a family where the children are growing universes. When hackers attack the home network, Nancy loses most of her universes. The one that remains is where most of the story takes place.

Fillius has quite a bit of viewpoint time, showing the lead up to the main story events. He was raised in the gender-neutral religion of Zorda. Everyone uses Spivak pronouns, which is briefly explained at the start of the book. People with breasts bind them. The aim is to be as genderless as possible, in honour of the deity. I had issues believing all this, because the Zords are very binary for a gender-neutral cultural group. When they do gendered things, it is based on where they would be assigned in a binary society. So if they would be assigned female at birth, they might wear a dress or makeup. They also have names to indicate that, just with a letter cut off the end, rather than using truly gender-neutral naming conventions (Clar/Clara, Nor/Nora, Belind/Belinda).

On my first read, it gave the impression that being non-binary was a sham and that no one was really non-binary. On a second read, I can see it might be intended to show Fillius’s issues. He decides he’s a man based on his genitals. He starts misgendering other Zords. Everything he sees is filtered through this perspective. It’s also possible the names are due to more recent converts altering their names. However, this is the first introduction to anyone non-binary in the book, and the only time the Zords are shown living in a community, so I remained uncomfortable with it even after seeing it in the context of the full story.

Fortunately, the other viewpoint characters are more interesting and don’t fall into this as much. Their story happens in the present in the universe, as each of them picks up a magic crayon.

Luiz is recovering from breaking up with his girlfriend by taking a lot of drugs. He’s also in trouble with a business associate. I liked that his story deals with issues facing people of ethnic minorities in a majority culture.

Calliya is a shaman who lives alone in the forest and has control over elements. This introduces another religion and culture. I also liked how it highlights the ridiculousness of some of the worldbuilding, such as the trees with tacos growing on them. I could imagine a child growing a universe like this.

Nor is a Zord living outside of a Zord community. Unlike the Zords in Fillius’s sections, it’s clear Nor really is non-binary. Ey faces issues like gendered changing rooms. Ey competes in a sport that splits people by weight class, rather than gender, to avoid some of those issues. Nor is very honest and open, to the point that when things get weird, ey just tells eir coach plainly what’s going on, magic crayons and all. There is some misgendering of Nor by the others initially, particularly from Luiz, but this is something that self-corrects. It’s rare to have characters get it wrong, realise they were wrong, and start getting it right, without being told to do that.

Once I got past Fillius’s initial sections, I did enjoy the book overall. The setup and plot are unique. The protagonists contrasted well with each other. It presents a world that’s fanciful, yet also complicated in a realistic way, with different cultures and how they interact. The main weakness was the Zords, because outside of Nor, it didn’t hold together for me as a gender-neutral society.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Book Launch: Werecockroach – Science Fantasy Novella

It’s launch day for my new novella! Werecockroach is a tale of aliens and werecockroaches. I’ll talk a little bit about the book, including a few story notes with background on some of the themes. But first, here are some quick links if you want to skip all that. The book is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK and Smashwords. Other retailers are listed on the official book page. The page also has links to cover merchandise and a brief content guide.

 

Book Description

Rin moves into a new flat on the day the aliens arrive. Their new flatmates are laid-back Sanjay and conspiracy theorist Pete. It doesn’t take long to notice some oddities about the pair, like hoarding cardboard and hissing at people when they’re angry. Something strange is going on, but it’s not all due to the aliens.

The book also includes a bonus short story, from the perspective of one of the supporting characters from the novella.

 Werecockroach  Cover

 

On Cockroaches

The idea for the book came from having hissing cockroaches as pets. One of the biggest misconceptions when people find out about my pets is that they’re like the cockroaches that invade people’s kitchens. There are a lot of different species of cockroaches. Hissers aren’t one of the ones that people will see in their homes (outside of being pets).

They’re from the forests of Madagascar and eat things that have fallen to the forest floor. Pet cockroaches are fed mainly on fruit and vegetables, with a little meat protein here and there. They don’t smell strongly, they don’t fly, and they tame easily. All round, they’re very hardy and easy to keep.

They hiss in various different ways. The one people typical know is the loud disturbance hiss, but they make a number of other hisses. A common one is a soft hiss that accompanies normal daily activities. They’ll sometimes hiss to themselves and sometimes they’ll hiss back and forth with another cockroach. Some are more vocal than others. I’ve had some that hardly ever hiss to some that hiss softly for most of the time they’re awake.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt from keeping them is how much personality they have. Each cockroach is different. They like different foods and they react in different ways. They learn and remember, which is why they soon get to know that I’m not a dangerous predator who wants to eat them. They’re funny little critters, and if they could turn into humans, I’d be happy to invite them round for tea.

 

On Identity and Time

The characters in the novella share aspects of my identity, though it doesn’t mean that they have identical life experiences. One thing I had to consider was how age would change things. When I was younger, being androgynous was the only way that I’d heard to describe being non-binary, long before I’d ever heard the term non-binary. It also wasn’t uncommon for anyone who didn’t quite fit in a gay/straight divide to end up in the bisexual community, so that was primarily how I described myself when I was younger, rather than aromantic and asexual.

Rin wouldn’t have grown up with those experiences. Information has been much more available since the internet, as well as giving people better access to communities. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a different thing, so the book was partly an exercise in considering how things might have gone differently if I’d been born a little bit later. Would I have chosen agender instead of androgyne to describe my gender? Would I have gone directly to aroace? I won’t ever really know, but it was likely enough to say that’s how it went for Rin.

My experiences of dyslexia (Rin) and sensory processing disorder (Pete) were also influenced by age. There was some awareness of dyslexia when I was younger, though it mostly didn’t go beyond maybe giving someone a bit of extra time in tests. I didn’t know SPD existed until I was well into adulthood. Before that, I was treated as being picky, because no one really acknowledged that those sensory things caused a lot of discomfort and pain.

Hidden hearing loss is probably the most influenced by time, as the studies that identified it were only in the 21st century. Even Rin would have been born before anyone knew about that. But I liked the idea of them knowing what was going on. It would have helped me to know a lot earlier than I did (I was obviously aware that I had tinnitus once I was old enough to realise that not everyone had loud sounds in their ears, but hidden hearing loss was a later thing).

What has stayed about the same is my experience of race, because people react much the same way now as they did when I was younger. Not everything is progress.