FF: This Is It!

December 18, 2020
Roary Considers the Problem of Keeping Warm

Prioritizing holiday stuff and writing, back and forth as the demands of one take over from the other, hasn’t left as much time for writing as I’d like.  But I’m still writing!

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy by James Anderson.  Published in the mid-seventies, this is both an affectionate homage to the classic detective stories of the 1930’s, and a good yarn in its own right.

Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  One of Archie’s attempts to prod Nero out of his typical lethargy has unexpected consequences, and Archie ends up as the client.  A good story, although sadder than many.

In Progress:

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling.  A lovely book of mythic fantasy that is also a tale about the cost of inspiration.  Despite being firmly rooted in a specific time period and a specific setting, it does not seem in the least dated.

The Tower of Nero by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Apollo and Meg return to Manhattan where their journeys began.  Possibly the oddest thing about this book is the repeated mentions that only six months have gone by since the first in this series.  These kids should have seriously PTSD with what they’ve been through.  And, perhaps they do.

Also:

Holiday prep and writing haven’t left me a lot of reading time, so other than glancing at a few magazine articles and often re-reading the same paragraphs over and over, this is it!

Silence and My First Book

December 16, 2020
Doctor!

My first book wasn’t Science Fiction or Fantasy.  It was my doctoral dissertation: The Persephone Myth in D.H. Lawrence.  I’ve been told it’s pretty readable, even for a non-expert, which is nice.  What’s the good of a book no one can read?

I don’t talk about my Ph.D. very often these days.  For one, I earned it over half a lifetime ago.  I defended my doctoral dissertation on my 26th birthday.  I could have defended it earlier, but the English department at Fordham University couldn’t assemble a committee to read the document and gather for the required defense until the Fall term, so I had to wait.

Another reason I rarely talk about my Ph.D. is that I rapidly discovered that people became uncomfortable when they learned I had a doctorate in English.  They’d apologize for the grammar in their letters or even in conversation.  Oddly enough, I’ve rarely encountered this reaction when people learn I’m a writer.  I guess writers aren’t supposed to know anything about language.

I’ve even been “silenced,” most memorably by a well-meaning, well-educated, female author who let me know that a person in publishing with whom I was going to be working was very self-conscious about his own lack of education, and so I probably shouldn’t mention mine.

As I recall the conversation, she said, “It’s not that you brag or anything.  You just mention your graduate work and that you taught college from time to time, because it’s part of your life.  But I thought you should know that…”

Keep quiet.  Women shouldn’t make other people—especially male people—nervous.  The message is given over and over, usually in ways far more subtle than this.

The lack of use of the title “doctor” for other than medical professionals also reflects how the U.S. doesn’t really value higher education.  The silencing is general, usually applied to male and female alike.  Even the addressing of medical doctors as “doctor” is more an identification of a skill set than the honor it should be.  “Is there a doctor in the house?” means “Is there a body technician available who might fix this problem?”

I have friends who brag about how their colleges were informal, how they never addressed a professor as “Professor” or “Doctor.”  I think this is a pity.  Those people earned those titles.  This is the one setting in which our culture permits that to be acknowledged.  Yet people who themselves were striving toward a degree devalued their own goal by their lack of acknowledgement.

Do I give people their titles?  You bet.  Years ago, Jim and I spent a lot of time with a talented and very kind veterinarian who made herself available to help us with a severely handicapped baby guinea pig.  She is quite a bit younger than we are and, at one point, she suggested we use her first name.

I looked at her and said, “You worked hard for that title.  How about we call you by your first name and ‘doctor’?” And so we do.

Anyhow, there’s the story behind my first book…  And of one of my achievements, about which I remain, to this day, very proud.

FF: Mystery and Midnight

December 11, 2020
Mei-Ling Poses

My reading is the usual eclectic mix this week.  I haven’t found a Christmas book yet.  Any suggestions?

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.  Tiffany Aching is now sixteen, and while she’s a highly capable witch,  changes in those she’s known her entire life may be beyond what she can deal with.

A Geek in Japan by Hector Garcia.  Somewhat dated (originally published in 2010), definitely slanted to a male point-of-view, and sometimes not carefully researched.  Nonetheless, an interesting read.

In Progress:

The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy by James Anderson.  Published in the mid-seventies, this is both an affectionate homage to the classic detective stories of the 1930’s, and a good yarn in its own right.

Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  One of Archie’s attempts to prod Nero out of his typical lethargy has unexpected consequences, and Archie ends up as the client.

Also:

With the fourth Star Kingdom/Stephanie Harrington novel officially turned in, Weber and I are brainstorming on the fifth, which means I’ve been doing some research reading.

Cats and Christmas Trees

December 9, 2020
Persephone Dons The Tree Skirt

When you have cats and Christmas trees, you need to make choices.  From the start (some thirty years ago, when I was still in graduate school), I’ve opted to decorate with my feline co-residents in mind.  I’ve never regretted this decision.  It’s nice that the tree is something we all have fun with, rather than just being another reason to yell “No!”

Choice One was to make the majority of my ornaments unbreakable.  In these days of glittery plastics, that’s not as much a sentence to dull and drab as it once was.  Since I love carousel figures, and these are often wood, resin, or plastic, I have a perfect combination of something I love, and something unbreakable.  It also helps to curl the ornament holder complete around the branch, rather than just hanging the hook over the bough.

What to do with breakable ornaments we’re given from time to time?  Jim and I string garland along a wall, above cat height, then hang the breakable ornaments there.

Oh…  We also avoid edible ornaments, since that might be unfair temptation.  Any gifts we suspect might contain food also get put under the tree later, rather than when they arrive.

Choice Two was to give up tinsel and any garland that uses tinsel.  This was hard.  I’ve always loved the shiny stuff, and remember fondly the childhood task of carefully placing tinsel so that it would accent the ornaments and lights, rather than obscuring them.

However, tinsel can be deadly to cats if they eat it (as can thin pieces of string and yarn), tangling up in their guts and causing blockages.  Given the choice of that risk or giving up tinsel, giving up tinsel was an easy choice.

Choice Three has to do with the fact that some cats will climb Christmas trees and the tree may fall down.  We’ve dealt with that problem in several ways.  First, we opt for an artificial tree, which, if it falls over, is less likely to be damaged.  Another advantage of this is that an artificial tree doesn’t need to be watered.  The additives people often put in the water they give a cut tree can (depending on the additive) be unhealthy for the cat to drink.

We also put up our tree minus ornaments a few days before we decorate it.  This gives the cats a chance to inspect the tree, as well as for us learn which cats are likely to be climbers, and to take precautions if necessary.

Some people anchor their Christmas tree to a convenient wall.  We’ve not yet needed to do that, but I won’t say “never,” because this year we’ll be introducing two young cats: year-and-a-half-old Mei-Ling, and eight-month-old Roary to their first Christmas tree.  Who knows what mischief they may cause?

When we know we won’t be home for the holidays, we don’t put up a tree at all, because bored cats will do things that cats with their humans around to amuse them won’t.

Over the years, our cats have loved the Christmas trees.  Ogapoge (who we lost a few years ago) not only would carefully climb the tree, he would bring Hugs, the teddy bear, which was his favorite toy, out to see the tree.  My first cat, Gwydion, spent his last Christmas watching the festivities from beneath the tree’s shelter. 

Persephone, as you can see from the picture above, thinks the tree skirt was put in place for her to enjoy.  I’ll try and remember to share what Mei-Ling and Roary think, and, if we can get some pictures, share those, too.

FF: Bits Here, Pieces There

December 4, 2020
Persephone In Her Thick Fur Defies The Wintersmith

Anyone doing “holiday reading”?  Two of my favorites are Hogfather (Terry Pratchett) and The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper).   I’m interested in new (to me) suggestions.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett.  The third Tiffany Aching book.  Once again, Tiffany dances in where angels would fear to tread.  Can she get herself out before all she loves freezes solid?

Black Mountain by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Nero leaves not only his home (unthinkable) but his adopted homeland to return to Montenegro on the trail of the murderer of his long-time best friend.

Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  A spy thriller from late in her career.  Honestly, reads a bit like a draft that hadn’t yet been firmed up.  Nonetheless, ambitious and with a political setting that, in some ways, seems all too familiar today.

In Progress:

I Shall  Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.  Tiffany Aching is now sixteen, and while she’s a highly capable witch,  changes in those she’s known her entire life may be beyond what she can deal with.

Also:

I’m doing research for a couple of projects, so a lot of scattered bits here, pieces there.

When Life Gives You Tunas

December 2, 2020
Prickly Pear Jelly

There’s something about writing here, but it will come at the end.  First, a tale of exploration, woe, and triumph.

This summer, our prickly pear cactus produced an amazing crop.  We did some research, learned that the fruit (which are called “tunas”) could be frozen for later use.  Therefore, over about a month, Jim started his  morning by arming himself with a set of long bamboo tongs and a small bucket, then harvesting tunas.

I did some more research (because this is very me) and found a variety of recipes I wanted to try.  This past weekend, I decided to make my first attempt.

The first step was peeling and seeding the tunas.  Happily, freezing not only makes the tunas easy to peel, but also softens the spines so I was only minimally pricked when skinning them.  I think that with practice, I will be able to do this without any damage to my fingers at all.

Next, I seeded and pureed at the same time by rubbing the pulp through a screen sieve.  This went well.  The only change I’ll make next time is to use my four-cup glass measuring cup as a bowl, so I can save the step of pouring from a bowl to a measuring cup.

The first I recipe I wanted to try was for gumdrops.  I chose this recipe for a variety of reasons.  One, I’d had cactus pear candy before and liked it.  Two, it involved minimal ingredients (cactus pear juice, apple sauce, sugar, and pectin), so I could test the flavor of our particular cactus pears with minimal additions.

Oh!  What does cactus pear fruit taste like?  Umm…  It tastes like itself but, if I had to choose a “like,” I’d say slightly melon, slightly strawberry.  Even without sugar, it’s lightly sweet but not cloying.

So far so good but, when Jim and I got to work, we immediately ran into a snag.  The recipe called for heating to 225 (as measured on a candy thermometer).  The best we could manage was 212.  This is because we live at about a mile high and at 5,000 feet the boiling point of water is 212.  I wasn’t too worried, because my high altitude cookbook said that the problem with jellies and jams was that they would dry out, and we needed the gumdrops to dry.

Therefore, we poured the cooked syrup into a glass pan and set it aside to dry for at least twelve hours, as recommended.  However, when we checked the next morning, the candy had not set.

After consulting with Jim, I decided to reheat the syrup, add more pectin, and hope for either a thick syrup or jelly.  I’m happy to report that we ended up with jelly.  As you can see from the photo above, the color is a wonderful, vibrant pink-red.  I plan to use some of the jelly instead of raspberry in the Linzer tart cookies I make at Christmas.

While jelly is nice, I don’t eat a lot of sweets, so I’m going to be seeing what else we might make with the remaining tunas that still reside in our freezer.  I’ve seen some interesting recipes…

And now for the writing bit…  The other day, someone posted the following quote to Twitter: “Life isn’t about finding yourself.  It’s about creating yourself.”   I checked the source and found this was said by George Bernard Shaw.

Writing is a lot like life, a lot like making jelly from a “failed” recipe for gumdrops.  You don’t fail as long as you learn something along the way.  Even the stories that don’t sell, even the stories that don’t get finished, aren’t failures as long as you learn something from the process.

The only way to fail is to refuse to learn.

You Can See Why You Pick These Using Tongs!

FF: Thanks For Good Books!

November 27, 2020
Dandelion Considers the Problem of Feegles

Thanksgiving weekend has always been a good time for reading, up to and including listening to audiobooks while I cook.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

I’m always happy to hear what you’re reading, and even if I don’t read that specific book your suggestions often steer me to something related.

Recently Completed:

And Be a Villain by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Wolfe needs work, which makes him make an unusual deal to solve a crime that happened in front of an audience but, nonetheless, has the police baffled.

Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett.  I’ll admit.  The first time I read this book, the Mac Feegles nearly kicked me out, as did the similarity of some plot elements to the movie Labyrinth.  But Tiffany and her serious determination to deal with what is there, rather than what people believe, won me over.

If Death Ever Slept by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  As a result of a bicker fest, Archie and Nero find themselves immersed in a murder investigation they never would have chosen to take on.

Hat Full Of Sky by Terry Pratchett.  The second Tiffany Aching book.  Over-confidence gets Tiffany in over her head.  Can she get out and find a hat of her own?

In Progress:

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett.  The third Tiffany Aching book.  Once again, Tiffany dances in where angels would fear to tread.  Can she get herself out before all she loves freezes solid?

Black Mountain by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Nero leaves not only his home (unthinkable) but his adopted homeland to return to Montenegro on the trail of the murderer of his long-time best friend. 

Also:

Recipes, which are a lot more fun than you might imagine.

I Can Still Be

November 25, 2020
Roary Is Thankful He Has Four Legs

Yeah… 2020 has been a rough year.  I’m not going to deny it.  However, I’m not going to forget to be thankful on Thanksgiving Day.

Before you sniff and say “What does she know about rough years?” let me say that 2020 was far from an easy year for me and Jim.  We lost two of our cats. Yes.  Kwahe’e was elderly, but that didn’t make it any easier when, the day after my birthday, I sat with my hand on his flank while he breathed his last.  And Kel…  As those of you who read my Acknowledgements to Wolf’s Soul know, her death was sudden and shocking.  Given that she’d been my writing companion, who perched on my desk as I wrote, I felt—still feel—her absence every day.

Jim was hospitalized twice this year.  Once suddenly, when a cryptic UT infection got bad enough to not only cause high fevers and other issues, but to put him at risk of a heart attack.  The other time was for knee replacement two months ago.  He’s still working hard on recovery, which has definitely complicated our lives on all sorts of levels.

As those of you who read my post last week already know, I also lost my long-time agent and dear friend.

I’ll stop there with the negatives, though, like most of us, I could keep on listing.  My point is, despite these personal sorrows, as well as the stresses I’ve shared with the rest of the world during this year of pandemic, I can find much to be grateful for.

As always, I’m going to start with the basics: being able to walk, talk, read, write.  Having access to medical care for myself and my pets.  Having a roof over my head, as well as a good husband and pets to share it with.  Having a garden to tend, even if sometimes the weather this year made me wonder if I would get any harvest.

The professional victories, like getting Wolf’s Soul out to my readers.  Like finishing my draft of the next Star Kingdom (aka treecat books aka Stephanie Harrington books) and getting the manuscript to David Weber.  Like writing a few more short stories.

The little joys, like how well Roary the kitten (who we took in as a medical foster) has recovered from injuries so severe that his initial medical evaluation recommended his left rear leg be amputated.  Like how shy Mei-Ling has gotten a little braver.  That Persephone likes them both.  That guinea pigs Coco and Dandy are besties. That my gamers have made it possible for us to continue to game via Zoom.

And as I bustle around tomorrow, cooking a meal I’ll only be able to share with friends by packaging up their portions and setting the containers out for them to pick up, I’ll be grateful to be able to cook and to have people I want to share with.

It’s hard, very hard, to find things to be thankful for when the sorrows, the losses, and the changes are much easier to remember and our current climate seems to be one of complaint.  Nonetheless, I’m determined to be thankful.

No Excuses

November 20, 2020
Roary Kicks at the Idea of ESP

As my WW noted, the past week or have been hard for me emotionally.  When I went out and scanned our bookshelves, I realized that I needed to re-read, because even if I didn’t remember the plot, I needed the reassurance that it would all turn out all right.

For those of you unfamiliar with this column, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.  The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

I’m always happy to hear what you’re reading, and even if I don’t read that specific book your suggestions often steer me to something related.

Recently Completed:

Talking to Dragons by Patricia Wrede.  Audio.  A direct-indirect sequel to Calling On Dragons. Calling ends with a problem that can only be solved by the next generation.  This is how they do that.  Manners are an important element, a trope taken, extended, and bent to good purpose.

The Mind Readers by Margery Allingham.  A later Campion, one that ventures into the realms of SF.  The question of how ESP might change society is very familiar to SF readers, but I suspect Allingham’s discussion was a real eye-opener to many of her mystery fans.

In Progress:

And Be a Villain by Rex Stout.  Audiobook.  Wolfe needs work, which makes him make an unusual deal to solve a crime that happened in front of an audience but, nonetheless, has the police baffled.

Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett.  I’ll admit.  The first time I read this book, the Mac Feegles nearly kicked me out, as did the similarity of some plot elements to the movie Labyrinth.  But Tiffany and her serious determination to deal with what is there, rather than what people believe, won me over.

Also:

Finishing up a backlog magazines…  Smithsonian has had some really good pieces that last few months.  Also, brushing up on my herb lore.

Celebration and Sorrow

November 18, 2020
The Buried Pyramid and Smoke and Mirrors

Last week, I learned that my literary agent and long-time friend, Kay McCauley, had died.  Apparently, her death was “sudden.” I haven’t asked for details because her family has enough to deal with.  After all, details don’t matter.  Kay is gone, and I’m never going to pick up the phone again to hear her distinctive, movie-star husky voice say, “Well, dearheart…” and then launch into whatever triggered the call.

I met Kay first when I was twenty-six years old, at Lunacon in Tarrytown, New York. I was there to meet a writer who’d been kind enough to enter into a correspondence with me: one Roger Zelazny.  We all know the sequel to that story, so I’m going to skip it here.

Kay wasn’t really into the convention scene but, since Roger was the Guest of Honor, she’d arranged to host a private party for him.  Roger invited me and my then husband to attend, and of course we went.  I very much remember meeting Kay: a striking, petite, dark-haired woman, then in her mid-fifties, elegantly and fashionably attired.  I was a newly-minted Ph.D., doubtless casually dressed, because I hadn’t had any idea I would be invited to a major literary gala.

Kay and I didn’t talk much then, but we made up for it in the over thirty years to come.  She became my agent in, I think, 1992.  We met the next time at the World Fantasy Convention that year, once again at one of her literary galas.  We did talk for a bit, but she also encouraged me to talk with other people, including Avon editor John Douglas, who would eventually buy my first published novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls.

But there was a lot more to Kay than fancy parties, elegant clothes, and book contracts.  She could be incredibly supportive as a friend and, for all many people might have thought her a gossip, she never ever revealed anything sensitive about any of her clients.

When Roger was diagnosed with cancer, Kay became one of our (because by then Roger and I were a couple) greatest supports, not only keeping business coming in, but checking on his progress and giving me someone to talk with because, since Roger didn’t want it let out he was ill, I felt very isolated.

After Roger died, when I was learning who had been nice to me because they liked me, and who had been nice to me because they wanted the connection to Roger, Kay stuck by me, even when she would have had a good excuse to ditch me.  (Conflict of interest with the Zelazny estate, which she and her brother also handled.)  Not only did Kay manage to carry out Roger’s wish that I complete his two unfinished works, Donnerjack and Lord Demon, she got me work under my own name.

Over the years, even a “brief” chat with Kay was a feast.  Probably because she bothered to get to know me as a person, she was able to connect, to get excited about even my odder ideas.  If you have loved any of my books—whether Changer or the Firekeeper books or quirky novels like Smoke and Mirrors and The Buried Pyramid—you owe Kay thanks, because she’s the one who got them out there.  You also owe her for books like Child of a Rainless Year, because she got me a few contracts that were for one Firekeeper book, one “to be named later.”  She also, at a time when everyone was saying it was “impossible” to get publishers to revert rights of novels, got me back the rights to all my works.  So, she’s indirectly responsible for Wolf’s Search and Wolf’s Soul.

Despite our initial link having been through Roger, when I started seeing Jim, Kay was thrilled.  When Jim and I got engaged after a seriously whirlwind courtship, she sent us a lovely English tea set.  When we got married not long after, she sent us a silver candelabra.  When I protested that she’d already sent us a present, her response was purest Kay:

“Dearheart, lots of people get engaged.  Not all of them get married.”

Oddly, for most of our long friendship, Kay and I didn’t meet in person; our contact was over the phone.   We’d talk for hours about everything and anything: business, sure, but also life and values, and the odd inter-relationships of people.  When Kay learned that I didn’t gossip, I became one of her confidants. I’d like to think that just as she helped me through some of the hardest times in my life, I might have helped her, too.

Eventually, Kay acquired enough clients in New Mexico that she started making an annual trip out here.  On her first one, Jim and I arranged to pick her up at her hotel soon after her arrival.  At that point, I hadn’t seen her for probably decades, and I wasn’t sure I’d recognize her, but I knew I’d know her voice.

So we waited at the hotel, near the reception desk where we could see and not be seen.  When the airport shuttle arrived, a lady not terribly unlike the one I’d met so long before came trotting up to the reception desk.  She gave her name, and as I was walking over to meet her, I heard her tell the clerk:

“I’m meeting a friend here.  We haven’t seen each other for years but…”

And, as her face was lighting up with recognition, I said “Hi, Kay.”  We chatted for a moment, then she dropped off her luggage and hurried down so we could spend some time together. That’s when something funny happened.  We discovered we didn’t know how to talk in person!  After so many years of being only voices, we both stalled.

This awkwardness vanished as soon as we were in the car, her in the back, me in the front, just voices again.  By the time we stopped for a meal, all awkwardness had vanished and never returned. 

I have so many, many memories.  Am I greedy for wanting more?  Well, for all I’m glad that Kay didn’t go through what my dad did with ALS, or Roger with cancer, I’m still going to miss her.  If that’s greedy, I’ll be greedy, because Kay was the sort of friend who never staled, never dulled, and always remained vital, I hope right up to the end.