Cover Reveal!

Falstaff Books sent me a picture of the cover to Copper Road, and I am thrilled with it!

The type face and the open book at the bottom carries through from Aluminum Leaves, (you’ll see the similarities to that cover) and the human figure looks like someone trying to come through a frontera– maybe the very one Trevian is desperately trying to close.

Preorders should be available in December, and the book itself will be available on Amazon, directly from Falstaff, and at Second Chances Used Books, in mid-January, 2021.

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Flanders Sky: Could Not Finish

Fifty pages from the end of Flanders Sky, by Nicolas Freeling, I closed it and put it down. I will never know who murdered Iris. I will never know if her sexual-harasser, rape-fantasist husband will face just desserts, if not for the murder, for his other behavior. I only know that I cannot float in this venomous stew of misogyny any longer. It’s rare for me to set aside a murder mystery, but I will not subject myself to any more of this.

Nicolas Freeling was the author of the Van der Valk detective series, set mostly in Amsterdam, and the Henri Castang mysteries, set in various European countries. (Flanders Sky, published as The Pretty How Town in the UK, is a Castang mystery.) Freeling, who died in 2003, published over 30 novels, and started his career in the early 1960s. This book was published in 1992.

Freeling was British but spent many of his young adult years in Europe, working in restaurant kitchens. In terms of style and the issues he takes on, I’d guess Freeling falls into the Frederick Forsyth group. I’d guess he was influenced by Ian Fleming, and while Flanders Sky mentions many of the political issues that John le Carre’s thrillers delve into, Freeling lacks the philosophy, knowledge or curiosity of le Carre. 

Henri Castang is, or was, a police detective in Paris. In the book before this one, he uncovered something politically inconvenient, so he’s been “promoted” and banished to Brussels, where he’s assigned to a multinational political group. Although it’s never named, it seems like this group might serve the people creating the European Union. (Or they might be those people. Can’t tell.) The backdrop is the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Velvet Revolution, and other European changes. Henri’s interest is slightly more than academic; his wife Vera is a Slovakian—a former gymnast who defected in Paris, and now, for the first time, can visit her homeland.

(Just a prelude to coming issues: Castang continually refers to his Slovakian wife as a Czech.)

Henri’s new boss, Harold Claverhouse, is apparently some sort of genius. He’s British. He sexually harasses every woman in the office. He provokes his male workers by making racist remarks and watching their responses. He vocally, as a matter of course, imagines raping women who work in the office, or who he sees on the street. He almost immediately tells Henri that he’s got the hots for Vera. Henri is forced to set some boundaries. After he does that, Harold comes to the house uninvited, and pays a lot of (courteous) attention to Vera, which Henri interprets as an indirect apology to him. (Vera says, “I thought he was making a pass at me.” You decide.)

Harold is married to an attractive Anglo-Irish woman named Iris. Suddenly, Iris is strangled to death, alone in the house, wearing only a housecoat. The back door is unlocked but not open, and Harald, coming home from work late after a few drinks, finds the body. Harold is taken into custody and held but not charged. This is a tragedy. Not about Iris—no one really seems to care much about her–but for the office, because it’s a big political embarrassment.

Victims in mysteries, especially thrillers by men, are often female, and being dead they have no voice. The minimizing of Iris, alone, could be bearable. As Flanders Sky progresses, though, and two more plotlines emerge, recurring themes about women emerge too, and Freeling uses the voices of his few women characters, particularly Vera, to support and amplify a view of women that dovetails perfectly with the opinions the male characters have. And those opinions are repulsive.

Yes, the book was written in the 1990s, and yes, I am reading it from a 21st century perspective. There were plenty of male writers in the 90s who weren’t doing espousing these attitudes. And I find it interesting that I can read writers like Dickens and say, “This is historical,” but the level of objectifying women is so high in this 90s, low-end-of-middle-brow thriller that I can’t make that jump.

But let me go on.

Three misogynistic themes develop:

1) Creating a defense for Harold, Henri, two male and one female lawyer hypothesize that maybe Harold staggered home drunk and wanted to have sex, and Iris refused him. In fact, she probably even said “No” in a harsh manner. Or maybe she was even verbally mean to him! In a moment of drunken rage, he throttled her to keep her quiet. Anyone could understand that, right? Plainly, this is meant to be somewhat cynical, but still, at the end of this passage, all four people in the room agree that “He had to shut her up,” is an acceptable defense. And they accept it.

2) A subplot involves a non-profit teen center Henri volunteers at. Two girls, about the ages of his own daughters, come in, saying they’ve run away from their home in a village outside Ghent because their father beats them. So very much goes wrong here, plotwise, that I won’t even address all of it, but Henri sends them home. Once home, the younger girl (who isn’t even named in the story) kills her father with a kitchen knife, since he routinely rapes the older sister and the little sister wants it to stop.

Now, Henri conjures up the story of the mother in this family, who has never before this been mentioned. She works long hours at a local hospital, which Henri thinks might be hard work. A couple of times a week, she has drinks with her mates before she comes home from work. From this, Henri concludes that she is responsible for the neglect, the incest and the murder. In particular, Henri uses this phrase in discussing the mother, “She wouldn’t have wanted to find her own daughter promoted to wife-status.”

Promoted to wife-status. The problem isn’t that the father assaulted his daughter, stole her autonomy, her innocence and her childhood. No, it’s that the power differential in the household might change.

Later, Freeling doubles down on the idea that kids getting raped (by their parents) isn’t a big deal when he has Vera, in her narrative, say, “Do I seem hard? Young girls do get sexually abused. That is appalling, but it is also an historical constant.”

This entire subplot seems to exist mainly to introduce a young woman Henri calls Merieke, who had an affair with Harold.

3) Henri routinely sends Vera to visit Harold in jail. Harold, still not actually charged, has a lot of privilege, and visits take place in a private room, with no guard present. Vera brings him clean clothes, books and some music CDs. When, helping her husband, she presses Harold about his affair, he responds by asking her to take off her clothes, and telling her he needs to make love to her. Vera refuses, but she does not leave. She does not leave. Harold does not attack her, taking refuge in words. He comes up close to her as she is getting ready to leave, but Vera assures the reader that she isn’t afraid; she knows Harold won’t hurt her.

It’s this type of propaganda that I had the most trouble with. This is a male writer, one who uses rape repeatedly as a simile or recurring image in his book, making a female character assure us that she knows the man who just tried to coerce her into stripping for his pleasure won’t hurt her. This is a lie. Every single woman knows that, in the situation with that kind of a man, she is at high risk for getting hurt. It’s one thing for Vera to be tough and believe she can handle herself; it’s another thing entirely to use the character of Vera as apologist for rape-fan Harold.

(Earlier in the book, Vera tells us that every wife has had a moment when she thought her husband might rape her. It’s just married life, she implies.)

She not only doesn’t leave, later she comes back. Vera is acting as an investigator, a proxy for her husband… an unpaid investigator, the one assuming all the risk. As a tactic to get Harold to open up about the affair, she says this:

“I’m sorry to have behaved so badly, last time. I apologize.”

For what? For not taking off her clothes? For exercising free will?

This was the point where repugnance overwhelmed curiosity and interest. I’ve left out Henri’s cat-and-mouse game with a female spy who approaches him. He gets the drop on her with his pistol, and tells her to take off her clothes, presumably so he can see that she isn’t carrying hidden weapons. She refuses, but his order “cleared the air,” he tells us. Hahaha! See, we’re just role-playing Ian Fleming here! No harm, no foul, right?

Normally, I would just get rid of the book and determine not to read anything else by this guy, but I got to thinking. Freeling was a popular writer, and the Castang stories at least are spy-thriller light, a genre read as frequently by women as men. Not only was Freeling reassuring men that their entitlement to any woman they wanted, when they wanted her, was normal and fine… he was telling women the same thing, and using women characters to do it. This was insidious.

I think I’m a better reader now than I was in 1992. I hope so. I hope as a society we have grown beyond these kinds of shenanigans. But this kind of brainwashing are, and were, part and parcel of what some people call rape culture. I will actively warn people off this book and this writer. (NOTE: the PBS adaptation of Van Der Valk is updated and does not ooze misogyny and male entitlement.) By warning them off, I will never learn who truly killed Iris, and I can live with that.


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The Way We Live Now #10: Kids These Days

During the pandemic, we’ve all paid a lot of attention to the big-to-huge social events that have been disrupted; sporting events, weddings, live performances, festivals, graduations, and now probably Thanksgiving. In May, the media devoted attention to the graduating class of 2020, who would not walk down an aisle or get to have parties. Birthday parties, wedding showers, baby showers, and so on have moved, mostly, online, or aren’t happening at all.

I wonder what the current generation of tweens and teens will think of social get-togethers once we have distributed an effective vaccine and moved into the next phase of our lives with the coronavirus. I’m thinking now, not of the big events, but the types of face-to-face get-togethers that my high school friendships thrived on, which are largely gone right now.

I’m thinking of things as simple as walking home from school with your buds; that precious chance to debrief, have your besties assure you that you were right and mean old Mr. Swanson just needs to chill. I’m wondering about the gaggle of teens, boys and girls, I used to see sitting on the retaining wall by Safeway after Analy got out. Sure, several of them were smokers, but that was a social gathering, and they were there nearly every day.

This year (and maybe, worst case scenario, next year) you don’t go to your friend’s house to play video or tabletop games, to jam some music. Book clubs, reading groups and writing critique groups have gone online. And the time-honored hanging-out-a-coffee-house is not indicated either.

Will these kids grow up investing in-person events with an aura of the strange, even the illicit? Will hanging out for coffee carry a whiff of the forbidden? Or, will kids just adjust, and be saying, “Why would I ride my bike all the way to Darla’s house when I can Facetime with her?”

Young people turned up in person in record numbers to protest racial injustice, and celebrate the election results. They were masked and they were out there, dancing, carrying signs, filming themselves. They still get the power of the in-person event.

Humans are mammals, and social (clannish) mammals. What I’m saying is, there is still a lot of important information we gather from in-person interactions. Anyone who’s been doing a lot of videoconferencing or emailing knows this. We’re also adaptable. Will today’s youth grow up with in-person interactions as a nice-to-have, but able to somehow parse minute data from online interactions in a way I can’t? It seems possible.

I will stay tuned.

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Arrow: the Mayoral Campaigns

I started binge-watching Arrow a few weeks back, thinking it would be escapist relief from election season. Surely benighted, beleaguered Starling City (later Star City) would make my world look better in comparison? Sadly, it did not. In spite of all its masked villains, whole sections of the city getting blown up or imploded, and guys running around shooting everyone with arrows, Starling City, in general, seemedbetter  off than the current USA, at least generally.

But, as we crept into the home stretch of this election season (I hope), something stood out in the first four seasons of Arrow; mayoral campaigns. After writing a 2,000 word post in which I tried to come to grips with my feelings about this show, I realized that simply imagining the details of two campaigns in this comic-book city would probably clarify things nicely.

First, a recap: Arrow was inspired by a DC masked hero called Green Arrow. Here’s the story from the show, which premiered in 2012. (I never read the comics.)

Spoiled billionaire fratboy Oliver Queen and his father Robert were presumed dead when Robert’s luxury yacht sank in the North China Sea. In fact, they both made it into a life-raft, but Robert Queen killed himself so Oliver could live. Oliver washed up on the shores of a scary island, where he spent the next five years getting really buff, fighting, being tortured, learning to speak Russian and Chinese, shooting arrows, wielding magic, trusting the wrong people and killing people. And sinking boats. Did I mention it was a deserted island? Anyway, after five years, Oliver arranged for his “rescue” and returned home to Starling City.

He found his home city in the throes of a near fatal recession. (Before they left, Dad closed his steel foundry, laying off 30,000 people. I’m sure that had nothing to do with it.) Except for being forced to live in a monstrosity of a mansion, the Queen family was doing fine financially. Moira Queen, Oliver’s mother, was now the CEO of Queen Consolidated, and had married the CFO, Walter. As Season One unfolded, we learned that Moira and Robert were part of a one-percenter scheme to blow up a huge district of the city, called the Glades. Malcolm Merlyn, close family friend and another billionaire, was the architect of the scheme. He said it was revenge for the mugging death of his doctor wife in the Glades, but really it was just to devalue some real estate and pick it up for cheap. Robert was getting ready to expose the scheme, so Malcolm sabotaged the yacht.

Oliver, struggling to make a difference in his city, started dressing up in a costume and shooting bad guys with arrows. He was good at it, but it wasn’t effective at revitalizing the city.

Moira was still closely aligned with Merlyn because, she insisted, he threatened the lives of her children if she broke her silence. (Later he kidnapped Walter to ensure her compliance.) At the last minute, Moira called a press conference and warned the people of the Glades—and admitted her involvement. Thanks to Oliver/the Arrow, and Moira’s warning, only (only) 500+ people were killed, and only half the destroy-the-Glades plan worked. Oliver “killed” Malcolm Merlyn in an arrow/sword fight.

Moira was tried—as a co-conspirator, I guess—and acquitted due the manipulations of the not-so-dead Merlyn.  And then, half a season later, she ran for mayor.

Moira Queen, the Campaign.

Slogan: Vote for Moira! She’s the One Who Didn’t Blow Us Up!
Policy Platform: Tax breaks for Billionaires! We Create the Jobs!
Platform Expansion: Economic Stimulus is for Losers.
Talking Points: “I’d do anything to save my children.”

Queen press event:

Moira Queen:  And in closing, I’d like to just say again, I’m simply a mother. A mother who will do anything to save her children. And now, I’ll take a few questions. Yes, Amelia.

Amelia (WZZG): Mrs. Queen, the now-dead Malcolm Merlyn was a sociopathic murderer who tried to destroy twenty-seven blocks of this city. You stated under oath during your trial that you had an affair with him. What should voters make of your judgment? And there are even those who say your daughter Thea–

Queen: I did have an… ill-considered and brief liaison with the definitely, indisputably dead Malcolm Merlyn. It was bad judgment. Amelia, we make mistakes, but some things should stay in the past. Should those mistakes haunt us? I mean, imagine if you knew someone who celebrated completing her Masters in Journalism by taking a trip to Costa Rica—

Amelia: (Blanches.)

Queen:… and while there, participated in some events that were… well, don’t you think…?

Amelia: Yes! Yes, of course, some things belong in the past. Thank you, Mrs. Queen.

Jacob (Starling City Inquirer): Mrs. Queen, you’ve said on several occasions that you will do anything for your children.

Queen: I have, because I will do anything for my children.

Jacob: So can we assume that if another supervillain comes to town, you’d betray the city to keep your children safe?

Queen: Of course I would, Jacob. I’m a mother. But you must understand that I consider Starling City one of my children. I’d never sacrifice two of my children to save one, even if Oliver is my favorite.

Jacob: Sounds legit.

Queen: That’s all for today. Thank you all. Don’t forget to vote!

Sadly, Moira did not live to win the election.

Several seasons and several mayors later, Oliver Queen mounted a campaign. He was running unopposed.

Oliver Queen, the Campaign

Slogan: Vote for Oliver! No One Else is Running.
Policy Platform: I have to have policies?
Platform Expansion: I’ll hire all my friends. Oh, wait, I don’t have any.
Talking Point: This is all my fault.

Oliver did not win the mayor’s seat, but some time later, he was appointed mayor.

Oliver Queen Mayoral Press Conference

Amelia(WZZG): Mr. Mayor, for the third time in as many years, the city’s bonds have been downgraded. What do you intend to do about this?

Queen: Well, frankly, Amelia, zip ties just won’t do it. I’m looking at a steel-titanium alloy that—

Quentin Lance: (Hurries to the podium, shields the mike, whispers urgently into Queen’s ear.)

Queen: Oh. Oh, those bonds! That’s an excellent question. I’ll get back to you on that.

Jacob (Star City Inquirer): Mr. Mayor, the police pension fund is on track to become fifty percent of the city budget, far outstripping the revenues. What do you see as a solution?

Queen: I think that problem will take care of itself.

Jacob: Huh?

Queen: Well, have you noticed the mortality rate of SCPD officers? It’s like, minutes. They’re dead before their first coffee break sometimes. I don’t think demand’s going to overwhelm supply, that’s what I’m saying.

Jacob: I can’t even…

Bella (Central City Tattler): Bella Rave, Mr. Mayor. Five years ago, the city council earmarked five million dollars for repairs and upgrades to the city water system. Those repairs were never made, and projected costs have now ballooned to fifteen million. What is your plan for rehabbing the city’s water supply?

Queen: I think you’re really focusing on the negative. I mean, nobody’s tried to poison the water supply lately. No weird guys in helmets have dumped drums full of Vertigo or Stardust or some other Star-City customized drug in there, right?

Bella: Your point, Mr. Mayor?

Queen (seems confused): I take my wins where I can get them.

Jacob: How would you respond to your critics who say you are completely unqualified?

Queen: I’d say, “Hellloooo! I said I wasn’t qualified. Did you even listen to my campaign?”

Tailor (Star City Ledger): What is your plan for bringing business back to Star City?

Queen: Well, I was going to buy back my company with the money my girlfriend made as CEO of Palmer Industries, but they fired her, so that’s out.

Tailor: Clarification, Mr. Mayor. Is that the girlfriend you proposed to at the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony who was promptly shot by unknown villains–

Queen: Known villains.

Tailor: –and was paralyzed but then had an implant that lets her walk but then she dumped you?

Queen: Yes. So that plan won’t work. My second plan to go back to the island and dig around for another magical artifact that will bring weal–

Thea Queen, Chief of Staff (audible): Ix-nay on the agic-may.

Tailor: Magic?

Amelia: Mr. Mayor, the three mayors before you have been murdered during their tenures–

Queen: Four.

Amelia: –and, what? Four? Ruvee Adams is considered missing, I thought. Not dead.

Queen: Oh, yeah. Right. Three. Sorry, I miscounted.

Amelia: She hasn’t been declared dead, has she? Do you know something we don’t?

Queen: Well, probably. I probably know lots of things you don’t. But about Ruvee Darhk, I mean, Adams, uh, no, I just misspoke. What was your question?

Amelia: Starling City, even with the upbeat name change to Star City, seems cursed. In six months, you face an election. What would you say to someone thinking about running for mayor?

Queen (Straightens up and leans forward slightly. A light comes into his eyes.): I’d say this. Unless you are me, if you want to run for mayor of Star City, you are either a supervillain or the minion of a supervillain. And if you are, then there is no place you can run. No place you can–

Thea Queen: Okay! Good talk! (Hustles up to the podium, grabs his arm.)

Queen: There is a face of justice in this city. It wears a mask. And I say to you now, wherever you are–

Quentin Lance grabs Queen’s other arm, they drag him off the podium.

Thea Queen: Okay! Thank you all. Thank you, Mr. Mayor. And now we have a guest from Central City, Barry Allen, presenting a talk on forensics interventions. “Forensics at the speed of stars!” Barry Allen, everyone.

Posted in Movies, Television Tuesday | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I was late getting around to reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This historical novel came out in paper in 2017, and I just read it a few months ago, during the Stay at Home segment of the pandemic. It was a good book to read during a sequestration, transporting me to a different time and place; Britain in the 1890s.

Perry’s very popular book primarily follows three characters; troubled widow Cora Seaborne, vicar William Ransome and innovative surgeon Luke Garrett. The story of these three and “strange news out of Essex,” of the return of a monster some call the Essex Serpent, also introduces us to fascinating secondary characters; Cora’s young son, William’s wife, and Cora’s social activist companion Martha.

Widowed and now in possession of a comfortable fortune, Cora moves to Essex because of her interest in natural history and fossils. She is a questioner. So is William, but his questions are firmly rooted in a conventional belief in God. They meet socially and Cora becomes friends with William’s charming wife. William and Cora debate and outright bicker over their beliefs, drawing closer, even if that closeness at first is within a life of the mind.

Luke Garrett has loved Cora since before she was widowed. His innovations and confidence in the surgery—and his abrasive personality—are polarizing, yet he is piloting surgical techniques that have amazing results.

Against the backdrop of the “backwater” of the small town where Cora ends up, stories of the serpent, and strange goings-on along the waterline, continue to creep up. The sense of pervasive strangeness Perry creates is palpable. The resolution of the serpent sightings was the least successful thing in the book for me, but I almost didn’t care because of the pages of foreboding and moodiness she provided beforehand.

Two things made the book an outstanding read for me: Perry doesn’t reach for a “standard” resolution to a romantic triangle (two triangles actually) and gives us a woman character who values her autonomy right to the end. Secondly, Cora and Martha are not 21st-century inserts, mouthing values and political positions from our century. They are believable late-19th century women, pushing up against the boundaries of belief and social mores. Martha, from a family of union organizers, comes out of a hallowed British tradition of unionizing, activist women. Cora’s interest in the natural world and the historical riddles left by fossils is in keeping with women of the time and class. The book makes it clear that these women are not prodigies or Queen Bees, the Only Intellectual Woman, etc—they are well established in society.

I wondered how things would go with Francis, Cora’s son, who is clearly on the autism spectrum, and the book treated him well and realistically.

Perry chose a quasi-Victorian style of narration, which fits perfectly.

All in all, a perfect book for long quiet nights, or an evening after a long walk along a beach, or a hike, or looking for fossils.

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Laurel’s Kitchen

The 1976 edition of Laurel’s Kitchen is the second cookbook someone gave me as a gift. My mom gave me Joy of Cooking when I turned eighteen. She wanted me to have a good, all-purpose cookbook. As she told it, it was between the current Betty Crocker cookbook at the time, and Joy. Mom flipped to her benchmark recipe, meat loaf, in each book, and Joy was the winner.

I asked for Laurel’s Kitchen for Christmas one year back when Spouse was still the Sig-O. I think he’s been happy with the results of that gift.

Since then, meatless cooking has expanded and become more refined. There have been several editions of this book, and scores of others. Since I am not a vegetarian, I just want to have meatless options available, this 44-year-old book works fine for me.

I love it, but when I look at where the bookmarks and the sticky notes are in it, I see I haven’t ventured very deeply into it. I use a lot of soup recipes (or now, personalized variations), and several bean or pea-based spreads. In fact, prepping for a meatless dinner inspired me to write this post; minestrone soup, a green salad and garbanzo spread.

This is true for Joy of Cooking as well, and, frankly, every cookbook I own. I browse through them, learning lots about the recipes, and then use a handful and tried-and-true favorites.

In my now-not-so-new library, my cookbooks have their own shelf. I may not delve deeply into them, but I’m glad they exist, helpful friends when I want to deliver a more intricate meal, or try something new.

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Figs: Marion Changes her Mind

I think it must have been the third grade. A classmate traded me a Mother’s brand “taffy” sandwich cookie from my lunchbox for a Fig Newton. I’d seen Fig Newtons advertised on TV (or at least, that’s how I remember it). I bit into it. It had warmed through, was kind of mushy, and the filling was gluey and overly sweet with an unpleasant aftertaste. The aroma was cloying, too. I swallowed one bite and when we headed back into class I threw the rest of the cookie away.

That decided me. I didn’t like figs.

We didn’t grow figs. My dad planted many fruit trees in our half-acre yard and grafted other varieties onto sturdy trees. We had apples and all kinds of plums. I don’t think I’d seen a fig tree in real life until I went to a work party at our local apostolic center (which was what the Catholic Church called small churches in the 1970s, I think) to help clear out the unimproved acreage behind the one-story cinderblock building.

I helped pull weeds and tear out yards and yards of some kind of wild weedlike creeper. We uncovered a family of stunted grapevines. Father Don made an obligatory priest joke about wine. Farther back, next to a nearly-collapsed three-walled shed with a caved-in roof of curling asbestos shingles, a gnarled tree with a corrugated, split truck and twisted branches hunched over like something from a 1960s horror movie—no, seriously, that movie about a man who turns into a tree when he’s murdered by his unfaithful fiancé and her new squeeze, and who lurches around in tree form and finally throws her into some quicksand. I’m pretty sure it’s a real movie—anyway, the tree looked like that. Yellow jackets swarmed it in a Danger Zone hum, drawn to the bursting purple-green fruit littering the ground around it and clinging to the desiccated branches.

It was a fig tree. It didn’t do anything to change my third-grade opinion of the fruit.

(Writing this, I looked at some fig tree images, and none seem quite as tortured as my church’s tree. I wonder if that means anything.)

I can, however, take in new information, and change my opinion on things.

Figs show up in a lot of fiction, often as food of decadence and seduction, and equally often in fantasy and historical fiction, food of the common people, especially with books set in a Mediterranean setting. Figs, almonds and olives show up a lot, and with good reason. Concoctions of figs—fig preserves, fig syrup and fig-infused balsamic vinegar—show up everywhere in life, not just in fiction.

A few decades after I saw the tree, I was eating out with some friends and one ordered a fig and prosciutto starter. She offered me one. I was unsure, but now that I was an adult, I remembered that I didn’t have to eat all of something if I didn’t like it. I took it. It wasn’t anything like a Fig Newton with prosciutto. It was a lot of things, all of them wonderful.

The fig was ripe. First of all, I don’t think I’d realized before that figs—these were black mission figs—are lovely. Their shape reminds me of the “gondolier” hot-air balloons, rounded teardrops. A slightly rippled skin is purple, sometimes with the faint silver haze that Santa Rosa plums also get. They come down to a soft point. Inside, the flesh near the rind is pale green, with a core of small seeds and a mauve colored center, that looks like a satellite image of a powerful river delta… or maybe a mosaic somewhere. The smell is sweet, earthy, and, well, for lack of a better description, distinctly figlike. The scent of a ripe fig is so distinctive that I will use it as the benchmark for other things, comparing them to figs, instead of the reverse.

To describe the bite I will use up all my “foody” words; the flesh is silken, the “mouth-feel” unctuous. To be fair, the salty prosciutto balanced the earthy sweetness of the fruit. But, still.

I decided I’d been unfair to figs.

I still don’t have figs often. My favorite way to serve them, other then rinsing one, cutting it in half lengthwise and just eating it, is to dab a bit of goat cheese in the center. But then, I really like goat cheese. I get them about twice a year at the farmers market, after stopping to admire their plump-bob shape and the rippled, purple skin.

I have changed my mind. This historic, succulent fruit is not to be judged by a stale cookie. It stands on its own, and it’s yummy.

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Writing News: an Update

An update, although not much of one.

Copper Road will probably come out sometime around January 14, 2021. That’s later than I had hoped, but not all that far away. It will be available by pre-order through Amazon.

They are working on a cover, and I hope to have a cover reveal in a week or two.

I will have electronic Advance Reader Copies (ARCS) available. If you are a reviewer and you are interested, let me know.

On my secret project, I got an editorial letter on Friday. I plan to look closely at it starting Monday. The timeframe for that project is pretty long, so I’m going to stay focused on Book Three of the Copper Road series for right now.

Welp. That’s it.

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The Way We Live Now 9: Masks.

The minority opinion: I like masks. At least, I kind of like them.

I feel obligated to point out a few things I don’t like about wearing masks. When it’s hot outside, it’s hotter and more humid inside the mask. I don’t like that. When it’s cooler, my glasses fog up. It’s difficult to make myself understood sometimes, through a mask and a plastic barrier. Some masks dislodge my glasses and make them go sliding like an Olympic ski-jumper, which is inconvenient.

But there are several cool things about masks that I feel are being overlooked.

Minimizing Make-Up:

I was never a big make-up person; okay, any kind of make-up person. In my case, the degree of improvement never justified the expense or the effort. A mask covers enough of my face that I don’t even need sunscreen most of the time.

But, for those who wear make-up, masks give you an excellent “stage” for first-class eye cosmetics. I’ve seen men and women making the whole eye-liner thing work, and the masks really help draw the attention upward. A woman cashier in her twenties helped me at a shop in Mendocino. She wore a moss-green mask with bold flowers—orchids, I think—as the print, and a tracery of gold. She’d done the elongated, cat’s-eye line in kohl-style eyeliner on her eyes, had spikey black lashes, and her shimmery shadow was the same shade of green as the fabric. Way to rock a mask!

Fashion Accessory:

Masks can harmonize with your outfit, or be outfits in themselves, with sequins, flashing lights, and fashion prints. I have two cotton masks with bright floral embroidery on them and I get compliments every time I wear them. And at least once a day I acknowledge someone else’s mask.

Sloganeering, Not Just for T-Shirts Anymore:

Our chests, backs, heads and arms are already prime real estate for brands, sports times, artists we like, our pets, our favorite witty sayings, favorite art, or strong political statements. And now, masks. I’ve seen many I Can’t Breathe and Black Lives Matter masks. The other day at the farmers market I saw a Biden/Harris mask. People wear the stars and stripes. There could be Trump/Pence masks—oh, no, I guess there wouldn’t be. I have a mask of a print that shows old book covers, and my Mendocino Coast Writers Conference mask is my spare mask, in my purse at all times.

Mask of Mystery:

Various face coverings come in different shapes. I have two that have the flexible nose wire and extend down under my chin—like superhero masks. I can pretend I am a superhero. All I need is a cowl and a cape. Oh, wait, no capes, we know they’re unsafe. Anyway, mask, cowl, and a superpower, and I’m good to go.

Plenty of Cover:

The one thing no one admits; it is much easier to talk to yourself when you’re wearing a mask!

So, other than the most obvious thing about wearing a mask—that you are protecting others and yourself from a potentially deadly virus—there are several other benefits! And, in closing, I restate that I know this is a minority opinion.

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Squeeze Me and Topo Chico; a Perfect Pairing

Writing friend Donna Banta introduced me to two good things; Squeeze Me, by Carl Hiaasen, and Topo Chico, a sparkling water from Mexico that is currently having a moment.

Hiaasen’s latest propulsive, bananas-crazy acid-dripping satirical Floridian outing takes place in and around the Winter White House of a completely fictional US president. The unnamed president is referred to by his title or by his Secret service Handle, Mastodon. Much of the action happens at the luxury hotel Mastodon owns, Casa Belicosa. The bored, gorgeous, much younger ex-model first lady is called Mockingbird.

The protagonist of the story is a wildlife retrieval (or removal) expert named Angie Armstrong. Angie is a classic Hiaasen protagonist. She has a love for the dwindling wilds of her home state, she’s practical, smart, tough and sexy. She’s willing to manipulate if it’s in what she believes is a good cause. Angie has a strong sense of justice and a temper that’s maybe a little bit too strong, and a tendency to take things into her own hands… well, so to speak.

Angie gets called to a fancy fundraising venue to deal with a burmese python, which is found in a tree near a koi pond. The python is clearly sleeping off a very large meal, the evidence of which is still obvious. By no coincidence, one of the president’s supporters, an old, wealthy white widow named Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, disappeared with no trace from this very venue only a few nights earlier, despite the presence of numerous cameras. She left behind only a purse and a half tab of Ecstasy, found near the koi pond.

Kiki was a proud member of a cadre of septuagenarian widows who call themselves the POTUS Pussies or Potussies for short. In no time at all, Mastodon has whipped up racist sentiment by blaming a random Honduran man who came into the country without papers of the murder of Kiki, or, as he calls her, Kikey.

Despite his short attention span, his love of MacDonald’s, his ignorance, his hotel and his ex-model wife with an unidentified accent, Mastodon is a fictional character and I’m sure any resemblance to the current occasional occupant of the White House is coincidental.

Mastodon has a part to play in the story, but this story is Angie’s. The plot is as propulsive and twisty as a world-class rollercoaster, swirling with pythons, pink pearls, secret service agents, bobcats, raccoons, very stupid criminals, horrifying production numbers, tanning beds and an eccentric man who lives in the wilds and was once the governor of Florida. I can’t remember what names he’s used before, but in this book he goes by Skink.

You can’t write such precise and savage satire without fueling it from a deep well of rage, and clearly Hiaasen has that. There is no mention of gun violence or the anti-journalistic sentiment vocally and viciously expressed by the current occupant of the White House in Squeeze Me, but Hiaasen’s journalist and editor brother was killed in a gun attack on the Capital Gazette in 2018. Don’t get me wrong, Hiaasen was dissecting stupidity, greed and corruption long before then. This story seems exceptionally vitriolic, but it’s precisely aimed and exquisitely delivered vitriol.

I’ll end the review by letting you spend a few moments with Mastodon.

On only his second day in the White House, the President had ordered his chief of staff to arrange a trip to the National Zoo to see a real mastodon. The chief of staff wasn’t brave enough to tell the President the truth, so he cooked up a story that the zoo’s beloved mastodon herd was on loan to a wildlife park in Christchurch, New Zealand.

This acerbic, jabbing story pairs perfectly with a tall glass of Topo Chico over ice. The sparkling water comes in various flavors, but I prefer the unflavored with a slice of citrus (my fave at the moment is lime). The beverage comes in 12 oz bottles and at my local store it’s anywhere from twelve to twenty cents cheaper per bottle than other sparkling waters, even local ones. (There’s a message there of some kind). It’s sold in four-packs as well. The drink is very bubbly–like, if you haven’t refrigerated it, open it over the sink–refreshing and festive.

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