New Cover Reveal: What Do You Think?

My publisher, Diversion Books, just sent me new cover art for “The Obsidian Mirror.” They plan to re-launch it in companionship with the Debut of the sequel, “Fire in the Ocean,” due out in February.

I’m thrilled by the new look for “The Obsidian Mirror,” as it is a real departure from the other two covers it has had the honor to wear. Many elements from the book are woven into the graphics: Sierra and her long braid, the Aztec Calendar, coyotes, cacti, Native American themes and high-tech symbols. I love the bold colors.

Here are the three covers in order of their appearance in the world:

Cover #1. This was designed by me when “The Obsidian Mirror” was first published by AEC Stellar Publishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover #2. This was done by Diversion Books when they re-published “The Obsidian Mirror” in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover # 3. A real departure. I love it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 5: The Bat Tornado

Temple at Chicaana

Temple at Chicaana

We were actually scheduled to go to three Mayan ruins this day, but I wimped out after two, Chicaaná and Bécan. The third, Xpuhil (shpoo-heel), was the last and smallest, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was sweaty, tired, and not sure I’d be able to tell one from the other.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it's also called "la tourista" because of its red, peeling bark.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it’s also called “la tourista” because of its red, peeling bark.

Chicaaná, Xpuhil and Bécan were vassal cities of Calakmul, which was the big cheese in the region. As these cities are many miles apart and the jungle in those days must have been denser and more difficult to navigate back then, I asked Roberto how they traveled between cities. These cities were located many miles from Calakmul and from each other; if Calakmul didn’t have local representatives or surrogates at these cities, it would have been hard to maintain control. Roberto said they had paths between cities called sac-be—the white road. All paths and unpaved roads hereabouts are white due to the limestone that makes up the earth.

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This is one of the sleeping platforms for the elite that I mentioned in the past post. It is located in a small room in one of the palaces at Chicaana. There are two small carved faces on either side of the recess in the platform, which is speculated to be for personal possessions. The palace rooms were very small, as even the elite Maya lived mostly outdoors.

Bécan was unusual in that it had a moat surrounding the city, just like a medieval castle. There were seven entrances into the city across the moat (seven being a magical number). There were no drawbridges. Roberto said that the entrances were narrow enough that invading warriors could be picked off more or less one by one as they invaded the city but there is no evidence of invasion ever occurring at Bécan.

Temple at Becan.

Temple at Becan.

The temples here are larger than at Calakmul, and have two towers. There is a ball court at Bécan, unlike Calakmul. The ball game was central to Mayan spiritual life. It was played at least partly in tribute to Hunapu, one of the two sets of hero twins of the Popul Vuh, the Mayan origin story. Hunapu is decapitated by the lords of the underworld (Xebalba). His twin, Xbalanque (shball-ahn-kay), uses a squash as a substitute for his brother’s head, which is being used as a ball by the lords of the underworld. Xbalanque rescues the head and replaces it on his brother’s shoulders. (His brother is apparently none the worse for the wear.) Xbalanque substitutes a ball of chiclé sap for use in the ballgame. Ever after, the lords of the underworld do not receive human sacrifice, but instead must be satisfied with offerings of fragrant tree sap.

Not every Mayan city has a ball court, but the later ones do. They were not intended as a public entertainment but as a religious event, and were witnessed by priests. The captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice, and it was believed he went directly to the Mayan version of paradise. I would have been a lousy captain.

Both cities were impressive, showing increased sophistication in stone working techniques compared to Calakmul. They had attractive bas-relief carvings that are still quite crisp and clear. We went inside the palace (or one of the palaces). In the large space inside, a tiny bird was flying about from beam to beam of ironwood, a wood so hard it can last for many centuries. Roberto told us it was a red-capped manikin, and quite rare. I thought about the British birders back at the hotel, and considered walking by them, casually remarking, “…and I looked up, and there it was–a red-capped manikin!” But I didn’t.

On the other side of the palace was another long, low building. The front entrance was surrounded by elaborate carving which Roberto pointed out represented the face of a jaguar. It was so abstract that I might have thought it was just stylized patterns if he hadn’t pointed it out to me. So to enter the building was to walk into the mouth of the jaguar, and it was a statement of the king’s power. The first dynasty at Calakmul was the Bat Dynasty, but they were overtaken at some point by the Jaguars. Jaguars trump bats, I guess.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teetch, and you can see stylized eyes and ears to either side of the doorway.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teeth, and you can see the nose over the door, and eyes above that.

I have forgotten a lot of what I saw and heard of Bécan and Chicaaná because I didn’t journal every day. We were busy all the time and by the time I got some alone time, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. A lesson for future research trips not to move around so much and schedule so much. I need the writing time or it all flies away.

The night before, the hotel manager stopped by our table in the restaurant to chat and asked if we had seen the bat cave. We hadn’t heard about it and were interested, so we decided to visit it this evening, as it was our last night and the cave was an easy walk from the road. Roberto pointed out the exact location to us on the way back from the village of Xpuhil (not the ruined city), where we had stopped for sundries, so we were confident of not getting lost. Besides, there were signs with bats on them when you got close to the turnout for the cave.

A little while before sunset, we pulled into the tiny turnoff and hiked a short distance up a hill. There was an enormous hole in the earth, probably 100 yards across and 250 feet deep. The sides were sheer, and Tom, who is acrophobic, grabbed the back of my shirt every time I went near enough to the edge to actually see the cave, which was a vertical gash in the rock about 200 yards down. On the rocky overhang of the cave, I could see little brown shapes. Dead bats.

Several other people joined us, some with kids. A Canadian couple next to us set up some complicated-looking equipment. It turned out they were bat experts on vacation–a lucky turn of events for us, as they provided a lot of information. The equipment was intended to record the supersonic squeaks of the bats and identify the species. There were a number of raucous birds calling in the area, and the bat experts said they preyed on the bats. Mrs. Bat Expert perched jauntily on the edge of the chasm, making Tom nervous.

By the way, here as everywhere else we went, you are expected to take care of yourself. There are no railings separating you from the edge of the great pit in the earth–not so much as a sign. If you are careless enough to break your neck, it’s just too bad.

We all sat around chatting quietly. I flirted with someone’s baby, who was delighted with touching my hand and playing peekaboo. As twilight set in, a few bats emerged from the cave. Then more. And more. And more. Hundreds of thousands of little bats flew out, circling in a great clockwise spiral, forming a literal bat tornado. My video doesn’t do it justice, and still photos didn’t show it at all, really, but it was an awe-inspiring phenomenon. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear their calls, but the sound of those thousands upon thousands of tiny wings was like a spring breeze stirring the leaves, or the sound of a gentle rain shower.

The bats circled in their spiral for a long time, each individual rising imperceptibly higher until streams of them began to break away, veering off above our heads. Several of them flew through the trees and came quite close to us, but of course never collided. The bird noise stopped as the hunters got serious and began to go after them, but I couldn’t see them.

There was something hypnotic about that spiraling tornado of tiny bodies—enormous and overwhelming, yet delicate, gentle. We watched until the great spiraling cloud had dissipated, the bats flinging themselves on the night wind, seeking food and to avoid becoming food.

Our bat experts said there were too many species in the cave–maybe six different species or more–for the equipment to identify, but they had visually identified hoary bats and ghost bats. It was a memorable experience unlike any other, and I’m grateful for it.

Day 2: Land of Sky-Blue Waters

Me and some friends at Tulum

Me and some friends at Tulum

 

 

 

 

 

Before leaving Tulum, we returned to the open-air market at the ruins because I wanted to get the little embroidered dresses for our granddaughters. I bought the dresses, paying too much for them, probably, and joined Tom, Clod and Linda at Starbucks. Los Volantes were at it again, and this time I got a good video.

Also present were some men dressed as Mayan warriors. Their costumes were as authentic as humanely possible, using genuine jaguar skins and quetzal feathers. The clothes were very detailed, carefully crafted and must have cost a fortune. They painted their faces and bodies exactly as you can see in the ancient murals. One of the men had an enormous albino python, which looks more yellow than white. I knew they were there for tourists to get their pictures taken posing with them, so I grabbed some cash and asked to pose with the snake. They kept telling me the snake wouldn’t bite, but I was perfectly certain that it wouldn’t bite because snake-bitten tourists don’t pay. I enjoyed the photo session and the heavy, muscular, dry and scaly presence of my cooperative co-model.

After a much-appreciated latte, we piled in the car and set out for Laguna Bacalar, heading south. We were traveling through jungle, but at first it was rather low, if extremely dense. As we made our way south, the vegetation gradually got taller. By the time we reached the lake, it was no rain forest, but definitely more along the lines of my mental image of jungle. We only stopped once, to buy some bananas at a roadside stand. We passed a village where there were probably 20 stands selling pineapple, but pineapple seemed too daunting and complicated for people without a knife or a kitchen. The bananas, each not much larger than a healthy banana slug, were consumed in about two bites. They were slightly tart, which gave them an apple-like flavor that was much more tasty than the huge, bland cultivar we get in grocery stores.

We noticed throughout our travels that when you hit speed bumps (topes), you will almost inevitably find someone selling something–usually snacks and drinks, but sometimes other things. Slowing down gives you a chance to realize you’re thirsty or hungry, I guess.

Laguna Bacalar is a freshwater lake more than 60 kilometers long, very narrow, with a white sand bottom. The water is known for its seven colors of blue. There’s not much to do here except swim and kayak, but we are staying only one night. There’s an island bird sanctuary, but you have to kayak out, and Tom has sworn off kayaking after overturning in Moss Landing harbor and losing his prescription glasses. In any case, you can’t land on the island because you will sink six feet into something that looks like sand–but isn’t. In other words—don’t try to get onto the island or you will die. On the plus side, there are no crocodiles in the lake, making it a safe swimming place. There just aren’t enough fish in the lake for crocodiles to bother with it.

Laguna Bacalar

Laguna Bacalar

We had an excellent lunch at a lakeside restaurant and lingered far too long, enjoying the cool breeze from the lake. The place was jumping, but no one tried to get us to move along. There was a dock in front of the restaurant, stretching out into the cool, blue  waters. Instead of running around the restaurant, kids were jumping into the lake. The best play area ever.

We walked back to the hotel, Azule36. I don’t know for sure, but it may be named for a nearby cenote called Cenote Azul, which is a popular swimming place. It’s a cute, tiny boutique hotel on a lot only slightly larger than a house. The neighborhood is a higgeldy-piggeldy mix of houses, a church, hotels and stores. There are only six rooms. Roosters crowed from the house next door, and as we sat under a palapa playing cards, dogs, cats and people wandered through the yard, entering from a back gate. I wondered if it was a family-run business, with the family living behind the hotel. The rooms are spare but clean and comfortable. Unlike the first place we stayed, there is soap! The beds were comfortable—actually mattresses laid on concrete platforms. I thought in a country where scorpions and snakes abound, not having a cavernous under-the-bed space is probably sensible.

Our hotel at Laguna Bacalar

Our hotel at Laguna Bacalar

We skipped dinner and went to bed at a reasonable hour. I had trouble falling asleep because I’m not used to a lot of noise at night. What with roosters crowing, doves cooing, people talking, multiple dogs barking, and traffic, it was a while before things calmed down and I slept. I’m writing this at some ungodly hour of the morning because the whole chorus started up again around 4:00 am.

The Vengeance of El Niño

It’s been a while since I have shared what I am working on. I blogged extensively about my research visit to Hawai‘i in January of 2015, but I’ve been on radio silence about work ever since.

Part of that is because if I say too much about the story, why would you want to read it when it is published? Another issue is providing detail about a story that might very well change so drastically in the writing process that it becomes unrecognizable.

I did mention that it has been much easier writing with a plot outline than without one. And that was certainly true until I wrote up to the intended climax of the story—and discovered that it wasn’t actually the climax after all and I needed to extend the story (for which no plot outline yet existed).

Part of the problem was that I hit the putative climax at about 65,000 words into the story. That means that I would have wrapped it up in about 75,000 words, which is a bit light for a novel like this. “The Obsidian Mirror” was about 100,000 words, and I am aiming for a similar length for this novel.

So I hit a rough patch as I floundered around trying to figure out what comes next in the story. I hesitate to call it “writer’s block” because I wasn’t blocked. I knew where the story was going, I was just missing a piece. Sort of like Indiana Jones crawling across a rope bridge across a steep chasm and there’s ten or fifteen planks missing in the middle. And crocodiles (my publishing contract and deadline) waiting below.

And then there was getting sick. Then the holidays. El Niño came for a visit last week and flooded the basement, soaking our family photos, my oil paintings, family historiana, and a lot of other stuff. I spent this past week gently prying apart photographs and arranging them on every available surface to dry, turning them over, grouping them, and tossing the ruined ones away. I did no writing at all.

Among the things I found was a packet of letters, all dated around 1879. They were written by someone named Carrie to her cousin, William Smith of Roxbury, NY. (Mr. Smith was one of my ancestors, which is how I came by the letters, but I haven’t looked him up to determine exactly what the relationship is.) They were written in a delicate copperplate hand, very legible, the India ink still clear and sharp despite their age and the complete saturation of the paper.

I reluctantly decided I would have to throw them out. There were so many of them, and my priority was rescuing my thousands of family photos before they stuck irretrievably together. I read a few of the letters and they were fairly mundane, though written with clear affection for the recipient. I felt guilty. They had been kept perfectly for 110 years, and I was the one who trashed them.

However, I found a poignant little poem in Carrie’s spidery copperplate. Here it is:

You I will remember

And in this heart of mine

A cherished spot remains for you

Untill (sic) the end of time.

 

Remember I

When this you spy

And think of me that is very shy.

 

Remember me

When this you see

And think of me that thinks of thee.

 

Remember Carrie

Where ‘ere you tarry.

And think of me

That will never marry.

 

The last stanza was enclosed in brackets. What do you think? I don’t mean Carrie’s gifts as a poet, which are slight, but the heart of it. I think Carrie was in love with William. I have at least saved her poem, which must have cost this shy woman a great deal to share with her adored cousin.

That much of Carrie I am keeping, safe for now.

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Carrie’s Poem

Getting back to my current book, I am firm on the title of “Fire in the Ocean.” It is set in Hawai‘i, which was built—and is still being built—by fire in the ocean: volcanoes. It also touches on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where billions of tons of particulate plastic are swirling around out there like peas and carrots in alphabet soup. Hawai‘i is smack dab in the middle of it. The slow dissolution of chemicals from the plastics is another form of “fire in the ocean,” poisoning sea life. And, of course, Pele, the goddess of volcanic fire, is a featured character in the book. Those of you who followed my blog from Hawai‘i know why I couldn’t leave Pele out of the story.

I am back on the job writing. El Niño is paying another visit, but we have pumps going and sandbags. All my rescued photos are safe and dry now and my oil paintings are drying out in the bathtub. Good time to write!

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“The Burden” This is one of my oil paintings, now residing in my bathtub. It won a first prize somewhere obscure.

Imaginary Friends Versus Imaginary Sparkles

 

Rainbow of lights

When I was little, I wanted an imaginary friend. I had a Little Golden Book about a lamb who had an imaginary friend, and I thought this would be very handy when I was stuck playing by myself. But try as I might, I never did develop a convincing invisible companion.

My daughter and son both had imaginary friends. Kerry, around the age of three, had a husband named Jonah and 10 kids, most of whom were named Stinky, but one was named Salty. They lived in San Francisco for a while, then they moved to San Jose and Jonah opened a sandwich shop. Jonah suffered an unfortunate death from pneumonia when Kerry developed a crush on a three-year-old named Brian. At the age of two, Sean had Dahlilly. Dahlilly was a very tall angel with orange wings and hair and blue eyes. His favorite food was Chicken McNuggets. Dahlilly eventually turned into a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and disappeared soon after, presumably due to personality disorder.

I may not have had an imaginary friend, but I did have imaginary sparkles. Like many kids, I was afraid of the dark, so I kept my door open halfway so that the hall light would dispel the monsters. When the sparkles began I was about six years old. I was lying in bed when I noticed some sort of dust drifting slowly and gently through the half-open bedroom door and spreading throughout my darkened room. In the light from the hallway, they looked like dust motes in a sunbeam. As these motes floated into the darker areas of my room, they looked like infinitesimal points of colored light. Soon, my room was filled with tiny sparkles swimming lazily around my room on unseen currents of air. They were as silent as the stars.

I was alarmed. I had never seen this before, I had never heard anyone talk about anything like this, and I was seriously frightened. I ran downstairs to see my parents, who, predictably, told me I had been having a nightmare.

It was not a nightmare; I had been wide awake. But even at the tender age of six, I intuitively knew that insisting otherwise was a waste of my time. So I trudged back upstairs to my bedroom to face whatever fate awaited me, and was relieved to find that the sparkles had disappeared.

As soon as I went to bed and turned out the light, they drifted in again, tumbling in slow motion and twinkling like incredibly tiny Christmas tree lights—thousands upon thousands of them filling my entire room. That night, I hid my head under the covers, which was my best and only defense against the unknown.

The sparkles came back every night after that. I decided they were benign and friendly things. Maybe it was fairy dust, or the sand that the sandman brought. Or perhaps the sparkles were fairies themselves. I didn’t understand what they were, but I grew to welcome them and looked forward to seeing them every night. The cloud of little lights felt like a magical protection. I never mentioned them to my parents again. I think I casually asked one or two friends if they saw sparkles at night to see if I was the only one. I was the only one.

My parents sent me to boarding school when I was 14. I wondered if the sparkles would follow me to the school. They didn’t. When I came home for Thanksgiving, no sparkles drifted into my room, that night or any other.

I missed them. Perhaps I had outgrown my need for their magical defense. Perhaps it was a function of change in a growing brain. I don’t know.

I suppose the sparkles were a recurring hallucination. Perhaps they were a way to cope with growing up in a difficult family situation. However imaginary they may have been, they were real to me, a mystical defense, a security blanket, a pretty light show that soothed me to sleep.

I still wish the sparkles would come back. They were better than any old imaginary friend.

 

 

 

 

The Dead Authors Society

A disturbing number of my favorite authors have died recently, and it’s bugging me. I’m talking about the kind of writer whose prose delights you, for whatever reason. Maybe reading a certain author’s work feels like sinking into a warm bath, comforting and deep. Or thrills you with action. Or galvanizes you into action. Or makes you feel as though you are traveling through faerie realms. You own all of their books and re-read them from time to time, just for the pleasure of the visit.

I decided to share some of my favorite deceased writers with you. If our tastes are similar, maybe you’ll like them, too. A caveat: Not all of these authors are great prose artists. But they all have a special, um, je ne sais quois.

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett. If you’ve been reading this blog, you already know I’m in sackcloth and ashes over Pratchett’s untimely demise from Alzheimer’s earlier this year. If not, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can read my tribute to Sir Terry or my review of his last Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown.

 

 

 

 

L.A. Meyer. Louis Meyer authored the young adult “Bloody Jack” series. I have actually never “read” one of these, but I own all of them as audiobooks. This is because the narrator for all of them, Katherine Kellgren, is absolutely brilliant. She perfectly captures the heroine’s Cockney cockiness, her bounce, optimism, kindness, and impulsiveness. Bloody

L.A. Meyer Photo Credit: Bangor Daily News

L.A. Meyer
Photo Credit: Bangor Daily News

Jack starts life in the late 18th century as Mary Jacqueline Faber, daughter of a respectable couple fallen on hard times. Her parents die and she is coldly ejected into the streets of London at age 8. She falls in with a gang of street children, and after observing that life in the streets was a short-term proposition for most kids, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on as a cabin boy with a naval ship. Her ensuing adventures are grand and hilarious to boot. Kellgren does an amazing range of male and female voices and accents. The only one she just can’t do is Scots. Fortunately, there’s only one significant Scottish character, and he’s only in the first few books.

Meyer created a memorable, lovable, and downright addictive character in Jacky Faber. The other major characters are also well delineated and engaging. He manages to sneak in a good bit of history in the process of entertaining us.

L.A. Meyer died in 2014 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But he finished his series before he set sail into the great beyond. I’m listening to the final book now with a mixture of enjoyment and sadness that this is the last I’ll see of Bloody Jack.

The Bloody Jack series in chronological order:

  • Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy (2002)
  • The Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady (2004)
  • Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber (2005)
  • In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber (2006)
  • Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and the Lily of the West (2007)
  • My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War (2008)
  • Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy (2009)
  • The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: Being an Account of the Adventures of Jacky Faber, on her Way to Botany Bay (2010)
  • The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Jewel of the East, Vexation of the West, and Pearl of the South China Sea (2011)
  • Viva Jacquelina! Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber Over the Hills and Far Away (2012)
  • Boston Jacky: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Taking Care of Business (2013)
  • Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life and Times of Jacky Faber (2014)

Source: Wikipedia

Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters. Elizabeth Peters’ real name was Barbara Mertz. She wrote mysteries under the name Elizabeth Peters and supernatural/gothics under the name Barbara Michaels. She was an Egyptologist by education and wrote books about the everyday life of ancient Egyptians under her own name. She died in 2013.

As Elizabeth Peters, she had several series, but my absolute favorite is the Amelia Peabody series. Amelia Peabody is a wealthy English spinster of Victorian times who decides to travel. Intrigued as many Victorians were with the mysteries of ancient Egypt, she winds up in Cairo, encounters a nasty, rude male archeologist and a few murders. She winds up saving the day with British aplomb, a stiff upper lip, and a sharp umbrella. Amelia tells her own stories, and her prose is delightful to anyone who has read much Victorian literature. Here are some selections of Amelia’s wisdom:

  • “Men always have some high-sounding excuse for indulging themselves.”
  • “Abstinence, as I have often observed, has a deleterious effect on disposition.”
  • “Godly persons are more vulnerable than most to the machinations of the ungodly.”
  • “I do not scruple to employ mendacity and a fictitious appearance of female incompetence when the occasion demands it.”

Source: http://ameliapeabody.com/fromamelia.htm

Amelia waxes positively purple over her husband, Emerson, and there are references to his “sapphirine eyes” and “manly physique” that are clearly intended for us to giggle over.

The characters in this series age and change over time. The stories are informed by the geopolitical realities of each era, as Amelia moves from Britain’s Age of Empire to the wars and disruptions of the early 20th century. Here are the Amelia Peabody books in chronological order:

  • Crocodile on the Sandbank
  • The Curse of the Pharaohs
  • The Mummy Case
  • Lion in the Valley
  • Deeds of the Disturber
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon
  • The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
  • The Hippopotamus Pool
  • Seeing a Large Cat
  • The Ape Who Guards the Balance
  • Guardian of the Horizon
  • A River in the Sky
  • The Falcon at the Portal
  • The Painted Queen

Source: Wikipedia

The author knew an enormous amount about ancient Egypt and the history of Egyptology, and this background made the books fascinating on yet another level beyond the delights of the characters and the murder mystery plots.

In all honesty, not every book in the series is brilliant, but I never cared. Spending time with Amelia was worth a little disappointment once in a while.

Mary Stewart Photo Credit: Australian Consolidated Press

Mary Stewart
Photo Credit: Australian Consolidated Press

Mary Stewart. To tell you the truth, I only just looked her up to see if she were still among us—and she is not. She died in 2014 at the age of 97. Born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (Yes! Really!), she authored a number of thrillers with romantic subplots that made them perhaps more appealing to women than to men. Her POV character was always female. My mother and I started reading these in the 1960s and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have never liked romances, but the intelligence and eruditeness of Stewart’s writing engaged me. A few from this era that I particularly enjoyed are “Madam, Will You Talk?,” “The Moonspinners,” “This Rough Magic,” and “The Ivy Tree.”

Then she jumped genres in 1973 with the publication of the “The Crystal Cave,” the first book of what became her “Merlin Trilogy,” beautifully written and researched historical fantasies. “The Crystal Cave” was followed by “The Hollow Hills” and “The Last Enchantment.” Having always been an Arthurian enthusiast, I devoured them. Related books include “The Wicked Day” and “The Prince and the Pilgrim.” The trilogy made her an internationally famous best-selling author and she won many awards and honors for it.

So then, as far as I can tell, she went on to write little romances about rose-covered cottages in the forest and whatnot. I have read these but don’t recommend them.

Bryce Courtnay

Bryce Courtnay

Bryce Courtnay. Bryce Courtnay was a South African advertising executive who emigrated to Australia and decided to write a book. “The Power of One,” was published in 1989, and Courtnay quickly became one of Australia’s best-selling authors. He died in 2012 of gastric cancer.

Courtnay primarily wrote historical fiction, mostly set in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, though his last novel, “Jack of Diamonds,” was set in the U.S. and Canada. He seems to catch the feel and taste of each era and locale he writes about. His stories can contain pretty dark material, but somehow you feel that it comes right in the end—mostly, anyway. His characters feel like real people, even the most bizarre ones. In “Brother Fish,” he has a German immigrant housewife living on a New Jersey farm during WWII who poisons her lumpish husband and takes a young lover­—and you completely sympathize.

Among Courtnay’s best is his “Potato Factory” trilogy, in which he follows the fictionalized family of the real-life model for Dickens’ Fagin, Ikey Solomon. “The Potato Factory” takes place in Victorian times as Ikey and his horrible bawd of a wife are deported to the prison colony of Australia. “Tommo & Hawk” follows the lives of Ikey’s adopted sons. “Solomon’s Song” takes the family into the WWI generation. Each book is dense, rich, complex and a treat to the senses as Courtney makes his stories come alive. There is something for everyone: action, tragedy, revenge, mystery, murder, love, beauty, friendship and horror.

Well, that’s it for dead authors—for now, anyway. I just wanted to say a thank you to these writers for taking me to places I have never been to meet people only they have imagined. They have given me so much enjoyment over the years, and perhaps as long as people read their work, they will never truly die.

 

 

 

 

I Will Be Speaking at the Los Gatos Literary Fair August 22

I will be making a short presentation at the Los Gatos, CA Literary Fair, Saturday, August 22. The Fair is from 12 noon to 3:00 p.m. I will also be signing copies of “The Obsidian Mirror.” I’d love to see you there if you happen to be in the neighborhood!

2015 LG Lit Fair flyer

Things I Will Miss (or Not) about Spain

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Things I Will Miss:

The food. You can get delicious food almost everywhere in Spain, often for little money. It’s heavy on fat, so it tends to be rich and satisfying. Even little holes in the wall offer yummy stuff, freshly prepared. Before I move on, I have to mention a very special restaurant, La Tertulia, in Barcelona. We ate there on the recommendation of our hotel, and it was only a short walk away. We ate outside in a charming patio. By this time, we were getting tired of meat and ordered several dishes of vegetables. All were simply delicious–and so was the menu. I took a few shots of it to treasure, as the English translations of the Spanish descriptions were adorable:

  • Mejillones con ajo y perejil al vino turbio: “Mussels, garlic & parsley to the turbid wine”
  • Paellas: “Cooked by 30% with sea water broth with healthy clams & truly sea”
  • Caldereta de arroz con bogavante: “Lobster soggy”
  • Costillar de Iberico a baja temperatura con grasa de barbacoa: “Iberian ribs low temperature with greasy smoky barbecue”

We ordered some Spanish brandy after the meal. The waiter poured us two enormous servings. There was a finger or so of brandy left in the bottle, so he shrugged and told us to finish it off, leaving the bottle on the table. Tipping is not common in Spain, but this guy got a nice one.

The people. Almost everyone we encountered was helpful and friendly–sometimes extraordinarily so. They worked hard to understand my execrable Spanish. Complete strangers rushed to help if we were having difficulties. Lovely people.

The art and architecture. Spain appears to be a country that values art, and it shows. Although I have traveled to many countries and toured many beautiful buildings, I don’t think I have ever been as gobstopped by architectural beauty before–especially the Alhambra, La Mesquita, the Guggenheim, and La Sagrada Familia. I do not expect to see anything, ever, that surpasses La Sagrada Familia.

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

The wine. As with the food, you can get good wine very cheaply everywhere. Pay a couple more Euros, and you can get GREAT wines.

What I Will Not Miss:

The food. Yes, I know I said I would miss it, but there is a downside. There’s jamon in everything, just about. I know Spain is famous for its jamon, and there are pig’s hindquarters hanging in every restaurant, but I can take it or leave it. When it comes to cured meats (except for bacon, and then it has to be cooked crisp), I can pretty much leave it. Spanish food is very meat-oriented, so if you are eating in restaurants all the time, you might not wind up with enough vegetables in your diet. I once received a platter containing a quarter of an entire lamb that boasted a single asparagus stalk. Also, the food is high-fat, which is delicious at first, but I became rather sated with it. Despite the reputation for tapas being small dishes, even when I ordered medio raciones (half portions), sometimes we received huge platters and basins of food that put American restaurants to shame for serving size. Just too much food.

jamon

Smoking. More people smoke in Spain than in my native California (though I cannot speak for other parts of the U.S.). Being former smokers, Tom and I loathe the smell–I think it’s something your brain does to help you stay clean. People no longer smoke inside restaurants, but they can smoke in the outdoor eating areas. Nothing ruins a pleasant meal in the open air more than cigaret smoke. And the ground everywhere is littered with butts. Gross.

The Weird Reservation Thing: Several times when Tom and I arrived at a more or less upscale restaurant without reservations, we were turned away–even though there were plenty of available tables. In one case, there was not another soul in the entire restaurant. I don’t get it.

That’s all she wrote, folks! I appreciate all the “Likes” and comments I’ve gotten on my trip blog. It’s back to work on the next novel, and I’ll try to think of something interesting to say soon.

Scrambling To Get It All In: The Last Day

Our last day in Spain finally arrived. We decided to get some breakfast and head down to La Rambla, a long mall that leads down to the harbor. Traffic goes by on either side of a pedestrian mall, with booths and kiosks in the middle and shops on either side of the traffic lanes (where shops are usually located, actually). We were warned that this was a prime area for pickpockets. so we were on the alert.

There were tons of people walking la Rambla. Most of the kiosks were selling the same old stuff we had seen everywhere else in Spain–cheap “Flamenco” shawls, a Spanish dancer doll (the exact same one in every city), t-shirts–augmented by Barcelona-specific stuff like Gaudi-inspired plates and keychains. Then we came to the open-air market, La Boqueria. This was a feast for the senses, and if we had not already had breakfast, we would have bought something delicious here. The stalls were piled high with fresh fish and shellfish; eggs of all kinds, from emu to ostrich to quail; the obligatory stalls with pig haunches hanging and cured meats on display; every sort of nut you could imagine; dried and fresh chilis; sweets; exotic fruits; piles of tripe, lambs’ heads, kidneys and other offal meats; spices, teas and coffees. it was overwhelming and beautiful.

Dried chilis

Dried chilis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offal meats

Offal meats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shellfish

Shellfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every sort of egg

Every sort of egg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seafood

Seafood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this feast for the eyes, we continued down La Rambla, stopping just before the harbor to photograph the living statues. There was Don Quixote, a person dressed like a Salvador Dali painting, a Remington cowboy statue (probably the most boring, despite his dramatic pose), a demon (entertaining), a “bronze statue” of Galileo, and several more.

An entertaining demon

An entertaining demon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dali lady. Not sure the person inside the costume was actually a lady, but no matter.

Dali lady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By that time it was hot, and we were reasonably near the Barcelona Aquarium, so we went there for a few hours. For people whose local fish museum is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Barcelona Aquarium cannot measure up, but I did see some interesting fish I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, labeling was kind of random. You’d see a label above one tank, with no sign of the supposed denizen, then see the same fish in another tank that had no such fish identified as being there. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant couple of hours out of the heat. I do think someone tried to pick my purse in the aquarium. I was waiting in line to buy mineral water and carelessly left the zipper open, displaying credit cards and cash. I saw a hand creep across the ledge in front of me, heading toward my purse. As soon as I clocked the hand, it suddenly became very interested in the surface of the ledge, which had nothing on it but crumbs. I zipped the bag.

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

I don’t know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon, we went to Parc Guel. Gaudi had a house there (designed by someone else), and he designed a beautiful installation in the park that would look very familiar had we actually gone in. We already had tickets to see his house and we wandered around the free area of the park, which is also very Gaudi-esque, but not the iconic installation everybody was lined up to pay for. When we went through his house, I was astonished to find out that despite the over-the-top ornateness and whimsy of his work, Gaudi lived a very austere and simple life. His furnishings were simple and sparse. He cared nothing for clothes or material things for himself. A remarkable contrast.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi's amazing work.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi’s amazing work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaudi's house in Parc Guel

Gaudi’s house in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left without paying to go into the most interesting part of the park, which I kind of regret.

We had an early dinner at a boring restaurant where a large group of people (maybe 100 or so) were playing Scrabble (in Catalan? At least they’d have a ready use for all those X’s!), and so to bed.

Adios, Spain. We had a wonderful time!

More soon about a menu that made me laugh and things I will miss/not miss so much about Spain.

Sand Castles in Spain

When I was a child, we used to go to the beach for a few weeks every summer. One of our favorite activities was making “drip castles” out of wet sand. We’d grab a bucket of sand and water and carefully let the wet sand drip from our fingertips, making fantastic shapes and spires. The challenge was to see how elaborate you could make your castle, and how tall your spires could reach before collapsing.

In art history, my first take on seeing a photo of Barcelona’as La Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) cathedral, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was “Drip castle!” I never blew it on the tests, either–the mnemonic was fixed forever. Apparently I am not the only one to see this resemblance, because when I searched for images of drip castles on Google, I found some photos of La Sagrada Familia as well:

Drip castle on the left; La Sagrada Familia on the right. I'm just saying.

Drip castle on the left; La Sagrada Familia on the right. I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cathedral isn’t finished and won’t be for a decade or more, although it was begun in 1882. Up close, the exterior no longer looks like wet sand. The facade in the photo above (the Nativity Facade) is the one most photographed, I believe, and close up, all those furbelows resolve themselves into exquisitely crafted details. There are the obligatory religious figures, of course, but there are also twining vines, chickens, roses, standard Gothic features like columns that somehow turn into tentacles, rabbits, turtles and trees. It is naturistically sculpted, elaborate, whimsical and ebullient.

This turtle is one of two that hold up pillars, one on either side of what is now the main door. Kind of a metaphor for how mankind treats animals, though I'm sure this was not the intention.

This turtle is one of two that hold up pillars, one on either side of what is now the main door. Kind of a metaphor for how mankind treats animals, though I’m sure this was not the intention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rooster and hens detail from the Glory Facade

Rooster and hens detail from the Glory Facade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This little lizard is one of many creatures peering out from the bronze leaves that completely cover the main door

This little lizard is one of many creatures peering out from the bronze leaves that completely cover the main door. He is peering through a small glass pane. The reflection in the pane is Tom taking a picture of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other facades differ greatly in style. The Passion Facade, which depicts the end of Christ’s life from the Last Supper to the crucifixion, is sculpted in an austere, unelaborated and grimly modern style. some of it couldn’t be photographed because of ongoing construction.

The Passion Facade. The pillars are intended to resemble bones.

The Passion Facade. The slanted pillars are intended to resemble bones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kiss of Judas, Passion Facade

Kiss of Judas, Passion Facade. There’s a cryptogram square to the left, but I haven’t researched its meaning yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Loneliness of Christ, Passion Facade

The Loneliness of Christ, Passion Facade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, this facade was executed in an entirely different style, and it was as deliberate as the Gothic-reminiscent naturalistic style of the Nativity Facade. There are other facades, still under construction, that are more modern still.

I took three art history courses (yes, once it was because I couldn’t pass chemistry, but the other times, it was because I WANTED to!), and not once did I see a photograph of the interior. As gob-stoppingly gorgeous as the exterior is, the interior surpasses it by several orders of magnitude. I have never seen anything like it. It comes close to being unbelievable, as though someone a 100 years ago had had the ability to use CGI to create something impossible and improbably beautiful.

Unfortunately, I have to close up shop tonight and continue tomorrow (or sometime soon), because we are catching a flight to go home. I want to give the interior of La Sagrada Familia the time and attention it deserves, so buenos noches for now, and I will be back as soon as possible.