Last week the sad news came that Rachel Caine had died after her long, hard battle against cancer. Rachel Caine was a wonderful writer, and a wonderful woman, and she is sorely missed.
I first got to know Rachel Caine through her Morganville Vampire novels – fast-paced page-turners about what it’s like to go to college in a Texas town run by vampires. I worked at a bookstore then, and we had the great good fortune to have her come to a signing at our store.
In fact, I took one of the early calls setting it up. A woman on the phone asked to speak to my manager; well-trained, I asked who was calling. It was Rachel herself. “Rachel Caine! Rachel Caine! Rachel Caine!” I exclaimed, jumping up and down. Yes — I literally jumped in the air, and literally yelled in my excitement, right into the phone. Three times. Rachel just laughed her warm laugh.
She was just as warm and friendly in person – so down to earth, so fun to be around. We had the pleasure of hosting her twice. The second time was for Prince of Shadows, the story of Romeo and Juliet but also the story of Benvolio, Romeo’s friend and cousin, a master thief who becomes close with Rosaline, Romeo’s unrequited love. I loved Rachel’s Morganville stories, but this book is just a marvel. Told through Benvolio’s eyes, it immersed me in a Renaissance Verona that’s lush and gritty. The stories unfold from unexpected corners, and with surprising twists and turns and depths. It’s a gorgeous book.
Rachel’s writing, which I loved from the start, just kept getting better and better. I was hooked and grabbed by The Great Library series. She wove an entire world for this series, full of rich characters fueled their love of books, invention, and knowledge. The main character, Jess, is a book-smuggler in a society where it’s a mortal crime to own your own book. Because this world is run by a tyrannical Library which has absolute power over all books and all knowledge, and they enforce their law with terrifying automata – pitiless lions, sphinxes, and gods. The story moves from England to Egypt to the wild, rebellious America. I am not half doing these books justice. If you enjoy fantasy, especially with a steam-punkish edge, go, take a look yourself.
Rachel was a prolific writer, who wrote so much more than I have had a chance to read. There’s her Weather Warden series, adult urban fantasy about Wardens, “gifted with a supernatural ability to control the weather … sometimes. On a good day…But the Wardens—Earth, Weather, and Fire—work as much against each other as with, and their captive Djinn are on the constant verge of rebellion. Add to that a sleeping, but intelligent, Mother Earth, and this could get very messy.”* Outcast Season is a companion urban fantasy series about an outcast Djinn. These sound like books I have to explore.
And there are more. Stillhouse Lakeis the first in a series of adult thrillers. My husband and I started the audio book – it was gripping and intense. Too intense for us, honestly; it may be the audio format was just too vivid, or that we’re just not thriller people. The writing was excellent. If you like enthralling, chilling thrillers, go and check this series out.
There are even more fantasy, paranormal, and sci-fi novels and series to explore on her website. For anyone who loves great writing in these genres – go, have a look.
I got to know Rachel more through her Twitter. Even as she fought an aggressive cancer, she was warm, kind, passionate, and honest – an ally and advocate for writers and people in need in general. I learned still more about her through a tribute written by people who knew and loved her.
Rachel’s legacy lives on in the books she’s written and the lives she’s touched. It was my honor and pleasure to meet her, and to grow to know her in her writing. Readers and lovers of good writing, you can help keep her legacy alive. Find her books, and dive deep into new worlds.
You can find her books in bookstores, at Barnes and Noble, and at Amazon. Many of her ebooks are on sale now for a very good price. And you can watch her Morganville Vampire series on Amazon Prime.
It’s a rare occasion when a full moon falls on Halloween, and rarer still when it’s a blue moon! To celebrate this banner event, I offer a poem for the season.
Down from the forested mountains run Broad shadows from the waning sun. Hovering in the mistbound air, The hidden moon waits, pale and fair. A lingering rim of sun burns on, Then the mountains gape and the light is gone.
Deep shadows drowning barren trees, A whisper rustling fallen leaves, A shiver in the wind, a sigh, A mournful undulating cry~ The moon lets fall her veil and breathes Her grace upon All Hallow’s Eve. Gemma Brook
And inspired by VT Dorchester, whose mouth-watering date cake recipe makes me hungry and ready to bake, I also offer a recipe (though without VT’s flair).
I got this recipe as a kid from the Peanuts Cookbook by June Dutton, put out by Scholastic (long out of print, I believe). I made a “healthier” variation several years ago. We’ll start with that; it makes a dense, not too sweet cookie. It’s not for every one’s taste, I readily admit!*
Gemma’s “Great Pumpkin” Cookies 1/3 cup granulated fructose 2 ½ T canola oil ¼ cup plus 1 tsp liquid egg whites 2-4 T water as needed 1 cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling) ½ cup whole wheat flour 1 cup whole grain rye flour 2 ½ tsp baking powder ½ tsp cinnamon ¼ tsp nutmeg 1/8 tsp ground ginger 4 ½ T dark seedless raisins, chopped ½ cup walnut pieces, chopped
Preheat oven to 375˚. Sift all dry ingredients together. Beat egg whites lightly. Mix oil, pumpkin, and water (I usually need the full amount of water). Fold in egg whites. Stir wet into dry ingredients, then fold in nuts and raisins. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (I use unbleached compostable). Drop batter by spoonfuls onto the paper-lined cookie sheet. Bake 15 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen.
Peanuts’ “Great Pumpkin” Cookies 1 ½ cups brown sugar, packed ½ cup shortening 2 eggs 1 lb. can pumpkin [do they make 1 lb. cans anymore?] 2 ¾ cups flour, sifted 1 T baking powder 1 tsp cinnamon ½ tsp nutmeg ½ tsp salt ¼ tsp ginger 1 cup raisins 1 cup pecans, chopped
Pre-heat oven to 400˚. Mix sugar, shortening, eggs, and pumpkin thoroughly in a large bowl. Sift dry ingredients and add to pumpkin mixture. Blend well. Add raisins and pecans. Drop batter by teaspoonsful on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven, and lift off with a pancake turner. Makes about 6 dozen. A delicious snack while you’re waiting for the “Great Pumpkin.”
Or a great snack while you’re waiting for the Halloween Blue Moon! It will rise a little after sunset hereabouts.
Happy All Hallow’s Eve!
*I baked this recipe on All Hallows’ Day, with what I had on hand (only whole wheat for flour, and olive oil for oil.) And — I quite like this batch! Of course, they’re always best fresh from the oven…
Aud Supplee, my critique group friend and Running Wild Press colleague, has recently been published in the Friends Journal. This is a monthly international journal of the Quakers, and Aud writes about her faith with humor, warmth, and spirituality. Her article appeared in both the online and print versions of the journal. You can read it free here.
I’m equally pleased to report that another writing friend and RWP colleague, VT Dorchester, will be published online in the Winter Solstice edition of All Worlds Wayfarer. This is a quarterly speculative fiction literary magazine; I’ve peeked at a couple of stories and found them so excellent I was immediately sucked in. As VT says, “If you pre-order, the issue should be delivered to your Kindle on Dec. 21 and Kindle editions will include a bonus story. The issue will also become available on the All World’s Wayfarer website for free in December.” You can preorder the full baker’s dozen of stories for just $2.99! I just did, and I was pleasantly surprised by the low price.
Happy reading! And well done, VT and Aud! I can’t wait to read what each of you has in store for us in the months to come.
One of the things I’ve found most helpful in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic is to learn something new. So I was very glad and grateful to participate in Kathy Otten’s online writing course hosted by Pennwriters, which frequently offers such courses. Kathy’s class, “Weaving History into the Historical Novel,” was of particular interest to me as I write some historical fiction. Her class was very interesting, practical, and helpful, and I got a lot of enjoyment from it.
Now I’m pleased to invite Kathy to join me on my blog for an interview.
Gemma: Tell me a little about your writing, and how you came to write historical fiction.
Kathy: Hi Gemma, Thanks for having me. I write mostly historical romance; a mix of short stories, novellas, and novels. My dad loved the old westerns from when he was a kid, so when they were popular in the seventies, we went to see every John Wayne picture that was released.
Gemma: Ah, the classic westerns! I’d like to refer you to VT Dorchester’s blog — VT posts reviews of westerns, both movies and books (along with writing western stories). Pardon my digression – please tell me more.
Kathy: My mom loved old houses and antiques. Our house was full of them, and each one had a story related to some passed family member.
Gemma: Oh, that’s wonderful. Is there any antique with a particular story that really stays with you?
Kathy: The house was filled with things like Limoges china, a spinning wheel, yarn winder, antique sewing table, dressers, hundred-year-old steamer trunks, cooking utensils, furniture, etc. However, it was the more personal things that were passed down, which to me have a deeper connection. I have a recipe book from my great, great grandfather who had come from Sweden to NYC, and all the recipes are in his handwriting. I had thought it would be fun to have his handwriting analyzed to find out about his personality. My mother gave me an old leather purse which had belonged to my great-grand mother and it still had old coins from the 1800’s in it, along with some old fractional currency, which was issued in the mid 1800’s in lieu of coins because of a coin shortage. Old money is cool to think about anyway, but she would have been the last one to handle it and it might even have her fingerprints on it.
Gemma: Those are some amazing family heirlooms. And the thought of having currency with your great-grandmother’s actual touch on it is enough to give me chills.
Kathy: Together Mom and Dad instilled a love of history for both my brothers and me. My writing melds the happily-ever-after of romance with the romantic myth of the old west and my personal love of exploring different eras and stories from history.
Gemma: What are some other eras you’ve written about?
Kathy: Contemporary is not my usual time period, though I did write a short contemporary romance years ago. Mostly I write out west during the open range cowboy era. I did write a middle-grade historical short story which took place in the 1850’s and I have a soon to be released World War I short story. Since my characters come to me first, I tend to write whatever time period they drop me into.
Gemma: That’s cool to follow the characters to their time period! Do you write in other genres?
Kathy: I’ve written some contemporary romance and a YA novel yet to be published.
Gemma: Tell us a bit more about the YA novel.
Kathy: The YA book is a contemporary story about a teenage boy dealing with past trauma and self-doubt. I’ve submitted it to over twenty agents and editors, but it has been rejected every time. For now, it’s on the back burner. I may go back and rewrite parts of it and try the process again someday when I have the time.
Gemma: It sounds like you have the persistence so vital to being an author. Do you remember when you realized or decided that you wanted to be a writer?
Kathy: I’ve always made up stories in my head, so I don’t really remember when I decided I wanted to be a writer. My mom tells the story that when we went grocery shopping, if she had enough money she’d by each of us one of those Little Golden Books. One day I wanted one, but she didn’t have enough money. When I became upset she told me to write my own and that’s when I started putting stories on paper.
Gemma: Oh, the Little Golden Books – I have some fond memories. What a great response from your mother – and from you, to take her up on it. Can you trace some of your writing history?
Kathy: I’m guessing when I say I must have been in about second grade when I remember writing “Lucky the Dog.” I wrote simple sentences on the lower half of the paper and colored pictures on the top half. The book had a paper cover and I had tied it together with yarn. My mother kept it, that’s why I remember it. I went on to write “The Lost Uranium Mine” and “The Mystery of the Old Yellow House.” When I was sixteen, I wrote “The Letter” for a contest and it won and was published in a Christian magazine for teens called The Young Ambassador. That was the first time I saw my name and my story in print. That really hooked me and I’ve been writing steadily ever since.
Gemma: That first time of seeing yourself in print is so exciting! What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
Kathy: Aside from that first short story in print, I’ve been happy with each story I’ve written. There are aspects to each one I’m proud of.
Gemma: That is excellent. What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Kathy: Not procrastinating. Sitting my butt in the chair and doing the work. There are some days cleaning the bathroom seems preferable.
Gemma: You know the procrastination bug is bad when cleaning the bathroom looks better! I know the feeling well; and even when my butt is in the chair, I often feel compelled to straighten my pens and notebooks, and then wonder if I should dust the desk…What’s the best part of writing for you?
Kathy: Sometimes going back and reading a sentence or paragraph from an older work, and I read it and think, Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that.
Gemma: Oh, that is a wonderful feeling! Where does your writing fall on the plot-driven vs. character-driven spectrum?
Kathy: I used to say my stories were character driven, until I read something that James Scott Bell wrote in one of his books on writing. That without a good strong plot the characters have nothing to react to, and without that reaction there is no catalyst for change. I’ve read a lot of romance where the characters are flat and boring. Stepping back, now I can see that it’s the weak plot and lack of conflict that keep the characters, flat and one dimensional.
Gemma: That is an excellent insight; I’ve never thought of it, and it rings very true. What books and authors did you love growing up? Did any particularly influence you?
Kathy: I used to read a lot of books by naturalists, then I fell into the westerns of Louis L’Amour. I love his historical detail and sense of place. Elmore Leonard is another, either his westerns or contemporary police dramas. I love his characters and dialogue.
Gemma: What are you reading presently?
Kathy: I read mostly history on whatever topic I’m researching. If I ever have time I’ll read historical romance or some contemporary.
Gemma: What are you working on now?
Kathy: I’m working on another historical romance novel that touches a bit on the views of sexuality in the Victorian period.
Gemma: That sounds intriguing. I remember being surprised when I realized that the Old West and the Victorian Age overlapped – they seem so different. What is your next project you hope to do?
Kathy: Ideas and characters constantly tumble around in my head, who know which one will jump out at me next. I’m trying to stay focused on one project at a time. No more three novels at once.
Gemma: Wow! Three at once sounds daunting, to say the least. What were the three novels, and what brought you to write them at the same time?
Kathy: In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend doing it. Because writing and researching one book is time consuming, doing multiple stories takes that much more time. It created a gap of years between release dates which in this day and age of search engine optimization and readers who binge read backlists, keeping a steady stream of product is important if you want people to remember your name. At the time I was working on the YA novel, my Civil War novel, A Place in Your Heart, and the rough draft for the novel I’m currently rewriting. I’m having to learn not to listen to the muse and work on the story I might feel like working on and focus on keeping in the zone and sticking to one story at a time.
Gemma: I’ve felt challenged by that, too, and it’s resulted in some stories left unfinished for long periods. For readers who want to see what you’ve been up to, how can they connect with you?
I’ve loved Greek Mythology for as long as I can remember. One of my older sisters told me myths as bedtime stories (I still remember first hearing the tale of Baucis and Philemon from her). My family had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology tattered from much reading. And mythology has influenced my writing, including the novel I’m working on now. So I was quite intrigued when I saw Madeline Miller’s Circe** at my local indie bookshop. When I read the first page, though, somehow I wasn’t pulled in to read more. I’m not sure why – it may be that her vision of the Greek gods and Titans wasn’t mine. But when the pandemic hit, I wanted to support my local bookstore, and so I ordered it from them – it was the first book, but not the last, that I got via “curbside delivery.”
This time when I opened that first page, I was hooked. I think this speaks of the power of Miller’s writing, and also the power of commitment – that book was now mine; I was literally, though in a small way, invested in it. Whatever the reason, I was pulled in and didn’t want to stop (it happened again, when I glanced inside to write this review).
Her vision of the Greek divinities is indeed different from mine, which has formed over decades. But her portrayal is vivid, visceral, and immediate – you feel in their presence. The Titans and gods in her story are so very human – sometimes petty and squabbling. But they can also be chilling, even terrifying.
From the time I read of Circe as a kid (in Edith Hamilton), I always felt some sympathy for her. After all, the way she treated Odysseus’ sailors felt like poetic justice. Madeline Miller has made Circe deeply sympathetic – starting as a child hungering for her father’s attention and basking in his literal radiance. (He is Helios, Titan of the sun, and his gaze can warm – or scorch.)
I loved how the writer wove so very many beings from mythology into the story. It was startling to realize Circe’s brother was Medea’s father. And how had I forgotten, or not known, that Pasiphaë, mother of the Minotaur, was Circe’s sister? I’d always thought of bull-besotted Pasiphaë as cursed and somewhat pitiful. The author has transformed her into something – someone – quite different. With Pasiphaë comes the tale of Daedalus, the Labyrinth, and the Minotaur – no longer distant and misty, but close, vivid, and as frightening as a bull-headed monster should be.
Prometheus also appears; it’s one of my very few regrets in the book that we don’t see or hear of him again. And of course, Odysseus plays a major role. But his appearance is not the end of Circe’s story. In some ways, though he comes in late in the book, he marks a new beginning for Circe.
I highly recommend the novel, not only because of its Greek Mythology, but because it is a novel of rich story and characters, centered on a vibrant female narrator.
When I finished Circe, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world of mythology. I pulled out an old book of mine that seemed promising – The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley.
It’s a slim, dense, scholarly book that uses the Iliad and Odyssey as sociological documents to learn about the environment Odysseus lived in (which the author believes was Iron Age Greece). It feels dated, which is no shame to the book – it was first published in the 1950s and revised in the 1970s, so no wonder there. But it is jarring, even repellant, when he refers to some modern-day non-industrial cultures as “primitive” or “savage” – even if only in quoting the titles of works he refers to. He does have some interesting insights into life of very ancient Greece. But I did not enjoy reading it enough to whole-heartedly recommend it.
His work draws not only on much more recent archaeology, but also on other sources including Hittite and Egyptian texts, to make a compelling case that the Trojan War was not only real, but occurred in the Bronze Age (earlier than the Iron Age, and in the general period Homer said it did). Even better, he paints scenes as colorful and dramatic as any novel, then expands on them with what he’s gleaned from other sources, while treating the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey as real people with real, Bronze-age motives. He not only treats Homer with respect, but helps make that world come vividly to life. His book also includes a very helpful timeline (for those of us who need help keeping the Bronze Age separate from the Iron Age and from Homer’s time), and a series of maps with ever-increasing detail, which give the reader a firm footing on where and when the Trojan War took place.
I’m sorry to see that Barry Strauss’ book may not be available in print, though it does appear to be available as an e-book, and I recommend it as a good read.
For more about the archaeology of the Trojan War, PBS has an excellent show: Secrets of the Dead: The Real Trojan Horse; Barry Strauss is one of the experts who speaks. And the magazine Archaeology has online an interactive map of the many layers of Ancient Troy, with context: Uncovering Troy
The book Circe is about so much more than the Trojan War and Odysseus, though. It begins when the world is young and the wounds of the Titans’ war with the Olympians are still raw. Hesiod’s Theogony tells of that war and of the birth of the world and all its divine beings. I read two translations of the Theogony, one by Norman O. Brown and one by Dorothea Wender; they returned me to the world of myth and wonder. And there, near the end, Circe is mentioned, bringing me back full circle.
If I were to do it over, I’d skip The World of Odysseus and read Barry Strauss’ The Trojan War instead. And I’m glad I reread the Theogony. But it’s Madeline Miller’s Circe which lingers with me. I look forward to reading it again someday.
*All book cover photos are of my copies. I could find no art credit for the left-hand Theogony.
**The word nerd in me was pleased and surprised to read that Circe’s name means Hawk. The masculine form, Circos (Kirkos in Greek) is a particular kind of hawk named for its circular flight. Circe, Madeline Miller’s novel says, was named for her golden eyes and piercing cry.