Monday, February 28, 2022

Fictional Sheroes or Heroes by Jenn McKinlay

 JENN McKINLAY: When I was a kid, I read for entertainment but also for escape. Adolescence is hard, ya’ll. 

My favorite stories were the ones where the female protagonists were for lack of a better description – total badasses. And, of course, if they had a sense of humor as well, they were top tier. This is probably why comic books appealed to me so much. 

I spent an entire summer deep in a female pirate phase where I was obsessed with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were real lady pirates, but there was a preponderance of fiction about them at the time (late 70’s/early 80’s) and my town librarian, Mrs. Schneider, tracked down every single novel she could find for me – Yay, librarians! 

I stopped needing to have the sword wielding, uber strong female leads as I got older – probably, a good thing as female pirate is likely a worse job than female novelist most days – and I thought I’d put that crushing on a character thing behind me when I started listening to Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir and I met Eva Stratt. In short, she’s in charge of saving the world and I love her, in fact, much like when I read about those amazing female leads of my youth, I found I wanted to be her. 

Here’s a snippet between Eva Stratt and Ryland Grace:

“I gasped. "Wait a minute! Am I a guinea pig? I'm a guinea pig!" (Ryland Grace, protagonist)

"No, it's not like that," she said. (Eva Stratt, awesomest heroine)

I stared at her.

She stared at me.

I stared at her.

"Okay, it's exactly like that," she said.”

Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary

Isn’t she fabulous? Connecting with her was a feeling I hadn’t had since I was a kid and it made me remember the heroines who had struck deep chords within me – Meg Murry, Cassie Logan, Lucy Pevensie, Kit Tyler, Anne Shirley, Egwene al’Vere, and Nancy Drew – to name just a few.

So, Reds, it’s your turn. What fictional characters have spoken to you so compellingly in your life that you were inspired by them or wanted to become them? 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Lucy Pevensie, definitely! She stands by her story–she knows what she saw. Meg Murry, the best. 

Also, do you remember Donna Parker? Hardly literature, but I still think about the Donna Parker series.  She was very resourceful, and spunky, and her mother taught her “If you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.” Which, now, may not be quite true, but we know what Mrs. Parker meant. 

ANYWAY. Donna was a big planner, and she would think about whatever event she was planning (like the prom, or international day) the night before, and imagine it just before she went to sleep. She’d envision it, and then realize what needed to be done. (Coat racks! There are no coat racks!) I do that to this day. Thanks to Donna.

And here’s a snippet from Donna Parker, Secret Agent. 

“Look, Tommy!” Donna pointed to a corner of the paper. “Did you tack these to a drawing board when you worked on them?”

 Tommy shook his head. “Never. Why do you ask?”

“Look at these little holes in the corner. And they’re in the other three corners, too.”

 Tommy looked at her blankly. “Well, I didn’t put them there. What does it mean?”

“It means,” announced Donna, “That someone has tacked them up on something. And the only reason I know for that is so they can be photographed. Somebody wants a copy of these plans!”

Author "Marcia Martin" is no Andy Weir, and she never met an exclamation mark she didn't use, but she changed my life.

HALLIE EPHRON: Definitely Anne Shirley who was constantly getting herself into trouble. Only the first book, Anne of Green Gables. And none of the movies based on the books have been right. She was NOT pretty, and the movies have a hard time with that. And of course Dorothy Gale of the Oz books. And Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, first cousin to Eleanor Oliphant.

I also fell in love with Eloise, Kay Thompson’s cheeky little girl who lived a free-rein existence in the Plaza Hotel with Nana and a dog and a turtle, brought to life so indelibly by Hilary Knight’s illustrations. I read it and reread it, and traced Eloise’s route on the foldout map of the hotel. 

JENN: I loved Eloise!!!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I never even heard of Marcia Martin,  Hank! Now I feel very deprived that I missed out on Donna Parker. I'm sure I'd have been a much more organized person.

 I never read Eloise, either, can you believe it? But Nancy Drew, of course. And Meg Murray was the absolute best. I devoured A WRINKLE IN TIME and all the books that came after–although I don't think any of them had quite the same impact. I loved Lucy Pevensie, too, although Susan was a bit of a stick. After that, my sheroes were the heroines in the Mary Stewart and Helen MacInnes books.

Jenn, I have Project Hail Mary on my Kindle. Moving it up the list!

HANK: Oh, Debs, I’m sure “Marcia Martin” is a made-up name.  It’s on the inside but not even on the cover! Anyone know?  (Oh, rats. I had to look it up. Her real name was Marcia Levin, and she died in 2006. :-(  )

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Jenn, I loved PROJECT HAIL MARY. Weir’s second book was a bit of a let down for me, but he came roaring back with this one.

My favorite childhood/teen heroines were the ones in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, which have the feel of fantasy, but are actually carefully crafted science fiction, as the descendents of human colonists who settled on the planet Pern struggle thousands of years later with a biological menace -  acid spewing, soil destroying worms that fall from the sky. What stops the “threads?” FIRE BREATHING DRAGONS that people ride! Ah, yisss. The first in the series, DRAGONFLIGHT, centers on a heroine snatched up from her life as a drudge to test as a possible dragon rider - and who imprints on the newly hatched Queen, making her the de facto leader of the community. I think I was twelve or thirteen when I first read it, and the tale of Lessa fighting past her fear and anger to claim her power was straight-up heroin in my veins. 

Jenn: OMG, how did I forget? I was a total Pern head back in the day. LOL.

RHYS BOWEN:  I loved George from the Famous Five series when I was about ten. She wore shorts, ran wild and did everything boys could do. Also she and her cousins were allowed to go camping alone on uninhabited islands!  In my teens it was Arwen from the LoTR. In fact I tried to change my name for a time to hers. I loved that the elf women were not wimps!

LUCY BURDETTE: Aside from the often mentioned Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Cherry Ames mysteries, I remember loving The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Caddie Woodlawn, and my very favorite, THE PINK MOTEL, also written by Carol Ryrie Brink. It's really a perfect prequel to the Key West foodie mysteries--just read the description from this old New York Times article and you'll see it would be a miracle if I hadn't written a quirky Florida series! (I just now noticed that Brink also wrote a book called The Highly Trained Dogs of Professor Petit. Isn't that a fabulous title?? Must go look it up...)

All right, Readers, it's your turn. What sheroes or heroes of fiction have you connected with as a reader? What impact did they have on your life?

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Rigoletto and Fish Pie, a Sunday Recipe from Celia Wakefield

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Just in time for Lent, our local chef de cuisine Celia Wakefield has you set with a warm, delicious and comforting fish pie, which, yes, seemed VERY British to me as well. Please don't let the length of the recipe scare you off - I saw Celia make this after a two hour round trip to the theatre and a performance of Rigoletto, which isn't a short opera. It was NOT difficult, and has the benefit of being a dish you can throw together the day after cooking the seafood. I had two helpings and would have taken the left-overs back home with me if Celia had given the slightest hint. Oh, well, I suppose Victor and she did have to have something for lunch the next day. 

(Note on the videos - I'm sorry there are so many! I usually edit them to make two or three compilations, but my video editor would NOT cooperate.)

Good morning to all the Reds, and a Big Thank You Julia for letting me loose on the blog yet again. So where are we? My Facebook page told me several time that today is a palindrome. While that has nothing to do with the fact that February has 28 days I’m willing to explore these wormholes. I know the 28 days has to do with squaring our year to fit within the lunar cycle, and why February? I am inquisitive enough to actually go and check up. Here is the answer from Britannica -the Romans considered February an unlucky month as this was the month they honored their dead so lets make it the short one.


 Well that’s enough of the Romans, though I do find it interesting that we are still doing things mandated by them. Just to complete the cycle of facts, I first came across a or several palindromes in one of Margary Allingham’s books -“More Work for the Undertaker” is the book I think. I was probably in my teens when I read it. I remember the story involved an eccentric, well educated and well bred middle aged family of siblings with a murder in their midst. Call for Albert Campion (non de plume).

Enough of dawdling down paths of mystery, my task today is to offer another of my recipes. Julia chose this as we had it for dinner after the three of us had been to see Rigoletto in a Met Opera HD performance. It is lovely to find a friend who enjoys Opera as it’s so much fun to be able to share views after. Another side note. If you are an Opera buff and haven’t seen this production, please try to catch it. The singing and acting is sublime. Both Rigoletto and Gilda have performed this together many times and it shows. 


We had a grand afternoon and because HD shows begin at 1pm, I had made and brought smoked salmon sandwiches to tide us over till dinner. It was a rather fishy day.


Arriving home we got to work on dinner, my fish pie, after the necessary restorative cuppa. With full disclosure as they say in the media, I have never been very fond of fish. Having thrown out a challenge to the ocean I must admit that I love shell fish, and totally love sushi and sashimi. In fact I really only like tuna raw. I am also partial to some smoked fish and was very disappointed when Legal SeaFoods took their blue fish pate off their menu. But serve me blue fish, Herring or mackerel, nothing oily, too fishy, thank you. I had unpleasant eating experiences with fish at boarding school. Being a convent it was fish on Fridays and usually boiled to flannel texture with bones still in and no sauce. 


But that will not be the case with my fish pie, there will be sauce and that is what caught Julia’s attention. Why fish pie? Well for some long lost reason fish pie is what I crave if I’m not feeling well. Baked golden brown fish pie with an embellished white sauce thick with cheese and hard boiled eggs into which one mixes cod, pollock, cusk whatever white fish available. As I can get good fresh pollock that was the choice along with Bang Island mussels

This is a no recipe, beloved of Sam Shifton, NYT Food Editor, who usually writes about no recipe meals on Wednesdays, then proceeds to tantalise me with many no recipe ideas which I can’t read as I won’t pay the price so to do. But I will put in my quantities as I can best guess them, which probably is good for 4-6 people. There was plenty left to serve again after the three of us had dinner, and it held up well over six days refrigeration.


Sea food ingredients:

1# bag of mussels

1# pollock


For cooking the mussels:

1/2 onion, chopped

Fresh dill

1 tsp fennel seeds,

1 tsp peppercorns

1/2 c white wine or vermouth 

Wash mussels, throw out any that have broken shells. 

Use a large frying pan with a lid to cook the mussels  

Add half a chopped onion, some dill fresh preferably, tsp of fennel seeds, tsp peppercorns, 1/2 cup white wine or vermouth, 1/2 cup water and the mussels to the pan and cover.


Heat till the liquid boils and the mussels start to open, 

Cook a couple more minutes, then drain liquid and mussels through a sieve.


Put the mussels to one side discarding any that didn’t open, to cool down

Carefully pour the cooking liquid into a microwave safe dish with lid and add the fish. Do not use all the liquid as there will be some sand etc from the mussels at the bottom.


The cooking liquid can be used with milk in the sauce if wished

Sauce and topping ingredients:


4 hard boiled eggs, peeled

Cheddar or another grating cheese to make a cup plus grated (Parmesan would only be my choice for topping)

Potatoes, enough to make 3-4 cups of mashed potato

Milk, butter, oil, salt and pepper

Dill to season if liked

Toasted bread or Panko crumbs for topping

Egg and Cheese Sauce:

Hard boil the eggs in advance and peel them

Grate enough cheese to fill a cup measure, I choose cheddar*

Step 1, seasoning the milk

Add to a pint of milk

  1.     bay leaf

  2.     10 peppercorns

  3.     nutmeg pieces or half a tsp grated nutmeg

  4.     small piece of onion or shallot

  5.     couple sprigs of parsley

Put the milk and first five ingredients in a small saucepan, 

Heat almost to a boil, 

Turn the heat down all the way and allow to simmer gently for ten minutes or so

Strain the milk to remove seasonings into a jug for pouring onto the roux.


Step 2, making the roux


2 Tblsp unsalted butter - if you use salted just taste sauce before adding more seasoning

2Tblsp flour - if GF use enough potato starch to make a roux

Salt and pepper, dill, nutmeg

Melt the butter and add the flour in two or three turns

Stir to incorporate butter and flour and cook for a few minutes over medium heat to ‘cook out’ the raw flour taste 

Take the pan off the heat and whisk about a quarter of the milk into the roux, mixing well to break up any small lumps

Return pan to medium heat and continue to add the milk a little at a time, whisking briskly and watching the mixture thicken. You may not need all the milk


As the sauce thickens add the cheese which will help the sauce thickening process then season to taste

Mix in the well chopped eggs, chopped dill, or parsley, grated nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste


Baking the Fish Pie:

Pour the sauce into the casserole,

Mix in the cooked fish, and shellfish if used, which should be broken into bite sized pieces

Cover the top with mashed potatoes and add a sprinkle of grated cheese and breadcrumbs if you wish.

Use an oven proof casserole and bake at 350F for about a half hour or until the top is golden brown. 






This is truly a ‘seat of pants’ recipe and I encourage you to make it as you will. Looking back there do seem to be many directions but I would rather over compensate than leave a step out.


The sauce is based on a b├ęchamel sauce that I learned to make many years ago. However it is fine to make a roux and mix in the milk without going through the seasoning process first. But done this way if you have time does add an element to the dish. As you can see the sauce is what makes the dish special. Perhaps I should just make the sauce and get a spoon!


I often make this with white fish which I cover with milk in a microwave safe dish and nuke for a couple of minutes, then let sit. That cooks the fish and I use the milk to make the sauce. 


Final Word: An immersion blender can solve almost all lumpy problems.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Under Pressure


War in Europe.

I have a hard time just tearing my attention away from the news, and I’m sure you do as well. This terrifying situation has flashback potential for all ages: sovereign nations lining up to fight a la WWII for the Greatest Generation, the threat of nukes for the Cold War Boomers, and the messy remains of the Soviet Union exploding into conflict like Gen Z saw in the Balkans. Oh, and the threat of cyberattacks; I guess that covers the millennials.

But still - the dogs need to be walked. Dinner needs to be made, kids need to be picked up, and most importantly, work needs to be done. Which brings me to what I want to talk about - how to keep on being creative when the world around you is scary and stressful? 

Let me be the first to say I’m able to keep a hold on my emotions in part because the Sailor finished his enlistment at the end of December, an event that now has him gnashing his teeth in frustration (because he’s a young man) but which is a GREAT relief to all the women who love him. However, even without skin in the game, so to speak, it’s hard to write during frightening times. Creating - whether in words, or paint, or movement - is an act that requires focus and a commitment to deep work. Creating requires the artist to be both vulnerable and open to their own emotions, while being closed off, at least temporarily, to outside pressures and feelings. It requires, bluntly, a sort of selfishness, which is hard enough in ordinary circumstances when you’ve got a husband who wants to talk or a kid who needs advice. When the circumstances are OHMYGODTHEWORLDISFALLINGAPART, it can seem extra selfish to climb into a temporary ivory tower to escape everything.

So Reds, how do you do it? How do you keep writing, keep creating in times of trouble and strife?

RHYS BOWEN: There is only one thing more frightening than the threat of WWIII and that is the word DEADLINE.  With two and a half deadlines looming each year I know I have had to buckle down and work no matter what.  But trying to stay fresh and creative when the head is pounding and there are knots in the stomach is not easy. I found the first months of Covid particularly hard, because it was a stress that touched me personally: would I touch the wrong surface? Wear the wrong mask? 


Writing at that moment was a saving grace because I was writing THE VENICE SKETCHBOOK and I could spend my days in Venice, at least in my head. I’d pour over my photos, my maps, and find myself smiling: oh, that was where we had that glass of Prosecco and a man sang opera as he walked past. Oh, that was the best frito misto… reliving happy times is a great stress-buster, I’ve found.

But right now I am writing a rather stressful book: bad things happening to characters, one of them about to be dropped as a spy into wartime France, so I’m definitely feeling the pressure: not wanting to watch the news etc.  Two things that help me are swimming in lovely outdoor pool, walking through our very pretty neighborhood. Also talking daily to my daughter Clare about ideas for our next book and laughing a lot with her. We always laugh, which is great. 


Clare is right–we can do nothing about Ukraine, so it’s a waste of energy to worry about it. We can pray for the people and a peaceful outcome and then let it go.

Although learning to let go is hard, isn’t it? 

JENN McKINLAY: I’m a compartmentalizer. Is that a word? The red squiggle didn’t show up, so I’ll assume it is. So much has happened over the past few years on the global, national, and personal fronts that there are days where it feels like I need to pencil in “breathe”. Fortunately, having grown up in a rather turbulent home, I am very good at slamming the lid and turning the key on turmoil so that I can function. 


My trick is to set time limits. Need to cry? I set the clock on my phone for fifteen minutes and wallow in a weepfest. Compelled to look at the news? Same thing. Set the clock for ten minutes, read the news and get back to work. If I didn’t set limits, I would get sucked into the quicksand of despair and never crawl out. 

LUCY BURDETTE: Jenn, that’s very wise and a perfectly good idea that I will borrow. I remember those first weeks of the pandemic so well–we were in such a panic and such disbelief. After writing nothing for a month, I had a stern talk with myself. I could either let this event ruin my life as I knew it, or I could get to work. Which I did. (Though I sure wish I’d written something like Kim Fay’s LOVE AND SAFFRON.)

Between the war news and the politics and the particularly horrid decisions that are happening in Florida, it would be quite possible to lose my mind. I’m trying to treat all that the same way–do what I can to let leaders know what i think, and otherwise, stick to my lane.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: At the first of the pandemic, I was a mess. I could not write, and kept thinking–I have to watch the NEWS! I have to buy aluminum foil! (or whatever.) But I remember, very clearly, thinking: I chose to be a writer, a writer of suspenseful entertaining immersive stories, and if we don’t need those now, when do we need them? And I have a very clear memory of thinking ”It’s always safe inside a book.” And “It’s always safe inside my manuscript.”  And that has been my mantra ever since. It’s a respite and a comfort. To be in a completely different world facing someone else’s problems.

Jenn, I do a similar thing. But with worrying. If something is stressful that’s coming in two months, for instance, I’ll  tell myself, okay, it’s not gonna matter what I think now, I can’t do anything about it, so I’ll worry about that on, say, April 12. And set a worry date. And then, every time I start to worry, I remind myself, nope, not til April 12. It really works, and by April 12, everything is different anyway. 

And I turn off CNN. I say to Jonathan--no more death news. One hour, then change the channel or do something else. There’s no need to fill our heads with it every second. We can be interested, and engaged, and aware, and we can truly care, but we don’t need to be constantly pummeled with repetition and speculation.

HALLIE EPHRON: I can barely write on a good-news day. If I try to follow the news I am overwhelmed by how powerless we all are to make even the slightest difference. Haven’t felt anything quite like this since the 60’s. I’m just grateful that the US is not the aggressor, and that it’s not my job to figure out what happens next. It’s so much easier when you’re plotting fiction.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I was so horribly distracted the first year, and more, of the pandemic, that I just could not write. Which is how I’ve ended up in my way-past-deadline panic. I finally got to the point where I can’t wait to be in my story, and I can’t let anything take away my focus. So I can read the headlines, but that’s about it. It makes me feel selfish, but me not finishing my book doesn’t do anything for the international mess. And finishing it might actually give other people a welcome escape when THEY are feeling overwhelmed.

But it doesn’t help that Rick is following the news 24/7…


JULIA: I really like Jenn's approach - set the timer, feel the emotion (or doomscroll through Twitter, and then when the alarm dings, back to work. How about you, dear readers? How do you manage, and stay creative, when the world feels like it might crack under pressure?