Friday, January 17, 2020

Music as grace notes in James Ziskin's Ellie Stone novels

HALLIE EPHRON: When I first heard about James Ziskin's Ellie Stone novels, he had a new one out which was set in Hollywood in the 1960s, I knew I had to meet him. I grew up in Hollywood in the 60's and I'd set my latest novel there, too. He was getting an amazing reception to the series--his books have won the Anthony and Macavity awards, and been finalists for Lefty, Edgar, and Barry Awards. Not too shabby! I just finished reading the latest, TURN TO STONE (launching June 21) and it's simply terrific.

So I'm delighted to welcome him to Jungle Red, and have him weigh in on music, and the role it plays in the Ellie Stone novels.

JAMES ZISKIN: I write a series of traditional mysteries set in the early 1960s, featuring plucky young newspaper reporter Ellie Stone. Since the first book, music has played a supporting role in all the stories. Not necessarily front and center, but important just the same. Whether it’s a clue tied to some classical records maliciously shattered in STYX & STONE, or simply Ellie’s uncanny ability to name a piece of music at the drop of a needle, you’ll always find music in an Ellie Stone mystery. It’s no different in the seventh installment, TURN TO STONE, coming out January 21, 2020.
Ellie moves around quite a bit. That’s because she’s living and working in an upstate New York mill town and I wanted to avoid Cabot Cove syndrome. You know, that disorder characterized by too many murders in a small village? Ellie has solved crimes in her adopted upstate home of New Holland, New York City, the Adirondacks, Los Angeles, Saratoga Springs, and now—in TURN TO STONE—Florence, Italy.

It’s September 1963. Ellie is in Florence to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. Just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, however, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has drown in the river under suspicious circumstances. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves Ellie and nine of the symposium participants quarantined in villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine until the quarantine can be lifted. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.

That’s the setup. But what about the music? I’m just getting to that. Since Ellie is in Italy, there’s bound to be Italian music. Let’s take the pieces mentioned in the book in order.

1. Ellie writes in her preamble to the story that Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Andy Williams, and Petula Clark all had hits in Italy in 1963. And they sang those songs in Italian. 

2. The first song that appears in the book is an anti-fascist anthem of sorts, “Bella ciao!” The song has its roots in the nineteenth century as a folk song, but was adopted and adapted during the Second World War by the partisans and the anti-fascist resistance that sprang up in 1943-44. It’s a catchy tune and an enduring song of protest and rebellion. Have a listen.

Here are the words to the first stanza and refrain:

Una mattina mi son alzato,
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao!
Una mattina mi son alzato
e ho trovato l'invasor.

O partigiano portami via,
o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
o partigiano portami via
che mi sento di morir.

One morning I awakened,
oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!
One morning I awakened
And I found the invader.

Oh partisan carry me away,
oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
oh partisan carry me away
Because I feel death approaching
3. “Volare.” Lucio Bevilacqua is the adorable Marxist, one of the ten academics trapped by the quarantine. And he’s the one who plays the guitar. Not many complete songs, mind you, as he never seems satisfied with the tuning of his strings. After he plays “Bella ciao,” which is not well received by those with different political persuasions, Lucio tries to lower the political tensions by playing “Volare.” Everyone groans at the overplayed hit, and Lucio abandons the song halfway through.

4. Throughout the book, Lucio spends a lot of time flirting good-naturedly with Ellie. His courting usually takes the form of a theatrical serenade on bended knee. And the love ballades are always taken from Italian pop songs of the era.

“Eri un’abitudine, dolcissima abitudine, che vorrei reprendere per sognar” (This is the Italian version of “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”)

“Mi sono inamorato di te” (I’ve fallen in love with you.)

“La ragazza del mio cuore sei” (The girl of my heart is you.)

“Non dimenticar che t’ho voluto tanto bene” (Don’t forget that I loved you so.) This is the Italian version of a song made famous by Nat King Cole.

5. When the quarantined residents tell their stories for entertainment, Lucio is there to accompany them on his guitar. For the tale about a Jew who considers—then rejects—converting to Christianity, Lucio spontaneously strums a tune that Ellie recognizes as part of the third movement of Mahler’s first symphony, the “Titan.” It’s a distinctly Jewish theme, a jaunty bit that makes you want to dance. For the first time, she’s impressed by his considerable talent and wit.

6. Professor Bondinelli’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Mariangela, arrives at the villa from her school in England, and Ellie takes her under her wing. The two discuss photography, the losses of their fathers, and music. Now, this is late September 1963, and Mariangela—like many girls her age in the UK—is crazy about the Beatles. Of course they Beatles were virtually unknown in the US until a couple of months later.

Mariangela and Ellie manage to scare up a portable record player at the villa, and the girl treats Ellie to her favorite three songs in the world: “Ask Me Why,” “Please Please Me,” and “She Loves You.” With the pure, unbridled enthusiasm of youth, Mariangela plays the songs over and over, and Ellie indulges her her passion, especially in light of the recent loss of her father.

Why do I include so much music in my books? I’ll answer that with the very same Shakespeare quote that Ellie butchers above. He said it better than I could ever hope to.

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”
(The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7)

TURN TO STONE launches January 21, 2020. Available in bookstores, libraries, and popular online portals.

Barnes & Noble

James W. Ziskin, Jim to his friends, is the author of the seven Ellie Stone mysteries. His books have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, Lefty, and Macavity awards. His fourth book, Heart of Stone, won the 2017 Anthony for Best Paperback Original and the 2017 Macavity (Sue Feder Memorial) award for Best Historical Mystery. He’s published short stories in various anthologies and in The Strand Magazine. Before he turned to writing, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana. He spent fifteen years in the Hollywood postproduction industry, running large international operations in the subtitling and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French. Jim can be reached through his website or on Twitter @jameswziskin.

HALLIE: What Jim didn't talk about is ITALY! Turn To Stone is nearly as much fun as taking the trip to Florence yourself. But since he's talking about music, my mind wanders to the authors for whom music is a central part of their stories. And of course Deborah Crombie, for sure. And Ian Rankin. And of course Colin Dexter's opera-loving Inspector Morse.

And I want to hear about his years in Italy, because it's so clear that his view of it (not to mention his accent) belies an insider's perspective.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Monastery turned prison camp in James L. May's debut THE BODY OUTSIDE THE KREMLIN

HALLIE EPHRON: James L. May's THE BODY OUTSIDE THE KREMLIN debut novel is a historical mystery set in the same era (1920s) as Jess Montgomery's THE HOLLOWS but in a very different place--a notorious Russian prison camp based in a gloomy monastery that housed priceless icons. Amazing setting, right? James is here to talk about why he set his novel there.

JAMES L. MAY: The Solovetsky Archipelago was a strange place for the Bolsheviks to set up the first camp in what would become the Gulag, the secret-police-run prison system in which millions of citizens of the Soviet Union were imprisoned and worked to death. Strange, but maybe inevitable too.

Before Solovetsky was a prison, you see, it was the site of one of the most important monasteries in the Russian north. Located in the White Sea, almost on the Arctic Circle, by the time the camp was established in the 1920s, the place had been occupied by monks for almost 500 years.

When the Communist and anti-religious Bolsheviks seized power, they took the monastery over as part of the general expropriation of the property of the Orthodox Church. With repression being a major part of their political program from the beginning, they needed somewhere to send dissidents: members of competing socialist parties, untrusted intellectuals, Ukrainian nationalists, remaining White Army officers, and whoever else got on the wrong side of the regime. You could be imprisoned for any reason, or no reason at all.

What always surprises me about this is just how easily the monastery’s piety and serenity were translated into the prison camp’s starvation and suffering. Partly this was a matter of its filling practical needs: Solovetsky was remote, it was isolated, and the monks had already built much of the infrastructure that would be needed for a self-sufficient labor camp of the kind the Party had in mind. The Bolsheviks were never hesitant about exploiting this kind of efficiency.
But the two institutions also had more in common symbolically than you might think. Russian monasticism, like most Christian monasticism, has always had strong threads of withdrawal from the world and self-abnegation running through it. The Kievan Crypt Monastery, probably the most famous monastery in Russian Orthodoxy, was founded when Saint Antonius couldn’t find a place that would suit his worship in the city; instead he went into the wilderness and dug himself a hole to live in. (In time it was expanded into an elaborate system of crypts by his followers, then a huge cathedral and monastery complex.) Here’s the description of his daily life given in the medieval Russian Primary Chronicle: “Thus he took up his abode there, praying to God, eating dry bread all the day long, drinking little water, and digging the crypt. He gave himself rest neither day nor night, but endured in his labors, in vigil, and in prayer.” Minus the prayer, it sounds like a prisoner’s routine, doesn’t it? Bread, water, and hard work. The monks on Solovetsky didn’t dig crypts, but many of the most devout did go out to live in the islands’ forests as hermits, with little food and no comforts.

The Solovetsky camp’s treatment of its prisoners was like a dark mirror held up to these monks’ self-imposed strictures. Where the monks had fasted, prisoners starved. Where the monks’ days had been ordered by the liturgy, prisoners’ were ordered by the steam-whistle
sending them to work or calling them back for curfew. Solzhenitsyn, who devotes a chapter to Solovetsky in his classic Gulag Archipelago, was struck by the fact that supply issues at the camp were so bad that some prisoners were issued sacks as clothing. How can that not bring to mind the sack-cloth shirt a monk might have worn a hundred years earlier to mortify his flesh and demonstrate his repentance?

There’s no evidence that the people who organized the Solovetsky camp had these parallels in mind explicitly. But I do think they show that Russian Communism inherited more from Russian Orthodoxy than its adherents would have been comfortable admitting. The common idea is that human beings, by being removed from the world and denied normal human needs, can be transformed into something beyond human.

For the monks, that something was a more spiritual, more Christlike being. For the Bolsheviks, it was a creature that could be completely dominated and used up by the State. There’s certainly no moral equivalence between those two things! And I don’t want to suggest that Orthodox monasticism was to blame for Soviet repression. But viewed from a certain angle, the resemblance is there.

(I should note that it was never just Russians that had the idea that prisons effectively remove prisoners from the human world. The word “penitentiary” came into use in the US in the 19th century, as people began to think of prisoners as “penitents” – in other words, as people who withdrew to repent their sins and improve their souls, just like monks. And that way of thinking has had some bad results here too. Maybe it’s no wonder that the US incarceration rate is sometimes compared to that of the Gulag in its worst years – though our prisons are nowhere near as deadly.)

Of course monks rarely ever succeed at being as pure and unworldly as they are supposed to be. Monastery-set mysteries, like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael novels, have always been favorites of mine in part for the ways that they show people in cloistered life to be as human as the rest of us, just as capable as we are of greed, or pride, or love. (Mysteries are especially good at showing this, since the detective is always trying to discover the motives that people would rather keep hidden.)

One of the reasons I wrote The Body Outside the Kremlin was to do the same thing for the prisoners of Solovetsky. Subject to a regime that aimed to dehumanize, they deserved to have the human details of their lives in the camp imagined and investigated as fully as I could manage in fiction.
I’m curious to know whether this way of thinking resonates with Jungle Reds readers. Do you have favorite mysteries that bring people who have been placed “outside the bounds” of humanity back inside? Any good ones to recommend, whether set in monasteries, prisons, or elsewhere?

HALLIE: Hmmm, mysteries set in monasteries or prisons, places that sequester their inhabitants. Of course, Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile come immediately to mind. Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Surely there are great mysteries set in convents. And maybe we can count the many crime novels in the rarified atmosphere of Oxford or Cambridge. Maybe even Hogwarts.

What else comes to mind?

And I'd certainly like to hear about the research James did in order to write his novel. What is the Solevetsky camp now?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Marilyn Reads Mysteries: Insights from a book blogger

HALLIE EPHRON: Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at Brandeis at the Osher Learning Center at Brandeis, BOLLI. I was welcomed by Marilyn Brooks, the book blogger who can be found reviewing mystery novels every week at Marilyn's Mystery Reads.

It's a treat to meet a book reviewer who cares as much about the genre as we authors do. So I asked if she'd come on Jungle Red Writers as a guest, and here she is.

Welcome, Marilyn. When did you start writing your blog?

MARILYN BROOKS: I started my blog in February 2010, so it’s almost exactly ten years old.  My older son Rich is the president of a social media company in Portland, ME, and he had suggested that I write a mystery blog since I love mysteries so much.

I thought about it for several months, wondering who would care about my opinions aside from family and close friends, but then I decided to give it a try.  And it’s grown to over 1000 subscribers, so I guess people have found the blog and recommended it to others.

Then, several years later, my husband suggested that I write to authors when I reviewed their books.  Again it took me a while to overcome my reluctance—who am I to write to Sara Paretsky, Louise Penny, Harry Bingham, Thomas Perry—but I’ve been so surprised and delighted that authors, both well-known and newcomers to the genre, have responded to my emails with kind words and promises to put my blog up on their Facebook page, as you did.

I’ve always been a reader of all types of books—novels, travel books, and biographies—but my special fondness is for mysteries.  I love the idea that there’s a puzzle or crime that’s the center of the book, and my job (along with the book’s protagonist) is to solve it.  It makes reading more immediate and personal, somehow.

HALLIE: Most of us got hooked on mysteries early with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Do you remember the first adult author who hooked you?

MARILYN: My  first “adult” author was Agatha Christie, whom I still believe is the best.  Not every one of her books is perfect, but the ones that are—THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE—are the best because they are true originals.

I also started reading John D. MacDonald, Josephine Tey, and Rex Stout early on, and I still re-read them.  I find that their mysteries hold up really well, while some of the others written in that same time period don’t, at least for me.

HALLIE: Is there a recent book that blew your socks off?

MARILYN: It’s funny you should ask about a favorite book most readers have never heard of because I just finished a mystery that fits that description perfectly; I blogged about it on January 4th.  It’s called THE BELLAMY TRIAL by Frances Noyes Hart and is a fictionalized story based on a 1922 double murder in New Jersey.  It was called “the crime of the century” until it was eclipsed by the Lindbergh kidnapping. 

I came across it by chance in my town’s library, started it, and couldn’t put it down.  It was written in 1927, five years after the actual murders; its style is somewhat old-fashioned, but the story kept me riveted until the last page.

HALLIE: I love the fortuitous way you found that book! And isn't that the treat, when you crack open a book that's unknown to you and find a gem? How do you discover the books you review?

MARILYN: I’m very fortunate to receive books from various publishers and publicists so I almost always read those books, although I don’t review them if I don’t like them.  I also buy books—my favorite book store for both new and
used books is Mainely Murders in Kennebunk, ME—and I borrow books from the Minuteman Library system on a regular basis.  I also read several online mystery sites to find out what books are being published—CrimeReads, Criminal Element, Marilyn Stasio’s NYTimes columns.

The problem is that there are so many good books and not enough time to read them all.

I don’t always finish a book that I start.  If it doesn’t interest me after about 50 pages or so, I’ll stop reading it.  Or if I find the story is unbelievable—that’s another reason I won’t finish a book.  My feeling is that if I’m reading a book that I’m not enjoying, for whatever reason, then I’m not reading a book I could be enjoying.

HALLIE: Give us a peek at your TBR pile.
MARILYN: My TBR pile is something of a joke in my house.  I’m a fast reader, so I need at least a week’s worth of books on my shelves to read to feel comfortable.  That being said, if I have eight or ten mysteries in my study I begin to panic, so I’m always looking for that perfect amount that will keep me happy and not stress me out.

At the time I’m writing this, I have five mysteries from the library and four from publishers on my shelves and nine books on my library reserve list.  Plus I’m in a book club that I started way back in the 60s, and we meet once a month and read everything except mysteries.

HALLIE: Well we're very grateful to you, Marilyn, for beating the drum for crime fiction.

And listening to Marilyn talk about reviewing books takes me back to my own 12 years reviewing crime fiction for the Boston Globe. And the thrill of being among the first to read books that hadn't been yet published by authors who weren't yet established names. I remember reading an advance copy of first novel by Gillian Flynn, SHARP OBJECTS. It left me breathless. And being blown away by CITIZEN VINCE by Jess Walter. What a thrill!
If you were (or if you ARE!) a crime fiction book reviewer, how would you decide which books to read and write about? How many pages does it take you to decide whether to keep reading?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Jess Montgomery's Kinshp series continues: THE HOLLOWS

HALLIE EPHRON: Last year Jess Montgomery's THE WIDOWS came out last year to much acclaim. Library Journal awarded it a starred review, and a tumult of rave reviews praised its gritty historical context, Appalachian setting, and strong female characters.

Good news for us: Now there's a sequel in what Jess Calls her Kinship Historical Mystery Series. THE HOLLOWS is just out, Jess is here to talk about it.

JESS MONTGOMERY:  I didn’t realize that it was the first title in a new series. I thought I’d written a standalone.

Let me back up a bit. I was inspired to write THE WIDOWS after I learned of Ohio’s true first female sheriff, who served in 1925 in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. The real-life sheriff, Maude Collins, worked as jail matron for her husband, the sheriff, until he was killed in the line of duty. There was no mystery as to who murdered her husband.

But in true writerly fashion, I started wondering… what if there was a mystery? What if no one witnessed the murder, but the sheriff was found dead? What if his wife becomes sheriff, and investigates?

Those what-ifs led to three years of researching, brainstorming, writing and rewriting, and in the process, my first female sheriff in Ohio, Lily Ross, came into being in my imagination and on the page, which she shares with an unlikely ally, Marvena Whitcomb, a widow, union organizer, and childhood friend of Lily’s husband. Their sleuthing plays out against a backdrop of women’s rights, worker’s rights, union miners sparring with management, coal mining, and prohibition.

Honestly, by the time I finished their story in THE WIDOWS, I was tired! I thought I’d wrung out every bit of emotion and detail I could from their story. And creating it had wrung quite a bit of emotion out of me.

Then my brilliant agent sold THE WIDOWS—break out the champagne! —as one of two historical mysteries to be published by Minotaur.
That meant the second mystery could be—but didn’t have to be—a sequel to THE WIDOWS.

So, I started the research for a mystery novel set in the 1960s, a novel idea that I’d had on a backburner of my imagination for quite a few years.

And a few weeks into that process, I had a conversation with my also-brilliant Minotaur Books editor.

I told her about what I was working on, which she found interesting, but…

But she had a what-if of her own.

What if, she suggested, I at least play with the idea of writing further books set in Lily’s and Marvena’s world, in the town of Kinship and in the county of Bronwyn.

My instant response was that I just couldn’t see Lily and Marvena continuing as sleuthing duos without it feeling forced.

Well, my editor said, you don’t have to do it that way. You’ve created a huge cast of characters, built a whole world around them. I want to know more about them, and I think readers will, too. Just think about it.

And so, I did. Truth be told, after hanging up from our chat her words kept echoing in my thoughts: you’ve created a huge cast of characters, built a whole world around them. And my thought in response was: I have?

Talk about being too close to your own work.

With my editor’s nudge, and some more ruminating, I realized that indeed, I did have a whole cast of characters and a story world to play with.

I further realized that in creating a county seat called “Kinship” I hadn’t just named a place—I’d created a setting that symbolizes community. Lily and Marvena both value community, but also their independence, and tension between the notion of serving community versus being true to individual identity and desires strums just under the surface of every scene.

Lily is at the heart of the community, I thought, and as such would need to be one of the main narrators in each Kinship Mystery Series novel.

But just as she and Marvena are dual narrators in the debut title, Lily and another Kinship character could be dual narrators in future novels.

Once I figured all of that out, I put that 1960s backburner standalone idea back on the, well, you know. The backburner. It’s still bubbling away, and I’m sure I’ll give it a stir another time.

I thought back over THE WIDOWS, re-read portions, and realized that there were plenty of secondary characters about whom I, too, wanted to know more. What about her, or her, or him, or…

The secondary character that quietly, shyly, yet insistently, kept raising her hand and whispering, “me, next!” was Hildy Cooper, Lily’s best friend from childhood, and a source of comfort and support in THE WIDOWS.

And so, in THE HOLLOWS, Lily and Hildy are dual narrators, sleuthing together (and sometimes apart), and again experiencing the tension of community expectations and strictures versus individual identities and opinions.

(For fans of Marvena in THE WIDOWS, don’t worry. She’s still in the story, though this time as a secondary character. Some characters, like Hildy, are shy, and others like Marvena… Well, let’s just say she’s not reticent about speaking her mind!)

Now, I look back at my original notion that THE WIDOWS was a standalone—and indeed, it can be read as such—and I must shake my head, just a bit, at myself. On the one hand, I understand why I needed some time, and gentle nudging from my editor, to see the full potential in what I originally created. I’d spent years laser-focused on the story of THE WIDOWS and had grown too close to my own creation. On the other hand, I’m so glad that I finally did understand the potential of The Kinship Mystery Series. It would have been such a missed creative opportunity for me if I hadn’t been open to that editorial suggestion. Rather than feeling like I ‘have’ to write more books in the series, I’m very excited that I ‘get’ to do so.

THE HOLLOWS isn’t just a sequel to THE WIDOWS, it’s the second in the series. As it turns out, I’m contracted for at least books three and four! And I now have ideas for plenty more after that, should I be so lucky.

But in the meantime, I’m celebrating the publication of THE HOLLOWS today! THE HOLLOWS is set in 1926, as Lily runs for election in her own right (rather than in a special appointment and election to fulfill her husband’s term). When an elderly, identified woman is found murdered by the train tracks in a remote part of Bronwyn County, Lily investigates, and soon her friend Hildy is also caught up in the case. Together, they discover a shocking event in their county’s history, even as they deal with the hurts and haunts of their own pasts. I hope you get a chance to read it!

HALLIE: I loved THE WIDOWS so much, and I can't wait to read THE HOLLOWS. I'm guessing the title has more than one meaning, just as the first book did. And I'm eager to go back to that time and that part of the world, and most of all those women.

Prohibition era. Appalachia. Mining. Scrupulous research. Conflict, of course. It all makes for a potent brew that's anything but a traditional mystery series set in "Kinship."

Jess's series got me thinking about the times and places we set mystery novels. St. Mary Meade, of course. Henning Mankell's Ystad. Gillian Fynn's Wind Gap. Louise Penny's Three Pines. And more... books in which the place is virtually a character. What are the settings that have stuck with you?

Monday, January 13, 2020

Revealing our secret SUPERpowers

HALLIE EPHRON: My 6-year-old granddaughter has a superpower. She can whistle. Not the hail-a-cab whistle, but whistle-a-tune whistle. My husband’s superpower is that he can play his head. His head is particularly resonant, though his repertoire is pretty much limited to Turkey in the Straw.

I cannot play my head or whistle, but I can make pie crust. I’m pretty good at speedy
vegetable chopping  and card shuffling, too. After watching the Ken Burns program about country music, I wished I could yodel. And this holiday I wished I had turkey-carving in my quiver. Instead I make a hash of it.

What are your superpowers, and are there any you wish you had?

LUCY BURDETTE: Making cakes from scratch I think is my superpower. My yellow cake
with caramel frosting reigns supreme, though I have a few chocolate cakes in my repertoire that cause swooning. When the grandkids and nephews arrive in February for a visit, I’m thinking of trying a sprinkle cake--colored sprinkles all the way through and in the icing.

And planning and organizing trips. I’m really happy with the travel experiences we’ve had over the last years. Hopefully many more to come! And buying books, more than I can read. I’m very, very good at that!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I can’t whistle, I can’t snap my fingers, and I can’t blow bubbles, so I
definitely need some kind of superpower! I’m not much of a baker, either, sigh. But I can make a mean soup, and a perfectly proper pot of tea. I’m also really good at finding my way around London, and at giving travel tips to other Anglophiles!

RHYS BOWEN: I’m a useless baker, never learned to whistle through my fingers but I used to ride a mean boogie board ( so well that two teenagers once asked me for instructions). I
also can remember the words to every song I’ve sung.

JENN McKINLAY: I can whistle, can’t play my head, I can boogie board, shuffle cards, and I do love to bake. I’m not extraordinarily good at these things but competent.

I think my greatest superpower is that I’m ridiculously handy. All by myself -- although sometimes with the hooligans if I am teaching them something -- I’ve painted every room in this house, built a screened in porch, built a brick patio, built a swing set/fort, changed all of the locks,
ripped up all the carpet, tiled two floors and put wood in three others, put in all new faucets, and refinished all of the kitchen cabinets. I’m having professionals do the heavy stuff - new counters and appliances for the kitchen. But then, I’m looking to remodel my laundry room all by myself. Can’t wait. I love this stuff!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: No whistling, no matter how hard I try. I can roll my tongue and pump it up, but that doesn’t get me very far. I’m pretty ambidextrous, so I can play tennis with both hands, meaning I have two forehands. It is very confusing to my opponent. I can make a pretty good dinner out of whatever is in the refrigerator, those one time only recipes that you can never duplicate. I can also sing songs
using only the first letters of the words—oscys! Would be “ oh say can you see.” And I can do that really fast, almost without thinking.

And me too, Rhys. I know words to every song. Sadly, I fear that may be taking up too much work room in my brain.

Oh! My other superpower is that I can find lost stuff— even things someone else lost. it’s very bizarre.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm beginning to think my superpower is giving sensible life advice to millennials, since it's something I seem to be doing a LOT of lately. My other superpowers? I can tell if you have a fever - and roughly what degree it is-by touching your forehead. Also, all dogs love me. I mean, even ones I'm pretty much ignoring. I can make a great fire in a wood stove with newspaper, six small sticks and a couple of split logs. 

My kids think my superpower is the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. This is an hereditary superpower, since my mother was able to do the same thing. Maybe I should try to combine my strengths by becoming a traveling dog-walker/nurses aide who brightens shut-ins lives with hours of conversation?

HALLIE: This is reminding me of a superpower my daughters had. They could talk backwards. Naomi's name was I-Mo-Ane. Molly was Why-Lom. They could converse like that. Weird.

So what are your superpowers? Can you fold fitted sheets? Salsa dance? Juggle? Run marathons?? Say the alphabet backwards???