Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Lure of the Masquerade, a guest post by Tasha Alexander

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have long suspected that writers of historical fiction must not-so-secretly long to live in other ages. Not really-real historical times -- who wants to be without modern dentistry, antibiotics and washing machines? But the past that lives in our imagination and in our senses. Folks go to Renaissance Faires, join the Society for Creative Anachronism, reenact Civil and Revolutionary wars, attend steampunk conventions. Most of all? Young or old, they celebrate Hallowe'en.What's the common thread?

That's right. They get to dress up. Wear costumes. Pretend to be someone else.

Nobody knows this better than Tasha Alexander, whose much-loved Lady Emily series gives us all the chance to live a far-flung, romantic, exciting and mystery-filled 19th century life (while still listening to music on our ipods while we read.) Here's the description of her latest, THE COUNTERFEIT HEIRESS:

After an odd encounter at a grand masquerade ball, Emily becomes embroiled in the murder investigation of one of the guests, a sometime actress trying to pass herself off as the mysterious heiress and world traveler Estella Lamar. Each small discovery, however, leads to more questions.  Was the intended victim Miss Lamar or the imposter?  And who would want either of them dead?  

As Emily and Colin try to make sense of all this, a larger puzzle begins to emerge:  No one has actually seen Estella Lamar in years, as her only contact has been through letters and the occasional blurry news photograph. Is she even alive?  Emily and Colin’s investigation of this double mystery takes them from London to Paris, where, along with their friends C├ęcile and Jeremy, Duke of Bainbridge they must scour the darkest corners of the city in search of the truth.

How does Tasha feel about being an historical author? Well, for her, every day gets to be Hallowe'en!

Few holidays offer the guilt-free indulgences of Halloween. There’s nothing to cook, no presents to buy, no family drama to anticipate. Instead, we can choose to dress up in whatever costume strikes our fancy—silly, serious, sexy, scary—and give and get candy in all but unlimited amounts. What’s not to like, particularly when you consider the fact that no one is going to pressure you to involve yourself in Halloween if you’re not interested? It would not be so easy to forgo Thanksgiving.

For me, costumes have always been the most appealing part of Halloween, partly because I can take or leave candy. If Trick or Treating involved getting something spicy instead of something sweet, I might revise my position just a bit, but the real reason the costumes matter the most to me is because they remind me of reading. Sounds crazy, right?

From the time I was a little girl, I felt as if I had been born in the wrong century. I wanted to be a pioneer, setting off in a covered wagon, ready to find the perfect homestead in the west. Or Cleopatra, who never needed a translator when dealing with foreign emissaries because she was fluent in seven languages. 

Or an ancient Athenian, listening to Socrates in the Agora (yes, that one only works so long as you willfully ignore the fact that girls in ancient Athens weren’t hanging out in the Agora; I have no trouble doing that). Or Scarlett O’Hara, deciding who could bring her dessert (but you know now that if I were Scarlett, she’s be looking for more barbeque and less dessert). 


As it is all but impossible to do any of the above in real life, I lived out these fantasies through reading. Books let you enter another time and place, and let you to feel what it would have been like to be someone else. Is there anything better than the sensation that the world around you is disappearing and being replaced by another one, first with words and then with the vivid details your mind fills in as you read page after page after page?

Of course, you don’t ever actually get to BE the characters in books, which can be something of a drag. As I teenager, I would have gladly switched places with Elizabeth Bennett, but on the other hand, I never felt the urge to join Ishmael on the Pequod. Still, a holiday like Halloween gives us the opportunity to don the togs of our favorites. So tell me, what would be your ideal literary costume for October 31?

One lucky commentor will win a copy of THE COUNTERFEIT HEIRESS!

You can find out more about Tasha, and read excerpts of her Lady Emily novels, at her website. You can also friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @talexander.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends; a guest post by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: This is a picture of Jeff Cohen, author of the Aaron Tucker comedy/mysteries and the Comedy Tonight mystery/comedies

Talented author, baseball connoisseur, father and husband.

This is a picture of E.J. Copperman, author of the Haunted Guesthouse series.

Prolific novelist, New Jersey booster, writing teacher and musician.

We here at JRW Love Jeff and E.J., and have had both on to talk about their latest novels. But never in our wildest dreams did we think they would get together to start another quirky, clever mystery series with such a protagonist who can only be described as a Sherlock Holmes for our age: Samuel Hoenig, a brilliant loner with a Questions Answered agency, an apartment in an old pizza restaurant, and Asperger's Syndrome. 

Not since Nora Roberts teamed up with JD Robb or Ed McBain wrote with Evan Hunter has the literary world seen such a tag team.  So let me introduce to you/ the one and only Jeff and E.J./ and THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD...

What’s your favorite Beatles song?
It’s not an idle question, nor, heaven forbid, one that doesn’t lead to a discussion of my (our) latest book. The song by the Fab Four you most enjoy is a key to your inner psychology, a way to determine whether you are trustworthy or un-, sincere or in-, mented or de-.
That’s the theory of Samuel Hoenig, the borderline genius with Asperger’s Syndrome who is the central character and narrator of THE QUESTION OFTHE MISSING HEAD.
Samuel has a “disorder” (he thinks of it merely as an element of his personality) called Asperger’s Syndrome, which used to be its own thing and is now a part of the autism spectrum and don’t get me started on how all that happened. One of the aspects of Asperger’s is that the person with it usually focuses on one or two subjects almost to the exclusion of all others.
In Samuel’s case, there are two “special interests”: New York Yankees baseball and the music of the Beatles.
But not to worry, Red Sox Nation—Samuel does not use his knowledge of pinstriped hardball in any way but to sometimes understand other issues in human interaction. He does, however, ask most people he meets what song by John, Paul, George and Ringo they most favor, and the answer can tell him a great deal. He believes.
So let’s take a quick sample and see what Samuel thinks is the hidden truth behind each Beatles response:
Eleanor Rigby: Pretentious. Terrified of death. Possibly believes him/herself to be lonely.
Help!: Energetic. Articulate. Possibly sees himself as a victim.
You Know My Name, Look Up the Number: Complete and utter lunatic.
There are others.
I conceived of the Beatles test as a way for Samuel to use his special interest in the Beatles (a subject I know well enough to at least usually avoid the dreaded Research) to understand the “neurotypical” better than he usually does. The world is something of a puzzle to Samuel, so having some pieces that are familiar helps smooth the way a little bit.
It also allows for people Samuel meets to respond in a variety of ways. Those who are going to see him as a freak will recoil at the question, as if he were asking what type of underwear they favor on first meeting (that’s not bad; I might have to use that one in an upcoming Samuel book). Those who “get” him, like his new associate Janet Washburn, will answer without hesitation and be interested in the type of information they might have just volunteered.
But it also is designed to help the reader see what Samuel sees and hopefully to understand him better. Samuel narrates the Asperger’s mystery series because I wanted the reader to get into his head and rummage around.
Full disclosure: I have a son who has Asperger’s, and try to cram some information about it into many of the books I write so those who aren’t looking for it might be confronted with some understanding of the disorder anyway. People have told me they enjoy the added value of information, and some with relatives or friends who have autism in the family have graciously said the inclusion of characters who are just a little bit different has helped. I hope that’s true.
The Beatles thing? I think it’s fun and it gives me the opportunity to show how Samuel thinks, and for the reader to decide if he’s right about the judgments he makes. Just because he says that loving Rain means that one is contemplative and intelligent doesn’t mean you have to agree. You might be one of those freaks who are crazy about Revolution 9. That’s your prerogative.
So. What’s your favorite Beatles song, and what do you think it says about you?

Jeff and E.J. have copies of THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD for some lucky commentors! Yeah, yeah, yeah!

E.J.Copperman and Jeff Cohen have collaborated on THE QUESTION OF THEMISSING HEAD, an Asperger’s Mystery from Midnight ink. If your local bookstore doesn’t have it, ask them to order it—they will.
You can find out more about Jeff Cohen at his website. You can friend him on Facebook ,  follow him on Twitter as @jeffcohenwriter, and enjoy his blogging at the fabulous Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room! You can get info and read about the Haunted Guesthouse series at E.J. Copperman's website. As you might expect, E.J. is on Facebook, Twitter (as @EJCop) and has a blog, Sliced Bread.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Writing What Matters; a guest post by Suzanne Chazin

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that in America, there are no second acts. Fortunately, our guest today didn't listen. Suzanne Chazin had a decade-long gap between her first mystery series and LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS. How did she bridge the divide? By following her heart.

Thanks so much for hosting me on Jungle Red. It’s an honor to be on a site with writers I admire. Today I’d like to talk a little about how I came to write Land of Careful Shadows, the first book in my new mystery series.

First, a confession: I turned my back on novel writing before I wrote this book, convinced I’d never publish another novel again.

In the early 2000s, I was laid off as an editor at Reader’s Digest. At the time I was working on my first mystery series about the FDNY, based on my husband’s work as a New York City firefighter. I went on to publish three books in that series. Then my mom suffered a series of strokes and died, my second child was born and my new novel couldn’t find a publisher. I felt lost in every part of my being, convinced that the only way to get ahead was to write, write, write.
I started on another novel. Half way through, I put it down. The problem, I decided, was that I was writing because I wanted to publish again rather than because I thought I had something to say. What I needed was to step back, think about something that mattered to me and do it. If that meant never publishing again, so be it.

I already had an idea what mattered to me. I also knew that it had nothing to do with novel writing.
I live in northern Westchester County, NY, a lush, wooded region about forty miles north of New York City. It’s an area where great wealth and great need exist side by side. In the 1990s, Latin Americans, many of them undocumented, began to settle in the area. They mowed the lawns, cleaned the houses and bussed the restaurant tables of the more affluent in the county. At the train station, I often saw them huddled on cold winter mornings, rubbing their hands together to stay warm while they waited for contractors to drive by and offer them work.

As the daughter of immigrants (my father was from Russia, my mother was born and raised in England), I admired their grit and resilience. I knew from watching my parents that it took a lot of guts to make it in a strange land. There was one big difference however: my parents were able to acquire the legal status that allowed them to work their way into the middle class, further their educations and eventually own their own home. The people I saw would never get that chance, no matter how hard they worked because of their undocumented status.

I’m not political, but I felt moved by their situation. I began volunteering at a local outreach center that provided English lessons and other services to new immigrants. I got to know some of the people and began to hear their heart-rending accounts of near-death journeys and tearful family separations. The writer in me began to wonder: was there some way to share their stories so that others in the community could be as inspired as I was by them?

I contacted several local Hispanic organizations and suddenly found myself talking to people who, in many cases, had never shared their stories with anyone before. I interviewed almost twenty people—men and women of all ages from countries throughout Latin America. I began the project in the hopes that the people I interviewed would eventually be able to step out of the shadows. But our immigration policies have shifted very little in the past two decades. My subjects’ stories could not be told without exposing them to undue risk. The project ground to a halt. Once again, I felt the sting of disappointment and defeat.

Months went by and still I couldn’t get their stories out of my mind. These people had risked so much to share them with me. I knew I had to find a way to keep them alive. And suddenly, after saying I’d probably never write another novel again, I knew I had to. It was the only way to tell their stories. I took what I knew and loved about writing mysteries and married it to something I cared about deeply. And Landof Careful Shadows was born. I hope readers love the twists and turns that come with every good mystery novel. But I hope too, that they come away with a sense of the real people behind it.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What real-life passions have moved you to make a difference - be it writing a book, writing your legislator or righting wrongs? Join us on the backblog and two lucky commentors will receive copies of LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS!

When the dead body of a Latino woman is found in a reservoir about fifty miles north of Manhattan, with a photo of a baby in her purse nearby, the police try to determine who the child is and if it is still alive. Along with the photo, they also find a disturbing note in the purse: ''Go back to your country. You don't belong here.''

Homicide Detective Jimmy Vega is Latino too, so he knows how hard it can be for an outsider to fit into a close-knit town like Lake Holly. Vega is a highly respected officer of the law, and he is challenged and intrigued by Adele Figueroa, a passionate defender of immigrants' rights. Vega must rethink everything he believes in order to uncover the truths about his town, his family, and himself.

Find our more about Suzanne, LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS and her series featuring FDNY fire marshal Georgia Skeehan at her website. You can also friend Suzanne on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @SuzanneChasin and read her blog, Writing with Oven Mitts.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Twizzlers and Red Hots and Mounds, Oh my!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hallowe'en is almost here, and among the changing fashion in decorations, parties, and costumes, one part of the holiday remains constant: candy. Or, as my younger self would have put it, Candy!!!

As a kid, Hallowe'en was a highlight of the year. My mother had firm ideas about nutritious eating; stuff like candy and soda was a rare treat in our house.  So although our creative
home-sewn costumes were a thrill, and our small town Hallowe'en parade was a blast, the best part of the evening came at the end, when I would upend an entire pillowcase of goodies on the dining room table. My sister and I would score big when we went out - she was adorable, I was articulate, and we were both (thanks Mom!) very polite. We inevitable got invited to take another one or two pieces, which would then be sorted and swapped and saved at the table later on.

There was a clear hierarchy of Hallowe'en candy every kid knew. At the very apex were the full-size name brand chocolate bars, followed by the junior or snack size version of the same. Further down were the tasty single-serving candies: sourballs and lemon drops, caramels and Sugar Daddies. Near the bottom were the sweets that sounded a lot more fun than they were, like Pixie sticks, Bottle Caps and candy cigarettes (which, I'm sure, aren't made anymore.) At the very bottom, along with the occasional baggie of pennies and religious tract, were the weird old-people candies: Necco wafers and wax bottles of "cola" and Laffy Taffy in hard, inedible slabs. (Full disclosure: my husband loves Necco wafers. I think it's a New England thing.)
Today, as an adult, I still get a thrill out of stocking up on candy, because just like my mom, I don't usually keep it in the house. I went for several years when I couldn't eat chocolate, and even today I need to be judicious in its consumption, so picking up a bag of Hallowe'en M&MS makes me feel like a teetotaler on vacation where no one can see me slugging down Pina Coladas. I'm not the only one, either - I've learned I better get two bags of each kind, because one of them will be mysteriously half-devoured before the actual Fright Night!

How about you, Reds? What were the candies you loved in girlhood? And what are the ones that can tempt you from the whole grain/organic/locally sourced diet we all strive for today?

HALLIE EPHRON: I have a confession to make. I *love* licorice. I know, I know, black licorice whips and jelly beans are always the very last candies left in the bottom of the bags but they're my favorites. Red hots, too. And anything with coconut.

Chocolate? Meh. Peanut butter cups? Patooey.

So you can imagine I got along pretty well, trading candies with my sisters after we'd drag home our haul and spread them out in carefully delineated piles on the floor (Mine. Yours.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Twizzlers! Yay, love Twizzlers.  And I agree, I am a big  black licorice fan, too. Mounds, too. Almond Joy! And I am very pleased they decided to make those little sizes. Two bites is  just the right amount.  Jelly beans, all kinds.  NECCOs (New England Candy Co) SHOULD be good, but they just aren't. Chocolate, take or leave. I am baffled by sour things, and hot things. And candy that DOES stuff. Who would eat a Sour Parch kid or (whatever those are) that only makes you pucker?  Or anything that fizzes, hisses or blows up in your mouth? I protest any candy that fights back.

And of course, Julia, One must buy the TEST bag to make sure the candy will be okay for your guests.

JULIA: I like that, Hank. I'll use that in the future. One does want to be a considerate host.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I don't remember getting anything I much liked. Tootsie Rolls by the dozen. Ugh. Same for Bit O Honey. And so sorry, Hallie and Hank, that I don't share your passion for licorice. Or Twizzlers.  Not Red Hots.  Oh, and I HATED candy corn, and there was always lots of that. And I agree, Hank, I protest any candy that fights back.

I do like good jelly beans. These days we don't have many trick or treaters, but I usually buy Hershey's kisses, knowing that I'll have a few and hubby will snack on the rest until Christmas.  Geez, we sound candy-boring... I have discovered on this book tour, however, hungry late at night with nothing but hotel mini-bar snacks, that I like Kit-Kats. Maybe I'll add those this year.  Oh, and I LOVE peanut M&Ms, so not a complete candy flop!
LUCY BURDETTE: My older sister and I tried our best to bamboozle the best candy from the younger kids, but my parents kept a close eye. I do love red twizzlers, but never the black stuff. I used to like Good 'n Plenty, but over that now. Debs, I will take your Bit O Honey, Hallie, your peanut butter cups, and anybody's Nestle's crunch. Wasn't it the worst when someone decided to give out apples? Or worst of all, toothbrushes!

I don't buy any candy now, because we are not on trick or treater's routes. And I would just eat it. Whether I like it or not...

RHYS BOWEN: I didn't grow up with Halloween but I went through my kids' bags with something like paranoia--was that box of Good and Plenty slightly unglued at one end?  I'd confiscate the gum and anything that was questionable, then I'd allow one evening to pig out before the rest got put away for occasional treats.

I live on a hill now and very few kids walk UPWARD to get candy but I do keep a good supply of Snickers, Kit Kats, M and Ms just in case! 

(And oh dear, if there is some left I hate wasting food...)

JULIA: That's the spirit, Rhys. Uneaten candy is sad candy. How about you, dear readers? What candy did you love or loathe at Hallowe'en? And what do you give out to the little ghouls and goblins (or more likely, Elsa and Captain America) today? 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Coconut Pie to Die For

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Did you know that talking to strangers could make you gain weight? I'm not kidding. It happened like this.
This last Thursday night I was in Wilmington, Delaware, having dinner with Caroline Todd and a friend of Caroline's (thanks, Betsy!) after a great signing at Chester County Book Company in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

There was a Bonefish Grill right next to my hotel, and having seen the same restaurant in Annapolis and been curious, I suggested we try it. It was late, but the food was delicious and we had a delightful waitress, a young woman named Shelby. From her we learned about the restaurant (based in Florida and focusing on fresh-market fish and innovative seasonal recipes.) I also learned that lima beans were a Delaware thing--I had no idea! (And now I regret never having had fresh lima beans, which is exactly how someone not from the South should feel if they've never had fresh-shelled black-eyed peas...)

And now we get to the fattening part.  I'm not usually much for deserts, but I'd seen on the menu that they had coconut pie. Shelby assured us that it was really special because they used fresh coconut.

I had a wave of nostalgia--my mother made fabulous coconut cream pie, and I suppose that memory was what tipped me over into temptation.

Shelby brought one serving of pie with three spoons, and, oh, my, this pie was nothing like my mother's. This was a custard pie, not a cream pie, and topped not with meringue but with what tasted like whipped creme fraiche. Rum sauce. No crust. 

We all tasted it, but even between the three of us we couldn't finish it, it was so rich. It was also one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted. 

This is a copycat recipe, so I can't guarantee that it will taste just like Bonefish Grill's Coconut Custard Pie, but I'm willing to give it a try. I just have to think of a special occasion to justify it, and learn how to grate fresh coconut, because I have no doubt that Shelby was right and that is what makes it so, so special.

Bon appetit!
Bonefish Grill Jamaican Coconut Pie With Rum Sauce
Copycat Recipe

Makes 1 Pie
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
6 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups coconut, shredded
Rum Sauce
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
1 cup butter, unsalted
1 cup dark rum
Pie Filling: Place milk, cream, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Mix with a hand mixer for 2 minutes on medium speed. Add coconut and mix together until completely incorporated. Place in a greased pie pan. Cook at 350° for 40-45 minutes.
Rum Sauce: In small sauce pan, heat butter over medium heat until melted. Add brown sugar and mix together until sugar dissolves. Add rum and cook for 1 minute on medium heat. Slice pie and serve with rum sauce, to your liking. Pie best when served warm.