Monday, December 22, 2014

Merry Christmas at the Movies

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's the holiday season, as the song goes, and for many of us, that means it's time to pull out the old videos/dvds or to start streaming favorite holiday movies. 

Christmas flicks - and let's face it, they are almost all about
Christmas - tend to fall into three categories. The first are the movies that you must watch or it will not be Christmas this year. Prominently featured on this list will be old Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation and George Bailey exclaiming, "Zuzu's petals!"

The second are the movies you enjoy because they put you in the mood - flicks to watch while wrapping presents or signing cards. There are a lot of Hallmark Holiday specials on this list, as well as movies that are must-sees for your kids, but that came around too late for you to really cleave to. ELF, I'm talking about you.

The third are the pictures that subvert the holidays, with murder, double-crossing and Bruce Willis blowing stuff up while canned Christmas music plays in the background. Look for Santa with a sawed-off shotgun or the hero saying with curled lip, "Now it's a silent night."

Sometime these movies cross over to different lists. For my husband and son, THE GODFATHER is absolutely required pre-Christmas viewing. For my daughters and me, HOLIDAY IN HANDCUFFS, a delightfully silly romance with Melissa Joan Hart, is our must-see-or-baby-Jesus-will-cry movie. Also on my have-to-have-it list: CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, which no one else in my family wants to watch. I always wind up wrapping presents while swooning over Barbara Stanwick and Dennis Morgan. (I saw the 1992 remake once. It was...not good.)

For my Christmas subversive movie, nothing tops REINDEER GAMES,  a twisty caper movie/mystery starring Ben Affleck as The Sap and Charlize Theron as The Dame.

  As for present-wrapping/napkin ironing/silver polishing fare - well, that's what Netflix is for. I willingly stream movies I wouldn't take a second glance at if they weren't set at Christmas time. If it features a romance, an adoptable dog, and a kid who needs a family, I'm in egg nog-sodden heaven.

How about you, Reds? What are your holiday must-sees?

RHYS BOWEN: My must sees have now been seen so the season has officially kicked off. One is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and the other is WHITE CHRISTMAS. Both oldies but goodies. I still get weepy at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I really liked SCROOGE but haven't seen it recently.  I have to confess to being awfully fond of LOVE ACTUALLY (especially the lobster in the nativity play). 

It's funny but I used to enjoy all those old cartoon movies with my kids--you know Rudolph, Frosty etc, but the magic has gone. 

LUCY BURDETTE:  My favorite would be SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, which I cannot get anyone to watch with me again. Hmmm, that makes me really want to try though...

DEBORAH CROMBIE: LOVE ACTUALLY tops my list as the absolutely-must-see-or-it's-not-Christmas. Yes, I can repeat the dialogue. Yes, I know the soundtrack by heart. And yes, Rhys, I love the lobster in the nativity play. Then A CHRISTMAS STORY, followed by IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (My daughter told me yesterday that she's never seen it. How can that be??? Where did I go wrong?? I'm going to fix that!) This year I succumbed to a Hallmark Christmas special, THE CHRISTMAS SHEPHERD, because--guess--it had a German shepherd in it. It was actually pretty good, and the dog was fabulous. I'd watch it again just for him.

And then sometime in the week between Christmas and New Year's, I must watch THE HOLIDAY, with Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, and Jack Black. I adore this movie, and not just because I fancy Jude Law. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, with a score by Hans Zimmer, it has great performances and great dialogue. And it will have you rockin' around the Christmas tree by the end.

JULIA: Debs, I've got to see this now!

HALLIE EPHRON: Adding CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and THE HOLIDAY to my list... how did I miss them? I've already watched LOVE ACTUALLY, my personal favorite. And queuing up A CHRISTMAS STORY if only to revisit the Red Ryder BB gun and the leg lamp and to listen to that wonderful narrator's voice -- a movie by a radio guy. So why doesn't someone create a leg lamp lawn ornament? I bet it would be a HUGE seller. 

JULIA: Here you go, Hallie:

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, of course, LOVE ACTUALLY. The best. (Just in cases.)  And YOU'VE GOT MAIL.  And I'll watch SEATTLE with you, Lucy!  I never understood THE BISHOPS WIFE, because, I mean, what would you do? 

And contrarian here, A CHRISTMAS STORY leaves me a little cold. Maybe I'll try again. Yeah, the voice is good, but...  And even IT'S A WONDERFUL.., it's great, sure, and the angel thing, but it's just not what someone would DO. Zuzu's petals is worth it, though.  And of course,  love WHITE CHRISTMAS! Can't go wrong with Bing!   And oh, DIE HARD.  :-) 

DEBS: Hank, we watched DIE HARD last year. Such fun!!! Definitely an addition to the Christmas movie list.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? What will you be sitting down to with a bowl of popcorn and a mug of hot cocoa this season?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Turning of the Year

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  The first sign of the turning of the year for me is usually around the beginning of January. I hear birdsong in the morning, and it is only then that I realize how I've missed it for the last few months. This year the birds were ahead of the game. Last Tuesday I heard a cardinal, on Wednesday, a wren, clear on the cold and still air, harbingers of spring. 

Today we celebrate the winter solstice, whether in a religious sense, or just as human beings, thankful for the lengthening of days and the promise of warmth and growth. And that is our accustomed perception--relief at the vanishing of night. 

So I was intrigued to read  yesterday's op-ed article in the New York Times by Clark Strand, Bring on the Dark: Why We Need the Winter Solstice.  Strand argues that with the advent of electricity, we have lost, both individually and culturally, the creativity and vision that come with the experience of long, deep nights. Do read, it's fascinating, and I'm going to add his book to my teetering TBR pile.

In the meantime, I'm going to turn out the lights tonight and have a look at the stars. 

Happy Solstice to you all!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Fridge Art

DEBORAH CROMBIE: When we were talking about what we had hiding inside our fridges, I  
wondered what everyone keeps on the OUTSIDE, because that is really a window into people's lives.

But do people still put stuff on their refrigerator doors, or are everyone's fridge's non-stick? Our is about nine years old, bought just before almost every appliance in the universe went stainless, so I have a magnet collection. Most are from England, and my favorite is a seasonal series from the London Transport Museum. Unfortunately, they discontinued them before I got Autumn, so if you ever run across it, you know who would like it... And then there is the Cheshire Cat, which I found at Half Price Books a few weeks ago and couldn't resist.

I do miss Kid Art, and would love to see if Susan's is decorated with The Kiddo's drawings.

Technology moves on, however, and my daughter tells me that there is a company that makes magnets from your Instagram photos. More tasteful than crayon scrawls and postcards, but as much fun??

What about you, REDS? Do you have kitchen galleries?

HALLIE EPHRON: I miss kid art, too. What's on the fridge now I have no one to blame but my self. This is so embarrassing... 
- A button that says I heart Hallie Ephron.  (And I bought it at a writing conference)
- Cartoons that have struck a chord (a couple of old farts watching TV… caption “At some point, there’s only so high you can raise the volume before you admit you’re never gonna understand what British detectives are saying.” 
- Baby pictures. Love the baby pictures.

DEBS: Hallie, love your fridge! Love the cartoon, and oh, baby pictures. Where else can you look at them a dozen times a day?

And I love that no one's collection could possibly be the same. My "Never Walk Alone" is a gift from my niece. The Le Creuset is from my friend Gigi. "A Christmas Story" I bought when Marcia Talley and I visited the Christmas Story House when we were in Cleveland after Bouchercon.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Hallie, love the cartoon! Yes,we have kid art! Also a Nelson Mandela 
calendar and some random Bear in the Big Blue House magnets. I'm including our fridge, but since it's in a galley kitchen and no one really sees it, I've also included our
(metal) front door, which is Fridge Art 2.0.

LUCY BURDETTE: I'm really sad to say I have NOTHING on my fridge. Our refrigerator is non-magnetic so nothing sticks. And I have some really cute magnets from olden days. Sigh...

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Eeesh. I have too much stuff on my fridge. Our wedding announcement
from the NYTimes from 1997!!  The very first story about me as an author, 2007. The note I took when I got the Agatha

call. A fortune. Grandchildren, Nancy Drew, a blue jay feather, my cat Lola. I should take it all down. I can't.

RHYS BOWEN: My fridge, like Hank's is in serious need of a tidy-up. I still have a photo of Mary Clare as a 3 year old fairy when she's now a pre-teen. And a long hand written list I jotted down from
a TV show on how to avoid Alzheimer's. And Meghan's fashion drawings, and an old Christmas pic. When the kids were young we had magnetic letters and used to write each other messages every day. But alas, my other fridge, in Arizona, is stainless steel. Nothing sticks to it so it is pristine.

DEBS: I declare Hank the Fridge Art Winner!  (That her wedding announcement is still up is beyond sweet...) Hers makes me wish I hadn't tidied up years worth of postcards and fortunes... 

How about you, dear readers? Individualistic art and memorabilia gallery? Or a stainless clean slate?

Friday, December 19, 2014

MP Cooley's New York

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We've been talking a lot this week about how we as readers and as writers connect with place. M.P. Cooley (Martha to us!) is a New Yorker who lives in California's Silicon Valley, but chose to set her debut novel, ICE SHEAR, in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls in upstate New York. This is our Julia Spencer Fleming's territory, but Hopewell Falls is not Miller's Kill. Here Martha tells us how--and why--she came to create Hopewell Falls.

But first, here's a little bit about ICE SHEAR: As a cop on the night shift in Hopewell Falls, New York, June Lyons drives drunks home and picks up the donuts. A former FBI agent, she left the Bureau when her husband died, and now she and her young daughter are back in upstate New York, living with her father, the town’s retired chief of police. When June discovers a young woman’s body impaled on an ice shear in the frozen Mohawk River, news of the murder spreads fast; the dead girl was the daughter of a powerful local Congreswoman, and her troubled youth kept the gossips busy.  Though June was born and raised in Hopewell Falls, the local police see her as an interloper—resentment that explodes in anger when the FBI arrive and deputize her to work on the murder investigation. But June may not find allies among the Feds. The agent heading the case is someone from her past—someone she isn’t sure she can trust.

As June digs deeper, her already tumultuous murder case turns red-hot when it leads to a notorious biker gang and a meth lab hidden in plain sight—and an unmistakable sign that the river murder won’t be the last. 

MARTHA COOLEY: I was talking with a college friend a few weeks ago, reminiscing about our time in New York City.  Our memories are colored by the fact that we were young and a little stupid
when we lived there:  paying a $1 student entrance fee for The Met and then sitting on the floor of The Temple of Dendur, pulling out our textbooks and studying biology; the Jewish bakery that wanted us to work there because “we could sell a lot of cookies”;  taking the Staten Island Ferry back and forth all night, standing on the deck and singing at the top of our lungs;  working at Penn Plaza 34th floor, watching rain clouds come in from the west while the building swayed in the storm.

“I miss it. Let’s go back,” I said.

“Only with a time machine,” she said. “Our New York City isn’t there anymore. I think that New York existed only for us.”

Ice Shear is set in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls, NY, but between the waterfall, the textile mill, the street names, and the mastodon, the town is easily identifiable as Cohoes, NY. I chose to change the name for a few reasons.  The first
reason has to do with the reader’s experience.  If I have June Lyons drive south on a street that locals know only goes north, it will throw readers out of the story. Second, I didn’t want the real city to get a bad reputation.  I’m killing people there!  A dangerous fate may lay down every dark alley in Hopewell Falls, but in Cohoes you will probably find a Laundromat.

But the biggest reason I changed the name is that my Cohoes might not be the Cohoes other readers have visited.  Some of the best writing wisdom is “write what you know”, and when I decided to write Ice Shear, I followed that advice.    My internal geography works best when I’m trying to figure out how far or close I am to the Hudson River, and I miss the people of upstate New York, who don’t take themselves as seriously as people in Silicon Valley.  In the book, I note the local landmarks, including the Purple Pub, a popular pizza place, and the local amusement park (RIP Hoffman’s Playland), and I am pleased that people from the area can identify it as home.  But do know that as real as I try to make it, the city, at least my version, exists only in my imagination.

And then there is June Lyons’s Hopewell Falls. My main character is recovering from several devastating events:  her husband has died, she was forced to give up her career, and she is dependent on her father to care for the one bright spot in her life, her daughter. To June, Hopewell Falls represents failure and loss, and at the beginning of the book all she can see is rot and decay in a frozen landscape. As she makes peace with her past and begins to develop some hope, that changes: She begins to see some beauty in the landscape and experience joy with the other people. She begins to fight for the town, trying to save the good as evil starts to encroach.  June’s Cohoes isn’t the Cohoes of a lot of people who live there, but it isn’t mine either.

I think place stamps itself on a person. But each stamp is a little different. Hopewell Falls is how upstate New York imprinted on me.

DEBS: I was captivated by June (bet you can't guess what June is short for!), her town, and the complicated lives of its inhabitants. And I love Martha's theory. I know my London, for instance, is colored by my own experiences and perceptions, and is different from anyone else's London.

Readers, do you think place is unique to each of us?


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mark Pryor--Fly Away With Me To...Paris? London?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the bonuses of doing a book tour is the people you get to meet along the way, including other authors. I did a panel with Mark Pryor at the Books in the Basin festival in Odessa, Texas. Mark was funny and charming and interesting. And…English. But he is an assistant DA in Austin. Texas, and the protagonist in his books is a Texan who is a former FBI profiler who is head of security for the US Embassy in Paris. I asked Mark if I should start with the newest book in the series, or the first book. “Start at the beginning,” he said, with conviction. So I had him sign a copy of The Bookseller, the first Hugo Marston mystery, and as soon as I started it, I was hooked. I’m now on the third book and very much looking forward to the forth.

And I was intrigued by someone who seems to suffer from as much of a split personality as me, a Texas who writes books set in the UK, with English protagonists. So I asked Mark to elucidate, and here’s the scoop!

Fly Away With Me To… Paris? London?

What happens when an English writer dons a pair of cowboy boots and becomes a Texas prosecutor?
Why, you get a mystery series set in Paris, of course!
Okay, maybe that doesn't make much sense. But one of the first questions I get at book events addresses this disconnect, the fact that I'm an Englishman living here in Austin, and yet my books are set in France. The answer lies in a tangle of coincidences and good luck, one that stretches from the dusty trails of Texas to the grassy slopes of the Pyrenees.
But let’s take it in reverse, because this is the place to start, the place where my mother lives. These photos show her house and her view.

Oh, I know. If anyone has a motive to commit inheritance-based murder, it's me, right? Well, also my brother. And sister. Anyway, this is the place where I proposed to my wife, where we got married, and where I held my father's hand as he passed away. (Please don't be sad for me, he had a wonderful life and he would have found some aspects of his passing rather jolly, so much so that I wrote about it here. This wonderful place is the village of Castet, not far from Lourdes, and halfway up the Pyrenees mountains. The air is crisp and clear, the food is exquisite, and the views are... well, as you can see, they are unimaginably beautiful.

As you might imagine, France has a lien on my heart. And for me, a visit to France is not complete without a few days in Paris. There, I can linger on its bridges and contemplate the River Seine (which usually means I wonder how many bodies have floated down it this week), wander through its cobbled squares (pondering the beheadings that once took place in them), and eating at its many wonderful little bistros. Or, as I like to call them, Opportunities to Poison.
Does your imagination do that? I wonder whether it's just writers who manage to subvert just about everything they see, make it either part of a crime or part of the solution. Once, when flying into North Carolina with my son, he looked out of the widow and remarked on how pretty it was, with all those trees and lakes. I agreed, while marveling at all the wonderful dumping grounds for bodies.
Anyway, I digress, I was talking about why I set my books in France, in Paris in particular. Although, I don't digress much because my first novel, THE BOOKSELLER, came about as I was strolling along the Quai de Conti on January morning, holding hands with my wife and enjoying the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral peeking over the trees at us from across the River Seine. As we walked, we passed one of those wonderful institutions of Paris, the booksellers who ply their trade at river's edge from their metal lock-boxes, the merchants known as bouquinistes

We stopped at one to peruse the bouquiniste's wares, run an eye over the titles of the books he was selling and perhaps buy a postcard or two. Then I noticed the steps nearby, the ones leading down to the strand of a walkway beside the rolling, swollen river.
"Hmmm," I said to myself. "What would happen if someone were to push a bouquiniste into the river? Why on earth would someone do such a thing?"
My wife, at that point, suggested I mutter a little more quietly in case the old man with the rubbery nose spoke English and decided to call les flics. So we repaired to a cafe where, after buying a pen and a notebook, the outline for THE BOOKSELLER was scratched into existence over the course of twenty frantic minutes.
My wife claims it was two hours, just for the record, but this was the final product.

As you might imagine, setting a book in a foreign land presented certain problems. For starters, who was to be my hero? A brave, crime-fighting Frenchman? Hey, no jokes… As a realist, I knew that if my book were ever to see the light of day, I'd need a protagonist that readers could relate to, would want to know about. An American.
Which gave me a lot of states to choose from. Around fifty, I think.
Now, one aspect of life has always interested me, one you see reflected in many books and movies, and that's notion of the fish out of water. Someone plucked out of their normal environment and dropped into a foreign land. You know, like an English farmer's son who now lives in Texas.  (You know what's even weirder? My big brother, who's as English as I am, is now the police chief in Aspen, Colorado. I'm not kidding, the top cop in Aspen is a sweet, friendly, white guy by the name of Richard Pryor.)
Back to my hero and fish. Given my own situation, I thought to myself, "What could be more fun that a boot-wearing Texan patrolling the streets of Paris?"  I suppose, technically, a clown patrolling the streets of Paris might be more fun, but no one likes clowns very much so I went with a Texan.
Filling out the rest of my protagonist was actually quite easy. I always wanted to create a rather old-fashioned, angst-free hero, the sort Eric Ambler or even Agatha Christie might have come up with, and so I based him on a slightly stoic, utterly honorable man that was my father. For spice, I made him a former FBI-profiler, based on a couple of those guys I've met through my job as a prosecutor. Once his persona was created, I needed a name and went with "Hugo Marston." Hugo is for Victor Hugo, and Marston because... I can't remember why. No idea. Seriously.  
Now you see how the puzzle pieces fit together, why an Englishman living in America created a mystery series set in France with a Texas protagonist.
But, as with any mystery, there's a bit more to the story, something a little deeper. It's not just about convenience, the practicalities. No, if I'm writing about where Hugo comes from, why the books are set in Europe, I should acknowledge that there's a more metaphysical reason. You see, France is the place I see myself living. Maybe it'll happen one day, maybe it won't. But setting my books there is a way of connecting myself to Paris, and to the tiny village of Castet where my mum lives. I even feature the village in the second in the series, THE CRYPT THIEF. It has a wonderful church high up on a hill, perfect for... well, I can't tell you without spoiling it.

Yep, that's the church I got married in, what do you think?
Of course, I go back when I can and setting a novel set in Paris or the Pyrenees is the perfect excuse to visit, but it’s why I want to visit that matters. It's that inexplicable connection I have with those places, with France, and I'm betting that you have a connection to somewhere like that. I hope so, because then you'll understand what I mean. Maybe yours is Akron, Ohio, or perhaps its Prague, or Beijing. But when Hugo stops to buy a crepe in Montmartre, or his buddy Tom tucks into a plate full of garlicky escargots, I'm there with them, sipping wine and nibbling on pastries.
It took me a while to realize this facet of the settings, my need to be in touch with the places I love. It clicked as I wrote the fourth, and most recent, in the series. It’s a prequel called THE BUTTON MAN, and is the only one to take place in England. You can probably tell from the cover.

I had intended for all the adventure to take place in London, every bit of it. But my characters kept wanting to leave, head out to the English countryside -- in particular the village where I grew up in. I think now it's because I don't have a very powerful connection with London, maybe I went there too much growing up, I don't know. But it doesn't have a hold over me the way Paris does. As it turns out, the village of Weston, where I was born and raised, does have that magnetic pull, which is why I visited it in the book (and left a few bodies behind for good measure).
I now imagine my characters to be like kids, running off in different directions, dragging me to places that are meaningful, safe, fun. As you might imagine, since my little darlings take me to Paris most of the time, I'm just fine with that.
What about you? Are there places that tug at you, insist you come back time and again? And I'm curious, as readers of fiction are you drawn to books that take place there, or do you prefer to learn about new locales when you read? I actually like to explore a little when reading, but I suppose that's safe enough when I know I can turn my mind back to the boulevards and cafes of Paris any time, enjoy a cup of coffee or glass of wine with Hugo Marston and listen to his tales of derring-do.

DEBS: What a great story! And I love the fact that Mark’s English brother is a police chief in Aspen, Colorado. And I’m very happy that Mark’s little darlings take him to Paris, and London, and hopefully other places I like to visit in my imagination.

READERS, do you like to learn about new places, revisit the familiar and fond, or a bit of both?

You can learn more about Mark and Hugo Marston here.
And oh my gosh, he's got a quote from Oprah! (See Debs, already swooning with envy over the house in Castet, swooning even more... Or I would be if I weren't such a fan!) And do read the link to Mark's post about his dad. You'll see why I like his books so much.