Monday, October 31, 2011

A Room of One's Own

RHYS BOWEN: A Room of One's Own.Remember that wonderful essay by Virginia Woolf on a writer, especially a female writer's need for personal space. That made a profound impression on me when I was in college and was sure I was destined to become a writer. Well, I've been thinking about it recently.
I love to follow my friends on Facebook and have been bemused by Nancy Pickard always going to a coffee shop to write. (Hey, I know J.K. Rowling did it too and it didn't exactly hurt her). But there is no way I could sit in a noisy, public environment like that and get any work done. I need my own confined space and no distractions. I can't have music playing or I'd listen to it. I can't be facing the window or I'd stare at the view. We have quite a big house and in theory I could choose any one of five empty bedrooms as my office. In fact I still keep to the smallest of those rooms because I have everything around me where I need it. I can swivel my chair to reach a bookcase or the credenza or either printer or the white board on which I jot notes. I have my award certificates on the wall to remind me what I can achieve if I do my best work. And in full confession mode I have a few toys to play with: the hologram top to spin, the wind-up teeth.. I won't go on. Too embarrassing.
I have to know that I'm in MY space, where I can talk through scenes out loud if necessary, swear if necessary, bang my head against the desk if necessary, or even do a happy dance when my agent phones with good news. When things aren't going smoothly I take to my car, another confined space, and drive around in my car, talking though scenes out loud. Thank God Bluetooth was invented because now nobody thinks I'm a dangerous lunatic if they see me mouthing and gesticulating while driving.
So it was interesting to me, a couple of weeks ago, to read that Nancy Pickard has finally succumbed and rented an office to work in. I've been threatening to do this for years - the actual process of "going to work" and being in a space where I can't be interrupted by husband asking where we put a particular file he needs. I've never gotten around to it although the condo in Arizona was intended to be that kind of space, far from telephone calls and obligations. Now if only I could get John to take up a time-consuming hobby...
So Sister Reds: where do you work at your best?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: You'd think I'd have figured this one out by now. Like you, Rhys, I can't write with what I think of as immediate distractions. No TV, no music. But I can do coffee-shop writing, although I don't do it as often as I used to. That's a different kind of distraction--white noise, really, while at the same time I feel free from household demands; ringing phone, dogs barking, the UPS man, husband wanting to know what's for lunch . . . But I'm basically lazy and I like being home. And I do have a lovely, cozy office (my daughter's old bedroom) redesigned for no purpose other than WRITING, with a lovely BIG desk that I can spread all my stuff out on and my favorite London photos and maps on the walls.
The last couple of years, however, I've developed a sort of seasonal migration technique. I write in my office (upstairs) in the winter. It's warm and if I want to take a thinking break I can curl up on the chaise in the window and watch the bare tops of the trees. But as soon as our back garden turns green in the spring I move down to the sunporch, where I have another Aeron chair and a little rolling laptop table I bought at Office Max for $30. And ten windows, so it's like being in a green sea. And I like being close to the kitchen, which to me always feels like the heart of the house. I suppose in my ideal world, I'd have an office that was next to the kitchen, with windows on the garden and opening onto a screened porch for nice weather, and a woodburning fire for chilly winter days...
But my prime rule is that the writing space can't be used for any other kind of work. No filing or bill-paying or business stuff. Just writing.

RHYS: Me too, Deb. Good rule.

JAN BROGAN: How do you write in the sunporch Debs? Doesn't the glare drive you crazy? I love our sunporch, but haven't figured out how to write there (although I do read and edit hard copy there). Particularly if I'm writing non-fiction, which I am now, I need to be next to my boxes and boxes of files. Even with fiction, I tend to have a lot of research accessories I need. But I would like writing in a coffee shop theoretically (never done it) because it seems so COMPLETELY HIP!

HALLIE EPHRON: The first thing I did when I decided to "be a writer" was set up an office. Fortunately I have a sister who told me: "If you don't take yourself seriously, no one else will."
And step one in taking yourself seriously: set up a space where nothing else takes place but you writing. Mine is a little sun porch. For awhile I wrote in a baseball cap because of the glare; pleated window shades were my first investments in my career.

LUCY BURDETTE: Funny I remember very clearly when I started writing (mid 90's), we had only one computer and it was in the living room. So I had to share that iMac with stepkids and husband, the television and all the other family racket. We finally moved to a new house that had a writing cubby built in it just for me. I keep my junk spread out there, but I still usually write with laptop in bed. (Debs, I think that makes me even lazier than you!) And I would no more share my computer now than my underwear...
DEBS: Lucy, did I say I got dressed?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Working in my pjs is half the reason I became a writer. I am, in fact, writing this in my pajamas.
RHYS: How primitive, Julia. At least I'm in my robe!

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I love my office - two walls of books and two walls of windows which look down on my garden and a slider that leads to a covered platform fringed with chimes and in the evening candles. Sometimes I put up the mosquito net and work out there because it's away from the computer and the phone. But my absolute favorite place to write is on a plane. There are no distractions. They don't need me to fly the plane or to tell them where the butter is. I can't decide I need to see where the owls are or need to water the plants or check email.
Strangest place I've ever written - on the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar.
DEBS: I want Rosemary's office. Jan, I have Roman blinds in my sunporch so just move them up and down according to the time of day and the angle of the sun. But I still want Rosemary's office . . .

JULIA: I have that woodburning fire you want, Deb. In the winter, I've taken to working in my kitchen, next to the wood stove, within easy reach of hot tea. Since my faithful dog and the cats like to congregate there, it's very companionable.
Technically, my office is in the parlour, complete with my reference books, research papers, business-related stuff, etc. However, it gets VERY cold and drafty in the winter, and in the summer, with the kids home from school, it's impossible. Even with the doors shut, everyone barges in and out to share their vital mother-related needs with me. So during the warm-weather months, I often decamp to one of the local university libraries. Quiet, air-conditioned, and there's no chance I'll be lured away from the writing by a load of laundry or a sudden spurt of guilt over the dust in the living room. (It's amazing how tempting housework can be when you're hitting a hard patch in the work, isn't it?)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love my writing office. It used to be OUR office, Jonathan's and mine, but now I fear it's manifest destiny and it's all mine mine mine. Sometimes Jonathan tiptoes in and asks to use the computer--it's all I can do to keep the flames from shooting out of my mouth.
But it's a lovely lovely tawny-colored room with a fireplace, and floor to ceiling book-and-Emmy shelves, and my desk, which is an antique horseshoe-shaped thing, is tucked into a bay window. Outside is massive and ancient maple tree. Yes, I battle the sun situation in the summer, but I also wear a baseball cap for that one glary hour.
All my stuff is on the desk--the bottle of wine Sue Grafton gave me, and a rock that's carved with "imagine" and "patience" and a feng shui mirror because my back has to be toward the door, and I know that's not good.
I love to write on the Acela train in the quiet car--the landscape zooms by, and it's gorgeous, and peaceful, and it makes me feel like Agatha Christie.

RHYS: I usually get the crying baby in the next seat, or the large guy on the plane whose elbows make it impossible to write! But I also have the feng shui mirror. See pic. Also note Celtic harp for momentary distraction, plus pic of Robert Redford with his shirt open in far left corner!

And it's really cool how different and personal our personal spaces have to be. And aren't we lucky to live in an age when a woman can demand and expect her professional life to be taken seriously!

So, dear readers, any really unusual writing spaces? Anyone write in the bathtub? On mountain tops?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Write First Pre-holiday Writer's Challenge

JAN BROGAN: Okay, time for much promised Writer's Challenge.

OH GOODNESS, WHAT THIS TIME? It's shorter. Only four weeks. Mostly so I can slip it in before the holidays start.

HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM NANOWRIMO? - (The National Novel Writer's Month writers challenge of producing a 50,000 word novel in only one month, going on roughly the same time.) It's much less ambitious.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? There is nothing to stop you from doing both challenges at the same time, and if you can't keep up NaNoWriMo, you'll still be light years ahead of the rest of us at the Write First Challenge.

HMMMM....?? This challenge isn't so much about output, it's about creating a healthy work habit. In the Write First Challenge, you have to write six out of seven days of the week, and you must write at least two pages before you check your email or surf the web. If you are researching something germaine to your story, you are allowed to go online, but may not depart for EVEN A SECOND from your work research. And you still have to produce two pages.

WHAT IF I HAVE OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES? Like a day job? Then go ahead, check your email all day long and do whatever you have to on the web for your work, but when you come home and get ready to write KNOCK IT OFF. Use your email or your daily dose of The ONION or the Huffington post as a REWARD for getting your two pages done.

WHY WOULD I EVEN CONSIDER THIS? Well, In one month, you'll have about fifty pages written. You'll get to whine, complain, or extol the virtues of the Writers Challenge every Sunday in the JR comments page.

WHY ELSE? Because we are giving away prizes!!


If you post at least three times (on different weeks), we enter your name in raffle and the winners get one of the following books:

Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen

Dead Head by Rosemary Harris

a US galley of No Mark Upon her by Deborah Crombie

an ABM of The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan

A prize will be given for the most inspirational comment: One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer Fleming.

And a prize for the most brutally honest: a copy of Asking for Murder AND a copy of Deadly Advice by Roberta Isleib.

All these copies are, of course, signed.

The challenge technically ends Sunday December fourth - which is the last day to post comments on the comment page. I'll announce winners the following Sunday, December 11th.

Sign up in the comments page all week, tell your friends, and please, TWEET like mad!!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

If you could be ANYONE for HALLOWEEN

JAN BROGAN: Time Magazine did a funny piece on the most popular Topical Halloween costumes for 2012, which included suggestions with tongue-in-cheek requirements to pull off the costumes.

Charlie Sheen and the Goddesses (cigarette perpetually hanging from your mouth, very little clothes -goddesses only - backwards Yankees cap - self-destructive tendencies. )

A pregnant Beyonce, unitard, babybump, black and white striped hat, Kate Middleton in wedding dress, Harold Cain with the pizza box, and Michele Bachman (you can resuse your 2008 suit from your Sarah Palin costume) and simply A Mormon (from the Broadway play and two of the three Republican candidates for president).

It got me to thinking. In real life, I'm not big on dressing up for Halloween, but in my dreams, if I didn't have to actually worry about procuring and/or paying for the costume, who would I want to be?

If I didn't have to worry about it being age-appropriate, I'd go with Lady Gaga, just because she has the most outlandish outfits. But since I DO have to worry about being age appropropriate, I think I'll go with Anne Boleyn. For one thing, I've always wanted to wear one of those velvet dresses with the bodices, for another, my husband could
go as Henry VIII OR the executioner with the fancy ax from France.

Okay Reds: If cost and the ability to actually put the outfit together were not an issue: WHO WOULD YOU BE FOR HALLOWEEN, and why?

ROSEMARY HARRIS: We're not doing anything wildly creative this year. I'm in charge of costumes and Bruce is a good sport so in the recent past he's been Mickey Mouse, Fred Flintstone, Diego Rivera and Amelia Earhart's publisher husband whose name I never remember. This year he is Rick Grimes, the survivor cop from The Walking Dead and I will either be a zombie or Rick's wife - depending on how thin I feel that day.
If we were going high concept we'd go as Steve Jobs and an apple.

JAN: I can t BELIEVE TIME MAGAZINE didn't think of that. They should make you EDITOR.

HALLIE EPHRON: This is hard. The bride of Frankenstein would be fun. Or Neytiri from Avatar. If I get her body, too, then I'll go as Katy Perry (Is there enough money in the world to make that happen??)

JAN: Katy Perry, who looks remarkably like Boop, don't you think? All you need is the big round eyes....

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: OOh. Jonathan and I went as the Arks one year, Joan and Noah. The next year, I ran out of ideas, so I stayed in my aluminum foil chain mail, but changed my fleur de lys to an Arkansas flag, put on a cowboy hat, and went as Joan of Arkansas. Jonathan was Noah of Arkansas, which makes no sense at all, but it was pretty funny.
I'd LOVE us to be Nick and Nora Charles. I'd have to crimp my hair, and get an Asta, but the dress could be great. And Jonathan would be very comfortable with a martini.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hank, when you and Jonathan attended the Red and Black Ball at last year's Crime Bake, you absolutely looked like Nick and Nora - if they had been turned into vampires.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Agatha Christie. Frumpy would pose no problem. But I'd steal Nick and Nora Charles from Hank, except Rick would never dress up for Halloween. I, however, would look with a martini in my hand. Sans olive.

JAN: Yeah, I liking the Nick and Nora thing, too. She had fabulous satin dresses. And Debs, now I want a martini in my hand, too. (But I don't think Anne Boleyn drank them.)

RHYS BOWEN: I'd like Kate Middleton's wedding dress if I could lose six dress sizes overnight! Since I didn't grow up with Halloween I missed out on being princess, fairy etc. I was a mermaid one year--hard to walk. One year when John had a black beard we went as the devil and a fallen angel (black angel costume) and we got lost on the way to the party. John wound down the window to ask directions from a group of teenagers. He was in tuxedo but had upswept eyebrows and red horns growing out of his hair. One kid started to give directions then noticed. "You've got horns," he said in a shaky voice. "I am the devil," John replied in scary English voice as we drove away.

JULIA: And that kid spent the next year in therapy. I bet to this day, he can't watch any programming originating from the UK. Which (note this suave redirection to the topic) is where I'd get my dream costume from. If I could get my Halloween wish, the producers of DOWNTON ABBEY would open their costume room for me and let me run amok. I adore that late-Edwardian look - high necklines, sweeping bodices, all those exquisite dressmaker details. When I was younger, I actually went once as a Gibson Girl. Now that I'm silver-haired and, shall we say, more comfortably padded, I think I'd make a very imposing Dowager.

Or we could move it back a couple of decades: I could be the widowed Queen Victoria, and Ross could be my Highland "servant," John Brown.

JAN: Some interesting choices here - and we won't get all analytical about what they might mean -- so come on, tell us. WHO WOULD YOU BE?

Friday, October 28, 2011

MORE on Happiness and Upcoming Writer's Challenge

JAN BROGAN: As it turns out, the happiness we all seek is best in small doses. In fact, it may be the small doses that actually create the happiness.
A new report from PSYBLOG (how many times do I exclaim this is my favorite blog?) talks about a 2008 study (Nelson&Meyvis) that tried to track happiness by offering massages to its participants. Half the participants received a three-minute continuous massage and the other half received a three-minute massage that was delivered in two parts, with a twenty second break in between. The authors expected the continuous massage to bring more happiness - because we all know, the longer the massage, the better. But, it turned out that the people who had the break enjoyed it more. Why? The theory is that the break stopped them from becoming acclimated to the massage.

Interesting concept: That adaptation is the enemy of happiness. Once we take things for granted, they lose their ability to bring us happiness. Or perhaps, we lose our ability to NOTICE these things bring us happiness. In either event, it explains why rich people are often not happy. Because they can afford it, the bar for their happiness keeps rising. They tend not to savor the small things because their expectations have risen to such heights.

So, you should rejoice! According to this study, small pleasures beat big pleasures. And while some cake is better than no cake, twice the amount of cake does not produce twice the amount of happiness (remember that when you are dieting.)

So USING THIS LOGIC: I planned the next WRITER'S CHALLENGE, which officially begins Sunday, October 30th. It is a smaller pleasure - only FOUR weeks. And it's only four weeks, so I can sneak it, and you can thoroughly enjoy it, before the holidays start. Then you will LONGING to be back in the calmer moments of disciplined writing.

As usual, there will be prizes. Small, highly-pleasurable, SIGNED prizes. Come back Sunday to sign up.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The ONE THING that makes you happy

JAN BROGAN - There's a scene in The Help (great movie, great book) where Minny, the maid, is really angry, and someone mentions cooking, which she loves, and all her anger dissipates. I think she even smiles.

And it reminded me of one Christmas, a transitional year, when the kids had just stopped believing in Santa Claus. My daughter, the first born, was too old to get excited about toys, but still too young to get excited about purses and boots. I had to spend a lot of time shopping for her presents, searching all the things that would make her happy. When she came down Christmas morning, I could tell she was disappointed. It wasn't enough.

Devastated, I called my mother, and my mother's advice was this: "Start cooking and you'll feel better."

And she was right. Once I started cooking, I felt better. I completely lost myself in the sweet potato recipe and pie shells. And since then, I've understood that for me, cooking was the one thing that could change a dark mood.

So here's my question Reds. What's the one thing you do that makes you happiest? Now, DO NOT SAY WRITING. And DO NOT SAY helping others, or anything that a Miss America contestant might say. Be purely selfish here and reveal what's the one hobby, pastime, (non-career) pursuit that brings you peace and/or happiness?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Floating. Yes, floating .We have a pool in our back yard, and in the summer, Jonathan and I have two pool floats, we call them Gumbies because they're green and flat. (I'm going to give you every detail, since you asked.) We get our bathing suits on, and our current books in hand. Meanwhile, we have diet cokes in the freezer, getting icy. Then we take our drinks and our hats and our sunscreen, and float around the pool in the warm sun and blue sky, reading and floating and reading and floating. The pool intake moves you around on the water, so it' s like being on a little raft, perfect and quiet. The garden around the pool is filled with flowers and butterflies, and the two huge ancient trees reach to the sky. Lying on the pool floats is the only time you can see to the top.
Sometime at night if I'm restless, I just think about floating.

RHYS BOWEN: I’m actually happiest when I’m sitting at a good meal with friends and family and we’re all laughing and teasing each other, but solo happiness? Walking on a beach, feeling warm sand between my toes or letting gentle waves lap at my feet, bending to pick up shells. Or snorkeling if I am in the right sort of ocean. Both those pursuits and I lose all track of time and I’m in my own private world, not thinking, not worrying, just in the present. In August I was snorkeling in Kona and I’d bought a disposable underwater camera—and it didn’t work. I kept turning and turning, waiting for it to click to the next frame and guess what? The fish were fascinated by the turning sound. I had zillions of fabulous fish inches from the camera and my fingers… and I couldn’t take a picture of them. Never mind, it was a perfect moment.

LUCY BURDETTE: If you're taking away all our beauty contestant answers Jan, liketime with friends and family, that still leaves a couple. Yes, I like to cook, but I like to eat even more:). Another thing would be reading a great book, lying in bed, with the cat rumbling next to me and the dog on the floor on the other side. A book like THE HELP or AFTERTASTE (whose author visited us not too long ago)--something that really takes me into a new world--not too scary and with lots of good food.

HALLIE EPHRON: Mmmmm, floating. Mmmmm, eating. Mmmmm, cooking. And of course hugging the people I love. I'm a big hugger and sloppy kisser (so watch out).

I'm also very happy when I'm walking and walking and walking and my feet don't hurt. Also soap. Big chunky bars of lovely scented soap make me very happy. Also long leisurely baths.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Walking around my garden. I don't even have to be doing anything, just enjoying the work I've done and planning the next round of activities. I probably look like a crazy lady doing it. Yesterday I had a small breakthrough computer-wise (finally succeeded in setting up new computer and using multiple screens) and I treated myself with a glass of red wine and a stroll around the garden. It was amazing.

Can I add another? Singing at the top of my lungs in the car. Alone. Traffic, bad weather, lunatic drivers - nothing can bother me when the Ipod is working and I'm belting out a tune. "I got some change in my pocket but it wasn't enough....!"

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I know Jan said just one, so it's probably a good thing that some of you have already hit a few of my biggies. So ditto on all of the above (especially baths. And I love walking my dog late at night, just the two of us.)

But I have to add, London. London makes me happy. England has always made me happy, but nothing compares to London. (I know I say this as a stock part of book talks, but it doesn't make it any less true.) And just walking. For hours. No particular destination necessary. And it's a deep, welling sort of happiness, not just contentment, although contentment is no bad thing. And it makes me happy just thinking about walking in London . . .

JAN: So how about the rest of you. There are lots of little things that bring us peace or pleasure, but if you had to pick ONE, what's the one thing you can count on to make you happy?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tasha Alexander

JAN BROGAN: We are lucky today to have Tasha Alexander here at Jungle Red to dish on what is let's face it, our favorite topic:
Books and why we love 'em.
Tasha is known for her witty dialogue, period detail , attention to historical detail and her ability to keep readers on the edge of their seats with her romantic suspense. Her work has been nominated for numerous awards and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She and her husband, novelist Andrew Grant, divide their time between Chicago and the UK.
Her latest, A Crimson Warning, has just arrived at book stores. This novel brings her popular protagonist Lady Emily Hargreaves back to high society in Victorian England, where she will join the Women's Liberal Federation in the early campaign to win the vote for women while she must uncover the identity of a vandal who is threatening to reveal scandalous secrets.
TASHA ALEXANDER: If You Had it All to Read Over...
There’s nothing more magical than when you realize you’re reading one of Those Books. One you know you won’t be able to put down, one you know you’ll never forget, one your friends will grow tired of being told they have to read. And one you know that you’ll never be able to read in the same way again.
Books change. At least I think they do. As the always-brilliant David Mitchell says in Number 9 Dream, “A book you finish reading is not the same book it was before you read it.” This is why there are some books that languish on my shelves for long periods of time while I Pleasure Delay. Just knowing the new (ok, not-so-new-anymore) Michael Cunningham is sitting there, waiting for me, makes me happy. Once I read the not-so-new-anymore Michael Cunningham, it may or may not prove to be one of Those Books, but regardless, it will have changed.
And if I read it again, it will change even more.
When I was ten years old, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. I loved it, but was utterly flummoxed when Lizzy turned down Darcy’s first proposal. A BOY LIKED HER! Did she not understand this rare and mysterious event might never happen again? Sure, he was a little difficult, but he had some qualities (Pemberley) that deserved careful consideration of their own. Lizzy’s decision baffled me. I was filled with relief when she did agree to marry him, and as soon as I’d finished the book, I set to work making paper dolls of all the primary characters. My Lizzy never turned down my Darcy.
Since then, I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice more times than I can count. It’s the Comfort Book equivalent of macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. But as I got older, the way I evaluated the story changed. In college, I rejoiced when Lizzy turned down that arrogant, pretentious twit, Darcy. High time he got what was coming to him. Later, I came to see that neither Lizzy nor Darcy was without significant flaws, and I could understand both of their positions. My emotional reaction to the book altered as my own circumstances and experiences formed the way I think.
is probably why, now, I give such careful thought to when I read certain books. But it’s impossible to always pick the right time to read the right book. That’s part of what makes finding Those Books so utterly and completely delightful. You can’t plan it, and you can’t ever have quite the same experience with even the same book again, which is a bittersweet fact that stings me every single time I realize I’ve found one of Those Books. I can read them again and again, but it will never be quite the same as that first time, when the story and the writing took me by surprise and enchanted me.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, one that blew me away when I read it like nothing else had in years. The writing is so gorgeous I get chills just thinking about it:
A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.
…she has to lose her pre-Copernican view of a universe revolving around herself.
Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.
Lying’s wrong, but when the world spins backwards, a small wrong may be a big right.
I’ve gone back to Cloud Atlas a couple of times, and loved it differently after each read. But, boy, how I wish I could fall in love with it all over again. Which brings me to my question for you: What one book would you like to read again for the first time? I have a sneaking suspicion your answers are going to make my To Be Read Pile grow to untenable proportion...
For more on Tasha, check out her website at

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

True-Crime Tuesday: Goat juicing!

JAN BROGAN - Probably because I grew up in very urban New Jersey, I used to love young adult novels set in rural settings, where most of the activity centered around the 4-H Club.

There I was hitch-hiking to the bowling alley and hanging around parking lots with the tough gang in town, while these kids were trying to bake the blue ribbon chocolate cake, or raising a prized pig.

It was all so foreign, so appealing and so innocent.

Perhaps that's why I had such a strong reaction to a recent story in the Boston Globe about the grand champion goat from this year’s Colorado State Fair, who had much the same fate as former Red Sox star Manny Ramiriz. The grand champion and another goat raised by the same family were disqualified after testing positive for an unapproved feed additive.

Goat juicing!!

But the story gets better, because the family claims that their goat feed was tampered with.

What's at stake? The college student who raised the champion won’t get the $5,500 for her State champion, and her younger brother won’t get $1,300 sale price of his goat. It also means both are barred from all future livestock events at the fair.

4-H Hall of Shame!

I don't know about you, but I'm seeing all sorts of YA mystery possibilities. The jealous rival who tampered with the feed. Or maybe a jealous boyfriend who doesn't like how all this champion goating is taking his former girlfriend the away from him to college.

Maybe there are helicopter parents in the wings, pushing the two kids to win at any cost. Or it could be the feed guy is trying to boost feed sales by producing a champion.

You get the picture. Nearly any kind of competition can mean cheating. And cheating means tension, who know, maybe someone kills the goat?

Plot lines, please?

Monday, October 24, 2011

On race car crashes and drama

JAN BROGAN: Although I never watch car racing, my husband and I happened to be flipping between stations at exactly the moment that the Indy race cars crashed on the Nascar track in Las Vegas last week.

Drawn into the drama, we kept flipping back from the Patriots game to the race track to find out what was going on. We were stunned, and even shaken, when it was announced that veteran driver Dan Wheldon had died.

As the cars took their laps around the racetrack, a solemn memorial, and the camera panned to the spectators, standing, head bowed, with many of the women crying, I had an ungenerous thought. Wasn't this why people watched car racing - because a crash was always possible? Wasn't it a little like going to the Coliseum, but crying when someone got fed to the lions?

And now, as they talk about making IndyCar racing safer by not racing on small oval tracks, I wonder could they ever really make it completely risk free? And if they could, what would that do to car racing?

And here at Jungle Red, we all use murder or the threat of death to fuel our mysteries and thrillers. So my question this week Reds, is --how high do the stakes have to be for there to be excitement?

And if it weren't for death, would we even have drama?

RHYS BOWEN: Jan, you are so right that people go to car racing hoping for the spectacular crash.

It's interesting to me that the mystery novel has come to mean the Murder mystery novel. What seems to have happened in recent mysteries is that the stakes have been raised for the protagonist. He/she is now involved/facing old demons/personally stalked or hunted by the villain. I think today's reader wants the thrill of danger--look how many movies have car chases, and exploding buildings--and the cerebral puzzle is no longer enough. After all, kids are growing up playing all those violent video games in which they experience a constant adrenalin rush.

JAN: I know, it's kind of sad. It's like we've all got such attention deficit disorder that we need the ultimate stakes to be involved to keep our attention.

LUCY BURDETTE: I guess in the old-fashioned puzzle whodunit the personal stakes for the sleuths were not so high. But these days, especially for amateur sleuth mysteries, the character has to have a damn good reason for meddling in what is truly professional business. I think about that issue all the time: Why in the world is a food critic (or psychologist or golfer) getting involved in solving this crime? I think readers may hold us to a higher standard as more good books get written and published.

I had such an interesting conversation with my editor a couple of weeks ago about the current popularity of cozy or lighter mysteries. I wondered if this had to do with the disheveled state of the world--that people are looking for better news, less heavy reading. She wondered if romance readers might be crossing over to the cozies because romance has become more and more eroticized. Talk about higher stakes for writers!

HALLIE EPHRON: How high do the stakes have to be? Good question, Jan. I think the drama is greatest when the stakes for the sleuth are personal. Even in lighter mysteries--or especially in lighter mystery novels. If readers just care about explosions and murders, they can read the newspaper.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: When I worked for ABC (and somewhat for ESPN) we released a video series with CART, one of the major racing organizations, and the hypocrisy surrounding the reasons people watched this so-called sport was mind-boggling. My particular interest was in what we should put on the cover and what words we were allowed to use in marketing what were essentially videos of the most spectacular crashes. One of my least favorite video assignments ....and they sometimes including working with wrestlers, porn stars and anorexic fitness divas.

I think some of my favorite recent mysteries have just one murder. What the Dead Know comes to mind...wasn't there just one in that book? I reject the notion of so many writers these days that a book isn't a "real" mystery unless multiple co-eds are murdered in brutal fashion. And these guys think they're being interesting by having intricate mutilations or the exchange of body parts. Sorry, I think that's boring. Maybe that's another reason traditionqal mysteries are doing well (relatively speaking.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: "Excitement" is what stuck me, Jan. Is that what readers are looking for? I think--motive. Motive. If someone does something for a reason that readers understand-tht make's the terrible thing seem realistic..and therefore, exciting.

Let me say-I'm an Indy girl, so I've gone to the 500 several times. The last, I was sitting next to a friend's 10 year old son. There was HUGE and horrible crash. I thought--oh, I can't let him see this! I grabbed him, to hide his face. He about punched me in the nose to escape-he was so eager to see the wreck.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: What an interesting question, Jan. I don't watch car racing, and in my naivete I have to admit I'm shocked by the idea that people watch them primarily for the crashes . . . But horse racing is dangerous, too, and I love it, although I'm absolutely horrified when there's an accident on the track. And no matter what they do to make either of these sports (or many others) safer, there is still always the possibility of tragedy. But life isn't SAFE. It's not meant to be safe. And I suppose that brings us to mysteries and their enduring popularity. I think we like being reminded that life is precarious. But we also like the sense of resolution and sometimes justice that we find in mysteries--seldom is real life so neat.

Are our for violence as consumers getting higher? We think so, yet that would be an interesting question to pose to an historian. Hangings at Tyburn, anyone?

JAN: Debs, I think you hit the nail on the head. We like to be reminded that life is precarious. I think that's what gives it meaning.

What do you think about life, death, drama and meaning? How high do the stakes have to be to keep your interest?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Can You Guess Who?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN : The Jungle Red Quiz! You think you know us? For a little Sunday fun, here's a smattering of beginnings--some brand new, some on the shelves, one very very very old.

Which is the beginning of Julia's work in progress--working title "Seven Whole Days" ?

Which is the beginning of Hank's new book--THE OTHER WOMAN, coming in September?

Which is the beginning of Lucy's upcoming APPETITE FOR MURDER?

Which is Deborah Crombie's upcoming NO MARK UPON HER, out in February?

Which is the beginning of Hanks's WIP--working title: THE WRONG GIRL? (easy peasy--I threw this in so you'd get at least one right.)

Which is the beginning of Rhys' NAUGHTY IN NICE?

And okay, by popular demand, which is the beginning of Hank's failed attempt at a first novel about a female golf pro which only got to three chapters *fifteen years ago* called GREENSKEEPER?

A free book to one lucky commenter! (But it won't be Greenskeeper...) And another book to one lucky tweeter--just follow @junglereds..and we'll choose a name!


The Riviera had never looked more inviting. The sun sparkled on a sea of deepest blue. Elegant couples strolled beneath the palm trees on the Boulevard des Anglais. The scent of mimosa blossoms hung in the air while a seagull soared lazily overhead…I gave a contented sigh.

“’ere, watch it, love. You’re slopping soup all over.” The gruff voice that brought me back to the present with a jerk. I wrenched my eyes away from the poster on the wall and down to the scene in front of me. A long, gray line of shabbily dressed men, muffled against the bitter cold, snaked across Victoria Station. They clutched mugs or bowls and stood patiently, eyes down or staring, as I had been, into a world that nobody else could see but them. I was currently helping out at the station soup kitchen. It was a bitter and bleak January day, and I felt as cold and miserable as those poor wretches who shuffled past me.


“Get that light out of my face! And get back behind the tape. All of you. Now.” Detective Jake Brogan pointed his own flashlight back at the pack of hovering reporters, its cold glow highlighting one news-greedy face after another in the October darkness. He recognized television. Radio. That kid from the paper. How the hell did they get here so fast? The whiffle of a chopper, one of theirs, hovered over the riverbank, its spotlights illuminating the unmistakable—another long night on the job. And a Monday morning visit to a grieving family. If they could figure out who this victim was.

A body by the river. This time, the Charles, down by the old dock. Her legs, black tights striped with mud, leather boots, one zipper down, splayed on the fallen leaves and slimy underbrush on the bank. Her head, chestnut hair floating like a punk Ophelia, bobbing and grotesque in the tangled weeds.


The dog's barking woke Mikayla up. Ted and Helen—she was supposed to call them Uncle Ted and Aunt Helen, but she never did inside her own head—had told her Oscar was really a sweet dog. And it was true, he never growled at her. But he was so big, with his tail going thunk-thunk-thunk and his long pink tongue and his stabby white teeth. Mikayla didn't care how sweet he was, he scared her.

Right now his big deep bark was booming, over and over and over again. Mikayla burrowed beneath her quilts and pulled the pillow over her head. "Shut up, stupid dog," she whispered. She waited for the thud of Ted and Helen's bedroom door, footsteps on the stairs. It sounded like Oscar had to go bad. She shivered. What if the MacAllens didn't do anything? She would have to let him out. That was the rule. Then she'd have to stand around in the freezing hallway until he pooped so she could let him back in.


FTD told her to say it with flowers, but my mother said it with food.Lost a pet? Your job? Your mind? In my family, we ate when happy orsad but especially, we ate when we were worried. Life always looked better with a serving of Mom’s braised short ribs or red velvet cake in your belly.

Any wonder I was dying to eat for a living? The brand new Key Zest magazine in Key West announced a month ago that they were hiring a food critic for their style section. Since my ideaof heaven was eating at restaurants and talking about food, I’d dowhatever it took to land the job. Whatever. Unfortunately, Kristen Faulkner—my ex Chad’s new girlfriend and the woman whose cream sauce I’d most like to curdle—happened to be the new co-owner of Key Zest.And problem number two: Three review samples and a paragraph on my proposed style as the new food critic were due on Friday. So far I had produced nothing. The big goose egg. Call me Hayley Catherine“Procrastination” Snow.


But listen, Jane. I don’t think she’s my real mother.” Tuck finished her story, talking at top speed, as usual. But that was the only usual thing about this conversation.

Jane Ryland took the cell phone from her ear, peering at it as if somehow it could help Tuck’s story make sense. Real mother? She didn’t even know Tuck was adopted. Or looking for her mother. Why Tuck would call Jane about it now, spilling this wild and incomprehensible tale of abandonment and real names and an adoption agency calling and then going to meet some woman in New Hampshire was just as baffling. Jane and Tuck were barely friends, let alone confidantes, and after Tuck had been—


AJ MAcAnnally punched one button on her car radio, then another. Then another. Trying to find music that would fit her mood. First day on the job jitters. It's either 'happier than I've ever been,' or 'about to throw up.' Wonder what the music is for that.

She finally flipped the dial to off, and giving a quick glance out the windshield, reached across the passenger seat to crank down the window and let in the June morning. The pro should probably have a flashier car, she decided. At least one with air conditioning, now that summer's here. Nope, she caught herself. Don't count on this lasting. Don't get too happy.


"A glance at the sky made her swear aloud. It was later than she'd thought, darker than she'd realized. Since the clocks had moved back, night seemed to fall like a bludgeon, and there was a heavy wall of cloud moving in from the west, presaging a storm.Heart thumping, she moved across the cottage's shadowy garden and through the gate that led out onto the Thames Path. Tendrils of mist were beginning to rise from the water. The river had a particular smell in the evenings, damp and alive and somehow primeval. The gunmetal surface of the water looked placid as a pond, but she knew that for an illusion. The current, swift here as the river made its way towards the roar of the weir below Hambleden Mill, was a treacherous trap for the unwary or the overconfident.


So? Can you guess?

Saturday, October 22, 2011


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I have a pal who majored in poetry in college. Drove his parents crazy. As a result, my pal was thoughtful, caring, eloquent--and completely unemployable. Then he says, just to drive HIM crazy, his son majored in poetry, too.

Okay, my pal has managed. But you've gotta admit, choosing the life of an author is setting a pretty high bar. Hard enough to do the writing, forget the whole impossible economics of it--and then--you've got to show your work to someone! And what if they hate it? Rejection. The worst.

((Yes, Snoopy. When was the last time you saw Snoopy on Jungle Red? It was a dark and stormy night...)

So you know book conventions, right? Panels of authors talking about new ideas and new books and writing and reading and..stuff like: voice. But at Bouchercon in St. Louis a week or so ago, something very strange happened on one of the panels. "Voice" took on a whole new context.The panelists...wait for it...SANG. SANG! Would you have the moxie to sing your answers?

Joelle Charbonneau was one of the star performers..and singing isn't her only talent. She's hilarious, and multi-talented--and a wonderful new voice in mystery world. Her books are original and wonderful--even reading her unusual and wide-ranging bio is a treat. (Check it out.)

But how'd she get where she is today? Rejection. Yup, Joelle says:

Just call me crazy…

I must be a glutton for punishment. That’s the only explanation for my career choices. I’m a professional singer and actress. I might even dance for you if you pay me enough. Both the singer and actress fields filled with oodles of rejections. So, of course, I decide to pursue the next obvious choice - an author.

Can someone please tell me what I was thinking? I have to admit that I’m not sure I was thinking at all. Becoming an author was never one of my childhood dreams. I was a reader not a writer. Every day I hauled my backpack filled with text books and at least one novel to school with me. My local library was a favorite destination. But never in all my childhood daydreams did I think I would one day write a book that would sit on a library shelf. Then one day, I sat down one day with an idea for an opening line for a novel in my head and I started writing for my own pleasure. To see if I could. To see what would happen next.

What happened next was that I learned I liked the challenge of filling a blank page. (Yep, there’s that ‘glutton for punishment’ theme again.) So, I decided to try to write a real book. Once that book was done I decided to start submitting it to editors and agents. That’s when the rejection started. I wrote another book. More rejections.

Funny, but my other professions made me ideally suited to the rejection that inevitably comes along with writing. Sure, there are some writers who get their first manuscripts published. (This was so not me. It took me five attempts to finally get the call.) But even those published-out-of-the-gate writers get rejections on later manuscripts or in the form of bad reviews. Rejection is something that comes with the territory. And I traveled lots of that not so happy territory in my myriad of careers.

Funny, but I’m really grateful for those rejections. Yeah, I realize that my gratitude for being kicked to the curb makes me slightly unbalanced. I’m okay with that. But one thing I know is those rejection letters is that they made me a better writer. They also gave me time to figure out what kind of stories I really wanted to write. See, when I started writing, I decided I was going to write emotionally driven women’s fiction. Perhaps because some of my favorite books are ones that tug at my heart strings and make me cry. Well, I tried. I really did. I wanted to make people sigh and weep and feel as if the author was a close friend who understood their problems. Some of my best author friends are fabulous at making me read with a box of tissues close at hand. I wanted to be them when I grew up.

Instead, I wrote about a dead body in a roller rink toilet, an ex-circus camel that wears hats and a grandfather who impersonates Elvis. Yeah – so much for growing up into a hard-hitting women’s fiction writer. Trying to become one was like putting a triangular peg into a round hole. A miracle girdle hasn’t been invented yet that could squash me enough into the right shape and size. The agents and editors who read those attempts probably understood that.

Today, I sit behind my computer screen and write whatever off-the-wall thing pops into my head and I enjoy every minute of it. And those rejection letters? Well, I wear them as a badge of honor and am thankful for every one of them. For good or for ill, they made me the writer I am today.

HANK: Yep. I've had a couple of doozies. A million years ago, I sent in three chapters of a book about a golf pro. (A problem, since I have no idea how to play golf.) I submitted to two agents, figuring, hey, how hard can this be?

One agent wrote back: What a terrific writer you are! But this book has no plot." The other wrote back: "This is a terrific plot! But, I fear, you are not much of a writer."

That was almost word for word. As a result, I gave up. For--about fifteen years.

So recently I re-read the "book," having thought--hey! Why not just use that? It was--well, let's just the "not much of a writer" agent was right on the money. Point of view? La dee dah. There was none. (You should read it. Eeesh.) But now I know.

So how about you? Rejections make you stronger? Or just make you feel--rejected? How do you deal with it? And how have you changed?

And we're giving away a copy of Joelle's book to a lucky commenter!

Joelle Charbonneau is the author of the Rebecca Robbins and Paige Marshall mysteries
Skating Over The Line ~ Out Now! ~ Minotaur Books
Murder For Choir ~ July 2012 ~ Berkley Prime Crime

Friday, October 21, 2011

GET FAT! Yes, really.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: So, all you published and not-yet-published authors out there, now that you've gotten your legal facts straight--thanks to Leslie Budewitz on Tuesday, and you have your book trailer made--thanks to Lisa Black on Wednesday, and you understand why a one-star review might be a good thing--thanks to Catriona McPherson yesterday--now what?

Marketing maven Jen Fusco has three little words:


(And for all you readers out there-this proves how incredibly important you are to the future of the books you love. This proves how one kind word--can change an author's life.)

Now. You'd think we at Jungle Red would never advocate getting fat. But Jen Fusco says yes! To succeed--we must all get fat! And, sadly, that has nothing to do with chocolate.

JEN FUSCO: Thanks so much to Hank for allowing me to return to the Blog. I really enjoy spending time with you guys.

The weekend is almost here. I'm glad, too. I could use a rest, but I won't get one. I'll be visiting some new friends in San Diego, CA. And I couldn't be more excited about it. Not only do I get a chance to meet new people and introduce them to some practical marketing techniques, but I also benefit. I have the opportunity to "get fat." No, it has nothing to do with extra dessert at lunch.

Its about widening Market or Die's sphere of in
fluence. Take a look at this. This graph comes from Bob Clark at, someone I like to read when I have time....

Let me explain this sphere of influence thing. You and me, we make up the smallest part of the Core Circle. By being an Market or Die trubie, you are going to know things about MOD first. I need you and your support and hopefully, you need Market or Die.

Now, let’s look at the inner circle. These are your writing groups you work with, your social media "friends" and the professional writing organizations you belong to or other writers you know professionally. Hopefully for some, your readers fall into this category. The outer circle describes the people who know you, but you fail to know them. These are the people who buy your work, form an opinion about it and tell others.

Scary, huh? But also valuable.

To succeed in this business you and I have to get fat. We need to keep widening our sphere of influence and growing our inner circle. Can it be uncomfortable meeting new people? You bet.

The upside? The more people you bring into the inner circle will help you spread a positive message about you and your work to the outer circle.

Those people will be come your brand advocates.

Brand advocates are your village and they have the power to emerge online as your primary influencers. Recently, I ran across a marketing blurb about brand advocates that said using brand advocates yielded a two-to-one positive influencing rate of a friend or family member to buy the product or brand they recommended. Brand advocates are incredibly valuable to an author because they are better connected to other readers and can have a larger sphere of influence.

But Fusco, you say, I’m a published author. I have influence.


But how much time do you have to pound the pavement and stalk the internet?

And, how sick are people going to get of you tooting your own horn?

Isn’t it better when someone else toots it for you? Doesn’t it make the claim that someone should buy your book more powerful if you’re not the one saying it?

Of course it does.

If you want to stay relevant in the competitive world of writing, your time is better spent putting butt to chair and words on paper. Trust me on this one, will you?

So tell me one thing, how you vow to do to widen your circle?

Lesson number two! Advertising! And the keys to making a successful ad. There's one golden rule in advertising. If your audience remembers the ad, but doesn't remember the product, you've failed.

There are millions of great ads out there, but only a few that I remember both the ad and the product the ad was selling.

The biggest one that comes to mind is the Snickers TV ad that featured Betty White playing football. The concept a group of guys razzing a teammate for playing poorly and his teammate says, "You're playing like Betty White out there," until the player eats a Snickers then becomes himself again. The tagline, "You're not you when you're hungry."


What we as writers can learn from this piece of advertising is this. MAKE IT MEMORABLE. I know we all don't have budgets to advertise on TV however, some print and online advertising can be affordable. Make your ads interesting enough to the reader so that it will get their attention. (A book cover with an ISBN number running across it IS NOT interesting) Jazz it up.

Don't be afraid to tell the reader why they're going to like your book. And, don't forget to direct them to where to buy it.

So, in thinking about advertising what's worked or hasn't worked for you?

HANK: And what do you think, Reds writers? What's worked for you--and hey, what hasn't? And readers--what makes you choose a book?

And we'll give your choice of Market or Die (for authors) or a book by a Jungle Red author (for readers) to one lucky commenter!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Starry, Starry Fright

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It's enough to drive you crazy. Admit it, it is.

You know you shouldn't read those Amzaon reviews, except, you know , the good ones are SO good, and it's reassuring and heartwarming to see someone you don't even know have such good taste in talking about your book.

So of course, you read 'em.

Then one day, the little number by your book cover says "40" when the day before it said "39." So you know there's a new review.

And, WAAAIT a minit. Your lovely solid five * thing is now edging closer to 4 *. Huh?

My worst, so far, and I'm so sorry if this is someone reading this blog but whatever, was when one review of one of my books said that the bad guy just showed up in last chapter, and no one had heard of him in the rest of the book. That 's just--gasp, it still makes my stomach clench--not true! I mean, its not true in any way, and the bag guy is there front and center from the beginning. So the person could not COULD NOT have read the book. So WHY put up something like that? Don't get me started.

Too late.

Anyway, the good news is I get to introduce you to Catriona McPherson, who is hilarious, brilliant (truly) and a force of nature (pronounce her first name like the force of nature that hit New Orleans). Her new book is...well, hilarious, brilliant and a force of nature. More on that below. (And if you want to win a free one, keep reading. )

Today Catriona offers a new, kind of glass-half-full way of looking at reviews. You'll never read them the same way again. And that (like Catriona) is a good thing.

One starrrrrrrrr, shining in the darkneeeeeeeesssssss . . .

I know this song. It’s an emetically emotional power ballad. It’s made for So You Think You’ve Got Talent, You Deluded Schmuck. But I can’t remember the title, can’t find it by googling the lyric, so can’t give you a link to a YouTube video. Be grateful.

And besides, I’m not actually blogging about bad songs. I’m blogging about bad reviews. Amazon one stars, you see. This little fella: * Wouldn’t Amazon and the One Stars be a great name for a writers’ rock band? Almost as good as Four Hungry Children for a country and western outfit. (I can’t sing or play an instrument, but I can think up band names all day.)

At Bouchercon 2011 in St Louis this year, Colin Cotteril and I got re-acqauainted after meeting once years ago and bonded over the joys and challenges of *, the topic of the panel Colin dreamed up and moderated, to the entertainment of all.

The joy is straightforward enough. Fiction writers are interested in character and the writer of a * usually reveals a lot more about themselves than about the book they’re reviewing.
The challenge is to chart a path from the universe of the special individual who wrote it back to the world where the rest of us live. Endless fun for Colin Cotteril, for me and maybe for you too.

Okay, first off: let’s not talk about * for books that deserve no more. In any merit system, the best books belong at one end and the worst at the other. No one can dispute that. And *s that start with “I’ve been waiting five weeks and my book hasn’t arrived” are just too sad to contemplate for long. Also, only a churl would take a pop at those poor, beleaguered high-school students being made to write reviews of books their teachers chose. Reading a book is one thing; doing a book isn’t.

No, I want to talk to you about the others; the delicious, moon-howlingly mad *, the *that makes you glad this reviewer doesn’t have a small country to run, the * that makes you hope this reviewer has a curfew or even an ankle-band.

There are some simple algorithms to deal with the most common egregious *s.

1: * from anyone who doesnt know how to use apostrophe’s = three stars.

2: * from anyone who thinks “loser” has two “o”s = four stars

3: * from anyone who thinks “boring” has five “o”s = five stars

And so, just as you can convince yourself that you have a diet so healthy that you make Michael Pollan look like Homer Simpson – because food you eat in the car, in other people’s houses, or standing up in front of the fridge doesn’t count – you can convince yourself that you have never actually had a legitimate *. Or I can anyway.

If you read enough of these things, you start to see other patterns too, more subtle patterns, but they’re there.

There are the Petulant Huffs. They can be paraphrased as: “I ordered a unit of stock from this writer and it was not exactly what I was expecting. This is an outrage. Get back to your computer and read my mind with a bit more attention next time, you provider of inadequate service, you!”

I get that a tube of Pringles should be a tube of Pringles and if you crack one open to find the best peanut brittle of your life you might still be miffed. But novels aren’t extruded product. A * Petulant Huff is a four star to me.

Another favourite type are the Cynical Drawls. They go like this: “McPherson (for instance) is copying a better writer/ Grafton had a deadline looming and phoned it in/Evanovich is tired of the series and can’t be bothered any more/Rowling has made her millions and couldn’t care less now. “

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t in it up to her (or his) neck, deeply involved with her characters, acutely aware that every time you publish a novel you’re cracking open your ribcage, pinning back the flesh of your chest and letting the world see, and judge, your beating heart.
So a * Cynical Drawl is a four star from where I’m looking.

And then there are the one-offs. The randomly hilarious reviews. They light up my day so brightly, I’d rather have them with their bonkers * than a saner five-star any day.

Especially delectable is when you hit a patch of them around one innocent little book. The world’s more fun for knowing that someone reviewed How to Make an American Quilt and complained, apparently without irony, that it seemed fragmented. “Fragmented.” “Quilt.” She read over her review, saw these two words close together in the same sentence and . . . nope, nothing.

And when I went looking for this review again (it’s an old favourite) I found another * of the same book that was even better. And I quote:

“This Book is horrible! If you're thinking of buying it, don't. There's hardly anything in it about Finn, the main character.Plus it has instructions on how to make a quilt! How stupid is that! If I wanted to know how to make a quilt I would buy a book about quilting, not a book about a movie.”

“ A book about a movie.” I’m happy to be alive.

Now, for budding * fans, a couple of pointers about how to find the juicy ones.

Stephen King is one of my favourite writers. His fan-base has, at its far opposite edges, Group A. devotees of his earlier, horribler novels (I think of these readers (unfairly) as Comic Book Guy) who loathe his later, messier stuff and Group B. readers who love his characters and his towns and his big, warm heart and think he’s getting better and better (and kind of wish he’d do one without any BOO!, just to see what happens).

So Comic Book Guy is giving King a lot of * these days. Here’s a good one of Lisey’s Story, with a smidge of Petulant Huff and a pinch of Cynical Drawl too.

“As a trucker I rent a lot of books and generally grab up any Stephen King reads because his books really help me chew up the miles on long hauls. Like others have said...I too couldn't finish it. In fact after renting it for around $12 (Unabridged) I turned it back in after only getting part way through disk 4 of about a 12 disk set. . . . Some like romance novels, but when I pick up Stephen King I expect to be entertained. This book up to disk 4 was just a rambling mush fest. This has such a strong female flavor of romance to it that I can't help wonder if it wasn't Stephen King's wife who wrote it, and they slapped his name on it for marketing.”

I can’t remember how many times I’ve written a book and given to my husband to put out under his name, can you? Well, it’s the wifely thing to do.
Or you can go straight to the top.

Pride and Prejudice has 55 *s on as I write. Half of them are complaining about the price, the quality of the CDs, the kindle edit or, in one case, the paper quality. And some of them are from poor high school kids being tortured by their teachers. But others are gems indeed.

Take this one:

“I am so disappointed. Being a fan of classic literature I was looking forward to reading Pride & Prejudice. But what I got was moderately-well written chick lit. Think of Pride and Prejudice as the Bridgit Jones of the 18th Century.”

And while you’re at it, think of Romeo and Juliet as the West-Side Story of Renaissance Verona.

Think of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as the Nutty Professor of Victorian London. Think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the older brother of The Young Frankenstein, and pause to wonder why she wrote a book about a movie.

HANK: Ah, I can't type. I am still laughing. Let's just say..we'll give a copy of Catriona's new book to one lucky commenter--and come on, who doesn't want to comment about reviews?

Catriona McPherson is a recovering academic and the author of six novels set in Scotland in the 1920s, featuring the gently-born but nevertheless pretty kick-ass private detective, Dandy Gilver. (Hank says: It's kind of Upstairs, Downstairs meets Nora Charles.)

St Martin's Press have just launched the series in the US with The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. A year ago, Catriona left a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in southern Scotland, and now lives on a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in northern California. Cantaloupe instead of rutabaga - otherwise business as usual.

Check out my website
Read my weekly blog sitting typing alone in a room.
Find me on Facebook.
Follow me on Twitter @CatrionaMcP.
In fact, good luck trying to avoid me.