Sunday, August 31, 2014

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I may not have had garden tomatoes or cantaloupe this summer (there's still
time, right?) but I have had a couple of culinary adventures. I've made ice cream twice. First, butter pecan, made in the thirty-year-old ice cream maker that had been languishing in its box in the back of the hall closet for years. It was electric, at least, not hand-crank, and you only had to add ice, not ice and rock salt! Still, messy and noisy, and I'd been day-dreaming over up-to-date ice cream makers, especially the Cuisinart, which had great reviews.

Then one day Marcia Talley told me she was making Salted Caramel Ice Cream and that the recipe was to-die-for, and that her ice cream maker was a Cuisinart.  That was all the persuasion I needed. And I'll add my testimony--the Cuisinart is fabulous, and so is the recipe. So credit to Marcia Talley for the suggestion, and to for reprinting the recipe, which originally appeared in Gourmet magazine in 2009.


1 1/4 cups sugar, divided
2 1/4 cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
3 large eggs

Equipment: an ice cream maker

Heat 1 cup sugar in a dry 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring with a fork to heat sugar evenly, until it starts to melt, then stop stirring and cook, swirling skillet occasionally so sugar melts evenly, until it is dark amber.
Add 1 1/4 cups cream (mixture will spatter) and cook, stirring, until all of caramel has dissolved. Transfer to a bowl and stir in sea salt and vanilla. Cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, bring milk, remaining cup cream, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar just to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally.

Lightly whisk eggs in a medium bowl, then add half of hot milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour back into saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard coats back of spoon and registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil). Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl,
then stir in cooled caramel.

Chill custard, stirring occasionally, until very cold, 3 to 6 hours. Freeze custard in ice cream maker (it will still be quite soft), then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to firm up.

Makes about 1 quart

Active time:
30 min
total time:
4 hr

Cooks' note: Ice cream keeps 1 week.

(DEBS'S notes: I'd never made caramel before and so burned it the first time. Probably everyone else knows how to make caramel, but if not, a warning--take the pan off the heat as soon as the melted sugar turns amber.  And the ice cream should keep more than a week. I've had a pint in the freezer for two weeks now, and it's still fine.)

Photo is courtesy of Rick Wilson. Food styling (with a few smudges on my yard-sale crystal ice cream glasses) courtesy of me.

And now, to complete your Labor Day weekend feast, here, if you're feeling adventurous, is what comes before the ice cream! Recipe is courtesy of our neighbor Jennifer, who brought us a bowl of just-picked figs from their tree.


Grill your choice of steak. We had organic New York strips, cooked on the rare side of medium rare.

Top with sliced fresh figs, crumbled fresh feta cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Add fresh ground salt and pepper.

That's all there is to it, and it is wonderful!

Photo AND food styling courtesy of me.

Enjoy, and have a great holiday weekend!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

One Last Thing

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Labor Day! That means the end of summer is upon us (or in Texas at least according to the calendar), and what I want to know is WHERE DID IT GO?

Remember when you were a kid and summer stretched endlessly before you? Now it seems to go by in a flash, and this one... just vanished. Yesterday I realized that I've gone the entire summer without eating a cantaloupe. How is that possible? And how can I not have bought tomatoes from the farmer's market? I haven't had a margarita, even on National Margarita Day (yes, there is such a thing) and that is a long standing family tradition. (And I don't mean a restaurant or bar margarita, but my dad's "from scratch" recipe.) I haven't been swimming. (I didn't set up the infamous green inflatable pool this year.) I never managed to put any Sambac jasmine in the pots on my deck. (I love the delicate white flowers, and the scent at night is heavenly.)

To give myself a little credit, I have grilled quite a bit, and spent time in the garden and sitting on the deck, playing with the dogs.  I've watched several summer rainstorms from the swings on the front porch. I've watched dragonflies and fireflies and hummingbirds, and yesterday saw Monarch butterflies for the first time on our Greg's Mist Flower in the front garden.

I did make ice cream, but did not manage my once-or-twice-a-summer treat of a root beer float.

AND I have had exactly two Sunday mornings when the weather was cool enough to allow me to lie in the hammock and day dream for an hour or two, which for me is the absolutely perfect summer Sunday.

REDS, what have YOU missed doing this summer? And can you squeeze it in at the last minute???

HALLIE EPHRON: Yes, the days do seem to speed past. I remember older folks saying that and I wondered what they were going on about.

We have had a glorious summer here in New England, weather-wise. Sunny days and cool nights. We could use a bit of rain, but by now our lilacs are usually moldy from too much of it. We indulged root beer floats -  my go-to dessert in summer, just a small one. And wonderful local tomatoes. All I grow that's edible in my garden in herbs, but it's been so nice to go out and clip some parsley, sage, oregano, and basil.

I want your dad's Margarita recipe, Debs, pretty please?? It doesn't have to be summer for a margarita.

RHYS BOWEN: Where did it go? Every year I make a vow to enjoy summer, slow down, take a picnic to a nearby beach or park and spend the afternoon with a book. And every year Labor Day comes and I realize I've been working every single day. Stupid! I suppose I do always have an end of summer deadline and a new book that comes out in August, and I was in Europe for six weeks in May and June so I can't complain. But I should enjoy simple summer pleasures, slow, lazy days.

Actually my son got married in July and the house was full for a while and we did sit on the balcony talking, laughing and sipping wine until late at night, so that was perfect. And I have a post-summer treat coming up. We're going to a lovely bed and breakfast inn in Pacific Grove for my birthday. Right on the ocean, lovely grounds and Carmel nearby. I vow to sit, relax and do nothing for three days.

DEBS: Wow, Rhys! Three whole days??? I suspect that will be a world record for you:-)  Enjoy!

LUCY BURDETTE: Yes, time has FLOWN by! Good for you Rhys--you deserve every minute! We've eaten a lot from the garden, and are finally seeing these wonderful tomatoes ripen. And John brought in a strawberry tonight--we agreed it was the most amazing strawberry we'd ever eaten. And we've seen lots of friends and family and eaten many cakes. But hmmm, not one single root beer float, which I also love. And we haven't gone to Cape Cod, which I miss. Though I did finally get to yoga on the beach, which was lovely. All in all, a most wonderful summer, just too short...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: This summer we didn't make it toOld Orchard Beach for  glorious day of tacky pleasures on the sand and the boardwalk. However, if it's warm enough, we may go tomorrow! Thinking about it, most of what we didn't do this year is related to the weather; as Hallie says, it's been on the cooler side in New England (or, as I've read, we've just gotten used to unnaturally hot summers in the recent past) so the beach, hitting the midcoast or floating in the Saco River just haven't felt like pressing needs. 

We did get lots and lots done on the property, as I've told you about here. And we got to spend a lot of time, all five of us, as a family. I remain aware the time for that is slipping away faster than the end of summer, so I'm grateful for it.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We have a swimming pool. I did not go in. Not once. And there you have it. We used to have wonderful times floating--we'd get blow-up rafts, and iced tea, and books, and just float around reading. It was so fabulous. That was before THE BOOK. Our garden is still fabulous, and we walk through it and cut flowers almost every day... The dahlias are crazy wonderful now. We did grill out. Yay, us.  We went to Tanglewood, and heard two gorgeous concerts from the BSO.  Ah, we went outside to watch the meteor shower, but I saw only one shooting star. One good part was when I looked at my calendar wrong, and realized I had worried myself out of a whole week. When I got the week back, it was fabulous.

DEBS: Oh, Hank, that cracks me up. Only you would worry yourself out of a whole week... But maybe we should all do that, and then discover that we had a totally FREE week! To do whatever we wanted. Float in pools. Swing in hammocks. Read (rather than write) books. Eat Lucy's tomatoes. And maybe even drink margaritas. (By that pool...)

So, Hallie, for you:

Charlie's Perfect Margarita

1 1/2 oz white premium tequila, 100% agave. (I use Espolito--even the smell is fabulous.)

1/2 oz top quality orange liqueur--no triple sec! (You can use Cointreau, but I use one called Clement Creole Shrubb. It's made in Louisiana--as you might guess--and is a little less sweet with a hint of herby spice. Delish!)

1 to 1 1/2 oz fresh squeezed lime juice. (I use the larger amount--I like my margaritas limey.)

Chill a short glass.  Rub the edge of the chilled glass with a cut lime, then dip the rim in fine kosher or sea salt. Fill with ice, add the other ingredients, garnish with a lime sliver, and enjoy!

If you are making these in a batch, it's best to mix the ingredients in a pitcher, then fill the chilled and prepared glasses. And if you are making a batch, you may appreciate an electric juicer. It takes a lot of limes!

Readers, what have you missed this summer? Can you get anything in this last official weekend?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Charles Todd--An Unwilling Accomplice

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Most of you know I am a huge fan of Charles Todd (mother-and-son writing team Caroline and Charles) and not much makes me happier than a new book in their Bess Crawford series. While their series featuring Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge has moved into the 1920s, WWI nurse Bess Crawford is still in the thick of the conflict in 1918. But in the just-released Bess novel, AN UNWILLING ACCOMPLICE, Bess has a break from the battlefields. That certainly doesn't mean, however, that Bess stays out of trouble!

World War I Battlefield nurse Bess Crawford’s career is in jeopardy when a murder is committed on her watch, in this absorbing and atmospheric historical mystery from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd.

Home on leave, Bess Crawford is asked to accompany a wounded soldier confined to a wheelchair to Buckingham Palace, where he’s to be decorated by the King. The next morning when Bess goes to collect Wilkins, he has vanished. Both the Army and the nursing service hold Bess negligent for losing the war hero, and there will be an inquiry.

Then comes disturbing word from the Shropshire police, complicating the already difficult situation: Wilkins has been spotted, and he’s killed a man. If Bess is to save her own reputation, she must find Wilkins and uncover the truth. But the elusive soldier has disappeared again and even the Shropshire police have lost him. Suddenly, the moral implications of what has happened—that a patient in her charge has committed murder—become more important to Bess than her own future. She’s going to solve this mysterious puzzle, but righting an injustice and saving her honor may just cost Bess her life.

Like all the Bess books, AN UNWILLING ACCOMPLICE is chock full of fascinating historical details and a wonderful sense of place--not to mention a plot that kept me reading straight through until I finished it. And as a bonus, I got to quiz Caroline and Charles about the book!

DEBS:  Caroline and Charles, are your books most often inspired by particular places?

CAROLINE:  Absolutely!  For each book we look for just the right setting, and then spend some time there.  Take your own book, THE SOUND OF BROKEN GLASS.  I can’t think of any other part of London that would have suited Andy’s story as well.  So not only the look and feel of a place matter. You must ask what happened there in the past, because it will affect the lives of the characters in one way or another.  The setting also determines the action, because it’s the limit in time and space for what is going to happen.   Driving off a cliff may sound like a dramatic finale for a mystery—but you have to make sure to start with that you’re in a countryside that has cliffs.      

CHARLES:  Sometimes we drive to a village we think is going to be ideal.  Bur when we get there, we discover it has no "character" after all, nothing that would make a mystery interesting.   So we have to move on. One of the reasons Rutledge works in the countryside so often is that English villages have so much to offer in the way of opportunity and variety.  And the same is true of Bess.  Of course occasionally we change the name of the village, if we think it would be best for the people still living there.  This is particularly true in next year's Bess, which we're working on right now. But if you know England, you can usually figure it out from the geography.

DEBS: I was so fascinated by your depiction of Ironbridge (both the town and the bridge) that I had
to look it up. Did you visit it?

C&C:  We really enjoyed our time there.  It’s in Shropshire, not far from Shrewsbury.   That iron bridge is very dramatic.  Just right for the first murder.   And there’s a lovely little town that climbs the hill that rises on this side of the bridge.  We discovered a bookshop there, and found books on Shropshire and the Great War. (The story of our lives—we’re always hunting for a way to get books back home! ) Believe it or not, that bridge was opened in 1781, the first arched bridge ever built of cast iron.  It’s on the UNESCO Heritage list.  We tend to take bridges for granted, but this one spans the River Severn where it passes through a narrow gorge, and it must have been a godsend locally!  Imagine having to travel for miles to find a place where you could ford or take a ferry.  We liked it so much that Morrow put it on the jacket.

DEBS: Bess finds herself in a very difficult position in this book, appearing to have been remiss in her duty at best, and at worst possibly helping a soldier desert. Was there any particular incident that inspired this story line?

C&C:  We'd seen an audience with the Queen where she gives out honors and medals, and we were intrigued with the idea of taking Bess to one.  It was when we were deciding what sort of person the wounded man would be, the one she was accompanying in order to manage his wheelchair, that the rest of the story fell into place.  And we were in Wales on that same trip to Ironbridge when we happened to see something on TV that triggered a very intriguing possibility.   Can’t tell you more about that—some people haven’t read the book yet.  Oddly enough, though, most of that information is still classified, and we can’t help but wonder why…  
DEBS: Bess gets to spend almost the entire book with handsome and intriguing Simon Brandon, which was a real treat. They have such an interesting relationship, and we learn more about Simon in this book. And of course readers want to know if they will ever be more than friends. Do you know, or do you let the relationship chart its own course from book to book?

CAROLINE:  Everyone loves Simon, I think!   We just wrote an e-short story,  "The Maharani's Pearls," where we learn a little more about the early relationship between Bess and Simon while the regiment was still in India and she was a young girl.  What’s in their future?  We have no idea, they haven’t told us yet.  Whatever their ultimate relationship, though, there’s definitely a strong bond between them, and that has intriguing possibilities.  Meanwhile, there’s still a war on, and nobody is thinking about the future just yet.  Stay tuned.

DEBS: Are the Dysoes (a unique setting in the book) real, and if not, what inspired them?

C&C:  The Dysoes are quite real.   And such a strange formation of high rounded hills with a single road snaking through them.   Not what you’d ever expect to find in Warwickshire.  A perfect place to set a story.  Just driving through that area was claustrophobic.  And think how cut off those villages must have been for centuries.  Bess and Simon were the strangers there, and not very welcomed.

DEBS: Bess and Simon seem to drive all over England in this book! How do you figure out how long it would have taken them to get from one place to another in 1918?  I would love to have a map!  I think your (our) publisher should commission Laura Hartman Maestro to draw maps for the Bess books. And the Rutledge books!
CAROLINE:  We love your maps!  And we have a map for A FINE SUMMER’S DAY, the next Rutledge!  Morrow found a wonderful cartographer who put his travels on the map.  Literally.   Bess actually has only four sites in this book--for the mystery part of the story.  There's London, of course.  Then Shropshire (Shrewsbury --think  Brother Cadfael!—and Ironbridge).  And then traveling to Warwickshire and the Dysoes, which aren’t all that far away from Stratford.   Bess also goes to Bakewell, just a skip and a jump from Chatsworth.   We tried to keep it interesting but manageable.

CHARLES:  It’s often frustrating, figuring out mileage for Rutledge and Bess.  Some of the roads they would have used don't exist any longer, so you sort of have to imagine how they would get from A to B and how long it would take.  We don't know if we are always precisely right, but we’re close enough to feel good about it.   The roads were hopeless.  But the motorcars of the day were marvels. A friend owns Rutledge's motorcar.  We've driven in it many times. Just recently it went from Pennsylvania to New Orleans without a hitch. We think it has even climbed Pike's Peak.   A hundred years old and still one of the most beautiful motorcars you can imagine. A burgundy red with a dark cream top, everything on it spit and polish, and an elegant Flying Lady (The Spirit of Ecstasy) for the bonnet ornament.

DEBS: You got a head start on the Great War, long before current writers decided to go back to that period.  The first Rutledge, A TEST OF WILLS, was published in 1996. Now we’ve come to the centennial of 1914-1918. What are you doing to mark this occasion?  (The photo is the stunning exhibit filling the dry moat of the Tower of London to mark the centennial. The installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies by ceramic artist Paul Cummins is called "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red." Each poppy represents a British military fatality from the war.)

C&C:  We’ve just turned in A FINE SUMMER’S DAY, and we think it’s rather special.  January always means a Rutledge mystery, but this year we go back to June of 1914, when Rutledge had a brilliant career going at the Yard and is falling in love.  He has one last inquiry he must close before he can think about enlisting in the British Army.  What happens in those months between June and late September made him not only the detective he is, but the man he’s to become.  Not a prequel so much as a chance for readers to look deeper in Rutledge’s past, before the Battle of the Somme in 1916 changed him forever.  

CAROLINE:  On a personal note, it was a very emotional book to write, and we had just turned it in, still fresh in our minds, when I went to see WAR HORSE in London, with a friend.  I can’t describe the impact it had on me. It was as if I’d suddenly stepped into war with Rutledge. 

C&C:   Before we move on, we’ve just got to say something about your newest Kincaid and Gemma, TO DWELL IN DARKNESS.   Having the same publisher, we managed to get our hands on an early copy, and it blew us away.   It all takes place in four days, and the plotting is so clever we were unable to put it down.  There was only one problem with it:  we read the whole thing in one weekend, and now we have to wait a year before we find out what happens next!  Get to work! 

DEBS:  Thank you, Caroline and Charles! Caroline and Charles are great motivators (they write TWO fabulous books a year!) and cheerleaders! We're very fortunate that, because we have the same publisher, we often get to do events together, so I'm including a couple of my favorite photos. In the first we are
signing together somewhere in the wilds of central Florida (I think.) In the second, we had an event together in Charleston, SC. We got to eat oysters (Charles and I share the passion) and do a little sightseeing. This is Caroline shooting me shooting

I'm very excited about the map in the new Rutledge, A FINE SUMMER'S DAY, in January (and what a great title!) and I wondered, REDS and readers, if everyone else loved maps in books as much as Caroline and Charles and I do? 

Charles and Caroline will be dropping in to chat today, so do tell us in the comments! 

P.S. I want to see a photo of Rutledge's motorcar!

P.S.S. Isn't that a terrific cover???

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Marcia Talley--St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend

DEBORAH CROMBIE: St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend is the hidden gem of mystery conferences. If Marcia Talley weren't my friend, I'd be very tempted to commit some heinous crime born of jealousy, because she got to attend this year, and I, having been in England in May, couldn't manage another trip as soon as August. To make it up to me, Marcia is going to give us some highlights along with photos from this year and previous conferences.

(I am so cross. I found a fabulous photo the other day when was straightening my office. St. Hilda's, 1996, with Kate Charles and Marcia Talley being punted on the Cherwell by Laurie King. I meant to put it in this post but now can't find it. Apologies!!! But Marcia has plenty to share.)

MARCIA TALLEY: In the late summer of 1994, a new mystery conference made its quiet debut at St Hilda's College in Oxford, England. The brainchild of mystery author Kate Charles and the college's alumni officer, Eileen Roberts, the St. Hilda's Crime and Mystery Weekend has for over twenty years, drawn mystery lovers from all over the world to the tranquil banks of the River Cherwell.

The inaugural conference, “Queens of Crime,” focused on women mystery authors with Oxford connections, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie, an entirely appropriate topic for St. Hilda's which was, until recently, the only remaining all women's college in England. Indeed, Val McDermid is an “old girl” of the college and Margaret York was its librarian and a speaker at first conference. At the end of that first weekend, response was so overwhelming that Charles and Roberts decided to continue the conference the following year with “The Golden Age, Then and Now.” Topics in subsequent years have included “Murder in Academia,” “Men and Women in Blue,” “Partners in Crime,” “ Scene of the Crime,” and “Mind Games, Psychology, Crime and Mystery,” to name but a few.  This year, as England commemorates the centennial of the beginning of World War I, St Hilda’s remembered, too, with “Crimes of the Past: War and Other Evils.”

It is this themed approach which sets St. Hilda's apart from other mystery conferences. There's none of the usual panels of writers sitting around making thinly disguised sales pitches for their books. Speakers come by invitation only and deliver thought-provoking papers on aspects of the mystery genre relevant to the topic that year. It is the skilled moderator/chair (Edward Marsden, Andrew Taylor, the late Robert Barnard and Natasha Cooper have been tapped for this several times) who ties the papers together and ably guides the question and answer session.

Papers are delivered in the acoustically perfect surroundings of the Jacqueline duPre Music Building, and there's no overlap between sessions so no one has to miss anything. It's this aspect of learning, I think, that keeps bringing people back to St. Hilda's: We hear Julia Wallace Martin talk about the relationship between manic depression and the creative process; Val McDermid's historical overview of gays and lesbians in crime fiction; or Alan Bradley’s poignant tale about the day his father ran away from home – for good. And who could resist a talk entitled “Lord Roberts Has a Full Crate of Whisky: Stories of the Anglo-Boer War” with which Frances Brody closed out this year’s session.

It's a tribute to the quality of the conference that authors who have attended St. Hilda's as participants continue to do so even if they haven't been invited to give a paper.

The conference opens Friday night with a champagne party on the college lawn which slopes gently down to the river. Just beyond are the playing fields of Magdalen College and beyond that, the towering spires of Oxford. Andrew Taylor marvels that there is no distinction between authors and non-authors at St. Hilda’s, none of the 'them and us' quality that distinguishes many conferences—fans on one side, and performing authors on the other. Perhaps because of its size—roughly 125 attendees —newcomers are made to feel welcome and find it a good place for conversation. Nowhere is this more evident than on Saturday night when attendees gather after dinner for a wine party in the Senior Common Room. Some have been known to stay up until the wee hours, chatting away about crime fiction or anything else that strikes their fancy.

Programs are punctuated by breaks for tea, coffee and cookies, and a civilized sherry hour invariably precedes the Saturday night dinner which has featured speakers like P.D. James, Colin Dexter, and Val McDermid. I'm still laughing over the evening Simon Brett performed all twelve roles for the world premier of Lines of Enquiry, a radio play “starring Osbert Mint, Betti Morns and Bren O'Smitt.” (You work it out!) I should mention that the food is excellent, served in the elegant, wood-paneled dining room and, as a vegetarian, I appreciate the tasty vegetarian options.

Everyone lodges at the college in clean comfortable rooms where “scouts” make up your bed each morning and electric kettles and the wherewithal for making tea sit on your desk.

The return rate is high. Anne Perry said it best: “The atmosphere is civilized, physically beautiful … a gathering of old friends to discuss the things we are all interested in. It is effortlessly 'academic', one leaves feeling entertained, enriched, educated, and renewed to begin again on the art and the career we all love.”

DEBS: Here are some of Marcia's photos, captioned as best I can (while I take a break to dig through more boxes looking for my own...)

The beautiful view of the River Cherwell from the college lawns.

Marcia, Alan Bradley, and Kate Charles, 2014

Kate Charles presides over dinner at the college high table, 2011

PD James chats with an attendee as a former college principle looks on, 2011

Kate Charles and Keith Miles, 2011

Val McDermid and Ayo Onatade share a joke, 2011
 Sigh. As you can see, the weather, the setting, the company, and the crime are divine. I'm setting my sights on next year.

One more snippet--Marcia has failed to mention that she has a brand new Hannah Ives novel, TOMORROW'S VENGANCE, so I'm going to do it for her.  I got to read it early, when I was in London, and it's wonderful.

Hannah Ives is introduced to Calvert Colony, a continuing care retirement community in Maryland, by her friend, Naddie Gray, and soon meets a colourful cast of characters: Colonel Greene, the spritely war veteran, Safa Abaza, an over-zealous religious convert, Ysabelle Milanesi, who fled the Nazis when she was a girl, handsome chef Raniero and his sister, Filomena.
When Hannah signs on as a volunteer in the Memory Unit, she becomes more even more involved in the lives of the Calvert Colony residents. But events take a dark turn when one of them is found murdered. Hannah is drawn into the investigation, and soon finds herself uncovering old crimes and reigniting quarrels that know no boundaries of place or time.

Publisher's Weekly says, "Talley deals sensitively with such aging issues as consensual sex among residents, vulnerability to scam artists, declining cognitive abilities, autocratic relatives, and the importance of touch and music in providing comfort."

Reading a Hannah novel is, as always, like spending time with one of your best friends, and getting a cracking good mystery to boot.

So who's up for Oxford and St. Hilda's next year?  I'm sure Marcia will be there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tammy Kaehler--What're Your Anthems?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've just finished Tammy Kaehler's third Kate Reilly car racing mystery, AVOIDABLE CONTACT.  Publishers Weekly says,"Snappy dialogue, a smart and affable heroine, and pacing reminiscent of 24 combine to make this entry as exciting as a spin around the speedway."

I say Tammy Kaehler's Kate Reilly books are the car racing answer to Dick and Felix Francis's horse racing books, with the bonus of a great female character, race car driver Kate Reilly!  I love books that immerse you in the setting so deeply that it's a shock to put down the book, and when I read Tammy Kaehler I can hear the racetrack, smell the hot oil and rubber, and feel the vibration of Kate's Corvette. So I was fascinated by Tammy's description of one of the ways she brings the books to life. (I was also glad to  hear that someone else has to clean out their office before they start a new book...)

TAMMY KAEHLER: I was cleaning out my office the other day—yes, that necessary prelude to starting to write a new book—and I opened iTunes on my computer, setting it to shuffle everything in the folder of music I’d purchased through iTunes in
the last 15 years.

With the first song, boom! I was struck by a vivid memory of place and time. John Mayer, “Bigger Than My Body,” a song I used to listen to while driving home from my very first writing group a decade ago. I remember being in the car, at a particular spot on a Northern California freeway, thinking “I’m going to finish this book about a racecar driver and get published.” Listening to the song the other day, I felt that ten-year-old upswelling of determination again.

Then the second song played: “Blue Moon on Monday,” by Duran Duran, which, for a reason I can’t explain, saved my life a couple times in the last couple years. My day job has been busy and stressful, as was the third book I wrote during the same timeframe. This song on repeat smoothed out some rough edges once in a while.

Third song: “Raise Your Glass” by P!nk, which I listened to in 2010 and 2011 as I was preparing for
the release of my first book and trying to figure out how to write my second—more, trying to figure out how to “be an author.” Something about the lyrics—“So raise your glass if you are wrong/In all the right ways, all my underdogs/We will never be, never be anything but loud”—helped me believe I could find my voice and write another book.

Fourth song: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas,” which I listened to on repeat for three hours last December when I finished the first draft of my third book. I didn’t listen to the whole song this August, but I was immediately transported back to the joy, pride, and sense of accomplishment I felt last December.

That’s when I realized: I was listening to the personal anthems of my thirties and forties.

Most of us probably know what researchers have spent numerous studies proving: music and rhyme help us remember things. Even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s dementia will sometimes sing along to a familiar song. Memory experts can remember huge lists of information by setting them to rhymes or music.

Some neuroscientists even think that our brains developed the ability to respond to music before the ability to respond to language; further, many of them believe we developed music and dance to aid in retrieving information. Bottom line: music stays with us. For proof, consider the dreaded “earworm,” that snippit of song that gets irritatingly stuck in your head.

All of which means it’s no wonder memory is highly coded to music. It’s no wonder we vividly remember sensation and emotion associated with a particular song. And I figure I can use this.

Why not use a particular song to change or bolster my emotional state? Sure, that was the next song in my playlist: Colbie Caillat’s “Try,” about not trying to be or look like something you’re not. Being happy with who you are. (I highly recommend the video, if you haven’t seen it; it has a wonderful message for all of us.)

I’m particularly susceptible to anthems these days, because I’m desperately externalizing my struggle to get started on my next book—starting a new book is hard enough to do at any time, but during a book release, it’s even harder! I find that every time I gather myself to launch into writing a book, I want inspirational quotes, I want jewelry with “you can do it”—or “bigger than my body”—messages. I want empowering anthems.

So what I’m listening to now is the Cobie Caillat song, Katy Perry’s “Roar” (“You hear my voice, you hear that sound/Like thunder gonna shake the ground” and “'Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar”), and “Let It Go” from “Frozen” (that one’s due to some more day job stress), as well as a bunch of current bubblegum pop that makes me cheerful enough to bounce in my chair. I swear, I’m going to start writing soon!

I know many authors talk about a soundtrack for their books, but I always think that’s music particularly associated with the content or the theme of the book. For example, another recent favorite of mine, “Girl in a Country Song,” (hilarious video, check it out!) won’t have anything to do with my next book, but its theme of women thumbing their noses at male stereotypes is making me laugh and reminding me of what Kate has to deal with in the racing world. Now that I think about it … maybe that is a soundtrack.

So here are my questions for Reds and readers. Do you have anthems? What do you use to pump yourself up—for writing, for cleaning the house, or for any tough task? And if you have a personal soundtrack, what songs are on it? What are your anthems?

(Credit for Tammy's great photo to S James Photography)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pam Jenoff--There and Back Again: The Travels That Shape Us

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  We have to start the day with a huge shout-out to REDS Hank Phillippi Ryan and Julia Spencer-Fleming for their Anthony Award nominations for THE WRONG GIRL and THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS! REDS totally ROCK!

And to make our day even better, we have a great post today from the author of THE
KOMMANDANT'S GIRL, Pam Jenoff. Her new book is THE WINTER GUEST (waiting for me on my doorstep this morning!) It's a stirring novel of first love in a time of war and the unbearable choices that could tear sisters apart.

Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.

Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.


Booklist calls it "...Brisk, romantic and emotionally satisfying," and it's just the sort of book I love. So I am, as always, curious about the influences that led to the story.

PAM JENOFF: Back in the mid-1990’s, I packed up everything I owned, put my Mazda Protégé on a ship and moved halfway around the world by myself to be a diplomat for the State Department in Krakow, Poland.  I was 24 years old and didn’t think twice about whether it was a good idea or safe.  Communism had just ended and it was still the Wild East over there.  We’re not talking freshly-painted Prague with vendors selling tschotskes to backpackers on the Charles Bridge.  We drank our water bottled and our shots of potato vodka straight from the freezer.  Our phones, we were told, were likely still bugged, but there probably wasn’t anyone listening anymore.

For the next two-and-a-half-years, I made a life in that distant, unfamiliar part of the world.  Only thinking back now can I appreciate the many ways that my once in a lifetime experience changed me.  Here are just a few of the lessons I carry with me still:

How to be alone.  In Poland, I lived out in the country.  My neighbors had cows and chickens and I often heard horse hoofs clopping against the pavement as the farmers went to market early in the morning.  There were no cellphones or internet.  Sometimes I filled my government-issued house with Peace Corps volunteers in need of a hot shower and some television.  Other times, I was by myself and might not speak to anyone else for days.  It’s a kind of solitude that helped my writer mind to grow (and in the beloved chaos of our connected lives and the noise of three preschoolers, something I often miss.)

Just go.  “Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too.” I had not read Dr. Seuss’ And Oh The Places You’ll Go when I went abroad.  But I traveled like a madwoman when I was in Poland.  Having already seen most of Western Europe as a student backpacker, I was determined to go in the other direction, east, and borrowing from Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, to see the frontier before it was gone.  I hopped a train from Krakow to Odessa (24 hours, no dining car) went as far toward the Balkans as the war would permit, traveled to Pinsk (not surprisingly, there was no guide book.)  I drove my car so far I reached a sign telling me that I had reached the end of Poland and had to turn back.  And I was rewarded with the stories and adventures of a lifetime:  I stood on mountains and gazed down on other countries and saw people smuggling vodka in the walls of trains and under their clothes.  I drank beer out of great steins with the Solidarity miners hundreds of feet underground while we linked arms and sang hearty songs, and once in Gdansk accidentally stowed away on a ship carrying a bunch of highschoolers to a place called Hel.  I also became really good at figuring out how to get back from anywhere.

Appreciation for the abundance.  Even as a diplomat, life was harder in Eastern Europe.  We couldn’t get many vegetables in winter, and when they were available we wondered what being downwind from Chernobyl had done to the soil.  Medical supplies were scarce: the doctor who made house calls would ask for a kitchen spoon because he did not have a tongue depressor, and I had to ask for the lead apron before my x-ray.  It made me realize how much we have here and take for granted.  Once I came back to America when my mom was in the hospital and was horrified that my doctor brother blew up a rubber glove as a chicken to amuse her.  Didn’t he know that medical supplies were precious?

And then it was time to come home.  It was been sixteen years since I returned the United States, and while I have very much reentered “normal life” so many of the effects remain.  Having weathered winters that lasted October until May, I’m seldom cold.  And I still appreciate the value of a good produce department in the supermarket, and the taste of fountain Coke with ice.

But perhaps what stayed with me most were the friendships.  So many people opened their homes and hearts to me and I will forever remember their warmth and generosity.  And humor.  Earlier this spring, I popped onto Facebook to find that the U.S. Consulate Krakow had a posting about one of my books being filmed as a movie in Krakow.  I was puzzled (and alarmed): I had not even sold the film rights.  I picked up the phone and called the consulate and spoke with a former colleague, Basia, for the first time since leaving many years earlier.  I asked about the film posting.  She said, “April Fools!”  After all those years, they still remembered enough to punk me.  I was touched.

Where have you been abroad and how have those experiences changed you?

DEBS: I found so many similarities between Pam's experiences and my own traveling and then living in the UK. (Ask me about nylon sheets and coin-fed heaters, for starters...) And I brought home many of the same lessons as Pam.  

What about you, REDS and readers? Tell us your stories!