Thursday, June 20, 2019

Rhys on Tips and Tipping

Thoughts on Service and Tipping

We are in the middle of an extended European trip and I’ve come to realize that anything we budget for travel gets multiplied by the amount of money we have to tip. We tip the taxi driver and while we are tipping him the bell boy has whisked our bags into a hotel and wants a tip to release them again to another bell boy who will carry them upstairs and want another tip.
I was horrified to read the amount we are supposed to tip on our upcoming river cruise. Twenty dollars a day EACH? You are serious? So actually the advertised cruise price is $300 more because I am paying part of your staff’s salary.  The same is true for waiters in the US. They are paid a ridiculously small amount because the restaurant owners know it will be made up with tips. Thus one feels obliged to tip, even if the service is so-so.

How I love it in France where tipping in restaurants is a thing of the past. Just rounding up a Euro or two is sufficient, also in Germany. But isn’t the whole purpose of tipping a reward for good service? Am I supposed to tip the surly waiter who, when asked by my husband what beers they carried, replied, “You can read the list on the back of the menu.” And it was a good restaurant, at an outdoor table, with just a candle at our table, making it impossible to read anything.

Another gripe I have is waiters treating me as if I’m one of their buddies. We once went to a very expensive restaurant for our anniversary—you know, the type where you have to book way in advance? We were placed at at table directly under the air-conditioning. We complained and were told this was the only table available and other diners had said they were too hot. Also the waitress referred to us as “You guys.” I don’t know about you, but when I go somewhere special I want to be treated as if I’m somewhere special.  I am not YOU GUYS. I am ma’am.
 A few weeks ago I was at Amazon headquarters and taken to a lovely restaurant by my editor and author team. We were greeted as if they’d been looking forward to seeing us. We were escorted to our table in the window.  We were talked through the menu, questions on preparation were answered.  Each dish arrived at the same time for all four of us, the maître de came to explain what we were eating. When we prepared to leave someone was standing with our coats ready for us to put on, AND our car was waiting outside the front door. NOW, that is service!  It made us feel special and appreciated and that is what one wants, isn’t it?
When my son was in drama school in New York he was also a waiter at a restaurant on Time Square. I went to eat there one night and watched him working a table. He was attentive, witty, funny. He made each dish sound fantastic and he recommended pairings of alcohol with each course. I’ m sure he made them spend more than they intended to, but they were having a really good time. He had turned it into an experience. Toward the end of the meal they looked across to me, having been told that I was his mother. “We love your son,” they said.  Since he was a musical theater major he would also serenade people on their anniversaries and special occasions. They loved that too.
So what about you? What are your feelings on tipping? Do you wish it was completely abolished and we paid a little extra up front?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

How Far Would YOU Go?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Talk about suspense and terror!  I met Lisa Barr at the auditions for the Jewish Book Festival. Do you know it? Authors travel to New York city, and they have exactly two minutes--I mean exactly, they will pretty much yank you away from the podium if you go too long--to pitch your book to an audience of representatives from temples across the country who MAY invite you to speak at their book groups. It's a fabulous series of events and I adored it, but wow. The auditions were terrifying.

(I almost went over because I forget to allow time for laughter. Word to the wise.)

Anyway, there as this gorgeous slinky woman sitting next to me and of course, we were instant BFF's because we were bonded by our  shared nervousness.  We've been pals ever since, and her newest book THE UNBREAKABLES is out this week!

We are so pleased to have the amazing Lisa Barr--check out that bio below!--with us today. And she is taking us into dangerous territory: breaking your personal brand!

From Historical Thriller to Sexy Beach Read: 
         Here’s Why I’m a Literary “Mutt" 
             by Lisa Barr

As a journalist for more than 25 years, I have covered everything from terrorism in the Middle East to Sex & Relationships (Yes, I did an actual story for a major newspaper on the “love muscle” – don’t ask). 

As an author, I went from writing award-winning historical fiction to penning a hardcore sexy beach read. And guess what, shhh … I’m thinking of jumping ship again. I just turned in a new manuscript to my agent, which is very suspenseful. 

In the publishing world, Genre Jumping is a cardinal sin. Your “brand” is your brand and it’s engraved in stone: You can’t write love stories if you’re a crime writer. You can’t write Sci-fi if your readers are expecting Erotica. You can’t write a war story if you’ve been named one of Goodreads top Romance writers. In other words, you’re locked in, and that key is tossed. 

I guess I’ve always been the girl who can’t sit still, who can’t be pinned down, who never takes No for answer. 

But here’s the thing … I’m not all over the place. There is a method to my madness; a thread running through all of my work. It comes down to this: How far would you go for your passion?

Crime writers give us bullets to the brain, romance writers focus on bullets to the heart. My take is that both tend to lead us to the very same place. Finding your passion is both the journey and the destination behind a really good character. 

In my first novel Fugitive Colors, a suspenseful tale of an artist’s revenge on the eve of WWII, passion drives all of my characters, who live in a world where a paintbrush is more lethal than a gun. One young artist steals art, another dies for his art, and another stands up for art at his own expense.

 In The Unbreakables, Sophie Bloom, my protagonist, loses her marriage, her besties, and her art. In a nutshell, she is living a passion-less life and has to go find herself once again. In my work-in-progress, a young journalist’s deepest passion is getting to the truth no matter the cost, nearly losing everything in the process. 

Passion: Would you die for it, kill for it, or stand up for it? This genre-jumper takes this theme, asks these questions, wherever she goes. As a novelist, I think like a journalist. Here’s how I recommend finding your characters’ raison d’etre. Let's go Old School:

Who: Your protagonist and minor characters all have a passion that drives him/her. What is it, and how does it intersect with the other characters? 

What: If passion is the carrot, what is the stick? What gets in the way of your characters’ passion? A problem arises … 

When: In love and war, timing is everything. Go strong, go fifth gear, make us feel that passion being taken away in a pivotal moment. Because later on, when they get it back, the reader will truly feel the impact.

Where: Where does all this action unfold? The setting must have a powerful pull for our characters. It, too, must feel sexy, enticing; a place where passion meets its environmental match.

Why: Is fighting for this passion worth a full book? Is it worth a reader’s time? Tell me through the character’s actions and thoughts why I should care? Why love/art/money/romance/power (name your passion) is worth 350 pages to get it back.

How: This is what makes or breaks your book. How is your protagonist going to get what she wants in the end? How much rope will you give her to get it?

I may be a mutt of a writer, but the one constant in everything I do – writing/parenting/wife-ing—is passion. How far will I go to get it? The distance, baby.

HANK: So agree--every day, I think: what what does my character want, and how far would they go to get it. But! In real life do I think that? My Mom used to say--"You will if you want to."

What's a moment where you did something you never thought you would--because you wanted something so much? How did that work out?

OR: Do you mind if your favorite author tries something new?

 Lisa Barr is the award-winning author of THE UNBREAKABLES (Harper) and the historical thriller FUGITIVE COLORS, a suspenseful tale of stolen art, love, lust, deception, and revenge on the eve of World War II. The novel won the Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY) gold medal for "Best Literary Fiction 2014" and first prize at the Hollywood Film Festival (Opus Magnum Discovery Award). 

In addition, Lisa has served as an editor for The Jerusalem Post, managing editor of Today’s Chicago Woman, managing editor of Moment magazine, and an editor/reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Among the highlights of her career, Lisa covered the famous handshake between the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and President Bill Clinton at the White House. Lisa is also the creator and editor of the popular parenting blog, GIRLilla Warfare . She has been featured on Good Morning America, Today, Fox & Friends, and the Australia morning news show Sunrise for her work as an author, journalist, and blogger. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three daughters (aka Drama Central). 


A delicious, sharp novel about a Chicago woman who jets off to France after her perfect marriage collapses, putting the broken pieces of herself back together while rediscovering her own joie de vivrea lust for life, art, and passion.

“Artful, feminist, and emotionally gripping. The Unbreakables is a remarkable tribute to a woman’s strength in the face of heartbreak and adversity.” 
                    — Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient

The worst birthday ever might just be the gift of a lifetime...

It’s Sophie Bloom’s forty-second birthday, and she’s ready for a night of celebration with Gabe, her longtime, devoted husband, and her two besties and their spouses. Dinner is served with a side of delicious gossip, including which North Grove residents were caught with their pants down on Ashley Madison after the secret on-line dating site for married and committed couples was hacked. Thirty-two million cheaters worldwide have been exposed...including Sophie’s “perfect” husband. To add insult to injury, she learns Gabe is the top cheater in their town.

Humiliated and directionless, Sophie jumps into the unknown and flees to France to meet up with her teenage daughter who is studying abroad and nursing her own heartbreak. After a brief visit to Paris, Sophie heads out to the artist enclave of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. There, for the first time in a long time, Sophie acknowledges her own desires—not her husband’s, not her daughter’s—and rediscovers her essence with painful honesty and humor, reawakening both her sensuality and ambitions as a sculptor.

As she sheds her past and travels the obstacle-filled off beaten path, Sophie Bloom is determined to blossom. Allowing her true self to emerge in the postcard beauty of Provence, Sophie must decide what is broken forever...and what it means to be truly unbreakable.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

But I love Him Anyway!


I know we’ve just celebrated Father’s Day and that has made me think fondly, but with some amusement about my husband John, to whom I’ve been married for over 50 years now.
His good points: he brings me a cup of tea in bed in the mornings. Much appreciated.
He does all the grocery shopping.
He makes sure the household bills are paid.
He is good with money.
He is generous, if a little lacking in imagination. He has bought me some lovely pieces of jewelry, when he sees something he thinks I’ll like. On the other hand, when I told him to surprise me one Christmas I got a biography of Winston Churchill! No, he would never think of buying clothing or bath products.
And he is first reader and editor of all my books. He is ruthless in his criticism resulting in many fights but I do take many of his suggestions.

But he does have his quirks:
He is fanatical about the dishwasher. No matter how I stack things, he goes in and rearranges everything. Oh, and he washes everything before he puts it into the dishwasher. 

He is always losing things and blaming me. “Where’s my pen? Did you use it?” And I say, “It’s right there, on the table, in front of you.” And he’s says, “Oh.”
This is not new. The kids once wrote a skit in which he comes into the room at Christmas time and asks, “Where did you put the Christmas tree?”

He is going deaf and will not admit it. I was telling him that he needed an online vault for his passwords. What sort of fault? He asked. Sigh.  Apparently I whisper, look away when I speak, drop my voice at the end of sentences and mumble. Does this sound familiar to other wives?  I keep trying to convince him that hearing aids these days do not just magnify all sounds but can be tuned to the frequencies he has lost.

And lastly it is my belief that old men should never be allowed anywhere near technology. You should see him with Alexa.
“Alexa, do you think you could find that Benny Goodman number that goes like this…”
When she says “I’m sorry, did you mean…”
He goes on, “So there is some woman singing and…”
Eventually Alexa goes silent in despair.
John: That darned thing just doesn’t work properly.

The same with Siri. We had to come off the freeway so he could find a bathroom. Yes, old men need to do that too. We could not find out how to get back onto the freeway. I was driving. I told him to ask Siri.
John: Siri, we came off the freeway to take a pee and now we can’t…

When we used to use a GPS we were driving in Phoenix (which is a no-brainer. All streets either go North south or east west. GPS, whom we had called Mildred, said Take Bell Road exit. John always liked to take Greenway. Mildred didn’t like this.
Recalculating: Turn right at 39thStreet.
He kept going.
Recalculating, Turn right at 38thStreet.
He kept going
Recalculating: Turn right at 37thStreet.
Me: for God’s sake turn it off.
John: She has to learn!
Me: LOUDLY. She’s a computer. She can’t learn!

But I love him anyway.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Because My Mother Said So!

RHYS BOWEN: By the time you read this I will have made several flights, two long train journeys and a cruise. When I get on the plane the first thing I do is to order a BGA, otherwise known as a Brandy Ginger Ale. (actually it’s really cognac, but it’s called BGA)  It was a favorite drink back in the good old days of the Colonies when expat Brits traveled out to far flung places. I have taken to ordering one when I fly because of  my mother. She said that when she crossed the Channel the first thing she did was to go down to the bar, order a BGA, and she was never sea-sick, however rough the sea was. So I have followed her example and I’ve never been sea-sick or air-sick either I have to confess there have been a couple of times, especially in the earlier days of flying, when I came close. When we bucked and dived and shook around in a storm and it seemed to go on for ever. At least on a ship you can go up on deck and look at the skyline. On a plane you can’t see it coming to prepare yourself.
I know all the advice says that one should stay away from alcohol on a flight but I ignore this. I was also raised with the mantra that you gave brandy for shock. This has now also been totally discredited. No alcohol when the system is already stressed.

I wonder how many other old fashioned remedies, old wives tales, old family customs we still adhere to? A while ago when John burned himself and I told him to plunge his hand into ice water he said, “Can’t I just rub butter on it? My mother always used to do that.”
I replied that butter would be fine if he wanted to fry and egg on it. But it would do nothing to stop the burn from going on burning. So I’m interested in hearing from the other Reds about things they do because of their mothers or fathers. Things that have since been discredited or frowned upon. Or are completely and utterly wrong?  Do they work anyway?

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm ordering a BGA on my next flight. Sounds better than a valium.

My mother always threw spilled salt over her shoulder. I know, just a superstition. And if I coughed or choked on something I had to raise my arms. And hold my breath and count to ten to stop the hiccups. And stay out of the water for an hour after eating lunch or I'd get a cramp and drown. All bunk, right? Putting ammonia on a bee sting does work, however.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: OOh. I can hear her voice every day. When cleaning the kitchen, you have to wipe off all horizontal surfaces. NEVER cut your own hair. The pictures in magazines are not what real people are supposed to look like. It doesn't matter what size it is, just so it fits.  Hmm. But superstitions? Or remedies? Now I am realizing she didn't have any superstitions or remedies. Well, putting a potato in the soup soaks up the excess salt. but that actually works. But basically, her rules were more like "Never wear a color not found in nature." 
My stepfather once looked at me like I was crazy when I put a hat on a bed. He said--take that hat off he bed! And I said--wow, are you superstitious? And he said: Of course not. But hats don't belong on beds.

JENN McKINLAY: Hallie, I absolutely remember my parents saying, "So big" when we were little kids and having us raise our arms up if we were choking. Not sure why we said, "So big" but I'm sure it made sense to them. The world has changed so much since I was a kid and both of my parents embraced the internet so the quirky home remedies, like baking soda paste on bug bites and stuff like that, have gone by the way side. Now, if something comes up my mom would respond with, "There has to be a better way. I'm going to Google that." Progress?

LUCY BURDETTE: Yes we did the salt thing too, and waiting a half hour after lunch before going into the ocean. I think Googling instead of listening to our mothers is a little sad though, right? Though the main advice I remember from my mom was: "Don't lie down on a blanket with a boy."

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Lucy, your mom's advice was probably the best:-) My mom was not superstitious, no throwing salt or avoiding ladders, etc. But she was big on wearing neutrals (maybe they are colors found in nature??) and believed that you should only paint walls white, because it went with everything.  Neither of those things stuck. Her hiccup remedy, however, I still swear by. You have someone hold your ears closed while you drink as much water as you can manage without taking a breath. Never fails!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Lucy, my mother's version of the blanket was, "The best form of birth control is an aspirin, held tightly between your knees." Not advice I passed down to my kids. On the other hand, baking soda paste for a bee sting really does work! I always made it for my kids.I doubt it "draws out the sting" but it definitely soothes the area. For most home remedies, I think of my grandmother, who always had a small bottle of blackberry brandy for medicinal purposes and used to rub it on teething babies' gums. Must have been before Ambusol. My mother believed in fresh air daily for children, that "Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels," and that a little Coca Cola was the best thing for an upset stomach. Can you tell she spent a meaningful portion of her adult life in the south?

RHYS: I must remember the hiccup advise, Debs. And I also got the advice to stay out of the water for half an hour or you'll get cramps and drown!
What sort of things did your mothers tell you? Are they still relevant? Do they work?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Happy Father's Day!

HALLIE EPHRON: It's Father’s Day, so let’s talk about our dads.

Mine was a gifted and flawed creature.
A screenwriter who'd been president of his senior class at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. His father owned a rug store on Fordham Road, but it was his mother who saved the family from bankruptcy during the Great Depression because she'd been secretly investing in real estate.

He was the youngest of four brothers. The only one who went to college, he got himself thrown out of Cornell in In 1934 in his senior year for stealing books. He landed in Hell's Kitchen and talked his way into a job as assistant stage manager, met my mom, and talked her into writing a play with him which was produced on Broadway and led to them moving to Hollywood to write screenplays.

He was mercurial and charming. A storyteller who loved to take center stage. On the down-side, he was bipolar and alcoholic. You never knew, when you arrived at his NYC apartment and knocked, which version of him would answer the door.

And yet the one thing he got right was to make every one of us, his four daughters, feel loved. Adored. We were the cleverest, the funniest (even better), and the most adorable. It didn’t patch over his ‘issues,’ but it gave me resilience I needed to meet the inevitable road bumps in the real world.

Tell us about a dad in your life.

My father was a brilliant artist and a deeply troubled man. He was handsome and charming and a fabulous storyteller. He had a smile that lit up rooms and when he laughed at something I said, I felt like I was brilliant, too.

He was also angry and terrifying and hurtful and scared the bejeezus out of me on a regular basis. My relationship with him taught me about establishing boundaries and loving someone despite their flaws. He died three years ago and I miss him still.

As flawed as he was as a father, he was an excellent grandfather. As my oldest hooligan just said, "Pop pop taught me about second chances -- from the stories you've told me about who he was to the man he became that I knew and loved." I am ever grateful that my dad had that chance and that my boys remember him well.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My dad grew up on a cotton farm in Sulphur Springs, Texas, one of eight kids. He never finished school, but left the farm in his early teens and came to Dallas to find work. He adored his youngest sister, but otherwise did everything he could to distance himself from his family and his background.

He worked three jobs during the depression, started his own business, married, divorced, then married my mom when he was forty-four and she was twenty. They adored each other for the rest of their lives.

He had a creative streak--he always wrote his own advertising for his businesses--loved to read, and was incredibly proud of me. I think if he'd had the education he could have done so much more. He was quiet, kind, incredibly generous, and also suffered from depression, which he never spoke about. Interesting and complicated, my  dad. He died in 2004 at 96. I still miss him.

My dad was a metallurgical engineer and devoted father and husband. He went to the University of Michigan and left in the middle of college to sign up for the army to fight the Germans. I think that those years he was in Europe with his 1057 engineer cor​ps​ ​were the most meaningful in his entire life.

He loved camping and teaching and supporting us four kids, and he put up with the menagerie of animals that my mother encouraged.  I suppose his fatal flaw was that he simply could not be alone.

After my mother died too young, he was married fo​u​r more times. He would tell you that th​ree​ of his five  wives died before he did, and therefore he should not be​ held​ accountable for those marriages ending! The other two I think he fled into in order to escape the inevitable loneliness that comes after losing a spouse.

Even as diminished as he was in an assisted living at the end of his life, he asked me for the money to buy a diamond ring. He planned to propose to one of the caregivers he adored. He was funny and charming and I miss him terribly!​ ​And PS, my sister Susan Cerulean has written a memoir about caring for him at the end of his life. It will be out next spring and I will make sure she comes here to talk about it. It’s a wonderful book!

Rhys Bowen:
My dad was a lovely man. Really kind and generous. He had dreamed of being a doctor but had to leave school to support his mother after his father died when my dad was a child. He had an aptitude for everything mechanical, landed a job in a paper factory and went on to run the place.

He also studied at night to pass his engineering professional certification. When WWII came he went to volunteer, even though he was in a protected occupation and spent four years in Egypt and then Palestine. Although there were battles and obvious hardships I believe he looked back on the time fondly, enjoying the camaraderie and makeshift sports. He was a really good athlete and had played soccer for junior London. I think his life was wistful thinking of what might have been.

He really wanted me to be the doctor he dreamed of being but alas I did not like the thought of all that blood. He would watch every medical program on TV, exclaiming in delight "Look, Margie. He's got the heart in his hands and it's still beating!"

My mum was the tough one. He was soft. And very proud of me, although he didn't like to show it. "IS that what you are wearing?" he'd ask with a grin when I was going out as a teenager.  When I was going to a party he'd ask what time it was over. If I said eleven o'clock he'd say "I'll be outside at ten thirty."  Daddy! I'd wail but he never wavered. 

He had a major heart attack when he was 60 but when he and my mother moved to Australia he perked up a lot, proud of his garden and taking long walks on the beach. Unfortunately his heart gave out when he was seventy five. I still miss him.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: My biological dad died a couple of years ago. He was the music critic for the Chicago Daily News when I was born, and as sensitive and talented and intelligent and intellectual as anyone could possibly be.
It was completely crazy--my mother always talked about this--that this thoughtful peaceful tolerant poetic person was drafted into the infantry for World War II, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was taken prisoner of war, and got the Purple Heart after he was released from prison camp by the Red Army at the end of the war.  He would never discuss it.

He taught me all about music, and poetry and  art and reading, and even though my parents were divorced when I was six, we still stayed in constant touch, and when he joined the foreign service and spent much of his life as a diplomat and  out of the country with a new family, (every one adorable), we still were close. He wrote two nonfiction books about American music, both published by University of Chicago press. And did a radio show on music for what turned into NPR.

I read one of his favorite poems at his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

My stepdad? Equally brilliant, but a tough and brusque corporate lawyer, who absolutely knew right from wrong, in every way, even philosophically, and would make sure you knew it too. If you dared to disagree with him, then you were simply wrong. Some of his favorite quotes were “what do you represent?” when I showed up in a too-short skirt. And “ It is a matter of supreme indifference to me” when we asked a question he didn’t have time for. He did not allow us to speak or interrupt during Perry Mason. Nothing we could do was good enough.

But he taught me to be inquisitive, and determined, and skeptical, and a persuasive speaker. And I am truly grateful for that.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: My birth father was a USAF pilot who died in a plane crash when I was only six months old. Some thirteen years and one bad marriage later, my mom renewed her acquaintance with her college boyfriend (also USAF) who had recently been divorced. Shortly after they wed in 1976, he adopted me, one of the great events of my life.

After losing my mom last year, I'm increasingly aware of how lucky I am to still have my dad around. He's a quirky guy - a brilliant engineering type who never met anything he couldn't fix who lives on take-out and restaurant food now my mom's not around to cook for him. He's very introverted, but was the calm center of a blended family of eight kids. He's the old-fashioned kind of man who says what he means and stands by his promises, and although they were so different in many ways, Ross had that quality too, and it's one of the reasons I fell in love with him.

I think the great gift my dad gave me, my brother and my sister was to show us, up close and personal, what a good man, a good father and a good husband looked like. Having kids myself now, I realize what an incredibly important role that is.

HALLIE: So on this Father's Day, who are the dad's in your life and how are you celebrating?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Tuscan flora, fauna, food, wine... and a cat on a leash

HALLIE EPHRON: A little more about my trip to Tuscany. The landscape, the flora, fauna, the food...

The vistas are spectacular. Just what you've come to expect from the art work and movies that feature the region. Fields of olive trees and vineyards stretching to the horizon, dotted with cypress trees and pink-stone buildings with terra-cotta tile roofs

Here's one of those roofs, close up from our hotel window.

I think those flowers (like miniature daisies) might be pink because of the color of the terra cotta tiles (like flamingos are pink because of the shrimp they eat.)

Lizards make their homes in the stone foundations.

There were flowers everywhere. Like us in New England they'd had a cool wet spring and now, with the sun shining, flowers were bursting open. Brilliant red poppies. Irises so hardy they were growing out of stone walls.  Flowering yellow broom. Amazing fragrant roses.

Birds! We were not disappointed. Here's a European Redstart, a new one for me. And a saucy European Blackbird, who struts about the lawn looking for grubs. It's got an orange eye ring, orange beak, orange feet, and a very loud and distinctive call.

Gelato! Every town has at least one gelateria and it's always delicious. This one is in San Gimignano -- Gelateria Dondoli -- which was actually named #1 in the world. I had a cup with lychee/rose and passion fruit. Sublime.

There are cats (and dogs) everywhere. This one seemed perfectly content to be walked on a leash, wearing a necktie, at the weekly farmer's market in Castellini in Chianti.

Art! Most of it's in the churches and the treasures are from the middle ages when Florence and Venice were arch enemies and competed in every venue. Here's a fresco in the main church in San Gimignano, demonstrating in graphic detail what awaits you if you misbehave.

And of course, the food and wine. Chianti Classico is the prince of wines in this region. We drank many glasses and I wish we'd brought home a bottle or two. 

They also make a rose, and there's a lovely white wine, Vernaccia, from San Gimignano. 

The antipasti tables are bounteous, the pasta sublime, and Tuscan steak, Oh my! One night four of us shared a T-bone steak, grilled and served rare with fried potatoes. 

Alora... we will be going back to Italy.

And a reminder, if you're interested in a week-long workshop next year with Ann Cleeves, visit Minerva Education.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Book clubs: Keziah Frost asks are you in one?

HALLIE EPHRON: These days I love talking to book clubs. I mean, these people who actually read my book! Such a precious thing.

Back in the day,  I was in a book club. These were serious readers and I slogged through a lot of books I'd never otherwise have read. As you might imagine, this was a good thing and a bad thing.
Inevitably, as I got busier and started writing and reviewing, there were too many books and too little time.

I've missed it, so it's fun to hear from Keziah Frost about the amazing book club she started. And, by the way, her new novel, Getting Rid of Mabel. Classify it as... read on, it's a great new category that I'll be looking for.

KEZIAH FROST: Book clubs seem to be everywhere now. While
they say this is an age of loneliness, it’s also an age of finding new ways to connect.

Like the literary salons of yore, book clubs create a gathering place for people who want to react with others to the latest “great read.” Each book club has its own personality, its own vibe, to suit the members of that particular group.

There are book clubs that don’t discuss the book and are more wine-focused. Others discuss the book-of-the-month in great depth.

About four years ago, I got an idea for a book club after reading Marie Kondo’s The Magical Art of Tidying Up.
I gathered all my 800 books in the living room, and I picked up each one, asking myself not “Is this a classic?” or “”Was this a gift?” or “Have I read this yet?”—but only the one clarifying question: “Does this spark joy?” By the end of the afternoon, I had 400 books going to Goodwill and 400 staying. I set the joy-sparking books in the book cases in new categories, giving one full shelf to novels in French.

I sat down to gaze at that shelf and felt the joy of seeing all those French novels side by side, and then asked myself: Why don’t I speak French more often, since French gives me joy? Why isn’t there a French book club around here? Why don’t I start one?

Four years later, our French book club is going strong, with six earnest members arriving at our monthly meeting with seriousness of purpose, copious notes, and a good store of wine, tea and biscuits.

I’ve visited several book clubs in my area to discuss my first novel, The Reluctant Fortune-Teller. It’s become one of my favorite author-ly things to do. There’s always a sense of warmth, often
excitement, and sometimes even hilarity. And it is a wonderful, surreal experience for me to hear readers animatedly talking about my characters as if they are real people. I love it, because they are real people (in a way) to me, too.

As my second novel, Getting Rid of Mabel, hits the bookstores, I am getting more invitations to visit book clubs in the coming months.
Those that are far away will be Skype visits. I’m looking forward to readers’ reflections and questions about Margaret Birch, eighty-seven years old, who learns to her horror that she has a double, a doppelganger, who has come to her town and is doing scandalous things. To add to the mayhem, a foster child “with behavior problems” is brought into the family circle. As Margaret and her friends deal with these two challenging strangers, comedy meshes with lessons learned.

Like The Reluctant Fortune-Teller, Getting Rid of Mabel is categorized as “up-lit.” Uplifting literature. Its purpose is to make the reader laugh, while also offering some things to think about.

And you, readers? What are your thoughts and experiences on book clubs?

And Reds, have you visited book clubs, and how does it feel to listen to readers discuss the characters who were born in your brain

HALLIE: UP-LIT! I love it!! And it's exactly what the world needs now, that's for sure.

Are you in a book club? Have you been? And... how do you decide which books to toss and which to keep?

About Getting Rid of Mabel:
Carlotta Moon, eighty-one years old, is the uncontested leader of Carlotta’s Club–and has been for as long as anyone can remember.
Her loyal followers have always obediently thrown themselves into every new scheme she has ever proposed. Her most recent project was turning Norbert, a retired accountant, into a reluctant fortune-teller. Her ideas for future adventures are limitless, as is her confidence that her Club will always follow her.
Enter Mabel Paine.

For the first time, Carlotta finds an unlikely yet worthy opponent in a bizarre infiltrator. A stranger who bears an uncanny likeness to Carlotta’s oldest friend Margaret comes to town and threatens to hijack their Club. To add to the chaos, Carlotta’s niece brings an angry foster child “with behavior problems” into the family circle. To cope with both newcomers, Carlotta must learn her life lessons about love and belonging.

Getting Rid of Mabel
follows the characters that first came to be in The Reluctant Fortune-Teller. Norbert Z is here again, playing a supporting role to his nemesis, Carlotta Moon.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Aimée Leduc's Paris, spycraft in Bel-Air

HALLIE EPHRON: A new Aimée Leduc mystery is the next best thing to a trip to Paris. I love the series, and today I'm thrilled to be hosting its delightful author Cara Black.

Cara, you’ve taken your readers on 19 adventures, each to a different part of Paris. I remember being blown away by your first,
Murder in the Marais, cheering books later when Aimée found herself pregnant and tracking a serial rapist in Pigalle. Loved her computer savvy and fearlessness, her fashion sense and Kohl eyes, and the way you interweave history into every story.

I know you’re touring now with
Aimée’s new adventure in Bel-Air. Not a tourist destination, or is it?

CARA BLACK: That’s right, Hallie, Bel-Air, in the 12th arrondissment is off the beaten track in Paris.

I’ve visited Paris often over the years and been so lucky to stay there due to the generosity and tolerance of my Parisian friends who’ve offered a couch, or a bedroom and sometimes an apartment in exchange for cat-sitting. One of these friends is Madame Gerbault, the mother of my French neighbor in San Francisco, who lives in Bel-Air and that her quiet, seemingly peaceful quartier had been the royal hunting grounds of the kings and site of the worst excesses of the Revolution ie the guillotine at Place de la Nation where 1,306 victims had been executed and their bodies dumped in a mass grave...literally, next door to her apartment.

I discovered that like everywhere in Paris, history is only below the surface. And that Madame Gerbault’s quartier was ripe for my story.

HALLIE: You took a huge leap when you got
Aimée pregnant and now she’s a single mother. But you’ve followed Raymond Chandler’s advice: “A really good detective never gets married.” But how complicated life is now for her with Chloé to worry about. And yet… that very thing becomes integral to the plot of your new book. Tell us about it.

CARA: Aimée is a single mother juggling her business - at the detective agency where she must earn the baguette and butter it too along with her responsibilites as a mother and her bébe Chloé her priority. Add to that Chloé’s biological father, Melac, a problematic relationship and her American mother Sydney, who’s popped back into her life (she’d abandoned Aimée when Aimée was eight years old) who never makes it easy. Aimée feels a push and pull with Melac since he’s Chloé’s father but knows him not to be ‘marriage’ material or is he...?

HALLIE: Ooh, I like that romantic tension!

In this book you take a deep dive into international spycraft and post-colonial Franco-African politics. Tell us about how you researched that.
CARA: My friend Laurence, a French journalist, went to live in the Cote d’Ivoire - Ivory Coast - a former French colony in Africa that had been the shining jewel in the necklace of France-Afrique as they called it. Cote d’Ivoire had a stable government and political scene, the French language, profitable chocolate trade, an easy access for the French on an exotic holiday but according to Laurence all was not rosy. This intrigued me and in 1999 when my story is set, a coup d’etat was in the works and the Cote d’Ivorian government overturned in a coup d’etat on Christmas day in 1999.

I researched with the help of Laurence, who sadly, died there in a plane crash last year. I also met French aid workers from UNICEF who’d been stationed in French Africa in the 90’s and a French military advisor (African division) to the UN who provided invaluable info and historical data. Of course, I’ve fictionalized certain elements and veiled some characters, but basically a lot of these events happened.

HALLIE: How does this book take
Aimée into uncharted territory, and where are you thinking she might go next?CARA: The world of espionage fascinates me - especially the female component and how talented women can be as spies. Blend-in, stand out and all shades in between doing undercover, right? From Mata Hari in WWI, to the many unsung SOE female operatives in WW2 occupied Europe, to the Cold War and present day. Aimée’s mother we learn, SPOILER, worked with the CIA and is a freelancer now, who embroils her daughter in her work involving the Cote d’Ivoire.

I think Aimée is wired - despite her fighting it - to be a great spy...that’s if she took the offer she gets. It was fun to play with this possibility, dangle it in front of her and I’m leaving that open ended...

HALLIE: ... and leaving US dangling!

If readers want to catch up with you on tour, where should they head?

CARA: As you read this I’ll be mid-tour and at the wonderful Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale AZ this evening. Then on to bookstores in the LA area; Mystery Ink, Chevalier’s Books, Vroman’s, Mysterious Galaxy then back east to NY, NC, and Houston and in July in DC with pal Sujata Massey. It’s all on at events and hope some of your readers can come by to help me celebrate 20 years of Aimée Leduc. I never knew when I began writing that I’d have a more than a twenty year intimate relationship with my fictional detective!

HALLIE: Readers and Reds, have you been to Paris or only experienced it through pictures? See anything that would inspire YOU to write a nice juicy crime novel?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Curtain up!! In praise of live theatre, even if it gives us nightmares

HALLIE EPHRON: The only awards show I watch is the Tony Awards. I find the theater completely magical--the curtain goes up and my neck prickles and I go into a trance. The awards show always lets you sample the first-run casts and see many of the nominees perform. And it's live, like a real Broadway show.

This year I was thrilled to see Elaine May, at 87!,  win a Tony for her role in "The Waverly Gallery." She graciously attributed part of her success in playing the family matriarch to "My family was played by everyone you've ever wanted to be on stage with."

Before Ali Stroker won the Tony for her role as Ado Annie in "Oklahoma" (the girl who cain't say no) she performed and brought down the house. No wonder she won! Never mind that she's in a wheelchair.

And I was delighted to see "The Ferryman"--the story of a family during The Troubles--which I remember Lucy had gone to see and raved about! "Hadestown" (best musical) is now on top of my list to see next time we're in NY.

As much as I love the theater, it's weird that a recurring nightmare I have is that I am IN a play and don't have a clue what my lines are.

We've seen several of these shows, though I did not watch the Tonys--The Waverly Gallery, The Ferryman, and Tootsie.

Broadway is an incredible splurge, but we love it enough to justify.
The talent, the music, the costumes! I am still raving about THE FERRYMAN--want all of you to see it! It's intense and dark, but brings the Irish troubles to life and all the actors were incredible. Elaine May was terrific in The Waverly Gallery, but it was a difficult play--not "fun." At all, though she had some funny lines. Alzheimer's=not fun. Tootsie: I was crazy about this movie, can remember lines and scenes so clearly. I worried that the show couldn't do as well. But the lead was fantastic--he transformed himself into a totally believable woman. Great music, great costumes, great dancing. Next up for us will be Ain't Too Proud this fall.

About being IN a play, only if I can stop and say "oh I forgot, give me a minute and it will come to me."

When I lived on the east coast, I went to see Broadway shows all the time. Fabulous! Like you, Hallie, I am completely under the spell of the performance. I love, love, love live theater. Being in AZ, we catch a lot of the touring shows when they come to ASU's Gammage theater. Hub and I try to go a couple of times a year. Our most recent favorite was Something Rotten. It really spoke to the writer in me and was witty and funny and smart. Delightful!

LOVE live theater. And such fun to see the Tonys. Jenn, Something Rotten is first on my list,  even though it's oldish. I love the songs, --"It's hard to be the Bard!" We should all just sing that every day.

(We just saw the pre-Broadway preview of the new Moulin Rouge--first act awesome, second act, not so much.)

Random thoughts: I wanted to be an actor in high school and college. Loved it. I sang I Cain't Say No  in a big audition once, and every time I hear it, it brings back that memory. (I always got the role of the character's best friend or the Rosalind Russell type.)

And for YEARS I had that "oh, no I don't know the lines" dream.
Often. And then, a about a year ago, I started to have it, and then in the dream, I said to myself--this is a dream. And it doesn't matter. And anyway, you can figure the lines out as you go, no problem. I never had the dream again.

I love the Tonys, watched most of the show but had to record the end as I was drooping. I thought it was a good show--why do the critics always have to complain about the awards shows? And Ali Stroker was fabulous.

I have to admit, however, that I have never seen a Broadway show. The West End, yes
, although not as many as I'd like. I'm always so busy doing book research and trying to squeeze everything in when I'm in London (or writing frantically) but next trip I'm determined to see something. The last thing I saw was one of the final shows of the final run of Billy Elliott--so glad I did! Live shows really are magical--and I loved James Corden's opening number on the Tony's!

No dreams about forgetting my lines on stage--I have enough trouble in real life!

HALLIE: Have you had a transporting theater experience? Ever been IN a play? And what about nightmares about unlearned lines?

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Hallie's back from Tuscany

HALLIEEPHRON: I’m just back from a ten days in Tuscany, teaching a writing workshop for MINERVA EDUCATION. Rhys taught there last year.

Here's me arriving at the Florence airport and being met by... just kidding, though I am at the airport.

Seriously, it’s a rare gift to get to work with a small group of writers long enough to really understand the book they’re trying to write, help them grapple with their story, and see the revisions they’re capable of. This group completely blew me away.
I look forward to hosting on Jungle Red each of them on Jungle Red when they publish their books.

Here are some of a few of my take-aways:

- Alora... this is my new favorite word. Italians use it to preface just about anything they're telling you. I think it's equivalent to "So..." which is my favorite crutch word. Saying it, they stretch out the middle syllable (alorrrrra). 

- Opening scenes are brutally difficult to write. There’s so much to establish (characters, setting, situation) for the rest of the novel to work, and yet… you have to capture the reader’s attention without bogging them down with information.

- Arcs are elusive. They're what presented these writers with the biggest challenge. It’s one thing to write a great sentence of paragraph or page. It’s the arcs that kill you—the changes that take place, the before/after. Related to this is the realization that “The king died and the queen died” is not a plot; “The king died and the queen died of grief” is. (Per E. M. Forster)

Every novel needs one major and several minor overarching arcs that stretch from beginning to end. Ever scene needs one. Every main character needs one. If you know what they are when you set out to write, then you’re lucky. For most of us it’s a voyage of (painful, laborious) discovery that involves writing and rewriting and rewriting again. I felt as if in the week we worked together, these writers found their arcs.

- Uniqueness is every writer's gift. Every writer’s story is uniquely their own, even when they’re writing fiction. In this group, if you spent 10 minutes with each of the writers and then read their pages, you’d have no trouble matching the person to the work. It’s what makes their work so special but it also makes it harder to “murder your darlings.” Every single writer in this group was up to that task.

- It’s easier to critique than it is to write. ‘Nuff said.

MINERVAEDUCATION is the 6-year-old brain child of Pier Raimondo Baldini and Cajsa Baldini. They’re both professors at Arizona State University. They are charming, amazing organizers and lovers of good writing. The workshops are based in the absolutely gorgeous Hotel Colle Etrusco Salivolpi (a so called agriturismo, a converted ancient farm house). We worked most days on this porch overlooking vineyards, an Etruscan tomb, and a valley that stretched to the horizon.

The hotel is walking distance from the delightful Castellina in Chianti, with charming restaurants, churches, shops and services. We made regular pilgrimages for gelati and leather goods. Meals most nights were at a restaurant just up the road where we all fell in love with pici al cacio e pepe—fat spaghetti-like local pasta that’s rolled by hand and perfectly coated with cheese and pepper. Simple. Delicious. It's what Italian food is all about.
Alora... next year, Cajsa and Piero have lined up Ann Cleeves to instruct. All I can say is, count your pennies and if you possibly can, sign up and sign up early. When they say small group they mean small.

Have you treated yourself to a working vacation? Where did you go and, looking back, what was your before/after arc?