Saturday, October 21, 2017

Do You Heart New York?

If It’s Not Manhattan, What Makes It New York?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: If you missed Bouchercon--or attended and are now missing it--Jungle Reds has the solution!
Here's a crime panel of our very own--moderated by the fab Elizabeth Zelvin.
Liz is the editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best) (yay, Level Best!), a new anthology of crime and mystery short stories by members of the New York/ Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. 

Grab some coffee, pull up a chair, and listen in to these terrific authors. And hey, you don;t even need to wear your name badge. 

Liz: First, I’d like to say that I chose these particular authors from the anthology to represent the broadest possible perspective. Triss and Stephanie set their stories in two very different parts of Brooklyn. Anita’s story, told through the eyes of a child, takes place at the beach at the edge of Queens. Lindsay’s story is set in the heart of midtown Manhattan, but her characters have Brooklyn roots. Rona’s roam the streets like predators on the hunt and are not attached to any one place. So let’s hear what they have to say about how they chose to interpret the concept of “writing about New York.” First, tell us briefly about the settings of your stories.

Triss Stein: “Legends of Brooklyn” is set in Brooklyn Heights, with the Brooklyn Bridge an important part of the story.

Stephanie : My setting is Coney Island, Brooklyn, a place that has long been famous for wooden roller coasters, Ferris wheels, Nathan’s hot dogs, the Boardwalk, and the beach. A place where families went to escape the summer heat before air conditioning became pervasive. But it is also a place that fell on hard times subsequently, with high crime and gangs and drugs, and is only fairly recently having a terrific revival.

Anita Page: “The Cousins” is set in Rockaway Beach, Queens, in the mid-1940s, a neighborhood of small bungalows on long streets that run down to the boardwalk and the beach.

Rona Gofstein: “Prey of New York” is set largely in Manhattan, seen through the eyes of more than one generation. The story takes place not only in the places we all know—the bridges, Fort Washington, the Metropolitan Museum—but in the travel between all these places, which is, I think, what tourist and resident alike relate to and remember.

Liz: Lindsay, you threw enough Manhattan icons into “I Gotta Be Me” to balance a heavy dose of Brooklyn. Tell us about that.

Lindsay Curcio: I chose some of my favorite parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Radio talk show host Johnny Monroe broadcasts from a studio at the Hotel Pennsylvania and goes to sporting events at Madison Square Garden. Johnny and Stein meet at Rudy’s bar on Ninth Avenue in the 40s.

Liz: In fashionable Hell’s Kitchen!

Lindsay Curcio: Rudy’s markets itself as a dive bar, and it does not disappoint. Everyone goes there!
Johnny lives in Tribeca. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn also figures into the story, and it has always been a neighborhood with a lot of diversity and immigrant history.

Liz: Do you have a personal connection to this setting?

Lindsay: These parts of the city are areas in where I spend most of my time living and working and places I make sure to show all visitors to New York.

Liz: How about you, Rona?  

Rona: I remember that in my first job in lower Manhattan, the tourists would lean down from the buses and take pictures of people like me. We were the attraction, objects to be pointed at. That dichotomy between what is real and what is remembered, what is owned and what is coveted, is an endless setting for crime fiction, I believe.

Liz: And you, Stephanie? Were you “writing what you know”?

Stephanie : Definitely. My family was one of the families that went to Coney Island to beat the heat, enjoy the rides, and make sand castles on the beach. And I had a childhood friend who lived there, which is part of the theme of my story.

Anita: My extended family, like so many others in those years before air conditioning, rented bungalows in Rockaway to escape the heat. For kids it was heaven, with the freedom to run outside and play that we didn’t have in Brooklyn.

Rona: One of my first memories was the long car ride from Western New York. My brother and I would sleep for hours in the back seat and wake up on the FDR, setting eyes on the clipper ship in the South Street Seaport. It is a memory we share, as though the visits to grandparents were also a trip back in time. I hoped to weave that sense of memory and time into this story.

Liz: Triss, what made you choose Brooklyn Heights?

Triss: My work-in-progress is set in Brooklyn Heights, and—as always—I found more fascinating stories than I could include in that plot. I do live in Brooklyn, and all my books take place in various Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Liz: What’s your definition of “New York” as a geographical location? When is a place “in New York” or a person “from New York”?

Anita: My definition of New York is the five boroughs. I was born in Brooklyn and lived in various parts of Queens until I was a young adult, but it’s been so long since I lived in the city that I now say I’m from the Mid-Hudson Valley.

Triss: I agree. The five  boroughs are New York. You can’t say “I am a New Yorker” if you have lived in New Jersey for thirty years. Yes, I met someone who said exactly that!  You also can’t say you are a native New Yorker if you didn’t grow up here. I didn’t. My kids did. It is different. But you can become a New Yorker, and the city is full of people who found their true home here. Maybe you’re a New Yorker when you have  mastered the subway system.

Lindsay: I’m from Chicago and moved to New York more than twenty years ago. I don’t think a person has to be originally from New York to be a New Yorker. New Yorkers are kind, friendly, hard-working, loyal, and open to new experiences. Most importantly, they have a sense of humor. I know that may not be what those from outside of New York think, but that has been my experience.

Stephanie : I believe that anyone who grew up in any of the boroughs is a native New Yorker. But I also have a more specific definition regarding what I call the B boroughs. That would be Brooklyn and the Bronx. They, along with Manhattan, feel more authentic to me. That is partly because Staten Island was physically connected only to New Jersey until 1964 when the Verrazano Bridge was built. They even voted in a referendum to leave the city within my lifetime. And then there is Queens. I always thought that the natives there wished they actually lived on Long Island.

Liz: Oh, those are fighting words! I grew up in Queens, but I was born in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, I went to dancing lessons in Manhattan as soon as I was old enough to put a subway token in the slot and cello lessons after that, and in high school, I spent my Saturdays at the Museum of Modern Art and my Sundays hanging out in Washington Square listening to folk music. Pre-Dylan, pre-drugs. Pre-exorbitant fee to get into MoMA. It was all free. You bet I’m a native New Yorker!

Stephanie : Also, a real New Yorker will root for either the Mets or the Yankees.

Liz: Yankees all the way. The Mets didn’t exist when I was a kid. Rona, how about you?

Rona: While New York is one of the world’s great cities, it is also, I believe, a mental and emotional space owned by all. It is a place that pulls people to it, generation after generation, to pursue a better life. The layers of achievement and disaster intermingle everywhere—to me that is the essence of New York and its everlasting meaning. I once helped organize a New York art show in a bank branch. The artists were “outsider” artists—artists from institutions, living in New York and all self-taught. They were all given one subject, the Statue of Liberty. I often call those images to mind when writing: the Statue of Liberty as a witch, as a frightened woman, as a giant.  These artists are all New Yorkers, taking in the city and making it their own. Somewhere unsaid, this exhibit was an engine for this story.

Liz: In choosing the location for your story, how much attention did you pay to the requirement that it be a New York story? Were you comfortable with the parameters? Did you feel challenged by them in any way?

Rona Gofstein: The requirement that the story be a New York story was both a comfort and a challenge.  It was a lens in which to shift through and assess the endless locales and hopefully to lift the setting above the stereotypical. It is was a challenge to be sure that the setting did not fall into the dream of New York and not contain aspects of the real New York. That was one of the reasons I chose the image of the hawk. New York is a major birding area, and the fact that you can go up the Empire State Building and watch flocks of migrating birds is stunning to me. Like many other New Yorkers, I have not done it, but I know it is there. And the life forms swirling around us provided some energy for this story.

Anita Page: I did pay attention to the requirement that the story be set in New York City and involve a landmark. I interpreted that to mean a legally designated landmark rather than a tourist attraction.
I’d been thinking for a while about setting a story in Rockaway, and I hoped the area qualified as a historic landmark. As it turned out, three streets, Beach 24th, 25th, and 26th, had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Triss: I paid every attention to the requirement. That’s what started me thinking about the story. I felt comfortable with the parameters. I like writing stories to a theme.

Lindsay: I think “I Gotta Be Me” is a New York story not only in terms of location but for the general theme. It’s a fact that people come to New York to reinvent themselves.

Stephanie: The New York requirement was no  problem to me. There used to a TV show about New York, The Naked City, and the narrator started each episode with the concept that there are eight million stories in the naked city. Eight million stories should be enough for anyone.

Liz Curcio: So what about Manhattan vs Brooklyn? Is there genuine rivalry there?

Stephanie Wilson-Flaherty: Of course there is tension. Manhattan has the authentic postal code, New York. It is the original. So good they named it twice, as the famous song goes. When people from Brooklyn go to work or shop in Manhattan, they say they are heading for “the city.” Brooklyn was its own city and didn’t join in with the others until 1898. It has its own identity. Its own library system. We even had our own baseball team, once upon a time. At the end of the day, I would suspect that Manhattanites don’t think about Brooklynites much at all. And I suspect that Brooklynites get a lot of “Brooklyn” attitude from the immigrants, lots of whom originally came over the Brooklyn Bridge from the Lower East Side. So they kind of think the other guys are sort of rich social snobs. 

Rona Gofstein: In my family, this is a topic of constant discussion. To think that a previous generation landed in Brooklyn, and prosperity meant getting out—now that has reversed. Brooklyn is a destination, a new cauldron of creative endeavors. We are seeing a reversal that will be followed by a new reversal, which is part of the magic of New York.

Lindsay: When I moved to New York in 1994, I lived in south Brooklyn. It was affordable and the only place I could find a safe, clean apartment within the time frame I needed. Of course, my thought was: I’ll move to Manhattan next year. I loved Brooklyn so much I never left! It took a long time, but Brooklyn is a destination in itself, and now when I travel and say I’m from Brooklyn, everyone wants to know more about the borough.

Triss: I think it’s more legendary than true at this point. This has changed a lot in the time—several decades—I have been a Brooklynite by choice. Then, many people asked us, “Why Brooklyn???” with “of all places” implied. And I know several who did move here but felt it was proof of failure. Now they’re happy they made that move.

Liz: So Brooklyn doesn’t consider itself the underdog?

Triss: Not any more!

Liz: Does Manhattan consider Brooklyn the underdog?

Triss Stein: I am tempted to say—with learned Brooklyn attitude—“Who cares?” I am joking, of course. Sort of.

Anita: As a native New Yorker, I propose that the only significant interborough rivalry died when the traitor Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers out of Brooklyn.

Liz: Anita said earlier that she assumed our original call for submissions based on landmarks referred to officially designated historic landmarks. I have to admit that what I had in mind was actually attractions: monuments like the Brooklyn Bridge and events like the Marathon that draw thousands, millions of visitors to our city.

Lindsay: Oh boy, well, I thought that Rudy’s was a tourist attraction in addition to being a neighborhood bar!

Liz: I thought that the storytellers might murder some of those visitors, and that visitors might commit and solve the crimes. I found it fascinating and very cool that instead, our contributors chose to write about not visitors but New Yorkers. To us, the iconic places of New York, like Central Park and Carnegie Hall and the Bronx Zoo, are not attractions but where we go about our lives. So the theme of Where Crime Never Sleeps became the infinite variety of New Yorkers and the uniqueness of New Yorkishness. Our storytellers inspired it, so let’s ask them: In a nutshell, what makes a New Yorker a New Yorker?

Anita Page: I believe that a true New Yorker is someone who tolerates inconvenience, isn’t easily fooled, and appreciates diversity.

Triss Stein: One of the things I observed when I worked in many diverse Brooklyn neighborhoods: lots of people don’t describe themselves as New Yorkers or even as Brooklynites but as being from a neighborhood or even sub-neighborhood or project. “I’m from Brighton Beach. Sea Gate. Dycker Heights. Bensonhurst. Red Hook. Lewis Pink Houses. Walt Whitman Houses. Starrett City. Mill Basin.” Small towns in the midst of the big city.

Liz: I would hate to start the war again, especially if it’s been over since the Dodgers left Brooklyn, but that doesn’t happen in Manhattan. I can’t imagine telling a stranger on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, “I’m from the Upper West Side.” I’m a New Yorker!

Stephanie Curcio: There’s a famous cartoon cover of the world from The New Yorker magazine. Most of the drawing’s real estate shows Manhattan, then jumps west to mention the Hudson River and “Jersey” and then gives a few inches for the rest of the US before giving an inch or so for the Pacific Ocean, China, Japan, and Russia. I know a lot about this New Yorker-centric view of the world because I have a copy of the cartoon on my living room wall. If you live in New York and that is your view of the world, even if you live in Staten Island or Queens, then you are a New Yorker. 

Rona: I recall a very specific moment when I believe I spotted a real New Yorker. A black van pulled up to a Lexington Avenue subway stop. Twenty men clothed in black got out, with Homeland Security stamped on their backs and weapons in each arm. They circled up at the entrance to the subway, listening to their commanding officer. A New Yorker with a suitcase came up to one of the Homeland Security officers and tapped him on the back. “Excuse me, is the Number 6 running on time?” This is the exuberance and confidence of a New Yorker.   

HANK: So Reds, what do you think makes a New Yorker? Do you heart New York?

Lindsay A. Curcio, author of “I Gotta Be Me” in Where Crime Never Sleeps, is a writer and an immigration lawyer living in Brooklyn and Niagara Falls, New York (where she can see Canada from her window). She loves the intersection of immigration law and pop culture. Her short story, “We All Have Baggage,” was included in the previous Murder New York Style anthology, Family Matters.

Triss Stein, author of “Legends of Brooklyn” in Where Crime Never Sleeps, is the author of the new mystery Brooklyn Wars, described in Publishers Weekly as “a colorful tale of love, loss, greed and murder” and three other mysteries in the Erica Donato series about Brooklyn neighborhoods, in which the historian heroine investigates both old and modern secrets. Triss had stories in all three previous Murder New York Style anthologies. 

Elizabeth Zelvin, editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps and author of “Death Will Finish Your Marathon” in the anthology, is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and been nominated three times for the Agatha and twice for the Derringer Award. Visit her at and on Facebook.

Anita Page is the author of “The Cousins” in Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her short stories have appeared in webzines and anthologies including the MWA anthology The Prosecution Rests and Level Best’s Windward. She is a Derringer Award recipient, authored the novel Damned If You Don’t, and edited the anthology Family Matters. She reviews classic crime films for Mysterical-E and blogs at

Stephanie Wilson-Flaherty is the author of “Murder in Coney Island” in Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her short stories have made the finals in RWA’s Golden Heart contest; earned a four-star review from RT Book Review; been published in three of the Murder New York Style anthologies; and been listed among the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in Best American Mystery Stories 2015, edited by James Patterson and Otto Penzler.

Rona Bell, author of “Prey of New York” in Where Crime Never Sleeps, is the pen name of a New York business executive who has published (under other pen names) in the North American Review, the Akashic Books Mondays are Murder series, as well as such publications as The New York Times and Washington Post. An essay on wartime and crime fiction appears in the current issue of Mystery Readers International.

Friday, October 20, 2017


RHYS: I have a confession to make. I hum. Quietly, to myself, a lot of the time. I didn’t realize I did it until my children pointed it out to me years ago. Now I’m conscious that I’m doing it. Sometimes it’s a tune I’ve heard recently that becomes an earworm, stuck in my head. Other times I have no idea what I’m humming or why. And the interesting thing is that when I stop and ask myself why I’m humming a particular tune, I’ve come to realize there is always a psychological connection or some kind of word association connection to something that has happened or been discussed.
I think it’s my way of stopping my brain from thinking about things too much. When I’m stressed, I hum. I have to stop myself from humming when I walk through airports, or I get strange looks. When I’m writing a book and my brain is hyper-creativity mode and I want to take a break I hum too. Because the thoughts don’t whirl around my head as much when I hum.

My father was a whistler. You'd always hear him coming by the whistle. My son-in-law ditto. John dislikes this so much that my son-in-law made a CD for him one Christmas called The Royal Family Whistles the Classics. The numbers were all whistled by Tom including "I'm Dreaming of a Different Son-in-Law, Son-in-Law is Coming into Town" etc. We still have it!

So, fellow Reds, do you hum, whistle, have a tune in your head that won’t go away? Have a default tune that hums around inside your skull when you are stressed. My current one is Puff the Magic Dragon. Don’t ask me why. I can’t analyze that one.

HANK: I just burst out laughing! I don't hum, but there is often a song in my head, and I agree, it comes from somewhere. And it's fun to figure out where. Puff, for instance. Anyone you know live by the sea? And it's autumn, right? Anyone bring you string, or sealing wax, or other fancy stuff.
And thanks a lot , sister, now that song is in my head. And I know exactly where it came from.
(Sidebar: I'm told that if you have a song in your head--called an "earworm," by the way--you can get rid of it by singling Jingle Bell Rock.) (And, they say, Jingle Bell Rock does not replace it.)
Worth a try.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, that is so funny! I don't hum, and I can't whistle (one of my many failings.) I do occasionally get a song stuck in my head, especially when Rick is learning something on the guitar and plays it over and over, lol. And, Hank, if Puff the Magic Dragon wasn't enough, you started me on a Joni Mitchell earworm (it was the sealing wax...) so now I'm going to try Jingle Bell Rock. Which I hate. If that sticks I will never forgive you.

LUCY BURDETTE: I am not trying the Jingle Bell thing--the cost could be too dear! I don't hum, but I do sing. Mostly to my animals. The song in my brain today goes like this: T-T-Tonka, beautiful Tonka. You're the only d-d-dog that I adore....

HALLIE EPHRON: I am not a hummer, mostly because I'm so off key I make myself cringe. When I sang my daughter a lullaby she'd ask me to stop. I do sing along with the radio, turning the radio up loud enough so I can't hear myself. And I get tunes stuck in my head all the time. Like the music that goes with the opening titles of NCIS? Aaaggggh.

JENN McKINLAY: Hummer, here! Hub and the Hooligans say I have my own top 40 countdown which includes Me & Bobby McGee, Someone Like You, Redbone, and Love Like a Bomb, just to name a few. I also sing and whistle and had no idea I was doing any of it until my men clued me in. Thankfully, they just ask me to turn it down instead of asking me to stop. LOL.

INGRID THOFT: I do not hum, and honestly, it drives me nuts if someone around me is humming.  Or whistling.  I'm like Debs in that I can't whistle.  It's part of the family lore that if you ask me to whistle a tune, one long, dissonant sound will come out of my mouth.  Interestingly enough, I actually have a decent singing voice and can carry a tune, but it doesn't translate to whistling.  My hubby is the worst when it comes to ear worms.  He'll often say, "you know what song I can't get out of my head?" and then proceed to sing a few lines, which lodge themselves in my brain.  The ear worm that reoccurs often?  "It's a Small World."  Ugh!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Ingrid, the penalty for lodging "It's a Small World" in someone's ear should be death. Swift death. I would drive you crazy, though, because I'm another hummingbird. The girls and I will often sit together of an evening: the Smithie reading, Youngest doing her homework, and me on my laptop. Humming. They ask me to stop, and I will...right up to the point where I lose awareness of "not humming" and begin again. I've caught myself humming while in an airplane, and I'm always embarrassed! What could be more obnoxious than being forced to listen to your seatmate humming the same three bars of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 over...and over...and over again.

Actually, I know something more annoying: the Sailor, who's been a percussionist since age 11, beats. He jiggles his leg, taps his foot, thumps his fingers on the table. At least with unwanted humming, you have the option of putting in earbuds and listening to your own music to escape. With percussion, you FEEL it.

RHYS: Julia, I'm with you. "It's a Small World" is the most earworm-likely song in the universe. When we took the kids to Disneyland when they were small that pesky song wouldn't leave my head for weeks, nay months!  But I'm not sure I want to try Jingle Bell Rock either. That wouldn't exactly induce a calm state of mind!

So readers and friends: who hums? Who whistles? Who hates it when others do?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Accidental Expert

RHYS BOWEN: The Accidental Expert

I was watching PBS a while ago when they showed two subsequent programs, one on Coco Chanel and one on Paris in the early 1900s. And I found myself adding my comments and corrections out loud to both programs because I knew more than they were telling. I wouldn’t have said I’m an expert on modern art or on Chanel, but it seems I have become one because they were both featured in my books. Coco Chanel played a role in my Royal Spyness book called Naughty in Nice and post-Impressionist Paris is the focus of my Molly Murphy book called City of Darkness and Light.

                Since I write historical novels it’s become very important to me to get everything right. After all my books take place in the first half of the Twentieth Century—there were newspapers for every day. There were photographs of every scene I need to describe. There were newsreels featuring famous people. So I have no excuse for getting anything wrong.
  I don’t know about you but if I find one detail that I know to be wrong in a book, that entire story loses validity for me. I no longer believe in those characters.  I have recently been asked to blurb books in which significant details about London or life in the early 1900s were wrong. A train from Yorkshire came into Victoria Station! I dropped the book hurriedly!

  I think it’s up to the writer to do her  homework properly and thoroughly, to make sure all the little details are right. For Molly Murphy, where the books are usually set in New York, this involves walking the streets Molly walked, noticing what she would have seen—is the Brooklyn Bridge visible from here? Have the leaves fallen from the trees in Washington Square in late October?  I have also acquired a large collection of photographs from the time and I can check what was on the billboard or what was the name above the tailor’s shop on a particular street. Not necessary maybe, but satisfying.

I love it when I get letters from people who grew up in New York City thanking me for bringing their childhood memories back to life. One woman said that she was born in Greenwich Village, as were her mother and grandmother and her grandmother used to buy bread at the same bakery on Greenwich Avenue as my characters. That made me feel really good--that all that research was worth it!

                What a wonderful extra bonus, as well as writing a story I enjoy, I am delving into areas I would never have explored… becoming an accidental expert.

                This has happened throughout my life. My husband became a sales manager of Air India. Suddenly we were called upon to host important Indians, give talks on India, even lead trips to India. We went there several times, covering the whole country from Kashmir down to Kerala.  We were patrons of an Indian dance school. We cooked Indian food. And all this was accidental. If he had instead taken a job with Air Finland I’d know all about reindeer and saunas.

                When I wrote In Farleigh Field I read numerous books on World War II, autobiographical accounts of working for M.I.5 and at Bletchley Park. Then I went to Bletchley Park and nosed around, asking questions.  When I write about the royal family in my Royal Spyness books I try to make them as accurate as possible so that anything they say is an opinion I know they actually expressed. I’ve read all the biographies. Been to all the palaces. You might say it’s fiction and it doesn’t matter, but it does.

                So a word of warning to writers: if you put something in your books you will be assumed to be an expert. If your sleuth breeds llamas, you will be asked to judge llama shows. If she bakes cupcakes (Jenn McKinlay) you will be asked for recipes. So don’t give your characters any skills or interests you’d absolutely hate in real life.  You will have to do a lot of reading and study, to make sure everything is right, because somewhere, someone in the world who is an expert on llamas or spinning will write to you and tell you what you have wrong!

                My latest research has been on Tuscany. I’ve set a book there, partly in WWII, partly later. I've just seen the cover: isn't it fab?
 I knew I wanted to write this book so I studied every detail from the making of olive oil to the mummified body of a saint in the church, to the parade on Corpus Christi Sunday  (which comes in the book).  And of course I had to study the food and wine in depth. In the name of research, you know.  We suffer for our art!  But the point is that settings only come to life through the little things—the smell of bread baking, the sound of a voice singing from an upstairs window, the scent of a particular flower on the breeze.  Now I’m itching to go back again. That vin santo was awfully good…. And my wish is to be granted. Next summer I ve been asked to repeat the writer's workshop in the Chianti region. Who wants to join me?  Details on my website:

So Reds—in what areas have you become accidental experts?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rhys Rants on Reviews.


Let me start by saying that I am not against bad reviews per se. If I see an occasional three star review for my Molly Murphy or Royal Spyness books I read it carefully and take it to heart. I know some people are annoyed by Queenie the maid. Others write that they adore Queenie. Obviously I can’t please everyone. But if someone writes that they didn’t think this book was up to the standard of the others and it got a bit boring in the middle, then I study that carefully. Did I have too long a period when nothing was happening? Did I end it too abruptly? And I remember that for future books.

However IN FARLEIGH FIELD has been a different matter. When you write a book that made it to #1 on Kindle and has more than 3000 reviews on Amazon, some of them are bound to be bad. Not only bad… very bad… downright insulting.

My favorite one star review to date is the one that said, “I’ve downloaded this book but I don’t like the look of the cover so I’m sure I won’t like it.  One star.”

Then there was another one star that said, “Didn’t download to my Kindle.”  And that is the fault of my writing?

Also because it’s advertised as a novel of WWII there are those (men, I suspect) who are furious when there isn’t an explosion with strewn body parts in the first few chapters. “This was juvenile,” they write. “A book for little kids.”  Actually no, I’d like to say, this is a book about a family coping with war. And about code breaking at Bletchley Park and spying for MI5. I don’t think most kids would be interested.

For those used to James Patterson style of three pages per chapter and someone dead at the end of each segment it may come across as boring. People converse. People have inner introspection. Not a single car chase. No torture.

Unfortunately Amazon and social media has given people the entitlement to say things they would never say to a person’s face. It makes them feel powerful to insult a successful author. It’s so horribly tempting to respond….

But of course I can’t respond. I mustn’t respond. The writer just has to swallow the stupidity and ignore it. The only time I was so tempted to hunt down the reviewer and strangle her with my bare hands was a review that said I knew nothing about the British upper class, nothing about the way they spoke. This did rile me, in fact my husband John (a member of the British upper class) was so upset that I had to restrain him from trying to find out who the person was and going to confront her. Because I married into a frightfully posh upper class English family. John’s grandmother was born at the stately home Sutton Place. The family still owns a couple of manor houses. John’s sister married into the leading Cornish family (you can see monuments to them wherever you go in Cornwall. This castle built by Sir Hannibal Vyvyan etc.) They still own Trelowarren, a lovely stately home.

So I have been among these people for fifty years now. And when I was first married John’s older relatives were young people in the thirties and forties. I know exactly how they spoke. I remember them telling me about the jokes they played on the butler.

It’s so unfair that the writer cannot answer back. But having seen what trolls can be like on social media it is wise to say silent and pretend I haven’t seen it. And I tell myself, “It’s just one person’s opinion. I don’t personally like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. I don’t like watching boxing. I’m not mad about James Patterson. But lots of other people are. And they are entitled to be.

I suppose the answer is not to read any reviews. Look what happened to Florence Foster Jenkins when she read a review. She died of a heart attack. But it is so tempting to scroll down that Amazon page and take a peek, and smile for the five stars that say “This was the best book ever” and remind myself that that review wasn’t true either!

So Reds how do you handle bad reviews? Readers, do you check out reviews before you buy a book? Do they matter?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rhys looks back on a Week of Extremes.

RHYS BOWEN: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times! That line has never been more true than this last week. In the middle of Sunday night I was awakened by a phone call from my daughter Jane. She was fleeing from the fires in Sonoma. Could she come to stay? Of course, I said and hurried to make up beds. Then she called again. Her neighbor has nowhere to go. Could they come too? Of course, I said and found more bedding. Jane and the girls arrived, Jane having fled with just her wedding album and no toothbrush!

 So I was soon hosting seven people and three dogs. Jane's husband Tom works at the Veteran's Home in the Napa Valley. He drove into work with flames on either side of him and had the task of making the decision when and how to evacuate over 1000 old and infirm veterans.

So you can see that the week started in stressful manner. We tried to get updates on the fire. There were rumors flying around. The whole of Glen Elen had burned, just north of my daughter's house and business. The fire was five percent contained. That meant 95 percent uncontained. Real horror stories started to come in. Granddaughter Lizzie's friend's house and winery burned down. Then another. Other friends fled for their lives and didn't know if their houses were standing or not. We heard that the fire fighters were making a stand on Jane's fire on Madrone Road. We looked on the map. Madrone Road was just a block north of the swim center she owns. And if the winds picked up again the firefighters wouldn't be able to make a stand anywhere.

I told them I was going to cancel Bouchercon and stay with them. Don't be silly, my daughter said. You can't stop the flames. You go and enjoy yourself. They insisted. I went, but enjoying myself was not easy. When I was actually on a panel or having a meal with my agent, editor or publicist I forgot to think for a while. The moment I was free the phone came out and I was searching for updates. Ten percent contained. Winds expected to pick up. Fell asleep exhausted and worried. Grabbed the phone first thing the next morning. No real news. No real progress. Another day of worry.

And in between the worry were moments of pure joy.
We Reds went to dinner at the Reds Wine Bar (where else?) and shared a lobster grilled cheese sandwich--delicious but sinful. We plotted our panel and laughed a lot. I had breakfast with Debs and Louise Penny and we laughed even more. Then the three of us sat on stage for a chat to a small audience......

There were publisher parties and time to hang out at the bar (for the others. I was in my room phoning home!) and on Saturday came our Jungle Reds game show. This time it was called Name That Red. A statement was read out about the life of one of us and we each claimed it was us. And it turned out we were darned good liars... including Red Lucy's description of her Olympic luge training and Ingrid claiming she had done ski jumping in Denmark (which happens to be one of the flattest countries in the world). I successfully fooled the audience several times, convincing them that I had had my teeth cleaned by a murdering dentist, that I had lived next to Jane Austen's house. And they didn't believe that I could have been a leading light in the theater in Conroe, Texas. True.

The audience laughed, shouted out and were awarded prizes. I don't know who had a better time, us or them. We even had to face a paparazzi onslaught before we started our panel!
So we left still basking in the glow and regretting that the Reds didn't have more time together. I suspect a Reds Retreat is in our future!

I arrived home to good news. The evacuation order had been lifted. Our family went home this evening to a house with power restored (but no TV. Howls of disbelief) Jane's swim club survived, with just a huge clean up needed: the pool was full of ash and leaves and stagnation from a week with no filtration. But her staff is coming in at seven in the morning and she hopes to open again on Wednesday to help restore normalcy to a stricken community. Alas there will be some people for whom life will not be normal again for years. I'm not sure what to do to help. They have more volunteers than they can use. More donated items than they can handle right now.

On long plane rides I had time to think and I wondered what I would take from an approaching fire: good jewelry? Precious photo albums. We have many antiques from John's family: Chinese plates, a Queen Anne desk, a crusader's sword. They'd all have to be left to burn. And I have a copy of each of my books. I couldn't take them either. So I think of all those poor people who left behind treasures and souvenirs that can never been replaced. Such a heartbreaking time.

And I wonder: : what would you save from an approaching fire?