Sunday, April 21, 2024

Pick Your Poison by Barbara Ross

 Jenn McKinlay: I'm delighted to be hosting one of Jungle Red Writers' favorite guests, the brilliant Barbara Ross, here to tell us all about her latest release. Take it away, Barb! 


Barbara Ross: Torn Asunder, the twelfth book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series, releases on Tuesday. I am so happy to be there with the Reds to celebrate! The Reds supported me for the release of my first book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, and for Clammed Up, the first book in this series. It’s kind of amazing that we are still all here together.

To celebrate the release, I’m giving away signed copies of Torn Asunder to two lucky commenters below.

Readers often ask me if I outline or “just write.” The answer I always give is, “A bit of both. I have to send a synopsis to my editor for approval before I begin writing so I have a general idea of where the book will go. But in truth, the synopsis is a hand wave. Once I’m actually drafting there are still so many decisions to be made, each one affecting the other.”

For example, a six-to-eight-page, single-spaced synopsis might refer to a character called, “the son-in-law.” But what is his name? What does he look like? How long have he and the daughter character been married, which will surely affect his relationships with her and the other relatives? Most of all, what kind of person is he? I know generally how he will move through the story, but not how he will react to the situations unfolding around him.

Another example is a synopsis that says, “So-and-so drinks a glass of brandy that has been poisoned.” You see the issues. What poison? How did it get in the brandy? Who had access to the glass and when? It’s a mystery so multiple characters must have been able to do the deed. And, always a tricky one, how did the poisoner make sure the target drank the poison instead of some other person? You get the picture.

I haven’t used poison much as a weapon in my cozy, culinary mysteries. There’s a cliché about poison being a woman’s weapon and a cliché about it being a cozy murder weapon. Those twin beliefs have kept me away from it, in a sort of reactive, rejection mode. Up until Torn Asunder, I had only used poison once, and that was in non-fatal way.

I don’t know exactly why I decided on poison as my murder weapon in Torn Asunder. It may have been because in the first eleven books I had never had someone die from a massive allergic reaction to shellfish, something someone who runs a clambake like my protagonist, Julia Snowden, would worry about all the time. But this was a murder, so I needed a poison that would look like an allergic reaction but would not be one and would not respond to treatment for one.

As I wrote, other conditions emerged. How would the poison be administered? How long would it take for symptoms to show? How long to die? As the portrait of the killer emerged, I had to figure out how a person in those circumstances would have gotten ahold of the poison.

Audio Edition

Luckily for me, I had a resource at hand, Luci Zahray, renowned in the mystery community as the Poison Lady. In a series of emails, I described the circumstances of my murder. Luci made suggestions. Through the first draft and revisions, more detailed questions emerged. I wrote more emails and go more answers. Luci was a fan of my series which made it fun for me and I hope fun for her. Others have sung Luci’s praises here. Truly, she is a wonderful resource. It takes a village to write a cozy mystery.

I’m sure I still got things wrong. If you have murder in mind, please don’t follow the directions in Torn Asunder. Your results will certainly vary. But gaining an understanding of my poison gave me confidence. And confidence is what makes good writing possible.

Readers: How do you feel about poison as a weapon? Over-done or not-nearly-done enough? Do you want the descriptions and uses of poison in a work of fiction to be accurate or is near enough, good enough to suspend disbelief? Answer the question below or just say hi to be entered to win the giveaway.

Barbara Ross is the author of twelve Maine Clambake Mystery novels and six novellas. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Barbara lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at 

About the book:
A short boat ride from Busman’s Harbor, Maine, Morrow Island is a perfect spot for a wedding—and a Snowden Family Clambake. Julia Snowden is busy organizing both—until a mysterious wedding crasher drops dead amid the festivities . . .

Julia’s best friend and business partner, Zoey, is about to marry her policeman boyfriend. Of course, a gorgeous white wedding dress shouldn’t be within fifty yards of a plate of buttery lobster—so that treat is reserved for the rehearsal dinner. Julia is a little worried about the timing, though, as she works around a predicted storm.

When a guest falls to the floor dead, it turns out that no one seems to know who he is, despite the fact that he’s been actively mingling and handing out business cards. And when an injection mark is spotted on his neck, it’s clear this wasn’t caused by a shellfish allergy. Now, as the weather deteriorates and a small group is stranded on the island with the body—and the killer—Julia starts interrogating staff, family members, and Zoey’s artist friends to find out who turned the clambake into a crime scene . . . 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Live Music and Rock Concerts by Jenn McKinlay

 JENN McKINLAY: Hub and I love going to concerts. He's a musician so it makes sense. Also, we're children of the 70's and 80's when concerts were events! Going to the show, getting the shirt, and wearing it to school the next day was a big freaking deal. Thus, my need to buy Springsteen's T-shirt a few weeks ago when we were lucky enough to catch him on his latest tour.

What do I love about concerts? The performance, for sure, but it's more than that. As Hub and I sat in our cheap two-kids-in college-seats, I chatted it up with the people around us--as you do. There were people in attendance who had seen the Boss over thirty times and they were now there with their grown children, making it a generational experience. I get the generational thing. My mom is a serious live music lover and concert goer and has seen everyone. I will likely never catch up to her.

There were also people from other states and even far away countries (Australia) who were following Springsteen on tour so after they caught him in Phoenix, they were following him to San Diego. No two shows are ever exactly the same, so I get it. 

Jenn and Hub (waving to our friend Paige Shelton who took this pic from the floor)

Steve Van Zant and Bruce Springsteen

One of the best concerts I ever attended was U2's Joshua Tree tour in the Hartford Coliseum with all of my college roommates. The crowd left the arena singing "And I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" all together and it was so powerful it made the hair on my arms stand up straight. 

Recently, Hub and I have seen Brian Setzer (Stray Cats) and the Gin Blossoms (Hub is in another band - Honeygirl - with one of them) and we had tickets to see Jimmie Vaughn but he had to postpone. This is mostly why we've been filling our empty nest days with concerts. It occurred to us that we're getting up there and our musical icons are, too. If we don't see them now, we might not get the chance.

We were lucky enough to see the Rolling Stones before Charlie Watts passed away, and it meant a lot to us to bring the Hooligans to that show as well as many others over the years -- such as ZZ Top at the Arizona State Fair (their first rock concert), Dead & Co (several times) and Guns N' Roses for H2's birthday when the band reunited. Also, I was delighted when they recently went to see Post Malone and had to buy the T-shirt. 

Full disclosure: I'm writing this on Wednesday, but on the day this posts, I will have just seen Phish in the Sphere in Las Vegas, assuming all goes well :) I'll be sure to report back in! 

So, what about you, Reds and Readers, are you a concert goer? What show made a lasting impression upon you? If you could see any rock band or musical artist (living or dead) in concert, who would it be? 

P.S. Okay, it's Friday and the Phish concert is tonight. This is the view of the Sphere from our room! Wild, huh?

Friday, April 19, 2024

The Shanghai Connection By Libby Fischer Hellmann

Libby Fischer Hellman: Hi, Reds. Wonderful to be back with you! Thanks for including me.

MAX’s WAR: The Story of a Ritchie Boy is my just-released historical thriller about a true but little known story from World War Two: the Ritchie Boys. They were a group of 2300 German Jews who escaped Hitler’s Germany, emigrated to the US, and joined the Army to fight the Nazis. 

As you can probably surmise, I did intense research on the time period. While doing so, I discovered even more stories that haven’t been widely told. One of those stories, which I included in the novel, follows. 

You know that during the Holocaust the Nazis tightened restrictions on Jews. Many Jewish families were desperate to flee Germany and the Occupied countries. But as restrictions for them at home mounted, so did restrictions in the countries willing to accept them. Quotas limited the number of immigrants Europe and America would accept. America was especially stingy. In 1938-1939, over 400,000 Jews applied to emigrate to America. Only 27,000 received visas. 

In MAX'S WAR Max’s German girlfriend, Renée, and her family were lucky. They capitalized on one of the only paths open to Jews—if they were prepared for a dramatic change. They emigrated to Shanghai, China.

Shanghai 1920's

Why escape to the other side of the world? The exodus was in large part made possible by a heroic Chinese diplomat in Austria, Feng-Shan Ho. Often called the “Chinese Schindler,” he risked his job by issuing thousands of visas to German and Austrian Jews.

The other stroke of luck for Jews was Shanghai’s reputation as an "open city." Much of it was controlled not by the Chinese but by foreign powers – including France, Britain, and the United States. Customs officials were “tolerant” of Europeans who flocked to the city, and often “neglected” to check passengers’ papers carefully. Altogether about 20,000 Jews fled to Shanghai, and most of them survived the war. 

Shanghai in the 1930s was the most sophisticated city in China, but life in the Far East was still a shock, as Renée “reports” in a letter to Max.

There are tall skyscrapers everywhere, and the harbor lies directly in front of them. But once you get ashore, there are hordes of people packed into small spaces. Rickshaws operated by young men pull people all over town. You can see the veins on their legs popping out. There is also a glut of bicycles but only a few autos. 

From a distance it looks very Western, with electric signs and buildings and trolley cars. But up close, I noticed that the streets are not well maintained, and the odor is insufferable. I gather there is little indoor plumbing unless one lives in an affluent neighborhood. There are a proliferation of stalls selling food and drink, but we wouldn’t think of eating anything off the street. 

Even so, they tell me Shanghai is truly an international city, the largest in China. It is responsible for over half the country’s imports and exports, and everyone here is in the business of making money. They call Shanghai the “Paris of the East, the New York of the West” because aside from legitimate trading, Shanghai is notorious as the center of criminal activity in China. Opium is a huge export, and some of the wealthiest Europeans here run those businesses.

While most Jews recognize the difference between Ashkenazi (Western European Jews) and Sephardic Jews (from the Middle East, Spain & Portugal), Renée discovers a branch of Sephardic Jews in Shanghai who were new to her.

A few weeks ago we were invited to Shabbos dinner by the Sassoons, who are probably the most prominent Jewish family here. They are Bagdadi Jews, a branch of Judaism I confess is new to me. They come mostly from Iraq, Basra, and Aleppo, and other Arabic-speaking parts of the Middle East. They’ve been in Shanghai for decades, and are extremely wealthy. The family does most of their trading with Britain, and they all speak English. They are so central to Shanghai’s wealth that no one would dare to impose any antisemitic decrees. So different than Germany. 

Renée’s father was a successful jeweler, and her parents found a home in the upscale neighborhood of Jefferson Park. They assimilated into Jewish life—Shanghai had its own synagogue, Ohel Mosheh. Later there was a school and an active life for young Jews. Renée found the Chinese people generally friendly and supportive.

Jewish Refugee Museum

However, there was an existential threat to immigrant Jews: the Japanese. Again Renée “writes” to Max:

Did you know the Japanese bombed Shanghai in 1932? They occupied Manchuria but Chinese students protested (as they should), so the Japanese broke up the protests with bombs. They are so aggressive they almost make the Nazis look pacifist.

In 1937 the Japanese captured Shanghai. For the most part, they left the Jews alone. But after the Americans entered the war in 1941, things changed. They were, after all, allies with Nazi Germany.

They forced us to move into the ghetto in Hongkou, which is a horrid slum. They also treated the Chinese—well—as badly as the Nazis treated Jews. They had big plans. They thought they would conquer the world. 

Girls of the Shanghai Ghetto

Over 10,000 Jews were crammed into space for half that number. There was no indoor plumbing, heat, stoves, or garbage collection. The conditions were barely tolerable. Illness swept through the ghetto, and many died. Still, there was no incarceration or torture of Jews by the Japanese. The Japanese treatment of the Chinese was a different matter. 

After the war, not many Jews returned to Europe. Many went to Israel and the US. What about Renée and her family? Did they move back? Did she and Max ever see each other again? 

The answers are in MAX'S WAR.

Reds and Readers, did you know about the exodus of Austrian and German Jews to Shanghai? 

Jenn: I didn't. Thank you for sharing this story with us, Libby. I am looking forward to reading Max's War!