Sunday, May 31, 2015

Food Obsessed in America @LucyBurdette

back on campus
LUCY BURDETTE: This weekend marked mumble mumble mumble years since graduating from Princeton. Though I wasn’t able to attend the weekend reunion, I did accept an invitation to be part of an alumni panel yesterday. (And John, sweet man that he is, agreed to spend our anniversary on this expedition!) The topic was FOOD OBSESSED IN AMERICA. Like most of us mystery writers, I’m well practiced at appearing on panels, usually discussing topics like “where do you get your ideas?” or “how does your setting become a character?” etc, etc. (Unless, of course, it’s a raucous Jungle Red game show panel.)

pregame huddle
But the cast of characters for this panel was different, including an integrative functional medicine physician, a woman teaching underprivileged children to cook, a food journalist, a French food blogger and Harper Collins executive, and an eating and lifestyle coach whose business grew from her own struggles to eat normally. We were each asked to comment on the question: Is America food obsessed, and if so, why? Panelists raised weighty questions such as how important mindful eating is for our health, and the epidemic of obesity in this country, so costly in terms of health and money, and trend for young people to eat out much more than cook in, and the socioeconomic divide between which of us have access to good and healthy food. And which don’t.

fun to look out on sea of orange and black!
And then my turn...I explained that I was the entertainment portion of the panel, and told them about the explosion in food-themed mysteries over the last ten years. They were amazed to hear that there are series about cheese shops, and chocolate shops, and cupcake bakeries, and clambakes, and coffee shops, and gluten-free cooks, and 5-ingredient cooks—the possibilities seem endless. My theory about all this is that readers aren’t necessarily reading these books for the recipes or the food—lots of my readers don’t cook at all. I think they are drawn to the community of characters in the books and the sense of connection that they find in these foodie mysteries. Readers consider our characters to be friends, and enjoy sitting in their kitchens, tasting their food.

As time wound down, we were asked for a brief takeaway from the session. I should have written them down, but here are a few: eat mindfully; eat with joy; food doesn’t have to be a problem…

My takeaway came from a bit of conversation between Hayley and her mother in MURDER WITH GANACHE:
    "Why is it that cooking always makes things feel a little less hopeless?” my mother mused as the vegetables softened.
    “At least we’re doing something,” I said, as she whipped the eggs with a splash of water and stirred them into the pan.
    “We feel like we’re taking care of people when there’s really nothing to be done.” I grinned. “That’s what you taught me anyway.”

Anyway, it was a stimulating day and has me thinking about the bigger questions that were raised. What do you think Reds, is America obsessed with food? And is this good or bad? 

(And just for fun, I've added the picture of me in front of the Alchemist and Barrister restaurant, where I waitressed for several years--early evidence of food obsession...)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

John Connoll on Ruins of War

Today JRW welcomes John Connell, who provides a bookend to Memorial Day week. His first novel RUINS OF WAR features Chief Warrant Officer Mason Collins—former Chicago homicide detective, U.S. soldier, prisoner of war, and now U.S. Army criminal investigator in the American Zone of Occupation in Munich. At a time when the worst horrors of the war are coming to light, there is another horror that is running rampant in the street. Welcome John!

JOHN CONNELL: I can be counted in the first wave of baby boomers. When I was a young boy, World War II was still a recent event. Fathers and mothers were veterans. During the war, one of my uncles was in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, another flew B-24s as a bombardier, an uncle on my mother’s side was marine in the Pacific, and my father was a Navy pilot. I salute all war veterans, but because of my uncles’ and father’s involvement, I have a deep emotional attachment to World War II.

I’ve read war memoirs and watched every WWII movie that has hit the big and small screen. I felt I knew quite a bit about the years leading to war and the war itself, but while I was researching the backstory of a villain in an earlier—now defunct—novel, I discovered the startling and dramatic history of the war’s aftermath. Germany was devastated by three years of constant bombings. Every city and most towns, bridges, railroads and factories were all in ruins. A majority of German men between 18 and 50 were either wounded, killed or in allied POW camps. It was the women who had to clear the rubble and scrounge for food for their families by any means necessary. The Allied occupiers had no idea how to deal with a country in such chaos and deprivation. Most wanted revenge, to reduce Germany to nothing but farmland. A typical American or British soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt DPs roamed the countryside. I just had to create a story during that turbulent time, and what came out of that idea is “Ruins of War.”

I imagined a war veteran in that post-war cauldron of chaos and deprivation. U.S. Army criminal investigator Mason Collins not only experienced the brutal fighting on the front lines, but also suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Nazis. He is of German birth and bitter towards the German people for supporting an evil regime. But when a psychotic killer begins butchering innocent civilians, Mason now feels compelled to protect these same people from another kind of evil, one spawned from the horrors of war. I wanted to watch him squirm when he has to work with the German police, or when he steps into the gates of a former Nazi concentration camp to coax information from Nazi doctors who conducted inhuman medical experiments on camp inmates. I wanted to push him to his limits and see if comes out intact at the end. I kept a Hemingway quote in mind for inspiration: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”

Just as the allied armies struggled with peace, I wanted Mason to go through a similar transformation. To be forced to question his prejudice, to recover from the mental wounds of war, to struggle to find a way to survive in peace as much as he survived in war. Warriors must become citizens once the fighting has ceased, but many times that transition is difficult. My father and uncles made it home, but one did not survive the transition. And Mason won’t and shouldn’t resolve all his mental wounds—what we know as PSTD today—in the short span that occurs in this story, but he will, at least, have been shown a path to recovery.

May all veterans find their way home and survive in peace as they did in war.

QUESTION for readers:

What book, fiction or non-fiction, have you found that best illustrates a veteran’s struggle to transition from warrior to citizen?

John A. Connell is the author of the historical fiction thriller “Ruins of War” published by Berkley/Penguin Books. He
has worked as a cameraman on films such as Jurassic Park and Thelma & Louise and on TV shows including The Practice and NYPD Blue. He now lives with his wife in Paris, France, where he is at work on his second Mason Collins novel. Read more at his website.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What I Know for Sure

Hank Phillippi Ryan:  Lee Child said Rachel Howzell Hall’s Detective Elouise Norton is the best new character you'll meet this year.”  Publishers Weekly raved:
“Dead-on dialogue and atmospheric details help propel a tale full of tormenting moral issues.”

*      We bonded first over our shared editor—then in person, each of us talking a mile a minute, at Bouchercon. Her new book SKIES OF ASH is just out, and it is amazing. May I just say—her voice is like nothing you’ve ever read.   Here’s a snippet from an earlier book:
             "Resentments are quiet, evil things--snails in a vegetable garden. They chew away at your heart and you never realize that you’re the mean old lady who never smiles and yells at kids to stay off her lawn.”
Rachel’s on book tour now—check her website to find where to meet her in person. But over the past few years, she’s had some realizations. And, happily for Jungle Reds, is letting us all in on them.

What I Know For Sure… About Writing

Skies of Ash is my fifth novel, and the second of my Detective Elouise Norton series. In addition to being a novelist, I work as a fundraising writer for City of Hope, a national leader in cancer research and treatment. So, I know some things about writing. Not everything – I’m still learning -- but enough to create a list. Here’s what I’ve discovered since picking up a pen to write as a professional so many (many) years ago.
.        1. Books (and blog posts and articles) don’t write themselves. I know, right? You can have a laptop filled to capacity with Word, Scrivener, Dramatica and Page Four; you can have diagrams and tables, generators and prompts, but none of it matters if you don’t string ‘em together into sentences, chapters, pages of coherent story.

2    2. It’s all gravy. No one has to read anything you write. No one has to buy any of your books. It’s not law. No one goes to jail for ignoring you and choosing A Shore Thing. Celebrate each time someone buys something you wrote. It can always be worse.

3     3. Cops don’t outline dead bodies with chalk. Keep up with the advances in your field—be it crime, techno-thriller, even romance. It’s your job. Even if it’s fiction, readers still want to learn. So: no chalk outlines. No smell of gunpowder in the room, pistols don’t use magazines. STDs are real, yo. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. In Skies of Ash, I turned to friends and family to learn about fire, insurance and bad marriages (heh). Take some time to learn.

4    4. Writing will make you sad. Sometimes, folks just don’t give a fuck about your writing. Sometimes, you don’t give a fuck about your writing. Sometimes, characters die because they have to. In Skies of Ash, it broke my heart to write about dead kids. It’s okay to be sad. But then, snap out of it. Write. Don’t make the good fairy take your gift away and give it to that guy over there. That guy sucks and he doesn’t deserve it.

5    5. Writing will make you happy. Sometimes, the words will roll off your mind, gush from your fingertips onto the computer keys and onto the blank white screen. Sometimes, your characters do as you ask and you fall in love with them again. Sometimes, you’ll get a great review. Maybe you’ll even win an award. That sentence? You wrote that sentence. And yes, you are da bomb.

6        6. Taxes are a bitch. Unless you’re rolling in James Patterson money, you’ll make enough in advances or royalties to piss you off. Keep receipts. Try and pay estimated taxes. 

7    7. You are a bitch. See #4. Everything sucks, huh, Cranky Mc Crankypants? How much did that guy get for his ‘book’? Who gets to be on the panel at the Times Book Festival?

8     8.  Writers are weird. Embrace your strangeness—how you write down names you like, or use Evernote to save all the weird ways people die. Our Google searches are obscene, and our libraries are filled with How To [insert weird thing here]. You think normal people sit down and write 100,000+ words about a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury? You think normal people write about human sweetbreads consumed with fava beans and a nice Chianti? I think not.

            9. There is a difference between a cheap pen and a Uniball. See #8 Artists use tools-don’t  be ashamed of that. Wide- or college-ruled legal pads. Yellow stickie notes or lined stickie notes. Highlighters with see-through barrels or those gel ones that seemed kinda cool but are a little strange and leave crayon-like wax on your manuscript? For Valentine’s Day, my husband gave me a $60 gift card to Office Depot because he knows.

1    10. If you really want to write, you’ll find time to do it. A pox on that, ‘I really want to write but I can’t find the time.’ Malarkey. Balderdash. Did you watch the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones? Did you eat that entire pint of Chunky Monkey? Wanna know why? Cuz you wanted to. An hour and three minutes—every episode of GOT. An hour and three minutes—how long it takes to eat a pint Chunky Monkey. An hour and three minutes—how long it takes to write a decent chapter. If you wanna do something, you’ll do it.
I     11. It’s never enough. I landed a book contract. Now, I want another book contract. I have ten book reviews, I want fifty more. I want to win a Rotary Club Certificate of Excellence, an Edgar, a National Book Prize, a Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize, and… and… God. I want to be God. Or Stephen King.

1    12. Books rule. Digital or hardcover, you don’t give an effin’ eff. Cuz words: writers dig ‘em, like for real. A sentence like Junot Diaz’s ‘The half life of love is forever,’ and you just keep reading it and reading it and whistling like it’s some amalgamation of Neil Tyson Degrasse’s mind, Derek Jeter’s body, Warren Buffet’s wealth, Richard Simmons’s spirit, Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones and sea-salt caramel bacon potato chips. Because wow… words. And to those ‘writers’ who don’t actively read? We’ll know you by your flat description, your trite and clichéd sentences and your ‘dark and stormy nights.’

1    13Nothing beats the journey. As Dickens wrote, ‘Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on!’ In this life, we lose, we win, we celebrate and mourn. Health. Jobs. Relationships. The lottery. Bankruptcy. All of this, even the bad, enriches a writer, colors every page she’ll ever write. But look up from the page sometimes. Look up and look around—and marvel and wince and laugh. Because the best writing? Comes from people who live.

HANK:  Oh, Rachel, you make me cry. And that is a good thing.  So Reds, tell us one thing YOU’VE learned about life. I’ll start, with something I said to Jonathan the other day as we were sitting in traffic.  “Enjoy this!” I said.  “It’s life, it’s hilarious.” And about writing? What I say to myself:  “The next fabulous idea is just around the corner. I promise, it is.   

(Now I want some of those sea salt caramel bacon potato chips. If they don’t exist, let’s make some!)

RACHELHOWZELL HALL is the author of Skies of Ash (Forge), the second in her new mystery series featuring LAPD Homicide Detective Elouise Norton. The first, Land of Shadows, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and was included on the Los Angeles Times’ “143 Books to Read This Summer” and the U.K Telegraph’s “Top Ten Crime Books for Summer.” Rachel was also a featured novelist on NPR’s acclaimed ‘Crime in the City’ series. Her first novel, A Quiet Storm, was a featured selection of Borders’ Original Voices program, as well as an alternate selection of the Black Expressions book club. She is a writer/assistant development director at City of Hope, a national leader in cancer research and treatment.  Rachel lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap @bookstorewendy

 LUCY BURDETTE: I swear today's guest lives in a cozy mystery. She owns a bookstore in a small town, with a cafe on top, and tons of cats. She's married to a Scotsman and they sing, they crochet, they find homes for strays...I don't know how I came across her blog, but now I read it every day. Welcome Wendy Welch! Errr, wait a minute, I believe there's been a last-second substitution...

Today’s guest blog is brought to you by Hadley Marie Hemingway, staff cat at The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap. Hadley is a special needs kitten, oxygen deprivation at birth having taken a few brain cells away. But she’ll tell you about herself and her home in her own words. Take it away, Hadders…..

Hi – I’m Hadley, and I own a bookstore. It’s called Tales of the Lonesome Pine, but a lot of people know it as The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap ‘cause Mom wrote a book about it. She wrote the book before I came to live there, so it can’t be all that interesting, but still, lotsa people come to the shop. Dad says they come ‘cause of Mom’s book, an’ ‘cause they like to read, but I know they’re really comin’ to see me.


That’s me as a baby. Mom and Dad took me an’ my three sisters in on Halloween Night ‘cause they were worried. They said sometimes bad things happen to kittens at Halloween. They run a foster care for cats outta the bookstore. My sisters all found homes, but Mom said I would stay here. She says I’m a few French fries short of a Happy Meal. I don’t really know what that means, ‘cause to me all meals are happy and I never ate a French fry before. I like wet cat food best, but I like spinach, too. When Mom eats it, I steal leaves from her plate. She says nobody else would have me, so I hafta stay here.

That’s Mom’s book in a coupla different languages, but they all look the same to me, ‘cause I can’t read anyway.
Not that I mind. The bookstore is a fun place. They do lotsa special events all year long. You can look in that Book of Faces if you want to see some of the things they do—and more pictures of me. 
Sometimes we get to do stuff at the special events, and Mom says that’s ‘cause I’m special.

There’s other cats here, some of ‘em waitin’ to get droppted like my sisters did. But a few of ‘em live here like I do. Nike is the cat I like best, ‘cause she taught me to use the litter box an’ keep myself clean, an’ she tells great bedtime stories. 

There’s a nice lady here, Aunt Kelley, that smells like bacon. She runs the Second Story Café upstairs. We’re not allowed up there, us cats. All day long, people go up there an’ come down smellin’ like chicken or cream. It’s really tantalizing – an’ it took me a long time to learn that word. Sometimes after all the people have gone, when Aunt Kelley is leaving for the day, she cuddles me an’ slips me little pieces of stuff. That’s how I know heaven is above us; that’s where all the good things comes from.

You should come visit me—an’ the Café an’ bookstore, of course. I like visitors who rub my belly. Come see us! I’ll put the light on for you. I’m good at that. It’s one of my jobs. I’m the only one who can do it, ‘cause I’m special.

If you wanna see a funny video about the bookstore, you can go to You Too and put in LITTLE BOOKSTORE. My friend Owen – he’s another cat that works here – dances in that one.

Owen’s fun, but I know you really wanna read more about me, an’ maybe Nike, so you can do that on Mom’s bog. She owns a bog. If you goggle WENDY WELCH (‘cause that’s my mom’s name, see) an’ LITTLE BOOKSTORE it comes right up. An’ there’s lotsa wantsa rub my belly. You have a good day too!

LUCY again: Either Hadley or Wendy will be stopping by to say hello and answer questions...we know you've got them!