Sunday, July 31, 2016

A GIRL LIKE YOU introduces a detective and a taxi dancer

HALLIE EPHRON: Chicago in the 1930s with the stock market crash in the recent past is the setting for a new series by Michelle Cox. A GIRL LIKE YOU introduces readers to a delightful pair of sleuths, and makes a convincing argument for mixing mystery and romance. Today I'm happy to welcome Michelle Cox to Jungle Red.  

MICHELLE COX: Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James.  Molly Murphy and Daniel Sullivan.  Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson.  We all have our favorite detective pair of sleuths who, when not battling villains, just can’t seem to fight their attraction for each other.

But wait a minute, the purist might interrupt, isn’t this meant to be a mystery story?  A theft, a kidnapping, a murder—or worse?  Why are these two seemingly intelligent characters often ignoring very obvious clues in the case before them in order to investigate each other, and often in an embarrassingly clumsy way?  The answer, of course, is because they can’t help it.

The mystery and romance genres fit seamlessly together in a way no two other genres could.  Can you imagine what might happen if sci-fi attempted to blend together with a western, for example?  Something presumably messy.  Maybe an interesting one-off, but not the sort of thing that would fill a whole section of any self-respecting bookstore.  No, romance, it seems, is the universal donor, the “O negative” of the fiction world.

And why?  Because characters, even the most hard-boiled, are human and ultimately have the desire for love etched deeply in their hearts.  And mystery, if examined closely, is the perfect universal receiver.

Why?  Well, for one thing because the romantic tension between the sleuths is a natural distraction from the case at hand.  Not only does it give the characters something else to do or think about besides tracking down the killer, but it is a great red herring for the reader as well.  And it makes the characters more vulnerable, which adds, of course, to the tension already brewing surrounding the mystery.  Not only are the characters perhaps in physical danger, but now they are in emotional danger as well. 

And let’s face it, the romantic prospects of the sleuths are a form a mystery as well.  A mini mystery of “will they, won’t they?” inside the bigger case—an extra thrill, or titillation, if you will, for those “rapt” up in it with them.   

Certainly this is the “case” with the newest pair of sleuths on the scene, Inspector Clive Howard and Henrietta Von Harmon in the debut novel, A Girl Like You.  The aloof Inspector is definitely not contemplating a romance with Henrietta, the impoverished taxi dancer whom he encounters at a dance hall in Chicago, circa 1935.  Instead, he hopes to convince her  to use her stunning beauty and her ability to disguise herself to go undercover for him to track a killer, a role she hesitantly picks up for the money. 

So far so good on the mystery side, but it doesn’t take long before Henrietta finds herself unfortunately falling for the Inspector.  Clive meanwhile begins to piece things together and uncomfortably discovers that Henrietta is not the woman of the world he originally thought she was, realizing with a certain degree of dread that not only has he put a vulnerable young woman in danger, but that he himself is beginning to be tempted by her charming innocence.  He struggles to restrain himself from what would surely be an inappropriate relationship, even as she longs for his love and protection, secretly taking on more and more risks to impress him.  But, Clive and Henrietta!  There’s a killer on the loose!  Remember? 

There are those, of course, the purists mentioned above, who have no tolerance for this sort of genre-blending.  They like their mysteries to only to be about the case at hand and not about Emerson’s wry observations of Amelia’s disheveled hair, for example, nor do they want Molly contemplating the particular shade of Daniel’s “alarmingly blue eyes,” or Clive softly brushing the side of Henrietta’s cheek with his fingertips.  They want facts and only facts. 

But most of us are not so one-sided, so cold of heart.  We don’t mind our mysteries with a side of romance, or maybe even more.  We like our heart to beat a little faster, and not just because the villain has just jumped out of the closet, holding a gun.  And joyfully for us, most mysteries can deliver the thrill, in more ways than one.   

Do you enjoy your mystery with a bit of romance or are you more of a purist?  And if you do enjoy a romantic subplot, who are your favorite duos?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Easy summer dinner: Garlic shrimp on shredded zucchini with Parmesan cheese & basil

HALLIE EPHRON: It's been so hot here in New England that whenever dinner time rolls around the last thing I want to do is cook, but then when I look at the takeout choices (pizza again? sick of Chinese), I'm driven back to my fridge to see what I can make out of what's on hand.

The other night I came up with a winner. Shrimp (I always have some in the freezer), quick fried with garlic, and served over a bed of shredded zucchini (overflow from Lucy's vegetable garden), topped with grated Parmesan cheese (always on hand) and fresh basil (growing in a pot outside). 

I served it with ears of fresh corn.

Garlic shrimp and zucchini à la Hallie
Serves 2
Cooking and prep time: about 30 minutes

10 large frozen shrimp, defrosted, shelled, deveined, and soaked for about 20 minutes in water laced with about a tablespoon of baking soda
1 plump fresh garlic clove, minced 
1 medium zucchini, grated (use the largest holes)
1/4 cup (or more) of chopped fresh basil
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 T butter

1. Prep the ingredients.
2. Drain, rinse, and dry the shrimp.
3. Heat the oil and butter over medium/high heat in a 10" or 12" heavy skillet until butter stops spitting.
4. Quickly sautee the garlic for about 30 seconds and add the shrimp. Cook, turning until shrimp is cooked through (this is fast - maybe 3 or 4 minutes).
5. Remove the shrimp (but leave most of the garlic in) from the pan and immediately throw in the shredded zucchini - lower the heat a bit and cook, stirring until it's just tender. Just takes a minute or two.
6. Dump the zucchini into a serving dish. Top with shrimp. Top with a good handful of Parmesan cheese. Finally top with basil. 
7. Serve with icey Rose wine and crusty French bread. 
8. Enjoy!

What are your summer quickie meals.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Amie Smith on becoming a baker on Cape Cod

HALLIE EPHRON: We’ve all dreamed about that moment of transformation when we remake ourselves. I did it when I was working in high tech and contemplated becoming a writer.

It started in my head. Seeing myself as a writer. Then becoming one gradually. Day by day. Step by step. Taking classes. Writing essays. Joining a writing group. Starting a novel. NOT quitting my day job but cutting back so I could write... until the transformation was complete.

When I worked in high tech, I worked with Amie Smith who went on to transform herself, too, but into something I consider much harder and riskier. BLAM: One day she was a corporate marketing writer and the next day she was opening Amie Bakery on Cape Cod in scenic Osterville.

Or… maybe it wasn't quite that sudden. I invited her today to JUNGLE RED to share her story.

AMIE SMITH: I think all creative people need an outlet. After completing the professional pastry program at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. I wanted to make so many things but had no place to serve them. It also became my mission to educate people about authenticity in pastry.

Mass produced, chemically processed dessert is the rule. I wanted to be the exception.

From the time I graduated in 2009 I knew I wanted a storefront. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2014 that the right space suddenly became available. I needed to gut it and start over. I jumped in with both feet. I had lots of experience with construction projects and zero experience running a food operation. It was the scariest time of my life.

My father was a baker before I was born. Ironically, he left the job after I was born due to the long hours. Every year we would make a huge batch of butter cookies using a bakery-size formula (translation—hundreds upon hundreds of cookies). One day he took me to his friend’s bakery and I was mesmerized, watching pastries being made all day long.

HALLIE: What was it like, setting up the space? And did you get help from someone who’d been there?

AMIE: Once I started renovations, every single day people were stopping by and telling me stories about previous owners or how their grandparents used to take them there. I quickly realized this place had a storied past. Coincidentally, one of the legendary owners, Peg Mullen, used to own my house! 

The space was in dire need of updating and I wanted to evoke some of the nostalgia of the former soda fountain but make it feel like you were visiting a beautiful café in Paris too.

As for planning the kitchen and the rest of the operations, I had also read a lot about how to open a bakery; I attended a course at King Arthur Flour on this topic, spoke to countless mentors and friends in the industry, and became familiar with local health department requirements.

HALLIE: Your baked goods are fabulous. What’s your best seller, and where’d the recipe come from?

AMIE: Our most popular items is a raspberry walnut shortbread bar. It’s not only one of my favorites, but also it is a sentimental favorite. Barbara Gitto was my dearest friend’s mother and she lived in Osterville—and that is how I came to know this beautiful village. She was an amazing baker and this is her recipe.

On the savory side, our quiche flies out of our cases.

HALLIE: Why are you so passionate about baking from scratch? Isn’t it more profitable to resell desserts made elsewhere?

AMIE: Food evokes emotions and memories and I realized how much I missed the baked treats  grew up with—and that few people today even know or understand what baked goods were like a long time ago, or have tasted Swiss meringue buttercream.

I like to tell people to look for the perfection of imperfection. If the crust looks like it’s precision cookie cutter and every crust is identical, it’s likely that it is mass produced.

HALLIE: My day begins at 7 at the computer. Yours begins... where, when? And when does it end?

AMIE: Well, being open seven days a week in this kind of business has meant being at work 24x7. My bakers start at either 4 or 5 a.m. depending on the time of year and if they have issues or questions, I have to address text messages at all hours.

So my day can start in bed getting a text at 4 a.m. or a bit later around 7 at the computer and goes until the shop closes.

HALLIE: Would you be willing to share one recipe with us?

AMIE: Absolutely. I just reformulated our coconut macaroon recipe and it’s one of the easiest things to make. Macaroons are often my go-to recipe when I’m at home and I need a quick dessert for dinner. It also happens to be gluten-free, which is a popular request at the shop.

14 ounces unsweetened shredded coconut
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 egg whites, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup melted chocolate (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Line sheet pan with parchment paper.
Combine the coconut, condensed milk, almond extract, and vanilla in a large bowl.
Whip the egg whites and salt on high to medium-firm peaks.
Carefully fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture.
Use an ice cream scoop to form macaroons. Mixture is a bit loose so pack scoop and gently dispense.
Bake 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown.
Cool and dip in melted chocolate if desired. Store in refrigerator or airtight container.

Yield 13 (if using a 2-3 oz ice cream scoop)

HALLIE: J'adore coconut macaroons. This is my sweet spot. What are yours, and do you have bakery like Amie's where you can indulge in the perfect imperfectios? 

Amie Bakery is right in the middle of Osterville on Cape Cod at 3 Wianno St. Her web site is full of advice on baking and the right tools and gadgets.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Delia Ephron's SIRACUSA: A stone paradise where marriages unravel

HALLIE EPHRON: I’m so delighted to welcome my sister Delia Ephron to talk about her new novel, SIRACUSA. Goodreads reviewers are drenching it in praise. “IT’S MASTERFUL” “Superb!””Captivating and intoxicating.” A starred review in PW. Dark and suspenseful, a week after its pub date it's in its third printing and being turned into a major motion picture.

Am I jealous? Not saying.

The story is told Rashomon-style with four narrators, two couples who vacation together in Sicily’s Siracusa.

In one corner: Michael (a playwright) and Lizzie (a magazine writer), a childless couple.
In the other corner: Finn (a hip chef in Portland Maine) and his wife Taylor (Portland’s events coordinator and publicist); their sylph- and sphinx-like 10-year-old daughter Snow (named because she was born during a snowstorm—Lizzie thinks she’s “wallpaper”) is traveling with them.

It’s compulsively readable, and you know all the while the story, for all its normalcy, is careening toward cataclysm as lie after lie is revealed.

I happen to know that Delia and her husband often traveled with another couple, dear friends (unlike the two couples in the book who mesh only on the surface), but I had to wonder what in her travels inspired Siracusa?

DELIA EPHRON: Siracusa inspired the book. I was there on vacation. It's this falling down place in Sicily on the Ionian Sea and the old section is remarkable. The Romans knocked down all the trees in 212 B.C. to build warships and never replaced then. It's paved with ancient stone, narrow streets, tattered buildings. A stone paradise.

The first day I thought, this is the most magical place I have ever been. The second day, I thought, if I don't get out of here fast I'll go mad.
When I got home I realized it was the perfect place to set a story about marriage, about two couples on vacation careening toward disaster.

Of course then I had to go back and do serious research, which I did, several times.

You are a better more experienced traveler than I am. BUT, travel intensifies everything, doesn't it? Friendships can grow closer or go up on the rocks. The isolation of travel is great if you're feeling romantic and unbearable if you're not.  So isolating these couples by putting them on a vacation in a foreign place was perfect for the story I wanted to tell.

HALLIE: And in that “bad hotel?"

DELIA: Truly you never know which your best trips will be. Traveling is unpredictable. And the bad hotel -- it can happen on a vacation -- and for Taylor this is terrible. She blames Lizzie, who made the reservation. But that's just salt in the wound.  Other wounds are bigger.

HALLIE: So many of your other works (“You’ve Got Mail” “The Lion is In”) have wonderfully flawed but likeable characters, but in this book the characters are anything but. What was it like making that shift?

DELIA: Very freeing. This is a dark book -- very funny in parts, but wicked.  I didn't worry about whether anyone would like Lizzie, Michael, Taylor and Finn. I wanted them only to be real. Interesting and compelling.

So many people have said to me, "I thought I liked, say, Finn, and then I thought, I don't like him at all."  As a reader your opinion keep shifting as the betrayals and lies and paybacks mount up. And of course my characters all have opinions of each other and of Snow. The reader discovers that.

HALLIE: One of the most troubling characters in the book is Snow, Taylor and Finn’s daughter. As the mother of daughters I found myself squirming. Where did Snow come from?

DELIA: My wicked brain. Here's the thing: I'm very interested is how attached some mothers are to their daughters -- relationships
I've observed where the lines are blurred. Taylor loves her daughter more than her husband, which happens sometimes in marriage. Snow is sphinx-like, as you said, an enigma. Is she shy or is she cunning? Is she manipulating or being manipulated? Should I love her, want to protect her, or fear her?

HALLIE: (That picture of Delia and me was taken before the premier of her movie, "Hanging Up.") Four viewpoints, intertwined and overlapping is so hard to pull off. Perfect for this story, since secrets are its fuel. But did you find it challenging? Did you have to map it out?

DELIA: So difficult. By the time I hit the third quarter of the book, my head was swirling. Who knew what, who didn't, what would be revealed and to whom. I had lists on my wall keeping track. But I don't outline.

I started Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor with problems. Michael is having an affair and Lizzie doesn't know. Finn and Lizzie had a summer fling many years before, and he is feeling shut out of his marriage. So I start them there and, as I write, the story, takes off.

The most important line I wrote early on that gave me guidance, was a line of Lizzie's: "Couples collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride." 

I have an inner compass about plotting. I trust my subconscious to take me where I need to go. I knew something BIG would happen in Siracusa, and one day I realized, Oh that's it. That has to happen. I got so excited.

HALLIE: You’re writing a screenplay now for the book. Are you having to alter the story structure? Whom will we root for??

DELIA: Oh, you need to root. H'mm. I wasn't thinking about that. I'm very excited that Siracusa has been bought for film and that Alfonso Gomez Rejon will direct ("Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl). 

With a screenplay, I have to find the movie in the book. Create the visual medium and telescope the story to hold onto its essence. So what is the central current?

Also do I need a Rashomon? Film has other ways of indicating point of view. Do I need to alter the story to make it work better. In film I don't have the luxury of the "inner voice" unless I do voice over. 

So all these problems have to be address. Also this is about marriage and friendship -- characters make lots of observations about that. Need to keep that aspect. How?

HALLIE: What an interesting problem. Novels lack the visuals of a movie, but we do have narrative voice.

I'm still mulling Delia's remark:  

The first day I thought, this is the most magical place I have ever been. The second day, I thought, if I don't get out of here fast I'll go mad.
TODAY'S QUESTION: Have you ever traveled somewhere that left you with that feeling?

Signed copies of Siracusa are available at:Barnes & Noble, Upper West Side, NY
Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, MA
Wellesley Books, Wellesley, MA
RJ Julia, Madison, CT
Diesel Bookstore, Los Angeles
BookCourt, Brooklyn, NY
Politics & Prose - Washington, D

"Delia Ephron’s Siracusa is a stunning portrait of two marriages coming unraveled during the stress of travel abroad. Insightful and engaging. A must read!"—Sue Grafton

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Life among the 3-year-old Disney Princesses

HALLIE EPHRON: As the grandmother of a three-year-old I am acutely aware of the Princesses phenomenon as it applies to little girls. Our Franny Lou is obsessed with princesses. Belle is her favorite. (Belle nightgown. Belle big girl panties...) She sings all of "Let It Go" from Frozen at the top of her lungs and at every opportunity.

Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, she loves them all and carries around little action figures which, heaven help me, I bought for her.
Last week there was a piece in our local paper about Princess birthday parties. The MOTHERS dress up as princesses, too. Speaking for myself, this is a bridge too far. I will not dress up as anyone's fairy godmother.

Were you besotted with Disney princesses when you were little, and what do you make of this--beyond it being a spectacularly successful merchandising effort? And is it a step back for women's lib or just another wrinkle on the way to liberation?

I would love, LOVE, to hear Franny Lou sing Let It Go. I am obsessed with hearing little kids sing it--it is SO hilarious.

Disney princesses. Ah, gee. When I was growing up, there might
have been Cinderella. Which, thinking back, turned out well, and you know, thinking about it even more, I used to complain, when I had to do chores, that I WAS Cinderella.   But I didn't see that as romantic or desirable.

Snow White? Yeesh. Sleeping Beauty? Well, these days, I love sleep, so maybe so. And sometimes my garden, like hers, is out of control.  And I must confess, I used to threaten my mother with what would happen when my REAL parents--royalty--came to get me. She would suggest I make my bed in the meantime.

I think, these days, a Disney princess is a different deal. And I do wonder what their point is.  I could make a remark about Ivanka, who is a lovely young woman, and a story in herself,  and Chelsea, ditto, but I won't. And, in other news. look how perfectly Sasha and Malia have turned out. 

RHYS BOWEN:  When I was little I played at princesses all the time. I would have loved all the Disney stuff, action figures, castle and dresses. But alas I was pre Disney marketing. I had to make do with an old curtain draped around me and the arm chair as my coach. And my great aunt to be my faithful servant/old woman gathering sticks/wicked queen depending on the game.

Of course all little girls love to dress up and that longing stays with us. We wear prom dresses. We read about Will and Kate.

My granddaughters are now past the princess stage but it was awfully adorable to see them swirling and curtsying and singing all the songs. Now it's Lulu Lemon and Raybans!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I only saw the first generation Disneys.
Snow White (Yuck! Creepy! All those little men gave me nightmares,) Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella. But I never wanted to be any of those princesses.

My cousin and I played with action figures from Gunsmoke. And of course I had every toy horse ever made, and they had great adventures, so it wasn't as if we were lacking in imagination... Kayti says the only Disney movie she remembers loving is Robin Hood. My poor kid grew up on PBS documentaries!

I've never even seen Frozen! Maybe I'll get to watch all these things with Wren. But...I'm not sure how keen I am on the whole Disney princess thing. Just call me #TotallyOutOfIt.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I loved princesses back in the day and was delighted when Disney introduced Belle when I was about 22 — a brown-eyed brunette who loved to read!

Got to go through it all again with Kiddo, who loved the princesses — until he didn't — but I still think he secretly likes them and the movies, too. We also went through Mulan, Tangled, Alladin, et al — it's a whole new princess world now.. Now we have Elsa and Anna from Frozen.
Loved Frozen and am proud to be friends with Kristin Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez. Kiddo used to play with their daughters and I even wrote part of MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY in their kitchen. (Noel knows them from Avenue Q days.) I loved the fact that "true love's kiss" could be from sisters, not just a man/woman romantic situation....

Plus, you know, Idina Menzel tearing it up.

Did anyone catch the new Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh? Gorgeous and Kate Blanchette was truly chilling as the stepmother. And of course now there's the film version of Into the Woods — those Sondheim lyrics provide so much food for thought about what happens _after_ "happily ever after."

Oh, and we're also fans of ABC's "Once Upon a Time" — which is a whole fairytale mashup that turns the tales we all grew up with on their head and can be quite clever. We all love watching it together as a family on Sunday nights.

HALLIE: This is bringing back memories of watching the first Disney movies, having a Disney Cinderella picture book that had glitter in it, and it is pretty great that the girls in Disney movies have evolved into strong characters who have opinions and talk back. Still waiting for one that's not skinny and beautiful.

Today's question: Have princesses invaded your life, and if so have you surrendered and welcomed them in?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Iceland! Hallie shares a great vacation

HALLIE EPHRON: A few weeks ago you may have noticed that I was conspicuously absent from Jungle Red. I was in Iceland for 8 fantastic days of bird watching and waterfalls and glaciers and basalt cliffs and volcanic sand beaches and delicious hearty soups and breads, fantastic icey water, and the cleanest air you'll ever breathe. 

It was also soccer madness -- the Icelandic team had just, against all odds, beaten the Brits in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016.

First, you need to know: Iceland has a population of at 320,000. That's half the population of Boston. A million foreign tourists went there in 2014, and that number doubled in 2015 and is expected to double this year again. People like it. They go. They tell their friends. It takes about 4 hours from almost anywhere in the northern part of the northern hemisphere (e.g. New England) to get there. I'd go back in a minute.

The only way to tell about this trip is through pictures... 

No, it does not get dark in July. Here's me sleeping in our hotel room in Reykjavik. It's 2 in the morning. That's sun, trying to come through the blinds. It simply did not set. And any time you got up and walked around, there were people out and about on the streets.

Waterfalls. Spectacular waterfalls around every bend in the road.

Basalt cliffs and volcanic sand beaches. The rock formations are spectacular, but the beach has fierce waves that hold back and lull you into a sense of false security and then roar in and sweep away everything and everyone in their path.

Birds! It took 7 hours to drive from Reykjavik (tunneling under one fiord and going across another by ferry) to the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, Iceland's westernmost point and home to millions of birds: northern gannets, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, and yes, PUFFINS by the thousands. A birdwatcher's paradise.

Thermal activity. Iceland is located on the rift where the North American and Eurasian plates grind against each other. It's riven with volcanos and geysers, the landscape more often lava flow than meadow. All of Iceland's power is comes from natural steam. Icelanders are philosophic. Yes, that nearby volcano could blow any minute.  (The original geyser that is named "Geysir" is in Iceland.) They're getting ready to EXPORT electricity.

(How cheap is it? It's cost effective for Australia to ship bauxite to Iceland (this is one long boat ride) and smelt it there using geothermal and hydro power, and ship the aluminum to customers around the world.)

You could happily live on bread and water. It's that good. And the soup. Crab soup here, but the lobster soup and cauliflower soup and the carrot/coconut soups were delicious, too. Um, great cookies, too. And the bread is fabulous. Everywhere.

Reykjavik's nose. This spectacular church is on the highest point in the city and visible from everywhere. Echoes of waterfalls and basalt columns in its design.

Vistas. Fiords to cross. 

Dollhouse towns. Tiny towns with homes and churches that look like dollhouses. I kept expecting to see little wooden trains chugging around.

Glaciers. They're blue. It's cold, but not cold enough to keep them from shrinking. Still beautiful but for how long? 

Horses with a sense of humor. Icelandic horses are smaller and friendlier and they have rock-star hair.

Soccer! This jumbotron was right outside our hotel window, and those red and white flag wavers are Poles rooting for their team (they lost.) And that's my husband outside our hotel which was going all out for its soccer star players. 

Vikings. They really define the place. Marauders, they picked up beautiful Celtic women on their way to taking over Iceland.

Unpronounceable street names. Yes, it was a challenge reading street signs and then matching them to our maps. And it was not cheap.
Has anyone else been there? Please, share your expeiences.

Monday, July 25, 2016

GHOSTBUSTERS: Girls' night out!

Congratulations Celia Fowler, yesterday's winner of an ARC of Susan Elia MacNeal's THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE.
HALLIE EPHRON: And I thought nothing could ever get me back into a real movie theater. At 10 to 15 bucks a pop? Five more for yellow popcorn?

Turns out all it took was a sh-t storm over remaking one of my favorite movies with an all-female cast.

As anyone who isn’t living under a rock knows, the Internet has been awash in nastiness from outraged (mostly anonymous) fans of the original GHOSTBUSTERS who turned thumbs-down long before the remake was even filmed, never mind released. What did they expect? After all, if you name a movie after an iconic portable vacuum cleaner, the ladies are bound to jump in and take over.

Zoot alors, a young female "film critic" blogger decried of the remake: “This isn’t about feminism. This is about greed.” Uh, so what’s yer point? Welcome to Hollywood.

As someone who loved the original GHOSTBUSTERS (GHOSTBUSTERS II not so much) and who’s a huge fan of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, if I could’ve bought my ticket six months ago I would have. I went to see it at one in the afternoon on day-two of its run at my local AMC theatre. Only seats left were in the front, but we grabbed them.

Maybe I was seduced by the theater (when did they convert to stadium seating with red leather recliners). Or the A/C (it was 92 degrees out). 

It certainly was not the 20 (really, 20) minutes of coming attractions for 10 (really 10) movies followed by an ad for Coca Cola that ran AFTER the supposed movie start time. And it certainly wasn’t the great sound system that was so loud I had to stuff tissues in my ears.

Whatever it was, I loved it, beginning to… hmmm, maybe three-quarters through when, as my friend Michael Courtemanche pointed out, it tipped over into too much SFX and too little funny. Plus, watching villainous creatures rampaging through New York feels a little too close to watching the news.

But then, the final credits are sublime!! An unexpected bonus after the mayhem.

And the cameos! My favorite: Annie Potts! She played the  receptionist ("Whaddaya want?") in the original (one of the guys says to her: “Janine, someone with your qualification would have no trouble finding a top-flight job in either the food service or housekeeping industries” ) turns up as a clerk in a haunted hotel.

Confess. When’s the last time you went to a real movie theater, laughed yourself silly, and what other iconic bro-bonding movies would you like to see rebooted with a female cast?

LUCY BURDETTE: Hmmm, not sure I'd be running out to see this movie, but we love seeing movies at the Tropic Cinema in Key West. We walk to the theater--a huge bonus--and if you're a member, you get reduced prices. We saw SPOTLIGHT (loved it), the animated Oscar shorts (not so much), Helen Mirren in the English version of THE AUDIENCE (heaven), BROOKLYN (good), and I saw ROOM (tough but amazing.) So nothing laugh-out-loud, but lots of good movies in a real theater!

HALLIE: Hmm. Not too many belly laughs in those.

RHYS BOWEN: How about Twelve Just Women? I have to remind myself sometimes that it's only recently that women were allowed to sit on a jury.

Most iconic male movies would feel awkward with a female cast--that the object of the movie was to prove a point. And I don't know if I'll see Ghostbusters in the theater. As Hallie said it's just too loud and overpowering. The last movie I saw was Love and Friendship. More my style and quite funny.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I went to see GHOSTBUSTERS Sunday after it opened with Ross and two Smithies (mine and her friend.) We all enjoyed the movie, although I'll agree with you, Hallie, that I was just waiting for the SFX bonanza in the climactic fight to get over so the flock could get back to the good stuff - the interactions between characters.

I was explaining to Ross afterwards how wonderful it is to see a movie with women front and center where the sex of the main characters ISN'T the point. In so many, many films today, actresses play The Woman: the mother, the wife, the gf, the damsel in distress. The fact the character is female is the main point and feature of the character: "Look, our hero regrets breaking up with his wife!" "Look, our here's daughter is in danger!" "Look, our hero is an ordinary schlub who winds up with a babe 5X hotter than he is!"

In GHOSTBUSTERS, as in Paul Feig's BRIDESMAIDS, THE HEAT and SPY, the stories could easily be told around a group of guys. Really - picture Jonah Hill in the Melissa McCarthy roles and Vince Vaugn as Kristin Wiig or Sandra Bullock. The fact that they're filled with women instead of men is..revelatory, like the first time I saw a female Episcopal priest. "You mean women can do that?"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: We'll be seeing Ghostbusters this week and taking Kiddo, of course! So excited to see a movie that would pass the Bechdel test — where "The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added."

If you're looking for another movie (for the young (or young-at-heart) with strong female leads, I'd recommend Pixar's Academy Award-winning Inside Out, with Amy Pohler and Mindy  Kaling.

HALLIE: I loved Inside Out. And it might actually be the last movie I saw in a movie theater before Ghostbusters. (Before that: UP (in 3D)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Hmm. Not sure I'll go to Ghostbusters. You are so right about Bechdel, Susan! And it's such an amazing filter.  Anyway, I'm intrigued by the question "when was the last time you went to a movie and laughed yourself silly?" I am really having to think about that. Sadly, it might have been -oh, gosh, I am spacing the title. But it had animals, and they sang Polka Dot Afro.   Does watching The Court Jester at home count?  I did cheer all the way through Working Girl, and then cried, but that's different.

And sadly, and anti-all of this, I really laughed at The Wedding Crashers. But they could easily make that with women. Wait. Now, really mulling this over, if they did, it would be SUCH a completely different movie, and the women would be reviled as "everything a woman is not supposed to be." Whereas for Vince Vaughn and what's his name, they are hilarious.

Which is, I guess, the point of this.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Honestly, I am so out of it that I didn't realize until a week ago that the remake of GHOSTBUSTERS had become this big cultural deal. I thought, oh, okay, well, that might be fun. I liked the original, so why not? And then I find out people are incensed because the characters are played by WOMEN? Is this the dark ages, or what??? (No, don't answer that...)

I'm sure we'll see it, but probably when it's available streaming. We are so spoiled to our very fancy movie theater with reclining seats (and pillows and blankets, I kid you not) and dinner and drinks service. But it's expensive--although not more than dinner out somewhere and then a movie at a regular theater. Still, we only go every couple of months, and we usually save those outings for "must see on big screen" movies. This summer it will probably be STAR TREK, and then JASON BOURNE at the end of August. (I have confessed before that I'm an action movie junkie...)

The movie I think of right off the bat that makes me laugh until I cry is so politically incorrect that I'm not going to admit to it:-) 

HALLIE: What guy flicks do you think they should remake with gender roles reversed?

I nominate:
Easy Rider
The Sting
Duck Soup
The Hustler
Blazing Saddles
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Susan on What We’re Writing and an ARC Giveaway of THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: It’s summer, and I’m desperately trying to balance family time and working on THE PARIS SPY (Maggie Hope #7). This basically consists of taking my computer on our family vacations to Hudson, NY and Providence, RI. 

So far I’ve worked — and missed going on a water park adventure, a hike, to a horse show, and a barbecue.

And I've also played hookey from work (don’t tell my editor!) — to go to the horse stables to watch kiddo, have a lunch date at an amazing French place with my husband, and go swimming with all the kids and then take a nap in a hammock.

I think the solution is to be fully present in whatever mode I’m in — family or work— but it’s hard. This summer, especially, I seem to be struggling. Whenever I’m doing one, I’m worrying about what I’m missing on the other side. There’s just always this feeling of not having enough time.

Right now we’re driving from Hudson, NY to Providence and I’m writing this blog post from the backseat of the car, with my computer propped up on my travel bag, while kibitzing on the conversation going on right now: “Why Aren’t Eleven-Year-Olds Allowed to Drive?” (Kiddo is saying that they should; Daddy is providing the counter argument.)

I don’t know that there’s a solution to this work/life dilemma. But I have been lucky enough to have a loyal writing buddy, Zola, on this leg of the vacation. She’s an elderly black lab mix who likes to curl up and sleep near me as type. When her family's around, she loves them. And when they're gone, she naps (her "work"). I love her. “Be like Zola” is perhaps the wisest thing I’ve come up with so far. It's my new mantra.

Hey, we’re getting closer to the October 4 release of THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE! Here’s the description from Penguin Random House:

Spy and code-breaker extraordinaire Maggie Hope returns to war-weary London, where she is thrust into the dangerous hunt for a monster, as the New York Times bestselling mystery series for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, and Anne Perry continues.

England, 1942. The Nazis’ relentless Blitz may have paused, but 
 London’s nightly blackouts continue. Now, under the cover of darkness, a madman is brutally killing and mutilating young women in eerie and exact re-creations of Jack the Ripper’s crimes. What’s more, he’s targeting women who are reporting for duty to be Winston Churchill’s spies and saboteurs abroad. The officers at MI-5 quickly realize they need the help of special agent Maggie Hope to find the killer dubbed “the Blackout Beast.” A trap is set. But once the murderer has his sights on Maggie, not even Buckingham Palace can protect the resourceful spy from her fate.

 And the first review, from Kirkus, lauds THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE: "Maggie ... is a thoughtful spy whose dangerous escapades never disappoint." Thank you! To celebrate, I’m giving away an autographed ARC to one lucky reader, who posts in the comments.

In the meantime, here's the prologue of THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE. Enjoy!

The winds were changing.

They were blowing in from the east now, Vera Baines noted, from the East End. Even though the air raids had stopped for the moment in London—as Hitler turned his attentions toward Russia—the docks, railroads, and factories were still burning. Through her open bedroom window, she could smell cold wind scented with smoke and destruction. She watched as it ruffled the bare black branches of the trees of Regent’s Park, rustling dead ivy. 

Since the war had begun, the park had become a desolate expanse of meandering walkways, overgrown shrubbery, and long air-raid trenches—an ideal location for crime. But not on her watch.
As an ARP warden for her section in Marylebone, Vera Baines knew not only the winds but the intricacies of light and dark. Sunset in London in late March 1942 arrived after six, but the violet shadows began to lengthen at least an hour earlier. This evening’s sunset was extraordinary—bright red, with crepuscular rays piercing wispy clouds.

Despite barely clearing the five-foot mark and a slight figure, at eighty-three, Vera was a redoubtable woman. She was more wiry than frail, her energy giving the impression of her being much taller than she actually was. She had impeccable posture and moved with a force and confidence her friends and family hadn’t seen since her husband died ten years ago. And her face, with its high cheekbones and clear blue eyes that missed nothing, radiated strength.

Vera hated the war, hated the loss of innocent lives—but she couldn’t deny it had brought a certain clarity to her existence. As an ARP warden, she now felt she had a purpose: She would protect her own. As she surveyed the park’s deepening shadows from the window of her bone-colored Georgian terraced house, Vera felt responsibility, plus a fierce sense of love and pride. This was her London. These were her people. Nothing would happen to them on her sentry.

It was time to begin her shift. Vera took one last look at the fad- ing light, listening to the forlorn cries of the birds, then picked her way downstairs, leaning on the railing. At her door, she put on her ARP tin hat, dark blue wool overcoat, and gloves, and reached for her walking stick—with a silver British bulldog on the handle. Then she went down the outside stairs and onto the icy flagstone pavement, bracing herself against the wind. She paced the street with her usual vigor, the pale symmetrical Nash architecture reflecting the last light of the dying sunset. The temperature was dropping and the air smelled of imminent storms.

A passing white-haired man tipped his black bowler hat, and she nodded in return. “Oh, Mr. Saunders—” she called after him, her breath making clouds in the chill air.

The man stopped and turned. “Yes, Mrs. Baines?”

“I noticed a chink in your blackout curtain on the second floor last night. Please see to it no light is visible from now on.”

He took a few steps forward and frowned down at her. “We haven’t had an air raid in months, dearie.”

Vera was not deterred by his bulk, his height, or his condescending tone. “And the Luftwaffe might be choosing tonight for a return visit, Mr. Saunders. Let’s not give them any light to guide them to us, shall we?”

She strode on, chin high, taking her usual route past the charred remains of Regent’s Park’s brick wall. The last of the sun’s light melted away, but Vera didn’t mind the dark; she liked being out alone at night. Without electric lights to pierce the darkness, the nighttime took on a new beauty in the icy bright moonlight. Her shuttered flashlight illuminated the strips of white paint on the curbs and tree trunks, giving off a ghostly glow.

In the distance, she could hear the sounds of the city: the faint rumble of motor traffic, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on cobble- stones, the screeches and flaps of bats off to their night’s hunt. The wind picked up once again, causing the ancient tree branches to sway and creak, the dead leaves and lipstick-stained cigarette butts in the gutters to dance.

Without artificial light, Regent’s Park at night could have been any era in London—from the time when ancient Britons painted themselves blue, to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, to the period of Victoria and Albert. Even the clocks obliged: When the Nazi bombs exploded, all nearby timepieces ceased to function, paralyzed at whatever time they were at the instant of impact. These comatose clocks were another reason Vera could imagine time telescoping—the suspended present creating an atmosphere where time travel seemed no mere fantasy. Really, anything seemed possible, especially in the shadows of night. It even smelled as it could have hundreds of years ago—the same stink of urine against the crumbling brick walls as there would have been in Pepys’s day.

In the darkness, Vera tripped and nearly fell, saved only by her trusty walking stick. “What the—?” she muttered, her grip in leather gloves tight on the silver handle. She righted herself, glad Mr. Saunders hadn’t been there to see.

She looked down at a long blanket-wrapped bundle. Leaning over, flashlight in one hand, she lifted and pulled back the wool covering with the tip of her cane.

Vera gave a sharp inhale, but didn’t cry out when she saw the butchered body of a young woman. The body looked to have be- longed to a girl in her early twenties—healthy and athletic, hair curled. Her throat had been slashed so savagely her head was nearly severed from her body. Her belly had been slit through her ATS uniform, which was soaked through with blood.

Vera felt as if she’d been struck dumb. But she swallowed, braced her shoulders, gathering her strength. “Murder!” she managed to croak. “Murder!” she cried, louder this time. “Someone— someone fetch the police!”

A blond boy in a tweed cap walking past stopped and stared. “What the devil’s going on? Are you all right, ma’am?”

Vera lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and deployed the stiff upper lip she’d perfected over a lifetime of practice. “Yes, yes, of course I am,” she reassured him. “But I’m afraid she isn’t,” she added, pointing to the woman’s mutilated body with the silver tip of her walking stick.

The boy squinted in the darkness, eyes following the flashlight’s beam When he realized what he was seeing, he tore off his cap and crossed himself, whispering, “Bloody hell.” He looked from the body back to Vera. “She’s been ripped, ma’am.” He shook his head, his hands worrying at his hat. “Looks like she’s been done in by Jack the Bloody Ripper himself.”

“What are you going on about, young man?” Despite her occasional daydreams—or night dreams—Vera had no patience for macabre nonsense. But the boy was looking past her to the park’s brick wall, gaping at lettering.

With a shaking hand, Vera raised her flashlight. The words scrawled across the wall were painted the same ghostly, glowing white paint as the curbs.

They read, JACK IS BACK. 

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and readers, what do you do when you're feeling town in two (or more!) directions in life?

Please remember to leave a comment to be in the running for the ARC giveaway of THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE.

(Winners chosen in a totally arbitrary and often subjective way by Kiddo.)