Monday, December 31, 2018

Glam or Cozy? What's your New Years Eve?

TRUST ME is now in trade paperback! Pub date--today!  And you can buy it here (at Target!) or here (at Walmart!) or here or in your favorite bookstore! 
More about this--and the sassy new cover!--later in the week.... but first:

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do you have a date for New Year's Eve? The question of doom, right?  Back in the dark recesses of my past, I remember when that horrible question hovered like a black cloud, starting in November,  the yes or no being the defining answer to whether you were cool.  Would you be out and about on NYE? Glam and fancy and drinking champagne, carousing and dancing and flinging caution to the winds, with the person you cannot live without? Or....
Lemme stop you here. 

Did that EVER happen? I'm thinkin'--not that I remember.

 As a little kid, I had always imagined all gowns and champagne, waltzing and white gloves and looking at the stars and toasting the new year and our futures with Gatsby-esqe levels of indulgence and flagrant opulence. I think I was like, fourteen when I thought it would be like that.

And as a little kid, ALL we wanted to do was stay up til midnight. It was the COOLEST.

Now, so many years later,  I am happy happy happy, and all I can think of whether it would be rude to tell our hosts for this NYE that we really have to go home at about ten, say, and avoid the nutty traffic.

We do have a good NYE tradition--about five couples, pals for the past 25  years, take turns hosting that night, and we all show up at the chosen couple's home. They provide the main course, and each of us brings an extravagant accompanying dish, and we talk and play charades and try to stay up. Fabulous.

We are very splurgy, with champagne and caviar, and probably beef tenderloin, and the baker in the group makes her famous yeast cake. Awesome. And then we trundle home at about 12:02, with me watching for the crazy drivers.

How about you,  Reds? What's up for tonight?  Gatsby glam or cozy tradition? 

HALLIE EPHRON: I like to be at home on New Years Eve, snug as a bug with some nice champagne and treats (crab cakes, maybe?) I had bought a duck that I thought I'd make but it thawed too fast so I had(!) to roast and eat it last night. Duck a l'Orange. It was spectacular. I'll trundle up to bed early, and let the fireworks going off in downtown Boston wake me up and I hug my honey. Turn over. And go back to sleep.

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh my. After a week in California with the family, we are landing back in Key West (fingers crossed) on New Year's Eve. I will be hoping to find something to eat and go to bed with a book. New Year's is nuts on our island--I've been on Duval Street for the party several times, and have no urge to repeat!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We made a rule years ago that we wouldn't go out on New Year's Eve. Maybe it's better now with Uber, but people around these parts have been notorious for drinking and driving on NYE. And then there are the fireworks and the gunshots. Seriously. You'd think we lived in the Wild West. I do open champagne, for me and any friend or neighbor who wants to drop by (Rick does NOT like) and I usually try to cook something simple but a little special. My dream would be to have something very elegant and much more fabulous than take-out Chinese brought in, and to eat in front of the toasty fire and watch The Holiday with my sweetie--assuming I could twist his arm to sit through it again.

RHYS BOWEN:  Some years a friend holds a lovely elegant party. It's only one block away so no driving involved. This year I think we'll drive into San Francisco, walk around and look at the decorations watch the skaters and have a drink at the St Francis hotel. Then home by about 8, bed by ten!

JENN McKINLAY: I love, love, love New Year's Day! There is nothing I like better than flipping the calendar to a pristine new year, looking forward to the books I plan to write, the trips I plan to take, and the memories I hope to make with family and friends. 

As for NYE, I'm married to a working musician, so he usually has a gig and I usually go and meet all of our friends, have some drinks and some laughs and roll on home with the Hub as soon as his set is over be it at 11 or 1 or whenever. If he doesn't have a gig, we jam up and settle in to watch whatever great movies we've missed during the year while monitoring the hooligans with their fireworks. We toast the new year at midnight and then we all pass out. I love both evenings, I do, but I am happy that Hub doesn't have a gig this year so it's movie night!

HANK: We are the wildest group ever, right? How about you, Reds and readers? Cozy or glam tonight? And how late are you staying up? And may we say--we LOVE you madly, and will be toasting all of you, from wherever we are!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Hallie's Sunday stir-fry

HALLIE EPHRON: Shrimp stir-fry is in regular rotation in our house, usually using up whatever vegetables we have in the fridge and starting with frozen shrimp which I always have on hand.

It works best if the vegetables include sweet red pepper and mushrooms (make mine shittake). Plus fresh garlic and fresh ginger. And a sauce that includes a healthy dollop of hoisin and a squirt of hot sauce. Top with handfuls of fresh chopped cilantro and scallions and serve over rice.

Substitute or omit ingredients to suit your taste. (You can make it with strips of pork or chicken instead of shrimp, just for example.)

Cooking takes less than ten minutes minutes.
Prep takes about twenty minutes.


1-2 cloves of garlic
1" of fresh ginger root 
1 medium onion 
About 4-6 cups of chopped veggies (like sliced zucchini, peapods, chopped celery, cut-up broccoli, sliced sweet red pepper, sliced mushrooms...) 
A handful of cilantro 
4-5 scallions
10-14 jumbo shrimp
1 egg
Some cornstarch (for coating egg-coated shrimp)
Hoisin sauce
Soy sauce
sesame oil
Peanut oil (for frying)
RICE (leaving it to you on cooking that)


1. Peel and mince garlic and ginger
2. Peel and chop the onion
3. Chop or slice up the other vegetables
4. Chop cilantro and scallions (they'll go on last)

1. Peel and devein shrimp (or buy them peeled and deveined. The shrimp in my picture are in water because I was thawing them.)
2. Dry the shrimp and dip each one in egg, then cornstarch, and set aside


Proportions are approximate - adjust to taste. 
MIX 3 T soy sauce, 3 T water, 2 T rice vinegar, 1 T sesame oil, 2 T hoisin sauce, a squirt or two of hot sauce (Siracha.)
If you didn't use cornstarch to coat the shrimp, then add a tablespoon of cornstarch to the sauce so it will thicken.
STIR WELL and set aside.

1. Heat a few tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a large frying pan.
2. When the oil is hot, throw in the cornstarch-coated shrimp. Wait a minute. Turn. Wait.
3. When nearly cooked through (just takes a few minutes) and crispy, remove and set aside.

1. In the same pan, turn the heat down a bit and sautee onion first until just translucent.
2. Add the crunchier veggies like red pepper and celery and stir-fry until just starting to soften.
3. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry; when they've softened...
4. Add the rest of the vegetables and stir-fry  until barely done.

1. Dump the sauce over the stir-fried veggies; stir until slightly thickened.
2. Add shrimp; stir.
3. Turn the heat to low and put the lid on the pan.
4. Allow to cook for 2-3 minutes or so.
5. Top with cilantro and scallions and serve over rice.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

There's no place like home... or is there?

HALLIE EPHRON: One of the more fascinating things on the Internet (shhhh, I've had time to wander this week) is an IKEA research report entitled “Life at Home.”  The questions are fascinating.

For example, where do you go when you need a moment of privacy?
Think about it....

Turns out nearly half of Americans say that when they need a moment of privacy, they go sit in their cars.

Have you ever thrown away something belonging to someone you live with without disclosing it? Think about it...
Turns out 40% of your fellow Americans have.

Do you feel more at home somewhere OTHER THAN where you live?
Think about it...
Turns out 35% do.

I know for me, there's no place like home (we only have one). Really. It's where I sleep best, work best, am most relaxed... And we've only lived here for 45 years. What about you?

JENN McKINLAY: This is fascinating. I will have to go look at the whole quiz. For a moment of privacy, I hide in my laundry room, sometimes the bathroom, occasionally, the car.

I throw out other people's things on a daily basis.
No, not kidding. I
live with three men who are incapable of sorting their possessions. The hoarder potential is great in my men. When I toss something and they ask for it six months later, I say, "Oh, it's in storage," which is code for I pitched it.

As for where I feel most at home, I am at home just about anywhere. I can settle into our house, our summer house, a vacation rental, or a hotel pretty easily and sleep, eat, work, and relax just fine. I do miss my furry babies, however, so home is where the heart is.

LUCY BURDETTE:  For privacy, I go to my room (to the mattress!) and I read. It never occurred to me to retire to the car...

Before throwing out, I ask. And advise:). There is no place to sleep or relax like home, though I wish I could be as flexible as Jenn! As for working, the one other place I'm most productive is on a plane. No internet, no phone, no tempting laundry or cooking...

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Huh. Lemme think. For a moment of privacy, I go to my writing study. Or outside, and take a walk. I have never ever sat in the car.  I LOVE to be home-- deeply frighteningly LOVE to be home.

And yes, Lucy, the most productive place is on a plane. I love how much work I can  done.  And get Popcorners! And in hotel rooms I am dandy, cozy and happy, unless they are too bleak or too dark, in which case, seriously, I ask to be moved, because I can't handle that at all.   The only place it is really almost impossible for me to feel at home is at someone else's house. No can do.

Thrown Jonathan's stuff away? Bwa ha ha. (evil laugh.)  ALL the time. He insists on keeping ratty t-shirts--"they're fine!"--and I say no. Gone. Bad regular shirts? Here's my system: First, I move them out of his closet and into another closet, and see if he notices. Time passes. Not a word. If he has not missed them in a year? (or less...) Gone. He has NEVER noticed.

My other move is when he's reading a book he doesn't like. He insists on finishing every book he starts, which drives me nuts. So if he complains for three days or so that he hates a book--I simply disappear it.  And when he asks where it is, I say: I gave it away.  He never cares, and then he can read something he likes.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I am shocked that so many people don't feel at home in their own homes! That's a fascinating study, Hallie. Although I'm very good at making myself feel at home in hotel rooms or rented flats, I love my house and I certainly feel comfortable in it. Too comfortable, I think sometimes. As for privacy, I go outside, or retreat to my upstairs study, or best of all, take a bath in the cozy little bathroom adjoining my study.

And, no, I do not throw things out without asking, not even ratty old t-shirts. I don't know if it's the result of being the eldest of five kids, or of being single for years before we were married, but my hubs is very possessive of his things. The consequences of treading on that delicate area are not worth the benefits. I do, like Lucy, sometimes ask and advise, but very carefully.

I cannot work on planes! This is a whole other post!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING; I love being at home so much I sometimes worry I'm at risk for developing agoraphobia. Except I also like being outside my home. I've never sat in the car for privacy - I wonder if that's the end game of all these "open concept plan" houses everyone says they want these days. My old house has doors everywhere and I love it. I loved it when the kids were small and I could corral them in the playroom between the kitchen and dining room; I loved it when they were teens and I cold read peacefully in the living room while they blasted music and movies in the family room, and I love it now, because with several unused bedrooms, I can close doors and save on heating oil.

Wait - what was the question? Throwing away stuff? Oh yeah. Ross was a mini-horder, and if I hadn't made things disappear, I'd have been buried under piles of detritus. Now I'm going through the Smithie's and the Sailor's former rooms. Am I making judgment calls about what to keep or throw. You bet I am.

RHYS BOWEN: I love both my homes, yet always look forward to going to the other one. I love watching TV in my bedroom. I work in my office but if I need to think through a complicated plot point I drive around in my car and talk it out with myself.  For privacy? I escape to my health club and sit in the sauna, or go for a walk in nature.

Throwing John's things away? Occasionally.... He is an awful horder, keeps copies of every letter he has ever written, clothes that no longer fit him, but I usually respect his stuff. I'd hate for anyone to throw my thing away!

HALLIE: I confess, I'm quite militant about NOT throwing away other people's stuff. Maybe it's because when I was 18 my parents moved from California to NYC without any warning, and without moving any of my stuff. Plus my husband would be very upset with me. And he would notice. Even the holey T-shirts.

Even when I want to throw away something old like a toy or even a prom dress, I take a picture and text it my daughters before I toss it.

And for privacy? Like Debs, I take a bath. It's also the perfect place to take a think.

What about you?

Friday, December 28, 2018

Travel writer Carolyn Heller starts with FOOD

HALLIE EPHRON: Years ago, when I first thought I might like to write books, I took my first writing classes and joined my first writing group. That’s how I met Carolyn Heller. She was raising twin girls, discovering her passion for travel,  beginning what would grow into a stellar career as a travel writer.

Nowadays, Carolyn lives in Canada, and she's a regular correspondent for the Forbes Travel Guide where she reports on luxury travel, culture, and food, and for Hotel-Scoop, where she shares the scoop on lodgings around the globe. She's also a Vancouver local expert for Google's new Touring Bird site.

Reminiscing, now, on how she got started writing travel.

CAROLYN HELLER: In the early 1990s, I was doing marketing work for a software company in the Boston area, and I realized that what I enjoyed most about my position had nothing to do with software; it was the writing and traveling I got to do.

With no real idea of how to get started as a “travel writer,” I found two classes at our local adult education center: one was an introduction to travel writing, while the second was called “The Business of Freelancing.” Taught by the editor of a technology magazine editor who dabbled in freelance travel writing, the latter course was a fantastic introduction to everything from where to find ideas, to how to pitch stories, to how to manage your time. During that class, I sold my first travel piece – about a family trip to the Caribbean with my then two-year-old twins – to the Boston GlobeLos Angeles Times, and several other newspapers.

When the course ended, I asked the instructor to think of me if she was ever approached about a travel project she couldn’t do. And not two weeks later, she called to say that an editor at the Fodor’s guides was looking for writers to help update a New England guidebook, and should she give them my name? That was my entrĂ©e into guidebook writing.

HALLIE: It’s all about making opportunities for yourself, and following your passion. Carolyn, you’ve gone on to write slew of articles and books for various publishers.

CAROLYN: I’ve since done numerous assignments for Fodor’s, spent several years as the Boston editor for the Zagat restaurant guides, and write regularly for both the Moon guides and Lonely Planet. Between these 50+ book projects, I’ve been writing travel articles, too. 

Whether you’re writing a full book or contributing several chapters, travel guides are big projects with lots of short writing – often you’re describing a restaurant, sight, or place to stay in about 50 words – so even a 500-word article can feel like you have plenty of room to spread out!

HALLIE: And your latest book is on Ontario in your adopted country, Exploring Ontario with Travel Writer Carolyn B. Heller.

I moved to Canada from the United States in 2003, and as a travel writer, I’ve been able to do lots of
exploring in my adopted country while calling it “work.” I’ve written three travel guides covering different Canadian regions, including two books – Moon Vancouver and Moon Vancouver + Canadian Rockies Road Trip – about western Canada, where I live. Writing Moon Toronto and Ontarioavailable this month in a new third edition, let me get to know another part of the country. 

Most people know Ontario for its largest city – Toronto – and for its most famous attraction, Niagara Falls. But as I found while researching Moon Toronto and Ontario, there’s so much to discover in this diverse region.

HALLIE: What's your approach to writing an entire guidebook?

Start with the Food

In any place I visit, I always start with food. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, where you can eat
your way from dim sum to bibimbap to baclava. I’ve tried Finnish pancakes in Thunder Bay (which has a large Scandinavian community), checked out local wineries and craft breweries (of course, I had to try “beer pie”), and sampled my way along a “cheese trail” through southwestern Ontario. I was excited to discover gooey, sugary butter tarts, too, which might be Ontario’s signature dessert. You can even follow a “butter tart tour,” traveling from bakery to bakery to find your favorite.

From Outdoor Adventures to Indigenous Cultures

And there’s more to Ontario than food. Bordering four of the
five Great Lakes, Ontario offers plenty of outdoor adventures. You can canoe on the lakes, hike trails that border Caribbean-blue waters, or snorkel among surprisingly intact 19th-century shipwrecks.

In central Ontario, Old Order Mennonites still travel by horse and buggy and sell homemade preserves at local farmers markets. With Ontario’s large indigenous population, you can take a hike with an aboriginal guide or watch a performance
at a First Nations-run theater. Ontario has lots of great museums, too, where you can check out everything from Inuit carvings to Elton John’s platform shoes.

HALLIE: Do you prefer writing about where you live, or where you don’t?

CAROLYN: As a guidebook author, I’ve covered places where I live and destinations that are farther away. Writing about an area that’s not my home base is exciting, since I love exploring new places, although it’s definitely a lot more work. ]

When I researched the first edition of my Ontario guide, I was on the road for almost four months. It’s a big province! For this new third edition, I still spent eight weeks traveling around the region. There are always new destinations to discover and new experiences to try. And of course, lots of new things to eat.

HALLIE:  Start with food! That’s why Carolyn’s travel books are perfect for me.

Anyone else out there ever toyed with the idea of being a travel writer? Seem daunting? Carolyn will be dropping by today to answer your questions, or to hear your WISH LIST of what you're looking for in a travel guide.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Len Rosen on writing fiction/making magic: Aha!

HALLIE EPHRON: I am a huge fan of magic (the how-to of it; stories of great magicians and debunkers like and Harry Houdini and James Randi), and also of Len Rosen's crime fiction ever since I read his first, All Cry Chaos. So I was thrilled to have Len's new novel, The Kortelisy Escape, to read over the holiday.

I whipped through it,
a fantastic twisty, heartwarming grandfather-grandaughter tale that mixes magic and mystery. Throw in a set of Russian nesting dolls... perfect for the season.
Kirkus gave it a starred review: "A master storyteller weaves a tale of love, pain, and sleight of hand.... [A] clever and richly enjoyable novel."

I'm thrilled to host Len today, talking about magic and writing.

In his 1991 essay “The Magic Show,” Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried) finds in his life-long fascination with magic as metaphor for writing fiction.

Successful fiction¸ he claims, like successful stage magic depends on performers using the tools of their trade to create stunning effects. Onstage, a bottle of wine might appear from thin air; on the page, a character’s plight might evoke pity. Both effects are remarkable in that they’re illusions. Both are impossible, yet the impossible is made real.

Like stage magicians, writers conjure illusions so perfectly that we find ourselves rooting for or against people who don’t exist save for strings of letters on a page.
Where does Jane Eyre live, exactly? In a book? In our minds? In conversations with friends? She’s alive, but then again not. Writers are magicians. When we are in full command of our tricks—point of view, framing, plotting, and so much more—we, too, make the unreal real. We move audiences to belief.

I’ve been thinking a lot about magic and writing. My just-released novel, The Kortelisy Escape, concerns the lives of a fourteen-year-old-girl who apprentices herself to her aged grandfather, an amateur magician who’s scheduled to perform magic shows across New England. Grace Larson is an orphan; Nate Larson is an ex-con running from trouble—characters who have good reason to distrust each other. But with time there comes a thaw and, with more time, trust.

is a mystery and a coming-of-age story told through a series of increasingly dangerous tricks.

Magic may be a metaphor, but I employed it literally to drive my plot, and this created challenges. How was I going to use words to reproduce for readers the ultimate surprise and delight of magic shows: the “AHA!” moments at the conclusion of great tricks? That “AHA!” is profoundly non-verbal. Audiences may gasp when a full-size bowling ball drops from a thin sheaf of papers. Their jaws may drop. Their eyes may go wide and they’ll definitely laugh and applaud. What they don’t do in their moments of wonder is talk. Yet words are all a novelist has. How was I going to use words to evoke a wordless experience?
I spent five years answering this question, describing magic tricks from the outside—from the audience’s point of view; from the inside—the magician’s point of view; from the deeper inside—the interior monologue all in search of the elusive “AHA!” Could I reproduce on the page what magicians achieve every night, onstage?

As it happened, Kortelisy’s biggest wonder-inducing moments came not through a depiction of stage magic but through human interaction: through affections unfolding between a wounded old man and a doubly wounded child. I used plot, metaphor, misdirection and every other tool in my writer’s kit to deliver “AHA!” moments to readers.

You can’t fake love and you can’t fake the grand “AHA!”, Nate tells Grace as she struggles to learn and perform her own magic. Nor can readers fake engagement with a story. Either the writer pulls off the effect—empathy for characters who exist only on the page—or not. Either jaws drop or they don’t.

When O’Brien suggests that the deepest mystery fiction explores is character, I understand him to mean this: We can’t have one another’s dreams, can’t know one another’s thoughts and emotions.  At the smell of rolls baking in an oven, I can’t recall, as you do, the Thanksgiving dinner five years ago when your daughter announced she was pregnant. The brutal fact of existence is that we’re radically separated from one other even as we spend our lives seeking connection. Fiction helps us bridge the unbridgeable. The biggest mystery of Kortelisy is not how a grandfather and granddaughter use stage magic to outwit people who wish them harm. It’s how, despite every reason to reject each other, a nearly ruined old man and nearly ruined child instead save each other.

I needed to write a novel about a magician to appreciate fully O’Brien’s account of magic as metaphor. Without the deeper mysteries of real human emotions being plumbed, the writer’s tricks—all the techniques of fiction—can take us only so far. To deliver an “AHA!” experience on the page every bit as compelling (and non–verbal) as those magicians deliver onstage, we writers must use our skills to achieve the greatest trick of all: convincing readers to care for people who exist nowhere but in our heads.

If we can get them to care, we’ve got our “AHA!”

HALLIE: By the end of The Kortelisy Escape, I was rooting so hard for Grace and Nate, but by then trusting that Len would manage the magic needed to save them.

What's your relationship to magic? Do you watch the show and happily suspend belief? (READ LEN'S BOOK!) Or do you need to know how the sleight-of-hand is achieved? (READ LEN'S BOOK!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Jungle Reds books under your tree?

HALLIE EPHRON: Just in case Santa brought you a gift card and you're wondering what to get, here's a few of the latest books from the Jungle Reds to fill your now empty stocking.

Jenn McKinlay
It's murder by the book in the latest hit Library Lover's mystery. When a stack of library materials is found at the scene of a hit and run, library director Lindsey Norris finds herself dragged into the investigation as the police try to link the driver of the stolen car to the person who borrowed the books.

Rhys Bowen
As the Great War continues to take its toll, headstrong twenty-one-year-old Emily Bryce is determined to contribute to the war effort. She is convinced by a cheeky and handsome Australian pilot that she can do more, and it is not long before she falls in love with him and accepts his proposal of marriage. When he is sent back to the front, Emily volunteers as a “land girl,” tending to the neglected grounds of a large Devonshire estate. It’s here that Emily discovers the long-forgotten journals of a medicine woman…

Deborah Crombie
On a beautiful morning in mid-May, the body of a young woman is found in one of Notting Hill’s private gardens. To passersby, the pretty girl in the white dress looks as if she’s sleeping. But Reagan Keating has been murdered... #17 Duncan Kincaid & Jemma James mystery

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Hank’s first standalone. An accused killer insists she's innocent of a heinous murder. A grieving journalist surfaces from the wreckage of her shattered life. Their unlikely alliance leads to a dangerous cat and mouse game that will leave you breathless.

Julia Spencer Fleming
Friday, January 9th. A middle-of-the-night call wakes Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and her husband, Police Chief Russ van Alstyne: a farmhouse has erupted in flames, killing the couple sleeping indoors. A tragedy for the Adirondack mountain town of Millers Kill.
But a darker, more evil current quickly emerges…

Lucy Burdette
The latest Key West Food Critic mystery. Food critic Hayley Snow is thrilled to be working at a three-day international conference at the Harry S. Truman Little White House. But things get off to a bad start when Hemingway’s Nobel prize gold medal (which belongs to Cuba and is on display for this weekend only) disappears. And they only get worse when a body is discovered in the storeroom. Hayley must spring into action before the killer adds another victim to his menu.

Hallie Ephron
Lissie Woodham was only seven years old when her little sister Janey disappeared. They had been in the front yard, playing with their dolls, custom creations made for them by their mother Miss Sorrel, a famous dollmaker. Lissie wandered off for a moment. When she returned to the yard, Janey was gone, and so was her doll. Forty years later, the doll comes back.

Happy Day After Christmas!! AKA Enjoy Leftovers Day.


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

It's Christmas! Warmest wishes to all...

HALLIE EPHRON: On this Christmas morning, the Jungle Red Writers wish you all a delicious, stress free day with good food, family, friends, and whatever brings you joy. Take a time out, toast yourself, and just be.

Here's a picture I took at our local mall just after Thanksgiving when they were setting up Santa. Not a single child had come through yet.

And a Christmas card from my sweet husband.

Leaving you with my favorite lines from Dylan Thomas's wondrous "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Read it aloud to yourself.

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

"But that was not the same snow," I say. "Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards."

Monday, December 24, 2018

'Twas the night before... and please tell me we're not still running errands

HALLIE EPHRON: It's the day before Christmas so why am I in a store? I've been to the market a gazillion times in the last week and yet, inevitably, there's something I forgot. It's usually something boring yet essential. Like eggs. Or heavy cream. Or butter.

In our non-religious household we celebrate with a mishmash of traditions on Christmas eve. No tree, though my grandkids will hopefully create paper-and-sequin ornaments for the potted Norfolk Pine that I've nurtured since it was a sprout and now stands four feet tall in the corner of my dining room. Brisket and potato latkes for dinner. Banana cream pie for dessert (a new tradition).

And after dinner, this year trying something new, charades that our 5-year-old Frances Louise can play with the answers children's book titles (Mr. Brown Can Moo, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom...) 

At some point someone will read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and I'll try, unsuccessfully, to get people to listen to "A Child's Christmas in Wales." We'll listen to "The Nutcracker." And... then I'll probably have to send someone to the 7-Eleven for something I forgot to buy for breakfast.

In the morning, there will always be a Christmas card for me, drawn by my husband. Here's one from a few years back...

Do you manage NOT to have to go to the stores at the last minute? And what's your night-before-Christmas tradition?

RHYS BOWEN: Luckily we have a couple of stores that stay open on Christmas day, so if someone knocks over the carton of eggs, we can replace them.

I try to be organized. I have three big soups made, half a ham for emergencies, hopefully enough mince pies and sausage rolls for between meals. Christmas Eve is low key for us. Both daughter Jane and son Dominic are with in-laws, so it's just daughter Anne, newly arrived from LA with her little dog and us. I have to sing with my church choir at 9 p.m. vigil mass, then we may play a competitive game of Boggle or Scrabble before bed.

On Christmas Day Jane's family arrives for brunch. We open gifts,
Dominic and Meredith meet us to go on a walk, then it's tea, more presents and a big turkey dinner, after which we play something... reverse charades is a new favorite, but Taboo also fun! This year we are without Clare's family from Phoenix, so it's a manageable number that won't require a second dinner table.

I like to think I'm super organized but one year we were thrown a curve ball when the power went out on Christmas morning. We ended up with Chinese take out at our festive dinner table! Now I think I'm better about rolling with the punches... and sorry, too many metaphors in that sentence! Happy Holidays to everyone.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What is reverse charades, Rhys? And
we are having a very quiet holiday..the kids are all in California, so we will have champagne and beef tenderloin and I will gripe that we never have a tree and Jonathan will say we're Jewish and I will say a tree is a tree. That is our tradition!  And I will try not to open any presents on Christmas Eve. We always tried to get mom to let us when were were kids, and she never would. Now I see why.  And maybe we will go see Vice. (And Hallie, now I am trying figure out how to act out Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.. will there be enough room? LOVE that book!)  

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: My last minute item might BE my tree - as of writing this on Friday, I still don't have one, and there's really no time to get to one of the local lots before Sunday. Check with me in the comments to see if I've got it up by Christmas Eve! Maybe I can claim I'm renewing the 19th century German and Austrian tradition, where the tree is erected and decorated in secret
on the night before Christmas and the children first see it in the morning.

Our Christmas eve tradition consists of either Chinese take out or a simple crock pot meal, watching DIE HARD, and attending either the 5pm service (with the Christmas pageant) or the 10pm service (with the Portland Brass Ensemble playing.) Other less-hallowed traditions include everyone asking me where the wrapping supplies are, worrying whether the goose is defrosting fast enough, and staying up much later than I want to in order to... meet Santa when he arrives. In a house full of young adults who stay up later than I do, Santa may arrive very early in the morning instead.

There are always, always last minute ingredients to buy. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be stopping in at the local Hanneford on the way to church. For some reason, no matter how much butter I buy, it's never enough.

LUCY BURDETTE: I think we're having crabcakes and shrimp
for Christmas eve--that will definitely be a day-of purchase. Then we ride our bikes to the 7 pm service of lessons and carols. This year I know my friend Erik is singing O Holy Night--he's got a beautiful tenor voice and I am so looking forward to that! Christmas day we are flying to California to see the kids and grandkids. I'm planning nothing because with 2 kids under 3 years old, it would likely all fly out the window anyway!

Wishing you all a wonderful season...

JENN McKINLAY: I am always at the store on Xmas Eve! It’s a curse I can’t seem to break. Probably, because I usually spend the
day baking before we go to church and I always forget that one random ingredient. Sometimes it’s molasses for a last minute shoefly pie or whatever crazy idea has leapt into my head. This year, because our family lost a beloved member I have not even bought one present. Hub and I are donning our battle gear as I write! Pray for us - we’re going to the mall (gasp)! 

Happy Holidays, everyone. Peace be with you.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Fingers crossed I don't have to go to the store on Christmas Eve! I did part of my my food shopping on
Saturday and picked up a few more things yesterday. 

For years, we've gone to a big get-together at my in-laws on Christmas Eve, starting at five or six and usually not getting home until close to midnight. This year, the party is starting early, at two, in deference to the little ones. So I am really, really hoping that we may get to enjoy a quiet Christmas Eve at home after that.

My dream Christmas Eve  would be spent watching Love Actually with a cup of hot chocolate in front of the fire, then reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales" last thing before I go to bed.

All this, of course, is assuming I'm not still wrapping!! Or cooking! Wishing you all a wonderful holiday!


What are you day-before traditions? Cooking or Chinese food. Love Actually or Die Hard? Goose (really, Julia?!?) or ham? Wrapping or UNwrapping??

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Every Time a Bell Rings by Jenn McKinlay

“Gimme gimme gimme!”When the hooligans were small, I used to warn them against being a “gimme kid”, but let’s face it, the world is against you in this battle. Especially during the holidays, the ads and sales for which now start around Labor Day and are relentless right through to the new year. They simply have to have this toy or that phone or their life will be ruined...forever. Over the years, Hub and I developed a lot of techniques to combat the materialism, but one of my favorite’s is the annual holiday bells.

Holiday Bells 
What are these holiday bells you ask?  They are actual bells that we  put on the tree as ornaments, but each one denotes the charity of our choice for the year. 

So, one year my bell represented my donation to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, while Hub’s was to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, and the hooligans both chose the Phoenix Zoo. I began this tradition when the hooligans were little because I wanted them to actively think of others, about giving to others, and learn the responsibility you have when you have plenty to give to others who don’t. I also wanted them to have the autonomy to choose where they contributed their money in the world. They chose the Zoo for several years, but then when there was a refugee crisis, they opted to give their donation there instead.

The idea was inspired from watching one of my fave holiday movies It's a Wonderful Life and the expression, repeated frequently in the film, "Every time a bell rings an angel gets their wings." I had the thought while watching that it would be lovely to hear holiday bells ring and know for a fact that something good was attached to the ring-a-ding-ding and so the tradition began. 

It's a Wonderful Life
We’re going on eight or so years now, so there are a lot of bells on our tree which makes me smile, especially when one of the cats tries to climb the tree and the bells act as an early warning system. 

This year, we lost a beloved family member in the month of December, so we each chose a favorite organization of hers to make a donation in her name. And the bell I found to represent our giving this year just warms my heart. It’s the tiniest angel, which seems fitting.

This year's bell

What about you, Reds and Readers, how do you combat the materialism and what’s one of your favorite traditions? 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Gone to the Dogs by Jenn McKinlay

JENN McKINLAY: “Five puppies in the bed, and the little one said, “Roll over, roll over.” So they all rolled over and one fell out.” This is a counting rhyme I used to sing when I was a children’s librarian. Now…it’s my life. Why?

Well, way back when when Hub and I got married, I came with Chubs, a cat. Chubs had more staying power than any of my prior boyfriends, so he was allowed to sleep wherever he wanted. Because loyalty matters. Naturally, Chubs chose the bed, and Hub learned to live with it. 
Then we got a dog, Lucy. She was a great dog, a standard poodle, but not a snuggler. She had boundary issues as princesses do. Lucy patrolled the house at night and once assured we were all safe and sound she went to her own room, the office, where she happily slept on the couch, with her legs in the air and her head on a pillow – no, not kidding. 

Sadly, in the following years, both animals passed away. We got two more cats, Patsy and Loretta, who each chose a hooligan to sleep with, and Hub and I had our double bed all to ourselves. Yes, I said double as in a full size, basically a twin on steroids. We were still newlyweds, so we didn’t mind the close quarters. Then we got another dog, a schnauzer, named Otto. 

Otto was roughly the size of a guinea pig when we he came to us. Tiny, pitiful, my little bundle of eyebrows and mustache, I couldn’t bear to stuff him in a crate to sleep. He slept on my chest for months so that my heartbeat could soothe him. Yeah, he was so soothed, he became the most pathetic mama’s boy known to canine kind. I couldn’t (still can’t) take a step without him. Then we found Annie, our pittie mix, thrown out in an alley. She quickly became Daddy’s girl and worked her way up into the bed by batting her big, brown eyes at the Hub, also known as the marshmallow. Plus, she and Otto are besties so where one goes, the other follows.
So now, Hub and I were in a bed built for two with what was essentially another small adult in the bed. Oy vey. Did we kick them out? No. Did we train the dogs to sleep elsewhere? No. We bought a bigger bed, because, of course, we did. Let me just say, king sized is just right. I love this bed so much, I dream about it when I’m traveling and am forced to sleep in lesser beds. 

But then, we found a tiny kitten. King George. At first, he slept on a heating pad in a box (he was that itty bitty), then in a fleecy blanket in his little crate. Once he had some self determination, he moved to the master bathroom sink. Next it was a perch on his cat tree. All perfectly acceptable. But recently, the weather got cold, and I woke up to a pair of feet in my face because Little G had migrated to the bed, too. 

Little G sleeping with the big dogs.

Did I boot him out? Nope. Did I try and roll him over? Nuh uh. Instead, I contorted myself into some weird shape that resembled a fusilli pasta noodle because heaven forbid baby gets deprived of a minute of his twenty hours of cat naps. 

Yes, I know. My life has gone to the dogs..and cat.

So, how about you, Reds and Readers, are you the victim of pets in the bed? Or are you made of sterner stuff?