Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Nutty (Happy, Nervous) Professor

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Behold, I have done a new thing! Actually, it's something I've done before on and off, over the last fifteen years, but the form and setting are quite different. I'm teaching! I am an adjunct instructor at the Southern Maine Community College. Not in creative writing, as you might expect, but lecturing on Technical Communications, an interesting field of "soft skills" encompassing writing to audiences, running meetings, making oral presentations and creating documents and websites collaboratively.

"Julia," I hear you ask, "Haven't you been a full-time writer since 2001? What do you know about running meetings?"

Good question, astute reader. The answer is, I'm tapdancing as fast as I can to keep up. Now, a  lot of the ground covered by "Technical Communications" consists of plain common sense things most of us have learned by our fifties if we have any work or volunteer experience at all. For instance, I delivered an hour lecture last night on cultural variables to be aware of when dealing with people and businesses from different countries - something most of you would have been able to do if you'd A) been paying attention to the news over the years and B) seen the great Michael Keaton/Gedde Watanabe flick Gung Ho.

For the most technical subjects, I'm breaking a sweat reading ahead in the textbook and looking up articles online. I was expressing my worries to Jeff Cohen when we were setting up his blog visit yesterday. "I'm only one chapter ahead of my students!" I said. 

"Don't worry," he replied, from the vantage point of seventeen years teaching undergrads. "Your students are one chapter behind where you think they are."

My students are the other reason I'm able to carry this off. Southern Maine Community College is located in Maine's largest and most diverse metro region, the greater Portland area. Like a lot of community colleges, it has a large share of nontraditional students, older adults (older then the usual 18-22 year olds) who've been in the working world and are back in school to retool or add on to their occupations. I'm teaching two sections of technical communications, and in both classes I've got people who have been employed by (or are still at) large tech firms, high-end manufacturing companies, and regional corporations. 

They're adding their invaluable experience to our classroom discussions, and also helping to confirm to the rest of the students - largely engineering and comp sci majors - that squishy stuff like ethical standards, clear writing and generosity toward coworkers really, truly are important in the working world.

Having an actual job - as opposed to my work-from-home career - is good for me, I think. It's forcing me to be more organized and to stay focused. I'm juggling more than I've had to since I had  multiple kids in school, not to mention the novelty of actually having the meet *ahem* deadlines.

I got the job, more or less, when a friend who was retiring from the position asked me out to lunch last fall. "I want you to take over the class I teach," she told me over pizza and beer. "You need to do something to get out of the house now Youngest is away at university." She was right. I have the world's shortest work week - an hour Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and two hours Wednesday evening - but I genuinely enjoy being in the college environment. I like talking to my students. I've enjoyed meeting my department head and the faculty liaison, and I'm considering attending the monthly adjunct happy hour(!)

One of the most eye-opening aspects of all this has been how well I've taken the whole thing in stride. The last time I stepped back into the workforce after a long absence I was in my mid-thirties, looking for a job after being a stay-at-home mom for five years. I remember agonizing over how to apply, what to say, what to put in and leave out of my resume. I didn't think I had anything to offer the business or legal world. In the end, I joined a temp agency because they literally won't turn anyone down. It took a year of temping to build up my confidence to seriously approach law firms for a real, career-oriented position.

This time, I simply thought about what my friend said, agreed, and sent an email to the woman who ran the department. I pulled together a "resume" in less than an hour, and our face-to-face meeting was relaxed. I felt as if I was as much interviewing her about the position as she was interviewing me about my qualifications. What a difference two decades can make! I wouldn't mind being a redhead again, and I'd love to have my thirty-something knees back (oh, how I used to ski!) but I wouldn't give up the confidence I've earned since then for Jessica Chastian's hair and a pair of bionic joints.

How about you, dear readers? Have any of you jump-started your life with a new thing?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Words Matter, a guest post by E.J. Copperman

 One lucky commentor will win a hardcover copy of \
Bones Behind the Wheel by E.J. Copperman!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Mystery readers and writers are used to our genre getting sliced and diced (no pun intended) by agents, publishers and bookstores. Do you write dark psychological thrillers? Madcap historical mysteries? Police procedurals? Romantic suspense? Most of us - readers and writers alike - would prefer their mysteries classified in one of two ways: Will I like it? Or won't I?

 I know many, many JRW readers put E.J. Copperman's books in the first category. His Haunted Guesthouse series continues to grow in popularity (the newest one, BONES BEHIND THE WHEEL is now out!) and his Asperger Mystery series garners critical acclaim and five star reviews. So love Copperman, love his books - just please think twice about how you describe them...

Photo from Poison Pen Bookstore
Let us, for a moment, consider the term “humorous cozy mystery.”

I am, at least it says in some of the reviews of my books, a writer of humorous cozy mysteries. I have, for the past 17 or so years (but who’s counting?) been making my living as such. You could say, were you so inclined, that humorous cozy mysteries have been the main source of my income for a good portion of whatever career this is.

The problem is, I hate the term “humorous cozy mysteries.”

Now before you get out the torches and pitchforks, let me clarify: I don’t for one second dislike the genre (Subgenre? Sub-sub-genre?) itself. I like mystery novels. I like mystery novels that don’t rub my face in the gory details and try to get me to think that the world is a horrible, depraved, frightening place. There’s the newspaper for that.

I’m a particular fan of those novels – mystery, bloodless or otherwise – that exhibit a sense of humor. I am a comedy nerd. I have little patience for any form of entertainment (art, if you must) that has no sense of humor at all. It bores or irritates me. So I am not by any means suggesting that the type of books I and so many others (who tend to get nominated for awards, but am I bitter?) write are in any way a second-rate art form. Much to the contrary.

It’s the words “humorous cozy mysteries” that I object to. To which I object. Fine. Be a grammar cop. Because words do matter, and those are possibly the most terrible choices available for the kind of stories I tend to write. Let’s take them one at a time:

Humorous. If there’s a worse way to say “funny,” I’m not aware of it. Humorous has an almost sarcastic ring to it, like what you would say to someone who just tossed off an unusually bad joke or pretended an insult was just their way of kidding. There’s a scene in Silver Streak where Richard Pryor jokes that Gene Wilder is more or less acting in a racist fashion. Pryor doesn’t mean it but he makes the joke. Wilder looks at him and says, “Oh, that’s very humorous.” 

It’s the comedy version of pleasant. You might as well say that something is droll or whimsical. Even amusing is better than humorous. It makes comedy polite. Who needs that?

Cozy. Perhaps the worst culprit of the bunch. The word cozy in and of itself demeans the form it describes. If there’s a dead body on the floor and you feel cozy there is something deeply wrong with you, or you just killed that guy. There are no other explanations.

No, cozy was adopted to assure some readers that nothing nasty (sex) was going to happen in this novel and no unpleasant images (sex and violence) would be presented. Cozy says, You’ll be fine. Don’t be afraid. And once you’ve done that to a work of fiction you might as well just say that it’s toothless, pointless and free of any honest human emotion. It will be, at best, cute, a word which is mercifully left out of the phrase humorous cozy mysteries.

Cozy has led to a serious segregation of the form, too. Cozies are separated in the mystery section at the bookstore, they are generally left out of any awards discussion (except the Agatha, and no, I didn’t set out to write a piece about mystery awards), and they tend to feature crafts and baking over, in some cases (not all!) plot and character.

I was once having lunch with a group of cozy authors and discussing the trends of the day in that field. It was observed that the two big features publishers wanted at the time were crafts and supernatural beings, in particular vampires.

Joking, I said, “What about a knitting vampire?”

One of the authors didn’t look up from her soup. “I was offered that one,” she said.


Mysteries. That was a tease. I have no argument at all with the word mysteries.

We should call these things what they are: Funny Mysteries with No Sex or Graphic Violence. Granted, that’s not as catchy as humorous cozy mysteries, but it’s more accurate and less grating to the ear. I’d be happy to hear your suggestions for ways to banish those words from our mystery vocabulary. Ideas?

E.J. Copperman is the author of many funny mysteries with no sex or graphic violence. Wow. That took up a lot of words. Well, the latest one is the 10th (!) Haunted Guesthouse mystery, BONES BEHIND THE WHEEL. E.J. would greatly appreciate it if you’d pick up a copy. You can put it down again after that, but paying for it would be nice.

 E.J. Copperman, is on Twitter as @ejcop, has a web site and a blog, SLICED BREAD.  You can also learn more about his alter-ego Jeff Cohen at his web site,  friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter as @JeffCohenWriter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Lingua Franca

We've got Agatha Award Nominations!
Hank Phillippi Ryan, Best Contemporary Novel for Trust Me and Rhys Bowen, Best Historical Novel for Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding.
Congratulations, Reds! 

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: No. I'm not inviting you all into the gates of hell. That famous phrase is, when translated, the one part of Dante's Inferno almost everyone knows: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Dorothy Sayers translated it to: "Lay down all hope, you that go in by me," while Robert Pinsky's 1994 version is, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." Yes, I have four different translations of The Inferno, three of my own and one belonging to the Smithie. Why? Because I am a great big nerd who loves The Inferno but who cannot speak or read Italian.

Okay, that's not entirely true.  A summer spent touring and working on an archeological dig in Tuscany while in college left me the ability to ask for basic foodstuffs: "Quaranta grammi di formaggio, per favore," the nearest lav: "Dov'è il bagno?" and enough phone-Italian to get the receiver passed on to someone who spoke English (in the days before everyone had phones in their pockets, of course.) Unfortunately, Dante never wrote, "Pronto! Posso palare con Professori Evett?" so my expertise is useless when it comes to parsing his great work.

The thing is, I'm pretty good at languages. I still retain remnant German words from three and a half years in Stuttgart as a child, and I can pronounce written German well enough to fool you into thinking I know what I'm saying. I studied French for eleven years straight, from sixth grade through the end of college, and if I moved to Paris for a few months, I think I could regain fluency. I have a surprisingly large Latin vocabulary despite never having taken a single class - although I spent plenty of time helping all three of my kids with their own Latin homework.  I can even toss out some Spanish phrases - no, not just "Mas cerveza."

So compared to many of my countrymen, I have foreign language chops. Sadly, in the global scheme of things, that's not saying much. Schoolchildren in Europe and Asia routinely begin learning a second language in the very earliest grades, while educated people are routinely fluent in three (including their native tongue.) Meanwhile, here in the US, in 2016 (the last date for such numbers) only 15% of public elementary schools offered language classes. Even in immigrant communities, where you might expect a strong bilingual foundation, fluency drops dramatically each generation. Only one in ten grandchildren of immigrants can speak their grandparents' native tongue.

Critics of the stubborn American  tendency to monoligualism usually point out how we're falling behind in science and international trade etc, etc. I always think of the literature we're missing out on. I remember the first time I got a French poem - comprehended it as a whole thing, without mentally translating it into English first. It was amazing. What would it be like to see plays from Spain's Golden Age of theater in the original? To read War and Peace in Russian? To follow Der Rosenkavalier without surtitles?

So perhaps I should take the plunge and finally start those Italian lessons I've been thinking about for the past...thirty-five years.  Because while this is lovely...

We climbed the dark until we reached the point 
Where a round opening brought in sight the blest
And beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars
And we walked out once more beneath the stars's not this.

Tanto ch'i' vidi de la cose belle
che porta 'l ciel, per un pertugio tondo
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

Dear readers, do you have a second language? Would you like to learn one? Let us know in the comments!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Are You Moved Yet?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We Reds have been chatting amongst ourselves about moving these past few weeks because Rhys and John have recently bought a house in Arizona and have been going through all the attending pains (while Rhys is, if I recall correctly, working to finish five books. I may be wrong about the number, but it's still something insane.)

It's been making me think about my own housing situation and plans. When Ross died, lots of people asked me if I was going to sell our 200 year old house out in the country. Truthfully, the two of us had discussed it in the context of growing old together - should we move closer in to Portland, where we wouldn't have to worry about driving everywhere? Should we plan on certain renovations to the old house, to enable us to "age in place?" Or should we take a lesson from Lucy and her husband John, and winter in glorious Key West? (Ross REALLY liked that third option.)

Once widowed, I decided to NOT make any plans for a while. I committed to staying in place during Youngest's undergraduate years, giving her the chance to come back home every summer and every holiday if she wanted. But there's another aspect to my decision - I HATE the idea of moving. Not "leaving my home" - the whole process of moving.

In the past four years, I've helped at least two friends sort, toss, pack and clean houses to ready for the big move. I dog-sat another friend's pup for almost two months when a job change required her to move asap, and Ross and I hosted friends for a few weeks when their house sold SO fast, they didn't have a replacement selected to move into!

Then there's the period before putting you old house on the market. Your real estate agent will tell you every flaw you've lived with for 10, 20, 30 years has to be fixed. You'll patch, paint, hire an electrician and a carpenter, and then, just when everything is perfect... it's time to list the house. Where's the sense in that?

If you're in the early years of expanding your space and your family, you'll find yourself in a larger home with one sofa and two chairs that look like doll furniture in your new living room. At the opposite end, when you're empty nesters downsizing, you have to figure out how to get rid of the accumulation of twenty-five or thirty years of child-rearing. (I admit, there can be an upside to this - when my parents downsized to a couples-friendly condo, my mom got rid of almost every piece of "kids-can't-wreck-this" furniture, and bought herself beautiful new pieces for every room in the new place. Which had pale fawn wall-to-wall carpeting. Talk about NOT kid-proof!)

The more I think about the sheer grunt work involved in moving, the more staying put begins to appeal. What say you, Reds?

LUCY BURDETTE: You get no argument from me--moving is a beast! When John and I married and I sold my little single girl cottage, it took weeks and weeks of carting stuff in our cars. And more weeks of borrowing a van and trundling a lot more junk to the Salvation Army and Goodwill. 

Our last move was a lot closer, but ditto all the stuff. Plus the moving van fell into the hole where the natural gas tank had just been placed. And then I was depressed for a year--even though the new place was glorious. John's explanation for this was that I have a deep taproot. Moving disturbs the root, no matter how careful you are....

HALLIE EPHRON: My tap root must go all the way to China. I moved into this house 40+ years ago from a 2-bedroom apartment and we're still here. I dream about moving and I'm always miserable. I miss my kitchen linoleum. Right now it's nice having a place that's big enough to accommodate visiting kids and grandkids, not to mention Jungle Reds on book tour. Having said that, if I couldn't afford to have a wonderful house cleaner (she comes every other week) I'd be much more likely to move to smaller quarters.

RHYS BOWEN: the crazy moving lady chiming in. Darling Red sisters, remind me never to move again. We decided that our condo was too small for guests, too small for us both to have work space, and we did not like the way the current management company was running things. 

So we have bought a house. This should not be a huge, stressful move. It's 2 miles and only our winter home in Arizona, not like 40 years in our big house in California with accumulated junk. But it seems we've been carrying across boxes for weeks. There was a major electrical glitch ad we're waiting for the main box to be replaced. The closet doors wouldn't close over the washer and dryer so a man is coming to rebuild the closet. And we are currently like squatters with our two arm chairs, no kitchen stuff, using up food for meals and hoping Ito schedule the movers soon.  And writing to deadline. 

So if you ever hear me say move again, you are to restrain me!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, I'm sure it will all be worth it, but, oh, what a pain. We've been in our house twenty-three years and I cannot even contemplate the horror of moving--although there are days when I'm freezing or roasting in this old house that I'm a little tempted. If I could do it by magic!! Just out of this house one day and everything all organized in a new house the next! Ha. But my taproot is deep, too. I love our house, I love our neighborhood, and I don't really want to live anywhere else. 

I suppose downsizing would be nice--everybody is supposed to want to downsize, aren't they?--but we actually use all of our space. I don't want to give up a guest room (Wren's room when she stays over now) and we both have home offices. Not sharing office space with the hub, just not. So for the moment, I'm just working on decluttering.

JENN McKINLAY: Hub and I are still in our starter home -- bought 20 years ago next month. It's a small, three bedroom, two bathroom brick bread box with a big backyard and a pool. We think about moving and then do nothing. We can not seem to get it together enough to relocate. Maybe when the hooligans leave, maybe not. We are a lazy people and I like my neighborhood and my neighbors ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ so here I stay.


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love our house so much sometimes I worry that it's a problem.  It's too big for us, but it's...perfect. My best move ever was from Atlanta to Boston in 1983. My new employer paid for the whole move. I didn't do one thing, except open the door.  When I arrived in Boston, everything was already put into my apartment. I DID have to unpack some of the boxes, where I found carefully and individually wrapped open ketchup bottles, old newspapers, and half-empty cereal boxes. But ,whatever.  SO I am never going to move gain unless someone else does for me. 

JULIA: What about you, dear readers? Are you game for a move? Or are you staying put till they carry you out? Share your moving stories in the comments!

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Tidying of Books

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Recently our local online magazine had a guest piece by an interior designer on how to style your bookshelves. It wasn't until two-thirds of the way through that she said, "And you can even use actual books!"

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Really? Books on bookshelves? What a concept!

But I have to admit one can go too far in the other direction. While I have been writing, and focused on other things, the books have been breeding.

It's time to do one of my least favorite things--a book purge. These shelves are partly the to-read books, but other things--obviously--get stuck in here, too. And it's not that I want to fill the shelves with decorative accessories--I just want the books not to be stacked three deep and threatening life and limb every time I walk by!

I should probably mention that this is only one side of my office. There are NINE other identical bookcases scattered throughout the house, plus two full height bookcases, and the piles of books on both my desks and on every other surface in the sun porch. And Wren's books, which are stacked on a trunk in the guest room.

Marie Kondo's THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP is all the rage again, with her new Netflix series. It has erroneously been shared that Marie says you should only have THIRTY BOOKS, but she didn't actually say that. I checked. She said you should only keep books that "spark joy", which can be wildly different from one person to another.

But when books are your job as well as your passion, deciding which ones "spark joy" is daunting. There is a lot of guilt involved--books I meant to read but haven't, books I thought might be useful for research but haven't opened, books I thought I would reread...but, will I really? Am I ever going to find the time to read Wolf Hall? Or A Suitable Boy? Or a few dozen (um, hundred) others?

AND, I had been promising my daughter for at least a year that I'd help her clean out her living room bookshelves--because a large majority of the books were mine. Last Sunday, we tackled that. (There's another identical built-in case on the other side of her fireplace.) She ended up with ten full shopping bags to take to Half Price Books--and I brought home four bagfuls that I have nowhere to put!

So, dear REDS and readers, do you have a system for keeping books under control? Which ones stay and which ones go? Please share!!

PS: Here's Kayti's Marie Kondo-worthy "after" shelves!

Don't worry, book lovers. This state of bareness will not last!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

New Things on Old-fashioned TV

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My daughter and I were chatting the other day and it occurred to us that my granddaughter may not know the meaning of the phrase "change the channel." Their TV is all streaming--as is ours, actually, but we have a gadget that gives us broadcast TV in real time. 

 And how weird is it that I even have to explain that, when just a few years ago everyone had all the major channels and scheduled their time around broadcasts? (Wren also expects to be able to watch Frozen or Captain Underpants on any TV at any time, whether at her house or ours.)

Whenever we do a "What We're Watching" on Jungle Red, it tends to be all about the streaming shows we're bingeing on, so I thought it would be fun to talk about what's good on the good old Big 3.  And since I've been living in an entertainment vacuum for the last few months (that inconvenient deadline thing) I've had some catching up to do. (Of course I'm only catching up due to the magic of Hulu, so I suppose that's cheating a bit...)

I hadn't seen The Rookie, the new Nathan Fillion procedural set in LA. A couple of episodes in, it's likeable--I mean, it's Nathan Fillion! But a gentler, kinder, Nathan Fillion. I'll definitely keep watching, although I'm not sure the premise will hold up long term. It's about a middle-aged guy who has a mid-life crisis and decides to become a cop, but is bullied both because he's the new guy and because he's considered too old. So what happens if he makes the grade?)

I also dipped into New Amsterdam, another hospital drama, this one set in a fictionalized version of New York City's Bellevue Hospital. Confession--I was an ER junkie, so tend to be a little jaded. I'll give this one a few more episodes. (Or maybe I'll go back and start ER from the first season--ALL the seasons are on Hulu.)

Then, a big cheer at our house--The Orville is back! This is a weird one, Seth MacFarlane's valentine to the original Star Trek. It's not really a comedy, although it's sometimes very funny. And it's not really a drama, although it sometimes deals with very believable relationships and big issues. What do you know, a show that doesn't fit into a box!! (Neither did Star Trek.) Critics hate it, viewers LOVE it. We are obviously in camp 2.

(I've decided that you should NEVER EVER read reviews of shows you already like, because reviewers will tell you all the reasons why you shouldn't like them.)

There's more sci-fi--Star Trek Discovery is back! Critics like this better. Hmm. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know, and I don't really care. We love this one, too, although it is definitely on the darker side.

Oh, wait, that was cheating a little, wasn't it? Because Star Trek Discovery is CBS All Access, so not really broadcast. 

But having cheated a little, I'm going to cheat some more and go full-on streaming.  

My big thrill at the moment is the adaptation of my friend Deb Harkness's A Discovery of Witches. We're a few episodes in and loving it. I went into it with a little trepidation, I have to admit. It can be off-putting to see books you've loved brought to the screen, especially books with such complex world building. But the casting in this adaptation is terrific, the pacing is great, and in the first few episodes the Oxford scenes alone are enough to make an Anglophile like me swoon. 

Am I allowed one more cheat, since I set the rules here? Tomorrow is the release of the third installment of the second season of Agatha Raisin. I absolutely adore these (much more than the books, in this case,) and LOVE Ashley Jensen, who stars as Agatha. They are deliciously funny and smart--and they are set in the Cotswolds, which we all know is the murder capital of the world!

REDS and readers, what are you watching? Have you gone all streaming or do you still catch a few shows on the Big 3? 

And the really big question--do you read television critics reviews?

Friday, January 25, 2019

Tae the Bard

DEBORAH CROMBIE: On (or near) January 25th, people all over the world with the tiniest Scottish connection celebrate BURNS NIGHT, commemorating the birth in 1759 of Robert Burns, Scotland's most revered poet. He was a good-looking lad, our Rabbie, if Nasmyth's portrait, below, is accurate. (The ladies certainly thought so!)

Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth in the Scottish National Gallery
Born to poor farmers in this cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire, Burns was mostly self-educated, and by the age of twenty-one was thoroughly versed in English literature, including Shakespeare, as well as philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith.

Burns had written his first poems by the age of fifteen. His work celebrated love, lust, humor, tenderness, and the condition of the common man. But for all the critical success of his poems and songs, Burns never rose out of poverty, and died July 21st, 1796, at only thirty-seven years old, his health damaged by years of grueling manual labor.

While most familiar to many Americans as the author of Auld Lang Syne  and To a Mouse (the inspiration for the title of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men,) Burns produced an enormous volume of work in just twenty years. As well as poems in standard English, in Scots English, and in the Scottish language, he wrote and collected hundreds of Scottish folk songs. He was also a reformer, a supporter of the poor and downtrodden, and an admirer of George Washington and the American Revolution as well as the French revolution--at least before its bloody turn.

So how do we celebrate Rabbie Burns? 

The traditional Burns Supper begins with the Selkirk Grace, the prayer attributed to Burns:
Some Folk hae meat that canna eat,
And some can eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
So let the Lord be Thanket!

Then a starter is presented, usually a Scotch broth or Cock-a-Leekie soup.
After that, while a piper pipes, the haggis is brought to the table, where it is slashed open dramatically as someone recites Burns' Address to a Haggis:  
His knife see rustic Labour dicht, An' cut you up wi' ready slicht.
In case you're thinking the haggis is an animal and this is a horribly bloodthirsty performance, let me reassure you--at least partially. A haggis is a traditional Scottish savory pudding made from sheep's heart, liver, and lungs, minced with oatmeal, suet, salt, and spices, encased in the sheep's stomach, then boiled.

It's traditionally served with neeps and tatties--that is, turnips and potatoes.
After the meal, one of the guests makes a speech, known as The Immortal Memory, honoring the great man. Then a toast is made to the "lassies" to acknowledge Burns' fondness for the ladies, and sometimes a female guest will reply with a toast to the "laddies."

The best part of the evening, of course, is the liberal consumption of the best Scottish whisky!

Now, I am appalled to admit that, even having lived in Scotland in the deadest of Januaries, I never attended a Burns Supper, something I profoundly regret.

I did, however, try haggis. 


I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, either. Contrary to our perception of bland British food, haggis is actually quite spicy. (Now I have to look up what spices...) As is necessary to make it palatable, I suspect...

Alas, I will be spending this Burns Night feasting on Chinese takeaway... But maybe I'll break out my best Scottish whisky and toast Rabbie Burns with a wee dram!

REDS and readers, who's celebrated Burns Night, or tried a haggis? And who has a trace of Scots (or Burns) running in their veins? (Robert Burns fathered over a dozen children and his recorded family tree has over 900 descendants.) 

And REDS alert--the winner of Clea Simon's A Spell of Murder is Kathy Reel!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Keenan Powell--Hemlock Needle

DEBORAH CROMBIE: There's nothing we love more here at Jungle Red Writers than welcoming one of our regular commenters to the blog.And what is so fascinating is that we bring so many different places and perspectives to this community. I was so pleased to learn more about Keenan Powell, who we see often in these pages, and her books.

Her debut novel, DEADLY SOLUTION, was just nominated for a Lefty (the awards given by the Left Coast Crime conference) for Best Debut Novel. So huge congrats from all of your cheerleaders here!!

And we are also celebrating the release of Keenan's second Maeve Malloy novel, HEMLOCK NEEDLE! Here's Keenan to tell you more about it.

HEMLOCK NEEDLE and a Nagging Inspiration

Thanks so much, Reds, for having me on your blog today. I don’t always comment, but I follow Jungle Reds. You are a bright spot.

I’m super excited about the release of my second Maeve Malloy Mystery, HEMLOCK NEEDLE.  It was born from a nagging inspiration: a newspaper photograph of a little Yup’ik boy sitting on his haunches behind a forest of adult legs during a Starring ceremony. Although they were indoors, he was wearing his winter coat and he looked uncomfortably warm and I thought to myself, I bet someone told him not to take the coat off because he might lose it.

Keenan's grandson, Brady, as Evan
The Starring ceremony is a Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration. In the villages, people go from house to house spinning huge tinsel stars and singing Christmas carols in Russian, English, and their Native language. Then there is food and drink and then the party moves on to the next house.
In Anchorage, the party takes place at the Alaska Native Medical Center where a large room is set aside for gatherings. That is where the picture was taken.

What intrigued me about this little Yup’ik boy was how he was caught in the middle of a cultural tsunami:  hundreds of miles away from his ancestral home, celebrating Christmas with friends and relatives but also Alaska Natives who had been traditional enemies, altogether in in an essentially foreign city, and he would grow up during an era when his people were fighting to preserve their culture and way of life.

That image was front and center in my mind and I felt like I was never going to get past it unless I gave it a story.

So here’s the story that evolved: In Anchorage, Alaska, Yup’ik Eskimo chief financial officer and single mother, Esther Fancyboy, walks out of a party and into a blizzard. 

She is never seen again, leaving behind a seven-year-old son, Evan.

The local cops say she’ll come home when she’s done partying, but family friend Maeve Malloy doesn’t think it’s that simple. She goes looking for Esther just as she’s getting bad news of her own, a career-ending accusation. When Esther’s body turns up in a snow berm and a witness is shot to death in front of Maeve, she suspects Evan might be in danger. Maeve must race against time to save the boy – along with her career, and maybe her life.

Since I have practiced law in Alaska for over thirty-five years, I was able to draw on my experience working with Yup’ik people. One time, I watched a white politician give a speech to a roomful of villagers on the topic of subsistence lifestyle (politician against). On another occasion, I visited fish camp near the village of Kwethluk when I was working on a fishing right case and I was struck by how joyous the folks were as they worked by the riverside. In particular I remember one man who walked gracefully across a rocking boat onto the beach, his body reacting instinctively to the gentle movement of the river beneath his feet, having spent his life on that river.

And for what I didn’t know, I lucked out. My grandchildren’s other grandmother is Yup’ik from Eek, Alaska. She advised in particular on a birthday gift that my character Esther had been making for her own grandmother when she disappeared. It was her opinion that my Esther was a good Yup’ik girl.

In celebration of my release, I’d like to give away a copy of HEMLOCK NEEDLE to a commenter. Is there an image in your head that refused to go away? Did you do something with it? Paint, draw, music, wrote, made up a little story, told your best friend about it over coffee? Or, tell us about your grandmother or your grandkids.

You can order HEMLOCK NEEDLE here.

DEBS: Don't tempt me on the granddaughter or my grandmother! But I am so curious about Alaska, and the culture you've portrayed so vividly for us here, Keenan. AND I want to know what happened to Esther, and to Evan.


Keenan’s first publication was illustrations in Dungeons and Dragons, 1st edition, drawn the summer before finishing high school.  Art seemed to be an impractical pursuit – she wasn’t an heiress, didn’t have the disposition to marry well, and hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. The day after graduation, she moved to Alaska.
She practiced criminal defense for many years, taking on a wide-range of cases all the way from murder to Alaska Native fishing and hunting rights. She continues to practice law in Anchorage, Alaska.
She was one of the 2015 recipients of William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic grant, currently writes a legal column, Ipso Facto, for the Guppies’ newsletter, First Draft, and blogs with Mysteristas.
Her first Maeve Malloy Mystery, DEADLY SOLUTION, has been nominated by Left Coast Crime for best debut.
Visit her at where you can learn more about her writing, about Alaska, and sign up for her newsletter.

Keenan Powell

Hemlock Needle (Level Best Books, 2019)
Deadly Solution (Level Best Books, 2018)
“The Velvet Slippers”- Malice Domestic 12 – Mystery Most Historical (Wildside Press, 2017)
“The Cattle Raid of Adams” – Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat (Level Best Books, 2017)
“The Banshee of Adams, Massachusetts” – Snowbound (Level Best Books, 2017)
“Muskeg Man” – Mystery Most Geographical (Wildside Press, 2018)