Sunday, March 31, 2019

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Usually my Sunday recipes are some variation of an easy dinner, because what else is Sunday for? However, I'm not overflowing with dinner inspiration these days, because I find now I live alone I tend to cook one real meal per week, and flesh it our with quickie pasta and sandwiches. It doesn't sound like much, when when eating solo, a single pot of stew goes a looooong way.

So today, I'm sharing a spectacular, but not too hard dessert courtesy of my friend (and Jungle Reds commentor) Celia Wakefield: Lava Cakes.

You may remember Celia's delicious, impressive and easy summer dinner. Her lava cakes are the same way. It's a scrumptious 'restaurant' kind of dessert, but it turns out the only special thing you need to have on hand is not that special - individual ramekins. I got a set of six for $6 at Dollar  Tree, and you can probably find deals as good at the Christmas Tree Store. (Why do they have so much stuff unrelated to Christmas? I have no idea. But I've found it's a great place for low-cost glassware and, surprisingly, lamps.)

Celia suggests doing each step all the way through, and don't try to do more than one  thing at a time. To that I can add, focus, focus, focus. The second time she made this when I was a dinner guest, I was in the kitchen "helping" (ie, we were both talking nonstop and enjoying rather stiff drinks) and the inner part of the cake didn't remain gushy. This is a recipe that demands strict attention to the measurements and mixing. Celia is British, so she even includes grams for our Canadian and continental readers.

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes For Two

These Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes for Two are the perfect small batch dessert! These lava cakes are incredibly easy to make and ready in less than 30 minutes. I found that the mix would fill three ramekins and still be a good size. This recipe can be doubled for 6 people.

 Prep Time10 minutes
 Cook Time  10 -14 minutes (at 10 minutes start checking)


1/4 cup (60 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces semi-sweet or bitter chocolate chips
1/2 cup (60 grams) powdered sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup (32 grams) all-purpose flour - spoon out then level
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Spray two or three 6-ounce ramekins well with nonstick cooking spray and place on a baking sheet. Set aside.

Cut the butter into pieces, and add with the chocolate to a large microwave safe bowl (Pyrex or other glass works well).

Microwave in 30 second increments, making sure to stir well after each increment, until melted and smooth. (Do not over cook, recommend taking out after 30 seconds and working the chocolate into the butter with a spatula. It’s a better result for the chocolate).

Whisk the powdered sugar  into the chocolate / butter mixture until well combined.  Mix the eggs and vanilla together, then fold gently into the chocolate mixture until  combined.

Fold in the flour and espresso powder gently; do NOT over mix the batter. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared ramekins.

Bake at 425° for 12-14 minutes or until the edges are firm and the center is slightly soft (the center should look soft and won’t rise). 

Remove from the oven and allow to stand for a minute. Cover the ramekin with a small plate or bowl and invert. Careful, the ramekin is very hot. Add whipped cream or ice cream, serve, and enjoy!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

To Tell The Truth

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The literary world has recently been abuzz with the story of AJ Finn, the author of the bestselling THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. It turns out that Finn, under his real name of Dan Mallory, is a publishing executive how seems to have gone through life lying about everything - his health, family members being dead, advanced degrees, work experience, etc, etc. The story the New Yorker did about him is amazing - and perhaps the most amazing part is being exposed as a four-Pinocchio pants on fire guy hasn't hurt his career at all.

Another New Yorker, who hasn't landed quite on her feet, is Anna Delvey, the "Soho Grifter," who spun a web of lies about being an heiress that enabled her to live like one for quite some time - until hotels and art galleries began to demand payment. She's now on trial for grand larceny and theft of services, but even in the courtroom, she's managed to show up wearing Michael Kors, Yves Saint Lauren and Victoria Beckham. How is she paying for it? Well, she is very good at talking people into giving her things. 

The part that amazes me about folks like Mallory and Delvey is how they live with themselves. I don't mean morally and ethically - I mean how can you lie and lie without having a heart attack from the anxiety of getting caught?

I was a terrible liar as a child, in that I would attempt a bald-faced assertion that I hadn't gotten into the chocolate chip cookies with crumbs at my feet and chocolate smeared on my mouth. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I mastered the kindly lies that make people feel better - saying, "Isn't this lovely!" instead of "I already have this," when getting a gift. 

As an adult, I got better, as one does. I lied every time Ross asked me if I could see his bald spot. No regrets. I would also lie when he would ask me, while I was away on book tour, if I missed him. Well, he was at home, cooking dinner, driving kids, settling arguments and cleaning out the litter box - all things I would be doing were I at home. Meanwhile, I was getting room service in a Hilton in Houston or Denver, and would be picked up in the morning by a cheerful escort to be driven around town to places where people treated me like a rock star.

"Oh, yes, sweetheart, I miss you a lot." Not sorry for that one, either.

I've gotten out of a few tickets for things like not having my registration up to date or going past my inspection, but I suspect those were more about looking like a helpless white-haired lady than my convincing claim that, "I didn't realize it was due last month!" And of course I have a long track record of telliing my editor my manuscript would be done on X date, and not coming through - but at the time I said it, it was the truth. I'm just utter rubbish at estimating my writing speed.

So Reds, have you ever told a little white lie? Tried to skip out of trouble? Pour oil on troubled waters? Has a lie ever backfired on you?
JENN McKINLAY: I'm a very good liar. Seriously, it's like a super power and usually even I'm surprised at what comes out of my mouth. For example, a friend and I were driving in New Haven (college days) and I swerved into the lane beside me because I was rocking out to the Ramones, and the guy I cut off rolled up next to me and began to chew me out (deservedly so). I looked right at him and said, "I'm so sorry. I lost a contact lens and I can't see a thing!" He blinked and said, "Oh, well, drive safe!" At which point, my friend and I drove off, cackling with the Ramones still cranking. Truly, I had no idea I was going to say that and it totally worked! That being said, I haven't had to wield my "gift" much since the misspent days of my youth. I hope it hasn't atrophied. LOL.

RHYS BOWEN: It turns out I'm a good liar too. When the Reds had the famous Name That Red panel and each had to make up outlandish stories I was the one who fooled the audience every time... to the point when I thought there should be some career advantage in being such a bare faced liar! In real life I was brought up in a strict Christian household and would be sweating bullets if I lied. I think the worst I ever did was to tell my parents I was going to a G movie when in fact it was more PG. But I have been good about keeping surprise parties secret with appropriate fibs.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers?  Have you been telling fibs? Now's the chance to confess all...

Friday, March 29, 2019

Anchors Aweigh

Julia Spencer-Fleming: So a little over two weeks ago, I made a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, to do something I've never done before - see my son off on his first deployment. Petty Officer Spencer Hugo-Vidal - known here as The Sailor - and some three hundred shipmates are off as part of the US 5th Fleet operations in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The USS Gonzalez is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and like all destroyers in the US Navy, is named after a Medal of Honor recipient - in this case, Marine Corps Sgt. Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez, who displayed unbelievable courage in the Battle of Huế and lost his life after saving his entire platoon.

Two days before the Gonzalez shipped off, Spencer's lovely girlfriend Veronique Pretlow - who also took these gorgeous pictures -  and I got to tour the ship! It was amazing how MUCH the Navy manages to fit in these ships. Crew can spread out a bit in the mess, but most of the doors, passageways and ladders are built with slim people no taller than 5'10" in mind. Luckily for Spencer, that describes him perfectly.

Since the US Navy isn't keen on civilians snapping a lot of pictures of the interiors of their ships, I only have one shot from inside: the Gonzalez's name plate. Why did I want this? Because the keel was laid down the day my son was born, both of them on the coast of Maine, only 36 miles apart. 

 I took Spencer and Veronique out to dinner - we did BBQ both nights. One thing the Tidewater VA area has lots of is fabulous BBQ. Here's my boy with his VERY regulation haircut. When I was a kid, we called these "Baldy sours."

I spent part of the day before they left port helping out with the shopping. The ship has its own small store, but if you want any choice in your toiletries, etc., you need to bring it along. Among the things I bought? One bottle of 80 SPF sunscreen for every month Spencer will be gone. The sun can kill you, you know...

And then it was the morning of their departure! Spencer and Veronique picked me up from my hotel at 0700. It was a beautiful morning, as promised (if you believe the old rhyme) by the red sky the night before. The ship was buzzing - friends and family were everywhere, sailors were showing them around, and at the same time, working on the complicated process of getting an 8,315 ton, 505 foot long vessel underway. 

We got to take part in an on-deck briefing for the Internal Communications Electricians and meet the Chiefs and Master Chief. Here's a picture of the whole team.

 At 0900 hours, it was time for all civilians and Navy personnel who weren't deploying to leave the ship. Veronique and I said goodbye...

And Spencer watched us as from the quarterdeck as we walked along the pier.

Have a safe cruise, Sailor! Anchors aweigh!


Thursday, March 28, 2019

I Used to Love You, But Now...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: There's been a lot of discussion online the past few days whirling around an essay written by  Tracy Clark-Flory. Titled "Jagged Little Pill is Actually Very Bad???" it describes how the author, re-listening to Alanis Morrisette's groundbreaking 1995 album, discovered her tastes had changed dramatically from when, as a middle schooler, she had swooned over "You Oughta Know." It was, she said, objectively bad.

The piece prompted quite a few counter-essays, and Twitter blew up, with the most common reaction being a variation of "I've got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is flipping you off." 

It also got a lot of people quoting from author Jo Walton's 2010 essay, "The Suck Fairy." Here's her definition of this extremely useful concept:

The Suck Fairy is an artifact of re-reading. If you read a book for the first time and it sucks, it’s nothing to do with her. It just sucks. Some books do. The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading—well, it sucks. You can say that you have changed, you can hit your forehead dramatically and ask yourself how you could possibly have missed the suckiness the first time—or you can say that the Suck Fairy has been through while the book was sitting on the shelf and inserted the suck.

We can all instantly recognize the truth of this. Books, movies, food, places - all can be visited by the Suck Fairy. When I was a
kid, we had a special meal reserved for nights my parents were going out - Kraft Mac 'n Cheese and fried Spam. I LOVED that meal. Not only was it tasty, but the babysitter would let me read at the table while eating, which my parents would never do. Then we moved, (and moved, and moved), I grew up, and I went for a decade and a half without eating fried Spam.  Finally, as an adult in my own apartment, I prepared the delicious dish for my boyfriend, Ross. His mother had basically cooked with cans of soup and frozen food, so he was up for anything. I fried up the Spam, plated the Mac n Cheese and... discovered my tastes had dramatically changed since I was ten. Everything was too salty, the Spam had a weird texture, the joy and excitement of the meal was missing. I had spent the past two years in grad school, reading while eating because I had to to get everything done; the magic was gone.

The Suck Fairy had gotten to my dinner.

Sometimes it's the world that has changed, not us. I found this out when reading the Little House books aloud to Youngest. Just as I had when I was a girl, she loved the adventures of Laura, and thrilled to the descriptions of the vast woods, the great prairie, the blizzards and the trips to town. Meanwhile, I was horrified to realize 1. Ma was working like a DOG twelve hours a day or more (seriously, read the description of making cheese and your knees and hands will begin to hurt vicariously.) 2. Pa was breaking federal law and violating treaties with Indian nations to steal land for himself and 3. the books are flat-out racist in their descriptions of Indians.

The Suck Fairy strikes again!

Amusement parks, TV shows of my childhood, movies I thought were funny but turn out to be one long "joke" about being stoned...there are many, many things that don't stand the test of time. How about you, Reds? What are the books or movies or experiences has the Suck Fairy ruined for you?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Beefaroni. I used to love it! Love! Now it' Frozen orange juice--used to be such a treat. Now--weird. Who would drink that? Nancy Drew books, goes without saying. But I hold on to the result of the books, not the books.  (You know what, though? Friends is still funny. And Seinfeld.) Do you think Raising Arizona would still be funny? I'm afraid to watch it.  Oh, I wonder about Big Macs, too. Again, afraid for so many reasons.

LUCY BURDETTE: Canned tamales. The kind with orange congealed fat on top when you open the can. I would scrape that stuff out and then eat the rest myself. Ick. Boboli pizza crust. Frozen pot pies. Rice-a-roni. Mac and Cheese in a box. All of that is no more. Oh, and I insisted to John and my sister and Brother-in-law that The In-laws with Peter Falk was the funniest movie ever ever ever. I made them watch it this fall and guess what? Hardly a chuckle. Bummer.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Vienna sausages. My friend and I used to pretend-camp with cans of Vienna sausage and a box of Triscuits. We loved them!! Now, I shudder to think. What is in those things??? Hostess Twinkies. Nuff said. Julia, my special treat when my parents were out or traveling was eating Swanson's Chicken Pot pies in front of the TV with my grandmother. I could still eat a chicken pot pie in a pinch, but they are awfully salty. And gummy. I'm afraid the thrill is gone. 

The Bobbsey Twins. Ack. Racist. Sexist. Not that the newer PC versions were an improvement.
And recently I've been reading Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit to my granddaughter, who finds it fascinating. But I'm thinking it's a little...creepy. And it really makes me want to put those good-girl bunnies in a pie.


HALLIE EPHRON: I LOVED those canned tamales. But back in the day, Mexican food hadn't become a thing in my neck of the woods. And I'm here to tell you, Big Macs are still delicious. With extra pickles. Also still amazing are potato chips with sour cream and onion soup mix dip.
The things I used to love but can no longer face except under duress? Fruit cocktail. Cheetohs (speaking of orange). Campbells vegetable soup – “alphabet soup.” Red Jell-O. My after-school snack was Ritz crackers schmeered with peanut butter.

I grew up loving what we called "mushroom potatoes" -- basically scalloped potatoes drowned in a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. I made it the other day and it was... delicious.

JENN McKINLAY: Does blue eye shadow count? Because I loved me some deep blue and metallics pink eye shadow in the 80's. I also used to love shopping malls and now I don't hate them so much as can't find my way out and so avoid them. Otherwise, I have to say my inner child is still pretty much large and in charge and I still love all the goofy stuff of my misspent youth.

RHYS BOWEN: When I was a new bride older women were always giving me recipes that contained cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, Kool Whip and Jello. They were actually pretty tasty (not so much the jello with fruit and marshmallows in it). 

But recent disappointments include watching Rudolph on TV. Everyone is so horrid to a kid because he is different. What sort of message is that? They only love him because he saves Christmas!  And also Mary Stewart books used to be my favorites but when I've re-read recently I've been horrified at the holes in the plot. She creates such a good atmosphere that I didn't notice them before.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? Has the Suck Fairy been rummaging through your childhood memories as well?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Taking Pride

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: So a couple days ago, I spotted a certain quiz result popping up on Twitter. You know the sort - what drink are you? What's your house at Hogwarts? I normally ignore the impulse to jump in and take the test, mostly because I read an article once about SCARY EMAIL FARMERS taking your address from Buzzfeed quizzes and using it to send unsuspecting people spam offers for opioids and generic Viagra.

But this one I took, because it was a vocabulary test. Here's my result:

That's right, I've got a huge vocabulary. Bigger than several other authors, and I know, because I spent an hour searching for similar results on Twitter. I am wicked proud of my vocabulary - but it struck me, as I was patting myself on the back, that I have no idea why I get so much self-affirmation from being a walking dictionary. 

It's not like I use a lot of $14 words when writing fiction. On the contrary, I try to keep my language somewhat stripped down. (Although I did use the word defenestrate in one of my books. It's delightfully precise, that word.) I speak pretty much like everyone else - I may have an active vocabulary of slightly more than the average 20,000 words, but lets face it, shopping at Hanneford, going out for pizza and chatting with neighbors at the town dump transfer station doesn't require one to use the words lugubrious or teratogenic. (I did use the word thermocline when talking to Youngest the other day when describing the heating up process - or lack thereof - of our shower.)

I haven't even monetized my achievement by tutoring kinds on SAT vocabulary words. (I understand that in the right neighborhood, tutors can get up to $15,000 these days!)  I have to conclude I'm proud of my suberabundant  lexicon just because it's cool to me, in the same way some folks are proud of their completely alphabetized vinyl collection or their ability to play the Peruvian nose flute.

It got me thinking about the other utterly useless skills in which I glory. Being able to wiggle my nostrils (maybe I should try to Peruvian flute.) The ability to make perfectly engineered book covers out of paper grocery sacks (this is useful, except stretchy book covers are less than a dollar and don't take thirty minutes to put on.) The way I can pick out and sing the harmony line while listening to pop songs on the radio. 

There are many things that stir pride in us because they are genuine accomplishments. There are others - hopefully fewer - that we take pleasure in because they enable us to also be quietly superior, like making perfect lane-to-lane turns in traffic or having the cleanest and best-sorted recyclables at the Transfer Station. (Okay, I was talking about me. Did you guess?) 

But there's a happy purity to achievements that just don't mean that much to anyone else - like learning to play the ukulele, or being able to recite all the states capitols in alphabetical order (by state, of course.) In our culture, where everything has to be branded, monetized, useful and busy, it's a sweet thing to know you can recite all of Evangeline - even if absolutely no one will ever ask you to do so.

How about you, dear readers? What useless skills and accomplishments do you delight in?

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

What The Heck? I Don't Understand This.

 Hi, everyone, and welcome to another edition of What the heck?I don't understand this! I'm your host, Julia Spencer-Fleming, a middle-aged woman wandering through an ever-changing world with a confused expression on her face. If you're like me - and why wouldn't you be? - you also have a few things that pop up on your radar that make you tilt your head sideways and say, Really? Really??

1. Contour make-up in real life. Yes, I know Kim Kardashian does it. But have you ever seen Kim Kardashian at the Stop & Shop? No, you only see her on Instagram, where, with the help of professional lighting and filters, the bronze streaks along her nose and under her cheekbones are transformed into glistening shadows. You, lady who is selling me lip tint at Sephora, are not in a picture. There are no filters hovering between your face and the rest of the world, which is why you look like someone doing a bad and maybe a little racist American Indian "face paint" cosplay. Repeat after me: makeup is meant to enhance your features, not carve out hollows that don't actually exist. If that's what you're going for, hit it hard and just write "Narrow Angular Nose" above your nostrils.

2. Jukebox musicals. Youngest and I argued over this. She thinks taking the Carole King oevre, slapping it around a bit with some plot and then releasing it to the public with the startling original title of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a great idea. Maybe it is if you've never heard Tapestry? The "writers" of jukebox musicals have already run through most of the big acts of the 50s -80s; if they're not stopped soon, we'll all be buying tickets to When I'm Gone: The Three Doors Down Musical. Caveat: if they make a musical about the Dixie Chicks I am first in line, baby.

3. CBS All Access. Between me and my daughters, we subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (and I think the Very Tall Boyfriend gets HBO Go?) Why should I pay yet more to see Star Trek and The Twilight Zone?  I'm pretty sure I can see William Shatner tearing up the scenery in both shows on basic and You Tube. 

4. Shallow. Shall-lal-lal-lal-lal-low. Yes, Lady Gaga does an awesome jump up to the top of her register a la Whitney Houston in the bridge of this song. But am I the only one to think it's a little...short... for a pop song? You know, he's asking "Girl", she's asking "Boy" there are some la-la-las and then boom, it's over. You don't notice this when you watch Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform, because you're sitting on the edge of you seat mentally screaming, "Kiss already!!!" But on the car radio? You barely have time to register it before they break for an insurance commercial.

5. Huge pimped-out, jacked-up pickups that are polished to a high sheen. Dude, a truck is a working vehicle. Something that's going to flip over if you have to drive it around the back of the barn doesn't cut it. The cut-outs of rams you've installed over your rear lights send a message, but I don't think it's the one you intend.

6. The College Bribery Scandal. Actually, having been driven nearly insane by my own kids' college searches, I can totally understand the parents who found themselves paying $250K while telling young Matilda or Wyatt that it's perfectly normal to take the SAT at home, why, have you heard differently, sweetheart? What I can't understand is why it's legal to pay $2.5 million for a building to get your kid in. If that's how universities are going to play it, we should all be able to get in on the action. I'll donate a giant box of toilet paper and a stack of spiral notebooks - students need those as much as they need a new swimming pool.

7. Athleisure. We tried this in the 80s, folks. The fact it's spandex and microfiber instead of Velour doesn't make it any better.

8. The Delaware tolls between New Jersey and Maryland. Having recently taken a trip to DC, Norfolk and back, I was once again struck by the fact it costs something like $80 to cross the Delaware Bridge and continue on I-95. You're in the state for 15 miles. The only thing more expensive per square foot is Manhattan real estate. I'm convinced 100% of the Delaware state budget is comprised of corporate filings and tolls.

9. The ever-increasing length of superhero movies. The upcoming Avengers: Endgame is allegedly hitting the theaters at a touch over three hours.  Its predecessor, Avengers Infinity War was two hours and forty minutes long.  My bladder isn't superpowered, folks. If this continues, we'll need to bring back intermissions, like they used for The Ten Commandments (3 hours 40 minutes) and Gone with the Wind (3 hours 58 minutes). Maybe we can combine an interval with usherettes bringing around candy and popcorn on trays. If theaters can increase their concession profits, maybe they'll keep ticket prices down for a bit. It's not bad in Maine  around $11 where I live. But holy cow, they're up to $16+ in California and NY.

10. Since I wrote this blog while listening to I Heart 90s radio (I just discovered this interesting resource on Alexa) I have to conclude that I really don't understand why 50% of 90s pop consists of lovely, stripped-down music, interesting lyrics and heart-touching emotions - and the other 50% is absolute dreck. I mean, there are acts I'm not wild about from other decades, but I don't want to jam a spoon in my ear like I do when hearing "MMM-Bop" or "Every Morning." Oh, 90s pop. What are you doing to my achey, breaky heart?

How about you, dear readers? What makes you say, What the heck? I don't understand this!

Monday, March 25, 2019

Spring Break

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING; Youngest has just returned to university after her Spring Break, which consisted of staying home for a week, alternately sleeping, lounging, napping, lazing and taking it easy. (To be fair, she did bring in wood for the wood stove every day and washing a whole PILE of dishes, so I can't complain.)

Spring Break has long been sold as a  bacchanalia for youth, a week of sun, fun and booze that's a must-do while in college. According to my extensive research (I read Mental Floss) Spring Break's first iteration in this country began when Fort Lauderdale opened Florida's first "Olympic" pool back in 1928. Competitive swimmers would come down for training in March, and over the years, it became a combination training camp/social event for student athletes from across the country.

Needless to say, other students noticed their peers returning to campus with tans and big smiles on their faces, and in 1960 the modern version of Spring Break became a defined by Where the Boys Are which I've never seen, but which sounds like a bit of a downer (spoiler: boys can't be trusted and girls who have sex get sideswiped by cars. Good girls get George Hamilton!) The scenery was terrific, though, and it started a rush to beaches all up and down Florida's Gold Coast, followed by Key West, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, etc. etc. 

I don't remember ever doing Spring Break myself. My parents were extremely open-handed about anything to do with education, but a trip to Florida with 10,000 other college students wasn't the kind of education of which they approved. The Smithie spent one Spring Break having fun with friends in New York City - one set of parents had a pied-a-terre - and another getting extra hours at her work-study job. In my circle nowadays, if kids are going on a warm-weather vacation, they have to do it without access to the parental pocketbook.  As one mom told me, "If I could afford a trip to Cancun in March, I'd take it myself!"

Which make me think - maybe what we need is Adult Spring Break. Let's face it, in 90% of the continental US, late March is a trial, ranging from "when is the grass going to get green" to miserable snow and sleet. There's no better time to get away to some place with warm, flower-scented breezes and drinks in coconuts. 

As adults, we can afford our getaway - we don't have to ask mom and dad to help out. And we'd be much better guests for tourist destinations: we tip well, we stay in hotels with good mattresses, and we'll never bother the locals with loud partying at 1am, because we all go to bed at 10. Instead of spending money for our kids to swan off to tropical islands, we can pay them to house sit. "Don't forget the cat's special allergy food! See you in a week!"

Reds, do you have any memorable Spring Break experiences? And what do you think of my idea for Adult Spring Break?

JENN MCKINLAY: I worked all through college so I usually worked all through spring break, but I did take off to the Bahamas for spring break during my sophomore year and it was a blast. My favorite part was hopping on a bus and taking an unofficial tour through the non-tourist parts of the island. It was on a Sunday, so the ladies all had their church hats on and there were chickens scrambling through the aisle. Oh, and the accents. Caribbean accents are just divine, aren't they? I am raising my hand in favor of an adult spring break. Take me away!

HALLIE EPHRON: When I was in college, I never had the money to go exotic places on spring break, and I couldn't go home because it was on the opposite coast, so I pretty much stayed at the college or visited friends whose families lived nearby. Or maybe the concept "spring break" simply hadn't yet been invented. As a grownup, I once had the misfortune of once (accidentally) being in Key West during spring break. Lucy can talk about what a bad idea that is. It is my firm belief that spring breaks should be taken in the dead of winter.

RHYS BOWEN: At college in England we had an Easter break but I remember using it to study hard as exams were in June. My kids certainly did cool spring break things, going on the combined UC ski trip to Aspen and Whistler. I'm not sure where the money for that came from. Certainly not from me. But they did have jobs in college. I'd rather have an adult summer camp, or rather  mommy' summer camp where we can hike, swim, do crafts, relax on hammocks, cook marshmallows and laugh around a campfire with plenty of good food and wine. Who is in with me?

JULIA: My kids went to an amazing summer camp, and I told the director for years if she opened a week for adults, she'd be booked in five minutes.

LUCY BURDETTE: Seems like all of March in Key West is now spring break. At this point we try to work around the busiest places--forget about the beaches, bars, Duval Street--and make any reservations well in advance. I think the worst is the crazy people on scooters with no helmets racing around town. We always leave a little extra time to get anywhere!

I don't remember going on spring break either--it must be a newer invention, and yes! I'm in for adult spring break, though can we write a little too? I'm behind on everything!

JULIA: Maybe for folks in tourist-heavy vacations, Spring Break can be a (frozen) lakefront cabin in Minnesota!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: No spring breaks for me, I'm afraid. It seems like I was always studying through any sort of breaks in college. In any case, I couldn't have afforded it, and my parents certainly wouldn't have paid for it. But, yes, I'm all for adult spring break! I'm imagining a bunch a writer friends, getting together for a couple  of days visit with some sightseeing, good food, and walks on the beach. I'd be thrilled with a hammock and a book, too.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Debs, absolutely. Spring break. Spring Break....did we have that? I know there were movies about it, with, like, Annette and Frankie Avalon, and that was when I was about 13. But when I was in college? I have no memories, not one, of spring break. We used to mourn the winter in what we called the January Flats, the horrible bleak January in Ohio. And yes,  then there was a February break. Huh.  I remember now. Sort of. Okay. I think---I stayed at school? Or maybe--went with my family somewhere? But "spring"? Oh, gosh, scary, I have no spring break memories. I'll call my sister.

And I was just thinking today about how I'd love a little vacation. Somewhere sunny. But vacation to me means I can work! Just in a warmer place where there are margaritas at night. So yeah, I'm in!

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? Any good Spring Break stories? And do you want to start planning for Grown-Up Spring Break '20?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Feeding the Sourdough Monster

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I was a whole wheat bread-baking hippie mom back in the eighties. I lived with well-thumbed copies of Laurel's Kitchen and Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. For a few years I kneaded by hand, and I made pretty good bread. Then I got a bread machine, and those loaves were pretty good, too. But, eventually, we got busier (I started writing novels, for one thing), the daughter was not so impressed with Mom's home baking, the bread machine wore out.

For years my baking genie lay dormant. We ate store-bought whole wheat sandwich bread, and I only dreamed of French baguettes. 

But in the last couple of years, I've become obsessed with sourdough bread. The bread in my hippie baking days was made with processed baker's yeast, you know, the rapid-rise little packets, a modern industrial invention. 

Sourdough bread, on the other hand, is made with wild yeast that grows naturally in a mixture of flour and water, and is as old as human civilization. Anyone who's ever eaten a traditionally made baguette or a loaf of real San Francisco sourdough can tell you there's a world of difference. It's also a lot better for you.

I was determined to make my own sourdough bread, and whole wheat if possible. I ordered a dried culture. This one from South Africa is supposed to be especially good for whole wheat, but you can get cultures from all over the world, and they are all a little different. 

(You can also start your own, by leaving out a mixture of flour and water for a few days, but that sounded a little dicey for a beginner.)

I mixed up the dried culture with flour and water and put it in the oven to proof. 

But I soon learned that my oven proofs too warm. The starter went wild, foamed over the top of the jars, then collapsed! 

It had, basically, eaten itself. 

And I can tell you, it smelled terrible!! Think a mixture of acetone and dirty gym socks!!

Help! Back to the sourdough bread book and YouTube. Never fear, I learned. A good sourdough culture is hard to kill. This one could be revived! After five days of twice a day dividing and feeding more flour and water, the sourdough starter finally looked and smelled (heavenly) just like I thought it should. 

It was time to bake! Here's my little helper (granddaughter Wren) starting the dough.

Then it went into the mixer for kneading (not doing this by hand anymore!) then an overnight rise.

Yay! It worked!

Then a half hour rest--

Then shaping and another few hours rise--

Then, finally, baking!

I'm sorry to say there is no photo of the baked loaf because WE ATE HALF OF IT as soon as it was cool enough to slice.

And oh my gosh it was good.  

Not perfect--it could have risen more--but it was so amazingly delicious that the loaf barely lasted a day. There is just nothing that compares to the smell and taste of freshly baked sourdough bread bread.

I used unbleached organic flour, because that is what was recommended for starting out. So the next challenge is adding some whole wheat to the recipe.

But in the meantime, every time you activate your refrigerated starter, you are supposed to divide it in half. (And feed it!

But what are you supposed to do with your ever multiplying jars of sourdough starter??? 

Help needed!

Has anyone else tackled the sourdough adventure?

And if you have any fresh-baked bread memories, please share with us!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Weekend


But wait--this is how I'm spending my weekend.

I'm doing my copy edit. And I think I have worked every weekend since, oh, September? And darn it, I like weekends. I know I'm self-employed, and we have this years' long argument in our house, where the hubby says since I can set my own hours, weekends shouldn't matter. I should do my errands when other people don't do them, like on a Tuesday. But I like to look forward to having a couple of days off in a regular schedule, and I like taking my days off when other people are free, too, like my kiddos and my friends. So give me Saturday and Sunday, please!

I think that some of us prefer to write seven days a week, but for me that's a necessity, not a choice! I like to have a couple of brain-rest days, get all my chores and errands done, and chill out a little bit. Then I feel ready to dig in on Monday morning.

REDS and writer friends, do you write seven days a week? Or do you take weekends off?

And what are you doing this weekend (that I'm not... sigh.) 

Binge-watching Netflix? 

Watching March Madness? (I have no understanding of March Madness, but it's a big deal, right?) 

Planning your garden? 

Shopping for spring clothes?

Rain in the forecast here so I won't feel quite so deprived...

RHYS BOWEN:  If nothing is scheduled I work all weekend until I have a first draft finished. I don't like to take a break when I have a story in my head. But I do like the idea of lazy weekend days, picnics, walks beside the ocean. I used to love breakfast at college. We'd collect food and coffee from the dining hall, buy the Sunday papers and take them to someone's dorm room. Now there is always something to do!

DEBS: Rhys, I want your college weekend NOW.

HALLIE EPHRON: It's dark and dank here in New England so no playing outdoors for me, either this weekend. I'm between books but I have some writing workshops coming up so I need to put materials together for them. And as far advance in as it is, I'm working on getting ready for my 8/6 book launch. There's a ton to get done. If there's a break in the rain, I'd like to get over to the beach and take a walk in the only-sightly freezing weather.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm also editing this weekend, Debs! Not at the copy edit yet - this is the Big Editorial Letter edits, following the really Big Scene Edits and undoubtedly preceding the Fiddly Little Bits Edit.

I'm not a seven day a week worker - if I were, it wouldn't take me so long to finish a book! But I know myself, and I need at least a day  off each week. Those of you who comment here will notice I'm not on social media Sundays (except to post the Maine Millennial's column on my Facebook page.) I believe it's especially important to take time away from the internet once in a while - I try to stay completely off the computer on Sunday.

This weekend, I'll be having dinner at frequent Reds commentor Brenda Buchanan's house, and will also be seeing CAPTAIN MARVEL with my daughters. We spend so much time working, being on, being available - it's good to spend some time in the real world, with people who love you.

Readers, are your weekends reserved for relaxing? Tell us what you're up to!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Deborah Crombie--A Bitter Feast, the Cover

DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of THE most exciting things for an author in the life of a book is the day you get to show the world the cover! So here is the first look at A BITTER FEAST, Kincaid/James #18!

I absolutely love it!  I think it perfectly conveys the beautiful but ever so slightly sinister feeling of my Cotswold village in the story.  The wash over the artwork is a shimmery metallic gold and I think it's going to leap off the book displays. I hope you like it, too!

Here's a bit about the story:

Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, have been invited for a relaxing weekend in the tranquil Cotswolds, one of Britain’s most beautiful and historic regions, famous for its rolling hills, sheep-strewn green meadows, golden cottages, and timeless villages that retain the spirit of old England. 

Duncan, Gemma, and their children are guests at Beck House, the country estate belonging to the family of Melody Talbot, Gemma’s trusted detective sergeant. No ordinary farmers, the Talbots are wealthy and prominent with ties to Britain’s most powerful and influential. A centerpiece of this glorious fall getaway is a posh charity luncheon catered by up-and-coming chef Viv Holland. After more than a decade in London, Viv has returned to her native Glouscestershire, making a name for herself with her innovative, mouthwatering use of the local bounty. Attended by several dozen of the area’s well-to-do, as well as national food bloggers and restaurant critics, the event could make Viv a star. 

But a tragic car accident followed by a series of mysterious deaths could ruin her ascent. Each piece of information that surfaces makes it clear that the killer had a connection with Viv’s pub—and perhaps with Beck House itself. 

Does the truth lie in the past? Or is it more immediate, woven into the tangled relationships and bitter resentments swirling among the staff at Beck House and at Viv’s pub? Or is it even more personal, entwined with secrets hidden by Viv, her business partner Bea Abbot, and Viv’s eleven-year-old daughter Grace?

Further revelations rock the Talbots’ estate and pull Duncan and Gemma and their colleagues into the investigation. With so much at stake both personally and professionally, especially for Melody Talbot, finding the killer becomes one of the team’s most crucial cases.

I hope REDS and readers are looking forward to the release of A BITTER FEAST on October 8th, 2019 as much as I am!

It's available for PRE-ORDER here:


Barnes and Noble 



Harper Collins  


Google Play
So, dear REDS and readers, do you like a book cover to convey something about the story, such as setting? Will you pick up a book by an unfamiliar author simply because the cover intrigues you? (I most definitely will.) And how much does the cover influence your online picks?  

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Wendall Thomas--Endangered Everything

DEBORAH CROMBIE:-- Oh, my gosh, how much do I love this blog? This week we have gone from Austin, Texas, to Siberia, to Tasmania! Talk about armchair travelers! And maybe some of us will be tempted to do even more adventurous traveling than that. Today, however, is extra special for me, as I have family in Hobart, Tasmania, and have dreamed of visiting.  But in the meantime, I think I need at least a Tasmanian Tiger bumper sticker while I travel along with Wendall Thomas's Cyd Redondo. (And, yes, Wendall, I am an emotional hoarder.)

Endangered Everything
Wendall Thomas

When I first decided to set the second Cyd Redondo mystery in Australia, and specifically Tasmania, I wasn’t sure whether I would continue the “endangered animal” theme that had been so central to the first book. I knew I needed a psychic break from snakes, at least.

Then I came across the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. This fabulous marsupial has the body of a wild dog, the stripes of a Sumatran tiger, the gaping jaws of a wolf, the coughing cry of a human baby, and the pouch of a kangaroo—males too, to prevent their privates from catching on bushes...thistles can be murder! 

At the moment, the thylacine is “functionally extinct.” What the hell, you might wonder, does that mean? 

 It means they’re not entirely sure. Although the last verified tiger died in Hobart, Tasmania’s Beaumaris Zoo in 1936, five minutes on the internet turns up dozens of video clips of potential paw prints and sightings. And the hold the creature has on the Tasmanian imagination is profound and ubiquitous—landing it on the Tasmanian government logo, the Hobart Police Station door, countless murals, beer bottles, coffee blends, magnets, playing cards, and oven mitts in every market and souvenir shop.

I loved the idea that there might still be Tasmanian tigers out there and that Cyd might be involved in “un-endangering” them, with the use of her irreplaceable vintage Balenciaga bag. 

And then I realized what the whole series was really about for me—not just animals or accessories—endangered everything. 

I long for so many things that seem to have disappeared or are fast disappearing—corded phones, Go-Go boots, Jello 1-2-3, cassette mix tapes, handwritten letters, picking up your own take-out food, manners, the Oxford comma, and democracy. 

Am I just afraid of change? Am I an emotional hoarder? Or is that the human condition—longing for what we’ve lost? Cyd clings to old Fodor’s Guides and Orient Express posters, the ancient compass her late father left her, her brousins’ Linda Ronstadt albums, and her profession. Let’s face it, travel agents are on the endangered list for sure.

And what about us? Readers and writers? Popular wisdom says that we are “functionally extinct” too. The internet is always declaring that bookstores are dead, the novel is dead, print is dead, no one reads, etc. But here we are. We’re not extinct. Yet. Functioning? Depends on the day. So while I’m still here, I want Cyd to fight the good fight to keep the best things (and creatures) alive, and I’m determined to do the same.
What endangered or “functionally extinct” things do you treasure or miss the most? What objects/traditions/habits are you still trying to keep alive? Or are you embracing the present and future, full steam ahead? I’d love to know.

Wendall Thomas teaches in the Graduate Film School at UCLA, lectures internationally on screenwriting, and has worked as an entertainment reporter, script consultant, and film and television writer. Her novel Lost Luggage was nominated for both a Lefty and Macavity Award for Best Debut Mystery of 2017 and her short fiction has appeared in the crime anthologies Ladies Night (2015) Last Resort (2017), and Murder-A-Go-Go’s (2019). Drowned Under is her second Cyd Redondo Mystery.

DEBS: I want to know what Wendall wants to know. What do you hang on to, dear REDS and readers? (And I adore this photo of Wendall!)