Saturday, January 16, 2021

It's a Journey, Not a Destination by Julie Hennrikus

LUCY BURDETTE: You all have heard about our crime writers organization, Sisters in Crime, right? It was launched by nine women in the 1980's when they realized male writers were getting the lion's share of reviews. And reviews=sales. The group was formed to support women crime fiction writers and now it has over 3000 members. Both Hank and I have served as president of the national group and we've all been involved at some level.

On New Year's Day, SinC sponsored a write-in hosted by our friend Julie Hennrikus aka Julia Henry. The idea was you can set the tone for your year according to what you do on that first day. So I attended, and then wrote 500 words in half an hour (yay!), and thought Julie did a great job. So I asked her to visit today to explain her thoughts to you....

 JULIE HENNRIKUS: Like so many writers, I wear a lot of hats in my life. I write the Garden Squad series as Julia Henry. I’m a certified life coach. I offer classes for performing artists and writers to learn the mechanics and mindset needed for their creative journey. And I’m an arts administrator.

On January 1, I wore all of the hats at once when I hosted a webinar for Sisters in Crime. As part of a new series for members, the write-in is partly a writing seminar, and partly an opportunity for a group of people to write together online at the same time. 

The talk I have before the write-on was geared toward writers, but the messages can be applied to any creative journey. Here are my five tips to help make 2021 work for you.

Remember your writing journey is ongoing. What I would tell my younger self, and what I tell folks I coach, is this. When we’re on a creative journey that has stops along the way, but the journey doesn’t stop. We’re never done. Did a draft? Great. Now’s time for edits. Got your first book published? Congratulations. Celebrate! I’m a huge fan of celebrating. Then get back to work.

Set an intention for the new year. How do you want to feel about your writing journey, or your life, during 2021? Now, given that, what choices do you need to make? One of my intentions is to have more fun in 2021. Every day I think about that intention and check in. What would be fun? Doing a dance? Working on a new knitting project? Trying a new recipe? Zooming with my nieces? Listening to an audiobook? Intentions should be thought about daily, and not put off until the future.

Set goals that inspire, but are achievable.
Here’s the thing about goals. They need to feel like a reach, but not be impossible. Impossible goals set you up for failure, which means you’ll quit. If you need more time, take it. But keep working toward your goal.

Carve out time mindfully. I do a lot of time management talks, and like to remind people that we all have 168 hours a week to live our complete lives. That includes eating, sleeping, working, playing, writing, exercising, loving and more. In order to support a writing practice, you need to carve out time to write. You aren’t going to find the time if you don’t. I suggest that folks put writing time in their calendar every day. Some days it may be an afternoon, others it may be a half hour. By making the time, you’re telling the muse that you’re showing up. Showing up is when the magic happens.

Progress over perfection is my favorite phrase. I tell my coaching clients that their first draft is going to be terrible. That’s part of the process. But until they get that first draft, they can’t get to the next one, which will be better. Perfectionism is a block, and it’s usually based on fear. Be grateful that your subconscious is protecting you, but then keep going. Embrace progress, don’t look for perfect.

Thank you, Jungle Reds, for inviting me on the blog today to write about writing, one of my favorite topics. Readers, did any of these ideas speak to you?

BIO: Julie Hennrikus writes the Garden Squad Mysteries for Kensington. The most recent in the series, Digging Up the Remains, was released last August. She also writes as J.A. Hennrikus and Julianne Holmes. She just launched a Writing Journey membership that includes monthly coaching calls. That, and other classes are on She blogs with the Wicked Authors, and is the acting executive director of Sisters in Crime. @JHAuthors 

Friday, January 15, 2021

LET’S TALK ABOUT GENRES by Keziah Frost (A.K.A. Sylvie Perry)

 LUCY BURDETTE: Today I'm happy to welcome back Keziah Frost to the blog. She raises a great question about genres--why should authors be pinned to writing one kind of book?

KEZIAH FROST: “Write the book you’d like to find on the shelf!”

That’s the advice that writers hear all the time, and good advice it is. However, it may conflict with the encouragement writers also hear to “brand” themselves, to keep offering more of the same to their readers, only each time, a little better. 

When I think about the book I’d like to find on the shelf, I ask, “Wait. Just one book?”  If you’re like me, your shelves are overflowing with books you want to read. And if you imagine the book you’d like to find, your thoughts go in several directions at once.

Sometimes I want to find a light-hearted and wise, uplifting book. At other times though, I’m in the mood for a gothic suspense story. And there are times I look for fairy tale collections, or time travel stories, or silver sleuth mysteries, or… well, you get the idea. Are you the same?

The book I want to find on the shelf can be almost any genre, but it has to immerse me in another world, and it must tell a good story, and I have to enjoy the writing style as well. Genre doesn’t matter to me, really. And this makes me wonder why authors these days are usually boxed into a single category. 

Think of Shirley Jackson. She’s known for the terrifying short story, “The Lottery,” as well as creepy novels such as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But she also wrote very funny books about raising her four children: Life among the Savages and Raising Demons. 

Think also of Shakespeare. He wrote comedy, tragedy and history, with the only aim being to entertain his public. But there is tragedy in his history, and comedy in his tragedy. It’s always crossing over, because stories, like life, are multi-dimensional. It makes me wonder sometimes why we have these categories at all. 

I guess they do help us to find our favorite “vibes.”

Each reader has a couple of favorite genres, I think. For me, it’s humor and suspense. I think what they have in common is that little twist of surprise. It’s the little jolt that keeps the reader alert and engaged. But these elements can be worked into any genre.

What brings me to reflect on this topic is that I have a new book coming out, quite different from the first two. In this new novel, I move from “up-lit” (an uplifting story) to gothic psychological suspense. And did I have fun writing it!

The Hawthorne School will be published by Crooked Lane Books in December of 2021. In it, a single mother enrolls her 4-year-old son in a progressive, artistic school, which turns out to have hidden darkness behind its idealistic appearance. 

As this is a change in genre, I was asked to choose a different pseudonym so that readers of my books written under the name Keziah Frost would not be expecting to laugh when my intention is to give them chills. So I came up with yet another identity, complete with Facebook account, Instagram account and website. It was all rather fun and gave me the sensation of engaging in some nefarious activity.

How about you? What are your favorite genres, and why? What are the elements in “the book you want to find on the shelf?”


Sylvie Perry is the pseudonym of a Chicagoland-based psychotherapist. One of her professional focuses is in counseling survivors of narcissistic manipulation. She has a masters in English. The Hawthorne School is her first psychological suspense novel. Her website is: 

Her optimistic twin (a.k.a. alternate pseudonym) is Keziah Frost, author of The Reluctant Fortune-Teller and Getting Rid of Mabel.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

On Birthdays

LUCY BURDETTEI grew up sharing a birthday “season” with my sister Sue, and I don’t remember ever minding that. We each got our own cake, mine on January 14 and hers on the 27th, but we always shared parties. We were less than a year apart – can you imagine? What were my parents thinking?

But I digress…As long as I can remember, the birthday tradition in my family has been choosing the cake of your dreams:). This chocolate lovely is the one most of my family prefers these days.

My father always chose yellow cake with mocha icing. My older sister and I always had angel food cake with whipped cream as the frosting. My mother didn't like cake, so we made her tapioca out of a box.

A couple of years ago, our daughter and her hub were in Key West for our son-in-law's birthday, which falls on New Year’s Eve. He loves carrot cake. Now I am not a big fan of carrot cake--in fact I had never made one. And if faced with a supermarket carrot cake, I will always pass a slice by. However, I do believe that the birthday person should have the homemade cake of his or her dreams. So here was his cake.

As for gifts, the best ones I've ever gotten came in orange stripes. Tigger was an orange tiger cat who joined the family when I was 13. I lobbied hard for him and he was an excellent family member for many years. (This is my mother with Tigger and Schatze the dog.)

Two years ago this week, I decided I’d been pet-less too long (4 months!) and went to the Key West humane society to pick out a kitty. You can read all about T-bone’s gotcha day right here--he's a wonderful guy...

Lately in Key West, I've been sharing a birthday celebration with friend and writer Barbara Ross, who's a week older than I am.

Obviously, we can't have a party this year, but you can imagine us eating this a good social distance on their back porch.

How do you feel about birthdays Reds? Is there cake? Any other special traditions?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A Side of Murder with Amy Pershing

 LUCY BURDETTE: Doesn't everybody love a strong debut mystery? I do! I was asked by my former editor at NAL if I would read and blurb a forthcoming foodie mystery and I agreed. To my relief and excitement, I loved the book. The new writer is Amy Pershing and A SIDE OF MURDER will be out on February 23. I welcome her to the blog today!

You’ve Been Served or How to Eat Really Fancy Food on Zero Dollars a Day 

(Photo by Lefteris kallergis on Unsplash)

LB: In A SIDE OF MURDER, your heroine, Samantha Barnes, is a disgraced New York City chef turned restaurant reviewer for the Cape Cod Clarion.  In the very funny opening scene, you describe Sam on her first assignment trying to get her friends to understand how it’s all going to work:

“Okay, so here’s how it’s gonna go down.”

I looked sternly at my dining companions, who were eyeing me warily over the rims of their wine glasses.  They were not used to me looking at them sternly.  

“We order one meat, one vegetarian, one seafood and one pasta entree. Appetizers can be anything you like…”

 “Well, hallelujah,” Miles said.  I ignored him.

“Anything you like,” I repeated, “but it needs to make sense with your entrée.”

“I’m lost,” said Helene, running a ring-bejeweled hand through her mane of silver curls.  “I’ve been eating out for 40 years and I never once worried if my appetizer made sense with my entrée.  I don’t even know what that means.” 

I sighed.  Well, no one had ever said writing restaurant reviews for the Cape Cod Clarion was going to be easy. Actually, I reflected, that wasn’t true.  I was the one who had said it would be easy.

I tried to clarify. “It means that if you’re having the hanger steak for your entrée...”

“That’s mine!” Jenny said, suddenly all in.  “I call I claim the hanger steak.” 

I call I claim? What is she, six? 

“And a half dozen Wellfleet oysters to start,” she added.

 “That’s fine,” I said.  “A classic pairing.” 

I turned back to Helene.  “If, like Jenny, you’re having the hanger steak,” I explained, “you don’t want to order the barbeque sliders as a starter.” 

She nodded thoughtfully.  At least Helene was taking this seriously.  But then she ruined it by saying, “Actually, barbeque followed by steak sounds yummy.”

I gave up. 

“I’ll order for all of you,” I announced.  “And once we get our food and you’ve had a chance to taste and consider your choices, I will discretely exchange plates with each of you, one by one, and sample each dish.  Then we’ll discretely switch back again. We’ll go clockwise around the table, starting with Helene.”  

“I’m lost again,” Helene fake-whispered to Miles.

LB: Those instructions sound like someone who has actually reviewed restaurants for a living…

: Well, not exactly for a living but I guess you could say I did it professionally.  My two-year stint as a reviewer was in New York City back in the late ‘80s when restaurants were theater and chefs were celebrities. So what do you do when you’re young and broke in New York City and love great food?  I mean, obviously, you can’t actually pay to eat in these restaurants.   But what if you got to eat for free in these restaurants?  And all you had to do was write about it?  Eating great food and writing about eating great food? That’s not a job.  That’s a dream come true. 

So how did you land this dream job?

I had just moved back to the city after two years living  -- and eating, oh, lord, how I ate! -- in Italy.  A friend invited me out to dinner with a lovely fellow named Andy Birsh, who would later go on to write the New York restaurant reviews for Gourmet magazine. At the time, Andy was the editor of the Restaurant Reporter, a subscription-only newsletter for corporate clients who needed reliable recommendations for where to take their VIP clients for lunch and dinner.  That night Andy needed a few tasting buddies for his visit to a very cool, very exclusive, very expensive new Italian restaurant in mid-town. The kind of place where you’d spot Robert DeNiro or Diane Keaton.  In fact, we actually spotted Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton. That was very exciting. 

And the food? 

Not so much. My risotto was gummy and my saltimbocca (traditionally a thinly sliced veal cutlet sautéed in a buttery lemon sauce topped with a slice of prosciutto and one perfect sage leaf) was tough and didn’t even have a sage leaf.   I never would have had the nerve to say anything (after all, Andy had already very discreetly tasted all the offerings at the table), but when he asked me what I thought, I was honest.  He nodded and the next thing I knew he was asking me if I wanted to write the review.  

So your first review was a negative one?

Yup.  But it was the only negative review I ever wrote for the Reporter.  Our usual approach was, if you don’t like the restaurant, don’t review it.  We didn’t want any part of knocking someone’s dream.  But when a place is charging exorbitant prices for the privilege of being ignored by a snooty wait staff, being served awful food and being rushed out so they can turn the table, it’s time to call a rip-off a rip-off.  

So after that, it was all good?

It was great!  For almost two years I ate amazing food. At Arizona 206, the brilliant chef/owner Brendan Walsh introduced New Yorkers (including me) to “Southwestern” food like cactus pear salad and grilled salmon with corn pudding.  At Tavern on the Green, I had a rack of lamb so tender I could have cut it with a spoon.  

So it was all glitz and glamor?

Not at all.  A lot of the more adventurous chefs and restaurateurs were bringing a new informality and dedication to farm fresh food and fusion menus downtown.  I, like every other foodie in New York, fell in love with Danny Meyer’s unpretentious but perfect Union Square Café. David Bouley’s original Montrachet offered a $16 dollar prix fixe dinner!  And I loved a divey Cajun restaurant called Acme in Noho.  But my absolute fav was the tiny, funky French bistro/all night diner Restaurant Florent, plopped smack in the middle of the city’s meatpacking district, where ladies-of-the-evening in drag waved hello from the street corner as you walked in and you sat so close to the other diners that you always had a new best friend by the end of the night. 

Do you remember your favorite meal from those golden years?

I honestly remember every good meal I’ve ever eaten, whether at a friend’s house, my own table or at a restaurant.  Don’t get me started. But I have to say, Florent’s duck paté was a revelation.  And the mussels, oh my god, those mussels!  

Assuming that at some point we’ll be able to eat in restaurants again, what’s your best advice for having a great dinner out?

AP: I can’t wait until we are able to eat in our favorite restaurants again!  (And until that happens, please keep them going with take out service if they offer it.)  When that happy day arrives, be nice to your server.  Not just because you’ll get better service and maybe even a good tip on what to order, but because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve been a waitress (as we used to be called in the Dark Ages) and I’ve been a corporate executive, and, believe me, being a waitress was much more stressful.  

Thanks so much for being with us today, Amy!  And Red readers, tell us about your favorite restaurant meal below to be entered in a drawing for A Side of Murder, coming out on February 23.    

About Amy: Amy Pershing is a lifelong mystery lover and wordsmith. She was an editor, a restaurant reviewer and a journalist before leading employee communications at a global bank. A few years ago (with the final college tuition bill paid), she waved goodbye to Wall Street to write full time (and spend more time sailing on the Cape!). A Side of Murder, the first of the Cape Cod Foodie mysteries, is her debut novel.

About A Side of Murder: Beautiful Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is known for seafood, sand, surf and now … murder.

Samantha Barnes was always a foodie.  And when the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America) came calling, she happily traded in Cape Cod for the Big Apple.  But then the rising young chef’s clash with another chef (her ex!) boils over and goes viral. So when Sam inherits a house on the Cape and lands a job writing restaurant reviews, it seems like the perfect pairing. What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out, a lot.

The dilapidated house comes with an enormous puppy. Her new boss is, well, bossy.  And the town’s harbor master is none other than her first love.  Nonetheless, Sam’s looking forward to reviewing the Bayview Grill—and indeed the seafood chowder is divine. But the body in the pond outside the eatery was not on the menu. Sam is certain this is murder. But as she begins to stir the pot, is she creating a recipe for her own untimely demise?

“Cape Cod provides a stunning background for a debut that offers the ideal combination of mystery, romance, and recipes.” Kirkus Reviews

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

What If? a guest post by Sherry Harris

LUCY BURDETTE: We love having old friends visit and we love watching their careers blossom. Today Sherry Harris asks a question that is dear to my heart--how in the world can a writer keep a long-running series fresh? I can't wait to hear her ideas...Welcome Sherry!

SHERRY HARRIS: Thanks, Reds for having me back to celebrate the release of Absence of Alice the ninth Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery. I still have to pinch myself and ask if this writing/publishing adventure is real. I met Lucy, Hallie, and Hank through the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime back when being published was just a glimmer in my eye and a hope in my heart. I’ve been lucky enough to meet the other Reds along the way and all of you are such amazing supporters of other writers. Thank you for all you do for the writing community. 

As any series author will tell you one priority is keeping things fresh. The series starts out with Sarah reeling and wounded from a recent devastating divorce. Her relationship ebbs and flows with her ex. Also for the first few books (I know some of you hate love triangles) she’s also involved on various levels with the county district attorney. She’s also living in a small town without a lot of friends, but builds relationships through the books. 

That brought me to book nine. How could I change things up in this book? In the first book in the series Sarah is at odds with the police. They don’t trust her and she doesn’t trust them. But since that book she has developed a good relationship with the police. It grew slowly over the series until the police eventually ask for her help in the murder of a young Air Force spouse in the eighth book, Sell Low, Sweet Harriet. They know Sarah can go places and hear things that they can’t. 

Sarah has developed deep friendships with not only a couple of police officers, but with the people of the town of Ellington. She has a deepening relationship with the county district attorney, Seth. She’s also turned to Mike the “Big Cheese” Titone, a mobster who also has a good side, for help. So at this point in Sarah’s life, she’s in a good place. 

That’s when I asked myself “what if?” It’s how many writers start a story. We see or hear something that makes us ask ourself what if. What if that woman jogging through the woods is really running for her life? What if that woman sitting in her car crying just killed her husband? What if that man yelling at the store clerk just lost his job and is desperate? 

My big what if for Absence of Alice was “what if Sarah couldn’t rely on all the people she’s come to rely on over the series?” As soon as that thought hit me, I was itching to write the story. When Sarah’s landlady and friend is kidnapped, the kidnapper calls her and gives her three rules to follow if she ever wants to see her landlady again. The first one is that she can’t contact the police, Seth, or Mike the “Big Cheese” Titone. He will know if she does.

Sarah tests the rule soon after to devastating consequences. The next questions I asked myself were “what will happen to Sarah when and if the police, Mike, and her boyfriend find out she’s been lying to them. Will they ever trust her again? Can she repair the damage that’s been done? Sarah ponders these things even as she races to find her landlady. 

Do you ask yourself “what if” when you go about your day? 

Sherry Harris is the Agatha Award nominated author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series and the Chloe Jackson Sea Glass Saloon mystery series set in the panhandle of Florida. She is a past president of Sisters in Crime and a member of Mystery Writers of America. Sherry loves books, beaches, bars, garage sales, and Westies — not necessarily in that order. Sherry is also a patent holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and guard dog Lily are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next. 


Twitter: @SHarrisAuthor


Instagram: SherryHarrisAuthor 

Monday, January 11, 2021

What We're Reading

LUCY BURDETTE: Just when we think living in this world couldn’t get any harder or crazier, we all witnessed the events of last week and realize, yes, in fact it can. So I’m tempted to retreat to my TBR pile for another few months, waiting for the new leadership to kick in and more vaccines. I have a very appealing stack of books to choose from right now--some I brought to Florida and haven’t gotten to yet, and others that came courtesy of Christmas and the birthday season:). I’m still reading slowly, but have managed to finish a few. RECIPE FOR A PERFECT WIFE was not at all what I expected. The cover has a fifties housewife on it, and inside, the discovery of old-fashioned recipes and a journal in the basement, plus two women protagonists from two eras, each struggling to find her place in her world. A nice cozy women's fiction book, right? But oh no, it's very much darker than that. 

BLIND SEARCH is the second entertaining book in Paula Munier's Mercy and Elvis series that features wonderful dogs and fierce Vermont weather and personalities. HOW THE PENGUINS SAVED VERONICA follows the story of an oldish woman who's withdrawn into herself after a difficult life. She becomes obsessed with visiting a penguin colony in Antarctica, and yes, the penguins save her. Sweet and upbeat and it made me sorry not to have a penguin in my life.

RHYS BOWEN: Apart from finishing Louise Penny’s ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE I’ve been sticking to non-fiction from my own shelves. Royal Feud, the book about Queen Elizabeth and Wallis Simpson--very enlightening, A Walk Across Britain--suitably boring that I fall asleep every night to it, Oh, and a couple of books I had to blurb, pleasant reading.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: In the last couple of weeks I've finished Ann Cleeves' THE DARKEST EVENING, which I loved so much. It was one the crime novels I've most enjoyed this past year. I read an early copy of Marcia Talley's new Hannah Ives, DONE GONE, coming in April, which was a great read with Marcia's always engaging characters. I'm in the process of reading HAMNET. I'm not reading very fast, however, partly because the prose is so gorgeous you want to savor it, and partly because, well, it's a novel of the plague, and sometimes it feels a little too close to reality. But my most fun read has been Garth Nix's THE LEFTHANDED BOOKSELLERS OF LONDON. For fans of Ben Aaronovitch and/or those wonderful classic English fantasy novels by authors like Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, this one's for you. I hope this is the beginning of a series because I'll be standing in line for the next one.

LUCY: I was crazy about THE DARKEST EVENING too Debs!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Reading, reading, my poor brain. I try to read, but for a while, all I could think of was my manuscript (NOW IN!) and I kept getting distracted. And my reading metabolism is getting ruined by all the first chapters I read for First Chapter Fun--I really have to practice and rehearse each one. And I have to say, it’s extremely educational. But! I did read some terrific things for events and for blurbs. For instance: Edwin Hill’s WATCH HER and Julie Carrick Dalton’s WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG. Edwin gets better and better (and he started out as topnotch!) and Julie’s, a debut, is a literary enviro coming of age science thriller. Talk about ticking the boxes, right? And she does it beautifully! (And can I just say: CAN YOU BELIEVE EVERYTHING??) And now back to our scheduled programming.

JENN McKINLAY: Best books of the past few weeks in no particular order are… The Magnolia Bakery Handbook by Bobbie Lloyd. It is GORGEOUS with over 250 photographs and 150 recipes. It was love at first sight. I’ve already made her Hummingbird Cake - phenomenal! As for fiction, I devoured The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. This book honestly defies description except to say it is bloody brilliant and I have no idea how he managed to plot such a complex narrative. I am truly in awe - Groundhog Day with a twist meets Agatha Christie’s closed room mystery setting. Serious standing ovation here. And for the lighter side, I absolutely adored Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane. I’ve become a huge fan of her women’s fiction/romantic comedies.
HALLIE EPHRON: I'm making a list because I confess I've been addicted to news feeds and jigsaw puzzles. A bad habit. I did read a terrific advance copy of a fantastic book by Linda L. Richards, ENDINGS. It's dark and twisty and I hope we'll have Linda on to talk about it in April when it comes out. Blew me away. 
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I got a couple of great books for Christmas: THE ADDRESS BOOK: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power, by Dierdre Mask and THE STRANGER DIARIES, by Elly Griffiths. Both have made several best-of 2020 lists, and deservedly so. For research, I'm reading CULTURE WARLORDS: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, by Talia Lavin. If you'd like to know more about this incredibly timely book, Lavin did an in-depth interview with Sam Sanders on NPR. 
And, I have to confess, I caught Bridgerton Fever along with the rest of America. I know I read at least some of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton novels before ( I knew who Lady Whistledown was, for instance) but it had been a long time and I couldn't find the paperbacks. Amazon has the first three books on Kindle for $19.99 so I've been escaping into the world of Regency romance. Sigh. Now if someone would install a fully-mature wisteria at the front of my house...

LUCY: REDS,  how is your reading? Any great books to recommend? (And ps, I'm looking at my greedy stack of books and thinking: This is exactly how I'm managing my anxiety about our world.)

One last thing, in breaking might remember that I'm the president of the Friends of the Key West Library this year. Because we can't do any events in person, we are planning a fabulous virtual speaker series. Next Monday kicks it off with A NIGHT OF MYSTERY, featuring Rhys Bowen, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Julia Spencer-Fleming. Events are free but you have to sign up--please do come! and check out the other five events right here...

Sunday, January 10, 2021


 RHYS BOWEN:  It's been an awful week, hasn't it? My stomach still hasn't stopped churning. Every hour a new piece of bad news. So I thought I'd end a week that was difficult for me to find uplifting and calming posts with a song. Enjoy.


My Favorite Things—a Covid Song.

 Zooming with grandkids 
And Facetime with daughters
Long bathtime soaks in 
Delicious hot waters
Reading good books and
The pleasure that brings 
These are a few of my favorite things

Walking in nature 
With time to observe
Home exercising with
Vim and with verve
Zooming with choir 
And the strangely weird sings
 These are a few of my favorite things 

 More Zooms with bookstores 
And bookclubs and friends—swell
Trying new recipes, 
( not all work out well)
 But sharing with spouse
 And the comfort that brings
 These are a few of my favorite things.

Hoping for vaccines
And longing for travel
Dreaming of days 
When I’ll no more unravel
Hugs for my dear ones 
How lovely that rings!
These are a few of my favorite things.

When I’m lonely 
I’m depressed and mad
I simply remember my favorite things 
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Finishing my week with optimism. Things will get better. Things are getting better. Vaccines will come. We will get through this and all meet again at a mystery convention where we will hug each other.

Saturday, January 9, 2021


 RHYS BOWEN:  A writer friend had a minor rant the other day about a terrible review she had received. The reviewer said she had enjoyed the author’s series until now but this book was awful. Garbage. Not worth reading. That the writer had lost all her spark. So had the characters.

My friend found this devastating. Then the next day it happened to me. Not a review per se, but a letter telling me how disappointed the reader had become with the Royal Spyness series. She had hated the book in Africa and then hated the most recent book, set in Cornwall. No longer fun. The Africa book upsetting with an orgy in it.

I suppose this would have upset me more if I hadn’t had so many reviews saying this year’s book, THE LAST MRS SUMMERS,  was their favorite book in the series so far. Which just goes to show you can’t please all the people all of the time.  It is a fact of life that not every book is everybody’s cup of tea. I could tell you of many books that were highly regarded that I couldn’t even finish. But I suppose the difference is that I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing to the author and telling him or her how badly he had done this time.  As my children used to say to each other, “Who died and made you God?”

I also think that Covid is partly to blame. The underlying depression and worry must influence how we feel about books that are supposed to be light hearted. Perhaps the jokes go over our heads. Perhaps they feel repugnant when we want to be miserable.  Our own mood definitely influences how we see a book or movie or play.

But even if I tell myself this, a bad review always hurts. It’s like someone staring into the pram and saying “Golly, isn’t your baby ugly.”  I can tell myself that this is just one person’s opinion. That it can’t really damage me and I can read all the glowing reviews. But it still hurts.  And it makes me wonder why readers do it. What gives them the right to write to the author telling her she’s done a terrible job? Is it because the internet gives them power and anonymity so they can say things they could never say in person?  Do they really think that I’ll read the letter or review and say “I really messed up this time. I must write a better book.”

However I’m delighted to find that bad reviews are nothing new. In fact reviewers through the ages have been scathing in their criticism.

Susan Cohen on the Girl with the Dragon Tatoo: This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read and remember I’ve read….”

Lucius Beebe on Benito Mussolini’s the Cardinal’’s Mistress: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

Mark Twain on Henry James: “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

Oscar Wilde on George Meredith: “As a writer he has mastered everything except language, as a novelist he can do everything except tell a story, as an artist he is everything except articulate.”

The Boston Globe’s review of Herman Melville (It wasn’t you, was it, Hallie?)  “The amount of utter trash in the volume is almost infinite--trash of conception, execution, dialogue and sentiment.”

And one of the most famous. Samuel Johnson: “Your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are original are not good and the parts that are good are not original.”

And my favorite:  The New Yorker on Chesapeake by James Michener. “I have two recommendations. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.”

These were, however, professional reviewers who were paid to be witty and cutting. If a whole lot of them panned my book I would acknowledge there was something wrong with it. Actually if I got several reviews telling me the same thing annoyed them about my book I’d take heed and see if they had a valid point. 

I’ve only ever had two reviews that made me really angry. The first was a Welsh newspaper about the first Constable Evans mystery. It said I knew nothing about the workings of the North Wales police.  The reality was that before I wrote the book I went to police headquarters in Colwyn Bay and met a detective there. I asked him the question “If you found a suspicious body lying on top of Mount Snowdon, what would the procedure be?”

He frowned for a while and then said, “Mt. Snowdon, eh? Well, that’s National Park. We’d let our boys in Caernarvon handle it.”

So we drove to Caernarvon police station. The detective there frowned. Paused. Then he said, “Colwyn Bay is bigger than we are. We’d let them handle it.”

So in reality that body would still be lying on top of Mt. Snowdon.

The other very bad review was equally infuriating. A one star on Amazon for IN FARLEIGH FIELD. The writer said I knew nothing about the British upper class or how they talked and acted and I’d probably never been to Britain. Since I was born and raised there, am married to a member of the British aristocracy and spend my summers in a manor house with John’s sister and a stately home nearby with a cousin called Sir Ferrers Vyvyan this was a trifle annoying (typical British upper class understatement).  John (whose family goes back to 800 with several royal connections ) was so furious he wanted to find out who the person was and hunt them down.  We both relaxed a little when the book got seven thousand five star reviews!

Who has endured a review that really hurt?

AND my advice to fellow writers: tell yourselves IT’S JUST ONE PERSON’S OPINION. EVERYONE IS ENTITLED NOT TO FIND A BOOK APPEALING. But just don’t bloody well write and tell me about it!

Friday, January 8, 2021


 RHYS BOWEN: Tis the time for new beginnings, New Year resolutions. Who actually makes them?  I'll join a gym. Lose weight. Read a book a week. Do good deeds. Save the planet...

I have a little notebook in which I write my intention for the year. Recently it's been things like "Learn to slow down. Not get so stressed. Enjoy the success I have. Appreciate friends and family."  One intention I have had in the past is to keep a journal. I've tried this on many occasions. It starts well enough:

"New Year's Day. Chance of rain. Dreary. Don't think we'll walk today. I should purge my clothes closet."

January 2:

January 3: I forgot to write this yesterday. It's raining. Can't go out. Wish we could go back to Arizona sunshine.

January 29: Not much has happened in January....

So you can tell that I'm not really a journal-writing sort of person. I wouldn't haver made a good living as Samuel Pepys. The truth is I've always felt awkward about putting my feelings down on paper. I keep great diaries when we travel, noting and observing costumes and customs, great food, fantastic scenery. But when I get home... nothing again. So I'm not even going to try this year.

I read the other day that fellow writer Laura Lippman comes up with a one word resolution for each year.

I tried to think what mine would be. There was one of those word boards on Facebook and the first three things you see dictate what sort of year you'll have: Mine were gratitude. Create. Love. Sounds good to me.  But if I am to be honest, in the midst of a growing pandemic and craziness in DC, my one word resolution at this very moment is SURVIVE. 

We have put so much energy into just staying alive for the past year. I don't want to let my guard down when the end is in sight. So that still means chatting with my family members across a back garden, all wearing masks. No shopping except senior hour once a week. And daily walks during which we steer a wide berth around other walkers even if they are wearing masks (which 99 percent do in Marin).

Someone posted this adorable picture on Facebook and it just about sums it up, doesn't it?


 I think we should remember this topic, and six months from now, see what we’re saying. Now that’ll be interesting. 

JENN McKINLAY: I’ve done the one word resolution for years as a writer friend of mine, Holly Jacobs, mentioned that she’d been doing it for years. I’ve always picked words like gratitude, focus, or dream, and then last year I picked abundance. Hub looked at me on New Year’s Day and said, “Don’t pick “abundance” again but if you must, please be more specific that it should be good things.”

HANK: Okay, true, good thought.  Jenn! Let’s ALL pick SPECIFICITY.

HALLIE EPHRON: For years my resolution was PUBLISH A BOOK. I kept it written on a piece of paper in a drawer and then I’d just change the year. This year has been tough and I haven’t written a new book. So I think I’ll retire that scrap of paper. I’ll pick up on Rhys  and Hank’s suggestion: Survive. 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've never been much for big resolutions on the new year. My resolutions are always the same--write in my journal, walk more, write more, write faster… But if I had to pick one word this year, I think it would be PERSEVERE. We've made it through almost ten months of this pandemic. Let's all just hang in there a little bit longer.

LUCY:  I think I'm going with Hank's optimism. Otherwise how to survive in these troubled times.

 JULIA: Two years ago, my word (okay, phrase) was "The One Thing." I was working on figuring out what one thng I needed to get done that day and stick to it. My word at the beginning of 2020 was "Organize" but as soon as I got sick at the end of January it became "Self Care" and I've pretty much stuck with that. Chocolates? Self care. Spend the afternoon reading? Self care. 


The beginning of this year has been SO harried, both personally (lots of family-related stuff) and psychologically (uh, everything happening outside my doors) that I haven't sat down to plan my year and try to come up with a theme or word for it. Maybe "Agoraphobia?"

RHYS: Okay, dear readers, do you have a one word resolution for this crazy year ahead?

And after what we've been through this week, I think this is good advice....

Thursday, January 7, 2021


 RHYS BOWEN:  Who can possibly think straight today after what we experienced yesterday? To see our country turn into third world chaos with armed terrorists storming our Capitol and putting our lawmakers in jeopardy, egged on by the terrorist-in-chief is beyond alarming.

So I've scrapped the post I was going to put up today and instead I'm reverting to something we all find comforting: FOOD.  On one of the morning shows this week there was a discussion on how the pandemic has let us have time to try out new recipes and led to a love of cooking. One of the hosts mentioned that she had found a recipe from her grandmother (or was it great-grandmother) and was going to try it. This led to a discussion of whether recipes should be strictly adhered to or was one allowed to be creative?

We have plenty of recipes from my mother and John's mother and I have made many of them. We have my mother's apple crumble every celebration dinner. The family loves her shepherd's pie. The war-time ones are interesting because they are full of substitutes for good ingredients--mock cream, mock lamb, mock venison etc.Also recipes for things we wouldn't dream of eating now: heart, lungs, kidneys, pigeons??

 The pre-war ones are heavy on the butter, cream, sugar. But many are utterly delicious, if time-consuming. When I scan a new recipe if it has more than three stages it gets put aside.

Cooks in the time of my mother-in-law had plenty of time. She had a live-in maid and later a daily woman who did all the cleaning. The laundry was all sent out. So her only task was to make delicious meals for her husband when he returned home.  

This she did in abundance. After my father-in-law retired (as one of the heads of international airline) lunch was a full meal with a sauce for the meat and another for the vegetables. There was always a home-made dessert to follow. In the middle of the afternoon there was tea, on the lawn in summer, with homemade cakes and cookies.   I have to confess I have never had the time to make cakes and cookies, except perhaps for birthdays and then from a packet.

But if one goes a little further back in time--to Queen Victoria, the food was so completely over-the-top complicated and elaborate that it was quite unappealing. No ,I would not like to try LARK PIE for which the recipe called for 40 boned and skinned larks (little birds smaller than a sparrow).  Nor would I like venison surrounded by every kind of fish and fowl imaginable: grouse and hares and crawfish... Dishes that make the turduckin look absolutely boring and bland.

I did the research for Queen Victoria's kitchen when I wrote ABOVE THE BAY OF ANGELS. Some of the recipes took three days to prepare, which makes one wonder about food safety. There was little refrigeration , apart from cold safes for ice cream, so wouldn't the various layers spoil? How many people died of food poisoning?  Anyway, those old recipe books plus menus for dinners for twenty, make fascinating reading. So many courses and choices. So much food waste, one would think.

So I'm interested to know what you think about recipes: Do you have any prized family recipes you use on special occasions? How often do you try new recipes? Have you been trying more during this crazy time? Where do you find your recipes?

And just to show you what I mean by a complicated recipe, here is Mah's Christmas pudding recipe: