Sunday, February 28, 2021

In that space is our power

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Lucky lucky (and smart you) for being here today!

 Let me introduce you to Damyanti Biswas. Here’s how we met: Damyanti was on our schedule for First Chapter Fun. (You know it, right? If you don’t, more on that later.)

To prepare for reading the first chapter of her book YOU BENEATH YOUR SKIN out loud, I, um, had to read it. (You can watch the reading here. And hear some amazing things about what Damyanti does.) And I fell in love with it. Then I read her bio, and fell in love with her. Then we exchanged emails, and blogs, and interviews, and then she asked me to do a guest blog and I asked her to write a short story for the Bouchercon anthony. Which turned out to be one of the best stories ever.

And now, if you don't already know her from her amazing writing blog or her book or her work, you get to meet Damyanti, too.

And you tell me whether this changes your life. It did mine.

In that space is our power

By Damyanti Biswas

Last year, during this week in February, I’d begun to hear of covid in distant news: it was happening in other countries. I was upset for my Chinese friends in quarantine. Then of course the world as we knew it changed, and we all got a taste of isolation, anxiety, and a crippling loss of certainty.

With nowhere else to go other than parks, I discovered many green places not far from where I live, and rediscovered the joy of an activity I’d forgotten: nature walks. When walking, I couldn’t doom-scroll and consume the barrage of negativity that was my social media and newsfeed. I could control where I was going—and better still, take refuge in the green.

Cocooned in my privilege of not having to know all that’s going on in the world, I switched off my social media and landed in a weird but increasingly welcome mind-space of blank stillness. Strolls brought new pleasures. The much-spoken-about joy of noticing the small things. The way a road curves in a series of arcs. Weeds by the highway, flowering. Tiny butterflies no bigger than my nail flitting among them. Snails sliming their way onto mossy walls. Beetles and birdcalls, big and small. Dewdrops lingering on spiderwebs in stray sunlight. A dog panting up at its owner, all adoration, frolic, eagerness.

These are (poetic but undeniable) reassurances. Things that go right, creatures and people about their business, the security of knowing I’m a link in this chain, in interaction with it all. That I’m a part of the picture in other people’s eyes. The world goes on, despite humanity’s cumulative attempts at destroying it. We are getting a lot of things right.

I also got hooked on podcasts as I walked. Many of them were about fantastic books. I tried making my way through all those recommended reading lists during the day or at bedtime, but soon realized that an anxious mind could not focus for more than five minutes.

This was when someone suggested audiobooks. I’d never taken to them before because they either tended to put me to sleep, or sent me into a daydream. I wondered if they might work with my morning walks. By this time, I was putting in 2 hours of walking every day, beside the sea, under the shade of trees, in neighborhood parks.

The first audiobook I listened to was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. The long lyrical nature descriptions hooked me in. It didn’t hurt that the reader had a soothing lilt. Simple as the concept was, having a story read into my ears as I walked turned out to be an experience I hadn’t considered or imagined before.

The Austrian holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor E. Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The first two hours of my day will be my self-care, I’ve decided, the stimuli I seek in my life. Unless someone in the family needs immediate medical attention, you’ll find me walking, often before sunrise. I’m fortunate to live in a tropical country, but on mornings with tropical downpour, I head to an indoor stadium. Audiobooks plus walks is my new formula for sanity, even on days my anxiety makes it hard to breathe.

I find myself in absolute agreement with Søren Kierkegaard, who said, “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

I heard this passage in an audiobook, during one of my morning walks.

HANK: See? How much is walking a part of your life, reds and readers? Does it work for you like this?

All author proceeds from You Beneath Your Skin go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.

Damyanti Biswas is an Indian author currently based in Singapore. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, Puerto del Sol, Griffith Review Australia, as well as other journals in the USA and UK. Her work is available in various anthologies in Asia, and she serves as one of the editors of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her debut literary crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin, was published by Simon & Schuster, and optioned for screen by Endemol Shine.



It’s a dark, smog-choked new Delhi winter. Indian American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious police commissioner Jatin Bhatt – an irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives.

Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be, and his wife has too much on her plate to pay attention to either husband or son. But Jatin refuses to listen to anyone, not even the sister to whom he is deeply attached.

Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the center of it all …

In a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. But what he unearths is only the tip of the iceberg. Together with Anjali he must confront old wounds and uncover long-held secrets before it is too late.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Remembering Margaret Maron

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, such a bright light extinguished in mystery world. The incomparable Margaret Maron. I’ll wager there’s not a reader among us in Reds territory who has not read her books, and loved them, and learned from them. And if you have not, today is a good day to begin. In honor of her talent, and her joy, and her love and her legacy.

As a tribute to our Margaret, who changed each and every Red’s life. And isn’t that pretty amazing? She was so tough, and so sure of herself (it seemed) and hilarious.

She taught herself to write, she’d tell you. And when she’d visit new places, she’d ask those who lived there: “what might get a person killed around here?

She won every major mystery award, including the Edgar (for her first novel, The Bootlegger’s Daughter), Agatha and Anthony and everything else. She wrote 10 Sigrid Harald books, about a New York Police lieutenant, and the 20-volume set of Deborah Knott books, the groundbreaking series about a district court judge in North Carolina. (Which is not the half of it.)

She wrote short stories, and magazine articles and a wonderful essay for Writes of Passage, the Sisters in Crime anthology I edited. She wrote her own obituary.

I met her--gosh, in 2007. At the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, the mecca for traditional mystery authors, and to bestower of the Agatha Award. I was the newbiest of the newbies, and, like some enormous rite of passage, I know that Margaret Maron--a name everyone said with reverence--would be the moderator/questioner/interrogator for the infamous Best First Novel nominees panel. We were told, sotto voce, “Be very afraid.” I was, indeed.

She had obviously read every one of the nominee’s books-- my Prime Time, and those of Deanna Raybourn, Beth Groundwater and Charles Finch.

She asked me (with that accent, and that confident demeanor): “Looking back on your book now, what do you wish you had done differently?

I looked at her, feeling like a spooked rabbit. I blurted out the truth. “Nothing,” I said. “I love it.”

She burst out laughing.

JENN McKINLAY: Margaret Maron was for me one of the reasons I became a mystery writer. I discovered Bootlegger’s Daughter in 1995, before writing mysteries was even a concrete idea in my head and I became a diehard fan of her Judge Deborah Knott series, eagerly anticipating every new release. I only met her in passing at Malice Domestic once, but I remember she treated me as an equal, even though I was very new to the mystery world, and I appreciated it so very much. She was one of the unofficial ambassadors of the genre and she will be greatly missed.

LUCY BURDETTE: My first published mystery, SIX STROKES UNDER, by the other me, Roberta Isleib, was nominated for an Agatha award for best first mystery. Julia was the ultimate winner on that same panel, which also included Nancy Martin, Pip Granger, Lea Wait, and Claire Johnson. With the esteemed Margaret Maron moderating. It was my first public panel and I was absolutely terrified. Margaret was so perfect for that panel because she made each of us feel completely special. I know she had read each of the books--her questions showed this. And if she thought some of us were hacks who didn’t have a clue what we were doing, that never leaked through. It was truly a highlight of my career. Aside from her writing, which was lovely, she was a pillar of the mystery community--outspoken when she needed to be, level-headed, kind and oh so very smart. We have lost a bright light in our little part of the world.

RHYS BOWEN: In this time when every day seems to bring a news loss, a new grief to our mystery community Margaret Maron’s death hits particularly hard. She was a brilliant writer, of course—the only person to have won every award, including the Edgar, for her first novel. But she was also a kind, generous person who embraced the whole of the mystery community as her family. She was a founder of Sisters in Crime and a champion of women writers.

I learned of her when my first novel, Evans Above, was published in 1997. I received a hand-written letter from Margaret Maron telling me how much she loved the book.Margaret Maron had taken the time to tell me she loved my book. I was gobsmacked.

Then at my first Malice I met her in person and soon became friends with her and Joe. We shared many a meal or drink at subsequent conventions. She was an essential part of Malice and I can’t imagine it without her. First Parnell Hall and now Margaret. So much grieving.

HALLIE EPHRON: I was thrilled to meet Margaret at several mystery conferences. She was always warm and welcoming and generous. And of course I was a big fan of her series… a woman judge was trailblazing.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hank, my memories of Margaret have to do with the Best First Novel panel at Malice as well. Like Jenn, she was a writing idol to me, and her work heavily influenced my own choices when I began my series. So knowing she was going to read my book! And sit on a panel with me!! And ask me questions!!! I was more nervous and excited about that than the actual Agatha Award ceremony. She was a dream as a moderator - gracious, even-handed, and so well prepared. Afterwards, in the bar, I was sitting with Ross and a few others and she and Joe passed by. She stopped, put her hand on my shoulder and bent down, and said, “I thought your book was just wonderful.”

I told Ross I was never going to wash that shoulder again.

And speaking of Ross, one Malice he somehow fell in with Joe Maron and Julian Cannell, despite the fact they were old friends both old enough to be his father. The three of them went off to lunch and I found them later in the bar (of course) having a wonderful time - three men who were proud and supportive of their wives. Poor Joe! I grieve for him. Losing your spouse after sixty-plus years of marriage is a cruel blow.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Margaret was one of the first people I met in the mystery community, at my very first Malice. The following year I was a Best First Novel nominee, and Margaret was, as others have mentioned, incredibly supportive and generous. She was not only an enormously talented writer, but a genuinely lovely person and a light in the mystery world. She will be much missed.

HANK: Let’s remember Margaret today, reds and readers. What can you share?

Friday, February 26, 2021

How Much Do You Like Her?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What do we do when times are tough and a job is difficult--but we need to celebrate?

We do it together! And that’s exactly what these four fabulous author friends (including our own dearest FOTR Liz Milliron/Mary Sutton) --and here they are:

--are doing with their brand new releases from Level Best Books!

And here THEY are!

And we are so thrilled to hear about them--and, for even more fun, they’ve all agreed to answer one important question. See what YOU think!

How Much Do You Like Her?

By Liz, C.L., Mally and Kerry

Thanks for hosting us at Jungle Reds! This is such a wonderful community and we’re happy to be here – and we’re having a blast celebrating our February books and exploring our theme: Truth and Lies.

While we all write slightly different stories, we all have female protagonists, as well as other female characters. As we brainstormed blog topics, one of us remarked how a reader said of a female character, “I don’t like her very much.”

It got us thinking about this idea of “likeability” and how so much more is expected of women (in fiction and in real life). Women are supposed to be soft and approachable. Editors and agents want “likeable” characters, especially women.

Some readers do as well.

Sometimes, as a writer, you feel a definite push to make your women less hard-edged, less pushy, less anything that might alienate a reader.

But is it true that an unlikeable character can’t succeed – or is that a lie?

Mally Becker:
How likeable must female protagonists be?

Hold on while I spit nails, because this question makes me feel really, truly unlikeable.

Chapter One of my American Revolution mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow opens as Rebecca–Becca–Parcell is wrongly accused of betraying her husband to the British. Mortified and angry, she curses both the Americans and British for all the loss and distrust they have wrought.

“I don’t like her,” one agent said. Two others said the same thing.

After I got over wondering what had made me think I could write, I got angry. No one tells authors that their male protagonists need to be more likeable. (Double standard much?) Can’t a mystery heroine be a badass?

But I had a problem. On the one hand, I couldn’t ignore identical comments from publishing experts. On the other hand, I liked Becca just fine. I didn’t want to change her. So I packed away my manuscript for a while.

When I pulled it out again, I begrudgingly saw what I’d missed earlier. I’d left too much of what motivated Becca in my head and not on the page. I hadn’t explained well enough why she was angry, what she feared, and whom she loved.

That was a breakthrough. I wouldn’t aim to make my protagonist more likeable. What does “likeable” mean, anyway? Instead, I would try to make Becca more fully human with all the cross-currents of logic and emotion, longing and passion that move each of us.

Becca is still a badass. That hasn’t changed. But is she more likeable? That’s for readers to decide. All I know is that The Turncoat’s Widow, which Level Best Books published this month, is a better story now because Becca is a more complex and interesting character.

Liz Milliron: I’m less concerned with likeability than I am with being invested in a character. I don’t have to want to invite someone over for coffee or dinner to read the story. But there has to be a journey I’m interested in. Maybe the character is on a redemption arc. Maybe that arc fails. Maybe it succeeds. Or the character might be a good person who is doing horrible things for good reasons.

When I sat down to write Betty Ahern, I didn’t think about likeability too much. I wanted readers to be interested in her story and want to follow her. Betty is young, she only has a high-school education, and she comes from a working-class neighborhood. She’s not some society debutante – she can’t afford to be. That’s how I tried to write her. It took me by surprise when my editor said Betty had a hard edge that might be a turn-off for readers. But I wanted that edge. My editor and I went back and forth on it, and I think we came up with a picture that stayed true to who I believed Betty is without making her distasteful to be with.

I also think this question comes up way more for female characters. Why aren’t unlikeable men as much of a concern?

Kerry Peresta: A few years ago, when “Girl on the Train” and the TV series, “House,” ruined me forever, I decided I liked flawed protagonists much better than perfect ones. Or even good ones. I could not get enough of Hugh Laurie, who was the protagonist everyone loved to hate. And, I suspect, most people secretly loved, if the ratings were any indication. I was so sad when that show ended! But between those two characters, I was hooked. Flawed protagonists, likable or not, became my go-to.

My protagonists have the best of intentions. Honorable and righteous. Dependable and responsible in many ways. But they ultimately have a fatal flaw that inspires my plot arc, and creates a story that is, in my opinion, much more complex than if the character is too perfect or agreeable. I want my protagonists to have depth, and flaws drive that depth for me. I want them to do things that are unexpected and often shocking. The breakout novel, “Girl on the Train’ garnered mixed reviews. Some loved Rachel, the book’s protagonist, but many disliked her intensely. I mean, it was extreme! Not me, though. I adored her. She was someone pathetically flawed and deficient but somehow heroic. Perpetually hopeful. In short, someone I could relate to.

When I am crafting characters, even the outliers have a distinctive vice or struggle—trying to quit smoking, for instance, or perhaps recovering from a less-than-perfect upbringing. All things that my readers can relate to. Everyone, I’ve found, struggles with something. If a character has no struggles, I don’t personally perceive them as interesting.

In short, I don’t consider likability so much an issue as relatability and authenticity. I believe if we relate to and believe the protagonists we, as writers, create; then so will the reader.

C.L. Tolbert
: My protagonist Emma Thornton, is female, and not only that, she’s an attorney. I hate to admit this, but attorneys are universally disliked, and I imagine the numbers are greater, if that’s possible, for female attorneys. So, Emma has two strikes against her. Emma is also a mother of two, who in the current book, is also a hard-working law school professor. She cares deeply about her children, her students, and her clients. She is in a relationship and cares about that as well. But few people can relate to a woman who, as an attorney, also solves murders. Flawed and reckless, she regularly makes mistakes, which is an off-shoot of her enthusiasm, and desire to solve the case. Yet I’ve been told that Emma’s determination, grit, and tenacity make readers care about her character, and that is what makes them want to keep reading.

In 2015, Forbes magazine noted that being “…genuine and honest is essential to being likable.” But it’s never been essential for a fictional character to be to be likeable, or even pleasant. But it is necessary for readers to care about the protagonist or they won’t continue to read the book. A protagonist with a short fuse, or an annoying manner is usually forgiven by the reader, especially in the midst of conflict. A weakness, a flaw, or even an eccentricity is often the element of a character’s personality which makes him or her more relatable.

Is it Sherlock Holmes’s skill on the violin that makes him relatable, or is it his drug addiction? Perhaps the addiction makes this brilliant, eccentric character, who otherwise seems impossibly inaccessible, vulnerable and more human. Poirot is vain and narcissistic. Both Holmes and Poirot are moody and lonely. Is it the loneliness we sense in these two men that, in addition to their brilliant crime-solving brains, keep us coming back for more?

A flawed character is more relatable, more interesting, and more sympathetic than one who is merely likeable. What seems to matter more than likability is what makes the reader care about the protagonist, and keep turning the page.

Readers, how important is it that you “like” a character? And do you think likeability is more of an issue for female characters than male?

HANK: Oooh! Good question! What do you think, Reds and readers?


Mally Becker became fascinated with the American Revolution when she peeked into the past as a volunteer at the Morristown National Historical Park, where George Washington and the Continental army spent two winters. A former attorney, advocate for foster children, and freelance writer, Becker and her husband live in Warren, NJ, where they raised their son. The Turncoat’s Widow, featuring Becca Parcell, is her first novel.

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. A recent empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound.

Kerry Peresta’s publishing credits include a popular newspaper and e-zine humor column, “The Lighter Side,” (2009—2011); The Hunting, women’s fiction/suspense, Pen-L Publishing, 2013; and The Deadening, Book One in the Olivia Callahan Suspense Series. Recently, she worked as editor and contributor for Island Communications, a local publishing house. Her magazine articles have been published in Local Life Magazine, The Bluffton Breeze, Lady Lowcountry, and Island Events Magazine. Before starting to write full time, she spent twenty-five years in advertising as an account manager, creative director, and copywriter. She is past chapter president of the Maryland Writers’ Association and a current member and presenter of Hilton Head Island Writers’ Network, and the Sisters in Crime organization. Kerry is the mother of four adult children. She and her husband moved to Hilton Head Island, SC in 2015.

Cynthia Tolbert is the author of the Thornton Mystery series. In 2010, she won the Georgia Bar Journal’s fiction contest for the short story version of Out From Silence. Cynthia developed that story into the first full-length novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, which was published by Level Best Books in December of 2019. Her second book in this same series, entitled The Redemption, which is set in New Orleans, will be released in February of 2021. Cynthia has a Master’s in Special Education and taught children with learning disabilities before moving on to law school. She spent most of her legal career working as defense counsel to large corporations and traveled throughout the country as regional and national counsel. She has four children, and three grandchildren, and lives in Atlanta with her husband and schnauzer.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Confessions of a Closet Prepper

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I know we’ve talked here about the stuff we stashed during the pandemic: light bulbs, and aluminum foil, and canned tuna. Canned tomatoes, and nail polish and toothpaste. Etc.

 But preparation is a lifetime thing, not always as a result of panic—but more a moment of reality. Or—coping with it.

Debut author (yay!) Shelley Nolden has some true insight about that.

Coming up, secrets of the zombie apocalypse. I am not kidding.

But first, a tiny bit about her incredibly chilling and astonishingly timely new book THE VINES. (There's more below.) But read this, and tell me how long it takes you to say “Ooooh!”

In the shadows of New York City lies North Brother Island, the remains of a shuttered hospital hide the haunting memories of century-old quarantines and human experiments. The ruins conceal the scarred and beautiful Cora, imprisoned there by contagions and the doctors who torment her. When Finn, a young urban explorer, arrives on the island and glimpses this enigmatic woman through the foliage, intrigue turns to obsession as he seeks to uncover her past—and his own family's dark secrets. By unraveling these mysteries, will he be able to save Cora? Or will she meet the same tragic ending as the thousands who have already perished on the island?

Okay. Told you. And now: preparing for the zombie (or whatever) apocalypse. (And a copy of THE VINES to one lucky commenter!*)



of a Closet Prepper

by Shelley Nolden

Some preppers are born into the lifestyle, perhaps even drawing their first breaths within a remote, self-sustaining compound. Others find inspiration later in life. My amateur prepping began with a book entitled Prepper’s Long-Term Survival Guide: Food, Shelter, Security, Off-the-Grid Power and More Life-Saving Strategies for Self Sufficient Living.


The main character in my debut novel, The Vines, carves out a solitary existence on the abandoned, forbidden North Brother Island in New York City’s East River.

To make that feat believable, I researched survival techniques, and in doing so, learned all the possible ways those skills might suddenly become critical.


Natural disasters, a superflare from the sun, EMPs or other acts of terrorism, revolution, a pandemic. For a writer with a big imagination, the eventual occurrence of at least one of these threats, ominously outlined by the preppers who’d authored the books I consumed, seemed all but certain.


After all, I knew firsthand that low probability events do occur. At the age of 31, I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which, admittedly, has left me with a tinge of PTSD.


So, I ordered more guides, including one focused on surviving a Zombie apocalypse, and took comfort in knowing that if I ever needed to devise a rainwater collection system or kill a chicken, I had illustrated instructions. I also procured a package of 40,000 heirloom garden seeds and hid them in my basement. And we now have a German shepherd dog named Storm.


 While I mostly kept my new obsession secret, I could talk openly with my father. Two years ago, after deciding that more should be done, we compiled a “Zombie Apocalypse Survival Kit” as a Christmas present for my mother. My parents were big fans of The Walking Dead; I’d thought she’d love it. She didn’t. Later I learned that she’d been hoping for diamond earrings.


When COVID-19 first gripped Wuhan in January 2020, my recently acquired knowledge of doomsday scenarios, coupled with the fact that The Vines deals with contagious diseases, spurred me to step up my prepping game. I convinced my mother to accompany me to Costco so she could push my second cart.

My immediate family then humored me by helping carry the goods down to what became known as our “Emergency Supply Closet.”








During the lockdown last spring, my closet gained their respect. Between donations to the local “giving table” and our own needs, we burned through most of the goods.

Except for the Chili Mac.

That remains.

When our elementary school holds its next food drive, we’ll donate it, even though a part of me thinks it would come in handy during an alien invasion or zombie uprising. 


Has COVID-19 changed your view on prepping? Which would you rather receive: diamond earrings or a Zombie Apocalypse Survival Kit?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ohhh. Sadly, that’s not even a choice. I cannot wait until it is.  But in the meantime, #keepthechilimac.

How about you, Reds and readers? What if someone, out of love, gave you that gift?

*And a copy of THE VINES to one lucky commenter! (US and Canada only, please.)

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Shelley Nolden is an entrepreneur and writer, now residing in Wisconsin. Previously, she lived in the New York City area, where she first learned of North Brother Island. At the age of 31, Shelley was diagnosed with leukemia and completed treatment three years later. The sense of isolation and fear she experienced during her cancer ordeal influenced her debut novel, THE VINES.


THE VINES by Shelley Nolden (Freiling Publishing Hardcover; March 23, 2021) is historical fiction and suspense at its best. It’s both a breathtaking novel that explores a long-forgotten place and an ominous thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat as the story unravels. In this debut—the first book in a planned series—Nolden skillfully weaves together a page turner, spanning over a hundred years, that’s set on New York City’s abandoned North Brother Island.

“It took me over four years to write THE VINES, and I’m excited for its debut,” said Nolden. “I’m not a full-time author, though I’d like to move in that direction. My writing career initially began with my cancer blog after I was diagnosed with leukemia. It focused on the themes of disease, fear of death, isolation, loss of a child, and infertility, but also of survival, courage, healing, and hope. Through that process, the heroine of THE VINES—and her foil—were born. And shortly after reading Christopher Payne’s photography book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, I had the perfect setting for my epic tale.”

In the shadows of New York City lies North Brother Island, where the remains of a shuttered hospital hide the haunting memories of century-old quarantines and human experiments. The ruins conceal the scarred and beautiful Cora, imprisoned there by contagions and the doctors who torment her. When Finn, a young urban explorer, arrives on the island and glimpses this enigmatic woman through the foliage, intrigue turns to obsession as he seeks to uncover her past—and his own family's dark secrets. By unraveling these mysteries, will he be able to save Cora? Or will she meet the same tragic ending as the thousands who have already perished on the island?

THE VINES intertwines North Brother Island's horrific and elusive history with a captivating tale of love, betrayal, survival, and loss.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Truth Behind DO NO HARM

Whoa. Big big day on Jungle Red—the USA Today bestselling Christina McDonald is here!  You know her, right? Her first book, The Night Olivia Fell, has been optioned for television by a major Hollywood studio. Her next blockbuster, Behind Every Lie, was another huge hit.


And ta- dah! Her brand shiny new Do No Harm came out this week, and wow, go right now (well, not right now right now, but after you read this) and snap it up!


It is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. I got an early copy months ago, and I am still contemplating the decisions the main character makes. What would I have done, I wonder? Would I have…well, you’ll have to read and decide for yourself.


And there’s no way not to wonder, when you are devouring the pages, how much of the book comes from real life.  And that’s exactly what I asked her.



How Much of Real Life Do Authors Put Into Their Work?

By Christina McDonald


As an author, a big part of my writing process is distilling things from my life into the fictional worlds I create. All of my books include these little peaks into my life; my characters are built from what I see and hear, things people do, unique characteristics I notice, like a flick of the hair or a love of Bocelli or a loathing for the grate of a nail file.


Do No Harm, however, is my most personal book yet. While the plot and the characters are entirely from my imagination, much of the story is emotionally authentic to me as its author.


The most strikingly personal aspect of Do No Harm is the central theme around the opioid epidemic. Dr. Emma Sweeney, my protagonist, has a brother who’s struggled with addiction most of her life, and this is true for me as well. I’ve spent most of my life watching my brother’s addiction to opioids, and this is why I’ve known for a while that I wanted to set a book against the backdrop of the opioid epidemic.


But there are other moments in Do No Harm that emotionally connect me to the story as well. Some are funny, some horrifying, some sad. Whatever the emotion, I’ve mined it to bring Do No Harm to life.


Fun and personal facts about Do No Harm

1. Bit-O-Honey – One day while I was writing, I randomly started craving Bit-O-Honey, the old-fashioned honey-flavored taffy. My mom used to buy it for my sisters and me as a treat when we went on road trips. So I had one of my characters eating it thinking about his childhood, as I was thinking about mine.


2. Skamania - The town of Skamania, where Do No Harm is set, is based on the Cascades Chinook Native American word sk'mániak, which means ‘swift waters’. Since a lot of the book is centered around a warehouse that’s perched on the edge of a waterfall, I thought it fit nicely.


3. Snoqualmie Falls - Skamania is loosely based around the real-life town of Snoqualmie, which is located about 45 minutes from Seattle, which is where I’m from. Like Skamania, the town is named after its real-life waterfall, Snoqualmie Falls.


4. Pimple squish – one of the cute things Josh, who’s just five, says in the early chapters of the book, is he calls cuddles ‘pimple squishes’. It’s when Emma, his mommy, cuddles up tight on one side and Nate, his daddy, cuddles up tight on the other, and they scootch in with the Josh in between. My oldest son, who’s now 12, coined the term. He loved pimple squishes and used to beg for them every night.


5. Josh’s dreams – After Josh finds out he has leukemia, has starts crying because he’s afraid of being buried. In the way children think, he believes he’ll be buried alive, and he won’t be able to breathe. I wrote this scene the very morning after my youngest son, who was about Josh’s age when I was writing this book, had this exact dream. He dreamt he’d died and been buried beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris and he couldn’t breathe because mud covered him. All he could do was lie there and look up and see ev

eryone walking over him like he didn’t exist. It broke my heart, so I wrote that scene for Josh because I imagined how scary it would be for a child getting a diagnosis like his.


6. Sucking pointer and pinky fingers – Most kids suck their thumb, but my youngest, who’s now seven, sucked his pointer and pinkie fingers until he was five, the same age as Josh is in Do No Harm. I thought it was adorable and unique, so I decided to give this endearing habit to Josh.


7. Chili - At the beginning Emma returns home after a particularly challenging day at work to find her husband has prepared dinner for her. I wanted to set the scene for their life together; one where she feels loved, accepted. Something that evokes family and belonging, so I had her husband cooking chili. My mom used to make it a lot when I was a kid, so it’s always felt like one of those classic family comfort foods.


8. CAR T-cell immunotherapy - The cost of Josh’s CAR T-cell therapy, the immunotherapy treatment he needs to save his life, really does cost between $400,000-$500,000, and most insurances don’t cover it. So you can see why any parent would be so desperate in this situation. How do you put a cost on a child’s life?


Including little pieces of myself in my stories is important to me because it helps strengthen the connection between myself as the author and the written words on the page. This connection breathes life and emotion into my books, and I hope readers feel this emotion as they read Do No Harm.


HANK:  More I cannot say about this book—but if you have a bookclub, this is the one for you! You will not stop thinking about it. 

To find out more about Christina, got to the wonderful “about the author” section of her website. She interviews every author you’d ever want to meet! (And pssst…look who interviewed her!).


And now, Reds and readers, let me ask you. Which one of Christina's examples can you match? A candy bar, a childhood habit, a memorable location? A dream, or a secret to amazing chili?

(And I’m giving a copy of DO NO HARM to one lucky commenter!)

And oooh! To hear the first chapter of DO NO HARM read out loud to you on First Chapter Fun: just click here!

You may need to join the private Facebook group--but hey, you've already done that, right?

Christina McDonald is the USA Today bestselling author of Behind Every Lie and The Night Olivia Fell (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books), which has been optioned for television by a major Hollywood studio. Her third book, Do No Harm, is available February 2021.

Her writing has been featured in The Sunday Times, Dublin,, and Expedia. Originally from Seattle, WA, she has an MA in Journalism from the National University of Ireland Galway, and now lives in London, England with her husband, two sons, and their dog, Tango. She's currently working on her next novel.



From the USA Today bestselling author of Behind Every Lie and The Night Olivia Fell comes an unforgettable novel about the lengths one woman will go to save her son.