Monday, June 14, 2021

Are YOU A Prairie Dog?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  So, how are you doing? Are you…venturing out?

I feel kind of like a little prairie dog, poking my head up out over my burrow and saying…
what’s going on out there? It’s strange--I’ve been fully vaccinated for several months now, and still I'm full of apprehensiveness venturing out.

We went to a friend's house for dinner, inside, all good.

And the grocery store and the hardware store, the dry cleaners and the doctor and things like that. Still, it feels that every once-ordinary activity is fraught with who knows what.

Well, I guess we do know what.

I was reading the other day that there are people called re-entry coaches, who are experts in counseling people on how to get back into the world.  The coaches emphasize doing “intentional activities.” Which I guess means no more doom-scrolling or roaming randomly around Instagram. 

There are special  coaches for kids, too. One suggested taking your child on a walk in the park  first, so they got acclimated to being around other people. Then gradually doing more things, like going to a museum, where they were actually inside with people.

Isn’t that even strange? 

But on so many levels it’s unsettling. Plus,  I have no idea what to wear. And if I did know what to wear,  I wouldn’t have that. 

It seems like the rules, whatever the rules are, are different, and we are all trying to figure out what they are. Do we just go back to how we were before? Exactly how we were before? Just forget everything happened and forget we lost an entire year and a half?

And what about  the people who have completely different life than I do? I’m a solitary person professionally, a writer, privileged enough to be able to stay home. That haunts me. 

I keep having this vision of the good witch in the Wizard of Oz, played by Billie Burke, right? Tapping her wand on the trembling munchkins and singing” come out come out...” 

How about you Reds and readers? Are you feeling like trembling munchkins?  Or champing at the bit? you know what to wear?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I feel like I know what to wear, but I seem to have completely forgotten how to put on lipstick. Every time I wear it out of the house it feels like I’m doing it wrong. 

I’m feeling very confident in the vaccine and more importantly, in its ability to keep me from accidentally spreading Covid-19 to others, so I’m in “going with the flow” mode. I always have a mask or two with me; if a place of business asks to use it, I’ll pop it on. If I’m going somewhere new, I’ll wear a mask until I see the lay of the land. My church is fully reopened but is asking everyone to wear masks for the sake of the children, who of course don’t have an approved vaccine yet. That makes good sense to me, and I’ll continue to mask up if I’m going to be around under-16s. 

But I’m looking forward to summer theater, and baseball games, and restaurants, so put me in the champing at the bit category!

JENN McKINLAY: I’m out and about. I’ve even flown across the country. Hub is a professional musician, so he’s been gigging hard for a couple of months now (once his vaccine kicked in) and I go to his shows when I can as i’m also fully vaccinated. People do seem a bit more keyed up and we’ve watched some seriously cray-cray behavior. Roaring 20’s, anyone?

I always have a mask just in case I come across someone who’d be more comfortable if I wore one, but otherwise...what pandemic? 

HALLIE EPHRON: I’ll still wear my mask, thanks very much. And eat outdoors at restaurants if I go at all. After so many months with not so much as a cold or flu or even a sneeze that wasn’t inspired by pollen, I feel completely vulnerable (even if not to Covid). Nope. I need another few weeks… maybe even months to feel assured that this thing isn’t going to come around and bite us in our collective asses.

LUCY BURDETTE: I would say that I fall somewhere in the middle of Jenn and Hallie. We have loved being able to go out a little, see friends who are vaccinated without feeling terrified. But I always have a mask with me and wear it when I’m inside shops and stores, such as the grocery store, the local bookstore, the hardware store. Like Hallie, I’m not convinced we’ve seen the end of this plague.

And I do like not having been sick this year. And certainly when we travel, which we’ve done a little of and plan to do more, I will absolutely wear a mask and bath in hand sanitizer while enroute. John’s family has a reunion this summer, and I do worry about the kids. Hopefully a vaccine that is safe for children will come along soon!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: We are getting out and about. I’ve had lunch/brunch several times with my daughter, but I have to admit the one time it was inside AND crowded I was not very comfortable. Much better with open patios! I wear a mask in stores, but not at outside events like the farmer’s market. Still lots of hand washing and sanitizers. I’m not convinced we won’t see vaccine resistant variants, and I have loved not having had so much as a sniffle this last year and a half. I’ll be so happy when the five-year-old granddaughter can get her vaccine, too.

I’m beginning to figure out what to wear, but the first couple of months back in the world were a real struggle!

RHYS BOWEN:  I think we are lucky that we have a solitary profession so our lives weren’t so different, apart from being fearful when we went out.

I live in a county that has the highest vaccination percentage in California so I feel quite safe. We have had friends to dinner, taken a trip to Monterey and stayed in a B and B, been to an art exhibit and will be hosting a brunch for graduating grandson here ( outside in our patio). But we have been cautious about dining indoors and still wear masks in stores. 


I hear you about deciding what to wear. I am so used to choosing a nice top, knowing that nobody can see the shorts beneath it. 


HANK: Isn’t that crazy? And all my shoes, lined up on the shelves, wondering why I haven’t worn them for 15 months. Are we going back to heels? The New York Times says yes. 


And the mask thing is so strange. The mask is so YOU don’t give covid to someone else.  If we know we don’t have it, why are WE wearing them? To encourage the unvaccinated to do so?


How about you, Reds and readers? Are you feeling prairie dog?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Play it again: Jungle Red Writers PLAYLIST


HALLIE EPHRON: On Monday we talked about the movies we can watch over and over again. The response was outstanding (sustained applause!!) Such a great list, and I realized it was one we'd all like to have.

So today I present to you the playlist - I hope I caught them all - listed in alphabetical order for you to have handy when you're deciding what to watch next.

As I was sorting ths list, I imagined Leeloo of THE FIFTH ELEMENT (the alien who is a supreme being and needs a crash course in US culture) fast-forwarding through ALL of these and absorbing everything essential about our world.

DRACULA (1931)

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Wishing on the Moon with Judy Penz Sheluk

HALLIE EPHRON: It's such a good idea--an anthology of mystery and suspense stories linked by a common element: moonlight. That's the brainstorm behind MOONLIGHT & MISADVENTURE, a stellar anthology edited by Judy Penz Sheluk.

Today Judy is here to reveal what it is about moonlight that inspired her to put together the collection. She blames it entirely on her mother...

JUDY PENZ SHELUK: I was about twelve when I first met Virginia, the daughter of a friend of my parents. We were the same age, give or take a few months, but Virginia had this cool factor about her that I couldn’t begin to emulate. Where my hair was a wavy mass of frizz, Virginia’s locks were long and sleek, and while the time would come when I’d stand a good four inches above her petite five-foot-two frame, the time hadn’t come yet.

Last, but certainly not least, Virginia was a Funkenmariechen at the Toronto German Club, a fact my mother lorded over me after I’d given up both ballet and tap for lack of talent and desire.

I may have been a lot of things at twelve, but a masochist wasn’t one of them. The last thing I wanted to do was watch Virginia strut her stuff in a red velvet minidress and white lace-up boots to an adoring audience.

Anyway, it was at my parent’s cottage late one night, the adults playing cards at a nearby neighbor’s, when Virginia insisted that we go out and make a wish on the full moon. I remember it being hot and muggy, the air thick with mosquitoes, but the idea of making a wish overrode any thoughts of discomfort. Besides, you didn’t say no to Virginia. Or at least, I couldn’t.

For the wish to come true, Virginia had informed me, you had to stare at the full moon, then tap your right index and middle fingers against your left wrist while making your wish.

It went without saying that you couldn’t tell anyone your wish. Furthermore, she said, because it was a blue moon, we could each make a double wish. What finger tapping had to do with anything was beyond me, but of course I did it, and I’ve done it since, more times than I’m willing to admit.

What can I say? Having a wish come true is a bit like winning the lottery. You can’t win without a ticket, and your wish certainly won’t come true if you never wish it.

All of that and more came into my head has I tried to come up with an underlying theme for the third Superior Shores Anthology. Moonlight, I thought. But moonlight and what? Moonlight & Murder...too limiting. Moonlight & Mayhem...mayhem is so overdone. Moonlight & Misadventure...that had a nice ring to it.

As for what I wished that night, I suppose it’s okay to tell you now. I wished that I’d grow up to be a writer. Oh, and to be taller than Virginia.

Both came true. I’m pretty sure it’s all in the finger-tap.

Or maybe, it’s all in the believing. I’ll let you decide.
Readers: Have you ever wished on the full moon? Have any other moon superstitions
(my mother was a firm believer you should NEVER see the full moon through glass (window or windshield). Very bad luck until the next full moon!

About Moonlight & Misadventure: Whether it’s vintage Hollywood, the Florida everglades, the Atlantic City boardwalk, or a farmhouse in Western Canada, the twenty authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of “moonlight and misadventure” in their own inimitable style where only one thing is assured: Waxing, waning, gibbous, or full, the moon is always there, illuminating things better left in the dark.

Featuring stories by K.L. Abrahamson, Sharon Hart Addy, C.W. Blackwell, Clark Boyd, M.H. Callway, Michael A. Clark, Susan Daly, Buzz Dixon, Jeanne DuBois, Elizabeth Elwood, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Fellowes, John M. Floyd, Billy Houston, Bethany Maines, Judy Penz Sheluk, KM Rockwood, Joseph S. Walker, Robert Weibezahl, and Susan Jane Wright.

About Judy Penz Sheluk: A former journalist and magazine editor, Judy is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short crime fiction appears in several collections, including The Best Laid Plans, Heartbreaks & Half-truths, and Moonlight & Misadventure, which she also edited. Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime National, Toronto, and Guppy Chapters, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Chair on the Board of Directors. Find the Book:

Friday, June 11, 2021

Getting into... and out of a book with Connie Berry

CONGRATULATIONS Pat D! You're the winner of Joani Elliott's THE AUDACITY OF SARAH GRAYSON. Please message Joani with your contact info on her website and let her know where to send it. 

HALLIE EPHRON: Connie Berry is an author after my own heart. Raised by antiques dealers who instilled in her a passion for history,  art, and travel, she brings that and an affinity for all things British to her Kate Hamilton mysteries featuring an antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes.

Her third series novel, THE ART OF BETRAYAL, is just out and garnering great reviews. KIRKUS called it "A delight for lovers of antiques and complicated mysteries with a touch of romance." LIBRARY JOURNAL gave it a starred review. Woo hoo!

We're thrilled to have Connie here today asking: What makes readers stick it out, from PAGE ONE to THE END?

CONNIE BERRY: Have you ever had trouble getting into a book? You’re not alone.

Reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads often include comments like: “I’m 20% of the way in and struggling—is it worth finishing?” or “Terrific, once you get past the first fifty pages.”

Today’s readers are impatient. If a book takes too long to capture their interest, they might just put it down. Take J. R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. A masterpiece of modern fantasy. Hard to get into. Last summer I tried reading it. I really tried. One day I might try again.

A good book with a slow start can feel like a ride at Disney World—thrilling as long as you don’t mind the wait in line. Unlike readers of the past, who were willing to take their time getting to know the characters and becoming familiar with the story world, modern readers expect to be dropped into the middle of the action. Beginning a story too early is considered a serious flaw.

Believe me, I know. Before my debut novel was published, I got a manuscript review at one of the writers’ conferences. My reviewer was Neil Nyren. Gulp. He read my first chapter, which began in my protagonist’s normal world, her antique shop in Ohio. It was all set-up until six chapters later when Kate arrived on the fictional Scottish Isle of Glenroth and the story really began. Nyren’s advice? “Just get her to the damn island.”

Nimble pacing is what today’s reader expect—especially in a cozy mystery where a body is expected to turn up in the first chapter if not on the first page. Starting a book in medias res, however, can create problems of its own. There’s so much the reader has to quickly figure out—setting, time frame, essential backstory, rules of the fictional world, POV character—not to mention remembering all those names.

Wait, wait—who are these people?

Diving into a new book requires focus and a good memory. Am I the only one who jots down character names on a Post-it? Like driving into an unfamiliar city with no GPS, the reader initially feels lost. It takes time to figure out the lay of the land, to make friends with the inhabitants, to feel at home.

It's hard getting into a new book. It can be even harder getting out of one.

One comment authors love goes something like this: “I was so sad when the book ended. Can’t wait for the next one!” I feel that way about lots of books. When the fictional world becomes real to me and when the characters capture my heart, I don’t want the story to end. That hollow feeling at the end of a book has been called a “book hangover.” Like breaking up with a boyfriend, you’re not ready to fall in love again. Sometimes, when a book series ends, readers get angry.

Not everyone has forgiven J. K. Rowling for ending Harry Potter. I’m still upset with Caroline Graham for ending the Midsomer series in 2004 to focus on plays and screenplays.

Did you know authors feel exactly the same way about their own books?

Last Monday, after a three-month-long writing marathon, I completed the draft of my fourth Kate Hamilton mystery and sent it off to my editor. The book actually took eleven months to write, but the final three months were intense.

What do I do now? My head tells me to begin plotting out a new book. My heart is stuck in the old one.

It takes time for me to feel comfortable in a new book. Especially when I’m still mourning the previous one. I want to linger in that old manuscript—polishing, revising, tweaking, enjoying the company of old friends—when what I need to be doing is settling down and making myself at home in the next book.

Like life, reading books and writing them requires a series of hellos and goodbyes. Letting go of something so you can take hold of something new.

Do you find it hard to get into a book? Have you ever started one and put it down? Which book or series are you still mourning?

HALLIE: Such a great question. I start many more books than I finish, I am sorry to say. I so admire a reader who takes a chance and sticks with a book that doesn't immediately catch their fancy. And I do wish there'd been more books featuring the girl with the dragon tattoo?

What about you?
One randomly selected commenter will win a signed copy of The Art of Betrayal!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Joani Elliott: "My condolences on your death - now who's going to finish your book?"

And the winner of Debra H. Goldstein's FOUR CUTS TOO MANY is: Pat D! Contact Debra at

HALLIE EPHRON: As authors (particularly of crime fiction), we're wont to say something to the effect: Writing this book is going to kill me. Especially as we wade through writing the mushy middle.

Joani Elliott goes one step further and imagines it happening, because if you die in the middle of a book, who's going to finish it? Say the word "literary executor" to one of your colleagues or offspring and they're likely to run screaming from the room.

Today we're happy to welcome Joani talking about the inspiration for her brand new debut novel, THE AUDACITY OF SARAH GRAYSON. Joani is giving away a signed copy of her new book to one lucky commenter. (Don't you love that cover?!)

JOANI ELLIOTT: THE AUDACITY OF SARA GRAYSON centers around the death of a literary icon and her dying wish that her daughter finish the final volume in her wildly popular best-selling series. There are plenty of missteps and mysteries along the way for Sara who is horrified at the prospect of stepping into her mother’s shoes.

My book’s premise has also generated some interesting conversations with my own daughter, Lexa, who happens to love writing, but still looked at me one day with pleading eyes and said, “Please swear that you will never do that to me, Mom.”

“Do what?” I asked.

“Go and die and then ask me to finish your book.”

I smiled at her. I believe she can do anything. “Define swear,” I said.

At age twenty-one, Lexa is still a master of the eye roll.

I have made no promises about unfinished manuscripts to my daughter, but it does raise interesting questions as writers. Who would you trust to finish one of your books? Is there anyone? And if so, who would that be?

The beloved fantasy writer Robert Jordan died before he could finish his epic Wheel of Time series. With awareness of his coming demise, he asked his wife and editor, Harriet McDougal, to choose someone to finish his series after his death.

(Photo by Jeanne Collins, licensed under CC BY 3.00

McDougal kept her promise and chose author Brandon Sanderson. He was young and accomplished, but he had never even met Jordan. Sanderson was so overwhelmed by the task that he almost didn’t do it. When it came down to making the final decision, Sanderson explained in a 2010 interview with “Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction,” that of “all the people out there…I would screw it up the least.”

Sanderson had read his first Jordan book when he was fourteen. Can you imagine taking on the task of finishing the series of someone you idolized? Would you do it? Sanderson did finish the task, breaking up the last book into three successful volumes.

Michael Crichton died of cancer with more than one unfinished manuscript. His widow and his assistant chose Richard Preston to finish a book that was already one third complete, but Preston had to write a proposal first and then he had to closely follow Crichton’s voice and style to make Micro a success.

Stieg Larsson, author of the famous Millenium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) died suddenly of a heart attack at age fifty with no will, so his longtime partner was left out of the decision making all together while his family chose another Swedish writer, David Lagercrantz, to continue the series. Despite the initial uproar among Swedish fans and the press, the series sold millions of copies.

Then there is the beloved author Sue Grafton who died before she could finish her final book, Z is for Zero, in her famous Kinsey Millhone Alphabet series. So close! In a post on Grafton’s website after her death, her daughter explained that Grafton was adamant that a ghost writer would never complete her work.

With Grafton’s last published work, Y IS FOR YESTERDAY, her daughter wrote, “As far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.

Even as I neared completion of my first Sara Grayson draft, I found myself asking, would her mother, Cassandra Bond, have a back-up plan? Since Bond had cancer and a little time to plan, would she have stashed a draft of the book somewhere just in case her daughter didn’t come through? Would she really trust Sara to finish her work? I’ve asked myself how I would feel about placing my own unfinished work in someone else’s hands.

I’d love to know your thoughts and I’m giving away a signed copy of my novel to a lucky commenter. Would you ask someone to finish one of your stories or would you prefer your unfinished projects to remain that way?

ABOUT The Audacity of Sara Grayson What happens when the world's greatest literary icon dies before she finishes the final book in her best-selling series?

And what happens when she leaves that book in the hands of her unstable, neurotic daughter, who swears she's not a real writer? Sara Grayson is a thirty-two-year-old greeting card writer about to land the toughest assignment of her life. Three weeks after the death of her mother--a world-famous suspense novelist--Sara learns that her mother's dying wish is for her to write the final book in her bestselling series.

Sara has lived alone with her dog, Gatsby, ever since her husband walked out with their Pro Double Waffle Maker and her last shred of confidence. She can't fathom writing a book for thirty million fans--not when last week's big win was resetting the microwave clock.

  But in a bold move that surprises even herself, Sara takes it on. Against an impossible deadline and a publisher intent on sabotaging her every move, Sara discovers that stepping into her mother's shoes means stumbling on family secrets she was never meant to find--secrets that threaten her mother's legacy and the very book she's trying to create.

ABOUT Joani Elliott: Joani grew up with six sisters which means that she can shower fast and do her makeup using the kitchen toaster as a mirror. You should never pick her for your dodgeball team or any team sport—but she does have a rather excellent cartwheel. Joani has taught writing at the University of Maryland and Brigham Young University. She is the mother of two adult daughters who feel sorry for Sara Grayson and believe authors should finish their own damn books.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Hidden trash or treasure... wouldn't we like to know


HALLIE EPHRON: Given that I so often write about stuff--the stuff we collect, the stuff our spouses collect--it should come as no surprise that Monday night in our house is Antiques Roadshow night. I've probably seen most of its 27 seasons, and I'm looking forward to their 28th.

Many of their most recent shows have been comprised of repurposed footage showing how (ten years later) the value of Aunt Minnie’s priceless vase has gone up, down, or tacked sideways.

In the Age of IKEA, it’s pretty depressing if you collected old stuff. Virtually any kind of antique furniture (except for mid-century modern) has gone down. WAY down. Ceramics and pottery, with rare exceptions, also down, now that eBay has flooded the market with items that were previously thought to be scarce.

Old toys are… down, as the generation that cherished them downsizes. Old children’s books and stamp collections are just about worthless.

In the wake of Covid, PBS is filming new Antiques Roadshows. I’ve twice signed up for their ticket drawing but never gotten picked. If I did, here’s what I’d bring.

I think it’s a buckle. Cast bronze? Possibly for a cape. I bought it ages ago and have always wondered whether it has any value. Once upon a time, I sewed a black velvet ribbon to it and have worn it as a belt with a long slinky black sheath. Very glam.

I’d also love to know if these glasses that I bought years ago in California have any value. I think they're gorgeous.

If you could go to Antiques Roadshow, what would you bring to show their appraisers?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Dangerous in the kitchen: Debra H. Goldstein

 HALLIE EPHRON: She's a judge who's hilariously funny. She writes cozy culinary mysteries but she's dangerous in the kitchen. She's the smart, award-winning author of the Sarah Blair mysteries ("Sarah, like me, is a cook of convenience who might be scorched if she gets too close to a kitchen.")

Today we are happily welcoming Debra H. Goldstein, sharing her love-hate relationship with the kitchen.

And by the way, her newest -- FOUR CUTS TOO MANY -- has just been published and she's giving away a copy to one lucky commenter.

DEBRA H. GOLDSTEIN: Before I was married almost thirty-eight years ago, my friends gave me a kitchen shower during which, because I hated the kitchen and cooking, they challenged me to identify what was in each of the gift boxes. Everyone got a good laugh when I pulled out a beautifully matched set of paper plates and napkins and someone quipped, “Oh look, she got her good china.” They were equally amused when I recognized the plastic box with the funny lid that could be rested on the counter upside down was a recipe box. It wasn’t that I’d known what the top of the box was for, but because there was a recipe card stuck in it reading: “Make Reservations.”

For thirty-six years, I adhered to that modus operandi. I even created a fictional character, Sarah Blair, who finds being in the kitchen more frightening than murder. Her specialty, like mine, is take-out or dishes made with prepared ingredients. Some of our best recipes are for Spinach Pie made with Stouffer’s spinach souffle, Jell-O in a Can, and stewed tomatoes that are simply heated canned peeled tomatoes.

Then, the pandemic hit. Although Sarah has continued making amusing recipes, I was forced to find my way to the kitchen at least three times a day. Pity my poor husband. In the past year, I have cooked us more meals than I prepared during the prior thirty-six years combined. There is no question that Joel eats at his own risk.

Rather than sharing another recipe with you today, I thought I would impart three important things I have learned this year:

1) If when you are trying to automatically clean your oven, you hear a pop and the digital timer on your stove changes from the time to reading F8, you have blown the computer brain. This can take up to two weeks for the replacement part to arrive and be installed.

2) F2 is the message your stove will send you when the oven catches fire. The flames will be bright enough that you won’t have to put the oven light on to see them. It is important that you are careful when putting out the fire. After the fact, when you’ve opened all the doors, turned on the fans, and the fire alarms in your house stop ringing, be aware that there may be soot not only in the stove, but because you turned on the fan to clear the air a bit, soot may migrate to the windowsill on the far side of the room from where the stove is located.

3) If the recipe calls for using a non-stick frying pan and a tsp of olive oil, make sure you use a tsp instead of a tbsp to measure the oil. More importantly, as you heat the oil, don’t add a drop more because you are afraid the pan doesn’t look sufficiently coated to prevent the protein you put in from sticking. Failing to follow the recipe as dictated will result in hot oil spattering on the stove top, counters, floor, and exhaust fan. The resultant mess takes longer to clean than sautéing the protein.

HALLIE: For a chance to win a copy of Four Cuts Too Many, do you have any similar kitchen tips or horror stories to share with Sarah and me? (I could write a treatise on the difference between a pint and a half-pint of cream: it's the difference between cheese pie and cheese soup.)

FOUR CUTS TOO MANY: Sarah Blair gets an education in slicing and dicing when someone in her friend’s culinary school serves up a main corpse in Wheaton, Alabama . . .

Between working as a law firm receptionist, reluctantly pitching in as co-owner of her twin sister’s restaurant, and caretaking for her regal Siamese RahRah and rescue dog Fluffy, Sarah has no time to enjoy life’s finer things. Divorced and sort-of dating, she’s considering going back to school. But as a somewhat competent sleuth, Sarah’s more suited for criminal justice than learning how many ways she can burn a meal.

Although she wouldn’t mind learning some knife skills from her sous chef, Grace Winston. An adjunct instructor who teaches cutlery expertise in cooking college, Grace is considering accepting an executive chef’s position offered by Jane Clark, Sarah’s business rival—and her late ex-husband’s lover. But Grace’s future lands in hot water when the school’s director is found dead with one of her knives in his back. To clear her friend’s name, there’s no time to mince words. Sarah must sharpen her own skills at uncovering an elusive killer . . .

Judge Debra H. Goldstein writes Kensington’s Sarah Blair mystery series (Four Cuts Too Many, Three Treats Too Many, Two Bites Too Many, One Taste Too Many). She also authored Should Have Played Poker and IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue. Her short stories and novels have been named as Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, and Silver Falchion finalists. Debra serves on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and is president of SEMWA. She previously was on Sisters in Crime’s national board and president of SinC’s Guppy Chapter.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Pressing REPLAY

HALLIE EPHRON: I was saddened to see the recent obituary for Olympia Dukakis. I’m a huge fan and it got me thinking about one of my favorite movies: MOONSTRUCK. She plays Cher’s mother, worldly wise when she tells her husband that she knows he’s cheating on her, she wants him to stop, and “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else.” It’s a classic moment.

I watched the movie again the other night (it’s on Amazon Prime) and once again marveled at Dukakis’s performance. And Cher’s. And Vincent Gardenia as the father and Nicholas Cage as the wounded raging hot-as-hell Ronny Cammareri. It’s SO good. Even viewed for the umpteenth time. The opening scenes are full of little “Easter eggs” hinting at scenes that will take place later (a shot that establishes the neighborhood shows us a busy street with a moving van with METROPOLITAN OPERA emblazoned on its side).

I have the same experience when I watch THE WIZARD OF OZ again. And again. So much is seeded in those opening scenes on the farm (Dorothy falls into the pig pen and gets rescued by a terrified farmhand who will later be the cowardly lion). And it’s great fun anticipating the delivery of a great line. (“I’m a very good man - I’m just a very bad wizard.” “What a world, what a world.” )

Is there a movie that’s so good that you can watch it over and over again?

LUCY BURDETTE: Hallie, did you know that Frank Bruni recommended that everyone watch MOONSTRUCK again during the pandemic? So John and I did--it’s so fabulous! Every actor is amazing and the story, so romantic.

Another one that I love is LOVE ACTUALLY, but once a year for that is enough. And SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE--I can’t say how many times I have watched that one. I especially love Tom Hanks.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Such a good question. You know--WORKING GIRL, with Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford. She’s from the wrong side of the river, but she’s smart and ambitious and willing to do the work.

I am a big fan of ugly duckling stories, especially when the ugly duckling is smart, and this is one of those. And that fantastic anthem “Let the River Run” sung by Carly Simon. And in the end, (spoiler) she is SO HAPPY, and then the camera pulls out to show she is just one little little person. Ahhh.

In that same smart duckling vein, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Oh, when Andi comes out in the Chanel boots? When Miranda lectures her about turquoise? It’s touching, and wonderful, and SO funny.

And I would always watch The Godfather, and Casablanca, and Lawrence of Arabia. To Kill A Mockingbird, too, we watched that the other night, in fact. OH! And MY COUSIN VINNY. CLASSIC. Hilarious. Every. Time. I’ll stop now.


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hank, I love WORKING GIRL, and you’ve inspired me to re-watch it again. It’s SO eighties, and yes, the Carly Simon song stands as one of the greatest movie themes ever. Every second-rate film gets an updated version; why hasn’t anyone done a remake of WORKING GIRL?

I’ve talked before about how my family has seasonal movie rewinds: THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW during the first big storm of winter, DIE HARD on Christmas Eve, and INDEPENDENCE DAY (the original, not the terrible, terrible sequel) on, well, you can guess when we watch that.

But if we’re talking about movies I will sit down again and again for, I have two comedies that never stop amusing me: SPY, starring Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne and Jason Statham (who is great at playing an over-the-top version of his usual tough-guy role) and DOWN WITH LOVE, a somewhat-obscure, wonderfully stylish homage to all those Doris Day/Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the early 60s, with Renee Zellweger in the Doris Day role, Ewan McGregor “as” Rock Hudson/Cary Grant/James Garner, and David Hyde Pierce, who is almost more Tony Randall than Tony Randall was!

JENN McKINLAY: Julia, I loved, SPY, and now I must see DOWN WITH LOVE. I was such an old movie buff as a teen that I consumed all the Doris Day/Rock Hudson or James Garner movies, fell in love with Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin in IF A MAN ANSWERS (so great!), and decided to become a writer of rom-coms because of ROMANCING THE STONE. Also, I will stop whatever I’m doing and watch any movie Elvis is in if one comes on. The movie that I always double back to, however, is FIELD OF DREAMS. A multi-layered, poignant, family centric movie with loads of magical realism -- it ticks all of my boxes. Plus, I’ve been in love with James Earl Jones forever, so there’s that.

RHYS BOWEN:; The movies I watch over and over depend on my mood. Like Hank I can rewatch THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. I adore OUT OF AFRICA but only when I’m prepared for a good weep. I have the DVD of ENCHANTED APRIL which is the perfect escape movie for me, also MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, ROMAN HOLIDAY and even LETTERS TO JULIET. I suppose I rewatch sweet, sappy movies when I need calming down or cheering up. My recent go-to was MAMA MIA. Who couldn’t feel cheerful when singing along?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Love love love MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. So many good suggestions here, but I haven’t seen SPY or DOWN WITH LOVE. I’m a huge Ewan McGregor fan so that one is going on my list asap.

I have my perennial faves, like LOVE ACTUALLY and THE HOLIDAY, oh, and NOTTING HILL, of course, but I would love to see ROMANCING THE STONE again. FIELD OF DREAMS is my daughter’s favorite movie ever, and I love BULL DURHAM. It’s summer and baseball season, time to get those out again!

But you know what I’m thinking I’d like to rewatch? SPEED. Such a great action movie. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock were adorable, the supporting cast was terrific, and the stunts were amazing.

HALLIE: I’ve never seen SPEED. Or DOWN WITH LOVE. Or MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. What about you, what’s going on your to-watch list and what would you recommend for over-and-over watching?

Sunday, June 6, 2021

What We're Writing: Strawberried Alive by Jenn McKinlay

 Jenn McKinlay: When struggling with a book within a series, I often think about authors who kill off their main characters just so they can stop writing about them.

I won't name names here because...spoilers. But there are a fair few authors who've thrown their characters to the wolves, out the window, or just backed over them with their car, and I get it. 

There are days when the writing is a real struggle and I'm convinced it's time to just blow up the cupcake bakery and call it a day. 

For you, dear readers, I soldier on. That does not mean I don't flirt with the idea of killing off my characters. And here is the evidence, the first chapter of Strawberried Alive, coming in May 2022, you know, if I ever finish the book and don't decide to blow the series sky high in the meantime.

When things don't go well at the cupcake bakery...

     With a sigh, Mel returned to her kitchen and set to work unboxing all of the packed up cupcakes. She carefully removed the white chocolate initials and set them aside on a sheet of parchment paper, then she scraped off the rejected fondant and most of the underlying buttercream. Using a silicone spatula, she flicked the frosting into a large trash can. She was halfway through when the kitchen door swung open and Olivia Puckett, rival baker and current girlfriend to Mels' employee Marty appeared. Olivia surveyed the cupcake covered table and watched Mel scrape another cupcake clean. Then she laughed. It was a full on belly laugh.

     “What happened? Did you mess up an order?”

     Mel eyed the gob of frosting on the end of her spatula and debated flicking it at Olivia. Tempting. It was so tempting. Mel lowered the spatula into the trash can and shook the frosting loose. She felt she should get props for being so mature, especially given that dumping the frosting in the trash can was not nearly as satisfying as watching a glob of frosting splat her baking rival in the face.

      Olivia was still in her chef coat, having just left her bakery Confections. She was undoubtedly here to pick up Marty since they lived together. Mel tried not to feel resentful about everyone else having a fun Friday night while she was stuck here. It was a struggle.

     “No, I didn’t mess up,” Mel said. “The bride changed her primary color from aqua to teal without telling me until a few moments ago. The wedding is tomorrow.”

     Olivia crossed the kitchen to glance at the vast expanse of cupcakes on the table. She let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot of boo boos to fix. Was the bride Emerson Henry by any chance?” 

     Mel glanced at her in surprise. “How did you know?”

     “She came to Confections about her wedding,” Olivia said. “Aqua cupcakes with their initials in white chocolate on top, am I right?”

     “You’re right.” Mel gestured to the cupcakes.

     “Yeah, we were already booked out,” Olivia said. “Now I feel like I dodged a bullet.” She patted Mel on the back. Olivia didn’t know her own strength, or maybe she did, as the pat almost sent Mel face forward onto the work table. She caught herself just in time. 

    “You definitely did,” Mel said ruefully. They both studied the table, acknowledging the amount of work that was ahead of Mel.

     “I’d offer to stay and help,” Olivia said. “But I don’t want to.”

     That surprised a laugh out of Mel. The door swung open again and Marty appeared. “We’re all locked up out front, boss. Liv and I are taking off if you’re okay with that?”

     “I’m okay,” Mel said. She must not have sounded convincing because Marty hesitated, so she added, “Seriously, I’m good. Go, get out of here.”

     They didn’t need to be told twice. They crossed through the kitchen and out the backdoor, which closed with a click of the lock behind them. Mel glanced around her kitchen, which she usually considered her sanctuary, and tried not to resent it.

     Mel turned to her trusty Kitchen-Aid mixer to whip up a fresh batch of fondant. She used a gelatin and corn syrup based recipe, so it wasn’t difficult, except that fondant could be persnickety so she had to mind it carefully. When the rolling fondant had reached the right consistency, she put it in the cooler to chill while she prepped a new batch of white chocolate buttercream to spread on the cupcakes.

     Mel had a large screen television mounted on the wall of the kitchen, which she used to watch movies while baking late at night. She flicked through the streaming services until she found a classic Bringing Up Baby. She then picked up her phone and texted her husband Joe, letting him know that she’d be home in a couple of hours. She’d already called to tell him she was working late and he said he and the furry babies eagerly awaited her return. She felt a pang of missing her family. Being married was still very new for her and she still couldn’t believe that she was Mrs. Joe DeLaura.

     As Kate Hepburn sashayed across the screen, Mel began to pipe the fresh buttercream on the raspberry filled cupcakes. She supposed she could have baked the cupcakes all over again, but no. The bride, or princess of the tantrum as Mel thought of her, did not deserve that much labor from her. 

     The movie finished and the next one began while Mel worked. It Happened One Night, a classic, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, was halfway through when she finished. Quickly she packed away the cupcakes in the walk in cooler and cleaned up the kitchen. She checked the bakery one more time to make sure everything was clean, switched off, and put away. 

     She retrieved her handbag from the tiny office, formerly a closet, in the corner of the bakery and headed out the door. It was October in south Scottsdale and the heat of the Arizona summer was fading and the nights were blissfully cool. Mel was giddy that she actually had to pause to put on her lightweight hoodie. The Chamber of Commerce weather that was the pride of Arizona was on its way.

     She zipped up her sweatshirt and ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. She set the alarm on the keypad inside the door and had just closed and locked it, when she heard footsteps in the alley behind her. Mel froze. 

     She glanced up at the apartment above the bakery where Oz lived. The lights were off. Maybe it was him, coming home. He was a young man in his twenties. It wasn’t out of character for him to be out this late. Then again, he was a chef and had to be up when the rooster crowed to bake his signature desserts for the Sun Dial Resort where he now worked, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to be out this late. Oz took his job very seriously. 

     Mel turned away from the keypad and glanced into the dark alley behind her. She tried to make her voice strong when she called out, “Oz? Is that you?”

     In the shadow of the dumpster fifty yards away, she saw a figure dressed all in black. She felt her heart skip a beat or three. Every instinct screamed at her to get out of there. She tried the handle on the door but she’d locked it. She fumbled for her keys not caring if she set off the alarm because then at least the police would be notified.

     “Oz, if you’re playing a prank, it’s not funny,” she cried. Please let it be Oz, please, please, please. 

    There was a sudden boom and the brick beside her arm exploded. The person had shot at her! Mel let out shriek and ducked down behind the railing, as if the skinny wrought iron could protect her from a bullet. From her crouched position, she tried to get the key in the lock but her fingers were shaking too hard.

     Over the frantic pounding of her heart, she heard the footsteps coming closer. She tried to cram the key into the lock but it was upside down. She dropped the keys. The light over the back door illuminated the area, making it easy for the shooter to see her, but it also helped her spot her keys. She snatched them up and tried the lock again. 

     Another bullet whizzed through the air and slammed into the metal door above her head, ripping a hole through it. Mel jerked back and curled up into a ball as if she could repel a bullet if she scrunched up tight enough. 

     The footsteps kept coming and Mel realized this was it. Here on her back stoop with traces of teal food coloring under her fingernails and the smell of buttercream wafting off her skin like perfume, she was about to die. 

Will she die? Won't she? I'm not telling. 

How about it, Readers? How do you feel when an author blows up their series by killing off a beloved character? And, Reds, have you ever killed off a character just to be done with them?

Saturday, June 5, 2021

What We're Writing Week: Writing for Listeners as well as Readers

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: If you read JRW, you've heard a lot about what goes into the imaginative grist mill of a writer's mind. Travel to different places. News stories. Real historical events. And the ways we express ourselves: point of view, structure, outlining or organic. In short, there are a lot of items jostling for space on the author's To-Write list.

One of those items on my list is writing for the audio book. I love the audio versions of my series, performed by the wonderful Suzanne Toren, and thinking about how my words will be read has changed my writing in subtle ways. I try to leave off as many "he said," and "she said"s as I can, because when you're listening to the narrator, it's perfectly obvious who said what.

I try to give clues about the differences in people's speech without spelling it out, so instead of, "'I'm perfectly fine to drive myself,' she said in a haughty tone," I'll have "'I'm perfectly fine to drive myself.' Her voice made Russ think of the rich women on the North side of town." Let's face it, the latter is a much more interesting way to describe a person speaking, isn't it?

And because Suzanne is so good at accents, it's pushed me to make my cast more diverse, which, I confess, isn't anything I originally thought of. I know the area my Millers Kill is based on, and it's pretty goshdarn white, inhabited largely by people whose ancestors settled in the lower Adirondacks no later than the 1880s. But there's no reason I can't have a European doctor, or an assistant district attorney whose family came from Vietnam. Or characters who are Black or Iroquois or Quebecois. 

So when I knew I was going to introduce officer Kevin Flynn's family in Through the Evil Days, I decided to make Irish-American Flynn the son of an Irish immigrant father. (There's a whole history. I should write it as a short story some day.) Since one of the plot lines of my work-in-progress, At Midnight Comes the Cry, is the mysterious disappearance of Kevin, I couldn't resist the chance to bring his dad, Sean, back on the scene for a bit.

They had joked about Kevin Flynn being Irish, but Russ had no idea he was Irish-Irish until meeting his father. “This is it. Turn here.” Sean Flynn sounded like a tour guide from the auld sod, but instead of a castle in Limerick, they were approaching a street of small houses hard against the bank of the Seneca River in Baldwinsville. “Here 'tis.” Sean pointed to a small, neat house with a red door and green metal roof. No curb in this neighborhood; Russ parked at the edge of the frost-stricken lawn.

He figured he had been on the road to this house since Hadley Knox had asked him where he thought Flynn might be. Between his former officer and Clare's pointed comments, he decided to do the smart thing and surrender. He was glad he had, though, when he contacted Flynn's parents, who were so worried about their middle son's disappearance, Sean Flynn had volunteered to drive the three hours across New York state to let Russ into the rented house. “I know you'll want to keep it all on the up-and-up, and I have his key and his permission, and I suppose they're both still good, even if he gave them over near a year ago.”

Russ had turned him down, preferring to make the trip in his own truck, but Sean had come along for the ride. Russ grabbed his jacket from the back seat and got out. “Nice little place.”

It's small, but the back garden runs straight down to the river, with stairs and a wee dock. I told him if he wanted to buy, we could expand toward the road here or raise the roof to put in a second floor...” Sean's voice died away. He pulled the key from his pocket and unlocked the front door.

They walked into a mudroom space at the end of a galley-style kitchen. Everything was clean and neat. No clothing waiting in the stacked washer and dryer. He opened the fridge. Condiments, bottled water, a six-pack, but no food left to spoil. The freezer was stuffed with frozen meals and ice cream that had crystalized over.

Does Kevin like to cook? Would he have milk and eggs and that sort of stuff?”

He isn't much to make his own dinner, but he likes cereal and his sandwiches.” Sean paused beside Russ. “That looks cleaned out to me.”

Me, too.”

Is that a good sign?”

Well, it means he probably left of his own accord, and he had enough time to plan his departure and get rid of everything that might spoil.” He shut the refrigerator door. The kitchen opened into a great room beneath a peaked roof, with a TV watching spot on one side and a desk and bookcases on the other. He could see the promised view of the river through a glass-fronted door framed with two wide picture windows. “Why don't you check his bedroom and see what clothes might be missing. I'll take a look at his desk.”


What do you think, dear readers? Do you "hear" accents in your head as you read a book, or do you wait for the audio edition? If you're a fan of the latter, who are some of your favorite narrators?