Sunday, October 31, 2021

Chili Season

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Happy Halloween, everyone! And since we're too old to trick or treat--well, most of us, anyway--we need another way to celebrate these crisp autumn evenings and my vote is CHILI


I make sure to have the fixings in stock when we know that first sweater-weather night is coming. But what, exactly, goes in the chili? Beans or no beans? If beans, what kind? Meat or no meat? If meat, what kind? Beef? Regular ground or special chili grind? Straight up beef or half turkey? Or pork? Tomatoes? Onions? And once that is sorted out, what do you serve with it?



Texans are famously purists about chili, and beans are supposed to anathema, but I confess that we like beans in ours. I use kidney beans, but when I mentioned this to a friend the other day, she said that was disgusting and you should only use pintos. Hmm. I also confess that I use a chili kit, Wick Fowler's Two Alarm Chili. It has lots of chili powder, cumin, paprika, dried onion and garlic, and ground red pepper. You mix these spices with your browned ground meat, then add a can of tomato sauce and some water. I let this simmer for a few minutes, then add two cans of drained and rinsed beans and let it simmer some more. Another confession: we tone ours down to One Alarm or maybe Half an Alarm by only using a little of the red pepper, because we are wimps. It smells heavenly!


I usually use a combo of ground beef and ground turkey, but this time I used ground beef and ground pork (both from our lovely local butcher) and it was fabulous. That is now my go-to.

We top the bowls with some sour cream and grated cheddar, and I like some chopped green onions on mine. I also like cornbread, but the hubby insists on Saltine crackers, so I don't bother making the cornbread. 

Sorry no photo of the finished bowl, but I was so hungry by the time the chili was ready that I forgot to take one! So my chili wasn't pretty but it was delish.


REDS, what's your take on chili?

LUCY BURDETTE: I really love the New York Times Cooking recipe for a slow cooker by Sarah DiGregorio. It’s got a zillion spices in it from mustard to cloves plus Worcestershire, maple syrup, beer...sounds like trouble but it’s so good! (Two kinds of beans Debs.) I try not to eat pork (because pigs are so smart), so I use ground beef. Delicious, and makes a lot!

And this would be perfect with Melissa Clark’s cornmeal muffins!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love my chili, but it is not exotic and I have no secrets. (One of my pals uses sugar.). Ground beef or ground turkey--they REALLY are so different--Old El Paso mix. I know, boring. NO beans, but Jonathan likes them, so pinto and kidney, RINSED, taking all the beanie goop off.  I often add cauliflower, which is AWESOME,  and sometimes corn, also amazing, and broccoli. Realy, trust me, delish. Served with shredded cheddar and sour cream, of course. And sliced black olives. Yes, cornbread, but it is not a dealbreaker.

HALLIE EPHRON: I do not even know the difference between a pinto and a kidney bean, but then I’ve barely been to Texas…

I do make chili. It’s one of the basics here. With beans. Served over RICE. Topped with sour cream, grated cheddar AND chopped fresh cilantro. Yum. 

I used to make it starting with dried chili pepper because most of the chili powder we get here just isn’t that good.  But it is convenient and there’s something so familiar about the taste of chili powder.

So basically, sautee chopped meat (I like pork) 

Remove the pork and in the same pan, sautee lots of chopped onions

Put the meat back in the pan and dump in a can of chopped tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. To taste, really.

Simmer an hour or two.

Add a can of drained beans (I like black or kidney).

TASTE and if it needs it, add some hot sauce. Garnish and serve.


DEBS: Hallie, I like my chili on brown rice, too.

JENN McKINLAY: After twenty years of my chili in a crock-pot staple for the busy family of four that we were, I handed the cooking apron to the Hub two years ago and now he makes an all meat chili that is AMAZING. I have no idea how he does it. I’m just grateful that he does. All I know is that it’s spicy, I like to plop a dollop of sour cream on top, and eat it with Fritos. A lot of Fritos. 


DEBS: Oh my gosh, Fritos! Fritos are the very best thing with chili. Sinful, but worth it on occasion.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Sounds yummy, Jenn! Ross was the dedicated chili-maker in the family; the one who would mix different meats and spices, etc, etc. I hate to sounds like an apostate, but all chili tastes more or less alike to me, other than the heat level. So when I make it, I’m pretty slapdash - ground beef, canned beans, packet of McCormick chili seasoning. I’m sure all the Texans reading this are cringing.

I do have a very good specialty chili recipe that I started making when the kids were in Drama Club in high school. Every play and musical had at least one all-day set build and/or rehearsal, and parents were asked to bring in lunch or dinner. All my kids had friends who were vegetarian, or vegan, or halal, and so I found a recipe that would work for all of them (it’s kosher, too!) Three different types of beans, veggies and diced tomatoes to make it chunky, lots of slow sauteing with the spices. Even meat-eaters like it.

Oh, and chili in my house is always accompanied by corn muffins. Yes, Jiffy corn muffin mix, $0.33 per box. I told you, I am the laziest cook that ever lived.

RHYS BOWEN:  I used to make chili when I had four hungry kids and their friends to feed. These days John is averse to spices so I don’t make it and actually don’t really enjoy the harshness of Mexican chili powder compared with the Indian sort. A staple at family gatherings has been chili dip— can of chili plus packet of cream cheese melted together to eat with chips. That’s good. 

DEBS: Readers, tell us how you make your chili!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Ann Cleeves' THE LONG CALL on Britbox!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: British mystery fans will be thrilled to know that Britbox is bringing U.S. viewers the brand new adaptation of Ann Cleeves' THE LONG CALL, the first of her Two Rivers novels featuring Devon detective Matthew Venn! And I do mean brand new, as it just began airing on ITV in the UK this week. Silverprint Pictures has done such a brilliant job with both Shetland and Vera, their adaptations of Ann's other series novels, that I was looking forward to this with great anticipation. I read The Long Call as soon as it was released in 2019 and I think it's amazing that they've brought it to the screen so quickly. (If you haven't read The Long Call, it's available on Kindle Unlimited at the moment!)

Here's a peek at the show:


Inspired by the bestselling novel of the same name, this atmospheric crime drama brings to life a new deeply engrossing mystery from Ann Cleeves, creator of Vera and Shetland. Featuring Ann's signature chilling twists and starkly beautiful settings, The Long Call centers on its intriguing and flawed protagonist, Detective Inspector Mathew Venn. We first meet the reserved but intense Matthew at his father's funeral in North Devon with his husband, the small community he grew up in but walked away 20 years ago after being rejected by his family. Now he's back, not just to mourn his father, but also to take charge of his first murder case. Finding the killer is Matthew's only focus, and his team's investigation will take him straight back into the community he left behind - and the deadly secrets that lurk there. 

So gripping! And what a cast! That's Ben Aldridge as Matthew and Pearl Mackie as his colleague Jenn Rafferty. 

Declan Bennett plays Matthew's husband Jonathan. It must be so nerve-wracking for the author, waiting to see how her characters will be portrayed, but I think they've done a fine job here. It's a stellar cast all round, with luminaries like Martin Shaw and especially Juliet Stevenson, who is so good as Matthew's complicated mother, Dorothy.  

And the scenery is gorgeous! I don't know that part of Devon, but now I want to visit. Not to mention that I would move into Matthew and Jonathan's house in a heartbeat!

What could be more fun on a chilly Halloween weekend than to curl up with a good mystery on the screen and a cup of hot chocolate?

REDS and readers, how are you spending yours?

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Midnight Hour--Elly Griffiths

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Every so often on Jungle Red we get to have fan girl moments and today is one of mine. I have devoured Elly Griffiths' books from the very first Ruth Galloway, and although I came a bit late to The Stranger Diaries, I loved that, too, and the subsequent novel featuring DS Harbinder Kaur. So how had I somehow missed The Brighton Mysteries?

I can only plead "too many books in the to-read pile." But a couple of months ago I discovered the first Brighton book, The Zig Zag Girl, in my Audible library, and once I started it, I was absolutely hooked. Of course the good thing about starting a series behind is that you can binge on the available books, and binge I did! I listened to the first five books (the narrator, James Langton, is wonderful) one right after the other and I felt bereft when I finished the fifth book. I love these characters, I love the Brighton in the fifties (and then the sixties) setting, and I love the glimpse into the world of magic and Variety. 

But what, I wondered, drew Elly from Ruth the contemporary archeologist and Harbinder the contemporary detective to post-war theater? The answer is as fascinating as the books, and here is Elly to explain.

ELLY GRIFFITHS: My grandfather, Frederick Goodwin, was born in 1897 in Hastings, England. Along with his two best friends, all three called Freddie, he lied about his age to join up in the First World War. They thought the war would be over by Christmas but, by December 1914, the other two Freddies were dead. Grandad fought on, first in the trenches and then in the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps. He ended the war, aged only twenty-two, as an Acting Major in the RFC.  Like a lot of veterans Grandad didn’t talk about his service, but the one thing he did say has stayed in my mind. ‘After everything I saw in the war, there was only one job I could do. Become a comedian.’

    So Frederick Goodwin became Dennis Lawes. Grandad said it was because the shorter name looked bigger on the playbills but I wonder if he just wanted to leave his old life behind him.

     Grandad was a Variety entertainer, sometimes called Vaudeville in the US. He travelled around the country, performing in a different town every week. Sunday was changeover day and, at certain train junctions, like the tea rooms on Crewe station, the performers would meet and swap stories. I have described this world in the opening pages of The Midnight Hour.

    Somehow, during this peripatetic life, Grandad met and married his first wife, my Grandmother. She died when I was young but I will never forget her name: Ellen (Elly) Griffiths. Ellen and Dennis had one child, my mother Sheila. For reasons of her own, Ellen left her husband and baby when Sheila was only two. Grandad then brought up his daughter on his own, taking her with him from show to show, staying in theatrical digs. My mum had lots of memories of this time: tap dancing on the empty stage, Grandad trying to darn her socks, friendly landladies and scary ventriloquists. She also remembered quite a few chorus girl ‘aunties’. I should say that Grandad married three times and all his wives were dancers. 

    When mum was ten, Grandad sent her to boarding school. It’s hard to know what else he could have done but Mum found the adjustment hard. She’d never been to school before and her companions were acrobats and sword-swallowers, not children her own age. But she made good friends at Heath House and her memories of that time became my children’s series, A Girl Called Justice

    In the holidays, Mum would join her father wherever he was performing. She would get on a train and travel, on her own, from Surrey to Blackpool, Glasgow or Scarborough. ‘When you got there, how did you know where the theatre was?’ I asked once. ‘In any town,’ said Mum, ‘I could always find the theatre.’

    I was very close to my Grandad. He died when I was fifteen and left me his playbills in his will. I didn’t really appreciate this at the time but, about ten years ago, my sister had some of them framed for me. I began to be obsessed with the names. Stephen Lang: not quite himself. Roy Dexter: novelty comedian. Dorothy Gray and Brother (why doesn’t he even get a name? maybe she had lots of brothers and rotated them in the act?). The Two Konyots (?). And, especially, Lou Lenny and Her Unrideable Mule. Was it a real animal or two people inside a mule costume? In either case, it’s easy to see why it was unrideable.

    Grandad was also on the bill with Jasper Maskelyne, the magician who famously put together the Second World War espionage group, The Magic Gang. They created dummy tanks and fake soldiers. They were meant to have made the Suez Canal disappear, through deployment of ‘dazzle lights’. I began to think of a story about a magician called Max Mephisto. He would have been involved in a similar group along with his friend, Edgar Stephens, who later became a police officer. That idea became The Zig Zag Girl, the first of the Brighton Mysteries. 

    The Midnight Hour is the sixth in the series. It’s set in 1965 and the world of entertainment is changing. But I still haven’t worked out the secret of the unrideable mule.

DEBS: Elly's grandfather Dennis Lawes looks just how I imagine her magician character, the dashing Max Mephisto.

Here's more about The Midnight Hour.

September 1965
When theatrical impresario Bert Billington is found dead in his retirement home in Rottingdean, an idyllic village outside Brighton, at first no-one thinks it’s suspicious. But when he is found to have been poisoned,  suspicion falls on his wife, ex Variety star Verity Malone.  But it’s 1965 and Verity has been reading Betty Friedan. She insists on being interviewed by a woman police officer and employs private detectives Emma Holmes and Sam Collins to clear her name.

WPC Meg Connolly finds herself caught between the PIs (one of whom is her boss’s wife) and her sometimes offensive colleagues. The resulting chase takes them to Whitby – where Max Mephisto is playing Dracula’s father – and into the Bert Billington’s dark past in the early days of Music Hall. It becomes clear that the murderer is someone who knows him very well indeed.

Elly Griffiths wrote four novels under her own name (Domenica de Rosa) before turning to crime with The Crossing Places, the first novel featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway. The Crossing Places won the Mary Higgins Clark award and three novels in the series have been shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year. The Night Hawks (Ruth #13, published in February 2021) was number two in the  Sunday Times Top Ten Bestsellers list. Elly also writes the Brighton Mysteries, set in the theatrical world of the 1950s. In 2016 Elly was awarded the CWA Dagger in the Library for her body of work. Her first standalone mystery, The Stranger Diaries, won the 2020 Edgar award for Best Crime Novel. The second, The Postscript Murders, has recently been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. Elly also writes A Girl Called Justice, a mystery series for children. 

DEBS: Needless to say I have The Midnight Hour pre-ordered and cannot wait to find out what is happening in Brighton!

REDS and readers, do you follow authors from series to series, or standalone to standalone, even though the setting and even the time period may be quite different?  Who are some of your favorite series-shifting authors?


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Tea Party--Lori Rader Day

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  It is always an enormous treat to have award-winning author Lori Rader-Day visit us on Jungle Red (except for the fact that I think Lori was trying to torture me to death with this post!) And TREAT is the operative word here, as you will see. (You might want to prepare yourself by making a cuppa, because otherwise you will have to get up and make a pot or two once you start reading--and drooling over these photos...)


It’s tea time somewhere

By Lori Rader-Day


In 1997 I went innocently to England to visit a friend, packing my soda addiction and bringing back a tea habit. Tea for breakfast. Tea in the afternoon. Tea for a pick-me-up, a nice cuppa tea when I arrived back home from errands or at any new stage of the day, really, always served “white” with milk.


Do you know how much easier it is to get Dr. Pepper in England than it is to get a proper brew, English breakfast, with milk, once I was back in America? Even at, say, a mystery conference? But sometimes it’s difficult to get a good cup of tea even in England. Even at, say, Agatha Christie’s house.

Researching my new novel Death at Greenway, I was able to visit Christie’s beloved holiday home Greenway twice, once staying three nights in the house as the guest of the National Trust, thanks to a connection made by Sophie Hannah. (Was it wonderful? Oh, yes, and absolutely essential for the book’s verisimilitude.) But we had no access to kitchen or kettle. England gave me a tea jones and then wouldn’t provide it until 10 a.m. when my husband and I were the first customers at the cafĂ© when the staff and volunteers opened up. We made our breakfast from the cream tea menu. “Cream tea” means scones and is less a meal than an excuse to have a conveyance of clotted cream and jam to one’s mouth. Pure decadence.


I love tea: just “builder’s” black tea. Not green. Not cinnamon. Not mint. Not herbal, which is just flowers floating in water, or Earl Grey, which tastes like a sweater. Researching an English story in England, I had the chance to have every variation of the tea meals served there: a “bad” cup of tea that was still refreshing in Paignton, weary from travel. A wonderful cream tea in Soar to make up for backtracking to retrieve coats left behind at the inn where the sea crashed against the coast, a place that also worked itself into the book.



I have had tea up and down the countryside of England in the name of research, from South Devon down near Dartmouth and the Channel where Greenway is situated to the famous Bettys Teashop when I attended Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Festival, colloquially known as “Harrogate” for the town in the north where it takes place each year.



But can I get posh for a moment? What I truly love is afternoon tea.


Afternoon tea is the one you’re thinking of, ladies in hats. Perhaps you have called it high tea before and now never will again, OK? High tea is supper, fish and chips and such in a pub, not fancy at all, not necessarily featuring tea, the drink. It is called that perhaps because one eats high tea up at the table, while afternoon tea is taken in comfortable, low chairs in the room where visitors linger. (You can learn more about the socioeconomic history of the differences here.)

Afternoon tea is a delight, a special occasion. We have no real American equivalent to afternoon tea. A snack? Is there any precision, any pomp or history to a snack?

Shall I be mother and serve you the three tiers of afternoon tea?

Along with your actual tea, we have on the bottom tier some tiny sandwiches, perhaps egg salad or cucumber and butter? Savory bites here are welcome, as we’ll get to many sweet options soon. My friend and author Mary Anne Mohanraj hosted a tea party launch for Death at Greenway in her English garden and served all the above plus what she calls “ribbon sandwiches,” with three layers, one each of beets, carrots, and spinach. (Recipe and description here but also check out her Patreon subscriptions and cookbook.) I don’t even like beets but love ribbon sandwiches.


But save room because on the second tier we have scones, served with clotted cream and jam or lemon curd, and we can argue over which is applied first later. The important thing is to get your scone loaded with both cream and jam and heading toward your mouth.

 And we’re not even finished. Consider the top tier: tiny teacakes, perhaps some fondant involved, the sort of thing many contestants on Great British Bake-Off never perfect. Also biscuits, pâtisserie—there are no absolute rules to what might appear on the tray, and that’s part of the fun, to see what each host chooses to serve their guests. Like the mango trifle Mary Anne prepared for our launch party…


(You can find some recipes and ideas for hosting your very own afternoon tea here.)

The top tier are sweets, the likes of which makes most of us think of Paree, dessert after what has essentially been a meal of dessert. Maybe it’s too much?

Well, perhaps just one. If you insist. You’ve gone to all this trouble. It would be rude not to.

And of course we’ll finish off the pot of tea to wash it down. Afternoon tea is an event lasting as long as the tea and conversation flow. The whole point of afternoon tea is that the small bites don’t get in the way of talking. It’s a treat to be shared with friends, something special for visitors.


England and its people have been so generous with sharing their country, history, and pleasures with me throughout the process of researching and writing Death at Greenway and now? Well, sometimes afternoon tea is served with champagne when the occasion calls for celebration. I’m raising my glass in your direction. Thank you, my lover (as they say to good friends in Devon), and cheers!



Photos of the Serendib House Death at Greenway tea party launch were taken by John Thomas Bychowski. Poisoned portrait and tea cup stack photos were taken by Justin Barbin Photography. All other photos are courtesy of the author or her friends.

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award- and Agatha Award-nominated and Anthony Award- and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author of The Lucky One and Under a Dark Sky. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. Her newest book, Death at Greenway, is based on a little-known moment in history, when a group of London children were evacuated from the Blitz during World War II to Agatha Christie’s holiday estate. Visit her at, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.



DEBS: When you've finished swooning over the goodies above, can I just add that Lori's book is delicious as well? It is so atmospheric and gripping and just creepy enough to make you want to curl up under a rug (that's British for a throw) with your very own cup of English Breakfast. Or maybe even Earl Grey. (I like Earl Grey but  Lori's description made me snort. I totally get it. And I agree about all the other tea flavors. Just no.)

READERS, tell us about your favorite afternoon tea experiences? And who has visited Greenway?

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Getting historical: Susanna Kearsley and VANISHED DAYS

 HALLIE EPHRON: I recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Susanna Kearsley for her book (The Vanished Days) launch event at Houston's Murder By the Book. Which I could do because of covid and Zoom -- the silver lining. And which I am happy to report I can share with you through the power of YouTube.

Susanna is a New York Times bestselling author with a huge following - I know this because I usually sit beside her at the book signing at the annual Surrey International Writers Conference in Vancouver, and her line snakes out the door. And because I'm a huge fan of her writing.

Her books are juicy romances, and ever so much more they are meticulously researched historical fiction. The Scottish Highlands are her one of her sweet spots, and the new novel takes place in the Autumn of 1707.

It's a turning point in Scottish history, the story of the ill-fated Darien expedition. It was their attempt to become a colonial power but was sabotaged by the English king, leaving Scotland all but bankrupt. And in the foreground, there's the delicious story of a young widow who comes forward to collect her husband's due payment but her claim is questioned.

Like I said, terrific romance but fascinating historical backdrop.

I had a wonderful time interviewing Susanna - and I invite you to watch it now at this link on YouTube. Do those turning points in history fascinate you, too? That moment when the founding fathers had had enough and decided to proclaim independence? That moment when penicillin was discovered? And what might have been.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What ScaresWriters--Tara Laskowski

DEBORAH CROMBIE: It's such a treat to have Tara Laskowski here on JRW today! Her debut suspense novel One Night Gone won nearly every award in the book, and this month she has a new book that is just as terrific. And I think her topic today is very appropriate in the week leading up to Halloween! (Not to mention that I think she and the other writers she's quoted here have been eavesdropping on my thoughts...)

Here's Tara!

 What Scares Writers?

I’m fascinated by fear and the things that scare us. Fear is a leveling ground. It’s universal. It affects all of us. But like humor, the things that scare us are very particular. Our experiences in life shape our fears—I would probably not be afraid of earthworms if I hadn’t seen that horror movie where they come out of the showerhead, for example. So how does what terrify us define us?

Two years ago, I started a Q&A series on my web site called “What Scares You?”, where I ask writers and readers questions about their fears. The series has been illuminating for many reasons—I learn about new fears I’d never heard of before (such as trypophobia!), I recognize that some of my own fears are shared by many others, and I feel like I know the interviewees better after I read their answers.

For example, in interviewing Hank Phillippi Ryan, I discovered that we share a fear of jinxing ourselves by saying or thinking anything too positive. I’ve worked very hard to stop myself from destroying my own happiness, and yet I’m always worried that if I act too excited about something, the universe is going to come back and bite me. Even now, if I get really great writing news, I sort of tip-toe over into a corner and whisper, “Yay!” with a tiny fist bump, hoping no bad karma monsters will hear it.

For many writers I’ve talked to, the writing process itself causes fears and doubts to roar their ugly heads. We are scared of nearly every part of the writing process—from the blank page to the finality of turning our words over to the world—and those fears don’t really vary much from newbie to veteran writers. We’re all a ball of mess, basically.

But don’t take it from me. Here are some writer fears that have cropped up in my Q&As. Do you recognize any of these fears in yourself?

“I fear that instead of growing and challenging myself, I get stuck writing the same book over and over and over again. Also, that my ignorance and unconscious biases could lead to me writing harmful material. However, with that latter one, I hope that when I mess up (because everybody does) I will have the grace to acknowledge it and accept responsibility, then put in the work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

~Mia Manansala

“That nobody will want to read or publish my books anymore and my career will end.”

~Hannah Mary McKinnon

“The blank page. Because it’s a sign of unlimited possibility but also potential failure.”

~Alex Segura

“Every time I start a new story, I worry that my idea isn’t big enough, twisty enough.”

~Rachel Howzell Hall

“Every morning when I sit down to write I feel a little frisson of dread. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with exposure—the sense that I’ll have to peel away the protective layer between my inner self and the world—and, worse, that there won’t be anything there when I do.”

~Carol Goodman

“There is always a moment about halfway into a first draft where I get scared that I’m not going to figure out the rest of it.”

~Michael Landweber

For me, one of the scariest writer-moments I had was having to toss aside an entire draft of the novel that later became The Mother Next Door and start over. It was horrifying to do it, even though my gut (and, well, my editor and agent) told me it was the right thing to do. Those were dark times, and even though it was tough, I did learn something from the painful process, and I know I grew as a writer.

Whatever scares us about writing, the most important thing is to try not to let those fears paralyze us. We may seem unique in our writer insecurities and our deepest, darkest, worries, but chances are other writers feel the same way. In fact, I’ve seen several writers on social media discussing their experiences throwing out entire novel drafts, and it’s a relief to know I’m not the only one. This is one of the reasons why I like to ask writers these questions—to make us all realize that we aren’t alone.

In casting light on our fears, maybe it’ll make everything seem a little less scary.


 TARA LASKOWSKI’s debut suspense novel One Night Gone won the Agatha Award, Macavity Award, and the Anthony Award. Her second novel, The Mother Next Door, was published in October 2021. She also wrote two short story collections, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. She has won the Agatha Award and Thriller Award for her short fiction and hosts the “What Scares You?” column on her web site. A graduate of Susquehanna University and George Mason University, Tara grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Virginia. 

 For fans of Lisa Jewell, Aimee Molloy, and Joshilyn Jackson, an upmarket suspense novel from a multi-award-winning author about a tightknit group of suburban mothers who invite a new neighborhood mom into their fold, and the fallout the night of the annual block party, when secrets from the past come back to haunt them…


“A polished and entertaining homage to Big Little Lies and Desperate Housewives… The denouement is bonkers, but satisfying.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A witty, wicked thriller packed with hidden agendas, juicy secrets, and pitch-perfect satire of the suburban dream.”

—Andrea Bartz, New York Times bestselling author of We Were Never Here

The annual block party is the pinnacle of the year on idyllic suburban cul de sac Ivy Woods Drive. An influential group of neighborhood moms—known as the Ivy Five—plan the event for months.

Except the Ivy Five have been four for a long time.

When a new mother moves to town, eager to fit in, the moms see it as an opportunity to make the group whole again. This year’s block party should be the best yet... until the women start receiving anonymous messages threatening to expose the quiet neighborhood’s dark past—and the lengths they’ve gone to hide it.

As secrets seep out and the threats intensify, the Ivy Five must sort the loyal from the disloyal, the good from the bad. They'll do anything to protect their families. But when a twisted plot is revealed, with dangerous consequences, their steady foundation begins to crumble, leaving only one certainty: after this year’s block party, Ivy Woods Drive will never be the same.

From award-winning author Tara Laskowski, The Mother Next Door is an atmospheric, campy novel of domestic suspense in which the strive for perfection ends in murder...


DEBS: I am shuddering at the thought of throwing out an entire draft of a novel!! Talk about a writer's nightmare!

READERS, tell us what you're afraid of!


P.S. Tara's WHAT SCARES YOU? interviews on her website are great! I am now addicted.



Monday, October 25, 2021

Van Gogh, Art, and Madness

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I had the most wonderful experience on Friday, first, getting out and about with my daughter for the first time since the advent of Delta, and second, getting to see a wonderful exhibition that has just opened at the Dallas Museum of Art, Van Gogh and the Olive Groves curated by the DMA in conjunction with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. (This is not one of the many immersive experiences that are now touring the country, but an exhibition of his actual paintings, never before seen together.) It explores the olive grove paintings produced by Van Gogh in the last turbulent year of his life before he died two days after a suicide attempt in July of 1890. He was thirty-seven. 


Oh, such talent! The paintings are breathtaking. But he suffered terribly from episodes of mental illness. There has been much conjecture over the years about the specific nature of his illness--here's just one journal article for those who are research-happy. 



But it's not the specific cause of Van Gogh's illness that interests me as much as wondering what he might have accomplished in his life if treatment had helped him cope with his symptoms. And of course the corollary--was his genius dependent on his madness? He himself lamented the effects of his illness on his work. Would treatment or medication have damped his creativity? 


There are so many instances of mental illness/substance abuse associated with genius, whether painters, musicians, composers, writers. Are there some that especially intrigue you? (I've always been fascinated by the poet Dylan Thomas, who died at only thirty-nine. It was long held that he drank himself to death but researchers now think he died from pneumonia and poor medical treatment.) 


LUCY BURDETTE: That sounds like an amazing exhibit Debs! The name that comes to my mind is Ernest Hemingway. I believe he was a genius, but also seriously dogged by depression, as were other members of his family. And William Styron was another. It sure does make me wonder if they’d been treated, would their art be less distinctive? Or put another way, do you have to suffer to write? (Hope not!)

HALLIE EPHRON: Debs, your post brought to mind the generation of talent that was wiped out not by mental illness but by the AIDS epidemic. So many losses. It snuffed out one of my high school friends, Leland Moss, who was on his way to fame as a writer and director. I have vivid memories of “acting” in several plays he’d put on his backyard when we were in elementary school. I was Wendy to his Peter. He died at 41, after directing productions at at La MaMa and Playwrights Horizons and the NY Shakespeare Festival.  The list of theatre talents like Leland, lost to AIDS, is legion. 

JENN McKINLAY: Suffering for one’s art - bleh, that’s not for me. I don’t think I could work if it felt like torture. But there is no doubt that we’ve all heard that “real” artists are temperamental, high strung, eccentric, crazy, etc. I do believe creative humans are drawn to unstructured lifestyles, view the world through a different lens, and feel compelled to recreate that vision in their chosen medium. Michelangelo apparently had OCD, Georgia O’Keefe situational depression, and Rothko (one of my faves) suffered from bouts of depression that he self medicated with alcohol and barbiturates. Would any of those artists have created what they did  the way they did if they’d had a good therapist and appropriate meds? What would the world look like without their work or if their work had manifested differently? I have to admit, that thought sets me back on my heels a bit. 


Right now, I’m reading Mary Beard’s How Do We Look (research) and with your question in mind, I’m wondering who carved the three thousand year old, twenty ton, colossal head attributed to the ancient Olmec civilization? What creative spark motivated them? Depression? Anxiety? Piety? Hubris? Hmm.

RHYS BOWEN:  Debs, I saw the Van Gogh exhibit in the spring. Amazing! And I loved how it showed his slipping into bouts of madness. A bright scene of countryside slowly melting into a narrow bed. A chair. Poor man!  On a side note: I had Mohs surgery on my ear. A tiny piece sliced off. And it hurt! All I could think of was how he could possibly have cut off his ear if one small piece hurt so much!


I don’t think great art is tied to madness. Rather the other way around. These people only have the escape of art as self expression to relieve their suffering   Like so many comedians suffer from depression. When everyone is laughing they forget for a few minutes the great weight of the world 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I always think of those amazingly gifted writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Zelda Fitzgerald, who struggled with both mental illness and the many ways their societies fenced women in. I wonder how much of their ultimate despair came from (untreated) depression and psychosis, and how much from living in a world that was constantly trying to stuff them in boxes labelled “wife” and “mother.”


On a personal note, depression tends to run in my family, and for years I refused to seek treatment during depressive episodes because I thought it might take away my creativity. Let’s face it, the ability to conjure up places and people and plots is mysterious - who knows where it comes from. Thankfully, I did get help, and discovered - of course - that I wrote just as well when I was healthy.  

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I have thought about this so much since you posed the question. I mean--we sit at our computers every  day and make up stories about imaginary people. That takes a certain kind of brain. I think of Thomas Edison, and Mozart. Billie Holliday. Mother Teresa, even. Joan of Arc. Robin Williams. They were different, and tortured, and managed to turn their --obsessions--to do things that would change the world. I don’t think we can understand what makes someone tragic and what makes someone brilliant. We sit here every day and type type type--and others don’t--and why? And I’m not sure how to say this, but there are some actions (and reactions) that are a result of “decisions” and others that we have less control over.


DEBS: I would agree, Hank, that what we do--the ability to create worlds and people in our heads--must seem more than a bit odd to many people. Is it a matter of degree, then?


READERS, what do you think about all this? And have you seen Van Gogh's paintings in person? They are so amazingly, vibrantly alive. You can feel the passion that went into them so strongly.