Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Celebration Complications!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Remember the famous Julia Child moment? She’s carrying a huge roast turkey on a massive tray, bringing it to her glam guests in her elaborately decorated dining room, and she drops it. Drops it! She pauses--and then laughs and says: oh, let me just take this into the kitchen and I’ll bring out the OTHER turkey!  


We all know what happened in the kitchen.

(As my mom used to say, "Parsley covers a multitude of sins.")


Then there was the time I had special guests for Thanksgiving, and everything, all my gorgeous side dishes, came out at exactly the same time, amazing, except the turkey was not done. And then, STILL was not  done. And then STILL not done.


I was baffled..why didn’t the little thing pop and HOW could it be taking this long? My guests were fine and drinking champagne and luckily there were hors d'oeuvres, but it was SUCH a mystery. 


Yeah, I had left the neck and giblets inside. Don’t EVER tell. 


The hilarious Jennifer Chow has some stories of her own. 




by Jennifer J. Chow


Romance isn’t always roses and candlelight dinners. Sometimes our relationships take a knocking. In my newest novel, Mimi Lee Cracks the Code, my main character goes on a trip to Catalina Island with her boyfriend Josh. Crime soon puts a damper on their romantic getaway. What was supposed to be a celebration---well, that’s another story.

I think well-laid plans can often go awry. Right? In my own life, I’ve had several romance-and-celebration-gone-wrong experiences and used those for inspiration in my book. For example…

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad

Even as a child, my parents (and I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a universal thing until I was much older) would make their anniversary a family celebration. We kids were expected to congratulate them and wish them the happiest of anniversaries on their special day. When I secured my first full-time job as a young professional, I figured I’d splurge and give them a fancy hotel stay (in an honest-to-goodness mansion, no less). I whipped out my credit card and made the arrangements. Little did I know that I’d only reserved their spot but hadn’t actually paid for their room—which I found out when my dad called me upon checking out. Whoops. We did eventually sort out the financial tangle, but I’m sure that it put a damper on their stay.

For Better or Worse

After I got married, my husband and I decided to go to Hawaii for our honeymoon. The “in sickness or health” part of our vows hit us early on. We’d booked an extravagant helicopter tour of the island, but… When I got there, I realized, as the lightest member of the group, I’d have to sit right next to the pilot and stare out that huge expanse of glass at the ground below. The swerving flight paired with my slight fear of heights did a number on my stomach. After we landed, my poor new hubby held my hair and rubbed my back while I <ahem> tossed my cookies.

¡Bienvenidos a España!

Post-kids, my amazing parents actually offered to babysit so my husband and I could take a romantic trip. We’d always wanted to travel to Spain, so we did. I’d put a lot of eateries to try in our itinerary, but one day, I decided to be spontaneous. We entered a gorgeous restaurant, where the waiter promised to bring us the chef’s specialties. Using my rusty high school Spanish, I asked about the menu and the pricing, but he assured me not to worry. Admittedly, the food was delicious. But the waiter kept on bringing out more and more dishes. I belatedly realized that I’d gotten the Spanish equivalent of omakase, where I had to actually ask them to stop serving in order to finish our meal. Suffice it to say, that was one lavish lunch.

Do you have stories of celebration plans gone sideways? Holiday plans interrupted?

HANK: Oh, great question! How about you, Reds and Readers?





Jennifer J. Chow is the Lefty Award-nominated author of the Sassy Cat Mysteries and the forthcoming L.A. Night Market Mysteries (Berkley/Penguin Random House). The first in the Sassy Cat series, Mimi Lee Gets A Clue, was selected as an Overdrive Recommended Read, a PopSugar Best Summer Beach Read, and one of BuzzFeed’s Top 5 Books by AAPI authors. Her upcoming Mimi Lee Cracks the Code was listed in BookRiot's Best Upcoming Cozy Mysteries for the Second Half of 2021. She is the current Vice President of Sisters in Crime and is active in Crime Writers of Color and Mystery Writers of America. Connect with her online at .









Monday, November 29, 2021


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I was going to write about leftovers. About how powerful and clever I feel when I make something wonderful out of leftovers. Take leftover vegetables or chicken or both and make a delicious pasta. Or stir fry. Or casserole. Leftover turkey, of course is legendary, with soup and tetrazzini, and, I was thinking this year, turkey tacos. Wouldn’t that be good?

(And our turkey turned out just fine, after I realized the gorgeous new pan I bought two years ago did not fit into our oven. Ahhhhh. Luckily I had other pans. I tried to post a photo but this perverse and persnickety blog thing will not let me do it.)

ANYWAY. But then I honestly started thinking about eggs. Someone the other day was talking about deviled eggs, was it  here on Jungle Red? And I started thinking how good they were. Then I thought: wow. An egg can be hard boiled and it does one thing, the yolk and white are separate and solid. Soft boiled, it behaves completely differently; the white gelatinous, the yellow almost liquid. Scrambled eggs, stirring the two parts together,  altogether different. You can make meringue out of egg whites. And hollandaise out of egg yolks.  And if you use a wash of beaten eggs to coat chicken, it does not taste like chicken coated in scrambled eggs.   Isn’t that amazing? What do you think about eggs?

And I am also writing a blurb for someone’s book, several in fact, and I wondered – – do readers actually care about blurbs? Reds and Readers, do you buy a book based on what another author says about it? I was laughing at someone on social media who said hey, no one is going to put a bad blurb on the cover so— take that for what it is worth.  

Leftovers, eggs, blurbs. It’s a potpourri kind of day here on Jungle Red. Who wants to weigh in?

RHYS BOWEN: What I was thinking about is what ever made Americans think it was a good idea to fly home hundreds of miles essentially for one meal? It’s just not practical to spend so much money and time to eat turkey. Do I sound like Scrooge? Actually I love Thanksgiving with family but it’s not a holiday that makes sense.

Except…. And here comes the segue—leftovers. We love turkey curry and turkey soup.

And blurbs? I have become the blurb queen for historical mystery. I am happy to do it because people were generous to me but it means I never read a book I choose. I have three lined up right now. I am scrupulous about reading the whole book and always try to say something positive but I’m not going to gush over a book I thought was just okay.

HALLIE EPHRON: Eggs truly are a little miracle. They’re the main ingredient in the vanilla custard pie we have only on Thanksgiving. They’re what make popovers puff up the next morning.

And this year kudos to Amtrak who got me to NYC Tuesday on time in a *reserved seat!* train positively packed with college students. I’m so happy not to have to drive, because as crazy as plane travel would be on this weekend, the great Thanksgiving migration turns a 5-hour drive to THE CITY into an 8-hour endurance run… add another hour if you’re headed down to Brooklyn.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: And eggs help save lives! Yes, it’s true - flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, and scientists are exploring using them to grow human cytokine proteins, which boost our immune responses. Thanks, chickens!

Hallie, I am a big train fan, and was excited so much money was (finally) going to Amtrak. Maybe I’ll be able to travel by train to San Diego for Bouchercon 2024. It’s such a civilized way to travel, and I feel train riders are a little more chill than folks squeezing onto planes. Or, considering some of the deranged behavior on flights making the news, a LOT more chill. And with more space and fresh air being let in at every stop, it also feels safer, Covid-wise.

Which makes me think of a happy discovery I made. A neighbor had an extra ticket to a matinee at the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and I went along (Elgar’s cello and Dvořák’s 8th.) The Merrill Auditorium had ushers stationed at every door, and everyone crossing the threshold had to show proof of vaccination. These weren’t the retired folks volunteering for free symphonies; these guys looked like very well-dressed, polite bouncers. Of course, everyone was masked, and despite the fact everyone is pretty much cheek by jowl (you know those early 20th century theaters) it was delightfully worry-free.

: Speaking of food (segue from leftovers LOL), I love how many cookbooks and websites and newsletters are dedicated to helping us find just the right thing to eat for any occasion. One of my new gurus is Jennifer Segal with her website and wonderful cookbook called Once Upon a Chef. I made the most amazing pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust, caramel drizzle, and whipped cream for Thanksgiving. Though quite a project, it was universally adored!

Rhys I agree that traveling across the country for a meal seems a little silly. Since we’ve started spending 6 months in Key West, which is challenging and expensive to get to, we mostly have Thanksgiving with neighbors and friends. I miss the family, but know I will see them in a couple of weeks.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Eggs really are nature’s miracle, aren’t they? And a cook’s dream, but do you ever wonder what prehistoric person cooked the first egg? I’m sure our forebears ate them raw whenever they could scavenge them. But that first cooked egg… Did one get left too near the campfire? Or accidentally broken on a hot stone? However it happened, from that first scrambled or fried or hard-boiled, probably tiny, egg, the sky was the eggy limit.

And for a little more happy potpourri, this year’s cast of the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker grew taller! Twelve has always been the cutoff for the children’s parts, but this year the entire cast had to be vaccinated which meant that only kids OVER twelve could participate. All the costumes have had to be remade, a huge and expensive undertaking. But for the kids who thought they would never get to dance the Nutcracker again, a little Christmas miracle, indeed.

HANK: Yes, I saw that, Debs! SO interesting! And they were worrying about The Mouse King being too tall.

And maybe it was a HUGE egg, like a pterodactyl egg. Omelettes for everyone!

Jenn is traveling, and I hope she will show us her photos soon!

And I tried to post a photo of Lucy's gorgeous cheesecake, but see persnickety blog reference above.  But you can see it HERE on Facebook! 

As I said...Leftovers, eggs, blurbs. It’s a potpourri kind of day here on Jungle Red. Who wants to weigh in?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Happy Thanksgivingkah

HALLIE EPHRON: Each year Hanukah floats around on the calendar like a bird that's hit turbulent weather, and this year it lands practically on top of Thanksgiving. Tonight, in fact.

My family were proudly Jewish, but equally not religious. So I grew up with the Santa Claus and Rudolph and 'Twas the Night Before Christmas... but none of the liturgy; and not the faintest idea what Hanukah was all about (except that my Jewish friends had Christmas trees with blue and silver ornaments and lights... yes, it was a thing, we called it their Hanukah bush)... until I married my husband.

A good Brooklyn boy, Jerry had been bar mitzvahed, and no way were we going to hang a wreath on our door, even if it sported blue and silver spangles.

His mother gave us a menorah and I lit the candles and learned the story the Jews' victory over a tyrant king and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As the tale goes, a miraculously single-day supply of oil lit Temple's menorah for eight days.

And so tonight I'll light the first candle and remember. Tomorrow two candles, and so on for eight days. It's a small holiday, in the scheme of things. Traditionally no big gift exchange. The children  get Hanukah gelt -- chocolate coins -- and gamble spinning a dreidl.

Sadly Judaism has no full-out, over-the-top gift-giving bash to rival Christmas. But I love Hanukah for its quietness. There's something magical about lighting the candles and watching them burn down.

What I did learn about Judaism growing up was about food. Bagels and lox. Smoked fish. Rye bread and pastrami. Matzo ball soup. At Hanukah it's potato pancakes (latkes) fried in oil. Telling the story, lightning the candles, singing the prayer, eating the latkes, and watching the candles burn down.

Here's my #1 grandgirl watching the first candle burn, the first year she celebrated Hanukah. Her dad (not Jewish but a big fan of potato pancakes) made the menorah.

And here's my mother's recipe for potato latkes. They are truly fabulous and you don't have to be even a little bit Jewish to appreciate them.

The simplest ever potato pancakes
Serves 4

2 large unpeeled potatoes (Russets work well)
1 egg
Cooking oil (vegetable or peanut oil; not olive oil)

Caution – once you start preparing, don’t stop until all the potatoes are cooked. Grated potatoes left to stand will turn dark and yucky looking. They are best eaten right away.

1. Grate 2 LARGE (washed but you don’t have to peel them) russet potatoes (or 4 medium ones). I use the large holes on the grater - you get crisper pancakes if you use a hand grater instead of a food processor.
2. Dump the grated potatoes into a clean linen dish towel; over the sink, wring out as much liquid as you can. Squeeze, and squeeze again!
3. Dump the wrung-out potatoes into a mixing bowl; add an egg and a scant handful of flour. Mix.
4. Heat oil in a frying pan until a bit of potato sizzles when it hits the oil.
5. Ladel in one-tablespoon size pancakes into the hot oil. Flatten and cook until golden brown and crisp on one side, then turn and cook until golden brown and crisp on the other.
6. Drain cooked potato pancakes on paper towel. If they don't get scarfed up immediately, put them on a cookie rack in a warm oven until ready to serve.
7. Cook batches until all are cooked.
8. Serve with salt and your choice of apple sauce or sour cream.

DO NOT stop midway through this recipe. Uncooked potatoes left resting too long turn black and yucky looking. The children in your house will not eat them.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Edith/Maddie Day is on a roll! A new cozy capers book group mystery... and more


HALLIE EPHRON: It gives me great pleasure to welcome our own Edith Maxwell into the spotlight as she debuts with yet another book by her alter ego, Maddie Day. I'm always fascinated by how a writer's personal life intersects with the worlds they create. Today Edith/Maddie talks about what inspired MURDER AT THE LOBSTAH SHACK and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mystery series.

EDITH MAXWELL/MADDIE DAY: Thank you, Hallie, for inviting me back to the front of the blog to help celebrate the release of MURDER AT THE LOBSTAH SHACK on November 30th! I’m also celebrating because I recently signed a contract for more books in the series, which now will extend through book #7.

The Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries take place in Westham, a fictional town on Cape Cod in southeastern Massachusetts. As with any fiction set in a place that attracts an influx of seasonal visitors, I need to place some of the stories in the off season. The later fall, winter, and earlier spring are times when the tourists go away. The locals are laid off jobs even as they struggle to pay rents and feed themselves.

When I started the series, I knew I wanted my protagonist, bike shop owner Mackenzie Almeida, to have a big heart and to know how lucky she’s been in her own life. Mac and her friend Gin, owner of Salty Taffy’s candy shop, both work to give back by helping the homeless and hungry in Westham.

Yes, these are cozy mysteries. That doesn’t mean they have to ignore real social issues. The murder and the mystery surrounding it are primary in each book, of course, with the subplot of things like food pantries and the homeless encampment in the park taking place in the background.

We have an amazing organization called Our Neighbors’ Table in my small city of Amesbury in the northeast corner of Massachusetts. Our Neighbors’ Table feeds people in twelve towns north of Boston who need dinners and groceries. A few years ago, Greg Jardis, a generous local hardware store owner, donated an entire building and the funds to develop it to the charity.

Now they don’t have to operate out of a cramped space at the Congregational Church, and the market is bright and airy.

While I was writing Murder at the Lobstah Shack, #3 in the series, I took myself by the Jardis-Taylor Center on my walk one day and got the complete tour from a volunteer named Rose. I learned they call it a free food market, not a food pantry. People – who do not need to declare anything about their income – push a shopping cart around and select what they need. They have coolers and freezers and fresh produce and baked goods and packaged food, just like the for-pay supermarket.

The dinners are similarly called Free Dinners, not a soup kitchen. Both these simple acts of renaming allow their patrons more dignity and sense of normalcy, not easy to come by when you’re hungry.

I used all those details in scenes in my book, including the charity’s name. In Westham, the free food market run by Our Neighbors’ Table is in the basement of the UU church, where Mac’s father is the minister. The Free Dinners take place in the church’s fellowship hall. I even named a character who volunteers in the market after Rose.

In fact, I dedicated the book to Our Neighbors’ Table. Because I’ve been pulling back from several volunteer activities lately, I don’t do a work shift at the market, but I definitely send them donations regularly. (And you can too, here!) And I’ll be dropping off a copy of the book, too.

Learning the mechanics of how Our Neighbors’ Table operates was one of the most uplifting pieces of research I’ve done for a book.

Readers: How does your town help feed the hungry? I’ll send one commenter a signed copy of Murder at the Lobstah Shack – my box of books came in early.

I hope everyone will join another frequent Reds guest, the fabulous Ellen Byron, and me for our fabulous fun conversation December 1 at 7 pm EST in a virtual event at Belmont Books in the Boston area. Register here. We’ll have prizes and maybe games and for sure lots of laughter.

In Murder at the Lobstah Shack, Tulia Peters’ Lobstah Shack offers locals and tourists in Westham, Massachusetts, some of Cape Cod’s most delectable cuisine. But when the body of Annette DiCicero is discovered in the kitchen’s walk-in freezer—with a custom-made claw-handled lobster pick lodged in her neck—spoiled appetites are the least of Tulia’s worries. After a heated public argument with Annette, Tulia is a person of interest in the homicide investigation. To clear Tulia’s name, Mac and the Cozy Capers book group snoop into Annette’s personal life. Between Annette’s temperamental husband, his shady business partner, and two women tied to Annette’s past life as “Miss New Bedford”, several suspects and multiple motives emerge. And they’re getting crabby about Mac intruding on their affairs.

Maddie Day pens the bestselling Country Store Mysteries and Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. As Edith Maxwell, she writes the Agatha Award-winning Quaker Midwife Mysteries and short crime fiction. She’s a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime and a member of Mystery Writers of America, and lives north of Boston with her beau, where she cooks, gardens, and wastes time on Facebook.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Giving it up for offbeat narrators

HALLIE EPHRON: In another step back from the Pit of Despond, I’m Happy to Report: I AM reading. After three rounds through the Harry Potter books and after multiple false starts trying to read novels that made me too anxious to keep reading, finally I’m on a reading roll and reading books through to the end.

I broke free by following my daughters’ suggestions of what to read, with the caveat that she NOT recommend anything heartbreaking or violent. Running out of Kleenex here.

Molly recommended Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine… which I know we talked about on Jungle Red back in June/July but which blipped past me along with most of the rest of anything going on at that time beyond my doorstep.

Looking back, I see that it wasn’t everyone’s cuppa, but it sure is mine. I loved it so much. I came to love HER so much. I actually slowed down near the end so the pages would last longer. I needed an uplifting story about a clueless underdog and that’s exactly what it is.

I have a soft spot for intriguingly unreliable narrators who are oddballs, who see the world through their own distinct lens and march to their own drummer. One of my favorites is Anders, Tobias Wolff’s curmudgeonly book critic in his short story, “Bullet to the Brain.” Anders wait on line at the bank is interrupted by a robbery. And he can’t resist snarking about the robbers’ pedestrian dialogue:

Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. “Keep your big mouth shut!” the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. “One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?”

The tellers nodded.
“Oh, bravo,” Anders said. “Dead meat.” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

Needless to say, things do not turn out well for Anders (see story title). And the narrative turns a corner midway through and we’re remembering all the things that Anders has chosen to forget. He is, after all, human.

I enjoy ultimately appealing characters who are out of the mainstream, now with Eleanor Oliphant topping a list that includes Olive Kitteridge, Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), Lizbeth Salander, and and Beth Harmon (The Queen’s Gambit).

These characters are all memorable because they are SO skewed in the way they filter the world and ultimately so human, a product of what-came-before which we only discover by reading through their story.

Whose advice have you learned to trust in picking your next read, and what book (character!) made you slow down as you reached the end?

AND congratulations! to Judy Singer! You're the winner of a copy of BLOOD ROOT. Please email (hephron "at" gmail dot com) me your mailing address, Judy, and Leslie Wheeler will pack up a copy and send it your way.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving from the Reds!

HALLIE EPHRON: Wishing you all a wonderful, fabulous, delicious Thanksgiving from the Reds! Hoping you are all tucked in this year (in person maybe!) with your loved ones and friends, enjoying the comfort of companionship and delicious food. Hopefully an excess of both.

I’ll be spending the holiday with my two daughters, my son-in-law, and grandchildren. The adults are all vaxed and boosted, the kids finally vaxed and, as always, full of beans.

My grandchildren are growing up so fast it’s terrifying, and not having been able to see them for the better part of two years has made it even scarier. I’m looking forward to playing checkers with my grandson who has just learned how and is coming to terms with the concept of losing. I’m hoping my grandgirl will show me how she can turn cartwheels and front flips and read to ME and draw using actual perspective.

She's come a long way from this turkey she drew five years ago.
Speaking of which... my daughter Naomi will be in charge of the turkey. I’ll be riding shotgun the kitchen, gravy making. My daughter Molly on potato-mashing and wine-pouring duty.

We’ll start with butternut squash soup topped with sour cream and toasted slivered almonds and scallions. Hold the scallions for the kiddoes. There will be Pepperidge-farm stuffing in a roasted turkey. Mashed potatoes and green beans; carrots and parsnips for my son-in-law. Pies (custard and pumpkin). Champagne and sparkling cider to toast everyone's good health.

So who will you be with, and what’s on the menu?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: That sounds lovely! Gravy. I FINALLY learned, and now I love to make it.

It’ll be just us, not how we planned it last July, but so it goes. And yes, Pepperidge Farm stuffing, with onions and celery. And maybe I’ll just make the turkey breast, since that’s all anyone around here actually wants.

Champagne is our ritual, and my fresh cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. With sour cream and butter. Pies, sure, Jonathan wants lemon meringue, so, sure. Maybe.

In the before-times, we had oysters Rockefeller for appetizers, but that seems so impossible now. (If I could just have stuffing and champagne, actually, I’d be happy. And maybe one bite of pumpkin pie And maybe have all of YOU come over!)

LUCY BURDETTE: We’re hosting a few vaccinated neighbors with fingers crossed. I’m in charge of the turkey, gravy, cornbread stuffing, and something new I’m trying: pumpkin cheesecake on a gingersnap crust with caramel sauce. How could I not try it? I’ll keep you posted. (And I don’t even like cheesecake:).

I am so grateful for each one of our Red family members. You allow us to feel like we have a community even when times are impossible--especially then perhaps! Happy Thanksgiving.

Hallie, I hope you have a special Thanksgiving with your family. There will be 8 of us this time. The others opted out of flying for so few days with air fares so high, when all 15 will be together for Christmas.

The menu is turkey, three kinds of stuffing ( one sausage, one gluten free) mashed potatoes, green bean casserole ( yes, I know, but it’s always requested) cranberry sauce, gravy then apple crumble and homemade pumpkin pie.

Luckily I’m only in charge of small segments of this. I provide the wine and appetizers, and the dreaded green bean casserole

I hope all of our friends are enjoying a perfect day( or as perfect as possible without all the family)

JENN McKINLAY: It’ll be a quiet turkey day for us -- just Hub and me and the Hooligans and their Plus Ones. We’re hoping for a quick getaway to the beach in California at some point during the weekend, but we’ll see how that goes with everyone working new jobs and running in a million different directions.

It feels as if the world is back to normal but not really.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: So looking forward to this Thanksgiving and getting to hang out with daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, and friend Gigi. We are foregoing the big traditional gathering at my aunt's, but I am thrilled at the prospect of this small get-together.

Our daughter has two ovens in her new house, so she is elected hostess! Son-in-law is organizing a deep-fried turkey.

We'll also have some ham from our local butcher shop-owning friends. I'm in charge of the cornbread dressing (not stuffing!), the cranberry/jalapeno relish, the gravy, and I'm not sure what else.

And I don't really care all that much about what we eat as long as we get to do it together.

I’m having the smallest Thanksgiving ever - just me, the Maine Millennial, and friend of Reds Celia Wakefield and her husband, Victor. The Sailor and his sweetheart have to stick close to home (he’s on duty part of the time) and Youngest is tackling her first Thanksgiving ever, as she and Guest Son host his dad at their apartment in Bangor.

I’m making up for the lack of a crowd by doing two more very small get-togethers over the holiday weekend. I can see that being an adaptation that sticks around post-pandemic: no one has to knock themselves out for one massive dinner on one afternoon, and can instead spread the love (and work) around to several households. What the heck, lots of people pivot to Christmas at 4am on Friday morning, let’s just rename the whole four days Thanksmas and party on.
My menu is going to be very simple and traditional. I mean, I’m hosting Celia - I know better than to try to dazzle a professional. I will put a LOT more effort into plating the food than usual, however!

HALLIE: Plating! Now there's a subject for another day...

At this halfway-back-to-normal Thanksgiving, we'd love to hear what you're up to and what's on the table.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Taking another plunge: Leslie Wheeler on BLOODROOT short story anthology

HALLIE EPHRON: It's a labor of love, and the final product is always astonishingly excellent. I'm talking about the short story anthology that is put together every year and makes its debut at the annual New England Crime Bake. This year's anthology, BLOODROOT: BEST NEW ENGLAND CRIME STORIES, is being published by Crime Spell Books.

Today we're thrilled to host Leslie Wheeler, one of the anthology editors, to talk about this terrific annual anthology in its new publishing home, and the power of the short story.
LESLIE WHEELER: “It’s Not Too Late to Back Out.” Those words and the smiley face below have graced my kitchen door for ten years now.

The message came with a hefty stack of mystery short story submissions, delivered to me by Mark Ammons, a member of my writers’ critique group, and a newly minted editor/publisher, along with Barbara Ross and Kat Fast, at Level Best Books, which had been handed off to them by the previous editors. They’d already signed on, but hesitated to ask me because as chair of the Crime Bake-sponsored Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction Contest, I was already awash in short stories.

Yet, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. My first published short story had appeared in a Level Best anthology, and during time I’d managed the Al Award, I’d grown to appreciate the power of short stories. My favorites were—and still are—the ones that either make me smile at their wickedly clever humor, or send chills down my spine. The contest also has a longstanding connection with Level Best, in that the award-winning story is published in the anthology for that year. I rejiggered the contest, and happily joined the Level Best team.

For the next six years we had a good run. It was hard work, but also a lot of fun. I enjoyed our often spirited in-person meetings to discuss, select, and edit the stories we’d publish, decide on the cover design, and arrange for publicity and sales at the Crime Bake, where the Best New England Crime Stories anthologies are always introduced. A few nights before Crime Bake, we’d have a book packing party at Mark’s. He’d serve his famous Cincinnati chili, and we’d devour it with side dishes and dessert, before getting down to work.

But most of all, I loved reading the stories and writing my own. For me, short stories offer an opportunity to approach perfection. Every word must matter for the story to become a little gem, in contrast to a novel, which resembles a necklace with strings of scenes, some stronger than others. I also like the way a writer can take something very small—an intriguing remark overheard in a crowd, or the sight of a woman in line who doesn’t look like she belongs there—and build a story around it.

Writing shorts gives me a holiday from the long haul of novel writing. Finally, as a reader of short stories, I’ve delighted in discovering new authors and watching their careers take off.

Still, despite all these positives, I hesitated to take the plunge a second time when the third team of Level Best editors decided to focus on publishing novels instead of anthologies. Was I too old to be doing this again? Could I work successfully with a new team, even though both Susan Oleksiw, a founder of Level Best, and Ang Pompano, an author whose stories we’d published, were well-known to me? And there was that sign on my door, tempting me with the possibility of withdrawal.

In the end, my determination to continue the Best New England Crime Stories tradition overcame my doubts. Things are different now. With the pandemic and the fact that the three of us don’t live nearby, our discussions have mostly taken place via Zoom or e-mail. Even so, the process has had its exciting moments, as when Susan gave us the name of Crime Spell Books for our new imprint. Ang created website before our eyes on Zoom. I came up with the title, Bloodroot, and an image of the plant with its delicate white flower and thick roots packed with orange poison flashed on the screen.

And the finished product is a joy to behold with its striking cover, and mix of stories from light to dark, written by both well-established authors and emerging writers. So, yes, I’m very glad I didn’t back out.

Readers: have you had times when you’ve been torn between moving forward with a project or abandoning it? If so, please share. One of the commenters will receive a paperback of BLOODROOT.

About Leslie Wheeler
Award-winning writer, Leslie Wheeler, is the author of two mystery series, the Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, (Rattlesnake Hill and Shuntoll Road, with a third book, Wolf Bog, due out in July of 2022); and the Miranda Lewis Living History Mysteries (Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point). Her mystery short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies including The Best New England Crime Stories anthologies, published by Level Best Books, where she was a co-editor for six years. She is delighted to return as a co-editor at Crime Spell Books, which now publishes these anthologies (www.crimespellbooks.com).


Whether it’s an elderly woman facing a scam, a shipwrecked researcher trying to survive, a retired robber invited to join in one last fling, a farmer facing an escaped convict, or a group of kids in over their heads, with Bloodroot, Crime Spell Books continues the tradition of the annual anthology of Best New England Crime Stories by New England Writers.
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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Three things Sharon Ward learned from diving ... that aren't about diving

HALLIE EPHRON: I had the great good fortune to meet Sharon Ward when she was up and coming, working on a crime novel, transitioning as I once did from corporate life to writing. She's one of those writers who are such a pleasure to work with because she's never satisfied, always working and reaching for excellence... and boy, has she!

Her debut novel, IN DEEP, introducing scuba-diving underwater photographer
Fin Fleming (shades of Clive Cussler) is a page turner. She'll celebrate the New Year with the lauch of #2 in the series, SUNKEN DEATH.

So with great pleasure I invited her to join us today to celebrate her two Fin Fleming thrillers, and talk about the scuba diving that inspired them.

SHARON WARD: I learned to scuba dive more than thirty years ago, and I was about the unlikeliest student diver you could ever imagine. I could barely swim—nothing more than a dog paddle really. I always went into the water feet first, holding my nose to prevent the merest drop of water from entering my nasal cavities.

And I was terrified of sea life. Sharks. Octopus. The giant squid from Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea I’d seen on TV.

But one day, I said to my husband, “Let’s learn to scuba dive and then go to Bonaire for our vacation.”

“Great idea,” he said.

I was stuck. We enrolled in a Basic Scuba Diving class. Yikes! But it turned to be a ton of fun and I learned so much from doing it.

Not everything I learned was about diving. A lot of it was about life in general.

Here are the three biggest things I learned from diving that aren’t about diving.

Face Your Fears. They’re Not That Scary.
I’ve already told you I was not a natural born water baby. In our first dive class, I hid behind the scoreboard at the pool so I wouldn’t have to swim laps. I was always the last one to finish the skills demonstrations, and everybody else would watch me, waiting impatiently.

I have performance anxiety. The more they watched, the slower I got. It was awful.

But my first day in the ocean was magic. I was weightless, floating and breathing with no effort. I could see all around me. No more wondering if the shark from Jaws was heading my way from beneath the waves.

No more water up my nose—well, actually, I got a lot of water up my nose, but I learned to live with it.

And I learned that the things that had terrified me into sitting on the sidelines instead of enjoying the water weren’t so scary after all.

2. Keep Trying. You’ll Get There Eventually.
More than once in that basic class, I had to be rescued—in the pool! But once I’d done a few ocean dives, I was hooked. I went on to earn every certification PADI offered.

Later that year, during the final test for the rescue diving certification, my task was to ‘rescue” a fellow student who would pretend to be a drowning victim. I had to get him from the middle of the pool to the ladder, then use a fireman’s carry to get him out of the pool and on to the pool deck.

My partner was heavily muscled, not an ounce of body fat on him. He didn’t float at all, but I managed to tow him to the edge of the pool without drowning him. I slung him across my shoulders and climbed the ladder, my legs shaking under our combined weight.

I stepped onto the pool deck, and fell straight backwards, like a cartoon character. I should have failed the test, but I begged the instructor to give me another chance. And another.

On the third try, I managed to get all the way out of the pool and lowered Brian gently to the floor.

“Thank God,” he said when I put him down.

3. The Universe is Very Large, and I am Very Small.
My first wreck dive was on a ship called the Chester A. Poling, which sits in 70 to more than 190 feet of water near Gloucester. In 1977, the ship sank during a fearsome storm. A huge wave battered the ship, breaking it in two.

The next year, during the Great Blizzard of 1978, one half of the ship was dragged underwater a great distance from its original resting place. At the time I first dove it, fifteen years later, you could still see the gouges in the sand where the wreck had been dragged by the ocean surge.

This half of the immense ship is sitting upright, so if you’re near the bottom, you can look up and barely see the highest point of the ship. You can’t see the water’s surface. You can look left and right, and not see the ends of the ship you’re looking at. It’s immense.

No matter where you look, your mind can barely process what you see. It’s vast. Unknowable.

And then you’re overcome with awe. The ocean did this to a giant man-made steel construction.

And here you are, in the middle of that ocean, a tiny meaningless speck. It’s an easy way to judge your own importance in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s a bonus lesson I learned: Always help your buddy. There’s no one I’ve ever met who personifies that lesson on land or sea better than Hallie Ephron.

Thanks for hosting me today, Hallie! And for everything else. You’re the best.

HALLIE: That means so much to me! Thank YOU, Sharon.

THIS is why I love teaching writing. You meet the best people and every once in a while you get to work with someone like Sharon Ward.

So today I'm wondering: Have you ever learned to do something that truly terrified you?

About In Deep
IN DEEP is a heroine’s journey adventure story set in an oceanographic institute on Grand Cayman. Protagonist Fin Fleming is supremely competent underwater. Nothing can phase her.

On land, not so much.

She has complications in every part of her life. Her stepfather has secrets. Her biological father re-enters her life after being missing for twenty years. She has hassles with her scheming ex-husband, and problems managing her career. She's got very few friends and no love life to speak of.

But her troubles really escalate the day of the first accident...

As chief underwater photographer for the institute, Fin is assigned to film freediving practice for the annual documentary. One diver doesn't come back to the surface. When Fin recovers him, she assumes it was diver error that caused the problem.

Until the next accident. And the next.

Someone is targeting the people around her. And Fin figures since she's the one taking the blame for murder, it's up to her to unravel the deadly deception before one more person she loves doesn't make it back.

How many of her friends and family will this ruthless killer attack before the end? Will Fin find the truth, or will she become the next victim?

Keep an eye out for Sunken Death, Book Two in the Fin Fleming Adventure Thriller series coming on December 31, 2021. Fin, her friends, and her family go looking for the fabled treasure known as the Queen’s Tiara.

Learn more about Sharon Ward and her books at http://www.sharonward.com.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The books that made us fans and writers of crime fiction

 HALLIE EPHRON: Remembering when I first became aware of “mystery” as its own genre. My mother had an Agatha Christie on her bedside table and I stole it to read. I can’t say I loved it – in retrospect I think I would have found it too talkie. Characters back then were… glib. It’s just how they were written.

In October, the New York Times Book Review ran two pages of original reviews for what they called “Classic Golden Age Crime Stories.” I was fascinated to read the book review excerpts, all of them of early crime novels by authors whose names we still recognize today.

The list included the first Hercule Poirot, the first Lord Peter Wimsey, and the world’s introduction to detective Sam Spade.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)
Whose Body by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)
The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen (1931)
The Crossroads Murders by Georges Simenon (1933)
Hag’s Nook by John Dickson Carr (1933)
The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell (1933)
The Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham (1934)
The Kidnap Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (1936)
They Found Him Dead by Georgette Heyer (1937)
The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes (1941)
Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh (1941)

I’m embarrassed to say that there are only five authors on that list whose work I know. After reading the list and intrigued by the title, I borrowed the Ngaio Marsh (it’s one I hadn’t read) and found it… more death than dancing. Impenetrable, and too clever for its own good, though I remember loving so many of her other books. Go figure.

If I could fast forward a decade or more, my short list of crime novels that made a distinct impression on me would include:
Shroud for a Nightingale and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James
Bratt Farrar by Josephine Tey
La Brava by Elmore Leonard
Fer de Lance by Rex Stout
Bone Crack by Dick Francis
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers

What are, with benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the crime novels from decades ago that still set the standard for you?

LUCY BURDETTE: I’m really bad about classics and will not tell you how many of those I’ve read. But here are some that influenced my journey:

The Black Echo by Michael Connolly
Catering to Nobody by Diane Mott Davidson
Bootlegger’s Daughter by Margaret Maron
Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane
Thyme of Death by Susan Wittig Albert
The Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr
The Firm by John Grisham
One for the Money Janet Evanovich
The Deep Blue Goodbye John D. MacDonald

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: OH, such a great question! I loved Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. And Carr. I never “got” Simenon.

My influences? Ah….
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel
Blood and Money by Tommy Thompson
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
On the Beach by Neville Shute
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon (THAT COUNTS!)

RHYS BOWEN: Hank, several of mine are on your list

Daughter of Time
Gaudy Night and my personal favorite
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers
Definitely an Agatha Christie, probably a Miss Marple Nemesis? No— Sleeping Murder!
Ellis Peters: one of the Brother Cadfaels
Tony Hillerman. The Blessing Way was
A big influence and inspiration to write mysteries
Mary Stewart: Wildfire at midnight
Reginald Hill: On Beulah Height

JENN McKINLAY: I was definitely a Goth girl -- before it was all black eyeliner, combat boots, and spiky black hair and was more woman in peril suspense novel type stuff. So I cut my teeth on the DuMaurier disciples (after reading Rebecca, of course):
Victoria Holt - Mistress of Mellyn
Elizabeth Peters - Crocodile on a Sandbank
Phyllis A Whitney - Woman Without a Past

And then rolled into more traditional mysteries
Agatha Christie - Death on the Nile
Dorothy L Sayers - Gaudy Night
Josephine Tey - Daughter of Time

Modern influences (now decades old);
Janet Evanovich - One for the Money
Robert Crais - Monkey’s Raincoat
Harlan Coben - Tell No One

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hmm, complicated question, Hallie. Of course I read Christie but I don't remember that I LOVED them.

It was Sayers that first made me fall in love with British mysteries, then PD James. But a couple of years ago I reread the first Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, which I remembered as being so groundbreaking, and it wasn't! I also sat down fairly recently with Gaudy Night, and I just couldn't read it. Heresy, I know! Maybe I was just having a bad day.

Now I'm a little reluctant to dip into the books that were such strong influences, afraid I'll be disappointed. But there was also a very strong romantic suspense thread in my reading and when I recently reread Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael it was even better than I remembered. Whew.

Here are a few authors/books that were inspirational then:

All the Sayers
All the PD James, but especially An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Colin Dexter (especially The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn)
All the Dalgliesh and Pascoe novels by Reginald Hill
Early Martha Grimes
Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar
Anything by Dick Francis
Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael and This Rough Magic
A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I was not a mystery reader when I started to write! I backed into mysteries by writing half a science fiction novel that turned out to be a mystery on a space station. I thought, if the genre seems to be calling me (let’s not look too closely on why murder and mayhem are at the fore of my creativity) I had better read up on it. So I began my apprenticeship with books of the nineties.

Like several of you, I was influenced by Elizabeth Peter, both in her Amelia Peabody books and her Vicky Bliss series. (I like romance in my stories, as you can tell if you read me.)

I was deeply influenced by Margaret Maron’s BOOTLEGGER’S DAUGHTER, as well as Tony Hillerman’s mysteries and Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther books. These were the works that opened my eyes to how location and setting could be another character in the story.

Then I backtracked, started reading Dame Agatha, and fell hard for closed circle mysteries, aka, Country house mysteries. MURDER ON THE NILE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES.

And I just remembered, I did read a classic mystery, not knowing what it was, because I thought it was historical fiction: THE DAUGHTER OF TIME. I’m pretty sure Josephine Tey is responsible for the deep respect shown to Richard III’s body when it was miraculously recovered under a car park in 2012.

HALLIE: So what about you? What blasts from the past whet your appetite for mystery novels?