Sunday, July 31, 2022

G.M. Malliet--Augusta Hawke

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My editor told me that during the pandemic authors seemed to  have either written like crazy, or been totally blocked. I'm happy to say that our guest today, G.M. Malliet, was one of the former. (Not talking about where I fall on that spectrum...!) I have long been a fan of her Max Tudor (dishy former spy, now vicar--what's not to love?) books and her D.C.I. St. Just books, and now there is a new series to love as well. Now, if only some of that productivity would rub off on me...

“From you have I been absent in the spring”

by G. M. Malliet

And the summer, winter, and autumn.

That’s a quote from the incomparable Shakespeare, of course. Sonnet 98. There’s a school of thought he wrote this sonnet during one or another of the plagues that beset London, forcing him to flee, and causing his separation from his beloved, whoever that was. The Dark Lady or the Fair Youth—we may never know.  

Agatha Christie adapted the title for one of her most successful non-mystery novels, writing as Mary Westmacott.

From March 2020, officially the start of our modern pandemic, I have largely been absent from the writing scene. My husband and I, at our ages not willing to play about with this, took the official advice and hunkered down, emerging towards the end only for delayed funerals of family members and for one mystery writers’ conference.

Meanwhile, to pass the time, I wrote. Constantly and as a distraction from reality, as I’ve always done, although this was a bit more intense, more enforced, and resulted in the completion of the better part of five books.

For those who don’t know me, and I’m assuming by now that is most of you, I write as G.M. Malliet and because of all this industry, and thanks to a dynamic new agent, I'm currently juggling three series. DCI St. Just of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary was the protagonist of my first series, started about 15 years ago with DEATH OF A COZY WRITER, and he was revived last year by Severn House with DEATH IN CORNWALL, St. Just #4. 

Max Tudor is my vicar sleuth – former MI5 and devilishly handsome. I did seven of those books for Minotaur starting with WICKED AUTUMN and will do an eighth for Little, Brown next year (THE WASHING AWAY OF WRONGS).

AUGUSTA HAWKE is my new series starring a first-person female protagonist, a mystery writer who notices her neighbors have gone missing. About the same time, she is becoming bored with her writing (which should sound familiar to many authors) and decides to up her procrastination game by investigating. By the second book (AN INVITATION TO A KILLER), coming soon from Severn House, she is still writing mysteries but now she has a PI license.

I also write short stories, and I’m proud to say my story appearing in the July/August 2021 edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine was just nominated for a Macavity Award. Winners in all categories will be announced in September at opening ceremonies @Bouchercon2022. 

If it all seems like a lot, it is, but my husband and I recently celebrated just plain surviving with a trip to Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. I’ll spare you the millions of travel photos except for this one, which is of a place I love. 

It is Stirling Castle where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned Queen of Scotland at the age of nine months. It was pretty much all downhill for our stubborn and willful Mary after that, who was beheaded at the age of forty-four after spending nearly twenty years of her life imprisoned. Somehow, despite her colossal lack of judgment, Mary remains a favorite. Perhaps because I can relate.

Godspeed and good luck and, as the Irish say, may the road rise up to greet you all. It’s great to be back.

Sometimes it's safer not to know your neighbors' secrets.

Where are Niko and Zora Norman? Crime writer Augusta Hawke puts her sleuthing skills to the test to solve the mystery of her disappearing neighbors in the first entry in a new series.

While Augusta Hawke is a successful author of eighteen crime novels, since her husband's death she's been living vicariously through her Jules Maigret-like detective Claude and his assistant Caroline. Then a handsome police detective appears investigating a real-life mystery.

Where are her neighbors, the Normans? No one has a clue what's happened - except Augusta. Although she isn't nosy, spending all day staring out the windows for inspiration means she does notice things. Like the Normans arguing. And that they've been missing a week.

Once the Normans' car is found abandoned, Augusta senses material for a bestseller and calls on the investigatory skills she's developed as a crime writer. But she soon uncovers long-hidden secrets and finds herself facing real-life dangers her characters never faced . . . ones she can't write her way out of.

G.M. Malliet is the award-winning author of four St. Just mysteries, seven Max Tudor mysteries, the suspense novel WEYCOMBE, and numerous short stories collected in crime anthologies or published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (EQMM) and The Strand. New short stories will appear soon in EQMM ("The Pact" and "Something Blue"). A new mystery series (AUGUSTA HAWKE) debuts in July 2022 and a fifth St. Just novel will appear in August 2023.

DEBS: Congratulations on the Macavity nomination, Gin!! And we are all certainly glad you're more than back! 

REDS and readers, did isolation make you more productive?

G.M. will stop by to chat, so maybe she will tell us her secret!

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Introducing the REAL Allison Montclair

DEBORAH CROMBIE: This seems to be my summer for being smitten with books set in post WWII London. First I discovered Natalie Jenner's wonderful Bloomsbury Girls, then a new series by Allison Montclair featuring Iris Sparks and Gwendolyn Bainbridge.

THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN introduces Iris, a former intelligence operative, and Gwen, a widow with a six-year-old son, who open a marriage bureau in 1946 London. I zipped through the first three books, then eagerly awaited the fourth, THE UNKEPT WOMAN. I loved the premise, the characters, the period detail, the witty dialogue!

But who was the woman writing these terrific books? I'd never heard of Allison Montclair. With good reason, as you will see!


How Alan Became Allison


by Alan Gordon, AKA Allison Montclair


Writing, in part, is about ego. As much as we might delude ourselves into thinking we are artists, craftspeople, or merely professionals fulfilling the voracious and unstoppable needs of our readers, there still lies that joyous kick from seeing our name emblazoned across the front cover. And yes, it’s still better with a tangible book in our hands because we know all of the effort from different people it took to produce that precious object just so we could have our name writ large on the front.

But what happens when the book is yours, but the name isn’t? What’s in a name? I found this out unexpectedly when I began writing the Sparks and Bainbridge series. My first series, the Fools’ Guild mysteries, was very much my own creature, and I loved the researching, the writing, and the ultimate glory of declaring myself an author, or [insert food-providing real-life profession]/author on my taxes. When that series came to an end, I wrote other books, stories, and even musicals with varying degrees of success, but enough to justify doing it all.

 Then, out of the blue, Keith Kahla, my editor from St. Martin’s Minotaur, invited me to lunch. I should have been suspicious immediately, but a chance to catch up and, more importantly, free food overcame those suspicions immediately. He had come across a book about a London marriage bureau founded by two women before WWII, and thought it would be a good setting for a mystery series, and that I would be a good fit for it.

 I liked the idea, and wrote a chapter on spec, along with my ideas for Iris and Gwen, the main characters, and the shift of the period to post-war London, an era that I thought would be more interesting. I wanted each of my protagonists to have been traumatized by the war in some fashion, so that the founding of this agency would also be a way for them to reinforce and rescue each other.

I sent it in. A few days later, my agent called and said they loved it. And, he added, they want you to use a pseudonym.

I hadn’t expected that. I was nonplussed. The joy of acceptance was intermingled with the stomping of my ego. But it was quickly resolved by the answer to a simple question: Do I want to be published? The answer was yes, of course. So it didn’t matter what name was on the cover, because the work was all mine.

And that was an interesting realization. Once I had let go of the ego gratification of having my name on the cover, I was able to have the greater gratification of finding out that people liked my book without having any idea it was mine. I had taken my persona out of the equation. It never was about me, nor should it have been. I was able let it go and relax, knowing that only the work was being judged, not the author.

 So, we had to come up with a name. It became a combined effort between my editor, my agent, and me. My first attempt: First name, Lana, which was an anagram of Alan. Last name, St. Clair, because it sounded vaguely British.

 Problem, said my editor. Having the last name of St. Anything confuses the shelving. Really? I asked. [I have recently spoken to a book store owner who confirmed this, so it must be so.] So I tried Lana Sinclair.

 Problem again, said my editor. It sounds too much like another author’s name.

 And so we tossed pseudonyms around like juggling clubs. It turned out that many were already taken by authors, strippers and porn stars. Finally, my agent, who like me had grown up in New Jersey, suggested Allison Montclair. And here I am.

 There were some advantages to being anonymous that I hadn’t anticipated. Since the author was not available to go out and plug the book [and my family and I became quite silly playing with the idea of putting me in drag, or sending my wife out as Allison], Saint Martin’s Minotaur had to do all the publicity themselves. They did a terrific job, as it turned out. Keeping my identity secret was interesting. I had permission to reveal it to a select few. One small website did a deep dive into the copyright to find my true identity, but they were the only one and the vast majority of the readers didn’t know. My favorite moment was when I told a bookseller friend, who turned out to have just finished reading The Right Sort of Man. “I had no idea it had been written by a dude!” she exclaimed, and I felt very proud indeed.

 After A Rogue’s Company, the third book, came out, the publisher finally decided to out me as the author. I’ve started going to conferences and bookstores again, with the AKA scribbled on my name tag under my own name. And I have found that while I enjoyed the secrecy, watching my books bravely go into the world without my help, it’s nice to be meeting people again, especially in these strange, isolating times.

So, if you meet me, call me by either name. I’ll answer to both.

Allison Montclair returns with the fourth Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, The Unkept Woman: London, 1946, Miss Iris Sparks--currently co-proprietor of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau--has to deal with aspects of her past exploits during the recent war that have come back around to haunt her.

The Right Sort Marriage Bureau was founded in 1946 by two disparate individuals - Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (whose husband was killed in the recent World War) and Miss Iris Sparks who worked as an intelligence agent during the recent conflict, though this is not discussed. While the agency flourishes in the post-war climate, both founders have to deal with some of the fallout that conflict created in their personal lives. Miss Sparks finds herself followed, then approached, by a young woman who has a very personal connection to a former paramour of Sparks. But something is amiss and it seems that Iris's past may well cause something far more deadly than mere disruption in her personal life. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn is struggling to regain full legal control of her life, her finances, and her son - a legal path strewn with traps and pitfalls.

Together these indomitable two are determined and capable and not just of making the perfect marriage match.

DEBS: I was gobsmacked when I learned that Allison was Alan! I would never have twigged! These books are a delight from either gender! 

Signed copies are available from the The Poisoned Pen here.

And you can see the Pen's interview with Alan/Allison and Ashley Weaver here.

Alan will be stopping in to chat, but in the meantime, REDs and readers, any favorite books written under a pseudonym by authors of the opposite gender? 

Friday, July 29, 2022

B.A. Shapiro--Metroplis

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I love the writing community. The friends you make in this business are many, and are one of the best parts of getting to make up stories for a living. Today it's my very great pleasure to introduce one of my earliest writer friends, B.A. Shapiro. In our newbie writer days we, along with our friend Steven Womack, organized a couple of book tours together. (We even had t-shirts printed!) 

I was in awe of Barbara's plotting skills, and that certainly hasn't changed! Her newest novel, METROPOLIS, is an absolute can't-put-down-page-turner. How does she do it? you ask. Her answer might surprise you!


B.A. Shapiro

My latest novel, Metropolis, is set in Metropolis, a nineteenth-century self-storage facility in a five-story brick monstrosity resembling a medieval castle—including turrets—that sits across the street from MIT. There are six viewpoint characters who have nothing in common but their connection to this building. The six couldn’t be more different from one another, on completely different paths in life, each with their own separate struggles and secrets. Black, brown and white. Christian, Jew and atheist. Gay and straight. Rich, poor and in the middle. 

So how the hell does one go about writing a novel with such a large unconnected cast and so many intertwining plots? How about Excel spreadsheets, bar graphs, bubble maps, pie charts and scattergrams? Not to mention intersecting and overlapping normal curves. Granted, one of my areas of specialization in graduate school was statistics, and everyone knows that being able to invert a matrix is a prerequisite for a successful literary career. Or not.

The bubble maps came first. Which of the characters know each other? Which don’t? And how does this change over time? Bubble Map 1 shows there’s hardly any interaction between them, but by Map 8, almost everyone knows each other. By the end of the book, some have crushes, some are in love, some are helpers and some are friends. And there are those who knowingly cause the downfall of others. 

Obviously, each person is the hero of their own story, but who are these people? What are their dreams, hopes, problems, backstories? You may not be aware of this—because I made it up—but every plot can be mapped on a normal curve. This is true of all character arcs and subplots, and is exactly what I needed to get Metropolis to work. 

I graphed out each character’s normal curve: their story, with all its obstacles and conflicts and major plot points. Then I did the same for each subplot, along with the overarching plot that ties it all together. When each of these was complete, I combined them into a single graph, with time running across the X axis, the one on the bottom, and the progression of events on the Y axis, along the left. 

How to organize this into a cohesive novel? I used a very sophisticated statistical method: multi-colored file cards. Each character, sub-plot and plot gets a color, and each card represents an individual’s plot point. Rose had about twenty plot points, Jason seventeen and Serge eleven, so I had twenty green cards, seventeen red ones, eleven blue ones, and on and on for each plot and character. 

Then I took all the cards—almost 100 of them—and laid them out on my dining room table. I moved them around for days until I created a structure that had a beginning, a middle and an end. When that was complete, I formed the cards into sequential scenes based on a four-act structure. Then I began to write.

But writing wasn’t the end of statistics and charts. Far from it. Throughout the process, I kept a tension chart for every chapter. The chart includes when, where and who is narrating each scene, but most important is the “tension coefficient” I assigned to each. My coefficients ran from 0.25 through 1.0, reflecting the amount of emotion the events created. 

Obviously, you can’t have a scene with no tension because that would be totally boring, but sometimes you have to do a bit of backstory or buildup or just need to give the reader a break after a high-tension chapter. This type of scene got a tension coefficient of 0.25. It was 0.50 for those with a cliff hanger, 0.75 for those where three or four different colored file cards intersect, and the big 1.0 for the really, really big ones. 

When I finished the first draft, I plotted theses coefficients on graph paper. If there were too many low numbers in a row, I knew I needed to add something to keep the reader reading. And if there were too many high numbers clustered together, then it was clear the reader needed some breathing room. 

But this all this provided just the skeleton. For me, the magic is in the revisions. Where my imagination adds the muscles and skin and faces to the characters, where the themes and plots are deepened, where true connections emerge. This is when my story becomes different from every other story. The right brain and the left brain working together. 

In the case of Metropolis, through eight drafts, almost four years, and many iterations of normal curves, bubble maps and scattergrams. Not to mention those many, many boxes of multi-colored file cards. 

In Metropolis we encounter six unforgettable characters who never would have met if not for their connection to the Metropolis Storage Warehouse. When a harrowing accident—or is it an accident?—occurs in the building, each person is forced to reconsider their life circumstances.
The characters have different backgrounds: they’re white, brown and Black; they’re Christian, Jewish and atheist; they’re gay and straight; they’re young, and they’re not so young; they’re rich, poor, and somewhere in the middle. As they dip in and out of each other’s stories and struggle to salvage their own lives—as well as discover the truth behind the incident—Metropolis traces how their interlocking narratives connect them and tear them apart. B.A. Shapiro has wrapped an ensemble cast around a mystery that thematically explores the myth of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” in current day America.

B.A. Shapiro is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Metropolis (May, 2022), The Collector’s Apprentice, The Muralist and The Art Forger, which won the New England Book Award for Fiction, among other honors. Her books have been selected as Community Reads throughout the country and have been translated into over a dozen languages. She holds a PhD in sociology and has directed research projects for a residential substance abuse facility, worked as a systems analyst/statistician, headed the Boston office of a software development firm, and served as an adjunct professor teaching sociology at Tufts University and creative writing at Northeastern University. She likes writing novels the best. Barbara splits her time between Boston and Naples, Florida.

DEBS: Are you in awe yet?? I have seen Barb's multi-colored index card covered walls and they are a marvel--as are her books. If you want to write novels (or improve you craft) and you ever have the opportunity to take a plotting masterclass from her, jump on it. 

(I'm not going to be graphing normal curves any time soon, but I am definitely trying the bubble maps.)

REDS and readers, Barbara will be stopping in to chat, so get your plot questions ready!

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Natalie Jenner--Bloomsbury Girls

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Sometimes you happen across a book that ticks all your boxes, the sort of book you dive into, don't put down and, when you finished it, wish you could start all over again.

I somehow missed Natalie Jenner's debut novel, THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY

But this spring, when I saw a mention of BLOOMSBURY GIRLS, I preordered the book because:


--London in 1950, such an interesting period

--Bloomsbury, and not just Bloomsbury, but Lamb's Conduit Street!


--Literary society

--Great cover!

It was a lucky find, and today it's my great pleasure to introduce Natalie Jenner, who has a few more things to say about luck!

Luck: writing’s dirty little secret

Natalie Jenner

I am almost embarrassed by how much luck goes into my writing. I am a dedicated pantser—a fun term for someone who writes by the seat of their pants—and luck plays an outsized part in what shows up on the page. As a group of people without a plan, what all pantsers have in common is an infatuation with the power of our imagination. Luck, writing’s dirty little secret, is what keeps that infatuation from becoming a very bad date.

As a former career coach, I know another little secret: what you randomly encounter in life can completely change it. My new book Bloomsbury Girls is a tale about such luck, mirrored by a writing process that hinges on that same what if doorway in life.

What if, in the fall of 2019, I hadn’t caught a Netflix documentary on Peggy Guggenheim?

I so loved one of its throwaway lines—“Guggenheim and Samuel Beckett spent five days in bed at the Ritz, and only opened the door once—for a tray of sandwiches!”—that I immediately put the idea on simmer in my brain, hoping to one day find a use for its unique mix of hot sex and whimsy.

What if, four months later, a rare bookshop in London had sent me the book I had ordered online (a Jane Austen edition with an introduction by Daphne du Maurier) and not Du Maurier’s memoir instead?

It was the first wave of the pandemic and things everywhere were a mess. The shop kindly let me keep the entire care package, which had been intended to boost someone else’s spirits in isolation. This was how Du Maurier—and not Jane Austen, for once—made her stealth entry into my brain instead.

What if, when my debut novel The Jane Austen Society released in May 2020, the bookstores hadn’t all been closed?

This must be the reason why I decided to set my next book Bloomsbury Girls inside the quintessential 1950s London bookshop, where disaffected staff and famous people of the time could circle each other. I now also had a way to insert cameo roles for that simmering trio in my mind: Du Maurier, Guggenheim and Beckett.

What if Daphne du Maurier had never met Ellen Doubleday or Oriel Malet?

Cursory initial research on Du Maurier quickly led me to Ellen Doubleday, her dear friend and object of affection. In pitching Bloomsbury Girls to my editor, I mentioned both Ellen and her husband Nelson Doubleday as potential characters, only to learn from my editor that by 1950, Nelson was dead. You really don’t want your research called out in an editorial pitch.

But once Nelson’s demise was dealt with, my research began in earnest. One day, while scrolling through a website on female literary friendships, I read about Oriel Malet, a young writer who had landed Du Maurier as a mentor after encountering her in a hotel corridor while waiting for a party being hosted by Ellen Doubleday to start. Suddenly, I had my lucky-break plot for my new book, while my own luck happily continued.

What if there was no The Mummy!

For a separate but parallel plotline, I needed a real-life woman-authored book with both demonstrable value and no repute. I found the perfect book within five minutes of Googling, but was convinced I could not be that lucky. So, I spent weeks scouring lists of old and relatively unknown books until I gave in to my own good fortune. As a writer, this is trickier than it sounds: the Wikipedia rabbit hole promises, and so often proves, that there is always something even better, just a little further down. And down.

What if Peggy Guggenheim had not worked at the Sunwise Turn?

At the bottom of that Wikipedia rabbit hole, I tripped across Guggenheim again, decades before her five days with Beckett in bed. It turned out that as a young heiress and socialite, she had worked at the Sunwise Turn, one of the first bookshops in America to be fully owned and operated by women. This fact would end up directly inspiring the caper-style ending to Bloomsbury Girls. My agent told me that a lucky writer gets these gifts sometimes, and you just have to run with them.

I am the kind of person, and writer, who chooses to see all of this as a form of luck. It fuels my imagination—the other altar at which I worship. In Bloomsbury Girls, there are many random encounters that lead to lucky breaks—the very type of good fortune that I experienced while writing this book. No one wants to think that life can indeed be this random or beyond our control. Everyone likes to think that hard work and perseverance are enough. They are indeed essential to success, but the dirty little secret—both in my book, and in the writing of it—is that luck can play just as big a part.

The good news? We can make our own luck. Just stay open to the possibility, recognize it when it shows up, and run as fast and as far with it as you can.

 Bloomsbury Girls is about three women in 1950s London who work at an old-fashioned bookshop and are engaged in a battle of the sexes with the male managers of the shop. With the help of famous literary figures of the time including Daphne du Maurier, the female staff find a way to realize one very ambitious plan: to take over the bookshop from the men who run it. 

Natalie Jenner is the author of The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. Both books were instant national bestsellers, June Indie Next Picks, Amazon Best Books of the Month and People Magazine Picks of the Week. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

DEBS: Of course when I finished Bloomsbury Girls I immediately read The Jane Austen Society, which I loved as well. The books are interconnected but don't have to be read in order.

REDS and readers, what book have you run across by chance that was a perfect fit for you?

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

When Writers Gather

DEBORAH CROMBIE: The other night at dinner we were talking about the apocryphal story in which Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and L. Ron Hubbard were having drinks somewhere (in my imagination, a hotel bar at an early sci-fi convention) and made an informal bet as to who could invent the best religion--resulting in Stranger in a Strange Land, The Foundation Trilogy, Dune, and Scientology.  This is probably not true (the dates don't work out, for one thing) but if it was, wouldn't that have been a fun conversation to overhear?

Heinlein in 1976

This started me thinking about other groups of well-know writers that gathered regularly. Of course there was the famous (or infamous) Algonquin Round Table in New York, also known as the Vicious Circle for their practical jokes and barbed wit. They met for lunch most days between 1919 and 1929, and although membership varied, included Harpo Marx, Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, and Charles MacArthur.

left to right, Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woolcott

Then there was Paris. Who hasn't dreamed of sitting in Les Deux Magots with Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Kay Boyle, and the other literary luminaries of the 1920's Lost Generation? (Digging out our copy of Midnight in Paris now...) I would, however, pass on the absinthe!

And that brings me to my personal favorite "writer's group," the Inklings. Between the early 1930s and 1949, a loose group of literary enthusiasts gathered regularly at an Oxford pub called the Eagle and Child (affectionately known as the Bird and Baby.) The group included (but was not limited to) C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and occasionally, Dorothy L. Sayers. 

In college I was obsessed with the Inklings. They were the subject of my senior year directed study paper, and on my first trip to England the year I graduated, this pub in Oxford topped even London on my must-see list.

To have been included in those conversations was my ultimate fantasy--basically, I wanted to be an Inking when I grew up.

REDS and readers, if you could be a fly on the wall at one of these gatherings--or another that I haven't mentioned--which one would you choose?

I wonder if the Internet has done away with this sort of regular and fruitful exchange of work and ideas among writers. Or has it bettered it in other ways? 

(Although we Reds chat on our group email on a daily basis, we're not usually brainstorming plots or solving philosophical dilemmas. Maybe we should!)

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Evolution of a Geek

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I started out intending to write about fountain pens and fell down a rabbit hole, so I'm sharing my meanderings with you, dear readers. I have become, in no small part thanks to my friend (and our regular JRW commenter) Gigi Norwood, a fountain pen "enthusiast." What began as an effort to improve my handwriting (and the idea that I might some day treat myself to that writerly status symbol, a Mont Blanc) mushroomed into something much more dangerous--I think I now have to call myself a "collector." 

First it was a few inexpensive plastic pens. Then a few more "nicer" pens, and those led to these babies--

which are the grown-up equivalent of My Little Ponies, but you can call them "office supplies." They're made by BENU, a mom and pop company that began in Moscow. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Benu was able to move to Armenia, where they are once again making pens, thank goodness. (This photo does not begin to do Benu pens justice at all!! The resins are almost 3D and they sparkle!)

While I'm still a rank amateur in the world of pen fanciers, my Instagram feed is now filled with dreamy pen and ink photos. 

I watch pen videos. I have more inks than I can ever use. I know about nib sizes. I've discovered that there are pen conventions! (There is, in fact, a big pen show in London twice a year, and I am going to miss the autumn show by two days!)

I no longer, however, hanker after a Mont Blanc. If I were going to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a pen (not!) there are more appealing options.

When I converted my latest Benu pen from cartridge/converter to eyedropper fill, I knew I had officially become a fountain pen geek

And here's the rabbit hole: Is "geek" still a pejorative term?" According to Wikipedia, the word "geek" typically connotes an expert or enthusiast obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit.
But the derivation of geek is from the Middle Low German word geck, which means freak or fool.

Is a geek the same as a nerd, and is one term more flattering than the other? Is it now culturally cool to be either?

What do you think, REDS and readers? Do you identify as a geek? And what path does your geekiness take? When does being a "fan" cross the line into being a nerd?

(We are all book nerds, or we wouldn't be reading this blog...)

**KATHY BOONE REEL is the winner of Zac Bissonnette's loot!

Monday, July 25, 2022


DEBORAH CROMBIE: The only things happy in my garden right now are these black-eyed Susans, which glow like mini-suns in the afternoon heat. 

Here in the DFW area, we'll be telling stories about this last week for a long time. Even with air-conditioning, it was miserable. We had three consecutive days at 109 F.

Going outside in the afternoons felt like walking into a furnace. Between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. we were on power conservation alert, thermostats set to 80, no appliance usage. We held our breaths and watched the grid. (This graph is a good day. When the two lines converge, you're in big trouble.)

Cooking was impossible, and my beautiful garden burned to a crisp. (Except for the black-eyed Susans…)

But, for once, I was glad not to be in London, where it reached 104 F before the worst of the heat broke, and no one has air conditioning! (The ceremonial guards were allowed to shelter from the sun in the hottest part of the day, thank goodness. Can you imagine standing motionless in the sun in full uniform and bearskin hats?) 

Houses in the UK are built to retain heat, and most people don't even have fans. My daughter and I were in London during the (then) record-breaking heat wave of August 2003, so we've experienced it first-hand. It reached 38 C (100 F.) Our flat had one small table fan. We spent our days trying to find anywhere with AC (department stores!) and our evenings taking turns in cool baths or showers. The tube was unbearable and buses not much better. Grocery stores lost refrigeration and even the gelato shops closed because they couldn't keep the ice cream from melting. It was certainly a trip we didn't forget!

What's your most memorable extreme weather experience, REDs?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, so awful, and I am so sorry, dear Debs! It’s “only” in the mid-90s here, but yikes, it is tropical! (Except for in the tropics there’s rain, so yeah, no, no rain here.) I lug water to the gasping tomato plants, and watch everything droop the moment the sun hits 11 AM. We have AC in the bedroom, and in my office, but otherwise we stagger around complaining.  The fans just swirl the hot air. 

Weather story? Well, lots, but  a recent one. Yesterday I heard a huge sound outside, and I looked out the window and didn't see anything and I was getting ready to interview RUTH WARE at a bookstore (!!!)  so I ignored it.  But turned out, the wind had really picked up, and there were tornado warnings, and a HUGE TREE across the street from us had blown over. I mean huge, and was so big it was blocking our entire street! 

Because it’s all about me, :-), my first thought was–I CANNOT BE LATE! MOVE THAT TREE. 

JENN McKINLAY: Well, I feel for you, Debs, but only because of your sketchy power grid. I’m in AZ, and we’ve been well above 110 for a while now, but our power is solid and AC makes it tolerable. We do spend a lot of time listening to music (today was the 80’s playlist) while floating in the pool, which is fun so you manage.

Worst weather event? Hub and I had just bought our house and I was looking outside at our back fence because a storm was brewing when boom! An entire section exploded. A microburst hit it right in the middle, sending the boards everywhere. Soon afterwards, we put in a block wall, but it was my first experience with a microburst and I’m good, totally good, forever and ever. Amen.

DEBS: Jenn, I envy you your pool! I've even missing my old inflatable hot tub, because you could at least get wet...

LUCY BURDETTE: Hank, I hope you got out in time! Debs and Jenn, so sorry for those temps! Like Hank, we are in the 90’s so I dare not complain. I have been holing up in the bedroom to write.

The weather event that comes to my mind–or was it two separate times that I’ve conflated?--was a trip to Vermont to ski with our kids and another family. It was snowing hard and the road was covered with black ice and people were sliding off left and right. I finally prevailed with John to find a motel. We got the last crummy room and I was so grateful to be alive!

DEBS: Black ice, yikes! That's the worst!

HALLIE EPHRON: Micro-bursts and tornadoes sound terrifying. And without warning!

It’s going up to 95 today, so this sounds so nice but at the time, not so much: Some years ago we had so much snow during a Nor’easter that this was the view out my office window. 

The snow was literally over my head in the driveway. In parking lots it was shoveled and piled in corners, several stories high. 

RHYS BOWEN: Commiserations to Debs and anyone else in the heat. While everyone else was sweltering I've had a perfect week on the beach in San Diego with fourteen family members. Amazing house on the water, kayaking, paddle boarding and lots of food, drink and laughter. Oh and it was 75 degrees all week!

I can’t imagine how awful it’s been in England. I was there for a heatwave a few years ago. My hotel room had no AC and I had to take a cold shower and go to bed wet. And the Tube! Black hole of Calcutta does not describe it!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: We are sweating it out here in southern Maine, where we’ve also been on a multi-day, 90F plus stretch. No AC at all in This Old House, but the heavy timber frame and plaster walls really help keep the heat out. I’ve been doing my extreme heat routine: open all the windows as soon as the temperature outside drops below the inside temp. Every room has at least one window fan sucking air in all night long. I set my alarm for 6am, pull the fans, shut the windows AND all the curtains, and go back to bed.

So far, the highest it’s gotten in the downstairs has been 78, which makes it cool enough to use table and box fans to feel comfortable. One of my tricks: a box fan at the head of the cellar stairs to bring up some of that 60F coolness! 

Objectively, I’ve had far more extreme cold weather events here, but the increasing number of degree days we’ve been experiencing worries me. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to get some window AC units to make the place habitable in late July and August in the future.

DEBS: Cooling off at night makes all the difference. (Not happening here!)

How about you, readers? How are you faring in the heat?

Here's a little treat for everyone sweltering: the outtakes from the movie BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, to HOT HOT HOT by Bina Mistry from the soundtrack. I cannot even think the words HOT HOT HOT without this song playing in my head.

In fact, if you've never seen the film, treat yourself to that, too. It's adorable. Catch a very young Kiera Knightly, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and the always wonderful Parminder Nagra in her first big role.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Reading Notes @lucyburdette

LUCY BURDETTE: I think I've come to terms this week with the fact that I suffer from a book addiction. I've probably got enough books in my stack(s) to keep me busy for a lifetime, and yet, I want more... Here a few I've finished and enjoyed, and a few more I'm looking forward to, in addition to those by Zac and Leslie, whom you met this week. I know I can count on all of you to help me feed the beast:).

THE DROWNING SEA by Sarah Stewart Taylor. Sarah's such a gifted writer and I love the characters in this series--and it's all set in Ireland. What's not to like?

MISS CECILY'S RECIPES FOR EXCEPTIONAL LADIES by Vicky Zimmerman. This starts out a bit like many English women's fiction novels--with a perfectly nice protagonist dumped by the guy she thought was "the one." She's encouraged to try volunteering to get her mind off her misery, and meets a 97 year old woman in a nursing home who'd had a fascinating life, including writing a remarkable cookbook. Their growing friendship is wonderful, the old woman's a pip, and they share the love of food. I'm sorry it's over.

WHERE THE SKY BEGINS by Rhys Bowen. Okay, I will not gloat, but Rhys shared a few advance copies of her new standalone with the Reds, set during World War II in England. You are going to love it!

OUT OF THE CLEAR BLUE SKY by Kristan Higgins. I think I've read everything she's written from romance to women's fiction, but this may be her best. An enticing Cape Cod setting, a spunky character with an interesting career as a nurse midwife, a bum husband that she gathers the courage to leave behind...

And a few on my TBR pile...






THE BODYGUARD Katherine Center

And finally, one I hope you'll put on your list if you haven't already: UNSAFE HAVEN, which is out in paperback on Tuesday, and also now has a reasonable ebook price:). Here's an excerpt should you want to take a look...

Okay Red readers, pile on! What are you reading? What must I add to my pile?

Saturday, July 23, 2022

How Becoming a Barry Manilow Fan Helped Me Understand My Protagonist @zacbissonette

 LUCY BURDETTE: Today I'm delighted to welcome Zac Bissonette with his debut mystery, A KILLING IN COSTUMES. Zac and I "met" on Twitter after he made lovely comments about my DEADLY ADVICE. When I noticed he had a book coming out, I was sure you'd want to meet him too! Welcome Zac! (And do read all the way to the bottom to hear about his double giveaway...)

(September 2021: First live concert I’d been to since March 2020, to see my protagonist’s favorite singer, who I never would have dreamed of seeing before I realized he was my fictional character’s hero.)

ZAC BISSONETTE: In March 2020, I was living in New York City, and I received feedback from my first beta reader on my first novel, A Killing in Costumes. His comments were typical for a first draft. He identified major plot holes, horrible writing, undeveloped characters, and, I want to emphasize this again, a lot of horrible writing.

But this was March 2020 in New York City, and I wasn’t going to fix all that. So I focused on a more manageable criticism. My book has two protagonists and one of them, Jay, was a big Huey Lewis fan. My beta reader made a note, saying Huey Lewis didn’t seem right—“seems it should be something more retro Hollywood/no?”

Here was a manageable challenge: Who should Jay’s favorite singer be in this manuscript that was unlikely to ever be published? I don’t remember how, but Barry Manilow popped into my mind, even though I didn’t know much about him. My overall impression of him: kitschy Las Vegas, a massively devoted core of fans who called themselves Fanilows, an act as famous as a cultural punchline and a stand-in for middlebrow taste as for its actual music. Manilow was perfect for Jay, who is a former soap opera star turned Hollywood memorabilia dealer. Jay would be a Fanilow. 

So I dove into that time-honored time suck of writers terrified of the disappointment that would come from actually writing but too wary of feeling like a quitter to give up entirely: wildly superfluous research.

I listened to his greatest hits album, which I liked. Then, and there’s no way to say this other than to just say it, I bought a copy of his 1987 memoir, Sweet Life, and discovered something that shocked me: Barry Manilow is funny. And not just “humorous,” but genuinely hilarious. He’s also charming as hell, and, while the book was written more than twenty years before he came out of the closet, it manages to discuss his relationships and ambivalence in a way that feels thematically true to what he was actually feeling—revealing while still private.

From Left to Right: Perry Como, Barry Manilow

My boyfriend and I were living together in a one-bedroom apartment. Nothing was open, everyone was terrified, and I was calling him into the living room every few minutes to read him funny lines from Manilow’s memoir, shouting so he could hear me over the dulcet tones of ‘Trying to Get the Feeling Again.’ 

When my book begins, Jay is at a crossroads in his life, in his forties after a life of ups-and-downs and identity crises. Coming to terms with being gay had been hard, personally, because of his upbringing, and professionally, because of his public facing career. 

When I thought about Jay’s journey, and the obstacles he needed to overcome, it became clear why Manilow’s own rise from geek to superstar while staying true to his own unique, unhip style, would be so inspiring to him. As Barry himself puts it when introducing his song ‘All the Time’: “This song is about feeling like a misfit when you’re younger . . . I know it’s hard to believe, looking at the super megastar sex god I have turned into. But, really, I felt like a geek when I was a kid.” 

Understanding Jay’s Manilow fandom helped me understand Jay better—and hopefully make him richer for readers: Manilow is, on the page at least, a very minor part of the book—my boyfriend made sure of that. Which leads me to my one relationship tip: Find yourself a man who loves you enough to go see Barry Manilow twice in three months and to make sure Barry trivia doesn’t overwhelm your debut novel.

Readers and Writers: Do you have a favorite singer/actor/personality who’s influenced your life? Does your character? Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for a copy of the new book and a script from an episode of Murder, She Wrote, signed by Tom Sawyer, a writer for the show and a longtime producer/show runner.

About Zac: New York Times bestselling author Zac Bissonnette‘s most recent book is 2015’s The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute. He is an equity analyst at a hedge fund, and lives in New York City with his partner and a tuxedo cat named Perry Como. A Killing in Costumes is his first novel.

About A Killing in Costumes

Stardom fades fast when you’re on the line for murder, in this debut cozy mystery perfect for fans of Richard Osman and Jenn McKinlay.

Jay Allan and Cindy Cooper were soap opera stars in the late ’90s, a wholesome young husband-and-wife duo who combined musical talent with humor and charisma. When the truth about their sexual orientations came to light, their marriage and TV careers ended, but decades later they have remained friends. Together, they open Palm Springs’ chicest movie memorabilia store, Hooray for Hollywood–but no customers and dwindling finances spell trouble.

A Hail Mary arrives in the form of Yana Tosh, a ninety-year-old diva of the silver screen who has amassed a valuable collection of costumes and props and is looking to sell. But first, Jay and Cindy have to beat their competition, a vice president from a mega-auction house with ten times their resources. And when he winds up dead, they become prime suspects in the murder.

With their freedom and livelihoods on the line, Jay and Cindy desperately need to clear their names. There are plenty of other potential suspects, but they’ll have to solve it soon before they’re forced to trade in their vintage costume collection for two orange jumpsuits.

“Zac Bissonnette’s contemporary twist on Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence is sure to enthrall traditional mystery fans. At the very core of this astonishing debut is love in various forms—and especially our eternal love of, and fascination for, Hollywood in all its glamor and glitz. The relationship of Cindy and Jay is the wonderful glue that pulls it all together. I hope they have a long and successful run in this new staging of “Murder, They Write.”
—Miranda James, NYT and USA Today Bestselling Author of The Cat in the Stacks and the Southern Ladies Mysteries

“Hooray for this smashing new cozy mystery by Zac Bissonnette! Chock full of old Hollywood references, eclectic collectible information, and delightfully set in sunny Palm Springs, there is so much to love in this perfectly executed, high stakes, puzzler of a mystery. I absolutely can’t wait to join these fun and fresh amateur sleuths, Cindy and Jay, on their next page turner of a mystery!” 
—Jenn McKinlay, New York Timesbestselling author of the Library Lovers Mystery series

“Mystery readers, especially those with a taste for vintage Tinseltown movies, stars, glamor, and the music of the era are going to love this beautifully, affectionately written novel.”
—Tom Sawyer, Emmy-Nominated Head Writer/Showrunner of Murder, She Wrote

Excuse a quick interruption, but Gillian B, you are the winner of the Leslie Karst book! Please contact her at ljkarst at gmail dot com