Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Boyfriend Sweater by Jenn McKinlay

 JENN MCKINLAY: It was 1989 in New Haven, CT. I was at university and doing the typical on again off again with the rugby playing college boyfriend. We both had apartments with friends, but my stuff mingled with his and vice versa. Neither of us minded as it was an unspoken way to leave the door open for the next session of "let's get back together" after we inevitably broke up again. This lasted until senior year when we went through our final unentanglement-disengagement-whatever-you-want-to-call-it in those glorious pre-Internet days when saying good-bye actually meant "I'm never speaking to this person again". 

Love in the 80's was complicated!

Several relationships, five moves, one marriage (still going strong) and two children later, and I decided this empty nest needed a powerful decluttering. So long beloved broken action figures, preschool artwork (I took pictures), and essays written on the SparkNotes versions of books the Hooligans should have read but likely didn't :) 

While doing this excavation, what should I find in an old box that had been carted through every move and never opened? You guessed it! The boyfriend sweater--which in my case was/is a rag wool sweater that I wore during every winter in my drafty dorm rooms and freezing first apartments where the steam radiator was situated directly under the shoddy single pane window, causing my windows to fog up every time the heat came on from the months of November through February. I loved that sweater, potentially a bit more than the on again off again boyfriend from whom I filched it during our freshman year. I hadn't seen the beloved cardigan in years, and it felt like meeting an old friend while on vacation in an exotic foreign land.

The Boyfriend Sweater!

Now I live in Arizona and have for thirty years. I don't have much use for an overly large rag wool sweater. And yet, I could not toss it into the trash or the Goodwill bag. This sweater had been worn to scores of keg parties, midnight diner runs, girl's nights out when I didn't want to be pestered (it was clearly a boyfriend sweater, acting as an off-the-market protective shield), and it had comforted me through our many breakups.

So, what did I do with it? I washed it and blocked it (a knitting thing), returning it to its former shape. Then I put it on and felt like I was nineteen again. I suppose I should mail it back to the ex-boyfriend. He lives in Colorado and could use it more than me. Yes, we are in touch (thanks, Facebook) and friends again. It's actually really nice to know that we've both found happiness. Maybe I will send it if he sees this post and asks for it back, but I'm rather attached to it as a reminder of the Jenn back then :) 

So, Reds and Readers, have you ever had a "boyfriend sweater"? What artifacts from former relationships have popped up in your life? Would you return them or keep them--asking for a friend? Okay, yes, it's me. It's always me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Dashing Through the . . . Snowbirds? by Donna Andrews

Jenn McKinlay: One of my very favorite mystery writers, who also specializes in holiday shenanigans, is the ever hilarious and delightful Donna Andrews and here she is to tell us all about her latest escapade Dashing Through the Snowbirds!


Donna Andrews: It’s that time of year again. The holiday season! Stores are playing Christmas carols--actually, some of them have been doing that since before Halloween, but by now most of us are ready to unstop our ears and listen. People are decorating! Putting up trees! Buying presents!  Writing letters to Santa! Creating menus for holiday dinners!

I’m planning a murder.

A fictional murder, of course, and it can’t be a particularly violent or gory one. All of my books featuring ornamental blacksmith Meg Langslow fall toward the cozier end of the mystery spectrum. So the murders tend to happen off-stage, without too much bloodshed, and if the reader needs to know any details from the autopsy, Meg’s dad, the medical examiner, will blurt them out at the dinner table before being sternly repressed. It’s always a balancing act--and for a Christmas mystery, mixing murder and holiday mirth is a particularly challenging feat. 

But evidently readers love Christmas mysteries. So does my editor, partly because he knows they’re good for sales and partly because he just loves Christmas. I’ve told him that when I’m working on one of my Christmas books, I always imagine him standing over my shoulder, cheering me on. “More tinsel! More snow! More holly! More evergreens! More snow! More presents! And more snow. A lot more snow!”

About that snow.

Did you know that the National Weather Service has an official definition of a white Christmas? If you have an inch or more of snow on the ground at 7 a.m. on December 25, you have officially experienced a white Christmas. My editor lives somewhere within commuting distance of New York City, which means his odds of having a white Christmas are at least 50% and maybe as high as 75%. Down here in Virginia--where I live, and where I’ve set my fictional town of Caerphilly-- our odds are less than 10%. So if I were aiming for verisimilitude, I should only have snow in one, maybe two of the nine holiday mysteries I’ve written so far.

But it’s fiction, right? And I want to keep my editor--and my readers--happy. So if I’m writing a Christmas book, there will be snow. Sometimes my characters are already snowbound by the time the book starts, turning the book into something like a locked room mystery. Sometimes the snow is coming, and everyone is rushing around to do things--including solving the murder--before it arrives and brings everything to a halt. Sometimes my characters spend the whole book pining for a white Christmas . . . so I relent and start sifting down snowflakes on them sometime before I type “the end.” I have embraced the snow. I’ve hidden weapons in the snow. Baffled Meg with snowy footprints, and had them melt too soon.  Had at least one killer try to use the snow--and the cold that comes with it--as a weapon.

In Dashing Through the Snowbirds, my latest Christmas mystery, I also use ice. As a surprise for the family, Meg’s father installs a portable skating rink in the field behind their house. (In this case, portable means that when winter’s over, a large work crew can eventually disassemble it and turn the field back into a pasture.) Meg hopes skating will help ease the homesickness of her guests--a dozen Canadian software developers whose horrible boss has dragged them to Caerphilly for a work project when they’d rather be spending December with their friends and families. But when the horrible boss--

Wait! That would be telling! No spoilers. There’s ice and skating, and at least one murder. Let’s leave it there.

And snow. Whenever I feel guilty about inflicting a completely unrealistic amount of snow on my fictional Virginia town of Caerphilly, I remind myself that they also experience a completely unrealistic number of homicides. At least one per book, and I’m on book 32. So maybe I should stop worrying about the snow.

How about it Reds and Readers, how do you feel about snow--in real life or fictionally? 

Donna Andrews is an American mystery fiction writer of two award-winning amateur sleuth series. Her first book, Murder with Peacocks (1999), introduced Meg Langslow, a blacksmith from Yorktown, Virginia. It won the St. Martin's Minotaur Best First Traditional Mystery contest, the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, and Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice awards for best first novel, and the Lefty award for funniest mystery of 1999. The first novel in the Turing Hopper series (You've Got Murder, 2002) debuted a highly unusual sleuth—an Artificial Intelligence (AI) personality who becomes sentient—and won the Agatha Award for best mystery that year.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Back to Conferences: A Red Round Up!

JENN McKINLAY: It’s time for conference round up! Okay, yes, I just made that up. Still, I just registered for Left Coast Crime - it’s in Tucson, AZ next year - and Bouchercon, which is in San Diego! These will be my first conferences since I got sent home from Left Coast Crime in March of 2020 when the state of California was about to enter lockdown. That was one surreal couple of days, let me tell you. I am still on the fence about attending Malice Domestic as Bethesda is super tricky to get to from Phoenix, so we’ll see. So, chime in Reds, what conferences are you planning on attending next year if any? 

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh fingers crossed this all works as we hope it does! I too am registered for Bouchercon in San Diego–with any luck we’ll have a big Jungle Reds contingent and a game show! (I think my last ones were in Dallas, St Petersburg, and Toronto–all fantastic!) But I know I’ll also be headed to Crimebake, both because I miss my New England pals, and DEBORAH CROMBIE will be the guest of honor. Hooray! 

HALLIE EPHRON: I went to my first ‘live’ conference a few weeks ago in Vancouver - the fabulous Surrey International Writers Conference - and lived to tell about it! It was so lovely to give a talk and tell from the audience reaction whether I was connecting. And hang out in the bar. And catch up with so many old friends. Sigh. Heaven. Not to mention hear the writing of some superbly talented as-yet-unpublished writers. And a few weeks ago I was at The New England Crime Bake where I got to actually hug Hank. Of COURSE I *plan* to go to Boucheron in San Diego – fingers crossed that we’ll all be there and gaming it! – and cheer on our own Deborah Crombie. 

RHYS BOWEN: this year I attended Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic and the Edgars. No masks. Holding my breath all the time. But now, having had Covid, I’ll be more relaxed next year 
(unless the variant from hell emerges). I’ll be going to Left Coast in Tucson Malice and Bouchercon. Taking daughter Clare with me to introduce her further to the community I love my peeps! 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, of COURSE I’m going to Malice–I’m the Guest of Honor. Whoo hoo and I am already nervous. And Ann Cleeves is international GOH, and I am SUCH a fan! Jenn, fly to DC! I always do. And Rhys, we will all swoop Clare up and make her an auxiliary Red! Bouchercon, yes, how can I resist. Another Reds-o-rama. :-) ! 
And CrimeBake with queen Debs will be wonderful. (I was GOH for its first mid-post--Covid event. I was floating with the honor…who’d have EVER thought? It was so amazing to see everyone, and so fraught and fabulous at the same time.) In this crazy-wonderful year, I was GOH at Killer Nashville, too. It was incredible, I have to say. SO welcoming! And I’d adore to go back. I have never been to Left Coast Crime, hmmm. I HAVE to write!!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I haven't been to a conference since Bouchercon in Dallas in 2019, so 2023 is going to be very exciting. In March, I'm GOH for Murderous March, the virtual conference organized by the Upper Hudson Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Then in June, I'm GOH (along with the fabulous Rachel Howzell Hall) at the California Crime Writers conference in LA. I am registering for Bouchercon in San Diego as well (tackle that to-do list!) And then the icing on the cake, I'll be GOH at Crime Bake in November in Boston. It will be my first Crime Bake and I'm so excited! I hope we'll have a great REDs contingent there. I would dearly love to go to Malice (it's been much too long) but as Hank says, I have to write...

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'll be tagging along and applauding my friends at Malice, Bouchercon and Crime Bake next year. It's always fun when B'con is in a city I like visiting, and I plan to take full advantage of being in San Diego! 
I'll also be at the Maine Crime Wave in Portland next June and the Novelists, Inc. conference in St. Petersburg in September. That last is entirely for published authors, and I found the first one I attended, this past fall, to be so full of useful information, I definitely want to go back. Thrillerfest 2023? Maybe? I love the excuse to go the New York City, and I'd really like to teach a masterclass there one year, so that's a strong impetus to go.

What about you, Readers? What conferences will you be attending next year? Or are you not ready yet?


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Chocolate -Orange Candies for You or Your Friends

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's another fabulous recipe/ history/ cooking lesson with our own Celia Wakefield! This time, she's showing you how to make a confection treat perfect for a hostess gift, a special dinner, or, let's face it, for yourself.


I first had this Chocolate-Orange treat as a tart - very rich and so delicious. I was glad when Celia suggested a non-pastry version, because, I have to admit, I'm not great with pastries. Don't let the weight measurements or the fact it's candy scare you off - the only step that took any work at all was grating the orange zest, and once all the ingredients were assembled, it came together in ten minutes flat.


My grateful thanks to Julia, who keeps my nose down on her grindstone where the posts are concerned, for giving me the continued opportunity to work my writing skills and give you something delicious.


I hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving without too much kitchen crisis and with gratitude for all we have. The Sunday after Thanksgiving says it’s that time again, and whether you took part in Black Friday or not or however your family celebrates at this solstice time, I am sure that you recognize ‘The’ season is upon us. 



I am most grateful for my Jungle Reds community. While I don’t post often I read JRW each morning and enjoy seeing the comments. So kudos to Julia for inviting me to share some memories and recipes so many months ago. We all have our own ways of managing this season whether we put up a tree at Thanksgiving or observe the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas or perhaps no tree, but another symbol to celebrate passing the Shortest Day



I must admit that most of the celebrating done with my family isn’t based on childhood memories. However, the Christmas that we returned from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England does stick in my memory; the family gathering at my grandparents’ house outside London with my mother’s siblings and my cousins. There were always lots of Christmas treats to eat. Picture a large dining room with space for my grandparents, three adult children and spouses plus six grandchildren gathered around the table with plenty of room.


However, it was the sideboard that drew my attention away from wearing my first pair of nylons (30 denier, I was 12), the cool feel on my legs, pinch of the suspender belt plus my fear that I would ladder them.  Laid out on the mirrored sideboard was a whole Stilton cheese. It was understood that no one was to touch the cheese except with express directions from my grandfather. It was his cheese! In addition, there was an oval bamboo box  with a picture on the lid of a desert oasis with a camel and rider plus the date palm: a box of dates, still on their branch and so sweet. I was almost as fascinated by the photo as I was to eat a date. Dates were only seen at Christmas. Then there was a box of Turkish delight cosily bathed in icing sugar, which got all over my velvet dress and was a clue to what I might have been eating out of turn. The spread was completed with a ham set up to be carved, accompanied by a bottle of Maderia and a Wedgwood Biscuit Barrel full of wholemeal digestive biscuits - the best to eat with the Stilton. Such deliciousness.


Once Victor and I were settled in the USA and Olivia had joined the family I started to build our own Christmas traditions and loved sharing with friends. I would cook a ham and pease pudding on Christmas Eve before Midnight service. On Christmas Day in the absence of a sideboard, I would greet friends with a table full of delicious nibbles before the big meal; a ham, chicken liver pate and of course smoked trout pate plus cheeses and some fruit. Then the traditional dinner, which rang the changes over the years finished with Christmas pudding, mince pies and hard sauce. Stockings had to have chocolate as well as oranges or apples and sometimes both in them, the preference was a Terrys Chocolate Orange.



Last year Victor handed me a recipe from The Guardian Weekly which intrigued me. Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome.  The Dark Chocolate and Orange Tart caught Victor’s eye and he was keen for me to make it. Well, this had been the chocolate of choice for our stockings for many years so why wouldn’t I make it for him? With just the two of us in the house it did seem a lot of work, but a family celebration for Olivia and my joint birthdays gave me the push to take the leap, even though all the measurements were metric and I needed to make the tart case gluten free. 


This is a very rich dessert and it turned out to be surprisingly easy to make with a couple of hacks. Having eaten a small slice of the tart, we came to the conclusion that the filling was really a candy, so I have adapted the recipe to turn the dark chocolate into a sweet for holiday giving. Julia and I will only make the chocolate orange part for you but I will include the pastry recipe for anyone who loves to bake tarts.


Now Rachel Roddy states that the key to the choco-orange mix is vigorous beating combined with cutting the chocolate finely. My first attempt had me gathering the dark chocolate from all over the kitchen including some blocks I had bought on sale in a weak moment. The blocks were almost impossible to cut up finely; I grated, shaved, put in a clean cloth and hit with my rolling pin as well as using my heaviest knife and was pretty much beat. But to make up the quantity needed I added chocolate chips and found that they melted straight into the mascarpone mixture as you can see in the video. So just buy the best dark chocolate chips.


There are two other important tools which will make success here much easier. A scale with grams as well as ounces, and an instant thermometer. So many recipes are being published with the metric measurement system now, and a scale is an inexpensive purchase if you enjoy baking. I offer 2 different measurements for each ingredient, including cups, where I can make that work. 


Chocolate orange treats




300g   Mascarpone = 1 1/3 cups approximately. I did transfer the weighed amount to a cup measure but of course one does get air bubbles so measure by weight if possible 

40g.   Superfine sugar = 3 Tbsp sugar(put the same amount of granulated in a small food processor and whirl to get fine sugar)

Grated zest of 2 oranges. Organic is preferred so that the skin is unwaxed or treated.

400g.   Dark chocolate = 2 1/2 cups, chopped finer if necessary but not when using chips

80g   Unsalted butter, diced = approximately 3/4 stick of butter. Buy the best butter you can! Kerrigold is good, as is Kates of Maine

100ml  whole milk = 4 oz. In my case, not having whole milk, I used 3oz 2% milk with 1+ oz heavy cream, making 4+ oz, giving me a little extra in case of need.




-   Scale is preferred for accurate measuring 

-   Fine grater if not using chocolate chips

-   Small food processor, if needed to make superfine sugar

-   Instant thermometer

Electric hand beater

Silicone spatula

Cupcake papers

Small spoon or ice cream scoop




In a saucepan warm the mascarpone with the sugar and orange zest and stir to incorporate until almost boiling 190F+ on the instant thermometer. This is the only tricky step as the mix needs to be warm enough to melt the chocolate and I found that an instant thermometer took my worries out.

(I used a larger pan than is probably needed as the chocolate and butter melt down)

Remove pan from heat, immediately add chocolate and diced butter, then BEAT VIGOROUSLY till smooth.

Add the milk to the pan and beat it in. If the mix seizes beat again while adding a LITTLE more milk.

Pour into your baked tart case or into tiny cupcake papers and chill.


Decorating tiny cupcakes is a challenge but if I were competing on the GBBS I would use gold leaf!


Tart case:

If you want to make this as a tart, and  it is a great holiday dessert, here is Rachel’s tart recipe.


120g cold unsalted butter, diced

250g all purpose flour or Almond flour if GF is desired

100g confectioners sugar (different from superfine sugar)

Grated zest of 1 organic orange

2 egg yolks

Cold water if needed



Rub butter pieces into the flour to resemble breadcrumbs.

Mix in the sugar and orange zest.

Add egg yolks and gently gather the mixture together adding cold water if necessary to create the dough mix.

Wrap and chill for at least an hour.


Roll the pastry out between wax paper or parchment which makes it easier to move.

Spray a pant with a removable bottom with baking spray, then carefully either slide the pastry into the pan or put the pan on top of the pastry and invert, then press carefully into the sides. Rest for an hour.


Preheat the oven to 350F.

Remove from fridge and prick pastry all over, then line with wax paper, add beans or weights and bake for 15 minutes approximately. I like to remove the weights etc before it is completely baked to add a little color. Remove when golden brown and cool. 


Pour in the chocolate orange filling and decorate with thin strips of candied orange peel. 

Serve with whipped cream or fruit.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

My Christmas List

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Well, we're in the season now, aren't we, dear readers? I know you're all thinking of me, so I made up a Christmas gift list! Please send my presents to:

100 WillIEverFinishThisBook Drive

Frickin' Freezing, Maine.

Here's what I want for the holidays:




A tiny incinerator.  Into which I can toss the tiny mouse corpses my cat keeps leaving beside the litter box. Yes, it's great she's ridding my home of pests. I love her mousing skills! But then I have to take the decedent out and give it a proper disposal, by which I mean I fling it as far as possible into the back field. Of course, if the dogs are out with me, as is usual, they think it's a game and chase after it... you can see where this is going, yes? How much energy could it take to turn .68 oz into a teeny weeny pile of ash?

A full eight hours sleep without peeing.  I stop drinking my beloved tea by 3pm. I don't have any water after 6pm. Where is it coming from? The most aggravating part is the way the dogs will have taken my place in the warm spot by the time I get back into bed. Nobody needs to be shifting Shih Tzus at 3 in the morning.

A small vacuum that can clean up the cat hairs clogging my keyboard.  I mean, this need to have the power of a jet engine in reverse. My cat likes to sit next to my laptop and get skritches while I (allegedly) work. The end result? A fine layer of cat fur on my desk, the curtain, the wall, etc., etc. Meanwhile my keyboard seems to be going through puberty, because hairs just. Keep. Popping. Up. From the keys, yes. To be perfectly frank, it's disturbing.


Immortal, unkillable houseplants.  Don't get me wrong, I have several successful plants in my house. Christmas cactus, kalenchoes, Friendship plants and peace lilies. Even a couple of geraniums that are still clinging to life! But lets face it. The potting table in the barn looks like a houseplant mausoleum. There's the withered remains of the pothos... the dusty tracings of sweet potato vine... the gnarled claw of a desiccated anthurium. Not to mention the succulents - I suc at succulents. Give me the houseplant equivalent of those bacteria than can thrive in the interior of volcanoes and in the arctic wasteland, please.

Chocolate with zero calories that tastes good. We've put men on the moon. We've put robots on Mars. Now we're sending robots to the moon (is this a trend I should worry about?) Isn't there some way someone can deliver a chocolatey treat that won't make the number on the scale rise? I want to lose weight to live to be a healthy senior citizen, but it's getting perilously close to Dove Bars + an early death. 

An internet filter that will delete and block any mention of NFTs, eths, bitcoin or blockchain.  The most obnoxious people online, marketing the most baffling "investment" vehicle ever. At tax time, my accountant asked me if I had any investments in digital currencies. Hell no! I can barely understand how stocks and bonds work; I'm not touching anything that ApeFan593759.eth is praising as the new way to wealth. Please, just let me skip past all that and get to the cute dog pics.

A third season for The Orville. It's been my favorite science fiction show in years. It has everything - humor, touching moments, great characters, thought-provoking plot lines, so of course, it gets cut off after three seasons. Meanwhile, The Bachelor is on it's twenty-seventh year of bringing us vacuous people in hot tubs. C'mon, Disney+, do me a solid.


A $2500 gift certificate to a bookstore.  Oh, it's a book? Thank you! I love it! I'll read it overnight, and then what? Let's be real, I easily spend that sum on hardcovers, ebooks and audiobooks in a year. One book is like one M&M to me (see chocolate, above.)  I'm like the famous budget meme, except it's reading material instead of candles:

How about you, dear readers? What's on your wish list?