Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Another Cover Story @LucyBurdette

LUCY BURDETTE: Since next summer’s Key West mystery is number 14 in the series, I knew exactly what to expect along the way. A year and several months before the publication date, I knew I would get an email from the publisher asking for a book summary, cover ideas, and title suggestions. I try to think ahead, even though the book isn’t written yet and there isn’t even a ghost of an outline. Here’s what I sent in:

Key West food critic Hayley Snow is working on this week’s articles for Key Zest magazine when an intriguing e-mail hits her inbox, titled Hemingway’s toxic love and an old story. Catherine Davitt tells Hayley that she has returned to the Keys to research a book, but she also wants to investigate the disappearance of an old friend back in the late 1970s. The two young women were part of a group of lost souls camping in the mangroves on Big Pine Key, until Catherine’s friend Veronica disappeared, and the Sheriff’s Office cleaned out the camp.

Ever-curious Hayley agrees to help her, and they travel up the islands to Big Pine Key to talk to some other Islanders who were around in the 70s. After chatting with one woman who has nothing much to add, they stop at an old motel to visit a man who was on the outer edges of this commune. Instead of answers, they find him murdered. It’s hard not to imagine a connection. Then Catherine disappears, leaving Hayley and Miss Gloria to unravel two possible murders, one old and one new, and track down a murderer who might very well have them in his or her sights.

As for the cover, I told them I’d love this one to look a little bit vintage, with perhaps a weathered picnic table with a Key deer nosing around in addition to the requisite cat. (There are two storylines woven together, one from the 70’s and the other today.) If we chose a vintage postcard look, I said, the title and artwork could be cached inside the words—see the Key West postcard. These are the photos I sent:

Way, way, way far down on the page, I added, 'if the vintage postcard idea isn’t chosen, another option could focus on this picnic table, with umbrella and deer and cat, but a more scruffy background as Big Pine isn’t manicured like Key West.' (I really had my fingers crossed for the vintage postcard look.)

John has a cameo:)


And here was the first draft I received:

Well, sigh. No deer, no vintage postcard. Though there is a turtle! (Though there is no turtle in the book...) I went to bat for a few changes, and I've come to realize that the vintage look would have distracted from the series look. It's gorgeous, don't you think?

Question for readers: How important are the details of a book's cover when choosing what to read? Do you notice changes within a series?

If you'd like to read my other cover drama stories, you can find them here:

Death in Four Courses

Killer Takeout

A Scone of Contention

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Writing From Fear by Jennifer McMahon

LUCY BURDETTE: Hallie and I went on book tour with today's guest a number of years ago. Jennifer is the sweetest, kindest person you can imagine--and today she writes about the question we both had: How does this quiet, kind person write THOSE books?? Welcome Jennifer!

JENNIFER MCMAHON: At an event for my latest novel, My Darling Girl, someone asked me, “You seem like such a nice, normal person – how can you write such scary stuff?” It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been asked, and in the last few years, I think I’ve come pretty close to the answer.

I wrote my first short story in the third grade, a school assignment – it was about a boy who is pursued by the glowing green apparition of a meatball he had eaten for dinner. Writing that story opened a door to a world I got lost in. It was the first time I remember doing something where I truly forgot all about all the real life stuff happening around me, where I lost track of time and reality, and realized I could make anything happen – it was magic.

My teacher, the amazing Mrs. Brennan, loved my haunted meatball story, and encouraged me to write more and bring them to her. So I wrote a story about a mud monster. Then another about a boy who discovers a dead body behind the wall in his bedroom. Each day after school, I sat myself down at our dining room table and wrote scary stories. Of course at the time, I didn’t think about why I was drawn to write about the things that unsettled me, the terrible imaginings that kept me up at night.

As an adult who makes my living writing novels in which scary things happen – whether it’s a serial killer or a vengeful ghost or a possible demonic possession – I’ve thought a lot about what drives me to explore the darker side of fiction and creativity. I was an anxious and fearful kid who loved monster movies and ghost stories, loved terrifying my little brother and the neighborhood kids with elaborate pranks. In addition to my early love for fictional horrors, I had a lot of real world things to worry about. My mom was an alcoholic who struggled with mental illness. I was never sure who or what I might find when I got home from school each day – happy, manic mom who was ready to whisk me off on some adventure; morose, drunk mom who’d locked herself in her room; or perhaps, unconscious mom with empty booze and/or pill bottles beside her.

I think that reading and writing scary stuff didn’t just help me escape – it made me feel braver. It was horror I could control. I could close the book, stop writing the story when I got too scared. And exploring my fears on the page, be it through reading or writing, helped me to learn things about myself. Maybe it even helped me build coping skills. And no matter how scared I got, there was this immense rush at the end because I’d faced this terrible thing on the page and survived. I was able to carry that bravery with me into the real world and maybe, just maybe, be a little less afraid.

We’ve all heard the writing advice: What what you know. But my own take on that, my own writing mantra is Write what scares you. I’ve realized that to get to the truly good stuff, the stuff that gets my heart racing and mind whirling, I need to tap into my own fears. When I drag them out from the under the bed or from inside closet into the light day, I can explore them safely, poke at them with long sticks, ask my fears questions and learn truths about myself in the process. And now, as then, it makes me feel more brave. More alive.

Despite this, my latest book, My Darling Girl, was a story I tried really hard not to write. There are things that “scare you,” and then there are things that TERRIFY you, you know? For me, that includes demons – the kind that possess a person, wear them like a mask, make them do terrible things, beyond their control. And we all know that demons must be summoned. Writing an entire novel about a woman who comes to believe her estranged, dying mother is actually possessed by a demon seemed even more risky than playing with a Ouija board. And yet, after years of playing with the idea, pulling it out and poking at it, testing it, telling myself that I needed to follow my own advice, I did it anyway.

I think third-grade Jennifer would be proud.

Reds and Readers, how do you feel about scary or terrifying stories?

Jennifer McMahon is the New York Times Bestselling author of twelve novels, including Promise Not to Tell, The Winter People, and her latest, My Darling Girl. She lives in Florida with her partner, Drea.

About the book:

The New York Times bestselling author of the “otherworldly treat” (People) The Drowning Kind and The Children on the Hill returns with a spine-tingling psychological thriller about a woman who, after taking in her dying, alcoholic mother, begins to suspect demonic possession is haunting her family.

Alison has never been a fan of Christmas. But with it right around the corner and her husband busily decorating their cozy Vermont home, she has no choice but to face it. Then she gets the call.

Mavis, Alison’s estranged mother, has been diagnosed with cancer and has only weeks to live. She wants to spend her remaining days with her daughter, son-in-law, and two granddaughters. But Alison grew up with her mother’s alcoholism and violent abuse and is reluctant to unearth these traumatic memories. Still, she eventually agrees to take in Mavis, hoping that she and her mother could finally heal and have the relationship she’s always dreamed of.

But when mysterious and otherworldly things start happening upon Mavis’s arrival, Alison begins to suspect her mother is not quite who she seems. And as the holiday festivities turn into a nightmare, she must confront just how far she is willing to go to protect her family.

Monday, December 4, 2023

What We're Reading

 LUCY BURDETTE: Just in time for stocking stuffers, it’s what we’re reading day! I have a few things to suggest. Of course, I picked up Rhys’s new Georgie Royal Spyness mystery right away. This one featured a very pregnant Georgie with a new French chef, and a nearby neighbor with a poison garden. It’s delightful, as always, and there is a cameo from none other than Agatha Christie.

Sometimes I read so many mysteries that I feel like I need to cleanse my palate with a non-mystery novel. This time I chose Love Marriage by Monica Ali. I absolutely loved this story of a pair of engaged English doctors of Indian descent, whose lives go off the rails once their quirky families meet. I’ve had this book on my stack for a year and I’m so glad I read it!

If you’re in the mood for a thriller with a suburban Connecticut setting, I can recommend Elise Hart Kipness's debut, Lights Out. I enjoyed the sports reporter character, Kate Green, and look forward to reading about her in action in the next book. The town of Greenwich, Connecticut was a strong character as well.

Now I have to ask: has anyone read The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese? John and I chose this to listen to on our week long voyage south. He’s an amazing writer, but the book is so long! He introduced so many different stories that I assume will come together in the end. We only made it through 15 hours of listening, with 15 more to go! So now John is tasked with finishing it and summarizing the high points for me. Some friends insisted it was their favorite book of the year with a magnificent ending, so I may pick up a paper copy to finish.

JENN McKINLAY: Per Julia’s recommendation, I am reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Brilliant!!! I recently finished The Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros and I can see why it’s so popular - high stakes and action packed and steamy! I recently read the horror/thriller Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey. Very creepy! And for romance, I highly recommend The Christmas Wager by Holly Cassidy (aka Hannah McKinnon). So much fun!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I’m deep into my Christmas-themed reading already: I’m reading Kate Carlisle’s THE TWELVE BOOKS OF CHRISTMAS, Janice Hallett’s epistolary novella THE CHRISTMAS APPEAL, and in the rom-com category, I’m about to start THREE HOLIDAYS AND A WEDDING, by Uzma Jalaluddin and Marissa Stapley, which takes place in a snow-bound small town in 2000, when Christmas, Hanukkah and Ramadan all intersected.

And in non-seasonal books, remember this when summer rolls around again: AGONY HILL by Sarah Stewart Taylor. I got to read it for blurbing purposes and it was SO good, even if I’m still blinking at a book set in 1965 as being “the first novel in a new historical series.” Yes, I was very small at the time and don’t remember it, but I’m pretty sure my lifetime isn’t historical. Right, guys? Right?

HALLIE EPHRON: I just finished Christian Cooper’s memoir, BETTER LIVING THROUGH BIRDING: NOTES FROM A BLACK MAN IN THE NATURAL WORLD. Cooper is the Black birder who took the viral video of a woman who called the police on him in New York’s Central Park ramble… But the book is much more than that. It’s about growing up nerdy and waking up to the wide world of birds. And writing for Marvel. And traveling. And finding his voice as a Black author and a gay guy. 

RHYS BOWEN: Not too much time for reading recently but I just read a book I had to blurb called THE WARTIME BOOK CLUB by Kate Thompson. It was set on the island of Jersey and was harrowing, touching and very real. Since I’d been doing my own research on Jersey in the summer everything was very personal for me.

Now in the middle of THE ECHO OF OLD BOOKS by Barbara Davis.  Fascinating so far.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I haven't been reading as much as usual, because of my listening to my books on Audible project, but I've read–and loved–Rhys's PROOF OF THE PUDDING, and Paula Munier's HOME AT NIGHT, so good! I've also been reading my way through Alexia Gordon's Gethsemane Brown series, as I did a panel with Alexia at Crime Bake. I also loved S.J. Bennett's MURDER MOST ROYAL (I adore this series.)

Top of my to-read pile is Jenn's SUGAR PLUM POISONED, and the new Richard Osman.

LUCY: I started Paula's book last night--it's excellent! The other two are on my pile as well.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, oh, listen you all--do you know of Cara Hunter? I had not heard of her, and had to (got to!) interview her, and as a result, read her essentially interactive thriller MURDER IN THE FAMILY, which is brilliant and incredible!  Go look it up–it is a tour de force in structure, and I adored it, and I instantly ordered a whole pile of her other books, beginning with CLOSE TO HOME, which is also fabulous. Oh, I am so happy to have discovered her!

I loved Janice Hallett’s A CHRISTMAS APPEAL, all written in emails, but don't be put off, it’s so brilliant.  I am a massive fan of her other books, too. Tess Gerritsen’s new THE SPY COAST is fantastic–so well written, about a retired spy who uses her current “invisibility”--we’ve all felt that, right?--to her advantage. Highly highly recommended. Oh, one more–Sulari Gentill’s THE MYSTERY WRITER,  which is super-meta, and genius, and (underneath)  a terrifying and thought-provoking take on the publishing industry.

We're almost afraid to ask, but Reds, what are you reading??

Sunday, December 3, 2023

A Family Celebration.

 RHYS BOWEN:  Over Thanksgiving this year we had a big family celebration: my husband John turned 90. For this momentous occasion I rented a big house so that the whole family could come in and stay together. When I say big house, it was more like a mansion... eleven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a casita with a complete games floor, grounds with swimming pool, putting green, spa etc etc.

The family all arrived, including our niece from England. We had a lovely Thanksgiving Day, with all the trimmings. 

Then the next day was to be the official celebration of John's birthday. Daughter #2 woke feeling sick. She was taken to urgent care. Type A flu. She started masking and distancing. Then granddaughter #3 felt sick. Off to urgent care: not flu, not Covid. Upper respiratory infection. Since they live nearby in Phoenix she went home to her own bed. then grandson #1 felt sick. He went to bed.

Granddaughter #1, who has inherited a lot of my personality, suggested, wickedly, that everyone who fell ill had once crossed her... evil chuckle. She was just kidding, of course, but shows she is a mystery writer's grandchild. (and note. She didn't get sick... one wonders....???)

We had a catered meal of John's special food, a fabulous evening of presents and everyone had to present a poem or song. They were hilarious. Lots of laughter.

Then next morning daughter #3 and husband felt bad. Daughter in law felt bad. Niece felt bad. Guests were dropping like flies. My son, the magic chef, made a huge soup of leftovers that just felt that it had healing properties. We all parted the next morning and John started feeling sick. He went home, slept and ran a fever. So off to urgent care for him: Type A flu.  He is on Tamiflu and feeling much better. I started taking it preventatively.

Note the social distancing to the right of the photo.

We all had a good time. John's birthday celebration went perfectly but all the things I thought we'd do--the fiercely competitive ping pong, bocce ball, putting tournaments--never happened. It was definitely low key. It seems that everything is uncertain these days, doesn't it? We have had to cancel four cruises in four years. At least this latest wasn't Covid but still not fun.

I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful with no sniffles of any kind. (And as I write this I'm still feeling well. Fingers crossed....)

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Crackers of Coincidence.

 RHYS BOWEN: As a writer we are constantly told that we should not use coincidence in any of our stories. It simply isn't fair to the reader. Everything has to happen for a purpose and with intention.

The only thing wrong with this is that coincidence happens all the time in real life. Or does it? Is anything random in this world? Do some things happen because they were meant to happen? Certain people were meant to meet. Someone took a different route home one night and it changed his life, he bumped into his future spouse, he saved himself from a train crash.

I can recount so many instances from my own life. One example of coincidence: we were at John's club in London watching a rugby game. The man sitting next to me asked me to save his seat while he went to get a beer. When he came back he asked me if I lived close to London.

No, I said. I live in America.

Oh, which part?

California, I said.

Whereabouts in California?

Marin County, I said.

Which city? he asked.

San Rafael.

I live in Novato, he said.

 Literally five miles from us. What's more, he also spent many years working in Malaysia, as John did. So did his wife. And... they are now our very dear friends.  We meet them on our walk almost every evening.

And the latest coincidence... or is it something more, happened last year.

Our family always insists on various British traditions and one of them is Christmas Crackers. The kind you pull. They break with a bang and inside is a little gift. When I tried to find crackers last year everyone had sold out. My agent suggested i try TJ Maxx as she had seen some in her local store. I went to our store. Not a cracker in sight. I asked an employee who had clearly never even heard of crackers. I was about to give up when I rooted through a random shelf of odd Christmas decorations... a stuffed reindeer, candles etc etc. And there, buried, was one box of the most beautiful crackers you have ever seen.

Deluxe crackers they were called.Whereas most crackers have silly little plastic gifts--a whistle, yoyo, jumping frog etc, this one had really good pressies: a nail file kit, a screwdriver kit, both of which we use, clever puzzles, a tiny bowling set.  In TJ Maxx they were only $14.

Thrilled with my find I carried it to the front desk. While I was standing in line I read the back of the packet and nearly dropped them.  Imported from Hong Kong by the Swan Mill Paper Company.

The Swan Mill is a small paper factory in Kent in the south of England. It was run, during his entire adult life, by my father. In those days it was in the middle of apple orchards outside a small village. We lived in a big house next to the factory grounds. All the village inhabitants worked for my dad. As factories go it was insignificant. It made paper napkins and spiral bound notebooks (the first to do so). It had never had things made abroad or dealt in crackers. And yet here I was, holding this box in my hands, that were now shaking.

It was almost as if I could hear my dad saying, "You looking for crackers? Here you are, love."

I still feel tears come into my eyes as I write this. It had to be more than coincidence, didn't it? The one box of crackers left in the world and they came from my dad's factory.

Do you have a similar experience to share? A time when you really sensed a departed loved one was getting in touch?

I already looked diligently this year, including TJ Maxx but none of the crackers came from the Swan Mill.

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Best Novels in History (or are they?)

 RHYS BOWEN: I read a piece recently which listed the thirty best novels of history, as voted on by random people.  The top three were : Nineteen Eighty Four, Frankenstein and The Lord of the Rings. Two of those I would agree with being on the list, but Frankenstein? Is it only impressive in that it was so original and written by such a young woman? The rest of the list included Four Dickens novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dracula, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… Fahrenheit 451 was one that left a lasting impression on me, and I’m glad it was included.

 Many of them I agreed with: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, ( they didn’t include Wuthering Heights that I feel is superior) but others I questioned: I agree that A Tale of Two Cities was a masterpiece but A Christmas Carol? It’s a fun, moving, little moral tale but is it a great work of literature? Were all those books considered masterpieces because not many books were published in those days?

Is Alice in Wonderland a masterpiece? Better than Harry Potter? Better than The Wind in the Willows? Dracula is clever but great literature?

The list included the Brothers Karamazov, but not War and Peace. And if we’re including foreign novels why not Les Miserables? Death in Venice? One of Garcia Lorca?

I must note that there are no current works among them so the Reds need not feel slighted that they weren’t on the list. The most recent is the Orwell, or the Steinbeck.

Some I think I might have included are : The Remains of the Day, Animal Farm, The Forsyte Saga, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath, and if we’re including Dracula,  why not Stranger in a Strange Land?

Other novelists who didn’t make the cut were James Joyce, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, George Elliot, Rudyard Kipling, Goethe, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins… Which makes me wonder what makes a great novel? Why do some stories stay with us when others are read, enjoyed and then forgotten? Is it all about the quality of the prose or the story told?

What do you think? And which books would you have included?

HALLIE EPHRON: Boy that’s a lot of books. All outstanding. The one I’d add is my all-time favorite: Water for Elephants. Such a moving portrayal of circus life, a man nearing death, a heartbreaking love story. And then, there’s the elephant. A whodunnit with an elephant!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I always feel both guilty and unlettered when I see these lists, because I’ve never read (or finished) half of the novels listed. This is a little better than most - I’m only missing THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. To be honest, I think the random people voting may just be recalling what they had to read for English Lit in high school - there are a LOT of Old White Guys in this list.

So I’ll suggest a few that I didn’t get exposed to until later in life: MRS. DALLOWAY, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (alternative: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.) 

Or how about AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, or PERSEPOLIS,  by Marjane Satrapi? Graphic novels are a truly original variation on the traditional form, and I think they deserve to be considered seriously. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Impossible. Edith Wharton’s…well, I guess AGE OF INNOCENCE, but I like CUSTOM OF THE THE COUNTRY better. And Mark Helpron’s WINTERS TALE. Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL.  Totally think STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. Yes, ALice in Wonderland is better than Harry  Potter. ANd now that I’ve typed that–I wonder, what is “better”?

We could do this forever–it’s fun, but impossible.

And I do think it matters at what point in your life you read them–when I first read Edith Wharton, maybe in high school? I was bored and dismissive. Then I grew up. But I fell madly in love with NICHOLAS NICKELBY. And DRACULA–well, that’s the scariest thing I have ever read, to this day! 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: These lists make me crazy! I agree with Julia that I think people put the books they remember from high school English lit–most of which I seem to have missed out on in my checkered education. Is it the best prose? The most profound theme? The most elegant structure?  I can only add a few books that were game-changing for me: T.H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, THE FORSYTE SAGA. And, as this one has been much on my mind with her death, A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION. And what about, in recent years. HAMNET? Such glorious writing!

And I think I would include ALICE and Harry Potter, because they are so imaginative and such cultural touchstones.

JENN McKINLAY: No Mark Twain? No Alexandre Dumas? No Brothers Grimm? No Maya Angelou? No Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Stupid list. 

LUCY BURDETTE: Phew, I so agree about this list making me feel unread and so I’m relieved talking with you! THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS would be on the top of my list. I still love reading it. Also CHARLOTTE’S WEB, and maybe something romantic and straightforward like GONE WITH THE WIND? Maybe the question should be ‘which books would you like to have, if shipwrecked on an island?’ I suspect the titles would change…

RHYS: Oh, I so agree with Possession. It's a masterpiece. There are not many books I read twice but that's one of them. Are the rules for a great novel that it has to be more than just a tale of an incident in someone's life? That it echoes the human condition and speaks for everyman? Or is it just a rattling good tale that keeps us turning pages and stays with us long after we've put it back on the shelf? I can think of plenty of those. Connie Willis. Kate Morton. So many mystery friends including those here.

Many of those on the list I only read because I had to. What about adding that the book touches emotions, brings joy? 

Which books would you add or not include?

Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Reds Dish on Christmas Movies.

RHYS BOWEN: It’s the beginning of December and thus time for Christmas movies on TV. Some of them I look forward to with great longing and others I will never watch again. So let’s take a poll:

Christmas Movie I have to watch or it’s not Christmas: It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, The Holiday, A Charlie Brown Christmas. (oh, and Love Actually. Can’t miss that even though Hugh Grant dancing is enough to put anyone off their mince pies).

Christmas Movie I Will Never Watch Again: Rudolph.  I used to enjoy it when the kids were young. Now I see horrible flaws that send bad messages to kids. Only the bucks compete in the reindeer games and the does stand there and cheer. Rudolph is bullied and judged because he is different. Even Santa and his father identify him as a failure because of a trait he was born with. The island of misfit toys says that nobody wants you if you look different. What horrible messages! No thank you.

And the Polar Express. While I find it fascinating I hate the image of Santa’s Workshop as an evil looking factory with no adornments. I want my North Pole to have cute snow covered houses and happy elves. And I think the little boy would believe in the magic of Christmas more easily if he'd had a less scary time on the train!

Christmas Movie that should be made; 

One in which a girl who runs the donut shop in a small town, lives with her spunky grandmother and has a hunky lumberjack as her boyfriend goes to the big city, becomes a slick lawyer,  and finds the true meaning of Christnas at Radio City music hall.



So how about you? What’s your list?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Rhys, I love your movie idea, but to make it the true anti-Hallmark film, she also has to dump her boyfriend for a hard-driving executive who doesn’t have time for Christmas.

I confess, I love those Christmas romances - The Holiday, The Princess Switch, A Castle for Christmas, and anything that involves a prince falling for a commoner. Seriously, put “royal” in the title and I am there.

My must-play for the holiday? White Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut (1945,) and The Santa Clause. And I agree with you on Rudolph; despite the fact “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” is one of my favorite songs of the season, the incredibly dated gender dynamics and bullying are a total turn-off. They need to remake it just so Hermey, who is so clearly gay, can come out and be his fabulous dentist self.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Yes,  Christmas in Connecticut! And White Christmas.  I suppose I still like Love, Actually, and Rhys, I think Hugh Grant dancing is fabulous! And it’s worth it to watch for “just in cases.” 

Gotta put the old standard Die Hard.

But I have never seen most of the new Christmas movies, I have to admit. Elf and Polar Express and Santa Clause and  Rudolph and whatever else there is.  I’m not a Grinch (also never seen) I am just not drawn to the new ones.

OH! I forgot. The best best best is THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS which is one of the most fabulous writer movies of all time . It’s about how  and  why Charles Dickens wrote A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and it is hilarious, touching, insightful, profound, timeless, wry,  and moving.  Please please watch it, and then let me know what you think.

HALLIE EPHRON: I do love LOVE ACTUALLY, actually. I’ve never seen most of the others. DIE HARD is on my bucket list.

What about YOU’VE GOT MAIL? Takes place at Christmas. I think. Anyone else remember MIRACLE ON 34th STREET? And I still like the original animated adaptation of THE GRINCH. 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, I am all aboard for your Christmas movie! My must-sees are IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A CHRISTMAS STORY (yeah, yeah, I know we've all seen it a million time, but I love it,) LOVE ACTUALLY, and THE HOLIDAY, which I try to save for New Year's Eve. Oh, we usually manage to throw in DIE HARD, too.

JENN McKINLAY: Same! IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is my absolute favorite but I love SCROOGE with Alastair Sim - Hub and I watch it every Christmas Eve. And now, true confession time, I have never watched any Hallmark channel Christmas movies. Shocking? I know! Like Hallie, I still love the original animated THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS. And I adore LOVE ACTUALLY - except I’m still pissed at Alan Rickman’s character for how he treated Emma Thompson’s - very upsetting. And, of course, DIE HARD - totally a Christmas movie :)  

Jenn, that scene is one of the most poignant in movies and so beautifully acted. In fact there are many scenes in that movie that touch the heart. The girl with the handicapped brother. The man in love with his best friend's wife. But the scene that annoys me? Colin Firth, the writer who does not make a copy of the book he's writing and it all blows away. Infuriating.

LUCY BURDETTE: A definite on LOVE ACTUALLY and I do adore ‘YOU’VE GOT MAIL. We had such a funny conversation this week talking with a very smart couple who’d watched many Christmas Hallmark movies after the woman had back surgery. They had the trope nailed and it was HYSTERICAL. The man kept saying, ‘don’t forget, the girl who returns to her hometown to solve some problem but SHE’S MISSING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT.’ It was truly funny and I absolutely believe he could have written one of them. 

RHYs: We could all have written one, Lucy. In fact we should next Christmas. Or how about an original one...

I'll start it off... Mrs. Claus gets fed up with living alone at the North Pole, surrounded by a demanding husband, workaholic elves and escapes to the big city where she makes friends and discovers Christmas is not about receiving gifts, it's about having fun and loving people around you.

Your turn now: 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Catriona McPherson shares Holiday Travel Nightmares.

 RHYS BOWEN:  I've never met anyone who can take a personal disaster, embarrassment or awkward situation and make it hysterically funny the way Catriona McPherson can. Of course when she's telling in person, in that understated, self-deprecating style it's even more brilliant, but it's pretty funny on the page too.  

We're thrilled to have Catriona here today to celebrate her latest book in the Last Ditch Motel series and to share the sort of travel nightmare we all fear. Tell us about it, Catriona:

CATRIONA MCPHERSON:  In HOP SCOT, Lexy Campbell and the rest of the crew from the Last Ditch Motel in California all travel to Scotland together for Christmas. Ugh, right? Holiday travel? But wait: they go on a private jet!

I didn’t go on a private jet the only time I went home to Scotland for Christmas since moving over to California in 2010, and it was . . . an experience. If I hadn’t been going to a family wedding as well, I’m not sure I would have persevered. And how clever was it of my nephew and now niece to get married in that dead time between Christmas and New Year? It’ll never be dead time for them again – they turned two celebrations into three!

The one time I did have a total travel nightmare was getting home for another family wedding (I have sixteen nephews and nieces (and fourteen in the next generation down (so far))).

For a start, the wedding was the Saturday of Bouchercon. Not ideal, although it could have been worse because Bouchercon was in Raleigh that year, i.e. the east coast, i.e. halfway there already.

 “At Bouchercon with Ali Karim”

The plan was simple. I would hop up to Newark Liberty on a puddle-jumper on the Friday and meet Neil off the flight from San Francisco, then together we would take the 8pm United overnight to Edinburgh, pick up a car and drive to the hotel with a ton of time to get ready.

No way that could go wrong.

It went wrong.

Because of bad weather in Texas, there were planes backed up all over the country and my little ninety-minute hop was never going to be a landing priority. So we left Raleigh and circled and circled and circled. I wasn’t worried; I had a five hour window at Newark. Things were fine. And we circled and circled and circled. We got snacks as we circled, we got chatting as we circled, we even got some of the best customer service I’ve ever seen on a plane as we circled: the steward stood at the front and said, “I know some of you might only have gotten on this very small plane because it was supposed to be a very short flight. So, if you’re feeling uneasy all these hours later, let me know if you need a hug.” Awww. I didn’t need a hug but I was tempted.

And we circled. I got too late for the 8pm transatlantic flight but there’s a 10pm too. And we circled. The snacks ran out. And we circled.

Then we stopped circling. We flew for a while and we landed! In Washington. Because we were about to run out fuel, which is a lot worse than running out of snacks. We all got off the tiny plane: the family who were going to Italy with their toddler; the two students going to Delhi; the resigned, the aggrieved, the grumpy, the cheerful . . . and together we stormed the United rep at the gate looking for alternative arrangements.

I was offered a hotel for the night. I said I was going to my niece’s wedding. The rep shrugged and said the family would understand. Then my eyes filled with tears all on their own and one splotched down onto the desk. I’m not usually a huge howler, but this was going to be the first time my family were all together since my sister’s funeral and it didn’t feel like a small thing to miss it.

The rep gave me the kind of look a woman would deserve if she cried over a random wedding and I said, trying to get some of my dignity back, “It’s not the wedding as such. Thing is, my sister died-” He gasped. “Oh God,” he said, bending lower over his screen and clicking like mad suddenly. I was kind of surprised by the size of the reaction, to be honest. Then I realised what had happened. He didn’t know the truth – that the bride’s mum was right there with her, that a different sister had died, that I was in no way stepping into a breach for my niece. I opened my mouth to tell him all that and a very peculiar thing happened.

I swear that my late and much loved sister leaned down to me, from up there, and said quite emphatically, “Shut up!”   

 “still miss her so much”

I shut up. The rep kept clicking and started spouting airport names and tight connections at me, but then, just as I was agreeing to have my bag removed from the plane, we both heard pounding footsteps approach. It was the pilot. “We’re going!” he said. “Let’s go!”

And off we went. In the forty-minute trip to Newark, the cuddly steward got us all set. I had ten minutes to race across to another terminal and there would be a buggy waiting to take me. The two Delhi-bound students had about fifteen minutes and they had a buggy lined up too. Everyone else on the flight prepared to sit tight and let the three of us sprint for the door. This included the family with the toddler going to see their nonna. They hadn’t a hope and were booked into a hotel in New Jersey for the night. They did provide one of the lighter moments, mind you. They had obviously told the little one that they’d go up in the air and come down. Then they’d go up in the air again and come down again. And the second time they came down, they’d be in Italy. And so, when our puddle jumper landed so very close to Raleigh, eight hours after we left, this toddler stood up on his seat with both his arms up in a victory salute, shouting “Italia! Italia!”

How hollowly we all laughed. Then, saying goodbye to my friends on either side of the aisle, and the sweet steward, I galloped down to the buggy, to the other terminal, to where another steward was standing in the middle of the floor in an empty run of gates. “Are you Catriona McPherson?” she shouted. I confirmed that I was. She yelled “She’s here!” down the jetway.

I gave her my bag, collapsed into my seat, we started to taxi, wheels came off the tarmac and I had made it! I didn’t sleep a wink from all the adrenaline (and the sugar and MSG in the many, many snacks), but I got off the plane at Edinburgh the next morning, still beaming. There was Neil and all our luggage and the car was waiting and I saw the wedding and danced the night away.

 “the top half of the wedding was Greek”

So really I’m not sure if that’s my worst travel nightmare or my best ever dream-come-true trip. You tell me! And while you’re at it, let me know your nightmares too.

 “The bottom half was Scottish”

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Food In Mysteries

 RHYS BOWEN:  I was being interviewed recently when the interiewer said "You have a lot of food in your mysteries. You must love to cook."

I'd never thought about this before or consciously made sure I included food in the books. The answer is that I do not love to cook. After fifty years of having to put a meal on the table every night, thinking up the menu, shopping for it, preparing it and then washing up the dishes I have lost interest in cooking. However I do like to eat well. What I'd really like is Mrs. Pattmore, or Mrs. Bridges so that I could summon them to the morning room and ask what they recommended for dinner that night.

"Oh, I'd say we start with the quail in aspic, my lady," they'd reply. "Then the turban of sole and a nice leg of lamb and a summer pudding to finish with."  Food must have been less expensive in those days! Actually I know it was less expensive because even working class families all had a Sunday roast, all bought fish and chips and even oysters. 

But it's true I do like to read about food. I'm excited that Martin Walker has just come out with a cook book for his Perigord region of France. I think how characters approach eating reveals a lot about them. If a lone male detective snatches a hamburger on his way to the crime scene you know he's due for heart problems in the future. If my spinster sleuth invites suspects to tea and we witness the bone china, the tiny cucumber sandwiches and freshly baked scones we know the sort of meticulous lady she is. (and we enjoy that tea vicariously).

Lady Georgie in the Royal Spyness books started out by fleeing from her Scottish castle and coming to London with no money and no real life skills (she knows where to seat a bishop at a dinner table. This is hardly marketable or useful unless you know a bishop.) She struggles to survive living on beans on toast, that British staple for those with little money or students in rented rooms. And so it is food that provides the contrast, that shows us how far she has come by book 17, THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING, that came out this month.

Georgie now lives in her godfather's lovely mansion, she is married, expecting a baby, AND she has just acquired a French chef. She took a gamble with him, not having tasted his cooking but it turns out to be wonderful. She gives a dinner party. Everyone is impressed. And I... I get to write about all those exquisite dishes. Duck breast a l'orange, crab mousse, chilled asparagus soup, floating islands and berry tarts (the latter play a pivotal role in the story).

One of the things I love most about going to France, which we do once a year, is the French attitude to food. They like to buy everything fresh from the market. Local food, picked that morning. There are shops that just sell cheese, shops that just sell charcuterie and boulangeries, where baguettes are always just warm from the oven. And my favorite, the patiseries. Every tiny pastry a work of art. Last fall I celebrated my birthday on a cruise up the Seine with my daughter Jane and son in law Tom. The brought back a box of tiny pastries, each exquisite. A dozen had cost ten euros! A baguette costs one Euro. 

As I'm writing this I'm thinking when can I go back? When can I have crepes and mussels and have to make the hard choice which pastries to choose?

I started to write this about food in mysteries. Somehow I wandered into France and French food. But I'd like to hear your thoughts. Does reading about food detract from the plot of the mystery for you? Or do you love to savor meals with the characters?

Monday, November 27, 2023

Foods We Never Want to See Again


RHYS BOWEN: When I moved to the US, as a young bride of 24 I realized quickly that food was very different from the food I'd grown up with. Older women were eager to share their recipes with me, and all of those recipes included a can of Campbell’s soup (chicken or mushroom), Jello or Cool Whip, marshmallows with sweet potatoes or in salads… the list of horror goes on. We had jelly in England but it was served with custard as a dessert for young children. Certainly not as a salad with unidentifiable bits of whatever in it. For some reason I never liked Jelly in the first place. It’s the slimy texture and a panic that I can’t swallow it. But jelly with bits of celery in it, lying there still twitching on my plate? A nightmare. I still shudder.

I’m thinking about this now because we’ve just had Thanksgiving and I’m sure many of us have had the green bean casserole (with the mushroom soup), sweet potatoes with marshmallows, Cool Whip with the pumpkin pie.  Thanksgiving is all about tradition, isn’t it? Dishes we’d never eat for the rest of the year have to be recreated because it is expected.  Also because it reminds us of those family members who are no longer with us. Grandma always made the sweet potatoes, Aunt Sue always brought the casserole. I really don’t mind the green bean casserole but sweet potatoes with marshmallows have me running fast in the other direction. (A small insight here that may explain my revulsion. I was fed that sweet potato thing when I was newly pregnant with my first child. And throwing up all the time anyway. I took one bite and.... )

I'm not a big fan of pumpkin pie, again because it's too sweet. But the rest of the family loves it so there was one on the table, along with apple crumble.

So I’m anxious to know your feelings about those traditional foods. Which ones did you eat at Thanksgiving? Which will you never eat again?

HALLIE EPHRON: I confess, I miss Jell-O. Red. We had it all the time. Plain. Now I associate it with hospital cafeterias and getting over stomach flu. 

And Campbell’s soup? I still make what we called “mushroom potatoes” – scalloped potatoes with condensed mushroom soup. It’s lovely. I think the one change they’ve made to those soups is now there’s less salt. 

I don’t think I’ve ever (knowingly) tasted Cool Whip, though my children like it straight from the can into the mouth. 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Ah, the suburban cooking of my childhood. Even back then, I never liked the famous green bean casserole. We used to always have Birds Eye Green beans and Spaetzle, a fave from Ross’s childhood, but it was discontinued several years ago, and - sorry kids - I’m not trying to make it from scratch.

I’ve also never been a big fan of marshmallows in my sweet potatoes. I use the recipe from RECIPES FROM A VERY SMALL ISLAND, which has a delicious crusty pecan topping. 

Food from my childhood I’ll never eat again: brussel sprouts boiled into submission and then tossed in butter. So gross. I can only assume the concept of roasting vegetables simply didn’t exist back in the ‘70s.

RHYS: Ah yes, Julia. That's how vegetables were cooked in England when I was growing up. Boiled into submission. So true. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Giblets. No way. And so agree about sweet potatoes with marshmallows. (or anything with marshmallows, except plain roasted marshmallows.) Although we never had sweet potatoes back then.  And oh,  roasted chestnuts! We had a huge family argument over those once, and my sister and I got sent away from the table for refusing to eat one, until my parents realized we were very happy about that, so we had to come back to the table and stay until we ate one. Disgusting.

RHYS: That's funny because I love roasted chestnuts. I associate them with roasting on a shovel over the fire or buying from a stall in Austria and eating them while I walk around a Christmas market.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Laughing here,  Hank! I loved the idea of roasted chestnuts until I actually ate them–so mealy! Ugh. Although my mom and I did make a Christmas chestnut stuffing a few times that wasn't bad. I never liked marshmallows on sweet potatoes–sweet potatoes are already really sweet. I always thought Jello (Rhys's "jelly") was disgusting, too. And that composed fruit salad with canned mandarin oranges. My mom was a good cook, so most of these are things that other people made for holidays and parties. 

And you all know how I feel about Cool Whip!

JENN McKINLAY: I’m not a traditionalist. I even said to the Hub we should ditch the turkey and make a ham or a prime rib. Since he’s deep frying the turkey, we agreed to go forth (less work for me) because even though I no longer cook (huzzah, empty nest!), for the holiday I will don my apron and cook and bake up a storm because sides are not Hub’s gift. We do not do the green bean casserole but I do steam green beans. I’m not a fan of sweet potatoes so it’ll be my scratch mac and cheese (baked) instead, and then it’s all the usual turkey, mashed potatoes, apple-butternut salad, blah blah blah with CANNED cranberry sauce on the side :) 

LUCY BURDETTE: No marshmallows, no giblets, no Cool whip if I can avoid it. I’d love some of your mac n cheese Jenn, we are blood sisters on that!

RHYS: Now it's your turn. Which traditional dishes do you still serve over the holidays? And which dishes from your childhood can't you stand to see (or taste?)

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Hank's Adventures in Wonderful-land

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What an amazing story for you today! Listen to this. 

First, the tiny quick backstory. Many years ago, literally, 50–and let that sink in– I worked for Rolling Stone magazine.

And in that capacity I worked on a story investigating some actions of the CIA. It’s really too long to tell here, but the brief version is that in the process, I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA to get certain documents, the response to which was, apparently, the very first time they had used the reply: “We can neither confirm nor deny…” 

Long, long story about that. But fast-forwarding in time, a British documentary company decided to do a big feature-length documentary about the whole story…essentially, the CIA’s attempt to secretly retrieve a sunken Russian submarine in the Pacific. The doc was to be called “Neither Confirm Nor Deny.”

They interviewed me for the documentary, maybe, six years ago? And that was that. And then! And very recently, they told me it had been sold to Amazon and Apple TV, and was now available for viewing. WHAT?

I got to see it well in advance, and it is spectacular. Absolutely riveting, and a total immersion history. And you can watch it now, too, on Apple TV and Amazon. And it's got a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

But wait, there's more. I recently was notified that the documentary had been chosen to be the big opening night spectacular premiere at an event in England called the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival – – it’s like Telluride, or Aspen, but held on the east coast of England, about three hours from London, in an historic seaside town.

And, they wondered, did I want to come, attend the premiere, and be on a panel after it to discuss it.

This took me, if I am remembering correctly, about 30 seconds to decide. Of course I would!

And then I discovered that also on the panel would be Sheryl Crown, the movie’s incredibly brilliant producer, and Commander Mike Finney, who had been in the Royal Navy, and was a nuclear submariner and also handled the press after the Kursk sinking. And if that wasn’t fabulous enough, the panel would be moderated by none other than Anthony Horowitz.

So I did two things in quick succession, one. One, picked myself up off the floor after having fallen off my chair in delight. And two, booked my flight to Heathrow.

Well. if I ever had considered that, possibly, this would be a life-changing event––turned out that ‘life-changing’ was putting it mildly.

My flight to London was glamorous and astonishing. A doc festival driver picked me up at Heathrow, in a big Mercedes, and drove me to the little town of Aldeburgh, first on the M-25 motorway, which looks like it could be anywhere, and onto the A-12 to the countryside toward Aldeburgh, which was magical. 

Debs will confirm–there’s just no place that looks like this. It's right on the North Sea.

I was dropped off at the White Lion, a quaint and historic inn overlooking the north sea, and even though I had only four hours of sleep on the plane, I was absolutely floating with delight. They brought me tea in the lobby!

ANd here's the view from my hotel room. 

Aldeburgh – – how can I describe it. Bleak and gorgeous, with buildings from the 1600s, tiny and transporting, with lovely shops and lovely people–I took photos like the gawking tourist I was.

And our event would be at the quaintest cutest most wonderful cinema you’ve ever seen.

Thursday and Friday we all chatted and had lunch and drinks and chips and wine and and dinner and lobster and onion soup and–ah. I can’t even begin to tell you.

Then Friday night was the SOLD OUT premiere, here is our picture in front of the posters (they later gave me one to take home.) 

And another at the panel afterward. I've admired Anthony Horowitz for years, and interviewed him several times–but this weekend was our first in person meeting. He was so brilliant, and the panel was fabulous. Sheryl and Mike were amazing and so knowledgeable.

Saturday, the wonderful Sheryl and I went to Snape Maltings— I will just let that sink in. And we walked down the rocky vast beach to "The Scallop," a… shall we say, controversial sculpture on the shore, in honor of Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh. 

(And then there were more movie screenings and celebrations and two incredible gasp-worthy dinner parties which, sadly, it would have been gauche to photograph..)

I met so many incredible people — the incredible reporter/ presenters Nick Robinson and Stephen Sakur of the BBC, and Anthony Horowitz’s brilliant wife, Jill, who is the producer of the amazing Magpie Murders on PBS, as well as Foyle’s War. (I gushed to her way too much, what can I say.)

And they have another fabulous show in the works, Moonflower Murders, and I cannot wait!

I could go on about this, but I have to say it was a marvelous and transporting adventure. And so incredibly odd, isn’t it, that’s something I did 50 years ago, 50 years ago! continues to change my life today.

We now return to our regular programming.