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. 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

What is Tortitude?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I know the answer–definitively!--to the question the wonderful Clea Simon is asking.

She says “Thank you, Hank, for having me over on Jungle Reds today! I’m going to dive right in and get all cat-centric and ask your readers: Are tortoiseshell cats crazy?”

Let me answer that quickly. Yes yes yes. My dearest cat Lola, who lived to be 20, was the bossiest most persnickety cat that ever existed. Back in the day, when we did not know things about cat food, she would ONLY eat Tender Vittles. And ONLY from a new pouch. And one night when I got home a tiny tiny bit later than usual, she’d –I am not kidding–opened the cabinet, pulled out the cardboard container box, ripped it open and taken out ALL of the vittles pouches, ALL of them, and opened ALL of them and scattered the food all over the kitchen floor.

Don't you love the reflection?

So many more examples, but here’s one more. Lola was famously a one-person cat. She hated, HATED, everyone but me. When Jonathan arrived in our lives, he turned out to be allergic to cats. Well. Apparently Lola, seething with jealousy, decided to drive him away, and honestly, followed him relentlessly wherever he went. When he sat down, she was instantly on his lap. See photo! She was so brilliant and diabolical.

I got Lola from the humane society when she was so small she could not go upstairs, because she couldn't put her front paws on the stair above her back paws. I had gone to get a fluffy gray kitten, but when Lola saw me, she put her paw through the bars and tapped me. So, that was that.

ANYWAY. Here’s the wonderful Clea Simon with proof.

Are tortoiseshell cats crazy?

CLEA SIMON: I’m asking because that’s one of the (non-murderous) questions raised by the sudden inexplicable appearance of a tortoiseshell kitten in TO CONJURE A KILLER. The multi-colored cats are known for their odd behavior, and, after all, this kitten has been responsible for leading my cozy’s human heroine to a dead body. A day later, a kindly vet, who examines the stray, offers the theory that this little creature might have been dumped by its previous owner because of what has become known as “tortitude,” a combination of attitude and, yes, aggressiveness that can seem positively un-feline to the uninitiated.

That nice vet isn’t nuts, nor is he perpetuating old wives’ tales. As the partner (I don’t dare say “owner”) of a tortie, I know that they are very different cats. Before Thisbe came into my life, I lived with the wonderful Musetta, a tuxedo cat who loved us ­– and no one else – and was otherwise a wonderful, and perhaps traditional, cat. But since my husband and I welcomed Thisbe into our home, we’ve become accustomed to having an extremely loyal and attentive – but very assertive ­– little tortie in our lives!

When I launched the “witch cat of Cambridge” series, I hadn’t yet met Thisbe, and so I made the feline heroine a calico named Clara. As a calico, she’s basically white, but with orange and black markings. (Because she has one black ear and one orange, colors that continue down like patches over her eyes, her litter-mate/sister Laurel teases Clara, calling her “the Clown.”). I liked the idea of a calico’s very particular genetics. Cat coloring is controlled by genes on the X chromosome, so in order for a cat to have all these colors – the orange, black, and white, they must have XX chromosomes. Which means that, although there are a few genetic oddities, 99% of all calicos are female.

I love Clara. She’s the point-of-view character in my “witch cat” cozies, and she’s unfailingly loyal to her human, Becca. But having lived with Thisbe for a few years, I knew I had to get a tortie into the mix in this new book. Torties have the same genetics as calicos, but their base color is black or brown (as opposed to a calico’s white) mixed with the gingery red or peach. And unlike calicos, they’ve developed a reputation for being … well, assertive. And smart, as well.

There may be some genetic reason for this. The Conscious Cat blog cites a 2016 University of California-Davis study, based on a survey of 1,200 cat owners, that found that, indeed, torties were more likely to exhibit “challenging and aggressive” behavior. (The blog also notes that some people report female cats as being more independent than males, which could also be a factor.) cites the same study, while noting that understanding your cat is key to a good relationship. And as someone who cohabits with a tortie, I can attest both to their energy level (at five, Thisbe still plays like a kitten – jumping six feet off the ground to smack at anything flying by) and her intelligence.

Do you know the old saw: Dogs have owners, cats have staff? Well, Thisbe has proved this true. When we hid one of her interactive toys (one we put away for her safety when not in use) above a wine rack, she proceeded to bang on the hanging wine glasses to get our attention. One broken glass (she knocked it down) was enough to make us jump – and now she bangs on the remaining glasses whenever she wants us to do something, even if her toy is already out for play! She has us thoroughly trained. On the plus side, she’s one of the most attentive and affectionate cats I’ve ever met, and every day she lets us know we are her humans.

So is this tortitude? And is there a reason that the little kitten in To Conjure a Killer is keeping silent about the murder? To Clara, the newcomer is a mystery – that little kitten isn’t talking. To Becca, she’s just a beautiful stray, one that she wants to welcome into her home. But is she ready for the tortitude? Are we?

Have you had an experience with a tortie? Or with another cat that exhibited … shall we say, unusual behavior?

HANK: See above! And Lola still comes to me in dreams, and tells me–yes, she talks–that she’s fine and happy. I rely on that. How about you, Reds and Readers?

About TO CONJURE A KILLER: Kitten season can be murder…

Becca Colwin is coming home from her job at Charm and Cherish when she sees a tortoiseshell kitten run down an alley ­– leading to a dead body.

As a connection between Becca and that corpse is confirmed, Becca comes under suspicion — and is dragged into a cyberware scandal, thanks to her cheating ex, Jeff. The unfaithful computer geek and his high-power investor were working on stealth software designed to record and transmit personal data – a new form of spyware that would be of interest to everyone from the police and security agencies to cybercriminals. And when Jeff’s former friends and colleagues approach her, Becca finds the police aren’t the only ones watching her. (To Conjure a Killer will be published by Polis Books on Nov. 14.)

About CLEA SIMON: Clea Simon is the author of more than two dozen mysteries, most of which involve cats, and three nonfiction books, including the Boston Globe bestseller, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats. A former journalist and New York native, she now lives in Massachusetts, the setting of TO CONJURE A KILLER, the fourth in her “witch cats of Cambridge” series. She can be found at and on Instagram (cleasimon_author) and Facebook (Clea Simon).

Friday, November 24, 2023

Poetry and Potpourri

HANK: It’s a random post-Thanksgiving potpourri day on Jungle Red! With a little poetry at the end.  AND a giveaway! 

And here’s a photo of our turkey, straight from the oven and onto the slicing board.

First, what’s your favorite use of leftovers from the holiday meal? I am a massive fan of turkey tetrazzini, and my recipe is ambrosial. But it uses every pan in the kitchen, I mean every single one! But it is all worth it.

Nothing beats a good turkey sandwich though, have to admit. Do you put stuffing on it? Or cranberries?

(I put cranberry leftovers on oatmeal, it is fantastic.)

Read through the Red’s answers, and then I have a couple more questions.

LUCY BURDETTE: Place a generous amount of gravy in a frying pan. Dollop in mashed potatoes, mashed turnips if you have them, turkey, cornbread stuffing, maybe a couple spoonfuls of succotash. Simmer until warmed through and enjoy!

HANK: Ah….I can't picture that. Does it turn out like..soup?

JENN McKINLAY: Turkey sammich! Hot turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry jelly on toasted sourdough. Yuuuuum.

HANK: TOAST! Yes, great idea. With mayo, too?

RHYS BOWEN: Turkey soup with loads of veggies.

HANK: Do you use the turkey carcass?

HALLIE EPHRON: Pie. Pie! Pie!!! Of whichever kind is left… apple or pumpkin or vanilla custard.

HANK: Cannot go wrong with that!

Okay, now Reds and Readers, another question: Black Friday? Are you out shopping?

I say: not a chance on the planet. Weigh in!

And my final question, do you have any Thanksgiving gratefulness traditions?

My family always went around the table and said something they were grateful for, but this year, my half-sister in Washington DC requested that everyone write a Thanksgiving haiku. Those celebrating in person in Washington would read them at the table, and the rest of us, scattered across the country, sent ours in. Here are a few.

Around the table

The food, the family group.

It is all gravy.

Fall sparkles today

Gathering leaves of this tree

Some leaves scattered far

It never feels like

Thanksgiving out here in Fall

But some leaves do change

Shorter days longer

Nights more time for kids to play

Home is warm inside

Wind only knows the trees

By the shape of its own dance

Gust inward and through

The timer ticks on

Enforcing the T-Day prep.

It cannot time love.

Pretty good, huh? Thanksgiving haiku anyone? Or leftover ideas? Let us know!

Oh, and there's a Goodreads Giveaway for ONE WRONG WORD! Enter here!

And oh, the Jungle Red winners of the arc of ONE WRONG WORD from me are Emily Catan and Alicia! Message me on the platform where you saw the post. YAAAY!! Crossing fingers you love it and will help me spread the word.

AND IF YOU DIDN'T WIN---remember the Goodreads Giveaway!

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Great Stuffing Scandal

This is actually MY stuffing in progress from last year 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Thanksgiving 19...75? May have been the most revealing ever.

Backstory: Every year that I could remember, we had two turkeys, and my mother made two kinds of stuffing. 

One turkey had the good kind, plain, from Pepperidge Farm, with the addition of sauteed celery and onions, which of course is the perfect stuffing. More on that in a minute. 

 In the other turkey was the gross yucky stuffing. It was Pepperidge Farm-based—but Mom, for some reason us kids could never comprehend, added oysters.

We DIED, even thinking about it. Fainted with disgust. As a ten-year-old, when my sister Nina was seven and Nancy was five, we would watch Mom put the oysters in the dressing and then hold our tummies in pretend agony. HOW, we wailed, could anyone eat that stuff? We were so grateful that there was the whole other turkey that had delicious plain stuffing.

So fast forward until 1975, when I was a nicely grown up twenty-something. I was back home in Indiana, in the kitchen, smelling all the Thanksgiving smells as Mom made the traditional two turkeys. She made up the big bowl of stuffing, it smelled fabulous, and then proceeded to dump the can of oysters into the big ceramic bowl.

MOM! I yelped. You put oysters in the whole thing!

Mom looked at me, like, dumb kid. “Honey,” she finally said. “You think I really made two different stuffings every year? I never did. You kids have been happily eating oyster dressing since day one.”

Well, I was shocked. Parental deceit, and at holiday time, too! But—we happily ate it again. And the oyster stuffing story is one of our holiday traditions.

(And here's how mine above at top, turned out.. and oh, it is in my copper pommes Anna pan.)

And I adore stuffing. And--big question--WHY do we only make it on Thanksgiving?

Another big question, reds and readers. Do you call it stuffing or dressing? Is there a difference? What are your whatever-you-call-it secrets?

And Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate in whatever way makes you thinkful! (I was trying to type 'thankful,' but this seems like a good typo.)

 And again, let me take a moment to acknowledge the place where I live, now called Newton Massachusetts, was the home of the Massachusett tribe, for, according to some records, around 12,000 years.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Are Your Characters What They Eat?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Some crime fiction is all about food. Right? How could our Lucy Budrdette be the success she is without it? And our Rhys’ new book is even called The Proof of the Pudding. And our Jenn’s cupcake novels are absolute icons. The Nero Wolfe books were foody, and..well, we could go on.

My Charlotte McNally kinda lived on almonds and diet Coke.  I thought that said a lot about her. And in one of her stories, a chicken caesar salad played a pivotal role. 

In many kinds of crime fiction, though, food is maybe…a second thought for the author. Or a third. And as a result, for the character.


Why is that? When you see R. J. Jacobs' new book,
THIS IS HOW WE END THINGS, admit it: you will probably predict that it's about murder, not about dessert.

Why don't thriller writers talk more about food? Motivation is why thriller writer RJ Jacobs-–a practicing psychologist–-does what he does. So when he asked that question about his own books, he came up with a deliciously fascinating answer.

Putting Food on the Page

By R. J. Jacobs

Since it’s almost Thanksgiving, I’d like to say a few words about eating.

I’m an avid exerciser, to be fair, but I think a lot about food—what I’m in the mood for, reasonably healthy, and what’s on hand. I usually think about morning coffee before I go to bed the night before.

Recently, I realized that I’m troubled about how little the characters in our thrillers seem to eat and how rarely they seem to even consider their food. Surely, they’re famished. They have a lot going on—much more than I do in a typical day—and I’m hungry all the time.

I get how sleek storytelling requires certain omissions and that excessive detail can stall momentum. Conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t get too far in the weeds about the qualities of a character’s meal unless it’s relevant to the action. Fine. But maybe we should get into some weeds, sometimes? Our characters have needs and food’s at the top of the list, or at bottom of the pyramid, as Maslow might have said.

They need sustenance.

Here’s my case for more nutrient-rich narratives in three points:

1. Illustrating food choices helps develop a character.

A diet has connotations. It’s a little stereotypical, but consider the ethically-minded, conscientious vegetarian. Or the aggressive, perhaps tellingly blood-thirsty carnivore. It makes a difference what they choose to put on their plate. You feel like you know these eaters by observing them. You understand something about what drives them and about what they value. And you can guess about what lengths they’d go to to have their preferences met.

2. Ditto with eating habits.

Picture a the conscientiousness (or perhaps reticence) of a picky eater, delicately forking a salad. Maybe that’s someone who likes things just so, or who’s carefully contemplating the plans of the crime he’s about to commit.

Now imagine the barbaric indifference of someone messily shoveling in their bites. That sounds more like me, now that I think of it— careless and slightly preoccupied, but driven! Surely, this is not a character who’s prepared to pull of a complicated scheme.

3. Their approach speaks volumes.

We know plenty about characters who have a lean and hungry look in their eyes, but what does it mean when a character has lost their appetite? Or isn’t willing to nourish themselves? In regular life, they’d seem depressed, even lifeless, not eager to engage with the world.

And are they getting anything out of their journey through the story? I’ve read plenty of articles about whether or not it’s healthy to drink a glass of red wine—whether or not the antioxidants are worth the calories, and so on. But what these articles seem to miss is that having a glass of wine is enjoyable. Pleasure increases quality of life. It’s worth pursuing. It’s good for a person, keeps them going through tough times.

And our characters are having a tough time.

Maybe they’d be grateful to have a bite.

HANK: SO interesting! I always think about what my characters eat. But mostly they're hungry, and that affects their decisions. And blood sugar.

So how about you, Reds and readers? How do you use food in your novels–as just food? Or as insight? And readers, do you see the varying layers of meaning of food?

R.J. Jacobs has practiced as a psychologist since 2003. He maintains a private practice in Nashville, focusing on a wide variety of clinical concerns.After completing a post-doctoral residency at Vanderbilt, he has taught Abnormal Psychology, presented at numerous conferences, and routinely performs PTSD evaluations for veterans. His novel And Then You Were Gone was published in 2019 by Crooked Lane. His second novel: Somewhere In the Dark, was published in August 2020. His current novel is This Is How We End Things (Sourcebooks, 2024), which Megan Miranda called “A captivating exploration into the psychology of lying, and a high-stakes, dark-academia thriller full of twists and secrets.”

Riley Sager meets If We Were Villains in a compelling new psychological thriller following a cohort of graduate students studying the psychology of lying—until one of them is discovered dead. But how do you catch a killer who may be an expert in the science of deception?

Campus is empty, a winter storm is blowing in, and someone is lurking in the shadows, waiting for their chance to kill again.

Forest, North Carolina. Under the instruction of enigmatic Professor Joe Lyons, five graduate students are studying the tedious science behind the acts of lying. But discovering the secrets of deception isn't making any of the student's more honest though. Instead, it's making it easier for them to guard their own secrets – and they all have something to hide. 

When a test goes awry and one of them is found dead, the students find themselves trapped by a snowstorm on an abandoned campus with a local detective on the case. As harbored secrets begin to break the surface, the graduates must find out who's lying, who isn't, and who may have been capable of committing murder. It turns out deception is even more dangerous than they thought… 

A foreboding new dark academia thriller of deception and suspense, This is How We End Things follows the unraveling of a close group of students as they contend with what it means to lie, and be lied to.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Starting Fresh

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Are you going to have ANY time off in the next week? Saturday, maybe, when the guests have gone and you are down to the last snibbles of turkey, and you think…hmmm. I need a really really good book.

After you've taken care of all your holiday obligations, who is going to take care of you? Well, who better than a marvelous brilliant author, one who will carry you away with a completely immersive and relatable story.

When you snag that moment to take care of yourself this holiday week (if it is for you) or if not, when you simply capture some time just to take care of YOU–what better than the amazing Jessica Strawser’s new THE LAST CARETAKER?

She is too modest to tell you it has been an Amazon NUMBER ONE novel, and it is still a Kindle First (whoa, such an honor! And it means you can–briefly–get it free! Before the book is published in hardcover on Dec 1!) CLICK HERE!

Plus. Please do let me add that Jess is a dear true friend and colleague--hilarious and wise and such a brilliant teacher and editor…an amazing author and a wonderful mom and wife and and I am honored to introduce you to her.

And today she’s asking a very provocative question…what if you have the chance to start from scratch? Have a life do-over? Hit your personal UNDO button? See what you think.

The Appeal of a Fresh Start
by Jessica Strawser

Why is it, I wonder, that so many great stories begin with a character gearing up for a fresh start—a clean break, a do-over?

A fresh start, of course, can come in myriad forms—undoubtedly that’s part of the appeal. The concept is at once familiar and fantastical, in fiction and in life. Maybe it’s been forced upon a character: They’ve been fired, evicted, or cheated on, left to fend for themselves, lost whatever they held dear. Maybe they’ve gained something: inherited a house in some faraway place, or scored one last chance at a career, romance, or dream that seemed out of reach.

Or maybe they’re on the run, and they don’t know where they’re going—only that they can’t turn back.

Does it all speak to some secret longing we all have, when things get rough, to fantasize about what it would be like to toss it all and start from scratch? To wait for our letters from Hogwarts to summon us away from our ordinary lives and let the real adventures begin?

Or is it, in fact, the opposite: a fear that we can’t imagine ever having to walk away and rebuild our lives, and yet we know just how fragile the things we hold dear we really are, how everything can change in the blink of an eye?

Maybe we’re afraid that if we reach for a fresh start, we’ll get more than we bargained for.

For better or worse, maybe we’re right.

As a novelist, I’ve written plenty of fresh starts before, big and small—but never have I had more fun on the page than with my latest, The Last Caretaker, which begins with a woman named Katie (I’ve never met a Katie I didn’t like) reeling from her divorce. She and her husband co-owned a business, and their lives are so entwined that extracting herself seems impossible.

Enter her old pal, Bess, a free spirit who works at a sprawling nature center conveniently located hundreds of miles away. It so happens the resident caretaker on their most remote property has quit without notice, and the job comes with a furnished farmhouse. The gig is Katie’s if she wants it… and so what if she isn’t “a nature person”? Bess will help her fake it till she makes it.

But from the moment Katie arrives, something seems off.
The house looks as if the last caretaker never packed up. And when a woman in distress shows up in the middle of the night, expecting a safe place to hide, it’s clear caretaking involves duties that aren’t exactly in the job description.

Will Katie find the courage to join this underground network she’s unwittingly stepped into—finding a new sense of purpose in the process? Or will her new home never feel safe until she can figure out what happened to the last caretaker?

Writing this picture of Katie’s new life, I thought a lot about what it really means to start over in every sense. It was a moving journey full of surprises (for me and Katie both!). So I’d love to know: Why do you think the idea of a fresh start piques our curiosity? And do you have a favorite story—true or fictional—that begins this way?

HANK: And listen to this: Jess is offering an advance copy!

Join our discussion in the comments for your chance to win an advance copy of The Last Caretaker! (One winner will be chosen at random by the end of the day Nov. 24, 2023. U.S. mailing addresses only please.)


Jessica Strawser is the author of five previous book club favorites: Almost Missed You, Not That I Could Tell (a Book of the Month selection), Forget You Know Me, A Million Reasons Why, and The Next Thing You Know, a People Magazine Pick. Her latest, The Last Caretaker, releases December 1, 2023. She is editor-at-large at Writer’s Digest; a popular speaker at writing conferences; and a freelance editor and writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and others. A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, she lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she served as 2019 writer-in-residence for the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library. Find her on Facebook @jessicastrawserauthor, Instagram @jessicastrawserauthor, and Twitter @jessicastrawser.