Sunday, July 21, 2024

Lucy Burdette's Kitchen Publishes This Week!

LUCY BURDETTE: Long before I imagined I’d write a foodie mystery, I fell in love with Diane Mott Davidson’s series featuring caterer Goldie Schultz. Davidson didn't just dump descriptions onto her pages, food and cooking were woven into the pages to become part of her story. I always finished a book wishing I could have been friends with caterer Goldy, sitting in her kitchen, tasting her food. She and her detective husband Tom believed that serving good food demonstrated comfort and love. Plus, a lot of good detective work occurred while they cooked and ate.

 With fourteen books so far in my Key West series, each with recipes at the back of the book, I've had to do a lot of cooking to keep up with Hayley. I loved the idea of pulling them all together along with snippets from each book. Luckily for me, Crooked Lane Books agreed and LUCY BURDETTE'S KITCHEN will be out this week! To celebrate, I thought I would share the first recipe with you today: Key lime pie.

Key lime pie is the official dessert of the City of Key West, so naturally it makes frequent appearances in these mysteries. In the first book in the series, An Appetite for Murder, food critic Hayley Snow doesn’t actually make this pie but she becomes a suspect when her boss is murdered by key lime pie. She attempts to prove she couldn’t be the culprit. There are traces of pie found on the knife near the murder victim: She would never bake a bilious green colored confection like that.

The celebrated pie also looms large in the 10th book, The Key Lime Crime, when murder strikes down a pastry chef in a pie-baking contest. The trouble begins at the contest:

Off to the left of the stage, I saw a flash of movement. Before my brain could fully register what was coming, Claudette Parker marched to the display table and picked up the pie from the Key Lime Pie Company, the one that had been touted as extra-creamy, with whipped cream piped joyfully around the edges. She slammed it into David Sloan’s face. The pie tin slid off his nose and chin and clattered on the floor in a puddle of filling. Sloan’s eyes blinked like windshield wipers in heavy snow, working holes in the whipped cream. 

The pie pictured above came from the Old Town Bakery, made with whipped cream rather than meringue. Below is my recipe using meringue, but you can switch that out!

Ingredients for the crust

10 sheets of graham crackers, should measure 1 1/4 cups

5 tablespoons butter, melted

1/4 cup sugar

Whir the graham crackers in a food processor until they make fine crumbs. Mix in the sugar and the butter. Press the mixture using the back of a spoon into your nine or 10 inch pie plate. Nine is probably better as my pie was a little low. Bake the crust at 350 for 10 minutes until it starts to brown. Remove it from the oven and reduce the heat to 325.

Ingredients for the filling

1/2 cup key lime or lime juice, freshly squeezed

Four egg yolks

1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

2 teaspoons grated lime zest

Squeeze the limes until you have 1/2 cup of juice. (4-5 regular limes, more key limes.) Make sure to strain out the seeds. 

Whisk the egg yolks, then whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, lime juice, and lime zest.  

Add the filling to the pie crust and bake for six minutes. Remove from the oven and set this aside while you make your meringue.

Ingredients for the meringue

Four egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup sugar

One half teaspoon vanilla

Using a clean bowl and mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until they hold soft peaks. Gradually beat in the sugar until the egg whites hold stiff peaks and appear shiny but not dry. Beat in the vanilla. 

Attach the meringue to the hot pie, beginning by adding globs all around the edge of the crust and smoothing them into a circle. (That's the  technical culinary term--add globs.) 

Then add remaining meringue to the center and smooth or shape into peaks as desired. Bake the pie for another 20 minutes. Cool on a rack. Refrigerate until serving.

And now serve yourself a nice piece of pie and start reading...

Lucy Burdette's Kitchen will be out in ebook format on Tuesday (July 23), and December in large print hardcover. I'm still working on convincing them we need the paperback! To celebrate, I'm giving away a dish towel printed with Lucy Burdette's roasted shrimp recipe. Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing!

Reds, have you ever made a recipe from the back of a novel? Which one?

Saturday, July 20, 2024

My First Love by VM Burns

LUCY BURDETTE: I’m really excited to introduce my pal VM (aka Valerie) Burns to the Jungle Red family today! If you follow Mystery Lovers Kitchen, you will recognize her name. She cooks amazing southern food, and loves dogs, and has been getting all kinds of recognition for her multiple mystery series. You will love her blog today about what got her started in the world of mysteries. Welcome Valerie!

VM BURNS: I can trace my obsession with mysteries back to one author and one book. I grew up three blocks from my branch library and it became my home away from home. My best friend and I visited that small library at least twice every week. It’s there that I discovered my first Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Akroyd. That book blew my mind. When I got to the end, I can honestly say, “I didn’t see that coming.” The next day, I rushed back to the library and looked for another book by the same author. My librarian gave me, And, Then There Were None. I read the back cover, and I wasn’t sure this book would be as thrilling. I mean, ten people are on an island and they are each murdered. Obviously, the last one left standing would be the killer, right? Oh well, I had the book and decided to give it a try. HOLY COW! SPOILER ALERT, she kills them all!!! I should have known from the title, “And, Then There Were None,” but that little detail escaped me. Who was this woman with the diabolical mind who had twisted my twelve-year-old brain? The next day I went back to the library and grabbed every Agatha Christie book I could find. Thus, started my love of mysteries and my obsession/fascination with the Queen of Crime Fiction.

Agatha Christie is the bestselling author of sixty-six crime fiction books and 14 short stories. Her play, The Mousetrap, set a record for the longest-running play in London, running from November 25, 1952, until the theatre was closed due to the pandemic on March 16, 2020.

Christie’s style of manor house mysteries featuring nosy old spinsters or finicky Belgian private detectives may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Twenty-first-century readers may struggle not only with her sleuths but also with her prose. However, her plots are IMO brilliant. I re-read these books regularly. Each time, I see a clue or a red herring I missed previously. A Cup of Flour, A Pinch of Death is my twenty-first mystery. They say you never forget your first love, and that’s especially true in my case.

Do you remember the book/author that got you hooked on mysteries?

Valerie (V. M.) Burns is an Agatha, Anthony, and Edgar Award-nominated author. She is the author of the Mystery Bookshop, Dog Club, RJ Franklin, and Baker Street Mystery series. As Kallie E. Benjamin, Valerie writes the Bailey the Bloodhound Mystery series. She is an adjunct professor in the Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA. Born and raised in northwestern Indiana, Valerie now lives in Northern Georgia. Connect with Valerie at

Friday, July 19, 2024

The Most Unusual Meal

LUCY BURDETTE:  Years ago when a friend heard that John and I were going to France, she insisted we dine in Vezelay, a town outside Paris, famous for its Benedictine Abbey. The meal was eye-poppingly expensive with many courses. Our waiter spoke with a strong Italian accent that we had trouble understanding. He brought us an amuse-bouche a.k.a. appetizer and offered an explanation. The only thing we caught was “close your mouth“ aka “fermez la bouche.“ John bit into his square and learned why: it was full of piping hot liquid fois gras that squirted out over his tie, his dress shirt, and his jacket. This has always been our favorite bizarre restaurant story.

But in Stockholm recently, we may have eaten a meal that was equally memorable. The waitress told us “we work from themes, sometimes literature, sometimes music, space,  and so on. Tonight’s menu theme is based on E4, the highway that runs from the north to the south of Sweden.” A menu based on a highway? With each tiny course, the waiter recited an elaborate story related to this road. I should have written the descriptions down, but we were busy tasting. (The only thing we didn’t try was Reindeer Danger, aka reindeer tartar.)

How about you Reds? What is your most odd or memorable meal? (Can be from a restaurant or home-cooked.)

RHYS BOWEN: I’ve had my share of odd and memorable meals. I’ve dined at Michelin starred places where one course was one oyster with some kind of foam on top and truffle (?) shavings on top of that and caviar pearls on top etc. into a tower.  all I could think of was whether I’d get in trouble if I tipped the stuff off and just ate the oyster which I adore.

But home cooked? When I was a student in Germany my landlady invited me for a meal. It was a vol au vent. Absolutely delicious. “This is wonderful,” I said. “What’s in it?”

“Calf brains,” she replied

Suddenly it didn’t taste so good but I had to finish it. 

John will tell you his strangest was pig’s colon in Hong Kong. No. sorry . Never!

JENN McKINLAY: When I first moved to Arizona, I went on a road trip up to Sedona. My friend and I stopped at a roadside diner where they served rattlesnake. Tastes like chicken!

JULIA: Jenn, my favorite part of THE MATRIX is when they explain the AI didn’t bother to flavor less-popular meats, which is why everything “tastes like chicken.”

HALLIE EPHRON: I once ordered “cervelle de veau” … veal, right? Turned out to be calve’s brains. Jerry finished his main course AND mine. (We went to Vezelay… there’s a church there that dates back to 1100 that has fantastic relief carvings. That overshadowed whatever we ate.)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The most unusual meal I ever had was at The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye. Ross and I went to the Highlands for our honeymoon in August ‘87, and mostly stayed at B&Bs These were the days when you’d drive to your location, check the local accommodations office, ring up your potential hosts and strike the deal. Travel was a lot more seat-of-the-pants back then!

We wound up staying with a local sheep farmer, who suggested the new restaurant that had just opened two summers ago. It was close enough to walk, so we strolled over around seven - I don’t recall if Ross used the farmer’s phone to make a reservation - and were treated to one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Salmon (Ross) and lamb (me) to die for, exquisite gourmet versions of neep and tatties, something exotic with edible seaweed, and, since we had to try it, haggis as a starter. (Pro tip: if you like sausage, you’ll like haggis.)

We stayed late enough that the sun had set by the time we walked back to the farm, pleasantly buzzed on wonderful wine and a whiskey nightcap. No lights along the narrow road, just the farmhouse a half mile ahead and the stars in the sky. It remains the most cherished memories of our honeymoon, and I was delighted to discover, decades later, that The Three Chimneys, noticeably larger than it was in 1987, has become one of the world’s top destination restaurants.   

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Oh, what a great question! I’ll never forget a meal we had in Florence, at Enoteca Pinchiorri.  It’s a MIchelin three-star restaurant (!) and  supposedly it is one of the most expensive restaurants on the planet, I forgot how much it cost, but let’s say hundreds of dollars a person each. For lunch. And we went for dinner. 

Anyway, that’s not the point. So the place is actually absolutely gorgeous, as elegant as you can imagine – – all pale yellow walls and crisp white linens,  bright red plates, and glittering crystal,  and subtle burnished brass, and I don’t even know what. Incredible.

The menu, which I actually have somewhere that I could never find, was authentically, gorgeously, Italian gourmet. I don’t even remember. I do have a memory of a tiny appetizer of  lemon  infused pasta with caviar, so there you have it.  

But here’s the point. (I know, finally)

So we are sitting at  our table with our two friends, basking. And then walked  a family: father, mother, and two sullen teenage girls. SO “American.”  Very blonde, very ponytailed. Very petulant.  

The waiter comes to take their order, and the girls proceed to instruct the waiter about how they want their turbot.. I remember one of them, asking for it with no bones, with the sauce on the side, and no herbs, and no potatoes,  only green beans, and extra shrimp. You get the picture. Very very  demandingly specific. The other was the same. Except differently specific. 

The waiter nodded, listening, incredibly polite, and wrote everything down. 

Five minutes later, he came back to the table and said in perfect English with an Italian accent “My apologies, but the chef says he cannot cook for you, his food will arrive the way his food will arrive. But he says, not for you. And he asks you to please leave.“ (Can you imagine?) And they left. They were kicked out! Everyone in the restaurant (quietly) cheered.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I have eaten frog’s legs and snails in France, haggis in Scotland, calf brains and sweetbreads made by my mom–all memorable, some I liked better than others. (I actually love sweetbreads, but no one else will eat them and I don’t even know where I would get them these days.) But for the most memorable meal I’ll go all veggie: the set dinner at Bubala in Soho in London. This little restaurant was my daughter’s top pick of places to eat on our first post-pandemic trip to London, and it was astounding. Who would think you would drool over hummus with burnt butter or grilled cauliflower or skewered oyster mushrooms? I still think about that dinner longingly on a regular basis.

Reds, tell us about your most unusual meal ever!

If you're interested in reading more about the Scandinavian adventure, my hub John Brady wrote a wonderful post on his Topretirements blog.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

One Star Reviews by Laura Hankin

 LUCY BURDETTE:  Laura Hankin's books are perfect summer reading, so if you haven't read her yet, you're in for a treat! Welcome Laura!

LAURA HANKIN: I still remember the first one-star review I ever received. It happened almost a decade ago. Back then, I hadn’t yet learned that Goodreads isn’t a particularly healthy place for authors to hang out, so I spent far too much time lurking on the page for my debut novel. With each complimentary review that rolled in, I let myself believe that, despite the book’s small printing and the lack of media attention it had received, I was at the start of a long and healthy career, my talent undeniable!

And then a big, bright one-star review popped up, calling the book “stunningly boring and pedestrian,” plunging me into self-doubt and somehow making me forget every compliment I'd gotten.

It’s amazing how long criticism can stay with us, isn’t it? Why is it so easy to push aside the nice things that people have told you in favor of the mean ones? I’ve received countless five-star reviews in the years since, and yet this is still the only one I can recite word-for-word.

I even made a music video about it for the release of my new book, and some author friends joined in for cameos, because it turns out that we all have a… special attachment to our one-star reviews.

I think sometimes we assume that the people who criticize us are the only ones telling us the truth. Socially, it’s so much easier to make nice. So if someone bothers to criticize us, it must really mean something, right? But the thing is, a critique is only one person’s truth. A gushing compliment might be somebody else’s. Everyone has different taste, different things that bother them, different things they love. So if you try to please every single person, you’ll never do a thing.

Over the years, I’ve found people I trust to give me constructive feedback on my writing — friends, my editor, my agent — and I let their critiques push me to be better. Of course, sometimes it’s difficult to ignore the other critics, like the time I had to walk down the aisle at my friend’s wedding with a man who’d given my book a one-star rating on Goodreads. (We were the maid of honor and best man, so there was no avoiding each other.) But even that criticism turned out to be an unexpected gift. It provided me for the perfect setup for my new novel, ONE-STAR ROMANCE.

How do you deal with criticism? Do you tend to hold onto it, or are you able to let it go pretty easily? And have you ever found criticism to be a good thing?

About ONE-STAR ROMANCE: A struggling writer is forced to walk down the aisle at her best friend's wedding with a man who gave her novel a one-star review in this fresh, emotional romantic comedy. Though this maid of honor and best man would prefer to never see each other again after the reception ends, they're forced together over the course of a decade each time their best friends celebrate a new life milestone. Through housewarmings and christenings, triumphs and tragedies, these two grapple with their own life choices, their changing friendships, and whether your harshest critic can become your perfect match. 

Author bio: Laura Hankin is the author of Happy & You Know It, A Special Place for Women, and The Daydreams. Her musical comedy has been featured in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and she is developing projects for film and TV. She lives in Washington DC, where she once fell off a treadmill twice in one day.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Memories of the Lost by Barbara O'Neal


LUCY BURDETTEI adore Barbara O’Neal’s books and gobble them up as soon as they’re released. Her newest, MEMORIES OF THE LOST, is out next week and I’m delighted to host her today. I think you’ll find her blog about the process of writing fascinating. Welcome Barbara!

BARBARA O’NEAL: I am in that strange between place that career novelists know well. I spent the past year writing a new book, which I turned in to my editors a few weeks ago. They’ll have it for a month or so, and I’ll get it back for revisions and fine tuning. After the hard push on the book (that last month is always so very deeply enmeshed in BookLand!) I’m taking July off to spend with my family, visit my mother, hang out with my granddaughters, but in the back of my mind, I’m communing with the next book. At this point, it’s only vaguely a book, a wispy bit of storyline, a situation and characters. It was getting solid enough that I opened a Scrivener file for it the other day, but I can’t look at it too closely, or it will evaporate. 

Finally, my new book, Memories of the Lost is arriving in the world, all shiny and polished like a perfect apple. It is a highly romantic and mysterious book full of secrets, set in both New York City and England. I loved writing about Tillie the artist, and Liam the all-too-famous meditation teacher, about the loft where Tillie lives and paints. I also loved Clare, a Devon woman of middle age who has secrets and traumas of her own, and the farm where she lives with her husband and their collection of animals, a blind dog and a hare who can’t hop and the cats who run through everything in this book. 

The thing is, Memories is fully finished. I worked on it for more than a year, many drafts, and many edits to bring it into a place it could give a reader the experience it gave me in my head. It takes a lot of hours and work to get a book to that point, and it’s exhilarating to get it there. Such an accomplishment! (Whether the world loves the book is beside the point, honestly. An artist of any kind can only do the best work she is capable of producing at any given time.) 

The book I just turned in, titled only with the characters’ names, Mariah and Veronica, is in a different state. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional and mental energy to get 100,000 words of a book onto the page, and getting to the end in a relatively readable, whole state is an astonishing thing every single time. I love the book madly when I turn it in the first time; I’ve done it! Written a whole book! 

Of course, it’s quite raw yet, full of plot holes and dropped timelines and inconsistencies and probably different names for secondary characters (editor: “is he Joe or Jim?”). There are always overworked words, different ones for every book; I am known to fall in love with some glittery description and then drop it in over and over. There are the plethora of justs and maybes and shrugs (so many shrugs, so many one-shouldered shrugs, so many raised eyebrows and sideways smiles!). I will wince upon reading all of these things in revision, but most of us just can’t see all of them in a rough draft. It’s all forest in rough draft; revision brings in the individual trees. 

And the new book, the misty idea, is just that. I always think I know what it is about when I start, and I’m always wrong. The girls in the basement lure me in with something that sounds like fun—two women, different ages, thrown together on a long journey!—and ends up being about something else entirely. I can see a luxury stateroom, an exotic destination, a—wait, is he—?

I just have to follow it, and see what happens. 

The day after I turned in Mariah and Veronica, I was sitting in my office/studio, feeling the sense of satisfaction that I’d managed to get it done before my guests arrived. The little girl part of me who said writing books would be the best job ever said quietly, “And I was right, don’t you think?”

She was.

Summer is an in-between time for many of us. What books are you reading to keep yourself company?

ABOUT THE BOOK: An unsuspecting artist uncovers her late mother’s secrets and unravels her own hidden past in a beguiling novel by the USA Today bestselling author of When We Believed in Mermaids.

Months after her mother passes away, artist Tillie Morrisey sees a painting in a gallery that leaves her inexplicably lightheaded and unsteady. When a handsome stranger comes to her aid, their connection is so immediate it seems fated, though Liam is only visiting for a few days.

Working on her own art has always been a refuge, but after discovering a document among her mother’s belongings that suggests Tillie’s life has been a lie, she begins to suffer from a series of fugue states, with memories surfacing that she isn’t even sure are her own. As her confusion and grief mount, and prompted by a lead on the painting that started it all, Tillie heads to a seaside village in England. There, she hopes to discover the source of her uncanny inspirations, sort out her feelings about Liam, and unravel truths that her mother kept hidden for decades.

The fluidity of memory, empowering strength of character, beauty of nature, and love of family braid together in this artful tapestry of a novel.

You can find Barbara on Substack and Facebook.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Guilty pleasures – the lure of the advice column by Leslie Budewitz

LUCY BURDETTE: Today we welcome back good friend Leslie Budewitz to talk about her new spice shop mystery, To Err is Cumin. She’s also musing about advice columns, one of my favorite things to read in the paper, and the foundation for my advice column mystery series. (And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about reading them!) Welcome Leslie!

LESLIE BUDEWITZ: I adore advice columns. Reading them is like eavesdropping on neighbors you haven't met yet. The woman who tolerated her husband's pandemic beard, even though she hates it, but now can't convince him to shave. The cousin of the bride who wonders how many showers she should be expected to attend, gift in hand. The man whose girlfriend has the temerity to ask to be paid for working in his business. 

Seriously??? What do you do, write in, then wave the newspaper column in your sweet hunny’s face and say “See? I was right!”?

What I most enjoy is the glimpses of tensions, major and minor, in real people's lives. The window on interactions we haven’t witnessed. The chance to think about situations we haven’t faced, asking us to put ourselves in other people’s boat shoes or ballet flats and imagine how the world looks from that vantage. They help us better understand each other—and ourselves. 

Like good fiction, they build empathy.

Sometimes they make us laugh. A classic is the advice to a woman whose neighbor regularly popped in at dinner time: After dinner, put the dishes on the floor for the dog to lick, then put them in the cupboard while the neighbor watches. 

Some wisdom is simple, but profound. We can all identify with the letter writer (LW, in advice column parlance) who wanted to go back to college but worried that she’d be 55 in four years when she graduated. “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to school?”

As a writer, I’m drawn to exchanges that expose deep emotion and conflict. A recent letter from a mother whose teenage son had come out as gay sought advice on telling a homophobic grandparent. The responses from the columnist and readers who’d been there—as child, parent, or grandparent—gave me insight into the wide range of experiences, and helped me craft a minor character in my Spice Shop mysteries who is trans. As an author, I need to know what shaped each of my characters, whether that backstory appears on the page or not. The glimpses these LWs give us, through their willingness to be vulnerable, helps me see beneath the surface. 

Turns out that’s useful in real life, too.

Of course, some LWs have an agenda, just like some characters. They want confirmation that their behavior is appropriate, even when it isn't. So interesting—the ways we try to justify and explain our behavior. And yet, the desire for a pat on the head from someone else reveals that maybe we don't completely believe the story we're trying to tell ourselves. And it’s so much fun when the columnist turns the tables on a sanctimonious LW and points out the flaws in their thinking or behavior. 

When I was planning To Err is Cumin, I read a letter from a man who committed a crime years ago. He’d planned it; he’d even told his wife, who’d been against it. He went ahead. No one was hurt, he insisted. Now, when they disagree, she threatens to tell their grown children. He’s appalled. She’s lived comfortably for years as a result of his actions, without complaint. What should he do? 

What a fascinating dynamic! A self-deceiving crook and a spouse engaging in emotional blackmail. Alas, I had no idea what he’d done. I read every comment—still no clue. But how could I not use that scenario, bursting with tensions? 

Of course, the situation changed as I wrote, and the plot on the page bears little resemblance to the story LW told. 

But you’ll know. It will be our little secret. 

Later, as Pepper, my main character, and I were tracking a young woman named Talia around Seattle, I read a letter from a woman whose daughter had cut off all contact after an argument. Worse, the teenage granddaughter was refusing to communicate with the LW, her grandmother. I was struck by the columnist’s compassion. Keep reaching out, she wrote. Your granddaughter is a child, dependent on her mother’s love and physical support. It’s perfectly natural—even appropriate—for her to follow her mother’s lead. Be the adult. Work to end the estrangement, if you can, but don’t make the granddaughter pay for it.

So what do you know? When Talia tells Pepper how ashamed she is of her teenage self for refusing her grandmother’s gifts and letters, Pepper knows just what to say. And maybe Pepper’s advice will help the two stubborn women Talia loves resolve their differences. 

Reading advice columns gave me the idea for the struggle that sparked the story, and reading advice columns helped me wrap it up. Good things come from guilty pleasures.

Do you read advice columns? Got a favorite? What’s your preferred guilty pleasure? Leslie will be giving away a copy of TO ERR IS CUMIN on the Reds and Readers Facebook page. Stop over and say hello!


Leslie Budewitz writes the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She also writes historical fiction—watch for All God’s Sparrows and Other Stories: A Stagecoach Mary Fields Collection coming in September 2024. As Alicia Beckman, she writes moody suspense. She cooks, reads, paints, hikes, and gardens in NW Montana. And yes, there are bears in her yard. 

To Err is Cumin 

Coming in audio July 16 and in trade paperback and ebook August 6.

One person’s treasure is another’s trash. . .

When Seattle Spice Shop owner Pepper Reece finds a large amount of cash stuffed in an old chair, she investigates—never suspecting a wingback will set her off on a trail of deception, embezzlement, and murder, and put her own life in danger.

Monday, July 15, 2024

The World's on Fire, part two

  LUCY BURDETTEThis has been a dreadful weekend for our country no matter what side of the current political difficulties you’re on. We happened to be visiting some friends in Massachusetts when we heard the news about the former president being shot. It was a shocking moment, and horrifying, and that was amplified by knowing that we and our hosts have very different political beliefs. So we did not dissect every bit of news the way we might have had we been home. Instead, seven of us served and ate the meal that we had planned and prepared, played the ukulele and sang, and then ate an amazing chocolate cake. My point is that we are all still Americans, no matter what side we’re on. I hope we can continue to talk to each other and care about each other and share good meals and good books and good moments, while we all work for the best outcome for our country. I will postpone the post we had scheduled for tomorrow, thinking it might be more useful today to revisit what we wrote two years ago about what to do when the world’s on fire…

Honestly, it feels a tad hard to stay optimistic these days. Covid is still with us although probably less lethal, horrifying wars abound, countries we don’t trust are rattling their nuclear sabers, the climate is warming and our politicians don’t seem to want to take action. Oh and don’t let me forget violence against politicians, and ordinary citizens who deny basic truths. What is wrong with this country?? (Do write your congresspeople with your opinions–it’s more important than ever that we all speak up!)

Remember the early days of the pandemic when we were all holed up in our respective caves and terrified? It’s not quite that bad, but it could be. So I thought it might be time to talk about how we’re doing and to share ideas about how we’re handling the stress. 

For me, it’s a combination of keep working (because I have a lot of work that I am happy to have), keep reading, and watch cat videos. See below for the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time, sent by a friend from college days.

How about you Reds? Tips for staying sane?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: How do I manage stress? Honestly, having my dogs around helps. It’s hard to feel angst when you’re rubbing a furry belly. (Those of you with no dogs but with hirsute spouses can try this as well.) I make sure to spend time outdoors every day, walking the dogs or bringing in wood from the woodpile or just sitting on my front porch.

I also find the more I can stick to my routine, the better I feel. Is this an age thing, or do we all crave order and repetition, but never get the chance when we’re raising kids or working for someone else?

RHYS BOWEN: I certainly find life stressful enough now, having been through Covid, insurrections, lies and rising inflation. I worry how people can survive with the cost of everything soaring up. I’m not sure that I do manage stress that well! I find it hard to get back to sleep if I wake in the middle of the night. 

Certainly being in nature helps. When I’m in Marin I often drive to a nearby beach and listen to the lap of water and watch the sea birds. Now I’m back in Arizona and I love the view from my office window. I like lying on a sun bed and watching palm trees swaying above me. I love to swim, or just lie in the water looking up at those palm trees.

And I love to laugh. British comedies like Miranda (on Britbox) can do a power of good for me.

HALLIE EPHRON: My kids and my grands do a lot to keep me focused on what matters. Laughing a lot helps, too. I find the books and TV shows I watch have to have a strong dose of smart humor and likeable characters.  And trying to get a walk in every day. Lucy, love that cat video!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: This is such a profound question, and  such a personal and complicated answer. My husband has said to me “I have never heard you be this angry.” But that’s where it is, I am so sad, and so angry, and so… 


I have spent my entire career looking for the truth, and it is jaw-dropping tonthink about how people just don’t care. They just – – don’t care about the truth, the only thing that matters is what they want. And that becomes true

Okay, end of rant. It’s such a balance, because we have to care about the big picture, and also care about the little picture—ourselves, and our families, and our little world.

I truly think we simply have to be grateful for what we have. Did we have a wonderful muffin for breakfast? Is our coffee completely delicious? Is there a beautiful bird in our backyard? We saw this woodpecker! Amazing!

 I am so aware that what we have is right now. And we have to love it and embrace it and notice it.

I do my work, the best I can.  I try to enjoy my very very lucky life, and I try to look at the world as if humans are basically good. 

I put my head down, and I work. And I try to count my blessings, and be optimistic. 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Lucy, the cat video is hysterical! I definitely need to see more things that just make me laugh. It's such a hard balance these days–I feel a responsibility to be engaged with what's going on in the world, but on the other hand it's so terrifying and it makes me so angry that it's impossible to function without some way to shut it out. Routine helps, as Julia says. Concentrating on the joy of small everyday things, friends and family, reading. And, unless, I'm frantically up against a deadline, writing, because once I'm absorbed in my story, it holds the world at bay.

JENN McKINLAY: Not to be overly obvious, but when the world is on fire i escape in books. There were my safe space in a troubled home as a kid and they're my safe place now. Time spent with my family, my three dudes, is the best cure for what ails me -- whether we're on an adventure, watching a movie, or enjoying a meal -- they ground me.

Red readers, how are you doing? Tips for staying sane?

Sunday, July 14, 2024

My Salad Days

 RHYS BOWEN: Here in Northern California we have been experiencing an unusual heat wave. Yes, it's climate change for you unbelievers! Our house has no air conditionng. We've lived in it for 40 years and never needed it until now. There are usually a few hot days in September when we use fans and keep blinds closed but nothing like this. One day last week as 103! 

One thing we are not doing is cooking. I went out and bought a rotisserie chicken for dinner. I came home to find husband is boiling potatoes and carrots. I pointed out sweetly that it we raised the temperature in the kitchen one more notch the ceiling fan would melt. He didn't get it.

So I've had to be inventive with what we eat. Trader Joe's has some good meals that can be microwaved. We've had the asparagus risotto with some ham added. We've had the scallops and mushrooms. But there are days when I just don't want anything hot, period.

This means salads. When I grew up in England a salad was just something you had for a Sunday high tea. Lettuce, tomato, cucumber, spring onions with a bottle of salad dressing ready and waiting. Husband still has this mentality. He can't picture salad as an actual meal.

I'm trying to convert him. I'm a big fan of arugula, pear, cranberries and gorgonzola. I love beet salad. But neither is filling enough for a man who thinks that every meal should be meat and two veg.

So I'm asking for suggestions:

One thing I do make and love is Asian chicken salad.  I usually cheat, buy the Asian kit then added broiled chicken, but that means I have to broil chicken, which I'm not going to do.

So what are some good hearty salads that require no cooking?  I'm thinking cooked shrimp, sliced mushrooms, baby greens?

Over to you, brilliant cooks:

Saturday, July 13, 2024

What Do I want from a Mystery Novel?

 RHYS BOWEN: Last week I watched a Miss Marple on television. I think it was called The Sittaford Mystery. Apparently that was its original title but in US it was retitled Murder at Hazelmoor. And it wasn’t originally a Miss Marple story. With TV license they have inserted her into several stories where she didn’t originally appear. It wasn’t a very good TV adaptation. They made it far more dramatic and far fetched than the original with a cursed Egyptian artifact and additional murders so that I wouldn’t have recognized it had it not been for the names.

So I took out the original to read again. (I have every Agatha Christie on my shelf). It’s not one of her best. Written in 1931 so one of her earlier books.  A slim little volume with every chapter essentially having one character question another about where he was that night and thus getting motives and alibis. I found myself  impatient because I was not getting the satisfaction I want to get from a book: what was lacking was a sense of place, as well as fully fleshed characters.  I needed to care about these people and know where they were!

It supposedly takes place on Dartmoor, during a snow storm. This is important at the beginning but afterward seems to have been forgotten.  A blizzard does not melt away overnight! Characters walk across the village, drive up to a remote house with no problem. I wanted to shout “If it snowed yesterday you’d have horrible wet cold feet, you’d flounder into drifts, your cheeks would be burning with cold, the wind would take your breath away, and if you tried to drive you’d slither and have to make your way up a road you couldn’t even see.”

I remember once driving in New Mexico, going over a mountain pass. As we got higher there was more and more snow. No sign of vehicles coming from the other side of the pass. Then the road completely vanished. We had no way of knowing where the road ended, if there was a ditch beside it, and yet we had no way of turning around. Luckily a snow plough came through and saved us, but it was scary.  That’s what these characters would have encountered.

Sense of place is so important to me when I read. I like to picture each scene, know the temperature, what the air smells like.  When I'm in a room I like to know where the characters are in relation to each other, what is on the walls, what the furniture looks like. One thing Agatha Christie does not do well is give that feel for place. Maybe it’s because she uses fictitious towns and villages and perhaps she doesn’t picture them that clearly herself. It’s all about solving the puzzle.

The other thing that I felt was lacking was fully fleshed out characters. Emily is a smart girl, devoted to her idiot fiancĂ©.  That’s all we know about her. And a pleasant policeman does his job. The puzzle was the story. We are only focused on the whodunit. We mystery readers are now used to an interesting sleuth who has a life outside the central mystery. We want a DI Banks, a Mary Russell, a Kincaid and James who are real people who have real life problems to deal with.

It's interesting how the mystery genre has changed, isn’t it? Those old mysteries could be read in an afternoon. You could sum up the characters in one phrase: nosy spinster, bad lot son, bullying father. I’m so glad we’ve come to where we are and mysteries are as legitimate as so called literary novels.

I’d like to know what you think about all this:

What do you think of television adaptations that veer dramatically from the original story?

How important is sense of place to you?

Do you like books that have much more than the simple whodumit?

Having an option on my Royal Spyness series with a fabulous British TV company I find myself wondering how I’ll feel if they move away from the original stories. Will I sit and squirm or will I say “That’s interesting?”

Friday, July 12, 2024

Beach or Mountains?

 RHYS BOWEN: I’ve just come back from two weeks on the beach in San Diego. Absolutely heavenly, (apart from five family members coming down with Covid, one after the other, necessitating confinement to various parts of the house we were renting, masks and eating outside. I find that beach time is something absolutely necessary for my sanity and peace of mind. Walking barefoot on warm sand while looking for shells, standing at the edge of the waves as they lap over my feet, sitting on the sand and running it through my fingers, or just watching the waves all sooth my soul.

When I am in and around water I feel truly at home. This is strange because I grew up in chilly England where the water is usually too cold for swimming and  beaches usually windswept. We often went to Wales and one year my father and I made a bet that we’d swim every day of the vacation. This involved driving the car onto the beach, shedding outer layers while still in the car, then sprinting to the water, gasping with shock as we dove in, sprinting out and back through the waves and then rushing back to the car, teeth chattering.  We did it but I can;t say it was fun.

But these days I love every minute of beach time. Gliding over the surface in my kayak, as the paddle dips effortlessly into smooth water, boogie boarding when the day is warm enough and the ocean not too rough or even snorkeling are all perfect for me. I was never really taught to swim but the moment I put fins on I became a mer-person. When I snorkel on coral reefs I lose all sense of time and place. I am fully engaged with the sea life around me, sometimes I little too fully. Once, in Grand Cayman, I followed the reef out, never looking up, not hearing John yelling that I was going too far. When I finally did look out the shoreline looked as if someone had drawn it with a pencil. I was really, really far out and there was nobody or nothing in sight. Just me and smooth ocean. Then it occurred to me that if a shark took me nobody would even see.  I made it safely back to shore but I have been a tad more careful since then.

I wonder what it is about the sea that draws us so much. In England lots of people drive to the seaside, then sit in their cars watching the waves. I too love to watch the waves at sunset, preferably with a glass of wine in my hand. Why are we so fascinated?  Is it something primeval, reminding us that we all originally came from the sea billions of years ago? 

Are you a beach person or do you prefer the mountains, or maybe you’re a city girl? What is your ideal vacation?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Water girl here, by inclination, geography and astrological sign. I live by a river, I’m a half hour’s drive from the ocean and I have a dear friend with a lakehouse (thanks, Celia!) Water - seeing it, being in it, hearing it - puts me in my happy place. 

One of the things I love about my pre-knee-replacement PT is that it’s done in a pool! This may be the first time I’ve ever been eager to go to physical therapy and disappointed when it’s done. Forty minutes exercising in that pool makes my whole day.

JENN McKINLAY: Beach, lake, river - even though I’m a fire sign, I love the water. I grew up alongside a river, a lake, and then the ocean in CT. The only reason I can survive in AZ is the time I spend at our beach cottage in Nova Scotia and our annual trip to San Diego. Also, we have a swimming pool. Gotta have water. That being said, I do love the mountains, but water is vacation for me. 

HALLIE EPHRON: Give me water, too. Among my fondest memories are body surfing in Malibu. And I love pools though I’m a terrible swimmer. Hold the boats. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Beach beach beach. A big umbrella, a little back chair, the pelicans skimming over the water, a view of the vast uninterrupted horizon, a book, and only the sound of the waves. 

(I am not fond of the mountains, except from an airplane.) 

LUCY BURDETTE: count me in as a beach person too, although I’d say it’s more water than beach. Even though I am a Capricorn and deeply rooted to the earth! Our grandkids were here this past week, and they never wanted to get out of the water, spending hours in the Long Island sound and then transferring to a neighbor’s pool as soon as they got home. I am sure they will grow up being beach people. When I went off on a solo adventure after college, I had been planning to land in Boulder, Colorado. But I remember so clearly feeling that the mountains made me claustrophobic.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Beach, here, too! I find the ocean incredibly soothing and love to be around water of any kind. Mountains, not so much. I understand that they're beautiful, but they just don't strike that chord with me. But give me the gentle rolling hills of southern England and I might even give up the beach...

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Exciting Times Ahead!

 RHYS BOWEN: EXCITING times ahead in the Bowen camp!  This time next month I'll be celebrating the release of my new stand alone novel, THE ROSE ARBOR. Lots of good things are planned for that, including a Friends and Fiction interview and ads on everything from Tiktok to AARP (how's that for covering the bases?)

And...This time next week I’ll be chatting with one of my dearest friends, Louise Penny. Unfortunately the chat won’t be in person but via Zoom and it is a prequel to the mystery writers conference at Book Passage bookstore near my home in Corte Madera, California.

 I haven’t seen Louise in person for a year as she lives in Canada (and sometimes in London).  I hope to see her again in September when we’re both in England, but I’m really looking forward to catching up, albeit from long distance. When Louise and I do these chats we never plan anything in advance. They are completely unscripted and yet we always find lots of interesting things to discuss.

 We have chatted in front of an audience at several mystery conferences, mostly with our own dear Deb Crombie. We were billed as a conversation with three goddesses. We liked that description. Definitely suited us! On the first occasion there were just three arm chairs on the stage and we sat and talked. All sorts of interesting and surprising things came out: that Louise and I had both thought we were royal when we were young. ( Louise thought that her royal family had left her with peasants for her own protection until she was old enough to be claimed. She waited but the royals never came! I pretended that I was queen of my village and would ride around on my bike, greeting my subjects. They must have thought I was quite bonkers, waving graciously as I bicycled past). We learned that Deborah had always had a fascination with Britain growing up and gone there as soon as she could. Again no script. The room was packed with people sitting on the floor. I have to say it was one of my favorite conference moments ever.

Obviously the organizers thought so too as we were asked to repeat it on several occasions. Then I was asked to interview Louise when she was guest of honor at Malice Domestic and I asked her to interview me when I was. It’s always such fun. We laugh a lot. The audience laughs too.

 So I’m really looking forward to next week. It is open to attendees at the mystery conference but other people can sign up to join the Zoom online (I believe there is a fee).  Events page.

 I have been on the faculty of the Book Passage Mystery Conference for many years and I always enjoy it, especially because Hallie is also on the faculty so we get a chance to catch up. It is three days of intense workshops with mystery writers, agents, editors and experts like FBI alum George Fong, a San Francisco judge and a forensic examiner. Participants have a chance to meet one on one with a seasoned writer and get feed back on a manuscript in progress. Hallie gives an all morning intensive, and as you know, she is the best teacher you’ll ever come across.

 Over the years the conference has discovered and nurtured several mystery writers who have gone on to stellar careers: Cara Black, Susan Shea, Tony Broadbent, Tim Maleney… and one of the highlights is a party at agent Kimberley Cameron’s stunning house overlooking the San Francisco Bay.  Here are Hallie and I last year.

 I’ll report back this year and try to remember to take pictures!

 And FYI Book Passage is a unique book store. Anybody who has written a book wants to speak there. Sometimes I find my event is sandwiched between Hillary Clinton and John Grisham. Guess who doesn’t get the biggest crowd? It is always sobering.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

How Things Have Changed.

RHYS BOWEN: I’m gearing up for the release of a new historical novel THE ROSE ARBOR on August 6. That's four weeks from today! And I’m smiling wryly because the novel takes place in 1968.  How can it be Historical? It takes place in my lifetime , and many of yours, I suspect. But the publishing industry counts it as historical if it took place 50 years ago.

 In that year I was newly married. In the years preceding I was a young woman in swinging London. I worked in BBC drama. I had my hair cut by Vidal Sassoon. I wore Mary Quant, including hot pants. I dated a guy in a band. I sang in a folk club. 

 It was all exciting, a great time to be alive…. Which suddenly changed with the Vietnam War. Suddenly it was all student protests and hippies holding love ins and young people taking over deserted buildings to squat in them.(Yes, that's me in my modeling days! I loved those white boots)

 So everything in this book is first hand memory for me. My daughter Jane read it and said “This is your best book yet because everything feels so real.” It’s hard to believe that other people will read this as history. It makes me realize how change in a constant in our lives.  Maybe in past centuries someone born in a village could be assured that nothing would change in their lives there. People would be born, marry, die and their descendants would live exactly as they had.

 All that changed with the industrial revolution. Those same people moved to cities to get work. Trains took people to far away places, seeing things they never dreamed they would see. My great aunt was born in 1874. She was old when I knew her and told wonderful stories about her life. When she was young there were no automobiles, only gas lamps, no stores that sold read made clothing. She lived through the coming of electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, space travel… oh, and two world wars. What a life span!

 Now things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. My nineteen sixties self would not understand any computer or social media terminology. “Sorry, got to go. Have to do my blog, check emails.  And then post to Insta. I hope there haven’t been any trolls on Facebook today.”

 Yesterday I was reminded of how swiftly change can take place. I went to our local mall to a pop up vintage sale in an empty store. One of many empty stores. The mall is due to close soon. When we first moved here in 1971 there was an outdoor shopping center with green spaces and a fountain. And elegant stores like City of Paris. It was a delightful place even if my budget in those days did not stretch to most of the clothing.

 Then they enclosed it, building anchor stores: Macy’s, Sears, Mervyns. And the chains came in: Gap, the Limited, Forever 21. It became a hang-out of the young. Meet you at the mall! A lively place with Santa at Christmas and the Easter bunny in the spring. And an outdoor skating rink. Then the demographics of the county changed. The young stayed home and texted each other or played video games. Sears and Mervyns vanished. Macy’s now has women, juniors, children and toys all on one floor and no sales assistant in sight. Then Covid killed it. Everyone got used to shopping online.

 So now it’s due to be pulled down and in its place a multi use area—apartment blocks with retail and restaurants on the ground floor. Green spaces and walking trails between buildings. A transit hub.  All good, I suppose. All part of the change we have come to expect. But sometimes I envy those people in the village, knowing what to expect from their lives.

 And I? I can look back on the good old days when I re-read my book.

 What are some of the most significant changes you have seen in your life?