Thursday, November 30, 2023

Wine Picker for a Day

Wendall -- every other Thursday

I just found a grape in my bra.


It’s small, dark blue, and intact. I take it out carefully, since it’s fallen down my shirt from the “Mother Vine,” said to be the oldest grapevine in California, and located at the historic San Gabriel Mission on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It was planted almost 250 years ago, long before anyone had thought about touring Napa Valley or Paso Robles. 


The root of the "Mother Vine."

From another angle...

My husband and I spent the morning picking grapes from this astonishing vine with other volunteers assisting the members of LAVA – the LA Vintners Association. The grapes down our clothes, the twigs and stems in our hair, and the purple stains on our fingers were all just part of the fun. 


Pruning the Mother Vine!

James in action.

Our fellow volunteers and vintners

Mark Blatty backs his truck in when we run out of ladders.

Sadly, we didn't get to stomp.

And it was nice to know we’d made a tiny contribution to the limited edition “Angelica” wine that comes from these grapes–-especially since the Mission receives part of the proceeds. 


They only make 300 bottles of the Angelica. This one, just released last week, is from the harvest we helped with in 2021.

This was the second time we’d brought stepladders and garden shears to help with the harvest. The first time, in 2021, the Mission itself was being restored after a fire. 


You can see the scaffolding on the left and fire damage on the right.

Now that’s done, and the church and the grounds are gorgeous and again open to the public. 


It’s part of the “California Mission Tour” and also very close to the Huntington Gardens, so if you are seeing the sites of LA, it’s really worth a visit. 


Everyone knows about California wines, but few know that the California wine industry actually started in downtown Los Angeles. In fact, the official seal of the City of LA, designed in 1905, includes a bunch of grapes, due to the many vineyards that flourished here in the 19th century, until a blight, then Prohibition, finished most of them off.

So it's only fitting that Downtown LA and Los Angeles County are now the focus of a whole new generation of devoted vintners who are making history all over again. 


LAVA was started by the The Angeleno Wine Company, Cavaletti Vineyards, and Byron Blatty Wines—all lovely people and all remarkably supportive of each other. They source wines from growers in greater Los Angeles County and often from vines that have been neglected for years—including one on the grounds of a high school.


We’ve been to a series of LAVA tastings and have also had lovely afternoons at the AWC winery on North Spring St. in LA and the Cavaletti tasting room in Moorpark. 


The Angeleno Wine Company winery and tasting room in Downtown LA.

The Cavaletti Wines tasting room in Moorpark.

We drank the AWC’s Goldline 2022 for Thanksgiving, and always save a bottle of Byron Blatty’s Evenfall for special  occasions, like finishing books...



Celebrating getting to the end of Cheap Trills.

It’s wonderful to have wine in our house that’s been made by people we actually know and like, the ultimate “winery to table” experience, and it’s another reason we’re lucky to live in the ever-surprising Los Angeles.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Held up in Fort Cochin


It feels like only yesterday that I was driving out of Kumarakom Village, in the Kottayam district near Lake Vembanad. That's how much of lasting impact the gorgeous, green state of Kerala in South India has, even on my fifth visit.

From Kumarakom, it was 53 kilometers north to Kochi, with its historic port district still called Fort Cochin.Originally, this port town was part of the kingdom of Kochi, but in 1503, the territory was gifted by Kochi's Rajah to the Portuguese who'd provided military support in war with a neighboring ruler. The Portuguese lost Kochi to Dutch colonizers in 1663, and then in 1814, the Dutch decided to swap the region with the British for a larger prize: Malaya. 

Our driver knew the freeway was packed with traffic that Saturday, so he took us on scenic byways through little villages, where we saw people shopping at stands like this one. I had tasted a few varieties of bananas while staying at Kumarakom Lake Resort, but passing by these fruit vendors I heard that there are close to 100 varieties growing in Kerala. The banana is the state's favorite fruit, and as I researched Kerala bananas later, I learned that unfortunately 25 to 40 percent of the crop is lost each year due to insufficient storage. It reminds me of what I've heard about the high food waste per household in the United States. But oh, how much I'd rather eat the tiny sweet bananas of Kerala, which can be sautéed,  boiled, and also turned into snacking chips. 

It was a pleasant hour-and-a-half journey to Fort Cochin, a district that seemed more densely packed with tourists than I remembered from my previous visits. Late October was still monsoon weather, meaning a torrential downpour of at least 90 minutes around 6 pm, but there were umbrellas in the lobby at Forte Kochi, our small hotel on Princess Street. And yes, there were plenty of bananas every day at the breakfast buffet.

This particular hotel was originally a grand 19th century house built by the Dutch that later became the home of a prominent Jewish merchant family. This family added a mikvah in the courtyard. Colors are bright, from the stucco to the tiled stairs, and the spiral ironwork stairs are typical for Fort Cochin.

The ritual bath is still preserved, albeit with a guarding chain to keep guests from wandering down the steps into very murky water. 

At present, the hotel is owned by a Kerala-based hotelier with a Christian name--Paul John. That name and the multicultural staff we met everywhere in Kochi reflect the diversity of many cultures living together peacefully for centuries--from the Dravidian people who had been the first known occupiers of the land that later hosted both Muslim and Hindu kingdoms, as well as the Protestant and Catholic Christian Indians whose ancestors had settled here before Christianity had arrived in Europe. Then there were Middle Eastern immigrants including Muslim traders and Jewish sailors. A beautifully preserved synagogue still stands in Fort Cochin, although the Jewish population in all of Kerala is said to have reduced to just fifteen people. 

To deeply engage with Kerala's history means reading. I was delighted to see that right around the corner from the hotel was an independent bookstore in a historic house called Idiom.Inside Idiom's cozy ground floor, I found many shelves of old and new books, with a special focus on history and culture of the area.
I'd been trying to remember the title of a highly-praised nonfiction book about Travancore's famous maharanis, and Thushara, the co-owner, helped me find it: Manu Pillai's book, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of Travancore. I also couldn't resist Aliyah, The Last Jew in the Village, a historical novel originally written in Malayalam by Sethu. 

Book-buying was followed by an afternoon pause to let the rain arrive, have its way with the town, and then subside. It was time to walk to dinner at a delightful restaurant, Fusion Bay. But conversation inside the restaurant was overwhelmed for twenty minutes by the loud sound of fireworks, traffic and beating drums. We hurried outside to join the throngs of people watching a parade that included everyone from men on motorcycles to nuns. An image of Jesus was carried aloft, and we suddenly realized it was All Saints Day, and this was likely a church parade delayed a bit by the monsoon rain.

 The next morning, we went for a pre-breakfast walking tour with an excellent local guide. He explained the colorful paintings on some of the old house walls were part of one of Kochi's past Biennale expositions of international art. It's not clear if the Biennale will continue, due to financial constraints, but the art will endure. We also walked to the area where local men still catch fish using gigantic fishing nets, and through old parks and residential district with more eye-candy houses.

We left Fort Cochin that afternoon to visit to the nearby city of Ernakalum in order to lose a few hours at the Kerala Folklore Museum. Started by the late George Thaliath and continued by his wife and children, this museum  holds thousands of objects, large and small, ranging from temple statuary to paintings and poison-testing dishes used in old royal courts. The vast scope household and temple artifacts and art of various periods made the immensity of Kerala's history almost overpowering. Perhaps because my head is stuck in the 1920s, I zoomed in on a painting of a lovely young aristocratic woman in painting from that time. The museum also has a lovely gift shop like I've never seen that sells antique and modern crafts, and artisan-made textiles and jewelry.

My time for Fort Cochin was just two nights, but Air India complications with a five-times-delayed flight from the Kochi Airport meant that we almost didn't leave. I had the same experience with a much-delayed Air India flight from Cochin twenty-six years ago, and that delay lasted six days! It's one thing to hole up in a nice hotel room when it rains, but nobody wants to be held up for more than 18 hours when other airlines are running flights to the same place. Therefore, after a few hours, we gave up on Air India and booked on Indigo for a 2 am flight to Mumbai. As frustrating as the situation was, there was something adventurous about flying in the middle of the night from a mostly deserted airport terminal. And then, before the sun had risen, we had reached Mumbai. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Character first

Three cracking reads that won the three categories of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

Late last Friday night in Aotearoa/New Zealand, a trio of superb storytellers were honoured in Christchurch, the hometown of Golden Age mystery queen Dame Ngaio Marsh, for their recent books which combined exquisite crime storytelling with rich characters studies, fictional and factual, and had each been chosen by international judging panels as the winners of the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards. 

Earlier this month I shared a little bit about this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards finalists, the fourteenth season of national crime, mystery, and thriller writing prizes I helped establish back in 2010. 

It's a little strange to reflect on all that's happened since 2010, in life alongside the Ngaios. 

As I noted in a founder's speech read out on Friday night in Christchurch (unfortunately I couldn't be there in person), our national crime, mystery, thriller and suspense writing awards are now a teenager. And like our wonderful finalist Renée, a rangatira (chief) of Kiwi storytelling and icon of creative arts, showed in her Ngaios finalist mystery BLOOD MATTERS with aspiring private eye Bella Rose, adolescents are capable of amazing things, even as they’re still finding their way.

While New Zealand is a relatively small country, by population, on the world stage, for more than a century it has 'punched above its weight' in many fields, from science to sports. Back home we widely accept, even expect, our Kiwi sportspeople to be among the best in the world. It’s just taken us a little longer to realise our creative artists and storytellers can be, and are being, too.

2023 Ngaio Marsh Award winners Michael Bennett (Best First Novel), 
Charity Norman (Best Novel) and Steve Braunias (Best Non-Fiction)

On Friday night, Hawke’s Bay author Charity Norman won Best Novel for Remember Me, while renowned journalist Steve Braunias scooped Best Non-Fiction for Missing Persons, and acclaimed Māori  filmmaker and author Michael Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) made Ngaios history when he was named the winner of Best First Novel for Better the Blood. Bennett became the first storyteller to collect fiction and non-fiction categories at the Ngaio Marsh Awards, having won the first-ever Best Non-Fiction prize in 2017 for In Dark Places: The Confessions of Teina Pora and an Ex-cop's Fight for Justice. Braunias was a finalist that year for The Scene of the Crime.

From all reports, it was a superb night that fittingly capped an outstanding year for New Zealand crime writing and the Ngaio Marsh Awards, with our terrifically strong and varied group of finalists. The international judging panels for this year’s Ngaios comprised leading crime fiction critics, editors, and authors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Scotland, and the United States.

Some of the 2023 Ngaios finalists being honoured onstage

On Friday night, following a celebratory pub quiz held at Tūranga in association with WORD Christchurch, and all the finalists in attendance being celebrated onstage, Kiwi crime queen and recent Traitors NZ star Vanda Symon first announced Braunias as the winner of the biennial Best Non-Fiction prize for Missing Persons, his collection of 12 extraordinary tales of death and disappearance in Aotearoa. “A fascinating investigation of where people had become lost: to society, themselves, their families,” said the judges. “His writing is so informed and informative. Braunias has put in the legwork, knows his material, and because of that manages to make each piece something personal.”

The Best First Novel judges praised Bennett's Better the Blood, the tale of a Māori detective confronting her own heritage while hunting a serial killer, as an “audacious and powerful blend of history, polemic, and crime thriller” that upends the typical serial-killer sleuth dynamic while exploring the violence and legacy of colonisation. Winning a Ngaio is the latest accolade for Bennett’s crime fiction debut, which has also been listed for several others awards in both hemispheres, named on ‘best of the year’ lists in the UK and US, translated into several European languages, and earlier this year became the first detective novel ever shortlisted for the Acorn Prize for Fiction.

An emotional Michael Bennett accepting the Best First Novel prize
for his ground-breaking indigenous thriller Better The Blood

Norman, a three-time Ngaios finalist who was born in Uganda and worked as a barrister in the north of England before emigrating to rural New Zealand twenty years ago, was “overwhelmed” when Symon announced she’d won Best Novel for Remember Me, a tale set in the Ruahine Ranges where a family and community are upturned by disturbing revelations about a young woman’s disappearance. 

“There’s an Olympian degree of difficulty in this novel,” said the international judging panel. “To write about characters facing devastating, mind-altering health diagnoses and blend these everyday tragedies – all too familiar to some readers – into an elevated suspense novel, while steering clear of mawkishness and self-pity … Remember Me is an astounding piece of work.”

Kiwi crime queen Vanda Symon with Best Novel winner Charity Norman

All in all it's been another great year for Kiwi crime and thriller writing, and the Ngaio Marsh Awards. We'll be taking a wee breath over the coming weeks and festive season before gearing up for our 15th season in the New Year, with a variety of events around the country leading up to next year's Ngaios. 

Have you read any New Zealand crime or thriller novels lately? 

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Poipoia te kākano kia puawai

(Nurture the seed and it will blossom.)

Monday, November 27, 2023

Choosing a Setting for Fiction

 Annamaria on Monday

As with the works of many of my stellar blogmates, the title Murder is Everywhere fits my books perfectly.  I want to talk about how I choose my fictional locations today.  But first, I cannot help but begin by revealing the cover of a new edition of my Vera & Tolliver #1: Strange Gods, which is about to launch.

A thing I love about this cover art is its portrayal of the splendor of the location.  For me, when thinking about a story, location comes first.  I attribute this to my early childhood infatuation with an atlas and the wanderlust bug whose bite still dominates at least a chamber and a half of my heart.  As soon as I had the wherewithal, I started traveling.

I also knew when I was nine years old that I wanted to write stories.  But my two major compulsions did not join up until I was closing in on retirement age and could afford the luxury of indulging my whims.  That's when fascinating places and their histories began to inspire my stories.

My first three novels are set in different times and places in South America, all stand-alones, because I was not savvy enough to think of writing a series.  When my agent and my publisher suggested a series, the idea intimidated me.  All my stories had arisen from the history of a place I had fallen in love with.  Would I be able to find a number of stories, all with the same people in many places or all in the same place always with the same people?

I knew if I was going send my imagination to only one place for a long time, it would have to be Africa.  No other place fed my soul like the places in South Africa and Botswana that I had only recently visited for the first time.  And I had read and reread Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa a few times, and had a glimpse of East Africa's history from her point of view.

I also worried about coming up with a series-worth of unique plots.  A few memoirs of people who had had boots on the ground in British East Africa convinced me that there would be no paucity of plot material. Colonialism sets up the perfect atmosphere for a series of murder mysteries. BEA in the second decade of the 20th Century offered plot fodder galore.

The scores of tribes in what is now Kenya had been fighting one another there for a millennium:

The Maasai VS the Kikuyu

The mssionaries had been on the scene for a few decades, working to convert the "natives" to Christianity, with the second passionate goal of stamping out the slave trade.  By the turn of the 20th Century, with the strategic importance of controlling Lake Victoria, the King's faithful empire builders wanted to employ the labor of the tribal people, whereas the missionaries were determined to protect their converts from being forced to work for puny rewards.

The Missionaries VS The Administrators

Then in came a flood of aristocrats who were finding it hard to acquire a cushy lifestyle in European countries that were undergoing the Industrial Revolution.

The settlers in the lap of luxury!

These latest arrivals looked down their toffee noses at the missionaries AND the administrators, who were - after all - nothing but a bunch of  shopkeepers children.

There they were waiting for me, an entire population that had many, many reasons to want to kill one another!

As long as it is fictionally, what fun!

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Iceland Noir 2023




Ahh, finally I’m back in a familiar time zone.  Uhh, or am I? Oh, well at least we’re back on the farm in time to tuck in the bears for a long winter’s nap.


As I wrote last week, we were in Reykjavik, Iceland for Iceland Noir which concluded on Sunday with a reception at Iceland’s Ministry of Culture (what a great place and wonderful Minister), and a late afternoon panel featuring co-authors Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton interviewed by Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, in Reykjavik’s exquisite Harpa Concert Hall.  The official conclusion of the festival was followed by what’s become a traditional two-day road trip joined in by forty of us journeying out into Iceland’s fairy tale wilds.


Rather than bore you with explanations, I thought I’d pass along photos of our sixth Iceland Noir adventure as captured by Barbara.  There is no particular order to the photos, and I leave it to your discerning minds to pick out the authors captured by my lens master—and propose such captions as you consider appropriate (or inappropriate).  I think it more important to capture the vibe of the events and locales. 


And now on to the photos: