Spice World

I didn’t grow up in a household of spices and flavors.

That’s not me being disrespectful to my family; they were from rural Alabama and beyond the basics–salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar–they never had much access to anything beyond that, other than what was used in specialty/special occasion foods, like stuffing/dressing at the holidays. Once my mother stopped working and became a stay-at-home mom, she began teaching herself how to cook–she always had a Betty Crocker cookbook in the kitchen when I was a kid–and began using other spices; but those basics were all I knew and it wasn’t until I got much older–fifty-ish–that I, too, began teaching myself how to cook and learned to stop being afraid of experimenting in the kitchen (alas, this was also around the time I quit smoking and injured my back, which kept me out of the gym. The end result is the long-bemoaned weight gain I’ve been struggling with in the decade since). My friend Michael is a terrific cook, very knowledgeable, and I’ve spent many an hour sitting in the kitchen watching him cook and learning from him tips and techniques; I have also learned to not stick to measurements in recipes and do it from instinct–and not to be afraid to make mistakes here and there. (I put way too much onion in a mac-and-cheese dish I made for the kids at the office once, which was mortifying.)

I also know how the spice trade changed world history–the silk road was also the spice road between Asia and Europe.

So Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mysteries are definitely right up my alley.

“Parsley poop.” The Indian silver chandeliers hanging from the Spice Shop’s high ceiling swayed, their flame-shaped bulbs flickering. The crystal candelabra they flanked burned on defiantly. As I stared up, unsure whether to curse the Market’s hodgepodge of ancient and modern wiring or the fixtures themselves, all three blinked, then went dark.

“Cash register’s got power,” Sandra called from behind the front counter. “And the red light district’s open.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the miniature lamp perched on the Chinese apothecary that displays our signature teas and accessories. The red silk shade glowed steadily, a beacon in the back corner.

“Better call the electrician,” I said at the exact moment as my customer asked, “where’s your panel?” and Lynette, my newest and most annoying employee, said, “I’ll check the breakers.”

Guilty as Cinnamon is the second book in the series, following Assault and Pepper (which I also greatly enjoyed), and this is a worthy successor to that series debut. Pepper Reece runs Seattle Spices, a spice shop in historic Pike’s Market, and is an engaging character for the reader to identify with and root for. Divorced from Tag, a bike cop who pops up regularly (she divorced him for cheating), she also lost her job in HR at a prestigious law firm when some of the partners turned out to be crooks and the firm closed. She bought the spice shop and a gorgeous loft apartment nearby in an attempt to reboot her life and start over, and is a walking encyclopedia of spices–how to blend and mix, what works best in what recipe, and can identify them by smell. (This olfactory knowledge often comes in useful when she’s involved in a crime.)

This time around, Pepper finds herself mixed up in murder and mayhem in the cutthroat world of the restaurant business of Seattle; a former boyfriend, Alex Howard, an Emeril-type figure in Seattle who is also kind of a dick, fires an assistant who is secretly planning to open a restaurant, partnering with another successful restauranteur in the city, Danielle Bordeaux. He fires her because Tamara, who plans on using Pepper as a supplier, comes into the shop and discusses business in front of an incompetent Seattle Spice employee, Lynette; Lynette tips off Alex. Tamara is fired and Pepper fires Lynette–and then Tamara is murdered. Pepper is the one who finds the body, and the case is off and running. Pepper can’t help but feel a little responsible, having found the body, as well as her employee having tipped off Alex, who is the number one suspect. It turns out as well that Tamara was murdered by ghost pepper–an insanely hot pepper that can, per the book, be fatal if ingested in large enough doses. Pepper had given Tamara samples of the ones she carries in the shop during the fateful visit; adding to her sense of responsibility.

She also lands herself a new potential love interest: reporter Ben Bradley (the investigating detectives are Spencer and Tracy; Budewitz loves punny names–and names actually play a vital role in this case). Or will she reunite with her ex, Tag, who seems to be interested in that very thing happening? Can he be trusted?

And are there ghosts involved?

Guilty as Cinnamon is not only an engaging and fun read–several times I had to stop and wonder, who is the killer here, and why–and was wrong every step of the way; but the author doesn’t cheat; like all the best traditional mystery writers, the clues are provided along the way in a nonchalant way that also makes them incredibly easy to miss–but they are there. Budewitz is also a charming writer, weaving a web that it’s very hard for her readers to extricate themselves from. Seattle and Pike’s Market and the shop are drawn so realistically and vividly that they are a workshop in setting as character.

And the food–the spices, the smells, the tastes, the textures–of everything are described so lovingly and with such vivid detail that I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier with every meal–from appetizers to wine to falafel burgers to salads.

What an incredibly fun series, and it’s definitely one I look forward to visiting again.

Solsbury Hill

Thursday and working at home today. Huzzah!

Yesterday was yet another day when I woke up feeling rested and invigorated. I had thought, oddly enough, that I hadn’t slept particularly well the night before–I woke up several times throughout the night, and the last time was five thirty, so I just kind of laid there in a half-sleep until the alarm went off. But oddly enough, I never hit the wall yesterday afternoon and I was also full of energy and highly functioning and got a lot of stuff taken care of, which was absolutely lovely. I hope to match that productivity today. I only have to work a partial day because I had to stay late the other day, so I am hoping to get some writing and editing done today as well, and make it to the gym once I complete my work-at-home duties. Fingers crossed!

I went to sleep later than I’d planned last night. We finished watching Dopesick, which is an amazing production with exceptional acting and writing, and then I went into a wormhole on Youtube and wound up staying up until midnight. I woke up early this morning–earlier than I’d wanted to, but hey, more time to get things done–and I think I slept relatively well last night. I am awake, after all, and not tired physically or mentally; I call that a win, really. I also finished reading Shucked Apart by Barbara Ross–more on that later–and started reading Guilty as Cinnamon by Leslie Budewitz, who is a favorite writer of mine and one I should read more of–I loved Assault and Pepper, the first in her Seattle Spice Shop series, this is the second.

I’ve also been reflecting a lot on my trip to Boston. I made a mistake the other day when I was talking about visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; I referred to reading about Mrs. Gardner in a book called The Grande Dames by Stephen Buckingham; his name was actually Birmingham. I think I can be forgiven for that error, primarily because Buckingham seems like a more likely last name for an American than Birmingham–and buck instead of birm is a very easy mistake to make, and therefore forgivable, despite my incredibly high standards for getting these facts correct. But I always loved the story of Mrs. Gardner, the ultimate diva and grande dame of Boston, and now that I’ve seen the Italian palazzo she built as a home for herself and her extraordinary art collection…I need to reread Mr. Birmingham’s book again. The museum was spectacular, just spectacular.

The day began with me looking out the window of my room at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to see it was drizzling a bit outside; and I had to decide: lug my suitcase through the subway, or summon a Lyft, or walk ten blocks to the new train station, Moyhihan Hall? Being a hardy New Orleanian, I decided I’d just walk the ten blocks–my Fitbit would love all the steps–and as long as I could keep my glasses dry, I should be fine. It was just a drizzle, after all. So, I rode the elevator down and walked out the front door and walked over to 8th Avenue and headed downtown. It was, despite the slight drizzle, a lovely walk. I debated stopping for coffee along the way–I’d not had any (and it was actually rather delightful to not be so dependent on caffeine this trip as usual, and perhaps that’s why I had no issues sleeping?), but decided to wait till I got to Moynihan before getting coffee–what were the odds there wouldn’t be at least a Starbucks, if not a Dunkin’ Donuts, inside? I made good time, and was actually enjoying people watching as I made my way down 8th.

So, of course, about a block and a half from my final destination, the sky opened with a deluge worthy of a New Orleans street-flooding strength downpour. By the time I reached the train station I was completely soaked, but was also highly amused by it all. I had a three and a half hour train ride to Boston ahead of me, and I was really looking forward to getting back into the book I was reading–These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall, see the blog entry where I discussed how terrific the book was–and the Amtrak ride from New York to Boston is one of my favorite train trips–Connecticut is so scenic and beautiful, and the train hugs the coast most of the way, with spectacular views of bays and inlets and estuaries and boats and lovely homes. So I got my coffee, wiped off my head and glasses with napkins, and debated battling with my suitcase in the bathroom to get dry clothing–I decided against it eventually–and finally boarded my train and headed for one of my favorite cities that I never get to spend enough time in, Boston (I’ve always had an affinity for the city because I love history, and of course, Boston was pivotal in the American Revolution, and Johnny Tremain is set there, and I love that book). Alas, the scenery was perhaps not as spectacular along the route as it usually is; it rained and was gray and cloudy and overcast the entire way, and whenever I tried to take a picture by aiming my phone at the window, all I got was a gray photo of water beaded up on glass and nothing beyond, which was terribly disappointing. But this lack of ability to take great scenic photos enabled me to focus on the book, which I was absolutely loving (see blog entry from several days ago where I discuss the phenomenal novel at great length). It was raining in Boston when the train pulled into the station, and my wonderful friends were there to pick me up, and we headed for the Gardner Museum.

I could spend days in that museum, seriously. The building itself is breathtakingly beautiful–as are the Sargent portraits of Mrs. Gardner on display–and so much other amazing art: paintings and sculptures and tapestries; the Velazquez painting of Philip IV of Spain that is perhaps the most famous image of that sad Hapsburg king; everywhere you look there is a spectacularly beautiful piece of art. It’s overwhelming, and even more awe-inspiring perhaps than even the Uffizi in Florence–you expect the palaces and collections of European nobility and royalty to be spectacular; and to be sure, Mrs. Gardner’s home and collection pales in comparison to that of the Medici, but she was an American heiress…and even though she was fabulously wealthy, to me even the wealthiest of the robber barons pale in comparison to the sumptuous palazzos of the Renaissance Italians. But it’s still an impressive collection, if not a Medici one, and that’s why I think it’s more impressive. Mrs. Gardner was simply a wealthy woman, not a Renaissance lady or princess or queen. She couldn’t be expected to compete, and yet…the collection is exceptional and extraordinary, as was the woman herself.

And of course, as a crime writer, the robbery–the empty frames that once held Rembrandts brazenly stolen and yet to be recovered still on display–is also fascinating to me, particularly since I love treasure hunts.

I am forever grateful to my friends Stuart and Robbie for taking me there–and I plan to visit again sometime.

Crime Bake, the event put on jointly sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, was why I went to Boston in the first place, so Stuart and Robbie dropped me off in Dedham at my hotel (which was where the event was) and I got a lovely night’s sleep–again, a complete shock, but is it a mere coincidence that the coffee I had at the train station was the only cup I had that day?–and I got up early the next morning for the breakfast buffet and to start attending panels. When I said earlier that I’d forgotten how much I love listening to writers speak about writing, and books, and everything to do with being a writer, I was not kidding. I haven’t been to anything like Crime Bake since the Williams Festival in March 2019; I missed that year’s Bouchercon because I developed an inner ear infection and couldn’t fly. It was so inspirational. I listened to writers I admired and writers I wasn’t aware of, and was scribbling notes in my journal the entire day. It was marvelous! And inspiring. I’ve talked on here a lot about feeling disconnected from writing and publishing; part of it was not being around writers and listening to them talk about craft, what inspires them, how they work, how they develop and flesh out their ideas–the joys and heartaches and the Imposter Syndrome–because writing can be a very lonely business (it’s just you, the keyboard and the computer screen much of the time), and it’s nice to connect with others and realize we all go through the same thing, the same frustrations, the same heartaches and aggravations and joys.

Today I have a lot of catching up to do–what else is new?–and I am hoping to get some writing done around my work-at-home duties. Wish me luck, Constant Reader, and have a lovely Thursday!