You Make Loving Fun

I first discovered Laurie R. King when I was editor of Lambda Book Report.

We’d received a review copy of her latest Kate Martinelli series, Nightwork, and the then-editor generally assigned mysteries/crime novels to me to review, since I had written one (that hadn’t been released yet) so ergo, I was an expert. Obviously, there were too many of them released each month for me to review, and so some got farmed out, but I held on to this one because I was very conscious that my reading was very gay male-heavy and I had a responsibility, not just to readers but to the community as a whole, to read works by women. The theory was at the time that gay men only read gay men and only lesbians read lesbians; I could hardly criticize this exercise in literary misogyny if I were doing the same thing. I read the book, loved it, wrote a glowing review, and then traipsed over to Lambda Rising on Connecticut Avenue (or was it Massachusetts? My memory is for shit) and bought the first books in the series. I devoured them, loved them, and recommended them to anyone who would listen.

You can imagine my shock, surprise, and delight to discover that King was not, in fact, a lesbian.

The Martinelli series ended shortly thereafter, and King moved on to her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, which I got a mistaken idea about and thus never read. I’ve never been much of a Sherlockian, primarily because Dr. Watson got on my nerves (I felt much the same about Agatha Christie’s version, Colonel Hastings) and I assumed that “Mary Russell” was the “Mary” whom eventually became Mrs. Watson. Ugh, no thanks, I thought, ignoring the series to my own detriment for years (I eventually discovered that I was not only mistaken about whom Mary Russell was, but that the series itself is an absolute delight and has become one of my favorites).

I also had the pleasure and delight of working with Laurie a lot over the past few years, and as we spoke and became more and more friendly she told me about this book she was currently working on, and I couldn’t wait for its release.

And the day finally came.

The man in the dripping Army poncho paused to shove back his hood and stand, head cocked, trying to make out the half-heard sound. A minute later, a car came into view, half a mile or so down the hill–a big white Pontiac, struggling to keep on the road. The man leaned on his shovel, judging the contest between the treacherous surface–the way up to the commune was unpaved, rutted, steep, and slick with the endless rain–and the determined car, which obviously had good tires.

The car slithered and flirted with disaster, but managed to avoid going off the cliff or getting bogged down in the section where the culvert had washed out last month. When it came to the end of the clear section and vanished behind the trees, the man bent over to shake the rain from his long hair and beard, like a dog coming out of a river, then slopped the last shovelfuls of mud from the blocked ditch before walking down to see what the invader wanted.

The mud-spattered Pontiac eased into the farmyard, hesitating over the choice of targets: ancient woodshed or shiny new greenhouse? Psychedelic school bus up on blocks or geodesic dome layered in tarpaulins? In the end , the driver chose the aging farmhouse in the middle, pulling up close to the steps. The engine shut off, the music died–had to be a tape player; a radio would get nothing but static this far out. The person inside leaned over to roll up the passenger-side window, then sat, staring through the smeared windshield at the house as if expecting someone to come out.

The man in the poncho stayed where he was.

Back to the Garden couldn’t be more different than the Mary Russell series (or the Kate Martinelli for that matter) than if a different writer had written them. The primary character of the book, suspended police detective Raquel Laing, is working a cold case assigned to her by her retired mentor, as DNA has unmasked the identity of a serial killer who operated along the California highway system in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and became known as the Highwayman. His victims were found missing a shoe and usually buried in concrete. The Highwayman knows who all of his victims are and where he buried them; now that he is dying and incarcerated, he is playing a game with the police: find one of my girls, and I’ll tell you where you’ll find another.

It’s sick, it’s twisted, and it’s extremely brilliant, particularly as they are now racing the clock to get the answers before he dies.

Yet there’s another wrinkle in the story: at the Gardener Estate (think San Simeon) the moving of an enormous statue by a famous artist has uncovered skeletal remains buried in concrete. Is this another of the Highwayman’s victims? Laing has to go to the Estate and dig through its bizarre and curious history to try to link the Highwayman to the commune that occupied the palatial estate in the second half of the 1970’s, which enables King to balance two separate time-lines (one telling the story of the commune and how it came to be on the estate before the sect disintegrates, which also provides the reader with plenty of potential victims and killers; the other the present day as Laing tries to piece together what happened on the Gardener Estate back in the day) and build up suspense in multiple directions and involving multiple stories.

I was around in the 1970’s, of course; I turned eighteen in 1979 and while the time of the flower children and the height of the commune movement had already passed by the time I was old enough to partake (if I so chose), I do remember those times. I remember as a child thinking the youth movement had the right idea about a lot of things–the rot and unfairness inherent to capitalism; conservation and preserving the earth and its resources; moving away from the monetary trade concept and ownership–all of these things sound marvelous and utopian; they still do, but now with the advantage of age and the cynicism that comes with, they seem very naïve and not very aware of how human nature and the world actually work; their innocence is almost endearing as they try to recreate Eden…

..but there’s always a snake in the garden.

The book is vivid and real; the characters three-dimensional; the story compelling; and of course, the writing is stellar. This book puts yet another jewel in the Grand Master crown King so deservedly wears already.

And I do hope for more novels centering Inspector Laing.

Second Hand News

Labor Day Monday and I have a nice relaxing day ahead of me of writing and reading and who knows what else? We also leave for Minneapolis the day after tomorrow, which is also kind of exciting. I did make a small run to make groceries yesterday and had a small Costco order delivered. I also watched some tennis (Coco Grauff) and then we watched the LSU Game. Jury’s still out; they played very lackadaisically to me, it seemed; not quite gelled as a team yet, but lots of talented players with some kinks to work out yet. They ended up losing 24-23, could have tied and/or won the game at the end, and rallied from 24-10 down in the closing minutes, so that was promising. I am of course disappointed the comeback failed, but at one point it literally looked like we were going to lose 31-17, and that final drive went ninety-nine yards in sixty-five seconds. So, they could continue to improve and get better, which is a good sign. I impatiently was hoping this could be turned around in one year, but….it even took Saban an off-year before turning Alabama into what it is today. It was a fun weekend of football, to be sure, and I am always happier when it’s football season.

I mean, take away the two fumbled punts, the blocked extra point, and the blocked field goal, and LSU would be 1-0 right now.

I am curious to see how the rest of the season shakes out.

I skim-reread Jackson Square Jazz yesterday, and again, I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the book still reads, roughly nineteen years after release, and again–I really did do a great job with the characters. I am writing an entry about it, of course, and then started skim-rereading Mardi Gras Mambo, too. I really wish I could remember what the plot was in the first two failed attempts to write the book, but maybe it’ll come to me while I skim reread, but I rather doubt it; I forgot those original plots years ago. I am glad that reader asked me about the Scotty books, though. I had figured I’d talked about them often enough that Constant Reader didn’t really need me to write the backstories behind the books in this series, but I am having the most wonderful time revisiting the books and remembering the process that produced each one. And these first three are so far back in my distant past that it’s almost like reading new-to-me books; I always wondered if my own work would ever get to that point, and clearly, they have done so. I’m not sure how to feel about it, but I imagine Philip Roth didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about his first couple of books, nor did Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, or Erle Stanley Gardner. (Not that I put myself up there with those greats of crime fiction, but you know what I mean.) We write books and we move on from them to write other books, and the farther in the past those old titles get, the more distance I feel from them and the less I remember about them, which makes them much easier to read (at least for me).

And it’s really helping me get back inside Scotty’s brain and his voice, too. Always a bonus, you know?

Today I am going to take it easy but still get things done. I need to write–which I’ve done woefully little of this weekend–and I also need to overhaul the first three chapters of this book before I can move on with it, which should be taken care of today. (I started to do it yesterday but…Coco Grauff was playing!) I also have some other things to get done today–maybe I should make a list of what all I want to get done today; can’t hurt–including making my packing list for the trip (I checked the weather; I think I can get away with taking a sweat jacket with me rather than a coat; every night it’s supposed to dip into the 60’s, which, as we all know, is the dead of winter to me) and some other loose odds and ends. And the skim-rereading of my books is at least getting me to read again–just wait till Wednesday afternoon at the airport though; I’ll be tearing through that Gabino Iglesias novel like it’s going out of style. I don’t think I’ll finish reading the Iglesias, the King, and the Andrews on the trip, but I am taking a book in reserve just in case–A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren. I also need to prep myself for reading only horror in October, the way I do every year; I know there are some Paul Tremblay and Stephen King and Christopher Golden and some other great horror novels sitting there waiting in my TBR Piles. There’s also some great short stories I should read, too. I am sitting on a Daphne du Maurier novella–“A Border-line Case”–and maybe I should spend some time today reading that?

I do love me some du Maurier (reminder to self: reread My Cousin Rachel).

So, we’re basically sitting on today and tomorrow as interim days. I think the house is in good enough shape as is for us to leave without doing some more cleaning, but I always do some cleaning while I am writing. There’s a load of dishes that need doing, and some other picking up and things needing to be put away, but that’s always the case, isn’t it?

And on that note, I am going to make a to-do list, finish those dishes, and head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Labor Day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again later.

7

It Don’t Come Easy

The future’s so bright, we have to wear shades.

I’m referring to the crime fiction world. I’ve been having a marvelous time reading debut authors lately–Mia P. Manansala, Wanda M. Morris, just to name two–and I have to say, the debut authors are simply killing it lately. I am glad I’ve not been asked to sit on any judging panels for best firsts lately, because while it would be amazing to read all of these exceptional debuts for an entire year, having to winnow them down first to five and then to pick a winner would be incredibly difficult. It’s hard enough participating in fan-voted awards, like the Leftys and the Anthonys.

That is also particularly true when it comes to queer crime. Some of the queer crime novels I’ve been reading over the last year or so have been exceptional–and Marco Carocari’s Blackout fits right in with the premise of this post: an exceptional debut novel, and with gay characters, issues and themes front and center; and written by a gay man. Blackout was a Lefty finalist for Best First Novel (a truly packed category, seriously) and I couldn’t have been prouder of Marco–especially once I finished reading the book.

Franco couldn’t deny it any longer. This had been a mistake. “I’m sorry…hold on a second,” he said, gripping the rooftop’s metal railing to keep his balance, his blue gym shorts around his ankles. All around him low hanging pinkish clouds held back SoHo’s city lights, dousing the neighborhood in a muted glow.

The half-naked man behind him grunted and stepped back. “Dude, this isn’t working for me.”

Franco detected frustration in his voice, but found it hard to care. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he scratched the blond stubble on his cheek, his naked skin damp from from the sultry air. “Sorry, I…need a moment. I don’t feel so hot,” he said over his shoulder, straightening up. He spat on the ground, but the strange metallic taste lingered in his dry mouth. He swayed and saw double. “What the hell was in that thing?”

He got no answer and glanced at his bare chested hunk of a date standing there, zipping up.

Okay, considering this had barely taken ten minutes, date was probably grossly overstated. Franco eyed the ripped, olive-skinned stud who went by Pitcher9 on the MeatUp app, but whose real name he’d already forgotten. Pressed, he’d go with Hey since that was an intimate an introduction the situation warranted. A fading, crudely drawn mermaid tattoo on the man’s left oblique, possibly a blast from his youthful past, only increased his bad boy vibe.

Well, that’s an opening, isn’t it?

When I discovered that not only was queer fiction a thing, but that queer crime fiction was a strong and vital force in the genre, I was in heaven. I devoured queer fiction, and especially queer crime fiction of any kind. I discovered the rich history of queer fiction by reading writers like Joseph Hanson, Barbara Wilson, Richard Stevenson, Michael Nava, Ellen Hart, and Katherine Forrest–and any number of others. I was a queer book reviewer for years. I was editor of Lambda Book Report and served as a Lambda judge any number of times. I kind of burned out on it, to be honest…but I kept reading it and I certainly was paying attention. There has been any number of ups and downs in queer crime over the decades, but the flourishing we’re seeing now is pretty amazing for me to witness.

First of all, Marco’s book begins with the above scene (there’s a set-up introduction chapter, that dates back to the New York blackout of 1977), and it’s from a crime fiction small press. Not a small press that is queer owned and operated, but a crime fiction small press. That’s some serious in-your-face gay sexuality going on in those opening paragraphs; a hook-up gone bad on a rooftop in Manhattan. It is both blunt and frank and right there, in your face–and I cannot even begin to express how exciting it is for me, not just as a gay author but as a gay man of a certain age, to see gay sexuality expressed so bluntly and openly from a small crime press. Just as it amazed me that PJ Vernon’s Bath Haus was published (and promoted heavily) by one of the big presses in New York, it’s also lovely to see that small crime fiction publishers are embracing this kind of content.

It’s lovely, frankly.

The book itself is a strong debut novel from someone who will undoubtedly be a force to reckon with in the years to come. Franco smokes a joint with his trick, but the joint is laced with something so Franco becomes what we call an unreliable narrator/unreliable witness. He thinks he sees a murder happen in the window across the street–but the police find nothing to corroborate or back up his story. Did he really see something? Was it the drugs? And slowly, as Franco and his friends try to figure out what is going on and what is happening to Franco, it all seems to lead back in time to that night when the lights went out in New York…

Franco is a terrific character–likable if frustrating from time to time–but how would anyone react in this kind of situation? The trope of “I think I saw a murder but I may not have” isn’t original–Agatha Christie’s brilliant What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw is one of the best of these types of stories, but Carocari giving it a gay twist–and what a gay twist it was, indeed!–made it fresh and original and new. I don’t know if Carocari plans on writing more books with Franco as his protagonist–or if what he writes next will be a crime thriller or gay at all; but whatever it is, I am looking forward to reading it when it comes out.

I am a fan. Well done, Marco, and welcome to the queer crime fiction club!

Sweet and Innocent

Well, that was a morning, was it not?

I took today off for appointments, and as is my usual wont, tried to cram in as many as possible on the same day to save paid time off. So far today I’ve been to the West Bank, the North Shore, and Metairie, but am now safely home and ready to kick it back and get to work on this massive to-do list I somehow have managed to avoid for most of the weekend. (I justified my utter and complete laziness this weekend on being home for the weekend and it being my first weekend at home after a trip; justification can always be found, frankly. I have a PhD in it, methinks, or at least should) But I feel relatively good, despite having to get up so early this morning for the trip to the West Bank (oil change at my dealership, before a trip out to the North Shore and…well, you already know the rest). I took along Eli Cranor’s stunning debut novel, Don’t Know Tough, to read in various waiting rooms, and it is actually a most marvelous read. I finished Marco Carocari’s Blackout over the weekend, which was also a lovely read, and we did a lot of binge-watching. We finished watching Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, which we rather enjoyed, and then moved on to get caught up on Servant, which is actually rather disturbing yet compulsively watchable.

I did manage to get some writing done this weekend–I really don’t know why it is like pulling teeth these days, but it is, and I guess I just have to learn how to live with that, really. I did have an easier time with the first draft of a first chapter that was more of a “let me try this, I’ve been thinking about this project for a really long time and since nothing else seems to be flowing, it can’t hurt…” but that’s not what I need to be worrying about at the moment, is it? I really need to get this short story finished, and I don’t know why I am having so much trouble with it here, to be honest. It’s got a great title, it’s an interesting idea, and I just have to get the tone and voice perfectly right for it to work…but I don’t know if I am having imposter syndrome symptoms or what, but this story has really been a struggle for me.

Who knows? Maybe now that I’ve admitted it publicly, maybe the story will start flowing when I get back to it today. One can certainly hope, at any rate…I’ve also been trying to write an entry about the fifth season of Elité, with little success. It is probably one of my favorite shows of all time–and after a disappointing fourth season, it was great seeing the writers and producers kick the show back into that high gear it operated under its first three seasons. Season 4, to give credit where it’s due, was not going to be an easy one to pull off; replacing the characters that left the show in the wake of Season 3 (Polo, Lu, Carla, and Nadia) wasn’t going to be easy, and the new characters were basically made the focal point of the show in season 4 when we didn’t really know much about them. I did give them a break–it’s hard to introduce so many new characters into a cast and integrate them into existing storylines while giving them their own–but it was still a bit disappointing. Season 5 spring-boarded off season 4, though, and much of the drama in the new season had its roots in the past season…but they did a much better job integrating the new characters–Ivan, Isadora, Cruz, and Balil–then they did the new characters in Season 4. (Okay, well, they kind of forgot about Balil in the final episodes–I don’t think we even saw him again after the body turned up in Episode 4, and Omar didn’t really have much of a story; so I am thinking he is one of those not returning for season 6)

But I will say this: episode 5 of season 5 of Elité has one of the most erotic and authentic gay sex scenes I’ve ever seen on television or in film; it’s almost borderline porn. It was so lovingly and beautifully shot; the soundtrack music was perfect; and it brought tears to my eyes. (Similar to the scene in It’s a Sin when the main character is about to bottom for the first time and his partner tells him he needs to wash up first–I laughed and got teary-eyed; both scenes will certainly be talked about should I ever teach another erotica writing class or workshop) I know, I know, I’ve been screaming to the clouds about Elité since we first started watching it way back in the Before Times.

Heavy heaving sigh.

And now I am going to head back into the spice mines and see if I can’t get a draft of that story finished today. Wish me luck, Constant Reader–I’ll let you know tomorrow how it went.

Put Your Hand in the Hand

And now it’s Easter! Happy Easter to those who celebrate, to those who don’t, well, Happy Sunday.

I bought a flat of fresh Ponchatoula strawberries yesterday. It was an impulse buy, of course; I was heading down Tchoupitoulas Street in the midst of my errands when I saw a little stand set up, and impulsively I pulled over, got out, and forked over twenty bucks for some beautiful and delicious fresh strawberries. I made myself a protein shake with some of them (along with two bananas) once I’d gotten home and put everything away; for the rest of the day whenever I walked into the kitchen for anything I grabbed some strawberries and ate them quite happily. There really is nothing like Ponchatoula strawberries freshly picked from the fields. Today I will have to freeze some, naturally; I am now really excited for Creole tomato season, which should be here at any moment (I’ve started looking for them every time I set foot in a grocery store). It’s very odd how delighted I am about having these strawberries; I only wish I could eat even more of them…but I am only one person and there are only so many I can eat…and the frozen ones will be perfect for slushing up my protein shakes a bit, giving them more of a daiquiri style consistency.

I really do need to write about Ponchatoula strawberry season at some point–and Creole tomatoes.

As usual, I was very tired once I got home from the errands. I was also startled at how hot and humid it was outside yesterday; despite being only mid-April it felt like early June already. This does not bode well for the unholy hell that is the usual New Orleans summer. They’re predicting a slightly less active hurricane season this year–slightly being the operative adjective doing the heavy lifting in that sentence. I can’t imagine that the Gulf water temperature isn’t going to be significantly elevated this year, which means that the hurricanes that come into the Gulf of Mexico will intensify dramatically once they reach the hot water of the Gulf before they head ashore. Yay? Heavy heaving sigh. But it is what it is, and God knows you cannot control the weather, so it looks like it’s going to be another one of those insanely intense years of storm-watching for six months. But once I was home in the cool and out of the muggy nastiness that was yesterday’s climate, I felt a bit better. Paul came home from his trainer–which was weird, I’d gotten used to him going to the office directly from the trainer and having the rest of the day to myself. We watched The Truth About Pam on Hulu, which was creepy and weird and bizarre–although at the end of the final episode they actually showed footage of the real-life Pam, and you can see how Renee Zellweger actually underplayed the role. We then moved on to BritBox and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, an adaptation of one of my favorite Christies–one I feel doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves–and then had to look up the American title (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is the British title, which was better than the American title, which I had to look up because I couldn’t remember it, and it was The Boomerang Clue, which is clearly inferior. Why did her American publisher do this to her books when the British title was always superior? Murder on the Orient Express was actually originally published in the US as Murder in the Calais Coach, which is clearly inferior). It’s very well done, and I always liked the characters of Bobby Jones and Lady Frankie Derwent. WIll Poulter is a very good choice for Bobby Jones; he’s becoming one of my favorite working actors.

So I kind of didn’t really do a whole lot yesterday. But it was a good battery-recharging kind of day, which was necessary and needed, methinks, and so today I can dig into all the things I need to get moving on and make some forward progress. Paul will be heading out today to one of the many Easter parades around town to hang out with an old friend who is in town, and I need to get going on my lists and things. I got my tax refund already–I literally scanned the signature sheets and emailed them back to my accountant on Monday and yesterday morning it had already hit my bank–which means I also need to strategize bill payments. I had also meant to spend some time with Marco Carocari’s Blackout yesterday, but I think this morning, once I have finished this and made myself a second cup of coffee, I will head to my easy chair with said coffee to read a few chapters and get a feel for his writing style and the story. Tomorrow I am taking a sick day; I need to take the car in for an overdue oil change at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and as such I made appointments for the afternoon in which to get some things taken care of with my routine bi-annual servicing to make sure things aren’t breaking down somewhere; so tomorrow I’ll be out running around most of the day in the heat. Huzzah? Fucking hardly.

I also need to get a lot of other work done today as well–writing, editing, organizing, and so forth. I’d like to get that working first draft of my story done today, and maybe even the first chapter of the book I started working on this week to get my writing kick-started again; I also need to cut up these strawberries and start putting them into freezer bags for future protein shakes. The glamour around here truly never ends, does it? And there’s cleaning to do, as always, and organizing, and so forth–all that lovely stuff that I absolutely love to do.

And on that note, probably should head into the spice mines and get my day underway.

Do You Know What I Mean

The traditional mystery often gets a bum rap by mystery fans. I’m not sure why that is; these books have never gone out of style, have never decreased in popularity, and have always been the backbone of the crime/mystery genre. They are often (wrongly, I think) identified with Agatha Christie–if anything, Christie should be identified with every sub-genre of crime/mystery fiction. She wrote private eye novels (Poirot); dark noir (Endless Night); spy fiction (N or M?, The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad); historicals (Death Comes as the End); and even romantic suspense (as Mary Westmacott). Sure, she often relied on the amateur sleuth–her most famous amateur being probably Miss Marple–but she literally did everything first, really.

Probably why everyone refers to her as the Queen of Crime Fiction.

But the traditional mystery, for some reason, gets short shrift in our modern world, despite being one of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction. Why? I don’t really understand it. Sure, there’s not any blood or sex or violence–the sort of thing generally used to sell everything from television shows to movies to laundry soap and deoderant. Many of us grew up reading books about amateur detectives, from Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to Trixie Belden. So why do so many turn their noses up at the traditional mystery, also known as the cozy mystery?

I think it’s much harder to write about crime without using the tough guy male lead (stereotype), blood, violence, swear words, and sex. Is it this lack of the “rougher” aspects of crime that earned these books the nickname “cozy”?

What precisely does the word cozy mean, used as a book descriptor in this way? Ask five mystery fans/writers, and you will get five different answers. It’s often hard to quantify the variety of subgenres within the mystery/crime field. Everything else aside, I think the most important thing, the key, for a mystery novel to get this kind of classification is that the book focuses, on one level, on a sense of community; the reader develops a warm, comfortable feeling, the kind that you usually get from visiting family and friends you don’t get to see all of the time. You open the book and start reading and already feel relaxed and at home; happy to see people you care about, are interested in, and are excited to find out what they have been up to. Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is an excellent example of this; so is Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mystery series (both series, obviously, are favorites of mine). These books welcome you in, invite you to put your feet up, get comfortable, and spend some time with your old friends you’ve not seen in a while.

This, naturally, is very difficult to establish when writing the first book in a new series of this kind; how do you immediately establish this warm environment where the reader feels comfortable enough to kick off their shoes and relax? It’s not the easiest thing to pull off for an accomplished writer; so it’s all the more remarkable when someone nails it in their very first book.

Mia P. Manansala nailed it in her debut.

My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.

Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.

Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.

Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.

Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt’s failing business? Well now we’re up to a hat trick of clichés.

And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

Okay, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.

First of all, can we talk about the voice?

It is impossible not to fall in love with Lila’s voice from the very first sentence of the book. She is smart and funny and eminently likable, which is important in a traditional mystery (no one wants to read a cozy whose main character is an unlikable bitch) and much harder to do than most people who don’t actually write books think it is. Lila is a remarkable character; very clear-eyed about what she wants and what she doesn’t, as well as who she thinks she is and wants to be. She’s returned from her big escape to the big city to the small town she wasn’t terribly happy in when she was growing up–her past experiences continually are reminding her, and not in pleasant way, of why she left in the first place. She never intended to return home (as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again), but she is back and rather than focusing on what she is certain everyone she knows or is related to sees as her “failure,” she intends instead to focus on helping save her aunt’s restaurant business.

The immense strength of this story rests upon those family bonds, and Lila’s recognition of just how important those bonds–family, friends, community–actually are to her; and her growing realization, over the course of the books, that those things she once thought were strangling and restraining her are actually where her own power comes from.

The mystery itself is also strong: Lila’s wretched local ex, whose mother has since married a businessman who rents Tita Rosie’s building to her and is a total dick, has taken to writing shitty reviews of local restaurants, apparently targeting one and trying to destroy its business before moving on to another. Lila’s relationship with him is also strained; and she also doesn’t like the dickish stepfather either. It is while she is serving them lunch that her ex keels over face-first into his plate–dead from arsenic poisoning. In the food Lila fed him, and came from her aunt’s kitchen. The financially strapped business is shut down pending an investigation into the murder and a health department inspection, and there is the very real fear that Tita Rosie may lose her restaurant. Lila takes it upon herself to investigate and find the real culprit, to clear herself as well as her aunt and the beloved family business of any wrongdoing and scandal. The journey, which introduces us to her friends and family, and welcomes the reader into their charming world and community, twists and turns and is full of surprises every step along the way–as Lila also learns just how much the restaurant, her family, and her friends really mean to her.

This book is absolutely charming, well-written, and very fun. I cannot wait to revisit Lila and her crew in the second book, Homicide and Halo-Halo. Mia P. Manansala is definitely one to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching her career reaching even more heights than she has already achieved.

I Feel the Earth Move

I indulged myself by staying in bed until almost nine this morning–I know, right? I woke up at three and again at five (like every other night this week; this is a trend in my sleep that I am not liking all that much), but stayed in bed. Now that I am up, it’s gray and wet and gloomy outside; maybe it was rain that kept me in bed. What is it about rain and being safe and dry and warm that feels so comforting? I wish I knew. I am also trying to decide this morning over my coffee whether I want to leave the house today. I should swing by the mail and maybe make some groceries and get gas for the car; I also need to get my taxes together, work on my short story, and some other things. I also want to spend some time with Chris Holm’s Child Zero today (and this weekend). I should also brainstorm some more plot ideas for the two books I’ll be working on this year, and once I get this story in some sort of shape I want to go back to “Never Kiss a Stranger” and “Festival of the Redeemer” and some other stories. I had pretty much decided to use April to do clean-up on some things–finishing stories etc–and now it is April; how delightful is that? I can hear thunder, which makes leaving the house seem even more undesirable; I’ve not checked today’s weather. Paul is seeing his trainer today, and instead of going to the office immediately after he’ll be coming home. I think we might (I might) rent Spiderman No Way Home today; we started watching Death on the Nile last night on Hulu but bailed on it when the first ads popped up in mid-scene; at least on a broadcast network, they plan where the commercials will go so a character won’t get cut off in mid-sentence. I am really starting to dislike Hulu’s services for streaming; I remember trying Youtube TV and hating it because it’s interface was useless and difficult to navigate. I really would prefer not to go back to cable under any circumstance; I despise Cox with every fiber of my being. The great irony was the reason I chose Hulu in the first place for a streaming service was because their interface was intuitive and incredibly easy; so naturally they keep changing it and making it less user friendly. (Although to be honest, I was only interested in watching Death on the Nile in order to see Egypt; there’s no way this newer version can possibly top the original with Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, and Maggie Smith.) Instead we turned over to Netflix and dove into the second season of Dark Desire, which got us caught up in the story immediately.

We wound up going to Costco last night after Paul got home from work to get it out of the way. I also had to take Scooter to the vet for his biannual senior kitty workup–dropping him off and picking him back up later–and I think the Costco trip wore me out. Why is Costco so tiring for me? I hope someday to have a better understanding of that. And we spent a lot of money but it didn’t seem to me like we got as much stuff as we usually do? I don’t understand–will probably never understand that, but I suppose it’s prices going up everywhere that is to blame.

Ooh, it just got darker, which means storm a coming. Ah, there’s the thunder. And it lasted quite a while, too….I suppose I should check the weather.

Ah, rain all morning and then sunny the rest of the day. That I can live with. It also solves the problem of what to do about the errands–run them today or wait? The mail can wait until Monday; there’s no rush to getting it, after all, and I could always just run to the Rouse’s in the CBD to pick up the few things I do actually need. Decisions, decisions.

Ah, there’s the lightning and the rain and even more thunder. I may have to turn on a light, it’s gotten so dark.

I do love New Orleans rain; I’ve never lived any place where it rains the way it does here. I mean, it fucking pours down here, coming down so hard and fast that the drains (and pumps) take a good while to catch up with it. I own about twenty umbrellas as a result of being caught in the rain unexpectedly; it can also go from hot, humid and not a cloud in the sky to a torrential downpour with street flooding in a matter of minutes. Although this doesn’t seem like one of those street-flooding monster storms; this seems more like a oh the greenery needs watering kind of rains. Doesn’t mean it can’t turn even uglier as I sit here typing, but hey. It’s still one of those chill damp mornings where curling up under a blanket with my coffee sounds vastly more appealing than any of the other dreadful things I need to do today–dreadful might be a bit harsh, but unpleasant certainly doesn’t miss the mark nearly as much.

So on that note, I am going to get another cup of coffee and head over to my easy chair to spend an hour with Child Zero–I’ll figure out the rest of the day when that hour is up.

Have a happy Saturday, Constant Reader.

Christmas Alphabet

Thursday and working at home today. Huzzah!

I got some very good work done yesterday on the book, as well as an invitation to write a story for a tribute anthology, which meant it was a very good day. Today I am working at home, and am also very excited because finally, at long last, I have found Johnny Tremain on a streaming service! And while it disturbs me to no end to actually have to pay to rent it, but I’ve been wanting to see it again for a very long time, and I think I can cough up the couple of bucks to pay for it.

I’ve long wondered where my interest in history came from, and when I saw Johnny Tremain available to stream at long last on Amazon Prime the other day, it hit me: when I was in the first grade, at Eli Whitney Elementary School in Chicago, one afternoon we all gathered in the auditorium and they screened the movie for us. It was my first time seeing anything to do with American history–at that point, I was aware of the Civil War (I was from the South and lived in Chicago; of course I did) and who Washington and Lincoln were, but it was watching this movie–about a teenager in Boston during the period leading up to the American Revolution, that triggered my interest. This was when I started looking for books on American history at the library instead of ones about dinosaurs, and I was in the fourth grade when I finally got a copy of the book (I didn’t know it was a book first) from the Scholastic Book Fair, and it remained a favorite of mine for the rest of my life. I’ve always, always, remembered watching that movie and wanted to see it again; but it wasn’t until recently that I realized that it was the trigger that led me to my interest in American history, and from there to history in general. I am sure, since it’s a Disney picture made in the 1950’s, that it’s very rah-rah patriotic–there’s a thirty minute clip from it on Disney Plus that I tried to watch out of context, but it was so…hit you over the head with AMERICANA and FREEDOM and LIBERTY that I couldn’t really watch all of it; I am hoping that the entire movie won’t be such blatant propaganda, but then again, it was during the height of the Red Scare and it probably was intended to indoctrinate (white) children with a pro-America mentality; patriotism to the nth degree.

So, we’ll see how that goes, won’t we?

I got some good work on the book done last night, after which I was very tired, so I climbed into the easy chair (with a sleeping purr-kitty in my lap) and finished reading A Caribbean Mystery. (More on that later.) I also started reading Nightwing: Leaping into the Light (based on a recommendation from my friend Alex, who always knows whereof he speaks) and it reminded me (again) of why Nightwing is and always has been my favorite super-hero ever since I was a teenager (since he evolved from Robin into Nightwing); and it also finally hit me last night precisely why that was the case; it should make for an interesting blog entry when I get to it. I have so much writing to do–and fortunately I am in a creative state of mind these days, which needs to be more laser-focused. I am pretty confident I will get the book finished in time now, as well as everything else I need to do. We need to make a Costco run at some point, and of course there’s always mail to pick up, dishes to do, floors to clean, and laundry. I also have condoms to pack, and so much reading to do. I inevitably always have more than enough books on hand so that I will never run out of things to read–and that’s not even taking into consideration the ebooks loaded into all the reading apps on my iPad. I slept really well last night–a lovely side effect to being exhausted yesterday–and my shoulder is starting to feel better–at least I can move my arm without feeling a stab of pain, but I do want to keep resting it for another few days before attempting the gym again. I think tonight I might also walk around the Garden District taking pictures of Christmas decorations, which is always a lovely thing to do; one of the many things I love about this city is how it dresses itself up for any and every holiday, which makes it always seem so festive here.

I also have all my Christmas shopping done, and I actually did my Christmas cards last night as well. Now if only my house weren’t such a mess, I could claim I was winning at life!

Paul and I have decided that 2022 is going to be a year dedicated to living our best lives, and we’re thinking about taking another jaunt to Europe (pandemic permitting); but Amsterdam and Berlin will be our destinations. I’ve always wanted to visit both–there’s really nowhere in Europe I don’t want to visit, really–and the appeal of the art museums in both, plus Amsterdam is primarily a walking city, is a hard pull to resist. I’m thinking we might even take the occasional weekend getaway to a panhandle beach, why not? I have to do some traveling for my career (pandemic willing), and I am sure Paul will want to come to Minneapolis with me for Bouchercon, since we both lived there (he lived there much longer than I did; I only lasted eight months, and only agreed to live there on the guarantee it would be eight months and then we would move to New Orleans–other than the weather I really liked it there) it makes sense for him to come with. He works so hard, and he really does deserve to have down time where he can just relax and have fun.

Yesterday at the office I was walking out of our cubicle area to a testing room because one of my clients had arrived. I had noticed that the Crescent Care shirt I was wearing fit rather nicely; I have three of them in purple (one for every clinic day) and one of them, for some reason, fits better than the others and looks more flattering when I wear it. I actually had just thought about it again when I stood up from my desk (“hey, my pecs looks HUGE in this shirt”) and as I walked out, our nurse (hired in July) was sitting at the front desk and she said, “You know Greg, I can see the potential that you were fine when you were younger.” Fifty year old me would have been offended (“what? I look old and tired now?”) but sixty year old me accepted it in the spirit it was intended–a compliment–so I just laughed and replied, “thank you, I was.” Like I said, ten years ago I would have let that hurt my feelings; now I saw it as a compliment–if worded a bit bluntly–and it amused me. Even thinking about it, I am smiling about it.

I do wish I hadn’t been so insecure and self-conscious when I was younger. I also wish I could transfer this very mentality to my writing. I don’t get Imposter Syndrome as much as I used to–more maturity of age, perhaps?–but I do worry about whether people will get what i am trying to do when I write. I worry about unintentionally offending people more than I ever used to before (trust me, if I am trying to offend you, it’s pretty fucking clear); and I am trying to be kinder, more aware, and to exercise empathy as my default rather than getting offended myself. I don’t know how well I am succeeding, but I certainly don’t have my Julia Sugarbaker tirades are regularly as I used to.

Interesting.

Maturity, or just tired?

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me.

I’ll Be Home With Bells On

To be honest, I’ve never really understood what the phrase today’s song title means. Did people actually used to go to things wearing bells? I suppose it’s more along the lines of oh I am going and you will SO know that I am there, but it’s puzzled me ever since I was a child. Not enough to look it up, of course, but it’s still a mystery to me. Okay, I looked it up–it means arriving in a noticeably festive way.

Although if someone literally showed up anywhere with actual bells on, they’d deserve what happened to them next, methinks.

Last night wasn’t the best night of sleep I’ve had this week, but I shall have to persevere and push through this day. I am sleepy/tired as I sip my coffee, looking out my windows at the darkness, but hopefully it will revive me enough to get me going and through the morning. Damn, I am sleepy still. Hope the groggy wears off, but that’s what the coffee is for–although doesn’t it seem unnatural to wake up before you’re ready and then to use a stimulant to help you wake up? That’s why I hate getting up to alarms, to be honest, and always have. Oh, Greg, you’re just lazy, is the response I always get when I make this comment, but doesn’t it make more sense to listen to your body’s needs? My shoulder feels better this morning–speaking of listening to your body’s needs–so I might, depending on how this day goes and how the tired/grogginess develops/fades throughout the day–make an attempt at going to the gym tonight.

Or should I let it rest another day and try tomorrow? Decisions, decisions.

But as I sit here this morning swilling coffee groggily and hoping to wake up, I am all too aware of the ticking clock on my manuscript and a short story revision that is due around the same time as well as the fact that my next book will be released around the same time as those are due; one month from today is the due date for everything, and the book will come out three days prior to that…and I will be in New York that same weekend. I worked on the book last night–the work is slow but I also don’t have a lot of time dedicated to it every day, so that’s to be expected–but it’s taking shape nicely, which makes me feel a lot better about everything. If I buckle down on the weekends, I should be able to get it all finished on time–but yes, that does require buckling down on the weekends, doesn’t it? Heavy heaving sigh.

In checking my emails this morning I’ve got an invitation to write a story for a tribute anthology for charity–it’s something I would really like to do, but it’s going to depend on the timing, really; or whether I have something on hand already that can easily be adapted to fit the theme; which basically is “gothic,” which is definitely in my wheelhouse; it’s also going to depend on whether I have the time to look for something that can be adapted to fit into the theme. I am sure I have some Gothic stories on hand that can be adapted; I love Gothic, and it’s really the only kind of horror that I do write, really–and so this means I really do need to buckle down on the weekends.

And while it’s nice to fantasize abut “all the writing I could do” if I didn’t have a day job, the truth is…I probably wouldn’t write more than I do now. I’d find incredibly creative ways to avoid writing. I know this because there were periods of time where I not only did not have a day job, but years where I only worked part time…and I’ve actually been more productive while having a full time job. Does this make any sense? It only does in Gregalicious land.

I did spend some time before Paul got home last night reading A Caribbean Mystery, and while you may remember me reading, a while back, a piece about “problematic” Christie books and titles that needed to be changed–and wondering why this book was included–I’ve come to realize I must have misunderstood the article I was reading; they meant the book when they referred to this title–which was some seriously unclear writing, frankly. But the book is incredibly racist; there have been several times where something I’ve read has made me wince–the locals on St. Honoré are clearly seen by the colonialist British ruling class as sub-human, barely better than animals, and definitely uncivilized. I’m close to the end–I know who the killer is; I remember, and I also remember the clue Miss Marple missed in correctly identifying the killer earlier on in the book–and so will probably be able to finish it tonight. And then I think I am going to move on to either Vivien Chen’s Death by Dumpling or Julia Henry’s Pruned to Death.

And on that note, tis time to head in ye olde spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader.

Merry Christmas Darling

Yesterday the box o’books for #shedeservedit arrived; which was an extraordinarily pleasant surprise on an otherwise wretched day (I won’t bother you with the details of why it was wretched, simply take my word for it). The arrival of the finished books is always a delightful experience, even if it means having to find a place to keep them (the Lost Apartment is running out of space very quickly), so for now they are stacked up on the kitchen counter; I’ll worry about finding a space for them at some point this week when I am more awake and not, well, not feeling as defeated as I am this morning. It’s nothing really, just more of a sense of how much there is to do and it seems as though every day more pressure is building up on me to get things done and more things seem to get added to the to-do list exponentially faster than I am able to get things crossed off.

I did, however, have a lovely, if brief, time with the manuscript yesterday. It’s finally coming together, and my character’s voice is coming through at long last–a little too late if you ask me, but better late than never–which means I am hopeful that the the rest of the book is going to flow much easier and faster. My shoulder still is sore this morning, so a return to the gym tonight is doubtful; I am not going to allow myself to get stressed about that because well–I need to let the muscle heal before trying to get a new rhythm going again, and why keep straining it before I let it heal? My workouts won’t be very productive until such time as the muscle can handle them anyway, and it is what it is, right? I also have to ignore that snide voice in my head telling me that I am again making excuses not to go to the gym, because I do want to go. I’ve finally broken through that mental block I’ve had for so long where I don’t want to go at all; ironic that a strained muscle is slowing down the momentum.

It’s also hard to believe that Christmas is practically upon us; next week I have a short work week as a direct result of the holidays, and again the following week. I am not terribly sorry to see 2021 come to an end, in all honesty; it was another dreadful year, with absolutely no guarantee that 2022 will be any better, quite frankly. Years are arbitrary things anyway; my usual questioning of why everyone gets so excited about New Year’s Eve and so forth when it’s simply a relatively arbitrarily fixed date (why not start the new year on February 1? March 15th? etc etc etc), although there probably is a reason that I’ve simply never bothered to research or look up. There is, as always, a sense of time slipping through my fingers; that one day I’ll wake up and my book is due and I am nowhere near ready to turn it in (that is my version of the nightmare of showing up to school unprepared for a test one has forgotten about), but I think I can buckle down and push through it–especially now that I have found my character’s voice. I think the problem was before that I was trying to not write her to be snarky–one of the complaints about Paige was she was too bitchy, when I feebly tried to spin her off into her own series–but the reality is she just needed a bit of softening. Paige kind of was a bitch, by design; Valerie, my new character, can be snarky but she’s also needs to be kind as well, and that was the balance I needed to find.

And now, I think I’ve at last found it.

Eureka!

We are still working our way through the original Gossip Girl, and still enjoying it. It’s delightfully bonkers, really, in that crazy, over the top Melrose Place campy way Paul and I like. It’s eminently sweeter than Melrose Place, though, and never completely goes completely insane the way Melrose did; they don’t have, for example, a regular psycho character like Kimberly, but they have some who will show up for a short arc before disappearing again–Agnes the skank model and Georgina the seriously unbalanced heiress, for example; the episode last night saw Agnes’ return, for example, and here’s hoping that was simply a single episode arc, because she’s so awful and dislikable I really don’t want to see her on the screen again–but it’s also interesting to see that the original villains in the cast, Blair and Chuck, are really the only characters who’ve exhibited any growth or real development as characters–and they are much more interesting than the “good” characters (Dan and Serena) that the audience is supposed to be rooting for. I mean, none of them ever make good choices, but at least the villains have developed into much more interesting and more richly developed characters than the one-note terrible people they were originally written to be.

And no, I didn’t get a chance to finish A Caribbean Mystery last night. When I got home I put away the dishes in the dishwasher and did another load (they’ll be waiting for me when I get home tonight, and I’ll probably have to do another load of laundry as well)–the endless toil and strife of the American housewife, trying to have it all–but tonight I am definitely going to spend some time reading after I finish doing my writing.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. Have a fabulously lovely day, Constant Reader.