Silver Threads and Golden Needles

If you’ve been sensing a theme in my recent reading, Constant Reader, you are correct. I have been reading a lot of traditional mysteries lately–cozies, if you prefer–and there are any number of reasons why. One, I want to read more broadly across the genre; two, I actually enjoy them, a lot; and three, well, yes, I am writing one. I am only sorry that it took #3 in that sentence to really dig into one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction again, since I am having the best time since I started digging them out of the TBR pile and reading them. They are called cozies for a reason; they are generally warm stories about incredibly kind and likable people who wind up getting involved in murders–usually through no doing of their own–and through their own shrewd observations of behavior and brains, inevitably wind up finding the killer’s identity before the police do.

I know I am an anomaly when it comes to this, but I always preferred Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to Poirot. I loved that the elderly, always under-estimated by everyone spinster from the little village, simply by watching and observing human nature in the microcosm of her village–and her theory about human nature, “people who are similar often behave similarly”, is kind of spot-on. I loved how the suspects in a case would remind her of someone she knew from the village in the past, and her observations were inevitably correct. A traditional mystery is one where there’s no violence or bloodshed on the page (mild, if there is–like a punch in the nose or something like that when trying to evade the killer, etc.), no sex, not much cursing, and so forth. I tend to think of them as stories that take place in the world we’d rather live in, rather than the actual real world we do live in.

Stephen King, in his seminal treatise on horror, Dance Macabre, described horror novels as examples of the conflict between the philosophical concepts of the Dionysian and Apollonian; in which the Apollonian signifies the status quo–peace, order, reason and balance–while the intrusion of the murder/crime into that Apollonian ideal sends the community reeling into the Dionysian: disorder, tragedy, emotional illogic. The solving of the crime brings the community back into balance and returns it to the Apollonian ideal, so the amateur sleuth in these books are agents of reason. And since one of the major precepts of the traditional/cozy mystery is that sense of community–see Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series–it is the duty of the amateur sleuth to return the community to the sense of peace, order and serenity that ruled before the Dionysian influence disrupted all of that.

But Mary Feliz’ first Maggie McDonald mystery kind of turns that theory on its ear.

“Awesome! I bet it has bats!” My fourteen-year-old son, David, exploded from the car and mounted the steps of the old house three at a time. He peered through the grubby porch windows.

“Is it haunted?” Brian, my twelve-year-old, leaned into my side as we stood in the front yard. I eyed the dust motes cavorting in a light beam that had escaped the shrubs and overgrown trees surrounding the 100-year-old California Craftsman house. I put a reassuring hand on Brian’s mop of curly hair. “I doubt it, honey.” I hoped it was true.

I swallowed hard and watched my husband, Max, ease his long legs out of the Prius. Like my minivan, Max’ car was overloaded. We’d packed both cars with everything too fragile to transport in the moving van. In among the breakables, our two kids, one golden retriever and two cats, we’d tucked picnic food, cleaning supplies, and sleeping bags.

Today was Thursday. The plan was simple. The movers would arrive tomorrow. Since Monday was Labor Dat, we’d have four days to get settled. The kids would start school on Tuesday, and Max would begin his first full day at the new job the same day. I was giving myself a month to focus solely on house and gamily. After that, I was determined to restart my career as a professional organizer.

Anyone who has ever moved to a new city and started over can relate to the opening chapter of this book. I myself have moved countless times to new communities–from Chicago to the suburbs to Kansas to California to Houston to Tampa to Houston to Tampa to Minneapolis to New Orleans to Washington and back to New Orleans finally. There’s something exciting about starting over in a new place–but there’s also that little thought in the back of your head, what if you were better off where you were before? It can be both scary and intimidating to move–especially when you have children, as Maggie does. Her family was happily living in Stockton when her husband’s aunt died, leaving them the property where he grew up and remembered fondly. They visited the property while the estate was in probate, and Maggie, too, fell in love with the big old beautiful house, and agreed to give up her own business–she’s an organizer, the person you hire when you can’t organize yourself and you need help–and move to Orchard View in Silicon Valley to this big beautiful house where her husband grew up…and right away, her worst fears are coming true. The house somehow has become incredibly run down, with broken windows and dirty inside; there’s a horrible smell coming from the basement, and the power doesn’t work. It doesn’t even look like the same house…and then they find the dead body of the caretaker in the basement.

So the house is soon crawling with cops, and Maggie wants to go back home to Stockton with the kids and wash her hands of the whole mess.

Who could blame her?

But the cops are actually friendly–even if the first neighbor she meets is kind of a dick–and helpful, introducing to people around the town who can help get the house back together and under control, so she and her family can get settled in. The principal of her kids’ school is a problem–as is the recurring acts of vandalism at the house. And then Max’s job sends him off to Bangalore, leaving Maggie to deal with everything on her own. The vandalism amps up, and before she knows it she is stumbling over yet another dead body. Who is killing people who have a connection to Maggie’s family? Is the vandalism connected to the murders, or is it something else entirely? Is one of her new friends and acquaintances actually the culprit?

It’s a fun read, and I appreciated the different spin on the community aspect of a traditional mystery. Having Maggie and her family (her boys are terrific, too) resettling into a new place means that, like the reader, she has no history with either Orchard View or the people who live there; we meet them and get to know them as she does. As Maggie grows more comfortable in her new home, so do we the readers–and that was a pretty big risk to take for the author, and I respect Feliz for taking that risk. It was actually kind of cool to see her establishing those relationships and creating a history with the characters, as opposed to having to dip into a lot of backstory, which is also hard to do with aplomb and without losing reader interest.

I am looking forward to reading more of this series!

When Will I Be Loved

Good morning, Tuesday.

I slept very well last night–but at the same time, wasn’t terribly tired yesterday nor did I ever run out of steam. When I got home I worked on the book for a while, then gave in to Scooter’s whining demands that I sit in my easy chair and read so he could sleep in my lap. I started reading Donna Andrews’ The Gift of the Magpie–it’s marvelous, as I expected, and before I knew it I was halfway through by the time Paul got home and we settled in for a few episodes of the original Gossip GIrl–it’s weird how vested we’ve become in this show, but it’s quite fun. I also managed to get a lot done yesterday–the Sisyphean task of email turning out to be quite Sisyphean–I managed to get a lot of it cleaned out only to have more come in once I sent out mine, but I think I simply need to accept the fact that it’s an on-going process and stop punishing myself for not ever getting the inbox emptied out.

I am, after all, trying to be less hard on myself these days.

And it looks as though the coaching carousel at LSU is finally over; it looks like they will be hiring Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it at first–he has been successful everywhere he’s coached, going back to his days at Grand Valley State in Michigan–but he’s a completely different style of coach than what we are used to down here, as they endlessly say on television, “on the bayou.” (For the record, the entire state isn’t a bayou, and while there are a lot of them, most of the population doesn’t actually live on one.) But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made; he’s an odd fit, to be sure, but he’s always been a good coach and we really need that here. Our last three coaches have all won national titles, and in every instance the hire was questionable–none of them (Nick Saban, Les Miles, Ed Orgeron) had really made names for themselves before coming here, but all three were able to succeed (at varying levels) in Baton Rouge. In fact, when Nick Saban was originally hired, LSU was coming off a losing season, hadn’t won the SEC title in over a decade, and hadn’t won a national title in over forty years. (LSU has won three in the twenty-one years since he was hired; not quite Alabama level success, but I don’t think any other team has won more than two in that same time period.) So, I am willing to give him my support (for what it’s worth, and that’s practically nothing) and see how it all plays out.

I am going to try to make it to the gym again tonight. It’s been over a month since the my last time there, so I am going to have to start with the one set this week, two next, and so forth again. I’ll have another trip next month, but as long as I am consistently going before and after I won’t have to restart the training program again–and the hotel in New York has a lovely fitness facility I can use (although I tend to never work out when I travel, which is part of my problem, and working out would undoubtedly help with the sleep issue as well when I travel). I know there’s a new variant floating around out there that will eventually make it’s way over to the United States (omicron) but I am hopeful it’s not going to cause another shutdown or highly restrict gatherings in public and so forth.

And today is the last day of hurricane season, thank you baby Jesus. It’s actually been quite a year, really, now that we are about to enter the final month of it and I look back. January seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it? We had a category 5 hurricane here, a rough summer, no Carnival, a freeze on Fat Tuesday (when we didn’t have heat; I don’t ever want to be that cold again) and I actually made it up to Kentucky twice this past year. I also read a shit ton, watched a lot of movies, and finished writing two books–my short story output wasn’t what I would have liked it to have been, and I never finished the first draft of Chlorine either, but I did make some progress on the novellas I’d been developing, and once this book I am currently writing is finished I am going to go full steam on several of the projects-in-progress I have in the works; and I really do want to write a Scotty book this year. I know the plot, I know the story, and I know what I want to do with it, it’s just a matter of sitting down over the course of a weekend or something and pulling the varied thoughts and plots together into a coherent whole I can sit down and write.

I also rediscovered my love of writing this year–I mean, at least I started remembering how much I love doing it rather than viewing it as “just one more thing I have to do”, which was kind of the mentality I’d been facing it with over the last few years, which wasn’t particularly bright and definitely the wrong way to look at it.

So, as shitty as a year it may have been overall in the macro sense of life and the world in general, it wasn’t a completely bad year for me. And isn’t it better to always look at the positives?

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

Long, Long Time

It feels like it’s been forever since I went into the office.

To be fair, I was off all last week, and since I work at home on Thursdays and Fridays, it has been almost two full weeks (ten days) since the last time I went in. My insomnia kicked in again last night–can’t help but wonder if that was triggered by the going-back-to-the-office thing, but at least the half-sleep or whatever that was I had last night was relaxing? I don’t feel tired or sleepy this morning (a good thing), but we’ll see if I do indeed hit the wall this afternoon. I hope not because I have to work on the book tonight, and pretty much every night, this month. Football season being practically over is a huge help, and I am not traveling again anywhere until mid-January, so that’s a plus; it’s really a matter now of being organized and staying focused.

And not getting stressed or over-tired, you hear that, Insomnia? Get thee behind me, Satan.

Paul and I went back to the Gossip Girl well again this weekend, getting caught up on the reboot (fun) on Saturday evening and then went back to the original last night. I think we both agree that while the new one is fun, the original is actually better still than the reboot–with no disrespect whatsoever to the reboot. It’s an interesting show–I’d forgotten it, like Pretty Little Liars, was based on a very popular series of books (not sure if the show followed the books or not, but I’m not going to go back and read 13 books just to find out; I never read the Pretty Little Liars series of books either). Paul was wondering why we never watched it the first time around and I replied, “I think we thought we were too old for it? It was a CW show, which we always thought meant shows for teenagers–but we’ve always enjoyed any CW show from that era we went back to and watched, like Supernatural or Smallville.

It’s weird to also reflect that this was a time before streaming, and Netflix delivered DVD’s to your mailbox and worked as a sort of replacement to the video store, eventually pushing Blockbuster and Hollywood Videos and all the others into bankruptcy and out of business. We’re so used to the streaming services now–and binge-watching, which really started with the DVD’s being delivered back in the day–that it’s weird to remember having cable; as it is, I hate it when we are watching a show as it airs and have to wait per week for the next episode, and having to remember when it aired so as not to miss an episode…I don’t think I ever knew how to work the DVR function on the cable box, even though we had it, and whenever I think about what a pain in the ass it was to record on a VCR–and having all of those videotapes–it kind of feels like it was the Dark Ages or something back then, doesn’t it?

I also need to start heading back to the gym; maybe tonight, depending on how tired I am when I get home, I may try to head over there. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve been; almost a month, between the colonoscopy and the booster shot reaction and the trips, and of course, any excuse to not go to the gym even though I really enjoy it when I do go. My body is also not really happy about this lack of exercise, frankly; I need to stretch it again and push it with the weights. I also have to start over again, with the one set week followed by the two set week and so on until I am back into the groover again.

It’s also technically Christmas season, now that Thanksgiving is over, and I am going to attempt to do the Christmas card thing. I am also trying not to be a curmudgeon about the holiday season this year–not an easy task, frankly–but since I am so rarely in stores and I listen to Spotify in the car, I don’t have to worry about getting sick of Christmas music nor do I have to worry about being inundated with Christmas commercials and so forth since we primarily stream things…and there’s a lot of Gossip Girl to get caught up on–plus it’s from the time period where seasons rans to eighteen or more episodes, as opposed to the shortened streaming service eight-to-ten episode seasons. So I figure there are probably about ninety episodes of the original in total, and we’re only about half-way through the first season….so we’ll be watching it for quite some time.

But I have made a to-do list for the week, and I intend to plough my way through it, and try to better about keeping track of the dozens of spinning plates I have to keep spinning, let alone keep juggling. Despite feeling scattered all year (the last two years, really) I have managed somehow to keep on top of most everything I need to–few things have fallen through the cracks, and if there submission calls I missed, well, I needed some down time to rest and relax rather than keep pushing myself to such extremes. I only have so much energy anymore, and yes, I used to have a lot more, but I also can’t hold myself to the old productivity standards that used to be normal. I’m older, there’s been an ongoing pandemic for nearly two years, and lots has changed since the days when I could write four or five books in a single year and produce a ton of short stories. As it is, I still am wildly productive–and I need to stop beating myself up over not being as productive as I used to be.

After all, a lot of things aren’t like they used to be in my life.

And on THAT cheery note, tis off to the spice mines with me. I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning, and hopefully the lack of sleep from last night isn’t going to be a big issue for me today.

It’s So Easy

I honestly don’t know how I used to survive long drives without audiobooks.

I used to worry about listening to audiobooks on those long drives, primarily out of worry that I would get so absorbed in what I was listening to that I would lose track of what I was doing (when one is easily distracted–hello, ADHD! how’s the wife and kids?–one tends to avoid things that might be distracting) and that isn’t good when you are hurtling along a highway at speeds between sixty and eighty miles-per-hour. This is why I have massively long playlists on my phone (both in iTunes and Spotify); they were created so I would have music to entertain me on these lengthy drives. But while music can make the time pass more quickly, audiobooks make it seem to fly past. It doesn’t distract me to listen to a book being read (I’ve always hated being read to, another reason I avoided them for as long as I have); if anything, sometimes I miss things in the book when I am having to pay attention to something on the road (like construction or heavy traffic) but have found I don’t lose the thread of what I am listening to; my subconscious is still listening and and so I don’t lose my place–which does happen with an actual book, and I have to sometimes go back and reread parts when I get lost.

But…never happens when I am reading Donna Andrews.

“I think they’re plotting to bump off Terence today,” Michael said.

“Bump him off?” I echoed. “Not for real, I assume.”

“Don’t get your hopes up. Bump off his character. In the Game.”

“I could love with them bumping him off for real,” I said. “Just as long as they pick a time when we both have alibis.”

Michael chuckled. No doubt he thought I was kidding. Of the two dozen actors, musicians, and acrobats my husband had recruited to perform at the Riverton Renaissance Faire, Terence was my least favorite by a mile. He was rude, selfish, greedy, lecherous, and just plain obnoxious. Unfortunately, he was also an intergral part of what we’d come to call “the Game”–the ongoing semi-improvisational entertainment that had become so popular with visitors to the Faire.

“Most Renaissance fairs just replay the story of Henry the Eighth and one or another of his wives,” MIchael had said when he’d explained the idea to my grandmother Cordelia, the Riverton Faire’ss owner and organizer. “Or Queen Elizabeth beheading Essex. What I have in mind is something much more exciting. We have this fictitious kingdom, and all the actors belong to one or another of the factions fighting to control it, and they plot and scheme and duel and seduce and betray each other. And they do it loudly and publicly at regularly intervals all day long, in period costume and elegant Shakespearean prose.”

As I have undoubtedly made very clear on this blog over the years, I love Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series. It’s one of my happy places; revisiting Caerphilly (or wherever she has sent the cast of this delightful series) is like watching Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek; I know I am going to put the book down with a satisfied smile upon completion, be in a very good mood, and just be happy and content with life in general. That’s a real gift, as a reader, and one I am very grateful to receive. I do worry, however, as I get closer to being caught up with this marvelous series that once I am, that there will be a tinge of sadness when I finish the most recent release, akin to when I get to the end of a season of Ted Lasso–sad that there’s not another one to read, but happy to know that there will inevitably be two dropping within months of each other. (While I can completely understand the stress and hard work involved in producing two such lovely and intricately plotted novels per year–those subplots! All the regular supporting cast! The history of a series going on so long!–I am quite happy that Ms. Andrews has such a dedicated work ethic.)

When I saw this was set at a Renaissance Fair, my heart leapt with joy. Andrews positively excels at writing books set at events and/or conferences (the one set at a fan convention for the fantasy series Meg’s husband starred in is a particular favorite, as is the one set at a Battle of Yorktown reenactment), and the fact that the RenFair is being held at, and hosted by, Meg’s grandmother Cordelia (who first turned up in another favorite, The Good the Bad and the Emus–well, they’re all favorites, really) made it even more joyous for me. I love the relationship between Cordelia and Meg’s grandfather, Dr. Blake–as well as their relationship with their joint son, Meg’s father. The ins-and-outs of a RenFair are of particular interest, particularly since this one has a story running through it, known by participants as ‘The Game’; hired actors playing parts, acting out the struggle over who will succeed Good Queen Cordelia (played by Meg’s grandmother, natch) on the throne of Albion? Costumes and swords, duels and jousting, crafts and mead and underhanded skullduggery!

And the skullduggery doesn’t stop at the Game, either.

The book, as all Andrews novels, is an absolute delight. Her wit makes me laugh out loud–I am sure any number of highway drivers on I-75 or I-59, glancing over at me as we drove along, were curious (or concerned) as I occasionally would burst out laughing as I listened. I resented having to stop for gas or a bathroom break, or to get something to eat–scarfing down food as quickly as I could so I could get back to the car and get the audio going yet again. (I am certain the pleasure of listening to this book had something to do with the trip home being an hour shorter than the trip up) The only complaint I could possibly have with this book (any of hers, really) is that I want more of it, more of the regular cast…I would absolutely read a book about them even if there were no mystery involved at all. But Andrews always delivers a solid mystery to go along with the delightful characters she creates–and she also often slips in some social commentary so slyly and sneakily that unless you’re attuned to looking for it, you might miss it.

The afore-mentioned Terence is the villain of this piece, as one might well expect from that witty opening quoted above. An egomaniacal actor in the grips of a severe case of narcissism, he’s not nearly as witty and talented and attractive as he thinks he is, and his constant practical jokes on other cast members–or attempts to add new subplots to the Game, naturally involving his own character–are looked at askance by the others; fortunately, Meg and her grandmother are quick-witted enough, along with Michael, to improvise on the spot and divert the story back to where it should be.

A particularly funny bit involves Dr. Blake, her grandfather, and why he shows up at the RenFair: a noted ornithologist and environmentalist (with a particular liking for birds of prey), he shows up with a cage of wrens…thinking it’s WrenFest (a throwback to the previous book in the series, which featured OwlFest). They find him a wizard’s costume and staff, and he takes to the role with relish, which leads to even funnier scenes.

But one an early morning owling expedition, our intrepid cast stumbles over a dead body in the woods…but no worries. Meg is on the case, and manages, with wit, style and verve, to untangle the various subplots and motives and machinations of the various suspects to eventually unmask the killer…which leads to a hilarious, if dangerous, confrontation in which she saves the day.

And resolve all the various problems of everyone in the book.

I actually had about five minutes of the book left when I pulled up in front of my house–and despite being incredibly glad and grateful to finally be home after eleven hours in the car…I stayed in the car to finish listening.

I cannot think of any higher praise than that.

Love Has No Pride

Well, that LSU game was something else. GEAUX TIGERS!

It’s also a little sad to see the end of the Orgeron era. LSU is the only top-tier college program to win three national championships this century with three different coaches (only Alabama has won more titles than LSU this century), and these past two seasons have been rough. But I always had a liking for Coach O, was happy to see him get the chance to be the head coach, and even happier–to say the least–to see that magnificent 2019 season. And who knows who the next coach will be, or what his tenure will be like? Ah, well. Never a dull moment as a football fan in the state of Louisiana.

I am feeling more rested and well on the way to recovery from my trip. I made some good progress yesterday on the to-do list, and since the Saints aren’t playing today (some could say they didn’t really play Thursday night, either) I have the entire day free to work on things and get caught up and perhaps–just perhaps–even go to the gym. I wound up having football games playing on television yesterday (some seriously great games yesterday, Rivalry Weekend) but the college season is effectively over. I’ll pay attention to the conference title games and to the bowls, of course–yet at the same time I won’t be personally vested in them and it won’t matter if I watch or not. Weekends thus have become free for me, which is a good thing as I have so much to do. This morning I am going to start working my way through the to-do some more, hope to spend some time writing this afternoon, and I want to start reading my next selection from the TBR pile–Donna Andrews’ The Gift of the Magpie. I still want to do some entries on the other books I read over the past week, and there’s still some straightening up to do around here as well. And of course, there’s always about a thousand emails I have to answer at some point. I am going to try to get the emails answered and prepared to be sent tomorrow morning–yay for draft folders–and as always, I have a shit ton of organizing and filing to do. I have some short stories I need to edit, and I have agreed to write another for an anthology that isn’t due until April or so; I know which story-in-progress I am going to use, but I also need to change it’s title, and last night I found the title–from the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Tamerlane”: “Solace in a Dying Hour.”

Great title, methinks.

No rest for a Gregalicious.

The weather looks a bit gray out there this morning, and we are getting ready to swing into what passes for winter in southeastern Louisiana. Yes, I know winter doesn’t officially start until December 21st or so, but that uncertain period down here where it can be 80 degrees one day and 40 the next is beginning. Sometimes the weather shift happens over the course of the day, which makes it even more fun, as you have no clue how to dress for the day. It can be bitterly cold when I leave for work in the morning, and then incredibly warm when I get off work and I’ll have to run the air in the car on the way home from the office. Yay? I also need to start getting my Christmas cards together–I am determined this year to actually mail them out, which also means getting my address book together (no small feat) and then deciding who gets one and who doesn’t. I’m sure there is some kind of etiquette involving Christmas cards that I don’t know, as always I have no clue how to behave in a socially appropriate and acceptable way, but I don’t care. I don’t keep track of who sends me cards and who doesn’t, just as I don’t pay attention to who wishes me happy birthday on social media and who doesn’t–doesn’t life deliver enough blows as is without having to resort to that sort of pettiness? I am also trying to be better about being petty about stuff, too–I’ll let you know how that goes, since petty is my default–and tracking that sort of thing seems a bit much even to me (although I will admit I have done so in the past), and why make yourself crazy or upset or be hurt by such things? There’s a touch of narcissism in that, really–other people really don’t give you that much thought or energy, which actually seems worse to me; when someone hurts your feelings the truth usually it’s usually more thoughtlessness than anything else–most people would never intentionally hurt anyone else’s feelings unless they are an absolute monster–but also trying to figure out other people’s motivations and/or reasons is a fool’s game because you will never really know one way or another and why waste the time, energy, or effort trying to figure it out?

And it’s Christmas season, which is the antithesis of pettiness. Christmas is about forgiving and peace and love and harmony–although humans always have this remarkable ability to forget the true meaning of the season. (Nothing says peace and love and harmony than claiming there’s a “war on Christmas,” for example) Sure, there’s a religious aspect to Christmas, but it’s far more outweighed by the secularization of the holiday, which gets more and more secularized with every passing year.

Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning, really.

And Christmas is of course followed by Carnival here in New Orleans, and I guess we are having parades this coming year. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, but at least parade season is later in the year than usual–Fat Tuesday itself falls on March 1, I believe–and last year’s cancellation meant that Zulu and Rex and the truck parade didn’t roll on a day where the temperature was 20 degrees and the entire city was freezing; I can’t imagine there would have been hordes out there on the parade route in that kind of miserable weather…but then again, one never knows. People do like to catch beads.

I know I wouldn’t have walked out there, or if I did, stayed long. As it was, we had no heat in the Lost Apartment that fateful freezing Mardi Gras day, and I was huddled under layers of clothing and piles of blankets with a space heater blasting hot air at me…and was still cold.

Sigh. And on that note, I am off to the spice mines for the day. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and may all your dreams come true.

All I Want for Christmas

I love prolific writers, but keeping up with their canon when you have very little time to spare on actually reading for pleasure can be difficult. I somehow managed to fall years behind on one of my favorite series–the Meg Langslow mysteries by Donna Andrews–right around the time she started producing two books per year (a regular mystery and one centered on Christmas–hello, Hallmark? This series is perfect for you), which made it even harder to catch up. I did manage to read two this past week (well, I listened to one in the car on the way home, which made the drive a delightful experience), and yes, both were marvelous as always.

“Hoo! Woo-hoo HOO!…HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!”

The gray-haired couple standing at the tinsel-decked front desk of the Caerphilly Inn started slightly, and glanced over their shoulders in the direction of the hooting.

“That’s just the ornithologists again, Mr. Ackley.” Sami, the desk clerk, had probably been hired for his soothing voice. “Having their conference here, you know. Owl Fest.”

“They haven’t brought in live owls, have they?” Mrs. Ackley’s face was anxious. “Surely the hotel wouldn’t allow them to do that.”

“Jane’s terrified of birds.” The man put a protective arm around his wife’s shoulder.

“Of course not!” Sami managed to look shocked at the mere suggestion. “That would be completely against the Caerphilly Inn’s policies.”

Which is why we’d been confiscating all the live owls various ornithologists kept bringing into the conference, and taking them a few miles down the road to temporary headquarters at the Caerphilly Zoo. The owls, that is, not the ornithologists–although I’d been tempted. Two screech owls, a barn owl, and a northern saw-whet owl so far.

Christmas is hard to write about, really. My favorite quote from All About Eve isn’t nearly as famous as the ones everyone quotes regularly–“I detest cheap sentiment”–and I’ve tried to keep that quote in the forefront of my mind when I am writing. That isn’t to say that cheap sentiment doesn’t have its place in entertainment; there’s comfort to be found in works that can sometimes be cloyingly sentimental. For me, I define cheap sentiment as unearned; not coming from the honest emotions of the characters based on circumstance and situations and interactions, but rather from homilies: blood is thicker than water, family above all else, etc. I’ve always wanted to write about Christmas, but it’s a minefield when it comes to sentiment. I myself have written short stories about/around Christmas, but they seemed trite, cloying, and cheaply sentimental, with “all’s well that ends well” ending because, well, it’s Christmas. Everything is supposed to work out in the end because it’s Christmas, right? Clarence gets his wings, bullied Rudolph becomes a hero, etc. etc. I tried to avoid that with my own entry into Christmas crime writing, Royal Street Reveillon, and am not entirely certain I succeeded. Yes, the guilty were punished, but like Die Hard, it wouldn’t have to be the holiday season for the story to work. (This is why I fall on the side of “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie” because Christmas wasn’t integral to the story; it could have been Thanksgiving or the middle of the summer and still worked.)

And yet, Donna Andrews manages to write a new Christmas murder mystery that leaves you feeling contented, satisfied, and enormously happy when you close the book after reading the last line–and Owl Be Home from Christmas is yet another gold standard work from the master.

The premise of this one is that Meg’s grandfather, wildlife expert and activist Dr. Blake, is hosting OwlFest at the Caerphilly Inn, and of course, his assistant Nigel is off for the holidays to visit family so the onerous task of keeping the conference running smoothly, and solving problems, falls to Meg, who has moved herself, husband Michael, and their twins (Josh and Jamie*) to one of the guest cottages on the property. Christmas is looming on the horizon, and a polar vortex has descended on Virginia from Canada, creating a blizzard that has everyone trapped at the Inn. In fact, the storm has cancelled flights up and down the eastern seaboard, and Caerphilly is woefully unprepared for a storm of this magnitude, with the city’s two snowplows stranded in snowbanks. Meg, as always, makes the best of every situation, and with the help of the impressively efficient Inn manager, Ekaterina, tries to make the situation of being stranded at the Inn as comfortable and fun for the conference attendees as possible.

Naturally, there are some difficult attendees who Meg would love to righteously smite–and certainly deserve said smiting–and when the obnoxious and well-hated villain of the book, Dr. Frogmore, drops dead at the conference banquet, there’s a plethora of suspects…and with the Inn cut off from civilization by the blizzard, obviously the killer is someone on site.

Meg and her intrepid family and friends now have to find the killer–while still keeping the conference running smoothly and continuing with plans to keep the stranded guests entertained and happy; making the best of a bad situation, which Meg is fantastic at doing.

I loved this book. Andrews has somehow managed to keep a series running for over thirty books without dropping a stitch. While other series tend to run dry (my own Chanse series, for example, and I regularly worry about Scotty doing the same), somehow she manages to keep her enormous supporting cast involved and memorable (I deeply appreciate the three-dimensional lives of the supporting cast, and she is expert at deciding which ones to highlight in each book; Rose Noire is becoming a favorite), and I don’t think there’s a single book in this series where I’ve not laughed out loud multiple times while reading. Caerphilly is a charming place, and every time I go back to visit–even if the cast isn’t in Caerphilly in the book–I always am a bit melancholy when I finish and have to face the real world again.

And she has managed to write all these Christmas books with heart, compassion, and love–and isn’t that what Christmas is really all about?

Masterful. Andrews is a gift the crime fiction community should cherish.

*More Josh and Jamie, please.

Long Way Around

Home.

And exhausted.

I drove up to Kentucky on Monday; it took me twelve hours to get there. I drove back yesterday; it took eleven hours to get home. I may have been doing 80 most of the way home–hey, the speed limit is 70 and the rule was always ten miles over the limit was cool (except for speed traps)–but every once in a while I would look down and see the needle creeping closer to ninety and would chill out for a while. I listed to Isaac Azimov’s Foundation on the way up, and Donna Andrews’ The Falcon Always Wings Twice on the way home (I had to sit in the car for another few minutes when I pulled up to the house to finish listening to Falcon, which was a delight as are all Donna Andrews novels). I wish I’d know about the magic that is audiobooks before; what a lovely way to while away lengthy drives. I am now almost caught up on the Meg Langslow series; I think there are three more to go. I also managed to read some others this week as well–more on those later–and it was a bit of a whirlwind of a trip. My father and I did some sight-seeing–Civil War battlefields, mostly, as everything else we tried was closed–and I had never known much about Kentucky in the Civil War period, other than the commonwealth didn’t secede despite being a slave state (we learn very little about the Civil War in school, really–mostly Lee and Grant and Virginia, very little about anything else, maybe Sherman’s march to the sea if your teacher was a bit more thorough) and the Kentucky battlefields we visited–Perryville and Richmond–were interesting. My father also told me some more family history; there are relatives who are researching the family history, tracing the family line back to Revolutionary times. I have ancestors who fought in the Revolution, and I am descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Richard Stockton of New Jersey’s daughter married a Herren, and I am descended directly from them. That was interesting to find out–but I imagine if most of us trace our lineage back pretty far we’d find interesting ancestors. (My father made copies of all the records for me; there’s also an ancestor’s will in which he divided up the enslaved people he “owned” amongst his wife and children; which is not a point of pride for me. He enslaved eleven people, per the will, considered “property” to be divided up in his will…he also told me some of the Civil War history of the part of Alabama where we come from; my uncle’s wife had an ancestor who fought on the Union side. There were Unionists and the Alabama Home Guard who fought and committed atrocities against each other–my uncle’s wife’s ancestor had leave from the Union army and come home to visit his wife and children. The Home Guard captured him and skinned him alive…apparently his screams could be heard echoing through the hills. I apparently didn’t go far enough in Bury Me in Shadows…)

But…material for another book, I suppose; and therefore the history of my fictional county (the history of this county is written in blood) can be much more violent and bloody than I originally imagined; which means more secrets, more mysteries, and more spirits trapped on this plane and unable to move on.

There’s also an extremely rare book, long out of print, fiction based in that divided, divisive history, that I am going to try to see if I can get a copy of–I did find it on-line at the University of Alabama Library (eight other libraries, all universities in Alabama have copies); not entirely sure how I would get to borrow it from them, or if I would have to go to Tuscaloosa and read it there. But now that I know about it, I am dying to get my hands on it–I’ve searched for it on-line from used booksellers and eBay and so forth, to no avail.

It was a nice trip, overall. I slept decently every night–the last night was my best night of sleep, which was a good thing because the drive yesterday (it’s eleven hours or so in the car in both directions) is exhausting. The South is so incredibly beautiful–oh, those Smoky Mountains in Tennessee!–and I know people who’ve never been will find this hard to believe, but Birmingham and north Alabama is also breathtakingly beautiful. Those mountains. I do love the mountains, but I don’t think I could ever live in a mountainous area because of that cold weather/snow thing.

And of course now I am very behind on everything. I tried to keep up with deleting junk/sales emails with my phone while I was gone–hundreds per day, thank you Black Friday capitalism–and yet the inbox is still incredibly full with ones I have to answer. The Lost Apartment is a mess, I have errands to run and a grocery list to prepare, bills to pay and a checkbook to balance, filing and cleaning and organizing and of course, writing–I wrote absolutely nothing while I was away, and I have a tight deadline hanging over my head–and a massive to-do list I need to prepare. There’s a lot going on in my life right now, personally and professionally, and I really need to make sure that it’s incredibly thorough, else things will get missed and things will not get covered and that inevitably leads to stress and disaster.

But…my own bed felt lovely last night. I don’t think I slept all that well last night–but I feel a little tired and drained this morning, but I think that’s also due to being exhausted from the drive and feeling disconnected from my own life again. Getting everything together and figuring out everything I need to get done will be an enormous help in that regard. I simply cannot spend today watching college football–it will be okay to have it on in the background, but I can’t sit in my chair all day and waste another day. Fortunately this is the last day of regular season games–conference championship games coming next weekend, with the play-offs later in December, but LSU isn’t really involved in anything after today so I can pretty much follow as a slightly disinterested fan of college football and not care about who wins or who loses or who does what.

And on that note, I am going to start doing some filing and organizing. I gave some blog entries about books I’ve read to do, and I will be here every morning from now on, Constant Reader….and I am also looking forward to the second half of the reboot of Gossip Girl, which dropped on HBO MAX while I was gone. Huzzah!

Have a great day, Constant Reader, and I hope your holiday was lovely.

Sunday Girl

Sunday morning and feeling somewhat fine. I need to pack today–I can even go ahead and load up the car once I finish, so tomorrow I can just walk out there, put the keys in the ignition, start playing Foundation on my phone, and hit the road–and I also need to get a lot done today so I can not worry so much about being out of pocket for most of the day tomorrow. I downloaded Donna Andrews’ The Falcon Always Wings Twice for the drive home, and have created a shorter playlist for Spotify to listen to once the books have finished–I should have about an hour or two left on the road once both books are finished each way.

Yesterday was a very strange day in college football. LSU–after almost pulling off upsets of Alabama and Arkansas in back to back weeks–struggled against UL-Monroe; Auburn lost to South Carolina; Florida lost to Missouri; Ohio State humiliated Michigan State; Utah not only handed Oregon a loss but a decisive, embarrassing one; and on and on. This has been a truly weird season (I ain’t going to lie, watching Florida circle the drain helps take some of the sting out of LSU’s terrible season), and it’s not over yet. I’ve kind of dissociated myself from this season–I did watch the Alabama-Arkansas game for a while yesterday, and bits and pieces of the Florida-South Carolina–but man, what a fucking weird season. Two of the better teams in the conference are Mississippi and Mississippi State? When was the last time that happened? (2014, to be pedantic.)

Yeesh.

Paul went to the office yesterday and didn’t get home until late, so I spent the day editing what I’ve written on A Streetcar Named Murder and took voluminous notes on the story, where it’s going, who the suspects are going to be, why they are suspects, and so forth. I also started playing around with future titles for the series (should it take off) and came up with some that I think are funny and clever–but then, I thought the original title for the book was funny and clever, and wound up changing it at publisher request–so we’ll see. (I also can’t wait for the cover design to be finished so I can share it with everyone.) Today I am going to input those changes, write another chapter or two, and try to puzzle out the rest of the cast and a skimpy outline that I can follow to try to keep myself on course with the book. I am excited to be writing a new book for the first time in a long time–the last two have been in the works for years–and was thinking about what I am going to write next year. Hopefully Chlorine and Mississippi River Mischief, and maybe another book in this series–should they want one; I also have two others simmering on the back burner: Voices in an Empty Room and Where the Boys Die (going to need to change that title, though–it’s a working title for something I really want to write, but it fits another book idea I have much better and I just don’t have a better title for this one yet), and of course the novellas and other short stories and…sigh. You see why I feel like I never get anything done? Because I always have so much to do!

When Paul got home we finally watching Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. We had wanted to go see it in the theater, but then Ida happened and there was a paradigm shift and we never got around to getting to the cinema. I’ve been a fan of Simu Liu since his days as Jung on Kim’s Convenience (a very sweet Canadian television comedy that’s a comfort watch), and of course, I love Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung; all of whom were terrific in this, as was Meng’er Zhang as Shang’s younger sister Xialing. The action was incredible, the film was epic in scope, and we both frankly loved it a lot more than some of the other, more cookie cutter variety MCU films.

And Florian Munteanu as Razorfist was an excellent lesser villain. If you haven’t see it, you really should–if you like these types of movies. Then again, I may have been swayed by his impressive physique.

We had talked about watching HBO MAX’s reboot of Gossip Girl (we’d never watched the original), so with some time to kill after Shang Chi and bedtime, I flipped us over there and started watching, and we were almost immediately sucked in. It’s a glossy soap about rich kids at a private school–Elité in English–and it’s actually highly entertaining. I’m looking forward to watching more of it, and we may even go back and watch the seven(!) seasons of the original. We (well, I’m not, I don’t know about Paul) aren’t enjoying the second season of The Great, and I wasn’t really in the mood to watch another episode of it last night, hence the switch to Gossip Girl. Wasn’t it also a popular series of books, like Pretty Little Liars? I doubt that I’ll ever go back and seek out the books, but one never knows.

I also got very deep into Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am also enjoying; Pepper is a terrific heroine and I enjoy her supporting cast of characters. I’ve only been to Seattle once, many years ago, but I really liked the city a lot, and I visited Pike’s Market, which is where Pepper’s spice shop is located. But since it’s very likely I will finish reading the book today, I had to select another book for the trip, and I have chosen Mary Feliz’ Address to Die For.

I also have to pack and get ready for the trip today. AIEEEE.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

He Darked the Sun

And now it’s Saturday again, and there are but two days left before I depart for Kentucky. Which is fine–I am actually looking forward to the drive and the alone-time in the car to listen to audiobooks; I downloaded Isaac Azimov’s Foundation, because it’s been decades and in the wake of the show I’d like to read (hear?) it again.

I also finished The Lost Symbol, which was kind of silly if you actually paid attention, but it also made me curious–I’d never seen any of the Dan Brown/Tom Hanks/Ron Howard collaborations–I am not a Tom Hanks fan; heresy, I know–and so I decided to go ahead and watch Inferno and The Da Vinci Code. They were actually well done–the plot of Inferno was nonsensical and also driven by the main character, Robert Langdon, having temporary amnesia, of all things (and yes, I am well aware that I used the trope of main character with amnesia in Sleeping Angel about ten or eleven years ago) and I never really quite grasped why he was so necessary–a symbologist, something utterly ridiculous and not a thing that was made up for the books, and he is also apparently an international bestselling writer of nonfiction books about symbols, because that, too, is a thing–but I didn’t mind The Da Vinci Code quite as much as I thought I might. I do remember enjoying the book when it came out; but it’s also one I’ve never revisited. I also read it when it was first released and before it became a thing–it was quite a thing for quite some time, before everyone turned on it. That is also something oddly prevalent in our culture–we embrace something and make it into a Very Big Deal, and then comes the inevitable backlash. But Brown was quite rich by the time the backlash began, and so I am sure it didn’t bother him very much. (It probably would bother me if I were in that situation; the months atop the bestseller lists and the cash pouring in from every direction would be lovely but even the slightest criticism would be certain to trigger the Imposter Syndrome, which is something I wish I could chisel out of my psyche.)

Today I have some errands to run and a lot of writing to do–as always. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about A Streetcar Named Murder lately, and I know how I am going to write the rest of the book now–oh, there will be some curve balls along the way, I am certain; there inevitably always are when I am writing a novel–but I know what the underlying force of the book (the theme, if you will, if this book could be said to have one; although I am thinking now it’s more of a underlying tone than a theme, really) is going to be. I did some more research after I finished work yesterday, and everything–the characters, the story, the subplots and the neighborhood and the sense of community–are beginning to take shape in my mind. I actually think I should be able to get a lot of writing done this weekend, to be honest. I am itching to get back to it, I feel better about writing and everything else that’s going on in and around my life, and I feel good for the first time in a long time.

I can’t speak for anyone else besides myself of course, and I do think I have been laboring with some degree of retrograde depression for some time now; even going back to before the pandemic dropped on the world (I also got caught up on The Morning Show, which is now dealing with the early days of the pandemic). I don’t know how else to describe it, but there’s been this gray fuzziness in my peripheral vision when I think, or wake up in the morning. There were mornings when the alarm would go off and I would lie there in bed, staring at the glowing red numerals on my digital clock and think fuck I just don’t want to deal with anything today and I sure as hell can’t face my email inbox. I’ve been lucky, too, with all of this plague shit–I’ve not lost any friends or family to it, at least that I’m aware of, at any rate–but it certainly didn’t do me any good. I did get some of my best writing done during the pandemic–Bury Me in Shadows is probably one of the best books I’ve ever written, and I also think #shedeservedit is pretty good, too; and I’ve done some really good short stories during the twenty or so months since the massive paradigm shift.

Today I have to get some stuff done. Writing, of course, as always, and some errands. I have a box of books to donate to the library sale, have to get the mail, and make some groceries–the Saturday before Thanksgiving, that’s going to be ever so much fun, yay–but if I get that stuff done today, along with the necessary cleaning around the house, I can focus tomorrow solely on writing and getting a lot done. I am going to try to get up early so I can leave early on Monday morning–Foundation safely downloaded to my phone, and I think I will probably download the next Donna Andrews for the trip home on Friday–because sooner is always better than later with lengthy drives. And now that I am waking up relatively early on the regular every morning, why the hell not take advantage of that? (oh yes, I need to make a packing list for the trip as well, don’t I?)

And so, so much cleaning to do. I’ve really let the floors and the living room go since the hurricane, and that must be rectified–there’s nothing worse than coming home to a house that’s not clean after a trip, which I experienced coming home last weekend–and so I am going to spend some time seriously working on the house. That will also help me get creative with the writing–my thoughts anyway–and I also need to check my to-do list and see what’s left to be done as well as make a new one. I’d also like to spend some time with Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am enjoying.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines for the rest of the day. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

Breathe

Good morning, Friday. How are you today? I am feeling good, thank you for asking.

I got a very good night’ sleep last night, and I have, as always, a lot to get done over the weekend (and today) before I head to Kentucky for the holiday on Monday. I want to drop off more books for the library sale tomorrow, have tons of writing to do (as always), and I would like to be able to finish reading Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am deeply enjoying. I have a stack of cozy mysteries to take with me on this trip–Owl Be Home for Christmas by Donna Andrews; Pruning the Dead by Julia Henry; Better off Wed by Laura Durham, and A Disguise to Die For by Diana Vallere, plus any number of them on my iPad as ebooks (I’m taking the iPad with me on the chance that I run out of books, which is a horrible fate to contemplate)–and I also need to figure out how to work the check out audiobooks from the library for the phone thing so I can listen to a book both coming and going. (Eleven hours in the car both directions)

And now that some things have settled and been settled, I can now go ahead and officially announce that I have signed a one-book contract for a potential new series set here in New Orleans with Crooked Lane Books; that is the book I am currently working on, having had to put Chlorine aside yet again to make room to write a new book. This is a series with a straight woman main character–a widow with twin sons who’ve just left for LSU, leaving her with a bit of empty nest syndrome and a beautiful old Victorian house in the Irish Channel that now is much too big for her, who gets an unexpected inheritance from a great-uncle of her late husband’s whom she didn’t know even existed. The book will be published under the name T. G. Herren, to differentiate it from my queer books and series. I just got the sketch art for the book cover, and I love it. The book is called A Streetcar Named Murder, and will be released in the fall of 2022. I will be talking about this book a lot over the course of the next year, so prepare thyself, Constant Reader. (T. G. for those who may be wondering, are my initials only reversed; longtime reader know that I reversed my names for my erotica pseudonym Todd Gregory, hence the initials T. G.) My editor is the exceptional Terri Bischoff, whom I have always wanted to work with, and now I am not only working with her on this but also on the Bouchercon anthology for Minneapolis 2022 (we are co-editors), Land of 10000 Crimes.

Life is pretty good for one Gregalicious at the moment, seriously. And I am really looking forward to my January release, #shedeservedit, while being incredibly nervous at the same time. I also got an invitation to contribute to another anthology that pays well in my inbox this morning, so I am feeling kind of good about myself…I give it a day or two. (Bury Me in Shadows has a great review in the next issue of Mystery Scene magazine, which thrilled me to no end when I saw it last night. More on that later.)

I also booked another trip to New York for January yesterday, which is exciting as well. I also made my hotel arrangements for a return engagement to Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu–the Birmingham/Wetumpka one-two punch I did in consecutive years a while back, so you can see why I feel like my career no longer feels stagnant or in stasis at the moment. And yes, the goal for 2022 is to finally land an agent once and for all. I think Chlorine is the book that will do that for me; we shall see.

I got caught up on Foundation yesterday, and I am really impressed with how well the show turned out, considering how much it has veered away from the books. I’d like to read the books again, frankly–oooh, audiobooks for the car!–and I also watched another episode of The Lost Symbol, which frankly I don’t pay as much attention to as I perhaps should while I am watching. It’s very well done, but the plot is far-fetched (which is about the only thing I do remember from reading the book), but watching the show has made me curious about seeing the Tom Hanks films based on the other Dan Brown novels, which I didn’t really care about before. That’s something, I suppose.

And on that note it’s back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I will check back in with you again tomorrow.