Penny Lover

Also over the course of the weekend, as I was desperate to find an excuse to neither clean nor write, we watched a horror film on Prime called Don’t Hang Up.

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To be honest, I doubt that we would ever have watched this film had I not been scrolling through the listings of horror films on Prime. I actually had started House on Sorority Row because Eileen Davidson and Harley Jane Kozack were in it, but lost interest really quickly. When I saw this listing, and saw that it starred Gregg Sulkin and Garrett Clayton, my first thought was I’ve never heard of this and my second was well, they’re cute boys at the very least.

(Sulkin was the romantic lead on an MTV series I watched called Fakin’ It, and of course, Clayton played underage gay porn star Brent Corrigan in King Cobra.)

It was actually kind of good, although the premise–a group of four male high school friends prank call people, filming the entire thing for Youtube–seemed a little shaky to me; I was all do people still prank call people? Is that still a thing? But things take a turn for the dark side when they prank call the wrong person; a psycho who wants to get revenge on them, and then the movie becomes classic horror movie, a la Scream and Halloween, etc. As far as the genre goes, it’s actually well done, and the two boys do a credible job of acting. There are also some surprise twists, and the end was absolutely perfect. Well done, folks!

We also started watching AMC’s The Terror.

The Terror is based on a novel by Dan Simmons and in the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s very well done, well acted, well written with high production values. I do have some questions–the show begins with the two ships trying to get through the Arctic Ocean to map the northwest passage; a northern route around North America to the Orient. The ships get frozen into the ‘block’ when the sea freezes over…and then it jumps ahead eight months.

The Terror is based on the true story of  the Franklin Expedition–which vanished; the wrecks of the ships were found recently. I have to say, as I often do, that I love fictional stories that are based in real history. Fiction can often, for me, provide a jumping off place to start reading history or about a region; Steve Hamilton’s Misery Bay got me fascinated in the history of the Great Lakes, and Lake Superior in particular; which led to me reading a lot about shipwrecks in that largest of the Great Lakes, and the Edmund Fitzgerald in particular. Watching The Terror will probably lead to me reading up about the search for the Northwest Passage more, and perhaps some Canadian history as well.

But I particularly want to compliment the cast of The Terror, which is quite excellent in their roles; Ciaran Hinds is always terrific, as is Jared Harris. There is also a quite extraordinary Inuk actress, Nive Nielsen, who is giving an Emmy worthy performance. Tobias Menzies is also delivering; and I have a bit of a crush on him, and have ever since he played Brutus in the long-lamented two-season only series Rome, which I loved. I’m not sure what it is about Mr. Menzies that I find so appealing; he’s not classically handsome, but there is just something about his unusual jawline that I think is interesting.

I am quite looking forward to watching a few more episodes. I am also looking forward to the BBC America series Killing Eve, which is also available on the AMC app.

And Adam Rippon is killing it on Dancing with the Stars.

And now, back to the spice mines. I almost am finished with Chapter 13, and need to get some headway on Chapter 14.

Miami Vice

This wasn’t one of my better weeks, to be frank. I had issues with sleep and motivation; being tired had something to do with that. I didn’t get up Wednesday morning and go to the gym like I should have; I am hoping to go tonight, Sunday, and Monday, so as to get back on track. I did get a horrific transitional chapter on the Scotty book finished, though–and I also did some major brainstorming about the plot and how to make it work. It’s probably going to be longer than Scotty books usually are; it may come in somewhere between 90 and 100k. I am also being rather ambitious with this plot, too. It’s going to be complicated, and I am also going to take on some issues, which I generally do not do in the Scotty books. Here’s hoping it plays out the way I want it to.

I also have some deadlines coming up this coming week, which has me petrified with fear. I have several short stories in process…no, I’m not going to think about it. That will just paralyze me some more. Instead, I am going to think good thoughts about how wonderful the stuff I am working on is, rather than freaking the fuck out about everything I have to get done. Tomorrow night we are going to the ballet; I am very excited about this as I’ve never seen one live before. This was one of my Christmas presents from Paul, and I can’t wait…although it is probably going to make me want to write about the ballet and push everything else to the side.

Because the stuff I need to work on is never the stuff I want to work on.

I did read a lot of short stories yesterday, after several fallow days of not reading any. I had to do testing at Nicholls State University yesterday afternoon, which is about an hour and a half drive from the office. I didn’t drive; I rode in the backseat and read stories on my way to and from there, and then last night as I watched the Olympics I read some more. That’s the beauty of short stories; you can read a lot of them in a very short period of time. I think I may have read six or seven yesterday, so I’ve got them stockpiled for the Short Story Project. Huzzah!

And sorry to be so brief this morning; but I’ve got to get to the office.

Here’s a hunk for you as I head back into the spice mines.

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Cool It Now

I still have that horrible throaty cough periodically, but my voice is more normal and I don’t feel off, which I am counting as a win. I also think that my body has changed on me again; my eating habits are bad–I often forget to eat and rarely, if ever, get hungry–but now my blood sugar will drop, leaving me feeling tired and ill. I need to start making sure that I fuel my body properly; gallons of coffee in the morning aren’t the way to go, and that is also inhibiting my sleep at night.

Heavy sigh.

But once the Olympics are over, I can go back to getting in bed at ten and reading for a half an hour or so before going to sleep; I am greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence, as well as my other current non-fiction read, Joan Didion’s essay collection After Henry. Didion is amazing; the way she crafts sentences and paragraphs is both lyrical and beautiful. I wish I had one tenth of her skill. I also made some progress with the Short Story Project, and am thinking I may write a Chanse short story. Reading all these Tess Monaghan (Laura Lippman) and Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) and Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald) short stories are showing me how it’s possible to write and craft a private eye short story; and I have an idea in my head about one where Chanse goes back to LSU for a fraternity reunion that might turn deadly. It’s just a thought; I’ve always wanted to do that in a novel, but it might just be a short story, you know? One of my problems has always been that I think in terms of novels as opposed to short stories; I’ve certainly turned short stories into novels (Sorceress and Sleeping Angel come to mind), and am even thinking of turning another one into a novel. Reading all these short stories has been inspiring me to write short stories, which is incredibly cool. I have several in progress right now; I’ve been asked to write for two anthologies where the story is inspired by a song; which is something I have certainly done before, and I’m having a lot of fun with those. I also want to write something for the MWA anthology, and I have another I am writing to submit to another anthology as well. I am still working on the WIP and the Scotty, never fear–the Scotty is taking a timely and dark turn, which is kind of cool–but I have all these short stories dancing around in my head!

Bitchin’.

I also read two short stories over the weekend. The first was Sue Grafton’s “Long Gone,” from her Kinsey and Me collection.

September in Santa Teresa. I’ve never known anyone yet who doesn’t suffer a certain restlessness when autumn rolls around. it’s the season of new school clothes, fresh notebooks, and finely sharpened pencils without any teeth marks in the wood. We’re all eight years old again and anything is possible. The new year should never begin on January 1. It begins in the gall and continues as long as our saddle oxfords remain unscuffed and our lunch boxes have no dents.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m female, thirty-two, twice divorced, “doing business as” Kinsey Millhone Investigations in a little town ninety-nine miles north of Los Angeles. Mine isn’t a walk-in trade like a beauty salon. Most of my clients find themselves in a bind and then seek my services, hoping I can offer a solution for a mere thirty bucks an hour, plus expenses. Robert Ackerman’s message was waiting on my answering machine that Monday morning at nine when I got in.

One of the things that rarely gets mentioned in discussion about Sue Grafton’s work is how funny she can; and this particular story, with Kinsey having to interview a husband who wants to hire her to find his wife, and having to deal with his three children, all under five, is actually, despite its dark tone and subject matter, kind of breezy and funny. Kinsey’s droll sense of humor, and her sympathy for the missing wife–which comes from her own dour outlook at marriage and family–made me laugh out loud several times during the course of reading the story. It’s a pity that Grafton didn’t write more short stories, because these are gems.

I then moved on to “The Barber” by Flannery O’Connor, from The Complete Stories.

It is trying on liberals in Dilton.

After the Democratic White Primary, Rayber changed his barber. Three weeks before it, while he was shaving him, the barber said, “Who you gonna vote for?”

“Darmon,” Rayber said.

“You a n*****r-lover?”

Rayber started in the chair. He had not expected to be approached so brutally. “No,” he said. If he had not been off-balance, he would have said, “I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover.” He had said that before to Jacobs, the philosophy man, and–to show you how trying it is for liberals in Dilton–Jacobs–a man of his education, had muttered, “That’s a poor way to be.”

A writer friend of mine–probably one of my closest friends who is also a writer–is a huge Flannery O’Connor fan. As I mentioned when I talked about reading her story “The Geranium,” I had read her A Good Man Is Hard To Find and wasn’t overly impressed with it. Also, as I said when I read “The Geranium,” the racism and use of the n-word is kind of hard for me to see. And yet…in this story, it fits and has to be used, even though it fills me with distaste to see it on the page and to read it. “The Barber,” you see, is the perfect personification of what it’s like to live in the South and be confronted by in-your-face racism all the time. This doesn’t excuse it by any means, or say it’s okay; but wow, how honest and true this story is.

Rayber is a liberal, who clearly believes in racial equality; he is a teacher at the local college and when he is confronted with the racism from his barber and some of the other men in his shop, he is startled, shocked; doesn’t know what to do. Part of his white privilege comes from being surrounded, he believes, by people who believe the same way he does; that racism and bigotry and segregation is wrong and a moral evil. He doesn’t know what to do when he is confronted by it in the face of his barber, someone whose chair he has sat in for years, presumably, and allowed to apply a straight razor to his face and neck. Now, this pleasant person whom he has never really paid a whole lot of attention to and has never really given much of a thought to, other than he provides a service well that Rayber needs, is confronting him with a hideousness that is quite horrifying while holding a sharp razor at his throat. What makes this all the more brilliant is how O’Connor doesn’t even make that connection for the reader; she just puts it out there and lets the reader come to his own realization. And afterwards, after being mocked by the barber and his friends in the shop for how he chooses to cast his vote, he spends the next week angry and bitter about the experience, and preparing to explain his vote logically and rationally the next time he gets shaved; to reason with the barber and tell him how wrong racism is…and inevitably, when that times comes, as the barber jovially mocks him for his vote, he eventually becomes frustrated and physically lashes out.

This story resonated strongly with me. Whenever I am confronted with something I find morally abhorrent, to my face, it catches me so off-guard that I can’t really respond logically and rationally–sometimes even at all– because it is hard for me to understand that there are people out there who actually can hold positions I hold morally abhorrent; I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around, for example, homophobia. I don’t get it. I do not understand how anyone can simply devalue and deny another human being their humanity. It’s hard for me to write homophobic characters because I cannot fully flesh those characters out and make them anything other than one-dimensional; I cannot grasp hatred like that. But, as one editor told me early in my career, even Hitler loved his dogs. I could relate to O’Connor’s character, and his inability to understand, to realize, what he was dealing with; that behind the friendly face and jovial attitude is someone whose core values and beliefs are so repugnant to him that they didn’t seem POSSIBLE.

And that is the mark of a truly gifted writer.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that story since I read it, and again, the mark of a great writer. Ms. O’Connor made me think, made me reflect, got under my skin and made me question my own self, not only as a person but as a writer.

Wow.

And now back to the spice mines.

RyanPaevey14

Saving All My Love For You

Saturday morning. I have an eye appointment in Metairie this afternoon, but I definitely need new glasses. I also have to get groceries this morning (ugh), and I should probably figure out some time to go get the mail as well. Heavy sigh; the house is also a mess and this kitchen needs a-cleanin’. Paul’s going into the office today, so I’ll be alone; I am hoping, after I get home, to spend some time writing. I was very tired and didn’t feel good yesterday; my throat’s kind of sore this morning as well; I woke up a lot last night, but I did sleep. Tomorrow I am going back to the gym to get my workouts going again, so hopefully that will help in the sleep department. I’ve noticed that I’m not sleeping as well since Carnival started and I stopped having time for working out.

I can’t not sleep. I have too much to do and I can’t be tired. Yesterday was my short day at the office and after I got home, I didn’t feel well and was too tired to do anything besides sit in my easy chair and watch Adam Rippon videos on Youtube. (I told you I was stanning.) Then it was time to watch the Olympic figure skating, which was terrific. Very proud of our US skaters! Nathan Chen had six quads in his program, and made Olympic history, and young Vincent Zhou skated magnificently as well. All three of our skaters wound up in the Top Ten, which was terrific, and Nathan came close to medaling. If only he’d turned that second quad in his short program into a combination jump and gotten points for it, he would have. He had the highest score in the long program. Had they both skated clean short programs, they both would have medaled. So, there’s a lot of hope there for the future. Part of the fun of the Olympics is also seeing the future of the sport out on the ice as well–the silver medalist, Shoma Uno, is very young as well, and there was a young Russian who is very artistic. Worlds this year will be very fun to watch.

Oh, Adam. What would it have meant to fifteen year old me, deeply closeted and terrified someone might find out who I really was, to see you skate at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976? Watching you this past week brought tears to my eyes every time; my heart was in my throat every time you went into a jump. You made me laugh in your interviews, you made me cry with your oh-so-beautiful skating. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in seeing a skater do well? Michelle Kwan, whom I loved and still miss? Rudy Galindo in 1996? And how happy and proud to see all the love for you, to the point where even the trash tweeting shit about you could just make me smile and think he has a bronze medal, and you have your phone and bitterness. I feel SORRY for you that you can’t find joy in this, what a sad, bitter, pathetic life you must lead. Especially the gay Republicans, so desperate for the love and acceptance they’ll never get from their abusive relationship with a party that hates them. Adam is a star; will be a star, and he’ll always, always, have these Olympics, three gorgeous performances, and a bronze medal. No one can ever take that away from him with petty nastiness.

Watching Adam and his great joy in his sport and doing his best also made me realize something; it’s about doing something you love, and doing your best. I had already realized that I had lost my joy in writing sometime ago; I’m not sure when it went from being something I loved doing to an odious chore. But this year I’ve rediscovered how much I love it, how much I’ve missed it; how I love creating characters and telling stories and expressing myself on the page. I was already getting there on my own, but watching Adam, seeing him, took me to that final place. It’s not about medals, it’s not about awards, it’s not even about money; it’s about joy in doing something you love.

Thanks, Adam, for that–and for making me realize how I’ve been neglecting my eyebrows.

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I also read some more short stories.

To be fair, I had already read Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”; her Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. But it had been awhile since I’d read this story; I knew it was vastly different from the Hitchcock film based on it, so I read it again.

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it.

Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds. Autumn was the best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those who had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied to them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.

One of the best parts of the film is that there’s no explanation why the birds have turned on humans; they just have, and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever go back to normal. The end of the movie is kind of left hanging; when I saw it the first time when I was a kid I was deeply dissatisfied with how the film ended. But there wasn’t really any way to end the film, and du Maurier herself gave no clues to what was going to happen at the end of her story. The story ends much the same as the movie; no end to the menace in sight, and even more chilling–I don’t remember if this was in the movie–but the BBC had stopped broadcasting; the horrifying part of this story is the incredible sense of isolation the family feels–are they the only people left alive in the world? On that level, the story is even more disturbing than the film; in the movie there are other people all around in the town. The story is set out in the country…and du Maurier never lets the reader know. The way the horror builds is almost unbearable; her mastery is truly amazing.

I also went back to the Laura Lippman well for “Easy As A-B-C’, from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Another house collapsed today. It happens more and more, especially with all the wetback crews out there. Don’t get me wrong. I  used guys from Mexico and Central America, too, and they’re great workers, especially when it comes to landscaping. But some contractors aren’t as particular as I am. They hire the cheapest labor they can get and the cheapest comes pretty high, especially when you’re excavating a basement, which has become one of the hot fixes around here. It’s not enough, I guess, to get the three-story rowhouse with four bedrooms, gut it from top to bottom, creating open, airy kitchens where grandmothers once smoked the wallpaper with bacon grease and sour beef, or carve master bath suites in the tiny middle rooms that the youngest kids always got stuck with. No, these people have to have the full family room, too, which means digging down into the old dirt basements, putting in new floors and walls. But if you miscalculate–boom. Nothing to do but bring that fucker down and start carting away the bricks.

The premise of this story; a guy who owns a construction company is hired to renovate his grandparents’ old house for a young woman he finds attractive, despite his many years of marriage–is pretty clever. It also has a lot to say, in a very sly way, about gentrification and how old neighborhoods and their character are ruined by it; this is something going on to a very large extent in New Orleans, and has been for quite some time, and there’s a strong sense for us locals that with these changes, some of what made New Orleans so special, unique and different, is also being lost. Lippman inhabits the voice of this middle-age blue-collar man perfectly; she never once slips and makes an error that jars the reader out of the voice. And as the story builds to its own inevitable dark climax, you really can’t stop reading because you really aren’t sure how she is going to finish playing her cards. That’s the great joy of Lippman, and what makes her special and unique as a writer; you’re never really sure how this is all going to play out, but she never deliberately misleads you, ever–she doesn’t cheat, and once you get there, you think, yes, that’s the only way this could end.

Seriously, her new novel dropping this week, Sunburn, is definitely one of her best; check it out, if you haven’t already.

And now, I’ve got a jam to get Scotty and the boys out of.

Part-Time Lover

Friday! I wasn’t feeling well last night, and was worried I was getting sick, to be completely honest. But this morning I feel much better and well-rested (at least for now) and it’s a short day, so there’s that. Huzzah!

Yesterday I managed to get two more chapters sort-of-revised for the WIP; I think I now have enough material for the agent search; I’ll be double checking that today and perhaps getting it together. I also want to work on the new Scotty today; it’s going in a completely different direction than it originally did, and I am really liking it. While I was lying in bed this morning before getting up, I had some really terrific ideas about where to take this–and while it might be a little on the risky side, I am going to do it, I think.

We watched the skating last night, and while it was terribly sad to see Nathan Chen skate so poorly, he’s also very young. He could come back tonight and have the skate of his life, or be so rocked that he skates terribly again tonight. I do think he’s going to win the World title though next month, and this will set him up for the next Olympics as well. He is very young.

Adam Rippon was terrific last night; I am so delighted to see that all the hate being slung at him from the homophobes on the right wing (American patriots my ass; nothing says patriotic American than hoping an American athlete will fail at the Olympics. Trash.) is just bouncing off him and he is having the Olympic experience he’s always dreamed of. I had a geek moment yesterday when I tweeted at him and his mother and she liked my tweet; yes, I may be 56, but I can fanboy with the best of them. I am looking forward to tonight, let me tell you.

I also started reading the stories in the MWA anthology Manhattan Mayhem,edited by the amazing Mary Higgins Clark. The first story is by Clark herself, “The Five-Dollar Dress”:

It was a late August afternoon, and the sun was sending slanting shadows across Union Square in Manhattan. It’s a peculiar kind of day, Jenny thought as she came up from the subway and turned east. This was the last day she needed to go to the apartment of her grandmother, who had died three weeks ago.

She had already cleaned out most of the apartment. The furniture and all of Gran’s household goods, as well as her clothing, would be picked up by five o’clock by the diocese charity.

Her mother and father were both pediatricians in San Francisco and had intensely busy schedules. Having just passed the bar exam after graduating from Stanford Law School, Jenny was free to do the job. Next week, she would be starting as a deputy district attorney in San Francisco.

A very simple set-up–granddaughter cleaning out grandmother’s apartment–leads her to find news stories and information about the brutal murder of her grandmother’s best friend many years earlier…and the story takes some startling twists along the way. I’ve not read any of Ms. Clark’s short stories before, and I’ve not read any of her books since A Stranger Is Watching when I was a teenager; I’m not sure why, to be honest. I loved both it and Where Are The Children? Meeting her at the Edgar banquet the first year I went was one of the biggest thrills of my life, and what a gracious lady she is, too.

The next story was by Julie Hyzy, titled “White Rabbit”:

The young woman sitting on the bench stopped fingering a strand of her white-blonde pixie cut. Startled, she looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Excuse me?”

“I asked you if you were recapturing your childhood.” The man who had spoken reached down to tap a corner of the book lying on her lap. He had a round face and the sort of little-boy haircut most men ditch long before they hit thirty. Wearing black-framed glasses and a bushy brown beard, he carried a soft paunch and a beat-up messenger bag.

“Interesting reading choice,” he said. “Especially considering the view. My name’s Mark, by the way.”

They are sitting near the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, and she is reading Alice in Wonderland. As the two begin talking, the story appears to be going one way, then turns abruptly into another direction, and makes yet another turn. Very gripping, the suspense building as the story goes along, with a most satisfying denouement.

Ah, and now back to the spice mines. Happy Friday everyone.

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Think of Laura

Zulu is passing now; I can hear the drums of the marching bands. It’s a gorgeous morning, the sun is shining and I am betting the crowds up at the Avenue are deep; they certainly were last night for Orpheus. Paul and I both have to work tomorrow, so we’re ending our Carnival early; taking today to rest and recover so we can hit the ground running on Ash Wednesday. I also have a lot of things to do today; emails to answer, things to write, things to edit, things to read, a kitchen to clean. Even though it was abbreviated this year (I was in Alabama for the first weekend of parades), I enjoyed every bit of Carnival this year; and am already melancholy to see it end as always.

I’ve also been enjoying the hell out of the Winter Olympics, and like millions of people worldwide I am–what’s the word kids use now? Oh yes–stanning Adam Rippon. As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve known of Adam long before these games; I remember when he had a mop of floppy curls; when gossip websites were pairing him and Ashley Wagner as a couple (I rolled my eyes every time I saw the photos), and I remember when he came out. I blogged about homophobia in figure skating a while back; when Adam came out while still on the Olympic eligible circuit I thought to myself you’re never going to win anything now; so I was pleasantly surprised to see him win US Nationals and make the world team in 2016; he missed last season with a broken foot, and this season he is full-on out: his short program is to gay club music, and his long program, as everyone saw the other night, is breathtaking. I’m so happy for both him and Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics that same night; they earned bronze medals as part of the team competition, and I couldn’t be happier for both of them–all of the Americans on the team, to be honest. Adam is so funny and refreshingly himself; a big personality and a natural wit he doesn’t try to hold back, and that honesty…I just can’t get enough. I had tears in my eyes when he finished his long program the other night; Paul and I both screamed when Mirai landed the triple axel. Seeing the trashy homophobes on Twitter trashing him or going after him makes my blood boil; I’ve resisted the urge to reply to them He’s got an Olympic medal and you’re a fifth-rate Twitter troll. Congratulations.

So. There’s that.

And in other news of the fabulous, the lucky world of readers can look forward to the upcoming release of a new Laura Lippman novel, Sunburn. I got an ARC at Bouchercon and read it in one sitting on a rainy Saturday back in October.

sunburn

It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. They’re building a big by-ass so the beach traffic won’t have to slow for the speed trap on the old Main Street. He saw the construction vehicles, idle on Sunday, on his way in. Places like this bar-slash-restaurant, the High-Ho, are probably going to lose what little business they have.

High-Ho. A misprint? Was it supposed to be Heigh-Ho? And if so, was it for the seven dwarfs, heading home from the mines at day’s end, or for the Lone Ranger, riding off into the sunset?  Neither one makes much sense for this place.

Nothing about this makes sense.

Laura Lippman has been one of my favorite writers since I read Baltimore Blues years and years ago. I tore through her Tess Monaghan series, and she very quickly became one of my buy in hardcover authors. I’ve never regretted making that switch, and as she has expanded her skills and pushed herself with her exceptionally brilliant stand alone novels, I’ve never once quibbled but I want another Tess novel! (I do, always, but the stand alones are so fucking fantastic that it doesn’t matter–I really just want a new Lippman, and wish she was on a yearly schedule rather than an eighteen month one.)

Laura’s career trajectory has been most impressive from a writing perspective; because as a writer of stand alones, she has gone from being a literary crime writer to a literary writer about crime, if that makes sense. Each of her stand alones are unique and different from the others; about as far removed from her series as any novels can be and still be by the same author. Each one of these novels are rare pearls, individual and vastly different from the others; different themes, different explorations, different everything. The one common thread that runs through these novels is that they are, for the most part, about women, and what women face in their lives; how they deal with crimes and tragedies that take them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Laura also regularly experiments with form and voice and tense; enormous, dangerous risks as a writer that she somehow always manages to pull off, make engaging and enjoyable, and always manages to tell a story that makes a very compelling point.

Sunburn,  her latest, is as different from anything she has done before as it could be unless she decided to write about vampires or a zombie apocalypse; but she also brings her incredibly powerful sense of empathy to this tale of murder, vengeance, and oh-so-careful planning. The book opens with the main character, Polly Costello, walking away from her husband and child on a beach vacation and winding up in the hard-knock town of Belleville; she is being observed by Adam, who is being paid to keep an eye on her, follow her–but not to become obsessed by her, which is what happens. Their story is told in a very limited third person point of view, alternating between them, and as we slowly get to know them, watch their physical attraction expand and develop into something more, the questions remain: why did Polly walk away from her family and child? How could she do such a thing? Who is this enigmatic redheaded bar waitress?

And just how fucking good does Adam’s grilled cheese sandwich taste?

The prose in this book is lean; not an extra word to be found anywhere, and it is an homage of sorts to the kind of lean, tight, dark noir that the great James M. Cain wrote. (Cain is a hero of mine, and I have always wanted to write something that dark and lean and tight…ironically, one of the ideas I had for such a noir–gay, of course–was also titled Sunburn) I’ve seen, in some of the early reviews, comparisons to Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which seem obvious; there’s an insurance scam buried deep in the plot, it’s set in a bar/diner, it’s about an unexpected, explosive attraction between a man and a woman; there are side plots that end in mysterious deaths… but if anything, I’d say Sunburn is more reminiscent of Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress than anything else.

The book is extraordinary, and probably Laura Lippman’s best work to date; that wisecracking, tight prose; a complicated and complex plot that grows even more complicated as you read another page; fully developed characters you can help but root for, even if their motivations aren’t exactly pure; and ultimately, the book is about a woman with everything stacked against her all of her life, who  never gives up, and makes plans…risky plans; where she gambles everything, including her own happiness and desire, for her future, yet is flexible and smart enough to always adapt.

Polly Costello is a heroine Cain would have been proud to call his own.

I Feel for You

Adam Rippon is going to the Olympics as the first openly gay American figure skater to compete in Olympic history.

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Let’s not be coy, though–there have been plenty of gay male figure skaters throughout the history of the sport–but most came out (or were outed) after their Olympic-eligible careers were over. (And Adam Kenworthy–not a figure skater– is also out this year, but he wasn’t out when he competed in Sochi.)

One of the things that has always fascinated me about figure skating is the contradiction evident in its gender roles. Men are, while being artistic, also supposed to read as masculine and not feminine; likewise the women (it’s still called Ladies’ Figure Skating, for the record) are supposed to be feminine, graceful and lady-like, rather than athletic; a feminine and graceful skater would always win over someone who wasn’t as graceful but was more of an athlete than a ballet dancer. This bipolarity at the heart of figure skating kept gay male skaters deep in the closet, particularly if they were American men; Russian men had no problem with wearing gloves and performing ballet on the ice–but at the same time, those Russian men (Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov, Ilia Kulik, Alexei Yagudin, and Yevgeny Pluschenko won every Olympic gold medal between 1992 and 2006) clearly were athletes, flying across the ice in footstep sequences with their feet and blades changing directions and edges as rapidly as a machine gun fires; dizzying fast spins with beautiful positions; and of course, landing quad and triple jumps with the greatest of ease, and almost always on the beat of the music they were performing to.

There was also an unspoken understanding that being openly gay would hurt a skater in the marks, which were often subjective, frequently unfair, and, according to the ISU, above reproach. Rudy Galindo was the first openly gay American skater to win US Nationals in 1996, and went on to win a bronze medal at worlds that year; the next openly gay skater to win the US title was Adam Rippon, some twenty years later. Between them was flamboyant Johnny Weir, who didn’t come out until after his Olympic-eligible career was over… (I might add that, despite being US champion and a world medalist in 1996, the USFSA chose not to send Rudy to any of the Grand Prix events the following season; a clear indication to him that his Olympic-eligible career was over, and he went pro.)

Rippon, incidentally, finished fourth at the Olympic trials this year, but was chosen to go to the Olympics anyway; selected over a heterosexual skater who finished with the silver medal. Have things changed with male figure skating since Rudy’s big win in 1996?

As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve always wanted to write a book about a gay figure skater. I did in Jackson Square Jazz, with the character of Bryce Bell, a US Olympic hopeful who is introduced to the reader as someone a very drunken Scotty picked up at a French Quarter gay bar, only to see him competing that same night at Skate America, being held in New Orleans for the first (and clearly fictional) time. (As a joke, I also had Bryce become the first skater in history to land a quad axel; this has still not happened in real life, and may not ever happen.) But Bryce’s skating was relatively unimportant to the story and plot of the book; although his remaining closeted as a skater was.

I never felt that I was able to truly explore the issues of being a gay, Olympic-eligible, American figure skater in the book; Bryce was a supporting character, and the story wasn’t told from his point of view (I’ve been tempted to bring him back, but can never figure out a way to do it organically; just forcibly grafting him onto a story because I want to just feels wrong).

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Ironically, Adam didn’t win Nationals until after he came out. Coming out–and being able to truly be himself for the first time–paid off. He’s a much better skater than he was before; but I do remember thinking at the time he came out, well, you’re never going to win nationals now. But by embracing himself for who he really is, he changed; he found a look and costumes that work for him–he used to have this mop of blonde curls–and his short program this year, to what Paul and I immediately recognized as a gay techno dance remix from back in the day–is one for the ages.

So, does the central premise of the noir figure skating novel I’ve wanted to write–a skater being forced into the closet and not allowed to be himself so that I can explore not only the dynamics of what masculinity is but the class issues inherent in figure skating (I still haven’t posted about my thoughts on I Tonya, which have everything to do with femininity vs. athleticism and class); the masks skaters are forced to wear in order to play the game and get the marks they deserve to win–does that premise still exist today? As far as I know, Adam and Rudy are the only American skaters to come out and skate at the Olympic eligible level; are there others? Is coming out still a risk to your career as a male skater?

Probably so.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.