Thunder Island

As Constant Reader already is aware, I’ve been trying to diversify my reading this year. The Diversity Project, as I’ve been calling it, has been revelatory for me; I’ve been reading books and authors I should have been reading all along, but somehow, despite having bought the books, they’ve collected dust and cobwebs in my TBR pile as I somehow always manage to reach for something else when it’s time to read something new. But it has been, as I said, revelatory to me; and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of the ride. My endgame, as it were, is that when I finish this “project”, any subconscious bias I might have in deciding on what to read will have been ripped out, root and stem, and it will simply fade away into something I won’t need to call attention to because I’ve bested the worst biases in my psyche–and aren’t the ones we aren’t aware of the worst?

Yes, they are.

So over the last week I read Rachel Howzell Hall’s wonderful They All Fall Down.

they all fall down

The Los Angeles International Airport was the worst place to lose your mind in post-9/11 America. Especially if you perspired like Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the NBA finals. Especially if you popped Valium twice a day to combat anxiety. And there I was, standing in the TSA security clearance line at LAX, a sweaty, anxious black woman wearing sweaty green silk, sipping air and blinking away tears.

Miriam, keep it together. They’re gonna pull you out of line if you keep on. Calm down. But “calm” was slipping further away, an iceberg on a quick current being pushed by a pod of enthusiastic killer whales.

And so I closed my eyes and I prayed again. God, don’t let them kick me out of LAX today. Please help me stay calm.

“Next.”

In my mind, I said, “Amen,” then opened my eyes. I forced myself to smile at the gray-eyed TSA agent seated behind the little podium, and hoped that she thought I was a slow blinker and not a terrorist praying one last time before setting one off.

The agent flicked her hand at me and said, “ID and boarding pass, please.”

I’m not sure how I became aware of Rachel Howzell Hall, but I think it was while I was serving on the board of directors for Mystery Writers of America and I was chairing the committee to recruit new board members; we were determined to diversify the board and I think the wondrous Margery Flax suggested her to me as a possible, viable candidate. We had a lovely email exchange and I bought one of her books, Land of Shadows, which went into the TBR pile and never came out of it. I’d heard lots of good things about They All Fall Down, so I got a copy, and decided to read it next.

And am I glad I did!

Sometimes I talk about Agatha Christie, but it’s been years since I’ve read any of her books (I did reread a favorite, Endless Night, a few years back; it’s the most noir of Christie’s novels, which are all, frankly, much darker than she gets credit for) but one cannot deny Christie’s rightful place as the greatest mystery writer of all time; she did it all, and she did it first. One of my absolute favorites of hers is And Then There Were None, which was groundbreaking and highly original and has been copied numerous times: the set up of taking a group of people somewhere remote, stranding them without chance of rescue or escape, and setting a murderer loose amongst them. Margaret Millar, for example, used this set-up for Fire Will Freeze; and it’s been the basis for many slasher movies, etc. I thought about doing my own version of this a few years ago–because the set-up is so classic and enduring, I wanted to give it my own spin–but the problem was how to strand a group of people without cell phone service or the Internet or even satellite phones, without using Christie’s “send them to a remote island” trope.

Let’s face it, though–the remote island is the perfect set-up.

They All Fall Down has been compared to And Then There Were None, and it’s apparent, almost from the first: a group of people have been invited to Mictlan Island, a remote location somewhere in the Sea of Cortez; all with different understandings of why they’ve been invited. Miriam Macy, Hall’s main character, believes she’s been invited to join the cast of a Survivor type reality television show; she’s hoping to win and use the prize money to reboot her shattered life. Hall only doles out information about Miriam slowly, over the course of the novel, but it’s a testament to her skill as a writer that there are two mysteries going on at the same time–the mystery of Miriam’s past, and the mystery of who is killing people on the island. The book is full of surprises and twists, the cast of characters is diverse, and the themes Hall explores are original, or given enough of a new spin to make them seem fresh and new.

But the real revelation of the book is the character of Miriam Macy, and the way Hall breathes life into this complicated woman who has done something horrible and yet continues to justify what she did rather than accepting any culpability for it. You can’t help but root for Miriam, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, and the brilliance of Hall’s talent is that you keep rooting for Miriam as the story goes on, even after you find out the full story and her history, because her experience on the island is helping her to grow and see the darkness she has denied for years.

This book is an extraordinary accomplishment, and I can’t wait to read more of Hall’s work. Buy it, read it, and love it.

Sledgehammer

We have rain forecast again for today, but right now it’s gorgeous and sunny and blue skies as far as the eye can see outside my windows. Alberto has sped up and shifted east; we are no longer in the Cone of Uncertainty, but Monday evening could be rather unpleasant; the whole day in fact could be rather unpleasant.

Yesterday I broke down and read the first fourteen chapters of the Scotty book. I’d been putting it off–avoidance  having always been one of my top methods of dealing with something I’d rather not–and am pleased to report that while the draft is, in fact and as I’d suspected–terribly rough. But while the writing itself needs to be improved on, and the scenes made better and the dialogue strengthened and the characters deepened; the bare bones of the story are there and they are working precisely the way I wanted them to. Chapter Fourteen is, indeed, terrible and off-track; which means I shall simply have to correct it before moving on to Chapter Fifteen. This was such an enormous relief to me, you have no idea, Constant Reader! I also finally figured out the plot as well, which was equally lovely. Now, I have eleven or so chapters more to do and the first draft is finished; and then it’s just clean-up work.

Huzz-fucking-ah!

I also continued making notes on both “Never Kiss a Stranger” and “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” as well as notes for the y/a I want to write later this year, Bury Me in Satin. I have to say, having this stay-cation has been absolutely necessary and needed; I should probably take these lengthy weekends every few months or so, just to get caught up and reconnect with my writing, rather than just trying to get it done.

I’ve also continued reading Roth’s When She Was Good. Roth is a spectacularly good writer, and he definitely understands character and what to do with it; which is, of course, another way of saying that I am really enjoying reading this book, which I didn’t expect. There is, of course, some casual homophobia in the book, but unfortunately it also fits into the time period and therefore kind of works with the characters…but still kind of jarring to read, while kind of important to remember it wasn’t that long ago that blatant homophobia was so deeply and systemically woven into the fabric of our society that it’s a wonder we’ve made it this far already.

I continue to watch The Shannara Chronicles, and was saddened to see a main character killed off in Episode 8 of Season 2 last night. Shannara is similar to Game of Thrones in that regard; everyone’s life is on the table. I only read the first novel in the series, but it might be interesting to go back and reread the first one and the next two in the series at some point (because I have so much free time).

I also watched the season finale of Krypton, which was terrific. Krypton, which started out kind of ‘meh,’ really hit its stride as the season got going. I rewatched the 1940’s version of And Then There Were None last night, which is terrific other than changing the end of the novel, and the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, which was not as good as I remembered.

I am currently reading two non-fiction books: The Republic of Pirates and The Golden Age of Murder. As my watching of Black Sails no doubt tipped you off, Constant Reader, I am fascinated by pirates and one day hope to write about pirates; whether actually about pirates during their heyday, or about pirate treasure in the present (there’s a Scotty idea in my head somewhere about Jean Lafitte’s treasure I just can’t get my hands on, but someday!), so I am reading The Republic of Pirates as sort of research/for pleasure. Likewise, The Golden Age of Murder is about the Detection Club, and the rise of the British writers who made up the “golden age”: Christie, Sayers, Chesterton, etc. It’s interesting and informative; while I’ve read many of these writers–many of them when I was a teenager–it’s kind of fun finding out what they were like as people; what they thought of their own writing and each other; how they came up with their ideas, and what they did for marketing purposes (Sayers was apparently a tireless self-promoter).

I’ve decided that I have to do more promotion going forward; I am not exactly sure how to do that, but it’s something I need to be more pro-active about. Facebook and Twitter certainly can’t be the be-all end-all of my marketing efforts; however, the gay bookstores are gone as are the gay newspapers, and the mystery bookstores seem to be closing at an equally alarming rate as well. I’ve also come to the conclusion this year, as I’ve mentioned so many times before in past entries this year already, that I need to stop being so self-deprecating and take pride in my work. This is very against my nature; my default is to self-deprecate so I don’t have to worry about other people being deprecating. I’ve always feared that if I say something like I’m really proud of this story someone else will say, well, being proud of THIS isn’t difficult given what you’ve written before; you see how defeating this all can be? Reprogramming my mind isn’t easy, but it is definitely something I need to work on for this year. At the same time I detest arrogance…so it’s a tightrope I have to walk, proud but not arrogant. And I’m not sure I can navigate either properly.

But I am enjoying creating again; enjoying working with my characters and coming up with plots and dialogue and images. Hopefully I’ll do some actually writing–last night I was writing scenes in my journal in long-hand while the television blared in the background; fortunately with the Christie films I’d seen them before and read the novels, so I didn’t miss anything; I may not have been paying as close attention to The Shannara Chronicles as I may have needed to.

Today, I am going to reread the first four chapters of the revision of the WIP (which I have already started revising yet again). I may do some computer-writing today, but then again we’ll see where the day goes, shall we?

I also have been reading some short stories. I’d forgotten that The New Yorker was doing these decades books; showing the decade through collected pieces published in the magazine during that decade. I had purchased the volume for the 1940’s, and forgotten about it. I started paging through it the other day, and came across some great essays as well as some short stories…

The first inThe New Yorker’s The 40’s: The Story of a Decade is”The Second Tree from the Corner” by E. B. White.

\”Ever have any bizarre thoughts?” asked the doctor.

Mr. Trexler failed to catch the word. “What kind?” he asked.

“Bizarre,” repeated the doctor, his voice steady. He watched his patient for any slight change of expression, any wince. It seemed to Trexler that the doctor was not only watching him closely but creeping slowly toward him, like a lizard toward a bug. Trexler shoved his back an inch and gathered himself for a reply. He was about to say “Yes” when he realized that if he said yes the next question would be unanswerable. Bizarre thoughts, bizarre thoughts? Ever have any bizarre thoughts? What kind of thoughts except bizarre had he had since the age of two?

It’s interesting, for one thing, to switch from the crime/horror stories I usually read to read something that’s more along the literary fiction lines; I’ve heard of E. B. White before but never read him other than his collaboration with William Strunk, The Elements of Style, which has become a Bible of sorts, if not to writers then definitely to writing students. So, it was kind of nice to read some of his fiction.

The story itself is rather clever; it’s about the relationship between a psychiatrist and a patient, primarily drawn from the patient’s–Mr. Trexler’s–point of view, and how he sees his own neuroses and if his doctor is actually helping him or not. Mr. Trexler begins to slowly question his therapist during their sessions, which inevitably shifts the dynamic between the two, and Mr. Trexler also has some keen insights into his doctor’s personality. Ironically, this ‘reverse-therapy’ seems to have the most positive effect on Mr. Trexler, and after a session–which may or may not be his final session with this doctor–he’s kind of helped himself; on his walk home from the therapist he is quite buoyant and happy and seeing the world with almost new eyes, seeing everything in a new way.

So, the therapy worked…but just not how it’s intended to work, but does it matter when the final end is the desired outcome?

Interesting.

And now back to the spice mines.

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She Works Hard for the Money

Tuesday.

I had yesterday off, which was most lovely, and I spent the day relaxing, making lists, writing, editing, reading, and cleaning. I made shrimp creole for dinner, which was fabulous, and then we watched the series finale for Orphan Black. I am going to miss the sestras; it was quite a thrill ride for five seasons, and Tatiana Maslany’s talent is truly amazing.

I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, but sometimes just being able to reflect and think is just as effective as actually writing. Plus, I kind of needed a rest. I am going to get some more writing done today, and I am going to finish the second half of the WIP line edit, and then tomorrow (a twelve hour day) I am going to hopefully get started on the first half of the manuscript’s line edit. I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get this done; and then I am going to have to story edit one more time just to make sure. I want to be able to start sending it to agents after Labor Day. I want to get the first draft of this Scotty finished by mid-September as well, then let it sit for a month or so while I write this noir I’ve been wanting to write for a while. I think the working on something different between drafts is working for me. It doesn’t make sense in any sort of writing universe to write this way, but it’s working for me and as I always tell beginning writers–find whatever system works for you, even if it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense to anyone else.

I am also way behind–and off the rails–for short stories. I need to get back to “For All Tomorrow’s Lies” soon; it’s due for an edit/revision, and I never did finish that draft of “Quiet Desperation.” Heavy heaving sigh. I think there’s another one I was working on–oh, yes, “This Thing of Darkness,” and some others, too, that never quite got finished. This creative ADD needs to stop.

I need to make a list, is what I need to do.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I’m really enjoying Journey Into Fear. The action has now moved from Istanbul to on board a ship, sailing to Genoa with Our Hero, whose life is in danger. I love these kinds of stories; and miss them. The change from trains and ships as means of transportation has kind of eliminated them as settings for crime novels and thrillers; there will be no more books like this or Murder on the Orient Express, which is really unfortunate. The whole air of being away from everyone else in the world, isolated on a journey with only your fellow passengers, any one of which might be the murderer/spy/assassin,  that whole claustrophobic feeling–an author has to really push themselves and their creativity to come up with a way to isolate the characters and seal them off from the rest of the world these days. Rebecca Chance did this beautifully in her novel Mile High, set on a luxury airliner on a flight from London to Los Angeles; Nick Cutter’s The Deep set his novel on a sealab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (and that sense of claustrophobia was so beautifully portrayed in that novel that just remembering it makes me shudder). It is still possible, of course, to do something along the lines of And Then There Were None, where the characters are stranded on an island and cut off from the rest of the world; the single season suspense show Harper’s Island did this nicely…I’ve always wanted to do one of those types of novels, and Scotty would be the perfect character for such a book, I think, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make it work. I guess I’ll just let it sit in the back of my head until I get one of those a-ha moments that I am always afraid I’ll stop having.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s today’s hunk for you:

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How Much More

Tuesday!

As I mentioned yesterday, on Sunday I reread one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels (although in mentioning favorites, I forgot So Many Steps to Death; her espionage novels were absolutely delightful), Endless Night. 

One of the things I loved the most about Christie is how she wasn’t afraid to try different types of crime fiction; she was probably best known for her two primary private eye series, one with Hercule Poirot and the other with Miss Marple, but she wrote over eighty novels, plays, and collections of short stories. She had a very keen eye for character (she is often criticized for the lack of character development; I never had that sense as a reader–she was able to sum up her characters very quickly and easily, able to use a few brief sentences and paint a vivid picture of who the person was; a skill I wish I had) and psychology; she was also a master of plotting. She knew how to create and manage suspense (the suspense is almost unbearable in And Then There Were None, for example); and she pretty much wrote everything from espionage thrillers to psychological suspense to murder mysteries to serial killers to…you name it; she wrote it.

But Endless Night is one of the most incredibly different things she wrote; and she wrote it very late in her career, publishing it in October of 1967.

endless night

The title comes from William Blake‘s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

According to some quick Internet research, the book was one of Christie’s own favorites, and received a very warm critical reception.

It’s easy to see why.

This is how the book opens:

In my end is my beginning….that’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right–but what does it really mean?

Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: “It all began that day, at such a time and such a place, with such an incident?”

Did my story begin, perhaps, when I noticed the Sale Bill hanging on the wall of the George and Dragon, announcing Sale by Auction of that valuable property, “The Towers,” and giving particulars of the acreage, the miles and furlongs, and the highly idealized portrait of “The Towers” as it might have been perhaps in its prime, anything from eighty to a hundred years ago?

I was doing nothing particular, just strolling along the main street of Kingston Bishop, a place of no importance whatever, killing time. I noticed the Sale Bill. Why? Fate up to its dirty work? Or dealing out its golden handshake of good fortune? You can look at it either way.

Isn’t that a terrific beginning?

(And “in my end is my beginning” is also what Mary Queen of Scots took as her motto during her long captivity at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth I.)

Endless Night is, for wont of a better descriptor, a Daphne du Maurier novel written by Agatha Christie.

The book is told from the first person point of view of Mike Rodgers, a young man about town who is just kind of drifting from job to job. He winds up at The Towers, on a plot of ground known as Gipsy’s Acre, which was apparently cursed by the gipsies forceably evicted from the plot of ground centuries earlier…and the place has known nothing but tragedy since. There’s also a sharp, blind turn in the road just before the place, where plenty of people have been killed in car accidents. But while looking at the place, Mike encounters a young woman named Ellie…and before long, he and Ellie have embarked on a romance, and have decided to buy the land and build a new house there to spend the rest of their lives on. Mike has no real friends, and a bad relationship with his mother. And as it turns out, Ellie is quite wealthy…and once he is introduced to  her affluent world, things start to go very badly. Should they have listened to the old woman who warned them to stay away from Gipsy’s Acre? Is Mike a reliable narrator?

There’s an enormous twist in the book as well, which completely turns the narrative on its head, and makes you question everything you’ve been led to believe; a twist well-worthy of du Maurier. As they were contemporaries, I wonder if the two women ever met?

I love this book, and think it should be paired with du Maurier’s brilliant My Cousin Rachel, which for some reason was recently filmed again (I may watch the remake when it’s available for free streaming; it’s hard to imagine that it’s better than the original, which starred Olivia de Havilland and a very young Richard Burton). Someone should really write a compare/contract essay/piece of literary criticism about the two books; I kept thinking of My Cousin Rachel during this reread; now I really want to reread My Cousin Rachel.

Last night, I also started reading the latest Rebecca Chance, Killer Affair, and was sucked into it almost immediately; it’s Chance at her absolute best, and can’t wait to read more. I also started the final, definitive line edit of the WIP yesterday; since I always feel like the second half of my books don’t get as much attention from me as the first, I am trying something incredibly new for me: I am starting the edit with the second half of the book.

I hate line editing.

And now, back to the spice mines.