A Perfectly Good Heart

And here it is, Tuesday morning again, and we survived Monday.

I am sort of getting use to getting up at this hour; not necessarily a bad thing. Both Saturday and Sunday I woke up at six; Saturday I stayed in bed for a few more hours and managed to doze off again; Sunday I went ahead and got up at seven. I did get things done, so that was clearly a plus; so maybe getting used to getting up early (as well as going to bed early) isn’t such a bad thing?

Madness.

I was tired when I got home last night, so I mostly just relaxed and thought, going deep into myself, while music videos streamed in an endless cycle of continuous play on Youtube and a purring cat slept in my lap. I was a little disappointed in myself–I’d high hopes of working when I got home, but tired is tired, damn it–and I do realize this month is slipping through my fingers, but….tired is tired. I refuse to give into my natural inclination to give myself a hard time about not working, or relaxing when I am tired; that only adds to my stress and makes me crazier–with which I need no assistance whatsoever. But I will get everything done.

I will.

It may very well kill me, but I will get it done.

It’s still dark this morning as I sip my first cappuccino (almost finished; I’ll be needing to make another momentarily), and I do feel rested, if not fully awake this morning. I’m not positive how much I will be able to get done today, but in a worst case scenario, I am closer to being finished and caught up with my emails, which is something; if I can finish those all off today, I’ll be doing great. I feel as though I have recently finished a major project–that sort of dissociative cognizance that usually comes with turning a book in, or something along those lines–and I know where it comes from; we recently wrapped up something big with my volunteer work, and so now I feel a bit disoriented and untethered, which usually only happens when I’ve finished a book and turned one in. The fact that I haven’t finished a book in actuality is part of this disorientation I am feeling, methinks; I have a book to actually finish but I keep thinking I am done with one, and I do have to keep snapping myself out of it.

It’s nearly November, and 2020 is slowly but surely inexorably drawing to a close. I was thinking–amongst many other things last night–about how long ago January seems now; almost another lifetime. I can’t remember any other year that has seemed to exist so completely outside of time, other than post Katrina 2005-2006, but even in those weird times you could escape the unreality and weirdness of recovering New Orleans whenever you traveled outside the city–you’d become so used to the strangeness of what was going on here that going somewhere else, unaffected and intact and perfectly normal, and it was jarring. I noticed this especially when flying–the New Orleans airport was a ghost terminal, operating at a severely reduced capacity, and then you’d arrive at another airport where Katrina hadn’t happened and be taken aback by the crowds of people and the open shops and how everyone was just going about their business like normal and it was kind of like traveling into another dimension or something. This is different because even if you were to travel, there’s nowhere you can go in the country that is unaffected and where this isn’t happening. I keep thinking about all the things I wanted to do in 2021–my two trips to New York for the board meeting in January and the Edgars in May; Left Coast Crime; Malice Domestic; and even possibly Crime Bake in New England or Sleuthfest in Florida–and am bitterly disappointed knowing that many of these in-person events won’t happen. Bouchercon is coming to New Orleans, in theory, in August of next year; there are no plans currently for that to change, but naturally, there’s a concern. I hate to think negatively, but I am also ceaselessly realistic…I don’t see how this can happen in August at this time, but I am also keeping my fingers crossed.

I miss seeing my friends.

My last trip before all of this was actually to the MWA Board meeting in New York in January, which was a lovely time but also exhausting–I never sleep well in hotel rooms, and I never sleep well when I drink; and inevitably whenever I am around my mystery writing friends I always drink too much, stay up too late, and then can’t sleep. (I keep thinking the martinis will help me fall asleep, but they never do. Apparently I can only successfully pass out from drink in my own bed.) One of the best parts of being on the board is going to New York twice a year; the Edgars are also always a lot of fun, and I definitely hated missing that this past year as well (although I definitely did NOT miss having to get up on stage in front of a room full of mystery publishing professionals and trying to be entertaining–just even thinking about that now is terrifying to me and giving me heartburn); we’ll see what 2021 holds in store for us all…but I don’t have very high hopes.

Eternally pessimistic, that’s me!

I actually started writing French Quarter Flambeaux for a hot minute last night–yes, I know, I already have way too many projects in some sort of progress already–but I had found the perfect book opening to parody for this Scotty opening (Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, to be exact) and as an intellectual exercise–and to help free up and loosen up my creative abilities–I started writing the parody opening of the book. The opening of the Bradbury isn’t probably as famous or as well-known as others I’ve used (I mean, almost everyone knows the opening lines of Rebecca and The Haunting of Hill House), but it works. Especially since the book is set during the accursed Carnival of 2020.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Tuesday, everyone.

Delta Dawn

What’s that flower you have on?

I’ve always thought the song “Delta Dawn” was kind of Faulknerian in its story-telling; I’ve always felt a little bad for the poor, slightly demented woman wandering around her small Southern town waiting for her lover to come back. Because make no mistake–she was definitely from a small Southern town. Up north, they wouldn’t let her wander around the way they would down South. As Julia Sugarbaker said once on Designing Woman, “we’re proud of our crazy people down here. We put them out on the porch so everyone can see them. We don’t ask if you have crazy people in your family, we ask which side are they on.”

It’s a very strange day this morning in the Lost Apartment. Yesterday the Tennessee Williams Festival/Saints & Sinners were cancelled because of the COVID-19 outbreak–we are up to 19 cases here in Louisiana now (the majority of them in the New Orleans area and its environs) and it seems as though some people who traveled here for Mardi Gras have tested positive. If it was already here during Carnival…it staggers the imagination on what that means for transmission and infection. The cancellation of the two festivals also felt like my soul and heart were being ripped from my body. Both have been a major part of my life–Saints & Sinners since we founded it all those years ago, and TWFest since that first year Paul and I volunteered back in 1997. For so many years now my life has been built around those two events. It’s going to be weird to not have them.

I often talk about my Imposter Syndrome–just yesterday, in fact–but one of the things I use to combat it is events like the two festivals, Bouchercon, serving on the MWA board, etc. Spending time around other authors, just talking about books and writing and marketing and the struggle and publishing, is always refreshing and invigorating for me. I always, for example, come away from TWF/S&S inspired to do more work and to do better work. I missed Bouchercon last year because of a sinus infection; this year I don’t get my adrenaline shot from TWF/S&S. As I am struggling at the moment with a severe case of Imposter Syndrome (an outbreak?), I was looking forward to that weekend to talk about books and writing and creativity to chase that away. Now I am going to have to somehow manage to muddle through it all on my own.

I am debating on whether I should go to the gym today or not. I have rubber gloves to wear, but it really is a matter of touching my face with the gloves on more than anything else. I absolutely hate to lose the momentum I’ve gained from the working out since I went back to the gym, but I also missed Wednesday because of emotional and physical exhaustion and missing again seems counter-intuitive. On the other hand…

I tend to be fatalistic when it comes to infectious diseases. By all means, take every possible precaution necessary–but having spent most of my twenties and thirties just assuming it was a matter of time before I seroconverted and became HIV positive (it’s still amazing to me that I am not), I kind of am fatalistic about this sort of thing. I think perhaps the most disturbing and frightening thing I learned about pandemics and their spread from The Stand was how basic human nature contributes to it. There was a brilliant scene in the book at one of the CDC centers–the one in Bennington, where Stu Redman was eventually moved to, to be studied as to why he didn’t get the superflu–where one of the nurses sneezes and thinks to herself, oh great, just what I need, a cold and then went about her business….and she was standing by a sign that said REPORT EVERY SIGN, EVEN IF IT’S JUST A COUGH OR A SNEEZE. We all have a natural feeling of invulnerability; a sense that nothing bad will ever happen to us. I don’t know if that’s some kind of defense mechanism or not; I was thinking yesterday that well, all I can do is the best I can to not get infected and I might as well focus on doing some work because the world won’t stop turning. Work has always been a helpful distraction for me; but being creative–difficult under the best of circumstances–isn’t always the easiest during difficult times. I didn’t really write much during the Time of Troubles, but that was when my blog started. I get made fun of sometimes for still having a blog and for still writing it every day, but it’s a comfort to me and when I am not writing, well, at least I am still doing this. Having a blog helped me navigate through the most difficult of times, gave me an outlet for my rage and depression and random musings, and while it’s evolved since then–I don’t talk about politics anymore here, for one thing–it’s still helpful for me to gather my thoughts and at least put sentences and paragraphs together, hopefully in a way that makes some sort of sense to the two or three of you who come here to read my daily meanderings.

And of course, like Katrina, a pandemic affects writers in many ways. Do we keep writing our books and pretend that in our fictional universes this didn’t happen, isn’t happening, won’t happen? There’s something very comforting in going into a fictional world where some of the bad things going on in the world haven’t happened, or aren’t happening. I managed to write all of my books and pretend that the Eternal Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t going on, for example; in my fictional universes that sort of thing doesn’t happen, and it’s nice to go there and forget about all the troubles and care of the world.

I’ve always found escape into fictional worlds a great coping mechanism.

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

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When I Call Your Name

One of the great pleasures I have in life is reading; I’ve always loved to read, always been able to escape whatever ailed me at the time–loneliness, depression, heartbreak, self-loathing–by escaping into the pages of a book; imagining myself to be a part of the story, getting lost in the words and the sentences and paragraphs of an engaging author; finding sanctuary from a far too frequently cold and cruel world. I’ve always found my solace in books–whether it was Hercule Poirot using his little gray cells to outwit a killer or Perry Mason casting a spell in a courtroom or a Gothic heroine fearing she was married to someone who wanted to kill her in a palatial mansion or castle somewhere–books were my safe place. It’s why I’ve always treasured them, why I hoard them, why I am reluctant to part with them once I’ve experienced the world contained between its covers.

I’ve heard great things about Carol Goodman and her novels over the years; I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person at the HarperCollins party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg when I was a little the worse for wine but she was gracious and friendly and kind to me. She had recently won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Widow’s House, and more recently a friend (whose taste is impeccable and I trust implicitly) told me that Goodman was a modern-day Daphne du Maurier.

And for me, there is no higher praise.

So last weekend, when another friend had sent me the ARC for Goodman’s latest, The Sea of Lost Girls, I decided it would be the first of hers that I would read. Last Saturday as I sat in my easy chair, shifting around the stack of books on the end table I picked it up, thinking first ugh another “girl” title and flipped it open to the first page, just to get a taste.

The next thing I knew I was one hundred pages in and reluctantly had to put it aside to do something else. I carried it with me all week, waiting for an opportunity to delve into it again, but such a moment never happened…until this morning, as I tore through the book with my morning coffee.

And may I just say, wow?

Scan

The phone wakes me as if it were sounding an alarm inside my chest. What now, it rings, what now what now what now.

I know it’s Rudy. The phone is set to ring for only two people–Harmon and Rudy (at least I made the short list, Harmon had once joked)–and Harmon is next to me in bed. Besides, what has Harmon ever brought me but comfort and safety? But Rudy…

The phone has stopped ringing by the time I grab it but there is a text on the screen.

Mom?

I’m here, I text back. My thumb hovers over the keypad. If he were here maybe I could slip in baby, like I used to call him when he woke up from nightmares, but you can’t text that to your seventeen-year-old son. What’s up? I thumb instead. Casual. As if it isn’t–I check the number on the top of the screen–2:50 in the freaking morning.

I defy anyone to stop reading after those opening paragraphs.

The Sea of Lost Girls isn’t another one of those “girl” books that have become so prevalent since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a viral sensation; the only commonality is the use of the word “girl” in the title, but Goodman’s tale is as dark and rich and layered and complex as Flynn’s. It’s also incredibly literate, but one supposes that is to be expected, given the setting is an elite boarding school on the Maine coast near Portland (the Maine coast has always held a fascination for me, thanks to Dark Shadows). The main character, a teacher married to another teacher, is a big fan of The Scarlet Letter; her troubled teenaged son is currently playing the lead in a school production of The Crucible. Both of those works have a lot of bearing and similarities to the plot of this incredible novel, but saying any more than that would be a spoiler.

The book’s set-up is that Tess’ troubled son has finally found a girlfriend–an intelligent student who is directing The Crucible–and on this night in question Tess goes to pick up her son at their “safe place”, which has to do with a rock causeway leading out to Maiden Island; legend holds that the stones are Indian maidens who drowned and were turned into rocks. Her son is soaking wet and his sweatshirt has blood on the sleeve; a nervous Tess takes him home, launders the shirt and gives her son her husband’s sweatshirt–exactly the same, drying on a radiator–to wear instead. That simple act has enormous ramifications, particularly when Rudy’s girlfriend Lila’s body is found near the rocks on the causeway.

Does Tess cover for her son? She does…but her husband, because he wore the sweatshirt jogging, now becomes a prime suspect. Husband or son?

If that was the lynchpin of the story it would be another adequate, enjoyable thriller; but there is so much more to the story of what happened to Lila–as well as the secrets Tess has kept hidden about her own past. The school used to be a Home for Wayward Girls, and the school’s own dark history, which Tess is also a part of,  has an important part to play in this riveting story of a wife and mother torn between the husband and son she loves, both suspects in a murder–which maybe her own secrets have something to do with as well.

This exploration of motherhood rates up there, in my opinion, with Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good and Hush Hush and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce as a classic.

And, as always when I read something extraordinary, it inspired me and gave me ideas for my own work.

It also made me want to reread both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter.

It is being released this month. Get it now. You won’t be sorry.

Kiss An Angel Good Morning

Ash Wednesday and solemnity has descended upon New Orleans, after two weeks of fun and frivolity. Carnival season actually begins on January 6th, on Twelfth Night–but it truly only kicks into major gear during parade season, which mercifully ended yesterday. Now I can drive my car without fearing I’m gone too late to get home or worrying about finding a place to park (the Carnival parking gods were definitely on my side this year; I was able to get groceries and park on my block AND made a Costco run and was able to park near the Lost Apartment, neither of which is a small accomplishment), and having to adjust my work schedule accordingly.

It’s gray outside the Lost Apartment windows this morning, and all is quiet on the Lower Garden District front. I haven’t checked the weather yet, but I am sure rain is part of the forecast; that’s usually what gray skies in the morning mean. I’m not as tired this morning as I thought I would be, and I’m also a little bummed I have to miss my workout today–the gym doesn’t open until noon, and there’s no way I could get home in time and make it to the gym before it closes after work tonight. But two workouts in one week is better than one workout, and so I guess missing the once isn’t really going to kill me. But I’ve gotten into such a great routine of following the regimen…again, I guess we’ll see on Friday morning if I don’t want to get up and go.

And yes, I started writing yet another short story yesterday evening, “You Won’t See Me.” It’s a similar tale, I suppose, to “Festival of the Redeemer”; unreliable gay male narrator who’s madly in love with someone who doesn’t return that affection–but at least that’s how they both start, at any rate. I have to get back to work on the Secret Project this week as well; so that’s at least five or six short story fragments I am working on in addition to the Secret Project. And yes, I am well aware that is complete madness.

We managed to watch McMillions over the past few days; we’d thought the entire series had finished airing so we were, needless to say, completely shocked to reach the end of episode 4 and realize we couldn’t watch anymore. I remember the scandal, vaguely, when the story broke; but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it–and am amazed at how far-reaching and complicated it became–not to mention all the unfortunate people who got suckered into the con and played along, for various reasons. One of the FBI agents discussed how he was constantly amazed at how people didn’t think they had done anything wrong, and how they could justify and explain committing fraud to themselves–the bottom line was whatever the circumstance or the reason, they committed a crime.

True crime–you really can’t beat it for real drama.

I also got some incredible book mail on Monday–Blanche Among the Talented Tenth by Barbara Neely; an old children’s book about the Nazi invasion of Norway and the resistance, Snow Treasure, that I read when I was a kid; Alabama Noir, which I am really interested in reading; and the new Ivy Pochoda, These Women. I somehow managed to finish rereading Mary Stewart’s The Moon-spinners around the insanity (there will be more to come on that front), and got a little further into Ali Brandon’s Double Booked for Death, which I am really enjoying. I’m also still reading Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams, which is also quite good.

It doesn’t feel like Wednesday, which means this short work week is going to be weird, and feel weird, the entire time. I do have to put in longer days today and tomorrow than I usually do, because of the holiday yesterday and taking Monday off, but Friday will be my usual half-day and after that, we’re back to normal again. Huzzah? But February is on its way out and March is on its way in, which means the one-two punch of Saints & Sinners/ Tennessee Williams Festival is on its way as well. Kind of hard to believe that’s just right around the corner, but here we are, you know? And then at the end of April I’m off to New York and Maryland for the one-two punch of the Edgars and Malice Domestic. But after that, I’ll be done with travel until it’s time to head to Sacramento for Bouchercon, and then I won’t be doing much traveling unless I go visit my parents this year–which I kind of should. It’s just that the drive is so exhausting, but flying is equally awful, takes nearly as long, and is much more expensive. I suppose I could use Southwest points and fly into Louisville, but there’s no longer a non-stop flight from New Orleans to Louisville, and the things about connections is there’s always, always, a screw-up somewhere at that time of year that delays the return.

I also have an obscene amount of emails to read and reply to, which will engender more emails, of course–the endless cycle of cyber-communication–but I will eventually get dug out, slowly get caught up on everything, and somehow manage. I always somehow manage to do so, at any rate.

And now, back to the spice mines, Have a lovely Ash Wednesday, everyone.

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Passionate Kisses

Hello there, Tuesday, how’s the wife and kids?

I forgot to mention yesterday that I also watched Spiderman: Far From Home over the course of the weekend, and while I’m not entirely certain it was as good as Spiderman: Homecoming (I can say without any equivocal doubt it was NOT as good as Into the Spider-verse, which was simply brilliant, and probably the best super-hero film I’ve ever seen), I did enjoy it. It’s hard not to like Tom Holland; and I shall repeat again, I had no desire to watch his debut film as Spider-man/Peter Parker until I saw the clip of his Lip Sync Battle performance as Rihanna doing “Umbrella”, and I also like the way they’re doing MJ, with Zendaya taking the role. It did have some funny moments, some very cute moments, and one can never go wrong with Jake Gyllenhaal; but there was just something off about how they explained away the whole Thanos /half-the-universe disappeared etc.; there are more holes in that explanation (as there inevitably always are when it comes to time-travel and so forth) but it couldn’t be unexplained, and by glossing over it with barely a mention or any explanation…I guess that made it go down easier for fans? But I’ll continue to watch Tom Holland in the role–I’ve never seen any of the Andrew Garfield Spiderman movies, and I didn’t enjoy the Tobey Maguire one I did see, so stopped watching them. But it was entertaining enough, and it held my interest…but while super-hero movies can be fun, I am really getting bored with the BIGGER and BETTER effects, and the fight scenes….they all begin to seem the same after awhile.

It’s kind of why we stopped watching Arrow, despite my passion for Steven Amell.

I wasn’t tired yesterday, per se, although I felt sort of out of it all day; like my brain had never completely woken up. It was strange; it was like a part of my brain never completely woke up so I was sort of sleepwalking through the day despite having full awareness? I can’t really describe it other than that, it was weird and I wasn’t a fan, actually. Last night I slept very deeply and well; I feel very rested this morning and my mind is sharper than it was yesterday–a very low bar, to be sure–but I also managed to get a lot done yesterday despite not feeling completely awake. It was rather strange, to be sure; but I cannot argue with successful production.

But this morning I feel more alive and awake and alert than I certainly did yesterday, so we’ll see how this day is going to turn out. I was curious how the return to the gym, coupled with an early morning, would turn out yesterday; I don’t think that was indicative of how things will be from hereon out, though. My body was just trying to adapt to something new, a change in routine. Last night’s amazing and deep sleep was perfect, and I feel terrific this morning, which is lovely. How I will feel at the end of this day remains to be seen, but I am confident it won’t be that bad. I wasn’t tired at all last night when I got home from work–I even stopped at Rouse’s on the way home–and tumbled into bed relatively early, after an episode of Sex Education. There’s only two episodes left, but it occurred to  me last night that each episode of the show actually is sex education; I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before, but with each student/client, some aspect of sexuality is discussed and covered and destigmatized; for example, last night’s episode’s sex education had to do with anal douching and hygiene for gay men; one of the gay characters was afraid to have sex for the first time with his boyfriend because he didn’t know how to douche and was worried about what would happen if he didn’t….which turned into a lovely lesson about speaking to your partner, being completely honest about your feelings, and ultimately, Anton lost his anal virginity.

The show is actually a sex education course cleverly disguised as a comedy series about teenagers and their relationships, so the title is even more clever than one might think.

I also managed to figure out how I am going to have to schedule myself through parade season so I get my work hours in without having to use any vacation time–I have to save my vacation time for my trip to New York for the Edgars, and the train ride down to Malice Domestic for the weekend after. Not sure how vacations the rest of the year will play out, other than Bouchercon in Sacramento; but I definitely need to let the vacation time start accruing again. One good thing about the day job–my vacation time accrues relatively quickly, but I am near rock bottom right now with very little time left at the moment. Tomorrow is Pay the Bills day, and I also need to get my tax stuff together and off to the accountant–the sooner I get the return filed, the sooner I’ll get my refund, which undoubtedly will be less than last year.

And on that note, I’m going to get ready for the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader!

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Let’s Take The Long Way Around the World

Wednesday morning, and the beginning of a new era for one Gregalicious. I still only work a half-day, but now I work the second half of our testing schedule (4:30-8) rather than the first half (12-330) which I’ve been doing for quite some time now. When I asked my co-worker with whom I shift share if she’d mind switching with me once a month so I can make the monthly MWA board call, said she’d do it whenever necessary–and I realized, after we talked, that 1) it would actually be better for me overall to work the later half permanently and 2) it also worked better with her schedule for her to do the early, so we made the switch permanent (except for that pesky day when the parades get started, when I need to leave the office no later than 3:30 so I can get home before they close St. Charles Avenue. So, today is that first day, and while I do have a conference call this morning. I can spend the rest of the day getting things done around the house and I can even run the errands I need to run at a more leisurely place while still getting to work on time.

I love when things work out well, don’t you?

I was exhausted yesterday when I got home from work; partly because it was the second of my twelve hour shifts and partly because some days, my work is emotionally and physically draining. I’m a counselor, primarily for sexual health, and sometimes–well, sometimes it’s a difficult, draining job. I’m not complaining–I absolutely love my job and the work I do; my job actually makes a difference in some of our clients’ lives, which helps alleviate the fact that I’m actually a pretty awful person at heart. But I was so tired all I could do was, as usual, recline in my easy chair with Scooter curled up in my lap and cycle through Youtube videos. I enjoy Ms. Mojo’s list videos, for the most part, even when I don’t agree with their choices, and I don’t even remember which ones I was watching last night–although I do recall a lot of them had to do with Baby Yoda/The Child/The Asset and others with the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why. 

It’s also a bit hard to realize that Carnival parades start relatively soon; the 14th of February, St. Valentine’s Day, to be exact, with all the disruption that entails.

I also this week booked my tickets to fly to the Edgars and Malice Domestic; I’ll be flying into LaGuardia on the Tuesday of that week; attending the Edgar symposium on Wednesday and going to the combination nominees reception/anthology launch for the new MWA anthology that evening, and then helping with last minute things on Thursday before attending the banquet. Friday morning I will Amtrak from Penn down to Union Station in DC before riding on the Metro to Bethesda for Malice. (I’m flying home from Washington National, which will entail taking the Metro again–probably having to change lines once; I’ll have to investigate that further.) But I’m excited to go to Malice–I haven’t been to Malice in years, and I’ve only been once. I had a great time and met a lot of lovely people; I enjoy the Malice crowd very much, and the train trip down from New York the last time was one of the best times I’ve ever had on a train before–since there were many of us traveling down from the Edgars. The train was full of crime writers! (I did have an idea for a book or a story inspired by that trip–“Murder on the Acela Express”, but could never wrap my mind around how to actually write it; the Christie original which of course inspired the title, Murder on the Orient Express, requires the train to be stranded out in the middle of nowhere for a period of time, and I couldn’t figure out how to strand the Acela in the middle of nowhere–even though now it occurs to me that it could just be the title that’s the homage rather than the story). I’ll probably be registering for Bouchercon in Sacramento later today or at some point this week–that’s going to be a rather long haul of a trip, but since I had to miss Dallas this past year I don’t want to miss the 2020 edition.

I’m still reading Dorothy B. Hughes’ delightful Dread Journey, but was too tired to read anything last night.

I also have to start reading some books to prepare for an interview I am doing for the Sisters-in-Crime quarterly, and am hoping to get some work done on the Secret Project today before heading into the errands and the office.

The kitchen is also a disgraceful mess this morning. Heavy heaving sigh. But at least I have time to do something about it before I head into work today.

And on that note, it’s time to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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Amazed

Show of hands: who predicted I wouldn’t get as much done yesterday as I wanted to? I was pretty confident that would wind up the case, as it always is. But I did get a lot done yesterday–some of it even writing-related, so have a seat, guilty conscience!–and that pleases me. I am hopeful I’ll be able to get more done today as well. Granted–it’s easy to say that as I sip my first cup of coffee. I also stayed in bed later this morning than I wanted to–since I woke up at seven on my own yesterday I thought perhaps this morning would be the same so I didn’t set an alarm–but I wound up getting up at eight, so that wasn’t too terrible I also hit a wall yesterday around four thirty–I got very tired–and so I repaired to the easy chair to finish reading my book.

It’s rather gloomy out there this morning, and it’s chilly here in the Lost Apartment–the space heater is on–and I’m a little annoyed by this return of coldness. Yesterday. while starting out chilly, eventually turned into quite a beautiful day; I didn’t even wear a jacket when I went out to run my errands. But that’s okay; I probably won’t have to go out into much today, or at least I hope not.

We watched a lot of the figure skating championships yesterday–will probably do so again today; I think the men’s is on this afternoon and Europeans is on tonight–and Paul’s been watching the Australian Open on his computer. We’re very behind on all the shows we watch, and there are also any number of new shows we want to watch–or shows we watch have returned for another season, which is very cool–and of course, the Williams Festival is approaching, which means late nights at the office for Paul; yes, it’s about that time when I become a Festival widow again. I should be able to get a lot of reading done during this time–which is what I generally use it for. I got a copy of Lori Rader-Day’s new novel yesterday in the mail, The Lucky One, and since I’m moderating that panel, I’ll need to read it soon.

I also have to make travel arrangements today for some upcoming trips in this new year; Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, etc.

Ah, it’s raining. That explains the gloomy grayness outside.

It’s the kind of day, really, where I’d rather curl up under a blanket and read all day, quite frankly, but I can’t do that. I need to work on the Secret Project, and there’s all kinds of other things I also have to get done today–odds and ends, emails to answer, etc. I’d also like to make some headway on getting my taxes at least started; I am missing only one 1099 form, and once I have that I can turn everything over to my accountant and get my return filed, which will be lovely.

I did finish reading Elizabeth Little’s Pretty as a Picture, which is fantastic–and then I started reading Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey when my energy finally flagged in the late afternoon.

pretty as a picture

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.

That’s not what I’d say.

I’d say it depends on the picture. I’d say it depends on the size and the color and the subject and the print and the framing and the focus and the composition. I’d say it depends on what you were doing the hour before, the day before, the year before, the life before. I’d say it depends on whether you’re looking at it on a wall or scrolling past it on a screen or cutting it carefully out of a book, digging your knuckle into the gutter of the spine because the margins are so small and the blades are so long and it’s impossible to get a straight line, but you don’t want to dig up a guide and an X-Acto knife because you aren’t willing to wait, you have to have it, you have to have this picture, right now, and your kitchen scissors are close enough and good enough–yes, good enough–and Jesus Christ, Marissa, when will you get it through your thick head: Imperfection is a price happy people pay to cradle the weight of something they love.

That’s what I’d say.

Elizabeth Little’s debut novel, Dear Daughter, is one of my favorite first novels and one of my favorite books of this past decade. Her novels–why they do focus on crime, or criminal activity–are more than just crime novels; they’re stories about women–messy, complicated, complex, interesting women you want to see get past not only their current crisis, but also pull their lives together. One of the most impressive things to me about Dear Daughter is that she didn’t wrap it all up neatly with a bow at the end, with justice being served and our heroine coming out of everything triumphant; she gave the ending a more realistic, this-is-how-it-would-play-out-in-real-life ending.

I’ve been waiting a long time for Pretty as a Picture, and it was worth the wait.

The story is told in a very tight, first person/present tense style that pulls the reader into the action and the head of our main character/narrator–Marissa Dahl, an up-and-coming film editor who has primarily worked on the films of her college best friend and current roommate, Amy,  an up-and-coming director. Marissa is socially awkward–there’s a lovely scene in which she talked about meeting a superstar director, Tony Rees, at the Venice Film Festival and pulls him into a fountain with her when she loses her balance–and very unsure of herself. She meets a guy named Josh, who winds up dating Amy, and having been interested in him herself, she now has become an incredibly awkward fifth wheel and has decided to separate herself from Amy, personally and professionally, to give Amy and Josh’s new relationship room to breathe and grow–and she’s more than just a little resentful about Josh, whom she now actively dislikes (which is also wrapped up in her own social awkwardness), which is why she ends up agreeing to work on a Tony Rees’ new film–a project wrapped in secrecy and sixteen page NDA’s. She heads out to Kickout Island, off the coast of Delaware, and even has a big security man–Isaiah–who picks her up at the local airport and takes her out there.

One of Marissa’s neuroses includes a fear of the water–and we eventually do find out where that fear came from.

The film turns out to be a fictionalized film version of an actual murder that took place on Kickout Island many years ago–the murder of a pretty teenaged girl; a murder that was never solved. Strange things are going on around the set–accidents, cast and crew being fired–and we slowly but surely are made aware, through Marissa’s eyes, that things are not as they seem…and then someone else dies, and Marissa is reluctantly on both cases.

I have to say, though, that my favorite characters–besides Marissa, whom I really liked for all her tics and strangeness and constant film references (which is actually very cool)–are the two teenaged girls she first encounters in the hotel kitchen while she is scrounging for something to eat–Grace and Suzy–who are also trying to solve the original murder case. I’d read an entire series about these two girls.

But Pretty as a Picture is a great read; well-written and clever and witty and snarky at points, but an enjoyable read with a complicated, twisty plot that never condescends to the reader. Well worth the lengthy wait for this second novel by Elizabeth Little–the only problem is now I have to wait (hopefully not as long) for her third.

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys

So here we are, New Year’s Eve, and the last day of the twenty-teens. It’s been a long haul; 2010 seems a million years ago, and my life and careers have taken many paths over those last ten years. 2010 was the year after one of my publishers collapsed–or rather, stopped paying me while continuing to sell my books. They never did finish paying the advance for my last book for them in 2009, Murder in the Garden District, and and they never paid my royalties for the books of mine they still had in print; my last check from them for royalties was received in January 2009. I never received another cent from them after that; I’d already received the first half of the advance for Garden District when I turned it in to them in late 2008. They never answered my emails, ignored my registered letters–yet continued to sell and make money from my work. 2010 was also the year I served on my local chapter board of Mystery Writers of America, and also the year I was elected president near the end and joined the National Board for the first of four years.

2010 was also the year Paul and I went to Tiger Stadium for the first time ever, to watch LSU play Mississippi live; we got there many many hours early before the game started so we could drink in the entire experience of Game Day on a college campus in the South. Paul had never been to a major college stadium before; had never been to a live SEC game before, and part of the pleasure I derived from that day was seeing Paul experience an SEC Game Day for the first time. We’ve been to many games since then, but that first one–in which LSU scored in the final minute to win–remains one of my favorite memories.

I went to Bouchercon in San Francisco that year, saw some college friends for the first time in decades, and was still a starstruck fan boy. I have since been to many others; Albany and Long Beach and Raleigh and New Orleans and Toronto and St. Petersburg (I had to miss Dallas this year because I was ill). I am even on their board now.

I started publishing y/a fiction that year as well; Sorceress came out that year, followed by Sleeping Angel the next. In the twenty-teens I published four new Scotty novels and two additional Chanse novels; some stand-alones; dabbled in romantic suspense (Timothy, The Orion Mask); and somehow managed to get nominated for some mainstream crime writing awards. (I’m 1 for 3 at this point.) I made some amazing new friends along the way this past decade, and while I definitely got older, slowed down, and experienced other physical changes I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, it’s been, for the most part, an absolutely lovely ride. I also lost some friends along the same way, but that’s not something (or anyone) I waste too much time worrying about.

This past year was a lovely capper to the decade that was; an Anthony nomination for a short story was lovely, as was the publication of my short story collection Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, and the eighth Scotty, Royal Street Reveillon. I had a lovely short story in the wonderful Murder-a-Go-Go’s anthology (“This Town”–and now, whenever I hear the song, I think of it as mine), got a story into the Dark Yonder anthology (“Moist Money”), came up with a great idea for the next book I intend to write if I ever clear out the unfinished ones languishing on my flash drive, and of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge the magical season LSU is having this season. New Orleans is going to be insane the weekend before and the day of January 13th. (I am debating whether I should take the day off and go wandering in the Quarter and to the LSU pep rally; I mean, how often will I get the chance to do just that?)

In a few hours I’ll be at Commander’s Palace for the annual New Year’s Eve lunch which will be lovely as well–I’m already thinking about my Bloody Mary–and then Paul and I will come home to chill and relax. Paul is probably going to go down to the Quarter with some friends to watch the fireworks; I, tired old soul that I am, will probably be asleep before the fleur-de-lis drops at Jackson Square. But that’s okay; I love that I’ve also somehow managed, in the twenty-teens, to drop the FOMO (fear of missing out) I’ve had for most of my life. That’s a personal improvement, I think.

I like to think I’m a better person than I was at the dawn of 2010; there are those who would, perhaps correctly, say that’s a very low bar to clear. Regardless, I am not as prone to anger as I was back then, not as likely to engage on social media (in fact, I only engage with friends and usually to either agree with something they’ve said or tease them), and I’ve also become more aware of things pervasive in our society and culture–racism, misogyny, transphobia–and not just zeroed in on homophobia. I’ve learned, through reading, reasoning, and rational use of logic, that all of these things have the same root and are all simply branches of the same tree: the tree that is White Supremacy, and therefore, all of us–people of color, transfolk, queers, women–are engaged in the same fight against the same enemy, and that the primary tactic of that insidious enemy is divide and conquer–as long as we squabble amongst ourselves while fighting for our rights, their united front seems invincible; because it is through unity of cause and purpose that this horror poisoning our society, culture, and nation can be defeated.

The common enemy has many faces.

And while it is tempting, at my advanced age, to put down my sword and let others take up the fight…I can’t.

So, what does this new decade hold in store for me? What does this New Year mean, what surprises and shocks and opportunities will it bring? I don’t know, I honestly don’t. but while the unknown can be terrifying, I am choosing to embrace it and look forward with hope and optimism. I will continue to write my books, I will continue to work on myself, and I will continue to fight against injustice as long as my fingers can type and as long as I can breathe.

Laura Lippman says you should simply pick a word for the new year rather than set resolutions or goals; I think mine for 2020 is improvement.

So Happy New Year, Constant Reader. Thank you for following me, for reading these words I write every day as I try to figure out the world and my life and who I am; thank you for reading my books and stories. Your support is truly wonderful, and appreciated, and while it might not always seem like it, I am always grateful.

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Take This Job and Shove It

My very first job was at a McDonalds.

I was sixteen, a senior in high school, and I actually wanted to work; make my own money to buy things for myself. I was a very good employee; I wasn’t to begin with, but an honest conversation with an encouraging manager turned me into one. I knew how to do everything by the time I quit; I could open or close; work the grill, a cash register, or the drive through; I could clean grills and take apart the ice cream and shake machines and put them back together again; I knew how to slake french fries and how to package hamburgers; how to dress them and toast the buns; how to clean the floors and drain the grease vats; to tube tartar and special sauce. I knew how to make pancakes and scrambled eggs; Egg McMuffins and sausage patties. My uniform was brown polyester and a paper hat. I could take your order, tray it, ring you up and give you your correct change within ninety seconds. Thank you and come again with a smile to every person I worked with; you were given orders with a please and you acknowledged with a thank you. We weren’t allowed to stand around–if I heard if there’s time to lean then there’s time to clean once, I heard it so many times it felt like I heard it in my sleep. I was paid $2.25 an hour; minimum wage increased after a year and I also got a nickel raise per hour, bringing me up to a whopping $2.60 per hour.

I’ve had a lot of jobs over the course of my life, and no matter how crappy a job it was, I always tried to make the best out of it and do the best I could at it. I usually would get bored once I’d mastered an aspect of my job; I needed to learn new tasks and do different things in order for me to not eventually quit–or get so bored on the job I’d make a heinous and stupid mistake that got me fired. I always took getting fired as a sign that yeah, I should have moved on already, thanks for the kick in the pants. All I ever really wanted to do was write–and for so much of my life I was convinced that it was just a pipe dream that would never ever come true, for so many varied and different and just plain sad reasons, with the end result that I was always trying to find a career, something that could hold my interest, and to no avail, with the end result that I was completely miserable.

Every once in a while, whenever I get frustrated or angry with the publishing business–whether it’s a late payment, or another rejection, or another publisher that isn’t paying their authors, or systemic oppression of some kind or another–and I start to think fuck this business, it’s brutal and it sucks and why on earth do I keep doing this to myself…I do something to remind me how grateful I am for this career, this crazy, infuriating, never really quite what I want it to be career: I like to  think about the path that it took to get here, some of the jobs I’ve had;  all the missed opportunities and how easy it was to get discouraged and for self-doubt to insinuate itself into my consciousness and get me to give up again for a period of time…

But I always somehow came back to the wanting to write.

This was a good year for me, although I don’t seem to remember ever thinking that over the course of the year as it passed. I published the eighth Scotty Bradley novel this past October, Royal Street Reveillon, and I am, for once, actually rather pleased with a book that I’ve published (which is a step in the right direction, right?). I also published a collection of short crime fiction stories; some originals, others previously published: Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Two of the stories were nominated for awards; the eponymous title story was a Macavity finalist and “Cold Beer No Flies” (originally published in Florida Happens, the St. Petersburg Bouchercon anthology) was an Anthony Award finalist. Pretty cool, right? There was also that Anthony nomination, and I couldn’t have been more pleased to have lost to Shawn Cosby. My story “This Town” was included in Holly West’s Murder-a-Go-Go’s anthology, a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, a cause near-and-dear to me. The story is one of my personal favorites of my own, and got some really nice feedback from people. I also got my story “Moist Money” in the Dark Yonder anthology, which is also a fundraiser for a food bank.

I managed to write several drafts of a new novel manuscript, but it remains incomplete at this time; I also have two other novels in some sort of progress just sitting around waiting for me to get them done. I do not see this as a failure (I used to do just that; something unfinished? You failed) but as symptomatic of me taking my time and trying to do better work. I felt like I was getting stale, and so I decided to take some time away from writing as well as try to rejigger the way I work on fiction. And if it means that it takes longer to write a book I’m completely satisfied with, so be it.

I also came up with a great idea for a new noir novel, set in the ambiguous early 1950’s–Chlorine–and even took a few hours to bang out a first chapter. Likewise, I also came up with ideas for another Scotty book and another Chanse book, as well as a stand alone crime novel built around Venus Casanova, at least in conception; I may not be able to  use the “world of New Orleans” I’ve built in my two series and several short stories, which are all kind of interconnected. I wrote several short stories this year, but still have any number of unfinished ones and others than need additional drafts. I started planning out another short story collection, and an essay collection.

So, in retrospect, it was kind of a good year for me as a writer. I also made several recommendation lists, for people to check out my work–both as a gay writer and as a New Orleans writer. I still have some things on my bucket list to check off, like getting a story into Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and an MWA anthology, doing a Noir at the Bar, among many other things.

So, while I may have spent most of the year feeling miserable about my writing career, a look back shows just how negative I actually was being–which is something I really need to work on. I’m trying to not be so self-deprecating as I have been my entire life, belittling my own accomplishments, because it’s kind of self-defeating. Sure I could have probably written more, and done more, and gotten further along in my career–but everything happens the way it does for a reason, and I have to believe always works out in the best way possible for me–I have to believe that because it has proven true, over and over and over again.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. LSU plays Oklahoma this afternoon in the play-offs, and while obviously I want LSU to keep winning and keep this magical season going….the disappointment won’t be too great if they do lose; because we do have this magical season to look back on.

Have a lovely last Saturday of 2020, Constant Reader.

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The Closer You Get

At my very first Bouchercon, back whenever it was held in Indianapolis, I was on a panel with a number of other men and one of the questions from the audience at the end was, “Who do you think are the best crime writers today?” Everyone else demurred from answering, but not me. I piped up with “The women are killing it these days” and I went on to name lots of women writers whom I enjoyed reading, and several people came up to me later to thank me for promoting women writers. It wasn’t something I did consciously or deliberately; I was being honest. Most of the writers I read are women; this has always been true, and probably always will be. There are male writers I read and love–Michael Koryta, Stephen King, Ace Atkins, just to  name a few–but for the most part, I enjoy reading work written by women.

And the list of women writers I love to read has only continued to grow since that panel.

I met Laura Benedict in 2018, at the dual Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu event in Alabama–hard to believe it’s been nearly two years–and this year she very graciously sent me a copy of her latest book, The Stranger Inside.

I deeply regret taking so long to get to it.

the stranger inside

The outcropping of limestone on which Michelle Hannon struck her head had been a part of the hillside for three thousand years, before there were trees in sight taller than a scrubby pine. It was thicker and a dozen feet broader back then, but storms and earthquakes came, and chinkapin oaks and butternut trees sank deep roots in the hillside, fracturing the big rock. Chunks of it fell away and tumbled into the timid creek at the bottom of the ravine. Now most of those old trees were gone, long ago sacrificed to logging, and the rock was a little wider than Michelle’s hunched and broken body was tall. She lay wedged between it and the earth, as though she was trying to hide in the rock’s shadow. Her thoughts were caught in a blink, the slow closing of one undamaged eye, and she was at the beginning of her life again, soothed by her mother’s drumming heartbeat. She only felt a quiet joy. There was no unmovable rock, no blood streaking her face, no pain seething through her body. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all. But the moment that lasted both a split second and an eternity ended, and with each frantic beat of her heart, the joy ebbed away. Death was coming for her. She could hear it stalking through the leaves carpeting the hillside, eager to whisper its frigid breath in her ear.

Her eyes closed.

Pretty intense opening, right?

The first chapter opens with our main character, Kimber, arriving at her home after a short vacation to find that not only do her keys not work, but there’s a strange man living in her house, claiming she rented the place to him. He maintains this story even after the police arrive–and he won’t let her into her own home. She finally pushes past him–and he falls, which triggers an assault charge and her being taken down to the police station. Slowly but surely almost every aspect of Kimber’s life begins to fall apart–almost as though the mysterious man in her house–who seems to know her, threatens to expose a dark secret from her past he should have no way of knowing about–somehow is managing to mastermind her complete and utter downfall.

But why?

This book would most likely be classified as domestic suspense, but it also has roots in Gothic suspense: particularly since a major part of the plot has to deal with Kimber being gaslit; made to doubt herself, made to doubt everything about herself and her life, made to question her own sanity. This was a very key part of the Gothic suspense novels of writers like Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney; heroines who are forced to question whether or not they are in their right minds (the Victoria Holt novel I am sort of re-reading, Kirkland Revels, is perhaps one of the best examples of gaslighting I’ve ever read). Benedict weaves that paranoia beautifully into the classic trope of domestic suspense–the past haunting the present–and winds up giving the reader a page-turning thrill ride that continues to build to its inevitable conclusion.

What is also striking about the book is that Benedict also toys with reader expectations. The unreliable narrator has become almost a trope; as has the unlikable woman character. Readers–particularly of crime fiction–tend to always relate to the main character and root for them to succeed, to solve whatever it is they are being presented with–and we dislike those who stand in their way or are causing them ill. But Kimber is not the kind of woman you would see depicted on the old domestic suspense covers, with the long flowing hair and the long dress and the spooky house with a light on in one of the windows int he far distance. Kimber is real, Kimber is deeply flawed, and Kimber isn’t particularly nice. She can’t stand her boss at the radio station where she works as a sales rep; she’s downright catty about her nosy neighbor; and as we learn more about her and more about her past…yeah, she’s not a nice lady. But she’s incredibly real, and we also understand why she’s done the things she’s done; and in some instances, we never know why. But the tragedies of her childhood, and the bad behavior of her adulthood…would all these terrible things be happening to her if she were, perhaps, a better person?

I highly recommend this novel. I certainly didn’t figure out what was going on–and there are plenty of surprises that just keep on coming as the book progresses. Kimber is not your typical heroine, but her very complexity strengthens and deepens the novel in ways that make it more layered and a stronger read.

I cannot wait to read more Laura Benedict.