I Think We’re Alone Now

As you are undoubtedly aware, Constant Reader, I have issues with self-confidence when it comes to writing–it’s kind of a bipolar thing, where I can run the gamut from oh wow I’m pretty good at this writing thing to oh my god, I’m a complete fraud why do I persist in this delusion that I can actually do this thing?

So, I tend to embrace moments when I get reassurances that those negative emotions aren’t based in any sort of reality other than the self-destructive corner of my mind.

I’m not sure how I wound up on the editorial radar for the Dark Yonder anthology, but somehow I did and was asked to write a story for it. The anthology celebrates noir writer Eryk Pruitt and his new bar, Yonder, in North Carolina, and all proceeds benefit the North Texas Food Bank. I said yes when I was asked to write a story–because I never say no, or very rarely do; the opportunity to get a short story published is so rare and hard to come by these days I always jump on them–with absolutely no idea what I was going to write  about. But in one of those serendipitous moments, there was a conversation going on over at Twitter about, of all things, stripper cash. I commented on the thread that when I worked for a bank, we were located near some strip clubs, and we “always took the moist money.” Bill Loefhelm, a very fine New Orleans writer, replied that “Moist Money  needs to be the sequel to Chlorine” and the proverbial light bulb flashed on for me.

Moist money IS an excellent title…and then I was off to the races.

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The United States military trained my father to be a ruthless killing machine in Vietnam, then turned him loose on his hometown of Leicester, North Carolina.

Me? Yeah, no fucking thanks. Dad was enough military for me, thank you very much—waking me up every morning at 6 a.m., inspecting my room and testing the tightness of the made bed with a quarter. He was a drunk by then, and a mean one…but he was always up at six, always smelling like last night’s liquor, cigarettes and whore.

I’m paying for college by taking my clothes off for money. A male stripper—a go-go boy, if you prefer. It means I watch what I eat, spend a minimum of an hour in the gym almost every day, and get to write off bikinis, underwear, jockstraps, and thongs as business expenses.

It’s a fucking living, okay?

My preference is booking gay bars. I like gay bars. Gay men are friendlier, nicer, and tip better. I make bank when I dance in a gay bar, and it doesn’t really require a whole lot of work. Eye contact, some minor flirting, the occasional touch here and there—always good for a couple of bucks. The older ones are a lot more handsy than the younger ones, but they also have more cash in their wallets.

Bachelorette parties, like the one we’re doing tonight, are the fucking worst.

The worst.

The story was a lot of fun to write, and it took me a couple of days of intense concentration and focus to get it done. The book is being released later this month, and I of course will be posting links and so forth when they are available.

And here is the TOC:

Introduction, by Eryk Pruitt

Hey Barkeep! By Eryk Pruitt

A True Yonder Tale, by Dan Barbour

Them’s Fighting Words, by Travis Richardson

Run Its Course, by Frank Zafiro

Popcorn, by Gabriel Valjan

Living Proof, by Will Viharo

Yonder Off-Label, by Terri Lynn Coop

Yonder Margarita, by Matt Phillips

The Regular, by Eric Beetner

Slappy Sacramento, by Todd Morr

Huey and the Burrito of Doom, by Nick Kolakowski

The Door in the Floor, by Allison Davis

Close Your Laptop, by Judy Wilkinson

They Have Drinks Named After Famous Writers, by S.A. Cosby

Legs Diamond, by Liam Sweeny

The Proposition, by Philip Kimbrough

Llama Juice, by Stacie A. Leininger

Moist Money, by Greg Herren

The Big Splash, by Renato Bratkovič

Noir at the Bar Fight, by Dana King

Two Clowns Walk into a Bar, by James Shaffer

Retribution, by David Nemeth

Not Enough to Drink, by Rob Pierce

Baby Got Back

Tuesday!

I am trying to gradually wean myself off prescription sleep assistance–the last thing in the world I need is an addiction–and so my sleep on Sunday night wasn’t terribly deep or restful; I wound up spending most of Monday wishing I could just curl up somewhere and go back to sleep. No such luck, nevertheless, so I soldiered through the day, knowing that Tuesday would be my long day and hoping that the sleepiness I endured all day Monday would enable me to sleep deeply and restfully on Monday night.

And no, that wasn’t the case. Yay, another long day of feeling tired, sleepy and basically out of it. Huzzah.

I started working my way through Royal Street Reveillon last night, making notes and catching things that need to be corrected in the next draft–and frankly, there’s not as much as I would have thought there would be. Granted, it’s much easier as you read through a hard copy, making notes on the manuscript–going into the electronic files and making those changes and updates is a whole other story. But I am hoping I’ll get it finished by mid-September, and turned in then as well. Fingers crossed.

I also finished Part 3 of my Bouchercon homework; Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon:

Scan

It will end much like this, thought Grant as the fire flickering up his nostrils gave way to a slow, mellow drip down the back of his throat. No sooner had he chased away the sweats, the whispers, the steady but fevered panic that so often wrapped its fingers tight around his windpipe than did he eyeball the rest of the kilo–still shrink-wrapped with only a jagged hole, hardly big enough–and consider into what further mayhem he might find himself.

It was good coke, sure, but Grant had not reason to think it wouldn’t be. Back in South Carolina, Bobby had been his best friend and would hardly look sideways at shit that wasn’t of a particular quality. You want to put bullshit powder into your face, Bobby used to say, then go down past Decker Boulevard. Bobby had a reputation. Folks around town knew he had the good shit. They knew how to get a hold of him night or day. What they didn’t know was where he stashed it, but Grant did, so a fool and his narcotics were quickly parted.

The only thing better than good cocaine, he thought as he plucked another pinch from the hole in the package, is stolen cocaine.

Any tranquility, perceived or otherwise, came crashing to a halt with a knock at the motel room door. Grant quickly shuffled away the brick of cocaine into a hollowed-out King James Bible, then scooted it beneath the bed. He perked an ear. Listened. Held his breath.

“Hey, Grant,” called a voice from outside. “Open up. I ain’t standing out here all day.”

What We Reckon is a fun ride; a tale of two ne’er-do-wells on the fringes of society, changing names and identities as they move across the South, dealing and doing drugs; crossing people and turning on each other depending on the drug and their mood at the moment. It reads as a very raw, very 70’s style noir; a cross between Barry Hannah and James Crumley, and also very visual: I kept seeing this as one of those dark and gritty 70’s films.

Now I move on to James Ziskin’s  Cast the First Stone.

Go Home

Sunday morning, with lots to do and a long, relaxing day ahead in which to do it all. I woke up relatively early this morning, which was a wonderful and pleasant surprise, and feel rested. I have a short story to work on, a reread of Royal Street Reveillon to get through, and I’d also like to make some progress on my reading of Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon. I cleaned and did errands and read yesterday; along with some note taking on various projects as well as filing. This coming week should be interesting, to say the least; I am doing some testing on Monday and Thursday at the Blacks in Government conference at the Riverside Hilton, which will be a lovely change from my ordinary routine, and I have a three day weekend next weekend in honor of my birthday.

Yes, the old man officially turns fifty-seven next weekend; although I always change my age on New Year’s. After this next New Year’s, I’ll be telling people I’m fifty-eight. Age has never mattered  much to me; for the early portion of my life I was always younger than everyone else around me; later on I was always older than everyone else I hung around with. I learned early on that age is a relative concept.

Yesterday was kind of a lovely day for me. It rained off and on most of the day, and there really is nothing lovelier than being inside and dry while it rains outside, and our rain is do torrential and tropical–so lovely to deal with when you’re inside rather than when you’re actually outside dealing with it. As the bed linens agitated in the washing machine and the wool blankets tumbled dry in the laundry room, I was filing and getting my desk area organized, listening to the rain and looking out my windows to see all the leaves outside glistening and wet, and water cascading out of the rain spout on the house next door when a phrase formed in my head, and I scribbled into my journal, standing up at the kitchen counter: It was one of those lovely summer Saturdays New Orleans gets sometimes in August–where thunderstorms roll through the city all day, the dark clouds creating an artificial twilight at three in the afternoon. Perfect for staying inside and cleaning, the washing and drying and folding of clothes. The cat sleeps lazily in the desk chair, waking up every now and then to groom before curling up again into a tight ball of differentiated ginger stripes.

I may never use that in something I write, be it a short story or a novel, but it’s a nice piece of writing nonetheless. My notebooks and journals are filled with such scraps of writing, of ideas and thoughts and fragments and character descriptions or settings.

And next up in Florida Happens, for the Short Story Project is “The Fakahatchee Goonch” by Jack Bates.

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Goonch is just another name for a catfish. A really big catfish.  Sometimes it’s called the Devil Fish or Black Demon because it lurks deep down there in the murkiest part of the Fakahatchee Preserve. Bottom feeders mostly. They eat gator leftovers or anything else that might get tossed into the swamps. Back in the mauve and neonMiami Vice days, legend had it the Everglades was a good place to dispose of a problem quick.  People think that’s how the goonch developed a taste for meat.

Of course, the guys who trawl for catfish say those fish are just as apt to eat water weeds and such if the pickings are slim.  Sometimes they feed on their own.  Had some guys drag in twenty to thirty pounders, about three feet long. That ain’t no fish tale.

Neither is this one. The catfish I’m talking about is an eight-man goonch. Know what that is? That’s when eight grown men stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder, and that goonch lays across all of their extended hands from tip to tail. That’s how big the Fakahatchee goonch was said to be. Had a mouth like the gaping orifice of hell, or so I’m told. I ain’t never seen it, but I know it’s there.

There have been nights when I’m frog hunting where the frog croaking will go quiet and the swamp gets real still. Something big enough to rock my aluminum skiff passes through the water. Up ahead in the dark there’ll be a splash and a few ticks off a clock later my skiff will rock a second time except maybe a little more treacherously on the creature’s return pass. and I’ll have to sit down, clutch the sides so I don’t tip out. Only way I know it’s safe to leave is when the frogs start croaking again.

Sometimes though, a frog will puff its chest and blowout its braggadocio regardless of the danger it’s in.

Jack’s bio reads “Jack Bates writes some pretty good crime fiction from the comfort of his loft office. His stories have appeared all around the web, in various anthologies, and in a few magazines. Three have been finalists for the Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He’s also written award-winning scripts for stage and screen including a short-lived web series. An incomplete list of his works can be found on his blog http://flashjab.blogspot.com/.   When not writing, he plots or travels or runs errands or chats it up with other old movie buffs on twitter. He pens the Harry Landers, PI, series for Mind Wings Audio Books. He’s also released several ebooks with Untreed Reads which launched the Hack Ward PI series with Monkey See, Monkey Murder. In 2012, his YA Steampunk novel, Colt Buchanan and the Weather Walkers, was released by Red Willow Press.”

This short story is quite fun, and in the classic mold of slightly off, wacky Florida noir. Set in a dive bar on the west coast of Florida in a nothing town on the edge of a swamp, a stranger walks in with a wad of cash and an air of mystery about him; two tough rednecks are playing pool with their girlfriends when the two men decide to win some of the stranger’s money off him–and things continue to spiral downward from there. It reminded me of John D. Macdonald with maybe a dash of Hiassen thrown in for good measure, and is a very fun and satisfying read; one that I’m glad is in the book.

And now, I have spice to mine.

I’ll Be Over You

Saturday morning in the Lost Apartment. I have work to do, errands to run, an apartment to clean, and weights to lift. And rather than getting started on any of it this morning, I am rather sitting in my chair, swilling coffee, and wasting time on the Internet.

Meh, it happens.

Today I am going to spend some time writing, and reading–I want to get further along in Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon (#boucherconhomework) and last night I had an absolutely brilliant idea of how to structure that panel. Mwa-ha-ha. The panelists may not think it’s brilliant, but do, and am in charge.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

MWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

This is going to be fun.

Next up in the Florida Happens anthology is a story by Debra Lattanzi Shutika. From her website:

“Hello, I’m Debra Lattanzi Shutika, author of Beyond the Borderlands: Migration and Belonging in the United States and Mexico (2011, University of California Press), an ethnography that explores the lives of Mexican immigrants and their American neighbors in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and the transformation of their home community in Mexico.  Beyond the Borderlands is the winner of the 2012 Chicago Folklore Prize.

I direct the Field School for Cultural Documentation, a collaborative project with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  The Field School has completed eight community-based documentation projects, including the occupational culture of Arlington National Cemetery, two years in the Columbia Pike neighborhood in Arlington, VA (2011-12) the Alexandria Waterfront (2014), Arlington County Community Gardens in 2016 & 2017. We have also held two residential field schools in West Virginia. One in Morgan County in 2012 and most recently in the West Virginia Coalfields in 2018.

I also write fiction. My short story “Frozen Iguana” will appear in the 2018 Bouchercon anthology Florida Happens, and “Mirrors” appeared in Richard Peabody’s Abundant Grace: The Seventh Collection of Fiction by D.C. Area Women.  I’m revising a novel, The Other Kate, a mystery about postmodern changelings.

My current academic projects include a book-length ethnography about a documentation project with the National Park Service on the 50th Anniversary of Summers in the Parks.

I teach Folklore, ethnographic writing and ethnographic research methods at George Mason University.”

Her website is here.

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And here is how “Frozen Iguana” opens:

Thunk

Jimmy turned off the water and stood in the shower, shivering.

Thunk

Thunk, thunk thunk.

He looked up at the ceiling tile expecting a dent from the last—

Thunk

He wrapped a towel around his waist and eased out of the steamy bathroom, the trailer floor creaking with every step.

Jimmy pulled the blinds back from the front door window. The thermometer read 36 degrees, the sixth day of the Florida freeze. The iguanas had started to fall out of the trees like junkies after a hit. Across the way a car door slammed. At midnight, Jimmy watched his neighbor Kate, wearing her scrubs, her auburn hair tied back in a ponytail, hop down from her truck and head for her trailer. For the next hour, he made the pilgrimage to the window to watch the comings and goings of the park. Three and a half Buds later, Jimmy fell asleep for the night on the couch.

There is nothing more annoying that the repetitive sound of frozen iguanas hitting the roof of your trailer, with the possible exception of a man hammering at your neighbor’s door. Jimmy stumbled out of bed and looked outside. It was six in the morning and there was a cop. At Kate’s door.

As the unofficial mayor of Paradise Lake trailer park, Jimmy Dickson knew every resident’s story. Jimmy stayed clear of the junkies and pushers, and he watched over the lost souls who somehow ended up here. Kate was one of his favorites.

He grabbed his hat and stepped outside.  Kate hollered, “Calm down!” Her breath rose in small clouds.

“You Kate Lucci?” The cop towered over Kate.

This is a terrific story, and I love so much that she chose to write a story around the south Florida iguana issue. I have a friend who lives on the Wilton River in Fort Lauderdale, and the iguanas–who live on an island just across from his property–drive him insane. They eat the fruit from his trees, they leave piles of iguana shit everywhere, and I have to say, in the morning when you are relaxing alongside the pool with your morning coffee, it’s a bit of a shock to see something moving out of the corner of your eye and then look over and see an enormous iguana just on the other side of the screen.

And yes, during a cold spell there a few years back there was, as Steve said, an ‘iguana holocaust’–most of them freezing to death. But it wasn’t permanent, and they are back.

The story is set in a trailer park in Broward County during a freeze–with frozen iguanas falling out of the trees fairly regularly. Kate works in a rehab facility, and one of her neighbors is in recovery for opioid addiction–and has overdosed. The cops dismiss it as just another relapsed junkie overdosing, but Kate doesn’t believe the story. The victim’s addiction had cost her custody of her kids, who were being brought over for a visit the next day–which means the relapse, at least to Kate, doesn’t make sense. Dismissed by the cops, with the assistance of another resident in the park Kate keeps looking into the strange relapse, continuing to find other indications that it may have been murder, and finally solves the case herself. What a great lot of fun!

And now I suppose I should get back to work.

Love Will Conquer All

There’s nothing like paying the bills to ruin your day, is there?

Heavy heaving sigh. But there’s nothing else to be done about it, but it certainly is depressing to think about how much work went into earning that money only to see it disappear from sight so quickly. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I had another short story rejected this week; not a big deal, really. I don’t take those kinds of things quite so personally any more; certainly not as hard as I used to. I do have a brief, momentary flash of why do I even bother, and then I get over it. I write stories that I want to write; ideas that I want to explore in story form. And while these stories certainly fit the definition of mystery as defined by the Mystery Writers of America (“fiction having to do with the commission of, the solving of, or the aftermath of a crime”), they aren’t really mystery stories. They’re crime stories, yes, but are more dark and about what can drive someone to commit a crime, or planning a crime, and so forth. This recently rejected story wasn’t even about a crime that had already happened; it was about the planning of one, and having to readjust the time-line because of an error made by one of the co-conspirators. I liked the idea, and I still like the story, but I am going to have to broaden my base of submissions to include places that aren’t necessarily are looking for a mystery story.

I do have a couple of stories still out there at major markets…markets that I basically consider to be brass rings; or, if you prefer a sports metaphor, I am swinging for the fences. I never get terribly disappointed when those hits wind up being caught in the outfield, or get thrown out at the plate. You have to try for the fences, you know, sometimes, but more often than not it’s just going to be a pop-fly right to an outfielder waiting with his glove.

It’s still disappointing, however–don’t get me wrong. You always hope.

A lot about this business is based in hope, really.

We are continuing to enjoy both Castle Rock and Sharp Objects, but the latter sometimes feels like it is being drawn out to make the series longer. But the acting is stellar, the writing is terrific, and the production values are pretty amazing. We will continue to watch.

And I started reading Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon, another Anthony finalist for Best Paperback Original. It’s his third novel, following Dirtbags and Hashtags. I’m not very far into it, but it’s got a really great noir feel to it that I suspect I am going to really enjoy.

And now, back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, everyone!

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Your Wildest Dreams

Good morning! It’s Thursday, everyone, and with a short day at the office ahead of me and just one more day before the weekend, I am feeling good. Not as good perhaps as I should, but I slept really well last night, don’t have to be at work until later this afternoon, and I am going to even go to the gym this morning before it’s time to go to work.

I call that a winning day, don’t you?

I am reading Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died as prep work for my moderating duties at Bouchercon next month. I am, in case you weren’t paying attention, Constant Reader, moderating the panel highlighting the Anthony Award finalists for Best Paperback Original. After I finish Lori’s book I’ll be reading Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt, Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin, and Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettmann. I’m enjoying Lori’s book–I also enjoyed the previous one of hers I’d read, Little Pretty Things, and as I’ve said before, there’s no one more fun to traverse the back roads of rural Alabama on a rainy morning with. All of these books had been in my TBR pile for quite some time, so it’s great to have an excuse to pull them out and read them.

I worked a little more on “Please Die Soon” yesterday; the story is becoming even creepier the more I work on it–although I think I may have done some overkill with it. But I am going to keep going with it, and once I am finished with the first draft I’ll figure it out in the revision process. I am also letting “A Whisper from the Graveyard” sit for a while–I know there’s some serious tweakage needed in it as well before submitting it–and I am starting to get to work on the August/September project as well. Exciting times for a Gregalicious.

And before I go to the gym this morning, I’m going to try to get the house straightened up a bit.

And while I know I’ve already talked about my story in Florida Happens (“Cold Beer No Flies”) I intend to spend the rest of this month’s focus on The Short Story Project on the stories and authors in the book, to try to whet your appetite for either preordering the book or buying it at Bouchercon. We are doing a launch for the book there on Thursday at 1; all the authors present gathering to sign and/or discuss the book and their story. And of course, it’s just easier for me to start by talking about my own.

Dane Brewer stepped out of his air-conditioned trailer, wiped sweat off his forehead and locked the door. It was early June and already unbearably hot, the humidity so thick it was hard to breathe. He was too far inland from the bay to get much of the cooling sea breeze but not so far away he couldn’t smell it. The fishy wet sea smell he was sick to death of hung in the salty air. It was omnipresent, inescapable. He trudged along the reddish-orange dirt path through towering pine trees wreathed in Spanish moss. The path was strewn with pine cones the size of his head and enormous dead pine needles the color of rust that crunched beneath his shoes. His face was dripping with sweat. He came into the clearing along the state road where a glorified Quonset hut with a tin roof stood.  It used to be a bait and tackle until its resurrection as a cheap bar. It was called My Place. It sounded cozy—the kind of place people would stop by every afternoon for a cold one after clocking out from work, before heading home.

The portable reader board parked where the parking lot met the state road read Cold Beer No Flies.

Simple, matter of fact, no pretense. No Hurricanes in fancy glasses like the touristy places littering the towns along the gulf coast. Just simple drinks served in plain glasses, ice-cold beer in bottles or cans stocked in refrigerated cases at simple prices hard-working people could afford. Tuscadega’s business was fish, and its canning plant stank of dead fish and guts and cold blood for miles. Tuscadega sat on the inside coast of a large shallow bay. The bay’s narrow mouth was crowned by a bridge barely visible from town. A long two-lane bridge across the bay led to the gold mine of the white sand beaches and green water along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Tourists didn’t flock to Tuscadega, but Tuscadega didn’t want them, either. Dreamers kept saying when land along the gulf got too expensive the bay shores would be developed, but it hadn’t and Dane doubted it ever would.

Tuscadega was just a tired old town and always would be, best he could figure it. A dead end the best and the brightest fled as soon as they were able.

 He was going to follow them one day, once he could afford it.

Towns like Tuscadega weren’t kind to people like Dane.

“Cold Beer No Flies” was originally conceived of back when I lived in Kansas, as far back as when I was a teenager. There was a bar in Emporia called My Place, which was an okay place–it had a concrete floor, just like the one in my story–and it also had one of those rolling readerboard signs along the road, and it literally read that: MY PLACE COLD BEER, NO FLIES. I always thought that was funny, and I always wanted to write a story called “Cold Beer No Flies.” I think I wrote the original first draft of the story in the 1980’s, and it languished in my files all these years. When it came to be time to write something for Florida Happens, I picked out “Cold Beer No Flies”, read the first two drafts of what I had written before, and decided to reboot the story and adapt it to the Florida setting. I’d always seen it as a noir story, and in rewriting/adapting it to fit this I needed to obviously move the setting from Kansas to Florida. I also had the bright idea to set it in the panhandle; I figured (rightly) that the majority of stories would be set in the beach communities literally the southern coasts of the state, and not many people would be moved to right about either the interior parts or the panhandle. I picked a dying, rotten little small town and placed it on a panhandle bay, similar to the little town my grandparents retired to in the early 1970’s. I also wanted to look at, and explore, what it’s like to grow up gay and working class in such a place–very redneck, very conservative, very backwards, very religious, very homophobic. The story turned out very creepy, I think, which was precisely what I was going for, and I hope you enjoy it when the time comes, Constant Reader.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Take Me Home

Saturday morning and I feel great. If you think that means I slept well last night, you would be correct in that assumption.  It’s amazing what a difference it makes; those of you who have no trouble sleeping at night and can get amazing rest every night? You have no idea how lucky you are, and how much I envy you.

Today I have errands to run, a house to clean, a workout to do; as long as I stay motivated I can easily get all of these things done. I also have writing to do–I want to finish “A Whisper from the Graveyard” this weekend, and I also want to finish making my notes on the Scotty book, at which point I need to revise the outline I did (after finishing the first draft) so I can start the massive edit/rewrite for the second draft I need to get done. As I also mentioned the other day, I also need to start reading the books on the Anthony shortlist for Best Paperback Original, since I am moderating that panel at Bouchercon this year. To jog your memory, those books are, as follows: The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day; Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck; Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettman; What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt; and Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin. I got some good reading ahead of me, don’t I? Yes I do!

Huzzah! This is, after all, always a good thing.

I am, alas, as always, behind on my writing schedule. I had wanted to get Scotty finished this month (ha!) before embarking on an a project that will consume August and September; and then I had wanted to work on the WIP in October and November before starting on Bury Me in Satin in December. I don’t see that happening now, alas, since I got so little done on Scotty this month. Then again, you never know. If I can maintain good sleeping habits and maintain meeting goals and staying motivated every day in the face of the oppressive heat of a New Orleans August, I just might be able to get back on schedule.

Here’s hoping.

I did finished reading Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister this week.

the favorite sister

A man whose name I do not know slides his hand under the hem of my new blouse, connecting the cable to the lavalier mic clipped to my collar. He asks me to say something–sound check–and for a single reckless beat, I consider the truth. Brett is dead and I’m not innocent.

“Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three.” I’m not only dishonest. I’m unoriginal.

The sound guy listens to the playback. “Keep your hair off your left shoulder as much as you can,” he tells me.  I haven’t had my ends trimmed in months, and not because my grief has bested my vanity. I’m hoping viewers are better able to see the resemblance to my sister. I have nice hair. Brett had beautiful hair.

“Thanks,” I reply, wishing I could remember his name. Brett would have known it. She made a point of being on a first-name basis with the crew–from the gaffer to the ever-rotating harem of production assistants. My sister’s speciality was making underappreciated people feel appreciated. It’s a testament to that quality that we are all gathered here today, some of us prepared to tell heroic lies about her.

This is Knoll’s second novel; her first, Luckiest Girl Alive, was stunningly brilliant and I loved it. I also believe she may have made the Edgar shortlist for Best First Novel. In this book, Knoll again takes as her theme ambitious women and the conflicts they have with each other, set against the backdrop of a reality television series which is clearly based, in some ways, on the Real Housewives shows. The show, Goal Diggers of New York, ostensibly focuses on five women who are all entrepreneurs, don’t have kids, and in most cases are also single. Goal Diggers has the same pedigree as the Real Housewives shows; originally intended as a docu-series focusing on real women and the struggles they have running businesses and so forth, it has descended into a ratings-hungry juggernaut predicated on pitting the women against each other emotionally and forcing them into feuds. The ultimate cleverness of the book is it follows, basically, the same trajectory as if it were, indeed, a reality show about women; it reads like a season of a Real Housewives franchise. There are three main point-of-view characters–sisters Kelly and Brett, and Brett’s former best friend, an author of color named Stephanie. Kelly narrates the action in the present, after all the events of the book are finished–the device used is her filming what is known as a ‘talking head’ interview; where the camera is trained on the cast member and asked questions. The rest of the book is about the filming of the most recent season of Goal Diggers, which ended in tragedy; that is shown from the alternating POV’s of Brett and Stephanie, who manufactured a feud for the season as a storyline but the ‘fake feud’ actually runs far deeper, with a far worse betrayal at its heart, than anything that was taped for the series. The book addresses a lot of current hot topics in our culture and society: racism, homophobia, same-sex marriage, sexism. It’s very hard to talk about the book without giving spoilers; like a season of a reality show, the twists and turns the plot takes are part of the joy the reader gets from the story, and to discuss them would spoil it for new readers. But it’s very well-written, and the characterizations are quite strong.

I have to say, I enjoyed every second of reading this book, and I can’t wait for Knoll’s next one.

And now, back to the spice mines.