Last Christmas

I was bored briefly yesterday between clients (it’s rarely more than five to ten minutes, and at the time I didn’t feel like answering emails or even looking at social media–after all, I am already taking medication for my blood pressure) so I thought, maybe you should look up the books you read and wrote about here to make a Best Reads of the Year list, but as I started going through the blog I remembered that I only write about the books I feel very strongly about, which would mean trying to narrow the ones I loved down to ten, and I don’t really want to do that. I may just do a list of the books I reviewed here…there were so many damned good ones that I read all year, and of course there were a lot of rereads over the year as well. I also watched a lot of television and film this past year, and almost everything was terrific–we stop watching if we aren’t enjoying it very much–so again, choosing favorites or a top ten list would be incredibly difficult and mentally taxing. But I have no problem saying that the television program I watched that I enjoyed the most was Heartstopper. It was just so charming and pure, precisely the sort of thing I would normally turn my nose up at and dismiss as old-fashioned or overly sentimental, but it took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t expecting the sweetness or the charm, and of course the incredibly charismatic, age-appropriate cast had a lot to do with that, too–although I then read the graphic novels and loved them just as much.

I actually feel good this morning, oddly enough. I slept deeply and well, waking only once, and I was able to go back to the Dreaming (Neil Gaiman/The Sandman reference). My arm is much better, though sometimes it still feels like I have a Charley horse in the biceps. It got colder overnight as well, so that probably helped me sleep somewhat. It feels chilly in the apartment this morning: a quick glance at the weather shows that it’s in the mid-fifties, which feels about right. I have a lot to do this weekend, and of course, forty-eight hours isn’t enough time. But the book is going very well, if not quickly enough, and a strong push this weekend should stand me in good stead. Cleaning up the mess that the first ten chapters is taking me a while, no lie, but it’s getting better and I am starting to have fun with it again. Which is always nice.

It’s been quite a week, and I have to say, December has been a bit of a trying month so far. Keeping all the plates spinning is much harder and I am barely making it to some right as they are about to fall off. I’ve been battling exhaustion a lot lately. I’m not sure if it’s the sleep issues I’ve been having for the last ten years, but it seems to be more of a problem these last few years, which could simply be age-related. I know my body has changed a lot in the last few years–blood sugar drops, for example, were never anything I ever had to worry about before, but it makes a significant difference now. Which tends to happen quite a bit, too–because if I don’t eat when I get hungry, the hunger will eventually go away and I’ll end up not eating at all–which results in a drop in my blood sugar. The fact that it’s noticeable is concerning–another thing to ask my doctor about next month, I need to make a list–so who knows? I hate our health care system. Health care should never be a for-profit enterprise, because that puts profit ahead of patients, and the fact that there is anyone who can’t see that “profit before patients” is immoral really concerns me about the future. But I also have faith in today’s young people. They’re bright, inclusive, and want a better world for everyone. That’s kind of cool, isn’t it?

But it’s been a good year, overall. I just wish I’d been able to enjoy it a bit more. And on that note, here I come for the spice mines. Have a great Friday, everyone.

Carousel

As Constant Reader should know by now, while my entire identity and ego is wrapped up (probably too much) in being a writer, the truth is I have always been, currently am, and will always be, a reader first. I love to read, always have since I first learning what the little squiggles on the pages actually meant and learned how to decipher the little squiggles first into words, then into sentences, paragraphs and eventually entire stories. Reading was always my escape from a world too harsh for a little creative gay boy surrounded by people who didn’t read much nor cared much about books and so forth; sometimes the fantasy worlds I created in my head–always influenced by my reading–were safer and better places that I preferred to what, to me, was the horror of reality. I also learned a lot from my reading. I learned about other countries and cultures and groups; history and geography and other little odds and ends of information that remain lodged in my head and make me good at both Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit (case in point: I learned from Nancy Drew’s 44th adventure The Clue in the Crossword Cipher that the Incas’ language was quechua; I’ve never forgotten that, or that the Nasca Lines play a part in the book, and she and her friends also went to Machu Picchu).

Over the last few years I realized that my reading was primarily white and straight and decided to correct that; since then I have discovered the eye-opening marvel that is the talent of non-white authors and their remarkable story-telling ability. S. A. Cosby, Kellye Garrett, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mia P. Manansala, Alex Segura Jr, Raquel V. Reyes and many others have opened my eyes to other American experiences, and reading their work has also given me a broader and deeper understanding and appreciation of a different kind of American experience.

And then I read Gabino Iglesias’ 2022 release, The Devil Takes You Home.

Leukemia. That’s what the doctor said. She was young, white, and pretty. Her brown hair hung like a curtain over her left eye. She talked to us softly, using the tone most people use to explain things to a child, especially when they think the child is an idiot. Her mouth opened just enough to let the words flow out. She said our four-year-old daughter had cancer in her blood cells. Our Anita, who waited in the other room, playing with Legos and still wrapped in innocence. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Those strange words were said in a voice that was both impossibly sharp and velvety. Her soft delivery didn’t help. You can wrap a shotgun in flowers, but that doesn’t make the blast less lethal.

The young, white, pretty doctor told us it was too early to tell for sure, but there was a good chance that Anita was going to be okay. Okay, that’s the word she used. Sometimes four letters mean the world. She immediately added that she couldn’t make any promises. People fear being someone else’s hope. I understood her, but I wanted her to be our hope.

Jesus.

The opening of the book rips your heart out and rends your soul.

I am not a parent, never have been, never wanted to be, and never will be. I admire and respect parents (for the most part) because when I try to imagine what it’s like to be one, I can’t–it literally wears my brain down. I am a chronic worrier as it is; I get nervous when Paul doesn’t come home from work when he’s supposed to, or dawdles and delays and doesn’t text me. But for the most part, I know he’s an adult and functional and I believe he can, for the most part, navigate the world safely so I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about him.

I don’t think parents ever have a moment’s rest from the time the child is born until the child or the parents die–and I can imagine no greater grief than losing a beloved child.

Losing their child is how this book opens. And you just know in your heart of hearts–things aren’t going to get better any time soon for the father narrating this story. It isn’t a spoiler to let you know, Constant Reader, that by Chapter Three Anita is dead and her parents are swimming in debt and grief and drowning in it all. Before long, the marriage is over and Mario is alone with his grief and his debt and misery.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such a literate and powerful description of rock bottom in my life.

Mario turns back to crime in an attempt to make things right with the world and to somehow fill his horrible emptiness with something, anything. He starts off as a hitman, killing bad people and making money to pay down his debt and maybe, just maybe, somehow get his wife back and they can start over. Mario is desperate–and aren’t desperate characters the essense of noir at its purest distillation? He is then recruited to help liberate some cash from a cartel on its way to Mexico. Success means a cool two hundred grand and the potential to start over. Failure means a bullet in the head.

Both are better options than the life Mario is living at the time.

The pacing is breakneck and the story itself is a trainwreck you can’t look away from; you can’t help rooting for Mario, flaws and all, because the suffering is so intense you want him to find, somehow, both redemption and peace. (The book also serves as a stinging indictment of poverty in this country, and the near-impossibility of bettering yourself while drowning in the debt incurred for the possibility of bettering yourself, as well as our fraudulent health care system. Parents shouldn’t be saddled with insurmountable debt for trying to keep their child alive and especially not when the child passes.)

There are also some fascinating elements of the paranormal/supernatural mixed into the story, too–but while this might throw a typical noir off-track, it works here to heighten the sense of madness and unreality the entire book invokes. The true horror of the book is the system, designed to keep people of color down and to keep the cycle of poverty going.

Here are just a few of the gems in the prose:

The middle of nowhere is remarkably consistent in terms of being unmemorable.

The d├ęcor was a mix of a failed attempt at hill-country chic circa 1970 and neon signs for the kinds of beers folks buy at gas station convenience stores on their way to somewhere they wish they could escape.

The Devil Takes You Home is raw, fresh and original, with the kind of crisp smart literate writing that speaks of Lisa Lutz, Megan Abbott, and Jim Thompson.

I marked any number of pages for these writing gems that both awed and inspired me (to do better with my own work).

I highly recommend the book–but be warned: there is violence and gore aplenty, but it all works because it’s not there for shock value.