Solitaire

Sleep has eluded me all week; I lie in bed all night half-awake and half-asleep, hoping that my mind will stop racing and I will somehow, as I toss and turn, find a position in my bed that will allow me to, at last, find sleep. I grow tired every evening before bed–and have stayed away from screens, since I’ve read in many places that sleeplessness can be caused by the light emitted by computer and device screens–but it is all for naught. I’m not sure what has caused this change, and I am afraid I will never sleep deeply again.

Last night I had to do bar testing, and when I got home I finished reading Lisa Unger’s In the Blood.

in the blood

There are twelve slats of wood under my bed. I know this because I count them over and over. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve. I whisper the numbers to myself and the sound of it comforts me as I’m sure a prayer would comfort someone who believes in God. It’s amazing how loud a whisper can be. Surrounded down there by the white glow of my bed skirt, the sound of my own voice in my ears, I can almost block out the screaming, the horrible keening. And then there’s the silence, which is so much worse.

In the quiet, which falls like a sudden night, I can hear the beating of my own heart, feel it thudding in my chest. I lie very still, willing myself to sink into the pile of the carpet lower and lower until I don’t exist at all, There is movement downstairs. I hear the sound of something heavy scraping across the dining room floor. What is he doing?

I have come to this place before. Here, I have hidden from the frequent and terrible storms of my parents’ miserable marriage. And I have listened as their voices break through the thick walls and the heavy, closed doors. But usually I can only hear the ugly cadence of their voices, and very rarely their words, which I know to be hateful and spiked with old hurts and bitter resentments. It is a poison in the air, a toxic cloud. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineteneleventwelve. Sticks and stone can break your bones, but words can break your heart.

Over the last year, I’ve become an enormous fan of Lisa Unger. This is the third book of hers that I’ve read since the first of the year, and like the two before it, it’s absolutely stunning. The cadence of the words, the way the story is structured to build, and the words themselves, chosen with infinite care, create a thing of beauty about a terrifying darkness.

The book is set in The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York which Unger has visited before; the two previous works of hers that I’ve read were also set in this strange town where bizarre things happen; where it is not unusual for ghosts to appear, and madness is only a short step away. The Hollows is Unger’s Castle Rock, her Collinsport, her Bon Temps; a town where violent death and passionate love are possible; where the veil between the world of the living and the dead is as thin as the wall between sanity and madness.

In the Blood is the tale of Lana Granger, a damaged young college student who has come to The Hollows to attend Sacred Heart College and completely disappear from a horrific past that is slowly revealed to the reader; each revelation even more horrific than the last. Lana is heavily medicated, “flat”, as she calls it; Unger exploration of that state of mind, a drug-induced emotionless existence, seems not only realistic but tragic and sad at the same time. Lana is convinced by her faculty advisor to take a job as babysitter/nanny for a troubled twelve year old named Luke, who lives with his mother in a big Victorian house a short bike ride from the campus. Two years earlier, a young female student disappeared from the campus and was found dead a few days later; one of Lana’s roommates, Beck, with whom she has a challenging relationship, disappears after a public argument with Lana in the library.  Luke isn’t just troubled, he’s dangerous, and the two begin a dangerous dance, as he dangles bait in front of her to lure her into his games.

As Lana’s story unfolds, every other chapter is a diary excerpt; the diary of a woman trying to maintain her own sanity as she realizes, almost from birth, that there’s something wrong, something horrifically off, about her son. Is Luke’s mother’s diary, with Unger showing the reader the horror of what being a mother to a budding psychopath must be like? Or is it something else?

And there is history here as well; murder tangled up in the DNA Lana has gotten from both of her parents. And as the reader learns more and more of Lana’s secrets, the more terrifying the story becomes.

Much has been made lately of the use of the Unreliable Narrator; Unger’s main characters are always unreliable, but she manages to not make it a cliche, nor does she seem to do it in order to pull off unforeseen, out-of-the-blue plot twists on her readers; she manages to do this in a wholly organic way that completely makes sense. She is a master; her books are stunning works of art, as complexly constructed as a human personality, with all of its quirks and tics.

I was troubled by one particular plot twist; but I cannot write about that without undermining the pleasure of reading the book; pulling that thread will unravel the entire story and ruin the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, which is a pity; it’s something that I feel should be discussed, and I also see not only why it was a necessary turn for the story–it completely made sense and pulled everything together–but at the same time it made me a bit uncomfortable.

Read this book. Read Lisa Unger. And cherish the experience.

Affair of the Heart

Wednesday. It’s also Pay Day, or rather, Pay the Bills Day. Hurray. Although none of them are actually do until next week, so I may wait to pay them so I can savor the feeling of having actual money in my checking account for a couple of days.

Apparently we’re in a boil water advisory this morning in New Orleans. Fortunately I have an entire shelf full of bottled water in my refrigerator that have been through the Brita filter–I don’t trust that our water pipes aren’t lead–and showering isn’t an issue in this particular advisory, but this seems to happen more regularly than it really should, you know? I love this city, but our old infrastructure leaves so much to be desired. And no matter how many luxury condo buildings go up over parking lots, this is still an old, fragile, crumbling city.

I continue to work my way through Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, and I got rolling on Chapter Six of Scotty yesterday (I know, I meant to outline the next five chapters but I had an idea for how to get it started and then it just kind of started going), but last night was bar testing and so I am a little frazzled/tired this morning. My mind is certainly all over the place. I had some terrific book mail yesterday–including the ARC for the fabulous new Alison Gaylin coming out in March, If I Die Tonight, which I am itching to get into. (I may have picked out a stack of horror novels to read for Halloween/October, but it’s still September, don’t you know). I think I’ll be able to get the Unger finished this weekend and then move onto the Gaylin. I also have an electronic ARC of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn I keep forgetting I have–the curse of pesky ebooks is that I don’t think about “oh, I should check the iPad and see what I have to read in there” very often, if at all.

Here’s my rather ambitious stack of books to read for October/Halloween:

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It is a bit overwhelming in its length, but the lovely thing is it’s a reread; so I don’t have to gobble it all down at one time. I can read it here and there, slip another in for a break, and then go back. I am very curious as to how well it holds up, and as I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve not reread It since I read it the first time. I do want to see the movie, but may end up waiting to see it once it’s streaming. I am excited, though, for it–as most people whose opinion I respect have greatly enjoyed it. There are so few King adaptations that are good–Carrie, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, Christine–that when a good one comes along, it must be embraced.

All right, it’s off to the spice mines with me.

Gloria

Tuesday! I have a long day of testing facing me, capped off with bar testing tonight at Good Friends. I have my morning free, at least before I have to run my errands, so I am going to try to get some writing done. I did finish Chapter 5 yesterday, and am trying to get the next five chapters outlined before I get moving on Chapter 6. I think I know what’s going to happen next; but everything’s kind of amorphous and I really want to sit and think it all through before I try writing. Some of the stuff in the first five chapters is going to need to be redone–there’s some stuff that I might have to cut out entirely–and I am going to seriously consider that before just trying to make it all work together.

I printed out another, trimmed copy of the WIP, which is now 276 pages instead of 340. That was some serious editing I did there. I am going to wait until this weekend to read it again; although I have lots of notes about what needs to be done with it.

I also started writing another short story yesterday, “The White Knuckler.” Not sure how it turns out, but right now in my head it’s just another variation on my theme of ‘running into someone from your past on a vehicle of mass transportation,” like my story “A Streetcar Named Death.” I do seem to return to the same themes, or variations on the same type of story, an awful lot. So, I am just going to rough draft it out, and then try to figure out how not to make it just another variation on a theme. I don’t want to be reductive.

Short stories are hard.

Lisa Unger’s In the Blood continues to enthrall. We are also watching a Netflix original series, Atypical, which is about a highly functional autistic teenager and his family. His parents are played by Michael Rappaport and Jennifer Jason Leigh (of whom I’ve been a fan since Fast Times at Ridgemont High); Sam the teen is played by Keir Gilchrist, who played the gay son on United States of Tara. It’s actually a very sweet show, with strong characters played by actors very good in the roles; its focus is that Sam is now ready to start dating, or rather, thinks he should start dating. The show is both funny and touching, and we are enjoying it quite a bit.

So, this morning I am going to sign out of here, do some filing, and basically figure out what I need to do (in other words, get organized), and perhaps curl up in the easy chair with some more Lisa Unger to get inspired, as I always am by brilliantly talented people.

Here’s a Tuesday hunk for you:

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Is There Something I Should Know?

It rained last night; it was kind of a shock as there was no thunder and/or lightning, and the sun was actually shining. I only knew it was raining when I took out the trash; and it was pouring. Quietly. It was eerie; there wasn’t any wind so the rain was coming straight down, slowly–the way it does in the jungle. And then I remember, as I seem to forget at times, oh, yes, we live in the tropics. It’s easy to forget that when you live in a city that should be a tropical swamp.

I am working both days this weekend; both Saturday for testing and Sunday for the NO/AIDS Walk. I get to take next Monday off, and then go in late on Tuesday, which will be lovely. But ugh, staring down seven consecutive days of work is horrific. But, you know, it happens. And it’s not like it’s every week, you know?

The new Scotty is taking shape, which is lovely. It’s so vastly different than it’s source material, even if it using the same framework, and I am actually enjoying myself as the plot broadens, expands and takes shape. I am hopeful to have a first draft finished around mid-October, if all goes well and the creek don’t rise; November 1 if I get distracted, as I am wont to do.

Lisa Unger’s In the Blood continues to enthrall me; if you haven’t read her work, Constant Reader, you really need to. She defies classification as well; there are crimes in her novels, but there’s also a touch of the paranormal–but you’re never really sure if the paranormal stuff is real or not; she dances a fine line, but the writing is so incredibly strong she never falls off the beam. In that way, she is kind of Shirley Jackson-ish–thematically and plotting and character-wise; she doesn’t write in Jackson’s style, which would be incredibly difficult to master. She’s just bloody fantastic.

September is drawing to a close, and I am already lining up my reading for Halloween Horror: the annual reread of The Haunting of Hill House,  a reread of It, and I have some horror anthologies and other horror novels in my TBR stack that I’ll be pulling out and diving into.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

Here’s a hunk to get you through your Monday!

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Overkill

Ugh, my house is a mess. I kind of should go make groceries today, but I also kind of don’t want to leave the house. The cursor on the latest chapter of the book is blinking at me, but I am just not feeling any desire to do any writing today.

But I have to. There is no ‘don’t wanna’ allowed.

Heavy sigh.

What i really want to do is read more of Lisa Unger’s book, In the Blood, which really gets off to a terrific start. I was part of the way through Chapter Three when I realized I was getting too drowsy to focus last night, but didn’t really want to put it aside. I generally either don’t dream, or don’t remember my dreams in the morning, but the last week or so I’ve been dreaming odd things that I still remember when I wake up in the morning. They of course become more vague the more I wake, which is an interesting phenomenon and one I am sure everyone experiences and has been studied and writing up extensively in journals. Yet I still find it intriguing.

I often write about dreams, usually in my work that could considered to fall into supernatural/paranormal/borderline horror–I have a tendency to use dreams to amp up the tension as well as reveal things to the main character, which has become a crutch. In fact, a book idea I’ve been playing with–I wrote a short story years ago which kind of serves as a synopsis of the book–is all about dreams.

Yeah, that will need to go back in the drawer and only pulled out to bring back to the drawing board.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I don’t know why I procrastinate so much about writing, I really don’t. I always enjoy writing, and the feeling of satisfaction I get when I finish for the day is one of my favorite feelings in the world. And yet, here I sit, writing a blog entry while the Saints are getting stomped on the living room television (this is going to be such a long, horrible football season for Louisiana fans….) rather than working on the new Scotty book. I’ve already done some filing, made Paul breakfast, folded clothes…sheesh.

All right, I am going to go make groceries and come home to write.

Here’s a Sunday hunk for you, actor Justin Clynes:

justin clynes

 

Our House

..in the middle of our street.

We will not be discussing the embarrassment that was last night’s LSU “game.”

Friends are in town, and we had lunch with them at Commander’s Palace yesterday, which was lovely. I didn’t read the menu carefully and got something that had fried eggs on the top–which ran with yolk when you broke it; shudder–but I simply pushed them away with my fork and ate everything else. I was very tired after that, and came home, worked for a little while, and then curled up with Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I had read Big Little Lies concurrently with watching the HBO series, and enjoyed both the book and the show, so wanted to read another one of her novels. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting with this one–the jacket blurb mentioned that a wife finds a sealed envelope addressed to her from her husband, with the words To be opened only in the event of my death.

I would have opened it immediately, of course.

the husband's secret

It was all because of the Berlin Wall.

If it weren’t for the Berline Wall, Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.

The envelope was gray with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way  of knowing for sure.

She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.

Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.

Liane Moriarty is compulsively readable. And that’s not a quality in an author that should be dismissed lightlyAs I mentioned the other day with Louise Penny, it’s hard to classify Moriarty’s work; there’s a crime involved, but is it really crime fiction? I’m not sure it’s marketed that way; this book has a jacket blurb from Anne Lamott, for example, rather than Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky. She is an enormous bestseller; which is no small feat for an Australian writer to accomplish in the United States, particularly when she is writing about Australia (although Colleen McCullough was quite successful in the US with The Thorn Birds, before she turned to ancient Rome). She structures her books around three women as the main characters; and she writes about the issues that concern women–I suppose, in a way, her novels could be classified as modern domestic suspense. Like the previous masters of domestic suspense (a classification title I am still not entirely convinced I like), she writes about every day women thrust into extraordinary situations, and she also shoehorns in some brilliant social commentary along with social issues, like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy B. Hughes did. The books are, as I said, compulsively readable and hard to set aside until you’ve reached the end.

Women writers, no matter their success, are rarely taken as seriously as male writers. I’m not sure if it’s because women writers tend to focus on women and issues that affect them while men, in theory, tackle larger themes. Male characters written by men are off saving the world in genre fiction, bedding fabulous babes and getting into fistfights, surviving by their skills or because their masculinity is superior to that of the bad guys. Or the male characters are finding dissatisfaction and misery in their maleness (I’m looking at you, literary fiction), prisoners of societal expectations of manliness and resenting putting aside their fantasy of what their life should be and having to settle for something that is less than that fantasy. Rarely do you find male characters (I’m not saying they don’t exist, so don’t come after me; I am fully cognizant of the fact that these are all incredibly broad generalizations) who are struggling with the work/home balance, juggling having to have a career and an income with finding time to be participants in their children’s lives or even, for that matter, simply helping around the house.

Men do not drive the story in Liane Moriarty’s novels, but they do impact it. They serve as catalysts for her stories, but her books are about the women whose lives are impacted by the men in them.

The Husband’s Secret,  like Big Little Lies, tells the story of three women whose lives intersect due to a private grammar school, St. Agatha’s in Sydney. Rachel is the aging part-time school secretary, widowed and haunted by the unsolved murder of her teenaged daughter many years before. The loss of her daughter has embittered her, and the only thing she basically has to live for is her grandson. Her story is set into motion when the perfect daughter-in-law she doesn’t much like and her son tell her that Lauren, the daughter-in-law, is being sent by her company to New York for two years, taking the only thing in her life she cares about–the grandson–away from her; just as her daughter was taken from her some twenty-five years or so earlier.

Tess’ world has just been ripped apart by the announcement by her husband and her best friend/first cousin that they are in love and want to be together–but out of respect for her having consummated the relationship. Her cousin, Felicity, is like a sister to her; their mothers were twins and they were born within days of each other. Felicity also used to be overweight; over the past year she has lost weight and become beautiful. Tess, betrayed and hurt, uses her mother’s recent accident in which she broke her ankle as an excuse to grab her son Liam and leave Melbourne, returning to Sydney to sort out her life and her future–enrolling young Liam in St. Agatha’s.

Cecilia, the third woman, is like Madeline in Big Little Lies; married, highly competent and efficient, the organizer that winds up running everything and basically being Supermom. She married a handsome rich man, and they have three daughters together. She’s hardly as confident as she seems; it’s a veneer to protect her and hide her own insecurities as she ruthlessly organizes her life and tries to put the world in order–one of those people who are basically exhausting to talk to; who leave you tired and drained when you finish speaking with them and you aren’t sure why.

Their lives intersect primarily because of the letter Cecilia finds in her attic, although Tess is less involved with the other two women, only peripherally floating into their orbit through the school, but the book’s theme is grief and motherhood and how these three different and incredibly complex women deal with both. What sacrifices do mothers have to make for their children, and what do they owe themselves? What is too far, too much, and where do you draw the line? Rachel’s life was decimated by her daughter’s murder and the lack of a conclusion to the story; to the extent that she walled herself up away from the rest of her family, and her relationship with her son has suffered–it is only through the events of this book that she finally realizes that her son is suffering not only from the loss of his sister and the loss of his father but from the loss of his mother. What does Tess owe to her young son in the wake of the apparent end of her marriage, and the horrific betrayal by her husband and her cousin? Does she try to ride out this love affair, rise above her own hurt and anger and put her child first? Is it better for Liam if she ends the marriage or tries to get past everything and forgive him, if that’s the option? She also is forced to take a long hard look at her own life at who she is and who has become as a person, and who does she want to become?

Cecilia’s journey is, of course, the most shattering. Her husband’s secret, contained in the letter, turns her world upside down and inside out; nothing is what she thought it was, what she believed, and she too is faced with a horrible choice: any decision she makes is going to be incredibly difficult to live with–but what can she live with for the sake of her daughters?

There is some reader manipulation; it’s important for the narrative that Cecilia not read the letter until a certain point, and when she does, the chapter ends with her starting to read–which felt unfair, particularly as the book shifted to another viewpoint in the next chapter. It would have been just as effective, I thought, for the text of the letter to appear and not show Cecilia’s reaction before shifting to the other viewpoint; that’s the editorial and/or authorial I would have made. It just kind of felt manipulative.

The book is very clever, certainly smart–I enjoy the way Moriarty writes, and she has a great way of finding the word rhythm that works, slightly altering those patterns as she shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint to give the reader a stronger sense of the character and their voice; a nice hat trick which is not easy to pull off. The decisions the women make–all affected by the letter Cecilia finds–may not be happily ever afters, but are all things they can, they find, live with. They can go on, they can endure, they can survive.

And maybe that is a happily ever after, after all.

After finishing this, I started reading Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which immediately grabbed my interest; it was hard to put it down in order to get sleep.

And now, back to the spice mines.