Every Breath You Take

I got absolutely nothing done, other than some laundry and a load of dishes, yesterday because I was too engrossed in reading Rebecca Chance’s Killer Affair to put it down. So, today, after I make my grocery run, I simply have to buckle down and clean as well as write and line edit. I’ve decided on my next book to read–Lyndsay Faye’s Gods of Gotham, which was nominated for the Edgar for Best Novel–and I am really looking forward to reading it. Lyndsay has written five novels, and been nominated for the Best Edgar novel twice–no small feat, I might add (her other nomination came this year for Jane Steele, which I am also looking forward to reading).

So, I survived the grocery store, made brunch for Paul and have done the dishes. I’m not feeling particularly motivated at the moment; I also had to walk to Office Depot to get ink for the printer and the six block to-and-from walk (twelve blocks in total) in the heat and humidity has sucked the life and energy right out of me. Just sitting at my desk and letting the air conditioning wash over me feels so lovely that I am tempted to simply blow everything off and read Gods of Gotham, which would be a huge mistake. I simply cannot keep blowing everything off; the kitchen floor is disgusting and so is the living room; perhaps a shower will pick my attitude right up out of the gutter where it has fallen. I’m so very close to being finished with the second draft of “For All Tomorrow’s Lies” that it’s really egregious to keep putting off working on it; and it certainly isn’t going to kill me to drag the hard copy of the WIP out and start marking it up again, either.

This laziness is why I am always playing catch-up on everything.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I did manage to also finish my reread of The Secret of Terror Castle last night; the very first Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators mystery, and despite being dated, the story still holds up. The three young detectives (Jupiter, Bob, and Pete) are much better developed that the main characters in so many other children’s mystery series, with very distinct personalities, and the world in which they inhabit (Rocky Beach, California, close to LA–my assumption is it’s based on Long Beach) is interesting and also pretty well fleshed out: the Jones Salvage Yard, which is run by Jupiter’s aunt and uncle, always was interested and many of their cases came from things that Uncle Titus bought at an estate or yard sale; their headquarters, a battered old mobile home hidden from view by artfully arranged piles of junk and had secret entrances; their ability to use a gold-plated Rolls Royce (Jupiter won the use of the car in a contest), complete with British chauffeur, Worthington; and their relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, originally a bit fractious but came to be one of friendship and mutual respect as the boys proved themselves to be excellent detectives in case after case–all of these things made this a favorite series of mine. Not to mention, that in almost every book the boys had to actually solve a mystery, based on clues they found and observations they made–so the books were a bit smarter than the other series.

I’d love to update this series.

And now, here’s a hunk for your Sunday Funday, as I head back into the spice mines.

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Head over Heels

There was an article somewhere recently that described a new trend in literary fiction, inspired by Elena Ferrante: writing about women’s friendships. I literally did a double-take when I saw it; because there have been books, across all genres, about female friendships for many, many years–for example, the examination of women’s friendships and relationships with other women were at the root of every Rona Jaffe novel; the primary strengths of both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls lie in the friendships between the women; going back to Jane Eyre, there are always friendships between women at the heart of novels (hello, Jane Austen?). The point is this is nothing new, so to describe this as a ‘new trend’ is short-sighted to say the least, lazy writing at the worst.

Rebecca Chance novels kind of defy description, to be honest. They are called ‘bonkbusters’ in her native England (where they are runaway bestsellers); some call them ‘glamorous thrillers.’ She writes about what used to be called ‘the jet set’, or ‘the beautiful people’, or the ‘rich and beautiful’; territory that used to be mined by Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, and Jacqueline Susann. And while I don’t mean to demean her predecessors in the field, who were quite good at what they did and wrote yarns you simply could not put down, Chance’s novels are different; in that they combine sharp social commentary, wit (at times, they are laugh out loud funny), and characters that you can’t help but like and identify with.

Her latest, Killer Affair, is no exception.

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It was an ocean liner come to rest in the heart of London, its glittering, prow-shaped facade jutting towards the Thames. From its terraces and balconies, the view was unparalleled: the beautiful curve of the Playhouse Theatre with its glowing lights, the flow of boats along the wide river, the sprawl of the South Bank beyond, London’s bounty spread like a fabulous offering of endless possibilities to the gilded, privileged guests who occupied the penthouse suites.

However, the young woman who was climbing out of the black cab outside the hotel entrance in Whitehall was in no mood for relaxing on a private balcony with a glass of champagne, resting her arms on the rail, gazing down over the glittering city as she made plans for that evening. Her jaw was set determinedly, her eyes hard. The liveried doorman, reaching into the can for her two suitcases, asked if she was a guest at the hotel, to which she responded curtly that no, she had a booking at the spa and needed to check her luggage.

If the doorman thought it was strange for a day spa visitor to arrive with a pair of large, battered suitcases, there was not a hint of that reaction on his face; his demeanour remained entirely polite and neutral as he carried them inside.

And so begins the latest Rebecca Chance novel–who is this woman, and what is she doing at the spa? The prologue ends with her discovering her target–another woman with whom she is angry–and dumping ice all over her recumbent figure as she spits out angrily, “You bitch! You’ve ruined my life!” (With hints of Shirley Conran’s brilliant, memorable opening to her novel, Lace: “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”)

The book then flashes back to the beginning of the story; how the two women met and became involved with each other’s lives. One of them is Lexy O’Brien, a reality television superstar in the UK who quite literally and ruthlessly climbed to the top of the pile of reality stars by carefully planning her every move, maximizing every bit of publicity she could gather, and is now quite happily married to a sexy former footballer who now is a TV commentator. The two live with their two children and various staff in a beautiful mansion in Sandbank, one of the most expensive places to buy property in the world, and Lexy is planning her next assault on the tabloids/entertainment journalism: writing a memoir. Of course, Lexy isn’t going to write it herself but needs a ghostwriter, which is where young, chubby Caroline comes in. Caroline works writing press releases and also writes a blog, shares a flat with four other broke young people, and dreams of becoming a successful novelist. She is quite dazzled at first by Lexy and her life; Lexy, while immensely narcissistic and self-absorbed (two vitally necessary personality traits for any reality star) is not a bad person–she just sees everyone around her as tools for her stardom and vehicles for publicity. She is actually quite generous with the bedazzled Caroline, and the young woman is grateful at first…but the more she writes, the less dazzled by Lexy she is…and the little nickname Lexy gives her at first–“Ghost Mouse”–begins to rankle…especially as Caroline, by being quiet, listening, and paying attention, learns a lot more than Lexy could ever imagine. And soon, she begins to not just envy Lexy her life, but to believe Lexy doesn’t deserve it.

To tell anymore would spoil the twisty, clever and wickedly funny plot (although it has strong elements of All About Eve), and despite all appearances to the contrary, neither Lexy nor Caroline is a villain. Chance, as always, has created three dimensional characters, strong women with good and bad sides, whose behavioral motivations make complete sense–and her keen insights into reality television, writing and publishing, and how intricate and delicate relationships between friends, family, and lovers can be, make the book completely un-put-down-able. I deeply resented having to put the book aside to work on my own writing, or go to work, or to go to bed. Yesterday I sat down in my easy chair to read for an hour before doing my own writing–and seven hours later put the book down with an enormously satisfied sigh.

Americans, you can either order the book from Amazon.co.uk; the Book Depository; or from Murder by the Book in Houston. It’s soooooo worth it, believe me.

This Town

It’s Friday morning in New Orleans, and I slept fitfully; but when I did sleep, it was terrific. I only have to work a half-day today, which is lovely, and tonight I am hoping to not only get a chance to read some more of Rebecca Chance’s lovely Killer Affair, but to get further in the line edit as well. This weekend my plan is to work on the line edit and clean, alternating between the two, which hopefully will do the trick. I’ve not gotten as far along this week on anything that I’d hoped; the weekly to-do list is a complete and utter disaster. The good news this week was that our renewed passports arrived (hurray!), I got some great books–everything from the new Michael Connelly to Eric Ambler to Chester Himes–to add to the TBR pile, and the latest short story is really taking a good shape, one with which I am really and truly pleased.

My short stories are much darker than my novels. The WIP, currently being line edited, has little to no humor in it; at least none that I’m aware of–but then again I am not the best judge of that. I love to tell the story of my New Orleans Noir story, “Annunciation Shotgun,” which I thought  was this dark, unsettling tale, and continued thinking so until at a reading for the anthology, Chris Wiltz, one of the other contributors (her story, “Night Taxi,” is quite chilling) said to me, “Oh, I loved your story! It’s so funny!”

I was a little taken aback, as I’d thought it was a dark story…and then when it was my turn to read to the gathered audience, there were times when I got laughs.

Okay, I remember thinking, I guess I can be funny even when I’m not trying to be.

This story I’m working on now is also grim and dark; but I think the primary reason I’m drawn to the genre I work in primarily is my interest in damaged people. The Great Gatsby  was about damaged people, and the damage people can leave in their wake; it didn’t try, however, to explain or get into how the people got damaged and why,  and that was its greatest disappointment to me. This current story was inspired by watching a documentary while Paul was at his mother’s; I always have to find things to watch when he’s gone that we wouldn’t want to watch together (in other words, things want to watch that he doesn’t. He tired of the TV series Scream; so I finished watching it while he was gone. Likewise, you can never go wrong with documentaries). I watched one on either Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon–I don’t remember which–about a young man and his brothers, who’d escaped a religious cult. As I watched these damaged young men trying to make sense of their childhood and fit into a world and society they were woefully underprepared for, while the main point-of-view character was also trying to reestablish a relationship with his mother, still in the cult and distant to him–I couldn’t help but wonder about the young women refugees from the cult he interviewed, and the stories they shared about their sexual abuse and, basically, being brainwashed into thinking that was normal. (The boys were also apparently sexually abused as well as physically abused, but their sexual abuse was skipped over; mentioned but not gotten into in depth.) I had my notebook in my lap, and I scribbled down notes…and eventually started writing the story I thought up while watching the documentary. The story is dark–I am revising it now, making it even darker than the first draft–which also limits its saleability quotient, but hey, I am definitely going to put it out there.

Christ, I have so many works in progress. Nothing like creative ADD without a deadline to anchor you down.

I’ve also not decided what book to write next once this WIP is finished. I am thinking about getting back to Scotty with Crescent City Charade, but there’s another noir I’d love to tackle, and my “A Holler Full of Kudzu” could easily be explored as a novel.  Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me! Here’s a Friday hunk for you, to get your weekend started properly.

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I’ll Set You Free

This week was so crazy and intense. We were so busy at the day job this week; combined with a couple of not good nights of sleep, and by last night I was like the walking dead. I didn’t have time to blog, was too exhausted to even write when I had free time–my brain was even too fried to do much of anything other than read and watch some television before going to bed and trying to sleep. All of my muscles were tired and sore and aching; this morning before my first workout with Wacky Russian in three weeks I headed over early so I could spend some time stretching first–it was horrifying to me how tight my muscles were! But as I stretched, slowly and patiently, the muscles gradually began to stretch and loosen, knots being released, and as a result, the workout was great and I felt terrific afterwards. I know I am going to be tired later–but after my daily chores and errands, Paul and I are going to go see Spiderman Homecoming (which I originally wasn’t very interested in seeing–until I saw Tom Holland on Lip Sync Battle nailing Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and became a fan). Tomorrow I have to make a Costco run and we’re going over to our friend Susan’s to watch Game of Thrones and eat pizza.

Moral of the story: I need to stretch regularly. I have always been naturally flexible, and never needed to stretch much; but now that I am older my muscles tighten up without being stretched, so I need to do that on a fairly regular basis. And I should, anyway; because it feels amazing.

Last weekend I not only started rereading The Great Gatsby but also started reading William Faulkner’s crime short stories. They are collected into a book called Knight’s Gambit, and feature County Attorney Gavin Stevens. I always forget Faulkner dabbled in crime fiction from time to time; I was reminded by a piece on the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine website blog (“Something is Going On”), about how the magazine had published some of Faulkner’s short stories (“A Rose for Emily” would have been perfect for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, come to think of it), and I remembered my copy of Knight’s Gambit, never read, still in the TBR pile where it has been collecting dust for God knows how long. I’ve only had time to read the first story, “Smoke,” which was very Faulkner-esque. It wasn’t “A Rose for Emily” Gothic-good, but it was very Southern Gothic, very rural Southern; it was about the murder of a judge probating the will of a really awful man who owned two thousand of the best acres in the county and was estranged from his twin sons; and how Gavin figures out who the killer was and gets him to confess. It was kind of clever, and kind of reminded me of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, which I read in my twenties and absolutely loved (another one due for a reread).

It poured while I was running my errands today; I got drenched getting into the grocery store, and while it had stopped raining when I was leaving, the parking lot was near the doors was under about three inches of water. So, my shoes and socks got soaked; which was deeply unpleasant, but hey–summer in New Orleans. It’s rained every day for the last two months, I think, and the humidity has been kind of intense.

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This was also a really good week for books; I got the new Rebecca Chance (Killer Affair) in the mail, as well as The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor and Geronimo Rex by Barry Hannah (a signed copy of the new Bill Loefhelm is waiting for me at Garden District Books; I intended to pick it up today but it was pouring, I didn’t have my umbrella and there was no place within two blocks to park, so I decided to put that errand off until someday next week). I’ve never read Barry Hannah other than a short story in college: “Love Too Long.” As Constant Reader is aware, my very first attempt at taking a writing class in college was a disaster; the instructor basically told me I’d never be published and “if being a writer is your dream, you need to find another dream.” Oy. Anyway, flash forward a few years and I started attending Fresno City College, a junior college in the Tower District of the city, to try to get my GPA back up to a point to where I could get accepted into the California State University system. Bravely, I enrolled in another creative writing class, and the teacher was a man named Sid Harriet. He required us to buy, for the class, two short story collections: Airships by Barry Hannah, and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver. He asked us to read the afore-mentioned Hannah story, as well as Carver’s “Neighbors.” Both stories were unlike anything I’d ever read before; and I decided to try to stretch myself creatively with the two stories I had to write for the class. The first story I wrote (seriously) was called “Bottles, Booze, and Bette Davis,” about a young couple having a disagreement about their commitment to each other in a diner–and their interactions with their waitress, Marge. It wasn’t a good story by any means, but when critiqued in class, it got some favorable comments and some good criticism, actually. Sid was very supportive, as well–and after my previous experience, this was a revelation for me. The second story was worse than the first, “A Single Long-Stemmed Red Rose” was the title; and it was an alternating point of view story about an encounter between a young college student cutting through a cemetery with a beautiful young widow. Again, it didn’t work; the points of view weren’t delineated enough to justify using this technique and the story itself didn’t work. Sid was highly enthusiastic about my attempt to push myself, though, and he was the one who recommended I read Faulkner’s  As I Lay Dying (which I did, and was blown away; that was, interestingly enough, when I became a Faulkner fan). You were allowed, as a student, to take the class twice; so I took it again the next semester and decided to take full advantage of the class by writing and turning in as many stories as I could–the minimum was two; which is what everyone did. Amongst the many stories I turned into that class were “Seminole Island” and “Whim of the Wind”, which everyone in the class loved; Sid even turned them both back to me with the note, “You need to send these out for submission.”

Manna from heaven for someone who hadn’t gotten any encouragement to be a writer since graduating from high school. I can even remember having a meeting in his office, and I told him what Dr. Dixon said. He just shook his head and said “that man shouldn’t be anywhere near students.”

The funny thing is, I would have told this story years ago but I couldn’t remember his name. Isn’t that awful? The person who, in addition to Mrs. Anderson from high school, was supportive of my desire to write, and recognized my ability was someone whose name I couldn’t remember until today. 

I bought the Barry Hannah novel because it was on a list of ‘essential Southern Gothic novels’; and I remembered reading that story back in 1983 in Fresno. And when I started writing this blog entry, I knew I had to talk about Sid, owed it to him really–and as I started typing his name popped into my head.

Funny how that works.

Okay, I am now going to make some lunch, and get this kitchen cleaned and organized; maybe I can get some work done on “A Holler Full of Kudzu” before we leave for the movie.

Have a great day, Constant Reader!