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.

The First Noel

Merry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate, HAPPY DAY OFF WITH PAY! Huzzah!

Later today we’re going to see The Rise of Skywalker in IMAX 3-D; I am very excited. I’ve managed to avoid spoilers completely on social media–an accomplishment only rivaled by my ability to do the same with The Force Awakens many years ago–it was out for weeks before we finally saw it, and I managed to completely avoid spoilers the entire time. And while I’m certainly sad that the Skywalker story is coming to an end at long last–some forty-two years or so since I first sat in a movie theater in Emporia, Kansas, to see the first one–The Mandalorian and Rogue One have proven conclusively that you don’t need a Skywalker to tell a great Star Wars story.

I spent Christmas Eve mostly relaxing. I finished reading Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside (it’s fantastic; blog post about it soon to come), and then watched a documentary about Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis–it mostly focused on Dark Shadows, of course–and that was nice. I also decided that my next read is going to be an actual reread of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I’ve only read once–back when the film with Matt Damon was released, back in the late 1990’s, whenever that was. I’ve not read any of the other books in what is commonly known as the Ripleyad (Ripliad? I don’t know how they spell it), but I’ve slowly been working my way through the Highsmith canon over the years since (if pressed, I think I’d pick The Cry of the Owl as my favorite of those I’ve currently read; her short stories are also quite marvelous), and have not regretted a single moment of reading her. I decided to reread the first Ripley for any number of reasons–but primarily because I honestly don’t remember much of it, and what memories I do have are mostly of the film, and I am mostly curious to see how Highsmith handled his sexuality in the actual text; was it coded, or was it more obvious?

I also kind of want to watch the Netflix true crime documentary on Aaron Hernandez–also curious to see how they handle the sexuality issues involved with him.

For the record, RWA continues to throw gasoline on the dumpster fire they started on Monday, in case you were wondering–and each new story emerging makes them look even worse. I am so happy I never bothered joining that organization–which I considered, since I was leaning towards writing romantic suspense (The Orion Mask). But its history of problematic treatment of minority writers made me shy away from it, and again, so glad I listened to my gut.

I do have to work tomorrow–and Friday–these middle of the week holidays are a bit disconcerting. I also am taking off New Year’s Eve (Commander’s Palace luncheon, as per tradition) and New Year’s is a holiday, so next week will wind up being the same as this week: work Monday, two days off, and then back in for Thursday and Friday. Weird and unusual, yes–but also discombobulating a bit and will need to recenter and refocus.

And now I am going to retire to my easy chair with Ms. Highsmith for the rest of the morning. Happy day, everyone!

christmas wish

Do They Know It’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, and all through the house–not a kitty is stirring, and we don’t have a mouse.

It’s a bright sunshiny morning here in New Orleans, and I slept very late because we stayed up watching a show on Acorn TV (a streaming subscription I’d forgotten I had) called Loch Ness, which was highly entertaining, fairly well written, beautifully shot, and well acted. I do recommend it–there were some definitely unanswered questions in the resolution, but it pretty much wrapped itself up for the most part, and as I said, we really enjoyed it. Loch Ness also looked incredibly beautiful; I always pictured it as cold and gray and foggy–assuming, of course, that it was shot on location.

I also woke up this morning–late–to see that Romance Writers of America is burning to the ground this morning, having had their board make a decision that being called a racist is much much worse than actually being a racist, or doing and saying racist things. I have my own issues with RWA, of course–a long-standing policy of passively encouraging homophobia and queer exclusion, which I thought they were getting better about, but active institutional support of racists and racism against authors of color has completely and irrevocably erased those thoughts once and for all; because quite naturally pointing out homophobia would mean being punished for doing so–because the only thing worse than homophobia is being accurately accused of it. Shame on you, RWA, shame on you.

Yeah, not going anywhere near that dumpster-fire of an organization.

So, what am I going to do today, with this gorgeous day? Am I going to try to get writing done? Am I going to try to do much of anything on this fine Christmas Eve here in the Lost Apartment? Or am I simply going to curl up in my easy chair with a book? Probably going to just curl up in my chair with my book. I am getting further into Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside, and greatly enjoying it the deeper I get into this interestingly twisted tale. I do have some cleaning and straightening up to do around here, but I can save that for later this evening. We are venturing out to see Rise of Skywalker tomorrow–thank you, everyone on my social media feeds for not posting spoilers–and of course, this weekend is the college football play-offs, with LSU facing Oklahoma in one semi-final.

But there’s plenty of time between now and Saturday for me to get stressed about that.

I’ve also been looking through Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels, which is one of my favorite romantic suspense novels of the mid-twentieth century (originally published in 1962!) primarily because it has a unique spin on the genre of the preyed-upon heroine: she’s pregnant with the heir to the family fortune and estate. A pregnant romantic suspense heroine? I think Kirkland Revels might even be the only romantic suspense novel with a pregnant heroine–I can’t think of many novels of any kind where the heroine was pregnant almost the entire course of the story, other than Rosemary’s Baby–which is actually an interesting observation. (I also believe that Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps one of the most brilliant studies in paranoia ever written; Levin did much the same with The Stepford Wives; no one wrote paranoia better than Levin, and he is also one of my favorite writers. His canon is well overdue for a revisit.)

I also may rewatch the premiere of Megan Abbott’s television series adaptation of Dare Me. It was really quite good, and a second viewing will possibly enable me to write a post about it that doesn’t simply say “OMG it’s so good you have to watch it.”

GAH. SO little time to do all the things I want to do!

And on that note, I should probably finish this and go do something, anything, else.

Have a merry Christmas eve, everyone.

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Jingle Bell Rock

Monday morning, and I really didn’t want to get up this morning. But I did, here we are, and here we go. Today is weird; I am off tomorrow and Wednesday for the holidays, then have to work on Thursday and Friday before the weekend–next week I only have Wednesday off, so I will most likely be discombobulated for the next few weeks. But that’s okay–life generally leaves me feeling discombobulated on a fairly regular basis, if I’m going to be completely honest

We watched the second-to-last episode of Dublin Murders last night, which continues to entertain–despite the enormous gap in the plot–and then we watched the first episode of Megan Abbott’s new show, based on her novel Dare Me,  which is also called Dare Me. It’s really quite good, and even though it’s about high school cheerleaders, it’s really not for teenagers to be watching–although it’s probably one of the most vivid and realistic shows about teenagers I’ve seen in quite some time. The characters are three-dimensional and real; and the show did quite a good job of letting us seen the lives of the girls so we can understand them better. It’s incredible, and I do encourage everyone to watch it.

The Saints game was stressful, but they did manage to get their act together and pull out a win, which was nice. After that I finished watching the other episodes of The Dark Side of the Ring–episodes about the death of Gino Hernandez, the murder of Bruiser Brody; the tragic story of Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth, and how Bret Hart left the WWE. It was interesting; Bret Hart was of course the first person to ever officially break kayfabe to the press (kayfabe=behind the scenes information, like how the matches were planned and so forth; one of the more interesting things is that Bruiser Brody’s murderer got away with claiming self-defense because people were convinced wrestling was absolutely real), and of course I didn’t know the full stories about the others. I do remember when Miss Elizabeth died; I also had met both her and Randy Savage when I worked at the airport in Tampa. The Macho Man was really nice–so was she, if a little shy and quiet–but you can imagine the trepidation one would feel when working in Baggage Claim and you realize the passenger whose bag is lost is RANDY MACHO MAN SAVAGE–you could never mistake that voice, for one thing. But he was so gracious and understanding and charming, and so nice. I had them both autograph a ticket folder–people today probably don’t remember ticket jackets, just as no one has a printed out ticket anymore–but it got lost many moves ago.

Not much fodder there for my wrestling noir novel, but nevertheless, interesting.

I didn’t write very much this weekend–I did come up with a better opening for my short story “Once a Tiger,” which has been languishing for quite some time on the back burner–so that’s something, I suppose. It’s hard to call one’s self a writer when you aren’t actually writing anything, you know? We did get our Star Wars tickets for Christmas, though, which will be quite fun and nice as long as I can avoid spoilers in the meantime. I’ve been ignoring reviews and commentary–it’s hard to believe I’ve been following this story and film series for over forty years–but this is the end of the Skywalker story, and while I am looking forward to other stories from this universe, I’m okay with the Skywalker tale ending, particularly if The Mandalorian  and Rogue One are examples of what we can expect from that universe going forward.

I also read more of The Stranger Inside, and am really enjoying it. I love the way Benedict is building her story, and how carefully she plays her cards about just who exactly her main character is–not to mention who the other characters are. One of the most interesting things about the book–interesting perhaps because I don’t recall seeing it in print in a mainstream novel before–is that the main character’s ex-husband is now married to another man–and she’s fine with it…at least, she is so far. Like I said, the twists and turns and surprises are quite well done, and I am definitely adding Laura Benedict to my must-read author list.

It really is hard to believe that this year–and this decade–is coming to a close so soon. I’ve talked, usually around this time, every year about how I’ve never really understood the hubbub and celebratory nature of the New Year; it’s just another day and what, precisely, are we celebrating? The calendar year is, realistically, simply arbitrarily decided by the movement of the earth around the sun, and January was selected as the first month for some reason lost in the mists of antiquity. It merely marks the passage of time, similar to birthdays. And yet we all make resolutions (I set goals), and decide, with each new year’s start, to try to be better.

I mean, shouldn’t we always be trying to be better? Why tie that to a calendar date? Why wait until the New Year and its “new beginning” to make positive change in your life?

I don’t understand it, never have, and have never really seen the big deal of New Year’s Eve as anything other than just another excuse to get wasted. Because in puritanical America, you need to have a reason otherwise you’re an alcoholic or irresponsible or something equally bad.

Many years ago, I had the idea for a book called New Year’s Eve, which would really simply be an interwoven collection of short stories set on that night, but done in a novelistic form; beginning with one character and then the next chapter moves on to someone they’ve come into contact with, and going forward that way, and eventually working its way back to the original characters, all culminating with the stroke of midnight where every one of the characters is at the same New Year’s Eve party.

Not the best idea I’ve ever had, to be honest. But I think the entire point of the book/stories was to get that very point across: it’s kind of silly to try to make effective change based on what is really an arbitrary date.

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

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Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Sunday morning and it’s cold again this morning. My space heater is warming my legs nicely–it’s amazing how much heat that thing can put out–and I am going to try to get some things done this morning. My desk area is a mess and there’s a load of clothes in the dryer to fold, and another load of dishes in the sink to be washed and put in the dishwasher. I didn’t write yesterday; after braving the grocery store on the Saturday before Christmas I was pretty worn out and over-stimulated, so I spent the rest of the day relaxing and watching some documentaries on television about professional wrestling–there’s a terrific Vice series available on Hulu called The Dark Side of the Ring. I’ve been wanting to write a noir set in a small wrestling promotion in a fictional, highly corrupt Southern coastal city (which I call Bay City whenever I think about it); seeing the dark stories behind the public image was interesting. I watched the episodes about the Fabulous Moolah and the Von Erich family; I just read an old piece in Texas Monthly about them, and so this seemed timely. I loved the Von Erichs back in the day, and I always had a crush on sexy Kevin Von Erich–although I kind of liked them all, frankly. Kevin is the only surviving brother (of six), and they did talk to him on-camera for the documentary, and he was interviewed for the Texas Monthly piece. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose all of your brothers–almost all of your children for the Von Erich parents–but Kevin’s two sons are now working in professional wrestling, carrying on the family name, and they are also carrying on the “hot as fuck” family tradition as well.

After that, I invested three hours in finally watching Avengers Endgame, which was entertaining enough. There were elements of Days of Future Past in it–no surprise, since they came from the same company–and it did have some terrific moments. Visually it was also stunning, but I always have problems with time travel because of the paradoxes (although I did laugh out loud when someone–I think it was Paul Rudd as Antman–said, “SO you’re saying Back to the Future is bullshit?”), and I also figured out, at the end of Infinity War, that they’d have to go back in time to erase what Thanos had done. This created a lot more questions in my head than were answered by the movie, but I can also see why it was such a huge success and why people loved it so much. It’s quite the star-studded spectacle, everyone is well cast, and visually it’s quite epic.

And then I went to bed–a lovely, relaxing day. I may not watch the Saints game–too stressful–but will definitely have it on in the living room while I do other things. Tonight there won’t be a new episode of Watchmen, which makes me sad (and yes, I still miss Game of Thrones) but there should be a new episode of Dublin Murders dropping tonight, and Paul has expressed an interest in watching Titans, so I’ll probably revisit the first season, primarily because I won’t remember enough of it to explain it to Paul is we just start on season two. I’m also trying to figure out how to watch the DIRECTV-only series of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. There are becoming too many streaming services, and we’re getting to the point where it’s almost as much as the cable bill used to be. One thing I need to do is sit down and figure out what all I am paying for and what I actually don’t need, that I am paying for and can be cancelled.

Also, the first episode of Megan Abbott’s series based on her novel Dare Me is available, if I can figure out a way to stream it onto the television.

I also need to write today. I’ve successfully managed to avoid it for two days now, but today I kind of should do some. I don’t know why I always have to force myself to do things I enjoy, but that’s the paradox of my life. I’m also going to spend some time with Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside. I don’t know why I am taking so long to read this book, it’s fantastic and incredibly well done; it has more to do with me not being in the mood to read or something, rather than anything negative about the book.

I’m also trying to decide whether or not I want to do one–or several–of those my favorite things of the year posts. Obviously, I didn’t read or watch everything, so I can only write about what I’ve actually experienced; but I also worry that I won’t remember something. There were so many amazing new books this year that I read, and some amazing books from previous years I also read…it’s hard to remember a better year for books, or television–Chernobyl, Unbelievable, Fosse/Verdon–and that’s just off the top of my head. The Emmys are going to be incredibly competitive yet again.

And on that note, I am going to retire to my easy chair with my book for a little while before I start cleaning and writing and doing whatever it is I should be doing on this late December lazy Sunday.

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Santa Baby

And here we are, Wednesday already, and Christmas a mere week away.

I avoided a horrible Christmas blunder yesterday, so I have to give a shout out to Overstock.com for handling the problem quickly and efficiently and effectively saving Christmas.

Okay, that may be overstated a little, but STILL.

The last time I’d ordered from them I was still working at the office on Frenchmen Street, so I had whatever it was I ordered delivered there. Being an idiot–my default is always to have things shipped to my postal service, alwaysI didn’t bother to check when ordering, and it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I looked at the confirmation emails to verify the shipping. Overstock was able to help me get that corrected almost immediately. So, huzzah!  A Christmas miracle!

I was terribly tired yesterday and fairly unable to focus most of the day because of it, so no writing was done. When I got home last night–in the cold–I simply collapsed into my easy chair, covered myself with a blanket, and let Scooter curl up on me for even more warmth. I went to bed early and slept very well. I still woke up a couple of times in the night, but was able to easily return to the arms of Morpheus.

But today I am rested. I do have to work all day, as opposed to a half-day as is per usual on Wednesdays because I had to take last Friday off, tonight I’ll be doing data entry until it’s time to come home. And tonight hopefully I’ll be able to get some writing done. I really want to get this manuscript out of my hair by the end of the year. I’m not exactly sure how I am going to manage that–there’s not much time left in the year, after all, and I am notoriously lazy–but it would be great if that could happen. I think we’re going to go see The Rise of Skywalker this weekend; I’d like to go Saturday afternoon if we can get tickets; I’ll be trying to order them on-line later today. I can’t believe the Skywalker series of Star Wars films are coming to an end, but if Rogue One and The Mandalorian are examples of what can be done without the Skywalkers, count me all the way in.

I am still reading Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside, but the fact it’s taking me so long to read it should not be counted against it–it’s quite excellent. I simply got sidetracked by the Watchmen graphic novel, Disney Plus, and a lack of time to read more. I am also still working my way through Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street, and we are finally at the point where the Vieux Carre Commission is being created and empowered to protect the historic value and integrity of the Quarter. New Orleans history is so fascinating and entertaining–and delightfully dark. I also want to reread Chris Wiltz’s fantastic The Last Madam, about Norma Wallace–who was, indeed, the “last madam.”

I had an idea a while back for a noir set in the Quarter–don’t I always?–and maybe noir is the wrong term; a pulp? There’s a difference, I suppose, between pulp fiction and noir; this would probably be a pulp more than a noir. Anyway, during the height of the “girl” title crime novel craze (not that it’s gone away), I made a joke that I wanted to write a book called Girls Girls Girls–after all, multiple “girls” in the title is surely better than just one? And while it started as a joke, like almost always, as I thought about it more, the more an idea for a book started to come to me; the strip clubs in the Quarter were being raided around this time–for drugs, prostitution, underage girls, etc.–and there was yet another crackdown on vice down in the Quarter; this happens, as I’ve learned through reading city history, periodically. (Notorious district attorney Jim Garrison, lionized by Oliver Stone in JFK despite the fact he was a headline-hunting power-mad Fascist who used his office to avenge political and personal slights, also led one of these campaigns back in the 1960s–clean up the Quarter!) And a germ of an idea started forming, about a female vice cop sent undercover to investigate a strip club–and the following descent into violence and darkness. I doubt, however, that the NOPD would ever ask one of its own to go undercover as a stripper; but she could certainly be a shot girl. The other day I started writing a short story–nothing much, just some fragments of sentences and paragraphs and general ideas and so forth–called “Shot Girl”; I also realized that this could be my introduction to the character who would eventually be the center of Girls Girls Girls. 

Just a thought, anyway.

And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

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Away in a Manger

I’ve already posted (finally) my blog about LSU and Joe Burrow this season (GEAUX TIGERS), so this is not another GEAUX JEAUX post–just so you know.

Yesterday was a pretty good day. The weather has been lovely here in New Orleans this weekend, and I slept incredibly well both nights. We went and visited a friend who’d recently had surgery yesterday afternoon, and it was nice. I also feel good about things. One of the loveliest things about my life is having a partner who loves and supports me–even when I’m not particularly lovable or supportable. I’m so used to dealing with things by myself for most of my life that I still default to that (stupidly) when I’m not in the best place with my life, and that I don’t have to shoulder my burdens alone anymore–even after twenty-four years I still forget sometimes–and I also forget how good it feels to just let all of that out to someone who listens.

It’s lovely to unburden yourself–and I need to remember that.

We started watching The Mandalorian last night, and yes, it’s completely and totally worth the money I am paying Disney Plus–particularly when you consider I bundled it with my existing Hulu and ESPN+ accounts, so it’s only costing me $2.01 per month. $24.12 per year to have access to every Star Wars movie and series, as well as everything from Marvel, and all those classic Disney films? Oh fuck yes. And yes, I am completely and totally loving The Mandalorian, and yes, baby Yoda was a fucking genius move by show-runner Jon Favreau. If I were indeed younger, or had more disposable income, or was more of a hoarder (I’m trying to get rid of stuff at this point in my life) I’d definitely be wanting a baby Yoda plush toy.

We also finished off Castle Rock this past week–and while this second season did seem to go completely off the rails from time to time, the final episode pulled it all back together beautifully. No spoilers, but it was definitely a Misery pay-off. I should probably reread Misery again; it’s definitely one of my favorite Kings, and it’s been far too long since I’ve read it. I also would like to reread Christine and Carrie, the two novels I consider the closest things to y/a King has written.

I’m going to spend some time this morning reading more of Watchmen (which is extraordinary) as well as a few more chapters of Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside, which so far as I can is a worthy successor to such classic suspense tales centering women as those of Charlotte Armstrong and the great Gothic writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century. I am quickly becoming a Laura Benedict fan–and I suspect you will, too, if you start reading her. I also hope to get some writing done today.

About fucking time, wouldn’t you say?

And on that note….tis back to the spice mines!

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