It doesn’t seem like Thursday; this short post-Mardi Gras week has messed up my inner clock and pretty much everything else you can think of; Carnival messed up my sleep and workout schedules as well. I was going to go to the gym this morning, but I am worn out still and have little to no energy; so I am going to wait and get back on track this weekend.

I did manage to start writing a short story yesterday (2800 words of it) and finish a chapter of the new Scotty (1800 words) for a grand total of 4600 words written yesterday, which is pretty freaking awesome, and I am going to count that as a major win. The writing muscles were, frankly, rusty, but I’m hoping I was able to shake the rust out some. I’d say I managed to do just that; it was difficult at first, but then the words started coming so I took it and ran with it.

I was also commenting yesterday to a friend and fellow writer yesterday about how crazy this business is; we are so constantly beaten down by not only the industry but by readers and reviewers that even little things like an email I found yesterday–I am still digging out from under–rejecting a story I’d submitted but read You’re too good of a writer to get a standard form rejection letter; this story was too slow for us, but please send more of your work–can make your day.  Heavy sigh.

I also saw a lot of chatter on social media–before the mass shooting–about charity anthologies and writers needing to be paid for their work. I have some thoughts about that as well, but I’ve not had enough coffee yet this morning to coherently put them together; although I found it interesting that one of the people talking about not writing for free and needing to be paid said I hate writing, so…

Wow. That one caught me off guard. Maybe he/she was simply being flippant in the moment, but no matter how hard it is sometimes, how stressful, and how much I loathe doing it, I never really hate writing, and would never say that I do. I love writing. I have a love/hate relationship with the publishing industry, but the writing itself? I love doing it. I enjoy it. It gives me pleasure. I wouldn’t do it if I hated it because I don’t have to do it. I miss it when I’m not doing it; and not writing definitely affects my moods; not for the better. To each their own, I suppose.

Over the weekend, between parades, I read a shit ton of short stories for The Short Story Project. It really is amazing how many anthologies and single-author collections I have here on hand.

For example, I have Flannery O’Connor’s National Book Award winner The Complete Stories. I read the first story in the book, “The Geranium,” Monday afternoon, I think it was.

Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened red brick. He was waiting for the geranium. They put it out every morning about ten and they took it in at five-thirty. Mrs. Carson back home had a geranium in her window. There were plenty of geraniums at home, better-looking geraniums. Ours are sho-nuff geraniums, Old Dudley thought, not any er this pale pink business with green, paper bows. The geranium they would put in the window reminded him of the Grisby boy at home who had polio and had to be wheeled out every morning and left in the sun to blink. Lutisha could have taken that geranium and stuck it in the ground and had something worth looking at in a few weeks. Those people across the alley had no business with one. They set it out and let the hot sun bake it all day and they put it so near the ledge the wind could almost knock it over. They had no business with it, no business with it. It shouldn’t have been there. Old Dudley felt his throat knotting up. Lutish could root anything. Rabie too. His throat was drawn taut. He laid his head back and tried to clear his mind. There wasn’t much he could think of to think about that didn’t do his throat that way.

Many authors whom I respect often speak reverently of Flannery O’Connor. Many years ago, I read A Good Man Is Hard to Find and wasn’t overly impressed with it, to be honest. I bought this collection after reading a list of great Southern Gothic classics. I honestly think back when I first tried to O’Connor I was not in the kind of place where I could appreciate her work–similar to reading Carson McCullers and not getting the big deal and recently reading Reflections in a Golden Eye and getting it–because “The Geranium” is a really great story; and a very Southern one, at that, about family responsibility. The story is basically about old Dudley, whose family has now judged him too old to live by himself or to take care of himself, even in a boarding house, so he has to move in with one of his children. The daughter who takes him in lives in New York, and she doesn’t take him in out of love and wanting to help out; it’s done out of responsibility and a desire to show her siblings that she’s a better daughter than they are. That responsibility clearly chafes at her (Southern child martyr syndrome; I’ve seen it in my own family), and he is very unhappy to be there as well. He focuses on two things–the geranium across the alley in the window, and the fact that a man of color has moved into the apartment next door. The daughter and her family think nothing of it; he, as a Southern man, is horrified by it (he doesn’t say ‘man of color,’ either, FYI) and the two obsessions juxtapose against each other. It’s more an in-depth character study than anything else; one that you can’t stop thinking about after it’s over, and it’s kind of awful and true and sad all at the same time.

I definitely wasn’t in a place to appreciate O’Connor when I tried before.

I then went back to Alive in Shape and Color, Lawrence Block’s second anthology of stories inspired by paintings, and read Michael Connelly’s “The Third Panel.”

Detective Nicholas Zelinsky was with the first body when the captain called for him to come outside the house. He stepped out and pulled the breathing mask down under his chin. Captain Dale Henry was under the canopy tent, trying to protect himself from the desert sun.  He gestured toward the horizon, and Zelinsky saw the black helicopter coming in low under the sun and over the open scrubland. It banked and he could see FBI in white letters on the side door. The craft circled the house as if looking for a place to land in tight circumstances. But the house stood alone in a grid-work of dirt streets where the planned housing development was never built after the big bust a decade earlier. They were in the middle of nowhere seven miles out of Lancaster, which in turn was seventy miles out of LA.

“I thought you said they were driving out,” Zelinsky called above the sound of the chopper.

Michael Connelly is one of the most successful and prolific crime writers of our time. I read his first Bosch novel several years ago and absolutely loved it; but as much as I loved it the thought of even trying to get caught up on his canon is overwhelming–so many books! It would almost be like a year-long project, a la the Short Story Project, to read the entire Connelly oeuvre. But this story–which is quite short, actually–is taut and suspenseful and well-written; a team of detectives and crime scene techs are investigating a meth-lab murder when the FBI agents show up, with a rolled up copy of a Heironymous Bosch painting, and reveals that there’s a group going around killing ‘sinners’ in ways based from images from the painting. Very clever, and the twist at the end is also really well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Here’s a Throwback Thursday hunk for you, actor and physique model Gordon Scott:


St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)

Lundi Gras, and the downward slope of the marathon. Huzzah! I have a lot to do today; all trying to get it finished in the window before the streets close for tonight’s parades, Proteus and Orpheus. I need to run to the grocery store, get the mail, and am also hoping to get to the gym as well; I’ve not been since last Sunday, but the combination of all the cardio involved with the walking to and from the office, as well as shortened hours because of the parades, has conspired to keep me from my workouts. I cannot go Wednesday morning, either, because the gym is closed until noon; by then I will be at work. So, if I don’t work out today I can’t get to the gym again until Thursday morning, which would be most inopportune. But I am confident I will get back into the swing of my workouts again; despite the Mardi Gras interruption–that always happened in the past, after all, and I was always able to get back to it.

Exhaustion has also precluded me from writing and/or editing over the last week or so; I have plans to get some writing done today as well as some laundry. I have to decide on a story to write for two anthologies, and I desperately need to rewrite/revise/edit another that is due by the end of the month. I am also behind on revisions of the WIP, and I need to get moving on the Scotty book as well. This will, of course, be a short work week; Wednesday thru Friday, so I am hopeful that I can get a lot accomplished in this time period. I should probably get dressed and head out for the errands; the later I wait, the more likely there won’t be a place to park when I get back.

I started reading Killers of the Flower Moon before bed, but it just didn’t grab me right away; I’ll go back to it, I am sure. Instead I started reading The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher (Florence! Medicis! History!), and am loving it so far. I doubt that I’ll ever tire of either Italian history, or the Medici family.

I did manage to get back to reading on The Short Story Project as well this weekend, between parades and physical exhaustion. The first was the title story of Joe Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghost:

The best time to see her is when the place is almost full.

There is the well-known story of the man who wanders in for a late show and finds the vast six-hundred-seat theater almost deserted. Halfway through the movie, he glances around and discovers her sitting next to him, in a chair that had moments before been empty. Her witness stares at her. She turns her head and stares back. She has a nosebleed. Her eyes are wide, stricken. My heart hurts, she whispers. I have to step out for a moment. Will you tell me what I miss? It is in this instant that the person looking at her realizes she is as insubstantial as the shifting blue ray of light cast by the projector. It is possible to see the next seat over through her body. As she rises from her chair, she fades away.

Then there is the story about the group of friends who go into the Rosebud together on a Thursday night. One of the bunch sits down next to a woman by herself, a woman in blue. When the movie doesn’t start right away, the person who sat down beside her decides to make conversation. What’s playing tomorrow? he asks her. The theater is dark tomorrow, she whispers. This is the last show. Shortly after the movie begins she vanishes. On the drive home, the man who spoke to her is killed in a car accident.

This is a great short story; a ghost story about a haunted movie theater. It moves very quickly, and I love how Hill sucks you in almost immediately. I am greatly enjoying reading Hill’s short stories; and am looking forward to getting back into this collection. It also wraps up perfectly. I’ll be honest; I tried reading two of Hill’s novels and simply couldn’t get into them–which is probably more on me than on him–but as I said, I am loving the short stories, and will undoubtedly go back to the novels; I often find something that didn’t grab me the first time will wind up being something I love when I try it again later.

Then I moved back to Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color, and the next story up was “Girl with a Fan” by Nicholas Christopher.

On the fifth of June, 1944, a young man stepped off the 9:13 train from Lyon, squinting into the morning light. Tall and slender, he had an asymmetrical face: the right eye higher than the left, the left cheek planed more than the right. He was wearing a brown suit, black shirt, yellow tie, and brown fedora. His suit was rumpled, his boots scuffed. He was carrying a leather briefcase with a brass lock. His pants cuffs were faintly speckled with yellow paint.

He cast a long shadow as he walked down the platform. Halfway to the station, two men in leather coats came up from behind and gripped his arms. One of them pressed a pistol in his side, the other grabbed his briefcase. They veered away from the station, guiding him roughly down an alley to a waiting car. A man in dark glasses was behind the wheel. He was bald, with an eagle tattooed at the base of his skull.

At first, this story seemed a bit off to me; it didn’t really fit with the rest of the stories I’ve read in Block’s ‘inspired by a painting’ anthologies. For one thing, it jumped around in time and place, going from Nazi-occupied France to the south seas back to France in the late nineteenth century again; but linking these three different narratives was Gauguin’s painting, “Girl with a Fan”: where the fan came from, when the work was actually painted, and what happened–was happening–with the painting under the Nazi pillaging of the occupied country. Once I grasped what Christopher was doing with his story, I began enjoying it; it’s not easy to juggle three different stories, locations, and time-lines in the space of one short story. Well done, Mr. Christopher, well done indeed!

I also read some others, and will probably continue reading some more today; but I shall save those for a future entry.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a hunk to get you through your own Lundi Gras.


Like a Virgin

Well, it’s a chilly, gray Friday morning in New Orleans, Constant Reader, and we’ve managed to survive yet another week Again, this is a short work day for me at the office, so I’ll be able to make groceries this afternoon and go to the gym this evening before curling up in my easy chair with Karen M. McManus’ y/a bestseller, One of Us is Lying. (I will also continue with the Short Story Project, never fear! I just haven’t decided where I want to go next–whether it’s a single author collection or an anthology I want to dip into; or maybe go back to the Laura Lippman and Sue Grafton collections; mystery or horror.) I’m all caught up on posting about short stories after today’s post, too, so I need to decide, and soon.

Last night I worked some more on the WIP; moving on to Chapter Two. This chapter didn’t flow as easily as the first, and I only got about 1800 words done on it (which made the writing day a bit of a failure) but I also tweaked Chapter One a bit and got another 200 words or so added to it; a two-thousand word day is a win, for me, even if the goal is always to do at least three thousand–particularly considering how just last month I would have considered a hundred words a triumph. So, thus far this year I’ve written four short stories, one and a half chapters of the WIP, and one chapter of the Scotty–and I even know what the second chapter is going to be–which is how Scotty books usually work; no plan, but the next chapter reveals itself as I write the current. I also have tossed out the entire plot as it was; new victim, new everything. But I am hopeful I can get this all finished by the end of February; Mardi Gras notwithstanding. I also solved the problem with another manuscript I’ve been sitting on for a long time, and I know how to make it work as well now, but it’ll have to wait until I am finished with these two projects and another.

It feels so good to have my creativity kicking into gear again.

I also watched Riverdale last night, which has replaced Teen Wolf as the gayest show on television. Oh, sure, like Teen Wolf there’s only one gay character on the show; but all of the guys are fricking gorgeous with amazing bodies that are shown off pretty regularly–you haven’t lived until you’ve seen KJ Apa in a low cut singlet without a shirt underneath–and there was even a locker room scene where Archie was talking to gay Kevin, while in the background between them was some amazing hunk wearing only a towel standing at the sink–yay for gratuitous male bodies!

So, as this weekend looms I hope to get a lot done. We shall see how that works, but…hope springs eternal.

Today’s first short story is Sarah Weinman’s “The Big Town”, from Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block:

You don’t expect to see a portrait of your mother hanging on the wall of your gangster boyfriend’s living room. especially when the portrait shows your mother without a stitch of clothing on but for a pair of green heels.

“Where did you get that painting?” I asked, my voice more querulous than I wished. It was my first time in his house. I hesitated about a return visit even before seeing the portrait, but now I knew. I would not be back.

He turned to face the portrait. I looked at his back, the white collared shirt barely covering dark matted hair. I’d run my fingers through that broad, fleshy forest the few afternoons we’d fucked in a Ritz-Carlton hotel suite. Again I remembered what I found attractive about him: power, status, money. And what I found ugly: body, face, manners.

The story is really quite good and a poignant story about love and loss at the same time. The main character is a rural Canadian girl who ran away to the big city to avoid a prearranged marriage, her only future being a farmwife and having a passel of kids; she’s kind of become a good time girl, doing whatever necessary in order to survive on the fringes of society. But once she sees the portrait of her mother, who died when she was young, she becomes obsessed with getting the portrait away from the vile gangster and learning its history; how it came to exist in the first place.

I’ve read a lot of Weinman’s non-fiction before, and of course, just finished reading her stellar anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, which was exceptional. Nonfiction writing, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into good fiction writing; but Weinman hits the ball out of the park with this one. That yearning, sense of drifting is captured perfectly, and her main character is the kind of woman I like to read about; transitioning from a woman to whom things happen into a woman who makes things happen. The sense of learning more about her mother, that drive to know and understand her biological mother better, is something that resonates with every reader: how well do we really know our parents? Particularly if one parent died really young? This is a great story, absolutely great.

 The second story I read was the last one in Alive in Shape and Color, Lawrence Block’s “Looking for David.”

Elaine said, “You never stop working, do you?”

I looked at her. We were in Florence, sitting at a little tile-topped table in the Piazza di San Marco, sipping cappuccino every bit as good as the stuff they served at the Peacock on Greenwich Avenue. It was a bright day but the air was cool and crisp, the city bathed in October light. Elaine was wearing khakis and a tailored safari jacket, and looked like a glamorous foreign correspondent, or perhaps a spy. I was wearing khakis too, and a polo shirt, and the blue blazer she called my Old Reliable.

We’d had five days in Venice, This was the second of five days in Florence, and then we’d have six days in Rome before Alitalia took us back home again.

I said, “Nice work if you can get it.”

I’ve not read any of the Matthew Scudder novels Mr. Block has been writing for decades; as I have said before, my education in my own genre is often sorely lacking in many regards. But this story was irresistible to me for several reasons–it’s set in Florence, for one, and of course it is inspired by Michelangelo’s David, which also has inspired me for a novel that I hope to someday write. The story begins as above, with Matthew recognizing someone in the piazza that he had arrested, and soon remembers the gruesome butchery of the case. The man comes over, introduces himself, and then invites them to his villa for lunch the following day. Elaine bows out of the lunch, and over the course of the meal the man explains, at last, why he committed the brutal crime Scudder remembers and never knew the motivation behind (he’d pled guilty, served his time, got out and retired to Italy; would that I could do the same!). It’s a macabre story of a stunted gay life, and how once he fell in actual love with another man he abandoned his old life without a care and took up a new one, that ended in tragedy. It’s actually quite good, and bravo to Mr. Block for taking on such a topic without dealing in tropes, or stereotypes; it was also lovely to read a gay villain, as it were.

And now back to the spice mines.


Major Tom (Coming Home)

Tuesday morning.

I made an enormous decision regarding the point-of-view in the WIP; one that I should have made a long time ago: instead of third person point of view, I am going to revise and rewrite it in the first person. It makes more sense; I don’t know why I didn’t do it that way in the first place when I wrote the first draft; but that was so fucking long ago who knows why I did anything back then? I revised the first chapter yesterday, and it seems much more real, much more immediate, and much more involving than it did before. I think this was, indeed, a wise decision–at least until next week, when I am pounding my head against the wall again and wondering why the hell I decided to do it this way?

Why am I a writer again? Because I clearly hate myself.

Sunday Paul and I binge-watched It’s the End of the F**king World, a Netflix original series, and were quite taken with it. We wound up watching the entire season Sunday night–the episodes are only about twenty-one minutes long–and the two young kids who play the leads, Alyssa and James, are really quite appealing. James lives alone with his father and is a self-diagnosed psychopath; when Alyssa first crossed his path in the school cafeteria, he decides she’s interesting and he decides to kill her. He’s been killing animals for a while now, and has decided to move on to people, and she’s as good a victim as anyone. Alyssa lives with her mother and her perfectly awful stepfather, who have two kids of their own, and it’s obvious Alyssa isn’t wanted there, and her mother is too dominated by her new husband to stand up to him or for her. As a result, Alyssa has a bit of an anger issue. She also hasn’t seen her father since she was eight and he left her mother–but even though he doesn’t see her he sends her a birthday card every year. These two oddballs decide to steal James’ father’s car and run away together…but it continues its dark path. James and Alyssa are, if nothing else, oddly compelling and you can’t help but root for them to find some kind of a happy ending, although the events that keep happening to them make that virtually impossible; their crimes gradually get worse and worse, and I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of Bonnie and Clyde (no doubt because I am still reading Pictures at a Revolution) and Natural Born Killers; they didn’t mean to start committing crimes but once they did, they had no choice but to keep committing crimes. It’s all kind of noirish and charming; funny yet disturbing, and incredibly original. We also get to know the two–as they grow closer to each other and start to truly care about each other, they start sharing their childhood traumas and frankly, with all that scar tissue it’s no wonder they didn’t fit in anywhere.

I’ll be very curious to see how the second season turns out.

I also have two more short stories to discuss.

First up, I returned to Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or in Shadow for Stephen King’s “The Music Room”:

The Enderbys were in their music room–so they called it, although it was really just the spare bedroom. Once they had thought it would be little James or Jill Enderby’s nursery, but after ten years of trying, it seemed increasingly unlikely that a Baby Dear would arrive out of the Nowhere and into the Here. They had made their peace with childlessness. AT least they had work, which was a blessing in a year when men were still standing in bread lines. There were fallow periods, it was true, but when the job was on, they could afford to think of nothing else, and they both liked it that way.

Mr. Enderby was reading The New York Journal-American,  a new daily not even halfway through its first year of publication. It was sort of a tabloid and sort of not. He usually began with the comics, but when they were on the job he turned to the city news first, scanning through the stories quickly, especially the police blotter.

This short story is one of the creepiest things I’ve read during this edition of the Short Story Project. King is always good for creepy stories, but the casual, calm matter of fact way the Enderbys go about their ‘business’ is what sets this story apart. The fact that they sit around and chat, quite normally, about the ‘business’ as though they were talking about nothing more important than the weather is very chilling; the kind of thing that would make a lovely episode of Twilight Zone. Very well done, very creepy.

Next I read “The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong, which Sarah Weinman included in her terrific anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. This story was originally publishing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and was a nominee for the Best Short Story Edgar.

Mrs. Sarah Brady awakened in the guest room of her nephew Jeff’s house, and for a moment or two was simply glad for the clean page of a new day. Then she found her bookmark between the past and the future. Oh, yes. Her sister, Alice, had died on Monday, been buried on Wednesday. (Poor Alice.) This was Saturday. Mrs. Brady’s daughter, Del, was coming, late today, to drive her mother back home tomorrow.

Now that she knew where she was, Mrs. Brady cast a brief prayer into time and space, then put her lean old feet to the floor.

The house was very still. For days now it has seemed muffled, everyone moving in a quiet gloom, sweetened by mutually considerate behavior. Mrs. Brady had a feeling that her own departure would signal a lift of some kind in the atmosphere. And she did not particularly like the idea.

I first discovered Charlotte Armstrong when I was in junior high school; she was still alive and still being published, and was still rather popular. I got a Charlotte Armstrong Omnibus from the Mystery Guild; the novels included were The Witch’s House, Mischief, and The Dream Walker. I read and greatly enjoyed the first two–Mischief was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, retitled Don’t Bother to Knock–and they weren’t like anything I’d ever read up to that point. I did read some more of her books back then, and I never forgot her. I was quite pleased when Sarah, along with Jeffrey Marks, began shining a light on Ms. Armstrong and bringing her back to her proper place in the history of the genre.

“The Splintered Monday” is a great example of Ms. Armstrong’s gifts as a writer. The premise, as seen above in the opening paragraphs that set the stage for the story, is quite simple. A woman, who was a hypochondriac but also ill–she was, as we learn as the story progresses, a narcissist as well who insisted on being at the center of everything, and everything was all about her–has died. Her sister was visiting and her sister is quite aware of what the deceased Alice was like. But something is off, something is wrong, and Mrs. Brady can’t quite put her finger on it…so she decides to find out for herself. At first, she doesn’t learn anything useful; and it’s more along the lines that everyone is coddling her, protecting her from the truth about her sister’s death for ‘her own good’ which annoys the crap out of her. But someone in the house has a very good reason for keeping things from Mrs. Brady…because if Mrs. Brady knows everything, she’ll put the truth together and will catch a very clever killer. Armstrong’s mastery is evident in every paragraph; there is a sweetness to her writing and a sweetness to her main characters, but there’s also a very strong sense of right and wrong, of common sense, and a heroic purpose to their investigations. This is why I love Armstrong so much…and was thrilled to read this story.

And now, back to the spice mines.


On the Dark Side

Sunday morning. I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked yesterday, but I did get some things checked off my to-do list, so i call that a win. I finished a first draft of my short story “The Trouble with Autofill,” which will need some serious revision and work–not a problem–but while I am displeased with the result, I am pleased that I got the first draft done. As I always say, you can always fix what you wrote–but you have to have something to fix. 

We finished watching Broadchurch last night, and my, was that series finale, wrapping up not only the story of the Latimers–whose son was murdered in Season One–but also the rape case that opened Season 3. I have to say, the show was really terrific; I greatly enjoyed it, and I thought it did a great job of putting real human faces on terrible tragedies. As I processed what I’d seen once it was finished, I realized that probably the reason I enjoy crime fiction so much is precisely that; it’s exploration of humanity through dealing with the unimaginable; and that’d also kind of what I’m doing with my short stories. I’m also really glad that I made the Short Story Project a year-long thing; I’m learning so much about short stories by reading so many different ones by so many different writers.

I also have to correct myself; I  do have a hard copy of Lawrence Block’s anthology In Sunlight or in Shadow. I was moving books around in the bookcases yesterday–and uncovering more anthologies and single-author collections as I went–and even though I’d spent a lot of time trying to find it over the past week to no avail, yesterday there it was, right next to Cary Elwes’ memoir of filming The Princess Bride, As You Wish. Why I hadn’t seen it or noticed it prior to this moment in time is one of the unsolved mysteries of my life and brain.

We also watched the first episode of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and I wasn’t overly impressed with it beyond the surprisingly strong performance of Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. Visually, it’s splendid, but…I’ll give it another episode or two before consigning it to the scrapheap. The beauty of our streaming society is I can always give it another shot later; maybe I’ll like it better at another time. Black Sails, for example, continues to be something I really am enjoying; I watched half of Episode 3, Season 1, on the treadmill Friday and yes, I can’t help but keep asking myself why on earth did you not like this the first time?

The only problem I’m really having with the Short Story Project is that I am not reading any novels; so my TBR pile is not being reduced in any way. I want to read John Morgan Wilson’s Moth and Flame, and it’s been sitting on my side table next to the easy chair for over a week now; but I’m in such a short story groove…anyway.

Tomorrow is the release day for a book I read in ARC (advanced reader copy) form months ago, The Wife by Alafair Burke.


In an instant, I became the woman the assumed I’d been along: the wife who lied to protect her husband.

I almost didn’t hear the knock on the front door. I had removed the brass knocker twelve days earlier, as if that would stop another reporter from showing up unannounced. Once I realized the source of the sound, I sat up straight in bed, hitting mute on the TV remote. Fighting the instinct to freeze, I forced myself to take a look. I parted the drawn bedroom curtains, squinting against the afternoon sun.

I saw the top of a head of short black hair on my stoop. The Impala in front of the fire hydrant across the street practically screamed “unmarked police car.” It was that same detective, back again. I still had her business card tucked away in my purse, where Jason wouldn’t see it. She kept knocking, and I kept watching her knock, until she sat on the front steps and started reading my paper.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex made my Top Ten list of 2016; it was the first of Alafair’s books I’d read (I have a bunch more in the TBR pile) and it absolutely blew me away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and having met and liked Alafair, there was an element of worry; what if I don’t like her book? But it wasn’t an issue; from page one on, I was hooked and it was a book I deeply resented having to put down to do other things. Obviously, I was really looking forward to The Wife–maybe I’ll focus this year on reading the rest of her canon–and was thrilled when I got an ARC at Bouchercon this year.

The Wife does not disappoint, either, and boy is it ever timely! Angela Powell, the wife of the title, has a pretty terrific life; married to a very successful man who is getting even more successful every day, a beautiful home in Manhattan, good friends she can rely on, and a son she dotes on. Angela’s almost too-perfect, too-good-to-be-true life slowly but surely begins to unravel when one of her husband’s interns goes to the police and files a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against him. But Angela is not only rocked by the charges against her husband–she’s also worried about any investigation into their lives, particularly by the press…because she has some dark secrets in her own past that she doesn’t want seeing the light of day. No one, other than her husband and her mother, knows anything more about her past other than she was a catering service waitress who eventually started her own business and is a great chef–she met Jason at a party she was working at–but there is a lot more there. And as the truth about Angela’s past slowly is revealed to the reader, each revelation is even more shocking than the last.

The book has a powerful enough story, with just Angela dealing with this assault on their life and having to wonder if her husband has done what he’s being accused of, and if so, how did she not see it–or whether she should believe in his protestations of innocence and stand by his side? The exploration of what does a woman do in this instance might have been enough for a lesser novelist, but it’s not for Alafair Burke; there’s a reason why she has moved onto my ‘must-read’ list.

The Wife is going to be one of the best books of the year, and will be surely nominated for every crime writing award in 2019. I urge you to read it. You won’t be sorry.

Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.


I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.



Yes, we had freezing temperatures in New Orleans the last two nights, and when I woke yesterday morning it was only 20 degrees; it’s 21 today. There was snow and ice outside both yesterday and today–not much, it’s New Orleans, seriously–but the exciting news yesterday morning was work was canceled because the roads were closed! The text went out around nine in the morning, but I, good boy who is determined to stick to his goals that I am, was at the gym. Yes, I got up yesterday morning, bundled up against the cold, and went to the gym. There were tumbleweeds blowing through there, of course, but I did my stretches, my workout, and twenty minutes  of cardio(okay, it was 17:58, but it was nine and I thought I needed to get home and get ready for work). I came home, did the dishes, packed Paul’s lunch, got cleaned up, packed my own lunch and headed out to the car, which had ice all over its windows. I got inside, started the car and turned the defrosters on, and was about to plug my phone into the stereo when I saw that I had 15 text messages….the initial messages about the office being closed and responses from co-workers. I immediately shut off the car and came inside and put my sweats back on.

Here is the horror that was New Orleans yesterday morning:

Really not much of anything, seriously. But as I told my boss last night, I know how to drive in snow and ice, but these people down here? Not so much.

The problem, apparently, was that the bridges into New Orleans–we’re kind of an island, surrounded by water and swamp and you have to cross a bridge to get into the city no matter from what direction–were icy, and of course, that makes them dangerous because people here don’t know how to drive on ice and the bridges are all pretty high. So the bridges were closed and so commuters couldn’t get into the city; the highways are also raised in many places and therefore dangerous when icy. So basically, the entire city shut down. I could have made it to work, but hey, you know, the office was closed. Today so far I’ve not heard about anything–I doubt very seriously we would close two days in a row, and I have no problem with going in.

But it was nice having a free day to stay home with the cat, you know? I did laundry, and since it was so cold at my desk in the kitchen even with the space heater on, decided to make it a real Snow Day and simply retire to my easy chair with the cat in my lap and work on the Short Story Project. I read a Lee Child story from one of the Lawrence Block painting anthologies, and a Laura Lippman from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Lee Child’s story was “Pierre, Lucien, and Me”, from Alive in Shape and Color:

I survived my first heart attack. But as soon as I well enough to sit up in bed, the doctor came back and told me I was sure to have a second. Only a matter of time, he said. The first episode had been indicative of a serious underlying weakness. Which it had just made worse. Could be days. Or weeks. Months at most. He said from now on I should consider myself an invalid.

I said, “This is 1928, for fuck’s sake, They got people talking on the radio from far away. Don’t you have a pill for it?”

No pill, he said. Nothing to be done. Maybe see a show. And maybe write some letters. He told me what people regretted most were the things they didn’t say. Then he left. Then I left. Now I have been home four days. Doing nothing. Waiting for the second episode. Days away, or weeks, or months. I have no way of knowing.

I’m a fan of Lee Child, and one of my favorite memories was walking to Green Goddess with Alafair Burke when Romantic Times was here one year, and we ran into Lee on the street. I was a big fan, of course, but had never met him. Alafair, of course, knew him, and she invited him to join us. So I not only got to have lunch with Alafair Burke but also Lee Child. (How awesome are my namedropping skills?)

Anyway, he was as charming and self-deprecating as I’d heard–ridiculously tall and slender as well.

I love his Reacher series, but am many years behind on it, alas–so many books, so little time–but this story was short and quite lovely. The main character, as you can tell from the opening, is dying, and reflecting on his life; thinking back on whom he might need to apologize to or make amends with, and cannot really think of anyone. Then a name pops into his head; a millionaire he rather swindled, and the tale of the swindle makes up the rest of the story. The voice is charming and the swindle itself isn’t really that terrible, as far as these things go; he didn’t cause any harm, really, even if what he did was a crime.

I then moved on to Laura Lippman’s “Hardly Knew Her”, from her amazing collection Hardly Knew Her:

Sofia was a lean, hipless girl, the type that older men still called a tomboy in 1975, although her only hoydenish quality was a love of football. In the vacant lot behind the neighborhood tavern, the boys welcomed her into their games. This was in part because she was quick, with sure hands. But even touch football sometimes ended in pile-ups, where it was possible to steal a touch or two and claim it was accidental. She tolerated this feeble groping most of the time, punching the occasional boy who pressed too hard too long, which put the others on notice for a while. Then they forgot, or it happened again–they touched, she punched. It was a price she was more than willing to pay for the exhilaration she felt when she passed the few yew berry bushes that marked the end zone, a gaggle of boys breathless in her wake.

But for all the afternoons she spent at the vacant lot, she never made peace with the tricky plays–the faked handoffs, the double pumps, the gimmicky laterals. It seemed cowardly to her, a way for less gifted players to punish those with natural talent. It was one thing to spin and feint down the field, eluding grasping hands with a swivel of her nonhips. But to pretend the ball was somewhere it wasn’t struck her as cheating, and no one could ever persuade her otherwise.

Sofia, called Fee by her family and by no one else–she won’t allow it–has a father with a gambling problem; he plays in a game in the neighborhood tavern every Friday night. When he does well, there are gifts for the family on Saturday; when he doesn’t, he takes those gifts in the middle of the night and pawns or sells them, or turns them over as payment for a debt. He’s not a good bluffer, like his daughter, depending on the luck of the draw for his success or failure. But Fee is given a lovely amethyst necklace for her birthday–an heirloom–and when her father takes it to pay a debt, Fee is finished with her father, finished with this existence, and decides she is getting her necklace back. How this all plays out for Fee is a coming-of-age tale like no other I’ve read; one that only a talent like Laura Lippman could write. This collection of short stories is really quite extraordinary; as is the Block anthology; y’all really need to read these two books if you are a fan of short stories.

I also started watching, of all things, original episodes of Scooby Doo Where Are You? through Amazon Prime; I’ve been thinking a lot about Scooby Doo and its predecessor, Jonny Quest, since getting to meet one of the directors/animators for Hanna-Barbera at Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago. Jonny Quest is actually the first memory I have of watching something mystery/adventure related, and my love for Jonny Quest never really abated; I think, therefore, that the show was what triggered my lifelong love of mysteries and the crime genre; Scooby Doo came along around the time I was discovered the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I’ll keep watching and musing about this some more, before making a post. I also still owe a post about I Tonya. I also finished reading Joan Didion’s Miami last night; so I’ll have to post about that as well.

So, that was how I spent my Snow Day; resting and relaxing and reading. It was actually quite lovely; we watched two episodes of Broadchurch last night and only have three to go before finishing the show. This third season is also quite good, and it’s cool how they’ve woven characters from the initial story into the present investigation; this entire season is an exploration about sexual assault, sex in genre, and porn. I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

And now, back to the spice mines. As I said, I don’t think we’ll get another Snow Day today, so I have to get back to work. But how lovely to have a day where I didn’t really have to do anything; it’s been a long time. (Okay, I did the dishes and a load of laundry, but overall, it was a light responsibility day.)