Louisiana Bayou

The traditional mystery, to quote Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.”

I’m not sure why that is, to be perfectly honest. I do have my suspicions and opinions, most of which inevitably circle back to the root of so many societal ills: misogyny. Traditional mysteries, often called (both respectfully and derisively) cozies, are, as a general rule, primarily written by women, tell women’s stories, and theoretically, the primary market for them is women. So naturally, much like the entirety of the romance genre, it is subject to derision, not being taken as seriously as darker works, and often is shut out during awards seasons (the primary exception being the Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, which is primarily focused on the traditional mystery). They generally also don’t get a lot of review coverage, because women mystery writers also traditionally don’t get their fair share of print reviews in major publications, either–and the ones who usually do trend to the darker side.

I will also admit that I, too, am guilty of being more drawn to the darker, harsher, more noir side of crime fiction in my reading–which is kind of ironic, as one of my favorite series writers of all time is Elizabeth Peters, who didn’t write dark but rather light-hearted and funny; the Amelia Peabody series is one of the all-time greats. I also love Ellen Hart’s and Donna Andrews’ and and Miranda James’ and Elaine Viets’ series; but a few years ago I realized I wasn’t giving the subgenre enough love and attention, so focused on consciously reading more traditional mysteries. I have since discovered other terrific traditional mystery writers by expanding my scope and not just reaching for the next thing that sounds interesting. I discovered Kellye Garrett’s terrific Detective by Day series, Leslie Budewitz, Sherry Harris, Julia Henry, Hannah Dennison, and far too many others to name. (Also, shout outs to Raquel V. Reyes and Mia P. Manansala for outstanding new series over the last year or so.)

And then of course there’s Ellen Byron.

In some cities, a middle-aged woman dancing down the street dressed as a cross between a 1970’s disco queen and Wilma Flintsone would be unusual. But this was New Orleans, where the unusual was the everyday.

The woman dancing past Ricki James-Diaz, dodging the broken concrete in the Irish Channel’s worn sidewalks, happened to be her landlady, Kitty Kat Rousseau, who lived on the other side of Ricki’s double-shotgun cottage on Odile Street. “On your way to rehearsal?” Ricki called to Kitty from the porch. Kitty belonged to the ABBA Dabbo Do’s, one of the Crescent City’s many synchronized dance and marching troupes that entertained at parades and special events.

“You know it, chère.” Kitty did the hustle, then paused. “Whew, spinning made me dizzy.” She leaned against a lamppost, trying to regain her equilibrium. “I’m glad you caught me. I wanted to wish you good luck today.”

Ricki used the back of her hand to wipe a drop of perspiration from her forehead, the result of nervrs, not the mid-August heat. “Thank you so much.”

I’ve been meaning to read Ellen Byron for quite some time now; I’m not really sure why I haven’t. Ellen and I met electronically, but I am not exactly sure I remember precisely how; a Facebook group, or something. I don’t know, but Ellen–who graduated from Tulane University and whose daughter was attending Loyola–wanted to meet for dinner on a trip here to get her daughter settled into an apartment and the rest was history. She has written two series already–the Cajun Country series (which I need to read) and the Catering Hall mysteries as Maria DiRico. She’s doing a prelaunch party for the first in her new series, the Vintage Cookbook series, the first of which is called Bayou Book Thief. She graciously asked me to do the event with her, and as such I spent yesterday afternoon reading the book…which is absolutely charming.

The premise of the book is the Ricki (full name: Miracle Fleur de Lis James-Diaz, thank you very much) has returned to New Orleans to escape two awful experiences: the freak accident death of her husband, a viral Youtube video-maker (think Jackass) who choked to death doing one of his stunts, and of course the video of his death–he filmed it live–has gone viral. If that isn’t bad enough, her employer (she curated his collection of rare first editions) was convicted of a massive Bernie Madoff-like fraud scheme. Having been born in New Orleans and lived there her first seven years of life till her adoptive (yes, she was abandoned at Charity Hospital as an infant) parents moved to Los Angeles, she has decided to return to the city of her birth, maybe find her birth mother, and start a new business–selling vintage cookbooks and vintage serving ware in a shop in the Bon Vee museum, which used to be the home of one of the city’s legendary restauranteurs, Genevieve “Vee” Charbonnet. The board president approves her idea, and the story is off to the races as Ricki gets to know her co-workers, the Bon Vee family, from administration to the tour guides to the docents, as well as those who work in the little café on the grounds.

Soon, one of the more irritating tour guides (let’s face it, he’s a dick) turns up dead in a trunk and dropped off at the mansion with some boxes of donated books for the shop. Ricki herself has had a few run-ins with the victim, and she’s also the one who finds the body. Worried about whether or not she herself is a suspect, as well as what damage the murder might do to her new business, Ricki starts looking into the murder herself–while also developing a weird relationship/friendship with the female police detective looking into the case. But this murder is just one of several mysteries surrounding Ricki and her life at the mansion, and many complications that arise from her working there and her amateur sleuthing.

Bayou Book Thief is a lot of fun, and is filled with endearing, likable characters along with some marvelous observations and truths about New Orleans–watching out for tree roots as you walk along the sidewalks; the horror of your air conditioning going out while it’s still hot; being in a bar during a Saints game; and above all else, that the city is really a very small town at heart. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the series, Wined and Died in New Orleans.

Join us tonight at five pm at Blue Cypress Books. It’ll be a fun time.

Do You Know What I Mean

The traditional mystery often gets a bum rap by mystery fans. I’m not sure why that is; these books have never gone out of style, have never decreased in popularity, and have always been the backbone of the crime/mystery genre. They are often (wrongly, I think) identified with Agatha Christie–if anything, Christie should be identified with every sub-genre of crime/mystery fiction. She wrote private eye novels (Poirot); dark noir (Endless Night); spy fiction (N or M?, The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad); historicals (Death Comes as the End); and even romantic suspense (as Mary Westmacott). Sure, she often relied on the amateur sleuth–her most famous amateur being probably Miss Marple–but she literally did everything first, really.

Probably why everyone refers to her as the Queen of Crime Fiction.

But the traditional mystery, for some reason, gets short shrift in our modern world, despite being one of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction. Why? I don’t really understand it. Sure, there’s not any blood or sex or violence–the sort of thing generally used to sell everything from television shows to movies to laundry soap and deoderant. Many of us grew up reading books about amateur detectives, from Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to Trixie Belden. So why do so many turn their noses up at the traditional mystery, also known as the cozy mystery?

I think it’s much harder to write about crime without using the tough guy male lead (stereotype), blood, violence, swear words, and sex. Is it this lack of the “rougher” aspects of crime that earned these books the nickname “cozy”?

What precisely does the word cozy mean, used as a book descriptor in this way? Ask five mystery fans/writers, and you will get five different answers. It’s often hard to quantify the variety of subgenres within the mystery/crime field. Everything else aside, I think the most important thing, the key, for a mystery novel to get this kind of classification is that the book focuses, on one level, on a sense of community; the reader develops a warm, comfortable feeling, the kind that you usually get from visiting family and friends you don’t get to see all of the time. You open the book and start reading and already feel relaxed and at home; happy to see people you care about, are interested in, and are excited to find out what they have been up to. Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is an excellent example of this; so is Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mystery series (both series, obviously, are favorites of mine). These books welcome you in, invite you to put your feet up, get comfortable, and spend some time with your old friends you’ve not seen in a while.

This, naturally, is very difficult to establish when writing the first book in a new series of this kind; how do you immediately establish this warm environment where the reader feels comfortable enough to kick off their shoes and relax? It’s not the easiest thing to pull off for an accomplished writer; so it’s all the more remarkable when someone nails it in their very first book.

Mia P. Manansala nailed it in her debut.

My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.

Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.

Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.

Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.

Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt’s failing business? Well now we’re up to a hat trick of clichés.

And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

Okay, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.

First of all, can we talk about the voice?

It is impossible not to fall in love with Lila’s voice from the very first sentence of the book. She is smart and funny and eminently likable, which is important in a traditional mystery (no one wants to read a cozy whose main character is an unlikable bitch) and much harder to do than most people who don’t actually write books think it is. Lila is a remarkable character; very clear-eyed about what she wants and what she doesn’t, as well as who she thinks she is and wants to be. She’s returned from her big escape to the big city to the small town she wasn’t terribly happy in when she was growing up–her past experiences continually are reminding her, and not in pleasant way, of why she left in the first place. She never intended to return home (as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again), but she is back and rather than focusing on what she is certain everyone she knows or is related to sees as her “failure,” she intends instead to focus on helping save her aunt’s restaurant business.

The immense strength of this story rests upon those family bonds, and Lila’s recognition of just how important those bonds–family, friends, community–actually are to her; and her growing realization, over the course of the books, that those things she once thought were strangling and restraining her are actually where her own power comes from.

The mystery itself is also strong: Lila’s wretched local ex, whose mother has since married a businessman who rents Tita Rosie’s building to her and is a total dick, has taken to writing shitty reviews of local restaurants, apparently targeting one and trying to destroy its business before moving on to another. Lila’s relationship with him is also strained; and she also doesn’t like the dickish stepfather either. It is while she is serving them lunch that her ex keels over face-first into his plate–dead from arsenic poisoning. In the food Lila fed him, and came from her aunt’s kitchen. The financially strapped business is shut down pending an investigation into the murder and a health department inspection, and there is the very real fear that Tita Rosie may lose her restaurant. Lila takes it upon herself to investigate and find the real culprit, to clear herself as well as her aunt and the beloved family business of any wrongdoing and scandal. The journey, which introduces us to her friends and family, and welcomes the reader into their charming world and community, twists and turns and is full of surprises every step along the way–as Lila also learns just how much the restaurant, her family, and her friends really mean to her.

This book is absolutely charming, well-written, and very fun. I cannot wait to revisit Lila and her crew in the second book, Homicide and Halo-Halo. Mia P. Manansala is definitely one to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching her career reaching even more heights than she has already achieved.

My Favorite Things

And so we have reached the last day of 2021 at last (it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that it has been 2021 for a year; 2022 is going to seem even stranger, methinks). I’m on a holiday, so there’s no work for the day-job to be done today, but there’s plenty of other things that need to be done. I need to work on the book some more, I need to clean, I need to run some errands, and I’d also like to do some reading. It’s a lot, I know, and who knows how much I can or will actually get done around here? Yesterday I did data entry, made condom packs and rewatched the original Clash of the Titans (starring a very young Harry Hamlin and his nipples; seeing this in the theater made me a Harry Hamlin fan for life) while I did so. I also was able to pick up two boxes of home COVID-19 tests (the day-job procured you them for the staff as a preventive measure, which are apparently like gold these days.

It was a very challenging year in many ways. I suspect that if I looked back at a list of my goals for the year, two of the most key things–getting an agent and finishing Chlorine–would not be able to be checked off the list. My faulty memory–I keep, for one thing, conflating the last two years as one and the same mentally–has something to do with it. I know I wanted to write more short stories in 2021, and I don’t know that I succeeded at that. I know I had a couple of stories of which I am very proud come out this past year (my first ever attempt at writing a Sherlock Holmes story for one), and of course I finished writing two books while trying to finish yet a third under contract, and trying to get Chlorine done.

I always feel sort of weird at the end of the year when I compile my favorite things (books, movies, television) because I never limit myself to things that were new to the year, but rather new to me during the year; I am always so woefully behind on everything I read and watch that it doesn’t seem fair to leave off things that didn’t debut in 2021. Besides, it’s always kind of fun, I think, to remind people of things they themselves might have missed and forgotten about. But when I started thinking about all the books I read this past year, I would have sworn that I hadn’t read this much, or that I couldn’t have possibly read this many books–and I know I am also forgetting some, and these are the ones that stand out enough to be remembered. My favorite reads of the year were, in no particular order, The Turnout by Megan Abbott; The Collective by Alison Gaylin; Dream Girl by Laura Lippman; The Gift of the Magpie by Donna Andrews (I read three or four Andrews novels this past year, and loved them all, frankly); Velvet was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia; Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier; Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby; A Beautiful Crime by Christopher YBollen; Yes Daddy by Jonathan Page-Ramage; The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris; These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall; Invisible City by Julia Dahl; and By Way of Sorrow by Robyn Gigl. I also read a lot more cozies than I generally do, which were quite fun–I highly recommend checking out Leslie Budewitz, Vivien Chien, Sherry Harris, Ali Brandon, Miranda Harris, and Carolyn Haines, among many others–my TBR pile is nothing if not a treasure trove of terrific reading–and I am hoping to get even more reading done in the new year as well.

As for movies, I also watched a lot of movies. I saw a lot of classic cinema of the past I’d never seen before–my Cynical 70’s Film Festival had some marvelous entries this past year–as well as revisited some favorites. I greatly enjoyed Dune, which I thought was incredibly well done, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a great super-hero film, with just the right amount of spectacle, humor, and humanity to ground it in enough reality that an audience could relate to it. I don’t remember any other new films that we saw in this past year, but I am sure there were some–the direct-to-streaming/limited theatrical release model for the pandemic ensured that I saw some things much sooner than I probably would have otherwise–but give me a break, I am still on my first cup of coffee after a lovely and deep night’s sleep.

Television again is something a bit blurry for me; the lines between 2020 and 2021 also blurring a bit here. I know we loved Mare of Easttown, Ted Lasso (a true gem of a show), The Mandalorian, Elité, Superman and Lois (probably the best version of Superman since the first two Christopher Reeve films), the original Gossip Girl (which is winding down now with a last season that is rather disappointing, alas), Hacks, One of Us is Lying, Cruel Summer, and Only Murders in the Building, which was also a jewel. But maybe my favorite show of the year was HBO’s It’s a Sin, which was not only well done, but powerful and thought-provoking. I had debated whether I wanted to see it or not; entertainment about HIV/AIDS, particularly about the height of the plague, has never sat well with me–either pandering nonsense or heavy-handed. The gold standard for me has always been Longtime Companion, but after watching I had to say It’s a Sin belongs up there. It was hard to watch at times–and I realized that the reason was the characters were all the same age that I was when it all started, which was a big part of it–but it also made me acknowledge and understand any number of things about myself and my past; namely that I had never grieved, just going numb at one point and deciding to keep moving forward and not think about anything. Watching the show brought back a lot of memories which, while painful at times, was necessary and needed.

I also spent time writing and working on two novellas, “Festival of the Redeemer” and “Never Kiss a Stranger”; one thing I really want to be able to do in the new year is get the novella collection together as well as another collection of short stories. Lots of plans for the new year, including a new Scotty novel I’ve been itching to get to, and another stand alone, in addition to Chlorine. I was able to visit my parents twice this past year, and I was also about to make it to New York and then Boston for Crime Bake, which was simply marvelous. I have lots of travel plans for the new year that I am hoping new pandemic variants aren’t going to jettison–I really do want to be around writers again, seriously–and over all, the year wasn’t as terrible as it easily could have been (2022, do not take this as a challenge). I got a new computer, paid off a lot of debt, and over all, I have to say, all things considered, 2021 wasn’t altogether terrible. I wish I had been more productive, but I also wish that every year.

And on that note, this next chapter isn’t going to write itself, is it? Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, Constant Reader, and I’ll talk to you next year!

You’ve Been on My Mind

So, today I am heading north for Thanksgiving. It’s an eleven hour drive both ways, give or take, depending on variables (bathroom breaks, lunch, gas stops, traffic, etc.) but I have Azimov’s Foundation queued up on Audible to listen to on the drive up (watching the show gave me an itch to revisit the books. It’s been years since I read the original trilogy, which I owned in one of those all-in-one compendiums. At the time, there were only the three; much as there was only a Dune trilogy when I read the books in high school). It’s going to be far colder up there than I would prefer, which means I won’t be going outside very much, or at least as little as possible.

Also, the thing I hate most–heat. Okay, I can hear the puzzled thoughts in your mind–but you live in New Orleans! How can you hate heat? Hang on, I will explain.

I don’t like indoor heat when it’s cold outside. It always feels somewhat suffocating and stale to me, and it inevitably affects my sinuses (sinii?) and everything else and it just kind of makes me feel dried out; like a turkey in the oven without being basted properly. Air conditioning doesn’t have that same effect, which is why I prefer to live in a more tropical climate where we don’t need to run the heat that often or that much (last winter being a horrible exception; I will never forget that freezing fat Tuesday when we didn’t have heat).

I obviously finished reading Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, and I will probably get started on Donna Andrews’ Owl Be Home For Christmas tonight in Kentucky before going to bed. I am planning on leaving here around eight this morning, which will have me arriving at my parents’ house around eight this evening EST. It’s a lovely drive, and as I mentioned, I will be listening to Azimov’s Foundation on the way up there and the next Donna Andrews Friday on my drive home (I am almost caught up on the series!). I did some writing yesterday, but not nearly enough–we turned on the Saints game for a little while before switching back to Gossip Girl, bingeing through the rest of what was available on HBO MAX (the second half of the first season will drop while I am in Kentucky) and then we decided to give the original a whirl, and while we only had time for two episodes before I had to go to bed…we are hooked and will watch all six seasons. So, at least we know what we’ll be watching next weekend when I come home. It’s fun; the reboot reminds me of Elité–with a three-way romance hinted at, just like there was there was on the first season of that show (at one point Paul said, “I think the producers or writers must have watched Elité”), and I have to say, this is one reboot I am definitely on board with.

It definitely fills in the void of glossy melodramatic soap with lovely young people I’d been feeling.

I’m not sure how regularly I am going to be able to post here until I get back home–my primary focus for the week is going to be spending time with my family, reading, and trying to get some writing done every day, which means this isn’t going to be a priority, alas, and rather than writing here while drinking coffee every morning and waking up I’ll be hanging with my family, but I am also hoping the time away from the Internet–emails, social media, blog–will help reboot my brain somewhat (I am also hoping to have the opportunity to get sorted a bit more while I am away; trips like the last one tend to make me more scattered because rest and relaxation aren’t in the cards the way they are when I visit family) and motivate me to get more things done as I move forward with my life. The rest of this year is going to be frantic–trying to get the book finished, preparing for the release of the next, the holidays–but it’s definitely do-able.

So, if you email me this week, I may not get to it as quickly as I would like (although I have to admit I am not as timely with responding to emails as I have been in the past), but I will get to it–I am going to be buried enough when I get back without having to answer a gazillion emails on top of everything else.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

Spice World

I didn’t grow up in a household of spices and flavors.

That’s not me being disrespectful to my family; they were from rural Alabama and beyond the basics–salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar–they never had much access to anything beyond that, other than what was used in specialty/special occasion foods, like stuffing/dressing at the holidays. Once my mother stopped working and became a stay-at-home mom, she began teaching herself how to cook–she always had a Betty Crocker cookbook in the kitchen when I was a kid–and began using other spices; but those basics were all I knew and it wasn’t until I got much older–fifty-ish–that I, too, began teaching myself how to cook and learned to stop being afraid of experimenting in the kitchen (alas, this was also around the time I quit smoking and injured my back, which kept me out of the gym. The end result is the long-bemoaned weight gain I’ve been struggling with in the decade since). My friend Michael is a terrific cook, very knowledgeable, and I’ve spent many an hour sitting in the kitchen watching him cook and learning from him tips and techniques; I have also learned to not stick to measurements in recipes and do it from instinct–and not to be afraid to make mistakes here and there. (I put way too much onion in a mac-and-cheese dish I made for the kids at the office once, which was mortifying.)

I also know how the spice trade changed world history–the silk road was also the spice road between Asia and Europe.

So Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mysteries are definitely right up my alley.

“Parsley poop.” The Indian silver chandeliers hanging from the Spice Shop’s high ceiling swayed, their flame-shaped bulbs flickering. The crystal candelabra they flanked burned on defiantly. As I stared up, unsure whether to curse the Market’s hodgepodge of ancient and modern wiring or the fixtures themselves, all three blinked, then went dark.

“Cash register’s got power,” Sandra called from behind the front counter. “And the red light district’s open.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the miniature lamp perched on the Chinese apothecary that displays our signature teas and accessories. The red silk shade glowed steadily, a beacon in the back corner.

“Better call the electrician,” I said at the exact moment as my customer asked, “where’s your panel?” and Lynette, my newest and most annoying employee, said, “I’ll check the breakers.”

Guilty as Cinnamon is the second book in the series, following Assault and Pepper (which I also greatly enjoyed), and this is a worthy successor to that series debut. Pepper Reece runs Seattle Spices, a spice shop in historic Pike’s Market, and is an engaging character for the reader to identify with and root for. Divorced from Tag, a bike cop who pops up regularly (she divorced him for cheating), she also lost her job in HR at a prestigious law firm when some of the partners turned out to be crooks and the firm closed. She bought the spice shop and a gorgeous loft apartment nearby in an attempt to reboot her life and start over, and is a walking encyclopedia of spices–how to blend and mix, what works best in what recipe, and can identify them by smell. (This olfactory knowledge often comes in useful when she’s involved in a crime.)

This time around, Pepper finds herself mixed up in murder and mayhem in the cutthroat world of the restaurant business of Seattle; a former boyfriend, Alex Howard, an Emeril-type figure in Seattle who is also kind of a dick, fires an assistant who is secretly planning to open a restaurant, partnering with another successful restauranteur in the city, Danielle Bordeaux. He fires her because Tamara, who plans on using Pepper as a supplier, comes into the shop and discusses business in front of an incompetent Seattle Spice employee, Lynette; Lynette tips off Alex. Tamara is fired and Pepper fires Lynette–and then Tamara is murdered. Pepper is the one who finds the body, and the case is off and running. Pepper can’t help but feel a little responsible, having found the body, as well as her employee having tipped off Alex, who is the number one suspect. It turns out as well that Tamara was murdered by ghost pepper–an insanely hot pepper that can, per the book, be fatal if ingested in large enough doses. Pepper had given Tamara samples of the ones she carries in the shop during the fateful visit; adding to her sense of responsibility.

She also lands herself a new potential love interest: reporter Ben Bradley (the investigating detectives are Spencer and Tracy; Budewitz loves punny names–and names actually play a vital role in this case). Or will she reunite with her ex, Tag, who seems to be interested in that very thing happening? Can he be trusted?

And are there ghosts involved?

Guilty as Cinnamon is not only an engaging and fun read–several times I had to stop and wonder, who is the killer here, and why–and was wrong every step of the way; but the author doesn’t cheat; like all the best traditional mystery writers, the clues are provided along the way in a nonchalant way that also makes them incredibly easy to miss–but they are there. Budewitz is also a charming writer, weaving a web that it’s very hard for her readers to extricate themselves from. Seattle and Pike’s Market and the shop are drawn so realistically and vividly that they are a workshop in setting as character.

And the food–the spices, the smells, the tastes, the textures–of everything are described so lovingly and with such vivid detail that I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier with every meal–from appetizers to wine to falafel burgers to salads.

What an incredibly fun series, and it’s definitely one I look forward to visiting again.

Sunday Girl

Sunday morning and feeling somewhat fine. I need to pack today–I can even go ahead and load up the car once I finish, so tomorrow I can just walk out there, put the keys in the ignition, start playing Foundation on my phone, and hit the road–and I also need to get a lot done today so I can not worry so much about being out of pocket for most of the day tomorrow. I downloaded Donna Andrews’ The Falcon Always Wings Twice for the drive home, and have created a shorter playlist for Spotify to listen to once the books have finished–I should have about an hour or two left on the road once both books are finished each way.

Yesterday was a very strange day in college football. LSU–after almost pulling off upsets of Alabama and Arkansas in back to back weeks–struggled against UL-Monroe; Auburn lost to South Carolina; Florida lost to Missouri; Ohio State humiliated Michigan State; Utah not only handed Oregon a loss but a decisive, embarrassing one; and on and on. This has been a truly weird season (I ain’t going to lie, watching Florida circle the drain helps take some of the sting out of LSU’s terrible season), and it’s not over yet. I’ve kind of dissociated myself from this season–I did watch the Alabama-Arkansas game for a while yesterday, and bits and pieces of the Florida-South Carolina–but man, what a fucking weird season. Two of the better teams in the conference are Mississippi and Mississippi State? When was the last time that happened? (2014, to be pedantic.)

Yeesh.

Paul went to the office yesterday and didn’t get home until late, so I spent the day editing what I’ve written on A Streetcar Named Murder and took voluminous notes on the story, where it’s going, who the suspects are going to be, why they are suspects, and so forth. I also started playing around with future titles for the series (should it take off) and came up with some that I think are funny and clever–but then, I thought the original title for the book was funny and clever, and wound up changing it at publisher request–so we’ll see. (I also can’t wait for the cover design to be finished so I can share it with everyone.) Today I am going to input those changes, write another chapter or two, and try to puzzle out the rest of the cast and a skimpy outline that I can follow to try to keep myself on course with the book. I am excited to be writing a new book for the first time in a long time–the last two have been in the works for years–and was thinking about what I am going to write next year. Hopefully Chlorine and Mississippi River Mischief, and maybe another book in this series–should they want one; I also have two others simmering on the back burner: Voices in an Empty Room and Where the Boys Die (going to need to change that title, though–it’s a working title for something I really want to write, but it fits another book idea I have much better and I just don’t have a better title for this one yet), and of course the novellas and other short stories and…sigh. You see why I feel like I never get anything done? Because I always have so much to do!

When Paul got home we finally watching Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. We had wanted to go see it in the theater, but then Ida happened and there was a paradigm shift and we never got around to getting to the cinema. I’ve been a fan of Simu Liu since his days as Jung on Kim’s Convenience (a very sweet Canadian television comedy that’s a comfort watch), and of course, I love Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung; all of whom were terrific in this, as was Meng’er Zhang as Shang’s younger sister Xialing. The action was incredible, the film was epic in scope, and we both frankly loved it a lot more than some of the other, more cookie cutter variety MCU films.

And Florian Munteanu as Razorfist was an excellent lesser villain. If you haven’t see it, you really should–if you like these types of movies. Then again, I may have been swayed by his impressive physique.

We had talked about watching HBO MAX’s reboot of Gossip Girl (we’d never watched the original), so with some time to kill after Shang Chi and bedtime, I flipped us over there and started watching, and we were almost immediately sucked in. It’s a glossy soap about rich kids at a private school–Elité in English–and it’s actually highly entertaining. I’m looking forward to watching more of it, and we may even go back and watch the seven(!) seasons of the original. We (well, I’m not, I don’t know about Paul) aren’t enjoying the second season of The Great, and I wasn’t really in the mood to watch another episode of it last night, hence the switch to Gossip Girl. Wasn’t it also a popular series of books, like Pretty Little Liars? I doubt that I’ll ever go back and seek out the books, but one never knows.

I also got very deep into Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am also enjoying; Pepper is a terrific heroine and I enjoy her supporting cast of characters. I’ve only been to Seattle once, many years ago, but I really liked the city a lot, and I visited Pike’s Market, which is where Pepper’s spice shop is located. But since it’s very likely I will finish reading the book today, I had to select another book for the trip, and I have chosen Mary Feliz’ Address to Die For.

I also have to pack and get ready for the trip today. AIEEEE.

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

He Darked the Sun

And now it’s Saturday again, and there are but two days left before I depart for Kentucky. Which is fine–I am actually looking forward to the drive and the alone-time in the car to listen to audiobooks; I downloaded Isaac Azimov’s Foundation, because it’s been decades and in the wake of the show I’d like to read (hear?) it again.

I also finished The Lost Symbol, which was kind of silly if you actually paid attention, but it also made me curious–I’d never seen any of the Dan Brown/Tom Hanks/Ron Howard collaborations–I am not a Tom Hanks fan; heresy, I know–and so I decided to go ahead and watch Inferno and The Da Vinci Code. They were actually well done–the plot of Inferno was nonsensical and also driven by the main character, Robert Langdon, having temporary amnesia, of all things (and yes, I am well aware that I used the trope of main character with amnesia in Sleeping Angel about ten or eleven years ago) and I never really quite grasped why he was so necessary–a symbologist, something utterly ridiculous and not a thing that was made up for the books, and he is also apparently an international bestselling writer of nonfiction books about symbols, because that, too, is a thing–but I didn’t mind The Da Vinci Code quite as much as I thought I might. I do remember enjoying the book when it came out; but it’s also one I’ve never revisited. I also read it when it was first released and before it became a thing–it was quite a thing for quite some time, before everyone turned on it. That is also something oddly prevalent in our culture–we embrace something and make it into a Very Big Deal, and then comes the inevitable backlash. But Brown was quite rich by the time the backlash began, and so I am sure it didn’t bother him very much. (It probably would bother me if I were in that situation; the months atop the bestseller lists and the cash pouring in from every direction would be lovely but even the slightest criticism would be certain to trigger the Imposter Syndrome, which is something I wish I could chisel out of my psyche.)

Today I have some errands to run and a lot of writing to do–as always. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about A Streetcar Named Murder lately, and I know how I am going to write the rest of the book now–oh, there will be some curve balls along the way, I am certain; there inevitably always are when I am writing a novel–but I know what the underlying force of the book (the theme, if you will, if this book could be said to have one; although I am thinking now it’s more of a underlying tone than a theme, really) is going to be. I did some more research after I finished work yesterday, and everything–the characters, the story, the subplots and the neighborhood and the sense of community–are beginning to take shape in my mind. I actually think I should be able to get a lot of writing done this weekend, to be honest. I am itching to get back to it, I feel better about writing and everything else that’s going on in and around my life, and I feel good for the first time in a long time.

I can’t speak for anyone else besides myself of course, and I do think I have been laboring with some degree of retrograde depression for some time now; even going back to before the pandemic dropped on the world (I also got caught up on The Morning Show, which is now dealing with the early days of the pandemic). I don’t know how else to describe it, but there’s been this gray fuzziness in my peripheral vision when I think, or wake up in the morning. There were mornings when the alarm would go off and I would lie there in bed, staring at the glowing red numerals on my digital clock and think fuck I just don’t want to deal with anything today and I sure as hell can’t face my email inbox. I’ve been lucky, too, with all of this plague shit–I’ve not lost any friends or family to it, at least that I’m aware of, at any rate–but it certainly didn’t do me any good. I did get some of my best writing done during the pandemic–Bury Me in Shadows is probably one of the best books I’ve ever written, and I also think #shedeservedit is pretty good, too; and I’ve done some really good short stories during the twenty or so months since the massive paradigm shift.

Today I have to get some stuff done. Writing, of course, as always, and some errands. I have a box of books to donate to the library sale, have to get the mail, and make some groceries–the Saturday before Thanksgiving, that’s going to be ever so much fun, yay–but if I get that stuff done today, along with the necessary cleaning around the house, I can focus tomorrow solely on writing and getting a lot done. I am going to try to get up early so I can leave early on Monday morning–Foundation safely downloaded to my phone, and I think I will probably download the next Donna Andrews for the trip home on Friday–because sooner is always better than later with lengthy drives. And now that I am waking up relatively early on the regular every morning, why the hell not take advantage of that? (oh yes, I need to make a packing list for the trip as well, don’t I?)

And so, so much cleaning to do. I’ve really let the floors and the living room go since the hurricane, and that must be rectified–there’s nothing worse than coming home to a house that’s not clean after a trip, which I experienced coming home last weekend–and so I am going to spend some time seriously working on the house. That will also help me get creative with the writing–my thoughts anyway–and I also need to check my to-do list and see what’s left to be done as well as make a new one. I’d also like to spend some time with Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am enjoying.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines for the rest of the day. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

Breathe

Good morning, Friday. How are you today? I am feeling good, thank you for asking.

I got a very good night’ sleep last night, and I have, as always, a lot to get done over the weekend (and today) before I head to Kentucky for the holiday on Monday. I want to drop off more books for the library sale tomorrow, have tons of writing to do (as always), and I would like to be able to finish reading Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am deeply enjoying. I have a stack of cozy mysteries to take with me on this trip–Owl Be Home for Christmas by Donna Andrews; Pruning the Dead by Julia Henry; Better off Wed by Laura Durham, and A Disguise to Die For by Diana Vallere, plus any number of them on my iPad as ebooks (I’m taking the iPad with me on the chance that I run out of books, which is a horrible fate to contemplate)–and I also need to figure out how to work the check out audiobooks from the library for the phone thing so I can listen to a book both coming and going. (Eleven hours in the car both directions)

And now that some things have settled and been settled, I can now go ahead and officially announce that I have signed a one-book contract for a potential new series set here in New Orleans with Crooked Lane Books; that is the book I am currently working on, having had to put Chlorine aside yet again to make room to write a new book. This is a series with a straight woman main character–a widow with twin sons who’ve just left for LSU, leaving her with a bit of empty nest syndrome and a beautiful old Victorian house in the Irish Channel that now is much too big for her, who gets an unexpected inheritance from a great-uncle of her late husband’s whom she didn’t know even existed. The book will be published under the name T. G. Herren, to differentiate it from my queer books and series. I just got the sketch art for the book cover, and I love it. The book is called A Streetcar Named Murder, and will be released in the fall of 2022. I will be talking about this book a lot over the course of the next year, so prepare thyself, Constant Reader. (T. G. for those who may be wondering, are my initials only reversed; longtime reader know that I reversed my names for my erotica pseudonym Todd Gregory, hence the initials T. G.) My editor is the exceptional Terri Bischoff, whom I have always wanted to work with, and now I am not only working with her on this but also on the Bouchercon anthology for Minneapolis 2022 (we are co-editors), Land of 10000 Crimes.

Life is pretty good for one Gregalicious at the moment, seriously. And I am really looking forward to my January release, #shedeservedit, while being incredibly nervous at the same time. I also got an invitation to contribute to another anthology that pays well in my inbox this morning, so I am feeling kind of good about myself…I give it a day or two. (Bury Me in Shadows has a great review in the next issue of Mystery Scene magazine, which thrilled me to no end when I saw it last night. More on that later.)

I also booked another trip to New York for January yesterday, which is exciting as well. I also made my hotel arrangements for a return engagement to Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu–the Birmingham/Wetumpka one-two punch I did in consecutive years a while back, so you can see why I feel like my career no longer feels stagnant or in stasis at the moment. And yes, the goal for 2022 is to finally land an agent once and for all. I think Chlorine is the book that will do that for me; we shall see.

I got caught up on Foundation yesterday, and I am really impressed with how well the show turned out, considering how much it has veered away from the books. I’d like to read the books again, frankly–oooh, audiobooks for the car!–and I also watched another episode of The Lost Symbol, which frankly I don’t pay as much attention to as I perhaps should while I am watching. It’s very well done, but the plot is far-fetched (which is about the only thing I do remember from reading the book), but watching the show has made me curious about seeing the Tom Hanks films based on the other Dan Brown novels, which I didn’t really care about before. That’s something, I suppose.

And on that note it’s back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I will check back in with you again tomorrow.

Solsbury Hill

Thursday and working at home today. Huzzah!

Yesterday was yet another day when I woke up feeling rested and invigorated. I had thought, oddly enough, that I hadn’t slept particularly well the night before–I woke up several times throughout the night, and the last time was five thirty, so I just kind of laid there in a half-sleep until the alarm went off. But oddly enough, I never hit the wall yesterday afternoon and I was also full of energy and highly functioning and got a lot of stuff taken care of, which was absolutely lovely. I hope to match that productivity today. I only have to work a partial day because I had to stay late the other day, so I am hoping to get some writing and editing done today as well, and make it to the gym once I complete my work-at-home duties. Fingers crossed!

I went to sleep later than I’d planned last night. We finished watching Dopesick, which is an amazing production with exceptional acting and writing, and then I went into a wormhole on Youtube and wound up staying up until midnight. I woke up early this morning–earlier than I’d wanted to, but hey, more time to get things done–and I think I slept relatively well last night. I am awake, after all, and not tired physically or mentally; I call that a win, really. I also finished reading Shucked Apart by Barbara Ross–more on that later–and started reading Guilty as Cinnamon by Leslie Budewitz, who is a favorite writer of mine and one I should read more of–I loved Assault and Pepper, the first in her Seattle Spice Shop series, this is the second.

I’ve also been reflecting a lot on my trip to Boston. I made a mistake the other day when I was talking about visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; I referred to reading about Mrs. Gardner in a book called The Grande Dames by Stephen Buckingham; his name was actually Birmingham. I think I can be forgiven for that error, primarily because Buckingham seems like a more likely last name for an American than Birmingham–and buck instead of birm is a very easy mistake to make, and therefore forgivable, despite my incredibly high standards for getting these facts correct. But I always loved the story of Mrs. Gardner, the ultimate diva and grande dame of Boston, and now that I’ve seen the Italian palazzo she built as a home for herself and her extraordinary art collection…I need to reread Mr. Birmingham’s book again. The museum was spectacular, just spectacular.

The day began with me looking out the window of my room at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to see it was drizzling a bit outside; and I had to decide: lug my suitcase through the subway, or summon a Lyft, or walk ten blocks to the new train station, Moyhihan Hall? Being a hardy New Orleanian, I decided I’d just walk the ten blocks–my Fitbit would love all the steps–and as long as I could keep my glasses dry, I should be fine. It was just a drizzle, after all. So, I rode the elevator down and walked out the front door and walked over to 8th Avenue and headed downtown. It was, despite the slight drizzle, a lovely walk. I debated stopping for coffee along the way–I’d not had any (and it was actually rather delightful to not be so dependent on caffeine this trip as usual, and perhaps that’s why I had no issues sleeping?), but decided to wait till I got to Moynihan before getting coffee–what were the odds there wouldn’t be at least a Starbucks, if not a Dunkin’ Donuts, inside? I made good time, and was actually enjoying people watching as I made my way down 8th.

So, of course, about a block and a half from my final destination, the sky opened with a deluge worthy of a New Orleans street-flooding strength downpour. By the time I reached the train station I was completely soaked, but was also highly amused by it all. I had a three and a half hour train ride to Boston ahead of me, and I was really looking forward to getting back into the book I was reading–These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall, see the blog entry where I discussed how terrific the book was–and the Amtrak ride from New York to Boston is one of my favorite train trips–Connecticut is so scenic and beautiful, and the train hugs the coast most of the way, with spectacular views of bays and inlets and estuaries and boats and lovely homes. So I got my coffee, wiped off my head and glasses with napkins, and debated battling with my suitcase in the bathroom to get dry clothing–I decided against it eventually–and finally boarded my train and headed for one of my favorite cities that I never get to spend enough time in, Boston (I’ve always had an affinity for the city because I love history, and of course, Boston was pivotal in the American Revolution, and Johnny Tremain is set there, and I love that book). Alas, the scenery was perhaps not as spectacular along the route as it usually is; it rained and was gray and cloudy and overcast the entire way, and whenever I tried to take a picture by aiming my phone at the window, all I got was a gray photo of water beaded up on glass and nothing beyond, which was terribly disappointing. But this lack of ability to take great scenic photos enabled me to focus on the book, which I was absolutely loving (see blog entry from several days ago where I discuss the phenomenal novel at great length). It was raining in Boston when the train pulled into the station, and my wonderful friends were there to pick me up, and we headed for the Gardner Museum.

I could spend days in that museum, seriously. The building itself is breathtakingly beautiful–as are the Sargent portraits of Mrs. Gardner on display–and so much other amazing art: paintings and sculptures and tapestries; the Velazquez painting of Philip IV of Spain that is perhaps the most famous image of that sad Hapsburg king; everywhere you look there is a spectacularly beautiful piece of art. It’s overwhelming, and even more awe-inspiring perhaps than even the Uffizi in Florence–you expect the palaces and collections of European nobility and royalty to be spectacular; and to be sure, Mrs. Gardner’s home and collection pales in comparison to that of the Medici, but she was an American heiress…and even though she was fabulously wealthy, to me even the wealthiest of the robber barons pale in comparison to the sumptuous palazzos of the Renaissance Italians. But it’s still an impressive collection, if not a Medici one, and that’s why I think it’s more impressive. Mrs. Gardner was simply a wealthy woman, not a Renaissance lady or princess or queen. She couldn’t be expected to compete, and yet…the collection is exceptional and extraordinary, as was the woman herself.

And of course, as a crime writer, the robbery–the empty frames that once held Rembrandts brazenly stolen and yet to be recovered still on display–is also fascinating to me, particularly since I love treasure hunts.

I am forever grateful to my friends Stuart and Robbie for taking me there–and I plan to visit again sometime.

Crime Bake, the event put on jointly sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, was why I went to Boston in the first place, so Stuart and Robbie dropped me off in Dedham at my hotel (which was where the event was) and I got a lovely night’s sleep–again, a complete shock, but is it a mere coincidence that the coffee I had at the train station was the only cup I had that day?–and I got up early the next morning for the breakfast buffet and to start attending panels. When I said earlier that I’d forgotten how much I love listening to writers speak about writing, and books, and everything to do with being a writer, I was not kidding. I haven’t been to anything like Crime Bake since the Williams Festival in March 2019; I missed that year’s Bouchercon because I developed an inner ear infection and couldn’t fly. It was so inspirational. I listened to writers I admired and writers I wasn’t aware of, and was scribbling notes in my journal the entire day. It was marvelous! And inspiring. I’ve talked on here a lot about feeling disconnected from writing and publishing; part of it was not being around writers and listening to them talk about craft, what inspires them, how they work, how they develop and flesh out their ideas–the joys and heartaches and the Imposter Syndrome–because writing can be a very lonely business (it’s just you, the keyboard and the computer screen much of the time), and it’s nice to connect with others and realize we all go through the same thing, the same frustrations, the same heartaches and aggravations and joys.

Today I have a lot of catching up to do–what else is new?–and I am hoping to get some writing done around my work-at-home duties. Wish me luck, Constant Reader, and have a lovely Thursday!

Sweet Summer Blue and Gold

WEDNESDAY!

It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that I only have another two work days left before I am on vacation yet again; maybe that’s why I was so rested and full of energy yesterday as opposed to tired, worn, and old the way I usually feel on Tuesdays. I guess how this day will play out remains to be seen. I also managed to get caught up with reviewing the books I read whilst on my trip–I would have done this sooner, but my wireless keyboard stopped functioning (writing on a laptop is difficult for me; I’ve always used a separate keyboard) and so I ordered another one yesterday that will hopefully arrive before it’s time to go to Kentucky so I can take it with me so I can actually get work done while I am there.

And I am behind, as always, on everything.

But I am making progress, which is always pleasant and a relief of sorts. My book-buying compulsion is getting out of hand again, so I am going to have to do some more serious pruning of the books-on-hand this weekend and over the next few evenings, so I can drop off some boxes to the library sale this weekend. Yay! And I have some of my stuff-to-do more under control now than I did before, so again, it’s always lovely to make some progress as each day passes. It’s hard to believe next week is Thanksgiving; it kind of shook me up when I realized it on Monday that I only have a week between trips–and will be traveling again in mid-January (New York again) and will most likely be heading to Left Coast Crime in April as well (I think it’s in Albuquerque?)–barring another variant and another spike or wave of COVID infections. We got caught up on The Morning Show last night, just as the pandemic is beginning to break in the US–yay for reliving that horror, but they are doing a really good job with it, and I am not sure how I feel about their take on “cancel culture”–as someone who the right tried to cancel, back before it was called cancel culture, and yes, I do need to write about that at some point–but there is something to what they are saying, I think; I’m not sure. I don’t consider myself a moral authority on anything; I just think about things and try to learn and try to be better myself than the person I used to be. Life is about nothing if it’s not a constant learning and growing process, and we can always do better, be better, and grow, right? The people I feel bad for are those who actually stop growing and learning, stagnate and fossilize their beliefs and values, and think they don’t have anything else to learn, no need to grow. To me, that’s just sad and tragic.

I didn’t make it to the gym last night after I got off work because I wound up staying later than I usually do–I didn’t leave the office until after five, and thus got stuck in rush hour traffic going through the CBD on the way home (although they finally fixed the lights at Poydras and Loyola, so it wasn’t the nightmare getting through there that it has been since Ida, thank you Lord) and then I did some things around the house when I got home–things that needed doing–before Paul got home. I’ve also been listening to Red (Taylor’s Version), which is I think my favorite Taylor Swift record (yes, I am a sixty-year-old Swiftie, don’t you dare try to shame me for it), which is also quite good. I was a little brain-fried when I got home, but I am hoping to get back to reading Barbara Ross’ Shucked Away, so I can move on to Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon. I think I am going to simply take cozies with me to Kentucky; I really enjoy reading them and I also should spend more time reading them–it’s so hard to decide what to read all the time, and there are so many different books and styles of books that I want to read, and it’s not a bad idea to get away from the darker stuff for a while…

I also noted that there are new episodes of both Foundation and The Lost Symbol for me to catch up while condom packing on my work-at-home days, and I also have some data entry to do (almost caught up at last, huzzah!). I also have to figure out what audio books I want to take for the ride both ways–eleven hours; I listened to A Game of Thrones on the way up last time and End of Watch by Stephen King on the way home; perhaps this would be a good time to listen to one of the Stephen King novels I haven’t gotten to–The Outsider or 11/22/63 or Dr. Sleep or Black House–so many choices! Or perhaps it would be fun to listen to cozies on the way up? I get too much pleasure from actually reading Donna Andrews to give that up to listen to one; but maybe there’s another one of my favorite cozy series I can listen to; who knows? But I have all weekend to figure that out since I am not leaving until Monday morning.

I am going to try to not spend all day Saturday in my chair watching college football all day–at least not until I get the writing done that I need to get done–and hopefully will be able to read while the games are one when I finally do sit in my chair and relax.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader.