King of My Heart

I went down a wormhole thought pattern of sorts this morning, triggered by reading a Crimereads essay about spy novels, and their genesis; it mentioned that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was one of the first spy novels, and I also realized that only had I not read Kim, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever read Kipling; however, a quick Internet search just not has reminded me that I have, indeed, read Kipling: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, but I really don’t remember anything about them (let’s be honest, all my memories of The Jungle Book are naturally from the Disney animated film). I may have also even read Just So Stories, but am not entirely sure. I’m sure Kipling’s work does not stand the test of time–just the title of the poem “The White Man’s Burden” made my eyes almost pop out of my head when I came across it this morning–as they undoubtedly reflect the white supremacist view of Imperialism and the need for the British Empire.

On that same note, I feel relatively certain that the M. M. Kaye novels I once enjoyed (Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions) probably wouldn’t hold up well, either.

I always read for pleasure and for enjoyment; to escape the world in which I found myself inhabiting and feeling like a changeling for the most part; I still do, for the most part. I haven’t been paid to write a book review in over a decade; I’ve always felt that as an author myself, there was a conflict of interest in accepting pay to read and critique another author’s work, and there was always, inevitably, the possibility that an honest view on something that didn’t work for me as a reader would be seen as a vindictive move on my part to torpedo another author, out of jealousy or spite or both. There are any number of these reviewers being employed, and paid quite handsomely, by major newspapers, and I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t like writing negative reviews, and if I am reading something I don’t care for, having to finish reading it because I am being paid to write about would inevitably make me resent the book and its author and would thus color the review.

I generally read things I think fall under my purview as a writer–mostly crime novels, some horror now and then, and maybe something every once in a great while, that would be considered literary. Often these are books by writers I already have discovered, or new ones recommended to me by others whose tastes I respect–The Coyotes of Carthage came to me in this way; Lisa Unger was recommended to me by numerous friends; and yes, Paul Tremblay came to me as a recommendation from a friend. I know I need to expand my horizons to improve as a writer, which is why I am not only committed to the Diversity Project (books by marginalized writers) but also to the Short Story Project. The Diversity Project has been a terrific learning experience, and the Short Story Project has helped me become a better short story writer. I’ve been trying to read New Orleans history lately–with a dash of Louisiana thrown in for flavor–in order to get a better sense of the city and state, so that I can write about them both more knowledgeably; plus there is so much inspiration in reading about the past of both city and state! It’s also incredibly humbling to know how little of that actual history I did know, and even though I knew how rich that history was, I had no idea just how much of a gold mine of inspiration and ideas it would prove to be.

Like I said, I tend to read things I think I will enjoy, and if I am not enjoying the experience, I inevitably stop reading. I have started things and put them aside, only to go back to them again and greatly enjoy them; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts being the best and most recent example of this I can remember; I started it, got several chapters in, and wasn’t feeling it. I went back to it months later and couldn’t put it down, and frankly, after The Cabin at the End of the World, Tremblay is becoming one of my current favorite authors.

So, I’ve been wrong about books before, and I’ve also been wrong about authors before. Hence the dilemma in being a book reviewer, and why I have chosen for many years now to seek extra income by reading for reviews. I enjoy writing about books I enjoyed on here, my blog; that’s part of its reason for existence, and I also curate what I read and write about here. No one chooses for me what I read or what I write about; and I will only review something negatively if the writer is, frankly, long dead; and even then, it’s simply an explanation of why the book didn’t work for me (an example of this latter type was Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich; I appreciated the book but there were things about it I didn’t like, that I felt didn’t “play”, but since he is long dead–over fifty years–I wasn’t overly concerned about hurting his feelings….and I have enjoyed other works of his).

I often talk about how my education in what the Academy considers to be classic American literature (British, too, for that matter) is sorely lacking. It’s something that I occasionally wonder about; should I go back and read these so-called classics as decided by a group of people whose opinion I generally don’t respect very much? It’s entirely possible, I know, that books I was forced to read as a teenager in high school and college were actually better than I thought at the time because I loathed being forced to read anything and I despised the way they were taught by pompous pseudo-intellectuals with tenure (I really enjoyed mocking that world in my story “Lightning Bugs in a Jar”, and will probably mine it again at some point as story fodder).

But I can honestly say I went back twice to reread The Great Gatsby only to discover that I loathed it even more than I remembered loathing it the first time; I also spent some time in my twenties trying to read other works by the writers I was forced to read and found that I did, in fact, enjoy some of them. I hated Sinclair Lewis when I was forced to read Main Street in college; I later went back and enjoyed both Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here very much. I disliked Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise very much, and I loathed the Hemingways I was forced to read (The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms) so much that I just can’t bring myself to read anything else of his. I was very surprised, actually, to find myself enjoying Faulkner quite a bit, and I keep meaning to go back and reread both The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary–but there are also a lot of other Faulkner novels I’ve not read, and probably should. I also despised Tom Sawyer and the other, celebrated Mark Twain short stories I was forced to read; but as an adult greatly enjoyed Puddinhead Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Life on the Mississippi.

But I am not someone who became a writer because I wanted to have a legacy, or be lionized; I became a writer because I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. I never had any desire to have my work be taught in colleges, or for students to be forced to write papers about my work. I always say that sort of thing isn’t up to me to decide, and it’s never been my aim. If I’m forgotten after I die, well, I won’t be the first.

I justify to myself not reading a lot of literary fiction by saying there simply isn’t enough time for me to read everything that I actually want to read, let alone find the time things people think I should read. But I also have this sense in my mind that perhaps I am missing out on something; I know I’ve read books that have gotten critical acclaim that were more on the literary side and liked them very much and learned from reading them. Colson Whitehead, for example, is simply brilliant while also writing genre fiction–The Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad were stunningly brilliant; I really need to read more of his work–and thinking about Colson Whitehead led me to thinking about, of all people, Cormac McCarthy. I’ve not read McCarthy, but from what I have gathered from what I have heard about his work is it technically is also genre fiction; The Road is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, after all–a friend whose opinion I respect read and hated the book, so I’m probably not going to go there–so I started going through his canon on the web and I finally settled on one to add to my TBR pile at some point, Outer Dark, because it too sounds like genre fiction. We shall see how that goes, shan’t we?

Laura Lippman often says that genre fiction is literature, and by claiming literary classics as genre (the most common is, of course, Crime and Punishment) we are demeaning the great genre work, which stands on its own without the necessity of claiming Dostoevsky or Faulkner’s Sanctuary as crime fiction (although I do believe Sanctuary is pulpy noir of the best kind). I do agree with her to some degree; as I said, I do think Sanctuary is noir, and an argument could be made that An American Tragedy by Dreiser is as well. (I’ve also pointed out numerous times that The Great Gatsby is really a murder mystery told in reverse) But her point is spot on: genre fiction doesn’t need to claim classics from the Academy in order to be recognized as literature, and claiming those books does make it seem like trying to make fetch happen.

I also like to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Of course, that means I actually need to do it.

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

Move This

Tuesday!

The weather here in New Orleans has changed slightly; not much, and probably wouldn’t be noticeable if you didn’t live here. The humidity is still here, surprisingly, but we’ve been getting a lot of rain lately, which of course would explain the thick damp air. My goal for today is to get back on track with the Scotty–I’m partway through Chapter Four, with only another twenty-one to go–but even with laziness and procrastination, there’s simply no way I shouldn’t be able to get this draft finished, read aloud, and line edited and turned in, by the end of October/early November.

She’s been a long-time a-birthin’, but the end is near.

I want to write either Bury Me in Satin or Muscles next; I am leaning more toward Bury Me in Satin for some reason; even though I’ve been meaning to write Muscles for years, and it would probably be an easier book for me to write, honestly. There’s another idea brewing in my head as well…isn’t there always? But I am not sure I am ready to even start that one, and I kind of have an idea for a paranormal series set in Louisiana–think Dark Shadows crossed with True Blood as written by Lisa Unger; that’s the direction I am thinking about taking with it. I’d originally thought to do it more cozy/Gothic; but my mind just doesn’t go that way–I’m too snarky and too dark at heart. Sigh. The story of my life in a nutshell. Anyway, a book I started writing in the 1980’s, The Enchantress, could easily be re-purposed for this; I do love to recycle.

We started watching Season 5 of How to Get Away with Murder last night; we still highly enjoy it, even though the past plots are so complicated and layered we don’t really remember what has happened; fortunately it’s written well enough so it’s easy to get back up to speed with what’s current–although I do believe every single person in the cast has killed at least one person, although I cannot remember whether Annelise has or not.

Probably has, but then again, it would be interesting if she was the only one who hasn’t, you know what I mean?

My short stories have all stalled out again; I also realized last night that this year’s Short Story Project has completely stalled out. I need to finish reading Circe and get back to my short story reading!

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

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You Might Think

Friday night I finished reading Lisa Unger’s exceptional The Red Hunter. I don’t remember who originally told me to read Lisa Unger’s work, but whoever it was, I really need to say thank you again! She is an exceptionally terrific writer, and as I make my way through her canon, it is startling how fresh, new and completely original every single volume is.

Take The Red Hunter, for example, her April 2017 release. Unger’s books are always about the damage humans do to each other, and how that damage and/or abuse creates ripples that eventually become waves that affect the present, and the necessity of coming to terms with that past in order to solve the problems of the present. The Red Hunter is, at it’s core, the story of a house in rural New Jersey; an old derelict place that is falling to pieces. Claudia, a publishing executive whose personal life is in shambles, decides to renovate the house as a project and blog about it, moving into it with her daughter, Raven. But the house has some terrible secrets.

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There’s nothing about me that you would ever notice. I am neither especially thin, nor overweight. My face will not be one you remember. With dark eyes and pale skin, hair the color of straw, cheeks round and just rosy enough that you won’t wonder if I’m ill, I will blend into the sea of other plain faces you saw before and after as you went about your day. nothing about my clothes will capture your notice. No brands that incite jealousy, or anything revealing, no stains, maybe just wrinkled or worn enough that you’ll dismiss me as someone without much money, though not poor enough to be in need. If I’m wearing a uniform, I don’t even exist. I am the checkout girl at the grocery store, or the maid that cleans your hotel room, the girl woh answered the phone, or the young lady at the information desk. No, you would say later, you can’t recall her name or what she looked like, not really. The truth is you don’t see me; your eyes glance over me, never coming to rest. But I see you.

This is Zoey Drake, one of Unger’s point of view characters. Zoey is a young college student at NYU, who studies martial arts and works in a coffee shop; she house and cat sits for a place to stay. Zoey sees herself as the Red Hunter, a vigilante/Batman of sorts, who stops crimes from happening when she comes across them and always dresses nondescriptly; she is trying to right a cosmic wrong. When she was a young girl, her parents were brutally murdered in front of her, and she too was injured and left for dead; she survived that horrible night, but has always been looking, ever since, for answers to the question of who murdered her parents and why.

Claudia herself is surviving a brutal attack; she was assaulted and raped brutally years earlier, which wound up damaging her and her own marriage in ways she couldn’t even comprehend at the time. There has always been a question as to whether her daughter, Raven, is her husband’s or her rapist’s. This is part of the reason why Claudia has brought Raven the old house in the New Jersey countryside; she is trying to rebuild the house and their lives at the same time. Raven has her own curiosity about the question of her paternity.

Their lives are destined to cross because of the house; you see, the house is where Zoey lived with her parents and where they died in front of her. The killers were looking for something in the house that has never been found…and Zoey’s actions have set everything into motion again so that the tangled skeins of their livers are going to cross again as the mystery of how and why what happened when she was a little girl rears its ugly head again, and now all of them are in terrible, deadly danger.

Wow. This book is a thrill-ride from start to finish; fully developed characters that you care about, a fascinating unfolding of a crime with twists and turns that keep the reader balanced firmly on the edge of their seat.

Seriously, if you aren’t reading Lisa Unger, what the hell is wrong with you?

State of Shock

Good morning, Constant Reader, and everyone who only occasionally stops by, should you happen to stop by this chilly late December morning. It’s very gray outside, and the Lost Apartment is cold, and I have a slight sinus headache, but nothing I can power my way through. I still am not feeling at 100% yet, but am getting there; maybe by this weekend? One can hope.

I feel slightly cotton-headed this morning, and am trying to decide what to read next. I’m definitely doing a month or two of short story reading for the first two months of the new year, which I am kind of excited about. Yesterday I was tired all day, and never made my to-do list; I’ll have to get that done today. Today is also payday, so I’ll have to pay the bills today as well. I didn’t really want to get out of bed this morning, honestly; the bed was warm and comfortable and it was cold in the apartment–and I would gladly go back to bed if i could. Heavy sigh.

I know I have some short stories to work on, and I need to do some other things as well. I hate this cotton-headed feeling! It makes it really hard to focus. One short story, which is do this weekend, is almost finished; it only needs two quick tweaks and another read-through before I turn it in; the other story isn’t necessarily a big priority; I just wanted to get it done and out of the way months before it is actually due because I don’t want to have to want until the last minute to work on it and have to rush, if that makes sense. It sort of does, doesn’t it? (See what I mean about cotton-headed?)

It’s always something, isn’t it?

I am still enjoying Joan Didion’s Miami, and think I’m going to read, for fiction, Lisa Unger’s The Red Hunter next. I always enjoy Lisa’s work, and while I am still carefully doling it out so I won’t run out of Unger books to read, I think it’s safe to go ahead and read another one. I also suppose I should do a year recap here, as well as a goals-setting entry for 2018. Sigh.

Okay, back to the spice mines.

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Solitaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affair of the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria

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

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

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

Short stories are hard.

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

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

Here’s a Tuesday hunk for you:

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Is There Something I Should Know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overkill

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

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

Heavy sigh.

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

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

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

Heavy heaving sigh.

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

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

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

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Our House

..in the middle of our street.

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

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

I would have opened it immediately, of course.

the husband's secret

It was all because of the Berlin Wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to the spice mines.