The Twelfth of Never

God, what a year for crime fiction, and what a year for crime fiction by women. The women are killing it this year–but then, they pretty much kill it every year, and have killed it every year since Agatha Christie’s first novel was released. I’ve read so many amazing crime novels by women this year that I can’t even begin to remember them all; I know there’s been terrific novels by Alafair Burke, Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Lori Roy, Jamie Mason, Steph Cha, Angie Kim and so many, many others that I couldn’t being to name them all or possibly be expected to remember them all, either. (This is in no small part, of course, due to the fact that my memory works about as well as my desktop computer since the Mojave update.) There are so many others as well that I’ve not gotten to read yet–I am way behind on my reading of Catriona McPherson, for example, and Lori Rader-Day–and I’ve also been trying read more diverse books this year as well.

And just this past week, I finished reading Lisa Lutz’ amazing The Swallows.

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Some teachers have a calling. I’m not one of them.

I don’t hate teaching. I don’t love it either. That’s also my general stance on adolescents. I understand that one day they will rule the world and we’ll all have to live with the consequences. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to mitigate that outcome. You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom. I don’t dive into the weeds of their personal lives, parsing the muck of their hormone-addled brains. And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they learned from me.

It’s just a job, like any other. It has a litany of downsides, starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between. There are a few perks. I like having summers off; I like winter and spring breaks; I like not having a boss breathing over my shoulder; I like books and talking about books and occasionally meeting a student who makes me see the world sideways. But I don’t get attached. I don’t get involved. That was the plan, at least.

The Swallows is set at a second-tier elite boarding school in New England called Stonebridge. Alexandra “Alex” Witt has been hired to teach Lit there after leaving her previous teaching job under a cloud of some sort. The daughter of a failed literary writer who has taken to writing crime novels under a pseudonym and an Eastern European fencing Olympic medalist, Alex is a bit of a mess but also has a strong character and equally strong sense of self. The job at Stonebridge is given to her by a friend of her father’s, who is the headmaster, and when she arrives she refuses to live in the dorms and takes up residence in a crappy cabin near campus without power or phone or much along the lines of creature comforts. Alex is the primary point of view character–there are others, including another teacher/writer named Finn Ford (who is writing a book based on the school and what goes on there); a nerd boy who is on the edges of the popular kids, “The Ten”; Gemma, an orphan whose actions primarily drive the story (she is also one of The Ten), and several others. There’s also a dark secret at Stonebridge–a secret website that only a select few have access to, where the boys try to get the girls to give them blowjobs after which the boys score them…with an eye to winning what they call the Dulcinea Prize, awarded to the best blowjob performer at Stonebridge. Gemma has found out about this, and wants to do something about it–and her desire to get back at the boys who–in the most eye-opening and honest statement I’ve ever read, “see the girls as things rather than humans.” The horror of that realization drives the story, which grows darker and more complex and awful with every page.

The book is also darkly witty–there were a few times when its macabre humor made me laugh out loud–and the characters are absolutely, positively real; Lutz has created complicated people who do things that might not make sense on the surface, but that conduct and behavior only adds to their layers and complexity. It’s hard not to root for both Alex and Gemma to bring the rotten boys down, exposing their crimes to the world and the sunlight so they will shrivel up and die. The twists and turns of the story are all earned, all realistic, and all startling. The book is masterfully written, and never has a second-rate boarding school been brought to life in such a vivid fashion.

It reminded me, in some ways, of both Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, in the best possible way. I enjoyed both of those books, but not in the same way that I enjoyed this one; I think because Lutz’ story is more cohesive and her characters are somewhat likable and believable despite their flaws.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more of Lisa Lutz’ canon.

Our Lips are Sealed

As Constant Reader is already aware (primarily because I can’t stop talking about it), I have a story in the upcoming anthology Murder-a-Go-Go’s, edited by the sublime Holly West and featuring an intro by the fabulous Jane Weidlin. As a huge fan of the Go-Go’s from the very first time I heard “Our Lips Are Sealed” on the radio of my car (I immediately bought their first album, Beauty and the Beat, on my next pay-day; it remains one of my all-time favorite albums. I also liked Vacation, just not as much…but Talk Show is also brilliant.

Another thing that is exciting for me about being in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is who I am sharing the table of contents with! Some of the best writers in the genre today! Woo-hoo!

And first up in the table of contents is Lori Rader-Day. Lori is currently an Edgar Award finalist for her Under a Dark Sky, and she was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award for her first three novels (The Black Hour, Pretty Little Things, The Day I Died); winning for Pretty Little Things. She has won the Anthony Award twice, and been a finalist for the Macavity and the Barry Awards. A most impressive resume, particularly given there are only four novels to her credit thus far. I personally enjoy Lori’s work; which probably would be best classified as domestic suspense, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate classification. Her works are, like Megan Abbott’s, about the darkness inside women and their friendships.

And her story was inspired by “Our Lips Are Sealed”!

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When the credits for the movie the girls weren’t supposed to be watching started to roll, Colbie went to check that her mother was asleep, stamping down on the hand of her sister, Alexa, on the way out. Alexa sat up and sniffled into her fist but kept silent with effort. On the floor, Jane and Patricia picked white flecks of popcorn out of the kernels left at the bottom of the bowl. Nori slipped into the bathroom with her pajamas balled up in her fist.

Jane watched her go. “I usually sleep naked.”

“Bullshit,” Patricia said. Jane was older, by almost a full year, already thirteen. But Patricia was taller. If she needed to, she would hold Jane down and force her to say she was a liar.

Colbie returned to the doorway with a six-pack of soda cradled in her arms. “My mom’s either dead or she took one of her pills. Where’s Nori?”

“Peeing,” Jane said. She picked at the chipped blue nail polish on her big toe, leaving a patch of paint on the pink carpet of Colbie’s room.

“Why didn’t you invite boys over? I went to a boy-girl sleepover when I was at my old school—”

Patricia snorted. “For church? That doesn’t count.”

“Let’s do something else,” Colbie said.

“Not a lock-in, bitch,” Jane said. “A sleepover. With boys.”

Patricia rolled her eyes at Colbie. Everything seemed to have already happened to Jane, but out of sight, at her old school, in her old town. She sometimes wanted to ask Jane why she didn’t just go back if everything was so great there. She was sure Jane would say she couldn’t because she was a kid. Which, for once, would be the truth. They were all stuck where they were, being who they were. Patricia turned to Colbie. “What should we do?”

Nori opened the bathroom door an inch. “You guys?”

And seriously, is there anything more noir than a tween girls sleepover? Lori does an excellent job here playing with the power dynamics in a group of girls; girls who are just starting to become women and how they deal with the changes in their bodies and how they relate to each other.

Definitely a great start to the book!

King for a Day

Ah, Monday. Blue, blue Monday, and yet the beginning of still another work week.

I worked quite a bit yesterday, and even made it to the gym. I was one of six people in the gym, and if you guessed that at one point in my workout four of the other five people had taken up all the options for my next exercise, you’d have guessed correctly. And no one apparently notices the signs posted everywhere that read Please rerack your weights when finished.

No. One.

Back when I used to work in fitness environments, I was always amazed at how people just leave their weights on the machines or dumbbells wherever they used them rather than putting them back–as though they assumed that the staff people working were there to clean up after them. It used to happen in aerobics classes I taught, too–the attendees would finish, then leave their steps, dumbbells, and sometimes their sweaty towels there for me to put away.

It would be so lovely to one day be wealthy enough to have my own workout room in my home. All I want, really–a room that’s a dedicated office space and a workout room. Is that really so much to ask for?

Lately, so many things have been getting on my nerves that I’ve wondered if I am on edge, or if something’s going on in my subconscious that’s bubbling up by making me highly annoyed and irritated with people, or something, I don’t know what; but the more I think about it, the more I tend to think, no, you’re just sick of assholes.

Seriously. And then I remembered the most important thing of why I am a crime writer: I can kill off assholes fictionally.

I also finished Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died, and started reading Nadine Nettman’s Uncorking a Lie.

the day i died

On the day I died, I took the new oars down to the lake. They were heavy, but I was saving myself the second trip. The blades rode flat along the ground, flattening two tracks through the wet grass.

It was morning. The air was cool, but down on the dock, the slats were already hot. I noted a lone fishing boat out on the water. Inside, two men hunched silently over their tackle, their faces turned out across the lake. Beyond them, mist rose off the water, nearly hiding the far shore.

This moment. This is what I return to.

Later, I will note the long crack on the new oar, just before my head goes under, just before the flume of blood rises off my skin under the water like smoke. I will come back to othis moment and think, if I had just gone back up the steps to the house immediately. If I had just stayed up at the house in the first place.

If I had just.

Lori Rader-Day’s Anthony Award shortlisted 2017 novel is quite excellent. Thematically, it’s about desperation–what people do when they have no other options. In the case of Anna Winger, Rader-Day’s main character, her childhood was desolate and bleak; the child of an alcoholic abuser, she moved from there to an abusive relationship with a boyfriend before fleeing for her life and that of her unborn child. Now, she lives in a wretched little town in Indiana, working as a freelance handwriting analyst. A child has gone missing in Parks, Indiana, and the local police bring her in for her expertise, bringing her into the case sideways. The case also stirs up dark memories of her own past for Anna, and her child–now thirteen and entering that rebellious stage–is becoming more and more closed off from her, difficult to know; and she has to wonder, as a mother, if this life they’ve led of constantly moving and never establishing roots anywhere, is messing up her own child. The parallels between the missing child case of the present and her own disappearance from her own life brings her to her own breaking point–and to where she can no longer ignore or deny her past, but most confront it.

Rader-Day’s strengths–her depiction of how claustrophobic yet lonely small towns can be; her ability to create sympathetic, damaged characters–are all here, and the book is structured beautifully; each incident and scene flowing into the next until the reader has to keep compulsively turning the page.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Object of My Desire

It is Sunday, and I have again slept later than I intended. I meant to set an alarm, as I have things that must be done today but I also stayed up later than I intended and as such, forgot to set said alarm when I tumbled into bed last evening. It’s fine; I should be able to get everything done today that I want to get done. I just have to be a bit better about planning and wasting time. Clearly, I needed the sleep, don’t you think?

I am reading The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day, as part of my Bouchercon homework, and enjoying it a quite a lot. This is the second of Rader-Day’s novels that I’ve read (the other being Pretty Little Things; I’ve not read her first, The Black Hour, and she’s just released a new one, Under a Dark Sky), and I am enjoying this even more than I did the first I read. Rader-Day writes about damaged women, makes them the center of her stories, and they work through a lot of their damage over the course of the novels. I will, rest assured, have plenty of other things to say about this novel once I’ve finished reading it.

I cleaned my kitchen floors yesterday; not as thoroughly as they need, of course, but more of a surface thing that will pass muster at a glance, but this surface cleansing would not pass muster with my mother. Her nose would wrinkle, her eyes would narrow, and she wouldn’t say anything to me–but that facial expression would tell me everything I need to know about what she was thinking. She would get on her hands and knees and would scrub the floor, probably more than once, with a hard brush and an abrasive cleanser.

I worked briefly on my story “Please Die Soon” as well yesterday; it is shaping up nicely, but I need to concern myself a bit more thoroughly with the pacing, methinks.

Today, for the Short Story Project, we move on to the second story in Florida Happens, “The Best Laid Plans” by Holly West:

June 1948

Bev Marshall waits anxiously behind the wheel of the Buick, watching for the rest of the crew to emerge from the house. It seems they’ve been gone at least an hour, but her watch shows it’s only 10:45 p.m. Less than ten minutes since they went in. The boys work fast, but not that fast.

There are four of them in the crew. Joe Scullion is their boss and Bev’s boyfriend. Alex McGovern is the brawn, and Sean Cregan is a master lock picker. Bev’s their driver. They earn their living burgling wealthy neighborhoods all over the Eastern Seaboard, coming home to Philly with thousands in cash and valuables. Five years working together and not a single arrest, not that the coppers haven’t tried.

It’s been a good run, but after tonight, Bev will be done with all of them.

She thinks she sees movement out of the corner of her eye and snaps her head toward it. Is it them? She squints into the darkness, her hand resting lightly on the key in the ignition. Everything is still and she concedes it must’ve been her imagination. Wrecked by nerves, she quashes the urge to chew a fingernail and slips her hand into her purse in search of cigarettes. Her fingers brush the thick envelope containing every cent she has—nearly five thousand dollars. Along with whatever money she’s able to get for tonight’s haul, it’s enough to keep her going for a year, maybe more if she lives modestly.

She lights a cigarette and pulls the smoke deeply into her lungs, thinking about Richie O’Neill. She’ll miss him when this is done. He runs a hockshop on Vine Street and fences most of the loot they steal. Over the years, he’s become her trusted friend, so when he let it slip recently that Joe had his eye out for a new driver, she believed him. Turns out Joe had fallen hard for some dame he’d met in Atlantic City and he wants to marry her, maybe have some kids.

Holly West is the author of two novels, historical crime novels set at the court of King Charles II of England; the period popularly known as the Restoration. Those novels, Mistress of Fortune and Mistress of Lies, sound terrific. I also love that period, and look forward to reading these novels; you can find out more information about Holly and her novels here, at her website.  She is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also sign up for her newsletter at her website. She is also editing an anthology called Murder-a-Go-Go’s, crime stories inspired by the music of the Go-Go’s, with an introduction by Jane Weidlin; it also contains my story “This Town,” and I personally cannot wait to read the entire thing.

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Holly’s story, “The Best Laid Plans,” is entirely self-contained but also feels like it could be the opening of a great noir novel. The main character, Bev Marshall (I also have a very dear author friend by that name; such lovely serendipity) drives the getaway car for a gang of thieves, and is a bit in love with the leader of the gang–who, however, has recently punched her in the face, changing everything. Bev is now planning on getting away from him, and the gang, and starting a new life…and Florida is a way station on her getaway plan. But things, of course, don’t go quite according to plan. A very very well-written and fun story, with a main character I personally would like to spend with.

Well done, Holly! And now, back to the spice mines.

Your Wildest Dreams

Good morning! It’s Thursday, everyone, and with a short day at the office ahead of me and just one more day before the weekend, I am feeling good. Not as good perhaps as I should, but I slept really well last night, don’t have to be at work until later this afternoon, and I am going to even go to the gym this morning before it’s time to go to work.

I call that a winning day, don’t you?

I am reading Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died as prep work for my moderating duties at Bouchercon next month. I am, in case you weren’t paying attention, Constant Reader, moderating the panel highlighting the Anthony Award finalists for Best Paperback Original. After I finish Lori’s book I’ll be reading Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt, Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin, and Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettmann. I’m enjoying Lori’s book–I also enjoyed the previous one of hers I’d read, Little Pretty Things, and as I’ve said before, there’s no one more fun to traverse the back roads of rural Alabama on a rainy morning with. All of these books had been in my TBR pile for quite some time, so it’s great to have an excuse to pull them out and read them.

I worked a little more on “Please Die Soon” yesterday; the story is becoming even creepier the more I work on it–although I think I may have done some overkill with it. But I am going to keep going with it, and once I am finished with the first draft I’ll figure it out in the revision process. I am also letting “A Whisper from the Graveyard” sit for a while–I know there’s some serious tweakage needed in it as well before submitting it–and I am starting to get to work on the August/September project as well. Exciting times for a Gregalicious.

And before I go to the gym this morning, I’m going to try to get the house straightened up a bit.

And while I know I’ve already talked about my story in Florida Happens (“Cold Beer No Flies”) I intend to spend the rest of this month’s focus on The Short Story Project on the stories and authors in the book, to try to whet your appetite for either preordering the book or buying it at Bouchercon. We are doing a launch for the book there on Thursday at 1; all the authors present gathering to sign and/or discuss the book and their story. And of course, it’s just easier for me to start by talking about my own.

Dane Brewer stepped out of his air-conditioned trailer, wiped sweat off his forehead and locked the door. It was early June and already unbearably hot, the humidity so thick it was hard to breathe. He was too far inland from the bay to get much of the cooling sea breeze but not so far away he couldn’t smell it. The fishy wet sea smell he was sick to death of hung in the salty air. It was omnipresent, inescapable. He trudged along the reddish-orange dirt path through towering pine trees wreathed in Spanish moss. The path was strewn with pine cones the size of his head and enormous dead pine needles the color of rust that crunched beneath his shoes. His face was dripping with sweat. He came into the clearing along the state road where a glorified Quonset hut with a tin roof stood.  It used to be a bait and tackle until its resurrection as a cheap bar. It was called My Place. It sounded cozy—the kind of place people would stop by every afternoon for a cold one after clocking out from work, before heading home.

The portable reader board parked where the parking lot met the state road read Cold Beer No Flies.

Simple, matter of fact, no pretense. No Hurricanes in fancy glasses like the touristy places littering the towns along the gulf coast. Just simple drinks served in plain glasses, ice-cold beer in bottles or cans stocked in refrigerated cases at simple prices hard-working people could afford. Tuscadega’s business was fish, and its canning plant stank of dead fish and guts and cold blood for miles. Tuscadega sat on the inside coast of a large shallow bay. The bay’s narrow mouth was crowned by a bridge barely visible from town. A long two-lane bridge across the bay led to the gold mine of the white sand beaches and green water along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Tourists didn’t flock to Tuscadega, but Tuscadega didn’t want them, either. Dreamers kept saying when land along the gulf got too expensive the bay shores would be developed, but it hadn’t and Dane doubted it ever would.

Tuscadega was just a tired old town and always would be, best he could figure it. A dead end the best and the brightest fled as soon as they were able.

 He was going to follow them one day, once he could afford it.

Towns like Tuscadega weren’t kind to people like Dane.

“Cold Beer No Flies” was originally conceived of back when I lived in Kansas, as far back as when I was a teenager. There was a bar in Emporia called My Place, which was an okay place–it had a concrete floor, just like the one in my story–and it also had one of those rolling readerboard signs along the road, and it literally read that: MY PLACE COLD BEER, NO FLIES. I always thought that was funny, and I always wanted to write a story called “Cold Beer No Flies.” I think I wrote the original first draft of the story in the 1980’s, and it languished in my files all these years. When it came to be time to write something for Florida Happens, I picked out “Cold Beer No Flies”, read the first two drafts of what I had written before, and decided to reboot the story and adapt it to the Florida setting. I’d always seen it as a noir story, and in rewriting/adapting it to fit this I needed to obviously move the setting from Kansas to Florida. I also had the bright idea to set it in the panhandle; I figured (rightly) that the majority of stories would be set in the beach communities literally the southern coasts of the state, and not many people would be moved to right about either the interior parts or the panhandle. I picked a dying, rotten little small town and placed it on a panhandle bay, similar to the little town my grandparents retired to in the early 1970’s. I also wanted to look at, and explore, what it’s like to grow up gay and working class in such a place–very redneck, very conservative, very backwards, very religious, very homophobic. The story turned out very creepy, I think, which was precisely what I was going for, and I hope you enjoy it when the time comes, Constant Reader.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Walk This Way

Yesterday was a good day.

I slept really well Friday night (again last night, but not as well as Friday) and I ran my errands and went to the grocery store. I even went to the gym and lifted weights. I had every intention of doing some writing when I got finished with all of that, but got sidetracked into cleaning and decided to just kind of relax for the day and spend today doing the writing and so forth that I need to get done. (This is the trap, you see–now I have to write today. I don’t have a choice, but trust me, after I run my one errand today watch and see how I rationalize not writing today!) I started reading Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died yesterday, and I watched some interesting things on the television–including a short documentary on Studlebrities, hot guys who have big followings on social media and have managed to parlay their looks and followings into cash. It’s an idea, after all, for a story or a book; not sure which. But I do find the whole gay-for-pay/social media famous for their looks thing to be an interesting and fascinating subculture, and something that would probably make for a terrific noir or crime novel.

Yesterday also saw the release of the rave Publisher’s Weekly review of Florida Happens. It’s a great review, with shout-outs to some of the contributors, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Yesterday I started watching the film version of Phantoms, a novel by Dean Koontz which I remember fondly. It had an interesting cast–Rose MacGowan, Liev Schrieber, Joanna Going, Peter O’Toole and a very young Ben Affleck–and it got off to a really good start…but I gradually grew bored with it and stopped watching. I decided to finally watch it because I’d watched another adaptation of a Koontz novel, one I hadn’t read, on Friday night, called Odd Thomas, which I really enjoyed.

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I became a Koontz fan with the first novel of his I read, Lightning. I bought the paperback at a Sam’s Club in Houston; I went there with my mother on a visit. I’d heard of Koontz and seen his books everywhere, and I was in my I want to be a horror writer phase. Lightning was both clever and brilliant and smart, I thought, and I tore through it in no time flat–particularly enjoying the big twist that came in the middle. Basically, it’s the story of a woman who becomes a very successful writer, who has an ‘angel’ who shows up to save her in pivotal moments in her life–when her life is in danger. But it’s a lot more complicated than that…and it really is a great read. From Lightning, I went on to read the others than I consider his best: Phantoms, Watchers, Strangers, Midnight, and the ones that are probably lesser. I started reading his books when they came out in hardcover, but ironically, when he started writing the Odd Thomas series was when I stopped reading him. The novels had become more hit-and-miss for me; and the switch to writing a detective series–despite my interest in crime fiction–didn’t interest me very much at the time. I hadn’t enjoyed Peter Straub’s switch to crime fiction–Mystery, Koko, and The Throat, collectively known as the Blue Rose trilogy–which, while well-written, just didn’t gel for me. (I have occasionally thought about going back and rereading them; I might appreciate them all the more now.) Anyway, this Odd Thomas series didn’t interest me very much, and so I never read it.

Watching the film changed my mind.

Don’t get me wrong–the film is flawed–but it really is enjoyable to watch, and the mystery element of the plot is quite interesting and surprising and unpredictable. But the strongest part of the film, what holds it all together, is the late actor Anton Yelchin, in the lead.

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Yelchin is best known for playing Chekhov in the reboot of the original Star Trek movies; he was tragically killed when his car rolled down the driveway, pinning him against the gates to his home and he suffocated–his lungs were crushed. (What a horrible way to die, really.) He was good in the Star Trek movies, and kind of cute, but he really shone in Odd Thomas, where he basically carried the film, and his charm and charisma absolutely worked. The role didn’t really require a great deal of heavy lifting from him as an actor–basically, he simply had to be likable, but he really pulled it off. He had that indefinable thing we simply refer to as charisma or star quality; and again, what a shame he died so young.

I think he probably would have wound up being a really big star.

And maybe I’ll go back and read the books.

And now back to the spice mines.

Take Me Home

Saturday morning and I feel great. If you think that means I slept well last night, you would be correct in that assumption.  It’s amazing what a difference it makes; those of you who have no trouble sleeping at night and can get amazing rest every night? You have no idea how lucky you are, and how much I envy you.

Today I have errands to run, a house to clean, a workout to do; as long as I stay motivated I can easily get all of these things done. I also have writing to do–I want to finish “A Whisper from the Graveyard” this weekend, and I also want to finish making my notes on the Scotty book, at which point I need to revise the outline I did (after finishing the first draft) so I can start the massive edit/rewrite for the second draft I need to get done. As I also mentioned the other day, I also need to start reading the books on the Anthony shortlist for Best Paperback Original, since I am moderating that panel at Bouchercon this year. To jog your memory, those books are, as follows: The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day; Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck; Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettman; What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt; and Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin. I got some good reading ahead of me, don’t I? Yes I do!

Huzzah! This is, after all, always a good thing.

I am, alas, as always, behind on my writing schedule. I had wanted to get Scotty finished this month (ha!) before embarking on an a project that will consume August and September; and then I had wanted to work on the WIP in October and November before starting on Bury Me in Satin in December. I don’t see that happening now, alas, since I got so little done on Scotty this month. Then again, you never know. If I can maintain good sleeping habits and maintain meeting goals and staying motivated every day in the face of the oppressive heat of a New Orleans August, I just might be able to get back on schedule.

Here’s hoping.

I did finished reading Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister this week.

the favorite sister

A man whose name I do not know slides his hand under the hem of my new blouse, connecting the cable to the lavalier mic clipped to my collar. He asks me to say something–sound check–and for a single reckless beat, I consider the truth. Brett is dead and I’m not innocent.

“Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three.” I’m not only dishonest. I’m unoriginal.

The sound guy listens to the playback. “Keep your hair off your left shoulder as much as you can,” he tells me.  I haven’t had my ends trimmed in months, and not because my grief has bested my vanity. I’m hoping viewers are better able to see the resemblance to my sister. I have nice hair. Brett had beautiful hair.

“Thanks,” I reply, wishing I could remember his name. Brett would have known it. She made a point of being on a first-name basis with the crew–from the gaffer to the ever-rotating harem of production assistants. My sister’s speciality was making underappreciated people feel appreciated. It’s a testament to that quality that we are all gathered here today, some of us prepared to tell heroic lies about her.

This is Knoll’s second novel; her first, Luckiest Girl Alive, was stunningly brilliant and I loved it. I also believe she may have made the Edgar shortlist for Best First Novel. In this book, Knoll again takes as her theme ambitious women and the conflicts they have with each other, set against the backdrop of a reality television series which is clearly based, in some ways, on the Real Housewives shows. The show, Goal Diggers of New York, ostensibly focuses on five women who are all entrepreneurs, don’t have kids, and in most cases are also single. Goal Diggers has the same pedigree as the Real Housewives shows; originally intended as a docu-series focusing on real women and the struggles they have running businesses and so forth, it has descended into a ratings-hungry juggernaut predicated on pitting the women against each other emotionally and forcing them into feuds. The ultimate cleverness of the book is it follows, basically, the same trajectory as if it were, indeed, a reality show about women; it reads like a season of a Real Housewives franchise. There are three main point-of-view characters–sisters Kelly and Brett, and Brett’s former best friend, an author of color named Stephanie. Kelly narrates the action in the present, after all the events of the book are finished–the device used is her filming what is known as a ‘talking head’ interview; where the camera is trained on the cast member and asked questions. The rest of the book is about the filming of the most recent season of Goal Diggers, which ended in tragedy; that is shown from the alternating POV’s of Brett and Stephanie, who manufactured a feud for the season as a storyline but the ‘fake feud’ actually runs far deeper, with a far worse betrayal at its heart, than anything that was taped for the series. The book addresses a lot of current hot topics in our culture and society: racism, homophobia, same-sex marriage, sexism. It’s very hard to talk about the book without giving spoilers; like a season of a reality show, the twists and turns the plot takes are part of the joy the reader gets from the story, and to discuss them would spoil it for new readers. But it’s very well-written, and the characterizations are quite strong.

I have to say, I enjoyed every second of reading this book, and I can’t wait for Knoll’s next one.

And now, back to the spice mines.