Angel

The eerie thing about Hurricane Ian is it has given us gorgeous weather in New Orleans–no humidity, warm but with a cool breeze; as though this monstrous storm is blessing those of us not under threat with this amazing fall-like weather (well, for New Orleans; this probably feels like summer to most People Not From Here). It was gorgeous yesterday morning when I left for the office; stunning, in fact. I was a little taken aback when I opened the front door to leave yesterday morning and didn’t get slapped in the face with a wall of wet hot heavy air, and as I walked out to the car couldn’t help but think well this weather is simply gorgeous. And when I came home from work–gorgeous, if a little too windy or my preferences. It’s a Category 4 this morning, looking to come ashore somewhere between Tampa and Fort Myers; the storm surge is worrisome and you can’t help but Youtubewonder if the three main causeway bridges from Tampa to the Clearwater/St. Petersburg peninsula will get damaged. I’ll keep monitoring the storm during the day, and hoping for the best possible outcomes for everyone in the path.

After getting stuck having to ride out Ida last year, I really wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

And our house is sheltered on three sides.

Today is Pay the Bills Day, and I’ll dive into that later on this morning. It’s always disappointing to watch your bank balance dwindle, but at the same time–as I remind myself every other Wednesday–at least I can pay them without worry; something that was frequently not true throughout my life. But still, it would be nice to have an entire paycheck that could just sit there in my bank account, wouldn’t it? Indeed, it would.

I was tired when I got home from work yesterday, and last night’s sleep wasn’t nearly as deep as I would have preferred; I had trouble actually falling asleep (thank goodness for Scooter’s Magical Put You To Sleep powers; he climbed up into the bed, curled up next to me, and went to sleep with his purr engine fully activated; and as it always does in my easy chair, it put me to sleep in no time) and kept waking up throughout the night; I woke up at three and four and five, thank you very much, and was awake before the alarm went off. I think I have a much busier work schedule today at the office than I’ve had in a few days, which means I will most likely be very tired when I get off work tonight; fortunately I don’t have any errands to run after work this evening and can come straight home. Hopefully I will have the energy to not only sit at my computer and write for a while, but also the inner strength of character to ignore Scooter’s wailing demands that I sit in my chair and provide a lap for him to sleep in, which inevitably leads to me dozing off in the chair and going down a lot of Youtube wormholes.

I found a lovely video last night, for example, about Catherine de Medici’s Flying Squadron; beautiful women trained in the seductive arts that she used as spies. I have always wanted to write a book based in this historical truth; just as I have always wanted to write about Catherine herself. The French wars of Religion, and the regency of “that Italian woman” is a fascinating period of history (let’s face it, I just love the sixteenth century), with all kinds of Games of Thrones-like conspiracies, betrayals, spying, murder, and so on and so forth as the Catholics and the Huguenots and the nobility jockeyed back and forth for power and control of the kingdom, with Catherine grimly hanging on to the crown for her sons and doing what she had to do. (When I have my flights of fancy of writing historical suspense novels, this is one of the four I think about wanting to do, the others being a retelling of The Three Musketeers; the murder of AMy Robsart; and the Babington Plot which resulted in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. And of course, I always want to write a Barbara Tuchman-like history of the century focusing on the women who held power, The Monstrous Regiment of Women, in that most unusual century.)

Not to mention how much fun I would have reading all that history…

But I am behind on everything current and need to start getting caught up. I’ve not been able to adjust to this schedule of work and having to get up so damned early every morning; you’d think by now I would have and would have energy when I get home at night, but I don’t. I’m also older (less that four years to go before retirement!) than I was and my energy reserves aren’t quite what they used to be…but it’s always a matter of priorities, isn’t it? Determining what they are and what they should be, and then working my way down the list, and trying not to get distracted by shiny objects along the path.

And on that note, i am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, and y’all who are in the Ian path, stay safe.

Gold and Braid

Positive again this morning, despite waking up and feeling pretty good–and then I remembered the last few mornings were the same and it started kicking in about an hour after getting up. So, I am sitting here drinking my first cup of coffee, staring glumly at the two lines on my test strip, and waiting for this stupid virus to wake up inside my body and start fucking with me again. Ah, well, I should make use of this hour, shouldn’t I?

Yesterday was glum, really. I started experiencing fever for the first time since I tested positive last Friday or whenever it was, and that was particularly unpleasant. I did, however, realize hey one of the things you’ve never done is have things delivered rather than going to the store, and since I needed to be isolated from the world during this period, I thought why not go check and see if, say, Costco will deliver? So I went to their website, saw that yes, indeed, I could have an order delivered to my front door, and so I did. When Ashanti (my shopper/driver/delivery person) arrived, I put on rubber gloves and a N95 mask to go meet her at the gate–she saw the mask and gloves and wisely kept her distance (I have never before in my life understood how lepers must have felt back in the day the way I did when I saw the look on her face)–and then wore myself out lugging everything back to the Lost Apartment…but still, I got the stuff I needed. I couldn’t focus long enough to read anything–I had started Sandra SG Wong’s marvelous In the Dark We Forget at some point over the weekend, but I wasn’t really able to get far into it or focus on it yesterday, either–so I mostly spent the day under blankets in the easy chair trying to brainstorm and so forth on the things I am working on–without much luck. I also had a marketing meeting yesterday afternoon over the phone with Crooked Lane, which was daunting–reminding me again how far behind on everything I am, but it was nice for them to do and to give advice and tips on what to do, which was very cool. I also spent a good amount of time writing two emails–which ordinarily wouldn’t have taken long at all, but yesterday it took hours because of the inability to focus I mentioned–and after writing each, had to go sit and rest for a while as they wore me out. Dragging the Costco order back to the apartment in the heat also exhausted me.

Ah, there’s the muscle fatigue and joint aches I was missing when I woke up this morning.

Paul is feeling much better, which makes me tend to think he had it first and gave it to me (there’s no way of knowing, really, since it’s different with everyone) but I’m glad he’s feeling better, to be honest. If one of us has to be ill, I would prefer it to be me because I don’t worry about me the way I worry about him when he gets sick, if that makes sense at all? I hate that helpless feeling when someone you love isn’t feeling good and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. That’s the absolute worst.

We’re watching Becoming Elizabeth, and I have to say–while I am certainly not an expert by any means on Tudor England or on Queen Elizabeth (I do have some knowledge–for example, at one point last night a new character was introduced and I thought, “I bet that’s Amy Robsart” and I was right) I have to say this is one of the most accurate fictional series based on history I’ve seen. There aren’t many books about the period when young Edward VI reigned–obviously, it’s talked about in other books from a sideways view, like Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots–and the only one I can actually think of is Mary M. Luke’s A Crown for Elizabeth, which detailed the Tudor period from the deaths of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn through Elizabeth’s succession to the throne in 1558, and of course Carrolly Erickson’s marvelous Bloody Mary also covers this territory, but from Mary’s point of view. Sigh, I do love history, and watching this is making me want to reread not only Anya Seton’s Green Darkness but Philippa Carr’s The Miracle at St. Bruno’s.

And now I am feeling tired again, so am going to go sit for a spell. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

Urgent

History is, as the adage goes, written by the winners, and that has always certainly held true of US history.

As Constant Reader is undoubtedly aware, I love me some history, and always have; ever since I was a kid. The history I learned in school, as well as how it was taught, instilled a deep pride in me, as a citizen, of my country and its history. But I never limited myself to the textbooks and the classroom; as a voracious reader with an appreciation and love for history, I often read history for its own sake, because I found it interesting, and felt that the slight overview/outline I was taught in public schools–and later, in college (I remember writing an essay for an American History course in college about the Spanish-American War on a test in a blue book–remember those? do they still use them?–and my extensive reading outside of class, throughout my life, of history enabled me to write in greater detail in my essay than most of my classmates, who had only the textbook chapters and the outside reading assigned me of Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt to draw from; I knew from outside reading that the king of Spain at the time was Alfonso XIII and he was a child; that his mother, Queen Maria-Christina, was the actual regent, etc. etc. etc. Needless to say I got an A, and the instructor wrote in the margins how pleased he was that I had clearly done so much outside reading/study on my own, even going so far as to suggest I switch to a History major; I sometimes wonder–particularly whenever I think about writing about history–if I indeed should have. That, however, would have taken my writing career in an entirely different direction) wasn’t as in-depth as I would like, and because of all the reading I did on my own, I always found myself bored in History classes.

Again, I probably should have majored in history.

Anyway, twentieth century history was never something I was terribly interested in when I was younger. I had a vague working knowledge of it; I certainly knew more than most of my fellow citizens, but my interests inevitably always lay further distant in the past. I certainly didn’t have a strong knowledge of the First World War, other than the basics: how it started, how old-fashioned notions of government and war which hadn’t truly responded to the great advances in industrialization and modernization of technology resulted in a horrifying bloodbath that convulsed Europe and killed millions unnecessarily over old-fashioned notions of the honor of dynasties and the corresponding idiocies of secret treaties and alliances and spats between imperial cousins; that the peace that followed in the wake of a bitter war resulted in a far worse global convulsion in less than three decades; and that the entry of the United States very late in the war swung the bloody stalemate into a victory by the Allies. (Also recommended reading: The Fall of the Dynasties by Edward Taylor. )

One of my fraternity brothers was a History major, and one spring afternoon after classes, as we took bong hits and listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall album, I asked him what his concentration was in, and he replied the First World War. What followed was a rather interesting conversation about the war and its causes, and the American entry–that was probably not as interesting as I recall; stoner conversations are never as interesting later as they seem at the time– and when I mentioned the Zimmermann Telegram, he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “Oh, it was so obviously a forgery!” Since that was his concentration for his major, I always took that fact at his word; he was majoring in the subject so therefore I assumed he had done the research to back up that assertion, and as I was becoming rather cynical on the subject of our government and the propaganda that was public school history courses, it was easy to believe that the British and President Wilson (a horrific racist) could have quite easily collaborated to deceive the American public and thus swing public opinion in favor of American entry into the war.

As an enormous fan of Barbara Tuchman’s, I have been working my way through her canon, and so was quite interested to read her take on the telegram; she wrote a very short book on the subject, perhaps the shortest of her career, aptly titled The Zimmermann Telegram.

I generally always am reading some kind of non-fiction at the same time as I am tearing through my fiction choices; the lovely thing about reading non-fiction–particularly history–is that I don’t feel the same urgency to finish it; non-fiction is always there, waiting for you to come back to it, and since you already know how it’s going to come out, there’s not the same sense of desire to see how it all plays out. For The Zimmermann Telegram, for example, I knew the book would end with the United States entering the war; there are no surprise twists waiting for you in history when you already have a basic knowledge going into it–likewise, any biography of Mary Queen of Scots isn’t going to end differently. The historian’s analyses of the facts may be different than those of others already read, but the bare facts remain: history is history, facts are facts, and the only difference from one to another is the analyses and interpretations of the facts (I also have my own theories about Mary Queen of Scots–again, interpretations and analyses inevitably differ, and the winners do write history; which is why I deeply appreciated The Creation of Anne Boleyn, which pointed out that our modern day interpretations of her are based in letters and chronicles of the time, which were hardly fair; I could take make the same case for the Queen of Scots–but facts are facts: she was executed in 1587; she lost her throne in 1567; her marriages were her marriages and her son was her son). Tuchman’s analyses are heavily researched and formed from extensive reading–and she generally comes across as fairly impartial; she also writes in a reader-friendly style that brings the personalities of the people she writes about to life and is never, ever boring–a tendency in even the most non-academic writing styles of the majority of historians.

She makes a very strong case for the authenticity of the Zimmermann Telegram–bolstered primarily by the fact that the Germans admitted its authenticity at the time (which essentially guaranteed American entrance into the conflict as a belligerent, which was hardly in the best interests of the German Empire at the time), and there was also a follow-up telegram to the original, even more damning than the first–whose existence remained secret at the time and wasn’t revealed until after the war; because the British didn’t want the Germans to know they had broken their code and were reading their telegraphic communiqués. She also does an excellent job of setting the stage, giving all the perspectives from every side–the neutral American, the Allied, and the Central Powers–and this was a terrific, wonderful read, as are all of Ms. Tuchman’s works.

(If you are not aware of the Zimmermann Telegram, essentially it was an attempt of the German Empire to draw Mexico into the war against the US as an ally of the Central Powers should Wilson lead our country into the war; the Germans promised Mexico they would have German assistance in reconquering Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The Germans were also trying to draw Japan into a war against the US–promising them American possession in the Pacific and perhaps even the Pacific Coast states…essentially predicting the second World War as an added, interesting twist. As you can well imagine, when this telegram was made public the entire country went from pacifism to a demand for war)

Next for my non-fiction reading pleasure: Robert Caro’s enormous and exhaustively researched The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

The Long Run

Not only do I write two private eye series, erotica, and the occasional stand alone,  I also, sometimes, write what’s classified as young adult fiction. I have not published anything that could remotely be considered y/a in quite a while, and therein lies a tale (I think the last book I published that could be considered “young adult” was Dark Tide; I could be wrong. I no longer remember when and in what order my non-series books came out).

To be clear, the fact that I even call those books “y/a” even though I don’t really think of them as young adult fiction is a marketing thing, really; in my mind, they’re simply novels I wrote about teenagers. I started writing about teenagers when I actually was one; the stories I wrote in high school weren’t bad, for a teenager, and were the first indication–from my fellow classmates, and my English teacher–that I could seriously become a published writer if I chose to try to do so; the utter lack of seriousness my writing aspirations received from my family was kind of soul-crushing. But I always wanted to write about teenagers, from the very beginnings; I wanted to do my own Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys style series, and then progressed to other stories.

I progressed as a reader pretty quickly when I was growing up; I went from the series books, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the Scholastic Book Club mysteries, to Agatha Christie, Charlotte Armstrong, and Ellery Queen when I was around eleven or twelve, if not younger; I know I read both Gone with the Wind and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots when I was ten. The few books I read that were considered “children’s books” (there was no such thing as young adult fiction then) were books like The Outsiders and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and I did enjoy them; I just didn’t think of them as either being particularly authentic or realistic. Nor did they have any bearing on my life, or the lives of my friends–I viewed them like youth-oriented television shows like The Brady Bunch, existing in some bizarre alternate universe that has no basis in actual reality or what those of us who were that age were actually experiencing. I always thought there was something missing–complicated and authentic books about the lives of real teenagers and the real issues they faced everyday, without getting into the insanity of the preachy-teachy “issue” books that usually wound up as ABC After-school Specials, which I loathed. 

Not all “issue books” were bad, in all fairness; some, like Lisa Bright and Dark, about a girl struggling with mental illness whose parents refused to face their daughter’s reality, so her friends tried to help her by serving as amateur psychologists, and  I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, about a teenaged girl in a mental hospital dealing with her illness were actually quite good. But I loved books like The Cheerleader, about a poor girl in a small New England town with ambitions and dreams that far exceeded those of most of her friends…dealing with issues of popularity, sex, and first love.  David Marlow’s Yearbook was also a favorite, and while not marketed to kids, was about high school, but had some themes and plot-lines considered far too heavy for teens to digest in the 1970’s. You can also see it in the pap that was considered movies for teenagers; G-rated bubble-gum like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and inevitably came from Disney and starred Kurt Russell. (These movies are an interesting time capsule; I did try to watch one of them recently on Disney Plus and didn’t last three minutes in that squeaky clean, sex-free college environment.)

(Also, I would like to point out at this time there were terrific books being published in the 1970’s for teens that dealt with major issues and were groundbreaking; Sandra Scoppetone was writing about queer teens back then, and there were some others doing terrific work at the time–I just wasn’t aware of those books until much later.)

My first three young adult novels–Sorceress, Sleeping Angel, Sara–were written as first drafts in the early 1990’s, put in a drawer, and forgotten about for nearly twenty years. Sorceress  had no queer content in it at all; it was my version of the truly popular trope of romantic/domestic suspense where an orphaned girl goes to live in a spooky mansion far away from her old life (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, almost everything written by Victoria Holt), and slowly becomes aware that everything in the house isn’t as it seems. It was a lot of fun to write–I loved those books and I loved putting a modern spin on them. Sleeping Angel’s first draft was never completed, and the published version is vastly different than what the original first draft contained; there are still some vestiges of the original plot there in the book that are never truly explained, and by the time I realized, after many drafts, that I hadn’t removed those vestiges from the book it was too late to do anything about it other than hope no one noticed. The book did well, won an award or two, and is still a favorite of my readers, according to what I see on social media. One of the things I added to the story was a queer subplot about bullying, which is what I think readers truly responded to, and I also feel like adding that to the story in addition to the other changes I made to it made it a stronger book. Sara was always intended to have gay characters and a gay plot; I originally started writing it as a novel for adults and realized, over the course of writing it, that actually the teenage story was the most interesting part and I could deal with some issues there if I switched the focus of the book to the teenagers. One thing that changed from the 1991 first draft to the draft that was published is that the character I originally had being bullied for being gay, even though he wasn’t (another character, one of the biggest bullies, actually was), was actually not only gay but had come out, and so the book also talked about the reverberations of a popular football coming out, and what impact that had on the school social structure and hierarchy.

Sara, incidentally, is one of my lowest selling titles–which also kind of breaks my heart a little bit.

Since those three, there have been others I’ve written–Lake Thirteen, Dark Tide–and I’ve also dabbled in what is called “new adult fiction”–books about college-age or just out of college-age characters–this is where The Orion Mask and Timothy and the current one I’m working on, Bury Me in Shadows, fall on the marketing spectrum.

One of the questions I had to deal with in writing young adult novels with queer content was the question of sex. I had already been through being banned in Virginia because I had written gay erotica (a really long story that I revisited recently with Brad Shreve on his podcast; I really do need to write in depth about the entire experience); what would happen if ‘notorious gay porn writer’ Greg Herren began writing fiction specifically aimed at teenagers? But the truly interesting thing about being used as a political pawn by the right-wing fanatics in the power games they play is that once they’ve made use of you, they forget about you and move on. My young adult fiction was released without a single complaint, protest, or any of the sturm und drang that my speaking at a high school to a group of queer and queer-supportive youth created scant years earlier.

Interesting, isn’t it?

And yet…there is no sex in any of those books. None. I don’t  remember my gay teens even getting a chaste kiss, let alone a sex life, or fantasies, or a boyfriend.

And what about desire?

A couple of years ago someone tagged me on Facebook on an article about just that very subject; that was when I started writing this post (three yeara ago, looks like) but I never finished writing this until this morning.

Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.

Okay, welcome back. Some interesting points, no?

Now, check out this one. 

I know, it’s a lot of information to process, but it’s something we should all be thinking about, particularly as the calls for diversity in publishing and popular culture continue. Sex is, quite obviously, a touchy subject when it comes to young adult fiction, but when it comes to questions of sexuality and being a sexual minority, what is too much and what is not enough? Even depictions of straight sexuality is frowned on and controversial when it comes to young adult fiction. (For the record, that is also considered the case for crime fiction–no explicit sex scenes–or at least so I was told when I was first getting started; doubly ironic that my mystery series were what the right-wing Virginian fanatics considered porn–I really do need to write about that.)

I also have noticed the elitism evident in hashtags like #ownvoices and #weneeddiversevoices that have come and gone and return periodically on Twitter; those actively involved in promoting those tags, when it comes to queer books, make it abundantly clear they only care about those published by the Big Five in New York–which is a good target, I agree, and they do need to be doing better when it comes to diversity and “own voices” work–but this focus also ignores the small presses, particularly the queer ones, who have been doing this work all along and making sure queer books were still being published for all ages and getting out there and made available to those who want and need them. I am absolutely delighted to see queer books by queers being published by the Big 5, and young adult work in particular…and yet…there are some serious issues still with the Big 5–and with what is called ” young adult Twitter”.

I do find it interesting to see who they decide are the “cool kids” and who they banish to the outer tables with the freaks and geeks.

It’s part of the reason I don’t engage with young adult twitter, to be honest. I really have no desire to return to the high school cafeteria at this point in my life.

And I’ll write about teenagers whenever there’s a story I want to tell involving teenagers–which currently is the Kansas book; I turned my protagonist in Bury Me in Shadows into a college student because it actually works better.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. (And huzzah for finally finishing this post!)

It’s A Sin

Ah, SIN.

The human concept of sin is something that has alays fascinated me; as does the societal distinction that sin isn’t necessarily a crime. Adultery, after all, made the Top Ten in the Bible; but adultery isn’t a crime, at least in our country. Maybe I’ve been reading too much medieval plague history, but as a result the entire concept of sin v. crime has been running through my head a lot. We also always tend to speak and think of historical as being more religious and superstitious than our modern, “rational” time; which is why when the religious superstitions start finding their way out of the woodwork, people are always surprised. I’ve seen that a lot, actually, since 2008; the surprise of people who were just now noticing that much of organized religion is steeped in bigotry propped up by skillful, selective usage of their “holy” book while ignoring the parts that do not prove their bigotry and ignorance as holy. I’ve been toying, since the start of this current pandemic and the beginning of my own plague readings, with a story called “The Flagellants,” based on an idea obtained from rereading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and it’s plague chapter–about a movement of religious fanatics who believed God had sent the plague as a punishment for mankind’s sin (as fanatics have always believed in divine punishment as long as they have believed there are gods in the sky), and marched through the streets praying and repenting loudly while flogging themselves; their theory (if one can call it that) was that they were representing mankind’s penitence to God and therefore their behavior was intended to get God to take the scourge away. This set me to thinking about that Christian group that loves to show up here in the Quarter during Southern Decadence and Carnival to loudly tell us all, through megaphones and over amplifiers, that we are all sinners that need to repent and find our way back to the Lord, and wondering why they weren’t parading through the streets of the Quarter, doing something similar. (Their faith isn’t as strong as they would have us believe, apparently.) And so I started writing said story, but wasn’t really sure where to take it…I have some ideas; hopefully this weekend will help me sketch some of those ideas out.

Ah, sin.

A three day weekend is always a delight; I’m of the mind that every weekend should be three days rather than two. It generally takes me one day to rest and recover from the weekend, which is when I do my errands and clean and so forth, and then I am centered enough and rested enough (after two good night’s sleep) to get some work done on Sunday. With a three day weekend, that gives me an extra day to simply focus on writing. Naturally, of course, if every weekend was a three day weekend it would eventually prove also to not be enough time for me, I suppose, and so probably best to leave things as they are and simply enjoy those weekends when they come around. I have some plans for today; primarily a grocery run and perhaps a trip to the gym, along with some cleaning and organizing and perhaps some writing/brainstorming.

We continue to enjoy The Great on Hulu; I do recommend it, it’s very entertaining if not always the most historically accurate–and as I have stated many times, when it comes to television or film adaptations of actual historical events, accuracy inevitably goes out the window (the most egregious example of this being The Tudors. By combining Henry VIII’s sisters Margaret and Mary into one person, and then having her die without children, they essentially erased not only the Brandon/Grey line–no Nine Days’ Queen Jane Grey–but also the Scottish Stewarts; so no Mary Queen of Scots or any of the royalty since the death of Elizabeth I); and complaining about historical inaccuracies in fictional representations of actual history is low-hanging fruit, as it were.

I also want to finish reading Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Red Carnelian, and I’ve also started rereading a book from one of my favorite kids’ series, the Ken Holt mysteries by Bruce Campbell. The Ken Holt series is always neck and neck with The Three Investigators as my favorite kids’ series; they are very well written, action-packed, and well plotted as well; with a kind of hard-boiled edge to them. The first book in the series, The Secret of Skeleton Island, (a title also used in The Three Investigators series) introduces us not only to our young hero but to the people at Global News (Ken’s father is a globe trotting reporter; his mother is dead, and since his father is gone a lot Ken is at a boarding school somewhere outside of New York; I always assumed it was up the Hudson valley but it may have actually been Long Island), and how Ken meets up with, and basically is adopted into, the Allen family. I’m actually enjoying the book–and considering it was written for 9-12 year olds in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, and it still holds up, is saying quite a bit. The fact these books never caught on or were as popular as, say the Hardy Boys, and have been out of print for decades, is disgraceful.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and I look forward to speaking to you again this weekend.

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Ride Like the Wind

Yesterday I felt fantastic. Yes, I overslept, not getting out of bed until a disgraceful almost ten am, had a couple of cups of coffee while checking social media and writing yesterday’s blog entry, and then buckled down to clean, organize and write. I got about 2400 words down on Chapter Ten of the WIP–which I originally thought was Chapter Nine but I had already written that chapter so this was ten, which means the first draft is over halfway done. How marvelous is that?

Pretty mother-fucking marvelous, if I do say so myself.

I slept well again last night, but set the alarm so I wouldn’t stay in bed as late. As it is, I set it for eight and hit snooze repeatedly, not to sleep more, but rather because I felt so relaxed and comfortable in the bed I didn’t want to get up. But I still have some laundry to do, a grocery store run to make (KING CAKE!), and I want to spend the day cleaning and editing a hard copy of the Scotty book. (Yes, I do my original edits on a paper copy. SUE ME.) I also want to finish rereading The Shining so I can move on to Pet Sematary. I am not reading as quickly as I used to, which is aggravating. Once I finish these two rereads, I am going to dive into reading for the Diversity Project, and I also want to get back into the Short Story Project. I also need to clean the apartment more thoroughly–I spent most of the day yesterday organizing and filing, as well as purging books. But I need to get the floors done today, and finish the laundry. This is my first full week of work since before Christmas, and I am hoping if I can focus on getting to bed at a decent hour on the nights before I have to get up early, I can get things done and not wear myself out too terribly along the way. I am not going to try the gym this week, as I need to get a handle on my work schedule and see how I can make that work, with plans to make it back to the gym this coming Friday or Saturday. There’s also no Saints game today, which makes today easier. One of the things that was amazing to me yesterday was how much time I had…it’s amazing how that works. No LSU or college football, and the day is suddenly wild and free. Go figure.

And yesterday was Twelfth Night, so it’s now officially Carnival. Hurray! The city will soon be festooned in purple, gold and green; the bleachers will be going up on Lee Circle and St. Charles Avenue on the downtown side of the circle; King cakes will have their own enormous display table at the grocery store; and that sense of anticipation of the coming madness can be felt in the air. It’s going to be weird not going to work on Parade Days, but it will also make life a little bit more interesting. I’m obviously hoping to get a lot done on those days, but we shall see how that all works out, shan’t we?

I also need to do some cooking today; trying to get food for the week ready and for our lunches. Which means making a mess in the kitchen and something else to do for the day; cleaning the mess. But I don’t like going into the week with a messy apartment; it gets messy enough during the work week when I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with it (or the filing, for that matter). So, there’s some touching up I need to do on my office space, and I can vacuum and so forth while I am editing.

Last night we started watching Homecoming on Prime. What an amazing cast–Julia Roberts, Bobby Canavale, Sissy Spacek, and Dermot Mulroney, just for starters. The plot is also interesting–we’re about half-way through. and will probably finish this evening. We may go see The Favourite  next weekend, which is kind of exciting. I can’t remember the last time we saw a non-popcorn movie in the theater. I’m sure the film is rife with historical inaccuracies–what historical films aren’t–but my knowledge of Queen Anne is fairly limited; I’ve not even read the Jean Plaidy historical fiction about her, so perhaps that won’t be too much of issue to keep me from enjoying it (I’ll watch the new Mary Queen of Scots movie when I can stream it for free; every film biography of Mary Stuart is rife with license and inaccuracy; but it’s always a great opportunity for two great actresses to chew the scenery. The 1971 version with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson is probably, in my opinion, the best; I always picture Glenda Jackson whenever I think of Queen Elizabeth). I did know that Queen Anne had seventeen children that all died; she didn’t particularly want to be queen, and she had female ‘favorites’–it wasn’t common, but several English kings and queens had same-sex favorites, including Edward II, James I, and Queen Anne. Histories and biographies and encyclopedia entries would mention this, but gloss it over….it wasn’t until my late teens that I began putting together the coding and realized these monarchs were queer.

Yup, queers have been systematically erased from history, glossed over and forgotten, for centuries. Yay.

Part of the research/reading I am doing into New Orleans history is precisely to try to uncover the city’s queer past; trying to find the clues and coded language in books as we are glossed over and hidden from incurious minds. Every once in a while I’d find a glimmer of a hint in Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, for example, that there were gay male prostitutes working in Storyville, and I kind of want to write about that. As I’ve said a million times before, New Orleans history is rife with terrific stories that would make for great fictions. One of the reasons I am so bitter about the Great Data Disaster of 2018 is not only because of the time spent reconstructing things but because it so completely broke my momentum and totally derailed me. I’m not sure how to get back on that streetcar (see what I did there?) but I’m going to have to relatively soon. But i’ve also been so focused on the Scotty and the new WIP that I’ve gotten away from it. I think diving back into The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury will help.

I also bought some cheap ebooks on sale yesterday, including Sophie’s Choice by Williamt Styron and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. When I was checking the Kindle app on my iPad to make sure they downloaded properly, much to my horror I discovered that I have almost 400 books in that app–which doesn’t include the ones I have in iBooks or the Barnes & Noble app. YIKES. Clearly, I don’t need to take any books with me when I travel, because there are plenty in my iPad. I also have a ridiculous amount of anthologies and single author short story collections loaded in there…so yes, the Short Story Project will be continuing for quite some time, I suspect. There are also some terrific books in there I’d like to read, or reread, as the case may be…I have almost all of Mary Stewart’s novels on Kindle, for example, and a lot of Phyllis Whitney’s. I also have a Charlotte Armstrong I’ve not read, The Seventeen Widows of San Souci, and on and on and on….I really am a book hoarder, aren’t I?

Ah, well, life does go on.

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

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Miss Me Blind

The last Friday of 2017. I am working a very abbreviated day at the office today; and have a three day weekend. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning–nothing new there this week; I’ve felt that way every morning this week–and am really looking forward to being a lazy slug and staying in bed as long as I can the next three days. Huzzah for being a lazy slug! I am also starting to come out of this whatever it was that I had; its lovely to feel this close to normal–I was beginning to forget what close to normal felt like, to be honest.

I finished reading The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo last night, and I have to say, it was refreshing to read something about Anne Boleyn that tried to take a look at her in an objective way; who she was has been so defined over the years by so much misogynistic garbage, as well as the highly biased accounts of two men who hated her–the Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, and the Venetian ambassador–that it was lovely to read  a book about her that tried to take a look at who the real Anne was, and debunk the myths that have, over the years, come to be taken as facts.

Scan 5

The sixteenth century is one of my favorite periods of history, and always has been, as far back as I can remember; the Tudors in England and the Valois in France; the unification of the Hapsburg empire; the rise of Spain as a nation and its own colonial empire and systematic looting of the Americas; the corruption of the papacy and the Reformation; the Renaissance; and the rise of England as a world power. The sixteenth century is also remarkable in that it is the first century of European history where women rose to prominent positions of power, more so than any other: the list of powerful, influential women ranges everywhere from intellectual influences (Marguerite de Navarre) to regnant queens (Mary I and Elizabeth I in England, and even the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey; Mary Queen of Scots; Jeanne d’Albret, Isabella of Castile) to powers behind the throne (Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici) to regents (Margaret of Austria, Maria of Hungary, Marie de Guise), among many other women who influenced the course of history. I’ve always wanted to do a Barbara Tuchman style study of the century and its powerful women, called The Monstrous Regiment of Women. 

The century was also terribly unique in that precedents were set by things that had never happened before: England executed three of her queens, and another in Mary Queen of Scots; France saw a non-royal crowned queen in Catherine de Medici; and of course, there were the marital shenanigans of Henry VIII. And while I am fascinated by many  of the century’s women and their place on the stage of history, perhaps the most fascinating, for me at least, has always been Anne Boleyn.

I’ve never understood the bad rap that Anne Boleyn has gotten over the years from historians; the very first biography of a Tudor woman that I read, Mary M. Luke’s Catherine the Queen, was obviously very anti-Anne Boleyn; she has been painted with the brush of misogyny throughout history as everything from the husband-stealing vixen to the great whore; and yet, the answer has to be more complex than that. Anne Boleyn was responsible for England’s break from the Catholic Church, and while her predecessor Catherine of Aragon is often depicted as the long-suffering victim, there was also no question, in any histories of the period or biographies, that Catherine of Aragon was, the entire period of her marriage to Henry VIII and after being discarded, very much a Spanish agent working against England’s interests in favor of those of her family; the ruling house of Spain. Her goal was to eventually see her daughter, Mary I, sit on the English throne and marry her cousin Charles, thus bringing England into the Imperial fold. She violently resisted any other possible marriage for her daughter; and it cannot be questioned that making England a basic vassal state of the Hapsburgs was hardly in England’s best interests going forward (as was seen when Mary did eventually become queen and married Charles’ son, Philip). Catherine, no matter how romantically people want to view her as the wronged wife and victim, allowed her own pride, and her own ambition, to cause England to be separated from the Catholic Church despite her own seeming piety; for her, her own pride was more important than the souls of the English people. So even the stories of her deep religious faith as a sign of her great character really don’t hold water. And at any time, she could have relieved, not only her own suffering, but that of the daughter she loved so much. I’ve always found these depictions of Catherine of Aragon to be more emotional rather than logical.

No matter what, Anne Boleyn inspired great passion in both her adherents and her enemies. After her death Henry VIII destroyed all of her papers, so very few letters of hers exist and so there are no primary sources of information on her that aren’t tainted by the opinions of the person writing; the Spanish ambassador, so clearly an agent of Queen Catherine, can hardly be trusted to be unbiased. Likewise, the Venetian ambassador was no fan of Anne Boleyn. Yet I’ve never seen any letters from the French ambassador; or from the Scottish ambassador, or any that might actually have been anti-Spanish. All that exists is basically propaganda. And there are few women in history who’ve been more slandered than Anne Boleyn; and not only was she slandered for being the mother of the English Reformation, she was slandered for not being a typical woman of the time. She was intelligent, she was educated, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind during a time when women were primarily expected to be quiet and listen to the men.

It was not, of course, uncommon for women who didn’t fit the desired societal mold of their time to be trashed and slandered; it still happens today. Another woman of the century whom I find fascinating–Catherine de Medici–also has had a horrible reputation throughout the years…Jean Plaidy’s trilogy of historical novels about her bears some of the names she was called for titles: The Italian Woman, Queen Jezebel, Madame Serpent. Elizabeth I was also slandered; one can only imagine how the historical views of her would be different had the Spanish/Catholic view of her prevailed.

I am really piquing my own interest in this project again here.

Anyway, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating read, and one that Tudorphiles definitely should look into. I highly recommend it.

I Won’t Hold You Back

Being from, not only the South but also from Alabama, I am very particular about Southern fiction, and fiction set in Alabama (there is more of it than you might think; there is certainly much more of it than To Kill a Mockingbird). Robert McCammon has written some exceptional Southern horror fiction set in Alabama; I absolutely loved Boy’s Life, while I have yet to read Gone South (which is in the TBR pile). He actually  set a book in the part of Alabama I am from; it was a good book, but it bore no more actual resemblance to that county than anything other book set in the rural South; it was as though he simply put up a map of Alabama and stuck in a pin in it, said “okay this is where it will be set” and worked from there. But it was a good book that I enjoyed; it had some interesting things to say about religion–particularly the rural Southern version of it. I myself want to write about Alabama more; I feel–I don’t know–connected somehow when I write about Alabama in a greater way than I do when I am writing about New Orleans, and that’s saying something. Mostly I’ve written short stories, the majority of which have never been published; only two have seen print, “Smalltown Boy” and “Son of a Preacher Man.”

I remember Michael McDowell from the 1980’s, when the horror boom was at its highest crest; I never read his work but I was aware of it. I remember reading the back covers of his Blackwater books and not being particularly interested in them; there was just something about them, and their Alabama setting, that somehow didn’t ring right to me; I don’t remember what or why, but I do remember picking them up several times in the bookstore, looking them over, and putting them back.

In recent years, McDowell has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts; he was a gay man who died from AIDS-related complications in 1999. I wasn’t aware that he was part of the writing team who published a gay mystery series under the name Nathan Aldyne until sometime in the last few years, and I’d been meaning to get around to finally read one of his horror novels, the reissue of The Elementals (which included an introduction by my friend, the novelist Michael Rowe–whose novels Enter, Night and Wild Fell are quite extraordinary)–which again is set in Alabama, only this time Mobile and the lower panhandle of Alabama that sits on either side of Mobile Bay (the same area, in fact, where I set my novel Dark Tide, only my novel was set on the other side of the bay). My friend Katrina Niidas Holm recently asked me to read the book so we could discuss it drunkenly over cocktails at Bouchercon in Toronto later this month; this morning I sat down and read it through. (It’s not very long; 218 pages in total.)

the elementals

In the middle of a desolate Wednesday afternoon in the last sweltering days of May, a handful of mourners were gathered in the church dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus in Mobile, Alabama. The air conditioning in the small sanctuary sometimes covered the noise of traffic at the intersection outside, but it occasionally did not, and the strident honking of an automobile horn ould sound above the organ music like a mutilated stop. The space was dim, damply cool, and stank of refrigerated flowers. Two dozen enormous and very expensive arrangements had been set in converging lines behind the altar. A massive blanket of silver roses lay draped across the light-blue casket, and there were petals scattered over the white satin interior. In the coffin was the body of a woman no more than fifty-five. Her features were squarish and set; the lines that ran from the corners of her mouth to her jaw were deep-plowed. Marian Savage had not been overtaken happily.

In the pew to the left of the coffin sat Dauphin Savage, the corpse’s surviving son. He wore a dark blue suit that fit tightly over last season’s frame, and a black silk band was fastened to his arm rather in imitation of a tourniquet. On his right, in a black dress and a black veil. was his wife Leigh. Leigh lifted her chin to catch sight of her dead mother-in-law’s profile in the blue coffin. Dauphin and Leigh would inherit almost everything.

Big Barbara McCray–Leigh’s mother and the corpse’s best friend–sat in the pew directly behind and wept audibly. Her black silk dress whined against the polished oaken pew as she twisted in her grief. Beside her, rolling his eyes in exasperation at his mother’s carrying-on, was Luker McCray. Luker’s opinion of the dead woman was that he had never seen her to better advantage than in her coffin. Next to Luker was his daughter, India, a girl of thirteen who had not known the dead woman in life. India interested herself in the church’s ornamental hangings, with an eye toward reproducing them in a needlepoint border.

On the other side of the central aisle sat the corpse’s only daughter, a nun. Sister Mary-Scot did not weep, but now and then the others heard the faint clack of her rosary beads against the wooden pew. Several pews behind the nun sat Odessa Red, a thin, grim black woman who had been three decades in the dead woman’s employ. Odessa wore a tiny blue velvet hat with a single feather dyed in India ink.

Before the funeral began, Big Barbara McCray had poked her daughter, and demanded of her why there was no printed order of service. Leigh shrugged. “Dauphin said do it that way. Less trouble for everybody so I didn’t say anything.”

This is an auspicious beginning to a novel that straddles the line between Southern Gothic and horror; but in using the word horror I am thinking of the quiet kind of horror, the kind Shirley Jackson wrote; this isn’t the kind where blood splatters and body parts go flying or you can hear the knife slicing through flesh and bone. This is the kind of horror that creeps up on you slowly, building in intensity and suspense until you are flipping the pages anxiously to find out what happens next.

McDowell introduces all of his characters in those few short sentences; Dauphin and his wife, Leigh; her mother Big Barbara; her brother Luker and her niece, India. Odessa also has a part to play in this story, and the only other character who doesn’t appear in this opening is Big Barbara’s estranged husband, Lawton. Lawton, like Mary-Scot, only plays a very small part in this tale, and so the reader doesn’t need to meet him until later.

(I do want to talk about character names here; the Savage family all have names that have something to do with Mary Queen of Scots; the deceased is Marian, her long dead husband Bothwell; Mary-Scot is as plain a reference as can be, whereas her two brothers were Mary Stuart’s husbands: Dauphin–her first husband was Dauphin Francois, later King Francois I of France–and the deceased elder brother, Darnley; the romantic Queen’s second husband was Lord Darnley. Marian’s –of Mary–deceased husband Bothwell bore the name of the Scottish Queen’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell. These Savage men died in reverse order of the Queen’s husband’s though; Bothwell first followed by Darnley,  and of course, as the only one living, Dauphin will die last. Also, there’s never any explanation for why Big Barbara is called Big Barbara; usually in Southern families the reason you would call someone “Big” is because there is a “Little;” there is no Little Barbara in this story, and I’m not sure where Luker came from as a name, either. I wondered if it was a colloquial pronunciation; names and words that end in an uh sound turn into ‘er’ in Alabama; Beulah being pronounced Beuler, for example, so I wondered if his name was Luka…)

The McCrays and the Savages are families bound by decades of friendship and now marriage; they have three identical houses on a southern spit of land in the lower, western side of the Alabama panhandle in a place called Beldame; Beldame is very remote, bounded by the Gulf on one side and a lagoon on the other; during high tide the gulf flows through a channel into the lagoon and turns Beldame into an island. There are no phones there nor power lines; electricity is provided by a generator and there is no air conditioning. Oh, how I remember those Alabama summers without air conditioning! One of the three houses is being lost to a drifting sand dune and is abandoned…and as the days pass, the reader begins to realize there’s something not right about that dune…or about that house.

The book reminded me some of Douglas Clegg’s brilliant Neverland; that sense of those sticky hot summers in the South, visiting a place you’re not familiar with and is kind of foreign (the primary POV once the story moves to Beldame is India, who has never been there before); those afternoons where the heat and humidity make even breathing exhausting, the white sugary sand and the glare from it, lying in a shaded hammock just hoping for a breeze–the sudden rains and drops in temperature, where eighty degrees seems cold after days of it being over a hundred…the sense of place is very strong in this book, and Beldame is, like Hill House, what Stephen King called in his brilliant treatise on the genre Danse Macabre, ‘the bad place.”

I really enjoyed this book. A lot. And it has made me think about writing about Alabama again; this entire year I’ve been thinking that, and now feel like it’s a sign that maybe I should.

And now back to the spice mines.

How Much More

Tuesday!

As I mentioned yesterday, on Sunday I reread one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels (although in mentioning favorites, I forgot So Many Steps to Death; her espionage novels were absolutely delightful), Endless Night. 

One of the things I loved the most about Christie is how she wasn’t afraid to try different types of crime fiction; she was probably best known for her two primary private eye series, one with Hercule Poirot and the other with Miss Marple, but she wrote over eighty novels, plays, and collections of short stories. She had a very keen eye for character (she is often criticized for the lack of character development; I never had that sense as a reader–she was able to sum up her characters very quickly and easily, able to use a few brief sentences and paint a vivid picture of who the person was; a skill I wish I had) and psychology; she was also a master of plotting. She knew how to create and manage suspense (the suspense is almost unbearable in And Then There Were None, for example); and she pretty much wrote everything from espionage thrillers to psychological suspense to murder mysteries to serial killers to…you name it; she wrote it.

But Endless Night is one of the most incredibly different things she wrote; and she wrote it very late in her career, publishing it in October of 1967.

endless night

The title comes from William Blake‘s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

According to some quick Internet research, the book was one of Christie’s own favorites, and received a very warm critical reception.

It’s easy to see why.

This is how the book opens:

In my end is my beginning….that’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right–but what does it really mean?

Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: “It all began that day, at such a time and such a place, with such an incident?”

Did my story begin, perhaps, when I noticed the Sale Bill hanging on the wall of the George and Dragon, announcing Sale by Auction of that valuable property, “The Towers,” and giving particulars of the acreage, the miles and furlongs, and the highly idealized portrait of “The Towers” as it might have been perhaps in its prime, anything from eighty to a hundred years ago?

I was doing nothing particular, just strolling along the main street of Kingston Bishop, a place of no importance whatever, killing time. I noticed the Sale Bill. Why? Fate up to its dirty work? Or dealing out its golden handshake of good fortune? You can look at it either way.

Isn’t that a terrific beginning?

(And “in my end is my beginning” is also what Mary Queen of Scots took as her motto during her long captivity at the hands of her cousin, Elizabeth I.)

Endless Night is, for wont of a better descriptor, a Daphne du Maurier novel written by Agatha Christie.

The book is told from the first person point of view of Mike Rodgers, a young man about town who is just kind of drifting from job to job. He winds up at The Towers, on a plot of ground known as Gipsy’s Acre, which was apparently cursed by the gipsies forceably evicted from the plot of ground centuries earlier…and the place has known nothing but tragedy since. There’s also a sharp, blind turn in the road just before the place, where plenty of people have been killed in car accidents. But while looking at the place, Mike encounters a young woman named Ellie…and before long, he and Ellie have embarked on a romance, and have decided to buy the land and build a new house there to spend the rest of their lives on. Mike has no real friends, and a bad relationship with his mother. And as it turns out, Ellie is quite wealthy…and once he is introduced to  her affluent world, things start to go very badly. Should they have listened to the old woman who warned them to stay away from Gipsy’s Acre? Is Mike a reliable narrator?

There’s an enormous twist in the book as well, which completely turns the narrative on its head, and makes you question everything you’ve been led to believe; a twist well-worthy of du Maurier. As they were contemporaries, I wonder if the two women ever met?

I love this book, and think it should be paired with du Maurier’s brilliant My Cousin Rachel, which for some reason was recently filmed again (I may watch the remake when it’s available for free streaming; it’s hard to imagine that it’s better than the original, which starred Olivia de Havilland and a very young Richard Burton). Someone should really write a compare/contract essay/piece of literary criticism about the two books; I kept thinking of My Cousin Rachel during this reread; now I really want to reread My Cousin Rachel.

Last night, I also started reading the latest Rebecca Chance, Killer Affair, and was sucked into it almost immediately; it’s Chance at her absolute best, and can’t wait to read more. I also started the final, definitive line edit of the WIP yesterday; since I always feel like the second half of my books don’t get as much attention from me as the first, I am trying something incredibly new for me: I am starting the edit with the second half of the book.

I hate line editing.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Let Her In

I often talk about the sixteenth century, primarily in the context of how in that particular century women held major positions of power, or were in positions to not only have an impact on history but did. Constant Reader knows I love me some history–right now I am thoroughly enjoying Versailles and having a bit of a seventeenth century period–but during this past football season, during games, I was rereading a book I first read when I was ten years old: Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots.

Ah, the tragic romantic heroine that is the Queen of Scots! I first discovered her, I think, when I was maybe eight years old when I read Genevieve Foster’s John Smith and His World; and there really wasn’t much about her, as Smith was only alive in the late Elizabethan period. I do remember reading the entry about her execution, and about how her spaniel was hidden inside her skirts as she went to her death–and how when the headsman held up her head, she was wearing a wig, her head fell to the ground, and the whimpering spaniel curled up around it.

How romantic! Almost sounds like the start of a ghost story, doesn’t it? “And ever after, at Fotheringhay Castle, the sound of a whimpering spaniel could be heard on the anniversary of her mistress’ death.”

Hmmmm….

Anyway, the first book I read about Mary Queen of Scots was one I found in the school library (her title always bothered me–shouldn’t it have been Queen of THE Scots?), and it was sanitized for children, and again, highly romantic: Mary was a romantic heroine, doomed by her gender to be treated as a pawn by the men of her court and, of course, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I was the villain of the piece. The 1971 film, with Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson (who was AMAZING) as Elizabeth pretty much told the same story; Mary was a romantic heroine and Elizabeth the villain.

It makes for a lovely narrative, and it’s one that is incredibly popular in fiction; the young beautiful Scottish queen who falls in love with and marries her cousin Lord Darnley only to realize it’s a colossal mistake, but then throws everything away because of her deep love for the Earl of Bothwell, winds up imprisoned by her wretched cousin Elizabeth who eventually has her executed. It does make for a lovely story.

Fraser, in her bestselling biography, tried to get to the truth of who Mary was, rather than paying lip-service to the romantic narrative. It is her thesis that Mary was actually much smarter than anyone at the time or since has given her credit for; and that her decisions weren’t emotional but made coolly as political moves in the game of thrones she was playing–and the end goal, of course, was to ascend the throne of England, uniting the entire island into one realm; an ambition her son James finally achieved.

Mary’s life, once she started getting into her marriage entanglements, was the stuff of high drama. She inherited her throne when her father died from wounds inflicted in the Battle of Solway Moss against the English; she was only six days old. She was the third child of King James V and his second, French wife, Marie de Guise; her two older brothers died of fevers while her mother was carrying her. (Inheriting the Scottish throne as children was a sad Stewart family tradition; James V was less than a year old when his own father was killed in battle–again against the English–in the Battle of Flodden Field; Mary herself abdicated in favor of her own son when he was less than a year old; James I was only twelve when he became king; James II was only seven; James III was nine, and James IV fifteen. These minority reigns helped empower the Scottish nobility and prevent the throne from becoming strong, as it did in say England, France and Spain.)

Her royal family was Stewart; her marriage to her cousin Henry Stuart changed the dynasty to the English spelling, which is why the royal family of England was known as the Stuarts, not Stewarts.

Her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, eldest surviving child of Henry VII of England and elder sister of Henry VIII, which is where her claim to the English throne came from. Until the birth of Edward VI to Henry VIII’s third wife in 1537, James was the only male heir to England. The marriage of Edward VI to young Mary was probably the wisest move, uniting the two crowns and ending centuries of strife between the two kingdoms, but Marie de Guise, Mary’s mother, was French and instead sent her infant daughter to the French court, where she was engaged to the Dauphin. The Tudor direct line ended with Henry VIII’s children, who were all childless; the death of Edward VI in 1553 brought the Catholic Mary to the throne. Once Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth became queen; but Catholics didn’t recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy–Henry’s marriage to her mother Anne Boleyn was bigamous in the eyes of the Catholic Church and so therefore Elizabeth was a bastard. The nearest legitimate heir, in their eyes, was the young Queen of Scots–who was married to the heir to the French throne and a Catholic.

Obviously, the thought of those three crowns being united was a threat to both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, so they recognized Elizabeth. A year later Mary and her husband were King and Queen of France–a year later Mary was a childless widow returning to Scotland. Elizabeth never forgave her for claiming herself to be queen of England; and the game of thrones was on.

Four years after her return, Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. This is where it gets complicated. Margaret Tudor, Mary’s grandmother, only had one child with James IV; after he died she married again and had a daughter, Margaret Douglas–who had no claim to the Scottish throne but a claim to England as a Tudor. She in turn married Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox–who was a descendant of James I and thus also was an heir to the Scottish throne. Their son Henry thus had claims to both thrones; he married Mary, and their son James would obviously be King of Scotland thru his mother; had a claim through his paternal grandfather, and a claim to the English throne from both his mother AND his father, both of whom were great-grandchildren of Henry VII.

Madness.

Lord Darnley, her husband, and other lords of the court were jealous of her closeness to her Italian secretary, and they murdered him in front of her when she was about six months pregnant. Somehow, later that night, as a prisoner of her husband and lords, Mary convinced her husband to come back to her side and they escaped together, rose an army, and with her loyal lords defeated the conspirators–who included her illegitimate brother. Mary had a son, and then, a few months later, her husband was murdered–the house he was recuperating from an illness in was blown up, but his strangled body was found in the gardens. Mary then married the Earl of Bothwell, who was commander of her armies–it was an incredibly volatile time, the Queen was Catholic and most of her subjects were not–and so it was very easy for public opinion to turn against her; particularly since most people believed Bothwell had murdered her husband so he could marry her.

Was she complicit? The marriage made it appear so–and soon enough her army was defeated, she was a prisoner, and forced to abdicate. She escaped to England, where Elizabeth promptly placed her under house arrest.

George R. R. Martin has nothing on the Queen of Scots.

She was eventually implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth–after being a prisoner for almost twenty years–was tried and found guilty and sentenced to death.

So, was she a wanton adulteress and murderess? Was she a silly woman who allowed her emotions to lead her down the wrong path, or was she a calculating player who wound up being outplayed? Despite her high station, she had a pampered and spoiled childhood, and wasn’t raised or educated to be a regnant Queen; it was always assumed her husband the King of France would rule for her. So the odds were stacked against her from the beginning; and she learned her lessons the hard way; unlike her contemporary, Elizabeth, who spent her childhood and early twenties with the shadow of the executioner across her neck.

Fraser does a great job of defending her thesis; I’ve read many other books about both the royal cousins and the game they played with each other, and I think Fraser probably paints the most accurate picture of the Queen of Scots: a smart woman who played the game against overwhelming odds and lost.

Is there anything so romantic as a lost cause?

One of the biggest disappointments of the CW show Reign was, in order to try to draw in the younger audience, they told the story when she was a young girl in France–probably the most boring part of her life. Her life in Scotland was MUCH more interesting, and would have made for greater television. The best part of Reign was Megan Follows as Queen Catherine de Medici of France–one of the most fascinating women in history. Apparently, the struggle between the cousin queens became a part of the story in the third season…but Paul and I had bored of the show long before then.

And now back to the spice mines.