Do It Again

Here it is, Saturday morning and I am awake and on my first cup of coffee. I have things to get done today–two interviews and a roundtable (the round table is terrifying; I looked at the questions and I’m not really certain I am smart or knowledgeable enough to participate, but I said I would and I never back out of things I agree to–or rarely). It’s weird, one would think I would love the chance to talk about myself and my writing as they are basically my favorite subjects, but it always makes me feel, at best, awkward and at worst, deeply uncomfortable.

All that childhood conditioning against arrogance and bragging, I suppose.

I didn’t quite finish cleaning out my inbox yesterday–in fact, I didn’t get even remotely close to cleaning it out, so it’s going back to the list for today. I need to get the mail and I need to make a short grocery run this afternoon, and I would like to go to the gym and try to get started on a regular workout routine again, but that becomes even more difficult given the heat advisory. But thinking about going to the gym, while not the same thing as actually going, is a step closer to getting there, I suppose. I also need to stop by Office Depot to buy some padded envelopes; the arrival of the box o’books also means signing and mailing out copies I owe to friends and reviewers and so forth. Signing and packaging the books is a chore, but I don’t find it as odious as one might think.

Yesterday, as you already know, Constant Reader, I finished reading S. A. Cosby’s delightful My Darkest Prayer, and I am very thrilled and happy to know that he recently signed a two-book contract, so I can look forward to new work from Shawn in the future. Yay! I love discovering new writers, and I love when they have new work. I do have this insane thing where I try not to finish reading everything an author has published so I always know there’s one more book by them to read–I was looking at my bookshelves yesterday as I reorganized the living room, realizing there are still three Kinsey Millhone books by Sue Grafton I haven’t read yet, and was saddened again to know that those will always be the last three Sue Grafton novels, and actually was thinking I should, at some point, start reading the books to clear them off the shelves. I am already at the point with some of my favorite authors, like Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott, where I have finished everything they’ve published (Lippman’s new one, Lady in the Lake, is on deck and I am probably going to start reading it today). I am also behind on some of my favorite authors–I was caught up on Donna Andrews, but I read for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original last year, which put me behind on everyone who wasn’t in that category last year (some of which I want to go back and reread, taking my time to savor them the way I ordinarily would), and I am also years behind on numerous authors I enjoy…but new books are being released every damned day. Sigh. There’s simply never enough time.

In my review of Shawn’s book, I wrote about something I truly believe–and the more I diversify my reading in my own genre, the more I believe it to be true. I believe that women writers saved the crime genre in the 1980’s, and while they are still doing some serious heavy lifting, the diverse voices of authors like Shawn are reinvigorating and reinventing the crime genre, and breathing new life into it. (I’m really looking forward to October, when I will switch to reading horror, and reading novels by diverse voices in that genre–there are some new and exciting people of color writing in that genre…plus, reading horror will further diversify my reading by taking me outside of crime for a month.) Some of the diverse voices I’ve read thus far this year–Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, Walter Mosley, Steph Cha, Angie Kim, etc.–are doing extraordinary work that needs to be recognized, promoted, and pushed by all of us; they are breathing new life into our genre, as are women writers like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Megan Abbott, Jamie Mason, Elizabeth Little, and many, many more. And while I often generically refer to the “straight white men”–let’s face it, some of today’s men are writing exceptional work, too–Ace Atkins, Bill Loefhelm, Michael Koryta, to name a few amongst many. I think this is a very exciting time for crime fiction, and I look forward to reading more work by queer writers, as well. I’ve not gotten to some of the newer queer crime writers yet, which I am going to try to focus on more in the latter part of the year. I am really looking forward to Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, as it is a queer novel by a queer woman set in the rural South; something I can certainly relate to.

I kind of had a lackadaisical day of rest yesterday, really, where I accomplished little other than reading my book and doing the laundry, and couldn’t really motivate myself to do much more than that–I did make a delicious shrimp stir-fry for dinner last night, though–and we watched two episodes of The Movies last night, “The 80’s” and “The 90’s.” There’s only one more episode left, unless they release “The 50’s,” which is also a rather interesting period in the history of film. I started reading, for research, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s, by Otto Friedrichs (recommended by Megan Abbott), and it has a lovely bibliography in the back which should be enormously helpful for further research into the time period. I also have a copy of E. J. Fleming’s The Fixers, which should also come in handy for research; again, as a starting place with the gold mine of a bibliography in the back.

So, here’s hoping that today will be that unusual thing; a highly productive, but at the same time, a restful day. Last night’s wonderful sleep is, of course, a wonderful basis for the rest of my day.

Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.

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Delta Dawn

And now, tis time to turn the three days left of my vacation into a productive time.

I have spent the last two days simply doing as I pleased; occasionally stepping up to do some chores around the Lost Apartment, but mostly just reading and watching things on television. I tried, the other night, to watch a movie, but gave up on both Lucky Logan and The Man in the Iron Mask (Leonardo DiCaprio version); I also tried watching a documentary, How the Devil Got His Horns, but quickly bored of each of them. I will probably give Lucky Logan another shot, as I love both Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, and it seems like a subversively brilliant and funny noir movie. (I actually stopped watching, not because I was bored, but because I thought, Paul would probably like this movie so I should wait and watch it with him)

I also watched the original Star Wars trilogy yesterday–well, more like had it on as background noise while I did other things–and while Episode IV has always been my favorite, since it was the first, I have to confess for the most part Episode V is probably the better film. I also have always resisted criticism of Episode VI, but the more I watch the more I tend to agree with the criticism. I mean, really, was the entire opening sequence rescuing Han necessary? It took up a good portion of the film, quite frankly, and to what purpose? And precisely, how did Luke, who never finished his training in Episode V, was far too impatient and wasn’t breaking through, suddenly become a Jedi Master in Episode VI?

Questions. So. Many. Questions.

But today, I need to get moving. I need to write, I need to proof the pages of Royal Street Reveillon AND the cover design and get that turned in. I need to finish cleaning the downstairs–I started and made some lovely headway over the past two days, doing it leisurely, and I’d like to keep that pace going, so by Sunday evening the entire place will be sparkling and clean. I want to read some more of Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, and I have a lot of cleaning and organizing to do around my desk–balanced around the complaints and whines of Needy Kitty, who wants me to sit in my easy chair so he can sleep in my lap. I’ve also been going to bed ridiculously early every night, around ten, and sleeping until eight every morning, which has also been lovely. I don’t feel a bit slothful, which I usually do when I am getting this much sleep and doing so little. But I chose to look at Wednesday and Thursday as holidays, and now I can get some work done over these final three days of vacation.

A Twitter conversation sometime in the last few weeks with Rob Hart (whose soon-to-be-released The Warehouse–actually being released on my birthday) got me thinking about gay representation in crime fiction over the years, and reading I the Jury (surprise! Mickey Spillane’s first novel is rife with homophobia) made me remember that the only James Ellroy book I’ve ever read also had homophobia in it. I’d always wanted to read Ellroy, just had never gotten around to it, and I’d decided to dip in with a lesser known work. There was a gay character in it–minor–and the way he was talked about, the way he was treated, and the language that was used, was horrific. Despite owning a copy of L.A. Confidential, I’ve never read it…nor read any other Ellroy. I’ve always intended to go back and read some Ellroy; I met him when he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and we had a weird bonding experience over the Ken Holt mystery series for boys that we both read as kids. But I could never remember the name of the book of his I’d read. I knew it had a one-word title, which narrowed it down somewhat, and I’d even gotten a copy of Perfidia only to realize it wasn’t the book. For some reason I went digging around on Amazon and realized the book in question was Clandestine, and now I want to read it again.

Honestly. But the Spillane essay I’ve been making notes on would kind of fit into the over-all concept of a larger examination of gay representation, homophobia, and homophobic content in crime fiction; as well as questions of masculinity and toughness in America and American fiction.

It was also be interesting to do an essay comparing/contrasting Megan Abbott’s historical noir fiction with Ellroy’s.

So much writing, so little time, so little desire to actually do any of it.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I’d love to write noir novels about the hidden gay underground of Hollywood’s Golden Age; I had a great idea for one a while back that involved the drowning murder of a young actor who was sleeping with powerful gay men to help his own star rise at a studio in the 1950’s, and how his roommate/best friend/ex-lover, also an actor on the rise, tries to solve the crime since the homophobic cops don’t give a shit about another dead gay man in Los Angeles. It even has a great noir-like title: Chlorine.

I have so many ideas, always.

And now, it’s back to the spice mines. I have a load of laundry to fold, some things to print, and then it’s time to buckle down and start getting things done.

Have a lovely post-holiday Friday, Constant Reader.

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Sweet Love

Saturday morning and feeling fine. Another good night’s sleep is in the books, and I am swilling coffee and looking forward to getting some things done today. I have to make groceries (I wound up pretty much effectively blowing most of yesterday off–who saw that coming?) and I need to get some work done on the WIP. I did get all of the laundry–including bed linens–done yesterday, and the dishes, and some cleaning and organizing done. I also pulled the WIP out from the back-up, and sure enough, the 300 words or so I’d one on Chapter Three weren’t there, since they are on the flash drive.

But as I said yesterday, reconstructing the revisions I’d already done turned out to be easier–and better–than the revision I’d done already; and while I simply added a different three hundred words to that chapter, this 300 is better than the last 300 and I also restructured the opening of the chapter so it makes better sense and works better. So leaving the flash drive at the office was, as I thought it might be yesterday, for the best. I intend to get that chapter finished this morning, perhaps move on to the next, and then perhaps get a short story reworked before retiring to my easy chair with Alison Gaylin’s quite superb Never Look Back, which is quite superb, actually. I thought her last two novels–What Remains of Me and If I Die Tonight–were marvelous; this one looks to be even better than both of those….which means hours of reading bliss for me. Gaylin is an author who always outdoes herself with each new work, like her peers Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Lori Roy, and Alafair Burke.

And I think the next book up with be something by a gay author, as I continue working on the Diversity Project. I also need to get back to reading Murder-a-Go-Go’s, so I can keep writing up the stories in it. I also should be doing more promotion for Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. I’ve done a terrible job of pushing the book thus far–even forgetting the publication date–and yeah, it’s a wonder I still  have a career to speak at all in this business.

But it’s great to feel rested and relaxed; that happens so rarely that having several good nights’ sleep under my belt has me wondering, is this how everyone else feels? Don’t take the ability to sleep for granted, Constant Reader, if it is something you are blessed with; it can be taken away from you before you know it and you’ll really, really miss it once it’s gone.

We watched some more of Kim’s Convenience  last night, and continue to enjoy it. I do want to get back to watching You and The Umbrella Academy at some point, but neither show crosses my mind when I am flipping through the Apple TV apps trying to find something to watch. I also never finished watching Pose, and there’s also Fosse/Verdon, which I’d like to take a look at as well. And I barely ever think to go to Amazon Prime…primarily because their television app isn’t really user friendly. (I’ve still never forgiven Hulu for changing theirs from something incredibly intuitive and super-easy to use to the more complicated version they have now.) But there are some terrific films I’d like to see–I still haven’t seen Black Panther, for example–and of course there are some classic films available for streaming.

It’s ever so easy to get distracted, you know?

So, once I finish this I am going to go read for an hour before getting back to work on the WIP, and then I am going to head to the grocery store. I’ll work on it some more when I get back from the grocery store, and then read some more until about five-ish, after which I’ll probably go sit in my chair and scroll through apps looking for something to watch…oh yes, the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are on tonight, and LSU made it to the final four, along with UCLA, Oklahoma, and Denver. Paul and I are enormous LSU fans, and we watch the gymnastics team compete, whenever possible, on television. And football season will be returning soon…I am already getting emails from Stubhub about buying game tickets. Paul and I are still riding our eight-year streak of never seeing LSU lose when we are in the stadium; let’s hope that streak continues for a ninth year.

And now it’s time to head back into the spice mines. See you on the flip side, Constant Reader!

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Free Your Mind

Well, I slept deeply and well last night, only waking up twice–and both times I was able to go back into a lovely, lovely deep sleep. I also didn’t wake up until almost nine. I know, right? It’s so lovely to feel rested.

LSU’s game isn’t on until tonight, but there are some terrific games on throughout the day. I suspect I can finish the floors and cleaning the living room around and during some of these games; I can also get some writing done as well, methinks. I am leaning towards editing some short stories rather than working on the book–yes, I know that will put me two days behind where I want to be with it, but I am also stuck. (And no sooner did I type that, did I come up with a way to start Chapter Four in a way that will help advance the plot somewhat. Huzzah!)

Yesterday, as I mentioned, I stopped at the Latter Library on my way home from work to pick up a book I’d requested on-line, Volume 2 of Otto Penzler’s Bibliomysteries. If you aren’t familiar with the “Bibliomysteries,” these are slightly longer than your average short stories, written by today’s top crime writers, and have to focus or be centered around a book or a bookstore. I first became aware of them when I was a judge for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story a few years ago (maybe more than a few; time has become so fluid and untethered for me–particularly when I realize it’s fucking 2018 sometimes), and in fact we picked John Connelly’s Bibliomystery, “‘The Caxton Lending Library and Book Depository,” as that year’s Best Short Story winner. Since then, I’ve read others–Megan Abbott’s “The Little Men,” Laura Lippman’s “The Book Thing,” Denise Mina’s “Every Seven Years”–and been blown away by their absolute brilliance (which reminds me, I really need to get back to the Short Story Project, which has sadly fallen by the wayside); so I am very excited to read this second collection of these singles; the stories are, you see, originally published as singles–you can buy them as ebooks or you can get a print copy.

I love the library, and was extremely pleased with myself, as Constant Reader is probably already aware, for finally getting my library card. I haven’t had one since I left Kansas in 1981; and even in Kansas I hadn’t used mine for years when we moved. Libraries were very important to me, as a kid and as a teen; I don’t know why I stopped using them–other than the fact that I often lost library books, or forgot to return them on time, which meant fines, which meant lectures from my mother about irresponsibility and on and on and on it went–but I remember the Tomen Branch of the Chicago Public Library fondly; the library on 6th Street in Emporia, and the little library in Americus, as well as when the Bolingbrook Library opened. I often spent time in my school libraries as well as a kid. Stupidly, I suspect I stopped using libraries when I started working and had my own money to buy books with; I loved owning books, always coveted other people’s, and for years was also sentimentally attached to books and didn’t want to get rid of my copies of them. I still am, and I still hoard books, always buying more when I haven’t read all the ones on hand, and I was the same with the library; always checking out more than I could possibly read because I also wanted choices about what to read. I’m looking forward to reading–and reporting back–on the stories in this book I haven’t already read–the Abbott and Mina stories are also inside this collection of them. Writing a Bibliomystery is a bucket-list thing for me; but I will also need to become more important of a writer to be asked.

Last night, as I laundered the bed lines and blankets and coverlets, it took longer for the dryer to dry things then planned–it was damp yesterday, and damp always affects the dryer–so I had to stay up a little later than I wanted to, so I started streaming an 1980’s classic thru Prime: Night of the Comet, starring Robert Beltran, Catherine-Mary Stewart, and Kelli Maroney. I saw this movie in the theater when it was released; it’s not the greatest movie in the world, but it also recognized that it wasn’t a great movie and embraced its camp sensibility. The premise of the movie is this: a comet with an enormous orbit through space is going to pass close by Earth again for the first time in sixty-five million years (hello, dinosaur extinction event!), and of course, it turns into this thing, with comet-watching parties and so forth. Our two leading ladies manage to miss the comet by falling asleep inside of steel–Stewart in the cinema where she works in a steel-walled room for storing film; Maroney in a steel shed in the backyard–and the comet turns everyone into either dust or murderously insane zombies, and they have to survive somehow. Fortunately, the women–sisters–have a father in the military who taught them how to protect themselves. Beltran plays a truck driver (who passed the night inside his truck) they encounter, and eventually team up with for survival. I was just far enough into the movie to get to the part where they run into Beltran for the first time–having already realized most of the world is dead–when the blankets were finished. I also remembered some trivia–Stewart’s big break was being the original Kayla on Days of Our Lives (her replacement became one of the most-loved and popular stars of the show), and Maroney started out playing a manipulative spoiled bitch teenager on Ryan’s Hope. Stewart was also the female lead in a favorite scifi movie of mine from that same period, The Last Starfighter. Both kind of faded away which I always thought was kind of unfortunate–although watching the movie again last night and seeing their performances clearly, it’s really not that surprising.

And Beltran, of course, was part of the Paul Bartel stable, also appearing in Eating Raoul and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Interesting that Bartel’s films, which were kind of the same style as John Waters movies, aren’t remembered or talked about much anymore. (Bartel and his usual female muse, Mary Woronov, also were in another classic from the period, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School–but I don’t remember if Bartel directed that one.)

I may finish watching Night of the Comet at some point today; we shall see how the day goes.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Love Touch

Sunday morning, as I sit here in my cool workspace swilling coffee, trying to wake up and figure out what to do with the rest of my day. I need to go to the grocery store and I should also probably make an attempt to go to the gym; but I can’t seem to find my iPad, which makes doing cardio pointless (I read or watch TV on my iPad while on the treadmill; perhaps not having my iPad is simply an excuse for not going; what if it’s gone, lost, stolen? I am trying not to think that way and am hoping that I simply left it at the office. If not, I am terribly screwed because I don’t know where it is and I currently don’t have the cash on hand to replace it. So, yes, let’s just continue pretending happily that it’s as the office, shall we?)

I could, of course, just go to the gym and do weights. That always feels good, at any rate. Perhaps once I finish swilling this coffee….

I slept late yesterday, and I slept even later today. I spent most of yesterday not only reading but doing chores around the house, on the pretense that today I would not only go to the grocery store and the gym, but I would also spend some time writing today. I need to finish a short story; I need to revise still another, and there’s that new one struggling to take root in my brain that I haven’t really decided what to do with just yet. There are two others swirling around up there in my head, as well as others I’ve not thought about or have forgotten about in the meantime. But now, now as I wake up I feel more confident about running the errands and going to the gym and actually doing some writing today.

I’ve been reading The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and greatly enjoying it; is there anything quite like well-written non-fiction? It’s why I love Joan Didion and Barbara Tuchman; one of the things I love to do while reading is to learn, and non-fiction fills that need quite beautifully. I also like non-fiction that makes me think; which is why I am looking forward to reading Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. I still would love to do a collection of my own essays, book reviews, and so forth; but egad, what an odious chore pulling all of that together would be. I struggle with essays, but I also think that the writing of essays; the ability to pull thoughts from my head and extrapolate them out to their fullest meaning, is vitally important and a skill-set I wish I had honed more properly. A friend once pointed out to me, as I bemoaned my inability to write essays, that my blog itself is nothing more than years of personal essays. That took me aback, because it was, in many ways, correct; there is definitely some truth to that, but it’s hard for me to take the blog seriously in that fashion, because so much of it is simply written off the top of my head in the morning as I wake up and drink coffee and try to figure out what to do with the rest of my day.

One of the problems for me with personal essays is, ultimately, the issue of self-deprecation, which I’ve addressed in previous blog entries about my writing and my career and my books; who am I to write about this subject? Am I expert enough in this to write about it, or am I simply talking about things that smarter, better-educated people have written about long ago and having the hubristic belief that I am the only person to see this truth for the first time? 

And, in considering myself self-deprecatingly as not that special or particularly smart, I defeat myself and never write the essay.

And of course, there is the problem of all the lies my memory tells me.

But yesterday, I took the afternoon to finish read an ARC of Lou Berney’s new novel, November Road, and was blown away by it.

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Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor!

Frank Guidry paused at the corner of Toulouse to  bask in the neon furnace glow. He’d lived in New Orleans the better part of his thirty-seven years on earth, but the dirty glitter and sizzle of the French Quarter still hit his bloodstream like a drug. Yokels and locals, muggers and hustlers, fire-eaters and magicians. A go-go girl was draped over the wrought-iron rail of a second floor balcony, one book sprung free from her sequined negligee and swaying like a metronome to the beat of the jazz trio inside. Bass, drums, piano, tearing through “Night and Day.” But that was New Orleans for you. Even the worst band in the crummiest clip joint in the city could swing, man, swing.

A guy came whipping up the street, screaming bloody murder. Hot on his heels–a woman waving a butcher knife, screaming, too,

Guidry soft-shoed out of their way. The beat cop on the corner yawned. The juggler outside the 500 Club didn’t drop a ball. Just another Wednesday night on Bourbon Street.

Lou’s previous novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, won every crime-writing award under the sun that it was eligible for: Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and I don’t know what all; it was the crime publishing equivalent of the EGOT. It was, obviously, an exceptional novel. I met Lou when we were on a panel together at the Raleigh Bouchercon, along with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron; moderated by the amazing Katrina Niidas Holm. It was funny, because the panel topic was, I think, writing about small towns which, in fact, none of us on the panel really did, but we had fun with the topic and I know I brought up Peyton Place at least once and pointed out that suburbs are small towns with the primary difference being suburbs are bedroom communities for cities while small towns aren’t attached in any way to a larger city. It was fun and spirited and I liked Lou, thought he was incredibly smart, as were Liz and Lori. Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars for that year; and I admire their work tremendously. I’ve not had the opportunity to read Liz’ work; but she did have a terrific story in the New Orleans Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou.

Anyway, I digress.

I’ve been looking forward to November Road since I finished reading The Long and Faraway Gone, but I still need to go back and read Lou’s first two novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight. 

I also have to admit, I was a little hesitant about Lou’s new book; it’s built around the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which always gives me pause (I have yet to immerse myself in Stephen King’s 11/22/63). I’m not sure why I don’t care to read fiction around the Kennedy assassination, but there you have: an insight into my mind. But the Kennedy assassination, while a primary plot device, is just that: a device to set the story in motion. Frank Guidry is involved with a mob boss in New Orleans, and after the Kennedy assassination he is given instructions to fly to Dallas, retrieve a car, and drive it to Houston to dispose of it. While he is doing this, he realizes that he is getting rid of evidence that may be of vital importance to the investigation into the president’s murder–and as such, is a loose end who knows too much and figures out he’s got to disappear now because they’re going to want to kill him. And sure enough, they do send someone after him, Paul Barone, a remorseless killer and tracker. The cat-and-mouse game between them builds suspense throughout the book.

But it’s not just about Frank, and it is a credit to Berney’s talent, creativity and imagination in that he throws in another primary character, constructed carefully in all the facets and layers that make her live and breathe: Charlotte. Charlotte is a wife and mother in a small town in Oklahoma, married to a useless drunk fuck-up with whom she had two daughters, and her salary working for the local town photographer is the primary thing keeping a roof over their heads. Her own ambitions for being a photographer herself are constantly shat upon by her boss, her society and culture and environment: she is a woman, a wife and mother, and in 1963 that so thoroughly defines her that any other ambition she might have throws her identity as wife and mother into question. Trapped, with the walls closing in on her closer every day, Charlotte takes the president’s assassination as a sign for her to run away with the girls and start over. Charlotte is an extraordinary character;  her relationship with her daughters is the strong backbone of this story. You root for her, you want her to make her escape and make her dreams come true.

Frank and Charlotte cross paths in New Mexico, and Frank sees them as his salvation; his murderous pursuers might be thrown off as they are looking for a single man, not one traveling with his wife and kids; the book becomes even stronger and more suspenseful once they are all together. Frank and Charlotte become close, despite not being completely honest with each other; they are both keeping their cards close to their vests, but yet form a loving bond. WIll they escape, or will they not?

November Road reminded me a lot of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn; the same kind of relationship building between a man and a woman where a lot of information, important, information, is held back from each other, and that lack of trust while falling in love is an important theme in both books: women trying to make their best lives, even if it means making morally questionable decisions, while becoming involved with a man who isn’t completely honest with her. Berney’s writing style, and tone, and mood, also put me in mind of Megan Abbott’s brilliant Give Me Your Hand. If you’ve not read yet the Lippman and Abbott novels, I’d recommend getting them and holding on to them until Berney’s book is released in October and reading them all over the course of a long weekend.

Bravo.

Sweet Freedom

Ah, Monday, which this week is my short day. I didn’t (of course) get as much done this weekend as I would have liked; but the truth of the matter is I really need a day to run errands and do chores–which exhausts me–and then another day to just chill out and relax to get ready for the next week. But I am not beating myself up over not getting things done as planned any more; a to-do list is merely a list of things that have to be done at some point, without deadlines and/or pressure. (Well, actual deadlines do have to be followed, but you know what I mean.) I did spend the weekend getting caught up on things I watch (Animal Kingdom) and some movies I’ve always meant to watch (The Faculty, which was amazingly and gloriously ridiculous) and an absolutely brilliant documentary about Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) and how it changed everything and influenced everything that came after it. It also called to mind how Anthony Perkins deserved the Best Actor Oscar that year and wasn’t even nominated–one of the biggest crimes in Oscar history.

I also did some reading; I read some short stories, which was fun, and I also read more of  Lou Berney’s November Road, which I am trying to read slowly, so as to savor every word and every moment. It really is brilliant; I have to say this is a top notch year in the world of crime fiction, with terrific novels being released left and right–this year has also seen Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, with Lori Roy’s exceptional The Disappearing and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released this week, and so many amazing others I haven’t gotten to yet. My reading isn’t as public or as frequent this year as I would like, simply because I am judging an award yet again so am trying to focus on reading for that–hence the Short Story Project–and I worry that the great books are going to continue to stack up in my TBR pile, and thus defeat me in the process of ever catching up.

I really need to stop agreeing to judge prizes.

One of the stories I read yesterday was “Almost Missed It By A Hair” by Lisa Respers France, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

Had it not been his body in the huge box of fake hair, I like to think that Miles Henry would have been amused.

At least, the man I once knew would have seen the humor in it: a male stylist who made his fame as one of the top hair weavers in Baltimore discovered in a burial mound of fake hair at the Hair Dynasty, the East Coast;s biggest hair-styling convention of the year. It had all the elements that guaranteed a front page in the Sunpapers, maybe even a blurb in the “Truly Odd News” sections of the nationals. Television reports swarmed the scene, desperate for a sound bite from anyone even remotely connected to Miles. Yes, it all would have been sweet nirvana to Miles, publicity hound that he was. If he had lived to see it.

I knew him pretty well. I knew him when he was Henry Miles, the only half-black half-Asian guy in Howard Park, our West Baltimore neighborhood. His exotic looks ensured that he never wanted for female attention, although they also made him a target for the wannabe thugs who didn’t much cotton to a biracial pretty boy spouting hiphop lyrics. He was a few years older than I was, so our paths crossed only rarely. Besides, he was the neighborhood hottie and I was a shy chubby teenager with acne. The different in our social statures, as well as the difference in our ages, limited us to the socially acceptable dance of unequals. Meaning, I stared at him and he didn’t know I was alive. It was only when we were grown and found ourselves cosmetology competitors that we began to talk to each other.

This is a great story, and yet again further proof of how important the voices of diverse writers are. A murder that takes place at a convention for African-American hair and nail technicians? And frankly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a short story as much as I enjoyed this one. I know nothing –or at least, very little– about African-American hair, although I know it’s a very fraught issue. But from the wonderful opening of the discovery of a dead man’s body in a box of fake hair all the way through the finish, the authorial voice is strong, and what makes it even stronger is how she deftly explains, in a non-info-dumpish way, about weaves and wigs and styles and hair sculpting and everything that goes into what women of color deal with when it comes to hair.

Brilliant, and brava.

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Sugar Walls

Sunday morning. Yesterday wasn’t nearly as productive as I would have hoped; but I am pleased to report that “My Brother’s Keeper” is finished,  and “Don’t Look Down” isn’t nearly as big of a mess as I thought it was before reading it from beginning to end. It needs some serious polishing before I can consider it to be done–or read it aloud–but I think another push on it today and it will be done. I also started writing yet another story yesterday–“This Thing of Darkness”–which is kind of an interesting idea. We’ll see how it goes. My goal for today is to finish “Don’t Look Down” and “Fireflies” today so they are ready for the read-aloud. And, of course, once “Don’t Look Down” is finished, my collection will be as well–which is kind of exciting.

I didn’t work on Scotty yesterday; I am going to hold off on going back to work on him until tomorrow. I want to get this collection finished, and he needs to sit for another day. I may go back and reread what I’ve already written; the first fourteen chapters, so I can figure out where, precisely, this next chapter needs to go.

I also finished reading Megan Abbott’s amazing Give Me Your Hand last night.

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I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together.

We were bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race.

Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators.

Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place.

It is powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else.

Sometimes it feels like Diane was a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood.

On occasional nights, stumbling to the bathroom after a bad dream, a Diane dream, I avoid the mirror, averting my eyes, leaving the light off, some primitive part of my half-asleep brain certain that if I looked, she might be there. (Cover your mirrors after dark, my great-grandma used to say. Or they trap the dreamer’s wandering soul.)

Megan Abbott has been a favorite of mine, since years ago when I first read Bury Me Deep as a judge for the Hammett Prize. A period noir, set in the early 1980’s and based on a true story, I was blown away by its deceptive simplicity and hidden complexities. It echoed of the great noirs of James M. Cain and great hardboiled women writers, like Margaret Millar and Dorothy B. Hughes; a tale of desperation and love and murder, crime and ruined reputations, as it delved into the complex emotions that could lead a woman to commit a horrifically brutal murder; its exploration of small-town corruption was reminiscent of Hammett’s Red Harvest. Over the years since that first reading, I’ve gone on to read Abbott’s other brilliances: This Song is You, Queenpin, Dare Me, The End of Everything, You Will Know Me. Her women aren’t victims in the classic sense of victims in crime fiction; her women have agency, they make their decisions and they know their own power; a common theme to all of her novels is the discovery of that power and learning to harness it; whether it’s sexual power (The End of Everything), physical power (You Will Know Me), cerebral (Give Me Your Hand), or inner strength (Dare Me).

And somehow, she manages to continue to grow and get better as a novelist, as a writer, with every book.

She is probably the greatest psychological suspense writer of our time; her ability to create complex inner lives for her characters, to explore the duality of weakness and strength we all carry within us, and the delving into the complicated nuances of female friendships, with all their inner rivalries and passions and jealousies and affections, is probably unparalleled. Her books are also incredibly smart and layered; this one has references, both subtle and overt, to both Hamlet and Macbeth seamlessly woven into the text; the dual, competing themes of inertia despite the knowledge of a crime versus unfettered ambition; and what to do when faced with both. How do you decide? And what does your decisions say about you as a person?

Give Me Your Hand is set in the world of research science, which may seem a weird setting for a crime novel…but competition for research funding and positions, for advancement in career, the thin veneer of civility and camaraderie between co-workers angling for plum research assignments, is at its very heart, noir. One of the characters, Alex, says at one point, jokingly, “we’re a nest of vipers”…and it turns out to be very true.

The novel follows the complex friendship between the main character, Kit Owens and Diane Fleming, who first meet as young teens at Science Camp, and again later their senior year of high school. They become friends, with similar interests; Kit and Diane push each other to be their very best. It is the friendship with Diane that sets Kit on the road to  her career as a research scientist; yet their friendship is blown apart by a secret Diane shares with Kit,  and the knowledge of that shared secret haunts both women for the rest of their lives. Their paths cross again years later, working in the same lab and competing for a limited number of spots on a new, important research project having to do with how excessive premenstrual syndrome: premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). The book also offers two timelines: the senior year, with its heavy influence of the Hamlet theme, and the present, which is more on the lines of Macbeth. Blood also is used, repeatedly, brilliantly, as an image; the study is on a disorder caused by menstruation, and of course, blood as in relatives, as a life-force, as a motivator.

The book is slated for a July release; usually when I get advance copies I wait until the release date is imminent for me to blog about these books. But this one couldn’t wait; I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since finishing it late last night.

Preorder the hell out of this, people.