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As Constant Reader should know by now, while my entire identity and ego is wrapped up (probably too much) in being a writer, the truth is I have always been, currently am, and will always be, a reader first. I love to read, always have since I first learning what the little squiggles on the pages actually meant and learned how to decipher the little squiggles first into words, then into sentences, paragraphs and eventually entire stories. Reading was always my escape from a world too harsh for a little creative gay boy surrounded by people who didn’t read much nor cared much about books and so forth; sometimes the fantasy worlds I created in my head–always influenced by my reading–were safer and better places that I preferred to what, to me, was the horror of reality. I also learned a lot from my reading. I learned about other countries and cultures and groups; history and geography and other little odds and ends of information that remain lodged in my head and make me good at both Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit (case in point: I learned from Nancy Drew’s 44th adventure The Clue in the Crossword Cipher that the Incas’ language was quechua; I’ve never forgotten that, or that the Nasca Lines play a part in the book, and she and her friends also went to Machu Picchu).

Over the last few years I realized that my reading was primarily white and straight and decided to correct that; since then I have discovered the eye-opening marvel that is the talent of non-white authors and their remarkable story-telling ability. S. A. Cosby, Kellye Garrett, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mia P. Manansala, Alex Segura Jr, Raquel V. Reyes and many others have opened my eyes to other American experiences, and reading their work has also given me a broader and deeper understanding and appreciation of a different kind of American experience.

And then I read Gabino Iglesias’ 2022 release, The Devil Takes You Home.

Leukemia. That’s what the doctor said. She was young, white, and pretty. Her brown hair hung like a curtain over her left eye. She talked to us softly, using the tone most people use to explain things to a child, especially when they think the child is an idiot. Her mouth opened just enough to let the words flow out. She said our four-year-old daughter had cancer in her blood cells. Our Anita, who waited in the other room, playing with Legos and still wrapped in innocence. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Those strange words were said in a voice that was both impossibly sharp and velvety. Her soft delivery didn’t help. You can wrap a shotgun in flowers, but that doesn’t make the blast less lethal.

The young, white, pretty doctor told us it was too early to tell for sure, but there was a good chance that Anita was going to be okay. Okay, that’s the word she used. Sometimes four letters mean the world. She immediately added that she couldn’t make any promises. People fear being someone else’s hope. I understood her, but I wanted her to be our hope.

Jesus.

The opening of the book rips your heart out and rends your soul.

I am not a parent, never have been, never wanted to be, and never will be. I admire and respect parents (for the most part) because when I try to imagine what it’s like to be one, I can’t–it literally wears my brain down. I am a chronic worrier as it is; I get nervous when Paul doesn’t come home from work when he’s supposed to, or dawdles and delays and doesn’t text me. But for the most part, I know he’s an adult and functional and I believe he can, for the most part, navigate the world safely so I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about him.

I don’t think parents ever have a moment’s rest from the time the child is born until the child or the parents die–and I can imagine no greater grief than losing a beloved child.

Losing their child is how this book opens. And you just know in your heart of hearts–things aren’t going to get better any time soon for the father narrating this story. It isn’t a spoiler to let you know, Constant Reader, that by Chapter Three Anita is dead and her parents are swimming in debt and grief and drowning in it all. Before long, the marriage is over and Mario is alone with his grief and his debt and misery.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such a literate and powerful description of rock bottom in my life.

Mario turns back to crime in an attempt to make things right with the world and to somehow fill his horrible emptiness with something, anything. He starts off as a hitman, killing bad people and making money to pay down his debt and maybe, just maybe, somehow get his wife back and they can start over. Mario is desperate–and aren’t desperate characters the essense of noir at its purest distillation? He is then recruited to help liberate some cash from a cartel on its way to Mexico. Success means a cool two hundred grand and the potential to start over. Failure means a bullet in the head.

Both are better options than the life Mario is living at the time.

The pacing is breakneck and the story itself is a trainwreck you can’t look away from; you can’t help rooting for Mario, flaws and all, because the suffering is so intense you want him to find, somehow, both redemption and peace. (The book also serves as a stinging indictment of poverty in this country, and the near-impossibility of bettering yourself while drowning in the debt incurred for the possibility of bettering yourself, as well as our fraudulent health care system. Parents shouldn’t be saddled with insurmountable debt for trying to keep their child alive and especially not when the child passes.)

There are also some fascinating elements of the paranormal/supernatural mixed into the story, too–but while this might throw a typical noir off-track, it works here to heighten the sense of madness and unreality the entire book invokes. The true horror of the book is the system, designed to keep people of color down and to keep the cycle of poverty going.

Here are just a few of the gems in the prose:

The middle of nowhere is remarkably consistent in terms of being unmemorable.

The décor was a mix of a failed attempt at hill-country chic circa 1970 and neon signs for the kinds of beers folks buy at gas station convenience stores on their way to somewhere they wish they could escape.

The Devil Takes You Home is raw, fresh and original, with the kind of crisp smart literate writing that speaks of Lisa Lutz, Megan Abbott, and Jim Thompson.

I marked any number of pages for these writing gems that both awed and inspired me (to do better with my own work).

I highly recommend the book–but be warned: there is violence and gore aplenty, but it all works because it’s not there for shock value.

If Anyone Falls

I absolutely loved the tag line for the marvelous television adaptation of Megan Abbott’s equally brilliant novel Dare Me: “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenaged girls.” It’s also incredibly accurate; our teen years often impact and influence who we become and can color the rest of our lives. I loved Dare Me; it was lyrically, hauntingly written, and the story it told, while actually pretty simple, showed how the intricacies of relationships between young girls and authority figures who aren’t much older than they are, can become so complicated and complex; layers of love intermingling with hate and jealousy, the power dynamic shifting and changing as the characters themselves shift, change, and grow from their experiences.

I write, sometimes, books where the main characters are young–teenagers, either in high school or college or having just completed college–and those books are often labeled and marketed as “young adult” fiction, even though I generally just consider them novels about young people. I mean, technically novels about young people are young adult novels, and yet while I am resigned to this marketing label I am never certain if my books truly qualify or not. Perhaps that’s some kind of internalized arrogance and a sense of subconscious superiority to what I consider something lesser; it’s definitely something I should unpack at some point. But I think it is also an interesting starting point for one of my endless essay ideas, and perhaps someday–when I am less scattered, less all-over-the-place mentally and creatively–I’ll be able to sit down and write all those essays I want to write.

Which brings me to John Copenhaver’s second novel, The Savage Kind, which I just finished reading yesterday.

If I tell you the truth about Judy and Philippa, I’m going to lie. Not because I want to, but because to tell the story right, I have to. As girls, they were avid documentarians, each armed with journals and buckets of pens, convinced that future generations would pour over their words. Everything they did was a performance. Everything they wrote assumed an audience. After all, autobiographers are self-serving, aggrandizing. Memoirists embellish. It’s unavoidable. To write down your memories is an act of invention, to arrange them in the best, most compelling order, a bold gesture. Some of the diary entries that follow are verbatim, lifted directly from the source, but others are enhanced and reshaped. I reserve my right to shade in the empty spaces, to color between the lines, to lie.

You may balk, dear reader, but I don’t care. I need to get this right.

I could take different approaches. I could contrast the teenage girls: the black hat and the white, the harpy and the angel, the cunning vamp and the doe-eyed boob. Or I could draw them together, a single unit: Lucy and Ethel, Antony and Cleopatra, Gertrude and Alice, Holmes and Watson, or even, I dare say, Leopold and Loeb. But neither of those angles would work. The complicated facts are inescapable. These girls are both separate and together, but many times, they followed their own paths and even crossed one another. Things are never that simple, never that black and white, that good or evil, or that true or false. I’m not writing this to assign blame, or to ask forgiveness, or to tie it up in a bow for posterity. It’s not that kind of book.After all, an act of violence committed by one may have originated in the heart of the other. That’s to say, this is a story about sisters, and like many of those dusty and gruesome stories from ancient literature, here sisterhood is sealed in blood.

I should know. I was one of them.

Great opening, right?

John’s debut Dodging and Burning won the Macavity Award*, and was quite the impressive debut. II was completely blown away by the book myself–it showed a maturity and sophistication in theme, writing, and characters that one rarely sees in a debut novel. One of the things I thought was very interesting about the book was that while it did focus on a gay story, the main voices in the book were young straight women; I thought that was a risky thing to try to pull off, but he did a really excellent job.

As good as Dodging and Burning was, I wasn’t prepared for how good The Savage Kind would be.

The heart of the book is the friendship/relationship between two damaged young women in the post-war afterglow of the late 1940’s in Washington DC. (Both of John’s novels are set in the post-war period, when the world was trying to go ‘back to normal’ after the massive paradigm alteration of a global war that left most of Europe and significant parts of Asia in ruins; tens of millions dead, billions in property damage, and the world needed to rebuild from the rubble–and normal was also being redefined; the paradigm shift caused by the war made going back to “the way things used to be” practically impossible–which makes it a very interesting time to write about.) Philippa’s mother died giving birth to her and she has a slightly adversarial relationship with her stepmother, Bonnie. Judy was raised in an orphanage and adopted by a wealthy couple who had lost a daughter in a particularly brutal way–Judy was adopted to replaced their raped and murdered daughter, but her adoptive parents are still too scarred and damaged from the lost of their own child to raise and love another, and this history also colors Judy’s personality and who she is. The two girls find each other and become very close friends; so close that their love for each other might go even deeper than the Platonic ideal of friendship–their teenaged hormones raging out of control, are romantic/sexual feelings also developing between the two of them?

They are also playing girl detectives, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that they don’t know has anything to do with them beyond the idle curiosity (and their dangerous boredom) but as they look further into the mystery revolving around a classmate, a favorite teacher, and that classmate’s family–as well as their own–they become more and more deeply enmeshed in danger and cling even tighter to each other.

As if that juggling act isn’t tough enough, Copenhaver makes all of these characters realized, fully developed and realistic in their emotions, their feelings, and their reactions. He also tells the story in alternating points of view between the two girls while they are experiencing the events, as well as a narrator voice from the future, telling the story in retrospect as well as talking directly to the reader. This is hard to pull off, particularly the omniscient future narrator–the last time I saw this used so effectvely and memorably was in Thomas Tryon’s The Other (at least, this is the book that popped into my head as I was reading, and it’s a favorite of mine).

The Savage Kind was nominated for a Lefty Award, and it very deservedly won the Lambda for Best Mystery recently. I highly recommend it!

*I may be wrong here, but I think he might be the first openly gay author of a book with gay characters and themes to win the Macavity Award; I know I was nominated once for a short story–but my characters and themes weren’t queer.

Wild Heart

I can’t remember where or when I had this conversation, but I do remember once asking Megan Abbott that “is there anything more noir than the suburbs?” I know it had to do with her brilliant novel The End of Everything, but I don’t remember if it was a bar conversation or if we were on a panel or what. I spent four and a half years living in an actual suburb when I was growing up–grades six through sophomore in high school–and while my family has always been loners (not getting involved in neighborhood groups, barely knowing the neighbors, keeping mostly to ourselves), so we didn’t get the full experience of the cattiness, the bitchiness, or the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that are such a rich mine for crime fiction.

On the other hand, we really couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. In our suburb, we were on the lower end of the economic scale than most of the kids my sister and I went to school with, and the longer we lived there, the higher that economic scale continued to go. And there was a lot of strangeness in our suburb–I really do need to write Where the Boys Die and You’re No Good, the two books based on the suburb in which we lived–murders and drugs and undoubtedly affairs and so forth. A famous wife-killer was from our suburb, Drew Peterson. When I was a freshman in high school a junior boy and his girlfriend–a senior–murdered someone over drugs.

And that doesn’t take into consideration all the crimes that were probably going on at the time that no one thought anything about–date rapes and sexual assaults, child abuse, etc.–because nobody talked about them (I found out, for example, that one of my classmates–someone I knew and liked an awful lot–was being sexually and emotionally abused by her father; I never knew until about twenty years later).

Yikes.

Tara Laskowski’s second novel (and Anthony Award finalist!) The Mother Next Door is more evidence that I was right about suburbs being a dark place.

The moms were having a party. I watched from across the street, through my living room window, as aI ate my dinner of chicken piccata on the couch, sipping a hefty glass of merlot.

At dusk, they arrived one by one from the houses around the cul-de-sac, the glow of their phones like fireflies in the dying light. Dressed stylish but casual, ponytails and makeup, jeans and heels.

Viciously, effortlessly powerful.

The blonde mom was hosting. The one I’d noticed walking an oversize dog around the cul-de-sac, cell phone to her ear. She seemed to know everyone, always paused by one porch or another while her dog sniffed in the grass. Yes, my new neighbors were social butterflies. I observed their fluttering hugs as they converged in front of the house. My view inside was limited–a hallway beyond the screen door, painted red, like the inside of a mouth, and at the end, the corner of a giant island in the center of the kitchen where I imagined they set their Tupperware trays and booze.

The Mother Next Door is set in a toney, elite suburb of the Washington DC metro area known as Ivy Woods. Our primary point-of-view character, Theresa, has just moved into a lovely cul-de-sac with her daughter and her husband of a year, who has been hired as principal at Woodard High School–a very top level school, which makes Theresa an appealing target for friendship by the highly competitive moms at the school. Theresa went to college locally, and is now returning, using her connection to one of her professors–they had an affair when she was a student–whose father is school superintendent, to land her husband his job. Theresa has a secret–as do the other four moms who live around the same cul-de-sac–known as the Ivy Five (although there were only four until Theresa moved in and became one of them). Theresa trying to negotiate this strange new world for herself–as well as keeping her secrets, always afraid someone else in the group is going to stumble over one of them.

But the other moms also are hiding a terrible secret–one alluded to in emails and private messages from a mysterious account called “Ivy Woods”–making threats to expose them all and “what they did.” Halloween is approaching, and the Ivy Five are very well known for their massive Halloween block party…so as they try to figure out costumes and decorations, they are also trying to figure out who they can trust, who they can’t, and who could possibly know all their secrets. Our other point of view character is Kendra, the alpha of the group (think Madeline from Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which this reminded me of a lot), with her great job, her ruthless efficiency, and her mad organizing skills.

There’s also an urban legend about the woods behind their houses–Ghost Girl, who fell to her death from a bridge over a railroad track and who now haunts the woods at Halloween, the night she died.

It’s quite the concoction Laskowski has pulled off here, and the way she manages to humanize all of her characters–despite their weaknesses and their really (in some cases) deep flaws–makes the reader engage with and care about them, and the deeper you get into the book, the harder it is to put it down for even just a moment to get something to drink or to go to the bathroom.

Highly recommended.

My Sweet Lord

Saturday, fucking finally.

This has been a not-good, no good week and here’s hoping it was an aberration and everything is going to reset right now and become something more resembling what passes for normality around here lately. Everything has been out of sync and/or messed up all week, and frankly it’s also kept me from getting anything done or making progress on any number of things I need to be making progress on, which as you can imagine is incredibly fucking annoying.

Jesus.

Today I am going to make a run to the mailbox and to drop off some books for the library sale, as well as do some other clean-up around here. I’ve decided the next book I am going to read is Bayou Book Thief by Ellen Byron (I am interviewing her next month for the book release at Blue Cypress Books in Riverbend) and I may as well get a jump on that, maybe come up with some questions for her ahead of time so I am not just winging it the night of–she definitely deserves to have a prepared interviewer, not the usual “I’ll make it up as I go” bullshit I always, inevitably fall back on whenever I have to do something of this sort. (Yes, that’s me: a thorough publishing professional.)

I slept deeply and well last night–I allowed myself to stay in bed until nearly eight o’clock–and as such I feel pretty rested and good this morning. I actually feel like I may even be able to get things accomplished this morning, which is a lovely change. I have to admit I’ve been concerned and worried about the depths and extent of my exhaustion lately, but this morning I feel good for the first time in a long while. Good thing, since the house is a disaster area; I am going to definitely be spending time on the Lost Apartment and the office area today cleaning and organizing and getting everything back under control around here. I am going to try to get that story written today, and some other odds and ends. With luck, I’ll be able to get it all out of the way and handled today before I run out of gas or the lazies set in; which is of course inevitable. But really, this mess is untenable, and I am more than a little annoyed I’ve allowed things to get to this point YET AGAIN. Yet I cannot deny that I was tired and worn out all week; it felt like I was sleeping well but obviously I must not have been, given how little I was able to get done all week.

C’est la vie, I suppose.

We finished watching Captive Audience on Hulu last night, about the tragedies of the Staynor family–perhaps best known as the I Know My First Name is Stephen story. We moved to the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno, to be exact) when I was only nineteen; the story was still news even then, and I became fascinated by the story–a fascination that never went away and was only made more intense by Stephen’s tragic death at a very young age and even more intense by the fact his older brother became a serial killer, responsible for the Yosemite Murders. I had already moved away from the valley by then, but I’ve never stopped being fascinated by the story of the Stayner family and have always wanted to write about it–that horrific family dynamic of having one of your children stolen for seven years, and then having him return as an older, complete stranger. How does that affect the family dynamic? (Obviously, in this case, it turned one of them into a serial killer somehow.) How does the victim deal with returning to the family that isn’t what he remembers anymore, either? What’s it like to be the mom, the dad, the sisters, the neighbors? I recommend the docu-series–it’s in three parts–and it’s even more fascinating than I could have imagined; they also interviewed Stephen’s children. His daughter remembers him vaguely, his son not at all…and that’s an even greater tragedy. What is it like to lose your father when you are so young–traumatizing in and of itself–and then find out what he had been through? To find out an uncle you barely knew was responsible for the monstrous Yosemite Murders? There’s so much material there for fiction…I think about what Megan Abbott or Carol Goodman or Laura Lippman or any of our modern day great women writers could do with any bit of that story and can’t help but wonder about what might be. Maybe I’ll use it as the foundation for a book someday…but it’s one of those stories I always end up circling back to periodically, which makes me think it’s more likely to happen than any one of the great ideas that holds my attention for a day or two, write down or make a folder for, and then completely forget about.

Ah, being a creative. Always challenging.

I also want to, at some point this weekend, finish my blog post I’ve been writing about season 5 of Elité, and I also have another book review to write for here. Always, forever, so much to do at all times. Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Saturday however you choose to spend it, Constant Reader.

I’ve Found Someone of My Own

Ah, Tuesday, and so much to get done. Heavy heaving sigh.

What else is new? I am trying my hardest not to give in to that overwhelmed feeling I am currently experiencing this morning; I even woke up before the alarm, but while still a bit on the groggy side, I must confess I actually feel rested this morning. We’ll see how long that lasts, but I hope to be able to ride that feeling through the day and get a lot done; at the very least, check things off the list (which is really growing and more than a little out of control). I worked on my story a bit last night–Paul was out having dinner with a friend–and also managed to finish Eli Cranor’s Don’t Know Tough, which I have a lot of thoughts about; I just have to get them cleared up in my head and maybe digest them a bit more. I really enjoyed the book, if you’re wondering; it’s very well done and tightly, beautifully written, with more than a few hints of Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, and some Kelly J. Ford tossed in for good measure. It’s definitely an excellent addition to the canon of Southern rural noir, that’s for sure.

I now have to decide what to read next, and that’s not going to be easy. There are some other amazing and well-reviewed and award-nominated debuts still in my TBR pile. (DAMN, I could have made that a project: The Debut Novel Extravaganza!)

I did some work, as I said, on the short story yesterday; it’s still nowhere near a complete first draft but that’s okay; it will get there eventually, and there’s always this weekend (I am going to be deeply panicked this weekend, pushing to get a lot of things finished before heading off to New York next Tuesday) but that’s okay; I don’t mind. I have to only work on Monday next week, and then have the rest of the week off to travel and do the Edgar banquet and everything else I have to do while I am in New York next week, but even just thinking about it makes me feel very tired. Heavy heaving sigh. But there’s naught to be done but to start tackling the list, is there? After all, ignoring the list only makes it grow exponentially larger…as I have often learned to my great dismay.

So, I feel good this morning. We’ll see how this day plays out as it goes forward, won’t we? I will try very hard to not allow myself to get sidetracked and distracted as I go through my day at the office; I will also need to swing past the mail on my way home from work today–I think more books are waiting for me there, to be completely honest–and when I get home I am going to try to keep my head down, make a protein shake, and spend a few more hours with my short story. I am also getting very excited about my trip to New York next week–although the infection numbers there are not a little unsettling, and the lifting of the mask mandate on airplanes by an unqualified judge isn’t very pleasing for me, either. But I can take rapid tests along with me so Paul and I can test each other every day, and of course, I will definitely have to take one before I return to the office the following Tuesday.

I am trying not to think about the potential irresponsibility of going on this trip, to be honest.

But overall, I think I’ve recovered from the trip to Left Coast at long last–it took longer than necessary–and hopefully I have this New York trip planned perfectly so that there will be recovery time before I have to return to the office.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you some more tomorrow.

My Favorite Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a Chance on Me

I got my boosters shot yesterday; other than some arm soreness, I seem to be okay–no gills have developed, no wings, and no scales–but the day is young. The weather here turned very cool yesterday, which was incredibly lovely; fall and spring are so divine here, it makes us forget the swampy hell of the summer every year. Yesterday wasn’t a bad day; I managed to get a lot of work-at-home duties done, while watching Foundation (I am all in on the show now) and then started, of all things, Peacock’s original series adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol (more on that later). I have quite the busy day ahead of me now; lots of work at home duties and as always, the Lost Apartment is a disaster area. I am actually up much earlier than I have been getting up on my non-going-into-the office mornings, and it kind of feels good. The light outside is different than it has been–another indication that the world’s turning has shifted and daylight savings is looming on the horizon (next weekend)–and it’s a nice morning here with my coffee here in my kitchen-office.

The house was power-washed this week, and despite the fact we’ve been living here on this property since 2003, I had always thought under all the accumulated grime from the air here (our air quality is something I try not to think about very often, but it’s hard when you see how much of it gets on your car and windshield) the house was painted a pale blue; turns out it is pale coral. Who knew? They also power-washed the concrete sidewalks around the house; the difference is very startling. I am taking the power-washing as a hint that the apartment needs an even deeper dive cleaning. There’s no LSU game tomorrow (thank God, really; I am dreading the Alabama game next week), so I have the entire day free. There are some good games airing, but there’s no need for me to sit in my chair and spend the entire day watching college football, either. There is a Saints game on Sunday–Tampa Bay and Tom Brady–but that’s late enough for me to watch so I can get things done during the day; and a 3:25 start time is also a nice time to call it a day on everything else I am doing around here.

I haven’t started Scott Carson’s The Chill yet, either; ironically I got a copy of his new release. Where They Wait, this week (as well as a copy of Lucy Foley’s The Guest List), so I should probably crack the spine of The Chill at some point today. Scott Carson is the name Michael Koryta (one of my favorite authors) uses now to write horror (he used to write it under his own name. Not sure why the switch/rebrand, but probably has something to do with Koryta being branded for top notch crime fiction; seriously, check out his work if you haven’t. I recommend starting with The Prophet, and if you’ve not read Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, they pair together very nicely).

I also really, really need to write this weekend. I need to write a lot. I also have to do the page proofs for #shedeservedit, but they aren’t due until a week from Monday, and I think the more time I take away from that manuscript the better job of proofing I will do on it. I am a shitty shitty shitty proofreader, which is probably why there are more mistakes in my finished books than there should be in anyone’s printed books. But at least there’s time for me to let them sit and percolate before I jump on them; I am usually so heartily sick of any book at the proofreading stage that I don’t pay as close attention as I might. On the other hand, it’s also entirely possible that I am being too hard on myself, which is something of which I am frequently guilty. No one is as hard on me as I am on myself. At some point in my life I pretty much decided if I was super-critical of myself, other people’s criticisms wouldn’t hurt me as much as they had before–and it became deeply engrained into my psyche, and it’s actually more damaging to me than accepting criticisms from others.

Many years ago I decided to stop being unkind to writers and their books on my blog. If I read a book I didn’t care for, I wasn’t going to dis it on the Internet–because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, primarily, and I am not always highly receptive to negative nastiness about my own work. (I tend to say “I’m not the right audience for this book” now.) I didn’t want to be become like those professional reviewers who hate everything, and make their reviews about how smart the reviewer is and how bad of a book they are destroying in print. At the time I made that decision, I also decided there were two exceptions to my rule: Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown. What was my small voice, after all, in the chorus of critics and readers worldwide who loathe their writing? It did strike me as hypocritical from time to time, and so I stopped even doing that. They are, no matter how much success and money they have, still human beings with feelings, and there’s a sense that mocking and insulting their work, no matter how small my platform or voice, is just piling on.

Having said that, I will admit I greatly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code when it was released, enough so that I went back and read the first Robert Langdon novel, Angels and Demons (which I actually thought was better). It was a great ride, and I already had some familiarity with the idea of the Christ bloodline, having read Holy Blood Holy Grail at some point in the 1980’s, with its outlandish (if interesting) claims that were eventually turned out to have been based in a great fraud. It combined a lot of things that tick off boxes for me: treasure hunt based in history, actual historical events, the Knights Templar, the Cathar heresy, the Crusades, and of course, making the Catholic Church the great villain of the story (the only better villains are Nazis, really). Was it greatly written? I honestly can’t say now, it’s been so long since I read it. But I did read The Lost Symbol, his follow-up, when it was released and absolutely hated every word of it. I tried to read the next, Inferno, and gave up after the first chapter. I’ve never watched any of the films–although now I am thinking it might be interesting to do so. When I saw the Peacock was adapting The Lost Symbol, I actually (thank you, faulty memory) thought it was the Brown novel I hadn’t finished. After I got caught up on Foundation but still had at least another couple of hours’ worth of condom packing to do, I decided to try The Lost Symbol. Even as I watched the first episode, none of it seemed familiar to me, and it wasn’t until they mentioned the painting “The Apotheosis of George Washington” (that may not be the actual name; but it’s the painting in a government building ceiling where it looks like Washington is being greeted into heaven as a god) that I began to suspect that I had actually read the book; by the time they descended into the tunnels below the city and met the Architect of the Capital I thought, oh yes I did read this and didn’t much care for it. But the show itself held my attention–it’s an adventure story, after all, and Ashley Zukerman was very well cast as Langdon. I look forward to continuing watching it–at least while I wait for the new episodes of everything else we are currently watching to be loaded for streaming.

And on that note, it’s time for me to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader–I’ll come back tomorrow to check in.

Together We’re Better

Yesterday actually turned out to be quite lovely.

I was a little bleary when I got up yesterday morning (my Fitbit advises me I only slept deeply for 3 hours, 48 minutes; the rest was “light sleep” and I woke up three times), but for whatever reason, I decided to start getting to work on things. I started answering emails (I am very careful with email. I refuse to let it control my life, which it easily can; so I answer emails over the weekends and in the mornings, save my responses as drafts, and send them all after lunch. I do not send emails after five pm CST; I do not read them, either. Email at one point took over my life, which made getting anything done impossible and raised my stress levels to unbelievable heights. I realized anyone who absolutely, positively needs to reach me has my cell phone number…and if I don’t trust you with my cell phone number…you don’t really need an answer right away. And guess what? The world didn’t end, I didn’t miss out on anything, and nothing became harder) while reading coverage of the LSU debacle from Saturday night (one thing I did mean to mention and didn’t yesterday; I try not to be overly critical of college athletes because they are basically kids. It’s easy to forget that when you’re watching on television, but when you see them on the sidelines with their helmets off, or while walking down Victory Hill to the stadium in their suits and ties…you see a bunch of teenagers and young men in their early twenties. They are kids—and those baby faces on those big muscular bodies is a very strange juxtaposition sometimes). I decided on the way home from Baton Rouge that while I do, indeed, love football, I really shouldn’t give up my weekends to it all fall. Now that LSU is definitely out of the running for anything, I’ll probably not watch as much football as I would if they were still in contention for anything. I’ll still watch LSU, and occasionally I may spend an afternoon watching a big game—the SEC title game, the play-offs—I am not going to spend every Saturday pretty much glued to the television all day, flipping between games all day. And I also rarely enjoy watching the Saints—I love them, they’re my guys, my team, my heart—but their games are so damned stressful it’s hard to enjoy them, and when the games is over I am always, win or lose, emotionally and physically and mentally exhausted. So, I decided it made more sense to get things done, check in on the score periodically, and not sweat it too much. (Good thing. Like LSU, the Saints led the entire game, folded like a newspaper in the fourth quarter and wound up losing.) I made groceries, filled the car’s gas tank, and before going, I started weeding shit out of my iCloud and saving it all to my back-up hard drive.  I wound up freeing up over four hundred and seven gigabytes in my flash storage, and suddenly my computer was running very quickly again.

And yes, it’s my fault.* I have a gazillion pictures files, going back to digital camera days. I used to back up my hard drive and my flash drives regularly to the cloud—and those folders are enormous. I don’t probably need all of it—I was weeding through bits here and there as I moved the files over to the back-up hard drive (eventually planning on copying them up to Dropbox), and started finding all kinds of interesting things. Story fragments I’d forgotten, book ideas and anthology ideas and essays I’d started; some of these things are in very rough, first draft form—and got left behind as my addled, AHDH-like brain moved on to the next thirty or forty ideas for all of the above. I also was kind of amused to see how I often I plagiarize myself; I had a completely different idea for the book I wanted to call A Streetcar Named Murder fifteen years ago—which I can still use at some point, just have to come up with a new title. I’d forgotten that all the way through the process Need was called A Vampire’s Heart; my editor suggested changing it after I turned the book it. It was a wise choice; my title was very romance sounding and Need was hardly that. It was also interesting seeing, over the years, how many different ideas I’ve had for a gay noir set in the world of ballet (damn you, Megan Abbott!). I discovered that Murder in the Garden District actually began as Murder on the Avenue (a title I can repurpose for an idea I had last week); I found the original files for Hollywood South Hustle, the Scotty book that turned into a Chanse MacLeod, Murder in the Rue Ursulines; I found the files for the Colin book that tells us what he was doing and where he was between Mardi Gras Mambo and Vieux Carré Voodoo; I found the original Paige novel I started writing in 2004, in which an Ann Coulter-like pundit from New Orleans is murdered; I found the first three chapters of the Scotty Katrina book, Hurricane Party High,  in which they don’t evacuate during a fictional hurricane, and the chapters where I rewrote it, had the, evacuate to Frank’s sister’s in rural Alabama (and we meet Frank’s nephew Taylor for the first time—and I also remembered that they belonged to some weird kind of religious cult and that Taylor was going to come to New Orleans in the future to visit during their version of rumspringa, but eventually abandoned the idea completely and never did a Scotty/Katrina book; was reminded that Dark Tide began as Mermaid Inn; that I wrote the first chapter of Timothy during the summer of 2003; and if I even tried to list all the iterations that wound up being #shedeservedit, we would be here all day (Sins of Omission, I think, was my favorite earlier title; again, a completely different book with some slight similarities…I may have to take a longer look at some of those iterations because being reminded of them all, I also remembered that I really liked all the versions).

I also found many, many nonfiction pieces I’ve written over the years—many of which I’d long since forgotten about—so maybe that essay collection won’t take quite as long to pull together as I had originally thought. Huzzah!

And I also discovered something else that I knew but had slipped out of my consciousness: that Bury Me in Shadows was called, for the first and second drafts, Bury Me in Satin—which gives off an entirely different vibe, doesn’t it? I wrote a very early version of it as a short story while in college, called it “Ruins,” but never wrote a second draft because I knew it wasn’t a short story; it needed to be a book, and one day I would write it. I was never completely comfortable with the story, to be honest; I wasn’t sure how I could write a modern novel built around a Civil War legend in rural Alabama. I absolutely didn’t want to write a fucking Lost Cause narrative—which is what this easily could have become, and people might come to it thinking it is, and are going to be very angry when they find out it is not that—but I really wasn’t sure how to tell the story…and in my mind, I thought of it as Ruins—which I freely admit is not a great title, and has been over-used.

As luck would have it, I was watching some awards show—I can’t begin to try to remember what year—and one of the nominated groups performed. I’d never heard of The Band Perry before; and the song they performed, “If I Die Young,” absolutely blew me away. (I just remembered, I kind of used the title as guidance when writing Need—always trying to remember he became undead very young) The first two lines of the chorus are this:

If I die young,

Bury me in satin

And I thought to myself, Bury Me in Satin is a perfect title for the Civil War ghost story! Melancholy and sort of romantic; I’ve always thought of hauntings as more about loss than being terrifying (you do not have to go full out jump scare, use gore or blood or violence to scare the reader, and if you doubt me, read Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home), which is why I’ve always loved the Barbara Michaels novels that were ghost stories. That was the feeling I wanted to convey, that sad creepiness, and longing—I wanted a Gothic feel to the book, and I felt that line captured what I wanted perfectly. But as I wrote it, it didn’t quite feel as right as it did in that moment (I still love the song—and the video is interesting and kind of Gothic, doing a Tennyson Lady of Shalott thing), and then one day it hit me: changed ‘satin’ to ‘shadows’, and there’s your perfect title.

And so it was.

Oh dear, look at the time. Till tomorrow, Constant Reader! I am off to the spice mines! Have a lovely Monday!

*I will add the caveat to this that anything stored in the Cloud should not affect the flash storage in the actual computer and its operating system, and yes, I am prepared and more than willing to die on that hill.

I Would Have Loved You Anyway

And suddenly, it’s Friday again: WEEKEND EVE!!!!

Late September is a gift Mother Nature gives to New Orleans; one that’s kind of owed to us after the brutality of a normal New Orleans summer. I greatly enjoyed my walk Wednesday afternoon, and walking to the gym after work yesterday was equally marvelous. The gym workout felt incredible; my muscles had clearly been aching to be worked and stretched, and they feel absolutely wonderful this morning. My creativity is slowly coming back–the walk on Wednesday kind of kick-started it all; and I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about this upcoming new series book I have to write, that I am looking forward to writing. First and foremost, as with all my books set in New Orleans, it needs to be more about New Orleans than what I’ve already written on it; I think I am going to spend some time over the next few days revising and rewriting those first four or five chapters to get more of a “New Orleans” feel to them; I think that’s what is missing and why I feel so dissatisfied with them.

I definitely need to reread them, at any rate.

I also need to reread and edit the first three chapters of Chlorine; I’d like to get chapter four written this weekend as well as–if not an actual outline for the rest of the book, than at least– a working synopsis of how it all is going to come together in the end. I am very behind and i need to start getting caught up, even if that means no more lazing around in my easy chair watching documentaries from the BBC/Odyssey about ancient Egypt with a bizarre British Egyptologist/historian with raspberry colored hair as the star–but the woman clearly loves not only history but all things Egypt, so it is very difficult to not get caught up in her enthusiasm about her subject. Each documentary is about an hour, and I’ve not been watching them in order; I’ve watched the one about Amenhotep III and the Armana revolution, as well as the one about the foreign conquerers, leading eventually to the final recognized dynasty of pharaohs, the Ptolemies–who fascinate me; there’s so much more there than the story of the final and most famous Cleopatra (yes, she’s fascinating, but I’ve long been more interested in her sisters/rivals, Berenice and Arsinoë).

I also watched, for the very first time, the original film of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which, surprisingly enough, I’d never seen. I’ve never really been much of a Lana Turner fan (I’ve never had a lot of respect for her as an actress–certainly in Peyton Place and Imitation of Life she never seemed to inhabit her characters and simply followed her director’s orders) and I’ve never really thought she was all that pretty; there was always something artificial about her to me–though the body was definitely stunning. The costume designer was incredibly smart in putting her always into white ensembles, that went with the stiff white hair, and John Garfield was pretty good as the homicidal, lovesick drifter; he had the right “beaten around by life” lived-in look that was perfect for the character. Cecil Kellaway as Cora’s husband was the best performance in the film, really; he stole every scene he was in, but was the movie progressed Turner seemed less stiff and mannered, and Garfield’s performance of a man so driven mad by lust and love that he would cold-bloodedly murder Cora’s husband to be with her (Body Heat was often compared to Double Indemnity, but I think it’s more like Postman, in all honesty). I also felt the changes to the script and to the ending actually worked better than in the book (same with Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, even though I love Cain as a writer). I also couldn’t help thinking, as I watched, what Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift could have done with the role of the drifter, and Marilyn Monroe could have done with Cora. (Dream casting: filmed in 1954 with Brando and Monroe; with Karl Malden as the husband–what a film that would have made!) But it’s a very good movie, very well done, and I greatly enjoyed it; it’s definitely a classic. I’ve never seen the remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, but what a terrific version could be made today, starring someone like Robert Pattinson along with Margot Robbie or Rosamund Pike.

It also got me thinking about noir again, and what fun it is to write, plot, and think about; as well as got me thinking about Laura Lippman’s marvelous Sunburn and everything by Megan Abbott.

I’ve also been, since my walk the other day, thinking about my noir story about the condos built recently on my street, “Condos for Sale or Rent” and so maybe I can squeeze in the time to work on it a bit this weekend…

Big dreams, as always, but at least I am thinking in terms of getting things written again, which is a big step in the right direction.

We also finished watching season two of The Other Two, which is fantastic and has one of the best, most honest and realistic gay characters–struggling actor Cary Dubek–that I’ve ever seen on television. The premise of the season finale–Cary takes a photo of his butthole to send to a potential Grindr hook-up, only he has his camera on LIVE rather than PHOTO, and the little LIVE feature means you can not only see his face at the beginning but you can also hear the flight announcements (he does it in the First Class bathroom on a flight from New York to LA)…and it kind of goes viral. It’s hilarious, and the fact that this is the primary STORY for the gay character in a TV show (granted, it’s HBO MAX) had me impressed for the writers’ willingness to go there, but how fucking funny it all turned out to be.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines, and a happy Friday to all.

Do You Wanna Dance?

One of the (very very very very very) few benefits of losing power and all connection to the outside world is it gives you plenty of time to read. Our power went out, thanks to the outer bands of Hurricane Ida (in case you weren’t paying attention) at approximately eleven am in Sunday, August 29th–which also happened to be the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (Another benefit of not having power and not being connected to the outside world–I didn’t have to see all the doom-and-gloom coverage, plus the constant Katrina references; I lived through it already, and have seen enough news documentaries about it; no thanks–especially with the added DISASTER glee of a NEW HURRICANE!!! EVEN BIGGER AND MORE POWERFUL THAN KATRINA!!!)

At any rate, in those days before we finally said no mas to the lack of power and fled for the wilds of Alabama, I managed to read a fucking lot.

The book I was reading before and during the storm–I finished with a flashlight as the winds and rains of Ida battered my house–was Megan Abbott’s The Turnout, which I couldn’t put down.

You see, I love ballet.

It’s something that I’ve rarely had the chance to see in my life until the advent of Youtube; I’ve while away many an hour down a ballet wormhole on Youtube, marveling at the insane way the dancers can twist, contort, and launch their bodies in ways bodies weren’t meant to twist or contort or launch; and yet not only can they do it–it’s breathtakingly beautiful to watch. It’s part of what drew me to gymnastics and figure skating, too–the amazingly difficult things these athletes (and don’t ever for a moment believe that ballet dancers are not athletes) can do with their bodies, and how easy and beautiful they make it look. When I was a kid, we watched The Nutcracker on television; I hated it (still do) but was nevertheless amazed at the dancers, how disciplined and beautiful their movements were, how they used every muscle in their body and somehow made it all look as easy as breathing, as blinking, as smiling.

I remember thinking, I want to do that.

Ballet wasn’t an option, needless to say–and I probably wouldn’t have been good at it; I was incredibly clumsy (still am, really, just have a better sense of my body and better spatial awareness) and uncoordinated…on the other hand, it might have been the perfect thing for me, may have made me disciplined, changed my perception of self and worth by working hard at something I would love…but what can you do now? I’ve always wanted to write a ballet noir about a gay ballet dancer–I had the idea back in the early 1990’s, wrote it all out, including characters and a plot synopsis (and yes, of course I have the title). The folder is in my file cabinet in the “maybe get to soon” drawer; I often pause on it when I go through the drawer looking for something else. Occasionally, as I watch the videos on Youtube (and they have stuff from Nureyev, who fascinated me and kind of still does, as well as Baryshnikov and many many many others), I think about it. I was watching a documentary about the acid attack on the enfánt terrible director of the Bolshoi when Paul came home one night, and he was startled to see me watching it. He had no idea about my affinity for the ballet; I told him about my book idea and how I’d always loved ballet–and he got me tickets to see the Royal Ballet Company of Monaco when they came to New Orleans for Christmas, as well as several autobiographies of dancers.

And as always, it’s such a joy to read a new novel from someone who will be considered one of the greats of our time–even though she has now set the bar so high for crime novels about ballet I may never dare to even think about writing one myself.

They were dancers. Their whole lives, nearly. They were dancers who taught dance and taught it well, as their mother had.

“Every girl wants to be a ballerina…”

That’s what their brochure said, their posters, their website, the sentence scrolling across the screen in stately cursive.

THE DURANT SCHOOL OF DANCE, EST. 1986 by their mother, a former soloist with the Alberta Ballet, took up the top twofloors of a squat, rusty brick office building downtown. It had become theirs after their parents died on a black-ice night more than a dozen years ago, their car caroming across the highway median. When an enterprising local learned it had been their twentieth wedding anniversary, he wrote a story about them, noting their hands were interlocked even in death.

Had one of them reached out to the other in those final moments, the reporter wondered to readers, or had they been holding hands all along?

All these years later, the story of their parents’ end, passed down like lore, still seemed unbearably romantic to their students–less so to Marie, who, after sobbing violently next to her sister, Dara, through the funeral, insisted, I never saw them holds hands once.

Megan Abbott is one of my favorite writers, and is, in my humble opinion, probably one of the best publishing in our time. Her books just blow me away, every time–and I never know what I am in for when I start reading one, either, as far as character and subtext and story and the complex, layered, complicated relationships between her fully realized characters, who all live and breathe and have interior lives–including those who appear in just a scene or two. I don’t know how she does it–Abbott can do more with a sentence (as far as character definition, mood, setting–any aspect of good writing, really) than most can do with several paragraphs.

The Turnout focuses on the two sisters, and Dara’s husband, a male ballet prodigy whose career was tragically cut short by a vicious spinal injury. The three grew up together under their mother’s tyrannical rule, and there is an odd, group dynamic at play there, where Dara and Charles are almost, sort of like surrogate parents to Marie–who has an oddly childlike quality to her. The story of the novel plays out during their preparation for their annual production of The Nutcracker (because of course it had to be the one ballet I loathe, LOL–but let’s be honest, it IS the ballet the school would put on at Christmas every year), and while the three of them split up the work of producing the ballet and running the school, our primary point of view character is Dara. Her relationship with her husband has an odd touch of brother-sister to it; they grew up together, of course, and her relationship with her sister has many layers and undercurrents. Marie has often tried to escape the town they live in and the school–but has always wound up coming back home, more fragile than before she left. The sisterly relationship is as equally complex as the marriage, and the weird dynamic of the two sisters having a deeply close relationship to the same man, who grew up as basically a brother to them, raised all kinds of flags for me as I read. Marie has broken free from the complex menage a tróis; she has moved into the attic of the school to try to break free of the claustrophobic family ties. But a fire in one of the studios results in damage and the hiring of a shady contractor; who soon infiltrates the tight little family and all of the traumas, public and private, within the family begin to resurface when Marie falls for the man, whom Dara hates pretty much on sight. As the needs of the production begin to multiply the closer the show’s run comes, with the one studio under repair and seemingly more and more money falling into the contractor’s hands while the school inches ever closer to bankruptcy–and the fragile little family unit also begins to feel the pressure begin building to the breaking point as well, when Marie becomes sexually involved with the contractor and Dara begins to fear what else her sister is sharing with him other than her body…because the Durants have some deep, dark secrets Dara does not want anyone to know about.

Abbott’s writing style is not only cinematic–you can visualize easily everything she writes about, whether it’s a ballerina breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes; the smell of ointments to ease the ache of sore muscles and enflamed joints; the bitter rivalries and cruelties of young girls competing for the lead; the demanding entitlements of ballet parents; the awkwardness of a young man who dances ballet despite his father’s objections; or the experience of trying to work while construction is going on around you. Dara, the more confident of the two sisters, the alpha of the three in the little family group, finds herself lost, losing her stability, the solid foundation her life is build upon, and cannot really handle the shift in her little world, left unsure and unable to explain or understand her sister’s behavior–or the distance growing between her and Charles, which she is ill equipped to do anything about. That sense of things spiraling out of control, the inability to stop the out-of-control train plunging forward, contrasts beautifully with the art of ballet–where control is so important.

Abbott does a magnificent job of building tension, keeping the reader enrapt and turning the pages as everything starts to not only boil, but boil over–and her gift for language, for putting the right words together in a sentence that appears to be quite simple but actually conveys a multi-layered complexity, is extraordinary. Her keen insights into the incredibly complicated relationships between the two sisters and Charles, the tragedy of Marie’s loneliness and inability to break free of her past and her family because of her own fragility, are sharp as a syringe.

I loved this book, but hated to see it end…because now I have to wait for the next Abbott novel–and however long it will take to get a new one is far, far too long.