Discoteca

As I have discovered as I make my way through the The Reread Project, my memory for novels isn’t quite what it used to be. I always was greatly proud of my exceptional (I thought) memory; which enabled me to list all the books in kids’ series in order off the top of my head, or plots and characters from every book I’d ever read–those days, sadly, are not only long past but those memories of books I’ve read have been crowded out over the years by other memories…and even in rereading books I was absolutely positive I’d read before, I am not at all certain that I’ve read them at all.

The Mary Stewart rereads, which have been terrific pleasures, have all turned out to be that way. I didn’t remember the love interest in Nine Coaches Waiting; I thought the dolphin rescue was in The Moon-spinners, not This Rough Magic; and so on. As I moved on to Thunder on the Right, I had only vague memory that it was not one of my favorites of the Stewarts, but as I started rereading the story, I wasn’t certain than I had ever read it before. Surely I would have remembered the convent in the Pyrenees, in the Valley of Storms? The handsome young man with his three horses, and his love for the orphan girl, Celeste? But as I read on, there was nothing at all familiar about this book, and I began to suspect that it was, in fact, one of the Stewarts I’d not read when I was a teenager and went through my Stewart phase (I had not read My Brother Michael, which I remedied a few years ago, nor Thornyhold or Rose Cottage nor Wildfire at Midnight.)

And even now that I’ve finished, I’m still not sure that I’d read it before.

thunder on the right

The Hôtel du Pimené, Gavarnie, takes its name from the great peak of the High Pyrenees in whose shadow, at early morning, it lies. Beyond the palisade of trees shading its front courtyard runs the road from Lourdes; behind the hotel and below it, in a gorge of the rock on which it is built, roars and tumbled the River Gave-de-Pau, on its way from the high corrie of the Cirque to the slow winding courses of the Low Pyrenees. The dining room window give on to this little gorge, so that anyone sitting at table may look straight down on to the damp slabs of the bridge that leas to the skirts of the Pic du Pimené.

At one of these windows, on a blazing fifth of July, sat Miss Jennifer Silver, aged twenty-two, eating an excellent lunch. This was not her first visit to France, and she was savoring that heady sense of rediscovery which that country wakes perpetually in her lovers. And the little dining-room, with its chattering cosmopolitan crowd, its exotic smell of good food and wine, and the staggering view from its windows, presented a cry quite astonishingly far from Oxford, which was Jennifer’s home…Perhaps, however, not such a very far cry at all; for, from the next table, where sat two middle-aged women, tweeded and brogued in defiance of the lovely Southern morning, came snatches of a conversation which smacked decidedly of the newer alchemy.

“My dear Miss Moon,”–a morsel of truite maison, exquisitely cooked, waved in admonition at the end of a fork–gravity separation of light and heavy constituents, as you know, is believed to be essential to the production of such banding. That shown by these particular rocks appears to be of the rhythmic type, the small-scale rhythmic type.”

“I quite agree with you, Miss Shell-Pratt.” Miss Moon dug into her trout with the dogged efficiency and artistic appreciation of a bull-dozer. “Indeed, as Steinbascher and Blitzstein have it in their admirable Einfurüng in die Ursprünge der Magmatiten durch Differenziationen, the troctolites…”

And so we are introduced to our heroine, Jennifer Silver of Oxford, who has come to the south of France on holiday, to meet her cousin Gillian. She also runs into Stephen, a young war veteran who has feelings for her, but she’s not aware of them–he’s followed her to the south of France, on business of his own–and soon she is making her way up to the convent, where her cousin was going to be visiting and had invited her to join. Gillian had also hinted in her letter that she herself might be joining the convent–Our Lady of the Storms–and Jennifer wants to prevent that from happening. She’s not seen Gillian in a number of years, and is anxious to meet her again. But upon her arrival at the convent she is greeted by the news that Gillian is actually dead; she was in a car accident on her way to the convent during a storm, became ill, and died after a few weeks. Jennifer doesn’t take the news well–and the nun who tells her turns out not to actually be a sister, but rather someone who lives at the convent and works as the bursar. None of this sits well with Jennifer, who is suspicious of the woman and her accounts of Gillian’s final days.

This is a perfectly fine book–Stewart’s descriptive flair is on incredible display here; the sequence where Jenny is rushing through the mountains in an attempt to stop the killer from claiming another victim in the dark of the night is particularly exquisitely rendered; the waterfall and the rain and the small natural rock bridge sequence should be taught in writing classes as an example of how to write suspense so tense the reader practically has to hold their breath in anticipation. But I think this is a lesser Mary Stewart (but a lesser Mary Stewart is inevitably better than the best books by a lesser writer), and I think the fault lies in her decision to not use the first person. The stronger Stewart books take us right into the head of the main character and we see everything they see; the big trademark twist that comes about halfway through the book might not work as well in the first person as it did in the third, perhaps, but I still see this as the book’s biggest flaw. To make matters worse, there are some scenes between Jenny and her love interest, Stephen, in which the point of view switches from Jenny to Stephen and back again–it works for the most part because Stewart is so good at her craft, but at the same time it’s a little jarring and broke the spell of the story for me.

I also think if you start your Mary Stewart journey with Thunder on the Right you might not go back and read the others. Then again, you might; perhaps I am judging the book too harshly for not being as good as the others because I know how much better the others are. As far as I can remember, this is the only Stewart that is written in the third person, at least that I can recall; maybe that’s why it’s so jarringly different from the others. But all the hallmarks of a Stewart novel are there: the headstrong, determined young female lead who against all advice and common sense knows she is right that something is wrong at the convent and is determined to find out what that is; the stumbling into something much more sinister than it appears at first; and of course, a lengthy, epic scene of racing against the clock to save someone–used particularly well in Nine Coaches Waiting. 

I think perhaps the next Stewart I will reread will undoubtedly be Madam Will You Talk?, also a favorite. (I learned, ironically, how to drive fast around corners and lengthy curves from reading this book.)

Before

As Constant Reader is no doubt aware, I’ve been worried recently about my inability to sit down and write. I’ve done some writing, of course, in drabs and dribs here and there; applauding myself for getting as many as a thousand written in a day–which is a major drop off from what I used to be able to manage, pre-pandemic, although I must confess it’s been quite a while since I’d had one of those days before the world shut down. But I am very pleased to report–despite innumerable, continuous frustrations with my computer and its inability to function properly (thank again, Apple Mojave update; may your code-writers burn in hell for all eternity without respite or mercy)–that yesterday I managed to not only write, but I put down over three thousand words in slightly more than an hour and finished the first draft of the Sherlock story–thank you, baby Jesus–and now can let it sit for a while before I revise it again. It’s very rough, and probably more than a little bit jumbled, but I have it done and with a few reminders this week of Doyle’s style, I should be able to get it finished and turned in on time.

Huzzah!

I cannot tell you how nice it felt to get three thousand or so words down in such a short period of time, Constant Reader. It’s nice to know those muscles haven’t atrophied, and are still there when I need to call upon them. I’m also really glad to have the story draft finished; regardless of how good or bad it might be, it’s lovely to have a draft done so I can revise it and fix it at leisure during the last few days (eleven, actually) before the deadline hits. It’s caused me so much stress, quite frankly, and I am so relieved to know that I can still write, and my usual amount at that, even during a pandemic with all these additional stressors and irritants going on. And believe you me, there are plenty of those enough to go around.

I did start rereading Mysterious Skin again yesterday afternoon–after finishing the story, doing a load of dishes, folding clothes, and straightening the kitchen–and I am totally loving it. It’s weird–I do remember reading it before; I distinctly remember the cover, with pieces of cereal scattered across it, but I don’t remember actually reading it. I also remember the story, but mostly from the film. The reason I am finding it strange that I don’t remember reading it before (and to be fair, I didn’t remember a lot of things in the books I’ve reread in the Reread Project so far–I didn’t remember that there was a living mummy in Crocodile in the Sandbank; I thought the dolphin rescue was in Mary Stewart’s The Moon-spinners but it was actually in This Rough Magic; I didn’t remember there being a love interest in Nine Coaches Waiting…etc. etc. etc.) is because it’s resonating with me as I read it; I was a teenager living in Kansas during the time the book is set; I’d been to the state fair in Hutchinson; I’ve been to Pretty Prairie and I’vve even been through Little River, and the way Heim describes the countryside–it’s like being there again. Maybe when I first read the book I was still compartmentalizing my past; I used to do that quite a bit, shutting the door on painful memories of a deeply unhappy past, and lately I’ve begun unpacking all of those memories a bit more–not sure why, but that’s a subject for another time. But I am enjoying the book a lot, as I thought I would, and am really looking forward to getting deeper into it.

And reading it is making think about my own novel, Sara, to date the only novel I’ve published that is set in Kansas. Maybe I should reread some of my own work for the Reread Project? There’s quite a bit about my old books I honestly don’t remember–and I really should start keeping a list of my character names, at the very least. I think when I started up on the Kansas book again a few years ago, I had reread Sara and was horrified to realize I was using the exact same character names I’d used in it; in fairness, those character names have been hanging around in my head since I wrote my first novel forty years ago–the terribly written, highly cliched, trite handwritten manuscript that no one will ever see because I am not going to include it in my papers, should I ever get my shit together and get those donated–and I always recycle from unpublished work. I just started writing about Kansas and of course those names popped out–and so later, when I went back to work on another Kansas book those names popped right out again.

And oh, those Kansas memories, of towns named Council Grove and Salina and Cottonwood Falls; Neosho Rapids and Hiawatha and Yates Center; Garden City and Great Bend and Junction City; Derby and Newton and Pratt. The six towns that consolidated into my high school: Americus, Bushong, Allen, Dunlap, Admire and Miller. The other high schools we played against–Olpe and Madison and Hartford, Waverly and Lebo and Reading. Little towns that were drying up and blowing away; a couple of blocks, some abandoned buildings, maybe a little post office and a gas station. Bushong was just off the road the bus took from Americus to Northern Heights High School, which was about a half-mile or so east of Allen–which there wasn’t much to, either. You couldn’t see much of Bushong from the road; there were railroad tracks there when I was a teenager, and so the bus always had to stop, open the folding doors, and see if there was a train coming or not. There were bushes and trees hiding the remnants of the town from the state road–the Americus Road, is what we called it–but you could still see the roof of the abandoned all-grades-in-one school. Back when we lived in Americus we didn’t have street names or house numbers; Google Earth assures me that is no longer the case. We used to have to pick up our mail at the post office; everyone had a post office box. I remember our combination: three turns right, stop on 3,  a full left turn and stop between 8 and 9, turn back to the right and stop on 5.

The things you remember, right? But I’m sure I am remembering some things wrong; I invariably do, as I said the other day.

But, as I said, the thing is I am remembering, and I am not recoiling from the memories, which is also really nice. I’m not sure when the exorcism of my old demons from past lives occurred, but it did; I’m kind of sorry I shut all the memories away for so long. I think some of it has to do with writing Bury Me in Shadows, which started making me remember Alabama–I have no memories of living there, but I used to spend a few weeks down there every summer until we moved to the suburbs, at my grandmother’s house; I am setting the book in a county based on where we are from and my grandmother’s house is located precisely where my character’s grandmother’s house is located. (The funny thing is I keep trying to make things fit, but the truth is I don’t have to make anything fit into what I remember; it’s fiction, so I have the freedom to change whatever the hell I want to; the story itself is patched together from stories my other grandmother used to tell me when I was a kid–probably half-truths at best, outright lies at worse; perhaps some family legends? I don’t know, but those stories have hung around in my head for most of my life.) I’ve been wanting to write this story for quite some time, and even wrote it as a short story called “Ruins” back in my twenties, while I lived in Fresno.

The one thing I need to be careful about is I don’t want to mirror the ghost story I told in Lake Thirteen, which kind of makes me nervous. I’m always worried that I repeat myself; as a very kind reader gently asked me recently, how many car accidents has Scotty been in? 

Sadly, more than I want to admit.

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

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All Over the World

One of the most popular tropes in, for want of a better word, women’s fiction from the mid-twentieth century through the 1980’s was the tale of the governess, ripped off and/or inspired from the mother of all governess novels, Jane Eyre. Victoria Holt returned to this well repeatedly, from her first novel Mistress of Mellyn through many others, including The King of the Castle. I even believe her heroine in On the Night of the Seventh Moon returned to the little German principality where she experienced whatever it was she experienced as a teenager as a governess to a young heir of the royal house; but it’s been years since I read the book so could easily be mistaken. Even the classic camp/horror soap Dark Shadows featured a governess as its young romantic lead, Victoria Winters. (Honey in the Trixie Belden series also has a governess, Miss Trask.) I don’t think there is such a job as governess anymore, or really, paid companions; I suspect everything like that, including private secretary, now falls under the title “personal assistant”, while the young women who were previously governesses are now “nannies.”

I could be wrong. It’s not like I know a lot of people who can afford either.

But for the genre known as “romantic suspense” (and I grudgingly include Mary Stewart in this genre; I think she was a terrific suspense writer more than anything else; and while her books did include some bits of romance they were never the driving force of the story–as I’ve said before, they sometimes seemed to be tacked on, to please publishers and readers and reviewers) the governess was an extremely popular trope, and very much Jane Eyre pastiches; inevitably she was young, orphaned and had nowhere to call home, making the job of the utmost importance. Inevitably the master of the house, who was borderline abusive to  her (definitely was in Jane Eyre) eventually was won over by her quiet beauty, charm and devotion to his child, fell in love with and/or married her, which inevitably put her life in some kind of danger–and she had to mistrust and fear that her husband, for some reason, wanted to kill her.

Mary Stewart took that trope and blew it to smithereens in Nine Coaches Waiting.

nine coaches waiting copy

I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.

We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, gray March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfootl over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon’s rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. And beyond the airport buildings the telegraph wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.

Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy’s initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London’s rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along the tarmac between a stour man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy’s old case had, dumped there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.

But I was here, home after nine years. Nine years. More than a third of my lifetime.

And so we meet Melinda Martin, called Linda by everyone. Her father was English and her mother French; she was born and raised in Paris and after her parents were unfortunately killed when she was in her early teens she was sent to an English orphanage. She is fluent in both English and French, and after aging out of the orphanage, one of the women who took a charitable interest in the place helped her get a job she hated at a boys’ boarding school–but when Madame de Valmy was looking for an English girl to be her nephew’s governess, the woman remembered Linda and recommended her. During the interview it became clear to Linda that the Valmys were looking for an English girl who would only speak in English to the nephew, a nine year old who’d inherited the ancestral estate as well as the title of Comte de Valmy; desperate for the job and desperate to get back to Paris, Linda allows Madame Heloise to mistakenly believe she doesn’t speak French–and is worried she’ll slip and betray herself, and get fired. She arrives at the imposing Chateau Valmy, and also as governess finds herself in that weird in-between where she is not a member of the family but isn’t considered one of the regular servants, either. The young comte, Philippe, who usually lives with a different uncle who has been called away for a lecture series in Greece as well as to work on a dig there (Hippolyte is an archaeologist) is very subdued, clearly afraid of his disabled uncle Leon (Leon is a dynamic personality Linda comes to think of as Lucifer after the fall–later in the book she calls him the King of Demons), handsome and strong and confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. Heloise is his wife, and he has one son from a previous marriage, Raoul, who runs Bellevigne, a chateau with a vineyard and winery, for his father. There are three family estates, each of which was left to one of the three brothers; young Philippe is the only child of the eldest brother and so the title and the vast ancestral estate belongs to him; Leon merely serves as his trustee.

Linda manages to navigate her confusing place in the chateau with the remarkable aplomb all Stewart heroines are blessed with; these are strong young women more than capable of taking care of themselves in a man’s world, and these women are courageous and smart. When Linda realizes her young charge is in danger–someone is trying to kill him because of the complexities of the Valmy inheritance–she has no problem whatsoever in taking the child out of the house in the middle of the night and venturing out into the woods in a desperate attempt to keep him safe until his uncle Hippolyte returns–the next day, which leads the plot against the boy to amp up. The journey to safety–and not knowing who she can and cannot trust–cranks the suspense way up, until the denouement when all is revealed and the truth comes out, with the young boy safe and Linda in the arms of the man she has fallen in love with–but couldn’t be certain whether or not was involved in the plot to kill the child. Stewart manages to make it all seem absolutely real, and once Linda and Philippe were in the woods it was hard to look away.

This book is peak Stewart at the top of her game–and that is truly saying something. I am looking forward to rereading her other novels even more so now than i was before.

He Stopped Loving Her Today

I put off making a grocery run from Saturday to Sunday, like a fool, only to discover the Baronne Street Rouse’s closed for Easter this year; I decided not to go to the one in Uptown because I didn’t feel like driving all the way down there only to find out the drive had been in vain. I did stop at the gas station–filled it up for slightly more than fifteen dollars, something that’s never happened since I bought the thing–and then at Walgreens to get a few things I could get there. It was weird navigating the empty streets of New Orleans; I was reminded very much of that time post-Katrina when I came back and most of the city was empty. I itched to turn stop lights into stop signs–and at one point did stop at a stop sign and wait for it to change. It was weird, very weird–the vast emptiness of streets that are usually filled with cars and seeing more people than the beggars at the intersections. Had the stop lights not have been working, the similarities would have been even eerier.

And of course, people were going through red lights and ignoring all rules of traffic, because they clearly were the only people our driving. #cantfixtrash

I managed to eke out another thousand words on the Sherlock story,  and I was enormously pleased to make some sort of progress.  It’s very weird because I am trying out the Doyle voice and style–which I am neither familiar with nor used to–which makes the going perhaps slower than it ordinarily would be. At least I hope that’s the case, at any rate; it’s been so long since I’ve actually written anything or worked on anything and gotten anywhere with it, I sometimes fear that I’ve fallen out of the habit and practice of writing. (I always worry the ability to write–the ability to create–is going to go away and leave me, particularly in time of crisis; my reaction to the Time of Troubles, sadly, wasn’t to retreat into my writing but rather to stop almost entirely.)

Yesterday was rather delightful; the entire weekend was lovely. It’s always nice to get rest, to sleep well, to be able to read and occasionally do some writing. I am very deep into Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting and, while I do distinctly remember enjoying the book when I read it, I am loving it more than I would have thought (as I have with the other recent Stewart rereads); perhaps as a writer myself and an older person, it resonates more? I can appreciate the artistry more? I don’t know, but I am really glad I decided to revisit Stewart novels I’ve not read in decades again. I just can’t get over how she brilliantly she undercuts the governess/Jane Eyre trope, and how easily she does it. Truly remarkable. I also finished it before bed, and it’s marvelous, simply marvelous–and will be the subject of another blog post.

We started watching Devs on Hulu last night, which people have been raving about, and while I give it a lot of props for production values…it moved so slowly I kept checking my social media on my iPad. It was vaguely interesting, sort of, but we just couldn’t get vested in it–there was a bit of a show-offy nature to it; like they were going overboard in saying see how good we are? We’re an important show and we’re going to win all the Emmys. I doubt we’ll go back to it, especially since Killing Eve is back, and Dead to Me is coming back for its second season; something else we watch was also returning relatively soon, too–and of course, I just remembered I pay for CBS All Access; not sure why, but there are some shows on there I’d like to watch, like the new Star Trek shows and Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone. (But you see what I’m saying about paying too much for too many streaming services? I really need to pay more attention to that, and one of these days I’m going to need to sit down, figure out what we need and what we don’t need, and cut some of these services off once and for all.

I think my next reread for the Reread Project is going to be the first in Elizabeth Peters’ amazing Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank. There’s an Amelia Peabody fan account on Twitter (@teamramses) that I follow; they usually post quotes from the books and occasionally run polls, and they also reminded me of how I discovered the series. I originally found it on the wire rack (when I replied to the tweet, I got it wrong; I said I found it on the paperback rack at Walgreens; wrong drug store chain) of paperbacks at a Long’s drugstore in Fresno. I was still deep in the thrall of Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Mary Stewart at the time, and here was another romantic suspense novel SET IN EGYPT, by an author I didn’t know. I absolutely loved the book, and looked for more books by Elizabeth Peters the next time I went to Waldenbooks at the mall–but they didn’t have any, and eventually I forgot about her. Flash forward many years, and a title of a new paperback on the new releases rack at Waldenbooks and More jumped out at me: The Last Camel Died at Noon. What a great title! I had to buy it, took it home, and started reading it….and you can imagine my delight, and joy, to discover that Crocodile on the Sandbank was not, in fact, a stand alone, but rather the first in a series I was bound to love. I went back and started the series over from the beginning, collecting them all, and I also started buying them as new releases in hardcover because I couldn’t wait for the paperback. It might not actually be a bad idea to revisit the entire series…I also think The Last Camel Died at Noon (it’s still one of my favorite titles of all time) was when I discovered Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were both the pseudonyms of archaeologist Dr. Barbara Mertz, and I went on a delightful period of reading all of their backlists as well.

One of my biggest regrets of my writing career–in which I’ve met so many of my writing heroes–is that I was never able to meet Dr. Mertz before she died. She was going to be the guest of honor at the first Malice Domestic I attended, but she was too ill and she died shortly thereafter. But one thing I learned, from reading all of her books–but especially the Peters novels–was that humor can work in a suspense/mystery novel, and can make a reader engage even more with it. Dr. Mertz was also a master of the great opening line. In one of the Vicky Bliss novels, for example–I think Silhouette in Scarlet–opens with this treasure: “I swear, this time it was not my fault.”

And while I have been cleared to return to work today, my failure in deciding to wait until Easter to go to the grocery store, as well as forgetting an integral and necessary part to my working at home today at the office over a week ago means that I decided to use today as a vacation day, and try to get all the remaining loose odds and ends (mail, groceries) taken care of today, and return to the actual office tomorrow. (I am going to do the windows today if it kills me.) Yesterday we were supposed to have bad thunderstorms, and while the air got thick and heavy, it never actually rained here–although the rest of Louisiana was blasted with these same storms that somehow chose to avoid New Orleans–there were even tornadoes in Monroe.

The weirdest thing to come out of this whole experience has been my sudden, new addiction to my Kindle app on my iPad, which has me thinking that I can do a massive purge/cull  of my books now, keeping only the ones I can’t replace, if needed, as ebooks. I’ve avoided reading electronically for so long, but I find with my Kindle app I can just put the iPad to the side for a little while and pick it up again when I have a moment or so to read. I tore through all the Mary Stewart novels I’ve reread recently on the Kindle app, and that’s where my copy of Crocodile on the Sandbank is. I doubt that I’m going to get rid of all my books any time soon–there are still some I want to keep, obviously, and it’s not like I can afford right now to go to the Amazon website or the iBooks one and replace everything right now anyway…but then again, I think, you’d only need replace them when you’re ready to read them, right?

I am literally torn here.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. I made some great progress on the Sherlock story–it now clocks in at over two thousand words, and I’d like to get a working first draft finished, if not today, then before the weekend so I can edit it and the other story that’s due by the end of the month as well over the course of the weekend. April is beginning to slip through my fingers, and while I am still not completely certain of what day it is every day, I’m getting better about figuring it all out.

Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

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Stand by Your Man

Sunday morning and I’m feeling fine. Yesterday was kind of lovely; I am enjoying this healthy feeling I’m experiencing, and it’s been a while since I’ve not been feeling like shit, so this recovery has been absolutely lovely. Yesterday I managed to be productive yet again–I finished the floors and some odds and ends; there are a few odds and ends that I need to get done today as well–and I got some wonderful reading done; I also managed to get some writing done.

What’s that, you say? Actual writing? Yes, indeed. I wrote about a thousand words on the Sherlock story, give or take; I started writing two new short stories (don’t @ me, I am well aware, but I wanted to get both “Officer Friendly” and “The Pestilence Maiden” started, else I’d forget what they were about or the ideas), and I also did some thinking about all the books and projects that I have in some stage of completion, which was also lovely. It’s nice to slowly be working my way back into my writing again–I was beginning to think I’d never get there, frankly–and yes, it felt really good to be writing again. Today I have to make a run out to get some groceries–my first time leaving the house other than taking out the trash or using the grill–since I got sent home from work over a week ago. I have a mask and gloves, and portable hand sanitizer attached to my key ring. My goal for the morning is to finish this blog, do some other puttering around the house that I need to do before leaving, and then head to the store. When I get back home, I am going to sit down and bang out some more writing, and then at some point I’ll retire to my easy chair to do some more reading.

Now that I’ve actually started to read ebooks, I have to eat a lot of crow. I’ve been resisting reading ebooks for years–I’ve done it, when required, for book award judging, but never really like it and resented having to do it–primarily because I don’t like change, for one thing, and for another, I already spend far too much time looking at screens; the last thing I need to do is read something electronically to relax after staring at a computer screen for a minimum of eight hours a day. My eyes continue to get worse–and it’s a combination of age and blue screen effect, I am fairly certain–and reading electronically was probably not going to help that. But now that I’ve gotten started, I can’t seem to stop. I finished reading This Rough Magic yesterday morning–or was it Friday night? I don’t remember–and yesterday I read a Scott Heim story, “Loam”, and then moved onto another Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting, which is also fantastic. We watched Zombieland Tap Twice (it was something like that) which was much funnier than I thought it would be, and then the Octavia Spencer horror thriller, Ma–which could have been better, but was perfectly adequate. I do love Ms. Spencer, and wish she would get some better material to showcase her talents more.

I think we’re scheduled to  have shitty weather today, too–rain and so forth–and it looks kind of hazy and sepia-toned out there this morning, and windy–so I should probably get my act together faster this morning and get to the store  so I can not only get it over with, but get back home before the weather turns ugly. Good thing I just looked up the weather–that isn’t going to happen until this afternoon, and I should be able to get there and back before that occurs. It’s also fun to sit at my desk and write during crappy weather, I don’t know why that is, but I like having that tiny barrier of glass between me and the nastiness outside. I’m not sure why that is….but the only thing I like about driving in rain is the coziness of being warm and dry inside my car while only a thin sheet of glass and metal protects me completely from the elements. It’s weird, I know, but everything about me is actually pretty weird; always has been (and for the record, I never became truly happy until I stopped fighting and accepted the weirdness).

I greatly enjoyed Scott Heim’s “Loam”; he’s always been one of the finest writers that our community has produced over the last (gulp) thirty years, and his lack of production has always been a pity and a shame. I read and loved Mysterious Skin years ago, and have always intended to reread it; reading “Loam” got me to find my old copy and place it on the Reread Project pile, which now consists of it, two more Mary Stewart novels (Madam, Will You Talk? and Thunder on the Right), Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Sing Me a Death Song by Jay Bennett, Shotgun Opera by Victor Gischler, A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt, and Harlan Ellison’s collection Strange Wine (I also have Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank on deck in my Kindle app).

“Loam” is a long short story about three triplets from the small town of Collingwood, Kansas (is this a nod to Collinwood from Dark Shadows? Perhaps), who are returning for the first time in years, to arrange and attend their father’s funeral. The story begins with the three of them dealing with the rental car arrangements at whatever airport they flew into–I assume Kansas City, which is where I’d fly into if going to visit my part of Kansas–and then slowly, as they make the drive, Heim begins to peel back a trauma the triplets–and the other kids in their first grade class–possibly survived when they were very young; a Satanism scare, in which the teacher and her mentally handicapped son were accused of using (and abusing) the children. This begins to resurface when they stop at a second hand store and find a stack of pictures of their classmates and themselves at that age, possible evidence from the case, which was eventually dismissed as a hoax and a scare–similar to the Satanic scare that happened somewhere else, where the cops basically convinced the children they were abused and to accuse the day care operators of Satanism and abuse–and so we’re never really sure, as are the kids themselves–whether or not it actually happened. It’s very gruesome, and very Gothic, and extremely well written. I recommend it highly; and I wish Scott would write more. I’d never gotten around to his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear; I’m going to make the time this year, methinks. “Loam” is a Kindle single, part of a group of six stories called “Disorder collection,” whatever that is, and you can get it here for 99 cents. You won’t regret it.

And then I started rereading Nine Coaches Waiting. Again, this is a Mary Stewart novel that I read once, long ago, as I was making my way through the Stewart canon as a teenager; I remember enjoying it, but it didn’t make a strong impression on teenaged me. But as I begin rereading it again yesterday, I could not help but marvel at Stewart’s skill. Nine Coaches Waiting consists of the perfect Gothic romantic suspense set-up; a young orphan girl comes to a huge mansion near the French/Swiss border (she has to fly to Geneva to get there) to be governess to an orphaned young French comte; his estate, Chateau Valmy, is being managed for him by his aunt and uncle; he usually lives with another uncle in Paris, but that uncle, an archaeologist, has been called away for six months to a dig in Greece, and so he has returned to his ancestral home to live with his other uncle. Linda, our twenty-one year old heroine, is half-French and fluent in both languages, but it’s made fairly clear to her during the hiring process that they prefer someone who only speaks English, so that the young Phillippe’s English also will become fluent–as she can only speak to  him in English. Under the cover of that lie Linda comes to Chateau Valmy, and becomes attached to her young charge…while not entirely trusting Phillippe’s aunt and uncle, her employers. What Stewart is doing with this novel is completely subverting the meek governess trope of romantic suspense, that began with Jane Eyre; her employer even mockingly calls her “Miss Jane Eyre” at one point. Victoria Holt went back to the governess well over and over in her novels, from Mistress of Mellyn to The King of the Castle, sticking to, and mirroring, the original trope; I love what Stewart is doing with it, and this is yet another example of what a master writer Mary Stewart actually was.

And on that note, perhaps it’s time for me to get back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Easter Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Rose Garden

My paternal grandmother–the one who went undiagnosed for bipolar disorder until she was in her eighties; better late than never, I suppose–was also the first person in my life to encourage me to not only read but to become a writer. She also introduced me to old movies–including horror, suspense, mystery, and noir–and also was the person who introduced me to some of my favorite writers, including Ellery Queen, Victoria Holt, Erle Stanley Gardner, and the magnificent Mary Stewart. My grandmother gave me a copy of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in hardcover, saying, “This one has a huge surprise in it.”

She wasn’t wrong, either.

Flash forward a few years, and a friend in high school convinced me to read a novel called The Crystal Cave. I started reading it and couldn’t stop reading it, and then immediately went out and bought my own copy of the sequel, The Hollow Hills. The friend–Felisha–told me I should also check out some of Mary Stewart’s other, non-Arthurian novels, so the next time I went to the library, I went to the S’s in fiction and there it was on the shelf: The Ivy Tree, even the same edition I read when I nine or ten. Of course I checked it out, and also checked out Airs Above the Ground, The Moonspinners, and This Rough Magic. Spoiler: I loved them all. I would eventually read the rest of the Arthur books, buying them in hardcover when they were released (The Last Enchantment and the Mordred story, This Wicked Day), and gradually went back and read the majority of her suspense novels…but there are some, to this day, that I have not read–primarily because I don’t ever want to run out of Mary Stewart novels to read.

And now that I think about it…truth be told, it’s been so long since I read so many of these novels that I could probably reread them now and they would seem new to me. But I have reread both The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground many times; I always considered The Ivy Tree my favorite of her novels because it was the first I read–but in truth, Airs Above the Ground is definitely my favorite of them all. I am including Mary Stewart in the Reread Project, naturally; but I definitely need to make time to reread some of the ones I don’t remember.

Mary Stewart is often frequently mis-categorized as a Gothic writer, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth; perhaps some of her novels (Touch Not the Cat, The Gabriel Hounds) might skirt the edge of Gothic suspense, but that isn’t what she wrote. She is also often called romantic suspense, and again, while some of the book danced close to that (Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting–which, come to think of it, might also fall into that Gothic category again), she basically wrote suspense novels about headstrong young women who took charge of their situations and rarely, if ever, needed rescuing.

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Carmel Lacy was the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason I was having tea with her in Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn’t done anything to mitigate his offence; and when, on looking up ‘Other People’s Weather’ in the Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in Southern Italy. and concentrate steadily on Lewis’s sins and my own grievances.

“What are you scowling about?” asked Carmel Lacy.

“Was I? I’m sorry. I suppose I’m just depressed with the weather and everything. I certainly didn’t mean to glower at you! Do go on. Did you decide to buy it in the end?”

God, how I love this character. Vanessa March was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill heroine; look at how much we learn, not only about her, but who she is and where she is at emotionally, in that opening paragraph! We learn she is married; has had a horrible fight with her husband about having to change their vacation plans; is completely and utterly convinced she was in the right; and would rather spend time with someone she clearly doesn’t like rather than stay in her lonely apartment with her memories of the argument–which she is still angry about. But this tea at Harrod’s with silly Carmel Lacy is what sets the story in motion: you see, Carmel is divorced; left by her husband who now lives in Vienna, and she needs someone to travel with her teenaged son who wants to go see his father. Why would Vanessa be interested in making such a trip? And that’s when we get an insight into Carmel’s personality; she slyly mentions having seen Lewis in a newsreel at the cinema; something about a fire involving a traveling carnival in Austria, and surely Vanessa is going there to meet him? Vanessa never lets Carmel see she doesn’t have the slightest idea why or how Lewis could be in Austria rather than Sweden. Instead, she goes to the same cinema, watches the newsreel, sees that it is, indeed, her husband in the newsreel–he’s obviously lied to her, and then she calls Carmel and tells her she’d be delighted to escort her son to Austria.

Vanessa has no idea what’s in store for her in Austria, and yet she has no qualms about taking off for there, with a teenaged boy who’s practically a stranger to her, in tow; this is one of the reasons I love Stewart’s heroines; they were definitely not shrinking Violets, and impetuously always set off for adventure to parts unknown. The second chapter, which details the flight from London to Vienna, is another gem of a chapter. Timothy Lacy, a young teenager, cannot hide his disdain, dislike, and disapproval of his traveling companion; like all teenagers, he doesn’t think he needs an escort or a glorified babysitter. After a while, he buys a carton of cigarettes from the flight attendant, much to Vanessa’s inward amusement, and finally she says:

“You know, I couldn’t really care less is you want to smoke all day and all night till you die of six sorts of cancer all at once. Go right ahead. And as a matter of fact, the sooner the better. You have the worst manners of any young man I ever met.”

The paperback dropped to his knees, and he looked at me full for the first time, eyes and mouth startled open. I said: “I know quite well that you’re perfectly capable of traveling alone, and that you’d prefer it. Well, so would I. I’ve got troubles enough of my own, without bothering about yours, but if I hadn’t said I’d go with you, you’d have never got away. I know you’re sitting there fulminating because you’ve had a kind of nursemaid tagged onto you, but for goodness’ sake aren’t you adult enough to know that there are two sides to everything? You know you’d get on fine on your own, but your mother doesn’t, and there’s no sense in making gestures to reassure oneself, if they’re only distressing other people. Surely all that matters now is that you have got your own way, so why not make the best of it? We’re stuck with each other till I get you–or you get me–safely into Vienna and you meet your father. Then we’re both free to go about our own affairs.”

I don’t think I’ve ever loved a character more than I loved Vanessa March at that moment. It’s an excellent icebreaker, and she and Timothy Lacy–Tim–become friends after that exchange. But Tim, like Vanessa, has secrets of his own–for one thing, his father has no idea he’s showing up; has a new, younger fiancee; and no place or welcome for Tim–so without any other option, Vanessa brings Tim along on her search for the carnival from the newsreel. Tim is absolutely fascinated with horses–and Vanessa, as it turns out, is, like her father, a certified veterinarian.

I cannot say more without giving away spoilers–and spoilers in a Stewart novel are quite distressing; as part of the joy of reading her novels for the first time are the surprises she pulls on her unsuspecting readers; surprises that, even on a reread when you know what’s to come, you still can’t spot the stitching in her seamless plots. One of my all time favorite reveals in crime fiction takes place in this book–the brilliantly composed scene in which the old horse begins to dance in the moonlight, and what all that scene means–every time I reread the book I still get chills…and that’s not the only surprise Stewart pulls on the reader in Airs Above the Ground. It’s quite an exceptional thriller, with Vanessa and Tim making an exceptionally fun and interesting and witty team of sleuths trying to get to the bottom of what is going on around the carnival–and one of the best climaxes to a suspense novel I’ve ever read; then again, it’s hard to go wrong with a speeding train.

Genius, absolute genius.

And of course, being a devotee of Airs Above the Ground (which was, in fact, an Edgar nominee for Best Novel) also enabled me to surprise people with a Jeopardy! answer–“The horses known for the airs above the ground”–to which I quickly replied, “What are the Royal Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School, Alex?”

If you’ve not read this–despite it being slightly dated, you really need to.