I Woke Up In Love This Morning

Well, I kind of do every morning, really. It’s kind of hard sometimes to wrap my mind around the fact that next month is our twenty-seventh anniversary. Twenty-seven years. That’s a long time for someone like me, whose prior relationships never lasted much longer than a couple of weeks at best. I was thinking about my past last night, after I got home and collapsed into my easy chair, and thinking again how I could never write a memoir because I really don’t remember what actually happened, and over the years I’ve rewritten things to make me look better in my own mind and memory. We all have, I think, a tendency to see ourselves as always being in the right, and everyone else being wrong…and as more time passes we continue to color those memories and slant them in our minds until the truth, what really happened, what was actually said, have changed completely in our minds and these biased revisions become our truth; which is just one of many reasons I use my past–if and when I do write about my past–I only use it for fiction–because my past as I remember it now is probably mostly fiction.

I had another good night’s sleep last night, which was marvelous and feels great this morning. My muscles feel rested and relaxed as opposed to tight and tired, and my mind feels a bit refreshed. I am not in world-conquering mode quite yet; but I am getting there slowly but surely. I have a lot of work to get done this week and over this weekend; I am going to have to buckle down and force myself to actually get the work done this weekend no matter how badly I want to goof off and relax and do little to nothing–it’s really not an option for me this time around. I have too much to do, and the trip to Kentucky, necessary as it was, really threw me off schedule (which I was already behind, to be fair; the trip made things worse). So I am hoping–with feeling rested and everything today–that I’ll be able to make some serious progress on things, and get to a place where I can unplug for the entire weekend (other than the blog, of course) and avoid everyone and everything until I am completely caught up the way I should be on everything. I doubt that will happen–if anything was proven to me this past weekend on the trip, it’s that I get way too much junk email every day, so not looking at it and not deleting things is really not an option for an entire weekend.

I am also the featured author at Three Rooms Press this month, which is very cool; many thanks to Peter Carlaftes (and Kat Georges) for always being incredibly supportive of me and my career over the years, ever since they published the Florida Happens anthology I edited for St. Petersburg Bouchercon. I was rereading it last night in my chair while I was waiting for Paul to come home (so we could watch another episode of The Little Drummer Girl), and I winced quite a bit, as I always do. The other morning, when I taped the segment for Great Day Louisiana (which, it occurred to me last night, might not air) I was having to talk about writing and again, I think back to the questions asked (Malik, the interviewer, was great–friendly and nice and very high energy) and my responses and wince a little bit. I always feel so pompous and pretentious when I talk about writing, but I try to be as honest as I can. I’m never sure how I come across (and let’s be honest, I am a huge critic of myself), and I want to be practical–I always roll my eyes when I read interviews about writers talking about writing and they turn into this mystical, mysterious thing with muses and Gods of Inspiration and “opening a vein and bleeding on the page” and all of that stuff. Yes, you want emotional honesty in your work, and yes, you want your characters to be realistic and fully developed and well rounded and to have interior lives, but ultimately, at least for me, writing is work. I think about it, I go over it in my head, I sit down and write it and print it and edit it and revise and rewrite it and maybe that can, I suppose, be seen as “bleeding on the page”…but then I remind myself I am not a literary writer and so therefore I don’t go through all the angst and agony they do–I don’t spend hours trying to structure and craft a sentence until it’s perfect and poetry, either.

Then again, I’ve never really fit the mold of what most people think authors are like and I’ve never written the way other people do. And that’s fine; there’s no “one way” to be an author. I always tell people the entire point of writing manuals is to show beginners there are any number of ways to write and be a writer; what works for someone else might not work for you, and the point of the manuals with helpful hints and techniques and methodologies for getting words on the page is for you to try things to see what works best for you, and it may wind up being a combination of Sue Grafton said this and this other writers does this and let me try this thing Michael Connelly does and so on…you have to come up with whatever works for you, and there’s nothing wrong with borrowing bits and pieces of other author’s techniques and honing them into something that works for you.

Which is also why I will never write a How to Be a Writer manual. I could, on the other hand, do something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is a combination writing memoir/manual, and is the book I recommend to any and every person who wants to write. And then I think, like anyone wants to read your memoir about writing….and didn’t you just say you aren’t sure of your own memories of the past, what’s true and what’s been revised over the years by your ego?

Yes, that would be a problem.

At any rate, it’s time for me to head into the office for another exciting day of STI testing. You have a great day, Constant Reader, and think of me down here in the spice mines.

Chick-a-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)

I love football.

I know, it catches people off-guard that a sixty year old gay man is a massive football fan, but I’ve never subscribed to stereotypes. I love football, with an especial love for the college game (I used to only watch the Saints in the NFL, but have started rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals because, well, Joe fucking Burrow); I think everyone knows I am a massive LSU fan. (GEAUX TIGERS!)

There really isn’t anything else in the world like a Saturday night in Death Valley. I will remember the 2019 night game against Florida probably for the rest of my life. God, what a great game, and it was so much fun. I am aware that I am digressing.

Anyway, I grew up in a Southern football family (even if we didn’t live in the South, we were from the South and that’s all that matters), so it was inevitable that I should become both a football fan and a football player. I played all four years in high school, all of my cousins also played, and I have close relatives who played at both the college and professional levels (and I don’t mean some small college in the middle of nowhere; I mean in the SEC–Auburn and Alabama, and there may be even more that I don’t know about). I have relatives who were successful coaches. Every fall Saturday the television was tuned into whatever college game was playing–even if we weren’t fans of either team; it’s hard to imagine now with the 24/7 college football coverage, but when I was growing up ABC had a monopoly on all NCAA football games. They would usually play one game of national significance, and then the second game was regional–important to that region. As we did not live in the South, we rarely got to see SEC games other than Alabama–Alabama was almost inevitably the only Southern team of “national interest” throughout the 1970’s (I really don’t remember the 1960’s much, but we lived in Chicago so I imagine we saw a lot of Big Ten and Notre Dame games; I don’t really remember a lot of my life before the suburbs, really–some things, yes, but most things not so much)

I’ve never really read a lot of fiction about football, though; it inevitably winds up being something cliched and tired. I loved North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent; hated Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins; but do remember enjoying End Zone by Don DeLillo (I was going to reread this recently; but there’s so much to read. I did try to to reread Semi-Tough–but when I opened the book there were racial slurs and other mess on page one, so I threw it in the trash; no thanks). And I’ve also enjoyed other books with football involved, even if it wasn’t necessarily what the book was about. (The Hardy Boys were on the Bayport High football team in The Crisscross Shadow–the only time football is mentioned in the series.) There’s also a tendency, in books about high school and football to make the football players and cheerleaders the villains of the story, which has never really sat right with me. I was never bullied by anyone on the football team, and maybe the cheerleaders weren’t bitches to me because I was on the team and my sister was a cheerleader, but that wasn’t my experience (one thing I truly appreciated about Stephen King’s Christine was the horrible bullies at Libertyville High weren’t the football players but the hard-case kids–which was also my experience; which is probably yet another reason the book is one of my favorites of the King canon, methinks).

But…I can also see why it’s so attractive to make the jocks and cheerleaders the villains of high school dramas. And I sort of did something similar in #shedeservedit, didn’t I? Those boys on the Marysville and Steubenville high school teams certainly fit the bill of villainy.

So, when people started recommending Eli Cranor’s debut Dont Know Tough to me, I wasn’t so sure. I just published a book of my own about high school football and the toxicity it can engender in a small town (#shedeservedit), and revisiting my memories of high school and football was harder than I had thought it would be; I thought I could be dispassionate about it all while writing about it (I often write about things to try to distance myself from them and gain some perspective) but I was wrong. It was hard to write that book, much harder than I thought it would be–and it took years (first draft was written in 2015; published in 2022).

But enough people whose opinions I respect were raving about the book, so I got a copy and once I started reading it, there was no way I could stop.

Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I’s gonna let Him see me hurt. No way. bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.

Tasted it while I saw in Ms. Miller’s class. Woke up in Algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.

This my favorite drill.

I just been standing back here, watching the other boys go at it. The sound of pads popping like sheet metal flapping in a storm.

“Who want next?” holler Bull. Bull ain’t the head coach. Bull coach the defense. He as mean as they come.

One of my favorite books of all time about small towns is Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show (I also love the film, which is extraordinary and one of, in my opinion, the best films made during the 1970’s). I did try to reread it recently–I was interested in refreshing my memory of its gay subplots and the mental breakdown of poor Joe Bob Blanton, but I’d also forgotten the part about the bored teenaged boys decided to fuck some calves, so when I got to that part I put the book down in distaste. But now that I’ve finished Don’t Know Tough, I kind of want to go back and reread The Last Picture Show again (I can skip that distasteful part…weird that I didn’t remember it).

Don’t Know Tough is yet another incredibly impressive debut, further confirming the truth of what I said at the Lefty Award banquet–the last few years have seen so many amazing and diverse and extraordinary debuts that the future of our genre is in very good hands. I won’t lie–when I started reading the book, I wasn’t sure I could keep reading it; I was worried that the entire book would be written in that grammatically garbled first-person voice but as I kept reading that first chapter I got into the rhythm of the language and started seeing the beauty and fluidity of the style choice–which is no small feat to pull off, and pull off consistently, throughout the entire book…to the point I was also a little disappointed that the entire book wasn’t done in that same style. Billy Lowe is the character whose voice this is; and the story of the novel revolves around him and the horrific Shakespearean tragedy that his life actually is. His mother is an alcoholic, and lives with an abusive piece of shit who obviously directs violence at Billy. He has a younger half-brother who was fathered by this POS; he also has an older brother who lives elsewhere. Billy’s situation has turned him into a wild beast of rage with an exceptional gift for channeling that rage into playing football. He’s not big enough in size to go major college, but his coach feels like there’s a chance he could get a football scholarship to a smaller college, and break the cycle of poverty he is trapped in at the moment. Billy is exceptionally compelling–it’s hard to read his first person point of view and not have your heart break for this kid; and hope that it’s all going to work out for him in the end, despite the disturbing pattern of violence in both his life and behavior.

Denton High has made the Arkansas state play-offs, but without Billy in the backfield their chances of advancing are practically nil. It’s important for Denton to do well in the post season because their coach’s job depends on it. Trent Powers is a born-again Christian, whose last coaching job in California crapped out–winning only three games in his final three seasons before being fired. This job is another chance for him, even though his wife and daughters hate relocating to a small town in Arkansas from California (much is made throughout the book of Coach Powers’ Prius, seen by the locals are weird and strange and almost otherworldly and unmanly). Coach Powers also has a very soft spot for his star player, and not just because he’s a star player–he actually feels compassion for the horror the young player’s life has been up to that point, and he wants to help–even if Billy doesn’t want any help from anyone. Billy’s future, to Billy at any rate, is already set, and he’s not going to end up going anywhere or doing anything or having a good life and decent future. He doesn’t see himself being worthy of anything or of doing better than his assigned lot in life.

The Powers family is a direct contrast to Billy’s; loving and nurturing couple, raising two daughters and trying to do right by them. How far is too far to go when helping someone in Billy’s situation, is the question. Coach’s wife–the daughter of a successful football coach who took Trent in when he was a kid from a similar background as Billy’s…and yes, he slept with his coach’s daughter and got her pregnant. So both Coach and his wife have the fear that the same thing will happen to their daughter and Billy–especially when the daughter starts opening up to Billy.

But one night Billy’s abuser is murdered. No one would blame Billy for killing the abusive bastard–well, the law would. But the story of what happened that night is far more complicated, and far more surprising, than the reader can imagine.

The pacing is also exceptional, and I love the contrasts between the third person point of view we see much of the novel in, with the Billy point of view chapters mixed in. The language choices and imagery are spare and tight yet full and rich and immersive–reminding me not only of Megan Abbott and her brilliant Dare Me, but also with a healthy dash of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, S. A. Cosby, and Kelly J. Ford (all masters of Southern Gothic) mixed in. The little touches of how claustrophobic small Southern towns can be, the class disparities between the haves and the have nots, and what teenagers in those types of environments was simply masterful.

I was completely blown away by this amazing work, and suspect that you will be as well. Highly recommended. I cannot wait to see what Eli Cranor does next.

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I can’t believe Chris Owens died.

It’s hard to imagine New Orleans without Chris Owens.

Obviously, New Orleans was here long before she was born, and yes, as with everything, New Orleans will go on. It’s hard to describe Chris Owens to outsiders, really; she was an entertainer, owned her own club on Bourbon Street, and continued performing there at least once a week for decades. I always meant to go see her perform, as I felt it was like paying homage to a local legend and should be done; Paul and some friends did go when I was out of town one week, and I’ve always regretted not ever going. Looks like that’s a regret that I will carry with me to my own grave.

Tomorrow I leave for Albuquerque early in the morning–well, the flight is at 9:50, but that means I have to be there two hours ahead of time, and have to get there, and all of that, you know. So I’ll probably be getting up around the same time I usually do, at six. I have to check in for the flight this morning and I have to pack tonight when I get home from work. Yay? I am excited to be traveling again, excited to be going to a mystery conference, and a little trepidatious about going…just a little bit. I am always a bit nervous about going to an event where I don’t know a lot of people, or the usual people I gravitate towards hanging out with aren’t going to be there. But I am bringing books with me to keep me entertained, of course; I am hoping to finish Arsenic and Adobo on my flight, with Wanda Morris’ All Her Little Secrets also in my bag “just in case”. I am also taking Robert Jones’ The Prophets and Julia May Jonas’ Vladimir and Rob Osler’s Devil’s Chew Toy. An ambitious reading plan, to be sure, but I would also rather not run out of books–although I am also relatively certain I’ll be flying home from Albuquerque with more books than I flew in with. I mean, I may end up hanging out in the bar with people, or I might not. As I said, while I do know a lot of people who are going to be there…my usual con-gang won’t be. I’ll have to wait to see them all at Bouchercon in Minneapolis this September.

Last night I felt a little done in by the time I got home from work, with laundry to get done and dishes to do. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work on the chores–I hate leaving the house messy when I travel, but I don’t think I will have enough time tonight before I have to go to bed to do any repairs to the mess, alas–and when they were completed, I retired to the easy chair (Scooter had been waiting for my lap, occasionally yowling to display his anger and disappointment that I wasn’t giving in to lap duty the moment he realized I was home and he’d been fed) and watched this week’s John Oliver before moving on to Young Justice (which I am really enjoying; it’s nice seeing the ‘not quite as famous’ DC superheroes in the show). Paul got home just after eight, and I stayed up a little while longer playing Scooter bed before retiring to my own bed for the night. I am also worried about being able to sleep on this trip, but at some point I know I will sleep deeply. And at least I do not have to get up early to fly back home. Huzzah!

I am also hoping to get some inspiration this weekend, which will mean attending panels and listening to writers opine about writing, character, plot, story etc. I generally do come away from these weekends invigorated and inspired (if exhausted), so here’s hoping. I have literally written nothing this entire month other than this blog and shitload of emails, and I do have a story due later this month. (note to self: reread that Stephen King story you were thinking of the other day, to see how he structured it) I also want to spend May writing the first draft of Chlorine, June writing the first draft of Mississippi River Mischief, July finishing off the novellas, and then circling back around to the novel manuscripts again. I am hoping that the lack of writing is burn out from all the work I did over the last seven months–finishing and polishing and working and writing like a madman–but then again, there’s always that fear in the back of my mind that it’s actually gone away for good this time. Do other writers worry about things like that? Maybe. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself, obviously–I never speak for anyone other than myself, so don’t ever assume that I am speaking for any community–but I do know I have this experience inevitably every time I finish writing something, or finish a massive binge-writing marathon.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, everyone!

Boogie Fever

In March of 2020, something I had only been vaguely aware of became something I was acutely aware of, seemingly overnight: the world, in fact, shut down in the face of a virulent and potentially deadly disease that was communicable. I went to work one morning and all of our appointments had been cancelled; they’d put up shields everywhere in the testing rooms and at the front desk; and after we were there for about a couple of hours the word came down from the chief medical officer: we were shutting down. It happened so fast my head spun. Within days the Tennessee Williams Festival was cancelled, the Edgar banquet was in jeopardy, and false information was spreading even more quickly than the virus. I also remember thinking that the measures we were taking as a country were so drastic that “surely it would be over in a few weeks.”

Ah, naivete.

Stressed out and concerned about everything and everyone, I did what I always do in stressful times: I turned to books. And, as is my wont, I decided to read about plagues. I got down my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror to read the bubonic plague chapter again; I have a copy of a book called The Black Death (whose author I cannot recall) that I also read; I revisited The Stand by Stephen King (an all-time favorite of mine); Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; Camus’ The Plague; and even got down Katherine Anne Porter’s short story collection to reread “Pale Horse Pale Rider.” I was, as you can obviously tell, interested in seeing how previous plagues had been dealt with, survived, and the changes they wrought on civilization and society. I also wondered how to write about the pandemic (it not being my first pandemic, either; I always felts queers of a certain age were a little better prepared for the coronavirus outbreak than the rest of the world because we’d already been through HIV/AIDS), and if I would eventually; I wrote a short story called “The Flagellants” which I hope to publish someday somewhere, probably in a short story collection of my own, and even came up with an idea for a Scotty: Quarter Quarantine Quadrille.

But I was also seeing people saying they wouldn’t read fiction set during pandemic times; and other authors shying away from it. I kind of shook my head but understood; I remember how New Orleans writers didn’t want to deal with Hurricane Katrina afterwards–I certainly didn’t when I was living through the aftermath–but we all eventually came around to writing about it. Even if it’s fiction, I feel like we need to have documentation of what it’s like to go through things like hurricanes and pandemics and other paradigm shifts that change the world as we used to know it before the shift.

This past week I started reading an advance copy of the new Chris Helm book, Child Zero, and finished it yesterday–and yes, it’s a pandemic story, and no, it’s not about COVID-19…but what it is, is one hell of a read.

Pike and his men reached the encampment’s southwest gate at precisely 3:15 a.m.

Twelve minutes earlier, their sleek black SUV’s–three in total, armored, tinted, and stripped of emblems, license plates, and VINs–entered the Lincoln Tunnel in Weehawken, New Jersey, having passed the darkened tollbooths without slowing. Two minutes after that, they emerged beneath the murky waters of the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan and zigzagged until they reached Eighth Avenue.

The stoplights blinked yellow in all directions. They encountered neither traffic nor pedestrians. Three years ago, Pike thought, these streets would’ve been bustling–even at this time of night. Now, thanks to the citywide curfew, they were empty save for police cruisers and sanitation crews.

The forer rolled lazily through intersections, or idled nose-to-tail beside one another so their drivers could converse. The latter clung to the side of tanker trucks in hazmat suits, or wandered two-by-two with smaller canisters strapped to their backs spraying bus stops, subway stations, and other public spaces with disinfectant foam. Fresh from the nozzle, it was enough to make your eyes water, but within minutes it dissipated to a lacy film that turned to fine white dust when touched, and smelled like some fragrance chemist’s idea of clean.

My assumption is that smell was either lemon or pine, or a combination of both?

Child Zero is, more than anything else, a rapid-paced thriller about a future world in which antibiotics have become useless; a virus has spread throughout the world rendering them (I won’t go into the technical details here; it’s explained much better within the pages of the novel and I am no scientist) ineffective in stopping infections or bacteriological diseases of any kind. A cut or a scratch can literally lead to death, and the world has clamped down into an authoritarian society that is even more frightening to contemplate than the pandemic itself. Would this be considered a science thriller? I’m not sure how you would classify this book within the world of crime fiction; it’s definitely a page turning thriller (once I got going yesterday there was no way I was putting it down until I reached the end), and kind of reminded me of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, only better (The Andromeda Strain scared the shit out of me when I read it as a teenager a gazillion years ago); Chris Helm is a better writer than Michael Crichton at his best, and it’s amazing what a difference sentence structure, word choices, and intense character development can make in a thriller. Focusing on a pair of cops, one white male and one Muslim woman, who get drawn into an investigation into a mass shooting event at a quarantine camp in Central Park (“Park City”), their investigation soon runs afoul of powerful people, within the government and without; Jacob Gibson is soon put on leave but soon they are witness to another mass death event; and find themselves helping a young illegal immigrant, twelve-year-old Mateo–who is the target everyone is looking for.

You see, all the murder victims in Park City were, surprisingly enough in a time of pandemic, completely healthy–which makes no sense. Somehow, Mateo is the key to everything…and time is running out because Jacob’s four year old daughter is sick.

This is a non-stop thrill ride from start to finish, but what makes it better than your average thriller is not just the timeliness of the story but the fact that the characters aren’t two-dimensional Hero, Sidekick, and Target, the way they so often are in thrillers. They have interior lives, are sharply drawn, and you care about what happens to them–which, to me, is perhaps the most important part of a thriller (and why so many thrillers, in my opinion, miss the mark).

Get it pre-ordered if you haven’t already. It’s truly terrific.

Time Changes Things

I was a late adaptor to audiobooks; just like I was with ebooks (which I still kind of recoil away from, for some unknown reason; during the early stages of pandemic shutdown I revisited Mary Stewart and several other favorites on my Kindle or iBook apps and enjoyed them heartily–yet for some reason I never go back to the iPad to read…probably the enormous stack of hard copies in my TBR pile glaring at me from directly across the room from my chair). I always worried, you see, that I would get so caught up in listening to the book that I wouldn’t pay attention to the road, or my mind would wander and I’d miss something important. Several years ago on a trip to Kentucky I listened to A Game of Thrones on the way up and End of Watch (by Stephen King) on the way back; both turned out to be highly pleasant experiences and yes, while my mind did wander at times–my subconscious was listening so I never got lost when I was able to give the book my attention again. The last time I drove to Kentucky I listened to Foundation on the way up and Donna Andrews’ delightful The Falcon Always Wings Twice on the way back. Audiobooks make the time pass much faster than listening to music and singing along (I am quite the rock star in my car), and so, when it was time to drive up to Birmingham this past weekend, I selected Lisa Lutz’ The Passenger to listen to on the way up and back; it wasn’t quite long enough to last the entire drive…but I also had some Lisa Unger short stories downloaded as well, and I figured once the Lutz was finished, I could listen to one of those.

But the Lutz…my God. Why on earth did I wait so long to read/listen this impressive work?

When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body. I pumped his barrel chest and blew into his purple lips. It was the first time in years our lips had touched and I didn’t recoil.

I gave up after ten minutes. Frank Dubois was gone. Lying there all peaceful and quiet, he almost looked in slumber, but Frank was noisier asleep than he was awake. Honestly, if I had known what kind of snorer he was going to turn into, I never would have married him. If I could do it all over again, I never would have married him even if he slept like an angel. If I could do it all over again, there are so many things I would do differently. But looking at Frank then, so still and not talking, I didn’t mind him so much. It seemed like a good time to say good-bye. I poured a shot of Frank’s special bourbon, sat down on Frank’s faux-suede La-Z-Boy, and had a drink to honor the dead.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t do it. I didn’t have anything to do with Frank’s death. I don’t have an alibi, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I was taking a shower when Frank died. As far as I could tell, he fell down the staircase all on his own. He had been suffering from vertigo lately. Convenient, I know. And I doubt he mentioned it to anyone. If I had waited for the place and told them the truth, maybe life could have continued as normal. Minus Frank.

This book was recommended by practically everyone I know; I’m not really sure why I never got around to reading it. I did read her next novel, The Swallows, and absolutely loved it; I also have her new one sitting on my coffee table waiting for me to get to it.

And as I said, now that I’ve listened to this one, I am really pissed off at myself for taking so long to get to it. I am not joking. When I arrived at the hotel in Birmingham on Friday, I literally stayed in the car until the chapter finished. When I got in the car to drive to Wetumpka Sunday morning, I even left earlier than I needed to in my eagerness to get back to the book, it was that good–and I had no idea how it was all going to turn out.

That opening! How do you stop reading after that? Who is this woman? Why does she have to go on the run after her husband’s accidental death? Who and what else is she running from? And most importantly–who is she? We’re never sure who “Tanya” really is; she picks up and discards new identities (who knew it could be so simply done? Even if it’s only temporary? But something bad happened in her past–something she is still terrified about, and doesn’t want the police to find her, so clearly it’s pretty fucking bad. As she goes on the run yet again, we start to understand who she is, in some ways–there are some things we’ll simply have to wait for Lutz to let us know about “Tanya”–but you can’t help but root for her. She has a sense of humor about her horrible situation, and you also can’t help but like her, whatever it is she did in her past. As the narrative continues, we are also fed some email communications between “Jo” and “Ryan”–one quickly picks up that at some point in her past, “Tanya” was also “Jo”–that rather cryptically talks about the past and the original situation that set her on the run.

And while “Tanya” never talks about what that was, or much about her past, we do get some information from her on that score: a distant mother who was alcoholic and went through men like Kleenex; an unstable home environment, she used to swim competitively–and each new piece of the puzzle fits securely into place.

As the book continues, she breaks the law to survive from time to time, and each new identity she takes on comes with its own challenges and difficulties and dangers. We follow her from one end of the country to another and back again; it’s almost like a series of vignettes, really, strung together into one over-arching narrative that you can’t stop reading. How is she going to get out of this? you wonder every single time, and the book just keeps barreling along until all the threads of her many lives come together at the very end, with a startling final twist just before the final resolution.

Do yourself a favor, Constant Reader, and get every Lisa Lutz book and read it. I certainly intend to.

Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone

Well, hello and good morning, Sunday! I have a shit ton to get done today (what else is new? Same song, next verse) but that’s okay; I feel good and rested and as long as I don’t get sidetracked today, I should be able to get a lot finished. The new heating system continues to make the Lost Apartment livable (it’s almost embarrassing to think how long we just accepted that the Lost Apartment would just be freezing cold when the temperature dropped, without questioning whether the system was actually working properly) and so we watched more Ozark last night; Laura Linney and the rest of the cast continues to kill it every episode. The new season of Apple TV’s bizarre but compulsively watchable Servant also has dropped, I believe, and some other shows we really enjoy are coming back soon. (I also want to get back to Peacemaker.) While I was waiting for Paul to get home last night after I finished my day’s work, I decided to finish watching the reboot of Gossip Girl, which, having now binged the entire original, I can say with complete confidence–the new one is terrible. Too earnest, too determined to be socially conscious in a ridiculously heavy-handed Nancy Reagan way; the writers/producers completely missed out on what made the original a guilty pleasure: the new show simply isn’t any fun.

I also saw on Twitter this morning that Stephen King has yet another book coming out this year, Fairy Tale, which further reminded me of how far behind I am on his novels. Gah. I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like–what else is new–and the books keep piling up. And with the recent release of this year’s Edgar and Lefty nominations, my TBR pile continues to ridiculously increase. Hopefully I will go on a trip soon, so I can get some more reading done. I am driving up to Birmingham in the first weekend of February to do Murder in the Magic City (Saturday) and Murder on the Menu (Sunday in Wetumpka); so I am hoping to listen to a book on tape while driving both ways; it’s about six or seven hours in either direction. Then of course in April I am off to Albuquerque for Left Coast Crime, and later that month (hopefully) to New York for the Edgars–so that’s a lot of time on planes and in airports, so I should be able to get some reading done on those trips. I’m still planning on Sleuthfest in Florida later this summer, and Bouchercon in Minneapolis in October; whether those trips will actually happen remains to be seen.

Heavy heaving sigh.

But the good news is I don’t feel lazy this morning–which is a lovely change of pace; maybe because I made myself get up when I woke up rather than lounging in the comfort of my bed–so maybe, just maybe, I can get everything I need to get done this morning/afternoon. This is the first week where I have to go in four days per week (ugh) which hopefully won’t be a regular occurrence; someone supposedly wants to take over my Mondays, which would be rather lovely if and when it happens. (I am not holding out hope that’s actually going to happen, by the way–it’s something I’ve been told–and I am also expecting to be very tired on Thursday this week)

I am also trying to stay focused and not look beyond the immediately important; which means no thinking about other books I want to write the rest of this year, no more thinking about short stories and/or essays I want to write, no more character inventions or story ideas until this book is finished and emailed off to the publisher. This doesn’t mean I don’t still get ideas or thoughts or stop being creative–I have creative ADHD, after all–it just means that I write the idea down and get it out of my head and go back to work on the book. I have three chapters at least to get done today, and if I can manage that I should be close to being back on track for getting it finished on time (extended deadline by two weeks).

And really, getting up just an hour earlier today than I did yesterday has made a significant difference to my day and the productivity factor–well, that remains to be seen, of course, but when I reached the point yesterday that I almost was finished with the blog it was nearly eleven; and then I had errands to run and by the time I was finished with all of that I was hardly in the mood to do much writing after getting everything put away and the dishes taken care of and all that jazz. It was also much easier to convince myself that I could stop working when I hadn’t reached the day’s goal–which means I have to finish yesterday’s goal as well as get today’s done. (I knew I’d regret quitting early yesterday, but I am always about immediate gratification and tomorrow’s stress be damned–ninety percent of my problem, really.

And on that note, I should probably head into the spice mines for the rest of the day. You have a lovely and restful Sunday, Constant Reader, and I will talk to you again tomorrow morning.

When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes

As I mentioned yesterday–these blog post titles taken from the Supremes discography sometimes feel a bit off as I do some Blatant Self-Promotion about my new soon-to-be-released novel #shedeservedit.

I got my first ignorant comment on one of those blog posts yesterday; someone posted a link to a video about “toxic femininity” and how it’s “as bad if not worse” than “toxic masculinity.” Needless to say, I not only didn’t approve the comment but marked it as spam and blocked the user from commenting/reading my blog. For those of you who are new here–I don’t engage with trolls, not do I permit them the energy or the oxygen of allowing their ignorance to be seen by anyone here. This is my blog and I pay for it; therefore I will curate the content here and if you want to troll me, well, it’s just going to earn you a comment marked as spam and get you blocked, so don’t waste your time or energy on me. You may, of course–I cannot stop you, but I won’t engage with you nor will I allow Constant Reader to see your ignorance, so there you have it.

I wrote yesterday, and it felt good to get another chapter down. I only have two more to go and the revisions, and I have to say, pantsing this thing on a tight deadline hasn’t been the easiest way to write this book, but it’s working. I’ve got the plot all worked out now, who the killer is and why, and now all I have to do is cram the resolution into the last two chapters and we are finished, done, ready to go off to the editor with prayers that she likes what I’ve done and doesn’t require a complete overhaul, which is also entirely possible and within the realm of probability–one of the reasons, frankly, that I’ve not signed. a contract to dive straight away into another book when this one is finished; I thought it best to leave my time free just in case. (I am going to start working on Chlorine and Mississsippi River Mischief while waiting for my edits; there’s always something to write, after all–I can also work on the revisions of the novellas in the meantime as well.)

There’s always something…

Today’s BSP is going to focus on writing about small towns, rather than what I’ve been covering (toxic masculinity). The first book I remember reading about a small town that really stands out to me–as an examination of small town dynamics, rather than merely a setting for the story–was Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, which was, if you are an Ellery Queen fan, the first Wrightsville story. There were several of these novels–the second, I believe, was The Murderer is a Fox–and I enjoyed them all; Queen clearly loved writing about Wrightsville, since he kept returning to the scene of the crimes, as it were, but the best, the true standout for me, was the first: Calamity Town. This book–published well over a decade before Grace Metalious scandalized the world with Peyton Place–also covers the same territory as Peyton Place: scandal and hypocrisy and the paralyzing power of gossip in small town America. Calamity Town remains a favorite mystery novel of mine to this day; I should reread it. It’s plot is ingenious and entirely rooted in human psychology, and it also contains one of the best and most clever misdirections in crime fiction history. It was Calamity Town that made me first start thinking about how small town society is actually a microcosm of American society as a whole, all encapsulated in a small package, and also that made me realize, for the first time, how claustrophobic small towns can be; where everyone knows everyone and you can’t really do anything without someone knowing; and how secrets kept can become very damaging over time. Queen is, at first, struck by the apple-pie Americana of Wrightville…and then he begins peeling back the layers.

Peyton Place, which I found to be far less scandalous than either General Hospital or All My Children by the time I got a copy at a secondhand bookstore in Emporia when I was seventeen or eighteen, also showed me again how claustrophobic small town life could be. Sure, there’s some bad to the point of laughable writing in the book (“your nipples are hard as diamonds”, anyone?) but other than those brief moments, overall it’s a very well-constructed book and a damning indictment on the hypocrisy of American small towns. I also read Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street around the same time for an American Literature class (I still think we should have read Elmer Gantry instead, or It Can’t Happen Here, but I was not in charge of the syllabus), which is also about the falseness of keeping up appearances and worrying what the neighbors think. I find it interesting that “small town American values” are frequently–particularly by conservatives–pointed out as what is the backbone of our country and so on and so forth (part of the entire “cities are BAD” thing we have had going on culturally for decades, if not centuries), but when that veil is peeled back, there is just as much rot and decay as in any “wicked” city. As I pointed out on Susan Larson’s radio show the other day, the vast majority of the soaps were originally set in very small towns, rather than urban centers.

Nobody does small towns quite like Stephen King, and the first time he really addressed small town life was in ‘salem’s Lot–although it can be argued he did a masterwork on small town life with Needful Things–and it was in his tale of small town Maine being overrun by vampires, he also did an incredible job of painting the town, it’s working class citizens and the minutiae of their lives; how circumstances trapped some of them and killed their dreams–and how others never had any dreams to be killed in the first place. The way he interweaves the lives of his small town characters, their relationships and histories and how everything is interconnected is masterful; has anyone ever done a critical analysis of King’s work with small towns? It also falls into this group; what King does with Derry is just as exceptional as his work on Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot in the other works.

I based Liberty Center on Emporia, Kansas, geographically; my town is loosely laid out the same way Emporia is; there’s a small college there, as in Emporia, and there’s a meat packing plant on one side of town that reeks of death and stale blood on the south side of town, and of course, the waterfall on the river on the way out of town heading south and the park that goes with it. Other than that, it’s memory and invention; I’ve not set foot in Emporia in nearly forty years and have no plans to ever do so again. (Likewise, when I write about my fictionalized county in Alabama–it’s loosely based on where my family is from, but I haven’t been there in thirty years and will most likely never go visit again, so it’s all memory and invention for me.) I don’t know if I will write another novel about Kansas–I have some other ideas, of course, don’t I always–but it seems weird to create another fictional small city so similar to Liberty Center, but at the same time it seems even weirder to set another book there after having already done so (although i should probably revisit Sara sometime and see how I did it–and what I called the towns in Kahola County–before deciding one way or the other).

Heavy sigh.

Today I need to write another chapter, and I also need to work on revising a short story as well as writing a promotional article–and of course, there’s the horror that is my email inbox which needs to be dealt with this week once and for all (it’s all relative; answering everything and emptying it out inevitably means generating more emails there; my email responses will trigger emails in response which turns it into a Sisyphean task without end), and today is the men’s US figure skating championships, which naturally I plan to watch so I need to get my writing done before then, don’t I?

So on that note, I head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

So, over the weekend I finished watching Chapelwaite.

What a terrific series this is!

When I started watching, I must admit I wasn’t compelled to continue watching past episode one. The story it’s based on (“Jerusalem’s Lot,” the only original story written for Stephen King’s collection Night Shift) was never one of my favorites, and I remembered it primarily as an epistolary story that never really got anywhere, if that makes sense–it really was just the letters of a man who was losing his mind, trying to get to the bottom of the weirdness going on in his inherited home, Chapelwaite, and there was something about “the worm” and so on. King described it as “Lovecraftian” in his seminal work on horror, Danse Macabre; and I had never gotten into Lovecraft, so I always figured I was missing something in the story because of that, and never revisited it. The first episode moved kind of slowly, as first episodes are often wont to do, and it did inspire me to reread the story–which I liked a lot more on a reread. But the episode started too slowly for Paul, and so we abandoned the show. A friend recommended it highly–“stick with it, it really picks up” so during my condom packing duties last week I started again with episode 2.

Very glad I did; and I really need to remember the truism that one should always give a show at least two episodes before abandoning it–unless that first episode is really and truly terrible (I’m looking at you, I Know What You Did Last Summer). Chapelwaite’s first episode was not terrible; but it was a very slow burn to set up the story. One thing I did greatly appreciate with how this show was done and cast was how the main character, Charles Boone (played perfectly by Adrien Brody), was more fleshed out and developed than he was in the short story. In the story, no mention was made of any spouse or children for him; his only family was the cousins who lived at Chapelwaite. The show gave him a Pacific Islander wife–who was already dead when the show opened, and three children, Honor, Loa, and Tane. In the show Boone was a whaler who lived at sea with his wife and children; the much-loved wife died of tuberculosis, and the younger daughter has rickets, so one of her legs is in a brace. The children are quickly seen as outsiders because of their mixed race heritage in the small town of Preacher’s Corners, the nearest town to the house; it isn’t just the mixed race children that are the source of the animus of the townspeople toward the Boone family. The Boones are blamed for a mysterious “illness” that infects and gradually kills the villagers; no one really knows what causes the illness or how to combat it effectively.

Charles is soon having weird visions, and hearing rats–or something–scratching within the walls of the house. An exterminator finds nothing in the walls, no signs of rats or mice or anything, which makes Charles think he might be going insane. He also engages Rebecca–who is not your run-of-the-mill nineteenth century young woman in small village in Maine. Rebecca has ambitions and desires of her own–to escape Preacher’s Corners, to become a writer, and she has been educated; so she comes to Chapelwaite to tutor the children and get them up to speed. Of course, the other children at the school are horrific to the Boone children, just as most of the adults are horrible to Charles. (Rebecca is played perfectly by Emily Hampshire, better known as Stevie on Schitt’s Creek, and the range she has is clear in this role; which is as far from Stevie as she could possibly get.)

But once the show starts rolling–as Charles and Rebecca and the children begin to find out what is really going on at Chapelwaite, and in the nearby abandoned town of Jerusalem’s Lot–it just keeps picking up speed. It is also truly Gothic in tone and feel; beautifully filmed and shot and the cast is perfect in their roles.

Highly recommended; one of the best King adaptations I’ve seen.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Friday morning and I have a dear friend’s retirement party to attend in the Bywater this evening. I have to run some errands–including stopping by the office–at some point during the day, and it looks like I shall have to postpone working on the book until tomorrow as there isn’t any way to make time for it today. But these things happen; sometimes life doesn’t allow an author an opportunity to write. It’s not the best possible outcome of a day, of course, but there it is.

I also further aggravated a muscle strain in my left shoulder (usually it’s my right one that becomes an issue, from an old wrestling injury) at the gym last night. I noticed the ache the last time I went to the gym–and thought I could push through it at the gym again last night. I noticed it when I was doing the chest exercise–I had to significantly lower the weight in order to do the exercise–but ironically, the only other time it was an issue was doing tricep pushdowns, when the shoulder merely works as a stabilizer for the working of the triceps. I had to abandon that entirely, and it did make me wonder as I walked home how I strained the muscle in the first place? It’s also worrying, now that I am back into the swing of actually working out again, that I now have a ready-made excuse to talk myself out of going every other day. On the other hand, it’s just a strain of some sort–not even a pull–so it can undoubtedly be worked around. The gym was also very crowded last night, which was irritating; I really need to get used to going into businesses that are more full than I’ve gotten used to over the past year or two. And especially since it’s now Christmas time; everything and everywhere is going to be more crowded.

Sigh.

While I was making condom packs yesterday I started watching Chapelwaite on Epix. I originally started watching it with Paul, but he thought it was too slow and didn’t care to continue watching it. I knew almost from the get-go that it was most likely a slow-burn; it was very Gothic in feel, which inevitably means a slow-burn (a friend asked me if I was watching, and when I said we’d stopped, told me to go back and finish–and she was right). The show is exceptional–it did take me a while to get used to Emily Hampshire playing someone not Stevie on Schitt’s Creek–and if you’re into Gothic horror and suspense, it’s right up your alley. It also handles issues of class, race, prejudice and provincialism extremely well; and the steady sense of dread and building suspense is quite remarkably done. I am really looking forward to finishing watching, to be honest. The afternoon flew past as I watched. It’s based on the story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” by Stephen King, from his Night Shift collection, and yes, it does sort of fit into the mythology of his terrific novel ‘salem’s Lot. I’m not sure if that was his intent when he wrote the story–Chapelwaite, the house in the story, is in some ways similar to the Marsden House in ‘salem’s Lot–which is yet another reason I am looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.

It also gave ma a good idea for another Alabama book, a sort of sequel to Bury Me in Shadows. So huzzah indeed!

But as Friday looms, there’s a lot I have to get done this weekend–I really need to get caught up on the book; I want to finish reading A Caribbean Mystery, and as always, there are endless chores to be done, and don’t even get me started on my email inbox–but I have faith that I shall persevere, and will come out on the other side of the weekend with much ado and accomplishment. (Yes, I do crack myself up from time to time, thanks for asking.) I slept really well last night–we got through the second season of OG Gossip Girl and are now into season three; it really is fun to watch, especially seeing bigger name stars of the present in early roles–Armie Hammer (although one can argue he no longer has a career of which to speak) was in the second season, for example, and yes, shame that he turned out to be what he turned out to be, as he was very good looking and reasonably talented–and our addiction to this show is allowing other shows we watch, or ones we want to watch, pile up so we’ll have plenty to watch in coming weeks and months, which is lovely.

I also think I am finished with Paul’s Christmas presents, but am not entirely sure. I’ll assess once they are in my hot little hands and wrapped (and hidden). And I do need to do my Christmas cards at some point–tick tock, said the clock.

And on that note, tis time to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I will speak with you again tomorrow.

Sweet Summer Blue and Gold

WEDNESDAY!

It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that I only have another two work days left before I am on vacation yet again; maybe that’s why I was so rested and full of energy yesterday as opposed to tired, worn, and old the way I usually feel on Tuesdays. I guess how this day will play out remains to be seen. I also managed to get caught up with reviewing the books I read whilst on my trip–I would have done this sooner, but my wireless keyboard stopped functioning (writing on a laptop is difficult for me; I’ve always used a separate keyboard) and so I ordered another one yesterday that will hopefully arrive before it’s time to go to Kentucky so I can take it with me so I can actually get work done while I am there.

And I am behind, as always, on everything.

But I am making progress, which is always pleasant and a relief of sorts. My book-buying compulsion is getting out of hand again, so I am going to have to do some more serious pruning of the books-on-hand this weekend and over the next few evenings, so I can drop off some boxes to the library sale this weekend. Yay! And I have some of my stuff-to-do more under control now than I did before, so again, it’s always lovely to make some progress as each day passes. It’s hard to believe next week is Thanksgiving; it kind of shook me up when I realized it on Monday that I only have a week between trips–and will be traveling again in mid-January (New York again) and will most likely be heading to Left Coast Crime in April as well (I think it’s in Albuquerque?)–barring another variant and another spike or wave of COVID infections. We got caught up on The Morning Show last night, just as the pandemic is beginning to break in the US–yay for reliving that horror, but they are doing a really good job with it, and I am not sure how I feel about their take on “cancel culture”–as someone who the right tried to cancel, back before it was called cancel culture, and yes, I do need to write about that at some point–but there is something to what they are saying, I think; I’m not sure. I don’t consider myself a moral authority on anything; I just think about things and try to learn and try to be better myself than the person I used to be. Life is about nothing if it’s not a constant learning and growing process, and we can always do better, be better, and grow, right? The people I feel bad for are those who actually stop growing and learning, stagnate and fossilize their beliefs and values, and think they don’t have anything else to learn, no need to grow. To me, that’s just sad and tragic.

I didn’t make it to the gym last night after I got off work because I wound up staying later than I usually do–I didn’t leave the office until after five, and thus got stuck in rush hour traffic going through the CBD on the way home (although they finally fixed the lights at Poydras and Loyola, so it wasn’t the nightmare getting through there that it has been since Ida, thank you Lord) and then I did some things around the house when I got home–things that needed doing–before Paul got home. I’ve also been listening to Red (Taylor’s Version), which is I think my favorite Taylor Swift record (yes, I am a sixty-year-old Swiftie, don’t you dare try to shame me for it), which is also quite good. I was a little brain-fried when I got home, but I am hoping to get back to reading Barbara Ross’ Shucked Away, so I can move on to Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon. I think I am going to simply take cozies with me to Kentucky; I really enjoy reading them and I also should spend more time reading them–it’s so hard to decide what to read all the time, and there are so many different books and styles of books that I want to read, and it’s not a bad idea to get away from the darker stuff for a while…

I also noted that there are new episodes of both Foundation and The Lost Symbol for me to catch up while condom packing on my work-at-home days, and I also have some data entry to do (almost caught up at last, huzzah!). I also have to figure out what audio books I want to take for the ride both ways–eleven hours; I listened to A Game of Thrones on the way up last time and End of Watch by Stephen King on the way home; perhaps this would be a good time to listen to one of the Stephen King novels I haven’t gotten to–The Outsider or 11/22/63 or Dr. Sleep or Black House–so many choices! Or perhaps it would be fun to listen to cozies on the way up? I get too much pleasure from actually reading Donna Andrews to give that up to listen to one; but maybe there’s another one of my favorite cozy series I can listen to; who knows? But I have all weekend to figure that out since I am not leaving until Monday morning.

I am going to try to not spend all day Saturday in my chair watching college football all day–at least not until I get the writing done that I need to get done–and hopefully will be able to read while the games are one when I finally do sit in my chair and relax.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader.