Lonely Days

The first “Gothic” novel I read was Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman (technically, it was Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree, but I don’t really think of Stewart as a Gothic writer–which is a subject for another time), and I fell in love with them. These were the books, usually from Fawcett Crest in mass market paperback, that became famous for the “young woman running away from a spooky house with a light in the window while wearing a long nightgown and having really long hair” covers. Sometimes those covers didn’t belong on the books that had them (Charlotte Armstrong didn’t write Gothics, for one example), but inevitably, you really couldn’t go wrong picking up a book with that kind of cover. My favorites were of course Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt; I devoured their books, and also enjoyed Susan Howatch, Dorothy Eden, and any number of others. I miss those books, even if sometimes the heroines were incredibly passive to the point where I wanted to shake some self-esteem into them…and have often bemoaned their disappearance from the paperback shelves.

But there are modern Gothics being published–Carol Goodman is a QUEEN of the modern Gothic–and I’ve turned my hand to them from time to time myself (Timothy, The Orion Mask, Bury Me in Shadows) and would like to do more.

So, you can imagine how delighted I was to read (listen) to The Death of Mrs. Westaway.

The girl leaned, rather than walked, into the wind, clutching the damp package of fish and chips grimly under one arm even as the gale plucked at the paper, trying to unravel the parcel and send the contents skittering away down the seafront for the seagulls to claim.

As she crossed the road her hand closed over the crumpled note in her pocket, and she glanced over her shoulder, checking the long dark stretch of pavement behind her for a shadowy figure, but there was no one there. No one she could see, anyway.

It was rare for the seafront to be completely deserted. The bars and clubs were open long into the night, spilling drunk locals and tourists onto the pebbled beach right through until dawn. But tonight, even the most hardened partygoers had decided against venturing out, and now, at 9:55 p.m. on a wet Tuesday, Hal had the promenade to herself, the flashing lights of the pier the only sign of life, apart from the gulls wheeling and crying over the dark restless waters of the channel.

I had heard somewhere that this book had echoes of potentially being a Rebecca homage (hello, Timothy!) so of course I was interested. Ware first exploded on the mystery scene with her The Woman in Cabin 10, which I haven’t read (it’s buried in the TBR pile somewhere) and I had acquired some of her others titles in the years since her debut with In a Dark, Dark Wood (which I also have on hand) and I decided, when picking out audiobooks to listen to on the drive, thought, “Hey, isn’t it about time you checked out Ruth Ware? Overdue, in fact? So I downloaded The Death of Mrs. Westaway and started listening once I pulled away from the curb last Thursday.

Wow.

The main character is Harriet Westaway, who goes by Hal. Hal is poor–very poor. She makes a subsistence-level living by reading tarot cards in a booth on the pier in a seaside resort, and it’s the off-season, where her living is even lower. The book opens with her walking home from a night’s work, trying to figure out how she is going to pay her bills–and which ones can wait, which need immediate attention–and she also owes money to a loanshark, who is getting more threatening with every passing day. Out of the blue she receives a letter from an attorney letting her know she was named in her grandmother’s will, and an invitation to the funeral. Confused–Hal knows that wasn’t her grandmother’s name, and verifies the information by checking her mother’s birth certificate (her mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident when she was a senior in high school–the British equivalent, at any rate–and as such never finished school); it’s a mistake, but…maybe she can fake her way into a bit of an inheritance. She is desperate, after all, and what can it hurt to get away for a little while? And so Hal sets out for the Cornish estate Trepassen–the Westaway fortune has dwindled over the years, and the house is in ill repair, but Hal is very startled after the funeral to discover that her “grandmother” has left everything to her, which now has her on the horns of a dilemma. She knows a mistake has been made about her identity, but doesn’t know how to get out of the pickle she’s now in.

Trepassen reminded me in ways of Manderly, and the Rebecca parallels are there, but this is not a simple homage. Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper, was devoted to the late Mrs. Westaway (whose children despised her) and is perfectly awful to poor Hal. The Westaway family welcomes Hal as the long-last daughter of their long-lost sister Maud, which only adds to her guilt about the deception she is pulling on them. Hal is mousy, like the second Mrs. deWinter, and there were times I wanted to shake her into standing up for herself a bit more…but on the other hand, it kind of fits into the situation she’s in–how do you stand up for yourself when you are literally lying to everyone? There are a lot of family mysteries to explore and unravel. Hal’s arrival at Trepassen starts those threads unraveling, and like any true Gothic heroine, soon her life is in danger…

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It reminded me strongly of Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, and I will certainly be reading more of Ruth Ware going forward.

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me

I’ve always considered myself to be a child of the seventies.

Sure, I was a child for during the sixties, but I turned nine in 1970. While I am sure that turbulent decade provided some (a lot of) influences on me, my personality, my likes/dislikes, and my future, I am equally confident that my values and thoughts and beliefs probably weren’t as shaped from that turbulent decade as they were by the 1970’s. The seventies are really the first decade for which I have a lot of recall (recently, a friend was amazed that I remembered those horrible Rag City Blues jeans for women that were, for some reason beyond my thought processes, popular in the latter part of the decade; what can I say–I do remember the decade fairly well for the most part–or at least as far as my memory can be trusted). I’ve always wanted to write books either set in the seventies completely or even partly; Where the Boys Die, my 70’s suburban Chicago novel, keeps pushing its way to the forefront of my increasingly crowded (and clouded) mind. (NO I AM WRITING CHLORINE NEXT WAIT YOUR TURN)

I remember Watergate and how the scandal grew. I remember the 1972 landslide reelection of Nixon, and the country’s negative reaction to the Ford pardon of the man who brought him to power; I also remember Jimmy Carter running for president out of seemingly nowhere and getting elected. There was The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and Archie Bunker and Mary Richards; Sonny and Cher and Carol Burnett and Donny and Marie and the Jackson 5 and Grand Funk Railroad. Top Forty radio ruled the AM airwaves; not every car came equipped with FM capabilities, and the only way you could play your own music in your car was with an eight-track player. I started the decade reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators; by the end of the decade I was reading John D. MacDonald and Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins. It was a very weird decade…of odd color and fashion choices; avocado greens and browns and American cheese orange were ridiculously popular, as was shag carpeting, velour, clingy polyester shirts, corduroys, bell bottoms and slogan T-shirts. Baseball shirts and rugby sweaters also became popular later in the decade. People had feathered hair parted in the center, and there was this weird sense of, I don’t know, missing out? Movies were grittier, harsher, more realistic; actors went from the polished shine of the old Hollywood system glamour to warts-and-all realism. Television was also beginning to change but was still heavily censored. Boogie and truckin’ and shake your booty became part of the vernacular; the decade began with the break-up of the Beatles and ended with disco’s last gasps while new wave and punk and rap started their rise.

It was the decade I went through puberty and realized that I was attracted to other boys instead of girls; I wasn’t quite sure what that meant but definitely found out in the seventh grade it meant I was a faggot, fairy, queer, cocksucker, and all those other lovely words that were burned into my brain that year. It was the decade where I read Harold Robbins’ Dreams Die First (a truly execrable novel) over and over again because the main character had sex with both men and women, and if I am not mistaken, contained the first male-on-male sex scene I’d ever read (oral); it was also the decade where we moved from Chicago to the suburbs to the cornfields of Kansas and I graduated from high school. (Ironically, it was in Kansas that I discovered gay books with explicit gay sex scenes in them–the News Depot on Commercial Street not only carried The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren and her other novels, but also Gordon Merrick; and their magazine racks also had gay porn magazines–which, now that I think about it, meant there were others there in Lyon County and environs; I didn’t realize it at the time, of course.) It was when Norah Lofts’ The Lute Player made me aware that Richard the Lion-Hearted was like me, too; and Susan Howatch’s Cashelmara and Penmarric also had gay characters and plots involving them…

I’ve always thought the seventies was a much more important decade than ever given credit for; usually it is merely considered a connecting time from the 60’s to the 80’s…but almost everything that came after–socially, politically, culturally–got started in the seventies. So I was glad to see this book about that frequently dismissed time.

As I mentioned previously, the Seventies were turbulent; they were the decade that also saw the beginning of the end of the post-war economic/prosperity bubble. Gas shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and the insidious use of racism to break the Democratic coalition began–everything we find ourselves dealing with today had its roots in the Seventies–and it did seem, to those of us growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, that the world had lost its mind and our country (or rather, its mythology) had lost its way. Schulman’s study of the decade, breaking down how the shifts in culture, politics, and our society began, were exploited for divisive purposes, and permanently changed attitudes moving forward was a fascinating, if chilling, read. I remember the terrorist attacks. I remember watching the Munich Olympics that ended in bloodshed on an airport runway and murdered Israeli athletes. The book brought back a lot of memories; I am not so sure I agree with all of Schulman’s assertions about the decade–there certainly wasn’t very much about the burgeoning gay rights movement, other than how it chased lesbians off into the Women’s Movement–but it was interesting to read the book and relive the decade a bit, as well as the memories it triggered.

I do highly recommend this book for people who weren’t around for the Seventies and might be wondering how the fuck did we end up in this current mess?

This Used To Be My Playground

GEAUX TIGERS!

I watched the Auburn-Washington game yesterday while I cleaned the downstairs. I did a lot of chores and errands yesterday; and also did some reorganizing and cleaning so the living room doesn’t look quite so…book hoarder-ish. 

I’m getting better about it. I’ve realized that the true value, for me, of the ebook is that if I read a book I really like and think I’ll want to hang on to for one reason or another, I can donate the hardcopy and buy the ebook; if I’m patient enough and pay enough attention to email alerts and so forth, I can usually get it at a much discounted price. I don’t feel quite so bad about buying ebooks at low sale prices as I would had I not paid full price already for a print version. So, I’m really buying the book twice.

(I also find myself taking advantages of sales on ebooks by a particular author whose books I loved and would love to revisit sometime. I have the entire canon of Mary Stewart on my iPad, and a shit ton of Phyllis Whitneys. I’m also occasionally finding books by Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, which is lovely; I’ve also managed to get some of Susan Howatch’s lengthy family sagas, like Penmarric, The Wheel of Fortune, and Cashelmara. There are many treasures to be found through e-retailers.)

And I also find that, once I’ve let go of the hard copy, I’m not usually all that anxious to buy the e-version. Most of the books I want to keep is because I think it might be something I’d want to write about in a broader, nonfiction sense; like a book about the Gothic romances of the 1960’s thru the 1980’s, what they were inspired by, and how they were books about women’s fears; yes, there was romance involved, but they were also about the dark side of romance. Or a lengthy essay or study about how gay men are portrayed in crime novels written by authors who aren’t gay men, like the rampant homophobia in James Ellroy’s Clandestine or the male/male relationship in James M. Cain’s Serenade or any number of gay male portrayals over the decades of American crime fiction. Then there are, of course, the nonfiction tomes, about periods of history that interest me that I hold onto because I may need them as research for a book or story idea that I have.

I also keep copies of books by my friends, and whenever a friend has an ebook sale I will always grab a copy if I can.

I still haven’t really shifted from reading hard copies to reading electronically, but I am slowly but surely getting there. Anthologies are really helpful in that way; short stories are, of course, self-contained and by definition can usually be completed in one sitting.

I also finished reading James Ziskin’s wonderful Cast the First Stone, and am now eighty percent of the way finished with my Bouchercon homework.

cast the first stone

Monday, February 5, 1962

Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining. The captain’s voice crackled over the public-address system to inform us that we were next in line for takeoff. I’d noticed him earlier leaning against the doorframe of the cockpit, greeting passengers as we boarded the plane. He’d given me a thorough once-over–a hungry leer I know all too well–and I averted my gaze like the good girl that I’m not.

“Welcome aboard, miss,” he’d said, compelling me to look him in the eye. He winked and flashed me a bright smile. “I hope to give you a comfortable ride.”

I surely blushed.

Now, just moments after the handsome pilot had assured us of our imminent departure, the engines roared to life, and the aircraft lurched forward from its standstill. Juddering at first as it began to move, the plane rumbled down the runway, gathering speed as it barreled toward takeoff. I craned my neck to see better through the window,  holding my breath as I gripped the armrest of my seat and grinned like a fool. I sensed the man seated next to me was rolling his eyes, but I didn’t care. Of course I’d flown before–a regional flight from LaGuardia to Albany on Mohawk Airlines, and a couple of quick hops in a single-engine Cessna with a man who was trying to impress me with his derring-do. Alas, his derring-didn’t. But this was my first-ever flight on a jet plane.

This is a terrific start to a terrific novel. The fifth book in James W. Ziskin’s highly acclaimed and award-winning Ellie Stone series, it is, alas, the first Ellie Stone I’ve read. I met the author at a Bouchercon some time back (I don’t recall which one) and of course, I’ve been aware of the awards and the acclaim, and have been accumulating the books in his series for my TBR pile, but just haven’t gotten to them yet, much to my chagrin. So while I am not a fan of reading books out of order in a series (a crime I committed earlier in my Bouchercon homework with Nadine Nettman’s wine series), I certainly didn’t have the time to go back and read the first four.

Now, of course, I am going to have to–and what a delightful prospect this is.

Ellie is a delight, for one thing. The book/series is set in 1962/early 1960’s; and Ellie is a report for the New Holland Republic, not taken terribly seriously by the men she works with or for (with the sole exception her direct editor), even though she is the best reporter and the best writer on her paper. (It kind of reminds me of Mad Men in that way.) The opening is terrific; Ziskin captures that excitement of your first jet flight in a time period where it wasn’t terribly common to fly beautifully, and using that experience to not only showcase how adventurous Ellie is but to introduce her to the new reader as well as give some of her background. She is flying out to Los Angeles to interview a local boy who’s gone out to Hollywood to be a movie star, and has recently been cast as the second male lead in one of those ubiquitous beach movies the 60’s were known for, Twistin’ at the Beach. But he hasn’t shown up for his first day of shooting on the Paramount lot, placing his job in jeopardy, and soon the producer has been murdered…and the deeper Ellie gets into her story and her search for Tony Eberle soon has her digging through the seaming, tawdrier side of the Hollywood dream and system. Saying much more would be giving away spoilers, but Ziskin’s depiction of the secretive side of Hollywood, what studios were willing to do back in the day to protect bankable stars, and what that meant to those on the seamier side of the business is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking, and sympathetically written.

I can’t wait to read more about Ellie Stone.

And now I have moved on to Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie, the last part of my homework. LSU plays tonight (GEAUX TIGERS!), and I want to go to the gym, do some more cleaning, and do some more writing today.

So it’s back to the spice mines with me.