The Moment I Knew


Thursday, y’all, and I think I am going to take a vacation day tomorrow to try and help me get caught up on all the things I need to get caught up on. Another three day weekend, following up on the one just past already? To be fair, it kind of needs to actually happen, to be honest. I also have to remember to dedicate myself to making sure all the things I need to get done actually get done.

Which, you know, is the real trick here.

I also kind of need to pull myself together. While I am fully aware that there are certain things about myself I cannot control–depression, the mood swings, etc–it is still enormously frustrating to have to deal with them, try to work through them, get through them while trying to keep going with everything I am juggling these days. Part of it comes, undoubtedly, from my inability to ever get a handle on everything; even when I am making lists and working from them there’s always something I am forgetting when I make the list or something that comes up new after I make the list–and the list is so long and daunting to begin with that the thought of adding something else to it is paralyzing, which drags me back into the endless cycle of plate spinning to “Flight of the Bumblebee” again.

Obviously, the insomnia never helps either, nor does fearing, every night when I go to bed, that I am going to have insomnia again.

We started watching Mythic Quest last night on Apple Plus, and it’s not bad; we watched two episodes and I think it has the potential to become really funny; it stars Rob McIlhenny of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I was really surprised to discover that not only was he the driving force behind that show, but this one as well. We’re also watching We Hunt Together on Showtime–we started the other night, before getting distracted by Ted Lasso, which I absolutely love–and while it’s not bad, it’s not the best British crime show I’ve watched. It’s very unusual in that it features two mixed couples (a Black man and a white woman) on opposing sides of the law–the investigating detectives and the criminal couple killing people–and reflects the similarities of relationships and their dynamics in both; it’s like they are mirror images of each other if it’s a funhouse mirror. It’s an interesting choice, and the acting is superb; the female cop is played by Eve Myles of Torchwood fame, whose work I always enjoy.

During my condom-packing hours yesterday I also returned to the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, this time watching Jane Fonda in her Oscar-winning role as Bree Daniels, the call girl, in Klute (what is with women winning Oscars playing prostitutes, anyway?). Klute is a very strange film, and it’s the first of what is called, by film scholars, the Paranoia Trilogy of director Alan J. Pakula (I have recently watched the other two, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men). Klute, to me, is a deeply flawed film, but an interesting one all the same. It’s a crime movie, the title character is a cop who takes a leave of absence to investigate the disappearance of a friend, and yet neither the cop nor the investigation are the lead story of the movie; it’s really a character study of Bree Daniels. Klute, the detective, is played almost completely emotionlessly by Donald Sutherland (obviously a choice made by both director and actor; since this is also the same period that produced his stunning performance in Don’t Look Now), so the emotional heart and center of the movie is Fonda’s performance. I came away from the film not entirely convinced by that performance; there was complexity there and some moments of truly fine acting, but over all–the film hasn’t really aged all that well (the underground world of orgies and call girls and pimps and heroin of Manhattan in the 1970’s it is trying to depict feels very screenwriter-ish to me; a film studio’s thoughts about how that particular subculture would look, walk and talk)–but I can see why she won an Oscar; those scenes where she is able to really inhabit the character are stellar. Klute is a subversion of noir/crime thrillers, really; by focusing on the character study of Bree rather than the story, it becomes less a crime story than the story of the unfortunate aspiring actress/model who turns to tricking to pay the bills and then is trying to leave the life but isn’t entirely able to; not only because she needs the money but because she likes the power of being in control–or at least, the allusion of control hooking brings her.

Imagine Double Indemnity if the focus of the film wasn’t the plan to kill Phyllis’ husband, but rather who she is and why she is the way she is.

The paranoia is also there in that Bree’s phone is tapped, not only by Klute but also by the killer. There’s another part of the film that is a flaw; the motive for the killing and the motive for hiring and paying Klute doesn’t really wash; but’s that probably also the crime writer/editor in me. I had also thought the film was based on a book but was apparently wrong; I could have sworn I remember seeing a paperback novel of Klute on the wire racks at Zayre’s, but of course it could have simply been a novelization of the film.

I did find Don’t Look Now also available to stream somewhere as I idly looked through all my streaming services apps last evening before we started watching Mythic Quest; I definitely want to watch that film again–and it’s not a bad idea for me to delve back into Daphne du Maurier’s short stories again. I may even have to read one of the novels she wrote that I haven’t read yet; there appears to be an adaptation of The Scapegoat (which I’ve not read) available to stream as well. The concept of the book intrigues me–the concept of the look-alike, which is something I’ve always wanted to write about myself. I’ve always had this idea of a bartender in a gay bar being approached by someone who thought he was someone else as a great starting place for a thriller; the problem, of course, being that now DNA would take away any possibility of an imposter passing for someone else. (FUCKING technological improvements.)

This idea came to me–not the least because of The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart–but because when I used to visit New Orleans before moving here, consistently people–locals–would come up to me and start talking to me like I was someone else; eventually I would point out to them that they didn’t actually know ME and they would be very startled. This continued for a year or so after we moved here–I would sometimes get bought drinks by total strangers who thought I was someone else, and now that I think about it, perhaps the reason so many bartenders gave me a drink for free now and then was because they thought I was someone else. But it stopped after living here for a few years–I’d forgotten this used to happen–but they would always tell me I had a double here in New Orleans; one that I never met or saw anywhere. Isn’t that strange? But I always thought it was a good opening or idea for a story–but of course now, as I mentioned before, DNA has ruined the imposter stories forever.

Today is a better day, so here’s hoping it lasts and I can get back on track.

Friends in Low Places

I cleaned the staircase yesterday, wiping each step down and polishing the banister. It’s astonishing, really, how much dust can collect in New Orleans when you don’t have, or take, the time to keep after it. Add to that cat hair, and perhaps you can imagine the odious chore it actually turned out to be. It occurred to me, halfway down the steps, where they turn, that perhaps I should make the time once a week to do this, but I also had to recognize that I  was feeling particularly ambitious yesterday, and there was no guarantee that I would feel that ambitious every week at some point going forward. Yesterday was my first free day where I haven’t been either extremely tired or horribly ill or some combination of the two in quite some time, and I wasn’t really quite sure what to do with myself. Good Friday is one of our paid holidays from work, and I’m no longer sick, and this was the second of the two consecutive days without fever that I needed to get through in order to be cleared to go back to work.

On Monday.

So I took a look around, said to myself, “oh dear, no–this just won’t do” and got to work. I didn’t finish, but I will be able to make time over the next two days to get everything ship-shape and the way I like them.

Hell, I may even do the windows Sunday morning, with my coffee.

And now it’s Saturday, and the midst of what Christians–particularly Catholics–refer to as the Holy Weekend, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of their redeemer–although I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, unlike Christmas, it isn’t a fixed date. It’s always struck me as odd, and while I am sure many critics have addressed the mystery of how such a deeply religious time for Catholics essentially began following the fertility rites of the the pagan calendar, it’s still worth remarking on, if not exploring.

Yesterday I chose to walk away from the Internet, my emails, and social media to focus on getting things organized and cleaned around the apartment, as well as doing some reading and writing around the cleaning schedule. It’s very difficult for me to write with a clear conscience and focus completely when my work space is in disarray; I can do it with a messy apartment but it still bothers me. One of the more interesting things to come out of this entire thing–something I’ve commented on to friends–is the discovery, in shaking up our normal routines and schedules and, frankly, ruts, of what’s necessary and what isn’t, and being forced to take a long, hard look, not only at our lives but at how we do things and what our priorities are, and what they should have been. When and if the quarantine has passed and the COVID-19 virus pandemic can be seen only in the rearview mirror, things are going to change going forward. For me, I am no longer doing to work double shifts on Mondays and Tuesdays any more; it wears me out too much and often renders me unable to get much, if anything, done for myself on those days of the week. And while yes, it is lovely to also have two half-days during the rest of the week, the first was always spent recovering from the exhaustion of the two lengthy days and the second, Friday–well, while i was able to get some personal things and business taken care of on Fridays, the truth is much of that could also be handled after work on that day; which is when I always stopped at the grocery store ON THE WAY HOME, and my time-off won’t change by going in earlier and putting in eight hours, either.

As you can see, I feel quite passionate about the subject.

It was lovely, yesterday, cleaning and organizing while taking the occasional break to dip back into my reread of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, which I thoroughly and completely enjoyed, from page one to the denouement. I am, frankly, stunned at why I did not consider this one of her best books before; it may not have the twists and surprise of The Ivy Tree or Airs Above the Ground, but it’s still quite a suspenseful and thrilling ride and her heroine, Lucy Waring, is far more of a bad-ass than Stewart’s character ever are given credit for being–but more on that subject when I blog about the reread.

It was quite a lovely day yesterday, frankly, and I am hoping that today will be an even better one. I feel quite relaxed and peaceful this morning–and am hopeful that today will be an accomplishment day; I hope to get some writing done, some more cleaning, and get myself back into the groove of–well, being Gregalicious again.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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Crazy

And just like that, it’s Good Friday.

What’s so good about it? Well, if you live in a deeply Catholic state like Louisiana, that means it’s a paid holiday, which is certainly always welcomed in these parts. I never say no to a paid holiday–anything else would simply be madness.

Today I woke up after about ten hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep–I will usually wake up at least once or twice during the night–and my body feels almost completely back to normal now. Whatever that was that I had (and I am not convinced that my test result wasn’t a false negative, frankly–how bizarre that a usually healthy person came down with something–not once, but TWICE–that completely mirrored the majority of symptoms of COVID-19; regardless, I lived through it and it’s over now, thank you Baby Jesus on a Good Friday) seems to be gone now; I feel terrific, haven’t coughed in days, and the only reason I felt warm yesterday was because it was hot outside and it was daytime in New Orleans; air conditioning can only do so much in an old house in this climate–although rather than suffering through that down here this afternoon, maybe I’ll just go read in bed, and take the laptop with me just in case; for some reason it’s much cooler upstairs this year than downstairs, which makes absolutely no sense.

I finished reading Ammie, Come Home yesterday and you can read that entry here, if you missed it. I then moved on to Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, and remembered just how magical Mary Stewart was as a story-teller. I read most of Mary Stewart’s works when I was a teenager, with The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground as my two particular favorites; the ones I would always grab from the shelf when I wanted to reread one of her books. The others I don’t remember quite as much; primarily because I didn’t reread them as frequently, if at all, as the other two. I hadn’t much liked The Moon-spinners the first time; I loved it all the more on the reread. Likewise, my memory of This Rough Magic was similar; I enjoyed it but never went back to it. (In fact, my mind I’d mixed up plot elements of the two books; I thought all the stuff with the dolphin was in The Moon-spinners; it’s actually in This Rough Magic.) I also only have a copy of the ebook–which I never read, really, other than for short story collections or anthologies–but there I was yesterday afternoon, reading the ebook of a novel on my iPad for the first time with a purring kitty in my lap and music playing through my speakers in the kitchen. It was quite lovely, and quite relaxing. A breakthrough? Only the future will tell.

I also read Harlan Ellison’s Edgar Award winning short story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” yesterday; it was a part of his collection Deathbird Stories, which I had in hard copy but purchased the ebook on sale recently. I need to write a blog entry about it, and the other story from the same collection I’d read, “On the Downhill Side”, which was quite lovely and quite magical, particularly in the way he wrote about New Orleans, where the story was set; he did something that was absolutely genius–which is what everyone who writes about New Orleans but has never lived here should probably do when they decide to write about New Orleans. (There’s a snobbery all New Orleanians, and New Orleans writers, all have about people who aren’t from here but choose to set their fiction here; like everything, there’s good and bad elements to that snobbery. But even journalists doing features on New Orleans fuck it up, and fuck it up badly, so we’re always suspicious of outsiders writing about our beloved city.)

I need to get back to writing, now that I no longer have empty head from whatever it was I had these past two weeks; I have some things that are close to being due, I need to get that Sherlock story focused on and written, and I’ve also agreed to do an essay about my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” for The First Two Pages blog. In order to get back on track with writing and everything that needs to be done around the Lost Apartment before I return to work (once I am cleared; I am certain I’ll be cleared to return on Monday) so I have a strong grasp on everything. I also need to prioritize things and not allow things to detract from my writing time and my writing career. I realized recently that I will not have a book out this year, which isn’t good, and if I’m not careful I won’t have a book out next year, either. So I need to get this other stuff finished and out of the way so I can get Bury Me in Shadows finished and turned in, then do the same with the Kansas book. I also have to get back to the Secret Project; so the goals for this month are to get all these loose odds and ends finished so I can focus on getting the books done. And if I focus, and don’t allow myself to get distracted, there’s absolutely no reason why I can’t get all that taken care of so I can focus on the novels this summer.

So, for today, I am going to work on my Sherlock story and my Venice story while trying to get everything around here cleaned and organized–cleaning and organizing may seem like me trying to procrastinate, but really, I can’t work when my office area is messy–and I will try to get as much done around here as I can until around four or five, when I’ll allow myself a few hours to read more of This Rough Magic. The books need work, too–it’s time to do another cull–and it’s been weeks since I’ve had the energy to take on the floors. Maybe even this weekend I’ll drag the ladder outside and do the windows around my desk–they are filthy, after all–so clearly I am starting to feel better because not only am I noticing these things, I’m paying attention to them, and they bother me; so I am definitely myself again.

And on that note, tis time to get back into the spice mines. It’s been awhile, and it’s going to feel pretty good, methinks.

Happy Good Friday, everyone.

febTomas Skoloudik3

Walking the Floor Over You

I have always loved to read, and have always encouraged other people to read. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life, for as long as I can remember. Once I learned how to read, I never stopped reading. I will probably never stop reading. There are fewer non-sexual pleasures in life as satisfying as reading a good book.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother got me really started into watching old movies–both horror and crime–and also encouraged me to read. She was the one who got me started reading Mary Stewart, by giving me her copy of The Ivy Tree; my friend Felicia in high school reminded me of Stewart and so I started reading more of her work. (I still have not read all of Mary Stewart’s work–that “I don’t ever want to run out of something new to read by Mary Stewart” thing I do) And while I enjoyed all of them, I enjoyed some more than others. For example, i remember reading The Moon-spinners, but not really enjoying it very much, frankly. I never revisited the book…but now that I am doing the Reread Project, I decided to give it another read.

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It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairytale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of the deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossom?

The car from Heraklion had set me down where the track for Agios Georgios leaves the road. I got out, adjusted on my shoulder the big bag of embroidered canvas that did duty as a haversack, then turned to thank the American couple for the lift.

“It was a pleasure, honey.” Mrs. Studebaker peered, rather anxiously, out of the car window. “But are you sure you’re all right? I don’t like putting you down on the hill like this, in the middle of nowhere. You’re sure you’re in the right place? What does that sign post say?”

The above pictured cover was the one I originally read; the reread was of a more recent edition. When I was younger, I was fascinated by ancient history: Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to be exact; Greek or Roman or Egyptian ruins on the cover of a book, especially if it was a suspense novel, drew me to the book like moth to flame. (That was what originally drew me to read Phyllis A. Whitney’s Mystery of the Hidden Hand, which I now believe–my memory lies, remember–was the first Whitney I read, because it was set in Greece) I had also remembered seeing a film version of The Moon-spinners, broken up over two weeks’ episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, which starred Hayley Mills. I don’t remember much of the film now, but I do remember thinking it was vastly different from the book when I read it the first time. It’s not on Disney Plus (neither is Johnny Tremain or Now You See Him Now You Don’t, which has annoyed me regularly since I signed up for the service), and I’m not about to spend even three dollars on renting it on Amazon Prime–although I was tempted enough to look it up to see if it can actually be viewed anywhere.

Anyway.

I enjoyed the book much more greatly this time. I’m not certain why, precisely, I didn’t like it as much as Stewart’s other books at the time, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. The Moon-spinners focuses on Nicola Ferris, an adventurous young Englishwoman in her early twenties. She works at the British Embassy in Athens; her parents died when she was a teenager and she went to live with her aunt Frances, who is a leading botanist. Frances is also single and terribly independent, like most women in Stewart novels; Nicola admires and loves her aunt greatly and emulates her. Her aunt is taking a yacht voyage with friends around Greece and the islands; Nicola decides to take a vacation, meet up with Frances on Crete–a friend, a travel writer, has recommended a very remote village with a small hotel to them–and Nicola has the great good fortune, while on Crete, to meet an American couple (the above mentioned Studebakers) who are driving around Crete and offer her a lift to Agios Georgios, putting her there a day earlier than expected. (This sentence, describing the Studebakers,  They were both lavish with that warm, extroverted, and slightly overwhelming kindliness which seems a specifically American virtue–is a terrific example of Stewart’s exceptional skill as a writer; in that one sentence she tells you exactly who the Studebakers are.) The Studebakers aren’t terribly keen on letting her off in the middle of nowhere, to lug her suitcases and such over a dusty mountain trail to a village where she isn’t expected until tomorrow and where she will know no one; fortunately her work at the embassy has given her a passable knowledge of speaking Greek.  Nicola insists she’s fine and thanks them for their kindness, and starts trudging along the dusty path.

All of Stewart’s heroines are strong, capable, intelligent young woman who can take care of themselves; and courageous. It is while walking on the path that Nicola’s Greek adventure takes off–she stops at a pond to get a drink of water, and in the reflection of the water she sees a man’s face, watching her. Your average run-of-the-mill heroine would scream and run off or be terrified; Nicola is merely startled and curious. This is how she comes across Lambis, the Greek boatman, and young Mark Langley, who has been shot and needs medical attention. Nicola immediately makes Mark’s problems her own. Lambis, as it turns out, had put in his boat in a nearby bay so that Mark and his younger brother Colin could go exploring and look at the ruins of an old church, originally a shrine to a Greek god but converted during the days of the old Eastern Empire into a Byzantine church. As they are walking back to the boat they come across of small group of people arguing over a recently dead body. Mark is shot and left for dead; Colin is taken. And so, now of course, Nicola wants to help rescue Colin and help Mark–she isn’t, after all, expected for another day, and of course, the killers/kidnappers must be from the small town of Agios Georgios.

Stewart is, as always, an exceptionally talented writer. Her descriptions are simple yet poetic; she vividly brings the town, the mountains, the sea, everything to life so well you can easily imagine yourself there. And courageous Nicola, now possessed of dangerous knowledge that could get her killed, has to navigate the village while trying to help Mark find Colin, with no idea of who she can trust and where she can turn to help.

Nicola is a terrific heroine, and I can see why Stewart was so popular with women and teenaged girls; she wrote smart, no-nonsense, capable young women who were courageous and fearless and could pretty much handle anything. The suspense is, at times, unbearable.

There is an element of romance to the story as well; Nicola begins to have feelings for Mark, but it’s practically an afterthought, and it feels almost like it was inserted into the story. There’s absolutely no need for the two of them to develop feelings for each other; other than the psychological closeness that comes from a shared danger (one of the things I loved the most about the sequel to Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, is that it showed that happy couples who bond over adventures don’t necessarily wind up living happily ever after; I’ve often wondered about the couples from these types of novels), and this is one of the reasons I no longer really consider Stewart a romantic suspense writer; the romances in her books often feel that way–something inserted into the story later to appease either her agent or editor–and they are completely unnecessary to the story; if anything, the romance develop organically because of what else is going on in the story; the suspense/mystery aspect is the most important part.

And Stewart consistently wrote some of the best openings in crime fiction.

Highly recommended; I will probably reread it again someday.

Tennessee Waltz

Another major parade, another tragic death. Endymion was cancelled beyond float 12 last night, after yet another parade goer went under a tandem float and was killed. Remember how I said, after the Nyx tragedy Wednesday night, that it was a wonder it didn’t happen more often? Yeesh. The city has cancelled tandem floats for the rest of Carnival–what does that mean for the big ones, like the Bacchasaur or the Bacchagator, or the Orpheus train? Remains to be seen, I suppose, and I would imagine next year they are probably going to look at barricading the entire parade route–but I also wouldn’t think that would be practical or even possible. The routes are far too long, for one, and in many places there’s just sidewalk along the route, like in my neighborhood. How awful, how simply awful. I see in this morning’s news both Bacchus and Orpheus are complying with the city’s request…but ugh, how sad and what a pall over this year’s Mardi Gras.I can’t imagine what the families of the two victims are going through, nor how horrible it would be to have such a terrible, terrible Carnival tragedy happen to your family.

And of course, being me and being a crime writer, I did wonder if perhaps a serial killer is going to parades and shoving people under floats. There have been a couple of times, I will admit, during parades where I got so close to the floats and with the crowd pushing forward behind me, worried about going under one. It would definitely be a new twist on serial killers–although I suppose this would be more a thrill killer, wouldn’t it?

I definitely need to write another novel set during Carnival–and not just because of these awful tragedies. I said when I wrote Mardi Gras Mambo that I could write twenty novels about Mardi Gras and never run out of material and would barely scratch the surface. I’ve been thinking more about that ever since the first parades this year–about how the parades bring about a sense of community for New Orleanians that I’ve never experienced anywhere else, and the sense of community persists throughout the year. I even thought about opening another Scotty Carnival book with The Carnival parades used to come through the Quarter on Royal Street back before it became a major tourist event. The route was changed when the crowds got too big for the narrow streets–too much of a fire hazard, too impossible to get medical help in for anyone injured or taken ill during a parade–and so now they all turn onto Canal Street when they get there from St. Charles, and bypass the Quarter, which becomes a deserted wasteland during the parades with only the die hard drinkers not pushing and shoving their way onto the sidewalks and neutral grounds of the city’s major street.

That’s actually not a bad opening, to be honest. *makes note*

While I was doing condom outreach on Friday afternoon (in the bitter cold) I remembered an idea I had about a multi-person point of view novel set during Southern Decadence called No Morals Weekend, but I don’t really experience Southern Decadence very much anymore, other than the occasional sweat-soaked condom outreach experience. I guess I could always write it as a historical; which I am more and more leaning towards doing with some of my work. I almost inevitably and always set my books in an amorphous, cloudy now; but “Never Kiss a Stranger” is set in 1994, and I keep wondering if “Festival of the Redeemer” should be set in the past as well. The early days of the Internet but pre-smart phones seems like a lovely time to write about, quite frankly..although for “Festival”, it’s more about Venice being too overcrowded with tourists than smart phones. Then again it’s set during one of Venice’s biggest events, so of course the streets would be filled with people–which again ties in with my thinking about another Carnival novel: imagine how difficult it would be to follow a suspect along the parade route, through the crowds, trying to not lose sight of someone in a sea of humanity with beads and things flying through the air. I’d wanted to do such a think in Mardi Gras Mambo, and while it’s been so long since I wrote it, or paged through it with a quick reread, I am wondering if I talked about limited availability to get around town because of the parades, etc.

When I had a moment of downtime yesterday, I intended to curl back up with Ali Brandon’s Double Booked for Death, but couldn’t find it, so started rereading Mary Stewart’s The Moon-spinners, which I’ve only read once and not again. I couldn’t remember anything of the plot–as I’ve said before, I primarily revisit and reread her Airs Above the Ground and The Ivy Tree when I do revisit her work–but I did remember two things: it was set in Greece (Crete, actually) and it was made into a Disney film starring Hayley Mills, but the only resemblance the film bore to the book were the Greek setting and a female main character. As I was reading–and the opening is quite spectacular, and Stewart’s writing is Mystery Writers of America Grand Master level amazing and literate; the way she is able to make the setting absolutely real and her main character relatable, likable, and someone you want to root for–I kept thinking about how she is so frequently described or remembered as a romantic suspense author, and how not accurate I believe that to be. Sure, I may not remember all the plots as well as I perhaps should (stupid old brain), and it’s pretty apparent that our ballsy young heroine Nicola Farris is undoubtedly going to fall for the wounded young man she stumbled over in the mountains of Crete and is now helping; but with Stewart, any romance involved is definitely secondary to the suspense element of her novels…like she tacked it on because her publisher or agent or readers expected it. I’ll probably read some more of it today–although I did find my Ali Brandon novel buried in beads on the kitchen counter.

I also remembered, out on the parade route yesterday, that I had an idea for a book or short story about a murder on Fat Tuesday; when a family throws open their house on St. Charles Avenue for an all day open house type party, with people coming in and out all day, and then finding a murdered body in one of the bedrooms upstairs as the party winds down. I also started writing another short story, “He Didn’t Kill Her,” whose opening came to me fully formed last night and so I had to sit down at the computer and write the opening paragraphs.

Carnival definitely makes me feel reconnected to New Orleans and inspired again.

There are five parades today–the final one cancelled on Thursday is rolling today after Thoth and before Bacchus: so today’s order is: Okeanos, Mid-City, Thoth, Chaos, and finally Bacchus tonight. I don’t know how much time I can spend out there, to be honest…but it’s a jam-packed parade day, and then tomorrow is going to be another one of those hideously busy days, as I try to get caught up on the emails that have been languishing, run errands (including Costco, the madness indeed!), go to the gym, and prepare for the evening’s Proteus and Orpheus parades.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Red

I was tagged awhile back in one of those post seven covers of books you love with no explanation things on Facebook, so I obliged, and even tweeted the covers.

I love nothing more than sharing information or titles or covers of books I love; the problem is, as always, narrowing the list down to just seven. I’ve read (and loved) thousands of books over the course of my life (I kind of wish I’d actually kept track or logged them somehow, because the completist in me wants to know the actual number), and for this round I decided to go with suspense novels written by women that I read when I was in high school or younger; women authors who might not be as well remembered as they perhaps should be (although, in fairness, Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks have both done an excellent job of preserving some of these women writers; I went with the ones considered domestic suspense first, then switched and finished with romantic suspense).

The books I chose are: Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong; The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes; The Fiend by Margaret Millar; The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart; The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt; Listen for the Whisperer by Phyllis A. Whitney; and An Afternoon Walk by Dorothy Eden.

Holt, Eden, and Whitney are generally forgotten today when female crime writers of the past are discussed; only recently have the names of the amazing triad of  Millar, Armstrong, and Hughes gone through a sort of renaissance. (Stewart isn’t as forgotten as Holt, Eden and Whitney; nor is she enjoying the same sort of renaissance as Millar, Armstrong and Hughes. More’s the pity in all four cases, frankly; the books might seem dated today, but they are excellent time capsules for the era in which they were written, and all seven women deserve better.) All seven women were fantastic writers, and the books I recommended are simply a starting place. Case in point: Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman was the first of hers I’d read, so it always holds place of honor for me; but if pressed to name a favorite I would go with On the Night of the Seventh Moon, simply because it’s plot was almost completely insane–and she pulled it off. As I have said in previous entries, I also revisited Kirkland Revels lately, one of the few earlier works of hers I’ve not read multiple times–and frankly, it was kind of a revelation in how well it’s done.

I’ve also been revisiting Armstrong lately–well, over the last five or six years or so; undoubtedly since Sarah Weinman reminded me of her existence, and her importance to my developing crime fan mind as a kid–and I’ve focused primarily on reading the works of hers I hadn’t already read. Her Edgar-winning A Dram of Poison is actually one of the more charming suspense novels I’ve ever read; it was dark, of course, but had such a warm, optimistic heart that you couldn’t help but smile as a ragtag group of people tried to track down a lost olive oil bottle filled with poison.

I do want to reread Millar’s The Fiend (it’s my personal favorite of her novels) and Eden’s An Afternoon Walk (another favorite, but it’s been at least thirty years or so since I read it, if not more)–which is a very underrated and unjustly forgotten tale of domestic suspense that rivals the masters of the form.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

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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.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

SATURDAY! I’ve already been to the gym–I did not want to wake up this morning and head over there, but like a good boy I did–and now am getting ready to clean the kitchen, make my post workout protein shake, and make a grocery list. I have the galleys of a pseudonymous novel to finish going over today, and I also want to get some more revisions done on the WIP. I have big plans for today, obviously, but we’ll see how it all turns out. I’m almost caught up on American Gods (one more episode to go and I’ll be current), and we also started watching 11/22/63 on Netflix this week–it auto-started after we finished this week’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale–and we’re enjoying it. It’s very strange to watch something based on a Stephen King novel which I haven’t read; it’s one of the few I’ve not read (including the last three volumes of The Dark Tower, Black House, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Doctor Sleep, Bronco Billy, and End of Watch) and wasn’t, honestly, feeling all that inspired to read it–I wasn’t all that inspired to watch it, either; the whole Kennedy thing doesn’t really interest me anymore–but we are really caught up in the show, which makes me tend to think the book (which is almost always better than visual adaptations) is probably fantastic; it’s just so damned long. Paul and I have been talking about taking a long weekend and going back to a tennis resort like we did a couple of years ago; if we do that, I’ll probably take 11/22/63 with me to read.

I haven’t had the time to really get further in Ill Will, which is also something I hope to get further along with this weekend. The writing is exceptionally good, and I love the entire premise of the book, too. I’ve not read Chaon’s Await Your Reply, but I do have a copy of it as well. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Chaon; Ill Will is certainly bearing those good things out. And isn’t lovely to find a new writer you enjoy?

Yes, it is. Always.

I’ve also been rereading Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground this week, which is one of my favorite books of all time–Mary Stewart was simply brilliant. I love the premise behind the opening of this novel, just as I loved the premise of The Ivy Tree, and so many other of her books; I’d love to recycle those premises as an homage to her at some point; who knows? Every time, though, I reread a Mary Stewart novel I remember my friend Sara come up to me at a Bouchercon and telling me someone had said on a panel she was watching that “Mary Stewart’s heroines were just too passive for his/her tastes.” I was as appalled as Sara; Mary Stewart’s heroines were not passive; they had agency, didn’t need to be rescued,  and went sailing forth happily into adventures. Airs Above the Ground’s Vanessa March was one of those amazing heroines; and the premise–someone saw her husband on a newsreel somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, and so naturally she heads off to find out what he’s doing, all the while suspecting he is having an affair. God, how I would love to use that same style of opening…but the premise of The Ivy Tree is even better; a young woman is hired to impersonate another young woman–missing for years–in order to manipulate a dying man into making sure his will leaves his estate to the people who hired her. So fucking brilliant, really.

And now, it’s probably best for me to return to the spice mines. Them galleys ain’t going to proof themselves.

Here’s a Saturday hunk for you:

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