Discoteca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming of the Queen

And here we are, on yet another Thursday, awake before the crack of dawn so I can go screen people at our two offices–mornings at the Marine Building on Tulane Avenue, afternoon at the Elysian Fields office–before heading home. I’m also doing a live reading this evening for Tubby and Coo’s Bookstore; not sure how that’s going to work or how you can tune in–I think it’s a Facebook thing? But I’ll be posting on Twitter and Facebook etc once I have that information handy. I am not sure how I feel about this–I intensely dislike the sound of my own voice, let alone how I appear on camera–but this is a brave new world we’re all living in, and if I want to continue having a career, I am going to have to start doing all kinds of things I generally avoid doing, because doing things you don’t enjoy or like to do is part of the price one has to pay for a career in publishing. I’ve always admired authors who can do the public appearance thing with grace and wit and aplomb; I am not one of those, and inevitably, as is my wont, am aware of every single thing that goes wrong in a reading or on a panel; whether it’s me saying the opposite of what I mean or stumbling over words as I read…yeah.

Which is why I always get a terrified look on my face when people ask me for career advice. I so clearly don’t know what I’m doing that it’s almost laughable that anyone would want my advice on anything, really.

I read some more of Thunder on the Right last night; again, not really sure why Stewart opted to go with a third person point-of-view rather than her usual first; perhaps it will become more apparent as the novel progresses. I honestly don’t remember anything of this story–which is weird.  It’s set in the Pyrenees, a part of Europe I’ve always been interested in and rarely appears in fiction; and how could I forget the plot of a story that begins with the heroine going to visit a cousin staying in a remote convent in the Pyrenees, only to discover on arrival that her cousin died two weeks earlier. (Then again, I remembered very little of This Rough Magic, and even thought the dolphin was from The Moon-spinners; and was wrong wrong wrong)

We also watched another episode of Defending Jacob, which kind of is unspooling. Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery are both superb in this–at least, so far–but the plot itself…as I said to a friend on Twitter, who had issues with the book (I’ve not read the book), the story is familiar–the concept of ‘what would you do is your child was accused of a crime’ has been used plenty of times, and this is what would be called domestic suspense if it was written by a woman and the main character was the wife, not the husband (Alison Gaylin did a magnificent, Edgar winning job of this very story in If I Die Tonight, which you should read if you haven’t already), and the whole “Dad is a prosecutor but will hide evidence and interfere with the investigation to protect his son, thereby risking his entire career and life because he is so convinced his son is being railroaded” thing…the “heroic dad” trope is such a straight male fantasy that it’s very hard for me to take the show seriously. It’s hard to watch someone do stupid things, particularly when they’re supposedly really smart (LAWYER), that you know are only going to turn out badly because it’s necessary for the plot.

I also finished watching Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne. It’s really quite good, partly because it’s one of those weird historical royal marriages that was surprisingly happy. They were only married five years before Marie was killed in a fall from her horse; Maximilian, in an age when kings and princes and emperors rarely went more than a year between wives, didn’t remarry for nearly twenty years after Marie died. He had lots of mistresses, but never remarried–which was kind of a lovely tribute to his first wife. The show is really well done, and the German actor playing Maximilian is quite hot. (The actress playing Marie is also beautiful.) Their two children, Philip and Margaret, were also quite attractive; Philip is also known to history as Philip the Handsome; how good looking did he have to be to earn that nickname while he was alive? Later Hapsburgs, however, were not known for their looks.

Lord, I have a lot of work to get done this weekend, and I am really dreading it.

Heavy sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Electricity

Good morning, Tuesday, how it’s going with you, Constant Reader, on this lovely early May morning?

I sent out another story yesterday–why, yes, I am on a roll, kind of, thank you for asking. I could also easily go 0 for 4, which is certainly more likely than 4 for 4 (I know, I know, self-deprecation there, and yes, it’s a very hard habit to break but I am working on it).

Last night I managed to work througb some of my my computer frustrations. Apparently, at some point in the last few months or so, there was yet another Mohave update–I remember when it happened, and I didn’t install it, it somehow just happened–that rendered my flash drive unreadable or unworkable with Mac computers. Fortunately I have that shitty little PC laptop, which can still read it. So I then had to download a Cloud for PC app, which needed a Windows update to work, and–long story short, I found a backup to the flash drive from November backed up in the Cloud, and I honestly don’t think I worked on anything on the flash drive that wasn’t backed up to the Cloud already, so it was simply a matter of moving the working files from the back-up folder in the Cloud to the active area. An enormous pain in the ass, but there you have it–and I now have the files I need accessible. At some point I’ll be able to get that PC Cloud app working and save yet another back-up, but until then I am able to work with what I have, thank you.

Today is another early morning for me, but truth to be told, I’m pretty much starting to adapt to these mornings and they aren’t nearly as painful as they used to be. I’m actually getting rather used to this sort of 9 to 5 thing, which I never expected to ever happen in a million years. Last night I was home shortly after five, and had some time thus to work on these computer issues. And since it was May 4th, and Rise of Skywalker was newly available to stream last night on Disney, I decided to watch it again–more critically this time than when I saw it in the theater, and yeah. I enjoyed it on the big screen—I always enjoy Star Wars on the big screen, as a general rule, but when I was rewatching it, it seemed disjointed, poorly written and planned, and kind of all over the place. So, all those people who were so critical of it? Yeah, they were probably right, but this sequel trilogy didn’t “ruin my childhood” or anything; it was just disappointing on a rewatch. I’ll probably have some more thoughts about the whole thing later.

I also finished reading Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin last night, and it really is quite a wonderful book. Reading it as a crime novel was an interesting take, and I think I can quite solidly back up my theory that it is, in fact, while a very literary book to be sure, a crime novel. It certainly is structured and written kind of like one, and the mood and tone of the book is very dreamlike yet terrifying, like Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, which I think is a good companion book for Mysterious Skin. There will, of course, be a blog entry devoted to the book; I’m still gathering my thoughts about it and trying to order them in some way. Afterwards, I tried to find my copy of We Disappear, but couldn’t put my hands on it–even though I am absolutely positive I located it the moment I started rereading Mysterious Skin…it’ll turn up, I’m sure.

I also started rereading Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right, which has some rather razor-sharp wit going on in the very beginning, which immediately (to me) added to its charm, and drew me in already. I also remember Thunder on the Right as being a “lesser” Stewart novel–kind of like The Moon-spinners and This Rough Magic, both of which I loved on the reread.

Tonight we’ll probably go back to watching Defending Jacob; I was already watching Skywalker when Paul got home, and he just fell asleep while watching that–he also pointed out that he doesn’t remember watching it in the theater at all; which is really not a sign of a movie that resonated with the viewers, really–so tonight it’ll be back to Defending Jacob. Apple is really putting a lot of cash into their streaming service, a and there are certainly a lot of impressive names being put to work on their shows, so who knows? I also need to sign into my CBS app so we can start watching their All Access Star Trek shows, as well as the reboot of The Twilight Zone from Jordan Peele.

There’s really so much good stuff to watch–and that’s only the stuff I know about. We’ve stumbled onto so many good shows over the years that we’d not heard about, and of course, season 3 of Killing Eve is also up now.

And on that note, tis time to get ready for the spice mines. Have a most lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I’ll talk to you later.

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Before

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

Huzzah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, more than I want to admit.

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

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Stand by Your Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Between Two Islands

One of the best parts of the Reread Project is reminding myself how much I truly love and appreciate certain writers.

Mary Stewart is certainly at the top of that list.

As I’ve mentioned before, I read most of Mary Stewart’s so-called “romantic suspense” novels when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, my favorites being The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground.  Unfortunately, the mists of time and my faulty memory have robbed me of just how good the other books she wrote were; I recently reread The Moon-spinners and loved it more than I remembered loving it the first time; likewise, I started rereading This Rough Magic this week (finishing yesterday) and it, like The Moon-spinners, is fucking brilliant; far better than I remembered it being–and frankly, far better than it had any right being (says the incredibly jealous author).

Like most of Stewart’s novels, the book is set somewhere other than England–this one is Corfu, just off the coasts of Greece and Albania. (The Moon-spinners was set on Crete, and My Brother Michael was also set in Greece.) I’ve always wanted to visit Greece; it’s on my bucket list with Egypt, France, Germany and England. I loved Greek mythology and history when I was a kid, and of course I absolutely loved Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. Lately I’ve become more and more interested in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire; aka the Byzantine empire, as well. Paul also would love to return to Greece–he spent a summer there as a teenager as an exchange student.

Stewart is often described, and counted amongst, romantic suspense novelists of the mid to late twentieth century, primarily because she was a female writing suspense novels about women in a time period where publishing didn’t know how to market women-driven suspense novels written by women. While there are slight elements of romance included in her novels, it’s often an afterthought, and rarely actually drives the plot–it’s more like a little lagniappe; something extra tossed in to appease editors and readers that she really had no interest in exploring. At first, you think, wow, her characters kind of fall in love awfully quickly with total strangers–and then you realize, oh, of course they did–women weren’t really allowed to be sexual beings in those days so it had to be masked as falling in love plus the “romance” elements were easily explained by the “trench warfare mentality”–in which soldiers become bonded to the guys they are serving with because they are responsible for each other’s lives; it’s not a stretch to see a romantic attachment grow between two people who are in a tough, difficult situation in which they could easily both wind up dead.

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“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”

I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course…Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?

“As a matter of face, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.” My sister yawned, stretched out a foot into the sunshine at the edge of the terrace, and admired the expensive beach sandal on it. “I didn’t mean that, anyway, I only meant that we’ve already got a Miranda here, and a Spiro, which may not be short for Prospero, but sounds very much like it.”

“Oh? It sounds highly romantic. Who are they?”

“A local boy and girl: they’re twins.”

Lucy Waring, a twenty-five year old British aspiring actress, finds herself on the island of Corfu visiting her very pregnant sister who married very well–to a wealthy Italian banker whose family owns an enormous property on Corfu, which includes an enormous castle-style main structure and two guest villas some distance away, all gathered together on the shoreline of a small, private bay. Lucy’s big break has just come and went in a play that closed after only two months, so she has gratefully accepted her sister Phyllida’s invitation to come stay for a while with her on Corfu. There’s a photographer staying in the other villa; the main castle is being rented to a retired British actor, Sir Julian Gale, best known for his performances in Shakespeare (The Tempest in particular) and his son Max, a composer–and trespassers are forbidden and frowned upon. That very first day Lucy decides to go down to the beach and sunbathe, and while she is down there she makes the acquaintance of a friendly dolphin, much to her delight–and the suspense begins when someone starts shooting, with a silenced gun, at the dolphin. She assumes the shots are coming from the castle, so she goes storming up there, and soon becomes entangled in the affairs of Sir Julian and his son Max.

Stewart’s mastery as a story-teller is so complete that she doesn’t waste a word or a scene; her economy of writing is astonishingly complex and clever. For example, that opening sequence, quoted above, seems like simply a lovely back-and-forth introduction to Lucy and her sister while establishing their affectionate closeness; but Stewart uses that dialogue to tell the readers things that are going to be important to the novel: they are on Corfu, references to The Tempest are scattered throughout the book and are incredibly important, not just to the story but for the atmosphere (Stewart was an incredibly literate writer; references to classic literature are scattered throughout her works, be it Shakespeare or Greek mythology or Tennyson, etc.), and even the throwaway line about the twins, Spiro and Miranda, isn’t a throwaway–the two are very important to the story.

And Lucy Waring is no shrinking violet, either–none of Stewart’s heroines are. Lucy courageously thinks nothing of putting herself in danger in order to help catch a monstrous, sociopathic killer:

He must have felt me watching him, for he flicked me a glance, and smiled, and I found myself smiling back quite spontaneously, and quite without guile. In spite of myself, in spire of Max, and Spiro’s story, I could not believe it. The thing was, as I had said to Max, impossible in daylight.

Which was just as well. If I was to spend the next few hours with him, I would have to shut my mind to all that I had learned, to blot out the scene in the cellar, drop Spiro out of existence as if he were indeed dead. And, harder than all, drop Max. There was a curiously strong and secret pleasure, I had found, of speaking of him as “Mr. Gale” in the off-hand tones that Godfrey and Phyllida commonly used, as one might of a stranger to whom one is under an obligation, but whom one hardly considers enough to like or dislike.

There’s also a few amazing chapters in which Lucy, having found the definitive evidence to convict the killer, is trapped with nowhere to go on his sailboat when he returns–she hides, but is spotted, and then reveals herself and in an astonishing display of bravado tries to play the entire thing off, but winds up going overboard herself and trying to make it to shore–only to be helped by the very dolphin she herself had helped rescue earlier in the book.

As I said, nothing happens or is done in a Stewart book that doesn’t have significance or come into play later.

I cannot tell you how much I loved rereading this book, and while I’d love to dive into another Stewart reread, I’m probably going to do another Phyllis Whitney–oh, and I buried the lede! I read the entire thing as an ebook on my iPad–so I have finally broken through that final barrier to reading books electronically, and may never pack a book to take with me when I travel again as long as I live!

Who says you can’t teach an old queen new tricks?

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.

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Forever and Ever Amen

Yesterday afternoon I got sucker-punched; there I was, having a good day and getting things done and then–WHAM! Right between the eyes–Southwest sent me a reminder email about my scheduled and ticketed trip to New York for the Edgars at the end of April. The 30th, to be exact, but because of the symposium and other duties, I was going to be flying up there on the 28th, hence the reminder email. It didn’t help that the email reminded me that today would have been the closing for TWFest/S&S, and I got teary-eyed and sad and overwhelmed and had to get off the computer and away from the world for a little while.

It was out of the blue–I’ve said this before and it’s my own advice to other people (“remember something unexpected will happen–a tweet, a Facebook post, an email–that will catch you off guard and trigger something internal”) but it’s still rough when it happens, and it did, in fact, derail the rest of my day; there was no writing accomplished yesterday, and I didn’t really do much of anything afterwards, other than binge a few more episodes of Ozark (greatly enjoying this third season; the performances are stellar, particularly Laura Linney and Julia Garner) and then went to bed early. I slept fairly well, and this morning I feel even, but man–was that ever rough yesterday or what?

This week I have to go to work at 8:15 at our other building (campus?) every morning before leaving around noon to head to our other building (campus?) on Elysian Fields for the afternoon shift. Adapting to what is essential a 9-to-5 life isn’t going to be easy for me; it’s something I’ve managed to avoid my entire life until age fifty-eight, although I have to confess (as I said the other day) there really is something to eight hours five days a week. I like getting home earlier than I usually do (around eight), and I just have to  adjust to having those early evenings free. Hurricane season is coming, and so is termite swarm season and the time when stinging caterpillars rain down from the live oak trees like something out of C-level horror film from the 1950’s–usually the second bill on a drive-in double feature; you know the kind of film I mean–and then comes the heat and humidity of the summer. It’s already hotter this year than it usually is at this time of the year; I can only imagine how truly unbearable July and August are going to be this summer. There are but two days left in this hellish March, and then it’s April. (And I do hope nobody is foolish enough to play pranks on April Fool’s Day…)

I’ve decided since my attention span is so limited that it’s time to go back to both the Short Story Project (which I’ve been doing these last few weeks, really) as well as the Reread Project. I had considered rereading Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic next, since I don’t really remember much of it at all, but have decided to reread one of my all time favorites, and definitely my favorite ghost story of all time, Ammie Come Home by Barbara Michaels. It’s been awhile since I read it, and it was, of course, the first novel by Michaels I read. I had originally watched the Made for TV movie that was based on it (The House That Wouldn’t Die, starring none other than the magnificent Miss Barbara Stanwyck), and then later found it in a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember those?) about a year or so later at my grandmother’s. I eventually bought a used paperback copy when I was either fifteen or sixteen and read the full novel, and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. (In those days, I preferred her work as Barbara Michaels–it wasn’t until years later that I really got into her novels under the name Elizabeth Peters, and there was no turning back from that moment.)

I have a lot of emails in my inbox to answer–remember, I was in a flurry of responding to emails when I got the reminder from Southwest that derailed my entire day yesterday–as well as to sort and file. I’ve absolutely got to get back on that horse and dive into my emails headfirst today, and I’ve got to generate some others and consolidate all my notes and create an overall to-do list. My primary concern with so many seemingly endless tasks is that I am going to forget something important; I need to get my equilibrium back–hopefully getting used to my next work schedule will be helpful in that regard–and I need to get better organized.

I always seem to be saying that, don’t I?

Hmmmmm.

But the sun is rising and the world is gray outside my windows, and it’s about time for me to head into the spice mines. Stay safe, everyone, and have a lovely day.

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Always on My Mind

And the longest week in the history of humanity has finally reached its final day, thank you Baby Jesus.

I woke up this morning feeling good. I haven’t had to sneeze or cough or blow my nose yet, so perhaps whatever malady I was experiencing –sinuses, flu, COVID 19–the last couple of weeks seems to have passed, finally? But I actually feel pretty good this morning, which is a good thing. I am working a screening shift at the office this afternoon–I am going to run a couple of errands on my way into the office–and they need me to help out during screenings next week as well. I think it’ll do me good to get out of the house, frankly–as much as I’ve been wanting to be a work-at-home person for the last thirteen or so years (since I had to give it up originally), I’m not entirely certain I am cut out for it, to be honest.

Then again, these aren’t normal times, either.

I do miss going to the gym, so this morning I am going to take some time to do my stretching. It’s something physical, at any rate, and while it might not burn fat or build muscles, it’s something and it helps to make my muscles more pliable. And maybe–just maybe–this weekend I can get back to writing again. One of my deadlines has been extended (huzzah!) and it’s for the Sherlock story, so I can spend this weekend finishing a draft of it while revising the other two to make the March 31 deadlines. This is probably good news, for me at least. Who knows what is going to happen to the publishing industry, you know? I saw an article on-line yesterday about the sudden sharp decrease in book sales; which was to be expected, as people lose their sources of incomes and books have become luxury items suddenly. Libraries are closed, but you can still check out ebooks, of course, and every voracious reader (including me) has an enormous stack of books that aren’t read as well as a bunch of others to reread, so there’s that aspect of it; my iPad is loaded with books I’ve bought on sale that I’ve never even glanced at. I think I have all of Mary Stewart’s books on there, and I don’t recall if I’ve ever read This Rough Magic. I probably have, but I don’t remember it–although I think it’s the book with the dolphin rescue in it; I’d thought that was The Moon-spinners but I was wrong–and there are several others of hers I don’t recall reading–Thunder on the Right, for one, and Thornyhold, for another–which is quite lovely. I greatly enjoyed my reread of The Moon-spinners, far more than I enjoyed it the first time, and I suspect the Stewarts I recall as “lesser” might be more enjoyable for me now.

But I am going to keep writing, of course–that is, once I put my ass in my chair and start actually doing it. I am assuming there will be some free time during my screening shift today, so I am going to not only bring something to read (probably The Lucky One by Lori Rader-Day; I’d made some headway into before this whole thing blew up) but some of my stories I am working on to reread and see if I can figure out where the necessary tweaks need to be made. I still haven’t gotten myself or my home workspace organized–which is kind of a bad thing, frankly, but there’s been a lot of lethargy over this past week; paralysis from the overwhelming magnitude of this whole situation, primarily. I keep repeating to myself micro micro look at the micro but I don’t always succeed.

I intend to spend this weekend practicing more self-care than I have been; stretching as I mentioned already, as well as going for walks with my camera. I need to get out of the house and try to stay as active as I can; this will someday pass and I can make a run at getting back into a regular schedule with working out and so forth again once this is over–assuming it will be over sooner rather later. I try to stay positive about the future–there are so many unknowns–and it’s not always easy, but I prefer to think this will pass in a few months and some sense of normalcy will return, but even once it does things will never be the same as they were before. That’s the reality New Orleanians learned from Katrina; and New Yorkers learned from 9/11; the crisis doesn’t pass quickly, and things do not go back the way they were before.

It’s horribly depressing, yes, but at the same time clinging to memories of “the good old days” and nostalgia seen through rose-colored glasses isn’t the way to go, either.

And on that note, tis time to get ready to head into the office. Stay safe, Constant Reader, and as always, thank you for being here.

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