Merry Christmas to all, and to those who don't recognize it, well, have a merry day off!
Paul and I spent Christmas Eve eating Chicago-style deep dish pizza from That's Amore in Metairie; the best damned pizza in southeastern Louisiana, frankly. I drove out to Metairie after work on Tuesday night to pick it up; it's become something of a holiday tradition for us. It only takes about twenty minutes to reheat in the oven, it's absolutely delicious and filling, and I have little to no mess to clean up. Christmas day we generally just eat leftovers so again, no mess for me to clean up. We also spent last night streaming Season 5 of The Walking Dead from AMCTV.com, and enjoying the hell out of it.
But before we went to bed, Paul gave me some early Christmas presents. He had taken three pictures I'd taken in Italy and had them printed, then mounted and framed them himself for the Lost Apartment.
When we arrived in Italy at the Pisa Airport and spent the afternoon exploring Pisa, I took pictures with my phone until the battery died. I had somehow, unknowingly, also turned on a sepia filter. Since the day was cloudy, overcast and a bit rainy, as I was taking the pictures I thought the strange way they were turning out had to do with the light from the overcast; it wasn't until we were actually inside the cathedral that I realized I was shooting through a filter, and turned it off. It wasn't until I downloaded the pictures that I saw how amazing they turned out because of said filter. Paul found a lovely old frame and mounting that matched the sepia tone.
The detail on the hand of Michelangelo's David is extraordinary, and I did laugh a bit when I looked at this one. It's lovely, and Paul framed it beautifully--but on the right are David's genitalia.
And of course, Venice. :)
Have a lovely, lovely day, everyone.
Lists, lists, lists.
I didn’t have as much time to read in the past year as I would have liked, and I read some books that were just terrible; always so sad when one wastes one’s time that way, particularly when there are so many books out there I would enjoy reading, and my TBR continues to grow out of control. There were several books I stopped reading and tossed into the donation pile, unfinished. But I also spent a lot of time in this past year reading older books, or rereading ones I’d read years ago and enjoyed; but I also decided that the books I am going to include in my personal Best of are going to be either 2013 or 2014 releases; I may do another list of the older books I read this past year that I truly enjoyed.
So, not in any order, but here are the Top Ten books I read this past year that I think were the best.
Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta
I didn’t read a lot of books this past year by male authors—there are, however, any number of male authors represented in the TBR pile (Michael Connelly, Ace Atkins, Steve Hamilton, Reed Farrel Coleman, Darrell James, Chuck Wendig, Rick Riordan, Randy Wayne White, to name a few)—but I am really glad I read this particular one. Koryta is one of my favorite authors, and everything of his I’ve already read I’ve truly enjoyed. This book was no exception. A young boy witnesses a horrible crime and is placed in temporary witness protection; hidden out in a group of at-risk youth who are spending some time going through survival training in the wildnerness (my mind is blanking on where exactly this is set—Wyoming or Montana or some similar state), only hired killers show up and it turns into a terrifyingly suspenseful tale unfolding over one night in the woods. The book is a tour de force, full of remarkably well defined individual characters, good writing, and the unbearable build of tension and suspense that makes it completely un-put-downable.
The Fever by Megan Abbott
Abbott has become one of my favorite authors, to the point that I was actually rationing out her backlist so I wouldn’t run out of books of hers to read. Alas, this past year saw me not only polishing off her amazing backlist, but also reading her newest release in a matter of a day or two when I received an ARC. The Fever, based on a true story of a strange illness that struck the teenaged girls in a small town, also had echoes of Arthur Miller’s brilliant The Crucible, but was clearly not a pastiche. Abbott is amazing. The way she uses language—and the economy she shows in her use of language—is astonishing; she can create mood or a character with a very short sentence, draw you into the mystery of what’s going on, but somehow manages to create characters that are so complex and so real and human that you aren’t sure whether you should root for them or not like them at all. The other amazing thing about Abbott is the enormous themes she takes on in her very short books—and not only does she explore those themes, she also doesn’t moralize nor does she force a point of view on the reader; she leaves it to the reader to decide. She is also exceptionally brilliant at the creation of girls, and going inside their minds and the intricacies of the politics of high school and popularity. The fact that every book she writes is vastly different in theme and style and story and character than any previous work is also extraordinary. I cannot wait for her next book.
The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood
Marwood exploded onto the scene of crime fiction with an extraordinarily complex and beautifully written novel called The Wicked Girls, which deservedly won the Edgar award for Best Paperback Original and was pretty much short-listed for every conceivable award for crime fiction over the past year. How do you follow up such an amazing work? If you’re Alex Marwood, you write an even more amazing book called The Killer Next Door. To be honest, I was worried about the follow-up; so many authors go through a sophomore slump. But Marwood not only delivered, she surpassed herself. The Killer Next Door is absolutely riveting, completely peopled with believable characters, and managed to also juggle multiple stories and subplots which she also managed to tie together into a cohesive whole with an exceptional and intensely satisfying ending. With this work, Marwood established herself firmly in the upper echelon of today’s crime writers, and her next is sure to be even more exceptional.
Bad Brides by Rebecca Chance
Rebecca Chance books are just plain fun. It is rare that a book makes me laugh out loud—but I can honestly say that I have yet to read one of hers that hasn’t, and I am also pretty damned sure that I am smiling the entire time I am reading of them. They are often called ‘bonkbusters’ because Chance writes about the glittering world of wealthy people whose lives are often tabloid fodder and also includes lengthy, graphic sex scenes—but her books are more than that. They are intricately plotted, with subplots and tangled lives and characters you can’t help but root for or hiss at, and those laugh out loud funny moments are some of the best I’ve ever seen in print. Rebecca Chance’s books are like this amazing hybrid of P. G. Wodehouse and Jackie Collins. And Bad Brides is the most Wodehousian of them all…down to The Care and Handling of Pigs. Wodehouse would be proud...and there’s also a couple of scenes that are shout-outs to the campiest of the camp night time soaps of the 1980’s--Dynasty. Chanse is another author whose backlist I am rationing…there may be only one left…and I cannot wait for her next one.
After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman is one of the most accomplished writers—I am not adding the adjective ‘crime’ as a caveat, because I do believe it isn’t necessary; future generations will agree with me—of our time. First, she conquered the private eye series with her Tess Monaghan series—winning every conceivable crime writing award on the planet in the process as well as the hearts of millions of readers—and then started writing stand alones. This was an enormous risk—many other series writers have tried this and failed—but Lippman managed to not only pull this off but INCREASE her audience and her already well-deserved reputation as a crime writer by writing complex, multi-layered works with memorable characters and exploring many modern day issues that affect us all. In After I’m Gone, Lippman’s narrative goes back and forth in time as she explores the relationships of five women—mistress, wife, three daughters—with a criminal man who disappears without a trace just as he is about to be indicted for his crimes—and how his disappearance affects, changes, and alters their lives and their relationships. It is amazing that someone as accomplished as Lippman can continue to grow and evolve as a writer, yet this is precisely what she does. After finishing reading this one, I could not possibly imagine how Lippman could top this one…and having already read an ARC of next year’s Hush Hush, I can tell you, Constant Reader, that she DOES.
Stay With Me by Alison Gaylin
The third—and I hope not the final—Brenna Spector novel does, however, in a very satisfying way, resolve the three-book personal story arc of main character Brenna. Brenna suffers from a rather rare condition called hyperthymestic syndrome; which means she has perfect recall of everything that has ever happened to her, and when something triggers the syndrome she goes into almost a trance as she relives the moment. Her older sister Clea ran away when she was a small child, and this has haunted her and affected how she interacts with other people. She has a failed marriage behind her, a teenaged daughter who prefers her father and stepmother, and a bro-type assistant who works her every last nerve. But she is also a good private eye, and as she solves cases that seem to have some connection to her sister’s disappearance (only to find out they don’t), she learns a lot about herself, as well as how to forgive herself. Stay With Me is an exceptional work, even without the personal story; Gaylin is also one of my favorite authors, and I too finished reading her entire canon this year, which leaves me anxiously awaiting the arrival of her next novel—which I hope will land soon.
Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason
Jamie Mason’s debut novel was one of the great—and most pleasant-- surprises of 2014 for me. I met Jamie at Sleuthfest in Orlando back in February when we were on a panel together; I thought she was nice and incredibly smart, so I bought her book. When I was finally able to sit down to read it, I wasn’t able to put it down. This story—about the discovery of two buried bodies in the flower beds at a man’s house, a man who has actually murdered someone else and buried him in the backyard—was deliciously dark, and reminiscent of the great noir writers of the past (Cain, Chandler, Highsmith, Millar, McDonald) as well as the great noir writers of the present. It takes place over the course of a day or two, with flashbacks to the murder committed by the home-owner as well as why he did it—and Mason’s skillful characterizations, done so simply yet perfectly, makes this the kind of debut I wish I could steal and call my own. I have an ARC of her next one—being released next year—and I cannot wait to read it. It may be one of the books I take to New York with me next month. I cannot wait to watch Jamie’s career develop.
Call Me By My Name by John Ed Bradley
I didn’t, sadly, read a lot of young adult fiction in this past year—something I hope to remedy in 2015. But I did read Bradley’s Call Me By My Name, set in Louisiana in the days before, during and after desegregation, and tackling the ugliness of racism from the perspective of a white teenager who doesn’t think he’s racist…but he actually is, and how he has to confront his own issues and prejudices when his beloved sister begins dating his best friend, who also happens to be their high school’s best athlete, a young black teenager whom everyone calls Tater. The book is beautifully written, the characters (as anyone who grew up during that period, or has pre-Civil Rights white Southern parents can attest) are realistically drawn, warts and all, and the story itself is heartbreaking yet movingly, simplistically told. Bradley himself was a football player (he played college ball at LSU), so I don’t know if this is based on a true story or on something that actually happened or not, but he lived during this time and wrote it exceptionally well. It’s told in the first person, and it’s told as a memory, so Tater being so incredibly perfect could simply be the romanticization of nostalgia on the part of the narrator, but I was moved enough to cry at the end. Highly recommended, as I would also pretty much recommend everything Bradley has written in his illustrious career; his Restoration is one of my favorite books about New Orleans.
Blood of the Lamb by Sam Cabot
Sam Cabot’s debut novel (Cabot is the pseudonym of a writing team which includes one of my favorite crime writers, S. J. Rozan) was released in 2013, but I wasn’t able to get to it until this year, and I read it preparatory to reading the ARC of the second book in the series, Skin of the Wolf. Both books are great reads, but I am recommending and including the first book rather than the second, because I do think it helps to read them in order; it’s not necessary, you can enjoy the second without reading the first, but I’m one of those ‘read them in order’ kind of people. Blood of the Lamb is such a great, fun read—one of those treasure hunts where people are trying to solve a mystery from the past in the present day—but alas, I’m afraid to say too much for fear of spoiling the pleasure of reading the book. It is set in Rome, there are supernatural elements to the story, and it’s a non-stop thrill ride with some truly exceptionally wonderful reveals for the reader—including one or two that will startle you to the point you could actually drop the book from your hands! I also had the great pleasure to actually spend some time with S. J. Rozan when she was here in New Orleans for the Romantic Times conference—I took her for a walk thru the Quarter and we had dinner—which was just awesome.
Wild Fell by Michael Rowe
Michael Rowe is one of those writers who cannot write a bad sentence—even his Facebook statuses are incredibly literate and intelligent—and his debut novel, Enter, Night, was one of my favorite vampire novels of the past few years. With Wild Fell, Rowe moves from vampires to the classic horror trope of the haunted house in a remote location…and does it with the skill and aplomb grateful readers have come to expect from his work. Wild Fell is the name of the house on a remote island near a remote town that our young hero purchases almost sight unseen…but there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye, and this is not just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill ghost story. Even though this is an exceptionally clever take on the traditional haunted house tale, what really makes this stand out is Rowe’s achievement in creating mood; with each page Rowe manages to instill this sense of dread that grows with every sentence and paragraph. I pictured this in my head in black and white, like all the classic ghost movies of the 1940’s and 1950’s, but Rowe never allows the unsuspecting reader to ever lose sight of the fact that it is very much a modern story set in present day. The book is a master class in mood—reminiscent of The Woman in Black, Shirley Jackson, and Daphne du Maurier. I am really looking forward to Rowe’s third novel; as I am very curious to see his next take on another classic trope of the horror genre.
Paul and I have been watching Season One of Reign off-and-on for a while now; primarily when we have nothing else to watch. Case in point: we got caught up on Season 2 of The Comeback last week; watched season 2 of Episodes; and then tried to watch Season One of The Musketeers, but gave up halfway through Episode 1. Suddenly, we had nothing to watch, neither of us felt well, and so it was back to Reign. The show, which is so historically incorrect as to be almost comical, is entertaining enough; and despite the inaccuracies, we sort of enjoy it. It’s beautifully shot, the young actors are pretty enough, and the sets/costumes are gorgeous. How, you may well ask, given my love of history, can I actually enjoy this show?
The problem with history is it rarely makes engaging television or film as it actually happened, with the end result that it frequently has to be either rewritten or liberties have to be taken with actual facts. I accept this; any number of films, books, and/ or television shows have had to do this, and I, in many cases, simply choose to view them as ‘historical fan fiction’ or ‘alternate history’ and not documentaries—which they never claim to be in the first place. This is how, despite my love of history, can enjoy shows or films like The Tudors, Elizabeth R, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Rome, The Lion in Winter, and any other number of fictionalized retellings of history without getting angry or upset. One could, of course, argue that the life of Mary Queen of Scots, which Reign purports to tell, was dramatic and interesting enough without having to resort to fictions and rewrites—but the really interesting parts don’t come until much later in her life than the parts being filmed for the show, which is set during her late teens when she was living in France at the court of King Henri II and his Queen, Catherine de Medici. The French court, and European history in general, at this time was fascinating, at least to me. But Reign, which has been described by some television viewers as ‘history in the style of Dawson’s Creek’, has taken so many liberties and changes that it’s barely recognizable as the story of Mary Queen of Scots; there are, in fact, so many of these that it’s almost impossible to catalogue them all.
I did, however, manage to finish reading Domestic Arrangements by Norma Klein over the weekend. In honesty, I have to say I’m not really sure how I feel about the book. I didn’t read Klein when I was a teenager, and it’s hard for me to picture this book as being for teenagers, despite the fact that the main character, Tatiana aka Rusty, is fourteen. Rusty lives with her father, a documentary director, and her mother, a soap opera/commercials actress, and her older, feminist sister. I’ll be honest, I am not sure how comfortable I am reading about sexual active fourteen year olds; I realize that must make me sound like a complete and utter prude, but there you have it: fourteen year olds shouldn’t be sexually active. I know, intellectually, that some of them are; but it bothers me and I don’t like to read about it. I seriously doubt this book would get published today, but the 1970’s/early 1980’s was a time of change when books for teens shifted and became more concerned with reality, realism, and hot-button issues. Young adult writers started dealing with sexuality, race, class, gender discrimination, drug use, teen drinking and even homosexuality in realistic, non-preachy terms; television might still be making cautionary, scare-tactic movies like Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, Born Innocent, and many others, but in print the approach was non-preachy and realistic.
Rusty Engelberg, for example, is having sex with her sixteen year old boyfriend and has absolutely no qualms or questions in her mind about it—which, if I can get past her age, is actually a really healthy attitude for a teenaged girl to have at that time. It isn’t a big deal to her, she doesn’t see any problem with it, and doesn’t really get why her father has such an issue with it (the book opens with her dad catching her in the act). Then we find out, once all this settles down, that Rusty has starred in a film in which she has a semi-nude scene, etc. etc. etc.
This book was undoubtedly written around the time Brooke Shields exploded into pop culture, as a twelve-year-old playing the daughter of a prostitute which also included nude scenes, in Pretty Baby. The film, which was set in Storyville in New Orleans, also starred David Carradine and Susan Sarandon as her mother, was actually based on a true story about the photographer, Ernst Bellocq, who became rather famous for his pictures of Storyville prostitutes. He also photographs the twelve year old, who eventually also becomes a prostitute, runs away from the brothel, and moves in with Bellocq and becomes his mistress. The film, despite its subject matter, was critically acclaimed and Brooke Shields became rather famous/notorious. This was followed up by her suggestive ad campaign for Calvin Klein jeans (“nothing comes in between me and my Calvins”), and of course, later films like The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, which also featured lots of semi-nudity and were about teenaged sexuality. Shields, unlike Rusty, was very very quick to always bring up her dedication to her own virginity during interviews of the time; she eventually walked away from her career to go to college. She would also eventually marry tennis superstar Andre Agassi, and star in her own sitcom.
Not only can I not imagine this book being first-published today, I also cannot imagine any of Brooke Shields’ films being made today with an underage girl doing semi-nude scenes. Maybe I’m wrong; a lot has changed in the thirty years or so since Pretty Baby was filmed and released. I don’t know, actually—is virginity and/or losing one’s virginity still as big of a deal for teenagers today as it was when I was a teenager? Everything I read in the news, in magazine articles, and so forth, makes me tend to think it isn’t—or at least it’s not AS big a deal as it was years ago. It’s an issue I certainly haven’t dealt with in my own y/a writings.
And I have to admit, I did find this book unsettling. It’s not that it wasn’t well written—it was, and Klein did a really good job of finding Rusty’s voice—but I did also have some issues with the ending. There really wasn’t any conflict in the story, and so there really wasn’t a resolution; it just kind of ended. I was glad no one ever slut-shamed Rusty, or that she was ever shamed into regretting her sexual explorations, and her relationship with her boyfriend Josh was handled really well. I also liked that her love interest in the movie was a gay actor who obviously was publicly closeted having his own issues with his own partner. But there wasn’t really any conflict in the book, and so the story just kind of…ended.
I’m not really sure how I would have changed it or written it differently.
It was also interesting because Rusty is also being considered for the lead in a musical (!) remake of Lolita--a book she hasn’t read but she goes to see the movie, and she also has conflicted opinions about it. I myself am conflicted about the novel (I’ve never seen either film version), which I thought was brilliantly written and incredibly disturbing, so I could relate to Rusty’s ambivalence about being in the movie.
I guess what I was hoping for from Domestic Arrangements was a look at the sexualization of young women from the point of view of a young woman being sexualized for public consumption and stardom, but Rusty’s ambivalence toward both the movie she starred in as well as being either an actress or a film star kind of took the air out of that balloon before the book even started. It didn’t have to be a cautionary tale, or even have a moral…but I kind of was disappointed that a lot of these questions were raised but never really addressed.
Yesterday I had to take the streetcar to work—well, halfway to work; the streetcar ends at Canal and then I have to walk through the Quarter to get to my office in the Marigny. And we are having the usual weird December weather here—chilly, but still humid, so you have to wear at the very least a light jacket but the humidity makes you sweat. Anyway, the reason I couldn’t take the car yesterday was because on my walk on Sunday through the neighborhood I’d noticed the signs indicating that parking was prohibited on numerous blocks for Monday because of filming—and with the Saints (GEAUX SAINTS!) playing on Monday night football, the bar would be packed and there wouldn’t be any place for me to park within a five block radius of the house. Of course, walking to Canal Street thru the Quarter after the Saints game started was incredibly surreal—the city is literally a ghost town during the games; no traffic to be seen and no people anywhere; it’s almost like a post-apocalyptic movie. There was no one on the streetcar, either.
Very, very creepy.
So, anyway, yesterday between clients I started jotting notes on a new stand-alone project (it’s buzzing around in my head, along with the ideas for the next Scotty), and found myself getting kind of excited about it—to the point where I may even begin to start writing it this weekend. Madness! But I think I am also going to start rereading and editing the short stories I am planning on submitting to those anthologies, too. Pretty bitchin’, methinks. I love when my batteries have recharged and I can get rolling on writing again. Yay!
I did take some pictures with my phone of Christmas decorations on my walk last night, but I really think I need to take a good walk around the Quarter in general to get some amazing ones, like the ones from about four or five years ago when I took my camera on a walk during the day through the Quarter. After all, I do have that awesome new camera now. I have to work the Saturday after Christmas; maybe then? The decorations should still be up--something to think about, anyway.
Nothing says Christmas like decorated palm trees!
They do look lovely, tho.
I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about my writing about New Orleans, and I had to admit to something I really hated to—that there have been so many changes to New Orleans in the last five years or so that I’m not really sure I know the city that well anymore. During those five years, I was busy writing and/or editing a gazillion books and anthologies, and between that and my full-time job and all my volunteering…well, I suppose the best way to say it is one morning I took a look around and realized I didn’t really know the city that well anymore. Magazine Street, which I generally avoid like the plague, is nothing like it was pre-Katrina anymore. Almost every landmark and local business I mention in Murder in the Rue Dauphine isn’t there anymore (outside of the gay bars, of course). The city was already changing before Katrina, of course—and in the years immediately after, as we rebuilt, the changes were slow and gradual…and maybe the so-called ‘boom’ from 2008/2009 on was also gradual…but it also seems kind of stunning to me. There’s an entirely new population; the Marigny/Bywater neighborhoods are completely different than they were…I touched on some of this in Murder in the Arts District, and had intended, actually, to go further…but didn’t because I wasn’t certain about things and didn’t have the time to research.
But if I do go ahead with this Scotty book, I am going to have to. Scotty, after all, is New Orleans born and bred, with both sides of his family going back generations. Scotty and his family would have definite opinions about the ‘new’ New Orleans…Chanse being a transplant, like me, not so much, or at least I was able to get away with him not really noticing or having much of an opinion.
Something to think about, at any rate.