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  1. Today
  2. Rachel Toalson is an especially prolific poet, essayist, and award-winning author of picture books and of middle grade and young adult fiction. Lest you think writing books for young humans means toning down reality, Rachel has mastered the art of hard topics — how to convey them, how to guide a young mind through them — in a way that helps to instill hope and to set young people on a path of functional thinking. “Toalson handles difficult, complex subjects with nuance and care, never losing sight of who her readers are, and striking the delicate balance between honesty and hope.” —Jordan Leigh Zwick, The Book Seller (Grass Valley, CA) Her next work of middle grade fiction, The First Magnificent Summer, is the story of an awakening–of sexism, as a twelve-year-old girl realizes her own estranged father may be treating her as Other because of her gender. It releases on May 30th. If you need some inspiration, please settle in; you won’t be disappointed. Many thanks to Rachel for sharing her journey and her many profound insights about the writing life. GW: Thanks for agreeing to share your writing and publishing experiences with the Writer Unboxed community. I like to start by asking writers about their author origin story; it’s kind of like a superhero origin story but with a pen. What’s yours? RT: The sole purpose of my first dabbles in story was getting me out of trouble. I was an imaginative, precocious middle child with an older brother and a younger sister. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, which meant trouble was right at our fingertips. After a Pecan Battle (we were supposed to be gathering pecans so my grandmother could make her delicious pecan pie), my sister ran into the house wailing. I’d launched the fated pecan that hit her brow, but I made up an elaborate story that blamed my grandmother’s boyfriend for the wound that required ice and a Band-Aid. There was a giant hole in my story: My grandmother’s boyfriend hadn’t been outside all morning. But I was good at telling stories. I told them for entertainment. To everyone—my siblings, my mother, the kids at school. I documented things that happened on the playground. I retold important events with a little flair and exaggeration. And in the margins, I worked on my Great American Novel at the age of seven. It sounded a lot like Little House on the Prairie, which my mother was reading to us at the time. My mother saw a spark (and probably a way to get me to stop talking so much). She made sure I always had sharpened pencils and a stack of stapled computer paper. I told everyone I knew I’d be a writer someday. In high school some amazing English teachers affirmed my writing gift. In college my love for it exploded under the direction of some magnificent professors. And I found my people, which is important in any origin story. Who are we without our people? I’ve been through some trauma in my life. Writing helps me process the narrative and reframe it. That’s probably the simplest answer to why I keep picking up a pen. GW: I don’t think it would be an understatement to say you’re a prolific author. Tell us a bit about your journey to publication; how did you land your agent? Your first book deal? And, how have you managed to be as prolific as you are with six children at home?! RT: I spent the first decade of my career as a journalist and an editor for some Texas newspapers. But after the birth of my sixth child, I faced a job lay-off. After catastrophizing, as I’m wont to do, my husband said, “Why don’t you go for your dream?” And I thought, Yeah. Why not? All those years I’d been writing books, of course. I’d written two adult novels that went nowhere—no agent even asked for a full manuscript (Today Me recognizes they weren’t any good). But I had another novel—one written for kids—that I thought might be something special. It was. I queried twelve agents I found through Twitter’s #MSWL and Writer’s Digest listings. Ten requested the full manuscript. I got two offers and signed with my agent in 2016. We went out on sub with my first book, a novel in verse called The Colors of the Rain, in early 2017 and had an offer by May. It published in September 2018. However. Traditional publishing is a slow process. I’m a very productive writer. So I also self-publish fiction under a pen name and write poetry and essay collections under my full name. As to how I stay productive with so many kids, I send them to public school so I can write. Half-joking aside, I protect my writing time. Writing centers me and helps me process emotions and heals old wounds. My family gets a better version of me, and I get to live my passion and dream. Everybody wins when I get to write. One more note: Early in our marriage, my husband and I decided that his career was not more important than my career, just because he’s a man. We do what we can to support each other and raise our kids jointly. GW: How has publishing been different than you’d anticipated? Is there something you didn’t know back then you wish someone in the business had told you? RT: I was only marginally aware of how much patience traditional publishing would require. In theory, I knew it could take a year or more to sell a book, then a year or more to see it published. But in practice, I found myself unpleasantly surprised—maybe because I’m a very productive, task-oriented person, and I write quickly. Waiting is hard for me. And I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in how long I’ve had to wait for books to sell and to see them publish. Because I’m such a productive writer, I have a huge bottleneck; I have nine middle grade, five young adult, two chapter book, and three poetry manuscripts ready to go to my agent. But it’s not the right time yet. So I have to wait. It’s torturous. To help manage the bottleneck, I also self-publish books, under a pen name. It helps me maintain a modicum of control and care for myself mentally and emotionally. Writing is therapeutic for me. So is publishing. Also: We, the writers, are in charge. I know it doesn’t feel that way when we’re in the querying trenches or out on submission; those are vulnerable places to be. But the truth is, we don’t have to take the first offer that comes our way. If an agent or an editor is asking for an edit to your book that doesn’t feel “right,” you don’t have to take the deal. It’s your book. Agents don’t have a job without writers. Editors don’t have books without writers. It’s not about finding an agent or editor; it’s about finding the right one. I know I’m in a privileged place to say that, being an agented writer with multiple books published. But it’s something I wish someone had told me in the beginning. GW: In a business where so much is out of our control, what do you do take control of your writing career? RT: This is a great question, because there is so much out of your control in this business—particularly the traditional publishing side, where the gates keeping you out can feel endless. None of us is in control of how readers respond to what we publish. That’s a very scary place to be, for most of us. It takes guts to publish just about anything. What is in our control is getting words down on a page. We control whether or not we make it a goal to write for an hour and a half every day—and whether or not we do it. Related to that, and something that’s very important to me: we control our improvement as a writer. I want to be excellent at what I do. I want to make sure I’m not stagnating and that I continue learning and growing as a writer (and a human being). So every New Year’s I assess my writing strengths and weaknesses. Then I make a plan for improvement. We can’t control how readers interpret our books or what they take away from them or whether they like them. But we can work to write the absolute best book we can write today. Lastly, we control our mindset. We can choose to see things positively or negatively. We can decide the world is against us or for us. We can gather up all the broken places in our lives and patch them up on the page, in hopes that someone else can do the same in their lives because of our stories. Maybe that’s a poetic way of saying we control our vision, what we hope our books will do in the world. Vision can carry us a long way in this business, because it’s hope. GW: What advice would you give a newbie writer who someday wants to be doing what you’re doing? RT: I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of yourself. This business can be brutal. It’s a business of rejections, and that wears on you. It makes you question practically everything—your abilities, your vision, your stories, your purpose, your hopes and dreams. Get therapy. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Find writer friends who understand the business and how hard it can be, and connect with them regularly. And give yourself permission to step away for a while if you need to. No one can do what you do quite like you can—and we need you and your stories. Write every day or every other day or every Monday—whatever works for you. It’s great to hear about other writers’ processes, but you’ll have to find your own. And that takes practice and experimentation. Write the stories you want to read. Love what you do. And if you don’t love it, figure out why and what would make you love it. Support other writers. Talk about great books. Read as much as you can, all over the place, not just in the genre or age group you write. Listen to audiobooks while you’re washing dishes or slicing onions or running an errand. Take a poetry book with you to read in the line at the grocery store. Put your phone away. Try to make the world a better, kinder place with your art. I want to say so much more, but I’ll end with this: Don’t give up. I know this business is hard and sometimes thankless. Sometimes you’ll think, Why am I working so hard at something that matters so little? But you and your stories do matter. And I have to believe that those who persevere will ultimately see their dreams and hopes become reality. Many thanks to Rachel Toalson for sharing so generously with us today, and for providing the inspiration many of us need on the regular. To learn more about her and any of her many works, including her upcoming The First Magnificent Summer, visit racheltoalson.com and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. WU community: Do you write to help process your life? Has that work brought enlightenment? What has your writing journey taught you? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  3. The universe has been trying to get me off this planet for years. February 2015: It’s a cold Wednesday night and my Advanced Screenwriting Class (where undergraduate students complete a feature film script in one semester) has just wrapped up a scene-by-scene deconstruction of the iconic film Die Hard, which every aspiring screenwriter needs to study line-by-line. These are good kids—dedicated, disciplined, talented. You don’t sign up for a class like this unless you’re committed. I’m in my twentieth year of teaching screenwriting at Tennessee’s first film school: The Watkins Film School, a division of the Watkins College of Art. I love teaching, but the college is dying. Our enrollment has been dropping steadily, semester after semester. Despite hefty annual increases in tuition, faculty and staff haven’t seen raises in years. Before it’s over, I’ll be assigned classes I’ve never taught before on subjects I know nothing about because we can’t afford to hire adjuncts who know what they’re doing. It’s 8:30 or so on a frigid night and I head back to my office. I’m in no hurry to get home; my marriage has been deteriorating for a long time. My home life is not good. My faculty office is where I can get a little peace and quiet, especially late at night. I turn to a stack of Intro Screenwriting student scripts and start marking them up. But suddenly, I feel really awful. Truth is, I’ve been feeling lousy for months. I drive to work and the three-minute walk from the parking lot to my office leaves me panting. I have to sit down and get my breath before I start my classes. My energy levels are the lowest they’ve ever been. Earlier, I’d served a five-year term as Chair of the Watkins Film School, where I routinely put in fifty and sixty-hour weeks. Now I was lucky to make my classes. I put it off to stress and age. My personal life had been a raging dumpster fire for a decade-and-a-half. I became a parent for the first time at 48 (in a second marriage that failed after a decade), which is why I took the full-time teaching position. We needed the benefits and the regular paycheck. I mistakenly thought I could continue my writing career, that teaching wouldn’t be that demanding. I was wrong. In the decade before becoming a full-time college professor, I published nine novels. In the fifteen years after, I only published two. I was tired, stressed and depressed. I worked too hard, drank too much, and now I felt like hell. On this February night, it got even worse. I was sick at my stomach and felt like somebody was sitting on my chest. I grabbed my coat and backpack, shut down my office and started the twenty mile drive to my house in West Nashville. Once home, I kicked off my hikers, dropped my coat and backpack, then went straight to my bedroom. A few minutes later, my wife flicked on the bedroom light. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m tired,” I said. “Just thought I’d lay down for a minute.” She came over to the bed and looked down at me. “No, you’re not.” “What do you mean?” I said, cranky now. “Leave me alone.” “Get your ass out of that bed,” she said. “We’re going to the hospital. I’m calling Bruce.” My wife and Bruce, her primary care physician, had been close friends for decades, close enough that she had his private cell phone number. A couple of minutes go by and she walks back into the bedroom with a handful of aspirin. “Bruce says put these under your tongue and call an ambulance.” We both broke out laughing. My employer-provided health insurance was a joke—a high-deductible plan that covered almost nothing and cost nearly a grand a month. There was no way we could afford an ambulance. “C’mon,” she said. “I can get you to the emergency room faster than an ambulance can get here anyway.” A few hours later, I checked into a room at St. Thomas West in Nashville and was sucked into the black hole of the American health care medical/industrial complex. The blood draws, tests, scans quickly become a blur. A day later, a cardiac team is standing at the foot of my bed giving me the results: five blocked arteries, including the infamous “widowmaker,” which was something like 80 percent closed. A doctor I’ve never met is telling me I need a quintuple cardiac bypass. Quintuple bypass? I’d never even heard of that. Hey, go big or go home. I begged for an alternative. I had too much to do; it was the middle of the semester. “Can’t you give me meds and send me home?” “Sure,” the cardiologist said. “We can give you meds and send you home to die.” The surgery was delayed because an ice storm had hit the whole area. Staff and doctors couldn’t get to work. Four days later, I go under, not knowing if I’d wake up. The worst part was because of the ice storm, my ex-wife had been unable to get our two daughters to the hospital before the surgery. I didn’t know if I’d ever see them again.  Fall 2018: I survived the quintuple bypass, entered a cardiac rehab program, passed with flying colors. I lost 25 pounds, even though I only topped out at 170 on my heaviest days, and was trying to get more exercise. I quit drinking completely for a year-and-a-half after the surgery, but the night Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton, I turned to my wife and stepdaughter: “I’m going to the wine store. I’ll be back.” The stress levels are still high at work. It’s clear the college is going under. During my years as Chair of the Film School, our peak student body count was 167—by far the largest department in the college. Now we were down to maybe thirty students or so. A few years earlier, I’d applied for other teaching jobs, but faculty jobs in higher ed are harder than ever to get, especially in esoteric niches like film. I applied for about 25 openings and never got an interview. I was in my sixties now; it just wasn’t going to happen. I began to contemplate a return to full-time writing. My most successful books, by far, had been a series of six private detective novels set in Nashville. I’d been nominated for an Edgar twice, won it once. Multiply nominated for the Shamus Award, I had one of those on my office bookshelf as well. The books had been under continuous option for film and TV rights since they were published up until the last few years, but nothing ever came of it. Maybe, I thought, I should resurrect that series. I got to work. Sometime in September of 2018, I began making notes. My years of teaching screenwriting had turned me into a writer who thought in film terms, even for a novel. I wasn’t brainstorming, I was in pre-production. I wasn’t creating an outline, I was writing a treatment. When final exams were over and the college closed for the holiday, I went to work. In what seemed like no time at all, I had 125 manuscript pages and it was feeling pretty good. In fact, I was encouraged and hopeful—two emotions I hadn’t experienced in a long time. In early January, I was scheduled with my primary care provider for an annual physical. My PCP is a prince, a brilliant and caring physician whom I am personally fond of and trust absolutely. The physical went well. My blood pressure was under control; my off-the-chart cholesterol was finally within a normal range. Things were looking good. There was a smile on his face as we wrapped it all up. “Wait,” I said, as I was about to hop down off the examining table. “I got something I want to ask you about. Give me your hand.” He gave me the classic quizzical look, then held out his hand. I took it, flattened it out, then grabbed his index finger and put it against a spot on the left side of my neck, a few inches below my ear. I moved his finger around for a few seconds. “What the hell is that?” I asked. His brow furrowed. “I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.” For months, I’d had this little knot on my neck, about the size of an English pea. It didn’t hurt. No discomfort at all. It was just there. Within a matter of days, I was sucked once again into the maw of the American health care medical/industrial complex. Ultrasound, CT scan, biopsy. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: blood cancer. It starts out in the lymphatic system and often manifests itself in swollen lymph nodes. My primary care provider set me up with an oncologist he’d worked with many times before. He was good, my doctor said, one of the best. To top it off he was, like me, a pilot (although I hadn’t had the money to fly in nearly fifteen years). This assured him we’d have lots to talk about. My third wife became an integral part of this process. Despite our difficulties, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She starts researching lymphoma, especially my subset, which deploys frightening terms like “mantle cell” and “blastoid variant.” Apparently, my cancer is a very rare type, seen almost entirely in old white guys. Years later, I would learn that it’s also tied to DNA. I don’t understand it, but apparently I have a few screwed up chromosomes. The new novel gets set aside as it’s all I can do to teach my classes and attend to my treatments. I undergo a PET scan, which is an X-ray study where they inject you with radioactive sugar. Cancer cells love sugar; they’re voracious. When they slide you into the scanner, cancer cells light up. My oncologist assured me that if I did what he told me to do and got with the program, he could cure me. The results of the PET scan, though, are not encouraging. I light up like Christmas at Rockefeller Center. My oncologist said they counted 36 tumors in my lungs. I never got a count on the rest of my body, but they were scattered everywhere, little bursts of light on an otherwise dark landscape. Like fireworks, only on the inside. I started an eight-week regimen of immunotherapy to shrink the tumors and get them under control. For me, immunotherapy was a cakewalk. I was able to drive myself to the treatment lab, get the infusion, then head to Watkins to teach my classes. About as close to a normal life as a cancer patient ever gets… Hey, I thought, I got this. Then it’s time to start the actual chemotherapy, which is a regimen called RCHOP—one letter for each of the five chemicals that make it up. RCHOP’s a witches brew of chemicals, steroids, a bunch of other stuff that sounds scary as hell. This was when I learned that as sophisticated as cancer treatment has become in the past decades, it’s still based on the same principle: Poison the cancer, poison the patient. See which one taps out first. This stuff is so toxic and powerful that they send you home with a regimen of corticosteroids to take for five days to keep you from melting down. You take five pills the first day, four the next, then wind it down until you take one last pill five days out. I took that one last pill on a Sunday, a day when I was having lunch with my daughters. My older one’s driving now, so we meet at a restaurant. The food’s not very good; we decide not to go back. But it was still fun, with laughs and hugs and kisses all around and a generally fine day—the last one I’d have for a long time. The next morning, I’m wiped out. I ache all over, have a disabling fever, so weak I can’t raise my head in bed. I feel like I’ve been pulled through a keyhole. My wife comes in to remind me I have a doctor’s appointment for my follow-up. I barely have the strength to tell her I’m too sick to go. I’ve never felt like this. I’ve had flu before, bad flu. I was in bed for two weeks with it once and felt crappy for months afterward. This is a whole new level. On top of that, the surgeon had done a biopsy and removed a tumor out of my right armpit (the same surgeon has operated on me six times in the last few years; I told him if he spent any more time inside of me, I was going to ask for a commitment). Now the incision site’s hot, angry, swollen and bloated. There’s a rainbow of colors that aren’t supposed to be there: red, green, purple, black. Everything but healthy pink. Streaks were starting to radiate out from my arm and shoulder. My wife phoned the oncologist and told them I was too sick to make the appointment. The next day, I was even sicker and the colors were growing more pronounced. My wife took a cell phone picture and texted it to the nurse. Now they’re concerned. The third morning, she took more pictures and texted them to the oncologist’s office. “Get him in here,” they instructed. “Now.” She helped me dress and gave me a shoulder to lean on as I limped to her car. At the oncologist’s office, a tech draws blood out of the chemotherapy port in my chest. My white blood count has crashed. A normal white blood cell count is between 4,000 and 11,000 cells per microliter of blood. The lab tests revealed mine had dropped below 750. My immune system was shot and I was going septic. My oncologist walks into the examining room after reviewing the lab results. “You’re going to the hospital,” he said. “We’ve already made the calls.” “Can I go home, get my laptop and bathroom stuff and a change of clothes?” My oncologist looked me straight in the eye. “You don’t have time.”  I’m not going to name the hospital the oncologist sent me to, primarily because I don’t relish fighting a libel suit. But from the get-go, I had a bad feeling. As sick as I was, they kept me sitting in a chair for a couple of hours. There weren’t many nurses around. A single nurse escorted me to my room, then left. My wife helped me change into the dreaded hospital gown and I climbed onto the bed, by now barely conscious. Hours went by. I vaguely remember someone bringing me a form to fill out for dinner and breakfast the following day. Eventually, there was an I.V. bag hung on the stand next to me and I guess they started some kind of antibiotic. That evening, I encouraged my wife to go home. I was stable, kind of, and still hoped I was in good hands. By now, she was exhausted and stressed. Taking care of a cancer patient is among the most demanding forms of caregiving possible. That night, I asked for something to help me sleep. They gave me an Ambien, which I’d been taking for years after my bypass. I drifted in and out. Life became a blur. There were tests and sticks, blood draws and palpitations. On the third day, they rolled me down to the basement, where an in-house doctor I’d never met shot my armpit full of lidocaine and lanced the infected surgery site, which now resembled a huge boil. This guy looked like an extra out of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital. He struck me as a late middle-aged burnout case, maybe in recovery from booze or drugs. Like he’d lost his own practice or been kicked out of another, but had gone through rehab so he got his license back and a job as an on-call surgeon for a few years until he retired. All I remember was that the lidocaine didn’t help much, and when this medieval barber lanced the wound, I was suddenly soaking wet. My hospital gown was drenched in blood and pus, as was the sheet on the gurney. It was over quickly and his assisting nurse, a young overweight woman with tattoos, sent for a tech to roll me back to my room. Once there, they shifted me over to the bed and then left me lying there in the blood-and-pus soaked hospital gown (the wound continued to fester; weeks later my surgeon’s partner would do a proper repair and get it resolved). Hours later, maybe even the next day (it’s all kind of a blur), the hospital gown was now dry and crunchy and stuck to my skin. It was starting to smell kind of gamy as well, or maybe it was me since no one ever came by to help me shower or clean up. I finally rang for a nurse, who seemed irritated at my call, and asked her to please bring me a clean gown. She disappeared for five minutes, came back, tossed a fresh gown on the bed, turned and left. I stared at it, wondering how the hell I was going to make this work. Finally, using my I.V. pole like a crutch, I managed to roll into the bathroom, peel off the old gown, which by now had cemented itself to my side and back, and ease myself into the new one. My wife came by later and saw my bed, which resembled a crime scene, and raised hell with the nurses, who finally brought some clean sheets. At some point, my primary care provider came by to check on me. I was so glad to see him I pulled myself out of bed and went over to shake his hand. Only I wound up collapsing into his arms and sobbing uncontrollably, my whole body quaking, shivering. I was a helpless, blubbering, sick shell of myself. I kept apologizing between sobs: I’m sorry… I’m so sorry… He put his arms around me and held me up, told me how sorry he was, that no one should have to go through this. He patted my back and when I finally pulled away, there were tears in his eyes. I had hit bottom.  I was in the hospital for either five or six days (like I said, it’s a blur) and on one of those days my oncologist came by. He explained that no one can ever predict how a patient will react to chemotherapy. Some tolerate it pretty well; others don’t. So on the first treatment, just to set a baseline, they hit you with the Full Monty. Obviously, I fell into the demographic that didn’t handle it that well. He was going to adjust the dose and also extend the time between treatments. They released me from the hospital and within a couple of days, I was back teaching my classes. Maybe a month later, I went in for my second RCHOP treatment. This time it wasn’t fun, but it didn’t send me into a state of collapse. The steroids were the hardest part; the huge initial doses send you into a brain frenzy. No sleep and you can’t turn your brain off. Years later, my cousin described her experience with steroids during cancer treatments: The neighbors called the house at 2 o’clock in the morning and asked my husband why I was out in the front lawn weeding the flower beds… A year later, she died at sixty-three. Weeks later, I went in for my third RCHOP treatment. My oncologist told me he wanted me to take six treatments, eight if I could tolerate them. This one wasn’t too bad either. In late May, 2019, I took the fourth treatment and it decimated me. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the cumulative effect. My bloodwork had been terrible for months. I was anemic, had no immune system left, had shaved my head after losing most of my hair (my nephew bought me the Heisenberg hat from Breaking Bad, so at least there was a cool component to it all), and was struggling to hold 130 pounds. I think I just gave out. After the post-treatment steroids were taken, I was unable to drive. My wife had been taking me to appointments for awhile anyway. This time, however, I limped through the lobby of the medical plaza, got on the elevator up to the 7th floor, staggered down a hallway about twenty feet from my oncologist’s office, then leaned against a wall and slid to the floor. My wife ran and got a nurse; they rolled a wheelchair down the hall and helped me into it. They drew blood out of the chemo port in my chest, ran it through the lab, and then my oncologist came into the examining room. By now, I’m too weak to sit up and am lying flat on the table. “You’re done,” he said. “You can’t take any more. We’ll schedule a PET scan. If we get a good result, then we’ll move forward.” “If not,” he added a moment later, “we have some very difficult decisions to make.”  A couple of weeks later, a Friday afternoon in June, the phone rang. It’s the nurse in charge of patient education, who also happens to be my oncologist’s wife. She puts me and my wife on the phone together. “I know you have an appointment to come in and get the results of your PET scan,” she said. “But when we got the results, we couldn’t wait. You’re clean. Not a spot anywhere.” I sat on the living room sofa, unsuccessfully struggling to keep my composure. Finally I broke down, sobbing. It looked like I was going to live… At the appointment, we reviewed the results in more detail. My doctor wanted me to take as many as eight treatments; four had nearly killed me. And yet, they worked. My doctor told me if I’d do six more months of immunotherapy, he could pretty much guarantee my chances of recurrence would drop to less than one in ten. I agreed. I was skeletal at this point, exhausted, felt like I’d aged a couple of decades. RCHOP does a mean tap dance on your kidneys. I was diagnosed with Stage III kidney disease. At Stage IV, you go on dialysis. I had a lot of healing to do. But I had the summer to get a good start on it. Six months of immunotherapy would take me to the end of 2019. Then I’d be done with it.  December, 2019: Christmas is always difficult in failed blended families. Holidays are awkward, strained, with the conflicts escalating to an even higher level. But I had the spring semester to look forward to. It looked to be a lucrative one, as I was now—in addition to teaching my full load at Watkins—teaching two adjunct classes in the Belmont University Motion Pictures program. It even looked like a mild winter, thanks to global warming. At the end of January, 2020, it all imploded. The Watkins College of Art, which had been in continuous operation since 1885, announced it was closing its doors. Its academic programs would be absorbed by and would migrate to Belmont University. Watkins as a distinct, unique institution, however, would cease to exist at the end of the spring semester. A 135-year-long ride (twenty-five of which I’d been on) was over. A little over a month later, a series of tornados tore through East and Downtown Nashville, levelling homes and businesses, knocking power out all over town. The Watkins campus is spared, but there’s no power. We’re out for another ten days, then it was time for spring break. In the middle of spring break, the Covid-19 lockdown Pearl Harbored everyone. I transitioned six classes at two colleges to Zoom calls in 48 hours, which included upgrading the WiFi in our house to handle the load. The toughest years of our lives had just begun.  February, 2022: For some reason or other, I’m still on the right side of the dirt. For the first year after Watkins closed, we were in pretty good financial shape. Watkins and Belmont made a deal: any faculty or staff member who stayed in their job until the college closure was complete received six more month’s salary. Under Tennessee law, when conditions are imposed on severance pay, it’s no longer severance pay. Which meant I could apply for unemployment as well, something I’ve done only one other time in my entire life. I live in the American South, where pay scales are low and government support almost nonexistent. The Federal government, though, kicked in massive Covid subsidies. My weekly checks are a windfall. I pay down credit cards, take care of some deferred maintenance on the house. I even hooked up with a local flight school and flew enough hours to get current again for the first time in two decades. When the College closed and held its last commencement via Zoom in May, 2020, Belmont kept me on salary to do what’s called a teachout with two students who needed one class apiece to graduate. We did two independent studies via Zoom. I only later figured out what this meant. When the College opened a Film School in August, 1995, I was actually the first faculty member hired. I was recruited to teach screenwriting as an adjunct, a part-timer. When they kept me past the College closing until August, 2020, it meant that I was the last one out the door. I don’t know why that still feels so weird even to this day. It’s a loss I can’t quit grieving. By the middle of 2021, though, the money was drying up. After I finished my summer semester, I went back to work on the new novel, the seventh in my Nashville P.I. series. I finished it in a couple months and sent the manuscript around to a few trusted writers and friends. I broke it into two groups: published writers with a track record and readers who were familiar with the first six books. I was staggered by the response. My trusted, highly perceptive writer friends felt very positive about the manuscript. Writers compulsively suggest revisions, though, and most of them were good. The guidelines I gave my beta readers were simple. I didn’t ask them to proofread or copyedit, no deep-dive developmental editing. Just a few simple questions: 1) Did you enjoy the book? 2) Were you actually able to finish it? 3) Whatever I was asking you to buy into, were you able to do it? 4) Was there anything that jumped off the page that didn’t work, that pulled you out of the story? Simple stuff, but highly revealing… One beta reader who had read all the books in the series said this new one was the best of the lot. I was so encouraged by the reactions and feedback that I began to hold out hope I could get a traditional deal. The first six books were published by an imprint of Random House, Ballantine Books. My editor had long-since retired so I knew no one there. I began searching for an agent. I follow the trades and the daily ezines that flood my inbox. I knew the right websites, where to do the real digging. I contacted other writers I knew and asked them for insight and, if they were willing, references. Plus I had a couple of awards and a list of nominations. I’d made a few regional best-seller lists. My first published novel was a New York Times Notable Book. I had what I thought was some street cred. I queried sixteen agents in the first round. The results were shocking, even to a tough, grizzled old veteran like me. I was used to being disappointed by publishing, had decades behind me of struggling to publish and survive as a writer. For every pat on the back publishing gave me over the decades, it punched me in the nose and kicked me in the nuts a dozen times. My expectations were low, but even they were not met. Ten agents never bothered to respond. I got a few boilerplate rejections. One agent told me that since the pandemic lockdown, she’d been inundated with queries. When she started getting 65-70 emails a day, she stopped taking them. It would take her months to get through the submissions that were already sitting on her desk. Apparently, every sumbitch on the planet wrote a book during the lockdown. Finally, I got a ping. I queried an agent whose name I recognized but couldn’t quite place. Turns out, we’d worked together before on a novel I published with Avon years earlier. The acquiring editor for the book quit her job and this agent—who was still an editor at this stage of her career—took over the final stages. Publishers have a term—orphaned—which is what happens when the acquiring editor of a book leaves the house or changes jobs before your book is published. Someone is always assigned to take it over, but it’s usually the kiss of death for a book. It was in my case. The book I thought would be my breakout suspense thriller went nowhere. I’ve got a couple hundred remaindered copies in the garage if anybody’s interested. The editor-now-agent remembered me fondly and was eager to see the new book, along with anything else I had. I was excited, hopeful. I sent her the whole manuscript of the seventh Harry James Denton book, which I’d titled Fade Up From Black, along with a proposal for another suspense thriller and a pitch for a third project. Radio silence for six months… Finally, she called me one day. Calls from agents are generally good news; rejections are emailed. The agent explained, though, that while she liked the book, the challenges to selling it were too great. The market was terrible; this was the seventh book in a series where the publisher didn’t own the first six; the suspense-thriller partial was strong but needed work. Then she hit me with the blockbuster: I don’t know how old you are, she said, but I’m in my late fifties. And increasingly, I’m finding myself pitching to editors who are in their mid-twenties. They want a different kind of book than we’re used to—a dystopian, pessimistic, cynical voice full of doom and gloom. “I just don’t know how to sell it,” she said. It was the first time in my career anyone had ever intimated that I was too old. So I went with the original plan to publish it under my own imprint, Spearhead Press, where I’d published my backlist and a few other titles. I began getting Fade Up From Black: The Return of Harry James Denton ready for publication. The eBook is released in February 2022, with the print editions—hardcover and trade paperback—set to launch in March. Early reviews are great. Ann Patchett’s Nashville bookstore, Parnassus Books, graciously offered me a signing. I’m selling almost as many books now as I was when Ballantine published the originals back in the Nineties. One late February morning, my wife walks into the kitchen as I’m pulling together a mug of coffee. “You know,” I said. “I’ve been having this weird thing lately. Doesn’t hurt or anything, but I can’t help noticing it. I’ve been having trouble swallowing.” She looks up. “Better tell your doctor,” she said. I nodded. I had a routine blood draw coming up the following week. At my doctor’s office, my prince of a primary care provider is wrapping up the paperwork when I tell him about the swallowing thing.  Everything in medicine is so specialized these days. I liken it to taking your car to the mechanic with a shaky back tire and the mechanic says “Oh, I only do front tires. If you got a back tire problem, ya’ gotta go see that guy over there.” So when my primary care provider sent me to an ENT guy, that doctor spent about a half-hour interviewing me, then looked down my throat and saw nothing. He snaked a fiber optic cable down my nose and spotted nothing as well. He only goes as far down as your Adam’s apple. After that, another guy takes over. A week later, I’m at the gastroenterologist. He’s a nice enough fellow, concerned and careful. He tells me I need an upper endoscopy, which is where they knock you out, snake a camera down your throat, and see what’s going on. I’ve been anesthetized so many times over the last few years that I see another procedure as a chance for a nice, long nap. Propofol’s great. Not to be indelicate, but I can see why Michael Jackson kept a gallon jug of it around the house. So my wife drives me in to the surgical center and in short order, I’m down for my morning nap. Only when I wake up, the doctor’s not there. The nurse is there with my wife in the recovery booth and they both look stricken. The nurse turns away and starts folding stuff. My wife—who God knows has been through enough at this point—said the news was not good. The doctor’s not a pathologist, so he can’t diagnose it. But he’s seen this many times in his career. Esophageal cancer… A few days later, the biopsies come back and my wife and I are, once again, in my oncologist’s office. It’s official now: squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. I confess to my doctor I know nothing medically about esophageal cancer, but as a guy who’s taught film for nearly thirty years, I do know it’s what killed Humphrey Bogart. I’ve read enough biographies of Bogie to know it’s a pretty gruesome death. We’ve got to get another PET scan scheduled, he explained, and fast. This cancer is aggressive, stubborn. We’ve got to find out if it’s metastasized anywhere else. If it’s localized, that’s one situation. If it’s gone beyond the esophageal wall, that’s an entirely different circumstance. They fast track a PET scan—thank God Medicare doesn’t require pre-approval—and the results are back quickly. A short few days later, we’re back in the oncologist’s office reviewing the results, which are encouraging. The cancer appears to have invaded one lymph node, but doesn’t seem to have gotten very far. They stage it out as a toss-up between 2-A and 2-B. It could be a lot worse. Then my oncologist looks up, as if he’d almost forgotten to mention something. There’s another hot spot, he says, that we found in the scan, down in your left inguinal area. We’ll have to biopsy it, but I’m pretty sure your lymphoma’s back as well. Two different cancers in two different places at the same time… Is that even allowed? I ask.  The oncologist starts me on Rituxan—the same immunotherapy I was on my first time at the rodeo—to get the Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma under control. No one seems too worried about that. The throat cancer is the first priority. In one of our early meetings, as the oncologist describes the nasty side effects of the radiation and chemotherapy I’ll have to endure, I stop him mid-sentence. “Wait,” I interrupted. “I’m not saying I’m going to do this, but I’ve got to ask. What happens if I do nothing?” The oncologist studies me for a few moments. “In two to three months,” he begins, “your esophagus will be completely closed off and you will begin the process of starving to death. “At that point, we can insert a feeding tube, but by then it will be too late. The cancer will have metastasized. It will attack your liver first, then it will head for your lungs. Within four months, perhaps a little longer, you’ll be dead.” I suddenly flash on Owen Wilson in Armageddon: “Okay, worst case scenario, I’ll be dead in four months… Let’s not go that route.” The oncologist goes on to explain that the standard treatment for esophageal cancer—a chemotherapy identified by the acronym FLOT—is apparently more brutal than RCHOP. He admits that he’s seen many patients simply meltdown from the treatment. “Well, we already know I don’t have a high tolerance,” I said. “Maybe start out baby steps?” The oncologist nods. “Baby steps.” Then we begin the discussion of radiation. I’ll be getting radiation and chemotherapy at the same time, which sounds disabling. Weeks earlier, I’d already started the eighth Harry James Denton novel. I’m not teaching anymore, so I’m determined to write this book while getting treatment. I refuse to let this goddamn disease define me.  We’ve already consulted with the best esophageal surgeon in town, who declared my tumor inoperable. It’s too high up, too close to my windpipe. He can’t get good margins. I’ve done just enough research to know that an esophageal resection is a brutal surgery, with months of difficult recovery and lasting side effects, like possibly losing your voice and never being able to eat a normal meal again. I don’t know whether to be scared or relieved that I can’t have the surgery. Then the radiation issue comes up again. I tell one doctor I’ve heard horror stories about radiation. “The reason you hear those horror stories,” he explains, “is that they’re all true.” I ask about something I keep seeing on late night commercials on local TV. Something called proton therapy, which claims to be much easier on the patient and much less destructive to surrounding tissue. My oncologist is familiar with proton therapy, which is traditional X-ray radiation with everything stripped out but the protons. “But I don’t know if it’s appropriate for your kind of cancer,” he said. “Why don’t we find out?” So he whips out his mobile and dials the facility, which is in Franklin, Tennessee, an upscale community just south of Nashville. A phone consult later, he hangs up. “You’re a perfect candidate,” he said. “They do a lot of esophageal cancers down there.” So I have a consult with them, which is at a facility not unlike a Ritz-Carlton-type 5-star hotel. There’s a fireplace in the lobby and a snack bar, leather sofas and chairs, flat screen TV on the wall. The staff and doctors are all young, overwhelmingly white and well-groomed, handsome or pretty depending on gender. Their presentations are effective, their data and numbers impressive. My wife’s not impressed. She grew up poor, hardscrabble poor, with a disabled single mother who was confined to a wheelchair. She doesn’t have a lot of patience with the rich, pampered, and privileged. So to be fair, I have a consult with the traditional radiation folks as well. Their facility’s in the basement of a hospital, which you get to by navigating an underground parking lot that’s like a set from a cheap, indie horror movie. The waiting room’s cramped, painted cinderblock walls, plastic chairs. The air’s stale, musty. There’s a homeless, one-legged guy in a wheelchair over in the corner. I’m sitting next to the waste can. He rolls over to throw something away then, maskless, starts coughing all over me. Okay, call me a privileged, white guy asshole, but I can’t imagine coming to this place every day to get my gullet roasted. There’s only one problem, I later discover. The proton therapy is massively more expensive than the traditional therapy. Guess somebody’s got to pay for all that leather furniture. “I can’t afford the co-pays,” I say to my oncologist. “I’ll have to dig into retirement.” “Good,” he says. “Because if you don’t, you won’t have any retirement.” In the meantime, I’m still working on the eighth Harry James Denton novel, which carries a working title of Not Fade Away. For years I’ve been intrigued by lines from pop songs that were considered harmless and cute in their day, but are now so patently offensive that it’s frightening. In this case, Buddy Holly’s song—with the lyrics I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be, you’re gonna give your love to me—is a stalker’s anthem. I go with the proton therapy, despite their decision to not give me any financial aid and their insistence I sign a long promissory note and put up a wheelbarrow full of cash as a down payment. I now have a second car note, but only one car. The radiation is administered every day and the chemotherapy has to accompany it, so now I have an infusion pump plugged into the port on my chest and hauled around on a shoulder strap 24/7. I go to my oncologist’s office early Monday morning to have it put in, then head back to downtown Nashville on Friday afternoon to have it removed. It’s such a pain getting downtown on a Friday afternoon that I quickly talk the techs into teaching me how to remove it myself. The first time I took it out, I texted pictures to my family and my buddies with a note: Just performed my first medical procedure on myself. Next week I’m removing my gall bladder. So the routine began. My days revolve around appointments at the radiation center. The techs who administer my treatments are all young, smart, friendly and reassuring. Very quickly, it begins to feel almost comfortable. The doctors are all amazed at how well I’m tolerating the treatments. I’m losing a little weight; it’s tough to eat when it hurts to swallow and chemotherapy kills your appetite. But as the radiation doctor in Franklin says, I’m skating through this. Until the last seven or eight of the twenty-eight treatments… There’s a visible radiation burn on my chest now. The chemotherapy is starting to zap me. Fatigue’s becoming a factor. Then as I approach the end of the treatment cycle, they give me the bad news—you actually feel worse when the treatments are over. The radiation and chemotherapy continue to work for weeks after the treatments are done. You’ll feel terrible afterward. They were right. The radiation facility has a ceremony for patients who successfully complete their treatments. They award you a certificate, make a speech, then you get to ring a big brass bell. My wife and stepdaughter go with me that day. Everyone says I look tired in the pictures… A couple of weeks earlier, I felt like it was time to document some of this so I began the memoir you’re reading right now. I’m making good progress until I finish the treatments, then I crash hard. I wake up in the morning and the effort of brushing my teeth, cleaning myself up, getting dressed and making up my bed is exhausting. I drink coffee, do a little work, then eat lunch. A three-hour nap follows. Then another nap after dinner. Then bedtime, with a hard nine-hour sleep. It’s frustrating, but the oncologist tells me it’s perfectly normal; in fact, he said, I got off light. I was supposed to feel this bad from the beginning. I continue limping along for a couple weeks, then it lightens up a bit. And now, here I am, back to work on this piece and the novel. After the treatments were done, we’ll wait two months for a PET scan and then see if any of this has worked. The wait is driving everyone but me nuts; I’m too tired to worry about it. I’ve been living with it too long.  Two long months later, I go in for yet another PET scan. We’re gobsmacked by the results: the esophageal cancer is gone. My oncologist apparently is having trouble believing this, so he schedules me for an esophageal ultrasound, which means I’ll get a nice long nap again while they run a camera down my throat and get eyes directly on it. I came out of my propofol nap to a smiling doctor. He’s taken a few biopsies to make sure, but he can’t see anything down there. Later, I’ll see the pictures myself. The pictures that were taken first showed an ugly, bulbous inflamed mass in my throat that looked huge and really angry. Now, it’s just… gone. My oncologist will later call me an outlier; he’s seen this before, but it’s rare. When the results of the biopsied tissue come back, the news is even better. They deploy the term complete remission. Then comes the bad news. On the roller coaster adventure that every cancer patient undergoes, there’s almost always a gotcha’ for every gimme. The esophageal cancer’s in complete remission. But the lymphoma’s back with a vengeance. I’ve become “Rituxan resistant,” a term I never dreamed I’d hear. But apparently the immunotherapy isn’t working anymore, so my oncologist is going to ramp it up with two other drugs. Then yet another PET scan… Depending on those results, I may go into another regimen of chemotherapy, which he warns me in advance will be rough. Oh, he adds, you’ll need to be on Keytruda for two full years, not the one year we originally thought. My wife has been taking notes the whole time, with just an occasional question. It’s not like her to sit so quietly. She’s usually right there in the thick of it. Finally, when we’re about finished, she goes straight for the elephant in the middle of the room. “If he goes through this, all the discomfort and the debilitation and the expense, what’s the prognosis?” My oncologist sits quietly for a few moments. “If everything goes well, then statistically speaking, he has about a 1-in-4 chance of surviving three years.” So there it is. I’m still on this side of the dirt, but the struggle to stay there will be a marathon, not a sprint.  If disease is a metaphor, mine seems to fit the pattern precisely. If we’ve seen anything in the past few years, it’s that everything feels broken. My marriage and family is broken; our societal family has come apart at the seams and we’re at each others throats. My wife and I are both physically broken, our house a laundry list of deferred maintenance items. Our national infrastructure is in a shambles. We can’t keep our bridges and roads in repair, can’t keep the grocery shelves filled, our streets safe. It’s so hot out west, the power grid’s failing. The wood on my deck is so old it’s curled up and rotten and I can’t afford to replace it. The hot water valve on the washing machine failed and the machine is too old to be worth the repair cost. With the medical bills, we can’t afford a new one so my wife’s figured out how to get clothes clean in cold water. So that’s what it’s come down to. I have two college degrees, nearly thirty years in academia, have published thirteen books in five languages, co-written two television movies, and can’t afford to replace a washing machine. Welcome to the new American middle class. We have the finest doctors, nurses, techs in the world. The American health care system can save your life, as it has mine, repeatedly. And in doing so, it sucks up everything around you. It saves your life, but can leave you with little left to live it. When my oncologist wanted to start me on Keytruda, I told him I was hesitant because it costs almost $13,000 a treatment, with my 20 percent copay being cash I didn’t have. “Steve,” he said, “I don’t want that to be the reason you don’t take Keytruda. Remember, 64% of all cancer patients declare bankruptcy.” Great, I feel better… Disease, as it turns out, is a wonderful metaphor for contemporary life in America. As Paddy Chayefsky wrote in one of my favorite movies, The Hospital, “There’s a certain splendor to it…”  September 2022: I have no idea why or how I’m still taking up space on this planet. The men in my family are known to have stubborn streaks; we’ve been driving wives crazy for generations. My wife says the devil’s not ready for me. It’s as good an explanation as I can come up with. I do know this much: if I survive this, the financial effect is going to be devastating. By the end of the year, if I’m still around, I’ll be trying to figure out how to pay as much as $40,000 in medical bills. That’s for Year One. So that’s where I’ll leave this. I start the new immunotherapy when I get back from a conference in Florida in September. After my next PET scan, I’ll know where I stand. I’ll either be on my way to managing this long term and continuing to have some kind of life or, to quote my oncologist, we have some very difficult decisions to make. Meanwhile, il faut cultiver notre jardin. I’m getting off my ass and back to work. Those pages aren’t going to write themselves. View the full article
  4. I am not known as a young adult author, but I have published two novels about an adolescent character. Travis Hollister is, in the first book, 12 years old, and in the second, nineteen. The novels, Sweet Dream Baby and Night Letter, are really one story, or the stories of two years in Travis’s life, with a gap of six years separating them. My subject here is voice, which is distinct, I believe from style. Style is a grammarian’s notion. Voice is a writer’s concern. Voice is the sound of a human being speaking, and it’s a performance that can include, I believe, the sound of a character’s thoughts. In my teaching, I have used the term, “voicey,” to describe novels, usually but not always first person narratives, that exhibit extremes of dialect. The two American novels that I considered the most voicey are Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. You can select at random any pages from these two stories, read them aloud, and get instant recognition from most readers. In the opening pages of Catcher, Holden Caulfield speaks to us from a hospital bed It’s not long before we infer that this hospital is not for the body but for the mind. Holden’s voice, radical, even shocking, for the time of its publication, is elaborately casual, mildly obscene (with lots of “for Christ’s sakes”), and it’s the trying-too-hard voice of the adolescent who tells us everything is fine but communicates by other means that just about everything is wrong. It’s a hard-hearted reader who doesn’t immediately take the young Holden to her bosom. Even the strictest of Presbyterian deacons, once he has recovered from Holden’s casual takings of Christ’s name in vain, pulls the boy into a protective hug. Huck Finn’s voice is strongly regional, and possibly to our modern tastes, a little too heavily phonetically spelled, but Mark Twain’s authenticity in the creation of a Missouri boy of the mid-nineteenth century is not in question. And Huck is not just a boy, he is an outcast whose father is a drunkard and a petty criminal, an abuser of Huck and others. In Huck’s private thoughts to Twain’s readers, Huck is most shocking when he satirizes religion and other pieties of his time. Huck’s town considers him a bad boy, and Huck does not dispute this. And this is the key to Twain’s magical use of voice. By making Huck a self-described ne’er-do-well and miscreant, and by demonstrating through Huck’s behavior that the boy is actually the opposite of these things, is in fact, quite possibly the best person in the world of the novel, Twain satirizes a corrupt society and condemns the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Twain speaks to us through Huck about things Huck himself can only dimly perceive. Imagine the novel if the town says Huck is bad, and Huck says Huck is bad, and Huck is, in fact, bad. By accepting the town’s assessment of him, a judgment that comes from the town’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy, Huck demonstrates how completely he has been psychologically damaged. He does not speak out against his exile, but his actions make us reject it, and reject the values of those who have cast him out. Huck’s voice is the straightforward, honest sound of self-condemnation, and of acceptance of the morality that surrounds him. Underneath that sound lives the sound of Huck’s indomitable spirit, the boy within the boy whose core nature has not been destroyed or even damaged. The boy whose moral compass sends him off on a raft with the escaped slave, Jim. Huck Finn’s second nature is the boy who accepts his own criminality and helps another criminal, the escapee Jim, to “light out for the territory.”olden’s H In the territory, possibly, an escaped slave and a runaway bad boy can live a life that is, if not conventionally good, then at least as good as what surrounds them. In the territory, we readers infer, there is refuge for the many who have been cast out or have run away. Both Holden and Huck exhibit two natures, the public nature and the private one. It’s a measure of the cruelty of the world, that the private nature must remain hidden. It’s the work of the good reader to discover this nature which is available only through inference, or only after the public self has broken down. Holden’s public self has failed so badly that he has been hospitalized. Holden’s private nature is that of the scared child who despairs not just for himself, but for the world, a world that damages children. That private boy’s dream, both literal and metaphorical, is to be The Catcher in the Rye, the imaginary, mythical figure who keeps children from harm. The dual natures of Holden and Huck are relatively easy to describe, but not so easy to portray in pages of fiction. They must be shown, not told. Holden shows his buried nature by talking too loudly and too often about how much he doesn’t care and about how everything with him is fine. Huck shows his by his naive acceptance of what the reader learns through inference to reject. Inference is the key. It’s showing, not telling. In my two novels, Sweet Dream Baby and Night letter, the story of Travis Hollister, I struggled to discover how to embody Travis’s two natures in the tone and cadences of his voice. Travis begins the first novel as a twelve-year-old boy whose mother, a Japanese war bride, has just been sent to an asylum for the insane. Travis’s father, a Marine who fought in some of the worst battles of the Pacific war, is a loving man who can’t provide Travis the kind of care he needs. He sends Travis to live with his grandparents in rural north Florida. The trip from Omaha, Nebraska, to the deep South is a shock for Travis. In the small town where his grandfather is the sheriff, Travis is both the fish out of water and the stranger who comes to town. Soon Travis falls in love with his aunt Delia, who is sixteen, beautiful, popular, and troubled for reasons Travis must discover. Travis is a stranger in a strange land, a boy deprived of his mother’s love, and of everything and every person familiar to him. My discovery was that what Travis wants and needs most is to possess. As I wrote the novel, I saw that the word “my” kept appearing in Travis’s first person speech and thoughts, and eventually his most often repeated phrase, his mantra, almost a prayer, was “my aunt Delia.” Travis can’t name his loss or what he wishes to gain, but the reader infers that possession is Travis’s obsession. Eventually, as the novel’s plot plays out, Travis makes the journey from simply wanting to belong, to be accepted by his grandparents, his aunt Delia, and her teenaged friends, and in one way or another by the town, to wanting, needing to possess Delia in every way that a boy becoming a man can possess her. The world of a child’s thoughts is, syntactically a world of simple and compound, not complex sentences. It is not a world of subordination. The world comes at children as discreet units of action or sensory information. Hemingway was perhaps the first to discover this, and he applied this insight to war-damaged men as well as children. “In the fall, the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan, and the dark came very early. And then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes, and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.” — In Another Country. Subordination, a feature of complex sentences, is not the sound of a damaged child’s voice. For me, it was not the sound of Travis Hollister. As a nineteen-year-old in the second novel, Travis emerges into manhood. He leaves his childhood and a reform school behind him. As an incarcerated youth, Travis owned nothing. His prizes in prison have been secrets, a contraband radio and the journal in which he has recorded his obsession with Delia. When he is given his freedom at last, his quest is to find Delia . . . and then what? He isn’t sure, but he is sure he will know what to do when the time comes. The word “my,” the idea of possession, is still important to the nineteen-year-old Travis of Night Letter, and when he find Delia, he regresses, becoming for a while the boy to whom she was “my aunt Delia.” But of course Delia has much to say about who owns what and whom. In one way, Travis’s growth through Night Letter is toward releasing Delia to her own identity and fate, the world of her own choosing, rather than of his fantasy and of their past. And as the story develops, Travis learns also that caring for another person can be as powerful and fulfilling for a man as was possessing for a child. *** View the full article
  5. When I first had the idea for this interview series, where I’d talk to well-known crime writers about the books that they think every fan should read, it seemed self-evident that I should start with Ace Atkins, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of the Quinn Colson series. As every writer who has interacted with him knows, Ace is a fount of knowledge when it comes to both the craft and history of crime fiction. (He and writer Megan Abbott have a regular meet-up online where they watch noir movies together and then discuss them, an event that would surely sell out within minutes if they ever felt like opening it to the public.) Atkins is unfailingly helpful to new writers, generous with his time and advice, and always willing to discuss the genre he loves. He’s also deeply rooted in the life and landscape of the place he’s lived for the past twenty years: Oxford, Mississippi. Universally associated with the work of William Faulkner, north Mississippi has become almost as well-known among readers of crime fiction as the home of Atkins’s Army-ranger-turned-sheriff, Quinn Colson. When Atkins moved to Oxford twenty years ago, it was the home of writer Larry Brown, the two-time winner of the Southern Book Award for fiction who died in 2004. Brown overlapped with Faulkner at the beginning of his life and Atkins at the end, and his work is immersed in the same rural noir tradition of dark nights, startling violence, and fierce loyalty to family and place. For my first interview for The Backlist, Atkins and I sat down to talk about Brown’s novel Father and Son. The novel tells the story of Glen Davis, a felon recently released from Parchman Prison who returns to his hometown intent on wreaking vengeance on nearly everyone he’s ever known. Glen’s penchant for violence is contrasted with the humanity of the new sheriff, Bobby Blanchard, who grew up with Glen and has more in common with him than most in the community realize. Published by Algonquin in 1996, Father and Son, like most of Brown’s novels, is currently out of print—a fact that Atkins regrets, given Brown’s outsize influence on him and other Southern writers of his generation. Author Larry Brown Tell me about your friendship with Larry Brown and his influence on your work. When I left the newspaper business, I pretty much could have lived anywhere. One of the reasons I chose Oxford was because Larry was here, and Barry Hannah, and so many other great writers. It’s not like we sat around and had deep conversations about writing or anything like that, but it was just nice to be among your heroes. You walk up to the bar, and there’s Larry hanging out, drinking. And then when I read Father and Son, which is my favorite of his novels, I thought, “This is the kind of stuff I want to write.” Until I reread for this interview, I don’t think I’d fully realized how much it influenced me. The feel of Oxford has changed a great deal since Larry’s time, but when I read Father and Son again now, I know every single location he’s talking about. I know the family names. A lot of the novel takes place around Tula, where Larry lived, and also around a town called Paris, where I have a farm, so it’s very specific. If he was writing about real places and even using real names, how was that received by the locals? That’s a good question. I think people just thought it was kind of odd, that here’s this former fireman on the front page of the New York Times book section. I think maybe some of the people who were surprised by it did not understand technically what a great writer Larry was. He was almost entirely self-taught. He’d audited a class with Barry Hannah at Ole Miss, but the majority of what Larry knew about craft he’d learned by just working at it. When I read his fiction, it makes me think of someone like a car mechanic or a carpenter, who just works his butt off until he gets it right. Every sentence is just sharp. Every piece of dialogue is perfect. It took a really dedicated mind to create something like this. People ask, “What is literature?” and “What is genre fiction?” and all that kind of crap. And certainly this is one of those books that is absolutely both. But the important thing is that it’s a narrative that you just can’t put down, so much so that I almost reread the whole thing in one sitting. It starts with this guy getting out of prison, he’s back home, and we know things are not going well. We know that this is a bad guy. Glen is somebody who’s on a path to hell. He’s a really dark, unrelenting character, and it’s flat-out terrific. I think a lot of modern crime writers would try to give Glen more of a tragic backstory to explain his actions, but Brown doesn’t make that choice. That’s right. An editor today, or especially someone in Hollywood, would say, “Why is Glen the way he is?” And the answer is, he’s just a rotten son of a bitch. He’s an awful person. I was talking to Megan Abbott recently about film, and she mentioned a director that she was not really fond of. She said, “I remember seeing his movies, but I can’t tell you a thing about them.” I knew exactly what she was talking about—there’s not a single moment that really sticks with you. Father and Son is the opposite of that for me. It’s so real. When my wife and I first moved to Mississippi, we bought this old farmhouse deep in Larry Brown country. Sometimes I’d see a beat-up truck just come out of nowhere, with a guy with his arm hanging out the window smoking a cigarette, and every time I’d think, “There goes Glen Davis.” That kind of imagery is part of Larry’s genius. You just can’t shake it. Everything that you’re saying about Brown’s work could also be said about Faulkner’s, and also about yours. What did Brown teach you about adding that kind of texture to fiction? I appreciate you comparing my work with those two guys, because they mean so much to me. And I think they mean more to me after so many years of living in this county. The idea of taking a small community, and focusing in on the family connections, the boiling-up of hatred and revenge that can seep into some of these relationships over the years—that’s very specific to the South and to Southern literature. Sometimes people have the idea that the Southern story is Steel Magnolias or The Help or something like that, but to me it’s a very haunted place with a very dark and exceptionally violent history. I’m originally from Alabama, but when I got to Mississippi, it was on another level. I don’t want to say uncivilized, but it was. You could go up to a gas station and see a horse tied up to a post. When you think about these Western tropes of an outlaw out on the back roads and a sheriff trying to find justice, that’s still real here. I was out on a county road right before Christmas, and there was a woman outside boiling her laundry because she didn’t have electricity. People talk about Oxford being a quaint little southern town, and it is, but I can take you a mile in any direction and you’re back in the nineteenth century. How do you think Larry would feel if he knew that we were having a conversation about him as a crime writer? Would he have described himself that way? I don’t think Larry would have thought of himself that way. He cared about writing a good story, and I don’t think he ever thought about how it was going to be marketed. It’s the same with Faulkner—he never called himself a crime writer, but there’s a theme of crime and detection in a lot of his books, and I would categorize both Sanctuary and Intruder in the Dust as deep Southern noir. You see the relationships of the families out of the county and the interconnectedness of the histories of these people, and the ever-present violence in some of these small communities. Stylistically, Larry is nothing like Faulkner, but as far as the subject matter goes, it’s spot-on. Father and Son has five murders (six counting a monkey crucified with an ice pick), three accidental deaths, a suicide, a case of child abuse, and two pretty violent sexual assaults. Do you see this level of violence as an expression of what Larry Brown saw around him in rural Mississippi, or a way of keeping the plot moving, or a nod to genre conventions—or all of the above? I can’t really say what Larry would have said about why he did that. I can say that I’ve spent a lot of time riding these back roads with sheriff’s deputies, and this county has its share of Glen Davises, who just want to burn everything down. I could walk down the street to the jail right now and find you at least a couple Glens—just unhappy, evil people that are seeking to destroy what’s around them. I don’t think Larry was trying to shock anybody. He was just writing about the darkness of the world around him. This discussion makes me think of what Charles Baxter writes about melodrama, which he defines as “the scene of the incomprehensible attached to the unforgivable.” He says that there’s a tendency in modern fiction to pretend that all human behavior can be explained, but that’s failing to acknowledge that there are truly bad people in the world. That’s true, but I think Larry was also writing about something he recognized in himself. Not the darkest and most violent aspects of Glen’s character, but in some of the self-destructive tendencies that he had. I think Larry knew that his life could have gone in a different way, if he’d made different decisions. Most of the violence is instigated by the male characters, but there are two significant female characters in the book, and one plays a key role in the very violent climatic scene. Well, it’s not a rosy ending. It’s not like the bad guy is killed and all is right with the world. Glen burns down the world and everything that he comes in contact with, and nobody is ever going to emerge clean or unharmed from his path of destruction. But that final scene with Mary, Bobby’s mother, shows the strength of that character and the resilience of that character. Larry doesn’t have an ounce of exposition in the story, which is wonderful, but you get the sense that she’s had trials and tribulations in her life, and she’s tougher than Glen is evil. She’s the toughest character in the book, even more so than her son. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about, any scenes that stand out to you that you were excited to go back to? Or just things that come to mind? Well, we haven’t talked about the crucifixion of the monkey. It’s so shocking, and so violent, and if you read this book, you’ll never forget it. I love the scene after the monkey is killed where Glen is driving around, and you think he’s going have some kind of remorse for what he’s done. And instead of having remorse, he says, “I wish that monkey was alive, just so I could go back and kill again.” That seems like O’Connor to me—this extreme grotesquerie that’s never explained. That’s great Southern noir. It’s grotesque, it’s violent, it’s absurd. I think that Larry brought back some of those darker elements to Southern literature that maybe had been eroded since the time of O’Connor and Faulkner. This is a place that was founded in violence and slavery and brutality, and the ripple effects are still with us. And Larry was very well-aware of that. When I talk to people in Oxford, there’s still so much admiration and so much love for the guy. He was only fifty-three when he died, and it was such a shock. I hate to see these books out of print, but I think his influence is massive. If you look the writers down here like me, and Tom Franklin, and Michael Farris Smith, and Bill Boyle, we’re all trying to keep that tradition alive. View the full article
  6. “Old pirates, yes, they rob I, Sold I to the merchant ship; Minutes after they took I From the bottomless pit.” —Bob Marley,“Redemption Song” This Folio Society edition of Douglass’s remarkable work marks just another stage in its existence as an intractable work of literature and a public record of slavery and the effort to end slavery. Published in the US in 1845, the book sold well immediately, and its anticipated impact, given its quite radical and bold assertions, had Douglass take flight to the UK upon publication. Whilst there, Douglass would see an edition of the book published in Dublin, and his time there would become a fit subject in the argument for collective global solidarity against oppression that would undergird what Douglass would come to see as elemental to the anti-slavery movement. The Narrative did not explicitly argue a political theory against slavery—it was couched and presented as the written evidence, the testimony for the abolition of slavery. It was to be treated as Douglass had been treated by liberal white people, as the testimony of a victim. Douglass, while in Ireland, could solidify what evidently he had been trying to argue prior to the publication of the Narrative: that slavery was a function of political oppression, and the resistance to it was consistent with global efforts to liberate the poor, the oppressed and the politically subjugated people of the world. The Narrative was part of a great nineteenth-century wave of similar confessional narratives that formed the arsenal to battle slavery, and was part of the long tradition of pamphleteering that would stand at the core of the American Revolution, for instance. The slave narrative would have its own history of value ranging from the persuasive Biblical epistle, Philemon, to the more recent work of Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative addressed to the British Parliament. Others would emerge, most of them presented as accounts composed by white people narrators as told to them by enslaved individuals. Douglass’s work was expected to join this march of accounts, and was clearly seen as a necessary adjunct to his own already quite impressive speaking circuit. Douglass, according to contemporaries, was, at the time, quite a fetching figure, a remarkable orator, and a man with a growing sense of his own authority. This volume ends with Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, and I believe this is a fitting way to consider the pre-Civil War Frederick Douglass. Seven years separate the two works (although given the nature of speechmaking by public figures, the seeds and perhaps whole swathes of the work may have long preceded the day normally associated with its first delivery) and these are significant years for Douglass. While they explore similar territory, the position of Douglass as a writer has either shifted, or has been allowed to be viewed through a different set of lenses. In many ways, the speech is a move towards the more political and strategic manner of his anti-slavery effort. Douglass, in other words, takes on the very political premise of America, and he challenges its most fundamental myth of existence, the formation, if you will, of the nation. He challenges it, and he dares to posit that July Fourth is not, for the African, what it is for the white man in America. Frederick Douglass, 1856. Quarter-plate ambrotype by an unknown photographer. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor) In the speech, Douglass offers one of the most eloquent articulations of the basic contradiction of American “freedom”—a fact that has preoccupied so many African Americans since the formation of this nation, and one that continues to preoccupy Black life today. It is the foundational thesis of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” for, rhetorically, that term implies that the value of Black lives in America is in doubt. As Douglass points out, the idea of universal suffrage, freedom, rights, and happiness at the core of the American ideal is never quite universal and has never been universal. He does not hold to the view that there is something sacred about the Fourth of July—essentially, the Constitution. Instead, he lays the foundation for the construction of a discourse of enfranchisement and entitlement for the African American, and it is this that would serve as the philosophical underpinning of his proposition and demand that African Americans fight with the Union during the Civil War. Douglass begins the speech in a manner we have come to expect as a rhetorical device of self-deprecation to laud the audience and downplay the ability of the speaker. He also exaggerates his experience as a speaker, describing the few schoolhouses where he has spoken. Douglass knows what he is doing. “Cling to this day—cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight”: It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands. Its rhetorical force lies in the most subtle, yet persuasive of devices—the function of voice, of person. Douglass is addressing his audience, and he employs the second person in a manner that seems natural and conventional, yet what becomes increasingly clear is that as he embarks on his subject his decision not to employ the first person plural—the patriotic “we”—represents the foundation of his radical articulation. Douglass, therefore, distances himself from this version of America not just as speaker, but as one who is disenfranchised, one who is not part of the narrative. It is not humility: it is chagrin and indignation. Thus, after presenting the heroic values of America and its founding fathers and their work and efforts, he shifts the voice by explicitly setting himself apart from those he is addressing, and by extension, those who represent the America that he is not part of. Suddenly, he introduces the first person plural, and it is not the “us” of America, but the “us” of the humble and unworthy “I” who has been speaking. This “I” is declaring that his plurality is a whole different set of people, and is the enslaved, the African American, the true “we” of his subject: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” From then on, the “you” and the “our” become clearly marked. The speech is now confrontational and settles into its most powerful rhetorical position: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.” Just as quickly, he asserts what his tribe is, and when he speaks of the first person singular, he is speaking of the first person plural; he is, then, speaking for a nation, a realized tribe of the suffering: the lashed, and the killed. It is a shift that has proved to be the hallmark of revolutionary speeches. When Bob Marley sings in “Babylon System”—We refuse to be what you wanted us to be We are what we are, that’s the way it’s going to be . . . We’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long,—the lines are drawn. And my inclination to allude to reggae music may be explained by my proximity to music as someone raised in Jamaica. Yet the connections would not be lost on anyone who has a small understanding of the history of slavery and resistance in the New World, and the role of the Jamaican in the shaping of a discourse of protest around that legacy, symbolized most clearly in the United States in the person of Marcus Garvey. Douglass makes it clear that the enslaved are on the side of the angels. His logic is searingly blunt, and he admits the absurdity of having to prove what is most obvious and understood. His anger arises from his view that he is not arguing a case that needs to be proven—the wrongness of slavery and the humanity of the negro—but that he is facing an adversary who is a hypocrite and who is morally bereft while pretending to a set of values that are lofty and right. He is, in other words, vexed by the very fact of this Fourth of July and all the celebration it engenders, while he and his people continue to be held as slaves: “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” This speech is incendiary and unabashedly so. It is confrontational in a manner that the Narrative does not rise to. Perhaps the striking difference between the speech and the Narrative is the matter of patronage and ownership. Set against the patronage of William Lloyd Garrison and Wen- dell Phillips, who both wrote prefatory pieces to the Narrative, Douglass seems to feel the burden of his responsibility to them, one that is jettisoned altogether by the time of his speech when he alone stands before the crowd, and allows himself to carry the weight of that responsibility. As a revolutionary, Douglass has arrived by 1852 at a point where he is willing to address the very foundation of American power—its political and judicial institutions, and its religious institutions. He is no longer interested in the slaveholder; he is more interested in the legislators, those who have continued to work hard to retain the infrastructure and economic possibilities of American Slavery, as he calls it. And so here, he stands in danger of sedition, and this is not a fanciful notion. This, in other words, is fighting talk: The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. His answer to the question, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is a searing diatribe, made most compelling by its unassailable moral argument, but made most startling by its temerity. I expect that even the most committed abolitionist would blanch at Douglass’s words: To him [the American slave], your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. In the end, it is clear that Douglass has fine-tuned his quarrel with America along very specific lines. The hypocrisy of the American nation is the central and most developed case that he makes, and it rests in the perpetuation of the “Internal Slave Trade,” supported and sustained, as he says, by “American politics and American religion” and viewed by these institutions as an honorable economic practice, while investing words and funds towards upbraiding the Atlantic slave trade. Douglass lays out all the core acts of American law, including the Fugitive Slave Law, that perpetuate this hypocrisy and inhumanity. Then he takes on American Christianity. This is a subject that consumes Douglass again and again. It is one that concerned him when he wrote his Narrative, and when he later reflected on what he had written there: But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. The speech ends “with hope”, he claims, but from this side of history, we know that the gloom that overshadows this hope and this faith in the change to come is marked by the incredible and bloody tragedy of the Civil War. Douglass presages the fact of it with language of forces that are at work to create this change, and in the fact that he knows that the ending of slavery will have to be by violent means and will require a seismic shift in the identity of the nation. The end of slavery was not driven by the acceptance of the humanity of the enslaved—not, at least, in the oratory of the leaders of the nation, and certainly not by Abraham Lincoln. Instead, it is Douglass’s words that would set the stage for the century that will follow. It’s impossible to read the original prefatory salvos to Douglass’s autobiography without sensing quickly the compelling circumstances surrounding the publication of the book and the very existence of this figure Douglass. There is little question that William Lloyd Garrison was a radical, a deeply committed abolitionist, and a man who dared to challenge the very legitimacy of the American government on the basis of its persistent engagement with slavery. Garrison takes credit for introducing Douglass to the world; he recognized his genius and he pushed him to become a professional lecturer. Yet what is absolutely clear is that behind this seeming generosity is a peculiar and striking pragmatism—the radical logic of a political risk-taker who is so complete in his belief in a cause that he will see only two kinds of people in the world—those who share his views and those who are his enemies and, by extension, enemies of his cause. The anti-slavery movement was an illegal cause pushing against the law of the land. He recruits Douglass because Douglass would be, he explains, a unique weapon. When he reports that Douglass is resistant, reasoning that he may cause more harm than good by being a fugitive slave and holding so high a profile, his agent and benefactor work hard to push him forward. The cause is greater than Douglass. At points, I’ve gotten the impression that the cause is greater than the liberation of the enslaved. The cause, instead, is what has crystallized into a doctrine, a creed, and this fundamental arguing, offered in the discourse of evangelical Christian thought and faith, rife with the presumptions of the inferiority of Africans, drives this man who is our introducer of Douglass. The logic is simple: slavery has been so pernicious that it has debased Africans so much so that they are morally, intellectually, socially, and spiritually bereft and inferior. He makes a point of the theory that, were white people subjected to slavery, they too would be as inferior as the Black man. Douglass constitutes an aberration of sorts, but one does not have the impression that Garrison considers Douglass an equal. The African, like Douglass, needs help and the first stage of this help is the ending of slavery. In the arsenal of the anti-slavery movement, Garrison has an acute understanding of the extraordinary power that Douglass constitutes. He is a Black man, he is a good-looking Black man, he is articulate and literate, he is still a fugitive, he had been for most of his life thus far a slave, he is willing to name names. This is a gold mine. Garrison goads the southern planters to challenge Douglass, to sue, even. He dares them to come forward and refute his story because he believes that they will, by responding to any of the fugitives’ claims, implicate themselves. After the flourish of the preacher man who appears to throw caution to the wind, it is Wendell Phillips who reminds us that the entire project, the book, the lecturing, the ferrying of Douglass across the northeastern US to speak up against slavery and the necessary rituals of protecting Douglass is, in a word, illegal—a crime. He allows us to see that those like him who have supported the cause are savvy people, fully aware of the idea of deniability and the mores of people working under the law. The conspiracy of the Supreme Court’s decision to not only allow slavery to stand but to make it a federal law to aid and abet an escaped slave made all implicated in doing so subject to persecution. This was the context. It is not strange then that one is at once impressed by the willingness of these two men to take risks and still by their patronizing posture are able to position themselves as the heroic figures in the drama. They also happily “own” Douglass as a voice. In other words, he will write his story for these very people. When Douglass publishes this book, his biography is no longer his. It is an argument, a symbolic position. Like Equiano, Douglass accepts that his story is a tool of doctrine. Douglass, like Equiano and a host of other witnesses and victims of slavery, frame the narrative construction of the African American in America for the next two centuries. The presumed value of their story is to affect some grander change, to defend the humanity of the Black persona, to demonstrate that they are also human, and to translate for the white world the inscrutable story of their existence. It is a peculiar American lineage that keeps repeating itself whether it is the story of Douglass, Bigger Thomas, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, or Will Smith. The construction of the Narrative is calculated to have the effect of a series of arguments against slavery. Douglass knows that he himself is functioning as the best argument because he is a witness, a principal in this grand drama. Each circumstance is the basis of an argument. The fact that he does not know his father, and that there is speculation that his father may be his master, presents Douglass with the opportunity to explore the ways of white slaveholders who coldly reproduce themselves by sleeping with enslaved women, and then subject them to abuse, to sale, and to the anger of their wives. The laws of slave states arise at various points in the Narrative to show how dire the circumstances facing the enslaved in America are rehearsed. He points, for instance, to the inordinate number of laws that sanction the lashing of the enslaved and the execution of the enslaved (in his speech, Douglass identifies in Virginia seventy-two infractions in the law that warrant the death sentence for the enslaved, and only two infractions for the death sentence for the white man). Douglass’s compelling case is that there is no justification for slavery in a civilized society. Yet, he is also acutely aware that the very act of writing and publishing his book constitutes an act of resistance, a crime. He is fighting back by his very existence, and he understands the risk he is taking. He fully appreciates that the core infrastructure of the slave system is to staunch resistance, but more than that, to build a bulwark predicated on violence, and the systemic construction of a violent society to stop the natural inclination of the enslaved towards seeking some kind of redress. And the acts of this society, which he details in this work, are ingenious, devious, and cynical. Even something as seemingly humane as the holiday for the slave is designed to be part of this elaborate system and to cause damage to the slave. The planters understand that the partying between Christmas and New Year is a great killer of resistance and rebellion. The slaveholders like to keep the slaves drunk, make them glad for this holiday and will do everything to make the slave drink to excess. The angry slave was made drunk. “Be slaves to man as to rum.” The games of brutality are quite remarkable. For Douglass, studying the deceptive ways of the master allows him to carry a sense of superiority even in the midst of his suffering. The slaveholder is always finding a way to make every moment for the enslaved be one of choicelessness, or a choice between two decidedly unhealthy options. Douglass begins the Narrative with a somewhat subdued assessment of what he describes as the Southern religion, but it is clear that he is suppressing a significant chagrin, for eventually, in chapter ten, he explodes into his most extensive diatribe against the hypocrisy of Christian believers who are slaveholders. This is one of the most remarkable passages in the work, for it drives deeply into the heart of white American ideals. For Douglass, the core characteristic of the slaveholder and the slave-holding class of white people is hypocrisy. This notion is critical to his larger thesis. Hypocrisy is not predicated on the lack of knowledge but, on the contrary, on the availability of knowledge and understanding, and the willful act of subterfuge and pretense that knowingly uses the guise of Christianity to justify the inhumane treatment of African people. He states that of all the slaveholders he ever encountered, the worst were those who claimed to be and were accepted as the paragons of their Christian faith. They were reverends, preachers, pastors and church leaders of great standing. And they were debauched in their attitudes to slaves and slavery, driven fully by greed and by moral terpitude. Tellingly, while there is the prevailing perception that the main sect responsible for this hypocrisy in the south was the Baptist, in Douglass’s account it is the evangelical Methodists, at the time, quite radical in their revival sensibility, who dominate this narrative. This may be a regional distinction, but in Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, Douglass references Methodists. He would have known that it was Methodist converts driving the abolitionist movement in Britain, and so his disappointment in the Methodists of the south is acute. Douglass’s analysis of religion and slavery is damning and brilliant. For him, the very civilization of white America, predicated on the notion of Christian faith, was at best a grand demonstration of hypocrisy, or at worst, a philosophical failure of the most profound type. His view was that Christianity, rather than tempering or even softening the impact of slavery, in fact strengthened the institution and all its brutality. This power would continue well into the twentieth century, and still haunts the discourse around faith and morality and race today. Douglass then turns his attention to making a case for the humanity of the Black man, and discusses the internal life of the slave with a very brilliantly detailed account of the psychology of melancholy and despair. He makes clear that the dehumanizing of the Black person through stratagems of brutality constitutes the diabolical force of slave society and its function. Douglass reminds us again and again that whenever he was made busy, too fatigued by the labor to find food, unable to think, to feel, even, he lost interest in fighting for his freedom. And whenever he was well-cared for, whenever he was fed, whenever he had rest, then what he desired was not to be thankful to his master, but to be free. In this sense, Douglass was confirming the views of the enslaver. But he also points out that it is feeling, love and affection and the desire to stay close to family that made some slaves reluctant to flee. For Douglass, the impulse to freedom is innate—it is part of what makes humans human. The enslaved person who remains in slavery is an aberration, and is someone who has been broken into this state. Perhaps the most striking articulation of this remarkable document happens to arrive as an addendum—a corrective to what he feared might have been a misapprehension of his attitude to faith. He rightly discerned that readers would have picked up over the course of the Narrative an unabashed apathy towards religion. Douglass made it clear—he preferred a non-religious slave master to a Christian one, the latter being brutal, violent, vile, hypocritical and self-righteous in their unrighteousness. Rather than modifying and even softening this perception, Douglass devotes the entire appendix to double-down on his criticism. He makes it clear that he is speaking of American Christianity. He makes it clear that he is not selective about the sects and denominations. White American Christianity, whether in the south or the north, is corrupt, debased, and more perfectly associated with the religion of the Pharisees and the Sadducees than with the pure religion of Christ. With ruthless but brilliant rhetorical aplomb, he lays the case out. It is a tour de force of preaching. It is a jeremiad that implicates the very foundation of American racism. And what is most arresting is how it all seems to ring true today. Douglass remains relevant in the twenty-first century because of his ideas and also because of the manner of his impact on the nineteenth-century American imagination. One has little reason to doubt the scholarly claims that he was the most photographed person of that century given the vast number of portraits of him that remain available to us. This fact would be one thing, but there is also clear indication that he was calculated about being photographed because he understood that the photograph was a weapon for his work. He understood himself to have a striking visage, was aware of his photogenic look, and he would make complete sense in our present culture where the image constitutes a significant power in the construction of success and influence. It is not difficult to extrapolate that Douglass would embrace and make full use of viral culture were he alive today. Yet there is more to this phenomenon. At the core of Douglass’s entire rhetorical position is the case for the humanity of the negro. In speech after speech and in his writings, Douglass would ask the question, “Am I not a man?” The face shown is in contradiction to the caricatures, the cartoons, the mocking buffoonery of minstrelsy Douglass knew that he was defying by each moment of his presence in a photograph. The photographs were the evidence of his manhood, his humanity, and his ubiquitous presence in the imagination of the white world. Yet, built into Douglass’s trading in his look is a certain less-explored question of the notion of beauty as it intersects with race in America. Douglass’s mixed-race heritage and accessible beauty was also being traded in these images, a way to symbolize his acceptability as a human being. Think of the ways in which Barack Obama’s heritage and his position as a mixed-race individual complicated his appeal, allowing white America to feel a certain ownership of him. Before Obama, the face and person of Bob Marley was employed in a similar manner especially after his death when his white biographers created a myth of his otherness from Blackness and his latent whiteness as part of his appeal, and part of the justification of their ownership of him, despite his clear anti-white rhetoric. The face of Douglass, the image, as it were, of Douglass, captured in these viral photos, cannot be separated from any understanding of who he was and what he would come to represent in America. Yet, Douglass was not only speaking to white people with his photographs. He was also taking hold of his Blackness—his belonging as an African. His features draw attention to this seeming ambiguity—making him at once a comforting figure to whites, as well as a clear figure of Black masculinity to the Black population. One need not overstate the fetishization of race that is directly tied to his photo-narrative. These images, reproduced in newspapers, magazines, postcards, and posters, traveled further than Douglass himself could. In this sense, Douglass became a haunting. There is an audaciousness to this use of his image. During the years when the Fugitive Slave Law was still the law of the land, he was constantly in danger both as a fugitive and as a man speaking against the forces that sought to protect the economy and ethics of slavery. He was never anonymous and risked a great deal by being known, being seen. In his calculation, this was a price he would be willing to pay. Yet, if one understands these portraits to constitute symbols of success, of wealth, of respectability and of power, it does make a great deal of sense that he would encourage their propagation. He sat for over 160 portraits. These were not snapshots. These were orchestrated and calculated events, and Douglass mobilized his image as a weapon, as an affront to white supremacy. This new edition of the Narrative, sadly, is timely. The circumstances of our time, and the persistence of the effects of American slavery, and the struggle for the equality of people of African descent in the United States and around the world, make this work still relevant today. It offers a challenge to the United States and other nations, and to the principles that undergird current efforts to address the effects of the brutal legacy of slavery. It is important to note that Douglass was faced with the very same context of America’s idea of itself both in his Narrative and his speech. And this America is essentially one defined by the idea of whiteness, and one then that enshrines the core values of freedom from tyranny, the nobility of the founding fathers and their ideas, the principle of a Christian nation, and the condition of Africans in America. Whether he intended to or not, then-president Donald Trump’s comment on Frederick Douglass, framed in language that would suggest that he believed Douglass was still living and doing his work, constitutes one of those accidental instances of value that warrant some note: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” __________________________________ The Folio Society edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, introduced by Kwame Dawes, is exclusively available from foliosociety.com View the full article
  7. Yesterday
  8. Fake Fake by Kylie Scott is 99c! Elyse read this one and gave it a B-: Some readers will likely find Fake to be too under developed for them, and some, like me, will find it works just fine. It gave me a happy, angst free reading experience I enjoyed. Just know, your mileage may vary. The newest romance from New York Times bestselling, Audie Award winning author Kylie Scott! He walks the red carpet. She’s more familiar with vacuuming one. When a scandal tarnishes the reputation of hot as hell A-lister, Patrick Walsh, he needs a reputation rescue, pronto. Enter waitress Norah Peers–a nobody who’s average with a capital A. She’s available, dependable, and has sworn off men for the rest of her natural born life. In other words: the perfect match for a no-strings fake romance. For the right amount of money, she can avoid waitressing and play the part of his dependable down-to-earth girlfriend. What she can’t avoid–dammit–is the growing steam between them. But being hounded by the paparazzi and having her life dissected on social media is a panic attack in the making. And while Patrick might be a charming rogue on screen, in real life he’s a six-foot-two confusing, gorgeous, brooding grump, who keeps her at a distance . . . but also makes her feel like this bond between them might be more than just an act. Being dumped on cue should be no big deal. Except being fake with Patrick is the realist relationship Norah has ever had. What’s a girl to do, but flip the script, and ask for a re-match made in Hollywood? Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. The Scot Beds His Wife The Scot Beds His Wife by Kerrigan Byrne is $2.99! This is the fifth book in the Victorian Rebels series and Elyse was really excited for this one in a previous Hide Your Wallet. Some readers warn that the writing is over the top, while others recommend Byrne if you need a crazysauce fix. The Scot Beds His Wife is the next lush, captivating Victorian romance in the Victorian Rebels series by Kerrigan Byrne. They’re rebels, scoundrels, and blackguards—dark, dashing men on the wrong side of the law. But for the women who love them, a hint of danger only makes the heart beat faster. Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants—including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him…more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity… A marriage most convenient Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry—and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own… Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. A Gentleman Says “I Do” A Gentleman Says “I Do” by Amelia Grey is $1.99! This is a historical romance with a heroine posing as her writer father when he skips town. It’s also the fifth book in The Rogues’ Dynasty series. Some readers complained that the book was slow and a bit boring, while others loved the book’s secondary characters. Iverson Brentwood has finally met his match. Catalina Crisp heats his blood like no other lady. Her alluring countenance has stopped him dead in his tracks. But no matter how attracted he is to her, he can’t give into his desire to possess her in every way…she is the daughter of the man he’s sworn to destroy. Catalina’s father is a well-known writer, but wastrel whose disappearances continuously put them close to destitution. Something drastic must change, so it is with quill in hand, that Catalina completes her father’s latest parody of Iverson and Matson Brentwood’s spectacular arrival in London. When the story hits the newsprint, a darkly handsome man is at her door, looking for her father. Seeing the dashing rogue in the flesh, for a bewildering moment dallying with the rake seems like the perfect fictional escape—and it’s all she can do not to give into the madness of the intriguing man. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. Rise of the Rocket Girls Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt is $2.99! Readers say this book is a great companion to Hidden Figures and that they loved the author’s writing. However, if you’re buying the ebook, the images featured aren’t of the greatest quality (unless some edits have been made last time we featured this one on sale). The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space. In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn’t turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible. For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women–known as “human computers”–who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we’ve been, and the far reaches of space to which we’re heading. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. View the full article
  9. Amélie Wen Zhao(赵雯)was born in Paris and grew up in Beijing, where she spent her days reenacting tales of legendary heroes, ancient kingdoms, and lost magic at her grandmother’s courtyard house. She attended college in the United States and now resides in New York City, working as a finance professional by day and fantasy author by night. In her spare time, she loves to travel with her family in China, where she’s determined to walk the rivers and lakes of old just like the practitioners in her novels do. Amélie is the New York Times bestselling author of the Song of Silver, Flame Like Night duology and the Blood Heir trilogy. Welcome back to the Hive, Amélie! Congratulations on the release of the first book of your new duology – what can readers expect from Song of Silver, Flame Like Night? Thank you, so great to be back! In Song of Silver, Flame Like Night, I think readers can expect something old and something new (and actually, now that I’m on this, there is also something borrowed, something blue). Those who have followed me from the Blood Heir trilogy will find so many of the tropes they love: slow-burn romance, morally gray characters who make morally gray choices, fast-paced action and beautiful, lush magic worlds. At the same time, Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is set in a completely new world and new culture: it is me taking my Chinese identity and heritage and just expanding it into a full-blown world of martial arts magic and scholarly temples tucked between lush pine forests and mountains that reach to the clouds. Song “borrows” heavily from Chinese history, philosophy, mythology, and culture. I think of this work as both a love letter to my people as well as a reflection and examination of the turmoils we have been through, and a celebration of the persistence of our spirit. And finally, something blue: I just have to gush about the gorgeous covers (both UK and US) that nailed the story in very different interpretations. I can’t wait for readers to fall into the world. Your world is inspired by Chinese mythology and folklore, and echoes the colonisation of China by Britain. What made you want to tell that particular story? Among my fondest memories of growing up in Beijing were the days I spent with my grandmother in her sìhéyuàn (traditional Chinese courtyard house), perched beneath the old jujube tree and listening to stories from her past. My grandmother (and actually, all of my grandparents) grew up during some of China’s most turbulent times: she fled her home as a child to escape Japanese invasion and natural disasters, and saw her country go through massive political changes. To add, my husband is from Hong Kong, which was one of the first territories ceded to the British as part of the Opium Wars and the Unfair Treaties where parts of China were cut up and handed to western powers like a pie. We’ve had many conversations on his home’s colonial history and what it means to us, and that cemented my desire to explore the impacts of colonialism and imperialism on a people and their heritage. I’ve realized from a very young age, since the days beneath my grandmother’s jujube tree, that the histories we read about in textbooks aren’t so distant from us after all: they live and breathe in us, passed on to us by those who lived through them, and they are a part of our legacy. I wanted to tell these stories – and these histories – to honor the memory of my grandparents, my family, my people, and all those who came before them. To come back to the mythology and folklore, what particular stories inspired Song of Silver, Flame Like Night? Which is your personal favourite? Song of Silver, Flame Like Night features a number of our myths and folklore: so many creatures of our Classic of Mountains and Seas (the ancient book chronicling many mythological beasts and beings across China) appear in Song. As well, the Four Auspicious Beasts of Chinese mythology, which, in my version, are no longer auspicious but rather, self-serving, power-hungry, and chaotic. Though… I think my favorite myth woven into Song is one of romance: Lan often mentions a “red thread of fate” connecting her and Zen. This comes from a Chinese myth that there is a red thread connecting lovers destined for each other. We need to talk about the incredible magic systems in Song of Silver, Flame Like Night. The Hin use qi and Seals, whereas the Elantians use metallurgy. Each magic system is a strong reflection of the people who practise it; what were your aims here? The two branches of magic are actually distantly related: while Hin practitioners are able to draw qì (magical energy or life force) from anything and everything around them, the Elantians are only able to wield the energy of metals, and have developed a much more scientific and systematic method of using the metals. The two magic systems are meant to denote the philosophies of each group. The Hin approach is meant to be one of balance, of harmony with nature, and of using their magic to protect and nurture – that is, until greedy Hin practitioners and imperial rulers came along and began hoarding power for self-serving needs. In contrast, Elantian metalwork is a much more incisive and calculated system: the Elantian have studied it like a science and refined it with the goal of militarizing and weaponizing it. Metal tends to represent industry and war, so I thought that was both a clever and rather on-the-nose reference. Tell us more about your protagonists Lan and Zen? They don’t meet under particularly auspicious circumstances! Lan and Zen have my whole heart, and I had so much fun with this grumpy-sunshine, street rat-scholar duo. Writing them was like peeling back layers of an onion: both present as confident and self-assured at first, but as we get to know them, we start to see the emotional burdens and traumas of their pasts that they tend to hide from the world. And writing them together was like taking off layers and layers of armor … and having them fall in love with the person inside. Without spoiling anything, Lan and Zen also illustrate the theme of how life isn’t just black and white, and how sometimes there might not be a “right” choice in certain circumstances. They each have a great number of secrets and carry some serious trauma. How important is representing these issues for teens and young adults to you? Teens and young adults have so much they’re working through, and there is so much nuance to their thoughts and identity: as a teen, I recall I was trying to understand the world as it is while finding my own identity and how I fit in it. I think one of the factors that differentiates young adult literature from adult literature is that there tends to be more of an element of hope in the YA age category. I always go into writing my books and my characters with realistic situations and grief, yes – but I always write these characters with heart and hope. The world may be dark at times, but my characters never stop searching for those fragments of light. The US and UK covers are gorgeous – I have the UK edition, and it’s what made me reach out and request an arc! Were you pleased with how they portrayed the four demon gods? Both covers are completely stunning, and I am indebted to the artists Diamonster (UK) and Sija Hong (US). They portray the story and themes in very different ways, and I honestly couldn’t be more thrilled with how the artists interpreted the book. Both have a deep understanding of Chinese culture, and I think it truly shows in how they rendered the covers! Your previous trilogy, Blood Heir, is quite different! How did you find the writing process, moving away from that world and the characters you knew so well? I think my two series are ostensibly very different because of the aesthetics and cultures, but if you take a look at their hearts, they carry the ingredients that make my books, well, my books: immersive worlds and magic systems, fast-paced action, conflicted characters, and themes on politics, destinies, and choices. That said, moving to a different world or even a different character always requires an adjustment period. I think of it as breaking in new shoes: I need to walk a few miles in them before I’m completely comfortable with them. At first, writing a new world and new characters can feel slightly forced compared to writing the cast and world of Blood Heir (who’ve been with me for the past seven years!). But as I write, certain elements of the world start setting in, and the characters’ voices and personalities come naturally to me like they’re friends I’ve gotten to know (except they live in my head). The wonderful thing is that when I go back to the books I’ve written, the characters and worlds are always there like old friends, ready to greet me. Can you tell us anything about book two of Song of the Last Kingdom? What can we expect? I’m very excited for readers to continue Lan and Zen’s stories, and also a little nervous because of what I’m putting them through. Expect starcrossed angst, diverging and conflicting choices, shock reveals, and to fall deeper into lush realms of mythology and magic in this world that weren’t previously explored in book one. I can’t wait. And finally, do you have anything in the pipeline for after the Last Kingdom? What’s next for Amélie Wen Zhao? I’ve been so busy with revisions for book two of this series, I haven’t let myself truly dream about my next project because I’ll get too excited and want to immediately begin writing it! Just thinking about it gives me the butterflies: it’s also a world of Chinese mythology and folklore, and epic and romantic with all the classic xiānxiá C-drama vibes. Think peach blossom petals, palaces of jade and stone, flying swordsmen, goddesses hiding secrets, and star-crossed loves. Song of Silver, Flame Like Night is out now in the US (order here) and is out 2nd Feb in the UK (order here) The post Interview with Amelie Wen Zhao (SONG OF SILVER, FLAME LIKE NIGHT) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  10. Belted Galloway. Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CCO 2.0. The other day we went to Albany so I could return all eight items I had bought online from Athleta. The store was in a giant mall that smelled tragically of Cinnabons. The Cinnabons reminded me of the TV series Better Call Saul, which is set in part in a Cinnabon shop, and the way Saul Goodman was unable to resist pulling a con. He missed his old life. Jail was preferable to feeling unknown to himself. The clothes in the store were made of fabrics that were “what is this?” and “no.” And there were mirrors, unlike in our house. Richard said, “Let’s go to the Banana.” He wanted a cashmere sweater. There were two he looked great in, and it made me so happy for someone to look good in clothes I said, “Buy both.” He said, “I don’t deserve them.” I said, “No one deserves anything. You are beautiful. Beauty is its own whatever.” One of the sweaters had a soft hoodie thing, and Richard liked walking around in the house in it. The hood came down a little low. I said, “You’re getting a seven dwarfs thing happening with the hood.” He pulled it back a little, and it was perfect. The next day on our walk, he wore the hoodie over a cap covering his ears. When we recited three things in the moment we loved, he said, “I’m glad we’re walking, although I’m against it.” I said, “Why are you against it?” He said, “It’s too cold.” It was during the Arctic cyclone, and I was wearing my down coat from the eighties. The shoulder pads are out to Mars, and Richard said, “Everyone on Warren Street thinks you’ve been released from an alien abduction after thirty years. They are wondering why you were released.” I said, “Why was I released?” He said, “They couldn’t get anything useful from you about earthlings. It was a total waste of their time.” I bought a giant wheel of focaccia with salt and olives from a bakery. The grease was soaking through the bag when I got outside. I tore off a hunk. Richard said, “Are you going to eat all that?” I said, “It tastes like a crispy pretzel from Central Park,” and I could see I was missing my old life. The way we live, there are cows outside our windows that belong to Abby Rockefeller. Abby Rockefeller has built a dairy farm down the road where a piece of cheese is either pay this or your mortgage. Richard took a bite of the focaccia. It still took forever to get through the hunk I’d torn off, and my hands froze. I said, “My fingers could break off like one of those corpses holding a clue to their murder.” Earlier in the day, we’d installed two bookcases in the basement. Richard was arranging the books in alphabetical order. At one time, in New York, the books had been in alphabetical order and every morning I’d walked on Broadway, looking for free samples from the food markets. COVID ended the era of free samples, and now I buy things to eat on Warren Street. The other day I went into a new café. Sun glared from the smile of the woman behind the counter when she said, “All the pastries are gluten-free and vegan.” I wondered if there was something about me that made her happy to announce this or if it had become a cultural commonplace like using the word bandwidth to mean mental space. I said, “I welcome gluten, and I’m not vegan.” She swore I wouldn’t know the difference, and even though I knew she would be wrong, I bought a slice of gluten-free vegan lemon pound cake, which lacked all the ingredients of pound cake. It’s in a bag on the kitchen counter. You can have it. How we got the bookcases is the mother of a man on Facebook Marketplace had died, and he was clearing out her house. The cases were taller and heavier than reported. Richard wanted me to understand the logistics required to stand up each bookcase and edge it against a wall. He kept saying, “Don’t you see it has to go this way and then that way. Don’t you see it won’t fit from that angle?” I kept saying, “No, I don’t understand, and it thrills me to tell you I will never need to understand, as long as we stick it out together.” Recently, he found an early book by Louisa May Alcott in one of the free bins on Warren Street. This morning he said, “We didn’t read American literature in school.” (He’s from England.) “Maybe a poem by Longfellow and Moby-Dick.” I said, “Moby-Dick is not chopped liver.” Then I thought that was unfair to chopped liver. If you tasted my chopped liver, you wouldn’t call it “chopped liver.” I told him about a dream. If I were you, I would save myself and move on from this section. In the dream, we live in a château, and I’m talking to the woman who owns it. First she wants me to take her change and give her dollar bills. Fine. Then there is an enormous platter of lobsterlike creatures. It’s enormous. She holds up one of the creatures, and at first I don’t realize it’s alive. Alive and sluggish. I see the lobsters moving in a jumble on the platter, and I’m horrified for them, for me, for existence as we know it. Why are there lobsters that aren’t quite lobsters!! Why are they so huge!! Then I’m digging in a flower bed, and I think, Ah, it’s time to get the dahlia tubers from the basement. Don’t forget to plant the dahlias. Richard said, “The lobsters are from the zombie apocalypse show we watched with the fungus.” I thought, Yes, and I could see my mind had infinite bandwidth for any old crap fed to it. A few nights ago, we watched a conversation with Mike Nichols filmed during his last days. He looks emaciated and speaks with his usual clarity and animation. Intercut with the conversation are scenes from some of his films. In one sequence from The Graduate, the camera shoots Dustin Hoffman in his convertible on a California freeway, racing to his future, racing to chaos from a death-in-life torpor—not unlike Saul Goodman fleeing the Cinnabon shop for a life of crime. The camera stays on Dustin’s look of determination, and then it moves to the scenery on his left as he’s racing along, it moves to trees and sky over his shoulder, and then, finally it shoots the road ahead—a tangle of beams and signs and other cars he is driving toward. And I thought that movement of the camera, that layering of shots and the thoughts those shots arouse in the moment and in memory, is exactly what to do with sentences to form a paragraph. If there were a point to life, the point would be pleasure. I knew a man, an Italian communist, who liked to say, raising a glass of champagne and nibbling a blini with caviar, “Nothing’s too good for the working class.” Kafka’s Hunger Artist explains to the overseer at the end of the story he’s not a saint, nor is he devoted to art or sacrifice. He’s just a picky eater. “I have to fast. I can’t help it … I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” I once promised a man who was touchy about his privacy I would keep his secrets, and I kept his secrets. Otherwise I have made few promises, and I have never made a resolution. Today Richard was grumpier than me, and it made me so happy I was nice the whole time we walked. I love my phone. I love the first sip of a cocktail when the elevator drops. There is a woman I don’t love and can’t stop thinking about. I love that I will never understand my connection to her. There is a kind of vulnerability that makes me feel my whole life is stretched out in front of me. In a way, it is. Laurie Stone is the author of six books, most recently Streaming Now, Postcards from the Thing that is Happening (Dottir Press), which has been long listed for the PEN America Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She writes the “Streaming Now” column for Liber a Feminist Review, and she writes the Everything is Personal substack. View the full article
  11. David Buisán Rivers of London: Deadly Ever After Created by – Ben Aaronovitch Written by – Celeste Bronfman Script Edited by – Andrew Cartmel Pencils by -José María Beroy Inks by – David Cabeza Colours by – Jordi Escuin Llorach Letters by – Jim Campbell Edited by – David Leach You might be surprised to hear that I have never read Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. I know! You’d think it would be right up my street. But, as with a number of fantastic series out there, I have the book: I just haven’t read it yet. So, when Will from Titan Comics asked if I was interested in the latest graphic novel from series, I thought it would be a great way of glimpsing what all the fuss is about. It’s certainly whetted my appetite for more! Rivers of London: Deadly Ever After follows Olympia and Chelsea, daughters of the river goddess Mama Thames, as they discover just how much harder messes are to clean up than make. Peter and Nightingale aren’t on hand to help out, so when they unwittingly break an enchantment and release a bitter and resentful 19th century artist from his entrapment by nymphs, they have to untangle the ensuing fairy tale muddle themselves. Right at the start, we’re treated to a beautiful map of the Thames illustrating how the book series and the graphic novels fit together. It’s super helpful, and apparently although each stands alone, they are all “essential parts of the saga”. This is one thing I will forewarn, that although I was able to enjoy the story and take the characters for who they were as it was, I did get the sense that a number of things might have landed better had I read the rest of the series first. There’s a lack of exposition which points towards the assumption that the reader has prior knowledge. As I said, this didn’t hamper my reading, I just think fans of the series will get more out of this than newcomers like me. Despite that, I did enjoy the story. A friendly get together for a BBQ in the woods goes awry when members of the group start acting out fairy tales; the vegan suddenly turns big bad wolf, the actor playing a prince on stage gives up his role to focus on his new love of amphibians, and Snow White falls into a coma after her step-mother hands her an apple… I’m a huge fan of fairy tales, and I love reading stories that bring them into the modern world. It was great fun (for me, not the characters, as it transpires) finding out who was going to end up in which tale next. As much as they’d love to bury their noses in their phones and absolve themselves of guilt, twins Olympia and Chelsea figure they probably have a moral obligation to get to the bottom of why these fairy tales are coming to life. I had the impression that these are perhaps side characters in previous books who have been given the opportunity to shine here, and it was lovely to getting to know them. They were a great mix of the aloofness you’d expect from the divine, with the need to prove oneself to your ‘betters’ of your average teenage. Olympia and Chelsea were great protagonists, but my favourite characters were a pair of talking foxes. Because obviously. It’s talking animals. They’re always going to be my favourite. Deadly Ever After is a great mix of fairy tale, magical action, humour, and even a little horror – Jeter, our victim turned unwitting villain had a really tough time of it and came across as quite creepy! He had a eyes-glowing-with-obsession vibe, but it was also easy to sympathise with the great-grandad trying to make up for lost time and look out for his great-granddaughter. Kind of. Mostly. The artwork was certainly affective in conveying those moments of horror, focusing in on expressions to bring us closer to the emotion of the character. I loved the Arthur Rackham-like nymphs and sprites featured on Buisán’s cover above, immediately giving the impression that any fae that may turn up will not be the friendly kind. All in all, this was a fun romp with plenty of exciting supernatural action in the world of Rivers of London; a great taster for anyone new to the series with its self-contained story, but also bound to be a great deal of fun for fans who will appreciate the cameos. Rivers of London: Deadly Ever After is available now from Titan Comics. You can order your copy HERE The post RIVERS OF LONDON: DEADLY EVER AFTER by Aaronovitch, Cartmel & Bronfman (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  12. Here’s what I Iike the least about superhero movies: In order for the hero to be affirmed as heroic, and for justice to prevail and the plot to resolve, in the end there must be a fight. Not just any fight, mind you, but a gigantic, loud and massively destructive battle. You’re not truly a hero until you prove it, not with weapons but with your fists. (Or perhaps energy bolts shooting from your upraised palms.) That’s what a hero is. Violent. A fighter. Same goes for female superheroes. Is that what it takes to elevate a mere protagonist or main character to the level of hero? Is that what makes heroes super? No fists, no hero? I’ve posted in this space before about writing heroes and heroines. There’s a lot to say about that. My thought on that topic today began with Porter Anderson’s recent post “Another Diversity”, a look at Richard V. Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It. Reeves’s book bemoans the condition of men today. The post occasioned a slew of richly deserved, sneering, oh-boo-hoo comments from women, no wonder. However, it was Keith Cronin’s string of impatient (with men) comments that started me thinking. He wrote, “It’s time for boys to try harder and become better men” and “It’s time for them to find out what it REALLY means to ‘man up.’” I immediately pumped my fist in the air, but then began to consider why our first idea of what it means to become a man is that it must be hard and can only happen with supreme effort. Questions occurred to me. In story construction, to become a hero must the hero necessarily start out as a louse? Certainly, change is inspiring but when we wish to make a male character a hero, does that mean that being male is being, de facto, flawed, or that the status of hero cannot be awarded without some kind of personal correction? More broadly, is heroism never innate and only earned? Further questions. In another way, is being a hero always about exhibiting the qualities traditionally associated with manliness: toughness, stoicism, action? Is the only way to become a hero to go through a physical test, to fail, to be humbled, to face oneself squarely, and finally succeed? What are a hero’s qualities, but more importantly what are a hero’s values? To be sure, we can ponder similar questions in constructing heroines. We can face the same presumptions that underlie our idea of what a heroine is or how she gets there. In creating characters, we are subject to our cultural biases and swayed by literary traditions, no way around it, but I think it’s important that we can look critically and deeper into what raises characters to the highest status. The Making of a Hero A hero or heroine is someone with whom we don’t just identify, it’s someone for whom we cheer. Heroes and heroines inspire us. That’s their function. That’s why they have long been part of literature, and not just popular fiction but enduring classics. It’s how dark and tragic characters sometimes become iconic: not because they are suffering and supine but because they are struggling and seeking. The very act of trying is heroic all by itself, and not only when there are impossible odds. Trying is the action part. The hidden component is the value which a heroic character stands for, defends or discovers. Put those two things together—a high value and the action that demonstrates it—and you have the recipe for creating heroism. It can be an innate quality or it can be earned but either way it is something that primarily exists not on the page but in the minds and hearts of readers. So, here’s my point: Heroism isn’t an action, nor a value, but rather a feeling stirred in the observer, and we can capture that feeling in one simple word: admiration. Now, there may be a small number of readers out there who admire men who hit on women in elevators, tell racist jokes, don’t leave tips, and cheat to get rich. There may be readers out there who cheer for women who whine, manipulate men, make unreasonable demands, and belittle saleswomen behind cosmetics counters. We’re not talking about outlaws, rogues or bad asses—or even our newly admirable “bitches”—we’re talking about plain old crummy human beings. You don’t have to worry about them. What you do want are for the decent human beings, who are the vast majority, to cheer for your main character as they read. Practical Heroes To make that a practical reality, I’ve created a list of qualities and values that heroic characters can exhibit. My suggestion is to select any one thing from the list below and find one way for your protagonist to enact it. Since I started out thinking about men, I have fashioned this list for male characters (borrowing a rhetorical device from Keith Cronin) but it might also apply to female or other-gendered characters. This list is highly personal but I hope suggestive. Here goes: A real hero knows to quit when anyone is getting hurt. For a wronged hero, an apology is good enough. Restoring right is then up to both parties. For a real hero, no game is zero sum. When a real hero wins, everyone wins with him. A real hero can be strong, and can also think, sing, dance and laugh. A real hero may usually be right yet never assumes that others are wrong. A real hero sees value in everyone. A real hero knows that there’s a difference between fighting for what’s right and fighting to prove that you are tough. He also knows that there’s more than one kind of fight. A real hero understands the difference between leading and conquering. He leans on his whole team. A real hero is loyal but not when that loyalty isn’t deserved. A romantic hero makes the object of his affection feel safe. A Romeo only fakes it. A real hero treats women with respect. In fact, he treats everyone that way. A real hero isn’t afraid to dress well, appreciate a poem, pay a compliment, show courtesy, express concern, or grieve the losses of others. A real hero likes fine things but fine people even more. A real hero stays clean, and not just by taking showers. A real hero is honest with himself. He knows his temptations. He may not always get it right, but at the end of the day he does. A real hero knows that courage means standing up for what is right, but also admitting what is wrong. A real hero makes sure that accumulating wealth makes others richer too. A real hero packs light, especially when the upcoming challenge is heavy. A real hero tests himself, holds himself to high standards, and encourages others when they fall short. A real hero is true to himself, but also allows himself to change. A real hero speaks up, sees far, leads by example, and never gives up. I think we could use more heroes in our fiction, don’t you? Heck, we could use more in our world. As I said, my list of what stirs admiration is a personal one. Feel free to add to it. Make your own list. Whatever heroism is for you, your current novel is the place to demonstrate it. When you do, we won’t devalue your writing. We’ll cheer. How are you making your protagonist a hero or heroine? Who are some of your favorites in the works of others? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  13. I'm excited to interview the two creators of the Sit & Write Course: Kate Brenton and Claudine Wolk. Their Sit & Write course is perfect for you if you have a book inside of you, but you don't know how or where to start. Kate Brenton, Ed.M., published author and inspirational teacher, will help you work through the structure and cadence of your story, refine your voice, and reach your audience. Kate has an uncanny knack of intuitively following a thread and unearthing resistance that clouds a writer’s voice. Writers will receive monthly calls (60 minutes worth) with Kate to review material, work through voice, or another writer-selected topic on the creative process. Meanwhile, Claudine Wolk, published author and book marketing muse, will help you to identify your book’s message, audience, and hook - the building blocks to determine the viability and focus of your book idea and later marketing materials. You will receive 2 sixty-minute-one-on-one calls with Claudine to flesh out your book idea and get your questions answered on good publishing practices. Claudine will also teach on the art of pitching your book (because it is an art and practice is key!). Wondering if it's right for you? Schedule a FREE intake call with Kate Brenton to make sure of the right fit before the class starts. ---- Interview by Nicole Pyles WOW: I'm so glad to have you back again to discuss your Sit & Write course. Can you tell us a bit more about it and what people can expect by joining in? Sit & Write: We get writers writing. The inspiration to write needs to be met with a plan to carry it out. Many writers in Sit & Write felt heard in their intentionality and seen in their mission. This clarity allowed a very tight knit group to form, while focusing efforts on creation and completion. Sit & Write is a magical mix of inspiration and form. We create a space for accountability and commitment that allows you to show up and write, without feeling alone. One really helpful step is that we teach writer’s how to separate their writer’s intention from their project’s intention. From there we guide them into creating a Writer’s Agenda. Now they have a self-directed plan for creating content that they can follow. It builds confidence and determination, a beautiful thing to witness. WOW: I love how you lay out a logical side with the creative approach. So, you start out with a phone call to find out if this course is right for someone. Why do you take that approach? Sit & Write: Writing is deeply personal and if we are not a resonant fit to what your needs are it’s not going to work. Writing is fun, but it is also a lot of work. You want to do that with someone you feel really comfortable with. If we feel a resonance, then it takes the process to a whole other level. I had writers say to me, “What is it about these calls that are so inspiring?” I like to think it was creatives who felt safe enough to be themselves and work from there. Talking for a few minutes on zoom call is a really easy way for you to know if this is the space for you to commit to. We work with mission-led writers. Writers who know they are being called to write (no matter if it is fiction, memoir or a cookbook). In our intake call you get to share your mission. We get to share how Sit & Write can be a good fit and away we go. What is also really cool, is even if I told writers this wasn’t the right time—everyone came off the intake call with insight and inspiration. It’s a win-win. WOW: That's so amazing you do that and I'm sure it gives people a confident feeling before they begin the course, knowing it's right for them! What kind of authors (or projects) are ideal for the Sit & Write course? Sit & Write: Anyone who is committed to their own creative process. WOW: Good to know! What can students expect after finishing this course? Sit & Write: Many of our students don’t want the class to end, even those that have completed their work. We are creating a small membership support to keep our writers going from the process of writing their first draft, to eventually getting that book seen and sold. WOW: Now that's a sign of a successful course! Why is it so important to have a marketing plan in place before your book is even published (or finished, for that matter)? Sit & Write: The pre-publication marketing plan tasks are your very first and critical steps to get your book seen and sold. The most important reason for a marketing plan well before you publish (6 months, at least) is so that you have time to send the book to book industry, long-lead, and personal colleague reviewers. If your book is selected by an industry reviewer, for example, the exposure to the book community at large is priceless. Many reviewers including magazine and newspaper reviewers, will only review a book BEFORE it is published. As well, LISTING your book before publication with online aggregators, retailers, bookstores and libraries is critical to get exposure for your book that will reap healthy sales throughout its first year and lifetime. WOW: That is an absolutely excellent point! What is one piece of advice you wish authors would remember when releasing their book? Sit & Write: Stay focused and stick to a marketing plan. It’s not the number of book marketing tasks you do, it’s the focus of book promotion where your book’s audience will be. Make sure you have completed a healthy pre-game – those pre-publication marketing plan steps described above. Also, focus your efforts and your promotion money where YOUR book buyers are to be found. Social media is great but focus any advertising or promotion on sites and publications where there are book buyers – Amazon, Bookbub, Goodreads, etc. Writers Digest, Publishers Weekly, etc. WOW: Great point! What are some of the outcomes you've seen take place from writers who take this course? Sit & Write: I’ve seen several authors take their ideas and truly run with them. For some, that means they are complete and have submitted to agents. For others, that means that very large and complicated works are over 75% written, with a finished outline, query letter, and an awareness of how to complete and market their work. It’s been tremendous to watch what clarity and support does for the creative process. WOW: That is an amazing outcome. I'm so excited to see that this is a round two! How was round one for the writers who took part? Claudine: It was truly magical to follow the writers on their journey to becoming first-time authors. It was also satisfying to see how the introduction of a few simple book marketing concepts lead to amazingly successful results. Kate: I loved watching writers choose what they truly wanted to write and have the confidence to stand in their own inspiration—not to lean out of themselves to write what others might want more, or what publishers may be swayed by…and their writing clarity and content soared when they made that decision. WOW: That is so rewarding! Why is it so important to invest in yourself as a writer? Claudine: Everyone knows that writing a book is not easy. Publishing and marketing a book is even more difficult than writing a book by many accounts. And yet, millions upon millions of people write, publish and market their books every year. Why do they do it if it is so difficult? They do it because their message, their story, is so important to them that they feel an irresistible urge, a calling, to get it out there. The message, the story, is part of WHO THEY ARE – their heart and soul. A writer who goes down the path of writing and publishing a book is investing in his or her self-actualization. What could be a more important investment? WOW: Those are amazing lasting thoughts to end with! Sign up to Sit and Write Master Class before 2/4/23 and use the promo code WOW2023 for an early bird discount! Registration ends on 2/10/23. Sign up for your seat today!(C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  14. The CrimeReads editors make their choices for the month’s best new releases in crime fiction, mystery, and thrillers. * Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions For You (Viking) I was sure the true crime podcast novel was dead by now—at least, until I picked up Rebecca Makkai’s latest, which completely revitalizes this common trope. A professional podcaster returns to the private school she once attended to teach a two week seminar on podcasting and journalism; one of her students decides to investigate a 90s-era murder that the podcaster was much closer to than she lets on to her students. Every year, I look for the novels that truly respect their victims, and think carefully about the tropes of true crime; for 2023, this is that novel. –MO Walter Mosley, Every Man a King (Mulholland) Mosley, a modern master of the noir form, brings readers a worthy follow-up to Down the River Unto the Sea. This time, Joe King Oliver is asked for a favor from a friend he can’t refuse, a case that forces him to look into the unsavory connections between white nationalists, Russians, and high finance. Mosley knows exactly how to craft a mystery that keeps you at the edge of your seat all the while forcing you to reckon with sinister forces at the heart of American society. –DM Stephen Graham Jones, Don’t Fear the Reaper (Saga) Stephen Graham Jones blew me away with the first in his Indian Lake trilogy, My Heart is a Chainsaw, and Don’t Fear the Reaper is, if you can believe it, even better than the first! Jade is back, now in her 20s, as a killer and a snowstorm converge on the town of Proofrock and another massacre looms. Can Jade stop the serial killer Dark Mill South before he finishes taking vengeance for 38 Lakota men killed in the 19th century? The fast-paced novel takes place over only a day and a half, and you’ll want to read it just as quickly. –MO Kwei Quartey, Last Seen in Lapaz (Soho) Quertey’s engaging private eye Emma Djan is on a new case, on the trail of a young woman who abandoned law school and a comfortable life in Nigeria, presumably for her new boyfriend. The trail leads to Accra, and soon enough to a potential sex trafficking ring spanning West Africa. Quartey always brings great skill and a sense of urgency to his stories. –DM Rafael Frumkin, Confidence (Simon & Schuster) In Rafael Frumkin’s devastatingly witty Confidence, two teenage con artists meet at a summer camp for troubled youth and start scheming together almost as soon as they meet. After the two reunite on the outside, it’s time for the cons to get bigger, and the romantic tension between the two to grow. I would like to go back to reading this now so I can keep shipping the two main characters. Destined to be a new LGBTQ classic of suspense! –MO Hank Phillippi Ryan, The House Guest (Forge) Hank Phillippi Ryan’s dark and twisty divorce thriller about exes, friends, and making deals is a top-shelf cocktail of a book. It’s the kind of book I would bring to read at a swanky bar if I read at swanky bars. It’s slick, the story of a woman who realizes that her wealthy almost-ex-husband is scheming to make sure she ends up with nothing, and her new friend, whom she invites to stay in her guest house, who might have an idea about how to turn the tables on him. Salut! –OR Mariana Enriquez, Our Share of Night (Hogarth) What a strange and luminous novel. Mariana Enriquez stunned with her collection The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, and Our Share of Night is just as fantastic (and fantastical). Beginning in Argentina in the years of the dictatorship, Our Share of Night follows a father and son on a grief-driven road trip as they mourn the loss of the woman who united them, her dangerous (and possibly immortal) family close in pursuit. A dark vampiric noir that heralds a new era in South American horror. –MO Paz Pardo, The Shamshine Blind (Atria) Paz Pardo’s The Shamshine Blind is one of the more exciting debuts to hit in early 2023, a heady mix of high-concept speculative fiction, alternative history, and hardboiled detective fiction. In an alternate 2009, a new chemical compound that can elicit targeted human emotions has been weaponized in war and made ubiquitous for recreational purposes, upending the global and social orders. Amidst the new chaos, a small city enforcement agent gets put on the trail of a new product, a trail that points in the direction of a much broader conspiracy. Pardo’s novel is full of wit and wild invention and is sure to leave readers wanting more. –DM Johnny Compton, Spite House (Tor Nightfire) Eric Ross and his two daughters are on the run and looking to settle down somewhere where they won’t be too scrutinized. Enter the Spite House, a haunted house on a hill overlooking an abandoned orphanage, whose owner is looking for a new caretaker to help prove definitely that the house is occupied by ghosts. If Eric can stay in the house long enough to get proof of paranormal activity, he and his daughters will receive enough funds to go completely off the grid. But given the home’s propensity to rob its previous caretakers of their sanity, it’s a toss-up—will Eric find safety for his family, or has he placed them in more danger than ever before? –MO Margot Douaihy, Scorched Grace (Zando, Gillian Flynn Books) Margot Douaihy’s chain-smoking nun Sister Holiday may be the most original character you’ll come across for quite some time. Douaihy wanted to reclaim pulp tropes for a female protagonist, and I have to say, Sister Holiday is punk AF. Set in New Orleans, Scorched Grace takes place at a Catholic school where an arson attack has harmed several students. Sister Holiday, a fan of detective fiction, is ready to solve the case (or else face suspicion herself). –MO View the full article
  15. What I’m about to say will be provocative. I’m sure many will disagree. But this is a hill I’m willing to die on. It’s time we accept that Bravo’s Real Housewives has become our modern-day film noir. No, really. Just hear me out. Classic film noir was one of my favorite eras in cinematic history. It was old Hollywood glam dipped in stark light and shadowy contrasts. Stylistic romps filled with complex narratives driven by crime, jealousy, greed and explosive confrontations. Taking place in downtrodden backdrops that commonly featured alcoholic hard-boiled detectives and femme fatales – characters entangled in situations that tested their morality and changed their worldviews. All of the same elements that have turned the Real Housewives into the cultural phenomenon of this era. The most obvious similarity can be found in the way certain franchises (I’m looking at you Salt Lake City, Beverly Hills and New Jersey) were elevated into true crime docuseries. The whiplashed rise and fall of Salt Lake City housewife Jen Shah, who was recently sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, is our first example of this. The cornerstone of her franchise’s most recently concluded season was Shah repeatedly proclaiming her innocence to her castmates, family and viewers before finally admitting she used a telemarketing scheme to defraud senior citizens living on fixed incomes. There was no better hour of television than when federal agents swooned in during the filming of a cast trip to apprehend the flamboyant housewife. We were robbed of Shah’s on-camera arrest because she was tipped off by her husband (although she denied that was the case) that the feds were looking for her. Having producer-filmed footage spliced with news shots of Shah leaving the courthouse in her perfect box braids hours after she was eventually apprehended by authorities turned the franchise into so much more than show about discarded Mormons and the confusing, yet entertaining, antics of Mary Crosby. It gave viewers a front row seat to a legal drama happening to a person who entered the housewife camp unapologetically flaunting her wealth while instigating nearly all the petty drama that made Salt Lake City’s first season a breakout hit. Of course, Shah isn’t the first housewife who was sent to prison. That dishonor belongs to New Jersey’s table-flipping Teresa Giudice. She served 11 months in prison (or as she likes to say, “away”) after she and her husband pleaded guilty to 41 counts of financial fraud, which allegedly funded the extravagant lifestyle the couple flaunted on camera for several seasons. Giudice’s story became a cautionary tale to housewives everywhere: Never sign anything without reading it first, especially when your husband tells you to. Her departure and later return to her four daughters gave us the gut-wrenching drama and emotional punches that emulated the tragic tone of many classic noir films. Then you have the saga of Erika Girardi, or rather Erika Jayne, that brought elements of true crime into the glitzy, glamorous landscape of Beverly Hills. Unlike Shah and Giudice, Girardi hasn’t been directly tied to any criminal activity. She got caught up in a treacherous web of her husband’s making. He was accused in a Los Angeles Times article of stealing millions from his clients, some of whom were victims of a fatal plane crash in 2018. After the horrible season that was “puppy gate,” Girardi’s legal woes gave viewers so many explosive blow ups between her and her castmates, who rightfully questioned how much she really knew about how her much older husband funded their lavish lifestyle. Housewives and crime have become a marriage we didn’t see coming but never want to end. Watching questionable individuals pay for the nasty deeds they’ve done is a hallmark of film noir, is it not? Housewives and crime have become a marriage we didn’t see coming but never want to end. Convoluted storylines peppered with flashbacks and disruptive editing were another calling card of the classic noir films from the 1940s and 50s. The same is now true for The Real Housewives. When it first began in Orange Country, it truly was a basic let’s follow-these-women-around-all-day kind of show. Very straightforward. No fancy production sequences or interruptions in timelines. But now there are fade to black moments whenever the drama heats up at dinner party, flashback scenes to give context to present-day conversations, flash forward clips that give us drama to look forward to, and shaky camera footage and choppy imagining whenever physical altercations arise. This all adds to the anxiety and chaos we’re watching unfold. These shows aren’t about following around a group of women who are friends anymore. Now it’s about telling stories. Presenting characters. Anting up the drama. Entertaining us instead of just giving us snapshots into strangers’ lives. The Real Housewives also gave us this generation’s version of a hard-boiled detective in Orange Country’s Meghan King Edmonds. The woman who single-handedly exposed the fake cancer scheme Brooks Ayers ran on OG housewife Vicki Gunvalson. Edmonds was just as cynical and damaged as the trench-coat wearing sleuths of noir. She uncovered the truth and delivered it with icy venom to the then delusional Gunvalson, cementing her in housewives’ history as its Nancy Drew. Then in a tragic plot twist befitting any noir detective, Edmonds was so busy sniffing around for answers in other people’s lives she blinded herself to her husband’s infidelity, which she learned when he eventually left her for their nanny. As for “femme fatales,” well, that’s nearly every woman on every franchise. All these women are beautiful, stylish, sexy with a tendency to get their husbands involved in all their petty drama too (here’s looking at you again New Jersey). I would argue the housewives are better than the femme fatales of yesteryear. They’re bold, unapologetic, independent, entrepreneurs and a whole different kind of vicious. They say and do the things we wish we could tell our bosses, or friends, or family members. Their impulsiveness the very thing we can’t turn away from. My love for classic noir and real housewives is something I subconsciously and unconsciously marry in my writing. Elements from each pop up in my debut novel The Black Queen, a mystery that revolves around the murder of a Mississippi high school’s first Black homecoming queen. My amateur sleuth, Duchess Simmons, is a girl hardened by racial oppression and the modern-day segregation of the world. Then there’s Tinsley McArthur, who not only shares her namesake with New York housewife Tinsley Mortimer, she’s as selfish, manipulative and impulsive as any Real Housewife. The unlikely duo gets thrust into a crime filled with scandalous secrets that will rock their southern town, test their worldviews and challenge their morality. Proving, yet again, the intersections between The Real Housewives and classic noir are closer than you think. *** View the full article
  16. Natasha Lester writes lush, atmospheric, and richly detailed historical novels; her latest, The Three Lives of Alix St. Pierre, takes us into the Parisian fashion world during WWII, as the glamorous Alix St. Pierre takes a job at the fashion house of Dior and starts moonlighting as an American spy. I caught up with Natasha Lester over email to chat about the book, historical research, and the timeless allure of mid-century fashion. Women in espionage have been having a moment, in fiction and in nonfiction. What’s responsible for the rise in interest in women spies, do you think? Their stories have been left out of the history books for so long, which means it’s wonderful to finally see their achievements, their bravery and their work being written about. And I think that’s what readers enjoy – the sense that at last we’re seeing how much women contributed to past victories. And who wouldn’t find a story about a badass lady spy like Alix St Pierre fascinating?! Tell us about the research you did for the novel. I read Autobiography of a Spy by Mary Bancroft, who worked as a spy for the US government in Switzerland during WWII. Who knew there were spies in neutral Switzerland during the war, and that one of them was a woman? I didn’t, and as soon as I found that out, I knew Mary needed to be a character in my book, working alongside Alix. I read all of the cables sent from the Swiss station of OSS, where Mary worked during the war. It was slow work but I found some gems in there that definitely enhanced my book. For some more personal perspectives, I read the memoirs of the Italian staffette, the women who helped the Italian partisans survive in the Italian Alps during the Nazi Occupation of Italy. And I travelled to both Switzerland and Italy where the book is set so I could bring those locations to life in my writing. Who are some of the real life figures who inspired your story? As I’ve already mentioned, Mary Bancroft was a real woman who features in the story. But there’s also couturier Christian Dior, as well as the four incredible women who held the most senior positions in the couture house and who helped make Dior the icon he was – and still is today. And Carmel Snow, inimitable fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, makes a couple of appearances, as does Allen Dulles, former head of the OSS Switzerland station and ex-director of the CIA. I love to populate my books with real people because true events are often more interesting than fictional ones, especially when you’re looking at the legacies that war leaves behind in people’s hearts and minds, and in our culture. Before turning to writing, your expertise was firmly established in fashion. What was it like to immerse yourself in fashion once again, but through a fictional perspective? I think that if you write about what you love, the reader can feel that love. Describing a Dior gown from 1947 is both a part of the story, a joyful experience for me, a chance for the reader to go googling that particular dress so they can see pictures of it (and they do!) and a way to bring the characters to life. Fashion isn’t just fashion – it’s a way to blend in, a way to stand out, a way to rebel, a way to conform and a way to be someone else. If you could pick a few fashion trends to come back from the 1940s (terrible time in history, great time in fashion), what would you pick and why? The extravagant ballgown. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the occasions to wear these kinds of dresses anymore. Alix St Pierre wears a particular Dior ballgown called Compiègne in the story and to spend a night twirling in that would be quite something. You collect vintage fashion – what are the periods in history most represented in your closet? I have a few pieces from the 1950s. I especially love American designer Claire McCardell’s 1950s sundresses. I would love to purchase a Dior New Look piece, but at tens of thousands of dollars, they’re a little out of my price range! Your writing is richly textured when it comes to the feel of the past, not just the facts. How do you go about immersing your readers in your chosen eras? One of the most important parts of research for any historical novel is reading memoirs. That’s where people tell you how they felt, not just the facts. Then you can describe what it was like to hike in midwinter across the Swiss-Italian border in the middle of the night, trying to evade the Nazis, in a way that feels real. You can paint a picture with words about what exactly the Piscine Deligny (a swimming pool that floated on the Rivier Seine in Paris) looked like one night in 1947 when it was transformed into the setting for a grand Venetian Ball. You can bring to life the sadness and shame that lingered on the streets of Paris in late 1946 as people tried to put the terrible wartime years behind them. *** View the full article
  17. Kody Brown is a Mormon on a mission: to demystify and destigmatize polygamy. He has cast himself as the Pied Piper, the Don Quixote, and the Martin Luther King, Jr of plural marriage, a righteous man defined by family and faith. The Browns—Kody and his wives (in order) Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn—came out as polygamous in 2010 when the show premiered. Their step into the public light was a legitimate political event. Most of America only knew polygamy in its fictionalized, Big Love version and in its most abject form, where a patriarch takes many wives, builds a sprawling compound for his ever-growing family, and the movements and rights of girls and women are severely restricted. The Browns are not like those polygamists. Kody and his four wives did the morning news shows and lots of other media to present another, more mainstream spin on polygamy: “we’re just like you, but there are more of us.” In the interviews and the early episodes, we hear Kody’s spiel over and over: they are not deviants, but good God-fearing people who happen to believe in an unusual family structure. This normalization is not that compelling. They are quick to primly dodge questions about “sex stuff,” the answer to which might have improved the show. In the first three seasons they lived in Lehigh, Utah, and after Kody brings Robyn into the family with a spiritual union they need an arc. Enter the law. The Browns’ exit Utah and move to Las Vegas in the dead of night during season four. Kody leads his “goat rodeo” (his term) of a family: sullen teenagers, stressed-out wives, and rambunctious children all pile into trucks and minivans that feels like they rented every vehicle in the Hertz parking lot. Moving is a motif in the series. The hastily packed boxes, the almost professionally packed U-Hauls—U-Hauls are essentially recurring characters—the Brown’s exodus to Vegas was payback for them coming out as polygamists. Utah laws stated that a man can’t be legally married and be in common-law relationships with other women. At its worst the show was a pulpit for the terrible Kody, who never tires of explaining how their splinter fundamentalist Mormon sect is distinct from the mainstream LDS church which outlawed polygamy long ago, and is still pretty darned embarrassed that their ancestors practiced it with such relish. The Browns also explain often how even though they are fundamentalist Mormons they are not part of the FLDS splinter sect terrorized under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, now serving life in jail on charges of child sexual assault related to his underage wives. Other charges used against polygamists are welfare fraud, as the “single” wives file for food stamps and other benefits from the same government that brands them criminals. Despite Kody’s conservative-libertarian tendencies—the man loves guns and hates government—the Brown’s openness about their family’s tribulations has been both a slog and an education. In the recently concluded Season 17, Sister Wives suddenly took a turn for the interesting. The twisted scenario blending female insurgence and male malfeasance with a dash of gaslighting has made the show perfect for a domestic suspense junky like me. Trust me. Put your TBR pile aside, fire up TLC, and prepare to be bored and overwhelmed by the decade of lukewarm drama served up by Kody and the Browns. Their 18 children range from five to old enough to know that their father is toxic and prone to totalitarian rage when challenged. A doting father to all his children until puberty, Kody loves nothing more than a pregnant wife and a home birth. One reason for the family’s implosion is because he unabashedly prefers and protects the younger children—and their mother, Robyn, the youngest and most compliant wife. It has not been easy to stick with Sister Wives, as polygamy is as monotonous as monogamy the way the Browns practice it. Until the current drama began to unfold—around season 13 and 14, when the family moves from Las Vegas to Flagstaff, Arizona for no reason except Kody’s inability to settle, a trait which masquerades as a noble crusade to find his family a magical place they can all live in together forever. This desire mirrors the Mormon view of marriage as on earth and in heaven, where spouses are reunited to spend eternity together. Mormon marriage is a long game. If you are a completist, in season one Kody and Robyn, wife number four, chastely court and get spiritually married. If you are itchy to get to the family’s implosion hit season 15, when the Browns have just moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, giving up their don’t-call-it-a-compound-cul-de-sac in Las Vegas to live in scattered houses in different parts of town. Kody hard sold Flagstaff to his wives—really, there was a presentation and a whiteboard—and they fell into line, some more enthusiastically than others. Meanwhile, Kody is seeing another woman on the side: a draftsman designing Kody’s Dream House, an insane McMansion where each wife has her own suite of rooms and there is common space as well. The Brown family is hardly a democracy, but Kody recognizes the dream of One Big House isn’t going to come true. Only one wife (Robyn) is enthusiastic about his idea; Christine is adamantly against it; and Meri and Janelle blow it off which makes Kody furious. Meanwhile, the family is divided—which makes Kody furious—scattered in rental houses around charming but expensive Flagstaff. Kody is so hellbent about Flagstaff the family doesn’t sell their houses in Las Vegas before moving, and they sink money into a parcel of land, Coyote Pass, where they are going to build houses instead. At least one wife claims she heard angels singing when they looked at the property, but I suspect it was just an unsparing howling wind that kicked up every time Kody and his wives hold a socially distanced family summit. When Christine decides to leave Kody after years of struggling in a marriage where she was clearly miserable, she sets off a chain of events which has Janelle and finally Meri leaving Kody and the family. It feels post-apocalyptic to longtime viewers, and has turned into a full-on tabloid sensation. Whether there will be another season and who would be on it is one of the hot topics in the department of Sister Wives speculation. As the once bubbly Christine prepares to divorce Kody and leave the family, the Browns seams split slowly and then rip. Christine and Kody are not legally married. That honor now belongs to Robyn and was sold to the other wives as necessary so he could adopt her three children from a previous marriage, but now it looks like a nefarious plan to funnel family funds to Robyn and give the other wives, particularly Meri, the shaft. Christine’s divorce is a matter of knocking her ruby slippers together and saying, “I am no longer married to that angry patriarchal twit” three times. Robyn the scold helpfully points out more than once that Christine will not technically be divorced according to their faith until she “gets physical” with another man. It’s an odd thing to keep mentioning. Really, Christine wants to escape from a marriage Kody has declared will never be intimate again. She desperately wants to move back to Utah, where several of her adult children have settled. When she and her children cross the threshold of her new rental house in the Salt Lake City area, she is back to her effervescent self. But I am a reality TV watcher who knows my own mind: I don’t want to see love triumph; I want to see it destroyed. I wanted to see these marriages struggle and fail, as I wanted to see Christine and Janelle free of Kody’s drama and gaslighting. The fantasy of Sister Wives is a fantasy about family as big tent, full of love and support and acceptance, where no one is ever lonely and you are always welcomed back. Yet the reality of the Brown’s life—the constant money problems, the incessant moving, the real estate woes, the tyranny of Kody’s rules and strictures—made for good enough television. But the family’s disintegration is a direct result of Kody’s stringent COVID guidelines and his cardinal sin of playing favorites. I suspect the subtext of the COVID crisis was vaccines. Janelle said she was vaccinated, as were at least some of her kids. As both Kody and Robyn eventually get COVID—hers worse than his, as she had a preexisting condition—the assumption that they were not vaccinated is an easy conclusion. It also makes all of Kody’s odious rules make emotional sense. Now that the show has momentum, one question is flooding the Facebook groups and TikTok feeds which have fueled this revolution. What is next? The receipts are circulating via tabloids and YouTubers: the family’s finances are a litany of poor decisions, with tax liens, bankruptcies, creative financing of houses and defaulting on mortgages, and several ridiculous failed businesses. We wait for for Robyn’s ex, who is related to the Jeffs, to ride out his NDA and then spill whatever she is hiding about her first marriage. We want more respect for Janelle (universally recognized as The Smart One); to know why Christine’s daughter Truely has transition lenses in her glasses; and for Meri to recognize she has a wild crush on her female BFF, Jenn, and for them to move to Parawan, Utah and run the B&B Meri bought without the family’s help or support (excellent spinoff idea one). We wait for Robyn to admit she is not an innocent but a master manipulator, the Lady Macbeth of Flagstaff. We want Kody to stop grooming Robyn’s daughters (there is a picture of him kissing a teenager full on the mouth which is firmly in Woody Allen territory); for Christine to get together with her celebrity crush, Shamar Moore (another great potential spinoff show). We want to know if Kody’s office is really his car, and does he have a job? We especially want the dirt on the Typhoid Mary of Sister Wives, Robyn’s unseen nanny who exposes them to COVID (there is much muttering among the other wives about what the nanny does as Robyn only has two kids who need nannying and she’s always home). We are curious about whether polygamy can work or if it always yields a basement wife (Christine, who watched the kids while Meri and Janelle worked) and a favorite wife (Robyn, formerly the young hot wife). The dramatic irony is that Utah decriminalized polygamy in April 2022. The release of Meri, Janelle, and Christine from Kody’s dogma and drama must be disorienting but all of them seem better off. Christine has a lightness about her we haven’t seen in ages; the restoration of her natural girlishness is refreshing after all the sadness and anger. Janelle also seems much happier: she was always a person who could figure it out, much more competent than her errant husband. The best spinoff would be a show about Christine and Janelle—not sister wives, but best friends who have the freedom now to do, and marry, as they please. View the full article
  18. September 1943: German forces occupy Rome. Gestapo boss Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann rules with terror. Hunger is widespread. Rumours fester. The war’s outcome is far from certain. Diplomats, refugees, and escaped Allied prisoners risk their lives fleeing for protection into Vatican City, at one fifth of a square mile the world’s smallest state, a neutral, independent country within Rome. A small band of unlikely friends led by a courageous priest is drawn into deadly danger. By Christmastime, it’s too late to turn back. Sopranos: Delia Kiernan, Marianna de Vries Alto: The Contessa Giovanna Landini Tenors: Sir D’Arcy Osborne, Enzo Angelucci, Major Sam Derry Bass: John May Conductor: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty SUNDAY 19TH DECEMBER 1943 10:49 P.M. 119 hours and 11 minutes before the mission Grunting, sullen, in spumes of leaden smoke, the black Daimler with diplomatic number plate noses onto Via Diciannove, beads of sleet fizzling on its hood. A single opal streetlight glints at its own reflection in an ebbing, scummy puddle where a drain has overflowed. Pulsing in the irregular blink of a café’s broken neon sign, the words “MORTE AL FASCISMO” daubed across a shutter. Scarlet. Emerald. White. Delia Kiernan is forty, a diplomat’s wife. Doctors have ordered her not to smoke. She is smoking. A week before Christmas, she’s a thousand miles from home. Sweat sticks her skirt to the backs of her stockings as she pushes the stubborn gear stick into first. The man on the rear seat groans in stifled pain, tearing at the swastikas on his epaulettes. The heavy engine grumbles. Blood throbs in her temples. On the dashboard, a scribbled map of how to get to the hospital using only the quieter streets is ready to be screwed up and tossed if she encounters an SS patrol but the darkness is making the pencil marks difficult to read and whatever hand wrote them was unsteady. She flicks on her cigarette lighter; a whiff of fuel inflames his moans. Swerving into Via Ventuno, the Daimler clips a dustbin, upending it. What spills out gives a scuttle and makes for the gutter but is ravaged by a tornado of cadaverous dogs bolting as one from gloomed doorways. Squawking brakes, jouncing over ramps, undercarriage racketing into potholes, fishtailing, oversteering, boards thudding, jinking over machine-gunned cobbles, into a street where wet leaves have made a rink of the paving stones. Whimpers from the man. Pleadings to hurry. Down a side street. Alongside the university purged and burned by the invaders. Its soccer pitch netless, strangled with weeds, the pit meant for a swimming pool yawning up at the moon and five hundred shattered windows. She remembers the bonfire of blackboards, seeing its photograph in the newspaper the morning of her daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Past the many-eyed, murderous hulk of the Colosseum like the skeleton of a washed-ashore kraken. Across the piazza, gargoyles leer from a church’s gloomy facade. She flashes her headlights twice. The bell tolls eleven. She feels it in her teeth. Wind harangues the chained-up tables and chairs outside a café, wheezing through the arrow-tipped railings. A black-clad man hurries across from the porch, damp raincoat clinging, abandoning his turned-inside-out umbrella to the gust as he scrambles into the passenger seat of the ponderous, boat-like car, trilby dripping. As she pulls away, he takes out a notebook, commences scribbling with a pencil. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Thinking,” he says. Pulling a naggin of brandy from his pocket, he offers it to the groaning passenger who has tugged off one of his leather gloves and jammed it into his own mouth. The man shakes his head, scared eyes rolling. “For pity’s sake, let him alone,” she says. “Give it here.” “You’re driving.” “Give it here this minute. Or you’re walking.” An eternity at the junction of Via Quattordici and Piazza Settanta as a battle-scarred Panzer rattles past, turret in slow-revolve as though bored. “What does it mean for the mission?” she asks. “If he’s gravely ill? “We’d have to find someone else. Maybe Angelucci?” “Enzo couldn’t be trained up. Not in the time.” Hail surges hard on the windscreen as they pass Regina Coeli prison. She lights another cigarette, veins of ash falling on the collar of her raincoat. He has his eyes closed, but she’s certain he’s not praying. “For the love of God, Delia, can’t this rust-bucket go any faster?” Steaming blue streetlights, alleyways snaking up hills, ranked silhouettes of martyrs on the rooftops of churches. It comes back to her, her second morning in Rome, when she climbed the staircase to the roof of St. Peter’s, every feature of every statue worn away by time and storm. Soot-stained, weather-beaten stalagmites. Now, a farm gate blocking a driveway. He steps out into the furies of rain and tries to haul the gate open, trilby falling off with the fervour of his shakes. In the glim of the headlights, he wrenches at the bars. “Tied closed,” he shouts. “Would there be a toolbox in the boot?” “Stand out of the road.” “Delia—” Revving, foot down hard, she bolts the massive car through the splintering, wheezing smash as the gate implodes and he clambers back in, shaking his heavy, wet head as a man wondering how his life can have come to this pass. Through the long, flat grounds, where soaked sheep bawl, then the road climbs again and the hospital buildings loom, three blocks of brutal concrete bristling with empty flagpoles and monsters that must be water tanks. A fluorescent yellow road sign commands in black: “Rallentare!” Up a short winding drive where the gravel is wearing thin, past a trio of diseased sycamores and the concrete hive of a machine-gun turret, to the floodlit portico by which a khaki and-red-cross-painted ambulance is parked, engine on, three orderlies in the back playing cards. Inexplicably, on seeing the Daimler approach they pull the doors closed on themselves. A moment later, the floodlight is extinguished. She exits the car but leaves the engine muttering. The hospital doors are locked, the lobby beyond them in darkness. She tugs the bellpull three times, hears its distant, desolate jangle from somewhere in the heart of the darkened wards. Stepping back, she looks up at the shuttered windows, as though looking could produce a watcher, the hope of all religious people, but no one is coming and as she approaches the shut ambulance for help a wolf-whistle sounds from behind her. An orderly in his twenties has appeared from some door she hasn’t noticed. Sulky, kiss-curled, cigarette in mouth, he looks as though he was asleep two minutes ago. The smell of a musty room has followed him out. The flashlight in his left hand gives a couple of meagre flickers, diminishing whatever light there is. In his right hand is an object it takes her a moment to recognize as a switchblade. He looks like he’d know what to do with it. “I’ve a patient who needs urgent assistance,” she says. “There. Back seat.” “Your name?” he sighs, peering into the Daimler’s chugging rear. “I am not in a position to identify myself. I am attached to a neutral Legation in the city. This man is seriously ill, I had our official physician attend him not an hour ago. He says it’s peritonitis or a burst appendix.” “Why should I care? I am a Roman. What are you?” “Matter a damn what I am, send in for a stretcher.” “You come here with your orders expecting me to help a son-of-a-whore Nazi?” “You’ve a duty to help anyone.” He spits on the ground. “There’s my duty,” he says. The man in black steps out of the car, heavy hand on the roof, gives a grim stare at the sky as though resenting the clouds, slowly rounds to where the youth is standing. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” “Who’s asking?” “Name’s O’Flaherty.” Opening his raincoat, revealing his soutane and collar. “Father. Excuse me, Father.” He crosses himself. “I did not know.” “The German uniform that man in the car is wearing is a disguise. He was running a surveillance mission and became seriously ill.” “Father—” “Tough Guy, here’s a question. Is there a dentist in that hospital behind you?” “Why?” “Because you’ll need one in a minute when I punch your teeth through your skull. You ignorant lout, to comport yourself before any woman in that fashion. Go to confession tomorrow morning and apologise this minute.” “I beg forgiveness, Signora,” bowing his florid face. “I haven’t eaten or slept in three nights.” “Granted,” she says. “Can we move things along?” “Our passenger is escaped British prisoner Major Sam Derry of the Royal Regiment of Artillery,” O’Flaherty says. “The lives of many thousands depend on this man. If you love Italy get him into an operating theatre. This minute.” The youth regards him. O’Flaherty hurries to the ambulance, hauls open its doors. “Andiamo, ragazzi,” he says, beckoning towards the Daimler. “Off your backsides. Good men. We need muscle.” Derry lurches from the car, blurting mouthfuls of blood, clutching at his abdomen and the night. From MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Joseph O’Connor. Copyright ©2023 by Joseph O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. All rights reserved. View the full article
  19. http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/WP/wp-content/themes/smartbitches/images/posts/hide-your-wallet.jpg If you’re new to Hide Your Wallet, this is where we list new releases we’re pretty excited for in the coming month. Each reviewer has a book maximum (five per person), and we’ve separated HYW into two parts. The first HYW of the month will cover books that release from the 1st to the 14th. The second HYW will cover books released from the 15th to the end of the month. We also think this will help us feature books from smaller publishers who don’t have buy links up as early as the bigger trade houses. As always, if we missed any books that you’re particularly looking forward to, tell us all about them in the comments. The Witch of Tin Mountain Author: Paulette Kennedy Released: February 1, 2023 by Lake Union Genre: Gothic, Historical: American, Horror, Literary Fiction In Depression-era Arkansas, something wicked has come to a haunted mountain town in a novel of uncanny suspense by the author of Parting the Veil. Blood and power bind three generations of women in the Ozark Mountains. So does an evil that’s followed them across the decades. 1931. Gracelynn Doherty lives peacefully on Tin Mountain, helping her adoptive granny work her cures. Despite whispers that the women are witches, the superstitious locals still seek them out, whether they suffer from arthritis or a broken heart. But when evangelist Josiah Bellflower comes to town touting miracle healing, full bellies, and prosperity, his revivals soon hold Tin Mountain in thrall—and Granny in abject fear. Granny recognizes Josiah. Fifty years ago, in a dark and desperate moment, she made a terrible promise. Now Josiah, an enemy, has returned to collect his due. As Granny sickens and the drought-ridden countryside falls under a curse, Gracelynn must choose: flee Tin Mountain and the only family she knows or confront the vengeful preacher whose unholy mission is to destroy her. Amanda: Saw the She Wore Black podcast tweeting about this one! Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Want to order this one? We’ve got the links you need!. It’s Always Been Ours Author: Jessica Wilson Released: February 7, 2023 by Hachette Go Genre: Nonfiction We will rewrite the narrative of Blackness that centers and celebrates our joy. In It’s Always Been Ours eating disorder specialist and storyteller, Jessica Wilson, challenges us to rethink what having a “good” body means in contemporary society. By centering the bodies of Black women in her cultural discussions of body image, food, health, and wellness, Wilson argues that we can interrogate white supremacy’s hold on us and reimagine the ways we think about, discuss, and tend to our bodies. A narrative that spans the year of racial reckoning (that wasn’t), It’s Always Been Ours is an incisive blend of historical documents, contemporary writing, and narratives of clients, friends, and celebrities to examine the politics of body liberation. Wilson argues that our culture’s fixation on thin, white women reinscribes racist ideas about Black women’s bodies and ways of being in the world as “too much.” For Wilson, this white supremacist, capitalist undergirding in wellness movements perpetuates a culture of respectability and restriction that force Black women to perform unhealthy forms of resilience and strength at the expense of their physical and psychological needs. With just the right mix of wit, levity, and wisdom, Wilson shows us how a radical reimagining of body narratives is a prerequisite to wellbeing. It’s Always Been Ours is a love letter that celebrates Black women’s bodies and shows us a radical and essential path forward to rediscovering their vulnerability and joy. Shana: I’m obviously very biased, but I’m excited that I’m on the cover of this book! I’m sure my next stop will be a clinch cover . Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Find buy links for this book here.. Not Your Ex’s Hexes Author: April Asher Released: February 7, 2023 by St. Martin's Griffin Genre: Paranormal, Romance Series: Supernatural Singles #2 In April Asher’s next Supernatural Singles novel, Not Your Ex’s Hexes, a one-night-stand between a willful witch and a broody half-demon conjures an adventure that wouldn’t be complete without several magical mishaps. For her entire life, Rose Maxwell trained to become the next Prima on the Supernatural Council. Now that she’s stepped down, it’s time for this witch to focus on herself. And not think about her impulsive one-night stand with Damian Adams, a half-Demon Veterinarian who she can’t get out of her head. Neither of them is looking for a relationship. But when Rose is sentenced to community service at Damian’s animal sanctuary it becomes impossible for them to ignore their sparking attraction. A friends-with-benefits, no feelings, no strings arrangement works perfectly for them both. After a sequence of dead-end jobs, it’s not until Rose tangos with two snarly demons that she thinks she’s finally found her path. However, this puts Damian back on the periphery of a world he thought he left behind. He doesn’t approve of Rose becoming a Hunter, but if there’s one thing he’s learned about the stubborn witch, it was telling her not to do something was one sure-fire way to make sure she did. Working—and sleeping—together awakens feelings Damian never knew he had…and shouldn’t have. Because thanks to his ex’s hex, if he falls in love, he’ll not only lose his heart—but his humanity. Amanda: You had me at witch and half-demon! Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Want this book? Here are helpful buy links.. Of Manners and Murder Author: Anastasia Hastings Released: February 7, 2023 by Minotaur Books Genre: Historical: European, Mystery/Thriller Series: Dear Miss Hermione #1 Of Manners and Murder is the first in the delightful new Dear Miss Hermione mystery series from Anastasia Hastings. 1885: London, England. When Violet’s Aunt Adelia decides to abscond with her newest paramour, she leaves behind her role as the most popular Agony Aunt in London, “Miss Hermione,” in Violet’s hands. And of course, the first letter Violet receives is full, not of prissy pondering, but of portent, Ivy Armstrong is in need of help and fears for her life. But when Violet visits the village where the letters were posted, she find that Ivy is already dead. She’ll quickly discover that when you represent the best-loved Agony Aunt in Britain, both marauding husbands and murder are par for the course. Sarah: I love this concept of an Agony Aunt solving crime, and I heard that there’s a romance inside, too. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Want to order this one? We’ve got the links you need!. Radiant Sin Author: Katee Robert Released: February 7, 2023 by Sourcebooks Casablanca Genre: Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy Series: Dark Olympus #4 There’s nowhere more dangerous than Olympus…and no one more captivating than its golden god: Apollo. Keeper of secrets, master of his shining realm…and the only man I am powerless to deny. *A scorchingly hot modern retelling of Apollo and Cassandra that’s as sinful as it is sweet.* As a disgraced member of a fallen house, Cassandra Gataki has seen firsthand what comes from trusting the venomous Thirteen. But when the maddeningly gorgeous and kind Apollo asks her to go undercover as his plus-one at a week-long party hosted by a dangerous new power player…Cassandra reluctantly agrees to have his back. On one condition: when it’s all over, and Apollo has the ammunition he needs to protect Olympus, she and her sister will be allowed to leave. For good. Apollo may be the city’s official spymaster, but it’s his ability to inspire others that keeps him at the top. Despite what the rest of Olympus says, there’s no one he trusts more than Cassandra. Yet even as their fake relationship takes a wicked turn for the scaldingly hot, a very real danger surfaces… threatening not only Cassandra and Apollo, but the very heart of Olympus itself. I know we have some Dark Olympus fans eager for this release! Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Want this book? Here are helpful buy links.. Black Hellebore Author: Grace Draven Released: February 14, 2023 Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale Romance, Novella, Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy Series: Wraith Kings #3.1 **The love story of Brishen and Ildiko continues in this Wraith Kings novella, set after the events in THE IPPOS KING – WK #3.** To protect his people and save his kingdom from destruction, Brishen Khaskem made an unthinkable sacrifice, stripping all but the youngest Kai of their magic in order to transform himself and four others into powerful Wraith Kings who would battle the ancient malice known as the galla. But victory comes at a high price. The loss of their sorcerous heritage is a bitter consequence for the Kai. When an unexpected enemy threatens the lives of his beloved wife Ildiko and his adopted daughter, the queen regnant, Brishen may pay the highest price of all. What will be the ultimate cost of reviving a dead legacy and regaining a lost hope? A tale of trust and deception. Aarya: I haven’t caught up with this series, but I remember really loving Radiance. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Want to order this one? We’ve got the links you need!. Stone Cold Fox Author: Rachel Koller Croft Released: February 14, 2023 by Berkley Genre: Mystery/Thriller A perfectly wicked debut thriller about an ambitious woman who, after a lifetime of conning alongside her mother, wants to leave her dark past behind and marry the heir to one of the country’s wealthiest families. Like any enterprising woman, Bea knows what she’s worth and is determined to get all she deserves—it just so happens that what she deserves is to marry rich. Filthy rich. After years of forced instruction by her mother in the art of swindling men, a now-solo Bea wants nothing more than to close and lock the door on their sordid partnership so she can disappear safely into old-money domesticity, sealing the final phase of her escape. When Bea chooses her ultimate target in the fully-loaded, thoroughly dull and blue-blooded Collin Case, she’s ready to deploy all of her tricks one last time. The challenge isn’t getting the ring, but rather the approval of Collin’s family and everyone else in their 1 percent tax bracket, particularly his childhood best friend, Gale Wallace-Leicester. Going toe-to-toe with Gale isn’t a threat to an expert like Bea, but what begins as an amusing cat-and-mouse game quickly develops into a dangerous pursuit of the grisly truth. Finding herself at a literal life-and-death crossroads, with everything on the line, Bea must finally decide who she really wants to be. Like mother, like daughter? Amanda: Love a con artist character. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → Find buy links for this book here.. View the full article
  20. Last week
  21. The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy RECOMMENDED: The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen is $2.99! Sarah loved this one and gave it an A-: If you like fantasy with characters that might sound like your neighbors sometimes, in a world with big stakes and little stakes and magical talking animals who deliver the mail, and especially if you like epistolary novels that lead to characters becoming more of themselves, you’ll like this undertaking. (Bad dum bum.) Hart Ralston is a demigod and a marshal, tasked with patrolling the wasteland of Tanria. The realm the exiled old gods once called home is now a forsaken place where humans with no better options or no better sense come seeking adventure or spoils, but more often end up as drudges: reanimated corpses inhabited by the souls of those who’ve died in Tanria before. Hart tells himself that his job is simple: neutralize the drudges with a quick zap to the appendix and deliver them back to polite society at the nearest undertaker’s, leaving the whys and hows of the drudge problem for men without the complexities of a god in their family tree. But working alone, Hart’s got nothing but time to ponder exactly those questions he’d most like to avoid. Too much time alone is the opposite of Mercy Birdsall’s problem. Since her father’s decline, she’s been single-handedly keeping Birdsall & Son undertakers afloat in small-town Eternity—despite definitely not being a son, and in defiance of sullen jerks like Hart Ralston, who seems to have a gift for showing up right when her patience is thinnest. The work’s not the problem—Mercy’s good at it, better than any other Birdsall—but keeping all her family’s plates spinning singlehandedly, forever, isn’t how Mercy envisioned her future. After yet another run-in with the sharp-tongued Mercy, Hart considers she might have a point about his utter loneliness being a bit of a liability. In a moment of sentimentality, he pens a letter addressed simply to “A Friend,” and entrusts it to a nimkilim, an anthropomorphic animal messenger with an uncanny connection to the gods, (and in Hart’s case, a bit of a drinking problem). Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born. If only Hart knew he’s been baring his soul to the person who infuriates him most–Mercy. As the two unlikely pen pals grow closer, the truth about Hart’s parentage and the nature of the drudges creeps in. And suddenly their old animosity seems so small in comparison to what they might be able to do: end the drudges forever. But at what cost? Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. A Ghost in Shining Armor A Ghost in Shining Armor by Therese Beharrie is $1.99! I believe we mentioned this on a previous Hide Your Wallet. I feel like we had a couple ghost romances come out in the last couple years. Did you read this one? Once haunted… Gemma Daniels has never been quite the “down to earth” woman her adoptive parents raised her to be. She even has a unique gift: she can see ghosts—and she likes helping them settle their unfinished business. But the hotter-than-hot stranger she impulsively kisses on a bet is not only a phantom, he’s determined to help her. And the only way Gemma can explain his presence is to pretend they’re a real-life couple… Twice shy… Levi Walker lived—and died—to save his sister. Now he’s got a second chance at life if he assists Gemma in reuniting with her own long-lost sibling… and then never sees Gemma again. But as he starts to enjoy her irrepressible personality, he’s finding it hard to abide by any rules at all… Third time’s the unforgettable charm… Gemma is thrilled to be getting to know her sister, but it causes a family rift she may not be able to heal. On top of that, she’s falling for a ghost with a dilemma. For Levi must decide what loyalty—and living—is truly all about. To fix their mistakes, Gemma and Levi must risk being real with themselves—and each other—if they’re ever to claim true love… Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. Totally Folked Totally Folked by Penny Reid is 99c at Amazon! It’s available elsewhere, just not on sale. I, for some reason, though there’d be more folksy action here. Maybe a folk singer? But it seems like a standard small town romance with an opposites attract couple. One unforgettable night leads to an unlikely shared connection, and unlikely connections never go unnoticed by the good folks in Green Valley, Tennessee… Jackson James follows the rules. He has to. He’s a sheriff’s deputy in a super small town with a super big personality. However, strict adherence to the law during the day has been enjoyably balanced by rakish rules at night. Jackson, typically happy to protect and serve (and serve, and serve), starts questioning the value of wayward evenings when getting laid starts to feel more like being waylaid. Could it be that Green Valley’s most eligible—and notorious—bachelor longs for something (and someone) real? Mega movie star Raquel Ezra follows only one rule: always leave them wanting more. Studio execs, reporters, audiences, fans, lovers—no one can get enough of the smart, savvy, and sexy bombshell. But when “generous offers” begin to feel more like excessive demands, years of always leaving has the elusive starlet longing for something (and perhaps someone) lasting. When Raquel abruptly returns to the quirky Tennessee hamlet, her path crosses with the delectable deputy with whom she spent one unforgettable night. Unfortunately, scandal and intrigue soon follow. Raquel and Jackson must decide which is more important: following their rules? Or, at long last, finding something real. TOTALLY FOLKED is a standalone, contemporary romantic comedy novel and book #1 in the Good Folk: Modern Folktales series. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. Dance of a Burning Sea Dance of the Burning Sea by E.J. Mellow is $1.99! This is book two in a fantasy romance series, with each book focusing on a different sister with magical talents. We’ve featured the first book on sale a couple times if you’re looking to accumulate the series. From award-winning author E. J. Mellow comes the thrilling second installment in the Mousai series, featuring a powerful sorceress who finds her loyalties tested by a ruthless pirate lord. Within the world of Aadilor, there is a hidden place called the Thief Kingdom, where both magic and pleasure abound. There, the Mousai, a trio of deadly sorceresses bound by oath and blood, use their powers to protect the kingdom’s treasures. Niya Bassette brings the potent gift of dance to the Mousai, but behind her tempting twirls, she carries a heavy secret—that the infamous pirate lord, Alōs Ezra, has been threatening to exploit for years. Now banished from the Thief Kingdom for smuggling, Alōs resurfaces in Niya’s life with a plot to hold her hostage, leveraging what he knows to extort a pardon from the Thief King. But Niya makes her own deal with Alōs to guard her secret and guarantee her freedom—yet in doing so binds herself aboard his pirate ship, where she must navigate deadly waters, a bloodthirsty crew, and her own traitorous heart. Soon, a simmering attraction between her and Alōs threatens their delicate truce and makes for a tumultuous ride on the open seas. Far from her kingdom, Niya is entangled in a dangerous dance indeed. Welcome to the world of Aadilor, where dark deeds can mask noble hearts and the most alluring of sways often ends with a burn. Care for a spin? Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. View the full article
  22. Unless otherwise noted, all images are stills from Helen Cammock, I Will Keep My Soul, Siglio/Rivers/CAAM, 2023. Images courtesy of the artist and publishers. All rights reserved. Collaged archival materials used in Helen Cammock’s I Will Keep My Soul, Siglio/Rivers/CAAM, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist, the publishers, and the Amistad Research Center. I have seen the Mississippi. That is muddy water. I have seen the Saint Lawrence. That is crystal water. But the Thames is liquid history. —John Burns, quoted in the Daily Mail, January 25, 1943 In the upper left quadrant of Minnesota, a small winding brook and its bubbling waters form the beginnings of a journey from north to south, catching streams and tributaries along its track through the heart of North America toward the Gulf of Mexico. The name given to this massive system made of more than 100,000 waterways is the Mississippi River, a riparian sweep with a drainage basin touching approximately 1.2 million square miles, or 40 percent of the continental United States. With sand and silt ever flowing toward the river’s mouth, a wild wetland of marshes, swamps, and bayous reigns, turning solid land into sponge in the vast network of alluvial floodplains known as the Mississippi Delta. Just under one hundred miles from the Mississippi’s mouth, the river takes a sudden turn southward, snaking east and then north in a final return to its southeasterly course. In this crescent-shaped curvature between river, lake, and gulf lies New Orleans, named after Philippe I, duc d’Orléans by the French Canadian naval officer and colonial administrator Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. In his correspondence with Philippe, Bienville described this magnificent system of watercourses as “filled with a mud as deep as its oceanbed” yet “unmistakably Divine” for its navigational and commercial potential. Through royal decree, Bienville was granted two parcels of land for the establishment of a “new France in this riverside”—land financed by France’s first colonial trading corporation, the Mississippi Company, and cleared and worked by the first enslaved Africans in Louisiana. Colonization and enslavement have marked the course of the Mississippi’s historical fate, forming an entanglement between the natural conditions of the landscape and the voracious efforts to order the land and extract from it at any cost. The establishment of Black subjugation and enslavement as the guiding principles of the Mississippi Delta’s development commenced with the first-generation European settlers, who constructed no end of plantations along River Road, or the “German Coast,” in the early eighteenth century, as part of a systemic effort to harness the Mississippi’s unique qualities and resources for white landowning rights and profits. This project required decades of collaboration at the micro and macro levels, with parish administrators and Washington pundits, militias of engineers and surveyors, industrial titans, landowners, lawyers, and corporations united in the deregulation, mapping, draining, and domestication of the Mississippi Valley. The abstraction of the landscape into parcels of extractive capital instantiated slave-trading and slaveholding as the political, economic, cultural, and moral “mud and mortar” of the American project in the lower Delta. These histories and environmental legacies remain visible all over the landscape of New Orleans. They are seen and felt in the imposing framework of the ancien régime grid, which since the city’s founding has divided and segregated rich and poor, free from unfree, white and Black, collaborating with the networks of reservoirs, levees, pumping systems, and public riverfronts constructed along the edge of the Mississippi to keep the edges of it in line. Some plantation complexes where sugarcane was once harvested and processed still stand along the riverbanks of River Road (with a few transformed into sites of public education). In the space between them, petrochemical refineries financed by Formosa, Shell, and ExxonMobil light the skies with carcinogens and toxic smoke above and fluorescent sludge below, their plants constructed on former plantation sites, ancestral burial grounds of Indigenous tribes, and cemeteries of the enslaved. The will to squeeze and strangle the land, the river, and the Black and brown peoples who live and work there goes on, improvising anew across time and space. And yet, around this moon-formed meeting of water and land, a landscape has come into being through a constellation of resistances to these strategies of control and occupation. Movements and struggles against the tides of commodification persist in the natural and human worlds, both refusing to abide, seeping into the systems created to quell them. This is affirmed each time the Mississippi River spills over its banks. As Toni Morrison rightly reminds us, “they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places … it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” It is also instantiated in each recorded account of marronage, a permanent and common modality of resistance in the Delta wetlands, which turned the swamps into radical sites of commerce and kinship that sustained Black life and education, kept families together, and granted space for escape from enslavement. Revolts gathered up smaller reverberations of rebellion into visible and communal resistance, as on the night of January 8, 1811, when a group of more than five hundred Black people marched from LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish toward New Orleans along River Road. Armed with shovels and axes—the tools of their labor—they formed a thick cloud of protection behind their leader Charles Deslondes, an enslaved Creole of color. The historian Walter Johnson’s account of the 1811 revolt lends names and lands to those who participated: among their group were men named Cupidon, Al-Hassan, Janvier, and Diaca; some were American-born, African, or Creole; some hailed from Congo or the Akan; some were Christian, others Muslim. Each were organized into companies that reflected their origins, which together, representing the global stretch of cultures and communities violently destroyed by the transatlantic slave trade, were “dedicated to the single purpose of its overthrow.” Across their journey, they hid in the deep recesses of swamp and river, harnessing their labyrinthine waterways—places they knew and understood better than did their enemies—for protection. The muddy waters of the Mississippi hold these diasporic histories still; like all rivers, their edges are never still. Far across the Atlantic Ocean lies the 205-mile length of the River Thames, which rises and flows west from Thames Head in Gloucestershire toward Tilbury in Essex and Gravesend in Kent, eventually spilling into the North Sea. Passing Oxford, Reading, and Slough, it cuts thick through the heart of London, offering drainage for England’s lowlands across the way. Shorter, shallower and gentler than the mighty Mississippi, the Thames’s history runs long—it was a catalyst for the organization and development of Europe. With the Roman founding of Londinium in A.D. 47 at a key crossing point over the Thames, the city on the river established itself as a major port and route for domestic trade and exchange, with barges traversing across a system of locks carrying timber, livestock, wool, and food from the fifteenth century forward. By the early stages of empire, the establishment of goods exchanges along the riverbank made the Thames a significant player in the organization of global capitalism and the transatlantic slave trade, beginning with the founding and charter of the Royal African Company in 1672 by King Charles II, which shaped a star-shaped network of transport between the west coast of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. A lust for gold quickly shape-shifted to a lust for the land, waterways, and people inhabiting these sources, and inevitable competition and extractive greed would follow as England worked to build an industrial monopoly over the world. Banks on the Thames lent credit that financed the selling and commodification of human beings in colonial empires across the world, before and after 1808. Raw cotton and sugarcane, picked and processed by slaves in New Orleans, found their way to the exchanges in Liverpool, Bristol, and London via naval technologies and water routes invented by British civil servants. The Thames and its connective network of waterways was ever moving, pushing, and circulating goods and human beings by force and by choice into, across, and beyond Great Britain. Around the curving bends of the River Thames and its tributaries, explosions of resistance have followed and formed, too—shifting, seizing, and interrupting the landscape and its story, the purpose and history of a place. More recently, on June 6, 2020, just twelve days following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Londoners took to the streets in the middle of a pandemic under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the protesters edged their way along the Thames from Parliament Square toward Saint James Park and eventually to the U.S. Embassy in Vauxhall, in protest of incarceration and killing of Black people by the police; they paraded in front of the major seats of government and the institutions that have historically profited from slavery and its accompanying industries. In Bristol a day later, on June 7, 2020, an 1895 bronze statue of the British-born merchant and transatlantic slave trader Sir Edward Colson was toppled into the River Avon (a major tributary of the Thames) after decades of efforts, in recognition of Colson’s lucrative participation in the slave trade and the city’s subsequent whitewashing of his legacy as a philanthropist. Questions of accountability, transparency, and historical awakening remain the calling of all activists committed to liberation struggles. One of the words that the artist Helen Cammock uses to describe her practice is seepage—a slow but steady escape or drainage of one thing into another, a cycle of movement backward and forward akin to the dances of a tide. Linking her process to the condition of water—as her work is forever expanding and leaking into and out of many material genres and modes—Cammock points to the animus at the heart of her project: movement, whether historical, political, geographical, or cultural. Finding and nurturing the sites of shift and movement—the places where they come into contact, pose gaps, interrupt, form connections, become liquid—remains Cammock’s most powerful methodological tool both inside the archives and in the materialization of her films and writing. Harnessing the power of water, the churn of history, and the spirit of memory that haunts them both, Cammock seeps and soaks into historical record, offering and opening space for the flow and traces of the past to link, return, and remember. Helen Cammock is a British artist who uses film, photography, print, text, song, and performance to examine mainstream historical and contemporary narratives about Blackness, womanhood, oppression and resistance, wealth and power, and poverty and vulnerability. She was a joint recipient of the 2019 Turner Prize and has exhibited and performed her work in galleries and museums across the world. Jordan Amirkhani serves as the deputy director and curator of the Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought. Her recent curatorial projects include Troy Montes-Michie: Rock of Eye and the 2021 Atlanta Biennial at Atlanta Contemporary. Her writing and criticism have garnered her a 2017 Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Short-Form Writing Grant and three nominations for the Rabkin Prize in arts journalism. From I Will Keep My Soul by Helen Cammock, Siglio/Rivers/CAAM, 2023. View the full article
  23. Today we’re here to bring you the official book announcement and cover reveal for David Wragg’s upcoming release of The Hunters. This will be the first book in a new trilogy titled Tales of the Plains, which will be published by Harper Voyager. Let’s get straight to showing you the cover in all its glory shall we? (Cover Artist: Gavin Reece. Twitter: @gavinreece62) Isn’t that absolutely gorgeous?! Just wow!! The Hunters will be released on 20th July and you can pre-order your copy HERE Now we have a Q&A with David where we find out exactly what his new trilogy is all about… Welcome back to The Hive David! Firstly thank you for letting us host your official book announcement for The Hunters and the cover reveal. How pleased are you with that stunning cover design? How involved in the process were you? Thank you very much for having me, it’s great to be back on the Hive. I’m delighted with the cover. You can see we’ve sprung for colour this time around and it looks fantastic. It really does pop out at you in colour! My involvement with the cover is in preparing character descriptions for the principals, including snippets from the manuscript and the odd image reference (where available) for details of costume, equipment, hairstyles etc. It’s quite a detailed document by the time I send it over! The composition and artwork are, of course, all the work of the extraordinarily talented designer and artist, and the result has been spectacular. (Don’t tell anyone but sometimes I think the best part of being published is seeing the covers for the first time!) Did you gasp?! I most certainly did. It’s so vibrant, and gives a wonderful feeling of setting and character. So David, tell us a bit about your new trilogy, Tales of the Plains? What can readers expect from The Hunters? The trilogy follows the adventures of Ree, a middle-aged horse farmer with a chequered past, and her 12 year-old niece Javani, who are living (at the start of the series at least) at the very edge of the ‘civilised’ world, in the far reaches of the Serican protectorate (for those who remember Serica and its capital Arowan from The Righteous). This is mining country, with its own politics and power structures, and just because you’re a thousand miles from princes and palaces doesn’t mean you can leave intrigue behind. In The Hunters, Ree and Javani find themselves the sudden target of several different (extremely dangerous) groups, and must run for their lives – but as for why they’re being hunted, and by whom… thereby hangs the tale (that means you need to read the book to find out). There are three interlinked stories in the trilogy, and while I wouldn’t read them out of order, each one stands alone with a beginning, middle and end. What I’m saying here is: NO CLIFFHANGERS, so anyone who felt exercised by the end of The Black Hawks can rest easy this time around! The book is set in the same world as your previous duology, Articles of Faith but thirteen years later. Can you tell us how the world has changed or progressed within that time? Well, time has passed, the world has moved on, and people have got older, some have died, and some new folks have been born, here and there. The march of technology has continued, and some of the innovations that featured towards the end of The Righteous have become a little more commonplace, especially in the … less-policed … areas of the world. Fans of blasting powder, mechanical crossbows and full plate armour will not be disappointed… Let’s discuss your characters in more detail! What can we expect from Ree and Javani? Ree is someone who has lived a long(ish) and interesting life, and has tried to leave all that behind and assume a modest existence far from sources of trouble with her young niece. (This strategy may not have been totally successful.) Of course, said niece wants the opposite of a modest existence – Javani is firmly set on a life of adventure, and prepared to go to great lengths to engineer one. (This strategy may also be questionable in outcome.) Their relationship is the foundation of the trilogy, with a great deal of sniping, arguing, name-calling and complex emotions along the way. It’s possible, for example, that Ree hasn’t been entirely honest with her niece about either of their histories… Intriguing! What about your other characters? Can we look forward to a few familiar faces? YES INDEED, but not immediately. Fans of Articles of Faith will have plenty of easter eggs and nods to places, characters and events from the first series, but there’s no need to have read the first series to enjoy the new one. The Hunters will feature some family connections, and by the end of the trilogy I’m sure we’ll all be seeing some favourites again (*cough* Lemon *cough*). *squeals in delight* Please let there be wolves too? Well, the setting is a bit of a departure from the original books, geographically speaking, but no matter where you go, wolves are never far away… One of the aspects I love about your books, and I’m sure other readers do too, is the humour and the… well… batshit crazy shenanigans! Will Tales of the Plains also include this? There will absolutely be shenanigans. Yessssss! The tone of the new books should feel pretty familiar to anyone who read Articles of Faith, with perhaps one minor difference. Things have been pretty bleak for the last few years in the real world, and I didn’t want to write more morally grey characters in a hopeless, cynical world where every choice was wrong. I hope this series will deliver a (maybe slightly old-fashioned) sense of adventure, excitement and good triumphing over evil, but with the inevitable quirks of my writing. Above all, I want it to be FUN. That’s not to say it’s not chock full of vicious murder, great peril and bad things happening to good people (one scene in The Hunters still makes me sniffly) but I hope overall it’s an uplifting and invigorating read! And I don’t want to give too much away, but all those technological advances I mentioned earlier precipitate some flat out ridiculous chases and confrontations across the first book, and the second may or may not feature clifftop battles and outrageous archery. Your shenanigan quota will not go unfulfilled. And for that I’m glad! And lastly, if you were transported into the world of Tales of the Plains, how would you fare? Oh, very very badly indeed. One of the nice things about writing about lawless, chaotic and lethal wastelands populated by killers and thieves is knowing you’ll never need to go there yourself, not even on holiday. Haha! Thanks for joining us David! Thank you so much for having me! The post THE HUNTERS by David Wragg (COVER REVEAL and Q&A) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  24. This HaBO request is from K, who is looking for this romance: Long time lurker here— I’m looking for a contemporary story about a marriage imploding. The only thing I can remember is that the wife discovers her husband’s infidelity, packs his clothes, takes them to his office where she proceeds to barge into a meeting, throws the clothes on the table and tell her husband’s lover (and boss) that she can have him! For some reason I seem to remember that the couple reconcile, the lover/boss leaves the company (maybe the husband too?) Does this sound familiar to anyone? Thanks for your help. Let’s HaBO! View the full article
  25. Welcome to our new feature – The Fantasy Hive Top Picks! Every month, we’re going to share with you our favourite reads of the month. We’ve rounded up our contributors and asked them each to recommend just one (looking at you Jonathan) favourite read of the month. A big thank you to Nils for coming up with this feature, and our contributors for taking part! Beth: The Jaguar Path by Anna Stephens The sequel to her ancient Central-American inspired novel The Stone Knife, The Jaguar Path deals with the fallout of events in book one. The Pechaqueh have successfully brought all of Ixachipan under the Song, spreading their faith to all the people and bringing peace so that Singer Xac may bring forth the world spirit. Of course, what this means for the people of Ixachipan, and our Tokob protagonists from book one, is a life of slavery and a fight for survival. This was a powerful read, heart-wrenching as always from Stephens, and so twisty! Beth’s review | Pre-order Nils: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty This was a phenomenally entertaining feminist pirate read with the most loveable ragtag seafaring crew. I buddy read this with Beth and we laughed, we theorised, we teared up and we were left wanting more! I won’t say anymore as our review is due to go up soon, but I will say: add this to your TBR immediately! Review to come soon | Pre-order Lucy: The Atlas Paradox by Olivie Blake A book filled with confusion, Chaos and problems of time, an absolutely brilliant second novel of Olivie Blake’s trilogy (The Atlas Six – Novel One) Available now Julia: Gates of Hope by J E Hannaford Alright, choosing just one single book per month is a real hardship for me, but here we go… My favourite of the month was probably Gates of Hope by JE Hannaford! It’s the first book in a new epic fantasy series, which is a great blend of intriguing world building, good characters, magic and mystery. Pre-order Jonathan: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende I hope you people realise what monsters you are, making me choose a single book. Out of all the wonderful books I read. But seeing as I have to, I’m giving it to Isabel Allende’s beautiful and lyrical magical realist classic The House of the Spirits (1982, translated into English by Magda Bogin 1985), which is just glorious. An epic family saga that delves into the history and political upheavals that have shaped Chile whilst retaining a close eye on the personal and the magical, it’s nothing short of a revelation. Goodreads Theo: The Sandman Volume 1 – Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman Picking a favourite book out of any list?! That’s like the sadistic thing the arch-villain does to the protagonist in the middle act of a novel. You know – “Pick your favourite book, Mr Bond – the rest go in the furnace!” Or like asking a parent to name their favourite child! (But then you aren’t going to actually burn anything are you, Nils, so I suppose I’d better turn my mind to the task.) I had five very different speculative fiction reads in January, covering self-published and trad-published, fantasy and sci-fi and all excellent in their very different ways (with reviews either already up on the Hive or due to come.) Buuuuut… I am going to go for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Volume 1 – Preludes & Nocturnes, because it was my first foray into reading a graphic novel. It has an entrancing protagonist – captivatingly written, drawn and speech-bubbled. The kind of superpowered yet underdog-ed character that you can’t help rooting for. As if someone had blended the DNA of Elric of Melnibone, Terry Pratchett’s DEATH and John Wick! Goodreads Scarlett: The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang Some amazing favourites everyone has chosen here! The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is high on my tbr! So glad you loved it, Nils. I haven’t read The Atlas Paradox yet, but I do have a penchant for graphic novels and love your choice of The Sandman, Theo! My month and new reading year started pretty well. I’ve been mostly mood reading and counting the days till warmer weather! My eclectic reading plate this month was a sampler of everything, a memoir, a classic, a mystery, some lit fiction and two great fantasy reads, The Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio, book 2 in The Sun Eater series, and The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang. Both of them were fantastic, and I absolutely loved Empire of Silence prior. If I was forced to make a choice as my favorite read in January, I will go with The Sword of Kaigen. This novel, spoke to me for M.L. Wang’s incredible ability to write refreshingly authentic of a world filled with martial arts, interesting family ties and insane battle scenes. The female characters in this story exhibit the perfect mix of strength and endurance, yet prevail profoundly feminine and tender. I couldn’t help myself feel moved in many moments/passages, torn between turning the pages and not wanting the story to end. Available now What was your favourite read of the month? Share with us in the comments! The post TOP PICKS – January 2023 appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  26. If writing ever makes you feel lonely, consider Cecile Pineda’s work. You won’t find solace there. You will find a model of courage, of an artist living “at the edge of Being,” the phrase she uses in a 2004 interview with Jeff Biggers in The Bloomsbury Review. Pineda never offers readers the comfort of genre, of managed expectations. She never feigns a coherent, well-organized world or self. For her, the world is mutilated and nonsensical, and the self is shattered. She writes as she lives, balancing between life and death, always a soldier at the tip of the spear, never a general safe at the back of a fray. Didion could point to a center that wasn’t holding. Pineda would not, even to the point of madness. What does madness feel like? In her memoir, Entry without Inspection: A Writer’s Life in El Norte, published in 2020, two short years before her death, she compares it to being “…evicted from yourself.” As she explains, your world vanishes. “There’s nothing left to fall back on, no sense of who you might be or where you might have come from or what dues you may have paid. Nowhere is your country, no one is your kin.” The burden of his undocumented status, that feeling that “[n]owhere is your country, no one is your kin,” lies at the heart of what she terms her “cultural deracination”: My father made the decision to deprive me of a language (Spanish), in a sense to cut out my tongue. But he was not stupid. He understood this country, he respected the weight of its racism; the vacuum presented by its aspiritual culture. He made a conscious decision that I would speak French (my mother’s language) in place of Spanish. But I am fiercely proud—especially in the face of California State Proposition 187—of claiming my place as the child of an illegal. Her mother is French. Her father is Mexican. Her father cuts away one of those two native tongues in order to protect her. She sutures her tongue, claims her place as a Chicana, only to find herself separated from the broader culture. Here is the “estrangement” that forges her identity as a writer living “at the edge of Being.” The title of her memoir refers to her father’s immigration status. He fled the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and crossed the border under an assumed name. Her memoir begins and ends with her father’s passage across the border and the resulting eclipse of his identity and hers. Pineda drapes the story of her life over a ten-day arc, the story of Jean Blum, a Holocaust survivor and the whistleblower who drew national attention to the deaths of immigrants detained by ICE, immigrants like her father, who sought asylum but were criminalized instead, charged with “entry without inspection.” The connections between Blum’s story and Pineda’s are not random, though to readers demanding explanations, transitions, or sustained argument, Pineda throws down the gauntlet. Make what you will of these intersections between Blum’s story and mine, she seems to say; between the racism that ignited Hitler’s followers and the racism that ignites dehumanizing US government policies and border militias alike. She and Blum share “the story of a life in search of itself, stamped by an absence, an absence for many years without name, the name of family separation….” History repeats itself in untidy patterns, as does the intolerance, the bigotry, and the cynical scapegoating that drives violence. Yet the single voice ultimately makes a difference. Pineda was an iconoclast who challenged assumptions about Latina identity and the representation of that identity in narrative form. Asked by Francisco Lomelí to reflect on how she came to be a writer, Pineda points to her years of work as a theater director and dramaturge: I got to script words on the actors in my company, often drawing from physical and verbal work that emerged from developmental rehearsals. I learned how to train actor-writers, to elicit words from them which [provided the score] of a given performance piece. In other words, without knowing it, I was learning the creative discipline I would eventually draw upon in my fiction: writing with the body, making use of visceral impulse to break silence, to find my voice.” (Imagining a Community: An Interview with Cecile Pineda by Francisco Lomelí, February 23, 1996) She turned actors into characters and used the “visceral impulse” to speak. She wrote with the body, drawing on the ideas of Luisa Valenzuela and Clarice Lispector, trying to feel what she could not imagine. Pineda finds herself in a position women writers have often expressed: a content without a form, a consciousness without a narrative shape. Faced with that absence, Virginia Woolf, for example, in A Room of One’s Own, strings together the history of women writing, focusing on the agility with which each worked to represent her experience in a patriarchal society. The novel Woolf describes is malleable. In her words, square, pagoda shaped, budding with wings, arcades, and domes. However, this narrative “shape,” she reminds us, “is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being.” Thus for Woolf, the integrity of a novelist depends on conviction, the writer’s certainty that he (Woolf uses the masculine pronoun) is telling the truth. “What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, [for women novelists] to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking.” The image of an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter crossing the street rises in her mind’s eye and she stops to describe what she imagines: The elder is close on eighty; but if one asked her what her life has meant to her, she would say that she remembered the streets lit for the battle of Balaclava, or had heard the guns fire in Hyde Park for the birth of King Edward the Seventh. And if one asked her, longing to pin down the moment with date and season, but what were you doing on the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie. Tell your truth, Woolf argues. A woman’s experience is as valid as any other. When your historical circumstances change, so will your consciousness, so will the truth you tell. And in case her primarily male audience has missed the point or is tempted to say she can’t write logically, at the very end of A Room of One’s Own, she offers the linear, logically sustained version of her argument on “Women and Fiction.” Woolf not only argues for a new form of writing, she has actually shattered the conventional expectations of an essay, a form that historically develops alongside the natural sciences as a way of testing, trying out ideas (“to essay”) and disseminating them. Woolf has imagined and conveyed a new hybrid form, an essay that also tells a story about a narrator (Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael). (A good contemporary, non-literary example of this hybrid is Oreskes & Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View of the Future, which combines science fiction and history.) Difference demands hybridity. So much of what Woolf wants to say about the topic “Women and Fiction” is not represented in a patriarchal society but rather conjoined by the force of grammar (“and”), as if to insist that the relationship between “Women” and “Fiction” not only exists but thrives. Woolf builds the bridge, actually conjoining both sides. She tells a story that is hybrid, both nonfiction and fiction, allowing argument and plot to intersect, demonstrating over and again how neither biography nor history records the details that capture her imagination. “Latina letters will be with us for a very long time, as long as there remain folks who refuse cultural homogenization, who celebrate their diversity,” Pineda told the San Antonio Express-News. Gloria Anzaldúa, another very important Chicana writer, defies homogenization, articulating the barbaric history contained within the web of bone and flesh that is her body. She transits between psyche and collective history, between viscera and culture, something palpably evident in the figures and cadences of her credo: I want the freedom to carve and chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails. And if going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture–una cultura mestiza–with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture. As the subtitle of Borderlands/La Frontera confirms, she is “The New Mestiza.” If her entry is denied, she will stand and claim that threshold, designing and constructing it into a mestiza culture, one predicated on the very liminality and hybridity that has always defined her. Creative resistance is possible through hybridity. In retrospect, it seems reasonable that, finding themselves alone in their endeavors, women writers would locate their integrity in what Pineda described as the “visceral impulse,” using her body to leverage herself against the silence and so finding her voice. This is the body of her experience. It is the body of her writing, too. Pineda’s novel Face, a finalist for the 1985 National Book Award, begins with a newspaper article about a Brazilian barber whose face was disfigured in an accident. The barber decides to reconstruct his own face. Cutting and stitching together a new face became a metaphor for Pineda, in her life and in her art. The death of her mother, the decision to close her theater company, the feeling of being ostracized, out of synch with Reagan’s America, when greed, normally one of the seven deadly sins, became quite fashionable–all of these contributed to her sense that, in her words, she was “writing from the bottom of the social ladder, looking up.” She was also reinventing herself as an artist: “I really [felt] I would die if I did not write. Face is about repairing my life stitch [by stich]. [Writing it] had all the intensity of needing to survive” (brackets original, Francisco Lomelí). [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  27. I'm excited to interview Maja Zysk, one of our runners-up in our Summer 2022 Flash Fiction contest. Before reading our interview, please read her story Rockwell's Missing Portrait then come on back. First, here's a bit about Maja: Maja Zysk is an award-winning fiction writer and poet, with work* appearing in North American Review, Mid-American Review, The Briar Cliff Review, Reed Magazine, and elsewhere. Born in Poland, grown in the Sierra Nevada, and matured in the Valley of the Sun, she currently casts her anchor in the PNW’s Columbia River. When not waltzing with Sasquatch, she wrangles a toadstool princess, chips away at a novel, and ferments things. Maja’s first chapbook of poetry, Soil, was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press. (*Work published under the name Maja Zmyslowski) --- Interview by Nicole Pyles WOW: Congratulations on winning runner-up in our Summer 2022 Flash Fiction contest! Your story was raw, and tragic, but very real at the same time. What inspired this idea? Maja: The term "latchkey kid" inspired the story. Certainly, there are children who gain independence when unsupervised and it's a positive thing, but there's an element of parental intention and choice that comes into play. There are millions of parents who don't have access to adequate childcare, and my piece was a reflection on that, as well as a commentary on the high cost of medical care, mental health, and how often we only bandage the symptoms rather than treat the root causes of such issues. WOW: You really reflected the raw reality of that in this story. Did you know the ending before you wrote it or did it take many revisions to get to the ending that was published? Maja: I'm a pantser, not much of a plotter. The ending surprised me when the words came out. It saddened me, but that was the point I was trying to make: it's not all happy endings out there. WOW: Absolutely. Excellent point. I love the title of your story. The Rockwell paintings seem to portray this idea of "America as it should be" but your story reflects parts of America in its raw, real form. What inspired you to choose this title and cultural reference? Maja: I've always been a fan of Americana, and Norman Rockwell's artwork of everyday life shows the best of times. However, the scenes depicted in my story are also everyday life. My husband titled the piece. I didn't have a title and asked him to frame the story for me, and that is what he came up with just seconds after reading it. It's a perfect title, and I don't think the story would be as strong without that exact one. WOW: It really is the perfect title. What are you working on now that you can tell us about? Maja: I recently finished a full-length manuscript, a sexy nerdy rom-com focusing on mental health, weird science, and love, of course! I'm in the process of querying agents - woo! WOW: That's so exciting! I see you also work on poetry and even had a poetry collection published! How does your poetry writing influence your creative writing? Maja: Poetry is my first love. Whether free-form or structured verse, poetry is like having a bit of magic in your back pocket. You can carry a poem in memory, recite it like a mantra. Applying an economy of language and focusing on sensory impacts is a skill that I've brought over into my creative writing. Poetry lets you play with words, sounds, and images, and this only strengthens a paragraph in longer fiction. WOW: Great point! So, I'm curious: what surrounds you as you write? Maja: I romance myself. We're talking candles, flowers, cuppa. WOW: I love that! Makes sitting down to write like a date with your characters. Do you have a particular writing ritual you like to do that you can tell us about? Maja: Before I sit down to write for a long stretch, I harness some energy by putting on headphones and dancing to "Paris" by Else. Then I perform a series of yogic breaths and high-five the universe. Tap into that flow state! WOW: That sounds amazing! I'll have to do that myself. Congratulations again on your story and best of luck on your book! (C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  28. “Why isn’t there more sex in your books?” I get this question a lot. In my DMs. In my email. In Zoom book club meetings, bookstore signings, and festival events. This, more than any other, seems to be the question my enthusiastic (and apparently thirsty) fans are burning to ask. Written inquiries are usually punctuated with fire emojis, or more commonly, a string of bright red chili peppers. When voiced by a member of a live audience, they’re accompanied by a lot of head nods and laughter. Don’t get me wrong . . . I usually laugh, too. I always open a Q&A by inviting my readers to ask me anything about my process or my books, but as it turns out, the question of sex isn’t an easy one to answer. The first time I was grilled about the lack of graphic sex in my books, I was a deer in headlights. I’m pretty sure I had an easier time explaining the birds and the bees to my sons. I scrambled, falling back on genre definitions to qualify my answer: that my books are mysteries with romantic elements rather than romances with mystery elements. That sex isn’t an expectation of the mystery genre as it often is in romance. My explanation was met with a Zoom screen full of blank stares and blinks. Because they had expected more sex, genre be damned. And that got me thinking . . . When it comes to the question of sex on the page, can it really be answered by genre alone? As an avid romance reader, I’m no stranger to heat. I enjoy a wide range of books with an equally wide range of spice levels, and when I pick up a novel by any of my favorite romance authors, I know there will be a tension-laden courtship at the center of it, hopeful that relationship will be fully explored, doors flung open, clothes and inhibitions stripped with reckless abandon as I’m invited along for the ride. But the tag on the front of my novel reads: a mystery. It’s published by an imprint that specializes in thrillers and crime. And yet some readers had clearly expected more sex, specifically the explicit variety. The intersection where my goals as a storyteller meet a reader’s expectations is a messy one. The line markers between genres are old and hard to make out sometimes, and traditional conventions don’t provide many clear signs about what to expect between the covers of newer books. I’m not suggesting that genre is becoming less important—genre labels create a widely-recognized and necessary structure to organize and differentiate a complex range of books—but the boundaries typically established by genre may be less important to today’s readers than to those who work in publishing-adjacent roles. Online platforms are changing the ways readers are discovering and sharing books, allowing them to adopt their own rating systems and label their own shelves, and as their genre definitions become more fluid, authors enjoy more freedom to drift across those lines. My own mystery novels straddle several genres, weaving humor, thrills, and romantic subplots into the whodunnits. The books bend traditional genre rules, disregarding some completely, and as more and more genre-benders find their way into the market, the answer to how much sex and when to show it may require a bit more nuance. What can readers expect when we begin to bend and blend genres? How is a reader to know which books will be open vs closed door? The clues used to be much clearer, the sexy novels easily recognizable on the shelf. Romance novels usually featured a wild-haired model with come-hither eyes and well-oiled pecs. But lately, cover trends in romance lean toward playful and elegant rather than spicy. Illustrated covers and floral designs have become increasingly popular, similar in feel and tone to what readers have come to expect from women’s fiction or coming-of-age stories. And with the massive success of recent crossover novels, we continue to see those genre lines blur. When Verity, a dark thriller by romance juggernaut Colleen Hoover, took the suspense market by storm, her romance fans likely came to that book expecting quite a bit of heat. Same with Tessa Bailey’s oh-so-sizzling My Killer Vacation, which is tagged both as a romance and a murder mystery. But for mystery and suspense readers who are new to these authors, the spice level of these genre-benders might have come as a bit of a shock. So, if genre tags don’t determine the level of spice, what does? My mysteries contain romantic subplots. There’s no shortage of tonsil hockey and heavy petting going on in the midst of all my murdery shenanigans, so why not take my readers one step further and offer them a peek in the bedroom? What factors determine when and if I close that door? For me, how much sex I show my readers boils down to the story I’m trying to tell and which themes lie at the heart of it. I picture it as a Venn diagram of critical story elements, where genre, character, theme, plot, and stakes come together, and the sweet spot is in the tiny sliver of space where those circles intersect. Aiming for that target means asking tough questions about which words, scenes, and chapters stay and which ones end up on the cutting room floor: is that scene essential? Does it propel the plot? Does it reveal something about my characters and what’s truly at stake for them? Does it bring focus to the theme or distract from it? If my protagonist is a woman rediscovering her self-worth after divorce, and if the relationship at the core of that story is an inspirational friendship between two caregivers, and if the goal of these women is to solve a murder mystery while evading the cops, then an extended detour to sexy town takes time and focus away from that. Lengthy bonus scenes, while titillating, can weaken the mast of the novel. If I’m closing the door in my book, it’s not to shield your delicate eyes. It’s to keep you from becoming distracted and losing sight of the plot. But if the central relationship I’m exploring is a romantic one in which the characters’ arcs are realized through physical intimacy—if the central mystery is will they or won’t they, and if the suspense revolves around the consummation of the act—then bring your appetites, and don’t bother knocking. Chilies will be served, dear readers, and they’ll be coming in hot! *** View the full article
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