Sunday, April 23, 2017

"The Ninja's Daughter"



A shinobi, writes Sacramento mystery writer Susan Spann (susanspann.com), means "shadowed person" and "is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that many Westerners pronounce 'ninja.' ('Ninja' is based on Chinese pronunciation.)" Beginning with "Claws Of The Cat" in 2013, Spann has produced a series of "shinobi mysteries" featuring Hiro Hattori, an assassin and spy.

The current volume in the connected series (though each book stands alone) is "The Ninja's Daughter" ($15.95 in paperback from Seventh Street Books; also for Amazon Kindle). It is Autumn, 1565 in Kyoto, Japan. Hiro, posing as a translator for the Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, must guard him with his life, a vow he made to a mysterious benefactor.

Hiro is a samurai, and though violence is kept to a minimum on the page, heads do roll. But the focus is on the murder of Emi ("who had dreams beyond her station"), the younger daughter of Satsu, an actor with the troupe called the Yutoku-za.

Dismissed by the Kyoto police (actors are the lowest of the low), the case cries out for justice to be done, and Father Mateo cannot resist. He and Hiro mount an investigation that takes them deep into Japanese theater culture, their only clue a golden coin found on the victim and, for Hiro, an unexpected family connection.

Set against political turmoil in Japan, with rival warlords threatening conflict, and corruption in high (and low) places, this is a fast-paced whodunit with a satisfying but unnerving reveal at the end. Mateo and especially Hiro are attractive characters in a continuing story: I never thought I'd use "samurai" and "endearing" in the same sentence.

Susan Spann is scheduled to lead two workshops at the sixth annual WordSpring Creative Writing Conference, Saturday, April 29 from 8:00 a.m. until 2:10 p.m. at the Learning Resource Center on the Butte College main campus. The workshops are called "Writing A Killer Mystery" and "Putting The History In Your Mystery."

The event includes a continental breakfast, catered lunch, keynote, and breakout sessions in poetry, fiction, and cross-genre (including songwriting). Registration for the conference is $45 for students and educators; $75 for community members. For more information visit buttewordspring.org.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

"The Stone Thrower"



By the time Chuck Ealey was 21, in 1971, "he had won more games than any other quarterback in college football history. … But even though he was undefeated," writes his daughter, Jael Ealey Richardson, "my father would never play professional football in America."

Chuck Ealey is African American, and "the National Football League didn't believe that he could be a great quarterback because of the color of his skin. So my father moved to Canada to play quarterback in the Canadian Football League" where he became the CFL's Rookie of the Year.

The story was first published by Richardson as "The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, A Father's Life." She has now adapted it as a children's book with extraordinary illustrations, exuberant and deeply moving, by Matt James.

"The Stone Thrower" ($18.95 in hardcover from Groundwood Books, groundwoodbooks.com) begins with young Chuck in Portsmouth, Ohio, growing up in a segregated community. His was the North End, "a neighborhood that was separated from the rest of town by a set of long, stony railroad tracks."

The turning point came one fall day when "Chuck walked towards the train tracks. He scuffed his shoes against the pavement as the wind whispered gently, as leaves tumbled and danced and cracked beneath his footsteps."

He picked up a stone and aimed at the N on one of the Norfolk & Western coal cars. He threw and threw, and missed and missed, until he didn't miss anymore. When he started playing football, Chuck never forgot. Eventually his coach at school made him quarterback, and the rest is an amazing tale of persistence, practice, and focus. And victory.

Jael Richardson, who lives in Brampton, Ontario, is scheduled to present the keynote address at the sixth annual WordSpring Creative Writing Conference, Saturday, April 29 from 8:00 a.m. until 2:10 p.m. at the Learning Resource Center on the Butte College main campus. She will also lead a workshop on writing creative nonfiction.

The event includes a continental breakfast, catered lunch, the keynote, and breakout sessions in poetry, fiction, and cross-genre (including songwriting). Registration for the conference is $45 for students and educators; $75 for community members. For more information visit buttewordspring.org.


Sunday, April 09, 2017

"Professor Witchey's Miracle Mood Cure"






Oregon-based author Eric Witchey (ericwitchey.com), a presenter at the WordSpring Creative Writing Conference at Butte College on April 29, describes "story" as "unfettered magic happening in the heart and mind of the reader."

He has collected some of his oddball yarns and creative experiments in a wondrous stew called "Professor Witchey's Miracle Mood Cure" ($17.95 in paperback from IFD Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle). The twenty-three short stories and two novelettes range from the surreal to science fiction.

The reader is quickly oriented but just as quickly disoriented as "Ezekiel, Prophet To Bones," cries out to the LORD (who turns out to be the Logistics Operations Restoration and Data system); or Aunt Linda whips up a batch of her incredible eggnog while displaying her "famous twisted mystery smile." Then there's a father and son fishing outing complete with chaos theory and "quantum synchronicity."

The two longer tales well represent Witchey's reader-pleasing prowess. "To Build A Boat, Listen To Trees" is an evocative tale of the quiet wizardry of Venerré, Master Shipwright of Port Corwald. Not everything can be said in words, it turns out, in this sweet and satisfying tale.

"The Tao of Flynn" traces the remarkable sales approach of a certain insurance salesman who tells his friend and fellow employee that "the truth is the most powerful lie there is. Before you met me, you thought you were a liar taking people's money. Have you ever seen me lie to anyone?"

The story builds delight as Flynn's success secret is revealed; the reader can hardly wait for the boss' inevitable comeuppance. It comes in a surprising sort of way--as one might expect of Witchey.

Eric Witchey is scheduled to lead two workshops, "Levers, Ratchets, and Buttons" and "How The Reader Breaks Your Writing" at the sixth annual WordSpring Creative Writing Conference, Saturday, April 29 from 8:00 a.m. until 2:10 p.m. at the Learning Resource Center on the Butte College main campus.

The event includes a continental breakfast, catered lunch, keynote address and breakout sessions in poetry, fiction, and cross-genre (including songwriting). Registration for the conference is $45 for students and educators; $75 for community members. For more information visit buttewordspring.org.


Sunday, April 02, 2017

"China Caper"



Here's the setup: "Valuable artifacts are getting out of China into markets in Europe, South America, and the U.S. The Chinese authorities, with help from London's Scotland Yard, have decided it must be via an innocent-seeming tourist or a small team of so-called tourists." Who better to join a tour group herself and ferret out the bad guys than Briana Fraser, owner of Let's Travel in Ashland, Oregon? Did I mention that she's "a former courier for a U.S. spy agency"?

So begins "China Caper" ($17 in paperback from Dorrance Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle), a diverting tale by Redding author Chloe Ryan Winston (chloeryanwinston.com).

It's the third travel adventure novel featuring Bri Fraser (after "Argentine Assignment" and "Belize Barter"). "China Caper" takes readers to London, Moscow, Beijing, and Hong Kong. And sure enough, some mysterious goings-on within the group have Bri convinced that an artifact-thief is among them. But who?

At one point the group is gathered in their London hotel's public room during a heavy storm and Bri, who narrates the story, looks around. "As I gazed at the faces of my new friends, I mentally ticked off what I knew about each one as a possible thief. But for each possibility, I cancelled the silent accusation with a heartfelt 'it can't be so.'"

Bri is joined by Derry Lloyd, the tall, self-described "Montana cowboy" who works, as did Bri, for Phillips, "a popular professor at a prestigious eastern university" who sought "people who were smart and somewhat daring to join his team of government couriers."

Ron, a member of the tour group, quips to Bri and Derry, "You guys look like a bunch of folks gathered to hear Miss Marple reveal the guilty one in some cozy murder mystery." A good characterization of the present novel, though a bit more complicated than that.

Bri's investigative work is not without peril. Her own touristy purchase of a jade camel seems harmless until Bri learns the old woman who sold it to her met an untimely end soon after. The novel is made even more intriguing when the flirtatious banter with Derry becomes something more. Their story continues in the next adventure, "Peru Paradox."


Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Talking About Detective Fiction"



P.D. James died at age 94 in 2014. The creator of Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, she was a keen student of crime fiction and in 2009 published "Talking About Detective Fiction" ($14 in paperback from Vintage; also for Amazon Kindle), an  enlightening exploration focusing especially on the flowering of British detective fiction between the two World Wars.

James considers the staying power of Sherlock Holmes; hard-boiled detectives; female novelists; how the story is told; and critics and fans. Along the way the reader will be regaled with James' readings of her fellow novelists and will likely find authors and titles little known today but central to the development of the form. It is wise to keep a notebook nearby.

The origin of the detective story is really quite recent. James' choice for the first detective novel is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (a friend of Charles Dickens), from 1868. "In my view," she says "no other single novel of its type more clearly adumbrates what were to become the main characteristics of the genre."

"The Moonstone," she writes, "is a diamond stolen from an Indian shrine by Colonel John Herncastle, left to his niece Rachel Verrinder and brought to her Yorkshire home to be handed over on her eighteenth birthday by a young solicitor, Franklin Blake. During the night it is stolen, obviously by a member of the household. A London detective, Sergeant Cuff, is called in, but later Franklin Blake takes over the investigation, although he himself is among the suspects."

There are clues aplenty, "clever shifting of suspicion from one character to another," lots of eerie atmosphere, and a detective that is "eccentric but believable"; I've read it twice.

While detective stories often contain great violence they are "novels of escape. … For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn't toll for us. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor." And, in the end, the mystery will be resolved.

"Very few readers," she observes, "can put down a detective story until it is solved, although some have fallen into the reprehensible expedient of taking a quick look at the last chapter."

You have been warned.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

"The Pilgrim's Ladder"



"I will not forget what I have seen. How can I forget such terror? How can I forget such joy? How can I forget such beauty?" Micah is a climber inexorably drawn to the White Mountain and a vision of the summit, whose "dark night of the soul" is recounted in a moving and profound allegory, "The Pilgrim's Ladder" ($9.99 in paperback from CreateSpace).

Author Ryan Montoya is the 23-year-old University of Colorado Boulder student, and Paradise High School graduate, who survived a 1500-foot fall down the face of Pyramid Peak near Aspen, Colorado, dislocating his elbow and fracturing his pelvis. Though newspaper accounts reported what happened, Montoya's novel explores the deeper call of the mountains, why a bold young man would seek to touch the summit.

The words of the Elder of the valley echo throughout the novel. "Beware the long journey," the Elder tells young Micah, desperate to know about the northern mountains, "beware The Divide. Though along it you may find your answer, remember that by pain are its answers revealed."

The chapters in the four sections ("The Valley," "The Divide," "The White Mountain," "The City Of The Gods") are titled with a single word, such as pride, courtship, pain, atonement, most of which begin with an observation about the "seeker."

"The seeker is but a novice to love, for he has spent his life in the wilderness. As a child he was curious, for he had wonder. As a youth he was determined, for he had powerful desire. As a man he feels love, for his passion points to purpose. But the seeker has not yet found his purpose. … Passion and purpose, these are the seeds of love."

For Micah, and his sometime climbing companion Zachary, the mountains are almost living beings. The Twisted Peak, pridefully reaching for heaven, is punished by the gods with a kind of "malicious energy." What hope is there for a mere man to reach the summit?

Yet if the gods will, the man will live. "I will live as a man should," Micah says, "not in the realm of the gods, but in the lands far below. But … I will not forget…."


Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Paleontology: A Brief History of Life"



The Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big issues, such as "what does it mean to be human?" We've been meeting for over a decade now and recently the group considered the work of Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Trained in archaeology, anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, Tattersall has specialized in the evolutionary analysis of the human fossil record and most especially the mysterious origin of human cognition.

His "Paleontology: A Brief History of Life" ($19.95 in paperback from Templeton Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is a lucid overview of the field. Part of Templeton's "Science And Religion Series," the book begins with the development of the "Tree of Life" and ends with an exploration of Homo sapiens.

Tattersall maintains that "the traditional paleo-anthropological expectation that human evolution has been a single-minded, unilinear slog from primitiveness to perfection" is just plain wrong. "At virtually all points in human evolutionary history," he writes, "several hominid species have coexisted (and at least intermittently competed). That Homo sapiens is the lone hominid in the world today is a highly atypical situation."

His final chapter considers "A Cognitive Revolution," and Tattersall writes about the identification of "symbolic artefacts," such as engravings, cave paintings, or necklaces, and the development of language, as pointers to a new kind of thinking. The bottom line: "Symbolic Homo sapiens is not a simple extrapolation of what had gone before; it is a qualitatively different entity, not an incremental improvement."

There is an important place, Tattersall says, for human spirituality, and the author considers science and religion to be complementary.

His conclusion, using the image of a rocket, encourages continued thoughtful conversation: "Starting firmly in the material world, you can ride the scientific first stage to the point at which its fuel is exhausted, the point that lies at the limits of testable knowledge. From there—if you wish, or feel the need, as most people seem to—you can ignite the spiritual second stage, and be transported to the limits of the human ability to understand."