Thursday, May 16, 2019

"The Silent Patient"

Infidelity pervades "The Silent Patient" ($26.99 in hardcover from Celadon Books; also for Amazon Kindle). Author Alex Michaelides, in his novelistic debut, has written a psychological thriller murder mystery, a story that explores the character of thirty-three-year-old Alicia Berenson, an accomplished painter, deeply in love with her husband Gabriel, who one evening shoots him fatally in the face.

The evidence against her at trial is overwhelming. But Alicia refuses to speak in her defense (if any defense is possible); in fact, she refuses to speak at all. Ever. To anyone. In the end, swayed by the recommendation of Lazarus Diomedes, "professor of forensic psychiatry at Imperial College, and clinical director of the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London," she is found to have "diminished responsibility" and is sentenced to the Grove under the care of Diomedes.

The novel presents tantalizing excerpts from Alicia's journal but is mostly narrated by psychotherapist Theo Faber, forty-two, who has followed Alicia's trial closely and is determined to help her. He joins Grove's team and Alicia becomes his patient. She remains unspeaking, lashing out violently at times yet never saying a word in therapy sessions (or any other time). The only clue to her inner self is an extraordinary painting she called "Alcestis," a self-portrait painted after the murder.

Alcestis, Faber says, is "the heroine of a Greek myth. A love story of the saddest kind. Alcestis willingly sacrifices her life for that of her husband, Admetus, dying in his place when no one else will. An unsettling myth of self-sacrifice, it was unclear how it related to Alicia's situation."

The connection with Alicia will be revealed, but not before Michaelides, a screenwriter by trade who grew up in Cyprus, has taken the reader (or the listener) on a wild ride with twists and turns aplenty and surprise endings that turn out to be surprise beginnings. I listened to the audiobook version and was struck by the beautifully executed telling from narrators Jack Hawkins and Louise Brealey. 

The book is also a study of Theo Faber, whose growing compulsion to get Alicia to speak calls into question his fidelity to professional ethics. 

The novel is maddeningly good.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

"Beware The Boojum"

In "The Hunting of the Snark," a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, one of the hunters is given a warning: "But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,/ If your Snark be a Boojum! For then/ You will softly and suddenly vanish away,/ And never be met with again!"

The Boojum, then, is particularly dangerous; no wonder that Bracken MacFie, stationed on an asteroid named Hope, characterizes his own dangerous work as boojum hunting. And when one is found? Therein lies a science-fictional tale by freelance writer Eric Witchey (, a recent Butte College visitor and conference presenter.

"Beware The Boojum" (IFD Publishing; available from e-book retailers including Amazon Kindle) imagines the discovery of extraordinary crystals "from the pre-birth of the universe," made of "pre-baryonic matter."

MacFie holds one in his space-suited hand. "The crystal looked like clear, faceted quartz. Thread-like, golden impurities twisted, joined and radiated inside. Unlike quartz, the pre-baryonic matter was so transparent that every edge teased his eye to strain harder to resolve it. The harder MacFie focused, the more the edges and angles faded away, stretching thinner until the surfaces slipped between the fabric of space-time and hid in folded dimensions where mortal vision couldn't see."

It's "the elusive, crystalline residue of the Big Bang."

It turns out these crystals are the key to human travel throughout the universe. For certain unique individuals, "pilots," holding a crystal can instantly transport a person to a given location. There's only one rub: One must give up one's sanity in order to achieve the result. MacFie's wife, Astra, has become a pilot, pressed into service by the corporate state in the form of project manager Dr. Maxwell Craig. She is also insane. And unpredictable, as is the boojum crystal.

MacFie is a miner of the scarce crystals; he, too, has given up his sanity to do the job, contending with the voice of "Steve" and fending off a scrub jay on the airless asteroid. 

In order to open the universe to humans, the transport process must become predictable. Craig embarks on a devious plan that plays on MacFie's love for Astra--but human emotions bring an unexpected consequence in this mesmerizing yarn.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

"The Leon Lewis Band"

According to an author's note, L.M. Levin ( "is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, in private practice" in Chico. Now retired from working almost a decade-and-a-half in adoption services, Levin has completed his first novel. "The Leon Lewis Band" ($28.99 in paperback, self-published through iUniverse; also for Amazon Kindle) is a novelistic memoir told by Jackie Klein about his talented musical friend Leon (Lee) Lewis.

In the 1950s in Brooklyn, Jackie says, "we were a couple of the few Jewish kids in a predominantly Italian, working class neighborhood. I was a quiet, shy boy. Lee, three years my senior, was outgoing and actively engaged in the struggle to gain respect from the other kids on the block."

Anti-Semitism is rampant. Tough-guy Johnny Emilio rules the streets; his lieutenant, Tony Carpissi, is Lee's bête noire who "went out of his way to run up to him, push, shove, and whisper antagonistic things to him." After Emilio is killed in a robbery attempt Tony disappears. He returns later in Lee's life is a most disquieting way.

Lee, Jackie, and others begin playing music together. Then "Lee went off to college that September of 1964. His college was the streets and highways of America, the bars and clubs where he met new musicians and new friends." Two years later he returns to his old stomping grounds, Café Flo in Greenwich Village, eventually forming a touring band attracting more and more attention, including from the authorities because of the outspoken opposition to the War in Vietnam.

The band includes, as Levin's website notes, "a flamboyant country boy, a hippie manager, a smooth café manager, an eccentric concert promotor and recording engineer." Much of the novel recounts the group's travels out West, to Europe, and south of the border. Lee meets progressive journalist Catalina Blake, whose Guatemalan parents managed to escape the political troubles in their home country by coming to the US. Or did they?

Political intrigue mixes with counter-cultural sensibilities in this "good times" memoir. But always there is the music: "Music is the only thing we know," Lee says. "Music is our lives. We do it because we must. That's just the way it is."

Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories"

Michael Tabb knows screenplays inside and out. He's worked on projects for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, and many more, and has developed a mentoring program for new scriptwriters. 

He'll be speaking at Butte College this weekend, focusing on his immensely helpful guidebook: "Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories" ($39.95 in paperback from Routledge; also for Amazon Kindle).

The book begins provocatively. "I've never had writer's block," he says. "I never have to wonder what I'm going to write or how to cinematically show it. Why? I have a method. It starts before characters, structures, outlines, and beat sheets." The foundation is what Tabb calls "the premise."

Instead of looking around for a story idea, start from what's in your heart. "I start every script with a premise, the core of a strong idea in all visual media. The idea should be presented as a single statement, no more than that. It must be an incredibly clear and succinct point of view that the writer intends to explore. Story and characters come later." Tabb defines premise as a "hypothesis. It's the story's purpose for existing at all." 

The premise is the answer to the question, "If you could convey just one truth to the entire world from your deathbed, and all the world will hear it with your final breath, what would you say?" Some of his suggestions: "Secrets are essential to a happy marriage"; "Absolute power has no true friends"; "Guilt is the roadblock to happiness."

Tabb offers hundreds of examples as he explores the premise, then character creation (from protagonists to love interests to mentors to allies), and finally how a concept is turned into a living story. 

Can't wait for the movie!

Tabb is scheduled to present two screenplay prewriting workshops at the eighth-annual WordSpring creative writing conference, Saturday, April 27, from 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on the Butte College main campus. 

He'll be presenting "Going From Zero To Story" and "Going From Story To Structure." Tickets are $30 for students and educators, $60 for the general public, free for the first 50 attendees affected by the Camp Fire; visit

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"Is There Purpose In Biology?: The Cost Of Existence And The God Of Love"

With the approach of every Good Friday, Christians around the world contemplate the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross. His resurrection on Easter morning is a promise that one day our world's torment will be banished forever.

Yet, for many, the presence in our world of so much suffering, over geologic ages, seems more a product of chance than any larger theological purpose. For some prominent voices, it's what Denis Alexander calls "a denial of any ultimate reason for the existence of a biological process such as evolution."

Alexander, an evolutionary biologist and cancer researcher, Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, and a Christian, maintains in a recent book that mere chance doesn't rule in biology. He argues that while a theological conclusion can't be drawn from studying biological processes, they are surprisingly compatible with the Christian story.

"Is There Purpose In Biology?: The Cost Of Existence And The God Of Love" ($16.99 in paperback from Monarch Books; also for Amazon Kindle) is currently being discussed by the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science. The group brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big ideas, such as Alexander's claim that "evolutionary theory is consistent with a creator God who has intentions and purposes for the world."

Early chapters in the book focus on the meaning of "random mutations" as part of the engine of evolutionary biology, showing that in the world of DNA it's not a matter of "anything goes," not "random in any strict mathematical sense of the word."

But what might be God's purposes for evolution? Through a theological lens, Alexander suggests the development of biological diversity, which is intrinsically valuable; that "creatures like ourselves should emerge" who can engage in loving relationship with God; and that "the end of our own planet does not entail the end of life as we presently know it."

Carrying out these purposes is necessarily a costly process in a world governed by physical laws. There is much suffering. But, Alexander might say, Good Friday is not the end of the story.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

"After/Ashes: A Camp Fire Anthology"

As the editors write in a new anthology of prose, poetry, and images--a creative response to the Camp Fire--it took seventeen days to completely contain it. During that time a group of Butte College students and instructors, themselves deeply affected by the fire, began assembling "stories and visual art featuring both immediacy and recollection; stories that signal not just the end, but a new beginning."

The result is "After/Ashes: A Camp Fire Anthology," a paperback with full-color photographs produced by WordSpring Press. It's available at the Butte College bookstore on main campus and at the Chico Center, and in downtown Chico at Naked Lounge, Kona's, Upper Crust, and The Bookstore. For updates, visit; price may vary with location. (The Butte College WordSpring Creative Writing Conference is Saturday, April 27.)

Edited by John LaPine, with assistance from Claire Grant, Tim Hayes, Grace Armstrong, Lia Deromedi, and WordSpring advisor Molly Emmons, the book begins with "My First Fire," an account of her escape from Magalia by Anne Sheridan. Their house survived, but "devastation still surrounds us. … I see people trying to fix what was broken and reclaim what was theirs. They are coming out stronger in the end." 

There is sorrow in the midst, a realization, writes Molly Fisk in "Particulate Matter," of what one is breathing in. "How many miles of electrical wire and PVC pipe swirling into the once-blue sky: how many linoleum acres? Not to mention the valley oaks, the ponderosas, all the wild/ hearts and all the tame, their bark and leaves and hooves and hair and bones…."

A section of photographs by retired English instructor Neal Snidow (the cover is a closeup of "Chevy Side Panel"), and others as well, captures the strange landscape created in California's deadliest conflagration. 

And now? Tim Hayes imagines "A Conversation" between the scorched field and the emerging grass. "You stand in the place of a/ late companion,/ how dare you appear so suddenly?"; to which the grass replies: "perhaps I am that same companion,/ I grew from the fragments that/ were left behind./ carnage is necessary for/ creation./ wounds are made for healing./ comfort is the enemy of change."

Thursday, April 04, 2019

"Amish Guys Don't Call"

Secrets. "We’ve all got them," writes Portland-based author and actress Debby Dodds. "And sometimes that’s ok, and those secrets are nobody’s business but our own until we are ready to share them. However, sometimes those secrets control our decisions and torture us."

For sixteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Stonesong, attending high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is a chance to move away from her past and the secret of getting nabbed for shoplifting. She's the whip-smart, blunt, yet vulnerable narrator of "Amish Guys Don't Call" ($19.99 in paperback from Blue Moon Publishers; also for Amazon Kindle). The novel is funny, poignant, and wise, sometimes all at once.

More than a teen romance (though much of the action revolves around ogling guys at parties), the book explores deeper issues of emotional loss, cyberbullying, betrayal, the meaning of friendship and faith, and being an "outsider."

The virginal Sam is befriended by Madison who gets her into a female clique called the Sherpas (ruled over by a girl named Hillary--named for Edmund Hillary). 

Lancaster is Amish country (Dodds grew up in Lancaster County) and, as Sam notes, "the Amish didn’t go to our schools or talk to us; they stayed in their communities, and we stayed in ours. It was some weird modern-day, mutually-agreed-upon segregation. Except that sometimes Amish teens would sneak out and pretend not to be Amish for a little while. They just weren’t very good at it."

When Sam meets a dreamboat guy named Zach at a party she falls for him big time, especially because they both love horror flicks. But he has a secret, too. 

Dodds is scheduled to present two workshops at the eighth-annual WordSpring creative writing conference, Saturday, April 27, from 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. on the Butte College main campus. "Bringing The Funny To Your Writing" will show "how different writers tickle the funny bone and how attendees can do that in their own writing." "Tips For Terror And Hints For Horror" "examines masters of communicating the dark and teaches techniques of horror writing."

Tickets are $30 for students and educators, $60 for the general public, free for the first 50 attendees affected by the Camp Fire; visit