Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Hook's Tale: Being The Account Of An Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written By Himself"



His biography is impressive. "John Pielmeier is a three-time Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated playwright and screenwriter"; he wrote both play and screenplay for "Agnes Of God." Based in upstate New York, he has cousins in Chico.

Pielmeier keeps thinking of another, very troubled, biography, at least as presented by the Scottish novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie, in "Peter Pan," the first book Pielmeier learned to read. Barrie's Captain Hook, the pirate with the severed hand, pursued by a ticking crocodile, is Peter's arch-nemesis.

Barrie does note that "Hook" is "not his true name," which, it turns out, is James Cook, and before he died in 1940 he wrote a memoir. Serendipitously, Pielmeier finds the manuscript in an American library. It has now been restored and published as "Hook's Tale: Being The Account Of An Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written By Himself" ($25 in hardcover from Scribner; also for Amazon Kindle; see johnpielmeier.com). It's not quite a kid's story.

Cook is born in 1860, his father lost at sea. His mother drowns in a bathtub while he is away at Eton, and he is involuntarily "pressed into service" for Her Majesty's Royal Navy. Cook insists that the "sorry Scotsman" got it wrong about most everything, from the "jolly" Roger (named after the un-jolly captain, Roger Starkey) to Daisy the croc, Tink the fairy, Tiger Lily the princess, and Peter himself.

"Why, dear reader," Cook asks, "do you always insist on believing that sad little Scotsman, who only heard the story third-hand, instead of believing one who lived it? … I, on the other hand--which other hand, by the way, I am forced to use now to write, since my right one was underhandedly removed, leaving me but my sinister side to express my feelings--I on the other hand am writing a memoir, and cannot use the conveniences of fiction to paint a nicer, cleaner, simpler picture of how things happened."

Cook is a sympathetic character, driven by revenge, faced with the great question: Do you really want to grow up? The story is mischievous, rollicking, wryly funny, weirdly fantastic, and, yes, entirely true.


Sunday, August 06, 2017

"The Legacy Of Little Mouse The Mouse"



A deep blanket of snow envelops the Upper Ridge and the animals "underneath, in, above, beside, around, and near Paradise Lake" as the new year of 1999 is about to break upon them. Little Mouse is deep in thought.

A few months earlier, as recounted in "The Adventures Of Little Mouse," he and his animal friends used a lever to move a boulder, preventing it from crushing his house. Little Mouse realizes that the "lever principle" can apply metaphorically to nothing less than developing a full and successful life of good character.

At the same time, down Pentz Road in Paradise, Jim Barnes and his wife Nancy "were having their New Year's breakfast with their visiting niece, Shauna" (a fifth-grader), and Uncle Jim is wondering how he can convince her to join him in visiting Little Mouse (which requires the use of imaginative powers to shrink in size) so Little Mouse can present his lever idea to a real student.

The story is told by Jim Barnes himself, a retired elementary school teacher and administrator, in "The Legacy Of Little Mouse The Mouse" ($14.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle). The book is intended to be shared and discussed with youngsters, and the fanciful story, Shauna's inquisitive nature, Uncle Jim's encouragement, and the puzzle of Little Mouse's "contraption," will make for rich conversations.

Through sketches and diagrams by the author, what Little Mouse unveils to his two guests in his cozy mouse house is a plan for using "the human fulcrum" (health, environment, society, family, great-souled friends, and "the universal Origin and Source") to help discover TRY: "The Real You." Little Mouse's lever is easy for kids to learn but deep enough for adults to ponder.

Barnes has also created an associated coloring book as well as templates for charts and posters (littlemousethemouse.com).

The author is skilled in motivating kids to learn more. When Uncle Jim and Shauna realize that Little Mouse's insights are expressed in a child's teeter-totter, Little Mouse "looked at two of the most astonished faces he'd seen since Bear had mistakenly sat down on a red ant's nest." A teeter-totter? Who would have guessed?


Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Betrayal At Iga: A Hiro Hattori Novel"



Autumn in Japan in the year 1565, a time fraught with tension as rival clans vie for supremacy. Who will become the reigning shogun?

The ninja Hiro Hattori, paid by a mysterious benefactor to protect the life of the Jesuit Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, has fled Kyoto with the Portuguese priest. Now, sheltered in Iga province, his home, Hiro and Father Mateo are confronted with the biggest challenge of their lives. There will be war among ninja clans unless the pair can find a murderer in their midst.

Sacramento writer Susan Spann (susanspann.com), a recent guest at the Butte College WordSpring writing conference, continues her series of ninja (the Japanese pronunciation is "shinobi") mysteries with "Betrayal At Iga: A Hiro Hattori Novel" ($15.95 in paperback from Seventh Street Books; also for Amazon Kindle).

The story follows on from "Claws Of The Cat," the first in the series, "Blade Of The Samurai," and "The Ninja's Daughter," though it works well as a standalone mystery. (There's a cast of characters list and a glossary of Japanese terms, quite helpful as the reader is brought up close and personal into medieval samurai culture.)

Taste, smell, and proper decorum all play significant roles in the mystery, which begins innocently enough as Hiro and Father Mateo are invited to be received at a welcome meal by Hiro's cousin, Hattori Hanzō, "leader of Iga ryu" or clan.

At the same time Hanzō is welcoming a delegation, all shinobis themselves, from the Koga families, with whom he seeks to form an alliance. Only in so doing can the clans resist the samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga's quest to rule all of Japan. (Oda is based on a historical figure, though most of the characters in the book are fictional.)

Things do not go well. Koga Yajiro dies a horrible death at the table, and poison is suspected. But who would do such a thing, and why? Hiro and Father Mateo have just three days to identify the murderer to prevent the clans from sinking into internecine warfare. There are more murders and almost everyone is suspected of betrayal, including Hiro's mother.

It's a classic whodunit, compulsively readable.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Spectators: Flash Fictions"



Rob Davidson teaches creative writing and American literature at Chico State University. In 2012 he and photographer Tom Patton presented an "image-and-text collaboration" at 1078 Gallery in Chico. Inspired as well by artists Stephani Schaefer and Sara Umemoto, Davidson has constructed a deconstruction of the "monuments" built by words, the stories we tell ourselves and often settle into. "We love limits," he writes in his new and strangely haunting book, "we feel safer behind an enforced perspective."

"Spectators: Flash Fictions" ($16 in paperback from Five Oaks Press) is a collection of short meditations, some somber, some flirtatious. The book invites reading and re-reading (the publisher has nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize in literature), and each time the reader will see something new. In a way, that's the point.

Patton's photograph of a man taking pictures of the Grand Canyon inspires a mordant observation: "He will not remember the canyon. He will not remember the smell of sage, or the breeze, just slightly cool, wafting up from the riverbed…. He will remember taking multiple shots from different angles…. He shoots again and again, and with each new image he builds another, different canyon, thereby justifying the existence of the first. We are only the stories we tell ourselves."

One ought not put too much store in one's words and yet "the world without words is the world unmade." "Author's Note" distinguishes Davidson the writer from Rob the ordinary bloke, the married man with two kids and a day job at the university. This Davidson guy "steals from me. From my memory." Yet in the fictions Davidson creates "I see myself most clearly." A fiction is a way of listening.

We can't help being spectators but we can also be shaped by a Buddhist understanding of presence. "The mistake most commonly made by those asked to wait is to focus on that which has not yet happened…. There is only the waiting itself, for which there is no wait."

"There is inside us," Davidson writes earlier, "a child's wish that the world would yield to our demands. Yet it's only when we stop to listen that something unexpected opens, like the ear of a parenthesis."


Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Reflections From The Rear View Mirror: A Love Story"



"Two major themes have been with me all my life," writes retired professor Kaye Owens ("Mr. Kaye"), "my abiding love and interest in people, especially children, and my fascination for anything with wheels and how they could be usefully employed." Now in his mid-eighties Kaye has compiled reminiscences of his many vehicles, and it's quite a list.

"Reflections From The Rear View Mirror: A Love Story" ($16.99, spiral bound, self-published) is available from Kathy's Books, 6848 Skyway in Paradise; and by mail order directly from the author, 5645 Butte View Terrace, Paradise, CA 95969 or through kayeowens.com.

The largest section catalogs the dozens of cars, trucks, and trailers that have been part of his family, beginning with a 1936 Ford Pickup. When Owens was eight "my father invited me to take the wheel." The family lived on a farm near Boise, Idaho. "I stalled the engine," he remembers, "but I managed to get it going again, slowly creeping across farm country until I rammed into the corner of a hog pen and stalled again." He was hooked.

Each vehicle, most accompanied by the author's own sketches, receives a paragraph to a page (or more), focused mostly on the circumstances of how it came into Owens' possession and the part it played in his life. Subsequent chapters offer more sustained narratives about planes, bicycles, carts, and even boats.

Over the years there are marriages, children, divorces, and many moves as a teacher and later professor of psychology and special education, but family names are never given. This is a vehicular memoir.

At one point, needing to teach off-campus classes in Utah, Owens becomes a licensed pilot flying a 1946 Erco AirCoupe. Owens the tinkerer delights in solving problems (like a broken canopy), but "I was very lucky. Mostly, I had feelings of inconvenience rather than danger."

These days, "with the help of children and adult family members, I am working on constructing a motor scooter made entirely of repurposed materials," like a bed frame and pump motor. "Reflections" will bring knowing nods from those of a certain age; it's a testament to a "restless spirit" who loves his wheels.


Sunday, July 09, 2017

"Bull's Labyrinth"



Oregon writer Eric Witchey (ericwitchey.com), a presenter at the Butte College WordSpring writing conference, has a penchant for the offbeat. In "Bull's Labyrinth" ($17.95 in paperback from IFD Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle), he has fashioned a modern day romantic suspense fantasy out of the quest for missing glyphs of the ancient Minoan script called Linear-A. He pulls it off with aplomb, interweaving the story of the brilliant and stunningly beautiful Dr. Nikkis Aristos, 25 years old, with an ancient curse 3500 years old.

The Minoan civilization developed on the island of Crete; there, Nikkis is invited by a detective named Andros to aid in the search for artifact forgers. Andros is "the unfortunate son of Turkish and German parents" and is held in contempt by the locals because, he says, "they believe my ancestors murdered their ancestors. Which, to be candid, is true."

Andros lusts for Nikkis, who constantly fends off his demeaning advances. He takes her to the ruins of Knossos, where King Minos, called the "Bull Among Men," reigned more than three millennia ago. The Master Carver who built his palace is named Daedalus. Nikkis knows the name; Daedalus was "the father of crafts and tools. He built the bull that let the queen of the Minoans be mounted by the white bull, the gift of Poseidon, and hence gave birth to the Minotaur."

Alternating chapters return to Daedalus and the "real story," of how he and his son Ikarus tried to escape the island kingdom by flying away, and how Daedalus, returning when his son plummets to his death after flying too close to the sun, eventually marries a mysterious woman, a goat tender named--Nikkis. The King, jealous of Daedalus' craft, curses him to fall in love with Nikkis and then lose her in life after life; but the Queen, craving the erotic dimension of existence, makes it possible for the curse to be broken, for love to be consummated.

The worlds of archaic Daedalus and present-day Nikkis are drawn with compelling detail, and the action pulls the reader along as, Witchey notes, "the battle between ancient male and female energies" plays out on the page to its breathless conclusion.


Sunday, July 02, 2017

"Storybook Style: America's Whimsical Homes Of The 1920s"



Chico writer/photographer Doug Keister (www.douglaskeister.com) has teamed with architect and syndicated columnist Arrol Gellner for a study of what they call “consummate artifice.” Their sumptuously illustrated coffee-table book examines the development and spread of "Storybook Style: America's Whimsical Homes Of The 1920s" ($34.99 in hardcover from Schiffer Publishing).

Blame it on Los Angeles; “… it is perhaps inevitable that the the epicenter of the Storybook style—that most theatrical of design modes—lies in the capital of make-believe: Hollywood.” In the Roaring Twenties “movie people” wanted homes to match their status. “Unlike the sedate manors of bankers and businessmen,” the authors write, “these houses would be fanciful monuments to the pathologically flamboyant, … evoking the appearance of long-gone eras and faraway lands.”

Period Revival included more than just Storybook homes but as motion pictures brought exotic styles into theaters around the country, whimsey took hold. “The Storybook style’s arrival into the mainstream was all but certified when Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered a medievalizing English cottage in its catalog of 1931, complete with catslide roof and rubble-stone trim around the entrance.”

The history of the Storybook style is a bit more complicated than that, and the book details many of the complexities. But readers will also find an abundance of anecdotes and hundreds of photographs, including of a Storybook house on Arbutus Avenue in Chico (showing “a curiously tentative use of random brick in the chimney”) and four pages on Chico’s Eastwood Park tract, developed by Oroville E. Tracy from 1926-1929.

Clinker bricks make frequent appearances. At first “considered discards, having been vitrified by over-firing and hence emitting a distinctive clinking sound when struck,” their “distorted shapes and dark purplish colors” proved to be irresistible to the Storybook sensibility.

Readers will revel in this serious history of a fanciful period.

Doug Keister is scheduled to be interviewed by Nancy Wiegman on Nancy's Bookshelf this Friday from 10:00 - 11:00 a.m. on mynspr.org, North State Public Radio (91.7 FM). This marks the tenth anniversary of Nancy's Bookshelf, and it’s fitting that Keister will open his "storybook" as a kind of tribute to Nancy’s long and fruitful series of author interviews.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Odd Otis: A Special Needs Dog Who Doesn't Know He's Special Needs"



Odd Otis is a "special needs" Australian Shepherd, born in 2007 and blind and deaf from birth. He was rescued from the middle of the Skyway and came to live with Magalia residents Alan and Kathi Hiatt. The story is told in "Odd Otis: An Unusual Tail (Tale) About An Unusual Dog" and his notoriety led to signings and school presentations.

Kathi writes me that "we talk to the kids about the importance of patience and tolerance when dealing with special need animals and people." But because "some of the children have been a little too young to actually read the book," the Hiatts have now published a picture version, with color photographs, to show kids how Odd Otis "can pretty much do all the things other dogs can do." And maybe a few they can't.

"Odd Otis: A Special Needs Dog Who Doesn't Know He's Special Needs" (Amazon Kindle; see oddotis.com) features a large image and a simple caption on each page, written by Odd Otis himself responding to the natural curiosity of children. "I can't see," he writes, "but I can find the doggie door to go do my outside business!"

Why the sporty sunglasses shown on the cover? "When I'm outdoors I wear doggles to protect my eyes from flying bugs and low branches." "Ottie" also has "a special water bowl so it won't tip over if I step on it." On car trips he rides in a car seat.

"There's an upside to being deaf," he writes. "When the rugs are being vacuumed the loud 'VROOM' doesn't wake me from my nap … and when I'm being brushed the noisy hairdryer doesn't scare me!"

He shows "children how to say 'hello': Ask my human if it's OK to pet me; make a fist and let me smell your hand; pet my chest and sides, not the top of my head."

Many of the pictures will tug at the reader's heart (I admit it.). But the book is not about feeling sorry. Instead, it's a celebration of the active life of an unusual dog--and how family love makes all the difference.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

"The Daughters Daring And The Crystal Sea"



Biggs resident Steven J. Thompson has created a fantasy world of sword and sorcery, where the kingdom of Highcynder is threatened not only from without, but now from treachery within. It is a world of gnomes and dwarves, faerie folk and harpies, orcs and witches, a world in which magic exerts its power and tempts even the purest heart.

The kingdom had been saved for a time from the cruel witch and her minions by the heroic Duke Daring and his two young daughters, Emily and her younger sister Elizabeth. That tale is told in "The Daughters Daring." Now, two years later, the witch has become Queen of Newcynder and is preparing to claim Highcynder as her own.

There are adventures aplenty in book two, "The Daughters Daring And The Crystal Sea" ($15.99 in paperback from KECELJ Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle; see facebook.com/SJThompsonBooks). Suitable for kids and young adults, the story features a magic energy ball, a fight with living skeletons, and sea battles that will shiver one's timbers.

Emily is now 14 and practices swordplay with Tobias Ocwen, a year older and also of the Highcynder nobility. Tobias finds Emily "annoyingly beautiful." His father, Baron Ocwen, a foul influence on the Knight's Council, becomes the "first noble to own slaves," creatures called Gharidians, amphibians who talk and walk upright.

Elizabeth takes after her mother, the Duchess Daring, cousin to the King of Highcynder and nemesis of the spider queen Evelyn. The younger sister, Elizabeth practices spells from her mother's book of magic and yearns to find a special flower that grows only in a perilous land, a flower to magnify Elizabeth's magical powers.

One must not forget young Joseph Daring, the sisters' kid brother who in his irrepressible curiosity accidentally sets fire to the King's ballroom. Joseph, perhaps in spite of himself, helps bring to light some things that are just not quite right in Highcynder.

The exciting story keeps several plots in motion at once and Thompson's writing is sure and polished as the reader is drawn into the action. Much remains unresolved, and we eagerly await the magic of the third book in the planned trilogy.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

"The Sleepy Hollow Mystery: A Chick Corbett Yarn"



Chico's Doug Keister is fascinated by cemeteries and has published guidebooks to some of the more prominent resting places. A few years ago he discovered that as a novelist the cemetery settings could yield some most interesting, uh, plots, especially if you have a cast of oddball characters dealing with issues of national security. What has followed is a series of romps with historical back stories and guidebook excerpts interwoven (complete with GPS coordinates).

The newest is "The Sleepy Hollow Mystery: A Chick Corbett Yarn" ($9.95 in paperback from Doublewide Productions, www.douglaskeister.com; also for Amazon Kindle). Chick makes his home with Uncle Ray in the desert town of Gerlach, Nevada, only now the story finds them "high in the Limbo Mountains about a hundred miles north of Reno."

They, along with "a three-legged border collie named Phydeaux," on loan from sheepherder Elwood LeFoote, are there to take pictures of a series of petroglyphs found in a cave.

It's the result of a request from Chick's best friend, Mensa-brilliant six-foot-seven Tom Twotrees, a Paiute now working for the Pentagon. FBI agent Desiree Depardieu, Chick's girlfriend, is helping Tom investigate a series of East coast murders due to a gruesome human form of mad-cow disease. A strange symbol is associated with the bodies, and that's what Chick and Uncle Ray are looking for.

Add to the mix the Dark Shadows movie; the fate of Michael Rockefeller (the fifth child of Nelson Rockefeller), who may have been eaten by cannibals during an expedition to New Guinea; and some pretty lurid descriptions of blood drinking.

There's a Nevada connection which leads to Artemus Collins, "Arterial Artie," a man afflicted with hematomania, which is, as Uncle Ray explains, "a craving, often sexual, to drink blood … human blood." Imprisoned for murder, Artemus had escaped, vowing revenge against all those who had wronged him. Triangulating the deaths leads our heroes to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York (sleepyhollowcemetery.org), where Washington Irving is buried.

And where Artie's attention turns, chillingly, to Chick and Desiree.

Keister delights in the intricacies of history and characters he has come to love, and readers can be grateful for both.


Sunday, June 04, 2017

"Fleet"



"On the day that he turned seven years old," we're told in Brian T. Marshall's extraordinary new novel, "Simon Patrick gave himself a gift. On that day, and every day that followed, he would learn a new word … because for him, words were like candy, tiny little nuggets you popped in your mouth, only to find them expanding, exploding, engulfing you with new flavors, new worlds. … And today, this morning, a good half-century later? This morning's word was serendipity."

Marshall, a Ridge-area writer, has crafted a tale that begins as a mystery and opens up into a realm where gods and goddesses are real, the story of life on earth is not what it seems, and where that very life is threatened by a powerful malevolence from beyond the world.

"Fleet" (available in an Amazon Kindle edition from missppelled press in Magalia; missppelled.com) immerses the reader in a novel so well written it would not be out of place on a national bestseller list.

Serendipity? Everything will change for Simon Patrick, a nondescript professor with an Alzheimer's diagnosis who, as luck has it, finds (as Si tells his friend Ben Carlson, a New York police officer) that "things that might seem pointless, or stupid, or random, suddenly grab you by the collar and won’t let go."

Thus Si helps Ben in communicating with a man found naked on the streets of Manhattan and arrested, a man who doesn't even know his own name, a man speaking an odd language--ancient Greek.

Si is more than intrigued; he bails out the man and takes him home. And gives him a name: "Noman." The stranger begins to learn English at an incredible rate, and it turns out he is incredibly fleet of feet as well. When Si's new housekeeper, Sarah Rhodes, a student at Si's university, takes Noman on an outing to Central Park, he bests an Olympic-caliber runner with nary a bit of hard breathing.

Marshall's work seems effortless, too, as he enmeshes the reader in a world which wrestles with questions about the place of violence and the nature of the split between gods and humans. Here is a talent to be reckoned with.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Four Corners From LBJ"



Paradise writer Marty Beebe calls his novel "a saga of war and redemption." "Four Corners From LBJ" ($9.95 in paperback, self-published through CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle), begins in the summer of 1967 with Benson Baker, 19, enlisting in the US Army.

"He volunteered for active duty and soon became just another hired gun. Deployed to South Vietnam … he had been gung-ho and followed orders, but only for a short time. … Dealing with intolerable deportment, he turned against some of his superiors."

His actions at the "Long Bin US Military Supply Complex" land him in the mythical "LBJ ranch," named for Lyndon Baines Johnson, "the only 'in-country' US Military Stockade." The myth turns out to be reality, "a god-awful Military Stockade overflowing with Uncle Sam's best rejects … a place consumed in inconceivable wickedness."

Benson is one of twenty new inmates, the only Caucasian. The Lieutenant Commander makes things very clear: "Now you listen here, white boy. … Brothers don't like rabbits in the buildings. … Earlier this morning a white inmate died in billet number three. … Nobody ever sees anything whenever a rabbit dies, you dig. I'm talking to you, Private!"

Within moments Benson spouts off, earning a place in Silver City, a group of solitary confinement cells, hot beyond measure ("opening the cell door was akin to standing near a fired-up pizza oven"). The language throughout the book is crude and rude, and decidedly not politically correct. Racial tensions run high. There's a riot, but Benson survives. Eventually he is discharged, and his wanderings take him to the Four Corners area of Arizona.

There he meets Sau, an Apache, who takes Benson under his wings. Sau's son, Adam, is also in Vietnam, and Sau appreciates Benson's honesty. It is a healing time for Benson and Sau, but then, inexplicably, some of Benson's enemies from LBJ show up in the area and hijack a tour bus carrying proceeds from several national parks. The heist turns deadly.

The story's end includes suitable comeuppance, Christian conversion, and a naughty joke. In Benson Baker ("Bb"), Beebe has created a wounded warrior with huge flaws--who nevertheless shows the middle finger to injustice.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

"The College Bucket List"



Kourtney Jason, an entertainment writer now living in New Jersey with her husband, received a bachelor's degree in journalism in 2007 but "also earned a degree in how to hold her liquor, thanks to the dozen-plus bars within walking distance of the California State University, Chico campus." (She wrote a sex column for The Orion during her time at the university.)

Jason (kourtneyjason.com) has teamed with Darcy Pedersen, a Northern California-based actress and editor who received a degree in theatre arts from Chico State, to produce "The College Bucket List" ($14.95 in paperback from Ulysses Press; also for Amazon Kindle).

Subtitled "101 Fun, Unforgettable, And Maybe Even Life-Changing Things To Do Before Graduation Day," the book comes "from two women with college degrees from a certified party school, so you know we know how to have a good time. And we're here to spill all we learned as coeds."

Organized under nine headings (from cultivating school spirit to "things not to tell mom or grandma"), each item is a breezy one-or-two-page chapter, with plenty of exclamation points, all with a common purpose: "We are a big proponent of getting out of your comfort zone and trying new experiences, especially during your college years."

They advocate responsible drinking and safe sex, but they don't shy away from either, including inventing "signature drinks" to having a one-night stand (after considering a short list of pros and cons).

College is also a transition: "Think of college as high school 2.0. In high school, you had to do anything and everything you could to make yourself an attractive prospective student. In college, now you must do the same to make yourself an attractive future employee." So "attempt to learn a different language" or "do a summer internship."

The book assumes readers have some measure of good judgment, especially regarding the more risky items. Graduates looking back may well be able to check many things off the list, but those who see it as a challenge to be completed might be most in need of wise counsel. In the end, the book reflects modern college life and the pains and pleasures of navigating the world of young adults.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Kiss Of The Art Gods: Memoir Of A Sculptor"



Water and fire have marked the life journey of figurative sculptor Dan Corbin. He worked out of a studio in Chico in the 90s where he began to establish himself as a living artist who could actually make a living from his art. Represented in galleries across the country, Corbin has specialized in creating life-sized sculptures of the female form.

His work is at once industrial and sensual. "An art analogy of my new sculpture style goes as follows: Rodin meets an Australian aboriginal conceptualist, and they began having kids."

There is no straight line from growing up in the 50s on a peach orchard in the Yuba City area to becoming a successful studio artist. The intriguing and passionate story is told in "Kiss Of The Art Gods: Memoir Of A Sculptor" ($15.95 in paperback from Gatekeeper Press; also for Amazon Kindle). Corbin's website (kissoftheartgods.com) features a gallery of his work.

The great flood came in 1955, inundating the ranch, drawing a line between an idyllic family life and the unraveling of that family in the years to come. After the flood ten-year-old Dan discovered an encyclopedia article on sculpture. "Looking back now, fifty years later," he writes, "I believe something mystical happened to me on that day." "Art," he adds, "is the nearest thing we have for getting it right and keeping it real."

That leads to the Art Gods. "I believe these gods reside in our bodies, in our minds, or in our DNA as agents of cultural progress, social bonding, and peaceful change." The Art Gods give short shrift to the dilettante, to the puffed-up person who dismisses his mentors. From Reno to Hawaii, San Francisco to Chico, the lesson took a long time to learn. There were brawls, booze, babes; and typhoid fever.

At long last he listened. He saw that firing clay sculptures produced incredibly fragile work, that his art demanded a different medium. The Art Gods smiled: "When the Art Gods think you can carry the torch of social change, only then do they give you their cherished blessing."

It's a heartfelt meditation on the Art Gods reclaiming a wayward son.


Sunday, May 07, 2017

"The Adventures Of Little Mouse"



Ridge-area resident Jim Barnes "spent thirty-five years as an elementary school teacher, mentor, and administrator in Palermo"; now the long-time educator is publishing a series of stories for pre-teens to cultivate "the intellectual and moral virtues that have stood the test of time in attaining a meaningful, productive, and satisfying life" (more at littlemousethemouse.com).

The inaugural tale is "The Adventures Of Little Mouse" ($11.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle). The book introduces problem-solving methods in a winsome way and encourages adults to read the story to kids and talk about it.

Little Mouse lives "in his underground home up on Little Butte Creek. … Paradise Lake was as gorgeous as it could be, with its sky-blue water, fluffy snow-white clouds overhead, and green forest shorelines accompanied by meandering paths." No ordinary mouse, he believes "he should apply virtue, hope, and charity in his daily life so that he could be an instrument of good rather than bad."

One day a five-foot diameter boulder "rolled off the canyon slope and landed next to his mountain home. It was only a matter of time before it would crush his entire home." That is a problem!

Little Mouse uses TRAP (Thinking, Reflecting, Applying, and Persisting) to brainstorm ways of removing the boulder; yet even with others' help, nothing seems to work. So Little Mouse tries PST (Paradigm Shift Test), visiting human construction at the old Covered Bridge, looking for out-of-the-box ideas. (The journey downstream is itself perilous and he almost becomes "mouse mignon" for a big trout.)

Little Mouse nearly despairs until a chance encounter with men using a steel-bar-and-cylinder to lift a car and change a tire. It's a lever--"That's the paradigm shift!" He could use a plank and block of wood to leverage the boulder. (An epilogue teaches how with a lever one can lift an adult with one finger.)

When a huge storm threatens the smaller animals, Little Mouse's character is tested. He must choose between protecting his house and helping others.

The story directs the reader to an upcoming sequel where the power of the lever extends "to the emotional and mental powers as well." Stay tuned.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

"The Nearness Of You"



"Who is her mother?" That's the question that haunts "The Nearness Of You" ($27 in hardcover from Ballantine Books; also for Amazon Kindle) by Amanda Eyre Ward. The bestselling novelist, based in Austin, Texas, will speak in Chico May 6 at the Jesus Center Spring Luncheon held at California Park.

The story begins in 2000 with an unsettling revelation from Suzette Kendall's husband, Hyland. On their first date she was clear that she did not want children, mostly because her mother suffered from a genetically-based mental illness and Suzette did not want to take the risk.

She was a sufferer herself, though medication kept the darkness at bay. Over the years Suzette had become an internationally-recognized pediatric heart surgeon, exuding confidence in the operating room, enjoying friends and a loving husband. Yet now, at 39, her world was about to be profoundly shaken. After fifteen years of marriage Hyland admits he wants a child, and proposes a surrogacy.

Eventually they settle on Dorothy (Dorrie) Muscarello, "fertile, unstable, beautiful," a high school graduate who wants to use the money for college.

Frequent first-person chapters bring a searing intimacy to the novel. "Why did I do it?" Dorrie asks. "Why did I sign up to be a surrogate, to lease my body, growing a child to sell to Hyland and Suzette Kendall? The clinic tells you, by the way, that you will be compensated for your time and care … not for the baby. But it's the baby you're being paid for. Your baby. You." Who will be her mother?

The novel explores this question with an emotional intensity that will keep readers turning pages until the very end, a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the featured speaker at the Second Annual Jesus Center Spring Luncheon, Saturday, May 6, at Lakeside Pavilion at California Park, 2565 California Park Drive in Chico. Tickets are $45 per person, with proceeds to benefit the housing programs at the Jesus Center.

Doors open at 10:30 a.m. with the program beginning at 11:00 a.m. Tickets are available online at jesuscenter.org/events or call Amber at (530) 345-2640. Books will be available for sale and signing at the event.


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."


Sunday, March 05, 2017

Thirty Years of the Biblio File Column


Cartoon by Steve Ferchaud used by permission of the artist


Back in the last millennium I realized that, though perfect in every other way, the E-R lacked a regular book review. My wife, bless her, encouraged me to do something about that, and to call it the "Biblio File." Though the details have flown the memory coop, I was given my first chance to lay an egg when the column debuted in March 1987, thirty years ago this month. Since then, of course, I've made many omelets possible.

In the early days, way before the digital revolution and the flourishing of local authors, pickings were slim. In one column I reviewed the newly redesigned telephone directory. You want local names? The book was full of them!

Another column was devoted to letters from Chico-area writers published in such prestigious places as The Wall Street Journal (yes, I reviewed letters from locals) and when that vein played out I resorted to connecting my own life experiences.

A memory book recalled my being in a speech contest in which another speaker, who had tried to memorize word for word, stumbled, stopped, and then cried out, "I can't believe it. I just forgot my whole life." Over the years I talked about my uncle's apple orchard, a failed attempt being the family plumber, and about Larry's Little Diner on the Skyway.

As time went by, not only did my picture change (more distinguished now, don't you think?) but so did the column. Personal stories fell away; most weeks now feature a book by an area author or visitor. My goal is to evoke the tone of the book and let readers know what it's about so they can make up their own minds.

Along the way there have been some gratifying notes from readers. Among the most cherished is from the college instructor who wrote in 1997 that "I'm finally compelled to write, simply to thank you for broadening my world…. I am continually inspired by your writing. I appreciate, too, your variety of books."

Variety has been the watchword; from teen romances to government contracting, from travelogues to game wardens, from sci-fi to an elephant ballerina, my own world has broadened as well.

Thank you, writers, and thank you, readers, and thank you, Dear Editor.