Sunday, July 30, 2017
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
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
"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
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
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.