Thursday, January 31, 2019

"Widow Creek"

"It's a work of historical fiction about Mariah Hardwick Penngrove, a young woman who travels from Missouri to Northern California via wagon train in 1849." That's the straightforward description provided by Westwood writer Sarah Margolis Pearce for her novel "Widow Creek" ($12.99 in paperback from Lucky Bat Books; also for Amazon Kindle). Yet that barely scratches the surface; there are wonders here that transcend the genre.

Mariah keeps a journal, inspired by the writings of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their own journal entries appear throughout the book as they, like Mariah, explore what is "beyond." 

Bamboozled by one Earl Penngrove into an ill-advised marriage and a long trip to California to collect a non-existent inheritance, Mariah becomes a widow during the journey but she is determined to carry on.

"I wondered about those thousands of miles Lewis and Clark explored," she writes. "What was out there in The Beyond? I did not dwell on the enormous space, the lonely miles, and the empty stretches that made your eyes sore from looking. Not then, at any rate. It was the not knowing what was next around the bend that captured my imagination."

She arrives in Remington River (readers will be reminded of Chester) which is on the path to Red Bluff, overlooked by Hasten Peak. A stage stop called Widow Creek Station plays an outsize role in Mariah's adventures, most notably with the notorious Californio Pajaro Mendonca, a Mexican born in California. 

There's a mutual attraction, though it is not long before Mariah is embroiled in a land dispute with a San Francisco tong leader who is also a prominent madam. Po Fong will stop at nothing to get what she wants—and she wants what Pajaro has hidden.

Mariah's writings are framed by a present-day historical investigation involving, among others, a Chico State University history major in prison for bank robbery. Somehow there's a connection between Mariah and three mysterious rocks discovered near Hasten Peak. Writings on them refer to her and Pajaro.

Pearce captures the joy of historical investigation in determining what's true. Is Pajaro really a bad guy? The answer is complicated--and so is this satisfying, beautifully crafted, and provocative novel.

Thursday, January 24, 2019


Chicoan Jesse Lawson works in Information Systems at Butte College; a U.S. Marine, he's served as an intelligence analyst. He's a singer-songwriter; host of the "Coping with Creativity" podcast; and the author of "Evolved" (self-published for Amazon Kindle; visit for details), a sci-fi thriller that begins quietly at Chico State University.

That's where Dr. Lexa Rogers, a lecturer in archaeology, is on the cusp of getting a full-time position when, out of the blue, government agents from the Department of Homeland Security whisk her away, supposedly for a weekend, on a super-secret mission.

At Chico Municipal Airport the agents drive right up into the belly of a cargo plane for the long flight to San Felice Circeo, home of one of the most important Neanderthal fossil finds. Lexa is a former Marine but the secrecy makes no sense. "The real question now," she tells the agents, "is why some hundred-thousand-year-old bones in Italy are a matter of national security."

It turns out that buried in one of the ancient skulls is a tooth; removed for study, the handlers had accidentally chipped it, as Lexa sees in a photograph. But there's a second picture of the tooth without a chip. Okay. Except that the second picture was taken afterthe first. The tooth has healed itself. The genetic value to humanity? Incalculable.

There's more. Lexa meets Donna Morrow, project director in the Carson Habitat, "three hundred feet below the surface of the Tyrrhenian Sea and fifteen miles south of the Italian coast," where the focus is on Olive, a giant octopus who has learned rudimentary sign language. 

More importantly, cephalopods like Olive can quickly adapt their skin color to their surroundings, rendering them almost invisible. If that ability could be duplicated in the laboratory, soldiers would hold tremendous advantage against enemy troops.

Who wouldn't want such a genetic technology? So there are plots and counterplots afoot--and a grisly attack by a mysterious creature that makes getting at the truth a matter of life or death, even as the horror mounts.

This is the first book in the Special Projects and Intelligence Division Emergency Response (SPIDER) series and readers will eagerly await Lexa's next page-turning adventure.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"Life And The Fields"

Chico poet George Keithley has released a marvelous volume entitled "Life And The Fields: New And Selected Poems" ($24 in paperback from Turning Point, Drawing on publications from "The Donner Party" (1972) down to the present day, with nine new poems, Keithley has created a paean to the natural world that also recognizes its fraught relationship with human purposes.

The book begins with "Voices, Stillness": "We listen to/ the rhythmic lapping// of the water. We/ hear its current,// almost the sound of voices singing// on the far shore/ until they drift off...." In the poem only the "skeletal pilings" remain of a pier washed away by a flood; now there is only "deepening stillness." But it is the stillness that draws the poet to a connection with the world that can hardly be articulated. 

In the last poem in the collection, "Enjoy the Land," the poet is alone by Deer Creek, "Water cascading/ over rocks, rushing beneath the aspen/ and oak that shelter the foothills...." And a question comes as the poet struggles with parental regret: "... why does a man seek the solitude/ that troubles him?" He adds, "Always/ we long for those we've loved in the silence/ of what was whispered, wept, or left unsaid."

There are poems here of human love but also folly and miscalculation. "There is a land logic which we lost..." says the tragic voice of George Donner. Later in the collection, at "The Red Bluff Rodeo," "The last man on a saddle bronc/ provokes a rough ride/ to impress the judges./ Jabbing flesh,/ his spurs urge/ the bronc to kick/ three ways at once--// He flies from his mount/ in mid-air, tossed/ free. Falls/ like a sack of meal in the dust./ The throng disapproves and boos./ On hands and knees he crawls away from the hooves."

The rider flies, and falls. Now consider "Geese Going North": "They fight to be free of our earth,/ legs dangling, drawn up in the driving air,/ wings stroking the wind, beating its current beneath the keel/ of the breastbone as they're borne/ toward that loud height/ where we find them this morning in full flight."

Keithley soars.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Sequoia Chronicles"

You're an investigative reporter for a small, northern California radio station, but now, toward the end of December, 1978, you are hiding out at the Little Grass Valley Campground, and it's freezing. You're twenty-seven and your life isn't making sense.

You write in your journal: "If this were one of my newscasts, here's how I would report the events of the past year: ... 'I've watched two people die violently. I worked with an undercover detective investigating a grisly murder. I've made enemies of a motorcycle gang and some local land developers. I have been threatened a lot. Even shot at once. ... I lost several of my best friends this past year. Ed, Grandpa. And now Emma. Oh, and this is my last newscast, because I was fired last week.'"

So begins "Sequoia Chronicles" ($15.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle or visit by Jim Moll. A former North State Voices columnist, Moll, nicknamed "The Voice of Oroville," draws on his own radio news experience to tell the story of Mark Keating, News Director at the fictional KBSC ("Broadcasting for Sequoia City") in a fictional Sequoia County, not all that far from Oroville.

Keating's mind has a soundtrack; his journal entries are replete with lyrics of the sixties and seventies, like "A Horse With No Name." "Sequoia Chronicles" consists of those entries along with the chapters of the suspense tale Keating is writing, about a (fictional) plot against President Carter fomented by a man in New Delhi named Zia, who wants to change history. Keating's working title is "Mark's Great American Novel."

Keating is at first a just-the-facts newsman, detailing in his journal the land fraud he discovers, the personal histories of his friends and those who may be after him (is he being paranoid?), as well as the details of President Carter's goodwill tour to India early in 1978. But when Emma comes into his life, emotions begin to surface that he has long suppressed. 

Local references abound and add to the verisimilitude of this tale of human extremes, a fascinating yarn about what it means to make a difference in the world--and whether the cost is just too high.

Thursday, January 03, 2019


Humorist David Sedaris is now in his sixties, and that is cause for taking stock. His new collection of personal essays, "Calypso" ($28 in hardcover from Little, Brown and Company; also for Amazon Kindle) does just that. He wonders if he will someday be like that old guy on the plane who pooped in his pants. He tries coming to terms with an alcoholic mother (gone for three decades), a father in his nineties (a man of few words and very conservative views) and the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013. 

When Sedaris remembers some of the things his mother said about him to others in the family, he writes that "it was hurtful the first few times her criticism got back to me. ... Then I realized that it didn't mean anything. Opinions constantly shifted and evolved, were fluid the same way thoughts were. ... It was all just storytelling." 

That's key to understanding the Sedaris clan, from his longtime boyfriend Hugh, to David's siblings, Gretchen, Lisa, Amy, and Paul. The essays evoke a quirky family constantly on the move (especially David in his Fitbit obsession), with opinions flying and bouncing into each other, morphing sometimes into silliness and sometimes into sentiment: storytelling binds them together. 

Wry, rude and gross (like when, after surgery to remove a non-cancerous fatty tumor, he feeds it to a turtle), Sedaris is also funny. He names the family beach house he buys on the coast of North Carolina the "Sea Section." 

He describes in detail doing public readings while suffering intense gastrointestinal distress. He inveighs against everything being "awesome" these days, and learns the giant snapping turtle with a growth on its head actually has a name. "I felt betrayed, the way you do when you discover that your cat has a secret secondary life and is being fed by neighbors who call him something stupid like Calypso."

Chico Performances is presenting an evening with David Sedaris on Monday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium. Tickets from the University Box Office ( or call 530-898-6333) are $60 Premium, $50 Adult, $48 Senior, $40 Youth and $15 Chico State Students.

Now isn't that awesome?