Friday, December 11, 2020

My Top 5 Books of 2020

I’m up a river (specifically, the Sacramento), without a paddle—of course I don’t have a paddle, we live on a sailboat. Anyway, I realize I have been a bit out of touch the last couple of months (haven’t we all?) but now it is time for my Top Five Books of 2020 list.

As always, I am not writing about books I edited, so I won’t be including Murder Bytes, the newest smart, lively thriller by Gayle Carline or the oh-so-readable Angel Flight by R.D. Kardon. And I don’t promote those titles you already know, I try to focus on books from smaller presses—you might never have heard of these five, if not for this post, and I don’t want you to miss them. Not all of these were published in 2020, but close enough (I didn’t include The Vanishing Woman from 2012, though it should be required reading).
In no particular order, here they are:

The Last Blue by Isla Morley (2020) This book absolutely transported me. Not always to somewhere comfortable, but the world she created felt so true and was so visually compelling that I felt I was watching the story play out all around me. Set in a tiny town in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1970s, with long flashbacks to the 1930s, Morley’s novel is about prejudice and skin color, but not at all in the way you might think.

Murderabilia (2019) by Carl Vonderau. Think dark. Think creepy. Think chilling. Even after all that, you won’t be anywhere near this work of fiction with all too many real-life resonances. The protagonist is a wealthy banker who’s also the son of a renowned serial killer; now he himself is wanted for a grisly murder. The only way for him to escape prison (maybe even death) is to find out whodunnit, with the help of guess who? It'll be hard to find, but you may see a used copy.

Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir (2018) by Jean Guerrero. An award-winning reporter with years of experience covering Latin America, Guerrero is a true child of the cross-border experience. Born in San Diego, she’s the product of a tumultuous marriage between her Puerto Rican mother and Mexican father. Somehow, she managed to draw me in and make her life and her crazy family feel just like my own.

First Second Coming (2020) by Jeff Pollak. First off, God (or NTG as he likes to be called, short for New Testament God) is retiring. The replacement deity was hired by Milky Way Galaxy, Inc, because he’s a pro at bringing planets back from the brink. He threatens to eliminate Earth’s biggest problem, humanity, if they can’t rise to the challenge he poses to them on a popular news broadcast. There’s a love story, too, between two of the news anchors, and plenty of thoughtful laughs. Oh, and there's gonna be a sequel.

Past This Point (2019) by Nicole Mabry. Oddly enough, this book is the one that feels the most like 2020, and it was published last year—in August of 2019, before the world changed forever. The tale of a young woman desperate to avoid catching a killer new strain of flu who ends up trapped in her NYC apartment as the dead pile up and the government cracks down, was gripping and ultimately quite moving; the writing wasn’t fast paced, but its honesty kept me turning pages.

(Another wonderfully prescient novel for 2020 is the dystopian Midnight in New California by Lisa Renee Julien, though it’s is not as well written or edited as Past This Point.)

Hope you can find one of these you love, and want to share with others. And I hope you have a quiet, calm, restful holiday. Next year will be here soon, with more books...

hasta pronto!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Reality versus Dreams; Sympathy versus Empathy


The good news: Yes, I'm really in San Francisco. After years of dreaming of sailing under the Golden Gate, and two months of (slow & fun) sailing north from San Diego, we finally did it. Yay for us!

The bad news: As I jumped down to tie us up in our new slip on day one in SF, my foot caught slightly and I landed on the cement dock wrong. Very wrong. As in, I broke a bone in my knee (I have a non displaced fracture of my tibial plateau, to be exact).

So, dreams versus reality. Reality is me on crutches, hobbling the 300 yards to stand in the shadow of The Ballpark formerly known as AT&T Park, only to hobble home to the boat, exhausted. Wearing my masks of course. One for Covid, one for combating the poor air quality. Did I mention the air quality here has been among the worst in the country for the last two weeks due to wildfires nearby? Oh, and the Giants may not even make it into the playoffs. Reality. 

In other news, I am learning just how hard it is to get around in the world with one leg. Getting in and out of cars is a challenge (getting in an out of a v-berth isn't easy either!), but even trickier is opening doors and gates while on crutches. Yes, I can swing along on crutches (for the first 200 yards or so), but, in general, moving around in the modern world with a physical disability is a bitch. 

You'd think I would know this already, having taken care of my mom off and on since her stroke in 2011 until she died last year. One of her physical symptoms (she had dementia, so some of her problems were invisible) was a left leg that never quite "behaved" following her stroke. She had pain and neuropathy in that foot and leg for the rest of her life. So, yeah, I knew. I was there—I saw it, experienced it, was inconvenienced by it, and very much sympathized with her frustration. I sympathized.

As much as I tried, it was hard to empathize with her, though I certainly tried to put myself in her shoes. I felt bad for her, but I didn't feel her pain. I was full of life and energy, I could walk so much faster without waiting for her to push along in her walker. I wanted to help, and was happy to assist, and to push her wheelchair once she got one, but I don't think I truly empathized. Boy, do I now.

It is so hard to know you could almost do something, something so simple, but have to ask someone for help. Help with walking, help with tying your shoe, help with getting in a door, putting on a backpack, getting onto your own boat...the list goes on. And it's so great to sit in a shower on the "handicapped" bench and feel the hot water pounding you clean, to have someone bring you fresh fruit from the farmer's market, to lie down after an exhausting bout of doing dishes on one leg,

Oh, yes, Mom, I get it now. Thanks for your patience with my often-poorly-hidden impatience, and I hope my own frustration didn't show itself too often. Hopefully, I will remember how to feel empathy once I am back to being truly bi-pedal. I can see the world is short of empathy right now, both in private and public venues.

What does this have to do with writing? Not much, but some. Words matter. When we write that someone empathized or sympathized, it is important to know the difference. And empathy is the first job of a writer, and an important step to becoming truly human, long before the words fill the pages. Putting yourself in someone else's skin lets you see the world anew. Sometimes that is painful, but it is always revealing.

Speaking of writing, I have read a couple of very fine manuscripts recently, which gives me hope in these dark times. I have also read some amazing published works. Two I highly recommend: The Beekeeper of Aleppo and The Girl with the Louding Voice. Thank you, writers.

Hasta pronto!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Fortunate Me, Fortunate Us

Yeah, I know...We have all been taught to keep the good stuff to ourself, or a few good friends. And that no one wants to hear about how good our life is, when it is.
But maybe that isn't true.
Especially now, when so many of us are struggling with being "stuck." Stuck at home, stuck with bills and without work, stuck in our writing projects.
So, I just wanted to say that I am feeling so grateful for the following gifts:
1. To have a wonderful partner in all of this madness... a best friend (and lover!) to spend my days and nights with, to go walking with, talk with, watch documentaries and dumb movies with, sip wine with, try recipes with.
2. To have work I love, that I feel is pretty important—relatively, not like brain surgery—and that contributes to good in the world (more great books!) and that does not pollute, promote evil, or even celebrate mediocrity.
3. That Russel and I both work from home, so that we can keep on working through all this madness. Though we hoped to be sailing up the coast by now, being stuck in San Diego on a boat is not a terrible place to be.
4. My great friends, who I chat with on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, text with occasionally, and even meet with on Zoom once in a while. And great clients who keep the work coming in...many of whom have become great friends.
5. That all of our family members are healthy (so far) and feeling fine, which is undoubtedly the very best thing of all.
See if you can come up with 5 things you are grateful for. You don't need to write the list down, but it may help. Why not? You have the time.
Take care, my friends—stay safe, and hasta pronto!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Show Yourself Some Valentine's Day Self-love at SCWC

Yes, it's February and this weekend is the Southern California Writers Conference here in San Diego.  I always look forward to this conference with great expectations, knowing I'll learn a lot, even as I teach a couple workshops!

1. I know I've said all this before, but bear with me as I remind you of a few reason to attend SCWC:
To find your "tribe"! The most important reason of all—we all need people in our life that "get" us and "get" our writing...You can find them at SCWC!

2. To meet industry professionals, and not just see them at a panel. Where else can you chat with agents and editors and successful authors in an informal setting like coffee or drinks? (Too many conferences are "cattle calls" where the pros all hang out together and you never actually meet anyone except other first-timers.)

One of the industry pros you'll meet is my friend and client Gayle Carline, whose newest (and best!) mystery arrives on Friday, Feb 14 just in time for Valentine's Day and SCWC!

3. To get professional eyes on your work. Amateur authors often submit their manuscript when they finish their first draft, because they're tired of working on it...but the book isn't ready to be published. Whether you take some pages to read and critique meetings or go to late night (or early ones like mine at 7am Sunday) “rogues,” you'll learn what is working—and what isn't.

4. To learn more about craft and story in hands-on workshops like my new class on POV Sunday afternoon, and to learn what's happening in the industry. From workshops on publishing, marketing, & promotion for your published book, to great speakers who have a wealth of experience to share with you.

5. Because it's so dang fun! We all need to get out and meet other writers and socialize once in a while. And who doesn't want to hang out with a talented, inspiring, upbeat group of creative souls? So, show yourself some love and take yourself to SCWC—your work is worth it and so are you!

And yes, you can register the day it begins—Valentine's Day—hasta pronto!