Cheryl’s Top Five Oregon Authors

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By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Many readers find solace by escaping through the pages of a great book. In this time of a lock down pandemic my friends on social media have asked me for my top five of everything.  I’ve been asked for my top five movies, bread recipes–have you tried to find yeast at your local market? Yikes!—to my top five books of all time.  Now, how can anyone possibly narrow it down to five?  But, the idea of it got me to thinking about all of my amazing writer friends who I would love to see on a top five nationwide list.  Please note,  I’m fortunate to know many Oregon authors.  Since I couldn’t place them all on my list–if you—dear writing friend do not appear on my list it does not mean I didn’t thoroughly enjoy your book/books as well.

Here is what I picked from the shelves of my library:

Northwood Chronicles, Elizabeth Engrstrom

“Dark fantasy writer Engstrom starts on familiar ground, but rapidly turns this ‘novel in stories’ into a genre-blending exploration of love, aging, grief and sacrifice. Fast-paced, melancholy and beauty, the overarching narrative binds a collection of good stories into a superb if unconventional novel.”

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https://www.amazon.com/Northwoods-Chronicles-Elizabeth-Engstrom-ebook/dp/B007IA2XTQ/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=northwood+chronicles&qid=1592410062&sr=8-1

Littlest Death, Eric Witchey

Independent Publisher Book Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction International Book Award Visionary Fiction Winner One human soul and a little respect isn’t too much to ask for, but both are hard to get if you’ve only been a death for a thousand years. Shunned by other grim reapers, Littlest Death yearns for the respect given to deaths who bring human souls from Overworld into Underworld. She has only been a grim reaper for a thousand years, but she works hard at the jobs she’s given. Really hard! No other death gathers in MILLIONS of souls at a time like she does. Okay, they are just the souls of fungi, bacteria, and single-celled critters like amoebas, but—MILLIONS! If she could bring in just one human soul, the other deaths would stop looking down on her. She sets out to spy on the most accomplished death in the history of dying, Oldest Death. She figures she can learn a few things from him. And, of course, she does. She just doesn’t learn what she thought she would learn, and the learning comes hard. Desperate to become a real death, frustrated by humans and their attachments to one another, hounded by a Hell Puppy, ridiculed by other deaths, and undermined by her own ambition, she journeys the Earth and the Underworld in search of a trick that will let her gain the respect she believes she deserves. Unfortunately, her actions hurt the living, undermine the natural order, and threaten the eternal flow of souls between life and death. By the time she understands the damage she’s done, it may be too late to save herself and the souls she has hurt. An Afterlife Fantasy by award winning author Eric Witchey.

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https://www.amazon.com/Littlest-Death-Labyrinth-Souls-Novel/dp/0999098934/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=littlest+Death&qid=1592410177&sr=8-1

A Parliament of Crows, Alan Clark

Inspired by the true crimes of the Wardlaw sisters. In A Parliament of Crows, the three Mortlow sisters are prominent American educators of the nineteenth century, considered authorities in teaching social graces to young women.  They also pursue a career of fraud and murder.  Their loyalty to one another and their need to keep their secrets is a bond that tightens with each crime, forcing them closer together and isolating them from the outside world.  Their ever tightening triangle suffers from madness, religious zealotry, and a sense of duty warped by trauma they experienced as teenagers in Georgia during Sherman’s March to the Sea.  As their crimes come back to haunt them and a long history of resentments toward each other boils to the surface, their bond of loyalty begins to fray.  Will duty to family hold or will they turn on each other like ravening crows?

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https://www.amazon.com/Parliament-Crows-Alan-M-Clark/dp/099884666X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=parliament+of+crows&qid=1592410276&sr=8-1

Kilmoon: A County Clare Mystery, Lisa Alber

Californian Merrit Chase doesn’t know what she’s in for when she travels to an Irish village famous for its matchmaking festival. She simply wants to meet her father, a celebrated matchmaker, in hopes that she can mend her troubled past. Instead, her arrival triggers a rising tide of violence, and Merrit finds herself both suspect and victim, accomplice and pawn, in a manipulative game that began thirty years previously. When she discovers that the matchmaker’s treacherous past is at the heart of the chaos, she must decide how far she will go to save him from himself and to get what she wants, a family.
Lisa Alber evokes a world in which ancient tradition collides with modern village life and ageless motivators such as greed and love still wield their power. Kilmoon captures the moodiness of the Irish landscape in a brooding mystery that explores family secrets, betrayal, vengeance, and murder.

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https://www.amazon.com/Kilmoon-County-Mystery-Lisa-Alber-ebook/dp/B00J0MNS7G/ref=sr_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=lisa+alber+author&qid=1592412347&sr=8-5

Death is A Star, Christina Lay

A contemporary fantasy featuring time traveling Assyrian sisters, a circus in hiding, a body-snatching Demon seeking self-actualization, and heroic elephants. Theda wants only to get home to Nineveh, but her sister Irene believes controlling the demon and exploiting his unlimited power is the way to go. Theda must come to grips with her own role in this black magic mix-up and risk her bond with home, family, her beloved elephants and life itself in order to stop an ancient evil from being unleashed upon an unsuspecting modern world.

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https://www.amazon.com/Death-Star-Christina-Lay/dp/098877674X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=death+is+a+star+christina+lay&qid=1592503875&sr=8-1

If you’ve not read these authors I highly recommend you immediately add them to your “to read” list.  I would love to hear what your top five are?

How Not to Become Clutter

by Christina Lay

Like most people in this era of the New Weird, I’ve found myself stuck at home with a lot more time on my hands. And, like most people, I suspect, my eye has turned to the many neglected projects and pockets of irritation in my house. One dire enemy of my serenity is clutter. Being a writer, I have enormous piles of paper everywhere. Even though I rarely print out entire manuscripts anymore, I still have an abundance of notebooks, random papers, sticky notes, folders, and all sorts of failed attempts at organization. My cabinets and closets overfloweth.

And then there are those piles. You know the ones. Books. Teetering towers of to-be-reads covering coffee tables and blocking passageways.  Now normally, I don’t consider books clutter. They have a clear reason d’etre and are not to be filed away. Each one is like a little work of art just waiting to be opened and savored. Nevertheless, at some point one has to acknowledge the growing fire hazard and do something to organize the stacks.  This process got me to thinking on a certain phenomena: the abandoned book.

Most of the books stacked around are still waiting for me to crack the cover, but there’s another class of book altogether: the ones I started but never finished, usually with a bookmark or feather stuck somewhere about halfway through the pages.  They create a sense of unease in me as I pick them up, read the back copy, and try to remember why I stopped reading.

I’m a writer, so I can’t help analyzing books as I read, even if it is on a low simmer in the back of my mind.  If a book really grabs, I whisper to myself; how did the author do this? How did they get me to forget these characters are fictional and convince me stay up late, read just one more chapter, worry about their fate even when I’m not reading? And then I look at my own work and wonder if I’m achieving that magic.

The flip is also true. If I find myself losing interest, or being kicked out of the story too often, or actually getting pissed off, I ask myself why. That’s usually more obvious. It’s been a while since I’ve flat out thrown a book across the room, but I have decisively put certain books aside.  More common though is the Slow Drift.  The loss of interest. The putting down and actually forgetting to pick up again. I didn’t really mean to abandon those books, I just found something better to read.  These books for the most part are well written, and good enough to get published by a major publisher, but they stumbled when they could’ve soared.

I’m not really interested in giving bad reviews, so I’ve been gathering notes and keeping them to myself.  I’ve got a compendium of mental notes on “How These Books Became Clutter”, and thought I’d collect them to share them with you.  Mostly these are books that I received for free at writers’ conferences, where publishers will give away large stacks of books in order to create buzz. Mostly they don’t. Learn from their mistakes and don’t do these things:

Spend a lot of time building up to one big event or conflict, and then have it happen off-stage, or not at all. In the particular book I’m thinking of, I was stunned to realize the author had jumped ahead a decade or so, completely bypassing the big conflict (a war) that all the dramatic tension had been leading toward, or so I thought.  Stoking the fires of expectation and then dousing them with disinterest is never a good idea. And yet, I kept reading, because the author was very good. And then, they did this:

Suddenly switch genres.  This again plays into readers’ expectations.  Up until the point where I lost interest in the book, it had been an alternate history in the steampunk vein, with little hints of magic here and there. Then, after the above referenced time jump, a new cast of characters was introduced, one of which was a magician cat shifter. Now normally, I’m all over that sort of thing, but it was like I was reading an entirely new book and everything that had happened before didn’t matter. I lost interest.

Develop interesting characters and then abandon them. Multiple points of view are awesome if you’ve got a good knack for voice and characterization and I don’t mind chapter-to-chapter head hopping at all. However, I do expect to revisit a character after I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know them. In the book in question, there were several POV characters and imagine my surprise when I discovered that one who I’d considered a major protagonist was dead, murdered off stage with barely a mention.  I never did find out what happened because I set the book aside and forgot to pick it up again.

Have allegedly smart characters make mind-numbingly stupid choices. I shouldn’t even have to point this out, but it continues to happen. In service of the plot, a writer forces a character to do something that is so obviously wrong, bad and doomed to crushing failure that even the least attentive reader will be going “No, no, no!” Now, characters are human, they are flawed, they make big mistakes, sometimes whopping ones, but they have their reasons.  Might not be something we’d do, but we can understand why they might do it. The choice that enrages your reader is just never good (although kudos on making them care!)

Create a relentless atmosphere of gloom and doom and fill it with hopeless, unlikable people.  Now if you’re writing grimdark horror, maybe this is okay, but in your average novel, the reader needs something to root for.  Sometimes protagonists are not likable. Sometimes we might root for their failure and comeuppance. Sometimes a dark and evil world might be fascinating in it’s own right.  But if the main protag is a jerk, and everyone else is a jerk, and there’s no hope of any redemption, then at some point I’m going to ask myself why I’m reading this story. And then I’ll stop reading it.

Explain to the reader in excruciating detail all of the protagonist’s emotions and the historical reasons for those emotions. Repeat ad nauseum. I’m exaggerating this particular flaw, because that’s what I do, but I find a book is so much stronger if I feel the emotions alongside the character, rather than having them explained to me. This is one of the trickiest and most rewarding skills in writing; creating emotion without saying “Fred was sorrowful because his parents died horribly when he was a wee lad”.  Instead, let me know about Fred’s parents and then show Fred acting out in his own special way, or not. Show the reader how that event affects him to this day.

Hide the fact that the book is part of a series and not a stand-alone. Boy, does this one grate on my last nerve.  I’ll be about two thirds in and start to notice that the remaining pages are rather thin. There’s no way the author is going to be able to wrap this up in that many pages, I think. And then, I get suspicious. I start scanning the interior matter and that’s when I’ll find buried somewhere in a tiny font that this is Book One out of fifteen.  Perhaps I don’t abandon this book if I’ve been enjoying it, but if it ends on a cliffhanger without warning, I’m much less likely to rush out and by Books 2 through 15, because I’m pissed.  This is easy to fix. Just put Book 1 on the cover. Or the name of the series, at least. Hiding the truth will not earn you any fans.

I suppose that’s enough for now. I’m sure I’ll have another long list of not-to-do’s as I work my way through these piles, but hopefully, I’ll have a longer list of to-do’s.  Readers want to love your book, they really do. Don’t make them set it aside.

Free Time in the Time of Corona, Let’s Bitch About It

By Lisa Alber

I see many optimistic and supportive posts out there about how to survive — no, thrive during! — shelter in place. I’m past all that. I want to see posts by people who are flailing and not doing their best and going a little nuts. People, where are those posts?!?!? Those are the posts that would truly help me. Just to know I’m not the only one, you know what I mean?

(I live alone; this might be a factor. Heh.)

I re-read my last blog post, dated February 26th. Oh my god — seems ridiculous and hilarious now. I’d just gotten laid off from the day job and was full of hope about my new writing journey. Then a few weeks later, the Corona virus arrived and the shite hit the fan. My life didn’t change all that much — I was at home anyhow — yet it did.

The 2/26 post feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve been writing/revising most mornings, so that’s good. Yet it’s amazing how little I’ve accomplished. I like a desultory pace of life, but something about being forced into this pace has dulled my brain. I hear this is called “pandemic fog.”

There’s a difference between being at home building a new life and being forced to stay home feeling uncertain that I can build a new life (given the economy, etc). My neurotic tendencies are on high alert, ready to send me into a stressed state for no good reason. (Case in point: Yesterday, my inability to find the Cancel Subscription button on the sundancenow.com website.)

At first, I was all bustle and vigor. Hey, this is a lark! This is quite the fun little period! It’s peaceful and there’s no traffic and people are friendlier than usual! I have so much time and I’m going to accomplish all my dreams!

Now, it’s more like: Which streaming channel has the longest free trial period?

As a friend said last week, “This isn’t cute anymore.” The bloom is definitely off the proverbial rose, and I’m feeling it. (I WANT TO HIT MY LOCAL FOR A PINT, WITH FRIENDS OR NOT, I DON’T CARE!)

I have a half-baked theory that the protests surged when they did, in part, because people maxed out their tolerance for “me” time. God forbid we have time to ponder our lives, really THINK about who we are, what we want, and so on. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. Some people will do anything to avoid discomfort, no matter how short-sighted  and idiotic.

I have a high tolerance for “me” time. Even so, to lessen the impact of shelter in place on my psyche, I journal every morning. I’ll burn the journals after all this done, that’s for sure. Witness this gem from today’s drivel-fest: “Yep, got up earlier to get going, so that’s cool.”

Uh-huh. What’s the point of getting up earlier, anyhow? Who cares that I’m succumbing to nocturnal tendencies, lights out at 1:00 A.M.?

As the days pass in a blur of uniformity, I’ve also succumbed to binge-watching obscure foreign crime dramas. (Recently watched an Icelandic one called “Trapped.”) At first, I diligently walked the park every day to get out of the house, keep sane, randomly chat with people (socially distanced, of course). Now I don’t care so much.

A few days ago I realized I’d reached my lowest point when I bought a jumbo bag of Red Vines. Jumbo. Bag. One thing to eat Red Vines at the movies — which I don’t do anymore, anyhow — another thing to plop the bag on the coffee table, readily available while I binge-watch.

When all this was a lark, I grooved on cooking, and even baking. Now I’d rather go pick up a Papa Murphy’s pizza, or on a healthier note, Trader Joe’s ready-made salads. Not doing so well in the food department, generally. Standing in line to enter grocery stores feels too Soviet Russia, and who wants to be reminded of that country given the upcoming election? I surely don’t.

On that sourpuss note, I’ve officially reached the end of my tolerance for bitching. FOR NOW. Hope everyone is keeping healthy, mentally as well as physically, xoxo