I’m in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, which is in California’s Central Coast, on the Monterey Peninsula. The climate here is the draw: it is year-round, temperate weather, often shrouded in coastal fog, which gives it a misty quality that reminds me of historic parts of the UK. What makes this part of California unique is the prevalence of cypress tress. I have spent the past few days going down to Carmel Bay for a long walk on its white, powder sand, and can’t resist photographing the area with the convenience of my cell-phone camera! I’m sharing the photographs I’ve taken here so you can get an idea for the magic that is Carmel-by-the-Sea, California!
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McClain
When the Stars Go Dark: A Novel
Anna Hart is a seasoned missing persons detective in San Francisco with far too much knowledge of the darkest side of human nature. When overwhelming tragedy strikes her personal life, Anna, desperate and numb, flees to the Northern California village of Mendocino to grieve. She lived there as a child with her beloved foster parents, and now she believes it might be the only place left for her. Yet the day she arrives, she learns a local teenage girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of the most crucial time in Anna’s childhood, when the unsolved murder of a young girl touched Mendocino and changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna realizes that she has been led to this moment. The most difficult lessons of her life have given her insight into how victims come into contact with violent predators. As Anna becomes obsessed with the missing girl, she must accept that true courage means getting out of her own way and learning to let others in.
Weaving together actual cases of missing persons, trauma theory, and a hint of the metaphysical, this propulsive and deeply affecting novel tells a story of fate, necessary redemption, and what it takes, when the worst happens, to reclaim our lives–and our faith in one another.
Release Date: April 13, 2021Publisher/Imprint: Ballantine BooksPages: 336 Buy on Amazon Reviewed by: Claire Fullerton
“When the Stars Go Dark is an intriguing, harrowing story that suggests we should never grow comfortable in a false sense of security . . . It’s a masterfully written story of resolution and reconciliation that operates on multiple levels of time, mind, and spirit.”
Paula McClain’s When the Stars Go Dark lures you into engaging with the story lest you miss a moment of its well-wrought beats. This is a haunting, intelligent novel for the discerning reader; the thinking man’s page-turner; a riveting crime-detective story seen through the wounded soul of 35-year old narrator Anna Hart whose life comes full circle as she tries to outrun her past.
See My Full Review in the New York Journal of Books here: a book review by Claire Fullerton: When the Stars Go Dark: A Novel (nyjournalofbooks.com)
Author’s Website: Paula McLain – New York Times bestselling author | New York Times bestselling author
Paula McLain is the author of the the New York Times bestselling novels The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun, and Love and Ruin. Now she introduces When the Stars Go Dark, an atmospheric tale of intertwined destinies and heart-wrenching suspense. McLain was born in Fresno, California in 1965. After being abandoned by both parents, she and her two sisters became wards of the California Court System, moving in and out of various foster homes for the next fourteen years. When she aged out of the system, she supported herself by working as a nurses aid in a convalescent hospital, a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker, a cocktail waitress–before discovering she could (and very much wanted to) write. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996, and is the author of two collections of poetry, a memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses, and the debut novel, A Ticket to Ride. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, O: the Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Huffington Post, the Guardian and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Cleveland.
Here on the west end of Malibu, I spend most of my days writing. I’ve been at a particular pitch for twelve years or so, and what I’ve come to realize is, if a writer stays with it consistently, they’ll realize they’ve created a lifestyle that feels like a spinning wheel whose spokes include the writing of a book, the book’s pre-release promotion, post-release promotion, oftentimes travel to book events, and all the while, a work-in-progress that perpetuates the cycle.
I discovered long ago that balance is key to being a writer. I don’t think it’s healthy to spend too much time at my desk. I’m in the habit of stringing three or four hours in front of my computer then going outside to walk around, see if the sun is shining, put Groove Music on my headphones, and walk to the beach to watch the surfers. A little air and movement always does me good.
But it’s amazing what can happen from the simple act of walking outside while taking a break from my desk. Last week, it was this:
An egret walked around our backyard. It’s been seven days since this majestic bird appeared, and it shows no enthusiasm toward leaving. The Malibu terrain this time of year is hot and dry, and that means the prevalence of lizards, which, I suspect, is the egret’s draw.
As you can see from the above photograph, the egret has made itself quite at home. Even our female, German shepherd, Ceili has grown used to it, though this isn’t always the case, especially when our other two shepherds are involved.
Here are Ceili, Ronin, and our 9-month-old puppy, Sorcha: three German shepherds with Irish names.
When it comes to seeking balance in my writing life, the environment I live in, and those that populate it give me a sense of balance.
I’m like may writers. I live on a wheel that constantly spins. It suits me, this combination of creativity, dedication, and purpose. Being a novelist is a fulltime job with no “there” to get to, only the commitment and perseverance it takes to stay on the path. As for the outcome of each book, beyond doing the very best I can do, it’s not my business. My business is to enjoy the process. I am grateful beyond measure when anything comes from one of my books, but it’s enough to enjoy the quality of my days; that I am spending time the way I like to, building something that matters to me, then walking outside to see what’s happening.
It took me a while to evolve from a feeling of anxious, pandemic shell-shock to resume what has long been a habit of mine. I like to walk. I don’t need a destination. More often than not, I walk down my driveway in Malibu, California and the biggest decision is whether to turn right or left. I typically listen to Groove Music, where I’ve downloaded my favorite albums. It’s not so much about where I walk as it is the rhythm I strike while moving through space. There’s something centering about it, balancing, and it tends to clarify my perspective regardless of what’s on my mind. And these days, I have a lot on my mind, though most of it has to do with uncertainty.
What got me out of the walking habit during the first few weeks of the pandemic’s strange state of affairs was that it rained sporadically, the sky remained overcast, and it added to the unbalancing sense of gloom and doom similar to how I felt after the Malibu fires when life came down to the daily question of how to get my bearing. I’ve always known walking helps me get my bearings. It’s therapeutic to me, a dreaming meditation, part-and-parcel to my well-being, and the one thing I know about coping in crisis is it’s best to arrive at a schedule as close to business as usual. Since the sun’s been shining in Malibu these past few days, walking is at the center of what little I’ve managed to cobble of a schedule.
We’re currently not allowed on the beaches in Malibu, California, but on a rise of the Pacific Coast Highway, I spied this path. It goes through an indigenous, breathtaking field straight to the cliffs overlooking Nicholas Beach, which flows to the left.
Looking right, Nicholas Beach flows into Leo Carrillo State Beach and makes up western Malibu’s coastline.
The foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains are in Western Malibu, and they run into Ventura County.
There are beautiful wildflowers everywhere, now that we’re in spring: This is Pride of Medeira, and it’s plentiful everywhere.
Along the side of the Pacific Coast Highway is wild mustard seed and bougainvillea
This is ice plant, and currently, it’s blooming
And blooming Rosemary
It wouldn’t be a walk outside in Malibu, California, without spying something emblematic to give one a sense of place. Since we can’t go to the beaches, this brilliant man did the next best thing: parked his VW van for an ocean view and strummed on his guitar.
It took weeks of feeling uncomfortable during this pandemic before I realized what was really bothering me. It went beyond a feeling of lack of control and wrestling with the uncertainty of what I can and cannot count on in my future schedule. My book, Little Tea, releases on May 1st, and as things stand, I have no idea what will be called off in my mid-June book tour of the South. Reports say the US will aim for normalcy in stages; that individual states will move forward according to how its governer sees fit. Conditions differ in varying regions. I think it will be an unfolding. And be that as it may, even if the coast were totally clear, I’m shying from the thought of getting on a plane in June to travel down South. We’ve all been through so much. Even if things were to get back to normal, it’s probably going to take a while to feel normal. But back to what’s been bothering me, because this just dawned on me. I’ve been my own worst enemy through most of this because I haven’t been practicing acceptance, at least not in a way where I wasn’t still trying to fit my square plans into a round hole.
I took this photograph from my front yard a couple of weeks ago, and I believe it’s exemplary of a ray of hope in the midst of a storm.
One day this pandemic will be behind us. For now, I’m working on acceptance.
And the best way I know to work on acceptance?
Go outside and start walking.
Second Wind by Alison Henderson: Book 1 in the Cypress Coast Book Series.
I loved every page of this exceptional book. It is action-packed, wonderfully paced, and full of gripping suspense. The story opens with 32-year-old Laurel on the run from her abusive fiance. In a definitive move, she packs her cat in her car and hits the road from Seattle to the sanctuary of Big Sur, California, where her mother owns and operates a cliffside, vegetarian restaurant, and her two sisters live close by. But home is not an immediate sanctuary, for the truth of her fiance’s hidden life follows her to the coast and unfurls in threatening unforeseen episodes that keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Cleverly written with spot-on dialogue, the breathtaking setting of Big Sur, California and the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea as described by Henderson is much of what’s to love in this delightful story. The Monterey Peninsula is the perfect setting for the life the artistic Laurel hopes to create, but when she is met by one obstacle after another, she is unwittingly helped by a rugged FBI agent named Jake. This story is wonderfully told. I believe it will greatly appeal to all readers because it is so very engaging. It is the kind of book you’ll look forward to returning to until its climactic end. You’ll love the characters, and will feel as if you’re spending time in the expertly drawn Big Sur, California. Five Stars! I look forward to reading the next book in the Cypress Coast Book series!
News from the Malibu Frontlines
Good Morning from Malibu:
I imagine most of you are aware of the Southern California fires. As of mid-day yesterday, all’s quiet on the western front, though last night around 10:30, my husband looked online to discover there were fires in an agricultural area named Somis, where the lion share of Sunkist lemons and Haas avocados are grown, twenty-some-odd minutes from where I live. Somis is a gorgeous area, and one we go to every so often because of the bountiful, road-side produce stands that defy description and the multitude of serene walking areas. To think of it now in flames breaks my heart.
To a greater or lesser degree, the Santa Ana winds are predictable. They come from the desert and blow to the ocean every year around this time, in hot, erratic gusts like the demonic breath of the hounds of hell. Typically, the Santa Ana winds go on for two days or so, maybe cease for a week or two before they rise up again. Those of us in Malibu are used to the cyclical occurrence, but this go-round was different—it was a stressful 5 days of living in the center of the great unknown. I can best liken the feeling to severe airplane turbulence: one never knows when or how it will end. It’s been the nerve-wracking unpredictability that kept me white-knuckled and gripping onto my own brand of blind faith. And because we live in a glass house on a 60-foot rise facing the ocean, we’re smack in the middle of the Santa Ana wind’s course. It being just after the summer drought and the terrain so tinder-brittle, all I’ve been thinking for the past few days is conditions are the right fodder for a serious fire.
But we’re ones that take brush-clearance seriously. There’s nary a tree close to our house save for two we’re well aware shouldn’t be where they are, but the need for shade in certain areas overrode logic. The trees are a mature nineteen years old now, and the simple truth is I haven’t the heart to remove them. Our scrupulous brush clearance worked in our favor this time last year. We share a property line with a wooded State Park that housed 320 acres of indigenous trees and shrubbery and who knew what all—we were never quite sure because the acreage was so dense. You might have noticed I used the past tense, there. Last November, the Malibu fires burned down the entire state park, raged to our yard’s lower slope, took out 12 pine trees along with our front gate’s electrical system then literally stopped in its path because the summer drought rendered the ground so barren. This explains why the fire never touched our house. Many Malibu friends were not as lucky. The 2018 Woolsey fire started in an area separated from our property by the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. The area is called Thousand Oaks, and between Thousand Oaks and Malibu is a canyon area called Calabasas, resplendent with houses, for all its hilly, wooded area boasting serpentine vineyards and ocean views. When I heard on the news that the fires were in Thousand Oaks, I knew in my bones that the mountain passes of Kannan Dume Road and Malibu Canyon would go up like a torch, and they did. When my premonition manifest, it was on the ridge behind our house, as we evacuated for what turned out to be 24 days, in an adrenalin fueled flight of terror.
You can probably imagine why the past 5 days have been nerve-wracking. For me, it hasn’t been so much about the unknown as it has been the known. I’d fancied myself above PTSD. I was wrong. I’ve rattled around my glasshouse watching the news and looking for where I just put my hat. It’s been like living in the middle of the very definition of the word disorienting.
It’s 7:21 AM, as I write. I’m now going to get it together and join “the girls” at Westward Beach for an 8:00 AM walk, as is our habit. We’re regrouping at the beach for the first time in days. My guess is we’ll be like blinking moles coming out of our mole-holes to greet the light of day.
The Santa Ana winds have ceased, for now. Please keep your fingers crossed that the worst is behind us!
Book Review: Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards
A perfectly paced, thoroughly realized, refreshingly unique story that takes the concept of world-building to expert proportions. Author Eldonna Edwards sets her standout novel in a 1970s, Northern Califonia commune’s bucolic setting and regals the reader with an unusual story from the perspective of the eponymous narrator, Clover Blue, who has a personal history, unlike all others. In a coming of age story, Edwards layers her art with the subtle fine-tuning of what it also means to come into awareness. The Saffron Freedom Community’s earthy setting is tangible, it’s free-spirited, well-intentioned residents so finely drawn as to elicit the reader’s acceptance of a lifestyle so beautifully and minutely depicted, one can’t help but become emotionally invested. At the heart of this story is the adolescent Clover Blue’s search for identity within the confines of his deep-rooted sense of place. Once the reader is hooked by Clover Blue’s story, a mystery creeps in to suggest all is not as it seems, in this idyllic world apart from the world, spearheaded by a mesmeric leader whose past is so covert, it’s no wonder his counsel is centered on nonjudgement and living in the present. Clover Blue is a story that rolls, unfurls, and deepens in seemingly simple complexity. It is a resonating, engaging story true to the spirit of its times and satisfying in its unpredictable end.
Malibu Fires from a 1st Person View
We’ve all heard the expression, “Life can turn on a dime,” but I know so few with a frame of reference that makes good on the claim. And I’ve always wondered to what degree events turn before one owns the adage personally. Certainly the death of a significant loved one falls into the justifiable category, where life as one has known it is inalterably changed. There are other examples, but not many.
I have a feeling I’m standing on one of those dimes, but have yet to intuit the fallout. As I write, there are torrential fires where I live in Malibu, California. At the moment, I’m an hour away in Santa Barbara, where the sun takes center stage over this Spanish-style, manicured town, with its one-way streets apportioned in terra-cotta, wrought-iron and stucco. Were it any other time, I’d be wide-eyed and skipping along downtown’s State Street. As it is, I’m disillusioned and displaced– it’s a feeling unlike any other. I took a walk this morning on the city streets, longing for terra firma because I didn’t feel grounded. There’s nothing more unbalancing than a threat to one’s foundation. No matter the location of your feet, a threat on one’s home effects the head.
I’m six whirlwind days into this now, pausing for the first time to assess. I’ve been on the move with two dogs, a cat and a husband; it took us a while to secure a base.
Last Thursday, there were fire reports in an area separated from Malibu by the arid, Santa Monica Mountains. In the cyclical drought of post-summer Southern California, fire conditions are ripe, in conjunction with the Santa Ana winds, which rage seaward from the desert at 30 to 40 MPR like breath from the hounds of hell.
I was standing in the living room Friday morning, when I saw ashes landing on our front deck. Through the moving filter of grey-cotton billows, the sun was an otherworldly neon-pink. And I’ve heard it said animals intuit pending doom long before people bring themselves to accept it. Our cat, typically self-sufficient, stood in my shadow, and both dogs whined at the front door, when I walked through it in search of my husband, whom I found wielding a full-throttle hose on the roof.
Personalities and priorities come into play, under unanticipated duress. Even with the best intentions in cogent, team-played sports, one discovers individual plans. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t see the merit in my husband battening down the hatches, it’s just that I’m pretty good at grasping the inevitable. I was useful in removing all things potentially flammable from our outside decks, then I left him to go inside and pack.
I’ve been asked repeatedly what it was I packed so hastily, and understand this is a viable question. My urgent thinking concerned two things: the long-term and that which can’t be replaced. Clothes for both of us for the long-run; jewelry and watches and my accordion file of important papers. Laptops and power cords and cell-phone chargers, winter coats, and walking shoes, and all things pertaining to the maintenance of our pets. I pulled the car out of the garage and loaded it in record time, while my husband turned on every sprinkler on our property. His plan was to stay with the house and fight the fire; mine was to keep my mouth shut until he saw the light.
When the light came, it crept ominously behind our house from the mountain. Through the opaque, unbreathable air, the sky lightened, and I knew it could only mean one thing. Brighter and brighter the backdrop shrieked, the dawning of illumination unwelcome. When the flames appeared, they crowned the ridge in an unbreakable wall, a moving inferno with nowhere to go but down.
That’s when we fled to the car, and turned right on the Pacific Coast Highway. In front of us, the canyons of a state park were ablaze in disconnected, sporadic pockets that seemed to have little to do with each other, yet all headed in the direction of our house. In a last ditch effort, my husband called the local fire department, and miraculously, someone answered the phone. We had no way of knowing what the result would be, in a town spontaneously aflame, but our address was given, and we headed north.
Have you ever travelled with pets, without a plan, nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof? I don’t recommend it unless there’s no other option, which still happens to be our state of affairs.
And the uncertainty of not knowing if one’s house is standing is emotionally and psychically taxing. It’s an exhaustion spawned by a weariness that bypasses the bones and runs like an electrical current in the blood. One keeps going because they have to, in this fight or flight battle with fate. The world, it seems, is relegated to myopic focus. As for all other bets, suffice it to say they’re off.
For the first three days after our evacuation, my husband and I were riveted to the local, heartbreaking news and scoured the internet for information about our area of town, yet there was none to be had. Our house is on the outskirts of Malibu, so far out it can be defined as way beyond the pale. Those three frustrating days felt like searching in a sea of futility. In what I think now is help from divinity, I woke Monday morning and did a random search online of our area’s location. When the large scale, long-range photograph of our area sprang to my screen, I forwarded the image to my husband. He enlarged a dot of the picture, and when the image grew, there was our house!
Three days have transpired, since the discovery of our house standing, and in those days, we have relocated farther north, while awaiting word on when Malibu’s residents will be allowed into the city. There are a handful of social media forums where displaced Malibu residents share information, but the bottom line is nobody is allowed into town, due to the fact that the fire is not wholly contained, and for much of the town, there is no water or power.
I’ve been turning over the idea of powerlessness and how one comes to ultimate surrender. One gets to the point where they simply quit struggling with what is, and does their best to simply make due.
I’ve been hyper-aware of my thoughts these days, knowing, as I do, that one’s attitude defines one’s experience. I seem to have lost my focus a bit. My mind runs laps around the simplest of tasks as I keep looking for center page, and although I fancy myself stoic, I’m told these are symptoms of trauma. And what startles me most is this awareness of a heightened sense of compassion and empathy I now possess. I’ve seen homeless people in parts of this city I’m in, and it takes everything I have not to break down and weep.
And here sits I, luckier than most, for my husband and I have a house standing, when so many in Malibu don’t.
I may be in an ambiguous spot now, but I can tell you one thing: When they open Malibu to its residents, my plan is to take my bleeding heart and open our front door to those in need.
I will bear witness. Life can and does turn on a dime.