Any dedicated reader will tell you that quality fiction -- like life itself -- twists and zigzags in vital and unpredictable ways. Before that becomes true for readers, it's got to be true for the writers.
"There's a point when your characters surprise you. They take control of the book and you've got to let them. You've got to follow them," said Vancouver novelist Carolyn J. Rose.
"Your characters go off and do things while you're not there," warned Vancouver novelist Sheila Simonson, who once assigned newborn twins to a couple in one book -- and realized, years later, that the stick-figure tykes had grown into full-fledged people who demanded exploration in their own right.
Rose, Simonson and some peers gathered recently at Cover to Cover Books and Espresso to mingle and discuss their work. Cover to Cover is the labor of love of irrepressible bookseller Mel Sanders -- who zigzagged her store back to life at 6300 N.E. St. James Road after a fire in a neighboring downtown site smoked Cover to Cover out of its original Main Street home.
Sanders only sells local authors she believes in. When The Columbian asked for her cream-of-the-crop picks, this is the group she assembled. Their works should keep your brain twisting and zigzagging this summer while you're lounging by the pool or the beach or the lemonade stand.
When the double-whammy of divorce and layoff force Barbara Reed to get desperate about making a living, she checks her ego at the school door and signs up "for a stop-gap job one notch above crash-test dummy": high school substitute teacher.
But there's "No Substitute for Murder," as we discover in Carolyn J. Rose's mystery novel. And there's no substitute for protagonist Reed, an appealing blend of knocking knees and inner strength who's disarmingly honest about her own foibles as well as those belonging to the quirky characters around her.
Rose's prose is smart and snappy, as we see in one nasty vice principal's reaction to the news that a long-term teacher has snuffed it: "Something that looked a whole lot like relief flickered across her face, hotly pursued by panic. She swallowed a sharp breath and in another second was all jagged belligerence again." But why does that same official frisk the dead teacher before calling police?
Rose learned to "write fast" while producing TV news in Little Rock, Ark., she said; she also gained a healthy disrespect for TV executives, and very much enjoyed killing one off in an early novel. She has written numerous mystery novels on her own and with husband Mike Nettleton, and published them through their own Deadly Duo Mysteries (http://www.deadlyduomysteries.com/).
"No Substitute for Murder," published in 2011, is set in the irresistibly named Reckless River, Wash., and so is Rose's next novel, "No Substitute for Money," due out in June.
Emma Bannon is a little like 007 -- she's a supersecret agent in Her Majesty's employ. But instead of ingenious gadgetry invented by Q-Branch, Emma's main tool is the barely controllable magic that's busting out everywhere in a foggy, fizzing old city known as Londinium.
Emma is a Sorceress Prime, and in the steampunk adventure "The Iron Wyrm Affair" (Orbit Books, 2012) she's been charged with protecting an irritant named Archibald Clare. Clare is a mentath -- a brilliant deducer of whatever needs deducing -- as well as an unpredictable rogue, which is the last thing Emma needs. But someone is murdering the mentaths of Londinium, and it's Emma's job to keep her eye on Clare while negotiating a world full of clockwork horses and feral sootdogs, burning witchballs and gleaming glowrocks.
The writing is atmospheric and stylish, as in this market morning: "Even this early in the day, Whitchapel seethed with a crush of stinking humanity -- ragpickers, pickpockets, loiterers, day labourers, street merchants, hevvymancers and drays, public houses doing a brisk trade in cups of gin and tankers of beer, washerwomen and ragged drabs, stray flicks of charm and sorcery crackling along the filthy street."
"It's my homage to Sherlock Holmes," said author Lilith Saintcrow (lilithsaintcrow.com), who briefly lived in England as a girl. "I've always been too Britain for the U.S. and too American for Britain. All writers feel homeless to a certain degree. We're more at home in writing than we are in the real world."
Another altered version of reality, with one foot in modern streets and another in Grimm's fairy tales, is named in "Nameless: A Tale of Beauty and Magic," written by the same author but under a nome de plume sweetened for the teen market: Lili St. Crow. That was her publisher's strong suggestion, Saintcrow said. "Nameless" was published this year by the Penguin Group.
Here comes a godfather figure in a bullet-proofed limousine, cruising past minotaurs and other monsters who've emerged from the hiding they were in since the Iron Age. The limo rescues an abandoned infant who becomes our protagonist, Cami, a 16-year-old schoolgirl nurtured by the all-powerful Family, but whose unknown past starts catching up with her. It all leads to the eventual appearance of a certain evil Queen.
Beside all the mystery and magic, there's also the regular stuff of growing up -- cute guys and new looks, college possibilities and today's mundane realities: "The doors were choked, as usual, but their last class of the day was High Charm Calculus, math and charm working together, and Ruby had declared that if she had to stay inside one more minute she would die."
Does "a beacon for idealistic librarians" sound like the setting for a meaty murder mystery? Check out the politics and passions that seethe between the silent stacks in the Latouche Regional Library and Sheila Simonson's "Beyond Confusion" (Perseverance Press, 2013).
When one bullying library administrator (a "thorn with seniority") falls to her death, frankly relieved head librarian Meg McClean is an immediate suspect. Meg hates to admit it, but the money saved by that one unexplained tumble could go a long way toward providing her farthest-flung readers a refurbished bookmobile or library branch. But the disputed property rights of the local Klaloth tribe come into play, as does familial-but-claustrophobic intimacy in a Columbia River Gorge hamlet where the head librarian is married to the undersheriff and their pillow talk slides naturally from family matters to tax levies.
The writing is straightforward and savvy, as in this ice-ball attack on the bookmobile: "Thunk, thwap, crack. The cheers doubled and missiles flew. Meg disentangled herself from the seat belt and climbed out, wondering whether the kids were having a snow day, or were these kids home-schooled? Whatever. Their game had to stop."
This is the third Simonson mystery set in the Latouche library. Simonson has written many other books and taught English, writing and history at Clark College for 35 years. When her husband started taking work trips into the Gorge, she said, she would go with him "and explore the countryside. I would read the newspaper in the local greasy spoon. Pretty soon I had a feel for what these towns were like."
Simonson's even-newer novel, a Regency romance called "The Young Pretender," comes out in June.
Jane Elder Wulff's book is the one in this bunch that isn't fiction. But it's still full of surprises.
"First Families of Vancouver's African American Community" traces the growth of the local black community -- the roots it set, the challenges it faced, the way it grew. Wulff, who is white, said the book is hers but the story belongs to her primary sources, Cornetta Smith and the families of Vancouver's NAACP branch, who commissioned the project.
Vancouver likes to invoke its World War II shipbuilding frenzy as a spark of race-blind local growth, but Wulff's research brings out a more complicated truth. Some of her sources remember an era of optimism, unity and friendliness; others recall de facto segregation that occurred either naturally -- as newcomers sought out their own kind -- or by design. Vancouver schools superintendent Paul F. Gaiser is celebrated for conscientiously integrating classrooms during the war years; but later, when Bertha Baugh applied for a teaching job, her credentials got "lost" by the district, and when she appealed to Gaiser in person, "he told me Vancouver was 'not ready for colored teachers.'" Baugh got a teaching job in Portland and eventually was named an Outstanding Elementary Teacher of America.
Wulff's own professional start was similarly stymied: "I was programmed to believe if I had what was kindly called 'a way with words' I could be a secretary or a teacher. There were not a lot of women writers to emulate," she said. She tried teaching but didn't enjoy it. She spent years freelancing for hire, but now she's retired from that.
"I want to do what I believe is my life's work, unimpeded by the market," she said. Her first novel should be finished this summer, she said.
The rebuilding of 15-year-old Cody's broken life is going well as we open up Lisa Nowak's "Getting Sideways." Estranged from his divorced parents after a minor brush with the law, he's now living with his supercool race-car-driving uncle, dating an "awesomely hot" girlfriend and getting his writing noticed. Things get even better when aptly named Uncle Race suggests Cody build his own stock car.
But complications abound. Uncle Race is recovering from a head injury he sustained in a wreck, and Cody is suffering car-crash nightmares; his new automotive obsessions wear out his girlfriend's patience; there's the little matter of finding sponsors for the expensive project; and then of course Cody's father rejects the whole idea.
The story is as much about real-world families as it is about cars, but the writing is vivid and convincing enough to start you smelling oil in the air and feeling grease on your hands: "Once we were done trimming the fenders, we rolled the edges of the steel with vice grips so they wouldn't be sharp. As usual, I was trying to enjoy the project without thinking about where it would lead. The idea of getting out on the track made my mind whirl with angst about being good enough, and brave enough, and not screwing up."
Lisa Nowak (lisanowak.wordpress.com)-- who lives in Milwaukie, Ore., and couldn't make the Cover to Cover gathering -- is a retired amateur stock car racer who has written many coming-of-age novels set on and around the track.
The green-eyed glare and red bustier on the cover of Kriston Johnson's self-published teen fantasy, "Awakened," sure do jolt you awake. Just like the demons that keep jolting 17-year-old Jade Rosenberg out of the illusion that she's a regular kid. Nobody but Jade can see the demons, and the shocking things she's sometimes forced to do to protect herself and her friends have earned her the label "freak."
Freaked is what Jade becomes upon opening a mysterious old book and inadvertently unleashing a world of magic from the hidden realm of Elyndia: "The mossy boulders surrounding her leaned from side to side. Rocks ranging from four feet in diameter to tiny pebbles began churning and grinding against each other as they came to life. With short, stiff legs, one particular boulder rose up from the ground and crept toward Jade like an archaic tortoise."
Johnson has been making up stories all her life, she said, but writing them down never came naturally. When "the voices in my head were not going to be silenced any longer," she took basic English classes as well as Rose's "boot camp" for writers; she also invited lots of peer feedback and hired an editor. (Saintcrow, who has screened unsolicited manuscript submissions for a publisher, applauded this.)
Johnson (kristonjohnson.blogspot.com) said she wrote "Awakened" to let out "the dark and creepy that I've been fascinated with my entire life." More books in the Elyndia series are planned.
The only Sanders-recommended book The Columbian wasn't able to preview is "Between Flame and Shadow" by travel-and-culture blogger Karen Gilb (wildaboutthenw.com). Gilb's self-published book is a sci-fi fantasy; she is also at work on a historical novel about the Colorado silver boom of the late 1800s.
"I like creating my own world and characters," she said. "I'm fascinated by all kinds of historical periods. I like learning all about a certain place and then dropping my characters into it to see what they'll do."