Traveling with old friends

Oct. 26, 2013 @ 11:10 AM

When I wound up with an airline voucher that would go away if I didn’t spend it, I decided to return “home” to Santa Barbara for the first time in close to 10 years. Even though I’ve lived in Chapel Hill for 23 years, a part of me still yearns for beach walks, mountain hikes, my many friends and the fare of Superica Taqueria.
Our children were young when we decided to move. “Where do you move from Paradise?” people would ask. It was 15 minutes to the mountains and 15 to the beach.   We lived in a bungalow cottage on a third of an acre where the previous owners had planted for 17 years -- lemons, limes, Mandarin oranges, peaches, nectarines, plums, guava, grapefruit and more. Across the street lived an elderly woman who had so many animals that my children had a personal petting zoo. I know it sounds gaggy, but the contractors who renovated the house we bought put up shutters with hearts. Santa Barbara was the place I became an adult, got married, had babies, and began to write. 
We wanted to live in a place that was more real — little did we know that California real estate would crap out, we’d be paying rent and mortgage for more than a year, and neither of us could find employment. It was a lot more real than we wanted.
So was my straight flight to San Francisco with its jammed seats, impassable aisles and pretzel privation. To weather it, I lost myself in the newest novel by Lee Wardlaw, “101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies” (Puffin, ages 10-12), the third in a series she began in the early days of our writing group when she created Stephen Wyatt (Sneeze) the hero of her first middle-grade fiction, “101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher” (Puffin, ages 9-12). Sneeze still has out-of-control allergies. In the opening pages of the new book, his unexpected sneeze typhoons a cake, rendering it icing-less. When last I knew Sneeze, he was on the edge of succeeding as a brilliant inventor and had gained the admiration of classmates for writing a list of “101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher.” All of his sassy ideas are listed in the back of the book.
Things have changed. Sneeze has been rejected at the Invention Convention, has a bully who hates him, his mother’s pregnant, and his best male friend has killed all his tropical fish. Worst of all, he’s crushing on his former best female friend who is in love with a hunky Hawaiian dude. Sneeze’s circle of wacky friends has expanded to include a young foodie who puts béarnaise sauce on his peanut butter and jelly, and Wardlaw has created a whole host of intriguing minor characters like the ex-rodeo bronco riding school nurse. 
Wardlaw is as inventive as her protagonist. She weaves Hawaiian Pidgin English poetically into this story. She has come up with complex situations and circumstances that mimic the classic elements of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” but in a totally upbeat, playful, middle-school way. Sneeze has gained depth and so has Wardlaw’s writing. And yet, this book had Wardlaw’s familiar style strengths -- humor, spot-on-dialogue, a fast-moving plot, child-apt issues, and continuous tension. 
As I trekked to a meeting in Los Angeles, I listened Sue Grafton’s “Kinsey and Me: Stories” (Penguin Audio, 6CDs, 7.5 hours). Thirty-one years ago, Kinsey Milhone made a literary appearance in Grafton’s first alphabetic mystery, “A is for Alibi.” Coincidentally it was the same year my son was born and I met the author at a writer’s tea. Then Grafton was new to the field of fiction and I to the mystery genre. Who could guess how quickly she’d become a celebrity and how Kinsey would keep me entertained over the years?  
The book begins with nine Kinsey short stories. Each is like a truffle — small, rich views of the detective. Present in all are Kinsey’s sarcastic attitudes about social classes, her comedic descriptions, quick insights and Grafton’s well-conceived plots. I loved picking out Santa Barbara places in her fictional Santa Theresa. It’s also a plus that this audio, like all her others is wonderfully read by Judy Kaye.
The second half of the book changes tone as Grafton describes her fondness of and connection with her protagonist who is a “stripped-down version of myself, celebration of my own freedom, independence and courage.” She gives a biography of herself and writing life before offering 13 short-short stories written after her mother’s death, all of them with personal underpinnings. 
I’m just finishing Grafton’s 23rd, “W is for Wasted” (Random House Audio, approx. 17 hours). In this latest, Kinsey’s dealing with two murders, an unexpected inheritance, an old lover, distant (unlikable) family and attitudes about the homeless. Grafton again whips readers through her fast-moving W mystery with Kinsey’s whimsy and wit. Again, Judy Kaye reads, revitalizing familiar characters, breathing life into new ones and reminding me why Grafton’s pacing and voice make me homesick for Santa Barbara. 
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.