Cheri's Blog

I'm Cheri Baker, an author of mystery and science fiction. Welcome!

Visit my bookstore for a fun read.

Friends and Readers,

Good morning from sunny Valencia, Spain where I’m waist deep in imaginary worlds and making good progress on my next two novels.

A cup of coffee next to my laptop

Valencia is the second city of my heart, and as soon as we landed, I felt all my stress float right out of my body. While we're here, I'll be doing some book research, focused on Valencia's annual cultural festival, called Fallas. (Pronounced FY-YAS)

Fallas lasts about a month, and it incorporates artwork, beauty pageants, parades, the sewing of traditional clothing, religious iconography, and daily fireworks. The festival culminates with an event called la Crema where the artworks are burned in a huge fiery spectacle all around the city. I'd love to set a murder mystery here, but I'm still in the research phase, so for now, that means taking lots of pictures, attending events, and scribbling down notes.

A couple days ago, the first pieces of the “Municipal Falla” arrived in City Hall Square on a flatbed truck. It's huge, and this is only one piece of it! 🤯

A large sculpture of a dove on a flatbed truck. It's upper body is as big as the box of a delivery truck.

If you're curious about Fallas, here's a documentary in English that talks more about the festival and its history.

Let's talk about books! Today, I wanted to tell you about a type of story that you may not have heard of. It's called a “braided novel” or “braided narrative” and I read an excellent one recently.

What's a Braided Novel?

One of my favorite reads this winter was The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler. It won the Locus award for best novel in 2023, and it's one of those books that are difficult to describe without giving too much of the story away. The book is speculative fiction (asking “what ifs” about the future) and the themes include: cyberpunk, marine ecology, anthropology, and artificial intelligence.

Book Cover for the Mountain in the Sea. It shows an illustration of a red octopus

The Mountain in the Sea is a good example of a braided novel. Rather than containing a single story, it contains three separate stories. The novel alternates between those stories, weaving them alongside each other, and the connection is revealed only at the end. Think of that connection as being the tight rubber band at the end of the braid. There's a little snap of “aha!” as the different strands come together.

So what happens in the Mountain in the Sea?

  • A scientist is invited to an island to assist in secret research.
  • A hacker is hired by a mysterious woman to complete an impossible task.
  • A man exiled from his home fights to survive.

For much of the novel, these stories don’t seem to intersect. We skip from one to the other, to the other, unsure of their connection. Braided novels require patience, and there are times when the stories are tightly connected, and other times when the connection is loose. In the end, I was glad I’d persevered because three distinct stories came together in a kind of tapestry.

A braided novel can do things that a traditional narrative cannot. We may see events unfold over the breadth of an entire society. Some braided narratives are told from different points in time, showing how the past, present, and future connect. A braided novel can have more than three strands, but three or four is typical. I’ve even heard George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books called “braided”, because they often follow different groups for long periods of time before connecting them together.

Anyway, if you’re into cyberpunk, artificial intelligence, and anthropology, check out The Mountain in the Sea. It was a challenging read, but if you enjoy speculative fiction, highly worthwhile. Also, if you have a favorite “braided novel” – tell me about it!

Until next time,

Cheri B

This post went out to my newsletter subscribers via email. If you’d like to receive these posts in your inbox, along with discounts, new releases, and more, you can sign up here.

#travel #spain #news #books

Airport day, airport day! Let's pack our bags and run away.

Today, I say goodbye to Portugal. We've had two beautiful weeks of tourist time, running around, taking pictures, huffing and puffing up the steeply sharp hills. I'll remember Portugal as a country that exists at 45°, and so beneficial for the glutes. Full of views that seem to come out of nowhere because you're always summiting. Seattle is fairly hilly but we have nothing on Lisbon or Porto. San Francisco could take notes.

What will I remember, exactly? The fairytale beauty of Northern Portugal around the Douro River, for sure. Wine country, with all those hillside terraces cut like ribbons into the soil. I'll remember billows of gray smoke from the carts of roasted chestnut vendors. My first time spotting a brass seashell on a sidewalk – a signpost of the Camino de Santiago. All the brightly colored building along the river and the hillsides of Porto. That wonderfully derpy Sunfish at the Oceanarium in Lisbon. How hard it rained the night we arrived. Tile in thousands of patterns and hundreds of shades, covering everything. I loved walking among the big wooden ships at the Navy museum, marveling at the complexity of the rigging. And I admired the incredible talent many Portuguese have with language, switching from their native tongue, to English, to Spanish, to French. As one of our tour guides told us, “We don't do dubbing here. We watch everything in the original language, with subtitles only, to help us learn.”

Obrigada, Portugal! Thanks for letting us visit.

#travel #portugal

Cheri Baker. Books for Adventurous Readers

Friends and readers,

Greetings from Lisbon, Portugal, where I am writing you from my hotel room, laptop propped on my knees. 😎  Patrick and I are back on the road for a springtime adventure, mixing work and play, and I'm writing to share some book recommendations and a few of the interesting sights I've seen.

A small bookstore called Letra Livre on the lower level of an old building in Lisbon. The building is on a steep hill, and the sidewalk in front tilts sharply down. The inside looks small, organized, and welcoming.

A typical small bookstore in hilly Lisbon

In preparation for this trip, I loaded up on novels with a connection to Portugal. I read an entertaining (but rather improbable) thriller, Two Nights in Lisbon, by Chris Pavone, and I dipped my toes into the multiple literary award winner, Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. But my favorite of the bunch was The Colours of Death by Patricia Marques, a gritty police procedural with a paranormal tilt.

While not related to Portugal, I kept myself entertained on our long flight reading Death on Board by Anita Davison. Davison has a nice knack for description, and the story is set on a transatlantic voyage from New York to England in the early 1900s. The sleuth is a British governess.

Literary Lisbon

During our brief time here, I learned of Luís de Camões, considered the “Portuguese Shakespeare,” whose influence was so profound that the Portuguese language is sometimes called “The Language of Camões.” I haven't explored his poems yet, but you can learn more about his interesting life here, including his adventures and misadventures at sea.

And imagine my delight when I learned that the world's oldest continually operating bookstore was a short walk from our hotel! The original Livreria Bertrand (now part of a chain) has been selling books since 1732. We went inside and found a surprisingly modern collection, well-organized and welcoming.

The book cover for outlaw justice. It shows a small spacecraft flying away from Mars. The subtitle reads: The First Guardian Book One

292 years of bookselling history, right here.

I'm unlikely to learn Portuguese anytime soon, so I picked up a charming copy of Alice in Wonderland. A grim-faced saleswoman at the desk applied an “official” Livreria Bertrand stamp to the book before glaring at me like she wished I'd die of a painful disease. Perhaps my tastes were too basic?

Visiting a country for the first time is indeed like visiting Wonderland. You're lost. You don't know how things work. Don't offend the queen of the bookstore, or she'll lop off your head! Ha.

With my head firmly attached to my neck, I headed back out into the rain. Rumor has it that our next stop, Porto, has one of the prettiest bookstores in the world. (Video Link)

Literacy as Resistance

ut when it comes to the power of words in Lisbon, what moved me the most was my visit to the Museu Do Aljube Resistência e Liberdade (The Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom). It's dedicated to the activists who struggled for decades to overthrow Portugal's former dictatorship, and many of the exhibits were about communication and literacy.

From the ways the authoritarian government strove to suppress literacy (because an uneducated populace is easier to control), to the explosion of underground magazines and hidden printing presses that kept pro-democracy movements alive, the museum was a powerful reminder of the importance of language and communication, not to mention the dangers of government control over books, media, and communication.

The book cover for outlaw justice. It shows a small spacecraft flying away from Mars. The subtitle reads: The First Guardian Book One

Antifascist activists used “muffled typewriters” like this one to avoid being hauled off to jail for sharing their ideas.

Portugal is a young democracy, compared to the United States. As one local told us, “Young people can be tempted to give up on our system, especially when life is difficult. It's important we show them our history, so they understand how dangerous authoritarianism is.”

Reading helps to build up our critical thinking skills while at the same time building empathy for others. My time in Lisbon reminded me that when it comes to literacy, there's far more at stake than entertainment. Words can bring us together, and from time to time, they have the power to change the world.

Until next time...

All my best,

Cheri B.

This post went out to my newsletter subscribers yesterday. If you’d like to receive these posts via email, along with book discounts, new releases, and more, you can sign up here.

#travel #portugal #news #books

We traveled to Sintra, a quaint Portuguese town full of palaces, lush grounds, and Romantic architecture. It was foggy and drizzling all day, which made for poor photos but wonderfully moody views. Our tour guide drove us all the way out to Cabo de Roca, the most westerly point of continental Europe. The fog was so thick that we couldn't even see the lighthouse looming overhead. Squinting, I caught the barest hint of waves crashing below us, etched faintly in gray. Soundless in the mist.

So we stood at the edge of the land and peered into the impenetrable. Then I went into the gift shop and bought two postcards to see what it was supposed to look like. I loved it. How sweetly absurd to be standing with a bunch of tourists staring in a fog bank, cheerfully looking at nothing. From there, we drove along the coast, near Cascais, and saw waves hitting the rocky beach, sending spray thirty feet in the air. Fisherman looked tiny standing next to their poles, the slender shapes as tall as sailboat masts.

Next was a catch up day. We spent a few hours in a cramped laundrymat, ably assisted by an elderly man who was there washing sheets with a friend. He struck me as one of those mythical figures that shows up to give advice to lost wanderers: The Laundry Man. The laundry man spoke Portuguese, Italian, English. He scolded the two young guys who hopped the line to use the dryer. He patiently coaxed my ten euro bill into the finicky machine for me. The laundry man was generous with advice, showing tourists how to choose the correct settings, ushering people toward a machine when their turn came up. He said to me, “This place is not mine, but I come here every day.” With his somber iron gray mustache and merry eyes, he was the patron saint of the Lavandaria and I will never forget him.

I leave Lisbon behind with appreciation and relief. Appreciation for what I saw and learned, relief because the city has been so pummeled by overtourism that anything but a brief visit feels impolite. I have dozens of photos of tile work on my phone. Beauty everywhere, patterns upon patterns. Within the hour, our train will arrive, and we'll head north, to see what there is to see.

My writing deadlines are screeching at me like hungry seagulls. Beating their wings. Flapping closer and closer I'm glad I packed my fountain pen. While we're on the train, I'll draft out a chapter or two. Sometimes I suspect the computer is best saved for second drafts. The hand knows things the fingertips do not.

Farewell, Lisboa!

A rough-textured wall painted with many realistic human eyes. They're all looking to the right.

I’m never so productive as I am on the road. At home, I’m apt to struggle with motivation, even when the “things I need to do” equal the “things I want to do.”

Each day here contains roughly the same routine. Up early to grab a cup of coffee from a nearby cafe. Three or four intense hours of sightseeing, walking 5 or 6 miles, taking lots of photos. Eat a big, healthy lunch. Take a big nap. Wake up and write for several hours, lost in the story until it’s dark outside. Another walk, shorter this time, to grab a snack and stretch my legs. I haven’t been hungry enough for dinner. Just that big lunch, after which I crash like a hibernating bear.

Sometimes the day is reversed, with writing in the morning and sightseeing in the afternoon. Either way, I’m surprised at how much I’m getting done. Lots of exercise. Eating less junk. Getting my words in, and enjoying them. Less time for boredom, for self-doubt, for getting distracted.

I wish that I felt “like this” when I’m at home. I wish I was walking six miles a day, and eating better, and feeling so productive. Yet I’ve never found the knack of being travel-Cheri when I’m home-Cheri.

Perhaps I’ll figure it out? When I only have two or three hours to write, I certainly spend less time faffing around. And it’s good to be busy, I think, to keep the body as active as the mind. If only I could figure out how to keep it all alive when I’m back in my comfortable rut.

I’ll leave this post here as a reminder to think on it.

Photo: Lisbon Street Art, Alfama Neighborhood

#travel #lisbon #writing

We'd been awake for 24 hours when our flight began descending into Lisbon International Airport. Outside the oval window, I could see only a flat gray sheet, impenetrable and featureless, but the sounds were familiar. The hydraulic whine as wing flaps extended, breaking the shape of the wing, increasing drag, slowing the aircraft down. That, followed by the whir of landing gear extending.

Without warning, gravity pressed us into our seats, hard. The plane’s engines roared all around us. We were climbing, clawing our way up through the sky, feeling the weight of our bodies and the plane beneath us. Alarmed chatter burst out, punctuated by a few laughs, and then faded away. We waited. Surely the pilot would speak to us soon.

Slowly, the pressure on our bodies eased. The windows still showed nothing but dull gray, but now, with my attention sharpened, I could see little flashes of white in the grayness, lights from the wings reflecting in the clouds.

The pilot spoke. There was no need to worry. It was storming in Lisbon, with 40 mile per hour winds, and the approach had been bad. We were circling around for another attempt, to come in from the north. It seemed to take forever to get down. We sank through the clouds, centimeter by centimeter.

Everyone applauded when we landed. Sometimes, you're keenly aware that the pilot's skill makes the difference between arriving safely at your destination and getting smeared across the runway. A covered staircase spit us onto a blustery tarmac where a bus waited to take us to the terminal.

Wild weather aside, arrival in Lisbon was easy. We breezed through passport control, followed signs for the metro, and bought a pair of navegante cards from the machine. Past-me had written down our directions, so we knew which metro lines to take, always helpful when you're running on fumes. Everything was clearly laid out. Everything worked. The stations were clean and well-lit. A foursome of twenty-somethings laughed and joked in Portuguese on the opposite side of the platform while we waited for the metro. In their divergently stylish clothes: sporty, pretty, preppy, and dark, they looked straight out of a John Hughes movie.

We climbed out of the station and into the rainstorm. A massive statue of a man on a fat horse loomed overhead, slickly black in the rain. The sidewalks and even some of the roads are covered in little white and black tiles, like a bathroom (so strange!) and as we trudged uphill with our backpacks, doused in water, dodging puddles, we realized we'd gone the wrong direction. It took us a while, circling, to find our hotel. In the moment when I felt the most lost, I was ready to drop my pack on the ground, burst into tears, and tell Patrick that I was done. Finished! I would sleep right there, on the wet sidewalk, for I was so so tired.

That’s when he squinted. Pointed. Our hotel! It was right across the street.

Too exhausted for dinner, we took showers, texted our parents, and collapsed into bed. In the morning, feeling almost human again, I used a towel to wipe condensation off the window.

“Look at the castle,” Patrick said.

I looked up high, above the rooftops, and saw the wall surrounding São Jorge Castle. Small flags flapped in the wind. The city is spread all around us, red tile roofs rising and falling in time with the steep hillsides, and the rain had stopped.

“I found a place to get coffee,” Patrick said.

He was singing my song.

#travel #lisbon

Happy Saturday, world.

Sometimes there’s so much book inside my head that I feel it pressing on the inside of my skull. It’s not a bad feeling – being full of story – but it’s hard to focus on anything else. The unwashed dishes sit on the counter, sending stink waves through our tiny home. The body pleads for exercise, but the mind is like: HOLD UP THERE, BUCKO, WE GOTTA WRITE.

Out of My Element

My writing group gave me feedback on a few chapters in The Hard Way Home, and it’s time to lock down certain fiddly details about spaceflight in my universe. How fast the ships can move. How far they can travel. Physics.

Science fiction readers are a discerning bunch, and it’s real tough not to burst the bubble of believability, even in space opera.

I was not a STEM major, but thankfully, scientists write books for people like me. I’ll pick up a couple this week and hammer out the details.

A Possible Fix

I trunked a mystery novel recently because it wasn’t working. I’d tried to pull out the salvageable bits, but they fell to pieces in my hands. Live and learn, right? Well, I’ve come up with a possible fix for that story, and I’m feeling – dare I say – optimistic? My optimism and my realism kick each other’s shins beneath the covers at night, but I try to give hope a fair hearing.

Today, I’m glad to have two stories galloping through my brain. You work on one until you hit a snag, then you can switch. It’s like doing intervals at the gym. Cardio, then the weights, then back again. Any more than two stories and I won’t finish anything, but two is manageable. Fun, even.

Back to it!

And body, you can stop hassling me for exercise. I’ll do the dishes and take a walk this afternoon. Promise.


Works in Progress

Good morning from //Redacted// Station. Well, that's where I'm headed in today's Hard Way Home chapters, anyway. Yesterday Patrick and I did some brainstorming about space stations, and the notion of a space station as a frontier outpost, the last stop for fuel and supplies before heading into the unknown.

Seattle was once an outpost town. Starry-eyed rubes came here by the thousands to buy prospecting gear, all on the basis of a newspaper article that claimed there was gold up in Alaska. The provisioners got rich, and the rubes went broke.

//Redacted// Station is my little Seattle, I suppose. Actually, it's nothing like Seattle at all, but some of the same pioneer spirit applies. There's a little bit of my hometown in everything I write, one way or another. I can't help it.

I've been squirreling away ideas for months, getting ready to write my first space station scene. Have you seen Eric Wernquist's short animated film, One Revolution Per Minute? It's gorgeous, and while the space station in my head isn't nearly so luxurious, art like that inspires me. Music helps too. Today's soundtrack is Atlantis from Marvel 83.

Behind every paragraph and scene, there's so much that readers never see. The music and art that inspired me, various bits of research, the conversations I've had, and the weeks or months spent dreaming. I suppose that’s one reason to be happy about this blog. It gives me a chance to share some of those influences with you.

Last night, and the night before, I fell asleep thinking of Loretta and //Redacted// walking through //Redacted// Station. Am I ready to write this chapter? I think so.

Into the book I go!

Today's post is about The Hard Way Home.

Book Cover for the Hard Way Home. It shows a ship in a purple nebula

#writing #wip #firstguardian

Note: I redact certain details from these posts to avoid spoilers.

It looks like Hulu is getting into the cruise ship mystery business with a new series called Death and other Details featuring actor Mandy Patinkin as the detective.

I'm curious about this one! I got a kick out of the Spanish historical cruise ship mystery drama Alta Mar (english: High Seas), and the production quality for Death and other Details seems just as high.

But the vibe looks quite different, and I wonder if it's a play-fair mystery (where observant viewers have a shot at solving the crime) or more of a character drama like Only Murders in the Building. I prefer the former to the latter, most of the time.

I have a personal affinity for cruise ship murder mystery novels, of course. 😏 But it's always fun to see a clever whodunit on screen too.

I anticipate a good time.

Works in Progress

I'm working on my next space opera novel, The Hard Way Home, and I recently learned there's another name for the kind of story I'm writing. Near Future science fiction. The Martian is considered Near Future science fiction and so was Project Hail Mary. The Expanse series might fit the bill, although I guess it depends upon how “near” we're talking about.

Think Sailboat, not Starship

When I started writing this series, I wanted to tell stories about humanity's early expansion into the universe. Humans living on the moon and on Mars, but for a matter of decades, not centuries. And with no Trekian luxuries like “antigrav,” force fields, or FTL (faster than light) engines. When stories are set in the distant future, it's easier to handwave the difficulties of space travel away, but that’s harder in the near future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gravity. How we evolved within it, and the various ways it impacts our bodies and everyday life.

Outlaw Justice took place in a domed city on Mars called Epiphany, but The Hard Way Home takes place mostly in space, thus I'm spending more time in zero gee with my characters, thinking about how that kind of environment affects what happens in the story. It helps that I've spent a lot of my free time watching NASA videos! But other influences that are just as helpful. I've been reading first-hand accounts of sailors at sea, and about some of their customs and how they’ve developed, and I'm trying to grasp the psychological toll of being adrift in a small craft, dependent upon your crew, luck, and the strength of your preparations.

Space opera isn't “hard sci-fi,” but what matters to me is that it feels real. And one thing I'm fairly certain of at this point is that space wants us dead. Space makes the untamed oceans of our world seem like meek little kittens in comparison.

As much as I dream of traveling through the stars, there are so many reasons why we are unlikely to have humans living our their lives off-planet anytime soon. Societies are complicated and require a lot of resources that we take for granted. NASA grew and lost one tiny tomato recently. That's where we're at right now! We are explorers, yes, but it is so so early.

Writing Believable Stories in Space

So, I've got a fat list of practicalities to manage in this story. Sweat doesn't roll down your back without gravity. Can a body heal from major trauma in zero gee? How is radiation handled? Does space have the radiological equivalent of bad weather? How does it manifest? And what about combat? If a ship fires a weapon, how do the engines compensate for the ship's “equal and opposite” reaction? And – oh my gosh – what else am I forgetting? 😂

It’s a lot.

These aren't problems you need to worry about. Instead, you can relax in the knowledge that behind most every science fiction story there's an author in full-on research mode, doing her best to add some salt of verisimilitude to her story. And it’s all background, anyway. The Hard Way Home isn't about the difficulties of space travel so much as it's about adventure in the interstellar frontier. It's about pirates and colonists and friends trying to keep one another alive...

The technical stuff? Well, that's just work. It’s part of the worldbuilding, and how it influences the story is both interesting and fun.

Writing about space has a way of making me grateful for life on Earth. I'm really happy to have gravity. And a magnetosphere. Dirt!

Space is hard. I doubt we'll settle permanently there until long after I'm gone. But damn is it fun to dream. And that’s what a good story is, I think. A dream I can share with you.

Speaking of which... back to work.

Do you like space opera? You can get an early bird discount by pre-ordering your digital copy of The Hard Way Home from my bookstore.

Book Cover for the Hard Way Home. It shows a ship in a purple nebula #writing #wip #firstguardian