Cheri's Blog


Good morning, fellow bookworms.

Have you read anything great lately? I'm still nibbling my way through Martha Wells's The Witch King. I started it a few months back, but I wasn't in the right headspace for it at the time. It's really good, though! Very different from her Murderbot novels.

I’m penning this letter on a train to Madrid, watching the green and tan patchwork quilt of agricultural Spain fly by. We just passed a huge field of wind turbines, calling to mind that most famous Spanish novel Don Quijote, whose titular hero mistook windmills for his enemies and attacked them, his sword drawn.

I have yet to read Don Quijote, but it's on my someday list. 😌

Patrick and I enjoyed (and should I say, survived?) the culmination of the Fallas festival in Valencia. There were loud marching bands and loud pyrotechnic explosions right outside our window until five in the morning, all week. We had a blast (ha ha literally) and by the end, my brain felt like it had been pushed through a cheese grater.

While Fallas is most known for the enormous monuments, which are burned on the final night of the festival, I was most impressed by something else. Outside the main cathedral, an enormous wooden woman (the local aspect of the Virgin Mary) was erected, and over a course of two days, locals in traditional garb (called falleras and falleros) paraded through the streets carrying red and white carnations. Climbers filled the wooden body with the flowers, forming a beautiful cape and gown. More than 100,000 people participated in the ceremony, which is called La Ofrenda, or in English, the offering.

The four story wooden framework of the virgin Mary and child. Her head, baby, and crown are detailed and complete, and the body below is wooden slats.

Spanish ladies in traditional dress. Large silk embroidered skirts in an 18th century style with lace veils.

Mary's body is full of red and white flowers, forming a beautiful cape with floral patterns.

I kept looking around and wondering what Ellie Tappet might make of all these happenings in Valencia. I'm pretty sure she'd love that flower ceremony. As for the demon children throwing lit fireworks into crowds all week? Well, perhaps not so much. 😏 And as for me, I was grateful for the chance to experience something new.

Even if it meant losing some sleep.

Oh, and Happy Easter to all who celebrate! Do you have any springtime traditions? Back home in Seattle, I’d be walking down to Pike Place Market to pick up fresh tulips from the flower vendors, enjoying the explosion of color that occurs down there this time of year. Or maybe slicing open a package of marshmallow Peeps to get them perfectly stale before I eat them.

Hey! It’s traditional. 😜

I’m still scribbling away, making progress on my books. Speaking of which, I have some time until our stop, so I should make the most of it.

Until next time!

Cheri B.

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We're three days from the culmination of the Fallas festival here in Valencia and the mood around the Baker household is... exhaustion? This isn't a complaint, for we came here for the cultural experience and we're certainly getting one. Last night, the partying and the drums went on until 5am. Silence reigned until about nine-thirty, at which point several more marching bands came down the narrow street outside our window, drumming and making joyful music. It's so so loud here. We went out for a cup of coffee, trying to hype up our weary minds, and on the way back we walked past more children lighting and tossing fireworks into the walkways. One of them (the firework, not a child) bounced off my leg like a hard pebble. Ow!

Last night, P couldn't sleep at all. I managed to sleep through much of the revelry because the night prior, I'd been up all night, and I was too wiped out last night to keep my eyes open. So we've been alternating, with one of us too pooped to think and the other one doing okay.

Teamwork! At least one of us is awake enough to function. :)

My only struggle is that when I can't sleep, I can't write. The brain won't make words in a state of duress. So I haven't been all that productive this week. Still, there's been a lot to enjoy and absorb. Yesterday afternoon I grabbed my camera and we walked around town to admire the artworks set up in intersections all around the city. They're so beautiful and so enormous. Too big for my phone to capture! The Falleros and Falleras are parading through the streets in their traditional clothing, looking beautiful, and even the native tourists have dressed up with handkerchiefs and hats in the traditional blue-and-white plaid pattern.

In the Plaza de Vergin, municipal workers have set up an enormous wooden structure of a woman, the patron saint of the city, and starting this afternoon, the Falleras (queens of Fallas) will parade down the street from every neighborhood, bearing flowers, and they'll bring those flowers to the wooden saint, where her wooden dress will be filled in with living blossoms. Later, after a nap, maybe, we'll make our way through the throngs of people to see that for ourselves.

I've often noted that I love the people of Valencia because of their zest for life. Any evening after work can feel like a festival here, so when there is actually is festival, it's almost too much. Like Mardi Gras for nineteen days in a row. Like a Superbowl parade that goes on for weeks. Like all the nights you can't sleep because people are cheering and chanting and drumming outside your window until five in the morning.

It's amazing. It's exhausting. I'm glad I came.

#travel #spain

Bits and pieces from my time in Valencia, Spain

A City in Mourning

Our flight was circling Valencia, preparing to descend, when across the aisle, a guy with a red beard was filming the view with his phone, pointing it at the window to his right. After a moment, he leaned across the central aisle to show his friend the video he’d taken. It showed black smoke boiling out of a high rise. Our plane banked to the right, and I saw it too. A residential tower had been engulfed in flames, and it was sending a dense column of black death high in the air.

After we landed, we turned on the news. Already, people were drawing comparisons to the Greenfeld tragedy in the UK. Here in Valencia, a cheaply constructed apartment building with flammable cladding had gone up in less than an hour. The contractor had long since gone bankrupt, dissolving the business. That fire tore through 173 homes and cost fourteen lives, including a family with a newborn baby. A couple who’d barely escaped the war in Ukraine were rescued off a balcony by firefighters.

The start of the Fallas festival was postponed for three days of mourning, and it seemed the whole city swept their arms around the affected survivors, piling up clothes and childrens’ toys and food. Festival preparations halted, and the once-bustling streets felt lonely, save for clusters of tourists wandering around, taking photos.

Exhibition of the Ninots

We walked through Turia park, the long, ribbon-like parkland that wraps around central Valencia like a scarf. The park was built in a riverbed after the river was diverted, and as we made our way ever closer to the City of Arts and Sciences we passed outdoor cafes, museums, soccer fields, and playgrounds. The biggest playground has an enormous plastic giant, Gulliver, and his body had been transformed into slides, ladders, and other climbing toys. The children become Lilliputans, climbing over the body, laughing, running around. After Gulliver we arrived at the Arts and Sciences complex, passing the futuristic architecture and the low blue pools that reflected each building like a mirror. We’d found the Exhibition of the Ninots.

Ninot is a Valencian word (in the Valencian language) and I don’t know what it means exactly. But they are sculptures, no bigger than eight feet tall, and as diverse as anything you can imagine. Some show family scenes of traditional Valencian life. Others are political statements. One showed (in eye-blistering detail) two politicians having sex. Another showed an Israeli tree decorated with wax doll heads, and many of the heads had bullet holes in them. Some Ninots were cartoon characters. Others were based on movies or comics. The one that made us scratch our heads seemed to be nothing more than a piece of luggage. Ninots seem to be smaller versions of the large artworks (Fallas) that go into the town squares near the end of the festival to be admired, then burned.

With our admission to the exhibition, we were allowed to vote for one ninot to be “pardoned” from the fires. The artwork with the most votes is saved, and goes into a museum. The rest are burned. Fallas is a festival of fire, and there’s something unique about a city that explodes with art every year, only to burn it all down.

Kids with Explosives

March in Valencia is full of fireworks. Every day at two p.m. there’s the mascletà, a ceremonial fireworks display. The daytime fireworks give off cannon-like booms and bursts of colored smoke. And every weekend there are huge, traditional fireworks displays at night, right in the town center. As peak Fallas week approaches, it seems everyone is getting in on the fun. Explosions ring out intermittently, all day and all night.

Every time there’s a fireworks show, the streets absolutely fill with people. It’s as if everyone walks out of work, or their houses, and yacks loudly with their neighbors in the street until the party starts. It’s loud and lively! As the crowd recedes, there’s trash everywhere in the streets, an oddity for what is generally a very clean city. Yet just as quickly, a small army of municipal workers arrive, restoring things to sparkling. In the center square, after the mascletà, a dozen street sweepers zoomed in, running around like car-sized roombas, picking up all the dust and paper.

As an outsider, the thing that surprises me the most is how the children are involved. Small kids, perhaps seven or eight years old, run around town with boxes of fireworks in their hands. They’ll pull out a three-inch firecracker, light it with a lighter, and toss it into the street or plaza. BANG. They laugh like maniacs, and the adults around them pay almost no attention. The streets are full of eager demon children, lobbing explosives into busy areas. BANG. BANG. BANG.

Babies sleep in their mothers’ arms, completely indifferent to the noise and the smoke. As I heard one person say, in Valencia, children are born with polvo (gunpowder) in their veins. It’s quite the thing to see. Back home, we’d never trust little kids with fireworks. Back home, tossing a firecracker around people would get you into significant trouble with your parents. Of course, back home, you jump and duck for cover when you hear a big bang. Back home, a sudden bang is more likely to be gunfire than a firecracker.

Random Acts of Tuba

The other noisy delight this time of year are the bands marching through the streets. Randomly, several times a week, a band shows up nearby and begins playing enthusiastic music in the street. There are lots of tubas. So many tubas. I peek out the window and see dozens of people dancing, jumping, cheering.


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

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