Turn the Page with New Books by Local Writers

Maya Angelou once said, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.”

This spring, several North Bay writers look back at the past with fiction, historical fiction, memoir and non-fiction literary works that tell stories of where we’ve been and where we are going.

Right Back Where We Started From

Petaluma-based essayist, journalist and short-fiction author Joy Lanzendorfer adds “novelist” to her list of accomplishments with her epic saga, Right Back Where We Started From. Available on May 4, the historical fiction novel is a multi-generational story that spans from the Gold Rush to World War II and centers on a protagonist who embodies America’s myths and harsh realities.

While the book is completely fiction, Lanzendorfer’s idea of tracing a family’s roots in writing came about from stories her grandfather told her father.

“At some point, he realized a lot of them were not true,” Lanzendorfer says. “It was this legacy of confusion.”

This legacy led Lanzendorfer to think about how family identity creates personal identity.

“And you could broaden that out to ‘American identity,’” she says. “If you believe myths about America, you may very well believe in things like Manifest Destiny.”

Thus, the novel’s main character, Sandra Sanborn, believes she deserves a life of fame and success. From a failed career in 1930s Hollywood, to prune-farming in Healdsburg, Sanborn experiences privilege, greed and failure in America.

The saga of the novel’s publication almost rivals the saga of its plot. Lanzendorfer initially completed the manuscript in 2012, but two national tragedies bearing her character’s name (Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook massacre) kept publishers from picking up the book. Then, Lanzendorfer’s agent quit the business, and all hopes for publication seemed lost.

Six years later, Lanzendorfer’s new agent remembered reading the novel as an intern and gave the book a second chance. After making a few small edits, Lanzendorfer is ready for the world to read Right Back Where We Started From, and she launches the book with an online event hosted by Copperfield’s Books on May 6. (copperfieldsbooks.com)

Circus of the Sun

Mill Valley is home to many renowned artists and musicians, but the town is also home to a large population of excellent authors and writers.

Since 2012, John King­—­who writes under the name J.Macon King—his wife Perry Lucretia King and a staff of writers and reviewers including poetry editor Jeff Kaliss have promoted the local lit scene with the Mill Valley Literary Review, a biannual online publication featuring reviews of locally-written works, interviews with well-known authors and more.

“My wife Perry and I traditionally reserve Friday nights for creative brainstorming,” King says. “This was how we came up with creating Mill Valley Literary Review, reviving and producing The Rhubarb Revue theater, and a number of other endeavors which have continued. Our platforms have encouraged folks to explore and embrace their creativity, to shine on the stage or on the page.”

In addition to his work with the Mill Valley Literary Review, King’s debut novel, Circus of the Sun­, is receiving attention from critics and local literary fans. Self-published in December of 2019 and available on Amazon.com, the historical fiction novel is set in San Francisco in 1979 and tells an ambitious and poetic story of love and creativity.

“I tried to make it as accurate a portrait as I could of 1979 San Francisco, and the entire changing scene there,” King says. “Going from hippies to yuppies, the rise of technology and so forth. Essentially, it’s about the creative art-and-music scene going on there.”

It’s a scene King became involved with as a musician and creative spirit after growing up in the Midwest and living in Hollywood.

“I was pretty much right in the forefront of all that,” King says. “It was an important and pivotal moment of time.”

Circus of the Sun­ explores this era through the eyes of 23-year-old Jack, a musician who falls in love with artist Bretta. Together, the two must face their haunted pasts to realize their creative dreams. At times racy and poignant, the novel reads like a memoir, and King deftly includes details that bring the book’s characters and events to life.

“More and more, retro seems to be in,” King says. “People are interested in what happened before, especially the younger generation that wants to know what it was like.” (millvalleylit.com)


Sonoma-based artist and educator Cynthia Tarr­­—Sonoma’s 2019 Treasure Artist of the Year—is known in the North Bay for her work as the musical director of the Sonoma Community Center and the director of the Free Spirits Gospel Choir.

This spring, local readers will become familiar with Tarr as the author of Ruby, the first in a planned five-book series about the titular character’s adventures. The debut novel, released on March 1, features Ruby entangled in a wine country murder-mystery.

“I’ve always written,” Tarr says. “But, this is my first fiction book.”

Ruby’s character is imbued with a spiritual side that is drawn from Tarr’s own work as a holistic healer, and the book starts with Ruby receiving messages to help others.

“A voice starts to speak to her and says, ‘You could be of help,’” Tarr says. “Her first trip is to Sonoma—surprise, surprise!—and that’s this book. But there are four more books, and hopefully more where she travels all over the world.”

Tarr already wrote drafts of the series’ sequels, taking inspiration from her own travels in writing about Ruby’s travels.

“Some readers have said, in a funny way, Ruby is a superhero who steps into situations to help,” Tarr says. “It also includes a lot of romance and sexuality and adventure.”

Ruby gets its official book launch with a virtual reading on Saturday, April 10, at 7pm (zoom.us/j/84604846963). Tarr will introduce the book’s many colorful characters and speak with actor and published mystery writer Harley Jane Kozak. Ruby is available for order from Readers’ Books, Copperfields, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.

The Union Hotel and its restaurant (seen here in the 1940s) are among the locations explored in “Occidental (Images of America),” which features photos and stories packed with local history.

Occidental (Images of America)

Ever since William “Dutch Bill” Howard—who was not Dutch and not named Bill—settled in West Sonoma County in 1849, the town of Occidental has been shaped by logging, railroads, generations of Italian and other European settlers, and the influx of hippies and artists.

Now, Union Hotel proprietor Barbara Gonnella, educator Mary Pozzi and author Bob Dougherty create a visual history of the town in the book, Occidental (Images of America).

“The Union is such a hub for history, I’m so grateful to have a lot of historic pictures and articles to honor those who have come before us,” Gonnella says.

Built in 1879, the Union Hotel and its restaurant have been in the family since 1925, and Gonnella says the upstairs contains a treasure chest of material she and her collaborators looked through. The book features many unpublished photographs from Gonnella’s and other private collections that tell the story of the region.

One of Gonnella’s favorites images in the book shows a horse watching a train go through the center of town in the late 1800s. Gonnella also loves the chapter in the book about the Union Hotel restaurant and a particular image of women working in the kitchens.

“It shows the generations of hardworking family members keeping the kitchens going,” Gonnella says. “The hotel has survived fires, pandemics and earthquakes, and I’m so proud it’s still here with a strong heartbeat.”

Released last September amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Occidental (Images of America) is getting a book release party courtesy of the Occidental Center for the Arts. The virtual event takes place on Sunday, April 11, at 4pm; and it will include a conversation between Gonnella and Sonoma County historian Gaye LeBaron about the many characters who’ve called Occidental home. (occidentalcenterforthearts.org)

A Fire Story (Updated and Expanded Edition)

On October 9, 2017, the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa destroyed thousands of homes and structures, resulting in 44 fatalities and leaving many in town without a home or a single possession except what they carried with them as they ran from the flames.

Award-winning comics creator Brian Fies and his wife Karen were among those who lost everything, and Fies documented it all in A Fire Story, which began as a viral web comic in the early days after the Tubbs fire, and was published as a graphic novel in early 2019. This month, Fies revisits the story with the release of A Fire Story (Updated and Expanded Edition).

Available in paperback on April 20, the book includes 32 pages of all-new material, extending the story to include updates on the process of rebuilding their house, wrestling with insurance, wrangling with contractors, managing emotional fallout from the fire and facing threats of more wildfires.

“If a book merits it, my publisher Abrams tends to put out a paperback a year and a half later,” Fies says. “They decided to put out A Fire Story in paperback, and I talked to my editor and said, ‘A lot has happened since that book came out, can I have 16 more pages to write about it?’”

Fies’ editor agreed to 16 additional pages, then Fies had to evacuate from the Kincade fire in October of 2019.

“I called my editor back and said, ‘I’m going to need another 16 more pages, but I know how it’s going to end,’” Fies says.

Fies did not lose his house a second time in the Kincade fire, but the new material in A Fire Story both recounts his personal experiences after the Tubbs fire and speaks to what it means to live in a climate-changed world where natural disasters become a seasonal expectation.

“I didn’t feel that so strongly with the first release, because the Tubbs fire was the first fire Sonoma County had like that in 50 years,” Fies says. “By the time of the Kincade fire, well there had been a lot of fires like that and it struck me that those of us in Sonoma County who made it through those 2017 fires were early victims of living in a climate-changed world.” (brianfies.blogspot.com)

Charlie Swanson
Charlie Swanson is a North Bay native and an arts and music writer and editor who has covered the local scene since 2014.
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