2022: The Wildly Swinging Pendulum

The year 2022 can’t be measured with lists and Viking rituals. It simply started in the worst possible way.

The Ow

I won’t go into the details, but I was in tremendous pain. I imagined the worst, and for good reason. All signs pointed down a road I’d traveled before that was scraggly and awful. As I struggled with the pain, tsunamis of anxiety and grief crashed down around me. For some reason The Unthanks’s haunting version of “Magpie” went through my head on repeat.

Devil, devil, I defy thee.

My world was falling apart in a way I knew all too well.

But then, a miracle happened. After my regular doctors failed to treat the issue, I went to a specialist. He ran some tests, and we found something. I won’t bore you with my diagnosis. However, I made a minor lifestyle change and…the pain vanished. Like that. Totally gone. All that anguish just dried up. It made sense. It really did. I just couldn’t believe how little it took. And it hasn’t been back since. So…whew?

The Good Girl

Meanwhile, I’d been looking for an agent for my memoir, The Good Girl. It became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t a celebrity, and my topic wasn’t, well, topical in the way some are. Not the stuff of Educated or Maid that speaks to larger social issues. While my story is highly relatable, it can also be quite provocative to the average reader.

So, I decided to submit the memoir to an independent publisher that my friend Tori Eldridge had published with: Running Wild Press. I forgot about it while I hired a developmental editor for my La Maupin book, The Blade that Lies. Former senior editor at Tor, Melissa Frain rocked the book in the best way. Not being in pain meant I could focus on that work. I also immediately tried to engage agents with the revised draft, but with no success.

And that’s when it happened. Lisa Kastner at RWP contacted me. A month later, we signed a book contract for the memoir. It’s coming out in 2024, edited by Aimee Hardy.

The Good Girl is the most important story I have to tell. It’s my 緣份 yuánfèn, my destiny. I feel like my whole life has rolled up to this point.

The New New Beginnings

A grey cat curled up into a U-shape with her feet pointed straight out, eyes closed, paws tucked in. She lies on a brown and black blanket.

I know what you’re thinking. “Another genre, Maria?” Yes, ANOTHER GENRE. Hey, I tell the stories I need to tell, okay? And this genre isn’t especially new. You bums have been getting my personal essays for free. The only difference now is that, instead of posting them to Medium or personal blog, I’m now sending them out to magazine editors. It takes a while to get traction, to find the right editors and publications. It’ll happen.

I can’t wait for you guys to read them, though. There’s a reason I’ve always just put them up on my blog. Life is too short not to laugh.

We also seem to have acquired another cat. Things haven’t gone well integrating her with the other two. We’ve named her Theodosia Wigglebutt. She definitely reminds me of another little gray kitty I once owned named Ophelia that appears in my memoir…

The Eclipse

Fuck this.

I knew the Scorpio eclipse on October 25th was going to swing a wrecking ball into my world. I was right. On October 27, along with 5% of our staff, I was laid off. (Our UX team was hit especially hard.) My teams and I have struggled to understand why I was one of those let go when I’ve been so central to much of the work we’ve done. There’s no answer except one with dollar signs.

The market is bleak. The astrological winds have been harsh and will continue to be so through January, but by February 2023 life should be looking up. (I actually have reason to hope March 1 will bring positive changes.) I have some ideas about how to make money while I’m out of work. And people are already asking if I’m open to freelancing. But I won’t soon forget this job I love and the people I work with.

Oh, and I got COVID after not having as much as a cold in 6.5 years. BAH.

The Next Step

Speaking of work, I’ll soon be hard at it on Aimee’s edits for The Good Girl. I won’t be able to afford the publicist I’d wanted to hire, but I can educate myself enough to get started on my own book PR. It could be fun! It could be hard. I could turn homicidal. I’ll try not to, though. I’ve succeeded lo these many years to stay out of prison. It’s hard to do signings behind bars. I’ll do my best.

I’m also working on a new YA horror mystery, and depending on what happens, I might have special plans for The Blade that Lies. Whatever happens, I’m taking a sword with me into 2023. If I go down, it’ll be swinging and stabbing.

Atheism is a Diverse Voice

It’s Banned Book Week and time to tell this story.

In the Fall of 2018, I visited the one bookstore in El Dorado County. I set my award-winning YA debut Snowed there, fictionalized as Oak County. When I asked if they’d carry Snowed, the bookstore manager told me that they wouldn’t carry Snowed or its sequels because the books were “anti-Christian.” I was floored. When I asked why she thought that, she replied that it was because the first book portrayed Christian teens behaving badly.

Pretty much.

“This community is very Christian,” she explained.

“I know,” I replied. “I grew up here. It’s somewhere a teen atheist would get a lot of pushback for being outspoken at school, especially now.” I was referring, of course, to the Trump presidency.

This community is very Christian. 

Look: I’m a former Evangelical. In Eldorado County, I became a born-again Christian in the Church of God — a church related to Sarah Palin’s infamous Pentecostal digs. I was baptized in both water and spirit, spoke in tongues, and proselytized in Sacramento’s Old Town, giving out pamphlets on K Street. I listened to the Bible Answer Man as religiously as I went to church. I was a virgin (mostly) when I got married, believed salvation only came through the blood of the Lamb of God, and lived in grace.

I was also in constant torment because making everything “work” took a huge amount of mental and emotional energy. Constantly sorting what’s of God and what’s of “the world” was a daily regime of Cirque du Soleil intellectual acrobatics that made me miserable and kept me naïve. At its root, Christianity is a Gordian knot of contradictions, good intentions, and outright lies. It wasn’t until I freed myself from all of that that I found true peace. And I could at last view the world with intellectual and emotional honesty.

As I looked around the bookstore, I found all the Bible’s biggest no-no’s: gay romance, murder, adultery, and the occult. Virtually every single idea I’d ever learned to shun as a Christian was represented in the fiction and nonfiction on the shelves. (1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”)

Incidentally, the bookstore carries Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is arguably one of the greatest anti-Christian (certainly anti-organized religion) trilogies ever written. They’re clearly unaware of that. And Charity certainly doesn’t commit anything like the blasphemous act that Lyra Belacqua does in The Amber Spyglass.

So, in a “very Christian community,” it’s okay to sell books that promote ungodly or anti-Christian activities, as well as books that are explicitly blasphemous. But it’s not okay if the book portrays Christians themselves behaving badly — and by badly, I mean as they sometimes actually do.

For what it’s worth, Snowed also portrays the teen atheist protagonist, Charity Jones, behaving badly toward a sweet Catholic guy. And finally, it portrays a bunch of teen jerks that don’t identify religiously either way. Charity and most of her classmates learn in the course of the story how to value and respect one another. That seems like a pretty decent thing to me. 

Sometimes Christians Can Be Meaner Than Hell

My inspiration when writing about Charity and the pushback she gets was the atheist teen Jessica Alquist. In 2012, she filed a lawsuit with the ACLU against her public high school to make them take down their prayer banner.

But when it came to the bullying that Charity encounters, what happened to Jessica was much, much worse. For example:

Texts and Picket Signs from Christian Teens Aimed at Charity


“Burn in hell”

“John 3:16”

“Stop Militent Atheism”

“Atheism = Satinism”

“Jesus is the Reason for the Season”

Texts and Tweets that Jessica Received from Christian Teens

“gods going to f@ck your ass with that banner you scumbag”

”what a little bitch lol I wanna snuff her”

“Let’s all jump that girl who did the banner #f@ckthatho”

“F@ck Jessica alquist I’ll drop anchor on her face”

Further, Jessica was called “evil” by her state representative, received numerous death threats, and needed police escorts. (Don’t take my word for it. Here’s an article that includes plenty of links and references.)

Aren’t “Christian” teens nice, gosh darn it?

School Library Journal Gets an “F”

Some of you are thinking, “Well, that’s just one bookstore. Granted, it serves the entire county, but who cares?” About three weeks before Snowed came out, a two-star rating appeared on Goodreads from someone neither I nor my publicist knew. (We had a very hard time getting bloggers to review the book. We figured it was because YA is a flooded market.) The rating disappeared to be replaced by a three-star rating. Curious as to who could have possibly reviewed the book who wasn’t on our review list, I followed links to the rater’s profile and blogs. It turned out that the mysterious rater was a devout Mormon who had, in the preceding year, met her husband at Boise State in the “Singles Ward,” gotten married, moved to Indiana, and had a baby.

My publicist then confirmed the identity of the mysterious Mormon. My heart sank to learn that School Library Journal had given my book about a teen atheist of color to a white Mormon librarian in a red state — someone who didn’t have the right lens to review my story. Also, an SLJ reviewer would know that thousands of school libraries would base their purchasing decisions on their review. My debut novel Mr. Wicker received a Starred Review from Library Journal, opening a multitude of doors across the globe. Trade reviews are important to libraries, which are an important resource to kids who are disadvantaged.

When the School Library Journal review was published, said Mormon librarian complained about the “Christian stereotypes” that portrayed all Christians as “bullies.” With so many Christian bullies on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, how is this possibly a stereotype? (Christians even admit to bullying.) The review also included this puzzling statement: “After (Charity) forms a Skeptics Club, she deals with extreme bullying for her beliefs.” Seriously?

After what happened to Jessica Ahlquist, clearly the bullying that Charity suffers wasn’t extreme enough

I don’t know why the librarian didn’t recuse herself from reviewing this book. I don’t know how SLJ chose her to review it. All I know is that she shouldn’t have because atheism is a diverse voice. The book should have been reviewed by an atheist or agnostic librarian.

Atheism as a Diverse Voice

I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. As I researched, I discovered that in 2013, just three years before Snowed was published, the Young Adult Library Service Association (YALSA) published a blog post about atheism and agnosticism in YA novels. They found this surprising data from the Novelist Plus database:

The numbers are easier to read in the original post, but at that time there were only 22 books from an atheist point of view and 1,047 from a Christian point of view. Meanwhile, there were 34 books from a Hindu point of view and 83 from a Muslim point of view.

Atheist teens accounted for less than 1% of all YA protagonists.

That’s bananas given that, according to Pew Research, in 2020 about 32% of teens identify as affiliated with no religion at all.

It’s not too surprising, though, that atheism and agnosticism would be underrepresented based on the extreme (and I use this term with statistical justification) prejudice against them. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, atheists were the least-liked “religious” group along with Muslims, who are still apparently persona non gratis in the U.S.

How Erasure Affects Kids

When kids don’t see themselves in books, they feel erased, unseen, and undervalued in their society. And since atheist and agnostic kids are growing in numbers, the publishing industry is erasing them more than ever. These kids need to see others with their perspective navigating goodness and various ethical challenges in our world, not a fantasy world.

Books that reveal power struggles and prejudice are what diverse publisher Lee and Low calls “window books.” Since many Christians insist that they’re either being “persecuted” or facing “intolerance” whenever anyone pushes back on their narrative to make room for other ideas, it’s important to have windows books that focus on Christian behavior. This can be helpful to kids who are also suffering from bullying in a similar environment. Even kids who are being bullied by Christian teens online can benefit from it.

Obviously, #NotAllChristians

And I can’t emphasize this enough. I have many Christian fans and friends that mean the world to me. They are acutely aware of the bullying that goes on, especially in certain parts of the country with particular political leanings. We all agree that the way forward is love, tolerance, and compassion from everyone. And that’s exactly what Snowed is about.

As author and Antioch University professor Kate Maruyama said of Snowed, “This book is good for the planet.”

Boy, does our planet need goodness right now.

Review: Shrill, a Memoir by Lindy West

Until I started reading Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, I didn’t realize how long I’d been stanning Lindy West.

For those just joining, Lindy West is a fierce feminist, hilarious blogger, and fat advocate. Her memoir, Shrill, tracks her career and how she became the wise warrior that she is, starting in her 20s when she began writing hysterical movie reviews for The Stranger.

At that time, she was working for Dan Savage, famous for his sex advice column at The Stranger. One of my favorite essays in Lindy’s book is about her conflict with Dan over his fat shaming and harping on obese people. I used to read Dan religiously, and I vaguely recall being annoyed over said harping. For some reason, I forgot that it was one of the things that contributed to a blow up between the two of them. But here’s the thing: Lindy doesn’t focus on the fight. She tells the story of how people change. And Dan is certainly one of those people who has changed over the years. (Full disclosure: I used to correspond with him, and he was always sweet and understanding, sometimes even asking if he could pass on my advice to other femme doms and the like.) I could totally see things playing out between these two the way they did because, although I don’t know them personally, I’ve watched them write and evolve as people for well over a decade.

I recognized many of Lindy’s career moments in this book, and thoroughly enjoyed hearing these moments relayed in her own voice. Destigmatizing abortion by speaking up about her own. Becoming a fat advocate. Confronting the troll that was impersonating her dead father on Twitter. Man, I remember seeing that Twitter account and thinking, “Who is so cruel to do such a thing?” And it turns out that it was some random hateful dude. She wound up interviewing him (anonymously) for This American Life. That’s the terrifying thing about Lindy’s memoir. She shows us how pervasive misogyny and rape culture are, in part because men just don’t believe that what they say has consequences.

Boy does it fucking ever.

Of course, I hadn’t been stanning so hard that I knew about her personal journey with Aham, which she talks about in the book. All I knew was that they’d appeared together on my friend Jackie Kashian‘s The Dork Forest podcast in 2012. Lindy didn’t talk nearly as much on that podcast as I’d expected. But it was okay because Aham was funny and a brilliant musician. I loved them both. Years later, I saw the photos she’d posted of her wearing that fabulous wedding dress and the smile on Aham’s face the day they married. Priceless.

I also remember Lindy leaving Twitter. That’s not in the book (I don’t believe). I wanted to tell her that the Internet has been like this since 1991, that she should have seen the newsgroups. But they weren’t as bad as comments and social media. Not by a long shot. We just keep giving this monster longer arms and sharper claws in the name of “stickiness” and “commerce.” I’m glad she ditched the bullshit. It’s sanity-saving.

Also not in her memoir (obvs) was me reading her Game of Thrones writeup to Len Wein and the rest of our group at Super Sunday Supper Squad. Everyone was dying with laughter. It was there in Len’s house that I met George R.R. Martin. They were old friends, Len and George. I’ll never forget the look on George’s face when we were discussing Len’s recent hospital visit at Stokercon in 2017…

But I digress. It only makes sense that Lindy’s writing would bleed into my own experiences and memories, since she’s one of my favorite writers.

Lindy’s memoir is ultimately so full of wisdom. About finding oneself. About holding onto your truth. The cost of developing that thick skin. And how comedy can be heartbreaking. If you love humor and women warriors, pick up this book and discover what I’ve known for almost 15 years: Lindy West is a goddamn, glorious treasure.

Review: Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, a Memoir by Deborah Anne Lott

In the rooms of 12-Step programs like Al-Anon, you hear it all the time. When one person in the family is crazy, everyone goes crazy. No one escapes the touch of madness when one member is sick, whether that’s from alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, or mental illness.

Lott starts her family story when they move to La Crescenta, CA in the 1950s. I lived in nearby Montrose from 2008 to the end of 2009. It’s a gorgeous, wooded area on the lip of the Angeles Forest above Los Angeles, packed with political and religious conservatives. A Jewish family would have stuck out in that homogenous community back then for sure. And that would have been hard enough. But Deborah’s father, Ira, is also literally insane. A man born with physical deformities, he suffers discrimination in the workforce, which means he has to start his own home-based business as an insurance agent to support his wife and three children. He uses his effusive charm and sense of humor to win clients and contacts over the phone. His wife helps him with the business, especially when his erratic behavior takes his eyes off the prize. (Which is constantly.) He’s an obsessive eater, a germaphobe, and “operatic” hypochondriac with no sense of boundaries, wearing only jockey shorts that let his sweaty, hairy balls roll into view of his young daughter. (That is, when he wasn’t dressing up as Little Lord Fauntleroy or in drag.)

Aching from lack of affection from her emotionally distant mother, Deborah clings to her loony-but-loving father. Very soon, Deborah starts having mini-breakdowns of her own, consumed with anxiety about death and overwhelmed by repetitive thoughts. She has few friends to model good family behavior to her. In fact, thanks to her father’s outrageous behavior, she has few friends period. I was afraid at times that the relationship between her and her father would become incestuous, but it only became so emotionally, not physically, as her parents weaponized the children’s love. Ira needed an ally to back up his increasingly bizarre paranoias. Deborah was his designated support. Meanwhile, Deborah’s mother sees this as Deborah always taking her father’s side, a betrayal that “justifies” her bitterness and distance. When his wife refuses to play into his ever-widening cyclone of chaos, Ira takes Deborah emotionally hostage on his descent into complete madness.

(It’s actually her cousin Joey who introduces the incestuous bit, but I digress.)

While Lott’s writing is brilliant and at times laugh-out-loud funny, this wasn’t always an easy book to read. I had to skim a couple of parts about her mother administering enemas one after another to both Deborah and her father, wielding the enema like some kind of tool for both torture and exorcism. The theme of body horror throughout the book induced winces and squirms by turns. But Lott’s storytelling weaves the cringe-worthy moments with the poignancy of her family’s dysfunction and love in a way that keeps you rooting for young Deborah to break away — which she does with grief, disappointment, and a profound sense of coming into her own. A lot of reviews spoil this moment, but I won’t. It was a surprise for me that I deeply appreciated.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59709-815-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Red Hen Press



Barnes and Noble

Red Hen Press

Review: Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage by Nicole Sconiers

When my friend Kate Maruyama, author of Harrowgate, showed me this book, I immediately bought a copy. It was then promptly lost in the TBR piles littering my home. When I found it again recently, I couldn’t read it fast enough.

At times surreal and at other times completely frightening, these tales are rooted in reality. That’s what makes them terrifying to this Becky. And so absolutely fucking awesome.

Using the backdrop of life on Heliotrope Drive and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, Sconiers brings home powerful truths about life as a woman of color by using horror. It’s one of the best uses of the genre, like Get Out. Several of the stories gutted me or creeped me out, but probably my favorite was “Here Come the Janes.” This story is about a black woman who catches her white work colleague sneaking into her home to steal her hair. As the Janes morph into dangerous, inhuman hair devourers, Sconiers unleashes the character’s humiliation and rage over the incessant invasion of her personal space and objectification. While I cannot begin to relate to being either the toucher or touchee, I felt the cathartic blow to the solar plexus in the telling. Same with tales such as “Happy Black Bitches Club” and “The Death of Common Women.”

Sconiers gives us many openings for empathy and connection in these sometimes terrifying tales. I deeply relate to her feelings of loneliness in Los Angeles expressed in a lot of the stories. I moved here myself after my divorce, and I was single for 8 years. I suspect a lot of single creative women can relate. Themes of invisibility, sexual addiction, and healing also thread through her universe. But this Becky (me) didn’t need to relate to appreciate the stories. This Becky wanted to dive into the world that Sconiers wanted me to experience and come out changed by the thunder, whispers, and fear rustling within the walls. I can’t promise the same for everyone, but I loved every minute of it.

Escape from Beckyville on B&N

And on Apple Books

Review: Dead on the Delta by Sherry Knowlton

I’m so happy that Sherry Knowlton gave me a chance to read her new book, Dead on the Delta, before its release on February 16, 2021! When I saw this gorgeous cover — a photo taken by her husband on safari — I couldn’t wait to read it. I’m a virgin when it comes to the her Alexa Williams series, so I knew it would be interesting to find out what kind of trouble her protagonist would get into out in the bush.

The short answer: a lot.

The story opens with the grisly discovery of a poaching kill that left an enormous number of elephants dead and mutilated. Alexa has joined her boyfriend, Reese, during a multi-month contract where he’s to, in part, help negotiate how villagers deal with the problems of random big cats on their land and threatening their livestock. They’re en route to their camp when their truck comes upon the tragedy.

The poachers are bold and seemingly uncatchable. Botswana has the most stringent anti-poaching laws on the continent — even the military gets involved when there’s a poaching crime. Who’s behind these attacks? There must be something more than usual.

This highly atmospheric novel is a beautiful introduction to the problems of poaching and conservation in Botswana. Alexa is a lawyer with a track record for wrangling thorny situations. And she certainly encounters several during her time in Botswana. Knowlton has been on many safaris and has done extensive research, therefore her intimate knowledge of the conservation industry and the country itself enriches the story in luscious detail. You feel like you’re right there with Alexa as she camps and interacts with the locals. I learned so much about the country that I fell in love with it a bit just reading the descriptive passages. I felt the relationships — especially the conflict eating at Alexa about Reese — were very real and understandable.

I don’t know if I would have classified the book as either a thriller or mystery, possibly not even suspense. Maybe more of a drama? Because a lot happens around and to Alexa, and not because of anything she does. She’s more of an observer, giving us a window to the world around her, as well as the details that fall into her path as she pursues tangential goals. However, she takes the relationship conflicts much more in hand, having difficult conversations and discovering that emotions are messy. The book ends in a whirlwind of danger where we get to see Alexa’s resourcefulness, which I really enjoyed.

So, if wildlife conservation, Botswana, safaris, big cats, or all of the above are your thing, you should definitely pick up this novel with haste!

Amazon | B&N | Indiebound

The Symbel: Pandemic Edition

Fourteen years ago, when I was in Paris, I decided to recreate The Symbel, a Norse ritual introduced to me years ago by my friends Kerry Noonan and Steve Wehmeyer when they were Ph.D. students in folklore at UCLA. Quoting the original blog post:

Everyone sat in a circle around the fire. It started with a round of dedication to the gods. When the horn of alcohol was passed to you, you declared your dedication to a god, and you sealed it with a drink before passing the horn to the next person. The next round was the bragging round. One bragged of their accomplishments during the year, drank to them, then passed on the horn. In the last round, one made oaths for the coming year. When the symbel ended, we poured the remaining alcohol on the ground as an offering to prove to the gods we weren’t greedy.

It isn’t necessarily the historical or “correct” way to perform a symbel. However, at the time I needed to focus on the positive things that had happened that year. (Although, come the fuck on. I was in France, writing, drinking, and living my best life. I must have been wallowing in some kind of weird self pity.)

The Symbel

But this year was different. Shit got real as hundreds of thousands of Americans died, and we turned into a nation of ghosts. The anxiety, the exhaustion, the isolation—burdens were never ending. The challenges wrung the positivity from my soul at every turn. I found myself working every healthy coping mechanism (and some not-so-healthy) I’d ever learned to keep from disasterbating as I always do.

As a result, the Symbel feels more phoenix rising from the ashes rather than standing on a pile of dead enemies after a war. I still feel the need to do it, though. It’s especially important now during a year that I largely spent cooped up at home, broke as dirt.

The Dedication Round

I dedicate the coming year to Cernunnos, the god of the forest. The Horned God. The Lord of the Wild Beasts. He is also associated with travel, treasure, and mediation between humanity and the forest. This year I became aware of how deep and broad my Celtic heritage is. Shortly after the revelation, he appeared in one of my meditations, and now I return to him every time I meditate. May I one day soon see him again in Paris, where his image resides on the Pillar of the Boatmen alongside Jupiter, and Castor and Pollux, in the Musée du Moyen Age. (Drink!)

The Bragging Round

I’ve made more money with my creative writing this year than I have in 20 years. (Drink!)

I signed a very special contract that I can’t discuss, but it brought me a lot of light this year. (Drink!)

I started writing stories for Shortz, and learned a new form of storytelling. (Drink!)

My first story for Shortz landed in the Top 3 Most Read Stories. (Drink!)

I had two short stories published, both in crime fiction anthologies, which is a first for me. (Drink!)

I had a story published in an anthology with one of my favorite authors, Joe Hill. (Drink!)

I had a story published in an anthology edited by another author I love, Heather Graham. (Drink!)

I began learning Scottish Gaelic, which is insanely hard. (Drink!)

I outlined my first cozy-caper novel. (Drink!)

I started a TikTok account and have a post with over 20,000 views. (Drink!)

I became certified as a UX Writer, with an “A” grade on my final project and a score of 98.5% on my final exam. (Drink!)

I wrote and designed a new UX-friendly resume using new-to-me software called Lunacy. (Drink!)

I didn’t go bankrupt. (Drink!)

I didn’t lose my house or my car. (Drink! Drink!)

Snowblind, the third book in the Bloodline of Yule Trilogy, came out! (Drink!)

A secret community project I spearheaded 3 years ago wound up having a HUGE win that ultimately benefitted the entire state of California. (DRIIIIIIIIINK!)

I helped get two beautiful Bengal kitties adopted. (Drink!)

I have fabulous pandemic hair. (Drink!)

I didn’t kill my noisy neighbors when they threw pandemic parties. (Drink!)

I grew closer to my handsome, sweet husband, and we had lots of fun. (Drink!)

Shot my first-ever footage for an award-winning film in the 48-Hour Film Project. (Drink!)

I baked six apple pies and (as of tonight) three trays of apple bread using apples from our tree. (Drink!)

I helped Robie go into remission from diabetes. (Drink!)

My freelance business started to pick up despite the pandemic. (Drink!)

I learned to reach out to my fellow writers for help when stuck. (Drink!)

I’ve at long last figure out how to write the memoir I’m meant to write, and I am 20,000 words in. (Drink!)

I started writing a collection of haiku based on Japanese blades. (Drink!)

David Gerrold said I was a great writer, and I didn’t even bribe him with chocolate! (Drink!)

The Oath Round

My first oath is to finish a draft of the new memoir by March 26, 2021, which is the 25th anniversary of the life-changing event that concludes the memoir.

My second oath is to write more poetry, in particular poems I can submit to the HWA poetry showcase, but also the haiku collection.

My third oath is to continue studying Scottish Gaelic.

My fourth oath is to take care of myself as best I can, because while this Symbel and the year might be over, nothing else is…


My Unusual Purse Named Trog

In December 2001, a friend was visiting me in Los Angeles from Washington State. I showed him the usual sights, taking him to lunch at the Newsroom, a popular eatery then in Beverly Hills. It sat across a small courtyard from what was then one of the most wonderful children’s book stores of all time, Storyopolis. We went into Storyopolis after we ate. My friend could hardly believe he was seeing original artwork on the walls by Tim Burton and Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel. It was a marvelous place.

There amongst the books and toys I found a delightful children’s backpack from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which had been my favorite book as a child. It hadn’t just been my favorite book, though. It had been my favorite thing. My mother checked it out of the library several times before finally buying me my own copy, which I dragged everywhere.

Trog lamenting the graffiti on Oscar Wilde’s tomb.

So, when I saw this little guy, I fell hopelessly in love with him. I turned to my friend and announced, “This is my forever purse.”

And he still is.

It’s been a mad ride with him, riding quasi-shotgun with me. I have so many anecdotes about what it’s been like carrying him. For the most part, people love him. Everywhere I go, people compliment him, asking me where I got him. Occasionally I get the flirty comment, “I like your Wild Thing.” To which I reply, “Honey, they all like my Wild Thing.”

Trog didn’t have a name in the book, but he was modeled after Sendak’s Uncle Moishe. I named him Trog because my friend Abbie Bernstein pointed out that the song “Wild Thing” was written by the band, The Trogs.

The thing is, I wore out the first Trog pretty quickly. So, I bought several more. For the better part of the last 15 years, I’ve used the same two, swapping them back and forth, laundering them, stitching their little butts, and replacing the zippers. But I have several more if need be.

Trog loves a masquerade.

He’s been overseas. While I was living in France, I had the pleasure of explaining in French what exactly he was and where he came from because he’s not part of their culture. The security guard at the Louvre asked me if he was my “doudou,” which means a stuffed animal that children carry. I explained he was “mon sac,” which means my purse. Her eyes widened as I unzipped him and she smiled. Most Parisians were won over once they realized what he was.

Trog looking up at the grave of Charles Baudelaire in Paris.

He loves writers. The highlight of his career was when Clive Barker “honked” his nose. But when Maurice Sendak died, I tied a black ribbon to Trog’s arm for a month.

I’ve always liked posing him on the graves of famous authors.

Trog visits the grave of Guy de Maupassant, the author whose story “La Horla” inspired H.P. Lovecraft to write “The Call of Cthulhu.”
While we’re on the topic of authors, here’s Trog at Ray Bradbury’s grave in Westwood, CA.

Trog loves the great outdoors, especially the magical standing stones of Brittany.

The Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doin’.

He really didn’t think much of the Picasso Museum in the South of France. Not his thing.

Although, he had to admit that the view was pretty awesome.

While most people like Trog, he makes friends with cats quite easily. When I returned from living in France, I stayed with friends who had a cat named Miru. The two quickly fell in love.

Miru would pat Trog on the head in her sleep. Here they are tête a tête.

It’s sort of a thing, actually.

Robie and Saphron liked cuddling with each other and Trog, too.
And bearded lizards? Okay…

France isn’t the only country Trog has been to. He’s visited Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Canada.

Visiting my friend Lucien Soulban in Montreal.

He’s been all over the United States. He’s even been to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida (kind of its own country). The security guard broke his zipper the first time I entered the park, so Trog had to stay in my room for the rest of my stay at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. When the housekeeper found him lying on the bed, she did this.

Since I was on a work trip for Disney at the time and didn’t have to pay for the room, I was able to give her a ginormous tip for making me so happy.

Trog hanging around at the Guillermo del Toro exhibit.

I do think Trog tries to find his own kind. While he certainly fit in at the Guillermo del Toro exhibit when it was here in Los Angeles, he really grooved on Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Trog in the Meow Wolf gift shop checking out his alien cousins.

Sometimes I think he’s just looking for his Dad.

At the Getty Museum with someone Trog thinks might have been his dad.
“Are you my Daddies?”
(I knew I shouldn’t have taken him to the samurai exhibit at LACMA.)

As you can imagine, Trog is a wild thing and therefore a heathen. However, he keeps an open mind. He attended his first bat mitzvah earlier this year and really got into the spirit of it.

I think he looks pretty dapper in the pink kippah.

But Trog’s favorite place to hang other than on my shoulder is the library.

He finally found his real daddy.

In October, people ask if this is my Halloween purse. I tell them, “This is my ALWAYS purse.”

So now you know.

Maria’s 10 Favorite Horror Films and TV Shows

Since I was a child, October has been my favorite month. The idea of becoming something or someone else has always been high on my list of fun. But October also promises something much greater: an encounter with the other side of the veil. That happened for me in the biggest way on Samhain 25 years ago. I’ll tell that story in due time. But I’ve always loved the chill of that promise and everything that comes with it.

While I love Halloween as much as the next horror fan, my taste in horror runs counter in many ways to that of the general populace. Also, I’m the person who didn’t find Blair Witch remotely scary. If you’re one of those people who thinks most horror is simply awful, but appreciates gems of writing and acting, this list might be for you.

1. Fortitude

This horror-thriller for television is possibly the scariest, creepiest, bloodiest things to hit the airwaves in the last decade. It’s a true mystery that leaves you wondering: is what’s happening supernatural or scientific? And look at that cast. Jesus! Stanley Tucci, Richard Dormer, Sofie Gråbøl, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston…shitty lineup, right? OMG. Everything about this show is incredible. Just don’t eat a lot before watching.

2. Marianne

New Netflix Horror Series Marianne Reviews

I’ve written about this show before, but honestly this French TV show is fucking scary as shit and incredibly well written. The performances sell this wild tale that, in the hands of Americans, would have surely soured. But this is the nation that brought us Guy de Maupassant, father of “The Horla,” the story that inspired Lovecraft to write “Call of Cthulhu.” Recently they’ve upped their game in a major way when it comes to horror. Bros might not appreciate the female relationship issues that drive the plot, but I just fell deeper in love with the show because of them.

3. Trollhunter

A scene from “Trollhunter,” André Ovredal's mock documentary, which mixes the Norwegian landscape and dry Nordic humor.

This mockumentary is at turns hilarious and terrifying, playing with the conceit of Blair Witch to far greater effect. Supposedly found footage was assembled from the abandoned film of a journalism student’s camera to create this tale of students convincing a real troll hunter to take them on to record what he does for a living. You will literally be holding your breath in certain scenes. It’s too bad you can’t see it on the big screen like I did because the trolls are unbelievably scary — especially when they smell Christian blood.

4. Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In' Pilot Ordered by TNT | IndieWire

I know, I know — where are the American horror shows, Maria? Just sit the hell down and watch this movie if you haven’t already because it’s genius. Based on the book Let Me In by John Alvide Lindqvist, this beautiful vampire movie (and I do not like vampire movies) transports us back to when we were lonely kids and we just wanted a friend who looked out for us. And who, you know, drank blood. This subtle, gorgeous, and immensely fucked up story will frighten you and touch your heart.

5. The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man,' This Time on Blu-ray - The New York Times


I feel a bit strongly about this film.

This gleefully wicked thriller-horror story about a devout yet hubristic Christian policeman coming to an island of pagans is truly brilliant. Because it worked its way into my psyche at an early age, this cross-genre fear-fest is the entire reason that I can’t write a “proper” horror story. It must have creepy stuff, a crime, a mystery, and a bellyful of social commentary to satisfy my storytelling taste buds.

Oh, and try to find the 101-minute version, not the 99-minute one if you can.

6. REC

You guys, I am NOT a zombie movie fan. However, I found this Spanish film incredibly well written, acted, and shot. Yes, I know there was an American remake called Quarantine. I haven’t seen it because I’m told the protagonist screamed so much in it that you were begging the zombies to kill her off ASAP. In this original Spanish version, I was rooting for the protagonist in the biggest way because she was brave and intelligent. There are sequels, but I’ve never had the heart to watch them because I worry they won’t be as great as the first film.

7. Candyman

candyman 1992

Based on Clive Barker’s novella, “The Forbidden,” this tale of urban legends still gives me chills after countless viewings. It stars Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, with Bernard Rose directing. I mean, come on. Bernard Fucking Rose! He also made Paperhouse, which is a deliciously creepy movie based on the book Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. But this is a Clive Barker story at heart, so you can count on blood, mayhem, and insects. Mostly bees. Lots and lots and lots of bees. And to say it’s racially charged is an understatement. I’m really looking forward to Nia DaCosta’s and Jordan Peele’s remake.

8. Black Spot

Another foreign horror TV series I’ve boosted before, Black Spot (aka Zone Blanche) is a horror thriller crime series with heavy pagan influence from France and Belgium. It is also unexpectedly hilarious. There’s no shortage of gore or violence as this small French town in the mountains is plagued by a series of brutal murders. It’s also seriously packed with badass women. I’m personally dying for a third season.

9. Frankenstein, National Theatre Live

Benedict Cumberbatch-Jonny Lee Miller's 2011 play 'Frankenstein' to be streamed as part of National Theatre at Home

Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting and Slum Dog Millionaire, directs two versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One stars Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and Johnny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein, and the other has the two actors swap roles. Both versions are utterly genius, but I prefer Cumberbatch as the creature because it’s a more surprising role for him. The ending is somewhat different from the book, but no less wrenching.

10. The Devil’s Backbone

The 100 best horror films, horror movies, the devil's backbone

I love almost everything that Guillermo del Toro does, but this movie has stuck with me — yes, even more than Tom Hiddleston’s handjob in Crimson Peak. Set during the Spanish Civil War, this ghost story is about 10-year-old Carlos whose father has been killed and now he’s left in a desert orphanage where he uncovers its haunting secrets. But it’s a combination of the acting and writing in this film that elevates it above the usual ghostly fair.

Asian Horror

Lest anyone think I’m not a fan, I most definitely am. It’s just that movies I love like Ringu, Dark Water, Tale of Two Sisters, and Audition (shudder) are already fairly well known. But if you’re looking to wet your feet, the movies I just mentioned in addition to this Ranker list are a good place to start.

That’s it! Let’s grab some snacks and bring new meaning to Netflix and chill.

This Is Not the Apocalypse My Parents Wanted

My parents, God bless ‘em, were kooks.

It all started in the mid-1970s, when my mother read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which prophesied that the world was coming to an end in 1988. The reason for this abrupt end to Ronald Reagan, leg warmers, and Roseanne was the Apocalypse, a series of global catastrophes that heralded the return of Jesus Christ. However, none of this would happen until after someone referred to as the Antichrist brought upon the world a period of time called the Tribulation.

Just so we’re clear, here was the supposed order of things that would happen according to my mother:

  1. Antichrist
  2. Tribulation
  3. End of leg warmers
  4. Jesus returns

Also to be clear, not all Christians that believe in this business think Jesus will show up at the end. Some believe he’ll “rapture” those who are “saved” before the Antichrist comes on the scene. Personally, my mother preferred the order in which we suffered the most before the Jesus bus arrived, at which time he’d get out and force everyone to bow down and declare He is Lord before sending the non-believers to hell. (That was apparently a second bus that would arrive later.)

That Beastly Barcode

My mother would go on at length about the Antichrist and how he’d start the Tribulation. According to her, the Antichrist would be “a dark-skinned man from the Middle East. Probably Saddam Hussein or that Gaddafi.” (Wow. Not racist AT ALL, Mom.) As soon as he was in power, the Antichrist would first destroy Israel. Next, he would unite the world under one government, and then make us all take the Mark of the Beast or else cut off our heads. We wouldn’t be able to buy or sell without The Mark. Lindsey’s book featured crude drawings of “the Mark” that looked like a barcode would be tattooed on our foreheads. This outlandish imagery persists 50 years later.

I mean, FFS.

My mother enjoyed adding that, “If you take The Mark, Jesus won’t take you to heaven when he comes back.” That might have been a bit of improvising on her part, or it might have even been in the Bible, but to baby Maria, it sounded scarier than the best monster movie she’d ever watched on Saturday’s Million Dollar Movie. Baby Maria was ALL IN.

So that they wouldn’t have to take said Mark to get food, my folks started hoarding dried canned goods, stuffing the giant boxes of cans in our closets and under our beds. As a kid, it sucked because the boxes fought with our clothes, games, and hiding places for space. And I couldn’t have anyone over because then they might see the food boxes. “Someday, your friends will kill you for this food,” my mother would warn. This didn’t seem very likely to me, as my Bluebird troop was a bit pacifist, but whatever. I decided to inflict my own bit of hell raising on my friends about the whole Antichrist business with mixed results.

My mother continued over the years to rail that we needed to be ready for the day that we were called to stand up for our faith and die rather than take The Mark. In my teens, our Pentecostal church showed my youth group a movie dramatizing the Antichrist beheading people who refused to take The Mark. It was the worst version of “Cake or Death” you can imagine, but I took it to heart. As a devout teen, I swore I’d brave the axe rather than renounce my faith.

No Jesus, Know Peace

Of course, I eventually did renounce my faith. The religious terrors of my childhood melted away one day, gifting me with the far more peaceful life of a nonbeliever. The Antichrist is what I named a particularly evil Hyundai that I owned, and the Tribulation is how I refer to my time working at FOX Studios.

Meanwhile, as I was pursuing my career and reclaiming my brain, my parents continued to gear up for the global disaster of biblical proportions they’d been hoping for. We became estranged at some point — not over religion or anything like that, but over some other painful family stuff — so I wasn’t privy to the Lindsey-esque shenanigans they were pursuing to ensure their survival during the inevitable End Times. While the world didn’t end in 1988 as Lindsey had predicted, my folks were sure it would happen in their lifetimes.

It didn’t.

Decades later, I entered the house after my dad’s death to discover my childhood home had turned into Indiana Jones and the Costco of Doom. There were closets packed with canned goods; giant plastic storage bins full of pasta; a two-story garage with toilet paper stacked to the rafters; poorly maintained guns with boxes of ammo stashed in the living room end tables; and huge amounts of hidden cash. They might have thought they were preparing for the Tribulation, but they were definitely ready in some ways for the current crisis…

This Ain’t Yo’ Mama’s Apocalypse

I write this as I sit at home during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which is the closest we’ve ever come to either the Tribulation or Apocalypse, and I think about my parents. I suspect my mother would have been disappointed with the lack of beheadings, as well as the fact that she’d still be able to buy and sell stuff without any embarrassing, soul-endangering forehead tattoos — just a face mask that she could take off whenever. She might have derived some satisfaction from the persecution she’d feel when told she couldn’t go to church for a few months, but any conservative news-induced persecution would have paled next to the imagined adrenaline rush of kneeling before a guillotine to defend her faith.

She might have written this global tragedy into the grand drama of the Book of Revelation, casting it in the role of the Horseman of the Apocalypse called Plague. She would probably quote the death numbers to support her point, but would have ignored anything a real scientist had to say about the matter. With all that toilet paper, she’d be ready to ride it out until Judgement Day. But anyone who said the world would recover from this pandemic would basically be saying we could reschedule Jesus’ arrival, and that would be unthinkable.

My parents were never logical. They were paranoid, wildly contradictory eaters of myth that relished cocktails of terror and persecution sweetened with the promise of life everlasting. This COVID-19 apocalyptic cocktail would definitely be missing something for them. Maybe it would have a half-ounce too much cooperation mixed with that jigger of science and uncertainty. That’s not to say there isn’t any terror to be had these days — there are god awful amounts of it everywhere. The world is racked with grief in the wake of so many deaths, not to mention our current economic disaster. But with the threat virtually invisible and everyone confined to their homes, I doubt my parents would have savored the terror in quite the same way.

There is some explanation for all this. My parents were children during The Great Depression, and my mother was an incest survivor. Her father eventually went to prison for the crimes he committed against his daughters. It’s fair to say that trauma was hardwired into their thinking from these cataclysmic childhood events. I think it’s also fair to say that people like Hal Lindsey preyed upon and profited from the splinters festering in the psyches of people who suffered such trauma. He and anyone doing so today deserve a long, agonizing ride on that hell bus more than any non-believer.

Shut The Fuck Up, Hal

In his book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” He was, once again, completely wrong. The 2010s were the last decade of history — of life — as we know it. And it’s in 2020 that life veers onto a strange highway with twists and turns that are leaving us lonely, depressed, anxious, hungry, broke, and profoundly annoying to our cats.

I still get choked up whenever I’m in a grocery store. The reality of what’s happening is always a knuckle punch to the gut. But I hear a small voice that says we’ll get through this. It isn’t the end of the world as my parents would have hoped. It’s the beginning of a new, weird world with no buses up or down, just forward, together, with stops along the way to mourn.