Ho-ho-ho with a dash of horrible: A new Portland Bookmobile murder mystery

     Friend Stevie Lennartson, a recent grad of Occidental College in Los Angeles, created the cover art for our latest mystery novel, as she has for the entire series.

HERE IT IS, THE IDES OF NOVEMBER already, and the tinsel and lights have been on sale at Fred Meyer for a solid six weeks, so it’s not too early to shamelessly promote our new Christmas-themed mystery novel.

Barbara and I, writing together under the pen name of B.B. Cantwell, took a little, um, seven-year hiatus after publishing our second book in the Portland Bookmobile Mysteries series inspired by her happy time as a bookmobile librarian for Multnomah County Library. In our last few years before retirement we just got kind of busy with other things.

It took a pandemic to get us back to mystery writing. Nothing better than a government-ordered quarantine to inspire a writer to hunker down like an oyster and grind out the literary pearls.

Barbara is the brilliant idea-person. I’m the guy who’s been a lifelong slave to deadlines and a keyboard. Together, we have fun with these stories. In librarian Hester Freelove McGarrigle and her main squeeze, Detective Nate Darrow of the Portland Police Bureau, we’ve created protagonists who are like imaginary friends, interacting in authentic Northwest settings. And yes, a pandemic is a perfect time for imaginary friends.

As you might guess from the theme, the series isn’t full of blood and guts, but thrives on quirky characters in an often quirky town (where we lived for 10 years, much of it on our sailboat, and where our daughter was born). The genre is “cozy mystery.” Yes, there are pet cats.

All that said, a Christmas-themed installment was a natural. As with the town of Cabot Cove from the TV series “Murder, She Wrote,” it can be hazardous to one’s health to hang around the Portland bookmobile. Even the season of ho-ho-ho can turn horrible. But this latest book, “Iced, with Sprinkles,” offers plenty of cozy moments, with elaborately decorated Christmas cookies, holiday story hours, parades of decorated yachts, and crusty old salts holding Yuletide potlucks in their Willamette River marina. Among other colorful characters, there’s a crusading newspaper columnist, a fanatical steelhead fisherman, and a couple of mad birders who don’t let winter stop them. Write what you know, you know?

Just remember, “iced” is another word for “murdered.”

“Iced, with Sprinkles” is available from Amazon as an e-book or a handsome paperback, just in time for gift giving — or to curl up with in front of a fire, preferably with a Christmas cookie (or two) and an eggnog with a slug of good rum. Ho-ho-ho.

P.S. Reviews from satisfied readers is what sells books on Amazon. We’d be delighted if you choose to post one.


Cleansing wonders on a morning ride

Few sights hold more delight on my November morning bike ride than sunlight piercing dark firs to spotlight a yellow maple’s autumn-limped leaves. Bright as flame leaping among the evergreens, but for once a pleasing conflagration.

Our grassy airfield glitters under a tarmac of yet unfrozen dew. Where another solar spotlight weaves through treetops, steam billows as if from a Yellowstone hot pool, minus only the azure highlights.

On this eve of a perilous election, an island neighbor walking tail-wagging dogs warms me with a smile as my tires crunch the gravel and I plunge pedals homeward.

Come what may tomorrow, this morning few sights hold more delight.


A serene Halloween

A sailboat ghosted its way in light air toward Shaw Island as cyclists and hikers converged on Lopez Island’s Fisherman Bay Spit on this mild and sunny Halloween Saturday. In the distance: Orcas Island’s Turtleback Mountain.

THE WORLD IS SCARY ENOUGH LATELY, with the resurging pandemic, and Election Day less than 72 hours away, so Barbara and I didn’t mind a day of sunshine and serenity this Halloween.

We journeyed to Lopez Island for one of our favorite obligations: recycling and trash disposal. That might sound odd, but it’s an every-fortnight necessity that gets us off our little rock and into a pleasant world of people who wave when you drive by. (We wave on Center Island, too. But Lopez has a lot more folks to do the waving. It’s the Bright Lights.)

That done, we had a picnic lunch at our favorite bench overlooking the Fisherman Bay spit. Sweaters were in order, but the day was mild for the end of October. The pink Nootka roses I’ve enjoyed there in June were now ruby-colored rose hips on twigs brittled and browned by recent brisk nights.

A squirrel already ate part of the eye from my jack o’lantern. That makes it even spookier, don’t you think?

Yesterday I carved a jack o’lantern and tonight we’ve lit a candle in it on the deck outside our window. A cheery fire crackles in the woodstove and Barbara is puttering in the kitchen, preparing colcannon, a traditional Irish dish for Halloween. In place of potatoes for me, she’s using mashed rutabaga in deference to my recently diagnosed diabetes. (I exercise, I eat a mostly vegan diet, I’m skinnier than I’ve been in years, and still it happened.) Upon our return from Lopez this afternoon, we stopped at the mail shack and found a Halloween gift package from daughter Lillian, with a homemade card and several packets of sugar-free candies. A thoughtful girl.

With dinner, we’ll enjoy our annual screening of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Later, we’ll look outside for the full moon (a blue moon, in fact) while keeping a wary eye out for werewolves, of course.

Years ago, I drove a sporty red two-seater and we spent our time in the fast lane. These days I drive a 15-year-old pickup and a hand-decorated golf cart called Mr. Toad.  Life in the slow lane? I’m OK with that.

Happy Halloween. If you haven’t already, be sure to vote. (Not for the werewolf.)

The flying boat of Center Island

Center Islander Chris Maas carves a turn aboard his custom-built hydrofoil catamaran.

YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’LL SEE from a little island nobody’s heard of, in a quiet month when few are around.

I was walking up our dock the other day and looked around and there was Chris Maas flying by on his hydrofoil.

Chris, co-owner with spouse Monique of Center Island’s only farm, is our resident Mr. Science. Or Mr. Greenjeans. Or both. He’s an inventor and a farmer and a sailor who can build or fix just about anything.

But quiet, and unassuming. Which is why I didn’t know he had converted a catamaran sailboat to an electrically powered hydrofoil until, well, I saw him buzzing by. Quietly.

Among other things, Chris was the world champion in canoe sailing, in the “Development Canoes” event (did you know there was a world championship in canoe sailing?), in competition held in Australia in 2008, for which he has a Wikipedia entry. Last year he launched a gorgeous wooden sailboat he built in his workshop. I happened to visit the day he was varnishing the gleaming tiller he’d fabricated out of a stave salvaged from an ancient cistern on his farm.

The hydrofoil is something he crafted in his workshop just for fun. It’s powered by an outboard motor that he adapted to run on electricity. Lifted by underwater wings similar to an aircraft’s wings, the spidery craft skims the waters of Reads Bay, off Center Island, making barely a hum.

His latest outing was to test a modification that would help the boat smoothly navigate the wakes of other passing boats.

The modification was a flop, Chris told me. So Center Island’s world champion has more tinkering to do, keeping busy in his workshop as the days get colder and quieter, on an island nobody’s heard of, where none of us really mind.

The outboard motor powering the hydrofoil is modified to run on battery power. It is lifted by underwater wings like an airplane’s.

October in my viewfinder

A Great Blue Heron takes wing from a raft of bull kelp off Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island. This was my view from shore as I sat on a rock munching my lunch over the weekend.

IT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE MONTHS in the San Juans, often sun-dappled, when it’s not all rain-washed and fresh. Mornings are often still dry enough for my aerobic bike ride, three dashing laps around the Center Island airfield. Or, when the shores and straits are misty, drippy and fog-horned, I might pull on my rain parka and the Pendleton hat that Indiana Jones would have coveted and I circle the island on foot, often toting my camera. On “dump days,” I might take a hike on neighboring Lopez Island.

I’m often surprised by my finds. Here are a few images from this past weekend. It’s a season to savor.

I saw more pumpkins than people on a recent rainy-morning walk around Center Island.

Center Islanders come up with novel ways to mark their property. Here’s a vessel that would fit right in at Shark Reef.

A windswept cemetery is good fodder for an October photo shoot. This graveyard is on Lopez Island, adjacent to pretty Center Church, built in 1887. The cemetery holds some of the island’s earliest settlers.

Nothing says October like a farmer trying to sell pumcchini

Our friend Monique Maas hawks her crossbred gourds on Center Island.

BETWEEN WIND-TUNNEL GALES and rains enough to quench a mighty forest’s thirst, we had a lovely cool October day this week, and as I strolled in the lemony sunshine I met our resident farmer, Monique, with a basket of interesting gourds she was adding to her farmstand.

They were a sort of noncommittal, Creamsicle orange. They weren’t round like pumpkins. They were sort of stretched out like zucchini. They were pumcchini.

Yes, when you grow pumpkins and zucchini in the same garden, bees visit both and the occasional mixed-up offspring results. The gourds aren’t really good for eating, Monique said. And if you carved one as a Jack-o-lantern, it would quickly fall on its face.

But they’re decorative in a basket on your kitchen table, Monique said. She put $1 pricetags on each. That’s a bargain for produce that is Center Island Grown.

Falling hard for autumn on the island

OK, something went haywire during the photo download, but I kind of like the Van Gogh-like quality of this image of the big horses at Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm as they nibble grass in the equinox sunshine.


After the recent plague of smoke, this first day of autumn turned out glorious and almost perfect on Center Island. Cool and fresh, with a mix of sun and cloud. Summer crowds gone, the island was quiet and peaceful.

Fresh breezes cleared out the wildfire smoke a couple days ago, sending it farther inland. It’s one pestilence I don’t mind sharing with the rest of the country. Let everybody worry about climate crises and maybe they’ll choose to change. After this year of COVID and smoke, a friend aptly wondered, “What’s next? Locusts and boils?”

Galley Cat and the Nuthatch cabin’s welcome toad frame a pumpkin I picked up from Horse Drawn Farm.

On my own for a couple of days while Barbara stays with her sister in the city, I buzzed across Lopez Sound in WeLike yesterday for a run to the dump and a stop at the farmstand. Today was a busy day of chores. Swept fallen leaves off the deck. Got the boat battened down for tomorrow, when we expect our first September storm, with heavy rain and high winds. Just what I wished for a week ago.

It’s OK. My sweetie is coming home on the morning water taxi, and it might just be the day for our first autumn fire in the woodstove. Maybe I’ll brew a batch of pumpkin ale.

Sometimes you don’t need a doctor to tell you when to say “ahhh.”

A smoky, somber San Juans September

A Great Blue Heron hunting for its breakfast was a lonely figure in the smothering mix of fog and smoke off Center Island on Tuesday.

SEPTEMBER IN THE SAN JUANS is passing in fog and a cloud of smoke.

Our islands have been spared the tragic, record-breaking wildfires that have plagued the West, but we’re not immune to the veil of choking smoke carried on southerly winds from Oregon and California. Barbara and I have been mostly sheltering inside for days on end, with no view beyond the trees in front of our cabin. Some days we hear the ferries blowing their foghorns, but there’s no fog, just smoke. Other days heavy fog combines with smoke, reducing visibility to yards.

Foggy dew beads up on a spider web on the Center Island dock railing.

Autumn is quickly approaching, but it’s all a blur. Like most of 2020 in our collective consciousness. Our hearts go out to people who’ve lost their homes and businesses. Friends in Talent, Ore., had to evacuate. Flames spared their home, but two blocks away looks “like Hiroshima,” they tell us.

We’ve had a few hours of light rain in the past 72 hours, giving the sky a rinse, but we’re not out of it yet. Keep fingers crossed for a good, old-fashioned Northwest September rainstorm, the kind that used to make back-to-school time such a damp and dreary thing when I was 12. It sounds pretty good right now. For all of us.

Our front steps are legal and our golf cart is an artistic statement. Whew.

We took our front steps for granted, until the base rotted away. And then we found they weren’t up to code anyway. Now all is fixed, with a good stone foundation.

IT’S BEEN A BUSY late-summer building season at the Nuthatch.

Finally, our front steps are up to code, now seven normal-size steps where once there were four GIANT steps. (Anyone playing “Mother May I” would have had to ask special permission to get up to our front door.)

We are also now the proud owners of Center Island’s only art cart. We finally caved and acquired an electric golf cart, the preferred-by-many method for getting around on our island, where you aren’t allowed to drive privately owned internal-combustion-powered vehicles on the one-lane community roads.

Daughter Lillian decorates the art cart. The finned cargo box was my creation.

The front steps replacement was a giant project for me. (Bob Vila’s job is safe.) I was helped along a bit by our generous island friend Dan Lewis, a union carpenter in his former life. But yours truly did much of the pounding, sawing, finishing and polishing. And everything is now legal, from the grippable handrails to the upright balusters that a four-inch ball can’t be pushed through (that’s in the state building code).

We’ve been among the sole holdouts who preferred to walk or bike around the island, but old legs keep getting older and it was time for a backup mode of transportation. So when an island neighbor was upgrading to shiny and new recently, we snapped up their old-but-still-functional (like us) E-Z-Go golf cart.

The first thing the cart needed was a cargo box for carrying groceries and supplies. I crafted one from cedar planks and repurposed bits of the old staircase, giving the cargo compartment a finned profile like the family station wagon of my childhood. But why stop there? Since seeing art cars displayed at Seattle’s Fremont Fair, daughter Lillian has always wanted to create one. So we offered her our golf cart as a blank canvas. Over Labor Day weekend, she gathered swordferns and leaves of salal, Oregon grape, and maple, daubed them with paint and printed the cart with nature’s images. Because the squat little vehicle’s basic color is dark green, and “Wind in the Willows” is one of our favorite read-aloud books, we’ve dubbed it Mr. Toad.

Lillian adds ferns to Mr. Toad’s, uh, forehead.

Other than that, the Nuthatch has endured deck repairs, railing repairs, gutter repairs and construction of attractive cedar screens around the not-so-attractive rain barrel and electric heat pump. It’s all part of this pioneering island life.

Winter will be a nice break. All I have to do then is chop firewood.

Our deck garden overfloweth

IMG_3070The nasturtiums have gone wild, tumbling down the ledge in front of the Nuthatch cabin this summer.

IMG_7955ON MY OWN at the cabin while Barbara’s gone for a few days, I step outside of a morning with my first toast and coffee to lounge, bathrobe-clad, in the old wooden Adirondack chair and listen to the birds. A wafting coolness hints of too-early autumn as cotton-puff clouds float aimlessly in the blue sky. I notice a hummingbird working the nasturtiums. I went overboard with them this year and they are cascading through the deck rail and down the cliff with trumpets of mandarin orange and sunflower yellow. I’m pleased with the effect. From the tall firs all around me, nuthatches serenade me with their own trumpets, though much more adenoidal.

Take a moment one of these mornings and enjoy your August. 1-anchor