22 May 2011


Promises, promises. As ever the nutjob Christians failed to deliver and the true believers are still among us. I was really looking forward to getting rid of a whole lot of wide-eyed, self-righteous morons, but here it is two days later and they're still here.

Oh well. I do take some solace in that apparently a great many of the self-annointed were fleeced of their earthly goods prior to their anticipated elevation into the heavens. As my father so aptly put it, "People that naive and stupid are a lot like rabbits. They exist almost entirely as feed for other animals that are higher on the food chain."

He's right. I'm not inherently a scam artist or a thief or a con man, but crooks gotta eat, too. And if they can make a good meal out of the misguided followers of charlatans, I'm all for it.

Okay, so now that that's off my chest, I'd rather talk about something I enjoyed - MEXICO.

Last week I went to Mexicali and Ensenada and points in between. The trip was for research for my as yet untitled, first Wen Lei Yue novel. (Well, first and a half if you count the second half of SHANGHAIED.)

Just as happened, or rather didn't happen, when I went with a friend last year to Tijuana while she researched her novel, I wasn't kidnapped, robbed, raped or beheaded. I'm certain that comes as a great surprise - and hopefully relief - to the many people who seem to harbor the delusion that that is what will be the inevitable consequence of a trip south of the border.

I suppose, sadly, it bears repeating: The United States is one of the most violent, crimeridden places on the planet - at least parts of it. Los Angeles, where I live, is no slouch when it comes to murder and mayhem. Why should I be afraid of Mexico?

To toss around a statistic, the U.S. murder rate last year was 6.8 out of every 100,000 people. The overall murder rate in Mexico was 13.7 out of every hundred thousand. BUT, if you take away the murders in Mexico that were related to the drug trade - not even including the few innocent bystanders - the murder rate in Mexico was just about equal to the U.S. at 7 out of every hundred grand. Tijuana is safer than Denver, or Phoenix, or Los Angeles.

So enough of that. It's frustrating that I feel the need to preface the good things I'm going to say about my trip to Mexico with that sort of stuff. Get over it. There's only news in reporting when unusual or extraordinary things do happen - "if it bleeds, it leads" - not in reporting the things that don't happen.

Mexicali's an interesting place. It's the capital of northern Baja California, has a population nearing a million, is a major industrial center - including a high tech industrial park called "Silicon Border" - and other than Americans fleeing across the border to find better, cheaper medical care it doesn't have much tourism.

Those of you who have read GRAVE IMPORTS and SHANGHAIED might recall that Wen Lei Yue, Ray's sidekick who has now become the main protagonist of the series, was born to a Chinese family in Mexicali. The city has the largest Chinese population in Mexico. And that population is growing somewhat as Chinese companies begin to set up factories in Mexico to produce goods to export to the U.S.

It is difficult to go more than a block, at the most two, in any commercial part of Mexicali without seeing a Chinese restaurant. I ate in a couple of them. It wasn't my idea of good Chinese food, but who knows, it might be the best of its sort in Mexico. It probably is. (So as to avoid going too much into food in this blog, I here refer you by link to a posting of mine on Chowhound.com in which I describe the culinary side of my trip to Mexico. Click anywhere on this paragraph to get there.)

Mexicali used to have a large and thriving Chinatown. Not so much anymore, though there are architectural remnants, a new shopping building in a Chinese style, a monument and plenty of Chinese cafes mixed in among the taquerias, shoestores, nightclubs and brothels of the old city center and redlight district. Here's some pictures: (As usual, click on the pic to see it larger.)

I will at least show a couple of food pictures, of sorts. The first is the menu from the Number Eight Chinese Restaurant - open 24 hours - in the redlight district. I was intrigued by the Wonton Soup with Carnitas, but it turns out that in Mexicali Chinese restaurants "carnitas" is simply "cha siu" (Chinese style roast pork) rather than the roasted then fried pork of Mexico. The local "asaderos" - masters of asada (grilling) - tend to set out large arrays of salsas and condiments, the like of which I have yet to see here in L.A.

As a photographer, one of the things I like best about Mexico is the use of bright colors - they pop out at you when the light hits them. And then, in Mexicali you are almost always aware of the border. You can turn up a street and uh oh, there it is. I know that it isn't, but it seems so, so arbitrary.

After two swell days and nights wandering around Mexicali, I got in my car and headed west over La Rumorosa to Tecate, then south through the Valle de Guadalupe to Ensenada.

La Rumorosa is a town on a rocky plateau at about 5-6,000 feet between Mexicali and Tecate. The road that goes through it is an amazing, strange, eerie road that curves wildly and steeply up from below sea level at Mexicali to the town. Turnouts along the way are lined with memorials to people who have died in auto plunges off the road. Sometimes in winter there is snow up there. The road is well-maintained but there are plenty of trucks and some crazed drivers. I took it slow and easy and enjoyed it plenty.

Once over La Rumorosa, turning south through Tecate you enter the Valle de Guadalupe - a beautiful valley of rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves, palm groves, wineries and numerous roadside food stands and restaurants. Here, however, I am letting you, dear reader, down from the photographic standpoint. For some reason I took no pictures on this part of the drive. Take it from me, it looks like Napa, the wineries have tastings, many of the wines I have tried from the region are excellent, and the jar of pickled red jalapenos and the jar of olives that I bought at a roadside stand are fantastic.

The valley spills you out on the coast, just a few miles north of Ensenada.

I'm not crazy about Ensenada. It is a town that exists almost entirely to service tourists, especially the cruise ship tourists who show up in droves. (NOTE: I have been informed, in no uncertain terms, that I am wrong about this by a number of highly vocal posters to a forum on the website BajaNomad. They all seem to be a lot more familiar with Ensenada than I am, so I stand corrected and am looking forward to a return visit so I can better get to know the place.) It does, however, have the largest container port in Baja California - a prime entry point for people being smuggled from Asia, particularly China, on their way to the U.S. That's why I was there.

Well, that and Manzanilla restaurant, a truly fantastic restaurant that is described in the Chowhound posting I linked to earlier in this blog post. (A recent blog post by the blogger MasaAssassin has an interview with the chef.)

Other than bars, strip clubs and horrible souvenir shops, the main attraction for visitors to Ensenada seem to be pharmacies where you can score drugs that usually require prescriptions in the U.S., either simply because they are cheaper or you want them without a prescription. There is a whole, large, not very touristy part of Ensenada, but I got there too late in the day to do much driving around to discover it. So, I finished my lunch, my exploration of the harbor, then mostly stuck to the awful tourist zone. But, here's some pictures:The fish market.
The bar at Manzanilla restaurant.Strange round building that I know nothing about.
Thursdays are 2 For 1 beer night at Hussong's. I saw two skinny guys working rapidly through two large ice buckets filled with bottles, maybe 24 bottles in all.
Anthony's is a disco that is popular with college kids and people off cruise ships. It is filled with women you can take out to the short time hotels nearby. At the "table dance" stripclubs, however, no takeaway is necessary, there are private booths and VIP rooms available inside for that sort of thing.Thus the popularity of Viagra and Cialis in the numerous nearby pharmacies.
Of course they have mediocre Chinese restaurants in Ensenada, too. Why would anyone think that fading, discolored, not very well shot photos of food would attract customers inside?What I was really there for was to see the harbor - where Wen Lei Yue will arrive in Mexico, smuggled on the container ship where I left her at the end of SHANGHAIED. I was hoping there'd be both a huge cruise ship, as well as a big freighter in port when I was there, but there was only the freighter. And it wasn't even a particularly scenic time of day to shoot a picture.

Anyhow, a good time was had. I got the research done that I needed to get done. And now I'm looking forward to going back sometime to engage in some leisurely wine tasting in the Valle de Guadalupe.

04 May 2011


At last weekend's LA Times Festival of Books I had one particular interaction that really summed up for me why I liked it better this year - at USC, near downtown L.A. - than I have in previous years - at UCLA, in West L.A.

A family came up to me as I "manned" the Sisters in Crime L.A. Chapter booth. The parents were probably in their 30s, one daughter was a young teen, the other maybe nine or ten. They were Hispanic and they had come from a booth selling books in Spanish. Now the parents wanted their daughters to meet some writers who wrote in English and to also look over the English books on sale. We chatted for a while. The parents apologized that they couldn't afford to buy books, that instead they often took their daughters to the library. I told them there was no reason to apologize, that the important thing was that their daughters and they were interested in reading and in books and wanting to know about writers. Their commitment to that, and to show up at a book festival on a weekend - via public transit (far easier to USC than to UCLA) no less - was a wonderful thing. We talked about books and writing and then they went on their way.

Throughout the day I spoke with similar families and individuals, people who loved books and reading, couldn't really afford to buy many, or any books, but who used their local libraries and were happy to be at a festival where they could meet writers and other like-minded people. A lot of them had also come via public transit.

This year's LATFOB was a great deal more diverse - near as I could tell from walking around and observing the crowd - than it has been in previous years. (By "diverse" I mean by race, ethnicity and national origin.) My completely unscientific, based only on personal observation, estimate is that about half the crowd was not Caucasian. (At UCLA it always seemed like it was 85 percent or so white middle and upper class people like myself, like the Westside itself.)

I have no idea how book sales went. It could be that booksellers weren't all that happy. I have a feeling that the book buying public in L.A. is heavily skewed toward the more affluent Westside. But this year's LATFOB struck me as much more representative of the city as a whole, and of the greatest single thing about Los Angeles - it's diversity. And I liked that very much.

It doesn't have much to do with what I was just writing about, but here's a picture of me, Paul Marks and Laura Levine signing books in the SinCLA booth.
Like any book event these days I spent much of my time talking with other writers about ebooks. Several times while I was sitting in the booth, hoping to sign paper and ink books that people bought, I was asked if my books were available for Kindle, or Nook or some iGadget or another. They are. Five people told me that they planned to buy my ebooks. I made jokes that if they brought their e-reader to me I'd sign it for them.

Joking aside, it's an interesting question that a lot of us writers were pondering. A lot of people do want their books signed. Some people collect first editions. How is that going to happen? One thing I've been considering is to print out a bunch of copies of the covers of my ebooks. I can sign those for people. I suppose with regard to first editions, one possibility is that, say, there is a special e-cover for the first, oh, 500 or a thousand or whatever ebooks are downloaded. Then a different cover comes out.

I don't know. Anybody have any thoughts on the matter?

I also encountered several writers who had recently finished their first book and were polling us published authors as to whether or not we thought they should consider going straight to self-publishing ebooks, rather than a traditional publishing deal. The consensus among the writers I spoke with, and overheard, seemed to be that for someone who hasn't been previously published, a traditional paper and ink deal was still important, maybe even vital, for a first book (or two) to give it credibility. (A traditional publication comes with at least something of a reassurance that someone other than the author thought the book was worth publishing and that it has been edited, copyedited and proofread by others who presumably know what they are doing.) In spite of all the changes going on in publishing, most writers seem to think that hasn't changed - at least not yet.

No one, however, could agree on what this all means to mid-list authors such as myself who already have a track record of traditional paper and ink publications. That's something that is currently driving myself and most of the other authors I know who are in the midst of careers similar to mine utterly nuts.