“I am an ordinary person who believes we live in a world where extraordinary things can happen.” So begins Mermaid Out of Water, Santa Barbara resident Randy Gross’s “story of hope, faith, and miracles.” Crafting the story straight from her personal diaries, Gross recounts her family’s struggle with a series of health crises that plague her oldest daughter Emily, including but not limited to lupus and a spinal cord stroke.

Enduring trouble like this could move anyone to write an entire book, but, having having married a plastic surgeon and having put in a quarter-century as a surgical nurse herself, Gross writes from an insider’s perspective on the health-care system and, even in the best of times, its bewildering array of ins, outs, and complexities. Readers in search of a lesson, never fear: after the main text, Gross provides a list of 25 “things I learned along the way,” such as “You must always respect the word of a doctor, but never be afraid of questioning them politely,” “Take as many hugs as you can get,” and “Crying is cleansing. Let it pour.”

“At twenty-two,” Terry Row writes, “Phyllis Marie stood slim, petite, and pretty, with stunning green eyes that became more emerald with each passing year, her porcelain-white skin turned rosy-cheeked from the cold Idaho wind.” Thus opens Phyllis Marie: a Novel Based on a True Story. A classic sort of introduction for the fictitious protagonist of a novel, you might say, but Phyllis Marie, also known as Phyllis Marie Stanton Row Byers, turns out to be the real deal. At 91 years of age — and having spent 20 of those years in Santa Barbara — she’s inspired her son Terry to tell her story.

But Phyllis Marie’s story inevitably becomes the whole family’s, as Row dramatizes the meeting of his mother and his father, Perry V. Row, stationed at England’s Framlingham Air Force base during the Second World War. Exactly how their lives intersect will be left as a surprise for the reader, but rest assured that you won’t fall victim to confusion about who’s who; Row provides a handy reference guide to all the families involved and their members right up front.

“I enlisted in the Marine Corps in the spring of 1968 while still in high school,” Santa Barbara’s Ken Williams writes in the beginning of There Must Be Honor. A collection of individual pieces nevertheless united by a few strong throughlines, the book grows from the soil of Williams’s two interests fed by his own life experiences: homelessness and the Vietnam War. Anyone walking down Santa Barbara’s streets quickly comes to understand that, despite all of this city’s positive qualities, it gets no exemption from the problem of homelessness.

Williams turns a light on this only partially concealed element of Santa Barbara with article after article about his exploration of, his communication with, and his efforts to help out the homeless community, many of whose members joined the military young, just like he did. Williams spends no small number of words describing the condition of the unfortunates he encounters, and indeed supplements them with pictures: of the projects currently underway to improve the homeless people’s health and safety, of the trashbag-laden bicycles familiar to observers of street life, of memorials for the homeless dead.

“Shrill, high-pitched bells jolted me awake, and I pinched the bridge of my nose,” writes Montecito resident E. Duke Vincent. “My watch read eight o’clock. I’d been in bed an hour, asleep only half that time.” The place? Beverly Hills. The time? 1960. The light sleeper? World War II hero and Mafia assassin Dante Amato, to whom Vincent’s book The Camelot Conspiracy: a Novel of the Kennedys, Castro, and the CIA assigns the unenviable task of taking down Fidel Castro in the early years of communist Cuba. His task grows even less enviable when, due to a labyrinthine series of interacting machinations on the part of the state, the mob, the Teamsters, and other, shadier, outfits, Amato finds he must kill not the Cuban president but the American one.

As a former television writer/producer, partner of Aaron Spelling, and naval aviator who flew with the Blue Angels, Vincent has no doubt become a trusted authority on what thrills people. Conspiracies, assassinations, and underground dealings provide the very pulp of any sound international thriller, but one imagines Amato’s encounter with “the delicious and beautiful Cuban aristocrat Marissa Del Valle” won’t trigger any yawns either.


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