Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Flash Fiction: Sweeping Up the Ashes

I drew for today's flash from a list of random titles Chuck Wendig shared a couple of weeks ago, and modified it to suit my own needs. It's 997 words, including the title.

Sweeping Up the Ashes of a Dream

It was a lousy farm. We believed everything the promoters told us, and we got our 160 acres, which felt like a dream come true.

No one told us that our farm would nearly kill our mules, breaking the rocky ground to plant seeds that would only sprout if we hauled water ten miles from the creek, and then would struggle to a stunted life if they didn’t shrivel and die under the hot winds.

We were among those too late for the rich prairie lands. We were trying to prove up on 160 acres of desert as though it was a bit of prime land in the Ohio river bottoms. It wasn’t possible, and we knew it the first season, but what choice did we have? There was nothing to go back to, even had we the money and equipment to make the trip. The best we could do was struggle on.

And we did struggle. Some who saw us on our rare trips to town, our clothes faded and patched and our mules looking as beat down as we did, probably thought we were lazy and shiftless, to be so poor. But most looked at us with understanding, if they were farmers, or with the far more painful pity of the few townsfolk who were doing better. When the farms a town serves are starving, the only merchants who do well are the ones who sell essentials—and the ones who sell oblivion.

Even at that, we didn’t let the dream die. The second and third years we got slightly larger crops, enough to lay in supplies for the winter, and the children lost the worst of the hungry look, though I know our Ned never got enough to match his growth. He took to hunting and trapping, and brought in enough rabbits and such to help out. He learned from the Indians, too, and managed to persuade me to learn to cook lizards.

I never got used to it, but I’ll not deny they were the one source of meat that never seemed to run short, and the little ones could catch them, too.

So by the fourth year, I thought we were going to make it. In August, we had a good crop ripening in the fields, watered from the pond we built to catch run-off. I’d learned to cook everything edible that grew on or around our land, and Ned had started tanning and selling the rabbit skins and whatnot.

It was thunderstorm season, which meant rain, and that made us happy, too. Only, the storms that day did a lot of rumbling, but no rain fell. I was starting to feel uneasy about a low cloud over the hill to the west, when Ned came running.

“Fire!” He was yelling so his voice broke, and when I looked, the cloud was dark and brown.

Ned was up to the house now, panting and still trying to talk. “Fire—headed up—hill—coming—this way.” With no rain, there’d be no stopping a brush fire.

I needed no more telling, nor did my husband. Carl had seen the smoke, and came at a run from the field where he’d been checking the crops.

“Ned—harness the mules. Not the wagon—the cart.”

I knew what that meant. We were going to have to move fast. I turned back into the house. “Mary, put all the clothes you can on the bed and wrap them in the quilt. Teddy, you hold Anna’s hand and don’t let go.”  God help me, I was setting a 5-year-old to protect a toddler, but I had no choice, as I ran about the house grabbing what I could.

Would the house burn? It was a soddy, and half buried in the bank, but if the fire came through hot enough it would burn anything that could burn, and the roof would fall in. Aside from the family Bible, we hadn’t anything of value, so I grabbed up all the food I could, and we raced together to the cart Ned had drawn up by the door.

By now the fire was over the hill and coming our way. I threw the supplies into the cart, lifted the children in, and climbed onto the seat. To my surprise, Ned and his father didn’t join us.

“Drive for the creek, Mattie! As fast as you can, and don’t look back.” Then they both began to run, and I understood. The cart was too heavy. The mules might not be fast enough even without the weight of the men. I whipped up the poor animals, though they needed little encouragement. Mules are smart enough to run from fire.

Carl yelled, and I looked back. He had fallen, tripped by some hole or other. Ned turned to help him, as I dared not, but Carl screamed for him to run. The flames were only yards away when Ned fled. I saw just enough from my seat behind the mules to know, and could only scream to the children to hide their faces.

“Don’t look back!”

The mules and my boy put on a burst of speed, and we drove right into the creek before the fire died against the dampness of the watercourse. A few of the little cottonwoods burned, but the big ones just singed.

As soon as the flames passed, I commanded Ned to watch the other children, and to stay put, while I ran back to where I had last seen Carl.

We buried him on the hill overlooking the farm, Ned and I. My son was suddenly much older than his 13 years, and I leaned on him as we walked back to our smoky and reeking home. The crop was gone, and my husband was gone. I took up a broom and began sweeping the ashes and dust from the house. The dream was gone, but we were not.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: In Farleigh Field, by Rhys Bowen


Title: In Farleigh Field
Author: Rhys Bowen
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing, 2017. 378 pages
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.

My Review:  

I'm a big fan of Rhys Bowen, especially her light-hearted "Royal Spyness" mysteries. This book for the most part lacks the lightness of that series, but it shares with all Bowen's books meticulous research and an ability to write so that the reader feels a part of the setting. Characters are well-developed and well presented, and if the solution to the mystery seemed a little plain to me, the intricacies of how it was all worked out were well worth reading on for (and it's only fair to note that this doesn't advertise itself as a mystery, but as "a novel"). I also greatly enjoyed the close look at the conflicts that arose between the birth of the modern age and the traditions of the aristocracy during that period.

Though this book doesn't advertise itself as a mystery, it is just that, at least in part. That the main characters trying to sort out what's up with the dead parachutist can't even tell each other where they work or what they are up to does add a nice twist. As I say, the mystery wasn't terribly difficult to guess, but the progression of the story still offered a lot of suspense and interest. I read through it fast, not wanting to put it down or quit. Bowen's pretty good at doing that to me (though I'm not so keen on her Molly Murphy mysteries, her other books have all really hit the spot).

My Recommendation:
This is well-researched and well-written, and should interest any fan of WWII or of period mysteries.

FTC Disclosure: I checked In Farleigh Field out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Middle Grade Monday: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill


Title: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. 388 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and deliver them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey.

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this enmagicked girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. To keep young Luna safe from her own unwieldy power, Xan locks her magic deep inside her. When Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, her magic begins to emerge on schedule--but Xan is far away. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Soon, it is up to Luna to protect those who have protected her--even if it means the end of the loving, safe world she’s always known.

My Review: 

This book wasn't what I expected from the blurb, and that's a good thing. I looked at it, and sort of thought it would be a typical children's fantasy, fun maybe but nothing special. In fact, the book is  truly original, and maybe not a children's book at all. I'll have to think about that. But I know that once I started, it was hard to put down

The writing style is understated, at times almost reportorial, but at the same time there is an undercurrent of feeling so strong that you almost are the characters. Nor is young Luna the only main character. That young man from the Protectorate (who is really an adult, not a child at all, even in the beginning), plays a central role and we spend time with him, with a madwoman, with the ancient witch Xan, and even with Glerk and Fyrian. (We even get to see a bit into the heads of the bad guys). All of that might sound like it gets confusing, but it doesn't. It just makes the story full and rich.

So much of this story is about people just doing the best they can with the limited skills and knowledge they have--and that, to me, is what makes it a good children's book, even while I think it could quite well pass in the adult section of the library, too. For the latter, seeing how the evil and sorrow of the Protectorate is created (and later destroyed), provides a level of story interest beyond what a child might understand.

My Recommendation:
Read it.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Girl Who Drank the Moon out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."