Friday, February 23, 2018

Flashback Friday: The Baffling Case of the Missing Socks

 Flashback Friday is a monthly meme that takes place on the last Friday of the month.
The idea is to give a little more love to a post you’ve published on your blog before.  Maybe you just love it, maybe it’s appropriate for now, or maybe it just didn’t get the attention it deserved when you first published it.

Thanks to Michael d’Agostino, who started it all, there is a solution – join Flashback Friday!

Just join in whenever you like, repost one of your own blog posts, including any copyright notices on text or media, on the last Friday of the month.

Use the Flashback Friday logo above, as designed by Michael d’Agostino. Link it back to host Jemima Pett (there's a linky list!) and add a link to your post in the comments on Jemima's post (or mine, or any other participant's).

Since Friday is my flash fiction day, I've been sharing stories from the archives. This one dates back to 2013, and since it is a mystery featuring my heroine, JJ MacGregor of Pismawallops Island, and since JJ has a new book coming out next month, you can enjoy seeing the sleuth in action.

The Baffling Case of the Missing Socks

A Minor Domestic Mystery

“Mom!  I can’t find my socks!”

There are few words more chilling to the heart of a mother on a schedule. No use ignoring him, though. I’ve known Brian almost 16 years, and he doesn’t give up.

With a sigh, I hit “save” and turned from the computer to call up the stairs, “There were a dozen pairs in your sock drawer yesterday.”

“I mean my new running socks. The ones Coach brought me from Seattle.”

I began the standard litany. “Are they in your gym bag?”

“Did you leave them in your locker?”

“No!  Mom, this is important. We have a meet today in Sedro-Woolly!”

Brian runs the 1500 meter race for the Orcaville High track team. His socks bear a life-and-death importance to him on meet days. This was serious.

I stood up, preparing myself for a desperate search for the truth even as I made one last effort to avoid the crisis.  “Don’t you have any others?”

“Not like these.  I need the new ones for the meet!”

I hauled myself up the stairs, muttering to myself about useless males. Brian stood in the middle of his room, gym bag in one hand and book bag in the other, looking frantically about him.

I looked at my watch. We had about three minutes before we had to leave for school. I’d meant to spend those minutes finishing an article I was writing for the new “Rural Urbanites” magazine, but this took precedence.

“Finish getting ready. I’ll look.”

Brian dropped both bags and looked frantically around.  “What? I’ve got my uniform.”

“Hair.” I pointed. “And teeth. And shoes would probably be good.”

He clutched at his head and disappeared into the bathroom.

A few years ago I’d have wasted my time quizzing him about where he’d last seen the socks. I’m wiser now. It’s one of the mercifully few ways Brian resembles his father: Allen can’t find things either. Happily, Allen's not my problem anymore. Brian is.

I began with the sock drawer, rummaging hastily through the jumble of socks and underwear to see if Brian had really looked, or just glanced at the mess and given up. The new socks were neon green, which made it unlikely that even a guy could miss them.  Still, it was the most reasonable place to find a pair of socks. Ninety percent of the time, when a male can’t find something, it is right where it should be, only under something else.

I made that statistic up, but it’s true.

From the sock drawer I turned to the other drawers. Nothing. Then the desk. I was starting to feel the pressure of time slipping away, and I left an even worse mess than I’d found, and still no socks.

Moving to the bed as the clocked ticked down to doom, I vowed Brian would clean his room that very day. Well, maybe the next day. He’d be late coming home from the track meet.  Any time the team ran anywhere but at home, it was a major expedition for the same reason I couldn’t just run out and buy Brian new socks: tiny Pismawallops Island is a 40-minute ferry ride from everything.

No, the honor of Orcaville hung on the keen detective abilities of JJ MacGregor, and I wasn’t going to let the team down.

I grabbed the bedcovers, yanked them back to expose the interior, and shook. Brian needed clean sheets, but he wasn’t sleeping with the new socks. A few garments fell to the floor as I shook out the covers, but not the socks.

I swept the bedding back into place as I heard the bathroom door open. It was crunch time, and I had to come through.

As Brian’s footsteps sounded in the hall, I dropped to my stomach on the hardwood floor and stuck my head under the bed.

“Mom! Have you found them? We’ve got to go!”

I jerked when he yelled, banging my head on the underside of the bed so hard the bed moved. 

“Unspeakable excrescence of a cursed hunk of furniture,” I began, then stopped.

I reached out an arm, grabbed the glowing bundle that dropped from behind the bed, and back out from under before accepting Brian’s hand up.

Of course, when he saw the socks, he dropped my hand and grabbed them like a drowning man clutching a life ring. Or a lover clutching his true love. 

For a moment I saw red, which went well with the stars I was still seeing from cracking my head. Self-centered little beast, just like his father!

While Brian stowed the socks and gathered his belongings, I climbed more slowly to my feet.

Then he turned again. “You’re the greatest, Mom! A real Sherlock Holmes.” There was not a hint of irony in his tone.

I could almost feel my deerstalker hat and Inverness Cape as I followed him down the stairs. Not so much like his dad, after all. Brian had an actual sense of gratitude, as well as a sense of humor.

“Come on, Mom!” Brian called again. He already had the car keys and was leading the way out the door.

The last misty hints of the deerstalker faded away as I climbed into the passenger seat, and the greatest sleuth on Pismawallops Island became once again a driver training instructor. I tightened my seat belt and crossed myself, muttered three “om manis” and followed it up with “Now I lay me down to sleep,” just to cover all my bases. A real sleuth can face any danger, but not always without blanching.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Non-fiction Audio-Book Review: Valient Ambition


Title: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution

Author: Nathaniel Philbrick; read by Scott Brick

Publisher: 2016, Books on Tape. Original by Viking, 2016, 427 pages.

Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:
In September 1776, the vulnerable Continental Army under an unsure George Washington (who had never commanded a large force in battle) evacuates New York after a devastating defeat by the British Army. Three weeks later, near the Canadian border, one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, miraculously succeeds in postponing the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that might have ended the war. Four years later, as the book ends, Washington has vanquished his demons and Arnold has fled to the enemy after a foiled attempt to surrender the American fortress at West Point to the British. After four years of war, America is forced to realize that the real threat to its liberties might not come from without but from within.

Valiant Ambition is a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to a nation. The focus is on loyalty and personal integrity, evoking a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds in the key relationship of Washington and Arnold, who is an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters.

My Review: 
I think the publisher's summary nails it pretty well: "a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait." I appreciated that the author appeared to give a hard look at Washington's failings as well as his strengths (including recognizing that he learned to be a good general; he wasn't born that way). Unfortunately, the word "complex" also sums things up well. There is a lot in this book, and I found it hard to keep all the characters sorted out and to follow the history, or at least to fit it into what I already know. 

The key thread, however, of how Arnold went from hero of the rebellion to traitor, is pretty clear and pretty well presented, even if I had to sort it out from the many other threads and characters. That, in fact, is my main criticism: the author may have tried to take in too much, and there were far too many characters to keep track of, especially in the audio book. I ended up feeling as though there were a lot of life stories being told me, with often very little understanding on my part as to why this person mattered. Again, in print, a little flipping back and forth might have solved the problem, but in audio, it left me mostly feeling confused.

My Recommendation:
Interesting topic, educational, but hard to follow, at least as an audio book. Read it if you are in need of a better understanding of the American Revolution and have patience.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Valiant Ambition 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, February 19, 2018

Middle Grade Review: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters

Below is the cover on the edition I read. Wonder why they made those small changes, but in any case, I prefer the first one. It's hard to see any of the details on the book I got from the library. It's a nice illustration of how small changes can improve a cover.

Title: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Momotaro series #1)
Author: Margaret Dilloway. Illustrations by Choong Yoon
Publisher: Disney/Hyperion, 2016. 309 pages
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
Xander Miyamoto would rather do almost anything than listen to his sixth grade teacher, Mr. Stedman, drone on about weather disasters happening around the globe. If Xander could do stuff he's good at instead, like draw comics and create computer programs, and if Lovey would stop harassing him for being half Asian, he might not be counting the minutes until the dismissal bell.

When spring break begins at last, Xander plans to spend it playing computer games with his best friend, Peyton. Xander's father briefly distracts him with a comic book about some samurai warrior that pops out of a peach pit. Xander tosses it aside, but Peyton finds it more interesting.

Little does either boy know that the comic is a warning. They are about to be thrust into the biggest adventure of their lives-a journey wilder than any Xander has ever imagined, full of weird monsters even worse than Lovey. To win at this deadly serious game they will have to rely on their wits, courage, faith, and especially, each other. Maybe Xander should have listened to Mr Stedman about the weather after all. . . .

My Review:  
 This one gets a mixed review. It wasn't bad, but especially in the early stages, I found myself wandering away from it to read some non-fiction I was plowing through. That's not usually a good sign for an exciting work of fiction. So I did some thinking about what the problem was.

I've mentioned before that I'm not super keen on books where ordinary kids find out they are some super-hero in another world, or in an unseen part of this world. Thanks to someone from the Great Middle Grade Reads group for pointing out that this is the Percy Jackson formula, and that this book suffers a bit from feeling like a PJ-wannabe, because that is the problem. Not only is it overused, but the result is a fairly predictable story line (even the use of 3 kids to make up our hero team seems to be pretty standard), and Xander is even the conventional unheroic hero who doesn't know what powers he could have because he's just so average.

On the other hand... once I hit the tipping point, I had no trouble sticking with the book and finishing it, and I found some aspects of it commendable, and some were better than PJ. Really big in that area was the pacing. I recently read the 2nd Percy Jackson (The Sea of Monsters) and found that it felt like nothing but a race from one crisis to the next, with little character development or plot subtlety. In this book, there was a little slower pace and the characters have some depth, including relationships that change and develop.

I appreciated that the author chose to use a non-Western mythology (I haven't checked to see if she made it up or borrowed it). I also thought she handled the parent question really well. I've had discussions before about the need to get parents out of the way in order to let the kids have their adventure. In this case, the adventure is to rescue the parent, and I thought she handled it well when Xander's father is finally found, and of course wants to take over and keep Xander safe--but he can't, and they both have to deal with that. (Come to think of it, that part is not unlike what happens in A Wrinkle in Time). It rang true, in any case.

My Recommendation:
This was something I probably wouldn't have read if it weren't our GMGR book of the month (and fills the X spot on my reading challenges). But it's a pretty good read, and I'd recommend it for kids who like adventure. Anyone who liked Percy Jackson will probably like this, though I think this is aimed at a slightly younger audience than he is--the peril feels a little less scary and there is definitely less gore.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters 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."