Thursday, August 29, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: In the Valley of the Baleful Stones

Chuck Wendig is not a nice man.  This week he gave us a list of random words, ten of them, and told us to use them all in a story.  All ten!  That's just mean.  I was doing pretty well with the list and my fantasy setting until I got to the last one.  You'll know when you reach it.  I'll give you the whole list at the end of the story, just for fun.  Feel free to see how many you can guess without cheating.  Then visit Chuck's blog and check out how some others used them (warning: other bloggers may not be suitable for youngsters, or work, or polite company.  I can't make any promises).  990ish words.

In the Valley of the Baleful Stones


Gorg left the Iron Desert through a narrow canyon, a tight, stony gorge just too wide to be a slot.  Nothing grew there but stones.  After days crossing the unyielding iron of the desert, the stones represented life to Gorg the Troll.  Being stone himself, mostly, he grazed happily on chunks of granite and basalt as he strode along, with an occasional conglomerate for a relish.

The midday sun beat down, turning the canyon into an oven.  Had a human chosen that route, there wouldn't even have been a corpse left for the funeral.  They'd have been cooked to nothing and picked clean by the vultures that waited on the high cliffs.  Though even the vultures might have waited for night to cool things down a bit.  The troll just kept moving, even humming a little--a sound like a cross between a rockfall and an elephant in distress.

The canyon broadened and straightened just a bit.  In the distance Gorg could now see a lone willow--sure sign of water.  He didn't need water; trolls didn't drink except for fun.  But it told him he was nearing the end of his journey, and he picked up the pace.  He had a date to keep with Duke Bale the Artichoke-Hearted, and he didn’t want to be late.  Duke Bale had been responsible for several members of Gorg's family being turned back into the stone from which they'd been born, and his Uncle Grk had, in the next heavy rain, been dissolved back into the clay of his home mountains. Gorg had vowed that the Duke would pay.

A league beyond the lone willow, Gorg found the road to the Valley of Baleful Stones, Duke Bale's family holding.  The name held a charm that would captivate the ordinary troll, but Gorg knew that all he would find in the land of Bale would be deceit and disappointment.  Probably even the stones would be untrustworthy.  He turned west on the road, and switched his giant stone war hammer from his left shoulder to his right.

He knew he grew close when he began to smell rotten eggs.  The Baleful Stones of the valley's fame were the disfigured sulfurous mounds deposited by a volcanic vent that ran length of the north side, and the entire valley stunk of it.  Gorg thought it only fit, for the heart of Duke Bale stunk still worse.

Now he could see the castle in the distance, and he shifted his war hammer back to his left shoulder, and tried not to breathe too deeply.  Even trolls disliked the sulfurous brimstone, and would neither eat it nor live near the volcanic vents that produced it.  Only Duke Bale, banished nephew of King Celery the Half-Wit, would do so, and he, Gorg thought, only because he'd been sent there by royal decree.
#

In the depths of the ugly castle that crouched as far as it could from the sulfur vents, the Duke studied his plans for the thousandth time.  Soon, his fool of an uncle would know that Bale was plotting to dethrone him.  But by then, it would be too late.  He studied the device that the sorcerer Stenrick the Brilliant had made for him.  Soon, he would have Stenrick go out to meet the pesky troll, that persistent annoyance of a Gorg.

Bale hadn't meant it to work this way when he'd sent Mergle to kill the group of trolls that had stumbled into his secret mines.  But Gorg had proved useful.  Mergle thought too much of himself, and had attracted the attention of the swordswoman--what was her name?  And what had become of her?  She hadn't caught Mergle.  Gorg took care of that one.  But Mergle had drawn the attention of the King, and so had become a liability.  Gorg, poor stupid troll, had done him a favor, Bale reflected.

Now Gorg was coming here, and would meet with Stenrick.  One or both would be killed, and Bale rather hoped it would be both.  He would have to take care of whoever was left before he could take care of the King.  Ordinarily, Bale would have been no match for either a sorcerer or a troll, but Stenrick, the fool, had given Bale all he needed, and now Bale no longer needed Stenrick.

Near the edge of the valley, in a cleft well hidden from the road, the half-magical balloon swayed gently, its silk bag filled with the gasses from the vent it covered.  Bale would be high in the basket suspended below the balloon when Stenrick blasted Gorg into a pile of rubble with the spell he called the "Atomic Blaster," whatever he meant by that.
#

Gorg came on into the valley, and didn't falter when he saw the billowing robes of the sorcerer approaching.  Stenrick was a far greater sorcerer than Mergle had been on his best day, but Gorg knew what he could do.  Shifting the war hammer once again to his right shoulder, so as to leave his more powerful left hand free, Gorg scooped up a selection of stones.

The first stone to leave the sling struck the wand from Stenrick's hand.  The second slew the sorcerer as he stooped to retrieve it.  Gorg came on, stepping on the man just to be sure.  No one survived a troll walking over them.

Gorg's remaining stones were flung after the balloon which suddenly rose from the rocks nearby and soared into the sky, Bale leaning over the edge and jeering.  Those that hit the balloon bounced uselessly off.  Only one stone struck something solid, and Gorg didn't know of that.  The wind carried Bale out of sight before the Duke discovered that Gorg had put out of action the magical appliance that controlled the balloon's flight.

He was at the mercy of the winds.  Gorg had won another round.



#####
Okay, here's the list: 
Funeral, Captivate, Deceit, Brimstone, Canyon, Balloon, Clay, Disfigured, Willow, and (I'm sure you guessed this one) Atomic



Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Middle Grade Fiction: Giving Kids Autonomy

As I have mentioned (since it sparked several reviews), there's been some discussion lately about missing and dead parents in Middle Grade fiction. I also recently did a post on books about boarding schools, and all this together has made me think about the importance of giving kids autonomy, both in books and in reality.

So this week I'm going to start a discussion about ways that authors give kids autonomy.  Next week I'll continue it with a discussion of what we parents do or should do to help our kids achieve some fraction of the level of self-sufficiency that the heroes of their books have.

 An obvious literary approach to getting parents out of the way is the orphan story.  That's easy.  No parents, lots of need to fend for yourself, especially in a historical or fantasy setting where there's no state structure to step in and offer substitutes (though given what I know of the foster system in my state, anyway, any kid who comes out of that with their head on straight and going in the right direction has plenty of gumption and self-sufficiency).

So if you don't want to kill off the parents, how else do you get the kids on their own?  There's boarding school (see last week's discussion, to which I now suddenly realize I should add Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels of Alanna and Keladry going through page training--if that isn't boarding school, I don't know what is.  Complete with strict adults who must be circumvented).  In many of the books I loved as a kid, parents simply gave kids carte blanche to roam, and they then could fall into adventures (think of Enid Blighton's "Famous Five).  This wasn't so far off reality back then; my brothers and I ran around in the woods and on the beach for hours at a time without checking in with parents.  In essence, the author (and the kids) can then just ignore the parents.

Historical fiction often makes more room for kids to be proactive and self-sufficient, as well.  That seems to have been reality.  Even little kids had chores and had to learn fast to do them themselves.

In one of my works in progress, I just made the main characters 16 or so, and put them on their own. Old enough to make it plausible, young enough that they don't have to do the adult love stuff (which I don't seem to want to write, and certainly not in a book aimed at kids).

And, of course, ultimately every kid is to some degree on her own in working out life's issues.  The bigger the issues, the more likely kids seem to be to keep them inside and try to go it alone.  So the parents can be right there and still the kids have to deal on their own.

Can you come up with any more approaches that writers use to make it plausible to have kids doing major (often adult-like) things?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

45032 

Book: Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen.  549 pages, including notes.
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 1996 (original publication 1814)
I read the ebook, borrowed from the library.



Summary: Fanny Price, oldest daughter of a woman who has married unwisely and had too many children, is sent to live with and be raised by her aunt and uncle, wealthy and noble, at Mansfield Park.  Fanny is shy, quiet, and not very strong and healthy, and is more or less ignored or imposed on by everyone at Mansfield except her cousin Edmund.  As they grow into adulthood, the usual assortment of trials and romances carry off the girl cousins, Maria and Julia.  Fanny herself is courted by an extremely "eligible" party, but is unable to accept his proposal, both because she considers him morally unstable and because she is, of course, in love with Edmund (who is, also of course, trying very hard to marry someone else).  In the end, things work out about as you'd expect, this being Austen.

Review: This doesn't feel quite like the Austen of Pride and Prejudice.  I will leave it to the scholars to debate the more serious issues of change and stability she may have been addressing, and consider the book solely from the perspective of the reader looking for entertainment.  While I missed the more obvious humor and general lightness of P & P, I did find Mansfield Park worth reading, and even stayed up past my bedtime to finish.

Although Fanny could be merely a pathetic creature--too sickly and humble to assert herself--she manages to be more than that.  Austen doesn't work on us to feel bad for the way she is used or raised (always to be second to the actual daughters of the house, though not precisely the "poor cousin" who is treated as a hired companion, either).  Instead, the reader recognizes that somehow, out of all this, she has developed an understanding of human nature (her own and others') that far exceeds that of the other characters in the novel.  This gives her, and us, an interesting view of the society in which she moves, though I'm left wondering how she manages to develop this.  Maybe it comes of always being an observer, rather than a participant. 

As always, Austen writes with a delightful precision and clarity that makes reading a pleasure.  I did find myself at times wanting to tell Fanny to grow a spine, but in the end she proves that, though she's a frustratingly feeble creature in a literal sense, she has plenty of backbone metaphorically speaking.  My main complaint is that Austen seemed to rather punt at the end of the novel.  I was reading eagerly on for the big romantic scene, and instead in the end, she tells us what happened, rather than showing it, summing up some to me crucial changes in people's attitudes to Fanny in a few pages of reporting, without ever showing anyone actually behaving in the new ways.  Coming at the end of a novel as good as this, I admit to disappointment.

Critics can argue (and will, ad infinitem if not ad nauseum)  that this is Austen's most substantive and meaningful novel.  I will say that it is not, however, her most enjoyable (perhaps because of the substance and meaning she was trying to put into it?).  Worth reading?  Yes.  As much fun as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility? No.


Full Disclosure: I checked out this copy of Mansfield Park from my library and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Tomb of the Strange Feast

Since I posted the Wendig flash fiction piece for this week back on Tuesday, I decided to avoid actual work by writing another story to go with the titles the random title generator gave me a couple of weeks ago.   This time, I decided to take it totally middle-grade.  Despite the title, nothing creepy or horror-like (well, except the tofu-cheesecake. . . that's a shameful bit out of my own past, and believe me, it's horrific).

The Tomb of the Strange Feast


Mom never was a good cook, but that night she really outdid herself.  Her smile when she brought in dinner didn't convince even Lily, and she's only five.

"Brussels sprout-tofu casserole, with non-fat cheese," Mom announced, all bright and enthusiastic, the way grown-ups sound when they are trying to convince kids of the wonderfulness of something they really don't like it.  Totally fake.  Mom could pretend, but we all knew she didn't like the food she made any more than we did.  She didn't even put crumbled potato chips on top of the stuff, the way Nana does, which at least means there's some part of her “hot dishes” a kid can eat.

Trouble is, Mom's on a health-food kick.  Health food and bad cooking are a really awful combination.  When my buddy Lianne's mom cooks healthy food, it's things like grilled veggies and chicken breasts.  Kind of boring, but you can eat it.  Sometimes she gets these veggie-burger things that are really good, especially with plenty of ketchup and mustard.  You’d hardly know they were healthy.  But my mom makes Brussels sprout-tofu casserole, and tofu "cheesecake" for dessert.  Sometimes I think I should run away from home.

So that night Mom put the pan on the table, and we all just sat looking at it.  Lily looked like she was about to cry, and Dad swallowed hard.  The stuff looked nasty and smelled worse.  Mom was still trying to smile, and she served each of us a nice big heaping pile, but she had to work harder and harder to keep smiling as she went on.  She knew.  That’s the worst part: Mom knows she's a lousy cook.  She always has been.  Used to be, she just went ahead and made hot dogs and frozen pizza and stuff like that, which was fine.  When she was dieting, she’d get those “Lean and Mean” frozen dinners, and I got pretty used to them, too.

But last month she got hold of this book about fat kids and how bad eating and junk food was going to kill us all, and maybe that’s true.  But in our family, Mom’s attempts to cook her idea of healthy food are going to kill us all a whole lot sooner.  Like this casserole we were all staring at like gawkers at a traffic accident.  Horrified and fascinated at the same time.

Dad’s a real hero.  He smiled at Mom and picked up his fork.  “I’m sure it’s marvelous, Dear,” he said, and plunged his fork into the heart of the steaming pile on his plate.  He didn’t take a bite, though.  I figure the telephone saved his life, because before he could lift the fork, his phone rang, and he got up to answer it.  Mom doesn’t allow our phones at the table, so he had to hunt for it, and when he found the right one, it was Mom’s phone that was ringing after all.  I don’t know why they don’t use different ringtones.  Maybe they haven’t figured out how.

Anyway, Mom got on the phone and came back a minute later with her purse in her hand.  “Poor old Mrs. Carruthers is sick, and she needs me to go pick up her medicines.  She uses that discount drug store on the other side of town, so I’ll be a while.  Don’t worry about saving dinner for me—I’ll grab something while I wait for her prescription.  Just clean up when you finish.”

Mom has a sort of business running errands for the old people in our neighborhood.  I’m not sure how many of them pay her, but she does it for all of them, regardless.  Mom’s a great person.  She just can’t cook.

When the door closed behind her, Dad, Lily and I looked at each other, then at the casserole.  Then Dad stood up.  “Karla, you get the shovel.  I’ll bring this stuff.”

“I’ll get that dessert thing,” Lily said.  We’d tasted that before and knew better than to do so again.  Of all the things to mess with, dessert is the cruelest.

Dad began scraping plates back into the dish, and I got the shovel from the shed.  By the time I’d picked a good place, Dad and Lily were outside, and I held the dish while Dad dug a hole with a few quick stomps on the shovel.  We scraped in the mess, shoved the dirt back over it, and sprinkled some leaves over it to make it less obvious.  Then we loaded the dishwasher and Dad took us to the Burger Prince and got us burgers and strawberry shakes.  They make their shakes with real fruit, so we decided that was close enough to health food for tonight.

That was hours ago.  When I looked out my window just now, with the moon lighting up the yard, I swear I could see that fresh pile of dirt and leaves moving.

I really hope we’ve seen the last of that strange feast.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kid LIt Blog Hop: Back to School!



School starts today in our district (for the little kids; the high school my boys attend started a week ago, which is evil).  So I was thinking about a list of the best books about school.  Or at least a list of books I like which are all or in part about school.

A lot of kids' books of course center around life at school.  But as a kid I had a particularly soft spot for books about boarding school.  Probably a kind of horrified fascination, since I couldn't imagine being sent away from home that way!  (As a parent, despite sundry temptations to leave the boys on the side of the road somewhere, I still can't imagine boarding school as a realistic option).

Of course, the ultimate boarding school story is Harry Potter.  But I'm reaching back to some others I loved.

Starting way back:



I can't find a match for the cover of my copy, which was given to my grandmother for Christmas in 1910.

This one is if anything even more outdated, and not precisely boarding school, but a huge childhood favorite of mine:
 Madeleine L'Engle wrote some stories of truly miserable boarding schools:
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And school features largely in such other favorites as Little Town on the Prairie, and even A Wizard of Earthsea.

And, because this is my blog and I can, I will say that 
18168137 and 18302884  are actually school stories in many ways.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday comes early

This week, Chuck gave us another sub-genre mash-up, and the random number generator gave me 8 & 3: a spy thriller set in the weird west.    I got inspired over the weekend, so I'm posting early (besides, I don't want to be too predictable).  Maybe I'll get another story by Friday.  I don't know.  I do know I need to get back in the writing habit, so I'm going to increase the odds I'll write again (not just edit).  Chuck raised the word limit to 1500 this week, so I'm giving you 1240 words of more Weird West than Spy Thriller.

Strange Drinks at the Petestown Saloon

When Sheriff McGrady insisted on swearing me in as a Deputy, I should've listened to the part of me that said to run.  If I had, I wouldn't be here now, waiting to die.  But he'd made good and sure I wasn't in any shape to run then, and now it's too late.

Thing is, it all started innocent enough.  I rode into Dry Rock on Friday afternoon, ready fer a break from punchin' cows and watching for Zerling raiders.  All I was after was a drink or two at the saloon and a decent meal at the hotel, a change from the rattlesnake and beans I'd been livin' on.

But Sheriff, he's too clever for me.  He come into the saloon and found me, and he bought me those drinks himself.  By the time I'd wrapped myself around a couple of glasses of that weird stuff Longdrink Logan stole from the wreck of that Zerling ship, I hardly knew what either of us was saying.  That was when he asked me, and I said yes.  Or so he tells me.  Me, I don't remember nothin'.

I ought to know better than to drink that stuff.  Zerling drinks do strange things to humans.  Some folks seem to like it.  I don't usually mess with that stuff, but McGrady was buying, an' I reckon I'm an idiot.

So.  He asked me to be his deputy, help him out a bit with the Zerling problem.  I'd fought Injuns, bad cattle, and the weather.  I figured this wouldn't be no different.  I would strap on my six-shooter, oil my rifle, and head back to the range, go on doin' what I do anyhow, only mebbe get a little extra pay.

But next morning, or maybe more like along toward noon when I pulled my shattered head together enough to crawl down from the loft at the livery stable and ride, McGrady stopped me in the act of mountin' old Paint and reminded me I'd took on a new job.  Then he told me what that job was.

Well, you can call me a fool.  I sure as heck did, for all the good it did me.  But Sheriff said I'd agreed and sworn the oath, and Longdrink backed him up.  So I didn't reckon I had much choice.  Then McGrady told me what he wanted me to do, and I figgered it for easy money.

So here I am, pinning down in this pile of rocks east of Petestown, fighting for my life and like to lose it any minute.  I reckon I never was cut out for no spy, after all.

See, what McGrady wanted was that I should mosey on over to Petestown, quiet-like, and see what they were up to.  Seemed like there was lots of Zerling supplies coming from over yonder, and no reports of attacks like what we fought off near every day.  I can see now that he figgered something was up, and I was too slow to see it.  Sure, there was a good reason he didn't want to do this himself, curse the old coyote!

I ain't very sneaky, so I just up and rode into town.  Oh, I stopped on the hill outside town and looked it over a bit first, but it pretty much looked like always, though there didn't seem to be much goin' on.  Petestown's never been much of a place, so that seemed natural enough, and I headed on down.  I figgered to get myself a drink and mebbe go say hey to the Law.  I mean, us bein' in the same line of business, as I now had to accept.  Seemed like sorter the friendly thing to do.  Then mebbe I could admire the goods in their mercantile, casual-like, and see what they had to say about it.

Trouble was, it all fell apart from the beginning.  I went to the saloon, right enough.  It was dim in there, even worse than usual, so I could scarce make out the figure behind the bar.  And when I tried to order a shot of whiskey, the barkeep shook his head.

"We don't serve that stuff here, Stranger."

That took me sorter by surprise, it bein' a saloon and all.  I looked around, my eyes adjusted enough now to the dim to see the usual saloon stuff, a big bar and a few tables, the spittoon in the corner.

"Zerling waskina or Vexalian vorgelisk.  Your choice."  His voice didn't sound friendly at all.

Me, never heard of Vexalians or vorgelisk, but I knew what the Zerling waskina had done to me, and I wanted nothing more to do with any of them alien drinks.  If that was all he had, I said I'd go on out and get a dipperful of water to cut the dust from my throat, and turned for the door.

I didn't get even a step before that barkeep laid a hand on my shoulder and said, "I wouldn't take that attitude, Stranger."  Only, it wasn't a hand.  It felt more like a tentacle, and when I looked at him again I learned a few things in a hurry.  My eyes had grown all too accustomed to the gloom.

Right off, I learnt that I was a lousy spy.  My cover was well and surely blown.  I wasn't going to learn nothin' more there.  And I learned what a Vexalian was.  I figured I didn't need to do no more spying here, so I broke and run for my horse.

My horse was gone.  Only the saddle, bridle, and horseshoes remained, in a little pile as though the horse had just sorta vanished from the middle of it all.  I took that in without hardly slowing, and kept right on for the border.  I made it to this god-forsaken clump of rocks and cactus about two jumps ahead of a whole townful of Zerlings and Vexalians, and not one human.  I didn't hear no bullets whizzing by my head, which I'm at least used to.  They were firing something that made strange buzzing noises, and I thought about my horse and learned to dodge in a hurry.

They're still out there, watching and waiting, and now and again melting one of the rocks that hides me from them.  It's only a matter of time.

I don't know what became of the folks who lived in Petestown.  Mebbe they're all dead and eaten.  And I wish I didn't keep thinking that mebbe they've been turned into the things that are trying to kill me.  Mebbe that's what Vexalians are, folks who used to be humans.  I hope it ain't the drink that changes them, since we've been drinkin' it over to Dry Rock, too, but I don't reckon I'll be around long enough to find out.

I've been pinned down here now for most of a day, in the blazing sun.  I've got no canteen, nor nothin' to eat, and I don't think I'm gonna make it.  I'm writing this in hopes that whatever happens to me, somehow this might make it back to Sheriff McGrady, if it ain't already too late for our town.

If it ain't, I hope McGrady has fun trying to do anything about the Zerling problem, the curly-tailed side-winder.  Because I may be a dead man, but I'm thinkin' that might be better than what he's lookin' at.

###





Monday, August 19, 2013

Mystery Monday: Death of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh


Death of a Peer (Roderick Alleyn, #10)
A review of a far-from-new murder mystery by one of the greats.

Death of a Peer, by Ngaio Marsh.  303 pages, paperback.
Originally published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1940
I sourced my copy from the local library.

Summary:
An early entry in Marsh's impressive collection of mysteries featuring Roderick Alleyn, of Scotland Yard, the book begins with a prelude set in New Zealand.  We are introduced to the central characters (exclusive of Alleyn), Roberta Grey and the Lamprey family.  She a local NZ kid, they a modestly noble family out from England to await a better turn in their finances.  Fast forward ten years, and a 20-ish Roberta arrives in England to live with an aunt, but instead goes to the Lamprey's in time to be there when their wealthy kinsman the Marquis of Wutherwood is murdered in their home.  Enter Alleyn, to solve this classic locked-door mystery.

Review:
Marsh is definitely not a modern writer (in the lower-case sense of "modern," i.e. writing now).  The style of the book is somewhat formal, and the story is more of an exercise in the use of the "little grey cells" (to borrow from her contemporary) than an exciting adventure.  But if the careful tracing of the alibis and effort to spot the holes before Alleyn does is your kind of game, it's very well done.

I also found it interesting that the story is much more about Roberta Grey and the Lampreys than it is about the author's famous detective.  We spend a great deal more time inside Roberta's head than Alleyn's, and in fact care more about her outcome.  This is good and bad--good, because she does it well and I found myself caring about these people, but bad because it reduces the possible outcomes--you are pretty confident that the chap she falls in love with will not be the guilty party (not from this era, or this genre.  In other books, I might have been less confident).  That may, in fact, be the biggest weakness in this well-assembled puzzle.

I think that some of Ngaio Marsh's later books are more appealing today.  But this is well-written and the mystery is worked out well, with characters we care about enough to want it solved.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed this copy of Death of a Peer from the library, and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: Iron Desert

This week Chuck Wendig gave us a random title generator.  Our mission: to roll the dice (as it were), and select a title from the five random choices.  I cannot tell a lie: the titles were such fun I did it a whole bunch of times.  Then I picked about 6 favorites, and made a note because who can't use an occasional title?   But for today's story I selected "Iron Desert," and it was immediately clear to me that was the desert that Gorg the Troll was crossing when he found the skull of the swordswoman's horse (see Revenge of Gorg).  And maybe an iron desert is just what it seems. . .

This one's  a bit shorter than usual, at just 560 words.

Iron Desert


Three days ago Gorg had found the skeleton of a horse he'd known and liked--and the swordswoman who'd ridden him.  What was her name?  Gorg didn't care, though he mourned the horse in his slow, trollish way as he trudged along.

Gorg had bigger problems than that now.  He had set out to cross the Iron Desert because it was the quickest way from Mosternestine City to the Valley of Baleful Stones.  There he expected to find the Duke Bale the Artichoke-Hearted, nephew of King Celery the Half-Wit.  The Duke, Gorg had reason to believe, had givent he order that he led the now-dead sorcerer Mergle to petrify various members of Gorg's family.  It had been a cruel and unnecessary act, given that trolls are nine-tenths stone in any case.  When Gorg scratched his head, he scattered rock dust and flakes of shale.

But now, in the middle of the Iron Desert, it was dawning on Gorg that he was in trouble.  Thing was, a troll could cross an ordinary desert with no worries.  Rock everywhere?  It was the stuff of life.  A troll is born of rock, and eats the stuff.  And they don't need to drink, since there is very little water in their make-up.

Gorg hadn't known that "Iron Desert" wasn't a metaphor.

For an entire day Gorg had been crossing a flat pan of iron.  No stone.  Just iron.  As though forged by the hand of a divine smith, and utterly without sustenance for a troll (or anyone else; but Gorg didn't care about anyone else just then, because they weren't there and he was).  If he didn't get out of this soon, Gorg could see he wouldn't get out at all.

He was starting to stagger.  A vision of that poor horse crossed his mind as he slowed for another rest.  He unslung his massive stone warhammer--as a last resort he would eat that, though it was worn and tasteless--to take it's weight from his back.  It narrowly missed his foot as it slipped from his now-stiff and weakened grip and crashed to the iron ground.

Iron is brittle.  Gorg gaped at the crack that opened in the smooth surface.  Trying hard to think, he picked up the hammer and dropped it again.  The ground shattered.  Gorg pushed aside the shards of broken iron, his face breaking into a smile.  He ignored the chips that flew from his cheeks as they creased, reaching for the stone that lay under the iron.

Gorg chipped off a few savory bits and nibbled them slowly, recovering his strength.  The blazing sun didn't bother him.  The absence of water didn't matter.  But somewhere in his earthen troll-brain, Gorg was realizing that smooth-cast iron was not a natural coating for a desert floor.

Duke Bale had found another sorcerer.  A powerful one, to spread such a surface over the desert.  Or maybe it had been an illusion.  No matter, it took power either way, and a deadly intent.  Rock is slow to anger, but when it grows hot, it is a force to reckon with.  Gorg was growing hot.  Battle was rejoined, and he had won the first round.

Taking up his warhammer and another handful of light, tasty rock, Gorg turned his stony face toward the Valley of Baleful Rocks.  He'd be pickling artichoke hearts before he finished.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

It's HERE!


Yes, it has happened at last!  I have finished messing with it, and
Return to Skunk Corners 
has gone live! 

To celebrate, I am doing Goodreads.com giveaways of BOTH books.  Follow the links below to enter before August 31, and you could win a paperback copy of either book (or, if you are the kind of person who wins the Lottery twice, you might win both!).




Goodreads Book Giveaway

Return to Skunk Corners by Rebecca Douglass

Return to Skunk Corners

by Rebecca Douglass

Giveaway ends August 31, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win



Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ninja Librarian by Rebecca Douglass

The Ninja Librarian

by Rebecca Douglass

Giveaway ends August 31, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win 

Not willing to wait?  Can't stand to take your chances?  Go right to the source and buy a paperback today from my Createspace store or from Amazon.  Or head on over to Smashwords for an ebook in any format you can imagine (and a few you can't). Get it for your Kindle, too!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Kids grow faster than books

Well, maybe it only seems that way.  I don't usually write about my family, but this morning, my baby started high school.  That's enough to give any mom a funny feeling.  I'm not sorry.  I'm not a mom who wishes the kids would remain babies forever (2 a.m. feedings?  Ugh!  And diapers were never my favorite, either.  Nor having to haul a couple of toddlers with me everywhere I went).  Still.  High school.  Definitely big kids now.

Both guys went off together this morning.  For the first time in four years they are in the same school (same PTO!  Same Open House and Back to School Nights!).  And Second Son is no dummy.  He knows that he can count on his brother to fill him in on what he needs to know, see to it that he gets to the right place.  No nerves about the first bus ride, because he's got his brother.  At some point no doubt that will become a bit grating.  But meanwhile, he knows that he's got a good deal going.  Eldest Son even primed the teachers to like him (their Jr. High math teacher went so far as to tell me how sorry he was that I'd had only the two).

It's going to be fun watching these two in the next phase of their life as brothers.  Then in two years, Eldest Son gets to go off and pioneer a new place again.  And when it comes to college, who knows if they'll be together.  I hope they treasure this time.

Here are the boys on their first "self-propelled" pack trip, when they were 3 and 4 years old:

And this summer in the Canadian Rockies.  Snowball fights in summer!  Yeah! Boys grow up fast, but some things don't change.
These guys spent a month this summer sharing trails, a tent, and the back seat of our car, with remarkably few battles.  I think they'll go far.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Cover Reveal!

It's almost here!
Return to Skunk Corners: The Ninja Librarian, Book 2

The Ninja Librarian is back, and he's better than ever!
Release date: August 15 on Amazon, Smashwords, and right here at the Ninja Librarian's own web site.

And YOU can get a free look at the cover, right here.  Right now.  

Are you ready?  






I want to give a shout-out to Danielle English http://www.kanizo.co.uk for the cover illustrations, and to Steven Tse for the cover design.  We know we're headed back to Skunk Corners!


What's more--pop on over to goodreads.com and join the giveaway for a free copy!   


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Return to Skunk Corners by Rebecca Douglass

Return to Skunk Corners

by Rebecca Douglass

Giveaway ends August 31, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Friday, August 9, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday

(Warning: probably nothing in today's blog is meant for kids). 

Okay, I had two possible writing challenges here, and I really am not going anywhere with the "somethingpunk" challenge from Chuck Wendig (others are, so check it out).  I'll see if I can get back to that later.

Meanwhile, I had this challenge from Scott Roche: write 250-750 words of fiction on corn, and enter a drawing to win an e-copy of Wendig's latest book, an intriguing dystopian YA bit of cornpunk (which brings us back to Wendig's challenge).  This one worked out better, maybe because with the nice, low wordcount, I didn't get all wiggy about not having a plot (the other story has a -punk, i.e. a wonky source of power for the dystopia; it just doesn't have a story yet).

And here's the cool part: Scott needs a few more stories before he'll even do the drawing, so YOU can write something and enter too!  By the way, Scott is the author of Ginnie Dare: Crimson Sands, which I reviewed way back sometime.  Check it out.

Without further ado

Death by Corn


It seemed innocuous at first, even sweet.  A sick child who languished in an inner-city hospital longed for just one more taste of the sweet corn he’d once sampled at his Aunt Julia’s house in a little town somewhere.  His family was poor.  It was the only time he’d been outside the city, probably the only time he’d tasted corn, except in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.

And now it was too late.  The aunt was dead, and, totally dependent on the machines at the hospital, the boy would never leave the city, never see another cornfield.

Somehow, an elderly couple from somewhere we might as well call Cornville learned of his story.  They appeared at the hospital one afternoon, disheveled and terrified, having lost their car and their wallets, but clutching a half a dozen ears of sweet corn, “for that poor little boy.”

A reporter picked up the story and ran it as a fluff piece, a bit of heart-warming filler for the morning paper.  Within days the hospital was overwhelmed with fresh corn.  The story had been picked up by the AP, and once on the Internet had morphed into a belief that if a million ears of corn could be collected, the boy would live.  It didn’t have to make sense.  It was the Internet.

Corn poured in from every corner of the planet, or at least every corner that could be forced to grow anything remotely resembling an ear of sweet corn.  Pleas from the hospital administrators, and insistence by the boy’s doctor that not only would corn not save the child, but that he couldn’t even eat it, had no effect.  Determined to make the nearly effortless gesture that could contribute to the salvation of one poor child and so save their own souls, people continued to send their corn.

Unfortunately, the hospital (which, thanks to a series of escalating bribes, had never faced a single building inspection) collapsed when the postman—who certainly wasn’t going to take responsibility for failing to deliver a package—added the 839,898th and 839,899th ears of corn to the pile on the second floor.  The boy died in the rubble.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kid-Lit Blog Hop (Better late than never. . .)

Kid Lit Blog Hop Button 145 x 145 
Today's Kid Lit Blog Hop post is a return to the delightful guinea pigs we met in The Princelings of the East.




 

The Princelings and the Pirates,by Jemima Pett. 
113 pages, Smashwords edition, read on my Nook in black and white.
Middle-grade fiction.
I received this book last spring in a giveaway.  A giveaway does imply some commitment to provide a review, but in no way dictates the nature of said review.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and no one else.

Summary:  
Our friends Fred and George of Marsh Castle are back.  They've been living with Prince Lupin, and working on the development of strawberry juice power.  But a wine shortage has darkened the horizon, and Fred and George join with their old friend Victor to visit Chateau Dimerie and find out what's going on.  Along the way, they are pressed into service by pirates, meet a ghost, and are plunged into battle alongside an army that actually knows what it is doing.  Fred and George are no soldiers, but they have guts and brains, and come out okay in the end.  Realism is preserved (if one can speak of realism in a world run by guinea pigs and powered on strawberry juice) as no one escapes unscathed before making their way to the happy ending.

Review:
I am delighted to report that Ms. Pett has returned in this second volume of the Princelings trilogy even stronger than she was in the first.  Subtle changes have made me more comfortable with the idea that these decidedly anthropomorphic characters are, nonetheless, guinea pigs, much as we accept Ratty and Mole of The Wind in the Willows.  The world of the Castles is becoming more clear to me, and the story is fast-paced.  The action seems to me just right for middle grade children (say, ages 9-12, as the writing is not simplistic at all).  Dangers faced are real, and there is some suspense, but violence is minimal and the ending happy.  Fred and George are, as they should be, different men (er, guinea pigs) than they were at the beginning.  There is just a whiff of romance, and a little bit of legal/political business at the end which may not be as exciting to young readers, though it is clearly  important to the development of the series.

Ms. Pett's writing is clear and strong, the book well-edited, with very few awkward moments and no typos that I noticed.  Her illustrations are, as always, delightful, if too small on my Nook.

I am looking forward to reading the next installment in the series, and will reserve that final 1/2 star so that there's room to go up if the next book, as I confidently expect, is even better.  4.5 stars.

Full Disclosure: I won this copy of The Princelings and the Pirates in a 3rd-party giveaway, and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Flash Fiction well past Friday: The Revenge of Gorg

This week's (okay, last week's) Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction challenge involved selecting four items from a list of ten, and writing a story using those items.  I picked: Chess piece, Road sign, Animal skull, and Iron horseshoe, which sounded like a bit of sword and sorcery to me.

The Revenge of Gorg

Gorg the Troll stared at the writing on the ragged bit of wood alongside the road, his lips moving more than his brain.  "Moss-ter-nest-een cit-ee". He sounded it out a few times, studied it a bit more, then his stony face split into a smile.  A few chips fell off, and he repeated, "Mosternestine City!"  He considered the arrow next to the letters.  Gorg was pretty sure it was meant to direct travelers to the city, but he wasn't sure which end of the arrow to follow.

After a few minutes thought, indulged at the risk of becoming a rock once again, he turned toward the pointy end of the arrow and stomped off down the road.  Gorg never noticed the small stone carving of a mounted knight now embedded in his heavy leather boot sole.

Two miles away Snella Swordsinger led her limping mount toward the same intersection.  She cursed the smith who'd shod the horse three days back, in a town so backwards that the iron shoe had no magic in it whatsoever.  The brittle metal had snapped while they were crossing the Plain of Exquisite Distress, and for the last several hours they had been slowed to a crawl.  Meanwhile, the trail grew cold.

Snella sought a sorcerer, revenge burning in her heart.  But the cursed man knew she was coming, and left a taunting trail of chess pieces, each with just enough magic to lead her to the next.  And behind him he left a world sapped clean, for the time being, of all magic.  Which was no doubt why the horseshoe was broken and her mount limping.

An hour after Gorg, Snella and her unhappy equine reached the crossroads.  Unlike Gorg, she had no difficulty reading the sign.  Unfortunately, also unlike Gorg, she didn't know where she needed to go.  There should have been a chessman there, marking the junction and drawing her on.  Instead, there was nothing but a bare stone road surrounded by bare stone ground, and the tiny trace of magic Snella possessed wasn't enough to tell her which way to go.

The sorcerer would go to the city, would he not?  Mergle liked bright lights, or at least some kind of lights, and he liked a tavern at night with a drink and a bed.  But of course that was the way he'd expect her to think.  And she liked a drink and a bed, too.  All the more reason he'd probably gone the other way, off into the desert, just to spite her.  Snella looked from her mount to the stoney ground, and sighed.  She would have to do it.  But not with her horse in this condition.

Two hours later, Snella put out the last of her fire.  The shoe her horse now wore was far from perfect, but it would protect the beast from the desert.  And she could ride again.  Swinging into the saddle, the swordswoman pointed her mount toward the empty lands.

Gorg stomped his way happily toward Mosternestine City, singing a bit of a troll song as he went.  Most hearers would have thought it was the noise of a rockslide or a bison with gas, but Gorg was pleased.  He reached the city just at dusk, and without knowing why, followed assorted twists and alleys to a street where, by its look, any deed could pass unnoticed, and often did.

Pausing, he looked up at a sign over a door.  The tavern was called the Corpse and Coffin.  That would put off most people, but Gorg was no human, and, sniffing the succulent odors of stale beer and slightly spoiled meat, he pushed open the door and entered.

The room was nearly dark, its windows being unwashed since the reign of King Celery the Halfwit--the first of that name, not the current version.  So Gorg didn't see the man sitting at the table in the corner, and didn't see his start of surprise.  Gorg was not who he had expected.

"You!"  The sorcerer sounded slightly strangled.  "How did you get the chessman?"

Gorg scratched his head, raising a small cloud of rock dust.  "Chessman?"

"You must have it.  I can feel its presence, and it would have led you here."

Gorg thought about this a bit longer.  While thinking, he lifted a massive foot to examine it the irritating lump it had developed.  Thoughtfully--for a troll--he picked the scarred bit of carved stone from the boot sole and examined it.  "This?"

"Yes, that!  You idiot of a lump of rock!"  Mergle was nearly screaming now, and with this change in his voice, Gorg suddenly recognized the magician who had returned three of his relations to the stone from which all Trolls are born.  He clenched his fist and the scuffed knight crumbled to dust.

Then he did the same thing to Mergle, before sitting down to a cup of the best stale beer he'd drunk in a long time, with the satisfaction of a job well done.
~~~

Three months later, crossing the desert south of the city, Gorg came across two piles of bones.  The smaller was human, and a sword lay among the bones.  Gorg gave it scarcely a glance.  Turning to the larger, he picked up the skull of the unfortunate horse.

"Poor old thing," he said.  "I told you to come with me."

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Flash Fiction: Being In Urgent Need of a Plot




Carleen gazed moodily out the window of her favorite cafe at a street devoid of all interest.  Nursing her latte with her right hand, she clutched fiercely at her pen with the left.

"Must. . . write. . . short. . . story," she muttered between teeth clenched in an unbreakable spasm.  She worked her jaw as though you could force a story out like a recalcitrant turd.  In a way, you can, but the results are similar: unsatisfactory and stinking.

A story needs pivots.  Conflict.  A twist.  So far, all Carleen had was two people drinking coffee in a cafe.  It could have been anyone.  The couple at the next table, for example.  Carleen considered them.  A fair-haired man in his 30s, and a younger woman with wavy brow hair and an uncertain smile.  What was the conflict in their lives?  Carleen strained to hear their conversation, but was disappointed to find it mundane, with no sign of conflict beyond the vexed question of whether they should get refills on their coffee.

Moved by an impulse she didn't give herself time to examine, Carleen began to watch the man intently.  Soon he began to shift uncomfortably, and to glance at her more and more frequently, and with a more puzzled look.  Her pen began to move.

"He knew I was watching him, and he knew me, too.  I could see that, as clearly as I could see that he didn't want me to let on.  It had been what?  Seven years since the cruise?"  She hesitated.  What would the woman do if she knew about their liaison?  Surely that would introduce conflict!

Before she could stop herself, Carleen had laid down her pen, smiled at the man, and stood up.  Stepping over to their table, she held out both hands.

"Hjalmar!"  I would know you anywhere!  I have such wonderful memories of that cruise we were on together!

The man gave her a look of utter horror.  Then he pasted on a sickly smile, and said tightly, "my name is Mark.  I'm afraid you must be mistaken.  I have never been in any cruise, and I'm sure I've never seen you before."

The girl also looked at her in consternation.  "Mark?  What does she mean?"

"Nothing, my dear.  Just a case of mistaken identity.  Right?" He added with emphasis, looking at Carleen.

"Oh!" She said, flustered.  The fluster was genuine. What was she doing??! But her words continued the story.  "I'm so sorry.  I really shouldn't have intruded, but I was so certain. . . " She let her voice trail off.  "But I must have been wrong."  Even as she said it she gave "Hjalmar" a look that said they were both lying and both knew it.

Then she went and sat back down, her heart pounding.  She picked up her pen.  She needed only to write down the argument that ensued.  Now she had conflict, with a vengeance!  It culminated with the stereotypical slap in the face, and the girl stormed out.  Forgetting her own role in it, Carleen felt only the delight in a perfect scene.  And their language had been so colorful!

She was gathering her things, congratulating herself on a scene so brilliantly and easily produced, when she felt someone behind her, and turned to find Hjalmar/Mark standing there.

"Very well, Marta," he said with the slight Scandinavian accent she had so clearly imagined.  "As you have frightened off young Sally, perhaps we could take up where we left off?"