Thursday, February 27, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: Have You Seen the Rain?

This week's Wendig Challenge was another song-title prompt.  I went to Pandora, hooked into the Classic Rock station, and took the second song that came up (because the first was, shall I say, inappropriate).  This one made a story leap to mind at once--maybe a little too obvious, in light of the current drought in California (hard for some areas to believe, but while the Eastern US has been hit with a zillion feet of snow, and there's been flooding in England, the US Southwest has been setting records for lack of rain).  It's exactly 1000 words, including the title.

Have You Seen the Rain?

The clank of the well mechanism, delving ever deeper, had been a part of Eleanor’s world since she was born.  It never stopped, unless something broke down.  It had been a quarter of a century since rain had fallen, and only the pumps kept anyone or anything alive in Foothill.

Most people had left Foothill and the other Valley towns for the northern breadbaskets of Washington and British Columbia, shaking the dust of California off their feet with relief.  Eleanor and her father and brother remained.  They scraped a living of a sort from the parched soil, growing what heat-tolerant foods they could with the slightly brackish water the well now provided.

They couldn’t leave because there were no more machines to take them away, and the draft animals had long since died.  They hadn’t gone when the others did, because Eleanor’s father would not go.  Her mother was buried in the cemetery behind the decaying church.  She had died in the 15th year of the drought, when Eleanor was two and Zack was six.  The stock had died before that, unable to tolerate the brackish water, the heat, and the lack of forage.  Temperatures for much of the year stayed in the triple digits, day and night.  Winter was a thing of the past, and Eleanor thought rain was a myth.

The girl stood before their dwelling and watched the brilliant sunset fade in the west.  Though she knew the heat and the dust killed everything sooner or later, she loved the colors of the sunset.  Even the dry air and dust were comfortably familiar, and the setting of the sun brought a sort of freedom.  The sun was their enemy, beating them down with a physical force that made even thought an effort during its reign.  They worked in the night, when slightly lower temperatures and the absence of the brutal sun made it possible to tend their plants. 

“Come on, El!”  Zack called from the pumphouse.  “We need to haul out the water, then pick bugs.”

Eleanor made a face.  She didn’t need her brother to tell her that.  It was what they did every night.  Bugs seemed to be the only things that survived here, probably because of the small garden.  And they needed every bit of every plant, so they picked the bugs off nightly.  And because they needed every bit of protein they could get, they saved the insects.

Everywhere but in their garden the soil was baked so hard it couldn’t be dug.  When Mother had died, they had been forced to spend a week’s water allotment to soften the ground enough to dig a grave.  Zack remembered it.  There were other families then, but that struggle had been the last straw, and when a government transport—the last—arrived, everyone had left but the three of them. 

When the sun began to rise at the end of the short June night, Father climbed down from the ladder he used to repair the shade structure over their garden.  “Time to go in.”

Eleanor glanced to the east.  The bright band that preceded the sun glowed over the Sierra, the mountains Father said had once been called “Nevada.”  Snowy, whatever that meant.  Eleanor had trouble imagining snow.  She took one last look toward the approaching Enemy and followed Father and Zack into the cave they had enlarged and finished, where the temperature remained tolerable even through the middle of the day.  Father turned on the light and began to prepare their meager supper, frying some of the bugs.  The light was a relic of the old days, and ran on solar power, which gave them a few hours of light in the cave before it began to fade.

They ate their dinner in weary silence.  Then Father took up a book and began to read.  A dozen antique books—real, printed books on paper—filled the place of honor along one wall, and the children had learned to read from them, but they loved best to have Father read to them, though they knew them by heart.

“‘The next day the rain poured down in torrents again, and when Mary looked out of her window the moor was almost hidden by gray mist and cloud. . .’” 

 “Father, have you ever seen the rain?” Eleanor asked.

His face grew sad, and he looked at his children with something like pity.  “Yes.  I was about Zack’s age—14—when the rain stopped.  When I was a child, it rained every winter.”

“What was it like?”

For a long time he did not answer.  Then, “Clouds built over the Sierra, which might be white with snow.  They were huge, white towers in the distance at first, but when they drew close and blocked out the sun, they turned dark and blue-black, like Aggie.”  He looked around as though expecting to see the cat, though it had vanished a year before.

“Then what?” Eleanor pressed.

“Right before the rain came, you felt a blast of cool, damp air, and a gust of wind.  Sometimes, though, the storms would play with us, making thunder and lightning and no rain.  We could see it high in the sky, but it evaporated before ever it reached us, and the lightning started fires.”

That was what had happened to the forests that once come down nearly to their town.  They had burned, huge regions at once, as the dead and dying timber yielded to scant rains and caught easily from the strikes.  Dry lightning, with no rain.

“On the best days, the rain came, like in the book, in torrents, soaking everything and filling the air with a smell—I can’t describe it.  Dust and sage, plants and animals reaching for life.  And none of it did any of us any good,” he said as though to himself.  “There will be no more rain.”  His eyes filled with tears.  “My children will never see the rain.”


©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Blurb Reveal: Death By Ice Cream

Last week I revealed the cover for Death By Ice Cream.  This week, I'm unveiling the blurb, AKA Product Description!  The release date is March 24--watch this space!

Death By Ice Cream

What do you serve when all you have in the freezer is an ice-cold corpse?
JJ MacGregor and her best friend Kitty Padgett struggle to hold the Pismawallops PTA together, and new volunteer Letitia LeMoine isn’t making it any easier.  But when Letitia’s strangled corpse turns up where the ice cream bars should have been, things get a whole lot worse.  JJ has to shoehorn in a search for the killer along with all her other problems: divorce, a 15-year-old son with his first girlfriend, a desperate race to complete the Yearbook on time, and her own tendency to get all wobbly-kneed around the Chief of Police.  JJ just can’t help asking a few questions.  But a loud mouth and insatiable curiosity can be a dangerous combination.  Especially when someone wants her stopped.

From the author of The Ninja Librarian, an exciting mystery that never loses sight of its sense of humor.  


In other big news: If you'll be near Tucson, AZ on March 15, I will be signing books at a table in the Children's Tent at the Tucson Festival of Books.  It's on the Univ. of AZ campus, and the festival is free, so stop in and say Hi!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mystery Monday: Murder on the Rocks


Title: Murder on the Rocks (A Gray Whale Inn Mystery)
Author: Karen MacInerney
Publisher: Midnight Ink, 2006.  281 pages.

Natalie Barnes has just bought an old house and opened the Gray Whale Inn on Cranberry Island on the Maine coast.  Now her inn and her livelihood, as well as that of the local terns, is threatened by a developer who wants to make a giant luxury resort on the island.  When the developer turns up dead, the police are looking hard at Nat, and she is determined to clear her name, stop the development, and find out who really killed the louse.

I really enjoyed this one.  Nat is an engaging heroine and a good narrator (just that little bit untrustworthy, in ways that we can see through and laugh about).  Her determination to solve the crime herself, rather than trusting the police, is made believable due to the combination of the investigating officer's incompetence and his determination to fix the crime on her.  This logic is complicated by the fact that the Island's deputy is on her side, but since he has no authority in the case, he can't do much--except be obliged to report anything she tells him.

The mystery is pretty well constructed.  Though I had inklings early on, the author sufficiently distracted me with red herrings to make me forget my doubts, so that the ending was satisfying.  Personal relationships in the story build and develop and still leave lots of fun possibilities for future books.

I would say that this is a very promising start to a promising series.  Those who like cozies with food will appreciate that there are a half-dozen recipes in the back of the book, and that cooking is always Nat's go-to activity to comfort herself.  Recommended.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed  Murder on the Rocks  from my public library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange 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."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: Twisted Love


Chuck Wendig gave us a skimpy prompt this week, just the title, or plot (however you chose to look on it), "Twisted Love."  I chose to use it for both and then decided to write this as an homage to L.M. Montgomery.  For any who know Montgomery only as the author of Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery wrote a great many short stories, and many of them were gothic in nature.  A startling number dealt in greater and lesser depth (as did her novels) with the ways in which love can be twisted and poisoned.  So here, in a story I think Montgomery would recognize, is

Twisted Love

When she was very small, Lena had wondered why she alone among the children at the little school in Seaside lived in darkness.  Not just physical darkness, though she envied the other children the candles and lamps that allowed them to read after nightfall.  But Lena felt from an early age that she lived in a sort of spiritual darkness, not as the preacher would see it, but one which left her feeling as though all light had been shut out of her life.

Even as a child, Lena knew no one loved her, knew it in her soul and thought about it in that odd way of children who are much alone.  When she was small, she dreamed of telling her mother that she knew she wasn’t loved, and of running away.  She would go deep into the woods, and find a beautiful little cottage of stone and a mother who did love her, and no stepfather.  For while Lena saw that her mother did not love her, she saw even more clearly that her stepfather hated her.

It was only slowly, as she grew, that Lena learned, piece by piece from things overheard and things said in anger, why she was unloved.

Once, a girl named Hannah Stewart had been the belle of her small town, happy, pretty and young, and given to flirting with all the boys.  She took nothing seriously, and didn’t need to, for her older sister Madeleine, who stood in the place of her own dead mother, did the thinking and worrying for her.  They had no mother, and their father was too caught up in his work to bother about them, so they were everything to each other, and loved one another dearly, despite Hannah’s feeling that Madeleine was too serious, and Madeleine’s sure knowledge that Hannah’s lightness would lead to trouble.

And it did.  Pretty, flighty Hannah found when she was but eighteen that she had gone too far, and when pressed could not even say which of several boys might be the baby’s father.  Madeleine despaired over Hannah’s depravity; Lena, learning of it as she entered her teens, knew in her heart that Hannah had refused confession, rather than been unsure of the father.  She had chosen to protect someone, and Lena hoped that it was she, but greatly feared it was the unknown father of whom her mother had been thinking.

Madeleine took her little sister away so that none should know her disgrace.  She found a remote cottage, and there nursed and scolded and loved the girl, and stayed by her through a pregnancy that took more from her than it should have.  And when the baby was born, Madeleine knew at once who the father must be.

Saying nothing to her sister, she wrote to Justin Carter and told him he was a father, and must come and marry the baby’s mother.  Hannah knew nothing of this.  She named the baby after her sister, held her for a day, and died.

When Justin arrived, eager to marry the girl he loved, Hannah was dead, and Madeleine had a plan.  In his grief at Hannah’s death—for if he had not been her first choice, she had been his—he agreed to everything.  The child would be his, and would have the best of everything.

Justin and Madeleine were married that very week, and moved to the distant town of Seaside, where no one knew them and all assumed the baby was theirs.  Justin had trained as a lawyer, and took up his work there and, as his new wife had expected, made a good living for the family.

Lena never knew them in the year or two when they had been almost happy, in a mild, dispassionate sort of way.  By the time Lena was two, Justin could no longer deny what he had suspected from the first: that he was not the girl’s father, and that, in fact, her father was the one man he hated.  He had hated Albert Hawkins as a ne’er-do-well and a scoundrel, as well as a rival.  Now that he knew what he had done to his beautiful Hannah, Justin hated him with a deeper passion that poisoned his soul. 

And love betrayed became hatred all around.  Justin could no longer abide the sight of the child, and Madeleine, who blamed Lena for her mother’s death, had never liked her.  Now Justin turned his hate as well on the woman who had tricked him into a loveless marriage, and he could no longer bear either.  All the love that he had borne for Hannah turned to hatred of these two creatures who between them had robbed him of her, and trapped him until death.

He ceased to pretend the child was his, though he said he had married Madeleine in pity when her husband was killed while she was with child.  He never said so, but made it clear to all that he neither loved nor respected her.

So Lena had grown up in an atmosphere of hatred and resentment, and her own impulses to love, spurned at every turn, turned inward.  Gradually she, too, learned to love and trust none but herself.

By the time Lena was fourteen she was in possession of most of the facts of her own life, for Justin was wont to fling them at her as weapons when she displeased him.

She returned from school one spring day to find both Madeleine and Justin stuck down with some kind of fierce fever and cough, too weak to rise.  When they called out to her to help them, she stood in the doorway and looked on them with a hard face.


“For the love of God and your parents,” cried Madeleine, forgetting that Lena had never known love.

“What parents?” Lena asked.  She felt strange, and knowledge of what she was about to do washed over her.

“Why, we are your parents, child,” said Justin.  “Under the law.” 

Lena gave a short, harsh laugh, for it was like him to be both honest and brutal.  “Oh, under the law.”  Her face grew still harder.  “I have no parents.”  She looked at Madeleine.  “I tried to love you, and you cast my love back into my face.  You never forgave me for my mother’s death.  Yes,” she said, seeing by Madeleine’s face that she had not known how much Lena knew, “I know who my mother was.  You may have loved her, but you never loved me, even for her sake.  And you,” she turned to Justin, “you were never any kin at all, as you have made clear all these years.  I have neither mother nor father,” for though she had heard the name of Albert Hawkins, she could not feel him to be a parent, though Justin blamed him for her every fault.

Lena looked from one to another of the fever victims.  “I tried to love you, to be what a daughter should, and you flung it back in my face.  I was a little child who only wanted to be loved, and you gave me only your hatred.”

Her face wore a mask now of hatred and fury far beyond her years.  “Now you dare to call on my love to help you?  Well, I know nothing of love, nor family.”  She moved to the bureau and found the stash of money Justin kept there, pocketing it with a final malediction.  “I will take my inheritance and leave you to your bitterness.”

Justin tried to get up, to follow the money as she left the room, but he sank back, unable to rise, overcome by a fit of coughing.

Lena did not weep as she left the house, the only home she had known, and left behind her the two bitter souls to live or die as they would.  She had long since wept out all her tears for the mother-love she had never known.  They had left only a bitter residue, and a pocket full of bank-notes.



©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Progressive Book Club! Analysis: Fire and Ice by Dana Stabenow


This week, instead of reading a mystery just for review, I read with the intention of studying how the story was laid out and developed.  I'll admit that, since I kept getting caught up in the story, it only partly worked.  Dana Stabenow is a good writer; it's hard to ignore the story and study the structure even in a book I've already read (I chose a re-read so I could pay more attention.  Maybe I should have done one I read last week, not a few years ago!).

Here's the scoop on the book I read, since this does amount to a review of sorts:
Title: Fire and Ice, by Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Signet, 1999, 286 pages (paperback).
Source: Library

The Plan:
My plan was to read the book and note plot and character development, creation and destruction of red herrings, means of inserting back story, etc.  I was doing this in the interests of improving my own craft as I'm nearing completion of my first mystery and starting to rewrite my second (yes, I am aware that this would have been a good thing to do before I started writing either book.  Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing?).  As noted, the plan suffered a bit because the book was too good to read purely as an exercise in the construction of a mystery novel.  Maybe I should have dissected a bad mystery.

The Lessons:
1.  We start with a bang, almost.  In fact, the first 3.5 pages are scene-setting, establishing the nature of the main character, Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell, through his assessments of his fellow-passengers on the flight to his new posting (most of whom turn out, of course, to be his new neighbors).  We also get the geography by watching the flight with Liam.  Then we are let a little into his history, so that we know right off that there's a problem with his personal life and maybe in his professional life.  Then, on page 5, we get a corpse.
My assessment: it's a bit chancy, even 3.5 pages of scene-setting.  Stabenow can do it, because she's a known writer and her readers know she'll make use of this.  But the beginning is actually kind of passive, and there's quite of bit of exposition.   I'd love to be able to offer exposition like that, that makes you wonder only how it's going to play out in the story, not if.  But that might be something you need to be trusted to get away with.

2. Keep things moving.  Campbell is hustled from crisis to crisis, and neither his investigation nor his personal life is allowed to do anything the easy way, though once or twice it looks like it might.
This is where Stabenow brings in the humor that is her hallmark; the things that complicate Liam Campbell's life are almost absurd, yet still real.  The murder investigation is never funny.

3.  Everyone is lying.  I've seen this noted before in discussions of writing mysteries, and it seems to be true here.  Everyone is lying, hiding something, or just unwilling to talk to a Trooper.  That makes nearly everyone a suspect at least until their lies have been sorted out, and maybe after, too.
Don't be nice to your characters.  Campbell has to deal with the fact that the one person he most trusts and most wants to be innocent is lying to him right and left.

4.  Keep the pressure on.  Campbell can remove a few suspects from the list, but he can't remove the ones that most matter.  And at the same time he can see a growing threat to other people.

5.  Killing off the bad guys is tidy, but not always totally satisfying.  Stabenow deals with the perps in this one by having them end up dead, and that leaves some questions hanging.  Maybe okay.  I'd use it with caution.  It also makes for a pretty high body count, which is okay for her, but not so good in a cozy (what I write).  The mystery is wrapped up just enough, and in this case there is a nice circularity to the deaths.  Campbell's personal life shows modest forward movement but is still a mess--we are clearly left expecting more about him.  This is in keeping with generic conventions.

6.  Still thinking about character development.  Stabenow is really good about dropping the little bits of both description and backstory in without being obvious, and she's in no hurry.  I can also see her using little things to tag a character: Liam Campbell is terrified of flying, we learn in the first pages.  Not only does that tell us something about him, but it adds some nice tension in his personal life, since he's in love with a bush pilot.  Most characters get physical description through his eyes, which works very nicely as he's a cop, but it's all done with one or two key points (except maybe a couple of the women, who get more attention, if you know what I mean).
I have concluded that character development and backstory are the hardest things to do smoothly.  I'll probably have to be content with doing okay at first and getting better with practice.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Fire and Ice  from my  library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange 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 17, 2014

Hang onto your socks--The Death By Ice Cream cover is here!

What can I say?  It's done, and it's beautiful!  I am delighted to reveal the cover for Death By Ice Cream, due to be released March 24.

And, since it will be released in paperback as well as an ebook, here's the whole cover, front, back and spine:

 Huge thanks to my incredible cover artist/designed, Danielle English!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: Word from the Future

This week's challenge over at my usual source (Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog) was a little too weird--but it related to messages from the future.  I wanted to write a story, as usual, and Jemima Pett challenged me to have one of my standard characters deal with a message from the future.  So here is Xavier Xanthum, Space Explorer, and the

Word from the Future

Xavier Xanthum clutched the control console, every muscle quivering with tension.  If he didn’t get this right, it would be a disastrous.

“Larry!  How many seconds to launch?”

“Seven hundred sixty-five seconds to launch, Xavier.”  Larry’s voice showed no sign of tension, though his eyes shone brighter than usual.  He could get worked up when he wanted to.

Xavier glanced from the console to those gleaming eyes.  Floating disembodied next to him, scanning all the read-outs with equal intensity and greater understanding than his own.  Behind him, Xavier could hear Larry’s brain humming through the calculations.  Xavier didn’t know how the eyeballs he called Larry communicated with the central ship’s computer that served him as body and brain, but the system seemed to work.  He liked having Larry there to check his own work, as well as to talk to.

Larry suggested a small course correction, and Xavier nodded.  “Make it so.”  He liked saying that.  It made him feel like the captain of a great ship, not a one-man exploration vessel with no funding.

The computer did whatever it did in its depths, and the left thruster burned for a fraction of a second.  Xavier couldn’t even feel the shift, but he knew it would be perfect.  His own eyes strayed to the viewscreen window.  The black hole was there, visible only because of the distortion it created in the stars he could see beyond it.

Six months ago, Xavier himself had been there, trying to get close enough to the unnamed planet inexorably approaching the singularity to pull off a landing.  If this worked, that earlier Xavier would get the vital message Xavier was now preparing to launch.  If not—Xavier shuddered to think of the results.  It had to work.

“One hundred twenty seconds to launch,” Larry’s impassive computer voice announced.  The message was ready, in its capsule and positioned in the launch tube.

“You’re sure the trajectory is correct?”  He didn’t really need to ask.  Larry always got the math right.  But nerves forced Xavier to say something, do something.

“Twenty seconds to launch,” Larry said by way of response.  “Ten.  Nine. . . .”

Xavier’s finger jabbed the launch button right at “zero,” though he suspected that Larry actually did the launch and that his button was for show.   He saw the packet streak across the plane of the window, aimed to skim the edge of the black hole.  It was out of his hands now.

“All’s well, Xavier,” Larry said, hovering solicitously at his shoulder.  “It will work.  It has already worked.”

Xavier relaxed a little.  It had worked, but he still didn’t believe things couldn’t change. 
Six months earlier, Xavier was cruising past the edge of the system, seeking planets too isolated or difficult to reach to have been explored.   He needed a good find; he’d had no stories worth telling for weeks.

Xavier had learned the hard way that finding valuable real estate that wasn’t already claimed was a dicey proposition at best.  But he had found a steady market for the stories of his adventures in their pursuit.  A strange beast, a fruit that gave interesting hallucinations, even a bad landing on a strange planet—it all was copy, and copy was profit.  Skimming the edge of the singularity created by a black hole was always good copy.  Also incredibly risky, but he had his reasons.  The ship needed some expensive upgrades.

There was a planet down there, so close to the singularity that if he landed safely, he would have to be careful which direction he launched when he went to leave, or he’d end up learning what was on the other side of a black hole.

“Unknown object at two o’clock,” Larry said.

Xavier glanced at the vid screen and then at the eyeballs, eyebrow raised.

“Little thing.  Deploying tractor beam,” Larry responded.  “Ahh. . . there!  Got it.”  When he wished, Larry could put plenty of emotion into his computer voice, just as he did into the eyeballs.  His satisfaction was obvious.  “I’ll drift down to the cargo bay and see what we caught.”

Larry had the advantage of Xavier for that work, in that he could not be harmed by whatever might come in with a bit of space debris.  Neither strange bugs nor radiation would damage the eyeballs, which Xavier wasn’t even sure were real.   They might have been a particularly persistent hallucination.  He let Larry go. 

A few minutes later, the computer spoke up.  This time, all expression was purged from the voice.  “Standard message capsule.”

“Who from?”

“Star Ship Wanderlust.”

Xavier’s head felt funny.  “That’s us.”


“We’ve never been here before.  Have we?””


“So it’s drifted in here from—where?  Oh, fine, I’ll come open it and see what message went astray.  Is it clear?”

Two minutes later, Xavier was staring at a standard message form, written in his own hand, and dated six months in the future.

You’re having company for breakfast.  Pick up bread and milk while you’re dirtside.  P.S. Buy stock in the Orichalcum mines of the Viridian System.

That was all.  Xavier looked at his watch and shrugged.  He’d no doubt have his reasons for sending the message.  “Take us down, Larry.  We have some shopping to do before the stores close.”
©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014
Don't forget--today is International Book Giving Day!  Give a book to a child you love--or to a complete stranger!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Oops, late again!  I failed to notice this hadn't been quite finished and set to go live this morning!  Well, better late than never.


Title: Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Children's Books.  314 pages

Miri lives on Mt. Eskel, in a tiny village whose life is the quarrying of linder stone.  But her father will not let her quarry stone, and she feels left out and useless because of it.  When an announcement comes from the king down below that the prince will choose his bride from among the girls of their village, and that all girls between 12 and 18 must attend an academy to be made ready in case they are chosen, Miri doesn't know if she wants to be the princess, but she does know she wants to be the best student.  In the end, what she learns in and out of class saves the day and changes everything.

I've seen this one on the shelves at the library for a long time, but I hadn't picked it up because of the princess thing.  You know: all that girly Disney-princess stuff that's eating so many girls alive.  I finally grabbed it in a hurry because I wanted to look at more middle grade fantasy.  Imagine my surprise when I found it was far from the sort of princess book I expected (it really has more in common with some of the Boarding School books I have always enjoyed).

We writhe with Miri under her shame and rage at the injustice handed out by the harsh teacher sent to prepare them for "society."  Yet we also see even more quickly than Miri that learning to read and write might have some benefits, and that there needs to be something more to life in the village than cutting stone, because not all people are meant for that.  Hale builds a nice tension between Miri's need to see the wider world and find a place for herself, and her love of her home and doubts about being a princess.

I do wonder a bit about ages of readers and protagonists.  This is a Middle Grade book, and there's nothing in it that's a problem for a 10-year-old.  And yet.  Miri is 14 at the start of the book, nearly 16 by the end, and the whole premise of preparing a girl to be the bride of the prince is not a childish thing.  There is love, passion, and adult issues to be faced.  This seems to be the way of kids' books, but I'm a little uneasy.  I was made the more so by the feeling through most of the book that Miri was younger--she read to me more like 12 or so, which fits better with the audience but worse with the whole love and marriage thing.  Do girls of ten really need to be thinking that true love will come to them at 16?

That may be a discussion for another day.  For now, I will say that this book won a Newbery Honor, and it probably deserves it.  I certainly didn't want to put it down, and the message about the value of education and seeing beyond one's narrow horizons was powerful and well-communicated without preaching.  And not a pink princess in sight.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Princess Academy from my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange 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 10, 2014

Book Review: Carpe Jugulum


Yes, we're back on the Discworld!  I know I swore off of reviewing Terry Pratchett, because I just kept saying I loved his books, but this one seems to cry out for commentary.  First, the business:

Title:  Carpe Jugulum
Author:  Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Harper Voyager, 1999. I used the HarperCollins ebook edition, 339 pages.
Source: Library (digital version).

It seems both futile and arrogant to attempt to summarize one of Pratchett's Discworld novels.  The best I can offer is to say that we are back in Lancre, the land of the witches, and King Verence and Queen Magrat are celebrating the birth of their daughter.  They've invited all the neighbors to the naming ceremony, and that includes the Magpyrs of Uberwald, your friendly neighborhood vampires--or vampyres, as they prefer to spell it (Carpe Jugulum, of course, means "seize the jugular" which is a pretty good predictor for vampires).  Count Magpyr is so totally up-to-date, making sure he and his people can tolerate daylight, garlic, even holy water.  He and his family are also very good at many vampiric skills, including clouding people's minds, and sucking their blood.  They plan to move in and take over, and it's up to the witches, now including Agnes along with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, to stop them.

This is a tongue-in-cheek thriller, with all the suspense and twice the humor of any spy novel.  Twice the humor?  Probably way more than that.  But there was also complex character development, and a chance to see the witches each grow in new ways, making it seem more novelistic than some of Pratchett's work.  Granny Weatherwax proves she's even more powerful than we thought.  Nanny Ogg proves she can (sometimes) think of something besides sex.  Agnes finds out that having another self occupying her brain isn't all bad, and Magrat discovers she can be both mother, queen, and witch, and have a more interesting life that way.

I found myself trying to figure out how Pratchett was going to save Lancre from the Magpyrs, and I really couldn't see it.  I knew he would, of course.  I just had no idea how he would get there (except being pretty sure Granny Weatherwax would swoop in just in time.  But even she looked pretty seriously inadequate to the task at hand).

And all the time, Pratchett keeps up a running sub-theme satirizimng religion.  He raises points like the difficulty of keeping faith when one reads a lot, and the difference between praying about a problem and doing something about it.  (For those who are sensitive on such issues, Pratchett is an unashamed and vocal atheist.  I happen to enjoy that.  If you don't, you may not like his work, though in my opinion it's always worth seeing and understanding the criticisms of any belief system to which one subscribes).

The final putting of the vampyres in their place is a thing of beauty and a joy, and I for one will happily read about the witches any time.  Highly recommended for all fans of Pratchett, witches, the absurd, and any foolish teens with silly ideas about vampires (they'll hate it, but maybe learn some important lessons).
Full Disclosure: I borrowed Carpe Jugulum from my (online) library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange 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."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: Gorg and the Strong Drink

This week, Chuck Wendig's Challenge was "A drink with a story, a story with a drink."  In up to 2000 words (I only used 1360), we were to invent a drink, and write a story around that drink.  It didn't have to be real, which was good, since I know nothing about mixed drinks, and prefer to invent such things out of whole cloth.  I wouldn't recommend anyone try the Tongue Knotter, even if you could find the ingredients.  Which you can't.  Unless you can find Gorg's world. . .

Gorg and the Strong Drink

Gorg the Troll was in trouble.  He didn’t mind that so much, but he found he very much objected to his friends being in trouble with him.  He hadn’t known that would happen, because until he had arrived in the City of Celestial Celery and met the Stonelump brothers, Herg Rockling, and Daisy Basalt, he hadn’t had any friends, though he’d known the brothers back home long ago. 

The five of them together had managed to destroy the Destroyer of Trolls, Duke Bale the Artichoke-Hearted.  Unfortunately, they had gotten themselves into trouble with the King’s Guard in the process, since the King believed Bale was mad, not evil.  Gorg, who was very good at direct action, found he wasn’t so good at talking his way out of trouble.

Not that the trolls really minded the dungeons.  They were a bit damp, but trolls didn’t get rheumatism, and at least the walls and floors were stone.  Trolls always preferred to be surrounded by stone.  The city had troubled Gorg, because so much was constructed of wood, and the Watch objected when he pulled up cobbles to nibble on them.  So the dungeon wasn’t uncomfortable, but still, they would have preferred freedom.  And none of them liked to think what King Celery the Halfwit might decide to do with them.

It wasn’t easy to kill a troll outright, but a sorcerer of at least moderate power could turn one back into the stone from which they were so barely removed.  That had been the crime Bale had committed—or had committed for him—that had brought Gorg all this way in pursuit of him.  Now the only thing protecting the trolls was the King’s willingness to listen to them explain what Bale had really been up to.  Unfortunately, the King had a very limited attention span.  He’d soon tired of trying to judge and turned the case over to his advisors.

King Celery’s advisors were not half-wits.  Nor were they great fans of trolls.  But after a lot of talking, Gorg managed to get the advisors to agree to sit down with him over drinks to talk it out.  Trolls, being made of stone, didn’t need to drink to live, but even a troll could enjoy a glass of something.  Gorg thought drinks might help keep things friendly while he explained that Bale had been planning to murder the king and take over the kingdom.

The Earl of Beetroot led Gorg out of the dungeon, and up into an elegant drawing room on the ground floor.  Gorg didn’t like the Earl’s face.  It reminded him of Bale—the face of one who was always plotting.  He would have to be ready for whatever trouble Beetroot might be planning.  Gorg was beginning to think everyone in the castle was up to something sneaky. 

He was right.  The Earl of Beetroot wanted to be the one to solve “the troll problem” and so win the complete trust of the king, which he could use for his own ends.  He poured Gorg a large goblet of a grey liquid, and allowed the Count of Cabbage to fill equally large goblets with wine for the humans.  Beetroot himself drank water.  He would be the only one with a clear head.

“Stonejuice, Master Gorg?  We might as well be civilized here, hey?”

Gorg saw the cynical smile and lifted the goblet to his lips, sniffing.  He felt a bit of . . . amusement.  Beetroot, like so many others, assumed that because trolls spoke and thought slowly, they had no senses and no sense.  Gorg was not stupid, though a brain made of something like stone worked more slowly than a human brain.  His senses, however, worked just fine.  He could tell this wasn’t stonejuice.  He wasn’t sure exactly what it was.  He sniffed again, sorting the aromas.

A touch of celery juice—that was risky in this kingdom, as mistreating the vegetable could be taken the wrong way.  Likewise he detected the fermented root of the skrapule plant, which grew only on the plains about the City of Celestial Celery and was mildly poisonous, at least to humans.  Gorg took a tiny sip of the liquid.  He rolled it about on his tongue, and concluded that the skrapule wouldn't hurt him, in this concentration, perhaps less than a dozen drops in the whole cup, which was mostly wine.  Wine would have no effect on him.  The identity of a final ingredient eluded him, but he could sense no harm in it.  He took a swallow.

The liquid ran through him like a fire.  Like lightning.  And equally like lightning, he knew that he had underestimated the unknown ingredient.

So had the Earl of Beetroot.  The symbiotic fungus that Beetroot had cultivated and fermented into a drink that rendered humans incapable of coherent thought or speech was, until now, untested on trolls.  Beetroot watched with interest over his own glass as Gorg’s body jerked, stiffened, and then sagged.

A contented smile began to spread over Beetroot’s face.  It was evident that the effect of the mixed drink he called the Tongue Knotter was very strong. His fellow advisors would be happy to add the trolls to the rock-garden when Gorg began to babble and swagger under the influence of the Confusion Cocktail.

The smile vanished when Gorg opened his mouth.  Instead of the babbled nonsense Beetroot expected, what came out was an eloquent point-by-point account of the misdeeds of Bale the Artichoke Hearted, and a plea for freedom for himself and his companions in thanks for the service done the kingdom.  Beetroot stared in confused rage.  The other advisors stared in awe.

“By all the gods!” exclaimed Duke Rutabaga.  “The creature has uncovered the most diabolical plot!  He should be richly rewarded, not punished.”

The Count of Cabbage and the Earls of Parsley and Turmeric nodded grave agreement.  “I think,” said the former, “that we have underestimated our trollish friends.  Perhaps we should offer you a job, Sir Gorg.”

Gorg, who wasn’t at all sure he liked the feeling the drink gave him, nevertheless took another cautious sip.  He didn’t want to turn his innards to molten lava, and the stuff felt like it might do just that.  He liked the way it made his head feel, though. 

Beetroot began to argue against the trolls, but his every point was met and bettered by Gorg’s eloquence.  After a few minutes, Beetroot took the glass from Gorg’s hand.  The troll let it go.  He had drunk enough.  His newly heightened senses told him that, and his newly enhanced intelligence told him to stop drinking.

Beetroot, losing the debate and desperate, took a gulp from the glass of grey liquid.  If it could make a troll intelligent, what might it do for a man as clever as he!

It did exactly what his early tests had said it would.  Mid-sentence, just as his audience was beginning to listen and wonder if the troll might have dazzled them a bit too much, Beetroot ceased to utter sense.

As the humans gathered around in bewilderment, Gorg explained that the drink Beetroot had given him was clearly only meant for trolls, and the man had been foolish to drink it, or perhaps merely forgetful of what he had brewed.  As the Advisors led the babbling Beetroot away, Cabbage stopped and tossed a key to Gorg.

“You and your friends are free to go.  Make yourselves at home here in the castle if you want.”

Gorg thanked him, but added, “I believe I at least will return to my own valley.  The city lacks easy access to rocks, and variety in our diet is vital to good health.  I shall endeavor to persuade my friends to accompany me.”

And he would make sure he was well out of the city before this drink wore off.  Gorg wasn’t sure he liked the effect, though it was useful.  Thoughtfully, he took up the flagon from which Beetroot had poured the drink, stoppered it tightly, and carried it off with him. 

You never knew when you might need some extra brain power.

©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014

International Book Giving Day

I just want to spread a great idea I stumbled across in my journeys about the blogosphere: International Book Giving Day.
I think that's last year's badge, but I liked it better, and the message is the same.  

Here's the idea:

Three simple ways to celebrate International Book Giving Day!

1. Give a Book to a Friend or Relative.
Celebrate International Book Giving Day by giving a child a new, used or borrowed book.  Beats the heck out of more chocolate or those nasty little candy hearts.

2. Leave a Book in a Waiting Room or Lobby.
Choose a waiting room where kids are stuck waiting and there are few to no good books available. Purchase a good book, and deposit your book covertly or overtly in your waiting room of choice. The goal here is to spread the love of reading to kids, so choose a fun book, nothing controversial.  There are printable book plates here.

3. Donate a Book.
Wrap up a box of children’s books that your kids have outgrown and get them in the hands of children who could really use a book or two. Donate your books to your local second hand store, library, children’s hospital, or shelter. Alternatively, donate your books to an organization working internationally to get books in the hands of kids, such as Books for Africa.  Check to see if your local Friends of the Library hold a sale (we do, and we'll need books, though we're a year out from our sale right now).

I'm going to do some combination of all of the above.  I think I'll donate some of my own books to some libraries, and maybe purchase and leave a picture book or two at my dentist's, or in the doctor's waiting room.  And I'm going to share this with others who might like to do the same.  Less candy, more books this Feb. 14!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

KidLit Blog Hop: Shirley Link and the Hot Comic


Title: Shirley Link and the Hot Comic
Author:  Ben Zackheim
Publisher: self, 2013.  107 pages
Middle-grade detective fiction

Shirley's back, and this time the principal has retained her as an extra precaution to safeguard the first edition of The Avengers comic #1 which has been loaned to the school library for display. Since it's worth a million dollars, he's understandably nervous about it.  It takes Shirley no time at all to discover someone is determined to steal the comic, and even who it is.  Foiling the plot is the harder part.

This was a quick, fun read, but I just wasn't taken with it the same way I was with the first of Shirley Link's cases (The Safe Case).  Several things contributed to that.  First, I was put off by the device that has Shirley narrating most of the story while dangling from a chain thirty feet above the street.  That seemed a bit hard to swallow.  It also created the difficulty that while most of the story is told in past tense, the last two chapters are present tense.  

None of that really matters, especially not to a kid reading the fun and gently exciting story.  More of a problem, I think, is that Shirley's friends, Marie and Wiley, get pretty short shrift in this one.  I was hoping for more development of an interesting three-way friendship, but felt a little let down.  Without more input from them, Shirley's ego can get a bit much.  And she keeps a few too many surprises back, not sharing her plans or insights, so that the reader can't reach the same conclusions she does.

Lest it sound as though I didn't like this, I hasten to add that I had a good time reading it, and can definitely recommend the series.  Any kid who likes the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, or Encyclopedia Brown (okay, or whatever the modern equivalents are, though kids are still reading those, too!) will enjoy Shirley Link, with her hot computer skills, extra-sharp observations, and at times self-deprecating sense of humor.  Actually, thinking about the way she uses her ability to really see stuff, Shirley Link might be Cam Jansen's spiritual heir, and is just about right for kids moving up from those easy readers.

Full Disclosure: I purchased  Shirley Link and the Hot Comic  myself, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange 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 3, 2014

Lots of cool stuff coming up this spring

I have a lot of exciting stuff coming up in the next few months, both here on the blog and in the rest of life.  Well, not so much in life, except that trip to Tucson, AZ, for the Tucson Festival of Books (find me at the Children's Tent from 2-4 on Saturday, March 15.  Not that I'm advertising or anything).

In addition to, or sometimes in place of, the usual reviews and Friday Flash Fiction for the next two months, look out for these events:
  • Feb. 10: Cover Reveal for Death By Ice Cream
  • Feb. 26: Blurb Reveal for Death By Ice Cream
  • March 24 (give or take a little): Death By Ice Cream is released; blog-hop to celebrate the release.  We'll be adding to the fun with a Giveaway, maybe holding a party on the Internet.  Come, and bring chocolate!
  • April: The A to Z Challenge.  I've picked my theme: wilderness, with a side of ice cream (guess why!), and plan to include book reviews, wilderness-themed flash fiction, and at least one day per week of pretty picture from the wilds of the Western US.  I'm still looking for kids' and adult books that fit the wilderness theme and the letters of the alphabet, but you can bet there will be more hiker narratives and some of the great adventure stories by Gary Paulsen.
In addition, in late February I'll be participating in a blog hop for The Orphan and the Thief, by M. L. LeGette, a middle grade fantasy that (based on the first two or three chapters) promises to be an exciting read!

And all the while I'm working on my next projects: major revisions for Halitor the Hero, my own middle grade fantasy (with tongue mostly in cheek), and the beginning bits of the third Ninja Librarian collection, in which we deal with the problem of Peggy, not to mention getting back to beating my NaNo novel, the sequel to Death By Ice Cream into sometime more like a book, called (at least for now), Death By Trombone.

So watch this space!

I'd like to finish with a hint at the new cover, or even some cute kittens, but I can't and won't.  Instead, I'll just use my favorite trademark, the post-hike ice cream frenzy: