Thursday, May 28, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: The Bench

This week's challenge was to pick a photo from a random collection and write a story about it. I have been rather busy (graduations and things!) so I am turning in a half a flash--my story came in just under 500 words, and I won't try to make it any longer.

To see the photo, go here.

The Bench

No one could remember who had built the bench. Few people even knew it was there. The molded concrete sat a bit back from a little-used trail in the woods outside of town, half-overgrown with grass and bushes, greened with moss and lichen. Perhaps when it was built it wasn’t lost in the woods. Maybe there was a garden there once. No one knew, nor much cared, except to wonder in passing at such a thing in such a place.

No. One person knew. One person walked the trail from time to time, stepping carefully not to crush the flowers that sprouted along the way, and sat on the bench, gazing into the tangled woods for an hour or for half a day.

That person knew how long the bench had been there, and why it was there. He could no longer manage the walk often, because the bench he had built to sit on with the love of his life had been there a very long time, and he and it had grown old together.

She had not. The beautiful girl he had loved and had courted in the tiny hidden garden had long since passed from this earth, and from the memories of all save the old man who struggled to walk the overgrown path. He used a cane now, but with utmost care, less its unyielding tip damage the flowers, descended from the seeds she had sown. He was ancient, but she never grew old.

He sat on the bench, and ran his gnarled hands over the whorls and carvings of the seat. He had ordered the bench from Sears Roebuck, ten dollars postage-paid. No doubt at one time many, many more existed just like it. Almost like it. His fingers could still find the initials he had painstakingly carved into the pattern at the back of the seat. “Where only we will know, because you are too precious to advertise,” he had told her. Time had gnawed at the indentations, lichen done its best to fill them, but he could still trace the letters.

Once in a long while some brisk pedestrian or rambler of the woods would pass by while the old man sat. Most would look at him with curiosity, wondering why he chose to sit on the worn bench in the weeds. A few worried that he was ill, and inquired anxiously if he needed help. To those, he merely smiled and shook his head, with a brief, “I’m well enough.”

None of them saw what he saw. When he sat in the sun on his bench, he could still see her, kneeling among the flowers of the wild garden, exclaiming over each tender shoot or tiny blossom, and he was content.


©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Middle Grade review becomes something else

My intention was to make today's post a review of the middle grade historical/western/mystery, P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man, by Caroline Lawrence (the book also seems to have some listings as "The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse," for reasons I haven't yet figured out). This is the second book in the series, and the 3rd I've read. I did an extremely brief review of Book 3, though I am enjoying the series and they deserve more (see caveats at the end of this post)

So my plan today was to do more. But I got a little sidetracked.  Before I go off on that, let's do the review basics:

Title: P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man
Author: Caroline Lawrence; Narrated by Tara Sands
Publisher: Audio Edition (what I read): Books on Tape, 2013. Original publication (as The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse) 2012, 313 pages.
Source: Digital library

Newly-orphaned 12-year-old P.K. Pinkerton has hung up a shingle and gone to work as a Private Eye in Virginia City, Nevada in 1860-something. Business is slow until Martha, a young servant girl, comes looking for someone to find out who killed her mistress, Short Sally. P.K. takes the case and finds it a challenge--and a risk. With the help of P.K.'s main ally, Poker Face Jace, and a bit of aid from a young journalist named Sam Clemens, justice prevails, but not without a lot of excitement!

Here's where I would be reviewing the book, only I got distracted by something. See, P.K. clearly has Asperger's Syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism). This manifests in a dislike of being touched, a fondness for collecting things (and organizing them), and an inability to read emotions--or recognize faces. It was that last that sent me off track.

Because I don't recognize faces very well either. P.K. refers to the problem as "my thorn," referencing St. Paul and his "thorn in the flesh" that was some mysterious ailment that kept him (St. Paul) from doing all he wished. In the same way, P.K. considers face-blindness (official name: prosopagnosia) a handicap. And I read a review that objected to presenting this as a handicap, because we don't want to stigmatize Asperger's as a handicap (I can't find that review, and may not even remember it correctly. It doesn't matter, because it made me think). The thing is, face-blindness *is* a handicap. Especially for someone who wants to be a detective. The interest here is in how P.K. works around it (though I'm not sure his work-around would work, because it seems to me more of a means of remembering names than faces. I'll try to experiment, but Lawrence may have slipped up here).

All this leads me to what I know about prosopagnosia, which is mostly that a) having had it, apparently, since birth, it took me a really long time to figure out why other people could follow movies so much better than I can, and b) that it has usually felt like an excuse when I explain why I wasn't slighting someone just because I didn't recognize them. Oh, and c) it's a little awkward for a writer, too (I tend not to give my characters physical descriptions). What I also know is that I recognize many people quite well--by distinctive features, hair, clothing, or gait.

So I did a little research. One thing I learned is that face-blindness (let's stick to the pronouncable version) is not necessarily an aspect of Autism, but there is a lot of overlap. In my case, I'd say it's related, as my oldest son has Asperger's, and I have recognized a lot of signs and symptoms in the literature as also applying to me. So it's not a common aspect, but makes sense for P.K. to have it along with the other issues. And it makes an intriguing problem for the young detective.

I also learned that some people (maybe most?) acquire face-blindness from some trauma. Those people are probably driven more nuts by it than I am, because they know how this stuff is supposed to work. I found some very good info at, including a test to see if you have it (if you take the test, please leave a comment about it). Yeah, I'm not crazy. Apparently other people can recognize faces even without hair and stuff. They even recognize actors when they change costumes! Who knew?

Finally, to return to the book, I want to say that I have been enjoying this series a lot. On the other hand, though it is apparently written for middle-grade students (writing level seems to match), the content is often pretty adult, and the story is more like an adult western. There is little or no bad language, but there are gun fights, dead bodies, and (what would you expect in a mining town like Virginia City in it's heyday?) most of the women are prostitutes, delicately referred to as "soiled doves." And P.K., who is half Lacota Indian, is subjected to the racism that was rampant at the time. Make your own judgement about appropriateness for your child.

Oh, and just to finish: if I meet you somewhere, then don't recognize you the next time, please don't be offended, even if it happens more than once. Just remind me who you are and let it go. Thanks.

Since I did sort of review the book, here's the usual boiler-plate:
Full Disclosure: I checked P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man out of my digital 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, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

In honor of Memorial Day, our national day to remember and honor those who have died in our nation's wars (whatever we may think of the wars, let us honor those who gave everything for our country), this blog is not posting the scheduled review.

The Ninja Librarian will resume posting on Tuesday.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Friday Flash: Occupational Hazards

This week's Wendig Challenge was simple: write a car chase. That's it. Any genre, however you want to do it, as long as the whole point of the story is a car chase. Naturally, I didn't do it the usual way. He gave us 2000 words; I was merciful and stopped at 1260.

Occupational Hazards

Hank and Aleysha studied the evidence they’d gathered to date.

“I don’t think it’s enough to satisfy the police, let alone a lawyer,” Hank said.

“It has to be enough! I don’t think there’s any more to be had!”

“There is one way.”

Aleysha considered the documents in the case one more time and tried to pretend he hadn’t spoken. The silence grew. “It’s too dangerous,” she said.

“It's too dangerous to leave this guy on the loose. He’ll do it again. You know he will.” Silence. “If we can spook him into acting, we’ll have him,” Hank urged. “I’ll even bring in the cops to do the arrest.”

“Good idea.” Her sarcasm was wasted on him.


The plan was simple enough. They would leak their discoveries where Carl “The Cooler” Swenson would hear of them, and he’d come after them. He’d cooled enough enemies in a permanent sort of way that they knew he’d do it. They just had to be sure Swenson got wind of it at the right time, so they could be ready, as they had no desire to be his next victims.

By the time they were done—with Officers Smith and Jones at the table, at Aleysha’s insistence—their plan was bullet-proof. Keenly aware that she and Hank were not, Aleysha put the officers on speed-dial. Then they just had to wait for Monday.

Carl the Cooler didn’t wait for Monday, however he got the info. He came for them on Sunday, and not only were the officers not in place, but Hank and Aleysha found nothing between them and the killer but a bit of lycra.

It had been a good day for a ride. They’d looped well up into Marin, and as they pushed up the hill back on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Aleysha congratulated herself on being fifty miles into a ride and still strong.

She and Hank saw the SUV at the same time, and recognized the driver.

“Step on it!” Hank urged. Both stood up on the pedals, topped the rise, and hooked a sharp left onto a tiny side road. Neither detective doubted for a second that Swenson had seen them, or that he had the info that had painted a large target on each of their backs.

Tired squealed behind them, accompanied by a chorus of horns. Swenson had pulled a U-turn in the middle of the busy Presidio road, indifferent to horns and cursing pedestrians alike.

Aleysha rode with her phone docked on the handlebars, serving as a GPS route tracker. She took a hand from the handlebars for long enough to punch a button and bring up phone mode.

“Call Officer Smith!” she ordered, and managed prayers to four deities as the phone rang.

No answer.

“Call Officer Jones!” She started in on some more gods, and they sped wrong way down a fortunately empty road.

They swung their bikes onto a path that cut off a loop of the road, Hank checking behind them. “That might lose—no, dammit! There he is!”

“Cut down through the construction zone,” Aleysha yelled, just as Officer Jones picked up.

“Aleysha? Is that you? What’s going on?” He sounded Sunday-afternoon sleepy.

“Swenson’s on to us. He’s after us now in a black SUV, license unknown. In the Presidio, headed for Crissy Field. We’re on our bikes.”

“On our way!” Jones sounded awake now. He didn’t need to ask if they needed backup. “Leave the line open.”

She didn’t have a hand free to end the call anyway. They were plunging down the hill toward at a reckless speed, and the ruined pavement in the construction zone under the new bridge required both hands on the grips. If they could just make the Field before—No! Another black SUV blocked the street ahead. Hank pulled a hard right under the bridge, skidding around the corner. Aleysha followed, and they bounced past some bizarre equipment, and across the torn-up ground.

“We can do this if they don’t start shooting,” Hank panted.

A drop-off put them back on pavement, and Aleysha nearly crashed when she hit bottom, skidded again, and righted herself to keep going. Amazingly, the bikes held up to the abuse. A moment later her mind registered the flat crack of a shot and the sound of a bullet that had whined just over her head when she dropped.

“What that gunfire?” Jones’ voice asked from the phone. She heard a siren in the distance, echoing the one heard from his end of the call.

“How long?” She gasped, ignoring his question. He could tell gunshots when he heard them.

“Two minutes. Can you take shelter?”


“We need people. Traffic,” Hank yelled from in front of her. “Head for Marina.”

They blasted straight across the road and onto Mason, pushing hard up the field. Aleysha wished she’d not ridden so hard all day. She didn’t have much left for this kind of speed. Another bullet from up the hill, and the sound of a motor screaming its way through the gears, proved a good incentive to work out harder. Heads down, she and Hank swerved onto the bike path, he in front pulling, and she using her extra breath to scream at people to get out of the way and take cover.

Now Marina was in sight, with its thicker traffic. If only the light was right…

The shooting had stopped. Swenson wasn’t protecting innocent bystanders, they could bet. He believed bullets weren’t needed. Gasping for breath, Aleysha glanced over her shoulder and screamed. Both SUVs were gaining fast, and headed straight for them, ignoring the curb between street and path. They weren’t going to make it.

“Hard left!” She screamed, and Hank instantly turned down another sidewalk. No, not a sidewalk. They bounced across a bit of lawn past the Beach Hut, picked up a road, and gained speed. The SUVs went around by the road, and nearly cut them off, hotly pursued now by the police.

Hank and Aleysha put on a burst of speed, and only then realized they were on the breakwater and fast running out of road. Hank spotted an open gate, turned, and they raced down a dock. The SUV couldn’t follow, but the thugs and their bullets could.

The cyclists skidded to a halt, and didn’t stop to check what Swenson and his thugs would do. Flicking loose from their pedals, Hank and Aleysha dove from their bikes straight into the harbor. The water was ice cold, murky, and no kind of shelter. But—“Over there!” Hank called, and they struck out for the largest yacht on the outer line of boats.

Gasping for air, Hank and Aleysha clung to the swim ladder of the rear of the “Mary Roamer,” the end away from the land, and listened. A dozen sirens now converged on the docks, and a volley of gunshots died away to silence. The detectives looked at each other, waiting.

They heard the officers calling for them and, exhausted, themselves up onto the yacht, ignoring the indignant gasps of the nude sunbathers on the deck. They crossed over to the dock, and Smith ran up to give them a hand down.

“You two okay?”

They nodded, too exhausted to answer. Then, “Oh shit, the bikes!” Hank yelled.

Amazing, Aleysha thought. Who would’ve believed he could still run like that? And in his bike shoes. She watched in awe as he tackled and sat on the would-be thief, barely breathing hard. Now that was fitness.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Penderwicks in Spring


Title: The Penderwicks in Spring
Author:  Jeanne Birdsall
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 339 pages.
Source:   Library

Publisher's Summary:
Springtime is finally arriving on Gardam Street, and there are surprises in store for each member of the family. Some surprises are just wonderful, like neighbor Nick Geiger coming home from war. And some are ridiculous, like Batty's new dog-walking business. Batty is saving up her dog-walking money for an extra-special surprise for her family, which she plans to present on her upcoming birthday. But when some unwelcome surprises make themselves known, the best-laid plans fall apart.

My Review:
I have been following this series since I stumbled on the first book (published 2005) not long after the second was published (2007). We read the first book to our boys, and we all loved it. By the time I got the second book, the boys had moved on to other kinds of books, but I devoured it and waited with bated breath for the 3rd (2012). Now, at last, Ms. Birdsall has come out with a 4th book in the series, and we have to make some adjustments.

For three books, the focus was on the three oldest Penderwick sisters, who were just at the beginning of the teen years. Along the way, their long-widowed father remarries, but nothing much changes in the family from the reader's perspective. Now we have jumped ahead about 5 years, and our eyes and ears on the family are Batty's, with a bit of young Ben--the step-brother who joined the family when Mr. Penderwick married, and with whom the very young Batty of earlier books was much taken. (Note: it must be very strange for Ben, the lone male with 5 sisters).

The older girls still matter, and their stories are still important, but they are all filtered through Batty's perspective, and are secondary to her story. I had just finished listening to the audio of the first book, so I had a particularly hard time at first with the idea of Batty being nearly 11, and having the half-sophisticated reasoning skills of the child approaching her teens. She still feels younger than Jane feels in the first book, though they are the same age, though in many ways she is clearly mature and responsible (she is most like the Older Penderwick Sisters when caring for her 2-year-old sister).

I think each book has delved a little deeper into serious issues (the first one used the girls' motherless status more as a plot point than as something that matters; by the 3rd we are dealing with their best friend Jeffrey's abandonment by his father, a rift that is not handled tritely). Now we get to the full weight of the family history, and it is Batty who has to bear that weight, and the effect on her is profound, and depicted so well by the author that I could feel the weight of it myself while reading. The book still has much of the light and delightful feeling the first captured, but there are some real things going on here, and I'll not deny I shed some tears on Batty's behalf.

Ms. Birdsall tied up a lot of loose ends at the end, but I think not too much so to allow for a 5th book, which I dearly hope will not take her another 3 or 4 years to write.

Read the series in order, but READ THE SERIES! Kids and adults. Just read it.
Full Disclosure: I checked The Penderwicks in Spring out of 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, May 18, 2015

Middle Grade Classic: The Enchanted Castle


Wrong cover, as so often happens with library books, but I couldn't find an image for the edition I read.

Title: The Enchanted Castle
Author: E. Nesbit (Edith Nesbit)
Publisher: E.P Dutton & Sons, 1963, for the Illustrated Children's Classics Series. Original publication 1907. 231 pages.
Source: library booksale

Siblings Gerald, James, and Katherine are stuck at her boarding school during the vacation, and soon discover a nearby castle--and a sleeping princess. The princess turns out to be Mabel, the housekeeper's niece, but the enchantments turn out to be real. A magic ring causes no end of adventures, and wreaks no end of havok before they manage to get everything straightened out.

I believe that the only other of Nesbit's books I've read is The Railway Children, which is not fantasy but a bit of generally light fiction, so I had no idea what to expect of this book. I definitely didn't expect quite what I got, and I'm not sure I like what I read. I had no issues with the characters, who are sufficiently human and as likeable as they need to be. But I admit to being taken aback by how dark (or maybe just plain creepy) parts of the story are. Despite how accustomed kids today are to reading books where frightening things happen, there was a creepiness to the middle of the book, especially the chapters about the Ugly-Wugglies, that I found disturbing. All that creepiness is taken care of in the end, and the story never really feels like the children are in true danger, and that in a way made the story less satisfying to me (and maybe even a bit creepier).

The story is well put-together, though the end is a bit predictable, so what we really have here is my own personal reaction to it. I don't think there's anything really wrong with it. Just be aware that a child who is disturbed by the macabre might well be given nightmares by this one, and that it may not be to everyone's taste. The book might fall into the very popular category of books about children who stumble into a magical world, but this one is actually about children who accidentally bring the magic into our ordinary world. Since I'm fed up with gates into magic worlds, I found it a refreshing change in that sense, and now that I'm done enjoy contemplating the paradoxes that created.

For those who enjoy a classic British children's tale, and aren't disturbed by icky creatures coming to life and other strange events. It is also interesting to read this in perspective: it pre-dates Narnia, and even Middle Earth. In fact, I'm not sure how much fantasy had been written by 1907, which casts it in rather a different light.

Full Disclosure: I purchased The Enchanted Castle, 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, May 14, 2015

Friday Flash: Man or Superman?

This week's Wendig Challenge was another genre mashup. I rolled a couple of times (sorry, I am NOT doing any kind of erotica, unless maybe it's about plants breeding...), and got "superhero" and "time travel." Now, it would be easy to make a superhero who jumps around through time fixing all sorts of disasters (and no doubt creating new ones). But my mind ran a little differently...Chuck gave us up to 1500 words this time, but I stopped at 1150.


Alain of the Woods extinguished the blazing hut and nodded to the villagers. “You’ll be safe now.” Their thanks rang in his ears as he walked away into the mist. For years now, the man with muscles like an ox and the grin of a boy had been protecting the denizens of Withercombe from fire, flood, and marauding pirates. He’d even managed to hide the whole village from the army of King Edward, newly come to power and desperate for conscripts to help him hold his throne.

Somewhere along the line, Alain had developed a reputation for superhuman powers. In a less useful person, that might have led to accusations of witchcraft and a painful death, but his villagers were sensible folk. Faster than a speeding arrow, more powerful than a plow-ox, they said of him, and when trouble threatened, everyone knew the Man of Oak would be there to save them.

Alain smiled as he strode back over the moor toward his hut. He didn’t know what had given him his extra powers, but it wasn’t a bad life, in this Year of our Lord 1462.

A smug contentment is a dangerous thing. Alain stepped briskly along the path, stumbled as a brief spell of dizziness hit him, then righted himself and carried on. What had that been about? A superhero didn’t get dizzy. Perhaps something had happened back in the village. He turned and walked back toward Withercombe.

A few minutes later, Alain felt dizzy in earnest, looking down at the village. At least, it ought to have been the village. He recognized the pub, and one wing of the church. Everything else was strange, and there was so much more of it. And his path had become broad and smooth, a veritable road, harder and smoother than any he had seen.

A rushing roar and a howl broke out behind him, and Alain jumped aside just in time to avoid being run down by some kind of carriage moving at an unimaginable pace. It left a strange odor behind it, and Alain felt dizzy again. Man of Oak? That thing would splinter an oak and keep going!

Everywhere he looked, Alain saw machines more powerful than he was, and nowhere were there any arrows to intercept. At last he turned back to the moor, to seek his hut and attempt to sleep off whatever had overcome him.

His hut was gone. A troupe of sheep grazed where it should have been, and he found only a few stones that might once have been his walls. He turned and walked back into the mist.

Hours later, as Alain sat on a stone and wondered what had happened to him, a figure appeared out of the eternal mist. A man sat down next to him. Alain gaped at the outlandish figure, dressed all in skin-imitating red and blue fabric, and wearing a tiny cape at the back of his neck. Alain couldn’t help noticing that the cape was too small to be of any use for warmth or concealment. His own cape was thick wool, more of a cloak.

When the fellow began to speak, Alain got another shock. He was speaking English, but with an accent so strong that it was nearly impossible to follow.

“I prithee slow thy speech and be more clear.”

The stranger tried again, and this time Alain understood. “It has come to our attention in Superhero Hall that you are in trouble. And you are a Superhero? Passed through some sort of time gate, didn’t you?” Alain understood the words, but the meaning took some working-out. Eventually, he nodded. He’d begun to know it was something of the sort.

“What is the year?” The blue-red fellow had trouble making this out—he must be from foreign parts, to have such poor English.

“It’s 1993,” he answered at last. “Sorry, old chap, I should introduce myself. I’m Wonderman, and I’m the local Superhero in these parts.”

Alain shook his head. “Your speech is most wondrous strange, sirrah.”

“You sure do talk funny,” Wonderman responded. “Now, who are you?”

Alain thought about this. ‘Alain of the Woods’ seemed scarcely the right answer. “Man of Oak,” he said at last.

“Oakman?” Wonderman coughed, but Alain knew he’d been about to laugh.

He answered stiffly, “An oak is as sturdy a thing as may be.”

Wonderman politely changed the subject. “Let’s take you along to HQ. Can you fly?”

The absurdity of the question distracted Alain from the first part of the sentence. “Fly? None but demons can fly.”

“Most superheroes today can fly. It’s in the job description.”
An hour later, CatKid was checking Oakman in at Superhero HQ. She asked his name and birthday—he told her he was born in the tenth year of the reign of King Henry, the sixth of that name—and tapped a board attached to a box that glowed with a demonic light.


“Ah, I can pluck arrows from the air and lift a loaded haycart. I can haul the fishing boats beyond the tideline without the aid of a horse. Are you the maid?”

His question distracted her from his odd list of powers. “Maid? Goodness, no! I’m in training as a Superhero. CatLady took me on as apprentice last year.”

“But…” There was no question but that she was a girl. The skin-tight suit she wore left no doubt of that. He looked up at the sound of footsteps, and stared. CatLady, he thought, was no lady, but a temptress from the shades. He crossed himself and averted his eyes. He was shaking when CatKid showed him to his quarters, and still shaking an hour later when Wonderman came to find him.

“Settling in okay, Oakman?”

Alain looked at him bleakly. “Once, I was a Hero. Would that I could return, for here I am scarcely a man.”

Wonderman patted his shoulder. “Come out with me on patrol. You’ll soon get used to it. Stop a runaway car or two and you’ll feel more the thing.”

Alain considered this. A bit of questioning suggested that the thing that had terrified him above the village was a car. He knew he could not stop one of those. Nor could he keep safe a village of so many people as now seemed to crowd Whithercombe.

“Can’t you send me back?”

“No telling with a time gate. You can’t go looking for one.”

He would, though. Cat Ladies and runaway cars, and people flying about in the air? Alain would go, and guard the sheep, and pray to all the saints that he might be returned to his own time.

A vision of CatLady and the dinner he had been served flashed into his mind, and for just a moment he hesitated. Then he followed Wonderman out, and accepted the tiny red cape he was offered.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Photo Essay: Eureka Dunes

We were fortunate this year to be able to spend our spring break in Death Valley National Park, among other places. I thought I'd share some of the photos and a bit of history and geography.

Death Valley National Monument was created in 1933. In 1994, the Monument was greatly expanded and became a National Park. It was that expansion that brought the Eureka Dunes into the park (I think that before that time they were either National Forest or BLM--Bureau of Land Management). Coming into the Park brought much-needed protection, as the dunes are a surprisingly vulnerable habitat, with several endemic species. While much of Death Valley proper is famously at or below sea level, the Eureka Valley is at about 3000', with the dunes rising about 650' above that.

Aside from having a spectacular setting, the dunes are among a handful world-wide that "boom"--create a deep humming or roaring sound, almost musical, when the sand on the upper slopes slides. This happens only when conditions are just right, and scientists are still arguing over not only just what causes the booming, but what constitutes "just right" conditions. Whatever the physics of it, on this visit we experienced the best booming we've encountered, there or elsewhere.

Naturally, the dunes are in a windy spot. After all, sand dunes are created when the winds carry dust and grit from elsewhere, then deposit it all in a spot where conditions change, usually the head of a valley. That's what you have here. Hills and striped cliffs surround the dunes, and the wind blows on the minimally developed camp area. The wind blows a lot. For the record, the road is also in awful shape. Prepare to spend a half hour or 45 minutes driving the 10 miles from the Big Pine road (which is an hour from Big Pine. Where there may or may not be cell service). Carry a spare AND a pump. You can't call AAA from out there. Camping at the dunes is the only way to see them at their best, but it's not for wimps.

Sorry to talk so long. Now for the photos.

Looking up the dunes before sunrise. For the best photos, get an early start!

There are, as mentioned, a number of endemic plants that live only on or around the dunes. That's one reason why the regulations about nothing but feet on the dunes are so important. We saw evidence when we were there that someone had ridden an ATV onto the lower part of the dunes. We can only hope they were caught and taught why that's criminal.
This is the most common of the endemic plants, the Eureka dune grass.
 You have to get up early to enjoy many desert flowers. Most of the primroses bloom in the night, and wilt by mid-morning.
I think this is the endemic desert primrose, though it might be another species. It wasn't a very wet winter, so only a few of the flowers were out.
Looking back down into the valley bottom from high on the dunes.
The textures and shapes of the dunes are the best part, photographically-speaking.
Work hard enough, and you can be on top of the world! Climbing the dune isn't easy, but it is up on those high ridges that the booming happens, when you start sand sliding down the steep sides of the knife-edge.
The author's spouse approaches the summit. First ones out get to make the first tracks of the day, after the night's wind erases the old ones.
To the south of the main dunes, there is a secondary dune field. I'm not sure why the dunes deposit short of the end of the valley. No doubt it's something about how the air eddies around the mountains.
Almost no one goes out there. We have ventured as far as the flat bare bit just visible on the right of the photo. One year I think we even climbed that largest of the small dunes.
Surprisingly, a number of mammals live on the dunes, in addition to a lot of beetles.
We found a cluster of kangaroo-rat dens. Need to do some research--we hadn't known they created "towns." Unless they just all ended up there because it was the best spot?
 Get the photos of tracks in the early morning, before the wind comes up again, and other people trample them.
Kangaroo rat tracks. Note the way the long tail drags between hops.

Sometimes it's just about patterns and the art of nature.
Sand waves, accented by darker iron-rich sands.
Nature's fractals.
Sinuous ridge leading into the secondary dune field.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mystery Monday: Ruined Abbey by Anne Emery

Title: Ruined Abbey
Author:  Anne Emery
Publisher: ECW Press, coming May 12, 2015. 382 pages.
Source: Electronic ARC

Publisher's Summary:
It’s 1989. The Troubles are raging in Ireland, bombs exploding in England. In this prequel to the Collins-Burke series, Father Brennan Burke is home in New York when news of his sister’s arrest in London sends him flying across the ocean. The family troubles deepen when Brennan’s cousin Conn is charged with the murder of a Special Branch detective, and suspected in a terrorist plot against Westminster Abbey. The Burkes come under surveillance by the murdered cop’s partner and are caught in a tangle of buried family memories. From the bullet-riddled bars of Belfast to an elegant English estate, Ruined Abbey combines a whodunit with a war story, love story, and historical novel, while exploring the eternal question: what is fair in love and war? It all starts with a ruined abbey.

First thing to make clear to my usual readers: this is not a cozy mystery. It's not that it's horribly violent (though there is a great deal more violence than in most cozies), it's that it is a story of a time and circumstances that have very little that feels light about them.

In fact, I'm not completely sure this is really a mystery, so much as a historical novel. Either way, it was a gripping read, with a mix of wonderful period atmosphere, relationships of all sorts, and some real tension. The issue of IRA and terrorism vs. legitimate warfare made for some thoughtful moments; though the author is careful to make the characters we care about draw the line well short of actions we would have to condemn, we are forced to acknowledge the reality of war.

I got a good dose of history, not only from the 1980s, but the "Irish problem" going back through the 20th Century, not to mention the history that went all the way back to Cromwell. It left me uneasy, which I think is a testament to the author's writing. Although at first I wasn't sure I liked the book, the characters and the style grew on me, as did sympathy for their politics, if not their methods. I would consider reading more of this series, when I'm in the mood for something a little darker than my usual cozy.

For those who like historical fiction and are up for some grim realities. There is a mystery, but it's not presented in the classic form.

Full Disclosure: I received an electronic ARC of  Ruined Abbey from the publisher, and received nothing further 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."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: Whither the Garbage Cans?

Though as you know I usually get my flash fiction prompts from Chuck Wendig, I didn't care for this week's challenge. So instead I got my story starter  from Jemima Pett, who sent me the opening line (I changed it a little). Just a hair under 1000 words, and maybe just a hint of ribaldry at the end.

Garbage Cans

I knew we were in trouble when the garbage cans started moving about on their own.  It just turned out that it wasn’t exactly the trouble I thought we were in. I mean, I spotted them first, and made the usual resolve. You know, to swear off the moonshine, give up the mason jar, and dry out.

The first thing wrong with that reaction was that I don’t drink.

The second thing was that I wasn’t the only one who saw them. Oh, lots of people had noticed that their trashcans weren’t in the same place in the morning as they’d been the night before. There were lots of reasons for that. “It’s raccoons. Those things will do anything for a meal.” “Teenagers. They’re playing pranks again.” “Minor earthquakes are vibrating them so that they move about.”

Then there were the whacko reasons: “There are magical fields in this neighborhood.” “It’s the aliens again. I told you they’d be back.” “Poltergeists.” “Isn’t this on old Indian burial ground? Bet their spirits are angry.”

But when I saw the cans moving—actually saw them in motion—I had to discard the most reasonable theories. There were no raccoons or teenagers around. The USGS confirmed that there had been no earthquakes, however tiny and localized. That left me with the more unreasonable explanations.

Magic? I didn’t believe in magic. Every single supposedly magical happening ever turned to be caused by natural phenomena. Or illusion. Usually illusion, with a good dose of fakery.

Those garbage cans were no illusion. They stunk too much for that.

Ghosts and poltergeists were likewise out. No way to prove them, and no good grounds for believing they existed. That was when I took the step that led to all the trouble.

Well, that’s what they said. If I’d left well enough alone, there wouldn’t have been trouble. I’m not sure I believe that. Like I said, I knew that we were in trouble when I saw the cans moving, even before I started thinking through the possibilities. The one explanation I kept hearing, and that kept coming back to me, was the aliens.

But why, by all the green cheese on the moon, would aliens want to mess with our garbage cans?

You know how your Mom used to tell you that some questions just shouldn’t be asked? She was talking about how bologna was made or what makes members of the opposite sex tick, but she might as well have been talking about the motives of aliens visiting Earth.  Not only do you not want to know, but it’s not safe to know. Everyone would have been better off if I’d just let it go. But I couldn’t.

I set up cameras, the sort biologists use to take photos of wild animals at night in the wild. And I got my photos. Even that wouldn’t have caused much trouble if I’d not published them. But really—what would you have done? I’d been unemployed for a while, so the cash was awfully handy. I sold the pictures to a certain unnamed news agency. That started the panic, though I was too absorbed in the aliens to notice.

I spent the next few weeks watching the aliens, and gave up looking for work. I set up a video feed, and stared in fascination as the—forgive the cliché, but they were—little green men shifted garbage cans around like pawns in some kind of chess game. Though they might have been dance partners. I couldn’t tell for sure.

That was why I went outside: to ask. I knew better. Like I said at the start, I knew it was trouble from the start. But by this time I had visions of being the person who made first contact with people from space, and I couldn’t give that up.

I'm not an idiot, so I didn’t just go charging out there and hold up my hand and say “Take me to your leader.” I recorded every sound they made. Then I invited my friend Anita to join me. She’s unemployed too, and she’s a linguist, so I figured she’d have time and interest. I swore her to secrecy before I showed her the videos, and we spent another week working on their language.

Maybe we should have spent longer. I thought we really had it, at least enough to make a greeting. After all, it was what they said every time they met in their garbage-can dance.

We flipped a coin to see who would go out and talk to them, and who would stay in and monitor it all on the cameras. I won. Or maybe, as it turned out, I lost. Either way, I was the one who headed out the door with my phrase book.

I don’t suppose I could have changed things by having better linguistic skills, but the row that started when I spoke to them was something else. I was lucky to escape with my life, which I did by climbing up the downspout.

And when it was all over, and trash was scattered up and down the streets, the aliens took me away anyway, luring me down from my perch with—well, never mind that. They took me with them when they Earth, and left the garbage cans to get on with the take-over. They’ve been teaching me their language, starting with the instruction not to use their greeting in polite company. I’m not sure, but I think it had something to do with beings who like to reproduce with inanimate objects. Which is what they were doing, except…If Anita and I had waited another week, we would have seen the sudden proliferation of small garbage cans. Then we might have acted differently. Though we could have done worse. Those little garbage cans are cute. Cuter than an awful lot of humans, and they don’t really smell any worse. Anyway, it’s their world now.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Non-fiction Review: White Water Landings


Title:  White Water Landings
Author: Geoffrey Pett with JM Pett
Publisher: Princelings Publications, 2015. 224 pages.
Source: Purchase

This memoir, narrated by Geoffrey Pett and edited by his daughter, JM Pett, takes us to Africa between the wars (as in, the 1930s, between the Great War and WWII). Geoffrey worked for Imperial Airways (later British Air) establishing the routes that served Africa, primarily with the Flying Boats. His account of establishing a number of bases and then the effect of the outbreak of WWII on the system offers a unique glimpse into another world.

Full disclosure first: I have worked with JM Pett (Jemima Pett) on a couple of projects (see the Bookelves Anthology), so I was primed to like the book. But the following review is my honest opinion.

White Water Landings is not the sort of slick memoir we are seeing a lot of these days, nor is it a celebrity tell-all. It is an honest account of a time and a place that I, for one, knew little about, and it has a very authentic voice. Because the narrative was originally created orally, there remains a certain "oral history" feeling that I think serves the story very well, but Ms. Pett has provided the right amount of editing to make it read well and professionally. Geoffrey Pett wasn't anyone famous in a broad sense, but he did good and important work, and was clearly recognized and respected for it in his field--a fact that comes through in just the right way when he recounts with pride successfully meeting great challenges, or mentions that a suggestion of his was adopted by the higher-ups.

The narrative is well-structured and well-edited, with Mr. Pett's voice coming through very clearly and a meticulous attention to fact and detail. While Geoffrey Pett may have remembered some things inaccurately (he recorded the story many decades after the events in the book), Ms. Pett has done her research to attempt to correct errors or--which I think is just right--to indicate where official accounts differ from Geoffrey's memory, and let the reader decide.

One thing Geoffrey himself mentions as a bit uncomfortable: this is a story of a time when British Colonialism was thriving, and the circumstances and mindsets of the time reflect it. Some events and attitudes may grate on modern sensibilities, though this is certainly colonialism light, by comparison to many stories we all know. Those attitudes and assumptions were part of their time, and this book helps us to understand that time.

I enjoyed the story very much, and can recommend it to history buffs and particularly anyone interested in the history of flight. It combines a detailed view of what was done with a certain  authenticity that, for me, made it more compelling than a plain history.

Full Disclosure: I purchased my own copy of White Water Landings, 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."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A to Z Reflections

Well, April is over. I survived the A to Z Challenge (and I trust you did too, Dear Reader). Time for the Reflections post, wherein we consider what and how we did.

First, I managed to do all 26 posts. Only a couple were written at the last minute, so I think I did pretty well at staying ahead, even though I was gone for the first week and had no access to my blog. So the basic requirement was fulfilled.

Theme: I enjoyed my theme, and I think readers did too. Using lots of photos was clearly a win, and also fun (but at times rather time-consuming, especially when a topic sent me to the slide archives and the scanner). This was really just a variation on last year's theme (National Parks and Wilderness areas), which was also a great excuse for a lot of pictures. My biggest concern was that it wasn't  what I usually do with my blog, which is mostly write reviews and short fiction. On the other hand, I did do some of those, and since last year I have been putting more photo days into my blog. So maybe I didn't go too far off.

Visiting: I get about a D- on this one. I was scrambling all month (not just with the blog; I had other things that ate up my time) and didn't have enough time or energy to go wandering about the blogosphere. I'll have the chance to remedy some of that during the A to Z Roadtrip, and starting with the Reflections. In a way, I like that better, as I am likely to see what the blogs are about when not doing A to Z. Sometimes I follow blogs during the event only to find that their regular subject matter is of little interest to me.

Visitors: I don't think I got as many visitors as last year. I think the reason for that is directly related to my lack of visiting. Let's be honest: A to Z is about building audience, and you do it, oddly enough, by being an audience. Tit for tat, as it were. I didn't do much tatting, so... On the other hand, the visitors I had seemed to enjoy themselves. I hope a few of them will also check out my guest from B is for Mt. Baker, because Tom Dempsey is a fantastic photographer, in addition to being my brother-in-law.

Bottom line:
Let's be honest. I blog in large part to let people know about my books. I do that in part, oddly enough, by writing about other people's books, as well as by writing short fiction. If my blog isn't making people interested in what I have to say, then there's a problem. The thing is, you also have to build an audience. A to Z is about that, and it is not a bad way to do it.

But...this year, I don't think it worked. I spent almost all my writing time on the blog, meaning my books didn't get worked on. And because I didn't have time for visits, I didn't get a lot of views. I think that, much as I enjoy the fiesta, I need to think hard next year about whether or not to do it. I might also need to ask myself if I'm doing too many other things and prioritizing them over my writing (answer: yes. Some of them need to be prioritized, some need to be ruthlessly dumped). I enjoyed creating my posts, but I need to work on my books. I committed a couple of years ago to making my writing a "real job," but it hasn't much looked like it this winter.

And one last, gratuitous photo to close with, an almost-abstract from the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park that has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

It's a long and winding road...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mystery Monday: Double Duplicity

Today's review is part of a Great Escapes Blog tour. I received an electronic review copy, but the opinions expressed in my review are purely my own.

Title: Double Duplicity
Author: Paty Jager
Publisher: Windtree Press, 2015, 171 pages.
Source: Review copy

Publisher's Summary:
On the eve of the biggest art event at Huckleberry Mountain Resort, potter Shandra Higheagle finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. She’s ruled out as a suspect, but now it’s up to her to prove the friend she witnessed fleeing the scene was just as innocent. With help from her recently deceased Nez Perce grandmother, Shandra becomes more confused than ever but just as determined to discover the truth.

Detective Ryan Greer prides himself on solving crimes and refuses to ignore a single clue, including Shandra Higheagle’s visions. While Shandra is hesitant to trust her dreams, Ryan believes in them and believes in her.

This is a decently-constructed mystery, with likable main characters and a pleasantly unlikable corpse. I found the murder plot adequate, but definitely second to the romance plot. The latter was, I found, very nicely worked out, with a convincing mix of rapid progress and hesitations. As in many cozies, the romance is between the main female character and the main male law enforcement officer (this isn't a spoiler; it was obvious within moments of his arrival on the scene). Point of view alternates between the two, so that the reader is spared an excess of "does he or doesn't he" angst.

All of that said, I found that the story did work better as a romance than as a mystery. As is too often the case, the amateur detective gets away with more than she should, and in this case her motivation for investigating on her own felt inadequate after the first few chapters.

The story has an interesting setting, both in the physical sense (small Montana town just outside Glacier National Park), and in the sense that it deals with both the art world and to some degree Native American culture. I enjoyed reading it, despite some moment of irritation with the story development and with editing issues. (My loyal reader[s] know that I am easily annoyed by grammatical errors or ill-chosen words, far more than most readers). I found places where the tense wandered a bit, and at least one substitution of a near-homonym that jarred.

Although I probably won't continue with the series (though I admit I kind of want to see how the love story works out), I think that those who enjoy a good romance with a bit of mystery in a Western setting will like this book and want to follow the series.

Full Disclosure: I was given an electronic copy of Double Dublicity as a participant in the blog tour, and received nothing further 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."

As part of the blog tour, there is a giveaway for this book--enter to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, May 1, 2015

Mystery Review: Bitter Creek, by Peter Bowen

I didn't expect to be posting on May 1, and if I did I suppose it ought to be a bit of fiction (did that on Tuesday).  I had a number of requests for reviews in early May, and I couldn't pass up this one when it was offered. Since the book's release date was April 28, I wanted to get it out as soon as possible.

Title: Bitter Creek (Series: Gabriel Du Pre)
Author: Peter Bowen
Publisher: Open Road Media, 2015. 187 pages.
Source: Electronic ARC from publisher

Publisher's Summary:
 When he awakes one morning to find a strange car parked across the street from the house where his girlfriend, Madelaine, lives, Gabriel Du Pré knows that trouble can’t be far behind. Lieutenant John Patchen has come to Montana to persuade Chappie, Madelaine’s son, to accept the Navy Cross. But first Du Pré and Patchen must find the wounded marine, who was last seen drinking heavily in the Toussaint Saloon. They locate him soon enough, disheveled and stinking of stale booze, but a sobering visit to a medicine man’s sweat lodge reveals a much greater mystery: the unsolved case of a band of Métis who were last seen fleeing from General Black Jack Pershing’s troops in 1910 before disappearing.

Strange voices within the sweat lodge speak of a place called Bitter Creek, where the Métis encountered their fate. To find it Du Pré tracks down the only living survivor of the massacre, a feisty old woman whose memories may not be as trustworthy as they seem. But when Amalie leads Du Pré to Pardoe, an out-of-the-way crossroads north of Helena, he senses that they are about to uncover long-buried secrets. Discouraged by the US military, their lives threatened by locals whose ancestors may have played a role in the murders, Chappie, Patchen, and Du Pré bravely pursue the truth so that the victims of a terrible injustice might finally rest in peace.

This series is full of profanity, characters who drink and smoke and drive fast, and lots of politically incorrect opinions--and I love it. Okay, I wish Du Pre would stop smoking, because those things are going to kill him, if the drinking and driving doesn't do it first, but it's a great ride in the meantime. Bowen creates a seductive mix of humor, mystery, suspense, and adrenaline that keeps me reading every time, and this one does not fail. 

In general I'm no fan of the supernatural, but again, the story is compelling and the mysticism of the mysterious Benetsee fits the setting and the culture. The voices heard in the sweat lodge start it all off, and a certain sensitivity to the historical ghosts help Du Pre find his way, but there is also a very real and modern murder to be solved through the exercise of the little grey cells. The threads that lead us to the killer are a little thin in my opinion, but with care I was able to track them back--so that is probably about right. I'm still not sure there wasn't at least one leap of faith required, but as that is followed up by some evidence and a confession, it does work.

This is a good and much-awaited addition to the Du Pre canon, though I wouldn't have minded a little more fiddle music beyond the one key song that provides the clue to the 1910 massacre. I do hope he's not losing his love of music. The author continues to weave the land and the culture into the heart of the story in a way that makes both come alive.

Not for the easily offended, but for those who can handle some cussing and some hearty condemnation of values you may hold dear, the story is compelling and the characters engaging. I don't consider it the strongest of Bowen's mysteries, but it is a pleasure to have Du Pre back. If you like mysteries that have a strong and essential setting, read this series.

Full Disclosure: I was given an electronic ARC of Bitter Creek by the publisher, but received nothing further 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."