Monday, March 30, 2015

Middle Grade Review: I Lived on Butterfly Hill

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Title: I Lived on Butterfly Hill 
Author:  Marjorie Agosin. Translated from the Spanish by E. M. O'Connor (as far as I can determine, the English edition is the only edition, and the book has not been published in Spanish).
Publisher: Aetheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014. 454 pages.
Source: Library

Summary:
Eleven-year-old Celeste Marconi has a great life in Valparaiso, Chile. She loves words, school, her family and friends, and everything about her life on Butterfly Hill. But when the country is taken over by Pinochet and his violent dictatorial regime, life begins to unravel. Before it is done unraveling, she is separated from her family and living in Maine, in the United States. Celeste must learn to cope with a very different climate, culture and language before she can put her life together again, even as her country must put itself back together again.
Review:
This is a beautiful book. The author is first and foremost a poet, and it shows (major kudos to the translator, as well, who has made the language work beautifully. That is no small feat in a work that is so concerned with words and language). I can really see the city of Valparaiso in the first part of the book, and each character is well painted in words, not so much their appearance, as their natures.

 The story is very moving as well. Celeste is just at the point of waking up to the privileged life she leads, and is feeling the need to think and write about it, in contrast to the lives of the poor around her. When Pinochet takes over the country in a very right-wing coup, it becomes "subversive" to even talk about equality and helping the poor. She struggles with her awakening to the world around her just as that world gets ugly.

When Celeste is sent to Maine, again we see it as especially hard for a child who is in love with words and language--though that love serves her well as she learns English. The time there is passed over rather quickly. I had assumed, reading the blurb, that the book was really about her adjustment to life in the US. In fact, it is about her life in Chile--and learning the meaning of family, country, and caring. There is a gripping and suspenseful side to the story, as Celeste's parents must go into hiding, and she leaves her grandmother and Nana behind when she goes into exile, but in the end my feeling was that the story wasn't so much about that as about her inner growth. And, as mentioned, the meaning of love and family.

Recommendation:
This isn't a completely easy story. The nastiness of the Pinochet regime isn't graphic, but it's not glossed over, either. I would recommend this mostly for kids of about Celeste's age--from 11 up, as some of the ideas and imagery might be a bit strong for younger children. There is just a hint of romance, more a whiff of Celeste's awakening to the idea that boys might be something other than pals.

Full Disclosure: I checked I Lived on Butterfly Hill 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."


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Friday Fiction: 100 words about Gorg Trollheim

This week, instead of a theme, the Wendig Challenge was to write a story in 100 words. I thought about writing my typical 1000-word flash as well, but frankly I could use the break. So here...in 100 words (including the title), where Gorg started.


The Origin of Gorg


There was nothing more to be done for them. Gorg turned his back on the stone lumps that once were his kin, and walked heavily (for a living-stone troll can only walk heavily) from the valley that was his home. Somewhere out there was a wizard who must pay. And somewhere beyond that wizard was the man who had bought him. Two thoughts were enough for a troll mind, enough to set Gorg Trollheim on a quest that must end in the destruction of Duke Bale the Artichoke-Hearted—or in the conversion of Gorg to granite.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Badands National Park, South Dakota

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mystery Review: Dead and Berried

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Title: Dead and Berried (Gray Whale Inn #2)
Author:  Karen MacInerney
Publisher: Midnight Ink, 2007, 312 pages
Source: Library

Summary: 
Natalie Barnes is worried enough about making it through the winter with her new B&B on Cranberry Island, without threatening developers, annoying guests (including her ex-fiance), and issues with her best friend. Murder on top of that is enough to make her think about going back to Texas. Fortunately, Natalie thrives on mystery, and she's hot on the trail of the killer, who may be hot on her trail as well.

Review:
I'll be honest: I nearly quit this one. Soon after the first murder, we were handed once again the idiotic and heavy-handed cop who tried to blame Natalie for murder in the first book of the series. Then her former fiance shows up and she acts like a teen-aged ditz for a few chapters. It was enough to aggravate me, but I did kind of want to know who did it, so eventually I picked it up again and finished. I have to say the book finished much better than it began. The mystery is solved, and there's a bit of excitement.


That said, I'm not sure that I'm wholly satisfied about the mystery, and there are some connections I find rather tenuous. The book is pretty well-written, and I like the setting, but...this is a series I'm not apt to continue. The gratuitous appearance of a ghost is something of a deal-breaker for me, as I really dislike that kind of thing.

Recommendation:
I think there are better mystery series out there, but if you enjoy the setting (Maine coast) and are not put off by either idiot cops or women who remain attracted to total jerks who are bad news, this is worth checking out. If you liked the first book in the series, stick it out to the end of this one, because things do seem to be looking up.

Full Disclosure: I checked Dead and Berried 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, March 23, 2015

Blogging from A to Z Theme Reveal Blogfest!

http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2015/02/the-great-and-powerful-to-z-theme.html

Oops! Messed up the time for the auto-post! No wonder no one has commented :D  Well, better late than never, so ....


It's here at last...the great A to Z Challenge theme reveal! Way back in February I posted that I was trying to work out a brilliant theme. I'm here to report that brilliant probably eluded me, as usual, but I do have a theme. I will be blogging all of April on...Mountains and Valleys. Mostly literal, maybe some figurative. I will be mixing up my usually melange of reviews, photos, and fiction, though I believe I will try to keep the fiction on Friday as usual. But don't be surprised by any type of post on any day! And it was originally just going to be mountains, but I got to thinking (uh-oh!) and decided I wanted a little more flexibility.

I'm also going to be mentioning my own work more. As fellow blogger Jemima Pett has noted, and it's as true for my blog as for hers, it would be easy for visitors to leave my blog never knowing that I write, or what I write. So don't be surprised when one of the mountains I write about is Skunk Mountain, or when I talk about being able to see Mt. Baker from Pismawallops Island!

See you all on the hop!


BANNER [2015]


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: Thug's Passion

This week, Chuck Wendig challenged us to get the title of our story from a random cocktail generator. That's right, a web site that spits out names--and recipes--for all sorts of bizarre cocktails. I gave it a couple of spins, and picked up...


Thug’s Passion


It had started as part of his work. The Boss had brought in the plants and said to take care of them because they had—what had he said? Oh, yeah: “certain useful properties.” Clem didn’t know what the Boss meant. Nor did he know anything about plants, though an outside observer might have said that he shared his intellectual properties with them.

Clem thought and moved slowly, and didn’t usually deal in much that didn’t involve brute force. To everyone’s surprise, Clem took to the plants. He was in the little greenhouse every morning, watering and pruning. He’d even been heard talking to the plants, in the sort of voice ordinary people might use to talk to a kitten.

Clem didn’t talk to kittens that way. The rumor on the street was that Clem ate kittens for breakfast.

In those half-dozen pots in the min-greenhouse, for the first time in his life Clem found something to love. And love them he did, with a passion that made his fellows vaguely uneasy. When the Boss sent them out on a job, Clem seemed the same as always. He threatened the marks and shook down businesses with his usual mindless menace. But something was different.

“Tommy-gun” Matthews and Bill “The Strangler” Jones talked it over the night after their monthly shakedown of Murphy’s Market.

“There’s something different ‘bout Clem, Strangler,” Matthews insisted, while he cleaned a polished his guns.

“Nuthin wrong with the way he broke that guy's arm last night,” Jones said, with a shrug that rippled his massive shoulders like an afternoon on the San Andreas Fault. He sat on the weight bench, a dumbbell in each hand.

“It’s like his heart ain’t in his work no more,” said Matthews. That made his companion laugh, not a sound you’d want to hear on a dark night in a deserted alley, or anywhere else.

“Clem ain’t got no heart, Tommy-gun. What’n hell are you talking about? He ain’t got no heart nor no brain, but he does his job. What else would he do?”

At that moment, out in the little greenhouse, Clem was telling his plants a bed-time story. The six original pots had been joined by three new ones: a pair of little sundews, and a large and healthy-looking Venus fly trap. He’d found them at the Rainforest Restaurant when they shook it down two nights before, and had picked them up and taken them with him. No one there was going to stop him, not after he’d broken the owner’s arm.

Clem finished his story. “…So the thugs, they beat the snot outta them cops, and lived happily ever after.” He dropped a couple of ants into the sundews, and a fly into the gleaming cup of the Venus fly trap. “Bye-bye, bugs.” He watched the leaves close around the meal, smiling fondly. Then he patted the pots all around, and carefully rotated the Boss’s plants to be ready for the morning sun. Then he went off to dream happily of squishing small dogs and breaking kneecaps.
#
Tommy-gun Matthews was right. Clem might not have had a heart, but his work no longer held his limited attention. On a job, he was apt to be checking for new plants when he should have been flexing his muscles and looking dangerous. One night the Boss had to remind him three times that he was due to break a kneecap, and when the time came, Clem did the job without even looking. He was staring at a cactus the whole time.

The next night, everything fell apart.

“See,” Boss Hogan said, “We’ve been messing with the small stuff. But I’ve got us a job’ll set us up for good.”

“Oh yeah?” Tommy-gun Matthews was suspicious by nature. “What sorta bank we gonna knock over?”

“No bank, Tommy. It’s,” Hogan licked his lips, wanting this to go over just right, and not sure what his men would think. “It’s a hit.

That got everyone’s attention. Even Clem, who had been wondering if Venus needed a better sort of bug—maybe crickets instead of flies?—turned to look.

“Strangle, crush, or shoot, Boss?” asked the Strangler, flexing his biceps to raise the huge dumbbell from his knee to his shoulder.

 “A hit’ll bring trouble on us,” Matthews said. “Cops that ignore a bit of a protection racket will go after murder. At least,” he added, “murder of someone worth the kind of money we’d ask.”

“Nope,” the Boss said. “No trouble on us, because we aren’t going to do any of the usual things. No guns, no strong-arm stuff. The way we do it, no one will suspect us.”

Jones and Matthews looked at him, waiting.

“Poison,” Boss Hogan said. “What did you think those plants were for?” He turned to Clem. “Go fetch in a couple of those plants I gave you. One of the tall skinny ones and one with the big lacy leaves.”

Clem didn’t know what to make of it, but he did as he was told. Clem always did as he was told. While he was out, Boss Hogan explained.

“Replace the carrots in the mark’s salad with the water hemlock bulb, and it’s all over. Just in case, we have the death camas, which looks like onion. It goes in the soup. No one will even know, let alone suspect us.”

“How you gonna get it into the soup?” asked Strangler Jones.

“We—ah, here we are. I’ll just need the roots,” Hogan said. Before Clem could react, the Boss had ripped the camas lily from its soil and snapped off the stem.

Clem went berserk. Boss Hogan never knew what happened. Matthews and Jones fled without waiting to see.

Clem tossed aside Boss Hogan’s broken body, head flopping grotesquely atop a broken neck, and fell to his knees beside the corpse of the plant. He cradled the broken stems in his huge arms, weeping inconsolably.

###

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Photo Time: Anza Borrego State Park

We are getting close to spring break and a trip to the desert, for the first time in 4 years, so I thought I'd haul out and share some photos from Anza Borrego Desert State Park, east of San Diego, CA. We won't be going there this year--we need to go higher to find the flowers in this warm, dry spring, but it's a cool place. Well, "cool" in a warm, desertish way. These photos are from our most recent visit, in March of 2011, a decent wildflower year (the last one we've had, due to the on-going California drought).

First, just to get you oriented, here's Southern California. The park doesn't get a specific outline here, but it positions it (for those of you who wondered last week, look up north of I 40 near Needles and you'll see the general location of the Mojave National Preserve). Anza-Borrego is California's largest state park, at over 600,000 acres.

Now, I know that many of you think of desert, and this is what you think of: bare, hot, dry, and nothing grows there.
Font's Point at sunset.
But the desert is nothing if not surprising, and every canyon in Anza Borrego holds delights. One key to enjoying them is to start off early.

Starting off early up Borrego Palm Canyon, among the brittlebush.
Early morning is also about the only time you'll see wildlife (well, and sometimes at dusk). If you are very, very luck and keen-eyed, and up a canyon early enough, you may see Desert Bighorn sheep (the borregos of the name).
Hare in the early morning, near the Borrego Springs campground.

One of the delightful surprises is water in the desert. There is a year-round creek in Borrego Palm Canyon (I hope it still is. Three years of severe drought could have changed that).
Water lets all sorts of plants and animals thrive.

The signature feature of the area is, in my mind, the California Fan Palm oases. Left to themselves, the palms will grow their "skirts" of dead fronds all the way to the ground. Some idiots think it's cool to set them on fire, and sadly very few groves have escaped this vandalism. Some of have destroyed. I can only wish infestations of ticks, chiggers, and tse-tse flies on the idiots who did it.

A small grove well up the canyon. Some of the trees look burned; others were denuded and uprooted in a flash flood that came down the canyon in, I think, 2009.
Animals of all sorts like the creek environments. These are an invasive species that must be watched very closely!
Showering in a waterfall up Hellhole Canyon.
The desert--flat and rugged, dry and in bloom!

Ocatillo at the mouth of Hellhole Canyon. The trees and green mark the town of Borrego Springs.

Gratuitous flower photos:

Datura

Prickly pear in bloom. Note the pollinator.

Cholla blossom.

Ocatillo blossom. Ocatillo only grow leaves (and bloom) when they have enough water. The rest of the time, they look like sticks.

Have to look this one up.
Oases come in all shapes. After a long morning hiking up a canyon, in the hot afternoon, a town with laundry, a bit of grass and shade, and a laundromat are a pretty good bargain!
Christmas Tree Circle in Borrego Springs.
Not Death by Ice Cream, but more like "ice cream is my life!"

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Monday, March 16, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Zoe and Zak: The Ghost Leopard



Title: Zoe & Zak and the Ghost Leopard
Author: Lars Guignard, narrated by Bailey Carlson
Publisher: Fantastic Press, 2012, 328 pages (orig.). Audio book 2013 by Fantastic Press
Source: I was given a free review copy of the audio book in exchange for my honest review.

Summary:
Zoe thinks she's just going to spend a few days in a fancy hotel in India. But that was before she met Zak, and they got a bit sidetracked into adventure. Before long the children find themselves in the Himalayan mountains, and the adventure is getting scary--and weird. The book falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism as the children race to figure out the strange world they are now in and save the mysterious ghost leopard.

Review:
The Audio: Still working on my format for audio reviews, but I thought that this one particularly needed some comments on the audio. First, I think that Ms. Carlson did a great job voicing the characters and making the story come to life. I was, however, aware of and occasionally irritated by some small glitches in the production values--what sounded to me like points where the track was edited and the edits were not seamless. It is just tiny little hitches, but they often made my listening stumble, as it were. It would be just a quick sense that I'd missed something, or that the transition from one sentence to the next was too fast--really a trivial thing, but it did begin to bother me a bit.

The Story:
Wow, what an adventure! It is well-paced, exciting, and kept me listening. I think that the author developed the characters (at least the main characters) very well. Zoe and Zak have easily distinguished voices and characters. Zoe seems much older than Zak, but that's probably right--they are both 12, but he is a boy and decidedly ADHD.

As stated above, the story might best be classified as magical realism--it is set in a real-world setting, and then things get, well, magical. Nobody is transported to a new land, they just find that India is a place where the impossible might be happening. I don't know enough about Indian mythology to know how much of what the author presents is accurate, but it feels right.

I was a  little put off by the way the children's parents left them in the big hotel with just a rent-a-nanny they had just met. I'm not at all a protective parent, but I would not do that with a pair of 12-year-olds. I didn't think it was necessary, either--they could have gotten into the same situation even if their parents were at the hotel, though it would have forced the kids to tell the adults about their adventure. Once that dubious plot device was accepted, however, the story worked very well, and by the end I'd nearly forgotten about it.

Recommendation:
This seems suitable for readers from maybe 8 or 9 up. There is nothing too frightening in it, and not a whisper of sex.  The violence is not graphic. I enjoyed the story a great deal, and I think that readers of most ages would do so.



About The Author: Lars Guignard

Lars Guignard
Lars Guignard
Prior to writing novels, Lars Guignard wrote for film and television. As a teenager he attended boarding school in the Indian Himalayas and his experiences there provided the inspiration for the Zoe and Zak series which now include: Zoe & Zak and the Ghost Leopard, Zoe & Zak and the Yogi’s Curse, and Zoe & Zak and the Tiger Temple. He lives in the Pacific Northwest where he dodges bears and cougars while hiking & skiing the magnificent Coast Mountain Range.
For news about new releases, please join his email list here: http://www.larsguignard.com/contact/


Full Disclosure: I received an audio copy of Zoe & Zak and the Snow Leopard as part of a motherdaughterbookreviews.com review blitz, in exchange for my honest, not favorable, 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, March 12, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: The River Gods

At last, we are back to the Wendig Challenge! This week, we were given a list of ten random (and I do mean random--clearly computer-generated and not all of them coherent!) sentences and were asked to use at least one in our story. I found two that went together, in my mind, at least, and came up with a mere 675 words to present...


The River Gods


Nothing has been right here since the river stole the gods.

I must explain. Our village sat on the banks of a great river. I will not say which river, or even upon what continent, because we don’t need treasure-seekers swarming our lands, hunting for the gods. The gods must be found, it is true, but it must be we who find them, not someone who will carry them still farther from us.

The problem with idyllic villages on the banks of great rivers is that great rivers do not keep to their courses. Changes in the river channel had happened many times, to be sure, and each time we picked up and moved farther back into the jungle. Or forest. Or prairie. I’m not giving up clues that easily. We thought nothing of it. It was the natural course of things, including the course of the river. Sometimes it moved away from us, and we shifted our lives the other direction, toward the new riverbed.

Only, as it turned out, it wasn’t only the natural course of things that drove the river. We greatly underestimated the power of the river spirits, and their jealousy. We learned our mistake in the spring floods of that year, when the river leapt from its banks to steal our gods, and all else that we had and treasured. Most of us escaped with our lives, but not all. The river has no pity.

You wonder why, when I have told you that the river often crept from its banks and forced us to retreat, I say that this was different. This was no creeping nudge. This was a rumbling, rushing assault. And our river is too great for that. It can absorb all the waters of spring, and rise but slowly. Mountain streams with narrow banks I have heard may double their flow in spring and leap from their beds without warning, but our river slowly spreads, silently and inexorably. But this time, though inexorable, it came neither slowly nor silently. Nor had we known any storms that might raise the level.

In a single rush, the river crossed a wide field, grasping our temple and our gods, and taking most of the village with it in its violent sweep.

And when it had gone, a single green gemstone lay in the mud where our temple had been, missed or rejected by the river, we knew not which.

We rebuilt. Those who live and die by great rivers rebuild a lot. We built a new temple, and sadly laid our lone gem inside. But a single glittering gem is not enough to make a building into a temple. Our gods are gone, and with them our luck, if you will have it so. The blessings of our gods. Those things which make us thrive and prosper. Call it as you will, it was gone.

There is only one thing left for us to do. We must recover the gods the river stole, and then…then we must move far from the jealous river, for it will never forgive us and will never again bless us with the gentle floods.

We have sifted the mud that is all that remains of our village. The gods are not there. And I find myself wondering: if our gods can so easily leave us, are they ours? Do they care for us as we have long believed they do, as we have cared for them?  I gaze at the long expanse of mud that trails downstream, and I wonder how far those stone deities could be carried even by the raging river-monster that carried away the temple.

Maybe our gods left us of choice.

Maybe they are not our gods.

Maybe they are not gods at all.

When my thoughts reach this point, I take up my burden, the small bundle that is all that remains of my goods, and I begin to walk.

If a glittering gem is not enough, neither will be the gods that the river stole.
###
 
 
 
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Writer's Update

It's been a bit of a slow winter. I struggled through the first revisions of Death By Trombone, the second of the Pismawallops PTA mysteries. After about three months longer than I intended, it finally yielded to my efforts. By that time I was no longer sure if I had a book at all. So I sent it out last month to a crew of beta readers. I'm happy to say that word has come back from at least two that the story does hold together, the mystery works, and they were not hopelessly confused by things that I failed to explain. With that encouragement, I sent the book out last week to the editor who did so much to make Death By Ice Cream into a real book, and am awaiting her feedback, along with that of other beta readers, including my long-time writing support, Lisa Frieden.

Sending the book off left me a bit at loose ends. Aside from doing the taxes, and my first ever run at the FAFSA (the "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" which pretty much all US college students--or rather, their parents--need to complete to have any hope of any kind of aid paying for school), I didn't get much done beyond this blog. I manged a bit of work on a free-lance project, and then this story, which ran out of control. First it grew to two parts, with an ending that didn't satisfy me. So I backed up, ran at it again, and ended up with over 11,000 words, now awaiting an edit to see if I have something.

Finally, today I got down to the project I've been nibbling around the edges of: the 3rd Ninja Librarian book (which might be The Problem of Peggy, or might be Further Tales from Skunk Corners). I hauled out everything I've written so far, rewrote the first chapter where I had experimented with writing in the voice of the Librarian himself (kind of fun but not sustainable), and put all the bits together in their probably order, and created a rough outline. Then I looked at what I had, and found that it was just short of 16,000 words. That's a third of the book. I was dumbstruck, to put it mildly. I thought I'd barely made a start.

Just seeing the reality of what I'd produced was the biggest boost I could have given myself. I worked hard for a few hours, and had far more than those few hours' work to show for it. Maybe I've invented a new cure for writer's block: stealth writing. Just put down a bit here and there, in different notebooks and files. You don't have to worry about that block, because it's not really writing, you know. You're just filling time. Getting some ideas down. Maybe having a bit of fun.

Then when you really need it, put it together and see what you have. More than I expected, that's for sure!

Oh, and for a final boost, I got an email from our local Project Read (adult literacy) leader, saying they'd like to use Death By Ice Cream for their book club read. So I ended the day a great deal better than I began it (still adjusting to that blasted time change!).

What great discoveries have you made this week? Is your work thriving or in need of a shot in the arm?

###

Dang, I'm having trouble thinking of a good gratuitous photo for this one. Maybe...


This, to celebrate the first two Ninja Librarian books.

And this, to remind me that my output really has been respectable since I published The Ninja Librarian in 2012.

And, finally, this. Because Death By Ice Cream can happen in the coolest places. Like the Kelso Depot.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mystery Monday: The Green Mill Murder

382839


Title: The Green Mill Murder
Author: Kerry Greenwood
Publisher: Poison Pen Press, 2007. Originally published 1993 in Australia. 173 pages.
Source: Library

Summary:
Phryne Fisher, Melbourne belle and detective, is dancing at the Green Mill when a fellow-dancer drops dead pretty much under her feet. Phryne is bound to investigate, especially when her dance partner disappears into the night to avoid talking to the police. But tracking down Charlie Freeman leads her into new perils and trouble in the Snowy Mountains, and everything seems to come back to the War (that would be the Great War, i.e., WWI, as the book is set in the 1920s).

Review:
Miss Fisher is, as always, a delight. And she sorts the Freeman family out nicely, but I felt a little cheated on the murder. In this case, Phryne decides abruptly--just when she has figured out who did it, and why--that she really doesn't care, and leaves it to Inspector Jack Robinson to figure out on his own. Instead, she flies her little Moth Rigel off into the Snowy Mountains to find Charlie's older brother and straighten out that family. I expected to return to Melbourne and sort out the murder, but alas, we did not. I was able to figure out who did it, how, and why, for the most part, but I still didn't like Phryne running out on the case.

Recommendation:
This isn't the best of the Miss Fisher mysteries, due to the flaws in how it is worked out, but it's still a grand story. I'm reading the series in order, and I wouldn't skip it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Flash Fiction Friday: The Third Birch

Hopefully, next week I'll be back to struggling with the Wendig challenges, as this is the final week of the round-robin competition he set up for February. In the meantime, I went on-line and found a random title for this week's story.  I present, in 950 words...

The Third Birch

The Moss children played in the birch grove almost every day. The three oldest liked to climb the trees, or play tag or hide-and-seek among the smooth white trunks. Amelia, the youngest, thought of the grove as more than a place to play, though no one knew that, because no one paid her much attention most days. She was just “the baby,” and considered by her older siblings to be too young to keep up in their games, even if she could have run. They showered her with love and attention when they thought of it, and forgot about her when they ran off to play their games.

So Amelia sat under the third birch to the left of the path, the one none of them could climb because it had no branches for a long way up. Some catastrophe had stripped it long ago. John tried to shin up it sometimes, but even he couldn’t do it. Sarah and Timmy didn’t even try, because if John couldn’t climb something, there wasn’t any point in them attempting it. So they left the third birch to Amelia, and she left them to their games.

Amelia was something of an after-thought, three years younger than Timmy. The other three had come along one right after the other, only 16 or 18 months between. So naturally they considered her the baby, and alternately cossetted and ignored her, as older siblings do, the more so because she couldn’t run and climb as they did.

Amelia, at age 6, still understood many things the older kids had forgotten. She understood the sound the breeze made in the top of her tree, and she understood what the rabbits were saying when they came and wiggled their noses at her. They never came to the other children, because they were never still. Rabbits liked children who sat still, and Amelia, who had a twisted foot that kept her from running well, sat still far more often than any of the other children.

One spring afternoon she sat with her back to the tree, admiring the grove, and feeling loved and comforted by her smooth-barked friends. He brothers and sister were playing tag, and she watched with a little smile. Some days Amelia hated not being able to run as fast or walk as far as the others. Some days she hated being left out. But on this day, she didn’t mind. She was thinking.

Other children had trouble keeping secrets. They chattered constantly, so words came out without their willing it. Amelia, in learning to keep still while the others ran about, had also learned to keep quiet. She had no end of secrets, secrets no one else might think were valuable, but which she knew to be the secret of joy.

One of Amelia’s secrets was a mother fox and her kits. They denned under the fence post a yard or two from her tree, and she sat there so often, and so quietly, that the foxes had stopped worrying about her. When the others ran off to the far end of the birch grove, the mama fox came out, and today, three fuzzy kits came out after her, brand new and wobbly on their little legs. They didn’t walk even as well as Amelia did. They wobbled about and played in the sun on the soft, new grass, until a shadow overhead warned of a hawk, and then the mama fox shooed the kits back into the den, following them down the hole in the ground. And Amelia sat and hugged her secret to herself and smiled.

She was still smiling when the others came back.

“What are you so happy about?” Sarah asked. Sarah never did believe that Amelia could actually be happy. Sarah was so full of energy that sitting still wasn’t even a possibility. How could Amelia be happy when she couldn’t run about?

“Nothing,” Amelia lied. “It’s a nice day. Who won the game?” She could always distract them by asking about their games. The question started Timmy and John to arguing. Each thought he had won, but Sarah finally told them she had. Amelia kept smiling, because she knew that she had won.

Another day, Amelia sat under her birch while a gentle rain fell. The others had gone running for the house when the rain started,
and forgotten her. She could have gotten up and walked home, and she knew she should have. But the rain wasn’t very wet, and she liked the way it shone on the trees. It turned the white of their trunks whiter, and made the black scars blacker, and that was so beautiful it almost hurt. That was another secret.

But secrets ended on the last day of school. The others ran ahead to change clothes and then go play in the birch grove. Amelia, who had now finished her first year of school and knew a great deal more than she had a year before, including that her school clothes were now her play clothes, went straight to the birch grove and her tree.

The farmer who owned the grove was there, with his three grown sons. And the trees either side of the path lay dying on the ground. The farmer had decided the path needed to be widened so he could take a wagon through, but Amelia didn’t know that. She knew only that her best friend was dead, and she flung herself on its smooth, white body, weeping. The farmer couldn’t dislodge her, nor could his sons, and they stood about scratching their heads and wondering what to do next.

When her brothers and sisters came, Amelia lay on the slaughtered birch, and neither moved nor spoke.


©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Two Middle Grade Classics

 A little late with this this morning!

Today I'm reviewing two of Madeleine L'Engle's books, the first two about Vickie Austin. First published in 1960 and 1963, they introduce a character and a family who continued to appear in books up to L'Engle's death. I'm reviewing both, not because they don't stand alone, but because most of what I have to say applies to both.

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Title: Meet the Austins and The Moon By Night
Author: Madeleine L'Engle 
Publisher: originally published by Vanguard, 1960 (Meet the Austins) and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1963 (The Moon by Night). About 240 pages each. My paperbacks were published by Bantam and Dell, respectively.
Source: My bookshelf.

The Story:
In Meet the Austins, we do just that. We meet narrator Vickie Austin, age 12, and her family: her home-maker mom, doctor Dad, and siblings. John at 15 is the oldest and steadiest. Suzy is 9, and a pretty, bouncy blonde with the ambition and brains to become a doctor. Rob is 4. In spite of the catastrophe with which the book opens--a friend of the family has been killed, and his daughter Maggie will be coming to live with them for a time--the book really does just feel like an introduction. Nothing much really happens. Vickie establishes herself as a kid on the cusp of adolescence and in position to have a hard time with it.

The Moon By Night is a great deal more eventful, but again, most of the story feels like it is there to allow Vickie to struggle with growing up. Two years have passed, and everything is changing again. Not only is Maggie leaving the family to live with her legal guardian, but the whole family is going to uproot from their little New England Village and move to New York for a year. John is going off to college. And to help the family make the transition, they do a cross-country camping trip.

My Review:
Okay, looking at my summaries, you'd think I don't like these books, but I do. However, I also think they aren't as good as some of L'Engle's other work, in part just because they don't have that extra sense of importance. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and the others have to save her father from a fate worse than death, and save the world along the way. These are very much just stories about coming of age, without any more drama than the teen years provide all on their own.

I think that Meet the Austins is one of the author's weakest books. It feels very episodic, and lacks a central cohesion. It's still a fun read, but doesn't compel. The Moon By Night feels a little more purposeful. Less happens to Vickie, and more happens because she acts. It is still a story without big issues and significance, but under the very simple story line a lot of major life issues come up. We meet Zachary Gray, a character L'Engle brought into a number of books, crossing over between the Austin Family books and the Murray family from Wrinkle. Zach is a great means of getting at some issues about life, death, and choices, and maybe even a few the author didn't realize.

I've been sensitized by recent articles about abusive relationships and controlling boyfriends, and boy, does Zach set off the alarm bells! He is definitely trying to control Vickie, as well as manipulating her emotionally, hurting her (emotionally) and then apologizing so that she feels sorry for him and always forgives...I wonder if L'Engle realized what an abuser she was creating? Understanding him this way also helps me understand why this super gorgeous guy picks on younger girls who are not generally recognized as pretty, a plot point that is otherwise unbelievable. I'm happy to say that, in the end, Vickie stands up to him, which also makes me think that L'Engle knew exactly what kind of person she had created.

For books that were written about the time I was born, these don't feel all that dated. A few attitudes about gender roles and dress (surprisingly few!), and a lack of seatbelts were the most obvious relics of another age. The tour of campgrounds across America amused me (though it also was a bit dated, as things have changed in the Parks, and not all for the better), as did L'Engle's reaction to the Southwest. Obviously, that denizen of the east coast forests wasn't as taken by the desert as I am! I can't hold that against her, though I would love to have the opportunity to show her just how not-dead those lands are.

Recommendation:
These are not the author's best work, but for those who like to have "the whole story" they fill it in with fast, easy reads that are well-written and definitely not a waste of time. I think that Vickie's issues might make for some possible openings for conversations with daughters on the cusp of puberty.

Full Disclosure: I have owned copies of both books for years, 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." 

http://motherdaughterbookreviews.com/kid-lit-blog-hop-55-goodreads-linky-party/

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Photo Monday: East Mojave National Preserve

 Since my story from the last two weeks (here and here) landed in the East Mojave among the Joshua Trees, I was inspired to do a post on that area, one I love and hope to be visiting in a few weeks.

The national parks get all the press--who hasn't heard of Death Valley? and thanks to U2 even Joshua Tree is vaguely familiar to most people. But "East Mojave National Preserve" lacks both a sexy name and a high-profile iconic element. That's okay. I like it uncrowded. But still--it's worth a closer look. At 1.6 million acres, it sits out in the middle of nowhere in SE California, between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40. Remember the movie "Baghdad Cafe"? It was more or less set, and filmed, in Amboy, just on the south side of the park.

The variety of landscapes in the Preserve is amazing--though all is desert, it ranges from the Kelso Dunes (at about 2200', among the lowest parts of the park) to the Midhills Campground at 5500' in the Providence Mountains, to the Joshua Tree forest on the Cima Dome (around 5000'). Then there are the mountains--rough, rugged, and tall enough to have forests and water in the high reaches, if you can get there. We've been all over (except the mountains--we lack 4WD, and we go in the spring, when it's cold enough at 5000 feet). Here are some of my highlights.

First the map. The kids in the story the last two weeks walked from somewhere up on the Cima Dome down to where the "town" of Cima is now.

The Kelso Dunes are the #1 attraction, and over the years we have watched them get discovered. So far, park management has kept them from getting trashed.  In 2008, we arrived at the right time for the most amazing bloom of the desert primrose, a flower that looks far too delicate for the environment. Each blossom lasts just a night, and by the end of the next day is a little pink rag. We returned the following year, but there were few or no flowers--the desert only blooms when the rains come just right.
Early morning at the dunes--the best time to climb them is before sunrise. We were slowed by the flowers!
The next year, the flowers have dried and formed a "birdcage".
Providence Mountains from the informal camp area at the base of the dunes.

Looking north toward the Kelso Mountains from the top of the dunes.
Not far from the dunes you find the historic Kelso Depot. The trains still go through, but don't stop, and the building is now the Visitor's Center and houses some great historical displays as well as an art gallery. The diner has been restored to 1930s style, and when we last visited (2009) was serving burgers and shakes again. My husband remembers stopping there as a kid, when you drove in over 50 miles of dirt road, and a shake or ice cream cone was the best thing in the world!
Kelso Depot, now the Visitor's Center
NE along Kelbaker Road you find an unassuming hole in the ground. It's surrounded by cinder cones and is, in fact a lava tube--a cave formed when hot lava flowed on out from under a hardened crust.

Down inside, the floor is dusty, and the roof full of holes, making this less cool and pleasant than some lava tubes I've known, but also making for great photos!

Returning to the mother ship.


Over in the Providence Mountains, the Hole in the Rock Trail is otherworldly as well, for those willing to do a little scrambling, or at least climb down a series of rings set in the rocks.


Entering the Hole in the Rock from below, after hiking down from Midhills Campground.



Meanwhile, surrounded by the National Preserve, Mitchell Caverns State Park offers an easy cave walk in a limestone cave, with great formations.
Inside Mitchell Caverns, accessible only on ranger-led tours.
And, of course, I can't leave without a shot of the Joshua Trees.
The Joshua tree grows only in the Mojave Desert, and only between about 1300 and 5900' elevation (it's very temperature dependent, so the outlier elevations are limited). It is a type of yucca, and not a tree at all.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015