Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Adult Review: Wind Catcher

Wind Catcher - Cover 

Title: Wind Catcher
Author: Jeff Altabee & Erynn Altabee
Publisher: Evolved Publishing, 2015, 324 pages
Source: Electronic review copy as part of book review blitz

Publisher's Summary:

Juliet Wildfire Stone hears voices and sees visions, but she can’t make out what they mean. Her eccentric grandfather tells her stories about the Great Wind Spirit and Coyote, but he might as well be speaking another language. None of it makes any sense.

When she stumbles upon a series of murders, she can’t help but worry her grandfather might be involved. To discover the truth, Juliet must choose between her new life at an elite private school and her Native American heritage. Once she uncovers an ancient secret society formed over two hundred years ago to keep her safe, she starts to wonder whether there’s some truth to those old stories her grandfather has been telling her.

All she wants is to be an average sixteen-year-old girl, but she has never been average-could never be average. Betrayed by those she loves, she must decide whether to run or risk everything by fulfilling her destiny as the Chosen.

 Review:
 First off, though I picked this up thinking it was middle grade, in my opinion it is definitely Young Adult and a bit out of the usual range of my reviews. I give it that rating due to the age of the main characters, the level of violence, and a certain amount of focus on relationships. Secondly, I'll say right here that it wasn't really my kind of story, being both YA and sort of mystical, tapping into an unspecified Native American mythos. That said, it was a good book. The plot is fairly intricate, but doesn't drop threads, and the action is intense.

The book did take just a little longer to get to the point that is ideal. Those opening chapters felt particularly YA to me, focused as they were on Juliet's struggle to fit in at school. And in the end, I have to say that for the most part we don't need that set-up. 

I also felt a certain frustration with Juliet's refusal to go to the adults in her life--particularly her grandfather--and just say what's happening and ask the crucial questions. To be sure, I think she's right--she wouldn't have gotten a straight answer out of him. But it might have made some things go more smoothly. Of course, that's probably fairly realistic 16-year-old stuff.

In the end, though I was a bit taken aback by the direction the story went, I think it was well done. The action is a little derivative in some ways (the crystal sword reminded me a bit too much of a light saber), but I appreciate Juliet as a strong female lead who is both fully human and something more.

Recommendation:
For fans of YA fantasy/science fiction, who are not put off by using Native American themes in unique ways. I'd say for ages 13 and up.

Full Disclosure: I was given an electronic review copy, but received nothing further from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest, not necessarily positive, 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."

 About the Authors: Jeff Altabef & Erynn Altabef


Jeffrey and Erynn AltabefWind Catcher is a joint project between the father/daughter team of Jeff Altabef and Erynn Altabef. Jeff is an award-winning author with two published thrillers. He has a column on The Examiner focused on writing, and volunteers at the local community college. Erynn is an avid reader, dancer, and community activist who has just earned her Girl Scout Gold Award. When she’s not in high school, she loves reading performing in school musicals, baking, and watching movies with her friends. 

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Photos: Death Valley #3

I'm out hiking, getting more photos to share! But here is a collection of scenes from our third day of Death Valley adventures--we rented a jeep and drove Titus Canyon, then the long long road to the Racetrack--the only place known where rocks move on their own.

For those interested in how-to, the Jeep rental is at Furnace Creek (by the lodge), and it costs through the nose--nearly $300 per day, plus gas. On the other hand, the cost of, say, destroying multiple tires on your own car and being stuck in the desert can be rather higher--like your life. So if you want to drive some of the gnarlier roads, I do recommend gnarlier tires than are on, say, a Prius. The jeeps seat 4 comfortably and a 5th person if the backseat people are tough.

Titus Canyon is a one-way drive from the hills east of the Valley down to the valley floor north of Furnace Creek. Along the way, we stopped at the ghost town of Leadfield, which lasted just one year.
The jeep.

The road climbs over Red Pass (wonder why that name? :D ) before dropping into Titus Canyon.
Just over Red Pass we found some of the best flowers we saw all trip. The very red soil set them off nicely.

Primrose

In Leadfield, a few building are left to explore. I believe this large shed was the "restaurant." Nice view, anyway.

Mines are what it's all about. You don't want to enter any old mines, but I shot this with a flash looking into the mine. The entrance was lined with corrugated steel, which made the interesting blue reflections.

Thanks to my sharp-eyed sons, we got a real treat--a chuckawalla, sunning itself on a rock. Chuckawallas are large lizards whose main protection from predators is to jam themselves into a crack in the rocks and inflate themselves until they are wedged too tightly to be pulled out. This guy chose to pose nicely for us.
Due to habitat loss and, I believe, a proliferation of crows and ravens come for the garbage people leave, chuckawallas are getting a bit rare.

En route to the Racetrack, one passes a famous spot--Teakettle Junction. I think it started with a single abandoned tea kettle, but now people bring them to leave, decorate them, and even ask you to email photos of yourself with their kettle!
Second Son contemplates the selection of water-heating devices.
Finally reached the Racetrack late in the afternoon. The perfectly flat playa is dry most of the time, but when there is water, it settles out the silt, making the fine mud which dries and cracks into geometrical patterns.


Finally, the moving rocks! If you want to know how and why, read this article.
It came a long way.

We did miss most of the flowers (save that section of Titus Canyon), but the cactus bloom later, so we found some beautiful beavertail cacti in bloom on the Racetrack road.

Our trip took all day--from about 9 a.m. to after 7 p.m., and used a full tank of gas. It was expensive, but totally worth it!
###
Copyright Rebecca M. Douglass 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015

Mystery Monday: Statute of Limitations


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Title: Statute of Limitations (Posadas County #4)
Author: Steven F. Havill; narrated by Stephanie Brush
Publisher: Original text, St. Martin's Press, 2006. Audiobook, Books in Motion, 2006
Source: Library (digital)

Summary:
It's Christmas in Posadas, New Mexico, and all hell is breaking loose. The former town police chief suffers a heart attack Christmas Eve under dubious circumstances, the Sheriff has a pulmonary embolism Christmas morning, and in the afternoon there's a murder and then an attack on retired undersheriff Bill Gastner. Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman has her hands more than full, sorting out all the threads, keeping up with the medical reports, and occasionally racing home to deal with her two young sons.

Review:
As usual, Havill has created a tight, fast-paced police procedural (with some elements of the cozy. It's not particularly light, but is fairly character-driven with a great village setting, and no excessive grimness). My main criticism of the plot is that the subplot surrounding Estelle's home life and issues with her oldest son gets pretty much dropped in the end. I'm sure it turns up in the next book, but the thread ends up feeling like an unnecessary distraction. Aside from that relatively minor complaint, the plot is tight and holds together very well.

The audio-book narrator, on the other hand, drove me to distraction. By the 10th time she pronounced hijo as "hee-oh," I was ready to scream, if not to do actual violence. If I'd been able to get my hands on the print version right then, I would have switched, because the consistent mangling of Spanish words in a book laced with them really got old fast. Aside from that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with her narration (though I didn't like her voicing of Gastner), but it certainly wasn't one of those that struck me as perfect, either. I would have to say that I don't recommend the audio version.

Recommendation:
This is a great series (Posadas County mysteries continue the Undersheriff Bill Gastner mysteries), and I recommend reading them in order, starting clear back with Bill Gastner's first appearance in Heartshot. They have a certain level of tension and violence, but nothing excessive, and always strictly as needed for the story. I do not recommend the audio book.

Full Disclosure: I checked Statute of Limitations 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, June 18, 2015

Friday Flash: Dead in the Water

This week, Chuck challenged us to start a story with a dead body. That was all. I figured that was right up my alley, so here it is. I've been a bit pressed for time, so this is a hasty job.

Not intended for children.

Dead in the Water

The body washed gently against the shore, bumping up against the rocks and washing away, only to return with the next wave. The the blonde hair floated about the head like a halo. Marsha Harrigan, police detective, watched the corpse for a minute, and reflected that her peaceful lakeside vacation had just come to a crashing end. With great reluctance she pulled out her cell phone, looked up the number of the local police, and dialed.

She would have liked to just report the body and let the police take over, and go on vacationing. Except that Lilacs-on-Lakeshore was in her jurisdiction, and she knew the police chief. Alex Tormentino knew his limits, and he was very good at handling petty thievery, speeding, and excessively noisy parties. He had never, to her knowledge, handled a murder and he would want an expert at his side. Marsha was an expert, and she was on the spot. The boss would order her to cut short her vacation and take the case.

It worked about that way. Tormentino was on the spot within 15 minutes, studied the floating corpse for a few seconds, and turned to Marsha, who already had her orders.

“What now?”

“Pull her out, dry her off, and try for an ID.”

He gave the appropriate orders to his subordinates, then said, “Oh, I know who she is.” His tone said that there was a tale to be told. Marsha listened.

“Her name is Annalynda Smith.” Marsha raised an eyebrow, and Tormentino shrugged. “I know. Sounds like a fake. Probably was. She runs—ran—the local beauty salon.” His eyes drifted toward the dripping body that had been pulled from the lake.

“For how long?” Marsha distracted him. Tormentino was looking pale. She would have to examine the body, but there was no reason for the poor police chief to make himself sick.

“Maybe six months. I don’t know where she came from.”

“Do you know who she aggravated?”

Tormentino heaved a sigh. “Everyone.”

“Everyone?”

“The women complained that she flirted with all the men. The men complained that she flirted but didn’t mean anything by it. And the neighbors hated the smells from the salon she ran in her house.”

Marsha sent Tormentino off to see who had seen Ms. Smith last, and when, while she studied the body. The blonde wore an outfit that explained the complaints of men and women alike, and there were suspicious marks on her neck.

“Looks like she aggravated one person too many,” Marsha muttered to herself. Then, to the waiting deputies and EMT crew, “Take her down to the City and let the medical examiner get started.” No sense in being careless. You never knew what might be discovered with a proper autopsy. Meanwhile, she would do a close inspection of the shore to see what else might have washed up.
#
“Ah, Detective Harrigan. The Chief is waiting for you.”

Marsha walked into the Chief’s office and stopped. A collection of townspeople sat in folding chairs looking at her. “What’s this?”

“These,” Tormentino said sadly, “Are some of the people who had cause to wish Ms. Smith ill.”

“Look at us!” A middle-aged brunette with a bad haircut blurted, waving a hand at several similar women. “We all got our hair done yesterday and look what she did to us! I’m glad someone stabbed her! She deserved it!”

Marsha made a silent note that either the woman was misinformed or was being excessively clever, and looked at another citizen.

“Mr. Collins says she flirted with him right in front of his wife, and he had to sleep on the couch for a week. That gave him such a stiff neck he hasn’t been able to work.” Tormentino nodded at another man. “He lives next door to her. He’s had to move into the hotel because the chemicals from her salon trigger his allergies.” He went on, explaining why each of the persons present might wish the dead woman ill.

Then he said, “But they were all accounted for last night. Most of them saw her at the pub, where she ate a very late dinner of cheeseburger and fries, washed down with more beer than you’d believe. The bartender says Smith went out alone at about 1 a.m., and that’s the last anyone saw of her. She said she was going for a moonlight cruise. Most of these were home in bed by then, of course.”

“She didn’t go sailing alone. I heard the boat this morning, leaving after she was dumped in the water. Someone wasn’t home in bed.”

The townspeople looked at each other with new suspicion. “You mean someone took her out in a boat and shot her?” Another guess.
“No.” Marsha said. “She died of a heart attack. I suppose you could say the cook killed her, but the burger and fries were her own choice. But someone didn’t do right by her.”

A young man stood up, shaking. “I didn’t know what to do! I took her out in the boat. I was so sure—never mind. We headed out toward the Island, and suddenly she stood up and grabbed her throat. She was wearing one of those choker necklaces and she ripped it loose, like she couldn’t breathe.”

Marsha nodded. “She couldn’t.”

“I thought she was being dramatic, some silly game, and then she toppled over. Right overboard.” He was sweating. “I searched for hours. But I couldn’t find her in the dark, and when it started to get light, I panicked. I knew you’d all think I killed her! So I just—left. ” He began to cry, and Marsha let the others lead him out.

When they were gone, she turned to Tormentino. “You can decide if you want to press charges. I’m on vacation.” As she left, she fingered the broken necklace she’d found on the beach. No one could ever know who had broken it.

###
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

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Title: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulson Books, 2014. 336 pages
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
A novel in verse. Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Review:
Though the summary calls it a novel in verse, my understanding is that Brown Girl Dreaming is in fact a memoir. In any case, it is a moving story, gradually unfolding through the spare free-verse poems that make up the book. Beginning with the author's birth in Columbus, Ohio, each poem tells a key bit of what made young Jacqueline who she was. From South to North and back again, through Jacqueline's eyes the Civil Rights era comes to life in a whole new way.

Each poem is written in the present tense, and the voice is, after the baby years, one appropriate to the child, reflecting both the understanding of the child and the greater understanding of the adult now writing the book.  And gradually the story unfolds, and in the end, we understand a great deal more about what created the author.

 Recommendation:
For older elementary and up. The story has a great deal of life in it, and not all of that life is easy to understand or accept. I'd say from maybe age 10 or 11 useful conversations could come out of it; younger kids might find it all a bit bewildering.

Full Disclosure: I checked Brown Girl Dreaming 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, June 15, 2015

Audio Mystery Review: The Cruelest Month

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Title: The Cruelest Month  (A Three Pines Mystery)
Author: Louise Penny; narrated by Ralph Coshan

Publisher: Original St. Martin's Minotaur, 2008 (320 pages). My edition: Blackstone Audio, 2008.
Source: Library (on-line digital)

Summary:
In this third book featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (of the Surete de Quebec), we are back in Three Pines, where a resident has dropped dead--apparently of fright--during a seance in a house locally believed to be cursed. Not everyone is convinced it's quite that simple, however, and Gamache must figure out what really happened, all  while dealing with his own problems back at the Surete.

Review:
This series falls somewhere between cozy and police procedural, and the books are very well written. Aside from the minor necessity of suspended disbelief regarding the number of murders in the idyllic town of Three Pines as we work our way through the series, each book so far has been a well-crafted and highly believable mystery, with fully-developed characters.

Though I struggled a bit with this story, it was not because of any problem with the writing. On the contrary, it was because it was so well written.  The sense of doom that had been gathering about Gamache through the first books became very thick in this one, and there were a lot of betrayals to deal with, and I was forced to decide that I don't like betrayal. The author doesn't leave the reader in much doubt about what's going on, though Gamache takes longer, not being privy to everything we see. That was what made it so hard for me--trying to will him to see through certain people.

Because Penny doesn't shy away from the darker side of even good people, the village of Three Pines is both more real than most mystery settings, and a little less comfortable than I want it to be. I suspect that is brilliant writing, though if all the books are this intense, I'll have to pick and choose when I want to read them.

The audio was incredibly well done, and I found the reader's voicing of characters to be clear and distinctive. He handled the accents and the French words and phrases very well, a fact I appreciated the more as I'm currently listening with some cringing to a book in which the narrator is mangling the Spanish.

Recommended for:
Those who like a superbly crafted and well-written mystery, and are okay with some suspense of a more psychological than physical sort, and a little frustration with injustice.

Full Disclosure: I checked The Cruelest Month 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."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: Red Sands

This week Chuck Wendig assigned us all the Random Title Jamboree.  Two lists of words, two rolls of the D20 (or, in my case, the random number generator), and you have two words for your title. I decided it was time for a story really meant for the kids, and I used about 1380 of the 1500 words he allotted us this week.

Red Sands

“Wow! Kyle, check this out. Red sand.”

“Are you reading your WWII books again?” Kyle wasn’t going to come look until he knew Rob wasn’t going to show him gory pictures.

“No, look!” Rob’s urgency brought Kyle to take a closer look. The shorter boy held a small vial of sand in one hand, and a letter in the other. “It’s from my Aunt Hortense.”

“The crazy lady?”

“She’s not crazy. She’s a geologist.”

“She spends all her time wandering around the desert poking at rocks. And she calls herself Hortense.”

“That’s her name. She can’t help that. It’s her parents’ fault. I think she’s cool.” Rob scowled at his friend. Kyle was his best friend, but he just didn’t get some things. Like people liking rocks and deserts.

“Well,” Kyle was reluctant. “If you say so. If my name was Hortense I’d go by Susie or something. But that’s her choice.”

“If Aunt Hortense picked a nickname, it would be something like Ammonite or Cretaceous,” Rob said. “But think about it. She gets to go camping and hang out in cool places and it’s all part of her job. Kyle, she gets paid to go camping! How cool is that?”

Kyle shrugged, and Rob sighed. His best friend didn’t like to get too far from a charger for his smart phone. Or from his X-box.

 “Anyway, Aunt Hortense has found this whole dune of red sand, and she’s going to spend the summer figuring out just where it comes from.”

“Red rocks,” Kyle shrugged.

“Yeah, but.” Rob shrugged back. “You have to figure out which ones and where. Anyway, she wants me to come help her look for the source, and she says I can bring a friend! You’ll come, won’t you?”

“I don’t know, Rob. I mean, I guess it would be sort of fun, but, you know.”

“Forget the X-box for once, Kyle! This will be a blast!”
##
The two boys stood in the airport, clutching their dufflebags. At 12, they’d been excited to travel alone, but now they were a little unsure. What if Aunt Hortense didn’t pick them up?

Rob spotted a tall woman, her brown hair pulled back into a tight braid, wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, and waved excitedly. His aunt hurried up to them, apologized for being late, and led them off. As though sensing Kyle’s doubts, as they rode the elevator to the parking garage she asked, “You want lunch before we get started?”

Over burgers, she explained. “I’ve already got the field camp set up. I bought supplies before I picked you up, so we’re ready to go.” The boys had already noticed the row of coolers and boxes of food in the back of the Jeep when they’d tossed in their duffels.

She looked at the cell phone Kyle clutched, scanning his messages even as he shoveled in French fries. “You can charge that in the Jeep while we drive. But there isn’t any reception where we are going.”

Kyle groaned, and Rob kicked him under the table. “Told you.”

Hortense looked at the boys. “We are going to be camping,” she said. “And working. If you didn’t want to leave your toys, why did you come?” Rob studied his aunt, and decided that she knew perfectly well what was up, but it would do Kyle good to sweat. Kyle gulped.

“Mom said I couldn’t spend the summer playing video games. So here I am.” Kyle hadn’t even wanted to ask his mom, but Rob insisted. Even so, he wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t been sure his mother would say no. Instead, she’d thought it was a great idea. Now here he was, stuck with no contact at all with the outside world.

“You’ll see. There’s enough to do out there without Minecraft and Angry Birds.” To Rob’s relief, Aunt Hortense didn’t seem bothered by Kyle’s attitude. She kept on talking, outlining what they would be doing while the Jeep sped down the highway. After about an hour, they turned onto a much smaller road.  After another hour, they turned onto a dirt road.

Kyle, who had been playing games on his phone most of the way, looked up. “I lost my signal.”

“I told you. Not long to camp now. About 25 miles up this road.”

Rob peered out the window. The road was narrow, dirt, and appeared to run right into the side of a mountain. He had a feeling 25 miles was a long way.

Rob was right. It was nearly dinnertime when Hortense pulled onto a flat spot next to a pair of sturdy tents and a shade shelter. They’d left the narrow dirt road for an even narrower and rougher jeep trail, and Rob was excited to realize that they weren’t going to have a lot of company. He already knew Hortense didn’t have any students with her this summer.
##
Kyle grumbled a lot, though only to Rob. He seemed a little intimidated by Aunt Hortense. The first day they hiked to the sand dune. It was in an odd place, Rob thought—a high valley, up among the pinon and juniper trees, not down in the desert. Kyle didn’t seem to notice anything odd, only that his feet hurt and he wished he’d brought water and not just a soda. Aunt Hortense had told him to, but he hadn’t listened.

Every day after that they hiked in a different direction, looking for traces of red rocks, and hoping to spot other drifts or dribbles of the sand.

After a week, Kyle began to grumble less, and forge ahead of the others more. When Aunt Hortense announced that they needed to make a trip to town for supplies and showers, Rob expected his friend to be ecstatic, but in fact he seemed a little disappointed to leave camp. He brightened when Aunt Hortense said they could get everything they needed in the small town near where they’d left the highway, and there was a laundromat in town with a shower.

Rob wasn’t surprised, though, to find that as soon as he had a signal, Kyle was back on the phone. He sent a few texts, emailed some photos to their moms, since Rob didn’t have a phone, and then settled down to surf the web.

They were waiting for their clothes to finish drying when Kyle exclaimed “Aha!”

“What ha?” asked Aunt Hortense.

“We aren’t going to find the source of that sand by walking a few miles each way from the dune. We need to figure out prevailing winds, and we might have to hunt miles and miles. It says here that sand for dunes can travel ten miles or more.

Rob looked at his Aunt. Why hadn’t she known that? Then he saw her grin.

“Aunt Hortense, you knew that!” he accused. She grinned some more.

“Yup.”

“You wanted us to figure that out for ourselves?”

“Yup.”

Rob and Kyle studied her with narrowed gaze, but she distracted them by saying, “Let’s go get some ice cream while we wait for the dryer!”

Rob and Kyle went along, but they didn’t put up the phone. Rob was reading all about how sand dunes form, and he realized something else.

“Aunt Hortense, you already know where the sand for those dunes comes from, don’t you?” he asked as they folded laundry and stowed it in their duffles.

“Well, yes. I do. I take it you found my article from three years ago.”

“Yeah. So what are you looking for? You’re always collecting and testing rocks up there while we hike. I thought you just cooked this up to give us a great summer vacation.”

“Well,” Aunt Hortense looked ashamed. “I did. But I’ve found some really interesting stuff up there. Interesting to a geologist, I mean. So now I’m looking for more clues. We might find some good fossils if we keep looking.”

“Fossils? Like dinosaurs?” Kyle asked.

“Quite likely.”

“Wow!” Kyle and Rob said together. They bumped fists. “Best summer vacation ever!” They raced for the jeep.

Aunt Hortense followed more slowly, smiling. Two boys out of the house and excited to hike all over and stare at rocks with her. Yup. Best summer vacation ever.




©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Photo Time: Death Valley

Time for another photo/travel post!

A few weeks ago I started a report on our Spring Break trip to Death Valley and other cool (warm) places with a bit on the Eureka Dunes. Time to move on to DV proper for the second installment!

To get from the Eureka Dunes to Furnace Creek, you have two choices. You can (after driving the excruciatingly rough 10 miles back to the "main" road) turn right, and drive roughly 50 miles of decent, but still washboardy, dirt to Scotty's Castle, then the 50 miles or so of pavement on south to Furnace Creek. Or you can do what we did: turn left and backtrack to Bishop, take US 395 south to Lone Pine, and then follow the main road past Owens Lake and over the Inyo Mountains, down past Panamint Springs (a spectacular bit of road, and well worth the drive), up over Towne Pass (at about 5000') and down down down to Stovepipe Wells at 5' above sealevel, then around the corner...it was getting late, the wind was fierce, and the Death Valley Dunes were in the process of relocating themselves.
Sandstorm!
On around the corner and down to Furnace Creek (178' below sea level), where we were lucky to get one of the last campsites available (word to the wise: when traveling the Parks of the SW at Spring Break, campground reservations are a good idea).

Next day, being thwarted in our desire to rent a jeep (see note about reservations), we went for a hike in the deservedly popular Mosaic Canyon, back around by Stovepipe Wells (another word to the wise: starting early for such hikes not only beats the heat, but the crowds. We were so-so about start time, but at 10ish there was still parking. When we emerged around 1, no way).

Starting into the canyon. You can kind of tell there's something good.
Mosaic Canyon is named for the breccia, a layer of conglomerate sandwiched between marble layers.

The marble is well polished by flood waters (which periodically re-lay the canyon floor--it's no place to be in a cloud-burst!).
Water-polished marble
This wasn't marble, but still really cool rock.
Periodic chock-stones and waterfalls (dry) to scramble up or around kept the interest of the younger crowd, though my husband's parents turned back. The first maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile is very doable, with a hand up for the less nimble; beyond that you need to be willing to put yourself out a bit. Don't feel bad if you can't go on: in the First Narrows, you get to see the mosaics, the best marble, and then (in the open space above the Narrows), some flowers.
Phacelia. For some people (my spouse!) this plant has an irritant effect much like that of poison oak. It's still beautiful.
Some of the more interesting bits are optional. You don't HAVE to walk this ridge above the flat, smooth canyon floor!
The Second Narrows ended in an 18-foot fall, but it was rough and sloped enough to make the climb kind of fun. There's a by-pass for the less insane, and for the return trip (a 3rd word to the wise: climbing up is always easier than climbing down).
The Spouse tackles the Falls with grace and aplomb. I like to make him go first, as I do less well with photos taken from behind and below.

The hike ended for Second Son and for me at the Third Narrows, with this unclimbable falls (well, it can be climbed, but only with gear and skill). The Spouse and Eldest Son found a by-pass that we didn't like, so we began the amble back to lunch, giving us a nice head start on the other two.
"Can I climb it?"
The entire hike was probably only about 3 hours, but with bits to explore and climb and photograph, it took us about 2 1/2 hours. It was hot by then, so we refreshed ourselves with ice cream at Stovepipe Wells, and a drive up past Wildrose Campground (4100') until we found flowers, and storm clouds. It wasn't a good year for flowers--there was some rain about the right time, but the spring was too hot. Higher up, though, there were places with flowers, if you were willing to look.

Always a favorite (and they grow pretty nearly everywhere): Indian Paintbrush

Next week: Jeep Tours!

Text and photos ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015




Monday, June 8, 2015

Mystery Monday: Crewel World, by Monica Ferris

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An audio book review.

Title: Crewel World (A Needlecraft Mystery)
Author:  Monica Ferris, read by Susan Boyce
Publisher: Audiogo, 2011(originally published by Berkeley Prime Crime, 1999, 245 pages)
Source: Library (digital)

Summary: 
When Betsy Devonshire has nowhere else to go, she goes to her family. In this case, to her sister Margot, living in Excelsior, Minnesota. It's an idyllic little town and a good place to recover from a nasty divorce, right up until Margot is murdered and her craft shop is tossed. After that, Betsy can't rest until she finds out who killed her sister, and she doesn't trust the police to find the killer.

Review:
My Mom recommended this mystery, so eventually I wandered off and borrowed a copy from the digital library. I wasn't surprised to find I enjoyed it a great deal, given that Mom knows me pretty well. I was, however, a bit more surprised at my enjoyment of the book when I considered a number of things that should have made me less engaged in the story.

For one thing, I'm not at all into handicrafts. I own a mitre saw and a cordless drill (and know how to use them), not an embroidery hoop and a stock of thread, and while Mom managed to teach me the rudiments of crochet, we gave up on the whole knitting thing. Happily, that doesn't matter with this book. In fact, Betsy isn't much into needlecraft, at least at the start, though she does take to it better than I might.

Another thing that surprised me was that I solved the mystery well before Betsy did. This was partly due to the author giving us some insight into the killer's mind (not any kind of confession, but enough to give a hint), and I am not sure I think that's a good idea. But let's just say I recognized the murder weapon the first time I saw it, partly because...well, the same weapon has shown up in at least one other mystery I've read. Again, this should have put me off the book, but by that time Ferris had already done what I most ask of a cozy mystery--drawn me into the lives of the characters.

There are some dubious sorts in Excelsior, and some are more likeable than others, but in general, the key players are people with whom I can empathize. They feel real enough--everyone has flaws, but they are mostly just ordinary people being as good as they can be. I also appreciated that the sleuth isn't some sweet young thing. She's my age (though I flatter myself I have my head a bit more together than she does). It's refreshing to have a female main character who is in her 50s.

The mystery, though I managed to solve it, held together very well. I'd rather solve the mystery in advance of the sleuth than end up feeling like there was some gigantic leap that I just have to accept. This one held together very well, and the police might even have a case when it's all done. Finally, the book is very well read by Susan Boyce, which always adds to the pleasure.

Recommendation:
For fans of the cozy mystery, especially but not limited to those who like crafts. A bonus for those of us no longer young who like a character once in a while who looks like us.

Full Disclosure: I checked Crewel World 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."

Friday, June 5, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: The Slave of the Truth

This week's flash is based on a title from a random title generator. Here you have 997 words about...

The Slave of the Truth

Initially, Jardon’s parents thought he had been blessed. At the usual naming ceremonies following his birth, he received many of the standard gifts. Neighbors brought toys and food, clothing and blankets. The priests of four gods prayed for him to have courage and endurance and strength and skill.

And the witch known as Gertrude said that he would be ever truthful.

It is likely that even Gertrude thought that she was imparting a blessing. She had never been known to do harm to anyone, and usually was revered for her skill in herbs and medicine. She had, in fact, delivered Jardon safely through a difficult birth, and felt rather maternal toward him. She just wasn’t very good at thinking things through. Honesty was a virtue, and this boy should have all the virtues.

The trouble wasn't obvious at first. When Jardon was small, his parents rejoiced in having a truthful child, one who never lied about who had stolen the cream or broken a teacup. They boasted of his nobility and honor. The other children, who were often caught in misdoing by his words, might have been less enthusiastic, but for the most part they forgave him. They knew he couldn’t help it.

It was as he moved into adolescence that it began to be evident that the blessing might be a curse. Oh, there had been those moments in childhood when Jardon had announced before the whole village that Alvin the Miller had been spending nights in the barn with the neighbor’s servant-girl, or that Mistress Acolon’s pies were too sour to eat, but those were the indiscretions of a child.

But when he became a young man, Jardon began to have more trouble. People would ask him questions, and when pushed for a response, he had to answer with the truth. It wasn’t that they asked about difficult things—everyone in the village knew better than that. But they would ask the same teasing questions they asked other young people: what do you want to be when you grow up? Which of the girls might you want to marry?

Those were bad enough. To the question of what he wanted to be, Jardon always answered “a liar,” and people laughed. He didn’t laugh.

To questions about girls, he gave the truth of the moment. On one day, he thought he might like Alisoun. On another, Millie. When pressed about Katina one never-to-be-forgotten day, he answered that he’d like to bed her, as all the boys did, but wouldn’t marry a girl who would be comparing him to every young man in the village.

Unsurprisingly, by the time he was twenty Jardon found the village too hot to hold him, and had to move on. As long as he kept moving, he didn’t learn enough about anyone to be forced to give unwanted answers, though once or twice he sadly disappointed young flirts who wanted him to tell them they were beautiful. He also learned to keep silent, not to answer even the most pressing questions. That was hard, but not impossible. As he grew in wisdom, he came to understand that silence was always a truthful answer.

The magnitude of the curse struck him unexpectedly at age 25, when the ruler of the land heard of Jardon and took him into his service. Not that Jardon wanted to go. By that time he had grown to like the wandering life, and had seen enough of the world to know that rulers seldom made good employers. But he was taken before the lord in his fine hall by three burly men-at-arms.

“Would you not like to work for me as my official speaker of truth?”

“No,” Jardon answered honestly (as he must). The blessing of courage kept his eye steady and his voice calm, though he sometimes wondered if a bit of cowardice might have taught him to lie.

Lord Farnsworth laughed. “You do, indeed, have the curse of truth. No one would willingly answer so! But every ruler needs one person about him who will speak the truth without fear.”

“I am not fearless,” Jardon said. “It would not matter if I lacked courage entirely. I can only speak truth.”

“Whatever the cost?”

“Whatever the cost.”

Lord Farnsworth considered this. “Do you want the job?”

“No, Sire. But I do not think that I have a choice.”

The ruler laughed again, and Jardon considered that courage might be needed after all. Not to speak the truth, which he could not avoid, but to face what might follow. But why should he stay, a slave to the truth? He looked about, and took a tentative step away from the lord of the realm.

The three armed men stood between him and the exit. Jardon looked from them to the lord.

“You may not leave.”

“I see that.”

“I have too great a need of you to let you go.”

“I see that, too. Might I suggest, Sire, that you never ask me a question to which you do not wish to hear a truthful answer?”

“Yes, I can see that might be wise. Is there anything further you would like to say, Truthspeaker?” Lord Farnsworth liked titles better than names.

“A great deal.”

“And what would that be?” The ruler’s smile was thin now.

“I prefer not to say.”

“But you must, mustn’t you?” The smile was sly now.

“No.” For Jardon had long since learned he had gifts that helped compensate for the curse. “If I speak, I must speak truth. But I have the strength and courage to remain silent if I do not wish to speak the truth. This much I have learned since my youth.  Never will you hear a lie from my lips. But if pushed beyond bearing, I have courage to remain silent. Even the Slave of the Truth has will.”

And even the lord of the realm could be deceived by truth and silence.



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©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Frankie Dupont and the Lemon Festival Fiasco



School's out for my boys and I've already lost track of the days of the week...so here's my Wednesday review, a day late and a dollar short.

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Title: Frankie Dupont and the Lemon Festival Fiasco
Author: Julie Anne Grasso 
Publisher: Julie Anne Grasso, 2015, 135 pages (ebook 51 pages).
Source: I was given an electronic review copy in exchange for my honest review and participation in the blog tour.

Publisher's Summary:
Hot off cracking his first official case, Frankie Dupont is on the scene when his new teacher takes ill. The pint-sized detective suspects a classic case of sour grapes, but the evidence leads him to the one place he wouldn’t mind avoiding for the rest of his natural life.

Enderby Manor has a few more secrets up her sleeve, and as Frankie begins to unravel them, he uncovers a plot stinkier than a sardine sandwich. 


Review:
The second volume in the Frankie Dupont mysteries is as engaging as the first, and a bit more grounded in reality. Although I felt a bit of confusion at the beginning over some issues at Frankie's school (which maybe weren't so grounded in reality), once the story shifted over to Enderby Manor we sail quickly through the development of the mystery with a bit of fun and a few mild thrills. I found the malefactor easily, and was a little surprised that Frankie didn't, but his missteps lend interest. Frankie learns a thing or two about leaping to conclusions, and saves the day, as usual!

The illustrations, by Alexander Avellino, add a nice touch to an engaging story for younger readers.

Recommendation: 
Frankie Dupont is for a little younger reader than my reviews usually target. I'd say this would be for the 7-9 set, those transitioning from chapter books to novels. For boys or girls who like a little adventure and a little mystery, without anything scary.   

 

About the Author: Julie Anne Grasso

Julie Anne GrassoWith a background in paediatric nursing, Julie Anne Grasso spent many years literally wrapping children in cotton wool. Every day she witnessed courage and resilience from the tiny people she cared for, which inspired her to write stories to entertain them. A science fiction nerd (she even owns a TARDIS), cupcake enthusiast and lover of all things mystery, she lives in Melbourne with her husband Danny and their little girl Giselle. Most days she can be found sipping chai tea and dreaming up wonderful worlds that often involve consumption of cupcakes.

Website | Blog | Facebook

Twitter | Goodreads


Full Disclosure: I was given a copy of  Frankie Dupont and the Lemon Festival Fiasco as a blog tour participant, 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." 

http://motherdaughterbookreviews.com/kid-lit-blog-hop-61-google-linky-party/

Monday, June 1, 2015

Historical review: Hospital Sketches by Louise May Alcott

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Title: Hospital Sketches
Author: Louisa May Alcott; Introduction and notes by Alice Fahs
Publisher: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003 (orig. published 1863), 138 pages
Source:  Library book sale

Summary:
During the winter of 1862-3, Louisa May Alcott, burning to do something useful in the war effort, traveled to Washington D.C. and took a job as a nurse in a military hospital. With no real training or experience, Alcott learned a lot in a hurry, including just how miserable a job of treating the wounded men the army was doing. The fictionalized account of the 3 months she worked before becoming too ill to continue was the book that finally gave her the "big break" all authors seek.

Review:
Written with Alcott's usual wit and hyperbole, not to mention sentiment, the Sketches make for easy reading, and offer in a very small package a great deal of insight into not only the conditions of military hospitals  (a new idea largely developed during the Civil War) but also society in general. Alcott was a rabid abolitionist, and you can see in her more known works (Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys in particular, I think) both her desire for a non-racist society and the deeply ingrained racism that prevented even the most "advanced" thinkers from truly putting the recently-freed slaves on an even footing.

Ms. Fahs' Introduction and notes set the scene quite well and clarify the many cultural and literary references that Alcott throws about with abandon (sometimes a bit too minutely for my taste, but helpful for many, especially those less into history and literature than I am).

In Tribulation Periwinkle, the character Alcott invents to stand in her place in these narratives, you can definitely see the roots of Jo March as well as the restlessness and ambition of the author herself. And the style, mixing humor and (as noted) sentiment verging on the maudlin (a weakness of the period, I fear), is equally familiar.

Recommendation:
I found this little book (the actual Sketches are only about 70 pages) a fascinating read for both the historical value and for the look into Alcott's developing art (for more on that, look up her first novel, The Inheritance, which was only published in 1997, or the Gothic A Long, Fatal Love Chase, serialized under a pseudonym right after the Civil War). Anyone interested in either the Civil War or Alcott will want to take a look at this book.

Full Disclosure: I bought Hospital Sketches, and should scarcely need to note that I 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."