Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Middle Grade Review: The Book of Kings (Mister Max #3)

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Title: The Book of Kings (Mister Max #3)
Author: Cynthia Voigt; illustrated by Iacopo Bruno
Publisher:  Knopf Books for Young Readers; 2015. 352 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Blurb: 
Ever since Max’s parents were spirited away on a mysterious ship, he has longed to find them.

He’s solved case after case for other people in his business as “solutioneer.” And he’s puzzled out the coded messages sent by his father. He doesn’t know exactly what’s happened, but he knows his parents are in danger—and it’s up to Max to save them.

Max and his friends (and a few old foes) don disguises and set sail on a rescue mission. It will take all of Max’s cleverness and daring to outmaneuver the villains that lie in wait: power-hungry aristocrats, snake-handling assassins, and bombardier pastry chefs.

And behind the scenes, a master solutioneer is pulling all the strings.... Has Max finally met his match?


My Review:
As you can see, I kept to my word and not only read Book 3 on paper, but got there quickly. I've now read books from this series as audio, ebook, and hardback...and I have to say that the paper was the most satisfying. That's in large part because of the illustrations, which you miss entirely in an audio book, and which don't show as well on my Nook as on paper (audio has some other limitations, having to do with my need to see names written in order to keep them sorted out well; I like audio books but sometimes they work better than others for me). 

This book was a tricky one for the author, as Max has to step back a bit and let some of the adults in his life take leading roles. He's over his head and he knows it, and is just finding out how much goes on that he doesn't know about. I think the shift is handled well. 

Max is often frustrated by the restrictions his assumed role--secretary to the ambassador--puts on him, and it's carried out just enough for the reader to feel the frustration without getting bored. Then when things start to happen, Max has new issues to face, including his youth--and finally, the conflict between a boy who's been made independent and his father, who pushed him to do so but still wants to be in charge. There are some interesting parental dynamics there.

Overall, I thought the author did a great job of tying up the story, even giving us a sense of how things will work for Max beyond the end of the immediate crisis. The illustrations are intricate line-drawings, and are the icing on the cake. Get the paper book and immerse yourself.

Recommendation:
I highly recommend this series for anyone over about age 10 who likes adventure, problem-solving, and a bit of theatricality. Not surprisingly (she is, after all, a Newbery medalist), Voigt is an accomplished writer who weaves a compelling story with few stumbles. I'm very glad I did my own stumbling--into the series while browsing for something to listen to.

Full Disclosure: I checked The Book of Kings 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." 

 

Night-hike to the Panamint Dunes

There was no Chuck Wendig Challenge this week, which fit nicely with my intention to do a little creative non-fiction, with photos. We spent Tues-Sunday last week visiting Death Valley and the environs in search of stunning desert landscapes and spring wildflowers. We found both. The Panamint Dunes are located in the far north end of the Panamint Valley, which is the next valley west of Death Valley proper and part of the National Park.

Night Hike to the Panamint Dunes

Six miles of rough dirt road behind us, and a hasty dinner prepared and eaten, we hoist loaded packs as the last of the evening light fades away. The sun set early behind the Inyo Mountains, and at 8 p.m. the full moon isn't up. Even so, we can see our goal: the Panamint Dunes are pale in contrast to the surrounding mountains and the scrub-covered alluvial fans that surrounded them. Headlamps, even though I forgot to replace the dying batteries, are enough to show us the footing and avoid injuries as we pick our way over rocky ground near the parking area. Bits of the mountains  have washed down the slope toward the dry lake bed in the bottom of the valley. The poor footing for the first quarter mile worries me. If it's like this all the way, it will be a very long hike indeed.

Happily, we soon pass the rocky portion of the fan, and the rest of the 3-mile approach provides fairly smooth footing. We pick up the pace, dodging around bushes and following sandy washes where they angle off in more or less the right direction, abandoning them when they move too far upslope. There are footprints in places, telling us less that we are on the right route than that pretty much any route will do, as long as we keep pointing at the dunes.

The full moon should have risen as the sun set, but the ring of mountains means that the early sunset is followed by a delayed moonrise. We hike for 20 or 30 minutes before it tops the ridge to the east. Light hits the dunes first, giving them a ghostly beauty. When it reaches us, headlamps become a silly waste. The moon is brighter. We turn our lamps off and let our eyes adapt to the night. A deep shadow lies between us and the dunes, but though our pace is fast, the moon rises faster. We never catch the darkness, and move with greater confidence.

Just over an hour sees us over three miles in, 700-odd feet higher, and starting to sink into the sand. Vegetation is thinning and it's time to make camp. The moon allows us to do that still without lights, so that though we realize that others are camped a few hundred yards off (mysteriously, they keep their lights on, even while sitting and presumably enjoying the night) they probably don't know we are there. The night is calm, and the view well worth savoring. When it grows too chilly for comfort, we crawl into our bags, knowing we'll be up well before sunrise.

Morning on the Dunes
Our early start means that we have eaten breakfast and are well up the dunes (which rise only a couple of hundred feet beyond our camp) before the sun hits. The morning is best told in photos.

 Dawn breaks on the Panamint Valley.

Desert mornings can be chilly. We are well-bundled to eat our cold cereal.
 
 As the sun rises, the moon sets over the Inyo Mountains (we really only see the foothills here).

 Dune fields yield endless patterns of light and shadow and texture.
Curves and shadows and contrast with the eroded hills beyond.
Ripples.


 Even footprints add to the textures.

 Low sun turns footprints along the ridge into a braided piping for the edge of a dune.

If you think a dune is a dead place, look more closely. More like Grand Central Station!
Beetle tracks
There were also some kind of ground-dwelling bees, busily digging their holes.
Not the best photo. The bees wouldn't hold still.

Seems like every dune field we visit has a characteristic species. In this case, it was the prickly poppy.



When the sun grew hot, we returned to our tent, broke camp, and hiked the hour back to the car. Just for fun, here's our rather low-clearance Prius trying to cope with one of dozens of small gullies/washes that crossed the road. You can drive a lot of "4wheel drive" roads in a small sedan, if you go very slowly...and can muster a certain indifference to the sounds of the car depreciating beneath you.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: The Vampire Mechanic by WIll MacMillan Jones

First off, yes, I know it's nearly Tuesday (or, depending where you are, already Tuesday). We spent most of last week in the desert chasing wildflowers and got home fairly late on Sunday. So sue me. Or wait patiently, and by the end of the week I'll have wildflower photos to share!

Now for our featured review:

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I tossed in both covers because a) I'm not sure which one is on my ebook, and b) I like them both.

Also note: I do associate with the author on Goodreads. But he's never sent me cookies, cake, or vegemite (thank the gods), and our association has in no way influenced this review.

Title: The Vampire Mechanic (The Banned Underground #3)
Author: Will Macmillan Jones
Publisher: Safkhet Fantasy, 2012. 173 pages
Source: I bought this of my own free will and with my own money.

Summary: 
First, understand who the Banned Underground is (are?): a dwarf rhythm and blues band, with a bog troll on sax. And a dragon on bass. That's a good start. Now, give them a gig in Wales (which they and the author seem to consider pretty much the edge of the universe, and not in a nice way), and some friends who borrow Santa's sleigh to come to the concert, and things start to get interesting. Throw in some vampires, a Dark Lord who wants the sleigh, and of course Grizelda, a cranky witch with a penchant for turning people into vampires, and things get interesting. 
Review:
This whole series is a fun excuse for some bad jokes (and some good ones), a lot of music, and even more drinking. Plot is secondary to that, which explains the absurdity of a lot of it (absurd  in a good way, for the most part). That also explains why to me this one didn't quite work as well as books one and two. Not that it's bad. I just found a couple of the running jokes wearing a bit thin. I haven't completely made up my mind about the active involvement of the author in the story, though mostly it works well. After all, doesn't everyone want someone they can definitively blame for the things that go wrong? This crew has the author, and they know it.We can only envy them.

In the end, my only serious complaint was that there were a few places that just didn't read as smoothly as they should have. I've been reading books on editing as I work on my own writing, and found myself mentally adjusting a sentence here and there, most especially in dialogue.
Recommendation:
Best for teens and up, and for those who like a) British humour, and b) the absurd. If you are a fan of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, you will probably appreciate the Banned Underground. Jones may not be as brilliant as those two, but who is? (Possibly not even Adams and Pratchett). It probably helps if you are into the music, but it works even if you don't know a thing about rhythm and blues.
I don't seem to have reviewed Book 2, The Mystic Accountants, though I read it and enjoyed it.
Full Disclosure: I purchased The Vampire Mechanic, 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, March 25, 2016

Friday Fiction: 5 sentence story

Last week, Chuck Wendig challenged us to write a story in 5 sentences, which I didn't do because I felt like writing more. This week, I'm out of town, so here is the story. Chuck suggested 100 words. I took 98, including the title.

New Life

The cliché “It was a dark and stormy night” doesn’t begin to describe the conditions the night Alexander Solomons died and I became the man you know. It happened in a hurricane—a typhoon, strictly speaking, since we were in the Indian Ocean—and I was a prisoner aboard a sinking pirate ship.

I didn’t conjure the hurricane. I did curse the ship and steal the only seaworthy lifeboat.

From my perilous position in the tiny craft I smiled as the ship went down with all hands, leaving no one to say who I had once been.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

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Title: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print
Author: Renni Browne & Dave King
Publisher: William Morrow. Second Edition, 2004. 278 pages.

Summary:
This is a step-by-step walk through the major areas in which fiction can go wrong, below the plot level (the book discusses things that affect plot, but they do not discuss the big plot issues of story arc, etc.). It includes checklists, exercises, and a list of top books for writers.

Review: 
Each chapter of this book addresses a different area of concern in your manuscript, and includes lots of examples. At the end of each chapter there is a summary checklist of the things you might want to do/look for in your book, and a set of exercises to try. I failed to notice until I finished that there is an appendix with the authors' take on how those exercises might be completed (these are editing choices. There is no one right answer). 

As I read through the book, I marked things that I thought were particularly likely to be issues for me, but the fact is that somewhere in the editing process I'll want to revisit each chapter's checklist. It's not that this is the be-all and end-all of editing books, just that they hit the main points and they provide a layout that makes it easy to use it as a guide. 

The authors go out on a limb, and their examples include not only texts created to make the point and things presented in their workshops, but also classic works. And that was where I found myself not always in agreement. I get that they are saying that styles have changed, but it just felt weird. I also could NOT agree with one section, where they suggested using comma splices to make writing more contemporary and "natural," particularly in speech (but their examples were not all dialogue). Sorry, but while I'm okay with deliberate sentence fragments, for some reason the comma splices completely set my teeth on edge. I won't be using that technique!
Recommendation:
This may not be the best writing book in the world, but it's good. I'm glad I responded to Jemima Pett's review and got a copy to add to my library. I look on all the writing books I've read as adding little bits to the skill set I bring to my writing. This one adds a pretty good bunch of skills, and presents them in a way that's easy to reference and use.
Full Disclosure: I checked Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 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 21, 2016

YA Revew: All Fall Down, by Ally Carter

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Title: All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)
Author: Ally Carter; narrated by Eileen Stevens
Publisher: Scholastic Audio, 2015.  (Original Scholastic Press, 2015, 310 pages)

Publisher's Summary:
Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:
   1. She is not crazy. 
   2. Her mother was murdered. 
   3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.
As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her -- so there's no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door, who is keeping his eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.

Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can't control Grace -- no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do. Her past has come back to hunt her . . . and if she doesn't stop it, Grace isn't the only one who will get hurt. Because on Embassy Row, the countries of the world stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.


My Review: 
I picked up this book because it was discussed in the Goodreads Great Middle Grade Reads group, as an example of a book that a Jr. High-aged kid (as I recall) thought was one of the best (as in, books he/she most enjoyed reading). I can certainly see the appeal, and I rather wish I'd gotten it in print, not as an audio, because I think the over-dramatic reading style kind of put me off. As a result, I ended up thinking about what the writing books say about pacing: if you are at breathless full speed all the time, it's too much.

In this case, the pace was both too much and a little unconvincing. The narrator's breathless stress got wearisome, and as a result much of the urgency got lost through the middle of the book. Which is fine. I think the mistake was trying to keep Grace at full panic for the whole thing, and I can't be sure if that was in the writing or the reading.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, and I can certainly see the appeal for teens, especially younger teens. The book stays out of "does he love me?" territory (which is bad from the perspective of some kids, but good for me and for others), and  focuses on the mystery that Grace is struggling to unravel. The ending isn't a total surprise, but it does surprise Grace, and forces some reassessment of things she's been taking for granted the whole time.

Recommendation:
Despite the lack of romance (Grace does do a very small amount of mooning, but that's about it), this has a YA feel to me. Maybe it's because of the age of the main character (16) or because she's dealing with some very real and adult threats (assassination), but I felt like it should be for kids about 12 or 13 and up--junior high, here in the States. And, as noted, I think the narration does the story no favors. I'll be reading the next in the series, and I'll do it on paper to get a better sense of the author's technique.

Full Disclosure: I checked All Fall Down 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, March 18, 2016

Friday Flash: Back at the Long Dogie Saloon

A few weeks ago, an article about the rather large Kangal dogs engendered an interesting discussion about large dogs and ended up (somehow) with the threat to put a certain member of the group into a story, riding into town on a rather large dog. For the record, the real dogs aren't quite that big, but since this is another venture into the Weird West genre, I didn't figure that realism was at the top of my list. I borrowed some characters and setting from an earlier Weird West story, which you can find here if you want. You might want to, because there was a contest associated with that story which no one has yet won.

Too Much Fur at the Long Dogie Saloon

Another hot summer afternoon at the Long Dogie Saloon. I’ve got a beer, because it’s too hot for whiskey and Dutchie brews a pretty good beer. Turkey Joe’s drinking whiskey anyway, because he’s trying to forget something he says he saw on the way in to Pete’s Gulch. He can’t tell me what it was, because he can’t remember the words, so I figure the drink is working.

The girls ain’t rightly awake yet, being as it’s only about midafternoon. They’re nursing big mugs of something Miss Kitty claims is coffee, and Little Lil’s playing scales at the piano, not too loud because Miss Peggy is scowling at her. Miss Peggy hates it when Lil practices the piano, but she hates it more if the kid doesn’t get the music right for the singing and dancing, so she has to put up with it.

So just another summer day, like I say. Until the twins come through the door, eyes bugging out to here and—I check to be sure—no sign of their banjo. They make a bee-line for the bar, and Dutchie sizes things up in about a second and shoves a couple of stiff ones across at them. In Pete’s Gulch, we figure most trouble is easier to face with a stiff drink.

“What’s wrong, boys?”

Gord shudders and knocks back his shot without answering. Jord takes a gulp, shakes a moment, hiccoughs, and says, “Seein’ things. Big hairy things.” That’d be normal, except they saw it before hitting Dutchie’s rotgut.

Turkey Joe looks up. “Anyone maybe riding it?” He takes another gulp of his own drink.

“Ayup,” Gord says, and accepts another glass from Dutchie.

About that time, we hear the creak of a saddle, though we haven’t heard any hooves on the street outside. We all swivel to peer through the window at the hitching rail. It’s a bit hard to see, on account of Dutchie hasn’t washed the window glass since Adam was a pup, but someone is tying a very shaggy cowpony to the hitching rail.

I take another look. “Mighty funny looking horse,” I say, and everyone nods. It’s a bit smaller than the typical run of cowpony, but has about twice the hair. The rider pats the pony on the head, scratches it behind the ears, and then that horse opens its mouth and hangs out a thin, floppy tongue over some sharp teeth.

I reach for a drink as the rider pushes through the bat-wing doors. He raises his hat to the ladies and orders a beer, but don’t pay us no mind, not even when Miss Kitty crosses her legs and hoists her skirt a little higher over her knee.

“Howdy, stranger.”

He nods. I try again. “Come far?”

“Far enough.”

“You got a name?” That’s skating on thin ice, a place like the Long Dogie. Mostly it ain’t a good idea to ask questions of strangers.

“I'm a traveler,” he says by way of not answering.

“Wal, Trav, that’s an interesting hoss you got out there.”

Before he can answer, if he’s going to, I hear a thunder of running hooves, and a deep bellowing bark, the sort of thing you might hear from, say, a dog the size of a small horse.

A moment later, Lefty busts through the swinging doors, and he’s some upset. So much he didn’t even seem to notice the giant dog tied to the hitching rail. Wearing a saddle and a collar, rather than a bridle.

“Attack out at the ranch! Need help!” Lefty gasps out his message, grabs my beer, gulps it down and turns back to the door, all of us on his heels.

We all figger it’s injuns, and jump for our hosses. Someone hollers “Attack!” and that’s natural. But that’s about all that’s natural.

It isn’t a natural kind of day.

First thing, I notice that Trav feller is alongside me, astride that huge dog of his, and the critter is howling like a whole pack of wolves. It’s about six inches shorter than my hoss, but keeps up just fine.

Next thing, I notice that the attackers swirling around the Last Chance Ranch aren’t riding ponies either.

They aren’t riding anything I’ve ever seen before. And the riders are kind of green. By this time, I’m feeling a little green myself, but Trav lets loose with a holler, and he and that funny mount of his charge right into the middle of them, growling and snapping.

Our horses ain’t so pleased about the green folks, but they got their pride. All of them follow that furry critter into the fight, so I pull my six-shooter and start blasting away.

That doesn’t seem to do much good, and pretty soon we’re surrounded by the green riders on their weird mounts, and I see Trav is surrounded a ways off, outnumbered but defending himself pretty good. It don’t look good, even with Shorty and Swifty blazing away from the bunkhouse, and old Steve, the trail boss, in the main house maintaining order with his shotgun.

It’s the ladies save the day, truth to say. They naturally don’t tote six guns around in their garters, so Miss Kitty and Miss Peggy grabbed up a couple of big pots of chili from the stove on their way out. That stuff is hotter than the heart of hell, and I mean that in every way. Dutchie has a hand as heavy with the chilies as it is with the whiskey.

So when Kitty and Peggy let fly with that chili, spraying it all over our attackers, they let out some unearthly screams and start grabbing at what I take to be their faces. Those things they’re riding scream too, and take off for the hills.

When I look around to see if Trav is okay, he’s gone, too.

“Dag-nabbit, Peggy,” Turkey Joe is saying. “Now what’re we gonna eat for dinner?”

###

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Camp NaNo and the A to Z Challenge

Yup, another post about writing, and deciding how best to keep myself motivated. And it's not even time for the Insecure Writers' Support Group!

Every fall, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) gets a fair bit of attention as thousands and thousands of people undertake to write 50,000 words in a month. I've written about that, and done it, too. (See here and here and here and here and here.  I've had a lot to say on the subject!).

In April, the organization sponsors Camp NaNo, a less structured event in which you set your own goals, with the focus on getting the work done and making connections/finding motivation. I haven't done that before, in part because April is ALSO Blogging from A to Z month.

So here's the thing: I need a little more structure and some deadlines. So I want to sign up for Camp NaNo, though I'm debating which project to do. More on that in a minute. First, a word about the A to Z challenge.

I love A to Z. It's fun, it helps bring in some new readers to my blog, and the challenge is energizing. It's also a total distraction from writing my books. And I never really do it right, because I'm always so busy keeping up with my posts that I don't visit as many blogs as I'd like. So this year, I'm doing something different.

I'm not signing up for A to Z. I'm not posting every day. But I DO plan to visit A to Z blogs. And I want to make many, if not most, of my April posts, short bits pointing to blogs and posts I've found that I particularly like. I'll continue to do my flash fiction, because I like to, but I'm hoping that I can consolidate blog reading and blog writing time into one, get around to more people, and not encroach so much on my regular writing time.

That leads me to point #2: I'm signing up for Camp Nano, and I have to decide what the project will be. I see three possibilities:
1. Since I'll be finishing the 1st revision of Ninja Librarian #3 about the end of March, I could start in on the second revision and try to do that in a single month. This would have the advantage of building on some momentum, but...I feel a bit like the work ought to sit a bit between passes, and maybe even go out to someone else to read in here soon.
2. I could do the first revision/new ending for the Pismawallops PTA #3.*  It's at about the right point for that, and I have some ideas floating around about how to make it work better. It will probably take more than a month, though that's okay too.
3. I could draft, at last, Gorg the Troll's book. Naturally, I really want to do this one. But getting 3 books into early draft form seems like a bad plan.

I know I have a problem, in that a) I like writing rough drafts more than I like editing, and b) I can write a draft in a month. But it takes much longer to revise and rewrite and edit one into submission. I procrastinate a lot. And that is where I think Camp NaNo might help, making it fairly clear I ought to do one or the other of the revisions, even if Gorg would be more fun.

I have had another thought, so for option 4: create a short-story collection out of the best of my flash fiction. That actually might be a project that could be brought to something approaching completion in a month.

Thoughts? 


*Note: neither of these books I'm working on has a title that satisfies me. That will need to be one element of either revision!


Monday, March 14, 2016

Middle Grade Fiction: The Book of Secrets

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Title: The Book of Secrets (Mister Max #2)
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2014. 355 pages.
Source: Digital Library

Publisher's Summary:
In Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, Max Starling proved that he is more than a detective, he’s a Solutioneer. His reputation for problem-solving has been spreading—and now even the mayor wants his help.

Someone is breaking windows and setting fires in the old city, but the shopkeepers won’t say a word about the culprits. Why are they keeping these thugs’ secrets? When the mayor begs for help, Max agrees to take the case, putting himself in grave danger. It’s a race to catch up with the vandals before they catch him.

Meanwhile, Max is protecting secrets of his own. His parents are still missing, and the cryptic messages he gets from them make it clear—it’s going to be up to Max to rescue them.

Can the Solutioneer handle cases this big?


My Review:
I reviewed the first book of this series (audio edition) a few weeks ago. You can tell I enjoyed it by how soon I hunted up Book Two! This time, I went for the ebook, and I greatly enjoyed having the illustrations (plus, some names became clearer to me, due to seeing them in writing).

Book Two did not disappoint. Max continues to use his wits to solve some challenging problems, sometimes aided, sometimes hindered, by his youth and his youthful ways of looking at things, as well as by his assistant, Pia, and his need to keep his own big secret about his missing parents.

The problems Max is trying to solve are getting bigger, now, and his personal stakes are higher than ever. But he's also having trouble holding onto his own secrets, and Voigt deftly leads Max and the reader to the conclusion that doing everything yourself isn't always possible, let alone a good plan. Max is learning the fine balance between the independence he so values and the interdependence that is the reality of life.

The story is fast-moving, with humor and excitement nicely blended, and the writing is excellent. The problem-solving aspect is a nice touch, as Max employs some approaches that an adult might not think of. I'll be ordering the 3rd book right away, to finish the story. I think I'll do that one in paper, just to round out the experience.

Recommendation:
A great fun read for anyone from about age 9 up. Younger kids may enjoy it (and there's nothing in it they shouldn't read), but may find the writing level a bit above them.

Full Disclosure: I checked The Book of Secrets 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 10, 2016

Flash Fiction: Blanche and the Seven Brothers

Our Chuck Wendig challenge this week was to pick one of the Seven Deadly Sins and write a story about it--whatever sort of story we wanted. Naturally, I couldn't follow directions and picked all seven. That number just rang a few bells...not just the fairy tale, but Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, too. And the story about the 7 Chinese brothers. Clearly something had to be done.

It's exactly 1000 words, including the title, though mostly that's luck.

Blanche and the Seven Brothers

Blanche and the Seven Brothers

The girl looked around the dingy cottage and nodded. It looked right enough. Just like in the stories. She’d be all right there.

Blanche had made her escape from the usual home problems. Her Pa was all right, she guessed, but Marjorie—no way was Blanche ever going to call that woman “Ma”—was a real piece of work, and Pa was too weak to stop her. Whatever went on in this cottage, it would be better than staying with her. And the cottage was really rather charming under the dirt. It just needed the touch of a good woman to straighten things up, as the stories said.

The occupants would be laborers, of course. They always were. And there would be seven of them. Always seven, a lot to take care of but Blanche was used to hard work. It wouldn’t be bad at all, if they treated her well. And they would, because that was always the way in the stories. With a happy sigh she went looking for a broom.

She’d been a little surprised at not finding any broom, but wasn’t that just like a batch of bachelors? Blanche didn’t have any cash, so she couldn’t go buy one, but she found one at the back of a nearby cottage. There wasn’t anyone home, so she borrowed the broom, a little surprised at herself.

Halfway through cleaning the cottage, Blanche grew so tired she just had to lie down for a little nap. It was something about the atmosphere of the place, she decided. There weren’t enough breezes down in this hollow, the air was kind of dead.

She woke up several hours later, and realized there was just enough time to make dinner before the miners came home. The pantry held an odd mix of foods, but Blanche did the best she could, this being something in the way of an audition—she had just one chance to convince the brothers to hire her.

Dinner was almost on the table when Blanche heard the sound of heavy boots approaching the cottage. Running to the window, she peeked out. Yes, there they were, and there were seven of them. A motley crew, for sure.

The one in the lead was dressed to the nines, must be in management, which wasn’t according to protocol. Not too high, but thought he owned the place, Blanche decided. Behind him trailed four who were miners all right, filthy from head to toe and wearing expressions that almost gave Blanche pause, especially the one who looked to be peeved about something. She shrugged. Marjorie was always angry, and usually took it out on Blanche. She knew how to dodge that sort of thing. Another one looked ready to fall asleep. As she watched, he dropped to the back of the line, letting another brother push ahead.

That one was dressed like middle management, but not quite right. He was trying too hard. Not polished like the guy in the lead. He was a wannabe, for sure, imitating the successful brother.

The last man in line, until the sleepy one—yes, there was precedent for that in the stories, wasn’t there?—dropped back—gave Blanche pause. He had a look she’d seen before, when Marjorie brought home “friends.”

Maybe she ought to run while she could. But it was the proper cottage, and seven brothers was right. She could tell they were brothers, for all the differences. There was a strong family resemblance about the nose and mouth, stretched by fat in one case, or tightened to an angry line in another, but visible all the same. Blanche stood her ground.

The brothers hadn’t been in the house half an hour before Blanche knew she’d made a dreadful mistake. The manager-type resented every hint that the cottage wasn’t perfect, the wannabe whined about how the neighbors had gotten the better piece of land, and the fat one ate everything on the table, fighting every inch of the way with one of the miners who had loaded his plate with more than he could eat, but wouldn’t share.

Sleepy was the only one who behaved according to the stories, eating a little and falling asleep in the big chair by the fire, which he left it to others to kindle and feed. Lazy bum, Blanche thought.

But it was the angry one who made her think this might not work. She should have known, just from the guy’s face. He didn’t get enough dinner, thanks to the hoarder and the pig, and he went ballistic. Somehow it was all Blanche’s fault. She put him in his place, ignoring the cold looks of the manager, and dashed off up the stairs to her room.

The seventh brother was waiting for her there. She hadn’t even seen him leave the kitchen, but he was stretched out on the bed she’d chosen for her own. And he was wearing—really? Yes, silk pajamas. He hadn’t bothered to shower, though, the lout.

“Come here, babe,” he cooed in what Blanche supposed he thought was a seductive way.

“Get outta my room, you lout!”

“Oh, you don’t want to say that. I can make you happy, you know.” He went on in that vein for some time, while he and Blanche engaged in a sort of dance where she kept edging back toward the door and he kept trying to get between her and the door. He’d have managed it, and locked her in, if he hadn’t been distracted by the need to grab for her every time he got close.

In the end, Blanche reached the door just ahead of him, wrenched it open, and ran back down the stairs full speed. On her way through the kitchen, she called out to Mr. Full-of-Himself that she was finished. Done.

Back out in the lane, Blanche set a brisk pace for town. She’d find work somewhere they’d treat her decent, like the Madam’s.

###
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Middle Grade review: How to Speak Dolphin

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Title: How to Speak Dolphin
Author: Ginny Rorby
Publisher: Scholastic, 2015, 264 pages
Source: Library

Summary:
It's been 2 years since Lily's mother died, and though she loves her little brother Adam, his severe autism has made him the focus of all their lives. Lily is frustrated because her step-dad doesn't seem willing to deal with Adam's problems, and she doesn't have any friends. That's a lot for a 12-year-old to cope with. But when Lily makes a friend at last, and Adam seems to respond well to dolphin therapy, it looks like things are getting better. But however much Adam loves Nori, Lily is beginning to see that a dolphin should be wild, not kept in a tank.


My Review: 
How to Speak Dolphin is a well-written book that deals honestly with autism. In some ways, it seems a bit piled-on to have all of Lily's other problems, but the author handles it well. For example, my initial reaction to Lily's new friend being blind was that it seemed a bit gratuitous, but Rorby makes sense of it. It takes someone special to understand and cope with Adam, as Lily's classmates seem unable to do, and so to be a friend to Lily (who I think has been forced by circumstances to mature faster than average, as has Zoe due to her blindness. Realistically, Lily resents Adam, or the demands and constraints his autism puts on her, but she wants more than anything for him to get the help he needs to learn to communicate--and she's willing to give up a lot to help him.

I also wondered at first if the author was tackling too much with Lily's other issues: having lost her mother, trying to work out how they are a family with her stepfather, and the whole question of animal rights. But, again, on reflection, it works. If the only issue in her life were Adam, the book would end up being just a book about dealing with autism (not bad, but less interesting), rather than a book about a girl dealing with a whole lot of difficult problems caused in part by growing up.

Recommendation:
This isn't the best book I've read this year, but it is a good, engaging read for kids from about 9 up. It would be of particular interest to those who wonder about (or are dealing with someone who has) autism, but there is plenty in there to interest kids for other reasons (especially animal lovers!).

Full Disclosure: I checked How to Speak Dolphin 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 7, 2016

Writing book revew: Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey



Title: Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Terribleminds, 2011. 338 pages.
Source: Purchased

Summary: 
This collection of 50+ essays covers many aspects of writing and the writing life, from why you should never be a writer, to why being a writer is amazing, to how to edit the living daylights out of your MS. It is profane, exaggerated, and totally inspiring.

My Review:
I guess I gave it away with the last sentence of the summary: the book is motivating. I didn't think every essay in the book was inspiring or fit me and my situation, but in general, when Wendig starts talking about writing, I have to listen--and usually to laugh before I get down to thinking seriously about what applies and how it matters.

This book is one of a set of 8 e-books on writing, collections of essays posted on Chuck Wendig's blog, Terribleminds.com, over the years. Many in this book were written when he was just starting out, not as a writer (he clearly had been doing that for many years), but as a novelist. He added some updates to the essays, in a few cases changing things to reflect what he's learned since, or adding bits of advice he left out. The result is about what you'd expect: unlike his traditionally published writing book, The Kick-Ass Writer (see review), the book is a bit rough and uneven. The advice is still good, and if you enjoy his style, will get you moving.

My biggest complaint is that I'd rather have the books on paper. I need to mark useful bits, and dog-ear pages, write my own notes, and all the things that you can only *sort of* do with an ebook.

Recommendation:
Chuck Wendig isn't for everyone. He's foul-mouthed, in an imaginative and exuberant way that you will either enjoy or possibly hate, but is hard to ignore (sometimes he makes me squirm. Mostly, I am merely in awe that anyone can come up with that many ways to cuss). If that sort of thing bothers you, don't go here (or to his blog). If you can live with the language, though, the advice is (as far as I can tell) generally sound, and usually helps me to sit down and get to work. 

 
###

Full Disclosure: I purchased Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey with my own hard-earned money, 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 3, 2016

Friday Flash: In the Soup

Chuck Wendig spent all last week collecting first lines from his readers. This week he gave us ten to choose from to write 1000-2000 words. For me the choice was clear.

“Of all the things I expected to find in my tomato soup, this wasn’t one of them.” (Stella Wood)

I think I ran a few words over my personal word count target of 1000 words. Nonetheless, I give you....

In the Soup

Of all the things I expected to find in my tomato soup, this wasn't one of them. I opened the can and mixed it myself, and only turned me back for a minute. Next think I knew I was looking at a little green man doing the breast stroke. My first thought was that I was glad I hadn't heated the soup too hot.

My second thought was that I was nuts. I was seeing naked green men in my soup. I had to be crazy.

It got worse. I closed my eyes to shut out the hallucination and raised a spoonful of soup to my mouth.

"Hey, watch it there, greedy-gullet! Whattaya think yer doing?"

Even if I believed there really was a little green man in my tomato soup, I'd have thought he'd maybe have a squeaky little voice to go with his tiny size. This guy had a huge, rough voice that sounded of whiskey and smoke. It was that voice that began to convince me this was for real. I didn't think I had enough imagination to hallucinate a little green space alien with the voice of a barfly.

"My apologies. I thought I was eating soup." The sarcasm was wasted on my visitor.

"Aye, and I thought this was me bath."

"Looks like we were both wrong." I thought about it, and said, "Actually, you can have the bath. I don't seem to want the soup anymore." I didn't. It wasn't just that he was there, and green, and naked, but...he looked like he needed a bath. Tomato soup might have been an odd choice of bathwater, but who was I to judge?

The green man ignored my invitation as he had my sarcasm. He was, in fact, standing on my spoon and cussing at me. I put up with it for a while, then said, "Oh, for heaven's sake, shut up and get back into the bath!" Even at a mere 6" tall, the view of his naked green body, liberally coated with tomato soup, wasn't edifying. He was human enough in some ways, but his skin was scaly.

"Begorrah, lass, but you're the bossy one."

"'Begorrah'? Puh-lease. You're no leprechaun, if that's what you're trying to suggest. So don't you try to play off of it being March and all."

"Who are you to say if I'm a leprechaun or no?" He certainly had the belligerence for the role, but I had to demur.

"Look at you. You're green all over," I began.

"As are all leprechauns. Haven't you been paying attention?"

I struggled to remember the cards and advertisements I'd seen over the years. Were the leprechauns green all over? I didn't think so, though I couldn't be certain. That didn't change the bigger issue. "Your skin is scaly and your head is a little...odd." I tried to be tactful, for all the good it did me. He looked outraged, so I hurried on. "You don't have any hair, and the shape is definitely not human, and well, to me you look like a space alien, though you're kind of...." I hesitated again.

"Smart?"

"I was thinking 'small.'"

"Just like a human, fixated on size. And leprechauns ARE little green men, you know."

That phrase rang a different bell in my mind. "Little green men...are from outer space."

He gave a sort of a howl that I decided must be meant for laughter. "I knew you were brighter than you look," he crowed. "Got it at last!"

I stared at him. "So you're saying that leprechauns are really space aliens? You've been here all along, and we just created a mythology to explain it?"

"That's pretty much the size of it."

Another thought occurred to me. "Why Ireland?"

He waved a hand to indicate that's easy, and said, "The whiskey, of course. No place like it for a good drink."

"And that brings us to a very good question."

"Do I want a drink? Why yes, I do, lass."

"That's not the question." I was hanged if I was going to give this little green exhibitionist strong drink, even if I had any. "The question is, what are you doing in a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup in Toledo, Ohio?"

"It's a long story, and talking's thirsty work," he hinted, but I could be as deaf to hints as he could.

"Tell me, and maybe you can get back to Ireland and your whiskey."

He huffed and dove back into the soup. I went to find some cheese and crackers, since I wasn't going to be eating my soup. When I came back he was swimming around and singing "Sweet Molly Malone," loudly and off key. I pretended not to notice.

By the time I'd finished my crackers, the green man was back on the spoon, howling for me to bring him a robe. In the interests of decency, I gave him some paper towels.

"Got blown off course, you see," he said, wrapping a towel around him like a toga.

"On your broom?" I was getting snarky, but he deserved it.

"I'm no witch," he said indignantly. "You'd be wanting the girls from the other side of the galaxy for that."

I  nodded and started in on a dish of ice cream. He went on after a moment. "I was coming in from a visit to the mother ship, you see."

"Half a world away is a lot of off course." I thought he'd probably been warming up for the fine Irish whiskey. He didn't disappoint me.

"Ach, well," he said modestly. "I might not have been tip-top on the navigation. Anyway, so here I am."

"That's your 'long story'?" I'd be damned if I'd do him any favors on the strength of that tale.

"I got chased by a big bird and had to land in your garden. Then a masked bandit came along and stole my ship."

"A bandit?"

"Furry, black and white, and wore a mask."

I groaned. "A raccoon?"

"I couldn't say. Anyhow," he said gloomily, "now I'm stuck here, and you don't even stock any good drink."

"Your problem, not mine," I told him, and went to bed.

He went back to singing, and I put the pillow over my head.

##
I stuck it out in his company for a week before I made reservations for a trip to Ireland. He could ride in my luggage.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

IWSG: Got the Revise-My-Novel, Looks-Like-Work Blues

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

It's the first Wednesday of the month, and that means time for the IWSG!

The purpose of the IWSG: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Fear of Revisions

Okay, that header is a lie. I'm not afraid of revisions. I'm just lazy. There. I said it. I'm at that point where I am taking the big globby gloppy mess that is my first draft, looking at it with a cold and detached eye, and considering what must be done to make it right. I got spoiled with my last two books. Those were not only pretty well planned, but things went right with the plan, and the first draft really wasn't too bad. This time, the plan was weak and the execution spotty, and now I'm looking at a lot of work. Work that maybe no one but me cares if I get done, some part of my mind tries to tell me.

I'm set to do it, though. I did my first read-though and outlined what I had (oh-oh). Then I figured out where I needed to be (oh, man!). I looked at what was wrong with so many of the chapters/stories (ugh). I have to take a moment here to note that I"m working on the third book in the Ninja Librarian/Skunk Corners series, and these books are intentionally episodic, with each chapter meant to be a free-standing story in which the Librarian (or Big Al, the narrator, or some of the other townspeople) solves a  problem. That's exactly how it worked in the first book. In the second book, it was a little harder, because I was telling more of an over-arching story, too, but I managed to work it out for the most part.

This book is much the most novelistic of the three, and I've struggled with the change. The format matters; part of the books' appeal is the ability to read a chapter at a time and have a satisfying story (a bonus for reluctant readers and busy adults alike). But what I found when I read my draft was that a lot of my chapters had no real point, no problem, and nothing to make them stand alone. That's not the end of the world--but it wasn't what I was looking for. And it's not so easy to make them work that way while also keeping the overarching story in motion. I set myself a good challenge with that one!

Nor did the big story grow in the way I wanted it to. All told, I have a huge mess. And a huge mess is something that takes a lot of work to fix. It requires that I slap aside the tickling urge to start another book and focus on the problem. This is when it would help to have an agent sending me emails asking when I'll have it done, or someone threatening to withhold all chocolate if I don't get to work. Alas, I have no such outside pressure. I have to invent my own.

And that means saying "no" to distractions, from Facebook to demands that I attend meetings and events at all times and days. Of course, I have obligations and can't push them all aside. By the time you read this, I'll be on my way to a 3-day conference on issues in education for African American students (that's part of my other existence as a member of a local school board). It's an important topic, and definitely worthwhile--but I need to be sure to carve out at least a little time for my revisions every day. It might work. I have my plan, and extensive notes. If I just don't completely lose my focus, I'll...what? Where was I?...

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
 
Curious about the Ninja Librarian? Click the covers for the Amazon links!