Thursday, May 26, 2016

Friday Flash: Enchanted Blasted Forest

Chuck  Wendig gave us a new challenge this week: a series utterances from his preschooler, to be used somewhere in a story. As one might expect from Chuck's progeny, they were...interesting. I selected "there's a 3-headed flying werewolf in that tree," and the rest of the Enchanted Forest came into being.

Enchanted Blasted Forest

The Enchanted Forest is a punishment post, but never mind what we did to get sent there. They have to man the post, and soldiers don’t last long there, so you don’t have to do much to end up there. About half of those sent never even arrive.

There were six of us, and when the road entered the blasted Forest we divided up the watch.  Tomo watched left, Martin right, Jock ahead, Kora behind, Shea overhead, and I was back-up to them all, scanning every direction as thoroughly as I could.

The monsters weren’t bold. If Shea called out “harpy overhead!” we’d all raise our spears and the monster would sheer off. Or Tomo would yell, “there’s a 3-headed flying werewolf in that tree!” and we’d aim our bows that way and the thing would fly away.

We only had to fire once, when a flying monkey swooped in low and tried to grab Kora. She’s not very big, but tough as nails. Martin and I both loosed arrows, but they stuck in a dead monkey. Kora had already beheaded it. She’s fast with her sword.

We were still several hours distant from the outpost when we began to wonder something. In short, we started to ask ourselves if everyone who vanished on the way to Fort End had been carried off by monsters. Maybe there was a way to get out of a long hitch in the army. Joining up had seemed like a good idea when I first went in, but it didn’t take long to knock the stars from my eyes, and if a single night out on the town could get you in this much trouble, I wanted out.

There was a guard hut halfway, and we holed up there to enjoy our lunch without having to swat away monsters. That’s when Martin asked, “Why are we here, anyway?”

“We got taken up for drunk and disorderly on our last leave.” Dumb question.

“Yeah, but…”

“Martin’s right.” I looked at each of them. “We acted like soldiers on leave and for that they sent us where only half the troops survive to even reach the post? But maybe we don’t have to get hauled off by harpies to disappear.”

“Yeah,” Jock said. “We can get eaten by 3-headed werewolves instead.”

“Or,” I said, looking from one to another, “we can appear to have been eaten by 3-headed werewolves.”

Jock was the last to get it.  “You’re saying we could run off,” he said after we all looked at him for several minutes. “Desert.” We all turned that word over in our minds as he went on. “You know what they do to deserters.”

We knew. It was a great deal faster and more sure than a posting in the Enchanted blasted Forest, but they said it was painless, which this posting wasn’t likely to be.

We finished our lunch in silence, but when we left the hut, we took the wrong turning.

“That’s our story if anyone catches us up,” I said. “Just a bit of trouble navigating.” We were still nervous at the thought of being caught by a patrol, which was the wrong worry.

Our nerves lasted until the first harpy attack. After that we were too busy to worry about the army. It seemed the creatures of the forest were a lot less bashful about attacking travelers who strayed from the military road. I began to wonder how many of the disappeared had started as deserters, and ended as dead as they’d pretended to be.

It was farther to the edge of the forest this way than the way we’d come in, so we’d have to hurry. Trouble was, we were under such constant attack that we couldn’t hurry. By an hour or two after lunch, it was plain to all of us—even Jock—that we weren’t going to make the edge of the Forest before night.

“Now what?” Shea asked.  She would. Always expecting someone else to fix her problems, that one. We couldn’t take care of that right then. We were a team and we’d only make it if we stuck together.

“We find a place to hole up,” I said, just as Kora said, “We fight on through the night until we get out.”

Martin protested. “I heard there’s things out at night here that you really don’t want to me. Things that make harpies look like pet kittens.”

We thought about that. It might be lies told to keep soldiers from deserting the fort.

It might all be true.

We had no choice but to find out. There was no safe place to hole up for the night. No more huts, and any natural hole would surely be inhabited by orcs or dragons or ten-headed hydras.

It was nearly dark before we knew the extent of our folly.

“Keep fighting, move as fast as we can, and stick together.” It wasn’t a good plan, but it was the only thing we could do, and we all knew it, so I got no argument. We were too busy.

By dark every one of us was bleeding somewhere, and the attacks picked up. I put our chances of survival at less than 50%. Meaning I didn’t expect more than three of us to live, and I’d already picked out which three.

One of the flying werewolves got Shea before midnight. There was nothing we could do. We kept moving, and enjoyed the respite the feasting gave us.

The forest started thinning about the second hour after midnight, and I thought the rest of us might make it.

The harpies had other ideas. They attacked in force, with the flying monkeys darting between them wherever our guard was incomplete.

Martin went down under the assault, but he wasn’t enough. We broke into a full run, speed more important than battle.

We’d none of us have made it if I hadn’t tripped Tomo.
###


©Rebecca M. Douglass 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Photo Time: East Mojave National Preserve

I've written about the East Mojave before, but we were back there in March, and since I've shared photos from the Death Valley part of the trip, here goes the approximately 20 hours in the Preserve. If you pick the right 20 hours, you can have a nice time, though I recommend a longer visit! We were pin-pointing a couple of things we wanted to enjoy and photograph.

1. Joshua Trees. The Cima Dome in the EMNP hosts the most spectacular Joshua tree forest in the world. Or the universe, though I suppose we could argue that anything that can evolve here might occur somewhere else in a more or less infinite universe. Anyway, we targeted the Cima Dome for dinner and a walk among the trees, with photos at sunset.

We had to wait for the good light, so made ourselves a little pizza dinner.


The forest on the Cima Dome is as thick and forest-like as any dry-country forest. The underbrush--grasses, sages, cholla cactus, etc.--was substantial as well, and provided a home for many hares and rabbits.
One of the more impressively tree-like Joshua trees I've seen.
The cherry trees in DC bloom in the spring, and so do the Joshua trees. The yucca moth pollinates them.
A Joshua tree reaches an arm down to show off its blossoms.

Once the sun sets, the trees get together to gossip and wave their arms around.
The jet trail adds a certain something, if only a reminder that this wilderness is under the flight path east from LAX.
You can see why we like to be among the Joshua trees at sunset!

Once the show was over, we drove the 50ish miles on through the Preserve to the Kelso Dunes. We had it on good authority (my in-laws) that the desert primroses were in bloom there a week before, and were crossing our fingers that they would still be. Even arriving in the dark, we could see that we were in luck.
Flash photo of the primrose next to our tent.







In the morning, we got up early, meaning to be the first atop the main dune (in the background). But we got distracted within yards.

The main dune is about a mile off and is about 700' high.


As the blossoms fade, they turn a beautiful shade of pink/purple. You can also see the buds ready for the next night's bloom.
 When the flowers die, the stalks curl up and form a "bird cage." This was the only one we could find, a reminder that the last 2 or 3 years have seen almost no flower in bloom at all.

It takes some care to avoid crushing the flowers while shooting the pictures, but with an ever-increasing number of people coming to the dunes, it's all the more important.
Photographer in heaven.
The flowers grow only in a narrow area where a wash meets the edge of the sand field. But there are more grasses and things on the long approach to the dunes, and therefore more animals and more tracks.
Kangaroo rats were here. Note the drag marks made by their tails.
With others already atop the main dune, we walked west along the lower, but untouched, secondary ridge.
The Providence Mountains are silhouetted behind the main dune.
To the NE, you can see the very gentle curve of the Cima Dome rising in the distance.

On another day we might have wandered farther out into the secondary dune fields, but we had an 8-hour drive to get back home, so left it for another visit, and counted ourselves fortunate to have seen another major primrose bloom at the Kelso Dunes.



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

Monday, May 23, 2016

Middle Grade Review: Summerlost, by Ally Condie



What? Monday again? I'm lobbying for an extra day to be inserted between Sunday and Monday, because I never quite seem to get to Monday morning on time.  So, just a few hours late, here's my Monday review!


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Title: Summerlost

Author: Ally Condie 
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016, 272 pages
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
It's the first real summer since the devastating accident that killed Cedar's father and younger brother, Ben. But now Cedar and what’s left of her family are returning to the town of Iron Creek for the summer. They’re just settling into their new house when a boy named Leo, dressed in costume, rides by on his bike. Intrigued, Cedar follows him to the renowned Summerlost theatre festival. Soon, she not only has a new friend in Leo and a job working concessions at the festival, she finds herself surrounded by mystery. The mystery of the tragic, too-short life of the Hollywood actress who haunts the halls of Summerlost. And the mystery of the strange gifts that keep appearing for Cedar.
My  Review:
This book has a beautiful cover, and in many ways the book is just as beautiful. Well-written and engaging, it caught me up quickly in the young narrator's struggle to recover from a devastating loss. I liked the easy friendship with Leo; the two join forces quickly and smoothly in the way kids sometimes do at summer camp or on holiday. That includes not asking many questions about each other, so that it takes Cedar some time to even think to wonder what makes Leo tick. (Utterly irrelevant aside: I really like the name Cedar. I could have put that on the short list if we'd had a girl.)

I liked that once Cedar gets started, we find that Leo has his own depths. Not tragic, like hers (which he knows about; Iron Creek is a small town and everyone knows about her loss), but he's a fully-rounded human with his own struggles. This makes their friendship feel real, not just a convenience for the author or for Cedar. The pair are certainly motivated, and if I'm a little dubious about the legality of 12-year-olds holding a regular job, (very minor spoiler alert!) the kids and the author know that their extra business is going to get them in trouble, as it does, so that part is realistic enough. The kiddie employment was one element that made me at first think this book had a historical setting, but it doesn't seem to (though come to think of it, the kids don't have cell phones or computers, so maybe it does hark back to a little earlier time. The author makes no effort to nail down a sense of time, and the small-town setting helps it feel like anything from the 50s up).

Probably my only issue with the book was my jaded sense of "here's another kid's book about death and loss," due to a recent run of books on those lines. That's scarcely the book's fault, though I do think the trope is getting a bit overused. Oddly, there was an autism element in this one, too--the lost brother was autistic, and that adds an interesting layer to Cedar's grief, without being a story-line gimmick. It's also interesting to see how Cedar, her mother, and her little brother Miles all deal with their loss. Though Miles seems a fairly static character through most of the book, in the end we see that he, too, is working things out. Nor is there any magic healing at the end. Grief isn't a process with a finish line. These three have simply made it through another summer.

Recommendation:
Perfect for ages 9 or 10 and up. The language is good, the writing, as noted, is excellent, and I think the story is equally engaging for girls or boys. It's not a tear-jerker--that grief is in the past--but it is certainly a moving book as well as at times a lot of fun, with kids who are taking some responsibility for their own lives.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Summerlost 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, May 19, 2016

Friday Flash: They Fight Crime

This week Chuck Wendig found yet another great random-idea-generator, and sent us all to They Fight Crime. It was pretty fun, so as so often happens, I hit the button a bunch of time, picked what I liked best, mixed and matched, and then shifted genders around because they were all "he...she" combos and that's sooooo 20th Century. Chuck just wanted us to play with the characters, not necessary have them fight crime, but that's what mine decided to do. He also gave us 1500 words, but I only used a bit over my usual 1000. What I got, by the way, was:
He's a patronizing scientist with a love for bananas.
She's a mistrustful barbarian with a taste for style. 
I made them both female because why not? Here, for your Friday distraction, I give you Susan and Maga.

Attraction of Opposites Saves the World


“Maga, can’t you clean up after yourself for once?” Susan shouted her frustration from the living room. “How the dickens can I be expected to do my work when you leave shopping bags everywhere?”

Maga poked her head out of the bedroom. “I like new clothes. And you have to admit I wear them well. You’ll manage.”

“But the furniture doesn’t look so good in the bags, Maga. And I can’t work if there’s no space. Anyway, with all your shopping, did you ever think to pick up more bananas?”

Maga stiffened, her hair escaping the effort she’d made to tame it. “I may be a barbarian, but I do not eat bananas.”

The bickering ran on until a red light began flashing over the door, accompanied by a piercing whistle. Maga uttered a barbaric curse and slipped out of the Prada heels and into her fur-lined boots. She pulled a deerskin tunic over her head to cover the designer dress; too much work to take it off. Grabbing her spear and bow, she headed for the door.

Susan, toting her own kit—a mini-lab in a briefcase—had beat her outside. She was kicking her motorcycle into reluctant life as Maga leapt onto her own mount.

Minutes later, Maga pulled the nimble steppe horse to a halt at the crime scene and swung down, sword at the ready. Susan looked up from the device with which she scanned the scene and scowled. “Maga, if you’d just join the 21st Century you wouldn’t miss all the fun. The perp’s gotten away, but I’ll figure out who it was soon enough, with my brilliant invention.”

Maga tossed wind-tangled hair from her face and answered in the thick accent she used only in public. “I am barbarian! I ride my horse!”

“Well, I don’t see what you can do on this case. The only clue the thief left behind is DNA, which my scanner is analyzing now, and this cell phone with a code only I can break. You’ll have to sit this one out and let the scientist work,” she added smugly.

“Oh?” Maga narrowed her eyes and gazed into the distance. Her vision undamaged by screens and books, she could see the fleeing figure about to vanish from sight. She vaulted back onto the horse, urged it to a gallop, and moments later scooped up the suspect. The stolen briefcase still swung from the woman’s fist.

“Got you!” Maga wrestled the perp into submission and draped her over the horse in front of her. “I like scarf,” she added, removing the woman’s expensive silk scarf and wrapping it around her own neck. It looked a trifle odd with the deerskin tunic, but would go perfectly with that little number she’d gotten on sale last week. They cantered back to the crime scene.

“Done playing?” Susan asked. “I’ve nearly cracked this code and will soon know who the miscreant is.”

Maga ignored her, turning to the suited man who sat on the curb, weeping quietly. “Is this yours?” She handed down the briefcase and the man leapt up. “My case! You caught her!”

“And do you know this…person?” Maga’s accent was so thick now that she had to repeat the question three times.

He squinted at the perp, who glared back, though at something of a disadvantage as she was still face down across the horse’s back. “Aha! My greatest rival! So, Miss Haggelund, you would steal the data that makes my empire greater than yours?”

“Ha!” Maga’s captive snorted, and was allowed to slide to her feet and stand nose to nose with the man in the suit. “You stole my phone and conned these idiots into breaking the code for you! And now you whine that I have your precious briefcase.” She swung to fix her own glare on Susan, who was staring intently at the phone. “Give me my property!”

Susan raised one eyebrow, then the other. “I think not!” She read a little more on the phone. “Maga, keep that briefcase. These two are playing a deep game indeed.”

“Urgh!” Maga put all the force of her barbarian ancestors into the growl, and it had the desired effect. Both suspects, as they now appeared to be, cringed away from her, and she recovered the briefcase with no trouble.

Susan slid the phone into the pocket of her lab coat and put her hands on her hips. “So you think you can divide the world between you and run it all? You reckoned without the greatest scientist on earth. Me,” she added in case they didn’t get it.

Maga kept a closer eye on the two, who now, faced with a common enemy, were drawing together, exchanging plans in a glance and signaling with a nod. Maga caught the woman before she had taken two steps, flung her toward Susan, and spurred her mount after the man. He had reached the motorcycle and it looked like a clean escape until Susan, one arm holding the woman in a neck-lock, pulled a remote control from her pocket and pressed a button.

The motorcycle grew a cage. That was how Maga always saw it, anyway. It was all clever engineering, but she preferred to think of it as magic. Being a barbarian and all.

Susan phoned for the police while Maga rode over to where the man would-be master criminal was whimpering inside the motorcycle/cage.

“They always think they can steal a poor helpless scientist’s wheels,” she said, and the barbaric accent was gone. She dismounted, and Susan pressed another button, releasing the cage. Maga tied the man with leather thongs, knotting them tight. The police would cut them anyway. They always did, and then she had to go find and cure another hide. Zip-ties would have been easier, but Maga had a reputation to uphold.

Explaining to the police that these now-pathetic creatures had seriously planned to take over the world took a long time, as usual. It was well past dark, and a light drizzle had soaked deerskin and lab coat alike before the cops found someone who could understand what the phone and the papers showed. When they left at last, Maga put an arm around her shivering partner.

“Come on. Let’s find an all-night grocery and get you some bananas. Then I want to go home and see if this really matches that dress. I might need a new pair of shoes,” she added dreamily.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Middle Grade Review: Big Nate

I've noticed that the Big Nate books are very popular with the elementary students, and had heard some not-great things about them, so I took a look at a couple to draw my own conclusions. I read the first book, Big Nate: In a Class By Himself, and Big Nate Goes for Broke.
https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1442288527l/7150178.jpg     12092375

First, the info. Titles are above.
Author: Lincoln Peirce
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2010 and 2012.
Source: Library

Discussion:
Big Nate is a middle-schooler, 6th grade (that's about age 12, for my British readers). He's no star of his school--in fact, his stories seem to be more about his disasters, though he always grasps victory--of a sort--from the jaws of defeat, which isn't a bad message. I would even say that his victory in "Goes for Broke" is a good one. I'm less impressed with his triumph in the other book, which is to accumulate more detention slips in a single day than any other kid--though he does seem more hapless than ill-behaved.

The bad message is how often his jokes and triumphs are at the expense of other people. When he wants to tell us about his wonderful Cartooning Club in "Goes for Broke," he does it by telling us why all the other clubs in the school are lame (in the process making fun, as usual, of those who enjoy and excel at academics). Yes, I can see why kids would laugh at those jokes, and yes, it's how humor often works at that age, but I'm no fan of jokes that rely on belittling others and see no need for books to model what the kids will all too often do on their own.

In "In a Class By Himself," a lot of the negative humor is directed at the teachers. They are all old, fat, evil, etc. Again, maybe that's how an under-achieving middle-schooler views the teachers, but I'm not impressed. What's wrong with having some decent teachers? For that matter, would it be so bad if Nate were engaged in even one of his classes?

Finally, Nate himself is often the victim of bullies who go unpunished and whom the teachers never seem to see through. Let's give teachers some credit here, Mr. Peirce! (And MUST every extra-large middle-school boy be a bully? That's not been my experience). Certainly neither students nor teachers at PS 38 or their rival Jefferson Middle School seem to have any familiarity with things like Restorative Justice. I realize that it wouldn't fit the tone of the books to have that degree of realism. And maybe that's just the problem.

Recommendation: 
As you have no doubt gathered, I'm pretty unimpressed with these books. I don't really recommend them for anyone, despite their obvious appeal to a certain demographic. I might even go so far as to say these would be an exception to my usual rule that any book a kid wants to read is a good book. I don't know. Maybe the kids see through Nate and recognize that his mockery of others is just his insecurity talking. But I suspect that most are just embracing a confirmation of their own urges to build their own sense of self by running down everyone else. There's enough mean-spirited behavior among kids that age to lend a ring of truth to the books--but there's also enough that the kids don't need any extra.

FTC Disclosure: I checked the Big Nate books out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Middle Grade Audiobook: The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail

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Title: The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail
Author: Richard Peck; read by James McCourt
Publisher: Listening Library,  2013; originally Dial Books, 2013 (240 pages).
Source: Library (digital resources)

Summary: 
He's the smallest mouse in the Mews at Buckingham Palace, and he's an orphan without even a name. Aunt Marigold, the head mouse seamstress, raises him and sends him to the Mouse Mews Academy, but she won't tell him his name. Soon "Mouse Minor," as the other mice at the academy dub him, is on the run from bullies and looking for his identity. His quest takes him into the palace on the eve of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and he survives a lot of adventures by just a whisker before finding himself--in more ways than one--in the presence of the queen of the mice.

My Review:
I have yet to find any tale by Richard Peck anything less than delightful. This one is no exception. With a dry sense of humor and some asides that are aimed at the adults but won't hurt the kids, Peck takes us on a fast-moving adventure (because mice never have very much time) through the palace gardens, attics, and even Queen Victoria's bedchamber.

James McCourt's reading of the story is perfect--his voice is just right, and he renders the first-person narrative so that I'll never hear that character in any other way!

If I were giving stars, I'd give this one 5, for just being marvelous fun.

Rambling thought: what is it about us humans and talking mice? Stuart Little, Despereaux, Reepicheep, and who knows how many others. Maybe mice are the most convincing "Little People" we can come up with, if we can't believe in fairies? And they ARE everywhere :)

Recommendation:
This book is suitable for kids of any age, really, though the reading level is probably about age 9. Maybe 8; some kids will struggle a bit with references to things that are particularly British, or that are long since vanished from everyday use (it is, after all, historical fiction!). But my experience is that the adults worry more about that than most kids, who just accept stuff and read on to find out what will happen next to the intrepid Mouse Minor.


FTC Disclosure: I checked The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail 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, May 12, 2016

Friday Flash: Night Ride

Our Chuck Wendig challenge this week was the "random photo" challenge--he gave us this link, and I clicked it a few times, and two photos leapt out at me. There was this one, which my mind interpreted as some kind of ant (which it isn't). And this one, which provided the setting for my story. Naturally, I took liberties and made the Badlands a great deal more expansive than they look in the photo (or are in fact).  I brought back, more or less, a character from my last foray into the Weird West, the Traveler.

Night Ride


The Traveler surveyed the land that stood between him and the nearest drink. Not a plant grew anywhere among the heavily eroded slopes and washes of the badlands. Heat waves made the colorless hills shimmer.

“Nothing to eat down there, hey Dusty?” The horse tossed a head in agreement. Its other head was busy sampling the bushes at its feet.

The Traveler reined his mount around. “We’ll go fill up at that spring back a ways and have a nap. And a graze,” he said in response to four flicking ears. “We’ll head down and get through those Badlands come night.” The midday sun withered everything, including the Traveler. Salt stained his torn shirt, the sweat dry before it could show wet. He estimated the temperature at 102. It was no time to be riding down into that oven.

Trav dismounted and let the two-headed horse drink at the trickle of water, then stripped off the saddle and rubbed the beast down. He picketed Dusty where each head could reach a different bit of grazing. Dusty seemed to be willing to try anything without spikes, but an awful lot of what was out here had spikes.

His mount seen to, Trav stretched himself out in the meager shade of a creosote bush, checking first to be certain no rattlers had beat him to it. He closed his eyes.

The Traveler woke in a cold sweat. He could feel them crawling on him. Springing to his feet, he brushed at a couple of wandering insects. Dusty snorted at the motion, then went back to dozing and grazing (left and right heads, respectively). Trav took a deep breath, calming himself. Just ants. Harmless ants. Their resemblance to the beings he’d been battling for weeks was purely coincidental. He knew that. But he couldn’t see one without seeing the giant, tentacled Bugs.

The sun had nearly reached the horizon. Trav kindled a small fire, taking care not to let smoke rise beyond the lip of the wash, and boiled the last of his coffee. He drank it slowly, washing down the jerky that was his only food. If they got through the badlands, they’d make it to town the next day. There’d be wine, women and song there, and more to the point, a square meal.

If.

The Badlands were just the sort of place the Bugs would hide out. He scarcely expected to make if through without a battle, though the Bugs saw poorly in the dark, and night was the safest time.

“Safest” wasn’t the same as “safe.”

He saddled and bridled Dusty, and double-checked the girth. They’d be running for it before morning. The sun dipped below the horizon, and the Traveler mounted. If they could get through the gullies and back to open desert before dawn, they might make it.

Dusty was a help. With two heads, he could always watch both his footing and their surroundings. That might give them the edge they needed. Trav still held a grudge against the Bugs for the death of his former mount, Rover, who saw only ahead. He’d barely escaped from that one with his own life.

They slid down the steep bank into the gully. Trav had to trust to his own, and Dusty’s, sense of direction to see them through. He had no maps, hadn’t even known the Badlands existed.

The danger might be greatest now, at dusk. The Bugs might still be moving about. If they didn’t make it through before dawn, it would be worse then. The Traveler didn’t have to urge Dusty on. The horse could smell the Bugs. He was nervous, but eager to move on and get past them.

A huge yellow and black head popped into view from a side-canyon, and Trav acted. A single bullet in the right place stopped a Bug, and this one was too close to miss. The shot echoed through the mud hills, and Trav spurred Dusty to a run. The Bugs weren’t smart, just deadly at close range. If they got far enough before any others appeared, they’d be clear, for a while.

Dusty raced down one wash, turned west up another, then south again. He nearly got boxed, but scrambled up the steep slope and slid down into the next wash. Trav pulled up on the reins. “Easy there, Dusty. I think we’re clear.”

They moved through the maze of gullies and hills for the next few hours at a walk, following the stars and Dusty’s nose toward the west whenever they could, with no further sign of the Bugs. The Traveler had begun to relax as they moved into the darkest part of the night.

Dusty did not relax. The scent of Bugs was everywhere, and it kept him on edge.

It kept them alive.

Dusty had already begun his leap forward when the tentacle reached for Trav, and it tore at his worn homespun pants. Trav grunted. A bit of his leg had gone with the fabric. He let the reins rest against the saddle horn and pulled both six-shooters. He couldn’t see much in the dark, but this wasn’t a lone Bug. He began firing as the giant insects loomed out of the darkness on all sides. Bug guts spattered them, burning where they lit, and Dusty leapt forward.

Trav shot three more times, mowing down a pair of Bugs that loomed ahead of them, and held tight as Dusty rose in a massive leap over the corpses. He ran on. The land flattened out, dusty hills and creosote bushes once more. The Traveler fired a couple more shots, tied his bandana around the flesh wound in his leg, and let Dusty run.

When they were sure no Bugs followed, Trav pulled up, studied the stars and the land, and steered the horse in the right direction.

“We made it, pal. Straight on toward morning, and a bait of oats for you, beer for me.”  They’d lived to fight Bugs another day.


###

My own view of the Badlands at Anza-Borrego State Park


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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Middle Grade Review: The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin

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Title: The Thing About Jellyfish
Author: Ali Benjamin
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co., 2015. 343 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting-things don't just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone.

My Review:
First, I want to add a couple of things to the summary: Suzy's grief is complicated by the fact that she and her friend hadn't just parted on bad terms; they had grown apart. And she is the kind of kid who knows lots and lots of little facts, and takes comfort in them.

In fact, then, Suzy appears to be yet another middle-school-book character who is a bit on the Aspergers side of normal.* This does lend legitimacy to her difficulty relating to the other girls her age, including her (former) best friend Franny. She just doesn't get those girly concerns, and they don't get her somewhat different way of seeing/processing the world (which she doesn't know how to filter for the others).

Fine. I'm okay with that, to a point. I do wonder, though, about the prevalence of this character, because it seems like I'm seeing it a lot (the kid with Aspergers, I mean). Is it just an easy way to make the struggles of middle school stand out with greater clarity? I wonder about how well most kids can relate to the "weird kids" in the books. 

Okay, rant over, I will agree with the blurbs that talk about this as a moving book. It is. Suzy's path through her grief to some kind of acceptance is striking and should give most readers, of any age, pause to think (including to think about their relationships). And Suzy's efforts to make sense out of the random accident that caused her friend's death are impressive, if quirky. I like the way she gradually finds her way to friends with whom she can relate, and her silence--she stops speaking entirely not long after the accident--make clear her recognition that she has issues with words. That is, she has trouble figuring out what might be the right words at any time (this makes the Aspergers part make more sense, and feel more necessary to the story, though I'm thinking plenty of neuro-typical middle school kids have no idea what to say).** She stops talking because her words seem to her to lead to trouble, rather than communication.

So: The Thing About Jellyfish is a beautifully written story that weaves together the difficulty of middle school with bigger life issues. 

Recommendation:
I think this would be a good story for a lot of middle-school kids to read, both the ones who struggle and the ones who make other struggle. Maybe books like this can help the "popular kids" recognize the humanity of the geeks and nerds and that weird kid who sits alone at lunch? I'm not sure. Most of us don't do well as seeing ourselves in the villains of a piece. But it's worth a try.  Ages 9 or 10 up.

*Note: Suzy is never explicitly described as having Aspergers Syndrome. But her obsessions, focus on obscure facts, and tendency to spew them out without controls make it pretty clear where the author was going with this.

**I can't help thinking of a current discussion in my Goodreads Great Middle Grade Reads group about what current books will become classics. There is a definite feeling that this sort of middle-school-trauma book is too tied to it's own time and place to have that kind of lasting appeal. I suspect that they are right, though that doesn't mean the book isn't a fine and valuable work right now.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Thing About Jellyfish out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Spring in Death Valley National Park (Photo post)

A few weeks ago I posted a bit of creative non-fiction from our first night in Death Valley National Park this year (at the end of March). Now I'm continuing with the next two days in the park.

In case you want the short version of the Panamint Dunes post.
After extracting ourselves and our car from the Panamint Dunes area with no major damage, we were facing the hottest part of the day, and some time to kill before the light would be good for more photos. So we decided to head to higher ground, and drove to Lee's Flats, at about 4000', where probably the second-best Joshua Tree forest in the universe grows (more on this when I get to the East Mojave).
Joshua tree forest and Telescope Peak.
Joshua Tree blossom. They are pollinated by the yucca moth.
On from Lee Flats to take care of chores (water and info at Furnace Creek; dinner along the road) and drive south to a canyon we'd read of, where we hiked again away from the roads and made our bed in a dry wash (yes, we checked weather forecasts to be 100% sure it would remain a DRY wash!). We had limited expectations of the canyon, but in the morning it began immediately to have a pay-off, starting with a lot of flowers.

Ghost Flower; looking across Death Valley to the Panamint Range on the other side.
 Morning light,  looking north past Badwater (the lowest point in the US, at 285 feet below sea level).

We soon found ourselves exploring a narrow side-canyon, a true slot canyon but not made of sandstone polished by water like the slots of Utah. This canyon was carved out of "fanglomerate," a conglomerate stone formed from ancient alluvial fans (yes, it was stone, not just dirt walls with rocks embedded).
The spouse in one of the narrower spots.
We climbed out of the slot far up the slope, and found still more flowers. This tiny plant had blossoms a half inch across or less.
 Back in the main canyon, we explored until we couldn't go any farther, and it, too, narrowed into a near-slot canyon.

Easy walking on the smooth gravel.
 Back on the road, we found the last remnants of the "superbloom" on the Valley floor.
Desert Gold sunflower with Telescope Peak more than 10,000' above.

Later in the afternoon, we went looking for flowers, and found them at higher elevations. But some had attracted wildlife that puts an end to them in a hurry.

Nope. No idea what kind of caterpillar.

Night found us camping off a dirt road below Dante's View. Death Valley allows "dispersed camping" at least one mile from paved roads, aside from a few restricted areas. We go equipped with our own table and carry plenty of water to camp where we will.


 Morning proved both windy and cold--in the low 40s where we were camped, and when we drove to Dante's View before breakfast, the windspeed was higher than the temperature.
Badwater at lower left. In the distance, you can see a cloud of dust being kicked up by the strong winds around the Mesquite Sand Dunes north of Furnace Creek.
After we found a semi-sheltered spot to cook and eat breakfast, I dropped the spouse at Zabriski Point and drove to Golden Canyon. He hiked down from above, and I explored Golden Canyon thoroughly before hiking up to the top.
Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon
 Even in the constantly-eroding badlands overlooked by Zabriski Point, some plants insist on making a home.

 An overview of the Badlands, in the low light the evening before our hike.


Next: On to the East Mojave National Preserve, and the greatest Joshua Tree forest in the universe!

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

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Friday Flash: I'm in Love with a Zombie

Last week, Chuck Wendig collected a whole lot of titles from his readers. This week, he presented us with his 10 favorite and told us to pick one and write the story. He gave us the usual 1000 words; I used 918.

I'm In Love With A Zombie But He Doesn’t Even Know I’m Alive


Look, I’ve been crushing on Armand since the sixth grade. We’re graduating next spring, so that’s pretty much a whole lifetime, in teen years. He’s never liked me back, of course. Why should the cutest guy in the school pay any attention to a geek with pimples? Even if I do have the best brains in our class. Plus I don’t even know if he likes boys.

So I guess I have the best brains except when it comes to crushing on beautiful boys with no brains and 17 girlfriends. I have to admit that’s pretty stupid.

After last month, it’s even more stupid.

You know all about that, of course. There hasn’t been much else on the news besides the virus that spread into every community in North America, turning about ten percent of the people into zombies. Those zombies wander around, looking for the living so they can suck out their brains.

You see now why it’s not so smart for the brainiest kid in the junior class to crush on Armand. Because though I’m pretty sure that being smart doesn’t actually mean I have more brains in a literal sense, what’s a zombie to think? Actually, I’m not sure that Armand recognized the “brainiest” designation as figurative even when he was alive. I’m not in love with him for his brains, just that gorgeous body.

The only thing that’s kept me alive so far is that Armand doesn’t know I am. If you didn’t follow that, it’s like this: I’m pretending to be a zombie. So Armand and the rest of the zombies don’t know I’m alive. Literally.

They shut down the school, of course, after than nasty incident in the AP class. A dozen zombies broke in and went after the top students. Lucky for me, I’d gone to the bathroom and missed the carnage, but they got a couple of my best friends. Anyway, after that the school said they couldn’t be responsible and shut down.

Now most people lock themselves in their houses from sunset to sunrise, and only go out in the day if they have to, because not all the zombies avoid the sun, and cloudy days are always chancy. Everyone sits around watching TV or cat videos on You Tube, which to me is just a long slow way of becoming a zombie. I could only stand it for about a day and half, and then I had to come up with a way to get out.

That was when I realized that zombies only attack the living, not the living dead. They wander around together all the time and never try to suck each others’ brains. If I could learn to look like a zombie, I could go where I liked, night or day. I found my sister’s makeup and practiced for a week before I felt confident, and then I started venturing out.

Of course, the first thing I did was go look for Armand, and I found him with a troop of zombies, wandering around looking for “braiiiiins.”

The movies all show the living dead as half-decayed, hideous things. But the thing is, the virus doesn’t ruin their bodies, only their minds. They’re dead, but the virus keeps the body going. So Armand looks just the way he always did, and I can’t get over that. I started hanging out with his gang just to be close to that gorgeous bod, even though I knew that if they figured out I’m alive I’d be dead.

The hardest part is to remember not to say anything but “Braiiins!” and to fade away discreetly when they find a victim. The first time I saw them attack someone, I barely managed to get out of sight before I puked. That would be a dead giveaway, and I can’t risk it happening again.

I still really, really want to suck face with Armand, but…I’m pretty sure that he only wants to suck brains. And anyway, he doesn’t know I’m alive, which is just what it’s been like since sixth grade. At least I can look at him, and sometimes I manage to rub up against him, pretending it’s just the jostling of the crowd. There don’t seem to be any more zombies forming in our town, but the crowd around Armand keeps getting bigger, which makes it hard to stay close to him, but also gives me an excuse to touch him when I do get close. Zombies seem to like company, even though they’re lousy conversationalists.

My patience finally paid off after a couple of weeks. He spoke to me! Armand turned and looked right at me and said “Brains!” Just to me. I went so weak in the knees I almost forgot to be a zombie. I’ve been waiting for him to see me, really see me, since middle school. I wanted to reach out and hold his hand, but I’ve noticed that zombies don’t do that. I’m trying really hard to fit in, and it’s working better than it did when I tried to join him at the jocks’ table in the lunchroom in 9th grade.

So there I am. I’m spending all my time with the most beautiful boy in the school, and he doesn’t even know I’m alive. And I have to be glad about that.

When you’re in love with a zombie, it really is best if he doesn’t know you’re alive.

###
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

IWSG: Marketing

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

Click on the badge above to see the IWSG home page and the linky list.


So...What am I fretting over this month?
I have plenty to choose from for my anxiety-of-the-month. I'm still revising book three of the Ninja Librarian series, though I'd had hopes that I'd have it ready for beta-readers by the end of April. It's going to take at least another week. And I still don't have a title I like, nor any idea what the cover should look like. Not good.

Then there's the whole marketing thing, or building a platform, or just being visible out there. I had great hopes of making myself known and loved far and wide with extensive visiting during the A to Z Challenge (in which I didn't participate except as a visitor, in hopes of having more time to do that. HA!). That didn't go quite according to plan, and I've been pretty spotty in my appearances on Goodreads, too. I just get too busy and then I'm afraid to poke my nose in around there because there will be so much to catch up on (I know; bad reasoning. The longer I stay away, the farther behind I get).

My on-line sales have been up and down. There was a good initial reaction to a sale price on Death By Ice Cream during the month of May, but that tapered off quickly. And it's been forever since I had an event allowing for local sales. I haven't done my usual local library appearance for the latest release, for a variety of reason that we don't need to go into (I must learn to be pushier!), and haven't been asked to any classrooms this spring.

I recently learned from another Goodreads author that she does sales at craft fairs and farmers' markets and places that I would never have thought of. So my newest resolution is to start looking for events where I can take a table for a low enough price that I can hope to make the money back. We'll see how that goes. 

When I finish messing with the Ninja Librarian, there's the third Pismawallops PTA book to finish and revise, and a couple more books are clamoring to be written. I MUST learn to revise more efficiently so I can get on with the many stories that want out!

I guess there are worse problems a writer could have.

Try not to let your luggage get in the way of life!
 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Monday YA: Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

I'm late. I know I'm late. Sometimes, that's just the way I am. I had to finish the book this morning!

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Title: Bone Gap
Author: Laura Ruby
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, 2015. 345 pages

Publisher's Summary:
Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.


My Review:
I picked up this book because a co-worker heard me talking about face-blindness and said I had to read it. I talk about face-blindness (prosopagnosia) in another review, if you want to see what I'm talking about. And indeed, that is a significant theme in the book. I will also say Bone Gap is a work of magical realism, which I didn't realize when I started (because instead of reading the blurbs on the back I just started in). This is significant mostly because I'm not a huge fan of magical realism, so the book had to overcome that resistance. I'd say it succeeded in doing so pretty well, though in many ways I'd like to see the story without the magic elements.

Bone Gap is well-written, and Ruby has a very nice voice and some great turns of phrase (also some fun moments, as Finn and Petey mock college application essays that ask you to write weird things). The plot is both totally predictable (boy meets girl, etc.) and completely not (no one is as they seem). Getting past my own prejudices, my biggest negative on the book is that I thought the ending was a bit pat--not the wrap-up of the big adventure, but the final wrap-up. I can't say a lot without offering spoilers, but people just get too blasted nice. I was pleased that the author left a few threads hanging.

Recommendation:
This is a YA novel that would be excellent reading for high school students. But to me it read like an adult novel. The teen romance elements were secondary to a story, and that story was complex as well as magical. I would recommend this for anyone from about age 14 up who doesn't mind magical realism.

Full Disclosure: I checked Bone Gap 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."