Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: Time to Be in Earnest, by P. D. James


Title: Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography
Author: P. D. James
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 1999. Paperback by Ballantine, 2001. 269 pages.
Source: Library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
On the day she turned seventy-seven, internationally acclaimed mystery writer P. D. James embarked on an endeavor unlike any other in her distinguished career: she decided to write a personal memoir in the form of a diary. Over the course of a year she set down not only the events and impressions of her extraordinarily active life, but also the memories, joys, discoveries, and crises of a lifetime. This enchantingly original volume is the result.

Time to Be in Earnest offers an intimate portrait of one of most accomplished women of our time. Here are vivid, revealing accounts of her school days in Cambridge in the 1920s and '30s, her happy marriage and the tragedy of her husband's mental illness, and the thrill of publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962. As she recounts the decades of her exceptional life, James holds forth with wit and candor on such diverse subjects as the evolution of the detective novel, her deep love of the English countryside, her views of author tours and television adaptations, and her life-long obsession with Jane Austen. Wise and frank, engaging and graceful, this "fragment of autobiography" will delight and surprise P. D. James's admirers the world over.

My Review:   
Time to Be in Earnest is an odd sort of hybrid, and does a number of things, none of them perhaps perfectly, but all of them better than might be expected, to make an intriguing whole. The sub-heading is about right: it's a fragmentary autobiography, and the author has made little attempt to be complete or chronological. An attentive reader can fill in most of the blanks, but don't look here for details about all aspects of James' life.

In addition to being an odd form of memoir (I think that might be a more accurate descriptor than "autobiography"), the book is a meditation on all sorts of topics, from politics to literary criticism. It gives the reader a glimpse into the author's political views, which may or may not be a good thing (she's not awful, but I would like to argue with her over some points). It also gives a look into the publishing world, at least as it used to be. Written from August 1997 to August 1998, the book long precedes the changes that have rocked publishing since about 2010.

For me, the most interesting bits are the places where James critiques, or just meditates on, the works of other authors, living and dead. There again, I don't agree with everything--I think she sells Dorothy Sayers short, but I know less of Sayers' personal life and might easily be proved wrong. But her thoughts on detective fiction are food for thought, as she sees it moving very much toward more police procedural, and the necessity of accuracy in all matters of policing. I am thinking that the "cozy mystery" trend hadn't taken hold yet then, since much of what is selling now is far from what she describes, and often plays fast and loose with the realities of police work today.*

Finally, if for nothing else, the book is worth reading for the talk she gave, reprinted as an appendix, analyzing Jane Austen's Emma as a detective story. I could only wish I had read Emma more recently, but the analysis is fascinating, and makes me want to re-read Emma.

*Note: I am a bit guilty of this myself. It's hard to have a good amateur detective and still give due respect to reality.

My Recommendation:
There is something in here for many kinds of readers. Fans of P.D. James' mysteries will want to read it for a closer look at the author. There are also bits of history regarding both WWII and the realities of life in England before the war. Finally, for many as for me, there are the insights into a wide range of books--and also into the selection of the Booker Prize winners. Not a must-read, but worth the time invested. I could wish the paperback had larger print, but that says more about me than anything else.

FTC Disclosure: I bought Time to Be in Earnest second-hand, and received nothing from the writer or publisher 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, August 21, 2017


The Ninja Librarian is in Oregon, watching the eclipse.

As a treat while you wait for our return, a few photos of the Eastern Oregon landscape, from earlier trips.

I tend to think of eastern Oregon as fairly flat--a rolling lava field much like eastern Washington (which is also not really that way--that's just what you see from I90). And it can be.
Oregon looking prairie-like aside from the volcanic artifact that is Fort Rock.
But an awful lot of it is more like this. Still volcanic, but not so flat.
US 395 near John Day, Oregon.
 Oregon can also look like this:
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Painted Hills
Interesting contrasts between the eroding hills, the volcanic butte behind, and the irrigated valley between!

We'll be looking for places more like what's behind the Painted Hills, for the best view of the eclipse!
And finally, Eastern Oregon can also look like this.

See you in a few days!

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Photo Friday: Glacier Peak Wilderness

A couple of weeks ago, I did a 6-day backpack trip with my husband and eldest son (ES) on the east side of Glacier Peak (in Washington State; not to be confused with Glacier National Park). After a good snow year, there was lots of water, a fair collection of mosquitoes, and an overwhelming abundance of wildflowers. Here's a quick trip report with a lot of pretty pictures.

For those who like more detail on routes: We hiked the Phelps Creek Trail to Spider Meadows, climbed the Spider Glacier through Spider Gap and down to Lyman Lake. Crossed Cloudy and Suiattle Passes to pick up the PCT for a few miles, then the trail through Buck Creek Pass and back down to the Chiwawa River to complete the near-loop.

Day One: 
We arrived at the trailhead, after a long and slow dirt road (the last 2.5 miles were not at all appropriate for a small sedan, but we did it anyway), in time for lunch. There were a startling number of cars in the parking area, but it was Sunday and we had faith, well-placed as it turned out, that most would be leaving that day.
Couldn't help noticing most of the other cars were SUVs.
There were great views at the trailhead (the photo above just hints at it), but the trail dove right away into thick forest, where we began almost at once to see the wildflowers that were to be such a marker of this trip.
After a couple of hours (maybe 5 1/2 miles), we began to glimpse what we had come for. It wasn't a long hike, but we were happy to know that camp would be near.
ES contemplates the view at the bottom of Spider Meadows
The campsite we claimed was about perfect: right on the edge of the meadow with a view up at the larger peaks and the next day's route. 

Day Two
We woke to frost on the flowers, but the sun eventually hit the bottom of the valley, and we moved off through the garden.
We will be climbing up around to the left of the grey outcrop and then behind it to the right of the higher brown-and-snow peak to a pass that can't be seen from here.
The trail first led us through the meadow, at a very easy grade, before we crossed Phelps Creek (not scary, but ES and I both got our feet wet). Then it began to climb with a disconcerting directness!
Gaining elevation fast.
We eventually ran out of trail, and continued straight up the glacier. It's little, without crevasses or other challenges. It may in fact be a permanent snowfield, but the map claims glacier.
ES and the spouse head for the pass.
We hit the saddle in time for an early lunch. Given the view, I wouldn't have lunched anywhere else. If you look very, very closely, you can see the summit of Mt. Baker in the low spot to the left of the double peak in the center of the skyline. Below us the Upper Lyman Lakes showed themselves to be the stark pools left behind the retreat of a glacier. We have a long way to go down, but the snowfields prove our salvation--we can slide most of the way, thus sparing our knees, though at some cost of frozen backsides.
I'm not sure when the glacier covered the lake area, but I'd be willing to guess we are talking a century or less.
Lower Lyman is also a settling-pond for glacial silt! Not only does the color give it away, but we could see the silt in the shallows, and the path the inlet has carved through it.

Day Three
We found a camp on the far shore of Lyman Lake, only later discovering that there were much nicer camps elsewhere. I advocated a move, but the guys were too settled. In the morning, after exploring along the west side of the lake up to the inlet--an impressive cascade tumbling from the lakes above--we headed up toward Cloudy Pass.
Some of the best flowers grew at Cloudy Pass, but also the best mosquitoes, and some rather impressive horseflies.
From the pass, we had a phenomenal view back to where we had been (Lyman Lake is visible at the bottom, and Spider Gap is the low spot on the ridge above the lake).
Looks like a long way.
There were also tantalizing hints of the big show, what we had really come for.
ES pauses to contemplate the big white thing.
We made this a very short day, stopping just below Suiattle Pass at a campsite with a fantastic view. We spent the afternoon vacationing--naps, reading in the tent, and just poking around a little until dinnertime.
Sunset on Glacier Peak. At 10,541', it's not the tallest volcano in the state, but it is beautiful. Last eruption was in 1700.
Day Four
Began this day very early, in order to catch sunrise on the mountain. Since it was late July, and we were very far north, that meant a 5 a.m. rising time. In most of our camps, we didn't get direct sun until much later, but it was light until 10 p.m., and light again shortly after 5, so we didn't make much use of our headlamps.
Sunrise from the same spot, not so very many hours later.
This day was our longest hiking day, with a lot of ups and downs as we had to cross a couple of drainages and climb to Buck Creek Pass. Along the way, we topped out on the imaginatively named Middle Ridge, and followed a use trail up the ridge in search of views. We found a sea of lupine.
There's a trail along just above tree line on that distant ridge. Next time, I'll go that way.
We also found views of the the mountain. Photographers in heaven!
Just before dropping to our camp (which had no views, alas, but was a short walk from this spot), we crossed a steep meadow white with Pasque flowers, bistort, and valerian, with a few asters and an occasional red paintbrush. And a volcano.
That deep scar below the glacier was the source of interest when winds kicked up clouds of dust--probably mostly ash.
Day Five
We planned a short backpacking day on this one, so that we could do some dayhiking to explore the high ridges. We left camp early to follow a trail along the ridge toward High Pass, a route we'd heard of from other hikers on this trip. It proved to be yet another scenic highlight.
Flower gardens and volcanoes, on top of Liberty Cap
Steep slopes and waist-high flowers.
There's a trail under there somewhere.
Continuing to skirt the top of the ridge. We started running into snowfields along in here.

 We could have gone a little farther, but the route to High Pass traverses high, steep snowfields above a drop-off (on the left in the photo below). That's not something to do without an ice axe. So instead, we climbed a knob above the trail, where we had 360-degree views.
Slightly distorted panorama of what we could see from our high knob, looking south and west.
 And, of course, the knob was covered with flowers.
We returned to camp in time for a late lunch. After a nap, we moved our camp a few miles closer to the trailhead, to make the next (final) day's hike easier. That last camp had the advantage of being the only one that was essentially mosquito-free, being well below the snow line and much drier.

Day Six
Final day. We had seen signs warning us that the section of trail we would be hiking this final day had been burned over the previous fall, and might be hard to follow. There were also warnings that the bridge over the Chiwawa River was out, and we worried about that off and on the whole way, knowing that it wouldn't be an option to turn around and go back. In the event, the trail had been cleared of deadfall before we reached it, and we were able to be intrigued by the burn area, rather than stymied by it. 
There were patches that burned quite intensely.
As always after a fire, it takes very little time for green things to start poking through the ash.
 The "destroyed" bridge proved, like the burn area, to be no obstacle at all. I wouldn't want to have to ford the river there, but in fact the bridge was collapsed, but solid, and provided a safe and easy crossing.

In the last mile, the trail gave us one last gift, in the form of a patch of huckleberries. Thus fortified, we were able to make it to the car, and on out to the nearest burger and shake.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nostalgia Review: Cheaper By the Dozen

The Ninja Librarian seems to be suffering a bit from summer distraction, and somehow Monday came and went without a post. This one will have to do for Monday and Wednesday, because we also have been falling behind in our reading. Not that the book needs a review, particularly, but it was kind of fun.
Title: Cheaper By the Dozen
Author: Frank Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; read by Dana Ivey
Publisher: Random House Listening Library, 1994; originally by Thomas Y. Crowell, 1948 (237 pages). 
I liked the 1948 cover, so here it is: 
Source:Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary (this is the blurb in the library catalog for the audio edition):No growing pains have ever been more hilarious than those suffered loudly by the riotous Gilbreth clan. First, there are a dozen red-haired, freckle-faced kids to contend with. Then there's Dad, a famous efficiency expert who believes a family can be run just like a factory. And there's Mother, his partner in everything except discipline. How they all survive such escapades as forgetting Frank, Jr., in a roadside restaurant or going on a first date with Dad in the backseat or having their tonsils removed en masse will keep you in stitches. You can be sure they're not only cheaper, they're funnier by the dozen. 

My Review: 

I  first read this book when I was a kid, finding that being one of 3 was quite enough, thank you. I remember it being very funny, as well as a bit of "wow, it was hard being a kid back then" (the book was first published in 1948, but the story tracks the family from the parents' marriage in 1904 until 1924, which takes us through the births of all 12 children. I stumbled on it a couple of weeks ago while looking for something to listen to, and remembered enjoying it so thought I'd give it a listen.

My reaction now is that the book still reads well, and if my amusement is now somewhat moderated by the feeling that Dad was a bit over-controlling (it would be too much to say he was a bully, because his intentions were always good, I think), it's still pretty funny. The narration by Ms. Ivey helped a lot with this, as she captured blustery Dad, eye-rolling teens (you can hear the eye-rolls, and it's pretty clear that sort of reaction to the parents goes back a long, long way), and mischievous children well.

I'm not sure if this book gives a very good look at how normal people lived in the 19-teens and 20s, but it certainly paints a good picture of one family, as well as being a loving biography of Frank Gilbreth Sr. by two of his children who obviously loved him, even while not being blind to his faults.

My Recommendation:
Definitely worth reading on a summer's day. Get the book or the audio, and prepare for some over-the-top fun (I do suspect the authors of stretching the truth a bit here and there). If nothing else, it gives one an appreciation of smaller families. The logistics of 12 children would be overwhelming today!

FTC Disclosure: I checked Cheaper By the Dozen out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher 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, August 10, 2017

Friday Flash Fiction: Library Eyes

Someone sent Chuck Wendig the link to the Magical Realism Bot last week. It's a sort of random concept generator, and he posted it as our key to this week's flash fiction. I'll put the line I saw the first I glanced at it at the end of the story. Chuck gave us 1500 words, I stopped just paste by usual 1000.

Library Eyes

Clara headed for the register, pleased with her finds. The decision to check out the funky-looking thrift store had been a good one, and she had a half-dozen outfits on one arm, and a pile of books in the other. She laid them on the counter, then caught sight of the basket of old spectacles. She could use a new pair of reading glasses, and rummaged quickly through the basket while the clerk rang up her purchases.

There! That pair was the right strength, and kind of cute in an old-fashioned way. She slid the glasses across the counter just as the clerk entered the last item, and pulled out her wallet as she added the glasses, consulted a chart to calculate the sales tax, and hit the “total” button on the old-style register.

“That’ll be $21.63, with tax.”

“Really?” Clara’s math had suggested a higher price.

“Half-price day for skirts and books, ma’am. Your lucky day.”

“Guess so,” Clara said, laughing, and took the large bag in exchange for a few bills. She dropped the change into a tray by the register, and headed for home, eager to start reading the books.

Sorting out the purchases, she gave the new glasses a good cleaning, and laid them atop the book she intended to read with her dinner. For some reason, she felt drawn to use them, not the glasses she’d been wearing for the last month. Maybe that’s my mind telling me the glasses the doctor gave me aren’t right, she thought, and sat down with a bowl of spaghetti, opened the book, and put on the glasses.

The glasses worked marvelously. Clara read and forked food into her mouth, until she realized she’d left her glass of wine on the counter. Not bothering to remove the glasses, she took a step toward the kitchen, and stopped.

What she saw through the newly-polished lenses wasn’t her kitchen, a little blurred from the magnification, but something else entirely. It was a beautiful library, all oak shelving and polished brass fittings. She turned her head, and saw a different library, this one plain, but still full of books, alluring, enticing books. Clara recognized the cover of one of her well-loved childhood favorites, and without thinking, took a step forward, reaching for the book.

She was in the library.

Worse, she had no idea what library, or where. Still, there was the book. Clara pulled it off the shelf, looked around, and saw a comfortable-looking chair. What could it hurt to read for a while? It had been so long since she read the story. It would be like having her childhood back, for a little while.

Two hours later, a librarian came by to whisper that it was closing time. Clara stood up, and only then remembered that she had no idea where she was. The glasses worked fine for reading, as long as she kept her eyes on the book, and she had pushed them up on her forehead when the woman spoke to her. Now she laid the book on the table.

“Would you like to check that out?”

Clara picked it up again, uncertain, and looked at the stamp inside the cover. She quickly set it down again.

“No thanks. I’m just visiting from out of town. Out of state, actually.” She smiled vaguely and headed for the door.

Once outside, Clara considered her options. She could explore Wenatchee, or she could put on the glasses and try to find her own library. It would be after closing time at home, she realized, but if she could get to the library, at least she’d be in the right town. Even if she set off alarms. She could always claim she’d fallen asleep somewhere in the building.

The Wenatchee library stood on the edge of a park, and she walked into the green space and sat down on a bench. Pulling the glasses from the top of her head, Clara put them on and looked around.

Rows and rooms of books blurred past her eyes as she moved her head. In seconds she felt her stomach rebel, and hastily pulled the glasses off again. She’d have to go after this more carefully. She stared at the trees until the queasiness abated, then put the glasses back on. This time she moved her head slowly, taking time at each library vision to look and try to identify it.

After half an hour, one thing was clear: there was little hope of finding her home this way. The glasses appeared to have no end of libraries to show her, and they weren’t in any particular order as far as she could tell. Of course, in most cases, she had idea what library she looked at, but she recognized the Library of Congress, followed by the tiny branch library in the town where she had grown up. She could think of no connecting tie to make them adjacent, but she lingered on the familiar library. Too bad that town was even farther from home than Wenatchee. Her bank account would stand for a bus ticket, she thought, still tempted to step forward into the book-lined room.

Then the realization hit. She didn’t have her purse. She had begun this journey from her own kitchen, and had nothing with her but the clothes she stood in, not even her cell phone, which sat on the table next to the book she’d been reading when she stood up.

She had the glasses. That was all.

At that moment, Clara caught sight of a stunningly beautiful library, and again acted before she thought.

If she couldn’t get home, she would enjoy what she had: a free pass to every library in the world.

She took a step forward into Oxford’s Bodleian Library. They hadn’t allowed her in when she’d tried to visit years ago. Now they couldn’t stop her. With a happy sigh, Clara began to explore the long rooms, breathing in the history, just looking at the books.

Best pair of 49-cent glasses she’d ever bought.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

The rather formidable Bodleian entrance I didn't get past in 1986.

And what did I see to spark this story? This: "A woman finds a pair of spectacles that let her see every library on earth." Obviously, I had a new entry in my collection of library stories.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Non-fiction review: Trials of the Earth

Trials of the Earth - Audiobook

Title: Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman
Author: Mary Mann Hamilton; narrated by Barbara Benjamin Creel
Publisher: Hachette Audio, 2016. Originally published 1992 by University Press of Mississippi, 259 pages.
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:

This wrenching memoir of love, courage, and survival was waiting to he told. Withheld for almost a lifetime, it is a tragic story of a woman's trial of surviving against brutal odds. Near the end of her life Mary Hamilton (1866-c.1936) was urged to record this astonishing narrative. It is the only known first-hand account by an ordinary woman depicting the extraordinary routines demanded in this time and this place. She reveals the unbelievably arduous role a woman played in the taming of the Delta wilderness, a position marked by unspeakably harsh, bone-breaking toil.

On a raw November day in 1932 Helen Dick Davis entered a backwoods cabin in the Delta and encountered Mary Hamilton, a tiny, hunchbacked old woman sitting by the fire and patching a pair of hunting trousers. They became friends. "She began to talk to me of her life nearly half a century ago in this same Mississippi Delta," Davis says, "which then was a wilderness of untouched timber, canebrakes, a jungle of briars and vines and undergrowth." Spellbound during her visits to the cabin, Davis would listen for hours.

At her request, Mary Hamilton began to record memories on scraps of paper. By the spring of 1933 she had given Davis a manuscript of 150,000 words, "the true happenings of my life." Married to a mysterious Englishman, she lived in crude shacks and tents in lumber camps and cooked for crews clearing the primeval Delta forests. While nursing the sick, burying the dead, and making failing attempts to provide a home for her children, she retained a gentle strength that expressed itself in a lyrical vision of nature and in mystical dreams. When Helen Dick Davis appeared to Mary Hamilton in her old age, this long-delayed memoir of pain and grace erupted in a narrative of beauty and compassion and preserved a time and a place never before recorded from such a view. Mary Hamilton's autobiography is published at long last after coming to light from Helen Dick Davis's trunk of mementos.

My Review:  
I'm not sure I can add much to the lengthy blurb above! I do want to say that the audio book is very well done, and Barbara Benjamin Creel voices Mary Hamilton in a wholly believable way, while also clearly depicting the voices of the other people who appear in the book.

And what of the story itself? At times, I found myself thinking of it as fiction, and criticizing the author for piling up the tragedy so much. Then I'd remember the books is an autobiography, and this woman really did live through all that sorrow and loss. She manages, however, to both make the reader feel that load of sorrow and to know how she managed to continue on under it (as many another pioneer woman had to do).

Yet despite the extensive losses (if I didn't lose count, the Hamiltons' first 4 children died, either in infancy or in childhood), there is a joy in life that shines through the book, and Mary Hamilton never hates the wilderness that makes her life so hard, but rather loves the beauty of it (when it's not actively trying to kill her or her children). Nor does she lose her religious faith, though the family never attends church, there being none to attend.

The Mississippi Delta isn't a part of the country that I've paid a lot of attention to. Most of my reading about the settlement of the west has been set farther west. It is interesting to note that this area was in many ways even slower to be settled than much of the west--even after 1900 they were clearing and settling new land, and living more than a day's travel (by horse or mule, as the region seems to have been impassible to wheeled vehicles, and from the editor's preface, still was nearly so in 1932).

The editor (Helen Davis) is clear in her preface that she did not alter the story. I suspect, however, given what Mary Hamilton says about her own level of education, that she did edit extensively, and it is hard to know which of them captured so well the feel of Hamilton's life. Whatever the balance, the collaboration worked.

My Recommendation:
I found it a fascinating story, and anyone who shares my interest in understanding the lives of the women who preceded us should be equally enthralled.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Trials of the Earth out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher 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, August 7, 2017

Middle Grade Books on Grief and Loss

I just finished two middle grade books that deal with kids losing family members. Since the themes are so similar (though the stories and characters are not),  I thought I'd review them together. Both are good, but they feel like they fill different roles. Umbrella Summer is suitable for younger children, and gives us the emotion at a barely-safe distance. Counting By 7s immerses the reader in loss and reconstruction, and is probably better suited for slightly older children.

Title: Umbrella Summer
Author: Lisa Graff
Publisher: HarperCollins, 240 pages.
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:
Annie Richards knows there are a million things to look out for -- bicycle accidents, food poisoning, chicken pox, smallpox, typhoid fever, runaway zoo animals, and poison oak. That's why being careful is so important, even if it does mean giving up some of her favorite things, like bike races with her best friend, Rebecca, and hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Everyone keeps telling Annie not to worry so much, that she's just fine. But they thought her brother, Jared, was just fine too, and Jared died.

My Review: 
This is a decent book about grief and grieving. Even while Annie narrates, so the story is from her perspective, we are given enough views of her parents and other people that an attentive reader of any age will understand (maybe before Annie does) that she's not the only one grieving. As a parent, I was interested in how Annie's parents cope--or don't cope--with the loss of their son and the continuing needs of their daughter, because I can't really imagine having to do that.* Under the circumstances, it's not so surprising that it takes an outsider to help Annie recover.

The umbrella of the title refers to the things that people do to insulate themselves from their grief and loss, which need at some point to be put away, as the umbrella does after the rain stops. For Annie, it's obsessing about everything that can kill you, from traffic to gangrene. Her father retreats into himself, and her mother cleans house. To make matters worse for Annie, no one else in town seems to know how to act around her.

I thought that her observation that people look at her with "the dead-brother look" was sharp. Death makes us all uncomfortable, and the way she copes makes people even more uncomfortable, but no one knows quite what to say to her to help her out--until a new person moves into the neighborhood, with her own umbrella. The book never suggests that there's a right way to mourn and be done with it, but only that it may take some effort, but you can find a way out the other side and continue on.

As for the story and the writing, those are sound, but not outstanding. The management of grief is the story, and that works pretty well. That's the summer project for the Richards family. The writing didn't stand out as either fantastic or as having issues, and the book read quickly and easily.

My Recommendation:
This may be a better book for someone who knows a person with loss than for a kid who has lost someone. It certainly helps the reader understand grief. Because the death is handled gently, this is probably suitable for kids as young as 8 or 9.

*We came far too close once, so I have in fact imagined it. But I haven't imagined a *good* way to deal with that.


Title: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Publisher: Dial Books, 2013. 246 pages (ebook)
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:
In the tradition of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Mockingbird, this is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life...until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

My Review:  This is a curious book. At times I was absolutely bowed down with the weight of Willow's grief, and at others, felt an odd lightness. Maybe that was the author's success in conveying the utterly world-shifting nature of what happens to Willow, because I really felt like I was living the experience with her. 

There is a lot of food for thought in this relatively short book. There is the whole element of not-fitting-in, almost a cliche of books about middle school (well, it's a well-used trope for a reason. Does *any* kid feel like she fits in during those years?). This isn't hugely developed, but is rather allowed to contribute to the destruction of Willow's world--because she has no friends and no family other than her parents, she has to rapidly develop a very odd support structure.

The book also, of course, deals with grief. Not the way Umbrella Summer does, with a view to how you get over it, but more (in my mind), by showing what it feels like. Even making the reader feel it with Willow. But above all, I think the book is about family: what it is, what it's like to lose it, and how to make one out of what you have.
The odd thing (to me) about the book was the narrative voice. For most of the book, Willow narrates. But there are chapters which are told in the 3rd person, and focus on one of the other main characters, with varying degrees of detachment. I have to say that while this jarred me a bit reading, it proved to be powerful, in making the story not just about Willow, but about the lives she touches. That makes it a much fuller book, in my opinion. Willow's impact on other people also ends up making the book feel almost magical, a hint removed from reality at times. Willow herself, however, reject that nonsense.

My Recommendation: 
This is an excellent story, and is full of things to think about. There is a discussion guide in the back with some questions that I thought were very good, but for me the best part was just appreciating the author's ability to make me feel what Willow feels. Because of how powerful those feelings are, I'd recommend this one for more like 10 or 11 and up.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Umbrella Summer  & Counting By 7s out of my digital library, and received nothing from the writers or publishers 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."   

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Photo Friday: Learning my new camera, around Ashland, Oregon

Today's Photo Friday post is photos taken on a recent visit to Ashland, Oregon (mostly on a dayhike at Grizzly Peak). Mostly, though, they were me learning to use a new camera, the Lumix DMC-ZS100. The change of camera cost me a bit with regard to the macro, but the test was to see if the additional clarity (it has a much larger sensor than my previous Lumix) would compensate. It looks like it does, though it requires a little more work in post-processing.

Note: this isn't a camera review. For that, check out the assessment by a pro at

We were visiting a friend, and in training for a pack trip, so instead of spending a lot of time in town, we went for a hike (we did go wander around downtown afterwards, but I didn't take photos). We drove about 20 minutes out of town and did a very popular 5.5-mile loop on Grizzly Peak.

Wildflowers were still blooming with enthusiasm. The meadow made this feel a lot higher than it is.
Mt. Ashland is just visible behind the trees.
A closer look at the wildflowers.
Insects liked them too. Especially the butterflies.

A big part of what I had to figure out was how to get the macro shots. I had to learn to back away, and count on cropping. All of this is made more challenging by the fact that I have to use the viewfinder, since I can't see the LED screen without my reading glasses.
I improved over the next couple of weeks, but it's clear that the camera can do a lot.
I took about a dozen photos of these giant seed balls. They were easy to see to test if I was getting a clear macro, plus they are really cool.

More flowers as we head over the top.
From the top of Grizzly Peak you can see into California, to Mt. Shasta. This was mid-day, so not very good light for the view.

The next morning we did a hike in the watershed, and stumbled on some cool art in the forest.

And another:

This guy wasn't in Ashland. He was at the Klamath River rest stop on I5 while we were on our way to Oregon. I'm a little worried about him, because he just sat there and let us take photos, etc. But a beautiful fox, anyway.
This was taken just by the light of our pathetic headlights, with the camera braced on the car door. It is a little grainy, but amazingly clear for the conditions and the camera, and way better than the old camera could have done.
So that's the first test, and I'm pretty pleased with the results. We went on to spend a week backpacking near Glacier Peak (Washington State), and I'll have more photos in the weeks to come as I get on with editing them.

Meanwhile, hopefully by next Friday I'll be back in the groove and get a bit of flash fiction up. Right now I'm working on a longer short story, for submission.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

IWSG: Pet Peeves

Purpose: 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!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group (click on the badge above for the list) and connect with your fellow writers - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

Be sure to stop by and visit other IWSG members and our wonderful hosts for the month,
Christine Rains, Dolarah @ Book Lover, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Yvonne Ventresca, and LG Keltner!

The question this month is about your pet peeves when reading, writing or editing. Since I don't want to talk about my writing (what writing?) right now, I'm diving into this one!

As a reader, my pet peeves are poor editing and poor writing! Okay, that's a cop-out. But I will dump a book if the opening chapters have too many typos/errors, and I will dump a book faster than you can blink if it has anachronisms and problems with a consistent and believable tone. I am actually more likely to finish a book with a weak plot than one with errors of that sort--they just irritate and distract me too much, while I'm probably too good at the willing suspension of disbelief.

As a writer,  my biggest pet peeve is me. I mean, I'm bugged by the things that keep me from writing, and as Pogo Possum once said, I have met the enemy and she is me (okay, I paraphrased that). On a maybe more useful note, I have a problem with diving in without an adequate plan, and I hate it when I do that!

If we want to talk about my pet peeve as being what I struggle most with, that has to be editing, which is made all the worse when I dive in without an adequate plan (see above). Editing is hard under the best of circumstances, though the more I do it the more I have come to enjoy at least some elements at some times. This, of course, brings me to my favorite pet peeve about editing my own work (as for editing other people's work, I don't really have a peeve, because fixing those things are what I'm there for).

With my own books, I struggle with the step from seeing the big view of what needs fixing ("make this character more distinct" "provide more justification for this plot point") to actually implementing it. It's not that it annoys me, but that it's danged hard. I do dislike it when I'm supposed to be doing big-picture editing and I get all caught up in polishing sentences.

Over to you. What will make you put down a book and run, not walk, to the nearest exit? Or what will make you want to throw your MS out the window and take up a new career as a greeter at Walmart?

Monday, July 31, 2017

YA Historical Fiction: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher:  Philomel Books, 2017. 391 pages.
Source: Library
Publisher's Blurb:
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
My Review:
As I noticed when I read and reviewed Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray the author is very good at writing about the truly horrific times in human history without losing sight of the humanity of the people enduring it. In this case, she follows four young adults (ranging in age from about 16 to 21) who are caught up in the evacuation from East Prussia, Lithuania, and Poland as the Soviet army advances near the end of WWII. Each has a unique voice, and a unique story, told in first person. That could lead to confusion, but Sepetys simply gives each narrator a fresh chapter, headed with his or her name. I found no difficulty in following the different threads.
The four main characters are wildly different, but each has a secret, and each is tormented, in part by being thrust into adulthood prematurely, and in part by man's inhumanity to man. A big part of the draw of the story is the gradual unfolding of their secrets, though I felt a little as though I was sight-seeing at a train wreck at times--like I shouldn't be looking at their private horrors. And it's not just horrors--they have guilt, shame, and fear that drive them in so many ways.
A book about possibly the worst naval disaster of all time (9000 or more of the 10,000 people aboard the Wilhelm Gusloff drowned. That might be a spoiler but the blurb and the cover between them pretty well gave that away) cannot have an unadulterated happy ending. But as with her first novel, Sepetys manages to salvage the characters' humanity, and pulls something from the wreckage to prove that life does go on, and joy can be salvaged from despair, at least sometimes, and for some people.

[Mild spoilers here]
It quickly becomes evident to the reader that one of the narrators is a true believer of the Nazi doctrine, but it takes the whole book to see what else he is. This may be the most disturbing part of the book, and I think that Sepetys develops Alfred in a way that actually softens the realization that many people did support even the worst elements of the Third Reich, because the reader quickly sees that he is not a good person.

Overall, the writing is strong, the story is almost overwhelming, and the book will stay in the memory for a long time. I appreciate that I learned some history I never knew, too, even if it's very distressing history.

My Recommendation:
This is an excellent book for a young adult or adult reader, with or without any particular interest in WWII, though that will increase the interest. Due to adult situations and just too much human evil, this is not a book for younger readers. I would say high school and up.

In a nice development, due to a lack of other reading material, my college-age son and husband both read this as well. We were able to have some nice discussions about the development of the characters as well as the historical setting. My husband has some reservations about some of the motivations, but both he and my son found it an excellent read. I had no idea my kid knew so much history, but, then Russian is his major.
FTC Disclosure: I checked Salt to the Sea out of my local library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher 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, July 28, 2017

Flashback Friday! 
It's Flashback Friday again! Which is perfect since the Ninja Librarian is on the trail, enjoying a holiday from computers and all connectivity. Which is why we haven't responded to comments this week. We'll get there...eventually. 
Meanwhile, enjoy this from 2015. It was an A to Z post, so not really one that didn't get attention at the time, but still a story I like.

The Grey Trail

I never wanted to go there. She was obsessed with New Zealand, and after thoroughly exploring all the areas used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings, she fixated on Mt. Cook. South Island. The end of the world, if you ask me, but she loved it and visited several times.

I didn’t go with her on any of her trips, but this time I had no choice. This time, she couldn’t go without me. I was doing it for love, for that one last thing I could do for the one I’d loved and who had driven me crazy for forty years. I was prepared to hate it, and to feel like a virtuous martyr the entire time I was fulfilling her final request.

I wasn’t prepared to be knocked over by the beauty of the place. Mind, that didn’t change the fact that I didn’t want to have to walk for miles through it, even if I could. But somehow even though I’d seen all the photos—she’d brought home millions from her trips, and I’d dutifully admired them all, even thought the scenery was very nice—I had never imagined the impact the place could have on me in person. That made it a bit awkward, in a funny way. How can you feel awkward around someone who is present only as a pile of lumpy ashes in a tin can?

Emotions don’t have to make sense. If I have learned nothing else in 65 years, 40 of them spent living with a woman with whom I shared almost no interests—how did we pull that off, anyway?—it is that emotions have their own logic. Or maybe it isn’t logic. Maybe it’s exactly the opposite of logic and reason. Anyway, we did it, and I was going to leave her ashes where she wanted them if it killed me.

Of course, the first thing that nearly killed me was the whole business of driving. Why some places think it makes sense to drive on the left side of the road, I don’t know. Nor was I quick to adapt. Maybe I could have in my younger days, but you know what they say about old dogs. It required all my attention to drive. From my first glimpse of Mt. Cook, from the south side of Lake Tekapo, where there was a gorgeous stone church overlooking the turquoise waters, I had trouble pulling my eyes from the scenery back to the road. When I began the long drive up the side of Lake Pukaki toward the mountain, I repeatedly found myself in the wrong lane. Fortunately it was early, and traffic was light. Still, I was relieved to arrive at last at the motel at the end of the road.

It was too early to check in, and too late to begin the hike that was my sole reason for being there. Instead, I wandered a short distance up a path to a viewpoint, and just sat there and looked. I tried to imagine what she had felt all those times she had come here. She had wanted to climb the peak. Had wanted—I might as well be blunt—to die on the mountain and leave her body there for the birds. That hadn’t been an option, so this was the next best thing. I would cart those ashes as far up the mountain as I could go, and commit a small act of pollution by dropping them onto a glacier.

Studying the trail map at my viewpoint, I realized that it was not going to be easy to do that. I traced the dashed blue lines and realized they wouldn’t take me onto the ice. Only the grey trails went clear to the glaciers—until I realized those grey lines were the rivers, not trails. I wondered how she would feel if the best I could do was to drop her ashes into the roiled, silty river that ran from the glacier down to the lake.

I thought about the grey trail that was the river, which flowed to a lake blue almost beyond comprehension. Yes, she would like that. She always did like transformations and mystical transmogrification. Becoming part of the glacial silt that created the distinct lake color would have felt right to her. It’s what would happen even if I did put her on the glacier.

I sat and watched the mountain and the river until my stomach reminded me that lunchtime was long past, then went and checked into my room.

That grey trail fascinated and horrified me, and I could hear the roar of the river even in my sleep. Rather, I could hear it in my room, sleeping or waking. A glacial river tumbling from mountain to valley appeared to be a noisy as well as uncontainable thing.

Was this one trail we could hike together?

In the morning, tired from my restless night, I forced myself to rise early and go to the restaurant for breakfast. I ordered a large and tasty selection of my favorites, with no concern for health. It wouldn’t be bacon that would kill me, I told myself.

Back in my room, well fed and at peace, I packed my daypack. Water, a jacket, a few granola bars, and the tin can. I began the painstaking process of putting on the braces that allowed my knees to function, as much as they would. Just to reach the swing bridge over the river would push my limits.

I had all day. I could take the grey trail back down.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015
I apologize for the quality of today's photos. I scanned them from slides shot in 1996, and our slide scanner is, shall we say, inadequate. I did my best to fix them.

The Church of the Good Shepherd and Lake Tekapo.
Mt. Cook and the top end of Lake Pukaki
Mt. Cook from somewhere near the end of the road.
The start of the Grey Trail.