Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday Ramblings

Sometimes the ideas are just a boiling pot of mud

I haven't felt much like reviewing things lately. I've decided I took on too many read-for-review books (mostly for Great Escapes tours, and mostly good mysteries), and I need to back off while I work on my own books. I still have a couple more scheduled reviews to get through, but I'm not taking on any more mystery reviews until Death By Adverb is completed. (Yes, I know I'll probably break that vow when some truly wonderful looking books crosses my screen.)

One side-effect of that is that even though I've finished quite a few books in the last couple of weeks, I didn't sit down and review any of them, because I just didn't feel like it. So here you are, getting some wandering thoughts instead of a review of a marvelous middle-grade book or a deeply puzzling mystery.

In fact, since I've been doing more biking than writing, I decided that there is a metaphor to be found on the road.

Sometimes you can't see where the road is going.
Ridgecrest Blvd, Mt. Tamalpais State Park
 Sometimes it isn't much of a road at all.
Kings Mtn Road, Sonoma County, CA
It might not seem like a promising route for a bike.
Pt. Reyes National Seashore
Or maybe it's a perfectly good road, but doesn't lead anywhere in particular. Or at all, as far as you can see.
Does it just go up there and drop off the edge? Pt. Reyes National Seashore
And sometimes your audience is not exactly what you were looking for.
Pt. Reyes National Seashore
If you keep going long enough, you might get saddle sores (no photos there!). 

But you might just end up somewhere beautiful.
Kings Creek, Lassen Volcanic National Park
So keep on writing/riding, and here's to ending up someplace wonderful!

P.S. I think the default font for this blog got smaller and dimmer, so I've stepped it up a size. Does that help?

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Flash: No Mercy

Since I missed last week's challenge, I'm kind of mixing and matching Wendig Challenges. This week, we were to write a story of good vs. evil. I sort of managed, while using opening and closing lines from the previous week, when he gave us title, opening, and closing lines to choose from. I couldn't make any of the titles fit, though, so I have pretty much just done my own thing. Even the good/evil thing got a little fuzzy, and if I had had more words to play with, would have gotten fuzzier still. Funny about that.

This one ran a little long, at just under 1100 words.

No Mercy

Three days with no sleep was the least of my worries. I could endure that; I could endure just about anything.

Just about.

I couldn’t watch as the overseer beat my 9-year-old son for the stumble that had spilled a half a dozen berries into the dirt of the field. Nor could I stop it, and for that, I thought my heart would burst.

That night, when we crawled at last into the stifling hut that was our home now, I lit our single tallow candle and I looked from my son, whose face bore a large, purpling bruise, to my daughter. Pulling them close to me as I always did for our mutual comfort, I began to whisper.

“We are leaving. Tonight. I won’t let this go on.”

“Can we?” my son wondered. “The Masters say they created us to be their slaves.” Will had only been six when the Masters came and killed his father and brought us to this place to work in their fields. If I didn’t take Will away, he would soon remember nothing but slavery, and become the drudge they wanted. Or else he would learn to hate them, fight back, and be killed. I had seen both happen to the children of others.

I had to convince him. “If that is true, which I don’t believe, then they left us too long on our own, because we learned to think and feel.” I knew that the Masters took slaves wherever they found them, and I doubted their story of seeding our planet long ago. “I can’t stand by while they beat you.”

“I’ll be careful. It won’t happen again,” he began.

“It will if we stay. I can see only three choices: I can leave you here to suffer alone, or I can take you with me—or I can fight back until they kill me.” I felt his body stiffen under my arm, but it was Anna who spoke first. She would be 13 soon, and that was another reason for going soon.

“I’ll go with you, Mom.” Her eyes told me that she knew what puberty would bring, and soon we’d be unable to hide her growing breasts.

“Tonight, then,” I said, and glanced again at Will. “We are not their property, Will. If ever humans were their creation, that has changed. They should not have come back.”

At last, my son nodded.

“Sleep, for now,” I counseled. “I’ll wake you when it’s time.” Laboring from dawn to dark left them too tired to stay awake.

As I crept from the hut, I thanked the god I no longer believed in that I was off the rotation that had kept me sleepless the last three nights. It would have been a complication I didn’t need.

I crept through shadows to the communal food stores, which occupied the only sturdy building in our compound. It was locked, but I had a key.

Don’t ask me what I did to get it.

Our pockets stuffed with potatoes and a little dried meat, we crept through the darkness away from the huts. The compound wasn’t well guarded. The Masters relied on the fence, and the stories of the prey-beasts that roamed the scrub beyond, to keep their slaves in.

I knew a way over the fence, and chose to face the beasts rather than the Masters. When we were well clear of any possible listening ears, I knelt to speak to the children.

“Are you afraid of the prey-beasts?” Nod. “There are a hundred ways we might die doing this. But we won’t die as slaves. Do you understand? Do you still want to come with me?”

What would I have done if either had said “no”? I did not know if I was right to take my children into the unknown dangers outside the fence.

Anna took a step towards the fence and freedom without speaking. Will clutched my hand more tightly, and whispered, “Is it okay if I’m scared, Mommy?”

“Yes,” I said, squeezing back.

I had stumbled on the way over the fence once while hunting for edible plants in the spring, and it was a good route, and probably I wasn’t the first to use it. No one had come back to tell me what happened after crossing the fence.

The only challenge was getting Will into the tree. I let him stand on my shoulders, and his sister reached a hand to pull him up.

Three branches up, and then we had to inch our way out the one that hung beyond the fence. In this, Will was the best of us, having no fear of heights. I swallowed my visions of broken limbs and we all crept forward together.

When I looked down and could see the fence passing below me, I knew the worst was past. The end of the branch dipped just enough for me to lower the children and let them drop lightly the last few feet.

I landed a little more heavily, and when I regained my feet, a little dizzy from the fall, three armed men stood before me.

They were human, so I let them take us.

They led us a long way through the scrub. When we had gone perhaps two miles, and the children were stumbling with weariness, one of the men spoke.

“If you are strong enough to run, you are strong enough to fight.” It sounded like he was reciting a rule.

“Okay,” I said. Truth compelled me to add, “But I’ve never even held a gun.”

“There’s more than one way of fighting,” he answered.

“I’ll do what’s needed,” I promised. “Anything except go back there.”

“Only volunteers will do that,” he said.

That excited me. His use of the future tense told me that there was a plan. A plan to free us of the Masters once and for all? We could never return to Earth, but this planet would do well enough, if we were free. I would die, and yes, kill, to make that happen.

The rebellion was larger than I could have guessed, and the plans to eliminate the Masters well under way. I put my degree in chemistry to work, for the first time since Anna was born.

And when all was ready, I went with my team to do what was needed, and watched the result with fierce joy. The smoke was blue and grey and smelled like a promise.


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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Non-fiction Review: Year of No Clutter


Title: Year of No Clutter
Author: Eve O. Schaub
Publisher: Sourcebooks, 2017. 290 pages
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
Eve has a problem with clutter. Too much stuff and too easily acquired, it confronts her in every corner and on every surface in her house. When she pledges to tackle the worst offender, her horror of a "Hell Room," she anticipates finally being able to throw away all of the unnecessary things she can't bring herself to part with: her fifth-grade report card, dried-up art supplies, an old vinyl raincoat.

But what Eve discovers isn't just old CDs and outdated clothing, but a fierce desire within herself to hold on to her identity. Our things represent our memories, our history, a million tiny reference points in our lives. If we throw our stuff in the trash, where does that leave us? And if we don' do we know what's really important?

Everyone has their own Hell Room, and Eve's battle with her clutter, along with her eventual self-clarity, encourages everyone to dig into their past to declutter their future. Year of No Clutter is a deeply inspiring--and frequently hilarious -- examination of why we keep stuff in the first place, and how to let it all go.

My Review:  
The summary for once hits the nail on the head (in the second paragraph in particular). When I first saw this book I nearly passed without a second look, because I thought it was another in the growing collection of books about how much my life would be improved if I just got rid of all the extra stuff in our house (note: this is probably true. I just don't like self-help books). But a second look showed me that this wasn't self-help advice from some perfect housekeeper. This was the memoir of a woman trying to deal--though humor as well as hard work--with border-line hoarder syndrome, and much of what she had to say resonated.

In particular, Schaub's idea that (for her) things not only represent her memories, but that she has a very real fear that they may actually be the memories. If the stuff is gone, won't the memories be also? That thought, coupled with her ear of making the wrong choice, of throwing something out only to want it immediately after (her second insight into her inability to throw anything away), resonated with me. Those two things are exactly why I hang onto far too much stuff, the worn out (or at least half-used) stuff as well as all that art from the boys' childhood. (Depression-era parents and a childhood on a shoe-string budget contribute to the problem).

Seeing where the inability to get rid of anything led Schaub, and watching her conquer her more pathological version of that inability, isn't just inspiring. She actually offers some concrete help to those of us who share that fear of throwing away the wrong thing, and with no judgement. Maybe I could get that same inspiration from the self-help books. But I somehow doubt it. I think I might respond better to seeing someone worse at this than I am succeed. In any case, how could someone who has never saved anything useless tell me how to convince myself it's okay to get rid of stuff?

My Recommendation:
If you have trouble getting rid of stuff, read this. You don't have to be a hoarder, or have a hell-room like Schaub does. Just a closet or two that you haven't cleaned out in 20 years, or in which all you ever do is rearrange the stuff without reducing it. Or read it for the fun of watching someone overcome a serious handicap and come out on top (of the pile of stuff, of course). You can also read it for the laughs, because I forgot to mention that Schaub is a very funny writer.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Year of No Clutter 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, September 11, 2017

Middle Grade Monday: Beyond the Bright Sea


Title: Beyond the Bright Sea
Author: Lauren Wolk
Publisher: Dutton Children's Books, 2017. 283 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
Twelve-year-old Crow has lived her entire life on a tiny, isolated piece of the starkly beautiful Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Abandoned and set adrift on a small boat when she was just hours old, Crow's only companions are Osh, the man who rescued and raised her, and Miss Maggie, their fierce and affectionate neighbor across the sandbar.

Crow has always been curious about the world around her, but it isn't until the night a mysterious fire appears across the water that the unspoken question of her own history forms in her heart. Soon, an unstoppable chain of events is triggered, leading Crow down a path of discovery and danger.

Vivid and heart wrenching, Lauren Wolk's Beyond the Bright Sea is a gorgeously crafted and tensely paced tale that explores questions of identity, belonging, and the true meaning of family

My Review: 
I picked this book up because I read and was impressed by the author's first book, Wolf Hollow. Though this book was very different, it provided me with further proof that Lauren Wolk is a writer to watch. This book is, in some ways, a mystery, but it's a mystery that is all about the meaning of family and the meaning of love. Wolk throws in some high-stakes adventure, and nails the coming-of-age novel yet again as Crow learns what is important.

The prose is beautiful, and the story powerful. It's not the adventure and the scary bits that make it so, not for me anyway. For me, the power is in the slow sorting-out of the relationships between Crow, Osh, and Miss Maggie, as well as the other islanders. I was left with some things that I still wanted to know, but as those are the very things that Crow has spent the book learning aren't important, I guess I should be satisfied!

The time and place (it's set in the 1920s on some pretty remote islands) is beautifully evoked, giving me a feel for the slower pace of the life Crow is living. I thought at first there were no other people about, but gradually realized that there is a more sinister reason why Crow only associates with the two adults. So the story is also about human fear and how cruel it can make us.

In that sense, it is much the same as Wolf Hollow, and is a book we all need to read.

My Recommendation:
This is perfectly keyed for the upper-elementary crowd (9-12), but it is so well-written and evocative of another time and place that I think most adults will enjoy it as well. Wolk also shines a light on a bit of history (I won't say what because that would be a spoiler) that most of us know little about, but which isn't one of our more shining moments. This is a writer to watch.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Beyond the Bright Sea 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."  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

IWSG: Pushing Out of the Comfort Zone

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 and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting, so be sure to click on the image above and link your blog--and visit as many as you can.

The Monthly Question:
Have you ever surprised yourself with your writing? For example, by trying a new genre you didn't think you'd be comfortable in??

This is a great question, and one I can speak to, because I have certainly surprised myself when I've tried new genres. Answering the question also spares me admitting that my writing has stagnated all summer. But hey, I've had some good trips, and saw the eclipse! That has to be worth something!

One of the things I like best about my weekly flash fiction, besides being good practice and a way to make sure I at least write *something* (even when I'm not doing at all well about getting to work) is that it's a place to play with genres. I get most of my prompts from Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog, as he posts a weekly challenge (usually). And many of those challenges play with genres, or suggest a genre that isn't either the cozy mystery or the children's fiction I usually write. Sometimes I twist them to make them fit my style, and I never wholly let go of certain limits (for example, because I write for children, who may find this blog, and because my mother reads this blog, I do not write erotica, nor anything that I wouldn't want my children or my mother to read. Makes sense, right?).

Maybe the best challenges Chuck offers are the sub-genre mash-ups, which sometimes force me to research just what the genres I drew actually are, since there are many I haven't heard of. What I have learned is that I can write in almost any genre (see note re: erotica), though maybe not in every style. 

But every now and then, a story goes beyond that deliberate stretching. Sometimes, I read them over and ask myself, "where did that come from?" There might be a darkness I didn't know I could tap, or something weird, or I might stop in the middle of a story because it is leading me to a kind of violence I'm not willing to write (or at least to publish here). Writing may sometimes show us corners of our minds that we'd rather not see.

How about you? Leave a comment below and tell me about something you wrote that surprised you.  

Then hop around and see what other writers are feeling insecure about this month.

P.S. The Ninja Librarian is out biking, so we won't get back to you to read your comments and your posts until next week. Bear with us! 

Monday, September 4, 2017

YA Review: Going Over, by Beth Kephart


Going Over
Author: Beth Kephart
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2014
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
In the early 1980s Ada and Stefan are young, would-be lovers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall--Ada lives with her mother and grandmother and paints graffiti on the Wall, and Stefan lives with his grandmother in the East and dreams of escaping to the West.

My Review:  I debated about how to classify this book. I found it in the juvvy section of my library, but I hadn't read very far before I realized that it fits much more in what I consider YA. It's not so much that there is a love story at the heart of it, as that there are too many "adult situations" as they say. There is a pregnancy, a strongly implied rape, spousal abuse, and a lot of death as well. Nor are the politics behind the story all that easy to understand. So: YA. Not for children.

That taken care of, this was a good book. It highlights a part of history that doesn't get a lot of attention--the Cold War division of Berlin into East and West, and does it in the context of a couple of young people who mostly just want to live their lives. The story is strong and plays out well. In a way, this could be another in the series of books I've read this summer about kids dealing with death and loss. These young people have lost all sorts of family through death or separation, and it has certainly affected their lives, though that's not what the book is primarily about. Or maybe it is: maybe what drives them so strongly to be together is the need to not lose one more person they love to that wall.

The writing is strong, but I did have some issues. The book is told in alternating sections between Ada and Stefan. Ada's sections are written in the 1st person, present tense. Sefan's are written in 2nd person, a voice that is always difficult, and which causes most of my issues. Ada manages to keep her present tense straight, I think, but Stefan's sections are not always strong. Here and there the voice slips, losing the 2nd person. And, of course, the question always hovers (for me, anyway) as to whom exactly is being addressed when the narrator says "you." It appears to be Stefan, but that doesn't always feel right. I think the intention is to make the reader feel more a part of the story, to feel what it is to be trapped in East Berlin. It almost works.

My Recommendation:
This is a good read, and not long. I think it's worth it for the sake of the history as well as the story, but in my opinion isn't appropriate for kids under 13 or 14.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Going Over 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." 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: We Apologize for the Error

A few weeks ago, Chuck Wendig asked for people to come up with (just for a variation on the usual) the final line of a story. I enjoyed reading through them, but I admit that most felt more like the first line to me. I managed to snitch this one (I'm sorry that I no longer have the record of whose line it was) and use it at both ends of the story.

It's just a bit of speculative fiction. If you think it's anything else, think what you will.

I give you my story, in 834 words.

We Apologize for the Error…

I always knew I’d be present at the end of the world.

I just didn’t know it would look like this. I didn’t know it would be my fault.

I suppose I should explain: I am immortal. I have no memory of my beginnings, and I can have no end, no matter how much I may wish it. And I have wished it many, many times, for all the good it does. So of course I knew I’d be around when the world ends. But I never meant to be the reason it ended.

It happened like this.

I won’t say it was just another day, because days have little meaning for me. Time washes past in waves, drowning me for long periods—what you would call long periods—then flinging me to the surface to glimpse a single moment or a century before I lose myself again.

This time, I surfaced at a very bad moment. Several major governments around the world had apparently been taken over by madmen or children—toddlers prone to tantrums, they appeared to me. Toddlers who would break and destroy if they didn’t get their own way, just because they could.

Things didn’t look great for the world. My mistake was thinking that I could help.

In fact, I probably could have helped, if I’d just managed to get the timing right.

My idea was to remove the maniacs, which even I could see had to be done pretty much all at once. I was pretty sure I could at least create the illusion of simultaneity. It would take careful timing and meticulous planning, which I was quite capable of.

Where I failed was in my understanding of human nature. You can hardly blame me for that. After all, humans are a pretty new thing from my perspective, and they aren’t that easy to understand. The last time I’d spent any significant time watching them, they were just learning to make things explode.

So, secure in my over-confidence, I headed first for the leader I thought was the craziest. I had to neutralize him—and yes, all the mad rulers were male. In my opinion, and I’ve been watching, more or less, for all of human history, women are chosen far too seldom, and most have been sane and interested in peace. There have been exceptions, of course. Look at Queen Mary—the one they called “Bloody Mary”—or that Isabel woman in Spain. And there have been plenty of sane and humane male leaders, of course. I just happened to come up for air at a time when there were at least three madmen in important positions, and all armed with nuclear weapons.

I was trying to prevent the end of the world, at least as a sphere habitable by humans.

So I dealt with the worst one, as I saw it, first. It was simple enough: I put him in a coma. Don’t ask how. I won’t tell. I thought his minions would keep that quiet as long as possible, to maintain his power. I have my own ways of getting around, so I only needed a few hours, and surely it would take longer than that for word to leak out.

I didn’t realize that the madness went several layers deep in that country. The second in command claimed power within minutes, which I guess was protocol there. And he, too, sat with his thumb on the red button. That was okay, or it would have been; it was an orderly transition even if it did put everyone on edge.

But my second target expected the sort of chaos that would come if he vanished, and tried to take advantage of it. He shouldn’t even have known about the coma before I could get to him, but that orderly transition was all done in public, so it took about 30 seconds for the whole world to know, what with the new kinds of instant communication humans had invented since I last looked.

So the second madman pushed his button.

I suppose he thought that confusion, or even fights over who was in charge, would delay the response long enough for his bombs to destroy their bombs.

It didn’t.

I was only minutes away from neutralizing him when he set loose Armageddon, and the new leader on the other side didn’t hesitate. I might have misjudged who was the maddest, or maybe at that level degrees of madness don’t matter.

Armageddon is kind of pretty, seen from a distance.

Well, it was pretty at first. I was when I realized that I wasn’t going to die along with the humans that it became something else. By the time the madmen were finished, nothing could live on this god-forsaken planet.

Nothing but me, because I can’t die.

Not even of boredom.

I always knew I’d be present at the end of the world. I just didn’t know I’d still be there afterwards.


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