Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Audio-Book Review: The Japanese Lover


Title: The Japanese Lover
Author: Isabel Allende; read by Joanna Gleason. Translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Publisher: Audio: Simon and Schuster Audio, 2015. Hardback 2015, Atria Books. Originally published in 2015 in Spain by Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, S.A.U.
Source: Library digital sesrvices

Publisher's Blurb:
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family—like thousands of other Japanese Americans—are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

Sweeping through time and spanning generations and continents, The Japanese Lover explores questions of identity, abandonment, redemption, and the unknowable impact of fate on our lives. Written with the same attention to historical detail and keen understanding of her characters that Isabel Allende has been known for since her landmark first novel The House of the Spirits, The Japanese Lover is a profoundly moving tribute to the constancy of the human heart in a world of unceasing change.

My Review:
Isabel Allende's reputation as a writer is deserved, and this book definitely wormed its way into my mind and stayed there while I was listening to it. It covers familiar ground in so many ways--I regularly bike through the Sea Cliff area of San Francisco where the Belasco mansion is set, and I have long known about the Japanese internment in WWII. Part of what attracted me to the book was the familiar geography it covers. What kept me reading was my desire to know and understand the characters.

I felt like I was getting to know the characters as one does in life--a little at a time, with constant revisions of my understanding. The initial view of most of them sets up assumptions about the kinds of people they were, assumptions that are gradually eroded, developed, and sometimes overturned. A big part of the reading experience ended up being me trying to decide if Alma is a good person or not. That sounds harsh, and I'm not sure if that was Allende's intention, but she is certainly complex and that led to my ambivalence about her.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it takes on too much, and tries to make too many characters central. We see the internment camp through Ichimei's eyes, but that is the only part of the book where he is central, and feels a little gratuitous. We are given more and more glimpses of Irina's life and issues, until I concluded that this is really her story, disguised as Alma's. Maybe it is, but if so, the balance feels off, and in the end she gets short shrift.

On reflection, the one thing that maybe runs as a theme through all the stories is love. What it is, how you find it, and what it means. In that way, the book works--but I'd still rather know more about Irina and what she is like inside, rather than Alma, who in the end I find a bit too self-centered and self-absorbed. Maybe that's part of the understanding we are meant to achieve.

My Recommendation:
This is (no surprise) a book well worth reading. It deals not only with the nature of love, but also of age, illness, racism, and suffering. I'm not convinced it's a great book, but there is a lot in there to think about for a long time after you finish, and that may be the definition of a good book.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Japanese Lover out of my (digital) 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, March 20, 2017

Middle Grade Review: The Silent Boy


Title: The Silent Boy
Author: Lois Lowry
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2003. 178 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Blurb:
Katy Thatcher was the bright and curious daughter of the town doctor. She was fascinated by her father's work, and even as a child she knew that she too wanted to be a doctor. She wanted to know about people. Perhaps it was this, her insatiable curiosity, or simply the charm of Jacob's gentle intimacy with animals large and small, that fueled their friendship.

Although Jacob never spoke to her or even looked at her directly, Katy grew to understand him from the moments they spent together quietly singing to the horses. She knew there was meaning in the sounds he made and purpose behind his movements. So when events took an unexpected and tragic turn, it was Katy alone who could unravel the mystery of what had occurred, and why.

A two-time recipient of the prestigious Newbery Medal, acclaimed author Lois Lowry presents a sensitive and moving story of a wide-eyed young girl growing up at the beginning of the twentieth century and the influence of the farm community around her. Through Katy's eyes, readers can see the human face so often hidden under modern psychological terminology and experience for themselves the haunting impact of her friendship with the silent boy.

My Review: 

The book is framed as the reminiscence of the elderly Katy, and begins with the somewhat disconcerting statement that this is a story that she never told her grandchildren, because it isn't a story for children. There's a delicious irony for the opening pages of a children's book! And, of course, the story that unfolds, though told through the eyes of the child Katy was in 1910-12, is one that some might find problematic for children.

What makes it a story for children is that it is all about both Katy finding her own sense of self as she ages from 8 to 9 years old, as well as her ability to see beyond herself and befriend the strange, silent brother of their new household help. It is the open heart that allows Katy to accept Jacob as he is that sets her apart from most other people. And that insight is what will break her heart, because when the blurb says that Katy alone could unravel the mystery, it means that literally--and we all know about how much people listen to 9-year-old girls.

My Recommendation:
This is a story that will probably move kids beyond resistance to historical fiction. The use of real photos at the head of each chapter lends a sense of reality, but the story itself is both wholly formed by the period in which it is set, and wholly outside of any time. Boys or girls should enjoy this for the sake of understanding the silent boy, and the can all cheer on Katy in her desire to break the norms of her time and be a doctor.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Silent Boy 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, March 16, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Create Your Own Monster

Today's Flash Fiction is in response to a challenge to create an all-new monster. Chuck Wendig posed the challenge, so you follow the link to see all the other responses, if you're in the mood for fear and loathing! Or just read on. Chuck gave us 1500 words; I used 1239 of them.

The End of All Delight

Archibald D. Jones, to the Royal Geographic Society, July 16, ----
The Delighter, named not for giving light, but for removing it, appears to be a unique monster, not part of a species or clan of delighters. For this blessing we should all be grateful. I have examined the victims of this creature, and the effect gave me great sorrow, despite my years in the field and my necessary anthropologist’s distance. That my eyes watered during this time was no doubt due to the incense being used in an attempt to cure the victims. One witness to an attack, who was himself spared, claimed that I wept because of the residual effects of the attack, but this is ridiculous, as I am not subject to emotional reactions to research subjects.

Those most directly attacked by the Delighter were generally unresponsive, unable or unwilling to address my questions. They prefer to sit in a dim room and generally weep, unable to force themselves to any action or exertion. As the creature attacked single victims, there were witnesses who, though greatly sobered by the experience, were yet able to tell me what they had seen. From those accounts I pieced together the following description of the monster.

When it comes forth to hunt—villagers believe it lives underground, though none could point to any entrance to its lair—the Delighter is a deep black in color. One woman, who wept all the while she spoke of the attack on her husband, said the Delighter was not black, but rather that it is a deep shadow, an area utterly lacking light.

Others, who witnessed it only after it fed on the soul and joy of the unfortunate man, said it seemed to them then to be streaked with ever-changing patterns of light in many colors, though predominantly an odd shade of orange. Whereas the victim’s wife reported that the creature moved in a sluggish, flowing fashion; after it fed, it moved quickly and lightly.

I proceeded to visit several nearby villages where the monster had likewise attacked, and was given similar reports of its behavior. Several also reported that they attempted to shoot the Delighter with firearms and also—as a form of experimentation—with bow and arrow. Neither type of projectile appeared to harm it. From these reports, I began to draw conclusions regarding the habits and purpose of the Delighter.

From the change in the Delighter’s movements and appearance after feeding, it is apparent that the life and joy that are drawn from the victim are the sole source of such feelings for the creature. That it preys upon humans despite the mixture of joy and sorrow that is the ordinary human condition, suggests that the Delighter is both unable to generate such feelings within itself, and that it requires them for some reason yet to be determined.

The monster’s apparent insensitivity to weapons suggests to me that it has an essential, rather than corporeal, existence. It will be necessary to learn more of this in order to devise a plan to stop its depredations.

I believe that it may be necessary to discover the creature’s lair in order to learn more. At this time, I am uncertain whether the Delighter feeds only upon human emotion, or if it also requires some more tangible form of nourishment. Nor has sufficient time elapsed to learn if the victims of the monster will recover. To date, approximately two months since the first attack, none of the victims has been able to throw off his lethargy to discuss the experience.

Archibald D. Jones, to the Royal Geographic Society, July 25, ----
I am determined to enter the lair of the Delighter, if it can be discovered. Another attack has left a number of children in a state of constant weeping and despair. Like the adult victims, they have to be restrained to prevent them doing harm to themselves. The villagers fear that the Delighter will return to attack the schools repeatedly, having once discovered the happy nature of the very young. The future of the region is in danger.

Archibald D. Jones, to the Royal Geographic Society, July 30, ----
I have begun explorations to discover the entrance to the lair of the Delighter. The villagers want to locate and seal the opening, but I believe that in the interests of science I must enter and confront the beast myself. It is my belief that a scientific turn of mind may offer some protection from the creature’s attack, as tending to leave me, as I have heard some colleagues claim, “dull as dishwater.” If the monster cannot find an adequate source of that which it seeks, it may leave me alone.

Archibald D. Jones, to the Royal Geographic Society, August 2, ---- Sirs:
I have discovered the entrance to the lair of the Delighter and am preparing to enter, laying forth all possible precautions. The creature comes and goes via a cave on the hillside between the two villages that have suffered the most.

I watched the cave for two days, and at last witnessed the egress and ingress of the monster. I believe my hypothesis about my scientific mind protecting me are correct, as the monster did not appear to be aware of my presence nearby. My observations confirmed the reports of the radical change in appearance of the Delighter after feeding. Indeed, I might almost have said it danced as it returned to its lair. I shall take great pleasure in discovering its manner of living between attacks.

All being prepared, I shall enter the cave two days hence. This, by my calculations, should put it midway in the feeding cycle, a time at which I believe its interest in humans may be at a minimum, thus maximizing my safety in this expedition.

Headwoman, Village of Kufu, to the Royal Geographic Society, August 20, ----
Dear Sirs,
It is my sad duty to inform you that your explorer, Mr. Archibald D. Jones, has been incapacitated in his quest to better understand the monster which haunts our village and has been called the Delighter, or, more accurately, the De-lighter. Despite our advice to the contrary, on August 4 he entered the cave into which the monster retreats after preying on our villages. He was convinced that his own nature would offer protection, and I confess that I had never met a drier and less empathetic man, who seemed to express little pleasure beyond an academic satisfaction in his work.

It appears that even so simple a pleasure as that is a meal to the De-lighter, and on August 10, Mr. Jones crawled from the cave and collapsed near our village. We have taken him in and are feeding him, but he does not stop weeping, and cannot utter any sense. The only words we have been able to make out from all his weeping are the cryptic comment, “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

We are unable to continue to support and nurse your explorer indefinitely, and humbly request that you send a rescue party to remove him. Perhaps with adequate care he may eventually recover. I am pleased to report that the first victim in our village, the husband of our excellent midwife, has begun to work once more, though he remains morose and silent.

Kala Ma’anua, Headwoman of Kufu

The entrance to the cave of the Delighter? Hard to say.

This may be a photo of the monster after feeding. Or not.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: Heart Mountain


Title: Heart Mountain
Author: Gretel Ehrlich
Publisher: ebook: Open Road Media, 2017, 382 pages. Original hardback Viking, 1988.
Source: Free review copy from the publisher

Publisher's Blurb:

This is the story of Kai, a graduate student reunited with his old-fashioned parents in the most painful way possible; Mariko, a gifted artist; Mariko’s husband, a political dissident; and her aging grandfather, a Noh mask carver from Kyoto. It is also the story of McKay, who runs his family farm outside the nearby town; Pinkey, an alcoholic cowboy; and Madeleine, whose soldier husband is missing in the Pacific. Most of all, Heart Mountain is about what happens when these two groups collide. Politics, loyalty, history, love—soon the bedrocks of society will seem as transient and fleeting as life itself.

Set at the real-life Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, this powerful novel paints “a sweeping, yet finely shaded portrait of a real West unfolding in historical time” (The Christian Science Monitor).

 My Review: 
I was offered this chance to review the re-issue (as an ebook) of what I believe was Gretel Ehrlich's first novel because I have reviewed many of the works of Ivan Doig, and I accepted it because of that connection, the historical and physical setting of the book, and the fact that I am aware of Gretel Ehrlich as a respected writer. I certainly wasn't sorry.

The story tackles a lot, wrangling the parallel stories of at least 6 people into something that works pretty well as a portrait of a community (or more accurately communities) in a time of struggle. Objectively, I think it probably would be a stronger book if it had tracked at least one less person, but all the threads do contribute to a strong whole.

It is impossible for me not to draw some comparisons with Ivan Doig, who wrote about a similar area. Ehrlich shares his ability to draw an evocative picture of a time and place, and her characters are well drawn, with a depth and complexity that makes them worth the writing. I did feel while reading that the book lacked something that I expect when I read Doig's works, and I think that I will call it warmth. This is a grim story in so many ways, and rightly so--it was a grim time, and the deportation of Japanese Americans to concentration camps in the interior was ugly. Even so, I think I would have enjoyed the book more had there been that warmth, that touch of humor, that allows a story to tell of grim events without weighing the reader down.

But several days after finishing the book, I am still contemplating some aspects of it, and seeing value in aspects of it that on first reading I thought gratuitous. Some parts that at first feel like they are intrusions by minor characters help to add depth and complexity to our understanding of the nation's treatment of the Japanese Americans (not justification, because some things cannot be justified, but we can at least understand the causes. Perhaps that understanding can help prevent similar mistakes from being made in the future). And that is proof to me that this is a good novel, and one that deserves reading, and possibly re-reading.

My Recommendation:
Read it. If you have any interest in American history, WWII, or how racism informs our actions, read it. And if you want to know what a Wyoming winter feels like, or a it. It's not a light book, but it does cast a good light.

FTC Disclosure: I was given a free ebook for review, and received nothing further 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, March 13, 2017

Middle Grade Review: Raymie Nightingale


Title: Raymie Nightingale
Author:Kate DeCamillo; read by Jenna Lamia
Publisher: Listening Library, 2016. Originally by Candlewick Press, 2016.  272 pages.
Source: Library digital services

Publisher's Blurb:
Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie's picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.

My Review:
Kate DiCamillo has a unique way with the waifs of the world--I first encountered her through Because of Winn-Dixie, which is also about a girl who's more than a little lost in her Floridian world, and I feel some of the same pathos (if that's the word--I don't mean it in a negative way, more just as sorry that sometimes the world sucks) in this book as in that.

Raymie is both so very lost, and so very certain that she can fix that if she just wins the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition of 1970-something. The reader knows (at least, the adult reader does; I wonder how the 8-year-olds read it?) that it's not going to be that easy, and her father's not going to come back just for that. But Raymie's pretty much finding her own way through all this, and it's an interesting path. The adults in her life--all women, and in fact none of the 3 girls has any men in their lives--are in varying degrees absent, flaky, and doing their best. Their best isn't all that great, though, so it's up to the 3 girls to forge ahead on their own. And they do.

In the end, it's a story about friendship, and about self-reliance and finding what you do best. The 3rd-person narration is so intimate with Raymie's head that I felt like it was 1st person, and seemed to work just right.

Jenna Lamia's reading is about perfect. She has the right sort of Southern voice for it, and does a marvelous job.

My Recommendation:
As usual with audio books, I recommend the story first and the audio book second. This is a great story about finding one's way in the world, and really is good for girls or boys, though some of the latter might be put off by the baton-twirling thing. They should look beyond that to see an adventure of 3 kids who band together to save themselves, because no one else is going to.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Raymie Nightingale out of my (digital) 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, March 9, 2017

Friday Flash Fiction: On the Road to Hell

This week, Chuck Wendig gave us two themes:
1. Doing a good thing sometimes means being evil.
2. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
We were supposed to pick one. I picked the second, and I think I found that they are really the same thing. Or maybe I didn't pick what I thought I did. Anyway, the protagonist of this one has unleashed more than was bargained for.

The Road to Hell

All I ever wanted was to save the world. I mean that quite literally. I wasn’t out cleaning up beaches or trying to prevent the last melting of the polar ice sheets. I was trying to prevent the total destruction of the biosphere. All of which is to say: I had never been a tree-hugger, or any other kind of do-gooder. That might have been part of the problem. In any case, I’d never given the environment a great deal of thought until fate rubbed my nose in it.

It started with what I took to be a side-effect of too much time spent playing a computer game. Anyway, at the time, I was sure it was a game. You remember that old movie, “War Games”? It might have been a bit like that.

The video game was called “Environmental Hero,” which was beyond dorky, but a friend got me hooked. You had to do things to clean up super-fund sites: oil spills, old mines, and nuclear sites, without getting so contaminated you mutated into a slime monster. If you did things right, you stayed mostly human, but you could unlock super-powers. I unlocked the ability to see invisible pollutants, and it seemed like everything I unlocked after that was a multiplier—something that made my one power stronger. Pretty soon I could see carbon monoxide and radiation, and a score of other things that would otherwise require expensive instruments that I had to mine gold to buy. It was a clever game that way, since you ended up polluting in order to find and destroy the pollution.

Someone with powers like I unlocked could have prevented the lead epidemic in Flint back in the ’Teens. I thought it was kind of cool.

When I began thinking I saw pollutants even when I wasn’t at the computer, I chalked it up to too much time on the game messing with my mind. When the problem persisted, I shut down the computer for a couple of days and went for a hike.

Three days later I was seeing pollutants everywhere, and it wasn’t an illusion. I bought some simple test kits for some of the things, and sure enough, I was seeing what was there. What was everywhere.

That was enough to make me start writing letters to congress, for all the good it did. The corporate minions had a firm grip on the seat of power, and no one was going to pay any attention to someone who claimed they were poisoning the environment. They just figured they’d keep it away from their own homes, and carry on.

After a while, I got used to my new vision, and got tired of wasting my time, so I stopped writing letters, or doing much of anything else. I guess that was a time when my intentions weren’t so good. Not that they were bad; I just stopped having intentions, which might actually have been my first step on the path to hell.

My wake-up call came when the president abolished the EPA, on the grounds that there was really no such thing as pollution. I started looking again, and I realized how close we were to having neither air nor water fit for human consumption. At that point, it would be all up with us. Lots of parts of the world were already experiencing the effects of this, though you only got word through secret social media channels. The official word was that we were just fine.

Naïve that I was, I tried to go to the White House and tell the president how wrong he was. When they said I needed an appointment, I tried to tell his staffers what I knew, and how.

They thought I was crazy, which I should have expected. It didn’t help that when they told me I had to go, I began to yell about all the contaminants I could see right there in the White House. When I called the president a blind fool and accused him of destroying the world, they arrested me.

You’re going to say I should have seen that coming a mile away, and maybe I could have if I hadn’t been blinded by the waves of carbon monoxide, the chemicals in the  water, and background radiation at a level that I knew the few remaining scientists couldn’t have missed.

They didn’t have much to hold me on, so I was out of jail the next day, and that was when I maybe got it a bit wrong. I figured the only way to get their attention was to direct the worst of the pollution right back at the seats of power, so I began learning how the sewer and water systems in DC work. I found (an impoverished, of course) section of the city where the tap water would burn if you lit it.

People in that part of town were saving money on power by cooking over burning water. It sent the levels of airborne pollutants over the top, but they couldn’t see that, and they could see they were broke.

It took me a year, but in the end I had the project working. I’d forgotten that even ordinary people could smell the stuff coming out of those pipes. The folks on Capitol Hill smelled the water and hit the panic button, sure they were experiencing some kind of chemical warfare.

And so they were, though they’d launched it themselves.

It’s not really my fault that the president didn’t wait around to learn if his immediate reaction was correct. He “knew” that terrorists from the Middle East had gotten through security, and he did what he always said he would in case of attack.

He pushed the red button.

So yeah, I tried to save the world. It didn’t work out like I planned, and now we are all most certainly on the road to hell. But my intentions were good.

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

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Fiction audio book review: The Summer Before the War


Title: The Summer Before the War
 Author: Helen Simonson; read by Fiona Hardingham
Publisher: Random House Audio, 2016 (original hardback by Random House, 2016, 496 pages).
Source: Library digital services

Publisher's Blurb:
East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

My Review:
I enjoyed this story heartily. I admit that I thought for some reason that it was a humorous book, and indeed some parts, especially early on, do seem to be poking gentle fun at all the Downton Abbey fans. But ultimately, it's a well-written bit of historical fiction, with the story coming first and the romance growing organically if somewhat predictably from events (I have to say right here that I knew by the end of the first chapter who was going to marry whom. It was the rest of the story that was interesting).

There are a number of good subtexts in the book, regarding feminism (fairly obvious) as well as issues of homosexuality, racism, and serious class divides. Helen Simonson doesn't seem to be afraid to tackle any of those, while writing a good story at the same time. Beatrice, for example, wouldn't have the problems she does if her father hadn't written a rather Victorian will, which gave his daughter (his only child) the inheritance, but didn't give her control of it--her money is controlled by a trust until she marries, and there's damn-all she can do about it. I felt her frustration, maybe even more than she did--I really wanted her to break the will and get her hands on the money. :)

Other issues, especially the class issue, are even grimmer. The children to whom Beatrice is teaching Latin aren't actually expected to go anywhere with their educations, and various people make that clear to any child who gets "above himself." The effects of that are, in one instance, far-reaching and devastating. In the end, the book I began as a light-hearted romp, proved to be solid and a bit sobering. I give the author full credit for a well-crafted piece of historical fiction.

The narration is well-done, and had no technical glitches or anything else to distract from the story.

My Recommendation:
Despite what I said, I'll definitely recommend this for fans of Downton Abbey, and anyone else with an interest in the WWI era and the social complexities of that period. It's also not bad as a romance, not in the least of the steamy sort, just a story of lives that converge, and a bit of a coming-of-age novel, albeit the characters who are coming of age are already what we would think of as adults. They just have some growing up to do.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Summer Before the War 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, March 6, 2017

Middle Grade Review: The Camelot Kids, Book One


Title: The Camelot Kids, Book One
Author: Ben Zackheim
Publisher: Ben Zackheim, 2014. 503 pages
Source: I won a paperback copy in a giveaway.

Publisher's Summary:
Here it is! The complete collection of The Camelot Kids Parts 1-4, with new illustrations and extra story.

The Camelot Kids is a series that tells the story of Simon Sharp, a 14-year-old orphan. Simon isn’t a normal teenager. He’s a kid on a mission. He's determined to find a place to belong.

If you ask him how his parents died, he'll tell you King Arthur killed them. They died looking for proof that Camelot is real.

An estranged uncle flies Simon to Scotland for room and board. The fourteen year old soon discovers someone wants him dead. But who cares about some outcast teenager from America?

When a grumpy, 3276 year old Merlin shows up to protect him, Simon finds that the answer is an epic adventure away.

Packed with surprises, The Camelot Kids is a fresh take on the beloved myth.

My Review:
First things first: I "met" the author through Goodreads, and have shared space with him in the Bookelves Anthology projects. I have also reviewed and totally loved his Shirley Link mysteries for middle-grade readers. That said, I was honestly thrilled to win the giveaway, and my review reflects my honest opinion.

I also want to note that I included the first line of the blurb above to clear up something that had me confused, a little. This book combines four books into one volume (and one continuous story, to be fair), which explains the high page count, as well. Now for the review:

I loved it. I'll confess to just a hint of trepidation as I went into this, because I've gotten kind of tired of the "ordinary kid discovers he's something else in a fantasy world" model (see Percy Jackson, for example). I think Ben nailed it. He certainly swept away my doubts in fairly short order, leaving me free to dive into the world of New Camelot and enjoy myself. 
Simon's world, both before and after he discovers New Camelot (or is dragged there, kicking and screaming), is vividly painted, with visuals that I found clear and compelling. Simon's challenges as an orphan are believable, with just a hint (in retrospect) that there is something more to him. And the characters he meets along the way have depth--often a great deal more depth than Simon imagines. 

The pacing is really nice--it's fast-moving, but the action isn't so non-stop that you get dizzy watching it. It's exciting, but I believe well within the bounds for elementary-aged children--the violence is less than in Percy Jackson, and though people die, the gore is kept to a minimum, and the reactions to their deaths feel genuine.

The book is impeccably edited, and the illustrations by Ian Greenlee are fascinating,  though at first I found them a little dark. They have a complexity that yields to study, though, so I think are a nice addition to the book.

I am eagerly awaiting the next installment.

My Recommendation:
For kids from about 9 up, who like fantasy, and for anyone who loves the Arthurian legends. I have to confess that my own studies of the earliest stories--Mallory's Morte d'Artur and the Lays of Marie de France--are too long ago for me to offer much check on how the Ben used the material, and I never did read T.H. White's books. But this is a great addition, if readability and interest count!

FTC Disclosure: I won a copy of The Camelot Kids in a giveaway, and received nothing further 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, March 2, 2017

Friday Flash: The World in the Palm of Her Hand

Chuck's challenge this week was to pick a random image from Flickr and let it inspire a story. After a long trip down the rabbit hole, I stopped looking at pretty pictures and selected one.

The photo is by Truus.
Since I'm not sure if it's okay to post, the picture is here.
And when I went to find that link, I found a photo that is even better for the story.
Check them both out!

The World In the Palm of Her Hand

All Lissa knew was that she was supposed to save the world.

In point of fact, she didn’t really know even that: she’d had a message from some mysterious old man who refused to show his face, exactly according to regulations. The message read, “She has the world in the palm of her hand. Don’t let her drop it.”

In theory that left the field so impossibly wide open that there was little hope of finding the right woman, but Lissa had a bit more to go on than the message suggested. For one thing, since she got the memo, she could assume that the woman was somewhere in Lissa’s region.

All the Guardians had their own regions to watch over, and Lissa’s was large, but sparsely populated. That would help.

Further, she could feel disturbances in the powers, so she ought to be able to sense the problematic woman.

But Lissa had no idea what the message meant, beyond trouble. Was the problem a politician about to do something stupid and trigger World War VI, ending everything? Or some well-meaning genius trying to cure diseases who might instead unleash a plague that would wipe out all life?

Lissa spent two full days researching all the possible madwomen, scientists, terrorists, and politicians in her region and, for good measure, the regions touching on hers. None of them seemed in a position to do anything of world-ending import, either of malice aforethought or by accident.

She then spent two more days racing about her region trying to sense an imbalance.


Nothing, that is, until she got to the boundary with Region 76. What she felt there wasn’t what she expected, but it needed investigation all the same. The assignment of a mission didn’t relieve her from the duty to look out for other disturbances.

Crossing into another Guardian’s territory was frowned on, except in hot pursuit. The paperwork required for a waiver was extensive, and Lissa, like most of her fellow Guardians, opted to skip it and hope she wouldn’t be caught.

Following her instincts, she went looking for the Guardian she couldn’t feel. Something had happened to—what was her name? Lissa had to look through the records a long way back to find that the Guardian of Region 276 was Ilga, and that she had been a Guardian since the days of the horse and buggy. Now Lissa could feel only the faintest hint of her presence in the area she was meant to protect.

She followed that trace through an agricultural landscape that seemed to have been frozen in the 20th Century. The early 20th, if Lissa was any judge. Was that Ilga’s doing, or just the inclination of the locals?

On the third day Lissa found her: an old woman, sitting in a farmyard doing absolutely nothing. Only her aura told Lissa she’d found the missing Guardian. Ilga held something shiny in her hand, and at first Lissa thought she was admiring herself in a mirror, gone childish in her final days.

When she got a better look, Lissa felt dizzy. The object was not a mirror, but a crystal gazing ball. Lissa had seen such things, mostly in the Guardian’s Museum of Silly Human Artifacts, where they sat next to a collection of cracked and glazed Crazy 8 Balls.

A gazing ball in the hands of an ordinary human was just a piece of pretty glass that reflected the world back in a beautiful distortion. In the hands of a Guardian, it could quite literally contain the world, and turn it upside down.

Ilga looked up and saw Lissa. Her smile was not what the young Guardian would have liked to see. Someone had miscalculated: Ilga should have been retired long ago; what Lissa saw looking from those ancient eyes was the pure madness that could come of centuries of trying to keep humans from destroying themselves.

“So you’ve found me.” Ilga’s voice was old and cracked, but calm.

“You’re upsetting the Messengers.”

The old woman cackled. “They are such fuss-budgets. I’ve nearly finished here.”

Keep her talking, Lissa encouraged herself. The first rule of stopping destructive lunatics was to keep them talking. Usually they were human lunatics, but Lissa figured the same rule applied to a Guardian who had slipped a cog.

“Finished what?” she asked, with what she hoped was the right blend of interest and indifference.

“Loading the world into my ball. So much easier to watch this way.” She held up the ball on her hand, and Lissa felt herself turn cold. Ilga had done it. The ball cleared, no longer reflecting the sky. An ever-shifting view of people and landscapes played in the depths. The constant motion made Lissa a little sick, but she knew what had to be done.

The ball could no longer be destroyed. It would have to be taken to the head Guardian to be disassembled with utmost care. For now, whatever happened to the ball would happen to the world.

The Messenger had been right: Ilga held the world in the palm of her hand, and she didn’t seem to be particularly concerned.

“Why don’t you give me that?” Lissa asked as casually as she could.

Ilga only cackled and balanced the ball on a fence post, stepping back to admire it. Lissa felt the shift in gravity as it moved. This was bad.

“It will do very well there,” Ilga said, and walked away. Torn between a need to stop the woman from any more madness, and the need to protect the gazing ball, Lissa hesitated a moment too long. The earth made another jolting adjustment, and the ball began to roll from the post.

Lissa caught the movement from the corner of her eye, and launched herself in a long, desperate dive, arms outstretched to catch the world in the palm of her own hand.

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


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!

March IWSG Day Question: Have you ever pulled out a really old story and reworked it? Did it work out?
Late, as usual. Sigh.

Since I'm still in the throes of rewriting Pismawallops PTA 3, I thought I'd go with the prompt for this month. (The editing is going well, thank you, but more slowly than I would like, as usual).

The question is actually kind of appropriate, because the first PPTA book was a substantial revision of an abandoned draft. I'm not sure I'd call it *really* old, but it had been in the drawer for 6 or 7 years, I think, when I decided to take a look and see if it had any hope. I consulted with an editor, and between us we decided that I should try.

One advantage of editing something that has been on ice for multiple years is that you really can look at it objectively.  I'm not sure how many years it takes to be able to read a story or novel with little to none of the baggage you carry around in your head when writing it for the first time, but that was what I was able to do. 

With that perspective, I could rewrite characters to be more believable, and to have their own voices. I could also work out motivations more clearly, so that the murder made more sense and characters behaved more reasonably.

From that experience, though I've never tried it with a short story, I'd say that putting a project that isn't quite working into pickle for months or years might be helpful. In point of fact, I pretty much let all my rough drafts stew for around a year--my procedure is to draft a novel, put it aside to revise an older work to the point of submission to beta readers and editors, work on final edits to yet a 3rd project, and move back to the rough draft only when at least one of those other works is out the door. For me, the longer between first draft and further work, the better--at least, up to a point. 

I just don't know where that point is, yet.

How about you? Any experience with resurrecting the dead--dead stories, that is?