Wednesday, October 17, 2018

WEP: Deja Vu and Voodoo
Write…Edit…Publish (WEP) is an online writing community now partnering with the Insecure Writers Support Group (IWSG). We post the third Wednesday of every second month. WEP challenges are open to all. 

I don't really like horror, so I took the prompt in a different direction, and wrote a short story from my Pismawallops PTA mystery series. You'll only get the "deja vu" part if you read Death By Trombone :)  I managed to hit 1000 words exactly, exclusive of the title.

Deja Vu All Over Again

“We’ve been over this, Kitty. With my new job at the library I don’t have time for everything. I really can’t do the Fall Formal.” I crossed my fingers as I said it; I worked a great deal less at the library than Kitty did at their gas station.

“We have been through it all before.” Kitty didn’t sound like she agreed with me. She sounded like she was laughing at me, or humoring me, which was worse. “You can afford one evening, and the library isn’t open Friday nights. Well, plus some time to decorate. Come on, JJ. You know I depend on you.”

Dang. She was invoking our friendship and all our shared history. How could I say no?

I made one last attempt to weasel out. “You know I hate how loud the school dances are, Kitty.”

“Wear earplugs,” was her heartless response.

I finally cut to the real issue. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time I chaperoned a dance?” That actually silenced her. We were unlikely to forget the body I’d found while taking a phone call behind the high school gym.

“You win.” Kitty sounded so contrite I almost felt bad.

I had to be supportive in my turn. “I’ll find you someone to help, or I’ll come myself. I won’t leave you in the lurch.” I knew as I said it that I’d probably end up doing it myself, but Kitty had been right there for me when I found that body. Finding volunteers was almost more painful than finding bodies, and nearly as rare. Staying in the gym through an entire high school dance might drive me crazy, so I was motivated.

Motivated or not, even I couldn’t accomplish the impossible. The day before the dance found me in the gym, swathed in bunting and strings of fake colorful leaves. Our local evergreens didn’t provide the desired ambiance, so we hit up the party store on the mainland for an affordable substitute.

I took another swig of my coffee—cold—and considered the logistics of affixing plastic leaves to cinder-block walls. There was only one logical solution, and the ringing of my phone gave me the excuse.

“Brian!” I summoned my son and his best friend. “You and Justin get started hanging this stuff. I need to answer this call.”

I headed for the front door, phone in hand. Not even to escape the decoration would I go out the back door. It was out that door, while decorating for the Senior Prom the previous spring, that I’d found the last body. I took my call and waited while a bevy of teenaged girls hauled in a giant basket of plastic jack-o-lanterns. In all the noise, I couldn’t make out who was on the other end of the call.

“Hang on! Let me get somewhere quieter!” The breezeway in front of the gym was still crowded with kids, so I headed around the side of the building, not thinking about where I was going.

“So have you taken up a career in steam-fitting?”

I knew that urbane and sarcastic voice, and snapped, “What do you want?” My Ex didn’t deserve a polite response. “I’m not letting you off the hook. I want the money you owe in my account by the end of the month.” Good God, I thought I was done battling with Allen.

“I really don’t think you—” he began, but I didn’t hear any more. I was too busy tripping over something in the near-darkness, and I didn’t like what it felt like. I gasped, but contrary to Allen’s later claims, I did not scream. I did hang up on him in the process of trying to find the flashlight app on my phone, but I assure you it was entirely unintentional. Well, mostly.

For some reason my hands were shaking. It was pretty cold out there; an October night on Pismawallops Island can be pretty chilly and damp. That must have been why I shook.

When I finally got the light on, I wished I hadn’t.

Someone was stretched out face-up on the ground, eyes open and unseeing.

Kitty told me later that I screamed, though I know she was exaggerating.

Ron told me I phoned him.

A dozen people told me a dozen different stories about what happened next, and I don’t remember any of it.

I must have called Ron, though, because the next thing I knew, the police chief was holding me in his arms and repeating my name.

“Huh?” It wasn’t a very articulate response, but it must have been better than he’d been getting, because he stopped saying my name.

“It’s okay,” he said instead.

“No, it isn’t,” I pointed out. “It’s another corpse. What killed this one?” I didn’t really want to know, but I was determined to appear calm, and settle all the people who were hovering around as though I needed help.

“Clear out, all of you,” Ron took care of the problem for me. “Don’t you have a gym to decorate or something?”

“You just want to get her alone,” someone quipped. It was probably either my kid or Kitty’s.

“Darn right I do,” Ron growled. “Now go!”

They went, and I assumed Ron would move into investigator mode, but he seemed to be a great deal more interested in investigating me than the corpse I’d tripped on.

“Stop that.” I pushed him away, though in general I liked the way he kissed. “Don’t you need to figure out who killed him?”

“I believe that would be Archie McPhee,” Ron said.

“Huh?” It took me a minute to recognize the name of the famous  purveyor of magic tricks, gag gifts, and tasteless practical jokes. Then the lightbulb went off, and I flipped on my flashlight again. Steeling myself, I brushed off Ron’s hand and took a closer look at the “corpse”. Someone had left the price tag on the left cheek.

I really hate Halloween.


 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.
Critique guidelines: FCA

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Middle Grade fiction: Castle Hangnail 

Title: Castle Hangnail
Author: Ursula Vernon
Publication Info: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2015. 386 pages.
Source: Library digital collection

Publisher’s Blurb:
When Molly shows up on Castle Hangnail's doorstep to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the castle's minions are understandably dubious. After all, she is twelve years old, barely five feet tall, and quite polite. (The minions are used to tall, demanding evil sorceresses with razor-sharp cheekbones.) But the castle desperately needs a master or else the Board of Magic will decommission it, leaving all the minions without the home they love. So when Molly assures them she is quite wicked indeed (So wicked! REALLY wicked!) and begins completing the tasks required by the Board of Magic for approval, everyone feels hopeful. Unfortunately, it turns out that Molly has quite a few secrets, including the biggest one of all: that she isn't who she says she is.

This quirky, richly illustrated novel is filled with humor, magic, and an unforgettable all-star cast of castle characters.

My Review:
Oh, this was just what I needed! Reality has been pretty horrific lately, so I wasn't inspired to read a truly scary book for our Great Middle Grade Reads October BOTM. I was happy my choice won, and when I started reading I knew we'd gotten it right. The description of Castle Hangnail which opens the book plays delightfully off every gothic pile you've ever read of, with the minor distractions of cheery dandelions in the "blasted heath" that surrounded it and a stray teacup by the front door. 

And the minions! They are the most delightful collection of misfits to wander the pages of absurd fiction, topped only by the absurdity of the 12-year-old Wicked Witch who shows up to become master of the castle.

The book, in my opinion, found exactly the right balance between the laugh-out-loud moments and some real peril, not to mention some very grown-up threats to Castle Hangnail (frozen plumbing? It takes a genius to make that both a hilarious problem and an existential threat). Yes, there are incredibly serious problems facing Molly and the castle minions. But the author doesn't let that stop her making the solutions as absurd as the idea of a minion made of steam. I didn't even think that the nod to mean-girl issues damaged the story, and I hope very much that Molly will be returning to the castle in a sequel.

My Recommendation:
A perfect Halloween read for kids from 7 or 8 up. I think it would be wonderful to read it aloud to the kids. Maybe I'll have to set up a Skype session with my boys... think they'd like that in their college dorms? (In fact, this kind of reminds me of the Hank the Cowdog books we used to read to the boys, with their mix of slapstick little-kid humor and more sophisticated jokes that the parents can get without comment).

Full Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of Castle Hangnail from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."    

Friday, October 12, 2018

Photo Friday: On the Shores of Lake Superior

Last week this blog took you to the North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt NP.  This week I'm sharing some highlights from a couple of stops we made along the shores of Lake Superior in the first week of September: Porcupine Mountains State Wilderness Area, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, both in Michigan. These were pretty much drive-by visits; we spent only one night in each area so we just touched on some of the possibilities.

At the Porcupine Mountains, we camped at the Presque Isle campground, and did our hiking and sightseeing along the Presque Isle river close by. Since it rained heavily during the night and we'd failed to adequately secure our gear, instead of hiking in the morning we had to go off and find a laundromat. The thunder and lightning in the night were worth it, though--it must have been quite a night out on the lake.

The trail along the west side of the river was well-engineered to handle the crowds who must come on summer weekends. It wasn't bad when we were there mid-week, though the campground was full--we got one of 2 open sites.
On the other side of the river, we poked a little way into the forest, finding the trail wet and full of slick roots. We decided pretty quickly that we had gotten the general idea and went back to the river.
The river is largely about waterfalls, most of which we Westerners would call "rapids," or at most "cascades."
I think these were Manabezho Falls.
 The water was full of tannin, giving it a brown coloring, different from when rivers are brown from silt. This was more like... a river running with tea.
Same falls I think.
This one, Manido Falls, was the only one I'd really call a waterfall, with a vertical drop of 10 or 12 feet.
Maybe the coolest thing we found there was the way the foam on the river disclosed the eddy patterns of the water.
At the mouth. Might be out to sea, but it's Lake Superior, which might well be a sea, though not a salt one.
Foam swirls
This next is apparently a common phenomenon there, because we have seen other photos of it. The foam gets caught in an eddy, and rotates as it builds, until you have a large "wedding cake" of foam in constant rotation. While we watched, a puff of wind caught it and pushed it out into the current, where it was broken up and carried away.
The cake looks good, but hasn't much flavor.
The next morning, as noted, we were very very wet, and found a laundromat in a nearby(ish) town. To save time, we had breakfast while our clothes washed and dried.
Yes, we will set up and fix a meal pretty much anywhere.
Clothes clean and selves fed, we drove on to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where we discovered that it was Friday of Labor Day weekend (yes, these things can slip your mind on a long trip), and there were no campsites available in the park. We decided to make a day of it, then drive on and take our chances (we did, in fact, find a spot in a commercial campground just outside the east end of the park).

The sun came out on the shore by the time we got there. We weren't the only ones to appreciate it.
Apparently the monarchs migrate through the Park.
I was struck by how blue-green the water was, at least next to the shore.
Everyone has to stop and look at the Miner's Castle. Saw some kayaks; that seems like the way to go.
We concentrated our efforts on a 6+ mile hike to Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach, since we didn't have time to do multiple explorations. The trail led through a near-monoculture of beech trees, past a waterfall, and down to the beach.
Managed to find a patch of empty trail, but this was a popular hike, despite the length.
Chapel Rock was once a full arch, but sometime in the 1930s (? a long time ago, anyway), a big chunk of it fell into the water, leaving the tree's roots reaching across open air to the mainland.
Someday I suppose the tree will fall over, and the rock will be the less interesting for the loss.
 The "pictured rocks" are the multi-colored rocks that form the cliffs along the shoreline, and they erode into pebbles of many colors.

It was a warm, humid day, and the water was inviting. So even though the beach was well-used, we walked a little away from the crowds and stripped to our undies for a swim. Hope we didn't shock anyone too much.
Partly wanted to cool off, and partly just wanted to have swum in one of the Great Lakes.
All of that hiking left us with just enough time to get to a scenic viewpoint to cook some dinner and watch the sun set (I don't even know just where this was--somewhere along the Twelvemile Beach is my best guess). The sunset was well worth the price--driving the rest of the way to Grand Marais, and finding a campsite, in the dark.

There was definitely a lot more we could have done in either of these two parks, and maybe someday we'll be back. If not, at least we got to see that much!

Next week: Algonquin Provencial Park, Ontario.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.