Thursday, June 27, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Dead Man’s Revenge

 Time for another Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck.  This week it involved the random selection (which I had to tweak a bit, as some selections were inappropriate for me) of two sub-genres and two elements of the story.  I got "occult detective" and "picaresque," which I didn't do super well, and the two elements were a dead enemy's revenge and a pool of blood.  So, borrowing a character and a world from my WIP, I came up with. . .

The Dead Man’s Revenge

Bovrell the Bold looked furtively about him before ducking through the low doorway next to the sign, “Maya Kinten, things discovered.”  He’d heard about this woman who had the power to find just about anything.  He wanted something found, and couldn’t admit to just anyone that he’d lost it.

He blinked a moment in the dim interior.  All interiors in Kargor were dim, but this one seemed to have an extra layer of opacity.  His chain mail clinked as he moved away from the door, just in case, and a voice said,

“You have come for my services, Bovrell the Bold?”  The voice was not, as he’d expected, old and cracked.  His eyes adjusted to the dim light, and saw that the woman behind the table was heavily veiled, in the accepted tradition of those who practiced the mystical arts.  His impression, however, was that she was neither young nor old.  Ageless?  He cleared his throat.

“I have lost some things, and need help in finding them.”

“I see.  They are important to you?”

“Yes, very.”

Maya Kinten studied her hands.  He’d expected she would gaze into a crystal, or a mirror, or something, but she looked up and said, “That is only somewhat true.”

Bovrell felt a chill.  He didn’t really believe in the powers of the occult seekers of Kargor, even if he had come looking for one.  But this woman. . . he pushed his doubts aside.

“I have lost my apprentice, and a Fair Maiden I rescued.  You know the rules.”

She gazed unblinkingly at him this time, before answering.  “I know the rules.  You have no sorrow for the loss of the apprentice.  You left him behind to pay your bills with his own sweat.  You regret the princess, but I sense you also left her intentionally.”

“Perhaps, but I need them back now.”  Bovrell tried his most winning smile on the woman.  It worked on all the young women.  All except maybe that pesky girl in Carthor, but she wasn’t a princess anyway.  The one he’d lost was in Duria, and she’d been pretty and compliant and he’d been very sorry to have to leave in such a hurry.

The Seeker appeared unmoved by the winning smile.  Bovrell shifted position, the better to display his well-muscled torso, and tried again.  “I have sought you, Mistress Kinten, because I have been told that you are the best.  I can pay you well.”  He crossed his fingers behind his back, since he had, as usual, less than enough money for his next meal.  The life of a roving Hero can be hard.  Unless he keeps his hold on the princesses, and Bovrell had a surprisingly poor record there.

Now the woman took up a mirror, and studied it as though seeing more than her veil in its depths.  Bovrell hated seeing any woman covered up, unless she was old and ugly.  Already he itched for his next quest—or conquest.

Maya Kinten stiffened, and bent to look more closely at the mirror.  “So much blood,” she murmured.

Bovrell shifted uneasily.  He’d prefer to just find the girl and get on his way, without raking up uncomfortable bits of his history.

She spoke again.  “You must tell me of the pool of blood, and the one who lies in it.”  Her voice carried less of mystical seduction and more of command, and he felt himself unable to refuse.

“He held the princess against her will in a grim, dark castle.  I am a Hero.  I had to kill him, and rescue her.  That is all.  I was the better swordsman.”

She gave him a look so knowing, what he could see of the eyes over the veil, that he felt certain she knew the truth.  That he had hidden in the curtains and tripped the man while he was carrying a tray of kitchen knives back from the smith who had just sharpened them.  The man had fallen, and cut his own throat in the falling.  “I slew him and freed the princess, and returned her to her own people.”

“And then?” Maya Kinten prompted gently.

“And then,” Bovrell found himself saying, “ill luck began to dog my footsteps.  I was forced to ride from village to village, ever seeking something I could not name.  I visited the tiniest of Durian villages, and found myself accepting an apprentice.  He was the most useless of lads, and I do not deny that I left him when I could bear it no longer.”

“And the princess?  You left her even sooner.”

“I returned her to her people.”

“You have left so much unsaid.”

“I left her with her people,” he found himself saying, “and they threatened to kill me.  They said she had been given rightfully to the man in the grim castle, and that my action had brought a curse upon them and me.”

“And now,” said Maya Kinten, “you wish to find her and them, and see what must be done to remove the curse.”

“I haven’t been able to find a single princess since leaving Loria!  And every one I ever did find turned out to have been promised in marriage to another, thus overriding the rule of The Hero’s Guide to Battles, Rescues, and the Slaying of Monsters that the Hero shall marry the princess he rescues.”

The woman pushed aside her veils, and Bovrell saw that she was the princess he had rescued long ago, at the beginning of his troubles.

“You!” he exclaimed.

“Yes.  I am the princess you ‘rescued’ by slaying my lover.  I am the one who has made certain that you will never again have success in your endeavors.”

He felt himself frozen to the spot.  “And now you will slay me as the dead man’s revenge?” he managed to croak.

“Oh, no,” she smiled.  “I shall leave you to continue as you have begun.  You shall spend the rest of your life as a Hero, riding gallantly about, but never quite succeeding.  Oh,” she added as an afterthought, “and you might want to know that your hopeless apprentice has done well for himself.  Quite well,” she repeated with a smile that stabbed Bovrell’s icy heart.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: Men at Arms (Discworld)

Oops. . . scheduled this for the wrong day.  Here it is again, on the right day.

Men at Arms, by Sir Terry Pratchett
1993, HarperTorch.
Source: library

My Mystery Mondays have degenerated a bit, as I've been distracted by other types of reading (really, an adult mystery and a kid's book each week is a bit ambitious, even for me!).  But have no fear--Discworld's here!  Yup, another outing in Sir Terry Pratchett's incredible Discworld collection (I hesitate to call it a series, because that implies a sense of organization and connectivity that isn't always present.  Still, I'm reading them "in order," i.e. in the order he wrote them.  If nothing else it's a good study in the development of a writer and a world.

Which leads me to muse about the whole thing of world-building, since that's something we all (all us writers, that is) do, even those writing the most realistic fiction in real settings.  Heck, non-fiction writers have to do it too, though the world they build is rather more constrained.  The thing is, when I reflect on this, I think that in pretty much every series I know, the world is a bit underdeveloped in the first book, and grows into a great deal more depth and interest as the series lengthens.  I see it with most of my favorite mystery writers, who start with a very small piece of a small community, and over the course of many books the picture of the place becomes more 3-dimensional and the cast of characters widens.  Fantasies broaden from tiny, easily-grasped worlds to realistically complex and diverse ones.

It's certainly true of my own writing--the world of Skunk Corners developed a lot through the stories in The Ninja Librarian, and grew still broader in Return to Skunk Corners (coming soon--watch this space!).  Then I have to make decisions about how wide that world can get before it intersects too heavily with reality and ceases to function.   My two other WIPs (yes, I've been a bit ADHD or something and actually now have three books in various stages of editing!) are a mystery and a fantasy--each requiring the creation of a world, each world clearly needing to be broadened as I think about sequels.

Where was I?  Oh, yes, Sir Terry.  Discworld.  More specifically, Men at Arms.  This:
Men at Arms (Discworld, #15)

 As I was saying about world-building, Discworld has come a long way from The Color of Magic.  Yet it remains full of surprises, delight, and of course knee-slapping humor at the expense of just about every sacred cow.  In Men at Arms, Pratchett takes on weapons control, Affirmative Action, and marriage, among other things.  Of course, when Pratchett gets hold of them, these things all seem a little odd.  Among the Guard of Ankh-Morpork, Affirmative Action means making room for dwarfs, trolls, and other things, which may or may not be human depending on conditions.  We can laugh, and we can squirm a bit, too.

By the time the crime is solved (Carrot to the rescue once again!) we've been exposed to everything from exploding dragons to the Assassin's Guild to the truly terrifying Clown's Guild, not to mention the treacherous waters of matrimony.  If you haven't both laughed and felt slightly affronted by the end of this book, there is probably something wrong with you.  You might even shed a tear, which is less common on Discworld, but, well, anything can happen there.

Full Disclosure: I checked out this copy of Men at Arms from my library and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Got a new cover!

So this is definitely exciting stuff.  Well, to me, anyway.

As part of the preparation and marketing for the sequel to The Ninja Librarian (that would be Return to Skunk Corners, coming in August), I have a new cover and format for the original NL.  As soon as I've had a chance to review the proof, it'll be available, as a "Second Edition," since that's the way CreateSpace works when you change the trim size.  It's already on Smashwords, and if you own a copy, you can download the new one free (though the only thing that's changed is the cover, and one tiny typo I finally removed).

The new book is a more standard size (CreateSpace's claims notwithstanding, 6x9" is not the most common size!) and has a cover that I think better reflects the nature of the book.  In fact. . . here's the new cover, front and back:

Wait until you see the cover for Return to Skunk Corners!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Middle-Grade Monday: Two Old Favorites

I accidentally scheduled two posts for the same day.  I've pulled one, just to keep things a little more manageable.  So if you got a notice and now you can't find it, Men at Arms  will be up on Wednesday.

Apropos of a discussion of orphans in children's books, I decided to take a look back at a couple of my favorite books from childhood.  These are books that I read and re-read dozens of times, so they clearly had something that worked for me.  On re-reading as an adult, I still have that feeling for them, but one of the stories stands up to a more thoughtful perusal, and one doesn't (even if I do still love it).  I was going to say it may be no coincidence that both these books are old, but, well, yeah, it's no coincidence, because they were old enough to be on the shelves of the library when I was a kid.  DUH they're old!

Nancy and PlumFirst, the one that doesn't hold up so well.
Nancy and Plum, by Betty MacDonald
Publisher: Joan Keil Enterprises (this is a reprint, brought out by MacDonald's daughter in the 80's when the original had fallen out of print, which I tracked down on line).  Original copyright: 1952.

I see from Goodreads that the book has been reprinted several times, and is available in several languages.  Nonetheless, it has never shared the popularity of MacDonald's other children's books, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories (which, to be perfectly frank, even as a child I found hopelessly preachy and annoying).  Betty MacDonald, for the record, is the author of the memoirs The Egg and I and Onions in the Stew, which was also made into a play and is, or at least once was, often done by high school drama clubs (including, inevitably, ours: the story is set in my home town, where MacDonald's daughters went to high school with my mother).

Brief Summary: Nancy and Pamela (Plum) Remson are orphans, dumped at Mrs. Monday's Boarding Home for Children by their only relative, a bachelor with no interest in children.  Mrs. Monday is greedy, cruel, and generally nasty, and her "home" is a place where children get lousy food and hard work, reminiscent of Oliver Twist.  Two-thirds of the book recounts the girls' travails through a miserable Christmas when they are left alone at the boarding house, their efforts to make a doll for a fellow-boarder, to go on a real picnic, and to maintain their sense of self-worth in the face of Mrs. Monday's cruelty and the nasty tattling of her niece, Marybelle.  The last part of the book tells how they run away when the last straw is reached, and how they come to find a good and loving home (I don't consider this a spoiler because it is an inevitable feature of the genre).  Bookended by two very different Christmases, this works very well as a holiday story.

Review: Well, I still love the book.  I can't help it.  But it really is not a very good book.  The situations are stereotypical, the characters are caricatures, and the story arc is very well-established (like Oliver Twist, they even end up being returned to captivity and treated worse than ever, before they achieve final freedom).  There is also a strong element of the preaching that makes Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle unreadable (to me), a sense that she's working too hard to make a point or instill a moral.  So why do I still like it?  For one thing, it's a comforting story.  The little girls never lose that spark that makes them more than victims, and the certainty that the evil oppressor will get her come-uppance is reassuring.  As a kid, I'm pretty sure I also liked the smart-alec comebacks that Plum pulls off.
Two Stars.

The Lion's PawThe second book has aged better.
The Lion's Paw by Robb White.
Published by Doubleday in 1950, so it's from a similar era.  I picked this one up at a library book sale, I think.  It is in any case an old library copy.

Brief Summary: Twelve-year-old Penny and her nine-year-old brother Nick live at an orphanage--an "Eganapro" as they call it, from reading the sign over the gate in reverse.  It's not an awful place, but it's an institution and they don't fit well.  They long to sail away on one of the boats they can see in the distant harbor, if they can't have a real home.  One day Nick just reaches the end of his rope, and declares he will go with a woman who wants to adopt him as a chore boy, then run away from her.  Penny convinces him to come back and get her, and their adventures begin.  They end up aboard a sailboat with 15-year-old Ben Sturges, all on the run from the orphanage and Ben's Uncle Pete.  Set in Florida during WWII, the adventure is mild, but still exciting, as they dodge all their pursuers, encounter an alligator, and try to make a final escape during a dramatic storm, all the while hoping that if they just find one particular seashell, the Lion's Paw of the title, Ben's father will return from the war and all will be well.

Review:  As I say, this story seems to hold up better.  None of the characters is overdrawn--the adults are human, and trying in general to do what's right by the kids (or in a few cases, to earn the reward for finding them), rather than wantonly cruel and evil. The sailing adventure is just exciting enough, and the happy ending isn't completely obvious, though we are pretty sure how it will work out.  And White leaves out any preaching.  He's spinning a story for kids, not bringing up kids, and tells it as it seems to the kids, largely through the eyes of Penny.  As usual in books of this sort, the children have skills and abilities beyond their years (way beyond my kids at similar ages, and more than I had--and I was  pretty independent).  That's a problem for the suspension of disbelief, but necessary for stories like this to work.   And there's only the tiniest bit of saccharine, mostly just at the end.

Four Stars.

It occurs to me, looking over my book shelves, that there's another book in this category that I loved to bits as a kid: The Flight of the Doves.  I'll have to do a review of that one soon!
 The Flight of the Doves

 Full Disclosure: I purchased these copies of Nancy and Plum  and The Lion's Paw myself and received nothing whatsoever from the authors or publishers in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Baffling Case of the Missing Socks

I'm linking this one to the Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge of the week, though it's rather stretching to point.  The challenge was to write about a bad dad who is maybe also a good dad.  I wasn't really starting out to go there, but since the dad does matter, what the heck.  This is a little peek at the main character from the murder mystery I'm working on, Murder Stalks the PTA.

The Baffling Case of the Missing Socks
A Minor Domestic Mystery

“Mom!  I can’t find my socks!”
There are few words more chilling to the heart of a mother on a schedule.  No use ignoring him, though.  I’ve known Brian almost 16 years, and he doesn’t give up.
With a sigh, I hit “save” and turned from the computer to call up the stairs, “There were a dozen pairs in your sock drawer yesterday.”
“I mean my new running socks.  The ones Coach brought me from Seattle.”
I began the standard litany.  “Are they in your gym bag?”
“Did you leave them in your locker?”
“No!  Mom, this is important.  We have a meet today in Sedro-Woolly!”
Brian runs the 1500 meter race for the Orcaville High track team.  His socks bear a life-and-death importance to him on meet days.  This was serious.
I stood up, preparing myself for a desperate search for the truth even as I made one last effort to avoid the crisis.  “Don’t you have any others?”
“Not like these.  I need the new ones for the meet!”
I hauled myself up the stairs, muttering to myself about useless males.  Brian stood in the middle of his room, gym bag in one hand and book bag in the other, looking frantically about him.
I looked at my watch.  We had about three minutes before we had to leave for school.  I’d meant to spend those minutes finishing an article I was writing for the new “Rural Urbanites” magazine, but this took precedence.
“Finish getting ready.  I’ll look.”
Brian dropped both bags and jumped.  “What?”
“Hair.” I pointed.  “And teeth.  And shoes would probably be good.”
He clutched at his head and disappeared into the bathroom.
A few years ago I’d have wasted my time quizzing him about where he’d last seen the socks.  I’m wiser now.  It’s one of the mercifully few ways Brian resembles his father: Allen can’t find things either, but he’s not my problem anymore.  Brian is.
I began with the sock drawer, rummaging hastily through the jumble of socks and underwear to see if Brian had really looked, or just glanced in.  The new socks were neon green, which made it unlikely that even a guy could miss them.  Still, it was the most reasonable place to find a pair of socks.  Ninety percent of the time, when a male can’t find something, it is right where it should be, only under something else.
I made that up, but it’s true.
From the sock drawer I turned to the other drawers.  Nothing.  Then the desk.  I was starting to feel the pressure of time slipping away, and I left an even worse mess than I’d found there, and still no socks.
Moving to the bed as the clocked ticked down to doom, I vowed Brian would clean his room that very day.  Or maybe the next.  He’d be late coming home from the track meet.  Any time the team ran anywhere but at home, it was a major expedition for the same reason I couldn’t just run out and buy Brian new socks: tiny Pissmawallops Island is a 40-minute ferry ride from everything.
No, the honor of Orcaville hung on the keen detective abilities of JJ MacGregor, and I wasn’t going to let the team down.
I grabbed the bedcovers, yanked them back to expose the interior, and shook.  Brian needed clean sheets, but he wasn’t sleeping with the new socks.  A few garments fell to the floor as I shook out the covers, but not the socks.
I swept the bedding back into place as I heard the bathroom door open.  It was crunch time, and I had to come through.
As Brian’s footsteps sounded in the hall, I dropped to my stomach on the hardwood floor and stuck my head under the bed.
“Mom!  Have you found them?  We’ve got to go!”
I jerked when he yelled, banging my head on the underside of the bed, so hard the bed moved.  “Unspeakable excrescence of a cursed hunk of furniture,” I began, then stopped.
 I reached out an arm, grabbed the glowing bundle that dropped from behind the bed, and back out from under before accepting Brian’s hand up.
Of course, when he saw the socks, he dropped my hand and grabbed them like a drowning man clutching a life ring.  Or a lover clutching his true love.  For a moment I saw red, which went well with the stars I was still seeing from cracking my head.  Self-centered little beast, just like his father!
While Brian stowed the socks and gathered his belongings, I climbed more slowly to my feet.
Then he turned again.  “You’re the greatest, Mom!  A real Sherlock Holmes.”  And not a hint of irony in his tone.
I could almost feel my deerstalker hat and Inverness Cape as I followed him down the stairs.  Not so much like his dad, after all.  Brian had an actual sense of gratitude, and a sense of humor.  Allen had done better for Brian than he knew when he left us.
“Come on, Mom!”  Brian called again.  He already had the car keys and was leading the way out the door.
The last misty hints of the deerstalker faded away as I climbed into the passenger seat, and the greatest sleuth on Pissmawallops Island became once again a driver training instructor.  I tightened my seat belt and crossed myself, muttered three “om manis” and followed it up with “Now I lay me.”  A real sleuth can face any danger.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Middle Grade Review: Inside Out and Back Again

Yes friends, it's that time again!
Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
Publisher: Harper, 2011,  262 pp.
Source: library

Brief Summary:
Ten-year-old Ha lives in Saigon in the last days of the Vietnam war.  Her father is missing, and the war is getting closer all the time.  When the city falls, they flee with many others, and eventually come to America, and settle in Alabama, where they must learn a completely new culture and language, in a place where people who don't look like everyone else are definitely not appreciated.  The most telling indication of how hard it is there is Ha's own statement:
No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon over
peacetime in Alabama

Inside Out & Back Again is told in a spare, first-person verse style that is, for me, both moving and frustrating.  Moving, because it is very well done, and it's a hard story to hear without feeling.  Frustrating, because the verse form leaves so much unsaid.  This is my standard reaction to books in verse, and is not necessarily a bad thing.

The story itself is well told, unfolds convincingly (as it ought, given that according to the notes at the back it is in many ways the story of the author's own journey to America), and takes us far enough to be satisfied with the direction Ha's life will be able to take.  The writing is excellent.

Because the verse form is so sparing of words, the 262 pages is actually a great deal less, and it took me only about two hours to read this book.  That makes it in fact something about midway between a short story and a novel, which also explains the feeling that much is left out of the story.  I compare this to many of the works of Karen Hesse, who also writes in a spare poetic form, and also manages to not only convey the emotions powerfully but to carry the story well.  Unless you hate the verse form on general principles, I whole-heartedly recommend this book.

4.5 stars (just a hair off for the lingering desire to know more. . . or is that just me?)

Full FTC Disclosure: I checked out this copy of Inside Out & Back Again from my library, and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.


Are you a hiker who now has children and wonders what next?  Check out some of the places we took ours when they were little, and show your child what backpacking is about.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Writer's mechanics: publishing a picture book

This is the cover from the paperback, 8.5 X 8.5"

Smashwords cover.  You can see I trimmed it on the left and shrunk and moved the title.

Constructing a Picture Book with

Since I managed to print a reasonably successful copy of my new picture alphabet book, my friend Dixie Goode suggested I share what I learned about working on it through Createspace and Kindle (as well as Smashwords).  As it took me about a dozen attempts to get the file right, it does seem that I might be able to offer some insights that could smooth the way for others and save them from pulling all their hair out.  I will say that using the Createspace automatic conversion for Kindle seemed to work fairly well, though I had to tinker some.

1.  Images.  This was a huge pain, because images had to be extra-high quality and resolution for Createspace (in order to print well), and highly compressed for electronic publication.  Happily, this isn't as bad as it might be, especially if (unlike me) you do it right the first time.
    a.  Use Photoshop or similar to edit the images to the right size (actual size in inches) as well as to save them to at least 300 dpi.  You have to start with pretty high quality images for them to come out well in print.
    b.  Don't resize images by dragging the outline in the document.  If you do, you will have to fix messes when you convert to electronic.
   c.  Read the Smashwords formatting guide carefully.  The key thing, though, is to compress the file to make the electronic version.  Just as you need very large, high-quality images to print, you need small, web-friendly, quick-loading images in the e-book.  Happily, you can resize the whole lot at once by selecting the entire document, then using the "Reduce File Size" option in the pull-down menu under "File' (sorry--this is for the Mac.  The Smashwords guide shows how to do it on a PC).  Select the smallest setting under the options pull-down, and apply to "all pictures in Document" and hit okay.  This should shrink the whole shooting match adequately.  I had to do it a few times before I got it right, though.  I think it was only shrinking single pictures.

2.  Fonts.  For the printed book, great big fonts are fine.  I used huge ones for the initial letters for each page, and very large type for the rest.  That doesn't cut it for e-books.  For my Smashwords publication, I had to cut the size of fonts down to 18 pt. or less, so I used 18 for the initials, and 12 for the rest of the text.  If people want it larger, of course, I think all e-readers allow them to enlarge it.  The best way to do this is to redefine the styles, since otherwise underlying styles and fonts can mess things up.  This was more trouble than it should have been.

Those two elements were the primary issues with the picture book.  Oh, and I'd chosen a square format for the print book, and designed the cover to match.  Smashwords uses a standard vertical rectangle for cover thumbnails, so I had to make a modified cover.  If you are using non-standard shapes, you will need to think about this too.  It was easy for me, because I designed my own cover, had the files, and can use Photoshop enough to make the necessary changes (see images above).

Because I had initially done my images without paying attention to size/quality, as well as doing some re-sizing in the document, I discovered an interesting quirk with CS's review process.  Basically, each time I uploaded the file, it pegged another two or three pictures as being too small (and not in any rational order, either).  I'd fix those, upload again, and be told some others were too small.  Eventually I got smart, changed all the pictures I hadn't yet done, and got past it.  I have no idea why it couldn't just tell me from the start that all my pictures were wrong.  

Finally, I am working to resolve a problem with spacing on the first picture page, which appears correct in my Word file, but puts the photo off-center in the CS version. I have examined everything I can think of to examine, and it should be correct (as it appears in the Word file).  But it doesn't.  Anyone with insights should let me know, or I'll go mad.  Meanwhile, I'm going on selling it with one picture slightly off center, in order to prove that I am human, not divine.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

Just a few photos for this day, in memory of my Dad, 1927-2001, from the very small collection of digitized photos I have of him.

Dad, pronouncing us husband and wife in 1994.

In 1999 with our older son, not yet 2.

 At Mesa Verde National Park in 1999.
 With our second son, then about 6 months old, Christmas 1999.

Love you, Dad!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: Peggy's Story

This is another in my random and growing collection of stories from the denizens of Skunk Corners.  Peggy Rossiter is one of Big Al's students, and secretly wanted to learn even before the Ninja Librarian came to town and made it okay.

Photo by Tom Dempsey, c.  Used with permission

Peggy’s Story: When Big Al Came to Town

So, Mr. Tom wanted me to tell you about when Big Al came to Skunk Corners.  It was a few years ago, so I was only maybe nine or something, and still stuck in the Second Reader.  I might not remember everything, but I saw Al come to town.
   It was like this.  I guess I was the only kid who hadn’t heard that Jake and Harry had chased off another teacher.  They used to make the schoolmasters’ lives miserable, until they’d just up and leave.  One time we had a schoolmarm, a real cranky old maid you wouldn’t think had ever had a soft feeling in her life, and she left in tears after just two days.  The boys never laid hand on any of them, not like how they treated librarians.  They had other ways, being bound and determined not to go to school, or to learn anything when their folks walloped them into going.
   I guess the last laugh was on them, come to think of it, but you know all about how they ended up coming back to Big Al to learn to read.
   Anyhow, I’d come into town that morning for school.  Even then I kind of liked it, though I wasn’t making much progress, what with never having a teacher for more than a few weeks at a time.
So I was standing in the street by the empty schoolhouse at sunrise when someone walked into town off the trail from Endoline.  I could tell it was a kid, dressed in his Pa’s clothes and hat, which were just a little too big.  You could see he was pretty uncertain.  He looked around a bit, then his eye lit on Two-Timin’ Tess’s Tavern, and I saw him nod.  Of course, there was no one up at the Tavern at that hour, so the kid just walked on up to have a seat under the tree.  That was where I was, but I guessed he didn’t see me, not until he was already sitting down and I spoke up.
   Then the kid jumped a mile, before getting a grip and looking at me.  Then he said, “Hey yourself,” and the voice sounded like a boy who’s just starting to change, so I guessed he was maybe 14 or 15, but big.
   “I’m Peggy.  What’s your name?” I asked.
   “Al.  Some call me Big Al, I guess cause I’m big for my age.”
   “What’re you doing here, Big Al?”
   “Looking for work.  What’re you doing?  Dodging chores?”
   “Naw.  I came for school.  But looks like the boys chased the Master off again.”
   “You like school?”  Seemed like the kid wanted to talk.  I think talking was better than thinking, but then I was just kind of flattered that a big kid would pass the time of day with a squirt like me, and I was curious.
   “Well, I like learning,” I hedged.  “School isn’t so great.”  That got a bit of a smile out of the stranger.
   “Me too.  Guess that’s all done for me now, though.”  He turned away and didn’t say anything more.
   After a bit I said, “I suppose if there’s no school, Pa’ll expect me to come home and do chores.”  I didn’t get up.  “What’re you doing?”
   “Waiting.  My Pa,” I saw him swallow hard, “Pa talked of Miss Tess and this here Tavern, so I thought I’d ask.”  Suddenly sounding angry, the stranger said, “You’d better shove off then.”
   I’m no dummy.  I figured there wasn’t any Pa any more, and maybe the kid needed to cry, so I took off.

   That night my Pa started talking about the school, and how the townsfolk thought maybe it would be a good idea just to leave it closed, seeing as it cost money and no one was getting much good out of it anyhow.  Pa glanced my way when he said that, being as he knew I liked school.  I felt pretty low.
   But next day I went into town, and Mr. Burton, who calls himself the Mayor, was saying that they had to get a new teacher, because the School Inspector was coming and we’d be in big trouble if our youngsters weren’t in school.  So they were pretty desperate for a teacher.  Mr. Burton was asking around for who could read, but of course all the grown folk who had any learning were either long gone from Skunk Corners, or they had work already, and no time to teach a pack of mostly unwilling youngsters.
   Now, don’t you tell Al, or I’ll end up in the creek, but I up and told the Mayor that this Big Al fellow, seemed to have maybe been to school some.  I was making a wide guess, but I wanted my school, and maybe I felt bad for him, because he hadn’t found any work yet, and was sleeping in Tess’s woodshed with the mice and spiders.
   Al dodged a bit at first, but five dollars a month and a room to sleep in must’ve been a powerful temptation, because pretty soon we had us a school again.  That’s when the fun started.
   Everyone always came to school the first day with a new teacher, to see the fun.  That meant Jake and Harry, too, and they set right in with their usual tricks.  They figured that Al being younger’n them, he’d be easy pickings.
   It took about a half a day before our new teacher had had enough.  The boys were making comments about Al being some kind of sissy, or even a girl, on account of his voice not being really changed.
   Instead of bursting into tears or anything, Big Al walked down the aisle past the rear desks, where the big kids—Jake and Harry and a couple of girls—sat, and opened the door.  Of course, we all thought our new teacher was going to walk out.  But instead, Al came back, grabbed one of those boys in each hand—and now we saw that even though Big Al wasn’t any taller than them, he had a lot of muscle.  Next thing Jake and Harry knew, they were out the door, and Al stood on the top step saying, “You are done with school.  I don’t want to see your faces here again, unless and until you actually want to learn, which I don’t reckon will happen in this world.  Idiots.”  Then Al closed the door and walked back to the front of the room.
   “Anyone else?  If anyone doesn’t want to at least pretend they want to learn, you can join those boys in the street.  Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean you can get away with anything here.”
   Well!  You could have knocked us over with a duster full of feathers!  There Al stood, looking just as much like a boy as ever, saying she was a girl as though we’d known all along.  We were too stunned to move.  After that, I think most stayed out of curiosity about this girl who dressed and acted like a boy, and could throw bullies out without breaking a sweat.  I’m not saying many of us did much learning.  But I’ll tell you, no one ever tried to make Al leave.


So that’s how Big Al came to Skunk Corners and how she became our Teacher.  I guess maybe Tom would like to know more about why she came and all that, but she’s never said, except that bit the first day.  Al’s private, and I guess Mr. Tom’s the only one could ask her about it and not end up in the creek, unless maybe Tess could.  I’m not asking.  I’ve no hankering for a swim this early in the spring.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kid Book reviews--more on Camping

After last week's book on camping was such a disappointment, I took a look at two more kids' camping books I found in our library. 

Kids Gone Campin': The Young Camper's Guide to Having More Fun OutdoorsFirst was a fairly slim book, Kids Gone Campin': The Young Campters Guide to Having More Fun Outdoors, by Cherie Winner.  Like the first book, this one falls at times into the trap of too much info for kids.  I think it does a better job of balancing info and writing style, however, largely by appearing to be written for older kids.  There were, however, a number of places where I took exception to the advice being given.  At times, as when discussing the camp kitchen, there was too much sense that there is only one right way.  I don't need two or three pots when backpacking.  We use a cooking style called Freezer Bag Cooking, and need only one pot.  And plastic dishes have always seemed to me better than the metal they advise, which gets too hot and then rapidly too cold.

Of greater concern were some errors affecting health and safety.  When talking about latrines (or cat holes, which despite the author, are NOT the same thing!), they recommend digging 100 feet from water.  Everyplace I have ever backpacked requires 200 feet.  Later, the discussion of campfires goes on far too long with no mention of checking regulations for your area.  Out West where the droughts get bad, fires are often far too hazardous to have outside of developed campgrounds (and sometimes even within them).  And above tree line, a fire is never appropriate.  Also, the author recommends dousing a fire "with dirt or water."  Wrong.  Only water.  "Smothering" a fire with dirt creates a great risk of merely insulating coals, not killing them.  Finally, hugely important: do NOT burn leftovers, as is recommended on p. 75.  Food seldom burns fully, and the remains in a fire pit can attract unwanted visitors.  Mice and racoons may not be so bad, but if you are in bear country, that could mean big trouble!

 2.5 stars, due to the bad advice.

Camp Out!: The Ultimate Kids' Guide from the Backyard to the BackwoodsThe second book is Camp Out!  The Ultimate Kids' Guide From the Backyard to the Backwoods, by Lynn Brunelle.

This time I had to stifle my resentment at the beginning, because the author opens with the quote "All who wander are not lost," which is both not quite accurate (should be "not all those who wander are lost," but she attributes it to Shakespeare rather than Tolkien. However, this minor failure does not accurately reflect the quality of the book.

The book starts with the usual stuff, the how-to info key for any new hiker or camper, and mostly really for the grown-ups (with some sections highlighted as especially for the adults).  The format is clear and fun, and I could see any new hiker using this guide, regardless of age.

Later, the book gets into the good stuff (for kids): knots, camp-craft, a very good section on not getting lost and what to do if you get lots anyway, and camp food (which tends to require adult input but is still of great interest to most children).  This is written in a manner which I think makes it very accessible, with short factoid boxes, bits of humor, and generally clear explanations.  Finally, there are sections on weather, astronomy (complete with explanation of the Big Bang), naturalist experiments to try, crafts, and what to do in the car on the long drive to the trail.  It ends with stories and songs to learn and share for campfire entertainment.

I think that this is a book that has something to offer to pretty much any kid (and her parents) who wants to spend time in the outdoors.  I'll forgive the mangled quote.

4 stars.

FTC Disclosure: I checked out  Camp Out! and Kids Gone Campin' from my library and received nothing whatsoever from the authors or publishers in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Get your  copy of A is for Alpine: An Alphabet Book for Little Hikers, my take on backpacking with small children (okay, it's a photo alphabet book with a backpacking theme) at Amazon, now in paperback!

Note: I am posting automatically and will mostly be away from computers and the Internet this week, as I am off enjoying the outdoors with my family, so please be patient if I don't respond to comments right away.  I will get to you!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mystery Monday: Bless the Bride

Bless the Bride (Molly Murphy Mysteries, #10) 
 Bless the Bride: A Molly Murphy Mysteryby Rhys Bowen
     Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2011
     Source: Library

Brief Summary: In this tenth book in Ms. Bowen's Molly Murphy series, we enter the world of early 20th-Century New York, and delve into the politics of Chinatown as Molly tries to track down a missing bride while adjusting her relationship with NYPD Captain Daniel Sullivan in the last days before their wedding.

Review: As always, Bowen does an incredible job of creating the setting.  She has done her research and it shows.  Sometimes maybe it shows too much, but I appreciate that I know that what she depicts is, to the best of one's ability when writing fiction, a real world.  That said, Molly's New York is my least favorite of the worlds that Bowen has created (my favorite is the 1920s England of the "Royal Spyness" series; her first creation was a contemporary Welsh village for Constable Evan Evans).  I'm not completely sure if that's the fault of the world or of the stories she plants there.  Bless the Bride took me by surprise, and I liked it better than the other Molly Murphy mysteries.

In this book, Bowen defied my expectations with both Molly's newest case and in terms of her relationships.  I like that she has developed Molly's Greenwich Village connections and the Bohemians among whom she feels both at home and often profoundly uncomfortable.  Her friends Sid and Gus are priceless, and come out better in this book than in most, as actual humans rather that caricatures.  I was reasonably satisfied with the resolution of the marriage problem, too.  At the end of the last book I almost vowed not to read on because I so strongly disapproved of the marriage.  Now I'm thinking it will be okay, or at least that Molly won't get squashed down by her new husband.

The mystery itself is intriguing and solid, with just enough clues to look back and see them, and several highly convincing suspects in addition to the obvious ones the police have jumped on but who we want to be innocent.  In that sense, it is predictable.  But I didn't necessarily peg the actual villain until very near the end, and the general set-up was original.  Delving into the intrigues of Chinatown (during a time when the Chinese were subject to a lot of insane and restrictive laws) adds yet another dimension to the picture of early-20th-Century New York which Bowen has constructed through the series.

4 stars

FTC Disclosure: I checked out this copy of Bless the Bride from my library and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Note: I am posting automatically this week, and will mostly be away from computers and the Internet, so please be patient if I don't respond to comments right away.  I will get to you!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: Scarecrow and Scorpion

This week's Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction challenge involved a list of 10 words, three rolls of the dice, and writing a story in which your three words are not just mentioned, but are actual elements.  My words were scarecrow, mint, and scorpion.  My mind ran first to more weird fiction, but I wanted to write a bit of more realistic fiction, using an historical setting, so I pushed my brain until it worked.  There is still a mystery, but it's not meant to be supernatural.

Scarecrow and Scorpion

   Hattie found the patch of mint growing in the hollow where she played with her dolls—a cooler and damper place than her own farmyard, with two cottonwood trees and a lot of bushes around the spring.  Up at the farmhouse, they got their water from a well, not a spring.  The spring was just around the hill from the soddy, though, so Ma let her go play there alone.  Someone else owned the land, but they didn’t come there to know or care.
   She found the mint by scent.  The smell of trodden mint suddenly filled the cool morning air, and she looked down and saw it.  Ma had made her promise never to eat any wild stuff after the little Carlson girl died from mistaking hemlock for wild onions.  Hattie picked a sprig and took it back to the soddy.
   Ma agreed it was mint, and showed Hattie how they could put some in the water pitcher and make it taste more refreshing.  Then she got a bucket and shovel and they went back to the spring to dig some for their own garden.  A clump near the lowest spot had spread, so they could take some and not harm the main plant.
   The two looked around after they’d put the plant into the bucket and Hattie added spring water.  Ma had been too busy doing all the things a farmwife had to do on a dry farm in the sand hills to visit the spring much.  Now she looked at the hollow and sighed.
   “Someone had a house here,” she said, pointing to the rectangular indentation a ways back from the spring.  “I wonder what made them leave?”  She sighed again, and Hattie knew they both wished they could live by the spring.
   “It gets awfully cold over here in winter, Ma,” she consoled.
   “Right,” Ma smiled.  “I’d better go plant this, and finish my washing.”
   “May I stay and play?”
   Left alone in the hollow, Hattie looked more closely at the plants.  Now that she could see the outline of the old house, she saw it was framed by plants that didn’t grow other places.  She’d always thought they grew because of the spring, but perhaps someone had planted them.  She wondered who had built a house here, and planted mint and flowers and even—yes, a rose bush!—and then left.
There wasn’t even a heap of sod left where the house had been, the way there was over where the Johnsons had moved away two years ago.  Their soddy had crumbled fast with no one to mind the roof and keep it tight.  Hattie bent to pick up something that caught her eye.  A nail.  It must have been a board house.  She supposed the people had taken it down and taken it with them, or others had long since salvaged all the boards.  Wood was expensive and scarce in the sand hills.
   Nails, too.  Hattie carefully laid the nail on a rock so she could find it again—even rusty, Pa could make use of a good nail—and set to looking for more.  She’d found a half dozen when something shinier caught her eye.  This bit of metal hadn’t rusted.
   It was caught fast in the hard ground.  She took a nail and used it to scrape away the dried mud that held the object.  In a minute she held it in her hand—and nearly dropped it.  It was a brooch, but the delicate object was a scorpion, tail curved high over its back, ready to strike.  It was both beautiful and horrible.  But Hattie carried it home along with the nails.
   “Why on earth would anyone make such a beautiful pin of such a dreadful creature?” Ma wondered. 
   Pa shook his head.  “Who knows?  Maybe it had special meaning to the folks who lived there.  No one seems to remember who it was, or why they left.  Someone in the East owns the land, and won’t sell.  Carlson says he tried to buy, because it’s the best section.  But none of his letters got answered.”
   In the end, because none of them really wanted the thing around the house, Hattie took the brooch and pinned it to the scarecrow that guarded their parched garden.
   “Maybe that’ll scare those mean old birds that keep eating the seeds,” she told her Ma.  She showed it to some friends who came to visit the next week, then pretty much forgot about it.

   One October evening an old man came to the door.  He was traveling through, he said, but Hattie and her Ma exchanged looks.  No road led through or past their farm.  But courtesy required that they offer him a meal and a night’s shelter.  He thanked them, and after looking about the single crowded room of the soddy, said he would sleep in the barn.  Pa took him out and made him a comfortable bed in the hayloft.
   In the morning, the man had gone.  Pa just shrugged.  A man as old as that needed a long day to make his distance.
   Two days later Hattie, taking down the tattered remnants of the scarecrow from an autumn garden no longer in need of protection, remembered the scorpion.  It was gone from the checked shirt.  She hunted around, thinking it had torn loose and fallen, but couldn’t find it.
   “Probably got taken by a magpie or a packrat,” Ma said, and went on mixing bread.  “I’m not sorry.  I never liked it.”
   “Me either, I guess,” Hattie said more slowly.  It had been the only bit of jewelry she’d ever had, even if she would never wear such a dreadful creature pinned to her breast!
   Three days later they got a letter.  In it was the deed to the section with the spring, and a single line of writing in a old man’s shaky hand: Now the pin is found, we’ve no more need of the land.  It is yours.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kidlit Reviews: Goblin Secrets

Goblin Secrets (Zombay, #1) 

Kidlit Review, Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander.  Middle Grade fantasy.  223 pages.
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2012
Source: library

Quick summary: young Rownie, an orphan in the city of Zombay, is
looking for his older brother Rowan, and along the way joins a troupe of Goblin actors and escapes from the witch Graba.

Review: Something like steampunk for kids, this book (despite some blurbs on the back cover) was not a classic fantasy tale.  Zombay is a city with a feel of being the ruins of a more mechanical age, with many things--including people--run by clockwork and coal power (well, a clock-work mule would leave less mess on the streets!).  But the overarching tale is classic: a young hero, a quest that isn't quite what he thinks it is, and surprising help and companions along the way.  I was a little put off by the setting (nothing wrong with it, just not my style), and the somewhat dark tone, but found myself caught up in Rownie's struggles, and read the second half pretty much non-stop.

The darkness and some disconcerting weirdness makes me think this is more suitable for about 11 and up, though the writing is accessible for younger kids.  And maybe today's kids are used to this.  I thought that the way the author played with the power of masks--an actor becomes what the mask he wears depicts, because he and the audience believe in it--was interesting and a littl creepy.  It didn't make me want to put on any masks!  So thematically we are looking at the nature of reality, the nature of family, and an underlying political commentary.  Not bad for maybe 30,000 words of kid lit.  There is also a lot that is undeveloped or only hinted at, suggesting the author has left plenty of room for more books in the same setting--the whole nature of the "goblins" is only partially explained and cries out for more, and I hope that Rownie develops a wider view of the city and the world traveling with them, so we can better understand the acting ban, the reasons for the decay and mechanism, and the river.

Four stars.

[Note: I have been learning a little more about the legalities of doing these reviews, and will be going back through my reviews and inserting the appropriate information regarding publishers, copyright holders, and the infamous FTC disclaimer (below).]

Full Disclosure: I checked out this copy of Goblin Secrets from my library and received nothing whatsoever from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own and no one else's.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Writer's Update

Vacation Dreaming
As part of the Progressive Book Club, I have started reading The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron.  Now, this isn't a book meant just to read, but a guidebook or workbook meant to be used to help a person find or recover their creativity.  So I admit I'm coming to it from a weird place: I don't feel the least "blocked," and I've embraced my creative self like never before.  That makes it a little unclear what I'm hoping to get from it.  I'll be up front, too: I'm not real comfortable with the religious aspects of the book.  Yeah, I know Cameron says that if you don't believe in God, just ignore the use of that word or substitute "the great creative force" or whatever.  Thing is, any of that requires a belief in some kind of divine force.  Not sure I'm there.

Okay, so I'm trying to see what I can do with this.  In the first week, the two primary tasks are set out: the Artist's Date and Morning Pages.  Okay, I kind of get these.  The Artist's Date is taking a set time each week to do something that nurtures your inner artist.  Trouble is, some of the things she suggests don't interest me much (and she does say this should feel more indulgent than like a duty).  Other things I already do.  I don't need to take my inner artist for a walk on the beach, because I've probably already taken it (along with all the rest of me) for a run on the beach.  I'm thinking that my exercise obsession (especially the strong outdoor component) is keeping me more on track this way.  So this one, maybe I find something that makes sense for me, maybe not.  Working out or working in my garden restores me pretty well.

Morning Pages.  Meant to be three pages of free-writing every morning, sort of a core-dump to get everything out and both clear the head and (I think) prime the pump for writing.  Okay, this one is looking good for me.  But after a little experimentation, I think it's going to be Evening Pages.  See, the biggest issue I have in this area is not starting the day with too many things on my mind, but ending it that way.  Then thinking about them instead of sleeping.  So clearing the head, clearing the slate, getting it out (and maybe making a list for the next day) might help me sleep.  And that would certainly help my creativity.

Now I look at Week One, and the big thing here is Affirmations.  You know, say good things about yourself, and then listen to, the negative voices in your head--what she calls "blurts."  Then crush them.

Here's where it gets really tricky.  Okay, I can't really say "I am a brilliant writer," because that would be pretentious and patently untrue (I know of only a handful of writers I consider "brilliant").  But I can say that I am a darned good writer who writes some good reading.  And I'm not hearing much in the way of blurts.  Oh, there's the "so why aren't you selling more?" kind of thing.  But the answer to that so clearly has nothing to do with me as a writing.  Yeah, I suck at marketing.  Lot to learn there.  But writing?  I'm on it.  I don't mean to imply that I know everything there is to know about writing, just that I'm doing it, and learning every day.

So what the heck is wrong with me?  Why am I not an insecure writer?  And will it last?  Don't get me wrong--I have days when I can't sit down and write, days when I look at what I have written and groan.  But somewhere in the last year or two things have changed.  I'm not groaning "God, I suck as a writer, why am I even trying?"  I'm just groaning because editing is my least favorite part of the job and there's a lot to do.  But more and more I'm looking at my stuff and saying, "yeah, I can do this.  I sat down and wrote my obligatory crappy first draft [thank you Anne Lamott] and now I know how to get to work on making it good."

And more often than not, that's what I do.  And that's why I probably won't go on with the program, though I'm going to read at least one more week's worth.  Feels like jinxing myself when all is going well.

Please don't hate me for it. 

Meanwhile, I'm looking at the usual summer impediments: the kids are or soon will be out of school (one of each), which means I lose my solitary mornings for writing.  Plus, lots of vacation.  Okay, I don't mind about that.  But my challenge this summer is to keep working.  Just that: keep writing, finish the edits on Return to Skunk Corners, and put out that short story each week, at least.  At the same time as I figure out ways to get those teens out of the house (between vacation trips).  If I do all that, I'll be patting myself on the back.

A Is For Alpine is here!  The paperback is now available at Amazon, or order directly from me (use the "Contact me" page) for $8, shipping to US included.