Monday, September 29, 2014

Be Amazing

At the gym today, I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that said something like "To do: Get up. Be amazing. Go to bed." I laughed at it, but later I got to thinking. Since it was a guy wearing the shirt, it might have been an ironic commentary on men with a tendency to think all too well of themselves. Or it might have been a straight-forward declaration of his opinion of himself. It doesn't matter.

What I realized as I was biking away from the gym (because I have to be fit, and save the world from automobile exhaust at the same time), is that we women, maybe especially us moms, long since internalized that command. We feel like it is our job. Get up, probably earlier than we want, and hit the floor running. Breakfasts, lunches, get the kids off to school (for far too many this means driving them. I figure I'm doing something right, because I shove my teens out the door to get themselves to school), all while trying to ingest that all-important first cup of coffee.

Then hit your "day job," whatever it might be. You'd better be amazing there, because whatever you do you'll be judged by a tough standard. Then home again (or in my case, stagger up from the computer) and be sure all the chores are done. That people have clean clothes. That the floor's been swept sometime this decade. And make dinner.

Dinner's the worst. If it's healthy, someone's bound to snoot it. If it's not, they may eat it up, but you'll feel awful for feeding your family something that's not good for them. If your spouse or kid gets sick somewhere down the line, with anything from the sniffles to cancer, you'll know it's your fault for getting them take-out that night instead of cooking veggies and teaching them from infancy to eat them.

Many of my fellow bloggers participate in the IWSG, the Insecure Writer's Support Group. I realize that I am more secure about my writing than most of my life. I may not be brilliant, but I can write.* I'm a great deal less convinced that I can parent. Motherhood offers so many opportunities to realize that you have completely, totally and utterly failed your children, maybe with the best intentions in the world. Or maybe because you know, deep down, that you are too lazy to ever be a good parent.

The teen years are especially good for this. My oldest is a high school Senior. That means that this fall we are not only having to push him into thinking about picking (and applying to) a few colleges, but every time I read a list of what a kid should have done or be ready for at this age, I realize again that I failed to do that.

On a good day, I can remember that I've done my best, and we were working with some challenges here, as Eldest Son is on the autism spectrum, being mildly Aspergers. Sometimes I don't believe it; sometimes it's so obvious. But on a bad day (and at my age, honey, you get a fair number of bad brain days), I'm pretty sure that a REAL mom would have made sure he knew how to do all those things. Would have gotten him involved in clubs and sports and probably directed him how to save the world before age 12.

On a really good day, I remember that he is loving and creative and brilliant, and very little I can do will change anything anyway.

Then I can go write. Because every day that I even sort of meet my responsibilities as mother, wife, writer, and schools advocate, and even sneak in a workout, I've been freaking amazing.

Goal accomplished.

*On the other hand, I don't know squat about marketing and am surely doing it all wrong. That's another post for another day.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday--Finish the Story

This is the 3rd week of a Chuck Wendig challenge, whereby I pick up a story that has been 2/3 written by two other followers of and write the conclusion. I took on an interesting tale begun by JD Stoffel and continued last week by Lisa Shininger. We were each to do 500 words. I only ran over by about 50 words. Incidentally, I had to look up "eschaton" so you can too.

I'll add a link to the story I continued last week as soon as I find an ending for it.

The Reaper’s Eschaton

Part I (by JD Stoffel)

“Reap, you have to wake up.”

Charlotte, the Senior Reaping Manager, shook Reap’s shoulder, jostling her blanket of cobwebs aside.
“Ugh,” said Reap with a crackling yawn. “What time is it?”

“2014 CE,” said Charlotte. She shoved a black cloak into Reap’s grasp. Reap opened her mouth to argue, but Charlotte cut her off. “I know you wanted to sleep six more years, but we have a situation.”

“Not Xanaxes,” Reap groaned, sliding the cloak over bony shoulders.

“Xanaxes,” Charlotte confirmed. “Started the apocalypse, like I told you he would.”

Reap did some quick math, accepting a sheaf of pages. “Sixty-three years ahead of schedule. Idiot.”

“There’s your best candidate. Now move!”

Brushing aside the compulsion to come down on Charlotte for bossing around her boss, Reaper swung her scythe. The blade hummed through the air and through the fabric of reality at just the angle necessary.

A tear opened and Reap passed through.

She stood in a city park.

Her reaping staff was in evidence. They stood by, waiting for buildings to fall, meteorites to strike, the ground to swallow people whole.

“Ronald, uh,” Reap called aloud, then squinted at the pages. “Ronald Passitelli?” She botched the pronunciation, but it got the attention of a passing low-level reaper.

A glance at his identification aura gave his name. Jim said, “You looking for Ron?” Reap nodded. “Oh, thank God. He’s over by the fountain. Electrocution in about five, so watch out.”

“Thanks, Jim,” said Reap. “Just handle that load.” She pointed at the collection of souls trailing behind the junior reaper. “I’ve got Ron.”

With a relieved sigh, Jim swiped his scythe to reach the Below. Reap paid him no mind, focusing on the now-identified Ron.

Ronald Passitelli stood ankle deep in the large basin of the fountain. A bland young man in a dress shirt and khakis, now soaked, he reached out toward a child. The child took refuge from the hell raining down from the sky in the bulky fountain sculpture.

“C’mon,” said Ron. “It isn’t safe.”

“Where’s my mommy?” cried the child.

“I don’t know,” Ron admitted. “Let’s find her together.” He made another grab but the child dodged around the fountain.”

“Ronald,” Reap boomed in a voice only moderately intimidating. She did not want to blow the man’s simple mind.

Ron looked at her, able to see Reap now that she had spoken to him, and gaped. “Oh, no,” he said, knees quivering a bit. “I’m not ready!”

Reap rolled her eyes, an impressive feat with empty eye sockets. Humans gave her a lot of practice. “I don’t want to reap you.”

“But you’re the Grim-”

“Yes, but we haven’t the time. Some ancient schlub of a god no one remembers named Xanaxes kicked off the apocalypse early, and you’re the only one who can stop it.”

Ron gaped again when the child in the fountain screeched, “I am not a schlub!”

“Oh, great,” Reap muttered. Xanaxes had found the chosen one first. “Ron, run!”

Part II (by  Lisa Shininger)

Of course, he didn’t.

Xanaxes wailed, so Ron turned his vacant expression on the fake toddler instead.

“Oh, come on.” All these humans ever did was gawp at things. Reap whipped the sleeve of her cloak around her bony hand and tugged on the back of Ron’s shirt to pull him out of the fountain.

Xanaxes sploshed through the water and wrapped two chubby arms around the man’s legs. “No! I got him fair and square!”

“Yeah, well…”

It took just a flick of the scythe’s handle against Xanaxes’ curly dark head for the god’s body to slacken and drop back into the fountain. Reap tightened her grip on Ron’s shirt and lifted him clear.
“Look, like I said, we haven’t much time. You’re Chosen, it’s an honor, blah blah. Close your mouth before you choke on brimstone.”

Ron did, but not before asking, “What am I chosen for?”

You would think that "you’re the only one who can stop it" covered all the bases. You couldn’t assume anything with humans, though.

“For saving me from a literal eternity of paperwork. Let’s go.”

There were rules upon rules for how Reap was allowed to act while Above. Even during emergencies, she was authorized to interact only with the humans on her lists. She wasn’t supposed to scare the birds who went out of their way to shit on her cloak–no matter how rude they were about it. She definitely wasn’t allowed to use the scythe for anything but traveling, not even dealing with recalcitrant toddler gods. But in for a penny…

Ron dropped to the ground like a sack of meat. Reap slashed at the air beside him.

“Abs, turn off the heat. Live one coming through!” she called, before twisting the scythe to open the seam to the pit enough to let Ron drop through.

Her aim wasn’t the greatest. They slipped into the next world a few inches off an ash-strewn floor. It crunched lightly under Ron’s body.

Abaddon stood a few feet away with his hand still on the shut-off valve. His chitinous skin gleamed. His black eyes did, too. His wings, his robe, the army of locusts screeching behind him. In fact, everything down here gleamed, like it was all covered in a thin film of oil, which it probably was.
He pointed at Ron, who had progressed not just to consciousness but to looking around in terror. “Chosen?”

“Yep. Ron … something.”

Abs grinned. He always loved these things. “So, what do you need?”

Reap blew a stray flake of ash off her sleeve. “You guys doing the brimstone for this Xanaxes creep?”
“No, we’re still on the Icelandic contract. It’s probably Lucy.”

“It’s the same pit, though, right? Can’t he just sacrifice himself here, save us a few minutes? We’re up to my skull with souls to process already.”

Ron made a squalling noise. “Wait, sacrifice?”

Abs laughed his horrible deafening chitter and looked fondly at Ron. “They really don’t remember anything, do they?”

Part III (by me)

"Stop scaring him," Reap said. "He'll do what he has to do."

"Don't count on it," Ron said.  He was looking around now, and seemed to be developing a backbone.

What rotten timing, Reap thought. If the fellow didn't take the jump, she was going to be stuck processing souls for eternity. And then there was the paperwork for dealing with an apocalypse. Plus the trouble she was in for using her scythe in an unauthorized manner. Several eternities. Ron whoever he was didn't look like he cared about her problems.

"Come on. We're going to find Lucy, and find where you're supposed to jump."

He planted his feet stubbornly. "I'm not jumping off anything, and you can't make me."

Drat! The toddler god really had gotten him. The man's simple face had taken on that look, the one small children got when defying the adults who were just trying to keep them alive. Though in this case Reap wanted him dead, which he was going to be no matter what. She just wanted to make sure he did it in the way that would stop the Apocalypse and save her a few millennia of paperwork.

She hoisted him by the scruff of the neck. "Let's go." She could take him to the brink, and did. The hitch was, he had to take the leap himself or it wouldn’t work. She started talking, working on his sense of public duty, destiny, fame, whatever. They were standing about ten feet back from the brink now, Reap running arguments at top speed and checking the eternal clock every third word.

“Time’s running out, you fool!” Reap snarled it. “You’re dead no matter what, but if you don’t charge over there and jump in the next 30 seconds, so is every other person on earth.” She finally had Ron’s full attention.

“I’m dead?”

It wasn’t strictly true, but close. “Yes!” He’d be dead soon enough, even if he didn’t jump, so it wasn’t a lie.

“If I’m dead it won’t hurt.” He didn’t phrase it as a question, so Reap didn’t have to answer. That was good, because lying to the Sacrifice meant more paperwork.  He took a few wobbly steps toward the brink, and stood there, unable to make the leap. Ron might believe he wasn’t going to notice when he dove into the lava. But on some level his body knew better.

He was going to funk it. Reap could see that. She stepped up closer behind him, seeing his knees were shaking with terror. She couldn’t push him. But she could encourage him.

“Watch out! Snakes!” She screamed it as loudly as possible, and it worked. Ron leapt instinctively out of the way of the snakes…and went over the edge. Reap took a look into the pit, which flared and belched. It was working. She turned.

Five Junior Reaping Managers stood by the door, arms loaded with piles of paper. With a deep sigh and a repentant bowing of her head, Reap led them to her office. Four piles of souls to process, and another, larger pile, to explain her illicit use of the scythe.

“I’ll be here forever,” she moaned, taking up a quill.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

WIP Blog Tour

It has been a long time since I devoted a post to talking about writing. Long enough for people to forget that writing books is what I really do, rather than reviewing them (though obviously reading books is what I spend the most time doing, and I don't even review everything I read!). So it was perfect that I got a tag this week from fellow Goodreads author Heidi Chandler to take part in the Work In Progress Blog Tour.

The rules go like this:  Provide the link back to the post by the person who nominated you (see above). Write a little about and give the first sentences of the first three chapters of your current WIP, then nominate a few other writers to do the same.

So my first job was to decide which WIP to write about. I'm currently in final edits on my humorous middle-grade fantasy, Halitor the Hero; in early edits on the second Pismawallops PTA mystery, Death By Trombone; and starting to draft stories for a third Ninja Librarian book, which doesn't even have a title yet, though I think of it as "The Problem of Peggy."

Since only one of those has a clear first three chapters, the choice was pretty easy. And I here realize that I haven't yet done any of my homework--writing blurbs and summaries and all that. Here's my chance to start!

Halitor the Hero

Young Halitor has failed at every possible career for a peasant lad in the lands under the Ice Castle when his parents manage to foist him on Bovrell the Bold as an apprentice Hero. But he's no good at that, either, and when his master abandons him at an inn in Loria, he would be willing to settle down to being a kitchen boy, as long as they feed him. But Melly, the kitchen wench, has other ideas. Soon the two have set off on a journey to try to find her father. What Halitor learns along the way is a lot more than just how to be a Hero.

Chapter One: Halitor the Hapless
A girl’s scream sounded through the afternoon, and Halitor clutched his sword in a sweaty fist and reined his horse to a halt at the edge of the forest.

Chapter Two: Halitor the Homeless
Once Melly had gained some skill with the sword, she began to suggest that they needn't stay on at the Drunken Bard.  

Chapter Three: Encounters with Ogres
Melly clutched Halitor’s arm and pointed into the woods. A pair of small ogres looked back, growling and gnashing their teeth. 

(Okay, I cheated on that last one and put the first 2 sentences).

So the great writers I'm nominating are:
Jemima Pett
M.G. King

And I still need to do a post about writing!

On a housekeeping kind of note, I've looked at my last few reviews and decided I need to take a break from reading and reviewing kids' books and reset my grump-o-meter. I'll try writing more short stories, posting more photos, and talking about writing until I feel more objective.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Middle Grade Fantasy: Lycanthor the Werewolf

Lycanthor the Werewolf - Dragon Fyre Blade 

Title: Lycanthor the Werewolf (The Dragon Fyre Blade, Book 1)     
Author: Aiden Storm 
Illustrator: McCartney Leopardi 
Publication Date: July 1, 2014
Publisher: Dreaming Empire; 71 pages  
Source: Advance review copy

Publisher's Summary:
Thirteen year old Jack is spending the summer at his Aunt’s house in the country. Unfortunately, it’s done nothing but rain and he’s stuck in her old mansion without cable or internet. Bored and alone, he sets out to explore the house. When he reaches the attic, he finds an intricate and unusual mural painted on the walls. Life for Jack gets turned upside down when he stumbles and is transported through a portal into a magical world.

For Jasyra, the daughter of the High King, life couldn’t be worse. Her father has been turned to glass, her kingdom has been taken over by the Demon Emperor, and she and her friend, Evooku, have been exiled. The only way to save the land is to reassemble the Dragon Fyre Blade, but the Demon Emperor has hidden all six pieces and each is guarded by great mythical beasts. There is only one person who can help restore peace, but it has been said that he is not of their land.

When Jack awakens in the Great Forest of Karandur, he encounters Jasyra and Evooku. He discovers the only way home is to band together to fight the evil Lycanthor, a giant werewolf that guards a piece of the Dragon Fyre Blade. But first they have to make it through an enchanted land full of danger.

The Queen of Light appears to Jack and delivers a gift, as well as a revelation. He, Jasyra and Evooku form an unlikely friendship along the way and lasting bonds are made when they realize they are Karandur’s only hope. Will the trio be able to defeat Lycanthor and save the kingdom from an eternity of despair?

The Dragon Fyre Blade: Lycanthor the Werewolf is the first book in a series of six and is written for children 7 – 11 years old.

My Review:
I admit I wasn't sure at first if I would like this. The opening scene was a little violent, and then the story was revealed to be of the normal-kid-falls-into-fantasy-world type. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Narnia books follow that pattern, for Pete's sake. But I've been feeling a little tired of it, so I was a little biased as I began.

Storm's fast-paced writing blew away that prejudice for the most part. The action is gripping, but I think the author found a good balance between believable peril and too much intensity for the younger children. I would say that my biggest issue with the book is that characters and relationships aren't adequately developed. The book is so short (under 70 pages per my electronic copy) that there is little time to explore Jack's confusion at finding himself in a new world, let alone give us a clear sense of Jasyra and what she is thinking or feeling.

What the story didn't do to keep my attention, the illustrations did. McCartney Leopardi's line drawings are vivid and active, and Lycanthor is truly frightening. The full-page black and white drawings add a lot to the pleasure of the book.

It's easy to see how and why the story is being broken into six books--one for each piece of the blade. But this first piece is found quickly enough to make me wonder if the whole story couldn't have been made into a single book, or a trilogy of books at a more typical length for the age range (at least the upper part. Ages 7-12 covers a wide range of reading levels). To me the book read more like a short story, or an early chapter book.

I think this will be enjoyed by fantasy fans of all sorts, but I would say it is especially suited to the younger end of the middle grades--say ages 7-9.


About the Author: Aiden Storm

Aiden Storm Avatar

Aiden grew up a city boy, but always loved getting out into the country. As a kid, his great uncle always took him to old castles, famous battlegrounds and long hikes in the wilderness. These days, Aiden lives in old cottage next to the forest with his dog Blade. When not writing Aiden spends time exploring the woods, dead certain they’re full of fantastical creatures, long lost relics and ancient magic…

WebsiteTwitter | Facebook | Goodreads

Full Disclosure: I was given a free electronic copy of  Lycanthor the Werewolf  in exchange for my honest review as a part of a Mother-Daughter Book Reviews book review blitz. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Middle Grade Review: The One and Only Ivan 

Title: The One and Only Ivan 
Author:  Katherine Applegate
Publisher:  Harper, 2012. 305 pages.
Source: Library

Ivan the gorilla lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, a sort of odd cross between a zoo and a mall, and he's lived there so long he almost thinks it's normal. Until, that is, Ruby the baby elephant arrives and reminds him of all he's tried to forget.

Okay, there's no denying this is a good book. It won the Newbery Medal in 2013. It's moving, and brilliantly done, and makes us see and feel what Ivan sees and feels. I think the style of writing and the format (it's laid out with each page a separate chapter, almost like a journal entry, and each sentence it's own paragraph) gives it a bit of a feeling of otherness, or the recording of thoughts. 

And yet (I'd better prepare to duck here): it didn't really move me that much, and I kept wondering what the point was, besides a lesson about cruelty to animals. I'm almost wondering if I should read it again to see what I missed, but I don't think so. I get the message, and I'll even go so far as to say we could extrapolate to thinking about man's inhumanity to man. But as a story, it felt thin. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for something with more poetry than plot. I also had a problem with a book that is both trying to be realistic on one level and yet depicts decidedly anthropomorphic animals. I get it: we are being reminded that the animals, especially ones like gorillas and elephants, in fact have feelings, and I don't doubt that they do. But I was put off by their conversations, and for some reason especially by the cynical speech of Bob the stray dog. It was just a little to human and knowing.

In spite of my reaction, I think this is a good book, and worth reading. Its message is important and clear, without totally beating us over the head with it. I suspect it would make a very good read-aloud, though it might be hard for younger children to cope with the cruel realities it depicts in places.
Full Disclosure: I checked  The One and Only Ivan  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or 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."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Care and Management of Lies


Title: The Care and Management of Lies
Author:  Jacqueline Winspear
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2014. 319 pages.

This book is subtitled "A novel of the Great War," and Ms. Winspear has made a study of WWI in England. In this novel she tells the story of one family, and how the war affected them. Kezia Marchant and Dorrit Brissenden have been friends since their schoolgirl days, and as the novel opens, Kezia is about to marry Dorrit's brother Tom. Much is changing between the two young women, who have chosen different paths, and their struggle is represented by Dorrit--Dorothy--changing her name to a different diminutive, Thea. That change represents her dive into the world of women's suffrage and, while Kezia shifts from parson's daughter and self-supporting teacher to farmer's wife. When war breaks out only months after the marriage, everything shifts again, and the heart of the story is how they all cope.

Ms. Winspear couldn't write a bad book, but this is a bit unexpected for fans of her Maisie Dobbs mysteries. It took me a bit to engage with the characters, and to find the rhythm and direction of the story. Once the war begins, and (this is no spoiler, really--it's the inevitable plot development) Tom goes to fight, the book began to fall into place for me. The "lies" of the title are the letters each writes to the other, making light of their struggles and creating a comforting fiction for the other. In particular, Kezia keeps up Tom's spirits by describing the meals she is cooking for him--completely imaginary meals, as shortages leave her with little food. What Winspear does with those "lies" is imaginative and powerful.

Ms. Winspear depicts the war from both sides--the trenches and the "home front"--very well, and this may be the strongest aspect of the book. The story is about the three-way relationship between the two girls and the man they both love, but I admit those relationships felt a bit thin to me. I didn't quite believe in them, but I completely believed the world and the lives Winspear painted. That's almost enough.

Though I felt that something was a bit off in the book, and I was discontented with the ending (not necessarily because it was bad, but because it wasn't the one I wanted), The Care and Management of Lies is a moving look at the Great War, and well worth the reading. Just don't look for Maisie Dobbs here. This is a different kind of book, meant for those who like more serious fiction and for those who (like me) are fascinated by that period of history.

Full Disclosure: I checked The Care and Management of Lies out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or 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, September 12, 2014

Peruvian Antiquities--Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

I'm a little late with this. . . so sue me. I was out hiking again (coming soon: photos from California's Sierra Nevada).

One last Peruvian photo essay.  After all our trekking, we opted against walking to Machu Picchu, instead taking the planes, trains and automobiles approach.

At the end of the Huayhaush trek we rode our bus straight back to Lima, where the party split--two to fly home, the other 6 of us to leave the next morning on a flight to Cuzco. The bus ride was long, but had its own scenic interest, from the agricultural to the dismaying.
Orange peppers drying on a hillside.
The road runs along the coast for a very long way, with huge chicken farms here and there. The workers lived in scattered shacks on the completely bare sand dunes. It really doesn't seem possible to live there, where nothing grows and all water must be imported.
Shanties along the coast.
The flight to Cuzco next day was fairly short. Cuzco is an ancient city which has made itself over very firmly as a tourist mecca. The central market, though, was loud, colorful, and smelly, and clearly more patronized by the locals than tourists, probably with good reason.
Corn and other grains for sale.
 Many streets were narrow, and ancient Inca walls might show up anywhere.

The Inglesia de Santo Domingo was built right atop the Incan temple of Qoricancha (after looting, of course).  The lower walls are the work of the Inca, with the Spanish church above.
Many of the old bits were left in place, and the Spanish made good use of the superior Inca stonework.

Before heading to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, we spent a day visiting the local sites and sights, including the ruins at Saqsayhuaman, a huge complex and the site of one of the most devastating losses the Inca suffered at the hands of the Conquistadors. From that defeat the Inca began the retreat to their hideout at Machu Picchu.
Imagine the field before the walls covered, not with tourists, but the dead defenders of Manco Inca.
We took a private bus and driver to Ollantaytambo, in order to visit other key sites, notably the salt pans at Salinas, above Urubamba, which have been in use since Incan times. Many pans have been in the same family for generations if not centuries.
Tourists and workers alike wander the narrow dams between ponds.
Logistics for getting to Machu Picchu are not trivial. After our day in the van, we were deposited in Ollantaytambo, where we spent the night, leaving before breakfast to catch the train to Aguas Calientes. I could only admire the cafe, as there wasn't time to get anything.
Nothing like borrowing from TWO major US companies at once!
The train brought us to Aguas Calientes (at the base of the mountain bearing the ruins) mid-morning. Once checked in to our hotel, we had lunch, and headed for the mountain. The area is apparently famous for hairless dogs--this one was wearing a shirt, though frankly I thought it was plenty warm out!
Can you say 'ugly dog'?
 Most of a mile from town, we began the climb, roughly 1400' (and as many stair-steps) up from the town. After our time in the high mountains, the altitude (about 8000' at the start of the ruins) was nothing, but the heat and humidity took a serious toll.
Hotter 'n snot and we still had to carry rain jackets, because the weather can change fast!
There is also a museum at the base of the climb, worth the visit, as we did (though we'd have done better to climb first and do the museum after, as the ruins close at 4:30!)
When you reach the ruins, the climb isn't over--the Incas built on slopes!
We trotted out to the Inca bridge, where they deliberately built a gap into one of the approaches, forming a drawbridge, as they needed only remove the boards across the gap to make it nearly impossible to approach.
The nephew (who unlike me is not afraid of heights) contemplates the trail, which is closed to hikers now).
We then headed up to the Sun Gate, where the Inca Trail enters the ruins. You can get off the train a few miles from Aguas Calientes and hike the last bit of the trail to enter this way, which seems like a worthwhile idea.

Shortly before closing the sun broke through and gave us a look at the city and Huayna Picchu, the classic photo. The second day, our sons climbed the trail to the top of that peak, though due to a mix-up the adults in the group were unable to get tickets.

More beautiful light as the clouds blew away.
I like the contrast in styles of construction. Religious and royal buildings got the carefully dressed stone.
Since we couldn't do the standard climb, the adults in our group chose on Day 2 to do the much longer climb to Montana Machu Picchu, at over 10,000'.  This made a LOT of climbing for most of the group, who walked up from town. I rode the bus to the base of the ruins that day, as I'd spent part of the night throwing up (remember the comment about the heat and humidity? Dehydration is no fun). The bus ride was less effort, but extremely terrifying, and those with weak hearts might do better walking.

Amazing views from the mountain top, and a limited number of people make the climb, admittedly with good reason--2000' of stairs is no joke.
A VERY long way back down to the town, just at the bend in the river!
Back down in the ruins, I was charmed by the animals! Lawn care is provided by a herd of llamas.
Beautiful white llama baby!
The herd is increasing. Double feeding time!
The llamas are domesticated animals, but the biscachas (or viscachas) are "wild"--habituated, but not domesticated. Relatives of the chinchilla, they look a lot like rabbits but have long furry tails. They live all through the ruins, which make a great habitat for animals that naturally live in rock piles.

Lots of miles of hiking, and all over now. . . my husband's boots didn't quite stand the gaff, and he took great pleasure in depositing them in the trash before boarding the train to begin the long trip home!

Back down from the ruins by early afternoon, we boarded the train at 3:30. Our driver picked us up in Ollantaytambo at 6, and we bused back to Cuzco that night, arriving for a very late dinner. After a night spent, in the case of some of us, in much digestive distress (you really don't want to know more), we flew to Lima, spent another night, and finally flew home, with an 8-hour layover in Mexico City. Home has seldom looked so good! (Pity my brother-in-law, who had to get up next morning and drive 3 hours before he was home, making for four days on the road from Machu Picchu to his own bed).

The Sun Temple

Copyright Rebecca M. Douglass 2014

To see the rest of the story, follow the links from my Photos and Travel page!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Origami Yoda


Title: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
Author: Tom Angleberger
Publisher: Amulet Books, 2010. 141 pages
Source: Library

Middle school is a challenge, so when class loser Dwight starts talking to his origami Yoda finger puppet, the first reaction of the 6th grade is inevitably ridicule. But when Yoda starts dispensing good advice and saves one of his pals from total humiliation on the romance front, Tommy starts to think maybe there's something in it. So he assembles a casebook to try to collect and weigh all the evidence, and we can decide along with him whether Yoda really has the power of the Force or Dwight's talking through his hat. Or his finger.

This was an entertaining look into the heads of middle school boys (though with a comment like that, you might think it was horror instead of comedy!). It is short, with very short chapters, each written in a different voice, so it should work well for reluctant readers and those with short attention spans (parents, maybe?). The format is essentially episodic, with each chapter and independent story of one student's experience with Yoda, building to a final decision Tommy must make to follow Yoda's advice or not.

The book is not substantial and offers no brilliant insights, but I had fun reading it (and trying to make the Yoda, though my results were. . . sad). .

Take it or leave it. Not a must-read, but rather a book that can be enjoyed and might help a kid learn to like reading. But if you fold Yoda and he starts talking to you, I recommend taking a long step back!

Full Disclosure: I checked  The Strange Case of Origami Yoda out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or 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."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Middle Grade Review; The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse

The Music of Dolphins

Title: The Music of Dolphins
Author: Karen Hesse
Publisher: Scholastic, 1996. 181 pages.
Source: Library

Mila is found on an atoll, and she has been raised by dolphins from the age of 4. When she's taken back to the US, Mila has a lot of learning and adjusting to do, and it doesn't help that the government claims her as a legitimate study subject, rather than as an adolescent with human needs (as well as some rather dolphinish needs).

Karen Hesse is a fantastic author, and I believe this book won some awards, but I have to admit I didn't really like it. The premise was a bit hard to swallow--exactly how did that work?--though if that is once accepted, the results are logical enough, I guess. The narration is interesting, in the voice of Mila, as a sort of journal. As she learns more and more language she is able to express herself more clearly and we also see her developing a grasp of human nature.

The ending of the book is the source of a large part of my dissatisfaction. Without giving anything away, I will just say that I found it unrealistic and unconvincing as a long-term solution.  Having truly loved many of Hesse's books, I was sorry to find myself unimpressed with this one.

The book is a quick and engaging read, for those (children?) more willing than I to suspend disbelief.  For any reader, it is an interesting insight into human nature, from the perspective of a virtual outsider.

Full Disclosure: I checked Music of Dolphins out of my local library,, and received nothing from the writer or 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."

Don't miss the Pismawallops PTA Back-to-School sale! Ebook just $2.99 until Sept. 10. Visit Amazon or use coupon code PJ97S to get the same price from Smashwords, which sells all formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook.
Only two more days! 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday Fiction: Dahlia

I think I'm getting my mojo back. This week's story came to me at the sight of a "lost cat" (or maybe dog) poster glimpsed while I was biking. I'm pretty sure the pet's name was Dahlia, and I couldn't help thinking that was a name to offend a cat. The story unfolded itself from there. And next week's story again grew out of something seen while out riding. I guess I need to ride more to write more? In any case, it's nice to have the ideas flowing again, though not necessarily coming from the usual prompts.


On a grey and gloomy day on moderately quiet street in a medium-sized town, a woman of more or less middle age moved from lamp post to lamp post, taping up signs. Each featured a photo of a large marmalade cat and read, “MISSING CAT! Dahlia is lost! She is lonely, cold and scared. Won’t you help me find her?” and gave a phone number to call if the cat was seen. The woman shivered as she worked, and drew her sweater more tightly about her shoulders.

Meanwhile, across town on a rather less quiet street, a large marmalade cat relaxed in a nightclub, enjoying the scene. Word of the notices came by roundabout means. The small furry dog who lived three houses down from Dahlia and the woman saw the notices, and told Tom, the feral cat who stole his kibble, and Tom told the bird known as Shut-up-you-dirty-old-bird. Shut-up lived at the nightclub and came right home to tell Dahlia.

“Awk! Tom says that Killer Instinct says that your human is looking for you.”


“She thinks you’re lost.” Both animals had a good laugh over that, before Dahlia asked for particulars. “Put up signs, that’s how. Killer I. saw them himself.”

When the nightclub finally closed, Dahlia took a nap. The cat got up and went out to see the signs at first light. “You know,” Dahlia growled to Killer Instinct, “Not only am I not lost, cold, lonely or scared, but I’m really not a Dahlia, either, if you know what I mean. I’m more of a James Dean. Or maybe Lord somebody.”

Killer Instinct nodded. It was true. The nice lady, who really was good at opening cans of cat food, and even handed out dog treats if you shook hands or did anything silly like that, wasn’t very observant. She tended to think of all dogs as “he” and cats, like boats, as “she.” She had never noticed that Dahlia was, in fact, a male cat.  Before Killer Instinct could offer any suggestions, a door opened nearby, and a voice called into the night.

“Fluffy! Fluffers, you bad dog! Come in now and I’ll give you your treats!”

Killer I. tried not to look at the cat, and trotted off.

“Dogs,” muttered James Dean. “Always thinking with their stomachs.” The cat formerly known as Dahlia stalked back down the street, tail erect. “Anyone who called me ‘Fluffers’ would live to regret it,” was his final take on the matter, though no one was present to hear, Shut Up having stayed at the nightclub to get his beauty sleep.

And yet. As James Dean, Feline Rebel, made his way back across town to the nightclub, he couldn’t help thinking of The Woman. He knew what that poster meant. Sooner or later someone would recognize him. What was she thinking, saying he was scared, anyway? He wasn’t scared of anything!

The Speakeasy wouldn’t open for hours, but the cook at the diner on Main Street always gave him a sausage when he came around, so he hung out there in the mornings, working the breakfast crowd and napping in an empty booth when business was slow. Late morning, he moved to the Café three doors down, and napped in their front window. The staff there thought he added a classy touch.

Mid afternoon, he headed back toward the Nightclub. It wouldn’t open for hours, but he could get in some quality napping before the music started. But when he turned onto a side street, his eye was caught by a poster. One of his posters.

So The Woman had ventured this far from her easy chair and her lace curtains for him! He thought that ought to make him feel something. He remembered, too, that she had a grand way with a can opener. Slowly, he found himself turning toward the old neighborhood.

Shut-up-you-dirty-old-bird found him first. “Awk! So you’re going back? Leaving the high life?”

“I don’t know.” James Dean stopped for a moment. He had a sudden inspiration. He suddenly saw that he wasn’t Dahlia: The Woman was. “’Dahlia is lost, lonely and scared,’” he quoted. “I’m not lost or scared and never lonely. But she is. The Woman.”

“And she has a can opener,” the bird mocked. He and the cat turned at a low growl.

“Nuthin’ wrong with that.” Killer Instinct kept his voice as low and rough as possible for a small dog with—James Dean couldn’t help but notice—very fluffy fur and a diamond-studded collar.

“It's a bit dull there, though,” James Dean said. He thought about the music and dancing at the nightclub. He particularly liked the lights that made spots run all over the floor.

An idea began to form in his feline brain. “Yeah, I’m gong home. But I’m not settling down and I won’t be Dahlia again.”

“You gonna keep running off?” Killer Instinct asked, forgetting to keep his voice low and gruff.

“Not exactly.”

Killer I. and Shut Up pestered James Dean all the way home, but he wouldn’t tell them his plan, and they had to leave when he reached the little house and The Woman with the can opener.

James Dean would have preferred to walk right in, or at the least knock on the door in a confident and domineering manner. But since the door was closed and he was a cat, he settled himself on the doorstep and yowled.

Afterwards, James Dean preferred not to think about the greeting the woman gave him, alternately hugging and scolding him, though she also opened a can of fancy tuna for him, which went a long way toward erasing the offense.

The hard part came later. He kept an eye on the time, and at the right moment—he got a bit of luck here, as The Woman went into the front garden to mess about with her flowers—he made his move.  James Dean followed her out, and, making sure she was watching him, trotted out the front gate.

“Oh, stop, you bad cat!” she cried, and trotted after him, dropping her clippers on the walk, but clutching her huge hat to her head as she went. James Dean made sure he went just fast enough to keep ahead of her without losing her.

He could hear the music from half a block away, and they were playing his song. He headed for the front door, where a man seemed to pick who could come in and who couldn’t by looking at little bits of paper. James Dean darted between his legs into the main room.

The lights were spinning over the floor, and he at once forgot his mission in the excitement of dancing with them.  Behind him, the woman gasped. For once in her life forgetting to be polite, she pushed past the guard, exclaiming “Good heavens, Dahlia!”

The guard turned. “You mean Johnny?”

“Johnny?” The Woman sounded very confused.

“We call him John Travolta on account of how he likes to dance when the disco ball’s on.”

“He?” The Woman gasped. “John Travolta? But her name is Dahlia.”

“She’s a he, ma’am. Sounds like he’s been living with you under false pretenses.” He seemed to find this very funny, and laughed loud and long, but The Woman did not laugh.

By now the manager had come up and she turned to him. “Does she—he—come here often?” She pointed, and he broke into a grin, seeing Johnny dancing with the sparkles.

“You bet. Every night for the last week.”

“Oh!” she gasped. She stood there in her nondescript slacks and sensible shoes, and the foot inside one of those shoes began to tap. Then the other. Then, with a sudden laugh that made the manager think she wasn’t so old after all, she moved onto the dance floor, matching her moves to the cat’s.

James Dean/Johnny Travolta looked around and spotted the parrot watching them.

“Well, Cat, you did it,” the bird cawed.

“Shut up, you dirty old bird,” someone shouted.

The cat gave a small, satisfied “meow” and went on dancing with sparkles, his Human following obediently.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2014

Don't miss the Pismawallops PTA Back-to-School sale! Ebook just $2.99 until Sept. 10. Visit Amazon or use coupon code PJ97S to get the same price from Smashwords, which sells all formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Early Middle Grade review: Snort and Wobbles      

Title: Snort and Wobbles
Author:  Will Macmillan Jones
Publisher: Ebook only, 2014. 67 pages

Wobbles is eight years old and feeling a bit out of things as the family (Mom, Dad, older brother) adjusts to a new home. When she wanders to the end of the garden by the creek (where she's not supposed to be), she finds some surprising friends--Snort the Dragon, a talking rosebush, and more. And when her brother goes missing, they go to the rescue!

The author is better known for his fantasy novels (not for children), the Banned Underground series, and some of his delightful and outrageous sense of humor shows up here.  What lurks under the smooth lawns of suburbia? Wobbles is about to find out, and we are lucky enough to be invited along. The story unfolds with no wasted time or words, as befits a book for young readers. I think there is just the right amount of excitement and danger, not to mention humor, to keep those readers turning pages. And I think Jones has pegged the little-kid way of thinking pretty well, with the sort of round-about reasoning and an open-minded acceptance of things adults would disbelieve that characterizes the young

The book is well-edited, meticulously proof-read, and formatted well, with no issues on my Nook.

This book is for younger elementary age kids, in keeping with the 8-year-old protagonist and the brevity of the story. It is also for anyone who loves the absurd, and is happy to take dragons and more in stride.

Full Disclosure: I bought Snort and Wobbles of my own free will, and received nothing from the writer or 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."


Don't miss the Pismawallops PTA Back-to-School sale! Ebook just $2.99 until Sept. 10. Visit Amazon or use coupon code PJ97S to get the same price from Smashwords, which sells all formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mystery Monday: Unnatural Causes, by P.D. James


Title: Unnatural Causes
Author: P.D. James; Narrated by Penelope Dellaporta
Publisher: G.K.Hall & Co., 1967 (original). Audio: Books on Tape, 2008
Source: Library (Overdrive)

In this 3rd book about Scotland Yard's Adam Dalgliesh, the DI has come to spend a quiet holiday with his Aunt Jane. But no sooner has he arrived than the neighbors show up to complain that one of their number, mystery writer Maurice Seton, has disappeared. And then the local police show up to say he's been found. . . dead and mutilated. Dalgliesh has no official standing on this case, but he can't keep out of it, and naturally finds his way to the solution before the local police, but not before there is another death.

The 1967 publication date explains a great deal about this book, which did feel dated in some ways. Jame's style is always a bit formal and distant (rather like Dalgliesh, actually), so as I was listening I wasn't sure about the time period, but felt that the story had a tone that was out of step with modern novels. It did seem to be set in another era, and several things make a great deal more sense in that context!

Not surprisingly (James is one of the masters of the genre), the plot is complex, but not byzantine, and hangs together beautifully, with all the clues present in retrospect, though I didn't see it coming. There was one annoying point when Dalgliesh tells the local police the key to everything, and sends them off to find it, but we (the readers) are not told what it is. That always strikes me as a bit unfair, and frankly even if I had been told what the thing was I wouldn't have figured out who did it, so she might as well have played straight with us.

Ms. Dellaporta's narration is excellent, and adds to the enjoyment of the story.

As long as you don't have any issues with older mysteries with a more restrained style, this is an excellent yarn. I have tended to read this series in random order as the books cross my path, but I suspect a perusal in order would reward the reader, who could not only see the characters develop, but watch Britain and the Yard transform from the 60s to the early 2000s (without aging the characters any significant amount). If you are a fan of the classic mystery, have at it!

Full Disclosure: I checked  Unnatural Causes  out of my (digital) library, and received nothing from the writer or 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."