Thursday, January 29, 2015

Friday Flash: The Continuing Adventures of Gorg the Troll

One of my favorite types of writing prompt this week--the random set of things to include in the story. I knew as soon as I saw my list that this would be a continuation of the Sage of Gorg Trollheim. 1001 words, including the title. The title is the list of story elements. And maybe the weather on the East Coast, far from me, wandered into the story, too.

Betrayal, Assassin, Cave

Gorg Trollheim forced his way through drifting snow and howling winds, away from the ruins of Castle Bale. He didn't look back at the devastation he had caused, but even if he had, he could have seen nothing through the night and the blowing snow. He turned his stone face toward the Iron Desert, and plodded on. Blizzards could not harm a troll, though if it grew cold enough, he would become too slow to move, and would simply stand rooted until the storm had passed and he warmed up again.

Gorg did not want to remain a frozen stone until spring. He pushed on, looking for shelter to wait out the storm. The hills to the south might provide cover, and he veered that way, turning his back a bit to the wind. His thoughts moved as slowly as his body in the intense cold.

With an effort, Gorg pushed his mind back to the castle he had left behind. He would have smiled, except it might have broken his face. That was no castle now. For the second time, Duke Bale the Artichoke Hearted had lost his castle and his life to the troll he'd wronged. After a long time, that thought formed the rest of the way in Gorg's mind. He shouldn't have needed to kill Bale twice. That wasn't right. And he hadn’t seen the body.

Just like the last time. Gorg stopped. He turned slowly. He should go back, sift the rubble until he found Bale's body, and grind it to dust. Or whatever you got when you ground squishy creatures. He took a tentative step back, and stopped. He could not do it. The wind would petrify him, and when a troll got petrified, it wasn't a figure of speech. They were always so easily returned to the stone from which they sprang. He gave a massive shrug and turned his back to the wind once again. Until the storm ended, he could only go forward to shelter.

The wind beat on him less fiercely now, and Gorg knew he was in the lee of the hills. Now to find a cave. He would be safe in a cave, surrounded by rocks, until he could go back and make certain that Bale would never kill another troll.

At last Gorg found the shelter he sought. The cave was not large, but it was deep enough that the rocks in its depths had not frozen, so Gorg sat against the back of the cavern, snacking on a few light stones, and waiting.

"What are you doing here?" It was the voice of a troll. Gorg looked around, interested. He hadn't known there were any other trolls within a four days' walk.

"Waiting. You?" A troll didn't waste words, but he wanted the other to speak so he could locate him. The light was dim, and he didn't see any troll.

"I live here. I was waiting too." The voice was all around him. Gorg was no longer so sure it was a troll. Had his ears deceived him, abused as they were by the storm? But he felt no real concern. In a cave, surrounded by stone, a troll would be secure.

Secure even from a sorcerer? Gorg felt the thought force its way into his still-frozen brain. Could Bale have had yet another minion ready and waiting?  The thoughts were too difficult, his mind too slow. Gorg settled more firmly against the back wall of the cave, and let himself thaw slowly. With greater warmth came clearer thought, and vision. Gorg could see now that there was no one in the cave with him. No troll, no sorcerer.

Which, since the voice continued to speak of long years of waiting in the cave, of patient silence, and a million other things with little meaning to a troll of Gorg’s temperament, meant that there was definitely a sorcerer in the cave with him.

Gorg noticed something.

The entrance of the cave had vanished. He was sealed underground with the voice that would not be silent. The cave, the stones which he had trusted for safety, had betrayed him. He was sealed in with the assassin, the one sent by Bale—before he died, or after?—to ensure that Gorg would never live to see the results of his victory. And the man would not be quiet.

Gorg stood up. “No. You will not win.” He moved to where the entrance had been a short time before, and reached out to touch stone. Stone, but not stone. This was no stone, but magical illusion, and he could feel the difference though he could not pass through. And that meant he was up against a very powerful sorcerer indeed, because it was not easy to make the basaltic brains of trolls see and feel illusion.

“That’s right, Gorg Trollheim,” said the voice. “You are sealed in, and when you have died, as you must when the air runs out, I will collect my fee from Duke Bale.”

“I trust he paid you in advance. Bale is dead.”

“Dead? I fancy not!” The voice laughed, and Gorg fought to control anger.

“Buried in the rubble of his castle, not a day since. Dead.” For now.

He was suddenly alone. The silence in the chamber could be felt. It formed a thick layer, overlying the false stone, the stone he could not crumble and erode because it wasn’t there.

But real stone could not resist him. Gorg felt for the join between the real and the magical, and his fingers found it. They worked their way into the tiny fissures and cracks. Within minutes, he had created a gap, just enough to let in fresh air. Gorg breathed thoughtfully of the cold air, felt the draft, then backed up and sat down again.

He could rest here. The storm would be over in the morning, and he would leave. No need to go out in this weather.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World

Title: Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World
Author M. G. King
Publisher: Kingscape Books, 2013. 240 pages (ebook).
Source: Purchase? Free Day? Maybe won it as a prize? I really should take notes!

Colin Colbeck is having a very bad day. He had to miss the baseball game to make cupcakes, and now those cupcakes have been stolen by trolls. So has his grandmother, and his little brother. He's forced to team up with his mortal enemy, ex-best-friend Pepper to rescue them and save the world from trolls. Because all it took to wake them up and start trouble was one careless drop of fizzy soda pop in just the wrong place...

What a galloping mad romp! I picked the book up expecting goofiness, and I got it. But I also got a tightly-written adventure that adheres to its own rules, however crazy they may be. Colin is a wonderful hero, in part because he's no hero at all. He's a lame, tame taco, just like Pepper says. So he's never surprised when his plans go astray, just terribly disappointed in himself and unhappy at losing Grand, then his little brother Sid, and then maybe the whole town. Yet every time he falls down (or is squished by a troll or attacked by a giant poisonous centipede), he manages to get up and come up with a new plan. I love his perseverance and occasional insights (he does eventually figure out why Pepper is so contrary to everyone).

I also loved the adventure, especially the slightly goofy side to it all. The trolls are so beautifully trollish--a bit stupid, but most of them also cruel and heartless (well, how can something that's basically stone have a soft heart?). This very well-written and impeccably edited romp through the troll lands that may be underneath all our homes is a joy to read, and I didn't want to put it down.

For kids who like fantasy and humor and unlikely heroes. Also for adults who like the same. I'm pretty sure Gorg the Troll would like it, too, though he would be appalled at the bad behavior of these trolls.

Full Disclosure: I don't know just how I got my copy of Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World, but I know I 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, January 26, 2015

This and that, and some gratuitous photos....

I had it on my calendar to make today my announcement of my A to Z theme. Naturally, having written that down, I proceeded to not think of a theme. I have some ideas glimmering around the edge of my mind. I might focus on a character from a favorite book (surely I can find on for every letter of the alphabet--I have a lot of favorite books!). I'd like to do more with photos, but I already did the outdoor adventure theme last year, so that's out. A story every day for the month would be cool, but might be tough to pull off. I might even like to generate a random word for each letter of the alphabet, and create something--story, photo essay, book review--around that letter.

If I do any of those things--or come up with something else totally brilliant--you'll know when A to Z starts!  And if you want to steal any of those ideas, help yourself. Even if I end up doing the same one, the beauty of the human mind is that we would end up doing totally different things!

In other business: work continues on the edits for Death By Trombone, book 2 in the Pismawallops PTA murder series. Progress on the 3rd Ninja Librarian book has been less visible. Other ideas are percolating--I hope they don't shove Skunk Corners aside, because I know a lot of people want to see what happens next there!

I have also committed once again to ride the Chico Wildflower Century at the end of April. That means I'm back to serious training on my bike. And that gives me what I think I'll throw in for my gratuitous photos--shots of some of the places we rode during our training last year, and will be riding again before we're done. I am very fortunate to live in a place with an excess of beautiful places to ride, and plenty of hills to train on (yes, that is a positive thing--at least if I insist on riding centuries with 5 or 6 thousand feet of climbing!). Since I let the spouse handle the camera on these rides, the photos are his, not mine (copyright info embedded).

Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the Marin Headlands. On a perfect day--they don't all look like this!
Me and the tule elk at Pt. Reyes National Seashore. The sun was setting, and we had miles to go--we finished that ride in the dark for sure, and it was cold!

Me with the beacon atop Mt. Diablo (3849'), in the East Bay. This beacon is maybe 30 miles inland, but high enough that it could be seen 100 miles out at sea, though it was meant for aviation. Built in 1928, it was shut down during WWII and since has been lit only once a year, to commemorate the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Biking among the California Poppies can be pretty breath-taking.

Going north instead of east takes us into the redwood groves on Mt. Tamalpais.
And the big day--a typical rest-stop scene at the Wildflower Century. Well, typical except for the rain. Last year it rained, and instead of losing riders to heat exhaustion, they were in danger of losing some (me included) to hypothermia. The previous year, I had to stop a pour ice water over my head. Last year, I had to eat lunch in a super-heated room and still couldn't get warm!
The real appeal of a ride like this is the food. Not only do you get to stuff yourself at 4 rest stops plus lunch, but when you finish the ride, there's a dinner at the fairgrounds. With about 6 different ride-lengths, the event draws 4000 riders of all ages and abilities.
Just in case you live in northern California and this looks like your kind of insanity, I'm going to toss in a link to the Chico Velo Web page where you can sign up!

And one final picture, because I stumbled on it in my photo albums and it's just cool. A seaside Lego village, designed and built by my sons last year:
Waiting for the pirates to come, I suspect.

See you on Wednesday, for a book review!

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Friday Flash: Call me Nails...

What a great challenge this week from Chuck Wendig! Playing off the cliche of describing one's work as "such and thus meets such and thus" ("Superman meets My Little Pony!"), he gave us two lists of well-known stories and types. It only took me 3 rolls of the dice to get a combo I couldn't resist: James Bond meets Alice in Wonderland. I very nearly made that one literal (and maybe I will yet--what a wild story that would be!). Here's what happens when a tough-guy agent finds himself down the rabbit hole. He gave us 2000 words, but I stopped short of that.

The Name’s Nails…Rusty Nails

Call me Nails. Rusty Nails. Everyone at the Service does, because I’m tough as nails and unpolished as old iron. There’s nothing out there can surprise me. Not any more.

I'd been saying that for years when I found out it wasn't true. I was behind enemy lines, way behind. Never mind where; nothing ever came from loose talk about stuff like that except dead agents, and I’m not that sort.

The thing is, everything was going well. I located the secret hideout of the folks we were after, and I got the papers. No one knew I was even there, except a couple of dames. They were something else, those dames. Hair down to here, and legs up to there, and all parts in working order, if you know what I mean. I probably shouldn’t have stopped to make sure, but that’s what we do, you know? It’s part of the job. If one of our agents left a place like that one without stopping to check out at least one blonde, we’d know he was a plant, see?

Anyway, that slowed me down a bit, and I missed my pick-up, which left me having to find my own way out. The dame gave me directions to a secret exit, but it turned out she wasn’t the only one who knew about it. Or maybe I wasn’t the only one she told, though that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. We only seduce those babes so that they’ll be on our side, after all.

So I’m headed for the exit, and a half a dozen goons in black suits pop up between me and the way out. I’d have taken them all out with a few good kicks and jabs, and maybe that special gadget HQ gave me to try out this time, but they had some big guns, and Rusty Nails isn’t an idiot. There was only one place to go, and I went. Without breaking stride, I turned and dove out the window, hoping like galloping blue thunder that I’d land in the water below, not on the rocks.

The thing was, once I was through that window I couldn’t see either water or rocks. The good news was that the goons stopped shooting at me. The bad news was, I couldn't see either Howie's hideout or the ground.

I fell for a long time, and landed with a thump, rather than the splat I should have made, in the middle of a grassy field. Given the climate around Howie's place, that didn’t seem likely. I admit my first thought was that either I’d been shot and  I was dead—though an empty grassy field wasn’t exactly my idea of heaven, if you know what I mean—or I’d been shot and I was hallucinating. Though why grass I don’t know. I never was assigned to the War on Drugs, and a good thing, too.

I’ve nothing against grass. It just never entered much into my consciousness. I’m a city boy, and I do gadgets and high tech weapons and a bit of direct action. I’m no tree-hugger.

When I hit ground and looked around, I began to think I might want to find a tree to hug, or at least to hide behind. The landscape looked a lot like my Uncle Cal’s farm, except not quite. I never saw plants in quite those colors. They weren’t neon purple and orange like a bad trip, just…different. Out of this world in some way I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Out of this world…the thought gradually penetrated my brain, and I didn’t like where it was leading. I liked it even less when a troop of armed rats popped up and I found myself surrounded. Their swords could only reach about to my waist, but there was nothing down there I wanted to risk. I could have kicked quite a few of them into the middle of next week, but there were hundreds of them. Nothing doing.

I went where they pointed me. That meant hiking a long way across the meadow until we reached some trees. Like I say, I’m a city boy, but I’m pretty sure no trees should look like that. Nor do rats run around with swords, not even in New York.

Those rats were starting to poke me with those swords, because I didn’t like to enter the forest. First rule is not to get yourself where you can’t see what’s coming at you, and those trees were thick. The second rule was not to let the bad guys take you anywhere private. I wouldn’t stand a chance in those trees, not from the rats and not from Howie's goons, if they were somehow behind this.

Sure, I was beginning to think Howie’s goons were the least of my worries, but it felt better to fret about them than to wonder just where in blazes I’d ended up. This was no place I’d ever been or heard about. Even the Medocino Coast wasn’t this weird. I knew I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything at Howie’s hideout, but could someone have shot me full of something? It’s an occupational hazard, getting drugged with all sorts of strange stuff, experimental things that the baddies want to try out, you know. It had to have been a dart, unless the dames did it while I was distracted.

This didn’t feel like a trip. This felt 100% real, except for the part where it was totally impossible.

Eventually I found myself in front of a laughably royal-looking couple. I mean, they looked like the king and queen out of a bad fairy tale illustration. But they weren’t laughing, and I wasn’t laughing either after the rats kicked the backs of my knees until I went down.

“Kneel before royalty, you fool,” the head rat commanded.

“I don’t believe in kings and queens, rat,” I snarled, trying to stand up. Never let them get you on the ground. The rats swarmed me, knocking me to my face and sitting on me to hold me there.  I decided maybe it wasn’t time for a lesson in democracy.

“What,” asked a voice like sandpaper on sheet metal, “is this?”

“An interloper, Majesty,” answered the lead Rat. “We found it in the Great Meadow.”

It? I was offended. I sure as blazes wasn’t any “it,” and I’d happily prove it…I bit my tongue. The hardest lesson in my business is to learn when to be cocky and when to shut up. I was pretty sure that staying shut up until I figured out where I was and why would be a pretty good idea.

Since I wouldn’t talk, after a long time they hauled me off again, and tied me to one of those weird trees. Bits of purple fluff drifted down and made me sneeze. Then they left me there, and I got to try to piece it all together.

The questions they asked me had told me a few things. I sure enough was down the rabbit hole, through the wardrobe, and over the river and through the woods to boot.  I was going to need everything I’d learned from my childhood reading to get out of this one. I only wished I’d read more of those fantasy stories and fewer westerns and spy stories. I didn’t think that I’d get home by being the fastest shot in the West, nor the fastest martini, either.

For the time being, I wasn’t going anywhere. Those rats knew their knots, and I could barely twitch, they’d trussed me up so tight. Of course, all us agents know how to get out of a situation like that, so as soon as they left me alone, I set to work to get loose.

It took a long time. When I at last had the ropes off, it was dark. Also, my feet were asleep, and I almost fell over when I stood up. That slowed me down enough to make me think.

Where was I going? I sure as god made little green horse apples couldn’t find the pickup point from here.

First things first. I’d had nothing to eat or drink at Howie’s, and nothing since arriving in this place. I needed to get something, and soon. My mouth was so dry you could start a forest fire in there, and my stomach though my throat had been cut.

At least this place seemed to have a moon, just like home. Though as a city boy I’d never paid the moon much attention, I was realizing now that a big light in the sky had it's uses. I could see my way back to where the king and queen had been seated earlier, and I could see when I got there that they had been feasting. No one had cleared the tables, and no one was around. I hesitated for just an instant before I picked up a pitcher of something that smelled like juice. The rule against eating and drinking in enemy strongholds was beaten into us, but circumstances, I told myself, had changed.

I drank.

I swallowed the last of the juice and wiped my mouth. It was good, and I almost didn’t care what it did to me.

Or maybe I did care, a little. I didn’t get huge or shrink or drop dead, but things got even weirder from that point. It must have been some kind of psychedelic drug, because everything turned the most incredible colors. Trust me, nothing in nature looks like that, yet I had the feeling that I wasn’t hallucinating, but that I was only now seeing the place as it really was. I mean, I’d known that the colors were all wrong, but this was something else again. I wandered off a bit, and saw a green light through the trees.

That led me to the party. All kinds of animals were there, all wearing clothes and the most amazing array of hats. They were eating, drinking and dancing like wild. It seemed perfectly natural, and I forgot that these where the guys who’d tied me to the tree. I joined the dancers, working my way toward the tables of food.

It was three days before I remembered Howie, my mission, and my boss. They’d all figure I was dead. Maybe I was. Did it matter? I took a look around at the softly fluorescing purple and orange trees, and the tables full of food.

“Pass me some more of that cake, will ya, pal?”


©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Middle Grade Review: The Secret of the Sacred Scarab


Title: The Secret of the Sacred Scarab
Author: Fiona Ingram
Publisher: iUniverse 2008, 272 pages
Source: I'm actually not sure; it's been on my ereader for quite a while. I either won it in a give-away or picked it up on a free day, I think.

This fast-paced adventure is by one of my fellow BookElves.
Publisher's Summary:
A thrilling adventure for two young boys, whose fun trip to Egypt turns into a dangerously exciting quest to uncover an ancient and mysterious secret. A 5000-year-old mystery comes to life when a scruffy peddler gives Adam and Justin Sinclair an old Egyptian scarab on their very first day in Egypt. Justin and Adam embark upon the adventure of a lifetime, taking them down the Nile and across the harsh desert in their search for the legendary tomb of the Scarab King, an ancient Egyptian ruler. With just their wits, courage, and each other, the boys manage to survive … only to find that the end of one journey is the beginning of another!

This was a great adventure, with a lot of history and archeology thrown in along the way. For the most part, the story moves along well, and the two boys are depicted clearly and engagingly. I might have liked for Gran to have a bigger role--she was pretty one-dimensional until near the end, when she proved delightful, but I can see why I might be more interested in her than a kid would.

A few times, especially near the beginning of the book, I thought the story got bogged down in the history/geography lessons, but for the most part they were well-integrated into the story, as the boys tried to find out what they needed to know in order to solve the mystery. The book also had to deal with the usual problem for kids' adventures: keeping the adults from taking over. I thought it was well-handled; they see it all as a great adventure and want to solve it themselves. When things get a little scary, they kind of want an adult to help, but worry their aunt won't take them seriously. The adults eventually get involved, but by then the boys have to cope with some things on their own regardless.

The exciting conclusion is gripping--I definitely stayed up to finish! Then there is the set-up for the next book in the series. I'm not a big fan of making a too-obvious "to be continued" sign at the end of a book, but I have to admit it has me wanting to read the next in the series!

For lovers of adventure and mystery and exotic settings.

Full Disclosure: I bought, won, or was given a copy of The Secret of the Sacred Scarab at some unknown time, 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, January 19, 2015

Picture Day! Black Hills of South Dakota

I have been thinking about how to go about these little photo essays, and decided to simply go back through the years and highlight various places we've enjoyed visiting. These tend to be wilderness sites, but we'll see--I might throw in some science centers and such. At some point I'd like to digitize more of our slides and feature a couple of trips we did with the babies, but for now, we start in 2005 when the boys were 6 and 7.

This was an early-summer trip, as you can tell by how green the hills are. We visited Wind Cave National Park, the adjoining Custer State Park, and Jewel Cave, before continuing on to Badlands National Park (and a stop at Carhenge). I'll hit those last two in another post, lest this get too long. My camera back in those days--my first digital camera--was sure a far cry from what I have now, and I apologize that the photos aren't what they should be.

We joined with friends so that we could have a fun social time in camp and on hikes over the grasslands. At Wind Cave, there was a lot of rolling country, where we saw some nice wildflowers.
Hiking near the WCNP campground.

We also saw some nice wildlife:
Prairie dog
Buffalo. Well, actually Bison. They look very, very big when you are standing on a trail and they are not far off!

Not all the wildlife makes it through the winter. Our boys were really into the bones we found lying about. Parents: squelch your squeamishness and let your little scientists explore this sort of thing!
I'm not sure it's bison, but probably--it was something big!
The Park of course is partly, at least, there because of the cave--Wind Cave is one of the longest caves known. It gets its name from the wind that blows in or out of the opening depending on barometric pressure--the cave is always trying to adjust to match the outside. The Indians considered it a sacred site, and white men began exploration of it around 1890. You can take guided tours in the cave.
The natural opening to Wind Cave
Inside the cave:
This "boxwork" formation is apparently unique to Wind Cave.

We continued our driving-and-hiking tour through Custer State Park.
From a lookout tower in Custer State Park
Including a stop to hike in the Cathedral Spires, where more forest provided different flowers from the prairie:
Tiger Lily, if my memory serves

We did a hike up a formation called "Little Devil's Tower," though it is a far cry from the original. It was a fun scramble for the boys.
View from the top of Little Devil's Tower
However, no matter what the view is, little boys are apt to be much more interested in puddles:
Helping water flow downhill

Finally, on to Jewel Cave, which doesn't have a beautiful prairie around it, but does have beautiful formations inside. My photography wasn't up to the job, but here are a couple of hints. We were bemused by how many of the features and formations had food names: cave popcorn, cave bacon, the Wedding Cake...I'm thinking cavers are usually hungry!
Cave jellyfish?

Amazing what stone and water can produce.

That's my snapshot view of the Black Hills--an area with a lot of history as well as a lot of beauty. Check it out!

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: English Creek, by Ivan Doig


Title: English Creek
Author: Ivan Doig, read by Scott Sowers
Publisher: originally Aetheneum Books, 1984 (339 pages); Audio by Recorded Books, 2010.
Source: Library digital collection

Publisher's Summary:
In this prizewinning portrait of a time and place -- Montana in the 1930s -- that at once inspires and fulfills a longing for an explicable past, Ivan Doig has created one of the most captivating families in American fiction, the McCaskills.

The witty and haunting narration, a masterpiece of vernacular in the tradition of Twain, follows the events of the Two Medicine country's summer: the tide of sheep moving into the high country, the capering Fourth of July rodeo and community dance, and an end-of-August forest fire high in the Rockies that brings the book, as well as the McCaskill family's struggle within itself, to a stunning climax. It is a season of escapade as well as drama, during which fourteen-year-old Jick comes of age. Through his eyes we see those nearest and dearest to him at a turning point -- "where all four of our lives made their bend" -- and discover along with him his own connection to the land, to history, and to the deep-fathomed mysteries of one's kin and one's self.

Really, after that summary, what could I add? This IS "a witty and haunting narration," and I will add engaging, humorous, and poignant. Doig manages to tell the story of a family and an entire region through the events of a single summer seen through the eyes of one 14-year-old boy. Admittedly, the narrator is looking back at it from his old age, so there is a strong filter of mature insight (which is why it is definitely an adult novel, not YA. It isn't that it has as much sex or swearing in it as many teen novels do, it's that the perspective is ultimately an adult one).

Doig's writing is, for want of a better word, lyrical. Or maybe I just mean that he seems always to light on the mot juste, and without effort (am I envious? Yeah, maybe a little!) (I am also aware that it is nothing like effortless from Doig's end. He's just good enough to make me feel it was inevitable when I read it).

I pulled out just one example that struck me at the time: Jick is reflecting on the sheepherders in the Two Medicine National Forest, and the ways in which they occupy themselves--reading, building pointless cairns, carving. But then he mentions the others, the ones who "couldn't be bothered with pastimes. They just lived in their heads, and that can get to be cramped quarters." And we know those are the ones who are more than a little crazy, and we understand why.

Mr. Sowers' narration lives up to the writing. He has just the right accent (Montana with just a hint of the Scots burr that Jick inherits from his parents), and develops each character clearly and distinctly. I had no trouble following--I couldn't turn it off!

As always, for those who love historical fiction, Montana, the American West, and great writing. I can say that listening as well as reading a book like this is a good way to understand even better why the language works.

Full Disclosure: I checked English Creek 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."

Monday, January 12, 2015

Middle Grade Science Fiction: A Pair of Docks


Title: A Pair of Docks
Author: Jennifer Ellis
Publisher: Moonbird Press, 2013. 201 pages
At age 14, Abbey Sinclair is very happy to live in a world bounded by the laws of math and physics. So she's not too happy when her brother Simon discovers some magic stones that move them, and Abbey's twin brother Caleb, through time to see their futures. That's not even possible, is it? The children must try to figure out a world that includes time travel and witchcraft, even while others are making use of the stones in sinister ways. With the help of their autistic neighbor Mark and some other adults who aren't exactly trustworthy, but with whom they must go along, the siblings have to solve the riddle of the stones and prevent something very bad from happening.
This is the first novel in the "Derivatives of Displacement" series.
First, this is an engaging read that moves along at a fast pace and keep the reader turning pages. It is well-written and thoroughly edited, and the plot and the world the author creates both hang together well. That said, I have a couple of issues with the book.
My first problem is not necessarily a flaw the book: I share Abbey's discomfort with the idea that witchcraft could be real. To put it another way, I don't like suggestions that the laws of math and physics might not hold for everyone in an otherwise real world. This means that the whole premise of the book--that the stones work because witches made them and witchcraft is real--itches me a bit. It does the same to Abbey; I think that's part of the point of the book: she has to figure out how to deal with her loss of her rational defenses. But I am bothered by this in a way that purely magical worlds don't bug me, because in a way it feels like denying science.

My second issue has to do with Mark, the autistic neighbor. It's a matter of labels: the book refers to him as having Asperger's Syndrome, but his level of functioning feels to me more like actual autism, especially in an adult.* I don't mind the way Mark is portrayed, I just wish the distinction between autism and Asperger's were a little clearer.**

Aside from those two quibbles (which really don't deserve the amount of space I gave them), this was an engaging book with a strong element of mystery and just the right amount of peril, I think, for middle grade students.

Perfect for lovers of time travel and those not bothered by fuzzy lines between reality and fantasy!

*My experience (which is not extensive, but there is a fair bit of Asperger's in our family, manifested in a variety of ways) suggests that people with Asperger's function a bit better than that, especially by adulthood. My brother feels his sons run about 2-4 years behind their age, emotionally. In their 20s now, they deal with their obsessions and fears in a fairly mature way, so that though you can tell, it's not debilitating. Mark's autism is pretty debilitating, though the depiction of him is not unkind. It just seems to me to match autism better than Asperger's.

**I must admit that clearly the American Psychological Association also wishes it were clearer; in their latest DSM, they rolled the two into one, to the immense annoyance, not to say confusion, of parents of kids with either issue. Presumably they wouldn't have done this if it weren't often hard to draw the line between the two.

Full Disclosure: I was given an electronic review copy of A Pair of Docks in exchange for my honest review, and received no other compensation for said 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, January 9, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: Gorg in Winter, Part 2

Still no Wendig Challenges, so I'll move right on to the next part of Gorg's story, continuing the episode I began last week.

Gorg at Midwinter, Part 2

Gorg stood by the base of the tower from which he’d just escaped, and let the wind batter icy snow crystals against his stone face. He was cold to his stone core, and far from home, but he was back on the ground and he was free.

And he had a job to do.

Gorg looked back up at the tower. Had Duke Bale the Artichoke Hearted really believed that prison could hold him? Or was it a trick? Gorg pulled a small flask from his belt and took a swig of the Tongue-Knotter. It had been devised to render a person incapable of coherent speech or thought, and it did. It had the opposite effect on trolls.

Gorg felt his thought processes accelerating as he moved away from the tower and into the blinding, swirling snow. If Bale was as smart as Gorg had to believe he was, the latest pet sorcerer would be waiting for him. This sorcerer had been powerful enough to magically lift the stone-fleshed Gorg and imprison him in a sealed tower room.

Mind whirling under the influence of the potion, Gorg ducked his head, turned, and plowed through the storm back toward the castle. The sorcerer would be waiting just beyond the buildings, where the rocks formed a natural shelter. That was the obvious place for Gorg to go when he escaped, so he didn’t go there.

A minute later, in the lee of the castle, Gorg decided he should have taken an extra swig from the flask. There, waiting for him with a look of business-like determination, was the sorcerer.

“I though this would be the night,” the wizard said. “You didn’t really think we failed to notice how you were enlarging the window, did you?”

Gorg looked at the sorcerer. This one was different from Bale’s last two henchmen, with whom Gorg had dealt rather permanently. This one—how had he failed to see it before?—was a henchwoman.

“You can’t stop me,” Gorg said as bluntly as if it were true.

“I could turn you into stone without even lifting a finger,” she said. “As it happens, Bale has merely asked me to relocate you. To one of the sulfur vents.” It would be warm there. Warm enough to melt even a troll.

“But you won’t,” he said.

“Why not? It’s what Bale paid me to do. He seems to be rather fed up with you.”

“As am I with him. I have prevented him from taking over the country, and put the fear of trolls into his soul. And you are willing to let him make you a murderer for a few bits precious metals?”

“Is there a better reason?”

Gorg thought about that. One part of his mind was working on the basic goal of keeping her talking, which would keep her from dunking him into the steam vents. Another part of his mind was working on a good reason why she shouldn’t do Bale’s bidding.

“Are you aware of what happened to Bale’s last two pet sorcerers?”

“Well, yes. And I know that you were responsible for that. So that would give me an extra reason to take care of you, wouldn’t it?”

“Why? Were they kin of yours? The way most of Bale’s victims in the troll world were kin of mine? Why avenge those fellows? They were lousy people and worse sorcerers.”

His words seemed to be making some inroads into her mind, which unlike his was not stone, though it might have been near to ice by this time. That would even matters a bit. Gorg eased a little closer to the castle wall, where it felt almost warm by comparison with the wind-swept valley beyond.

“Don’t come any closer, Gorg.”

“Just getting warmer,” Gorg answered, trying to read her face. That was asking too much. Trolls’ stone faces gave very little away, and that meant a troll wasn’t really equipped to read human faces. “Do you have a name?”

“I am Katerina of The Vale of Kale. What’s it to you?”

Gorg sighed. “Just trying to keep things friendly. Are you going to try to take me, Katerina of Kale? That might force me to do something we would both regret.”

It was a mostly empty threat, but he would certainly make the effort. Could a reverted troll—one who had been returned to the stone from which they all sprung—regret anything? Idly, he let his fingers explore the stones beside him. If he could just get one loose…

All Gorg was thinking of was pulling out a stone to throw at the sorceress, as he had no other weapon. But as his fingers insinuated themselves into the gaps between the hastily-laid stones, he began to smile.

As the smile grew on Gorg’s face, one faded from Katerina’s. She looked long and hard at the hand which seemed to have become a part of the castle wall, and turned pale. If she moved him now, a big chunk of the castle would go along.

“I can still turn you to stone,” she pointed out.

“And when I fall over, because I’m holding myself up with living muscles, not stone, I will take the castle with me.” Gorg didn’t know if it was true, but it felt right. His fingers had insinuated themselves deep into the structure of the wall. “Is there anyone inside besides Bale?” Gorg needed to know.

“No. No one will work for him anymore. He is supposed to be dead.”

“No one but you,” Gorg pointed out.

“Not any more,” said Katarina of Kale, and vanished. Gorg hoped she had relocated herself to the Vale of Kale, and that the wind there was not blowing ice in anyone’s face.

Gorg looked thoughtfully at the wall, where his fingers twined in and through the stones. Then he began to lumber away, letting go of nothing.
©Rebecca M. Douglass

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Wonderstruck

Title: Wonderstruck
Author: Brian Selznick
Publisher: Scholastic, 2011, 640 pages
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
Ben and Rose secretly wish for better lives. Ben longs for his unknown father. Rose scrapbooks a famous silent actress. When Ben finds clues and Rose reads enticing news, the children independently run to New York for what they are missing. Ben's story in words, Rose's in pictures, come together in deafness.

I read this book because it was a book of the month pick for the Great Middle Grade Reads group on a few months ago. I had glanced at it at some point, and not been grabbed by it. But people's comments made me think I needed to look closer, and I'm glad I did. The book was not at all what I had expected (I had somehow--maybe from a few of the pictures that zoomed in on eyeballs--gotten the impression that the book was a fantasy). It is a magical story--but one completely grounded in the real world.

The structure of the book is a large part of what makes it magical. The two parallel threads are told, one in words, the other strictly in pictures, until they come together at the end and words and pictures meet. Rose's story, told in pictures, is surprisingly complete, with the addition of a few short notes (incorporated into the pictures). It can be read very quickly, but most of the pictures also reward a more careful study. Ben's story is very straight-forward, and the way the two connect is no surprise, but still a delight.

Like any good middle-grade book, this is a good read for all ages. But it may offer one thing for certain readers who struggle: it is a big, fat, impressive-looking book that is a great deal shorter than it looks! The written part is very easy to read, and broken into bits small enough to be managed by readers for whom it doesn't come easily, and the pictures of course tell their story to readers and non-readers alike. I could see this helping a struggling reader to gain confidence.

Full Disclosure: I checked Wonderstruck 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, January 5, 2015

Photo Monday: Take the Kids Hiking!

In keeping with my new blog plan, instead of a book review, today I'm doing a sort of a trip review...a few shots of the kids enjoying the outdoors through the years, in hopes of reminding folks that there's no gift for the kids like taking them outside. I apologize for some of the photos--many of these pre-date our digital photography, and not all the scans turned out well.

Start them right from the beginning. Remember, the kid is a science experiment. Watch and see what happens!
Arches National Park, at 9 months

Teach them things like scrambling early, and they will gain skill and confidence even faster than Mom's hair turns grey with worry. Guess what, Mom? They need to learn, and you have to deal with it!
Joshua Tree National Park

Yes, getting very, very dirty is part of the deal. It doesn't hurt them. I learned that from a woman's diary of the Oregon Trail! I never forgot where she wrote that "we learned that a baby doesn't die if it's not bathed for 3 months." Oy. One week? I can do it! (Tip: when they are babies, find or make nylon pants. Those brush off easily when they've been crawling in the dirt. By the time they are 4 & 5, as here, it's a lost cause).
Green Lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA

Even when they still need furry friends in their packs, they can hike and camp and have a great time!
Lost Creek Wilderness, CO
Kids can always find things to do and play with in the outdoors. Amazing how much there is to explore when the screens and keyboards are gone, and especially if there is a body of water about (note to parents: plan hikes and camping trips around water, but be careful of whitewater!)
Caribou Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness, CO

In the mountains or at the beach, there are toys everywhere! Boys, at least, seem to be able to throw things into water/float them away endlessly.
Stinson Beach, CA
 Expose kids to as many varied environments as you can, so that they see that the world has endless variety.
 The Desert!
Death Valley NP, CA, during the record bloom of 2005

Go Underground! Science lurks everywhere, like when you discover that it's cold underground, even when it's hot hot hot on the surface
Lava Beds National Monument, CA.

Get cold! A single-digit day with high winds, and walking on a lake were new concepts for our California boys (tip for other warm-climate folks visiting the cold: we made a thrift shop nearly our  first stop, and picked up a couple of warm jackets for the boys, which could be left behind when we finished).
Maine at the NewYear. It made sense to us.
If you go outdoors, maybe you can even make some new friends.
A boy and someone else's dog--the only kind he got to experience.

When camping you will almost certainly enjoy some quality family time.
If there's only one chair, you might get a kid on your lap.
And, finally, the kids might even spend more time reading!
A tent is a good place to read at the end of a long day.

I just wanted to share a few photos and remind everyone that being outside, in whatever kind of nature you have, is good for kids. If you can take them to experience different kinds of places, it's even better. But everyone can visit the park, or dig a hole in the back yard. Let kids experience the earth!

I have linked this post up to the Kid Lit Blog Hop to share my feelings about being outdoors as well as reading. Drop over to the Hop and see what else is being written and reviewed about this week!

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015