Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Fiction: Swords of the Desert, Part II

Four kids from another world have landed themselves in the Mojave desert, just in time to be caught up in Jake Stone's troubles. Read the beginning of the story here; this really is just a single story divided in two.

I got really carried away with this one, and will be working more with the characters and the story. But I pruned it to about 2200 words total, to keep it to two posts. The longer version will show up somewhere, sometime...probably in that anthology I keep saying I'll assemble!

Jake thought maybe he should lay off the whiskey. He had to be hallucinating. Nothing about the kids looked right, not for white kids, not for Indians. Especially not the one with the tail. Jake refused to think about that.

Hallucination or not, they couldn’t stay where they were. Jake knew he’d been followed into the desert, and the men behind him would kill a kid without a moment’s thought. Jake slid down off the horse, and stood still until the children stopped cringing.

“Well, I guess you can’t understand me, and I can’t understand you, but come on, let’s get you somewhere safe.” Jake held out his water flask to the girl who seemed to be in charge, mentally figuring how long it would last and how far it was to the spring at Cima. They’d make it, though they might be thirsty.

Then he looked back. The outlaws’ dust was closer. “We’d better skedaddle.” They didn’t understand his words, but the tallest girl looked where he looked, and seemed to understand the situation.

I couldn’t understand his speech, but the stranger’s meaning was clear enough. Someone was coming after him, and not in a nice way. We knew about that sort of thing, and since he seemed willing to help us find our way out of this bizarre desert, we got up and went along. He noticed right off that Lessa was hurt, and wanted her to sit up on the giant animal.

Lessa was scared of the beast, but she was weak. The wound wasn’t bad, but she’d lost some blood, and she couldn’t keep up. She let him lift her to its back.

Wherever the Sphinx had landed us this time, at least they drank water. There was that one time…

The kids were quick, Jake saw, and they were tough. Even the one with the bloody bandage was game. He could see old Buck scared her silly—and what kind of kids had never seen a horse, anyway?—but when the boss girl told her to, she rode him.

Trouble was, they might make it to the wells at Cima, but what then? If he’d been alone, he’d have run for it. But with five of them and only one horse, they couldn’t even think about it.

Jake looked back again at the line of youngsters trotting along behind the horse. They looked tough, and one of them had a bow and quiver. That puzzled him, too. Not that bows were unusual in the area, but the bow wasn’t like any he’d ever seen. These kids were different. Jake shrugged. They were his responsibility now, whatever they were.

We trotted along for an hour or so, following the man and the big creature. Lessa was pale and squirming with discomfort when the man suddenly ducked aside into a clump of trees, and there was a little pool of water in the middle of them. He made a bunch more of his strange noises and lifted Lessa down from the beast.

He set to piling rocks and things to make some defenses, and we set to helping him. I had a thought.

“Joc, you climb up that tree thing and keep a lookout.”

A while later Joc slid down from the tree and said, “Someone’s coming.”

I tugged the man’s arm, and Joc pointed. The man couldn’t understand us, but he got the message. Now we could all see the dust cloud, and mounted men in it. I drew my sword, and Joc strung his bow. I wished we all had them. The man didn’t seem to be armed, though he had a long metal and wood stick that he laid carefully over the rocks. He handled it like a weapon, but it just looked like a club, which wouldn’t do much good, especially if whoever was after us had bows.

Jake glanced at the children. They looked calm. Did they understand what was about to happen? The one with the bow had strung it, and while it didn’t look like any bow Jake had seen before, it looked serviceable. The swords would be no use against guns.

Jake smiled grimly. He’d expected to die violently. He just never would have guessed he’d be defending the strangest bunch of kids he’d ever seen, against the meanest outlaws he’d ever met.

The attackers came on fast. I could hear the pounding of the great riding-beasts’ hooves, and then some kind of explosion. I guessed we hadn’t hidden too well, or they knew the spring, because they came right at us. Something hit a rock and showered us with stone chips.

We huddled lower. There were weapons here that we didn’t understand, and I felt really afraid for the first time. This was starting to look too much like the battle we’d escaped when the Sphinx brought us here: a lost cause.

I heard the man grunt, a kind of muffled sound as though it had been forced out of him. Something had torn a hole right through his shoulder, and blood soaked his shirt. He was still upright and his long stick was making explosions, but he was pale as water and I knew that shock and blood loss could kill him fast. Behind me I could hear the Sphinx whimpering.

I crawled over to the man and cut a strip from my shirt. When I touched the wound, the man flinched, but he went on firing his strange weapon.

I heard the Sphinx cry out again, and I knew what was coming. Well, just like last time, I thought. The Sphinx’s random transfers were better than staying where we were.

Jake knew he was hit hard. This was it, then. When he’d lost enough blood, he’d pass out, and Barlow would charge in.

When the girl began to bandage his wound, Jake was startled, but kept firing. That was the important thing. He doubted he’d make it, but he’d do his best for the kids. The older boy, the one with the bow, shot too. Jake saw an arrow go through one of the outlaws, who tumbled from the saddle and lay still. Jake whistled softly. That was some bow, and some shooting.

There were too many of them. There wasn’t time to reload the rifle, even if he could have with one arm useless. Jake dropped the long weapon and pulled out his six-gun. His vision was blurring. He would pass out, and then they’d all die. “Sorry, kids,” he whispered, and the world spun to black.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015
The sort of country the children walk through.

And, just for fun--the post office/store at Cima, probably built not long after they were there :)  I'm not actually certain there's a spring there--but there pretty much had to be, anywhere people set down and tried to live. The cottonwood tree certainly suggests it.
 Looking at this...I think the next photo essay will have to be about the Eastern Mojave and the Cima Dome, where this story takes place!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse


Title: The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
Author: Robert Rankin
Publisher: Gollancz/ Orion Publishing Co. 2002.  342 pages.
Source: Library

Summary: (going with the publisher's summary here. This one's a little hard to sum up!).
Once upon a time Jack set out to find his fortune in the big city. But the big city is Toy City, formerly known as Toy Town, and it has grown considerably since the good old days and isn't all that jolly any more. And there is a serial killer loose on the streets. The old, rich nursery rhyme characters are being slaughtered one by one and the Toy City police are getting nowhere in their investigations. Meanwhile, Private Eye Bill Winkie has gone missing, leaving behind his sidekick Eddie Bear to take care of things. Eddie may be a battered teddy with an identity crisis, but someone's got to stop the killer. When he teams up with Jack, the two are ready for the challenge. Not to mention the heavy drinking, bad behaviour, car chases, gratuitous sex and violence, toy fetishism and all-round grossness along the way. It's going to be an epic adventure!

First off, as you can guess if you read the summary, this is not a children's book, despite the use of nursery-rhyme characters (or, as they prefer to be called,  PPPs, or Preadolescent Poetic Personalities). What this is, or should be, is an absurdist romp through a world were toys and PPPs are real, living, and even mostly sentient. It has the potential to be a seriously funny story.

Again, you can see where this is going. Maybe I'm just not the right audience, but I found very little of the book funny. Occasionally there were jokes that got a smile, but not many. And certainly the overall premise wasn't exactly a knee-slapper. I might attribute this to it being British humour and me being, well, not-British. But I like a lot of British humour. I love P.G. Wodehouse. I also got a hoot out of the books I've read by Will Macmillan Jones (this, and also this), and those are current (lest you think maybe I only like old British humour).

No, the book just wasn't for me. But I will say that the story holds together pretty well, and the author throws a good twist or two into the plot as we near the end--enough that by the last 80 pages or so I did get engaged enough to read on through (the only reason I got that far, though, is that it was a book club read). I didn't hate the book, and I kept thinking that I ought to be really liking it. I mean, the title alone is enough to predispose me to like it--I do enjoy the absurd! But, alas, it just didn't light my fire.

Hard to say. Fans of off-beat Brit humour, those who already know and love Rankin, and maybe those who like mysteries that are more than a little out of the ordinary, may really love this book! If you have read it and liked it, leave me a note!

Full Disclosure: I checked The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse 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, February 23, 2015

Interview today...

Today I'm appearing on "A Voice Above the Crowd," the blog of audio artist Karen Commins.  Drop over and say hi, read the interview, and leave a comment or question!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Flash: Genre Mash-up, Part I

NopeI'm still doing my own thing for my flash fiction prompts, and this week I pulled up a sub-genre mash-up that really caught my fancy. The lists gave me "sword & sorcery" and "wild west," and the story just started to come. And come. And come. I'm afraid you only get the first 1000 words today. The next 1000 words will be along next Friday, and I'm beginning to suspect it might take another thousand after that to finish the job. My apologies--this isn't even sort of an ending!

Swords of the Desert

We did pretty well against the first round of attackers. We met them with our swords bristling out in all directions, and they backed off after we cut down a couple of them. The Sarnassans weren’t very good fighters, but there were so many of them, I knew we stood no chance. The next round, they led with their spears, which was harder to defend against. Lessa screamed, and I had just enough time to guess she'd been hit when everything went black.

I didn't swoon. The world went black because the Sphinx panicked and transported us. He could do that, but the thing was, when he did, you never knew where you'd end up. Once, he landed us--but that's a different story.

When I could think again, I had no idea where we were. The air was hot and dry, and we stood in the bottom of a sandy wash. A few scrubby plants grew along the edges of the wash, and I could tell they were the type that would have thorns. I'd been born in country sort of like that, but this didn't look like Kamini, either. The plants were the right type, but they were no shrub I'd ever seen before. Warily, we looked around, but nothing attacked us. Only the sun shone down with a heat that felt like a blow, and I immediately began to sweat in my battle leathers.

"Ugh!" Joc grunted. "Where in the Shades did you land us this time, Sphinx?" We all lowered our swords and looked around. After a moment I sheathed my sword, and scrambled up the side of the wash. "No one around here. Come one. We'd better find some shade and some water, or we are cooked." I didn't bother asking Sphinx if he could take us home. He never can tell where he’s going. It wouldn’t have been safe to try, since we'd likely end up somewhere worse--under water, or back in the middle of that fight with a dozen Sarnassan lances through each of us. Usually someone with control over his magic figures out we're gone and pulls us back. That could take a while, though, and in the mean time we needed to take care of ourselves.

The others all sheathed their swords and scrambled up to join me. We looked across the empty land.

"There are trees over there," Lessa said. I remembered her scream and looked at her. Blood trickled down her arm, but she didn't seem to be badly hurt. "Sphinx, tie up that hole in Lessa's arm," I commanded. "Then we can walk over to those trees. If there are trees, there will be shade, and there should be water."

It was a good thought, but as we neared the trees I realized that we were walking up a shallow hill. That was weird. So were the trees. Their spikey branches weren’t casting the kind of shade I was thinking about, but it was something. We flopped down under the “tree” once I’d made sure there was nothing dangerous on the ground. I remembered that much from growing up in desert country. There’s always something sharp or poisonous or uncomfortable. Then, because it was hot and we had been fighting a battle and were tired, we went to sleep.
Jake Stone slumped in the saddle and let his horse pick a way through the Joshua tree forest. He’d been riding all day, and the prospector who’d told him there was a herd of wild cattle up here had surely been lying. There was nothing up here but those blasted Joshua trees, and the things gave Jake the willies. They didn’t look right.

Jake Stone’s plan was to find some wild cattle, round them up, throw a brand on them, and make a sale for enough money to get a stake and go back to prospecting. But things had gone wrong from the beginning, and now he had no cattle and maybe trouble riding his trail.

Jake pulled up, looking hard off to his left. There was something under that tree over there. If you could even call those things trees. Jake thought they were probably something from another world, or maybe God’s idea of a joke. But there was definitely something under the tree, and out here there weren’t many options. Probably cows, or calves. They were small for cows, but big for anything that lived out there of it’s own choice.

Jake rode closer, and stared. “I been riding too long,” he concluded. “I’m seeing things.” He rode closer. They were children, or at least small people. Jake couldn’t be sure, because he’d never seen children that looked like these, or wore such strange clothing. Whoever or whatever they were, they couldn’t stay where they were.

“Hey, you kids! What’re you doing out here?” Jake looked around, thinking they might be Indians, or might have escaped from Indians, but there was no one else in sight. Just four sleeping kids, one of them just waking up.

I heard a voice and opened my eyes, and wished I hadn’t. For one thing, it was hot, I was dreadfully thirsty, and my mouth and eyes were gummy. To make it worse, there was a really terrifying sort of man looking down at us from atop a very large hooved animal. And he was making noises at us, but it wasn’t any language I’d ever heard, and I may be only a youngster, but I’ve been around and I’ve heard a lot of languages.

I kicked the Sphinx. He’s the one who is really good with languages. He doesn’t have to have heard them before, he just sort of figures them out. He sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and I saw the stranger’s eyes go wide when the Sphinx lashed his tail around. He does that when he’s scared.

“Stop it,” I said. The man opened his mouth and a stream of gibberish came out. I looked at the Sphinx. “Can you tell what he’s saying?”

"No." I looked from the crestfallen Sphinx to the nervous stranger, and tried on a smile. We'd have to go with what we had.

Just wanted you all to know that I actually love Joshua Trees!
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan


Title: Fly Away
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2014.  44 pages.
Source: Library ebook

Lucy is the only one in her family who doesn't sing. Even her baby brother, who can't yet talk, sings to her at night when the others are asleep.  Singing is what the family does, just like they go every year to help out Aunt Frankie. When the river floods Aunt Frankie's farm, everything comes together: family and music and poetry and the river.

Like most of Patricia MacLachlan's books, Fly Away is very short and deceptively simple. In just 44 pages--about a half hour's reading for me--we are given a family dynamic and a little girl who is trying to figure out where she belongs in a family where everyone sings, but she just wants to be a poet. And in one terrible moment of fear, it all comes together beautifully.

MacLachlan's books is like a poem itself--spare and simple words with a lot said between the lines. When I read a book like this, part of me really wants to read the rest of the book--the party the author didn't write, that fills in all the details of the story. But that's not a bad thing.

I don't know if this is as as easy a read as it looks. With its brevity and simple writing, it seems like it would be for kids just breaking into chapter books. But, like Sarah, Plain and Tall, which has much more in it than the length and simplicity of the story would suggest, it probably takes an older reader to unpack much of what it is really about. So maybe this is a book for all ages. Certainly an older child who thinks a lot but reads poorly would appreciate the simplicity of the language and the complexity of the story, as did I.

Full Disclosure: I checked Fly Away 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."
Hop over to the Kid Lit Blog Hop for more great blogs about kids' books!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Photo Monday: Pt. Reyes National Seashore

Our recent rain (something rare enough here this winter to cause rumination) made me think about another wet February weekend, when we went out to camp at Pt. Reyes National Seashore. We have actually done that a few times, and many dayhikes there, as well as a couple of epic bike rides (including one where we did the last 10 miles in the dark, with one working headlamp for two of us, and temps dropping to the low 40s). I thought I'd share a few cool facts about the park--part of our National Park system--and some pictures to show how much fun camping and hiking can be, even in the rain.

The Scoop:
The Park is 71,000 acres of Marin County, California, and almost all of it lies not on the North American Plate, but on the Pacific Plate. Go back far enough, and Point Reyes was off Los Angeles. . In any case, the San Andreas fault separates it from the mainland, and is the reason for the long inlet called Tomales Bay. The park is big enough and wild enough to have black bears, as well as a thriving tule elk population (though I've only ever seen the latter), as well as marine mammals including elephant seals. Woods, mountains, seashore, waterfalls, and a lighthouse are some of the features.

The Camps:
The park has 4 campgrounds--and you have to hike to all of them. In February of 2010, we decided to celebrate my husband's birthday by hiking to Coast Camp for the night. We had camped at Sky Camp when the boys were very little, because we could push the jogging stroller up there, but decided the beach would be nice this time.

We got a very late start, and picked up our permit about 30 seconds before the Visitor's Center closed at 5 p.m., so made camp after dark. It was, at least, dry then. Next morning, things didn't look so dry.

Lots of green says that there's been rain all winter. The Park Service provides food storage lockers, as there are some bears in the park--and plenty of coyotes, racoons, and mice who would be happy to eat your breakfast for you.
By the time we'd had breakfast and packed up, the rain had started. On with the rain jackets and pack covers!
Rain or not, we are ready to hike.
Having approached by the shortest route (a bit over a mile, I think), we determined to return via the beach, a two-mile walk.  All the photos from here out have water on the lens...
Contemplating the leap across the raging stream. 
Once you are wet, a little extra exploration doesn't really change anything. When we saw what amounted to a slot canyon in the coastal cliffs, we had to explore. Yeah, a little muddy. What did it matter?

And at the end of the slot canyon, we found something cool:
On a hot day, it would have made a nice shower. Of course, on a hot day, there probably wouldn't be any water.
It wasn't the first rain of the season. When we left the beach, the trail followed a stream inland. Unfortunately, the stream also had decided to follow the trail to the beach.
Anyone bring the water wings??
And because this is California, in the middle of February, there were flowers. Wild iris is one of my favorites.
See? Rain is good! Water droplets make the flower even prettier.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: The Gods' Own Keeper

I've been rummaging in past writing challenges for a starter for this week's flash, and I came up with a random title selection that looked good to me. Since Chuck is doing a 4-week round-robin challenge, and I didn't feel like participating, I'll be coming up with my own stories for a while.

The Gods' Own Keeper

Osbert Godskeeper scurried across the Great Hall of Chaotica. Orgo and Hempto were fighting again, and Osbert had no desire to get caught between those two. Neither had learned the control proper to a god, and Orgo tended to leak lightning when he got mad. Hempto was worse. He smoked. Not his pipe, which was bad enough--the herb of choice for the gods stunk, as far as Osbert was concerned. But when Hempto was upset, smoke came out of every orifice. It stunk even worse than his pipe, or Chacto the Great's cigars, and it burned. Hempto was a fire god, and nothing but trouble.

When he had reached the far end of the hall and the safety of his office, Osbert’s manner changed. No longer a frightened, scurrying figure, he stood erect and took firm hold of his microphone, scowling fiercely at the battling behemoths.

"Orgo and Hempto! You two will stop that NOW!" His amplified voice boomed across the hall, and the battling gods screeched to an abrupt halt, abashed. “Now, clean up the mess you made, then go to your rooms and behave yourselves,” Osbert continued, and watched, arms crossed, until the blushing gods started to right the overturned furniture, and put out the fires Orgo’s lightning had caused. Someone opened a window high on the wall—one of the bird gods, Osbert thought—and let the smoke out until the air cleared enough to see across the hall.

His job done for the moment, Osbert slumped back onto his desk chair, waving away a mosquito that buzzed by his ear. There were insects all over Chaotica, there being so many kinds of them on earth. They drove him mad, as if the larger and more boisterous gods weren’t doing a good enough job of that. Every kind of being on earth had to have its own god here in Chaotica, plus all the extras like Orgo and Hempto. The humans added to the chaos by inventing gods by the dozen, one for every neighborhood, Osbert sometimes thought. Chacto was one of those, god of some little island where they grew a lot of tobacco.

Keeping this menagerie of gods in order was tough. He hadn’t understood when the Church of Eternal Peace had made him their head priest and told him he was the one who would manage the gods, that they had meant it literally. For the last century, he’d been stuck here in Chaotica, breaking up fights between gods, keeping the predator gods from eating the prey gods, and always sleeping with a fire extinguisher and a bucket of water by his cot, because Orgo had far too little self-control for a lightning god.

When Osbert opened his eyes again, he saw the divine prototype of the gastropods had left a thick slime trail across the great hall. Sna the god of slugs and snails lacked a great deal more than self-control, though he lacked that, too. Like the creatures who worshiped him, he was just a slimy blob, and shed that slime wherever he went, like some kind of drooling infant. By now he was, as usual, somewhere halfway up the far wall. The raccoon god stood below him, a shaker of chocolate sprinkles in paw. Where did the gods get this stuff, anyway? Osbert had a feeling that if he ever got time to return to his kitchen, he’d find he was missing his chocolate sprinkles.

Osbert groaned and levered himself to his feet. Back at his microphone, he commanded the masked god to back off.

“But slugs are good if you roll them in the dirt to cover the slime,” Forbol protested. “I thought they’d be even better if you rolled them in chocolate sprinkles!”

“You will have to find a mortal slug to test that on. Leave Sna alone. And Sna, you will have to clean the floor, because I am NOT going to do it again! Oh, drat it!” Osbert spotted the great cat goddess Fluffy. She had the mouse god Squeak in her mouth again. “Fluffy! Put him down! Now!” The gods’ keeper let his head fall into both of his hands. It was going to be one of those days. The gods were worse than a class of kindergarteners.

A lot worse, and he lacked the managerial skills of Miss Cornflower, the woman who had molded Osbert and his classmates into a group of rational beings capable of learning at least a little bit. The gods refused to learn manners or common sense.

What would happen if he just let them fight it out? What happened to a god if another god ate it? They were immortal, right? So they’d just come right back, right? But how did that work when a god had been masticated by another and passed through the digestive tract? Osbert moaned again. His head hurt. A lot.

Maybe if a god died, nothing would happen. After all, most people got on just fine with no gods, or no gods that they took seriously. And with all the new gods the humans had been producing, Chaotica was getting crowded.

That mosquito was back, buzzing around Osbert’s ear. This time, he slapped at the creature, not thinking. The buzzing stopped.

Osbert looked at his hand, and froze. The mosquito god was a little smear on his palm, and it didn’t seem to be popping back to life.

In a few minutes, the prayers of praise and thanksgiving began to roll in. The mosquitoes that had plagued so many parts of the earth with everything from annoyance to deadly diseases had vanished.

Now Osbert knew what would happen if a god died. And he began to look about the great hall of Chaotica, a thoughtful look on his face.

The Gods’ own Keeper finally understood what power he had been given. And he never had liked rodents…

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Middle Grade Review; P. K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows


Title: P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows  (The P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries #3)
Author: Caroline Lawrence; narrated by Tara Sands
Publisher: Listening Library, 2014.  Originally published by Orion Childrens, 2013. 192 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:*
P.K. Pinkerton’s detective agency is thriving in Virginia City—until the evening P.K. is abruptly stuffed into a turnip sack and tossed into the back of a wagon! Surfacing in Chinatown, P.K. is forced into taking a job trailing the abductor’s fiancĂ© in Carson City.

Danger lurks at every turn. P.K. must battle quicksand, escape the despicable former Deputy Marshall, Jack Williams, and save Poker Face Jace from certain death at the hands of the fatal “Black Widow,” who is courting P.K.’s friend and mentor.

Master-of-disguise P.K. Pinkerton has almost perfected the art of staying hidden in plain sight, but when the stakes become life or death, the only thing that can save the young detective is to give away the biggest secret of all.

I grabbed this book from the on-line audio catalog at the library on a whim. I liked the title, which had a certain absurdity, and I just needed something in a hurry. I didn't even notice that it was Book 3 in a series. Well, I might wish I'd started from the beginning, but I'm certainly not sorry I glommed onto the book! 

*Some readers may have noticed that sometimes I provide my own summaries, sometimes I use the ones the publisher uses in sales materials. There is a simple reason for this: while I prefer to do my own, sometimes I just don't feel like working that hard. So then I let someone else do the heavy lifting. I think there's something to be said for each approach, so I don't sweat it.

Full Disclosure: I checked PK Pinkerton 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, February 9, 2015

Mystery Monday: A Fatal Grace, By Louise Penny


Title: A Fatal Grace
Author: Louise Penny
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2006. 314 pages.
Source: Library

In the second Three Pines Mystery (see review of the first, Still Life, here), Inspector Gamache of the Surete de Quebec is back in the tiny village of Three Pines, this time looking into the death of an extremely unpleasant new resident. In the depths of winter, on an iced-over lake in the middle of a curling match, CC de Poitiers is murdered in front of most of the town. It looks like an impossible murder, especially as apparently no one saw anything. Gamache must apply his blend of careful police work and thoughtful understanding of people to find the killer, lest they strike again.

Once again Louise Penny demonstrates that she has a real gift for writing. The village comes to life in her hands, and I can almost feel the winter cold and storms (and I live in California!). Nor are her characters simple cut-outs. Every one, even the minor characters, has a depth that I as a writer envy.

The murder investigation is well-presented, though I guessed the killer long before Gamache did, and was bothered that none of the investigating team looked in that direction. There are a couple of sub-plots that also made progress. The obnoxious rookie is back, and may or may not have changed--Penny deliberately leaves some things ambiguous, though I think in the end they are made more clear. And there is another sub-plot, a more personal one for Gamache, that is completely left hanging, something that is okay since the main plot is dealt with, but which I still find itches me a bit. I am left wondering how many books I'll have to read to get this one cleaned up.

Overall, I think this is one of the best new series I've found in quite a while. I read right through this book practically without stopping (and that made me realize that I've been forcing myself to go forward with some books lately, and I'm not going to do that. If it's not the book for me right then, then I should cut my losses).

For lovers of a cozy that isn't too cozy--no gimmicks, just a fully-developed story with great characters who sometimes make you squirm, just like real people. A touch of police procedural but with the warm heart of a cozy.

Full Disclosure: I checked A Fatal Grace 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."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: Utopian/Heist mashup

It's Friday (or nearly), and time for another Chuck Wendig Challenge. This week was a favorite, the subgenre mashup, and the roll of the dice got me "Utopian Heist/Caper" which was good, since I more or less know what they are (though I totally would like to try a cryptozoological bodice ripper). I decided to be very literal with this one. Wendig gave us 2000 words, but I was pressed for time and maybe too tired to have enough imagination, because I ended up well short of 1000.

Burglars in Paradise

“Look at this, Julia! The place isn’t even locked.”

“Let me see, Melvin.” The shapely blonde tested the doorknob. Sure enough, it turned and the door swung open a little. Like Melvin, Julia pulled it shut again very quietly and looked around for the catch. No one was in sight. No surveillance cameras recorded their every move. Nothing moved but the two of them, and no sound but a light breeze disturbed the perfection of the night.

“Those guys in the bar were right. This place is perfect,” Melvin enthused. "It really is utopian, just like they said."

So why does it make me so nervous? Julia wondered. A job shouldn’t be this easy. Rather, it shouldn't look this easy, because her experience with Melvin said that as soon as things looked good, something would go wrong. She'd have felt more comfortable if they'd already had to flee the cops a half a dozen times. They’d probably go through that door and get torn to shreds by pit bulls or something. Still. They needed a good heist, and soonest. This might be their last chance.

Melvin enthused, but Julia noticed that he was just as reluctant as she was to open the door and go in. She stepped a few paces down the clean, attractive street to the next door.

It was also unlocked.

“What’s with this place? Doesn’t anybody lock their doors? I mean, banks and pharmacies without locks?”

“Maybe that’s what the guys meant. It’s perfect. Shoot, the place is even named ‘Utopia.’ Don’t that mean perfect?”

Julia frowned. It was in the back of her mind that “Utopia” didn’t exactly mean perfect, though she couldn't recalle ever hearing it used in any other way. “Maybe,” she said doubtfully. “Perfectly clean streets, perfect unlocked doors. Maybe it’s even perfectly lacking in guard dogs. And loaded with perfect money.”

The burglars looked up and down the street and frowned. This was a place with money. You could tell. Shoot, they’d even had to walk a few miles from the train station, because places with this kind of money didn’t like trains running through. In Julia’s experience, rich people had burglar alarms and guard dogs. And there never was a bank without all that and security guards too.  But, then, rich people also locked their doors, even in the kinds of “safe” towns where lots of people mightn’t. This place was really different.

“Only one way to find out.” Melvin was back at the first door, easing it open. No dog attacked, no guns fired, no alarms sounded. With a mental shrug, Julia followed him inside. Nightlights illuminated the back hallway where they stood, and led them toward more interesting parts of the building.

The bank. Julia reminded herself it was a bank, and they were there to remove as much of its money as they could carry away. They hadn't really planned this one, but they had their MO down pat. Enter the bank, disable the alarms, crack the vault, get the hell out of Dodge. It wasn't a fancy plan, but it worked for them. Usually. It made her uneasy, changing the routine. She hadn't gone to disable the alarm, because there wasn't one. Already she was off their rhythm.

The duo padded down the long hall, past closed offices. They were dark. No alarms sounded, no dogs barked, no security guard accosted them.

No security guard? This really was utopian, and it made Julia very, very nervous.

She grew a great deal more nervous when they reached the vault. Melvin thought it was amazing good luck. Julia wasn't so sure.

The vault had no lock. It was really just a closet. A closet full of money.

"Look at this!" Melvin didn't even remember to keep his voice down. By now, Julia was pretty sure it didn't matter. "It's like it was designed for us!"

Julia knew what he meant. They weren't very good at the vaults. The last three banks they had hit, they'd been unable to get into the vault, and had to make do with the loose change in the desks and the coins from the soda machine in the break room. Still cautious, she pushed open the door of the money room--you couldn't call it a vault, with no locks--and peered in. Melvin couldn't wait, and in his hurry to get past her and find the money, pushed them both into the room.

And into nothingness. As the world vanished from around them, Julia remembered, at last, the exact meaning of utopia.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Middle Grade Classic: The Black Arrow


Title: The Black Arrow
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson. Narrated by Ron Keith.
Publisher: Originally published 1883 as a serial. Audio book, Prince Frederick, MD, Recorded Book, 2003.
Source: One-click library

Set in the 1450s, during the War of the Roses (York vs. Lancaster, for those who remember enough English history for any of it to matter), this is the tale of young Richard Shelton, who finds himself caught between the two factions. He has to sort his way through battles, shipwrecks, the uncertainties of friend and enemy, revenge and murder, to win his peace and his sweetheart.

This is truly a tale worthy of the great masters of sword-wielding fantasy, even if set in a real historical time and place. Dick Shelton fights his way through every time, is wounded and fights on, escapes and is captured, has to learn the hard way the consequences of wandering to the wrong side of the law, and all the while is madly in love. Older than most modern middle-grade heroes (he is perhaps 17 or 18 when the story starts), he is nonetheless a perfect juvenile hero, and the story is a perfect romantic (in the sense of knights-in-shining-armor romance, not love and kisses romance, though there is a very mild love story) tale for youngsters.

The somewhat dated language might be a bit of a stumbling block for some kids, but most should pick it up quickly, and will enjoy the sense of otherness it creates. Ron Keith reads it well, making it easier for readers of all levels to follow the story. He reads Stevenson's overwrought "medieval" language with a straight face, which actually works very well. After listening for an hour or so, I felt like throwing a few "mayhaps" and "perchances" into my own speech.

I would recommend this for fairly advanced middle-grade readers, and for adults who are fond of medieval-style fantasy adventures (even though this is a historical novel, it feels a lot like some of those fantasies, without the magic).

Full Disclosure: I checked The Black Arrow out of my digital library, and received nothing from the writer, publisher or audio-book producer 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, February 2, 2015

Mystery Monday: Death and the Redheaded Woman

great escape tour banner large death and the red headed woman640

22772604Title: Death and the Redheaded Woman
Author: Loretta Ross
Publisher: Midnight Ink, 2015
Source: Electronic ARC

Publisher's Blurb:
As someone who appraises and prepares houses for auction, Wren Morgan has seen her share of fixer-uppers. But when she arrives at her newest project, Wren is unprepared to find something she can't easily fix--a naked, dead man.

Soon after her disturbing discovery, Wren meets Death Bogart, a private investigator and surety recovery agent who's looking for the famous missing jewels of the Campbell family. When it becomes clear that there are actually two sets of lost family jewels, Wren and Death team up to solve not only the mystery of the jewels, but also the naked man's murder. With their case growing more and more complex, though, will they be able to catch the killer and bring home the loot? the Author:

Loretta Ross is a writer and historian who lives and works in rural Missouri. She is an alumna of Cottey College and holds a BA in archaeology from the University of Missouri – Columbia. She has loved mysteries since she first learned to read. Death and the Redheaded Woman will be her first published novel.
Website is at
Blog is connected to her website at
Facebook page is at
Author page at Goodreads is at
And Loretta Ross is on Twitter as @lorettasueross and her profile page is at

Purchase Links:
Amazon B&N Book Depository

I admit it: I partly signed on to this blog tour because I'm a redheaded woman myself. I had no idea whether I would really like the book, though the story sounded decent. I just knew we redheads needed to stick together.

I am pleased to report that I really enjoyed the book! It turned out to be a real page-turner right from the beginning. When you open a story with a good-looking naked dead man, you are off to a great start, but you do have to live up to it. Ms. Ross did so. The story rolls along from peril to passion and back at an almost dizzying pace, and I found myself unwilling to put it down. Only now do I realize there wasn't a murder in the story (well, not a relevant murder); the mystery is more about finding what is missing and preventing a murder (or two). That clearly didn't disturb me while I was reading.

The "auction house" theme provided the proximate cause for the mystery, and gave Wren both full-time employment and the flexibility (and excuse) to spent a lot of time trying to solve this mystery. I thought it was well-balanced: enough detail to make it feel real and convincing, without feeling gimmicky.

The book has a very strong romance element, and a few moderately graphic moments (but no blow-by-blow accounts of sex). The romance is a little unbelievable in how fast it erupts, but it does allow the author to create a sleuth team that is truly a team, not (as far too many are) a one-sided relationship with one party or the other just making a few suggestions that allow the hero to prevail. I honestly couldn't say if this is Wren's story of Death's story. Each of them is given the chance to capture insights as well to be brave and effective and scarred and in need of love.

My only real objection was that the author wrote the ending with a clear hook into the next book. It works--I do want to read the next book and see what happens (especially given that this one was a fast and fun read), but I dislike feeling manipulated.

I give Ms. Ross and her new series a hearty thumbs up.

For fans of the cozy mystery who like a bit of spice in the romance, and some significant peril in the pursuit of the crook, but aren't stuck on the crime being murder.

Full Disclosure: I was given an electronic ARC of Death and the Redheaded Woman in exchange for  my honest review, which I have given.  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." 

This blog tour includes a raffle for a great "cozy reading basket"! Check it out and enter the drawing!

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