Friday, July 31, 2015

Photo Friday: Petrified Forest National Park

In June, we did a road trip out to Colorado, then back to LA via Mesa Verde and northern Arizona. I'll get to Mesa Verde eventually, and to Sequoia NP where we spent 5 days backpacking, but first I want to share a place many haven't heard of: Petrified Forest National Park (Note: it is NOT, as I kept saying, Petrified National Forest. Though that might be interesting too). It's a ways east of Flagstaff, and is bisected by I40.

The Petrified Forest was made a National Monument in 1906, and (to my surprise--I didn't think it was a Park when I was a kid)--became a National Park in 1962. People recognized early on that it was something special, and something that without protection would quickly be destroyed. Even today, cretins steal tons of petrified wood from the Park each year. I imagine that without protection, there wouldn't be a log left. But if anyone shows you a cool bit of fossil and says they found it in the park, give them a dope-slap, okay?

Enough ranting. What is the park all about? Petrified Forest is a stretch of Arizona desert that is littered with (wait for it!) petrified (fossilized) wood. Logs of it. Sometime in the late Triassic (say 200-220 million years ago), a lot of trees were washed downstream into this area. Then they were covered with volcanic ash, and the silica in that ash gradually replaced the organic matter in the trees, creating quartz crystals. Different minerals lend the "wood" amazing colors. The Park Service web page answers a lot of questions about the process and the wood, so I won't go into detail here.

Our visit was, of necessity (due to our travel constraints) at midday, which isn't great for photos. The Painted Desert in the northern part of the park, in particular, suffered from the treatment. But I managed to get a few good shots of the logs.

A bit of the Painted Desert, at about 100* F, noonish. Baked to death.
In the southern part of the park, we started seeing logs lying about on the highly eroded slopes of the Chinle Formation, a sort of mudstone that grows nothing because it is constantly eroding.
Colorful stone trees.
Some trees were BIG. This is the base of a tree, maybe nearly 10' across.
Lying around looking ready for the fireplace.
Another log and the Visitors' Center.
Pretty sure that's a fossilized knothole.
Close up to the quartz.
More colors of the logs.
Just a little glimpse of the amazing stuff nature does. If you are in the neighborhood, stop and take a look. I hadn't been since I was about 5, and that was a shame.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Writer's Musings: Why I Write

This week, instead of a flash fiction challenge, Chuck Wendig asked us all to write a 1000-word essay on why we write. I didn't count the words, but I'm pretty sure I'm under the line.

Why I Write

My initial reaction to this question was to ask why I even need to ask it. I write because that's who I am. What I do. What more is there to say?

But of course there is a lot more to say. If it's purely a matter of identity, how do I explain the years and years when I wrote almost nothing--taking nearly 15 years to draft an 80,000-word mystery?* So even though I have always thought of myself as a writer, always wanted to write books, and began almost as soon as I could hold a pencil, there must be a reason why I write now.

What I'm looking for is the reason why at this time in my life, I'm writing nearly daily (okay, I admit that it's not always on my books, and this summer has been a mess and I've really not written anything like daily, but it is a generally true statement). In large part, it still comes back down to the urge to write that's been there all along. About five years ago, that urge found a new outlet, and I began writing a lot more often, composing the stories that made up The Ninja Librarian, and sharing them with my co-workers at the library.

I think that might be at the root of why I kept writing more and more, instead of losing track of the project for months and years at a time, as I did with earlier books: I had found an audience. I had found an audience, moreover, that loved my work. The librarian after whom I modeled the Ninja Librarian was delighted to keep featuring in new stories. My other fellow library-minions laughed at the stories (in the right way) and asked for more.

There was another thing that happened about that time, that wasn't me, but had a lot to do with me continuing to write: the self-publishing world experienced a giant shift, from Vanity Press to genuine self-publishing, in a way that took a lot of the stigma and most of the expense out of the DIY approach. And I'd had enough of rejection slips (during those years when I say I mostly wasn't writing, I actually produced and shopped around two adult mysteries and a children's book, and collected the usual pile of [mostly well-deserved] rejections).

When I looked at The Ninja Librarian, I saw that it was good. I also saw that it was a bit stuck between audiences, if not between genres. And I didn't feel like spending the time to put it out there and let the agents tell me that. I wanted to share the book wherever I could. So I did it myself.

That led to the other reason I write, and write pretty regularly (most of the time now I have a fair bit of discipline about it). Because when I had put that book out there, and shared it in my community, and read bits of it to school children who bought copies, I started hearing the questions authors love: "When is the next book coming out?"*** There is nothing like someone eagerly awaiting your work to make you want to sit down and get to it. Especially when that someone is a kid, looking up at you with big eyes, asking for your next book.

So, ultimately, that's why I write: because I did it once, and now there are people who want more.**** And that feeds my ego, but it also tells me I'm doing something right. It tells me that yeah, I'm a writer. And that's pretty danged cool. That's why I write.

*Okay, there's that little matter of getting my PhD, getting married, and having two kids in that period, too. For quite a few years after high school, I was just too busy. Not too busy to write--I think I know now that a person can always find the time to write at least a little, if they want to. I was too busy to feel the urge to write.**

**I was also busy having my ability to write readable prose beaten out of me by the necessity of learning to write academic prose. It took me years to get over that.

***Note that this is very close to the question authors hate, "Are you writing anything now?" If one is a writer, one is of course working on something now. And if by any chance one isn't (writers block or life interferes, or something), one really doesn't want to be reminded. But "when is the next book due?" is a totally flattering question that feeds our pathetic authorial egos and soothes the ravenous insecurity-monster.

****Not enough to make me rich, but enough to keep me in coffee. That's worth something, right?

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Monday, July 27, 2015

YA Review: Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig

I've been following Chuck Wendig's blog for a long time now, gleaning writerly wisdom and writing prompts for my flash fiction. I've read and enjoyed (and written about) his writing book, The Kick-Ass Writer. Now I've read the first book in his dystopian Young Adult Heartland Trilogy.

Title: Under the Empyrean Sky (Heartland Trilogy #1)
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Skyscape, 2013. 354 pages.
Source: I think I picked this one up on a free or cheap day at Amazon.

Publisher's Summary:
Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow — and the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie — his first mate and the love of his life — forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry — angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it. Cael’s ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.

My Review: 
As my regular readers know, I don't do a lot of YA books, and one reason is that they are often more violent and dystopian than I like. In many ways, that was true of Under the Empyrean Sky. But it's also a very well-written book.

Here's what I liked: it's a complex story with plot twists I never saw coming (as well as some I did). Teen angst was minimal, because these teens have real nasty lives to deal with. There is a realistic conflict, or at least tension, between Cael and his father. 

What I disliked: This is dark! The Heartland sucks. And there is a lot of violence in the book. Obviously, none of these things is necessarily bad. They just aren't to my taste so much. A more significant criticism is that, as with so many YA novels, a lot of stuff goes wrong because the adults and teens aren't talking to each other. This may be realistic in some ways, but I think those parents need some lessons in parenting, the way they hide stuff from nearly-grown kids, stuff the kids really need to know!

What intrigued me, and will probably make me read on: There's a lot still to learn about this world Wendig has created. I want to know more about it and how it works--especially what's out beyond the Heartland? I do find that I'm almost more interested in that than in the characters, which is not so good.

This is definitely a book for older teens. But I think a lot of older teens will really like it, especially those who are sick of vampires and moony females.

Full Disclosure: I purchased Under the Empyrean Sky, 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, July 23, 2015

Friday flash: Projects

This week's flash fiction is very flash, because, well, I didn't have time to write more. I did use Chuck Wendig's prompt, which involved using a random phrase generator and incorporating the phrase somewhere in the story. I just didn't avail myself of all 1000 words to do it.


The garage was a mess, as usual. Lee studied the chaos, and decided that the number of unfinished projects had about reached maximum. She needed to clear off the workbench and organize all the different things she was working on. The trouble was, new projects were always more exciting than old projects, and starting was easier than finishing.

Especially if you weren’t very good at building things, and Lee wasn’t. Oh, she usually ended up with something reasonably functional, if she finished the project.  But nothing ever looked as lovely as it did in the designs in Family Handyman, or in her head, and that was discouraging. With a sigh, Lee started putting tools back on the racks, tossing bits and scraps of wood into the scrap bin, and sorting the parts of two or three projects into the appropriate piles.

The clean-up was about half done when the impetuous workbench took hold of her once more, and Lee found herself laying out lumber to build a—what was it? Oh, yeah, a cat platform.

Lee didn’t have a cat. But Sandra, who Lee hoped to lure into her home soon, did. Wouldn’t building cat furniture be a good way of showing that she cared? Leafing through the massive pile of plans and designs she’d saved from years of magazines and newspaper clippings, she found what she needed. Whistling, Lee set to work.

Hours later, sawdust in her hair and her stomach growling, Lee laid the foundations of the contraption aside. She’d just have some lunch and there’d be plenty of time to finish up before dinner. This one was easy.

Of course, she’d have to go out and get some carpet scraps. Cat furniture required carpet. A glimpse of herself in the hall mirror told Lee that she would need to clean up a bit before going to the store. She wolfed down a sandwich and headed for the shower.

After eating and showering, Lee wrapped herself in her robe. She just needed to let her hair dry a bit before going out, and then she would be able to get the carpet and get back to work.

She picked up a book. It felt good to be clean.

Down in the garage, the workbench was covered with the detritus of the new project. Stretched out on her bed two floors above, Lee turned another page.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

Gone hiking

I am out hiking with my family and won't be posting until later in the week. While I'm away from the computer, I invite you to enjoy one of my short stories or reviews that you may have missed.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Photo Friday: On to Zion

I've been working my way through our spring break travels in Death Valley, and now we move on to Zion National Park, where we went after a detour to the Las Vegas airport (Eldest Son needed to fly to Colorado for an event at the college he will be attending). We only had one full day there, but took full advantage of it.

After an evening trip back out to St. George to have an infected finger dealt with (there is a little clinic in Springdale, just outside the park, where an incredibly nice NP offers a great deal of help. In my case, her help was "That looks nasty. You should go down to the ER, because I am not equipped to deal with it."), we took an early start next morning for best conditions. Second Son left camp about 6:20 a.m. to climb Angel's Landing.  I rode my bike up the canyon to the Weeping Wall trailhead, and, with some help from my spouse, did a great hike.

Biking up the river in the morning not as early as I'd meant to be, the red walls, blue sky and green cottonwood trees are a striking combo.
Green cottonwoods against the red desert varnish of the canyon walls.
Zion has a surprising amount of wildlife. Along the river, if you go early, you may see deer and wild turkeys, and birds of prey ride the thermals. And there are always the squirrel kin. (Admire them, and don't feed them!)
Chipmunk, nibbling on what I hope was a seed, not someone's leftovers.
 From the trailhead, I climbed up the Observation Point trail, some 3 1/2 miles up (and I do mean up) to a point offering stunning views of the Virgin River Canyon. The trails were, I believe, constructed by the CCC back when immense effort to blast out a ledge and build a trail were considered acceptable. Sometimes admiring the construction rates right up there with the views! "Who thought of putting a trail here?" you ask yourself. They wouldn't do it now, but I am glad they did it then.
Cutting deep into canyons makes for cool shady bits.
 Partway up the trail passes a bit of a slot canyon. Actually, the photo above also shows a slot, with the trail high above it. This time, the trail brought us to the base of the slot.
If you ever wonder about the power of water, think about  things like this.
Eventually, I climbed up onto the canyon wall, with no more shady slots and nooks. But that doesn't prevent plants from growing where you wouldn't think they could.
Paintbrush clinging to the wall above the trail.
Cactus blossom
Finally, I hit the top. On a point overlooking the canyon, I had views in nearly every direction. Well worth the climb, and the next time I do it, it will be in the early morning so that the light will be better.
Looking down the Virgin River canyon. Down on the middle-left you can see one large switchback of the trail leading up.
Heading back down, I turned away from the crowds pouring up and down the Observation Point trail, and took a little-used trail on up toward the East Rim. For a time, it followed a valley, forested and unexpected.
Sandstone layers are visible all over Zion.
It was a pretty long, hot climb to the rim, but, again, the views were rewarding. The last mile of the 8 or 9 mile hike was across the high desert flats, but before I left the canyon rim, I got a final view over the broken, eroded country that is Zion.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Mystery review: Chef Maurice and the Wrath of Grapes

chef maurice wrath grape large banner640

Chef Maurice and the Wrath of Grapes
(Chef Maurice Culinary Mysteries Book 2)

Cozy Mystery (English Village, Culinary)
File Size: 489 KB
Print Length: 168 pages
Publisher: Purple Panda Press (July 13, 2015)

Publisher's Synopsis:
An invitation to dinner at the home of renowned wine collector Sir William Burton-Trent soon finds Chef Maurice in the middle of an all-too-real murder mystery party, when Sir William is found dead in his own wine cellar.

The guests are acting all innocent, but which one is only playing the part? The pushy Californian film director? The seductive French winemaker?

Or could it be, against all narrative decency, the butler who did it?

With the help of food critic friend Arthur Wordington-Smythe, a large kipper sandwich, and the newly formed Cochon Rouge Wine Appreciation Society, Chef Maurice must get to the bottom of matters before events turn decidedly sour…

As you can see, this review is part of a book tour. That means I got the book for free, but the review opinions remain my own.
My Review:
Chef Maurice and the Wrath of Grapes, in addition to making a nice literary jest in the title, was an engaging read. I found the characters well-written, though I admit to liking the minor characters (Patrick, Alf, and Lucy) best. Maurice himself is a bit over the top, and Arthur is enigmatic. Every character has flaws and virtues, and even those that seem to be types prove themselves to be a bit deeper.

I might have liked the murder victim a bit too much for comfort, but the author did manage to bring off the killing before I became too attached. The murder (victim, scene and all) is well within the bounds of the cozy mystery. The killer is maybe a bit too easy to pick out, (I guess this could be a spoiler, so jump to the next paragraph if you are worried) as the least likeable character (in my opinion. There may be room for debate). Though on reflection, quite a few of the possible suspects are a bit on the unlikeable side.

The plot/mystery is moderately complex, with some aspects fairly opaque to those (like me) not at all into wine, though the oenophilic elements are presented well. Though I suspected who and even how (in a general sense) from early on, it was beyond me to work out why or the details.

Finally, there is a nice touch of slightly comic romance worked into the subplot with the minor characters, complete with it's own minor mystery. All elements came together well, to make for a book I zipped through with pleasure, though it doesn't have a lot of substance. Although I did spot a few minor editing/proofing issues, I had a pre-publication copy, so I will trust they get picked up in the final proofing.

A nice addition to the British-country-house cozy genre, of the light variety (what around my house we call "brain candy," and that's no insult!) (it occurs to me that should be a wine pun, except I don't know wines well enough to make the joke). If that's your thing, go for it! Bonus if you are exceedingly fond of good food and wine.

Full Disclosure: I was given a copy of Chef Maurice and the Wrath of Grapes as part of a blog tour, and received nothing further 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."

About The Author
J.A. Lang is a British mystery writer, and author of the Chef Maurice Mysteries series.
She lives in Oxford, England, with her husband, an excessive number of cookbooks, and a sourdough starter named Bob.
Author Links
J.A. Lang’s Website
J.A. Lang on Goodreads
J.A. Lang on Facebook


Don't just take my word for it--check out some of the other reviewers on this tour!

July 14 – Book Splurge – Review
July 15 – The Ninja Librarian – Review
July 16 – readalot – Review
July 17 – Shelley’s Book Case– Review
July 18 – 3 Partners in Shopping, Nana, Mommy, &, Sissy, Too ! – Spotlight
July 19 – Sapphyria’s Book Reviews – Spotlight
July 20 – Carole’s Book Corner – Review
July 21 – MysteriesEtc – Review
July 22 – LibriAmoriMiei – Review
July 23 – Frankie Bow – Spotlight
July 24 – Mochas, Mysteries and Meows – Review
July 25 – StoreyBook Reviews – Spotlight

Monday, July 13, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Riding Freedom


Title: Riding Freedom
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan; illustrated by Brian Selznick
Publisher: first published 1998 by Scholastic, 144 pages. Ebook published 2013; on my Nook it had 75 pages.
Source: library (digital)

Based on a real person, Charlotte Parkhurst, this book tells of a girl who disguises herself as a boy to escape a workhouse (masquerading as an orphanage). Unlike most who did that sort of thing (at least in books), she did not resume her female persona. Now known as Charley, Charlotte went on to become an expert stage driver, emigrated to California, and became--50+ years before it was legal--the first woman in the country to vote (so far as we know!). Note: the summaries on Amazon and Goodread talk about her being married and losing husband and baby, then resuming her male role. Nothing in the book suggests any such thing, including the historical note at the end, though there is mention of a time spent in Atlanta which isn't covered in the book.

Charlotte's story is both expanded and compressed. Expanded, because very little is known of her life (for obvious reasons), so the author had to invent small incidents, dialog, and feelings. But it is also compressed, in that the author chose to put all the key events into far fewer years than they actually encompassed for the sake of a more coherent narrative.

I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and finding a book like this, based on a remarkable real person, is a delight. Though I enjoyed it a great deal, the writing style is not to everyone's taste--it is definitely written in the style of a children's biography, with more "showing" and made-up dialog than an adult book would have, but still with a certain distance and a great deal more "telling" than we consider optimal in a novel. Frankly, I didn't care. The story is compelling, and well-told. Selznick's illustrations only add to the delight.

Like many readers (based on a scan of the reviews), I would have liked to know more about what happened after the book ends. Charlotte had a great friend at the orphanage, Hayward, and she invites him (according to their childhood plan) to join him on the ranch she eventually buys. What becomes of that relationship? I believe that the author does not pursue this because he is not an historical character, but the possibilities are tantalizing.

This is a book that offers a good look at issues faced by women in the 1800s, as well as being an inspiring story of perseverance in the face of great odds. I recommend it for those who like history and historical fiction, biography, and stories of strong women.

Full Disclosure: I checked Riding Freedom 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, July 9, 2015

Friday Flash: The Power of the Butterfly

This is another Wendig Challenge, a title pulled from a random title generator. The title I actually got was "The Secret of the Butterfly," but by the time I was 4 paragraphs in, I had to make one small change. Thus, in 993 words, I give you....

The Power of the Butterfly

The great rambling house creaked and groaned with age, even on a calm day. On a windy day, it swayed, and made almost as much noise as the wind in the tall trees that surrounded it. Yet to Kiela, the last living member of the household, the noises of the ancient building spoke with a well-loved voice, and she felt no fear when the house rocked her to sleep. It was her home.

Her home, they said, for however much longer she could keep the wolf from the door and the door on the hinges. For forces of entropy and capitalism raced to steal from her the refuge she had kept so long, and which would win was not at all certain. A third force struggled against both and itself: the force of age, a great age that yet would not grow old and die, but instead grew weary of itself.

For Kiela had been an old woman in the house for longer than any could remember, and yet none thought to wonder at her life. The young might call her “witch,” but the old kept silent on what they knew, or thought they knew.

Only a few knew that Kiela had been a slave in that house, a century and more back when slavery was still permitted in the province. A slave accorded rights no other, slave or master, might wield, for she had a gift that would not be gainsaid, and so she outlived everything.

Most thought her gift was healing, and so she wielded it. Many a woman survived a difficult birth because Kiela attended her, and many a child failed to die of a dreaded illness. Only Kiela herself knew what power she bore: the power of the butterfly, a power that went far beyond healing.

And what might be the power of the butterfly? Kiela herself could not answer that question exactly, though it was a power that had left her alive beyond count of years, and beyond the reach of the family that had once believed they owned her, body and soul. Time had shown what that owning amounted to: nothing. They were dust and ashes, and she lived on in the house that spoke to her with the wind.

And now, when Kiela and the house alike might with a sigh of rest and relief have gone down to dust themselves, the power of the butterfly would not allow it. And so the doors clung to rusted hinges, and Kiela peered from windows but would not emerge into the sunlight. And the wealthy landholders waited for both to die, unaware that they were not the first generation of wealth to so wait.

For many years now, Kiela had found she could not leave the house in the day. Only at night, when butterflies slept, could she slip out, to roam the forest for edible herbs, or to lay the snares that captured small animals to clean and cook. At first it hadn’t been much of a burden. She had long since lost the desire to go about among people who knew nothing of her or her time. And they had their own medicine folk now, and no need of her healing.

And, just perhaps, she felt that she no longer had the strength of that healing in her.

In fact, Kiela knew that if she were to simply walk on into the darkness, far enough from the house, she would be free. Free at last to lie down and die. Yet such is the human desire for life, that always, before dawn, before the limits of the forest, she turned back, and reentered the womb. The house.

The cocoon.

For was that not the secret of the butterfly? That it spun itself a cocoon as a crawling thing, and emerged with wings? And in the cocoon, died and was reborn.

As Kiela believed she was. She slept, and awoke no older, and the house held her, nursemaid and prison-guard. And the weight of those unfelt years began to crumple her.

A time came when Kiela did not venture forth in the night. She ceased to eat. And yet the Power held her to life. She looked out the windows at the new houses being built nearly to the bounds of her garden, long since taken by weeds and fast-growing scrubby trees, and wrung her hands. Those hands which had aged to a fine mass of veins and parchment-skin, and then aged no further.

And she said in a whisper only the flies on the window might hear, “I have existed too long. I must go.” And still the power of the butterflies held her, and she could not open the front door nor go out. That day she did not settle to her lace-making—hundreds, thousands of yards of lace of all widths filled basket on basket in neat rolls—but wandered the house, seeking within and without her escape. And finally in the late afternoon, she found herself in the conservatory.

This garden she had tended all these years, after the gardens had gone. The plants were watered and pruned, and bowls of sweet water placed about for the bright-winged creatures that she served in return for their power. And now, in a moment of loathing, she wished to smash the plants, the bowls, the rippled glass of the ancient windows that warmed the room.

She did none of that. But as the sun sank below the horizon and a frozen wind began to blow icy flakes across the glass, she moved as though against a strong stream to the door that led into the outdoor gardens, forced it open, and lay down across the threshold.

A young worker on the houses found her in the morning, but soon all the townsfolk crowded about, to marvel at the ancient corpse, and at the butterflies, frozen to death, as was Kiela.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Stowaway, by Karen Hesse


Title: Stowaway
Author:  Karen Hesse. Read by David Cale
Publisher: Hardcover 2000 by Margaret K. Elderberry Books, 328 pages. Audio 2009 by Listening Library.

Publisher's Summary:
It is known that in the summer of 1768, Captain James Cook sailed from England on H.M.S Endeavour, beginning a three-year voyage around the world on a secret mission to discover an unknown continent at the bottom of the globe. What is less known is that a boy by the name of Nicholas Young was a stowaway on that ship. 

Newbery winner Karen Hesse re-creates Cook's momentous voyage through the eyes of this remarkable boy, creating a fictional journal filled with fierce hurricanes, warring natives, and disease, as Nick discovers new lands, incredible creatures, and lifelong friends.

My Review:
As an engaging means of introducing readers to the explorations of Captain Cook, this book is superb. As a story, it is at times a little thin, but that is more than compensated for by the fact that Cook's voyage around the world is an amazing story in itself. The story is presented as the diary of young Nick, who has stowed away to join the expedition (though without actually knowing what he was getting into).

The narration is beautifully done, though the character isn't entirely convincing as a 10-13 year old (the voyage was long!). Still, I liked the voice and the reading and pronunciations were good. My only reservation about the audio version is that I'm thinking maybe the print book has maps, and maps would be good to have (though a quick look at Amazon's "look inside" feature doesn't reveal any maps). Some places discussed use names we no longer use, so a map that shows both names would be a huge help!

I appreciated that the author used a real person who was aboard Cook's Endeavour as the main character for this book. A brief historical note at the end of the book tells us what was known of the real Nick, which is very little. Hesse created a backstory (revealed beautifully and tantalizingly in brief mentions in the diary, as a boy might actually do) and details of his daily life and friends, but I think every character and incident was real. As noted that puts certain constraints on the development of a story line, but is very good for making the voyage come to life for the reader.

For anyone (of any age!) interested in Cook's voyages. I wouldn't it recommend for children under 10 or 11 due to a fair bit of death to deal with. Violence is minimally described, and Nick is refreshingly naive about sex, but things do get heavy.

Full Disclosure: I checked Stowaway 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, July 6, 2015

Monday flash non-fiction

Yes, it's summer and my posts are a little messed up with vacations. So I missed the last couple of Friday flash fiction posts, and now I'm writing a bit of non-fiction for a Monday! Bear with me, okay? In any case, the "flash" part of it is apropos. In 360 words:

Fear and Trembling in a Tent

It is midnight in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and suddenly we are not sleeping. The weather was pleasant when we went to bed, and two days of hard hiking made it easy to drop off. I wouldn’t have been surprised had I slept soundly all night.

Thor and Odin and the crew have a different idea. The first boom of thunder—if it was the first; it was the first I woke to hear—is loud and close. The flashes of lightning sear the retina even with the eyes closed. We count off the seconds between flash and boom. Do the math. Two miles. One. Half a mile. A quarter. Then: holy shit it’s in the tent!

It isn’t. The mind knows that, because the mind is still there to think about it. But when the gap between lightning and thunder drops to near zero, and the ground shakes with the booming air, the mind is given very little say in my reactions. The gut takes over.

I am not scared of thunder. We are camped below tree line, well back from the lake and not atop anything, in the trees but not near a particularly tall tree. Even with the storm right atop us we are reasonably safe. As a general rule, I like thunderstorms.

And yet. My gut is haunted by the memory of a friend who died under a fallen tree, asleep—we can only hope—in his hammock. This isn’t at all the same thing; the wind is oddly light, though the same can’t be said of the rain. Some of it might be hail, but I’m not looking out to see. And if a tree has my name on it…there is nothing to be done now.

The storm is moving away. Because we are among big peaks and big canyons, the thunder continues to echo ominously even as it moves on. Eventually I drift off again, when the flashes no longer burn my vision.

Every time I wake up to roll over or adjust my sleeping bag, I can hear thunder, however distant. The storms go on all night, but I sleep anyway.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Mystery Review: Leaving Everything Most Loved


Title: Leaving Everything Most Loved
Author: Jacqueline Winspear; narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
Publisher: Orig: Harper, 2013, 336 pages. Audiobook by HarperAudio, 2013.
Source: Library (digital).

Publisher's Summary:
London, 1933. Two months after the body of an Indian woman named Usha Pramal is found in the brackish water of a South London canal, her brother, newly arrived in England, turns to Maisie Dobbs to find out the truth about her death. Not only has Scotland Yard made no arrests, evidence indicates that they failed to conduct a full and thorough investigation.

Before her death, Usha was staying at an ayah's hostel alongside Indian women whose British employers turned them out into the street--penniless and far from their homeland--when their services were no longer needed. As Maisie soon learns, Usha was different from the hostel's other lodgers. But with this discovery comes new danger: another Indian woman who had information about Usha is found murdered before she can talk to Maisie.

As Maisie is pulled deeper into an unfamiliar yet captivating subculture, her investigation becomes clouded by the unfinished business of a previous case as well as a growing desire to see more of the world, following in the footsteps of her former mentor, Maurice Blanche. And there is her lover, James Compton, who gives her an ultimatum she cannot ignore.

My Review:
As usual with this series, I enjoyed the book very much. I have been listening to many of these books, and Orlagh Cassidy does a very nice job of reading and voicing the characters. In a British novel of this period (or any?) the accents of the characters say so much about them, and I thought she did a great job, though I'm no expert.

The story is complex and intricate, and deals with a number of timely issues about prejudice and discrimination (and about colonization and imperialism). There is throughout the book a sense that everything is changing, and characters are spinning off into their own lives, as may happen. I had some amorphous feelings of dissatisfaction while reading, and on reflection think they are due to these changes. I've gotten used to a certain structure of relationships, and apparently don't like change. Clearly the author has some new plans for Maisie; I was a little worried this might be an end to the series, but observe that the next book is already out, so that's safe.

In the end, I found the book very well-written, and the mystery convincing. There is no easy solution, and the challenge that her discoveries presents Maisie and the reader is part of what gives the story meat. 

I strongly recommend this series for those who like mysteries that are character-driven but dig into a serious and challenging puzzle as well. Winspear doesn't pull any punches about social issues, not all of which are limited to the 1930s. I recommend reading the series in order, as the characters and relationships grow and develop throughout and may be a bit confusing if you start in the middle.

Full Disclosure: I checked Leaving Everything Most Loved 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."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Mystery Monday: Aunt Dimity and the Summer King


Title: Aunt Dimity and the Summer King (Aunt Dimity #20).
Author: Nancy Atherton
Publisher: Viking, 2015. 240 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
There’s trouble in Finch. Four recently sold cottages are standing empty, and the locals fear that a developer plans to turn their cozy village into an enclave of overpriced weekend homes. But for once Lori Shepherd can’t help.

Her infant daughter, her father-inlaw’s upcoming wedding, and the crushing prospect of her fortieth birthday have left her feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. Until, that is, she has a chance encounter with an eccentric inventor named Arthur Hargreaves. Dubbed the Summer King by his equally eccentric family, Arthur is as warmhearted as the summer sun. In his presence, Lori forgets her troubles—and Finch’s.

But Lori snaps out of her happy trance when she discovers detailed maps of Finch in the Summer King’s library. Next, a real estate agent comes knocking. Is Arthur secretly plotting Finch’s demise?

With Aunt Dimity’s otherworldly help—and her new daughter in her arms—Lori mounts a crusade to save her beloved village from the Summer King’s scorching greed.

My Review:
Since I think I've given the last couple of Aunt Dimity books lukewarm reviews, I thought it only fair to review this one so I can note that I think it's moved a bit more in the right direction. There has definitely been a turn away from any hint of violence or physical threats (as there were in a couple of the books back a few years, which made Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea one of the strongest in the series), but this was less saccharine than the Wishing Well or The Lost Prince.

The story builds a nice sense of a threat to the village of Finch, and Lori's usual trouble with jumping to conclusions, before she manages to stumble her way to the solution. I have to say that although I think this was better than the last two, I miss something that the early books had--maybe less of a sense of everything coming up kittens and sparkles. Maybe I just think that a mystery needs a little more real threat to give it a sense of urgency. In any case, the books remain nice little confections, a little too sweet and without much substance, but still a pleasure to nibble with your tea.

For fans of the series, and those who like their books completely unthreatening.