Monday, August 31, 2015

Middle Grade Monday: Maddie's Dream  

Title: Maddie's Dream (Marguerite Henry's Ponies of Chincoteague #1)
Author: Catherine Hapka
Publisher: Aladdin, 2014. 91 pages (per my Nook. Paperback is listed as 224 pages).
Source: Library (digital)

Publisher's Summary:
Maddie is desperate to keep her favorite horse from being sold in this first book in a contemporary middle grade series in the tradition of Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague." Madison "Maddie" Martinez loves her weekly riding lessons, and she loves working with her favorite horse, Cloudy, every time. So she is shocked when she finds out Cloudy's former owners might want to buy her back! Maddie desperately concocts various plans to stop the sale: maybe she can raise money to buy Cloudy herself, or what if she can make the potential buyers lose interest? Maddie's online Pony Post friends--Brooke Rhodes, Hayley Duncan, Nina Peralt, who all share a love of Cincoteague ponies--can tell something is up, but at first Maddie is afraid to tell them what's happening. If she loses her only connection to Chincoteague, will they even want to be friends with her anymore?

My Review:
This was a quick, horsey read for younger middle-grade readers. The personal issues and aspects are present, but the horse interest is, in my opinion, higher. The story is well-written, moves quickly, and proceeds without much diversion toward the expected conclusion. The tie-in to Misty of Chincoteague is tenuous, at best: the series is based on the idea of a number of tweens around the country who own, or ride (as in Maddie's case) Chincoteague ponies. The girls are on-line friends through a network Maddie has established.  The main thing I felt this book shared with Misty was reading level, and a kid who is in love with a horse over all other interests (that's pretty well in keeping with Paul and Maureen Bebee).

Maddie's problem is real enough to make young readers sympathize with her, and her solutions will seem either clever or absurd depending on the sophistication of the reader. The solution to the problem felt a little too easy to me, but in a way it was just a side-note anyway--the real story is how Maddie deals with the threat.

Girls between about 8 and 11 who are horse-crazy will probably enjoy this book (and presumably the series). Any child who has read all Henry's books about Misty and her descendants will appreciate the tie-in, however tenuous, and will sympathize with Maddie's struggle to keep the horse she loves.

Full Disclosure: I checked Maddie's Dream out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Photo Friday: Backpacking the Sierra Nevada

Okay, we've been here before. Me and backpacking photos, I mean (like every time I don't have a bit of flash fiction ready to go on a Friday!). This trip went into a new area, with a new family configuration--one of our sons was away for the whole month of July, leaving us to backpack as a family of three (weird) (but as the eldest is now at college, something to get used to). Looking for someplace to go after dropping Second Son off at LAX for his trip to Mongolia, we settled on Sequoia National Park, in particular the Mineral King area.

The road in to Mineral King is not for the faint of heart. It takes over an hour, is steep, windy, and only one lane wide. And when you get to the trailhead, the ranger will suggest that you marmot-proof your car, as the little demons have a habit of crawling underneath, then nibbling anything rubber. Like brake lines, something you will really want for the trip back out. We borrowed chicken wire, scrounged our ground cloths, and secured the car before departing.
The author and Eldest Son contemplate the well-wrapped automobile.
One of the evil marmot-creatures, lurking about and looking for a car to steal. I understand that after they eat the rubber parts, they go joy-riding.
From the parking lot we climbed up and through Timber Gap, soon putting on rain gear as a thunder storm passed over us. It moved on so that we could stop for lunch at the pass. This was the first climb of the day, followed by a long drop to Cliff Creek. 
Flowers look extra-nice after the rain. These nicely washed leopard lilies caught my attention.
 A second long climb brought us to Pinto Lake, halfway to Black Rock Pass. Our camp there gave us a beautiful view of the sunset, as things had cleared up (aside from the smoke).
Looking west.
While the sun was setting, behind us a full moon rose over the mountains.
Looking east.
 Next morning we broke camp under a threatening sky (had to toss the fly back on the tent for a few minutes when a shower came through), and climbed toward Black Rock Pass. We hadn't gone far before the rain started in earnest, with much wind and general unpleasantness, though fortunately (given our exposed position) not thunder and lightning. We pushed on up and over the pass, and down into the trees on the other side before stopping to eat. That was too long, and took a toll on me and Eldest Son.
Lupin against the dark clouds and rain-washed mountains.
Not  long after we finished lunch (under a fallen log--seriously!) and put up camp near one of the Little Five Lakes, the storms moved off and the sun broke through and dried all our gear (including my camera, which had developed an interesting tendency to take photos on its own). An evening walk gave us great light on the Kaweah Peaks across the Big Arroyo.
Whitebark pine snags add interest to any view!
 The third day was a slack day, moving camp only about 3 miles, to Big Five Lakes. We did laundry, napped, read, and came out eventually to make dinner.
For those who wonder--dinner is usually in zip-lock bags and is made by adding boiling water. This is the entire kitchen kit for 3 of us, and weighs about 10 oz.
An after-dinner walk produced nice light and reflections, which we were able to photograph between  slaps at voracious mosquitoes.
One of the Big Five Lakes and a nameless peak. Calm winds make for nice reflection, but a brisk breeze is better when the mosquitoes are out!
 The fourth day we were back to covering the miles. Over the hill and down to Lost Canyon, then up the Canyon and over a divide to Columbine Lake.
The mountain meadow just at treeline was a real treat before climbing to the saddle just right of center on the skyline.
Arrived at Columbine Lake just after lunch (we like to start early, hike steadily--and make camp early so we can nap). It doesn't look promising, but there are actually a number of nice campsites in the low area ahead of the hikers.
The Spouse and Eldest Son homing in on home for the night.
 Fog moved in and out, so that we thought there would be no sunset. But the weather gods smiled on us, and we ended up with some of the most magical light I've experienced. The photos don't do it justice.
Moving right to left, the second dip on that skyline is Black Rock Pass that we crossed 2 days earlier.
 Gratuitous additional photos of the evening light.

Last lights on peaks reflected in the lake.
Fifth and final day: a short climb to Sawtooth Pass, and a long, painful descent (about 3000' down) to the car! The view from the top was spectacular, but I'll not deny my feet and knees were whimpering before we were done.
Sawtooth Peak from Sawtooth Pass
We experienced some rain nearly every day, mosquitoes were definitely worse than they are in August, but the scenery was world class, the kid carried more weight than I did (for the first time ever!), and it was great to see that we could still do significant mileage.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Middle Grade Review: Listen, Slowly


Title:  Listen, Slowly
Author: Thanhha Lai (my apologies to the author for not knowing how to reproduce the diacritical marks in her name)
Publisher: Harper, 2015. 260 pages.
Source: Library

12-year-old Mai Le is ready to spend the summer at the beach in Laguna, CA with her best friend. But her family has other plans. Her grandmother has heard from a detective in Vietnam who has information about the grandfather who disappeared during the war. Now Ba can't rest until she goes home to learn if Ong might still be alive. And Mai is told off to accompany her because her parents are too busy, as Mai says, "doing good." The girl's resentment gradually melts as she finds that some things might be more important than the beach.

First, can I just say that this book has the most beautiful cover?! I love it. And the book is lovely enough to match the cover. Mai is an entirely human girl, neither inhumanly dedicated to her grandmother nor so totally self-centered as to irritate the heck out of me (she is just as self-centered as a 12-year-old should be). She resents what she has been asked to do and give up, but not so much as to fail to--gradually--come to recognize what she has been given instead. I'd say that, in a nutshell, the whole book is about acceptance, peace, and priorities. As Mai makes peace with her task, and connects with the extended family she's never known, Ba also finds peace. Watching those two take care of each other is part of the beauty of the story. 

I think that while the story has a great deal of appeal to adults on some levels that kids may not get or appreciate, it is also (as cannot be said about all books we grown-ups love) a story that I think will resonate with children. Mai is delightfully human, and while many kids may not relate to the obedience to her elders that is part of the culture she has inherited despite her American upbringing, all can relate to what happens when she is pushed outside her comfortable world and given something real to do.

I think this is one that really does appeal to both kids and adults. I'd say more girls than boys (not just because Mai is female, but because she is a bit obsessed with a boy), and probably from ages 10 or 11 up. References to the war are mostly oblique, but some of the reality of war does come through.

See also my review of Inside Out and Back Again, by the same author.

Full Disclosure: I checked Listen, Slowly, 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, August 24, 2015

Mystery Monday: Malice at the Palace


Title: Malice at the Palace (A Royal Spyness Mystery)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Publisher: Berkley, 2015. 304 pages
Source: Library

Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the British throne, is back from America and as broke as ever. Fortunately the queen assigns her to be a companion to Princess Marina of Greece, about to marry Prince George. All Georgianna has to do is keep the princess from finding out about the less savory side of George's history, protect her from the ghosts at Kensington Castle...and figure out who murdered society babe Bobo Carrington, "the girl with the silver syringe," and dumped her body at the castle. Of course, no one can know about that, lest it involve the royal family. Naturally, Georgie is up to the task, with a little help from her sweetheart Darcy O'Mara,  and her decidedly non-royal maternal grandfather.

This was a delightful romp, hitting most of the high points, with just a hint of a darker side. Georgie probably spends a little too much time feeling sorry for herself as a general rule, but events in this book contrive to first give her good reason to, and then remind her things could be worse. A few loose ends from the series are wrapped up, and a couple of new ones created to keep us hoping for more about Georgie.

To be honest, this series will never qualify as great literature. Bowen isn't quite willing to make Georgie suffer as much as a good writer probably would her heroine. But it's great entertainment, and I am happy to have things turn out well. The series may well be a nearly perfect cosy-mystery balance of mystery, romance, excitement, and easy reading. Long may it last.

I can recommend the book and the series to all lovers of the cozy mystery, and particularly to those (like me) who are drawn to books about England between the wars. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks it's a great fun read, given the length of the waiting list at the library!

Full Disclosure: I checked Malice at the Palace 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, August 20, 2015

Friday Flash: The Forgotten Flowers

I've been away, taking my Eldest Son off to college, so there haven't been any posts this week. Hope no one missed me too much! Since I haven't posted, I'll not wait for Friday, but post this right away.

I needed a story for this week, so for 900 words, I went to the random title generator and was given...

The Forgotten Flowers

Janna had known them once. All their names, and where they grew. Now she wasn’t so sure. They were here, somewhere, and she recalled some of them. Maybe they would know her if she could find them. But that was absurd.

Someone planted us here. Once, we were tended, loved. Protected. It has been so long now since she came, though. We may be forgotten, but we have not forgotten her. We will never forget.

Janna walked with a limp now. When she had planted the flowers, she had been a little girl, and the trail into the woods had seemed short, something to run over lightly in a matter of minutes. That was before the accident. Janna didn’t remember much of the accident which had changed everything. She’d been in the back seat, asleep in her booster seat. Even at seven she was far too small to ride without one. Daddy was driving, she thought.

She’d woken at the moment of impact, and had a vague memory of noise and dizzying movement, and pain. Far too much pain. There had been light, too: flashing lights and sirens, and lights in her eyes from the pain, before the darkness returned. Then had come hospitals, and frightening sounds and smells and more bright lights, and people doing things to her. After that, there was a long, long time someplace where she had gone to learn to walk all over again, with one leg now shorter than the other and not very useful. She remembered more of that time.

Just at first she’d cried for her flowers, missing the garden she’d made. Janna remembered that now. But she had forgotten everything for a long time, after she understood. It had been hard at first, but at last she knew why her parents did not visit her. Things grew dark for a very long time.

With all that darkness in her heart and soul, for a long time Janna didn’t remember the flowers. She forgot them, as she tried so hard to forget everything else from Before. If she could forget the pain, she could forget the loneliness, and forget that other truth she never wanted to remember. The truth that had made her breathe a tiny sigh of relief when her father didn’t come.

They sent her away, and though Janna grew to love her aunt, she was never a little girl again. Pain and death could do that to a kid, she told herself. Others might look at her and see a child, a girl not even in her teens. But the Janna now limping along the path wasn’t a child anymore. She wasn’t even sure she was the same person as the joy-filled girl who had planted the flowers. She had worked hard to put that life behind her, the good lost in the effort to shed the bad.

So she had forgotten everything, right up until Aunt Bets got a new job and they moved back to where they’d come from. Back to where the accident had happened. And back to the woods she’d run to so often, starting when she was only five. The woods where she’d felt safe.

The woods where she’d planted the flowers.

She’d stolen them from a neighbor’s yard, she recalled. She’d dug them up one or two at a time, put them in Dixie cups, and carried them into the woods. There she had spent days digging up a plot with her little toy shovel, and planted the purloined blossoms. She’d carried water from a drainage ditch in her little pail, and made a garden where no one would see it but herself.

Janna reminded herself that after so many years, the flowers would be long dead, the forest moved back in, and her refuge lost. But she kept on, limping down the overgrown path.

We knew she would come back. Don’t ask how. Flowers know more than you think. We didn’t know when, but we knew she would come. Lately we have felt a restlessness stir us that was not the wind.

Janna felt the path underfoot, startled to find it familiar, despite the years. It would be just around this corner…not that there would be anything left, she reminded herself. Flowers needed tending, and hope was a dangerous thing. She rounded the corner and came to a halt.

The forgotten flowerbed had not died of neglect. Some of the flowers had spread over the entire glade, and at this season, bloomed with an enthusiasm that shocked her. For a moment there was a flood of anger. Someone had found her garden and tended it, and it wasn’t hers anymore!

A closer look assured Janna that it was not so. There was no sign of digging or weeding, no sign any human had been here since she had last come. But she had done better than she knew, with the flowers she had taken. Left to themselves, they dug in roots, took hold, and found themselves in their own home. Not all, she could see when she looked more closely. But several kinds had belonged here, and remained.

With a cry of delight, forgetting the leg which pained her always and needed gentle care, Janna dropped to her knees at the edge of the glade and sobbed, so loudly that she never after was sure she had heard the voice.

Welcome back.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015

Photo Friday: Mesa Verde National Park

Back in June, en route from Colorado to Southern CA, we spent a couple of days at Mesa Verde National Park. That didn't give us a ton of time (it wasn't our first visit, so we didn't mind), but we had time enough to do a hike and take a tour of Balcony House. In between, we enjoyed an amazing sunset from the campground. I am assuming everyone knows that Mesa Verde is home to an amazing collection of Anasazi dwellings, and instead of my usual brief educational spiel, I'll refer you to the park web page for more info and cut to the photos.

The first evening we had just time to visit Spruce Tree House, one of the few you can do without a guided hike. I got a nice view back with no other tourists, because we were the last to be shooed out. We continued around the 3-mile Spruce Canyon trail, accompanied by rumbles of thunder.
I'm pretty sure there are no actual spruce trees anywhere near.

Driving back to camp, we stopped at the Cedar Tree Tower (no cedars, either; just pinon and juniper), which stands on the edge of the mesa, and caught the light nicely.
Dead trees from a major fire in the early 2000s stand out against a stormy sky.
Showers and sunset at the campground.

Next morning we had tickets for the 9 a.m. hike, so we were up early onto the mesa. For the record, the campground is about 18 miles from the Chapin Mesa tours, so this involved a fair bit of driving. We stopped en route to look over the edge at the Cliff Palace, which we have marked for a tour the next time we visit.
Cliff Palace, like almost all except Balcony House, faces West to catch afternoon sun.
We also left ourselves time to walk a mile or so to the Soda Canyon overlook, for a perspective on Balcony House. Along the way, we spotted a surprising number of flowers, including this gilia (I'm not sure what sort).
Catching the morning sun.
 It was cool to get a look at the setting and the whole picture of the place we were about to visit.
Note the ladder lower right. That's the way the tour enters the cliff dwelling. This tour is not for the faint of heart, literally or figuratively.
We joined our group and headed off to the ruins. The first bit is easy. Then you have to get into the house.
I'm already up in the ruins. From this perspective, the ladder looks terrifying, but it really isn't bad.
 A couple of shots once we climbed and crawled our way in:
I'm not sure if this is the balcony that gives the place its name, or if it's the open space in front of the rooms, which atypically actually has a wall to prevent anyone falling over. I would imagine that made moms happy.

You can see here where there were walls all the way up to the (natural) ceiling. You can also see that there were fires in that room.
At the end of the tour, we left by the route the Anasazi used to come in and out. You can see that they walled up a gap in the rocks to force people to crawl through--arguing a certain need for security.
No, that's not my backside. For once the spouse found someone else to catch in an awkward moment.
The Anasazi had some hand- and foot-holds carved in the rock. We were given a ladder and some railings.
It's enhanced, but this was the route that the original occupants used.
From here, we were off across northern Arizona (see my post on Petrified Forest National Park).

Note on weather conditions: I often post about areas of the SW US that are desert. And we often visit those areas in summer, though they are at their best in spring, if not winter.  We make it work because that is when we are there. But in light of the tragic death of two French tourists last week at White Sands in New Mexico, I feel obliged to comment on how we do this. Primarily, we do very little outdoors between the hours of about 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Mesa Verda is relatively high (the top of Chapin Mesa is 7000'), and afternoon thunderstorms can cool it quite a bit. But we still limit distances and carry plenty of water. When we must be out at midday (as at Petrified Forest), we do very short walks indeed. We were never out of sight of the car or Visitors Center there, and stayed out for maybe all of 15 minutes. These deserts are for real, and heat can kill!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

YA Review: Copper Sun, by Sharon Draper


Title: Copper Sun
Author: Sharon Draper
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006, 302 pages
Source: Library

Amari has a perfect life in her African village. Then the traders come...and these traders are after humans, not goods. Her family is murdered, the village burned, and Amari is marched off to the coast in chains, to be shipped across the ocean to a new land. In America, she is sold to a plantation owner who gives her to his son as a 16th birthday present (hint: he's not looking for a mother figure). Life is a grim thing, until a really horrific event gives her the chance to escape, hand in hand with a white indentured servant her own age and with nearly as much need to run.

This book was hard to read. Not because the words are big, but because the truth it speaks is horrific. There is no escape from the realities of being a young female slave: not just whippings, but rape. The challenge for Amari is to keep her spirit alive in the midst of cruelty beyond her imagining, and quite frankly beyond mine. Like 12 Years a Slave, this book leaves the reader unable to deny the inhumanity of slavery (and the indenture system was a form of slavery, make no mistake. That the plantation owner "owns" Polly's indenture, and can sell it where he will--even to a whorehouse--makes that very clear).

Polly is an orphan, indentured for 14 years to pay her parents' debts. That her position is tantamount to slavery is made clear by the fact that her new master (and Amari's) assigns her to work alongside Amari, to share her hut, and teach the African girl English and how to work. The story is told in alternating chapters or sections told from the perspective of each girl, and we see how suspicion and prejudice gradually break down to allow them to become allies and, in the end, friends.

Incredibly vivid and well written, this book is one of those that I could not recommend for anyone under the age of about 15, due to the disturbing nature of the story. But it's one that probably everyone over that age should read, because it reminds us of both man's inhumanity to man and the strength and resilience of the human spirit. And part of the lesson is that not everyone can be so resilient. Characters die, physically and spiritually, which makes the victory of Amari and Polly over their circumstances all the more powerful.

Oddly, this wasn't a tear-jerker. I didn't cry over the sad parts. It was, instead, a thought-producer, and I couldn't put it down (plus I would happily have meted out some justice to some people who couldn't begin to understand the concept).

For those about 15 and up who can deal with the realities of our history.

Full Disclosure: I checked Copper Sun 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, August 10, 2015

Middle Grade Monday: The Shadow of Atlantis by Wendy Leighton-Porter


Full disclosure #1: Ms. Leighton-Porter is a fellow BookElf author. That certainly inspired me to read her book, and may have influenced the following review. I believe the review to be fair and honest in any case.

 Title: The Shadow of Atlantis (Shadows from the Past #1)
Author: Wendy Leighton-Porter
Publisher: Mauve Square Publishing, 2012. 232 pages in paperback (I bought the Kindle version).

Ten-year-old twins Joe and Jemima Lancelot have lost their parents. They aren't dead, just missing. The twins stumble into a clue in the form of a very old book, and find Atlantis. Now they not only need to find clues as to where their parents have gone, but save the people of Atlantis from the coming disaster that will make their city vanish forever. With the help of Max, their Tonkinese cat (though really Max is his own cat, and they are probably his people), and Charlie, the neighbor boy, they tackle all the challenges the book throws at them.

I have to start by getting one thing out of the way: yes, the premise of the book is a bit reminiscent of the Magic Treehouse books. I mean, a magic book that takes the children off to places far distant in time and space has been done before. But it hasn't been done like this. Maybe it's Max that makes the story so much more interesting for me (well, and the fact that this book is middle grade fiction, not an easy reader). I'm not a big fan of talking animals (actually, given my fondness for Redwall, the Princelings, and Narnia, I guess I am. Just not mixed up with humans). But Max is a real personality, and adds a lot to the story. He provides a bit of something almost adult, but not quite, allowing the children to continue to get into situations that parents wouldn't allow.

The action is quick, the writing solid, and the characters well developed. The children might have had a little more luck talking to adults in Atlantis than is realistic, but that is compensated by the standard density of the adults back home in England. And the book uses a great method for creating the kids-without-parents trope that is definitely useful in children's adventure books: the children are out to rescue the parents, who have made a very bad (and foolish) blunder. I like that table-turning, and wish the children luck in tracking down their wayward parents (because, after all, this is only the beginning of a series...).

It is also fairly clear that the series is going to make good use of history, without the story ever getting bogged down in travel-guide style narration. I'm all in favor of that!

Best age range is probably 8-10. The children face peril, but there is no violence, and nothing truly scary. The writing is pretty accessible for younger readers, I think, and the story line a little simpler than books aimed at the 10-12 set. Older children may enjoy it however, especially if they have an interest in places like Atlantis, and younger children might find it a great next step after the Magic Treehouse. And anyone who likes to contemplate time travel will enjoy that aspect of the story.

Full Disclosure #2: I bought The Shadow of Atlantis with my own money and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday Flash: World of Flames

There was no Wendig Challenge this week, but I went back a few weeks, found the random title generator, and decided it was time for Xavier Xanthum to return, to explore (in exactly 1000 words), a

World of Flames

Xavier Xanthum, Space Explorer, lay back in his com chair, Kitty Comet a pool of warm fur on his lap. Xavier’s finders absently twined in the cat’s soft pelt while he contemplated a catalog of possible destinations.

“Larry, what about ZE742?”

“Inhabited, and currently at war with the Zarathustrians, Captain. I wouldn’t recommend it.” The computer, Xavier thought, was getting all too human. His voice was as dryly sarcastic as Xavier himself could make it. With reason: the Zarathustrians were among the galaxy’s nastiest inhabitants. Landing on a planet with which they were at war would be a painful sort of suicide.

“Right.” Xavier gave an equally dry response. “What about ZE803?”

“It’s a big war.”

“A different system, then.”

“I would recommend that, yes.”

Xavier went back to petting the cat and staring at readouts. Comet purred and closed her eyes. “Here’s one, Larry,” Xavier said after an hour or so, during which he had nodded off three times. His feet were cold, despite the climate control on the ship and the warm cat on his lap. It might be nice to go someplace hot. “ZG003214. I don’t see any info on it. Is it unexplored?” Xavier might have nodded off earlier, but the prospect of an unexplored planet woke him up thoroughly. As a Space Explorer, he made his living finding places no one had mapped, sussing out the riches and risks, and selling the info to the relevant agencies or merchants.

“It appears to be unmapped.” Larry sounded excited too. Even an AI could get bored on a long voyage with no new discoveries, and this had been a very long voyage. They all needed a change, and Xavier was too broke to afford any ground time even at one of the low-end resort planets that could be found in this part of the galaxy.

“Let’s go check it out,” Xavier decided. “Run the usual searches and diagnostics as we approach, Larry.”

“Of course.” Now Larry sounded offended at the idea that he would do anything less. Xavier grinned.

If the planet wouldn’t support human life, they could still do a recon in the landing pod, and maybe find out something worth selling to someone. He hoped so. They needed some credits. Course set and Larry in control of systems, Xavier followed the example of the cat in his lap. He fell asleep.

It took two days to reach the unknown planet, during which time Xavier prepared the pod, studied everything Larry could find about the place—which took less than five minutes, as the place was truly unexplored—and played with Kitty Comet. They both enjoyed low-G yarn chases, which resulted in something like slow-motion feline ballet. Xavier even heard Larry chuckle at some of Comet’s antics, and wondered when the computer had learned to laugh. He’d long known Larry had a sense of humor, since it was often enacted at Xavier’s expense, but a laugh was a different matter.

About the time they were all ready to go nuts, the planet began to be visible on the vid screens as more than a dot.

“Funny color,” Xavier grunted, gazing at the as-yet-featureless orb.

“Red. Like the stories say about Mars.” Larry had been studying human history and literature, and knew a lot about where humans had come from. Since he was a computer, he could read at the speed of light, though he did claim to need a bit of time to process what he read.

“So what made Barsoom red?” Xavier had read a lot of old stories too and didn’t mind reminding Larry of the fact. Space exploration left a lot of time for reading.

“Iron oxide.”

Xavier nodded. Iron wasn’t as valuable as orichalcum, but it was an essential product. A planet rich in iron would be worth something.

A while later, as the image grew on the screen and more scanners came into range, Larry said, “Spectrum isn’t right for iron.”

“What, then?”

Larry gave a laundry list of elements and effects. “I regret that I cannot at this time say which it is.”

Xavier rolled his eyes. When Larry started sounded extra-formal, he was hiding something. “Let’s take a closer look.”

Later, Xavier would wonder how many times he’d said that over the years, and how many times he’d regretted saying it.

 Xavier watched as the world grew larger and larger, filling the vid screen. It made him uneasy, though he still could not see clearly what it was. It seemed to shift and flicker.

“Larry, is there something wrong with the vid screen? The planet jumps.”

“Running diagnostic,” Larry responded, then almost immediately, “Vid screen is functioning properly. Shall we enter orbit?”

Xavier nodded, picking up the cat as he stared, mesmerized, at the shifting image. “I’ll head for the pod in five minutes.”

Larry was silent for just long enough to make Xavier tear his eyes from the image and ask, sharply, “What?”

“I believe a landing would be ill advised. Sensors tell me that the temperature of the outer atmosphere is well over 200 degrees. Ground temperatures are estimated over 400 degrees. The planet is on fire.”

“It’s not just a heavy planet with a thick atmosphere?” That was common. An entire world in flames was not.

“No, Captain. The planet is on fire. There has possibly been some catastrophic event. I think it would be unhealthy to descend into the atmosphere and seek the source of the flames.”

Comet, who had also been staring at the flames, yowled agreement.

“I have removed us from orbit,” Larry reported before Xavier could answer. “Exterior sensors report unacceptable atmospheric conditions.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“The planet is attempting to ignite our craft, Captain.”

Xavier, who only a short time before had entertained visions of a rest on the surface and a hefty deposit in his banking account, found he had lost interest ZG003214. “Take us out, Larry.”

It would be nice to go someplace cool.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Classic Review: Mark Twain's Roughing It


Title: Roughing It
Author: Mark Twain
Original Publication: 1872. I read a digital copy from the Gutenberg project without page numbers, but paperbacks seem to run around 500 pages.

This is a discussion, and not a review, because who the heck am I to review Mark Twain? Still, reading the book gave me a few thoughts, so you don't get off that easily. I'm just going to throw out a few things it made me think.

My first thought is that although this was fairly early Twain, you can tell. The tendency to stretch the truth, massage reality to fit his idea of humor, exaggerate just a tiny's all there. And there were a few places that made me laugh aloud.

My next thought is that Twain was more a man of his times than we would really like. It can be very uncomfortable to read what he has to say about persons of other races, particularly Native Americans. It made me want to smack him. I had to remind myself that he couldn't very well help absorbing the attitudes of essentially everyone around him. Then I skimmed quickly on to his next bit of personal misfortune, which was a lot more fun.

I also sort of envied Twain his leisurely 3-month exploration of the Hawaiian Islands, because I've only ever spent 9 days there, and seen only one island. Though at least I didn't have to do it on the back of a balky horse, which I do not envy him. And he didn't get to go snorkeling and see the amazing fish and corals.

Finally, I had to remind myself that when he began this 7-year adventure, he was all of 19 years old. That means he was still only 26 when he finished. No wonder he made bad decisions all along the way. And what was that older brother he left home with thinking, to give him no more guidance than that? (Except if I recall, the brother is maybe 2 years older. Not a lot of good judgement there, either). But a lot of his stupidity--and his prejudice--is more forgivable when you remember that he was just a kid.

Oh, and when he started a forest fire at Lake Tahoe? This resident of a drought-stricken and highly flammable California cringed, hard. 

So, do I recommend this book? Not to everyone. It was an interesting look at the California, Nevada and Hawaii of the time, and there were some good laughs. But I never knew when his history was fiction, which is frustrating, and it took some perseverance to finish, so I'd say it's not for the faint of heart or for slow readers. And there's something in there to offend just about everyone. Proceed at your own risk.

Monday, August 3, 2015

YA Graphic Novel: Tomboy


Title: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir
Author: Liz Prince
Publisher: Zest Books, 2014. 255 pages
Source: Library

This graphic novel explains what it was like for Liz Prince growing up "in the middle"--not a pink sort of girl, but not "one of the guys" either. It wasn't easy even in grade school, but the book really focuses on the struggles that hit in Junior High and High School.

My Review: 
I plucked this book from the cart while I was shelving at the library, because the title caught my eye, me being an unreformed tomboy and all. I'm glad I did. It was a fascinating look at gender roles and expectations in our society.

Liz Prince is about 20 years younger than I am, so I expected that our experiences would be different (I was/am also a little different sort of tomboy than she was, because hey, we are all unique!). What I didn't expect was to find that she had a harder time than I did. And I don't think that's just because I was okay with occasionally putting on a dress for a special occasion. I think it's because we were more open to girls and women being themselves in the 60s and 70s than we were in the 80s and 90s--and what about now?

Liz seems to have taken a lot of grief from gradeschool on up for "dressing like a boy." Now, I admit that I don't know what that would have been like, because I was a 1st grader in a time and place when it simply wasn't done. I wore a skirt to school (and changed to jeans the second I got home), until about 2nd grade, when we moved to a place where pants were acceptable (and Dad wasn't the minister anymore, so no one was looking so closely at me). I went ahead and "acted like a boy" regardless, as did most of my friends; we skinned a lot of bare knees. Liz seems to have been surrounded by girls who got very girly from a very young age.

In high school, where she was shunned for wearing (boy's) jeans and no makeup, I finally was free to dress as I pleased, and wore jeans and tee shirts and didn't even own a skirt for years. (Note: I still wear jeans and Tees and no makeup, and I haven't worn a skirt in years). Maybe it was different then because we were all rebelling against a very different generation? In any case, one thing that never seemed to come up were the accusations of lesbianism. Prince faced those just for hanging out with a friend who also dressed like a boy. My classmates might not have known the word.

The weird thing is, I think it was easier to be a tomboy in my generation because people were less aware of all the gender options. For Prince, being a tomboy seemed to require questioning her sexuality, even at a young age. For me and my friends, we just wanted to be boys because they had all the good adventures (in the books we read). And we wanted to wear jeans because they were more suited to running around and climbing trees (plus: pockets). We wore boys' clothes (literally in my case: I wore my brothers' hand-me-downs) and played boys' games, but we didn't try to look like boys. Most of us wore our hair long (because our mothers all cut and curled theirs?).

I've wandered from the review here, but there is method to my madness. The book made me think about gender roles and being a tomboy and how kids (and society) treat other kids who don't conform. And that, I think, is a large part of the point (as well as letting girls who maybe don't fit the standard model know that they are not alone, and that it's okay--and maybe even that not liking skirts doesn't mean you aren't heterosexual?). That is what made this a really good book.

I recommend this book for everyone who has ever struggled against gender roles, or thought about it, or teased someone who didn't fit the mold, or thought about get the picture. I think it's kind of an important book for our teens, and probably for the rest of us, to read. It only took me an hour or two--well worth the time!

Full Disclosure: I checked Tomboy 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."