Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Non-Fiction Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand


Title: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand. Read by Edward Herrmann
Publisher: Random House, 2010 (473 pages). Random House Audio, 2010 
Source: Library (digital)

Publisher's Summary:
In boyhood, Louis Zamperini was an incorrigible delinquent. As a teenager, he channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics. But when World War II began, the athlete became an airman, embarking on a journey that led to a doomed flight on a May afternoon in 1943. When his Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, against all odds, Zamperini survived, adrift on a foundering life raft. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.
My Review:
What can one say about a story like this? The story is incredible, and Hillenbrand is a master storyteller who spins it out just about right. I appreciated that she included the stories of many of those around Zamperini--he was, after all, not the only one to endure things of this sort, and, in fact, the pilot who was the only other survivor of the crash and the time at sea had just as much of a story. The author even touches on the basic unfairness of who got the attention at the time and afterwards; Zamperini got the limelight because he was a runner of unprecedented talent.

At times, the story does feel a little too "wow"--a little too much emphasis on the amazing struggles, the miraculous salvations, and a tone of drama that the story doesn't really need, given how dramatic it is on its own. This bothered me more in the early part of the book, which focused on Zamperini's boyhood and his prodigious feats as a runner. By the time the airmen are dumped into the waters of the Pacific, no drama needs to be added to the story.

Probably the thing about the story that bothered me the most was something the author can't very well be blamed for: Zamperini was saved from PTSD by religion, a miracle I have some trouble crediting. But that is his story, and she told it well, even convincingly. As for the writing--it is solid, pulling the reader (listener) into the story and into the lives of the men she follows into the Pacific. I listened to this to the exclusion of getting other work done, because I had to hear it all, horrific though much of it was.

The reading is also excellent, and the narrator succeeds in keeping the story clear and straight in the listener's mind, with just about the right balance between drama and the calm that reminds us this is non-fiction.

No surprise, given the book's best-seller status and the popular movie, but this has appeal for a wide audience. It's great for those who are fascinated by WWII, for those who like inspirational stories, and for those who just like a good hero. It's not flawless, but it will still knock your socks off.

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Interview with writer Jemima Pett

We are participating today in a blog tour for the new paperbacks of Jemima Pett's Princelings of the East series--with their beautiful new covers! I have reviewed all six of the books, so instead of a review, I thought I'd do an interview today. Since Jemima lives in Norfolk, UK, I have left her British spelling in place!

NL:  I know that you started by telling stories about the adventures of your own guinea pigs, but how did you get from Fred and George in your garden to princelings, pirates, and flying machines?
 JP: I think it originated in an online guinea pig forum where we had a thread which was telling stories a few sentences at a time.  I remember a castle with a tunnel in the corner, and guinea pigs going through it to an alternative universe which ran on strawberry juice.  One of the pigs that they met was a large white woolly one called Random – who turns up as the ghost in the Pirates adventure!  I think the online story petered out, and it didn't star Fred and George, I don't think, but that's where the inspiration for castles and tunnels, and strawberry juice came from.  Then I came up with the titles, and away we went.

When they were out in the garden eating the grass, George used to look up when a small blue biplane from our local flying club went over.  He seemed to track it across the sky, although guinea pig eyesight is not supposed to be good at distance, so maybe it was the sound.  But that inspired me to make him keen on flying – and that's why we're only at the biplane stage in the Realms, around 100 years after they were invented in our world.

NL: Many of your characters are based on, or at least named for, real cavies you have known. Do their real personalities ever get in the way of the characters you are trying to develop for the stories? I’m assuming these tales have rather run away from their origins as fun adventures for your own pets!
JP: Yes, my boys (sorry, pets) don't get up to these sort of adventures on their own!  Although it's amazing how close some of the characters stay to the characters of the original animals.  Humphrey in Book 5 is pure Humphrey as I knew him.  Colman (Book 5 onwards) is the problem character, since when I wrote him in the first place, the guinea pig had not been with me long, and resented having been rehomed from a very loving home.  He was angry with me for having taken him from his former 'Mum' and let me know it with his teeth, a lot!  Ten months later he decided I wasn't so bad after all, and now he is the most loving of all the pigs I have (although he occasionally reminds me of George), and has reached the grand old age of 7, which is well over 90 in human equivalent.  But he's still the baddie in the books, along with Smallweed, who he used to live with. Finding baddies for the books is a problem, although the character interviews on my blog of Ludo (not a guinea pig) and Smallweed (someone else's), show that some of these characters have some decidedly nasty streaks!

NL: Totally unfair question: who among your characters is your favorite?
How long have you got?  Fred and George, Victor and Hugo will always be very special to me, as they were in life.  It's why, despite writing him out of the timeline as the baddie in the first book, Hugo (Mariusz) will just not go away!  The favourite is probably Kira, though.  I don't have any female guinea pigs, which is why, especially in the first book, it seems such a male-dominated society.  That changes as things go on.  Kira is the sort of person I'd really like to be.  She's a real hero.

NL:  George is constantly inventing new things, especially forms of transportation. In what way are these bringing him closer to fulfilling the promise made to Mariusz at the end of the first book?
JP: At the end of book 6, Bravo Victor, we get a pretty good steer from George where he thinks these inventions are leading.  When I wrote Book 1, I had no idea what was going to happen, except that they did fulfill their promise.  In a way I wish I hadn't put that epilogue in the first book, but left it open ended.  On the other hand, if I can write it well enough, I hope I'm going to be able to create a sort of 'will they, won't they' tension, like I saw in a fabulous musical called 1776, which is about the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  You really can't believe that they'll come to an agreement by July 4th, as the days tick down off the calendar at the back of the set!

Anyway, I haven't answered the question yet.  Yes, you'll see that George's flying machines get more elaborate as time goes by.  He's learning, and other people are learning and sharing their ideas, and that's how technology progresses – mostly by small steps, but sometimes by giant leaps.  And most giant leaps are due to conflict, I'm afraid to say.  'Necessity is the mother of invention' is very true.

NL:  While we are on the subject of George’s inventions, how do you see them impacting the essentially feudal agrarian society in which the books are set?
JP: This is a fascinating subject, the social change that is brought about by technological change.  Look at the changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution, people leaving their lives as peasants on farms and working in factories and in mines and so on, and the changes in the way urban life was organised as a result.  I'm trying to avoid mining in my Realms, but there is a small amount going on, in order to make metal goods – and glass.  Social change in the 20th Century is another example – from lords and servants to a far more egalitarian society.  People don't have such specialised jobs any more and look what we are doing with the massive computers we keep in our pockets!  Reading books written by authors we would otherwise never have heard of, chatting to people on the other side of the world from our bedrooms, or on buses.

The trouble with social change is that if you start with a feudal world with some people who set all the rules, there is a tendency for some of the 'peasants' to say "hang on, we are capable of doing this ourselves, who gave you the right to tell us what to do?" So there is going to be a huge change in the world of the Princelings.  After book 6 the vampires mostly leave because of the garlic in the strawberry juice fuel cells!  Displaced people and population growth are becoming pressure points, and this will be made worse by kings who exile 'troublemakers', i.e. people that disagree with their right to rule.

NL: Sounds like there's a lot of interesting stuff to look forward to!
One final question: The series currently has 6 books (I’m not sure, but I think The Princelings and the Pirates might be my favorite. Or maybe Talent Seekers. Or Bravo Victor…). Do you have an idea how many more books there will be? There is a story to complete still, so I know there will be more (even though it’s been a long wait while you write for a more grown-up audience)!
JP: Interesting that you picked Pirates first.  My out and out favourite is Lost City, despite its dark secrets. I'm planning two more Princelings books, with working titles, Chronicles of Willoughby the Narrator (I think I've written about a third of it, but it's too long) and Princelings Revolution.  From what I've said about change you might guess that revolution is on the way.  I'm just not sure where Willoughby's story stops and where the last one starts.  I think I need to write them both, to make sure all the detail ties up.  As you have spotted, I'm writing a science fiction series for grown-ups, the Viridian System series, the first of which, The Perihelix, is due out this winter, and the second probably for the following autumn/winter. Then I can immerse myself back in the turmoil of the Princelings world.  Maybe we're talking about Willoughby coming out in 2017.  That would work well for me, since the last book will end in 2021, even though it will probably come out before that.
There'll probably be a short story or two about the Princelings world before that, and I usually do a serial for Christmas on the Princelings website each year, the last two of which have taken events in their world forward and introduced Willoughby to the fans. That helps me measure the pace of change in the Realms, too!

Thanks for inviting me to your website today, and good luck with your own books – I'm a fan of the Ninja Librarian too!

And thank you so much for coming! I look forward to the next books, both in the Viridian System and the Princelings.

Author Bio:

I’ve been writing since I was 8 years old.  I still have a small booklet I found in my mother’s box of treasures, written in a very childish hand, entitled The Little Stream.  It reads very much like the story of Smetana’s Vltava, or The Moldau as it was called when I was young, so I must have been into classical music at an early age (I blame my brothers’ influence).   My early fiction attempts failed for want of suitable inspiration: I couldn’t get characters or plot that seemed interesting, and my first attempts were derided by a ‘friend’.  I had the bug for writing, though, and wrote articles and event reports for newsletters and magazines whenever I got the opportunity. My career in business and in environmental research kept me chained to a desk for many years, but also gave me the opportunity to write manuals, reports, science papers, blogs, journals, anything and everything that kept the words flowing.  Finally the characters jumped into my head with stories that needed to be told….

Excerpt from The Princelings of the East:

Fred sat staring at the tunnel, lost in thought.  George waited.  This might take a while.  He could hear soft sounds of crackling flames in the fire on the other side of the wall, and in the distance the occasional pitter-patter of footsteps echoing down the corridors.  He wondered what would happen if they ventured out of this castle into the tunnels.  When he had been out in the marshes, he’d never gone a long way from home; the castle was always visible in the distance, light glinting on its spires.  He’d never been out overnight, either.  He identified a strange feeling inside him.  They might be on the edge of a Great Adventure, but he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t rather be safely tucked up in bed.
Fred stirred.  “We need to go and investigate this Great Energy Drain,” he said.  “We must find out whether it is a widespread phenomenon, and whether the causes are known.” 
George nodded; this was elementary procedure for an investigation.  “And then?” he asked. 
“And then,” answered Fred, “we shall come up with some ideas for how to solve it.”
“Good idea!” said George, knowing that you can never know exactly how you are going to do something until you have made the preliminary investigation and tested out a few theories.  But the aim was set, and all they had to do now was decide... to go or not to go?

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Flash Fiction: How the Rain Gets In

This week, Chuck Wendig challenged us to write a title for a story. Someone will pick the title and write the story next week. I saw no reason not to get two stories out of the immense collection of titles that accumulated in just a few days, so I took this one by "amydrees" for 891 words (a bit short of 1000!), and I'll pick another next week.

I should dedicate this to all my backpacking buddies. I left the PNW a long time ago, and haven't done a whole lot of backpacking in the rain since--until this past July, when we got caught pretty good. It wasn't as bad as this, though...

How the Rain Gets In

It starts small. After months of drought, you are glad to see rain, and don’t give much thought to anything but ending the drought. Happy plants, lakes refilling. You sort of forget what rain can do.

That was how it is for us. We’re hiking, so we stop to dig out the rain gear, to strap on the pack covers we had nearly given up on carrying. It is still warm, though, and we are happy. Our tent is good; we’ll stay dry.

That’s the first day. We cook dinner in the shelter of one of the big trees, the sort that sheds the rain for the first few hours, and raise a mug of tea to toast the end of the drought, even while we laugh. In the backs of our minds we figure the drought will probably be right back the next day. One rain shower. A diversion along the way.

It rains all night, though and in the morning we eat granola bars so we don’t have to cook in the rain, and pack up a wet tent. That’s the first way the rain gets in: you pack up the tent wet, and you get to camp and set it up wet, and it stays wet and gets wetter.

The rain continues all day, steadily ramping up to a downpour. The trail gets puddled. Sometimes it’s a stream, and our boots get wet.

By noon, we want to go home. Rain gear can only do so much, and we can feel the dampness spreading from the shoulders down. We imagine it seeping into our packs, finding every pinhole or tear in the plastic bags that protect vital insulation. It doesn’t feel so warm anymore, either. The summer rain is fast becoming an autumn storm. Maybe the drought really has ended. If this is fall, it could rain for days. We’ll never dry out.

Huddled under a tree, we talk it over. Fifteen miles to the road. Push on, maybe get there by dark, but probably not? We’d never manage to hitch to town in the dark. Might as well put up the tent now and get warm and dry, hike out tomorrow when we stand a chance of getting home.

The trees no longer have dry spaces under them. The rain drips through the branches in a steady patter, heavy raindrops consolidated into still larger drops that land with a soaking splat on head or pack. We tell each other how happy we are that the rain has come. This should dampen the enthusiasm of all those fires, we tell each other delightedly. The mountains need rain, we remind each other with big grins.

We are very good at lying. Inside, we feel the rain creeping into our veins.

It’s tough, getting the tent up without getting it even wetter inside than it already is. We pitch a tarp, which is really just the ground cloth and barely large enough to shelter the tent, let alone us. We put up the tent underneath, deploy the rain fly, and wonder at all the tiny pinholes and little rips it’s accumulated. Why did we never notice that before?

It’s wet inside the tent, though not as wet as outside. The rain comes in with us, and our gear. Pine needles stick to everything, so it’s not just wet, but dirty. We used to be used to this. Too many seasons of drought make us cranky about the rain. Those grins are starting to slip. Inside, we want the drought back, just for another day.

We eat our cheese and crackers in the tent. If the bears want to come and get us in all this rain, let them. Food, and dry clothes, make things look better. The rain retreats to the exterior, drumming its soothing rhythms on the fly. We sleep the afternoon away.

The debates resume as dinnertime nears. Should we get out and cook? The rain hasn’t stopped. We are reminded that this is the Pacific Northwest. The rain might not stop until summer. If we hike hard tomorrow, we can be to the road by mid-afternoon. We have enough cheese and crackers. We don’t need to go outside and get wet again. We eat.

The first drip lands on a sleeping bag as we are finishing the Snickers bars. We look up, and see another drop starting to form just to the left of the center pole, and we know one of the pinholes is leaking. That’s how the rain gets in: one slow, inexorable drop at a time.

Does duct tape stick to wet tents? We find a coin, the nickel we use to open the bear can, and flip it to see who has to go outside and try to patch the fly. In the end, we both go out, because that’s where the bathroom is. Duct tape first, then step behind a tree, cursing the rain that seeks the chance to dampen our dry clothes.

When we come back, the rain follows us in again. We try our best, but everything is a little more damp, a little less warm. It’s going to be a long night. We’ve slept too much all afternoon, and it’s getting cold. We start to snap at each other.

The rain has gotten in.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015
Had to borrow a rainy-day shot from my spouse, as my own camera stopped working when the rain started, and didn't resume proper function until it dried out.
Check out the sequel, "Weather Permitting"

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mystery Review: Rumpole and the Golden Thread


Title: Rumpole and the Golden Thread
Author: John Mortimer. Read by Frederick Davidson
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, 2012. Originally by Penguin, 1983 (253 pages)
Source: Library (digital)

A collection of short stories about British barrister Horace Rumpole, stalwart defender of English law, justice, and his own right to a bottle of plonk from Pomeroy's wine bar:
Rumpole and the Genuine Article
Rumpole and the Golden Thread
Rumpole and the Old Boy Net
Rumpole and the Female of the Species
Rumpole and the Sporting Life
Rumpole and the Last Resort

I find John Mortimer's short mysteries featuring Rumpole (and, of course, the slightly offensive She Who Must Be Obeyed) to be pleasantly enjoyable. Each has it's own twist leading to Rumpole's triumph in the courtroom, though he seems to have a bit harder a time of it outside the Old Bailey. Under the humor, there are at times real issues being addressed, though a reader can choose to think or not, of course. 

Some readers will be bothered by Rumpole's relationship with his wife (and I'll say it's not one I'd care to have, but the point is to be a bit over the top). And Rumpole isn't above a bit of sneaky maneuvering--always in the interests of justice, of course. It's the ways he finds to get to the truth and get his man off that keep me engaged.

For fans of light mysteries and British humor. If you don't appreciate P.G. Wodehouse, you probably won't be wild about Rumpole, either.  But if you do--dive right in.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of Rumpole and the Golden Thread from my library, and received nothing from the author or the publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Middle Grade Audiobook Review: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie


Title: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847.  (Series: Dear America)
Author: Kristiana Gregory. Read by Stina Nielsen. Introduction and historical notes read by Barbara Rosenblat
Publisher: Live Oak Media, 2006. Original by Scholastic, 1997, 140 pages 

Written as the diary of 13-year-old Hattie, the book recounts her family's journey across the continent on the Oregon Trail. Though it's fun at first, the book doesn't shy away from the realities of death, disease, and hardship along the way. Hattie records it all, until the family arrives in Oregon. An epilogue tells us what becomes of the major characters.
As always with this series, the book is written as though it was an actual diary and the epilogue treats the characters as though they were real. I enjoy that, but am also always a little uncomfortable with it--I do worry that young readers might be confused by the blurring of fiction and non-fiction. I appreciate that newer editions also include the author's name on the cover, as it also always bothered me that the series tended to erase the author--an odd move, given that many of the books are written by stars of middle grade fiction! That said, the series offers some great windows into history, and, as noted, the books are often written by excellent writers who are very diligent with their research. I have read only a few that I thought weren't up to snuff.

This is one of the good ones. I have studied the period, and real diaries of women and children crossing the prairies, enough to know that the author has the feel of it right. There are some grim portions, and that is as it should be. No wagon train made it across the Oregon Trail without some disasters and deaths (though there might have been a few more here than the average, I'd bet you could find plenty of wagon trains that suffered worse). 

One fascinating element of every account of the Oregon Trail (or any of the other westward trails) is the way in which the characters gradually shed their baggage, literal and figurative. By the end, in this case, they have only what they can carry, and that which was vital when they left home often seems pointless now.

The reading level of the book would suggest readers from about 8 up, but given the nature of the journey, I might suggest 9 or 10. 
Full Disclosure: I borrowed an electronic copy of Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie from my library, and received nothing from the author or the 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, September 17, 2015

Friday Flash: Shuttle Down

This week, Chuck Wendig challenged us all to write 1000 words of Space Opera (in honor of his newly-released Star Wars book, Aftermath). I don't think I hit the "sweeping drama" part of the definition (hard to do in 1000 words), but I went for the cheesy element, and mostly played off of old Star Trek (original) episodes remembered from my youth.

I ran a little over, at 1059 words, including the title.

Shuttle Down

Captain Lee paced the bridge of the Starship Endurance, her face grim. “They’re three hours overdue.” Captain Lee snapped shut her silent communicator as she made the decision. “Stephanovich, you’re in charge here. I’m taking the launch and 20 troopers for a search. Pettra, you’re my second in command.”

The First Lieutenant straightened from his post and dared to argue. “Captain, I would very much like to lead the rescue party. Lt. Carpenter is my friend.”

“All the more reason you stay here. I sent them down, I fetch them back.” There was no room for sentiment in a rescue.

The decision made, Captain Lee moved quickly. Troopers, armed and briefed, filed into the shuttle, strapped down, and prepared for launch. Lee and Pettra took their places as pilot and co-pilot and ran through the pre-launch protocols. Lee punched the com button.

“Shuttle Venture to SS Endurance. Prepared to launch.” The shuttle shot out of the launch bay, and Captain Lee took the controls in her assured grip.

The shuttle coasted smoothly to a landing next to a smaller vessel, the Pequod. The Endurance’s auxiliary shuttle appeared undamaged, with no sign of forced entry. Lee made one more futile attempt to raise Lieutenant Carpenter on the com. Dead or alive, she wasn’t communicating.

“We’re going in.” Captain Lee checked her weapons and strode to the hatch.

The small shuttle remained quiet as they approached, Captain Lee on point. She laid her palm on the sensor, and the shuttle door swooshed open. The craft was empty.

Fanning out around the shuttles, the troops scanned for any hint where the crew had gone. A moment later, a shout went up, and a trooper pointed to a line of footprints, leading neatly away from the shuttle before vanishing in a scuffed area.

Lee and Pettra studied the prints, circling wider to search for the trail outside the mess. A few paces out, Lee stopped, putting up a hand to prevent Pettra from stepping forward. Both officers stared at the gargantuan print that stood out clearly from the mess. It was all too definitely not human.

“Holy horned toads,” Pettra breathed. “I never saw anything that big.” Both officers looked up quickly, scanning the surrounding landscape. Something large lurked out there, and they felt the hairs on the backs of their necks rise.

“Do we follow, Captain?” Lt. Pettra asked quietly, so that none of the troops could hear.

“We have to,” Lee answered as quietly. “Full alert, and follow me,” she ordered more loudly. “Weapons to stun.”

Twenty yards further on, they found the red-shirted crewman flung into the rocks, his neck broken. Another milling mess of footprints revealed that the crew had somehow broken loose and scattered, pursued by several of the large-footed creatures. Lee hesitated, unsure for the moment how to proceed.

A burst of weapon-fire and shouting made the decision easy. At least some of her crew were fighting for their lives nearby. No commands were necessary. She waved the troops into line, and they moved off in the direction of the battle, scrambling up out of the gully to cut a corner and approach from above.

Minutes later, Lee and Pettra peered over a line of rocks. Lt. Carpenter and her remaining crew had dug in behind a large boulder partway up the slope, and were firing at a half dozen large, lizard-like aliens, who seemed to be more irritated than injured by the blasters. Lee issued a series of rapid orders, and her troops opened fire into the aliens, which appeared to be both unarmed and impervious to the spacers' weapons.

Alert to the reinforcements, Carpenter issued her own orders, and her crew began an orderly retreat up the hill toward the captain. Several of the women were limping, and one man was being half-carried by two others. The aliens may not have weapons, but they had clearly taken a toll.

The aliens began to charge the hill, seeing their prey escaping. “Set weapons to kill!” Captain Lee shouted, hoping that would at least slow the creatures. “Pettra! Return to the shuttles with Ensign Fion, and get both opened and ready for take-off! Carpenter,” she continued issuing orders as the original landing party topped the hill, “move them on and get them aboard. Retrieve your fallen. As soon as your shuttle is full, take off. That’s an order!” She barked the final command, seeing the Lieutenant hesitate.

At her tone, Carpenter stiffened and saluted. “Yes, ma’am! Pequod crew! At the double. Jones, can you walk?” The injured man who had been half carried nodded, shook his head, and nodded again. “Right. Smith and Rodriguez, carry him. Drag him if you have to. Move!”

Captain Lee had already turned back to the battle. Two troopers had holstered their weapons and worked to loosen a large boulder that stood on the very brink of the hill. Lee instantly saw what they were doing.

“You, you, and you.” She tapped three troopers. “Help them.”

Minutes later, the boulder crashed down the hill toward the aliens, who scattered. Two of the giant creatures were knocked flying.

Captain Lee didn’t stay to find out if they were dead. “Retreat to the shuttles!” The spacers scrambled down the slope, Lee bringing up the rear. As soon as they hit the bottom of the gully, they picked up the pace to a near sprint, overtaking the slower party of injured spacers. Troopers swept their injured shipmates up, more than half-carrying any who lagged, and streamed into the shuttles.

The larger shuttle had taken off, and the lead alien was gaining on Captain Lee when she leapt through the door of Pequod, slammed down the control to seal the hatch, and Ensign Fion hit the motors. Lee struggled against the motion of the craft to reach the co-pilot’s seat, saw at a glance why they were not rising more quickly, and reached for the heavy blaster controls.

Finally she’d found something that affected the aliens. The monster clinging to the nose of the shuttle fell, a massive hole in its chest. Lee punched the com unit.

Pequod to Endurance. Prepare to receive shuttles. Venture to enter first. Prepare sick bay for injured.”

“Casualties?” Came Stephanovich’s calm question.

“Minor injuries, I think. The red shirt is dead, as usual. Endurance brings home her own.”

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Monday, September 14, 2015

Middle Grade Audio Review: The War that Saved My Life


Title: The War That Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley; narrated by Jayne Entwistle
Publisher: Dial Books, 2015 (316 pages). Audio book by Listening Library, 2015
Source: Library (digital download)

Publisher's Summary:
Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

My Review:
I found this a gripping story, complete with the sort of ill-treatment of children that makes me want to go strangle someone. Ada & Jamie's mother is almost unbelievably cruel; her behavior is made convincing only by the author  showing us that she is not alone in her strange ideas about physical differences as marks of the devil, signs of sin, or just plain curses. I'm not sure that the mother needed to be quite so over-the-top, but it certainly leaves the reader with less ambivalence about who you want to have continue as the children's guardian! The war in question is, of course, WWII, setting the book well before modern education reached the working classes.

With Ada as the narrator of her own story, we get insights into how foreign a world a small country town is to a pair of inner-city kids. Ada has it worst, because until she runs off with Jamie, she has never been outside her apartment. So she doesn't know many things that he does, and neither of them has any experience of things as commonplace as daily baths and tablecloths. She has many an internal struggle when she has to ask what things are or what words mean--Ada doesn't like being in the dark.

I think the real thing that saves her life and helps her to learn to be a real human being, though, is the pony. Riding Susan Smith's pony allows Ada, for the first time in her life, to move about without pain. And that opens the world to her, however cautious she may be about accepting that world. In the beginning, Ada sees everyone as a potential enemy or threat; as she herself becomes more comfortable and confident that she will not be abused by Susan, she also begins to see her new neighbors as humans--as they see her.

Jayne Entwistle is an excellent narrator (she does the Flavia du Luce novels of Alan Bradley, which I adore), and brings the characters to life, voicing each clearly and distinctly.

Suitable for middle grade readers, probably 3rd grade and up (from age 8 or 9). The writing is accessible, though there will be things that are strange, especially to American children. The lessons the book teaches about accepting difference--driven home (perhaps unnecessarily) by Jamie's struggles with a teacher who sees his left-handedness as a curse and tries to beat it out of him--are valuable to all children. The other lesson in this book is that of persistence and endurance, because Ada manages to escape only because she is extremely strong-willed and determined from the start.

Full Disclosure: I checked The War That Saved My Life out of my library, and received nothign from the author or publisher in exchange for this 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." 

Middle Grade Monday: WIll Sparrow's Road (Audio Book review)


Title: Will Sparrow's Road
Author: Karen Cushman. Read by Katherine Kellgren 
Publisher: Listening Library, 2012 (print versions Clarion, 2012).
Source:  Library (digital)

Set in Elizabethan England, the book chronicles the travels of Will Sparrow, nearing 13 years old, when he runs away from the tavern keeper to whom his father sold him (he is motivated, as the tavern keeper has threatened to sell him to a chimney sweep--more or less of a death sentence). Will is cynical and distrusting, but he is also hungry, which leads him eventually to join up with a traveling troupe of "oddities"--a dwarf, a cat-faced girl, and a lot of fakes. It takes him a while to learn what he needs to know about appearances and deception, but in the end his road takes him where he needs to go.

Karen Cushman is well known for her historical fiction, and while it often has a touch of humor, this I thought was not only her first to feature a male protagonist, but the first to really embrace its humor. At first I found it a little hard to get into; the narrative style seems to create a little distance from the reader (maybe in an effort to have a more Elizabethan sound?). Nor is Will a terribly likable kid, though he is understandable. "I care for no one but myself and nothing but my stomach," he declares as his motto, while boasting of his prowess as a liar and thief. I did warm to the character, and the story, as the book progressed, and he learned both compassion and humility.

There is no question that the book presents a vivid picture of the time and place. The fairs, the thieves and pickpockets and charlatans that abound--these are real and clearly painted. The author's historical note at the end is fascinating, too, and I see on looking at the Amazon page that at the back of the book there is a bibliography of works on the period (not included in the audio book).

The reader, Katherine Kellgren, does an excellent job of voicing the characters and presenting the accents. I think the narration added a great deal to the story.

This isn't the best of Cushman's books, but it is an excellent historical novel and certainly captures the time and place well. Nothing about it is inappropriate for readers from about 9 up.

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

Friday, September 11, 2015

Photo Friday!

Well, that was a week! My post is late today, because not only was there no flash fiction prompt from Chuck Wendig, but Friday snuck up on me. So instead of a story, we have photos. Last weekend, we visited Mt. Lassen National Park--by bicycle. So not a very thorough visit in some ways, but what I rode through I saw inch by inch! Not a hint of snow in the park, of course, which makes Mt. Lassen look a whole lot less impressive.

A few stats: Mt. Lassen (10,463') is located in northern California, and is the southernmost volcano of the Cascade range (the same one that has Mt. Rainier and the explosive Mt. St. Helens). The park is currently celebrating the centennial of the mountain's last eruptive cycle, which probably tells you most of what you need to know about volcanic activity! Definitely not a dead volcano. The park has areas of impressive thermal activity (not in Yellowstone quantities, but still good). Most of that requires a walk to get to it, so we didn't visit--too hard to walk in our bike shoes. Ironically, touring by bike turned us into the worst sort of "windshield tourist" who never leaves the pavement.

Our ride started outside the Park, so the entrance sign was a good excuse to stop.
I love the wisp of steam from the mountain in the picture on the sign.
 We went on to the Visitor's Center and had lunch, then began the real climb up towards the mountain.
The road got a serious case of the wiggles. This was actually good--it really was never terribly steep. It just kept going.
As we got closer to the mountain, we reached the one road-side thermal feature, the Sulfur Works (I think there is more there than what is visible from the road, but that's what we checked out).
Yes, that is boiling mud.
I shot this on the way back down when the light was better. Sunlight through the steam over the bubbling mud pot.
Mid-afternoon, and I finally reached the high point on the road (despite the sign, it is only the "summit" of the pass, not of the peak! You have to hike to get up there--a trip I have never done, and would definitely not care to do at this time of year--too hot and dry).
Sadly, this wasn't the turn-around. I had to go down the other side a few miles--and climb back up!
I dropped down to Kings Meadow, which was painfully dry (as was everything in the park--there were slopes of plants that were completely brown, plants that should have had green leaves all summer). The meadow has a lovely stream, though, and a view straight back to the peak itself.
Kings Creek and random tourists
What would an epic ride be without a treat? I made it back to the Visitor's Center cafe just in time to get our ice cream before they closed.
Usually I'd snoot this sort of ice cream. After 40+ miles, with 10 or more to go, it was delicious :)
Lassen is a cool park practically in our back yard. One of these days we need to go spend more time there and explore all the thermal features!

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015
Photos shot on my new IPhone 5, which doesn't do too badly for a phone.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Middle Grade Classics: The Children of Green Knowe--Audio Book review

The Children of Green Knowe

Title: The Children of Green Knowe
Author: L.M. Boston. Read by Simon Vance
Publisher: Listen & Live Audio, 2006 (originally published 1954).

Publisher's Summary:
L.M. Boston's thrilling and chilling tales of Green Knowe, a haunted manor deep in an overgrown garden in the English countryside, have been entertaining readers for half a century. There are three children: Toby, who rides the majestic horse Feste; his mischievous little sister, Linnet; and their brother, Alexander, who plays the flute. The children warmly welcome Tolly to Green Knowe ... even though they've been dead for centuries. But that's how everything is at Green Knowe. The ancient manor hides as many stories as it does dusty old rooms. And the master of the house is great-grandmother Oldknow, whose storytelling mixes present and past with the oldest magic in the world. 

My Review:
This book has been on my radar screen for ages, and I finally took a listen. It is definitely a book from an older time, which suits me just fine (since so much of the children's lit I grew up with comes from the 50s and earlier). It is a type of story that stretches me and makes me just that bit uncomfortable: a story where the reader is never quite sure if it's really a fantasy, or if it's all about the power of Tolly's imagination (spurred on my great-grandmother Oldknow, unless she, too, is seeing children who are several centuries dead). I don't know if other people (including children) are more willing to just accept the ambiguity, but for me, this kind of thing always makes me want to know: are the children real or not? Or, to put it another way, is it fantasy or an ode to the imagination?

The answer to that question doesn't really seem to matter--it's a great story either way, and I think it's my weakness to want a solid answer one way or the other! It's also a story that could be creepy (the summary, above, makes it sound as though it might be), but in fact it's not. Tolly and old Mrs. Oldknow both accept the ancient children with no fear, and though there is a moment of very real fear (and real-feeling danger) from something that could only be called magical, that doesn't seem to affect either Tolly's or my feeling about the children.

In some ways the book feels a bit piece-meal, as the stories of the past are interspersed with the unfolding tale of Tolly's discoveries about the manor and the children. But it serves to integrate the stories of the historical children with the live child, and I think works well (it could be seen as a sort of time travel, as indeed the Library of Congress subject headings imply: "Juvenile fiction Space and time").

Narrator Simon Vance does an excellent job, voicing the characters distinctly and conveying the magical tone of the story admirably.

I can recommend the story and the audio both. The writing level is a little higher than kids might be used to for middle-grade, but there is nothing essentially difficult about it. American children may be a little lost at first in some language and historical references, but most will take it in stride. The audio book would make great family vacation listening.

Full Disclosure: I checked The Children of Green Knowe 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, September 7, 2015

Mystery Review: Geek Girl's Guide

Title: A Geek Girl’s Guide to Murder (The Geek Girl Mysteries)
Cozy Mystery
Author: Julie Anne Lindsey
Publisher: Carina Press (August 31, 2015), 242 pages
Publication Date: August 31, 2015
Sold by: Harlequin Digital Sales Corp.

Publisher's Synopsis:
IT manager Mia Connors is up to her tortoiseshell glasses in technical drama when a glitch in the Horseshoe Falls email system disrupts security and sends errant messages to residents of the gated community. The snafu’s timing couldn’t be worse—Renaissance Faire season is in full swing and Mia’s family’s business relies on her presence.

Mia doesn’t have time to hunt down a computer hacker. Her best friend has disappeared, and she finds another of her friends murdered—in her office. When the hunky new head of Horseshoe Falls security identifies Mia as the prime suspect, her anxiety level registers on the Richter scale.
Eager to clear her name, Mia moves into action to locate her missing buddy and find out who killed their friend. But her quick tongue gets her into trouble with more than the new head of security. When Mia begins receiving threats, the killer makes it clear that he’s closer than she’d ever imagined.

julie About The Author –
Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s the author of The Patience Price Mysteries and a number of YA novels. A self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun, Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.

My Review:
First, just to let you know, last October I reviewed Julie Anne Lindsey's Murder in Real Time. Now she's back with a new series, the Geek Girl Mysteries. I liked the idea of a mystery heroine in the tech world, so I signed up for the blog tour.

Mia is an interesting character. She pretty clearly has Asperger's Syndrome, which adds another interesting layer to her character, though it does feel a little cliched (must a techy geek always have AS?). Cliche aside, though, it gives her some extra hurdles to overcome (she has a LOT of trouble reading social cues and facial expressions). As a parent of a kid with Asperger's, I think the author got this pretty spot on. Mia isn't disconnected from people; she is simply all too often bewildered by them. I did have a little issue with her obsession with fancy clothes (I don't think of geeks being clothes horses), but that's probably just me. It's probably good to not plop all the stereotypes onto poor Mia (I also suspect that the intended audience, a cross-over from Harlequin Romances, likes clothes).

In the beginning, I was totally annoyed by the absolutely stereotypical relation between Mia and the main male character. I confess to even possibly rolling my eyes as they faced off and sparred and Mia affirmed her dislike of the man (who really does act like a jerk) while they both ignored their obvious chemistry. Looking back from the end of the book, knowing what I do, Jake's behavior makes perfect sense (still annoys me, though). And I loved (small spoiler alert!) that Lindsey didn't make them fall into each others' arms at the end of the book.

In a nutshell, this was a well-constructed, well-written mystery, with a strong romance tilt. I was positive I spotted the perp a mile away, and about the time I was getting disappointed in the author being so transparent, I realized I was wrong. I like that. The series has promise, and I look forward to seeing what comes next. I do hope Mia will start working out. She's putting on weight and hasn't kept up the sports that she enjoyed in her teens, and that's not a good pattern as she approaches 30! And the fact that I care tells me that the author created a character who really did become real in my mind.

For cozy fans who are a bit tired of bakeries, quilt shops, and yarn stores, and don't mind the blatant romance/mystery crossover.

Full Disclosure: As a blog tour participant, I was given an electronic ARC of A Geek Girl's Guide to Murder  in exchange for my honest review, not for a positive 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." 

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mystery review: Charlotte MacLeod

I am astounded to discover that I have not reviewed any of Charlotte MacLeod's mysteries. Since I've been re-reading those I can find as ebooks, I thought this week I'd discuss one of her series. So, for those who haven't had the Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn.

The first in the series (and I think the second book she published?) is The Family Vault, published in 1979 by DoubleDay).

17976079 (I wanted to use the cover under which I first encountered the book, but couldn't find a decent image of it).

This was followed by The Withdrawing Room in 1980. This cover is from the original paperbacks, which followed the hardcovers in close order. The covers were pretty macabre, for stories that really aren't!
Followed by The Palace Guard, and so on. Ms. MacLeod was still writing the series when she died in 2005.

So why these books? Well, for one thing, they were my gateway drug to murder mysteries. Light, fun, and easy to read, they nonetheless have fascinating characters and good plots. Okay, the plots are worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan (of whom MacLeod was clearly a fan), and the author had a terrific tendency to word play and the use of uncommon vocabulary. That, combined with characters who might have come right out of Dickens (well, their names might, anyway. MacLeod never shied from giving a character an appropriate name, or at least a suggestive one--consider Bradley Rovedock from The Bilbao Looking Glass, a man with a tendency to go where he will, in more ways than one), tickled my fancy, and I read on.

With The Family Vault MacLeod created the Kelling clan of Boston, a family from the old Boston "codfish aristocracy" (where keeping up appearances is vital, but not as vital as getting all the possible good out of Great-Uncle Nathan's old morning-coat. These people will dress to the hilt, but it may well be in the clothes they have inherited for three generations. Ditto their cars. New England thrift meets aristocratic tastes). Sarah at first seems just a minor player in this family, but over the course of even the first book, and definitely the series, proves to be more of an iconoclast. When she converts her Beacon Hill Brownstone to a high-class boarding house, then marries Max Bittersohn and joins him in his detective pursuits, her relatives have no idea what to make of her.

It is that family connection that keeps the books Gilbertsonian, however. Sarah and Max are constantly being called on to solve the odd problems that develop in the clan, not to mention the dead bodies that keep turning up. Most of the situations are just slightly absurd.

Each book in the series stands on its own, but in my opinion the experience is enhanced when you read them in order. Sadly, MacLeod's books are largely out of print, though many libraries still have them (and they can often be found in used bookstores). If you like your murder with a touch of the absurd, it's worth tracking them down and reading them.

MacLeod's other series is the Peter Shandy mysteries, starting with Rest You Merry. She also published, under the name Alisa Craig, the "Grub-and-Stakers" series, and books featuring Canadian Mountie Madoc Rhys, as well as a few stand-alone novels.

Full Disclosure: Over the years I have borrowed, bought, and stolen (from my Mom) these books. The one thing I have never done is received one, or anything else, as a gift from  the writer or publisher.  The opinions expressed herein 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."