Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday Flash: Senior Sneak

In celebration of the final two days of the special sale price for Death By Ice Cream, I am offering a short story featuring JJ MacGregor and her friend Kitty, neatly solving another problem for Pismawallops Island high school. This would take place between the events of Death By Ice Cream and those of Death By Trombone.  998 words.

 Senior Sneak

“Anything interesting at school?” I juggled a gallon of milk and an overloaded hand-basket as I made the polite inquiry of my son’s principal. I expected Mr. Ammon to smile and give an equally polite and meaningless answer and get on with his shopping.

Instead, he groaned. “What should there be, JJ? I’m sitting in the office doing paperwork when I should be teaching algebra and trigonometry, coping with everyone’s moods and issues and crises, not to mention that the seniors get insufferable this time of year. Apart from all that it’s just hunky-dory.”

I mumbled something about, “let me know what we can do to help,” and tried to rest the corner of my basket on a shelf to take some weight off. Why had I said that? I just wanted to get home with my groceries so we could have dinner.

Too late.

“As a matter of fact, I do want a little help from you and Kitty.”

Kitty Padgett is my best friend, and PTA president. I’m the VP, and in a school as tiny as Pismawallops Island’s high school, it’s hard to hide when the principal wants something. I set my burdens down and waited to hear what was needed now. Chaperones for a field trip? Decorations for a party? Maybe he hoped we’d throw a nice lunch for the teachers. We could do that.

“The seniors are up to something. Some kind of prank or other.”

“They do that every year, don’t they? Senior Prank, Senior Skip day, that sort of thing?”

“They do. But I need to know what they have in mind.”

“Aren’t you going to let them have their fun?”

“They can have their fun. I just want to see if we can’t have some, too. And I do need to know what they’re up to. The school board is just a bit touchy about liability right now.”

I could understand that. The whole island was still reeling from a nasty scandal, not to mention murder, that had involved the principal and vice principal. That was why Russ Ammon was acting as principal instead of teaching math.

There was only one response to make, and I made it. “So what can Kitty and I do?”

“Find out what they’re up to. Then—we’ll see.”

The thing is, Kitty and I recently acquired something of a reputation for finding things out, on top of our usual reputation for doing whatever needed to be done around the school. I phoned her after dinner.

“We’ve got a case, Watson.”

“JJ, what on earth are you talking about?”

“Mr. Ammon wants us to figure out what the seniors are planning so he can decide what should be done about it. And then no doubt ask us to do it.”

“Why should he do anything about it?”

I told her.

Next morning we quizzed the kids—her two daughters and my son—while we carpooled to school, but none of them knew, or admitted to, anything of what the seniors were planning. That didn’t surprise me. Part of the fun each year is that no one outside the graduating class knows what they’ll do.

“Well, we can’t just ask,” Kitty said. “No one is going to confess without rack and thumbscrews.”

I thought about a couple of the kids I wouldn’t mind treating to a little lesson in medieval life, and stifled the thought. I suggested bribes; Kitty suggested spying scopes and bugs.

Compared to rounding up a murderer, the kids proved laughably easy. We were still sitting in our car floating silly ideas when a group of students came out to the parking lot and clustered around a nearby vehicle. They never even glanced our way. Since our windows were already down, all we had to do was sit quiet and listen.

As usual, the students weren’t all that imaginative. They planned to gather at the lighthouse instead of on campus the following Tuesday, and none too early, either. What was the point of skipping school if you still had to get up early?

That was when we began to get ideas of our own.

It took little to persuade Russ Ammon, who had a wicked sense of humor hidden under his mathematical exterior. He suggested two or three teachers who might go along, and we were off and running.

The hardest part was making sure our own kids didn’t know what we were up to. They were good kids, but the temptation to talk would be powerful. We dealt with that by not doing anything concrete until we’d dropped them off Tuesday morning. Then we got busy, starting with groceries.

Ms. Day and Brett Holt were already in the picnic shelter at the lighthouse, unpacking boxes. I passed around cups of coffee from a take-out box I’d gotten at the Have-a-Bite bakery, and we had plenty of time to set everything up before most of the senior class arrived in a clump.

What they found where they had planned to meet, hang out, and eat a few chips and sodas was…a classroom with piles of textbooks and two teachers handing out exams.

“Exit exams today, kids,” Brett told them, struggling to hold a straight face.

Kitty and I lurked behind the big stone fireplace and snapped photos of their shocked faces. We’d find a use for those.

When the kids had worked themselves up to a desperate protest, we admitted it was a joke and pulled out the food. Their chips and sodas would make a nice counterpoint to the sandwiches, cake, fruit bowls, and other snacks that we provided. A few of the kids continued to pout, but most of them took it in good grace, laughed, and began to eat.

None of them even noticed that their sneak day, when they might have thought of partying with more hazardous things than soda, had fallen under adult supervision. They were too busy playing with the Frisbees and soap bubbles.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A to Z Highlights #4

Last of my A to Z highlights posts, unless I find some more blogs I just have to share in the last 4 days of the month.

For everyone who has ever loved Dilbert or hated work, Words from Sonobe features daily horror stories (or maybe they aren't all horror, just the ones I read?) from work, with a touch of humor.

I've been following My Life in Retirement for quite a while. This A to Z its about books and travel.
And another in a similar category, A Septuagenarian's Ramblings.

Some interesting snippets on writing from Thinky Thoughts...Mostly About Writing.

I'll throw in here the second live-on-board blog that Jemima mentioned last week in my comments: S. V. Cambria. They sail where my brother likes to cruise; wonder if they've ever run into each other! The "V" post is lengthy, but some excellent advice about improving your photos.

Paws 4 Puzzles offers a fun puzzle every day. Looks like the difficulty varies, but they aren't super simple. I'll be hunting through those for entertainment when I'm bored.

Okay, that's enough for today. I'll be going back both to my list to see who I want to follow more actively (I like to see what they do AFTER A to Z) and to the A to Z list to check out more blogs.

I can't say I've managed the level of visiting I'd hoped to do, but I *have* managed to keep up work on my novel during the month, which has not been the case the years I have participated in A to Z. So I'll count my experiment as at least a partial success.

Will I do A to Z next year? Hard to say. I may just go on being a visitor.


Speaking of there being only a few days left in the month, that means just a few days to get Death By Ice Cream for only 99 cents!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Middle Grade Monday and Kid Lit Blog Hop

It's been a while since I managed to hook up with the Kid Lit Blog Hop, but here I go. Click on the image above to see the links to other blogs covering books for children!

And now for my review:

Title: Replay
Author: Sharon Creech
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2009. 136 pages (per my Nook)
Source: Library (digital services)

Publisher's Summary: 
With the backdrop of a large family and a theater as its frame, this is a story about twelve-year-old Leo, who has a talent for transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. That's why he's called "fog boy." He's always dreaming, always replaying things in his brain. As an actor in the school play, he is poised and ready for the curtain to open. But in the play that is his life, he is eager to discover what part will be his.

With the universal theme of finding one's true identity, and set amid a loud, noisy, memorable family, Leo's story is one that all kids will relate to. And there's a full play at the end of the book that kids and teachers can perform!

My Review:
I expect Sharon Creech to provide me with a good read that's also thoughtful and thought-provoking, and Replay did not disappoint. Creech beautifully captures Leo's sense of being the odd one out in his family, the kid who's no good at sports and spends too much time daydreaming. Leo is 12, on that awkward brink between little kid and teen, and he's struggling with a sense of identity. It doesn't help that he's the second of four kids, and his siblings all call him by not-so-flattering nicknames like "Fog Boy," which may be accurate (he does tend to get lost in the fog of his imaginings) but isn't helpful or kind.

I liked, though, that in the end we see that Leo's family isn't icky and disfunctional. They are perfectly normal, dealing with a lot of normal stresses, some worse than those faced by others, some less so. It's just that Leo is at that point in his life when it all feels uncomfortable, like he doesn't know how to fit anymore. He likes to imagine himself doing great and grand things, because he doesn't feel like he is seen by his family, but in fact when he does his part in the school play and does it well, they are there and see it and give him the applause he needs.

This is a very short and easy-to-read story, especially if one discounts the play that follows (it is the play that Leo's class puts on, and it's subject is definitely relevant to the book, so worth reading), but as usual, Creech manages to capture a whole story and present it well. There were also some very funny lines, though I always wonder when I laugh aloud at a children's book if the kids will laugh in the same place.

This might be particularly relevant for middle-school boys (and girls), but it will be accessible and of interest to kids from about 8 up, with nothing a younger child shouldn't read. There is no romance for Leo, just a healthy friendship that we see move to a more mature level, and in the end we see Leo getting the space and the support he needs to grow up.

Full Disclosure: I checked Replay 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."  

Final week of the 99-cent sale!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Friday Flash: The Present Will Be Infernal

It was a random title draw at this week, but I confess I simply picked the title I liked best. For your reading pleasure, 997 words.

The Present Will be Infernal

That was what the prophecy said: “The present will be infernal.” My Da always added, “and the past and future don’t look so good either.”

Most of our suffering was on account of the war. Anytime we managed to get some small crop, seemed like either an army came along and requisitioned the whole thing, or two armies came along and held a battle atop our fields, trampling them to mudholes.

Corpses don’t make for good fertilizer, at least not right away.

Our village always managed to just scrape by, but it wasn’t pretty. That explained Da’s take on past and present. As for the future—our village won’t have one. The armies took our young men. They’d always taken some, the ones who itched to get out, or who thought they wanted an adventure. But this time, King Tellert declared a muster, and claimed every male of fighting age. He defined “fighting age” pretty broadly. I wept when my Da left, side by side with my brother.

The chances were slim that we would meet again, in this world or any other.

When we all got over our shock at losing sons and brothers and husbands, and any men we might have courted, we realized the future was gone too. With only a few young brides, none of them in the family way, our village was doomed.  No men, no babies. No babies, no future. With the war raging by, it’s hell now, but soon enough it’ll be…nothing.

“There’s only one thing to do.” Our headman, Balthazar, could barely stand, but we paid attention. If we didn’t, he could still swing that cane he leaned on. “We must leave. Find a new home with another village.”

“Give up?”
“How could we survive?” 

“Silence!” Balthazar’s voice cut through the babble of frightened women and elders. “Leave, or stay here and die slowly. Each of you,” he looked from face to frightened face, “must make that decision for yourself.” Silence fell as women realized they must decide alone. In a handful of cases, they had to decide for children, though those were precious few. Not many youngsters were born to our war-trampled village, and fewer survived infancy. They turned to each other, bewildered.

I turned to no one.  Da and Paulo had been my only kin. If they lived, they would know of nowhere to find me but our village. I didn’t know what to think. We had already lost everything to the infernal past and present, and now the future passed out of reach.

Balthazar had one more thing to say. “I will not go. I cannot walk so far.” Voices interrupted to clamor that they would carry him, but we all knew that was a lie. Several ancient men and women hobbled to his side. “We will wait together,” Granny Teela said in her cracked voice. She didn’t say what they would wait for. She didn’t have to.

“Who will protect us on the road?” The woman who asked that wept as she clutched the hand of her young daughter.

Sheena stepped forward at the head of a half a dozen women of our age. Two men, too old for the army but still able to wield a spear, joined them. “We will guard.” Sheena looked at me, questioning.

I shook my head, and looked at the cluster of our eldest elders. My path was clear.

“I will stay. The elders will need someone who can bring water and cook.” And, I did not say aloud, fight. The present might be infernal, but I would not see these elders into hell without a fight.

“Alone?” Sheena didn’t bother saying I would be little use. I shrugged.

“You will need all the arms you can get to survive your trip. I have no family. I will stay.” I knew what I was saying, and Sheena met my eyes with a look of pity and respect mingled. She knew, too.


Seven of us stood in a silent cluster and watched the ragged column of our past and future shuffle away into the distance. Since the army had taken all our draft animals, and even the goats, the women were bowed under burdens far beyond their strength.

When they had passed out of sight, I limped to the well and drew a bucket of water. The elders went into the village hall, where people had placed many of the things they could not take: the best beds, food, enough to last out our short lives. I collected bows, spears, and even a couple of swords that the men had left behind when taken off by the army.

I would face hell with a full armory and with a full belly.


When the army came, they marveled that the village was silent and still, save for a single line of smoke from a single chimney.

I stood in the doorway and watched the long columns approach. This wasn’t the army that had taken Da and Paulo. Thus my last hope fled. I would die alone. I touched my sword, and clutched the spear in my left hand. Beside me, four bows thrust through the arrow slits, but the arms that wielded those bows were weak and wasted.

“There is nothing here for you,” I called out to the soldiers. “We are the remnant of a dead village. Ride on.”

Their general threw back his head and laughed. “Ride on? Why not take what we might, and kill those who remain?”

“Why not indeed? Though you will find little enough to take, and why kill those who are already on the brink of another world?”

My people came from the shadows to stand beside me, and the man stared.

“It is as you say,” he marveled. “Only the old and dying, and guarded by a girl-child with a crooked leg.” He turned his column and they marched away.

The present would remain infernal.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A to Z Gems Post #3

Okay, round 3, and I'll see if I manage to get it right this time!

I'm clicking on a lot of blogs in the middle of the A to Z list that haven't been posting. I'm hoping the list will get tidied up soon, but meanwhile, here are some I've found that were worth the visit:

Life aboard a sailboat: Life Afloat

Some good (short) poems (plus a nice punning blog title): The Write Side of the Bed

Some hesitation about this one, as the blogger hasn't posted since K, but the pictures are lovely if you just want to go look at photos: Beth Cooper Photography

Wendy's Waffle will take you on a tour...of London's tube stops!

All in a Dad's Work--a parenting blog that seems to have it's head screwed on straight (or maybe I'm biased because he advocates going outside and getting dirty, a favorite around our house).

And that's all I have time for tonight! Can't believe another Wednesday is rolling around already.


Still nearly two weeks to get Death By Ice Cream, Book 1 of the Pismawallops PTA mystery series, for only 99 cents!

If you've already read it, check out Book 2, Death By Trombone!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Middle Grade Monday: Fireflies, by Bree Wolf

Okay, yeah, I'm a little late. Weekends happen :)


Title: Fireflies
Author: Bree Wolf
Publisher: self. 2013, 152 pages
Source: Smashwords free book.

Note: this was a book-of-the-month read for my Goodreads Great Middle Grade Reads group. I'm not sure if the book is always free or if the author made it free for that event.

Publisher's Summary:
In the buzzing city of New York, 12-year-old Gabriel Scott retreats from his parents' constant arguing into a virtual world of adventure and companionship. Unfortunately, as summer comes along, his parents ship him off to Kenton Woods to stay with grandparents he hasn't seen in years. Trapped in a world of small town life, Gabriel suddenly finds himself cut off from the only friends he ever had when he discovers that his grandparents don't even own a computer.

After sulking in the house for a few days, his grandfather drags him outside and Gabriel takes his first steps into the real world. Gathering all his courage, he talks to Liam, their neighbors' son, who hands him a small sheet of paper and asks for his help. From that day on, Gabriel follows Liam and his friends on a treasure hunt across town. With the entire school on their heels, they rush to solve riddle after riddle, slowly closing in on that which no one has ever found before. Along the way, Gabriel meets the head-butting twins Jack and Jordan, their dog Cat, the insane story-teller Eddie and Hannah, a young girl locked up in her room.

Hand in hand, they work to help Hannah escape and take her along on their adventure. Having spent her entire life cut off from the rest of the world, Gabriel finds a kindred spirit in the red-haired girl with the glowing eyes. But one day, a secret Hannah has been carefully hiding from the group rears its ugly head and threatens to shatter Gabriel's new life and the place he thought he'd finally found in the world.

My Review: 
(That summary is kind of long, but it does outline the story nicely).

I found this a beautiful story, with a nice balance of humor, adventure, puzzles, and pathos (I mean that last in a positive way). In a sense, it's a coming-of-age story, as Gabriel and his new friends not only learn to work together but Gabriel learns to deal with some hard life issues. There were a few glitches with the writing and formatting, but they did not prevent me from feeling that this was a beautiful and beautifully written story with a wide appeal.

About those glitches: of no great significance was a problem with hyphenation, where apparently hard hyphens got into the text, so that words were divid-ed in random places on the page (since my line breaks obviously didn't match the originals). That was a minor distraction.

A larger distraction for me, and the reason this will get 4, rather than 5 stars on Goodreads (4 being "I really liked it" and 5 "it's amazing") was that the dialog at times felt a little stilted to me. Since I'm in the midst of editing, and dialog/voice is part of what I'm focusing on, I am probably more sensitized to this than the average reader. For the same reason, I also dug around to see why I was bothered. The answer I found was pretty simple: the characters didn't use enough contractions. It's not all the time, and I'll accept it--sort of--for Eddie, who is supposed to talk like his lawyer parents. But I stumbled early on when, for example, Gabriel's mother is speaking: "But that is over now. Everything is fine. This is not about us...We are just doing what's best for you." There are other places where a similar tone shows up. Sometimes it looks like it's meant as emphasis, I say, I'm a bit sensitive to it right now.

Probably my only other concern is that in the early part of the book we spend a  lot of time immersed in Gabriel's fictional world--the one in his computer game where he spends most of his time. In the early chapters it's a big enough part of the the book that I found myself wanting resolution for the adventure going on there, too. But Gabriel loses interest when the real world becomes a place worth staying in, as he should.  I just wish I hadn't been quite so drawn in to that alternative story. Perhaps the author will return to this in the next book, as this does have a sequel. For this book, I could actually have happily started the story when he gets to his grandparents' house.

[Reader warning: this is meant as part of a trilogy, but though Book 2 is out, the author has no immediate plans to write book 3. So you may never get complete resolution, though frankly this book doesn't really need a sequel.]

Despite my kvetching, I can recommend this for kids from about 9 up, and I think adults will enjoy it too.

Full Disclosure: I downloaded Fireflies as a free book from Smashwords, of my own free will, 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, April 15, 2016

Friday Flash: The Intelligence of Pegasus

Well, here it is again--another week, another rush to finish my story in time to revise it for you! Chuck Wendig gave us two lists of words or phrases this week, to be randomly selected and turned into a title. Being a bit lazy, instead of opening my random number generator, I asked my son for two numbers between one and 20. His choices gave me "Pegasus" and "Intelligence." As is often the case when starting from the title, it gives the idea and then the story moves on so the fit is no longer perfect. But a tale's a tale for all that. I hearby give you, in 1001 words...

The Intelligence of Pegasus 

“We’re operating blind, that’s the hell of it!” The captain glanced at the hills that prevented his scouts from watching the enemy.

“So you’ll let me go up?” The young lieutenant was practically panting with eagerness to show what he could do with his new-fangled machine.

Captain Carmichael-Jones caressed horse that looked over his shoulder, and scowled at the mess of wood and fabric that so excited Lieutenant Marsten. “This war is insane.”

“All war is insane, Sir,” Marsten replied.

The captain eyed his subordinate. “You say that?”

“I am eager to fly, Sir. But I’m not crazy. War is insane, but flying,” he gazed at the aeroplane as one contemplating a miracle. “Flying is sublime. Like childhood dreams of riding Pegasus.”

If Captain Carmichael-Jones thought his lieutenant wasn’t entirely done with childhood, he refrained from saying so. “You can go.” And may the gods bring you back alive, or your mother will have my guts for garters. He watched the younger man swarm over his beloved flying machine. The boy touched that blasted thing like a lover. Or, the captain admitted as he turned back to his horse, like a man grooming his favorite horse.

Carmichael-Jones mounted. What kind of a war had one man leading a bayonet charge on horse-back, while another took to the air like a bird?

He smiled, recalling the lieutenant’s words. Not a bird. A winged horse. “Rocinante, I’m sending Pegasus to spy out the enemy’s guns. Am I crazy?” The mare flicked her ears at the sound of the captain’s voice, but offered no advice.

If Captain Carmichael-Jones was dissatisfied with his decision, Lt. Marsten was not. He hummed as he went over his craft from stem to stern, checking every joint and lever, preparing to fly.

Marsten had learned to fly before joining up, and had brought the machine over at his own—or more accurately his father’s—expense, but in this obscure corner of a war being fought in two centuries, he’d been given no chance to fly, though all over France men were jousting on air.

“The Captain’s a good chap, Esmerelda,” he addressed his craft, “but he really doesn’t understand modern warfare.” The machine didn’t even have ears to flick in response to his voice.

While a ground patrol did best reconnoitering at dawn or dusk, Marsten had learned from other flyers, before his posting here at the end of the earth, that an aeroplane did best when the sun was high. Approach the target out of the sun, and they couldn’t look at you, so they couldn’t shoot you down before you’d swooped down and strafed the trenches, or dropped your bombs.

Marsten sighed. Esmerelda had neither guns nor bombs. She was a private aircraft and wouldn’t be doing anything but surveillance. He’d wanted to join the air corps, but his mother had put her foot down. She didn’t know that he’d shipped the plane out here. Not, at least, in time to stop him.

Marsten frowned as he took his seat in the open cockpit a half hour later. He hadn’t been up since arriving here. Captain Carmichael-Jones was afraid he’d be shot down.

“I’m going to do a test run over our own lines, Smithy,” he told the head of his hastily-assembled ground crew. “Just a little practice.”

“Right you are, sir. Captain warned the gunners you might.”

“Spin the prop, then, and stand back!”

Smithy had been drilled on this in hopes that one day Marsten would be allowed up. He gave the blade a deft yank, dodged back and aside, and watched while the lieutenant warmed up the motor and checked his controls.

The camp had no runway. Marsten turned the aeroplane onto the hard-packed dirt road that connected them to the rest of the Allies, and let off the brake. Esmerelda bounced some as she picked up speed, but at last he felt her leave the earth, with the rush of pure joy that moment always gave him.

A loop over his own lines told Marsten that he’d not forgotten how to fly, and proved to him that he could see plenty that would never be visible to a ground observer. He crossed the hills, considered the position of the sun, and swooped in on his approach. A smattering of bullets whistling past did nothing to diminish his joy.

“So that’s the whole layout,” he finished his report. Captain Carmichael-Jones studied the diagram Lt. Marsten had drawn, and nodded.

“Very good.”
After that, Marsten went up often. On the day of their big offensive, Marsten was in the air with a lapful of grenades—pathetic armament, compared with the bombers others flew over the enemy’s cities. Captain Carmichael-Jones led the troops on the ground. No more superior officer had ever bothered with their branch of the war.

Weeks of flying over the enemy lines had taught Marsten to dodge and weave, never presenting an easy target. Lucky for him the enemy here had no anti-aircraft guns. His fragile Esmerelda was vulnerable enough to rifle fire. He’d patched her a few times when shots had gotten too close.

While the two armies charged toward each other, each side led by mounted officers, Marsten circled overhead, dropped his charges, and signaled flanking movements. At first he seemed immune to gunfire, but eventually it started to take a toll. By the time the captain’s troops overran the enemy camp, Marsten was coasting in for a rough landing, wings tattered and engine dead.

It wasn’t a great landing. He would heal, but Esmerelda would not. There were tears on Marsten’s face as he limped off to report to the captain.

He found Carmichael-Jones by the body of Rocinante, his own face wet with tears.

Smithy had his own comment on the scene. “Reckon,” he told Muggs, “this war’s moved beyond horses.” He glanced at the smoldering wreck that had been Marsten’s love. “But maybe it ain’t ready for them flying machines either.”

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A to Z Gems Post #2

Here's the second collection of interesting A to Z blogs and posts. Your short-cut to blogging wonderfulness!

Pempi's Palace--Tales from the life of a teacher.
Trina's North Germany -- just some ramblings and observations about life in North Germany
Linda Q. Lampert -- a selection of random ramblings, sparked by prompts that require a lot of imagination to fit to A to Z :)

And this was supposed to have gone up yesterday, and with more than 3 blogs. I'll add in here, in case any of my followers don't already know her, Jemima Pett.

And, on a totally more serious note, and nothing to do with A to Z, this is the blog of a group of scientists headed to the Greenland ice sheet next week. They are in their 4th year, I think, of doing research on the melt rates and other issues on the ice sheet. CIRES FirnCover team.

I'll do better next week. Really.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Glory in a Camel's Eye

162453  268004

Two covers, because the image of the one I read--on the left--is so small. Plus, I think the other  cover is nicer :)

Title: Glory in a Camel's Eye: A Perilous Trek Through the Greatest African Desert
Author: Jeffrey Tayler
Publisher: Houghton Mifflen Harcourt, 2003. 245 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary: 
Hailed by Bill Bryson and the New York Times Book Review as an emerging master of travel writing, Tayler penetrates one of the most forbidding regions on Earth. Journeying along routes little altered since the Middle Ages, he uses his linguistic and observational gifts to illuminate a venerable, enigmatic culture of nomads and mystics.

Though no stranger to privation (having journeyed across Siberia and up the Congo for his earlier books), Tayler is unprepared for the physical challenges that await him in a Sahara dessicated by eight years of unprecedented drought. He travels across a landscape of nightmares - charred earth, blinding sky, choking gales, and what is fittingly called the Valley of the Dead. The last Westerner to attempt this trek left his skeleton in the sand, and even Tayler's camels wilt in the searing wastes.

But his remarkable perseverance, as well as his fluency in classical and Moroccan Arabic, helps him find here a bracing purity. The Saharawi Bedouin among whom he journeys are ur-Arabs, untouched by the modernity or radicalism that festers elsewhere in the Arab world. By revealing their ingenuity, their wit, their unrivaled hospitality, and more, Tayler upends our notions of what is, and what is not, essentially Arab.

My Review:
For the record, lest you wonder why I chose this book, my younger son is planning to travel to Morocco this summer. I picked up a number of books about the country from the library, and as he elected to read the history of the country, I took this as offering perhaps an interesting perspective on the land. I can only be grateful that my son's trip won't be quite like the author's!

Tayler's journey is challenging in many ways, and makes for an interesting tale. There is a certain artificiality about it--the only reason he is putting himself through some serious danger and privation is for the sake of writing a book. I felt that though he clearly has a good grasp of the politics and culture of the land, and is putting himself out to learn more, something was missing from his  motivation (apparently a desire to see more of a country where he had been a rather unhappy Peace Corps volunteer). Maybe it's just that Tayler is more honest than many adventure travelers. After all, he is seeking a "first"--a trip through the desert that hasn't been made by any Westerner, and maybe not by anyone, since his path isn't that taken by the nomadic peoples of the Sahara. But that's not what he talks about, unlike many who are documenting their record-setting journies. He is just telling us about a trip, as though he has no choice but to make it. He does want to get to know the land and the people, and that is what makes the book work.

The author doesn't pull any punches about the conditions he encounters, nor does he set up any simplistic assessments of the people or the politics of Morocco. He may, as the blurb says, find "a bracing purity," but it is a purity that all too often is living in ignorance and filth, as the nomadic peoples have been forced by drought and changing times into settled life in villages that are in turn dying of the drought. These people are far from the centers of power, but the politics practiced in the capitol do affect them, at times disrupting traditions that might serve them better. The long-running dispute with the inhabitants of Western Sahara is acknowledged, but not explored in any great depth (something which would take a whole book; I know this because I found a whole book on it at the library).

What I was left with on finishing the book was both a strong sense of the people of Morocco's desert and an equally strong sense that Tayler and therefore the reader didn't entirely know what he had gone into the desert for. His strong writing just salvages a narrative that probably dwells a bit too long and hard on the filth and flies and his clear lack of pleasure in the land through which he is traveling.

There's no denying that if you want to know what the Draa region of Morocco is like, this book will give you a no-holds-barred view of it. It's 13 years old now, so some of the politics are out of date, but the growing concern even then with Islamic extremists rings true--as does the typical person's repudiation of those extremists. I have read more engaging travel narratives, but this one is worth a look if you are at all interested in the area.

Full Disclosure: I checked Glory in a Camel's Eye 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, April 8, 2016

Friday Flash: Here Be Dragons

This week Chuck Wendig is back on the job, and he gave us a pretty simple and open-ended challenge: write about a dragon. He then suggested that we think outside the box, maybe do something other than the obvious fantasy story. There's another kind of dragon most of us meet sooner or later. Young Georgie conquers one sort in this story. Chuck gave us 2000 words; I used right around 1000 of them. You are welcome to the rest.

Saint Georgie and the Dragon Lady

The residents of Oakblossom Lane all knew her, and they were all scared of her. There were two or three cranky old guys who sat on their front porches and hollered, “get off my lawn!’ but they were scared of her too. The children mocked the old guys. They didn’t mock Mrs. DuMont.

“Mom says she’s ruled this street since Adam was a pup.”

“I don’t know any dogs named Adam. And anyway, dogs aren't very old, so that's not such a big deal.”

Georgie fixed Alec with a disdainful sneer. “Don’t you know anything? Adam was the first man.”

“First man on Oakblossom Lane?”

“First man anywhere ever.” Georgie tossed her head, making all her braids dance and the beads click. She’d sat for hours to have those braids done, and she was going to make full use of them. They clicked for disdain of a boy who didn't understand anything.

“Oh, that Adam,” Alec said as though he’d known all along. “If she’s been here since before Adam, who did she rule then?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the animals?”

“Suppose that makes her Adam’s mom?” The children of Oakblossom Lane—a stupid name, especially for a run-down street on the wrong side of the tracks with few blossoms and no oaks—peered again through the ragged hedge that hid them from the woman in her garden. Their Sunday-school lessons had said nothing about Adam’s mom.

“Maybe,” Georgie allowed. Wouldn't Adam have died of fear of her? She peered through the branches. Mrs. DuMont was still keeping the birds away from her peas. She was also keeping the children away from the soccer ball that lay only a few feet from her in a lettuce patch.

“Well, I don’t care if she is older than Adam,” Cecile said. “Someone has to get our ball back or we’ll have to go in and do homework.”

That was a powerful argument. Everyone turned to look at Georgie. Georgie looked at Alec.

“Not me. No way,” he said. “Dad says she’s a real dragon lady. Dragons eat little kids. So I’m not going near her.”

“Guess we need a knight to ride in there and kill her” giggled Cecile, who read the sort of books that talked about dragons.

The children heard a chuckle behind them. Mr. Jones, who had earlier chased them off his lawn, which was really just a weed-patch, stood there. “I guess you kids need St. George the Dragon-Slayer.”

They looked at him, not knowing just what he was talking about and wondering if he was offering to help them.

He wasn’t. He just stood there with his arms crossed, laughing at them.

Then they thought about the name he’d offered. Saint George. They all turned to look at Georgie again.

“I guess it has to be you,” Jamal said. Everyone nodded.

Georgie knew when she was beaten. Six second-graders told her in four languages that it was her job. She took one last look through the hedge and stood up.

“If even the grown-ups are scared of her,” she said, looking at Mr. Jones, “I don’t know how you expect me to beat her. But,” she tossed those braids again and the music of the beads gave her courage, “I will. You’ll see.”

Little chin thrust forward, and with a few leaves from the hedge still clinging to her hair, Georgie marched out of Jamal’s garden and around to the sidewalk. No one followed her to carry her shield or cheer her as she went into battle against the dragon.

“Figures,” she muttered. Leave it all to her, as usual. Whoever Saint George was, he'd probably had to go alone too. Well, whatever Alec said, she didn’t believe the Dragon Lady would eat her. Probably not, anyway.

Georgie stood on the walk in front of Mrs. DuMont’s house and waited to stop shaking. She shook worse the longer she stood there, so in the end she ignored her fear and marched up the walk and around to the side of the house. Drat Jamal, anyway. If he didn’t kick the ball so hard, it wouldn’t be in Mrs. DuMont’s lettuce patch. He should have come for it, but he was chicken, as always.

Georgie walked around the corner of the house and froze. Close up the dragon lady looked about ten feet tall. She was scowling, and she was looking right at Georgie as though contemplating if she'd be better with BBQ sauce or curry.

“What do you want?” As if she didn’t know. Georgie saw her glance at the soccer ball. Why hadn’t she at least removed it from the lettuce?

“Please, ma’am, we’d like our soccer ball, please.” Georgie wanted to be as polite as she could be. Maybe dragons didn’t eat polite children.

It didn’t help. “Hmph. I don’t see any ‘we.’ Just one skinny little girl.”

“No, ma’am. They sent me.”

Snort. “So you want your soccer ball.”

Georgie nodded.

“It’s sitting on my lettuce.”

Georgie nodded again, and took a step toward the ball.

“What are you going to do about my lettuce?”

Georgie looked closer. Several lettuce plants looked a bit squashed, and there were broken leaves. She didn’t know anything about gardens. Could you fix a broken leaf?

“I could put a band-aid on it and kiss it to make it better.”

The dragon lady made a face. In fact, her face seemed to be twitching. When she spoke, her voice was a bit strangled. “Do you think that will fix it?”

“It’s what Mama does when I skin my knee.” Georgie stuck out her leg where a pair of band-aids crossed over a scrape. “It works. If it’s really bad,” she confided, “Mama gives me ice cream. That always works. Can lettuces eat ice cream?”

“Perhaps we should skip the ice cream. I doubt lettuce plants will appreciate it.” Mrs. DuMont’s face was twitching again, and she seemed to be choking on something.

“Do you have a band-aid?” Georgie stuck to the point. She also boldly reached and picked up the ball, and bent down to kiss the injured plant.

Mrs. DuMont gave up the battle and smiled. Georgie almost dropped the ball back on the lettuce, she was so surprised. The dragon lady could smile?

Then the unthinkable happened.

Mrs. DuMont laughed.

And on the other side of the hedge, six second-graders gasped in wonder. St. Georgie the Dragon Slayer had triumphed.


©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A to Z sharing post #1

I was debating how to do this--add a few links at the end of my regular posts, or do a special post once a week or something. I'll probably do both.

My A to Z Challenge is--not to blog daily, but to visit daily and to share any and all blogs I found interesting.

Here's my list so far:
Shell's Tales and Sails--blogging about women aviators--what a fantastic topic, and well done.
Inconspicuous Contemplation--a brand-new blogger with the nerve to make the first day of A to Z his (her?) first post.
Star Lit Stories--bits of flash fiction around animals (and some less-than-typical animals).
Screaming Willow--a brave and open sharing of the writer's battle with eating disorders.

I of course failed right at the start, because I spent 3 days camping and hiking with my son, who is on spring break this week. So this post, which was going to go on Tuesday, is coming today, and with fewer blogs than I'd hoped!

But here's best wishes to all the A to Z bloggers!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

IWSG: On writing race

First Wednesday, and time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group!

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Last month I attended a conference on race in our schools, run by the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators. While there, I naturally gravitated toward the book sale display by Ashay by the Bay Books. Chatting there with the woman running the booth, it naturally came up that I write. And I had to admit I don't think  have persons of color in my books (I don't really describe characters much at all, so there is some wiggle-room there, but the reality is, no, I don't). And she asked me straight out why not.

I had to answer with equal honesty: I don't write about people of color because I'm afraid of getting it wrong. Which, she pointed out by implication, makes no more sense than refusing to write about historical periods or a place I haven't been. That is, the answer is research. Checking with people who know the experiences better. Of course, in a historical novel (which the Ninja Librarian is, sort of), it gets even more complex, given historical attitudes, where an author must negotiate tricky ground between realism and modern sensibilities. No wonder I, and many like me, dodge the question. But that's not good enough.

The end result of that discussion is that I'm recognizing something that Chuck Wendig has blogged about frequently: it's part of my job to write diversity. And I will have to learn to do it. Not just racial diversity, but also gender differences, and whatever other diversity occurs to me. So: I'm working on it. It's not an easy thing to consider with the Ninja Librarian series, but I'll be doing some re-reading of the first books to see if there's any proof that all the characters are white. I have some ideas about how race might fit in, but it may not work. Book Three, which I'm currently revising, had already found its own way to some gender questions, so there's that. 

And I promise that Pismawallops Island won't stay as white as the small town where I grew up, once I get back to that project. I'm not much of a writer if I can't write about someone who's not just like me, and I'm not much of a person it I can't move out of my comfort zone.

And the science fiction and fantasy I write? Absolutely no reason characters need to be white. Again, I have often failed to describe them, but that doesn't quite measure up. If I'm any kind of writer, I can write people who's experiences are truly unlike mine. 

How about you? Anyone else hesitate to write people of color or gender variations because of fear of giving offense out of ignorance?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Middle-grade Monday: The Boy on the Porch, by Sharon Creech (audiobook review)


Title: The Boy on the Porch
Author: Sharon Creech; read by Heather Henderson
Publisher: Harper Audio, 2013. (Hardcover 160 pages)
Source:  Library (digital media)

Publisher's Summary:
When John and Marta found the boy on the porch, they were curious, naturally, as to why he was there and they hadn't expected him to stay, not at first, but he did stay, day after day, until it seemed as if he belonged, running and smiling and laughing his silent laugh, tapping and patting on every surface as he made his music, and painting with water, with paint, with mud those swirly swirls and swings and trees...

I'll add: the book is set in an unspecified time and place, but it is very rural, and the general feel is maybe 1950s, with cars and trucks around, but not many telephones, and a more casual attitude toward fostering than we have today.

My Review:
This is a poignant little story, written in an unusual but effective style. It's heartwarming to watch a family forged out of nothing, and heartbreaking, too.  I think the style lends itself very well to the audio format, and Ms. Henderson does a great job of reading it.

The story is very simple, as befits a children's book. But it's told from the point of view of the adults (John and Marta), and this may not really be a children's book. I think it's really for the adults, and Creech might have done better to accept that. As it is, there are times when John and Marta are guilty of a naiveté that would work in a child, but rings false in an adult. These are things that a child reader might accept--but as I say, the story seems so much more for adults that it just rang wrong to me. And it is John and Marta who grow and change, not the boy, almost as if through his presence they become adults.

All in all, it's a beautiful story and well-written, but I think it maybe misses the target a bit. With adult points of view and a distanced narrative style, I don't know if kids would enjoy it as much as adults. With just a few tweaks it would be a very strong adult book, and it's a shame that Creech didn't go with that.

Well, this one is for people like me, I guess. People who like a simple, touching story that maybe is meant for kids. It's fine for kids over 8 or so, and I'd guess any could read it, but I don't know if they would, given the adult point of view (the boy is an enigma and seen only through their puzzled eyes). 

Full Disclosure: I checked The Boy on the Porch 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."