Monday, February 27, 2017

Fin50: A Marriage of Convenience

This month's prompt is A Marriage of Convenience. I hope I did it justice. Actually, I totally cheated. This is non-fiction.

A Marriage of Convenience

Dad said he married Mom for her snow tires, or maybe it was the cute Simca she drove. Then he’d kiss her.

I like to claim I married my husband for his health insurance. We are still married.

Sometimes convenience is a good excuse for a long and happy marriage.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Audio Book review: Bradbury's Martian Chronicles

Title details for The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - Available 

Title: The Martian Chronicles
Author:  Ray Bradbury; read by Stephen Hoye
Publisher: Blackstone Audio, 2009. Original stories published between 1947 and about 1951.
Source: Digital library

Publisher's Blurb:
There were a lot of these to chose from, since there are dozens of editions of the book out. I share here the one that goes with the Blackstone Audio version:

In connected, chronological stories, a true grandmaster enthralls, delights, and challenges us with his vision, starkly and stunningly exposing our strength, our weakness, our folly, and our poignant humanity on a strange and breathtaking world where humanity does not belong.

My Review:  
I think I have to start with Bradbury's own take on the book, from the introduction to the audio book. He describes the stories as not really science fiction, or about Mars, but rather fables or parables, the author's exploration of humanity. Certainly the prose is lush and at times the stories are pointed. In fact, one thing I think no one could argue with is that Bradbury is a master of prose.

It might be best not to think of the stories as SF, since the date of their composition puts the vision of scientific advances at, shall we say, a disadvantage. I'm always interested, when reading classic SF, to see what writers got right, and what they got wrong. Bradbury creates a fully-automated house that a Silicon Valley billioniare could build today (and for all I know, may have). But other things are laughable: clear, instant telephonic communications between Earth and Mars, and private, "family rockets," used even for travel between different parts of the planet. Nor was there any imagination of the cell phone or the computer (let alone the PC)--not surprising, given when they were written. It doesn't matter, because the stories are about humanity and society, not science. (We'll leave aside what we now know about the surface of Mars; Bradbury went with the views of his time on Martian canals).

In one area of his critique of society, though, I had to admit to disappointment. I know this was early, and it's probably wrong of me to apply a feminist critique to a book from 1950. But still...even by the end of WWI, let alone WWII, women were coming into their own as thinkers and writers and persons with intelligence and will. Sadly, Bradbury failed to notice it. Every female, human or Martian, in the book is weak, insipid, silly, subjected, subservient, robotic, or some combination of the above. And all are dependent on men, most being absolute stereotypes of the 1950s wife.

I don't think I'm quite willing to let Bradbury off the hook for this. It's the scourge of early SF: it was, in essence, a masculine genre and at heart even misogynistic. I can only be glad that, however slowly and painfully, the genre has evolved to allow that maybe, by say the year 3035 or so, women might be held to be equal to men. We can hope.

My Recommendation:
Despite the above criticism, which as noted may not be fair, I do consider this a masterpiece, and a classic that ought to be read by all, especially by any afficionado of the science fiction genre.

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

Monday, February 20, 2017

Middle Grade Monday: The Quilt, by Gary Paulsen


Title: The Quilt
Author: Gary Paulsen
Publishing info: Yearling, 2005. 96 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Blurb:
A six-year-old boy goes to spend the summer with his grandmother Alida in a small town near the Canadian border. With the men all gone off to fight, the women are left to run the farms. There’s plenty for the boy to do—trying to help with the chores, getting to know the dog, and the horses, cows, pigs, and chickens.

But when his cousin Kristina goes into labor, he can’t do a thing. Instead, the house fills with women come to help and to wait, and to work on a quilt together. This is no common, everyday quilt, but one that contains all the stories of the boy’s family. The quilt tells the truth, past and future: of happiness, courage, and pain; of the greatest joy, and the greatest loss. And as they wait, the women share these memorable stories with the boy.

My Review:
I read this book as a group read with my Great Middle Grade Reads group at Since I am a fan of Paulsen, and familiar with Paulsen's characters and voice, I enjoyed it, and was a bit taken aback to find that many of the other members of the group were very put off by the style. The common complaint was that the main character is referred to by the narrator only as "the boy," which many felt was distancing and off-putting. The style, the consensus was, didn't create any emotional connection to the character or the story.

Given the frequency of that reaction, I decided I needed to look at it more closely and consider both why that would be the case, and why it didn't bother me. That question led me to a  point of wondering if this brief memoir (I notice the publisher's blurb doesn't indicate it is anything but a story, but the author's own forward makes it clear that this is part of his own story, perhaps as fictionalized as you might expect of memories from age 6) was really a children's book. Not only did people question whether a child reading the book would connect at all with the character, given the distancing narrative style, in some ways the subject matter seemed beyond children.

[Digression: a child can live through things that are, apparently, inappropriate for a child to read about. On reflection, this makes sense, in a saddening way.]

While others saw the story as drained of emotion and more (in the words of one member of the group) "like reading a pamphlet or a behavioral analysis," I had a very different reaction. I was fascinated by everything that wasn't said, and found myself reading it almost like poetry. That feel was broken in places, though, by intrusions that were harder to view from that distance. In other words, my problems came more from the points where the distance was broken, than from the sense of distancing itself.

Whether or not the book is right for kids, or even a good book, I thought it did one thing: it offered some insight into where the characters Paulsen likes to write spring from. This is the story of a little boy whose emotional support is distant, not unloving but undemonstrative. I can see his childhood shaping a strong, independent young man who has some trouble relating to people and has a strong preference for the outdoors.

Kind of like the author's most famous character, now that I think about it.

My Recommendation:
Given the reaction the book created, I'm not actually sure what to recommend. It's a very quick read, and the writing level is fairly low, for a book that in some ways could be read by fairly young children. The subject matter is not for small kids, though, and now I don't know how older ones might relate to the main character or the style.

Maybe I'll just recommend that if you loved Hatchet  and the other Brian books, or The Voyage of the Frog or other Paulsen books, you (at any age over maybe 11) might be interested in this glimpse of what goes into creating characters like that.

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Friday Flash: Long Way Home

Last week, Chuck Wendig solicited three-word titles from his readers (and I snitched one to use for my story). This week, he gave us his top ten titles to choose from. I used 996 words to write my version of "Long Way Home." Visit the comments on Chuck's blog post to find links to what others may have done with the same title.

Long Way Home

When I finally stopped running, I was in a tiny village in northern Saskatchewan, or maybe over the border into the Northwest Territories. I was filthy, wet, hungry, and down to my last three dollars.

On the other side of the balance, I’d lost my tail. My detour through the muskeg scraped off most of them, city men with city shoes. Since leaving the swamp, I’d hitched three different rides, in three different directions—I made sure to leave each one at a crossroads so there were at least some choices—and finally gotten a bush pilot to drop me in the middle of nowhere.

I’d stolen a pack from a pile of gear at the tiny airstrip. I felt bad for ruining someone’s vacation, but I blessed that unknown hiker as I ate his food and wrapped myself in his rain gear and sleeping bag. Too bad he didn’t have a tent, but at least he had a tarp I could rig to keep the rain off when I was forced to sleep.

I didn’t do a lot of sleeping in the two weeks it took me to walk from where the pilot dropped me to this town, whatever it was.

The pilot had taken some convincing. But he’d been the sort who would do anything for enough money, and fortunately I’d had enough. Just. That was why I was now stuck in this little place with no cash. I had a credit card, and an ATM card. If I used them, I’d have to start all over. I only kept them because it wouldn’t be safe to leave them anywhere, even cut into little pieces.

I’d run out of the hiker’s food three days short of town—bless his massive appetite; I’m sure he’d packed for a week, but I was able to make it last nearly two. I needed to stop, and I needed a shower, a laundry, and several meals.

I was looking for a church. I wasn’t a believer in anything beyond survival, not now. But I knew that a church was my best bet for a little help, and not too many questions asked.

The village was too small for a church. What I eventually found was the old man.

He was sitting outside his house on a round of unsplit firewood, soaking up the sun. The rain had stopped, and the place steamed. So did I, and the smell of my own steam was enough to make me choke. I’d already realized I wasn’t going to find a Laundromat and a three-star hotel in this village. All I could hope for was maybe a tub in someone’s house where I could wash myself and my clothes.

I was a little scared to approach the old man, but I was desperate. He was native, I could see that, and I wondered if he’d even speak English. This place was isolated, and I could imagine everyone speaking Inuit or whatever it was they spoke up here. Wherever “here” was.

I was still waffling about asking him where I might beg a bath and a meal, when he spoke to me.

“You need a place to rest. You have come a long way.”

I nodded, and he stood up and held open his front door. I stepped inside, not even pausing to wonder if it was safe. It was too late for that.

Inside, he pointed to another door. “Wash. I will prepare food.”

I was in the tub—he must have had propane to heat the water, the glorious hot water—up to my neck before I wondered how he knew what I needed, and why he was helping me without asking a single question. I shrugged it off. I was obviously wet and dirty, so the bath was a no-brainer. And it was lunch time.

When I was clean, I dumped my clothes in the tub, and dug a set of over-sized long underwear out of the pack. I’d only worn them a couple of times, and they passed the sniff test. I had to rinse the rest three times before I could squeeze out fairly clear water. I got as much water as I could out of them, and bundled them into a bucket that stood in the corner of the bathroom. Emerging back into the kitchen, I nearly fainted at the smell of frying bacon and eggs.

The old man saw what I carried, and nodded. “There is a line behind the cabin, and a wringer.”

When I got around behind the cabin I found the line, and a gizmo like I’d seen in some mop buckets. After a little fussing, I figured out how to feed my clothes between the rollers, and they came out a lot drier.

The old man fed me for three days before he asked a single question beyond, “are you hungry?” He didn’t let his neighbors at me, either. But when he did at last ask a question, it was a doozy.

We’d just finished breakfast on the third day. He laid down his fork and said, “Are you ready to be home?”

“It’s a long way home,” I answered evasively, knowing there was no going home for me.

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe you need to listen more carefully.”

I thought that over, and tried to remember exactly what he’d said. Not “are you ready to go home?” but “are you ready to be home.” I’d taken it for a poor grammar, though he spoke the language well enough. It seemed he’d chosen his words with care.

“Stop running, Ilsa. You’re home.”

I was confused. That wasn’t my name. Then the meaning of what he was offering swept over me. This place was so far off the grid they would never find me, and he was giving me an identity. All I had to do was nod my head, and my flight had merely been the long way home.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mystery Review: Death in Advertising

It's another tour and review from Great Escapes--and this time, I have a guest post from author Laura Bradford as well!

Author: Laura Bradford
Publisher: Lyrical Underground (February 7, 2017)
Approximately 300 PAGES


When Tobi Tobias decided to open her own ad agency, having to moonlight in a pet shop wasn’t part of her vision . . . of course, neither was murder.
Sometimes when opportunity knocks, the door you open leads to a closet. That’s certainly the case for Tobi, whose weekends spent cleaning cages in her best friend’s pet shop may soon be over. She’s just landed her first big break—Zander Closet Company needs a catchy campaign slogan ASAP, and Tobi thinks she’s got the right hook to knock ’em dead: “When we’re done, even your skeletons will have a place.”
But when a real dead body topples out of a showcase closet, she’s about to discover there is such a thing as bad publicity. To save her fledgling business and not get killed by the competition, Tobi takes on a new pet project: solving the murder. But with a stressed-out parrot as the only witness to the crime, Tobi will really have to wing it to put the cagey killer behind bars.
My Review: 
This book has strong characters and a fun story. I was quickly grabbed, and empathized with Tobi and her troubles. The mystery and romance aspects of the book were well balanced (i.e., more mystery than romance, but not by too wide a margin), and the writing is good.

As usual, I had a few quibbles. I thought too many of the characters (in particular, Tobi's friends) were too perfect. She expresses some aggravation with a few things, but mostly this batch of people is amazing and we should all be jealous that our friends aren't as constantly there for us. I also found that some of the plot elements on which the mystery turned were a little obvious to me (and somehow completely obscure to Tobi). I could have used a little more herring in the red herrings, I think.

All that said, I zipped through the book in a couple of sittings, and enjoyed the whole story. And I loved the parrots and their role in the story. I think the series has real promise, and Tobi has a real career in adverts ahead of her!

About The Author

While spending a rainy afternoon at a friend's house more than thirty years ago, Laura Bradford (a.k.a. Elizabeth Lynn Casey) fell in love with writing over a stack of blank paper, a box of crayons, and a freshly sharpened number two pencil. From that moment forward, she never wanted to do anything else.
Today, Laura is the national bestselling author of the Amish Mysteries, the Jenkins & Burns Mysteries, and the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries (written as Elizabeth Lynn Casey). A new cozy mystery series will be added to the mix in 2016 with the release of The Emergency Dessert Squad Mysteries. Laura is a former Agatha nominee and the recipient of an RT Reviewer’s Choice Award in romance. In her free time, Laura enjoys making memories with her family, traveling, baking, and visiting the sea lions at the Central Park Zoo. For more information and all the latest book news, visit her website at

And now, let's hear from Laura Bradford herself on advertising and Tobi Tobias.

It Takes A Really Good Slogan
By Laura Bradford

            Let’s play a little game, shall we?
            I’ll give you the first few words of a famous ad campaign, and you see if you can come up with the company.
            Here we go…

1)    Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce…
2)    Two all beef patties…
3)    And they told two friends…
4)    The quicker picker upper…

Now, I’m going to bet you got at least half, if not all right, yes (you can check your answers at the end, when we’re done)?
That, my friends, is the power of a really good ad campaign—a jingle, a combination of words, a catch phrase that stays with you long after the commercial is over.  And that is what drew Tobi Tobias (the main character in my new series—the Tobi Tobias Mysteries) to the world of advertising as a career. In fact, she loves what she does so much, the whole slogan creating thing has a way of seeping into her regular life via a place she affectionately refers to as Slogan Land (don’t look it up, it exists only in Tobi’s brain).
But as wonderful as this imaginary escape is, it can’t shield her from the reality that her agency is going under. Bills are piling up, her ability to pay her one and only employee is waning, and she’s past due on her rent at her apartment.
Like it or not, the writing is on the proverbial wall for Tobi in DEATH IN ADVERTISING (book # 1).
She needs one campaign—one chance to show her stuff. If she can find that, other campaigns will follow. It’s how her business works.
And that’s when Andy and Gary Zander show up on her doorstep. Desperate to save their own fledgling closet company from obscurity, the mismatched brothers hire Tobi to put Zander Closet Company on the map once and for all.
It looks like a match made in Heaven until Tobi’s slogan becomes a blueprint for murder…

Curious to see if you’re right in my little ad game? Here are the answers:

1)    Burger King
2)    McDonalds—Big Mac
3)    Faberge Organics Shampoo
4)    Bounty Paper Towels

Author Links  
Twitter:  @bradfordauthor

Purchase Links:  
Barnes & Noble      

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 Tour Participants
February 6 – StoreyBook Reviews – REVIEW  
February 6 – 3 Partners in Shopping, Nana, Mommy, &, Sissy, Too! – SPOTLIGHT
February 7 – Reading Is My SuperPower - REVIEW   
February 7 – Books,Dreams,Life – SPOTLIGHT  
February 8 – The Book's the Thing – REVIEW  
February 8 – Readeropolis – SPOTLIGHT  
February 9 – A Holland Reads – SPOTLIGHT  
February 9 – Moonlight Rendezvous – REVIEW  
February 10 – Shelley's Book Case – REVIEW  
February 10 – Celticlady's Reviews – SPOTLIGHT  
February 11 – Lisa Ks Book Reviews – REVIEW    
February 11 – Bibliophile Reviews – REVIEW, GUEST POST    
February 12 – Cozy Up With Kathy – REVIEW, INTERVIEW  
February 12 – Island Confidential – SPOTLIGHT  
February 13 – Sapphyria's Book Reviews – REVIEW  
February 13 – Carstairs Considers – REVIEW  
February 14 – Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book – REVIEW  
February 14 – Brooke Blogs – SPOTLIGHT  
February 15 – The Ninja Librarian - REVIEW, GUEST POST  
February 15 – Texas Book-aholic – REVIEW  
February 16 – Varietats – REVIEW  
February 16 – Author Annette Drake's blog – SPOTLIGHT
February 17 – Girl with Book Lungs – REVIEW  
February 17 – Jersey Girl Book Reviews – REVIEW
February 17 – deal sharing aunt – REVIEW  
February 18 – Book Babble – REVIEW
February 18 – A Blue Million Books – INTERVIEW  
February 19 – Mystery Thrillers and Romantic Suspense Reviews – SPOTLIGHT
February 19 – The Power of Words – REVIEW  

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Middle Grade Audio Revew: Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper


Title: Out of My Mind
Author: Sharon M. Draper; read by Sisi Aisha Johnson
Publisher: Atheneum 2010, 295 pages. Audio book by Simon and Schuster 2016
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Blurb:
Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom - the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she's determined to let everyone know it - somehow.

In this breakthrough story, reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, from multiple Coretta Scott King Award-winner Sharon Draper, readers will come to know a brilliant mind and a brave spirit who will change forever how they look at anyone with a disability.

My Review:
This book should be required reading. Not just for kids, who do need to be pushed a little to accept people who may look and act very differently, but also for anyone who might ever encounter a disabled person (hint: that means everyone). Listening to this I felt like I was hearing Melody's voice--the voice that she'll never get to have. Cerebral palsy means that she will never talk, never walk, never even be able to control any part of her body well, but that doesn't change her intelligence.

What Melody's CP does change, of course, is how everyone sees her. From the beginning she is dismissed by everyone but her parents (and one other amazing adult) as being basically a vegetable, but she is telling us that she was aware and verbal from a far earlier age than most kids, even. Of course, all her words were stuck in her head. It's no wonder she sometimes burst with tantrums. 

A few things change her world as she grows. The first is the person who pushes her to do and learn things no one--including Melody--thinks she can. That's huge, and maybe is the key to the other things, which come because she is determined to communicate, and knows that she can do what she is willing to try hard enough for. That doesn't mean it will be easy, and Draper avoids the easy happy ending that wouldn't ring true. There's no magical cure, either for CP or for unkindness. Melody is going to meet more people who ignore and disrespect her because of her obvious disability, than people who take the time to discover that she's brilliant and often funny. Kids will mock her. Adults will ignore her. Melody's life is often going to suck, and she knows it, and so does the reader.

Aside from me wondering a bit what was wrong with her school, which doesn't seem to me to have met the requirements of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilties Education Act) very well, I thought the story rang very true. I have some personal history that helps me see this.  When I was growing up there was a girl in our church who was apparently profoundly mentally disabled. She couldn't speak, and didn't seem to respond well to much of anything. And yet, with patience, she eventually began to be able to communicate a little, with a special keyboard and some help. And one day, working at a keyboard with her older sister, she began to type. What she typed was a moving essay on her sadness and frustration about being unable to communicate and being assumed to be stupid. You see where this is going. I had to change how I look at people with profound disabilities, because you just don't know what you're seeing. This book does the same thing.

A final thought. Not too long ago I reviewed Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen. It, too, was about a person with CP who was thought to be stupid. Sadly, he lived in a different era, and got little help, and less understanding. The contrast between the two stories is comforting--we do better today--but the similarities are disturbing. We aren't doing enough better. 

My Recommendation:
I think, as stated above, that this is an important book and should be read by pretty much everyone, for the sake of a better understanding of disability, and maybe of "otherness" all around. 

FTC Disclosure: I checked Out of My Mind out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher 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, February 10, 2017

Friday Flash: The Last Buffalo

My usual source of writing prompts is up to something, and this week he only asked us to provide an exactly three word title. I did that, and then picked one to use for my own. This one is courtesy of Samuel Huddleston. It's 904 words, and seems to have been infiltrated by a favorite character from some of Jemima Pett's flash fiction.

The Last Buffalo

The hunters were having a wonderful time. The herds had been vast and the shooting good. They feasted on buffalo tongue and skinned out the best of the animals, leaving it to Caleb to tan them. Caleb got stuck with most of the scut work around camp, but this time it was of necessity. The man—really, more of a half-grown boy—was the only one who could tan a hide properly.

Caleb watched the other hunters while he went about his work. They were getting drunk, as usual. Carruthers was the leader, and he liked his drink. He wasn’t even really a hunter. He called himself an archaeologist, but what Caleb thought was that he was just an adventurer, and one who thought himself better than most other people.

They’d chase away the herds, noisy as they were. That wouldn’t break Caleb’s heart. There was a good chance they’d bring the Indians down on them, too. Most of them, like Carruthers and his best pal Jones, thought they were more than a match for a few Indians. Others thought that the Indians had been fully tamed in this region.

Tamed. Caleb snorted, not that anyone heard him. Starved, more like. But while hunger could make the fighters less able, it certainly didn’t make them any less angry. Caleb thought that pretty soon the hunters would be shut up for good.

Caleb was a half-breed, the despised offspring of a white trapper and a Lakota woman, which was why the hunters treated him like dirt. Never mind that his parents had been faithful to one another, and had known more about living on this land than these Great White Hunters would ever learn. Caleb was of mixed blood, and so was deserving of contempt. Carruthers was the worst. He called Caleb “boy” and ordered him to bring tea. Caleb poured coffee and made sure to spill some on the leader.

Caleb staked out the last hide, and began scraping it as he’d learned from both his mother and father. The early trappers in this area had had more in common with the Indians than with most of the whites who were coming into the country now. They had trapped too many beaver, because they were greedy, but at least they knew how to preserve the skins, and they ate as much as they could of any animals that were edible.

Caleb had to admit that these hunters also ate as much as they could. But even twenty big, loud men couldn’t make a dent in the meat of 50 or 100 buffalo in a single night, and they had been killing at that rate for a week. They were supposed to be doing it for the hides, which were valuable enough back east. But no one could save and tan that many hides, and when they went wild with the killing most of the animals were left on the ground untouched.

Only Caleb had noticed that many of the abandoned carcasses were butchered out overnight. Somewhere nearby a Sioux camp was smoking and drying meat in unheard-of quantities, and still they couldn’t save a tenth of what had been killed.

When he was done with the final hide, Caleb slipped off into the darkness. Carruthers was calling for him, to come do some camp chore or other, but the boy was finished. He picked up a pair of the fully-tanned hides, as much as he could carry, and disappeared into the night.

The hides helped ensure his welcome at the Indian camp. The news he brought did more, as did the rifle he hadn’t set aside when he picked up the heavy buffalo robes.

“They are drinking heavily,” he told the men. “Tonight would be a good night to stop the killing of the buffalo.” He indicated the well-tanned hides he had brought. “There are dozens more of these, and rifles, and coffee.”

The Indians didn’t seem to care about the coffee. That was a white man’s taste that Caleb had learned from his father, before that wandering man had wandered into the path of a buffalo stampede. It was his father’s death that had made Caleb join the buffalo hunters. Killing the animals had seemed like the way to avenge the old trapper, but Caleb had learned the hard way that revenge is seldom sweet, and never when taken on an animal. Now he felt only a soul-sickness at the thought of their butchery.

He had unleashed these men on the herds. Caleb, to his shame, had guided the hunters to the buffalo when they might otherwise have wandered in the grasslands until they died of starvation, never more than a few miles from abundant game. The white men were not hunters, but only killers. They couldn’t find their prey.

Now Caleb would set the balance right once more. Caleb led the Sioux warriors back through the darkness to where twenty drunken men lay carelessly asleep about the dying embers of a fire, surrounded by hundreds of dead buffalo.

Caleb heard the wolves howling, as they did every night. Wolves liked to kill their own meat, but they weren’t stupid enough to pass up a fresh corpse.

Tonight they’d have a new kind of meat, he thought, and shuddered.

He took a deep breath and led the others into the camp. These men had killed their last buffalo.

So had Caleb.

Of course, they aren't buffalo at all. They're bison. Buffalo don't live in the Western Hemisphere.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Non-Fiction Audio: Astoria, by Peter Stark


Title: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival
Author: Peter Stark; read by Michael Kramer
Publisher: Harper Audio 2014; original by Ecco, 2014, 336 pages.
Source: Library digital services

Publisher's Blurb:
In 1810, John Jacob Astor sent out two advance parties to settle the wild, unclaimed western coast of North America. More than half of his men died violent deaths. The others survived starvation, madness, and greed to shape the destiny of a continent.

At a time when the edge of American settlement barely reached beyond the Appalachian Mountains, two visionaries, President Thomas Jefferson and millionaire John Jacob Astor, foresaw that one day the Pacific would dominate world trade as much as the Atlantic did in their day. Just two years after the Lewis and Clark expedition concluded in 1806, Jefferson and Astor turned their sights westward once again. Thus began one of history's dramatic but largely forgotten turning points in the conquest of the North American continent.

Astoria is the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific coast. Astor set out to establish a global trade network based at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Oregon, while Jefferson envisioned a separate democracy on the western coast that would spread eastward to meet the young United States.

Astor backed this ambitious enterprise with the vast fortune he'd made in the fur trade and in New York real estate since arriving in the United States as a near-penniless immigrant, soon after the Revolutionary War. He dispatched two groups of men west: one by sea around the southern tip of South America and one by land over the Rockies. The Overland Party, led by the gentlemanly American businessman Wilson Price Hunt, combined French-Canadian voyageurs, Scottish fur traders, American woodsmen, and an extraordinary Native American woman with two toddlers. The Seagoing Party, sailing aboard the ship Tonquin, likewise was a volatile microcosm of contemporary North America. Under the bitter eye of Captain Jonathan Thorn, a young U.S. naval hero whose unyielding, belligerent nature was better suited to battle than to negotiating cultural differences, the Tonquin made tumultuous progress toward its violent end.

Unfolding from 1810 to 1813, Astoria is a tale of high adventure and incredible hardship, drawing extensively on firsthand accounts of those who made the journey. Though the colony itself would be short-lived, its founders opened provincial American eyes to the remarkable potential of the western coast, discovered the route that became the Oregon Trail, and permanently altered the nation's landscape and global standing.

My Review:  
After that rather lengthy blurb, rest assured I won't go on as long with my review. I might take exception to some of what is said, or not  said, in the blurb, but the final paragraph is completely true: this is the story of a project that made some major strides toward opening the West, especially with regard to the routes through the mountains.

What isn't said in the blurb, but gradually becomes very clear as the book progresses, is that the difference between this expedition and the highly successful Lewis and Clark expedition couldn't be greater. Where Lewis and Clark exercised impressive leadership and brought their entire crew, and most of their scientific notes, back alive, the Astor mission was sent out with a commercial intent, and poor leadership led to deaths all along the way. And with profit as the primary motivation, not only for Astor but for those on the expedition, there seemed to be less reason to endure hardships, and men began falling away from the expedition as well.

The worst element, though, was the complete lack of understanding, empathy, or even humanity on the part of Captain Thorn, whose (what I see as) bull-headed arrogance cost the lives of pretty much his entire crew (and his own life, as well).

All of that said--I am condemning the venture, not the book. Mr. Stark presents the story intelligently and unfolds it well, with just the right amount of commentary to keep us from feeling he's a shill for the Astors. My main complaint about the book is that I'd have liked a little more on how the venture failed so miserably, yet ultimately led to the US settling and eventually owning the Northwest. Some of the explanation is in there (the overland party, or at least the return party, did discover a new and better route to the coast than what Lewis and Clark used), but felt a bit tacked on at the end. I could have used less about Astor's youth and more about the ramifications. After all, Astor may have initiated the project, and funded it, but he never left his comfy house in New York to traipse across the country (or beat around the Horn).

The audio narration is excellent, but I think that I'd rather have read the paper version, with (I presume) maps and all. Certainly anyone who doesn't know the area will be better off with those aides.

Astoria is a good addition to the history of the Pacific Northwest, and a chapter about which I recall learning only the vaguest outline back in school in Washington. If you have an interest in the area, or wonder what it was like to settle in that lovely wet climate, read on! 

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

If I keep looking up, I can't see Monday coming

Just in hopes that I'll miss the whole work-week thing, I thought I'd do a little sky-gazing today. Enjoy these rather random shots of pretty or interesting skies and clouds.

This is the sky that gave me the idea. I shot this on my way to the gym on my bike the other day, so it's just a cell phone shot and doesn't capture all the texture of the sky. But you can see the waves.
The cell phone is great. But you have to look up from it sometimes to see what it might be best for!
In keeping with the idea of great stuff close to home, this was shot only a few miles from my house. I liked the storm clouds and the crashing surf together.

My husband and I tend to start a little late sometimes when we got out for a bike ride. But the up side of that is that we often get to enjoy the sunset.
A mix of cirrus and crepuscular rays near Half Moon Bay, CA
The next two were shot from Angel Island State Park last May, and show the fog moving in on the Bay.
Sausalito about to be eaten by the fog monster.
The sun rises over the fog.
Sometimes it's not just Ma Nature who provides the interest in the sky. Here we have jet trails over Badwater (Death Valley NP). You can also see some fuzziness near the ground in the far distance--that was dust being kicked up by the wind.
Note that the upper contrail becomes a shadow on the far left of the photo.
Shooting right into the sun can provide some interesting effects, if you can minimize the lens flare.
The Trona Pinnacles, near Death Valley. These are ancient tufa towers, like those at Mono Lake only far larger and exposed to weathering for far longer  (they grew in the long-since-dry Lake Searles between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago).
I couldn't resist ending with this one, which doesn't show as much of the sky as I'd like, but you can get a hint of the contrast between the boys napping on the dock and the storm waiting to burst on them!
Somewhere on the Maine Coast in June. We'd flown from CA on a red-eye the previous night, so the guys were mostly interested in sleeping in the sun.
Hope you enjoyed the sky-gazing, though I greatly fear that Monday has come and gotten us regardless.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: Lost Hope

In keeping with his theme this month, last week Chuck gave us another rather pointed writing prompt last week: hope in the face of hopelessness. I wrote it, but didn't post last week because it was Flashback Friday time. To my delight, this week's challenge, "Acts of Rebellion," fits the story too. So here it is.

While I was thinking about the prompt, one line (the opening line) crawled into my brain and stuck, so I built the story from there. I was originally wanted to try to make it impossible to tell if this was a 19th-Century sailing ship or a space ship, but in the end, I had to go with outer space. Chuck gave us 2000 words, and for once I used most of them. So here, in 1852 words, is:

Lost Hope

 “Look at them go. Like rats deserting a sinking ship.”

More like fleas deserting a dead rat, I thought, but had more sense than to say. Aloud, I asked, “Can you blame them? I only give us about a 25% chance of making it through. Most of them figure it’s a lot less than that. They just don’t want to die.”

Captain Cassandra d’Clerc turned and fixed me with a hard look. “Will you be leaving us, then, Lieutenant?”

I swallowed hard. Was she giving me an order, a way out, or a test? Knowing the captain, I guessed it was a test, and that I’d better pass it. “I’ll be right here, Captain. We’ll make it through. My mum always said I only lived to grow up because I was too stupid to know when I was killed.”

That startled a bark of laughter from her, and I relaxed.

“I don’t suppose you could share that attitude with the rest of the crew?”

“You ask that? You gave them the choice to go or stay,” I pointed out.

“I know. But I didn’t expect so many—we do need enough crew to run the ship. I'm worried that at this rate we won’t have it.”

“Hope—or stupidity—can only carry you through if you really have it.” I let her digest that.

Ours had been an extraordinarily long voyage, and when we returned to the fringes of known lands, we found that much had changed in our absence. Being in known territory was somewhat less frightening than the unknown through which we had voyaged for over a year, but most of the lands between this farthest outpost and home were now in the hands of the enemy.

Our current stop—the first in over a year, and the last before the blockade--was controlled by the Company, which always stays neutral, lest politics interfere with making money. They wouldn’t blast our ship to atoms, but they wouldn’t help us break the blockade, either. And they’d made an offer that too many of our people, looking at our chances of getting through to our home planet, couldn’t resist.

I watched as the majority of our crew, and all the passengers, filed down the ramp into the customs shed, carrying everything they owned. They’d been told that they could stay. They would work for the Company for three years in exchange for food and a bed in the bunkhouse. After that they could become legal residents. I wondered how many realized what they had committed to. They wouldn’t be returning to their home planets and resuming interrupted lives. I doubted if most of them would survive the probationary period.

“They’ve chosen slavery,” Captain d’Clerc said. She stepped up next to me at the viewport, and we watched the pathetic line of men and women disappear into the customs shed. She was right about their choice. They’d given up all hope in our plan, and were willing to settle for spiritual obliteration in order to avoid physical obliteration.

It was a natural impulse, and more common than not, to judge by the exodus from the ship. The captain and I both knew it was likely to end in both spiritual and physical death for them. I assumed that the other crew members who remained aboard had reached the same conclusion and chose to die our way.

The captain turned away from the view. “That’s the last of them. Sound the final call for going ashore—or coming back aboard. We launch in 15 minutes.”

We were left with a crew of 12, instead of our usual 50. Since the passengers—mostly minor government functionaries who’d been sent along to claim any new lands we might have found on our voyage beyond known space—were gone, a dozen of us could handle the running of the ship. We had the right people, too. We could cover all the essential functions, though we’d lost our chief communications officer and the navigator. I’d been Navs until my last voyage but one, so I’d handle that.

One passenger remained.

I didn’t discover her until I was making a final sweep of the ship. The ramps were up and the hatches closed when I found the astrophysicist sitting quietly in her stateroom reading a book.

“Dr. Kareem? The ship launches in five minutes. Did you miss the announcements?”

She her head, which was a great deal greyer even than the captains—and Captain d’Clerc had aged a great deal on this voyage—and looked at me.

“I heard. I have no intention of becoming a slave to the Company.”

“There is a good chance that we will die,” I commented.

“Young man, I’m plenty old enough not to fear that. And if we do not die, then I will carry our discoveries back to the scientific community. The Company has no use for my kind of science.”

I nodded. She didn’t need to say that, with no use for astrophysics, the Company would simply put her to manual labor until she died. At her age, it wouldn’t take long. Her choice made sense.

“I shan’t be a burden,” Dr. Kareem added with a gleam of a smile. “I may have my head in the stars, and a bad leg, but I can cook.”

“If we live long enough to need a meal,” I said, “we would be most grateful if you would take command in the galley. We’ve lost our chefs.”

My comments were unnecessarily pessimistic. We wouldn’t die that day, and we both knew it. It would take at least one day’s travel to reach enemy territory, and we’d be hungry well before then. I thought she might be able to do more than cook for us, too.

“You might as well come on up to the bridge with me. There’s plenty of room, and you might enjoy the view. We’ll welcome any suggestions you might have.”

“Indeed, I shall enjoy it. As for suggestions,” she put aside the book and tightened the leg brace that she’d loosened for comfort while on her bunk. “I am not a practical navigator, but I may have some ideas.” She followed me up the corridor, limping only a little, while I thought about how we might make use of the best astrophysicist in the galaxy.

“Strap in for launch,” was all the captain said when we entered the bridge, where all the remaining officers were beginning the countdown. Dr. Kareem took the empty seat next to me at the Nav station.

Over the course of the next two days, Dr. Kareen fulfilled her promise. She provided us with a steady supply of coffee as well as decent meals. It wasn’t luxurious, but we had been on tight rations as we neared the end of our voyage. With the population of the vessel reduced by three-quarters, even though the Company had parted with few supplies at our brief stop, we had more than enough to last us—for however long we’d need to eat.

All of us were surprisingly cheerful. Well, not the Chief Engineer. He’d never in his life been cheerful, and the imminent approach of near-certain death didn’t change that. But the rest of us chose to believe in my 25% chance, rather than the 2% chance that the Company had given. We’d not seen any enemy ships in that first day, and while we were poorly armed—our mission was exploration, not subjugation—we were plenty agile. We might yet dodge the blockade, we told each other.

We were deceiving ourselves about that. The appearance of a fleet on our third day proved that. Six well-armed warships moved on us in formation, and at least two of them looked fast as well as capable of vaporizing us.

We could have given up then. It might even have been a way to keep ourselves alive. But, having left behind those unwilling to hope, and fight, to the end was that the bunch of us who were left were unable to give up.

I’m not sure at what point in our dodging and evasive maneuvers Dr. Kareem joined me, but we’d taken one hit when she touched my arm.

“There might be a way.”

“What?” I’d been too focused on my work to notice her, and too long without sleep to respond quickly.

“We could try that.”

I looked where she was pointing on the chart-screen that represented nearby space, and time stopped.

Okay, time kept going, and we were rocked by another near-miss while I considered what the astrophysicist was saying.

“Captain?” I wasn’t going to call this one on my own.

“Continue evasive maneuvers,” Captain d’Clerc commanded Lieutenant Carmichael, who had the helm. She crossed to where Dr. Kareem and I were studying the chart-screen. “What?”

Dr. Kareem was as calm as if she were giving an unimportant lecture to a group of semi-interested students. “There is an anomaly there.” She pointed. “If we were to enter it, I think that we could stop worrying about the enemy ships.”

The captain laughed. “Or anything else. No one knows what will happen to a ship that enters one of those. No one even knows exactly what it is. Some kind of black hole, isn’t it?”

“No, not a black hole. Not even I would care to dive into one of those. I think it is more like what the early astrophysicists called a ‘wormhole.’ Of course, they didn’t know what they were talking about, but I have studied the phenomenon.”

I’ll bet you have, I thought. For some reason, my hopes were soaring, even while she proposed diving into something I’d been taught all my spacing life to avoid on pain of death.

Death. We’d all planned on that anyway. What better way to go than exploring a wormhole? I could see that was how Dr. Kareem’s mind was running. She had less to lose than most of us, unless you figured that we were all living on borrowed time anyway.

“We have about a 1 in 100 chance of it being a survivable experience, and dumping us out a long way from any enemy ships.”

“We have about a none in 100 chance of surviving this attack,” Lieutenant Carmichael called from the helm, as we shook from another hit. “Damage assessment?”

“No hull breech!” someone shouted from where he monitored an array of screens. “Key systems intact.”

“Any idea where we’ll end up?” the captain asked.

Dr. Kareem shook her head, her smile more than a hint now. “Not a clue. But wouldn’t it be grand to find out?”

When there’s no hope left at all, any hope will do. We weren’t ready to give up, and if we were going to die, every one of us aboard preferred to do it in our own way. I laid the course, Captain d’Clerc gave the orders, and Lieutenant Carmichael aimed us right at the wormhole.

We were coming out the other side, or going to the most glorious death we could imagine. It didn’t really matter which.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!