Monday, July 31, 2017

YA Historical Fiction: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher:  Philomel Books, 2017. 391 pages.
Source: Library
Publisher's Blurb:
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
My Review:
As I noticed when I read and reviewed Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray the author is very good at writing about the truly horrific times in human history without losing sight of the humanity of the people enduring it. In this case, she follows four young adults (ranging in age from about 16 to 21) who are caught up in the evacuation from East Prussia, Lithuania, and Poland as the Soviet army advances near the end of WWII. Each has a unique voice, and a unique story, told in first person. That could lead to confusion, but Sepetys simply gives each narrator a fresh chapter, headed with his or her name. I found no difficulty in following the different threads.
The four main characters are wildly different, but each has a secret, and each is tormented, in part by being thrust into adulthood prematurely, and in part by man's inhumanity to man. A big part of the draw of the story is the gradual unfolding of their secrets, though I felt a little as though I was sight-seeing at a train wreck at times--like I shouldn't be looking at their private horrors. And it's not just horrors--they have guilt, shame, and fear that drive them in so many ways.
A book about possibly the worst naval disaster of all time (9000 or more of the 10,000 people aboard the Wilhelm Gusloff drowned. That might be a spoiler but the blurb and the cover between them pretty well gave that away) cannot have an unadulterated happy ending. But as with her first novel, Sepetys manages to salvage the characters' humanity, and pulls something from the wreckage to prove that life does go on, and joy can be salvaged from despair, at least sometimes, and for some people.

[Mild spoilers here]
It quickly becomes evident to the reader that one of the narrators is a true believer of the Nazi doctrine, but it takes the whole book to see what else he is. This may be the most disturbing part of the book, and I think that Sepetys develops Alfred in a way that actually softens the realization that many people did support even the worst elements of the Third Reich, because the reader quickly sees that he is not a good person.

Overall, the writing is strong, the story is almost overwhelming, and the book will stay in the memory for a long time. I appreciate that I learned some history I never knew, too, even if it's very distressing history.

My Recommendation:
This is an excellent book for a young adult or adult reader, with or without any particular interest in WWII, though that will increase the interest. Due to adult situations and just too much human evil, this is not a book for younger readers. I would say high school and up.

In a nice development, due to a lack of other reading material, my college-age son and husband both read this as well. We were able to have some nice discussions about the development of the characters as well as the historical setting. My husband has some reservations about some of the motivations, but both he and my son found it an excellent read. I had no idea my kid knew so much history, but, then Russian is his major.
FTC Disclosure: I checked Salt to the Sea out of my local 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, July 28, 2017

Flashback Friday! 
It's Flashback Friday again! Which is perfect since the Ninja Librarian is on the trail, enjoying a holiday from computers and all connectivity. Which is why we haven't responded to comments this week. We'll get there...eventually. 
Meanwhile, enjoy this from 2015. It was an A to Z post, so not really one that didn't get attention at the time, but still a story I like.

The Grey Trail

I never wanted to go there. She was obsessed with New Zealand, and after thoroughly exploring all the areas used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings, she fixated on Mt. Cook. South Island. The end of the world, if you ask me, but she loved it and visited several times.

I didn’t go with her on any of her trips, but this time I had no choice. This time, she couldn’t go without me. I was doing it for love, for that one last thing I could do for the one I’d loved and who had driven me crazy for forty years. I was prepared to hate it, and to feel like a virtuous martyr the entire time I was fulfilling her final request.

I wasn’t prepared to be knocked over by the beauty of the place. Mind, that didn’t change the fact that I didn’t want to have to walk for miles through it, even if I could. But somehow even though I’d seen all the photos—she’d brought home millions from her trips, and I’d dutifully admired them all, even thought the scenery was very nice—I had never imagined the impact the place could have on me in person. That made it a bit awkward, in a funny way. How can you feel awkward around someone who is present only as a pile of lumpy ashes in a tin can?

Emotions don’t have to make sense. If I have learned nothing else in 65 years, 40 of them spent living with a woman with whom I shared almost no interests—how did we pull that off, anyway?—it is that emotions have their own logic. Or maybe it isn’t logic. Maybe it’s exactly the opposite of logic and reason. Anyway, we did it, and I was going to leave her ashes where she wanted them if it killed me.

Of course, the first thing that nearly killed me was the whole business of driving. Why some places think it makes sense to drive on the left side of the road, I don’t know. Nor was I quick to adapt. Maybe I could have in my younger days, but you know what they say about old dogs. It required all my attention to drive. From my first glimpse of Mt. Cook, from the south side of Lake Tekapo, where there was a gorgeous stone church overlooking the turquoise waters, I had trouble pulling my eyes from the scenery back to the road. When I began the long drive up the side of Lake Pukaki toward the mountain, I repeatedly found myself in the wrong lane. Fortunately it was early, and traffic was light. Still, I was relieved to arrive at last at the motel at the end of the road.

It was too early to check in, and too late to begin the hike that was my sole reason for being there. Instead, I wandered a short distance up a path to a viewpoint, and just sat there and looked. I tried to imagine what she had felt all those times she had come here. She had wanted to climb the peak. Had wanted—I might as well be blunt—to die on the mountain and leave her body there for the birds. That hadn’t been an option, so this was the next best thing. I would cart those ashes as far up the mountain as I could go, and commit a small act of pollution by dropping them onto a glacier.

Studying the trail map at my viewpoint, I realized that it was not going to be easy to do that. I traced the dashed blue lines and realized they wouldn’t take me onto the ice. Only the grey trails went clear to the glaciers—until I realized those grey lines were the rivers, not trails. I wondered how she would feel if the best I could do was to drop her ashes into the roiled, silty river that ran from the glacier down to the lake.

I thought about the grey trail that was the river, which flowed to a lake blue almost beyond comprehension. Yes, she would like that. She always did like transformations and mystical transmogrification. Becoming part of the glacial silt that created the distinct lake color would have felt right to her. It’s what would happen even if I did put her on the glacier.

I sat and watched the mountain and the river until my stomach reminded me that lunchtime was long past, then went and checked into my room.

That grey trail fascinated and horrified me, and I could hear the roar of the river even in my sleep. Rather, I could hear it in my room, sleeping or waking. A glacial river tumbling from mountain to valley appeared to be a noisy as well as uncontainable thing.

Was this one trail we could hike together?

In the morning, tired from my restless night, I forced myself to rise early and go to the restaurant for breakfast. I ordered a large and tasty selection of my favorites, with no concern for health. It wouldn’t be bacon that would kill me, I told myself.

Back in my room, well fed and at peace, I packed my daypack. Water, a jacket, a few granola bars, and the tin can. I began the painstaking process of putting on the braces that allowed my knees to function, as much as they would. Just to reach the swing bridge over the river would push my limits.

I had all day. I could take the grey trail back down.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015
I apologize for the quality of today's photos. I scanned them from slides shot in 1996, and our slide scanner is, shall we say, inadequate. I did my best to fix them.

The Church of the Good Shepherd and Lake Tekapo.
Mt. Cook and the top end of Lake Pukaki
Mt. Cook from somewhere near the end of the road.
The start of the Grey Trail.

Monday, July 24, 2017

#Fin50: After Dinner

The Ninja Librarian is out hiking! Comments will be responded to in a week. Meanwhile, there will only be two posts this week.


After Dinner is this month’s prompt from Bruce Gargoyle in his Fiction in Fifty (Fi50) meme.  You can join in this fun communal story-telling any time you like, and post any time during the month. Bruce posts his today, and you can drop in and link to your own. For the first time, I noticed that the rule is just to write the story in under 50 words. I still like making it exactly 50, exclusive of the title.

After Dinner

When we finish eating, the fun begins. Jane complains about the stew, Sue the peas. Mike says the biscuits could’ve been bullets. Josh takes offense, since he does the cooking.

Ten minutes after we fold our napkins, it’s full-scale war.

Turns out Mike was right about the biscuits. Now what?

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Photo Friday: Alcatraz

The Ninja Librarian is on vacation, visiting family and hiking. So instead of a story, we've put together a few photos for today's treat, from a visit to Alcatraz Island in June.

Everyone knows about Alcatraz, the infamous prison on a hunk of rock in the San Francisco Bay. Having lived in the area for upwards of 30 years, we decided it was time to visit (thanks to out-of-town visitors. Would we ever see the sights in our own backyards if it weren't for guests?).

We took BART, the local subway system, to the waterfront (only to find that we could have parked there much more cheaply than the 6 BART tickets. Oh well!). That left us with a pleasant walk along the Embarcadero to the Alcatraz Ferry.
An SF landmark.
Once embarked, everyone is a tourist. Looking back at the city from the water is part of the tour.
The Coit Tower tops the hill in the background.
It's a short crossing, so the attention soon turns to the island. The top of the hill, much like those in San Francisco itself, is all that rises above the waters of the Bay. It's mostly rock, and being directly in line with the mouth of the Golden Gate, currents around the island are tricky. (I know this, because in a moment of insanity, a friend and I decided to kayak around the island, from SF. We did live to tell the tale, but it wasn't one of our brighter moves).
From a Civil War-era garrison, the Island belonged to the miliary through WWI. In 1934 it opened as a prison, possibly the most secured prison in the country. Today, it belongs equally to the National Park Service and the birds.
We were lucky enough to not only spot some adorable seagull chicks, but to find them at feeding time. If you take a close look, you can see that the mama bird is regurgitating a fine meal for the chicks.
The windward side is home to a substantial rookerie, including for egrets. Wind and the excitements of mating together made for a bad hair day for this guy.
All that was lost on the prison inmates, who endured life in the chilly and damp cell blocks.
Three tiers of cells.
A pretty bleak place to call home.
Each prisoner got a cell like this. They took up arts and crafts to stave off the boredom of long sentences. Even crocheting! (I suspect knitting wasn't an option).

While the Park Service has restored and maintained many of the buildings, others, like the Warden's house, have gone the way of most structures left alone in this climate for 50+ years.

When you get tired of history, the views from the island are worth a good look all on their own. The City to the south, and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west. We took time to enjoy the view before sailing for the mainland again.
Bay cruises and the Angel Island ferry all pass close by The Rock.
Golden Gate Bridge
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Audiobook Review: Murder in an Irish Village, by Carlene O'Connor


Title: Murder in an Irish Village (Irish Village Mysteries #1)
Author: Carlene O'Connor, read by Caroline Lennon
Publisher: Dreamscape Media 2016; original hardback by Kensington, 2016. 304 pages.
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:
In the small village of Kilbane, County Cork, Ireland, Natalie's Bistro has always been warm and welcoming. Nowadays twenty-two-year-old Siobhan O'Sullivan runs the family bistro named for her mother, along with her five siblings, after the death of their parents in a car crash almost a year ago. It's been a rough year for the O'Sullivans, but it's about to get rougher. One morning, as they're opening the bistro, they discover a man seated at a table with a pair of hot pink barber scissors protruding from his chest. With the local garda suspecting the O'Sullivans, and their business in danger of being shunned. It's up to feisty redheaded Siobhán to solve the crime and save her beloved brood. 

My Review: 

An altogether satisfying mystery! Maybe it just hit the right tone at the right time, but I thought the story and characters were interesting, the mystery was intriguing and not so easy to see through, and there were just the right amounts of excitement and romance (which is to say, a final scene that raised the heart rate a bit, and romance kept to the very mild and second or probably third tier of importance to the story).

Probably the only complaint I could make would be the usual one of motivation and justification for the amateur sleuth, and in all honesty, this was much less of an issue than with most cozies. Every time I began to think Siobhán should just go to the police and let it go, the author ramped up her personal investment, and gave Siobhán reasons why she couldn't wait for the slower-moving wheels of justice to grind.

The interactions of the people of the village are a large part of what makes this sort of book interesting, and I thought O'Connor did a great job of making the people interesting, quirky, and a human mix of good and bad. There were no stereotypes, except maybe the evil landlady.

Caroline Lennon does a great job with the reading, and has a delightful voice and accent to listen to.

My Recommendation:
This is definitely a series and an author to watch, and to read more of.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Murder in an Irish Village out of my on-line 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, July 17, 2017

Middle Grade Monday: Greenglass House


Title: Greenglass House
Author: Kate Milford
Publisher: Clarion Books, 2014. 375 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer series.

It's wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler's inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers' adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo's home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves.

My Review: 
This definitely wasn't what I expected. I'm not sure just what I did expect, but this wasn't it. It was even less what I thought it was in the middle of the book. Probably the most telling thing I can say about it is that I was about 2/3 of the way through at bedtime, and ended up staying up rather late to finish it, because I just couldn't stop! It wasn't just that things got exciting, though they did. I also felt a strong need to find out just what was going on.

In addition to a story about family and friendship, and a mystery, this is a book that plays with the boundaries of reality. The time period is left deliberately vague; it is modern, but no one seems to have a cell phone. The location is likewise unknown, but we are on a river that harbors smugglers, but the smuggling seems to be in order to get around the greed of the sole purveyor of supplies in the region (this might be a nice way to make the smuggling less morally dubious for the sake of younger readers). The effect of all this vagueness is that the reader is perfectly positioned to believe whatever unfolds.

I did.

My Recommendation:
A good fun read, with a little bit of a serious side about family--what it is, and who is part of it. Milo's adoption has come to the forefront of his thinking, and that allows the reader to think about what it means to be adopted, and to have two families, even if you only know one of them. So I'll give this credit for being well-written, thought-provoking AND a lot of fun.

I am intrigued enough to want to read the sequel, though the blurb sounds kind of like a re-hash of the same story. I'm going to give Milford credit for being better than that, given the quality of this one.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Greenglass House 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, July 14, 2017

Flash Fiction Friday: There is No Exit

This week's flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig was simply to write a story that used the phrase "there is no exit."

No Exit?

“I hate going down there,” Evan whispered as he and Owen entered the elevator cage and began the drop into the mine.

Owen jabbed his friend with an elbow before crossing himself. For good measure, he spat over his left shoulder, making sure he wouldn’t hit any of the other miners. It might be worse luck to spit on one of the older men than to speak of the fear they all felt underground.

Anyway, this mine wasn’t so bad. There was a mine over on the other side of the mountains, that went more than twice as deep. They said you could hear the mountain creak at that depth, and it was hot down there, so that men worked stripped to the waist. At least here they got some fresh air, by way of a network of old shafts.

For all that, Owen felt the familiar dread as the sun dropped away above and the lights on their helmets grew brighter in the darkness.

Owen and Evan had gone into the mine only a few months before, when they turned 14. Their birthdays were within a few days of each other, so they were able to start together, which made it less lonely. Not that the men were unkind. They were all neighbors and kin, and looked out for the boys. But there no other boys on their shift, so they stuck together.

The shift boss sent them down a small tunnel, away from the other workers that day.

“You boys are the smallest. You’ll be able to swing a pick in there without hitting the roof,” he told them, with a slap on Evan’s shoulder. “Someone will come along in an hour or so to pick up what you get loose, and give you a break.” He was Evan’s uncle and looked out for them.

Owen didn’t like the small tunnel. It felt cramped, and the air there wasn’t as fresh as in the larger spaces. But they set to work in the steady fashion they had already learned.

An hour later, Owen stopped, putting a hand on Evan’s arm. “Wait. Hear that?”

The other boy cocked a head, listening as well. A strange creaking troubled the mine, and the distant sound of the other miners died away as they, too, stopped to listen. Evan took a step toward the mouth of their tunnel, his eyes wide.

Then the world ended.

That was how it felt, anyway. The sound was overwhelming, and the shaking knocked both boys from their feet. Then came the wave of dust-filled air, choking them until Owen thought they would die of it.

Just in time the dust began to settle. Their lamps had gone out in the fall, and Owen reached shaking hands for his matches. He hadn’t ever had to light the lamp in the dark, but his father had made him practice until he could do it with his eyes closed every time. Now he found and struck the match, lit his lamp, and reached to light Evan’s as well. They found their lantern and lit it just as the match reached Owen’s fingers.

“Save your matches.” That was all Owen said, but it was enough. Evan followed Owen’s gaze to the heap of rubble near the mouth of their tunnel.

“It’s not blocked,” Evan said, his voice shaking as much as Owen’s hands. The boys rose and walked toward the pile of rock, the lantern swinging in Evan’s right hand.

The mouth of their tunnel was littered with rubble, but not blocked.

It was the main tunnel that was blocked, in the direction that led back to the elevator. The boys turned the other way. The men were working somewhere down there; perhaps they knew another way out.

Thirty or forty steps were all it took to crush those hopes.

“There’s no exit,” Evan said, slumping against the wall. “It’s blocked, both ways. We’re going to die here.”

Owen, aware his friend was right but unwilling to give up so quickly, returned to the first cave-in. He tried shifting a rock, and more fell. He jumped back.

“Better not do that,” Evan said.

“Is the other cave-in as bad?” Owen asked. He didn’t need to see Evan’s nod to know the answer.

“I told you, we’re trapped,” Evan said. He began to cry, fighting against it, then giving up.

Owen turned away, so as not to see his friend’s weakness, or perhaps in hopes that he wouldn’t join him.

As he did so, he saw the flame of the lantern waver a bit. “Evan!”

Both boys stared at the flame, seeing the flicker that suggested moving air. Then they began to move the lantern about, to find where the movement came from.

The moving air didn’t come from either end of the cave-in. It came from the face where they had been working. Excited now, they moved the lantern carefully about the face, until they located the insignificant-looking crack where the air flowed imperceptibly. Setting the lantern safely back from their work space, the boys began attacking the crack in the stone.

Owen had hoped to hear the sounds of digging on the far side of the wall, but no crack and thud of picks answered their own. Undeterred, he and Evan worked on. When the crack widened so that they could feel the air movement, they worked all the harder, confident now that at least they wouldn’t run out of air.

When the two boys emerged from a long-forgotten tunnel and dragged themselves, bone-weary, through the forest back to town, they were greeted as ghosts. They were the only miners to leave the mine that day.

“How did you do it? The tunnels were blocked for a dozen yards. There are men down there trying to dig through to the trapped miners, but they have made little progress. There’s no way out.”

 “We were separated from the others,” Evan explained.

“So we made our own exit,” Owen concluded.

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Non-fiction Review: My Old Man and the Sea


My Old Man and the Sea
Author: David Hays and Daniel Hays
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 1995, 231 pages.
Source: Daly City Public Library Associates booksale

Publisher's Summary:
A story of adventure on a small boat, for fathers, for sons, and for those who love them. On this voyage the father relinquishes control, the son becomes the captain, and before long they are utterly alone, with only the huge waves of Cape Horn, a compass, a sextant, a pet cat, and the tiny boat they've built together. "The account of the passage, related in alternating sections by father and son, will be read with delight 100 years from now."--William F. Buckley, The New York Times Book Review, front page; "A must read for sailors of the sea and of the heart."--Eco Traveler. 


My Review:  I really enjoyed this book, and in some ways it's hard to know exactly why. I'm not a sailor, and will never be one (can you say motion sickness?), and many of the details about sailing went right over my head. I still don't know if sailing around the Horn in a 20' sailboat is an amazing feat or an act of idiocy, or nothing much or something in between, but there's no denying that a father and son who can share that 20' boat for about 6 months with only a few battles are something special.

The book is written in alternating sections by David (father) and Daniel (son; in his mid-20s). David writes in more the reflective creative-non-fiction style, while Daniel confines his reflections in a journal format. Both speak openly and honestly about everything from their own feelings about each other to their feelings about themselves. David spends a bit of time writing about his own father and their boats, perhaps in an attempt to explain how and why he and David end up at sea together. In any case, it helps develop the theme of fathers and sons, and little he writes seems extraneous.

Daniel's style is a little more spare, but he, too, is completely honest about his feelings and his failings. In the end, what we have is half adventure story, and half a paeon to the love of a father and son--and the infinite complexities in their relationship. In a way, this was a good companion book to Cokie Roberts' We Are Our Mothers' Daughters, which I read at the same time. Which makes me think that I'd really like to read about a mother-daughter pair doing a similar adventure.

My Recommendation:
If the premise sounds interesting to you, go for it. The book is well-written and and easy read.

FTC Disclosure: I purchased My Old Man and the Sea, 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."  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mystery Review: 30 Second Death, by Laura Bradford


 This one isn't a full tour, but it's a release-day review through Great Escapes!  I read and enjoyed (and reviewed) Death in Advertising, so I was excited to be able to do the second book in the series. Thanks to Lori at Great Escapes Free Tours for this opportunity.

Title: 30 Second Death
Author: Laura Bradford
Publisher: Lyrical Underground, July 2017. 212 pages.
Source: Electronic ARC from the publisher

Publisher's Summary:

To help an old friend, Tobi Tobias gets a third-rate thespian a part in a commercial, and learns that in the advertising business, bad acting can lead to murder . . .

When Tobi Tobias opened her own advertising agency, Carter McDade was there for her every step of the way. A brilliant hairdresser, Carter has just landed his dream project: doing hair and makeup for a theatrical production of Rapunzel. But the dream turns into a nightmare when he runs into Fiona Renoir, a cruel, talentless starlet who won’t let Carter touch a hair on her head.

To get Fiona out of Carter’s hair, Tobi hires the difficult actress for a bit part in her latest commercial. But true to character, Fiona is a terror on set, and Tobi is starting to think she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. But things get even worse when Fiona drops dead in the hairdresser’s chair, and the only suspect is the man left holding the tainted hair dye, Carter McDade. And unless Tobi can prove his innocence, he’ll never do hair in this town again.

My Review: 
I think this was a stronger book than the first in the series (Death in Advertising). If you look at my review of that one, you'll see that I dinged it a bit for too-perfect characters. Not Tobi, but all her friends. I still think we all can dream of having friends as good as Tobi has, but in this book they seemed a little more real. The 15-year-old Sam is still a bit unbelievable (okay, he reminds me of the 15-year-old Brian from the early drafts of Death By Ice Cream, from before I had my own teens), but he's just quirky enough to pass.

The mystery itself was good. I did get an idea or two about whodunnit, but only found my way to the solution as Tobi did (as she uncovered the info that made it make sense), and I followed her off after all the wrong answers. Of course, I knew they had to be wrong, because it was too early in the book to be so sure, but even so, I believed her.

Dialogue is good, the romance continues to take up about the right amount of space (which is to say, not that much), and the writing overall is tight. My biggest concern now is that Tobi needs to get her diet under control, because her hatred of veggies and love of sugar is going to land her smack in diabetes-land. In all seriousness, I am a bit bothered by that, because in a way it normalizes a really unhealthy lifestyle. I figure the only reason Tobi isn't overweight is that she has had to walk everywhere, due to not having a car. Okay, I'm over-reacting, but it did bug me.

My Recommendation:
Definitely a good series for the reader who likes a cozy mystery without over-much kitsch or romance. The advertising angle is a good one that allows for innovative murders and lots of new characters, and no recipes (note: I have nothing against recipes, but sometimes they seem awfully gimmicky). Just don't eat like Tobi does, okay?

FTC Disclosure: I was given an electronic ARC of 30 Second Death for my honest review, and received nothing further from the writer or publisher in exchange.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Middle Grade Fiction: The Warden's Daughter, by Jerry Spinelli


Title: The Warden's Daughter
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017. 352 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
Cammie O'Reilly lives at the Hancock County Prison--not as a prisoner, she's the warden's daughter. She spends the mornings hanging out with shoplifters and reformed arsonists in the women's excercise yard, which gives Cammie a certain cache with her school friends.

But even though Cammie's free to leave the prison, she's still stuck. And sad, and really mad. Her mother died saving her from harm when she was just a baby. You wouldn't think you could miss something you never had, but on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, the thing Cammie most wants is a mom. A prison might not be the best place to search for a mother, but Cammie is determined and she's willing to work with what she's got.

My Review: 
Jerry Spinelli is justifiably renowned for his children's books. This one lived up to the hype. I was a bit dubious about the premise, but Spinelli not only manages to channel a 12-year-old girl quite convincingly, but he makes her desperate search for a mother make complete sense. The book isn't so much about the need for a mother, though, as it is about the rage that builds up in a child on the edge of puberty, even when life isn't as unfair as it's been to Cammie. 

In one sense, of course, Cammie has little to complain of--she has a father who loves her, someone to make sure she has meals and clean clothes, and a safe, if unconventional, place to live. But when everything about you is changing, as it does on the cusp of 13, the lack of a mother you never knew can be pretty painful. It doesn't help that Cammie has no natural ability to be a girl (I can sympathize). It's not surprising that she longs for a mother to show her how, especially as her father doesn't seem to be terribly close.

The humor, and the pain, comes from where she looks for that mother (I wonder if Spinelli had been reading Are You My Mother? Certainly Cammie's search reminds me of that baby bird). The prison-yard might not be the best place for a pre-teen girl, and definitely not the best place to look for a mother, but it's what she has. Or, it's what she believes she has. And therein lies the extra interest, because a great deal of her trouble comes from her own short-sightedness about the world around her, and her father has to take some blame for being a bit clueless, though he is a lot less clueless than she thinks at the time!

My Recommendation:
This is historical fiction, but the historical setting plays a minor role, really. This might be a good starter for kids who think they don't like historical fiction, because kids in any era can relate to Cammie's problems.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Warden's Daughter 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."  

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

IWSG and Non-fiction audiobook review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

Oh, bother. It's summer time and I'm losing track. I see that today is the IWSG posts day (now). So here's a quick nod of the head to the IWSG.

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!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group (click on the badge above for the list) and connect with your fellow writers - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!
This month's question is: What valuable lessons have you learned since you started writing?
If I were to answer this one fully, it could be a very long list, even if we only count starting from when I published my first book. I'll just hit a couple of high points and hope that my readers will chime in with their own experiences!
1. If you want to write like a pro, treat it like a job. I don't mean sit in a cubicle and let your word processor suck all the life from you, but do expect to show up to work every day (or most days), and to hit some targets and goals.
2. Don't beat yourself up when life gets in the way and you can't write. Okay, not only does this sound like the opposite of the first item, but I'm still working on it. The thing is, if you *aren't* making a living at writing, odds are that there are other things in your life that sometimes have to take precedence. The struggle is to figure out which are real and what's an excuse, and find that eternally delicate balance.
3. Have fun. I'm not making piles of money writing. So if it stops giving me a return on investment in the form of joy, it's time to quit writing and go hiking.
What are your lessons? Leave a comment below, after checking out my review of the day!

Title: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
Author: Rinker Buck. Read by the author.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2015, 451 pages. Audio by Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015.
Source: Library digital collection.

Publisher's Summary:
In the bestselling tradition of Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz, Rinker Buck's "The Oregon Trail" is a major work of participatory history: an epic account of traveling the 2,000-mile length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way, in a covered wagon with a team of mules--which hasn't been done in a century--that also tells the rich history of the trail, the people who made the migration, and its significance to the country.

Spanning 2,000 miles and traversing six states from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, the Oregon Trail is the route that made America. In the fifteen years before the Civil War, when 400,000 pioneers used it to emigrate West--historians still regard this as the largest land migration of all time--the trail united the coasts, doubled the size of the country, and laid the groundwork for the railroads. The trail years also solidified the American character: our plucky determination in the face of adversity, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Today, amazingly, the trail is all but forgotten. 

Rinker Buck is no stranger to grand adventures. "The New Yorker "described his first travel narrative, "Flight of Passage," as "a funny, cocky gem of a book," and with "The Oregon Trail "he seeks to bring the most important road in American history back to life. At once a majestic American journey, a significant work of history, and a personal saga reminiscent of bestsellers by Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed, the book tells the story of Buck's 2,000-mile expedition across the plains with tremendous humor and heart. He was accompanied by three cantankerous mules, his boisterous brother, Nick, and an "incurably filthy" Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oyl. Along the way, Buck dodges thunderstorms in Nebraska, chases his runaway mules across miles of Wyoming plains, scouts more than five hundred miles of nearly vanished trail on foot, crosses the Rockies, makes desperate fifty-mile forced marches for water, and repairs so many broken wheels and axels that he nearly reinvents the art of wagon travel itself. Apart from charting his own geographical and emotional adventure, Buck introduces readers to the evangelists, shysters, natives, trailblazers, and everyday dreamers who were among the first of the pioneers to make the journey west. With a rare narrative power, a refreshing candor about his own weakness and mistakes, and an extremely attractive obsession for history and travel, "The Oregon Trail" draws readers into the journey of a lifetime.

My Review: 

My reaction to this book, in a nutshell: it's an interesting story, well told. Of course, the settlement of the American west and the Oregon trail is one of my particular areas of historical interest (and for attentive and wondering readers, yes, there are quite of few of those areas of interest for me), so I welcomed a chance to read a new account of crossing the trail, even if the trail and the conditions aren't exactly what they were in 1850.

One interesting aspect was that in many places, Buck and his brother found the trail much less populated than it was for many of those who crossed more than a century earlier. Not only were large areas that had once been homesteaded every few miles now converted to huge industrial farms, but of course they were not traveling with a wagon train. When something went wrong, they had no one to lean on but themselves, at least until they could get cell reception. That latter was a help, but not the cure-all many people might think. When things went wrong, they usually had to cope with emergency measures on the spot, even if they were able to call in help later. Wagon parts seldom seemed to break in places with cell reception.

The historical information provided was interesting and fairly well integrated with their own story, and included details about things that I never encountered in any of the Trail journals I've read (exactly how a wagon is built, and the challenges of handling mules, or the incredible discomfort of sitting on the seat of a wagon without suspension). Equally enjoyable, and perhaps also of value when thinking about the historical crossings, was the development of the relationship between the brothers. Both grew and were made stronger as the trip went on, and their relationship seemed to deepen as each learned respect for the strengths of the other. Those strengths were decidedly complementary, which meant that at times they butted heads pretty hard.

I had to laugh a little over some things, as when Buck admitted to eating canned chili nearly every night, because they were too tired to cook. I couldn't help thinking about the women and girls who crossed the trail, walking and riding (which sound about equally fatiguing) in absurd skirts, then climbed down and built a fire and cooked up a meal from scratch every night. Granted, the larger group helped and meant they weren't usually also caring for the stock, but still. The weaker sex my hind-quarters.

About the audio: the book was read by the author, which was kind of cool, but his reading wasn't up to the standards of the best readers. Hesitations put commas where they didn't belong, and forced me to think twice to follow the meaning in places. On the other hand, it gave an authenticity no disinterested reader could have provided, and I wouldn't have missed his imitations of his brother's tones and language. A real bonus was a conversation between the brothers appended to the book. I did note that not everything they said there matched what Rinker Buck said in the book exactly, but the impact of the journey on the men and on their relationship was really clear in that conversation.

My Recommendation:
Definitely worthwhile for anyone at all interested in the subject. I will note that after listening to the book, I ordered the hardback from the library in order to see the pictures and the maps. In particular, I needed some illustrations to understand how they did the 3-mule driving rig. So I would recommend, if at all possible, that you both listen to this one AND get the print edition, though there are a limited number of illustrations (wish one of them had been an avid photographer). And maybe plan on using Google Maps a lot to get more detail on the route, if you are as obsessive as I am about such.


FTC Disclosure: I checked The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey 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, July 3, 2017

Mystery Blogger Award

The Mystery Blogger Award was given to me by Jemima Pett in mid-June. I don't usually do these things, and I'm only half doing this. That is, I won't be tagging others to receive the award, not because I don't think the blogs I follow are super (because many of them are), but because it feels too much like a chain letter. But since Jemima tagged me, I'm going to answer her questions and I'll toss out some of my own for you to answer in the comments!

The Rules

Rule 1: Put the award logo/image on your blog.

See above.

Rule 2: List the rules.

… here….

Rule 3: Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.

Thank you, Jemima Pett.  I really appreciate the kind thoughts and kind words, not to mention your constant support of my blog and my books.

Rule 4: Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well.

About the creator: Okoto Enigma’s blog The creator’s name, Enigma, means mystery, thus the title of the Mystery Blogger Award.

Rule 5: Tell your readers three things about yourself.

1. I am not a Ninja or a librarian, but I do work at the library and I love books, and turning people on to books.

2. With a nod to Jemima's 2nd factoid, I am hopelessly left-handed, and drove my grade school teachers to despair as they tried to teach me to write legibly. I was saved first by the electric typewriter and then (by the time I finished my undergraduate work) by the word processor.

3. I love to hike and backpack as much as I love books. That's why you find backpacking trip reports mixed in here among the book reviews.

Rule 6: Nominate 10 to 20 bloggers.

Here's where I break the rules. No. I won't, especially not 10 or 20. Good heavens, don't these people understand math, and exponents? Pretty soon every blogger in the blogosphere has one of these awards.

That pretty much invalidates Rule 7 & the first part of 8:

Rule 7: Notify those people.

Rule 8: Ask your nominee any five questions of your choice, plus one weird or funny question (and answer the ones you were asked).

Here are the questions, and my answers:
  1. What is the most memorable trait or visual oddity of a fictional book character you’ve read?
    (Example: Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar.)
    • This requires some thought. It would be easy to say that it's Auggie in Wonder, though we don't really know what his face looks like, only that it's deformed. But probably the best for me is Pippi Longstocking and her long red braids. A close look at my profile photo will clarify that choice.
  2. What most motivates you to buy a new book to read?
    • I don't buy many, and usually it's either the fill-a-bag sale at the library fundraiser, or a visit to a museum or National Park book store, where I find the most amazing gems of obscure history and natural history, which are about the only books I buy anymore.
  3. How do YOU make an educated guess as to if a book by an author you haven’t read before will be “good” BEFORE you read any of it? (Number of books sold, number of reviews, average star rating, awards it received, friend suggests it, the cover, etc)
    • The cover catches my eye first, then I read the blurbs. I don't usually go to reviews, though a review by a trusted reviewer (see Jemima Pett, above) may send me in search of a book, as have discussions on Goodreads.
  4. What’s your favorite comfort food. (Pic? Recipe?)
    • Chocolate Crazy Cake. Dump all the ingredients* in the cake pan, stir, and bake. Impossible to ruin, and really tasty, especially with chocolate sauce poured over it. So maybe I should just say that when in doubt, I turn to chocolate.
  5. Where do you look for blogging inspiration?
    • Anywhere I’m allowed.  And some places I’m not allowed.  <---That's Jemima's answer, but I couldn't invent a better one.
Weird/funny question: Do you have a celebrity encounter story you can share?
  • I'm sorry to say that I don't. I generally don't recognize faces, so I wouldn't know if I was standing in line for coffee behind a celebrity. 
Finally, here's...

Rule 9: Share a link to my blog’s best post.

 Tough choice. I have no idea what my best post it. But here's a short story I rather like, out of the many I have shared.
And here are gratuitous photos of the Canadian Rockies.

So...once again, thanks to Jemima for giving me the excuse to goof off a little! And here are my questions for you to answer in the comments:

1. What is your favorite dinner food?
2. What is the most memorable trip you've taken.


 *Okay, fine, here's the recipe, for an 8X8 cake:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
3 Tbs baking cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt (or a bit less)
1 Tbs vinegar
2 Tbs oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup water.
Like I said, put it all in the pan, stir until mixed, and bake 30 minutes at 350 deg.

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