Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mystery Review: Murder Wears Mittens

Title: Murder Wears Mittens (Seaside Knitters Society #1) 
Author: Sally Goldenbaum
Publisher: Kensington, 2017. 272 pages.
Source: electronic ARC through Great Escapes free blog tours

Publisher's Blurb:
As autumn washes over coastal Sea Harbor, Massachusetts, the Seaside Knitters anticipate a relaxing off-season. But when murder shatters the peace, the craftiest bunch in town must unravel a killer’s deadly scheme . . .

After retrieving fresh lobster nets from a local Laundromat, Cass Halloran rushes to attend a last-minute gathering with her knitting circle. But Cass can’t stop worrying about the lonely boy seen hanging around the dryers, and the school uniform he left behind in a hurry. When the ladies return the lost clothing the next day, they find the child and his younger sister alone, seemingly abandoned by their mother . . .

The knitters intend to facilitate a family reunion, not investigate a crime. But the death of Dolores Cardozo, a recluse from the edge of town, throws the group for a loop. Especially when the missing mother and one of their own become tied to the victim’s hidden fortune—and her murder . . .
Before scandalous secrets break bonds and rumors tear Sea Harbor apart, the Seaside Knitters need to string together the truth about Dolores—while preventing a greedy murderer from making another move!

* Includes a knitting pattern *

My Review:
This is a nice village cozy with a twist--a group detective. The four members of the Seaside Knitters work together, and share top billing, as they solve this mystery that disturbs the peace of their small New England village. In fact, at first I had some trouble keeping everyone straight--it seemed like every character who was introduced was equally important, and my summer-vacation brain had trouble sorting them out. Fortunately, the author helps with this by providing a comprehensive "Cast of Characters" at the beginning, and by halfway through they had emerged in my mind as distinct people.

The mystery is pretty well worked out, with a reasonably convincing motive and a pretty clear track to the solution (I do object to books where the solution comes in a sudden leap that the reader can't follow; this one had a clear trail to follow all the way). In point of fact, I worked it out well ahead of the sleuths, as well as sorting out the general outline of the only main red herring, but that didn't stop me from being interested in how the author would get there.

I do have some quibbles with this book. For one thing, although it says it's the first in the series, it isn't. I had to do some sleuthing of my own to realize that it's the continuation of a series with a new publisher. That would explain why there was so evidently a lot of history with these people (including another murder in their past) that I didn't know about. I think it would be better to read the ones that come before first.

I was more troubled by what I see as poor editing, in the form of too many slightly mis-used words, or sound-alikes, like "jived" for "jibed" or "low and behold" for "lo and behold." This happened enough to distract me a bit, though I'd be the first to admit I'm a little OCD about that type of thing.

As for the knitting pattern, this reader is much better with a bike wrench than any form of handiwork, and has no ability whatsoever to read a knitting pattern, let alone evaluate it. I'm guessing it will be lovely, and it does make a nice change from recipes.

My Recommendation:
This is for those who like village cozies with a good sense of place and a whiff of sea air about them. 

About The Author
Sally Goldenbaum was born on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Manitowoc, WI, to a homemaker mother and a ship-building father. Although she now lives in landlocked Prairie Village, KS, her longing for lakes and the sea is satisfied in part by writing the USA Today bestselling Seaside Knitters Mystery series, set on Cape Ann, MA. She is a sometime philosophy teacher, a knitter, and an editor, and the author of more than thirty novels. Her fictional knitting friends are teaching her the intricacies of women’s friendship, the mysteries of small-town living, and the very best way to pick up dropped stitches on a lacy knit shawl.

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Monday, August 28, 2017

#Fin50 Blessing in Disguise


Last Monday of the month, and that means it's time for Fiction in 50. Blessing in Disguise 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.

Because Bruce is taking a haitus from blogging, I am working on taking over managing this blog hop. For now, drop in here and link to your own story, and see the remaining prompts below.

I've up a page for the party.

Blessing in Disguise

“I can’t come. Too much work, and my car’s in the shop.”

“Bummer! Growing up sucks, doesn’t it?”

Kara hung up, agreeing with Marla. She wanted to join the others at the beach house for the weekend.

When the first one died of the unknown disease, Kara thanked her car.

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

Welcome to Fiction in 50!

The rules for participation are simple!
1. Create a piece of fictional writing in 50 words or less.
That’s it!  But for those who wish to challenge themselves further, here’s an additional rule:

2. Post your piece of flash fiction on your blog or (for those poor blog-less souls) add it as a comment on the Ninja Librarian's post for everyone to enjoy. I usually post mine on the last Monday of the month, unless the month ends on Monday.
And for those thrill-seekers who really like to go the extra mile (ie: perfectionists):

3. Add the nifty little picture above to your post (credit for which goes entirely to ideflex over at or create your own Fi50 meme pic….
and 4. Link back here so others can jump on the mini-fic bandwagon!

Prompts for the second half of 2017 are as follows – suggestions for new or alternative prompts are always welcome! Posts can go up any time during the week (or entire month – we’re not fussy!) beginning the following dates:

The week beginning:

August 28…Blessing in Disguise
September 25…Oops!
October 30…A Piece of Cake
November 27…The Worst that Could Happen
December 25…Joy in Abundance

You’re welcome to pick your own topics or go along with the ones above.
Previous Prompts (2017)
January 30 Moving with the Times
February 27 A Marriage of Convenience
March 27 Lucky Charms
April 24 When One Door Shuts
May 29 That Old Wive’s Tale
June 26 A Change in the Weather
July 24…After Dinner

Friday, August 25, 2017

Flashback Friday & Eclipse Report

First the eclipse. As regular readers of this blog will recall, I drove to Oregon last weekend with my oldest son in order to witness the total solar eclipse. I have to say that it was a fantastic experience, and worth the cost of a rental car (because ours chose just that moment to develop a perplexing electrical problem) and 3 days of driving. At least we avoided the massive traffic jams that made some people's trips home 2 or 3 times longer than they should have been.

Okay, I'm lying. That's not an eclipse. That's sunset in California, thanks to the fires everywhere. And the reality was even redder than the photo shows.
We targeted the National Forest lands east of John Day, Oregon, in hopes of avoiding the worst crowds. Our plan worked pretty well. That is to say, the small towns along the path of totality were absolute zoos, but we needed nothing there--we'd filled the gas tank farther out, and had all our own food and water with us. The National Forest was also pretty well populated with people camping as we were (unofficially, in what is known as "dispersed camping" and is perfectly legal on most Forest Service and BLM lands).
Every farmer, school, and town rented out pretty much any flat ground for camping. I hope the schools made some good money, but the crowd scene wasn't for me.
We found a campsite, set up camp, and located the perfect viewing point: a pile of columnar basalt, tipped sideways in some long-ago upheaval of the earth.

The offspring took a good close-up of the roughly hexagonal columns, formed in the cooling basalt.
Stair-steps up the columns to the viewpoint.
 Waiting for Totality.
We shared our summit with a dozen other people, all excitedly watching the change in light.
 Someone brought "eclipse cookies" and shared.
Yes, I know--this one was backwards, making it a lunar eclipse. Or something.
Making progress.
When the light started to change, it happened fast.
The down jackets in the background were overkill, though it did get noticeably cooler.
The main event, as captured by my little Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100 (for those who want to know).

Now for...
Flashback Friday!

It took some looking to find a story to match the eclipse. But I found this 2012 homage to Douglas Adams, and it felt about right. So, with apologies to the master, here in 855 words, is...

An Elegant Apocalypse

Sunrise on Planet X-4732B was one of the most stunning and beautiful events in the Universe. This is a well-established fact, determined by a complex algorithm developed by the Ultra-Computer housed on the 4th Moon of Planet G-7512, known to locals as Home. The lunar location was originally meant to isolate it and prevent the most powerful computer in the universe from running amok.

Naturally, by the time the Ultra-Computer was completed, there were six more computers being built on six asteroids, each one an order of magnitude more powerful than the Ultra. That is not germane to the issue, but does explain why the Ultra was free to spend its time determining the nature and location of the most stunningly beautiful sights in the universe.

So the morning of the last day of the world began with the last most beautiful sunrise. If anything, the approach of the disaster gave the sunrise a more vivid coloration. It was not, however, beautiful in the eyes of the beholder. There were no beholders, for the same reason that X-4732B has no local name: there are no higher order inhabitants on X-4732B. Lower-order organisms abound, or did before the world ended, but they had failed to evolve to create pollution, disrupt the perfect order of the landscape, or anticipate the apocalypse.

The absence of human or human-like observers was, of course, central to the elegance of the X-4732B apocalypse (for every apocalypse is local, until the final event, the end of the universe so eloquently documented by Douglas Adams). Besides a failure to muck up the view, lower-order organisms tend to lack the necessary glands to panic. Had the planet evolved so much as a muskrat, the day would have taken a different turn, and the Ultra Computer would have had to recalculate the event’s standing in its ranking of events approaching perfection.

Naturally, just when it seemed safe to assume that the apocalypse would proceed with dignity and quiet splendor, everything changed. A lone, tiny, and definitely lost space capsule spiraled down through the oddly Earth-like atmosphere.

In the best of all possible worlds, the man who emerged, dazed, from the erring and now disabled spacecraft would have been Arthur Dent.

It wasn’t.

His name was Johnson Bob, and he’d been in transit between two planets far from X-4732B when his flight path took him a hair too close to a concert by the intergalactic band Disaster Area. The cosmic disruption of the loudest band in the universe had put an end to his tedious business trip and landed Johnson on X-4732B in time to witness the end of that world, and potentially to disrupt its tranquil order.

The event was saved from the contamination of panic, despite the intrusion of a more-or-less higher life form, by the simple fact that Johnson never left the ship.  He was sleeping off the disconcerting effects of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster he’d had in the space port bar before leaving, a task that requires the full concentration of all bodily forces for a full day.

Johnson Bob therefore slept through the end of the world.  He failed to observe as the sky turned from its usual chartreuse to an odd shade of puce and finally a perfect shade of red-orange.  Nor was he aware when the atmosphere boiled away, as his ship maintained the ideal balance of gasses for the continuation of human life.

Johnson Bob likewise missed the exquisite moment when all factors coalesced into the perfect, nearly silent yet symphonic finality.  It was this perfect coordination of elements that led the Ultra Computer to designate the X-4732B Apocalypse as the most elegant apocalypse of all time. Millennia of constipated volcanism beneath the immense chain of volcanoes that ringed the planet burst through the plug in every peak simultaneously, exactly at the instant the asteroid that had boiled away the atmosphere struck precisely at the southern pole, and the sun went nova.

Johnson Bob should have been boiled away with the atmosphere, of course, but the Ultra Computer considered the final touch that perfected the X-4732B Apocalypse to be the manner in which the volcanic cataclysm ejected the one bit of alien matter from the planet in time to make it a purely local event. When Johnson Bob eventually awoke, he had a nasty hangover but no awareness of where he’d been or what he’d done. The blast had flung him back onto his orignal trajectory, and he landed without incident and went to the nearest bar for another Gargle-Blaster, in hopes of clearing his head.
To a human observer, the tiny space capsule as it exited would have looked like a watermelon pip spat contemptuously at the remainder of the universe as the planet exploded into a nearly infinite number of identical fragments.

But of course since Johnson Bob was unconscious the whole time, there was no human, or even sentient, observer.  That, the computer decided as the final rays of the perfectly symmetrical pattern of dissolution faded into empty space, was perhaps the most elegant feature of the apocalypse.  Perfection could only unfold unobserved.

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: Time to Be in Earnest, by P. D. James


Title: Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography
Author: P. D. James
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 1999. Paperback by Ballantine, 2001. 269 pages.
Source: Library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
On the day she turned seventy-seven, internationally acclaimed mystery writer P. D. James embarked on an endeavor unlike any other in her distinguished career: she decided to write a personal memoir in the form of a diary. Over the course of a year she set down not only the events and impressions of her extraordinarily active life, but also the memories, joys, discoveries, and crises of a lifetime. This enchantingly original volume is the result.

Time to Be in Earnest offers an intimate portrait of one of most accomplished women of our time. Here are vivid, revealing accounts of her school days in Cambridge in the 1920s and '30s, her happy marriage and the tragedy of her husband's mental illness, and the thrill of publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962. As she recounts the decades of her exceptional life, James holds forth with wit and candor on such diverse subjects as the evolution of the detective novel, her deep love of the English countryside, her views of author tours and television adaptations, and her life-long obsession with Jane Austen. Wise and frank, engaging and graceful, this "fragment of autobiography" will delight and surprise P. D. James's admirers the world over.

My Review:   
Time to Be in Earnest is an odd sort of hybrid, and does a number of things, none of them perhaps perfectly, but all of them better than might be expected, to make an intriguing whole. The sub-heading is about right: it's a fragmentary autobiography, and the author has made little attempt to be complete or chronological. An attentive reader can fill in most of the blanks, but don't look here for details about all aspects of James' life.

In addition to being an odd form of memoir (I think that might be a more accurate descriptor than "autobiography"), the book is a meditation on all sorts of topics, from politics to literary criticism. It gives the reader a glimpse into the author's political views, which may or may not be a good thing (she's not awful, but I would like to argue with her over some points). It also gives a look into the publishing world, at least as it used to be. Written from August 1997 to August 1998, the book long precedes the changes that have rocked publishing since about 2010.

For me, the most interesting bits are the places where James critiques, or just meditates on, the works of other authors, living and dead. There again, I don't agree with everything--I think she sells Dorothy Sayers short, but I know less of Sayers' personal life and might easily be proved wrong. But her thoughts on detective fiction are food for thought, as she sees it moving very much toward more police procedural, and the necessity of accuracy in all matters of policing. I am thinking that the "cozy mystery" trend hadn't taken hold yet then, since much of what is selling now is far from what she describes, and often plays fast and loose with the realities of police work today.*

Finally, if for nothing else, the book is worth reading for the talk she gave, reprinted as an appendix, analyzing Jane Austen's Emma as a detective story. I could only wish I had read Emma more recently, but the analysis is fascinating, and makes me want to re-read Emma.

*Note: I am a bit guilty of this myself. It's hard to have a good amateur detective and still give due respect to reality.

My Recommendation:
There is something in here for many kinds of readers. Fans of P.D. James' mysteries will want to read it for a closer look at the author. There are also bits of history regarding both WWII and the realities of life in England before the war. Finally, for many as for me, there are the insights into a wide range of books--and also into the selection of the Booker Prize winners. Not a must-read, but worth the time invested. I could wish the paperback had larger print, but that says more about me than anything else.

FTC Disclosure: I bought Time to Be in Earnest second-hand, 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, August 21, 2017


The Ninja Librarian is in Oregon, watching the eclipse.

As a treat while you wait for our return, a few photos of the Eastern Oregon landscape, from earlier trips.

I tend to think of eastern Oregon as fairly flat--a rolling lava field much like eastern Washington (which is also not really that way--that's just what you see from I90). And it can be.
Oregon looking prairie-like aside from the volcanic artifact that is Fort Rock.
But an awful lot of it is more like this. Still volcanic, but not so flat.
US 395 near John Day, Oregon.
 Oregon can also look like this:
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Painted Hills
Interesting contrasts between the eroding hills, the volcanic butte behind, and the irrigated valley between!

We'll be looking for places more like what's behind the Painted Hills, for the best view of the eclipse!
And finally, Eastern Oregon can also look like this.

See you in a few days!

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Photo Friday: Glacier Peak Wilderness

A couple of weeks ago, I did a 6-day backpack trip with my husband and eldest son (ES) on the east side of Glacier Peak (in Washington State; not to be confused with Glacier National Park). After a good snow year, there was lots of water, a fair collection of mosquitoes, and an overwhelming abundance of wildflowers. Here's a quick trip report with a lot of pretty pictures.

For those who like more detail on routes: We hiked the Phelps Creek Trail to Spider Meadows, climbed the Spider Glacier through Spider Gap and down to Lyman Lake. Crossed Cloudy and Suiattle Passes to pick up the PCT for a few miles, then the trail through Buck Creek Pass and back down to the Chiwawa River to complete the near-loop.

Day One: 
We arrived at the trailhead, after a long and slow dirt road (the last 2.5 miles were not at all appropriate for a small sedan, but we did it anyway), in time for lunch. There were a startling number of cars in the parking area, but it was Sunday and we had faith, well-placed as it turned out, that most would be leaving that day.
Couldn't help noticing most of the other cars were SUVs.
There were great views at the trailhead (the photo above just hints at it), but the trail dove right away into thick forest, where we began almost at once to see the wildflowers that were to be such a marker of this trip.
After a couple of hours (maybe 5 1/2 miles), we began to glimpse what we had come for. It wasn't a long hike, but we were happy to know that camp would be near.
ES contemplates the view at the bottom of Spider Meadows
The campsite we claimed was about perfect: right on the edge of the meadow with a view up at the larger peaks and the next day's route. 

Day Two
We woke to frost on the flowers, but the sun eventually hit the bottom of the valley, and we moved off through the garden.
We will be climbing up around to the left of the grey outcrop and then behind it to the right of the higher brown-and-snow peak to a pass that can't be seen from here.
The trail first led us through the meadow, at a very easy grade, before we crossed Phelps Creek (not scary, but ES and I both got our feet wet). Then it began to climb with a disconcerting directness!
Gaining elevation fast.
We eventually ran out of trail, and continued straight up the glacier. It's little, without crevasses or other challenges. It may in fact be a permanent snowfield, but the map claims glacier.
ES and the spouse head for the pass.
We hit the saddle in time for an early lunch. Given the view, I wouldn't have lunched anywhere else. If you look very, very closely, you can see the summit of Mt. Baker in the low spot to the left of the double peak in the center of the skyline. Below us the Upper Lyman Lakes showed themselves to be the stark pools left behind the retreat of a glacier. We have a long way to go down, but the snowfields prove our salvation--we can slide most of the way, thus sparing our knees, though at some cost of frozen backsides.
I'm not sure when the glacier covered the lake area, but I'd be willing to guess we are talking a century or less.
Lower Lyman is also a settling-pond for glacial silt! Not only does the color give it away, but we could see the silt in the shallows, and the path the inlet has carved through it.

Day Three
We found a camp on the far shore of Lyman Lake, only later discovering that there were much nicer camps elsewhere. I advocated a move, but the guys were too settled. In the morning, after exploring along the west side of the lake up to the inlet--an impressive cascade tumbling from the lakes above--we headed up toward Cloudy Pass.
Some of the best flowers grew at Cloudy Pass, but also the best mosquitoes, and some rather impressive horseflies.
From the pass, we had a phenomenal view back to where we had been (Lyman Lake is visible at the bottom, and Spider Gap is the low spot on the ridge above the lake).
Looks like a long way.
There were also tantalizing hints of the big show, what we had really come for.
ES pauses to contemplate the big white thing.
We made this a very short day, stopping just below Suiattle Pass at a campsite with a fantastic view. We spent the afternoon vacationing--naps, reading in the tent, and just poking around a little until dinnertime.
Sunset on Glacier Peak. At 10,541', it's not the tallest volcano in the state, but it is beautiful. Last eruption was in 1700.
Day Four
Began this day very early, in order to catch sunrise on the mountain. Since it was late July, and we were very far north, that meant a 5 a.m. rising time. In most of our camps, we didn't get direct sun until much later, but it was light until 10 p.m., and light again shortly after 5, so we didn't make much use of our headlamps.
Sunrise from the same spot, not so very many hours later.
This day was our longest hiking day, with a lot of ups and downs as we had to cross a couple of drainages and climb to Buck Creek Pass. Along the way, we topped out on the imaginatively named Middle Ridge, and followed a use trail up the ridge in search of views. We found a sea of lupine.
There's a trail along just above tree line on that distant ridge. Next time, I'll go that way.
We also found views of the the mountain. Photographers in heaven!
Just before dropping to our camp (which had no views, alas, but was a short walk from this spot), we crossed a steep meadow white with Pasque flowers, bistort, and valerian, with a few asters and an occasional red paintbrush. And a volcano.
That deep scar below the glacier was the source of interest when winds kicked up clouds of dust--probably mostly ash.
Day Five
We planned a short backpacking day on this one, so that we could do some dayhiking to explore the high ridges. We left camp early to follow a trail along the ridge toward High Pass, a route we'd heard of from other hikers on this trip. It proved to be yet another scenic highlight.
Flower gardens and volcanoes, on top of Liberty Cap
Steep slopes and waist-high flowers.
There's a trail under there somewhere.
Continuing to skirt the top of the ridge. We started running into snowfields along in here.

 We could have gone a little farther, but the route to High Pass traverses high, steep snowfields above a drop-off (on the left in the photo below). That's not something to do without an ice axe. So instead, we climbed a knob above the trail, where we had 360-degree views.
Slightly distorted panorama of what we could see from our high knob, looking south and west.
 And, of course, the knob was covered with flowers.
We returned to camp in time for a late lunch. After a nap, we moved our camp a few miles closer to the trailhead, to make the next (final) day's hike easier. That last camp had the advantage of being the only one that was essentially mosquito-free, being well below the snow line and much drier.

Day Six
Final day. We had seen signs warning us that the section of trail we would be hiking this final day had been burned over the previous fall, and might be hard to follow. There were also warnings that the bridge over the Chiwawa River was out, and we worried about that off and on the whole way, knowing that it wouldn't be an option to turn around and go back. In the event, the trail had been cleared of deadfall before we reached it, and we were able to be intrigued by the burn area, rather than stymied by it. 
There were patches that burned quite intensely.
As always after a fire, it takes very little time for green things to start poking through the ash.
 The "destroyed" bridge proved, like the burn area, to be no obstacle at all. I wouldn't want to have to ford the river there, but in fact the bridge was collapsed, but solid, and provided a safe and easy crossing.

In the last mile, the trail gave us one last gift, in the form of a patch of huckleberries. Thus fortified, we were able to make it to the car, and on out to the nearest burger and shake.

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nostalgia Review: Cheaper By the Dozen

The Ninja Librarian seems to be suffering a bit from summer distraction, and somehow Monday came and went without a post. This one will have to do for Monday and Wednesday, because we also have been falling behind in our reading. Not that the book needs a review, particularly, but it was kind of fun.
Title: Cheaper By the Dozen
Author: Frank Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; read by Dana Ivey
Publisher: Random House Listening Library, 1994; originally by Thomas Y. Crowell, 1948 (237 pages). 
I liked the 1948 cover, so here it is: 
Source:Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary (this is the blurb in the library catalog for the audio edition):No growing pains have ever been more hilarious than those suffered loudly by the riotous Gilbreth clan. First, there are a dozen red-haired, freckle-faced kids to contend with. Then there's Dad, a famous efficiency expert who believes a family can be run just like a factory. And there's Mother, his partner in everything except discipline. How they all survive such escapades as forgetting Frank, Jr., in a roadside restaurant or going on a first date with Dad in the backseat or having their tonsils removed en masse will keep you in stitches. You can be sure they're not only cheaper, they're funnier by the dozen. 

My Review: 

I  first read this book when I was a kid, finding that being one of 3 was quite enough, thank you. I remember it being very funny, as well as a bit of "wow, it was hard being a kid back then" (the book was first published in 1948, but the story tracks the family from the parents' marriage in 1904 until 1924, which takes us through the births of all 12 children. I stumbled on it a couple of weeks ago while looking for something to listen to, and remembered enjoying it so thought I'd give it a listen.

My reaction now is that the book still reads well, and if my amusement is now somewhat moderated by the feeling that Dad was a bit over-controlling (it would be too much to say he was a bully, because his intentions were always good, I think), it's still pretty funny. The narration by Ms. Ivey helped a lot with this, as she captured blustery Dad, eye-rolling teens (you can hear the eye-rolls, and it's pretty clear that sort of reaction to the parents goes back a long, long way), and mischievous children well.

I'm not sure if this book gives a very good look at how normal people lived in the 19-teens and 20s, but it certainly paints a good picture of one family, as well as being a loving biography of Frank Gilbreth Sr. by two of his children who obviously loved him, even while not being blind to his faults.

My Recommendation:
Definitely worth reading on a summer's day. Get the book or the audio, and prepare for some over-the-top fun (I do suspect the authors of stretching the truth a bit here and there). If nothing else, it gives one an appreciation of smaller families. The logistics of 12 children would be overwhelming today!

FTC Disclosure: I checked Cheaper By the Dozen 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, August 9, 2017

Non-fiction review: Trials of the Earth

Trials of the Earth - Audiobook

Title: Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman
Author: Mary Mann Hamilton; narrated by Barbara Benjamin Creel
Publisher: Hachette Audio, 2016. Originally published 1992 by University Press of Mississippi, 259 pages.
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:

This wrenching memoir of love, courage, and survival was waiting to he told. Withheld for almost a lifetime, it is a tragic story of a woman's trial of surviving against brutal odds. Near the end of her life Mary Hamilton (1866-c.1936) was urged to record this astonishing narrative. It is the only known first-hand account by an ordinary woman depicting the extraordinary routines demanded in this time and this place. She reveals the unbelievably arduous role a woman played in the taming of the Delta wilderness, a position marked by unspeakably harsh, bone-breaking toil.

On a raw November day in 1932 Helen Dick Davis entered a backwoods cabin in the Delta and encountered Mary Hamilton, a tiny, hunchbacked old woman sitting by the fire and patching a pair of hunting trousers. They became friends. "She began to talk to me of her life nearly half a century ago in this same Mississippi Delta," Davis says, "which then was a wilderness of untouched timber, canebrakes, a jungle of briars and vines and undergrowth." Spellbound during her visits to the cabin, Davis would listen for hours.

At her request, Mary Hamilton began to record memories on scraps of paper. By the spring of 1933 she had given Davis a manuscript of 150,000 words, "the true happenings of my life." Married to a mysterious Englishman, she lived in crude shacks and tents in lumber camps and cooked for crews clearing the primeval Delta forests. While nursing the sick, burying the dead, and making failing attempts to provide a home for her children, she retained a gentle strength that expressed itself in a lyrical vision of nature and in mystical dreams. When Helen Dick Davis appeared to Mary Hamilton in her old age, this long-delayed memoir of pain and grace erupted in a narrative of beauty and compassion and preserved a time and a place never before recorded from such a view. Mary Hamilton's autobiography is published at long last after coming to light from Helen Dick Davis's trunk of mementos.

My Review:  
I'm not sure I can add much to the lengthy blurb above! I do want to say that the audio book is very well done, and Barbara Benjamin Creel voices Mary Hamilton in a wholly believable way, while also clearly depicting the voices of the other people who appear in the book.

And what of the story itself? At times, I found myself thinking of it as fiction, and criticizing the author for piling up the tragedy so much. Then I'd remember the books is an autobiography, and this woman really did live through all that sorrow and loss. She manages, however, to both make the reader feel that load of sorrow and to know how she managed to continue on under it (as many another pioneer woman had to do).

Yet despite the extensive losses (if I didn't lose count, the Hamiltons' first 4 children died, either in infancy or in childhood), there is a joy in life that shines through the book, and Mary Hamilton never hates the wilderness that makes her life so hard, but rather loves the beauty of it (when it's not actively trying to kill her or her children). Nor does she lose her religious faith, though the family never attends church, there being none to attend.

The Mississippi Delta isn't a part of the country that I've paid a lot of attention to. Most of my reading about the settlement of the west has been set farther west. It is interesting to note that this area was in many ways even slower to be settled than much of the west--even after 1900 they were clearing and settling new land, and living more than a day's travel (by horse or mule, as the region seems to have been impassible to wheeled vehicles, and from the editor's preface, still was nearly so in 1932).

The editor (Helen Davis) is clear in her preface that she did not alter the story. I suspect, however, given what Mary Hamilton says about her own level of education, that she did edit extensively, and it is hard to know which of them captured so well the feel of Hamilton's life. Whatever the balance, the collaboration worked.

My Recommendation:
I found it a fascinating story, and anyone who shares my interest in understanding the lives of the women who preceded us should be equally enthralled.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Trials of the Earth 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, August 7, 2017

Middle Grade Books on Grief and Loss

I just finished two middle grade books that deal with kids losing family members. Since the themes are so similar (though the stories and characters are not),  I thought I'd review them together. Both are good, but they feel like they fill different roles. Umbrella Summer is suitable for younger children, and gives us the emotion at a barely-safe distance. Counting By 7s immerses the reader in loss and reconstruction, and is probably better suited for slightly older children.

Title: Umbrella Summer
Author: Lisa Graff
Publisher: HarperCollins, 240 pages.
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:
Annie Richards knows there are a million things to look out for -- bicycle accidents, food poisoning, chicken pox, smallpox, typhoid fever, runaway zoo animals, and poison oak. That's why being careful is so important, even if it does mean giving up some of her favorite things, like bike races with her best friend, Rebecca, and hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Everyone keeps telling Annie not to worry so much, that she's just fine. But they thought her brother, Jared, was just fine too, and Jared died.

My Review: 
This is a decent book about grief and grieving. Even while Annie narrates, so the story is from her perspective, we are given enough views of her parents and other people that an attentive reader of any age will understand (maybe before Annie does) that she's not the only one grieving. As a parent, I was interested in how Annie's parents cope--or don't cope--with the loss of their son and the continuing needs of their daughter, because I can't really imagine having to do that.* Under the circumstances, it's not so surprising that it takes an outsider to help Annie recover.

The umbrella of the title refers to the things that people do to insulate themselves from their grief and loss, which need at some point to be put away, as the umbrella does after the rain stops. For Annie, it's obsessing about everything that can kill you, from traffic to gangrene. Her father retreats into himself, and her mother cleans house. To make matters worse for Annie, no one else in town seems to know how to act around her.

I thought that her observation that people look at her with "the dead-brother look" was sharp. Death makes us all uncomfortable, and the way she copes makes people even more uncomfortable, but no one knows quite what to say to her to help her out--until a new person moves into the neighborhood, with her own umbrella. The book never suggests that there's a right way to mourn and be done with it, but only that it may take some effort, but you can find a way out the other side and continue on.

As for the story and the writing, those are sound, but not outstanding. The management of grief is the story, and that works pretty well. That's the summer project for the Richards family. The writing didn't stand out as either fantastic or as having issues, and the book read quickly and easily.

My Recommendation:
This may be a better book for someone who knows a person with loss than for a kid who has lost someone. It certainly helps the reader understand grief. Because the death is handled gently, this is probably suitable for kids as young as 8 or 9.

*We came far too close once, so I have in fact imagined it. But I haven't imagined a *good* way to deal with that.


Title: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Publisher: Dial Books, 2013. 246 pages (ebook)
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Summary:
In the tradition of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Mockingbird, this is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life...until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

My Review:  This is a curious book. At times I was absolutely bowed down with the weight of Willow's grief, and at others, felt an odd lightness. Maybe that was the author's success in conveying the utterly world-shifting nature of what happens to Willow, because I really felt like I was living the experience with her. 

There is a lot of food for thought in this relatively short book. There is the whole element of not-fitting-in, almost a cliche of books about middle school (well, it's a well-used trope for a reason. Does *any* kid feel like she fits in during those years?). This isn't hugely developed, but is rather allowed to contribute to the destruction of Willow's world--because she has no friends and no family other than her parents, she has to rapidly develop a very odd support structure.

The book also, of course, deals with grief. Not the way Umbrella Summer does, with a view to how you get over it, but more (in my mind), by showing what it feels like. Even making the reader feel it with Willow. But above all, I think the book is about family: what it is, what it's like to lose it, and how to make one out of what you have.
The odd thing (to me) about the book was the narrative voice. For most of the book, Willow narrates. But there are chapters which are told in the 3rd person, and focus on one of the other main characters, with varying degrees of detachment. I have to say that while this jarred me a bit reading, it proved to be powerful, in making the story not just about Willow, but about the lives she touches. That makes it a much fuller book, in my opinion. Willow's impact on other people also ends up making the book feel almost magical, a hint removed from reality at times. Willow herself, however, reject that nonsense.

My Recommendation: 
This is an excellent story, and is full of things to think about. There is a discussion guide in the back with some questions that I thought were very good, but for me the best part was just appreciating the author's ability to make me feel what Willow feels. Because of how powerful those feelings are, I'd recommend this one for more like 10 or 11 and up.

FTC Disclosure: I checked Umbrella Summer  & Counting By 7s out of my digital library, and received nothing from the writers or publishers 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, August 2, 2017

Photo Friday: Learning my new camera, around Ashland, Oregon

Today's Photo Friday post is photos taken on a recent visit to Ashland, Oregon (mostly on a dayhike at Grizzly Peak). Mostly, though, they were me learning to use a new camera, the Lumix DMC-ZS100. The change of camera cost me a bit with regard to the macro, but the test was to see if the additional clarity (it has a much larger sensor than my previous Lumix) would compensate. It looks like it does, though it requires a little more work in post-processing.

Note: this isn't a camera review. For that, check out the assessment by a pro at

We were visiting a friend, and in training for a pack trip, so instead of spending a lot of time in town, we went for a hike (we did go wander around downtown afterwards, but I didn't take photos). We drove about 20 minutes out of town and did a very popular 5.5-mile loop on Grizzly Peak.

Wildflowers were still blooming with enthusiasm. The meadow made this feel a lot higher than it is.
Mt. Ashland is just visible behind the trees.
A closer look at the wildflowers.
Insects liked them too. Especially the butterflies.

A big part of what I had to figure out was how to get the macro shots. I had to learn to back away, and count on cropping. All of this is made more challenging by the fact that I have to use the viewfinder, since I can't see the LED screen without my reading glasses.
I improved over the next couple of weeks, but it's clear that the camera can do a lot.
I took about a dozen photos of these giant seed balls. They were easy to see to test if I was getting a clear macro, plus they are really cool.

More flowers as we head over the top.
From the top of Grizzly Peak you can see into California, to Mt. Shasta. This was mid-day, so not very good light for the view.

The next morning we did a hike in the watershed, and stumbled on some cool art in the forest.

And another:

This guy wasn't in Ashland. He was at the Klamath River rest stop on I5 while we were on our way to Oregon. I'm a little worried about him, because he just sat there and let us take photos, etc. But a beautiful fox, anyway.
This was taken just by the light of our pathetic headlights, with the camera braced on the car door. It is a little grainy, but amazingly clear for the conditions and the camera, and way better than the old camera could have done.
So that's the first test, and I'm pretty pleased with the results. We went on to spend a week backpacking near Glacier Peak (Washington State), and I'll have more photos in the weeks to come as I get on with editing them.

Meanwhile, hopefully by next Friday I'll be back in the groove and get a bit of flash fiction up. Right now I'm working on a longer short story, for submission.

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