Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Writer's Wednesday: Are You Doing NaNo?

(Hey, I might finally have found an alliterative name for my writing posts that actually makes sense!)

Before I talk about NaNo (National Novel Writing Month), I want to share a blog post I found helpful and inspiring. Aliette de Bodard wrote this as a guest post on Chuck  Wendig's "Terrible Minds" blog: Cannibalizing a Draft. Take a look.

Okay, now that we have a link to something to help us when we finish that crappy NaNo draft, are you participating? Tell me why or why not!

I'm doing it again this year. I'd like to think that I'm fully capable of preparing and writing a draft in a month or 6 weeks without any outside motivators... but the truth is, that community of writers, the little word-count ticker, and just the idea that there's a deadline does a lot for my ability to prepare well and write hard.

It's all about deadlines, I think. I am motivated to work on my outline/writing plan for Death By Library because I know I want to start writing on November 1, and that I don't want to spend my writing time floundering around trying to figure out where to go next. Nor do I want to end up like my last NaNo novel: getting to the end, and finding that I don't really know who the killer is, haven't been writing with a clear direction in mind, and have a mess on my hands.

Once November starts, there's something about that graph of my daily words that pushes me to write like I mean it. It's not really competition, except against myself, but I like seeing a steady climb in the word count! Since I don't have an editor, agent, or publisher breathing down my neck (though my brother is harassing me about the next book, which is something!), I'll take whatever push I can get.

So, as of yesterday, my outline (which is more of a conversation than a bullet list) is 8 pages long (3800 words), and I have a firm grip on the beginning and end, as well as a good list of red herrings. I'm still working on motives, lies, alibis, and opportunities for all of those. Then there's the subplots about JJ's life... I know what the main issues are, but just how they unfurl will be a matter of pantsing!

Finally, on Monday I was feeling the need to work on my writing a bit, just something to get my creative juices flowing... so I drafted 3700 words of a story for the IWSG anthology (I have until November 4 to get that polished enough to submit). YA romance isn't exactly my genre, but I put my own twist on it and got something I think I like.
Outlining. It may make your hair stand on end.

Friday, October 26, 2018

#Fi50: River Mist

iction in 50 is a regular feature in the last week of every month and I invite any interested composers of mini-narrative to join in!

What is #Fi50? In the words of founder Bruce Gargoyle, "Fiction in 50: think of it as the anti-NaNoWriMo experience!" Pack a beginning, middle and end of story into 50 words or less (bonus points for hitting exactly 50 words).

The rules for participation are simple:

1. Create a piece of fictional writing in 50 words or less, ideally using the prompt as title or theme or inspiration.
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. 
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 acrossthebored.com) or create your own Fi50 meme pic….
and 4. Link back here so others can jump on the mini-fic bandwagon.

This month's prompt is Horror
At this time, I'm only planning to continue the hop through the end of the year, as it doesn't seem to have gotten any momentum.  


And now, my story: 

River Mist

The house, unsold for years, was occupied the last of October. The new owners were delighted until nightfall.

Doors and windows closed against the night did nothing to stop the mist that crept up from the river and passed through the graveyard.

Nothing could stop the fingers of the dead.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Flashback Friday: Enchanted Blasted Forest


 Flashback Friday is a monthly meme that takes place on the last Friday of the month.
The idea is to give a little more love to a post you’ve published on your blog before.  Maybe you just love it, maybe it’s appropriate for now, or maybe it just didn’t get the attention it deserved when you first published it.

Thanks to Michael d’Agostino, who started it all, there is a solution – join Flashback Friday! And thanks to Jemima Pett, who has kept it going--visit her blog to add your name to the list!

Just join in whenever you like, repost one of your own blog posts, including any copyright notices on text or media, on the last Friday of the month.


I dug into the archives in search of something appropriate to the season and found this story. Not exactly a Halloween story, but there are monsters enough to satisfy, I hope. This one appears to have clocked in at exactly 1000 words, and I said this about it when I first published it in May of 2016:
Chuck Wendig gave us a new challenge this week: a series utterances from his preschooler, to be used somewhere in a story. As one might expect from Chuck's progeny, they were... interesting. I selected "there's a 3-headed flying werewolf in that tree," and the rest of the Enchanted Forest came into being.

The Enchanted Blasted Forest

The Enchanted Forest is a punishment post, but never mind what we did to get sent there. They have to man the post, and soldiers don’t last long there, so you don’t have to do much to end up there. About half of those sent never even arrive.

There were six of us, and when the road entered the blasted Forest we divided up the watch. Tomo watched left, Martin right, Jock ahead, Kora behind, Shea overhead, and I was back-up to them all, scanning every direction as thoroughly as I could.

The monsters weren’t bold. If Shea called out “harpy overhead!” we’d all raise our spears and the monster would sheer off. Or Tomo would yell, “there’s a 3-headed flying werewolf in that tree!” and we’d aim our bows that way and the thing would fly away.

We only had to fire once, when a flying monkey swooped in low and tried to grab Kora. She’s not very big, but tough as nails. Martin and I both loosed arrows, but they stuck in a dead monkey. Kora had already beheaded it. She’s fast with her sword.

We were still several hours distant from the outpost when we began to wonder something. In short, we started to ask ourselves if everyone who vanished on the way to Fort End had been carried off by monsters. Maybe there was a way to get out of a long hitch in the army. Joining up had seemed like a good idea when I first went in, but it didn’t take long to knock the stars from my eyes, and if a single night out on the town could get you in this much trouble, I wanted out.

There was a guard hut halfway, and we holed up there to enjoy our lunch without having to swat away monsters. That’s when Martin asked, “Why are we here, anyway?”

“We got taken up for drunk and disorderly on our last leave.” Dumb question.

“Yeah, but…”

“Martin’s right.” I looked at each of them. “We acted like soldiers on leave and for that they sent us where only half the troops survive to even reach the post? But maybe we don’t have to get hauled off by harpies to disappear.”

“Yeah,” Jock said. “We can get eaten by 3-headed werewolves instead.”

“Or,” I said, looking from one to another, “we can appear to have been eaten by 3-headed werewolves.”

Jock was the last to get it.  “You’re saying we could run off,” he said after we all looked at him for several minutes. “Desert.” We all turned that word over in our minds as he went on. “You know what they do to deserters.”

We knew. It was a great deal faster and more sure than a posting in the Enchanted blasted Forest, but they said it was painless, which this posting wasn’t likely to be.

We finished our lunch in silence, but when we left the hut, we took the wrong turning.

“That’s our story if anyone catches us up,” I said. “Just a bit of trouble navigating.” We were still nervous at the thought of being caught by a patrol, which was the wrong worry.

Our nerves lasted until the first harpy attack. After that we were too busy to worry about the army. It seemed the creatures of the forest were a lot less bashful about attacking travelers who strayed from the military road. I began to wonder how many of the disappeared had started as deserters, and ended as dead as they’d pretended to be.

It was farther to the edge of the forest this way than the way we’d come in, so we’d have to hurry. Trouble was, we were under such constant attack that we couldn’t hurry. By an hour or two after lunch, it was plain to all of us—even Jock—that we weren’t going to make the edge of the Forest before night.

“Now what?” Shea asked.  She would. Always expecting someone else to fix her problems, that one. We couldn’t take care of that right then. We were a team and we’d only make it if we stuck together.

“We find a place to hole up,” I said, just as Kora said, “We fight on through the night until we get out.”

Martin protested. “I heard there’s things out at night here that you really don’t want to me. Things that make harpies look like pet kittens.”

We thought about that. It might be lies told to keep soldiers from deserting the fort.

It might all be true.

We had no choice but to find out. There was no safe place to hole up for the night. No more huts, and any natural hole would surely be inhabited by orcs or dragons or ten-headed hydras.

It was nearly dark before we knew the extent of our folly.

“Keep fighting, move as fast as we can, and stick together.” It wasn’t a good plan, but it was the only thing we could do, and we all knew it, so I got no argument. We were too busy.

By dark every one of us was bleeding somewhere, and the attacks picked up. I put our chances of survival at less than 50%. Meaning I didn’t expect more than three of us to live, and I’d already picked out which three.

One of the flying werewolves got Shea before midnight. There was nothing we could do. We kept moving, and enjoyed the respite the feasting gave us.

The forest started thinning about the second hour after midnight, and I thought the rest of us might make it.

The harpies had other ideas. They attacked in force, with the flying monkeys darting between them wherever our guard was incomplete.

Martin went down under the assault, but he wasn’t enough. We broke into a full run, speed more important than battle.

We’d none of us have made it if I hadn’t tripped Tomo.


©Rebecca M. Douglass 2016

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Cozy Review: Drop Dead Ornaments

Great Escapes Blog Tours

Drop Dead Ornaments (An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery)
Cozy Mystery
7th in Series
Self Published
Print Length: 209 pages
Anastasia Pollack’s son Alex is dating Sophie Lambert, the new kid in town. For their community service project, the high school seniors have chosen to raise money for the county food bank. Anastasia taps her craft industry contacts to donate materials for the students to make Christmas ornaments they’ll sell at the town’s annual Holiday Crafts Fair.
At the fair Anastasia meets Sophie’s father, Shane Lambert, who strikes her as a man with secrets. She also notices a woman eavesdropping on their conversation. Later that evening when the woman turns up dead, Sophie’s father is arrested for her murder.
Alex and Sophie beg Anastasia to find the real killer, but Anastasia has had her fill of dead bodies. She’s also not convinced of Shane’s innocence. Besides, she’s promised younger son Nick she’ll stop risking her life. But how can she say no to Alex?
My Review:
I'll admit it: I wasn't sure about this book when I started. I definitely felt like I was jumping into the middle of something (it is, after all, the 7th in the series, and appears to start about half a day after the last book ended).  I was a little at sea... for about the first 20 pages or less. Somewhere in there, I found myself fully engaged, and zipped through the book in 2 days.

Anastasia certainly has a lot of back story that I had to pick up piecemeal (but the author provides enough of it along the way that I didn't feel hopelessly left out), and she has clearly had a hard time of it! Part of the appeal of the book is to see what horrors her mother and ex-mother-in-law will inflict on her next, and they are definitely good for some laughs even while the very serious search for a killer goes on.

The mystery was decently put together (not the best I've seen, but it works), but in many ways the corpse is an afterthought to the story about some entertaining people and their lives. That's not a criticism, by the way--that is largely as it should be in a cozy mystery. The important thing is that the author makes us care about Anastasia and her slightly crazy family.

Oh, and the "recipes" for ornaments look like they really live up to the claim that anyone can make them and make them look great. I think even I could.

My Recommendation:
A series worth checking out. I'd suggest starting at the beginning, since I did feel like I was missing some key links, but the author makes it possible to jump in anywhere.

And now--we are happy to welcome Lois Winston to The Ninja Librarian blog for a fun interview!

I like to start off talking about writing with visiting authors, since many of my readers are, like me, writers as well.

1. When did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or did you stumble into it later in life?
I stumbled into writing about twenty-three years ago after having a very vivid dream. After deciding to write the dream down, the next thing I knew, I’d written 50,000 words and been permanently infected by the writing bug. Those 50,000 words, after several years and many revisions, became the basis of the second book I sold, the romantic suspense Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception.

2. Cozy mystery characters do some interesting things to make a living, which is part of what makes them so much fun, and leads us to learn about all sorts of things while reading them—and writing them. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to research for one of your books?

Because Anastasia and I have a similar professional background, it hasn’t been necessary for me to research anything in regards to her career. Most of my research has centered round police procedures, dead bodies, and ways to kill people, one of the weirder being through salt poisoning.
Researching interesting ways to kill people is definitely part of the fun!
3. What is the best thing about being a writer?
 Every so often I’ll receive an email from a reader who tells me how one of my books gave her a brief, much needed escape from something going on in her life. I never expected writing a humorous cozy mystery series would impact anyone in that way. I now have a much better understanding of the power of laughter, and I’m so blessed that I’ve been able to help people through my writing.

I think we often undervalue "escape literature," as though we didn't all need to escape at times. Even light-hearted books can have a serious impact.

4. Do you draft your books longhand or compose at the keyboard?
I find the words flow better when I type them.

5. Do you use a detailed outline before you start writing, or…?

I start with just a brief idea of the story, similar to a back cover blurb. I know how the story will start and how it will end. The rest unfolds as I go along. Sometimes the plot changes if my characters refuse to listen to me and take matters into their own hands. A few of them can be very stubborn.

Thanks for sharing some about how you write. Now I'm sure my readers want to learn more about you as a person, so just a few more questions on a lighter note.

6.  If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’ve always wanted to live in Manhattan, but given the price of real estate in New York, I’d have to win the lottery to make that dream come true.

7. What super-power would you like to have?

 I’ve always wanted to fly like Supergirl.

That would be so much fun! Maybe if I could do that, I wouldn't be scared of heights anymore!

8. If there’s a spider in the corner of the room, do you a) panic, b) have to drop everything until it is removed, or c) hope it’s planning on eating the more annoying bugs that get in?
Creepy crawly things creep me out. I’d definitely drop everything to trap and dispose of that little bugger. (And I definitely hope he’d fall into the Little Bugger category and not the Big Hairy Bugger category!)

Thanks so much for coming by and answering a few questions for our readers!

About the Author:
USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.
Author Links:
Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com
Purchase Links 
Amazon   B&N   Kobo   iTunes
And, last but not least--we have a giveaway! Enter to win a free e-book of Drop Dead Ornaments and enjoy your own holiday crafts, with a side of mystery!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Non-fiction review: Code Girls, by Liza Mundy


Title: Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II
Author: Liza Mundy.
Publication Info: Hachette Books, 2017. 432 pages (Kindle edition).
Source: Library digital services

Publisher’s Blurb:
In the tradition of Hidden Figures and The Girls of Atomic City, Code Girls is the astonishing, untold story of the young American women who cracked key Axis codes, helping to secure Allied victory and revolutionizing the field of cryptanalysis.

Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.

My Review:
Another fascinating bit of history, and another story of smart women doing work that has been underappreciated and ignored. In this case, there was some justification for the silence: it was top-secret work. Still, like other books I've read (and still more I'm about to read), it's a tale both uplifting and frustrating. Frustrating to see such talented women being treated like second-class citizens, and equally so to see how they, on the whole, accepted it. Valued as "computers" for their attention to detail, they were still somehow seen (or treated) as less able than men at math and science. But it's also uplifting to see that even at a time when they were too often not allowed into graduate programs, or couldn't get jobs teaching math (beyond the high school level, anyway, and especially after the war), these women found a place where their math and reasoning skills were put to good use.

Not all of what the "code girls" did was highly mathematical, of course. But code breaking requires a level of mathematical reasoning beyond the average, as well as a sharp and creative mind that can leap to some intuitive connections. The author does a good job of conveying both the difficulty and the tedium of the work, the excitement and the frustration.

Mundy also presents some nice portraits of several of the young women who traveled to Washington, DC, with very little (or no) idea what they had signed up for. Many were civilians (especially early on), specially recruited from the best women's colleges of the East. Later, many more were WAVES (the women's unit of the Navy) who tested well for mathematical reasoning and were assigned to the code-breaking unit, as well as some WACs (women's army corps). 

I did at times lose track of the timeline, as Mundy traced individual women's courses through the war. It took me a while to realize that we were circling back repeatedly to different stages in the war effort. Other than that, I had no complaints. The writing was engaging and easy to read, and the story interesting. It's not one of the great works of history I've read, but it's good, and a story worth telling. 

Their wartime work left a mark on some of the women, and on their families. I was delighted to read that Bill Nye (the Science Guy) is the son of one of the Code Girls. In that case, maybe the love of math and science was passed along. In other cases, codebreakers suffered from PTSD (utterly undiagnosed or treated, of course), due to either the stress of the work they did, or their failures to save lives--or the later realization of the lives they'd cost, too, since their work led directly to the sinking of many enemy ships. 

As so often, the women were first brought into this work because much of it was tedious, and women were considered better at tedium (got to wonder if any of the men ever examined the realities behind that assumption!). Later, as men became scarce, the women proved to themselves and their superior officers, and eventually the world, that they were fully equal to men in their abilities. It's a shame the story couldn't be told for so long, because it would have forced universities and other agencies to give up the stupid idea that women can't do math, and might have saved a whole generation of women from undermining their own skills.

My Recommendation:
This is an interesting and worthwhile story. I think it never hurts to remind ourselves that women have been doing things that "women can't do" for a very long time. Every book of this sort helps us examine our assumptions and perhaps break down some stereotypes, so read it!

This is just a random thought, but I was reminded of some books I've read about the "Navajo code talkers" of WWII, who used the same native language that the government had until recently been trying to eradicate to create an unbreakable spoken code. Seems that in time of war, the oppressed may suddenly become useful and prejudices temporarily set aside.

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

Friday, October 19, 2018

#Fi50 coming soon!

Fiction in 50 is a regular feature in the last week of every month and I invite any interested composers of mini-narrative to join in!

What is #Fi50? In the words of founder Bruce Gargoyle, "Fiction in 50: think of it as the anti-NaNoWriMo experience!" Pack a beginning, middle and end of story into 50 words or less (bonus points for hitting exactly 50 words).

The rules for participation are simple:

1. Create a piece of fictional writing in 50 words or less, ideally using the prompt as title or theme or inspiration.
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. 
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 acrossthebored.com) or create your own Fi50 meme pic….
and 4. Link back here so others can jump on the mini-fic bandwagon.
At this time, I haven't been able to find a source for a free linky-list, so it's just comments. I recommend posting your basic blog link on my Fi50 page, with the day you post your Fi50 story. You can also add a link in the comments on my story, posted the last Sunday (or Saturday) of the month. Feel free to Tweet using the #Fi50, though I'll not lie: the Ninja Librarian is a lousy tweeter.

Posts can go up any time during the last week of the month (or any other time – we’re not fussy! My post will go up next Saturday, so it will be there when you are ready to add your link.

You’re welcome to pick your own topics or go along with the monthly prompt.

The October prompt is pretty simple, and in keeping with the season: 


Interpret it as a genre, or an exclamation, or however you want! Looking forward to seeing your 50 words anytime between now and the end of the month. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Photo Friday: Algonquin Provincial Park

Still working our way across the country! (And now I'm nearly a day late with my Friday post. Oops. So hard to keep track of the day of the week!)

After crossing several states I'd never before visited, we entered Canada at Sault Ste Marie, taking me into Ontario, which I'd also never visited (before we finished, we also visited Montreal, Quebec--another new Province, which is the only part of Canada that felt like a foreign country).

Our main target in Ontario was Algonquin Provincial Park. We didn't quite make it the first night, and ended up grabbing a campsite at another Provincial Park about an hour from Algonquin. We were fortunately well equipped to fix dinner in the dark.
In case anyone wants to see our kitchen set-up. The ice chest usually stayed in the car, being heavy and awkward.
Next day we were able to claim a spacious site at Algonquin, as the holiday weekend campers streamed out of the park, leaving lots of room for us!
The campsite really was almost that spacious, and space between sites was generous.
We made good use of our time in the park, with 2 hikes the day we arrived, and 2 the next day. Not all were long, but all were interesting! Trails were well constructed and well maintained.
Several of the trails had a lot of boardwalks, to get through streams and bogs without either getting soaked or churning the trail to muck.
Fungus became something of a theme for us, as we found many interesting specimens. I just admire them; no collecting here, so I don't know what they are.

Our longest hike was the Centennial Ridge interpretive trail, which was different from most such trails. For one thing, it was about 6 miles long. For another, the stops on the trail weren't about the flora and fauna, but about the history of the park and the people who made it what it is. Each stop told about an important person in the history of the park, though only one of the locations had anything to do with the person.
The six + miles included two beautiful ponds.
The trail climbed to some "ledges" with great views, before looping around, past one of the ponds, and up to more ledges even higher (we'd thought they faced opposite directions, from the sketch map, but in fact the views were all to the southwest).
The author enjoying one of the first viewpoints.
Too early for real fall colors, but there were a few trees showing the way. I bet it's stunning now (or was a week or so back).
Another hike was the Spruce Bog trail. I'd heard about spruce bogs in books I've read, so I was happy to learn what they were. Basically, a spruce bog is a wet area--often one created by a beaver dam--that has gradually filled in and is being colonized by black spruce, which are the most water-tolerant of the trees in the area.
More boardwalks! The bog transitions from open water to shrubs, to spruce, to other conifers and deciduous trees.
The boggy area provided us with a rare sighting of a plant that has, sadly, been pretty much wiped out within sight of the trails, because of people collecting them. I won't say where we found this pitcher plant.
The carnivorous plant drowns insects in the rainwater that collects in the "pitchers," then dissolves them and absorbs the nutrients. I hope they eat mosquitoes!
Ponds and bogs mean water lilies.
And other water plants. I'm not sure what these leaves were from, but they did appear anchored, not fallen from land plants.

Forests, hills, and water: all made more beautiful by a setting sun.

 Finally, we saw a moose! Sadly, the signs were the only moose we saw.
We were interested to see that the moose on the signs in Ontario were much more aggressive than the moose on signs south of the border.
I got the general impression that Algonquin is a park best seen and enjoyed by canoe or kayak. The one road through the park gave us access to a tine part of the backcountry, and trails are limited, partly because it's all pretty wet. We may never go back, but I'm glad we got a look at it!

For those interested in a visit, we arrived on Monday of Labor Day weekend, which is why the crowds were suddenly gone. It was clearly very busy over the weekend, and then on that day, they closed most of the campgrounds, so that we had only a couple of choices of campground (but since it was very nice and closest to our afternoon hike, it was good). By September, mosquitoes were few, temperatures were moderating (still pretty warm and humid for me), and as noted a few trees were starting to turn, so I'd say it was a good time to visit.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

WEP: Deja Vu and Voodoo

Write…Edit…Publish (WEP) is an online writing community now partnering with the Insecure Writers Support Group (IWSG). We post the third Wednesday of every second month. WEP challenges are open to all. 

I don't really like horror, so I took the prompt in a different direction, and wrote a short story from my Pismawallops PTA mystery series. You'll only get the "deja vu" part if you read Death By Trombone :)  I managed to hit 1000 words exactly, exclusive of the title.

Deja Vu All Over Again

“We’ve been over this, Kitty. With my new job at the library I don’t have time for everything. I really can’t do the Fall Formal.” I crossed my fingers as I said it; I worked a great deal less at the library than Kitty did at their gas station.

“We have been through it all before.” Kitty didn’t sound like she agreed with me. She sounded like she was laughing at me, or humoring me, which was worse. “You can afford one evening, and the library isn’t open Friday nights. Well, plus some time to decorate. Come on, JJ. You know I depend on you.”

Dang. She was invoking our friendship and all our shared history. How could I say no?

I made one last attempt to weasel out. “You know I hate how loud the school dances are, Kitty.”

“Wear earplugs,” was her heartless response.

I finally cut to the real issue. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time I chaperoned a dance?” That actually silenced her. We were unlikely to forget the body I’d found while taking a phone call behind the high school gym.

“You win.” Kitty sounded so contrite I almost felt bad.

I had to be supportive in my turn. “I’ll find you someone to help, or I’ll come myself. I won’t leave you in the lurch.” I knew as I said it that I’d probably end up doing it myself, but Kitty had been right there for me when I found that body. Finding volunteers was almost more painful than finding bodies, and nearly as rare. Staying in the gym through an entire high school dance might drive me crazy, so I was motivated.

Motivated or not, even I couldn’t accomplish the impossible. The day before the dance found me in the gym, swathed in bunting and strings of fake colorful leaves. Our local evergreens didn’t provide the desired ambiance, so we hit up the party store on the mainland for an affordable substitute.

I took another swig of my coffee—cold—and considered the logistics of affixing plastic leaves to cinder-block walls. There was only one logical solution, and the ringing of my phone gave me the excuse.

“Brian!” I summoned my son and his best friend. “You and Justin get started hanging this stuff. I need to answer this call.”

I headed for the front door, phone in hand. Not even to escape the decoration would I go out the back door. It was out that door, while decorating for the Senior Prom the previous spring, that I’d found the last body. I took my call and waited while a bevy of teenaged girls hauled in a giant basket of plastic jack-o-lanterns. In all the noise, I couldn’t make out who was on the other end of the call.

“Hang on! Let me get somewhere quieter!” The breezeway in front of the gym was still crowded with kids, so I headed around the side of the building, not thinking about where I was going.

“So have you taken up a career in steam-fitting?”

I knew that urbane and sarcastic voice, and snapped, “What do you want?” My Ex didn’t deserve a polite response. “I’m not letting you off the hook. I want the money you owe in my account by the end of the month.” Good God, I thought I was done battling with Allen.

“I really don’t think you—” he began, but I didn’t hear any more. I was too busy tripping over something in the near-darkness, and I didn’t like what it felt like. I gasped, but contrary to Allen’s later claims, I did not scream. I did hang up on him in the process of trying to find the flashlight app on my phone, but I assure you it was entirely unintentional. Well, mostly.

For some reason my hands were shaking. It was pretty cold out there; an October night on Pismawallops Island can be pretty chilly and damp. That must have been why I shook.

When I finally got the light on, I wished I hadn’t.

Someone was stretched out face-up on the ground, eyes open and unseeing.

Kitty told me later that I screamed, though I know she was exaggerating.

Ron told me I phoned him.

A dozen people told me a dozen different stories about what happened next, and I don’t remember any of it.

I must have called Ron, though, because the next thing I knew, the police chief was holding me in his arms and repeating my name.

“Huh?” It wasn’t a very articulate response, but it must have been better than he’d been getting, because he stopped saying my name.

“It’s okay,” he said instead.

“No, it isn’t,” I pointed out. “It’s another corpse. What killed this one?” I didn’t really want to know, but I was determined to appear calm, and settle all the people who were hovering around as though I needed help.

“Clear out, all of you,” Ron took care of the problem for me. “Don’t you have a gym to decorate or something?”

“You just want to get her alone,” someone quipped. It was probably either my kid or Kitty’s.

“Darn right I do,” Ron growled. “Now go!”

They went, and I assumed Ron would move into investigator mode, but he seemed to be a great deal more interested in investigating me than the corpse I’d tripped on.

“Stop that.” I pushed him away, though in general I liked the way he kissed. “Don’t you need to figure out who killed him?”

“I believe that would be Archie McPhee,” Ron said.

“Huh?” It took me a minute to recognize the name of the famous  purveyor of magic tricks, gag gifts, and tasteless practical jokes. Then the lightbulb went off, and I flipped on my flashlight again. Steeling myself, I brushed off Ron’s hand and took a closer look at the “corpse”. Someone had left the price tag on the left cheek.

I really hate Halloween.


 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2018
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated.
Critique guidelines: FCA

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Middle Grade fiction: Castle Hangnail


Title: Castle Hangnail
Author: Ursula Vernon
Publication Info: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2015. 386 pages.
Source: Library digital collection

Publisher’s Blurb:
When Molly shows up on Castle Hangnail's doorstep to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the castle's minions are understandably dubious. After all, she is twelve years old, barely five feet tall, and quite polite. (The minions are used to tall, demanding evil sorceresses with razor-sharp cheekbones.) But the castle desperately needs a master or else the Board of Magic will decommission it, leaving all the minions without the home they love. So when Molly assures them she is quite wicked indeed (So wicked! REALLY wicked!) and begins completing the tasks required by the Board of Magic for approval, everyone feels hopeful. Unfortunately, it turns out that Molly has quite a few secrets, including the biggest one of all: that she isn't who she says she is.

This quirky, richly illustrated novel is filled with humor, magic, and an unforgettable all-star cast of castle characters.

My Review:
Oh, this was just what I needed! Reality has been pretty horrific lately, so I wasn't inspired to read a truly scary book for our Great Middle Grade Reads October BOTM. I was happy my choice won, and when I started reading I knew we'd gotten it right. The description of Castle Hangnail which opens the book plays delightfully off every gothic pile you've ever read of, with the minor distractions of cheery dandelions in the "blasted heath" that surrounded it and a stray teacup by the front door. 

And the minions! They are the most delightful collection of misfits to wander the pages of absurd fiction, topped only by the absurdity of the 12-year-old Wicked Witch who shows up to become master of the castle.

The book, in my opinion, found exactly the right balance between the laugh-out-loud moments and some real peril, not to mention some very grown-up threats to Castle Hangnail (frozen plumbing? It takes a genius to make that both a hilarious problem and an existential threat). Yes, there are incredibly serious problems facing Molly and the castle minions. But the author doesn't let that stop her making the solutions as absurd as the idea of a minion made of steam. I didn't even think that the nod to mean-girl issues damaged the story, and I hope very much that Molly will be returning to the castle in a sequel.

My Recommendation:
A perfect Halloween read for kids from 7 or 8 up. I think it would be wonderful to read it aloud to the kids. Maybe I'll have to set up a Skype session with my boys... think they'd like that in their college dorms? (In fact, this kind of reminds me of the Hank the Cowdog books we used to read to the boys, with their mix of slapstick little-kid humor and more sophisticated jokes that the parents can get without comment).

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