A blog for people who don't want to spend all their free time in the real world. After all, we live and work there. Escape the mundane with books, travel, and writing.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel

This is a darling little round-tailed ground squirrel we saw at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix Arizona.  We sat and watched him run around, diligently enlarge his burrow, have a snack, etc.  So cute.

These guys are native to the southwest.  They look a lot like prairie dogs, but aren't related.

If you're visiting Phoenix (or if you live here)--I highly recommend the Desert Botanical Garden.  I recommend going in spring.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Butterfly Exhibit at the Botanical Gardens

Each spring at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens, they have a butterfly exhibit.  You can go inside a big mesh tent right with the butterflies.  Just swarms of them.  I'd never seen anything like it.  Very, very beautiful.

Here are some:

Giant swallowtail
White peacock
Zebra longwing

Gulf fritillary (top of wings)

Gulf fritillary (bottom of wings)
The display usually ends in mid May.  The rest of the botanical gardens are really awesome too.  Plan plenty of time.  Also, consider checking out a culture pass from the library--good for 2 admissions.  :)

Click here for more information on the Desert Botanical Garden  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Cactus Flowers at the Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix Arizona

Cactus blossoms at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden
Late April

The saguaro flowers in the picture above each bloom for only one day.  

The world is amazing.

Click here for more information on the Desert Botanical Garden  

Friday, May 26, 2017

ZooBorns by Andrew Bleiman and Chris Eastland

Cuteness Factor:  11 million stars

This book is a very short read, but the real joy comes from lingering over the beautiful photos of darling baby animals.  The facts about each animal are interesting, educational, succinct, and well written.  The ethics of zoos are debatable, so if you're strongly opposed to keeping animals in captivity, you will not like it, but some of these animals would be extinct or nearly so without zoo breeding programs, so...well, the debate lives on.

And I just dare you to look into some of these babies' eyes and not melt.

As one reviewer on Goodreads says, "Help me!  My macho is melting!...Can't resist the pictures!!...Must overuse exclamation points!!!!...Too cute!!!!!!!!"  Thanks, Marvin, for that.  

Buy it on Amazon

And it looks like there are more books in the series.  Yippee!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Wildings by Eleanor Glewwe

I used to like middle-grade novels a lot (as both a kid and an adult), but I hadn't read any in quite a while.  Recently I decided to do a little market research by reading some, and the first one I picked up was this one, which sounded like it had some elements similar to a novel I'm shopping around to agents.

I'm so glad I picked it up.  

The cover is absolutely beautiful, but the story is even better.  

The writing is good.  The premise is interesting but sad--and twistedly relevant.  I love the setting, a fun and creative mix of recent past and other world.  The main characters aren't ridiculously good at everything (a pet peeve of mine).  Nor are they assassins or thieves (character types that appear too often in YA for my taste.)  They're not massively talented.  They're not the chosen one.  Yet they work and struggle and grow and accomplish great things.  

The themes of prejudice, segregation, and social inequality are important, yet it doesn't feel preachy.  The ending is satisfying.  And my favorite part [WARNING--SEMI SPOILER] is that they fight for social change without violence.  It's awesome!  We need more books like this.  [END SPOILER]

Now I want to read Sparkers and anything else Eleanor Glewwe writes.

I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike.

Keep tuned for an interview here with the author!


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pen Name or No Pen Name

Have you ever wondered why some writers use pen names?  

If you're a writer, have you ever thought about using a pen name yourself?

Well, you're not alone.  Here's my little post on the subject, over at Writers On the Move  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Portage Glacier Hike from Whittier, Alaska

One of my favorite hikes in Alaska was the Portage Pass trail from Whittier.  Here are some photos:

The easy walk from the ship to the trailhead near the railroad tunnel:

Views from the top of the trail were beautiful, even with the gray skies.
Looking back toward Passage Canal:

Looking down toward Portage Glacier:

Tiny alpine plants--at amazingly low elevation

More misty beauty at the end of the trail:

For more details on this trail, check out my new book, Cruising Alaska on a Budget:

-More hikes you can take from cruise ports
-Free and inexpensive things do do in Whittier and all other mainstream Alaskan cruise stops
-Tips on how to find good cruise prices, what to expect in hidden expenses, etc.
-Interesting tidbits and viewing tips for glaciers and Alaskan wildlife.
-Useful logistics for budget travelers, including public transportation and budget accommodations in the port cities.

Get it now for a budget price on Amazon

Friday, May 5, 2017

Inexpensive things to do in Alaskan ports

If you're looking for inexpensive things to do in Alaskan ports, read my guest post on Travels with Diane.

For even more information, check out Cruising Alaska on a Budget on Amazon.  If you have Amazon Prime, you can read it for free!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

10 Things to See in Rome, a guest post by Diane Frisch

Rome dome of St. Peter's
Dome of St. Peter's Basilica.  Photo by Diane Frisch.

If you are lucky enough to have any time at all in Rome, there are a few things you really need to see. Ideally, I would recommend at least 4 or 5 days to get a nice feel for the city. Once, we visited Rome for just a day trip excursion from a cruise, and it was very unsatisfactory. Too much traffic, too many crowds, and not enough time! If you truly have just the one day, it will be worth it to hire a private tour guide with skip the line access to take you around the Eternal City. You will be eternally grateful (haha!).

When in Rome, there are certain sights that you really should not miss. These are my top picks.

1)  The Colosseum - This may be the first image that comes to mind for most folks when we think of Rome. It is spectacular! Located in the center of the city, this is the largest amphitheater EVER built and dates back to around the year 80AD. We really enjoyed having a guide take us through and explain the place to us and the bloody spectacles that went on there. It was not pretty.
Rome colosseum interior
Interior of the Colosseum.  Photo by Diane Frisch

2)  The Forum/Palatine Hill - Located not far from the Colosseum, the Forum was once the center of all things in Rome, and later as Rome's influence spread, it was the center of the civilized world. In this area you will find, Palatine hill and the Forum. It is chock full of ruins that span about 1000 years. There are "layers" of ruins built upon top of ruins. It is fascinating and a little bit hard to follow without a guide to explain it all to you.
Rome Forum
Roman Forum.  Photo by Diane Frisch
3)  St. Peter's Basilica - Technically this is in a whole other country, the Vatican, located in the center of Rome. - This is the largest church on the planet, and it is FULL of very important art. Highlights are the Pieta by Michelangelo, the dome, also designed by Michelangelo, Bernini's huge canopy over the altar, The 13th century statue of St. Peter which pilgrims line up to rub or kiss the foot of, Bernini's Apse, the Crypt where St. Peter is buried, and so much more. TIP: Remember that modest dress is required for admittance to the Basilica as well as most other churches in Italy. Shoulders and knees must be covered. In the heat of summer, I brought a large scarf to cover up.
Rome St peters interior
Interior of Saint Peter's Basilica.  Photo by Diane Frisch
4)  The Sistene Chapel - This is also located in Vatican City, adjacent to the Vatican museum and is known for the spectacular frescoes painted by Michelangelo. It was recently restored and now looks as good as new (almost!) There are also frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli, Ghiriandaio, Signorelli, Rosselli, Fra Diamante, and more. 

Sistene Chapel. Photo from museivaticani.va
5)  The Vatican Museum - Technically includes the Sistene Chapel, but houses 4 miles of collections and also requires modest dress. Highlights include the fantastic collection of Greek and Roman statues, and the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms.
Rome vatican museum
Hallway in the Vatican Museum.  Photo by Diane Frisch.
6)  Piazza Navona - This is a beautiful and very large Piazza. In the center is the Four Rivers Fountain, designed by Bernini in 1651. All around you will find beautiful buildings, and churches with art by Caravaggio and Rubens. In this area you will find a center of pubs, cafes, nightlife, and a personal favorite, delicious gelato
Rome Piazza Navona fountain
Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain in Paizza Navona. Photo by Diane Frisch.
Rome lunch piazza navona
 Lunch break with the kids at Piazza Navona.

7)  The Fountain of Trevi
 - Recently restored, this is another iconic symbol of Rome. Tradition holds that if you throw a coin in the fountain, you will guarantee a return to Rome. This is a bustling tourist spot, but definitely worth a visit while in Rome.

Trevi Fountain.  Photo from trevifountain.net
8)  The Spanish Steps- This is a great place to people watch, enjoy some street music, and shop in the Piazza di Spagna district at the base of the steps.
Rome spanish steps
Spanish Steps.  Photo by Diane Frisch.

9)  The Pantheon - The most notable thing about this ancient church, in my opinion, is the wide opening in the center of the dome. It lets in an abundance of natural light, and also rain, depending upon the weather. The dome is the widest masonry dome in all of Europe, at 142 ft high, and 142 ft wide. This building was built in AD 118 by architect Hadrian, as a pagan temple. It was donated by Emperor Phocas to Pope Boniface IV in 608. It still serves as a Catholic church.
Rome pantheon
The Pantheon.  Photo by Diane Frisch.
10)  The Catacombs- Here you will find the burial tunnels of Rome's early Christians beneath the roads leading out of town. A guided tour will show you a subterranean chapel, tombs and even some frescoes and engraved slabs from the burial sites of the early Christians. I found this extremely interesting to visit with our knowledgeable guide, but I will warn you that some folks find the tunnels a bit claustrophobic

Photo from Wikimedia.org

11)  EAT! Gelato! Pasta! Pizza! Vino! I know this isn't a place to visit, but Wow, everything is so delicious. Eating your way through town is a BIG part of any visit to Rome! Ask locals for recommendations or just look around and see where the locals are going. This city is a feast for all of your senses, INCLUDING taste. In the photo below, I am at a lovely little restaurant just off of the Piazza Navona, da francesco. I recommend it!

Rome dinner piazza navona

IMPORTANT TIP: The Colosseum, Forum, and all the Vatican sights get very crowded. Buy your tickets in advance or take a "skip the line" or VIP access tour to save wasting hours in line. If it is possible, consider visiting in the "shoulder seasons" of spring and autumn to avoid the big crowds. 

Please visit my Blog to follow me on more travels near and far! travelswithdianeblog

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Nathaniel Danes's Guest Post: Seeds of Imagination

Here's a great guest post from Nathaniel Danes, a fellow writer:

I can't speak for any author other than myself but I find the world ripe with seemingly insignificant scraps of information begging to be nurtured, grown into a story. I look at my ordinary life with the goal of finding hidden adventure.
I'm low vision, functionally blind in most situations. As you can guess, my degrading retinas restrict what I can do in the real world. I love skiing, scuba diving, and a host of other activities I can no longer do, or do how I want to do them. This fighting retreat has been the story of my life since being medically discharge from the Army at the old age of seventeen, following my diagnosis.
Simply put, I can't live the life I want to so my imagination has become my keep. My final impenetrable stronghold, impervious to the ravages of my affliction. I can go anywhere and do anything. It's an escape I utilize regularly.
Maybe it's just me because my mind is so desperate for new material to chew on but I'll grad ahold of a minor piece of information and build an entire universe around it. That's how my latest novel, BattleMaster was born.
Several years ago I saw a short segment on TV about the US Air Force's experiments with craft controlled by a pilot's brainwaves. The pilots were hooked up to simulators but the results were still very interesting. A female subject remarked that initial findings suggested women were better at this method of operation.
The seed had been planted.
That fact whispered in my ear for years and I combined it with others I picked up. Such as, knowledge the female brain is wired to maximize multitasking while males are superior at focusing on a single objective. Both have their advantages and are likely a result of survival demands dating back millennia. Men hunting and providing protection while woman cared for the young and performed any number of important tasks.
Theses two bits of information are what formed the roots of BattleMaster. I asked myself, if women are better at multitasking and the future of warfare is drone based, wouldn't they one day reign supreme on the battlefield? My imagination went from there and the story blossomed until it found its way to the page.
So, pay attention to the world around you. Seeds of imagination are adrift everywhere. 

Nathaniel Danes is a self-diagnosed sci-fi junkie and, according to his wife, has an over active imagination. Mostly blind, he writes to create universes where he has no limitations. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Washington, DC area.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Behave, by Andromeda Romano-Lax

This is a strange book.  In a good way.

The writing is evocative, the setting and time period rich and convincing. The tone and style are nearly perfect for the era and subject matter.

I found it very engaging...even though I usually disconnect somewhat when I don't admire any of the characters. While I sympathized with Rosalie, and found myself wanting to like her, I couldn't quite get over some of what she allowed/condoned. I didn't like John Watson much at all, but he was a undeniably fascinating character. This complexity kept me interested, kept me thinking about it even after I finished.

I do rather wish I had read the author's notes at the back first, because I read the novel assuming that it was based on known facts about Rosalie with details filled in by the author, when it turns out most of Rosalie's story was pure invention. That always confuses my sense of truth and makes me doubt the parts that really were based on fact. However, this is just my own personal problem with historical fiction. Besides, we all know how accurate our “true” histories are.

What follows is not exactly a criticism of the book. It's a criticism of Watson, Rosalie, and all their associates. Okay, here goes: those real-life experiments with infants were unbelievable. Bad enough was the sheer cruelty of it: practically torturing unwilling and defenseless subjects in the quest to permanently leave them negatively conditioned. Um...unethical? 

 But even if you accept that Watson was an unethical man, or a man with twisted Machiavellian ethics, I had a hard time believing his scientific method (or lack thereof). He was supposedly a great scientist, as was Rosalie, but their experiment structure was so flawed that I—not a scientist—saw the giant problems. For example, with the Albert B experiments: One subject? Really? Tests that change more than one variable at a time? And then you modify the experiment midstream to try to get the result you want? So unscientific. And it's sickly irresponsible to base entire child-rearing theories on insanely small sample sizes of relatively short duration that—even if they were more scientific and duplicatable—wouldn't prove as much as you claim they prove. So why did no one really question his methods at the time? 

 I think the novel could have more fully explored these issues, really examining the psychology of seeing what you want to see instead of what really IS, of letting yourself get swept away in bad science for some imagined greater good or because of the authority-in-a-white-coat phenomenon or because you're in love or in lust. And what about dealing with the guilt when you finally understand what you did? All of this is addressed to a degree in the book, some of it quite elegantly, but I would have liked to have seen less of the romance in favor of a deeper treatment of these and other more interesting topics.

It's a compelling book. I would certainly read more by Andromeda Romano-Lax.   

Four Stars

Monday, April 10, 2017

Guest Post: Alaska Cruising Highlights

Check out my guest post on the Page Turner, Vicki Goodwin's site.  It's an article about some of my favorite experiences cruising Alaska.  And it's got pictures.

While you're there, check out some of the Vicki Goodwin's posts about books and authors.

If you want to know more about how to see Alaska for yourself, 
check out my new book on Amazon:   Cruising Alaska on a Budget,

Saturday, March 11, 2017

4 Books Everyone Should Read--Guest Post

Here's a guest post from Cassie, an avid reader:

Whether you’re taking the bus to work or on an amazing trip through the Czech Republic, a good book is the best companion. There’s the classics of course, but if you’re an avid reader you probably have already read through most of them. Or, if not, they’re at least on your to-do list. However, there are plenty of amazing books that might not be considered ‘classics,’ but that will absolutely keep you engaged from beginning to end and may end up being one of your favorites.

If you’re an avid traveler, you might want to consider getting these books in digital format whether as an audiobook or eBook. The best part about doing this is that you can always download these while you’re on-the-go. Just remember to use a virtual private network when using public WiFi so that hackers can’t steal your credit card info.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Set during WWII, this Pulitzer-winning book combines the world of comic books with the horrifying reality of war. It follows Joe Kavalier as he and his cousin Sammy Clay attempt to make a living for themselves creating comics. Chabon expertly weaves together reality and art until it becomes impossible to tell the two apart. Besides this, this book also blends the history and development of comic books, magic, Jewish mysticism and even a little romance.

The Phantom Tollbooth
While technically a middle reader, The Phantom Tollbooth will capture the imagination of adults and children alike. For young Milo, everything seems boring. That is until a tollbooth appears in his room. Curious, he decides to take his toy car and drives through, only to be teleported to exciting new worlds. Thus, Milo’s journey begins. What sets this book apart from other fantasy adventure stories is its focus on wordplay and the transformative power of words. At every turn there’s another surprise waiting around the corner proving that even everyday events can turn into magical occurrences.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Get ready for the wackiest interstellar journey of your life. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is pretty much a spoof of every science fiction novel you’ve ever read complete with a hapless hero, a hyper-dimensional space trace, a depressed robot and aliens who want to destroy the Earth (though it’s not personal). There are countless one-liners you likely see now in pop-culture such as the meaning of life is 42. And let’s not forget the ragtag band of characters and hilarious humor sprinkled throughout the book. This book is part of a five-book series, so if you like this one, there is plenty more adventure out there to enjoy.

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom
Being Prince Charming isn’t all sunshine and roses. In fact, it’s hard and often unappreciated work. The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom offers a fresh take on classic fairy tales by following the nameless princes of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel. As usual, there’s trouble afoot and it’s up to these princes to save the day from bandits, dragons and witches. It’ll have you in stitches from the humor and excellent banter between all of the characters. If you’re looking for a good way to wind down after a stressful day, this is a great choice.

While these aren’t the most challenging books to read, they’ll still stimulate your imagination and put a smile on your face. Plus, reading is good for your health, no matter the genre.

What books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author: Cassie is a freelance tech writer and reading enthusiast. While she loves the feel of a paperback, she also loves how technology such as eReaders and tablets has made it easier for her to read anywhere.  Check out culturecoverage.com.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska--three years apart

Glaciers are always changing, always moving, even if we can't see it.  I went to Mendenhall Glacier, just outside Juneau, Alaska, in early July 2011.  Here's a picture.  Observe the cool-shaped iceberg floating in the lake.  To get a feel for the scale, look at the person in the foreground.  When we went, the lake was full of ice that had calved off the glacier.

Three years later, in late July 2014:  Same glacier, same lake, almost no icebergs.  Many, many factors are at play here.  I just hope global warming isn't the main one.

To learn more about visiting Mendenhall Glacier and other amazing Alaskan attractions, check out Cruising Alaska on a Budget; A Port and Cruise Guide.  Whether you're thinking about taking a cruise or traveling on your own, you'll find useful travel tips for towns like Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Sitka, and others.

Buy the book now on Amazon.

Sign up my mailing list in the right-hand corner.  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Salmon in Ketchikan, Alaska

Salmon are amazing.  
They are born in fresh water.  They live most of their lives out in the sea.  Then, when their biological clock tells them, they swim upriver, sometimes many miles, to the place where they were born, only to spawn and die.  An amazing circle of life.  

Salmon trying to jump up obstacles in their way home to spawn
Ketchikan, Alaska, late August:

A traffic jam of salmon waiting to make their run up the small but challenging falls on Ketchikan Creek:

To learn more about salmon and where to see them in Alaska, read Cruising Alaska on a Budget  

Use the contact form in the right-hand column for more tips and Alaska news.