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.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Zion National Park

Zion National Park in southern Utah:  big crowds, beautiful scenery

Plan more time than you think you'll need, be prepared to park far away and shuttle in to the visitor center, and be sure to do some hiking.      

Thursday, October 12, 2017

This is a middle-grade novel, but plenty entertaining for adults.  

I’m not sure the premise and drastic transformation here are strictly realistic, but I loved them. The characters are interesting and likable but not perfect. (though I kept thinking they were a couple of years older than they were). The writing is effortless. The pacing is very good. Overall, a very enjoyable book about changing one’s life for the better. 

More accurate rating: 4.5

I've never read anything else by Gordon Korman, but it looks like he has a great many books to choose from.  I think I'll dip into another sometime soon.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

New Cover for Leaving Home

Check out my new cover for Leaving Home, a collection of short stories, travel essays, and flash fiction:

A train breaks down in the snowy Polish countryside. 

The jungle awakes. 

A blackmailer makes a mistake. 

On a cruise ship, paranoia strikes. 

Fairy godmother magic comes from an unexpected source. 

A neighbor's death reveals a dark surprise. 

Dance overcomes the barriers of language.

A young father leaves town.

All this and more...

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S Holland

Great book!  I loved these amazing stories of cross-species friendships.  I was particularly touched by the predator-prey friendships.  Amazing.  Beautiful pictures, too.  Each story is quite short, so it's a book even busy people will love.

5 Stars!

Click to Buy Unlikely Friendships on Amazon

Friday, September 8, 2017

Elk on the Mogollon Rim, Arizona

This magnificent elk wandered almost into our campsite right on the Mogollon Rim, south of Willow Springs Reservoir.  It was amazing.

It grazed for a while and then proceeded to sharpen its antlers by pretty much attacking innocent tree branches.  Spectacular to watch.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright

Full title:  Get Well Soon; History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

This fascinating account of various plagues through history features plenty of heroes to counter the darkness. Jennifer Wright has a conversational style with plenty of clever humor that somehow doesn’t make light of the real suffering and death caused by these diseases. I found it very entertaining and educational, and more of a page-turner than the novel I was reading concurrently.

Okay, so it does get a little preachy in places, but I agree with the lessons we can learn from history.

Some of the stuff the author wrote about is so scary, especially about the American morale laws in WWI that pretty much threw away any semblance of free speech, punished journalists with 20 years of jail time for telling the truth, and inadvertently exacerbated the Spanish influenza. It made me wonder about the truth of it and other details in the book, despite the good footnotes. My preliminary search of the internet has yielded surprisingly little detail of the terrifying ramifications of the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918 or their connection with the spread of the Spanish influenza by means of blatant, criminal denial. Considering that the internet is full of passionate details about the terrifying ramifications of things like vaccines and celebrities’ divorces and leaving onions in your fridge overnight, this internet silence is extremely disturbing. If this book’s allegations are true, then these laws and the subsequent behavior of the people, the press, and the justice department are just as scary as the bubonic plague or the Spanish influenza itself.

Anyway, a very, very interesting book. Now I need to read Jennifer Wright’s other book, “It Ended Badly,” about famous historical break-ups. She brings history to life and delivers it in small chunks that anyone would have time for.

Highly recommended (though perhaps not for hypochondriacs or the squeamish).   

Rating:  4 1/2 stars

Buy it or read a sample on Amazon

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Jungle Hostels

Fun excerpts from my 2008 Central America travel journal, which I'm currently transcribing:

Describing one of my favorite jungle hostels, Casa Perico, near Rio Dulce, Guatemala:
“WC: Far away, downstairs and across boardwalk. Pretty clean, with soap! Shower has kinda scary hole you have to reach your hand into to turn off the water. Other WC has bats.”

And Lydia's Guest House, in Placencia, Belize:
“WCs—clean, with plenty of TP (and baby frogs)”

I loved that trip!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Animal Stories by Bill Sherwonit

I really enjoyed this book. It's not exactly a page-turner, and some of the essays have a little too much detail for my personal taste, but the writing is good and the essay format makes it easy to read in short segments and really digest all the information.

I love the mix of science and observation and history and philosophy, all wrapped up in the author's personal experiences and reactions. A perfect combination.

Sometimes I (in my own weakness) don't enjoy nature writing because it's like, “This is how I wrestled a bear in the wilderness,” and “A whale jumped over our boat” and “I spent two weeks living with wild wolves, and if you've never done that, you're really missing out.” It can make my own more humble experiences with nature and wildlife feel shallow and inadequate. But the thing is, I think all encounters with wildlife are amazing, and so does Bill Sherwonit. He spends just as much time talking about the wonders of song birds and frogs and squirrels as he does about moose and bears and wolverines. And he makes those song birds interesting. It's very refreshing.

I believe the book will inspire people who may never have a chance to see a bear or a whale or spend two weeks with wild wolves, but who can learn to really observe the birds in their backyard or their city park and commune with nature through them.

Rating:  4 1/2 stars!  

Buy Animal Stories at Amazon (or other retailers)

Visit Bill Sherwonit and find out more about his other books online:  http://www.billsherwonit.alaskawriters.com/

Visit Alaska and its wildlife yourself with help from my book, Cruising Alaska on a Budget; a Cruise and Port Guide

Friday, August 11, 2017

Best movies I've seen this year--some common threads

I was pondering the best movies I've seen so far this year, and I realized that they all have a few things in common.  See if you can figure it out:

Bridge of Spies
Hidden Figures
The Zookeeper's Wife
A United Kingdom

Things I found in common:
-All take place in the recent past
-All are based on true stories
-All feature some aspect of politics
-All feature some sort of prejudice/segregation and the fighting of it
-All are based on books.

Yay for books!

Bridge of Spies is based partly on Strangers on a Bridge by James Donovan

Hidden Figures is based on Hidden Figures:  The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race by  Margot Lee Shetterly

The Zookeeper's Wife is based on The Zookeeper's Wife; A War Story by Diane Ackerman

A United Kingdom is based on Colour Bar;  The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation by Susan Williams

Monday, August 7, 2017

Literary Magazines with Themes, Fall 2017

Head on over to Writers on the Move to see my new roundup of literary magazines with themes like "community," "taste," "dancing in the wind" and "Rumpelstiltskin."

Due dates range from the end of August, 2017 to January 2018. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Penguin the Magpie by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive

Such sad, heart-wrenching content, but beautiful and touching too. The pictures are so very sweet. And I think the message at the end from Sam is important for its honesty and hard advice. 

I read it straight through in one sitting, something I very rarely do, even with short books. 

A strong 4 stars, almost 5  

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

This was a very good book, though I think it would have been even better as a novella. There's not quite enough to fill a novel, but it's too much for a short story. Of course, novellas don't sell...[sigh]. Anyway, if it were shorter, some of the first part could be trimmed, because it gets a bit samey. With too much repetition it's easy to lose impact. For example, Lib's snide skepticism and anti-religious thoughts eventually stop being culturally interesting and start coming off as just plain mean-spirited. The hints of various truths are too numerous, leading to a loss of impact when Lib figures out a couple of things that we—the readers in her head—have all known for a long time. In the last third or so of the book, these problems disappear and the story wraps you up in its tension and suspense.

It is a very, very interesting concept, a very interesting catch-22, a very interesting historical setting. We get a great feel for the time and the very small world some of these characters inhabit.

The writing is very good.

Now, this is very subjective, and not a deal-breaker for this book, but here's my issue with—for lack of a better word—Hollywood. Not every book has to have a romance! Romance is fine, but it's not the only thing interesting to read about. A book can be complete—and sometimes even stronger—without the protagonist having a romance This is one of those cases. The story is about Lib and Anna. The romance feels quite tacked on. It kind of works in the very end, but there could have been a similar and just as satisfying ending without the out-of-character love story. Others will certainly disagree.

The last few chapters are very good—and I'm one who usually prefers middles. The book is disturbing and thought-provoking and eerie...yet strangely heart-warming. I really did enjoy it.  A strong four stars.  I'm guessing that if Donoghue had felt free to write it exactly as she wanted, without any regard to what would sell, it would have been five stars.

I'll read more of Emma Donoghue in the future.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Black Widow Eating a Spider

There are many things I love about Arizona...in the winter.

There are a few things I like about Arizona in the summer.

This is neither:

It's what I believe to be a male black widow spider with a now-dead scorpion trapped in its net.  The scorpion looks green-white because I'm shining black light on it in addition to regular light.  This was in my garage last night.  Very, very interesting.  But also a bit nightmarish.

And click here for the video:  https://youtu.be/4IM7_5-Jxwo

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Amazon Giveaway

Until Thursday night, July 13, 2017, you can enter for a chance to win a Kindle copy of my book, Cruising Alaska on a Budget; a Cruise and Port Guide.  

Click here to enter:  https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/76034327196b88cf

If you're too late, never fear.  You can still buy it at a budget price here:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XPYP75F

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sunset Crater Volcano, Arizona

We just stopped here on the way to somewhere else, and it was awesome:

Sunset Crater's aa lava trail, where you get to walk right through the lava field:

The cinder cone, only about 900 years old:

There are various trails and many interesting interpretive signs around the national monument.  What I found most interesting was the progression of recover, still very obvious with such a "young" volcano.

Plus, it's connected to Wapatki National Monument with very cool Native American ruins.  See my next post.  :)

For more planning info, check out their website:  https://www.nps.gov/sucr/index.htm

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Full Moon

Full moon from my back yard
You don't have to travel far to be amazed by nature.

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