Saturday, July 13, 2019

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

This is the story of Jakub, a Czech astronaut in the near future who goes on a solo mission to investigate a strange new and possibly threatening spacial phenomena.  But it's not just the story of his space journey and the effects of isolation in space.  It's also the story of his youth and a slice of the history of Czechia (the Czech Republic). 
I liked it a lot. 

The part in space was interesting, and I really loved Hanuš (read the book to find out who he is).

The part about Jakub's Czech childhood before and after (mostly after) the Velvet Revolution was fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking.  I admit I’m a bit biased because I have lived in and love Czechia (aka the Czech Republic, aka the former Czechoslovakia), but I thought the story was very moving.  The Czech history I know took on the faces of people I really cared about.  Very well done.  I also loved the references to bits of culture, foods, habits etc. that I remember from Czechia. 

The book sometimes waxed too poetic, abstract, and philosophical for my personal tastes, but some people will love the book even more for these aspects.

I would rather have had a bit more happy resolution at the end, but I think it was well done…and not what I expected. 

Overall, a great read.  I will certainly try more by Jaroslav Kalfař, especially if it takes place in Czechia.

4.5 stars

WARNING:  strong profanity and short but explicit sexual scenes and references.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Walnut Canyon National Monument, Flagstaff

Walnut Canyon National Monument just out of Flagstaff, Arizona, is a very cool complex of Native American cliff dwellings you can hike down to or view from the rim of the canyon.  The interpretive signs are particularly good, focusing on the daily life of the people who lived here.

Not everyone is prepared for the stairs that go down 185 vertical feet into the canyon.  Well...most people are okay with the going down.  Just remember you'll have to go up.  It's at nearly 7000 feet of elevation, so the air may be a little thinner than you're used to.  Take water.

From partway down the stairs of the Island Trail.  Observe some of the many dwelling scattered along the canyon walls:

From the Island Trail:

How it might have looked back in the day:

One of the things I found very interesting was the difference between the vegetation on the north-facing side of the "island" and the south-facing side.

Up on the rim of the canyon, you can take the easy and pretty Rim Trail.  And if you go at the right time, you might see something like this prickly pear flower (picture taken June 22):

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Brush Fire in Arizona

This brush fire closed the freeway near Sunset Point between Flagstaff and Phoenix the night before our planned trip a a couple of weekends ago.  They opened the freeway late that night.  These pictures are from mid-morning the next day.

Smoke (and look for the helicopter hauling a bucket):

The not-burned area meets the burned area:

The burn zone:

And here's some actual flame, not very threatening, but was really close.  I can't imagine how scared those people must have been last year in California, driving through the raging heart of some of those wildfires, walls of flame on every side, like some Hollywood movie.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Friday, June 28, 2019

Horton Springs Trail, Arizona

Earlier in June I took the beautiful Horton Springs Trail from near Kohl's Ranch, Arizona, just below the Mogollon Rim.  I'd done it before, and loved it, but this time I was training for Mt Humphreys, so I went all the way up the Rim and back down, making a loop with the Highline and Derrick trails.

Horton Creek
My trip stats:

Total distance (including my meandering, exploring, and getting lost):  17.1 km / 10.6 miles

Total elevation gain:  1086 meters / 3563 feet

Highest elevation:  2413 meters /  7917 feet above sea level

Difficulty:  Mostly easy to Horton Springs, with a bit of a climb toward the end and a bit of rock scrambling if you explore the creek.  Past Horton Springs, the trail is steep, exposed to the sun, and sometimes difficult to follow.  Having reliable GPS with an offline map is a good idea.  At minimum, carry a good paper topo map and don't stray far from one cairn until you can see the nextBecause of the lay of the land, you probably won't get dangerously lost (unless it's hot and you don't have enough water), but you might make things long, prickly, and unpleasant for yourself.  

Pictures don't really capture the panoramic views from the trail above Horton Springs
If you just go to Horton Springs and back:

Total distance: About 11.2 km / 7 miles  (but add some distance, time, and elevation for exploring the creek and the unofficial trails along it).  If you only want to go partway, it's a great hike for that.  You start seeing the creek after about 10-15 minutes on the trail, though the really pretty stuff begins at more like 20-30 minutes in.    

Total elevation gain:  384 meters / 1260 feet

Highest elevation:  2068 meters / 6785 feet above sea level

I saw lots of these beauties flowering this trip.  Not sure what they are. Claret cup?  

At Upper Tonto Creek Campground, near Kohl's Ranch, which is northeast of Payson on highway 260..  Your turnoff heads north of the highway, and also leads to Tonto Creek Hatchery and Lower Tonto campground.  Parking is available at the Derrick trailhead or past the Upper Tonto Creek Campground (across the little bridge).  

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

I read this because I'd seen it mentioned on a review of another book in which Alaska was just a flimsy and unrealistic backdrop for a love story.  The Great Alone, the review said, was an amazing depiction of life in the Alaskan bush.  The review wasn't wrong.  Whenever I read a book set in Alaska, I expect Alaska itself to be one of the characters.  And here it certainly is.  In fact, it's one of the main characters, complex and compelling.  A fascinating, beautiful, brutal place.

The human characters in The Great Alone are also interesting and multi-dimensional and imperfect.  I loved most of them—despite their flaws—and hated (yet somehow felt sorry for) one of them.  I think the book also sheds light on the struggles people go through and the dangers of certain types of relationships. 

The plot is often dark, but there are moments of light.

The details of survival on an Alaskan homestead are really interesting.

The writing is powerful and really transports you to Leni's Alaska.  At times the prose gets a bit repetitive or long, but it's a minor issue.
Overall, a great book.  Highly recommended, especially for those interested in how life was in an isolated part of Alaska in the 70s.  

I will certainly read more by Kristin Hannah.

4.5 stars.  Almost 5.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Guest Appearance on "My Writer's Life"

Fellow writer and artist, Deborah Lyn Stanley, recently hosted my new book on her site.

Go check it out and look at some of her non-fiction and fiction, linked on the bar across the top.  I'm especially impressed by her article "Creating Hair for Portrait Art Quilts"

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

La gran fábrica de las palabras by Agnes de Lestrade

This is a beautiful book--both the story and the pictures.  It takes place in a world where you have to buy words, and where some words are more expensive than others.  It's just as profound as it sounds.  And sweetly touching.

Es un libro hermoso--ambos el cuento y las picturas.  Toma lugar en un mundo donde se tiene que comprar palabras, y unos son más caras que otras.  Es tan profundo como sueña.  Y muy dulce. 

The author, Agnes de LeStrade, and the illustrator, Valeria Docampo, did a fantastic job. 

It's originally in French, with a title that I believe translates the same as the Spanish version:  "The Great Word Factory." 

English speakers, sadly your title ended up "Phileas's Fortune:  A Story about Self-Expression."  Seriously, what sort of marketing choice was that?  But check it out anyway.  It's a
beautiful, beautiful book.

Now I want to check out more books both this artist and illustrator.

Phileas's Fortune on Amazon
La gran fábrica de las palabras on Amazon

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Alaska Cruise Highlights

One of my favorite things in the world is cruising to Alaska.  The nature is gorgeous.  The history is interesting.  And cruising allows you to approach it all from the water…with a minimum of fuss.  Here are some of my highlights. 

1)  Watching for Wildlife

Most Alaska cruises have one or two at-sea days and a glacier day.  Plus, summer light lasts long into the evening and the sun rises early.  All this gives you a lot of time to hang out on deck or by a window and watch for wildlife.  How much wildlife you see depends a lot on luck, but it also depends on how good your eye is and how much time you spend watching. 

Some amazing animals you have a good chance of seeing from the deck of your ship:
Humpback whales
White-sided dolphins
Dall's porpoises
Sea lions
Harbor seals
Bald eagles 

You might also see more elusive creatures like these:
Mountain goats
Bears (yes, I saw one swimming across Glacier Bay once, and a mama with cubs on a distant shore)

Others you may see while you're on shore:
Pretty much all of the above, plus

Obviously you're not going to see all of these in a week (unless you're very, very lucky and eagle-eyed), but through my various cruises I've seen most of them, and on some cruises I've seen at least glimpses of all of the major marine mammals listed above.

2)  Hiking

I love hiking anywhere.  It's one of my favorite hobbies.  But Alaska is a particularly spectacular place to do it.  You can hike through old-growth forest or across streams jumping with salmon or up to ridges above the treeline with fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, water, and wilderness.  You can walk to a glacier.  You may even be able to walk ON a glacier.  It's paradise for hikers (both for casual walkers and hard-core enthusiasts…and people like me who are somewhere in between).  Many trailheads are easily accessible right from the ship, and plenty of others are possible with public transport.
Some of my favorites:
-Deer Mountain in Ketchikan
-Perseverance Trail in Juneau
-Upper Dewey Lake in Skagway
-Portage Pass in Whittier
-Harding IceField in Seward

For more on these an many more trails, check out my book, Hiking Alaska from Cruise Ports

3)  Glaciers

I love the miniature icebergs floating in the water as you approach a glacier.  I love the seals that rest on those bergy bits.  I love the massive walls of ice.  I love the sound of "white thunder" as the glacier calves.  I love the bright blue that peaks out of the crevasses.  I love the sound of growlers squeaking against the prow of the boat as you steam slowly through the ice.  I love thinking about how many years it has taken this ice to make its slow-motion journey from the place it fell as snow, miles away.  Glaciers are a magical thing.  Whichever glacier/s you go to on your cruise, be sure to bundle up and spend a lot of time on the deck absorbing the grandeur of nature.

4)  Skagway

 Skagway is touristy, no doubt, but there's a reason:  it's a darling town with a fascinating history you can explore for free through the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park's various free museums and sites. They also give free walking tours full of stories of Soapy Smith, Skagway's most notorious con man and criminal.  Add to that the gorgeous surrounding and top-notch hiking, and you have one of my favorite ports

5)  Salmon

These tenacious fish amaze me.  How do they know how to return to their place of birth when it's time to spawn?  How do they find the strength to make such journeys, often long distance upstream or over waterfalls and through rapids?  Do they realize that the only thing that awaits them after this long journey is the chance to procreate…and then die?  Yes, salmon are amazing.  So is the lifestyle people have built around them.  So is seeing Ketchikan's Creek Street or Juneau's Steep Creek or Sitka's coastline or many other places boiling with the homeward-bound fish.  If you want to see them in action, consider planning your trip late in July or August. 

Alaskan cruising is an awesome thing.  To read more about how to discover (or rediscover) it for yourself, check out my book, Cruising Alaska on a Budget.  

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Hiking Alaska from Cruise Ports

If you like hiking, and you like Alaska, I have the perfect book for you:

-Great ideas for hikes, walks, and strolls in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, Homer, Kodiak, Whittier, Seward, and Anchorage. 
-Practical information on the trails, including distance, difficulty, elevation gain, and how to get to the trailheads.
-Trail stories
-A few longer routes for those traveling independently
-Tips on hiking safety, offline maps, etc. 

Only $1.99 right now:  Hiking Alaska from Cruise Ports

Monday, April 29, 2019

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I loved this when I was little.  I loved it again last week.

It's funny, because it really doesn't have much of a traditional plot. The stakes feel quite low (though I suppose the true stakes are survival). The characters are all unrealistically perfect and good and there's not much character arc.

But...I couldn't stop reading.  It only took me a day and a half to finish (when that length of book would usually take me a week or two).

I kept telling people all about it and all the things I learned.

I suppose the amazing draw of this book is a combination of the simple but warm and beautiful writing and the fascinating details on how frontier Americans knew how to make everything and do everything.  I have no idea how to make cheese or smoke meat or weave straw hats. They had such clever solutions to problems we solve by turning on a switch or going to a store or searching the internet.  It's absolutely fascinating.

Now I want to read the others again.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Cactus Flowers in April

In the middle of April this year I went camping and hiking near Roosevelt Lake, Arizona. 

The desert was dotted with magenta, courtesy of Engelmann's Hedgehog Cactus.  So beautiful.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Bear Safety In Alaska

If you're visiting Alaska, you probably want to see a bear.  However, you may be worried about meeting that bear face to face at close range.  

It's a valid concern.  Bears can be dangerous.  But mostly bears are just doing their own thing and do not want to hurt you.   

In my book, Hiking Alaska from Cruise Ports, I detail the advice I've compiled from various Alaska agencies (which might be slightly different from advice in other locations, since Alaskan bears are less habituated to people).

Here are some of the highlights:

1)  Hike noisily.  Talk, sing, or clap your hands, especially in brushy areas and around blind curves.

2)  Don't carry smelly food--or anything else particularly smelly.

3)  If you see a bear, keep your distance, no matter how much you want that perfect photo.  And never put yourself between a mama and her cub.

4)  If you meet a bear up close, stay calm and DO NOT RUN.  Stand tall and talk in a calm voice, loud and low.  You might want to wave your arms gently or otherwise hold them so that you look as big as possible.  If you have children with you, pick them up.

5)  Back slowly away from the bear.  If it follows, stop.

6)  If it charges, stand your ground and talk more loudly.  Do not scream or make high-pitched noises.  It'll probably veer off at the last second.

7)  If a brown bear / grizzly attacks, curl in a fetal position with your hands laced behind your neck and play dead until it goes away.

8)  If a black bear attacks, (or if a grizzly starts mauling you) fight back as hard as you can until it decides you're not worth it.

9)  If you carry bear spray, learn how to use it before you ever set foot on the trail.

For more, read my book:  Hiking Alaska from Cruise Ports

-Great ideas for hikes, walks, and strolls in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, Homer, Kodiak, Whittier, Seward, and Anchorage. 
-Practical information on the trails, including distance, difficulty, elevation gain, and how to get to the trailheads.
-Trail stories
-A few longer routes for those traveling independently
-Tips on hiking safety, offline maps, etc. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Kindle Publishing: File Size vs Royalty Rate

Time for a helpful hint of the day.  If you publish e-books independently on Amazon (called KDP--Kindle Direct Publishing), you know about the different royalty rates...but you might not know a few important details.  If you're new to publishing, here's what you need to know

If you price your e-book between $2.99 and $9.99, you have two options:

70% royalties
35% royalties

70% sounds better, right?  Well, mostly yes.

But don't forget about delivery costs.  The 70% royalty rate has delivery costs.  The 35% royalty rate doesn't.

What are delivery costs?  Amazon charges you for delivering your ebook to the customer.  The delivery charge is based on the converted book's file size, and it's taken directly out of your 70% royalty.  For novels or narrative non-fiction without any fancy graphics or images, the delivery cost is not significant enough to stress about.  For anything with photos, illustrations, graphs, maps, etc., your file size will be a lot bigger and thus so will your delivery charges.  They can really start eating into your profits, especially if it's a big file and a low list price.


My novel, Far-Knowing, has a delivery cost of 6 cents.  So, if it's priced at $2.99, I get 70% of 2.99 minus 6 cents, which somehow comes to $2.05 of royalties per copy sold (Amazon does creative math, but luckily it's creative in our favor). 

My travel guide, Cruising Alaska on a Budget (with pictures and illustrations), has a delivery cost of 24 cents.  That's after I used Gimp (a photo editor) to individually scale my images down so they're still pretty good quality but don't take up so many kilobytes.  I also saved the manuscript as an html file then zipped up all the photo with the text instead of just uploading my Word document, as some people do.  This also reduces final file size.  If I hadn't done so much work to scale things down, delivery costs would have been well over 65 cents, which would have eaten up about a fifth of my profits when it's priced at $4.99, almost a third of my profits if it were priced at $2.99.

Delivery costs mean that you should pay attention to your file size and try to reduce where possible.

Even with the delivery costs, however, the 70% royalty rate is almost always better.  But not always.  So be aware.

If you price your book between 99 cents and $2.98, you must go with the 35% royalty rate.

Why price something so low?
-If it's short
-If you want to give your fans something at a bargain price
-If you want to use it to drive sales to other books

The other advantage here is that there is no delivery cost, so if you have something graphics-heavy, you don't have to worry so much about scaling things down.

However, here's what isn't immediately obvious in the KDP information: if your file is too big, you cannot price it at 99 cents...or even 1.99.

I planned to sell my new travel guide, Hiking Alaska from Cruise Ports, for less than $2.99 because it's a relatively short book.  Plus, I wanted to have more pictures of the beautiful hiking trails, so I didn't want to have to worry about delivery costs.  However, after preparing my file and uploading it, I discovered that KDP wouldn't let me price it at my promotional 99-cent book-launch price.  Why not? I asked.  It took a bit of Googling to find this page:  List Price Requirements.  Here's the most important bit:

99 cents pricing--your file must be under 3 MB
$1.99 pricing--your files must be under 10 MB 

Mine was 4.5 MB.  I had to do a lot more scaling down to get it to 99 cents.

So, I learned some new things with this new book, and I thought I'd share.

Want to see those pictures I had to scale down?  

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Simple Art of Flying by Cory Leonardo

This is sad, happy, charming, and gently funny.  A beautiful book with a bittersweet ending.

And look at that cover! 

It reminds me a lot of The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate—another fantastic book.  But my reactions are a little different.  My only (small) issue with the One and Only Ivan is that it's a little hard to believe in parts.  Ivan seems to know or understand things he would have no way of knowing, given what we know about how he learns, and I question why he can speak to the other animal species so easily but can't understand humans.  This doesn't seem quite internally consistent, and I'm a proponent of books being internally consistent—be they strictly modern day, far-distant future, or high fantasy. 

Now, fast-forward to "The Simple Art of Flying."  Objectively, it's way more difficult to believe.  The voices of the animals are way more human than Applegate's delightful rendition of a gorilla's thought processes and inner voice in "The One and Only Ivan."  In "The Simple Art of Flying," Alastair and others use slang and cultural references they shouldn't use or understand, even if they are highly intelligent animals that can communicate amongst themselves.  But here it doesn't bother me.  And the difference?  Internal consistency.  "The Simple Art of Flying" is so fantastical (Alastair reads by eating paper—and he knows pretty much everything—and the goldfish can analyze poetry—and the guinea pig plays poker).  Because it's so fantastical, it doesn't seem out of place that they all talk like humans.  It feels more internally consistent.

These are both great books.  I love them both.  I just found my different reactions interesting.

Anyway, I love the characters in "The Simple Art of Flying."  I love the writing, the story structure, the pacing, the unusual premise, and the even more unusual theme. 

A great book.  Highly recommended.  Can't wait to read more by Cory Leonardo

Buy it on Amazon:  The Simple Art of Flying

Read my review of The One and Only Ivan

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Joshua Tree National Park--Day 3

From my trip in mid February:

After the rains ended (see previous post), things got less "interesting" but more beautiful:

Beautiful cactus:  pencil cholla first and possibly cushion foxtail below.

 Lovely hikes:

And more wildflowers:

Great day.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Joshua Tree National Park--Day 2

It was pretty chilly the day we arrived at Joshua Tree National Park in mid February.  But then it started getting colder.  Propane canisters on camp stoves generally get condensation on the outside at the level of the gas.  Well, our condensation froze.

It starting doing that thing that's not exactly snow, but like a fine mist of rain that freezes into little jumpy specs of white.  We hunkered in our tents.  Then it started raining.  It rained for about the next 15 hours.

This is what happened to the campground (though luckily our site was on a little rise):

This is what happened to the trails:

This is what happened to the roads (photo by Jan Maly on the way out of the park):

We played cards in the tent, ate breakfast in the truck.  Then we drove around the park.  I put on my emergency poncho and hiked around a bit here and there.  When the rain tapered off, I tested out a jacket to see how rainproof it was.  It got soaked...but kept my torso pretty dry.  My pants and shoes were another matter.  But it was all so beautiful.

When the storm finally quit, here's how much water we'd collected:

We measured.  Almost 3 inches!

What a camping trip.

But...the next day was beautiful.  More pictures to come.