Wednesday, July 29, 2020

438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea, by Jonathan Franklin

This is a non-fiction book about Salvador Alvarenga, an El Salvadorian/Mexican fisherman who survived 438 days adrift on the ocean.  It's an amazing story, well-told and compelling.  The ingenuity and desperate measures and fortitude…amazing.  The part with his pet duck…heart-breaking.

I liked how the book used quotes and info from interviews with other survivors and survival experts.  I also thought it was really important that it talked about the aftermath and Alvarenga's long-term trauma.  It didn't end happily the moment he saw his rescuers.

I did sometimes wonder how accurate it was, since it was all recounted by Alvarenga (through the lens of time), and the author never seemed to question any of it. He also never explained how on earth they would know the exact coordinates listed at the beginning of each chapter, and even if they did, how Alvarenga would remember exactly what happened when.  This sounds trifling, but it kept me from sinking as entirely into the story as I wanted to.  But it was still amazing.

Highly recommended if you like survival stories.

More accurate rating:  4.5 stars.  


Saturday, July 25, 2020

A miraculously not-too-hot Phoenix summer evening.

Yesterday it was actually cool enough in Phoenix to willingly go outside!  The high was only 100 degrees, and in the evening the monsoon clouds (but no actual storm) brought up the humidity a bit, which drove down the temperature, and then nature obligingly threw in a breeze.  I took a sunset walk and actually enjoyed it.  Yipee! 

Anyway, here's a picture I took:

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Writing lessons with Brandon Sanderson

I recently discovered these writing lectures by Brandon Sanderson, famed fantasy author, filmed and posted (with permission) free on Youtube.  I've only begun, but they seem very interesting and useful.  Check out the first one here.  Others follow.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Soon to be Published in 50 Haikus

I just got an acceptance letter for a poem I submitted to 50 Haikus.  It's from my oh-so-creatively named series, "Haikus Written on the Train."  I wrote'll never guess...while on a train.  I'd just returned to my beautiful Czechia for the third time, and the scenery was pulling poetry out of me right and left.  This one, "Gold," is probably the most serious of them all.  

My issue (#16) isn't published yet, but meanwhile, you can check out 50 Haikus' website:

Monday, June 8, 2020

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas is one of the few books I've ever found of this rare and wonderful genre that I don't even have a name for:  a pseudo-medieval setting, an imaginative culture, royalty…and no magic!!!!  No magical creatures or time travel or vampires.  I love fantasy, but I also a good non-fantasy fantasy.  It allows great world-building without letting the characters depend on magic to save the day (or ruin the day).  To me, it's one beautiful permutation of how the child of fantasy and historical fiction would look.  

I love to read this non-fantasy fantasy genre, on the rare occasions when I find it, and I also love to write it.  The very first novel I wrote--my so-far-unpublished baby--is this genre.  One day maybe it will see the light of day.  

Anyway, enough gushing on the genre.

As for this particular novel, I really enjoyed it.  The queen was a scientist!  Awesome.  Throughout the whole novel I was wondering who our main character could trust.  Awesome.  The story wasn't very violent.  I mean, there was a mass murder by poisoning at the beginning, but the main characters tried—and often succeeded—in solving their problems without violence.  Awesome!  At the end, the queen had to decide what to do with a gray character:  show mercy and weakness or show strength and cause more bloodshed.  I find that what often happens in novels is that the problem character conveniently dies or something, so the main character doesn't have to be merciless OR weak.  Not so here.  Our MC actually made a decision.  Awesome. 

I did think some of the science and politics felt a big simplistic and easily solved.  Like, how did they manage never to fight in this kingdom?  Especially with bad leadership and unhappy people?  And what about other kingdoms who might take advantage of their defenselessness?  But these weren't big issues that affected my enjoyment.

Some readers might think it a tad slow, because there wasn't a ton of really actiony action.  But for readers like me, the pacing was perfect. 

The writing was good, the characters interesting.

I absolutely recommend it and will soon read Rhiannon Thomas' other books.

Rating:  4.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The New Kid by Jerry Craft

In all honesty, graphic novel aren't my favorite storytelling medium, but I'm trying to expand my horizons. This graphic novel for kids was recommended, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it.  

The story and characters were interesting, the format really worked, the illustrations were great, and I really liked the glimpses of the main character's actual artwork and cartoons.  I found it quite funny in places, and quite thought-provoking in others.

Personal enjoyment:  solid 4 stars

What I imagine a real fan of this genre of graphic novels might think:  4.5 or 5 stars

Find it on Amazon:

The author, Jerry Craft, does some cool Youtube videos, like blindfold drawing.  Check it out:

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ironwood and saguaro blossoms

May is time for lovely lavender Ironwood blossoms in the Sonoran Desert.  These were taken on May 13 in the Phoenix areas.  I could hear some of the trees before I saw them, because the bees love the blossoms so much.  The saguaros were also blooming.  A lovely time of year...if it weren't also so hot.  

A close-up of the ironwood flowers

Saguaro blossoms.  Each flower blooms only for night and into the next day.  

You can see where the wash is from all the purple blossoms in a line.  
Bigger trees like ironwoods tend to follow water.  

Here's the wash.  Dry of course.  

Such a lovely, delicate color.  And so very full of bees.  

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Jungle Cat

Here's a pick from my recent safari.  
Pretty scary, isn't it?  Looks like she's ready to jump down and maul me.  
I'm lucky I escaped with my life.'s still COVID-19 lockdown.  This was a safari to the yard.  And that's my Mama Kitty.  She IS actually a bit dangerous.  She's lovey-dovey if it's her idea, but if you try to pet her otherwise, you might get claws or teeth in your skin.  You certainly will get a fearsome hiss. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Buzz Sting Bite by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

I really enjoyed this.  It was well-written and fascinating, accessible to the interested layperson but also scientific enough to be a serious book. 

It was also depressing.  We need to take better care of our planet! 

I admit that—rather shallowly—my favorite parts were the juicy little tidbits about fascinating insects.  But the more weighty parts about insects' usefulness to us and their importance in the ecosystem and their sad fate were also very interesting and important. 

Very, very interesting book.  Highly recommended.

4.5 Stars!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Hiraeth Publishing and my Short Story

Hiraeth Books is going to publish my short story, "Stashed Away," in their September 2020 sci-fi anthology. The working title is "Martian Wave." I'm excited to read it.

If your quarantine reading stack is getting low, check out their other offerings:

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Buckeye Butterfly

Spotted on a hike near Wickenburg, Arizona:

I don't think it's a common buckeye, since they generally have a cream strip on their forewing, stretching down around the "eye," but this one's strip is orange. I believe it is, instead, a tropical buckeye.

What a beautiful creature.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Creosote Gall

Something interesting: This is a creosote gall I found. I didn't know what it was, so I researched. It's an old, dried-up one, but once it was green and leafy. Creosote galls are caused by gall midges from the genus Asphondylia. Midges are little fly-like insects. They lay their eggs and the gall forms around them to provide nutrients for the larvae.

I wondered if the plant formed the gall to keep the hungry larvae in one place. To...shall we say...slow the spread. Something I'm sure none of us have heard anything about recently. But it looks like most galls that form in response to insects are actually controlled by the insects. The larvae inject a chemical which induces the plant to involuntarily form the gall (though some may rely on mechanical damage to induce the growth). So, the little midges restructure their environment to suit them.

The whole process doesn't benefit the creosote bush, but neither does it seem to cause serious harm. Nature is amazing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Butterfly Visitor

Look who posed for me in my back yard:  

I believe this is a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), a common migrating butterfly that winters here in the Sonoran desert.  

I can't help but think its coloring and patterning could be Batesian mimicry, where a perfectly edible species mimics the appearance of a poisonous or nasty-tasting species (in this case the monarch butterfly), thus deterring would-be predators.  

Whatever the case, it's beautiful.     

Monday, April 13, 2020

Hummingbird Nest

While obeying stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to take a trip to Frontyardia.  There I discovered an absolute delight:

I'm not sure what species she is, but one of my most knowledgeable birder friends believes she's a black-chinned hummingbird mama.  Hopefully all will go well and we'll soon see little beaks sticking up out of that nest.  

Monday, April 6, 2020

Backyard Birdwatching

Staying at home during COVID-19 lock-down, I've been doing a lot of backyard bird-watching.  Keep in mind that I live in central Arizona, where we have birds all year long.  I know some of you have not yet been reacquainted with your birds.  If this is the case, I hope they arrive soon.  As for me, here are a few of my favorite shots from the last couple of weeks:

Gila woodpecker:

Same bird?  Different day:

Hummingbird (Anna's hummingbird, I believe):  

Another Anna's hummingbird, I think (the bib looks purple here, like a Costa's, but it looked more pink in real life):

Okay, not a bird:

Okay, not in the backyard, but along the canal near my house:

Four of the eleven ducklings:

If you're staying home and not working during lock-down, I advise using some of that time to watch birds (or whatever nature is available to you at the moment).  If you're out there working hard to keep things afloat, thank you so much.  But I still advise taking some time to watch birds...or snowflakes...or trees.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Antelope Squirrel

Antelope Squirrel at White Tank Regional Park:

So cute!

It was funny, because I was on 10-mile hike, probably almost 9 miles into it, and I hadn't seen any mammals.  Lizards:  check.  Two vultures playing in the wind:  check.  Various other birds:  check.  Squirrels, rabbits, packrats, javelina, coyotes:  nothing.  Then finally I saw this little guy.  Literally 2 minutes down the trail I saw another.  Then, just beyond that, a rock squirrel.  They must have been having a rodent convention. 


Saturday, March 21, 2020

More Interesting Lizards

I don't usually so many lizards this dark, but the hills were alive with them on my hike mid March.  This was in the Estrella Mountain area, Phoenix, Arizona.  My best guess is ornate tree lizard, but if you have a better guess, I'd welcome comments below.

Whatever their species, they were beautiful little guys.  Look at this one's short, thick, blue tail!  I'm wondering if it's regenerated.  

Monday, March 16, 2020

Common Side-Blotched Lizard

Lizards were out in force last week at White Tank Regional Park.  This one posed like a model.  It's a common side-blotched lizard, and here in the Phoenix, Arizona area you see them all around the desert parks.  The males have blue on their tails and often some rusty orange on their chins.  Beautiful creatures.  

Here's a close-up of those gorgeous scales:

If you want an interesting article about

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

"Rattlesnake" Eggs

Some people in Arizona find a clutch of small eggs in their yard and In their worried minds they skip over all the possible birds that might have laid these eggs, skip over all the possible reptiles, and jump right to "rattlesnake!" Rattlesnake! Then they call the snake removal guy (who told me this story) and insist that they have snake eggs in their yard.

Well, rattlesnakes don't lay eggs.

Usually what these people are finding are quail eggs. Not nearly as scary.

It's interesting to me how we can ignore the obvious, logical, non-emergency explanation, and skip right to the far-fetched, illogical, end-of-the-world explanation.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Opposite of Always by Justin A Reynolds

This is a book I found on a "Best of 2019 YA Literature" list.  I really enjoyed it.

It has a sort of Groundhog Day premise, with our hero reliving the same four months or so, over and over.  It's not repetitive in an annoying way, and it takes full advantage of the premise to investigate how things could go differently if you had a chance to try again.  Very good execution of an always-intriguing set-up.

The characters are interesting and sympathetic, the conversation witty.  The romantic interest isn't the only relationship important to the story.  

I did feel that the ending was a bit abrupt, but it was a great book. 

I will certainly read more by Justin A Reynolds.

My star rating:  4.5

Find it on Amazon: Opposite of Always

Thursday, February 20, 2020

When the Desert Begins to Bloom

On my Presidents' Day hike in the Arizona desert, I didn't really expect wildflowers yet.  But I found some!

In my experience, it's usually best close to the end of February and into March, but it's different every year, and depends where you go.

These pictures were taken at Cave Creek Regional Park on the edge of Phoenix on 2/17/2020.

And a not-flower:  

Gambel's quail, my absolute favorite quail.  


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage, Alaska

If you're on an Alaska cruise and your captain or cruise director is kind enough to tell you when you'll be sailing through Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage, get out on deck beforehand and stay out the whole time.  You may see nothing but beautiful scenery.  Or...if the weather is decent and luck is with you, you may see lots of whales!  It's a common feeding ground for them, so it's not unusual to see some, but this last August we saw more than I'd ever seen before in one place.

Most weren't super close, but there were so many.  They don't live in pods, but they do sometimes travel together while feeding, and we saw three of these big groups of 8, 10, 12 individuals.  Incredible.  Plus various others alone or in pairs.  We saw spouts, humps, tails.  We saw breaches!  And for the first time, I saw fin slapping.  The breaches and fin-slapping were far away, small even in my binoculars, but it was fantastic.

Some pics:

A nice fluke

Blow this up and try to count how many you see.

A humpback's humped back


For tips on having your own budget adventures in Alaska, read my travel guides:


Saturday, February 1, 2020

Find alternatives to classics to help student love reading

You know what kills the love of reading faster than anything else?  Making students read literature they're not ready for and then repeating that over and over, feeding teens a steady stream of classics many of them may find long, boring, and unrelatable (and which were mostly written by white males—though that's probably gotten better since I was in high school). 

Many modern novels have beautiful language, metaphor, personification, foreshadowing, symbolism, themes, good plot structure and characterization, and all those other things we studied in junior high and high school.  They also show different perspectives and help you relate to people very different from you (super important for understanding the world and becoming a good person).  And…they're interesting.  I really think we should teach more of these modern novels in the classroom.

I was a kid who loved to read.  I was also quite academic, with good reading comprehension and a big vocabulary.  Yet I wasn't ready for a lot of the books we had to read in junior high and high school.  It's not that I couldn't read them or understand them, but I didn't really appreciate them, didn't FULLY understand them...and often didn't like them.  Many were a slog.  I believe it totally turned some students off from reading.  And that's really, really sad.

One of the things I try to teach the parents of small children in my storytimes at the library is that you need to make reading fun.  You want kids to WANT to read.  I think that's the most efficient way to turn them into good readers.  As kids get older, it's also the most efficient way to turn them into continuing readers and voluntary readers…which in turn contributes to success in many areas of life. 

So, if you're a parent or educator, consider this when planning your approach to your kids.

If you teach them to love reading, they'll discover the classics in their own time, and the rewards will be much sweeter.  

Some examples from my own education:

Hemingway in 7th grade:  yawn. 
Hemingway in college:  fascinating! 

Heart of Darkness in high school:  yeah, yeah, he went native. 
Heart of Darkness in college:  possibly the most brilliant book ever written. 

The Great Gatsby in high school:  let's sit around drinking mint juleps and feeling sorry for ourselves.  
The Great Gatsby in my 30s:  okay, yeah, I see why some people think it's great. 

Steinbeck in junior high and high school:  yawn (with a  few good heart-rending parts). 
Steinbeck in my 30s:  amazing. 

Orwell in high school:  interesting, but not as good as it's cracked up to be. 
Orwell in my 30s:  just as good as it's cracked up to be.

Shakespeare...ok, let's be real.  Shakespeare hasn't gotten much better. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Humpback Whales off Vancouver Island

On our August Alaskan cruise, we saw quite a few whales.  One of the best days was our first at-sea day out of Seattle, cruising up the west side of Vancouver Island.  It was beautiful.  

We also saw a parade of sunfish, which are strange creatures that look like dead shark heads floating by (no good picture, sorry).

If you go, spend a lot of time on deck with camera/binoculars.  You may be lucky like us, you may not.  But you'll never know if you don't sit outside watching.  

For tips on having your own budget adventures in Alaska, read my travel guides:

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

My Writing Published in 2019

Here's a roundup of my fiction and non-fiction published in 2019:

The leader of an unsustainably small space colony must weigh the value of peace vs population.  
And that cover art?  Done for my story!

A medical mystery set on the same ill-fated space colony as "Salvage Operations."

An essay about the night watchman in town where I lived in Mexico.

A short story about a strained friendship, plots of revenge...and a hot dog stand.

A guidebook for anyone who wants to lose themselves--very temporarily--in the extreme beauty of Alaska.  

Purposely Bad Worldbuilding:  Mini Contest #43 winner at On the Premises
This is a fun bit of microfiction I wrote with the express purpose of being the worst 75 words they read.  And don't worry, winning this sort of contest for terrible writing is a compliment.  You have to know what you're doing to write this bad.

"Radish Hunting" in Animal Uprising
Another tale set on the distant colony of New Eden, where a pregnant woman longing for beef turns her eyes on the resident "unicorns."   

A nice bit of flash fiction I don't want to spoil for you.  Read it free.  

Thursday, January 16, 2020

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

This is a very, very clever concept of a picture book.

It's all about perspective.

Check it out at your local library or get it on Amazon.