Sunday, December 27, 2020

All-American Muslim Girl, by Nadine Jolie Courtney


Caveat: I can't speak much to this book's sensitivity or accuracy from the standpoint of a Muslim American. I have a feeling that it will feel spot-on and empowering to some people and inaccurate and possibly misleading to others.  But I think that's the nature of any complex cultural/social/religious/racial subject.

I enjoyed the book.  It felt very different to have a teen character who wants to explore religion and gets MORE religious as the book goes.  It explores some very interesting topics:  Islamophobia and prejudice from outsiders, internal discord—and prejudice—from insiders, doctrinal debates, families that straddle cultural and language divides, etc.  There were some really nice lines about what it's like being a Muslim who doesn't look it, which makes her a "safe" receptable for other people's bigotry. 

The blurb did make me think it was going to be more about Wells' conservative xenophobic father being a barrier to Allie and Wells' relationship, so it felt slightly bait-and-switchy, but I probably enjoyed the story presented more than I would have enjoyed the one promised.  However, I did find Wells' father a darkly interesting character that could have been milked more, and the relationship between Wells and Allie felt a bit too easy.

For someone who has been judged so much, I did find Allie a bit judgy sometimes.  Especially with the last interaction with Emilia.

The pacing might be a little slow for some readers, and I could have done without some of the repetition.  It kept me reading, but not at a must-see-what-happens-next-right-now! speed. 

I thought the book was interesting, and I learned things and saw other things through a different perspective, which is so important.

I would read more by Nadine Jolie Courtney. 

Four Stars!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Problem with the Flesch-Kincaid Test


I just read an article (an excerpt from Ben Blatt's book, Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve) lamenting the dumbing down of literature over the years.  

It used, as proof, the Flesch-Kincade Grade Level Test.  The author collected all the digitized versions of New York Times Bestsellers he could find, from 1960 to 2014.  Then he ran them through the Flesh-Kincaid test.  His results showed a consistent downward trend in reading level of our bestsellers, from an average 8th-grade reading level in the 1960s to an average 6th-grade reading level in the 2010s.  He used this to claim that books are getting simpler and "less wise," but I think that's vastly over-simplified.

Take a look at these three passages and tell me which one you think is hardest to read and which is easiest:

1) A hadron's "sea" quarks don't change its quantum numbers. 

2) Penelope's playmates—rhinoceros and hippopotamus—unfortunately received no invitations to the environmental education convention, so Penelope, extremely embarrassed, created handwritten invitations, decorated expensive envelopes, and personally delivered them to rhinoceros and hippopotamus. 

3)  Whence hails the scythe of angst? The id ebbs. Death trysts with aught. Wrest the mote from your eye. Sage and lithe, heed the cues. Ward off the murk and thrive.

Finished?  What did you think? Well, I'll tell you the results of the Flesh-Kincaid test. 

1) (The Hadron's quarks) Grade level:  3.3.  That's 3rd grade in the US system. 

2) (Penelope's playmates) Grade level:  29.9.  Yes, 29th grade.  Like…a second doctorate?

3) (Whence hails the scythe)  Grade level:  0.  Um…kindergarten?  

The Flesh-Kincade readability test (which the article didn't  use) is a little more moderate, but its lowest grade level seems to be 5th grade.  And you guessed it:  the opaque third passage should be comfortable reading for a 5th grader, according to this, and the one about quarks is perfect for 6th graders.  But don't let your kids get hold of the passage about Penelope's poor playmates.  It can only be read comfortably  by college graduates.

How?

The problem with this test is that it uses exactly two factors:  sentence length and how many syllables in each word.  It doesn't account in any way for the difficulty or familiarity of the words themselves and certainly doesn't delve into the difficulty of the concepts behind it or the clarity of the writing.  While these examples are extreme, it does show the flaws of the test.

The truth is that sentences, over the years, have become shorter.  But I don't necessarily view this as bad or "dumbed-down" writing.  It's just a different style.  To me, one very important aspect of writing—non-fiction OR fiction—is clarity.  If you can convey complex ideas in a way that's easy to read, then I think that's better writing than conveying complex ideas in a way that's difficult to read.  Long, convoluted sentences are more challenging, and take greater attention spans and perhaps greater education, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily better.  A curvy road with random speed bumps and potholes is more difficult to drive than a straight, newly paved road.  But does that make the curvy road "better?"  To some people, yes, because straight roads bore them, so they like skirting the potholes and wrenching the steering wheel back and forth like a video game.  To others, it's not better, because they like getting to the destination and being able to enjoy the scenery as they go instead of concentrating so hard on the road.  Then there's the whole, "Don't use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do."  I'm not saying either way is good or bad.  But it's unfair to suggest that shorter sentences and shorter words mean the writing is less sophisticated.  It's just different.

As for the Flesh-Kincaid test, I think it's a good tool to evaluate whether your text might have too long of sentences for ease of reading, but beyond that, I don't think a whole lot of it.

By the way, the Flesh-Kincaid grade level of this post: 7.3.

The Flesh-Kincaid grade level of Shakespeare's Macbeth:  6.8. 

Seriously, if you're a Shakespeare afficionado, there's no way you'd consider this post more sophisticated than Macbeth, and if you're not a Shakespeare fan, there's no way you'd consider it more difficult.  Numbers, unfortunately, do sometimes lie. 

Read what you love and write what you love! 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

My Poem Published in Short Edition's Short Story Dispensers

My newest published piece is a poem I wrote several years ago as a tribute to my ESL and GED students.  This year it finally found a home with Short Edition.  Appropriate, I'd say, considering the current climate.  

You can read "To My Students" here:  https://short-edition.com/en/story/poetry/to-my-students

Short Story Dispenser.  Image from Short Edition.

Short Edition publishes its work in e-zines like this, but also in short story dispensers!  These are like free vending machines for literature!  I think it's the coolest idea.  They're popular in libraries, airports, coffee shops, etc.  Check here to find one near you:

https://short-edition.com/en/story/poetry/to-my-students


Thursday, December 3, 2020

All of Us by Carin Berger

 


This is a beautiful book, especially good for these days of uncertainty.  It's basically a short poem, very touching.  Check it out at your library or buy it for someone you love.

  

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Subjectivity of Reviews

 I just watched a movie I quite enjoyed:  Arctic.  It's a survival movie, one of those where there's hardly anything said the entire movie.  Afterwards, for kicks, I looked at some reviews.  

Some reviews were like:  "This was soooo boring.  Nothing happened!"  Others were like, "I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.  Gripping!"

Some reviewers said, "The guy made so many bad decisions.  He doesn't deserve to live."  Others said, "It's nice to see a movie where the guy knows what he's doing and doesn't make stupid mistakes."


One guy wrote something along the lines of, "I've seen reviews talking about how good the script was.  What script?  There were like 10 lines and they were cliched!"  The next guy wrote something like, "It's amazing how a good actor can deliver the same line three times at different points in the story and it means something totally different each time.  So powerful!"  

And of course there were varied views on the ending.  There always are.

Personally, I was gripped.  I didn't think it was slow at all.  But then, I tend to like survival stories and get bored at the "exciting" action and fight scenes many people like.    

I did think he made a couple of major bad decisions, but one I could swallow because I felt like I didn't quite know the whole situation but he did, and I trusted him.  The other I could understand because of his exhaustion and the single-mindedness he'd had to employ to get as far as he had.  People mentioned other things he should have done that I just assumed he'd done off screen, since it was the type of movie where we weren't spoon-fed everything.  And yes, there were some smaller bad decision or unrealistic Hollywood bits, but overall I thought he came off as a pretty experienced outdoorsman.  I liked that.      

Overall, I thought it was a very good movie.  Not perfect, but well worth the watching.  

And it's a great example of how different people view art differently.  



Friday, November 27, 2020

The Tertiary Lodgers from Alternating Current


Alternating Current has announced its partial lineup for its newest anthology:  The Tertiary Lodgers.  The collection tells classic stories from the point of view of secondary (and tertiary) characters.

And guess who's in it?  

Yours truly.  

My story, Foolish Promises, is the story of Rumpelstiltskin from the point of view of the miller's daughter's brother.  

I'll let you know when it's published.

Check out the other story titles (or submit your own in the next couple of days while the submission window is still open):

http://www.press.alternatingcurrentarts.com/2020/08/the-tertiary-lodgers.html

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

NaNoWriMo 2020


I haven't posted much this month (okay, not at all), but I'll blame it on NaNoWriMo.  This year I'm a rebel.  Instead of writing a 50,000-word rough draft of a novel, the original goal of NaNoWriMo, I'm revising my 2018 novel, which got pushed to the back burner.  

It's a fun middle grade story set in a world where you don't really want all your dreams to come true.  Especially if they're feisty saber-toothed swamp pigs who get you in a lot of trouble.  

For more on NaNoWriMo, check out their website:  nanowrimo.org

   


Friday, October 30, 2020

Tres Rios bird watching

 

A fantastic day of bird watching (not so much bird identifying, since I'm a terrible birder) at Tres Rios in Phoenix.  Also not a great bird photographer, apparently.  I hardly have any good pictures.  But I have great memories.  And in my defense, birds are quick.  :)   

Not pictured:

American pelicans--totally cool

A ton of cormorants flying in Vs and lines

Red-winged blackbirds???

A male cardinal

Roadrunners

Gambel's quail

Various hawks and/or other birds of prey I'm not confident enough to name

AND A JUVENILE BALD EAGLE!!!!


Here are the pictures I do have:

A pretty turtle (not a bird, I know) eyes me:


A great blue heron (I think) balances high in a tree:


An egret (of some sort) flies:



And for our final act, a different great blue heron (I think) walks a tightrope:


I also saw what I believe are the tracks of beavers!!!

Awesome day.


If you go:

You have to have a permit.  But...they're free and require very little work on your part.  Visit https://www.phoenix.gov/waterservices/tresrios.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

"Gold" published in 50 Haikus

I somehow didn't post earlier that a haiku of mine is now published in 50 Haikus Issue #16


I wrote this while riding the train on my third return to the Czech Republic (now Czechia).  I was so happy to see the Czech countryside that poetry just started spilling out of me.




Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Fall Leaves in Flagstaff, Arizona

This is the first time I've travelled since the pandemic hit--besides socially distanced camping and hiking.

We went to Flagstaff, Arizona, to see the leaves (October 9th, for future leaf peepers).  Apparently many people think that if you're outside you can't transmit or catch the coronavirus (you can, folks, if everyone's passing near each other on crowded trails--it's just not as likely), so I felt uncomfortable with the number of people not wearing masks.  I'd carefully take mine off when away from the trail so I could smell the wonderful fall smell and the fresh air, but I kept it on while in close proximity to others.

And this was the reward:



A kindness rock I found:


The San Francisco Peaks all dressed up:


Nature is so beautiful.








  

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Hint of Fall--Pinal Mountains

 On a hike to Pinal Peak near Globe, Arizona, early October:

Views from the trail:  



Friday, October 9, 2020

Wildlife at last!

Mystery picture: 

Read on to see what I barely got a picture of here 


It's been so hot in Phoenix and the pandemic has altered our responsible travel options greatly, but last weekend I got out camping.  The wildlife count was incredible.

-Lots of big beautiful tufty-eared Abert's squirrels playing, eating, caching food, and chittering at us.

-Chipmunks and one small mouse thing that skittered away in the dark before I could get a good look

-Lots of birds I don't know, including one that had distinctive green coloration on his belly and one with really orange eyes.  

-A red-tailed hawk (or something similar)

-A kestrel, maybe, that flew right at us down the trail and then veered off.

-A whole bunch of wildly posturing acorn woodpeckers by the spring on the way to Pinal Peak.  They're beautiful with their black, white, and red coloring, and I don't see this species in lower elevations.

-Deer.  Four times!  Twice right from our campsite, once bounding away from us on the trail as we turned a corner...and then bounding back...and then bounding away.  One time we got to quietly watch them for a good twenty minutes before they wandered off.   

-And the most exciting?  The first night, after dark, we were sitting around the picnic table when something ran past and then up a tree, like a squirrel, and we thought, "Aren't squirrels in bed by now?"  We heard some more noises and then a couple of minutes later, my brother said, "The squirrel's under the table."  He shined his flashlight, and I said, "That's not a squirrel!  It's a ringtail cat!"  He was soooo beautiful with a tail longer than he was, striped in white and black.  He sniffed around, completely unafraid, jumped up on the table, nosed at our bag of garbage from dinner, ran up a nearby tree, scampered to a rock, ran back to the table, and then was gone.  Amazing.  I had never seen one in my life, and just that morning I had told Dad, "I would love to see a ringtail sometime."  It was so cool.  Then, the next night, he came back!  Our campsite must have been on his nightly rounds.  I loved it.

Did I get good pictures of any of them?  No!  But I swear we saw them.  It was awesome.  

Now maybe you can decipher the picture above.  

Monday, September 21, 2020

This Day in History: Globe Mexican Food

A trip to Globe/Miami, Arizona, home to the best Mexican food in the world (as you can see from the bites already taken from the enchilada):


Also home to lots of cute painted kitties in downtown Miami:


2019


 

Monday, September 14, 2020

This Day in History--Climbing Towers and Rocks

 

Bruges (Brugge), Belgium, from the bell tower
Sept 14, 2007  


Me, rock climbing in the Jeseniky mountains, Czechia.
Okay, not really rock climbing.  More like small boulder scrambling.  
It's just the camera angle.
Sept 14, 2016  


Sunday, September 13, 2020

This Day in History--Spas and President Lincoln

A well for curative water at the spa town of Lázně Jeseník, Czechia
They're sprinkled around the curative walking trail through the woods
Czechs really do spa towns in style. 
Sept 13, 2016 

Statue of Lincoln, near Laramie, Wyoming
Sept 13, 2010




 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

This Day in History--Water and Dancing



Esch-sur-Sûre, Luxembourg--2007


Czech folk festival, Vsetin, Czechia--2009


Water mill, Jeseniky mountains, Czechia--2016





 

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke


I loved this fantastic book.  

Alternate title:  The Unexpected Truth About Animals
Appropriate subtitle:  Stone Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Wild Tales 

The excellent writing is humorous and easy to read, yet meaty enough to satisfy curious minds.

The book isn't just about the bizarre and surprising characteristics of animals.  It's also about how scientists and explorers discovered--or covered up--the truth about them.  It's a terrific mix.  It's a tad heavy on animals' sexual habits, when I wanted to know more about the many other fascinating aspects of life, but that's pretty much the only thing I can think of that could possibly improve on the work..  

The book is structured perfectly.  Each chapter is about a different animal.  They're long enough to delve into all the fascinating details, but never so long that they feel padded or drawn out.  

It's such a good book that I'll probably read it again.  And if I find anything else in a similar vein, written by Lucy Cooke, I'll snap it up in an instant.

True rating:  5+


Find it on Amazon:  The Truth About Animals

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution by Jonathan W. Stokes


Funny and informative, this is another great book in the series, and a clever way to get kids (and adults) interested in history.   

I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome, partly because so much of this one was focused on battles, but I still enjoyed it a lot.  The author did a great job of breaking it up (like a real guidebook) with sections like "people to have dinner with," accommodations reviews, letters from Time Corp, and instructions on how to, say, avoid cannon balls.  There are also lots of nice maps, graphs, illustrations, etc.

And so much clever humor.  Great job. 

Note:  I'm not a history buff enough to vouch for its accuracy.

4.5 stars.  

Friday, August 21, 2020

Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

This was a charming read.

It got a tad preachy here and there, but the issues covered were important.

The writing was good, with witty but natural dialogue.  Narration was smooth and engaging and made me want to keep reading.  I'm not sure every single character needed to be introduced by a rather perfunctory description of their race and one or two other attributes, mostly physical…but that may just be my own idiosyncrasy of not really caring what characters in books look like. 

I liked Sweet Pea.  She wasn't perfect.  She did some selfish and thoughtless things, but she learned from her mistakes and became a better friend and daughter because of them. 

I liked the other characters, especially Miss Flora Mae, Oscar, and Sweat Pea's parents.  Except…I had some trouble swallowing the idea that her mother, a therapist, thought it would be a good idea to have Sweet Pea move between her mother's house and her father's house every single day (except for the confusing Thursday schedule).  I would think that would be extremely disorienting, inconvenient, and unstable.  Wouldn't it be better to alternate weeks or something like that, especially if you could just pop over for a visit when needed?

The plot and pacing were good.

And yay for a plus-sized MC.

I would definitely read more by Julie Murphy. 

4 stars!

Monday, August 17, 2020

Frostblood, by Elly Blake

I read part of this as an e-book and listened to the rest as an audiobook, and I thought the reader, Jennifer English, was really good.  Fiction audio books usually start annoying me quite quickly, but this didn't.  That's very high praise, since I'm clearly not the biggest audiobook fan.

As for the book itself, I quite liked it.  Many of the characters were noble but not perfect (which is my favorite mix).  And boy, that chemistry! 

The writing was good.  The dialogue was witty.  The pacing was fast.  The plot, though familiar, took a few nice turns.  

There was too much fighting for my personal tastes, and a bit too much magic.  But that's just me. 

I'd recommend it to fantasy fans, and I intend to read (or listen to) the next book. 

A very solid 4 stars, more like 4.5. 

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 it...you'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:   https://50haikus.com/

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