Thursday, October 14, 2021

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

This was a very interesting collection of concept-driven science fiction short stories.  I found it strange--but somehow fitting--that most of the stories had some sort of indirect narrative structure.  We had a man telling the story to a caliph, a woman praying her story to God, a scientific record, a warning to future generations, a catalogue entry for a museum exhibition, and a journalist's essay.  The literary devices kept me a bit at a distance from the characters, but I really enjoyed them anyway.  

Sometimes Ted Chiang's stories reminded me of Asimov's.  And for me, that's high praise indeed.

Rating:  4.5 stars.  Thought-provoking and unusual.   

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech

I'm not a huge fan of poetry, to be honest.  At least not the opaque, hoity toity kind.

So I totally sympathized with our protagonist, a young boy who at first thinks poetry is stupid and that only girls write poems.

Over the course of the short novel--written in verse, of course--he slowly and adorably changes his mind.  

I smiled.  I cried.  I felt happy about good teachers and about kids who discover all the worlds they can unlock through the written word.    

It was creative and well-written, and I think it might help lessen some young readers' poetryphobia. 

Note: the poems referred to in the novel appear in the back of the book, but I wish I'd known that as I was reading.

I Love that Dog and I Love that Book.

5 stars!  (And I don't often give 5 stars to fiction)

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

More good Middle-Grade Books I've Read this Year

 If you saw my posts for The Canyon's Edge by Dusti Bowling and 365 Days to Alaska by Cathy Carr, you'll know that I've been reading some awesome middle-grade novels (and graphic novels!) recently.  Though the two above are my favorites of 2021 so far, here are some other good ones:

Class Act, by Jerry Craft.

Though I didn't find it quite as funny, charming, and subtly powerful as the first book (New Kid), I really enjoyed this graphic novel about a kid navigating both 8th grade and the social/racial/economic divides between his friends.

I don't read a lot of graphic novels, but this is one that makes me want to keep reading them.

Which leads me to...

Pájaro Blanco (White Bird) by R.J. Palacios

I thought it was a bit misleading to call it a Wonder novel, and I had a few issues with the ending, but the main story itself was fantastic.

I started at a little past midnight and finished at 2:30 am.  Reading that long is not something I do much anymore--and I needed to get up at a decent time in the morning--so that's really saying something.

Warning:  because of the content, if you're a parent of a child reading this, you might want to read it too and discuss.

The Great Hibernation,  by Tara Dairman

So, I found rather a lot of plot holes in this book.  But...

It was very interesting watching these kids try to act like adults and keep society going, and I LOVED the creepy downhill slide into oppression.  Chilling...yet it rarely felt heavy handed.  Nicely done. 

I also liked the characters and setting quite a bit. 

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

This book tackles big issues (bigotry, depression, finding belongingness when you feel caught between two countries).  But it also serves a heaping helping of good food and friendship.

The alternating first-person points of view needed to be more distinct, but the writing was engaging.  

Soul Lanterns, by Shaw Kuzki

Some of the writing in this felt clunky and pedantic--especially the parts with the kids 25 years later learning about their own history--but some of that might have been the translation.

The stories of the people who survived--and didn't survive--the nuclear bomb blast in Hiroshima were heart-wrenching and beautifully told.  I cried.  A lot.  It takes a really good book to make me cry.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Bryce Canyon National Park--Figure-8 Combination Hike

I LOVE Bryce Canyon.  Granted, it was the first time I'd been out of my home state since the pandemic began, and that made it extra special, but seriously...the place is gorgeous.  The pictures are pretty, but they don't do it justice.

Bryce Canyon from the Rim Trail between Sunset and Sunrise Points

Hiking Route:  I only had time to do one big hike, and I chose a good one with a slightly boring name:  the Figure-9 Combination Loop.  I started at Sunset Point, walked along the Rim Trail to Sunrise Point, then headed down into the canyon, following the Queen's Garden Trail to the Peekaboo Loop (which I did clockwise, as you're supposed to do in summer).  When the Peekaboo Loop looped back, I took the Wall Street Trail back up to Sunset Point.  By then I was a little hot and tired,  but I didn't want to stop, so I walked the Rim Trail up to Inspiration Point.  

Queen Victoria in the distance from the Queen's Garden Trail

Hike stats:  Figure-8 Combination Loop Stats: 6.4 miles, 1631 feet elevation gain.  Add another half mile or so and a bit more elevation if you go up to Inspiration Point.  The elevation gain isn't exceptional.  What makes it difficult is the elevation you start at.  Sunset Point sits at about 8000 feet.  So, unless you live at high elevation, you'll find yourself out of breath faster than normal.      

Trail snaking between hoodoos on the Peekaboo Loop

Hiking time:  The NPS brochure recommends 4-5 hours for the Figure-8.  It took me just over 3 hours, including a short lunch break. This is the point where I normally feel proud until some hiking friend says, "I did it in 2 hours."  Anyway,  what matters is the enjoyment.  If you want to take 6 hours, then you'll just have 3 more hours of enjoyment than I did.  

The Wall of Windows on the Peekaboo Loop

Hiking stars:  6 out of 5.

Only problem:  It's not exactly isolated.  The Queen's Garden/Navajo Loop parts are quite crowded.  "Disneyland trails" I call them, because there are so many people.  However...the Peekaboo Loop was a different story.  There were people, of course, but in the whole loop (3.5 miles) I only met about six sets of people coming the other way and kept leapfrogging with one set of people going the same way I was.  By the end, we'd struck up a bit of a friendship.  Ahhh...trail life.

The slot canyon part of the Wall Street Trail

I really recommend a hike down into the canyon, even if you don't have time/energy/inclination to do a long hike.  Walking among the hoodoos and seeing them tower over you is a very different experience than seeing them only from above.

Options for shorter below-the-rim hikes:  Take the Queen's Garden train down as far as you want and then retrace your steps.  It's considered the easiest descent into the canyon.  Another good route would be the Navajo Loop.  

And of course do some along-the-rim walking too. 

Heat:  Try to start early, especially if it's a warm day, and carry plenty of water.  Many trails are quite exposed.       

Monday, August 30, 2021

Red Canyon, Utah

Red Canyon, Utah.  If this looks like Bryce Canyon National Park, that might be because it's right down the road, along scenic Highway 12 between Highway 89 and Bryce.  These pictures are from the super short Pink Ledges trail.       

There are a whole host of other trails near here that I want to try someday.  There's also a campground, a visitor center, and a bike path all the way to Bryce Canyon.  

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Arizona--Land of Variation

Here are a few pictures showing the amazing variety you can see in Arizona in one day.  These are from Sunset Point (rest stop north of Phoenix) to a lookout on the road to Page, just north of Bitter Springs.  This is a distance of only 200 miles, and here is only SOME of what you see:

Sunset Point--high enough to be out of the saguaros,
but with smaller cactus and brush

Between Sunset Point and Flagstaff--
greener than usual thanks to our actual monsoon season this year

Sunset Crater area, just north of Flagstaff

The red cliffs on the road to Page
(not technically the Vermillion Cliffs, I believe, but neighbors). 
Down in this valley is the beginning of the Colorado
 River's greatest carving job:  the Grand Canyon. 

Pictures taken on this same route (and a little bit north and south) on different days or different years:

Just north of the northernmost point above:
Horseshoe Bend, a short hike from the highway.

Approaching the San Francisco Peaks
(near Flagstaff) from the north
Also greener than I've ever seen it

Lake Powell, from a viewpoint off the highway
just north of Page

And an example of the area between Phoenix and Sunset point

And  I can't find a picture of the area that looks like a bunch of purple and gray hills of wet sand, some eroded so they look like elephant feet.  Such an impressive drive!

Saturday, August 7, 2021

365 Days to Alaska by Cathy Carr

I've been reading some really good middle grade novels recently.  This was definitely one of them. 

Of course, it doesn't hurt that I love Alaska and am fascinated by bush life.

The settings, characters, and emotions were all really well drawn.  The writings was good.  The author drew me into the story and kept me engaged. 

And I loved the crow.

I will absolutely read more by Cathy Carr. 

Rating: 4.5 stars. 

Cover:  Lovely

Monday, August 2, 2021

Monsoon Season!

 Monsoon season in Arizona is generally July and August.  When I was a kid, we'd have afternoon downpours at least two or three times per week.  The sky would be blue.  Then within half an hour or so, it started pouring.  It could be absolutely torrential.  Twenty minutes later it would stop.  The sun would come out.  An hour later, you'd never know it had rained.  And our swamp coolers would lose all effectiveness in the humidity.

Okay, so it wasn't quite that regular.  But that's what it feels like in my memory.

Last year, we hardly had any rain at all during monsoon season, leaving our plants and animals to languish.  This year, monsoons have caused flooding.  Weather is a powerful force.

I don't have good pictures of the last storm, because there's no way I was taking my camera out in such weather,.  It soaked my pants in about 15 seconds.  The bike path was a literal river that knocked several strong young men off their feet as they were trying to cross.  

A few nights before that, we watched the lightning storm across town.  There must have been three or four flashes per second for some of it.  

Another day I got to eat my lunch at a rainy lakeside park where the ducks seemed very confused about what was falling from the sky.  It's all been amazing.  Just no amazing photos.  

Here, at least, are some clouds (which we sometimes don't see for months):

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Canyon's Edge by Dusti Bowling

I'm not the biggest fan of poetry.  When I see a novel written in verse, my first reaction is usually, "Just write it in paragraphs!"  But this book totally worked for me, and the shape poems added to the theme and setting.  I read late into the night, finishing it in two sittings, which is quite unusual for me.

It absorbed me completely. 

The writing was beautiful.  The story was heart-wrenching but beautiful.  The characters were vivid.

I did question how realistic the whole set-up was.  .SEMI-SPOILERS!!  The main character mentioned being in the Sonoran Desert, and though there are a lot of washes and canyons—some with narrow bits—in the parts of the Sonoran Desert I know, I don't think there are many real slot canyons.  That's more of a northern Arizona/southern Utah thing.  And I’m pretty sure that if there were a Sonoran Desert slot canyon so long that you could walk for entire days in it without finding a way out, people would know about it.  So that seemed very unrealistic.  

I also wasn't clear what season it was.  Most (but certainly not all) serious flash floods happen in monsoon season (roughly July-August), but it was so cold in the morning they could see their breath, which meant it couldn't possibly be monsoon season.  So it was probably February or so, when winter rains are most common, but I kept wanting to know.  Most of the way through, she mentioned that it wasn't summer—because otherwise they'd be dead already—but I really would have liked a bit more grounding earlier.  I'm kind of a stickler for things like these, but…the book was so good that I almost didn't care.  And it probably won't affect most people's enjoyment one iota.  END OF SPOILERS! 

I did love seeing my Arizona desert featured in a book, even if it was a bit exaggerated, and there were lots of great details about the landscape, wildlife, etc. 

I believe the theme of past trauma was very well handled.  

The poetry was not opaque or pretentious, which will help young people not

I absolutely recommend this, and now I want to read everything else by Dusti Bowling.

Rating if you care about how realistic it is  4.5 stars

If you don't care:  Absolutely 5 stars. 

Cover:  Beautiful

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Loggerhead Shrike in Phoenix

Loggerhead shrikes are songbirds that think they're raptors.  Their carnivorous tastes don't just run to insects and spiders.  They also eat lizards, other birds, and small mammals.  They apparently grab prey and slam it against cactus thorns until they die.  Lovely.  

He's sure got pretty markings, though.  

I see loggerhead shrikes mostly on high perches like this saguaro, where they keep watch for their next meal.

 Spotted in April, Estrella Mountain Regional Park.

Note how close the ribs of the saguaro are, like an accordion pushed all the way together.  It's a scary visual reminder of how dry it is.  A saguaro full of water expands and the ribs get farther apart.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

A Happy Bee

I've been posting a few cooler-weather photos here to combat the summer heat.

This was from April:  a happy bee with a fairy duster.   

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

April in Phoenix

It's really hot here, so I figured I'd post some cooler pictures, taken in mid April.  

This is one of the beauties of spring in the Sonoran Desert:  Palo Verde in bloom!

And a close-up:

Monday, July 5, 2021

A Snake Friend on the Trail

 A new friend on the trail:

He was big enough that my first thought was, of course, "rattlesnake!"  And his patterning looks rather diamondback-y, right?

But his face was all wrong: not big enough or triangular enough and no pits between his eye and nostril, like all rattlers:

When I carefully moved around to get a good look at his tail, no rattle:

So, my new friend was a gopher snake!  These big snakes mimic a lot of things about rattlers, not just their patterning and size.  They'll whip their tails around to imitated a rattle.  They'll even puff up their faces to look wider and more rattlesnake-like.  This guy didn't seem threatened by me, however, so I saw no acting.  

I was very happy.  I'd never had a long enough view of a gopher snake in the wild to be sure that's what I was seeing.  And this one was a beauty.  

Seen in April at Estrella Mountain Regional Park in the Phoenix area.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Screaming Hairy Armadillo and 76 Other Animals with Weird, Wild Names, by Matthew Murrie and Steve Murrie

I loved this book, which was aimed at kids but enjoyable for adults 

Great subject matter:  interesting animals and their even more interesting names. 

Short but fascinating descriptions

Brightly colored pages, great illustrations and photos.  Overall a very attractive book, physically.

Scientific and common names, along with great scientific vocabulary, usually defined well within the text.

"Your turn" interactive bits.

Cool appendices, including a glossary, further reading, and the best thing ever:  a weird name generator, where you can create cool names like the frilly jumping lake slug or the headless howling volcano shark. 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

This was amazing.  It's hard to pinpoint what I thought was so good:  the beautifully drawn characters who drove the plot?  The interesting premise?  The settings and time periods?  The utterly engaging writing?  

I'm not sure.  All I know is that it worked.  It REALLY worked.

The pacing was gentle in that deep, fascinating way that pulls you into the story even when there's not much "exciting" going on.  I don't usually sit and read for 45 minutes or an hour at a stretch anymore.  But I did with this.  

If you're a reader who needs a lot of action, this might not be your favorite book, but if you're a reader like me, you'll love it.

I did question how realistic some of the (major) details were surrounding Reese.  

Overall, highly recommended.  Five stars…and I rarely give 5 stars to novels.

Warning:  some profanity and explicit scenes, but not over the top. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Making a Story your Own

It's really funny, because I don't read romances very often, but because of a strange set of circumstances, I ended up reading two concurrently.  I just finished, and was amazed at some of the similar details.

In one book, a woman moves from a big city to a small town.  She's accompanied by her mother figure (a grandmother who pretty much raised her) and the nieces and nephews she's just adopted after her sister died.  She's very good at her job and ends up helping save the police force through elaborate outreach and community participation.  The house needs repairs, which the love interest is happy to do.  The love interest is also very good with the newly adopted children.  He happens to be the police chief.  

In the other, a woman moves from the big city to a small town.  She's accompanied by her mother figure (the foster mother who pretty much raised her) and the niece she has just adopted after her sister died.  She's very good at her job and ends up helping save the town through elaborate outreach and community participation.  The house needs repairs, which the love interest is happy to do.  The love interest is also very good with the newly adopted child.  The other main character's love interests happens to be the sheriff.   

And… in the first book, the main character is Daisy and one of her adopted daughters is Grace.  In the second book, the main character is Grace and her adopted daughter is Daisy.


They were published close enough together that I don't see how this could be anything but total coincidence.  

But despite the similarities, these were very different books, so it just goes to show that you can make a premise (or even an entire story) your own. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo

 I enjoyed this a lot.

Most of the parts about race, identity, prejudice, etc. were eloquent and thought-provoking, especially when it came to Emoni's Puerto Rican background.

There wasn't a whole lot of plot conflict, and the solutions came a bit too easily, but that didn't bother me much because I was enjoying the good writing and the slice-of-life feel of the story.

Speaking of the writing itself, there were some very poetic and insightful lines here. I loved the Spanish and the words like "jawn," all woven in so well.  It was smooth, engaging writing that carried me happily along through the whole book.

I wish we'd seen more interaction with Emma, but I loved the interaction with 'Buela.  Malachi and Angelica seemed a bit too perfect, but sometimes I enjoy that.  Though Emoni could be judgy (did she ALWAYS have to call Leslie "pretty Leslie?"), I liked her, and enjoyed being in her head, hearing the way she thought about the world around her and her own self.  I also liked that she learned and grew. 

And I loved the cooking parts. 

Overall a nice, positive, multicultural YA book.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

This book was really good—though quite dark.

Our main character, Adunni, speaks English only as a second language, and the book is written in her flawed—but beautiful—English.  As I was reading the first few pages, I thought, "This is going to be annoying if the whole book's like this."  But it wasn't annoying.  In fact, I grew to like it more and more.  It shows her lack of English and formal education while letting her intelligence and creativity shine through.  That takes some serious skill.    

The characters were interesting, a few quite complex.

The story was often heartbreaking but laced with bits of joy and hope. 

I'm interested to see what else Abi Daré writes.

Stars:  4.5

Friday, April 23, 2021

"The Symbolic Cemetery," My Newest Published Work

 Head on over to the Baltimore Review to read my non-fiction piece about mountain climbing and the sometimes-deadly lure of the mountains.  

But first, some pictures.  Memorial plaques at the Symbolic Cemetery in the High Tatra mountains:

Me at Kôprovský štít, which I mention in the piece:

That lake you see in the picture above is a glacial tarn, Veľké Hincovo pleso,  Here's a shot from its banks:  

Near the Symbolic Cemetery in winter:

Want to know more?  Read The Symbolic Cemetery