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 

Friday, April 16, 2021

More Birdwatching at Hassayampa River Preserve

 So, my novice birdwatching continues.

Note: pictures taken mid February at Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg, Arizona.

Some cool raptor (Cooper's hawk maybe???)

Great Egret:

Ladder-backed woodpecker?

What a great day, even if I'm not sure what I saw.  

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Hummingbirds at Hassayampa River Preserve

Pictures from mid February (yes, I'm late in posting) at Hassayampa River Preserve, just out of Wickenburg, Arizona.

Here I reveal my stellar skills at bird identification.  Below you'll find a...hummingbird.  Probably female.  

And here, what I believe is a male Anna's hummingbird on an ocotillo (I'm sure about the ocotillo):

And more...hummingbirds.  We have several common species around the Phoenix area.  I just can't differentiate any except the male Anna's and the male Costa's, and even then I'm usually not 100% sure.  Sigh.  One day I'll be a better birder.    

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The List of Things that Will Not Change, by Rebecca Stead

I really enjoyed this. 

The voice was charming—and carried throughout the book.  The flashbacks and asides were a touch confusing at points, but it matched the way Bea talked and told stories, so I liked it, and it deepened the story.   

The details were imaginative. 

Many of the supporting characters were a bit too perfect, but I don't mind that sometimes.  The only problem was that it made the one character seem over-the-top bad.

The events of the plot were unusual, interesting in a quiet way.  I'd just read an action-packed book before this.  Yet I found "The List of Things that will not Change" far more page-turning than the other.  So, if you're a reader like me, you'll love it.

From the description, I thought it would be more about Bea's relationship with her new sister, so I felt a little disappointed that there wasn't more interaction between them, but I liked everything else that filled the book. 

The writing itself was excellent. 

I will certainly read more by Rebecca Stead.

4.5 stars. .      

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Dinosaur Wash, Arizona

Dinosaur Wash  is a great hike, accessed from Sophie's Flat near Wickenburg (though you can also access it from the other end)

Ocotillo, about the only thing blooming
in mid February after a dry winter

Doesn't that rock formation look like a rabbit?  

The most dangerous wildlife I saw.
You can't see the bees much in the photo,
but they were sure buzzing.  And look at that honeycomb!

Some of the fun dry wash hiking
Almost like mini slot canyons

A mine shaft just past the coolest, rock-scrambliest, part of the wash

This is a very fun trail, first through very pretty Sonoran desert trails that cross washes, climb small rises for good views, and weave past interesting rock formations.  Then you get into the wash, which brings its own interest, especially the mini red slot canyons and bits where you have to scramble up or down rocks.  When calculating distances and times, factor in the extra effort of walking in the sand.

I saw a hawk of some sort on a saguaro, several large beehives, a jackrabbit, lizards, and lots of birds.  


Take Constellation Road northeast from near McDonalds in Wickenburg.  When the pavement ends, it turns into a good dirt road, suitable for most cars.  Just be careful of the ATVs out and about.  After about three miles, turn left on Blue Tank Road (there are signs for Sophie's Flat).  It's less than two miles on another pretty good dirt road to the trailhead, which has an outhouse, picnic table, and room for dispersed camping.  Hint:  on the way, there's a hairpin turn where a wash beckons at the bottom and where you'll often see people parked with their trailers and ORVs.  Park and walk a bit up the wash.  It's a much more accessible wash with cool rock walls.   


Somewhere around 8-12 miles, depending on where you start and how far you go in the wash before turning around.  


Moderate.  There's not a lot of elevation gain, but it's not boringly flat either.  The trails's fairly well marked.  There is a lot of walking in sand, which simply takes more effort.  And beware of cholla on an around the trail.  Wear good boots and consider sticking a cactus-removing comb in your backpack.  Always be sure to take plenty of water and do not hike this in the heat unless you are a seasoned desert hiker.  There's very little shade.    


I started where the A trail crosses Blue Tank Road and turns quickly into the C trail connector.  When the C connector gets to the other side of the A loop, I went left.  I took the D spur north to the wash, then followed the wash left (west) for around 1.5 or 2 miles until a little past the mine cave and some slick rock scrambling.  Apparently if you go about a mile further you can get all the way to Box Canyon and Mistake Mine, but I was going to run out of daylight (I got a late start after lunch).  I returned via the trail that appears to be on State Trust Land (permit required) and then part of the A loop back to the C connector, then to the B connector, then to the A loop to the outhouse at the trailhead.  I made it back to  camp just as the sun was setting.  A great hike.       

Saturday, March 13, 2021

No, Pat, no. Don't sit on that!

In the words of Dr. Seuss (from Hop on Pop):  No, Pat, no.  Don't sit on that!

In case you can't tell, that antelope squirrel has just scampered up an ocotillo--which is a prickly, prickly lookout spot.  But he didn't seem to mind at all.

Sonoran Desert near Wickenburg.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Find the Wildlife--Tres Rios

Spot the wildlife:

Answer at the bottom.  

Also seen that day at Tres Rios Birding area in Phoenix:

Belted Kingfisher?? (I'm not a very good birder yet)

Black-crowned night heron?

Not a bird at all

First picture:  ground squirrel.  

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Hero Next Door Short Story Collection


This is a cool collection:  short stories with diverse characters and all manner of heroes.  The range is broad and the quality very good. 

Some of my favorites: 

-One Wish, by Ronald L Smith.  Great voice and setting, with a folk-tale sort of moral.

-Home, by Hena Khan.  Very warm and relatable. 

-Ellison's CORNucopia; A Logan County Story, by Lamar Giles.  Imaginative and tech-y with some nice subversions of stereotypes.

-Rescue, by Suma Subramaniam.  Though the dilemma and solution related to the dog seem a little forced, the emotions and situations are powerful.

-The Save, by Joseph Bruchac.  Great cultural details and internal conflict.

-Reina Madrid, by R.J. Palacio.  Great characterization, great sense of time and place, great cultural meshing.    

All the others are good too.  A couple felt a bit rushed, unfinished, or too easy at the end, one was a little slow, a couple just weren't my favorite style or topic.  But despite that, I can honestly say there wasn't a single one I disliked. 

The styles, subjects, and tones vary a lot, but the collection brims with good writing, characterization, setting, plot, imagination…and diversity.  Yay! don't often find short story collections for middle graders.  Double yay!

4.5 stars!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park


I love the premise of this book—a girl facing not only the normal challenges of life on the prairie—but also facing severe prejudice as a second-generation immigrant with a Chinese-Korean mother (now sadly deceased) and a white father.  It's a sad but beautiful and hopeful story.

Hannah did seem a bit too perfect and some of the other characters a bit too horrible, but I still really liked her and was totally rooting for her the whole way—often rather angrily because people can be so cruel and bigoted.

I was hoping for more historical detail of the kind I loved in the Little House books, like how to make this, and how to preserve that, and how to live without the other thing.  What was included in Prairie Lotus was great  I just greedily wanted more.  I loved the dressmaking and entrepreneurial details.  I loved her interactions with the Native Americans.  I loved the school curriculum.  These were all great.  I just wanted to know more about…I don't know…how to make soap.  Or prime a pump.  Or make salt pork (which was mentioned). Or communicate (by letter? telegraph?) with the stores they order things from (is there a catalogue?).  Or find mushrooms to dry for her soup.  Sigh.  I should just stop being greedy.  Or maybe beg Linda Sue Park to write a sequel. 

Occasionally it did feel a bit like historical-fiction-through-a-modern-mindset. That will bother some readers, but I didn't mind. 

The writing was smooth, engaging, and powerful.  The pacing was good.  The plot was interesting.  The ending was not too perfect but yet still satisfying.  I loved the slow development of her friendship with another girl.  Her difficult relationship with her father was well drawn.   

I was sad when it ended—not because of what happened, but because I had no more left to read—always the mark of a good book.

This is at least 4.5 stars, almost 5 (which I don't give out very often to novels).

I've only read one other book by Linda Sue Park:  the phenomenal A Single Shard.  This book has convinced me I need to read all her other books. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Story That Cannot Be Told, by J. Kasper Kramer


This middle grade novel takes place in Romania in the 80s, under the reign of a dictator who remains nameless in the book but not nameless in history.  

The storytelling is beautiful, with a graceful weaving in of folklore and other stories. The folktales themselves are cleverly twisted, filtered through the inventive mind of a child of communism. Ileana's reality is scary, and it reminds readers of a dark period in not-so-distant history that we should be careful not to forget. The writing is very good. The danger is high in a chillingly quiet way. The characters are interesting. The village setting is atmospheric and reminds me so much of my own experiences living and traveling in rural parts of Czechia (and Poland and Slovakia), other European countries once controlled by communism.

I'm sure that my love of the book came partly because I'm so interested in the culture and history and because it reminded me of my beloved home away from home. Toward the end I did come across some confusing and unrealistic parts. And I have a sneaky suspicion that this is the type of book that might play better to adults.

But I still highly recommend it.   

4.5 stars

Sunday, February 14, 2021

More Snow in the Desert


We went hiking at White Tank Regional Park on a rainy January morning--complete with thunder and lightning.  I had a good rain jacket on, but I was pretty much soaked everywhere else when the rain stopped at the wind came up.  And boy did it rage.  My wet hands and legs started getting colder and colder.  And then, suddenly:  hail.  The wind whipped it so hard against us it felt like buckshot.  I don't think I've ever been caught out in such vicious hail.  The little balls of ice started collecting along the sides of the trail.  In Phoenix!  By the time we got back to the car, my hands were so cold and numb that  I almost couldn't get the key in the lock and then almost couldn't turn it once I did.  It took about ten minutes of warming up our hands in the car before we could even use them to open our sandwich bags.  I've been on much, much colder hikes in colder climates.  But on those hikes I had gloves.  Or snow but no rain. What an adventure!

So...half an hour after our hands thawed out, here came the sun.  After our car-nic, I took another trail and...this is what I saw:     

Two hours later, in shady, rocky parts of a slightly higher elevation trail, I found little piles of unmelted hail.  

Fantastic hike!

One of the eponymous white tanks:

Friday, January 22, 2021

Picketpost Mountain

 Gorgeous Picketpost Mountain, near Superior, Arizona.

This is where my family met for an outdoor, socially distanced Christmas.  It was a great day.  

We didn't hike to the top, but I've done it a few times before.  It's a GREAT hike.  You'll probably lose the trail a few times.  You might need to use your hands.  And at the top, you'll want some time to read the comments in the log books.  I absolutely recommend the trail for avid hikers.

NOTE:  The trail signs are a bit confusing and have changed since I hiked it.  If you go, look up current notes.    

Monday, January 18, 2021

Black-crowned night heron at Tres Rios

Spotted at Tres Rios Wetlands in Phoenix in December:

A pair of black-crowned night herons!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Photo Ark; One Man's Quest to Document the World's Animals by Joel Sartore

This is mostly about the pictures, and…wow!  Those pictures!  They're beautiful, amazing, and paired so cleverly together.  I love, love, love it. 

Sometimes I wish the captions had a little more about the animals, but the point of the book is more to capture their likenesses and make us care…so we can then research for ourselves.  The few tidbits included are fascinating.   

I also enjoyed the written sections, like the forewords by Harrison Ford, Douglas H. Chadwick, and the author, the sections about different conservation heroes, and the behind-the-scenes peaks into the process.  

This is an extremely beautiful book.  Highly recommended. 

5 beautiful stars

Monday, January 4, 2021

Will my Cat Eat my Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty

This is a fascinating topic, if somewhat morbid.  The information is interesting and answers questions I've had and other questions I've never thought to ask. 

The writing is clear and engaging, witty in a way that somehow avoids being disrespectful to the dead or the grieving.

The structure is excellent, creating sections that can be easily consumed in one short sitting…though I usually wanted to read more than one at a time.

 The art adds another dimension, though it messed with the formatting in my version of the e-book, badly enough that I switched to the physical book and enjoyed it much more.

 Highly recommended.  I will certainly read more by Caitlen Doughty, and am pleased to see she does indeed have other books out there.  Yay!  

5 Stars