Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z: Zilpha Keatly Snyder's Gib Rides Home

Title: Gib Rides Home
Author: Zilpha Keatly Snyder
Publisher: Delacourt Books for Young Readers, 1998, 256 pages
Source: Library

Gib Whittaker has been an orphan since he was small, living at an orphanage where the boys are given a minimal education and lots of hard work. No wonder Gib thinks being adopted would be better, even after he learns that many boys are taken to be farm hands, not really adopted.  And all he really wants is to know who he is and where he came from.  When Gib is finally adopted, he finds it's both more and less than he'd hoped, and when things go very bad, it looks like it's all over.

The book was a quick and easy read, but I can't say there was a lot of substance.  I felt that the situation, though sadly not outside the realm of how orphans were treated in the early 1900s, was a bit cartoonish, as were many of the characters.  That we know Gib will find a family isn't a bad thing (since the genre pretty much demands it, I don't consider this a spoiler), and the route to get there is convoluted enough to be interesting, but the book doesn't measure up to some I've read on similar themes.  In many ways, I think the book ended just when the story might have gotten really interesting.  It's an okay read, and has the added bonus of being a horse book for those of us who like that.

For fans of the author and die-hard horse-story fans. Kids will probably have no problem with the issue that bugged me!

Full Disclosure: I checked  Gib Rides Home  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
 Well, that's it--A to Z winds to an end!  I'll be back tomorrow or Friday with my reflections on the trip.  Meanwhile, have some ice cream!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y: Yellowstone and Yosemite

Photo day again!  (Funny how my "true stories of the wilderness" turned into photo days too.  Hope no one objects to having fewer words to read).

So probably the two most famous US National Parks start with Y: Yellowstone (the first) and Yosemite (which came soon after).  We have spent at least a little time in each park, mostly dayhiking rather than backpacking.  

Yellowstone is a fine place for family outings.

Of course, some family members are more excited than others (apologies for the low-res scanned slide!)

And when humans get close to bison, they are well advised to keep something even larger between them.  In this case, I'm not sure the compact car qualifies as "something larger."

Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:

All my geyser pictures, apparently, are slide, not digital.  But we like mudpots, too!

In Yosemite, what you see can depend a lot on what time of year you go.  This is Vernal Falls in June:

And this is Yosemite Falls in early October (before the winter rains begin):

The Tuolomne Meadows area in August:

And when you camp and hike with kids, their goals are not always your goals.  Beneath all the grandeur that is the Yosemite Valley, they had other priorities.
Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, plus a sword fight.  What is it about boys and sticks, anyway?

Monday, April 28, 2014

X: Xanadu!

Before we begin today's post, I just want to say that I'm a guest poster over at Out Where the Buses Don't Run.  Thanks, Gus!  So when you finish reading my X-related ramblings, drop on over and show some love!

Not a whole novel.  But the only thing I could come up with for X, unless I featured my own Xavier Xanthum stories.  Besides, at this point in the month, a fairly short poem seems like a great subject!  So I have chosen Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "Kubla Khan," about Xanadu.  It's one of many from which I have memorized the first several lines--and no more (my brain seems to absorb up to a point without effort.  After that--bleh).   Xanadu seems to sit in the heart of wilderness, despite Kubla Khan's efforts to tame it. . .and he himself was pretty wild.  So that's my tenuous wilderness tie-in.

Instead of a review (even I don't have the chutzpah to review Coleridge!) I just going to share some of my favorite bits.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
. . .
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!

Just a reminder for anyone who thinks that the Romantic poets were all about sweetness and light and clouds of daffodils!  Turns out they (well, people of that time, i.e. early-mid 19th Century) were also the folks who largely invented the idea of loving wilderness for being wild, rather than seeing it purely as something to tame.  They were also very much into the horrific (don't forget Frankenstein!), which shows in the second except above (love that "woman wailing for her demon lover").

From Coleridge and his love of the "deep romantic chasm" you could probably draw a straight line to people like Brad Washburn, whose life story I reviewed last week.  These are the people who love nature for the very fact that it's wild and could have you for breakfast without caring a whit.   Not everyone's on board with the idea even yet, but I'm very glad enough are, and have been, that we have some wilderness left to go to.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

W: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Writing Process Badge  

I was going to put this off to next week, but I realized that I needed a post about writing for Saturday. . . a post on the letter W.  Sounds like a good fit!

Last week blogger and writer of great stories for all ages, Jemima Pett, tagged me in the "My Writing Process" blog tour. My mission: to answer three questions about my writing process, and to tag three other writers.

First the questions:

1.  What am I working on?
Too many things!  I am working on edits for a middle grade fantasy, a humorous take on the genre which I hope I will be able to send to beta readers in a week or so.  I'm also writing a bit here and there on a third Ninja Librarian book, focusing more on young Peggy Rossiter, Big Al's math prodigy student.  Then there's Death By Trombone, the second Pismawallops PTA mystery, which I drafted back in November and am itching to get my hands on.  Several other projects (like a short-story collection) are also running around in my head and have to be firmly stuffed back into a dark room to keep them from sprouting too fast (can I mix the metaphor any more, if I really, really try?).
2.  Why do I write what I do?
Ideas come in and demand to be developed.  Or characters.  Halitor the Hero (the tongue-in-cheek fantasy up next) was sparked by a bit of flash fiction that I wrote.  In that story, a hero was aging and at the end of his career, but it made me wonder how he got there.  What I found when I took him back to his teens was a very different person!  Maybe not even the same character.  I write the stories and characters that come to me, but I write it all with humor because I can't write any other way (not an have it be anything anyone would want to read).

3.  How does my writing process work?
Well, it's evolving.  And maybe, as Facebook has it, it's complicated.  I have mostly in the past had a spark of an idea, or a character (on reflection, the character has usually come first), and just jumped in and started writing.  I've mostly known what genre I'm working in (though the jury is still out about genre re: the Ninja Librarian), but not where the story is going to go or how it'll get there.  With Death By Trombone, because I wanted to write it as a NaNo project and because I wanted to make editing it less of a gargantuan task than usual, I created an outline.  Sort of.  It definitely made writing easier, since when I ran into trouble I could look and see where I thought I was going.  It remains to be seen if it makes revising easier.  With luck, I start on that in a couple of weeks.

Now for the two writers I want to tag, to post about their own writing processes in the next week or two or so (it was supposed to be three, but hey, I put off asking until a little late. . . ):

Dixie Dawn Miller Goode has written a series of books about a boy named Duffy Barkley, who may have Cerebral Palsy but still  has no end of adventures; and a historical fiction with a touch of time travel, Double Time on the Oregon Trail. 

And last but definitely not least, Gus Sanchez blogs irreverently at Out Where the Buses Don't Run, and is working on his first novel.  Right, Gus? 

Check them out--go ahead and follow their blogs and see what they come up with.  I'm not sure I could come up with two more different writers, so maybe that can count for three.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Flash Fiction Friday: V is for Victory?

This week's Wendig Challenge built on last week, when we all submitted first lines for stories.  We were to choose one, and write the story.  I chose the line submitted by RD Duncan, and the result is below.


Victory Has Its Price

I knew I was in trouble when my fingers started smoking.

It was the biggest competition of my life, and I’d been determined to win.  I started playing piano when I was two and a half, my hands so small I could barely reach from one key to the next.  And I was good.  I was always better than even the kids several years older, and it wasn’t just because I practiced more, though I did.  I was different.

By the time I was twelve, if I entered a competition most of the other kids dropped out.  Most of them wouldn’t talk to me, either.  Word on the playground was that I had sold my soul to the devil for a super-human ability to play piano.

I would have, but I hadn’t.  Wherever the talent came from, I didn’t buy it.  It felt like I was born knowing how to play.  The thing was, I didn’t know if it was normal or totally weird.  I knew most kids didn’t feel that way, but did the great ones?  Did they fight their way through a clumsy childhood and only gradually discover their talent, like my teacher said he’d done, or did they just come with it ready-made, as I seemed to have?

My mother was too proud of me to wonder at any of it.  She’d wanted to be a concert pianist, but an early onset of arthritis had ruined that plan.  She could still play, but not at that level.  And when she had me, it was like all her skill, and all her longing, poured through me.  She taught me herself until I was six, then found the best teacher in San Francisco to take over.  When I was fourteen, I graduated from the Conservatory, and we moved to New York so I could go to Julliard.

If I couldn’t play it was like a physical pain.  The move across the country nearly killed me.  We drove, so it took days.  I only made it because Mom stopped in Denver and bought a portable keyboard.  After that, I sat in the back seat and played, with headphones so I wouldn’t distract her from driving.  The sound was awful, and the touch ghastly, but it was a keyboard, and I could breathe again.

By the time I’d completed my first year at Julliard, I knew I wasn’t normal.  Even there, where no one was a dilettante, I felt like the only one who really served the music.  I thought the others didn’t care, because sometimes they took a day off to go to the beach, or stood in the hall for half an hour chatting when they should have been practicing.  I couldn’t do that.  These were the most driven young musicians in America, and I made them look like a bunch of lazy bums.  At first I found that exciting.

But when I was sixteen I started to see what I really was—and to realize just how much trouble I was in.  Maybe I hadn’t sold my soul to the devil for this music.  But I became convinced that someone had.

Then I entered The Competition.  With capitals, because it was the biggest, most prestigious event anywhere, and if I won, I was set for life, pretty much.  And I was sixteen.

And for the first time in my life, I had fallen in love with something besides a piano.  He was a musician, of course—English Horn, if you must know—but he was really cute, and he would come by my practice room and try to get me to come out for coffee or a drink or whatever.

So here was a gorgeous guy asking me out, one I could really talk to about music, and I couldn’t go.  I mean I literally couldn’t go.  It had reached the point that if I left the practice room during the day I started to sweat, like a panic attack.  I was still going home to eat and sleep, but if I tried to just go have fun I could tell I would totally freak out.

I told myself—and him—that it was on account of the big Competition coming up.  He totally got that, and said he could wait.  Part of me knew it wasn’t just that, though.  The piano had a grip on me that was sucking my life out, and I didn’t dare even tell anyone, because they’d say I was crazy and probably lock me up without a piano, and I’d die.

The night of the Competition proved I was right about the piano.  It was agony to sit behind the stage while the other contestants played.  They were good, but all I could think about was my turn.  Well, that was normal.  No one competing at those things is there to listen to the music.  But what I felt was different.  My whole body ached to take over the keyboard, to play the music like it had never been played.

When my turn came at last, I walked out onto the stage, made my bow, and slid onto the piano bench.  I smoothed my long gown, adjusting everything just right.  Then I bowed over the keys for a moment, until I felt the power in me, a tingling from toes to fingertips.  I raised my head and began to play.

It was like I was possessed.  Even I had never played so well.  It was not until my fingers started to smoke, like I said, that I realized how much trouble I was in.  It was exactly like I was possessed.  I had wanted to be the best, and I was.

I couldn't stop.

Music was burning me up, and I couldn’t stop.

 ©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014

U is for Utah

Utah. . . home of (as the sign outside the town of Kanab has it), the Greatest Earth on Show.  The Colorado Plateau made for some amazing landscapes.  Below are just a few samples, from A to Z, of course!

Arches National Park:
Landscape Arch

Off trail up in the rocks

Double O Arch.  Look closely for the second O down near the bottom of the page!

Bryce Canyon National Park:

Capitol Reef National Park:
Hickman Bridge

Coyote Buttes (The Wave is here, but we visited the less-visited Paw Hole area.  Buckskin Gulch is here, too.):

Starting out in an April snowstorm (Paw Hole)
Layer-cake rocks (Paw Hole)

Buckskin Gulch slot canyon

Goblin Valley State Park.  These are some of the most family-friendly photos I had:
Hoodoos left by interesting erosion
The Henry Mountains

Pariah River.  The southernmost stretch is famous, and we hiked it in 1995(before digital),but upstream is pretty, too.  We went there in 2006:
"River" is often a courtesy term out west.  Though I think this was a side-stream.
Definitely a side-stream, with clear, cool water.
This area had a mix of petroglyphs and "cowboy glyphs"--historical, rather than prehistorical, rock art.
The Toadstools (a dinky spot near Kanab, just to show that you can't move in Utah without tripping over something cool):

Differential erosion again, due to different hardnesses of the rocks

Zion National Park:
Zion Canyon from up on the rim (nearly 10,000')

The Virgin River from Angel's Landing--a hike not for the acrophobic.

Hiking the Virgin River Narrows, a beautiful canyon to be avoided in rainy seasons.

Amazing how cold this was at 6:30 a.m., and how refreshing three hours later when we returned!

It's an unmercifully huge collection of photos, and even so I've left out Canyonlands National Park, the San Rafael reef (much of which is unprotected, though in any other state it would be a park for sure), the Great Salt Lake, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area Lake Powell, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, Dinosaur National Monument, Kodachrome Basin, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and the Uinta Mountains (ditto the La Sals, the Henry Mountains, and the Abajo Mountains, all sky islands--isolated mountain ranges that are ecological "islands"), etc., etc., etc.  "The Greatest Earth on Show," indeed.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Theodore Taylor's The Cay


This isn't the cover on the copy I just read, but it is the one I recall from my childhood

Title: The Cay
Author: Theodore Taylor
Publishing Info: Delacourt Press, 1969.  137 pages.
Source: Library

Another Middle Grade Classic review!

Phillip and his mother are traveling from Curacao to the US to escape the early days of WWII, when the freighter they are on is torpedoed.  When Phillip comes to, he is on a raft with only an old black West Indian man and the ship's cat.  To make matters worse, a blow on the head leaves him blind.  When they wash up on a tiny, deserted cay, Phillip has a lot to learn.

This book won a lot of awards, and it's easy to see why.  It tackles issues from war (touches on the topic, anyway) to racial relations.  Ultimately, it is about learning to see in a whole new way.  Philip is a pretty ordinary boy when the ship goes down.  But after 5 or 6 months on the cay, he is both extraordinary and no longer a boy.  I like that he has his horrid moments--not just times when he despairs, but times when he is hateful to Timothy, the black man.  He echoes the prejudices of his Virginian mother, just because he is angry, and he gives in to despair and refuses to work for days after going blind.  In other words, he reacts normally.  And then he rises to the occasion, even when he is overcome by grief and desperation.  We should all have a fraction of his courage.

A quick read for anyone who likes exciting and inspiring stories.

Note: I also just found that Taylor wrote a prequel/sequel called Timothy of the Cay, which seems to have mixed reviews, at least on Goodreads.  I will probably check this out, because I'm a sucker to know more about characters I like!
Full Disclosure: I checked  The Cay  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Great Sand Dunes


Down at the southern end of Colorado, the southernmost segment of the Rocky Mountains is known as the Sangre de Cristo mountains (they continue on down into New Mexico, ending near Santa Fe).  At at the base of these conveniently S-named mountains are the Great Sand Dunes, also S-named a really cool.  And we've had fun with both.

The Sangres are the site of the first "real" backpack trip we did with our boys, with no packers and no outside help (except a car shuttle).  They were barely 5 and 6 1/2, and about as big as their tiny backpacks. The trip was, alas, before our photography went digital, so I don't have much available to post, and those I have are scanned from slides.

I can't help looking at those chubby baby-knees and wondering what we were doing!
Snack stop--a very frequent event

Day three--the top of Venable Pass, and more snacks

The trip was amazing for what it was--three nights, 13 miles, from one side of the range to the other via three passes (we ran right along the divide for a couple of miles).  We started near Crestone and ended near Westcliff.
Approaching the Phantom Terrace, the amazing cliffy trail from one pass to the next.

The Great Sand Dunes we have visited several times (including the same trip as the packtrip above).  They are amazing--sand dunes, surrounded on 2.5 side by 13- and 14-thousand-foot peaks.  In the spring, the mountains have snow, and the creek around the base of the dunes surges like waves breaking over the shore.  The dunes are among the highest in North America, with the tallest being over 700'.*  And I'm pretty sure they are the ones at the highest altitude--the base of the dune field is nearly 8200'.

In addition to the cool creek (and how cool IS it to have a creek at the edge of a dune field?) the dunes are one of a handful world-wide that "sing" when conditions are right.  The shifting sands will set up harmonic resonances that are akin to the bass note on the biggest pipe organ you ever met, and can be felt through your whole body.

These photos are from a trip in 2012.
The edge of the dunes is abrupt, although there is plenty of sand in among the trees and sagebrush

The first hikers atop the main dune that morning, though it was a calm night so there were old prints.

The dunes are on the edge of the San Luis Valley in Colorado.

*Two other sets of dunes also claim to be highest: the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park and the Kelso Dunes in the East Mojave National Scenic Area.  The Kelso dunes are another "singing" dune.

And I leave you with two filthy boys, enjoying the post-pack-trip tradition: ice cream!
Not Death By Ice Cream, but ice cream as the elixir of life!

Monday, April 21, 2014

R: Last of his Kind, by David Roberts

It's a shame I didn't need W instead, but there it is.  Instead of pegging it to the amazing mountaineer whose story this is, I've tied it to the biographer's name.

The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer

Title: The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America's Boldest Mountaineer 
Author: David Roberts
Publisher:William Morrow, 2009

This one needs no summary, because it's all there in the subtitle.  It is the life of Brad Washburn, June 7, 1910 to January 10, 2007.  Washburn was an adventurer, an early climber and explorer of Alaska's mountains who began a love affair with climbing in the Alps as a teenager.  He was also a photographer and a pilot, and he was David Roberts' mentor.  The accounts of climbs are concise and vivid, and the personal relations are treated with gentle care, so that we do see Washburn as a whole person, but I never lost sight of the fact that Roberts loved and admired his mentor. 

Roberts insists that Washburn's greatest accomplishments are in his first ascents of a number of remote Alaskan peaks, with a secondary nod to his truly extraordinary photography (several examples of which are in the book).  But I agree with Washburn, who considered his greatest accomplishment to be his work with the Boston Museum of Science, where as Director for many decades he took the museum from the dusty do-not-touch model common at the time to be one of the leaders in the hands-on interactive museum style.  Helping to pioneer that movement is, in my opinion, a truly great act.

My only other complaint about the book is that Roberts spends a long chapter near the end recounting a couple of his own expeditions.  They are interesting to read about, and Washburn was instrumental in setting him off on them, but they are not really part of Washburn's story.  Roberts can be forgiven this bit of self-indulgence, however. 

Recommendation: For those who like mountains, mountaineering, and stories of the great adventurers of a nearly a century ago.  Also those who don't mind just a touch of hagiography.

Full Disclosure: I was given The Last of His Kind  by a friend with no connection to the author, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for. . . Questioning our Sanity

Okay, right up until I started writing this I meant to make my Q post all about writing Queries.  But the thing is, I don't actually know squat about queries.  I haven't done one for years, since I gave up on traditional publishing and became an author-publisher.  Besides, it kept making me think about questions, and questioning, and finally realized that being a writer means you are always going to be asking some big quesetions.  So here it is. . .

The biggest question every writer faces sooner or later is not "self-publish or traditional" nor "vampire or werewolves."  No, it's "What was I thinking when I decided to become a writer?  Was I absolutely NUTS?"  It sounds easy and fun when you first think it--turn the story-writing thing that you can't stop doing anyway into a career.  But at some point, while struggling to find a cover or a plot or an editor or the right way to say that really really important thing that the character needs to just toss off but which holds the key to everything. . . you realize that writing is a lot like work.

Then the questions begin.  Can I do this?  Am I really good enough?  Should I get another day job?  And, of course, "am I crazy?  Crazy enough to be hauled off by the nice men with the white coats?"

Odds are, the answers to all of those are "yes."

What say you, writer-buddies?  Are we all crazy? 

While you think about it, have some ice cream.
Death By Ice Cream.  Available from Amazon, B&N, and after long hikes with the author.