Saturday, August 28, 2010

Happy Birthday to My Seeeester

Twenty-seven years ago, I was staying at Grandma and Grandpa's house, waiting to find out whether I had a new brother or sister.  Dad finally pulled into the driveway, got out of the car, and handed me a stack of quarters.  (A dollar?  50 cents?)  It took me a second to realize that this meant I had won our bet-it was a girl, not a boy!  I knew it would be (read:  desperately wanted it to be)!  Yay!  I had a sister!

That night, or maybe the next day, I got to go to the hospital and hold her.  Back then, she was just a wrinkly kid with a lot of hair.  She still has a lot of hair, but she's not wrinkly any more (glad she grew out of THAT!)-she's beautiful and funny and thoughtful and I love her with all my heart.  

Happy Birthday, Sister!  I love you!  (Thanks for being a girl!)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What I'm Reading Now - Zan-Gah series

When Bonnie from Earthshaker Books contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing Zan-Gah:  A Prehistoric Adventure and it's sequel, Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country, by Allan Richard Shickman  I was excited, but a little hesitant.  Prehistoric books about a young man's coming of age aren't quite my normal fare.  I've been reading a fair share of young adult literature lately, but these books are aimed at a slightly younger audience and seemed kind of like boys' books.  Would I like them?  Would I be able to give an objective opinion?  I promised Bonnie I'd do my best.  Besides, this was a good opportunity to read something a little bit different.

When the signed copies (!) of my books arrived I was relieved to see that they were both fairly short-around 150 pages each.  I figured I would be able to get through them pretty quickly, even if I didn't like them.  One thing that immediately caught my attention was the cover of Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country.  I knew a lot of bloggers would be excited to see a cover that hasn't been white-washed.* As I was reading both books, I assumed that they took place in Africa. I say that only because there were lions in the stories, and as far as I knew, lions=Africa.  There were mammoths too though, and a little bit of internet research tells me that, based on the wildlife, these stories could have taken place in many different locations.  While reading about Zan-Gah's adventures, I was reminded not only of Africa, but of Australia, Venezuela and even New Zealand as well. The boy on the cover has a sort of undefined (to me anyway) native look to him that would allow him to fit in any number of exotic locations.

So, what did I think about the books themselves?  I have to admit, I'm having a hard time deciding how I feel about these.  I didn't love them, but I wouldn't not recommend them either.  I think part of the problem I'm having is trying to figure out if  these would appeal to a younger audience or not.  Zan-Gah goes a lot of places, meets a lot of people, and has a lot of adventures.  Unfortunately, I didn't feel like most of his adventures were that exciting; but I don't know if that's because I'm reading them from an adult perspective or if they really just aren't that exciting.  Would a young boy, imagining himself in Zan-Gah's world, be more excited about Zan-Gah's battles with lions and warring tribes, his solo quest to find and rescue his missing twin brother, his invention of new weapons and surviving in the wilderness?  I don't know.  Maybe.

In Zan-Gah:  A Prehistoric Adventure, Zan-Gah is a young man who earns the respect of his tribe and neighboring tribes when he faces a man-eating lion in battle.  This proves to be a pivotal moment for Zan-Gah as much of his future success in life will be aided by the respect he has earned in battle.  Given that this is such a pivotal moment in this young man's life (not to mention a face-to-face encounter with a lion) I was a bit disappointed with the hunt itself.  This was an event that required a huge coordination by several tribes over many miles and it was all over and done with by page 14.  Not that it needed to be extremely drawn-out and gory, but I feel like it went from "The tribes were spread out over 15 miles, searching for their enemy" to "and then the beast was upon them!" in no time with no real build up in between.

I have to also admit that I couldn't help but compare these books to the Earth's Children books (Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.), so perhaps that was part of the problem as well.  I felt like I had read about some of Zan-Gah's adventures before, not to mention the fact that a lion hunt in any of the Earth's Children's books would have been as long as one of the Zan-Gah books all by itself-certainly nothing that could be expected to hold a child's attention.  So, here again, perhaps I'm suffering from a bout of adult-reader syndrome.

I have to say that I think most of my quibbles are minor ones.  I felt like there was some inconsistency with the narration during the first couple of chapters.  It went from putting you in the middle of the action, right along with Zan-Gah, to being a little history text-book-ish, but that seemed to resolve itself fairly quickly.

Also, I don't know how historically accurate the books are.  I don't mean I doubt the author's accuracy, I just mean I honestly don't know how much is based on historical evidence and how much is just story.  For example, at one point, the toughness of the men of the time is indicated by talking about how a chopped off finger would hardly be noticed.  Maybe this is the case-certainly these were no times for wimps!-but would gangrene have been cause for concern over a lost finger?  Again, I don't know, but these are things that I thought about while reading.  I wish the author would have included some kind of an afterword or addendum about what sort of research he did or where his ideas came from.  Not only would this be interesting, but I think it would be a good opportunity to encourage kids to do their own research on far-away places or different cultures.

Despite these minor issues, I think both books have a lot to offer.  The publisher's web site includes a section for teachers that talks about the books' usefulness in the classroom, and I would agree with this completely (although the section refers specifically to the first book, I think this would apply to both books).  There are great opportunities for learning about different climates and the life forms that inhabit them.  Zan-Gah travels through deserts, caves, fertile areas, and salt flats all the while experiencing the different geographies, plants, and animals that go along with all of these.

Although the female characters in these books are fairly minor, they are mostly strong and respected in one way or another.  Also respected is any attempt at conflict resolution that does not result in war.  Without being preachy, the author manages to convey that war and violence are hardly ever the best answer.  There are also interesting tribes like the wasp people who live in hive-like structures and the red people who paint themselves to blend into their desert surroundings.  I don't know if these are based on any actual tribes or just products of the author's imagination, but, again, I can see how this could translate into a fun exercise for kids, a way to imagine how a person or a culture could adapt to different environments.

The second book, Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country, opens with some additional information about Zan-Gah's twin brother, Dael.  His disappearance, which was a mystery in the first book, is explained and there is a quick but thorough recap of the previous book.

Overall, I enjoyed Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country better, but I had a hard time with Dael's character.  When he goes missing, he is a kind, care-free, fun-loving boy.  Now he is a mean, misogynistic, hurtful individual full of anger and spite for his twin brother, whom he once loved dearly.  This schism between the brothers causes friction within the tribe as Zan-Gah tries to lead them to a prosperous and peaceful life in a new location, the beautiful country once occupied by an enemy tribe.  This beautiful country also lies near an active volcano, a volcano whose fury and explosive behavior resonates with Dael who comes to see the volcano as his god.  Dael is clearly traumatized by whatever happened during his missing years, and there doesn't seem to be anything anyone can do except wait for him to work through it and suffer the consequences of his rage in the meantime.  I felt like the author was trying to say that everyone has to work through his own demons in his own way and that it's OK to be traumatized by traumatic events and that kids might not always know how to talk about those events, so acting out may be their only way to deal with their feelings.  These are all fine points, but it was extremely frustrating to read about, and I'm not sure how I feel about the final resolution.

I was also frustrated by the women's roles in this book at first.  At the end of the previous book, the women had gained a place of respect and authority; but by the beginning of the second book, that all seemed to have disappeared.  What happened?  I'm not sure, but by the end of the book, I felt better about their roles again.  One other note about the characters in this book:  There is one character that I believe is meant to be gay.  While it's never explicitly stated, he is clearly different from the rest of the crowd, and at one point he does say that he "could never love or marry any woman".  Although he does endure a bit of abuse from Dael and his followers (who doesn't in this book?), he is ultimately loved and appreciated for who he is, a kind, intelligent, creative person and a loyal friend.

So...all in all, even though these books weren't necessarily my cup of tea, I would certainly recommend them for young readers.  I think they provide ample opportunities for learning both in the classroom and at home.  Not only do they offer good opportunities to introduce new factual information but they also  provide adults with plenty of situations to ask a child, "What would you do in this situation?"

Zan-Gah:  A Prehistoric Adventure was awarded an Eric Hoffer Award in 2008 for Excellence in Independent Publication, was a finalist for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Award for YA Fiction in 2007, and both books were recently inducted as Gold Recipients of the Mom's Choice Awards® for YA Series.

If you are interested in finding out more about Zan-Gah, you can read the first chapter on line.  Visit the Earthshaker Books website and click on Sample Chapter.

If you or someone you know would be interested in reading these books, please leave me a comment by September 15th, and I will do a drawing for the set.  I would love to hear how parents and children might respond to these books.  

A big thank you to Bonnie at Earthshaker Books for sending me these free copies!

*White-washing is the practice of putting a white character on the cover of a book, even if the image has nothing to do with the main character(s) in the book.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nature: Striking down smugness one tomato grower at a time

Remember how I was all proud of myself yesterday because I'd found what seemed to be a pretty effective way of guarding my tomatoes against theiving birds?  Well, it still seems to work against birds, but look what I found when I came around the corner today:

Uh oh.  

Hey, Mom, look what I found.  I was just going to bring it to you.

Can I have it pleeeeease?  I don't know what it is, but I want it SO. BAD.  

It took her a while to decide if she liked it or not and what, exactly, she was supposed to do with it, hence my ability to get the pictures.  I was going to take it away from her, but she'd already slimed all over it, so I decided she could have it.  That was probably a big mistake, but she did manage to get it without tearing up my entire tomato plant, and for her that has to count for something.  Now that I think about it, I suppose it could have fallen off the plant and she was just checking it out when I caught her. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's going to be her story when I ask her about it later.  

So, in case you're keeping track, ti leaves:  good protection against birds, not so much against dogs.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day-August 2010

It's a good thing that GBBD is today, otherwise who knows how long I would have gone without posting. I'm not sure what the deal is, but I've been in a blogging funk lately.  Maybe this will get the ball rolling again.  Let's see what happens.  I hope you're not in a funk, but, if you are, please go visit Carol's site, May Dreams Gardens, to see what other people have blooming in their gardens today.  Even if you're not in a funk, go visit Carol-it's fun to see what's blooming around the world!

This is my crape myrtle.  I think it's a petite orchid variety?  According to what I've been reading on line, they should reach about 3-5', but I've had these for a couple years now, and they are still only about 6-8" high.  Oh well.  They're pretty when they bloom anyway.  They seem to be flowering about a month later than they did last year.  I'm not sure why this is, but I'm just going to be happy that they're still alive and blooming at all...

Which is more than I can say for several of the things that I showed you in my last GBBD post.  Remember how I was all excited about my new Cuphea llavea, the one that had "all the brilliant color of a fuchsia with none of the tendency to die immediately upon coming into my care."?  Ummmm...yeeeeaaah.  I've already thrown away the nub that used to the the rootball which was attached to the stick that used to be the stem.  I also lost my geranium, my lobelia, and my strawberries.  I think this is largely a consequence of being out of town for three weeks in the middle of summer and leaving the watering to our house/dog sitters; although to be fair, the Cuphea and the geranium seemed to be going downhill before I left.  Luckily, the house and the dog fared better, so I guess I can't complain too much.  

I do still have a few survivors that are flourishing in this August heat.

My canna is doing well and putting on a nice show.

My bouganvillea is a bit withered but hanging in there.

And, finally, my white spider lilies, which I think are Crinum asiaticum, seem to be in almost perpetual bloom now that they've had almost a couple years to mature.

Speaking of mature, look at my tomatoes!  The ones that haven't been eaten by the birds yet, I mean.  

See how they're sitting there all red and ripe and not in a bird's belly?  My tomato plant started leaning into my red ti plant, and I thought I'd let it go and see if it would protect the tomatoes from theiving birds.  I'm not sure if it's the color or simply the fact that the tomatoes aren't highly visible from above, but either way it seems to be working.  I realize this isn't technically a bloom, but I thought it was worth sharing anyway.

Of course, since I lost so many plants in the last couple months, I had to replace them.  It was only the responsible thing to do.  Right?  Of course, maybe I should have waited until we get back from our next vacation...Wish me luck on these new arrivals.

Osteospermum or African Daisy

Portulaca-I believe this one is 'Fairytale Cinderella'  I love the bright pink against the yellow!

Evolvus glomeratus or Blue Daze

I think I've picked some hardier plants than I did last time, so hopefully they will be able to survive.  Also, August tends to be a good month for cloudy, rainy weather from tropical storms, so maybe Mother Nature will help me out a little bit.