Saturday, June 25, 2022

Book Talk: Middle School Fiction--Fantasy

Once again, I am splitting up middle school and high school for this category. The real reason I do this is because I definitely think there are some books that can be read by middle schoolers, but probably shouldn't be. That is, a middle schooler who reads at a high level may have the technical skill and comprehension to read almost anything, but the content is a little too mature for them. 

Fantasy is particularly tricky, because much of it does have some mature content. So these are the books that I think have content that is fine for around 11-13 years old.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini--I have no idea why so many fantasty series are called a cycle, but they are. This is a four-book series about a teenage boy who becomes a Dragon Rider and fights the forces of an evil ex-Dragon Rider who is trying to take over their world. My older boys loved these books, and I found them entertaining enough that I read all of them myself. One of the best things about them is that the first one--Eragon--was started by the author when he was only 15 years old, and it was published just a few years later. I feel like this is excellent encouragement for any kid who thinks they might want to write that they don't have to wait until they're grown up. I could tell these books were written by a teenage boy (so. many. battle. scenes.) and by a first-time writer, but they are certainly an extraordinary accomplishment. The author created an incredibly detailed world for the reader to become immersed in. And there is nothing inappropriate in them at all, other than maybe the aforementioned battle scenes. Lots of fighting and blood, but no sex or bad language.

The huge bookshelf my dad made us has enough room for not only many books, but for tiny toy soldier battles. How handy.

Rebel of the Sands trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton--I loved this trilogy, as did my older sons. The hero is an orphaned teenage girl who lives in a place very much modeled on Arabia, and the story has plenty of influence from the folktales of that region. There is magic involved, but it complements the story rather than drives it. I am not a fan of the fantasy genre, so I prefer books like that. There is definitely a romance in it, and there is one scene of consummation in the third book, but it's very tastefully done. The whole series is well-written and well-plotted, and would appeal to both girls and boys. 

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien--This first book that begins the story continued in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a bit more accessible for younger readers. I think middle school is a good time to introduce it. My sons read the whole series before middle school, but it was definitely a challenge, and I feel like they missed a lot in the story because they were focusing so much on just understanding the actual writing. It really is written at a very high reading level. I think my kids will probably get more out of it when they re-read it at a later age.

The Brotherband Chronicles by John Flanagan--My boys loved this series about a group of teenage boys living in an imagined place called Skandia. The culture is modeled after the Vikings, and the boys are sailors. There's no actual magic in it, but it's still considered fantasy. I read a few chapters of the first book (there are nine in the series), and was not overly impressed with the writing, but my sons devoured this series. This series is a spin-off from a series called Ranger's Apprentice, but for some reason, my boys preferred the Brotherband series.

What would you add to this list of middle school fantasy?

Friday, June 24, 2022

Friday Food: Home Again


Short version: Chicken wraps or soft tacos, grape tomatoes, brownie bites

Long version: We left my brother's house in Phoenix late Friday morning and stopped for the night at a motel in Socorro, New Mexico, around 7 p.m. I had purchased groceries for our trip home at a store near my brother's house before we left, and that included two rotisserie chickens at a grocery store. So I pulled some meat off and made cold wraps with flour tortillas and cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard for some, and heated some tortillas in the room's microwave for others. Everyone had the tomatoes, and the kids had the brownie bites, which were from the bakery of the store.


Short version: Chicken with tomato and cream sauce, spaghetti, snow peas

Long version: We got home fairly early in the afternoon, but I was very tired and not into cooking. I had an entire rotisserie chicken left, and thought about making chicken salad because it was hot, but I figured we were all tired of road food and would like something cooked. So I combined the meat with some of the canned spaghetti sauce we get from commodities, plus some cream and extra spices, and used that to sauce spaghetti for the kids. A. and I had the chicken without the pasta.

We had a TON of snow peas on the plants in the garden, many of which had gotten quite large and thicker than I normally eat snow peas. Those more mature ones I sauteed in the pan with butter before making the chicken, and the adults ate those. The kids ate the less mature ones raw.


Short version: Steaks, oven fries, baby carrots, pots de creme

Long version: Is it even a Father's Day without steak? Well, yes, of course, but since our resident father very much likes steak, and we have a lot of it, our Father's Days are almost always celebrated with steak. I cooked two New York strip steaks, and two ribeyes. We didn't even eat the ribeyes, so that means I really need to stop taking out so many steaks to thaw at a time.

A. also very much likes french fries. I can't fit all the fries our family will eat in a skillet, so I don't fry them anymore. One half-sheet pan is barely enough for all of us now, and I know some people would like more, so I may have to start making two pans of them. Which means I will make them even more infrequently than I do now. I don't actually know why I don't make them more. It's not as if it's a lot more work than regular roasted potato chunks. Father's Day is a good excuse for the actual fries, though.

If you've been reading here long enough, you'll know that I don't typically have baby carrots. The only reason I had them this time was because I bought a bag of them before we started our drive home from Phoenix. Could I have bought regular carrots and peeled and cut them into real carrot sticks at my brother's house before we started driving home that morning? Yes. But I didn't. 

All the baby carrots were eaten, but I was reminded why I don't buy them. They're slimy, and they taste of chlorine. Yuck.


Short version: Leftover steak, rice, green salad with vinaigrette

Long version: Leftover steak is a handy thing to have. It never goes to waste, at least.


Short version: Pizza, snow peas

Long version: Our high this day was only 68 degrees, and I was baking bread anyway, so it seemed like a good day to make pizza. 

It was so chilly because it actually rained all day.We got over an inch. I literally do not remember the last time we got more than a tenth of an inch in a day. Lookit the happy garden plants! Lookit the drops of rain on the window! So much rejoicing.

I made one pizza with just cheese, one with bacon, both with fresh basil from the plants in the garden that are actually looking pretty good this year. Fingers crossed for lots of pesto in the freezer by summer's end.


Short version: Beef stir-fry, leftover rice

Long version: I had actually taken a bag of purchased stir-fry vegetables from the freezer before I realized I had enough vegetables on hand to make the stir-fry without them. 

I used an onion, carrots, snow peas from the garden, green bell peppers we had gotten in huge quantities from commodities a few months ago and I froze, and some of last year's frozen beet greens. I figured I'd better use those up, since I've started harvesting this year's beets and freezing the greens.

The first beet I pulled was a real heavyweight.

Pint jar for scale.


Short version: Barbecue bull, bread and butter, coleslaw

Long version: When I was organizing the two chest freezers, I found I still have about forty pounds of bull meat in there. So I guess I really need to use up the bull meat I pressure canned in jars so I can do that again. Starting with this.

The best way to prepare the bull meat is to pressure can (or cook) it, and then pulse it in the food processor for a few seconds with extra fat. This breaks it down enough that it's not really tough. 

I was making coleslaw anyway, as I had more cabbages in the garden that needed to be used, so I put two quarts of bull meat through the food processor. One of those quarts went into the freezer, and the other one I fried with lard and then added barbecue sauce.

Okay, your turn! What'd you eat this week?

Thursday, June 23, 2022

A Surprise Thursday Bouquet

Just because I'm so delighted to have something colorful to put on the table at last.

Alfalfa flowers and hollyhocks from the garden. Happy times are here again.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

T.T.: The Three Stages of Roadtrip Food

Given the amount of thought and time I put into what I feed my children at home, it should surprise no one that I am not the sort of person who just stops at McDonald's for lunch and gas stations for snacks when we're driving long distances.

Not only would feeding six people that way for two days* result in a serious financial hit, it would also make everyone feel sick, because that is not the sort of food that we can eat more than once without physical discomfort.

I could write a really long, very detailed post about this, but what it really comes down to is passing out food in the car three stages: early healthy foods, middle less healthy food, and later treats.

So when we start out on a trip, the first things I give everyone are things like carrot sticks, snow peas, cucumbers, or cheese.

Stage one roadtrip food, straight from the garden.

Next, as everyone gets more bored, I hand out things like pretzels, nuts and raisins, or fruit. Slightly tastier, but still no added sugar.

And last, after lunch when we're still not done driving and everyone is getting fussy, I pull out the treats for more distraction. That includes things like Fritos, graham crackers with peanut butter, cookies, marshmallows, or lollipops.

The idea is that kids don't get sick eating junk early in the morning with a long day of driving ahead, and I have something fun in reserve to appease the troops when the day is getting long and they're really sick of the car.

It's also helpful to have gum in the car, so they have something to chew but aren't actually putting anything else in their stomachs.

It takes a lot of work to feed everyone this way--both in the prep ahead of time and the constant handing of food to everyone while we drive--but it works for us.

* Or longer. We drove four days from New York to New Mexico without stopping at a restaurant once. I made all our food ahead of time and had it in coolers.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Snapshots: Arizona Part Two

Picking up where I left off . . .

We spent almost all our time visiting the various family members in Tucson, but we did make one visit to Agua Caliente park. Despite living in Tucson for several years, I had never been there. It really was pretty impressive. 

Some of the many palm trees were date palms, and we could see the dates forming at the top, which was cool.

Also, ducks and turtles in the pond, both of which were clearly accustomed to being fed and swam right up to the children. There must've been a dozen turtles no more than ten feet from them. The children were very pleased with this.

When we left Tucson, we went up to Phoenix to stay a night with my brother and his family.

More swimming and eating, but this time with different cousins.

And a lesson in pre-computer flight navigation from my brother, who has apparently been a pilot long enough now that he learned this before GPS navigation took over.

We took a different route home, since we were leaving from Phoenix. We went through the Salt River canyon, which is a pretty neat drive.

We had our lunch stop at Carrizo Creek, a tributary of the Salt River.

A. had lots of good camping sites in mind after we got past the Arizona border into New Mexico, but just before we got to the border, we started running into frequent and heavy rainstorms. There were black clouds and lightning all around most of our way home, so we gave up on the idea of camping and instead stopped at a motel that accepted dogs in Socorro, New Mexico.

I've stayed at a lot of motels over the years with A. Some of them are pretty nasty. This was one of the better ones.

Two dogs in crates, four children eating dinner on the floor, and two adults trying to maintain order. It was quite a scene.

We left fairly early the next morning and got home around 1 p.m. 

The neighbor who was taking care of the animals and watering my garden did an excellent job, and I found several hollyhocks blooming. And that means . . . 

It's the first real Monday Bouquet of the year! Hooray!

There you have it! My life (and our trip) snapshotted.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Snapshots: Arizona Part One

I think I'll do this in two stages, given the number of photos I have. A disproportionate number of those seem to be of the children eating. I suppose that isn't surprising, given that was the only time they really sat still. I mean, they spent as much time as possible swimming in various pools, but I don't have any pictures of that because I was too busy making sure no one drowned.

Anyway! Here we go!

First lunch break in a very nice town called Bosque Farms, in New Mexico.

The drive to Tucson can be done in one very long day from our house, but we always opt to lessen the pain and stop one night to camp along the way. A.'s plan had been to camp in the Chiricahua Mountains, but gathering clouds and van-weary children resulted instead in stopping for the night in Hachita, New Mexico. 

There are about 35 residents left in Hachita, a village about 40 miles from the Mexican border. It was very like our own mostly-abandoned villages at home, as a matter of fact.

Dirt roads and abandoned adobe houses? Feels like home.

The stone church built by the town's residents was of great interest to A. the Stone Mason.

Unfortunately, the inside is mostly gutted, but this building will stand another two hundred years. Stone endures.

While we were walking around, A. saw a sign in the window of the community center (formerly the Mercantile) that it was available for indoor camping. 

So he went down to the Hachita Food Mart (a teeny convenience store) and got the key and we stayed there. There was a visitors' log book in there, from which we deduced that a surprising number of people stay there. The Continental Divide Trail (a hiking trail that spans the U.S. from north to south) starts just south of Hachita, and it appears to be a popular area for international cyclists. 

As I showed you before, I got the one cot that was inside the building, and everyone else camped on the carpeted stage. Unfortunately, there were no windows that could be opened, and no air conditioning, so it was quite hot and stuffy. Also, the border patrol stopped around 2 a.m. and spotlighted our van--and thus, the entire building behind it--because they were chasing someone up and down the main road that leads to Mexico. A giant van parked near the Mexican border is always going to attract the attention of the border patrol.

So not a lot of sleep, but we were up nice and early and back on the road. Due to our early start, we were passing through Tombstone, Arizona, in the relatively early morning before it got hot. Jack is really into the Old West gunfighters at the moment, so of course we had to stop in Tombstone.

Tombstone is sort of like Disneyland with a western theme, so the kids liked it.

We walked up the main pedestrian street for a few minutes.

And then A. stayed with the dogs in the van with the air conditioner running while I brought the kids into the old courthouse/museum.

The boys of course were fascinated by the gallows, with this cage right next to it.

Although they liked Tombstone, they were very ready to be in Tucson, so we continued on and arrived around lunchtime.

The first thing we did was set the dogs up in their doggie refrigerator.

Otherwise known as my parents' air conditioned exercise room.

All of Arizona was under an extreme heat advisory the whole time we were there, and the temperatures well over 100 degrees meant that the dogs spent almost all their time sleeping in their crates in this room. They were perfectly happy with this.

I did take them for a walk every morning before the sun was actually over the mountains, when it was a refreshing 75 degrees and they could be outside without looking as if they were going to die.

Our Morning Walk road looked like this to start from my parents' house, although just at the end of the visible street was a dirt road leading to some new house sites. That's where I took them every morning. 

Those walks were always interesting, if not relaxing. The dogs were on high alert, and so was I. We saw javelina (known as peccaries elsewhere, they look like wild boar and are all over my parents' neighborhood in the foothills of the mountains); lots of rabbits; a few mule deer; and quite a few cars, landscapers, workmen, and other things that required me to keep the dogs under control. They were very good and stayed with me, but I think they found it a bit stressful.

Incidentally, I am very grateful to have highly intelligent dogs who know better than to chase down vehicles or go racing off through the cactus after rabbits. These dogs have still never been on leashes, and knowing they won't unintentionally get stuck full of cactus thorns or get run over is sort of essential. They come back when they're called, so I have to be very aware of our surroundings and keep them close, but they do stay with me.

There were ripe grapefruits all over the trees at A.'s dad's place. A. was shinnying up trees in the apartment complex so I could juice the grapefruits and we could all have fresh grapefruit juice. I did the juicing outside on my parents' patio in the early mornings, so as not to make a mess inside and to hang out with the dogs for awhile before they returned to their refrigerator crates for their daylong naps.

I must've juiced a total of two dozen grapefruits over the course of a few days for at least two gallons of juice. It was great.

I couldn't go a whole week without processing some sort of food, could I? Obviously not.

The children got to have their breakfast up on my parents' roof-porch a few mornings before it got really hot.

Breakfast with a view.

The spiral staircase that leads to this roof is one of the most fun things for the kids, although I must admit I find it a little nervewracking.

A bit dizzying, too.

I think we'll stop there with the first installment of snapshots. To be continued . . .

Snapshots: A Placeholder

It was so touching to hear from so many of you that you were worried when I didn't post on Friday. 

In light of that, this is just to let you know that there will be a Snapshots post, but it will be later today, because it's going to be long and will take awhile to write. And I thought I wasn't too tired yesterday to do it, until I collapsed in my bed around 6 p.m. and just kind of . . . never got up.

So! Hasta tarde/see you later with many photos of our doings in the last week.