Review of Arbico Organics

So, from time to time I review things on this site. Sometimes books, sometimes programs. Today, it’s bugs.

Full disclosure this time does not require saying that the producer of the bugs has promised me anything in exchange for this review, because it hasn’t. I chose to write this on my own, because this company can always use more business, and I like it so much that I really, really want it to stick around.

The website Arbico Organics came to my attention when I was searching online for treats for my pet starling, Sirius. For those who aren’t already aware, a starling is a mostly insectivorous bird in the wild. As pets, they can live quite well on a diet of dog food and poultry mash, but Siri’s favorite treats included dried mealworms and crickets from the pet store.

However, these posed a few problems. He liked to eat a LOT of them, especially when I was training him to do tricks like playing the piano. And despite being insects, dried crickets and mealworms are not actually healthy snacks for a bird. They are mostly fat and indigestible chitin. Eating a whole lot of them is very unhealthy.

In addition, a 1.7-ounce jar of them at the pet store was in the $8- $10 range, usually the upper end of that range. At the rate he went through them, they were simply not worth the cost.

So I went looking for a healthier and cheaper starling snack. I focused on professional suppliers instead of trying to catch my own bugs to feed him, because wild bugs can carry various pesticides and parasites, and besides, I didn’t have the time to go catching that many.

Eventually, I found Arbico Organics’ Fly Delight.

This was a bag of dried, dead houseflies. And it seemed to be my wish come true. On their feeder insect page, Arbico Organics claimed that their pet treats “provide a natural varied diet that is easily digestible, and will not cause problems associated with chitinous, exoskeletal materials.” They carried no crickets or mealworms, but lots of flies, which have a thinner and softer exoskeleton. And they appeared to be raised in a pretty safe environment, unlikely to be infected with any diseases. Looked like a healthy snack to me.

The Fly Delight cost $6.50 for 0.20 ounces… more money per ounce than the mealworms or crickets I’d been buying. But in bulk, it was different. A 1-pound bag was $34, plus enough shipping to add up to $45.97. If I were to buy enough pet-store jars of crickets or mealworms to make up a pound, that would be nine or ten jars at over $8 apiece, for a total well over $70, and probably in the $80 to $90 range if I weren’t lowballing the prices. The Fly Delight was not only healthier, but close to half the price if I bought enough at once.

So I did, and when it arrived, I was impressed at the size of the bag. I’d had no idea that a pound of dead flies took up so much space! By volume, I was getting quite a lot for my money. This was going to last me a very, very long time.

I was also surprised that the text on the bag recommended refrigerating them. I wasn’t sure why; dried flies would probably be fine on the shelf, as long as it wasn’t too hot or humid. But just to be safe, I put them in a big container and stuck it in the back of the fridge, saving a handful of them in a small jar to keep close at hand.

Sirius loves them! In fact, at first he loved them so much that he wouldn’t even do tricks while I was holding them, because he couldn’t tear himself away from standing right next to them and staring directly at them! Eventually, he got used to them enough that I could use them as training treats, but he still counts them among his favorite things ever. As a starling snack, they are an absolute success.

While researching Arbico Organics, I found out that most of its business is not related to pet treats, but rather live bugs used in biological warfare against garden pests! They sell ladybugs, lacewings, nematodes, and lots of other beneficial organisms that eat things you don’t want to have on your plants.

This was of interest to me, because my windowsill garden was suffering from a bad spider-mite infestation. I could hardly get any beans out of my bean vines before the spider mites ate them alive, and my tomato plants would barely live to maturity at all. I had tried cleaning the leaves with a spray bottle of water, and another spray bottle with some soap and rosemary oil, but it was having limited success, and with Siri’s delicate avian respiratory system I didn’t want to spray harsher chemicals indoors.

I was quite interested in the Neoseiulus Californicus mites, which not only eat spider mites, but can survive during shortages of spider mites by eating other small arthropods and even pollen. They cost more than other spider-mite predators, but they seemed worth it because they wouldn’t immediately starve to death after they ate most of the spider mites, so they could potentially keep the scourge under control for a very long time.

Still, I was hesitant to spend $82.06, including the required overnight shipping for live organisms, when we were not in the greatest financial situation.

I bemoaned the whole thing to Sibre Collard, who surprised me with a wonderful offer. He hadn’t been sure what to get me for my birthday or Christmas, and seeing that it was about halfway between the two, he offered to buy them for me as a combined two-occasion gift.

You know someone is an amazing friend when he can grasp the weird fact that I would consider 1,000 live bugs to be a really good present.

1,000 was the smallest quantity they came in, and the site said “Use 1,000 per 4,500 sq. ft. of infested area,” so it was ridiculous overkill for a small garden like mine. I really should have shared them with other gardeners. But, alas, they had to be released within 18 hours of arrival, and I didn’t know anyone else who needed spider-mite predators and could pick them up within that time frame.

They arrived in a tiny jar inside a box mostly full of packing foam and cold-packs. The jar contained some grainy material like ground-up corncobs, but the mites seemed to be mostly crawling on the inside of the jar and its lid. They were barely visible to the naked eye, a lot smaller than my spider mites. I wondered if they’d actually be able to kill them, but the website said they preyed mostly on the larvae and eggs, so I figured it could work.

I sprinkled the grainy stuff in various spots on leaves and soil throughout my window garden, and set the jar and lid next to a plant in hopes that the mites would crawl off the jar into the right places. I pulled up all the plants that were too badly mite-eaten, but I left enough spider-mite-infested areas to make sure the new mites would be able to find food quickly and keep their population going.

After a few days, I didn’t see any more of them in or around the jar, so I guessed they were finding their way into the places where the spider mites were living. I couldn’t really see them on any of the leaves, but I knew they were hard to see, so I just waited and hoped they were doing their job.

Four weeks later, I’m very impressed! My garden’s growing well. The new bean vines I planted to replace the mite-eaten ones are flourishing without a single visible mite on them– the first time in months that I’ve been able to grow bean plants this far without them getting spider-mite-infested! I see an occasional spider mite on leaves of the tomato plants, but they’re not numerous enough to impede the plants’ growth. These mite predators really do their job!

I don’t know yet how long this will last. Maybe these lovely new mites will die of overpopulation in my little garden; maybe they’ll eat everything they can eat and run out of food. Maybe the humidity and temperature aren’t ideal for them and they’ll die from that. Who knows. If none of them survive, then maybe someday my spider-mite problem will come back. But still, I have plenty of hope.

So, all in all, I highly recommend Arbico Organics! The refrigeration requirement on the Fly Delight was a surprise that I wish they’d mentioned on the site, but that’s a small issue. I wish they sold the mite predators in a wider variety of quantities, but the 1,000-count jar certainly did the trick, and if you don’t want to buy that many, you can pool funds with other gardeners and share them if you’re better-prepared than I was.

Again, here are the links:

Arbico Organics

Feeder insect page

Fly Delight

Neoseiulus Californicus mites

Arbico Organics. Whether you’re feeding an insectivorous critter or growing veggies in your window, this site has what you’re looking for. High-quality, high-quantity BUGS.

Review of “The Uncovering,” a fantasy novel by Jes Young

“The Uncovering,” by Jes Young, isn’t a book I would have decided to read on my own. The fantasy genre isn’t first on my list of interests (though I have deeply enjoyed some fantasy novels), and this one was labeled as “romance” as well, which I had come to associate with a writing style that interested me even less.

I encountered the book because I was on the Enchanted Book Tours mailing list, and despite its deviations from my usual fare, something about the synopsis must have caught my eye… I decided to give it a try and post a review.

The story is centered around a young woman named Tabitha who finds out that she is really an elvish princess, destined to take her place as queen in a magical realm and marry an elvish man called Alex. But while her family prepares to put her on the throne, other forces are plotting to kill or capture her.

An enchantment, placed for the purpose of ensuring a happy marriage, causes Tabitha and her betrothed to feel irresistibly attracted to each other, which leads to some quite intense sexual scenes. But the story isn’t just built as an afterthought around the sexy parts, as many romance novels are. It’s a complete story, with fight scenes, snappy dialogue and lots of cleverly worded lines that stuck in my head long after reading them. Like this one, reminiscing on her sister Rivers’ long disappearance years ago:

Rivers left abruptly and without warning, which is, I guess, the crucial part of running away. If you plan it and tell everyone you’re going to do it, that’s just called moving.

Or this moment when she confronts her caretaker and asks him to “break the enchantment”:

“Spells are broken,” he said wearily. “Enchantments are laid and then, like a blanket, they are lifted. In any case we hardly make a habit of shouting about either in front of the staff.”
I didn’t think it was the time for a lesson in vocabulary or manners. Emily Post herself could have appeared to present me with a copy of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and I wouldn’t have cared even one bit.

There is a lot of description of characters’ appearances, from the color and style of their hair to the scarves and shoes they’re wearing, and at times (as a somewhat fashion-unconscious nerd) I found it tiresome. But such visual descriptions did reliably paint a clear picture in my mind, and some scenes felt to me like small but memorable bits of a blockbuster fantasy movie:

After a moment of hesitation I picked up the ornate wooden box and carefully worked open the silver clasp. Inside lay a circlet, a delicate ring of braided platinum vines and flowers and diamonds flashed and sparkled. I touched it tentatively, just with the tip of my finger, and the flowers and vines burst to life, transforming into living roses and ivy and vibrant blue forget-me-nots. Clustered around the diamonds, the living flowers were more beautiful than the platinum imitation could ever hope to be. The flowers disappeared, becoming metal again, when I took my hand away.

This doesn’t go down on my list of all-time favorite fantasy novels, because the plot doesn’t contain quite enough complexity and originality to make a strong impression on me. I had hoped that the main character would do more exciting and ingenious things on her own, instead of just watching events unfold, and a few times barely managing, by not-all-that-creative means, to fight off people who want to attack her. I also hoped I’d get to see her spend some time in her destined fairyland, which, sadly, she doesn’t get to visit before the book ends.

But then, this is only the first book in a series, and Tabitha does pretty well for a beginner who was thrown into the whole mess after a lifetime of thinking she would never have to handle crap like this. And if we don’t get to see the inside of the elf realm she’s destined to rule, that’s all the more reason to read the next book in the series. I’m in no position to condemn that, in any case, since my novel “Kea’s Flight” got criticism in one review for not ending with the ship landing on a planet. The planet is planned for the sequel, folks; I will get to it eventually. And, I’m sure, so will Jes Young.

I count it as a victory that the book managed to rack up more pros than cons for me, despite the annoying perfectionism I can sometimes have. My language obsession messed with the enjoyment in some parts, as it usually does when I’m trying to enjoy fiction. Sometimes I found sentences that contained errors or unclarity, like the second sentence in the paragraph about the crown. (Should the comma be a semicolon, or should “platinum vines and” be replaced with “platinum vines on which”?)

Other times I took issue with the way made-up terms were used, even though a fiction author has every right to use made-up terms however she wishes. (In this book, light elves are called “We of the Light” and dark elves are called “They of the Dark”– even when they’re the object of the sentence. On reading sentences like “You won’t need to hide from They of the Dark,” my pedantry kept screaming out, “From THEM of the Dark! THEM!” I’m glad I don’t know any actual elves, because they would certainly not appreciate my attempts to police their use of their own elvish terminology.)

I really liked many of the descriptions of romance– not just the sex scenes, but the handful of random realistic details about life and love that happened to catch my eye. I may not be one to talk, because my love life has consisted of pretty much just John, but I feel the author paints a believable picture of being torn between an old love and a new one, still having feelings for both.

For a romance novel, this is a surprisingly clever and entertaining book. The dialogue and internal monologues are witty and very alive, and I never had to make any effort to keep turning pages. It may not be a powerful and epic work of literature, but it’s a fun read and I’m pretty sure the sequels will be even better, with the potential I see in this author.

Speaking of destiny, when I started reading this book I had no idea that it had starlings in it! Pleasant surprise there. They’re not normal starlings, they’re magical ones with red eyes and apparent psychic powers, but they’re in the book:

“Well, one of them may have indicated that he wanted me to go outside.”
“He said that?”
“He didn’t say anything, because he was a bird. But he tapped on the window when I asked if he wanted me to come out.”
“That wasn’t a bird, it was a harbinger.”
“A harbinger of what?” I asked. “You better not say doom.”
“Not doom,” George laughed, “change. The starlings means change is coming to you; one part of your life is over and another part is about to begin.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “they’re certainly right about that.”

“The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

Here’s an interview with Jes Young! Thanks for joining me on my blog, Jes!

Erika: I’m very entertained by your style of narrative. What fantasy and romance authors have inspired you?
 
Jes: A few years ago I decided I wanted to write a book about elves. I imagined it as your basic good versus evil, light versus dark, princess in disguise fantasy story with a beautiful heroine, a handsome prince, some unresolved daddy issues, and a quest for revenge. It sounded simple. I sat down and, drawing on everything I learned about writing fantasy fiction by watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I wrote the first draft of The Uncovering. And that’s when I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance. I was in way over my head.
 
As is so often the case, I found the solution to my problem in a book, in many books actually but I feel most indebted to Karen Marie Moning and Kresley Cole. They both do, seemingly effortlessly, what I want to do with my writing. That is create fun, engaging, sexy, moving stories about people you really like and care about.

Erika: As I was reading the story, I found many of the scenes easy to imagine in a movie. I’m sure most of us authors fantasize from time to time about our work being made into a film. If “The Uncovering” were a movie, what actors would you imagine playing the characters?
 
Jes: Would you believe that I have a Pinterest.com board dedicated to this very thing? http://www.pinterest.com/jesyoungwrites/characters/
 

Erika: I once heard someone complain about some elf-related movie because the elves didn’t have pointed ears.  He said pointed ears are the defining feature of an elf, and if the ears are round you can’t call it an elf at all. I can’t say I agree with him, but I’m still surprised when I see elves that don’t have distinguishing features of some kind.  What factors affected your decision to make your elves look physically pretty much identical to humans (instead of having them look “traditionally” elvish and hide their appearance through some enchantment when in the human world)?
 
Jes: I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Tolkien made that whole pointy ears thing up, and that before that the shape of elf’s ear was not an issue. He was a storyteller, and a great one, so that’s absolutely his right. Making stuff up, creating your world and the rules of it and what everyone looks like is a big part of what makes telling this kind of story fun. In my own work, I decided that what set the Elvish apart from the humans was their beauty, their, strength, and their eyes which change colors based on their emotional state. I liked the idea that they could almost blend in – but then not quite. I suppose it was a way of making them my own.
 
In the second book there’s a character, a water witch named Jenny Greenteeth, who’s green and she uses magic to blend in.
 
Erika: This may sound weird, but I love it that you included starlings in the book! I’m a bird-lover, and I have a pet starling that was raised from an abandoned baby. Sure, starlings are an invasive species and a pest in the USA– probably because they’re too smart for their own good– but they just have a charm I can’t resist. What reasons did you have for making starlings the “harbingers of change” in Tabitha’s life?
 

Jes: The starlings are in the book because someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of a starling murmuration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY

I watched the birds flying around together, looping and swirling in a way that seemed random and yet perfectly choreographed, and I thought it was beautiful and a little spooky.
 
When I sat down to write, that image was in my head. With no particular plan for them in my mind, I added them into the story – as atmosphere mostly. The more I wrote about them though, the more important they became until finally they’d taken on a life of their own. In the second book, they’re a major character.

Once more, “The Uncovering” is available from MP Publishing. Go check it out!

The animal-hoarder of 1930’s Vienna: A review of “King Solomon’s Ring”

I’ve just finished reading Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring,” a naturalist’s account of his life with a ridiculous number of not-so-domestic animals. It was recommended to me by a guest at a speech, because I had mentioned during the speech that we had just adopted a pet starling. So, of course, I went into this reading experience with the expectation that starlings would be a main feature of the book.

In that respect, I was disappointed, but overall the book has been more fun than I could have imagined.

It was published in 1952, and describes events from much earlier, most of which took place in Europe before World War II. Lorenz was an Englishman living in Austria (having lived in Austria for a semester myself, the setting as well as the subject matter was of interest to me). He, and his wife and children, lived in a house that also contained dogs, mongooses, monkeys, apes, parrots, jackdaws, geese, lemurs, hamsters, water-shrews, crows, an eagle, and any number of other bizarre animals– mostly not even kept in cages, or if they had cages, they were allowed outside of them most of the time. Lorenz saw his pets as both companions and research subjects; he let them run free partly because he valued their happiness, and partly because he felt he could observe their behavior more naturally that way.

In both the body of the book and the foreword by another author, Konrad’s wife is described as saintly for putting up with all this. She’s quoted as saying that she managed to tolerate it because she spent more time at her job than at home. But, as another married woman with a fascination for nature and the bizarre, I find myself wondering. Did she put up with it because of a sense of wifely duty? Or did she actually, deep down, enjoy living in a zoo– as I might– but feel hesitant to say so in a day and age when no “proper” woman would feel anything but disgust for such a situation?

In the present day and age– and in the USA– such a situation, of course, wouldn’t even be tolerated by law enforcement. Native birds can’t legally be taken from their nests as Lorenz described (though non-native birds like starlings are fair game) and there are very few places to live where you could keep a pet ape or mongoose without some sort of special permit. From his account it seems that his animals were happy, but I can still imagine modern neighbors rushing to call animal control (not to mention child protection services– according to his narrative, sometimes the only safe place for a child in his house was inside a large cage.)

But his stories of animal behavior are still delightful to read, if one makes allowances for the time he lived in, and the different values of that time.

He gives a fascinating account of the territorial behavior of sticklebacks and cichlids in his aquariums, making the reader see more depth and complexity in these little fish than previously imagined. His story of keeping water-shrews is hilarious, this time not because of the animals’ complexity, but because of how simple their minds are, and how absolutely baffled they find themselves when an obstacle in their cage is moved.

For a scientist of his time period, I find his view of animals surprisingly balanced between the extremes of anthropomorphizing them and reducing them to thoughtless and unfeeling automatons. He recognizes that, being distantly related to us, they have many of the same basic drives and instincts as humans, and probably feel similar emotions, but he also frequently reminds the reader that the animals come at things from their own perspective, which is often totally unlike the human perspective.

There certainly are times when I suspect he’s jumping to conclusions in his interpretation of his pets’ behavior. It’s easy to be wrong about the motives for an action, even the action of a close human friend or relative, let alone the action of a creature physically and mentally very unlike us and living a completely different sort of life. He makes the best guesses he can about why his animals do what they do, but his observations are inevitably somewhat hampered by his own attachment to them and the not-quite-natural environment in which he’s observing them.

He’s also, of course, a product of his time when it comes to errors in the biological sciences. He devotes an entire chapter to the differences in personality and temperament between the breeds of dogs descended from wolves and the breeds descended from jackals– which looks pretty ridiculous to someone reading in an era when all the genetic evidence indicates that dogs are 100% descended from wolves and none of them have any jackal blood.

Still, for his era, he’s very advanced in his understanding of animal behavior, and even when he might be wrong, his accounts are still a lot of fun to read. I only wish he had written more about starlings.

His mentions of starlings are confined to a few paragraphs, in which he recommends them as an easy-to-raise pet for the inexperienced keeper of animals, and describes their infancy, rate of growth, and the diet they should be fed in captivity. He only briefly mentions that they can be affectionate and learn to mimic words.

In the little he says about them, I can see tons of things that would outrage my friends on the Starlingtalk.com forum. The foods he advocates have virtually no overlap with what present-day starling-keepers consider a healthy diet, and he actually recommends taking infant birds from their nests to raise them, which is heavily frowned-on among the starling-lovers I’ve met online.

But for me personally, the biggest disappointment was that he didn’t include any actual stories of life with a starling. He makes it known that he raised them, but sadly, he gives no specific examples. His accounts of the antics of his other pets are so delightful that I think I would have loved some funny tales of the things his starlings learned to say, the mischief they made playing with jewelry and the like, or any of the other silly things that they must have done, if my own pet starling is at all typical of the species.

He does make up for it, though, by giving many pages to the lives of his colony of jackdaws. They’re not starlings, but they are similar birds, being very social, very affectionate and able to mimic speech. The hierarchy, social rules and interactions within his jackdaw society are utterly fascinating and lovingly described, reminding me a lot of the descriptions of raven society in the more recent book “Ravens in Winter.”

Even though starlings were somewhat neglected in his narrative, I’ve found that a side effect of reading Lorenz’s prose is a tendency to observe my own pet as he would. Whole paragraphs of Lorenzian naturalist description pop into my head from time to time as I watch Sirius the starling, and I find myself wording my own my observations in a 1950’s English scientist’s writing style:

“On the whole, Sirius prefers for his sustenance such foods that are white or very light-coloured, or black or very dark-coloured, and regards with suspicion any proffered fruit of a brighter orange or red hue; this, I believe, owing to the proclivity of the starling for feeding primarily upon insects in the wild, and his instinctive knowledge that the insects upon which a wild starling may most safely feast are those of dark colouration, such as the ants and house-flies, and the black beetles which are ever present in a garden, as well as those of light colouration, as the larvae of such beetles, and fly-maggots– the species that bear patches of bright colour most often doing so to signal to their enemies that they are venomous, or at the very least, foul-tasting.”

The Second Mango, by Shira Glassman: A Book Review

Full disclosure: I didn’t receive any gifts in exchange for writing this review. However, the author is a dear friend of mine, and she and I were sharing and proofreading each other’s writing back when we were college kids, so I can’t promise a purely objective review. I will do my best to be honest, though, and I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t like the book!

“The Second Mango,” by Shira Glassman, is a fantasy story about (as the author says) “a gay woman, a straight woman, and a dragon.” The gay woman, Shulamit, is the young queen of Perach. The straight woman, Rivka, is a warrior from another nation. The dragon is a shape-shifter that can be either dragon or horse, and provides transportation as the two women travel together, seeking a potential sweetheart for the lonely Shulamit.

The account of their journey is interspersed with flashbacks to the passions in each of their pasts: Rivka’s star-crossed love for her late mentor Isaac, whose vow of chastity prevented anything from happening even before she lost him… and Shulamit’s long-ago romance with the palace cook Aviva, who nursed her through sickness, won her heart, and then left. Despite their differences, Shula and Riv find they have an uncommon amount in common.

The story, however, steers clear of the expected tropes. This is not a tale of a lesbian convincing a straight woman to explore gay love; the plot goes in another direction, which I think turns out to be far more satisfying. Things work out in a way that I never saw coming, even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.

There were some aspects of the surprise ending that seemed perhaps too convenient, but then, this is a world of magic and mysticism, where it’s easy to imagine a kindly personification of Fate smiling on the heroines. They certainly deserve it; I liked them both from the beginning.

I also loved the characters of Isaac and Aviva in the flashbacks. Rivka and Isaac have a very entertaining rapport, and Aviva’s voice is adorable, constantly finding weird and random ways to describe things. (I guess this is one more thing Shira Glassman and I have in common. I too have a weakness for bizarre speech patterns, although Draz’s speech in my book “Kea’s Flight” is a different brand of weirdness.)

The approach to social issues is also very fresh and original. Shulamit is wealthy and sheltered, Rivka is a skilled warrior who supports herself. Shulamit is a lesbian in a country where such things are barely talked about; Rivka belongs to the expected sexual orientation. Rivka grew up shamed for being born out of wedlock, and never got to know her father; Shulamit grew up with a loving father but then lost him in a tragic accident. Their struggles are different, but the story never implies that one struggles more than the other, or that one’s concerns are more valid.

It also breaks many rules about what character traits are “supposed” to go together. The lesbian loves pretty dresses and jewelry; the straight woman carries a sword and dresses in men’s armor. The seasoned warrior is a virgin; the sweet and sheltered princess has experience with physical intimacy. Both are far more complex than the archetypes of fairy tales.

Shulamit’s complexity contains a few more interesting factors. She is a bit of a geek and bookworm, with great talent for figuring out puzzles. And, unlike any other heroine I’ve seen in an adventure novel, she suffers from debilitating allergies: some foods are indigestible to her and make her violently ill.

Having a somewhat sensitive digestive system myself, I was initially concerned that the book would contain some distasteful scenes. Such issues hit close to home for me, and I can get very uncomfortable reading about them. But I needn’t have worried. By the time the story happens, Shulamit has gotten very good at managing her condition. Though her need to avoid certain foods becomes very relevant to the plot in some places, the worst events are all in the past, and are mentioned quite discreetly.

And I have to admit it’s wonderful to see a heroine with a disability, even one that’s considered “mild,” such as food sensitivities. As a girl who grew up diagnosed with various mild disorders, I had a shortage of relatable role models in popular culture.

No Disney princess even wears glasses, not even the book-loving Belle. Little girls with less-than-perfect vision learn early that they have to get contacts or eye surgery if they want to dress up convincingly as their fairy tale heroines. Girls with allergies must similarly feel that there’s no one in the world who has faced the same troubles and succeeded in life.

Shulamit breaks with tradition here, and unlike heroines “cursed” with a disability, like Disney’s mute Little Mermaid, Shulamit doesn’t need to break her curse to have a happy ending.

The title, “The Second Mango,” reminds me of the struggling author in Agatha Christie’s “Mystery of the Spanish Shawl,” who was writing a story titled “The Second Cucumber” just because he thought the words sounded interesting. I imagine Shira Glassman having similar inspiration. The title is certainly intriguing, and while it does tie in to a market-shopping scene that forms a significant point in the development of the heroines’ friendship, it feels as if the story was built more around the title than vice versa. But then, the book is partly about playful words and food metaphors, so it doesn’t seem so out of place.

Yes, this is the author’s first novel, and in some ways the writing shows this. But it also shows a creative and clever mind, and a skill for delicately beautiful descriptions of food, flowers and nature, which often have a charming old-fashioned feel that hearkens back to the prose of Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery. And, as someone who has been allowed a sneak preview of the sequel, I can say with certainty that this new author is getting better and better.

“The Second Mango” is available from Prizm Books.

Smartphone Software Review

phone

So, a while ago I saw an ad, on the top of the webcomic “Questionable Content.” It’s one of my favorite webcomics, and it usually doesn’t support itself with ads for crappy stuff, so I thought the ad was worth a try– even though it made the dubious claim that the advertised product allowed you to earn money with your smartphone.

Turned out the ad was for an app called “tTap,” downloadable at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bcd.ttap. The idea is: 

-The app makes an advertisement show up on your screen before you unlock your phone. 

-A company is paying to put the ad there. Some of the money from that goes to the makers of the app, and some goes to you.

-You get the money by saving up “points” that you get when you unlock the phone. When you have enough points, you can exchange them for money that is deposited in your PayPal account.

The app had pretty good reviews, and I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment, so I downloaded it. First it had me set up an account on their website, and give them the email address connected to my PayPal account. 

After a few weeks of using it, these are my observations:

1. 

The app runs pretty smoothly now. During the first week I was using it, it was still pretty buggy, and crashed a few times– I had to reinstall it at one point. But because my account is on their site, I didn’t lose any points when reinstalling. And now they seem to have fixed most of the bugs.

2.

The ads are not that bad. They don’t play sound, and they aren’t videos, they’re just a picture and words (sometimes with a little bit of animation) that you see before you unlock the phone. You get it to go away by putting your finger in the lower right corner and moving the circle across the screen to the left. As you move it, a number will appear, showing you how many points you will get for that ad. 

Once you’ve done this, it takes you to your usual screen where you enter your PIN to unlock the phone, and then it opens up a website linked from the ad. Based on the interests I entered when I signed up for it, I generally get ads for apps, games, photographers and other artists. It doesn’t fit perfectly with what I thought I expressed in my choice of interests, but it’s not totally obnoxious.

You can close the website right after it opens, or even as it’s loading. For me, the whole process only takes a few seconds longer than unlocking my phone normally. 

3.

It really does pay you money. If you have a Paypal account and you have at least 1500 points to cash in, you can receive an actual Paypal payment. I’ve received three payouts so far– totalling $3.

Which brings us to the one catch:

 
4.

Unsurprisingly,  it doesn’t pay very much money. 

On a typical ad, unlocking your phone gets you 10 points. Every once in a while you get an ad for a free app that gives you 150 points if you download the app– because certain apps are supported with ads from tTap’s sponsors– but those are rare; I’ve only gotten 2 so far.

It takes 1500 points to equal one dollar, so 10 points is less than a cent. To earn a dollar (the minimum amount for getting a Paypal payout) you have to gain points from unlocking your phone 150 times.

Of course, if you sat around all day constantly unlocking your phone, you could game the system, so there are some restrictions. Unlocking your phone doesn’t get you points if it’s been less than 20 minutes since the last time you earned points. So in addition to taking 150 unlocks to earn a dollar, it also takes about ten days, if you unlock your phone an average of 15 times a day. Even if you unlocked it every 20 minutes, like clockwork, for ten hours a day, it would still take five days to make a dollar.

So is it worth it? Suppose unlocking your phone this way takes about 5 seconds longer than unlocking your phone without the ads. Every 150 unlocks (or every 750 seconds of your time) earns you a dollar, so you’re working for about $4.80 an hour. Not a great wage by any stretch of the imagination.

But on the other hand, I figure my time is only worth money if I might otherwise be using it to earn money, or do something else valuable. I use my smartphone just to keep myself from dying of boredom while waiting for various things, and I have an unlimited data plan. If I weren’t spending those five extra seconds seeing an ad, those would just be five more seconds I’d be blankly staring at some website to kill time, so I might as well make three-quarters of a cent off it.

Full disclosure: The company that made tTap didn’t offer me anything in exchange for writing this review. However, if you download this app and enter “earthtoerika” (my tTap username) when it asks how you found out about it, I get 500 points, so I can’t claim this review has no motive to be biased.