Saturday, November 27, 2010

"How to Die in the Outdoors: 110 Grisly Ways to Croak" by Buck Tilton

By living a normal, boring life, you have an excellent chance of becoming yet another statistic on the list of leading causes of death. Of course, the process can be accelerated by forgoing exercise, eating lots of fat, smoking, drinking heavily (not water), and worrying. Buck Tilton prefers to ponder the alternatives. In How to Die in the Outdoors, he presents 110 far more interesting and unique ways to perish, from such intriguing scenarios as snake bite, elephant foot, walrus tusk, and rhino horn. In a straightforward style, with easy-to-understand terms and all laced with his trademark wit, Tilton describes not only the details of how you can die - some intriguingly gory, yet all based (more or less) on facts - but also ways to avoid death should a life-threatening situation arise before you're ready to leave this world for whatever afterlife there might be.

This book reminds me of the "Worst-Case Scenario Survival" series written by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. Those brilliant little books gave us all sorts of ways to survive different "worst-case" scenarios, such as "life", "college", "travel", etc. This book by Tilton isn't quite as humorous as that series, but it's got some interesting information.

The blurb on the back of the book is correct in that the information is presented in a very-easy-to-understand formula. In fact, I found myself skipping over some of the beginning basic info on each of the critters/poisons/etc that can kill you and just getting into the meat of the thing, also known as the "Why You Die" section. The descriptions in some cases are very grisly (such as being stomped by an elephant), while others proved to be quite informative. For example, in the section "Fooled by Frozen Water", Tilton explains that most people think you die from hypothermia after falling through thin ice, such as the type found on a lake or river during early winter. But that's not how you meet your end - you die by drowning. What happens is the sudden fall catches you off guard, and as you fall into the frigid water, you inhale... a mouthful of water. And it doesn't take much water to drown. Hypothermia would typically take almost thirty minutes to kill a person, and most of the people who choose to walk out on a not-fully-frozen-lake drown minutes after they fall through the thin ice. Good to know!

I also like the small ending codas on each section, also known as "How to Live". Most of the scenarios involve getting immediate medical attention, especially for the venomous bites of snakes, spiders, scorpions and other such creepy-crawlies. Tilton often advises the reader to stay away from the danger, such as raging rhinos and cranky crocodiles. But if you can't stay away, sometimes you just need to stand still; a lot of the bigger animals have poor eyesight and might not realize you're "food" if you stand statue-still. And don't run away - a lot of the animals find that very enticing and will give chase.

It's a fun little book, and it certainly gives one food for thought, if you'll pardon the pun. I recommend it for light weekend reading.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Blockade Billy" by Stephen King

Even the most diehard baseball fans don't know the true story of William "Blockade Billy" Blakely. He may have been the greatest player the game has ever seen, but today no one remembers his name. He was the first - and only - player to have his existence completely removed from the record books. Even his team is long forgotten, barely a footnote in the game's history. Every effort was made to erase any evidence that William Blakely played professional baseball, and with good reason. Blockade Billy had a secret darker than any pill or injection that might cause a scandal in sports today. His secret was much, much worse... and only Stephen King, the most gifted storyteller of our age, will be able to reveal the truth to the world, once and for all.

This is a special hardcover edition by Cemetery Dance of this never-before-published novella by King. Now, normally I really enjoy King's short works. This wasn't my favorite, though, and I think it's simply because of the subject matter - baseball. Not a sport I personally play or enjoy.

The style is nice, though, with the former equipment manager of the New Jersey Titans narrating to "Mr. King" as if King is a reporter. George Grantham ("Granny" to the players) has seen a lot in his time, but nothing like that summer in the 1950s when William Blockade was called up from the Iowa Cornhuskers after two accidents take the Titans' catchers out the game. Billy is a bit of an odd duck, talking to himself under his breath and parroting back whatever he's told. But the kid can catch, and he can hit - making him a double threat. Billy becomes good friends with Danny Dusen, the Titans' pitcher who is nearing 200 home runs. But there's definitely something not right about Billy, something spooky....

As I said, this is a well-written novella, but just not my cup of tea due to the fact that it's about baseball. I'm not very schooled on all the rules, and some of the lingo didn't make much sense to me. I got the gist of the story, though, and thankfully, it's pretty short. I did like the end, the King twist that explains what's off about Billy - classic King. My real beef with this is the price. If you run out and purchase this very small 112 page book, it will cost you $25 retail. Um, excuse me? That's the typical price for a full novel! Instead, look for it at your local library or search for the 144 page edition that's about $10 less. Unless you're a collector of Stephen King's work, in which case you'll probably want this particular Cemetery Dance version.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Silver Borne" by Patricia Briggs

Mercy Thompson, car mechanic and shape-shifter, never knows what the day - or night - may bring in a world where "witches, vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters live beside ordinary people" (Booklist). But she is about to learn that while some secrets are dangerous, those who seek them are just plain deadly... Mercy is smart enough to realize that when it comes to the magical fae, the less you know, the better. But you can't always get what you want. When she attempts to return a powerful fae book she previously borrowed in an act of desperation, she finds the bookstore locked up and closed down. It seems the book contains secrets - and the fae will do just about anything to keep it out of the wrong hands. And if that doesn't take enough of Mercy's attention, her friend Samuel is struggling with his wolf side - leaving Mercy to cover for him lest his own father declare Samuel's life forfeit. All in all, Mercy has had better days. And if she isn't careful, she may not have many more...

There's not much I can say about this that won't start giving things away, so I'll try to stay away from the plot. The blurb on the jacket pretty much does my work for me, anyway. Here's what I will tell you: Briggs scores again with this installment of her Mercy Thompson series. I've loved these from the start, and I still love them now. If you keep up with my reviews, you know that I read a lot of series in this vein, so for an author to keep me wanting them, that's saying a lot.

Briggs consistently provides excellent character development, well-written plots, and great action. There's just enough romance/sexual tension to keep one happy, and I've gotten to the point where I appreciate the subtle touch that one can find in "urban fantasy" or whatever you want to call it. I used to have find my wolves and vamps in the Romance section, but those are a dime a dozen now (and honestly, a lot of the books are just plain awful). It's so nice to have good - no, great - authors writing what I like to read without all the bodice-ripping fanfare!

If you enjoy a good story about a woman finding her way in the world, falling in love with a handsome man, and getting comfortable in a profession of her choosing, then Briggs and Mercy are a good bet. Yes, Mercy is a shape-shifter, and yes, her man is the Alpha of a werewolf pack, and yes, she just happens to be a mechanic, but no one said life is perfect.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Grave Humor" by M. T. Coffin

It's almost embarrassing to say I "read" this book; it took me all of about 10 minutes to flip through the whole thing. But it provided me with some awesome laughs, and with the world the way it is these days, one needs to laugh as often as one can.

The book operates on a very simple principle. On the left page you see a photo of a tombstone with the name of the dearly departed. On the right page is some sort of humorous comment about said tombstone. Sometimes there's only one headstone and the comment is about the name, or the epitaph if the deceased chose to have one done. Other times there's more than one headstone and the comment page points out how well they go together, such as the two headstones in the same cemetery mere feet apart that read "Maxwell" and "House". The comment page? "Dead to the last drop".

Hey, I never said it was intellectual humor!

There are the odd headstones, too, the ones that are shaped like something from the person's occupation during life and some "infamous" last words. Overall, it's a funny and cute book, but I'm not sure I'd actually pay the almost $11 retail suggested on the back. It would make a great gift for the person in your life with a warped sense of humor, or perhaps if you exchange Halloween gifts...

Monday, November 15, 2010

"I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas" by Lewis Black

Let's get one thing clear from the very start: Lewis Black is Jewish. That's right, the man is a Jew. Black points out this very fact during a lunch with his editor when the man starts asking about plans for Black's next book. His editor suggests a Christmas book, since they're all the rage now. Black spouts off his history (Jewish, never celebrated Christmas, etc), only to have his editor pull out the big guns; Glenn Beck wrote a Christmas book. Oh Lord, that's like waving a red flag in front of the proverbial bull.

Let the festivities begin!

The book follows Black and his angst as the holiday approaches; we start at Thanksgiving. Lewis is snug on the beach in a nice foreign locale, only to have his bliss interrupted by a screaming child (and then many screaming children). He rants a bit about the fact that he travels out of the country to escape the familial insanity of Turkey Day, only to have it now intrude upon him; he also complains about people that insist on bringing small children, those really too young to understand/enjoy the trip, on such a foreign holiday. (Couldn't agree with him more, like taking very tiny tots to Disney World - they'll just get scared by the "characters" and tired way too fast - wait until they're at least 5 yrs old or so)

After giving up on his blissful beach bask, Black arrives back in the U.S.A. to the full onslaught of Christmas craziness - the sales, the carols, the crass commercialism, etc. Then the big day itself arrives - Christmas. Lewis travels to two different friends houses for dinner and realizes what the "true" meaning of Christmas is (or should be): love, the love of your family and friends (and no, those two categories are not always interchangeable). Of course he eats way too much, and he doesn't buy presents for the children as he's never sure what to get them (earning him some nasty sighs); he finally piles himself into a cab late in the evening after much good food and even better red wine and takes his bloated self home, only 365-ish days left before he'll have to do it all over again.

This is not your typical holiday fare. It's an irreverent look at a holiday that has been grossly commercialized in our time. But for someone who isn't Christian, who doesn't believe in "the reason for the season", I think Black actually gets it better than most. For example, he goes on a small tirade about the phrase "Merry Christmas", asking when it became such a horrible thing to utter to one another, why it's so offensive to some this time of year. I couldn't agree with him more! I'm not what one would call a person of great faith, but I say "Merry Christmas" to people anyway - and I'm not offended when they say it to me.

Black also reflects very seriously on the idea of family, or rather, his lack of one. He was very briefly married, has never had children (definitely need to read this to get the full scoop), and at this "wonderful" time of the year, he finds himself questioning his life - should he have found someone to spend his life with? Should he have had children (it's too late now, he claims, as he doesn't want to be the "grandpa" watching his kid play ball). Does he donate enough to charity, does he donate to the right charities, and can he donate enough to offset his behavior (drinking, gluttony, etc)? Can a bitter, neurotic, possibly crazy Jew play Santa Claus convincingly? Better yet, should he? There are lots of laughs here, but Black also does some serious reflection on his life, and how we should be living our own.

The book closes with a sort of postscript chapter about Black's invitation to tour with the USO, entertaining our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a beautiful way to end the book, even though it has nothing to do with Christmas. Yes, Virginia, a Jew really can teach us a lot about the holiday. Pick this up for a break from the saccharine offerings that are usually found in your local bookstore/library during the holiday - you need a good laugh to get you through the season!

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Buy Back" by Brian Wiprud

I do believe Wiprud just keeps getting better. I was very impressed with his previous book, "Feelers", and "Buy Back" is another gem. This time we get an inside track on the world of art theft and forgery, including lots of insider terms (nicely described and worked into the story by the author).

Tommy Davin certainly looks like he could be a criminal: standing six-foot-six and weighing in at 270 lbs, he's an imposing figure. And while he bills himself as an "insurance investigator", he's really working on the fringes of what could be considered legal; his job is more recovery of the stolen works so that the insurance company doesn't have to pay out the claim, and he's given fairly free rein to get the art back in any manner he sees fit to use. Despite his vocation, he's actually a pretty nice guy, one who refuses to carry a gun and uses tantric breathing to calm himself during stressful moments.

Unfortunately for Tommy, he's also a sucker for the wrong woman. His ex-girlfriend has flown the coop, leaving him with her $15,000 debt to a local loan shark - and her four cats, dubbed the Fuzz Face Four by Davin. Poor Tommy. He's saddled with Snuggles, the cat who "vomit(s)... like a fire hose", Lady Fuzz who has serious litter box issues, Tigsy the diabetic kittie, and Herman, the cat who wouldn't eat. He complains about them but you can tell that he also cares about them, especially after realizing that they've been kidnapped (he says more than once that he hopes whoever took the felines is giving Tigsy his insulin... awww...). Then the threatening notes start showing up under his front door. Only problem is the notes are written in Russian, and Tommy doesn't read Russian. But he has bigger problems...

In an attempt to pay off the loan shark, Tommy sets up his own art theft using a couple guys from the neighborhood that are known in the industry. His luck keeps getting worse when the crew inform him that the paintings they stole...were stolen from them. Adding insult to injury, Tommy's "employer" contacts him and asks him to investigate the theft, putting him in an awkward position. As he starts his "investigation", those around him start losing their lives in the most horrible fashion - shot to death by a sniper. And Davin is fairly certain that the sniper has missed each time - because he's been standing right next to the recently deceased during each incident. The police think Tommy is responsible for the shootings, even though he keeps telling them that he was the intended target. And that loan shark isn't getting any more patient about his money.

It's a wonderful little crime drama with the usual quirky Wiprud characters. The Brooklyn setting totally works, and the character development is excellent. If you like action, this book also has plenty of that, including the sniper scenes - very descriptive and actually pretty gruesome. Tommy Davin is a fabulous protagonist, and I hope that Wiprud revisits the neighborhood, and Tommy, sometime down the road.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Demon from the Dark" by Kresley Cole

Malkom Slaine: tormented by his sordid past and racked by vampiric hungers, he's pushed to the brink by the green-eyed beauty under his guard. Carrow Graie: hiding her own sorrows, she lives only for the next party or prank. Until she meets a tortured warrior worth saving. In order for Malkom and Carrow to survive, he must unleash both the demon and vampire inside him. When Malkom becomes the nightmare his own people feared, will he lose the woman he craves body and soul?

Cole has returned to form with her eighth entry in her Immortals After Dark series. I liked the last few books well enough, but they lacked the oomph of the first entries. Luckily, this romance between Malkom and Carrow shows that Cole still has it.

The story is pretty much the same as all the other books, except that now we know where beings from the Lore have been vanishing to - a secret facility run by humans who think the creatures of the Lore threaten all humans' existence (think the old torch and pitchfork townsfolk, only with much better equipment). Carrow is trapped there, forced to wear a collar that prevents her from using her witchy powers, and desperate to escape. She's offered a "deal" - travel to the plane of Oblivion and lure Malkom, half-demon/half-vampire, back to the portal so that the humans can trap him, too. In return for her "help", she'll be released - with her niece Ruby. Of course Carrow agrees, especially when she learns that Ruby's mother has been killed. And of course Carrow is about 99% sure that she's going to get screwed by the humans. But what's a witch to do?

Malkom is the classic tortured soul, made a vampire against his will. Born to a hussy of a mother, he was sold/turned out by her to the vampires as a sex/blood slave, only to be tossed aside into the cruel streets when he became too old to satisfy (our "vemon" reminded me a lot of LKH's Acheron...) Malkom is befriended by the leader of the demons, who becomes his best friend. Unfortunately, the vampires invade Oblivion and pretty much try to take over the place; they are almost run out until Malkom and his king are caught and turned by the Viceroy (head vamp). Malkom believes his best friend betrays him (you'll have to read the book to find out what happens)... and he kills him, making him even more of a pariah among his people.

Carrow and Malkom are so obviously meant for each other it's not funny. And yet, it is - Carrow is an awesome character with a very smart mouth on her. I really enjoyed Cole's strong female character this time: the right amount of sass and spunk without too much drama. The only thing I wasn't too sure about was her insistence that Malkom and her not have sex; I think she was worried about getting pregnant, but I'm not entirely sure. However, I will admit that the scenes where Carrow tries to explain that they can't, well, you know.... hysterical!

This book has restored my faith in Cole as a writer, and I've already put the next installment on my Amazon Wishlist. A great story, awesome action, a well-developed romance (and the relationship with Ruby is much appreciated, too), it all comes together and makes for a very satisfying read.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Perfect Fifths" by Megan McCafferty

Captivated readers have followed Jessica through every step and misstep: from her life as a tormented, tart-tongued teenager to her years as a college grad stumbling toward adulthood. Now a young professional in her mid-twenties, Jess is off to a Caribbean wedding. As she rushes to her gate at the airport, she literally runs into her former boyfriend, Marcus Flutie. It's the first time she's seen him since she reluctantly turned down his marriage proposal three years earlier - and emotions run high. Marcus and Jessica have both changed dramatically, yet their connection feels as familiar as ever. Is their reunion just a fluke or has fate orchestrated this collision of their lives once again? Told partly from Marcus's point of view, Perfect Fifths finally lets readers inside the mind of the one person who's both troubled and titillated Jessica Darling for years. Expect nothing less than the satisfying conclusion fans have been waiting for, one perfect in its imperfection...

I'd read the first four books about Jessica Darling and her life in high school/college, and while I enjoyed them, I wasn't really sure I wanted to read this last book. It's been quite a while since I read the fourth book, and if my memory serves correctly, I wasn't all that into it; it felt a bit tired, like we'd been there and done that. However, I thought I owed it to myself to at least attempt to finish the series, as so many authors these days seem to keep them going and going and going... sort of like the Energizer Bunny, and not always in a good way.

Imagine my very pleasant surprise at finding a much more mature Jessica literally running into the love of her life, Marcus Flutie - in the middle of an airport no less. Jessica has been working almost nonstop with her teen girls writing project, and while she still finds the work rewarding, she's grown very, very tired of life on the road. Adding to her stress is the medical crisis of one of her former proteges, one of the only ones she really got to know. Sick to death with worry, weary beyond her years, and trying to make her flight to officiate at her best friend's wedding, she slams right into Marcus, knocking them both for the proverbial loop.

Marcus has realized how much he is not over Jessica, something he knows the minute he hears her name on the intercom. After all, it doesn't necessarily have to be his Jessica; there's the porn star that shares her name, after all. He's done his best to get on with his life, but it hasn't been easy. And then Jessica runs smack into him, and all those old feelings come back to the surface - and fast.

This is a very different book than the others in the series, as all the action takes place in about 24 hours. And it was fun to read about the old "gang" from the series, too, almost like hitting a high school reunion (but in a good way, with me not having to worry about what they'll think of me, of what I look like now, etc). This entry is also much more mature than the others. Both Jessica and Marcus actually seem like adults now, and they both show their vulnerable side, a very adult thing to do. I liked the repartee between them, and I loved that we finally got to see into Marcus's mind this time; he's a lot more "normal" than he lets on, and it turns out he's a lot more sensitive, too.

Of course I was hoping for a happy ending, but what kind of reviewer would I be if I told you what happens? (the very worst kind, I think!) If you've been following the saga that is Jessica Darling's life, you'll be glad you picked this up. Even better is that this book can stand on its own; it's very universal in its themes of love and friendship and regret and hope. A most satisfying conclusion to this teen series.

"My Abandonment" by Peter Rock

"About five years ago, I read a short mention of a thirteen-year-old girl and her father discovered living in Forest Park, a rugged wilderness that borders downtown Portland. They had been living there for four years in a carefully camouflaged camp, ingeniously escaping detection, venturing into the city to collect his disability checks and to shop for the groceries they couldn't grow. He had been homeschooling the girl, who tested beyond her age group. A second newspaper article described how the two had been relocated to a horse farm; the father had been given a job, and the girl was to start middle school in the fall. I thought the situation was resolved, and filed the story away; then a third brief newspaper mention described how the two had disappeared one night. I waited and waited, searched the Web, but months passed and there was no more information. The two had truly disappeared. Unable to find out more information about how they lived or what became of them, my mind began to spin out possibilities. I realized I had to tell the story myself in order to satisfy my curiosity."

So Peter Rock wrote about real events, but he wrote them as fiction because there wasn't enough detail to do a non-fiction piece. And according to the interview he gave Amazon, he wouldn't have been interested in doing it if he could have written a true work about it. I found that very interesting. And when I went back and read this quote again about the real-life events, I realized why I didn't enjoy this book as much as I could have - my curiosity was not satisfied.

Caroline has been living with Father in the park for a while now. He came and "rescued" her from her foster family when she was ten and has been teaching her how to live off the grid ever since. He receives checks at PO Boxes in the city, so they do have some money; they eke out their existence by liberating certain goods from nearby businesses (but the never "steal" - they straighten up messes, throw away trash, repair fencing, etc, in order to "pay" for what they take), buying from stores, and occasionally trading with the homeless in the men's camp. Caroline has even begun a small garden but must be extra careful - they can't do anything that will leave traces of them in the park, leading the "followers" to them.

Their undoing is, of course, puberty. One day during "alone time", Caroline climbs into one of the lookouts and starts disrobing, all the better to examine the changes in her 13-year-old body. Unfortunately, a jogger happens to come along right about that moment, stops to catch his breath, and sees her white overshirt hanging in the trees. He finds their "home" as well, and ends up reporting his find to the authorities, who show up in no time to "rescue" her from her squalid living conditions. Plus she's not going to school - the horror! What had been an idyllic if unusual life is turned upside down by well-meaning people, and there are tragic consequences.

This story is interesting, I'll give the author that much. It's hard to believe that with all our modern conveniences, there are still those out there who would choose to live on the streets (or in the parks, or however you want to phrase it). Then again, if you're trying to hide your existence from the authorities, it's not a bad idea. It's obvious that Father suffers from some sort of mental disorder, possibly related to a war at some point (he has nightmares about helicopters almost every night). Then there's the matter of Caroline herself; you know from the beginning that she's probably not his real daughter, yet she doesn't act like she was kidnapped. Thankfully, there's no sexual component here, at least, not one that's overt; I kept waiting for "Father" to put the moves on the budding young girl.

The end is where this book fell apart for me. I was never entirely clear on what happened to Father (the logistics, not the ultimate "what happened?"), nor was I convinced that Caroline would just walk away to a new life as she did. Yes, some time has passed, but she's still not even 17 yet in the last chapter; she seemed too mature, too calm. And I found her interactions with some girls at a nearby high school downright creepy, wondering if the author was trying to say that once someone has lived that sort of life, they will continue to bring others into it, or if he was trying to write about some sort of female empowerment. Either way, it didn't work for me. The author starts to explain how Caroline and Father started their adventures together, but then he drops that before he tells us who Caroline was - and who Father was. Those are the sort of things I would have preferred to read about. Instead, the book just sort of fizzled out.

Overall, I guess I would recommend it. There were a lot of people on Amazon who seemed to think it was just brilliant, and a few like myself who were less than impressed.