Rapid Fire Book Reviews

The first month of my mini-retirement was blessed with little, if any, internet access, which means I need to catch up on the reviews for the books I read! Here goes:

Horns, by Joe Hill: 4 of 5 stars.
Dug this quite a bit – the premise of a random dude growing demon horns was explained surprisingly well and quickly, which gets you into enjoying the thrust of the book: exploring how you might solve your girlfriend’s murder if you had special powers that made people tell you their deepest, darkest secrets.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: 2 of 5 stars.
I’d really like to like Neil Gaiman more. Loads of people love him, and the premises of his books sound interesting. Just not a huge fan of his voice, I guess. I did like this better than American Gods, which wasn’t hard, but still. The world building was the best part about this book, I really enjoyed learning about the world of the dead with Bod. I didn’t enjoy how the plot felt like a bunch of vignettes strung together, and the conflict with Jack simply bookending the plot.

Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White: 5 of 5 stars.
We read this classic aloud to our kids on the road trip. An audio book, narrated by Mommy and Daddy. I hadn’t read it since I was in elementary school, and it was great to go back and remember what I loved about the story. Plus, we found an old doodle of Charlotte I’d made in the back of the book! I hadn’t realized back then how simultaneously complex and accessible language and vocabulary is. Our kids loved it and begged us to keep reading when we needed to give our voices a break.

The Walking Dead: All Out WarVolume 20 and Volume 21, by Robert Kirkman, Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rothburn: 2 out of 5 stars.
This marks the end of the Negan story arc, which for some reason everyone is clamoring for them to get to in the show. I don’t know, I think Rick’s storyline has worn out its welcome with me. I would love to see something else with a truly new character in this world, or for them to just get to the point. The last interesting thing to happen in this comic was Rick’s proposal to get an army together and begin to kill off walkers and eliminate them, now that they have numbers. That was 4 volumes ago. Instead, they encounter a group of humans more dangerous than the walkers. Again.

Some of the Best From Tor.com – 2013 Edition: 4 out of 5 stars.
A solid collection of speculative fiction from one of the biggest names in the genre. Some of the pieces, like “Wakulla Springs,” were enjoyable to read but didn’t really contain enough fantastical elements for me. I enjoyed “Equoid” by Charles Stross the most – the premise of unicorns actually being a horrible Lovecraftian monster is humorous in and of itself and Stross absolutely nailed a light-hearted tone that counter-balanced the horrific images well.

Vagabonding: 4 out of 5 stars. I likely read this book a little too late in my escape from the typical 9-5. Already past my travel epiphany, this book doesn’t have a ton of things I found tactically useful. But, if you’re new to the life-changing philosophy type books (4 Hour Workweek, etc.) then this book is probably coming at the perfect time for you.

Mesilla, by Robert James Russell: 5 out of 5 stars.
Tight little western that you can knock out in a single sitting or a weekend. All the classic elements of the western are there, filtered through Russell’s honed literary voice. Treasure and riches? Check. Grizzled gunslingers? Check. A stark landscape for the villain to chase the hero across? Check. Thoroughly enjoyed this novella.

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Hiking in the Adirondacks: Giant Mountain, Roaring Brook Falls, Lake Placid

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. –Edward Abbey

I didn’t enjoy the Adirondak Mountains, but I definitely want to visit again.

Why? The rain, the cold, the clouds, and my new hammock put a damper on what I’m sure is a gorgeous setting.

Roaring Brook Falls
I arrived at Roaring Brook Falls campsite late in the evening after a long drive from Toronto. I actually loved this place quite a bit. It’s a short, quarter- to half-mile walk through the woods ending at the base of a 150-foot waterfall. First timers, the map is a little misleading – you have to cross the rushing creek and duck through a narrow path before the undergrowth gives way to a shadowed campground.

Roaring Brook Falls

The creek encircles the whole camp after tumbling down the falls. The sound of rushing water provided a relaxing background soundtrack while I threw up my new hammock tent, and chatted with a family from Montreal about their vacation and the coming rain. I hoped they’d stick around even if the weather turned south – I don’t like sleeping alone in the wilderness if I can help it.

Unfortunately, my first night in the Hennessey Expedition Hammock didn’t go that well. I’ve got a friend who swears by them, but I’d forgotten the downside –how there’s no ground to keep you warm. It wasn’t freezing, but it got down to 40 degrees at night and I definitely felt the cold seeping in, even though I was in a sleeping bag rated down to 32 degrees and I had all my layers on. I couldn’t get comfortable, and probably got under four hours of sleep.

Hennessey Expedition Hammock

Giant Mountain
Even so, I wasn’t feeling the lack of sleep the next day, because I was going to be hiking up a mountain! Like a kid heading off to his first day of school, I was pumped up to tackle Giant Mountain, a great warm-up before trying Mt. Marcy the next day.

Giant Mountain Trailhead

Every website listed Giant Mountain as an “easy” hike. Three miles and a couple K in elevation change sounded doable. I even walked the 1.5 miles from Roaring Brook to the trailhead at Chapel Pond along the road.

Easy. What a bunch of crap.

Imagine climbing steep, uneven, rock stairs for three miles straight. Then pour water over most of them. That’s the hike up Giant Mountain. I’m not usually a complainer, but this “easy, family hike” was anything but. The only real flat portion of this trail is under a mile in when you reach the Giant Washbowl.

Giant Washbowl

Giant Washbowl is a solitary pond tucked just on the other side of the first ridge you climb. The water reminded me of something out of a horror flick or a fantasy novel –inky black and bone-white trees line the edges. The trail crosses the pond on driftwood beams that creak and groan underfoot. Truly a surreal place to be.

Luckily, I met fellow hikers to commiserate with on the way up. Honestly, that’s one of my favorite parts of hiking – the “trail friends.” You’re alone enough in the wilderness. When you’ve been walking with nothing but the wind in the trees and rustling animals, you can’t help but say hello to another human being.

There’s a functional benefit to trail friends: safety in numbers, sharing water and food, coaching up to the summit. But we also help each other validate why we’re crazy enough to strap forty pounds to our back and walk up a mountain for no real purpose other than to say we did it. We find people just like ourselves out on the trail, something we can’t do in the hustle and bustle of the city.

Even with the challenge, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly nature can call out to something inside you. Usually it’s some folly: a mountain lake nestled among the cliffs, or a small rippling meadow hemmed on all sides by trees. It’s those moments that I live for out on the trail. Giant Mountain has several of those on route to the summit. When you emerge from the trees, you are treated to some wonderful views of the surrounding mountains and a crisp breeze.

A small piece of advice – take the detour around Giant’s Nubble, which is about 2 miles into the trail. You’re climbing enough, no need to go back up and come back down needlessly to save what’s only a hundred or so feet in actual distance.

I’ve yet to reach a mountain summit that wasn’t satisfying, but I almost gave up on Giant Mountain. Not from exertion, but because I was worried about making it back down in time. The hike was taking much longer than I thought it would.

Still, I made it, and the view was gorgeous. The summit looks out over a massive “scoop” out of the landscape. It’s 1-2 thousand feet down to the forest and the “arms” of Giant Mountain reach out in a gentle semicircle that frames up the view. Amazing.

Giant Mountain Summitt

People might call me crazy, but going down on a hike is worse than going up. Especially on this trail, since it’s so rocky, uneven, and treacherous. At one point, the path seemed to vanish over a cliff face. The rangers had spray painted an arrow to direct you towards the left side of this cliff face, where the slope was actually traversable if you got down and scooted down the trail.

I thought I’d sleep great that night, but the chill and downpours kept me awake for another sub-4 hour night.

Lake Placid
The rain the family from Montreal warned me about had come. There was no wind, no thunder and lightning, but there was rain. More than 24 hours of it, with only a couple hours of letup. It started late at night and continued until I left the next morning. I had rain gear, but the idea of hiking 15 miles in a downpour did not sound appealing, especially given how badly Giant Mountain kicked my out-of-shape behind the day before. So I scrapped Mt. Marcy and decided to visit Lake Placid instead.

Leaving the campsite was a little scary – the water had swollen the creek to a small rushing river. Not quite as bad as McCandless experienced in Into the Wild, but there was nowhere traversable, even after walking the whole river bank. At this campsite, you’re essentially landlocked – the mountain backs up against the bend in the river, so there’s really no way out other than to cross it.

I had to pick the least of all evils and just jump with fifty pounds of gear on my back and know that I was going to land in calf-deep water.

Lake Placid was the site of multiple Olympic Games, and a lot of the infrastructure is still there. I gave myself a tour of the ski jumps, the torch, medal stand, and some of the training facilities. Luckily, the rain let up for a couple hours, allowing me to get out of my car and get a closer look at things.

To get to the ski jumps, all posted signs tell you to use the lifts to get to the top, but things were closed when I arrived on a Sunday. Rules. pshaw! I drove up to John Brown Farm and discovered a back entrance to the jumps!

Lake Placid Ski Jump

Go past Ski Jump Lane, and pull into the first parking area on your left, before you get to the actual farm. There’s a trail that heads off to the left – follow it and it will circle up to the maintenance parking lot by the jumps. From there, you can walk right in and explore the grounds. If you want to go up to the top of the jumps, you won’t be able to, the only place to buy those tickets is down at the bottom.

Lake Placid Medal Stand

After seeing the ski jumps and the medal stands, I headed down to find the Olympic Torch. As a track athlete in High School, I always loved watching the Olympics and seeing all the sports that only get airtime every four years. I had high hopes, but it’s a little underwhelming – the torch sits among a track, softball field, and other high-school sized sports fields. Several pickup trucks were parked next to the symbol of the pinnacle of human achievement tucked behind where 6-year-olds play soccer like some dusty bowling trophy, and it all felt very anti-climactic.

Lake Placid Olympic Torch

So I left the Adirondaks quite a bit disappointed, but wanting to come back and give them another chance.

Surviving a Road Trip with Five- and Nine-Year-Old Kids

When I threw the first leg of our family vacation into Google Maps, I sort of wanted to claw my own eyes out.

24 hours? With our kids?!

I love ’em. But they are active, talkative, and capable of driving normal people insane even outside a confined space. How were we going to make it and still love each other on the other side?

No surprise, the idea of spending days in the car with young kids is worse than actually doing it. Considering how much physical activity, vocalizing, and goofing off is part of their DNA, both of them were saints. Most of the issues we did have in the car were on my wife and I. We were too tired, too cranky, or too done to have the patience.

Road Trip Survival

We Planned for the Unplanned
Turns out, the secret to a being a successful parent is to run from one cluster to another with a big grin on your face.

Things are going to go wrong. And it’s O.K. Someone will need to go to the bathroom every ten minutes and Subway sandwiches are going to get spilled all over the car. I mean, I killed two dogs with our car and sent it to the mechanic for five days, and we still managed to have a great time, for god’s sake.

Our best days were the days we were able to remind ourselves that things will never go to plan, so we should stop expecting them to. And then reminding ourselves again when the train got off the tracks.

We didn’t book any hotels, so we didn’t feel like we had to rush or drive a certain distance every day. We just went. When we were ready to stop, we stopped. We taught the kids how to pee on the side of the road when the closest gas station was fifty miles away in the Moab Desert. We were mostly O.K. with things not going O.K., and honestly, that was the best thing we could have done.

Break it Up
There was no way we were driving from Des Plaines, Illinois, to Pine Valley, Utah, in one shot. That would have been a recipe for disaster. Our kids love to run around, and being cooped up in a car for that long wouldn’t have been fun.

So we allowed three days to get out to Utah, and two days to get back from Colorado. Our longest day was twelve hours, and most of the other “driving” days were under ten. It kept the trip manageable and let us see some pretty cool stuff along the way, because we weren’t worried about how much mileage we needed to knock out.

Our very first driving day we stopped at the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Anyone, anywhere, with kids needs to visit. Adults need to visit. It’s not really a museum at all – it’s a giant, eclectic playground. Bob Cassily and a bunch of local artists have been building this place organically for decades from salvaged and recovered materials. They turned an old shoe factory into something Willy Wonka couldn’t dream up. You could get absolutely lost for hours in this place, and it was a perfect way to kick off the trip. We drove nine hours the first day, but with a four-hour stop here in the middle, it felt like nothing.

What to Do
Proper expectations and breaks are all well and good – but we were still in the car for hours. That time has to get filled with something. I’ll never judge anyone for giving their kids and iPad or movies – being in a car that long is about survival.

But we found a nice balance between quiet things, loud things, things with screens, and things that don’t need batteries.

The first thing we did was incentivize “good” behavior. So, basically, not acting like a caged monkey on meth. Our kids are on a point behavior system normally. (Do something good? Get a point. Do something bad? Lose a point.) So we carried that over into the car. For every hour they did something quiet (no screens), they earned a point. It was our job to make sure they had access to quiet things. They brought library books. We read Charlotte’s Web out loud to them. They both brought those big school curriculum workbooks. And, of course, the scenery outside was worth staring at.

Our kids love to talk and sing, so we made sure we were prepared with games. Mad Libs, I Spy, and all sorts of variances on word association are all big hits. We’d make song requests, and they’d take turns singing that song, or tackle the Minecraft cover. We watched Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs fairly early in the trip, and they had a blast reciting their favorite lines over and over. And then over and over again.

With all that stuff to do, screens became a reward, or a release valve when Sandi and I just needed some peace and quiet. When the iPads came out, it was usually for an hour or two, and they typically came out once a day. Sometimes they played longer because we were at our wits end. Sometimes, they barely played at all. Like I said, being in a car that long is about surviving. You do whatever works, period.

Honorable Mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest!

L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future
Incredibly honored and excited to share that one of my short stories, “The Cellar Door,” was awarded an Honorable Mention by L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t earn publication with that honor, but it is an international contest that attracts thousands of entries every quarter. I couldn’t be happier to receive recognition from such a contest.

See all the winners