Travel Thursday Encores: Money-Snatcher

Today on Travel Thursday, a small thing that happened on a post-Berlin-Wall-fall trip through Eastern Germany. Names would not have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent, but since I don’t remember hers anyway. . .
BeeTeeDubya, this is the only time I ever had anything stolen while traveling, but as you can see, it worked out. . .

I was in a small town in northeastern Germany. I stayed only two days, but the second night I met a lovely local blonde, and we hit it off {so I thought, anyway}. We went out that night, had a ton of fun, then went off to her place for that better kind of fun.
Some time during the early morning, just after dawn, I awoke to find the naked babe reaching into my backpack. I looked at her through slitted eyes, pretending to still be asleep, and she actually did look over to make sure I was still out. Thinking I was, she moved on to my clothes, where she found my wallet and took out all the money, then thought better and put about half of the bills back, the small ones. I knew I had about 500 marks in there, so she might have gotten about 400.
I watched her go to the far side of the room and put the money in a vase on a bookcase, then go into the bathroom. After a few minutes I heard the shower start, but I waited until the sound was muffled–indicating a body was blocking the water from hitting the wall or floor–before getting up and going to the vase. Reaching in, I made sure to put my hand all the way down and grabbing everything inside, not wanting to give up a single mark. Quickly stuffing the money into my pants pocket, I went back to bed, still pretending to be asleep.
After she came out I “awoke” and told her how beautiful she looked, and that I wanted her again. She was a little put out, since she didn’t want to get sweaty again, but I managed to convince her, and let’s just say this time I wasn’t so romantic. . .
Soon after she kicked me out, saying she had to go to work, and I made my way back to my hotel, packed, and took the next train out, heading back to Berlin. Over an hour into the ride, I remembered the money and reached into my pants to put it back. . . and found myself pulling out bill after bill after bill. . . like one of those magician scarves. . .
As it turned out, she had more money in the vase than just what she stole from me. I ended up with more than 4000 marks. . .



Travel Thursday Snapshot: Time to Rostock Up

Northern Germany was not known for heat, most of the time anyway. Perhaps being on the water, humidity and such, made it feel so much past balmy today, except the breeze coming in from the north was cool.
Or maybe it was the long bike ride. . .
Rostock’s port was basically like all others, only older, with the centerpiece—not literally—being the lighthouse. It didn’t have the same old-brick charm as the Campanile in Venice, but in a way was more fun to photograph. The wondering if people were allowed up there so I could take some photos was quickly tempered by my knees shouting for my brain to shut up, so I got back on my bike once I’d had my fill of the tall scenery and made my way to the next destination the gorgeous blonde at the tourism office had recommended.
On the way I looked at the surroundings as much as I could while also keeping an eye on cars and pedestrians, thinking this was a kinda strange city when compared to its Baltic neighbors but not able to say why. Language differences were always fun, and right now as I waited at the red light and perused a billboard, it occurred to me that the double dot accent, which I’d always thought was more Scandinavian, looked a bit funny. In fact, when on the Ö, they kinda looked like eyebrows, making the letter look surprised. . .
The Kröpeliner Straße had a bit of a fairy tale vibe to it, with its tall old skinny buildings that looked like something out of animation. With all the photos I stopped to take—it is my job, after all—it took a lot longer than expected to get to the Fountain of Happiness, or Zest for Life, depending on who was doing the translating, where soon enough other tourists were wondering just how many angles one guy could shoot. This being University Square, in what the beautiful tourism blonde had told me was the oldest university in Northern Europe—take that, Sweden—I indulged my hobby of exploring bastions of higher education, and not for checking out the lovely female students, as vicious tongues have wagged in the past. The red and yellow buildings were the most fun to shoot, nothing like my education stomping grounds at UCLA.
After a while I stopped to examine a wall that the gorgeous tourism blonde had told me about; part of me was wondering if it was the right wall, while the other part thought about going back to the tourism office to thank her. Having photographed every inch of the temples at Khajuraho, I considered myself an expert at walls, so it didn’t take me long to find what she’d been hinting at: while it really wasn’t all that different than most little demons seen carved into buildings all over Europe—helluva lot of them in Paris, for example—this little imp was squatting, arms folded in his lap, head down on his arms, looking remarkably bored with the view. You could almost hear him sighing as I wondered who he’d ticked off to get this guard duty for eternity.


Poetry Tuesday: To The German People

By Johann Christian Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843)

Do not jeer at the child, when with a whip and spur
On a horse of wood he thinks himself mighty and great.
For you Germans, you are also
Poor at acting, and good at dreaming.

Or am I wrong, like lightning out of clouds, will acts come
From daydreams? Will books spring to life?
Lock me up if that happens, my dear ones,
Make me pay for this blasphemy!


Book Reviews: Wildcats, Hockey, Nazis, and Road America

One of my favorite sentences ever:
Hell for him would be seeing his enemies piled high with naked cheerleaders.

Eye Of The Drone Vol. 2
Not nearly as sinister as the title suggests. This is a graphic novel about a couple of kids with a pet lynx and falcon going around the world looking for all 36 types of cats in the world, starting in Russia. This is the second volume in a planned series of 8, each taking place in a different part of the world.
Before it starts there’s a really funny image of a frog in common teenager position looking at a tablet. But this is definitely not a story with humor, in fact it seems deadly earnest. This is not one of those stories where I can say you can read it without needing to peruse the first one, because the backstory to their mission and why they’re drawn like early computer game animation stills is never explained. And it does need explaining, for at one point one of the humans says, “We’re 3-D. We don’t have to follow the rules that apply to fleshly people.” And no one in universe has a problem with talking animals, especially a lynx walking through the station and boarding a train. Then there’s the evil corporation against these environmentalists, the chief bad guy sporting a scar on his face, of course.
There are other touches that made me a bit annoyed, though I should temper that with the knowledge than the kids for which this is intended won’t care. A lot of stuff is left out; at one stop they look for a place to stay, at the next it’s not even mentioned, just goes from “Let’s sleep” to “Next morning.” And it’s highly unlikely those police officers in northern China speak English so well. Things liven up toward the end, when they’re joined by a mischievous redheaded fairy, or soporific butterfly, depending on her mood. And of course the story doesn’t end cleanly, but at least you’re told there’s gonna be six more volumes.
There are educational asides on some pages, plus a cat appendix, photos, links to Facebook, and so on at the end. There’s no doubt as to the earnestness of the author in trying to get her message across, and again I state that it will be great for kids, but I still think it could have bene done better.

The Hockey Saint
College hockey player who lives with his grandmother gets a partial scholarship, named assistant captain, and finds out where his idol lives. Quite an opening chapter. From there he meets his hero, who takes him to surprising places, as long as he doesn’t tell. There’s a conspiracy by the rival team to get the goods on the hockey star, and the kid has to decide which side to pick.
Each chapter comes with a recommended song list; I didn’t try it, but the one song I did know, Rush’s Limelight, was well chosen.
It’s a nice story, with an upbeat ending. But it’s hard to believe a guy this secretive would open up and spill all his secrets to a teen fan. This is more like a kid’s fantasy, especially the hero’s redemption at the end.
The artwork is fine, nothing special but definitely good enough. As long as the reader has no illusions about it being far from reality, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

The Brandenburg Quest
Named after the protagonist’s surname, this tells the story of a young man in Germany who sees an American movie about WW2 and learns things he wasn’t told in school. He goes off to interview a bunch of former Nazis—finding them rather easily, it seems—trying to figure out if one of them in particular, who was rumored to have died at the end of the war, actually escaped and is planning to take Germany into the Fourth Reich.
Written as a screenplay, oddly enough; it fails in that there are no acts, just one similar interviewing scene after another. It’s interesting to find out that German schools did not teach the truth about World War 2 well into at least the 1970s; I think this book takes place in 1986, according to something mentioned, but not sure. So for all the time were kids told the Holocaust was a lie, if they ever heard about it at all?
There’s an early mention of the main character going off to Munich and checking out the Glockenspiel; I love that place, so it made me smile. But that was the only happy moment I had. This might be okay as a book, but unlike the comments at the beginning it would never make a good movie. Too much repetition—most of the story is the protagonist interviewing one former Nazi after another—and very little action. If some Hollywood producer got his hands on this, he would add a lot of James Bond action scenes to it anyway.

Braking Points
Female racer once again gets involved in a murder investigation, is suspected and has to clear her name, all while handling a boyfriend, a crash on the course that injures a popular driver, rabid fans, crappy journalists, and old friends.
This is the second in the Kate Reilly series, though it’s the third one I’ve read. This one starts at Road America, which is one of my favorite courses. Like the other books, the murder mystery is okay but really isn’t the point. Considering the author’s job in real life, this is meant as a treatise on the difficulties faced by women in the racing world today, and in a broader perspective all the workforce.
Once again I thoroughly love Kate as a character. It’s cute how girly she gets about joining Twitter, and there’s something satisfying about the occasional tweets; not so much hilarious or noteworthy, more like humanizing her. Sadly there’s also a lot of internet crap sent her way, so much so that she has to hire publicity specialists. The author always gives Kate a lot to handle off the track, but this time it might have been too much, as we’re introduced to her jerk cousins who will show up in later books as well as all those mentioned above.
There’s a lot of racing scenes in this one, even more so than the others, and this time it’s not all fun for our heroine. Usually the track is the place where she can get away from all her problems, but in this case bad things happen just as often as the good, although the good does make for a happy ending.


Book Reviews: German Serial Killers, Cursed Places, and Snoopy

The sign said European citizens get in free, but others have to pay 3 Euros, so I told the girl I was a citizen of the world; she grinned and told me to cough up the 3 Euros.

A college student OD’s on pills prescribed by his university’s doctor. His mom protests a local drug company, gets put in jail, and is instantly hated and shunned–hence the title–by everyone, because they’re the lifeblood of the town. Seems amazing that all these supposedly religious people don’t give a damn that this kid died; all they care about is the money.
There’s a Sharyn McCrumb line about a kid having the soul of an aging Baptist minister; not this guy here. He’s the husband of the woman who went to jail, obsessed with hell. That’s all I’m gonna say about that, as I’m allergic to religion. But that’s not what the story’s about either. Those interesting topics of cultural shame, big pharma mischief, and the nature of evil were trotted out but weren’t followed up on. In the end it turned out to basically be a straightforward murder mystery where a minor character who doesn’t show up till halfway is revealed to be the bad guy.
At the beginning the writing was simplistic, with my pet peeve of far too many unneeded “began” and “start.” It got better, but there was never any smoothness to it. In addition to the hanging plots, I was not happy with the way her “vision” told her who did it, or how the villain cracked. Not horrible for a first effort, but plenty of room for improvement.

Last Date
A particularly brutal serial killer hunts victims on dating websites in the vicinity of Kassel, Germany. . . and I have to chuckle at the fact that I have a friend who lives there, who shares the name of one of the characters.
Okay, moment over. If you look at the master list of plots, this quickly becomes the one where the innocent man has to prove he’s not the bad guy. The serial killer is an expert hacker that not only toys with his victims but does a great frame job with emails and such. Everything is going against the protagonist; with him on the run, there really isn’t much room for character development, and with most of the scenes taking place in apartments and gyms, there wasn’t much that told me this was Germany instead of Britain or the US or even Sweden, which I think is a wasted opportunity. Some of the twists seemed a little too coincidental, and weren’t really needed, since the cops already thought it was him, but no doubt the author wanted to show even his friends were doubting his innocence. In general I liked it, but the ending left something to be desired.
3.5 pushed up to 4/5

Atlas of Cursed Places
Hard to resist a title like that, right? But there are two problems right off the bat, no future pun intended. The first is the writing style, which is overwrought and often more decorative than descriptive, like someone trying to impress with their vocabulary.
The other problem is with the title. How does one define “cursed?” If it’s meant to be literal—which is silly in itself—a lot of these entries lack a legend, someone’s death for example, to show why they’re cursed. If it’s meant metaphorically, then there must be millions of similar places in the world; why these? For instance, one of the entries is a place in Africa with tons of bats. . . this is cursed how? And what makes it more special than the similar place in Austin Texas, or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, or Thailand? And that’s just the ones I know about.
Some of these places are intriguing in that I’ve never heard of them, yet still have only tenuous links to the topic. Princess Joanna did not wed as a child; seems like the stories are merely repeated and not researched. On the plus side, I did learn a new word I wish I hadn’t: tophet.
A lot of these supposedly cursed places are simply manmade environmental disasters: the slums of Nairobi, the islands of trash in the Maldives, the coal mines of India. Listed is a graveyard of old Soviet nuclear subs that’s stated to have 20 times the radioactive power of Chernobyl, but it doesn’t mention the spots in the old Soviet Union that are even worse. If you’re gonna say a part of Australia is cursed because it has crocodiles, then why not Florida and Louisiana and everywhere in between, as well as South America?
Pirates, really? The Nevada Triangle having 2000 planes missing in the last 50 years is intriguing, so of course you have to include the more famous one in Bermuda too. . . and yet the author mentions the now-accepted theory that there’s nothing special about the case, that statistically there haven’t been more disappearances than anywhere else. So where’s the curse?
As though the writing isn’t bad enough, the maps are useless, a case of style—not even much of that—over substance. So despite some great info and a few mysteries, like the Eilean Mor lighthouse, this was pretty damned disappointing.
1.5 pushed up to 2/5

Snoopy: Contact!
As one might expect, this is a collection of comic strips—all Sunday editions—featuring the dog who thinks he’s a WW1 pilot trying to shoot down the Red Baron.
I probably saw all these as a kid, but I still laughed again. More than that, I was intrigued by all the research put into the situations; there were mentions of cities, battles, even going on leave, from the time period that more often than not helped the jokes.
It’s hard to imagine there are many people who haven’t heard of this comic strip, even if it was just through the holiday specials. That makes it hard to say much about the characters, the artwork, and so on. Everything here is as it should be.


Book Reviews: Stolen Books, Storms, Living Dolls, and Medusa

As I walked out with the gorgeous blonde, I said, “If you guys don’t hear from me by tomorrow. . . tell everyone on Facebook and Twitter.”

A Murderous Storm
This is a murder mystery in the northern part of Germany—wasn’t sure if it was Deutchland or Dutchland for a while—told in first person, where in the first scene the three fishermen are listening to and talking about Johnny Cash; that was pretty jarring. To make it more strange, the three shrimpers are a retired doctor, a retired lawyer, and one guy who might actually be a fisherman, or just typical muscle. Anyhoo, they pull a body up in the fishing net, and the cops don’t want to do the work, simply calling it an accident, which offends the first person lawyer, especially when the victim’s sister asks for help and she’s too hot to say no to. This leads to a conspiracy involving a huge corporation and a big-time merger, and a dirty corporate guy who can’t handle his war-criminal “bodyguards.”
The story had some entertaining moments, though how some of these characters survived is beyond me. I think the author might have made the cops TOO stupid, unless of course they’re actually that corrupt. The main character’s daughter shows up, which will be good for some plot points later, but basically shows just how stubbornly stupid one person can be, though the acorn was too lazy to roll too far away from the tree, considering just when you think it’s all over the protagonist gets into trouble again. My favorite character was actually the dog; I think it was the smartest living thing in the story.
The best part of this novel was the settings; though I’ve been all over Germany, even relatively close to where this takes place, the starkness of the landscape described here is not something my camera has photographed. It’s different on the resort island, which is one of those places like Mackinac where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. But most of all, the portrayal of the storm, and finding the victim in the middle of it, was the highlight.

Slush Pile Brigade
An Australian novelist, said to be second most popular author in the world, steals a manuscript from the slush pile in his agent’s office when he has writer’s block. He picks the right book, because he turns it into a best seller, but more importantly he picks the wrong book, because three years later the writer who was plagiarized comes looking for an apology, setting into motion a chain of events that brings death and destruction to everyone’s world, especially the agent’s.
The protagonist loses his job and girlfriend–she actually brings a new guy to same restaurant he always took her to–not cool, girl. He snaps and is forced to run from the police to Noo Yawk, where he plans to confront the agent, and the author who happens to be in town. Before it’s over his deep-CIA father, a Russian mobster, his three best buds, and the girl from his past that got away are sucked into the conflict as well.
Though Noo Yawk is one of my least favorite cities, the author showcases it lovingly, citing some old famous buildings as well as plenty of Central Park; my favorite was the walk through the dinosaur area in the museum, which fit the conversation perfectly. Big twists abound, like when he find out his father’s involved in the whole mess. The first half is more comedic than anything else, and it’s fun to read the shenanigans, in a butt monkey kinda way. But then it gets serious spy in a hurry, with people dying or being maimed, and some maybe dying or maybe not.
There was one part that annoyed the hell out of me. Not wanting to spoiler—is that a real verb?—suffice to say that the protagonist finds himself in trouble that wasn’t foreseen, but ends up surviving it differently than we were led to believe. Perhaps the author merely wrote in the wrong body part that exploded, but how he survived wasn’t explained, and as you can see I’m still irritated about it.
Some of the dialogue by the lesser members of the brigade is somewhat over-the-top, but mostly it’s well-written, with some descriptions shining, like, “But it wasn’t really like laughter at all. . . more like Kodiak bears groaning while shitting.” I do hate the author for that last twist, though. . .

This graphic novel starts with an inept mailman, who gets himself into all kinds of trouble, actually being the scout for a group of home-invasion thieves. The actual first page tells you the story of Los Angeles’s full name—too bad I already knew it—but sets the tone nicely. One of their targets turns out to be the house of a not-stable Hollywood prop master and monster maker, except not everything is a prop. . .
What I thought would blow up into a monster story turned out to be much more psychological, with an evil Frankenstein twist. The three male thieves are pretty dumb; of course it’s the girl with all the brains. I did enjoy how the story delved into everyone’s fucked-up origin stories, which made what they did all the more understandable. No one is more fucked up than the monster maker, though, and the story treats him well enough that you feel some sympathy for him even while he’s tormenting his adversaries and sacrificing women for his true love.
Bruce Campbell makes an appearance!. . . almost. The artwork is good, but nothing special, except for maybe the hot chick with the Kermit tattoo. There’s some well-included extras at the end, giving a cute background on how the story was thought up—originally set in London, which would have necessitated a different opener—and containing plenty of unused drawings, even a recipe from the bad guy’s “girl.” Some genuinely funny moments keep this from sinking into too much despair, but it’s still as dark and horrifying as expected from the genre.

Turned to Stone
An art history mystery—rhyme!—taking place throughout Spain and Italy, this story delves into the provenance and magical powers of a statue of the Greek myth of Medusa, and how some people will do anything to possess it.
Oddly enough I found myself enjoying it early on despite not caring for the protagonist; Jaime’s too much of a jerk to be likeable. Of course that changes later as his character develops, but I never really got to the point where I liked him, and liked Paloma less for the fact she was infatuated by him. His best friend, on the other hand, is a hoot, a former photographer now a security guard who doesn’t find anything weird in dressing up like Batman in order to get the job done. There’s plenty of other characters, most of them just serving a purpose, though some of them coming back at the end to show they’re not at all as expected. I was a bit miffed that the author drew such a fascinating character as the new art expert—gorgeous blonde, of course—and then quickly killed her off.
The bad guys were well-drawn, although Rosa—or whatever her name happened to be that day—seemed to slide back, being a complete badass at the beginning and ending up rather useless by the end. There’s also the henchman who just won’t die no matter how much you best him or beat him up, always showing up at the worst possible time. We also get the evil genius behind the curtain, and how he’s destroyed his family in his quest for money and revenge, which almost makes me sorry for Rosa but not quite.
The reveal of why the piece is so important, about two-thirds of the way through, was fascinating and well done, the best moment art-wise in the book. But it’s the hilarious image of three people struggling not to fall off a motorcycle that will remain with me forever. . .


Book Reviews: The Constitution, The Past, and Brain Stuff

While ordering at the restaurant, she smirked, “You are a man of simple pleasures.”
“Are you a simple pleasure?”
“No comment.” But you could tell her face was saying Oh shit!

Shuttered Life
A woman returns to the ancestral home to confront the family she broke from when her father died. One of her cousins, uncles, or aunt wants her gone, or dead, possible because she looks like her mother.
Beside the protagonist in first person, there’s a different first person narrative in italics, and this mystery is what the reader had to figure out. There’s lots of flashbacks, mostly to give motive to the bunch of suspects; every so often I would change my mind as to who I thought was the bad guy. At one point it’s seemed pretty clear it was a woman, but I didn’t figure it out until one page before the big reveal.
This doesn’t read like a typical mystery, but that’s not a criticism; it feels a lot more like a slice of this woman’s life as we get to know her through her memories and her reactions to how her long-lost family treats her. There isn’t that much plot, but the writing is good enough to keep it from getting boring.

The Constitution of the United States
The blurb says this important document has been updated and simplified so that everyone can understand it. The main differences are that the amendments had been integrated into where they would go if they’d been included in the original, and that obsolete parts have been taken out and tossed into the heap at the end. There’s also modern terminology at the end of each section, like you see in Shakespeare’s modern versions.
To someone who hasn’t read the constitution in a very long time—maybe since college—I don’t feel like this changes much. I assume for a scholar like the author his changes, particularly putting the amendments in contextual order, would seem like a big step that clarifies a lot, but I simply didn’t feel that way. Definitely nothing wrong with it, but not sure how much of an improvement it is.

Dying to Remember
Like in several movies, the protagonist here has lost his short-term memory; he can remember almost everything before the bad seafood that put him in a coma, but he’s unable to make new long-term memories. Oddly enough, this book is set in the past, and I kept waiting for it to tie into the present, but it never did.
Chapter 8 starts with a huge wham line about his wife, and the dog too. There’s plenty of suspects and motives, which I liked, because it lets my imagination run wild, trying to figure out who the bad guy is.
As one might expect, there’s a lot of repetition here; every few chapters, especially when it’s the next day, the guy has to read his notes and realize once again what happened, which is rather disheartening. If there’s a good thing about what happened to him, it’s that the disease has made him a much better person, or at least less of an asshole. In the end I was a little underwhelmed by who the bad guy turned out to be, but before that I was definitely happy with the plotting and especially the psychology behind his disease and his attempts to overcome it.

Activate Your Brain
At first glance it seems this is going to be yet another motivational tome, and in a way it is, but it wanders to a lot of places I would not have expected. For example, there’s a bit on neurology near the beginning, as if to show that this is not your average self-help book. Another thing it tells you at the start is that this book is most focused on the brains of businesspeople.
But for the most part it is like others I’ve read in this genre. Each chapter covers something specific, such as sleep, rest, food; there’s even a piece on ego, which as it turns out is not completely bad for you. Also typical are all the personal stories, some better than others. One I clearly remember is about a friend of the author’s learning to ski. The man makes it clear that gathering the courage to go down the same run as his friends wasn’t about comparing himself to anyone, but simply telling himself he could do it. I find this to be a bad example for the simple reason that most wrong choices won’t get you killed, and a beginner skier going down an expert slope is definitely a wrong choice.
Every chapter has activations, small suggestions for the reader to do which will reinforce the lessons of the chapter. But some of these feel too much like homework, while others are rather obvious, common sense. There’s even a paragraph about yawning (which of course made me yawn). There’s some good stuff here, but of course it all depends on how much the reader is willing to do.