“Blackbirds” by Chuck Wendig

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"Blackbirds" cover

Cover art by Joey HiFi

“Blackbirds” by Chuck Wendig, 2012

Finished July 2012

Miriam Black is a young woman with a very unpleasant “gift.” If she touches you, she sees how and when you will die. The worst part is, there’s nothing you, or her, or anyone else can do to prevent it. She has tried, and all her efforts only help the event occur exactly as she originally envisioned it. She developed this ability in high school, after a brutal beating and miscarriage, so as you can imagine, this girl has baggage.

Her life is unsettled and harsh. She is constantly moving, hitching rides to wherever and living however she can. In many instances this means finding someone she knows will soon die in order to rob their corpse. It’s a ghoulish life. She hates her ability, but exploring it is often a compulsion. When she shakes the hand of Louis, a gentle giant of a truck driver, she sees that he is soon to be tortured and murdered, and his last bewildered utterance is her name.

At first she runs, but everything leads her back to him, and she is desperate to know what role she plays in his death. She’s a compassionate woman, but also very hard to like. She has had to armour herself, and this takes the form of foul language, rudeness, sarcasm, and anger. She drinks too much and gets in a lot of fights, and even though she fights dirty, she doesn’t always come out on top. She is drawn to danger, which is why when she runs from Louis, she ends up with bad boy Ashley. He’s what gets her and Louis into the fatal mess that she foresaw.

Ashley has been following her. He seen how she is tied to several deaths, but none of them look like murders. He is intrigued, thinking she might be some sort of con-artist, like him. Unfortunately for all concerned, Ashley is also a thief, and the people he has stolen from most recently are merciless. When he blackmails Miriam into helping him out this starts them down the inexorable path to Louis’ death.

Wendig is a very entertaining writer, and there is a lot of humour in what could have been a very bleak book. Miriam has a darkly amusing approach to the world, and her wry observations set the tone. I don’t know how successful he is at writing a female character, because she has a lot of masculine qualities (is quality the right word for it? I don’t know), but she is entertaining nonetheless. And determined. Her perseverance is something to behold. And even though she isn’t likeable I ended up liking her very much. Recommended.

“Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi

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“Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi, 2005

Finished April 7, 2012

I read this one in three days, with “The Hunger Games” read in the middle. It’s a fun early book by Scalzi, whom I admire for his always intelligent, entertaining, and sensible blogs. Dude has a good head on his shoulders, no question. This was originally written in 1997, as “practice,” but seems to have some staying power, and Scalzi has updated a few references to keep it current.

Thomas Stein is a young Hollywood agent, with a knack for getting good contracts for the performers he represents. His boss handpicks him for a unique assignment: preparing humanity for first contact with an alien race that resemble giant gobs of snot and which communicate primarily through exceeding foul odors. They’ve been watching our broadcasts for many years and they realize they need someone to find an angle that makes them seem a little less loathsome and terrifying. Stein doesn’t come up with any brilliant ideas, but he is able to think well on his feet and thus is able to turn a dreadful situation involving the brain death of his best client into an opportunity for the gelatinous Yherajk.

The book suffers a bit from characters who are too clever and quick-witted. This is a problem I see a lot from sci-fi nerds who love a good in-joke and who harbour a quietly simmering contempt for non-nerds. As a nerd myself, I’m mostly OK with it, but it does get a bit tiresome sometimes. I haven’t read many of Scalzi’s books yet, so I’m going to assume this is merely due to this book being written very early in his professional career.

One thing that drove me a bit crazy was his description of a life-casting session in which an actress has her head coated in _latex_ in order to get a mould. Latex. And she has straws shoved up her nose. And she’s not allowed to move for THREE HOURS while it sets. *sigh* Maybe Scalzi got this idea from a tv show or magazine article written by someone who simply didn’t know what they were talking about. He name drops his copyeditor in the introduction so I’m just going to berate Arthur Hlavaty directly. I’m trying to imagine this process and I see a few little problems: 1) The latex appears to be be still very runny even half an hour after it was applied with a spatula. This would mean it would be puddling in her lap, not forming a usable mould on her head. 2) Latex is full of ammonia, and if you spread a thick layer on someone’s skin and left it to cure for hours they’d get a pretty nasty chemical burn. Not something you want on your lead actress a few days before going to camera. 3) It would rip out all her hair, in an excrutiatingly painful way. 4) She’d probably go blind at some point in the process. 5) Latex shrinks a lot, and warps. I’m a special effects makeup artist, so this really drove me nuts. I even berated Scalzi about it on Twitter. But I did go to a makeup school where I once overheard the owner giving a tour, and she was equally as ignorant of the process. Inexcusable in her, merely annoying in this book. But yeah, it distracted me. I’m trying to think how to rewrite it so it made sense, but since the story required that the actress be trapped in this mess for at least 40 minutes, and all real-world casting materials used for this process set up in no more than 10 minutes, I’m not sure how it could be done.

But that aside, I quite liked the book. Nothing serious or world-changing, but still entertaining. The aliens, despite their appearance, stench, and odd life cycle, had very human personalities. Plus there was a nice relationship between the main alien, Joshua, and a dog. Dogs make me happy.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

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“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, 2008

Started and finished on April 6, 2012

I wasn’t expecting a lot from this book, After all, “Twilight” is a huge bestseller in the same market, and it’s HORRIBLE. This one however, even though it seems aimed at the same teenage girl market, is so much more interesting, intelligent, and engaging. The fact that I read it in one day proves how hard it is to put down. And that it is pretty short (374 pages).

The premise: the world has crumbled, and from the ashes rose the North American capitol of Panem, and 13 outlying Districts that supply the city with essentials and luxury goods. The Districts are hardscrabble, difficult places to live, so they rise up in revolt. But Panem is so much more technologically advanced that they easily beat them back down into the dirt, using conventional weapons and genetically engineered animals. District 13 is obliterated, and the Hunger Games are devised to remind the remaining Districts that they are under the heel of Panem.

Every year a boy and a girl from each District is chosen to fight to the death in an arena. It is televised, and required viewing everywhere. The survivor gets a life of luxury and their District gets a few extra comforts for the year. Our protaganist is Katniss Everdeen, a self-sufficient 16-year-old who hunts and gathers to feed her mom and little sister, Prim. When Prim, brand new to the draw in her 12th year, is chosen, Katniss steps in as “tribute,” volunteering to take her place. The chosen boy from her District is Peeta, the local baker’s boy. Unbeknownst to Katniss, he’s been in love with her forever. They are taken off to Panem and given a polish for the cameras. During the televised lead up Peeta reveals his love for Katniss, which she assumes is all part of the plan to win much-needed gifts from the citizens of the capital.

After a few days of training and schilling for sponsers they are dropped off into the arena and the bloodbath begins. The seemingly fabricated love story proves so popular that it is announced that if a couple from the same District are the last ones standing, they will both be allowed to live. After much suffering and death and fear only Peeta and Katniss survive. The Gamesmasters then announce that they checked the rules and nope, they can only have one winner. Gambling that a Games with NO winner would deeply unpopular, Katniss and Peeta attempt suicide to force their hand. It pays off and they are both fished out of the arena, treated for their injuries, and feted. The Powers That Be are enraged, however, and Katniss has to walk a very fine line in order to make it home alive.

The closer she gets to District 12 the more conflicted she gets about Peeta. After all, she has her best friend and hunting partner Gale waiting at home. And given the risk every child must face in a world where the Games exist, Katniss has no intentions of settling down and having a family. She is also disturbed by the realization that she is now expected to train the next pair chosen from her District.

Collins has created a rich and complex world and an interesting protagonist. No question the Hunger Games are evil, and Panem’s rulers are brutal and unsympathetic. But Katniss actually likes the people she meets in the capitol, and at no point does she pull back from what she needs to do to survive. She does not revel in it, but when she does kill another child she realizes it’s not so different from killing an animal for food, provided you don’t dwell on it too much. This is the terrible world she lives in: an unending struggle for mere existence, with starvation and the Games a constant threat. Now I have to pick up book 2.

“Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” by Michel P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers

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“Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” by Michel P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, 2001

Finished March 9, 2012

I visited Arizona and the Grand Canyon in March, and I got the impression everyone who works in the area has read this book, which is subtitled “Gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in the most famous of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders.” Each chapter covers a different way people have died in the Canyon: falling, dehydration, flash floods, drowning, airplane crashes, rock falls, poisonous creatures and plants, lightning, explosions, suicide, and murder.

I started the book while I took a break from the winter weather (a huge disappointment for a Canadian such as myself who was just trying to get AWAY from ice and snow) in front of a fire in the lobby of one of the main hotels on the edge of the Canyon. One of the first stories in the book recounted a terrifying situation in which a woman fell to her death from the edge just in front of where I was sitting. It made me pretty cautious for the rest of my visit.

The authors make the point that many deaths happen because people seem to think that a National Park is kind of like Disneyland, where everything is made safe for them and they don’t need to exhibit any common sense. Hence the stories of people walking right up to the edge, or hiking without a map or water, or rafting without a life jacket in the icy waters. At my first stop in the Grand Canyon I went to a fenced in lookout. Beyond the fence was a spire of rock about 3 feet square on the top, and beyond that was another, slightly larger spire. There were footprints in the freaking snow on these freaking tiny little icy, sloping plateaus. Was the view 20 feet out really worth risking your stupid life? So yeah, that was proof enough for me, as if I needed it, that humans can be remarkably idiotic.

The book really is gripping and well-written. I bought it for my even-more-morbid-than-me sister, but I couldn’t put it down. I wish there were photos in it though, of some of the more famous people and incidents. Not piles of festering guts or anything, but at least a photo of the vanished couple from 1928, Bessie and Glen Hyde. The authors discuss the last photo taken of them, and it would have been nice to have seen it. Particularly since they describe the wife’s body language as “shouting despair and lack of confidence – or worse.” Very thorough, and oddly entertaining. Recommended.