Caught Stealing

I'm going to go ahead and say that after reading Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing, he's now taken the mantle of favorite author from the old standby of Christopher Moore. Not that Chris has slipped by any means (his sequel, You Suck, was every bit as good as Bloodsucking Fiends), but that Charlie's work has been impressive, fun, fresh, and hard to put down.After getting thoroughly involved in his vampire Joe Pitt series, I found myself nipping at the bit, waiting for his forthcoming fourth novel in the series to come out in October. Hoping to get a decent fix, I ordered the first book in his non-vampire series, in fact it was his debut novel. Starting out as a 'wrong-man' story and ending up somewhere along the lines of the transformed man, (really, it could be almost an origin-type story for Joe Pitt) CS reads fast, reads violent, and is relentlessly engaging. What it doesn't read like is a first novel, and I actually liked it MORE than his vampire series, which if you'd read my reviews on those, you know that's high praise.



My lack of blogging in the middle of July wasn't (entirely) caused by extended birthday celebrations, but by a week-long trip to Kauai. Why Kauai? Well, aside from it being an island paradise, here's the reasons and circumstances that led to me taking a week out there:
  • Beach wedding. Two of our friends decided to have their wedding on the beach there. I list this first because without them, I wouldn't even know there was an island named Kauai, and I wouldn't have an excuse to go.
  • Acquisition of girlfriend. I'm not going by myself. It turns out my friend Markman ended up joining the crew, but I doubt I would have been interested in going without Danielle.
  • Financially sound. I had just signed a contractual gig for a new job that helped ease any concerns about money. That, and my new mortgage break.
  • We had never been. Danny and I had never been to Hawaii, and both love the beach. Incidentally, I totally have converted her to a beach person. Camping sucks!
  • I wanted to meet the strange, indigenous people of a faraway land... and kill them. Okay, that's from "Full Metal Jacket". Never mind.
So, the following are my recollections, observations, non-tourist insights, and pictures from a wonderful trip.

The Flights
It’s difficult to say if going first-class is ‘worth it’, seeing as how I have not done the trip going coach. I will say the quality of the food is excellent and you have far more comfortable chairs, plenty of room, and usually the occasional hot towel (my personal favorite). I was particularly impressed with Alaska Airlines for having portable ‘DigiPlayers’, that allowed you to view from a selection of movies or TV shows, and also had games; I learned to play backgammon on my flight back.Also, their seats all (including coach) had flexible head rests that gave you options for side rests, key for napping. But was it worth the extra $500? For 11+ hours in the air, I’d gladly do it again.

One thing about the flight West that surprised me was the jet-lag we experienced. (Kauai’i is 6 hours time difference.) It took us a few days to stay up until 10 PM while on the island! We probably would have fared better had we combated the lag like we did on the flight East by not sleeping a lot on the red-eye back; it enabled us to get 11 hours sleep on Monday night and wake up Tuesday refreshed and pretty much back on track.

The Condo
We stayed on the North Shore, in the Princeville area called Pali Ke Kua.The North Shore area is generally considered to be the key vacation spot on the island, and as it happens very close to the wedding location.Here's a blown up Google-satellite map of the small square in the shot above to give you an idea of where some of the pictures are coming from.The first thing you normally see when you look out the back patio of our condo are Hawaiian geese, Ne Ne:No doubt they are always coming around the back porches of the condos in morning and late afternoon because every visitor feeds them. That, and we are adjacent to a golf course, where they always hang. What is much more unusual is the common presence of chickens and roosters in the woods, outside of shopping malls, and generally going wherever they please.The story we all heard is that there was a recent hurricane that freed a lot of the roosters and chickens from their cages, and they never got around to getting them all back. Well, in the meantime, they have reproduced and kinda-sorta are now protected. Anyway, it's pretty comical.

Beyond the ne ne is our lush back yard:Backdoor:Our back door is facing due north, so if you take a few steps in that direction, you overlook the cliff's edge and the rocks below:View over cliff, looking north from our condo:We lucked into getting such a great place for several reasons. One is that we found it faced the Northeast, so we received a near-constant breeze that kept the place cool all day. There are no air conditioners in most places, so ceiling fans and open doors are the most common temperature controls. When we would return from our beach hike, we would often remark how we got a better deal than other condos facing west.

We spent a few nights lounging on the patio playing cards, after cooking one fabulous meal after another:Outdoor card-playing activity:
There aren't many interior shots of the place (blame the photographer), but we couldn't do without a picture of Danny consoling me after another of her "Oh Hell" victories:We started with the strategy of using 50 sunblock and then going down from there, as need be. Of course, we didn't actually need to go down from there, and were glad we didn't. Here's the strangely-attired-and-sunburned (notice the ice packs) Markman to attest:I think we can mostly blame that on the new aerosol sunblock sprays, whose questionable coverage led to my sunburning at Ocean City in May. Needless to say, I don't trust them; always go with the lotion. That sounds vaguely dirty. Go with it.

"Our" beach
What came rapidly to be known as "our beach" is what is locally called Hideways. Pali Ke Kua (our villa section of Princeville) is situated right on top of the “Hideways” beaches, straight down from the cliffs.Here's us standing on the path down to Hideaways, overlooking the ocean:You need to either walk down a VERY steep paved path and then wade out into the ocean to traverse outcroppings of black lava rocks to get to it, or climb down an even steeped dirt trail that is extremely slippery after a rain. Below is a view looking from the end of the paved path; that outcropping in the surf is where you have to wade out in to get to the kayak area and prime snorkeling. It can be VERY treacherous when the surf is rough. What I mean by that is you don't want to take anything that isn't in a waterproof backpack, and you want both hands free for stability. Fun!Either way, you feel like you’ve been through a little adventure to get to the beach, which adds more to the enjoyment. Danny and I are luxuriating right above the kayaks.Here's looking at one of the walls on the beach:Incidentally, snorkeling/kayaking tours would regularly stop at our beach for the snorkeling, which was outstanding. We just happened to be at one of the best beaches for it. I would highly recommend buying a pair of watersocks ($20) while there for the coral and dirt treks and renting snorkel gear ($20) for the week. And from that same perch, looking straight out:As you can see, there is a lot of coral, but it wasn't too shallow for swimming; it was about 6-10 feet deep in most places. You can see why snorkel tours come there. Here's a shot looking east. Our condo units are up there at the top of the cliff.You can get a better idea of how far out you have to wade in the coral to get around that bit -- easy when it's calm, rough when it's not. And speaking of rough, I just love their 'surfer warning' signs:We had our best times at or going to our beach.

When we first got there, we saw the forecast was for showers every day. After a couple days, we found out that indeed it rained every day, but either for a few minutes (in the daytime) or after 5 PM.One day while in the ocean we got rained on for a couple minutes while the sun was out the entire time, which was quite extraordinary. Basically, it only rained when it wasn’t beach hours. The rain also cooled things off nicely; you can see why the entire area is lush and green.

Ke'e Beach
There are dozens of beaches on the North Shore to check out, so we heading west to the very popular Ke'e Beach.

This one had a large swimming area between the beach and the coral. It's very picturesque; the beach and water are right under a huge green mountain.
It's much better for family swimming and such; the coral in many places is only a foot from the water surface, so when the water is rough, it's pretty hazardous. I will say there were huge schools of fish that swam about in and amongst the snorkelers, so that was pretty cool.One big difference between Hideways beach and Ke'e: the sand. Hideways sand was much larger grains, and didn't appear to have much in the dark stones on Ke'e. The effect was that Ke'e sand was BLAZING hot -- I mean hotter than any sand I've ever stepped on. You were literally running from the towel to the beach.Which is not to say you couldn't tolerate it for some relaxation. If you stayed very wet.

Queen's Bath
Queen's Bath is a natural lava rock pool on the North Shore, and it was well worth the hike and tourists, although the trek keeps a lot of them away. (Only for a while -- you want to go early to avoid the groups of kids later.)

It was a slippery trek down a muddy path to get down to the rocks. I wouldn't advise doing it after a hard rain, but sometimes you can't avoid that on the North Shore. Again, trekking sandals would have been best here, but the water socks held up pretty good.And of course, there were plenty of very attractive sights on the way down.Not to mention, Le Markman!At the base of the path you have the North Shore rocks, and to get to Queen's Bath, you have to climb over them for about 200 yards or so...The crashing waves were pretty damn impressive.
This last picture, you can see me in the middle of one of the big lava rocks. That section off the right would completely empty, and then a huge swell would come up and suddenly the water would rise about 20 feet in two seconds!There were quite a few areas were we hung out close to the ocean, thinking we were 'safe', but then an occasional big wave would come and get us wet. We picked a pretty rough seas days to go, and it was pretty fun at Queens (there's my closely-cropped pate in the water):Me and Danny lounging on the side of the pool:And here's a great 'cool-guy' shot of my hanging out on the other side... right before a huge wave came crashing over the side and washed me to the other side of the bath.So, I had to borrow Danny's snorkel gear to retrieve my own from the bottom of the pool. Luckily, the water is just as clear as day.

Good Times
Good times were had by all:Rock it:


Star Wars Books: A Primer

One of the ways you can group Star Wars fans is to ask one question: Do you read the books? The most common response I’ve received from fellow fans is one of shrugging negativity, usually from one (or more) of the following critiques:
  • Star Wars is much better served in a visual and auditory medium. Fact. But until the television show gets made, I’m not very interested in animated tales of the SW universe. And you know what? Most of the books I have read are surprising compelling. Even without the sound effects (some audio books of the series will actually have John Williams music in the background) and visuals, I have to say I’m pretty sold on the novels. (One of which I’m going to talk about here later.)
  • There are too many books out there; it’s confusing. Again, you could go nuts trying to figure out where to start where there are dozens of books at this writing. This is where I can help, using my peerless knowledge and vast experience.
  • There are too many to catch up. There are many, but if you read the key ones, you can skip the rest.
Regarding the last one, this is the biggest obstacle for the casual fan in picking up the so-far excellent New Jedi Order series. (I'd stack the first three in the series up against any other three out there.) You don't need to read all the books, just a few key (and incidentally excellent) ones. I haven't read all the books in the series, but I can tell you that I haven't felt like I've missed anything in the NJO series thus far by only sticking with the ones listed below. So let’s do that. Here are the essential books that I recommend you read to get up to where I’m at. (In order):
    First, foremost, and best are ‘The Thrawn Trilogy’. I personally would recommend this series to anyone. You have a new Empire commander genius who discovers an animal that cancels out the Force, who then teams up with the dark insane clone of a former Jedi Master. If that doesn’t sound interesting, then forget it! A must read for the introduction of several key recurring non-cannon main characters, who are as cool and as richly drawn as any on screen. That’s not an exaggeration..
    Heir to the Empire
    Dark Force Rising
    The Last Command
    Right after that trilogy we have an equally interesting, if not as well executed ‘Jedi Academy’ series, where Luke first starts to reestablish a Jedi school. Good, not great. However, essential for the introduction of several key recurring non-cannon main characters who show up a lot in future books, and also key for the stand-alone book following them..
    Jedi Search,
    Dark Apprentice,
    Champions of the Force

    And finally, we have I, Jedi. A concept that usually draws in non-Star Wars readers the most; writing in the first-person a character who develops Jedi powers. The Jedi in question appears a lot in subsequent novels. You can read this without reading the Jedi Academy series, but it will be pretty confusing; this novel mirrors several of the events in that series, but provides no background of context except from the first-person. But, believe me, it is worth reading the other series just for the payoff

And that’s all you need to read to prep for the New Jedi Order series! One other good series I’d recommend, but you don’t necessarily need, is Timothy Zahn’s follow-up Hand of Thrawn series.