Step on a Crack

On a cruise ship books can make the rounds, passing from one reader to another fairly quickly. Two others in my group read Step On a Crack by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge before I did. They both agreed that the book was not very good (to paraphrase their summaries as gently as possible), so it’s fair to say that my expectations were low when I picked up the book.

My expectations were met. Had I something else to read, I would have put this thing down around chapter four and never looked back. (The chapters are very short). The first sentence is a confused and awkward bit of imagery (the back of a jacket turns away…) and that sets the tone for the whole book. We start with a murder, the untimely demise of one of the finest people the world has ever known. Her highly-trained bodyguards, who have been protecting her for several years now, are apparently unable to respond to what should be a routine medical emergency. It seems no one told them that their charge was deathly allergic to peanuts so they weren’t able to do anything about it. Oops! (The bad guy knew about her allergy, however, well enough to execute a months-long plot to infiltrate a fancy restaurant in order to put peanut oil on her dinner. Wow.) On top of that, somehow on this particular night the woman forgot to pack her own medicine. And so begins the work of the greatest criminal mastermind of the century.

But wait! Before we go any further with tales of murder and mayhem, it’s time to meet a whole bunch of Perfect People. These people do nothing to influence the plot of the story; they’re too busy being perfect. Perfect children. A perfect stranger to take perfect care of the perfect children in the time of crisis. Perfect people everywhere, doing the perfect things with perfect consistency. Bleeargh. Did I mention they have nothing to do with the plot? They are there, in fact, to perfectly NOT encumber the detective we will be following as the threadbare story develops.

Begin the crime of the century. A crime so big and so audacious it must be the work of a criminal genius. How do we know? Because the authors tell us so. With exclamation points! And occasional nonsensical italics! The NYPD is starting to look like a bunch of incompetent fools, and the press is going to have a field day. If hostages are killed, the press will rake our hero over the coals.

Only, hostages die, and for a long time it looks like the bad guys are winning, but the authors can’t be bothered to portray the actual coal-raking. In fact, the stakes for the good guys never escalate. There is no heat. (One reporter does criticize our hero in her paper, but then immediately expresses remorse and stops her persecution — taking her own step toward perfection before she can cause too much trouble for the authors.)

Then there’s the time the detective walks in and finds his grandfather dressed as a priest! (That’s their exclamation point, not mine.) Wow! what a shock! Only, it turns out that Grandpa has been a priest for years, everyone knows it, and seeing him dressed that way was no shock to anyone. The authors were just yanking our chain a bit. Whee.

Meanwhile, most of the hostages experience life-changing revelations. The perfect hostages become perfecter(!). The imperfect ones get better! For instance, the ‘fashionista’ resolves to go to rehab and stop being such a bitch all the time. Once she makes that decision, that’s it for her in this story. She makes a promise to herself to undergo a complete personality realignment and we believe her and move on. Well, the authors seem to believe her. I’m skeptical.

I hate to spoil it for you, but the good guys win in the end. In fact, they don’t have to work very hard to defeat the brilliant criminal mastermind. Sure, the bad guys got away at first, but just a little routine investigating and bam, there you have it. To avoid the authors having to get too clever, the criminals conveniently explain all the loose ends for us.

I finished the book. It didn’t take long; the type is big and there’s about fifty pages worth of blank space between chapters. One-third of what is left is a sentimental parade of sap that does nothing for the story. I set the book aside and decided not to review it here. There’s plenty of awful prose out there; you don’t need my help finding it. Then I read the back cover. “THE STUNNING #1 BESTSELLER” it says right across the top. Then it lists several newspapers who listed the book as a top-seller. What!?! This book?

I’m stunned, anyway. I decided to write a little review after all, not so much to criticize the book as the system that allowed it to attain such stature.

Usually, even with books or authors I don’t like, I can understand at least to a certain degree how they became successful. Dan Brown’s not very good but he has excellent pacing and managed to anger the right people. This book leaves me baffled.

Some guy at Booklist says, “Totally gripping and downright impossible to put down.” Gripping? No. No it isn’t. The characters are boring, there is no escalation of the stakes (unforgivable in a thriller), no character growth, not a breath of humanity anywhere to be found in these pages. The criminal plot depends on the incompetence of the good guys. Potentially gut-wrenching scenes are glossed over so we can get back to the Perfect People for another dose of sentimentality. Not gripping. USA Today chimes in as well, along with Publisher’s Weekly and a handful of book-review Web sites. Did they read a different version? One without so much suck in it? Are these people even literate?

Don’t waste your time with this book. In fact, just to be on the safe side, stay away from Patterson entirely until he proves this was just a fluke. Probably best to stay away from books published by Little, Brown, and Company (responsible for the hardcover version of this fluff) or by Vision. Somewhere there is an editor who approved this book, and I want to make sure I never encounter anything else that crossed her desk. As long as we’re learning from the mistakes of others, it’s time to take Booklist a lot less seriously as well.

The only explanation for the sales that I can come up with is the name: James Patterson. Apparently he’s pretty famous. Bookstores will pre-order a lot of copies, which drives the rankings up, which drives sales by people who won’t even read the first sentence of the story before taking it home. If it weren’t for the big name, not many people would have read the second sentence of this thing. The few that were carried through the first part by the suggestion of sex would have bailed out soon thereafter.

Is Mr. Patterson concerned about protecting his name? It doesn’t look like it. This book can’t be good for his reputation, no matter what the sales were. (I am assuming that at some point he wrote good books to establish his reputation.) He can read, I’d be willing to bet; he must know this novel is junk. Eventually, people are going to hesitate to pick up his next title, after getting insulted by a previous purchase.

Ooo! Or maybe — just maybe, mind you — Michael Ledwidge knows something. Something James Patterson would rather not become public. You see where I’m going with this? Ledwidge wrote the book but somehow coerced Patterson into putting his name on the thing as well. Farfetched? It’s a lot more plausible than the story in Step on a Crack.

And can someone tell me what that title had to do with anything?

Note: if for some reason you ignore my dire warnings and use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Do Not Flush Whilst Seated

Warning sign in our cabin telling us that the kettle worked

Warning sign in our cabin telling us that the kettle worked

This boat is, apparently, a very dangerous place. Everywhere one turns there are warnings of the mortal peril we face every day. Here is a sample of the dangers we are warned about. Each warning is written in six languages, so it requires dedication to find where on the sign is the warning for you.

  • On a free-standing placard on the little table in my cabin: Warning: the water in the kettle may be very hot. (I would perhaps have written the sign, “Good news! The water in the kettle may be very hot!” or perhaps “Warning: kettle works properly.”)
  • Above every toilet on the boat: Do not flush whilst seated. (The lids and flush buttons are set up to make it practically impossible to flush whilst seated as well.)
  • At the top and bottom of every stairway: Mind the step. (That small blue sign with writing in six languages is much easier to spot than the entire damn staircase after all. But what if someone falls on the next step? Shouldn’t there be a warning on each step on the staircase?)
  • On the side of the boat while docked at Kagoshima (but not in other ports): KEEP CLEAR OF PROPELLERS (English only)
  • In the shower: Caution: Test the temperature of the water before using the shower.
  • Part of a safety warning in every issue of the daily the bulletin delivered to our cabin: “… multiple plugs are not permitted in the cabins…” (Our cabin came equipped with a multi-plug power strip plugged into the only outlet.)

Of the above, the warning that is the least silly is actually the one about flushing (except it’s also posted above urinals). The toilets use some sort of vacuum system to flush, and if one were to form a seal between nethers and seat, who knows what might happen? Thus the heads onboard have been built with a design that would require a gifted contortionist to flush whilst seated.

Around the ship there are plenty of other warnings and safety instructions as well, a different sort of warning, given pictorially rather than in six different languages — things like “go this way if the ship is sinking.” Some of those admonitions actually seem reasonable, or even (dare I say?) helpful.

Oddly, there are no signs warning guests to not fall over the rail and into the ocean. I guess it’s OK to do that.

Happy 50th, Mom and Dad

I am here on this cruise because my parents thought this would be a great way to celebrate their fifty years of wedded bliss. Last night we had the big celebration at dinner, with all of us as dressed up as we could reasonably get. We got a group portrait taken and we were served a special cake at dinner (after the regular dessert). Good times.

Fifty years they’ve been married. That takes some doing. Earlier in the day I had to smile as we walked down a market street in Kobe; my parents were holding hands.

Congratulations, guys. Here’s to many more years of hand-holding in exotic locations.

Follow the Carp

It took a little longer to shake off the cobwebs this morning, a combination of getting used to the time zone and (more significantly) staying up too late last night. I didn’t have all morning to lie about, however, I needed to be fed and ready at 8:15, when the family was gathering to get our instructions for the trip to Kyoto. Thirty minutes later I had a number 16 affixed to my chest and we were on our way.

Our guide, with carp, near a big tree

Our guide, with carp, near a big tree

The trip started with a coach ride from the port of Kobe to Kyoto. The guide of coach 16 was a friendly fellow with lots of interesting stories about the little things that give a city its character. I didn’t hear all the stories; I was seated in the back, next to Obnoxious Italian Guy. The coach was full, and Obnoxious Italian Guy and his girlfriend simply needed more space than the seat provided. Not because they were big, but because he in particular was animated. He sat semi-sideways in the seat, using my shoulder as a back rest, and laughed and joked and waved his arms in a culturally-correct manner, and generally annoyed me. If I had said something he probably would have been quite all right with that; my quiet annoyance was probably just as culturally abrasive to him as his space-invading histrionics were to me.

In any case, we got to Kyoto. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple, built by a powerful Shogun and cousin of the Emperor. Before we got off the bus our guide showed the baton he would carry. At the end were two mini carp kites. “Follow the carp,” he said. He reminded us again when we were mustering after getting off the bus, where another tour guide was giving the same advice to her group, holding up an almost identical carp-festooned baton.

The Golden Pavillion, built by some shogun guy in Kyoto Japan

The Golden Pavillion, built by some shogun guy in Kyoto Japan

The place was was, as you might expect, beautiful. The most striking building was the golden Pavillion, a three-story structure. The upper two stories were covered in gilt which reflected in a still pond, while the ground floor was dark wood. “It is best when it is raining,” our guide said. He moved his hands to indicate a downpour. “When it is raining very hard. Then the upper part seems to be floating in the air. Very beautiful.” It was hot and humid; I hoped for rain, but no such luck.

We toured the grounds, pausing to hear stories of carp transforming into dragons and so forth. Almost right away my camera battery gave out. That was OK, I was surrounded by photographers. I concentrated on looking around.

All too soon we were done with the place, and I felt for the first time the downside of a group tour. We were in a place of quiet contemplation, a place designed explicitly to be a good place to sit and think (or not think). But, I was with forty other people and we had places to go. A tour can hardly schedule time for forty antsy tourists to stop for a moment, breathe, and feel the harmony of the surroundings permeate their own souls. We got back on the bus.

A small shrine in a Zen garden, Kyoto

A small shrine in a Zen garden, Kyoto

We drove past the Emperor’s Palace grounds, over the river where once thrived kabuki and brothels, to our next stop, a Shinto temple. We were instructed in the proper cleaning ritual, a symbolic preparation to enter the place and in itself a sort of prayer. I tried to get myself in the proper frame of mind as I washed left hand, right hand, mouth (cover your mouth when you spit the cleansing water back out – do not show God your teeth), then finally the handle of the water scoop, to make it ready for the next person.

Thus cleansed and in the proper frame of mind we entered the temple grounds. The buildings were massive and brightly painted. The place was a half-sized replica of the Emperor’s palace, which was burned down a century or four ago. Our group crunched over the white gravel of the grounds and approached the main shrine, which houses the spirits of not one but two great Emperors. We bowed respectfully, clapped, and made our wishes. (I did not wish for anything as base as a cooling rainstorm.) One can also purchase fortunes at the temple, not all of which are good. There are trees white with the fortune slips, as people who are not happy with their fortune will tie it to a branch and get a new one.

Get your coin in the bowl and go to heaven!

Get your coin in the bowl and go to heaven!

Back on the bus half an hour later and on to the next stop, a famous market street bursting with fresh seafood, intriguing snacks, enticing aromas, and the vibrant energy that any good market has. (Remind me to look up the name of this street.) Then it was back on the bus once again for a trip to a fancy hotel for a buffet lunch with dozens of dishes, from the familiar to the mysterious. I ate too much, trying to balance exotic and mundane. The afternoon included a visit to another, particularly cool temple perched on the hills overlooking the city, and time to shop in the streets that lead up to the temple.

I was feeling a powerful thirst, so I paused and drank a beverage called Pocasi Sweat (or something like that – “sweat” was in the name). It is what Gatorade used to be before it got sweet — a not-very-tasty-but-effective thirst quencher that replaces electrolytes. It was indeed refreshing.

Finally, we went to the train station and boarded the Shikansen (rhymes with ‘bullet train’) back from Kyoto to Kobe. According to fuego’s GPS-phone, we reached speeds of almost 280 km/h, the maximum the train is allowed to go in urban parts of the country. The trains don’t stop often and when they do it is not for long; we were warned by our guide that while the train would stop for almost two minutes in Kyoto, in Kobe we would have only a minute to get off. I think our huge group delayed departure a few seconds. Hopefully they were able to make up the time on the next leg.

Back in Kobe we boarded a different bus and were shuttled back to the boat, tired, pleased, and just a bit frazzled, considering all the places of peace and tranquility we had stampeded through. Better to stampede, though, than to not see it at all.

The Big Day

The eclipse is past, it was a success, and the folks on board are ready to party. Fortunately it’s still practically deserted here in the aft lounge on deck 9, tucked away behind the casino. The pianist has been joined by a trumpet player who is quite obviously not on the payroll but what he lacks in prowess he makes up for with a sweet tone and a good attitude. Everyone seems jolly this evening. We saw a total solar eclipse together today.

I woke up early, but not as early as I had planned. Outside our porthole the sun shone brightly over calm seas. By gum, it looked like it would be a good eclipse-watching day.

Many paused for a moment of reflection, and veterans told their stories.

Astronomy buffs prepare for the upcoming eclipse as the boat passes Iwo Jima

My plan called for breakfast first, a big meal in case the excitement later took precedence over meals. When I got up on deck, I changed my plans. Pictures first. On the port side was Iwo Jima, about as close as tourists can get to it these days. It is hallowed ground, dedicated to the memory of the blood shed over a few square miles of rock in the middle of the ocean. I thought about the marines who had looked over the waves at the same island so long ago, knowing that soon they would step ashore there. I took a couple of pictures in cooperation with Stereoptic Pete, who I have not mentioned yet in these chronicles, but I’ll get to that another day.

The island behind us, we set course for the center of the path the eclipse would take, balancing the longest possible totality with the occasional banks of clouds. “We’re good for Plan A,” the organizer said over the ship’s PA system. I went for breakfast and to make sure that I was as ready as possible for the main event. memory chip cleared, battery (and backup) fully charged, no funky settings on the camera. I went over in my head what I would do for the six and a half minutes of totality. 1) Look at eclipse 2) take pictures of eclipse. I reminded myself to get the priorities right. There would be plenty of pictures to share among the family, but there won’t be another eclipse as long as this one for more than a century.

Also, before I took my position on the sunny deck, I needed better sun protection. My hopes of finding a decent sun hat were thwarted, but the gift shop on board had baseball caps, and one of those would be better than nothing. I sprang for the hat, slathered on the sunscreen, and headed topside.

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

I took up a position on the patio at the stern of deck 10. It was less crowded (most of the patio is covered by an awning) and it was close to the beer. It also had the benefit of having a good view to the rear, and I hoped to see the cone of the shadow overtake us as second contact approached.

It wasn’t long before first contact – the moment when the disk of the moon first impinges on the sun. I pulled out my sun-looking-at shades and watched. Near me was a German couple and their cute-as-a-button daughter. The eclipse was going a bit slowly for a girl her age, so I took the daily newsletter, unfolded it, and punched a pattern of holes into it with my pen, creating the largest array of cameras on the boat. We had a good time looking at the dozens of crescent shapes projected onto the table top, projecting them on each other, and generally goofing around.

The day grew dimmer, and cooler. The ship adjusted course to run right down the center of the track, prolonging the totality by a fraction of a second. (“Because we can,” the director explained.) Unfortunately, due to poor math on my part, I had positioned myself directly under the ship’s exhaust on our new heading. As the deck became crowded with the ship’s crew, I crossed over to the other side of the boat, pausing to get a beer on the way. I found a spot on the rail, introduced myself to my new neighbors, and made another check of the camera. I was shooting with a big ol’ zoom lens and it seemed like about halfway zoomed would give the best results. I checked ISO, focus, shutter speed, and aperture. I was ready. The plan was to not spend too much time thinking, but just step through a whole bunch of settings, assuming at least one would give good results.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

The cone of darkness appeared behind us as the world dimmed. The temperature, cooling steadily for the last hour, dropped abruptly further. The light took on an odd twilight aspect. I looked up, and saw the last flare of the sun vanish behind the rugged lunar terrain. Second contact, they call that moment in the biz. I raised my camera, almost vertical, and lined up my first shot. Shoonk went the slider for the zoom, pulling me back from the image. Fwip went my brand-new hat as it tumbled off my head, over the rail, and into the sea far below. I took the picture.

You’ve seen eclipse pictures before, better ones than these. Probably you’re read descriptions of the time spent in the shadow of the moon. Twilight in the middle of the day. Sunset-pink clouds on the entire horizon, 360 degrees. All I can add is “spooky”. Venus appeared, then elusive Mercury and some of the brighter stars. The whispy streamers of the corona cast an eery glow over the sea, and the sky was a color I’d never seen before.

I raised my beer to sun and moon and corona and speedy little Mercury and I silently toasted the spectacle.

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

I took some more pictures, pausing now and then to take it all in, not thinking about anything but the thing itself. Well over six minutes passed that way, then came the first peek of the sun through a valley on the lunar surface, a flash known as the diamond ring that means that we have reached third contact and the magic is coming to an end. I quickly made an adjustment to the camera and fired up at the emerging brightness. And waited as my camera beeped off ten agonizing seconds before taking the picture. It turns out I had adjusted two things. Maybe I was lucky, however; the picture came out right nice.

I hadn’t taken any shots of the crescent sun before totality, but afterwards I found a piece of solar filter blowing across the deck and held it over the lens with one hand while shooting with the other.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

Eventually it was time to abandon my post and find the rest of my group, in the more crowded areas forward of my position. “Did you get good pictures?” people asked as I moved around. “I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t gone back to look at them. It didn’t even occur to me until later. I was pretty sure that I was moving the camera too much anyway.

Before fourth contact, while the moon was still slinking back into obscurity, the moon geeks began to break down their fancy telescopes and clever moon-watching devices and the party atmosphere began. The ship hoisted the official ‘successful eclipse’ flag and cheering ensued. Our boat shared horn blasts with other boats that had come to the ideal viewing spot. My cousin sweet-talked the head of bartenders on the boat to slide me a free Eclipse Cocktail.

The central lounge on the boat was packed this afternoon, filled with clusters of people (like us) reliving the experience, checking photos, and partitipating in the traditional cruise activities for the first time in days.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

Tonight after dinner (celebrating fuego’s mother-in-law’s birthday) I followed my nephew out to the foredeck, kept dark for this cruise only, to allow people a place to see the stars. There was the Milky Way and a buttload of stars, along with the fiery trail of the occasional meteor. I stayed out there for quite a while in the dark and quiet, listening to the low conversations around me and thinking about how big it all is, this universe measured in time, and how tiny was the little island we had passed that morning.

Sun and Moon collide
bound by ancient formulae
meteors are free

Sunset off the Stern

Sunset Panorama

Sunset Panorama

Last night I ditched a family dinner to sit on the fantail of the boat and watch the sun set, to ponder life and all the little moving parts that are required to sustain it, and to take a few pictures. This is built from a series of fourteen still photos, and came together pretty well. You can click to see a less-shrunk version. The sunset got a lot redder after a while, but I didn’t go back and take another set for a panorama.

Sunset off the stern of the boat

Sunset off the stern of the boat

Lost at Sea

I’m sitting at the stern of the boat right now, looking back at our wake stretching behind us over calm seas to the horizon. The sun is setting behind us, giving the clouds lined up on the horizon a glow around the edges. It’s nice. As the sun slips below the horizon I will be here to document the event. It’s only fair.

We are far from land now, just a small town with a motor sliding over the briny blue (which is noticeably bluer today). Dinner will be soon but I’m not really hungry and certainly not interested in being in a loud and crowded restaurant. The food’s nice but right now I just want peace and quiet. I’ll grab something later if I feel like it.

There was a group of us a while ago, and while the conversation was interesting, I didn’t feel like saying much. I enjoyed the company, but wasn’t inclined to mix in. We were discussing subjects that others knew a lot more about than I did (things like 3D imaging), and so I did my best to increase the listen/talk ratio of the group, and to keep track of the sun and make sure it set correctly. So far so good. The sun is partially obscured by a high layer of cloud, while below fluffy clouds line up below, raising occasional pillars as sentinels, their towering shapes gilt-edged by the rays of the sun.

A little bit of color is starting to manifest now, hints of salmon in the gap between the most distant clouds and the horizon. The sun is easing behind a cloud, allowing the fainter tones to shine forth. The colors are interrupted in one spot by what appears to be a squall. At other points the horizon has bumps – presumably the tops of yet-more-distant clouds.

I’m pausing to take pictures now and then, using my wide-angle lens because it’s already on the camera and I can be reasonably confident that somewhere in the shot will be a picture. On the tiny little video screen, the pinks don’t seem to be coming out the way my eyes register them. I’ve had that problem before; not sure what to tweak to fix that. I’ll deal with it later. Like everything else.

I like being at sea, but I don’t think it makes me very good company. There are days for thinking and they seem more common out on the water. I crave solitude; I want the chance to explore the melancholy I’m feeling, the wistful longing that can lead to good fiction. Unfortunately it’s really hard to be alone here for any stretch of time; in this small town it’s impossible to go anywhere without running into an acquaintance or someone who shares a common interest and would like to discuss it. Then there’s family. I thought that dinner time might be a chance for me to sneak off if I skipped the meal, but it was not to be.

The sun is now long set, and the boat chugs on for our historic leap and hop through the moon shadow. I’m tired, still not alone, and I want to get some work done before bed. Despite the fact I’m lousy company right now, I’m still not alone.