Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Book Review: Cascadia By H.W. "Buzz" Bernard

Cover image from Amazon.com.  A link to this novel on their site is here.

Cascadia is the new thriller from author and Oregon native H.W. “Buzz” Bernard, a former weather officer with the U.S. Air Force for over 30 years, and a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel for 13 years.  Since publication of his debut novel Eyewall in 2011, Bernard has released a total of five thriller novels, with Cascadia being the latest, slated for release in July of 2016.

Bernard’s latest novel is based on the premise of a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami striking in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The central character, Dr. Rob Elwood, is a successful geologist who has suddenly become haunted by very explicit and repetitive nightmares of a massive earthquake tsunami obliterating the coastline of the northwestern U.S. during the busy Independence Day Weekend.  Despite being a scientist who relies on hard facts, Rob cannot help but feel that he has received some kind of supernatural premonition that a 500-year “big one” is going to strike. He struggles with the decision of whether to make this ‘prophecy’ he may have been given public in the hopes of saving innocent lives, though putting his career at risk on the one hand, or keeping his visions to himself and possibly allowing untold numbers of people to die needlessly if it indeed comes true on the other.  In addition to his inner conflicts, Rob clashes with his family, his colleagues, and local officials about his decision.

Intertwined with Rob’s story are those of two other men: one a down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran named Neahkahnie Johnny, who may have stumbled on the solution to a centuries-old puzzle which may finally turn his life around, and the other is Shack, a retired military pilot who has made a trip to Oregon to make right a wrong he committed long ago when he was a self-absorbed young flyboy.  The potential for a massive earthquake and tsunami in the Cascadia Subduction Zone carries with it the potential to forever change the lives of Rob, Johnny, Shack, and everyone living in the Pacific Northwest.  There are so many great parts to Cascadia that I would like to share, but at the risk of spoiling the plot, I will leave to the reader to check out the details.

Cascadia is a great showcase  for Buzz Bernard’s background in environmental science and his talent for writing thrillers.  It is clear that he put a great deal of time and research into making Cascadia as scientifically accurate as possible.  He expertly weaves scientific information into the story without detracting from the plot, and his characters are immediately relatable.  Bernard’s descriptions of the terrain of the coastal Pacific Northwest virtually transport the reader there, and his action sequences are terrific. A series of scenes involving Rob in his small airplane is especially riveting, and kept me up reading much later than I had planned.  His pacing of the story is excellent. There were no slow sections that made me want to skip forward at any point in the novel.

A few things held me back from giving Cascadia a full five stars. To be frank, I did find a few aspects of the story to be a bit ‘out there’ compared to the rest of the novel, particularly Rob’s willingness to take such huge professional risks based on nothing more than a series of dreams, and the appearance of a mysterious woman named Cassie at various points in the story. There were a few times when I found that that Bernard’s characters’ speaking patterns did not sound natural in places. For example, the occasional placement of mid-sentence dependent clauses came across to me sounding more like something a person would write, as opposed to something they would say. I also thought that Bernard had a tendency to occasionally wax a bit too eloquent in his physical descriptions. 

With memories of the massive December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean that claimed nearly a quarter million lives still relatively fresh, Cascadia is a novel that can really set the reader on edge, especially if they or someone they know lives near the ocean.  In Cascadia, Buzz Bernard has successfully done what the author of a good thriller does: exploits the possible and makes the reader wonder ‘what if’.  I love a good disaster novel, and this one did not disappoint.  Fun, exhilarating and informative, Cascadia is well-worth your time.

DISCLAIMER: I received a complimentary advance copy of Cascadia in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. I am not connected with the Buzz Bernard, his representation, or his publisher Bell Bridge Books in any way, and I did not receive any monetary gain from this review.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lamoine State Park, Downeast Maine

With winter starting to lose some of its punch and vacation season not too far over the horizon, it seems like a good time to post another review of one of Maine’s state parks.  I visited eight of the state’s 12 state parks with campgrounds last year, a number of which were return visits to places I had visited before on several occasions.  Lamoine State Park, located in Downeast Maine between Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island was one of them. Last year marked my fourth trip there. It has become one of the parks I have to visit at least once every year.  

Shoreline activity at Lamoine State Park

Lamoine State Park is relatively small at 55 acres.  It is located on the site of an old coaling station for naval ships, which is actually a lot more picturesque than it may sound.  There is scant evidence of the old coaling station now aside from a few historical markers, since it closed in 1912.  The University of Maine was responsible for the facility until 1949, when it was offered to the state of Maine.  I was interested to learn that some of the concrete that comprised part of the old station was reportedly hauled across the bay to be used in construction of the municipal pier in the town of Bar Harbor, which is a world-famous tourist spot just a few miles away as the crow flies.

A view of Frenchmen's Bay from Lamoine State Park, with Mount Desert Island in the background.

The bay, Frenchmen’s Bay, looms large at Lamoine State Park. The park sits on the edge, with stunning views of Mount Desert Island and the area coastline.  A number of fisherman moor their boats at Lamoine State Park, and the boat ramp is busy during the warm weather months with both commercial and recreational users.  It is a very popular spot for ocean kayakers, since the bay is sheltered from the high wind and waves of the open ocean.  There are picnic sites and open areas right along the edge of the bay, and lots of places to sit at the water’s edge and enjoy the view.  The shoreline is very accessible, and many people take advantage of it to explore and take photos.  I personally haven’t seen a lot of wildlife while exploring Lamoine State Park, aside from an elderly porcupine who waddled through my campsite one Saturday evening and proceeded to climb up a tree, completely oblivious to me.  There are a great number of birds however, particularly sea birds.  Eagles are native to the area, and it would not be surprising at all to see one there.

Old Man Porcupine, my 2014 camping buddy at Lamoine State Park

The campground itself is right on the water’s edge, and none of the park’s 62 campsites is more than a few minutes walk from the bay.  Only about ten of them have direct water views however, and they are often reserved well in advance.  As a matter of fact, Lamoine State Park is often close to fully booked during the peak camping months of June, July and August.  It’s beautiful, affordable, and just a short drive from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, so reserve your site early if you are planning to stay.  May and September are the easiest months to get your choice of campsites on short notice, though there are really no bad campsites at Lamoine State Park.  It just depends on what you prefer.  The campground is wooded and many sites offer a good deal of privacy.  There are some sites that are not separated, so several parties can camp together if they like, and two large-group camping sites are available as well.  As with most Maine state park campgrounds, there is no electricity or water hookups on the campsites at Lamoine State Park.  A bathroom and shower facility, always well-maintained I’ve found, is located in the center of the campground, though there are also outhouses located near some of the sites that are a bit further away from the center.  The park offers a playground and volleyball court, as well as a large treehouse for children, a picnic area with numerous picnic tables, and a few walking trails.  Bring warm clothing, since the breezes off the water can be quite chilly at night, especially early and late in the camping season, I’ve found.  While there’s lots to do at Lamoine State Park, swimming is not one of those things.  The bay is really too cold and rocky for swimming unless you are a penguin.

A sculpture on site at Lamoine State Park

Lamoine State Park, like all the Maine state parks I have visited, is run by a friendly and professional staff who are very friendly and always willing to help out or answer questions.  The grounds are exceptionally well-kept and they do a great job of making sure all visitors have a safe and enjoyable stay.
A remnant of the old coaling station at Lamoine State Park

One of the best things for a camper like me who is only into semi-roughing it is that the city of Ellsworth is only eight miles away.  If I find I’ve forgotten to pack something or have a craving for a lobster roll, it’s just a short drive to civilization.  Even though you can literally see Mount Desert Island from the park, you have to drive around an inlet and across the bridge to get there, which takes about a half hour.  Mount Desert Island offered endless opportunities for visitors, not the least of which are Acadia National Park and the town of Bar Harbor.  I frequently take day trips to the island when I am staying at Lamoine State Park.

If you want to know more about Lamoine State Park, there is a link to their official web page.  It really is a beautiful spot that captures the essence of coastal Maine, and I highly recommend it for anyone making a trip Downeast.

All photographs in this posting were taken by the author.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Me

The past month has been a rough one for us music fans, with the deaths of some major musical figures.  R & B singer Natalie Cole, hard rocker Lemmy Kilmeister, singer David Bowie and, most recently, Glenn Frey, founder of the legendary rock group the Eagles are the biggest names among those who have recently passed away, but there have also been a number of deaths among lesser known members of popular bands, studio musicians, producers and other industry notables.  Music has been an integral part of my life since I was very young, so when artists who have been on my radar screen for a long time suddenly pass away, it is la kind of loss, like that of an old friend or acquaintance, depending on who it is. 

I can’t honestly account for myself as a true fan of either Natalie Cole or Lemmy Kilmeister’s band Motorhead.  While I respect their work, Cole’s soulful crooning and Kilmeister’s aggressive, grinding hard rock fell just beyond the furthest ends of my musical taste spectrum.  Nevertheless, when I heard of their deaths, it felt like someone had snipped away pieces from a beautiful but increasingly tattered tapestry, one that has always been a part of my life and that I too often take for granted.  I didn’t listen to Natalie Cole or Motorhead very often, but I liked the idea that they were out there making music that people enjoyed and was sadden to hear that they were now silenced.  With the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey however, it wasn’t just pieces of the tapestry snipped away.  Some new large holes were added, alongside those created for me by the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddy Mercury, Kurt Cobain, George Harrison, and Michael Jackson, among others.  They had put forth great music that had been a tangible part of my life, and they were still active in their careers when they died.  They weren’t done yet.  There was still more to come from them that we will now never get to hear.  I felt real loss.

There was a lot of coverage of the deaths of both David Bowie and Glenn Frey in the media, and an outpouring of reactions in social media.  The men were alike in some ways and very different in others.  Both of them came onto the music scene in the early 70s, both did some acting work in addition to music, and both gradually faded from regular public attention by the coming of the 21st century.  And at the end of their careers, both men were still actively making music.  Yet Bowie was mostly considered an eclectic musical artist who had experienced occasional mainstream acceptance. His focus had always been on the art of music.  Frey, on the other hand, was very much a straightforward rock musician and businessman, who only stepped out of the mainstream to explore new ground on rare occasions.  The artistic side of music was not unimportant to Frey, but he was always very candid in admitting that it had to pay the bills too.  Regardless of the driving forces behind each of them, the end products that each gave us, their music, was truly great.  It was fascinating and touching following the reactions to both of their deaths, and it taught me some things about the part music plays in our lives.

Before the release of 1983’s Let’s Dance album, I wasn’t very familiar with David Bowie’s work at all.  I’d seen some of his albums at the store, but out of context they didn’t make much of an impact on me.  MTV hadn’t come to rural Maine yet at that point, and the only radio stations that played pop and/or rock in my conservative corner of the world kept their playlists firmly grounded in the most widely-acceptable hits.  Other than the rare “Young Americans” or “Heroes”, David Bowie wasn’t on the radio much in northern Maine in the early 80s.  That was about to change in 1983.  Let’s Dance was Bowie’s headlong dive into the new wave pop that was dominating the international airwaves at that time, and the album was a gigantic commercial success, due in large part to new fans like me who now had access to Bowie on mainstream radio.  

I remember hearing the title track to Let’s Dance for the first time late on a hot July night in 1983.  It was the night before my family was to go away on our annual two-week summer vacation to the Maine coast, and I was as excited as I would have been the night before Christmas.  Add to that the fact that it was a swelteringly hot night and it was a recipe for insomnia.  Sometime after midnight, I gave up tossing and turning, and sat on my bedroom windowsill in hopes of getting some cool air. I plugged my earpiece into my little FM radio (so as not to disturb my blissfully sleeping brother with whom I shared a room) and tuned in the local rock station.  The soundtrack of a small town Friday night’s squealing tires and chirping crickets played in one ear and the tinny sounds of rock and roll from a transistor radio in the other while I stared out at the moon over the houses of my neighborhood.  Before long, the DJ came on and introduced a new song by British singer David Bowie.  British acts were flooding the American music scene in 1983, and I was getting into a lot of it, so my interest was piqued.  The song was “Let’s Dance”, and it really hooked me on the first play.  Bowie’s vocals were mesmerizing, and the heavy drums and bluesy guitar solo captured my heart.  “Let’s Dance” became one of my favorite songs of that summer, and I ended up buying the album not long after that. Over time, I came to appreciate the full scope of David Bowie’s career, but to this day, Let’s Dance is my favorite Bowie album, though it is also the one at which many of the biggest Bowie fans turn their noses up.  Among many Bowie ‘purists’, Let’s Dance was just tolerable at best, and a sell-out at the very worst.  To me, it was, and is, terrific.  I was into his next two mid-80s albums too, Tonight and Never Let Me Down before Bowie’s new releases stopped gaining my attention.

Glenn Frey and the Eagles go back even further with me, literally to my earliest music memories.  My parents always had the radio on around my house when I was young, so I was exposed to a lot of music, albeit mostly just the biggest hits that made it onto the local radio scene.  The Eagles were very popular on the stations they listened to, likely because the band had a country-edge to them that gave them some crossover appeal, especially in my part of the state where country music was king.  I knew all the words to “Hotel California” before I was ten years old, and songs like “Take It Easy”, “One of These Nights” and “Already Gone” feel like they are encoded in my DNA.  The Eagles have always been there in the background of my life for as long as I could remember.  Not only was the band popular in my home, but my closest peers liked them too.  One of my favorite teenage memories is of riding around town with my buddies in my friend Jared’s battered red Volkswagen Beetle, all the windows down and the Eagles’ “Already Gone” blasting from the stereo.  Over time, I literally wore out my vinyl copies of both Eagles greatest hits albums, as well as my cassettes of Hotel California and Eagles Live.  I’ve never done that with any other records or cassettes, and I have owned a lot of them. 

I was an avid follower of the solo careers of the Eagles members through the 80s after the band broke up, especially Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and have carried my love of all things Eagles well into adulthood.  Needless to say, I was overjoyed when “Hell froze over” (as the band members had said it would have to) and the band reunited in the mid-1990s, and one of my regrets is that I never got to see them perform live.  My tastes have shifted over time, and my favorite Eagles songs don’t tend to be the biggest hits anymore.  I am more intrigued by the relatively-obscure album cuts that didn’t often get my attention in the past.  My current favorites are “After The Thrill Is Gone”, a Frey/Henley duet from the One Of These Nights album and “Waiting in the Weeds” from 2007’s Long Road Out Of Eden.  All those great songs, including those amazing and unmistakable Eagles harmonies that have been running through my head since I was a preschooler, would not have come to be without Glenn Frey.

My favorite part of the David Bowie catalogue, the Let’s Dance/Tonight/Never Let Me Down period of the mid-80s is one about which few others I’ve interacted with on the subject wax nostalgic. I got a lot of “Oh yeah, but what about the Ziggy Stardust era?”  I don’t dislike his earlier or later work, it’s just that the mid-80s were an especially memorable time in my life: first girlfriend, first real job, getting my driver’s license.  Music, then as now, was a major part of my life, and I am particularly fond of the songs that formed my own soundtrack to those times, which in turn gives a huge boost in my heart to that particular stretch of David Bowie’s career.  I first go to know David Bowie in the mid-80s.  That’s the David Bowie that means the most to me.

The Eagles, on the other hand, seem to be a band that people either love or hate.  They gotten massive amounts of airplay over the years, and their songs may have worn thin with some people.  They also developed a reputation for being arrogant, for being somewhat derivative at times, and for being too focused on profit, all of which has worked against them with some listeners.  Jeff Bridges’ character “The Dude” famously gave voice to this in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski when he is stuck in a taxi while “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” is playing on the radio.  “I hate the f—in' Eagles man,” he said to the cab driver, just before he was thrown out of the car.  Personally, I would have thrown him out of the car too.  I love the Eagles.  Their music has always been there, either in the background or foreground of my life, ever since I can remember.  The fact that people important to me like my parents and my high school buddies were also Eagles fans cemented their place for me.  Of course they weren’t a perfect band, but for me they are almost like family, and how many of us have a full set of perfect relatives?  The positive associations I have made with their music for over forty years far outweighs the negatives.  When Glenn Frey’s voice comes out of my speakers singing “Heartache Tonight”, I’m back to being 11 years old, waiting for that song to come on the radio so I can catch it on my tape recorder. You can’t put a price on something like that.

The passings of David Bowie and Glenn Frey have underscored for me the idea that, like most art forms, there really isn’t much about music that is absolutely “right” or “wrong”.  You might say that there are no bad songs, just missed connections.  I’ve come to believe that a lot has to do with the associations we have with music and the people who perform it.  If there is a connection between some music and something positive for you, then there is a greater likelihood you are going to have positive feelings about that music, regardless if it is something widely considered “a classic”.  If the first dance you had with the love of your life was to “Purple People Eater”, then I think there’s a good chance that even that song could one of your favorites.  And as far as today’s music being “crap”, as many in my generation and older like to say, well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.  Around the time I turned 30, most new music just wasn’t reaching my heart anymore.  But if kids today are making their own lifelong memories to a soundtrack of today’s popular songs the way I did to the music of David Bowie and the Eagles, among many others, then who am I to say their music isn’t just as good?