Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: Nick & Tesla's High Voltage Danger Lab

This is one of the first books I've actively sought out to review. Truth be told, I was looking to get a review copy for my son. He's in 6th grade. He's an innovator. He's a thinker. And he's an avid reader, but he is not a fiction-reader. Though I often catch him reading by headlamp in the wee hours of the night, he doesn't care for fiction. "I don't like novels," he claims. His nose is constantly buried in non-fictional works and even science textbooks from our friend who teaches at a local high school.

So, I asked my contact at Quirk Bookswhen I saw the description of the book, if I could get a copy. He happily obliged, saying that a review from the target audience would be great. When the copy came, I told Riley that I wanted him to give this fictional book a shot. He did. And he read it in a single sitting. Then he read it again. And, then, he started reading it aloud to his brother. Needless to say, I'm thrilled that this book has opened up his eyes to the land of novels. He did try a few of the experiments, too.

Here's what he has to say...(I gave him some guiding questions.)

What did you enjoy about this book?
I enjoyed how the experiments tied in with the story. For example: Tesla leaned over the bottle rocket, the instructions said not to lean over the rocket. So something bad happened. I won't ruin it for you. You just have to read it. I also thought the characters in the book were unusual and made the book funny.

What have you read that is similar to this book?
I have never read anything like this book. It is now on the list of my favorite books. I have read experiment books but I have never read an experiment book with a story behind it.
Who was your favorite character? What did you appreciate about him/her?
I liked the character Uncle Newt. He made the book really funny. His singing, his actions, what I imagine he looks like - from the description in the book - are all funny. Hilarious, in fact.
Did you find this book a quick read? Why or why not?
I read this book fast to my opinion. Most novels I read halfway, get tired of, stop reading it, and a while later I might come back to read it. This novel I read right through to the end.

What were your concerns about this book?
I would really like to read the next book in the series. And I'm not sure I can wait until February!

Note: we did receive a complimentary copy of this book for the purpose of reviewing it. All opinions are 100% accurate and our own.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tales from the Trenches: Our Foxhound Urban Spy Adventure {Review}

It began as these things normally do: with an email from Living Social. After a flurry of emails and phone calls, with a few keystrokes and a couple of clicks, Pia and I purchased vouchers for Foxhound's Urban Adventures and presented them to Brian and Jake as Fathers' Day gifts. On that particular morning in June while they opened gifts from their boys, Brian and Jake had eerily parallel conversations with their bargain-loving wives while staring at the printed voucher: Good for one Urban Spy Adventure.

"What is this? Foxhound Urban Adventures?!"

I don't really know.

"But you bought it..."


"What does it entail?"

I don't know. But it looked like fun and it was a good deal.

"How does it look like fun? You don't even know what it is!"

Well it was a good deal! And we get to go to San Francisco.

"Oh, geez...."

And so the vouchers sat. And sat. And sat. Finally, as the expiration date approached, I pressed them to make a reservation. We picked a Saturday in October - less than a week before the vouchers expired - and took the last spots for the day. And, grudgingly, the guys put it on their calendars. "007" was scrawled on Brian's; "Spy School" was scribbled in Jake's.

Then Brian got a wild hair that we should make it an overnight trip. And, magically, stars aligned and child care fell into place. Thank goodness for grandparents and generous friends. So a hotel was booked, dinner plans made, and we headed up for a whirlwind twenty-four hours in the City.

Nursing a hang-over from a single cocktail the night before at Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen - I always forget that rum is verboten! - we showed up at Union Square and fanned out to find our Adventure Guide.

We were looking for a man with a blue suitcase...then we had to ask him a single question. I spotted the case and we dispatched Brian.

Do you know where the 39 steps are? 

And so began our Urban Spy Adventure, led by this man, Shannon Bruzelius, Foxhound's owner and founder. Imagine dead-drops and subterfuge. Think disguises and shoot-outs.

I'm not going to give away too many details of Foxhound Urban Adventure's operation. You really just need to experience it for yourself. I will simply tell you some tales from the trenches.

First, if you're a gear-hound, you get gear to use for the day. Lots of gear. A messenger bag full of gear. A laser tag gun with a scope. Walkie-talkies that have an impressive range. Rear-view sunglasses. And we used them all. You don't get to keep the gear, but you do get the hat as a reminder of the adventure.

Missions go something like this: there is a starting point, a designated pick-up, and a chosen drop-off. There are two teams. One team, the Offense, is charged with picking up and dropping off; the other team, the Defense, simply has to foil the plans and prevent the drop-off. Shannon tears open manila folders stamped 'Top Secret', provides laminated maps, and briefs the teams. You can use whatever means necessary to accomplish your task. Take a cab. Hop on a bus. Hitchhike. Whatever. Just get it done. 

Oh, and do it in an hour. That ticking timer is important for one of my tales!

Picking Teams
Operation Rendition Rockstars. 5 October 2013.

As with playground games in elementary school, we had to divide ourselves into two teams. There were the four of us, one couple, and a rowdy crew of siblings plus spouses. One gal suggested we interview each other to pick our teams. We thought she was kidding. She wasn't.

"What would your strategy be to prevent the other team from getting to the drop-off?" she started.

I would hunt them down and kill them, offered Michelle.

"No, but how would you do that?" she persisted.

I would remember what they looked like, hunt them down, and kill them.

Sounds just about right. Being able to identify the opposing team was key. And remembering what Shannon looked like was just as important. It's amazing what a change of clothes, or even just putting on a hat, does for someone's appearance! For one of the missions he cautioned the Offense to look for his blue shoes. Remembering that detail was crucial at the final hand-off for that mission.

Tucked into Alcoves

Because this is a game played out - in secret - in a public space, you often tuck into doorways as refuge or as a good spot to hide and shoot the other team. But often, you are in places where people might not expect you to be. During one mission, as he ascended to Coit Tower, Brian ducked into an alcove that just happened to be someone's front door. He was pressed against the door as he huddled from the hostiles. And - you guessed it - the door opened and he found himself on his back inside someone's entryway. Equally shocked, she shrieked and he jumped to his feet, explaining, "I'm sorry! I'm playing a game. Sorry." He hastily stepped out of her house and the door slammed shut...and he heard the deadbolt latch. "I'm sorry!" he apologized one more time through the locked door before he continued his climb up the street.

Public Shootouts
As the teams made their way through the city, there were shootouts in retail spaces. Tara told a story of hiding behind a mannequin in Macy's during one mission.

"Are you playing laser tag in my store?" queried one sales associate.

Ummm...yes, Tara admitted.

"Oh. Okay."

During another mission, Pia was hiding inside a pizza parlor. When she exited, she unexpectedly came face-to-face with the brothers on the opposing team. She screamed, like a girl, and ran back inside the pizza parlor with the guys right on her tail. She was shooting them. They were shooting her. Lasers were cutting through the air amid a cacophony of electronic beeps from their guns.

"Don't break my windows!" hollered the shop-keeper. Pia looked at him, startled, then realized he was joking. It's fairly astounding how nonchalant people are about the public shootouts. Astounding and wonderful.

Map Reading
When you read the map correctly, you can end up on a great position to start taking people out from an unexpected spot. When you read the map incorrectly...well, let's just say, you might end up in an intersection that you didn't plan on being at, surrounded by trashcans, an army of hostiles, and a traffic cop, taking fire from every angle. Whoops. Yes, that happened.

One last tale from the espionage trenches...

Twelve Seconds Late
It was the third and final mission of the day, but the first in which I was actively participating since I played family-photographer during the other two missions. Shannon patted me on the shoulder as we left the starting point. "Have fun, Rookie," he urged. Thanks.

Brian, Jake, and Allen headed off in one direction, descending from Coit Tower one way, while Amy, Pia, and I took some stairs headed off in another direction. Our strategy seemed simple enough. The guys would go to pick-up and we would make our way to the drop-off. We didn't know what they were picking up, we just knew it was magnetic and it was in a trashcan. While Shannon briefed us - Team China - Pia and I exchanged glances at the words "reach into the trashcan." Brian is a germophobe to the highest degree. There was no way he was going to retrieve the package.

While we strolled along towards our destination, we started hearing unnerving chatter.

"Jake's out," crackled in my earpiece.

"Allen's out, too," swiftly followed.

What?!? Come back. Jake and Allen are dead?


Brian, are you still alive?


Do you need back-up?


We looked at the map, told them where we were. A few exchanges later, we had a revised plan. One of the girls would meet Brian and the other two would continue with the original plan. Pia commanded, "Cam, you go meet Brian! Amy and I will head to drop-off as planned." What? Me? Okay. I started running.

"There's a sniper here at pick-up," whispered Brian. "I can't see where. And the other guys checked the trashcans. We can't find the package. We might have to call 'Buffalo.'"

"The package is there," came my husband's voice.

"Which trashcan?" asked Brian.

"I can't tell you. I'm dead," Jake reminded us.

Now you decide to follow rules, you bastard! 

Silence. Fine.

I'm one block away, I announced as I sprinted up the last block to pick-up.

"No! Go back down, turn right, and come up the next block instead. I'll meet you at the base of the hill."

What base of the hill? We're in San Francisco. Everything is hill.

"Just get here."

Seconds later, Brian and I were headed up the hill to the pick-up intersection. "I'll go up first. Stay behind me. I can get hit three times. And then I'm dead. So, I'll hand it to you and you have to make it to the drop-off. Okay?"


I hung back about a quarter of the way down the hill, finger poised on the trigger of my laser tag gun, watching for any hostile fire. Brian crouched behind trees, making his way to the trashcan. I held my breath as he reached inside. I barely blinked, then he was running past me.


You got it? 

"Yes. Go, go, go! I just reached into a garbage can...and I liked it. Run!"

Package acquired! I hollered into the walkie-talkie. We're on our way to the drop-off. Pia, your husband actually reached into a garbage can!

We had eleven minutes to make it about a dozen city blocks. I have completed several half-marathons and one full; I've even done a triathlon. And I've given birth to two kids. But nothing prepared me for this.

"Let's look for a cab," Brian suggested. As we were running along Columbus, we were looking inside every cab. Passengers. Full. Damn it. We glanced into hotel driveways, searching for an unoccupied cab. A bus with a Cal decal on the door was at a stoplight. I actually wondered what the driver would do if I knocked on the door, said I was from the Class of '96 and needed to get to Ghiradelli Square fast. 'Go, Bears!' I prepared to say, but Brian was still running.

Now, I can maintain just below a 10-minute mile indefinitely. Maybe not indefinitely, but I've done it for 26 miles. And I was struggling.  I'm going to throw up, I thought to myself. But Brian abhors running, so, if he was still running, there was no way I was stopping. I have no idea how fast we were going, but it was faster than my comfortable pace. Don't puke. Don't puke, I thought to myself as we sprinted through San Francisco.

Map in hand, I barked out directions. Keep going straight. Left. Go left. As we raced toward the square, we must have been quite a sight. People lurched out of the way. Finally we reached the square and paused for just a moment. I tried to catch my breath.

"Pia, do you copy?" demanded Brian.


"How do we get to you?"

I'm at the fountain. Watch out for the other team, they are hiding in the planters. We looked at the stairs leading up to the fountain and it was lined with planters. What the...

"Pia, you are going to have to draw fire so we know where they are."


"Start shooting so we know where they are!"

We started running again. Halfway up the stairs, Brian stopped, but I was right on his tail and I ran right into him and knocked out my ear-piece. I pointed up the stairs, "That's him. That's Shannon."


"Right there. Give me the package! I can get hit 10 times before I'm dead." I felt Brian press the rectangle into my hand and started sprinting toward Shannon with my finger on the trigger of my gun. As I handed him the package, he held up his phone, the timer. Eleven, it read. Woohoo! We made it with eleven seconds to go. Then I saw it move to twelve. It wasn't counting down. It was counting up. We missed it by twelve seconds. Arrrgh.

All the players moved in and, dripping with sweat and out of breath, I groaned, "We didn't make it!" The collective moan, from the Chinese, was brief as were the hollers of triumph from the Cuban team. Fierce competitiveness evaporated into friendly banter, high-fives were exchanged, and we started telling the stories.

Pia and I had no idea when we booked this that we would have to run - literally run! - all over San Francisco, that we would be ducking into retail establishments with laser tag Nerf guns in broad daylight, and that we would amass so many hilarious stories from the day that will be told and retold. We are already scheming about how to get up there to do it again...and which adventurous friends we are going to rope into joining us.

Our day with Foxhound Urban Adventures was an unforgettable, adrenaline-inducing series of spy escapades. Amazing. And, at the end of it all, Brian finally got his cab-ride.

If you're even considering joining Shannon for an afternoon of spy fun, do it. You won't regret it.*

Foxhound Urban Adventures

*I have not received any compensation for this review. All opinions and experiences are 100% my own.