Monday, February 23, 2015

Hidden by Benedict Jacka

 I can't say enough good things about the Alex Verus series. It started as a bit of a ripoff of Butcher's Harry Dresden, seemingly, but has acquired an interesting life and story line of its own along the way. Mage Talisid, from the Council of the light mages, is still trying to recruit Alex to help them discover the whereabouts and plans of Richard Drakh, Alex's former master dark mage, but Verus wants nothing to do with this, and refuses to believe the rumors of Drakh's return. Alex's relationship with Anne is still strained due to her feelings about how all of the people who have come after him in the last few years seem to end up dead, and his former friend, Sonder, is also uncomfortable with Alex's trail of bodies.

Luna, however, is still strongly on his side, as (surprisingly) is Variam, Anne's former co-apprentice with the dark mage Sagash. Keeper Caldera is still on the fence as far as Alex is concerned, but she tends to be a bit more pragmatic about these things, having faced the dark mages and other evils for too long in her career. When Anne is kidnapped, though, they must all join forces to try and find her and help her escape from her captors.

One of the interesting things that develops as we go along in this series is that we find out more and more about exactly how Verus uses his powers of divination to discover the answers he needs. I wonder if Jacka had all of this worked out at the very beginning, and used it as the basis for his plot lines, or if it has just come to him in dribbles and drabs, too.

Also, I like the use of the Elsewhere to reveal interesting facets of the non-POV characters history and motivations, and how the beings there have interesting motivations of their own.

I've reached the end of the books already written in this series. Now, I have to wait. I'm not good at that.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright

I'm noting a curious phenomenon. Enjoying a person's blog writings doesn't seem to translate well to enjoying their novels. I read John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos a while back and didn't really like it much, but I recently discovered his blog, and liked some of the things he had to say there, so I thought I should give him a second chance. Yeah, that didn't work out too well. I only managed about 25 pages of Count to a Trillion before I gave it up as confusing and un-engaging. Sorry Mr. Wright.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Talk amongst Yourselves

Blogging will be light. The real world takes all my attention at the moment. Have three books in progress, none of which are finishing up any time soon. Hope to be back in stride next week.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Strands of Sorrow by John Ringo

 Ringo mentions in the intro to this book that he had intended to end the series with the previous book, Islands of Rage and Hope. I don't recall it seeming to me like a good stopping point at its conclusion, and I'm not certain that this one was much better - still far too much work to be done to clear the U.S. and the world, but I suppose that series could go on longer than the Posleen War, if Ringo had the ambition, or needed the cash, eh?

The leaders of Wolf Squadron make the tactical decision to clear the coastlines of the U.S. focusing on naval bases around San Diego and Jacksonville. We have plenty of descriptions of Faith and Sophia using their zombie killing and helicopter piloting skills to turn zombie hordes into zombie sludge. I think Ringo may have anticipated the Super Bowl's "Like a Girl" campaign quite nicely.

Focus continues to remain on Lt. Faith's conflicts with regular officers and NCOs who don't understand that the world has changed, and that their pre-apocalypse attitudes and tactics simply won't work. We barely see anything from the point of view of the adults in the story, and the girls' mom has done a full Houdini.

Ringo introduces some new characters, just long enough to have them show us some interesting aspect of the process of taking back America, and then drops them, never to appear again.

Hoping Ringo goes back to writing Ghost stories, or perhaps picks up the saga of Troy Rising or Wands. Or, heaven forbid, maybe he's reached that point in his writing where he has nothing new left to say - that would be a pity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Into the Storm by Larry Correia

I've been reading Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series from the beginning, and have really loved it. I tried his Grimnoir series, and wasn't thrilled, but I thought his new fantasy series might be fun. And for a brief shining chapter or two, it was. After that, not so much.

The opening scene of the book is simply brilliant. Lieutenant Hugh Madigan, Knight of Cygnar, is working undercover to arrest a bandit leader in a tawdry tavern in an obscure village. Just as he is about to be brought into the inner circle, a clueless Cygnarian sergeant, Cleasby, stumbles into the taproom with an urgent message from the capitol for Madigan, and refuses to take a hint, blowing Madigan's cover, and triggering a bloody but short barroom brawl.

Madigan has been laboring in exile and disgrace after being on the wrong side of the most recent coup in the city of Sul, and being found guilty of war crimes - although that may just have been excessive enthusiasm about fulfilling his mission. But Cygnar is now at war with a neighboring kingdom, The Protectorate, and they need all of the skills Madigan can bring to bear to turn a platoon of the sorriest bunch of misfits the army has ever seen into elite Storm Knights and lead them into battle.

Up to the point where Madigan and his merry men head off to fight the Protectorate, things are pretty interesting, but after that point, nothing truly novel or amusing happens, in my opinion. I pushed on through to the end, because Correia at his worst is still pretty good. I think the book has a game tie-in of some sort, too, and this may be a chronicle of some RPG adventure set to paper. If you insist on owning the Compleat Correia, go for it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Ironwyrm Affair by Lilith SaintCrow

 So, I think I got about twenty five or thirty pages into this on before I gave up. Either there were books in other series that would have explained the alternate steampunk world I jumped into, or the book simply did a poor job of setting the scene. I felt like the major characters, a sorceress and a "mentath", had huge backstory issues that I was never going to understand without reading the back stories. Saintcrow's wikipedia page didn't give me enough information to find out what stories could have gone before this one, so I imagine she'll end up me, at least. Pity, as I actually purchased a copy of this book, and would have probably continued to buy them, had I been able to find my way.

Ah well.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Good News

It appears that the Google team was able to renew my domain after all - no thanks to any of their (totally nonexistent) customer support. So y'all can enjoy another year of my babbling, rambling and ranting.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Scalzi has gone in a new and rather cool direction with this near future plague novel, served up as a mystery. A highly contagious disease, Haden's syndrome, similar to meningitis and polio, has swept the world, killing millions and leaving millions more "locked in", completely paralyzed, though fully aware of their surroundings. As the First Lady of the U.S. was one of the early victims, the government threw massive resources into researching the disease, and while a cure has not been found, a palliative measure has been massively adopted - the implantation of neural nets in the brains of the victims, through which they are able to control android bodies called "threeps" (Star Wars fans will get it) and go about the semi-normal functions of daily life. There is also a virtual realm open to the Hadens, called The Agora, where they can interact more fully with others of their kind. There is a third type of Haden's victim, who make a full physical recover from the disease, but their brain structure is changed to the point where, with the implanting of a neural network, and some specialized training, they can allow the paralyzed Hadens to use their body to experience the real world for a time. They are called Integrators, and they are well-paid.

At the beginning of the story, new legislation has been passed which will remove most of the government funding supporting government research and medical treatment for this victim class. One of the Hadens, Chris Shane, the son of a prominent billionaire and Senate candidate, is starting his first day on the job as an FBI agent as things kick off. He and his partner, Leslie Vann, a former Integrator, are assigned to a murder case involving an Integrator, and things get complicated from there. There's a good "cop buddy movie" vibe to their interactions - veteran and rookie style.

Ok, so Scalzi has to use the cardboard cutout popular villain of the Left, the unscrupulous billionaire, to provide the impetus for the plot device, and it's fairly obvious that the Hadens are allegorical stand-ins for whatever the victim du jour of the Progressives happens to be, as they are insulted, assaulted and subject to both overt and subtle prejudice from "normal" people.

Despite this, it remains a good and entertaining story, and Scalzi's exploration of the whole "what if?" of an epidemic which leaves its victims unable to interact with the world in any normal fashion, and the technology arising from such a situation, as well as the potential economic, social and political effects, makes for a quick, yet thought provoking tale.

Sometimes, in investigative mystery novels, the protagonist has to travel to different locations, and loses time doing so, while the killer is  going about his plotting and mayhem. But Shane can simply jump to a "rent a threep" at Alamo or Hertz, in L.A. or Alburquerque. So that was a new twist. There's also a simple fact about Shane that caught me completely by surprise about two thirds of the way through the book, which in retrospect Scalzi foreshadowed quite nicely.

In the afterward, as he is thanking people, he mentions that he won a Hugo for Redshirts. Really? I must have missed something there, as I thought it was nowhere near his best work.

If you were a bit discouraged by the last couple of Scalzi's novels, this one will be a very pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin

 I think my hero, Chef Jacques Pepin, recommended this book. Cowin is editor-in-chief for Food & Wine, and has gathered a nice collection of well-tested recipes that are, perhaps, a bit more pretentious than my normal fare, but definitely worth experimenting with. Each recipe has a brief story, and often a selection of cooking tips from world class chefs (most of whom I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of). Not a page-turner that keeps you up at night, but it definitely stretches the old creativity muscles for those of us who have a touch of foodie madness.

Chef Suzanne Goin shares a useful tip regarding the proper ratio of oil and vinegar in vinaigrette.

"All vinegars have differing acidity, but almost every one (and this goes for lemon juice too) works at a 2:1 oil-to-vinegar ratio - although most people say the perfect ratio is 3:1. Red wine vinegar is the only exception. It is stronger and more acidic than other vinegars and works best at 5 tablespoons olive oil to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar."

I probably should have been a vegetarian, did not my carnivorous urges rule, as I took many notes in the Vegetables section.

I could definitely relate to Cowin when she said, "I grew up eating 'square' spinach." I was totally shocked when I first saw what spinach leaves looked like, when I learned to make a spinach salad for an early restaurant job. The only other type I'd seen was Popeye's - out of a can.

Chef Alice Waters prefers "juicy, fat asparagus with really tight ends - unless they're thin wild asparagus", but I've always preferred the pencil-sized stalks that are only available in the first rush of Spring. She also says never to refrigerate asparagus, raw or cooked.

Chef Seamus Mullen relates a handy tip for keeping corn from being overcooked and dry when grilling it - soak it in a brine for a couple of hours while still in the husk.

If you like to roast tomatoes, and are having consistency issues, owner of Craft restaurants Tom Colicchio suggests using plum tomatoes, as they contain less moisture than other varieties.

I learned a new term, frico. Fricos are shredded cheese crisps. I think I've inadvertently created them while toasting my home made cheesy breads. Lidia Bastianich says that the best frico cheeses are Parmesan, Grana Padano and Montasio. I think I need to visit Whole Foods to find the last two.

Cowin's recipe for Brocolli Rabe Pizza reminds me of one of the most delicious sandwiches I have ever tasted, Tommy DieNic's cheesesteak topped with Brocolli Rabe found in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

An out of the blue idea I'd have never thought of - butternut squash cubes in chili!

The Greek Chicken Salad recipe looks fantastic! I must try this.

Legendary chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry says that for perfectly burnished skin on a roast chicken, you should let the bird air dry for at least two hours (preferably longer), and make sure the bird is at room temperature before placing it in the oven. I'm sure the health department would take issue with holding the bird at room temperature - too much time to allow bacterial growth, but if you're non-commercial and you cook the bird thoroughly, go for it!

I would never have guessed this was important - Chef Edward Lee says of meat loaf, "Don't overwork the meat mixture - that guarantees a dense meat loaf. Mix the ingredients just enough to distribute the flavors evenly. Don't be tempted to squeeze the meat."

One interesting idea from Chef Bryant Ng - Incorporate curry paste in the crust for chicken pot pie. Hmmm. My next kiwi savory pie experiment just got more interesting.

There are many interesting recipes for sauces to accompany or marinate meats, from seafood to steak, from chimichurri to jerk sauce to chermoula.

Something I hadn't thought of in the art of cooking, from Chef Jerry Traunfel of Poppy,
"Balance is one of the most important principles in cooking. In a dish, it's about balance of sweet and sour, salty and bitter, crisp and soft. In a menu, it's about balancing light and rich, spicy and cooling, hot and cold."

Another important tip, should I ever prepare quinoa, Rinse the quinoa before cooking it. Rinsing removes the saponin, a natural coating which can taste soapy.

I love Mario Batali's phrase regarding cooking pasta in plenty of water, "pasta needs room to dance". Chef Cesare Casella says the same thing about cooking beans, and also tips us never to put anything acidic in the pot while cooking beans, as it will keep them from softening.

Another new (to me) term, fideos, refers to toasted broken pasta cooked in a rich tomatoey sauce. Bookmark that recipe, with chorizo chipotle. Mmmm.

Cowin mentions her attempt to make strawberry jam and ending up with a delicious syrup instead. I had the same experience with raspberries a couple of summers ago! Pectin is our friend.

I bake frittatas regularly for breakfast. It's a great make-ahead dish, and I can prepare enough in a 9 x 13 baking pan for a week's worth of working man's breakfasts. Chef Hugh Acheson tells us, surprisingly, that frittatas should never be baked, but prepared in a nonstick pan on the stovetop. I'll have to give that a try next time.

Joanne Chang, of Flour Bakery, tells us that for the smoothest crepe batter to use a blender to mix the ingredients. My daughter loves crepes - she should try this. There's a whole page full of baking tips from Ms. Chang, from rolling out dough to making fluffy biscuits - "a shaggy dough is a good biscuit dough". She also says you must use a scale to measure flour, as measuring cups will yield varying amounts of flour for a given volume due to the density of the flour.

This book is definitely on my wish list. I need to have a copy laying around the kitchen to browse for fun and interesting ideas and tips - there's a whole page of chef tips on biscuit making, for Pete's sake!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

 A very interesting concept here, as Priest steals a page from Saberhagen's Dracula books and makes us look at a villain, Lizzie Borden, in a whole new perspective. As it turns out, Borden's parents were either possessed or infected by a supernatural disease, which was slowly turning them into violent monsters, and she acted in defense of herself, her sister, and the entire town by hacking them to death with an axe. Though she was acquitted of murder, she has never been treated the same by her neighbors since that dreadful day, and she and her sister, Emma, have carried on secret research into the nature of the infestation that twisted their parents, and have been fighting off attacks from monstrous creatures ever since that day.

The whole concept has a very deeply disturbing Lovecraftian darkness, and a hanging dread infuses the story. Like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, I kept pushing through hoping for a light in the tunnel, but there are no happy endings here, and we leave the novel more mystified than when we first began. Though the story is told from a handful of different points of view, I didn't feel that Priest did a very good job of distinguishing their voices; they all sounded much the same to me, stylistically, even while their perspective on matters changed. Not my cup of tea, but an intriguing idea, at least.

I wouldn't be adverse to trying another one of Priest's series, anyway.