Saturday, December 31, 2016

Wrapping it Up for Christmas

As I was so bad about getting reviews written, it's a little tough to say just how many books I've read by checking the posts here, so I have to rely on my Goodreads account, which says it was 83, quite a bit off my peak numbers, but apparently this may be the "new normal".

The awards:

Best new (to me) author - David B. Coe's Justin Fearsson series
Best Fantasy - Son of the Black Sword by Correia
Best Urban Fantasy - Monster Hunter: Grunge by Ringo and Correia
Best Science Fiction - Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Best Mystery - Commissioner Brunetti stories by Donna Leon (also a new author for me)
Best non-Fiction - Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer

Oddly, I seem to have slipped away from reading science fiction - there were only a few novels of that genre in my pile this year. I need to do better on that, but so many of the greats have passed on, leaving no serious contenders, and most of the new authors have gone political, instead of focusing on telling a good story.

My New Years' resolution will be to write reviews more consistently. As long as RL cooperates...

Happy 2017!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

More vignettes

Explosive Eighteen, by Evanovich, is actually one of the least explosive novels in the series, aside from Lula and Stephanie setting off a warehouse fire with a grenade launcher. Stephanie continues to date both Morelli and Ranger, with predictable fireworks on that front. She shows a bit more mettle here than in most stories, managing to fight off a stalker several times on her own. Another bit of mind candy for these cold winter evenings.

Crimson Death, most recent in the Anita Blake novels (though it took me a long time to get it from the hold list at the library, so for all I know there may be another one written by now), actually manages to get nearly halfway through its 700 pages before the first graphic sex scene, so that was refreshing. What was not refreshing was the relationship discussions that have now replaced bloody action sequences. Anita gets recruited to solve a vampire problem in Ireland, helping out her old friend, Edward, and there really isn't any violence to speak of until after they arrive there. I think the best part of the book is actually the last 100 pages. Anita's powers continue to grow, and I think she and Jean Claude are finally going to get very political. I can't recall if she's used the powers she gained back in Obsidian Butterfly before, but they came into play here, which was pretty cool, and she seems to be slowly learning to deal with what she gained from the Mother of All Darkness bit by bit. Also some new powers gained by her secondary triumvirate with Damian and Nathaniel. The boys are growing up at last.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Time flies

And another month goes by of crazy times.

Read the latest by Bujold, Penric's Mission, which is fun, but too short, and which introduces a love interest into Penric's saga.

More Stephanie Plum novels for light reading, always reliable for a chuckle or two.

Tried Murder in the Place of Anubis, by Linda S. Robinson , as recommended to me by a friend, but found it not all that interesting after all, I'm afraid.

Finished Magic Binds, by Ilona Andrews, which was very engrossing, and kept me up long past my bedtime. It got mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I found it to be one of the better ones in the Kate Daniels series.

Read A Curse on the Land, by Faith Hunter, sequel to Blood of the Earth. Interesting buildup to a rather disappointing finale. Will still read the next book in this series - Hunter's work does have its peaks and valleys.

Created to be God's Friend, by Henry T. Blackaby, was an interesting take on the life of the patriarch Abraham. Gives one hope that we can be used of God despite, or perhaps because of, our faults and failings. I had read his study, Experiencing God, some time ago and found it insightful, so was happy to pick this book up at a garage sale.

One of my finds during my travels had to be read simply because I'd never read anything by the legendary musician, and A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffet was reasonably amusing.

Enjoyed a new iteration of Toby Daye, in Once Broken Faith by Seanan McGuire. A bit of a locked room mystery, solved in only the way that Sir Daye can.

I think I got The Red Queen by Jeb Kinnison recommended to me at According to Hoyt. It may be Kinnison's first novel, and it's a pretty decent read. If he continues to improve his writing as the series moves along, it will be well worth the money. This is what I would consider a "near future" novel, set in a very plausible future when political correctness and progressive policies have gotten a touch out of control, especially on college campuses. A new take on time/dimensional travel, vaguely reminiscent of Tunnel in the Sky, by Heinlein.

That's all I can remember reading in the last several weeks, though there might be more.

Sorry for no in-depth reviewage.







Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich

Stephanie appears, after a brief hiatus in Eleven on Top, to have returned to her job as a bounty hunter, since all of her other career choices ended badly and briefly in that novel. She is still mostly in love with Morelli, but lusts after Ranger (as do Lula, Connie, and most other women who see him).

Things are busy at the bail bonds agency, and it's a bad time to lose Ranger's services for the more dangerous apprehensions, but he jumps on a plane on personal business in the opening pages, and isn't available to help Stephanie and Lula in their shenanigans.

It turns out that someone has kidnapped his daughter, and is trying to assume his identity, as well. When he decides he has to have Stephanie, too, since Ranger has "had" her, things begin to get dangerous, and she plays stalking goat in order to find and capture the impersonator.

In the middle of all of this plot, there are plenty of the usual frolics, with Grandma Mazur joining a band with Sally and Lula, and causing her usual scenes at funeral home viewings, even for the new owners of Stiva's.

Pretty good story; a quick read.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Blood of the Earth by Faith Hunter

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It's been almost a month since I last posted something. Job changes, a divorce in the family, a death in the family...been a crazy Fall.

This novel is a "spinoff" from the Jane Yellowrock books, and I think there's actually a novelette or short story out there somewhere that tells the tale of how Jane met Nell, the heroine of Blood of the Earth. Nell is an exile from her family and her cult-like church, living on a small farm in Tennessee, and she seems to have some earth-witch type of powers which tie her to her land, to the forest and to her herb and vegetable garden. She survives mostly by trading the fruits of her labor (literal and figurative) with locals at farmers' markets and selling at a cooperative's roadside stand. She does mostly without modern conveniences; there is no cell service in the Soulwood, and the way she was raised in God's Cloud of Glory Church makes her wary of being "on the grid".

To escape what would have surely been a disastrous marriage to one of the church leaders, she entered into a polygamous arrangement with John and Leah, who lived on their own land adjacent to the church compound, and when they both passed away, she inherited the land. The new generation of church leadership would like to get the land - and Nell - back, and as the novel begins they threaten to return her forcefully to the bosom of the church.

Enter Rick LaFleur and his PsyLed team to alter the dynamics of the situation. They are in pursuit of a group of kidnappers who may have ties to her old church, and they recruit her as a consultant to help them investigate whether the men have joined forces with her old antagonists.

A worthwhile read. There's already a sequel out, and I'm going to have to do some research to find the story that ties it all together.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Quote of the Indeterminate Time Period

From Donna Leon's Death in a Strange Country,

"The secret of police success lay, Brunetti knew, not in brilliant deductions or the psychological manipulation of suspects but in the simple fact that human beings tended to assume that their own level of intelligence was the norm, the standard, and to work on that assumption. Hence the stupid were quickly caught, for their idea of what was cunning was so lamentably impoverished as to make them obvious prey."

Vignettes, Too

Still no time nor motivation to actually review anything in depth. I finished off five more of the Stephanie Plum mysteries, which are always good for a chuckle or three. Picked up a new series that a friend at work recommended, by Donna Leon, The Commissario Brunetti series which take place in Venice; really fun reading when you are at least somewhat familiar with the islands, lagunas and piazzas of La Serenissima.

Read Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, which was not particularly surprising in its description of the global reach of the former first family's money grubbing influence peddling, but which got me to wondering whether this isn't just the tip of the iceberg, and if most global business operates in the same corrupt fashion, with the willing collusion of the world's political class. The magnitude of the dollars, rubles and francs involved is simply mind-boggling.

Picked up a trio of ebooks by a blogger whom I've been following for years, The Grey Man series by J.L. Curtis; Vignettes, Changes and Payback. Good adventure fiction, set in the U.S. Southwest. He published a fourth novel around Labor Day. It will be on my TBR pile soon.

A couple other books that I have partial reviews written for. I'll try to finish those off and get them up on one of my better days.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Yeah, I know

Life remains extremely busy, and though I am still reading steadily, I just don't have much time to think or talk about what I've read. The birth of a new grandson, a medical vacation, and too many other things occupying my time and mind. Maybe a few more vignettes up this weekend.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

This novella, set in Bujold's world of the Five Gods, picks up the tale of Penric - all growed up, trained as a Learned now - a couple of years after the events of Penric's Demon. When a temple investigator named Oswyl shows up on the trail of a murderous shaman, the young scholarly fellow sets out to help justice be done, though perhaps not in the way that Oswyl intends.

Bujold seems to be trying to express a theme I've heard discussed in a few sermons regarding how the Gods get their work done in the mundane world - usually by sending their servants, willing or not, to go take care of things. When you whine about, "why does God allow this to go on? Why doesn't he do something?", the answer seems to be to get up off your tail and do your part, miracles may follow as required.

Not the best of her Five Gods stories, but amusing enough.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Vignettes Four

I can't seem to manage the attention span to write long reviews these days, so I'm just going to lump a few comments together about several recent reads and let it go at that. Life tasks me...it tasks me.

Bitter Bite by Jennifer Estep is a recent addition to the series - I think she just released the latest on Tuesday - and I'm sorry to say that the whole thing has gone stale for me now. The plot, such of it as I was able to endure before closing the pages in sorrow, was far too predictable. Is Estep using too much foreshadowing, or have I simply seen it all before? I don't know, but I do know that I'm done following this series for now. Ms Estep is a really nice person and generally has been a readable author, and a good author, but I think she's just run out of new plot ideas for Gin Blanco, The Spider.

When I was younger, I found the tales spun by Patricia McKillip to be fanciful and entertaining, and read all of her books I could get my hands on. I picked up Kingfisher after a bit of a wait on the  hold list at the library, and eagerly attacked it the other night. Other reviewers may have found this book to be breaking new fantasy ground, or a mystical blending of ancient and modern mythology, but I simply found it confusing, and never really bit on a "hook" to reel me in. I put it down after a few chapters and returned it to the library. Sigh.

Four to Score, by Janet Evanovich, was everything I expected it to be - fluffy entertainment with some lovable characters, inside jokes, and the usual cast of felons to apprehend, a job which Stephanie Plum seems to mess up more often than not, but eventually she unravels something unexpected. She and Morelli finally fall into bed together in this one, but their predictably prickliness keeps them from enjoying post-coital bliss, despite the Morelli matrons' matrimonial ambitions. Need something to while away a few lonely hours? This one will do it.

I've also been working my way through the Honor Harrington novels for the third or fourth time; I've lost track. You'll find my reviews of On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen here, but I appear to have paused at that point until about the tenth book in the series, so perhaps I'll begin again with A Short, Victorious War some sweet day.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Flashman by George McDonald Fraser

A long time ago, I owned a copy of Flashman, and of one of the sequels by Fraser, Royal Flash, which I am sure I must have loaned out to someone and was never returned - a fairly common fate for some of my favorites over the years -  and when I saw that the local library system has an extensive collection of the series, I decided it was time to re-read the ones I've seen before and enjoy the rest for the first time.


There was literary device often used in pulp fiction (and perhaps earlier) where the author would purport to have found a package of letters or memoirs, left in a secret hiding place, or in a dusty old crate at auction, or some equally odd place, which he had merely translated, re-telling a true story. Such is the case with The Flashman Papers, a collection of historical novels about a fictional rogue who lived through the late nineteenth century, and got caught up in most of its battles, usually landing in a pile of ordure, yet coming out smelling of roses, Harry Flashman.


When the tale begans, Flashman is kicked out his boarding school for drunkenness, and returns home to visit his father. His father secures him a place in a cavalry regiment, and in return Harry sleeps with his father's mistress - a portent of things to come. He is doing quite well ingratiating himself with the commander of the regiment when his affair with the French mistress of another officer lands him in a duel. While he survives the duel, he is caught by the political repercussions and sent off to exile in Scottland, where he seduces the daughter of the merchant with whom he is quartered, and ends up in a "shotgun" wedding. Shortly after that, his braggadocio at a party ends with him sent off to India as the aide-de-camp to a British general.


It's one of those out of the frying pan types of stories that I've always enjoyed, and Fraser makes it quite a compelling read, with an antihero you just love to hate.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

This seventh novel in the Laundry Files series takes another detour away from the story of Bob Howard, which seems to have stalled out in the midst of the breakup of his marriage, to pick up a fresh POV in Alex Schwartz, one of the PHANGs who was recruited after the scandal at the investment bank where he was working, in The Rhesus Chart.

Alex gets caught up in an incursion by beings from another plane, upon which humans have based their stories of elves. They're not exactly the singing elves of Middle Earth, and in fact their society is very warlike. They send a spy, one of the "princesses" ahead to gather information, and she assumes the form and identity of a theater arts major named Cassie, whom Alex falls head over heels for - despite figuring out fairly quickly that she's not exactly what she seems to be.

Filled with the usual Stross drolleries like,

"She racks her brain: but Cassie has no memory of ritual castration as a tool of management in this place, unless it's symbolized by the neck-wrappings man male uruk wear as part of their uniforms."

"She doesn't have any lectures to attend until four and the weather's nice: she might as well go to college and raid the theatrical wardrobe for something fancy to wear to the end of the world."

Alex, who is definitely not warrior-class, turns out to have more up his sleeve than most people thought. The "elves" pretty much use brute force spellcasting, which uses a lot of their own energy and mana stolen from the environment, but Alex is a programmer (hmm...I need to re-read the Wizardry series by Cook) and when he sets a DO LOOP to work on gathering spellcasting power, it's a wonderful thing.

This one really gets back to some of the things I used to love in the series. Hopefully we'll continue see more of the same goodness from Stross.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Monster Hunter: Grunge by John Ringo

Oh my word! Ringo does Monster Hunters! What fun! I can't hardly think of a better person to write in Correia's universe...well, maybe Drake or Weber.

Chad is a hard core Marine, who joined the Corps to irritate his liberal, hippie parents, but who really became an excellent warrior along the way. When he is killed in the Beirut barracks bombing, he is given a choice by a guy named Peter - go back to Earth to do the Big Guy's works, or take the easy way out and pass on to his final reward (as the song says, probably guarding the streets of Heaven). Of course, it woulda been a really short story if he had taken the easy way, now, wouldn't it?

After his medical retirement from the Marine Corps, he spies a sign for a tent revival, and decides to check it out. When the revival is interrupted by a resurrection - of a whole bunch of zombies - Chad destroys all the Zulus and gets "read in" to the truth about monsters, and gets offered employment with Shackleford's MHI.

After Parris Island, Chad never wants to work in a hot, humid area again, so he opts to take a job in Seattle, and settles in hunting down zombies, wights, liches, vampires, werewolves, ogres... and anything else that makes a habit of taking human victims.

There's a really funny scene in here where Ringo exploits the idea of the blue screen of death, when daemons are climbing out of the monitors in the sub-basement at "Microtel".

Not nearly as many graphic sex scenes as we're used to with Ringo, and Correia must have done some fairly extensive editing. He mentions in the forward that he had to tell JR, "hey, my kids read this stuff!" All of the raunchy stuff takes place offstage, in the dark, as the moon passes behind a cloud.

The whole books is written as if Chad is putting together an instruction manual for noob monster hunters. He gives advice on different monster species that one should befriend, in order to have confidential informants; like Harry Dresden pays the pixies for information with pizza, Chad pays the gnolls (who dwell in the sewers) with rotten, smelly fish - which they love, and the sasquatch get Hersheys kisses.

Good fun, and there's a sequel coming!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich

Uncle Mo is a candy store owner in Trenton, beloved by the children of the "burg" and his neighbors, and Stephanie catches a lot of flak over her quest to bring him in to face the charges of carrying an unregistered weapon.


There's a pretty funny bit of interaction between Stephanie and her second grade teacher, who lives next to Mo's store. Stephanie is still terrified of the woman, twenty years later.


Morelli is working a parallel case involving a lot of drug dealers turning up missing, and eventually the tangled and humorous web that Evanovich weaves brings Stephanie to the realization that Mo has gotten caught up with a bunch of vigilantes.


As always, she can't leave things alone, and has to suffer a series of mishaps before the case is solved.



Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich


Just another light and amusing read by Evanovitch wherein Stephanie is assigned to locate and return Morelli's cousin, Kenny Mancuso, to jail, so he can stand trial for shooting a friend in the leg. He and  friends turn out to be involved in a conspiracy to steal and sell military weapons from a local base.




In what appears to be a side issue, Stephanie is hired by the director of a local funeral home to track down some missing coffins.



We begin to get to know Grandma Mazur a bit better, and follow along with her main social opportunity, attending funerals. Grandma seems to have a fixation on viewings, and gets a bit peeved when the funeral is "closed coffin".


At the conclusion of the tale - semi spoiler- Stephanie and Grandma manage to burn down the funeral parlor, which leaves Stephanie with a lasting reputation in "the burg".

Monday, August 1, 2016

Profiteer by S. Andrew Swann

I had this trilogy called Hostile Takeover sitting on my TBR pile for a very long time, and thought I'd give it a try. I almost feel like I missed some early short stories, since the tale begins with two brothers who have been lethally at odds with one another for a very long time, Dom and Klaus (neither one of their real names). Dom has gone underground on a planet filled with anarchists, Bakunin, and is the CEO of a large company, while Klaus is a Colonel in the Terran Executive Command, the power behind a group of solar systems with a common defense, trade and political structure. Klaus has been assigned a mission to get the planet of anarchy under Confederacy control, and the added bonus is he gets a shot a killing his brother as part of the deal. The first attack pretty well destroys the corporation, but Dom has a plan to steal back some hidden resources and make a comeback. He encounters a hacker girl named Tetsami when they are both in the custody of a militant religious order, and they team up with some of her confederates to pull off the heist. This religious order had some interesting practices, and it would have been fun to explore that and other aspects of the planet, Bakunin, filled with anarchists of various stripes, as Michael Z Williamson did with a Libertarian planet in Freehold. Kinda fun, but it didn't hold my attention enough to make me finish the trilogy.

Friday, July 29, 2016

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

After enjoying one of the more recent Stephanie Plum mysteries as a book on tape a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well go back to where it all started and read my way through the series, so I reserved a copy of One for the Money at the library. Somehow or other, Evanovich seems to have leapt onto the scene with this first book as nicely turned out as her more recent ones. Perhaps she has been writing for other genres or in other series before beginning this one.


In some ways, the books gave me an immediate impression of seeing familiar faces, as we encounter Stephanie's cousin Vinnie, his secretary Connie, detective Morelli, bounty hunter Ranger, and even Lula, who is a streetwalker at the beginning of the stories. We also get to meet her close family for the first time; Mom, Dad and Grandma Mazur.


Stephanie blunders her way through her first few apprehensions in the new job, and stirs up a lot of trouble in her main case, which involves bringing in her old neighborhood nemesis, Joe Morelli,  Morelli, a cop, is accused of murdering a confidential informant. He swears it was self-defense, but the perp's gun seems to have disappeared, and witnesses are rapidly doing the same.

Obviously, Stephanie's rookie apprehension skills are not enough to outwit Morelli, so he and she dance around the issue, while they uneasily work together to find his witness and get her bounty

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

I've read and re-read the Vorkosigan saga over the years, but this is the first time, since encountering him in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, that I noticed Lieutenant Jole in Aral Vorkosigan's entourage. I had wondered a bit if Bujold had simply introduced him created out of whole cloth, and was reassured to find he had been there all along.
Note: He appears in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, as well.


Anyway, that has nothing much to do with the plot of The Vor Game, but I found it interesting, at least.


The book begins with the inclusion of a novella detailing Miles' first assignment after completing military training when, instead of being given ship duty he is sent to be a weather technician at Kyril Base, amid a wasteland of frozen tundra. The base is commanded by an Old Army type who turns out in the end to be a homicidal lunatic, and Miles' trainer is a hopeless alcoholic. In the pursuit of his duties, Miles nearly dies when his ground car is submerged in a bog, discovers a body in a drainage ditch, and is arrested for mutiny. And that's just the first 10% of the book.


To keep Miles out of further trouble, Aral and Ilyan decide to keep him on a short leash, and he is assigned to Ilyan's ImpSec. Fat chance!


When Admiral Naismith's Dendarii Mercenaries turn up to enforce a blockage in a nearby solar system, Miles is escorted by some very unimaginative officers to the Hegen Hub, where his assignment is simply to once again assume the persona of the little admiral and to order the fleet out of the area, which is crucial to Barrayaran interests.


This simple mission manages to rapidly go off the rails when Miles is falls afoul of some arms dealers, ends up as indentured labor, and discovers that Emperor Gregor has run away from home, and landed in the Hegen Hub!


The story of how Miles rescues the Emperor, gains and loses and gains command again of the Dendarii, double-talks some psychotic murderers, and foils an invasion attempt by the Cetagandan fleet, is absolutely delightful, in the manner we've already come to love from Bujold and Miles Vorkosigan.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Dragon Conspiracy by Lisa Shearin

SPI operatives and partners, Mac and Ian, attend a pre-auction gala to display the Dragon Diamonds, a set of ill-fated jewels comprising a magical relic originally owned by each of the goblin and elvish races, and five cursed merely "human" stones (think Hope Diamond) with no supernatural powers to speak of other than their bringing ill fortune to their owners, who included the Romanovs of Csarist Russia. At the unveiling of the stones, a statue of three harpies suddenly comes to life and the bird women abscond with the stones, but not before a newbie "gem mage" tries to stop them, and gets himself and Mac knocked senseless in the process.


The being behind the thievery has some diabolical plan to use the stones to kill half of the supernatural population of New York City and to "out" the rest to the human population, so SPI, its dragon chairman, Vivian Sagadraco, and our heroes rush around to try to discover the villain's identity and thwart the plot.


Plenty of good twists and turns, and the addition of a few new characters to the series. This isn't particularly deep reading, but it's just unpredictable enough to be fun.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Habits

Habits of a lifetime - I've never been one who "customizes" his possessions. I buy stock vehicles, don't add cosmetic accessories, don't put stickers all over them, etc. At best, I may add a camper shell to keep the rain off of the bed of the pickup, add trailer brakes, that sort of thing.
So, I was thinking the other day that i ought to put something on my iPad (white white white) to distinguish it from every other iPad out there. I have this Pyramid Brewing sticker sitting in a basket in the kitchen, and I decide I should just put it on the back of my Pad...I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Am I in a rut, or what?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mea Culpa

Once again, I feel I must apologize for the lack of book review posts. The motivation simply hasn't been there. I do have one queued up for Monday, and have finished eight books that I need to finish writing reviews for, so at some point a flood of backlog should appear.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

Spycatcher by Matthew Dunn

Somewhere in my readings I ran across a reference and recommendation of this novel, which is former MI6 employee Dunn's first novel. He's followed it with some more, and with any luck at all, his skills will have developed a bit as he continued writing. I found the plot intriguing, the action realistic, but the dialog was a bit too forced, and the hero, a British assassin named Will, just a bit too tortured and conflicted for my liking.

So I came to a point about halfway through the book where I simply didn't care anymore what happened of the characters. It sat on my nightstand for several weeks and soon it will be time to return it to the library. Ah well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

There's no Toilet Paper by Doug Lansky, ed.

So, I picked this one up thinking it was going to be some funny travel stories, like we all have, and was disappointed to find that it was a series of stories by professional humorists, like Dave Barry, and sarcastic travel writers, like Bill Bryson, and not merely humorous anecdotes regarding travel mishaps and misunderstandings. "Too over the top".

Monday, June 27, 2016

Disrupted by Dan Lyons

This is the story of a middle-aged man who loses his job as an editor of a prestigious print magazine, and takes a new job with a high tech startup, filled with twenty-something hirelings, and run by a megalomaniacal duo of entrepreneurs. Things go just about as one might expect, with a clash of cultures that a man in his 50s will not win, in the long haul. At least he got a semi-amusing book out of the deal.

Lyons' style reminds me a bit of Bill Bright, who has written a number of travel diaries. He doesn't seem to have a lot of respect for anyone he encounters, and his cynicism shines through, loud and clear.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nefarious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich

My wife and I listened to this audiobook on our way to the coast last weekend, and it timed out just right around nine hours of driving. I have never read any of the Stephanie Plum mysteries before, but it didn't seem to be a requirement to understand "all that has gone before" in order to enjoy this one. The characters in the book were fun and amusing, especially Plum's sidekick, Lula, an enormous black woman with a very strong personality to match her opinions.

The mystery wasn't all that mysterious, but spun out slowly and with enough twists to keep Plum's character guessing, at least, and the entire story was liberally spiced with a great deal of humor. I might have to check out some more of Evanovich's books.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Dog Days?

Are we in the summer publishing doldrums, or what? I've had a difficult time finding anything new by most of my favorite authors for a couple of months now, it seems, so rather than hunt up something new and fresh, I've simply gone back to some of my old favorites, like Lois McMaster Bujold, working my way from Warrior's Apprentice all the way up through Komarr, at this point.

My wife and I also began listening to Skin Game, by Butcher, on audiobook, returning from our recent wedding anniversary trip, but didn't make it past Chapter 25 on our nine hour drive, so I picked up my personal library copy of it late last night and chewed on that for a bit, since my memory of the ending was a little fuzzy.

And this is why I amassed such a humongous library in the first place - you just never know when you'll get the urge to re-read an old favorite.

I do hope, though, that the drought of new books ends soon.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Afterthoughts

In Italy, take every opportunity to use a free, and CLEAN, restroom possible, even when you don't think you need to. Decent bathroom facilities are few and far between, and can range from squat toilets with no paper available - always carry pocket packs of tissues!, to more American-style fixtures if you're lucky. Carry 1 Euro coins for the pay toilets, which are generally a little better-maintained than any you will find for free. The trains usually have bathrooms available, so it's always wise to use them about ten to fifteen minutes before you arrive at your destination - the stations' restrooms may be "pay" style.

Zip Loc baggies are a wonderful thing to pack. Throw in a couple of quart, gallon, and sandwich sized. If you buy some food item that isn't completely sealed, you can put it in one, you can store a wet washcloth, or other clothing item in the large size, or you can use them to keep snacks for munching on while you're walking around. Also, if you happen to freeze a water bottle so that you have cold water to drink all day long, you can slip it inside a gallon sized bag and keep the condensation from getting other things in your purse or backpack damp. Rubber bands and paper clips take up little room, also, and can be used to re-seal food packages.

While it may prove difficult to get out to the outskirts of places like Rome, Florence or Venice to where the "real" people live and shop, I think the prices are much lower there, if you do get a chance. The markup on goods sold in the "centre storico" is unreal. You have to make at least a token effort to haggle, or you'll miss out on an easy discount, and if you're serious about buying something, you'll probably spend as much time really dickering over the price as you do making your selection, and you still probably won't get anywhere near cost, but we routinely saw discounts of 40% and up when we spent a little time at it, and simply asking, "Can you make me a better price on two?"or "That's too much" will get you a few euros off nearly anything.

While for the most part I found Italy and the Italians charming, friendly and fun, there were a few grumpy grocery checkers, waiters, and salespeople, too. I find the same thing back home some days. I try not to let the bad experiences, like the leather salesman who got angry with me for not buying the perfect jacket, and the gelateria girl whom I believe intentionally short-changed me - we had been at that shop before and listened to an American accusing the other man there of short changing him, then giving up on it when his wife undercut him, so when it happened to me on a later visit, I kinda had to figure it was something they tried there every once in a while, counting on confused tourists not being willing to push things in a foreign country. The street vendors can be a bit pushy, and some of them will try to run a con on you to get money, like the East African who gave us "gifts" because he "loves America", then demanded money for them moments later, but there are just hordes of them out and about, so you have to take it in stride. Again, I see the same thing in U.S. tourist traps, just not in the same sheer numbers, plus it's illegal here for unlicensed vendors to sell and for tourists to buy from them.

For every Grumpy Gus, there seemed to be many an amiable soul who went the extra mile for us, like bringing us shots of homemade limoncello, gratis, after our meal, leading us all the way to the right bus stop several blocks away, comp-ing us some mind-blowingly good sorbet, sending us to amazing wineries, chatting with us about their families, describing the process and materials used in producing their hand-made wares, and many other small kindnesses.

One of the most important things that I feel one should do when traveling is to engage. So many folks are rushing from attraction to attraction, trying to tick the boxes on their bucket list du jour, and missing some of the richest experiences available. Now, to be perfectly fair, it seemed to me at times on this trip that we were rushing around, trying to squeeze in too many must-see things into too short of a time period, but we really did try to slow down and enjoy the pace of life, and to get down to a deeper level of engagement with people here.

GPS sucks. There's no other way I can put it, really. The mapping applications on the local phone my friend loaned me, my own iPhone and iPad, were never really reliable out in the field. If you have wifi access in your hotel or apartment, you can get the maps to pull up, and give you directions to your destination, but out in the maze of streets of Rome and Florence, GPS signal is sketchy, and when you need it the most, it can disappear entirely. I finally learned to get my directions pulled up before I left the house in the morning, write them down "old school" on my pocket notebook, and then when the mapping app went belly-up, I could still get where I wanted to go. Forget e-maps, and buy a Michelin guide. Lesson definitely learned. 

Holy Flying Pizza Pie! Italian motorists, motorcyclists, scooter pilots and bicyclists are absolutely and completely out of their minds!


Friday, June 10, 2016

Wolf Land by Carter Niemeyer

Though it is always a pleasure to read about new and exciting places that I might like to travel to someday, it is even more of a joy for me to read stories set in places I've visited before. Many of the stories that Carter Niemeyer tells in Wolf Land are like that, vignettes from the wild places of  Idaho and Montana that make me exclaim, "Ah, I've been there!" What I haven't done, however, is to track down wolf packs, listen to their mournful calls, or see them playing in the meadows of the Idaho back country. Some day, perhaps.

In Wolfer, we got the story of how Carter came to the task of reintroducing wolves into the lower 48 after they had been driven to extinction - deliberately some years past, but in Wolf Land we can enjoy some thought-provoking tales about the long term effects of the interaction between wolves and men. When wolves stray out of the ranges where they were introduced, they often get into trouble because, as predators, they like to feed on easy targets, such as sheep and cow herds which are often grazed on federal lands, which make up a huge percentage of some of our Western states. When the wolves get out of line, then Carter was often called in to trap them, and either transport them back to where they belong, or sometimes make the decision to kill them, if nothing else worked.

From Yellowstone to the Frank Church Wilderness, through the Sawtooths and the headwaters of the Snake and Salmon rivers, Carter relates the stories of his interactions with one of the most controversial and fascinating animals of our time. The book may not make you change your mind about whether reintroduction was the right thing to do or not, but it will surely make you think a bit differently about the subject, no matter which side you're on.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Reburialists by J. C. Nelson

Got this book as part of a giveaway bundle from Ace Books.

So much fiction these days is just getting to be more of the same thing. In this case, we have a government task force that fights zombies (or reasonable facsimile thereof). The zombie attacks are growing stronger and more frequent, and it becomes apparent that there is some deeper force pushing the attacks, so the Reburialists put their "top men" on the job - a Bond-ish serial womanizer, Brynner Carson, who tends to shoot first and ask questions...well, never, teamed with a female linguist, Grace Roberts, non-combat branch, who is supposed to interpret the diaries of Carson's father to help them deal with the latest threat.

They hate each other at first sight, so of course you can tell exactly where they're going to end up - in bed together, and from that point on the novel seems to be filled with the tritest plot devices from every romantic comedy you've watched on Netflix. At the point where they had both done such horrible things and lied to each other that they obviously could never forgive one another, I gave up and quit giving a hoot how it all ended up.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gemini Cell by Myke Cole

This story is about a special operations warrior whose group is tasked with even more special operations, those dealing with supernatural incursions. When he is attacked in his home and killed, he is brought back to life, possessed by the spirit of a long-dead sorcerer king, and sent out on some really difficult missions, as part of a secret government task force so secret, even the government doesn't know about it.

Brutal, with a tortured hero. I couldn't get into it very far before my attention wandered.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Night Shift by Charlaine Harris

Starting to feel like a theme here in my readings, recently. There is an evil presence in the crossroads at the heart of Midnight, Texas, and it is drawing people to its heart, where they commit suicide, and fuel its escape from captivity. We have some growing sub plots, as well, with our discovery that Midnight is being watched by allies of Olivia's father and enemies at the same time, Fiji's discovery of her maturing witch powers, and Diederick's discovery of the opposite sex.

Lemuel must decipher the ancient account in Etruscan of the binding of a demon to help his friends in Midnight to recreate the bonds holding a powerful being captive, and the denizens of Midnight will have to work together to defeat this evil.

A fun, quick read. I'm not enjoying this series as much as the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but Harris is always entertaining.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thicker than Water by Mike Carey

When an attempted murder victim writes Castor's name on the inside of his windshield in blood, and it turns out that Felix and he were childhood acquaintances, the police are understandably suspicious. And Felix, in his usual bull in a china shop way, goes blundering in to try to find out why the message was left for him.

A very dark tale of old sins and new, as Felix discovers a growing demonic presence, and tries to exorcise it, while hunting down shades from his own past.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Last Dance in Pordenone

There's never a whole lot to talk about regarding travel days. We finished packing up our stuff, walked through a light rain to the train station, figured out which platform to stand on, rode the train, made our connection, and were met by Joe & Mindy in Pordenone. We all headed out to the Paladin winery for an open house, sampled a number of very nice wines, had a lite snack while doing so, and sat through what we thought was going to be an English language tour, but which turned out to be a rah-rah marketing presentation in machine-gunned Italian.

Went to the house for a while to relax and chat, then we all went off to a very trendy new restaurant tucked away in a very unlikely location, called Flame. Fantastic menu, mostly focused on broiled meat, as you might gather from the name. We had a delicious platter of sliced Spanish meats to get us started, then the other three had a roast leg of lamb apiece, and I had a delicious full rack of ribs, indistinguishable from some of the best Texas barbecue I've ever had. Very very nice.

I'm not sure what the wait staff thought about the crazy Americans who actually wanted to chat with them. Our busboy, Alexander, was a child of Russian emigrees, and I got a chance to use my 35 year stale language skills on him; he was kind enough to say that I had a good accent. Sated, we drove home and had a short guitar sing-along before bedtime.

Boboli or Bust

Went to the Mercado at San Lorenzo again, picked up some things we wished we had grabbed the first time around. Got there just as the outdoor booths were getting set up, found what we needed, then bailed before things got crowded.

Went to the Santa Maria Novella church and toured the interior of the basilica, chapels and sacristy. Some amazing artwork, including frescoes from the 1300s which were heavily damaged in the flood of the 1960s, and which they are trying to restore. There is also an astrological "clock" on the floor of the basilica, where a beam of light from one of the stained glass windows illuminates the zodiac sign which is dominant (Gemini was lit for my birthday yesterday), equinoxes and solstices. I rather liked the painting of John the Baptist dowsing Christ - John was wearing a leopard skin outfit just like Tarzan's.

Stopped back at the apartment with our goodies - it's nice to have a place that's centrally located for breaks and to drop off purchases, so you don't have to cart them around town. Had a healthy salad and some meats and cheeses for lunch, then hiked up the hill to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. The Gardens are massive, and a great place to hang out in the heat of the day, as many Italian families seemed to be doing; people sprawled on blankets on the lawns, napping on concrete benches near the ponds, and pushing strollers across the gravel paths.

Our ticket to Boboli also got us in to the Argentum and Costume museums, which were interesting, but overwhelming in the end, filled with beautiful art objects, jewelry, and plunder from the New World. Stopped at a quiet cafe for an aperol spritz and a bowl of munchies, and relaxed for a while. Back to the apartment to get cleaned up before dinner. Had a great pizza at one of the nearby places, Osteria Ristorante Centropoveri, that we stumbled upon, and which turned out to be a very nice place - saw some amazing platters of food go by while we awaited our (probably) final Italian pizza, and the place was jam-packed with mostly locals by the time we departed, line out the door. A stop for pistachio and cinnama gelato and my night was complete.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Il Mercado

Headed off first thing in the morning to the San Lorenzo Market. Blocks and blocks of open air booths filled with leather goods, silk scarves, ties, pashminas, backed up upon the retail stores which have even more stock on hand, should nothing be found which suits your size, style and price range. Ranging from the sublime to the merely whimsical. I asked one booth guy question about what type of leather a particular jacket contained, and was led to "his" store, where a salesman spent nearly a half hour showing me some exquisite antelope leather jackets (they have buffalo and lamb, too), and was quite put out when I didn't buy one, even though the price he finally negotiated with me (I was really saying "no", since I don't need another leather jacket, while he thought it was a haggling tactic) was pretty attractive.

At one corner of the leather market is the indoor meat, produce, cheese, wine, and confection market, where my true buying weakness lies. I did pick up some truffle paste, cheese and one of the endless varieties of salami on sale. The provolone cheese we get in the States is a weak-kneed sister to the fantastically flavorful varieties here. I tried something new, fried pasta. They form pici (like fat spaghetti), ham and cheese into a cube, bread the outside and deep fry it. Can't wait to see that at the county fair; beats the heck outta corn dogs.

From there we wandered back to the apartment for a salad and bit of antipasta, then headed to the Medici Chapel - not so much a chapel as an entire church dedicated to housing the remains of the whole former ruling family of Renaissance Florence. One of the women of the family started a huge collection of saints' relics and reliquaries, and many of them are on display on the main floor. I believe these relics are thought to have healing powers and convey blessings to those who possess them, and the Medicis were certainly a fortunate family; unimaginable wealth. The main basilica is under restoration, and has been for a number of years, but the ceiling there is nearly as marvelous as the Sistine Chapel, and far less crowded, filled with biblical scenes from The Fall to the Crucifixion. There is also a side chapel containing three of Michelangelo's statues; Mary and Child, Dawn and Dusk, Day and Night. A good place to contemplate mortality and immortality.

We thought the heat of the afternoon might be a good time to check out the Boboli Gardens, so we trouped to the Altrarno's Pitti Palace and checked the ticket booth for times and prices to enter. Decided we wouldn't get the full experience of the gardens and museums in the time before closing, so we decided to walk a short ways away to the Torrigiani Gardens, a smaller nearby spot of greenery on the map. Oops. After walking the entire circumference of Torrigani, we determined that these were private, available only to the residents of the swanky homes at their south end. We could see over the walls that there was a really cool-looking old palace and tower inside (like the set of a King Arthur movie), so it was a pity we didn't get to see them. 

Along the trek, I visited a couple of hardware stores - there's a foot pedal sink faucet I've seen several times in Italy I really want to locate; it would be just the thing in the kitchen, when you have your hands full and want to turn on the water to wash something. The ferramenti were very much like old time hardware stores in the States, but very limited in space and selection - not exactly Home Depot, yet still very familiar. No sign of faucets. I may have to find a plumbing store. Another fun discovery was a 99 Cent store. Cheapest soda and juices to buy anywhere in the city.

Defeated but not daunted, we returned to the apartment for a glass of wine, then ventured out to a restaurant we'd noted earlier. The Ristorante Lorenzo de'Medici serves a pici pasta dish with a wild boar sauce - I had to try it. We started with Insalata Pomodora (tomato salad) and Spinaci (sauteed spinach) and shared aplate of  Empepata de Cozze (peppered mussels) and Pici Chiante Cinghale (pasta with wild boar) - all was delicious. People-watching on Santa Maria Nuvella square and Ponte alla Carraia bridge, then off home to bed.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Firenze in Flashes

Up nice and early, and hit the pavement by 8 AM. Found our way with only a minor bobble to the Piazza San Marcos, and met up with our guide, Frediana, for our trip to the Galleria de Accademia, where Michelangelo's David resides. We were definitely glad to have booked the skip the lines tour, as the crowd was already getting pretty large at 9 AM. The statue was as magnificent as imagined, and we spent a fair amount of time gazing at him and listening to details of his creation, the techniques involved, political implications of the statue, and that sort of thing.  Looked at some other sculpture while we were inside.

From there we went to the Duomo of St Mary of the Flowers and looked at the vast place of worship, caught a glimpse of the interior of the dome, and saw a unique clock inside, which doesn't operate on a 24 hour basis like most, but instead tracks the hours to sunset, for liturgical purposes. Got to visit the pig at the marketplace, stand in the Piazza del Republica, and enjoy the controversy regarding the giant golden turtle on display there, compared to the replica of David, bronze of Perseus, and other great statues for the public to see.

Our guide left us near the Uffizi for a lunch break, and M and I ducked away from the crowds down a little side street to find a neat little osteria, Osteria Vecchio Vicolo, which served us our second-most delicious pizza so far, a Quattro Staggione style, with prosciutto, artichokes, cheese and black olives, and a bit of frizzante water to wash it down. After about ten minutes, the lunch crowd began to descend, but we were able to make our escape, and wandered in the area for a while on foot.

Our next guide, Catarina, met us at the statue of Galileo Galilei within the U of the Uffizi, and we breezed past the security checkpoints and headed for the top floor of the art museum, which boast the claim of being the first of its kind, open to the public for centuries now - created to show off the Medici art collection. We met a very nice family from Atlanta while we were waiting, and we traded thoughts and tips on our Italian adventures. 

Inside the Uffizi, there are literally thousands of statues from ancient Greece and Rome, recovered during the Renaissance time frame. Didn't think archaeological digs had been going on that long, eh? In addition to the sculpture, there were several hundred years worth of paintings, showing the evolution of art techniques, including the invention of perspective. Botticelli's Venus and Primavera were on display, and the details of those paintings could absorb your attention for hours.

Our guide left us to our own devices after that, and we eventually exited the building and tried to find the San Lorenzo Mercado to do some shopping. Never got to the market, but we did stumble upon Santa Croce, make a river stroll, and so forth. M's feet were killing her, so we spent a bit of rest time back at the apartment in the afternoon; I made a trip to the local market and bought some easy ingredients for dinner - we had minestrone soup and a salad. I discovered a jar of the most tasty giardiniera I've ever had, found some monster "cocktail" onions, stocked up on Schweppe's Limone drink, picked up a fresh "baguette" and a cucumber. I've been dying to try the local artichokes, but didn't see any at this particular market.

After dinner, around sunset, we made a trip out to Gelateria d'Angelo, which is either the name of the owner, or means "of the angels", which may be appropriate, as the gelato was heavenly! Watched the night life on the square at Santa Maria Novella, and saw one of the illegal street vendors take an inordinate amount of time with a little Japanese girl who bought one of his toys, showing her how to operate it properly. The street vendors can get a little pushy sometimes, and it's easy to get irritated with them, but one has to admire their entrepeneurial spirit. 

All in all, a pleasant first whole day in Firenze.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Way Down Upon the Arno River

We took one last short stroll in Rome in the morning, over to the Castello St. Angelo, along the Tiber, where we saw some "crew" rowers working way too hard, stopped at Caffe Nero for a cappucino...then made our way to the bus stop, and headed for Termini Station. I have never seen such a line of taxis in my life, endlessly circling, picking up passengers at the curb, jockeying for position. Crazy. Got to our train in plenty of time, and had a smooth ride at 250 kilometers per hour to Florence.

After a short hike from the Santa Maria Novella train station to Borgo Ognossenti, we were met by Serafino, our host, who took us through the maze to our apartment, which turned out to be even more wonderful than it looked on Airbnb. Our arrival coincided with the massive sinkhole near the Ponte Vecchio, and he sadly informed us that there was no water in this entire half of the city, but that they hoped it would be restored by evening. 

We went for a walk to the Altrarno (other side of the river), and found a little market that sold us a few things for the fridge, but not quite everything on my list. Had lunch at a "self serve" pizzeria, which simply meant that there was no table service, you simply order from a display case at the counter, they heat up your pizza or focaccio sandwich, and you grab and available table. The focaccio sandwiches were a bit dry for American tastes (no may, mustard, lettuce, tomato...), and I discovered why Italians don't like their own beer.

Had a fun time bargaining with a lovely Irish woman named Tyna at a leather goods store and picked up a couple of nice gifts, then walked the length of the Ponte Vecchio gold shops - some incredible work on display there. Ended up in front of the Pitti Palace, then selected an alternate route back to the room from there. The water had come back on by then, so we spent a couple of hours on our "washing day" activities, ending with clothing hanging from all available hooks. Laundry was, of course, accompanied by a fine white wine, some pecorino cheese, and greek olives.

Another quest for a small grocery store to round out our fridge - we prefer to eat a small breakfast in our rooms before we start our daily adventures, and occasionally either another meal, or some home-made antipasti from the phenomenal meats and cheeses here. Wandered down the street to find a place to eat, and had a disappointing meal at a local pizzeria - M's calzone was ok, but my veal cutlet was a joke - in fact I joked it needed some country gravy to salvage the meal. Ah well, it fills the tummy. Back to our retreat on the river for our repose.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Il Papa's House

Headed off on foot to the rendezvous at the north entrance to the Vatican Museums, and waited while the rest of the tour group showed up and our lovely guide, Laura, gave us all headsets and pre-instructions, then herded us all across the street and gained us entry into the sovereign nation of The Vatican. No full body search was required, just a pass through the metal detectors.

We visited the contemporary art collection, the candelabra rooms, the map rooms - did you realize that the tradition of putting insets of major cities into maps came about in the 17th century? We're doing it to this day. Looked at about a zillion tapestries, but I got distracted when my phone/camera ran out of memory and I had to delete a bunch of older photos on the fly to make room for the new stuff. Rafael's rooms were very interesting, too, paying tribute to the arts & music, philosophy, mathematics and the law.

Eventually, after a very thorough briefing on what we were about to see, we entered the Sistine Chapel and spent nearly a half hour gazing at the frescos there. The mind boggles. The chapel is still used for sacred masses, so they ask for silence once you are inside, but there are always too many idiots who think the rules, as well as those forbidding photos, don't apply to them, for some reason.  This results in disturbing what "silence" existed with loud announcements of "Silencio!" After leaving the Sistine area, we made our way into the greatest basilica of all, St Peter's. The scale of the place is beyond belief, and the masterpieces of great art contained there could take a lifetime of study.

There's one bit of the Final Judgement scene which Michelango painted in the Sistine where the monster, Minos, welcomes sinners to Hell. It seems that Michelango and one of Pope Justin's henchment didn't get on too well, and so he immortalized the man's likeness in his depiction of the monster, who is also being bitten by a demon in a sensitive body part. Lesson learned - It doesn't really pay over the long haul to tick off an artist. There's a similar anecdote told about one of the sculptures in St. Peter's, which depicts the Church of England, which had been giving the papacy some grief over the years, as a tiny spot on the map, squashed beneath the big toe of one of the Catholic angels. 

After the tour was over, we decided we'd had about enough for one morning, and made our way rapidly back to our apartment for lunch. Decided to return to the Pantheon in daylight, so we could go inside and see the oculus and the artwork. We made a stop at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, too, and looked at some marvelous artwork in a much less crowded venue, including a statue of Christ Bearing the Cross by Michelangelo.

Window-shopped out way back to the apartment, then I made a quick trip to the Carrefour Express for a couple things and prepared some crostini, poured ourselves a glass of red, and relaxed before our evenings's excursions.

Thought we would dine by the Tiber somewhere, but we walked a long way without seeing even a panini joint close enough for takeout. We walked the far side of the Tiber until eventually we came to the edge of the Trastevere, and began to smell food. Took the first right down a side street and after a few blocks got a table on the street at Il DuCa, a random selection. I had the Fettucine alla Funghi Porcii and M had the Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci con Crema di Tartufo Nero - a mouthful to say, and a delicious many mouthfuls to eat. Got into a conversation with a nice young German couple, teachers, who were also celebrating their last night in Rome - by eating all of the courses in their proper order from the menu. They preceded us, and they were still valiantly assailing their Secondi when we departed, full satisfied with only our Primi Piatti.

A bit of a long walk home, but it was pleasant under the century old sycamore trees along the Tiber, and we found our way home without incident.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Ave Imperator!

Started off the morning brewing up some truly smooth coffee with the little espresso pots here in the apartment. Lavazza Rossa. A nice little breakfast, and we were off once more, down the Chiesa Nuova bus stop and caught the metrobus down to Piazza Venezia, where we thought we'd take a transfer to get to the Colosseum, but it turned out to be just around the corner when we passed Trajan's column and the monument to the Fatherland.
Went to the Forum entrance, as our dear friend, Rick, recommends, and bought a combo ticket for the Forum, Colosseum and Capitoline Hill. Wandered throught the Forum, trying to use his audio walking tour, but soon grew confused and just read the signs instead. Next stop was the Colosseum, which probably should have been first, given the crowds that had gathered later in the day, but we were still able to skip the ticket-buying line, at least. Once through the metal detectors, we got to roam all over the massive monument. When we'd about had our fill, we headed out, just in time for a thunderstorm to threaten with some rain droplets. I've never seen anyone move as fast as the street vendors running for the Colosseum exits with umbrellas for sale, and never seen a quicker bargain done than when the guy next to me haggled one of them down from 5 euros to 2. I think the vendor was afraid if he didn't close the sale quickly, his competition would get all the good business down below.

Found a nice little place in sight of the Colosseum, Ristoro della Salute, and had a slighly pricey combo meal, but it was worth it for the proximity to the attraction. Our waiter was a really nice guy who surprised us with his best guess gelato flavors for both of us - I think he took my question about whether we had to select flavors or just be surprised and ran with it.

Off to Capitoline Hill after that, and the nice young man at the main entrance let us through, rather than sending us back to the entrance that comes in from the Forum, so we were once again surprised by the kindness of Romans. There are lovely gardens at the top of the hill, and M narrowly avoided getting beaned by a falling orange at one point. Visited the museum for a bit, did a lot of casual strolling, and just absorbed the flavor of the history there. When we came down off our perch, we stopped at a booth and bought bus tickets, and got our water bottles filled at the most interesting vending machine, where you just push a button and choose the size of your bottle (glass, .5 liter 1 liter) and it automatically dispenses the proper amount of water - ice cold - free.

By the time we found the bus stop leaving Piazza Venezia I determined that we were only four stops away from Chiesa Nuova, and there seemed little point to jumping on the bus again for that distance, so we walked back to the apartment, where we had a glass or two of wine, some antipasti, and relaxed for a little bit.

Decided to wander over past the Piazza Navona to the Trevi Fountain, and found it just as magical and captivating as all of the propaganda would indicate....save for the jillion tourists clustered in the area, with the same idea. Wanted to smack the idiot kid climbing up on the marble of the fountain with his skateboard, but his parents were paying no mind - idiots are universal. Took a roundabout route back, venturing into the "normal" portion of Rome, where there were real shops rather than tourist kitsch, and got back without any losses.

I prepared a nice supper of farfalle pasta with Amatriciana sauce and vongole (baby clams), accompanied by a simple salad, then we decided to go for passagata down to Castel St. Angelo, enjoyed the Tiber river scenery, and closed things out with a bowl of gelato at Blue Ice.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

All roads...

Up early in the morning, got some breakfast from the buffet, slurped some coffee, and checked out of the hotel. Our friends dropped us off at the Pisa train station, and we had reserved seats all the way to Rome, about a three hour tour, a three hour tour...
Fountain of the Four Rivers

I got the bright idea to get off the train at the San Pietro station, knowing that our apartment was located close to the Vatican, so I figured it would be quicker to get there than going all the way across the city to Termini. The jury is still out on that. Once I pulled up Google Maps on the cell phone, I discovered we were on the opposite side of the Tiber, so it would be best to use the bus, anyway. We tried to catch the bus and pay while getting on board, but as luck would have it, they don't accept cash, so we had to hunt up a Tabbacieri and buy a metro bus pass, then went back to the stop, but we were in the mid-Sunday lull in the bus schedule, and we waited about 45 minutes before a kindly local couple led us to another bus stop and a different bus route that got us to Chiesa Nuova very quickly.

Jumped off the bus, planned our walking route with Google Maps, and promptly got disgustingly lost. As I later determined, the GPS was not keeping up with the pace of our walking, and we walked right past the apartment about 3 minutes into our journey, and spent another hour or so trying to figure out why the GPS was suddenly sending us in circles. Eventually, I got to a place where the route became simple, and we made our way to meet our airbnb host, Paolo, to check in. 
Piazza Navona

Fait accompli, we went out and down the street a bit for a pizza and beer for  belated lunch, where M got into a conversation with a fellow trombone player from Holland, and our Italian waiter confessed his preference for Belgian beer, then back to the apartment for a quick shower and short nap, then a longer excursion to the grocery store for some essential items, since we have a nice little kitchen here. After the groceries were put away, we went for a walk to the Piazza Navona and the Four Rivers fountain, the Pantheon, the church of St. Agnes, the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and a couple miscellaneous churches, then wandered back to our room, fixed a light dinner, and went to our well-earned rest.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Unsupervised in Italy

Hopped on the train Saturday morning bound for Cinque Terre. A couple of hours and transfers later, we jumped off at Monterossa, northernmost of the "five lands". Wandered around the city for a while, grabbed a focaccia sandwich and granita at one of the little shops and enjoyed the view of the sea over lunch. Headed down to the main part of town and peeled off my shoes and pants legs and waded in the Mediterranean for a bit. Some window shopping for a little bit, and eventually made our way back to the train and went on to the middle little town by the sea, Corniglia.

Corniglia is at the top of a long flight of nearly 400 steps, so it's a bit of a challenge to get to. We made the climb successfully, and had a nice fresh lemonade made of the local fresh squeezed fruit, found some more phenomenal views, and after a short time, made our way down the hill to the train once more, and took another hop south.

Next stop was Riomaggore, the southernmost village. Wandered all over the place here, and discovered what I like to call "Hard Beach", where people sunned themselves on a shore of rather large round rocks, watched cliff divers splash into the sea, found a cute little hidden piazza, and sampled the local delicacy, anchovies - wrapped around olives on a skewer, and deep-fried in a paper cup with a squeeze of lemon - eaten whole - crunchy!

The whole area was a bit of a tourist zoo, and the trains grew steadily more crowded so eventually we exercised our discretion and got out of town a bit earlier than we'd originally planned, not wanting to miss our conections back to Lucca. Made it back to the city around half past eight, had some crostini and lasagna al ragu, delicate and delicious, at a table on the street at Osteria Dos Nenos, followed by a custard-like cheesecake. Then we strolled out to the front gates and met Joe and Mindy for a ride back to our hotel. They had just finished dinner with some of their old friends from Pisa, so the timing was perfect.

Packed out bags in preparation for the journey to Rome, and went to bed fairly early.

Last Tango in Tuscany

We headed down to Pisa in the morning after breakfast. Those of you who know me well will not find it surprising that we hit Mercatopoli, a thrift store at which I felt right at home, and picked up a couple of interesting items to bring home.

Onwards to the city of Pisa, and purchase tickets to climb the tower. Joe and Mindy waited down below, and held our bags, since security was tight and no purses, backpacks or guns were allowed on the stairway. The security police were highly visible, and serious about things, but still willing to have children photographed in front of the military vehicles parked in the shado of the tower. Full auto weapons at the ready.

The view from the top was marvelous, and a cool breeze was blowing. A very pleasant experience. This was definitely the most touristy place we've been so far. It should be good prep for Rome.

Leaving the scrum, we headed north once more to a small winery recommended by our friend Michael, Enza di Carmigniana, in the hills on the road called the Strada di Vino, near Montecarlo. The owner of the winery, Elena, gave us a short tour of the facilities, and history of her family, who have been making wine in the same location since 1386 - Elena is the first female to run the winery, her only brother did not want anything to do with the family business.

We then enjoyed an intimate private tasting of three whites, a rose, two reds and two special "dolce" wines, each paired with the food which complements it well, from fresh tomatos out of the garden to the sausage made from white pigs at a nearby farm, to aged pecorino cheese with honey. Absolutely incredible, and every one of them delicious.

We purchased quite a bit, and Elena gifted us with a bottle of red blend on our way out, as well. She also called the nearby visitors bureau and made arrangements for us to meet a young lady there for a private tour of the old theatre in town, so we drove up to the castle in Montecarlo and met Mariella, a charming girl who let us in to the building and gave us the history of its use, disuse, restoration and all the rest. We wandered about the town for a bit, chatting with the nonas, enjoying a cone of gelato, and enoying the spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside.

Back to the hotel for a while, enjoyed a bottle of wine by the pool in the sunshine, then drove down to Lucca where we once again enjoyed the company and cuisine of our friends Michael and Anita. Anita prepared a variation on traditional Polish pirogi for us (she comes from Poland), and chatted with us about the history of her mother's recipe, which she has altered to take advantage of the finer ingredients available in modern Italy. A short stroll in Lucca town, then back to our rooms to slumber peacefully.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Polpo, al Pompelmo

After a very nice continental breakfast at the Principessa, we loaded up in the car and headed down to the train station to pick up tickets for our coming day trip to Cinque Terre. Our next mission was to head into the walled old city and pick up tickets for a concert in the evening. After that, our hosts had some errands to run down at Camp Darby, so they left us to enjoy things on our own for a bit.

Our first stop was the Puccini Museum, located in the home where he was born here in 1858. Quite an interesting collection of odds and ends, ranging from score revisions and letters from his friends, to the entire set of a production of La Boheme and a number of costumes from some of his productions. Michele was in heaven, as a musician, but I found it interesting, too. I'm definitely going to have to look up the "Western" opera he wrote, Girl of the Golden West.
Chiesa St Michele

We made our way after that to the old Ampitheatre, which is now filled with shops and restaurants around its walls, and browsed for a bit there. A crazy thunderstorm came up just as we were leaving, and we finally had to give up on pushing on through it, after our umbrellas were inverted several times by the strong winds, so we huddled for a bit in an archway with a few other travelers, and eventually when the storm settled down for a bit, we made our way to Bar San Frediano, where we enjoyed our first italian pizza - Margherita, a simple composition of tomatoes, cheese and basil. A nice light crust, dripping with home made sauce, truly good mozzarella cheese, and delicate spices. More, please!

We had a nice stroll on the old wall, which has been turned into a beautiful park, well removed from its function as a major defense for the town. A little bit of window shopping after that kept us busy until our rendezvous with Joe and Mindy, and we all drove back to the hotel for a short rest.

In the early evening, we returned to the St. Giovanni church to listen to the music of Puccini and Verdi performed by a pianist, a soprano and an baritone. I'm not a big opera buff, but the power of their singing filled the church and was truly and unforgettable experience. A standing ovation by the crowd led to a rousing rendition of O Solo Mio, which even a cultural barbarian like myself had to enjoy.

A short walk after the concert led back to our friends Michael and Anita at Lucca il Tavolo, and an absolutely amazing dinner. Anita made me a special seafood salad of prawns, squid and octopus, flavored with fresh grapefruit, and the angels alone know what other spices. Michael introduced us to a bottle of sparklin sauvignon blanc, with which we became fast friends. Secondo for me was medallions of veal, in an amazing brown sauce, covered with wafer thin prosciutto, and baked potato wedges, drizzzled with olive oil and dredged in a bit of balsamic "crema" vinegar. A small glass of a digestivo send us on our way, fattened and happy, to our peaceful slumbers in the Tuscan hills.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Per Lucca

A highway is an autobahn is an autostrada, to paraphrase some poet of note, so I can't say a great deal about the drive from Pordenone down to Lucca, save that it was at high speed, and very much resembled a drive through any rural countryside, punctuated by occasional transits of cityscapes.

We arrived in Lucca, a city north of Pisa, around rush hour and got checked into our room at the Hotel Principessa, a marvelously lucky find on the outskirts of town in the Tuscan hills. The hotel was first built as the villa of a Duke of Lucca just short of 800 years ago, and has seen a number of transformations, and it is located in beautiful gardens, furnished in classic opulence, very peaceful. 

We took a bit to freshen up, then headed into town, determined to do a bit of exploring, then to have a meal at the restaurant of two friends of our hosts, but our well laid plans went a touch astray. We barely cleared the city walls.

Joe and Mindy introduced us to their friends Michael and Anita, who run the strategically located Lucca in Tavola, and began one of the most amazing meals I have ever experienced. Our new friends visited our table beside one of the main pathways to the interior of the walled old city with their recommendations and commentary on a feast which began with crostini covered with Laredo and Tartuffe, continued through a meat and cheese platter of salami, capaccio, pecorino, prosciutto and olives. The ladies had rolled sole, stuffed with prawns and spinach, Joe had a perfectly cooked sirloin, and I ended up with home-made tagliatelle pasta, smothered with mussels, clams, and calamari and flanked by a pair of amazing shrimp.

All of this was accompanied by flights of prosecco and Chianti, punctuated by an encounter with a marvelous Australian couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary (who may join us for dinner tonite, as well) and topped off by special baked desserts filled with Chantilly cream and strawberries. The entire affair lasted until well into the evening, and we were left only with time for a short stroll to Piazza St Michele before we drove back to the hotel at midnight, replete.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

La Serenissima

After a hearty breakfast in Portenone, we drove a short way down to Sacile to take a train into Venice. We got off at the main station, and grabbed a all day vaporetto (water buses is the only way to describe them, really) pass at a handy tobacco shop and then did a fast fade off into the old Jewish quarter, where we surmised that the crowds would be lighter, as most tourists head directly to St. Mark's square, the Doge's Palace, and the Grand Canal. A very successful strategy, actually.

The crowds were nearly non-existent in that part of Venice, and we were able to stroll about looking at little shops and just inhaling the atmosphere of this unique city. We managed to wander into some mostly residential areas along the northern edge of things, where we saw the little old grandmothers making their way home from shopping, trattorias packed with smoking locals, and a great little kosher grocery where we picked up a bottle of prosecco and four plastic cups to keep us from being too parched on the way out to the island of Burano.

Venice was first established in the swamps of the coast by the merchant princes in the 6th century to provide a very efficient machine for separating tourists from their money, and it retains those ancient traditions to this day. There are a zillion shops filled with kitsch, African street vendors illegally selling knock off Prada, and more than enough high end legitimate shops hawking local wares to give you reason to leave home without your American Express. Burano lace and Murano glass were ubiquitous, but most vendors are touchy about photos, so you'll simply have to come and see these amazing and exquisite creations for yourself some day.

We enjoyed late lunch in Burano at Su E Zo of sea bass, salmon and calamari, talked with local glass makers whose families have been in the business for centuries, and very charming little old nona in a lace shop. 

The day was too short to really see it all, so by the time we made it to St. Mark's the museums had closed, and we didn't get a chance to see them, but we had a marvelous dinner by the Rialto bridge on the Grand Canal at Cafe di Saraceno with a water side table where we got to watch the gondolas go by with their cargos of lovers, young and old. Spaghetti a la Vongole, Broiled Dorado, Beef Steak with Peppercorns, a couple of nice bottles of Chardonnay, capped by a boat ride back down the canal to the train station again made it a most memorable day.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Down Time

I may have picked up a bug on the plane, and ended up with some intestinal woes for most of the day on Monday, so we ended up hanging out in Pordenone at the house and resting up. Still no pictures. 

Venice on the horizon today, however, and the weather is looking good.