Tag Archive: Books

The Book Stack #9

jumbled books

Forbidden Thoughts, editor Jason Rennie (2017).

This book got a lot of play in the last year or so as “Milo” rose to (in)fame with his various political antics. And antics they are, watching him speak or reading his rants, it’s pretty clear that regardless of whether he believes what says or not, he’s not actually interested in anything but self aggrandizement. Mostly his positions are pretty poorly formed and rely on the misdirection of using non-PC language and/or personal attacks, taking everyone’s attention off of the lack of substance to anything he’s saying. Yet somehow, the editor and publisher of this collection of short stories, decided that his name on the cover would be an attraction. It worked. But then, for those seeking to read more of his work, the disappointment of finding that all he did was write a foreword note at the beginning of the book that has little if anything to do with the content. He asserts that there’s never been a collection of such revolutionary non-PC science fiction in all of history. Obviously he’s clueless to the Libertarian origins of much of modern Sci-Fi, or even the genre as a whole. But let’s set all that aside and get on to the meat of the book itself.

There are some great stories in here that save the book from being worthy of nothing more than the scrap heap. The problem is, there are also a bunch, probably more than half, of the stories, that do little more than attempt to incense the reader by being as non-PC as they possibly can, throwing in words and thoughts and actions that are guaranteed to horrify anyone with leanings to the left. But they go way too far, and I don’t mean that because I’m incensed by them, but because they’re little more than the same as I accuse Milo of above. They’re distractions, they’re glaring baubles, designed to do nothing more than distract the reader from the fact that the stories have no substance. They’re just ranting and exaggeration designed for effect and show the authors’ complete lack of story telling ability.

In the end, there’s just not enough to recommend the book. There’s far better, shall we say, non-leftist, non-PC science fiction out there than anything in this book. ☆☆

Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016).

It’s an interesting read, relatively fast paced, and I enjoyed it. On the other hand, it was a little like going to an all you can eat buffet, where you take some of everything, get back to your table, and it’s both too much food to eat, and not all of it quite goes together on the same plate.

Taking the level of suspension of disbelief into the political and information realm, it requires that you believe that countries that currently exist still kinda sorta do, but not exactly, and are instead now connected not by cultural or racial heritage, but by a mosaic of political viewpoints, scattered across the globe. Often they’re completely disparate to their neighbors, and even within individual countries, broken up into a mess of political parties, some run by corporations, some by de facto governments, some by grassroots organizations.

And somehow, within all of this, we’re expected to buy into that all of these same factionalized and fractionalized groups of people and political organizations have agreed to have everything coordinated by one single entity that provides them with filtered information so they can make a decision where they want to live and work at any given moment. Throw in a gratuitous romance with two high powered individuals, who somehow decide, in the midst of all this Information overload, to not bother to check each other out but just go on gut feeling, and then proceed to violate the principles of their careers just because each other was good in bed.

It doesn’t make it a less fun read, but it does make it a little hard to swallow. ☆☆☆☆

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2014).

This one was a slow slog to get started on, and several times during probably the first half of it I was tempted to just give up and set it aside. Much of that, I think, is that it felt like a slightly stilted translation – as if the translator was searching for a way to express concepts that he didn’t quite know how to put into English fluidly. I’m glad I stuck through it, as in the end, I liked the way it developed and will probably go on to read the rest of the trilogy. I wasn’t wowed, but I was intrigued.

It’s interesting, given the political climate in which we’re living these days, in various parts of the world, how the premise of first contact is handled. The idea that humans basically divide into two camps (three in the book, but still more or less fall into two ideals) – those who see contact as a threat (in this case an explicit one) and do all in their power to resist, and those who see it as an inevitability with which they collaborate. Kind of reminds me of the current sci-fi television show Colony.

I also liked the undercurrent of the conflict between science and religion, though I think it’s perhaps drawn as too starkly a black and white issue, one or the other. That probably fits more the Chinese cultural model of what science and religion are all about (though I’m no expert on Chinese culture), at least from what I’ve gleaned over the years. ☆☆☆

The Gourmet Detective mystery series (8 volumes), by Peter King (1996-2003).

Okay, hmm… I’ve read the whole series now. I’m not going to do individual book reviews, some of them are better than others, but they’re all enjoyable, quick reads. Then again, throw gourmet food and wine into anything and I’m likely to add some points to it in my mind. Bizarrely, though, given that I gave all the books three stars, I don’t know that I recommend them. Had they been written fifty years ago, I’d give them some more slack, but here are my issues with, well, all of them:

The gourmet detective himself, our protagonist, is an unlikable twit. He’s a middle aged, pretentious white man, with delusions of self importance. He fancies himself a ladies man and, of course, manages to get one or another into bed (trailed off, never portrayed, just make sure we know it happened, wink, wink) in all or almost all the books. He’s misogynistic, racist, and classist. He fancies himself a connoisseur of all things food and wine, and throws about names and terms, most of which the average reader will not have heard of, and will probably just move past without much thought. The problem is, he’s pretty much clueless and the mistakes in his descriptions of various ingredients, dishes, and bottles of fermented grape juice are legion.

In short, and yes, I realize I’m generalizing and could be accused of bias myself, he’s the sort of detective that a 70+ year old retired upper middle class British metallurgical engineer (who apparently at some point went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school to be trained as a chef, though my bet is he just took a few cooking classes for home cooks, then again, who knows, but it seems he did it after retiring at some point in his 70s) would reimagine himself to be if he were to become a food detective. In short, a sort of Walter Mitty alter ego. ☆☆☆

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016).

You know the running joke where people start comparing how hard they had it growing up… it starts with something like “we had to walk 5 miles to school every day…” and ends up with things like “uphill both ways” “cardboard boxes for shoes”, etc., etc.? This book is that done in long form. It’s an ostensible memoir from someone who grew up in a disadvantaged, poor community (except he really didn’t, he grew up skirting around it, because he actually spent most of his childhood living with or near relatives or step-relatives who were fairly well off and encouraged him to stay away from that community) who spends nearly 300 pages trying to convince us that his particular disadvantaged, poor community has it worse than any other one. And he also ricochets between being pretentious about his own life and condescending about his roots and the people who still live there, and trying to hold them up as somehow better by virtue of being in worse straits than how he imagines (with no evidence that he has any experience of) other disadvantaged, poor communities to be. Basically it’s a barely veiled tome touting “Hillbilly (i.e., poor white) Lives Matter More” and as such is just as egregious as much of the BLM movement comes across at times. ☆☆

Daimyo by S. Lee Lyndon (2014-2015).

Really enjoyed this entire trilogy. It was an interesting glimpse into a culture and period that I’m not overly familiar with, other than just peripherally from being into the martial arts world. It would be a complete spoiler to tell you what the overall arc of the story is, so let’s just say it covers the adventures of a young Japanese fisherman as he matures in life. In the end, while a totally logical step by step, the overall arc of the three books is a bit far-fetched, but fun to follow along. It’s a sort of novel form of the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics, or adaptation, sometimes called Lamarckism, i.e., that somehow or other non-biological accomplishments and internalized histories can be passed down genetically to the next generations (pretty much a dismissed idea in the genetic world). Still, a very enjoyable read. ☆☆☆☆

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016).

This one was as difficult to read as it probably was to write. An outsider attempts as close as possible, an insider view of a particular culture, in this case, far right wing, for the most part fundamentalist Christian, Tea Party voters, from an industrial area in Louisiana. She ingratiates herself into their world and admirably does her best to tell their stories, particularly what has led to their political alignment and voting (what’s often talked about in left wing media as “why do these people vote against their best interests?”). She succeeds in making it interesting, and even in giving a decent view into the logic and thought that these folk use. At the same time, if it was at any point her intention to make them look actually logical or sensible, she fails, because bluntly, they come across looking more moronic than the so-called “liberal media” has ever portrayed them. Maybe that was her real, behind the scenes intention from the start. ☆☆☆

Sixteen books seems enough to give you some reading material for now…. Enjoy!

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The Book Stack #6

jumbled books
Continuing with some more fantasy, and a bit of other….

My Tender Matador / Tengo Miedo Torero, Pedro Lemebel, September 2002, Translator: Katherine Silver

Let’s start outside the realm of fantasy. I actually don’t remember how this one came to my attention – it’s the story, basically, of the end of the days of Augustin Pinochet’s rule over Chile, focused on the events leading up to an attempted assassination. The book goes back and forth between Pinochet’s viewpoint, and that of an aging drag queen, the latter of whom has befriended a young, handsome man who turns out to be involved in the assassination attempt. It’s extremely well written, and the characters are well defined. It was a little slow reading for me as I initially started reading this in the original Spanish version, but the constant use of colloquial terms and street slang made it near impossible, and what I ended up doing was reading the two versions more or less side by side (learned a lot of Chilean street slang!). ☆☆☆

Code of Conduct, Brad Thor, July 2015

Over time I’ve read through the entire previous series (15 previous books) of the “Scot Horvath” novels. These are sort of Jack Bauer/24 on steroids if you can imagine that. They’re thrillers. They’re fast paced, they require some level of suspension of disbelief – they’re not totally out of left field, they’re basically, “what if?” scenarios that any of us could imagine given the state of the world right now, even if highly unlikely. And Thor makes them completely believable as potential scenarios. For me, given that I like thrillers of this sort, they’re entertaining as well as thought provoking. Fast reads. And, this one fits right in with all of that. There’s now a 17th novel out, Foreign Agent, and it’s on my reading stack! ☆☆☆☆

The Ronin Trilogy, Travis Heermann

Another trilogy, this one consisting of Heart of the Ronin (2010), Sword of the Ronin (2013), Spirit of the Ronin (2015). I stumbled across this one when I was looking for some martial arts books for study, and it looked interesting. Since the first volume was available for free on my Kindle Unlimited account, I gave it a spin, and rapidly went on to the sequels. Although set in feudal Japan, and following the story of a ronin, a masterless samurai, the writing style is very “western” in its approach, which gave them an interesting flavor – sort of like watching a completely foreign culture and concept develop from an outside observer’s eye. The author has a nice little quip on his site, “Writing fiction set in a far different time and place is challenging. The key is cram as much background information into your brain, let it percolate for a while, and see what bubbles out.”. And, no question, that’s what he’s done – creating a real image of a very different world than I’m familiar with, and at the same time, letting it develop in a way that I could actually visualize it, without feeling lost. I loved it. ☆☆☆☆

The Inheritance Trilogy, N.K. Jemisin

And, yet another trilogy! The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), The Broken Kingdoms (2010), The Kingdom of Gods (2011). This one took me a little bit to get into. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was about it – it’s certainly well written, and an interesting concept. I think that it was that the protagonist in the first volume just didn’t resonate with me, and I initially found her viewpoint to be sort of a bore, or maybe it was just that the development of the story started out too slowly for me. But, the book picked up, and I ended up enjoying it enough to go on to the other two volumes, which take place from the viewpoints of other characters, and I liked both of those volumes much more. I mean, what’s not to like about a world where humans, gods, godlings, and demons, all live together and interact on a daily basis? In the end, highly recommendable. And, a nice perk that you can buy the entire trilogy in one volume. ☆☆☆☆

The Price of Retribution, Christopher Cartwright, March 2015

For such a small book (okay, 370 pages), it’s a pretty sweeping epic story, that starts with a jewel heist in long ago London and then jumps across the oceans to Australia, and back again. Another sort of “gentleman thief” – I guess those sort just attract me – it’s a great story, with romance, revenge, and a bit of rampaging. I found the writing to be quite good – at times it wandered a little, and I felt like for a moment that I, or the author, was losing the plot, but then it came back on track. The characters are interesting, though I felt that while the central ones are really well developed, that those who were not directly a part of the main storyline were a little greyed out by comparison, as if they didn’t really matter that much. ☆☆☆

The Book of Strange New things, Michel Faber, June 2015

The writing itself was fine, the author is excellent at drawing out characterization and visuals that many would find difficult to imagine. And the overall arc of the story is interesting and was enough to keep me going through to the end. However, the protagonist, and his wife, who we basically don’t meet other than briefly at the beginning and then through a series of letters, are some of the most unpleasant, unsympathetic “good guys” that one could care to encounter. Misogynistic, racist, religiously intolerant, judgmental, and constantly spouting stereotypes about everyone and everything around them – it was just plain unpleasant to read. (Honestly, given the time period I was reading this in, it was like trying to listen to Donald Trump talk about anyone who isn’t American, White, Male, and Christian.) And it was made worse because it was cloaked in a sort of pious righteousness. ☆☆

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The Book Stack #5

jumbled books
Okay, I’ve gotten way behind on this. I’m going to start with the last few rounds of fantasy series. I’m still working my way through this buzzfeed list.

Peter V. Brett, The Demon Cycle

Currently a four volume series including The Painted Man (2008), The Desert Spear (2010), The Daylight War (2013), and The Skull Throne (2015), with a fifth and final volume due out some time in 2017. I’ve read the first three, with the fourth on deck, and I’ll review that down the line.

This one took me a little bit to get into to. When I first started it, the concept of some sort of demons rising from the ground at night with the intent to destroy humanity, and being able to ward them off with simple signs drawn or painted, seemed, well, stupid. But at some point I got into the whole magic and sweep of it, as I pushed further through (I’m trying to be relatively faithful to the list I have of recommended fantasy series). I still find myself a little mystified by the existence of the demons – apparently their existence being “our” fault, after some sort of nuclear holocaust, there’s just no real connection as to why they came to be, or why there are so many different types. But I like the battle of good and evil, and that it’s not all one-sided, the battle also rages between factions of remaining humans. The not so loosely veiled Christianity vs Islam approach to both demon fighting and each other is clearly drawn from the political and religious battles of our own modern world, and at first I thought I was going to find that a bit off-putting, because it seemed a bit “Christian good, Muslim bad”, and overall, there is that bent, but at least the author takes the time to explore the motivations and drive of the other side, and why its approach is so different. Still, the series mostly stays with three primary characters, starting from their adolescence and working forward, and although sections are shown from the viewpoint of others, particularly on the “Islam side”, these three are all on the “Christian side”. ☆☆☆☆

Patricia A. McKillip, The Riddle Master

Trilogy includes The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979).

I have to admit, this wasn’t one of my favorites as I’ve been reading through these various series. It’s well written and engaging, no question. And there’s the whole magic, and a grand quest, and romance, and even a bit of battling. But when it came down to it, I didn’t like any of the principal characters. Their reasons for jumping into their individual quests and the grand one were superficial, and mostly seemed spur of the moment, impulsive, emotional decisions, with little thought. To a tee, each of the protagonists was basically selfish, barely giving a moment’s thought to their families and friends, because “I wanna do this”, and not seeming to care if others were hurt in the process. They hold stupid grudges, they’re not interested in each other’s points of view, and there just seems to be a missing logic to a lot of what they do. At the end of the trilogy, with the big wind-up, I just really didn’t care who came out “on top”, and I was just ready move on to another series and hopefully some more likable people. ☆☆

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn

Trilogy of The Final Empire (2006), The Well of Ascension (2007), and The Hero of Ages (2008).

I loved this one, from minute one, to the end. I’d already encountered Sanderson’s fantasy writing in the first two volumes of the (eventually) ten volume The Stormlight Archive, and really liked his writing there (it was before I started doing these reviews, so I haven’t written it up, maybe when another volume or two is published). The whole concept of using something ordinary, in this case, metals, as essentially magical essences, fascinated me, especially the interplay between the different types of magic, or power, engendered by each. The sweep of the different factions, the exploration, the delving into the history of how it all came to pass, some of which might, in other hands, seem like pedantic tangents, was treated in a way that was just as intriguing as the action sequences. I like that both protagonists and antagonists have their flaws and aren’t “black and white” as to where they fall, and, I really appreciated that the character development as the storyline continued, allowed for some real twists and turns. The world setting (at least up until the way the series wraps up) would make a fascinating MMORPG… just sayin’. ☆☆☆☆☆

Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law (2011)

Okay, after that glowing praise, I’m going to have to damn this one with the faint stuff. After a several year stint off on other fantasy writing, Sanderson returned to the Mistborn world with another trilogy, referred to cutely as the “Wax and Wayne” trilogy. It’s set in the same world, but 300 years in the future. And I have to admit, I didn’t really like it. The combination of the whole Wild West scenario with the deep magic, stone castle feel of the original trilogy, just didn’t jive for me (there’s no seeming logical reason for the shift in such a short span of time). I realize that it’s supposed to be the start of a completely different series, and that Sanderson originally wrote it just as a creative writing exercise in a new genre “to clear his head”, and then later decided to publish it, but given the ties to the original, it’s hard to separate the two, one being a rich, explorative series, and the other being a sort of perfunctory shoot-em-up series that just makes use of pieces of the original. It also felt a bit as if it had just been scribbled off, and while when I read it I didn’t know about the reason it had been written, in retrospect it makes sense, it didn’t feel like it was written with any commitment to tell a story, it was more just a lot of character sketch development. I ended this one with no real interest in reading the other two in the W&W series. ☆☆

Scott Lynch, Gentleman Bastards

Trilogy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves, with four more planned novels in the series yet to come.

I find, often, that I really enjoy books that take on the world from “the other side”. In this series, the protagonists are a band of thieves, con men, and even at times, worse. And yet, for the most part, they’re the most sympathetic characters in the series – of course it was written that way, but it all feels very logical. Of course we should root for these guys to come out on top. And no, it shouldn’t be easy for them, they should have to take their hard knocks, but they should get back up and keep going, and bit by bit, time and again, come out on top. It’s the same reason I love movies like Cary Grant’s John Robie in To Catch a Thief or it’s later incarnations as Robert Wagner’s Alexander Mundy in It Takes a Thief or even the modern version of Matt Bomer’s Neal Caffrey in White Collar (though admittedly that might be partly just the eye-candy). This series follows, particularly, one Locke Lamora, from his introduction to the band of the Gentleman Bastards as he develops from an impulsive, willful, and a bit dangerous young child, to a more considered, but still impulsive, willful, and a bit dangerous young adult. The writing is tight, the character development is brilliant, and the storyline makes complete sense, even when it seems to jump around. It doesn’t hurt, from my personal perspective, that there’s lots of good food and drink, with intricate descriptions, thrown in – someone likes their food. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series. ☆☆☆☆

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The Book Stack #4

jumbled books
The brunt of my reading over the last many weeks since my last post (and it actually started before that last post) was binge reading through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (April 1, 2000 – May 27, 2014) novels.
dresden files
It’s going to seem short shrift to place them all into one small review, but I’m not going to go through and review each individual one of the fifteen. I found them to be fun, irreverent, easy reads, the basic premise, the exploits of an openly proclaimed wizard in Chicago, as he fights demons, ghouls, and more, alongside the local police department’s division for handling stuff that no one can explain, no one wants to handle, and no one wants to talk about. Harry Dresden is a wisecracking magically endowed private investigator who loves nothing more than bringing in cult movie and television references, more or less just to see if anyone around him is paying attention. I found the series to get a bit off the rails in books 13 and 14, where it seemed like Butcher was taking it in a totally new direction, and the writing seemed a bit lost, but it all came back on track in the current last novel. Overall, a great series to get started on if you like the world of magic, the paranormal, crime, and punishment! The series was turned into a not short-lived enough, and truly, appallingly, bad television show that shouldn’t have lasted through the first season that it did. ☆☆☆☆

Several years ago someone recommended Robert Harris’ historical novel Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (September 19, 2006) to me. Given my love of things Italian, history, and fiction, it was a match made in heaven. It’s basically a fictional account of the life of Marcus Cicero, the famed orator of the Roman senate, as he first came to power. The book is written as an eyewitness account from his personal slave and secretary, Tiro. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and this was completely engaging, and more or less a “couldn’t put it down” kind of read. My recollection is I read through it in a matter of a couple of days. And, obviously, I loved it. As to why I didn’t jump right into the next book in the series, I truly can’t tell you. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t, and I rectified that with a plunge into Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome (March 30, 2010) right after finishing the Dresden Files. Equally as good, the story continues with Cicero’s political career as he encounters some of the best known figures of that time, including Julius Caesar. Political machinations are the core of the second novel, and it’s surprising in many ways how little the world of political intrigue has changed in the millenia since (then again, the novels are written by someone living in today’s world, so it may be that Harris simply borrows from that which is familiar to a modern audience). In the world of “court politics” or “palace intrigue” this easily rivals the intricacy of well known pop culture references like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Scandal. Looking forward to the next novel! ☆☆☆☆

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, (May 19, 2015)

One of the things that’s count-on-able with Stephenson’s longer novels is that they follow a predictable pattern. If you assume roughly 900 pages or thereabouts for most of them, there will be an initiating event, something that starts the entire story in motion, something to grab your attention, and it will take up the first 150-200 pages. Then there will be roughly 400-500 pages of character development, lots of explication, lots of looking at how motivations develop, lots of “here, let me explain why the story, when we get to it, is going to go the way it goes”. And then it’s finished off with what amounts to the “real” novel, about 250-300 pages where all the action that was set in motion, and influenced by all the motivations developed during the entire middle section, happens. I hear time and again how people launched into one of his books with fascination at the premise, and then gave up 100 or so pages further on when it just got too tedious to continue. And they miss out on all the good part when the story takes off again.

This book is no different. I read through section 1 in under two hours, a complete page turner. Then it took me a month to get through to “section 3” (pages 567-861), because I found I couldn’t read more than a few pages of section 2 (pages 227-567) at a time without drifting off. And then I read through section 3 without pausing in roughly two hours.

Loved sections one and three. I appreciate the info in section two, but my god there’s got to be a way to do that midsection of all of his books in half or fewer of the pages. ☆☆☆☆

Lucy Burdette, Killer Takeout, (April 5, 2016)

Last year I whizzed my way through the six novels of the “Key West Food Critic Mysteries”. Basically, I’d refer you to that review, particularly the last couple of paragraphs where I summed up the series. Much the same holds true for this seventh novel, a fun read, but showing a decided lack of knowledge in the food world.

Although I’ve liked this series a fair amount, something about this latest volume just felt a little thrown together, as if it wasn’t thought through as well as the others, and that’s saying something given my thoughts about the series. I still enjoyed it, just not as much as the rest.

I hadn’t done any research into the author, and “Lucy Burdette” turns out to be a pen-name for Roberta Isleib, a clinical psychologist, also known for writing a series of golf-mystery novels, and who writes an advice column under the title “Ask Dr. Aster”. A psychologist with three different identities… just something to muse upon.

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The Book Stack #3

jumbled books

A selection of what I’ve been reading (minus, in general, food and cooking related books, which I tend to review separately, and over on my SaltShaker blog).

Bacigalupi, Paolo (May 26, 2015) The Water Knife

This book was recommended on io9’s list of the 2015’s best new sci-fi, and so the whole list went into my reading pile along with all the other various lists I’m working through.

This is a gritty, bloody novel set in a dystopian future North America where basically, our water is all disappearing, or at least from the area that is covered in the story, mostly the classic American “West”. The characters are well drawn, the book is well written and fast paced. At times, despite that I enjoyed the story completely, it feels a little like an advertisement for the book Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, a more journalistic look at the problem of disappearing water in that part of the country. The book is mentioned multiple times, and held up as a beacon of “this is where we’re headed” (post-fact, since this is set in the future), and in the end, serves as a key to the climactic scene in The Water Knife. ☆☆☆☆

Corey, James S.A. (June 15, 2011) Leviathan Wakes

I got curious about this book, as it’s a) the basis for the SyFy channel series The Expanse, and b) the author doesn’t actually exist. Well, it’s a pen name for two collaborating writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the former of which wrote a book series that I very much enjoyed called The Long Price Quartet, and he has also been a co-writer with George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame.

Roughly a chapter into the book it was clear that overall, the book and the show were diverging rapidly. In general, the theme remains similar, with some events lining up, but others not, and it quickly seems that the very premise of the book was dropped as, probably, a bit too icky for a television audience, so they looked elsewhere for motivations. The book itself is pretty graphic and I like that it doesn’t portray space, space travel, etc., in the sort of antiseptic conditions that so many sci-fi books seem to take as a given, that for some reason, if we live in space or on other planets, we’ll take better care of those locations than we do of earth. It’s well written and fast paced – despite being nearly 600 pages, I finished it off with casual reading over the course of just a couple of days. At the same time, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t find myself jumping to move on to the next book in the series. ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) Before They Are Hanged

In my last round-up of books I’d started in on The First Law trilogy, and enjoyed the opening volume enough to continue on with the series, and not just because I’ve made a commitment to myself to work my way through the reading list referenced there. Not surprisingly, this book picks up pretty much where the first book left off – maybe a few months later, and continues the various story lines, and at the same time introduces new ones. There does seem to be a bit more of an interweaving of the stories starting to happen, which is what I’d mentioned that some reviewers had said, so I’m glad to see that, and I enjoyed this one even a bit more than the first. On to the third! ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) The Last Argument of Kings

Which, what the heck, let’s just go straight to, even though it wasn’t the next thing up on my in my reading – in fact it got interrupted by reading through a bunch of travel guides for Mexico City and Guadalajara, where I was getting ready to head, and then did, in early March, and which I’m not going to bother to review. Back to this book, and a really great wind-up to the story. Indeed, as foretold by some, the varied and sundry threads all come together. It’s not pretty, it’s not a well woven tapestry of a story at this point. It’s more of an explosive, violent, mashup as the characters from each storyline come running hell-bent for the finish line and all kind of collide there, jostling and stumbling about to get their last moment in the series. What I think I liked most about it, and the series overall, is that it wasn’t predictable, and where things end is not at all where I’d have guessed had you asked me earlier on in the reading. ☆☆☆☆

Lovejoy, Ben (January 27, 2015) 11/9

Described as an un-put-down-able techno-thriller, and obviously with a non-veiled reference to 9/11 thrown in there (though an unrelated story), I was psyched for something gripping and engaging, and, well, techie. It is, no question, a quite good read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’m also interested in science and engineering and similar topics, and there’s a lot of time in the book spent delving into those arenas where the pace of the book lags. It wasn’t surprising to find out that the author is a technical writer by trade, as the book careens between white knuckled flipping of pages while the characters are engaged in a life and death moment, and then almost like breaking the infamous theater fourth wall, a different character would be doing something that felt like wading through a technical manual to explicate what was going on in the previous, or an upcoming, scene. Great story and indeed gripping and engaging, but by turns, quite put-down-able, at what more or less are, for a techno-thriller, the commercial breaks. ☆☆☆☆

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The Book Stack #1

jumbled books
A selection out of what I’ve been reading recently. They don’t really need an introduction.

I like Charles Pierce’s writing, and he often hits the nail on the head. This book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is no exception. For the most part, he just lays it out there and shows just how idiotic many things in our country have become. Do I always agree with him? No. But it’s always thought provoking. Does he always make his case? No. He does against the “easy” targets, where he can just point out flaws that probably any thinking person would immediately see. But when it comes to making fun of, which is really what the book is, targets where there are philosophical, moral, ethical, even intellectual debate (particularly with arenas that broach into the world of religious faith), he points, but doesn’t provide the backup evidence, making the assumption that anyone reading his book is of like mind with him, and will simply agree that whatever he’s pointed to is worthy of mockery. For those of us who struggle at times with reconciling science, logic, and faith into a composite whole, those chapters come across a bit smarmy. Still, a recommended read, just to get the mental cogs turning.

Secretly, I grew up kind of wanting to be Alexander Mundy. He was the cat burglar turned spy-thief for the Secret Intelligence Agency of the US government in the late 60s television series It Takes a Thief. The show was inspired by the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Cary Grant, and on the flipside, while not acknowledged, is probably in the background of things like the late 2000s show White Collar, and certainly has some influences from the life of Frank Abagnale, whose life then went on to inspire the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. All that aside, I had visions of being a cat burglar, when I wasn’t entertaining visions of being a forest ranger or FBI agent. How things change as we grow up. I’ve always maintained a fascination with the news of jewel and art thieves, and while now there’s simply no likelihood of taking either up as a profession, I enjoy reading about the heists. Still one of, if not the largest, diamond theft in history, the story in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History is a reasonably in-depth analysis of the most likely scenario for how the theft went down. Some of it is clearly speculative, especially attributions of motivations and thought processes lent to the main actor, Leonardo Notarbartolo (after whom I’ve named a Pandaren rogue in World of Warcraft, for those into that sort of thing). And some of it is pieced together from what evidence and testimony was available to the authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. It’s clearly well researched and very well written. If I have any quibble with the book is that the ending is an awfully quick wrap-up – akin to the sort of thing one sees at the end of a competition show, where the eliminated contestant’s picture is shown for a moment along with a caption of “John Smith is happy back with his family and thinking about what to do next.” One wants to know, “Where are they now? What are they up to?” Well worth a read.

A few months back, Buzzfeed published a list of what they considered the 51 Best Fantasy Series ever written. Now, there’s nothing that says that anyone at Buzzfeed is an expert on the topic, nor that the choice of 51 (why 51?) series was a good one, but I was casting about for somethings interesting to read and thought I’d start in on the list. I quickly read through the first couple of series, I’m not going to go back and review them now as my memory is already getting hazy on them, but I highly recommend all of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, and Brent Weeks’ The Lightbringer series, particularly the first, which was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, though the next two series are almost as good. All captured my attention and engaged me, and I was glad to have discovered them via the list. I skipped over A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the books behind Game of Thrones) and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, simply because I’ve read them in the past. And I’m going to skip the 41 novels of the Discworld saga from Pratchett, because I’ve given them a try, and after 1½ of them, read a year or two ago, I just gave up on them as simply not my cup of weak tea.

Now, to this series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, including three novels, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It feels a bit more like a teen read than an adult fantasy read. Some of that is simply the characters, the primary ones being children in their early teens. But more of it is that it’s written in a borderline puerile style. I found that although I enjoyed them, I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. There’s a lot of railing against what is an awfully thinly veiled Catholic church, and of a government influenced by religious leaders, clearly the author isn’t a fan of either. There’s a lot of moralizing, but it’s very superficial. And in the end, the ostensible resolution is pretty insipid. The first volume has been turned into a movie of the same name, and albeit also pretty kid-oriented and “Hollywood”, is actually better than the book, a rarity in my experience. While not bad reads, there are certainly other books in the genre more worth putting your time into, as noted above.

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A good story makes the product better

marketersOkay, this isn’t my own, it’s an excerpt from a new book called All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Goldin. The excerpt appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fortune: Small Business, so I’m not sure if it’s exactly what will appear in the final book (to be published this month). But, since it relates to my career, and I liked it, I’m just posting it. By the way, the rest of the excerpt is truly fascinating – look for the book in stores soon!

Georg Riedel is a fibber—an honest spinner of tales. He tells his customers something that isn’t true—his wineglasses make wine taste better—and then the very act of believing it makes the statement true. Because drinkers believe the wine tastes better, it does taste better.

Georg is a tenth-generation glass blower, an artisan pursuing an age-old craft. I’m told he’s a very nice guy. And he’s very good at telling stories. His company makes wineglasses (also whiskey glasses, espresso glasses, and even water glasses). He and his staff fervently believe that there is a perfect (and different) shape for every beverage. According to Riedel’s website, “The delivery of a wine’s ‘message,’ its bouquet and taste, depends on the form of the glass. It is the responsibility of a glass to convey the wine’s messages in the best manner to the human senses.”

Thomas Matthews, the executive editor of Wine Spectator magazine, said, “Everybody who ventures into a Riedel tasting starts as a skeptic. I did.” The skepticism doesn’t last long. Robert Parker Jr., the king of wine reviewers, said, “The finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes are those made by Riedel. The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.” Parker and Matthews and hundreds of other wine luminaries are now believers (and as a result, they are Riedel’s best word-of-mouth marketers). Millions of wine drinkers around the world have been persuaded that a $200 bottle of Opus One (or a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck) tastes better when served in the proper Riedel glass.

Yet when tests are done scientifically—double-blind tests that eliminate any chance that the subject would know the shape of the glass—there is absolutely zero detectable difference among glasses. A $1 glass and a $20 glass deliver precisely the same impact on the wine: none.

So what’s going on? Why do wine experts insist that the wine tastes better in a Riedel glass at the same time that scientists can easily prove it doesn’t? The flaw in the experiment, as outlined by Daniel Zwerdling in Gourmet magazine, is that the reason the wine tastes better is that people believe it should. This makes sense, of course. Taste is subjective. Riedel sells millions of dollars’ worth of glasses every year. It sells glasses to intelligent, well-off wine lovers, who then proceed to enjoy their wine more than they did before. Marketing, in the form of an expensive glass and the story that goes with it, has more impact on the taste of wine than oak casks or fancy corks or the rain in June. Georg Riedel makes your wine taste better by telling you a story.

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Pop My Cherry

Outlet Radio Network
October 13, 2004

Pop My Cherry

Sorry, that was just to get your attention.

I’m on a bit of a mission. It’s somewhat casual, I can’t say I’m devoting a huge amount of time to it. But nonetheless, it’s a mission. I want to bring back the popularity of Maraschino. The liqueur, not the cherry. In fact, I find no excuse for the cherry.

That’s not entirely true. There is an excuse for the cherry, but that’s all it is, an excuse. Originally, maraschino cherries were made from various wild European sour cherries. They were steeped in Maraschino liqueur for days on end, much like brandied cherries are now. Packed in jars, they were shipped off to the wilds of gay Paree, where, in the late nineteenth century, they were all the rage.

Then came Prohibition. Another example of our country carrying a joke too far, something, as I keep reminding you, we’re quite good at. Somehow these wonderful, wild, sour, European cherries that had spent their days lazily floating about in liqueur were converted into what is, simply, an abomination. Some minion of evil, unknown to me, took sweet cherries, pickled them overnight in salt, sugar and alum to bleach them, then soaked them in red food coloring and a sugar solution to produce the vivid vermillion balls we now find sunken in our drinks. So that’s the excuse.

To finish off with the cherries themselves. Try making your drinks with brandied cherries, which are readily available in fine food shops. You’ll be surprised at how much more interesting they are. Even better, if you’re making drinks at home, make your own. It’s not that hard to put a bunch of cherries in a jar and fill it with brandy… or better yet, the original, Maraschino liqueur, and let them soak for a few weeks.

Which brings us back to my mission. It was a serendipitous find, this liqueur. Well, sort of. You see, I was reading a novel of historical fiction – a fascinating book, Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. The details of the book are irrelevant, but there was a passage in the book where two of the characters pop open a tin of caviar. A discussion ensues in which one asserts that the typical vodka or champagne accompaniments are just plain wrong, and that the original drink that the czars of Russia imbibed with good caviar, was a good shot of chilled Maraschino.

I had to try it. My friends and I were stunned at how well the two went together. The slightly bitter, slightly sweet, intensely cherry flavored liqueur balanced perfectly against the briny, crunchy sturgeon roe. It was a match made in heaven. Not that I eat much in the way of caviar on my budget, but I doubt I’ll ever have anything else with caviar again.

Which led me to explore this liqueur. Again, once wildly popular, it has for the most part become one of those bottles on the back bar, or even hidden away, or even non-existent, at most drinking establishments. To the best of my knowledge only two brands are currently imported to the United States, though they are by no means the only ones made. Luxardo and Stock. The former is probably the most recognizable – coming in a thin green glass bottle, the lower two-thirds covered in wicker. The Stock is slightly sweeter, and has a less interesting bottle. The Luxardo has a touch more of that bitter note.

Maraschino is a clear liqueur made from marasca cherries. These are grown throughout the Dalmatian coast area, i.e., Croatia and Istria. The liqueur is made from both the juice of the cherries and the essence of the crushed cherry pits, which is where the hint of bitterness comes from.

There are dozens upon dozens of old cocktail recipes (and here and there new ones) that make use of this spirit. Any good bar book will direct you to several, the top bartending websites like Webtender and DrinksMixer list, respectively, 49 and 117 cocktail recipes that make use of it. I recommend it. I urge you to try it. Oh just go out and buy a bottle, throw it in the freezer, buy a tin of good caviar, and serve shots alongside. You won’t be disappointed.

Boomerang

2 ounces of dry gin
½ ounce of dry vermouth
2 dashes of bitters
½ ounce of Maraschino

Shake these ingredients with ice. Strain into a martini glass where you will delight to the beautiful soft peach color. Garnish with a proper cocktail cherry, i.e., either a homemade Maraschino cherry as discussed above, or a brandied cherry.

Wine picks for this column:

Cantina Nalles & Magre Niclara Pinot Bianco, 2003

Pinot Bianco, or Pinot Blanc, is one of my favorite white grapes. In the hands of a skilled winemaker it somehow seems to combine the steeliness and dryness of a good Pinot Grigio with the delicious aromatics of a Pinot Noir. Not surprising, since all three come from the same family of grapes. This is one of those delicious examples. My only disappointment – the wine in former vintages used to come in a bottle with a beautiful label adorned with a Venetian print, and was called “Lucia”. Now it comes with a somewhat ordinary label with a little countryside scene, reminiscent of a dozen other producers’ wines from the Alto Adige area of Italy. Still, the wine is a find. Pair this up with spicy preparations of seafood, vegetarian dishes or lighter meats. From Village Wine Imports, 212-673-1056. Around $10.

El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa, 2002

Spain, and the Navarra area in particular, is the current source of many of the new, hot wines hitting the market these days. It is worth your time and effort to explore as many of these as you can. This particular gem has been a favorite vintage after vintage, and the new release of the 2002 is no exception. Made from old vine Garnacha (Grenache) grapes, this is a concentrated flavors of raspberries and slightly sour cherries, peppery, simply stunning glass of wine. This is a great wine to go with grilled and smoked foods, or just to have on its own. From Jorge Ordonez’ Fine Estates from Spain, 781-461-5767. Around $12.


I started writing food & wine columns for the Outlet Radio Network, an online radio station in December 2003. They went out of business in June 2005.

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