Milk Street’s BBQ Rub #2

Tried Milk Street’s BBQ Rub #2 for the first time today on some chicken cutlets. Just pan fried for a quick meal. The taste ended up being very similar to chicken satay and I definitely found myself wishing I had some peanut sauce to eat with the chicken. The rub’s also recommended for fish and veggies so it’d be interesting to try on those. I’d also like to try it on food from out on the grill. So far it’s a good run, but not not Earth-shattering.

Review: The Emperor’s Soul

The Emperor's SoulThe Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book without knowing anything about it other than the fact that it takes place on the same planet as Elantris, Part 1 of 3. I didn’t have the book description as I got it from the Sanderson Humble Bundle and often their ebooks are missing metadata. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about it, because that made the plot, as it unfurled, even more amazing. I was expecting the book to revolve around the magic of the Dor or something related to Elantris, but it was completely separate outside of mentioning a couple cities/regions from Elantris (the book, not the place). In fact, the most recent reading order from the Cosmere subreddit has this book taking place before Elantris. If you want to have as much fun as I did, stop reading this review now and go read the novella.

The postscript has Sanderson explaining where he came up with the idea for SoulStamps – a trip to a Taiwanese museum. But the entire book seemed to me to read as a metaphor for his work as an author. The crafting of the Emperor’s soul and the mechanics behind the magic of the soulstamps seemed to be a commentary on the creation of characters and worlds. The novels I enjoy best have characters that seem real and worlds that seem lived in. This can only happen if the author creates entire histories and backstories that we never know or see, but that influence all the actions and decisions of the characters we’re reading and the world they live in. The conversation between Shai and Gaotana about whether the artist who hired her had a right to have his art destroyed (assuming Shai was being truthful), serves as a great metaphor about the relationship between an author, his artwork, and the audience. Once art is released, who does it belong to? This is the source of the tension between both sides of the Star Wars special release edits and Spielberg’s ET edits – do they have a right to do that? Or do we have a right to the originals? The ones that changed our culture through their consumption by the audience.

I haven’t 100% figured out what this was meant to communicate, but I did love how Shai slowly, slowly made her room into one of the best rooms in the palace.

Additionally, it was a very fun book and I really enjoy cerebral books where characters have to reason their way through the plot. In this case, Shai trying to figure her way out of captivity before her death.

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Review: The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories

The Kissing Booth Girl and Other StoriesThe Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories by A.C. Wise
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book in Storybundle’s LGBT+ Bundle and the title and description of this book are what got me to pick up the entire bundle. I didn’t even realize I already knew A.C. Wise’s work from its appearance in Clarkesworld Magazine. As I mentioned during a couple of the status updates, Wise seems to be a thematic protege of Philip K Dick. A lot of her short stories involve unreliable narrators who often aren’t sure if they’re dreaming or remembering things correctly or even being honest with themselves. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve come across unreliable narrators, but with how intimately Ms. Wise writes her characters it’s even more jarring not to know how much of the story is “real” and how much is not even real to the narrator. It really does put the reader into the position of TRULY being in someone’s head, with all its messiness; a strong contrast to other books that are written from a 1st Person POV but are very clear-headed.

As usual with anthologies, here’s the status update I wrote for each story:

“The Poet’s Child” – While it’s not the kind of story I like (it’s like 100% metaphor), it is still pretty powerful and could stand in for the power of naming things, alzheimer’s, or simply refusing to speak about the tension between two people.

“Juliet & Juliet (te)” – A fantastical journey through a relationship kindled in an unlikely place.

“And if the body…” – A neat SF story that did more for my understanding of body dismorphism than any non-fiction account I’ve ever read

“The Pornographer’s Assistant” – A steampunk story about how important fiction can be if you don’t fit in.

“For the removal…” – My absolute favorite story so far. Sorry Quirky and great although I’m not sure what it has to do with the theme of the anthology

“Evidence of things…” – A steampunk WWII story. Very emotional.

“Evidence of things unseen” – reads like erotic fiction written by Philip K Dick

“Sisters of the…” – a clever story, one I might share with my oldest when she’s maybe 8 or 9.

“The kissing booth girl” – the titular story, the one that convinced me to buy the bundle. It was worth it. A bit of steampunk and a world that begs more exploration. I’d like to see the further adventures of Beni.

“Final girl theory” – I didn’t like this one, but it is neat seeing the narrator change through the story

“The astronaut…” – another dream logic like story where the rest isn’t sure if there’s magic at play, an unreliable narrator or both. This anthology is definitely get PKD with less drugs

“The last survivor of the great sexbot revolution” – I first came across this story in a 2013 episode of the Clarkesworld podcast. Enjoyed it then and now. Fits in well with the other themes of this anthology about unreliable memories.

“After Midnight…” – I thought I’d seen every retelling, but Cinderella as noir, incorporating the crazy stuff from the original version is a great read.

“It’s the end of the world…” – this captures the way the end of high school better than anything else I’ve ever read or seen on film. Really transported me. Also great fun. I’d love an anthology season of all these short stories on a TV show.

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Review: The Final Empire

The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that felt like reading a JRPG – in fact there are some (very, very loose) alignments with the plot of Final Fantasy VI. But what I really mean by that is the fact that Sanderson’s Allomancy ends up reading like the mana draws one has to undertake in those games. Although the different metals vice just one mana source can also draw parallels to the magic system in The Witcher (game, not books – I haven’t read the books). There are three things that made me love this book and push it into 5-star territory: tight plotting, a comprehensive magic system, and a great heist plot with memorable characters.

First the plotting, of all the books I’ve read recently, only GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire books seem to have this level of tight plotting where everything is on the page for a reason, even if you don’t kow it yet. And my younger brother, who’s finished the first trilogy, says that the series as a whole is an even greater accomplishment of plotting. (SO EXCITED to continue!) Pretty much everything in this book is foreshadowing, even if you don’t know it. The chapter-opening quotes, the magic system, and the little tidbits you learn about the different characters all add up in a way that shows to you that Sanderson didn’t cheat anywhere. There isn’t anything that crops up out of nowhere. That’s a delight and also one of the things I enjoyed in Sanderson’s Warbreaker.

Second, sometimes I can get lost in a popcorn-fantasy book. The magic system is loosey-goosey and sometimes acts as a deux ex machina. We all have fun and we don’t think about it too much. But more often than not, a magic system that isn’t well thought out can really pull me out of a story. Similar to how a lot of plots don’t work in a world with cell phones (leading movie writers to come up with contrived reasons for them not to work), it can be frustrating to have magic without limits and yet not a perfect world. But Sanderson gives you magic with limits. In the Mistborn world it involves ingesting of metals and an entire economy revolving around this (including a key bunch of plot points). Not only do the metals run out as they’re used, but using too much at once has consequences to the user. This means that we can enjoy our characters’ superhuman feats, but also recognize there’s a timer – like running out of Mario’s star ability right as you run straight into a goomba. Yes, there are some elements of a chosen one, but that’s also a trope that Sanderson is playing with quite a bit in this story so it’s not as bothersome as it has been in other narratives. Additionally, the magic in this book is mostly based around physics and that leads to the need for characters to THINK about how they use their powers, again, making it a more fun romp than a traditional magic story.

Finally, there are the characters. There can be good stories without great characters as was often the case in Golden Age science fiction. But great characters can take a story over the edge – especially when you’re doing a heist plot. The main chunk of this book is like Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy, early industrial setting. What makes those kinds of plots fun is the characterizations of all the experts that have to come together to pull off the heist. Vin is the story’s main character, but there are others who are also fleshed out as the story goes on, even getting POV chapters or paragraphs. Sanderson both makes use of archetypes and also deconstructs and reconstructs some tropes around these archetypes to good use for the story, suspense, and plot twists. Vin and (view spoiler) see the most character growth and while I’m sure a cynical reader could poke holes in their characterizations, they grow pretty realistically based on what happens in the story and their growth is rewarding.

Very highly recommend, even if you are not the typical fantasy person. This is much more of an urban fantasy that might take place in a Victorian England-type setting and the people with powers move around the world the same way you do when playing Assassin’s Creed. It really is a lot of fun.

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Review: Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

Superman: The Unauthorized BiographySuperman: The Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I already knew almost all of this; well, the outline, anyway. I’ve been reading comics on and off for three decades and ever since discovering sites like Comic Vine and reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods, it’s been easy to learn about plots and trends that took place when I wasn’t reading. (Or even before I was born) In fact, it’s almost requesite when reading Grant Morrison’s comic work if you want to understand all the references. And for the way that I and my infrequent collaborators on www.comicpow.com write, it’s important to understand the history of the characters or writers. But what Waldon provides is a great sense of context for all the trends in Superman’s history. He provides a through-line that shows how the trends that have buffeted Superman have swung pendulously. He also emphasizes the true essence of Superman and that any deviations from that essence are when changes go too far and end up rejected for they leave us with a hero that is Superman in name only.

My personal history with comics was definitely more in the Marvel pool. When I first started while in Elementary school, Marvel was just more appealing to me. I had seen reruns of the old Fleisher Superman cartoons and I was an avid fan of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animate Series. But I didn’t get into DC comics until just before the New 52 via Gotham City Sirens and Scott Snyder’s Detectic Comics run. (During this time I also discovered and became a HUGE fan of Image Comics via Saga, Chew, and others) Then it was New52 which eventually grew stale with me. (I will credit Dr Chrisy Blanch’s MOOC with introducing me to the original Seigel and Schuster conception of Superman and contrasting it with Mark Waid’s Birthright origin story) So Waldon’s book definitely provided me with lots of details I wasn’t familiar with and really made me appreciate the persistence of the hero often derided as the Blue Boyscout.

Whether, like me, you’re a comic fan or you just know Superman via his presence in American (and, probably, world) culture – Waldon’s decade-by-decade history of Superman will provide you with insights into why he has survived so long.

PS Thanks to my younger brother, Daniel, for gifting me this book for my birthday a couple year ago.

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Review: Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein: Or the Modern PrometheusFrankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finally read Frankenstein. Coupled with Dracula a few years ago, I’ve now read both famous monster books. Even moreso than with Dracula, the book was a far cry from the popular conception of Frankenstein.

Things that are completely different:
-the monster is not created in a castle in a town of villagers -> it’s done in a college dorm
-therefore no pitchforks and no Frankenstein defending his monster -> he regrets bringing him to life immediately after doing so
-there is no Igor -> Frankenstein keeps the secret of the monster to himself for the entire book
-the monster doesn’t roar or speak in caveman-speak -> he speaks more eloquently than anyone you know today

And probably some other things I forgot.

You know how you hear that books are a product of their times? That’s why Holden Caufield just seems like a spoiled brat or why Huck Finn’s always using the n-word. Well, boy-howdy is Frankenstein a product of its time.

Ways in which it’s super Victorian:
-the language among fellows rings to my modern ears as if Shelley is writing Yaoi fiction.
-Frankenstein gets super sick every time he’s stress -to the point where he spends 3 or 4 chunks of the book unconscious
-Frankenstein creates the monster and then perceives him to be such a hideous monstrosity that he just wishes for him to go away
-Seriously, though – even as the monster murders people and people die being accused of murders the monster committed, Frankenstein just keeps wishing the monster will go away and leave him alone
-Everyone’s cool and encouraging about Frankenstein marrying his cousin who he grew up with as if she were his sister
-Everyone’s always writing letters to each other – in fact, the entire book is technically a letter from someone (not-Frankenstein) to his sister

Should you read it? I don’t know. There are many, including GR friends who’s literary opinions I respect who couldn’t get through the book. It’s paced VERY differently from what you’re expecting both because of how big Frankenstein is in pop culture and because of how Victorian the book is. It IS the first modern science fiction book, which is neat. And it was written by a woman — an untested author at that — which is also neat. I enjoyed it, but I’m not insisting that everyone should read it. So, there you go, a bit lukewarm, but that’s the book in a nutshell. (And I’m glad I read it as part of the Sword and Laser’s January pick)

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Review: Mad Tinker’s Daughter

Mad Tinker's Daughter (Mad Tinker Chronicles, #1)Mad Tinker’s Daughter by J.S. Morin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book I got via a bundle (either Humble Bundle or, more likely Story Bundle), not because I’m a pre-existing fan of Mr. Morin. This book continues in a universe Mr. Morin created, but starts a new series that that does not seem to require any knowledge of the prior one. He takes great advantage of the world of technology and has links at the beginning of the book to a web page that explains the key tenets of his universe.

This universe has people called “twinborn” who essentially share one consciousness in two bodies. Each of those bodies is in another dimension of the same planet. At least in this book, both versions of the planet have the exact same geography, but have different histories. In this book, one world seems like a steampunk version of an Earth-like planet. The other world is steampunk plus something akin to magic and the humans are slaves to a race of alien-human hybrids. (If those who relate the history are not unreliable narrators) We mostly follow Rynn/Madlin, the titular Mad Tinker’s Daughter. The interesting thing, given the title, is that we spend more time with the Rynn body and then Madlin one and Madline is the Mad Tinker’s Daughter.

Morin does a good job telling the story with the twinborn concept. The twinborn can remember things from one body to the other and can use that as a method of passing messages – as one example of how he uses this. He creates compelling characters and anyone looking for a strong female character will not be disappointed; Rynn/Madlin is a real hoot who doesn’t take crap from anyone. He also wonderfully fills in the details of the human slave world and it feels like a lived-in universe.

If you’re looking for steampunk that isn’t just in Europe or a European-like world, this one definitely pushes the boundaries of the genre in good ways.

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eBook Metadata

Clarkesworld Magazine has wonderful metadata for their issues and anthologies that requires little work from me:

Clarkesworld Magazine - great metadata
Clarkesworld Magazine – great metadata

Tor books had an awesome DRM-free policy that I love and that allows me to go to the ebook vendor of my choice. And they give away a free book every month as long as you agree to get some marketing emails from them. But their metadata is not so great:

Bad Metadata from Tor
Bad Metadata from Tor

Come on, Tor! You publish Science Fiction! Let’s get some better metadata on those ebook files!

New Food I cooked in August

Garden Report 2018

We’ve been growing plants and herbs at the house for a few years now (but not as many as I wish we had in retrospect). But, as far as I could find with a cursory search, I’d never done an end of summer summary of how the growing season went for us. I know there are still somewhere between a few weeks and a couple months before first frost, but I don’t expect anything to radically change between now and then.

This year we planted the following plants:

  • 3 x sweet basil (from a hardware store)
  • 3 x tomatoes (from a hardware store)
  • 2 x thai basil (from a hardware store)
  • 1 x thai basil (mother-in-law planted from some I bought at a grocery store)
  • 1 x rosemary (from a hardware store)
  • 1 x thyme (from a hardware store)
  • 1 x chili (from father-in-law)
  • 1 x mint (from in-laws)

The ones I planted were done around the beginning f the planting season – around when they started being sold at a hardware store (I honestly can’t remember if this year it was Home Depot or Lowes). The ones from my in-laws were around mid-July. We also had mint in the front yard (planted last year) and some fig trees and a persimmon tree that have been with us for around 5-6 years at this point.

So, how did it go this year? Let’s start with the failures and move our way up.

The biggest failure: the front yard mint. Once upon a time it grew so prodigiously that a groundhog thought it made a great place to hide. I was giving away mint at work so it wouldn’t go to waste. Then we had two things back to back from which it has never recovered: a power-washing of our house’s walls with some kind of “organic” soap and the need to dig up the area around it to put some rocks near the porch to stymie future groundhogs. Since then we get maybe one stalk. There are two possibilities – one is that the front yard tree has grown so large that not enough sunlight reaches the area and the other is that I need to put more nutrients into the soil. Or a combination? Or neither? I haven’t really nerded out about horticulture like I have with cooking, computers, and photography. This year I think we got 3 leaves. Pathetic.

One of the tomato plants
One of the tomato plants

Next up were the tomatoes. Every time I talk to anyone else who grows tomatoes they always say they get more tomatoes than they know what to do. Never the case with me. Despite watering the plants twice a day, after their first time flowering, they tend to falter. Right now they barely have any leaves doing well. Over the three plants I harvested MAYBE 12 tomatoes.

 

Sweet Basil
Sweet Basil

About somewhere in the middle is the sweet basil. Being able to go out to the garden to grab it whenever we wanted to make a red sauce or salad was the impetus to start our garden in the first place. Just like the tomatoes, it seems to need lots of water. (Although when we had a straight week of rain, that seemed to be way too much water and the plants seemed to respond badly to that as well) Unlike the tomatoes we’ve had a fairly decent harvest. We never seem to get the enormous basil bushes or two-foot tall plants I always read about, but we seem to mostly have about as much basil as we need at any one time. I might prefer four plants next year and just get creative if things get a little too bountiful. Overall, this is our first successful set of plants on this list.

thyme
thyme

Then we have a tie between thyme and rosemary. With barely any maintenance they’ve both grown beyond my expectations. It may help that recipes for free rosemary and thyme are relatively rare. But I do like how much I get out of it without very much work at all. I may make use of it along with some of the mint for some lamb before the summer grilling season ends. (Not that the end of the season really stops me) I’d like to get one rosemary and one or two thyme plants next year. Fresh thyme just tastes so much better than dried.

rosemary
rosemary

 

mint
mint

Another tie between the backyard mint and chilis. For having been planted so late in the year, both are giving good yields. And, I’ve already harvested some mint before when I had some summer rolls. Will definitely go for a pot or two of mint next year. As for the chilis – my chili needs tend to be very small. A couple poblanos here and there. May a habanero for a recipe. It doesn’t make sense for me to grow any. But if my father-in-law wants to “sublet” some growing space again next year it’s no big deal.

chilis
chilis

 

The winner of the backyard plants is also the one I’m growing for the first time this year: thai basil. Much less fussy about water than basil and the leaves don’t get too much smaller if you let the flowers grow. It has grown so much, that my mother-in-law split some off from one of the plants and replanted it. I wanted to have some on hand because every once in a while we just up and decide to make some phở or other dish and to get thai basil we have to do a 30 minute round trip to the asian market. So I just wanted to have some outside. It’s been more than worth the time and money.

thai basil
thai basil

As for the trees, the fig trees seemed poised to produce a lot this this year, but then we had a freak dip in temperature early in the summer that seemed to kill off a lot of the flowers. It’s been a relatively low yield year for the figs. By contrast, the persimmon tree is producing so many that some are falling to the ground to decay.

 

So, for next year I’d like to do:

  • 1 x tomato – the wife wants to see if we can figure out yield issues
  • 4 x sweet basil
  • 1-2 x thyme
  • 1 x rosemary
  • 2-3 x mint
  • 2 x thai basil

 

I’d also like to do some research and see if I can figure out why the mint isn’t growing in the front garden. Also, and this is quite possibly not going to happen this year, I’d like to toy around with building a gadget to measure soil moisture and see if that can help with the more finicky plants.

The Kids at the Park

Three kids; Three Moods
Three kids; Three Moods

Funny thing about this is that I could say this reflects their moods, but really only Stella is being genuinely Stella. Usually you can’t catch Sam without a smile on his face (although he *is* going through the whiny 2 year old phase), and Scarlett’s the most neutral.