Review: Eden M51

Eden M51Eden M51 by G.R. Paskoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recieved this book in exchange for a review (I think – I can’t remember, but I know it was something I either got for review or as a free prime read-ahead book)

This book combined a few things I enjoy: space sci-fi, religion, first contact, and thriller mysteries. Overall the combination works well. Paskoff does a good job nesting the mysteries so that the reader is still discovering new truths about the plot at the 95% mark. I also appreciate that Paskoff knows his strengths and weaknesses and so does fade to black sex scenes rather than subjecting us to potential entries to the awkward sex scenes article the guardian puts out every year.

There is a plot point that appears to borrow from a CS Lewis series and I like the way Paskoff rolls with it.

Since it’s a mystery, I don’t want to get into too many plot points. But I will mention that I think Paskoff did a good job of building up even many of the smaller characters. The reader does end up feeling strongly about what happens to them.

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Review: Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes

Truckers: The First Book of the NomesTruckers: The First Book of the Nomes by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While this book started off kind of slowly, it does eventually pick up and get pretty darn interesting. The story begins with the last of the nomes making a desperate play to try and leave their lives behind because they’re in danger of going extinct. The lack of nomes doesn’t leave them with enough “manpower” to hunt or keep predators away. They end up at a department store and discover that thousands of nomes live there.

At that point the plotting picks up and the story becomes a satire of blindly following religion in the face of opposing proof, a satire of politics, and a fish out of water story. There are lots of cute jokes around what the nomes have interpreted about human culture since they’re unable to understand humans. If you remember Disney’s The Little Mermaid – think about the way Scuttle describes the human artifacts to Ariel.

The book eventually drops its plot twist: (view spoiler).

I didn’t find it as funny or well-plotted as his Discworld books, but it was only his second attempt at a YA book. And Nation was awesome, if not comical at all.

Give it a shot if you’re a Pratchett completionist. I think it eventually redeems itself, but I wouldn’t recommend that you go out of your way to read it.

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Review: Specials

Specials (Uglies, #3)Specials by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of Tally Youngblood is over. At least, the Extras chapters that were included at the end of this book seemed to suggest it was a kind of epilogue to the Tally Trilogy.

I didn’t like this book as much as the the first two. The thing is, I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. Westerfield certainly writes great chapter-ending cliffhangers. This is probably one of the fastest completion times of any books I’ve read this year. It pulled me in enough that I spent the last few nights reading for half an hour before passing out asleep. Yet, as a whole it didn’t pull me in. My pop-psychology studies have warned me that trying to put a finger on why you like or dislike something tends to end up with your brain making up a plausible answer that isn’t necessarily the right answer. But, I guess if I had to put my finger on it it’s that some of the wins like (view spoiler) felt a little unearned after all the animosity between them. The book, for all its setup (especially if you include Pretties) seems a little rushed at the end.

That said, there was a lot to recommend about this book. More than the other two books, it really does a great job of making the case that there is no perfect society. We often read these dystopic books in which it’s implied that everything will be awesome if society can lift the yoke and become like us. And that ignores that we’ve got a lot of bad stuff going on even among our time of great personal freedom. Westerfield shows both the positive and negative aspects of Tally’s world, our world, and the potential new world. In fact, Tally’s final chapter is a thesis about still needing some checks on freedom.

In world building, it’s fun to see Westerfield make a nod to another SF staple – grey goo. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a possible human-made destructive scenario where we make self-replicating nano-machines that go awry and replicate over the entire world, consuming it all for the resources to replicate. Even though it’s mention in the other two books, this book also really brought home the fact that the world has reverted to city-states in the sense of Ancient Greece.

In other random things, while Shay and Tally fail the Bechdel Test (the source of all their friction is conflict over a boy), I did think it work to convey how at that age (they’re 16 – we’ll return to that later) relationships with those you’re attracted to can destroy your platonic relationships. Speaking of relationships, I thought the Tally/Zane arc was a good, if heightened, example of caring for someone who had once had all their faculties, but was now a little more frail. (Think of someone going through alzheimer’s or getting into a paralyzing accident) I also enjoyed the interesting body modifications we see late in the book.

In things I wasn’t quite a fan of, there was the cutting. I was a pretty straight-laced kid. No drugs or booze or cutting. I was a fair deal more religious then so most of my internal drama came from the tug of war of wanting to mess around with girls and finding a way to square that with the man upstairs. So I don’t know what goes through the mind of those who are or have been cutters. (or even if it’s offensive or demeaning to put their mental state into such a trivial word – cutter) But for a YA book I was left unsure of how I felt about Tally getting into a higher mind state from her cutting. I’m not into censorship. And I think kids and teens tend to be smarter about things than we give them credit. But it made me feel weird. Maybe that’s just an artifact of being older/being a parent. The other thing that was slightly odd was that Tally’s naked a lot in the latter half of this book. And that probably wouldn’t have been as squicky had the book not constantly reminded me that she was 16. So…yeah…..

But talking about 16, I think that was one thing that threw me off on this trilogy. Tally does and goes through a LOT and I think only a year or so has passed. When she has that thought somewhere near the end it through me for a bit of a loop. So she went from the uglyville to the smoke prettytown to specials in the span of a year? Plus all the stuff that’s happened (that I don’t want to spoil) in the cities since the second book. It seems a bit much.

Overall, I think it was a good ending to Tally’s story. She has some good personal growth. The world is different, but it’s not like suddenly everything’s rainbows and unicorns. It’s not my favorite ending to a trilogy, but it’s not bad and I’m glad I went on that hoverboard ride.

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Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, I’m late to this series. There’s 7 books out of a planned 9 (plus novellas). There’s a TV show that I hear the authors love, despite its deviations from the books. (I haven’t seen it yet) I heard an interview on Sword and Laser with the two men who make up James S.A. Corey and the series intrigued me; especially the part where the first book was a noir detective story. I LOVE those. Plus I’ve really been getting into working-man-in-space stories since many of our SF stories are about the best of the best (or people destined to become best of the best). JSAC makes a reference to Alien in an interview added to the end of this book and I agree with that.

Just like George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones (who is also mentioned in the post-story interview) this book switched POV chapters and has opening and closing chapters with POVs who aren’t main POV chapter characters for the rest of the book.

I really enjoyed this book and I thought JSAC did a great job of balancing heroics with realism. Yeah, it’s a heroic tale in which the protagonists are mostly great and the enemy is mostly evil. But there are important shades of grey as well as a world that operates realistically in the way it deals with news. In 2017’s Fake News and so on era, this book even hits harder than it did when first published.

I want to leave you with this quote I loved from the epilogue because I love the honesty of how death so dramatically changes our memories:

“He was a good man,” Holden said.
“He wasn’t,” Fred said. “But he did his job. And now I’ve got to go do
mine.”

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Review: To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History

To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment HistoryTo Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History by Lawrence Levy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this book would probably pair quite well with Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, although I haven’t read that one. If it’s about the movies they were making at the same time that this book takes place, that’d be brilliant. If it’s also about management, that wouldn’t be horrible – at the very least it would be told from a different point of view – from that of an insider. This book is about how Steve Jobs tapped Lawrence Levy to be the CFO of Pixar in its darkest hour. Levy then leads the company through a series of situations that without a combination of his skill and some luck would have left us in a poorer cultural state.

I came to this book already knowing the general outline of Pixar’s history because I’m an animation geek. But I had no idea of the many leadership obstacles it took to get there. In this book I learned of the original deal Pixar and Disney had and how it would have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. It was also interesting to see how Steve Jobs was moderated by Levy, but also provided a backbone for Levy in negotiations.

It’s a bit light on the struggles of creating movies from a story standpoint, but it’s very strong on details of how they created a company that is equal parts technology company and movie studio.

The ending reveals that the entire thing has to do with Buddhism, but I won’t spoil how it all goes together.

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Review: Milk Street: The New Home Cooking

Milk Street: The New Home CookingMilk Street: The New Home Cooking by Christopher Kimball
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you know by now, I like my recipes to have introductions. These can serve many purposes. They can introduce an unfamiliar recipe, contain a bit of biography, or explain different techniques the author has tried so that as you improvise you don’t repeat mistakes unnecessarily. Chris Kimball does all of that and also has some ideas about replacing ingredients if you can’t find the ingredients he’s talking about.

The thesis of this cookbook is that there isn’t ethnic cooking anymore. There’s just cooking. You cook whatever you want from wherever in the world it originates. He takes a lot of skills he learned at America’s Test Kitchen and tends to go for simplicity over authenticity as long as the taste is preserved or improved. So if a recipe traditionally takes 4 hours and he found a way to do it in 1 hr while still tasting good, he tells you how to do that.

This is a very global book so this isn’t the place to go to for recipes that are traditional Americana fare. There are other cookbooks for that. This cookbook is Kimball introducing America to world cooking while taking advantage of our cooking techniques, tools, and easy-to-find ingredients. I noted many recipes I’d like to try as a window into other cuisines.

If you’re an adventurous cook who likes the ATK style (since Kimball was there for a long time), this is a great cookbook for you.

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Review: Project Smoke: Seven Steps to Smoked Food Nirvana, Plus 100 Irresistible Recipes from Classic (Slam-Dunk Brisket) to Adventurous (Smoked Bacon-Bourbon Apple Crisp)

Project Smoke: Seven Steps to Smoked Food Nirvana, Plus 100 Irresistible Recipes from Classic (Slam-Dunk Brisket) to Adventurous (Smoked Bacon-Bourbon Apple Crisp)Project Smoke: Seven Steps to Smoked Food Nirvana, Plus 100 Irresistible Recipes from Classic (Slam-Dunk Brisket) to Adventurous by Steven Raichlen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everything you ever wanted to smoke, plus a bunch of tips. Very clear guidelines on the tools you need and what food to buy. A great intro paragraph or two on why Raichlen likes this food and why his recipe works. Also, sometimes some alternate ways to cook – like grill vs smoker or hot vs cold-smoking. Note, this one is not for tyros. Newbies would be better served by Raichlen’s BBQ Bible or Meathead’s book: Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling

If I had to give it one fault it’s a call for smoking with hay without explaining what kind or where to get it. (Or maybe I blanked out while reading that section) And the internet is no help it’s either people saying they think it would stink to high heaven or that restaurants are starting to use it. Also, went to a farm and they only sell straw – is that ok? Book doesn’t answer that.

Overall, it’s a wonderful companion to his PBS show of the same name. It’s a great BBQ Smoking cookbook and I have added a lot of recipes to my personal wiki.

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Review: Cook It in Cast Iron: Kitchen-Tested Recipes for the One Pan That Does It All

Cook It in Cast Iron: Kitchen-Tested Recipes for the One Pan That Does It All (Cook's Country)Cook It in Cast Iron: Kitchen-Tested Recipes for the One Pan That Does It All by America’s Test Kitchen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve only made a couple recipes from the book, but I love a lot about it. I like the technical section that opens the book. I really like all the descriptions that preface each recipe. It gives you an idea of what they tried and how it screwed them up – key since everyone I know who’s a really good cook improvises. So why end up making a mistake they already made? It also gives context to the recipes and where they come from. I added a good chunk of the recipes to my to-cook personal wiki. I’ll adjust the stars later if the recipes turn out to be hard to follow – but that usually isn’t the case when it’s something from America’s Test Kitchen. (This is from the Cook’s Country side of the house)

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Review: Weber’s Big Book of Burgers: The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Backyard Classics

Weber's Big Book of Burgers: The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Backyard ClassicsWeber’s Big Book of Burgers: The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Backyard Classics by Jamie Purviance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What it says in the title and more. It’s burgers, dogs, etc. All the stuff you think of when you think of prototypical non-nerdy American grilling. Lots of good recipes with lots of variation – including lots of variations on veggie burgers that aren’t mushroom-based. There are a few even I (an avowed carnivore) would like to try. If I had to fault the book it would be that, unlike Meathead, America’s Test Kitchen, or Milk Street – there’s no context to the recipes. You just have recipe after recipe. No mention of why the ingredients work or where Jamie Purviance got the recipes from. I’ve grown to really appreciate this context and how it helps me appreciate the recipe and understand how it was put together so that I understand how best to modify it as I go through iterations.

That said, I added just under half the recipes in the book to my to-try cooking list on my personal wiki. I’m excited about the variations and having some guidance on where to go. I’ve done some experimentation with burgers before, but the varieties are so vast I haven’t quite known where to go with them. And with a trend towards eating healthier as we get older, I don’t have tons of opportunities to try out variations if one of them sucks. So a curated list like this one from an author I can trust is a boon. Who knows, we may even find out next favorite burger in here, supplanting Meathead’s Diner Burgers as the current king of burgers in our house.

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Review: Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades–Bastes, Butters & Glazes, Too

Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades--Bastes, Butters & Glazes, TooBarbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades–Bastes, Butters & Glazes, Too by Steven Raichlen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Raichlen has put together a great book on all the things that add flavor to our grilled, BBQ’d, and smoked foods. As is his style, he adds a biography for each of the recipes that explains where it comes from or where he discovered it and what it goes well with. He also includes a few recipes that include both the meat and the accompaniment. I wish he had more pointers to recipes from Project Smoke or the Barbecue Bible to help provide more illustrations of what goes well together. A lot of it was “this goes well with grilled beef”, but I wish I had just a few more examples of which flavors go well together. Especially when talking about bastes and butters that would likely be combined with rubs, seasonings, or other flavorings. Speaking of which, he has lots of sections with definitions and I now know the difference between those.

I think this is a great accompaniment to someone who’s already a grill master or pit master to help add some creativity to their traditional output. It’s not a how-to book like his other books (because those other books already exist), it’s a book to expand your horizons.

Final note, it’s been interesting to compare Raichlen to Meathead. Raichlen was classically trained in Paris (unless I’m misremembering) and gravitated towards BBQ recipe authorship. Meathead was a reporter who moved towards book writing. Meathead’s recommendations come with scientific backing while Raichlen’s are rooted in a mix of trial/error and classical recipes. They compliment each other well although I tend to err on the side of Meathead when they disagree since he and Dr Blonder seem to really love the scientific method.

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Review: Raichlen’s Burgers

Raichlen's BurgersRaichlen’s Burgers by Steven Raichlen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I like about this book is that Raichlen gives a little biography about each burger recipe. I’ve got tons of new recipes to try. I also like that he’s got some recipes for sides and sauces at the end. It’s not as comprehensive as some of his other books, but I got it free in exchange for getting his newsletter, so I wasn’t expecting too much.

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Review: Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop CultureMasters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once again Will Wheaton knocks it out of the park as narrator.

Kushner does a great job telling the story of The Johns who created Doom. I was just a kid when those games were coming out and while my dad didn’t mind us playing Castle Wolfenstein and Doom, my mom wasn’t cool with it. So most of this was on my periphery and it was great to read the history of how transformative this game was and what a genius Carmack was with his engine work. I wish the book was an update version that covered the VR work Carmack has done recently – it ties in perfectly with the threat Kushner was pushing about VR and Snow Crash and how Doom was the first step in that direction.

Anyway, this book is a great history of how The Johns changed video games with awesome narration.

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Review: The Mongoliad: Book One

The Mongoliad: Book One (Foreworld, #1)The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book grew on me slowly. At first I was intrigued, but wasn’t hooked. But eventually I grew to really love both the Gansukh/Lian chapters and the Korean/Japanese fighters’ chapters. The historical fiction is Neal Stephenson at his best and I did eventually enjoy the chapters with Cnan and the Shield-Brethren.

To some degree the western chapters are a medieval road trip/quest story. The Gansukh chapters are a palace intrigue story. They don’t really overlap other than both have Ogedai Khan as a central character.

So, there isn’t much yet to say about this story as it appears to be progressing extremely slowly and not only is there not a resolution to anything in this book, it ends on several cliffhangers. I’ll read the rest of the trilogy (which I got for $0.99 each on sale on Amazon), but at this point in time I’m not dying to get to them.

Stephenson has done a good job, but I’m more of a SF than a historical fiction person – especially when it comes to this part of the world.

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Review: Golden Son

Golden Son (Red Rising, #2)Golden Son by Pierce Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To be fair to Mr. Brown, I find it hard to fairly rate second books in a trilogy. They have to both be the middle part of what is essentially one large story split into 3 books (or pdfs or epubs) and also as a standalone book have a beginning, climax, and resolution. So this tends to leave them a little unfulfilling. I’ve noticed (and mentioned in a few reviews) that with most modern trilogies the first book is more of a complete book in order to get the reader hooked into the series. The second one seems to be disappointing because it can’t resolve anything or else there wouldn’t need to be a third book. So this book might have a lower rating than I would rate the trilogy as a whole.

That said, it’s been at least 2 years (if not 3) since I listened to the audiobook of Red Rising. So I’d lost a lot of the meaning of the relationships between the characters. And that’s KEY to this book. Really, to the series as a whole. Darrow is a man with no home. He’s playing the politics/civil war game which means he doesn’t know who he can trust. There are people in every aspect of his life who are lying to him and/or spying against him. And, as with any sufficiently complex spy narrative, there are double agents everywhere. So his agonizing over who to trust and who to keep at arms’ length is the core of this book. This is, of course, the problem with a serialized story. Some would have gone back to the first book, but I’ve got 273 books on my To-Read list. I don’t have time for that.

That said, this was a good book. While 3/5 is slightly better than the middle (2.5), the hover-text for 3 stars on Goodreads does say “I liked it”. And that’s true – I did. Brown does a good job furthering Darrow’s story and continuing to complicate matters for him. And the ending of this book finds a way to both be predictable and a complete shock at the exact same time. (Although there’s some phrasing that tips you off right at the end – instead of describing a box as containing something, it says it’s big enough to contain it. And that was strange enough that I got it)

While my favorite thing about SF is learning all the ancillary details of the universe and how it works, I definitely enjoy Brown refraining from info-dumps. Instead you gain a huge insight into how the Golds control the Reds during a paragraph in which someone is describing how they would get the Reds to be more productive.

In fact, I came to a realization while reading the chapter on the Reds. Unlike many other dytopias I’ve read (eg The Hunger Games or The Girl with All the Gifts), the mining Reds don’t actually know they’re living a dystopic life. They know things are tough and so on, but it’s for a supposed purpose. Brown confirmed this realization when he has someone tell Darrow the same thing a few paragraphs later. And this puts Darrow in an interesting situation. In The Hunger Games Katniss knew she had the support of the disenfranchised in the districts. But in the Red Rising trilogy, Darrow does not really have any popular support for his TRUE cause. He has support from Golds for his military prowess. He has support from lowColors and Reformers for tweaking things and perhaps reducing the burden on lowColors. But no one outside the Sons of Ares knows his true purpose.

We’ll see where it all goes with Morning Star.

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Review: The Bloodline Feud (The Merchant Princes, #1-2)

The Bloodline Feud (The Merchant Princes, #1-2)The Bloodline Feud by Charles Stross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a free giveaway for Tor’s ebook club

This book checks a lot of boxes for me: thriller, science fiction, multiple universes, alternate histories. But I just couldn’t get into it as much as I wanted to. I think it was mostly around the way Stross writes his dialogue. I can’t quite figure out exactly what it is about it, but it just didn’t do it for me.

The plot twists were pretty good.

I’m never a huge fan of chapters where we don’t know WTF is going on and everyone’s being all cryptic. There were a few of those here. I’d rather either we know a lot more than the protagonists or know only what they know. But it wasn’t too hard to eventually figure out what was going on.

I did enjoy the universe building he did. It definitely felt as though he was one of those authors who builds out whole towns and economies we never see in the book, just to make sure he’s being thorough.

Not too much else to say. I did enjoy our protagonist being a literal kick-ass woman. I thought the journalist trope worked well for her as it gave her a reason to have good deductive reasoning skills around what was going on as well as a way of getting information out of people. She was, however, THIRSTY AF! I don’t ever think I’ve read a book with someone so constantly sprung outside of the strange, semi-erotica of Vagina Mundi. While it’s never explicit (that I can remember), you definitely know what’s up when she’s with her beau (pun intended).

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