Review: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, #1)The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to start off by thanking Tor.com for being DRM-free. It’s great to see a major publisher doing this.

With that out of the way, this was a massive story. It’s quite a different pace from everything I’ve read so far (Elantris and related stories, Warbreaker, Mistborn Era 1 and its Ars Arcanum stories). Mistborn, the previous longest story I’d read, was structured more like a traditional trilogy. The first book was satisfying on its own. The second one was mostly setup and the third one was the climax. With The Stormlight Archive being a 10 book series made up of two five-story arcs, this book was almost entirely setup. That’s not to say there wasn’t character growth, because otherwise it would have been a poor and boring story. Dalinar and Kaladin have quite a bit of growth. Syl surprised me although she’s still a bit to much mystery. Shallan and Szeth have fascinating storylines with insane reveals near the end. All the interludes are full of great characters. But in terms of the story, not too much happens – this is what kept it from being a 5 star book to me.

Minor spoilers: I really enjoyed Shallan and Jasnah as Sanderson uses them to explore both philosophy and religion in ways that are resonant.

Many have called this section of The Cosmere Sanderson’s Magnum Opus in the making and it’s certainly ambitious with the prologue to chapter one jump being 4500 years! At any rate, I made a list of some Sanderson parallels I’ve noticed so far that are mirrored in this book:

(view spoiler)

I’m extremely curious where this series goes and where The Cosmere as a whole goes. It appears that, with the stuff Hoid says, this is the key to The Cosmere. (Unless Sanderson’s saving that for Dragonsteel?) Sanderson continues to impress with great characterization and character growth and has matured in his writing of both men and women. Just don’t read this first because he’s so polished, lots of people have complained on reddit that reading this first makes his other Cosmere work seem dull in comparison.

One last spoiler: (view spoiler)

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Review: The Complete Cook’s Country Magazine 2017

The Complete Cook's Country Magazine 2017The Complete Cook’s Country Magazine 2017 by America’s Test Kitchen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Halfway through 2017 the magazine underwent a visual revamp to modernize the look. I think it works fairly well. What I continue to enjoy about Cook’s Country is the back half which is both educational and contains tailored sections – a recipe for 2, a one pan recipe, slow cooker, etc.

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Food I cooked for the First time in September

In September I tried out four new recipes. The grilled breakfast quesadillas were surprisingly great. An egg is cracked into a ring of cheese and topped with grilled bacon and cilantro. The cauliflower gratin was WAY too rich for just Danielle and I to finish it. But I could see it working well for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. The carnitas were a great indoor version. Finally, for the first time I grilled a full, in tact fish. My father-in-law had given me some sea bass he caught and I filled it with aromatics and then covered it in more herbs and aromatics after grilling. It was very, very good.


Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One (Ready Player One, #1)Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When it comes to my experience of this book, there are a few things that marred my enjoyment. When I first heard of it and didn’t know all the info about it I did by the time I actually read it, it sounded interesting and I added it to my To-read pile. Problem is, if I bought every book that caught my attention, I’d be broke. So things languish on there there for years. Meanwhile, I buy book bundles from Humble Bundle or Story Bundle (and not all of those or I’d be broke, too) because if they have authors or a theme I’m really interested in, it’s usually about a dollar a book. Both of these combined to make me enjoy this book less. On the former, everyone I know (mostly family) who’d read the book made a big deal about how it was definitely a book for me since it has video games and lots of 80s references. So a bit of over-selling there. Then, from the latter, I ended up with Massively Multiplayer in one of the book bundles. It was actually published a year before Ready Player One and, on a basic level, has the exact same plot. It even has the exact same Moral or Lesson at the end of the story. So when I decided to move Ready Player One to the top of my queue before the movies meant that everyone (not just book readers) would know the plot and it’d be too hard to keep from spoilers, I ended up reading an over-hyped book with a plot that was already stale.

Nowadays, it’s fashionable to poop on Mr. Cline’s writing or the story in general. That always happens to things that get a little too popular. But that’s not what this is. Yes, Cline disappointed me with the Art3mis reveal vs what I said in the status updates. But it’s a competently written YA book. (And that’s commendable. Writing isn’t easy – I’ve tried it and failed quite a bit) It’s just that the 80s stuff that everyone is losing their minds over is just window dressing to a plot that’s not original and that doesn’t have any interesting plot twists. (Again, if I’d read this when it came out instead of after reading Brandon Sanderson‘s awesome fiction with its great twists) It’s a meh story and frankly the mining of the 80s and 90s is getting tiresome. It must work for some people or Hollywod/publishers wouldn’t do it, but I don’t like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.

So if you haven’t read it yet and the movie hasn’t spoiled it for you and you haven’t read too much Game-Lit you might find it refreshing and fun. Otherwise, maybe don’t get on the hype train.

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Review: The Complete Cook’s Country Magazine 2016

The Complete Cook's Country Magazine 2016The Complete Cook’s Country Magazine 2016 by America’s Test Kitchen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve already made some recipes from this collection of all the 2016 issues. As usual, the test kitchen rocks. The few I didn’t like were recipes where I was challenging my tastes. The learning, 5 ways, dinner for two, and slow cooker sections are great ways to expand your skills. While I like both this and Cooks Illustrated, I do like that Cooks Country is in color.

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Review: Mistborn Adventure Game

Mistborn Adventure GameMistborn Adventure Game by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not a dice RPG gamer, but I did want to read the short story in here – “The 11th Metal”. It’s a prequel for the first book of the first Mistborn trilogy. That said, it’s definitely best not to read before having read the first book of the trilogy unless you want some spoilers. Actually, I think the best place for a reader would be to read it after the second book as the reader would be able to get even more out of it. Story-wise it’s in the category of the fan service prequel. There’s no reason to read it other than to see a main character from the first book before that character was good at their job. Nothing is revealed that wasn’t already sufficiently revealed in the first book. So it’s all fan-service fun. That said, if put together with revelations from the last book in the trilogy, it does raise some interesting questions.

For the RPG section, don’t read that part until you’ve read the whole first trilogy unless you don’t mind spoilers before reading a story.

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Review: The Hero of Ages

The Hero of Ages (Mistborn, #3)The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I cannot believe how well Sanderson made this entire trilogy fit together. Each book was amazingly plotted and, as a whole, the trilogy is so well put together. No part of the trilogy was wasted and each detail Sanderson provided was vital to the story as a whole. Some of the key plot points for this book went all the way back to the first chapters of the first book. The ending to this book would have had me flipping tables over and yelling from how well it all worked if everyone hadn’t been asleep in the house.

If I had one criticism, it would be that, due to what the plot needed, there was a lot of sitting around and our protagonists spent nearly the entire book separated. Again, it’s what this book needed to work so well, but in the moment it sometimes left me wondering when things were going to get going.

Still, all that sedentary time made it all that more dramatic when the snowball began to roll along the hill.

There’s so much more I could say here, but this trilogy fits together so well that I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll merely note that Elend’s character growth from book 1 to book 3 should be required study as part of either high school or college political science classes as an example of the differences between an idea ruler and the practicalities of rule. Also, what we learn of another ancient society here is fascinating in terms of being bound by rules and what that means in a crisis.

I have enjoyed all of Sanderson’s Cosmere work thus far, but I think he has really made me love Scadrial and I can’t wait to return to Misborn Era 2. For now, however, I’m following the recommended reading order at http://i.imgur.com/tnGVDoB.png and going onto the Stormlight Archive (at least after a quick pit stop at 2 of the Mistborn RPG manuals to read the short stories within). 1

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Review: The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election

The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 ElectionThe Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election by Malcolm Nance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The biggest weakness this book has is that the author was in a hurry to get it out before the elections were over because he assumed Americans make decisions based on being informed instead of based on emotions. If he’d waited a bit, not only would the book contain the outcome, but also some more recent revelations, like the Facebook and Twitter stuff.

Beyond that, the book is a good little romp through the activities of some hacker groups that CloudStrike (or one of the other security groups) have named with the suffix Bears. (EG: CozyBear) The author talks about the hacks in Estonia and Ukraine to set up their working patterns. Then shows how it matches the patterns going on in the US in 2016.

I got this book as part of a Humble Bundle and it’s not the reason I bought the bundle, but since I spent the money, I listened to it. The narrator does a good job, especially as he often has to read IP addresses and expand acronyms.

Whether you like the book is going to depend on a number of factors: are you into spy stuff? are you into computer security? would your sense of group affiliation be threatened by the suggestion that everything wasn’t on the up and up during the 2016 election? Do you feel schadenfreude in the face of the CIA attempts to affect elections during the cold war?

I found it to be a well-research book that just added to my feelings of sadness that the great information potential of the Internet has been so thoroughly corrupted. (Although the fact that I’m a history nut tempers that a bit – every information tech has been like this – eg most presses in the Gutenberg and Post-Gutenberg time period made their money printing pamphlets of opposing groups accusing their opponents of all kinds of stuff)

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Review: The Witch of Portobello

The Witch of PortobelloThe Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to avoid spoilers wherever possible, I even stay away from reviews and trailers for most movies and books. But in the last few years I’ve come to the conclusion that (with the exception of detective stories and murder mysteries) if a story is good, it will still be good if you know the ending. For example, any historical non-fiction book and even some historical fiction. This book is a great example that this can definitely be true. The reader learns in the first chapter that The Witch of Portobello is dead. The rest of the book is essentially the story of how she ended up dead. But knowing where the story is going does not detract from it. Au contrair, it actually leads to a kind of reverse mystery story.

This was a book I thought I would hate based on the description. A couple chapters in, I was sure it would be a 2 star book. But it grew and grew and grew on me until I couldn’t stop reading it.

What I like about the book most is the fact that the entire story is told from the point of view of people who knew the main character. The main character never gets a POV chapter and the hidden main character (the person interviewing those who knew the main character) only gets a chapter at the end. Of course, this creates a more compelling story because none of the POV characters is a reliable narrator. Each one is trying to make themselves look better to the interviewer as well as potentially lying to themselves consciously or unconsciously.

The mystical nature that made up a portion of the story wasn’t new to me. For the past 2-3 years I’ve been reading stories and novellas that spoke of similar occult themes – particularly Alan Moore’s From Hell. I think if you just view it as the journey the protagonist is taking, you can enjoy the story. If you try to take the mysticism seriously, it’s going to depend on your tolerance for New Age-y stuff whether this drives you away from the book or attracts you deeper into it. For me it was merely the protagonist’s journey and I didn’t concern myself with whether it was naive or deep or true or not.

Everything comes together to form a very neat story in which the reader is never certain what is true and what is exaggeration in a story about a very compelling life’s journey.

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Review: Best Mexican Recipes

Best Mexican RecipesBest Mexican Recipes by America’s Test Kitchen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once again, a great cooking tome by America’s Test Kitchen. Opens by explaining the Mexican pantry. Then recipes that are well-structured with great explanations. So far I’ve made one recipe and the family loved it. I can’t wait for it to warm up a bit as they have a lot of grill recipes in there (although it’s mostly indoor cooking)

If you want a mix of Tex-Mex and Authentic Mexican recipes, you can’t do better than America’s Test Kitchen. (Unless this is all old hat in which case there may be others better suited for you).

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Review: Caliban’s War

Caliban's War (The Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in 10 min – 1 hour chunks so maybe I missed something. But who the (expletive) is Caliban and why was this his war? (If it’s a spoiler don’t tell me. If it was (view spoiler) first name, you can gently remind me.

There are multiple times I found myself staying up so late I’d only get a few hours sleep before work because James SA Corey found a way to make this book even more action-packed and exciting than the first one. Perhaps that’s because this is the second book in a nonology instead of a trilogy. Or maybe it’s because of the introduction of such awesome characters as Crisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper along with more time with the amazing Alex. Seriously, I never knew political thrillers could be this great (and I already appreciated the genre), but I think Avasarala made it so great. And her magnificence made the twist in her plotline land even harder.

Someone, probably Dara since she’s more or less the only Goodreads friend/acquaintance who comments on my reviews, mentioned Holden falling further for her in this book. I can see that, especially as this book brings the rest of the crew to the fore when they were mostly sidelined for the Miller-Holden plot in book one. But I felt his redemption arc worked quite well and I thought Avasarala was the perfect person to call him on his naivete. Also, the introduction of the Rocinante Corporation. I also thought Fred dealt with him in a realistic way.

In fact, I think what made this book work so well for me was its realism within the bounds of a fictional universe that has to have some continuity for nine books. After what happened to Julie, Miller, and to a less extent Holden in the first book – the stakes were raised for this one. Again, acknowledging that a narrative is going to suffer from some Storm Trooper Academy riflery lessons on the part of the bad guys, I thought many of the twists and turns were handled realistically. It makes me scared for some of the neat-as-a-bow endings that some of the characters got. I wonder if it’s a fake-out, although the new menace to emerge at the end of the book may have sidelined the importance of the antagonists that we’ve seen up to this point.

I’m definitely continuing on with the series, even if I’m taking a break to read some of the books I already own while waiting to see if the series goes on sale when the new season of the TV show starts.

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2018 Cooking Update

It’s been 2.5 years since I discovered Amazingribs.com and Meathead when I was trying to figure out why my BBQ wasn’t as good as the best BBQ joints I’d visited. Last year I ordered the 2016 and 2017 Annuals from Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country as well as getting into Chris Kimball’s spin-off Milk Street. This year I continued my journey with the purchase of a bunch of cookbooks in a Humble Bundle sale as well as ATK’s Dinner Illustrated and Milk Street’s Tuesday Nights, both of which focus on weeknight meals that can be completed in 1 hour or less. I also began to take some steps towards being able to cook intuitively via Samin’s Salt Fat Acid Fire which I haven’t read, but I did see the Netflix show of the same name.


Grilling, BBQ, and Smoking

The prior 1.5 years were about learning my outdoor cooking techniques. There was a LOT I didn’t know about the science of outdoor cooking. Steve Raichlen and Meathead Goldwin were my tutors in this realm and dramatically increased the quality of the food I was cooking. But I was mostly still cooking the same food I always had – burgers, steaks, ribs, and pork shoulder. I did experiment here and there such as when I made prime rib on my kettle for Mother’s Day on my mom’s request, but that tended to be the exception, not the rule.

working on the Mother’s Day Prime Rib

This year was a year of expanding my repertoire. I didn’t do any new BBQ or smoking recipes in 2018, but I tried a lot of new grilling recipes. Here’s a list of what I made this year: Bacon & Egg Quesadillas, Kuwaiti Shrimp, St. Louis Pork Steaks, Grilled Bacon, Smoky Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Spicy Relish, Tacos al Pastor, Sea Bass, Fajita-flavored Fish Tacos, Curry-Spiced Tuna with warm black bean salad, ATK’s grilled chicken fajitas, Tandoori Style chicken, ATK recipe for chicken drumsticks, Mike’s Rib eyes with award winning rub, Bourbon Burger w with caramelized onions and dijon horseradish sauce, Texas Burgers, Tex-Mex Burgers, Two different bratwurst recipes, two different Italian sausage sandwiches, kielbasa spiedinis, and two different grilled cauliflower recipes!

America's Test Kitchen Beer Braised Bratwurst
America’s Test Kitchen Beer Braised Bratwurst

Of the new recipes I grilled this year, the biggest surprises were the various sausage recipes. Apparently, I’d always been served sub-standard bratwursts and italian sausages. But both Meathead and America’s Test Kitchen led me to great success with their various braised bratwurst recipes. ATK’s was more mustardy while Meathead’s was braised with BBQ sauce. 

Given how hard they are to grill, I was most proud of the seafood I grilled this year. I overcooked the tuna the first time around, but the second time it was great. And I’ve never enjoyed eating whole fish as much as I did when I grilled the sea bass filled with aromatics. Finally, it was great to learn how to grill shrimp without toughening it up.

Indoor Cooking

This year I continued to gain more confidence in the kitchen as well as use new tools to enhance my food. The best money I  spent this year was getting a grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. In fact, I’ve used it almost infinitely more for grinding pork than I have used it for baking. While many people like the “life hack” of using a food processor to grind meat – it just doesn’t yield the same results as using a grinder. It also saves me a ton of money since pork shoulder is about $1/lb at Costco while ground pork is $5/lb.

This year I made an incredible pound cake recipe (especially a lemony variant on the recipe), olive oil cake, meatball subs, Thai-style pork burgers, indoor burgers, Japanese-style breaded chicken cutlets with tonkatsu sauce, Za’atar chicken cutlets, cumin-crusted chicken thighs with cauliflower rice, chicken and cauliflower tikka masala, Japanese fried chicken, roast chicken with rosemary and garlic, roast chicken with lemon-thyme pan sauce, chicken enchladas with red sauce, Chiang Mai chicken, chicken mole poblano, pan roasted chicken breasts, fried chicken sandwiches, chipotle chicken tacos, southwestern chicken and biscuits, harissa roasted potatoes, hash browns, mushroom pork omelet, ground pork tacos, carnitas, pinchos morunos, Cuban style pork shoulder with mojo sauce, English muffins, donuts, corn tortillas, lemon-dill biscuits, heavy cream biscuits, Southern-style cornbread, beer batter cheese bread, ground beef enchiladas, picadillo, chili con carne, beef enchiladas, Georgian chicken soup, Korean pork and kim chi stew, beef and barley soup, french onion soup, chicken ramen, curry braised eggs, migas, sweet-and-spicy ginger green beans, roasted cauliflower with curry and mint, skillet roasted brussels sprouts with lemon and pecorino, brussels sprouts with garlic chips, brussels sprouts with bacon, semolina polvorones, peanut butter cookies, and oatmeal raisin cookies.

The breakout star was the southwestern chicken and biscuits. It is a favorite of both Danielle and I and we’ve made it about 4 times this year. It was also the year I gained lots of experience with soups and stews. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for a food category that I once shunned. I’m hoping to try many more during this winter season. It’s also been a good year for learning how to make authentic Mexican food and great quality Tex-Mex. The beef enchiladas have become a huge hit here, for example. Finally, I didn’t realize there could be so many ways to cook Brussels sprouts. There was nothing wrong with the way we used to just roast them in the oven. But all these different recipes allow us to take the same vegetable and gets lots of different flavor profiles so that it can compliment different dishes.

Cooking in 2019?

So what do I see for myself in 2019? Well, first of all, I’ve got a list of hundreds of dishes I’d like to try; so there is a lot of new food to try. I’d like to explore salads the way I explored soups this year. I’ve got 20 or so salad recipes I’m interested in. I want to push myself some more on the grill and BBQ. This year I added a lot of global recipes from Raichlen’s Planet BBQ and it’ll be interesting to try some of those recipes. I’m also hoping to get a rotisserie to explore how that changes things. Finally, I’d like to experiment with improvising in the kitchen. This year I bought some Za’atar specifically because there are a few Milk Street recipes that call for the herb mixture. But I’ve already started experimenting with adding a couple pinches to my salads to great results. I’ve also added it to some garlic bread and that’s been great. I want to start taking more starting points and creating dishes around that.

The only thing I know for sure is that the future is going to bring more cooking and more sampling of new, tasty recipes and sharing them with the people I love.

Review: The Secret History of Star Wars

The Secret History of Star WarsThe Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book upended the way I’d thought about the Star Wars movies and stories for the past 20 years. First of all, given George Lucas’ original intention of having an endless James Bond-like serialized series of movies removes any arguments I had about what Disney has been doing with what has frankly been a mostly neglected franchise (film-wise) since the first movie came out in 1977. Second, the book explains why Lucas changed his mind – a combination of his divorce draining him of money and the movies draining him of life. Third, and the biggest reason Kaminski wrote this book, it dismantles the legend of episodes 4-6 (as we now know them) having been the middle of a story that Lucas always had in his head. The truth is both better and worse; especially as we see other ways the story could have gone if he hadn’t been drained by the experience.

Finally, I listened to an audiobook read by Josh Robert Thompson and that is one VERY talented voice actor. He has voices for every quote in the book. I’m not going to say his voices would stand up to scrutiny side-by-side with the people he’s impersonating, but some of his voices are so good that I thought at first he was playing back interviews with the folks – particularly Lucas and Hamill.

The book whipsaws between fascinating and boring as Kaminski is as detailed as if this were his PhD thesis paper. So after a while the evidence can get tiresome to hear (especially when it’s repeated in different chapters), but it does make the book stand up to scrutiny in a way that it needs to when dealing with the Star Wars fandom. The only other criticism is that I wish the book had been updated with an epilogue post-Disney buyout. I know it doesn’t fit with his thesis, but I think it would have been a nice cherry on top after all the talk of movies 7-9 and what could have been.

I’m a passing Star Wars fan (loved 4-6, suffered through 1-3, and haven’t seen 7,8, or any of the side movies). If you like Star Wars anywhere from that much to being a true fan, I recommend the book to you and the audiobook is GREAT to listen to.

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