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: Beyond Lies the Wub

Beyond Lies the WubBeyond Lies the Wub by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As expected from a Philip K Dick book, that was trippy. Talky in the style of golden and silver age science fiction, but I have a fondness for the style as some of my first science fiction exposure was in that style.

Not a bad plot, it’s a quick read and available free from Project Gutenberg.

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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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Review: Sex & Violence

Sex & ViolenceSex & Violence by Jimmy Palmiotti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent Humble Bundle featured a sampler for Jimmy Palmiotti’s Paperfilms indie publisher. I was intrigued and went to the site where one can buy DRM-free versions of the books. Pulp is a lot of fun and it has a long history with comics so I figured I’d check it out.

Indeed, this is some grade-A pulp. Two stories are contained within and both contain sex and violence. The first is a Taken-esqu romp through the seedy part of Portland The second is an homage to Rear Window.

There isn’t anything groundbreaking here, but if you want some good old-fashioned pulp, it’s not a bad place to get some.

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Review: The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Over on the Cosmere subreddit (one of the good ones in which most people are very nice and just getting together to geek out on something), when I finished The Final Empire they warned me that The Well of Ascension was kind of stationary – not as action-packed or information-heavy as the first book. I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As I’ve remarked countless times, most trilogies have a first entry that kind of stands alone and the second one ties strongly into the third one. (EG The Matrix, The Hunger Games)

That said, this was a very rewarding book for a number of reasons. First of all, Elend, Sazed, and Vin grow as people. They went through a lot in book 1 and the relative stationary plot in book 2 allows them to process what they went through and grow. Second, Straff Venture is elaborated upon as a person. He’s still mostly a 1-dimensinal villain, but he was a fascinating character to read. I can’t remember if the guy who plays the Lannister Patriarch died in real life, but that would be an awesome actor for Straff Venture. Third, the stationary pace allows for more learning of the world. We get to learn a lot about the Kandra and are introduced to the Koloss. We learn more of the Terris breeding program. We even possibly learn where the first allomancers came from. Zane is also a great tragic character. (view spoiler)

Once again, due to his great abilities and strong use of alpha and beta readers, Sanderson has produced a very tightly plotted story where no detail is wasted. The BIG reveal at the end with Sazed coming from something planted right at the beginning of the book was as great as any Greek tragic prophecy. Everything follows from something planted earlier in the story. It makes anxious to get to the end of the trilogy to see how this extends to the trilogy as a whole. (view spoiler)

If you are into Science Fiction and Fantasy books because you love the world building – you love things like the Simarrilion and GRRM’s histories of Westeros written as if by Westerosi historians – you’ll enjoy this chapter of Mistborn Era 1. If you’re just here for allomantic carnage – there’s some of that, but it really is full of history and political maneuvering.

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Review: Chester 5000 XYV: Isabelle & George

Chester 5000 XYV: Isabelle & George (Chester 5000 XYV, #2)Chester 5000 XYV: Isabelle & George by Jess Fink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought the first book was a great example of how erotic fiction could also be a work of art. Jess Fink did so much with so little. Despite a lack of dialog, a great story was told and titillation was had.

This one builds on the last and goes in a slightly different direction. The first book is an artful story of love. This book attempts to do more and so while it loses the beauty in simplicity of the first book, it gains in demonstrating how a complex story can be told without words. (and also be erotic)

The story is mostly a prequel, but the ending does take place after the first book. It does fill in a bit more about why the original protagonist was so tired.

If you liked the first one, you’ll like thit one.

disclaimer: I was a Kickstarter backer on this book

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Review: Chester 5000 XYV

Chester 5000 XYVChester 5000 XYV by Jess Fink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The old cliche is that no one watches porn for the story. But books and comics have always had the ability to be more cutting edge; perhaps because the budget is so much smaller, making the stakes lower.

Somehow, Jess Fink elevates things in Chester 5000 XYV. It starts off with the unusual setting of steampunk Victorian times. While I’m sure tons of erotic fiction has been written to take place in Victorian times, it’s still a fascinating period considering the attitudes of gender roles and sex at the time. But what I think really makes this book special is it’s lack of dialog. There’s something special about a silent comic that requires extra emotion to be expressed with half of what makes up a comic missing.

Outside of that, there’s the story which tells the tale of newlyweds who seem to be sexually incompatible. It’s a story that serves as more than just the motivator for the sex, it is also a story about the need for better communication in a story with dialog. And, for extra fun, it had the classic question of whether robots can love and be like humans.

I can think of a few Goodreads friends who would probably enjoy this book – like Karen B. But if you’re not afraid of dirty pictures, it’s a great, fun little story.

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Just switched to Twenty Nineteen Theme

I’m not sure I like how the main blog page looks. While it seems to copy something like Ghost or Jekyll (some of the WordPress competitors popular among the technical set), It has something of an unfinished look to it. I do really like the way individual posts look, particularly when they have a featured image set. And, to some degree, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and other sites – users are much more likely to land on a blog post than on the main blog page. But right now I’m not sure I’m happy with the theme. I may switch back early next week. If I stick with Twenty Nineteen, I’ll make my usual post about changing themes that contains some screenshots to remember how the blog looked with Twenty Sixteen.

Review: Amberville

AmbervilleAmberville by Tim Davys
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the top five weirdest books I have ever read. It takes place in a world of stuffed animals, but that has both almost no bearing on the story and is key to the main plot. What I mean is that it’s never revealed that actually they’re toys in a toystore or a messed up version of the 100 Acre Woods. The fact that they are stuffed animals is not part of some plot twist. (The thought that it might be a twist kept distracting me the entire time trying to find out the clue) But at the same time, the entire plot of the book, which in a way I don’t wish to spoil, revolves around life and death depends entirely upon the fact that, as stuffed animals, they can’t be killed in the ways that we can.

Contributing to the strangeness of the book is the fact that it shifts from omniscient 3rd person to first person POVs in various chapters. Two main characters are always in first person and a few auxiliary characters are in first person. But the bulk of the main protagonists have 3rd person omniscient POVs. Part of the trick there is that it’s generally assumed that 3rd person narratives are reliable narrators. But it eventually becomes clear that some of the first person chapters are unreliable narrators. And the reasons for the unreliability are quite varied.

Speaking of which, the narrative winds back and forth between the present and past, filling in little details here in there and eventually revealing an almost Fight Club level twist partway through the book.

It’s a meditation on the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves. It considers whether there is redemption or whether people are just evil or good. Church and state and power are examined. Hero worship. It’s a dense book for so strange a premise that I thought would be mined for humor.

If you want something different; perhaps something Weird (as in the genre) – you should give this a shot. And push through the seemingly cookie cutter-ish first few chapters until it flips you around and makes you start questioning everything.

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