Book Reviews, June 2012

The Pride of Chanur, by C. J. Cherryh.  ☼☼☼.  Human first contact with aliens from the perspective of the aliens.  I really appreciated getting to watch from that perspective.  All too often the human is the main character in this situation, and he serves as the audience stand-in and spends most of the time confusedly asking tiresome questions and making condescending observations about how savage the aliens are, etc, etc.

However, as it is told from the alien’s view, certain things are not explained to us because the aliens take the knowledge for grated.  This is the difference between, say, writing “She opened the door,” and “She grasped the round doorknob, turning it until the latch retracted and allowed the door to swing freely on its hinges.”  The Pride of Chanur takes the former track every time, which means that I didn’t get any good explanations about how the ship’s electronics and propulsion worked.  As a result, the scenes involving the ship were pretty confusing.  That bothered me enough to bump the rating from four stars to three.

Deathless, by Catherynne Valente.  ☼☼☼.  I think Deathless would have made more sense if I’d come to it with a background in Russian folklore and mythology.  As I did not, I was never sure where the story was going (a little of never sure is nice and exciting; a lot of never sure is confusing).  I did like seeing the old stories play out against the background of communist Russia, though.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi.  ☼☼☼☼.  I posted a longer review in a separate entry, but it went down its own rabbit hole.  Which is fitting, I’ll admit, but not particularly helpful.  So, if there is an ideal audience for Redshirts, I’d say that it can be found in the intersection of people who like Star Trek: TOS and people who like Community.  Star Trek, because you’ll recognize the tropes.  Community, because that means that you’ve got a tolerance for meta.

The Serpent Sea, by Martha Wells.  ☼☼☼☼.  I liked it slightly less than I did The Cloud Roads, but not enough that I wouldn’t read any additional sequels.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein.  ☼☼☼.  I listened to it on audiobook, which wasn’t that great.  The main narrator paused in odd places, and occasionally there were clips of someone else reading a sentence or a phrase (which the first narrator messed up and wasn’t around to correct?).

Starship Troopers itself was sprawling.  It opened on a horrible scene, filled with troopers in mechanical suits lobbing ordinance around an alien city.  Objective: cause as much destruction as possible.  The main character quite enjoyed the demolition.

Then the narrative pulled back.  It bogged down in minutiae.  It covered the rank and workings of the military in loving detail.  Occasionally there would be a near-monologue about philosophy or warfare or history (I’m a visual person, so an audiobook was not the best way for me to absorb something that dense).  There wasn’t really a plot—at least, not in a form as I’d recognize it, with rising action and falling action and a character with a driving goal.  I got the sense that war was hell, yes, but only due to fear of injury and death.  Not because any of the characters had reservations about blowing away other sentient creatures. 

I was reminded of why I’m not too keen on reading Heinlein.

However, I do not regret finishing the novel, if only because it allowed me to see how books like Ender’s Game and Old Man’s War built off of these ideas.

Treason’s Shore, by Sherwood Smith.  ☼☼☼☼.  Last book in the Inda series.  Just as good as the others.  I’m going to have to look into her other series, because I’m pretty sure I’ll like those, too.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard.  ☼☼☼☼.  I thought this book would be all flippant humor and wacky, fish-out-of-water set-ups with no underlying substance.  Happily, I was wrong.  There are brilliant flashes of description and deft characterization. 

The setting and the writing style are…bizarre.  There’s a bit of steampunk, some Wild West, a dash of Skullcrusher Mountain, and over it all a patina of those cartoons where some poor lass is strapped to train tracks while a smirking villain in a top hat looks on. 

Also, there’s something inexpressibly endearing about how easily Cabal dishes out sarcasm, yet fails to acknowledge (or realize) when someone else uses it on him.

I’m definitely reading the sequel.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  ☼☼☼☼.  I’m glad I watched the movie first, because I was completely immersed in it.  I sobbed and gasped my way through.  I doubt the novel could have topped that.  However, it did fill in a lot of details that I was missing, so that was nice.

The Hunger Games: the Movie

I typed this up a while ago and kept forgetting to post it.  Now that I’ve read the book and this stuff mostly holds up, I might as well post it.

Relationships

I saw the movie without having first read the book, and I am quite happy that I approached the series in that order.  I have heard from a number of people that the movie is but a pale imitation, so this way I suspect that I will be able to thoroughly enjoy both.

Because…the movie was absolutely amazing.  Many movies feel…oh, say, abridged.  I’m not just talking about ones which are adapted from books and which are quite literally abridged.  Perhaps this is because I am so used to getting my stories in book form, but whatever the structural necessities of a two-hour movie happen to be, the story always feels abbreviated, like an appetizer for a richer, larger meal.

The Hunger Games may have felt slightly rushed, but it nailed the highs and lows and complexities of a much longer work.  I was sucked into the story in a way I thought only happened with books.  I felt anxious for the characters.  I gasped and smiled and cried, and at the end after Mom and I passed around tissues to dry our tears with I turned to my brother and asked him how the movie was.

He said, “It was eh.”

If proof is ever needed that my brother is secretly a robot, here it is.  Also, if you ever needed a reason to watch the movie in the theater, here it is: in the dark, no one can see you cry.

At first, I thought that I was going to type up what I thought about the movie, the impressions I got and the conclusions I came to and the questions I had etc etc.  And then I thought, well, no I shouldn’t, because what if they’re wrong, and I read the book and find that out?  And then I thought again, well, yes I should, because it will be interesting to see whether I’m right, and it wouldn’t be any use talking about this after I’ve read the book because of confirmation bias.

So.  There be spoilers.

I’ll say it once more for improved clarity; THERE BE SPOILERS.

So, one of my big beefs with YA is its approach to romance.  A lot of the time a boy meets a girl or vice versa and their relationship is factious and then the main obstacle is overcome and they like each other because they’ve gotten over their differences or egos or whatever and then they live happily ever after, or whatever, which seems like a rather shortsighted ending for a book about a couple of teenagers.

THG either subverts or avoids all of those issues.

  1. Katniss and Peeta don’t hate each other.  I thought Katniss hated him at first, but it turns out I was wrong.  I’ll talk about this later.
  2. They get together before the main obstacle is overcome, but that doesn’t mean their personal differences are gone or forgotten.
  3. They don’t live happily ever after however much Peeta might wish so, because Katniss has an old flame which the movie (and Katniss) hasn’t conveniently forgotten about.

At first, I thought Katniss hated Peeta because we kept getting flashbacks of him throwing bread to pigs while Katniss (who obviously needed some food) watched, so I thought he was callus and wasteful.  Then I saw the rest of the flashback, and I realized that she had trying to push him away not because she hated him, but because she was afraid of liking him.  Suddenly, I was able to translate what she meant during her bout of rage after Peeta said he liked her on national TV.  Not, “You’ll make me look weak”, but “You’ll make me weak.”

This also put their vicious one-upmanship argument over dinner into context.  At first, I was confused—why was Katniss so pissed at Peeta for talking about how good she was at archery?  Why did Katniss turn around and start extolling Peeta’s strength as a form of revenge?  Were they supposed to keep quiet about their talents so that no one would know what they were capable of?

This was reasoned on the basis that Katniss dislikes Peeta and that Peeta is willing to do whatever it takes to win (because at this point I still wasn’t sure how honest he had been about liking Katniss—might that declaration have just been a PR thing?).  But by changing the assumptions to Katniss guardedly caring about Peeta and Peeta worshipping the ground that Katniss walks on, the exchange made so much more sense.  Peeta was making sure that the rest of the team knew that Katniss had mad skillz, and Katniss was pissed that Peeta was selling himself short.

And this is why I wasn’t annoyed when they ended up together.  Katniss didn’t want to let herself care about him while he might die at any moment, but when they were given the chance to be a team she flew to his side because she is stronger or…more confident when she has someone to protect.  She’s not that good at acting to safeguard her own wellbeing, but she is very good at doing it to protect someone else’s.

This is never more evident than in the dichotomy between her interviews before and after the game.  Before, she was paralyzed, her face blank.  She wanted to participate enough to keep the government from punishing her family, but she also wanted to be true to herself.  She couldn’t say the things she was thinking for fear of saying something wrong.  She couldn’t make up something charming and inconsequential to say, because that would be fake and also she’s not very good with ingratiating herself with people (and that in itself was refreshing, to have a protagonist without a silver tongue).  Her anxiety was made palpable by the crazy, fuzzed camera angles and the buzzing audio.  The conversation felt disjointed, and her answers seemed to take too long to come.

Contrast this to the after-game interview.  She had a script to follow and an image to project.  Failure could cost Peeta or her family their lives.  She smiled and put on her best act (which, granted, still seemed constrained, but it probably wasn’t any worse than before).  The camera was fixed and distant.  Katniss was less worried about projecting a false impression, and more focused on disseminating the right false one.

Box o’ Mystery Produce Week 3 Final Post

The rainbow chard with basil, pine nuts, and parmesan was pretty good, though I forgot to add the basil and parmesan.  So it was more rainbow chard with garlic and pine nuts (and butter).

That pasta primavera was also a success, though I wish I had used less onion and more zucchini and tomatoes.  I got the tomatoes from a farmer’s market that sets up in a parking lot every Thursday.  They were $4 per pound, but I think it’s worth it because they were proper tomatoes and not the artificially ripened ones from the supermarket.  I mean, I’m hardly a tomato afficionado, but I could definitely notice a positive difference in taste and texture.

I picked up some salad dressings from Wegmans’ (Wegman’s?  Wegmans?) and used them on the lettuce, which worked out well.  I’ll have to try adding more toppings.

Finally, I still had half the zucchini used in the primavera left over, so I made zucchini bread.  I used the recipe from here and the topping recipe one of the commenters mentioned here.  I modified the recipe slightly.  I didn’t want to make two loaves of bread because I didn’t know if I’d like it and also I only have one bread pan.  Halving it required needing 1.5 eggs, so I used two eggs and an extra 1/2 cup of zucchini.  Next time I think I’ll put the strudel in the middle–a lot of it fell off when I took the loaf out of the pan.

As of today, we still have one onion-thing, the golden zucchini, and the sweet potato left.  Haoshu ate the strawberries and I had to toss most of the basil (note to self: look up what makes the leaves turn dark green).

Finally (this has nothing to do with the Box), I made those crackers again.  Last time I used the spelt flour Mom gave me because she didn’t like it.  This time I used regular whole wheat flour, which increased the baking time by about five minutes.  I also added cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg instead of garam masala.  The crackers turned out pretty bland, and I’m still not sure whether it’s because of the change in spices or the flour.

Box o’ Mystery Produce Challenge, Week 3

Produce received:
Strawberries (small box of)
Basil (metric ton of)
Rainbow Chard (bunch)
Onion-ish things (three)
Zucchini (green and gold)
Sweet Potato (one)
Lettuce (some type of red, head)

Recipes selected:
Ranbow Chard with Basil, Pine Nuts, and Parmesan (chard, basil)
Pasta Primavera (basil, onion-things, zucchini)

I told Haoshu that she’s on her own with the sweet potato.  I don’t do sweet potatoes (or yams).

I’m also trying to eat the lettuce as a simple salad, but it didn’t go well last night because the only dressing I have is an olive oil and vinegarette blend.  It’s delicious on spinach, but disgusting on this lettuce (I don’t have a high tolerance for vinegar, anyway).  So I need some new salad dressing.  What to buy…

Box o’ Mystery Produce, Week 2 Final Post

I lied.  Those weren’t leeks.  As far as I can tell, they’re Walla Walla Sweet Onions.  Oh well.  I tried making the soup anyway.  It came out really bland, but it’s probably because I underuse seasonings (I’m afraid of overusing them and rendering the food inedible).  I’ll have to try adding more salt to the leftovers.

I also made some crackers.  They look nowhere hear as pretty as those do because I had some…issues…with getting the dough rolled out.  I was worried they’d be too bland, so I added a tsp of garam marsala along with the dry ingredients because, y naught?  I’m actually quite taken with how they turned out, and I might give the recipe another go with a different seasoning.

I made the muffins, which I am quite happy with.  If I get more cherries, I might do without the cocoa powder.  I’m not too keen on chocolate flavored baked goods, and the chocolate chips are probably enough.  Also, the smell reminds me of Cherry Garcia ice cream, which is never a bad thing.

I made the savory squares, too, but with a few adjustments.  Some of the Red Russian Kale had become disgustingly wilty, so I used a mix of Red Russian and normal kale that I had in the freezer.  Also, I added some chicken sausage for flavor.  I should have gone with bacon, but I’d had some recently and felt that might be over-doing it.

I didn’t get around to anything else, and I haven’t finished eating the soup because it bothers my stomach.  Oh well.

Saving Hope

Lulz.  It’s not often I come across a show as completely off as the pilot episode of Saving Hope.  Yes, I have watched many pilot episodes which have failed to thrill me.  They are lackluster, lukewarm, and filled with characters who are either bipolar or else lacking in emotions altogether.

But Saving Hope is something else entirely. I watched the first episode because it has Michael Shanks (and he’s adorable).  I’ll watch the second episode because it’s absolutely fucking insane.  Pretty much all the dialogue sounds as if it was written by two chatbots in a deathspiral.  The plot was concocted by someone who lives in a country with no hospitals or medical malpractice lawsuits.

I don’t know where to start.

Michael Shanks is a doctor who is riding in a taxi with his fiancee when some other car plowes into it.  He’s bleeding a bit on his forehead, but he’s fine.  He hops out and rushes to the car that t-boned him just in time to uncollapse the driver’s lung using a tool he’s just improvised (one component of which comes from a tampon his fiancee had with her).  Then Michael Sha–Charlie–collapses due to a bleed in his brain.  So, he wasn’t fine.

He slips into a coma and spends the rest of the episode having an out-of-body experience.  But this is not about him.  Oh, no.  Well, sort of.  Peripherally, belike.

His fiancee–Alex–rages and weeps around the hospital (she works there, too).  She gets upset when another doctor tries to raise the subject of DNR (do not resuscitate).  Alex and Charlie are both doctors.  How have they not talked to each other about this?

Alex’s ex–Joel–has a sexy accent and has just started working at the same hospital.  He takes over all of Charlie’s patients, including a war vet with cancer in his arm.  The vet wants to have the arm taken off, and Charlie was willing to accommodate him.  However, once the patient is under anesthesia Joel decides to just cut out the cancer instead of taking the arm off, despite the fact that this was totally not what the patient had agreed to.  The vet wakes up, goes, “I’m gonna sue you,” which is totally within his rights, and Joel is all, “Yeah, and you’ll probably win,” which makes it sound like he’s cool with the consequences of his actions except he’s giving the patient these puppy-dog eyes that scream BUT THAT WOULD HURT ME AND YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO HURT ME, RIGHT?

And then there’s this subplot where a nerdy girl (she’s got glasses big enough to be from the 80’s and that makes her nerdy and unattractive, right??) poisoned herself with daffodil roots because she made a love potion that both she and her crush had to drink to make it work.  The doctor and the psychologist are all like, Oh, you weren’t trying to commit suicide?  That’s all right then!  And absolutely fail to even attempt to warn the boy that some classmate of his has just poisoned him.  Later on he shows up to have his stomach pumped, and the doctors are all like, oh, these kids are ADORABLE!

Had enough yet?  TOUGH.  There’s more:

Some chick showes up with her boyfriend because she’s having stomach cramps.  The doctors order some tests and go home.  Then they find out that she’s preggers and didn’t tell the doctors this because she didn’t want her boyfriend to know.  And they’re all, Oh, that’s fine, it’s not like we were going to perform tests that would have harmed the fetus or anything! (They totally were.)  A little while later, while she’s still hanging around the hospital, she goes into labor.  It went pretty much like this:

Doctor: Push!

Chick: It hurts!

Doctor: Do it!

Chick:  Grraaaah!

And then the baby was born, and the entire scene took less time than you did to read this sentence.  And despite the patient checking in with abdominal pain and then delivering her baby, like, four months prematurely (the baby survived…is that even possible?) the doctors went, “Oh, la!  Guess everything’s fine.”

Then the chick died due to blood clots in her lungs.  Whoops!

The absolute bestest part of the episode is kind of hard to capture in words.  Alex was hanging around Charlie’s comatose form.  Then the nurse supervising him said, “You can get into bed with him.”  Except, she said it with a kind of knowing look.  The same way you’d tell a traumatized child, “It’s ok to hug your wubbie.”

And Alex whined back, “I’ll mess up his lines.”

The nurse smiled a bit.  “No you won’t.  Anyway I’ll be here just in case.”  (As in, I’ll be here WATCHING YOU SNUGGLE WITH YOUR COMATOSE FIANCE.)

Alex smiled in return.  “WELL, THAT”S ALL RIGHT THEN.”

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/e sobs

I don’t understand how pilots episodes are this bad.  I really don’t.  But, to steal a turn of phrase from Mark, this is the best worst pilot episode ever.

Box o’ Mystery Produce Challenge, Week 2

There wasn’t a Week 1, because I failed it miserably. I vowed to do better this week. Onward!

Timeline:
Wednesday – The CSA delivers unto Shu the Box (or in this week’s case, a bag)
Wednesday night – Unpack and visually ID. Take pictures of any that I am unsure of.
Thursday – ID the ones I was unsure of. Find recipes.
Thursday night to next Wednesday – Use or freeze before produce goes bad.

Produce received:
Cherries (small box of)
Zucchini (green and gold)
Leeks (3)
Romaine Lettuce (green, head of)
Red Russian Kale (bunch)
Some sort of chive-y thing? (a few)
Baby beets (three, I think)

Recipes selected:
Double Chocolate Cherry Muffins
Potato Leek Soup III
Winter Fruit Salad with Lemon Poppyseed Dressing
Red Russian Kale and Red Onion Savory Squares

Shu ate the beets last night, so well done her. I’m not sure what to do with the zucchini. I like using it in muffins, but I’ve already got one muffin recipe. I’m not very keen on it, generally speaking. Grate it and freeze it for later muffins? Also, not sure what to do with the maybe-chives.

I’ll report back on the results of these recipes. Probably. Unless I utterly fail to carry them out, which is always a possibility. The one most likely to fail is the winter salad, as I’m not sure about the quality/availability of pears and apples at this time. Second most likely is the soup, because either I suck at soup or I just don’t like it much in general.

Too soon to tell.