Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review - Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Short review: The crew of the Rocinante all head off to take care of personal business. Then the entire solar system collapses into chaos.

Some angry belters
Steal from Mars and shower Earth
Everything changes

Full review: Nemesis Games is the fifth book in the Expanse series, and despite being part of a series that has seen the discovery of alien life, the opening of the gateway to the stars, and human colonization of alien worlds, this is the book in which the biggest change takes place. It turns out that not everyone is happy with the changes that are happening in the universe of the Expanse, and rather than simply accept them, they have decided to take drastic action to keep the status quo, even though that status quo is one they have railed against for their entire lives. This book also structurally moves in a new direction, splitting up the crew of the Rocinante for much of its length, and using the four crewmembers as the primary viewpoint characters.

Following on after the events of Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games starts with an interlude in which a team of Belters, led by a young man named Filip, attack a Martian military outpost on Callisto, killing most of the garrison, destroying much of the facility, and making off with a substantial volume of classified military equipment. This section is quick, brutal, and devastating, which sets the tone for much of the book. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante has made the long, slow journey back from Illus/New Terra to Tycho so that they can repair their mangled ship. The only trouble is that the repairs needed are quite extensive and will take quite a long time to complete, and the various crew members all start to get itchy feet, and one by one they leave to take care of personal business and get some character development.

Alex heads off to Mars to try to find some sort of closure with his ex-wife who stayed with him through his roving Navy years, but it turned out he wasn't very good at being married when he retired and they had to actually live together. Amos returns to Earth after learning of the death of Lydia, a woman who was an important mother-figure to him during his youth. Finally, Naomi heads to Ceres, drawn by a message that she refuses to reveal the contents of to Holden, on a mission she refuses to talk about, but which is firmly connected to her mysterious past. For the most part, the reasons they head their separate ways turn out to not really matter: Alex's reunion with his ex-wife goes about as well as one might expect a meeting between estranged ex-spouses would go, while Amos' mother figure is still dead and the old neighborhood he used to live in has changed a lot and mostly forgotten him, although he is still able to make arrangements to provide for Lydia's widow. Both Alex and Amos more or less drift into new difficulties, as Alex teams up with Bobbie to investigate irregularities in the Martian Naval supply chain, and Amos finagles a visit with Clarissa Mao, who, following the events in Abaddon's Gate, is firmly ensconced in the most secure prison Earth has. Each of the men more or less stumbles into the main plot of the book, or rather, the main plot of the book almost literally crashes into their lives.

Naomi, on the other hand, gets entangled in the main plot of the book almost immediately. It turns out that Naomi's enigmatic past includes a son, who turns out to be none other than Filip from the first chapter of the book, and Filip's father is Marco Inaros, the leader of a splinter group of the OPA that is on the furthest and most extreme anti-Earth end of the group's spectrum. It turns out that Inaros and his followers have been planning something big, and when they put their plan into effect, it changes the direction of the entire Solar System. It turns out that some Belters aren't happy about the fact that humanity now has access to at least a few thousand new planets to settle upon, and feel like they are about to be left behind - cast aside without a thought by the rest of the human race as it stampedes through the alien gate to live upon the freshly available alien worlds. To voice their displeasure, Inaros and his gang more or less set out to destroy human civilization, although they aren't willing to admit to themselves that that is what they are doing. Instead, they assert that they are protecting the Belt from the unscrupulous and uncaring denizens of the inner planets, and setting their own people free to pursue their own destiny.

The real problem with Inaros' plan is that Inaros is simply not nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. Inaros is one of the most compelling and hateable villains to appear in genre fiction in recent years, and part of what makes him so compelling are his rather obvious flaws. Inaros is not stupid, but once the reader encounters him via Naomi, it quickly becomes clear his personal charisma has allowed him to bluster through his schemes going awry for much of his life, and as a result, he has come to believe his own propaganda about his abilities. The fascinating thing about Inaros is not that his plan is fatally flawed and probably inherently self-defeating, but rather that he is able to sell his plan to people who really should know better. Through almost sheer force of personality, Inaros is able to convince his collection of followers not only to engage in mass murder on an epic scale, but also to fairly obviously follow a course of action that is almost guaranteed to get them and all of those they claim to be defending also killed, although slowly and painfully. The Expanse series has had technocratic sociopathic villains, revenge-driven obsessed villains, amoral murderous villains, and incompetent villains, but Inaros is the first charismatic villain in the series, and his combination of evil cunning, duplicity, and at times almost buffoonish stupidity makes him one of the most interesting villains the series has produced.

All of the four storylines converge, which is pretty much to be expected, but the real meat of the story belongs to Naomi, which is interesting because Naomi spends most of the volume unable to actually do much of anything, as Inaros holds her prisoner and alternately tries to woo her and threaten her. This helps to flesh Inaros out as a character, and makes both his strengths and glaring flaws stand out quite vividly, but it does more or less sideline Naomi for a substantial portion of the book. This is the second book in a row in which Naomi has been captured so that she could serve as a conduit for the reader to understand the position of the "other side" in the central conflict of the story, and while this has been a fairly effective technique for the authors, it is a trend I hope doesn't continue. Aside from the fact that putting Naomi in danger to humanize the villains and motivate the crew of the Rocinante is kind of tedious and predictable, it also kind of limits Naomi as a character in some ways.

The central theme of Nemesis Games is change. Each volume of the Expanse has seen major shifts in the structure of the world, but this volume is the first in which the political, economic, and military landscape has been completely reshaped. The novel also continues the recurring themes of the series of "when faced with inscrutable alien technology, humans try to kill one another" and "Holden more or less make every situation he comes across worse". In addition to the large scale shifts in the political and military balance of power, there are smaller changes in the fictional world as well, as two new (and somewhat unexpected) potential crewmembers for the Rocinante find their way into the narrative. The only real weakness of the book is that the story it tells is markedly incomplete, essentially halting in the middle of the action to put off on finishing the primary plot until Babylon's Ashes. This is also a change for the series, which until now has been mostly self-contained stories that leave a few threads dangling, but basically wrap up their plots within one volume. Nemesis Games, on the other hand, is clearly only the first part in a two-part story.

The Expanse series is currently projected to total nine books, which makes Nemesis Games the exact middle of the story. As such, it seems fitting that this book would be the pivot point where the story rotates to an entirely new paradigm, and that appears to be what the authors have done. The changes wrought on the universe of the series in this installment are dramatic and far-reaching, and at the same time feel completely organic, and in hindsight, almost expected. This is a big, bold story that also manages to make room for some interesting character development and interaction. In short, Nemesis Games is both an unexpected twist to the ongoing story of the Expanse and at the same time, exactly what the series needed.

Previous book in the series: Cibola Burn
Subsequent book in the series: Babylon's Ashes

James S.A. Corey     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, October 30, 2017

Musical Monday - Stranger Things Opening Theme

Last week I caught up on the Marvel Netflix universe by finally finishing The Defenders. This week, I watched all of Stranger Things 2. Now all I need to do is finish watching the second season of Sense 8 and I'll be pretty much caught up on all of the nerdy Netflix shows that I have been watching.

Previous Musical Monday: The Defenders Opening Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: Lord of the Rings by the Doubleclicks

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition! October 28th - November 2nd: The Colossus of Rhodes Was Destroyed in 226 B.C.

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Off the book topic - Candy corn, a chocolate bar, or popcorn. Which of these snacks are your favorite to eat while reading?

1. I loathe candy corn. It is terrible, awful, wretched stuff that shouldn't be considered candy.

2. All things being equal, I prefer chocolate bars to most other snacks. My favorites chocolate bars are Reese's Fast Break, Baby Ruth, Milky Way Midnight, and Hershey's Special Dark. Actually, anything that is either dark chocolate or combines chocolate and peanut butter is pretty much perfect. Around Halloween, I am partial to the Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins because the peanut butter to chocolate ratio seems to work better than with normal peanut butter cups. All that said, chocolate bars are not really great reading snacks, mostly due to the possibility that one might get chocolate on the pages of the book one is reading.

3. Popcorn is probably my preferred snack for reading, although it it not my snack of preference in general. It is easy to eat while you're doing something else, which makes it a pretty good snack for when your attention is focused on reading. The only real downside is when you get butter on your fingers and it gets on the book.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: Trieu Thi Trinh Was Born in 225 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Monday, October 23, 2017

Musical Monday - The Defenders Opening Theme

Guess what I just got finished watching. Go ahead, just try to guess.

Previous Musical Monday: Southern Accents by Tom Petty
Subsequent Musical Monday: Stranger Things Opening Theme

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition! October 20th - October 26th: Trieu Thi Trinh Was Born in 225 A.D.

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Off the book topic - What is your favorite scary movie?

I suppose it would be the movie Alien, although to be perfectly honest, it is probably because I read Alan Dean Foster's novelization of the movie long before I ever saw the movie, and in my memory, the novelization is terrifying. Maybe it was because I read the novel when I was medically evacuated to South Africa for surgery on my hand and as a result I was in kind of a strange state of mind, but the novelized version of Alien is the scariest book I have ever read, and that almost certainly affected my perception of the movie.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Monday, October 16, 2017

Musical Monday - Southern Accents by Tom Petty

Tom Petty was a Southerner. Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Petty's life was steeped in Southern tradition and a love for where he came from. In this video, he is singing in his hometown and you can see just how much this song, sung in that place, meant to him. I defy anyone to challenge Petty's bona fides as a proud Southerner.

But Petty was not going to put up with any of the "heritage not hate" bullshit about the various Confederate flags that people associate with the South. He knew what they really represented, and knew that it wasn't "Southern pride", but rather Southern racism. And he wanted nothing to do with it.

Petty didn't always think that way. Like many people who grew up surrounded by symbols, he never really thought about what they truly meant. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Petty said:
The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida. I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant. It was on a flagpole in front of the courthouse and I often saw it in Western movies. I just honestly didn't give it much thought, though I should have.
The element that sticks out here is the unthinking nature of his acceptance of the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee (which is what most people think of when they hear the words "Confederate flag") as a symbol of Southernism. He even used it in his tour in support of his album Southern Accents, putting it on stage when he performed the song Rebels, a decision he came to regret later. When Petty thought about the flag, and what it really meant, he stopped using it, asked his fans to stop bringing it or wearing Confederate-themed clothing to his concerts, and had it removed from subsequent releases of his albums. That doesn't mean he stopped being proud to be from the South, he just stopped using a racist symbol to represent that pride. He said as much in the interview:
That Southern pride gets transferred from generation to generation. I'm sure that a lot of people that applaud it don't mean it in a racial way. But again, I have to give them, as I do myself, a "stupid" mark. If you think a bit longer, there's bad connotations to this. They might have it at the football game or whatever, but they also have it at Klan rallies. If that's part of it in any way, it doesn't belong, in any way, representing the United States of America.
Petty criticizes himself here - he just didn't think about the meaning behind the flag when he used it, and he offers others a way out of their devotion to a racist symbol. If you are Southern, you can still love where you are from even if you shed the symbols of the Civil War. From the interview with Rolling Stone:
Again, people just need to think about how it looks to a black person. It's just awful. It's like how a swastika looks to a Jewish person. It just shouldn't be on flagpoles.
Petty understood that no matter how pervasive the symbol was, and no matter what he associated it with, the reality was that it was, and is, a symbol of racist oppression and violence. Here's the thing: If someone as proud of being Southern as Petty could get it; if someone who loved his home as much as Petty did could get it, then no one else has any excuse.

Previous Musical Monday: Learning to Fly by Tom Petty
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Defenders Opening Theme

Tom Petty     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Blogger Hop October 13th - October 19th: The Sassanid Dynasty Was Founded by Arshadir I in 224 A.D.

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Who is your favorite horror/suspense author and why?

I don't read much horror or suspense, so I'm going to have to pick someone who kind of sidelined in that area. Perhaps Ray Bradbury or Robert Bloch would be good choices. I'd pick Bradbury on the strength of stories like Mars Is Heaven, and Bloch on the strength of stories like That Hell-Bound Train, The Hungry Eye, and Space-Born. Neither of them were primarily horror or suspense writers, but they were both really good writers in general, and so when they turned their work in the direction of horror and suspense, they turned out really good stories.

On reflection, there is a lot of science fiction that tends towards horror - encounters with inscrutable, mysterious, and hostile aliens frequently take on a horrific tone with stories like Opening the Door by Philip José Farmer, or You'll Never Go Home Again by Clifford Simak. Sometimes science fiction touches on the terrifying with horrible dystopian visions of the future such as Wake Up to Thunder by Dean Koontz or That Only a Mother by Judith Merril. And sometimes science fiction just provides creepy stories such as Its a Good Life by Jerome Bixby or The Dark Room by Theodore Sturgeon. No matter the exact format of horror story they choose, science fiction authors dip into the genre so often that seeing a horror-ish science fiction story is an ordinary occurrence. It happens so often that most science fiction authors are actually fairly good at writing horror style stories.

The only real difficulty this situation poses with respect to this week's question is that while there are a lot of authors who I like who have written some pretty good horror or suspense stories, none of them make it their primary focus, and their horror output represents only a tiny fraction of their work and only a small part of why I like them as authors. I suppose this is a really long-winded way of saying that while I don't have a "favorite" horror and suspense writer, I have an array of authors that I like who have waded in that pool from time to time.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: Trieu Thi Trinh Was Born in 225 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Ad Astra Review - Apple Crumble by Chet Gottfried

What Is It? Sliced apples with a brown sugar and ginger sauce topped with a buttery cinnamon flavored crust.

Delicious apples
Made even better with some
Cinnamon and crust

Review: I know I said that I was going to make, try, and review all of the recipe's in the Ad Astra cookbook in the order they appear in the book, but I needed a dessert recipe for a gathering of my game group, so I skipped ahead a bit.

I am glad I did. This is a really good apple crumble.

Apple recipes are, in my experience, surprisingly tricky. Some recipes call for far too much seasoning - too much cinnamon, too much ginger, or too much nutmeg, and the resulting mix overpowers the apple flavor. Others call for too little, and the result is bland. This recipe, on the other hand, strikes almost exactly the right balance, with just enough cinnamon and ginger, and a crumble topping that is perfectly balanced by the apple base.

The other thing about this recipe is that it is really quite simple and easy to make. The entire recipe only has nine ingredients, and two of those are apples and water. The recipe only takes about ten or fifteen minutes to make - and most of that time is taken up peeling and slicing the apples. If you had an apple peeler, you could probably cut the prep time down to five minutes or so.

The recipe says to eat it warm and with vanilla ice cream, so we did. It was glorious. This is easily one of the best apple recipes I have had, and as one might guess, I highly recommend it. If you like apple dishes, you should try it out.

Previous recipe in Ad Astra: Wizard's Piglets in Blankets by Rosemary Jones
Next recipe in Ad Astra: Pudding Course: Apple Fritters by Gail Carriger

Chet Gottfied     Ad Astra Cooking Project     Home

Monday, October 9, 2017

Musical Monday - Learning to Fly by Tom Petty

Petty was an amazing performer who always seemed older and wiser than his years. When he died, one of my coworkers said that she was surprised he was only 66 years old - she had always thought he was much older than that. Part of this misapprehension may have been because his friends were mostly older then he - Petty was the youngest Traveling Wilbury for example. But I think the real reason for this was that his music so frequently had a weatherbeaten, almost weary feel to it.

Born in 1950, Petty was still a Baby Boomer, but only just barely. He was born at the tail end of that generation, and didn't rise to prominence until the mid-1970s, with the meat of his career coming during the 1980s and 1990s, after the burst of youthful Boomer exuberance of the 1960s and early 1970s had passed. He was never really a Boomer icon, but rather a figure that loomed large for people my age - who came of age in Reagan's America and were disillusioned from the get-go. His music hit the country when it was tired and worn down, and often, his lyrics speak to that part of us that feels overwhelmed but still refuses to stop fighting.

Now he's gone, and far too soon. There was more music left in him, and we won't ever have it now. But we can be grateful for what we do have, and remember.

Go and fly Tom. You'll never have to come down again.

Previous Musical Monday: The Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog
Subsequent Musical Monday: Southern Accents by Tom Petty

Tom Petty     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition! October 6th - October 12th: The Chinese Scholar Xi Kang Was Born in 223 A.D.

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are both considered classics. Have you ever read either of them?

I have read Shelley's Frankenstein.

I have not read all of Stoker's Dracula. I have read excerpts of the book, and I have read so many derivative works built upon it that I almost feel like I have read it, but I haven't. I'll rectify that one of these days.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Ad Astra Review - Anouchka's Grandmother's Salmon Pâté by Cat Sparks

What Is It? Salmon blended with cream cheese and spring onions covered with chopped pecans and chives.

This needs a kick of
Cayenne pepper for flavor
And use red salmon

Review: The second recipe in the Ad Astra Cookbook under the heading "Savory Snacks" is one for salmon pâté from Cat Sparks. I tried this recipe out on my regular game group, and it got mixed reviews from them, mostly because they didn't like the texture (and one just doesn't like fish, which I did not know until then, but didn't surprise me at all).

The redhead and I, on the other hand, found this to be quite good. The recipe is basically canned red salmon, cream cheese, sour cream, spring onions, and cayenne pepper blended together with a coating of finely chopped pecans and chives. The recipe is pretty easy, and doesn't require an oven or any equipment other than bowls, knives and some sort of blending equipment - the recipe says to use a food processor, but I used a stick mixer which worked just fine. We ate it on crackers, which seems like the ideal way to eat it, although the redhead suggested possibly adding it to pasta with an alfredo sauce, a suggestion that seems like it would be worth investigating.

The instructions say that the recipe makes a lot more than one might expect, and that seems to be accurate. When I blended the cream cheese and salmon, the volume of the mixture ballooned quite noticeably. I suggest being generous with the spices, especially the cayenne pepper, as the mix is just a little bland unless one does so. Even though you are using red salmon which has more flavor than pink salmon, the mix of fish and cream cheese doesn't really have much kick on its own. The recipe says to shape the mixture into a log, but it was so sticky that the best I could manage was an kind of half sphere. The pecans and chives also add a lot to the dish, with their crunch adding a needed break from the creamy texture of the pâté itself.

Overall, this was a really good recipe. I can see this being something that I'll bring to family holiday gathering as an appetizer. If I was going to make this for anything less than a large gathering, I would definitely halve the recipe. The redhead and I have been eating it for three days now and we still have some left. On the other hand, it is good enough that we're not tired of it yet, so you could take that as an endorsement.

Previous recipe in Ad Astra: Ajvar by K.V. Johansen
Next recipe in Ad Astra: Bastilla by Erin M. Hartshorn

Cat Sparks     Ad Astra Cooking Project     Home

Monday, October 2, 2017

Musical Monday - The Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog

59 people dead.

527 wounded.

This is the world we live in. The world that Americans have made for themselves, piece by piece and decision by decision. We didn't get here all at once. We got here using baby steps. Chipping away one protection here, preventing another there, all in the name of the insane ideology that has consumed modern conservatism.

It didn't have to be this way. We had people who envisioned a better world. People like Jim Henson. Listen to this song, which seems to me to be the one piece of music that best captures his worldview. He was a dreamer. He believed in a better world than the one we had. A world in which people loved one another. In which artists were valued. In which humanity was the most important thing.

We could have had the world Jim Henson saw. We still could. We just have to choose it.

I really wish we would.

Previous Musical Monday: Learning to Fly by Tom Petty

Kermit the Frog     Musical Monday     Home