Tag Archives: reviews

Make Better Coffee

So this post is going to border on “pretentious,” but not because I *want* to be pretentious about coffee. I just think the Bean Of Life‚ĄĘ deserves utmost respect and honor.

Also, we made coffee wrong for YEARS. I’m here to help you avoid my mistake – and up your coffee game to ūüíĮ.
via GIPHY

Hey! Good coffee is affordable

Great coffee has to start at the bean. You know that, I know that — but probably neither of us can afford to buy free range artisanal locally roasted coffee. ¬†Granted, when I’m down for a splurge, we go for our local roaster‘s Tanzanian Peaberry. ¬†But that’s special.

Our daily coffee is Trader Joe’s Dark Roast – we buy it whole-bean in the can when we’re at the store 45 minutes away (we go biweekly to stock up on bacon, chocolate, coffee, wine, and cheese – lol).

  • Grinding it ourselves means it’s fresher than pre-ground. If you ignore everything else in this post, buy yourself a grinder and whole-bean coffee of any kind. It’ll be an improvement.
  • TJ’s offers a 14oz can for about $8. It lasts us a week or so, depending on our coffee consumption. ¬†We usually pick up one of the others and alternate for variety’s sake. (We drink coffee every morning and about every other afternoon, two sizable mugs.)
  • Joe’s Dark is consistently an even, solid flavor. It’s not complex. This isn’t the $40 wine kind of coffee, it’s the $5 Chianti that consistently tastes good with whatever you put on the table, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t mind¬†drinking it every day. ¬†It never tastes “sour” or bitter when we make it, ¬†and is pretty forgiving if you add too much or too little.

Most of the coffee snobs on the internet (eg: Thrillist) disagree with us on this one, but oh well.  We know what we know, morning after morning.

You can buy TJ’s Dark Roast or any of their coffees at Trader Joe’s of course, but Amazon somehow carries this too? ¬†– but it’s more expensive than in the store

Other good coffees we often use:

  • Komodo Dragon by Starbucks is consistently tasty. It doesn’t seem to have the “burnt” taste so common for Starbucks beans, and it’s delicious made through our quick pour-over method below. ¬†If I get a Starbucks coupon, I use it on this or maybe blonde roast or Verona – we have good luck with those. Ditto the Christmas blend.
  • DazBog is a Western coffee roaster that nails it with great, bold flavor! ¬†We have friends in Denver who spoil us by sending us DB coffee at Christmas, and let me tell you, we make every single bean count!
  • Counter Culture coffee is a hit in our local area, and we enjoy their brews at local shops. They ship nationwide and you can find their coffees in many places.
Make better coffee
Making Dazbog thanks to friends who shipped us some beans from Denver! You can see our Bodum in the back left, behind our faithful coffee grinder.

A better process for your morning brew

Here’s where you’re going to fight me. “I don’t have time for this! I need the coffee maker to click on by itself in the morning and run on its own!”

I get it; it’s hard to get rolling at 6am. Lord knows I haven’t willingly worked jobs that demand such a schedule unless I had my arm twisted. But YOU CAN DO THIS.

We use a Bodum, the filter that came with it (reusable), and a coffee grinder. ¬†You’ll also need a water kettle. ¬†Our picks are below.

Our Process: Perfect coffee every time

Step 1: Boil water – a couple minutes. I can eyeball it on the carafe, but you can pour water into your coffee mug and then from the mug into the water-pot or teapot until you get the knack. ¬†And you’ve got a few minutes during this step to finish packing your lunch or whatever …. or start Step 2 (which is what I do).

Step 2: Grind coffee – 15 seconds. ¬†We have learned that it takes “enough coffee beans to cover the center post and the silver edges of our grinder” to get the right amount. You’ll learn to eyeball it too. ¬†Then dump your fresh, wonderful-smelling grounds into the Bodum’s filter, and swipe the inside clean with your brush (below).

Step 3:¬†Bloom — 30 seconds. Slowly pour a couple tablespoons of water over the coffee grounds in the filter, just enough to wet them. Let the aromatics from the coffee punch you in the face. It’s a wake-up call from your sinuses outward.

Click the button on your water pot to keep the water hot (or put the teakettle back on the burner).  Take a 30-second break to stretch high and low. 

Step 4: Pour over — 1 minute. ¬†Slowly pour the nearly-boiling water over the grounds in a slow circle motion. Breathe deeply. Meditate on the good things in your life and what you’re going to get accomplished today after injecting this caffeine into your bloodstream. ¬†You don’t have to pour toooooo slowly, but also, give the water some time to contact with the grounds.

Step 5: Drain Р1 minute.  Get your coffee mug ready, put on your shoes. Once all the coffee has drained through, you have black gold ready for your vessel of choice.

Was that hard?  NO.  

We stumbled on the flavor and excellence of pour-over coffee apart from the hipsters; our coffee pot died and we were desperate one morning. A quick Google search revealed that only Americans use a percolating machine for morning juice. Everyone else (who isn’t making espresso) does some version of a pour over or French press. ¬† And it’s 574738475747 times better!¬†

Coffee Equipment – our setup

We bought a Bodum, a water boiler, and a coffee grinder. Apart from actual coffee, this is all you need! The Bodum is easy to clean; the water pot is handy for other kitchen uses, and theoretically you could grind spices in the grinder if you keep it clean.

I eventually added a natural bristle brush to use when tapping the ground coffee out of our grinder.  Some coffees are more oily than others, and a brush lets you a) get all the good coffee grains into your filter for brewing and b) clean the grinder with a few quick swipes while you wait for the coffee to drain.

Bodum 34 oz Pour Over Coffee Maker with Permanent Filter

You can often find this Bodum on sale at Starbucks or Target or Amazon for $20 or less, so keep an eye out. ¬†It’s a beautiful shape on its own; the mouth is wide enough to get a brush down in there and clean the thing out; the filter has never let us down and rinses quickly.

You can make 2 huge mugs of coffee in this or 4 small “after dinner” dainty cups of coffee. It holds 1 liter below the collar.

Better Coffee - Bodum

Coffee Grinder

We use the Krups F203 pictured here, but there are many affordable electric grinders available at multiple stores. Heck, wait till Bed Bath & Beyond sends you one of their incessant 20% off coupons through the mail and go pick one out.  Check site reviews first. Our little Krups has performed consistently well for us.

Krups F203 coffee grinder

Electric Kettle

Again, there are a million of these. Read the reviews, use a coupon, wait for an Amazon sale — whatever. We have a B&D model that we like, but anything that boils water quickly will do. ¬†Stovetop teakettles are perfectly fine, though it takes longer to boil the water than with an electric kettle, and the electric models have an auto-shutoff that prevents you from worrying you’ll burn the house down.

Black & Decker electric kettle - make better coffee

Bristle Brush

Look, this costs $4. Buy a brush; it’ll make your life easier and keep your grinder clean. ¬†This one is easy to wash with a little dish soap and water once a week; good as new.

Make better coffee - brush to clean your grinder

 

 


“But what if….”

This looks like work. Why should I buy into this method?

Look.¬†Are you still eating ramen noodles out of a foam container or Kraft Shells & Cheez? ¬†If you answered No, then grow up and make better coffee. It’s not hard and it doesn’t take more than 5 minutes. You waste 5 minutes trying to find your keys.

This looks like a hipster conspiracy.

I know, and I don’t disagree. But if you were a true hipster, you’d be using a Chemex and one of those swan-necked teapots and s l o w l y pouring water over a paper cone filter using only organic locally roasted beans ground by a $200 burr grinder by a Brandon in a beard.¬†Go to your hipster hangout to get that. What I’m suggesting is pouring water over fresh grounds yourself instead of letting some sad machine do it for you and murder all the flavor in the process.

No, really, this is too much.

For goodness sake, buy a French press then!  Throw grounds in the bottom, pour boiling water in, wander off (maybe tell Alexa to set a 4 minute timer).  Come back, plunge, drink. IS THAT STILL TOO HARD?

But I need to make coffee for a small army!

Buy two French presses or Bodums then? Your tea kettle can likely boil 2 quarts, so mass production simply requires twice as much coffee (two batches of grounds) and two vessels. On a busy morning or hectic dinner party, I’d probably go with 1 or 2 of the big French presses instead. Grind, pour, walk away.

I really like my Keurig.

You’re dead to me. ¬† ¬†Reason #1 ¬† Reason #2

2019’s good discoveries

Sometimes in the course of my day I stop and realize that I’ve been enjoying something good which others should probably hear about so they can enjoy it to. Those moments spark these kinds of posts. ūüėČ Enjoy this laundry list of things that have been bringing us joy…..


Wingspan – board game, 2019

Buy it: Amazon | publisher

We just came back from a board game conference where game designers are working to refine games-in-development and pitch them to publishers. Probably should post about that elsewhere; it was a fascinating weekend in many ways. But I mention it here to note that there still aren’t many women or minorities in the roomful of board game designers — it’s predominantly full of white guys between 28 and 50.

Thus, Wingspan stands out not only for its excellent game design and beauty on the table, but also as a game designed by a woman РElizabeth Hargraves Рand developed by Stonemaier Games.  She loves birds and loves games, and found a way to take her real knowledge of birds and their habits and habitats, and translate it into something that plays well as an actual game.

Read more about Elizabeth in this NYT article.

Wingspan is an “engine-builder” game about, well, birds.¬† In other words, as the game progresses, you’ll collect various birds and add them to your board, increasing the number of things you can do each turn because individual bird cards have different abilities.¬† It’s also a “point salad” type of game, where you can earn points toward your score in a whole bunch of ways, and it won’t be obvious till you add everything up at the end who’s won.

The watercolor aesthetic is just gorgeous, and the bird drawings remind me of the color plates in my parents’ well-worn Audobon bird-watching guide that sat near the back patio window in our house so they could identify unusual birds when they stopped by our bird feeder. My parents were avid bird watchers (out our window, at least) and I kind of wish I had a similar spot outside my window too.

Give Wingspan a try. If we’re friends IRL, stop by the house and we’ll play it!

You might have trouble putting your hands on a copy before July — the demand exploded and the first couple print runs sold out before the shipment even reached the US.¬† (!)

Buy it: Amazon | publisher


Native deodorant

Native DeodeerantI know deodorant is a weird thing to recommend, but personal care is important, and not swabbing aluminum¬† on your body every day is probably a good change given the link between it an Alzheimer’s disease.

I tried a sample of Native deodorant last year on a lark, and it was such a great experience that our household has switched over.¬† It’s a transition, for sure, because the consistency is different. But they offer a range of really lovely scents, and it’s extremely comfortable.

Native’s product is a genuine “de-oderant” more than an antiperspirant, so this product may not be for you if you’re really adamant about not sweating at all. (But, I mean, sweat is healthy so maybe reconsider?)¬† But Native works great in keeping me spelling fresh, and it doesn’t irritate my skin the way some of the other “natural” deodorant products do.¬† Also, it doesn’t make a mess on clothes, and it easily washes out of fabrics since it’s made of natural waxes and moisturizers. I think my shirts are going to write me a thank-you note.¬† (see below for more on this)

Last thing – Native is more expensive than deodorant in the store, but it’s also lasting me¬† longer than a stick of Degree ever did. And it shows up at my house every several months (I do a subscription), meaning I always have one on the way before I run out. You can grab 1 oz testers if you don’t want to commit.

They offer scents for women or men or very neutral scents that would make anyone happy.

Buy it:  Amazon (singles) | website (singles or subscription)

BONUSDollar Shave Club — if you’re still buying razors in the store, you are 100% wasting a lot of money (or using super crappy $1 razors).

C& I share DSC monthly – we bought two of the mid-grade handles (for $5 each) and spend $5 a month to get blades delivered. I change blades every 7-10 days (I don’t shave my legs every day) and C swaps his every couple weeks since he doesn’t shave daily.¬† He also loves their shave butter, so we get a tube of that about every other month.

Anyway, $5 a month for razors is hard to beat, and they show up without me having to remember them. Now that CVS puts razor cartridges behind Fort Knox *AND* charges like $15 for refills, I don’t understand why everyone isn’t a member of DSC or Harry’s or similar.¬† Seriously.¬† Make this change for yourself.

Dollar Shave Club (our sharing link)


Arcadia Power

A couple years ago, I stumbled across an ad for Arcadia Power and did quite a bit of research to make sure it wasn’t a scam.

It sounded too good to be true: Arcadia Power takes over your power bill (ie: they pay it on your behalf) and you pay a small upcharge (between 5-10% more) to allow Arcadia to buy renewable energy certificates on your behalf to offset your electricity usage.

In other words, you pay your power bill, but you also pay a little more to ensure that the equivalent renewable energy is put into the grid to offset your coal or nuclear or natural gas power.

Why bother?¬†¬† Two reasons:¬† One, we need to make renewable power more of a thing. Climate change is going to hit us all (it already is) and this is a small way to make a difference in your own power usage if you can’t afford your own solar or alternate methods.

Second, the energy industry and our politicians don’t believe people will pay for renewables. Pretty soon, I don’t think we’ll have a choice, but for now, Arcadia offers a way for you to put your power bill toward renewables to help prove that you at least give a care.

We have a referral link. You’ll get $25 off your first bill and we’ll get a few bucks off next month too if you sign up.¬† Check them out:¬† Arcadia Power


Make better coffee

So vital, I’m going to turn this into its own post! ¬†


Piri-piri

Before reading an issue of Milk Street magazine, I’d never heard of this Portuguese spice until one of the recipes in the magazine mentioned it. A few days later, we ran into a small jar of this spicy-yet-not-too-hot blend plus a bottle of it in liquid “hot sauce” form. Bought both.¬† LOVE THEM.

It’s spicy without being overpowering.¬† Hot without taking out your sinuses or causing weeping.¬† It pairs super well with red meats or BBQ, but I’ve used it in nearly everything — I put the dried blend into marinades and rubs for chicken, pork, and steak; we stir both kinds into a big pot of pinto beans (which I try to work into our household eats at least twice a month).¬† And into our grain bowls, which I will describe in a minute.

You can buy piri piri at a lot of spice shops, or hit up Amazon for the liquid stuff or the dry variety, available from many sellers — or like me, get both and use them liberally.¬† By the way, this is the brand we are currently using of the dry spice.


Grain bowls

This is like the home-run of the Ramey kitchen in 2019. I’m going to post the recipe as a separate post and link it here.

Monday Nights – Fast Whole Grain & Protein Bowls | RameyLady

If you’re making a shopping list and live in Upstate SC, hit Ingles for affordable sesame oil (check the Asian food aisle) and the downtown olive oil store for spiced Moroccan chili oil and sherry vinegar — and piri piri (mentioned above).


Chocolate-covered Blueberries | Trader Joe’s

I know it sounds weird to combine blueberries and chocolate–at least, it was to me– but I promise this is a delicious combo!¬† We regularly grab chocolate for snacking at Trader Joe’s because¬† it’s a good quality chocolate at an affordable price, and we rotate through a winner’s list for end-table snacking:¬† dark-chocolate almonds or caramels or the shockingly good peanut butter cups.

(seriously, the dark chocolate PB cups will ruin Reese’s for you, forever)

But if you’re trying to “be good” with your snacking habits, and especially if you make hot cereal in the mornings, the chocolate covered blueberries are an unusual and delicious addition.

Buy them at Trader Joe’s, of course, — but if you need an online supplier, I was slightly surprised to find that you can purchase them on Amazon


She-Ra and the Princesses of Power | Netflix
The Dragon Prince | Netflix
Castlevania | Netflix

Look, I know that I’m not 9 years old and we aren’t in the 80s anymore. But if you also remember rushing home after school to catch She-Ra or ňÜ cartoons, then take a minute to watch the Netflix reboot of the series which drops the exhausting moralizing in favor of good, solid episodic cartoon stories — child-friendly but enjoyable by adults too.¬† It’s happy and bright and carries a great message of empowering women to be all they can be. We’ve devoured both available seasons.

The creator of the animated series The Last Airbender (one of our absolute faves) has returned with a new series on Netflix called The Dragon Prince. The storytelling has been great, and it’s a nice reminder of how good Aaron Ehasz stories are. The characters confront difficult choices regarding family, friendships, and loyalty, and the series is poised to investigate the cost of grasping after power, even in hopes of using it for good. One of the key supporting characters is deaf – and I wish that weren’t so rare in media as to be notable here.

Finally, it’s worth noting the Castlevania short sereies on Netflix, if you’re in the animated mood. This builds on the lore from the beloved Playstation games, retelling Dracula’s story (kind of) and exploring the dark consequences of human tribalism, xenophobia, and power abuses.


Cowboy Bebop

I don’t know why it took us THIS LONG to watch Cowboy Bebop. It’d been recommended to us numerous times by friends who love ainme, but we didn’t start watching until earlier this year — and it’s been a delight. We’re savoring the episodes, watching them slowly because you can experience something “the first time” only once, and we want it to last.

Take the best atmospheric storytelling you’ve ever seen on TV and move it to space.¬† Take the most beautiful framing in cinematography and make it anime. Hand the score to a blues + jazz group who assembled just for this soundtrack. Cap the story at the end of a single season so there’s an actual arc to the story (rather than dragging things out like Lost or nearly any other anime).¬† Offer some of the most singular characters I’ve ever seen on TV. Make your opening title season sizzle with graphic design hott enough to match the opening theme song (below). Steal style from mid-century Modern and marry it to film noir and pulp detective fiction. Throw it into the future.

That’s Cowboy Bebop.¬†

You can watch it right now on Hulu as part of your subscription, buy it on Prime, or watch on DVD/Blueray (Amazon).


Better cleaning, fewer headaches

All three of these products hit my radar thanks to those random Buzzfeed articles usually titled “25 products you can’t live without” or “15 ways to make your life easier.”¬† Don’t roll your eyes; I often find¬† gems that way.

I hate the chemical smell of strong cleaning products; they give me a headache.¬† I can’t even be near the bathroom if my hubby is using one of the strong tub cleaners, meaning he was always on tub duty.

So there was much rejoicing when I ordered Better Life Tub & Tile Cleaner from Amazon and gave it a try.¬† Short review: It’s fantastic.¬† Spray it on after a shower, give it 15-20 minutes to work, come back and rinse the tub; scrub if needed. We think the cleaner works even after you rinse it off; I swear the tub continued to brighten after the first time we used it.¬† And the smell is much less “chemical” than the typical cleaner. It’s not scent-free, but it’s bearable (open a window, turn on the fan) and I don’t get headaches

Better Life – Tub & Tile Cleaner – Amazon

Second, someone in one of those Buzzfeed articles said they’ve been mixing Castille soap with distilled water (5:1 water to soap) in a clean foaming soap dispenser, saving them quit a bit from buying hand soap.¬† Why not? I thought.¬† Ordered soap and dispensers (below) and set them up upon arrival.¬† The soap spells very nice and it foams well. It’s not as “sudsy” as what we were used to, but I’ll take the 75% savings over high-end soaps from BBW or the increase in quality and scent over cheap stuff from Walmart.

Quinn’s Pure Castille Soap with Peppermint Oil, 32oz from Amazon

mDesign modern square glass refillable soap dispensers – set of 2, from Amazon

I fill the soap dispensers about every other month in the kitchen and bathrooms. My bottle of castille soap is going to last for the year AT LEAST.

Finally, in my search for a better laundry detergent (and I don’t have the patience to make my own), I stumbled across Charlie’s Soap, which is apparently a favorite among the community of folks who can’t handle artificial scents. We don’t have that issue, but some of our friends do and it’s made me more conscious of the sheer number of chemicals dumped into my life from all sources -for no good reason, really.

Charlie’s Soap is a simple white powder. A tablespoon or so will handle an entire load in our washer. Clothes come out sparkly clean (we wash in cold nearly all the time) and smelling “clean” without any added scents.¬† It’s been fantastic.

Charlie’s Soap – Natural Washing Detergent, Amazon

Also worth mentioning that since I’ve switched to Native deodorant, I don’t have to scrub white residue off my clothes before (or after) the wash.¬† Makes Native worth the extra dollars.


I’d love to hear what you’re currently enjoying in 2019 — whether media, food, good reads, or household helpers. Drop me a comment!

Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse- Hugo Award Reads

Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse, Review - Hugo Awards 2019Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first of a new series called The Sixth World (Amazon) and listed as a Best Novel nominee on the Hugo Award ballot in 2019.

I was so excited to read this book; I’ve enjoyed Roanhorse’s short fiction thanks to nominations in previous Hugo years, and I am drinking in stories from such a delicious variety of authors, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

However, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped.

The positives

Roanhorse sets this not-urban fantasy in a near future Southwest US Navajo reservation, a sliver of the 1/3 of North America that survived a catastrophic climate event which flooded much of the US and created vast upheaval.¬† She doesn’t take time to detail the disaster much; I appreciated not having to wade through a political or science treatise to get to the story. (I say that as someone who’s deeply concerned about the rate of climate change and the US’s stubborn refusal to confront it.)

I liked the setting and the general premise, that Maggie (main character) is a Navajo and also a monster hunter. In the fiction, the disaster has somehow awakened the old gods and some Navajo experience “clan powers” — their maternal and paternal heritage links them to powerful spirits? magic? demons? and thus they experience greatly enhanced abilities in crisis moments.¬† Kind of superpowers.

Maggie’s “powers” are speed and a bloodlust that lets her kill non-human monsters (and monstrous humans, if necessary) with relative ease. As a fan of the Witcher novels and games, I was ALL IN on this premise.

The atmosphere is …solid….but not so well developed that I can rave about it.¬† Roanhorse uses Navajo words and cultural elements to enhance the setting, and honestly I think the setting may be the strongest element of this novel.

I should highlight a great scene about 3/4 through; I won’t spoil it, but you get to see — really see — some of the magical/fantasy elements present among the Dine’e (Navajo) people, and I loved her descriptions in that chapter. I felt like Roanhorse’s writing hit its peak at that point; very little in the book otherwise comes close.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the presence of Coyote the Trickster in the story. Anyone who’s read indigenous folktales will recognize Coyote. Roanhorse uses the stock character from the tales as the basis for a genuinely interesting character who delighted me whenever he appeared.

The weaknesses

The story follows a basic mystery structure, introducing us to a few key characters and a former mentor/lover. (No spoilers; you learn that in the first chapter.)¬† I can’t really say this book has much “meat.”¬† There are some good fights, and they’re written clearly — you can follow what happens. That’s a decent baseline.¬† I wanted more.

Likewise, the characters are laid in with general strokes – a “strong bad-ass heroine with a dark past”; “a handsome yet mysterious partner who joins her”;¬† “the mentor who was also a lover but it’s complicated”; “the caring father-figure.”¬† And so on.¬† Flip through any TTRPG character creation guide, choose the urban fantasy setting, spin the wheel.

Perhaps the greatest flaw to me is that Roanhorse leans on two tired tropes. First, we have an emotionally stunted “loner” heroine thanks to past trauma. I don’t mean to downplay the traumatic impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, but violence against women is too easy of a crutch for an inexperienced writer to lean on, in place of creating a fully rounded character who makes deep and meaningful choices. I feel that Maggie is lacking here, and I hope Roanhorse gives her a better future in the next book(s). Also, her trauma isn’t linked to imperialism; it’s a tragic backstory and violent act of crime that reminds me of the boilerplate way comic books tend to substitute “gee that’s horrible!” for a genuine backstory.¬† I’m not asking for Roanhorse to write a book that confronts American imperialism, but … I mean…. can her story do its best work by ignoring this almost completely?

Second, the entire book is written in the present progressive. I try really hard not to be a prescriptivist grammarian, but I had to grit my teeth at this. True, the present progressive lends a sense of immediacy to the action, but this is — to me —¬† nearly always a gimmick to create energy in weak prose, unless it’s wielded by a genuine master craftsman. (Even then, I’m still not sure I can get on board with long fiction written in present progressive.) I desperately wanted Roanhorse to work with a better editor.

I do need to critique my assumptions regarding the grammar; for example, the folktales in Native American culture as I’ve encountered them use a simplistic story structure and vocabulary. That doesn’t make them simplistic stories or less valuable than wordy modernist novels. I guess the problem here is that I can’t tell if this book is weakly written or if it’s following stylistic choices rooted in an unfamiliar culture.¬† Given no clear evidence of a cultural underpinning, I see it as inexperienced writing.

I noticed that many Goodreads reviewers assumed this book is YA rather than new fiction/ new adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against YA, but most of what’s on the shelves won’t win awards for writing or deep themes and plot. Despite the descriptions of violence, this book probably fares better when compared to YA rather than the typical Hugo nominee.

*****

I did enjoy the book overall. It’s not a bad book. I’m glad to see new voices and perspectives flagged for attention in the sci-fi universe.

That said, Trail of Lightning is a very weak Hugo nominee. Not as weak as what the “Rabid Puppies” got onto the Hugo ballot in 2013-15 (hoo boy, there was some shitty writing there), but still – weak. I want to see Roanhorse succeed, and I hope this series improves as it goes, because this world deserves to be explored.

And I kind of wish a different indigenous author had been the first to land a Hugo nomination, because the first person past the post may be the only author from an underrepresented group that the average reader will ever encounter.¬† Roanhorse’s work does provide a perspective rarely seen in sci-fi/fantasy, and for that I am grateful.

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

Review: 2.5/5

Recommended for those who like urban fantasy or are craving a Native American viewpoint for their dystopian future. Content warning for sexual violence and violent crime.

Hugo ballot position: bottom

Review: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal – Hugo Award reads

Calculating Stars, Kowal-Reviews / Hugo Awards The Calculating Stars (Amazon)

I remember Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” from my award list reading a few years ago. It went through some nomination drama and eventually appeared on the 2014 novelette ballot (I didn’t vote that year), winning the category.¬† That story launched this series, as I understand it, by introducing us to Elma York – America’s first woman astronaut in an alt-history world where humans took to the stars much earlier.¬† You can read the novelette for free on Tor.com.

SPOILER BIT SO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE NOVELETTE:¬† To me, the strength of the novelette lies in the excruciating choice that Elma must make in the twilight years of her life, to accept the mission because sending an aging body into space means the radiation won’t destroy the health of a younger astronaut, but trade away her chance to spend time with her dying husband in his final weeks of life. I knew nearly nothing about Elma or Nate (obviously), but the emotional punch of that story has not faded in the least since reading that story.

OK, SPOILER FREE AGAIN.

So I was genuinely interested in this first book of a two-prequel series by Kowal that promises to fill in the background of this “Lady Astronaut” who clearly (we know from just the title of the novelette) made it to Mars.

The world Kowal builds in The Calculating Stars is detailed and precise. It’s a nearly exact 1950s USA with one HUGE difference – a meteor strikes the seabed just off the coast of DC and Baltimore, obliterating the Eastern seaboard.¬† The US is forced to confront the reality of impending climate change (this is a similar theme to Stephenson’s Seveneves, which I hated so much).¬† Two chapters in, I knew I was reading a better book than Stephenson’s.¬† Kowal packs in the necessary scientific explanations of how a meteor strike would alter the earth’s climate to be hostile to life (cf: dinosaurs, way back when) and man’s only option is to take to space. So… they do.

This is the story of Elma York, a Jew and “calculator” who crunches numbers in the pre-digital era, echoes similar themes that occur in Hidden Figures. (My goodness, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, drop everything and go find it (like on Prime). And I’ve got the book on my pile to read, because I’ve heard it’s far more extensive than what they could fit into a film.).

That said…. this just wasn’t the book for me. Maybe it’s me? The writing is very good – crisp sentences, solid plotting, clear structure.¬† The story has stuck in my brain and keeps returning to my mind, so clearly the characters meant something to me.¬† But it felt too much like a history book that I hadn’t signed up to read, you know?

Elma¬† discrimination as a woman; she’s told outright that no women will fly to Mars, though she knows (as should everyone) that eventually a colony would need women around.¬† Of course, she’s a crack WASP-era pilot and spunky intelligent woman….but not without flaws that could imperil her trip into space.

I’m so divided about this book. I feel like I’m supposed to root for it, like it, give it to everyone I know, and feel smug because it’s progressive and all.

I think that’s the problem. Maybe I didn’t need Elma’s history filled in for me, because I’d rather read the actual history of the women in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and for decades centuries previously) whose contributions to science have always been overlooked.

Somehow, the alt-history tale of American misogyny and innovation falls flat (to me) compared to the actual horrors of 2019 or 1969 or Jim Crow, or the actual achievements of the Apollo project and Grace Hopper and Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (America’s first black woman in space).

Rating: 3.5/5¬† – it’s not you, Kowal, it’s me.

Buy a copy: Kindle | Print

Recommended for folks who enjoy the space program, the nuts and bolts of the relevant engineering problems, and alt-history.

Hugo Ballot: Middle

Concert Review: Evanescence with Lindsey Stirling

Evanescence with Lindsey Stirling
Heritage Memorial Park Ampitheatre
Simpsonville, SC
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Lindsey Stirling in Concert//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Quick thoughts about this show:

Opener:  Cello Gram
A dude with a cello and a dude playing one of those wooden box percussion drum things.  Cool.  Fun.   And their stuff is on Apple Music and Amazon, so go look them up.

Main: Evanescence reminded me of how much I enjoyed their first album and why. I’ve had some of those songs running through my head ever since we left the show, but not in a bad, annoying way. ¬†Amy Lee’s vocals are great as ever.

The real draw for this show, to me, was seeing everything played live with a full orchestra (featuring local musicians, conducted by someone on the tour). ¬†There’s a richness to the orchestral sound that no amplified electronica can match.

The newest album releases Lee to redraft some of her old material in new ways and to add a few more songs to the pile. Yes, it’s all basically the same sound, but it was lovely.

Top songs for me:  My Immortal, Lithium   Latest album on Amazon // Apple Music

Headliner: Lindsey Stirling was a tour de force, exploding onto the stage with dancers and sets and 3 layers of costumes. Have you watched her on YouTube? Then you know what we saw. It was fun and light and beautiful.

I listened to Evanescence – I have hardly any photos — but I shot dozens of pictures during Stirling’s set. ¬†I didn’t have a telephoto lens good enough to grab any really great shots, but the colors were so lovely.

Lindsey Stirling on Apple Music // on Amazon

The crowd featured teenagers, Millennials, and lots of GenX folks, especially women and married couples. I had to wonder if the men were there because their wives dragged them or because this goth rock music appeals to them too and they weren’t ashamed to admit it. ūüėČ

A lovely evening under the stars, once the setting sun tempered the August heat.  Our friends nabbed a great spot to the right of center in the GA area, just behind the separating wall for the seating area. Will definitely sit there again.

 

 

 

 

Hugo Award Reads: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Review)

It’s Hugo Award Season! I love when June rolls around and I get to read books for 2 months with the excuse “I’m reading for the Hugo ballot voting!” ¬†Not that I need an excuse to read books; our house is practically composed of stacks of books. But still…. it’s nice.

I’ve already read three of the nominees for Best Novel earlier in the year, so I’m picking up the other two.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Amazon link)

Robinson is a big name in sci fi but this is the first of his books to land on my reading pile. My husband, who is a voracious reader of sci with increasingly discriminating tastes, doesn’t love Robinson, so he’s not been as much on my radar. ¬†Based on this novel, I will likely give his Mars series a shot.

New York 2140 is a big wandering novel told from multiple points of view (one per chapter, kind of in Game of Thrones Style). The novel introduces multiple themes of interest:  the realistic effects of global warming and climate change, the real effects of putting a coastal city under water, the lopsided wealth distribution, a sense of near-future tech applied to near-future climate problems, an exploration of the battle between political fortitude and the lure of lobbyist money.

It’s also a book about characters, more so than tends to be typical for an “ideas book.” ¬†And this is what sold it for me.

I have head that Robinson is accused of creating “paint by number” characters, as have so many of the “idea guys” in science fiction. What they’re good at is building worlds and asking questions; the people in those stories exist only to carry on the plot and showcase the ideas. ¬†I think Cixin Liu’s series (Three Body Problem, etc) are a good example of an idea guy who can’t really create believable human characters. (Though I have to give Liu a bit of a pass, since I could be missing the Chinese cultural nuances that a native speaker reading his novels in Chinese would see, and we might be losing more in translation than we realize. But the poor characterization ruined Death’s End for me.)

New York 2140 isn’t going to win a Pulitzer for characterization, but the New Yorkers here struck me as legit: with all the can-do and fuck-off attitude that NYC has delivered anytime I’ve been within its borders. ¬†Of all cities on earth to find itself spit in half by a rising ocean, dealing with housing millions of people in a broad intertidal zone that bisects its critical districts, New York would survive. ¬†New York would find a way to thrive. And New York would find a way to make money off that fight for survival.

I don’t want to tell you much about the plot – you can find summaries everywhere, but who wants to ruin a story like that? ¬†Some have complained that the novel took too long to get started. *shrugs* If you enjoy sitting on a bench in Union Square and watching people for two hours, you won’t be bored by the novel’s opening. This book always drew me back for more, and honestly, it was usually to discover whether these people were going to be ok. That’s a good sign for a science fiction novel.

If you’re interested in how New York in particular would stare down a 50-foot rise in the oceans, this is the novel for you.

If you’ve never really thought about how rising sea levels will bring an apocalypse, but then a New Normal, this novel may interest you.

If you sense that our government ¬†isn’t really much of a democracy any more, but we’re run by a rich-old-boys oligarchy, this novel might get you thinking about the natural consequences of that.

If you’d ever wanted to go treasure hunting in New York harbor, this book might intrigue you.

But really, if you enjoy visiting The City and soaking in everything New York has to offer, from brilliant minds to piss-soaked streets, read New York 2140. Just as New Yorkers got about their business after 9/11, they will find a way to get about the business of living once the oceans reclaim the coastline.

Pick up a copy of the book on Amazon.com (affiliate)

*****

Hugo Ballot thoughts:

I’m working to finish Ann Leckie’s Provenance and then I still need to read Six Wakes. What I’ve read of Provenance thus far doesn’t suggest it’s going to be a top contender, so at the moment I’ve got Jemisin’s Stone Sky and Lee’s Raven Stratagem on my short list for Hugo Best Novel. ¬†Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire was a fun read and I’ll pick up the others in that series, but it doesn’t rise above the others IMHO in my balloting.

I don’t think Robinson’s novel rises above either of my top picks at this point. His ideas are solid and it’s a good novel. ¬† But for the Hugo, I look for striking originality or truly novel ideas. ¬†I think Robinson will do a lot to help the general public understand the real effects of climate change, though I hold little hope that anyone is willing to pay the price to reign in our overconsumption and reliance on fossil fuels in order to make life better for people who won’t be born for another 100 years. Robinson’s voice is added to the pile of those saying, “Hey! This is bad, y’all!”

For me, the question is, should Robinson’s novel stay above the “No Award” line? ¬†I believe the answer is a firm Yes. ¬†This is a good read and hopefully an influential one.

Finding Flannery among the Three Billboards

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Sermon on loving your enemies  (link)


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a top contender for an Oscar this season, ¬†in a field with several other great films like Get Out (perhaps the best horror movie I’ve ever seen) and Dunkirk (chilling sound design + interesting manipulation of the timeline in the storytelling), this festival darling has gotten a lot of attention since the turn of the year.

Three¬†Billboards has sparked controversy too regarding whether it exhibits blind spots about race and police brutality. I figured I’d have to wait for rental since the film is completely off-market here in the South for the types of movies that open at our theaters, so I was pleasantly surprised it finally opened here.

Three Billboards is a raw film, a brutal and unflinching observation of human nature at war with injustice.  ]

Briefly (spoilers): the plot centers on Mildred, a working-class single mother whose teen daughter was raped, murdered, and burned seven months ago in a little fictional town in Missouri. Mildred gets the idea to put up three huge billboards calling out the town’s police chief for not cracking the case, leaving her daughter’s killer at large and herself with a gaping hole and a lot of anger. ¬†The film is told through the perspectives of several characters, mostly Mildred and the police chief Willoughby and his deputy Dixon.

In an early shot, a supporting character reads from Flannery O’Conoor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The homage to Flannery’s work in this film is unmistakable. ¬†Martin McDonaugh, the writer and director, is Irish, but he’s clearly a fan of Southern Gothic themes. ¬†And I’d say her stamp on this film is critical to understanding the story rightly, lest the viewer misunderstand the layers of irony at work. Were Flannery alive today and writing film scripts, I’d easily say this one were hers.

Why is the film controversial? Well, language for one. Mildred in particular is quite unhindered in her vulgarities, caring little whether her language or behavior offends her audience. For her, the injustice of an unsolved brutal crime makes social “rules” irrelevant. ¬†In one scene, she screams at high schoolers who mock her son and wear their parents’ judgmental stance as their own. Her words escalate to physical violence. It’s a “balls to the wall” moment, but not without cost. When grief and anger drive one’s actions, a lot of people get hurt who don’t actually deserve it. ¬†That’s a central point of this film, one that the writer put on a billboard so you couldn’t forget it.

Some have criticized the film for offering only a white woman’s POV of crime and injustice, when the narrative repeatedly refers to Deputy Dixon’s racism and brutality as a cop without providing details. Several times he is accused of or admits to “torturing” a black suspect in custody but this part of his story is left unexamined. Some have suggested this is a flaw: Is not the systemic injustice of police racism worse than¬†an individual mother’s loss? Black bodies are threatened with violence almost constantly, yet we are asked to watch this particular white mother rage at her daughter’s murder.

I think that criticism is missing the point here. In Flannery’s Southern Gothic storytelling, the reader is usually presented with a whole set of character flaws to consider, operating as a backdrop to egregious evil that’s not always showing up holding a sign to announce its presence. In Three Billboards, the problem driving the story is Mildred’s relentless drive for justice. But that’s not the only problem in Ebbing that needs to be addressed. ¬†I don’t think it’s a flaw in the writing that McDonaugh expects his viewers to recognize evil when they see it (like a racist deputy) and draw their own conclusions – all while wrestling with whether individuals suffer more because of individual crimes or systemic ones.

Those same critics suggest that Dixon is offered a cheap redemption arc in the second half of the film and this makes his racism all the more inexcusable for the writer to gloss over. Dixon isn’t a good man – indeed, any good man (or woman) is hard to find in this town. ¬†He’s also a product of a racist and uncaring upbringing (highlighted via the scenes with his mother, who seems more hateful and racist and cruel as Dixon). But every human possess the power of choice, and Dixon uses his in the second half of the film to express a bit of sympathy, perhaps a desire for real justice for Mildred’s daughter.

Again, I think the viewers who charge that Dixon is given a redemptive arc he didn’t earn ¬†are missing what McDonaugh is trying to do – and why he made sure we saw Flannery O’Connor’s name and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on the screen at the very outset of the story.¬† In the end, Dixon and Mildred drive off to execute vigilante justice – should they even get that far. ¬†Is that actually justice? ¬†Another great question, one that we aren’t allowed to ignore. ¬†As a viewer, I do feel better about Dixon, a bit, by the end, but by no means do I like him or sympathize with his unemployment and broken ¬†life.¬†Nor do I feel comfortable with Mildred, who so thoughtlessly injures the people around her as she lashes out. Her suffering does not give her permission to inflict pain on others.

Mildred’s actions don’t solve the murder. They just bring more pain. At first, we stand with her against the townspeople who hate her for making them remember this crime. They hate her for implying it’s the police chief’s fault. Woody Harrelson makes Sheriff Willoughby ¬†pretty likable without letting us forget that he’s not without blame here too. Like Mildred, his own story is both tragic and sympathetic. His suicide complicates matters for Mildred, after her public shaming of him and disregard for his terminal cancer diagnosis. In his final words to her, he seems to forgive her for it. Should his daughters be so gracious toward her? Or would that be cheap mercy?

O’Connor’s unflinching and brutal stories of Southern self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and Grace are not for the faint of heart. While I would say her themes are some of the most Christian that we can find in early 20th century American literature, many of my Christian friends cannot stand to read her. They find the violence and grotesque characters in her story too off-putting to be “proper.” ¬†They miss – as do some of the viewers of Three Billboards – the truth that Grace is sharp. It has teeth and claws and a backbone. Real Grace, the kind that can undergird Cross-death and self-sacrifice, changes the receiver as well as the giver. It’s nothing like the cheap religiosity which permeates Southern culture, where God and guns and college football and family pride are worshiped at individual shrines. Cultural Christianity – the fake kind – has little beyond platitudes to offer Mildred in her aching grief and searing anger.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a dysfunctional family goes on vacation, gets lost thanks to the self-centered and foolish grandmother, and falls prey to a murderer on some backwater Georgia country road. The killer and the grandmother engage in one of the most memorable fictional discourses about existential good vs evil and human choices. She all but begs for the killer to find the good in his nature to spare them. He’s far more prepared than she to identify her Pharisaism and denies her mercy. The story title warns us there won’t be any good people in this tale, and there aren’t.

In Three Billboards, Mildred seeks justice for her daughter because it’s been denied thus far and she’s desperate. Does she also see her own flaws and own them honestly? We see flashbacks that any parent could relate to- and feel guilty about. She’s not really a great parent, before or after her daughter died. ¬†But she also didn’t ask for her daughter to be raped, murdered, and burned. Nobody deserves that.

We see Mildred at the outset of the film as heroic. We’re expecting a to like this “nasty woman” on her quest, hard as nails and relentless.¬†McDonaugh turns our expectations sideways, making us squirm as we realize we can’t feel entirely sympathetic for anybody on the celluloid before us. The dividing line between good and evil runs through us, not around. Southern Gothic writing – even when written by an Irishman – is always at its best when holding a mirror before our faces, forcing us to see humanity as it really is.

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