Sunday, 24 April 2016

The twenty very best things I consumed in America

I've talked about fiction, I've talked about music, so it's time to talk about one of my other great loves and that is what goes in my belly. So this blog post will simply be a list of the best things I consumed while in the USA for the past three months (with reasons for why they're great). Now listen up, here's some great ways to put on over half a stone in three months.

20) Ace Pineapple Cider - It's possible the reason this is so high is that I drank it at the Pittsburgh Beer Fest and my memory of that is mildly blurry, because there were too many drinks to remember them all. Also, there were too many drinks. Still, I remember it being immensely drinkable, and far more pineapple-y than most other attempts at pineapple alcohol I've ever had, except for the following...

19) Ballast Point Pineapple Sculpin - A very unusual choice for me, in that I'm not a huge IPA fan, and that goes double when mixed with fruit. See Southern Tier Tangier, which I wanted to love but couldn't quite do so. I did love Pineapple Sculpin though. Weirdly, a better beer from the bottle than on draft, but really good either way.

18) Cajun Dusted Chicken wings with Sexxy Sriracha Sauce - Before causing my digestive system to meltdown, I ate quite a lot from my gorgeous fiancée's place of work, Three Rivers Six Pack. This became my go to choice, with the earthy, smoky cajun dust counter-balancing the sugar and spice of the sauce beautifully. Now probably my favourite way to have wings.

17) Everything at Monell's Dining & Catering in Nashville - When I picked out this restaurant for dinner shortly before our flight, I did not understand what Family Style meant. Now I do. I've heard that what I experienced was atypical, but at Monell's, they sit you at a table with a bunch of strangers and then bring out endless waves of really good southern food. The highlight was the baked blackened chicken but it was all so good (except maybe the deep fried pork chop). It weighs endlessly on my soul that fried chicken in London will never taste as good again.

16) Angry Orchard Green Apple Cider - A guilty pleasure. This isn't sophisticated (in fact some hae told me it's a teenage girl drink) but I don't care. Green apples are (at their best) my favourite fruit in the world, and this cider captures the refreshing hit of sugar and acid better than any other green apple drink I know (and I know a few). You can get Angry Orchard's regular in the UK, but not the Green Apple, and that makes me sad.

15) Cajun dusted Salmon with mango-lime quinoa salad and grilled pineapple - I had this at the Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh and while the name would indicate it's the sort of place to go to drink, and they do have good beer there, I remember this meal far better because the balance of flavours was beautiful.

14) Biscuits and Gravy - I still don't quite understand the American obsession with this dish (think unsweetened scones and creamy melted down sausage meat for those unaware of the US definitions of these terms) but I came a little closer in Durham, New Hampshire, at Youngs Restaurant. My lady had these, not me, which I mildly regret now thinking back to it, but the addition of chorizo to the usual Italian sausage was a winner. She rhapsodised about them; I can only agree.

13) Ginger Garlic Shrimp with Noodles - On previous trips, the food from Headkeeper in Greensburg might have taken up multiple spaces in the top 10. Now, maybe I've been spoiled, or maybe it's a case of me preferring previous of their seasonal menus, but this hasn't happened this time. Still, they do really good food, and this dish was everything it should have been. I ate a lot of noodles on those three months, and these were the best.

12) Lobster Roll - I have this at Peteys, a seafood place up somewhere on the coast of New Hampshire. As far as I'm concerned, the only reason to visit New England is to eat lobster (sorry Jon, you're not as cool as lobster). This meant I ate a hell of a lot of them in my four days there and this was comfortably the best.

11) Arsenal Griersons Ginger Apple - You can only get Arsenal Cider at the Arsenal Cider House in Pittsburgh (well, ok, a few other places too). This is annoying as it meant it took ages for me to any of their products. They do a lot of good cider but the Griersons was hands down oh my days the best. Somehow, the concept of cider and ginger had never ever been introduced to me before. I'm serious. From now on, after Griersons, it will be remembered.

10) Southern Tier Chokolat - I can't believe it's taken me this long to include a chocolate stout on the list but then maybe that's because I really, really love chocolate stout and this means they all hit the top 10. Chokolat is rich and intense; expensive, but worth it. Southern Tier is opening a brewery in Pittsburgh and I literally could not be more excited about that unless they gave me Willy Wonka-style tickets to investigate when it opened.

9) Founders Rubaeus - The last non-chocolate beer on the list, Founders Rubaeus is a raspberry ale that manages the neat trick of replicating the tart notes of a raspberry without it jarring with the beer itself. I've found no one else who's managed that; when it was on tap at Three Rivers Six Pack, I drank an awful lot of it.

8) Chicken Fried Steak - The concept of chicken fried steak - that being coating steak as if it was chicken, then deep frying it - is ridiculous to me. This is why it's taken me so long to try it. Having done so at Pucketts in Nashville, I can now only say that I am an idiot and that honestly, this is a really tasty (if unhealthy) way to eat steak.

7) Sam Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout - Hang on, hang on, Sam Smith's is British! Well it is, but I only drank it for the first time in the States and oh my gods it's delicious. I don't think I've ever had a chocolate stout that was simultaneously this chocolatey and this creamy. Most of the things on this list, I must merely dream of until I'm next back (and have lost that half a stone). Not this though, this could keep me a fat bastard for a long while further yet.

6) Guacamole - For some reason, Tako does not have its guacamole menu online, and I can't remember what exactly went into it. I think it was crab, pineapple, and habaneros. I remember it was spectacular. We'd gone to Tako for the tacos and the chicken wings and while they were pretty good, the guac is what stuck in my mind. And I don't even like guac. Unless it's with crab, pineapple and habaneros.

5) Beef Brisket and Rib Tips -  Just like Church Brew Works, we were at Against The Grain in Louisville, Kentucky, to drink beer, but it's the food that stays with me. In particular, the brisket was the best I'd ever had, but the Rib Tips were serious business too.

4) Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout - It should be obvious by now that I really like chocolate stout. Apparently what I like even more than that is chocolate and coffee stout that's then aged in bourbon barrels. There's something borderline hallucinogenic about it as well as being utterly delicious. I saw it sell out like hot cakes and I absolutely understand why.

3) Ribeye Sandwich - Gaucho Parilla Argentina is an Argentine sandwich place in Pittsburgh. Some people will tell you that it's one of the very top food places to visit in the USA. That might be a slight exaggeration but only slight. Very slight. Previously, I had been a loss for why anyone would waste steak on a sandwich. Now I know. You shove it into a big ciabatta with chimmi, caramelised onions and peppers

2) Terrapin Tia Moo Hoo - The Moo Hoo is a chocolate milk stout that narrowly missed out on this list on its own merits. Tia Moo Hoo was a mad limited edition release that gave that drink the flavours of Tiramisu. I've no idea whether that should work or not, but it did, and the flavour shall rest ever more in my memory.

1) Tacos Al Pastor - I had these in Madero Cantina, a little place out in Murraysville, a week or so after landing and they were amazing. Madero boasts of its authenticity; what I know of authentic Mexican cuisine could be tattooed on a pygmy shrew's penis, but the combination of marinated pork and grilled pineapple was delicious. I ate a lot of tacos in my three months in America, and these were the best. The best thing I ate. Next time I'm out, I'm going back.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Abendau's Heir by Jo Zebedee

There are three things you should know about Abendau's Heir.

The first is that this is Space Opera. No, make that Space OPERA. Because Space Opera is noble heroes solving problems with rayguns and the Force, and Abendau's Heir is all about the people in those tense and traumatic scenarios. Sure, there's action involved, but that's mostly mere spice for the personal drama.

The second is that it is written in close third person, so you're getting nice and cosy with said people.

The third is that this is Grimdark.

Actually, I might question that. I am possibly being over-specific with the term, but when people talk about grimdark, I think of Warhammer 40k. I think of Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy. These books paint horrible worlds but it is done with a heavy dollop of humour that eases the nastiness. That black comedy strikes me as a key component of the over-the-top nature of grimdark and I don't see it in Zebedee's work. Abendau's Heir is just straight up dark.

The combination is a potent one and made more so by the fact the book covers a period of over twenty years with enough events that the storyline could have easily stretched to a fully trilogy by itself. The result is that the dark moments come thick and fast at points and you, the reader, get a ringside seat. 

Personally, at times, it gets a bit much. If it wasn't for the love I bore for Inish Carraig, the first book of Zebedee's I read, I would have shut the file about a third of the way through. Yet I continued and here I am reviewing it, and by and large I only review things I have positive things to say about. And I have a lot of positive things to say about Abendau's Heir, starting with 'read it'. Yet I still find myself pondering the huge difference in reaction I had to the beginning and the rest of it.

The issue, for me, lies partly in the closeness of the PoV. Zebedee has herself acknowledged the risk in this type of writing, in that it lives and dies on how well the characters are liked. This is certainly true, but it didn't affect how I viewed the main character Kare though; it affected how I liked those interacting with him. His early interactions with the rebels of the Banned left me hating just about everyone in the book. Arguably, the problem is that Zebedee did her job in making me consider Kare's pain too well.

Not that I cared too much for Kare himself mind.

There's a quote from Ursula Le Guin that I see often in grimdark debates and which popped to mind when reading this book. 

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

I don't want to say I agree totally with that quote, but Kare undergoes fairly constant pain early on and as a result I found him boring. He was like a gym punching bag. 

So what changed?

The introduction of a new PoV in Sonly helped add more perspective to the story, allowing me to feel more sympathetic to the people I was reading about. Another big difference was that once the big jumps in time are out of the way, the plot had more time to breathe and characters had more time to be themselves. Those two things change the mood of the book most and while it is still dark and painful, it is not boring. Maybe this is my weakness for fiction that concentrates on the human condition as much as the fireworks speaking, but Abendau's Heir did eventually snare me hard.

After finishing the book, I actually found myself thinking that Zebedee could have gone further with the misery (which is saying something). For one thing, given everything Kare went through, there's surprisingly little darkness in his soul, or tendency to self-destructive decisions. The lines between good guys and bad guys is relatively well delineated too and could have been blurred. At one point during my read, I found myself wondering if grimdark is truly for me, but the answer is yes. Let me wallow in the barbarity of the human soul and all the cracks therein where wicked whispers collect. Going that bit further would have, I think, tipped a good book towards greatness. 

My condition though for reading the evil that men do is that there needs to be some contrast for the darkness to make sense. Every book needs contrasts but given the choices made, this one needs them more than most. The usual contrast of the grimdark book, pitch black humour, is absent. This is both a blessing and a curse. The curse, for my money, is what is seen in the opening chapters.

The blessing is that it makes Abendau's Heir a very different beast to most books in SFF's varied realms. The author has talked about trying to tackle what it really means to go through the things that so many characters in the genre undergo; she succeeds. Most of the comparisons I have seen are Sci-Fi based - I'd say like Star Wars, only with Darth Momma looking for Luke and bastard-coated bastards all round - but myself, I would look at Robin Hobb, for she is the queen of character-driven drama. Now, I'm not ready to say that Jo Zebedee is as good as this as Robin Hobb, not just yet. But if you read Abendau's Heir, you might find yourself agreeing that one day, she could well be.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Adventures of Sir Edric by Thaddeus White

(Warning: may contain spoilers)

There are too many fantasy authors whose influences are solely earlier fantasy books and not enough who will make laugh.

So let us give thanks for Thaddeus White for he is the opposite of these things and the world is better for it.

Sir Edric is an anti-hero hewn straight from the same rock as Harry Flashman and Blackadder; amoral, dishonourable and conniving. His man servant, Dog, has the same unflappable, capable nature that characterises P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves. The Adventures of Sir Edric can be read as a love letter to British comedy.

We also have elves, dragons, witches, dwarves and so on and so on. This is a fantasy book after all and part of the joy of it is the way White gleefully plays on the fantasy tropes for laughs. It makes me wonder all over again why there was never a blossoming of people following in the footsteps of the Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.

So now you know what this. How good is it?

The answer is I started out the book with belly laughs and finished it with quiet smiles. That averages out as pretty damn good, but not the masterpiece I thought I'd be telling people about thirty pages in.

White can write a scene as keen as any of the many influences listed above. You know roughly what's going to happen - successes and failures alike will be just thwarted - but it's still a surprise how it happens most of the time. That takes no little talent. 

He knows how to write a story too, although at times that gets lost in the structure of mini-quest after mini-quest. Yes, relationships evolve, emotions ebb and flow, but the formulaic nature of things can make it seem like a collection of short stories. That's probably to an extent deliberate but the repetitive nature did wear away at my enthusiasm.

The other thing that wore away at me are the characters. Or rather the lack of them. The book is populated by stock stereotypes who do the things required to make the comedy work. And after a bit, that isn't quite as interesting. It doesn't help that the most realised character, Sir Edric, is utterly dislikeable. Of course he is! He's an anti-hero. But anti-heroes are meant to have charm and they benefit from being set against equally dislikeable types and I'm dubious as to whether that happened.

I probably sound like I don't like them that much and that is being misleading. I like it very much. I am grinding my teeth down to hard white peas because I wanted to love this and I only like it. That's the sort of thing that really has you worrying away at what you dislike in something, not indifference. I recommend it. I truly do. I'll buy the next one. 

I just hope that next time, the characters match the comedy because if they do, it could be exceptional.

Mountain Witch - Burning Village

One of the very first albums I seriously reviewed was Mountain Witch's Cold River. They're a long way from the most famous band I had anything to do with, and they're a long way from the highest score I gave, yet it's one of the records I can bring most easily to mind. There was a charm to it's infectious groove and cold dark spaces that just grew and grew. So when I noticed they were bringing out another album, I had to listen.

Burning Village is the new one and it's got something of a new sound too. Listen to opener 'The Dead Won't Sleep' and you'll hear it. This is more straight up rock and roll, music you could nod to along in the pub. The vocals still have that distant otherworldly sound but it's now married to something a lot warmer. And there ain't nothing wrong with that.

The problem is I'm not sure what's so right about it either. It's good background music but the acid-soaked leads that grabbed my memory so long ago just aren't there. Only with the closer 'Isle of Bones' do I get the vibe of Cold River. Now, yes, it's bad form to badmouth an album simply because I wish it had been the last one, but at the same time 'Isle of Bones' is the best thing here.

The fair way to judge any product is to ask yourself 'How much will the people this was meant for like it'. It doesn't appeal to me but is it going to appeal to others? The answer is probably. For people who want something simple and old fashioned, Burning Village will be an enjoyable listening experience. I mean, hell, I found it an enjoyable listening experience. 

I just can't remember what it was like.

Go and have a listen, but listen before you pay money. 

Welcome to my blog

Hello there, and hello blog.

Presumably, most people reading this to begin with will know me at least a little, but I need a first post and an introduction will serve.

I'm Pete - although I tend to go by Peat (or a variation there of) on most quarters of the net - and this blog is the home of my writing. It will contain news of my books (or at least, hopefully it will soon), reviews of various things that interest me (books, movie, food etc.etc.), thoughts on the craft, thoughts on just random other stuff. Plus some actual fiction.

What have I written? Not as much as I'd like. I contributed to Thrash Hits while it was still running. I submitted a few articles to GW's specialist publications back in the day (only one made it as a letter). I'm now writing what would be my third complete draft - there's one military sci-fi completed and one fantasy whodunnit -  and plan self-publishing soon. I'm at the beginning.

So, here goes nothing.