Thursday, May 25, 2017

Memorial Day Book Sale

I'm starting this weekend's Memorial Day Sale early. You can now get paperback and hardcover editions of my novel, Black Tree, for 30% off at this link. It's a good time to start stocking up on summer reading.

The sale will continue through Monday. If you're still undecided, you can read the first chapter before you buy the whole book by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Night-Blooming Cereus

Have you heard of the night-blooming cereus? It is a stick plant. A long gray-brown stick with a hint of purple to it sticks up and grows more stick branches--kind of like a short tree. It looks bare and sculptural, except that there are tiny white dots with short spikes on them. They're the type of spikes that will give you more of a scrape if you brush against them, versus the type of damage you'll get from the usual cactus needles.

Not the typical type of beauty, I realize, yet I find this plant absolutely wonderful to look at. The shapes it makes. I don't normally like much modern art, but I strangely do like a lot of plants that remind me of modern art.

There does come, however, a time in which everyone will be able to see beauty in this plant. The name says it all. This pointy stick plant (which can grow to about six feet, but mine is maybe four to four and a half feet) grows magical flowers that each bloom for a single night. Like how each flower on a saguaro only lasts for a day.

I've been watching for a while as little stubs started growing from my stick plant (I got it this March at the Desert Botanical Garden's Spring Plant Sale, by the way). The first one became a long stick of its own, longer than any of my fingers. While the rest of the plant grows in a sort of square shape, this part was rounded (you can see the contrast in the above picture). A blossom appeared. And then I walked by it on Thursday between 5:00 and 5:30 and a white blossom shocked me with its brilliance, its magical appearance. It floated like a cloud, soft above this spiky stick plant.

I was obsessed for the rest of the evening with checking back on the flower's progress. I took this second picture maybe around an hour later, when the petals were starting to open up. 

As the light faded, the flower emerged, like a nighttime fairy, like a secret for only those who knew to look (and when). 

By the time night set in, the outer petals stood out flat and straight, while the center of the flower stood straight up. This isn't a particularly scented flower: if I went right up to it, I did get a powdery honey scent, but it was faint. However, the flower remains completely gorgeous. 

That night was quite windy, so I couldn't get a non-blurry picture that showed both the flower and a little of the plant. If I had set up my camera on the tripod and then held the plant still, that probably would have helped, but I didn't really think about doing that until afterward. 

This flower is a moment to savor: by morning the petals were already closing up and by the end of the day it became a closed bud again, left to wilt and never again to bloom. This is the magic of the night-blooming cereus, the plant with the secret flowers of such beauty that they can only last for a single night. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Guardians of the Whills

Sometimes I wonder if I'm enjoying the Star Wars books that are written for younger audiences more than the adult books.

Such isn't really true: it's all on a case by case basis. But it is true that some of the adult books lean more toward details of politics and science and battles, such things as I am less interested in. And because the children's/YA books are intentionally kept simpler to be friendly for younger readers, that means that they sometimes get quicker to the heart of the matter. The characters and the drama, that is. And that's what I keep returning to Star Wars for.

Rogue One set up a fantastic group of characters. I remember having little to no interest in any of them from that first group photo that they released. But when the movie came and I met them all and I saw what happened to them all, I felt like I knew who they were and I was both sad and glad for them. All of them. It was a great group.

Guardians of the Whills by Greg Rucka tells a story about Baze and Chirrut before the events of the movie. I think it's aimed at around the ten to twelve age group--or at least that's my guess. But that really don't matter. It's a little awkward to walk into the children's section of a bookstore, perhaps, but I don't consider this book limited to only one age group--this just means that it's accessible to younger readers. Greg Rucka also wrote a couple of the Journey to the Force Awakens books, which were similarly packaged for younger readers but also of interest to Star Wars readers in general (Guardians also has a few illustrations in the same grayscale-with-red style as those books had).

So this book is exactly what anyone who enjoyed Rogue One would want to read. It doesn't tell the story of how Baze and Chirrut met or started working together. In fact, it gives more backstory to Jedha than to them. And Saw Gerrera may have a hand in it all (which I didn't know until I started reading since I hadn't even read the book summary). At about 230 short pages, it's a quick read for adults. At the beginning of each chapter is a quote from a supposed collection of writings on the Force, which is a nice touch.

In fact, it feel like this book has more contemplations on the Force than any of the previous books I've read. Chirrut looks at the Force in a completely different way than Luke does, for instance. Because of this, Chirrut and Baze and Jedha are wonderful additions to the Stars Wars universe. This book may be short with a concise plot, yet it contains substance (and, you know, a second look at a couple of good characters). So it's as much worth picking up as any of the adult books--or perhaps more so.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Alter Eco: Dark Salted Burnt Caramel

After enjoying the caramel truffle from Stone Grindz so much last week, I had to pursue more caramel with this Dark Salted Burnt Caramel bar from Alter Eco. Caramel, however, can mean many things, and this chocolate bar was completely distinct and separate.

Once you unwrap the bar from the earthy orange card box and the silver foil, a wonderfully sweet and smooth caramel aroma emergences. It's reminiscent of the inside of a Lindor truffle--that same butteriness, just in smell instead of flavor.

This chocolate has, as you can see, a standard 70% cocoa content, Ecuadorian in origin. The salt inside is specifically Fleur de Sel de Guerande. And it looks like the caramel is made with butter and cream, among other ingredients. You can see dots of the caramel on the front of the ten square bar, though not really on the back. And yes, in case you missed the "deep salty crunch" description in small lettering on the label, this caramel is indeed crunchy, almost more like toffee. Not the same texture as toffee, but more like that than like the usual sticky caramels. This is what they mean by "burnt" caramel.

The first flavor to emerge is a little darkness from the chocolate; this isn't quite a bitter flavor, yet it is darker than what you might expect from a caramel chocolate. Then you start crunching into the little pieces of caramel and you taste the salt along with a mild buttery flavor. The effect of all the flavors isn't very sweet, and the salt is stronger than I'd expected.

So I did find that I had to readjust my expectations. I had to get used to the idea of a toasted, salted caramel. This is deep chocolate, as well. And while I say that there was more salt than I'd been expecting, I don't mean that as a complaint. Lately I've been coming across salted chocolate that doesn't have enough salt, so this bar came with a welcome balance of salty flavor. It's still just one flavor note in there, nothing to overtake everything else--yet there is enough of it. Just the right amount.

Now, while there are enough caramel pieces in the chocolate that you do get some with every bite and they do add a butteriness to the flavor, you can't expect them to affect the taste in the same way that a traditional caramel would. This is just a different experience. The chocolate provides a serious base and the caramel pieces add sweetness and a kind of milkiness--and the salt links the two together. I did need to get used to the effect at first, but once I did, I found this chocolate irresistible.

It's a unique chocolate--and yet one that doesn't feel odd or strange. The elements all feel familiar; they just come together in a singular way. The only other chocolate I can think of that was similar was Theo's Bread and Chocolate bar, which had salt in it and little pieces of crisped bread (instead of the toasted caramel here). Though it's been enough years since I had that one that I can't say how specifically similar these two bars are, I do remember loving Theo's Bread and Chocolate bar.

I'm also hooked on this Dark Salted Burnt Caramel. The caramel pieces mean it's a chocolate bar to munch through and chew (rather than letting each piece slowly melt), and both the salt and the caramel keep your taste buds asking for more.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rasselas and Helen Burns

It seems to me that there would be little point in writing a general reaction to The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson like I usually do for books. It's the type of book you write papers on rather than talking about what it was like to read it (I found it depressing to read). So I'm going to do something different: I'll be talking about this book in the context of Jane Eyre.

When Jane is at Lowood School, you'll remember that the first time she spoke to her friend Helen Burns was to ask about the book Helen was reading. Jane thought that the title of Rasselas sounded interesting--she thought it sounded like fantasy and then was disappointed to find that it was nothing of the sort. Helen, when Jane asks her if the book is interesting, simply replies, "'I like it.'" Rasselas did always sound like such an exotic and unique name that I could never quite believe it belonged to a dry, philosophical book.

It does--Rasselas is much more philosophical exploration than novel. I know Samuel Johnson's name more from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford than from my own studies (I always had more of a nineteenth century focus and Johnson is eighteenth century). Rasselas is from 1759. It centers on a prince, Rasselas, who escapes out of a sheltered "perfect" valley in order to explore the world and see what it is really like with all of its hardships and to find out how true happiness can be attained. The answer: it can't but the soul is something real that will go on after the body has died.

Does that sound about right for something Helen Burns would be reading?

I've been glancing back at Helen's passages in Jane Eyre. I had always thought that Helen's gift to Jane was her faith. It is, but it's more than that--or rather, along with faith came other traits. Helen taught Jane patience (or at least, the awareness that sometimes all you have to do is wait through certain periods in your life) and long-suffering (Jane as a child, naturally, wanted to be happy, but she learns that life means more than happiness, which is in itself not the most significant thing). Helen taught Jane that you strive through life to do the best with your situation and to treat others (and view others) as best you can (even despite how they may treat you)--you don't do this because it'll make you happy and well-fed and rich. You do it because it's right and it's pleasing to God.

And then you die. Helen also took away Jane's innocence because she introduced Jane directly to death. Helen was Jane's first great loss. Her first friend and her first death. And yet Helen died telling Jane, it's alright, I'll be with God, it isn't a painful death, it's fine. That image would forever affect how Jane would see death.

This, of course, brings us back to Rasselas. Rasselas and his sister, Nekayah, talk to different people that they encounter, trying to see who is happiest and which way of living will bring about the most happiness. They're like children, like Jane, thinking that "happiness" is of the most importance. Then they realize (like in The Pursuit of Happyness) that happiness is something that people pursue in life but don't achieve because we always want what we don't have or always think that things can be better. And in realizing this, they realize all of these other things about life and how the mind works. And they, like Helen, come back to the issue of mortality.

They're in the catacombs looking at all the dead bodies and they have a whole conversation about the idea of a soul (concluding that it can't be physical because that which is physical decays, and a soul is that which does not decay). I could completely picture Helen reading all of this. At the end of the second to last chapter, Rasselas says that, "'Those that lie here stretched before us, the wise and the powerful of ancient times, warn us to remember the shortness of our present state: they were, perhaps, snatched away while they were busy, like us, in the choice of life.'" His sister replies that to her, "'the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.'" That's Helen. Her life is all unhappiness and there is nothing she can do to change that. So she's learned to turn her mind toward another focus.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by how well this book fits with Helen's character. It's not as if Charlotte would have just chosen any random book for Helen to be reading; of course she would choose one that would make sense and even add something to the story. So while Rasselas remains more of a book to read for study than for leisure, if you do find yourself reading it, considering Helen Burns will give an interesting filter for your reading.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Once Upon a Time Finale

After six seasons and an overdue season renewal announcement, I was expecting yesterday's season finale to be the end of Once Upon a Time. The show has, after all, needed to get on its feet again and find new ground each and every season, so it did feel like trying to keep it going longer would be stretching things too thin. In fact, I expected to be disappointed if I learned that there would be another season.

And then along came the finale episode and the announcement that there will be a new season but with a "soft reboot."

Here I'll begin talking about last night's episode, so don't keep reading if you haven't watched it yet.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Stone Grindz: Truffles

After my recent experiences with Stone Grindz Chocolate, I was excited to hear that they were experimenting with truffles. As this is still an early stage, I'm also not considering today's review a review in the usual sense.

These truffles were nine dollars for a clear bag containing six truffles. That's $1.50 per truffle, which is about average or a little less than average; I would say the average price of a truffle is about $2 or $2.50, but these truffles are also a little smaller than average.

The style is simple and sleek. The round shapes (small half domes and short cylinders) are Dark Chocolate Ganache and the squares (these also came in rectangles) are Sea Salt Bourbon Caramel. Beautiful shapes and the chocolate looks healthy. There is some imperfection to the squares, with some chocolate spilling from the edges. Not much, just something to practice getting perfect.

I was admiring these truffles so much in the bag that I had perhaps forgotten they were more than just a visual item: I was pleasantly surprised at the wonderfully rich and elegant chocolate smell that came to greet me when I finally opened the bag. This shouldn't really be surprising, though: I had plenty of positive comments for Stone Grindz's plain chocolate bars.

Starting in on one of the plain truffles, you can see that it is a little uneven. One edge is thicker than the other, and the bottom is perhaps thicker than it should be, as well. (I do often have this comment about truffles in general.) Still, these details mattered little or not at all as far as taste.

This is a rich, good chocolate with warm flavor. The ganache adds sweetness to it all and some creaminess; its flavors are still based on those of the chocolate. This isn't a really dark, deep, bitter chocolate experience; it's just dark in the approachable sense, something nice and rich. Likewise, I can't exactly call it sweet yet neither is it unsweet. This is a solid ganache truffle; I would buy it again.

Now on to the next one. The caramel is free-flowing, which I normally wouldn't try to cut open to photograph because that usually just makes a mess. But I did abuse this truffle just to get a picture of the color and consistency of the caramel. As you can see, it has a sort of dark orange tone and it is definitely free-flowing.

I always seem to hesitate around caramel in this type of setting. I like caramel; I just think of it as working more in a confectionery sense, with desserts and ice cream and such. I always think that it won't be good enough for a truffle setting. But I tasted a touch of this caramel that had spilled out, and it was wonderful. It captured me right away.

I should here note that I had forgotten the exact flavor of the caramel while I was tasting it; it wasn't until later that I went back and saw that it was sea salt bourbon caramel.

So here is what I found in the flavor without realizing all that. I found just the right amount of light sweetness and a honey taste, completely with its own richness, just a bit of vanilla, and some of the expected "caramel" flavor. And also the right bit of stickiness to the texture. Biting in, I tasted chocolate and cream and vanilla. The chocolate felt darker and plainer than in the ganache, which made a good match for the caramel here. I wasn't finding the regular caramel flavor here; instead, I found an amazing flavor experience that I only wanted more of.

It's the bourbon, of course, that gives the richness I detected. It really does elevate the flavors in just the right way to make this truffle fresh and exciting. While I certainly enjoyed both truffles, I did find myself liking the Caramel one more simply because it was unique. I've had good plain truffles before (though I don't want to make light of that fact because I do appreciate finding more) but I don't recall ever having a caramel that was quite like this.

So this was an experiment? Well, then, congratulations is what I have to say. These are already better than some of the truffles I've bought in established stores. Stone Grindz is starting with a good chocolate to begin with, so that already helps a great deal and sets them ahead. That's why the plain ganache turned out well. And then the caramel was a great way of offering me something a little familiar yet so much better than what I might have imagined. Dark Chocolate Ganache and Caramel were also two good flavors to start with: they're popular flavors, with one sounding a little richer and one sounding more casual but with both offering a great flavor experience.