Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Rebel Rising

While I may not entirely understand why there are Star Wars books put together specifically for the YA/teen genre (when I was a teenager, I was reading adult/non-age-specific books because I found the teen books boring), I did enjoy both Claudia Gray's Lost Stars and E.K. Johnston's Ahsoka. So Beth Revis's Rebel Rising seemed promising--except that I don't overly love Jyn's character and therefore it follows that I wouldn't overly love a book based on her. With Guardians of the Whills, I was excited about seeing more of Chirrut and Baze--but I didn't exactly feel like I needed to see more of Jyn.

Don't get me wrong, she's a good character and she fits into Rogue One. But she's a sad character, a tragic character. She's broken, and while the end of the film does allow us to see her finding peace (though not in a "happy ending"), there is much of sorrow and despair in Jyn. She's a bit like Eowyn, in fact, I've just realized (perhaps I'll do a post on that later). So to come in to Rebel Rising knowing that Jyn's breaking begins at the beginning of this book and she will still be broken when this book ends is difficult. It's a depressing book, and there isn't much light in it.

Rogue One was all about showing the gritty realism, the very real tragedy of wartime. "Good" characters doing bad things for "the cause." People being eaten up from the inside because of what they're doing and what they're seeing and what they're still not able to accomplish. Rebel Rising is along the same vein, just in more detail. We see Jyn as a child, first her time with Saw and then what happened to her after he left her. Plenty of questions about war, rebellion, politics, and all of that. Jyn sees the negative effects on individuals that the rebels have--and that's why she can't believe in their hope. It makes a good setting for her character in the film. It's strange: I feel like I always knew the details of this backstory just because they fit in so well with what was already established (because, of course, I'm sure the story group or someone did come up with Jyn's backstory well before this novel).

I am going to give one criticism. The Hadder bit felt off. It felt like someone said, oh, this is YA, so you have to put a love story in there. It felt randomly inserted in the story, like I didn't quite believe that it was part of Jyn's real history. Part of that is the point, yes: it's a random time of happiness that serves as an example of all that Jyn loses because of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. This taste of happiness is why Jyn can't believe in the rebels' hope. And it also sets the scene for another between-the-lines hint that Jyn and Cassian could've been more than just friends.

Which brings me to the way this book ends, moving right up to the scenes from the movie. I wasn't expecting this, and yet it did fit well. This was the only way to provide a semblance of peace for Jyn's character to resolve the book, instead of just leaving her still completely broken. And it makes you think forward to later in the movie when Cassian tells her, "Welcome home." All the pieces tie in, and tragedy gets hope.

So, yes, I liked this book less because I'm less interested in Jyn. But it did provide the backstory, particularly of her time with Saw and of how the Imperials caught her, that we maybe wanted after seeing the movie. Now I hope we get another book focusing on Cassian. I know there's going to be a Cassian/K-2 comic, but I haven't delved into the realm of comics yet.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Alter Eco: Dark Salted Almonds

I'm returning this week with another flavored chocolate from Alter Eco; I always seem to buy Alter Eco bars in pairs now. And I find that, while I'm sometimes hesitant about buying flavored chocolate, I am enjoying Alter Eco's flavored bars. (Part of the reason for my hesitation may be that I know I can only save the plain chocolates to use in brownies and flourless chocolate cake, and I do like to always be ready to make either of the two recipes.)

The Dark Salted Almonds bar contains the same 70% cocoa dark chocolate as last week's Dark Salted Burnt Caramel had. This time the added ingredients are exactly what you would expect: small pieces of roasted almonds and some sea salt. The almonds are pretty visible from the back of the bar and even somewhat from the front. Here I do have to apologize for the ugly face of the chocolate; that was my fault. (Story time: I was out of town for a couple of days, so I left the air conditioning off, and this chocolate was in the cabinet, so of course it got warmer than it should have.)

There are quite a few almonds in here, probably more than I would have expected--and I'm glad. While small, the pieces aren't tiny; they're big enough that you can get the texture of that specific almond crunch. You can taste the salt fairly strongly, as well, which of course goes well with the almonds. In fact, the salt plus the plentitude of almonds makes this chocolate a little reminiscent of a peanut butter cup. That's definitely a nice effect.

Of course, at 70%, this chocolate is darker than what you'll find in most peanut butter cups (even the dark chocolate ones are usually lighter, often significantly so depending on the brand). It can even taste somewhat unsweet at first--or at least that's how I generally feel when chewing on dark chocolate versus letting it melt. But once I moved on to the second piece, I had adjusted and the chocolate became a nice and consistent base element for the almonds and salt. Those took more of my specific attention.

Once again, this was a pretty nice bar. It's good for snacking and munching. I want to call it something you could bring on a hike (almonds just make me think of hiking, I guess). Depending on the type of foods you buy, this can even be a replacement candy bar chocolate since it is reminiscent of peanut butter cups. Note that I use the word reminiscent loosely: it all depends what your taste buds are accustomed to. If you buy a lot of processed food and food with artificial ingredients, this probably won't remind you of peanut butter cups (not to say that you won't enjoy it--it'll just have a different effect). But if you're more into whole foods, this'll be a great indulgence.

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.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Grandmother's Grandchild

I collect a lot of used books centered around the Southwest. That's nothing unusual, so neither was Grandmother's Grandchild: My Crow Indian Life by Alma Hogan Snell (edited by Becky Matthews). This is the story of a Crow woman from Montana (she was born in 1923) who was raised by her grandmother in traditional ways but also grew up in the increasingly modern setting of a twentieth century reservation. And it's also probably the best of this type of book that I have read, which is the singular trait.

I like hearing people's stories. I'm a listener (this is why, though some people might call me quiet, I get along with talkative people: I genuinely like to hear what other people have to say). So while I don't read many biographies, I love autobiographies (if they're centered on a topic, setting, or person that I'm interested in). Alma's autobiography is the best of listening to a wise, elderly person speak of her life (this book was published in 2000, so she was 77 at the time). By the way, her aforementioned grandmother was Pretty Shield, who gave her story to Frank Linderman to publish, so you may be familiar with Pretty Shield's story (I wasn't, but I would definitely like to get that book in the future, as well).

The greater part of this book covers the time when Alma was young, say under twenty, although she does also describe the main events of her adult life. So you see quite a bit of the 20's, 30's, and 40's, that time when so much was changing. Because Alma was raised by her grandmother, she learned traditional ways of gathering food, preparing hides, and respecting the earth and all living things--more so than if she had been raised by her parents or if (like her older siblings) she hadn't been constantly by her grandmother's side. So you get quite a bit of cultural info that is interesting and the type of thing I had expected to find in this book. The narrative reminded me a bit of Little House on the Prairie in some of the earlier chapters: they're both stories full of descriptions of a fading culture, stories attempting to preserve awareness of the past and the people of the past.

Alma speaks always frankly in these pages. She says what she thought and what she thinks and why. She explains all sorts of things, as well, personal things that she could have glanced over but instead chose to delve into because including such details and incidents makes the story whole. As we get into her adult life, there is some dark content. Yet because she includes all of this, we believe what she says and we believe that it's true.

Alma also talks quite a bit about faith. She explains how the missionaries started churches on the reservations and her grandparents were the first to be baptized in that community. So while they still kept their culture, they moved away from other things that they had once held onto (Alma refers to her grandmother's "Crow powers," which she was at first reluctant to give up). Alma talks about how they already knew that there was a creator, so that was easy to accept. And she also explains their way of accepting the story of Jesus (they called him "The One Pierced in the Hand") as a warrior who gave himself for his children, explaining that everything about that story made sense to them and their concept of what was good. This was all fascinating to me; it reminded me of Emeth in The Chronicles of Narnia.

And then also you have people who were used to believing in what you could call the supernatural, if that's even the right word--and therefore their faith was strong and accomplished things. There are some great stories in there. Alma watches her grandmother stay outside of the storm cellar, lifting her arms to the sky and praying to God to let the storm pass over their house because her grandchildren need it--and then the violent storm completely passes over their house. Or Alma's own stories about praying for healing for people who were sick or injured. Or when she was about to have surgery to remove a tumor; that was a great story.

So you can look at this book as being about the intersection between two cultures. But whose life in this land in the past two hundred years hasn't included the intersection of at least two cultures? (I don't mean to say that Alma wasn't in a specific intersection or to lessen the cultural place that she was in. I'm just saying that these types of themes and concepts are what come together to make real people.) I just loved all of the things that this book offered: the cultural and historical descriptions, the discussions of faith and examples of its influence on life, and the depictions of different kinds of relationships between people. If you're interested in any of these things, then definitely read this book.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Tony's Chocolonely: Extra Dark 70%

Today's review is composed of two sides. So bear with me through all of the negative comments: it does get better towards the end.

The main fact is, if I weren't a chocolate reviewer, I wouldn't have bought this bar of chocolate (Tony Chocolonely's Extra Dark 70%). And I barely even bought it as is. That's how much I hate the packaging. Yes, we do judge books by covers and foods by packing: that's why package design and marketing is so important.

This packaging I find ugly, with its bright colors and huge words (I should perhaps add that I find that it looks worse in person than in the pictures). The company is based out of Amsterdam (the chocolate itself is made in Belgium), so perhaps there is an aesthetic difference between countries that's giving me such trouble. (Or maybe I just hate bright colors that much.) Still, no matter how much I think about it, not only do I not like this packaging--it makes me want to turn away. I guess it kind of reminds me of the cheap Mexican candies for some reason, but a cheap candy look isn't exactly what I want for a bar of chocolate.

And who's Tony? Certainly no offense to anyone who's named Tony, but it's more of a casual name and a name that doesn't remind me at all of chocolate, in order for these letters to take up the bulk of the space. Then Chocolonely? That sounds accusatory to me. Add to that the little lock symbol in the corner (in this day of digital symbols, a lock means private info that you don't have access to) and I feel unwelcome approaching this bar.

Here we come to the main fact. You'll see that the little yellow circle there towards the top has the statement, "Together we make chocolate 100% slave free." You know that I've been placing a greater emphasis on fair trade (even so far as to decide to try and not buy/review chocolate that is not in some way fair trade), so you'd think I'd be cheering. But I've been looking at fair trade packing for years and this is the first time it's looked like this.

I'm sounding very first world here, but this packaging doesn't make for a great start to a chocolate experience. You want to know that you're not having a negative impact on the world with the product you're choosing, but you also don't want to be thinking about that negative impact in the exact moment that you're eating the chocolate. If packaging makes someone feel uncomfortable, they'll either pass it by (without perhaps even thinking about it) or they'll just choose a different fair trade brand. This packaging looks like a pamphlet, not a chocolate bar.

I am not trying to belittle this cause. I'm just saying that if the cause is the only important issue and the chocolate has no value, then by all means just give up chocolate. That'll end slave-produced chocolate. If, however, you are eating/buying chocolate, then you're obviously not giving it up--so the chocolate needs to have its own attention to quality, as well, not just attention to ethics.

The inside of the wrapper is even worse. It's common to use the inside of a wrapper to give more information about the cocoa. A company will use this big white space to explain what country it was grown in, even what specific farm or community. They'll talk about their rainforest initiative. That sort of thing. There is no info inside of this wrapper, just mission statements. (In fact, the cocoa origin is not mentioned anywhere on the packaging, which I find rather odd.)

They make a big deal about not coating the paper they use to wrap the chocolate (even though the chocolate is still also wrapped in standard foil). But isn't it a popular style for craft chocolate to use uncoated, even recycled paper for aesthetic and hipster purposes? Use the paper and mention it, but don't make a big deal out of it. And all of this about how the chocolate bar is divided into unequally sized pieces in order to represent how things are shared in the chocolate industry. Same thing: don't make me feel guilty about putting chocolate in my mouth or I'll just stop eating chocolate. Is this a mission or a food? I know it's both (and again, it is a great mission), but the reality is that chocolate is not required for health purposes. I could live off of the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash, to those of you outside of the Southwest) that are grown locally, but I don't. So let the chocolate be chocolate, otherwise the positive experience gets lost and then what's the point in trying to pursue a chocolate experience after all?

With that said, this is a cool-looking bar of chocolate. There are plenty of chocolates that have unevenly-sized pieces and I've also seen this broken style before, but I still like it. It's fun and it does make for a change from the usual squares. I do have to point out, though, that it could look better. There are so many big air bubbles in the logo. I'm used to seeing plenty of tiny air bubbles to show that something is handmade in small batches and such, but these air bubbles are so big that I wish they had given a little more attention into this part of the process.

I must also add that this bar is massive. That's another thing that turned me off about it (I'm weird in that way). It's 170 grams. I'm used to the 80 to 100 gram bars being the big ones, and the 45 gram bars being the comfortably small ones. This is just huge, about double the average size. That makes no sense to me. If you're pushing the ethics of food so much, then you should be (if anything) trying to get people to eat less chocolate, not encouraging them to eat more by putting so much into one bar. Isn't part of the problem with the chocolate industry the fact that we consume so much of it, which is why so much of it is cheap and grown with slave labor? So limiting the amount of chocolate that we consume can help, too. This massive bar of chocolate just seems contrary to their mission that they're so blatant about.

One last negative comment. Since when is 70% extra dark? That's average dark to me, unless you're talking about a candy bar (which will never get as high as a 70% cocoa content). So does that mean that this is a candy bar quality chocolate? I would certainly hope not, because then it would really not be worth my time and I really would prefer to go without.

Fortunately, however, that is not the case. The aroma of this chocolate is a pretty standard dark chocolate smell; it reminds me of something I'd find at Trader Joe's. The flavor, though, is decidedly Ghirardelli. First I thought of their chocolate chips, but I think what I'm reminded of is their Twilight Delight bar. It has that sort of thick, silvery, chocolate-centered flavor with sweetness lingering around in swirls. The flavor stays pretty constant throughout, except that it gets warmer and softer as you reach the end. A little bit rich. Everything is just right about the texture, which is nice and smooth. Because the bar is so thick, each piece stays melting in your mouth a bit longer than usual, which I suppose can be nice.

So while I may have had such horrible things to say about the packing, I do like the chocolate. Ghirardelli may not be the most couture chocolate (and if you ever see their truffles, steer clear: they're terrible), but I am fond of their chocolate (though I guess I don't really buy it anymore). For me to so directly compare this chocolate to Ghirardelli is a compliment. And given that Ghirardelli is one of those dark chocolates that appeals to the masses, I expect that this chocolate bar will, as well.

I said there were two sides to this review, but I suppose it's really three: great mission, ugly packaging, and good chocolate.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Threads of Thrawn

Tomorrow is Star Wars Day already, which makes me a bit mournful of the fact that Hyperspace Mountain (the Star Wars overlay of Space Mountain at Disneyland) is at long last coming to a close at the end of this month. I had hoped that I would be able to ride it at some point just to be part of this moment in Disneyland history, but now it looks like that won't be happening. Anyway, let's keep up the Star Wars spirit with another Star Wars post, a book this time.

I had heard of Thrawn and The Thrawn Trilogy, though the first time that I encountered the character firsthand was in Rebels, where he instantly lived up to his reputation. And then I got around to reading his trilogy (I'll get to The Hand of Thrawn eventually) recently. Now with the publication of a new canon novel, Thrawn by Timothy Zahn, the scattered threads come together.

Though Thrawn's other books are non-canon now, the new book fits in with what they established about his character. And because of the Rebels tie-in, it makes sense for this book to take place between Episodes III and IV (and also because we have no confirmation that in the new canon Thrawn even survives into the timeline of the OT). That is, it takes place before Rebels, as well: this is the book that shows where Thrawn came from and how he started with the Empire.

So technically it's a villain book because it's all about the Empire's side. But it's nothing like reading Tarkin or Lords of the Sith or Catalyst. It's almost more like reading a Sherlock Holmes story (well, except that Thrawn is much more socially inept than Holmes). You don't have those questions of morality and good and evil and all that sort of angle. Not even motive, that much. It's mainly just a book about showing of Thrawn's ability to assess and analyze a situation and the people involved and to see the pattern and to achieve his mission based on those assessments. Yeah, he's working for the Empire, but strangely not in a sinister way. Thrawn is sinister in the way in which he can instantly see the heart of the matter, but he isn't exactly doing sinister things in this book. At least, not more than any character in a military, wartime situation.

Some of the story is also from the perspective of his aide, young Imperial Eli Vanto who really just joined the Empire with the generic purpose of just getting a good supply officer job. His perspective is there for the reader: he's getting to know Thrawn and trying to understand his technique just like we're trying to see what Thrawn sees. And we also see quite a bit of Arihnda Pryce, who has also been in Rebels. She starts off just as a person trying to make her way and her career, but by the end I almost feel like she is the one who becomes more sinister than Thrawn. So I suppose this book does offer an analysis on character motives and how a person's actions affect him/her.

You know, the way that this book finishes implies a sequel. I haven't heard anything about a sequel, but I definitely see that as a possibility. Or maybe Rebels is/will be the sequel.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Reflection on the Eight-Part Star Wars Set

Considering that it's almost May the Fourth (aka. Star Wars Day), let's go ahead and have a couple of Star Wars posts this week, shall we?

I grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy and with the episode by episode releasing of the prequel trilogy. So it has always seemed natural to me (that is, once I had access to all six episodes to watch at once, which was really only rather recent) to watch the movies in released rather than chronological order. The story just makes more sense that way. (Like how most people agree that The Chronicles of Narnia don't work best in chronological order.) I did try watching the six movies in chronological order; I wrote a short post in reaction (which you can read here), describing the way in which the story became more tragic despite ending with a "happy ending."

I bring all of this up because with the addition of new films, the order in which you watch them is becoming more and more complicated. With Episode VII, I watched it by itself a lot because it was new and therefore I didn't need to combine it with all the others (which I've seen plenty of times by now) all the time. When I did put them all together, I kept to released order, which sort of made sense but also felt weird since the sequel trilogy is indeed a sequel to the original trilogy. And then along came Rogue One.

I figured okay, I probably won't want to watch Rogue One as much, anyway, so maybe it'll just stay separate from the episodes and the issue won't matter. But then I tried watching all eight films in chronological order, expecting it all to be a great mess.

It is a mess: gone are the days when you can watch all the movies in one day, or even one week. Watching one per day, it takes a week and a day now. But I found that somehow the addition of Rogue One made the entire set cohesive.

It's weird to jump from Episode III to Episode IV. But Rogue One bridges that gap with its more modern status combined with its aspiring-for-vintage style. So you don't notice the tone shift so much anymore. And because it's an outside story (that is, it's outside of the Skywalker saga), it allows you to look at the Star Wars universe as a whole rather than being caught up in the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker character arc (and in questioning how it is best to view that character arc).

And it makes Episode IV's opening crawl so powerful and tragic. You've come fresh off of seeing the team successful and destroyed, and then you see that their efforts are still going on. Even the medal ceremony at the end reminded me of them. It was as if those in charge said, well, we couldn't do anything for the other team, so we will honor their actions by giving this sign of hope to everyone by honoring this new team. And it's as if maybe part of the reason why they so easily accept Luke and Han is because they saw what Jyn and her team were able to accomplish and so they don't want to underestimate anyone.

So I have no idea in what order I'll watch these films in the future. But for now, chronological order fits so perfectly.