Monday, December 11, 2017

Darth Plagueis & Darth Sidious

It's Star Wars week. Here is the part where, rather than being just excited, I get nervous at the prospect of the movie being out already. While we all wait, here is my first of three Star Wars posts coming this week.

I've had James Luceno's Darth Plagueis for a while now; I wanted to read this book about the Emperor's Sith master after hearing some people guess that Snoke might be Plagueis. Now that The Last Jedi is within tangible reach, I had to scramble to finish this book before the film's release. Maybe we will learn nothing new about Snoke--but maybe we will learn something that will put to rest most of these theories. I had to see what I thought of it all before we, possibly, reach that point.

This book is in fact as much about Palpatine/Sidious as it is about Plagueis. We see Plagueis's start and how he first met Palpatine and took him on as an apprentice. We see their scheming to alter the political turnings of the galaxy and make everything ready for Palpatine to take over. And we even see a bit of the events from The Phantom Menace, except that this time we're seeing it from the perspectives of Sidious and Plagueis.

Sadly, Darth Plagueis was published in 2011, just before the new canon took over. So technically it's part of the Legends/EU, but most of it reads like it could be part of the new canon since it is one of the newer publications (as opposed to something like the Thrawn trilogy, which read as something very much separate from the new stories). I kept on reading and thinking, oh, so that's how that happened--that sort of thing--except that these things did not technically happen anymore. Ah. So confusing. Most of this book seems like it could become officially part of canon again later--but possibly some things would be tweaked if in fact, for instance, Snoke does turn out to be Plagueis (or Sidious, though I lean less toward that theory).

Obviously Sidious's focus on keeping a body alive after it has died and thereby rendering a person immortal suggests that he could be Snoke. But do Snoke's methods and aims, so far as we are aware of them, line up with Sidious's? I don't know that they do. I will say this: this book talked so much about the nature of the Force and the Jedi's use of it versus the Sith's perspective that I think I finally begin to understand what the new films and shows are expressing about the Force. That is, the growing conclusion that there is no "dark side" of the Force; there is only a dark way of approaching the Force. This doesn't have to mean that a person can't make wrong or even evil choices; it just means that the Force itself isn't "dark."

I am glad even just for that line of thought to have read this book before the new film. Although it wasn't a title that jumped out at me from all the EU books (as I mentioned, I only read it because of that Snoke theory), having read it I would put it on my list of EU books to read. Sure, the political side can get a little boring (to me, at least) at times, but all of the talk about the Force and the way that Sidious and Plagueis are going about their dark plans makes it all well worth it. It's quite a fascinating story to hear.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Little Secrets: Peppermint Dark Chocolate Pieces

Yesterday we looked at Theo's Peppermint Stick dark chocolate bar; today we have another peppermint dark chocolate, except in candy form. And I must admit that when I first bought this bag of candy, I somehow mistook it for another Theo product; it must have been the handwriting font up on top. Even though this candy is in fact from a company called Little Secrets instead of from Theo, the two companies do share some similarities. This is still fair trade chocolate with a more natural, yet casual, vibe. No artificial colors/ flavors and no corn syrup (even Theo's bar had corn syrup, even if it was non-GMO corn syrup). This was my first time seeing Little Secrets before, so I'm guessing that they're a newer company. They're based out of Boulder, Colorado, by the way.

Notice that I freely use the word candy here. This is candy, wrapped up like candy and designed like candy and marketed like candy, except that it has all of the positive traits I just mentioned. That's perfect: truffles and artisan chocolate bars are great, but we all need plain candy sometimes, too.

The bag tears open and also has a resealable top since this is a bigger bag than the standard M&M bag size. The cost was under $4 for 5 oz., which isn't bad. With that being said, it would be nice if they also offered a smaller bag size just so that people also see a smaller price tag (and they may already have different sized bags, but these were the only ones that I have seen so far).

Let's continue with our M&M's comparison since everyone is familiar with M&M's. These candies are bigger than M&M's, probably more the size of peanut M&M's, except of course not with that shape. They don't have quite as much of a wax glaze as most candies have, and they come in red and white for the standard peppermint look. As soon as I opened the bag, I could smell the peppermint, and I do have to mention that the peppermint flavor here is stronger and to my view more balanced than it was in the Theo bar yesterday.

Because these candies are slightly big, they have plenty of texture from that candy shell, the texture and taste of which we're all essentially familiar. Mainly it is this crunch and the peppermint flavor that take most of your attention; the chocolate is almost more like the third element rather than the first or second. This is 55% cocoa content chocolate, so it's on the sweeter side, which is completely appropriate for this context. Given that you only get small pieces of chocolate at a time and that there is all of the candy coating and peppermint, I can't get a good grasp on what the chocolate would taste like on its own--but again, this chocolate is good for this context. Little Secrets sticks to candy coated chocolate pieces in the same way that Bite Beauty only makes lip colors instead of also adding in other makeup products or that In-N-Out only makes hamburgers and fries.

If you couldn't tell already, I prefer these candies to yesterday's peppermint chocolate. Their composition feels more balanced. And they're also more fun and flavorful--and there are more ways in which you can use them. Put them in a stocking, in a candy bowl, or on desserts, just like you'd do with M&M's. It feels different to be reviewing chocolate candy again, but I like it. If I'm buying chocolate candy these days, this is the type of product I want to buy.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Theo: Peppermint Stick

This end-of-week, I'll be tackling a double dose of seasonal, peppermint chocolates. I could do a side-by-side review of both products at once, but I'd rather give them each their own space. Tomorrow it will be the Peppermint Dark Chocolate Pieces from Little Secrets, and today it is the Peppermint Stick 70% Dark Chocolate bar from Theo.

Theo is the steady friend when it comes to quality, ethical chocolate. And they're also one of the few widely-available brands in that zone that provides seasonal offerings. I've reviewed their Nutcracker Brittle and Gingerbread Spice Milk Chocolate bars before; this year I'll finally be finishing up with this Peppermint Stick bar and the Cranberry Orange (that post should be up next week). As I've mentioned in the past, these bars are particularly nice for people who live in areas where you can't stop off at a nearby chocolate shop to get quality, seasonal truffles (or people who simply can't take the time to go to a small shop instead of a grocery store).

The style of these Christmas bars has changed over the years. This year they have a trendy look that reminds me of Target. Though it's a tad too trendy for me, it's still pretty. The chocolate bar inside has the same usual look for the eight squares. Only a very light peppermint aroma comes about when you unwrap the bar.

Now, although the overall idea is of peppermint sticks, if this chocolate were to include pieces of genuine peppermint sticks, well, that would not be great for our teeth. (Not that we don't all end up crunching on candy canes, anyway, but that's our choice, not the way the product was designed to be eaten.) So standing in for candy cane or peppermint stick pieces is a kind of brittle based on sugar and corn syrup. It's crispier than actual peppermint candy to make it acceptable to chew but not so different that it doesn't still feel somewhat like the familiar candy.

The problem is just that there either isn't enough of it or that the peppermint flavor isn't strong enough. Or possibly that the flavor of the chocolate doesn't match the peppermint and bark elements. As noted above, this is dark chocolate with 70% cocoa content, so it's pretty standard. It's neither sweet nor bitter. In this case I find myself wondering if it might not be beneficial for the chocolate to in fact be a tad sweeter.

I just feel like something is missing. I taste peppermint, but I think I want to taste more. This bar tastes more of dark chocolate than of peppermint, which would be fine if I hadn't been so excited about trying out a seasonal offering. Maybe some people will like the peppermint being light; I sometimes like certain flavors to be kept light. For myself, I wanted something more exciting.

You should not, however, take this statement to mean that this chocolate is bad; it's just not hitting that perfect mark for me.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Twelfth Night at Taliesin

Southwest Shakespeare Company was back this past weekend at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture up on the northeastern edge of Scottsdale. The show? The education touring show of Twelfth Night. That is, the show that students get to see performed at their schools (as opposed, of course, to when the schools go to the theatre to see a daytime performance of a regular production of the season).

As such, the show was shorter and kept the minimalist set approach. They also had more of what I want to call the modern approach: the actors moved in a way to create the storm at the beginning of the plot, things like that. And they all sat on chairs at the back of the stage when they weren't the ones up front performing. It all felt very actors' workshop to me, which I'm sure is the idea. Instead of just giving students a good play, they also want to give them a glimpse into what it's like to put a production together.

Sound familiar? My theme for yesterday's post (in which I focused on the behind the scenes look) continues into today. Particularly as I get into, once again, what came after the show ended. They also gave us a look at what it was like, in Shakespeare's day, for actors to receive only their own lines (along with cue lines). A few actors went up and performed unrehearsed scenes together based only on paper lines that they were given. That gave the audience an inside look not only on the history of Shakespeare but also on what it's like to perform: there is so much that an actor can bring apart from what a director might tell them to do.

My reaction to this evening's event is very similar to what I said about Aria Jukebox yesterday: I can't say I enjoyed it as much as usual, but I did enjoy getting that behind the scenes glimpse. And of course they were also giving us the opportunity to see what the education side of the company is up to, which is nice: touring shows can end up having to much influence on people.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Aria Jukebox: Holiday Edition

Back in October, I wrote about Arizona Opera's first Aria Jukebox event (click here to read that post), in which the audience voted with tokens for which songs they wanted the singers to perform. This past Friday they held the same type of event, except that this time the songs were all themed to the holiday season.

The singers were a different group, so we had a chance to see some different styles of singing from before--as well as, of course, different styles of songs. They had the Opera Center all decked out for Christmas with a tree and lights, making for a festive First Friday. The format was quicker this time without the longer pauses in between sets and with no Q&A mixed in. Given that I can't replicate the singing here for you, what I'd like to talk about is in fact what followed the songs.

This time they gave us the option to stay afterward for a tour of the building, and a good handful of us took the opportunity to see behind the scenes. We saw some areas where they keep costumes and sets and we walked past the library and the office areas; we also got to see the rehearsal space. Along the way, we heard a little bit about how the company goes about planning and putting together productions. Especially for just a quick "if you'd like to stay for a tour at the end" type of thing, I was excited about how much we got to see and how much we learned.

Perhaps other people know more about how opera productions are put together; I knew very little. And as I'm constantly repeating on here in different contexts, I love seeing behind the scenes. Whether it's watching or viewing or hearing, getting that extra glimpse has always made things even more alive for me. So while perhaps overall I enjoyed the singing more at the first Aria Jukebox, this event still was wonderful to attend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Untamed Confections: Baby Desert Tortoises

It's been over a year since I first discovered Untamed Confections (click here for my review of their Midnight Gold Dark Chocolate). While they do sell online, I'm not much of an online shopper, especially when it comes to chocolate. They're at festivals and such often, but usually in the southern part of the state (they're based out of Tubac) and I almost never end up south of the greater Phoenix area. I finally, though, caught them this past weekend at the Tempe Festival of the Arts (which had a great selection of vendors, by the way). My main goal? The tortoises that I passed on last time and then regretted not getting. (I also got two flavored chocolate bars this time, which I will review eventually.)

Specifically, these are the Baby Desert Tortoises. They also have regular-sized tortoises and bigger boxes, but I stuck with the small, four-piece box of baby tortoises. At ten dollars, each one comes out to $2.50, which is an average price. The chocolates are made with honey glazed pecans, dark chocolate, and honey caramel with fleur de sel on top. Untamed Confections, you might recall, uses honey instead of sugar, so let me give you their full ingredients list: desert wild flower honey, organic cream, organic fair trade chocolate, organic pecans, organic butter, organic vanilla, Sea of Cortez salt, fleur de sel. How is that for a confection? Not only no sugar but also no corn syrup. It's a good-looking list.

The tortoises (and yes, they're tortoises, not turtles because we're in the Southwest, have to keep with that theme) come in the usual plain white box that Untamed uses, just with a window this time. They themselves are also visually simple, just little lumps of chocolate (about the size of two truffles put together) with some chunky sea salt on top. When I sliced open one of the tortoises, I found the pecan half hidden inside a nest of caramel.

Because that salt comes in big flakes, you get its flavor right away even though it's on the top. Then you get the texture of that chewy caramel and some of its vanilla flavor. Because the pecan is hiding in the middle, its taste and texture are a minor addition to the mix; mainly, you're getting caramel simply because there is more of it (and because it's the chewy kind). You also get some chocolate, mainly in the first half; it adds that kind marshmallow flavor to it all. It isn't exactly either "sweet" or "dark" chocolate, so it makes for more of a neutral flavor base for the caramel.

As I go about eating these, I remember that the company is called Untamed Confections. Before, I thought of the fact that they make chocolate and caramel--and I guess I was considering that the confection part referred more to the caramel. But this piece brings together both products and settles the chocolate into the confection zone. The chewy style of caramel reminds me more of candies than truffles. The flavors, while nice, are nice in a simple way. Which is all fine: sometimes that's what we want. Nothing unpretentious or unapproachable, just a pecan half surrounded by caramel and dipped in chocolate and topped with salt. And just because that's what's on offer doesn't mean it can't have that better ingredients list (especially the fair trade part).

This product is an example of good, honest labeling. Exactly what you see really is exactly what you get. As I contemplate my final words, I find myself reaching for another tortoise. These are easy to keep eating: all of that texture plus some chocolate plus a bit of salt all make for an addicting mix. So maybe get a bigger box than this one if you're planning on sharing.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Stone Grindz: Maple Pecan 68%

Sometimes I have to scramble to find chocolate to review. Right now, though, I have too many in waiting--and yet I keep buying more. So I'll be mixing things up (instead of going in order) so that I can get the seasonal flavors in on time (lots of minty chocolate coming up). Like this week, chocolate reviews might not be just on Fridays like they usually are: I'm trying to stick to posting two reviews a week even if I've fallen off schedule.

Today's chocolate is a Maple Pecan bar from Stone Grindz; it uses a 68% dark chocolate. In the style of chocolate bark, you can see a crumbly mixture of crushed pecans on the back. The aroma of the chocolate is the smooth scent of cocoa butter.

I made a mistake with the first square I ate: I kept on looking at the pecan side as the top. So I started chewing the chocolate (as I usually do when there is a crunchy element), waiting to taste the maple and pecan. I found that there wasn't much to chew, after all (the pecans are in small pieces), and neither was there much maple or pecan to taste. Some, but not enough. You see my mistake, right?

The pecan side of the bar is bottom, not the top. That is, it's the side that should hit your tongue first. When trying the chocolate this way, I right away tasted the pecans with their sweet, earthy flavor and also the sweetness of the maple; the chocolate came in as a base rather than the main element. The other way around, by the time I'd made my way through the chocolate, the pecans and maple were half gone. Right side up, the pecans get your attention first so that you keep them more in the center even once you get to the chocolate.

And the chocolate is a good base. I want to call it a sweeter type of dark chocolate, though it isn't really sweet, of course. Semisweet would be the word, I suppose (I guess I don't tend to use that word since it just reminds me of chocolate chips). What I mean is that it isn't specifically dark: it's inviting and gentle and gives the idea of sweetness (as opposed to the deeply rich or even bitter flavor of darker chocolates) to pair nicely with the more casual elements of the pecans and maple.

So this is a nice fall/winter bar. You can even put this one into the category of candy bar alternatives if you like because it does have that sweeter, reminiscent-of-dessert side to it. Perfect for gifting or stockings, eh?

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Disney Boys - Part 4: Robin Hood

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

We've come to another gap between the timelines of the Disney Princess Analysis and the Disney Boys series. The fourth princess was 1989's Ariel, but the fourth gent is the title character of 1973's Robin Hood. Still, Ariel and Robin have some similarities. They're both adventurous, social, and generally likable people. 

I say people because even though I kept most of the "animal movies" out of this series, the characters of this film act like they're humans: the fact that they're drawn as animals is an artistic, stylistic, and thematic choice (as opposed to a film like Bambi where the characters are literally set up as animals). And even though Robin is a fox, we still know what type of a person he is. They drew him to look dapper and attractive, sort of suave and friendly. He has that smile that shows that he always likes to look on the positive side, even if he just had an arrow run through his hat.

That would be bravery, too, then. He doesn't even wink in fear at that brush with death. Maybe this nonchalance stems from his lack of concern over the future. This is where Robin is unlike the princesses. While they have hopes and fears about the future, Robin is just concerned with the present. All he's doing is trying to help out the people around him--while daydreaming about Marian (I'll come back to that last part presently). Even though he's so positive, in a way he doesn't have hope for the future: all he sees is the bad around him, the bad that he's trying to limit as much as he can.

Making others, particularly children, is Robin's biggest trait. He surprises Skippy on his birthday and doesn't hold back at all, even gifting the boy his own hat off of his head. Later, he risks arrows to go back and save Skippy's younger sister, sending her through the gate to Little John while telling him, "Keep going--don't worry about me." His nonchalance isn't from lack of knowing what danger or evil are. 

Robin is also inventive and sneaky. Even though he's the thief in the woods for humanitarian reasons, he quite enjoys his role. He likes being active and catching people off guard. He likes dressing up in disguises to trick everyone, whether it's dressing up as a gypsy woman to steal the rings from Prince John's fingers or as a beggar to distribute extra coins that he's stolen to the poor.

Primarily Robin a classic manly character: he's great at archery and sword fighting and protecting women and children. But he's also chivalric: he isn't afraid or hesitant to confess his love for Marian. For him, all of those "manly virtues," if you will, mean nothing if they're not grounded in the "matters of the heart," so to speak--that is, the love for his fellow mankind (not quite mankind in this film, but you get the idea), love for his king, and love for his lady. So what do we have there? Once you write it all down, Robin's characteristics have a great balance of the two sides that can make up a "good" person. He has heart and bravery, thief and outlaw through he is.