Category Archives: fantasy

Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

I listened to two Anthony Bourdain books this year, both read by the author. The first one was Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the second was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

As you probably know, Kitchen Confidential was the book that made Bourdain famous and the one that was probably the most shocking. Of the two, I liked it less.

I didn’t dislike it because of the content – the content was just fine. It was Bourdain reading it. He sounded monotone and kind of bored, and you think that maybe he recorded this book back before he’d really mastered his public persona. He does a 180 in Medium Raw, during which he sounds lively, funny, and engaged in what he’s reading.

A lot of people don’t like Anthony Bourdain. A lot of people see him as one of those guys who never grew out of the smart ass, teenage bad boy thing. He acts like he’s a badass but you don’t really believe him. They say he’s angry, and he can be vulgar and brutal. I always just thought he was being honest.

I’ve always liked his style. He’s gruff and says some wacky stuff from time to time, but Bourdain, to me, is very cool, and he’s cool because he doesn’t care what you think. He doesn’t care if he’s cool, if you think he’s cool, or what you think about him either way. He is what he is and he does what he does, and that kind of honesty and self-assuredness, is the coolest thing anyone can possibly achieve.

Both books are similar – stories of Bourdain’s time in kitchens, how the industry worked, in Medium Raw he talks about what’s changed about the industry since he wrote Kitchen Confidential, etc…

I found both books funny, but Medium Raw funnier, because Bourdain’s sense of humor about himself is on full display. He did it in Kitchen Confidential, too, but it was different. It’s easy to make fun of yourself as a goofy kid just out of college who thinks he’s really cool. It’s much harder to make fun of yourself as an adult who is supposed to be taking himself and his career very seriously.

Medium Raw also torches the Food TV industrial complex that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. That book actually came out in 2010, so Bourdain was criticizing actual chefs who had never worked in restaurants. As someone who really used to enjoy watching those chefs Bourdain made fun of on Food Network, I have to say that in 2018, Food Network kinda sucks now. They used to have actual TV personality chefs making things for most of their programming. Now we mostly watch food based reality TV shows, which are kind of interesting sometimes but mostly bore me to tears. I used to love turning Food Network on during the holidays and see what people used to make their own holidays special. Now it’s just, like, sad people competing to see who can build the biggest most structurally sound gingerbread house.

Sorry, tangent. My point is, I get where Bourdain is coming from even if he caught a lot of shit for it (and he DID catch a lot of shit for it).

I found Bourdain’s stream-of-consciousness style both endearing and conversational, writing the way most of us talk (although without maybe using so many F-bombs). I liked the stories. I know from these books that I could never work in a kitchen, so that is one regret I don’t have to suffer.

Plus, I’m a fairly adventurous eater. I’m not Bourdain’s level of adventurous (I enjoy his TV shows as well, although I don’t watch them often), but it’s nice to hear about food from someone who knows about food. If it wasn’t for him, I probably never would have tried oysters (which I now love) because I just didn’t know what to do with them.

The bottom line is that both books were enjoyable food-centric memoirs. And who doesn’t love food-centric stuff?

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The Magicians

I listened to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians because the book I originally wanted to listen to wasn’t available at the time and this was labeled as “the adult Harry Potter.”

I’ll stick with actual Harry Potter.

It’s weird though. I didn’t hate this book. The story was interesting, I liked the premise, and there was magic, terror, and some pretty good actions scenes. I feel like in some ways it was a lot more true to real life – particularly the parts about being in a hyper-competitive, highly exclusive school (studying is something that JK Rowling glosses over in the HP universe – only Hermione’s study schedule is ever detailed and not many words are devoted to that either – and Hogwarts is the public school of magic in the UK, meaning everyone goes whether they’re good at magic or not).

But there was a lot of stuff that was tough for me to get past. Our hero – anti-hero? – is Quentin. And Quentin is suffering from depression. Boy oh boy, is he suffering from depression. And consequently, so are we. In addition, Quentin is selfish, brooding, narcissistic, and an overall miserable prick. He’s not very likeable.

This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. The thing is, everyone at this magic school Quentin attends, called Brakebills, is a huge asshole in some way or another. Seriously. There is almost nobody to like. At all. I don’t mean that they just have some asshole qualities. All of them are fucking awful in almost every way. They are also brave and smart, which makes them just this side of tolerable, but overall? They’re all negative, brooding, asshole-y douchebags who have too much free time and drink too much.

The other thing I struggled with too was the length of the novel. According to Amazon, it’s 432 pages. I don’t remember how long the audiobook was, but by the end I just wanted it to be over. It drags out too long. Grossman crams 5 years of schooling into this novel with much of it not being particularly noteworthy. Magic is hard, complicated to learn, and requires endless hours of practice and study. But I feel like, maybe, we don’t need to go through every hour? It wasn’t well paced. For every good scene of significance, there was one that was bad and could have been cut. Maybe two.

Interwoven into this whole thing is Quentin’s obsession with Fillory, a Narnia like place he read about in stories as a kid that featured a family called the Chatwins, specifically the children. As I said, it’s very Narnia-esque. This obsession eventually becomes relevant (and it takes quite awhile for it to become relevant) when Quentin and his friends discover they can travel to Fillory. I honestly wish Grossman had gone more into the Chatwins. They couldn’t have been worse than the main characters in this story.

Anyway, Quentin manages to be miserable in Fillory too – no joke. The magical land he’s been obsessed with since childhood, and Quentin manages to fucking be miserable there. There’s a villain in Fillory, called ‘the Beast’, who Quentin and his friends end up seeking to outrun and destroy. They’d met the Beast before in school, when (IIRC) a spell goes awry and the Beast eats a student before the faculty can vanquish it.

Magic is much more dangerous in this book than in the Harry Potter universe because it seems to be a lot less…stable, I guess is the word I’m looking for? Or maybe it’s more wild? Anyway, in Harry Potter books, you use the right gesture with your wand, say/think the right incantation, and boom, spell. Intent of the spell also matters. If you’re going to cast an unforgivable curse, you know you’re doing that. In The Magicians universe, magic has a lot of complex variations that change with things like phase of the moon. Messing up a spell near the wrong body of water, even one meant to do good, can be catastrophic. Spells gone awry is hinted at as a possibility in the Potter universe (Luna’s mother dying as a result of an experiment gone wrong) but in this one it has real consequences when the Beast is released and kills a student.

Anyway, the whole thing is eventually resolved in a neat little bow. Okay, not that neat, but a bow all the same. Grossman clearly didn’t know he’d be writing a trilogy. Yes, there are two more ‘Magicians’ novels – The Magician King and The Magician’s Land.

I’m not sure I’m going to get to the last two books of the trilogy. I thought I was. But even though I didn’t hate this book, I can’t really say I liked it either. Plus my favorite character became a freakin’ niffin. And no. I have zero interest in the television adaptation.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Hollow City & Library of Souls

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Hollow City, and Library of Souls are a trilogy of young adult novels written by Ransom Riggs which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I picked Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, the first book in the series, up off the table at Barnes & Noble because of the cover. It was a little girl levitating. And I bought it because of the pictures inside, which were all of children in pictures doing hard to believe things. Some of the pictures were funny, some were creepy, all were in black and white, all were intriguing, and it convinced me to buy the book without really investigating it first.

So when I started it, I had no idea it was a YA book.

People piss all over YA books as if they can’t be enjoyed as adults because they aren’t sophisticated enough, and act as if you are an immature neophyte simpleton if you do enjoy them. While I find a lot of them not so good (paranormal romance isn’t much my thing – romance in general isn’t much my thing), every so often I find a YA book (or series of books) that I really, really enjoy. People are really snobby about this, but I have nothing against YA books, just STUPID YA books. But, to be fair, I’m pretty against ALL stupid books, YA and adult alike.

The premise of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is that 16 year old Jacob Portman watches his grandfather die, killed by a monster that only he can see. It sends him into kind of a PTSD depression, which is understandable, since after telling his story, everyone thinks he’s crazy. Following a series of clues, some suggestions from his psych doctor, and taking advantage of the fact his parents are desperate for him to recover from his illness, he convinces his father to take him to Wales, where his grandfather had supposedly survived in a children’s home as a Jew during the Holocaust.

Exploring the house, which is now in ruins, Jacob meets and follows a girl who can create fire with her hands and who calls out his grandfather’s name upon seeing him. Jacob is later confused to find that the inn where he and his father were staying is different, as are the town residents. He’s rescued by the girl, named Emma, and a boy, Millard, and finds himself transported to the children’s home of the stories his grandfather told him when he was a kid. The children in the home are all “peculiars” (children with some sort of supernatural/enhanced/strange ability; Emma can create fire, Millard is invisible,  Olive can levitate, etc…) and the headmistress is Miss Alma Peregrine, an Ymbryne (a woman who can transform into a bird and create time loops).

After some investigating, Jacob discovers that his grandfather was also a peculiar, with his  ability being that he can see hollowgasts – monsters that feed on peculiars for their souls. Jacob realizes that he has inherited his grandfather’s gift and that the monster that he saw kill his grandfather was a hollowgast.

The story goes on from there over the course of that book and the other two books.

I loved these books – loved, loved, looooved. They were a fun story with all the things that make a great fantasy story – fun, adventure, epic consequences, quirky characters, friendship, loyalty, and even a dash of romance (fairly well done romance, as far as romance goes).

I also enjoyed the appearance of new characters throughout the series, but not so many it was overwhelming (looking at you, George R.R. Martin). One of my favorite characters was introduced in Library of Souls. Sharon is a boatman who ferries and guides the kids through Devils Acre. I find Sharon very darkly funny and very relatable. The books had a lot of humor in them as well – some of it rather dark, which always appeals to me.

So it’s YA lit but it’s enjoyable for any age. If you want something fun to read with your kids, or just for you, these books are it.

Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume I

Richard Knaak’s Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume 1 was another book I proudly quit in 2017.

I am obsessed with dragons. Obsessed. You wouldn’t know it looking at me – I don’t have a dragon tattoo or any weird piercings or anything of the sort. I have no pictures of dragons up anywhere. I have some dragon figurines/statues/sculptures/whatever and some jewelry. But I’m obsessed with dragons. I have been since I was a little kid. I look at pictures of them, for awhile I tried to draw them, I know a ridiculous amount about them considering they’re not real, and I read about them.

This book has been sitting on my shelf forever. I bought it for a great price when Borders was going out of business and that has to be…jeez…6 years ago now? This summer, I finally sat down and started it.

It.was.awful.

Not the dragons. The dragons were interesting. So were the maps in the front of the book.

Everything else? SNOOZEFEST. Cabe, the “hero,” was very boring. Supposedly he was a magician? Or a wizard? But he didn’t know. Also, something about his hair. And his dad, who was a dark wizard? And a beautiful sorceress who was going to help him defeat his dad? And a gryphon king. Or something.

It was all too boring for words. I was at page 200 of about 900 when I put the book down and decided life was too short. I’m glad I only bought the one book and not the second and third volumes, which I think were also available at the time. Sometimes my mother is right.

“Why don’t you see if you like it before buying Volume II and Volume III?”

Saved some money there.

I’m sure someone out there likes that book. I’m sure multiple people do. It gets 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads. I’m not one of those people.

City of Dark Magic

Ah yes. The last book I read in 2016: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte. I picked this one up at Barnes & Noble because it was $6. As good a reason as any to pick up a book, right?

I have a couple of issues with it, although I didn’t hate it.

Basically, music doctorate candidate Sarah Weston, who helps support herself by giving music lessons to/nannying the precocious only child of a wealthy Boston family ends up in Prague for the summer when her doctoral adviser, who was already in Prague, mysteriously dies. He was cataloging and chronicling possessions of one Prince Max, who has just regained possession of a castle from the Czech government after the Nazis took possession and occupied it during World War II. Sarah and a number of other experts in their fields are staying at the castle to do this research so Prince Max can open a family history museum.

Sarah’s adviser, and later Sarah, end up looking for evidence of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved,’ which is apparently a real academic mystery, where nobody knows who the addressee of this famous love letter that Beethoven wrote actually is. There are several theories, which the book delves into for the sake of fiction.

After her arrival in Prague, Sarah begins to suspect her adviser was murdered. That theory is later confirmed when someone else close to the project is murdered, and so Sarah finds herself at the center of an escalating mystery as a series of murders threatens this important summer project.

Now, this is clearly a fantasy book, so the alchemy, the ageless servant, the nearly clairvoyant precocious little girl, etc… I was ready for.

The detours into Sarah’s sex life, particularly early in the story, I was not only not ready for, I felt they added to almost nothing except the author’s word count.

I know that sex is part of life and having had it before, I like it as much as anyone. But I don’t really want to read about it in detail. I find the writing is generally cringeworthy (as this was) and I find that most of the time, it’s not relevant. In this case, Sarah gets horny on the plane and blah blah her sense of smell and blah blah blah ends up banging a guy who she thought was another guy in a closet or something at the castle during dinner.

To me, this is the least interesting “mystery” in the whole book, because I really don’t care. Sure, this ends up being somewhat relevant but you could have left it out entirely and I wouldn’t have had to roll my eyes and wonder if I should bother continuing. This happened maybe 50 pages into the book? I don’t read romance for a reason. I don’t find it interesting. I didn’t find this aspect of the story interesting. I found it rather annoying.

Sarah was something of a Mary Sue as well, but it wasn’t so unbearable I felt I had to put the book down. It was a little annoying sometimes.

The resolution of the story was a little strange, and I think I must have missed a part while skimming (I tend to do that). There’s a US Senator involved in this whole thing, who is a sociopath, but I don’t fully understand why she’s involved. Anyway, she gets sucked into a vortex of doom and that’s basically how her plot line is resolved. Not the greatest writing but also not the worst.

Actually, the whole book was not the best book, but also not the worst. One of the things it did have going for it is that it wasn’t very long, so it wasn’t so slow that I had to put it down, unfinished, a mistake thus far only reserved for the books I really find boring.

The premise of the story was interesting enough for me to keep reading even though a couple of things early on turned me off. I’m glad I did, because while some of the novel really fell flat, there were enough fun elements to make consider reading the sequel. I’m a sucker for historical mysteries – Shakespeare’s lost plays are some of my favorites.

I also liked the setting. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Europe, but I’d like to, so it was nice to spend a story in Prague. Prague is one of those cities everyone seems to visit and talk about in college. I never went, and I think this is the first book I read that was set there.

Oh. So yes, there’s a sequel. It’s called City of Lost Dreams. That takes place in Vienna. I may pick it up, but I’m in no rush.

This is a good – for lack of a better term – beach read. If you’re a huge fantasy nerd who wants something denser and more detailed, this isn’t for you. It’s pleasantly surprising, but it isn’t anything fantastic.

a few thoughts on Tolkien

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JRR Tolkien was born 125 years ago today, on January 3, 1892 (for the arithmatic-ly challenged).

My mother dragged me to see the Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. I was 13. She really did have to drag me, using the sound reasoning that she’d gone to every damn stupid god forsaken terrible film I’d ever want to go to as a kid, and I was going to come whether I liked it or not.

At the start I was outraged I was being dragged to a three hour film I knew nothing about and had no interest in.

By the end I was outraged I’d sat through a three hour film and they hadn’t answered any questions.

My mom wouldn’t tell me what happened next and said I’d have to read it or wait til the next film. I was outraged further.

But I started The Hobbit on December 21, 2001 and finished The Return of the King on August 22, 2002. I was a slow reader as a kid.

And man, those books and films changed my life.

Not in a “I’m a new person” kind of way, although I did adopt the “not all those who wander are lost” quote as a philosophy of life. I don’t think it changed my outlook on life. It did change my outlook on stories. I compare every epic saga to that of the Fellowship’s. I don’t even do it on purpose. But that’s the standard – from the personal, inner conflicts of the characters to the epic consequences of the struggle, other stories I’ve read lack the world building, the scope and the depth of Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson’s adaptations are also possibly the greatest films I’ve ever watched in terms of grandeur and scale and faithfulness to the source material.

I’m not so devoted I’ve done things like read The Simarillion or The Children of Hurin. Or The Appendices. DEAR GOD, THE APPENDICES. But I like that they’re there if I ever want to read them.

And I do recognize greatness when I read it, and Tolkien may be the greatest.

So happy birthday to an all time great and one of my all time favorites. Thanks for a story that has given me something to bond with my mom over. And my friends. And my teachers. And the rest of the world. It’s been the best gift.

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