Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: Paragons: An Anthology of Superheroes

Russell Newquist of Silver Empire was so good as to send me a review copy of Paragons: An Anthology of Superheroes which I've been enjoying very much this past week. Thirteen tales of original superheroes make up the collection, exploring the theme of heroic adventures with fantastic powers.

There’s a wide variety of length and tone here. Steve Beaulieu’s “Medusa” is a good choice to introduce the anthology, being about a 1000-word short look at a superheroine’s isolation, followed by what I think must be the longest one in the collection, Kai Wai Cheah’s “Nightstick”, an intricate novella of a dark superhero fighting to protect his city in a near-future where many people, both good guys and bad, had suddenly acquired extraordinary powers.

Morgon Newquist, who also edited the book, wrote “Blackout”, which delves into the characters of two heroes: the optimistic and candid Jameson Hirsch, and his more brooding and tormented friend, Michael Turner, in an introduction that for me harkened back to G. K. Chesterton’s stories of Father Brown and his frenemy, Flambeau. The subtitle is “A Serenity City Story,” which makes me hope to see much more of their interactions with each other—and the still-mysterious Rhiannon Argall, for whose love they are rivals.

Jon Mollison’s knack for stories of high adventure with heroes motivated by deep family love comes through again in “Like Father”. Dawn Witzke’s “Deadly Calm Returns” takes a lighter look at a superhero’s family life and had the people in the donut shop where I read it wondering, I’m sure, why that fellow kept bursting into laughter. Declan Finn’s “Weather Witch” has his trademark well-told fantasy action. It's one of the few "origin stories" in this collection, and one of the few not set in a city.

If "Nightstick" had a darkness to it that reminded me of Batman, "Someone is Aiming for You" by J. D. Cowan made me think of The Shadow (though I blush to admit I still only know that series through the Alec Baldwin movie): a dark drama between good and evil metaphysical forces. The final story in the book, "Stalina" by Sam Kepfield, tells of a Khruschev-era idealistic Russian superwoman, devoted to Truth, Justice, and the Soviet Way...like many of the stories here that seem to cry out for sequels, "Stalina" made me want to read more about her.

A lot of these stories could be turned into series, and I hope at least some of them will be. I found Paragons to be a terrific read, and I'll be looking for more.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thursday Review: WAR DEMONS, by Russell Newquist

WAR DEMONS follows veteran Michael Alexander who returned from the Afghanistan war with PTSD, but he also happens to have to deal with war demons of a more tangible variety. Michael enlisted after 9/11 to fight the people who launched that attack, not only from an overflow of patriotism and thirst for vengeance but also because of the gut-wrenching personal impact he suffered from the event. After he returns he finds that the real battle between good and evil is not only on the battlefields in the Mideast, and may never be described in the history books...

This book is filled with engaging characters and memorable, significant action scenes. The themes are serious and it treats them seriously, but there are moments where the somberness is broken not by levity but by hints of grace coming from above, like a sunbeam breaking through the clouds.

The plot builds to a page-turning rush of action that never lets up (well, eventually the book ends...but not till shortly before that). Some reviewers have remarked the first part of the book was slower; it is, but I didn't have any problem with it: Newquist does a great job setting out the background with intriguing storytelling even before you get to the zombies and vampires and...oh, just read it.

Since it's listed on Amazon with the subtitle (or whatever you call it) The Prodigal Son Book 1, I don't think I spoil anything by mentioning that the end leaves room for a sequel or two, or several, and I'm hoping those will be forthcoming. It's excellent reading.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This Week in Cultural Appropriation: Rarebit Fundido


A beery cheese sauce spiced up with salsa and completed (if desired) with leftover taco meat, cooked in the microwave in the bowl you're going to eat it from. Perfect for a night when the lady of the house is out doing something and you're fixing a fast, simple, tasty for yourself for while you watch old horror flicks on Svengoolie wearing an old T-shirt (because you'll dribble).


Ingredients:
Beer, one bottle: I suggest a strong, dark one like a porter or stout
Cheddar cheese, probably 6 ounces (150 grams)
Salsa: maybe half a cup. Check the expiration date on the jar.
Flour: about a quarter cup
Tortilla chips
Optional:
Garlic, one clove, crushed
Leftover taco meat, to taste


Procedure

Use a microwavable bowl, and--important!--it needs to be tall enough to hold the cheese and beer and still have about an inch of room left at the top. You don't want it to boil over in the microwave.



Grate the cheese into the bowl. Toss in the flour. Shake the bowl up and down and toss the cheese with the flour with your fingers. The goal is to coat the cheese with flour and hopefully not have much flour left. The fat from the cheese and the flour make a kind of roux, without needing butter.

Pour enough beer over the cheese to cover it and stir it around. This will not require all the beer in a bottle, so you will have to find another use for the rest of it. Sorry, forgot to mention that. Hope it doesn't make difficulty. If using garlic, crush it into the mix. Then put it into the microwave for one minute.

After one minute it will be a little melted but not smooth yet. Stir it with a spoon and then microwave it for another minute (take the spoon out).

After the second minute, stir again and it should be smooth. If it isn't, you can try mending it by sifting in a bit of flour, stirring to incorporate it, maybe a bit more, stirring again, and then microwave another minute. It's hard not to get lumps doing this. But usually it comes out pretty well for me.

After you have it smooth, pour in salsa to taste: I glop in a good half cup.

Then stir it up and microwave for another half minute or minute, and remove from the microwave.

If you want to add leftover taco meat, heat the meat in the microwave till hot through, and then pour a layer onto the top of the cheese sauce. Arrange chips around it on a plate if taking a picture for a blog, otherwise just grab the bag and head for the TV set.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday, Fun Day

Reading: DRACULA, for the first time. Astounding Frontiers #2. I’m torn: I want to read John C Wright’s NOWHITHER straight through, and it’s serialized. So I’m skipping it until more of it comes out, though it hurts.

Writing projects underway:
“The Kings of the Corona”: 17000 word story: finished, accepted for the upcoming anthology TALES OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, edited by Anthony Marchetta. Publication date not yet scheduled. Anthony showed us a draft of the cover art, by Dawn Witzke, and it looks great. Probably not long now. #Fantasy #Arthurian #YoungAdult
“The Stowaways” (working title) projected as 8000 word story, or maybe 6000 if I can whittle it down: work in progress. I have about 3000 words so far. #ScienceFiction #SpaceOpera




My weekends these days are mostly taken up with work connected with closing Mom’s estate, but I want weekends to be fun days. Here are a joke and a number curiosity.

A Joke

Remembered this old chestnut this afternoon. Modified it slightly:

A young man in the heart of the South wanted to instill his love of his region’s history in his young son, and walked through the park with him one day to the statue of Stonewall Jackson, flourishing his saber, mounted on his horse, frozen in a tableau of dramatic action.

“That, son, is Stonewall Jackson,” he said.

“Wow!” said the little boy.

The statue at once became the boy’s favorite spot in the park. His father noted with pride as the years passed that his son would still return there every Sunday to admire the memorial.

At last the boy graduated high school, and was about to set off for college far away. He and his father went for one last walk through the park to visit their favorite statue one more time, and they stood in silence paying their respects to it.

When they turned to go home again, the young man said, “Dad, I’ve always wondered something.”

“What is it, son?”

“Do you happen to know—who is that man with the funny beard sitting on Stonewall Jackson?”



Recreational Math

Here’s an arithmetical curiosity I noticed that has a pretty good “gee whiz” factor.

It begins with a pleasant little “find the number” puzzle: There is only one number (not counting 1, which is rather a ‘degenerate’ solution) that has this property: it is the product of the first and last digits of its square. Find the number.

To clarify the idea, if you’re not used to how I put these things (so few people are!), if you were to try the number 17 you would square it, 17 x 17 = 289, and then multiply the first and last digits, 2 times 9 = 18. We were hoping to get our 17 back: nope, close but no cigar. In case you want to try finding it, see Answer 1 is below, not to be confused with Answer 2 below.

For a second puzzle, kick the idea up a notch by taking two digits at a time: Find a number that is the product of the 2-digit number at the left and right ends of its own square.

Again, to clarify: if you were testing 2,656, you would square it: 2,656 x 2,656 = 7,054,336. Then you would take the two-digit numbers from the left and right of the square and multiply, hoping to get your 2,656 back: 70 x 36 = 2,520. Nope.

I would think you’d want to use mechanical help to work on this one. A spreadsheet is quite adequate, and it’s a nice little exercise in writing formulas.

The interesting thing is that the one number that answers this puzzle has a curious relationship with the number that worked in the first puzzle.

Okay, you've looked at the answers? Now here's what puzzles me, and I don't have an answer: Why in the world would the numbers that answer the one-digit and two-digit problems have this pattern, where the two-digit answer just repeats the digits of the one-digit answer twice? Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, or maybe there’s a mathematical reason I don’t see.

And no, repeating digits three times doesn’t work for the 3-digit version of the same puzzle.




ANSWER 1: The number is 28. 28 x 28 = 784 and 7 x 4 = 28.





ANSWER 2: The number is 2,288. 2,288 x 2,288 = 5,234,944, and 52 x 44 = 2,288.





Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday Review: ADVENTURE CONSTANT by Jon Mollison

ADVENTURE CONSTANT: A Tale of the Planetary Romantic, by Jon Mollison

The explanation of the title of this exuberant adventure comes about three-fourths of the way into the book, and is so original and droll—well, and so outlandish—that when I came to it I laughed out loud. By that point, our hero, Jack Dashing, has been in, oh, a half-dozen fights, several chases, a couple rescues, and put a roomful of pompous asses in their place…always acquitting himself honorably and well.

The action begins early, the minute Dashing, a NASA astronaut, finds himself shifted into this parallel Earth as the result of an experimental FTL spacecraft not operating as expected. He is immediately caught up in international intrigue in a mission to rescue beautiful Princess Okanamokoa from the  nefarious agents of the Red Collective, and along with that to find the ambiguous Dr. Abduraxus, the only man who could understand how he came to be here and might get back home. The pace continues throughout the book, which I guesstimate at about 70,000 words, and the conflicts are varied and interesting. It might be easier and less spoilerific to list what it does not have. No vampires; no werewolves; no airplane dogfights. That’s all I can think of offhand.

The characters are colorful and memorable, if not particularly deep: good guys are honorable and sympathetic and you care what happens to them, bad guys are despicable and you're pleased when they get what's coming to them. But I didn't note any agonizing moral choices to be made that would reveal and develop them.

But this book is more about action and adventure and the panoramic setting of Mollison's parallel Earth: a globe divided into the Red Collective, the Shogunate of the Red Dawn, the Machine Empire of Europe, the Allied States, the Hashishim Moonies, and undoubtedly more not yet mentioned (hopefully there will be sequels). The world’s history resembles our own just enough to be vaguely familiar, but as if it had been conceived by a Martian counterpart of Edgar Rice Burroughs creating a setting for tales of exotic derring-do on the Blue Planet.

And that’s the whole idea, of course: Jon Mollison is one of the pulp revolution’s most enthusiastic participants, and hits his stride in this one. ADVENTURE CONSTANT only begins to sample the possibilities of this world, and while it wraps up the story by the book’s end, it still leaves enough characters with mysteries unrevealed that I’m eager for a sequel.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

This Week in Cultural Appropriation: Taco-Stuffed Zucchin


Tacos filling used to stuff a zucchini: lower in carbohydrates than the usual tacos in shells made from floured grains. You’ll need one or two large flat rectangular casseroles, like lasagna dishes.

Ingredients: makes 12 “tacos”, enough for 6 people

6 large zucchini
2 cloves garlic, or a small onion: optional
2 pounds ground meat
Taco seasoning to taste (packets, or see my mix recipe below)
12 ounces (340 g) grated cheese of your choice (I used cheddar)
Salt, pepper, olive oil
Taco toppings you like

Procedure

I wasn’t hurrying when I made these, so at the time I didn’t look for ways to parallel-process and save time. But I’ll try to make time-saving directions here. I think this could be done in an hour and a quarter, with the last half-hour as baking time that you could use to prepare a side dish if desired.

I started with preparing the zucchini because it takes awhile: you carve and parboil them before filling and baking them. Parboiling was time-consuming for me because they wouldn’t all fit in the skillet I used. If you want to save time, I’d suggest as your first step putting on a big pot of water, or multiple skillets, to boil while you get the zucchini ready. You could also start browning your ground meat, taking time to stir it now and then.

Split the zucchini lengthwise and chop off the ends. Then use a paring knife to cut around the edge, as though making a little dugout canoe, leaving a shell about a quarter-inch thick (6 mm).


Next, scoop out the insides with a metal spoon. If you have a grapefruit spoon, with a serrated edge, that would be ideal. Don’t cut all the way through, and keep a layer of pulp on all sides, as if to keep the canoe watertight. Reserve the chunks of white zucchini pulp in a bowl.

Heat some water in a skillet or pot that’s big enough, and parboil the zucchini shells about five minutes, in batches if necessary. Set the finished ones flat in a rectangular casserole. For six zucchini I used two big 9x13 inch casseroles.

While parboiling, you could use another skillet to brown your ground meat. I used turkey, but I’m confident beef or something else would be delicious: follow your own inner light. Then of course you drain it and add taco seasoning to it, the same as for regular tacos. I’m not going to give special instructions for that. If you’d like my recipe for taco seasoning mix, I include that below.

While both skillets are perking along, chop the chunks of zucchini pulp, rather fine. Then heat yet another skillet (unless you’re ready to reuse one of them), pour olive oil in it untiul your conscience tells you that you have poured enough, and sautee the pulp. Add crushed garlic andor minced onion, if you‘re using those. My family doesn’t like onions so I used garlic. Give it a stir and then cover it and wait a few minutes. It will reduce in volume quite a bit. I think ten or fifteen minutes should demoralize it pretty completely.



Meanwhile, grate the cheese. If you want to add a little cream cheese to the mix, I won’t tell anyone.

When the pulp has become all mushy and looks a little dry, combine it with the meat in a bowl, and stir in about two-thirds of the grated cheese. This is the filling that goes into the zucchini boats. Time to start heating the oven to 350 F (175 C).

Put a little filling in the first shell, then equal in the next, etc., until they all have a little, then go back and put a little more, and so on till the filling is used up. You always think there will be too much filling, but there never is. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top.

I covered my casseroles with foil before baking, but I’m not sure whether covered or uncovered is best so let freedom reign. Put the casserole(s) in the oven and bake for 25 minutes.

Add toppings as desired. I used chopped tomatoes and baby spinach, sour cream and taco sauce from a bottle.


We liked these a lot, a light but satisfying meal. I missed the crunch of usual taco shells, but that seems to be a general problem with low-carb food. You could get a little crunchy texture by adding a bread-crumb topping before baking, I suppose. Perhaps a better option would be to have a crunchy side like chips with refried beans. Refried beans and spanish rice on the side would make this a hearty meal.


Taco Seasoning Mix

I don’t usually measure this out when use it, I just add what looks like enough and taste-test it. You’ll also want to add salt to taste when you use it, unless you prefer to add some while making the mix.

English measurements:
¼ cup chili powder
3 tbs paprika
2 tbs onion powder
1 tbs garlic powder
1 tbs ground cumin
1 tbs oregano
2 tbs cayenne pepper
1 tbs black pepper

Combine all ingredients and store in airtight crock. Makes about 1 cup.

Metric measurements:

60 ml chili powder
45 ml paprika
30 ml onion powder
15 ml garlic powder
15 ml ground cumin
15 ml oregano
30 ml cayenne pepper
15 ml black pepper

I suppose that would make 225 ml.







The Wood Where Things Have No Names

This is one of those all-too-common weeks where the airwaves and the Web are so full of rancor, so much of it aimed at figuring out whom to call a “White Supremacist” or a “White Nationalist” or a “Nazi”, whether “Alt Left” is a suitable name, whether “mainstream conservatives” believe this or that, and have we denounced everyone belonging to some named group strongly enough—without specifying whether they belong to the group because they say so themselves or because someone else says it of them, or because they fit one person’s definition of the group, or the current dictionary definition, or the definition that held for fifty years until 2008, or what—that it reminded me of this peaceful section from Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.

It could be a bit of fantasy flash-fiction on its own, but I notice today that in the book it comes just before Alice reaches the Eighth Square, where she becomes a Queen. Was Carroll suggesting this experience of things-in-themselves, without having their names to remember our prejudices about them, was an important step before becoming a mature adult? It's a very thought-provoking passage, to me; I think it's deep enough to be worthy of the excellent Sci Phi Journal, if they published vintage content. I thought it was an especially refreshing read today.


The Wood Where Things Have No Names

She came very soon to an open field, with a wood on the other side of it: it looked much darker than the last wood, and Alice felt a little timid about going into it. However, on second thoughts, she made up her mind to go on: “for I certainly wo’n’t go back,” she thought to herself, and this was the only way to the Eighth Square.

“This must be the wood,” she said thoughtfully to herself, “where things have no names. I wonder what’ll become of my name when I go in? I shouldn’t like to lose it at all—because they’d have to give me another and it would be almost certain to be an ugly one. But then the fun would be, trying to find the creature that had got my old name! That’s just like the advertisements, you know, when people lose dogs—‘answers to the name of “Dash:” had on a brass collar’—just fancy calling everything you met “Alice,” till one of them answered! Only they wouldn’t answer at all, if they were wise.”

She was rambling on in this way when she reached the wood: it looked very cool and shady. “Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the—into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the—under the—under this, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it’s got no name—why, to be sure it hasn’t!”

She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. “Then it really has happened, after all! And now, who am I? I will remember, if I can! I’m determined to do it!” But being determined didn’t help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was, “L, I know it begins with L!”

Just then a Fawn came wandering by: it looked at Alice with its large gentle eyes, but didn’t seem at all frightened. “Here then! Here then!” Alice said as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it; but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!

“I wish I knew!” though poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”

“Think again,” it said: “that wo’n’t do.”

Alice thought, but nothing came of it. “Please, would you tell me what you call yourself?” she said timidly. “I think that might help a little.”

“I’ll tell you, if you’ll move a little further on,” the Fawn said. “I ca’n’t remember here.”

So they walked on together through the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arms. “I’m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight, “and, dear me! you're a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

Alice stood looking after it, almost ready to cry with vexation at having lost her dear little fellow-traveller so suddenly. “However, I know my name now,” she said, “that’s some comfort. Alice—Alice—I wo’n’t forget it again….”