31 December 2014

High Hopes for the New Year

Today marks the end of 2014. Tomorrow is a New Year!

Here's to greener grass, brighter light, and all the best for 2015.

30 December 2014

2014: My Favorite Books

Only two days left! Time for my favorite books this year!

To be clear, these weren't all published this year.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Winger by Andrew Smith

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I'll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

So...two books each by Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell, and three by Andrew Smith.

In addition, I have a pile of five more books by Andrew Smith back home, to get 2015 started off right!

Apparently I forgot to keep track of the books I read in January, February, and part of March, but from mid-March to the end of the year I read 50 books (and I expect to finish another one tonight or tomorrow). If you can read, you can succeed.

Here's to more awesome books in 2015. I can think of two more by Andrew Smith I am dying to get my hands on...

29 December 2014

2014: Best Bottles

With only three days left of 2014, it seems an appropriate time to review my favorite bottles of wine.

2010 Tor Beckstoffer To Kalon "Anniversary Cuvee"

1983 Chateau Margaux (not technically a bottle, just a taste, but...yeaaaaaaaaaahhh)

Continuum 2011

Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel 2012

Ovid 2008 Napa Valley

Saxum James Berry Vineyard 2011

Paul Pernot et Ses Fils Puligny-Montrachet Chardonnay 2010

Domaine Besson Givry Premier Cru Le Petit Prétan 2009

Plus two bottles that I have enjoyed in previous years and revisited this year:

Saxum James Berry Vineyard 2008

Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel 2007

2014 was an awesome wine year for me. Here's to 2015 being even more amazing!

27 December 2014

2014: The Year I...Got on Twitter

Technically I've been on Twitter since 2008 or 2009, but I only started really using it this summer.

I have avoided social networking (and the Internet in general) as a rule, because it makes me crazy and I have had problems with it in the past (thanks, IRC).

However, following agents and writers on Twitter has proven valuable, as I've gotten tons of links and found out about all kinds of things I wouldn't have otherwise.

I have had to curate my list carefully, though. I started out following everyone that seemed interesting, and then, making sure to READ everything that everyone posted!

That was not sustainable, and I've adopted a far more reasonable approach now: check once or twice a day, scroll a bit but don't try to catch up on an entire day's worth of tweets, and, most importantly, I've culled my Following list to only those who I truly want to follow.

It's been working a lot better for me. I don't feel like such a slave anymore.

Only four more days of 2014 left!

26 December 2014

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D Ehrman

I have had Bart Ehrman's MISQUOTING JESUS: THE STORY BEHIND WHO CHANGED THE BIBLE AND WHY on my list for longer than I can recall. I suspect I added it back in 2009 when I developed a mild interest in comparative religion and textual criticism. Somehow or another, its turn finally came, so I got it from the library and slogged my way through it.

That makes it sound like more of a chore than it was. While it was no page-turner like some of my favorite books this year have been, it was far from boring. Indeed, Ehrman went out of his way to make the book both accessible and interesting for the layperson, which I certainly am.

MISQUOTING JESUS is, at its heart, a scholarly work, identifying the ways in which early scribes affected the transmission of the text of the New Testament, the reasons they sometimes had for doing so (in those cases where it was intentional), and the ways scholars use to study when and why these changes might have been made.

Certainly, as in many scholarly fields, disagreement abounds, but Ehrman lays out the tools of textual critics clearly: centuries of analytical techniques; caches of documents found over the years, some remarkably preserved over the centuries, others of a suspect provenance; litmus tests for determining which readings are more likely to be authentic, based on internal and external evidence; and, maybe most importantly, a willingness to dive deeper into a text that many people are reluctant to examine as anything other than the Literal Word of God.

I noticed the book generated a number of responses, many of which seemed to view MISQUOTING JESUS as anti-Christian. I wonder if any of those people actually read the book, because Ehrman seems to come a cross as a man of very committed faith, who nonetheless takes the study of his faith seriously and believes the deepest faith can be found by studying the words the faith was founded on.

It was a fascinating book, and I made it through it in about a week (pretty quick for non-fiction, for me). Up next, I have five (FIVE!) books from Andrew Smith's back catalog. As he's pretty much become my favorite author, this is a truly exciting end to the year.

24 December 2014

2014: The Year I...Got Disciplined

2014 was a big year for me writing-wise, as it marked the turning point in my dedication to it. The past several years it's been more of a hobby for me - a thing I do when I have free time.

This year, starting around summer, I made a conscious decision that This Was It. I was going to write every single day and keep moving forward on my projects.

That commitment required sacrifice. I've pretty much stopped playing video games altogether, which I miss terribly. And I only allow myself one hour of television per night (can't give up Downton Abbey, after all). And I only go to the gym for 90 minutes a day in the morning, so I can sleep in a little longer, which means I can stay up later writing.

You know what, though? The commitment has paid off. I finished a novel and started querying it. I finished 75% of a first draft of a second novel before realizing it was fundamentally flawed and had to start over from scratch, but I can apply what I learned from that first draft and I can already feel it's going to be way better. And I did NaNoWriMo and got most of a third novel drafted. It's still got a ways to go before it's finished and it'll need a ton of revision, but it's pretty good.

This month I haven't written every day, because Day Job kind of murdered me for a couple weeks with late nights and overnight shifts, but I'm getting back into the swing of it now. And it feels soooo good!

Even though I still have LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7 staring at me, waiting to be played.

23 December 2014

2014: The Year I...Drank First Growth Bordeaux

As there's not many days left in 2014, I thought it was high time to review the year that was.

There have been lots of significant events for me this year, both good and bad, but I thought I'd start off with a fun one:

My first tasting of First Growth (Premier Grand Cru) Bordeaux, when I got to taste Chateau Margaux 1983 back in March.

What an amazing wine that was. I only got a taste - an ounce or two - but I got so much out of that pour. I could have kept on smelling its nose for hours before even taking a sip.

To this day I still recall the feeling that I was drinking the soil of France, it was that earthy, and oh so complex. Truly amazing! And I got to keep the bottle, and now it sits on my little table of decorations. Whatever you call those.

So, 2014 was my first taste of First Growth. One down, four to go: Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut-Brion, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

Maybe one day.

22 December 2014

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Somehow my updates got out of order. I actually finished this before ELEANOR & PARK, but oh well.

HOLLOW CITY, the sequel to MISS PEREGRIN'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, picks up right where MISS PEREGRIN'S left off, with Jacob trapped in 1943, rowing across the sea to mainland Wales. It kept up the air of wonder and mystery that its predecessor introduced, and introduced a grander scope: the idea that not just Jacob and his friends, but the world itself, was threatened.

Ransom Riggs posed a lot of interesting questions about determinism, morality, and time in HOLLOW CITY. Since it took place in the past, Jacob knew the general shape of world history that would proceed forward from 1943, but at the same time, he had no idea what was going to happen around him, specifically - and he had to face his powerlessness to change the future in any meaningful way for "normals." HOLLOW CITY proceeds from the popular conceit that history is more or less fixed, and that time will course-correct itself if one tries to alter things.

Jacob had a lot of growing up to do, as he became something of a leader to his bunch of friends. As the only one who could see hollows, he knew it was up to him to protect his friends. But he was also so much younger than them, though it didn't seem it, and he was out of place and out of time. Jacob was so eloquent in his conflict, it broke my heart.

Of course, the photographs returned. Riggs scrounged up even more peculiar, amusing, or downright creepy photos to use in the book. They were deep and provocative and in beautiful black and white, evoking classic black-and-white films like Orson Welles' THE THIRD MAN.

Often times, sequels fail to live up to the promise of their original. Not so with HOLLOW CITY: it more than lived up to MISS PEREGRIN, and exceeded it, broadening the world and ratcheting up the stakes and driving the reader ever deeper into the world of the peculiar.

It should be no surprise that, since it's part of a trilogy, HOLLOW CITY left off on a cliffhanger. I can't wait for the third book to come out.

19 December 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

It's taken me a while to get my hands on a copy of ELEANOR & PARK. The wait list was in the hundreds for it. Four months after adding it to my hold list, it finally arrived.

I read it in a day and a half. (It would have been a single day, were it not for Day Job.)

I can see why it's so loved, and why there's such anticipation for the film adaptation that Rowell is penning.

ELEANOR & PARK is the first YA romance I've read that seemed to capture - truly, honestly capture - that intense insecurity that I remember as a teenager. Both Eleanor and Park are uncomfortable in their own skins, unsure of what the other sees in them, embarrassed by their bodies and their lives in all kinds of different ways. And the book shines its brightest when they realize that love means seeing through those hang-ups - not only seeing through them, but loving them and embracing them.

What a powerful story to tell. What a fine example to set.

It was interesting to me that ELEANOR & PARK was told in third person, and from both characters' POVs. The only other romance I've read that did it this was was SAY WHAT YOU WILL. And while I enjoyed SAY WHAT YOU WILL, I absolutely adored ELEANOR & PARK. It's on my purchase list now, though that will have to wait until January. If I don't stop loving so many books I will have a giant list come the new year.

I took lots of notes on ELEANOR & PARK. It's one of those books that I imagine pretty much anyone writing YA has to read. There's something intangible that Rainbow Rowell captured so perfectly, and it's something that all of us have to face: how to capture that intense, fleeting feeling of life as a teenager, when everything seems so full of possibility but every decision is life or death.

This book will require further study. And you know what? That will be some enjoyable studying.

12 December 2014

Best Friends

It occurred to me this morning that of all the books I've read this year, while most have had some element of romance and all have featured friends, very few have featured the kind of deep, abiding friendship that defines being Best Friends.

There is one author, however, who seems to include this relationship in all his books. Granted I've not read ALL his books (YET!) but of the three I read (devoured) this year, all three of them had amazing friendships.

This year I read Andrew Smith's WINGER, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, and 100 SIDEWAYS MILES, and all three had amazing Best Friends in them. The kind of Best Friends that reflect how I feel about my own Best Friend.

In WINGER, Joey is Ryan Dean's best friend. Ryan Dean starts off the book by telling us that Joey was the only one who tried to keep him on the right track. He spends the book telling Ryan Dean to get his shit together - but he always has Ryan Dean's back, and Ryan Dean has his back, too. They have the sort of debauched teenage adventures that my own friends and I might have had, if we'd had access to alcohol at that age (and inclination to consume). Ryan Dean's not afraid to say that he loves Joey. I understand that completely.

In GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, Robby Brees is Austin's best friend. And despite the romantic entanglements that ensue due to Austin's conflicting attractions and perpetual horniness, Austin still takes the time to tell us that Robby Brees is a bad-ass superhero. That's the kind of admiration I feel for my Best Friend. Like they can climb mountains. Do kung-fu. Kill giant praying mantises while wearing smelly lemur masks. Robby is also the only one to call Austin out when he's being selfish - and Austin cares about Robby's opinion enough to admit he's right, and to try to be better.

And then there's 100 SIDEWAYS MILES. The marketing for the book made mention of the "possibly insane but definitely excellent Cade Hernandez." And if Austin admired Robby, Finn admired Cade even more. Finn calls Cade a god. He's amazed at how the world seems to fall into place around whatever Cade wants. But Cade isn't particularly selfish, and he's a true friend to Finn, even if he sometimes gets a little out of hand. He's the kind of loud, boisterous Best Friend that pushes you out of your comfort zone and then follows you out the other side. The scene where Cade takes Finns hopping for condoms is absolutely amazing.

I don't know why it is that Andrew Smith writes such amazing Best Friends. I must assume he's had that kind of relationship in his life - either that or has craved it. Regardless, the Best Friends in his books have touched my life. If I didn't have such excellent Best Friends myself, I might want some of his.

11 December 2014

Carry On: An Essay in GIFs

So, it was revealed yesterday that Rainbow Rowell is writing CARRY ON, the fanfiction that Cather was writing in FANGIRL.

I legitimately predicted this would be her next book this past October, as seen here on The Twitter:

This was actually not long after I finished reading FANGIRL, and so it was still fresh on my mind. Besides, from the excerpts included in FANGIRL, it actually seemed like it would be a fun read.

Fast forward two months, and an article appears on Barnes & Noble revealing that, yes, that is the next book.

I naturally freaked out a little bit. I wanted her to write the book and now she is. To quote April Ludgate:

I could go on about my predictive powers...

But I think it is more fun to simply sit back and anticipate (breathlessly!) CARRY ON's release. When will it be? Who knows. But this is how I will feel when it comes out:

10 December 2014

Miss Peregrin's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I am so mad at myself that I waited as long as I did to read this book. It was wonderful: full of whimsy and humor, yet dark and quite chilling at times, too. And with an absolutely stunning voice. It had some of my favorite descriptions ever in it.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME is about Jacob Portman, a boy from Florida who grew up hearing fantastic tales from his grandfather about fighting monsters. Jacob's grandfather is a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis, the sole survivor of his family, and wound up at an orphanage in Wales for several years, before leaving to fight in the war and, at last, settling in America.

The first part of the novel starts off mundane enough, but things change when Jacob starts seeing the same monsters his grandfather did. He has to go to Wales, to his grandfather's old orphanage, to unravel the mystery - and there, he discovers that maybe his grandfather's tales weren't so fantastic after all.

There's a lot that elevates MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME above other similar books. For starters, it comfortably straddles several genres all at once: science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, contemporary, even horror - there is a definite feel of Lovecraftian terror to it. There's the aforementioned voice (example: It was truly biblical; a fog I could imagine God, in one of his lesser wraths, cursing the Egyptians with.), which was delightful.

Then there are the photographs.

Ransom Riggs found a bunch of vintage photographs and wove them seamlessly into the story.

I don't know how much the selection inspired the story and how much the story inspired the selection, but the photos add this reality to the book that is absolutely stunning. It feels more history than fiction.

The sequel to MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME, HOLLOW CITY, already came out - and I'm reading it right now. I'm always a bit wary of being a bandwagon-jumper, but Ransom Riggs has made a fan out of me and I can't wait to see where the story goes from here.

09 December 2014

Dashe Les Enfantes Terribles Grenache 2013

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I am extremely fond of the wines from Dashe Cellars. It should come as no surprise, then, that when I saw this new (to me) offering from them, I grabbed a bottle.

Les Enfantes Terribles is a small production wine, and it's the first Grenache I've had from Dashe. I haven't found many producers of pure Grenache, outside of a handful of Spanish Garnachas, so I was excited to see what Dashe could do with it.

The wine was a tremendous fruit bomb, with aromas of dried sour cherries and fresh herbs.

The taste The taste carried the sour cherries forward, along with hints of candied fruits - like in a fruit cake. It had a delightful pucker, due to vibrant acidity, and this tantalizing hint of sweetness. It was very much a youthful wine, without pretension. It was delightful and light and really quite delicious.


08 December 2014

Endsinger by Jay Kristoff

I've been waiting for this for a long time. ENDSINGER is the final chapter of The Lotus War Trilogy, Jay Kristoff's amazing feudal-Japanese-dystopian-steampunk trilogy. I picked up the first book, STORMDANCER, back in 2013 when I saw it on a table at Barnes and Noble. The amazing cover and the spot-on blurb sold it to me right away.

I read the sequel, KINSLAYER, back in June - it had somehow gotten released without my realizing it. Probably because I wasn't on The Twitter at the time. At the time, KINSLAYER was a bit of an enigma to me: I was still in love with the world and the characters, but it seemed at times to meander and I didn't get how things were going to pay off.

Well, I shouldn't have doubted, because everything came back together in the explosive orgy of ass-kicking that is ENDSINGER.

ENDSINGER picks up where KINSLAYER left off: the Kagé rebellion in serious trouble after being betrayed by Kin, the Lotus Guild about to launch their Earthcrusher, the gaijin of Morcheba about to push back against the Shimans who have been pillaging their country for twenty years, Hiro a puppet of the Guild, Yukiko pregnant...you get it.

In my experience, the final book of a trilogy tends to be either the worst or the best. ENDSINGER was definitely the best: it hit the ground running and never let up. There were surprises left and right, reversals that I never saw coming. Kristoff is a master of misdirection, and he kept me guessing all along.

Kristoff occupies a space that seems, to me, halfway between Tolkien and Martin. There's a lot of Tolkien's optimism, care for the environment, and belief that even the most unlikely of us can become heroes. But on the other hand, there's plenty of Martin's pessimism, acknowledging that often humans become their own monsters, that people can be destructively selfish on a global scale, that gods and monsters are nothing compared to the horrors we perpetrate on each other. And when it comes to killing people off, there's no doubt that Kristoff belongs in George R. R. Martin's camp.

For all that, though, the novel left off on a note of hope. There was loss, yes, but there was love at the end, and hope for a better future. Kristoff's own author bio says he doesn't believe in happy endings, but ENDSINGER wasn't a sad ending, either. It was haunting and bittersweet, and it was honest and real and earned.

Absolutely worth the wait.

07 December 2014

Numb Again

Every so often I return to certain songs I've learned on the guitar, to improve them and perfect them. Last week I decided it was time to revisit this one:

I think if I had a time machine, this performance would be in my top five things to go back and experience.

05 December 2014

Méthode Noir

It came!

I ran out of Steven Smith Teamaker's Methode Noir in August of 2013 and was unable to replenish my supply - the tea had run its course. Now, it's back, in a limited edition. And mine came today.

Last time, it came in string-tie cartons with sachets. This time, it's loose leaf, in a special black lacquer wooden box.

In my memories I had this idea formed of how heavenly the aroma of even the dry tea leaves were, but the memory didn't do the reality justice. They are so fragrant, so full of Pinot Noir - black cherry and earth - that it's unbelievable that this is tea and not wine.

Ohh so good!

I am enjoying my first cup right now, savoring it long and slow. I will no doubt write more about it when I'm in a more of a tasting mindset. For now, I'm keeping the flavors and aromas all for me.

04 December 2014

Domaine Besson Givry Premier Cru Le Petit Prétan 2009

I should point out, first and foremost, that I definitely should have decanted this bottle. Five years was not nearly long enough. But I did take my time savoring it - I ended up drinking most of the bottle myself, over the course of 3 or four hours, so it got time to breathe in the glass and in the bottle. I drank it at a Thanksgiving dinner with my oldest friends. Most of them are not into wine so I had most of it to myself. We drank it out of (if memory serves) Nachtmann Vivendi Pinot Noir glasses, so the wine had plenty of room to work its magic.

Earthy describes most fine Burgundies to me, and this wine from Le Petit Prétan was no different. The nose was intensely meaty, with smoke and leather notes overpowering most everything else. It was tight and dense, but I dove right in.

The first taste was overpoweringly acidic, but that smoothed out to hits of loam, tea leaf, mulch, and in the background, this river of black cherry ran through it.

I wish I had paid closer attention to how this wine developed over the evening and made additional notes. I can only go off my (somewhat drunken) recollections.

I remember the acidity mellowing considerably, and the tannins becoming more noticeably pleasing. I remember it being dry throughout, but that the black cherries came to the fore.

It was a wonderful Burgundy, and my last bottle that I had cellaring. I will have to replenish soon.

03 December 2014

Every Day by David Levithan

EVERY DAY is based on a simple premise: every morning, A wakes up in a different body, a body he borrows for the day, accessing memories, being that person while being away that he is himself.

Note: A doesn't really have a gender, but because we first meet A while in the body of a boy who identifies as a boy, I will refer to him in the masculine for simplicity sake.

When A wakes up in the body of Justin and goes through Justin's day, he meets Justin's girlfriend, Rhiannon, and just like that, he falls in love. The sort of deep-breath-and-plunge love that's full of magic and longing and heartache. It's clear A has never been in love like this before.

The story isn't about falling in love, though. Falling in love isn't a story. It's doing something about it that makes for the story. And A decides to do something about it.

It starts off innocently, hijacking people's lives briefly to get extra glimpses of Rhiannon, but eventually A breaks his own rules and starts doing things that could potentially derail people, get them in trouble. Even get his own existence found out.

For the first time, he takes risks, reaches out to change things, and it's beautiful and breathtaking. A talks, repeatedly, about enormity. The enormity of love. The enormity of the world. The enormity of the little details in everyday life that we, who live in the same body every day, never notice, but which he never takes for granted.

It's amazing to me how easy this book seems. How effortless. I can't imagine what it was like for David Levithan to write it, but reading it plunged me right into A's world. The way A describes love is one of the most honest and poetic explanations I've ever read for the feeling.

It's inevitable that A will face challenges in finding his way to Rhiannon. I don't want to spoil what they are or what comes of them. But EVERY DAY was an excellent read, a bittersweet reminder of first love and what we do to hold on to it.

02 December 2014

Messanges Rouge Chinon Récolte 2013

This was, to my recollection, my first encounter with Chinon. It's made from 100% Cabernet Franc, which is such a strange grape to me, because it's so like Cabernet Sauvignon and yet so not.

As soon as I poured a taste I was amazed. It was the lightest red I have ever seen, like the clearest garnet. It felt airy as I swirled it around the glass. I almost expected it to fizz up or float away.

It had scents of throat lozenge and cherry candy, fruit cake, and the tiniest hint of spice. None were overpowering, but worked in harmony together. I have to say it was one of the most enticing noses I've ever encountered.

The taste was bursting with cherries too, fresh, ripe cherries. The mouthfeel was soft, inviting, pillowy. I don't know that I've ever had a wine quite like it, but I can't wait to have one again. An amazing selection from my wine club. Yum!

01 December 2014

December is Here

Well, after finishing my NaNoWriMo on 25 November, I didn't really have any time to work on it until this past weekend, and only got in another 2,000 words. Now that the craziness of Thanksgiving is over, I feel a lot better about rededicating myself to finish the novel. I like where it's headed a lot, and I keep coming up with new and better ways of telling the story (or so it seems, at least).

Now that it's December, I'm making it my goal to go back to daily posts on this blog as well. I've got some bottles of wine I've tasted recently that I am ready to share notes on, and hopefully I'll finish some more books soon. I've got quite a pile waiting for me at the library.

And, of course, it's 2,000 words a day for me for the next 15 days, or until I type THE END - whichever comes first!