What I’m Reading Friday – 10/11/2013 – Flesh Eaters & Freedomland

Posted October 11, 2013 by jbrueske
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I finished Flesh Eaters by Joe McKinney last night.  I read his first book (Dead City) in July and enjoyed it enough to look for his others.  This is the third one (I haven’t read the second, but it’s not a strictly progressive series, just stories taking place in the same universe).  One of the things that drew me initially to his books was his bio.  The first couple of times I looked at the series at the bookstore, I was ambivalent – I love zombie things, but have become picky over the years.  I can’t always articulate what it is and what it isn’t that I’ll like, and I like a variety of things, but there are some stories that just don’t even remotely catch my interest, even when I enjoy the subject.  The descriptions on the backs of the books left me feeling kind of “meh,” reading a few pages here and there to get a feel for the writing style piqued my interest a little more, but the author’s bio on the inside back cover made me decide it was worth checking out.  He’s had an interesting career and seemed like an intriguing person (I put in a link to his website at the end of this; go play).  His take on zombies isn’t exactly unique – there aren’t very many places one can go with that anymore – but his books are fast-paced and engaging.  My biggest complaints really lie with his editor – too many grammatical errors made it through, in particular “but” regularly used where “and” should be; the term “only” repeatedly used in a way that would indicate an unequal comparison without an unequal comparison being made; and the repetition of the exact same phrase every few pages to describe the smell of the flooded city, the interior of the buildings, the air, etc.  I understand the continual reminder of the stench was intended to help set the scene and draw the reader in, but because of the way it was done it had the opposite effect on me.  There are other ways to do this – language that shows the smell, rather than just telling me over and over and over and over that things smell like mud, chemicals, and rotting flesh.  The world is full of synonyms for these things, and we know how people react to smells: her nose wrinkled as the breeze carried a stronger odor of rot; his eyes burned in the acrid air as he rowed through an oily patch near the destroyed factory; one by one the travelers ahead of them began to gag on the sweet, putrid stench as they floated past the apartment building.  Set the scene initially (bad, bad smells all mixed together), go ahead and give a reminder here and there if it seems necessary, then rely on more subtle imagery to carry your theme through the book.  My other complaint is a very abrupt personality shift for one of the characters near the end.  One character goes from a person who had up to that point showed nothing but respect, kindness, friendship, and compassion for one of the main characters to out of nowhere thinking of her as useless and ineffective, frequently referring to her as a “stupid bitch.”  With a little foreshadowing or some sort of cataclysmic event, this could have been an excellent plot twist; as it is, it just feels out of place.

Even so, I enjoyed the story.  In Dead City, refugees from Houston have been relocated to several cities after a series of hurricanes destroys much of the coast.  The filthy environment has given rise to a new kind of virus – carried out of the city by some of the refugees.  That story follows a local police officer going about his regular shift when the outbreak occurs and his struggle to reunite with his wife and baby.  Flesh Eaters takes place in Houston, following one of the officers in charge of disaster relief as she tries to both perform her duties and keep her family safe.  It starts at the beginning of the first wave of the storms and covers the attempts at evacuating the city, caring for all the stranded people, and avoiding the new threat of zombies.  I don’t often feel a lot of suspense when I read stories like this – it’s a zombie story, we all know it’s a zombie story, and the authors typically put in plenty of cues before the big scary monster shows up (creaky footsteps, strong stenches, odd noises, blood, gore, a series of half-eaten bodies, etc.).  In this one, while I knew zombies would be showing up, I didn’t know when until the character we were following saw dead eyes staring back at him.  The author did an excellent job of building the suspense by making his characters act like normal people going about their lives (albeit in the midst of a natural disaster).  For me, that worked far better to keep me “on edge” turning page after page, nearly scanning the pages just to find out if *this* is where they first run into the walking dead.  He also doesn’t treat his characters like morons.  They recognize that these things are dead, they’re walking around, they’re eating people, we don’t need to try to reason with them.  The characters acknowledge what they’re seeing and act accordingly, even while struggling internally over the impossibility of it.  It’s a refreshing change from so many stories where half the characters get torn apart trying to talk to the neighbor lady to find out why she’s eating the paper boy’s intestines.

I don’t have any of Mr. McKinney’s other books yet, so I started Freedomland by Richard Price.  I only got a few pages in this afternoon, but it hasn’t really drawn me in yet.  Some books do right away (Dead City and Flesh Eaters); others are slower to catch my attention, but are still well worth the read (Excavation).

While preparing to write this evening, I stumbled upon Mr. McKinney’s WordPress site (http://joemckinney.wordpress.com), with an entire section devoted to his Dead World series.  I haven’t read through it yet, but that’ll be my next stop.

Geography Tuesdays – An Introduction

Posted October 8, 2013 by jbrueske
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A little later than planned – technical difficulties.  My computer suddenly lost its webcam for no apparent reason.

Yes, I will be getting a new map with brighter colors.  It might not be by next week, but it’s on my agenda.

What I’m Reading Friday – 10/04/2013 – Excavation

Posted October 4, 2013 by jbrueske
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I finished Halfway Human last night before bed (loved it, as usual).  This morning it finally felt right to pick this one up again (Excavation, by James Rollins; mentioned it briefly last week as one that had been traveling around my house [and on a couple of vacations] for a while).  I read ‘The Judas Strain’ (same author) a few months ago and liked it.  I think I’ve also read ‘Subterranean’ (if it’s the book I’m thinking of, it was a fun read, too).  This one is an adventure/mystery set mostly in South America.  An archaeologist discovers an ancient mummy in an excavation – a mummy of someone who should not have been there and whose corpse was treated differently than it normally would have been by the people who lived in the region at the time it died.  The archaeologist has taken it to the US to study, leaving his son and their team to finish the excavation.  They uncover a deeply-buried room that seems to pertain directly to the mummy, inscribed with a warning in a non-indigenous language.  Of course, upon opening the door, all hell breaks loose.

I like a good adventure story.  I’m about 60 pages in, so too soon to really know if I’ll like the book or not, but two people have already died horrible, gruesome deaths, so I’m good.  I’m intrigued; I want to know where the story goes, and how it develops.  I found the characterization a bit juvenile in the other books, but I can forgive that for an interesting-enough plot.

Geography Tuesdays

Posted October 1, 2013 by jbrueske
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I like maps. A lot. I like maps, I like globes, I like tracing the lines of currents and imagining where sea monsters might hide. I like seeing where other places are in relation to where “Home” is. The other day, I was studying a 2012 political map and then testing my memory with a blank map using the same projection, and I thought, “You know, there are several countries I often forget about when trying to name everything in some of these regions.” I then realized that for a lot of places, while I might know their names and which language they speak, I know very little about the country. I decided this needed to change, and so I have decided on Geography Tuesdays. I will spend my week learning about a country on our planet, then present some of what I’ve learned here (I’m thinking video, 5 minutes or less; we’ll see). I spent a couple of hours today making a spreadsheet of all the countries by continent (alphabetized, of course). Including the oceans, seas, and large bays, I count roughly 227 countries and waters to research for this project (enough to keep me busy for the next four years & three months [give or take] if I stick with it). I’m excited. Next week I’ll be starting with a basic overview of what we have and where it is, plus what I’ll be doing for the next 227 Tuesdays. After that, we dive right in to Africa and Algeria.

What I’m Reading Friday – 9/27/2013 – Halfway Human

Posted September 27, 2013 by jbrueske
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I’ve kept a journal since elementary school in some form or another, so although this originally started as a class assignment (we had to create a blog and use it to show off our projects during our last year or so), it’s now become more of a place for me to post random things when I think of it.  I’ve decided to do something a little different now (for as long as I remember) – What I’m Reading Fridays: posts about one of my favorite topics, books.  Some weeks might feature books I’ve read previously (although in a good week I can go through 3-4 novels, I don’t always get much downtime in a given week and might not finish my book).

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I recently finished Crystal Healer (the ninth book in the Star Doc series) by S. L. Viehl – meaning yesterday was one of my favorite days: Book Choosing Day (this is a process which frequently involves me sitting in bed surrounded by piles of books organizing and sorting from stack to stack until i’ve narrowed it down to one or two or three….then I might need to read bits of each to see which catches my attention, then I choose from there….seriously, there are right now over 400 books in our house which I have not yet read).  I just read four from the Star Doc series in a row (because I finally found them at the used book store earlier this month) and I was still in a sci-fi kind of mood, but I don’t have the next book in that series.  Assuming I still wanted sci-fi fluff,  I thought I’d read the next book in a different alien-themed series. Well…I’m pretty sure I read the first couple of chapters last night, but damned if I can tell you what was going on other than that I was annoyed by the poor writing, aggravated by no one ever getting to the point, and bored out of my mind.  The first book wasn’t quite that bad, the second one was a bit worse….it seems the series is going downhill.  Maybe it’ll get better; maybe I just need to be in a different mindset to tolerate it.  I guess I wasn’t looking for something quite *that* fluffy.

Back to the shelves I went.

I wasn’t sure quite what I was looking for that time.  I’ve also been reading Excavation by James Rollins, but it’s one that ends up wandering all over the house and I pick it up when I’ve got a few minutes here and there.  I’ve been enjoying the story, but haven’t been ready to dive into it full-time yet.  I decided I still wanted something sci-fi.  While I was looking, I started toying with this idea for Friday posts and was thinking about the first book I should write about.  I figured I should go with a favorite, one I found particularly memorable, and the first to come to mind at that point was Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman.

I first picked it up in 1998 (when it came out).  I loved it.  I’ve read it three or four times now, but not for a couple of years so I figure I’m about due.  It’s science fiction, centering around an asexual protagonist named Tedla, who comes from a planet where there are three gender classes (“male”, “female”, and “bland”).  Tedla is the first bland to ever leave the homeworld (where blands are both sheltered and used as servants).  Tedla ends up meeting Val, an expert in alien cultures, while hospitalized after a suicide attempt.  Tedla begins to confide in Val, painting a very different image of its homeworld and their social structure than what is officially portrayed.

It’s a dark story, but well-crafted and well-written.  I like the way the author characterizes Tedla – I like *Tedla.*  She’s done an excellent job of creating a character who is open, honest, and accessable – someone the reader might like as a friend.  Val is an excellent support for Tedla, as are her husband and daughter.  They live in a society where information is the only commodity left with any value, making Tedla’s story extremely valuable…if they can get it out before they’re stopped.

I find the story engaging.  It’s one of those “I just can’t put it down” books, and a story that sticks with me.  I haven’t read any of her other books, although I think I have at least one somewhere on the shelves.  The characters in this story made a strong impression on me; I wonder if she did as well with her other novels?

Busy Saturday

Posted September 23, 2013 by jbrueske
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Saturday began with a family trip to the MPLS Farmer’s Market to procure cucumbers for Dad’s & my pickling day.  We spent the remainder of the morning finding other wonderful things (leading to 10 pounds of eggplant and 10 pounds of sweet peppers on my kitchen floor) and going out to lunch.  Afterward, pickling began in earnest.  We ended up with 19 pints of dill pickles, 18 pints of sweet pickles, and 2 pints of sweet pickled onions.  We have another pickling day scheduled for this Thursday because I had forgotten until Sunday morning that last summer I found my great-grandmother’s pickle recipe in my grandmother’s recipe box and wanted to give it a try.  It’s the recipe my dad’s dad’s mom’s used, and my dad’s mom used it, so I thought it would be fun for us to make a batch together, too.  I’m looking forward to it.

Sunday I sorted my tomatoes from the market to dry and can.  The really, really nice ones (about half what i came home with) are in the dehydrator now and the others are washed and set out to dry for crushing and canning today.  I’m still deciding how to use the peppers and eggplant (most will be dried or frozen plain), and the several pounds of broccoli hanging out in the fridge (I think that will be lightly roasted and just eaten, although if there are many leftovers, they may be frozen).

Our garden hasn’t been as prolific as we’re accustomed to again this year.  We’re still battling poor soil from two years ago, but hopefully all the wood chips, leaves, plant matter, and an addition of higher-quality soil this fall will rejuvenate our beds.  Our zucchini and rhubarb did very nicely, leaving us with plenty to preserve for the winter (I’ve threatened my family with rhubarb *everything*).  Many of our plants are *just*now* coming into heavy production, with the average first frost roughly a week away.  We likely won’t be covering/protecting many plants this year because of how poorly most of them have done.  We have a good harvest of pinto beans drying on their vines (our first year growing these), and had small but regular harvests of fresh beans (none to preserve this year, though).  We have narrowed down our favorite tomato for sauce and our favorite basil variety.  We have had a few good pumpkins which we look forward to baking into pies, muffins, and other treats.  We’re overall pleased with what our garden has given us, it’s just not quite what we’ve been used to (most of our tomatoes have done very little, our cucumbers gave us maybe 10 total, most of our summer and winter squashes are just now producing fruits, most of our corn didn’t produce good ears, a lot of our herbs didn’t grow well, etc).  Our cabbages are nice, but our cauliflower didn’t flower at all.  We had few bees this spring, but they did begin showing up mid-July.  Our apple tree has given us a handful of edible apples this year (X planted it seven years ago), which is very exciting.  We’re optimistic about next year (and looking forward to trying this year’s corn once I get it ground).

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It always seems like we spend a lot on canning, so I was wondering just how much we really save by making our own pickles.  I sat down to add it up this afternoon.  Our local Walmart sells equivalent pickles (one pint, no dyes, no corn syrup, no artificial flavors) for the lowest price out of the grocery places we usually shop at – $3.38/jar.

We spend about $8/dozen jars when we need to buy them.  This year we used two newly opened flats and 15 jars we’ve had for years (most from last years’ pickles!).  At the farmer’s market we spent about $32 on cucumbers.  For the recipes (rounding up; I know we spent less on a few things), we used about $1.00 of vinegar, $.70 sugar, $5.00 onions, $4.00 garlic, $.20 salt, $.25 hot peppers, $2.00 assorted spices, and let’s call it $5.00 for water and heating costs.  I decided to calculate the costs as if we had used all new jars.

(8/12)*39 = $26

32+1+.7+5+4+.2+.25+2+5 = $50.15

$50.15 + $26 = $76.15

$76.15/39 = $1.95

So, including the cost of the reusable jars (pickles from the store do not come in jars reusable for canning), we spent $1.95 per pint of pickles.  If we don’t consider the cost of the reusable jars, we spent $1.29/pint.  That saves us $1.43 – $2.09/pint over buying them from a grocery place.  Not bad.

Uncle Joe

Posted September 10, 2013 by jbrueske
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Our family has an informal family reunion for my dad’s side every other year to celebrate the birthday of my Great Uncle Joe.  His birthday is in January, but we usually do it in June  so we can have warmer weather for our South Texas relatives.  We go out to dinner at Uncle Joe’s favorite restaurant (Pizza Ranch), sight-see around the town, get together with everyone to give Uncle Joe birthday gifts and share a meal with friends and family, spend time catching up with Uncle Joe as he’s able, and otherwise reconnect with family whom we wouldn’t often see otherwise.  As an adult in Pella, Uncle Joe made friends with a wonderful couple who have done an excellent job as first friends and later advocates for his care as he grew older (Joe had an accident as a child leaving him with decreased cognitive functioning).  This couple made Joe part of their family, and by that extension became part of ours.  I can’t think of a single person who isn’t thankful for their presence in Uncle Joe’s life.  Sometimes we all do something special together (one year we drove out to a house Uncle Joe lived in as a little boy to see a tree he planted there; the young couple who was living there now was very gracious and enjoyed hearing some of the history of their home), more often we just hang out and catch up.

Our last get-together was in awfully hot, humid weather (southern Iowa; that tends to happen), so for this year we decided on September and had planned it for this coming weekend.  This year we’ll be gathering for Uncle Joe’s funeral Saturday morning, as he passed away a few hours ago.  It wasn’t unexpected, as his health has been failing for a couple of years now and has taken a significant downturn in the last few weeks, but sad nonetheless.  My uncle was able to be with him for the last few days, with Joe knowing who he was off and on up until yesterday.  (His memory has been fading for a few years.  He knews his local friends, pretty reliably remembered my dad and uncle, but the rest of us has been hit & miss for a while.)

September is always an eventful month for our family.