Book Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Book One in the Wayfarers Series)

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I had been looking forward to this read for quite some time, though for some reason I was slow to pull it off my long list of books to read.  Since being self-published in 2014, and subsequently picked up by Hodder & Stoughton the following year, this series has been consistently featured on numerous must-read lists and blog reviews that I’ve come across in my daily browsing.  Now it’s finally time for me to join the party!

The story follows the crew of the Wayfarer, a small-time space tunneling ship, as they welcome aboard a new member, a Mars-born clerk named Rosemary Harper who, despite her inexperience, is quite eager to leave her past behind and head out into the stars.  Taking advantage of the extra credibility having a clerk apparently lends to their operation, Captain Ashby Santoso secures a potentially dangerous yet highly lucrative contract for his ragtag crew. It’s the same job they’ve always done, but to get there must endure a long flight to a small, inhospitable planet that was until recently the focus of civil war between an alien species whose motives no one seems to understand.

Although this book ended up being way more character focused that I had originally thought it would be, I must say that the diverse cast of alien and human characters made it an incredibly fun read!  They collectively gave me a Farscape-meets-Firefly vibe and their personalities and crew dynamic were certainly enough to keep the long journey entertaining.  I particularly liked the closeness of the crew and the running banter/cultural curiosities that carried on between the alien and human characters.  While each crew member had a chance to have at least some of their story told, the two that stood out the most for me were Kizzy Shao, an extremely extroverted, video game loving, smash-smoking human machine technician, and Dr. Chef, an affable six-limbed Grum who does double duty as ship’s physician and cook.  On the topic of Dr. Chef, and the rest of the non-human cast for that matter, I also really enjoyed the author’s tendency to go a bit further outside the box in terms of alien physiology than most popular Sci-Fi adventures seem to go. I feel like this is something that doesn’t get explored nearly as often as it should.

Beyond the characters, there were a couple of areas in which this book really stood out for me as unique.  Most notably, the concept of gender fluidity and a wide variety of sexual orientations played pretty central roles in most of the character’s stories.  While this wasn’t necessarily as big a selling point for me personally as it has been for a lot of other reviewers I’ve come across, I did enjoy how these different perspectives shaped the story and contributed to the book’s themes of seeking to understand and respect each others’ differences and celebrating our relationships (platonic or otherwise) with the people we choose to include in our lives.  These topics were presented in such a fun, positive way that they added an extra bit of the joy of the read beyond what the characters had to offer.

On the other hand, my biggest criticism of this book is that for a space adventure it did not really have a lot of action in it.  While I appreciate that this was not the main intention of the story, there were a few places, particularly in the middle, where I felt a little bit more could have happened without sacrificing the core of what the story was.  As much as I liked the episodic chapters and slice of life (in space!) feels, a part of me was left wanting for a slightly deeper plot. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the universe was quite interesting and the characters a fantastic group of beings to hang out with, but I feel like we only barely touched the surface of this world and I wish I was able to go farther into it.

With that in mind I am feeling somewhat conflicted about the next book.  For all the fun I had traveling with the crew of the Wayfarer, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the sequel seems to move on to a (mostly) new set of characters.  It kind of feels like I’m be leaving behind a fun group of friends I just met before really getting a chance to know them.  I suppose I am in on the next book, though I don’t feel as excited by it as perhaps I should be given how much I enjoyed this one.  Here’s hoping for a pleasant surprise when I get to it!

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Idle Hands Craft Ales – Double Citra Four Seam

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The second of two four-packs I picked up at Idle Hands the other day, this was a welcomed sight following the news that their immensely popular Galaxy Four Seam is on an indefinite hiatus due to the brewery’s new hop contracts.  Let’s see how this one compares.

Beer Name: Double Citra Four Seam

Brewery: Idle Hands Craft Ales (Malden, MA)

Style: New England IPA

ABV: 6.6%

Description: The brewery took their popular Four Seam IPA and dry-hopped it with (surprise!) twice the usual amount of Citra.

Appearance: It had a mostly golden, hazy straw-colored body with hints of amber lurking in the depths. A thin white lacing formed with the pour and stuck around for maybe half the glass.

Smell: An absolutely amazing burst of juicy citrus and tropical fruits right out of the can with a hint of bitterness hanging just on the edges.

Taste: Subtle tropical and citrus fruits upfront gradually gave way to a dank blend of earthy and piney hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium-plus body with a touch below moderate carbonation.

Hype: The previous Four Seam variant with Galaxy was quite popular and well-regarded, so I was very interested in giving this a try.

Overall: I liked it well enough, but the taste unfortunately didn’t quite live up to the amazing aroma of this beer.  I’d have no problems drinking this one again (indeed I almost assuredly will at some point), but I wouldn’t prioritize seeking it outside of the taproom.

Boulder Beer – Killer Penguin

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Don’t let that cute, unassuming appearance fool you.  That wobbly little bird would off you in a second if you were a fish.  I’m just going to admit now that I bought this one on name alone so I could have some fun with it. With a major snowstorm approaching, how could I resist?

Beer Name: Killer Penguin

Brewery: Boulder Beer (Boulder, CO)

Style: Barleywine

ABV: 10.0%

Description: Not too much to say about this one other than link to the brewery specs here.  My bottle was from the 2018 vintage.

Appearance: It poured to a bubbly, reddish-light brown body with some off-white lacing lining the top edges of the glass.

Smell: Subtle sweetness from dark fruits and caramel malt.

Taste: This has a solid caramel malt backbone throughout that was topped by notes of cherry and dark fruit on the front end and an aggressive mix of resinous earthy hops towards the finish.  The ending tastes combined a sticky, bitter sweetness and warming alcohol presence.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-plus body with a roughly moderate level of carbonation.

Hype: None that I was aware of, this was a complete impulse buy based off of the name alone.

Overall: I liked this a lot, but I must say it was really not what I was expecting based on the style and description.  I suppose it technically fits within the description offered on Beer Advocate, but I found myself thinking of this more as a red IPA than a barleywine.

Idle Hands Craft Ales – Double Crossroader

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With a week of winter storms in our forecast, my wife and I stepped out the other day to make sure we had sufficient supplies for the house.  Included (of course) in that outing was a stop at our local neighborhood brewery. I noticed earlier in the day that they had a couple of things of interest to me, in particular this big new stout that seemed perfectly suited for winter weather.

Beer Name: Double Crossroader

Brewery: Idle Hands Craft Ales (Malden, MA)

Style: Imperial Stout

ABV: 13.3%

Description: A powered up version of the brewery’s Crossroader Imperial Stout brewed with brewed with maple syrup and aged on American toasted oak.  The four-pack of cans cost $22.

Appearance: Poured a dark brown/black body with a small amount of light tan lacing across the top of the glass.

Smell: A subtle blend of boozy maple syrup, lightly roasted malts, and some oak influence.

Taste: There was a whole lot of flavor to unpack with this one!  I got intermingling tastes of dark malt, espresso, bittersweet chocolate, and maple on the front end before the brew came to a moderately warm finish that showed off the oak aging processing.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied with low carbonation.  I was honestly a bit surprised this wasn’t a bit thicker, but that did not negatively impact my drinking experience.

Hype: The base stout was well received when it came out a little while ago and they couldn’t have planned on releasing this at a better time.  Idle Hands has also been pretty low-key in terms of drawing in the hardcores beer hunting crowd, but I was certainly excited about this one.

Overall: Very, very good.  The beer’s great blend of flavors combined with its nice, warming feeling made this one a winner in my book!  Definitely a great choice for sitting back and watching the snow fall and well worth the money.

Trinity Brewhouse – Providence, RI

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After a fun-filled afternoon at the Providence Children’s Museum last Sunday, the family was looking for somewhere to eat before starting our journey home.  Since I had randomly found out about the nearby Trinity Brewhouse a few days earlier, and subsequently confirmed they had a kid’s menu, it seemed like a sign that we had to check it out!

I had a feeling this place was going to be fun before we even got inside.  My picture doesn’t really do it justice, but the outside of the building is lined with catchy signs advertising their wares and letting passersby know exactly where they can hope to find some good beer.  Inside, a variety of decorations, signs, and murals added plenty of character to the otherwise dark, pub-like atmosphere. I won’t go too much into the food, but my wife and I both really enjoyed our meals and found them far superior to your stereotypical pub fare.  Both her bison-burger topped with goat cheese and my cheeseburger featuring onions and chorizo sausage were amazing. Not to leave anyone out, our toddler devoured his hot dog and fries, so I guess we can consider that dish a success as well. He was also quite amused by a T-Rex head mounted on the wall so I guess you could say they really did have something for everyone!

Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s bring out the beer!  There were eight house beers on tap that day so we ordered two six-pour flights in order sample them all and get a feel for the place.  My wife recently starting drinking beer again, so this time around I had both help with all this beer and someone I could compare my notes with.  Let’s run down that list.

Starting at the top, we both found the 5.5% Kolsch to be one of the standouts.  It had a smooth, clean sweetness and light body that paired very well with our hearty meals.  Something about finding a good example of such a classic style really made me happy. Next on the list was Tommy’s Red, a 5.9% amber ale that neither of us had any strong feelings about.  It was a perfectly fine example of a style that perhaps isn’t the most glamorous, but it also didn’t give us the simple joy that the Kolsch did.  Moving on we came to the RI IPA, a 7.9% English-style IPA that combined dry citrus notes and a mild piney bitterness with a solid malt backbone.  I enjoyed this one, but my wife wasn’t quite as impressed. Our opinions then flipped for Darkness, a 8% Russian Imperial Stout.  My wife really enjoyed the robust roasted malt and chocolate profile whereas I thought it was a bit too roasty for my taste and would have liked it to have been slightly thicker.  

Leading us into the bottom half of the list was Screaming Viking, a 5.6% wheat beer brewed with honey, ginger, and cardamom.  There was a nice wheaty sweetness on the bottom of this, but ginger was by far the most prominent flavor.  I’d say we both appreciated the novelty of a sample, but don’t think either of us needed much more than that.  Up next was the Cousin Brother, a 5% brown ale that wound up being my wife’s favorite as she really enjoyed the light toasted malt profile and called it “the kind of beer you could drink all day.”  Not being a fan of brown ales I don’t know that I quite agree with that statement but I can say that this was a very good example of the style for those that are into them.  Second to last on the list was the 5.6% Belgian Gold which we both really enjoyed.  Mild and smooth, it had a nice fruity Belgian yeast presence right from the start with a subtle peppery/spicy/floral finish.  This one was probably my favorite. Closing things out was the biggest beer of the day, the 11% Belgian Quad.  It drew a hard pass from my wife as it started out with a harsh alcohol presence she found off-putting but I gradually made peace with this one.  It eventually settled somewhat into the more familiar realm of caramel malts and bubblegum yeast, but did maintain a hot edge to throughout.

And there you have it.  Everyone found something they liked and we all left full and happy.  With the consensus opinion being that the beer was good and the food was great, we will definitely be stopping in here again on future trips.

Central Waters Brewing Company – Cassian Sunset

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One of my greatest discoveries while blogging here has been the Central Waters Brewers Reserve Series.  So far I have tried and reviewed four beers from this series and each of them left me impressed. Could this one continue the trend?

Beer Name: Cassian Sunset

Brewery: Central Waters Brewing Company (Amherst, WI)

Style: Imperial Stout

ABV: 11.7%

Description: An imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with coffee, vanilla beans, and cinnamon.

Appearance: Poured into surprising nice hotel-furnished glassware with a thick, black body topped by a foamy off-white head.

Smell: An incredible mix of creamy sweetness and chocolate fudge, capped off by a moderate bourbon finish.

Taste: Deliciously close to the smell.  It opened with creamy, rich dark malts followed by a big chocolately/fudge presence with hints of cinnamon and vanilla mixed in for good measure.  A moderate and smooth bourbon barrel finish brought the beer to a pleasantly warm finish.  Seemed like the longer this sat in the glass, the better it kept on getting.

Mouthfeel: Smooth, thick body with very low level carbonation.

Hype: I certainly had high hopes going in, but I can’t really say how the beer community at large feels about this.  I have seen plenty of online enthusiasm for this series though.

Overall: This one wowed me.  Huge creamy dark malts and sweet chocolate notes kept the cinnamon and vanilla in their ideal roles as supporting flavors while the finish nicely showcased the barrel aging process.  A four pack of these bottles in the $15-16 range is an easy buy and one I intend to repeat. If big dessert-like stouts are your thing, you need to try this.

Book Review: Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Here we go with another book brought to my attention by the always informative Tor Publishing newsletter.  Written in 2014 by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, this story of alien visitation was at least partially inspired by the author’s anger towards the depiction of Nigerians in the popular 2009 film District 9.

The book opens with the chance meeting of three strangers on a beach in Lagos, Nigeria.  Here we meet Adaora, a marine biologist who fled her home upon being slapped by her husband; Agu, a soldier beaten and dumped on the beach after assaulting a general to prevent him from raping a woman; and Anthony Dey Craze, a Ghanian rapper who just needed a bit of air after getting claustrophobic at an after party.  As their paths converge, the three strangers witness to an incredible event: the arrival of an alien spacecraft, announced by a very large BOOM and a massive swelling of the ocean. When a shapeshifting creature approaches them from out of the waves, they find that they have become unwitting representatives of humanity in a city on the verge of chaos.

While this story was perhaps not quite what I thought it would be going in, I nevertheless had an amazing time reading it.  The author started out with a familiar Sci-Fi scenario, the arrival of aliens on Earth, and flipped it into something completely fresh by rooting her story in Nigerian, specifically Igbo, mythology.  This gave the book a more mystical and magical feeling than a traditional Sci-Fi read, but something about the combination of the two realms was really quite fascinating to behold (the side reading I did about some of the particular deities was also rather interesting, though not exactly required).  On a slightly separate note, I also really enjoyed the time spent in the ocean, both for the important message of needing to heal the damage done by humans and for exploring the idea that we humans might not be the only creatures on Earth that aliens would have interest in contacting.

What really brought this book to life for me, though, was a deep cast of interwoven characters that all worked to establish a sense of location and (Nigerian) identity that was almost tangible.  Moving beyond the primary trio of Adaora, Aga, and Anthony (who were each great in their own right) the reader is introduced to a full range of diverse perspectives, including clandestine LGBTQ activists, Christian fanatics, email scammers, a swordfish, and even a stretch of sentient highway with a taste for human blood.  They were an engaging mix of sympathetic, humorous, detestable, and just plain fantastical individuals all of whom served to vividly bring this world to life and give voice to the author’s often irreverent humor and sharp commentaries on things like male chauvinism, religious bigotry, and the human tendency towards indifference to the struggles of others.

I know it’s early yet, but this is a strong contender in my book of the year rankings.  I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything quite like it and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  I liked the characters, I liked the style, and I liked the themes.  Definitely adding more Nnedi Okorafor to my reading list.

Trillium Brewing Company – Chocolate Goodness

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When I saw this come out the day before Valentine’s Day I figured I should head out and grab a bottle.  It seemed like something that might make for an appropriate beverage the next day, though little did I know at the time that this would end up being one of the most controversial beers I’ve reviewed to date!

Beer Name: Chocolate Goodness

Brewery: Trillium Brewing Company (Boston, MA / Canton, MA)

Style: Imperial Stout

ABV: 10.2%

Description: Inspired by European drinking chocolates, this imperial stout was brewed with over 500 pounds of cocoa powder.  More specs are available here.

Appearance: Dark brown chocolate-like body with a thin, bubbly tan head.

Smell: Faint aromas of dark chocolate.

Taste: Big dark chocolate and cocoa powder flavors throughout.  A creamy, more fudgy taste came through as the beer warmed up a bit, but really this was all about the cocoa.  The finish was warm and strongly bittersweet, though that too mellowed a bit with time in the glass as mild sweeter notes began to appear as the beer went on.

Mouthfeel: Creamy, medium-plus body with low carbonation.

Hype: Highly elevated due to INTERNET DRAMA!  The one time darlings of the Boston beer scene, Trillium recently (and rightfully) received a lot of backlash surrounding some suspect compensation policies for their taproom employees.  Despite making changes in response, their reputation took a big enough hit that some in the beer community now find it fashionable to hate on the brewery every chance they get. Combine this with recent unpopular changes in the fermentation profile of some core beers and a bad keg being tapped on release day and jilted fans did what people apparently do these days and took to social media to vent their outrage.  Coming out in equal numbers, however, were not only the beer traders that flock to any Trillium release, but also a number of people offering rave reviews.  I bought my bottle early in the day before most of this played out so I had no idea what to expect when I opened this up.

Overall: As is often the case, the truth of this beer (at least according to my taste buds) was somewhere in between the extremes.  The beer was good (and certainly nothing like the images from the bad keg that circulated) but I wouldn’t rank it among my favorite stouts from the brewery either.  I found the finish a bit more intensely bittersweet than I typically like my chocolate and I thought it could have benefit from a slightly fuller mouthfeel, but I also had no problems drinking my share of it.  Was this worth it as an $18 stout? Probably not, but given what prices are in my area I don’t feel like I totally got burned on this either.  To each their own.

 

Book Review: When They Call You a Terrorist, A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

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In recognition of Black History Month I wanted to make sure that I did some reading to properly observe the occasion.  With one eye set towards the future, this next book tells the story of someone currently in the process of making history.

Published in 2018, this intimate memoir looks at the life and a activism of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a woman praised in the introduction for her work towards pushing the boundaries of black, left, feminist, and queer activism.  In these pages she describes the hardships of growing up poor, black, and queer in Van Nuys, CA during the 1990s. Often deeply personal, she provides an account of how growing up in these conditions shaped the lives of her and her family and motivated her to pursue work as an activist and community organizer.  In the final chapters, she brings it all together to tell the story of how the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in the summer of 2013 set off a chain of events that led her to co-found the Black Lives Matter movement alongside colleagues Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

This was an intense read.  The conversational tone of the book combined with its emotional mix of sincerity, pain, frustration, anger, love, and faith made it a powerful experience.  It speaks much to the author’s strength as a person that she could share such a personal story, particularly in regard to her father’s struggles with addiction and her mentally ill brother’s mistreatment and literal torture by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as real life examples of the issues she discusses.  I couldn’t possibly hope to sufficiently cover all the details here, but alongside her personal story she offers a pretty spot-on analysis of the ways in which race and class can stack the deck against people living in poor, predominantly black communities like the one she grew up in. She talks a great deal about how a lack of proper public amenities and infrastructure, social services, and economic opportunities work in combination with a disproportionately intense, and often unaccountable, police presence puts people on track for failure, prison, or violence at an early age by “normaliz[ing] expectations of criminality” and creating a stigma around these individuals and communities that can last a lifetime.  She ties to this an analysis of the prison system and how the “prison industrial complex” benefits from the high levels of incarceration resulting from the dynamic above.  Prisoners, she observes, are a valuable source of cheap labor for the state and corporations alike while the jails themselves offer lucrative contracts to the people who operate and stock them while simultaneously providing employment opportunities to replace lost rural jobs in poor white communities.

As for myself, I was left with a lot to think about after reading this.  In short, this book made me angry; angry to live in a society where the sort of systemic oppression the author describes not only exists, but is considered right and just by a significant enough portion of the population that questioning it can be spun as a controversial or radical idea.  Many times throughout this story I found myself thinking back on events from my own life and how they might have played out differently had my circumstances and socio-economic status not been what they were. I won’t go into details, but I can readily think back on several events (some innocent, others less so) from my teen years spent living an affluent, mostly white town where the type of police scrutiny and automatic assumption of guilt could have easily altered the course of my life for the worse and that is a sobering thought indeed.  

In closing, I want to say that I found this a powerful and educational read that I would recommend to anyone interested in these issues.  Although I didn’t really get into this part of the book above, I also came away from this read with a much deeper appreciation of what Black Lives Matter seeks to accomplish and learned a lot about how influential feminist and queer activists play in the movement.  There is without a certainly a lot more to those stories than what most people hear in the news, and in this book Patrisse offers an important voice that needs to be both heard and taken seriously.

Treehouse Brewing Company – In Perpetuity

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Checking in with one last beer I picked up at Treehouse last month.  I know I’ve posted a lot from them lately, but since this is what I’ve been drinking, this is what I have to post about.  First world problems, for sure.

Beer Name: In Perpetuity

Brewery: Treehouse Brewing Company (Charlton, MA)

Style: NEIPA

ABV: 6.7%

Description: Brewed to celebrate “the notion that what is good and beloved will last forever,” this beer featured a “simple malt bill” and utilized Citra and Nelson hops.

Appearance: It had a light, hazy pale yellow body with wisps of white foam up top.

Smell: Tons of tropical fruit and a little bit of citrus juice burst right out of the can and continued on in the glass.

Taste: Much like the smell, this offered up a super juicy blend of tropical fruits atop citrusy fruits and hop profits.  It also had a very mild resinous, slightly spicy, finish with a bit of grain mixed in as well, but really the fruit juice elements of this are the story here.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied with moderate carbonation.

Hype: The second of two beers released on the day I happened to be at the brewery, I am going to assume this one also had something to do with the long line that had formed as well.

Overall: Really good and a superlative example of the style.  Tons of potential as a breakfast beer in place of your morning juice.