Monday, May 23, 2011

Whisky Review: A.D. Rattray Cask Collection: Royal Lochnagar Distillery

Single Malt
Individual Cask Bottling
Non-chill Filtered

Style/Region: Highland
Age: 14 Year
Cask Type: Sherry
Distilled Date: July 17, 1996
Bottle Date: August, 4 2010
Alcohol: 56.3%

Water added: yes
Nose: Floral with honey. After water was added a sweet, honey nose comes through with considerable vanilla and hints of sherry.
Mouth Feel: light cream
Flavor: sweet smoothness and a bit of sherry, with slight oak and peppery tones.
Finish: smooth and muted, lingers with no overwhelming single flavor.

Overall Impressions: This is a very smooth, easy-going scotch and an excellent example of the Highland style. The Highland style combined with a sherry cask makes for a sweet and smooth drink that is very approachable and probably a scotch that a newcomer could enjoy. It’s not complex and doesn’t have the in-your-face feel of something like an Islay allowing it to come across as a bit more refined as a result. One of the best aspects of this drink is that it comes in full cask strength and allows me to water it down to the level I prefer. The A.D. Rattray Cask Collection: Royal Lochnager is a very pleasant drink that invokes the ideal of sitting in a plush leather chair with a good book (and quite possibly bunny slippers and pipe of fine tobacco).

Royal Lochnager has been around since 1845. Early on it gained the favor of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, hence permission to use the ‘royal’ name. It helps that it’s located rather close to the royal family’s summer residence at Balmoral Castle.

A.D. Rattray is a distributor and independent bottler that takes whisky from around Scotland and bottles it directly, without watering down, dying, or chill filtration. The principle purpose of this old merchant company in modern times is to bottle unusual and exclusive casks of scotch whisky chosen to reflect the six individual whisky regions of Scotland. I’ve previously been very impressed by A.D. Rattray, and I’m happy that the trend is continuing. I got this bottle at BevMo, and for the price, it can’t be beat.

Books Received: May 9 - 23

Lots this time around: Books Received: May 9 - 23, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Something Completely Different

Now that Blogger is back up, the post I had planned on for this morning.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

Monday, May 09, 2011

Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Have you ever daydreamed about what it would be like to have cool magical powers and become a hot immortal forever in their 20s? That is exactly what Kevin Hearne does with his debut novel, Hounded, the first in The Iron Druid Chronicles (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). The result is a fun, wild ride as an ancient Druid battles gods, witches, and other supernatural nasties in the deserts of Arizona.

Atticus O’Sullivan is a 2,000-year old druid living a quite life running an occult bookstore/tea shop in Tempe, Arizona. His day-to-day companion is his Irish wolfhound familiar and he occasionally socializes with the Tempe pack of werewolves, a vampire lawyer, ancient Celtic gods, and the local coven of witches. Atticus has been the keeper of an ancient, magic sword for a long time and an angry Celtic god of love wants it very badly – badly enough to finally confront Atticus directly. Given the choice of running (again) or finally confronting his nemesis, Atticus chooses to stand his ground and face the consequences.

As I indicated in my introduction, Hounded is full of some major wish-fulfillment. Atticus is essentially immortal, forever young at 21-years old, has cool magical powers, a witty tongue full of geek-references, can talk to his dog, and has sex with beautiful goddesses. Hearne has essentially admitted as much as he reveals on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea that “Hounded was spawned from an episode of Defiant Drunk Nerd Syndrome”.  However, through that revelation you can sense Hearne’s often self-deprecating humor that keeps Hounded from taking itself too seriously.

Wish fulfillment in books can be flat out awful – especially since it often comes out in some form of sexual fantasy. With Hounded, Hearne actually makes the wish fulfillment fun. Hearne spins a good yarn as he gives himself lots of material to use in his imagined world where the modern world is basically as we know it, only myths and legends tend to be true, with gods and goddesses and all other manner of the supernatural actually existing. Don’t think on it too hard as all the impossibilities and inconsistencies will trip you up – keep it at the surface. And on the surface, Hounded is a very entertaining, fast read – the proverbial page-turner – and full of humor and clever homage.

While for whatever reason it was the series title, The Iron Druid Chronicles, that lead me to read back cover blurb (I suppose I like druids), it was the setting that really made me pick up the book. It’s set in Tempe and the surrounding environs of south-central Arizona. I lived in the Tempe area for 10 years and went to graduate school at Arizona State University, so I was happy to see an urban fantasy set there. I know the area well and have spent many an hour drinking and eating and drinking at Rula Bula, an Irish Pub that makes an appearance a couple of times in the book. Folks who live in the likes of New York or London are probably used to books set in places they visit regularly. I am not, so it was very nice and refreshing to read a book set in ‘my backyard’ that is described well enough for me to fondly reminisce.

Hounded is a quick and entertaining urban fantasy set in Tempe, Arizona. It’s full of Celtic lore, but in a world where all the old pantheons are real and magical beings seem to pop up everywhere. I enjoyed it very much for what it is and I really look forward to reading more from Hearne – and the good news is that I won’t have to wait long with Hexed (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) coming on June 7th and Hammered (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) on July 5th. 7.5/10

Joe Abercrombie Interviews George RR Martin

You've probably seen it elsewhere, but since I'm a big fan of both authors, I'm putting on my blog too. Joe's interview with George is excellent. And I can say that I've met George before and had conversations - and he is just as approachable as he seems in this interview.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

A Few Links, Comments and Commentary

Yesterday Representative Matt Dean, the Republican House Majority Leader in Minnesota learned a hard lesson – petty insults (pencil-necked little weasel) and misrepresentation of facts (lying) regarding Neil Gaiman are a big mistake. He had the gall to say in a speech on the floor that he hated Neil Gaiman and then called him a thief for taking a speaking fee at a Minnesota library (that came from a voter-approved fun in part to support the arts). Gaiman’s intelligent, slightly understated, and always creative reactions to it all have only made Representative Dean look like a complete idiot. Minnesota Republicans – do you really want that guy representing you? Links of relevance: Neil Gaiman’s blog about it, an interesting interview with Gaiman, and Representative Dean’s sorry excuse of an apology that only makes him look like more an idiot.

Naill Alexander, aka The Speculative Scotsman, wrote an interesting post about George RR Martin with quite a bit of it dedicated to discussion of the long delay between books and the fans that are very unhappy with it. Really, the post or the comments don’t add anything new to the debate – it’s all the usual talk complete with Adam of The Wertzone stepping into defend Martin. The exception of course is Hal Duncan’s comment – which is absolutely brilliant. I really wonder what Martin thinks of it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

China Miéville is best known for his distinct version of weird fiction – be it the secondary world fiction of his Bas-lag novels or something nearer to our own as with The City and The City (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and Kraken (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound). In his newest novel, Embassytown (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Miéville shows off his literary versatility with his first science fiction novel.

Embassytown is a galactic backwater colony located far off the beaten path at the dead end of a minor inter-stellar travel route. Its only importance is in the unique bio-engineered products produced by its one indigenous sentient species, known as Hosts. Avice is a human who was born and raised in Embassytown and is one of the few locals lucky enough to get out as an immerser, a sort of inter-stellar astronaut. But what really makes her unique is that she comes back, and it’s through her eyes that we see events unfold that change Embassytown forever.

Miéville is a master of creating atmosphere and all things weird, which is one of the most exciting aspects of his foray into science fiction. Embassytown is an isolated backwater and Miéville subtly reinforces this through the travels of Avice. The atmosphere he creates is superb – and it’s utterly alien, which is where the weird comes in.

All too often sentient science fictional races feel too anthropomorphized – either that or they feel like too strong of an effort to avoid anthropomorphization. Miéville walks this fine line with excellence and subversion. The Hosts and their world are completely alien, yet the mistake made over and over again is to assume that they can be understood in ‘human’ terms. While Miéville’s descriptions of the Hosts are strong, they are just vague enough that I don’t really have a good mental image of what a Host really looks like, and that feels just right. Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to write about the most fascinating and more subversive qualities about Miéville’s aliens without giving too much away, so I’ll leave that for readers to explore on their own.

But the real emphasis of the Host’s alien nature is in their language. It is unlike any other known language in the galaxy and humanity has had to do some really horrific genetic engineering to develop communication with the Hosts – communication that is in reality not well understood at all. Through a bizarre ritual Avice actually becomes a simile in the Host’s language – she is an object of the language, an object of reverence and true meaning. And it confuses the hell out of her. I know my description of this aspect of Embassytown feels incomplete and probably a bit confusing, but long essays could be written on this and my advice is to read the book to come to an understanding of your own.

Miéville is really a spectacular writer and stylist. Over the years his subtly has increased and his writing has become more accessible as a result. An example of a very effective part of this is found in the first few chapters of Embassytown. I hesitate to write about it because doing so can spoil the effect, but it’s not any more of a spoiler than you get from reading the jacket description. The first person point of view feels more correct that I think I’ve ever read before. And it’s androgynous in its portrayal – how often do your thoughts think of yourself in terms of gender? I naturally fell into the subconscious view that the narrator was male – I suppose that’s because I’m male. As a result it was a bit of a pleasant surprise when the narrator turned out to be female. In terms of the overall book, it’s subtle and perhaps not of great importance, but I found it refreshing and it fits in well with Miéville’s playing with gender roles.

There has been a bit of discussion on whether Embassytown is a (critical) response to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), with Miéville hinting at it himself. I’ve not read the The Sparrow (it’s been languishing on the shelf for years), so I can’t comment too directly to it – but from what I’ve read about The Sparrow, it could be true. Miéville does touch on some aspects of gender roles and sexuality in Embassytown, but they are mostly secondary and rather subtly presented, so I don’t think that the response is in the gender aspects of The Sparrow. If Embassytown is a response to The Sparrow, I believe it’s in the capacity of presenting a very interesting take on the consequences of actions and the changing of an alien species, but limiting Embassytown to a response and not a legitimate and independent work in its own right is probably a mistake.

It’s through Embassytown’s view of colonialism that it becomes rather interesting, if not necessarily unique to the writings of science fiction. Embassytown is not told from the more traditional perspectives of colonists seeking independence, repressed indigenous species seeking freedom, or the conquering nation/empire/species – it is essentially the story of simple people trying to survive. And the ambiguity of where those simple people fall on that list of traditional perspectives is thought provoking – especially considering how the book ultimately ends. Is it a happy ending? Is it a sad ending? Was a culture destroyed or saved? Is it overall a hopeful story or one of despair? Who were the winners and losers? Were there winners and losers? Miéville doesn’t take any clear sides – he lays it out for readers to consider.

China Miéville makes a refreshing and welcome journey into science fiction with Embassytown. It combines his mastery of mood and setting and his sense of the weird and alien with his distinct style. The story and ideas aren’t necessarily original and it remains to be seen how true devotees of science fiction will react to a few of his ideas on interstellar travel and such, but Miéville certainly breaths a breath of fresh air into a science fiction market that is often perceived as stale and dying.


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