Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Honey Month, day 26 (2/26/2011)

Today's link - with photos!

"Day 26 - Blackberry Creamed Honey

Colour: Red as melted garnets, Pinot Noir, blackberry syrup cut with water. This is the reddest honey I've seen yet.

Smell: Qurban, the bread they serve at funerals.*

Taste: The honey takes a back seat to the blackberry. It's like a blackberry syrup, like toot, mulberry syrup my mother would mix up with water to make us a summer drink.** Delicious, sweet, and smooth."

A nice lyric poem today about rescuing someone from self-inflicted, and self-perpetuating, isolation. It's sweet; but I can't help but wonder what happens after the rescuer leaves - the man is free from himself now, but how does he react?

*Some quick research seems to indicate that Qurban is a Lebanese delicacy, a sweet bread used in Orthodox and Coptic communion, but also widely sold during the week. Recipe here, with a lovely picture. A different recipe here, with a less groomed picture. I have no reason to doubt that the bread is served at funerals, but I cannot find a reference which indicates that.

** Sharab El Toot is a traditional Lebanese drink made from mulberries - a secondary product of Lebanon's silk production. Pictures and a recipe here - it is a delicious looking red colour. Perhaps a close approximation might be Ribena, which is a British black currant syrup.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Reviews, 2/25/2011

This week, we have vampires as monsters again, which is a nice change from the past two weeks. Three books and a short story.

John Steakley - Vampire$

Have you ever gone back to re-read a book that you found to be compelling the first time through, only to discover that it's not really as good as you remember it to have been? Yeah - this was like that.  I read this back in high school, and I recall that it was somewhat mind-blowing back then. Now, not so much. It was serviceable, but not mind-blowing anymore.

This is the story of a group of men who hunt vampires. For money. Team Crow is the go to group for vampire hunting in North America, and they are supposedly good at their job. They have the official sanction of the Catholic Church, and the unofficial support of various agencies within the US government, most of whom would like very much to be able to pretend that vampires don't exist.

I say that Team Crow is supposedly good at their job - the whole plot of the novel is that they're up against a bunch of vampires who are just a little too much for them, so, well, they don't do so well. It would have been nice to have a competency montage - you know, that bit towards the beginning of the movie where the heroes are shown being really good at their jobs, so that, when the problem arises in the middle of the movie, we get a sense of how really big a deal the big deal is. Steakley gives us a chapter at the beginning where things look like their going well; we get a quick run down of the various problems that Team Crow might encounter on a regular hunt - getting permission to destroy a building, convincing a small town sheriff that paying them would be a good idea, after the fact, how to keep the team cohesive in the face of lots of alcohol, dealing with hotel owners after the team trashes the hotel under the influence of lots of alcohol, etc. It goes down hill from there, fast.

So, the vampires are very much monsters, and the heroes kill them. This is good, as far as it goes, but it doesn't really go very far. There's room for some depth there. Steakley's vampires are not unlike Whitfield's werewolves - humans with all of the humanity stripped away. For instance, in a flash back, one of the characters witnesses a close friend undergo a radical transformation from a friend to a fiend - horrifying. This could have been played with a little more. Steakley also sets up a dichotomy between his vampire hunters, who are fairly blue collar (they get a lot of money, but tend to drink it all rather than save it, for instance) and his vampires, who tend to be fairly high class - mansions and fine clothing and such. This was something that could have been riffed on a little. Exploring these themes, I think, would not have hurt the strong story elements of the novel, and would have made the narrative stronger, more compelling.

Other things I didn't like in this second reading - the women are totally helpless. They have a very limited number of roles; mother, victim, bait, lover. They never hunt. I can see, perhaps, some justification for this at the beginning, when the hunting is shown as mostly brute strength - pikes and wooden daggers - but the big decisive thing after the first part of the novel is the inclusion of a shooter, who uses light hand guns and silver bullets - a role that could easily have been given to one of the women, perhaps.

Finally, there is a trigger warning worthy flash back involving fairly heavy psychic rape - one of the characters (one of the women, naturally) was forced to witness and participate in some decidedly unpleasant behavior. This helps cement the image of the vampires as evil, and as irredeemable - utterly lacking in human morals, emotions, or inhibitions - but it was more than a little squick-worthy. A thing to watch out for.

Fred Saberhagen - A Question of Time

This is part of Saberhagen's Dracula series - possibly the last in the series? Dracula has become a detective - early in the series he meets and helps Sherlock Holmes - and is working with a Chicago private eye, investigating crimes involving metaphysics and the supernatural.

The plot here - a young girl has vanished around the Grand Canyon. Her great aunt has hired Joe Keogh and his partner, Mr. Strangeways (that would be Dracula) to find her. Things get complicated from there - there's a side plot involving loan sharks, and there's a parallel plot involving Jake Rezner - a young man working with the Civilian Conservation Corps in and around the Grand Canyon in the 1930s. As the title suggests, everything ends up being tied together by time; the teaser material suggests that Rezner finds himself trapped with a young woman and an artist in a part of the Grand Canyon which is far earlier in time than the 1930s.

So it's a time travel novel, sort of. (The mechanics are never really explained) And the artist, Edward Tyrell, is a vampire. And he's sort of monstrous. His motivation is somewhat muddled, and the novel ends rather abruptly - Dracula sweeps in and cleans everything up without really explaining anything properly.

In the end, I'm going to file this one under Meh. If you're reading the whole of Saberhagen's Dracula series, this one completes it. Other than that, I'd steer clear.

Brit Mandelo - "Though Smoke Shall Hide The Sun" -

A short story on This showed up quite unexpectedly in my inbox early this week. Since it fit my theme so nicely, I decided to read it.

Mandelo tells a story about a vaguely post-apocalyptic, or post return of magic, world - enclaves of magical beings - weres, and vampires, and fairies, and all manner of beasties and bogarts and things that go bump in the night live outside the cities of humans. Our characters are a vampire and a young fey with pyrotechnic powers who have been hired to go into one of these enclaves and clean up a dynastic problem. In the end, nothing is what it seems - this is a story of betrayal and revenge. Vampires are presented as monstrous, but largely towards each other.

It was quite a good story, certainly worth the admission price (ie, free), and hopefully it will result in a broader and deeper exploration of the compelling world that Mandelo has offered. Watch for that, I know I will be.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro - Borne in Blood

A novel of the Count Saint-Germain, Yarbro's vampire renaissance man. Imagine that Flashman was a) an ancient vampire, and b) not a horrific cad, and you might approach Yarbro's hero.

So, last week I assigned my students two chapters of Swallow Barn, by John Pendleton Kennedy. Swallow Barn is a fine example of a plantation novel - a genre of novel popular in the mid-19th century in the American South. The novel is a series of vignettes centered on a plantation, depicting the interactions between the master of the plantation and the people who live in and around the plantation (yes, also slaves).Kennedy, who pioneered the genre, was attempting to translate for Southern audiences the British manor novel - a genre which presents vignettes centered on a manor house and depicting the interactions between the lord of the manor and the various folks who live on and around the lands of the manor (yes, also peasants). The reason I bring this up is that Yarbro has written a fine example of a manor novel, for all that it's set in Switzerland, just after the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The novel tells the story of Saint-Germain and the young widow he is looking after. It is told in a series of loosely connected vignettes and letters. As an artifact of Yarbro's research, it is fascinating. As a narrative, it leaves something to be desired - a lot of the action takes place in between chapters, which is disconcerting. In the end, the novel is quite satisfying, but it drags a bit in the middle, and it's easy to get lost.

There are monsters in this book, but Saint-Germain is not one of them, and perhaps that is Yarbro's point. We do not need vampires to have monsters - we are perfectly capable of being our own monsters. The novel is also interesting in its gender politics - Saint-Germain is hugely progressive for his period, and treats his widowed companion as a social and intellectual equal. I think Yarbro is calling attention to the continued gender inequalities of our current age by highlighting similar inequalities in a much earlier period.

A trigger warning here, too - there is some child abuse; not graphically presented, but clearly present.

The Honey Month, Day 25 (2/25/2011)

Did I mention link? Because it's up now.

"Day 25 - Raw Manuka Honey

Colour: Pale cloudy yellow, the colour of late morning light.

Smell: Strongly anti-septic; a cleaning product smell.

Taste: It's thick without being crystallised, heaps out onto the wand, and tastes clean and sugary without the chemical smell interfering. A flavour not dissimilar to anise."

A lovely re-telling of the end of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid today - deeply moving, and a little disturbing. Nice.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 24 (2/24/2011)

eta: Link.

"Day 24 - Apricot Creamed Honey

Colour: Today's booze-related colour is lager, specifically Beck's.

Smell: In keeping with creamed honey for, more belly-button fuzz!

Taste: A juicy sweetness, fresh; the honey's liquidy, and the sweetness has a liquid edge to it as well. It doesn't dry out the mouth at all, and calls up fruit without tasting specifically of apricot."

Oooo, this one is nice. I don't know if allegorical is an entirely accurate descriptor, but I'm going to go with it anyway. The bees are an allegory for the restorative back and forth of romantic love - sometimes partner A supports partner B, and sometimes the opposite is true.

This is a lovely and sweet piece; I'd pair it up with the Cranberry Honey story from the beginning of the month - a diptych, if you will.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 23 (2/23/2011)

A link, a link!

"Day 23 - Tart Cherry Creamed Honey

Colour: The colour of quince syrup: a dark beautiful red amber.

Smell: I wonder what it is about creaming honey that produces that unpleasantness? All the creamed ones have had it so far, an odd body-like odour that I'm coming to realise promises deliciousness. There's a sharpness to this one too, though, a hint of pine resin.

Taste: Cherries steeped in syrup or wine."*

Ouch - a gut punch of a scene today, unrequited lust, perhaps? It's a scene that, perhaps, we're all familiar with - we see someone across a room that we like, and we build fantasies about how meeting them will be, and then, as we go to meet them, they do not react as we had expected them to react, and the whole fantasy collapses. This scene does that quite nicely - a fine piece of writing.

*Perhaps a cherry lambic?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Post-President's Day Library Post (2/22/2011)

I gotta tell you, I'm looking forward to reading something that doesn't feature vampires. I've got several books waiting to start next Tuesday, and this is one of them:

Joseph Maiolo - Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941

I think that subtitle basically says what this book is about. Maiolo has solid historical credentials, so I'm looking forward to this on an intellectual level.

The Honey Month, Day 22 (2/22/2011)

Two things to add. First, the link to Amal's DVD extras is live. Second, I am pleased to announce that I am now writing reviews of the work of a Nebula nominee - Amal has been nominated in the short story category. The story in question is here, and though it has nothing to do with vampires, I've read it, and it's good. So, many congrats, Amal!

"Day 22 - Malaysian Rainforest Honey

Colour: Opaque, creamy orange-brown - a bit like pale caramel, slightly warm.

Smell: Cold wet flowers tangled in syrup.

Taste: A very water honey, strange because it's very crystallised, but it's as if the crystals are floating in wetness. It tastes like candy - the hard kind that come in bright colours, individual wrappers. That, and violets - the scent of violets."

Another piece of magical realism. This one is a fragment, and it cries out for a continuation - it's the beginning of something much longer. It doesn't fit in with the other scraps that cry out for continuation - it's something entirely its own; but it doesn't stand on its own.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 21 (2/21/2011)

I'm not sure what lychee tastes like, but I know where to find a link!

"Day 21 - Bamboo Honey

Colour: Orange amber, complete with cloudiness and bubbles.

Smell: thick and gummy; raisins; a hint of molasses.

Taste: Lychee. Completely. Strong, beautiful, lychee-thickened-with-honey with a side of light raisins."

A lovely piece of magic realism today, involving a vaguely ominous pie baking home invader. I mean, this is the most dangerous pie you've ever heard of. This is the Dracula of pie bakers - there's a strong vampire flavour here, which crosses both of the month's themes. Amal packs a delightful punch of unease and menace into this piece, it's the sort of story that will plant its barbs in you and niggle at you for the rest of the day. Excellent.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 20 (2/20/2011)

The link, it is up!

"Day 20 - Blackberry Honey (2)*

Colour: Thick, cloudy, creamy orange yellow

Smell: Sugared brambles and thorns.

Taste: Gentle, quiet; something crystallised. It does not taste of blackberries so far as I can tell; oh, maybe a little, there, but it's more honey than anything else."

*Amal offers no explanation of why there are 2 blackberry honeys, but consider that she was tasting a collection of honey sent to her by a friend. I assume, since the descriptions are different, that this is an entirely different blackberry honey from the last one.

Hmmm. Today's piece almost feels like two different poems. The first is a kinda sexy piece, mourning the loss of a lover, with honey and brambles as fairly potent metaphors. Sad, but, as I say, sexy and evocative.

The second poem is an interesting musing on Ophelia's drowning - like the earlier reevaluation of Goliath, this twists the story a little, and makes it a love story about Ophelia and the river. It's sweet, and sad, but a little hopeful.

Both poems are nice, but I don't really see how they fit together, beyond the fact that both address a sense of loss.

A note on what's going on here. Two years ago, Amal El-Mohtar began a month long exploration of a variety of honeys, tasting and describing each, and then writing a short piece of fiction, or a poem, or something of that nature which was inspired by the honey of the day. Last year, these posts were collected into a short book - more formal than a simple chapbook, perhaps - called The Honey Monthwhich I reviewed when it came out. My biggest problem, at that time, was that I ploughed through the book too quickly, and so I resolved to do a more careful reading of it at a later date. That later date is now - the posts were originally a February project, and so there are 28 honey days. This is now February, and I cannot think of a better time to slowly read poems and stories about honey. The material in quotation marks is the description of the day's honey, from the book (so that you get a good taste of Amal's lovely writing), what follows that is a brief thought about the piece of poetry or fiction of that day from yours truly.

In addition to my daily reviews, Amal has been re-running the original posts with what she is describing as "DVD Extras," some commentary on the piece for the day, some discussion of the differences between the original post and the finished piece in the book, and some delicious LJ Honey Month icons. The first of the re-runs is here, and I have been linking the appropriate post via the daily title, above, as the post becomes available. Amal is currently in England (because she is fabulous), and so her sense of what time it is and my sense of what time it is are somewhat askew. And that's ok.