Books, Food, Travel

This Is Asheville, NC

Whenever my wife and I road trip, we always try and swing by Asheville.  Even if it’s a little out of the way.  Well, even if it’s more than a little out of the way.  I can’t remember the first time we visited so ingrained is the place in my memory and routine, but Asheville has become a second home to me in a peculiar way.  We never visit long – maybe a day, maybe two – before setting off again for unseen places, though the taste is enough to make me question again why I’m in Ohio and not there.  I can’t even place what it is about Asheville that strikes me so.  It’s not the most remarkable of places.  The surrounding landscape is beautiful, of course, though the layout of the city is confusing for the most familiar of travelers.  Folks seem kind, those I interact with anyhow.  There’s a place in Columbus where my wife and I currently live known as the Short North which is the arts area of town with food, galleries (though less of these as of late), more food, shopping you’d expect to find in such a place, etc. etc.  Asheville has been referred by us a handful of times as a less dirty version of the Short North which feels largely appropriate.  Anyone unfamiliar with either won’t get the comparison so maybe it’s not a helpful one, but perhaps it might inspire you to visit both and put together the contrast.

One reason for our continuous return which does spring to mind is the food.  My favorite restaurant is a place there called Tupelo Honey Café.  They make a sweet potato pancake with pecans and maple honey butter which is just ridiculous.  Ridiculous.  I try and branch out as best I can when going to eateries I’ve been to before, but Tupelo works against me in this way; pancakes are my favorite food, and their sweet potato pancake (which is the size of a charger) is the best pancake I’ve ever had, which ties my hands in an insurmountable way.  And they give you these biscuits, fluffy on the inside with just enough crispness on the out that are unreal.  The jam – I can’t remember what type – is equally unreal.

The Green Sage is a coffee shop we also tend to visit, though the past few experiences food-wise have been just okay.  Their coffee is still great (which I guess is the entire point of a coffee shop) meaning I won’t not return, but we may stagger times between from now on.

Mela is an Indian Restaurant we tried for the first time on our last stop.  I think it was the last time.  Maybe the time before.  Trips are blurring.  Mela is spectacular, that’s all you need to know.  I ordered the coconut something-or-other, and it was delicious.  Rarely do I get food envy, but whatever my wife got was better than my delicious coconut something-or-other.  Seriously, if you like Indian food, go there.  Even if you don’t like Indian food, Mela might convert you.

Sunny Point Café is a fantastic breakfast spot.  I’m becoming thematic.  If humanly possible, I’d eat breakfast for every meal.  I had some type of egg sandwich concoction, and that turned out to be the correct choice.

This particular trip was done both coming and going.  We didn’t get in until sometime around midnight on our way toward the Keys, and my wife and I decided to sleep along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  By the time we got settled into the back of our car, it was about 12:30, 12:45, and we were awoken about quarter after 3 by some flashing blue and red lights behind us.  Apparently Asheville suffers from people who like to drive along the parkway at night shooting at cars pulled over on the small parking spots (a claim we saw none of when looking on the Google, though who knows), so while it was fine for us to be where we were, the officer suggested we head down to Walmart and sleep there.  We did.  I apparently parked in the wrong spot because somewhere around 7ish a good number of other cars had surrounded us, and that makes for some awkward pant changing situations.

On the way home we made a little better use of our time, stopping in only for half a day, getting a chance to eat pancakes, swing by Malaprop’s which is an awesome local bookstore, and stop into The Battery Park Book Exchange which is a cool little used book store where they serve coffee, wine, cheese, all that good stuff.  I’ve only experienced their cheese once and it was forgettable.  Books were good though.

Some people move to Florida for retirement.  If I make a obscene amount of money, which I don’t really foresee given my skillset, I’d choose San Francisco, because it’s awesome.  Given how life will likely play out, perhaps Asheville will be the place.  Though, as I think on it, Asheville may be the visiting sort and not the living sort.  Not sure.  I don’t know if I have a vibe of permanence there.

Anyhow: everyone should give it a whirl.  Great place to eat and walk around.

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Books

This Is Gourmet Rhapsody

Muriel Barbery knows her way around words.  With her debut The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I quickly fell in love with her sentences, taking time to draw the vocabulary along as she bent to describe the mundane musings of her characters.  Gourmet is not a sequel in any way to Elegance, the only overlap the two sharing the upper-class residence of Rue de Grenelle, and therefore not a necessary requirement prior to diving into Gourment, though I recommend reading it just the same however the order you choose.

For lack of a stronger opening and in the desire to use the pun as it’s been knocking around for a time: Gourmet Rhapsody is a feast.  Like Elegance before it, Barbery uses language in perfected amounts, a chef knowing by feel when to teaspoon, when to pinch, when to add this quarter cup or that.  The story follows the memories of a dying food critic by the name of Pierre Arthens as he fights to recollect a particular food/moment pairing he’s forgotten in all his years reviewing.  Chapters oscillate from Pierre to other members of Rue de Grenelle, family members, mistresses, a cat, all weighing in on the critic’s life choices (or lack thereof).  In Pierre’s trips through time we are given one view, that of a man in love with food, with himself, with the richness of both found moments and being in the moment, of a man zealous for the weight of experience.  And in others, the small recollections from those around him painting the picture of a distant man often feared by his loved ones, cold to a fault and without care of his callousness, of a man so in love with his own inflated narcissistic royalty he uses and casts so many aside as though they were little more than pieces of litter just on the fringe of his vision.  The best mirroring of these seemingly polar biographies is found first in the discussions of his granddaughter Lotte who sees him as a frightening and unhappy figure, one who “doesn’t like stories,” as she puts it laid then against a trip of Pierre’s in which he became lost while searching for a inn where he happened upon a group of five sharing lunch on their farm outside, a moment Pierre was invited to share in.  Here there is laughter, camaraderie, the binding experience of a meal in which strangers become somehow intimate friends.  The darkness in Barbery’s tale is how much of a double-life Pierre lived, how the zealous moments are so contra to the unhappiness left in his home wake.

For those of you who have seen Ratatouille, you are no doubt familiar with how Remy describes food as having shape.  In the same way does Pierre work his mouth around a palette of flavors unleashing a string of vivid syllables to contextualize his favorite dish and strongest memory.  As a tool to further Pierre’s ego, Barberry writes deftly, though there are times the ruminations can feel too much, like the meals saturated in the butters and the creams and the spices Barbery heaps language onto Pierre’s pen past a plate’s breaking point.  Though appropriate to his voice, I could find myself detaching from the experience the further into the critic’s world I waded, needing to come up for air after the barrage of mouthfuls.

Gourmet Rhapsody is a loaded pastry: bite-sized and heavy.

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Books, horror

This Is The Family Buried

Last of the trio.

The Family Buried is not quite autobiographical, though like most written-of moments, it was inspired by a handful of real-life events.  My wife and I once owned a farmhouse creeping close to two-hundred years old, a place ripe for such imaginings, and though nothing occurred so sinister as the unfolded plot, there were a handful of moments which worked their way in.

Recommended, obviously.

You can find the short story over on Amazon HERE.  If you’re a member of Kindle’s Unlimited program, you can download it for free (instead of the staggering price of one dollar).  If you’re a member of Goodreads, you can download it for free there as well.

I’ll get back to less narcissistic reviews next week.

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Books, horror

This Is One Day October

One Day October is my first novel, published a little over two years ago.  The goal was to go back to horror roots in a way, focusing on classics like vampires (non sparkly), werewolves, and haunted houses.  In an effort to connect them, the book takes place over the course of a single day and is told through six short stories all intersecting at a number of points.  From the synopsis:

Every building, every tree, every piece that takes up space on this earth leaves a residue. An imprint.

James Jeni found that out when he moved his family into the home on Creekside. It’s a beautiful place with all the room a young family could ask for. But when he begins renovations, James discovers a diary that warns of the house’s dark secret, and of the family who disappeared within.

Father Abraham Ferraro is no stranger to dark secrets. He’s been battling the undead longer than most of us have been alive. When his protégé Professor Jonathan Landers brings him news on a string of murders, Abraham’s worst fears are confirmed. Maybe he’ll get lucky and the killer won’t be the creature he dreads most. Maybe today won’t turn out to be his worst ever.

Today is the best day of Allison Jane’s life. Sure she has to work for one of the most terrifying women in the city, but after getting a raise and a promotion, what’s not to be thankful for? Of course, if she knew she was going to die before the clock struck twelve, well, Allison might be a little less celebratory. Francis didn’t mean to kill her. He doesn’t even know what he is, only that when the moon is full, like it is tonight, he changes.

Set over the course of a single day, a series of six stories bring together the miraculous and the mundane. Some people will wake up. Have breakfast. Kiss their loved ones good bye. And others, like James and Allison, must meet the incredible with unflinching eyes.

You can find the novel HERE.

As always, thoughts are welcome.

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Books, horror

This Is The Man In Christopher’s Closet

A little over a year ago, I won Writer’s Digest’s 9th Annual Popular Fiction contest with my short story The Man in Christopher’s Closet.  In starting to write these reviews, I realized I hadn’t yet shared my fiction work here, and I thought doing so might be a good change of pace.  There are three I’d like to share which should cover this week, starting with Christopher.

You can read the story on Writer’s Digest’s site HERE .  In keeping with the theme of the site, I’d like to hear your thoughts – good and bad – either in a comment or a PM.  Maybe sometime down the road, I’ll compile them for a user review.  For my part, I’d say “Recommended”, though that should be a given.

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Books

This Is Carrion Comfort

Dan Simmons is slowly becoming a sure bet for me when looking for something new to read.  I’d initially picked up the first book in his Science Fiction saga, Hyperion, on a recommendation and instantly tore through the remaining three books in quick succession.  For me, Simmons was a Sci-Fi author.  I later picked up The Terror, his historical reimagining of Sir John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage which was manipulated into a more incredible skin.  Many of his novels appear to have some grounding in reality – Drood, for instance, as well as Hyperion who uses both Keats and Frank Lloyd Wright as characters – and though I still hold Hyperion as Simmons’ best, he’s slowly come around to being a horror novelist foremost in my mind, with titles like Summer of Night and its sequel A Winter Haunting, Children of the Night, and now Carrion Comfort.

Carrion is a vampire novel without being a vampire novel.  Rather than being overt with the vampire’s repackaging, Simmons chose instead to be delicate with his parallels making for a stronger end result, these creatures more grounded and approachable while remaining fantastical and, ultimately, frightening.  The pieces are all recognizable – mind control, feeding, longevity, familiars, European aristocracy – without the difficulty of mythological associations (sunlight, garlic, stakes) or other trappings we’ve come to expect.  There are no wolves.  No fangs.  No stakes through the heart.  These vampires are vampires with quotations around them, men and women who are all still human if not higher on the evolutionary ladder than everyone else.  Their powers are more genetic accidents than insidious deals with other dark creatures, a point Simmons uses in favor of making the narrative even more disturbing – it is easy to distance ourselves from certain horrors when the root cause is thing over man, but when the perpetrator is one of us, the gap of retreat narrows considerably.  For instance, one of the main aggressors was once a member of the Third Reich – an Oberst, as one character calls him – which I find best illustrates my above point, highlighting just what we’re capable of doing to one another.  Now, Simmons’ “vampire” has the ability to control others, to step behind their human wheel and drive that body of theirs as they would any vehicle (some one at a time, two at a time, others – those most powerful – dozens), a fact I might argue does, in its own way, allow for some distancing of atrocities caused in one name or another, but the end point still stands.  What’s interesting about this ability is the Thing effect it has (you have seen Carpenter’s film, right?), where no one is ever quite sure who’s in charge of their own faculties.  What good is the storming of Normandy if your commander is suddenly shut out of his own mind and used as a pawn with which to gun down his own squad?  It’s this type of uncertainty which helps raise Carrion’s tension.  In much the same way the characters themselves become trapped, helpless as they’re led puppet-like through motions they can witness and experience yet not control, so too does the reader experience these things, forced to watch as people we’ve become closer to over eight-hundred plus pages are lost inside themselves with us having no way to help.  Simmons does a masterful job of crafting that helplessness and isolation.  As a result, no one is ever truly safe.

On pawns, quickly.  Without giving too much away concerning the plot, the backdrop is set against a global game of chess, one where those with the power (what power? power of voodoo) use those around them as pieces in an effort to checkmate the other.  As such, the book is divided into three parts consisting of opening/middle/closing moves, and as the game progresses, readers begin to better see the behind-the-scenes workings of who this player’s Bishop might be, or who that player’s Queen is.  The seeming randomness of initial events come into better focus as the revelations begin, a needed thing as I found the first one hundred or so pages engaging if not a little confusing.  Maybe confusing isn’t the best word, but it’s definitely a situation where you need to give yourself to the ride knowing everything will slide into place.  The journey, however, is a long one, an argument I would level at most of Simmons’ novels where some fat might be trimmed without being worse for it, though never did I experience a dreaded just wrap it up already.  It says something about the path when I continue to be happy just being a part of it.

Carrion Comfort is a strange, but good, beast.  Part horror, part mystery, part political thriller in its peculiar way.  I’d recommend it, though if you haven’t read Simmons before, I’d point to stronger titles first, namely The Terror and Summer of Night if you want your horror fix.  Still, you’re not going to go wrong with picking up Carrion.  You just won’t get the full effect of Simmons’ strength.  For someone notoriously difficult to please with horror, he’s always done right by me.

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Books

This Is The Sword Of Shannara

More like The Sword of ShannEHra.  Right?  Right?

Okay.

Shannara has long been one of those series I felt necessary to give a go.  Terry Brooks seems a patriarch of the genre in some ways, much like Herbert or Asimov would be of Science Fiction, and there’s always been this strange, outstanding guilt for not having read anything by him.  I’ll admit, though, I approached Sword with attached biased, albeit small, having heard a number of times how much he apes from Tolkein.  Borrowing isn’t a new phenomenon, especially in fantasy, so I suppose it’s presumptuous of me to have an initial knee-jerk before even cracking the spine.  I’ll admit that.  However, having just wrapped the book, it was founded.

It isn’t all bad.  I’ll say that much up front.  There isn’t much great either, but if you like your milk lukewarm and your cereal soggy, you’re in for a treat.  Tolkein’s influence is evident throughout.  You’ve got the peaceful folk living in quiet solitude whose lives are interrupted when a mysterious stranger with great power interrupts everything, sending them on a grand adventure.  You have Ringwraiths in the form of Skull Bearers.  A fellowship of Elves, Dwaves, and Men, eight instead of nine.  You have a forest and a tree who lulls those near it to sleep.  The many-armed monster in the lake.  An adversary who has long been dormant and forgotten now reawakened without form, looking to conquer the lands having raised an army.  Not a ring which can destroy the evil, but a sword.  Gollum in the form of a crazed Gnome named Orl.  A Balrog-esque scene where the Druid Allanon, in the role of Gandalf, battles a Skull Bearer over fire and appears to plunge to his death.  There’s Palance Buckhannah, brother to one of the fellowship members Balinor, a prince of the city of Tyrsis (the description of which echoes Gondor incredibly well), whose mind has been poisoned by an evil advisor Stenmin, much in the same way Wormtongue bent the ear of an already addled Théoden.

You get the idea.

Couple all of the above with a liberal use of Deus ex machina, too many “well how about that!” moments to try and remember out of seven-hundred plus pages, and things are just grim.

Brooks’ writing is serviceable.  He really enjoys adjectives and adverbs.  The text feels incredibly repetitive, which admittedly could be a result of the story some, as the two are difficult to separate.  Flat is a good way to describe it.  If Brooks didn’t put an exclamation mark here or there, I wouldn’t have realized something exciting was going on, even in the midst of a grand battle.  His descriptions of people and places are the bread and butter, both of which I could often picture clearly.  I enjoy worldbuilding immensely, and while Brooks takes liberally to help populate, the amount of time spent going over the geography, the look and feel of the races, the history, and the overall setting kept me far more engaged than I otherwise would have been.

For someone new to the genre, Shannara wouldn’t be too difficult to recommend.  It’s an easy read as evidenced by the writing, and if you’re not familiar with fantasy as a whole, many of the tropes will be covered to help catch you up in spades .  For those who are better versed, I suppose Shannara acts as a good history lesson in its on way, having been published close to forty years ago when much of what we take for granted now was still being shaped, though I still can’t say if a recommendation is warranted based on that lens alone.  I’m told books two and three – Elfstones of Shannara and Wishsong of Shannara – are better, and I’m compulsive enough where if I begin something, I tend to see it through however painful.  While I could possibly argue the series has been around long enough to assume some degree of good in that popularity, Twilight is also popular, doing little to elevate my hope.  We’ll see.

I’m taking a Shannara break to read Repairman Jack books six and seven (about two-thirds through the former), and then I’ll jump back in.  Here’s hoping they do indeed get better.

A mediocre recommend.

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