Saturday, December 29, 2012

World Heritage: 2012 in Review

I visited two World Heritage Sites this year, both in the same afternoon, earlier this month. Left, you see me at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and to the right, you see a picture I took in the Forbidden City.

Looking at this year, I said, "I can rent a car on my free afternoon and drive to Canterbury, and then see how many of Beijing's six world heritage sites I can cram into a 4-day trip." Well, I decided against renting a car (instead opting for the non-World Heritage enjoyment of Cambridge), and I could cram in two of the World Heritage Sites in Beijing into my free afternoon.

So my total is 56 out of 962, or 5.8%, which is back where it was at the end of last year (actually slightly better, but rounding makes that disappear). In 2013, I don't know if I'll make it two sites, which is what I need to keep pace with the addition of new sites. (I have not visited any of the 2013 nominees.) But I'll certainly see what I can do!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (61) Bob Evans

As seen from Crain Highway
For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Bob Evans, 4308 Crain Hwy.
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 12/8/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: December 21, 1997
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Christina's comment on her entree was, "It was worth the wait."  I think that said as much about the painfully slow service as about the tastiness of the food. The other local restaurant it reminded us of the most was Friendly's (in Crofton), but the food was definitely better here. The service was not.

Down on the Farm
The kids' meals were free as a result of a December promotion. When I tracked down the waitress at the cash register to pay our bill, however, the only way she could figure out how to handle it was to ring it up as two separate checks, with one adult and one kid on the check. Oh, and be warned, the meal is free (about $3 value), but the drink (about $1.25) isn't. Not an awful deal, but not fantastic. The kids generally enjoy the opportunity to eat pancakes, so they were happy.

The only other time I had been here was before a Redskins-Eagles game in 1997, hence my ability to note the exact date. Oh, and the picture? Well, it seemed like this place merited about that much effort.

So how do I give it a 2-star rating? Well, IHOP got a 2.5-star rating, but it's open 24 hours, which means something in a city with no diner. Bob Evans is open 6AM-10PM, so it doesn't earn that extra 1/2 star.

Bowie Restaurant News

Lima's Chicken is open! I stopped by to pick up a menu, and the place smelled delicious. It looks like they have a really interesting menu, too.

When I peek in the still-blacked-out windows of Freestyle Fish 'n' Chicken in Bowie Plaza, I see a restaurant that looks almost ready to go, including a "Grand Opening" banner. So I should have two new places to review soon.

Here's a money-saving tip. Chesapeake Grille is offering a deal for the holidays where you can buy a $100 gift card and get a $20 gift card free. While I'm sure it would be great to give someone a $100 gift card and keep the $20 one for yourself, this deal can be handy even if you're not in a giving mood. If you know you'll be spending more than $120 there in the coming year (and we certainly plan to), go ahead and take advantage of the deal for yourself, and you've just saved $20 at the cost of committing your money a little bit early. Similarly, California Tortilla is offering a deal where you can get a free entree coupon with a $25 gift card purchase. I went ahead and grabbed both for myself at lunch today.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (60) Applebee's

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Applebee's, 4100 Crain Hwy.
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 11/7/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I am struggling to pick out something that really makes a difference between Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday. I said Ruby Tuesday seemed slightly more "adult" and that's true. The decor at Applebee's is ever-so-whimsical (oh, look, a picture of a caboose), and the menu is a little zanier. In particular, there was a dish with a mix of bratwurst, chicken, french fries, cheese and probably some other stuff that tempted me until I realized how disgusting it would probably be once it was in my stomach.

But the same basic principles -- suprisingly good service, mixed results on the food that applied at Ruby Tuesday's applied here. The artichoke dip was so-so. I ordered a chicken and shrimp skillet that was served overly hot (if you're going to give me my food on the dish you used to cook it, then at least give me a regular plate as well). My colleague's steak, however, turned out pretty well.

Thankfully, I have been to other Applebee's, so I don't feel the need to return to their Bowie location before writing a review. In particular, when I lived in Athens, GA, Applebee's was one of the limited number of dining options, and it was a "safe" choice where you could go if your dining companions didn't like weird food. I wish I had done an "Athens Restaurant Project" back then. The dining scene was notoriously limited -- people complained about how often we ended up at the same places -- but I bet a thorough search would have turned up a few more gems.

Anyway, 60 restaurants reviewed. Nineteen or twenty more to go -- including Chili's and TGI Friday's. We'll see if those distinguish themselves at all from the last two.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Book Review: 2312

23122312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to try to catch up on my book reviewing before year's end.

I'm generally a fan of Robinson's work, though lately my reaction seems to be some form of, "I enjoyed that, but..." With 2312, I enjoyed it, but thought some of the digressions just didn't work. He intersperses "lists" or "extracts" throughout the novel. When they give more historical background to the setting, they help. When they don't, they get in the way. Further, as with his Science in the Capital series, he sometimes allows ideas that seem tangential to the plot to have too much prominence. Forty Signs of Rain had too many frisbee golf scenes, for example. With 2312, there are too many musings on a technique of organizing your life he calls the "pseudoiterative". I don't find it interesting enough to summarize. Also, I didn't find the way he incorporated quantum computing at all plausible.

But these are mostly quibbles. When the book works, it really works, and it zips you around the 24th-century solar system with a sense of wonder and a sense that, "Hey, maybe this is how things will really be." There's enough tension and excitement to keep you turning the pages, not just to find out about the setting, but also about how the characters' plans for preserving and improving it turn out.

I still keep expecting Robinson to hit a home run akin to the Mars trilogy, but it's possible that if I re-read those books with the same heightened expectations, I would also come away disappointed.

Aside from my Robinson fan-dom, I read this book to get a head start on next year's Nebula nominees. At this point, I'm not sure it'll quite do well enough to get nominated (it looks like KSR hasn't had a Best Novel nominee since 1995), and I'm not sure if it should. On the other hand, I'm not sure what's out there; I'm looking forward to what the voters come up with.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Book Review: Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus TresaultiMechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As we get towards the end of the year, I realize that I'm reading books faster than I'm reviewing them. Not really all that fast, but still, I'm behind on reviewing. I started Mechanique in the hopes of finishing it before the Nebulas were announced, so I that I could make my own "pick" in advance. Having read 5 of the 6 nominees, I think I would have chosen Firebird.

When I was partway through this book, I wrote, "So far it's not really to my tastes, but it's an interesting and inventive approach to sf/fantasy." After finishing it (in June), I think that's a pretty good summary of how I feel.

It's a book about a circus in a post-apocalyptic setting. Maybe the neatest idea in the book is that most of the circus performers are "enhanced" and thus able to perform the circus acts with literally superhuman abilities.

It gradually became clear, however, that these abilities were more akin to magic than technology. In other words, this is really a work of fantasy, not sf. Further, the identity of the "post-apocalyptic" setting is clearly intentionally vague -- maybe this is the US after a nuclear war. Or not. It's clearly a valid authorial choice, but not one I find interesting.

It's beautifully written, and the skipping backwards and forwards in time doesn't confuse most of the time. The characters are well-drawn and compelling. Sometimes they come across as a little bit...extreme, I suppose, but they are circus performers after all. The plot was interesting enough, although it took a while to pick up.

All in all, it was a book I appreciated more than enjoyed.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (59) Ruby Tuesday

Ruby Tuesday, Bowie, MD
For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Ruby Tuesday, 16451 Excalibur Rd.
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/10/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I couldn't remember whether I had been to a Ruby Tuesday before. It tended to get mixed in with all of the other, similar chain restaurants -- Chili's, Applebee's, TGI Friday's. In fact, I still can't. But if I had to say how it differs from the other restaurants, it's that it feels more "adult" than the others. By that I mean that the decorations were tasteful and understated -- no license plates on the wall, or goofy decorations.

A colleague had a coupon for $10 off two entrees, so we skipped the lunch specials for standard meals. At normal prices, they would have been overpriced, but at $5 less, they seemed reasonable. We probably would have been OK with the lunch prices, too. The food and service were quite reasonable.

My follow-up experience of on-line ordering was less satisfying. First, the lunch specials are not available on-line. Actually, Ruby Tuesday outsources their on-line ordering to the same company that does Boston Market, so I got the weird feeling I was ordering from Boston Market the whole time. Then, they require that you fill out your vehicle information. This seemed like a promising way of having your food delivered to your car -- which could be a definite plus to those of us with multiple toddlers. But a sign at the restaurant directed me inside; maybe some RTs bring the food to you, but in Bowie you have to go to the bar to pick up and pay. Finally, the hamburger and fries were completely unimpressive.

I prefer local restaurants to chains mostly because I believe you will get more interesting and more carefully-prepared meals there. If, however, you're looking for a competent, but not exciting restaurant experience, I guess go here.

Bowie Restaurant News

Looks like the Muffin Man will never be coming to Bowie. The sign is down, and the space is now, "For Lease".

That leaves me with 20 or 21 restaurants left (I suspect two of them identified as separate by the City's guide are actually the same place). The trickiest are places where I need to sit down to review them, because I also feel like I need to bring someone along, so I don't get wrapped up in playing with my phone and ignore the experience. Actually, the trickiest are the subset of those which are so bad I can't get anyone to come along and/or are not open for lunch.

Lima's Chicken was supposed to be open by the end of October; it's not. It looks like a fair bit of work has been done on the interior, though. No sign of an opening date for Freestyle Fish 'n' Chicken, either. (These are the only two on my list that aren't open yet.)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (58) New China

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

New China, 3544 Crain Hwy.
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/1/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 4
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Bowie has plenty of Chinese restaurants. It has some very tasty Chinese restaurants, such as Grace's Fortune and Golden Pavilion. New China isn't in their league, but it has something worthwhile that makes it stand out -- a buffet.

New China is the closest Chinese restaurant to my office, and so I had stopped by there for takeout a few times when working late. Recently, however, I had my first sit-down visit, and an opportunity to try the lunch buffet. If memory serves me correctly, it was around $6.50, and there was quite a variety of choices, including a few American dishes (which I passed on). Although my colleague's made-to-order General Tso's Chicken was slightly fresher than its cousin on the buffet, nothing tasted tired or like it had been sitting out for hours -- despite the fact that we were having a late lunch.

Often when you want to dash out of work for a quick lunch, you don't have a lot of sit-down choices. New China offers one you won't regret, and there are plenty of opportunities to order off the menu as well. Service was friendly and efficient. A dinner buffet offers what I can assume is a similar experience.

New China has the distinction of being the southernmost non-chain restaurant in Bowie (north of two Subways, a Pizza Hut, and a Ruby Tuesday). All the more reason to give it 3.5 stars and look forward to the opening of Lima's Chicken next door later this month.

Bowie Restaurant News

The Gazette has an article about the poor performance of the Bowie Town Center food court. Some parts don't really add up -- if the problem is the design of the mall, why has business dropped by so much in the last two years, when the design hasn't changed. Still, there are some interesting insights in the article. Clearly the design is a problem, since the developer says they've learned not to put food courts in similar malls. Also, The White Tiger is thinking of leaving if business does not pick up. In my view, the only thing I'd miss if they closed the whole food court would be the bourbon chicken place.

Also, Lima's Chicken is on Facebook! I'm really looking forward to this place opening up. I went by this week when I took the above picture of New China, and they seem to be making more progress.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (57) Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill,  15209 Major Landsdale Blvd.
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 9/4/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Since KBQ is relocating to DC, it is becoming even harder to find good BBQ in the Bowie area. The one BBQ restaurant within the city limits is Smokey Bones. I had visited it years ago and remembered dimly that it was decent, but a takeout experience after moving to Bowie left us disappointed. An in-person visit was necessary.

Unfortunately, that visit confirmed the disappointment. The best way to describe my reaction is that the BBQ was about as good as you'd expect from a chain restaurant that doesn't specialize in BBQ. I've had much better luck with Famous Dave's (closest locations in Laurel or Annapolis) and certainly Red Hot & Blue (closest locations in, um Laurel or Annapolis).

My lunch partner observed that the restaurant was a decent place to bring a group of people for lunch -- there were a bunch of empty tables, and none of the food was particularly off-putting. (Vegetarians would probably not be thrilled with the choice, though.) The service was good until after our food arrived, at which point our waiter was hard to find.

I'm torn between 2 and 2.5 stars. Rather than inaugurate the quarter-star rating, I'll round up to 2.5 on the basis that as the only BBQ restaurant in Bowie, at least it provides some variety. I'm still looking elsewhere for my regular fix, though. I had a decent sandwich a few weeks back at Dickey's in Gambrills (Route 3 just north of Crofton), and I need to check out the similarly-located Rusty's.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (56) Bang Bang Mongolian Grill

Bang Bang is closed closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Bang Bang Mongolian Grill,  15752 Annapolis Road
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 8/27/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

I chose Bang Bang Mongolian Grill for a farewell lunch for a summer student who had been working for us. On the one hand, it could be a fun place to send him off, and it would be an opportunity to get several perspectives on the restaurant. On the other hand, he isn't coming back, so if we had a bad experience, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

When we arrived, the woman behind the register asked us if we had been there before. I felt like I didn't need a lecture on the whole "Mongolian Barbeque" concept, since I had eaten it before. (If you haven't, basically, you choose your ingredients, buffet-style, then a chef stir-fries them for you.) On the other hand, it was helpful to get the lowdown on specifics (e.g., pay first to get a bowl). While she briefly stepped aside to answer someone else's question, the woman with whom she had been chatting explained things to us. Including, "I used to work here." Which seemed weird, since they've only been open three months. "They fired me after I was late three times." Oh. Awkward.

The rest of the dining experience was much smoother, though I got worried when our student said he didn't even cook, so he wasn't really sure how to select his ingredients. He did OK, though he added way too many hot spices. I made the same mistake myself on a return visit. There are cards with pre-selected mixes of meats, veggies and spices that I suppose could serve as a guideline, but where's the fun in that?

Anyway, the food was fresh and tasty, and the interaction with the chefs was pleasant. I don't know that it's the perfect dining experience, but if you have been looking forward to a Mongolian barbeque restaurnt in Bowie, you won't be disappointed.

If you're just looking for Asian-style food, there are cheaper lunch alternatives around, but without the fun and customization. I am a little concerned about having this, Grace's and Sakura all in one shopping center, but they all seem to be serving different market segments.

One place where Bang Bang doesn't shine is take-out. If you have the time to select your ingredients and have it cooked, there's no problem taking it back to your home or office. But you can't exactly place a phone order and tell them what to throw in your bowl. When they opened, I was told that they were going to offer an on-line ordering option -- which would be fantastic -- but that has yet to materialize.

All in all, it's a really solid addition to the Bowie dining landscape, particularly for those who have gotten tired of "more of the same".

Bowie Restaurant News

Lima's Char Broiled Chicken

In May, I said, "Bowie needs a Peruvian chicken restaurant." Looks like we're getting one, coming to the former Ravza Mediterranean Cuisine location in Collington Plaza (next to New China).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (55) Jersey Mike's

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Jersey Mike's, 6844 Race Track Road
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 8/17/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars
Jersey Mike's Menu

I had never heard of Jersey Mike's until the Bowie location was announced, but apparently it's one of the five biggest sub chains in America. Huh.

I first went there on the day of their grand opening. The place was packed, and somebody at the door asked me if I was familiar with their offerings, and then suggested I order a #13 Mike's Way. Or maybe he suggested a #7. Anyway, despite the scripted nature of the pitch, I appreciated the attempt at friendliness and ordered a #7. When I got it back to my office, it was surprisingly tasty, particularly the meat.

A little Internet research determined that they take pride in slicing their meat fresh for each sub, rather than breaking out pre-sliced meat, like Subway. I was impressed.

The Bowie Living blog reported a less positive experience with employee banter. On the one hand, that's too bad. On the other hand, if you're preparing a blog entry, you really hope for that sort of thing to punch up your writeup. Anyway, go read it, it's entertaining.

Christina stopped by there around the same time. She said that the employees were actually fairly far off-script and were complaining about the manager, who had just stepped out. She was less impressed with her sub and noted the lack of toppings choice compared to Subway. She also remarked that she had seen better-decorated gas stations.

For today's visit, I decided to try something different, the cheesesteak. A guy took my order before I got up to the sub-prep area, and it wasn't ready when I paid, which was kind of weird. They were still pretty busy, so I had plenty of time to notice the other patrons as I shuffled past the toppings.

The woman behind me pointed at the lettuce and asked if she could get something fresher, because it looked "terrible". Indeed, it was brown enough to have gotten tossed from my fridge at home. The worker behind the counter hesitantly pulled the lettuce and started to take it towards the back. The manager noticed what she was doing and told her to put it back and serve the rest of it.

The worker explained the woman's complaint, which led to a conversation between the customer and the manager. As far as I could tell, the lettuce was eventually yanked, but not without some sort of explanation being offered up. I didn't hear it, and as a customer, I don't really care.

I used to think that you shouldn't speak up about things like that -- just don't get the lettuce, and don't come back. Now I believe there's enough things going wrong that could be pointed out -- let's see if they fix it, and if I have to police the quality of the ingredients every time. So kudos to that woman; I hope she got some fresh lettuce.

As for my cheesesteak? I was so hungry, and it smelled so good that I ended up eating it in the car. The taste however, was not thrilling. Certainly not as good as the turkey sub.

Which leads me to my overall evaluation of Jersey Mike's. I'm glad it's not a Subway. Bowie has enough of those. In some ways it's better than Subway, and in some ways it's worse. But it provides variety.

On the other hand...just walk a few doors down to Chesapeake Grille & Deli. For $6.95, Jersey Mike's will sell you "Jersey Mike's Famous Philly"; for $7.99 you get Chesapeake's "Sirloin Cheese Steak" -- chips included. For $6.99, you can get the "Chicken Cheese Melt", whereas at Jersey Mike's you're still paying $7.99 and not getting chips. Across the board, the prices are fairly similar, though at Jersey Mike's you have a slightly different selection of sandwiches. At Chesapeake Grille, you get a much more diverse menu, though.

So although I'll skip Jersey Mike's in the future and just go to Chesapeake Grille, I give them some points for making Bowie's chain-sub restaurant selection slightly more interesting. So two-and-a-half stars.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Nebula Update: Fountains of Paradise

Last night I got around to watching Discovery Science's "Prophets of Science Fiction" episode on Arthur C. Clarke. One of the problems with this episode is that it gives Clarke as much credit for the space elevator concept as it does the geostationary satellite. From what I can tell, he helped popularize the former, but is often credited with the idea for the latter (though there is of course some debate as to the extent of his contribution).

The episode talked about the novel Fountains of Paradise as introducing the concept of a space elevator. I thought, "That's weird; I didn't realize he had written two books about space elevators. I haven't read Fountains, but I read the other one." Well, as it turns out, they're the same book, and they both won the 1979 Nebula award for Best Novel.

As I recall, it was an interesting book, but I was bothered by the fact that it altered Earth's geography to create a Sri Lanka-like island at the Equator. It's almost alternate-history science-fiction, but it felt too much like changing things around to make the story work. I probably would have enjoyed it more if it were the first novel I had ever read about a space elevator.

So I now have 35 out of 48 Nebula-winning novels read. 13 left doesn't sound too tricky, does it? When I started this project, I had only read 11.

I'm currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, which I suppose might be nominated for this year's awards, and I have some library e-books on hold, but I also have one Nebula winner on my Kindle to return to when these other, more exciting ones run dry.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (54) Dunkin' Donuts (Bowie Plaza)

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Dunkin' Donuts, 6796 Laurel-Bowie Rd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 8/6/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Dunkin' Donuts. With a drive-thru. Five minutes away from Bowie's other Dunkin' Donuts.

This place has been open for about a week. Christina picked up some donuts right after they opened; they tasted slightly stale. I grabbed a bagel this morning. I think it was slightly better than the ones I've gotten at the other location.

I gave the other location two-and-a-half starts partially by virtue of its being the only Dunkin' Donuts in Bowie. With that gone, I would be tempted to knock this one down to two stars, but the drive-thru is a nice perk for parents of small children, so you can pick something up without leaving the car.

I'll definitely head here rather than the other DD, but only because I'd have to drive past this one to get there. The older DD was one of the few places open the morning after the derecho, and I'm grateful for that.

By the way, I was at a meeting recently where someone supplied Panera bagels (from a non-Bowie location). I may have to try that when I'm craving a bagel, though I still find it sad that Bowie doesn't have a dedicated bagel shop.

Bowie Restaurant News

There are lots of happenings these days in the Bowie restaurant scene. The other day I spotted a "Freestyle Fish N Chicken" sign going up in Bowie Plaza. They appear to have a Baltimore location that's already open. The menu looks rather...fried. I think we'll have to take a wait and see approach to the whole thing.

Bowie Living reports that Main Street's Brasserie has closed. I was not as big of a fan of it as others were. I think their limited hours mean that it's not too big of a loss. Maybe something interesting can replace it, though with the out-of-the-way location a restaurant would have trouble gaining traction.

Jersey Mike's has opened in Hilltop Plaza. I went there on the 1st for their grand opening, but I need to make another visit for a full evaluation. My first impression was surprisingly positive, but I have to think about when I'd rather patronize them versus Chesapeake Grille a couple of doors down. I had never heard of Jersey Mike's, but apparently it's one of the five biggest sub chains in the country.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Geocoin Update: From Alabama to...Cozumel?!

In the past, I've complained about the tendency of geocoins I've released to drop off the face of the Earth. When I release them, I imagine getting e-mail notifications of their journeys around the world. That will happen for a while, and then...silence. I will eventually mark them as missing on the geocaching site and then put them out of my mind.

I recently reported about the return of the "Free State Mover #3" geocoin, which showed up again after 2 1/2 years of inactivity. I recently got e-mail about another one for which I had given up hope.

Free State Generic #1, I last heard of being dropped off in Alabama two years ago. It spent 2008 in its home state of Maryland, 2009 travelling to Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and South Carolina, before revisiting Florida in 2010 and coming to rest in Alabama in 2010. It then joined the ranks of the ones I had written off.

On Friday, it was grabbed by geocaching user "Rubio-Raffin Family" with the note, "found in Cozumel. Taking back to AZ for some dry heat." (I don't have a map update because it hasn't been logged into a cache since its Alabama days.) I now wonder what it has been doing for the past 2 years and how the heck it made its way down to Cozumel.

So after thinking it over, I think dropping off the face of the planet is fine, if they eventually resurface. It's particularly exciting to see the return of a coin I never thought I'd see again -- much more exciting than steady progress.

Monday, July 16, 2012

World Heritage Update: Down to 5.6%

UNESCO inscribed 26 new World Heritage sites this month, bringing the total List to 962. I haven't been to any of the new sites, so my total is still at 54. My percentage drops from 5.8% to 5.6%. I haven't seen any new sites this year, and with my travel schedule somewhat curtailed, I may not see any. I do have a possible trip to China, but that's up in the air for a number of reasons.

Of the new sites, which ones would I like to visit?
I'm sure some of the other ones are interesting if I knew more about them (and some are not). Most are in countries I have no expectation of visiting, so I'm in no hurry to research them.

For the past week or two, I've been recording a 5-minute program called "World Heritage Wonders," which is produced by NHK, the Japanese broadcaster. The first few I saw were about the Shiretoko Peninsula, and I was afraid they'd all be about the same place -- it almost seemed ike a travel ad. (But did make me want to visit.) But then they moved on to the
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, so I wondered whether all of them would be in Japan. The next one, though, was about the Taj Mahal, and most recently I've seen one on the Jongmyo Shrine, which I visited last year. Now I'm wondering whether they'll visit sites outside Asia. Either way, it's enjoyable, and the 5-minute time span is about right for me these days.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (53) Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

Red Robin at Bowie Town Center
For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, 15650 Excelsior Dr
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 07/01/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I like a good burger joint. My favorite place in the world to get burgers is Bare Back Grill in San Diego. Grass-fed beef, properly cooked, good beer, and at the Pacific Beach location a beach -- what more could you want? In Maryland, you're not going to get that, but in Hyattsville, near where we used to live, you can find Franklin's and Hank's. I give the edge to Franklin's, but both do a good job.

The first time I got food from Red Robin, I was confused about what type of place it was -- I didn't realize it was a sit-down restaurant. So I ended up picking up my order at the bar from a very nice employee. They have a selection of interesting ways to prepare the burgers, but they didn't offer me how they wanted it cooked, so I ended up with a well-done burger. A well-done burger can be an enjoyable experience (as I'm reminded whenever I end up at Wendy's), but it's not going to be great. After taking my meal back to the office, I found out that people said you could specify how you wanted your burger cooked, but you had to make a point of telling them.

I didn't have an opportunity to try this out until recently, when the power outage sent us fleeing to a local hotel and much of Bowie to the restaurants that still had power. A 40-minute wait seemed reasonable under the circumstances.

I ended up ordering another burger, this time medium-rare. It showed up well-done, but was otherwise tasty. Christina, having had a burger recently, had the fish and chips, which she enjoyed. The twins had selections from their fairly extensive kids' menu. Christina and I both had their endless root beer float, which was tasty.

The service was somewhat spotty. Some of that may have been due to the power-outage-related rush, but probably not all of it. I only got one refill on the endless float, because it was hard to flag down our waiter, who also forgot items here and there.

So the bottom line is that I can't rate it too well as a burger joint. I don't think the burger I had was appreciably better than one from the nearby Five Guys, although the choice of toppings is more interesting here. Burgers tended to run around $9, so you'll pay for that variety. If I'm by myself and I want a burger, I'll save a few bucks and head to Five Guys

On the other hand, you'll get a sit-down experience and more options for entertaining the kids. We had a nice enough time. But with the disappointing nature of their signature dish and the many other options in the immediate vicinity (DuClaw, Uno, for example), I can't rate this any higher than 2.5 stars.

Bowie Restaurant Update

Today marks the anniversary of my first review. I managed a once-a-week average in the first year. I thought I'd do better, but I have run out of a little bit of steam once the list narrowed to sit-down restaurants, many of them uninspiring. It's pricey dining out, it's time consuming, and with kids it can be exhausting. I'm still planning to finish the project, but I am not in any particular hurry.

That leaves 26 restaurants (3 of which are not open yet). So I need a pace of one restaurant every other week to finish by next July.

About a month ago, there was a fire at the Jersey Mike's sub shop under construction, reported Bowie Living. I'm not sure how that will impact their planned opening.

Despite the fact that they told me three months ago that they'd have online ordering in 30 days, the online ordering page at Bang Bang Mongolian Grill still says "coming soon". It doesn't seem a great dine-in place for two-year-olds, so I'll probably wait until they have that option, or I can convince someone to do lunch there.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Genealogy Update: Adam Schneider

In honor of today's Germany-Italy match, I'm proud to announce that I have identified 1/64 more of my ancestry that is German.

My recollection is that when I did most of my research in the mid-1990s, there seemed to be three Adam Snyders in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, two of whom I was related to. Since I could never figure out which was which, that made it hard to trace things.

William S. Nicholson
Now that so much more information is online, I am able to sort things out. I'm not sure how many Adam Snyders there were, but I'm pretty sure I can figure out which my two were.

Lucretia (Putman) Nicholson
Let's start with my great-grandfather, William S. Nicholson. Until my recent searches, he had been one of the two trickiest great-grandparents for me to determine ancestry. In fact, I had only been able to determine the ancestry of one of his great-grandparents. His mother was the former Lucretia Putman, and her grandfather, Peter Putman, emigrated from Germany in the mid-18th century. Peter is one of my ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. His grandson, and Lucretia's father, William Putman, fought in the Civil War and died of his wounds. (So I was wrong when I said that I only had one ancestor who fought in the Civil War.)
Simon P. Nicholson

This site says that Peter's wife, Maria, was also from Germany, but I'm not going to count that until I can get more solid evidence.

Anyway, the new information is actually about William's father, Simon P. Nicholson. His mother was the former Phoebe Snyder, which is where the Snyders come into the line. Her father was Adam Snyder (or Schneider), and his father was Adam Schneider. Based on the text of the 1909 book A brief history of the Andrew Putman (Buttman, Putnam) Christian Wyandt (Weyandt, Weygandt, Voint, Wyand) and Adam Snyder families (Schneider) of Washington County, Maryland, I can conclude that the older Adam was, in fact, from Germany. So that's a second of William's great-grandparents whose origin has been found. Adam was also one of the founders of Somerset, PA. I remember seeing the historical marker about him when we visited in 2009, but I wasn't sure at the time if he was "mine".

The astute reader may notice the name "Putman" appearing again, even though we are looking at William's father, rather than his mother. In fact, Adam Schneider (the older) was married to Catherine Putman...Peter Putman's brother. First of all, this is another of William's great-grandparents identified as German. Second, this means that William's parents were third cousins. I've been waiting to find out where my family tree bends back on itself (everyone's does), and third cousins isn't such a bad way to have it happen.

One more thing...remember Peter's wife, Maria, who is possibly another German ancestor? She was Maria Schneider (Snyder), so there's at least a possibility that she was Adam's sister, which would make Simon and Lucretia third cousins on another side as well. I'm going to ignore that for now.

I'm also going to ignore the fact that the German Putmans were originally the French Huguenot Boutemonts -- with a few exceptions, I only care about the country of origin, and don't try to trace things back generations before that.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Geocoin Update: The Golden Rule

First, a terminology explanation. A "geocoin" is a (generally) trackable coin, minted for the purpose of being placed in geocaches. A "travel bug" is an object with a tracking "dog tag" attached, which is placed in geocaches.

If you attach a keychain to a geocoin (as I have done several times), you get the same thing as attaching a keychain to a travel bug dog tag, except you spend a little more money, and it's slightly more interesting (I hope!) to the finder. For example, you get an icon on your profile for each different type of coin that you find. (See picture to the right.)

In November 2010, I found a travel bug keychain called "Montana Plata". It was like my Maryland-themed keychain geocoins, except it was a travel bug and Montana-themed. I had hoped at the time that I would be able to do more geocaching, since the kids at four months old had gotten slightly easier to manage.

Well, they're still pretty darn time consuming. The only physical geocache I was able to find last year was in Estonia, and Montana Plata didn't fit.

Since I've been known to complain about people holding on to my geocoins too long, having Montana Plata for a year and a half weighed on my conscience.

So last weekend, I decided to take advantage of a Father's Day drive to drop it off. I used the geocaching app on my phone to find a nearby cache with the right attributes -- big enough to fit the coin, not too hard to find -- and headed for a cache named "Timberhollow". The instructions had me park at a historical marker, which was a waymark, so I got to work that in, too.

I had not planned ahead sufficiently to bring my actual GPS receiver, so I wasn't sure if I could find the cache -- the resolution on the phone isn't always great. Still, looking at Google Maps, I could tell I just had to walk 200 feet perpendicular to the road and look for a hollow tree (hence the cache name). That wasn't too hard to do, and I was able to return Montana Plata to the wild (literally), 18.2 miles from where I left it in 2010.

Now hopefully the karma will return my way, and some of my coins will go un-missing. Free State Mover #3 is in a cache off the Sligo Creek Trail -- I need to find some time to grab it -- but the rest of them are MIA.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (52) DuClaw Brewing Company

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

DuClaw Brewing Co., 4000 Town Center Blvd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 06/01/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

DuClaw is a Maryland chain of three brewpubs (plus a BWI location). Before the kids arrived, we used to eat at the Arundel Mills location from time to time.

Our first visit to the Bowie location occurred on the last night of my parents' recent visit. While taking kids to a brewpub might seem a little bit odd, DuClaw actually has a fairly extensive kids menu. According to a press release I grabbed off the Internet, "Craft beer is most popular with the 25-34-year-old crowd," and I figure that's the age at which a lot of people start to have kids. Being kid-friendly is a good way of appealing to that crowd.

The kid-friendliness wasn't perfect, however. I called ahead to let them know we were coming, but they didn't have the high chairs ready. That's annoying when you have to convince two squirmy almost-two-year-olds to stay in place while their seats are fetched. Worse, they led us to a booth -- logistically, there's no way to put two high chairs on the end of a booth.

Honestly, though, this reception -- along with the placing of dangerous items too close to the kids' grasp -- is something I've grown to accept as par for the course. These deficiencies were compensated by the "smiley fries" they served, which were the cutest food I've seen in some time.

Enough about the kids, though -- how was the experience for adults? Everybody was satisfied with their food. I got the Spicy Jambalaya, which was good, and I had a bite of Christina's Pork Pastry Puff, which I enjoyed. In the past, I've had the Pepperjack Penne Pasta at the Arundel Mills location, which was also good.

I had a glass of their Misfit Red (pictured to the right). It was nice, but I'd probably try something else next time.

The service was solid, but not exceptional. The food is good, but not great. I was initially hesitant to award four stars, not out of any particular deficiency, but out of a lack of specialness. Then I realized -- hey, it's a brewpub. Bowie has a brewpub. That's exactly the type of interesting place to eat we could use more of. Four stars.

Bowie Restaurant News

Bowie Living reported that construction has begun on the new Dunkin' Donuts in Bowie Plaza. Finally, a place to get bad bagels 5 minutes closer than the other Dunkin' Donuts. Oddly enough, Christina recently picked up a bagel from a Dunkin' Donuts in Annapolis, and it was much better.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Nebula Update: Among Others

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Among Others is the fourth of the 2011 Nebula nominees that I've read. Unfortunately, it falls into the category into which I placed "The City & The City" a couple of years ago -- while it's really well written, it's not clear it's fantasy or science fiction.

With the tragic confrontation involving the narrator (Mori), her mother and her identical twin sister taking place near the start of the narrative (but not re-told directly on the page), I expected to see some sort of Harry Potter-like book. In other words, something magical happened that set the stage for a book full of magic. But that's not what happened.

Instead, you get a coming-of-age tale that's more about science fiction than it is science fiction. In particular, a lot is said about the Mori's opinions of various sf from the 1970s and earlier, but for much of the book there's a nagging feeling that the Mori is imagining the fantasy elements.

This may be a weird comparison, but I kept thinking of a book I read when I was around Mori's age -- Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but as I recall, Alan seems in the first part of the book like this weird new kid in town who tells everybody he's from Mars. For all you know, you're reading something with as much sf/fantasy content as a Judy Blume novel (not that there's anything wrong with that).

But then Daniel Pinkwater commits to the weirdness. Of course, Alan Mendelsohn is really from Mars, and you have the mind control and planar travel and aliens and whatnot. It may not be a great book, but it's definitely sf.

Among Others by contrast is really well done, but I'm afraid if it wins the Nebula or the Hugo it will only be because the tale of a geeky kid who loves reading science fiction will really speak to the voters. It's a very enjoyable book, but voting it the best sf/fantasy novel of the year would be like voting a restaurant the best Japanese restaurant just because they serve miso soup on Mondays.

On the twin front (spoilers ahead), Walton gets credit for handling the death of a twin much better than, say, Avatar.  It's a sensitive portrayal of the emotional swings Mori goes through in coming to accept her sister's death. At one point Mori signs something using her sister's name. I couldn't tell whether that was a subtle emotional tell, or a mistake by the author. I should probably assume the former.

I was hoping to complete the fifth Nebula nominee, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti before the awards were announced. I just looked, however, and the awards were announced last weekend. Oh, look, Among Others won. Boo. I could have accepted more easily if Mechanique had won. So far it's not really to my tastes, but it's an interesting and inventive approach to sf/fantasy. Among Others, on the other hand, is a well-written book that doesn't really have a clear place in the genre.

That's no criticism of Ms. Walton -- I think it's great that people write books that don't fit squarely in one genre or another. But it wouldn't have been on my ballot. (You know, if I were eligible to vote.) I'll still finish Mechanique -- it's enjoyable, and it's paid for, and then I'll probably go back to The Healer's War, the 1988 winner, which I've already started. Not much time for reading these days, though.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (BB3) KBQ Real Barbecue

KBQ is moving to DC Woodmore Towne Centre, which puts them even further beyond Bowie than I like to see for this subseries of reviews.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

KBQ Real Barbecue, 12500 Fairwood Pkwy B1, Fairwood
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 5/16/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars 

Head about a mile west of Bowie city limits on Rte. 450, and you'll come to the Fairwood shopping center, a fairly generic retail facility that mostly provides the answer to the question: "Where near Bowie is there a Safeway with a gas station where I can use my gas points?"

What's not generic about the shopping center is KBQ, a well-reviewed barbecue restaurant that's tucked anonymously into the shopping center. Bowie has Smokey Bones, a chain establishment that I will get around to reviewing. (I've held off because I want to give it one more chance -- not generally a good sign.) But the closest thing to the BBQ shacks that dot the South (and portions of the Midwest) is located in Fairwood at KBQ.

My verdict? Pretty good -- for Maryland. I lived four years in Georgia, and this place wouldn't raise an eyebrow down there. Whenever I'm in the South, I try to get BBQ, and KBQ won't stop those cravings. What it will, however, do, is give you some tasty, filling BBQ without leaving the state.

KBQ earns an entry in my "Beyond Bowie" series for being the place I'd send people to who asked about local BBQ. I'm going to have to check out Dickey's in Crofton/Gambrills, though. It's a chain, but it gets high marks from people at work.

If you want non-chain BBQ without leaving Bowie city limits, you do have an option. Sunday mornings at the Bowie Farmer's Market, you can get BBQ and other foods from "C&JD's Stand", a food truck. It's not pilgrimage-worthy, but it's a fine way to kick off your Sunday if you're at the market.

Bowie Restaurant News

The Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe now has a sign up! I was despairing of this place ever opening, but if somebody's putting money into a sign, that's a good indication that the restaurant isn't dead yet. Looking at their menu, it seems they'll have some unique-to-Bowie offerings (goat!), but everything seems a bit pricey. (Jersey Mike's also has a sign up, but I was not doubting its existence.)

I went to Cetrone's to pick up some pizza this week and was momentarily disoriented that it seemed to have shrunk when I got inside. Sure enough, they've closed their dining room. There are still a few tables if you feel like sitting and eating, but it's another sad chapter in Bowie's pizza history. I'd knock it down to 3 or 3.5 stars without the dining room.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Geocoin Update: Further Adventures of Free State Mover #3

A couple of months ago, I updated the saga of the "Free State Mover #3" geocoin, which I released in Banff in May 2008 with the goal of returning to Maryland (inside the Beltway). After excursions to Sweden and Germany, a return to Canada, and visits to Washington state, Oregon, Utah and Virginia, it went missing in September 2009.

Free State Mover #3's worldwide journey
After resurfacing in Virginia this March, I am pleased to report that on Saturday, geocacher "magtfplanner" picked it up with the note: "Picked up on a road trip up the I-95 from Florida all the way to Canada. I'll be in Maryland's beltway in a few hours. Ill drop it off there ."

A hopeful sign! I may have to organize an excursion to retrieve it. On the other hand, it's been more than a few hours, and still no word...

Bowie Restaurant Project: (BB2) Boston Market

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

Boston Market, 1070 Maryland Route 3 North, Gambrills
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 5/5/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 5
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Yes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

As a reminder, as a supplement to my project of reviewing every restaurant in Bowie, I have a "Beyond Bowie" series capturing the types of restaurants that Bowie should have, but doesn't. The first entry was inadvertently, retroactively, Rip's, after I learned it was just outside of city limits. The second entry is Boston Market.

I hear you saying, "Really, Jon? Is that what Bowie desperately needs, a Boston Market?" No. Bowie needs a Peruvian chicken restaurant. But I'll settle for a Boston Market.

The ability to get healthier-than-normal food is a definite plus with Boston Market, which is a cut above Wendy's. What really sells Boston Market, though, is that you can go there and get a family-style meal. For around $20, you can bring home a whole roasted chicken and sides for your family (or for your smaller grouping to have with leftovers). Sure, you can cook it yourself cheaper, but if you had time to do that, you wouldn't be at Boston Market, would you?

The "Gambrills" location (just north of Crofton on Rte. 3) has the added bonus of having a drive-thru, so you don't even have to drag the kids out of the car to get your chicken fix.

If you are in Bowie, aside from the obvious option of heading north for 10 minutes to Crofton/Gambrills, you're reduced to heading to grocery store to pick up a roasted chicken. And if you're going to do that, you might as well actually get ingredients and cook some food. Nobody really wants that, do they?

So here's something that Bowie really needs -- a good chicken place. I'd prefer a new Sardi's franchise, or similar Peruvian goodness, but I'd settle for a Boston Market.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bowie Restaurant Project: (51) On the Border

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a list of all the Bowie Restaurant Project reviews, look here.

On the Border, 16403 Heritage Blvd.
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 04/25/2012
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I'm running out of non-sit-down restaurants to review, and with twin toddlers in tow, it's hard to get to the sit-down places (where I feel I have to eat in at least once to get a full measure of the place). Last Sunday, the desire to get the boys out of the house on a rainy day, along with a coupon, led us to On the Border.

As Christina said after the meal, "At least they have food." It's not exactly high praise. Her chicken tortilla soup was incredibly salty, and the rest of the food was mediocre. The boys, as usual, loved anything involving beans, rice and tortillas.

The best thing I can say about our trip was that the service was excellent. Our waitress was very attentive. But I can't imagine why we'd want to go back here rather than to Monterey (half a mile away) or Mi Hacienda.

My follow-up visit on Wednesday was via the take-out process. Since they have dedicated take-out parking, I hoped this would go well, and it started out in a promising vein. After being put on hold as a Yaz song played, my order was taken my someone with a distinct Latin accent.

Christina suggested I ask what they recommended, but I decided I had better had something in mind in case they weren't forthcoming with a recommendation. I settled on the chicken fajitas. (Particularly since fajitas aren't something you can order when you have kids who want to grab everything placed on the table.) So they recommended, of course, the chicken fajitas.

I picked up my meal at the bar, and it was served with an extremely generous portion of chips and salsa. I thought that was a nice touch to include the complimentary chips that you would have gotten as a dine-in customer.

When I got back to my office, after wolfing down the chips and salsa, I opened the takeout container to find...a grilled chicken breast, vegetables and tortillas. I know fajitas are assemble-your-own, but you're generally not supposed to have to cut the meat into strips yourself. (Particularly since it should be cooked that way.) The food was once again mediocre. It was edible, but I wasn't eager to finish every last bite.

So once again, great service, but it's another one of Bowie's unnecessary restaurants. It's rare to find a chain restaurant that can out-do a good, independent ethnic eatery, and Bowie has two fine Mexican places where you'd be better off spending your money.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: God's War

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #1)God's War by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

God's War is the debut novel by Kameron Hurley. It's the story of Nyx, who is a bel dame in a far-future, Islam-dominated planet called Umaya. The two major nations of Umaya have been at war for thousands of years. The bel dames, among other responsibilities, catch and behead deserters. Things get more complicated early on for Nyx, which is good, because there's only so much deserter-beheading you can put into a book.

Continuing the trend of twins and higher-order multiples in this year's Nebula nominees, Nyx is a quintuplet. That detail is almost a throwaway in the novel, but it represents one of Hurley's strengths -- interesting world-building in a way that challenges assumptions. In a world with advanced biotechnology, with a different set of societal structures for child-rearing, why wouldn't it make sense for most births to be multiple ones? It depends on the nature of the world, but it shows that Umaya isn't a space version of 21st century America, but rather a thought-out world.

I was initially somewhat put off by the harsh nature of the story. For example, here's a scene in an office where bounty hunters are collecting their bounties:

Shajin, unimpressed, replied in her booming monotone, “Read the fine print. Says here you only get sixty if this particular catch is live. They preferred him dead and would have paid you a hundred for it. I’m not killing him for you, so you take him out back and shoot him or take your sixty. If there’s something you don’t understand about that, you need to go back to state school. Get your skinny ass away from my desk. Move.”

Actually, that's a little bit funny, but there's only so many beheadings and mutilations and whatnot that I really need to read about. Fortunately, the book focuses less on the brutality and more on the plot as it goes along. I was never entirely comfortable with the level of gore, but I found it more engaging.

One problem that I had with God's War is that the copyediting is fairly uneven. The formatting is off on a lot of the paragraphs. I initially assumed it was because it was from a small publisher unused to converting to e-book format, but when I found a "you're" that was supposed to be a "your", I really got thrown out of the reading.

I think the problems extended to the editing in general. The author likes to mention details of the world without explanation. On the one hand, I can respect the desire not to have two pages explaining how cars work on this world. On the other hand, if you want to convince me that everything runs on insects, I need a little more than a brief comment, or I'm going to be skeptical that any of this makes sense.

In summary, this is a novel with flashes of brilliance, particularly in the world-building. It is harsher than my tastes would prefer, and I don't feel like the read from front to back was as smooth as it should have been. I'm not rooting for it to win the Nebula, but if it does, I won't be upset at the award going to one of the more promising writers I've read in a while.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Embassytown

It's Nebula awards season, i.e. the time period between the nominations and the awards, where I try to read the nominees and decide on which book I would choose. I've never gotten through all of the nominees, and this year will be no different, but I hope to read four or five of the six. Firebird, which I have previously reviewed, is on the list. Of the other five, The Kingdom of Gods is by far the longest, and it's the third book in a trilogy. So I won't be reading that unless it wins, at which point I'll feel obligated to go back and read the previous two book. That may keep me busy until next year's awards. Embassytown, by China Miéville, was available as a library e-book, so it seemed a good place to start.

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Miéville's The City & the City, a Nebula nominee from two years ago, but I didn't feel like it was "science-fictiony" enough to win the award. Embassytown is definitely sf -- it takes place in a far-future setting on a planet where the humans have established communication with the very alien creatures known as "the Hosts" or "the Arieke".

Communication was not easy to establish, since the Hosts have two different types of "mouths" and only recognize speech performed by pairs of mouths. They don't recognize electronic speech, so the only solution is to use pairs of humans -- the trick is that the humans need to be synched up better than most two humans are.

The humans' first idea is to use identical twins (at least three of this year's nominees mention twins or higher-order multiples). As a writer for, I was glad to see that the author realized that identical twins are not usually alike enough for this to work -- the early experiments were mostly a failure. On the other hand, after that they turned to clones. Clones are actually less alike than identical twins, so I'm not sure why the idea would work any better. There were some references to techniques to sync up the clones, but those techniques should work even better on identical twins.

Anyway, the book starts as an interesting investigation of the weird social and linguistic structure of the Hosts. I began to wonder if Embassytown was going to be one of the rare works of science fiction without a lot of high drama -- mostly an exploration of an alien society. High drama, however, appears in quantity in the final two-thirds of the book. Without too many spoilers, I'll say that everything about the setting gets upended. I actually found it a bit much and perhaps would have preferred the type of novel I thought at first I was getting.

The characters weren't entirely compelling, and the resolution of conflict towards the end of the novel was fairly implausible. (Again, I'll stay spoiler-lite, but my reaction was, "Really? This changes everything?!") Miéville is a good writer, but this effort fell short of the mark in several ways. I am not rooting for this book to win the Nebula.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade (Temeraire, #2)Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throne of Jade is the second novel in the Temeraire series. I really liked His Majesty's Dragon, the first book in the series, which is often described as "Napoleonic Wars with dragons." The second book might be described as "events with dragons at the same time as the Napoleonic Wars." The action shifts to China and a diplomatic mission from England to there. This being the 19th century, it takes a long time to get there, and a substantial part of the book describes the journey.

I like the "world tour" approach to telling us how dragons fit into this alternate history, but negotiations are not as exciting as a war (though this book does feature dragon fights). All in all, I enjoyed the book, but it was just enough off the heights of the first book to drop to 4 stars.