Beer Review: Another Three Alcohol Free Beers

A Time for Compromise

I know, I know, I’d sort of promised myself I’d give up on alcohol free beers, but the recent appearance of a vast beer belly has made me reconsider… Plus a bunch of new ones turned up in the supermarkets. Before proceeding with this trial we should briefly reacquaint ourselves with the top and bottom of the 0.0% scale. The best I’ve found, the 10+ is unquestionably Erdinger Weissbrau Alcohol Free, which actually tastes like a drink and is delicious. The other end, somewhere around -10 is the baffling, hangover-inducing filth that is Beck’s Blue, more horrible than accidentally licking your cat’s arse.

Innis & None Pale Ale

I love Innis & Gunn’s more recent ‘seasonal’  brews, like Toasted Oak IPA and Irish Whiskey Finish, so I was keen to try this out.
Innis & None is odd. It looks like a proper beer, I’ll give it that, but a taste quickly disabuses that notion. To me it seems like there’s an extra flavour floating on top, which might be the trace of actual beer. It certainly lingers in the roof of your mouth and distracts me from the highly metallic tang it drifts in on. I’ve made an effort, and have tried this several times, pouring it out into glasses and leaving it for a while, but it still tastes like chewing cutlery. I’m not sure if it’s the result of their curious mixes, producing a combination in which neither source is discernible or if it just isn’t that good. Maybe it’s the ginseng, guarana and vitamin C they’ve added, in silly pretence of it being a health drink.
£1.30 per 330ml can.
Verdict: Coypu. Not as interesting as you expect.

Heineken 0.0

Ah, Heineken. Absurdly possessed of confidence in the ‘premium quality’ of their lagers, despite all the evidence pointing to a tasteless, but hopefully cold drink. And in exactly the same way that ‘real’ Heineken both fails and succeeds, Heineken 0.0 smells (like its alcoholic cousin) like a rinsed out beer bottle, and tastes of absolutely nothing – there’s a bit of a fizz, but otherwise it’s like drinking oddly coloured air.

That said, get it good and cold and it’s very refreshing, despite having even less impact than cold water. I’m torn in how to recommend it… if you don’t really want a drink, dislike flavour, but feel you ought to hold something, then this is not a bad choice.
£4 for 6 330ml cans / £3 for 4 330ml bottles
Verdict: Hamster. The least interesting of pets, offering neither comfort or interest.

Franziskaner Alkoholfrei

Maybe it’s only the Germans who understand that a drink can be worth drinking and alcohol-free. While everyone else is cashing in on the minuscule alcohol-free market with the laziest possible piss-soft drinks, the Germans have taken it seriously and are making drinks for people who aren’t bald, check-shirt-wearing thugs pretending they haven’t been drinking all Sunday.
And they’ve done it again: Franziskaner Alkoholfrei is a rich, wheaty beer with a thick creamy taste which is genuinely present in your mouth and is pleasant afterwards. It’s in stark contrast to the crappy end of the scale, so this one’s right up there with the Erdinger. Highly recommended. It also comes in a 500ml bottle which turns it into a proper drink.
£1.30 per 500ml bottle.
Verdict: Manta Ray. It glides down your throat with the greatest of ease.
More alcohol free beer:

Managing My Digital Library

Two Libraries, No System

While we’ve got thousands of paper books which are beautiful and brilliant, but cause us endless space problems, I’ve also got quite a lot of digital books. Kindle is spectacularly crap at managing them. The manual creation of collections and adding books is tedious beyond all 21st Century technology except perhaps the Amazon Prime app on our TV. I buy a lot of books through StoryBundle and Humble Bundle, Tor give away lots of free books, and anywhere else I see them. I send web pages and articles straight to Kindle, and add my own files and stuff (stories and poetry for events) to a place I can access them easily. They’re just on a computer so they don’t really exist – it’s not like they’re in giant stacks in the spare room or anything. I have been in dire need of organisation, and I love organising books.
Calibre became my saviour last year. It’s a combination of eBook creator / formatter and library app. You can add Virtual Libraries, manage multiple devices, add and delete book. It’s everything I was looking for. I used it to create an eBook version of Watchers just for fun. Simply having a programme to store and browse books by title and author is a pretty good start. Removing and Adding books from my library to Kindle is brilliant too – it’s better than endlessly paging through book lists on the Amazon website. It gets a lot better than that really fast though – there are many amazing plugins that people have built to make life better. I quite like the Goodreads Sync which helps me remember which books I’ve read, and whether I liked them. Calibre can pull alternative covers and metadata from dozens of web sources so that browsing my Calibre library becomes like reading the back covers of paper books.
Calibre Main View
Calibre Edit Metadata

DeDRM

The thing that impressed me first off was the DRM-stripper plugin you can add. That means I can buy books for Nook, Play Books or in any other format and convert them to Kindle. Handy. When I buy a book in real paper I can just read it and stack it in whatever book shelf I want. I want to be able to do the same thing with eBooks. The second brilliant feature was being able to group series of books together. So I can find all of my Dresden Files books and see what order they’re in. Of course that doesn’t necessarily translate to the Kindle itself, so I’ve taken advantage of the DRM stripping to rename the books, e.g. ‘Dresden Files 01 – Storm Front’. Now I can see we exactly which book is next.

EpubMerge

Along the way I’ve picked up lots of stand alone short stories, like the ones Adrian Tchaikovsky has published on his blog over the years, plus a tonne of stories scanned in from ancient copies of ‘Asimov’s Science Fiction’ and ‘Fantastic Universe’. Those were all floating around as separate books. EpubMerge has let me concatenate them into single volumes. It tidies up an awful lot and now I have a lovely ‘Sci Fi Anthology’ Tag, so I can find them when I want to read ’em. This has been very useful for combining all 50-odd of my pirate stories into a single volume, which will make poetry evenings a lot easier to handle.

Kindle Collections

That was all quite helpful, but the plugin that has just bowled me over and made this into a vital bit of kit is ‘Kindle Collections’. You can impose collections based on how you set up the plugin onto the Kindle directly. Apparently it’s having trouble with Kindles more advanced than Kindle 4 which may require some additional Kindle hacking, but I’m alright for now. You can generate collections based on almost anything – Author, Series, Tags or interesting custom combinations of your own. I’ve gone with ‘Series’ and ‘Tag’. eBooks have a billion tags and floating bits of meta-data, to make them useful I’ve begun the seemingly endless task of re-tagging books into groups that suit me. There were about thirty variations on ‘SF’ alone. Calibre let me rename all the similar ones and delete the duplicates – it was just a start.
The trick to tagging books along genre lines is to use as few Tags as possible, otherwise when I create Collections based on Tags I’ll end up with a million Collections and I may as well not bother at all. All I really do That creates and populates Collections on my Kindle of (for example) ‘Dresden Files’, all the books are in the right order because I’ve renamed them. I also get a nice Collection called ‘Paranormal Fantasy’ and ‘Detective’.

Genre Musings

A lot of my books are science fiction and fantasy. I’ve made a slight distinction between ‘Science Fiction’ and ‘Science Fiction Adventure’. It’s not a hard and fast distinction and I’m using it mainly for authors like E.E. Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs – stuff where it’s the adventure that is the main context for the story, not the science. I’m instantly getting into genre hell – everything overlaps but I reckon I’ve hit on a fantasy/science fiction distinction that holds, at least for today, until I find another book that trashes it. Science Fiction books have a setting that is explainable, frequently the result of scientific advances: Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth books have a universe that has been made possible by science and sciencey stuff is frequently part of what drives the story on. Fantasy books have a setting and context that is not explained – it just is. I’m thinking of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ‘Shadows of the Apt’ series – much of the plot is the result of technological development in that world, but it is fundamentally a fantastical realm where the links between man and insect is never fully explained. Like I said, it works for some of my books…

High Calibre

My aim is to be able to find the kind of book I want to read, when I want it and avoid the current problem I have with our paper books. Calibre is the best thing I’ve seen for handling eBooks so far. The guy who has developed it, Kavid Goyal is a modern day hero. It’s free – you pay if you want to help support the development; you can develop your own plugins. The UI is pretty self-explanatory and the help guides are great. Thank you Calibre!

Book Review: Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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I found Ammonite astonishing throughout. It hooked me from page one, which is always a delightful sensation. It reminded me of Jean M. Auel‘s The Plains of Passage and Ursula Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed while being something completely different all of itself.

I’m not going to do justice to the story in my synopsis, but here goes… the planet Jeep, colonised centuries ago has been rediscovered by the Company. The entire population is female, and when the ‘Mirrors’ (soldiers) arrive they quickly contract a virus that kills all men, about 30% of women and leaves the world in quarantine. Enter Marghe Taishan, employee of the Company, anthropologist visits the planet while testing an experimental vaccine which might be the only hope of leaving Jeep for the Company employees quarantined there. It’s clear that Marghe can’t learn anything about the people if she stays in the Mirrors’ isolated base so she sets off into the wild.

From there it would be incredibly simplistic to say that she ‘goes native’ given the depth and complexity of the world she adopts and is adopted by. The women of Jeep live in tribes connected by an intricate system of trade, obligation and duty – ‘trata’. It’s into this web that Marghe is soon bound, bringing the women of the Company into trata too. And that’s just the start – explaining much more is a frightful spoiler show.

What we get is rich, interesting and intensely human characters presented in a familiar yet wholly new and refreshing social context. Marghe goes through a hell of a journey to understand Jeep, the women who live, have babies, farm, go to war and fall in love, and most of all to understand herself. At times the book veers between fantasy, science fiction and cultural exploration. It’s a synthesis I found very satisfying and intriguing. Once she finally settles and begins to learn how reproduction and cultural heritage work the whole story unfolds in another dimension entirely.

Apparently this was Nicola Griffith’s first novel – it’s superb. I found it by spotting the SF Masterworks livery. Sometimes that collection feels like it’s just every sci-fi book ever written, but this is definitely a gem that deserves to be in print constantly.

I’ve no doubt that there’s a host of essays covering the gender and sexuality themes running through Ammonite – they’re interesting and well explored and ever so interesting. That and the story and the characters that kept me reading. It’s one of very few books that went straight onto my ‘re-read soon’ stack.

Go and buy and read it now.

Book Review: The Magicians’ Guild by Trudi Canavan

I liked it, but didn’t love it.
Trudi Canavan‘s first novel is the standard ‘kid in poverty discovers they have a talent (magic) and ends up in a new world being trained to master that skill’. That has to be a genre in its own right by now. It’s a perfectly reasonable storyline but I may have read too many books lately that begin this way. The Magicians GuildThe main character is a young lady born in poverty (one of the ‘dwells’ – someone living outside the walled city proper in the slums. Her family have clawed their way out of utter poverty into the outer ring of the city, but a regular purge of the poor sees them kicked out again. When confronted by a wall of magicians enforcing the king’s law, Sonea discovers her magical potential and lobs a rock into one of their heads.
So begins a chase around the city, hiding out with the Thieves, being given up by thieves, being captured by magicians, some magic training, a bit of light kidnapping, some lying and finally full Stockholm’s kicks in.
It’s an easy read, but the main character Sonea is bizarrely disempowered throughout. She’s a victim of society (poor) and a direct victim of a cruel system of purges (enforced by the magicians?!) which push her family back into the ghetto. Fleeing, she trades her future value as a possible magician to Faren, one of the Thieves and lives under his protection and that of her childhood friend. In fact she’s completely dependent on them as she becomes a danger to herself and has to be ferried around the city one step ahead of the magicians. She’s then sold out to the magicians. Again, she’s dependent on one of them for her present and future but is offered a somewhat ambiguous deal by A Bad Magician, which only makes sense once her childhood pal has been imprisoned in the incredibly well hidden place underneath the Magicians Guild that everyone knows is there.
In fairness to the magicians, they’re torn between needing to teach Sonea how to control her powers and the sheer awkwardness of them accidentally killing a kid who they thought tossed the rock at their mate. That explains some of their behaviour, but it doesn’t help to explain what the point of magic in this world is. We get brief demonstrations of magic radar, a bit of levitation and telepathy and their force field. There’s really nothing about how that fits into the larger political context, other than there is no war, because all the magicians are taught at the same school. Basically it’s a boarding school for future Tory backbenchers and rest of the one percenters.
I hope Sonea gets some power in the rest of the series, because right now I just feel bad for her. It may be that the scope of the story will expand along with her magical abilities – we’ve had the barest hints of Black Magician Badassery which presumably pushes the trilogy forwards, so I’ve got hope for the series.

Book Review: Transformers Volume 7 – Combiner Wars (First Strike) 2015

For my money the Transformers universe is kicking the teeth out of George RR Martin’s chilly little world. This fantastic Transformers comic series continues, with both Autobots and Decepticons back on Earth in search of revenge and the lost secret to Cybertronian gestalts.

By this point in the story it’s getting a little confusing. This is numbered the seventh collected volume of Robots in Disguise, but that follows at least a dozen others in the same continuity plus there are another six (eight now?) running in parallel to this storyline! In short – the Autobot/Decepticon war has ended, apparently decisively on Earth. Cybertron has been resettled (currently under Starscream’s worrying leadership), Metroplex has returned, as has Galvatron and several of the most ancient Transformers (from the Dark Universe no less), Bumblebee is dead, Shockwave has attempted to destroy the universe, Megatron is now an Autobot and Prowl is going insane as the new head of Devastator… and that really doesn’t even come close to catching up.

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This the first part of the Combiner Wars story –  the secret of combining Transformers into powerful gestalts. Thankfully we have Alpha Trion and Galvatron to fill in some of the background on Cybertron, way way back in the semi-feudal era of the Prime tribes. There’s an ingenious mention of Headmasters in that early history and a number of fan favourites such as Rhinox appear briefly, lending some context to the existence of the bestial Transformers. This series constantly delves into the myths and history of Cybertron and its biggest players, enriching what was once just a series of adverts for plastic toys. It’s fair to say that this series more than any other has wrenched Transformers out of adverts and into a rich fictional universe of its own.

It’s not all talk – far from it. With Prime distracted by the recovery and insights of Alpha Trion, he leaves the Autobots orbiting a very tooled up and hostile Earth. Unfortunately he leaves Prowl in charge – that’s the Prowl who until recently was being controlled by the Decepticons and indulging in horrifyingly utilitarian strategies, not that any of his colleagues thought he was any worse than usual. He’s also teamed up with the Constructicons (the only “successful” gestalt so far – Superion fared quite poorly but is being tended to by a recuperated Wheeljack, while Monstructor who is properly crazy hasn’t been seen for a while) which is bad news for Earth since their leader Scrapper was killed by humans during the same war that cost Prowl even more.

Thundercracker and Buster

Thundercracker and Buster

It gets worse, obviously. Galvatron is seeking out the Enigma of Combination which he thought he’d destroyed millions of years ago (guess what – it’s on Earth). Arcee is supposed to be keeping an eye on Prowl, but she’s half crazy anyway –  not to mention she was formerly Prowl’s prize assassin (and since when have the good guys needed assassins?). She’s a great character (with quite a history) who takes absolutely no crap from anyone, whether it’s her allies or enemies. My current favourite character Thundercracker (awful-screenplay-writing, dog owning ex-Decepticon hermit living on Earth) is immediately sucked back into the fray in attempting to stop another Earth-Transformer war. The last one took a billion human lives and no few Transformers – can they really afford another…?

So it’s carnage all the way. As ever, the story is nailed by the wonderful artwork. I was especially delighted by the first chapter, drawn by Sarah Stone. It’s a bit of a shame she doesn’t get to more of it. That’s not to say the rest of the volume isn’t also gorgeous. It is, happily continuing the style that the best of the last few volumes have nailed for the Transformers. John Barber is happily expanding the Transformers universe and I’m certainly happy for him to continue.

I read the comic in TPB form on ComiXology, which I still find the best way to read comics.

Transformers (2011-) Vol. 7: http://www.comixology.com/Transformers-2011/digital-comic/217623

Paper: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Transformers-Volume-Combiner-Wars-First-Disguise/dp/1631402854

Thankfully I have the next chapter of the Combiner Wars to go straight into…

Mini Book Reviews: Chill by Elizabeth Bear & Mirrorscape by Mike Wilks

Chill by Elizabeth Bear (2010)

A funky mix of medieval knights questing through an incredible artificial space-faring habitat.

I had no idea what to expect – this is one of many ‘second book in the series’ that I’ve received as gifts. They normally sit on the shelf until I’ve found the first one. However, our book stacks are getting ridiculous and my current system is just reading the next book on the heap.

I didn’t feel I was missing much though, the characters are suffering from their extended histories and the disasters of the first book. This is fixing it afterwards and preventing further chaos.

It’s a beautiful world that Bear has created, full of nanotechnology and weird whimsy. It reminded me powerfully of Brian Aldiss‘ ‘Hothouse’, one of my favourite books about the far future and the bizarre fruits of evolution.

All the characters were fun, and I feel I’d like to know them better so I may still seek out the first volume ‘Dust’. Bear’s use of Angels as the AIs and the complex multitude of personalities and histories wrapped in all the characters made for great intrigue and depth. Basilisks – yes. Mammoths – yes. Intelligent carnivorous plants – yes.

Since it is primarily a quest tale there is a lot of waking and thinking with most of the real action right at the end. That gives it a slightly odd pace but it worked perfectly for me and I was delighted throughout.

Elizabeth Bear

Find your own copy at Amazon


 

Mirrorscape by Mike Wilks (2009)

I loved the premises in this book – first that ‘Pleasures’ (fine foods, music, colours etc. according to the five senses) are aggressively taxed, forcing the poor to live bleak monotone lives and naturally creating a disgustingly rich elite who hoard it all for their benefit. That’s not at all a familiar state, nuh uh. That’s a fun tyrannical bureaucracy to play with in a story. Add to that the kind of related idea that there’s a world created by the imagination of artists which can be entered and explored by those in the know (the Mirrorscape itself), and that’s a whole bunch of world building coolness.

With all that brilliant set up it’s a bit of a shame that the story is the very familiar poor kid in a poor family shows talent and gets taken up to be an apprentice in the big city, in this case as an artist. There are really good sections of this book, but everything gets resolved far too easily which takes away a lot of the wonder. I did like the characters, but there are a lot if stereotypes jammed in quickly and we don’t get to know the big movers and shakers of this world until they’re gone.

I’ll be seeking out the sequel Mirrorstorm, and hoping we’ll find out more about the magical world that I enjoyed. I also really wish this was the cover of the book that I got – I’d probably have read it sooner. There’s an illustrated version out there somewhere too, which looks awesome.

Mike Wilks

Find your own copy at Amazon


Both reviews previously posted on Goodreads. Wanna be a pal on Goodreads? Click here.