Appetizers from “The Best Cook in the World”

The following are quotations from The Best Cook in the World, which drew me in immediately with its humor and evocations of family dinners year past.  The book is a tribute to the author’s  mother,  consisting of some of her most memorable recipes, and the stories attached to them.    “Good stuff always has a story”, she said.

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She never cooked from a written recipe of any kind, and never wrote down one of her own. She cooked with ghosts at her sure right hand, and you can believe that or not. The people who taught her the secrets of Southern, blue-collar cooking are all gone now, and they did not cook from a book, either; most of them did not even know how to read and write.

“Gettin’ old ain’t easy,” she told me, as she passed seventy-nine, “but it’s best not to try and fight it too much. You know how I live with bein’ old? I just don’t look in the mirror, ’cept when I part my hair.”

The past is where we go when we are helpless; the past, no matter what the psychiatrists say, can’t really hurt you much more than it already has, not like the future, which comes at you like a train around a blind curve.

You learn, if you live long enough down here, not to push too much against what these old, hardheaded people believe. If an old woman tells you there is magic in an iron pot, you ought not smile at that.

In a South that no longer seems to remember its heart, our food may be the best part left.

She knows her food is not the healthiest, yet her people live long, long lives, those not killed by gunfire, moonshine, or machines.

She believes a person learns to cook by stinging her hands red with okra, singeing her knuckles on a hot lid, and nicking her fingers on an ancient knife as she cuts up a chicken, because a whole chicken tastes better than one dissected in a plant and trucked in from Bogalusa. You learn by tasting and feeling and smelling and listening and remembering, and burning things now and then, and singing the right songs.

Electricity was, she concedes, also a fine idea. But she would like to meet the man who invented the telephone, she says, and smack him a good one.

She knew that affordable, simple Southern food had turned the corner to banality when she saw that a chain restaurant had introduced a barbecue sauce purportedly flavored with moonshine. Moonshine, as any Southerner not born at a cotillion knows, tastes like kerosene. Men did not drink moonshine for its bouquet, but because they wanted to dance in the dirt, howl at the moon, and marry their relations.

She does not cook chitlin’s, because she knows what God made them to do.

People like to talk about the emptiness of the great deserts or the endless plains or the frozen places, but a desolate dirt road in the mountain South, in a forest of black pines, can be one of the most lonesome places on earth. There is an almost unnerving dark in the tunnels of trees, where even people who have lived a lifetime here find themselves imagining the silliest things.

FIRST OFF, we might as well agree that three o’clock in the morning is a bad time to take a hog for a drive.

It was summer, and she had already snapped a mess of beans. (I will not live long enough to get into exactly what a mess is. When I asked my mother, first she said, a little irritated, “I don’t know, just enough.”)
THEY SAY a poor man makes the paper only twice in the Deep South, unless he breaks the law or plays football. The newspapers record the happenstance of his birth, and the inevitability of his death. If he was not an important man, or at least born to important people, it is unlikely that, either time, a great deal of ink was spilled. A lot of great men have lived and died down here inside a paragraph or two.
“Gravy,” Charlie Bundrum liked to say, “is a reason to live.”

I had not known, as I began this book, how often larceny would figure into the narrative of our recipes. It is a little sad, I suppose. I could wish that were not so, but I could also wish for a Duesenberg and would still be tooling around town in a Toyota.
Southerners love to put on airs as to their barbecue, and speak in utter disdain of anyone’s method that differs even slightly from their own. I have always found it amazing that such snobbery could exist inside a big ol’ boy in a Dale Earnhardt hat, a T-shirt from Panama City Beach, and an apron that trumpets NO ONE CAN BEAT OUR BUTTS. They will tell you that beef is not real barbecue, and will threaten to beat you like you stole somethin’ if you even mention a chicken.

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The Best Cook in the World

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from my Momma’s Table
© 2018 Rick Bragg
512 pages

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“Good stuff always has a story,” she said.

 One of my New Years resolutions is to cook more, and that has unexpectedly introduced me to Rick Bragg,  a storyteller much favored by the reading public down here.   Bragg hails from Calhoun County, an area of the state rather different from my own – marked by the Appalachian foothills instead of wide-open cotton fields and belts of pine forest.  The Best Cook in the World is his attempt to capture some of his mother’s culinary magic into book form, if nothing else so that her recipes won’t be lost with time. But, he ruminates at the beginning, there’s a story in every recipe,  and so here he shares a few dozen recipes and prefaces each with a story that brings the dish to mind – whether it was the first recipe his grandmother ever learned (butter rolls),   pie recipes from a neighborly feud,  or turtle soup made most memorable when an old monster of the Coosa river was finally taken down.    The recipes include southern staples that are still around – ham,  black-eyed gravy – as well as more obscure ones, like a use for possum.   Despite the amount of recipes here, though, it’s more a work of folklore and family stories than a pure cookbook, one as rich in humor as it is in taste.   I’ll definitely be reading more of Bragg!  

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A Warning

A Warning
© 2019 A Senior Trump Administration Official
272 pages

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In 2018, a disturbing op-ed ran in The New York Times declaring the existence of a secret band of White House staffers who were ‘working diligently’ to frustrate part of President Trump’s agenda and what they called his “worst inclinations”.   As relieving as it sounded that there were adults in the White House…they weren’t elected, and the idea of some convert cabal undermining Trump’s agenda played right into the president’s narrative about being at war with the DC establishment .    Now, a year later, the author of that same op-ed writes again to declare that the ‘resistance’ is crumbling inside, as the participant staffers have either left or lost the will.   Now, it’s up to Americans to evaluate the character and actions of the chief executive, and —  in November of this year — to render judgment.   A Warning presents the case against Donald Trump  to the American people.

What can the author say about Trump that hasn’t been said, and what behavior can they reveal that we haven’t born witness to already?   A Warning examines different aspects of Trump — his character, his  strengths and weaknesses in various roles as president, his personal and professional relationships — but in truth,  given that Trump makes no effort to hide his inner self, and the fact that we’ve had several books of this kind already (Fire and Fury and Fear) , we know what we’re going to find here.  An intellectually vacant lecher with the attention span and the temperament of a toddler,  who cannot be bothered to take any bit of his job seriously except exulting in the acclaim it gives him; a vulgar and reckless man who bullies staffers and world leaders alike,  whose only thought in any crisis is tending to his own vanity.   He is, in summation, the opposite of a leader, and a constitutional nightmare waiting to happen.

If the reader was not convinced by the review of Trump’s character — the author uses Cicero’s On Duties to evaluate the president by, so it’s particularly damning   —  there are also the practical considerations, like Trump’s economic ignorance (tariffs are taxes on Americans, not outside sellers), his willful destruction of relationships with the United States’ longstanding partners in Europe, and his bizarre courting of third-world thugs, among others.   Curiously, the rupture of the Iran deal, which destroyed American diplomatic credit, is not mentioned.   In the end, the two arguments come together: in a crisis, do we really want someone this distracted and petty, who has a record of bad policy decision, holding the reins?    While there are some decisions a critic could still cheer him for – – I wanted us out of the middle east in 2006 —   that can’t mean excusing him for willful ignorance and gross incompetence.

In the end….well, I don’t know how effective A Warning will be,  at a time when  the worse impulses of the human animal are so easily engorged and marshaled by social media.  It’s worth reading, though, just for a full  and focused appraisal of the strangest administration in US history.

 

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Forward to 2020

Although I’ve never been much for New Year’s, save for enjoying a day off, I do appreciate the occasion it offers to look back on progress,  and to plan for the future.  As I’ve done the latter, already,  time for future planning!

Last year was overwhelmed by the Classics Club, as my quest to finish ahead of time meant putting aside most other themes and projects. This year, I’m keeping things mixed,  and unusually I’ve already got all my science  reading planned! I’m  toying with the idea of doing a “big read” in which I take on a larger work and share periodic updates from it – something like The Shahnameh or The Jewish Annotated New Testament, but we will see. That would definitely wait until I finish Brothers Karamazov! I’d also considered making 2020 the “Year of Beauty”, incorporating books on music,   architecture, dance, novels with moral themes, etc — as a counterbalance to the political ugliness we’ll all be saturated in as November creeps our way — but it feels a little too ambitious. I want to take a break from huge themes and just have a little fun.

My two IRL resolutions for 2020 are to cook more and to make further progress towards minimalism.   I donated 25 boxes of books to Goodwill over the course of 2019 (with another being filled presently!),  and during the  Christmas Day Massacre one of those boxes included numerous works by Isaac Asimov.  That’s a huge step for me, having previously been a deliberate Asimov collector, but I see no point in keeping so many of his science essay collections which I know I’ll never revisit.   The Robots-Empire-Foundation books and his mysteries are safe, of course.  I will continue to ‘shave close’, to quote Thoreau, until my collection brings me peace  and joy, rather than anxiety.    The big challenge in 2020 will be media, however, that oppressive pile of DVD and game discs  filling two bookcase shelves and spilling out onto the floor.  But I’m emboldened by Thoreau and feel prepared to truly put to rout all that is not life.  I have moral support coming up the pike, with The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning  on hold and soon to be in my possession.

 

So that’s me in 2020. Hope to see you all there!

 

 

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2019 Year in Review

Well,  dear readers,  it’s that time of year again — for appraising one year’s progress and getting ready for another year’s goals.  I’ve had a fantastic year in my personal life  — paying off my student loans,  making huge strides in moving towards minimalism, growing in responsibilities at work, learning to repair and upgrade my PC, trying horseback riding,  meeting a man I’ve admired for decades, and developing new friendships.   But what about the books?

I mentioned yesterday my neglect of the List O’ Books, so the stats below are based only on those books I reported on goodreads.

2020

Mmm, pie!     You can see the categorical breakdown there, but here are more statistics:

Nonfiction dominated fiction, with a 68% to  32% split. And what’s scary is that fiction was heavily augmented by the classics, almost all of which were novels!

Medium Breakdown
48% of my reading came from ebooks
41% came from physical (“real”) books. (Considering the classics were almost all ‘real books’, things do not bode well for the physical category in 2020.)
and 11% came from audiobooks.

And now….The Annual Wall of Text!

The classics marked 2019 like no other year before or since, as I made it my goal to read 20, in large part to finish my Classics Club Challenge a little early. I’m happy to say that I technically made that goal (19 scheduled, 1 early), and anticipate finishing Brothers Karamazov before the winter is out. I’m especially proud to have finished War and Peace , but two other classics of note were The Jungle (which I enjoyed, unexpectedly), and my re-read of The Grapes of Wrath, which was just as brilliant as I remembered from high school.

The downside of the Classics push was that it made it difficult to work on other hoped-for themes, like a celebration of Alabama history and culture that I’d planed to do in conjunction with the State’s bicentennial, celebrated in December 2019. Aside from local history, the only Alabama-focused book I managed was Steve Flowers’ Goats and Governors, which introduced me to some of Alabama’s more colorful public figures.

History in general is the bedrock of my reading any year, and often underpins other categories as well: my science and technology books often have a historical focus, like How the Internet Happened , one of my very favorites for the year. The Only Plane in the Sky follows closely on its heels, being an oral history of 9/11 — the best book on the day, bar none — and Code Girls , earlier in the year, was an eye-opening history of the growth of cryptography in WW2. American Gun was also fun.

Religion and philosophy was anemic for the second year running, with the only notable being Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men – a book I still haven’t reviewed, aside from a comment: “Imagine if Tyler Durden wrote a book….”

Science had a strong year, with fourteen books, although I didn’t quite finish my ‘science survey’ in which I read twelve books from twelve different areas of science: anthropology, usually a shoe-in, got left behind. The strongest contenders were She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, on the complexities of heredity; The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe , the best volume on critical thinking I’ve yet encountered; The Hidden Life of Trees , an awe-inspiring volume; and The Ice at the End of the World, an interesting mix of adventure and science writing focused on Greenland’s ice sheets.

Technology and Society is a growing category for me as I continue to explore the ramifications of the digital world which we can now never escape This included both works of history, like a chronicle of Google’s rise to power, as well as titles exploring the consequences of digital addiction on society and our minds. Turkle’s Alone Together and Catherine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone were both noteworthy, and the latter has induced a few changes in my own phone habits.

Politics and Civic Interest had a strong year all around, with practically no weak entries. The most insightful, for me, was Romance of the Rails, a critical history of the past and future of rail transport in the US, but I also enjoyed Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps To Making Better Places. Foreign-policy wise, I especially enjoyed The Limits of Partnership, on the Russo-American relationship, as well as Our Time Has Come, on India’s growing role in global politics. Closer to history was The Gatekeepers, an appraisal of the importance of the White House Chief of Staff from Eisenhower on. My favorite, though, would be Carl Watner’s I Must Speak Out , a collection of voluntaryist writings covering both theory and practice. (A voluntaryist is a libertarian who’s been nursing both whiskey and an especially bitter grudge against the state.)

Society and Culture’s had a couple of highlights: Anthony Esolen’s In Defense of Boyhood, and Ben Sasse’s Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal .

Science fiction was strong in quality if not in number this year, as I explored more of Daniel Suarez and John Scalzi’s works. Suarez was impressive all around ( Freedom being the first) though the only new Scalzi work I really liked was Lock In and its sequel. I read some in Star Trek and Star Wars, but there were no standouts.

In historical fiction, which has lagged this year and last, I enjoyed the first few titles in Paul Fraser Collard’s Jack Lark series, about an infantryman-turned-office’ service in the Crimean and later wars.

I also read quite a bit in miscellaneous topics, from health to prepping; my last favorite was The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley, on the psychology of disasters and survival.

All told, it was a good year — and I anticipate more and more varied reading in 2020 now that I’m largely free from the Classics challenge!

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Top Ten Favorite Books, 2019

  1.  Code Girls: The American Codebreakers who Helped Win WW2, Liza Mundy. Fun and informative, Code Girls follows the rapid growth of intelligence and crytography during WW2.   Absolutely fascinating!
  2. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella et. al. The best one-volume handbook  on critical thinking, the successor of Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World.
  3. How the Internet Happened, from Netscape to the iPhone, Brian McCullough.   An incredibly fun nostalgic romp through the digital world as it developed.   I especially enjoyed the chapter on the rise of AOL,  being as attached to my AIM program as modern teens are to their social media apps.
  4. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.  I’m not just sticking it here to brag about reading it (okay, I am a little). I was honestly captivated by Andrei and Pierre’s separate but related growth as men, and of Tolstoy’s view of the war.
  5. I Must Speak Out: The Best of the Voluntaryist, Carl Watner.  Hard to describe this one without sounding crazy, but let’s just say it’s a collection of political essays..
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  6. Them: Why We Hate Each Other (and How to Heal), Ben Sasse.    Politics has for years angered or depressed me ,  because so much is wrong and nothing seems liable to change in  good ways,    and Sasse’s book was a heartening reminder that there are people out there  who feel the same sense of alienation and are looking for a light out of the darkness.
  7. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.    Ordinarily I resist putting December books on my best-of list, because they have an advantage in being recent. But Only Plane in my Sky made this list halfway through, displacing Dan Baum’s Gun Guys.     It’s an incomparable reliving of 9/11 through the eyes of a staggering variety of individuals   who experienced it —  as office workers,  taxi drivers, government employees,  firefighters,   astronauts, etc.  If you only ever read one book on 9/11, make it this one.  (If you read two, make the other The Looming Tower.)
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  8. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, Amanda Ripley.   Easily one of the most interesting books I’ve read all year, examining human behavior during crises like ship sinkings, terrorist attacks, etc.
  9. The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben. An eye-opening walk through the rich life of forests and their leafy members.
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  10. Freedom, Daniel Suarez. (Kill Decision and Change Agent by the same author were also really good!)
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(Most Of) What I Read in 2019

(“Most” because I forgot to keep track, so this just has the stuff I remembered to put on Goodreads. )

Politics and Civic Interest
The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Place in the World, Derek Chollet
The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the 21st Century, Angela Stent
Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, Alyssa Ayres
The Conservative Heart, Arthur C. Brooks
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff have Defined Every Presidency, Chris Whipple
Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, Jeff Speck
Romance of the Rails,  Randall O’Toole
I Must Speak Out: The Best of The Voluntaryist, 1982-1999, ed. Carl Watner
Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter
Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje

Science
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Power, Perversions, and  Potential of Heredity, Carl Zimmer
Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and  Utopia, Michael Shermer
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe,  Steven Novella et al
The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us, Lucy Jones
A Forest in the Clouds, John Fowler
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Stephen Brusatte
What Einstein Told His Cook, Robert Wolke
The Cancer Chronicles, George Johnson
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Revelli
The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
The Ice at the End of the World, John Gertner
Wonders of the Solar System, Brian Cox

History
The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers,. ed. Aaron Sheehan-Dean
America’s Forgotten Architecture, the National Trust
Yesterday: Memories of Selma and her People, C.C. Grayson
The Other Side of Selma, R.B. “Dickie” Williams (Re-read — see also 2010 review)
Johnny Reb’s War: Battlefield and Home Front, David Williams
Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Alaska, Mark Adams
Images of America: The USS Alabama,  Kent Whitaker
Of Goats and Governors: Alabama Politics , Steve Flowers
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain, Ian Mortimer
American Gun: A History of the US In Ten Firearms, Chris Kyle
To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, Arthur Herman
An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, Nick Lane
Dealers of Lightning: XEROX, PARC, and the Dawn of the Computer Age,  Mark Hiltzik
American Detective: Behind the Scenes of Famous Criminal Investigations, Thomas Reppetto
The First Family, Mike Dash
The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling
Code Girls: The American Codebreakers Who Helped Win WW2, Liza Mundy
Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, Lars Brownworth
American Rifle, Alexander Rose
Hamburg: A Place Remembered
The Heritage of Perry County, Alabama
My Disillusionment in Russia, Emma Goldman
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11,Garrett Graff

Technology and Society
 In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, Steven Levy
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us, Seth Stephens-Davodwitz
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
How the Internet Happened, from Netscape to the iPhone, Brian McCullough
Alone Together ,Sherry Turkle
India Connected, Rav Agrawal
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,  Jaron Lanier
More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, Ramez Naam

Religion and Philosophy
Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton
Open Life: The Philosophy of Open Source, Hendrik Ingo
The Way of Men, Jack Donovan
The Catholic Gentleman: Living Authentic Manhood Today, Sam Guzman
My Plain Life: Walking my Belief, Scott Savage
The Lost Gospel of Mary,   Frederica Mathews-Greene

Classics and Literary
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
The Whale, or, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
The Conquest of Gaul,  Julius Caesar
Love Among the Ruins,  Walker Percy
The Moviegoer,  Walker Percy
The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann Wyss
Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The Grapes of Wrath,  John Steinbeck
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Vicar of Wakefield,  Oliver Goldsmith
The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Book One, Edward Gibbon
The Histories, Herodotus
The Education of Henry Adams, Adams
The Federalist Papers,  various
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  Victor Hugo
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

 

Societyand Culture
Them: Why We Hate Each Other (and How to Heal),  Ben Sasse
Defending Boyhood, Anthony Esolen
From Here to Eternity: In Search of the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty
Gun Guys: A Road Trip, Dan Baum
Shutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger

Arts and Entertainment
Prepare to Meet Thy Doom: And Other Gaming Stories, David Kushner
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, Brett Martin

Health and Wellness
The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes
How to Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price
Faith Healers, James Randi
Drop Dead Healthy, A J Jacobs
The Courage to Start, John Bingham
Year of No Sugar, Eve Schaub

Sports and Outdoors
Giant Whitetails: A Lifetime of Lessons, Mark Drury
Whitetail Savvy: New Research and Observations about America’s Biggest Game Animal,  Leonard Lee Rue III

Skills and Readiness
How to Be Your own Bodyguard, Nick Hughes
Surviving Aggressive People, Shawn T Smith
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why,  Amanda Ripley

Biography
Odd-Egg Editor, Kathryn Tucker Windham
Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,  Kevin Mitnick
Americanized:  Rebel without a Green Card, Sara Saedi
Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis, Doug Gresham
Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee, Wayne Flynt
Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life,   Robert Lacey

Mysteries and Thrillers
The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall, Chris Hall
The Great Bicycle Race Mystery, Gertrude Chandler Warner
Bicycle Mystery, GCW
Metropolis,  Phillip Karr
Needful Things, Stephen King
Hallowe’en Party, Agatha Christie

General Fiction
Becoming Mrs Lewis, Patti Callahan
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
IRL, Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow
Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, George O’Connor
It’s Christmas!, Kathryn Windham Tucker

Science Fiction
Lock In,  John Scalzi
Head On, John Scalzi
Firefly: The Magnificent Nine, James Lovegrove
One Word Kill, Mark Lawrence
Limited Wish, Mark Lawrence
Change Agent, Daniel Suarez
Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan
Kill Decision, Daniel Suarez
Freedom, Daniel Suarez
The Android’s  Dream, John Scalzi

Star Trek and Star Wars
ST: Elusive Salvation, Dayton Ward
ST Enterprise: Tower of Babel, Christopher L Bennett
SW: Queen’s Shadow, E.K. Johnston
ST: Constellations, Marco Palmieri
ST: The Sky’s the Limit, ed. Marco Palmieri
ST: Spock vs Q, Cecelia Fannon
ST:  Live by the Code, Christopher L Bennett

Historical Fiction
Alice and the Assassin, R.J. Koreto
The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Collard
War of the Wolf, Bernard Cornwell
Scarlet, Stephen Lawhead
The Maharajah’s General, Paul Fraser Collard
The Devil’s Assassin,  Paul Fraser Collard
The Lone Warrior, Paul Frasier Collard

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