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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 27, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Giving Books as Gifts, Hot Chocolate

Hot chocolate is really hard to mess up. Practically any brand of hot chocolate powder will, if you follow the directions, give you a perfectly drinkable cup of hot chocolate.

If you want to make it better, heavy cream or coffee creamer can make a difference, especially if it's mixed in during the cooking. And if you really want to make hot chocolate a sensual experience, add a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, and then eat it with a spoon so each bite contains both ice cream and hot chocolate.

As for marshmallows, I find them disgusting in general and particularly revolting when used to pollute otherwise drinkable hot chocolate. You, of course, may have a different opinion.

Still, just because adequate hot chocolate is easy to achieve doesn't mean that quality makes no difference. My wife and I have tried many different hot chocolate mixes over the years, and we've enjoyed many of them.

But now we have found the best. And by "best" I mean far above the ordinary.

I speak of the chocolate shavings from Fannie May, one of America's finest candy makers. They offer several flavors, including caramel hot chocolate and mint meltaway, presumably based on their chocolate candy of that name. But we tried only the Classic Milk Hot Drinking Chocolate.

And that was enough. In mixing it up, my wife didn't notice that it called for heaping tablespoons of the chocolate shavings, so our mixture was a little less chocolaty than the recipe expected. But for me, that was fine -- I often order hot chocolate at Barnes & Noble with only half the normal amount of chocolate in it.

My wife, however, likes the full dose -- yet she thought the level-tablespoon hot chocolate was perfect.

So perfect that neither of us wanted to add ice cream to it -- or any kind of cream or sweetening.

It isn't cheap, especially by mail order -- even buying six or more packages at a time. Each package only has enough chocolate shavings for about three normal-sized cups of hot chocolate -- or a couple of big mugs. Do the multiplication to figure out what you'd need to make hot chocolate for a large group.

So maybe this is hot chocolate for special occasions and very small groups.

Here's the danger: If you open the foil package prematurely, you may find the milk chocolate shavings are delicious by themselves. Thus you face the same problem that comes from opening packages of chocolate chips. When it comes time to use them for the official purpose, the package may be empty.

Here's where you can order the Fannie May chocolate: http://sn.im/fanniemayhotchoc

*

I've written about Erik Johansson's brilliant photographic illusions before; visiting erikjohanssonphoto.com is always a delightful adventure, because he's constantly adding to his oeuvre.

Recently, though, I realized that he now offers videos showing his process -- how he plans and then creates his photographic illusions. For instance, his village-in-a-bottle photograph called "Drifting Away" can be seen in a wonderful video at http://erikjohanssonphoto.com/work/drifting-away/

When you go to this website, scroll down to the bottom. It sometimes takes a while for enough of the video to download for you to even see that it is a video. But once the start button displays in the middle of the screen, you can watch Johansson's creative process.

The video is less than three minutes long. It has a lovely musical score with it -- so if you have other music playing, you probably want to turn it off first.

And when you see Johansson standing in a lake to photograph the bottle, remember that he's doing this in Germany or Scandinavia, so the water is cold. Johansson was born in Sweden, but education took him to Germany, and he is now based in Berlin. But as he says in his online bio, "A lot of the environments in my photos are captured near places I know, around my parents' home with wide open landscapes and small red houses."

When the video is over, the video space fills with other possible videos of his creative process -- each one quite different from the others. I especially love the video of "Landfall" -- partly because it brings back memories of building landform layouts for my electric trains when I was a kid.

*

One thing about Christmas music -- you won't be going to a record store to buy any of it. Because record stores, like records, pretty nearly don't exist anymore.

But then, when I was a kid some of the best Christmas albums were offered as a premium by tire companies and other commercial enterprises. They'd take cuts from various artists' Christmas albums and offer them in a compilation to their customers. And then we'd listen to them over and over.

Nowadays such compilations are still made, but we can also get individual songs online and assemble our own compilations. I have a couple of recommendations that friends steered me to, and I bet you'll want them as part of your own customized holiday-music compilation. (Except you, Eli -- I understand you hate Christmas music. Bah humbug to you, too!)

My first recommendation is a version of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," which has been one of my favorite Christmas songs since I first heard it in kindergarten. I don't know why it isn't more commonly recorded and performed, but I'm now delighted that it has been given a contemporary treatment by a college a cappella group, BYU Vocal Point.

You can buy the song for 99 cents at Amazon or iTunes. The sample you hear at Amazon gives you only the solo-voice intro. As you move farther into the song, the whole group joins in with a rhythmic, forward-moving rendition that manages to feel both reverent and exhilarating. I only wish they had a whole album of Christmas songs.

Then there's the Pentatonix version of "Mary, Did You Know?" I don't love the Pentatonix' whole Christmas album, because they're a bit too pop for me -- though I certainly enjoyed many tracks. But "Mary, Did You Know?" is far more musical and melodic than the rest of the album. It brought fresh meaning to an already-tender ballad.

You can download the album or the single from Amazon, but I first heard it at http://faithtap.com/2089/pentatonix-mary-did-you-know/ .

*

The Washington Times recently achieved a milestone. After years of being the DC-area conservative newspaper -- the antidote for the fanatical left-wing bias of The Washington Post -- the paper finally turned a profit for the first time.

That's really something, when you consider that most newspapers that used to be profitable are having to cut way back on staff and pages, as revenues and readership collapse.

Perhaps The Washington Times is prospering for the same reason as Fox News Channel: More and more people are getting sick of the relentless left-wing bias of "mainstream" media, as stories that might reduce Democratic Party prestige (or votes) are ignored or suppressed in those papers and news stations.

The leftwing papers all pretend they're the real, unbiased news sources -- but the staffers know it's a lie, since they openly and actively discuss why they can't cover this or that story because it might damage Obama or the Democrats. They have become, by their own choice, propaganda instruments of one party -- while hypocritically pretending to be impartial news vendors.

I've enjoyed my subscription to the weekly national print edition of Washington Times. It arrives by mail, and while many of the op-ed columns are way more conservative than I am, it's nice to get that view as a balance to the relentless editorializing within the news stories from other sources.

However, I have to say that my online subscription was a waste of money. That's because even when the headlines are interesting and make me want to read a particular story, their web design is so stupid that I can never get to it.

You click on the story and sure enough, the headline pops up. But there's so much advertising and nonsense that you have to scroll down on your smartphone or tablet to get to the beginning of the actual words.

That would be fine, except that while you scroll, a huge ad pops up to cover the entire screen. When you click to get rid of it, you have to begin scrolling again. Then, as you're reading, more ads come up, constantly blocking the text -- so that I, at least, finally give up.

Yes, I know, they need to make money. But when I'm reading the print edition, I can actually finish whole sentences without an ad leaping out to cover the text.

And when I do give up -- which is every time, and sooner and sooner each time, so that now I almost never even bother to click on a story -- it isn't the advertiser that I'm mad at. It's The Washington Times's web designers and advertising policymakers.

So if you want a conservative antidote to biased news, you might want to spend twenty bucks on a three-month trial subscription to the weekly national print edition: http://www.washingtontimes.com/subscribe/national-weekly/

But when it comes to the online edition, don't bother -- not if you want to read it on a smartphone or tablet.

Or better yet, why not read The Weekly Standard or Commentary, which are, in my opinion, the two best news publications of any ideological slant that you can find.

Both of these publications do their fact-checking and present every side of each issue, so that when I read the Commentary or The Weekly Standard story on a particular topic, I have received a fair and reliable presentation of both the liberal and conservative view.

Here's how you can subscribe to The Weekly Standard: https://subscribe.weeklystandard.com/0412ab/landing.cfm

And here's how you can sample and then subscribe to Commentary:

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/

*

As we head into the Christmas season, many people are looking for good gifts to give children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

I suggest that books are a great gift. Oh, I know -- books are not the gifts that are unwrapped with ecstacy and immediately put to use (unless the child or teenager is an avid reader). Chances are that it won't be till days or weeks later that the book gets picked up.

I remember getting a book from my grandmother that I didn't read for three years. But then it became a favorite, and I felt honored that my grandmother had thought I was ready for such a mature book at the early age when I received it.

When the book gets read, though, you want to make sure that it's a terrific story. And if you're giving to a sci-fi or fantasy reader, you may not have any idea of what they'll enjoy.

But I'm an expert. That's right -- a certified, bona fide expert in fantasy and science fiction for middle school and high school readers.

Now, you do need to find out if they've already read the staples: In science fiction, that's The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, Ringworld by Larry Niven, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.

In fantasy, it's the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; and, for mature teenagers, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

After that, though, the selection is amazingly varied. Except for one little problem. When you go into the YA section of Barnes & Noble, you can easily get the impression that there are no books for teen readers that don't involve blood-sucking, shape-changing, or zombie-killing.

How can I put this kindly? This is like giving hungry children stale marshmallows to eat. This fad will end. Few of these books will linger as favorites.

I'm going to recommend some books (and authors) with staying power. If your gift recipients like the first book by that author, there's either a series to continue with, or more books by the same writer that will continue to delight them for years.

(The middle school list consists entirely of books that high schoolers will also enjoy -- not to mention adults. If you want to make sure you give gifts that contain no potentially offensive sexual material, choose from the middle school list. But in fact the high school list is also perfectly all right in that respect, except for the Martin series.)

So here is Uncle Orson's Gift Buying Guide for Teenagers and Precocious Children

For middle school and above:

Neal Shusterman, Everlost or Unwind. These are haunting, moving stories that will make them think seriously about their lives.

Brandon Mull, Fablehaven or Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms #1). These adventures are a wild romp, full of danger, excitement, and smart kids.

William Sleator, Singularity or Interstellar Pig. Sleator's books are a delightful mixture of humor and deep personal issues.

Brandon Sanderson, The Rithmatist or Steelheart (The Reckoners). One of the two or three best fantasy writers alive today, Sanderson offers these two books that are as exciting and thought-provoking as his adult fiction.

Tamora Pierce, Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness #1) or Wild Magic (The Immortals #1). Pierce's adventure stories have particular appeal for girl readers, but I'm a boy myself and I love them, too.

Margaret Peterson Haddix, Among the Hidden (Shadow Children #1) or Found (The Missing #1). Haddix's fiction is scary, not in a gory or eerie way, but because her young heroes face terrible dilemmas and must show extraordinary courage.

Peter Dickinson, Eva or The Ropemaker. One of the best mystery writers in England, Dickinson also offers extraordinarily intelligent science fiction.

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle or The Chrestomanci Quartet. You can't miss with a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy; nothing ever goes the way you expect.

Robin McKinley, Beauty or The Blue Sword. Her retelling of Beauty and the Beast is already a classic; The Blue Sword shows that she's just as strong with original stories.

If you're giving a gift to a middle school student who has easy access to a Kindle, you can't go wrong with the Andre Norton Megapack offered by Amazon for a mere 99 cents. It doesn't have all my favorites, but it has enough of them to show why Andre Norton was the gateway into sci-fi for generations of early teenage readers.

For high school and above:

In sci-fi and fantasy, there is no dividing line between teenage and adult reading material, not because all of it is juvenile, but because every survey shows that readers of sci-fi and fantasy are precocious and thoughtful readers who are ready for adult-level reading.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle #1). This story of the survival and education of a medieval street kid who finds his way into the dangerous world of magic will haunt readers of any age.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (Song of Ice & Fire #1). Unlike the semi-pornographic HBO series, this massive work of political and family intrigue with a seasoning of magic is one of the monumental works of literature of our time -- yet teenage readers become as enthralled as adults.

Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive). We follow the stories of two characters: a slave with a gift for survival and leadership, and a young woman trying to save her family by stealing a magical object from a dangerous mage. This series has the scope and weight of Game of Thrones ... but with a bit more optimism about human nature.

Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic (Liveship Traders). Hobb has several interlocking trilogies, but my favorites are these stories of seafarers whose ships are alive ... but at a cost that even their masters don't understand.

Sherwood Smith, Inda. In this fantasy world, the second son of a king is always trained to be the military champion who will defend his older brother's kingdom. But Inda has to face dangers he never expected in this unforgettable novel of adventure and intrigue.

Now that you have this list, you might want to get copies of one or two for yourself, if you haven't read them already. And keep in mind that I only included authors and titles that happened to come to mind while compiling the list -- there are many other good books that I left out.

*

When people are giving books as gifts, some like to give autographed books.

Now, my opinion is that a signature by the gift-giver is the most meaningful. My grandmother's signature on the copy of Lloyd Douglas's Forgive Us Our Trespasses means far more to me than Lloyd Douglas's signature would have meant.

But other people feel differently, and want to provide the recipient with a book autographed by the author. Even better, they want it to be personalized to the recipient -- as in, "To Bucky -- Keep on reading! -- [Author Signature]."

The trouble is that authors usually prefer to be home writing books -- or, in the holiday season, hanging out with their families -- rather than going around from city to city, signing books. I know this because that's my preference!

But in case people want signed, personalized copies of some of my books to give as gifts, I have arranged with the good folks (i.e., Becky Carignan) at the Barnes & Noble at Friendly Center here in Greensboro for them to take orders from local customers -- and customers far and wide.

All the orders they get by each Monday at noon, I stop in and personalize and sign. Then they either call the local customer to come pick up the signed copy, or they ship it out to the remote customer. Shipping costs a little, of course, but if you're picking up your own copy there's no extra charge.

We don't offer this with every title -- just a few that Barnes & Noble orders and keeps on hand. Generally these will be hardcovers and trade-size paperbacks, which make nicer gifts. But for those on a limited budget, we're including a couple of small-format paperbacks this year as well.

Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of any particular title:

Boxed sets of all three hardcovers of the now-complete YA trilogy of Pathfinder, Ruins, and Visitors. We will remove the shrink-wrap so I can sign all three volumes to the person you specify.

Hardcovers: Ender's Game, Earth Awakens (First Formic War #3), Visitors (Pathfinder #3), The Gate Thief (Mithermages #2)

Trade paperbacks: Pathfinder, Ruins (Pathfinder #2), Enchantment, Magic Street

Small format paperbacks: Ender's Shadow, Speaker for the Dead

If you're a local customer, just stop in at Barnes & Noble and ask for the book you want. They'll charge you for it, then hold it till Monday when I come in to sign it. Once it's signed, they'll phone or email you.

If you're ordering remotely, email the store at crm2795@bn.com and let them know the titles you want, the names you want them signed for, and the address to which the books should be shipped after signing. Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you to get credit card information (we don't want you including credit card info in emails!).

(This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.)

Local orders will be taken through Monday, 22 December. Remote orders will be accepted through Monday, 15 December.

In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com -- including my Christmas book Zanna's Gift: http://www.hatrack.com/store/store.cgi .

We also offer items with the Actual Ender's Game logo -- and baby tee shirts and onesies that say "Pre-accepted at Battle School."


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