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Randall Reads: Empire State by Adam Christopher

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I fully wanted and expected to really enjoy this novel.

When I decided to read “Empire State,” all I knew about it was that there was a science-fiction angle as well as superheroes in a noir-ish story.

I also knew it came from Angry Robot Books, an imprint with which I’ve had mostly positive experiences, and that the sample I read of author Adam Christopher’s upcoming book, “Seven Wonders,” had me hooked nearly instantly.

Further, two of my favorite reads of the last few years have been very successful in layering detective/mystery/noir story elements into genre-type novels.

China Mieville’s “The City & The City” remains among my all-time favorite novels, having very successfully set a murder mystery in a world with a very interesting sci-fi (is ‘speculative’ a better word?) angle.

Low Town” by Daniel Polansky features more of a fantasy world (you know, medieval England with magic and dragons and all that?) in which the protagonist moves while trying to figure out who’s doing some murders.

“Empire State” actually has some interesting parallels with the Mieville work, particularly in that there are parallel worlds at the center of each novel’s setting.

It would be unfair to wish that Adam Christopher were as tight a story teller as Mieville, primarily because I feel very few writers I’ve read even come close to that level. However, I do feel like Christopher would have benefited from more-stringent editing or plot outlining. The fact of the matter is, there’s so much going on in this novel, that it’s hard to find the focus.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things floating around a little too freely in “Empire State”:

  • Prohibition-era gangsters
  • superheroes
  • steampunk-like technology
  • prototypical noir detective
  • alternate/parallel worlds
  • religious cult activity
  • robots
  • war
  • male bonding/friendship
  • political power manipulation of information to citizenry
  • gay rights
  • split-personality disorder/duality of a personality

There’s likely some things I’m forgetting, but you get the point. That’s a lot of stuff to juggle. Ultimately, it leads to a lack of clarity as to what the story is about.

I would promise to not ruin it for you, but I am still fairly unsure myself. Even after three consecutive climactic scenes at the end of the book, you’re still unclear as to what the motivations behind the book’s initial conflict were in the first place. It’s not giving much away to say the two superheroes of the story have a big fight, which is crucial to the creation of the world in “Empire State.” The Space Pirate and the Skyguard were once a cohesive unit in fighting crime, but split. Why? Several people in the novel wonder this as well, which would lead a reader to think you’ll learn why.

Along similar lines is the issue of the extreme thinness of the characters in this story. Even Rex, the story’s protagonist, is little more than an archetype with a few personal issues thrown in to flesh him out a little, but it’s so very little that you don’t get a real sense of who he is.

I should admit here that there is a convention in the story that somewhat explains why the characters might seem half-formed, at best, but I think that would be a little cheap an answer as to why you don’t get a good sense of anyone in this book. Several characters have fairly large roles in the important events in the story, but their motivations are a complete mystery because they’ve not been developed much, if at all. All of which leads to a general lack of interest in how the dramatic conflicts ultimately resolve.

There is certainly enough action in “Empire State” that it is bound to have a more-receptive audience available out there somewhere than the one it found when I cracked it open (or whatever the ebook equivalent to ‘cracking a book open’ is).

I’ve had many a discussion with other readers who, like me, enjoy genre fiction but are frustrated that the level of writing falls often far behind the level of great ideas and stories. This is only a real problem when the result is a story that goes in too many directions with characters not well-enough developed to see it though.

It pains me to say that this is the case with “Empire State.” I will hope for better luck with “Seven Wonders” when it’s released next week (because it really does sound good!)

West Seattle Living: Crossing the Bridge for Bar del Corso

August 21, 2012 1 comment

I desperately need for the first thing you read here to be: Just GO try the Polpettine. For $7 you get a little bowl of house-made meatballs in tomato sauce. I think there were five meatballs, all-told. I’m a little hazy on the entire thing because they were mind-numbingly good. You can go in there, sit at the bar, and just have the meatballs. If that doesn’t convince you you’re in the hands of people who know what they are doing…I’ve concerns about your soul.

Okay, moving on.

If I’m honest, we didn’t leave the peninsula specifically to finally try Beacon Hill’s shining light of a restaurant atop the promontory visible to the east every time any of us leave our neighborhood via the high bridge. We were actually returning from a big loop of a day which took the entire family to the Sounders game Saturday afternoon before heading north to Lynnwood so Owen could have a sleepover at Grammy and Pops’ house (which also means adult time for the Missus and I).

Full disclosure: A former coworker is now a co-owner of the restaurant. Read into that what you will.

Bar del Corso has been open for over a year. At least, I’m pretty sure it has. I know it seems like it’s been at least a year that many of my coworkers with great palates have been asking me regularly whether I’d yet had food there and then looking astonished that I’ve continued to neglect trying it.

Did I mention the Polpettine? Good gravy…

We had heard enough about Bar del Corso to know it was bound to be busy on a Saturday night, even a little before dinnertime (it was near 6, but not quite there). Even so, I didn’t expect to see a good-size huddle outside the front door of the restaurant awaiting their turn to pick at the menu.

I’m admittedly bad at waiting in line for anything, much less food. However, the Missus had her heart and mind set on finally dining here.

Plus, even when not in a third trimester of pregnancy, she has a well-established reputation for an appreciation of pizza.

We were going in, line be damned.

Shockingly, when we told the greeter/hostess-type at the front door we’d need seating for two, we were immediately offered seats at the bar.

Now, I have always liked sitting at the bar for dinner. It may not be for everyone. Despite having the word “bar” in the name, the bar in Bar del Corso, at least during dinner rush, was packed with diners rather than drinkers. You can just bar the concept of “bar” from your head when considering the bar in Bar del Corso.

That was annoying, no?

Let’s just get to the food.

First, the Polpettine are simply marvelous (not entirely) little spheres of…

What? I already mentioned the meatballs? You sure?

Okay.

We decided to go with a few small plates and a pizza. We asked the bartender (server working the bar?) whether that would be enough food for two. She seemed to be leaning toward “maybe, but probably not.”

I assure you, it’s enough.

Not that I would have been unable to wolf down an entire pizza on my own. I’d gladly do that. In fact, I may just do that some night I’m on my own for dinner.

But, in general, one pizza supplemented with a few appetizers should suffice for two people.

There was/is a seasonal menu on the wall. I love seasonal cooking. Apparently, so too does Jerry Corso (owner and executive chef?).

Among the “little plates” available seasonally was three wedges of cantaloupe draped with thin-sliced prosciutto with a few fresh figs on the side. Some of you have likely already tried some version of this dish in the past and know how good

I’d eat this every day for lunch for a week, easily.

it is. I wouldn’t sell this as hard as I would the meatballs (Have I said to try the meatballs, yet?), but it is a worthy order, especially if sitting at the bar where you get to see the big hunk of prosciutto shaved a few feet and mere moments from where you’re dining.

The dish brings out the best overall praise I have to offer from my dining experience: simple, seasonal, fresh, and delicious.

Of course, it’s only fair to note that the third appetizer we ordered was a bit of a let-down.

I grew up watching my grandfather eating canned sardines and wondering just how he was managing the trick. All these years later, my wife wonders the same when I bust out a can of sardines and crackers as a snack.

Hence, there was no chance I was going to pass on the zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovies (and maybe other things my age-addled memory has omitted). Each order is only one of the stuffed blossoms, but they’re only $2.50 each. Unfortunately, for me, they just tasted like batter-dipped-and-fried just about anything else in the world. I didn’t get much out of it otherwise. It may be my palate, of course, but I was hoping for a lot more flavor, while all I got from this in particular was texture. On that angle, they were executed beautifully. Flavor-wise? Not much to offer, I’m afraid.

If you want something fried, steer to the Suppli al Telefono. Described as “Roman street food,” these are fried balls of risotto packed around mozzarella cheese.

“Croquettes by Phone?”

They’re even better than they sound.

They’re even better than they look.

Luckily, there are just three to an order. I could easily eat a dozen without blinking. I can see why they’d be street food in Rome. After a night out imbibing in the appreciation of the oenological arts, you’d be only too happy to stumble over cobbblestone streets dodging mopeds while munching on them.

Can you tell I’ve never been to Italy?

Finally, we went with the seasonal pizza on offer, which I know had zucchini and pesto on it.

Realistically, if I am going to bother to post about these things, it might make sense to write stuff down and all that, but I was too busy stuffing my face. Besides, you have enough information to figure it out if you’re going to go, yeah?

Who would NOT want a pizza baked in such a gorgeous oven?

 

The wood-fired oven and the pizzas prepared in it are the stars of the show here.  While there is plenty to enjoy all over the menu, it is a small menu with pizzas featuring exclusively in that whole main dish area.

Unless you’re one of those people who just want a salad on your night out. You’re not one of those, are you?

It is Seattle. I try to not judge, but…don’t be that person. Not tonight.

Here is where I preface commentary with the admission I am part of a mixed marriage. I prefer thin-crust pizza. The Missus prefers thicker crusts.

Somehow, we manage to make it work.

The pizzas here are, predictable, on the thinner side, so I was bound to be happy with it.

And, I was.

The Missus, however, took the opportunity to clarify that, while she does not generally prefer thin-crust pizza, she is always happy with this particular style of thin crust. After which she took a full, two-handed whack at the pizza restaurant I grew up enjoying in my small-town Michigan childhood.

Fair enough.

What was put in front of us was a beautiful disc of dough dotted along the edges with the brown spots familiar to those who’ve enjoyed pizzas prepared in a wood-fired oven and topped with plenty of color surrounding the numerous melty pools of cheese.

Or, simply, a damned good pizza.

DAMNED good, I tell you.

I mean, good enough to leave the peninsula on the weekend. THAT good!

And that really is all I meant to say here. I am particularly fond of getting back to West Seattle from work Friday night and doing whatever I can to not leave the ‘hood until Monday morning, so I would understand those hesitant to venture away from our part of the city.  But going over to Beacon Hill is about as painless as it gets in this regard as you just cross the high bridge there and back. Consider it an adventure, if you must.

Besides, you have to try the meatballs.