Book Review: The Calculating Stars, A Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars

Science Fiction: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Shortly after reading this novel, I tweeted, “I am in love with the main character and the author. Luckily my wife is the understanding type.” The Calculating Stars is an achingly beautiful story, one that sometimes moved me to tears, sometimes made me laugh out loud, and one that constantly reminded me why I fell in love with science fiction so many years ago. Mary Robinette Kowal has created a character, Elma York, who is smart, courageous, human, flawed, noble, and relatable. The only reason I was willing to put The Calculating Stars down when it ended is that I already had the sequel in my hands.

 

Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a few days in the Poconos in 1952, enjoying the beauty of nature and the fresh air and…OK, let’s be grownups here. They are a young married couple, and they are having lots of sex. And that is more or less the tone that Kowal sets throughout the novel. It is told in the first person. This is Elma’s story. And she is as enjoyable a character as you will find in any novel. She is fresh, funny, sexy (but never crude or vulgar), sometimes foolish but never intentionally cruel, and brilliant. While they are there, the unthinkable happens. A meteorite hits, wiping out much of the US east coast–including their home in Washington, D.C. Elma’s parents also lived in Washington. They are forced to flee the effects of the meteorite in a frantic journey that sends them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, OH, where what is left of the US government and military tries to come back together.

 

Elma is a physics and math genius, but it is 1952 and she is also a woman. Nathaniel had worked for the nascent space program, but the men who led the government were not looking for advice from a female. Fortunately, Nathaniel had no such qualms. Giving Elma the raw data available from the meteor, she calculates the planetary effects of the strike. For a few years, the Earth would cool down. Ash and dust ejected into the atmosphere would block sunlight and lower global temperatures significantly.

 

That was the good news.

 

The bad news was that the meteorite landed in water. After the ash and dust settled, the water vapor would trap heat and raise the surface temperature of the planet. Catastrophically. After enduring less than a decade of frigid temperatures the planet would return to normal. Then it would keep heating up. Within a century it would become essentially uninhabitable.

 

Using Elma’s numbers, the decision is made to jumpstart the space program with a goal of colonizing the moon and Mars. Astronauts are selected, training begins, and the goal of colonizing the solar system moves forward. Except…none of the astronauts are women. Or people of color. Women are involved behind the scenes. “Computers,” in the sense of calculating machines that crunch numbers, guide ships, and perform all the duties we take for granted today, did not exist in the 1950s. However, mathematically gifted women did exist, and just as they played a role in the real space program that developed during the 1960s, Kowal has them acting as the “computers” for her fictionalized space program of the alternate history 1950s. Elma takes a job as a computer, and from there launches an ambitious program of her own: becoming a lady astronaut.

 

I simply cannot emphasize enough how good The Calculating Stars is. With a deft touch, Kowal lays bare the racism and sexism that was the norm for the era. Although Elma quite naturally reacts to her accomplishments and abilities being dismissed because she is a woman, she can sometimes be completely oblivious to those same biases affecting her African American friends. When she becomes aware of the racist barriers to them, she occasionally shifts into “white savior” mode, failing to appreciate that her own interventions can be almost as belittling in their own way. She always means well, and her motives do matter, but her actions sometimes undermine her own ideals.

 

Elma also struggles with anxiety and is prescribed medication for it. Even today, mental illness is stigmatized and dismissed. Having some experience myself with anxiety and the absolute terror I felt before being officially diagnosed and taking medicine for it, I read those passages with a powerful sense of identification. Having a protagonist who shares some of the challenges I have faced is an amazing feeling. Seeing her wrestle with it in the highly judgmental 1950s made me appreciate both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

 

The Jewishness of Elma York is also wonderfully handled. Some time after they arrive in Dayton, Elma recognizes her need to deal with the loss of her family. She visits a synagogue to speak with a rabbi. When Nathaniel comes home, she is sitting shiva. Elma has torn a ribbon and is wearing it as an outward sign of the broken heart within.

 

That was the first scene in The Calculating Stars where I cried. It was not the last.

 

The Calculating Stars is a triumphant book. It is moving and heartfelt and wonderful. I cannot recommend it enough. It is a terrific scifi/alternate history novel. More than that, Kowal gives us a powerful story of an extraordinary woman. Books just don’t get much better than this.

The Calculating Stars

Book Review: The Calculating StarsA Lady Astronaut Novel, Mary Robinette Kowal

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Sparrow Hill RoadBook 1 Ghost Roads Series, Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Fantasy Short Story Collection: Sparrow Hill RoadBook 1 Ghost Roads Series, Seanan McGuire

Rose Marshall wants to avoid being killed. Again. She was killed once already, in 1952, run off of Sparrow Hill Road in Michigan, and since has wandered the roads as a “hitcher,” a ghost who hitchhikes along the roads trying to save people. But the man who killed her, Bobby Cross, wants her soul, and he is still chasing her. Dying once stunk, but being killed again would really ruin her day.

 

Rose is known by many names. The “girl in the diner.” “The girl in the green dress.” “The phantom prom date.” And there are many legends surrounding her. It is said that she saves drivers by leading them to avoid accidents. It is said that she kills drivers by leading them to accidents. Rescuer? Harbinger of doom? Killer? Give a ghost a break!

 

The rules of the road for hitchers are important. If a hitcher is given a coat, jacket, or some other outerwear, she can regain corporeal form until midnight that day. If food or drink is given to the hitcher, she can enjoy it. Rose is particularly fond of cheeseburgers and malted milkshakes. However, if the road compels her to go somewhere to try to help someone, she must obey. Sometimes she is able to save them–help them avoid an accident, send them along a different route, distract them until the danger has passed. Sometimes she is able to save their spirits, guiding them to their final destination, helping them avoid Bobby Cross and other dangers in the spirit world. The rumors of her harming people are untrue, but she does have the habit of being there at the end for a lot of people. That’s one way rumors can start.

 

Seanan McGuire books are very personal to me. She, along with a few other authors, wrote some wonderful books that meant a lot to me in a very difficult time. Although Sparrow Hill Road is from 2014, it is new to me…and yet in many ways it is not new. It is vintage McGuire. Humor and horror mixed together. Wry, ironic, dry, yet with compassion and tenderness. McGuire loves her characters, even when she kills them. She even loves the dead ones. McGuire can make you laugh while you still have tears in your eyes from the previous paragraph. Her writing is fun and funny. And sometimes furious. And sometimes shocking. And always, always, delightful.

 

Sparrow Hill Road is more a series of connected short stories than a novel with a single overarching plot. It jumps back and forth in time, telling stories of Rose’s dealings with humans in the daylight and with spirits in the twilight. We read of Rose’s last days alive, how she meets friends Tommy and Emma, various battles with Bobby Cross, and the fates of her niece and her boyfriend (the boy who was supposed to take her to prom on the night she died). These stories are not in chronological order; ghosts don’t quite do linear time the way the living do.

 

Sparrow Hill Road is set along the American highway system, which may make it exotic to readers from other countries–and makes it a quintessentially American ghost story to those of us who grew up taking our family vacations and conducting business by way of these routes connecting the continent. Although we seldom see hitchhikers on those highways today, it is fun to think that some of them may be looking for a ride, a jacket, and a burger. That is NOT a recommendation to pick one up, though. Unless she is wearing a green prom dress from the 1950s, it is not worth taking that chance.

Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: Midnight Riot, Rivers of London Book 1, Ben Aaronovitch

Book Review: Midnight RiotRivers of London Book 1, Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitvh

Urban Fantasy: Midnight RiotRivers of London Book 1, Ben Aaronovitch

Sometimes we get asked, “How do you pick the books to read/review?” A lot of times it is from other readers and reviewers. Often it is books nominated for different awards. If we like one book by an author, we will seek out others by that same writer. A couple have been from requests by the author herself, or meeting the author at an event. We try to have a strong local angle: local authors and authors coming to local events deserve as much of our support as we can provide. Sometimes, though, it’s as simple as our son coming up to us, shoving a book into our hands, and saying, “You will like this. Read it!” This is how we encountered the gem Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch. If you like urban fantasy with a strong dose of humor and sarcasm, especially with a British touch, then I would love to do the same thing to you: take the book, shove it into your hands, and say, “read this!”

 

Midnight Riot has been described as Harry Potter grows up and joins the fuzz. Not quite sure that captures the book, but it’s not bad. Peter Grant is a beat cop ready to move forward with his career. His hopes for something exciting are dashed, though, when he is assigned to the most boring, dead end position available to cops. Basically, it’s where cops are put so they can’t mess things up for themselves or other cops. Before he starts this new beat, though, he interviews a witness to a strange murder.

 

The witness is a ghost.

 

Not many people can see ghosts, let alone interview them. Not many of those people are cops. This brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who is in charge of a very small unit within the Metropolitan Police Department (better known to Americans as “Scotland Yard”). Actually, the unit has only one human in it, until Nightingale reroutes Grant’s career and makes it a two human department. Nightingale’s department is charged with making sure the paranormal keep the queen’s peace. Sometimes that means brokering a peace deal between the king and queen of the Thames and their offspring. Sometimes that means taking violent action with permanent effect against a pair of vampires who have taken up residence in a house. And sometimes it means chasing down a revenant–a ghost–who has started a new afterlife career as a serial killer.

 

Peter Grant is a delightful protagonist. He is mixed race, with a scientific mind but easily distracted, eager to find the intersection between science and the supernatural. He is an eager apprentice to Nightingale, learning magic and the paranormal denizens of London as he works to solve the mystery behind the one-spirit crime wave haunting his city.

 

Aaronovitch shows us a gritty and dark London that lives parallel to the city experienced by most people. It is a London with vampires and water spirits, evil ghosts and a dedicated few humans who can see the larger world hidden behind the facade of normalcy. From Midnight Riot he has gone on to write several more (and continues to add to the adventures of Peter Grant). I am looking forward to reading those ongoing adventures–assuming my son allows me to borrow the books once he is done with them.

Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitvh

Book Review: Midnight RiotRivers of London Book 1, Ben Aaronovitch

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewWayfarers Book 3, Becky Chambers

When a fictional world is well crafted, returning to it becomes an absolute delight. Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few is her third foray into the world she created originally in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and revisited in A Closed and Common Orbit. Record is very different. It travels to a different part of a now familiar galaxy, and in typical Chambers’ style it is warm, caring, intimate, thoughtful, deep, and surprising. She is a terrific writer, creates amazing characters, and takes them on unexpected journeys. Each of the books stands alone, but the depth of her writing can best be appreciated by taking all three of them together (and any more she chooses to create in the future).

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few follows several characters living on one of the Exodan ships. These are massive ships that were built using the metal from cities on Earth, cities which were becoming depopulated as the Earth was destroyed by human environmental destruction. Survivors used the ships to flee the Earth, eventually being rescued by an alien race which introduced them to the rest of the galaxy. Those ships still held a large number of humans even after years with opportunities to settle on other planets.

 

Tessa is the sister of Ashby Santoso, captain of the Wayfarer, whom we met first in The Long Way. She lives with her two children and (when he is not working mining asteroids) her husband in the family home, along with her father. Kip is a teenager struggling to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Sawyer is a young man who grew up on a planet but wanted something else and decided to return to his ancestral home onboard ship. Isabel is an archivist, charged with keeping a record of everyone and everything that happens on board the ships. And Eyas is one charged with caring for the dead, recycling their bodies so that the ship can benefit from their component elements.

 

These characters lives intersect from time to time, but the book is really the story of each of them living (well, mostly) through the same time period and being affected by the same events. Chambers does several things so well in her writing. Each of the characters has a voice, unique interests and motivations, perspectives that in common show their common shipboard experience and in separate that show their unique perspectives. Tessa is a tired mother working a dead-end job which might end with technological advances. Kip is desperate to get off the ships, but struggles to figure out who he is and what he really wants. These differences and those of the other characters are made clear in the conversations they have with others and the choices they ultimately make.

 

There are so many threads to follow in Record of a Spaceborn Few! What would a society be like that has lived in space, off planet, for generations? Who would leave if they could? Who would stay regardless? How would someone fit in who did not grow up in that society? Chambers does not ignore the technological aspects involved in building her world, but the real effort is in showing the society. Can humans truly ever live in a perfectly equal and egalitarian society? Or will we always want something more: power, wealth, authority, status, control? And if that equal status is disrupted by, for example, alien technologies, can the balance ever be fully restored?

 

Record of a Spaceborn Few is fantastic! If you read Becky Chambers first two books you will like this one. If you haven’t met her works yet, now’s the time to get started.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

Book Review: Record of a Spaceborn FewBecky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Wayfarers Book 1, Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a fun but thoughtful journey with the crew of the Wayfarer, a ship that bores wormholes through space to allow ships rapid transport between inhabited stars. The crew is quite diverse. Captain Ashby Santoso, Kizzy Shao, Jenks, and newbie Rosemary Harper are humans. The pilot, Sissix, is an Aandrisk. Dr. Chef (medical officer and cook) is a Grum. Ohan are a Sianat pair, and they serve as navigator. And Lovey is a sentient AI. Balancing the needs, wants, feelings, and skills of these species and individuals is challenging enough during the regular jobs, but when they have the chance to take on a larger job which has them traveling together for almost a year, things get quite interesting.

 

Becky Chambers does an amazing job building a world (well, galaxy) filled with very different and sometimes barely compatible people. AI may be sentient, but they are not regarded as “people,” and it is illegal to download a sentient AI into a physical body (normally they serve as the computer assistants for ships, buildings, and other similarly large and complex structures). When Lovey and Jenks fall in love, though, they might be willing to break that law. Aandrisk have the appearance (to humans) of feathered reptiles. They are very affectionate with each other and with their friends. On their planet, sex is a normal part of interacting with others, which makes traveling with the (by comparison) much more prudish humans a real challenge sometimes. The Grum are going extinct as a species. Only a few are left after centuries of war and genocide, and they have decided themselves that their crimes as a species are too great to allow them to continue in the galaxy. The Sianat are always referred to in the plural: they are a hybrid of an individual and a virus which allows them to navigate between space, the area where wormholes travel, but also dramatically shortens their lives.

 

The humans themselves are almost equally diverse. Rosemary grew up in privilege on Mars, but fled to escape her family name after her father was arrested for arms trafficking. Ashby spent his entire life shipboard and is uncomfortable on planets. Kizzy is bubbly, excitable, and friends with almost everyone. Jenks is extremely short, rejected as a child by people who believed that genetic misfits should die. Corbin is an unpleasant recluse, much happier tending his algae than interacting with others.

 

During their journey they face a variety of challenges: their ship is attacked and many things are stolen. They are stopped by an alien government that arrests Corbin. Ohan become sick. Dealing with these problems brings the crew together in new ways, finding strength in themselves and in each other that they did not know was there, realizing that family is not just the group you are born into or the species you are born from, but it is the people who are there when you need them the most.

 

Although Chambers works hard to build a consistent scientific framework, this is not a book to read in hopes that faster than light travel has been secretly figured out by a lone author working in her study. The magic of Chambers book is in the relationships between the characters and the histories of the species. Earth has been largely destroyed by pollution and global warming, so it was abandoned in two stages. The first stage was mostly rich people relocating to Mars. The second was the “Exodan,” multiple ships carrying the remainder of Earth’s population out of the solar system in a desperate attempt to find a new home. This second wave of refugees was not welcomed on Mars, and only an alien ship stumbling on them saved the bulk of humanity. Although efforts have been made since, there is still a vast gulf dividing the Solans (people born and raised in Earth’s original solar system) from the Exodans. That kind of effort to create new cultures is brilliant and amazing, and Chambers excels at it.

 

Chambers has published two sequels, which I will soon review, but this first book (2015) is so good that you should read them in order. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a trip well worth taking.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common OrbitBecky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Science Fiction Series: A Closed and Common Orbit Wayfarers Book 2, Becky Chambers

 

Most people do not get to choose their own names. Gamers and artists and writers may opt for names of their own, but they are generally the exceptions. It’s fun to think, though, that a name might mean more if it reflects who we’ve become or who we want to be instead of a parent’s hopes or dreams or ambitions or tastes. “Sidra” means “of the stars” or “like the stars.” The chosen name of an AI illegally ported into a human-appearing body, she is one of the few people who chooses her own name. In Becky Chambers’ book A Closed and Common Orbit we get to share with her the joys and terrors of choosing and discovering who she actually is following this transition.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit is set in the same universe as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In that earlier book we first meet Pepper, a human tech genius who lives with her artist boyfriend, Blue. Pepper gets called to work on the Wayfarer after it is damaged at the end of the first book. The crew realizes that their sentient AI, Lovey, has been damaged beyond repair. The only hope of saving her is to do essentially a factory reset. If it succeeds, they will restore Lovey. If it fails, everything that defined Lovey as a uniquely sentient person will be gone, replaced by someone or something different.

 

It fails, and the sentience known from the factory settings as “Lovelace” inhabits the Wayfarer.

 

“Lovey” was an integral part of the crew. More than that, the human technician Jenks had fallen in love with her, and had purchased a human simalcrum for her to inhabit so they could be together. Learning Lovey is dead almost destroys Jenks, and dealing with “Lovelace” (who has Lovey’s voice) is almost more than he can bear. Rather than simply replace Lovelace with another AI, Pepper offers her the option to inhabit the body Jenks had purchased for Lovey and leave the ship to live on a planet. Lovelace, seeing the effect her presence has on Jenks and the rest of the Wayfarer’s crew, agrees.

 

Living in a body, though, is very different than living in a ship. Instead of cameras positioned in the corners of ceilings to see everything in a room, you have eyes. Only two of them. Positioned awkwardly in the front of the head, leaving unobserved space above and below and behind. The body does not need food or sleep or air and can withstand submersion and frigid temperatures, but since she needs to pass as human she has to behave as humans do.

 

More than that, her body is not her own. That is, she is an alien, and interloper, possessing a body she was not designed to wear, that was purchased for another, that is illegal to own on any planet. Sidra chose her own name, but discovering she has agency and can make her own choices is constantly challenging.

 

Orbit also gives us the backstory of Pepper. Pepper was originally named Jane 23. She was one of many Janes, just another manufactured girl designed to clean scrap for recycling or reselling. She is a genetweaked human, not a machine, but she grew up on a planet with multiple other Janes being raised and trained by non-sentient android “mothers” to do busy work until she died. Escaping her factory after an accident opens a space to the outside world, Jane stumbles into a scrapped shuttle with a sentient AI, “Owl,” who helps her survive and guides her through adolescence. She, too, struggled to learn how to be human, and she never forgot the love and kindness shown to her by the mind and conscience of the ship.

 

For both Sidra and Jane/Pepper, the process to discovering who and what she is takes many twists and turns. Learning limitations. Making friends. Making mistakes. Deciding. Discovering. Accepting herself. Accepting others. Being human is not easy for humans. When you are a genetically engineered slave or a factory made AI, the process is more complicated. What Becky Chambers shows us in this warm and beautifully written book, the process may be painful and messy but the results can be absolutely joyous. Being a person is a dangerous journey, one that is best taken with friends. I might argue that it should also be taken with delightful books like this one.

A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Book Review: A Closed and Common OrbitBecky Chambers

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Nonfiction:Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College, Roger L. Williams

 

Evan Pugh never went to college as an undergraduate, but earned a doctorate in chemistry. He never served in political office, but was a force behind the passing of the land-grant bill creating national public funding for universities across America. And although he died prematurely at the age of 36, he is remembered as one of the leading scientists of his generation. Roger L. Williams’s biography of him, Evan Pugh’s Penn State, tells the story of a remarkable life and his dedication to creating a remarkable university.

 

Pugh grew up in Pennsylvania and remained a loyal son of the state his entire life. As a young adult he founded a boys’ school in his home. Feeling the need to advance his own education, he went to Germany (although he did not know German when he left!) and studied at several institutions there, eventually earning his Ph.D. He continued on to France and then to England, where experiments he did resulted in a paper that largely created the chemical fertilizer industry and transformed agriculture worldwide.

 

While in Europe he was invited to become the first president of the Farmers’ High School in then rural Centre County, PA. He returned in 1859 to take up this post. He also taught several subjects (including chemistry) and even assisted in the construction of the main campus building and the president’s house. Along the way, he developed a plan for agriculturally focused universities that became the blueprint for land-grant institutions around the country. His scientific work was so well regarded that he was twice asked to take a position with the department of agriculture as their lead chemist. He rejected the offer to stay with Farmers’ High School–soon renamed Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, and later becoming Penn State University.

 

In 1863, Pugh was injured severely in a buggy accident. His fiancee was also injured. They recovered well enough to be married, but the effects of his injury never fully left. Weakened by his injury and stressed by fights over funding with the Pennsylvania legislature, Pugh died from typhoid in 1864. The college he led so boldly for its first years struggled in his absence until George Atherton became president 18 years later. Atherton is often called Penn State’s second founder.

 

Although I am not a Penn State graduate, I have lived in State College for 15 years. My wife and one of my sons both attended the university. It is a special place, and I have enjoyed living in the university’s neighborhood. Despite my long familiarity with the university, I never knew the story of her founder and first president.

 

Roger Williams has written an engaging and illuminating portrait of Evan Pugh. Special emphasis is given to his scientific work in Europe and to his visionary writings about the role of agricultural education in the United States. Williams is clearly a fan of his subject, and his affection shows through the book. Occasionally the professor slips through in the writing. I doubt I’ve ever seen the word “peregrination” used twice in a single book before this one! But overall the book is interesting, easy to read, and tells the story of a long-forgotten American scientific and educational leader.

 

It’s easy to play the “what if” game when someone dies at a young age. Evan Pugh was only 36 years old when he died. But imagining what he might have been can detract from what he actually did accomplish. In his brief life, Pugh transformed agriculture and founded a university that has become one of the top 100 universities in the world! I commend Roger Williams for writing a worthy book on such an interesting figure. Anyone interested in agriculture, higher education, science history or American history will appreciate adding this book to her collection.

 

Evan Pugh's Penn State

Book Review: Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural CollegeRoger L. Williams

Book Review: The Changeling, Victor LaValle

Book Review: The Changeling, Victor LaValle

The Changeling, Victor LaValle

Fantasy: The Changeling, Victor LaValle

Apollo West grew up in New York City wondering why his father had left him and his mother. He vowed that he would be the kind of father who would never leave his child alone. When he met Emma, it seemed perfect. Apollo was a rare book dealer, Emma was a librarian. They fell in love, and baby Brian came along. Everything seemed to be perfect…until Emma started getting texts that erased themselves. Pictures of Brian, taken from some stranger’s camera. Apollo began to worry: his amazing wife seemed to be losing her mind. Soon, she began claiming that the baby in their house was not actually Brian but was someone–something–else. And then one night, everything changed. The Changeling is a beautiful book that sucks you in and grabs hold of you with both hands.

 

Victor LaValle creates two amazing characters in Apollo and Emma. Apollo is a devoted father and husband, committed to his baby and his wife. Despite not having a male role model, he tries very hard to be the kind of father that his son would look up to and to be the kind of husband that his wife deserves. Emma is a bibliophile, committed to libraries because her childhood librarian was committed to her. She loves children, especially her baby, and she loves her husband. But when she starts seeing things that no one else can see, it marks the beginning of the end. She cannot love this thing that has replaced her baby. Or has it? Apollo just sees their baby, Brian. Has Emma gone crazy, or is she the only one who is sane?

 

The Changeling starts firmly in the real world. Set in New York City, other than the title and the location on the “Best Fantasy Novel of the Year” lists, there is nothing in the early part of the book to indicate it is anything other than a story of a family falling apart. As the book progresses, though, we see that the “normal” part of New York City is a patina disguising a much darker fantastic reality. Apollo begins to realize that nothing is quite what it seems. Witches and darker beings share the city with regular people, and the tragedy that destroyed his family is not unique. It is not even particularly unusual.

 

LaValle’s characters confront a number of challenges, and not all of them are of the supernatural kind. Apollo West is a young black man in a field dominated by older white men. Racism is a daily reality in his life. Later in the book he is confronted by police for walking through a white neighborhood. They were called because he did not look like he belonged there. Apollo and Emma are not poor, but money is a constant struggle. Apollo’s best friend suffers from PTSD after military service. Apollo wrestles with nightmares about his missing father and tries hard, maybe too hard, to live up to his ideal standard of fatherhood. Some of the greatest challenges faced by the characters in The Changeling come from living regular lives in New York City and not just from supernatural forces that they cannot control.

 

The Changeling won the World Fantasy Best Novel Award, along with several other awards and “best of the year” selections. Victor LaValle has spun a story that shows the dangers of a real world can be intimidating, the dangers of a supernatural world can be overwhelming, but the power of love can overcome almost anything.

The Changeling, Victor LaValle

Book Review: The Changeling, Victor LaValle

Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Science Fiction: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

If Doug Adams and Keith Laumer and David Bowie and James Joyce somehow shared a night of passion with a word processor that produced a science fiction cum Eurovision tribute novel featuring the absurdity and satire and fun and glam and extraordinaryrunonsentencesandportmanteaus of those fathers but was actually written by a woman who makes it her own and amazing and wonderful and absolutely delightful then you would have Space Opera and you would have the talented Catherynne M. Valente and you would have a book that reminds you of some terrific things while being unlike anything else. (This rather intentionally long sentence is in tribute to the authors mentioned above.)

 

A recurring theme through the book is that “Life is beautiful…and Life is stupid.” Proof of concept: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros is a three-person band which had an unexpected hit, did a few tours, made a brief splash, then disappeared into what was undoubtedly well-deserved anonymity and obscurity. Until the day when everyone on earth simultaneously meets a representative from the galaxy, shaped rather incongruously like the plastic flamingos filled with liquid that bob up and down as the liquid flows from head to…other side.

 

Using a technology that allows it to appear to everyone on earth simultaneously (which saves so much time compared to trying to explain it over and over again), the representative gives Earth the good news: the other sentient races in the universe have recognized humans as being potentially sentient and are willing to give them a chance to prove themselves. The bad news: if Earth fails to prove itself, humanity will be destroyed. However, the rest of the universe will check in every 50,000 years or so to see whether another species has arisen to accept the challenge, so although it may be bad news for humans the planet as a whole might see this as simply a practice run.

 

To prove sentience, a species must participate in an interspecies singing contest and not finish last. They don’t have to win it. That would be an unfair amount of pressure for a new species, after all! But if they finish last, well, Simon Cowell will be the least of their worries. Or maybe the last of their worries. The other good news, though, is that the representative has helpfully identified several musicians and bands that would likely do well in the competition. The other bad news, though, is that the only one of them still living is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. And perhaps the worst news is that although their lead singer and their chief instrumentalist are both still alive (though no longer speaking to one another), the heart of the band was killed in a car accident. Her death marked the end of the band, the end of their careers, the end of their friendship, the end of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros.

 

Like the heroes they are, however, the two remaining band members step up and…oh, who are we kidding? Earth doesn’t want them to be the representatives. They don’t particularly want to go, nor think they can get the job done. But you can tell from the set up, those concerns are irrelevant to the plot. Off they go to save the world. And all they, and Earth, and we the gentle readers can do is hang on and enjoy every white-knuckled farcical moment of this hilarious novel.

 

Although the author acknowledges her debt to Douglas Adams, Space Opera reminded me more of the adventures of Jame Retief by author Keith Laumer. (That may be more do to my being American and to my age–Laumer was one of the first sci-fi authors I read as a child and certainly one of the first satirical authors I read.) Regardless, Valente’s book deserves a place of honor on that same shelf. She is witty, brilliant, outrageous, and piercing. She completely sells the possibility that a Eurovision-style competition between races is the appropriate way to determine sentience. Should that indeed prove true, we are probably doomed. But it will be a great show.

 

If you are looking for a realistic-sounding serious look at future earth, this may not be the right novel for you. If you are looking for a whimsical, farcical, sarcastic, satirical joy ride filled with pop culture references and some of the most creative writing you will see in a long time, the Space Opera is just the ticket. What it may lack in hard science it more than makes up for with hard rock and sheer fun.

Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

 

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Rachel Chu & Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Rachel Chu & Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

 

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Book Series Review: Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy:

Crazy Rich Asians

China Rich Girlfriend

Rich People Problems

August 2018 welcomed the first major Hollywood film set in modern times staring a predominately Asian cast since Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club in 1993. Crazy Rich Asians, like Joy Luck Club, was a book before it was a movie.

Rachel Chu, overworked NYU economics professor, needs a restful vacation. What she gets, when she agrees to accompany her boyfriend to the wedding of a family friend in Singapore, is an out of control cultural explosion the size of the Ring of Fire.

While the movie focuses mainly on the love story between Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young, Crazy Rich Asians, the book digs deeply into the broader cast of characters that Rachel meets when she encounters all three branches of Nick’s extended family. There is family tree included as part of the opening pages in each of the trilogy’s books to help readers keep track of the complicated relationship ties. Besides dealing with the ins and outs of flamboyant and dramatic family connections, Crazy Rich Asians is a satire. A sharp, cutting, hilarious satire.

The humor of Kevin Kwan cuts like a sword through every stereotype — economic, racial, social class, immigrant status, nationality, religion, and educational level.  Sometimes Kwan’s strikes are bold and sweeping, as shown in the opening scene, when the crazy rich wealth of the family in a surprise move slaps down the prejudice of an upscale hotel official. Other times, the satire is a pin prick poke so subtle you can miss it, such as a single descriptive sentence differentiating between Filipino and mainland Chinese servants embedded in a personal reflection.  No personal paradigm is left untouched; no stereotype is left unquestioned.

In the Crazy Rich Asians series, character growth or stagnation occurs when a character is faced with a plot point that challenges her or his point of view. The satire is strong, yet the humor is the draw to pushes the reader to face each event with Rachel. The barbs, banter, and dialog are wickedly witty. The over the top scenes are filled with exuberance and luxury that makes you want to alternate between hugging or slapping characters. Crazy Rich Asians is a fun read.

Recipes

With all of the Crazy Rich Asians that Rachel needs to deal with when she visits the home of Nick Young, she needs some alone time just roaming the streets of Singapore’s markets enjoying some bubble tea and a sweet rice treat. For Rachel, here’s an indulgent iced tea drink and a snack to ground her before the next confrontation with Nick’s family.

Bubble Tea

Bubble tea is a fun fancy ice tea with dozens of variations.

In its simplest form add approximately 1/4 cup of large tapioca balls to your favorite ice tea with a splash of milk and sip through an extra wide straw. For a first time experiment try a green tea with crushed ice mixed with sweetened condensed milk; other tasty options are iced chai tea with coconut milk or thai tea with half & half.

Tapioca balls – for every 1/4 cup tapioca balls boil with 2 cups of water for 15 minutes, then let stand for an additional 15 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold running water; then use immediately or store in the refrigerator in a sealed container covered with a simple syrup (1 cup sugar boiled with 1 cup water till dissolved)

Sticky Sweet Rice — Binko, a Filipino version

This tasty rice cake snack has the consistency of a chewy gelatin block or gummy candy.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prep a 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish with pan release spray or oil

Rice cake

  • 2 cups sticky sweet rice or gelatinous rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 3/4 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups canned coconut milk

Topping

  • 1/2 cup canned coconut milk
  • 2 TBS brown sugar

Mix the ingredients together in a medium sized pot (the rice will more than double in volume). Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for approximately 20-25 minutes. (Will be the consistency of a thick risotto or porridge). Spread rice in to the baking dish and pour topping over rice. Bake for approximately 60 minutes till topping has caramelized. Cool to room temperature before cutting into squares.

 

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with Rachel Chu & Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan