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

Also see: Booklist: Fun Summer Reads

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.


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


  • 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

Book Review: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Book Review: The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Fiction: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Will Kendall loved God so much that he traveled to Beijing as a high schooler to hand out flyers inviting the Chinese to Jesus. He then went to Bible college. Something happened to his faith, though, and he left Bible college to attend a secular university on the east coast. There he meets and falls in love with Phoebe Lin, a Korean-American girl who is the life of every party but carries with her a dark secret. She was driving when her car went out of its lane and was crushed by a truck. Her mother, the only passenger in the car, was killed in the accident. This darkness within Phoebe has her searching for answers, for God, and she finds comfort and meaning in the embrace of Jejah, a small church/cult led by charismatic leader John Leal. Leal, himself half-Korean, claimed to have spent time as a missionary in China and as a prisoner for his faith in North Korea. As her need for redemption and meaning grows, her ties to Leal and to Jejah also grow–and her relationship to Will becomes both complicated and toxic to both. Without giving too much away, that is the plot direction of The Incendiaries, a 2018 novel by R.O. Kwon.


Kwon is herself a Korean-American, and like Will she also had a passionate relationship with faith when she was a young adult. Like Will, she lost her faith after a few intense years. It seems likely that this part of her life informs the vivid and powerful descriptions she gives of faith and life committed to the church. Her descriptions of the inner life, the struggles and the surrender and the excitement and the angst, all ring true. Particularly haunting are the descriptions of the inner life after faith has left, the “God-shaped hole” and the longing to rekindle a flame that no longer can access the fuel that once seemed inexhaustible.


Much of the book reflects Will’s perspective, though the perspective shifts throughout from Will to Phoebe to John Leal. Each of these narrators is flawed and damaged, and each has a story to tell that rings true to him/herself but not necessarily to each other or to the reader. John tells of the time in the gulag when he tried to save a pregnant woman who had been beaten and was losing both her baby and her life–or did he try to help a pregnant woman abort her baby and the failure resulted in both of their deaths–or was it something else entirely? Or was he even in the gulag? Not every question is answered or answerable, and just because one character believes it to be true or even “proves” that it is true does not mean that we as the readers should accept their word as, well, gospel.


Readers should be aware that there are potential triggers for sexual assault and rape. At least two scenes within the book are quite disturbing, though not particularly detailed or graphic. Still, readers, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, should proceed with caution. There are also strong passages dealing with religion and religious experience, abortion, torture, and terrorism. This book packs a lot into its relatively few pages for a novel.


Kwon’s characters are brilliant and the plot is tight. The Incendiaries is a powerful book that delves deeply into a number of sensitive subjects. For those who struggle to understand people of profound and sincere faith, and for those who cannot see the appeal of faith, Kwon does a masterful job of exploring some reasons why faith is so powerful and why people cling to it so desperately. She also does a masterful job of exploring how bereft one is when that faith becomes unsustainable. The Incendiaries absolutely does not show the ultimate outcome of passionate faith–but it does show some possible outcomes that we see far too often in our world, and neither condones nor entirely condemns any of her characters for their choices.

The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Book Review: The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng


 The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Nonfiction: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Before I get into The Art of Logic in an Illogical Worlditself, I have to admit I am a fan of Eugenia Cheng. I do not know the first thing about the “School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” beyond its title and a quick visit to its website. It is a higher educational institution that emphasizes studies in the arts: visual and creative arts, teaching, writing, architecture, and many others. It does not offer degrees (that I can see) in mathematics, biology, physics, or other STEM types of programs. Yet, Dr. Cheng is the “Scientist in Residence” at this school. First, good for the school! And second, just how cool do you have to be to get a gig like that? Don’t misunderstand me: Eugenia Cheng is very good at what she does. Writer, concert pianist, Cambridge educated mathematician, she is elite in multiple fields. Part of her life mission is to combat math phobia. My guess is that teaching in a school of art allows her access to the front lines of math phobia, and the opportunity to influence the world with her infectious passion for her subject in very new and different ways. Which brings us back to her latest book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World.


Her first popular math book, How to Bake Pi, used cooking as both metaphor and analog for teaching math principles. This book is a little different. Here, she applies mathematical principles to logic. The two are actually quite intertwined. Logic and mathematics share common goals, they often use similar vocabularies, and although they appear to have differing applications, both actually seek to make the world more understandable and to give people a common frame of reference.


I enjoyed How to Bake Pi. I loved The Art of Logic. Cheng is a very good writer. She uses humor, clever analogies, real-life examples, and not too much complex math to help people (hopefully) become more logical. She points out how logical failures can lead to human conflict, and she devotes chapters to dealing with specific failures in logic. She forced me to reexamine some aspects of my own thinking, pointing out areas where I allowed myself to build a straw man or failed to see false analogies. (Fortunately there were not a lot of these, which may either mean I am relatively logical or that I am quite blind to my own flaws. I do rather hope it is the former!)


Cheng also offers some worthwhile cautions in the bid to be logical. One I will reword to say that logic does not necessarily empower one to win a Twitter war. Logic is not always compatible with brevity. One example she spends time on is the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Nice, brief, and sadly easy to manipulate negatively. Some argue that “All Lives Matter” is in some way a negation of the idea, or perhaps an improvement on it. Cheng points out that “Black Lives Matter” is really multiple ideas: 1) Black lives matter AS MUCH AS all other lives, 2) Black lives are not treated by society (in a variety of ways) as though they matter as much as all other lives, particularly the lives of those who are white, and 3) This second fact is a bad thing and we should do something to fix it. When understood in this fullness, “Black Lives Matter” is really trying to express the truth that “All Lives Matter.” They are not in opposition, or at least they should not be. If ALL lives matter, then BLACK lives matter, and in a world where too often black lives are ended prematurely, that matters. But the above paragraph, which condenses her much lengthier treatment of the topic, cannot fit into a social media posting. Logic does not necessarily fit into a tweet.


Which is a shame, because after reading The Art of Logic in an Illogical World I have some really great logical arguments for some annoying twitterers. Unfortunately, they just won’t fit!


Another caution she gives is to avoid separating logic from emotion. They may be different, but they are not incompatible. When it comes to persuasion, the two are both legs on the same stool. Few people are persuaded by only logic or only emotion (or only evidence, which is a third leg of that stool). Most of us require some combination before we are willing to change our minds. If I wish to convince someone that immigration is good for society, I will probably have to use a mixture of evidence (statistics show that immigrants add to the economy and commit fewer crimes), logic (current US birthrates are not sufficient to power the economy in the future), and some emotional appeal that connects to the person I am arguing with.


Of course, it may not matter. All of us have certain axioms, accepted truths, that form a bedrock for our decisions and opinions. If our axioms are in conflict, we may never be able to agree. But understanding that they are different is itself a step toward understanding each other. We may never agree on certain things, but sometimes knowing why we will never agree has its own value.


The Art of Logic in an Illogical World should be required reading for anyone who values thinking. (That is an opinion, but I would argue it is a logical one!) It is well written and thought out, and in a world where logic is in woefully short supply it is a delightful attempt to balance the scales.

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Science Fiction: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren


The Imperium was spreading inexorably through the galaxy. Earth was among the many systems under the thumb of Illyricum. Now, an unbeatable invasion force headed for Sabea. Eli Brody, one small part of that invasion force, was among the first through the interstellar gate in the vanguard of the attack. What he quickly found out is that he was also among the last. In an act of desperation, the Sabeans destroyed the gate, shutting their planet off from the rest of the galaxy, but also destroying the entire invasion fleet. Thousands of dead, trapped in the nothingness that was “between” areas of real space.


Five years later, a new gate opens and an agent of the Commonwealth visits Sabean space, their first visitor from the larger galaxy. He has one mission: get Eli Brody and take him back to Eli’s home planet of Caledonia. The Commonwealth is at war with the Imperium, and the Imperium is building a weapon on Caledonia that threatens to change the shape of that war. The information that the Commonwealth has received about the weapon has come from one source: Eamon Brody, Eli’s brother. And that source is missing.


The Caledonian Gambit is a lot of things, but most of all it is just fun. It careens through the dark alleys of an Irish-inspired planet. It has spies and secret networks and terrorists/freedom fighters. It has family tensions and a pretty girl who can knock you out with her fists. It is spy thriller and space opera and snarky humor all rolled up into one neat package. Dan Moren is a fan of science fiction, and his love for the genre shows in the pages of this delightful novel.


Science fiction is a very versatile genre. It has plenty of room for social commentary: economic disparity and racial inequality and social engineering. It let’s us explore scenarios of nuclear holocaust and climate catastrophe and computer meltdowns and global pandemics. It gives us hope in a future that is welcoming for LGBTQ and POC and the differently abled and the non-neural typical. And it leaves room for romps through space that just want to play with heroes and bad guys and secret agents and leave the deeper questions to others.


And I’ll admit it: as much as I love the works that shine a light on our present by exploring a potential future, sometimes it’s fun to just see heroes do heroic stuff and chase the secret weapon and fight the bad guys and let the music swell at appropriate times and let the credits run at the end. (Literally, there’s a long list of people at the end of the book that the author thanks.)


This may not be one of those books that makes me reflect on our world as it is. This is not a book that changed me or moved me or challenged me. Frankly, I read a lot of those books, and sometimes I don’t mind taking a break. This is a book that I had fun reading. I smiled, I cheered, and I hope that Dan Moren has some further adventures to come for his team from The Caledonian Gambit.

The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

Book Review: Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Poetry Collection: WhereasLayli Long Soldier


Whereas some words typically only appear in official government proclamations.

Whereas the US Government issued an official apology to the Native American peoples.

Whereas this happened quietly in 2010, without fanfare or participation by any tribal leaders.

Whereas this apology carries no weight of law or expectation for corrective action, and

Whereas Layli Long Soldier is a poet from the Oglala Lakota Nation,

Whereas she is exquisitely positioned and capable to reflect on language and its effects,

Whereas is an extraordinary work by a gifted artist.


Finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, Whereas is the debut collection of poems by Layli Long Soldier. The poems cover a range of themes: motherhood, language and meaning, relationships, nature, and especially Native Americans’ relationship to the United States. Those seemingly disparate themes have more connective tissue than is immediately apparent. Just as European descendants forced out the original inhabitants through means that included genocide, their language, English, forced its way into the lives of the survivors, killing native languages and corrupting meanings. For example, “apology” is a word with no direct translation into most tribal languages. Expressions of regret without making something right or undoing a wrong are simply not part of many cultures. Long Soldier compares it to the removal of a tooth–a procedure necessitated in the narrator’s life (presumably the author) by the failure of the US government to uphold funding for tribal health services. Regardless of how much one may regret the loss, the tooth will never be restored.


Long Soldier includes elements of American history that don’t always appear in historical biopics or even traditional history classes. Her poem “38” remembers the 38 Dakota men executed by order of Abraham Lincoln for the Sioux uprising. This was the largest “legal” execution in US history. Their execution came during the same week Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Their execution was on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1862.


Starvation motivated the Sioux uprising. After confiscating Sioux land in what is now called Minnesota, the government assigned them a miniscule stretch of land to support their population. They were not allowed to hunt this land, or beyond, and they were not given any other financial means for support. Rather than starve, the they fought. They lost. Another 1000 Sioux were jailed, and their remaining strip of land taken. The survivors were exiled to reservations in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska. One of the white men killed by the Sioux during the uprising had mocked the starving people by suggesting they eat grass. His body was found with his mouth stuffed full of grass, an act Long Soldier describes as a poem.


Long Soldier dances with words. She questions the definition of “opaque,” suggesting that the word itself should mean the opposite of what it actually means. She physically divides her poems, one comprising a single line with the words rearranged as you follow the outline of a square. Others are divided by straight lines, or are two poems interwoven so reading the left column gives one poem, reading the right column gives a second, and reading the lines sequentially adds another layer. Some poems are taken from other passages that have words ellided. Others have words divided between lines, one letter followed by part of the word, concluding on a third line by the remainder of the word. The visual supports and upholds the lyrical, adding a different dimension to the art of the word.


Whereas is not a book for the faint of heart. It challenges and confronts, using history and heritage to forcefully speak out. Wrongs cannot be undone, but they deserve to be acknowledged and understood. Layli Long Soldier speaks for those who no longer can, and she does so with passion, eloquence, beauty, and fire.

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier



Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, An Atlee Pine Thriller, David Baldacci

Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Thriller: Long Road to MercyAn Atlee Pine Thriller, David Baldacci


Atlee Pine is an FBI agent. Resident Agent in the Shattered Rock office, serving a large swath of territory in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, she is actually the sole FBI agent in the region that includes part of the Grand Canyon. She is also a former competitive weight lifter having just missed the Athens Olympics, and the survivor of a childhood encounter with a killer, an encounter that her twin sister, Mercy, did not survive. Long Road to Mercy is a multilayered story about an agent whose past has shaped her present, and taught her some lessons she will need to use if she is to see her future.


Being the sole FBI agent means you get called in for a number of different things. Nothing could have prepared her for the crime that takes her to the Grand Canyon. There she is shown the body of…a mule. Not the drug smuggling kind, but the actual horse-donkey hybrid used as pack and transport animals in the canyon. Someone has killed a mule and carved the letters “J” and “K” into its side. A hiker is missing also, which is bad and may be related, but much less unusual.


Still, it would not be a Baldacci thriller if the action stopped with a dead animal. Even a dead mule.


Pine’s search for the missing hiker, the reason for the mule’s death, and the reason why upper echelons within her own agency and other federal agencies want this case to go away lead her across the country to Washington, D.C., and back again. Accompanied by her no-nonsense secretary, a grandmother who carries a gun and an attitude, Atlee pursues the truth despite the increasing danger to herself and the increasing awareness that some members of the government will stop at nothing to hush this up.


Baldacci has created a badass heroine in this novel. Pine knows how to use a gun, knows how to use her fists and her feet, and is as strong as most men. One thing I liked, though, is that her toughness is consistent with her character. There are times when she needs to be rescued–not because she is a woman, but because anyone in the situation would need a hand. Most of the time, though, she is the one charging in to save the day.


I enjoy the thriller genre, and Baldacci is one of my favorite authors. His stories have the action, the high level of intrigue from power players working behind the scenes, the unlikely hero (or in this case heroine) working against all odds to save the world, and just enough mystery to keep it interesting through the end. Baldacci knows we are in a time (2018) when the FBI is being publicly challenged and its agents under greater scrutiny than is usually the case, and much of that scrutiny is politically motivated. He uses these current realities in the plot, but also uses them to show that although FBI agents are human, they are also dedicated professionals whose love for country and love for the law has led them to take an often dangerous and thankless job.


Long Road to Mercy introduces a new protagonist to the Baldacci canon, and she is up to the task. Atlee Pine is a great character, the other characters in the book make a great team, and I hope she has many more adventures to come in pages of future books.


See our — Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci


Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci