Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Nick Pyenson

Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

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Nonfiction: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

 

Nick Pyenson is a whale paleontologist working for the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Although whales may not have captured the paleontological imagination the way dinosaurs have, maybe they should. In his 2018 book Spying on Whales, Pyenson reminds us that whales are the largest creatures that have ever lived. Although the largest brontosaurus might barely exceed their length from nose to tail, the blue whale is much more massive. In weight, they are many times heavier than any dinosaur, heavier than any other sea creature that has ever lived, and they are living in our oceans right now.

 

Although Pyenson is a paleontologist, he also studies living whales. Spying on Whales is not just about fossils and times long ago. Pyenson takes the reader to current expeditions where living whales are being watched and tagged. Clear-eyed about the realities of a world where whaling remains an ongoing concern, Pyenson also takes us on board a whaling ship and to a whale-rendering plant in Iceland. He acknowledges the ethical dilemmas faced in using these operations for scientific research and is clearly conflicted by the choices he has made. Whaling has not stopped, and his presence neither encouraged nor discouraged the whalers. He and other scientists have made some groundbreaking discoveries from the fresh carcasses of the killed beasts. Whether that justifies his presence there or not is left to the reader to decide.

 

Much less controversial is his work with fossilized whales. Pyenson takes us to Chile, where several layers of whale skeletons were discovered when a road was cut through a high mountain desert. Walking in the footsteps of Darwin, Pyenson tells a gripping story of how a local paleontologist made the discovery, how the Smithsonian was able to field a team to not only help with the dig but also to pioneer techniques in x-ray mapping the bones in situ, and how this all had to be organized and accomplished within a month because of the demands of the road construction timeline. Pyenson is a good story-teller and he gives much of the credit to the rest of the team. The working theory is that there were at least four occasions within a few thousand years when an algae bloom wiped out huge numbers of local creatures, not only whales but fish, birds, and other sea mammals. Those animals died and washed ashore in what was then a low lying area. Much later when the region was lifted above sea level by plate tectonics and then later still when it was exposed by the road construction, several virtually intact skeletons of early whales were identified and preserved for study by the team.

 

Whales today are known for their size, although there are a few that are quite small. Unfortunately, most of those smaller whales are very endangered. It is likely that the Yangtze River dolphin has gone extinct, and a species of small dolphin in Mexico has fewer than 30 remaining individuals. Many larger species were hunted nearly to extinction. Blue and right whales may never recover their pre-whaling numbers, Humpback whales, though, seem to be nearing or at their pre-whaling numbers, and gray whales may be using new ice-free channels through the Arctic Ocean to recolonize the Atlantic, where they had not been seen for centuries until recently when two individuals were spotted far apart from each other.

 

Whales today face many challenges. Although hunting is greatly restricted, it has not ended. Climate change is putting new pressures on whales, potentially affecting their migration patterns and feeding habits. Thousands of whales are killed accidentally by ship strikes and by getting caught in fishnets. Plastic and other pollutants are being eaten by whales with unknown consequences long-term. And the sounds made by our industrial and military work in the ocean has unknown effects on animals which use sound to communicate over vast distances.

 

One other unknown effect humans have had on whales is changing the whales’ cultures. Whales communicate, and different whale pods have developed different cultures. For example, although they are biologically indistinguishable, there are three distinct cultures of orcas in the Pacific. One culture eats salmon almost exclusively, and stays primarily in fixed locations near the mouths of rivers where salmon go to spawn. Another group travels up and down the coast and eats primarily marine mammals. The third is much more oceanic than the first two, and their hunting is focused largely on sharks. Although there is no difference in the DNA between the three groups, they seldom interact and in their behavior patterns they are essentially different subspecies. Distinct cultures have also been observed in pods of sperm whales…but sperm whale populations were devastated by whaling ships. We will never know what effect the depopulation of the species had on its culture, nor will we ever know if or how that can be recovered even if the population rebounds.

 

Spying on Whales is a warm book about fascinating creatures. It is a great book for kids interested in science (it ends with a heartwarming story about the accidental discovery of a whale skull by the author’s preschool son–and how there is now a specimen in the Smithsonian’s collection whose discovery is credited to the child). It is also a fascinating read for those of us who maintain our childhood fascination with science and with the amazing creatures that share this planet.

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Book Review: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome CreaturesNick Pyenson

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

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Fantasy: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was one of 2017’s most delightful novels. On the shortlist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award for best novel, Theodora Goss’s tale successfully turned Victorian horror fiction into a celebration of feminism and the triumph of individuals over their circumstances. Its 2018 sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, expands on that success and takes the members of the Athena Club on an adventure through Victorian Era Europe that highlights both the power of Goss’s writing and the absolute magic she weaves with her characters.

 

The main protagonist of both books is Mary Jekyll. The daughter of Dr. Jekyll, Mary is both intelligent and practical. Almost penniless after her mother’s death, she finds herself meeting and befriending an unlikely group of women who end up living with her and helping each other make ends meet and confront the horrors of their own creation. There is Catherine Moreau, a panther transformed into a human woman on the island of Dr. Moreau. Justine Frankenstein, created by Dr. Frankenstein to be the bride of his first creation, is a painter who has greater physical strength than any man. Beatrice Rappaccini was slowly exposed to toxins throughout her young life until she became poisonous to everyone else–including her would-be lover who died. And Diana Hyde, Mary’s half-sister, the daughter of her father’s evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. These women come together in the Alchemist’s Daughter, aided by the inimitable Mrs. Poole (Mary’s housekeeper) and by the famous detectives Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Together they solve the murders of several women in London, discovering that some of their supposedly dead creators are actually still alive and practicing new experiments.

 

In European Travel, Mary’s former governess reaches out to her for assistance. She has heard of the Athena Club and enlists their aid in helping Lucinda Van Helsing, who has been imprisoned in an asylum in Vienna. So begins the new adventures of the women, sending them from London to Vienna and then on to Budapest. During their travels they meet other characters we recognize from other works: among them Irene Adler, Sigmund Freud, and Count Dracula. Goss enjoys defying expectations. Heroes/Heroines and villains get new interpretations, and often the true monsters are the most human. The result is surprising, satisfying, and heartwarming.

 

The stories are ostensibly told by Catherine Moreau, but she has help. Goss brings in other voices through interruptions to the narrative, indented to set them apart. Other characters will comment on the immediate passage (“I was not thinking that!”) or offer a differing opinion or aside about another character (“I should have kicked Diana”). These serve well as comic relief and giving us backstory on the characters that don’t fit neatly into the direct story. There are also several “ads” for the first book (“Only two shillings”) which usually bring objections from Mary (“I don’t think people want to read ads”). Although they are occasionally distracting, usually these interruptions bring a smile and add warmth to the story of these women drawn together by personal trauma and who find in each other mutual support.

 

I suspect this book might challenge some readers who like their Victorian heroes to be, well, heroes. This book is by a woman and is about women. Men do show up. Usually they are villains. Sometimes they are allies. But the book is not about them. Mary and her friends are quite able to handle themselves, whether facing vampires, spies, or former tormentors. If you have a problem with that…well, you have a problem. The good news, though, is that if you have a problem, the Athena Club has some awesome women who can come to your assistance.

 

European Travel is a long book–706 pages long! But Goss uses the length to tell a great story in great depth. At the end of the book I almost felt it was too short. I hated to see the story end. The good news, though, is the book sets up another sequel. The Athena Club has more adventures to come, more romps through 1890s Europe, and more monsters who are human (and humans who are monsters) to encounter. Given that the villain in the next book is already revealed to be Dr. Moriarty, it promises to be one that might challenge the most monstrous of gentlewomen.

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Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

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Nonfiction Science: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first truth has been a core part of my personality since my earliest memories. I love science. I find physics and cosmology fascinating. Adam Frank is a professor at the University of Rochester and a commentator on science and cosmology for NPR. He is known for taking deep subjects and putting connective tissue on them so that non-scientists can appreciate and relate to the astounding discoveries being announced by CERN and other high-powered labs and leaders in various fields.

 

About Time tries to do this as well. Frank looks at time in both practical and scientific terms. It is easy to forget in our always connected, always clock-aware culture that timekeeping is itself a relatively new invention. Sundials and general awareness of the passing of time go back centuries, even millennia, as natural phenomena follow rhythms set by the passing of days and seasons. As humans began agricultural pursuits, awareness of times to plant and harvest became important. People responsible for marking time’s passage also became important, as planting too early or harvesting too late could lead to catastrophe. As urbanization eventually led to manufacturing the marking of smaller increments of time became important.

 

Another often forgotten reason for the “invention” of time (or at least more accurate time-keeping means) was the need for accuracy in measuring distance. Time and distance are related, as we may vaguely remember from early algebra (rate x time = distance) and the always invigorating word problems: if Sally is on a train traveling west at 60 mph from New York and Johnny is on a train traveling east at 70 mph from Chicago, and both trains leave at the same time, when will you crumple up your homework and throw your book against the wall and burst into tears? (I have painful memories of many math classes, so my apologies for the cathartic outburst.) Much more dire than my painful memories is the fact that incorrect longitude leads directly to maritime catastrophe, and longitude is essentially a measure of time/distance from a fixed point. Accurate time keeping leads to accurate location and that leads directly to ships not sinking.

 

Travel on land also required accurate timekeeping. Railroads tied the burgeoning US together, and the need for accurate schedules led directly to the creation of time zones. Although the US led the way in this, the rest of the world quickly followed for the same logical reasons. As telegraph, telephone, radio, and television allowed vast distances to experience the same “now,” our reliance on accurate timekeeping increased.

 

I did not appreciate how grounded in the practical world Einstein’s relativity was. His job at the patent office was to evaluate patents dealing with accurate measurements of time. Swiss clocks were expected to be accurate and technology increasingly required them to be both accurate and synchronized. Einstein’s job required him to think about time and timekeeping–then at night he worked on the equations that eventually became the Theory of Relativity. Instead of time being fixed and universal, Einstein realized that time was fluid and changed depending on perspective, gravity, rate of motion, and other variables. The universe is not set to a cosmic clock. The experience of time changes as one approaches light speed, and even incremental changes are measurable. Clocks synchronized and then placed at sea level and at high altitude will eventually show different times simply because the rotation of the earth is marginally different depending on how close one is to the earth’s center. Einstein dealt with the practical aspects of measuring time. We may never know how much that practical experience influenced his thinking about the scientific aspects of time/space/relativity, but the duality of his life must have had some effect.

 

The main thrust of Frank’s book is on the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory has many problems with it. The obvious one is, “What came before?” So far there has been no adequate answer scientifically or mathematically proposed. However, no adequate replacement has yet been posited, either. Frank looks at several, including string theory and “banes,” but admits in the end that although Big Bang can no longer be considered as settled science (he offers no opinions on it’s role in television sitcom history) there is no other theory ready to take its place.

 

I started this review by noting that About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first was of my love for and fascination with science. Frank is a terrific writer. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, scientific history, and changes in culture prompted by science as well as changes in science prompted by culture. About Time reminded me of a second truth as well: I am not a scientist. I will confess, this is not an easy book to read. I was often lost and confused, which I fear is much more reflective upon the reader than on the writer. If you have a strong background and interest in science, especially in astrophysics and cosmology, then this is a terrific book. If you struggle with occasional terrifying flashbacks of 8th grade algebra, then this may not be the best addition to your library. An extremely adept younger reader would find it challenging and a great read, so if you have a young person interested in a career in the sciences, then About Time might be just in time to push her or him in that direction.

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Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

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Fiction Collection: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Traveling the stars, riding a current of particles and discovering it is inhabited by living creatures riding the current with you. Plotting to assassinate the king only to learn he is not what you expected. Watching the past through a machine that lets you see it happen, then discovering the machine might also let you make it happen. Traveling to Alaska to gather the effects of your late aunt and uncovering a mystery. These are among the stories told in Vandana Singh’s imaginative collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

 

Singh is originally from New Delhi, India, but in recent years she has made Boston home. She is a professor of physics, with expertise that informs but does not overwhelm her writing. Her stories are rich with the flavors of India and the power of science. Reading them was fun. Her characters have Indian names, eat Indian foods, wear Indian clothes, reference Indian literature and remember Indian gods. Considering that India is the second most populous country on earth (and soon will surpass China for number one) and that India has a vibrant and growing technology and science sector in their economy, the lack of Indian characters in speculative fiction needs to change. Singh’s stories are a valuable addition to the genre even if that were all they did.

 

Fortunately, they do much more than introduce characters who hail from the subcontinent. They are beautifully written and wonderfully imagined stories. They introduce us to new worlds and new technologies, technologies that let you shape the future by changing the past, technologies that let you move between universes, technologies that let you ride particle waves through space between the stars. They introduce us to an Earth ravaged by climate change. They introduce us to poets and assassins, kings and queens and commoners, scientists and explorers and artists. Singh’s stories are fresh and new, but they convey the richness of a culture that has centuries of history supporting it. Her characters may live on other planets or on a very different Earth than we know, but then we hear them tell each other stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and we remember that those stories deserve retelling as much as the stories that are more familiar to readers in the United States and Europe. Even when her stories are pure imagination–the legends and myths of other planets–they feel rooted in a non-European soil.

 

Her characters are not just “diverse” because they are non-white. They are different ages and different social strata. They are male and female and non-binary, gay and straight, old and young and in-between, rich and poor, educated and not. Her settings include fancy laboratories and an urban slaughterhouse, spaceships and exotic planets and an Alaskan coastal research facility. Singh shows us imagined futures that include people of all types, and indeed it’s hard to imagine these days that any future would successfully end poverty and corruption and other societal ills that have bedeviled humans throughout history.

 

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is Singh’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection is The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. She has also written some novellas. If you are looking for some creatively written and highly imaginative short stories, Vandana Singh is definitely a writer for you.

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Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Book Review: Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

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Science Fiction: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex is funny, smart, and snarky. Any book that starts with the protagonist dodging an attack by a demonically-possessed cupcake with teeth stands out from the crowd. There are certain tropes familiar to fantasy-genre fans. Flying killer pastries? Not so much.

 

Sarah Kuhn was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer in SciFi/Fantasy, not only because of Heroine Complex and its sequels, but also for her shorter pieces and comics. Her novella, One Con Glory, is in development as a feature film. She is also a popular speaker at conventions, often encouraging writers of color to tell their own stories, create their own worlds, and establish their own heroines. That is exactly what she has done in Heroine Complex.

 

Evie is the long-suffering assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s own superheroine, who uses a combination of killer moves and amazing fashion sense to show demonic interlopers the door back to hell (or wherever they came from). Evie and Annie (Aveda Jupiter’s real name) have been inseparable since kindergarten. Annie’s parents are Chinese Americans, while Evie is half Japanese/half white. Both of them received powers during a demonic invasion. Annie’s powers are not great, but they imbued her with a sense of purpose and mission. Evie’s powers are more dangerous and less easily controlled. Trying to keep them under control, while also raising her sister and managing Annie/Aveda’s outsized personality is as much as she can handle. So when Aveda is injured and asks Evie to take her place temporarily, Evie’s world quickly starts spinning out of control.

 

But this is a story of heroines! Evie finds more strength than she ever imagined. Aveda finds deeper character. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in a world with killer flying cupcakes, heroines are needed and these heroines step up.

 

(BTW, between Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine series, San Francisco is a MUCH stranger place than I ever realized!)

 

Being the spouse of an Asian American and the father of three children, I loved reading these characters. Being “the only Asian Americans in Mrs. Miller’s kindergarten class” is a perspective that is fully American, but not the pale suburban experience of my own childhood. Evie is a complex, strong yet vulnerable character who fears her own strength and fails to appreciate her own value. She is far from perfect. Kuhn has bravely drawn characters who may be fully fictional but are still fully functional. I think sometimes the fear authors have in creating characters that do not fit the traditional “hero” roles (and I deliberately changed the gender for this point) is that if they are less than perfect they will be seen as less. Given the sad reality that even great Asian fictional characters have been “whitewashed” when put on screen, and the equally sad reality that publishers still reject books with non-white protagonists thinking they won’t sell, a book with flawed women of color who experience doubt and pain and failure and troubles and still kick butt is refreshing, bold, and Kuhn pulls it off with elan.

 

I’d hate to tell you that Evie’s story ends with a “happily ever after,” because that would mean that Evie’s story ended. Fortunately, Kuhn has continued the series with two more books that I am excited to read. Hopefully, Evie and Aveda will have many more demons to slay and personal issues to conquer. Heroine Complex is a great start to what promises to be an exciting series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

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Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

*2018 LOCUS AWARD WINNER OF BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL*

*2018 HUGO AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST NOVEL*

 

“The Interdependency,” a galactic empire spanning dozens of far-flung human settlements, has stood for a thousand years. The descendants of Earth long ago discovered how to access “the flow,” a current that runs parallel to real space and allows ships to travel vast distances in very short times. The flow only intersects with real space in certain areas, so human habitation and the empire cluster around these access points. Without the flow, interstellar travel is impossible. Without the flow, most humans would die, since the access points are usually near stars which have no naturally habitable planets, so the various planets of the empire are truly interdependent. Without the flow, the empire collapses. And the flow is collapsing.

 

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of a planned new series by John Scalzi, and it has exploded onto the science fiction scene. Winner of the 2018 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, it is also a 2018 Hugo Award finalist for the same award. Scalzi brings his trademark humor and irreverence to this novel of an empire potentially facing destruction. He cares about the science, avoiding things like faster-than-light travel that violates known physical laws. But his gift is in imagining complex worlds and populating them with complex people. His characters include an “emperox” who never planned to become a ruler, a scientist who did not want to leave his home planet, a very horny and foul-mouthed mercantilist who does some of her best thinking while amorously engaged, and a family of ruthless and ambitious nobles who do not mind shedding blood to reach their goals.

 

The worlds of The Interdependency are quite different from the norm in science fiction. Scalzi imagines an empire connected only by access to transportation. Earth became inaccessible long ago. When humans discovered the flow, they learned they could travel unimaginable distances but only reenter real space at specific points. This meant that settlements were limited to the stars that were accessible via the flow, whether or not they had inhabitable planets. The capital planet of the Empire is Hub, a planet tide-locked to its sun. One side always faces the star, one side always faces away. Humans have created a vast underground settlement where millions of people live. Many essentials must be imported from other places in the empire. Some stars have no inhabitable planets, but huge space stations housing vast populations have been built there to support mining and other extraction of resources. Only one planet in the entire empire, “End,” is capable of sustaining human life on the planet itself. Hub became the lead planet of the empire because all currents of the flow led to it. (This reminded me of the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” which Isaac Asimov adapted in his Foundation series to “all roads lead to Trantor.”) All planets in the Empire directly connect to Hub, while few of them have direct connections to any other planet. If the flow is disrupted, though, Hub and most other human settlements will become isolated and alone, and within a very few years will be incapable of supporting life.

 

The Collapsing Empire shows both the power and the danger of interdependency. It was written before the 2016 US election (but after the Brexit vote), so it is not a direct commentary on contemporary politics. It is, though, a compelling statement. A surface reading would say, “independence is good, interdependency is bad” because the flow is failing. Without the flow, interdependence is impossible and the settlements that rely so heavily on each other would fail. But the better understanding is to see that humanity was only successful because of interdependence. They may be facing a crisis because of environmental change (and I assume future novels in the series will further explore that crisis and human responses to it), but the only reason they have come this far is because of their interdependence. Because of interdependence, humans were able to spread across the galaxy. They were able to build settlements on moons, on space stations, on ridiculously inhospitable planets, and they were able to maintain a coherent, unified government for a thousand years. Yes, it’s a work of speculative fiction. It is also, though, a powerful statement of hope in the collective power of humanity when they pull together and rely upon each other. Scalzi is not one to ignore the venal and self-serving ambitions of individuals. His characters are petty and lusty and greedy and ruthless. But some of them are also caring and passionate and thoughtful and deeply committed to the survival of humanity. I am eager to see what happens next, when The Consuming Fire is released in October, 2018.

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Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

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Mystery/Thriller: The Escape Artist, Brad Meltzer

The Escape Artist is Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller. Coming twenty years after The Tenth Justice, his new work shows a greater familiarity with his craft and introduces some interesting characters as well.

 

Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician at Dover (DE) Air Force Base. Preparing deceased military service personnel for burial is his job, and he is quite good at it. Usually the deceased are strangers, but when a young woman who knew his daughter dies in a plane crash, Zig insists on taking care of her himself. However, the body on his table is not that of Nola Brown, and the mix up is not accidental. Zig begins looking for Nola, and soon finds himself in the midst of a mystery that takes him back to his Pennsylvania hometown, to Washington, DC, and back again to Dover. His journey uncovers secrets and crimes that some very powerful people would rather keep covered, and reopens some wounds within him that he thought were closed.

 

Nola Brown was supposed to be on that plane, but switched places at the last minute. She suspects the plane crash was meant to kill her. Instead, it killed her friend and several other people, including the Librarian of Congress, who was a close personal friend of the president. She is eager to get to the bottom of things, too, but she also must confront both external enemies and internal memories to solve this mystery.

 

Zig and Nola share part of their history, connected through Jim’s late daughter. Still, they do not really know each other. Part of their challenge is learning to trust each other and work together. This journey may cover more ground, metaphorically, than the two must cover in their search to find out who was behind the fatal plane crash.

 

Brad Meltzer is a prolific and popular writer. He has had best selling books in many categories, including novels, advice, childrens, YA, and non-fiction. He is also the host of two shows airing on the History Channel networks.

 

The Escape Artist is an interesting and engaging book featuring a strong heroine. Parts of it are formulaic, and the characters flaws sometimes overcome their features, but overall the effect is positive. Definitely a great book for fans of Brad Meltzer and for fans of the thriller genre, and not a bad introduction to the genre for those who like to see smart, tough women overcome challenging circumstances. Unlike many thrillers, The Escape Artist does not use women as mere foils for the male characters. Nola has her own brokenness, her own issues, and she is truly a co-protagonist with Zig. Neither of them survives this case without the other, and both of them are changed by the other.

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Book Review: The Escape ArtistBrad Meltzer

 

Book Review: Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

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Poetry: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her 2018 collection of poems Wade in the Water  is her first collection since earning that distinction. The title poem of Wade in the Water tells a story:

One of the women greeted me.

I love you, she said. She didn’t

Know me, but I believed her

……………………….

I love you in the water

Where they pretended to wade,

Singing that old blood-deep song

That dragged us to those banks

And cast us in.

 

This may be a reference to the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which repeats the chorus,

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children,

Wade in the water.

God’s gonna trouble the water.

 

Like the spiritual, the poems of Wade in the Water speak to the longing and pain of a people familiar with oppression. Smith’s mother was a devoutly Christian woman, very religious in her practice. Smith’s father worked on Hubble space telescope. With one foot in the sciences, one foot in faith, and firmly rooted in the African-American experience, Smith’s poems expose a world of hurt and longing, a world of hope tempered by experience with regret. The woman who greeted her with “I love you” appeared to mean it. The speaker believed it. Yet it goes on to say that this greeting’s result was “a terrible new ache/Rolled over in my chest…she continued/Down the hall past other strangers,/Each feeling pierced suddenly/By pillars of heavy light.” Love, real love, unconditional, freely given love, warmly and openly gifted, yet opening a wound in the recipient who knows that the vulnerability love requires exposes a lifetime of hurt.

 

Wade in the Water is separated into four sections. The first set (which include the titular poem) have a strong spiritual and cosmological bent to them. Poems titled “Garden of Eden,” “The Angels,” “Realm of Shades” hint at the deeper perspective. These poems talk about God, about “the holy,” about angels, not in a sense necessarily recognized (or likely approved) by any specific denomination, but more about the acknowledgment of a world beyond the visible. These are not church-lady poems, intended to celebrate faith or reinforce commitment. These poems acknowledge ugliness in this world and see God more as a curious but ultimately disinterested observer of the earth and the human condition, mildly appalled and disgusted sometimes but not involved or willing to participate in the squalor he sees.

 

The second set are historically based “erasure poems.” These poems take historical American documents, including the Declaration of Independence and several letters from black Civil War soldiers and veterans, and “erase” parts of them to put them into poetic form. In some ways, these poems seemed to be the most personal. Highlighting phrases from Jefferson’s declaration gives them new visibility and power, and in this context reminds us that although those words speak eloquently to the plight of all oppressed peoples, they were written by a man who owned slaves and sold his own children borne by the slave he repeatedly raped.

 

The third set is more contemporary and overtly political, giving voice to ongoing pain experienced by people today. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” opens with the powerful lines, “Our bodies run with ink dark blood./ Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.” “Watershed” looks like it may be a hybrid poem including erasures from DuPont Chemical memos and legal briefs, telling the effects of corporate indifference to the poisoning of people and animals by their products. I suspect the lawyers and corporate officials who wrote those messages did not realize how poetic or how prophetic their words would become.

 

The final set seems more personal, including a beautiful tribute called “4 ½” to a child who reminds me of many other 4 ½ year olds I’ve met. Delightful, exasperating, whimsical and serious, this child clearly brings delight and mirth simply by being. These poems do not avoid broader themes, but they bring those themes home to the experience of the individual.

 

Smith’s poems are beautiful. They reflect a world that is not always beautiful, that is often ugly and cruel and capricious and evil. The reflect a failure of institutions, of governments, of corporations, and of the supernatural to protect the defenseless. Indeed, far too often they oppress the very people they claim to serve. But in revealing these scars on our history and on our society, Smith gives voice and meaning to those who’ve endured them. Her topics may not be beautiful, but her poetry is. Wade in the Water troubles the waters, revealing depths in both the subject matter and the poet.

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Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

2018 Hugo Awards, Dave Marvin

2018 Hugo Awards 

Dave Marvin

2018 Hugo Awards, Dave Marvin

Starting a book blog has been an unexpected journey in many regards. As readers, as fans, we have long admired authors. Some people go for rockstars, some go for movie stars, but for us, authors are the people who capture our imaginations and inspire our dreams. What we did not know, having met very few authors, is how warm and accessible they are. The thought that authors would retweet our tweets never occurred to us, let alone reach out to us to thank us for reviewing their works. I must admit, I had very mixed emotions when one author notified me with a correction for my review: I was embarrassed by my mistake, but I was also thrilled to realize that, “OHMYGODSHEREADTHEACTUALREVIEW!!!!!!”

 

I’ve never been to the Hugo Awards (or any other awards show), but this year I really wanted to watch them. I won’t pretend I have any real relationship with any of the authors. We have never met. But some of them have retweeted Scintilla, some have sent a “thank you,” and several have blessed us with their stories and novels. This year, watching the Hugos was not just another awards ceremony. It was a chance to see people I had glimpsed through their writing, people whose art I believe in, people who have become more special to me than I ever thought possible.

 

So I watched not as a disinterested observer, but as a cheerleader. I loved the books by nominees for the John W. Campbell award for new authors: Rivers Solomon, Sarah Kuhn, and the winner, Rebecca Roanhorse (she also won for best short story, an AMAZING work called “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”). I look forward to reading those by other nominees. Nnedi Okorafor was up for two awards and won for Akata Witch, a YA novel that is beautiful and compelling. Nnedi Okorafor is actually one of the reasons I wanted to write about what I was reading: her Binti series and her young adult books moved me and I wanted to shout and dance and let the world know how amazing and special they were and I didn’t have an outlet until my brilliant wife said, “Hey, let’s create Scintilla.info” and now I get to shout and dance all over the keyboard.

 

If you have read Scintilla at all, you have figured out that I am a big fan of John Scalzi. His book, The Collapsing Empire was up for best novel. It didn’t win, but I am not disappointed. The winner, for the third year in a row, was the incomparable N.K. Jemison. Someday I will review her books, because she is incredible. As gifted a writer as she is, though, her acceptance speech was powerful and passionate and gut-wrenching because of its raw honesty. Her first novel was rejected because “only black people” would want to read a novel by a black writer. That sickened me. I hate to think that we are that shallow, that we can only enjoy writers who are “like” us.

 

I am white, straight, cis male, middle-aged, and its fair to say I have my pick of writers who are “like” me. And some of them I like. Some of them. But what I love are writers who show me new perspectives, who invite me into their worlds and allow me to look through their eyes. My heart is affected by writers who are willing to say, “walk with me and talk with me and see things with me and listen to my stories” and when I shut up and listen and walk and look I can recognize that this is a big beautiful world full of stories, some sad and some ugly and some tragic and some appalling but all of them full of beautiful lovely people.

 

Some of those people were at the Hugos. Some of them won. But because they are telling their stories, all of us willing to listen and to read and to care are better.

For more information see http://www.thehugoawards.org/

2018 Hugo Awards, Dave Marvin

Book Review: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America, William H. Frey

Book Review: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking AmericaWilliam H. Frey

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Nonfiction: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking AmericaWilliam H. Frey

Diversity Explosion was written in 2014, and in just four years it is fascinating to see both how prescient the book is and how premature some of its optimism appears.  Much of the book is fairly straightforward demographic analysis. There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in noting that immigration and birth patterns show growth in minority populations and decline in white populations. Indeed, June 2018 headlines noted that a majority of states now have more white deaths than births. That this trend now reflects a majority of states was news, but only in the sense of “it’s here.” Anyone paying attention to demographics and statistics knew it was coming a long time ago.

 

What does stand out in the book is its optimistic tone. Frey believes that the growing diversity of America is a positive trend for the future of our country. He sees trends in many places showing less segregation, more intermarriage, better economic prospects for minority and immigrant populations, and extrapolates that this could mean less racial tension, more integration, and overall improvement in race relations in America.

 

William H. Frey is an expert in this field. A fellow of the Brookings Institution, Frey has long taught demographics at the University of Michigan. His Ph.D. is from Brown University. His academic and professional credentials do not keep him from writing with an engaging and approachable style that makes this book easy to read despite its obvious depth of research (and there are lots of colored charts and pictures, so it’s pretty, too.)

 

I want to believe him. I really, really do. I agree with much of what he says. Having lived in New York City, Denver, and Los Angeles, I am familiar with communities that are very diverse, even “majority-minority” populations. I love it. The best Thai food I’ve ever had was a few miles from the Buddhist temple in Sun Valley, CA (part of LA). I was asked to sing with a Filipino choir that practiced in Orange County, CA (thanks to my own interracial marriage to a New Yorker with Filipino parents). The first marriage I performed as a pastor was between a Nicaraguan immigrant (Hispanic) and an African-American. Our country is enriched by immigrants. My own DNA is (by family tradition, not by testing) a mixed bag of European countries, possibly with a seasoning of Native American.

 

I want to think that my multiracial children will live in a country where they are judged by the “content of the character” and not by their skin tones or their facial features. I want to believe that my grandchildren will be proud that their grandparents defied convention of their time and married “out.” I want to believe that my friends who are black and brown and white live in a country that honors their contributions, celebrates their heritage, and appreciates their status.

 

The current political situation, though, gives me great pause. I thought I would never be prouder of my country than I was in 2008 when we elected Barack Obama: a mixed-race man who was raised for awhile in Asia! I was wrong–I was prouder still when he was reelected in 2012. I allowed myself to believe that the immigrant-friendly, racially-open country Frey foresees in this book was actually the country I lived in.

 

Then came 2016.

 

After their loss in 2008, Republicans did an intensive self-reflective study that concluded their rhetoric and their policies turned off people of color, particularly immigrants. The study urged their politicians to chart a new course, evaluate areas of commonality between Republican positions and values espoused by different ethnicities, compromise or even change positions in areas that were not core Republican tenets to reach out and broaden their base. Their conclusion was that if Republicans failed to become a more inclusive party, they would be left behind by the demographic changes that were transforming America.

 

It remains to be seen whether the anti-immigrant, racially divisive governance of the current administration is a brief anomaly or marks the beginning of a much darker time in US politics. Diversity Explosion shows us what America is becoming. Closing the borders may delay the inevitable, but demography will win. Our country is changing, like it or not. Diversity Explosion takes a very hopeful point of view, that these changes will empower our country and her citizens, and that we will all be richer for participating in this transformation. I fully agree with this view. I only hope that those who disagree will read this book and reflect on its perspective.

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Book Review: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking AmericaWilliam H. Frey