Review: The Ultimate Quest: A Geek’s Guide to (The Episcopal) Church by Jordan Haynie Ware

I am currently going through the process of becoming confirmed in the Episcopal Church, so I’m reading a lot about it. This won’t be the only “Introduction to the Episcopal Church” I’ll be reading over the next year and a half, but it may be the funniest, the most entertaining, and, quite frankly, the easiest to read and find things in. Part of that, of course, is because I identify as both a geek and a nerd, so I got most of the author’s jokes and asides.

I’m about forty years older than the core audience for this book, but I’ll be keeping it just for the vocabulary. What’s the white thing that goes over the robes? What do they call the censor thingie? When am I supposed to cross myself? (That’s the one I probably have the most trouble with; since I’m not a cradle Episcopalian, I have no idea.) I enjoyed thinking of the vestments as cosplay and the General Convention as ComicCon. I went to the Diocesan Annual Convention for the first time this year. I think it’s easier to find your way around there than I’ve ever had any luck with at a sci-fi convention, and I went with old-timers who could show me around. Yay!!

From what I can tell, and I’ll be mentioning it to my priest at our next confirmation class, the doctrine it teaches is sound. Overall, this is a gentle introduction and welcome to a church that is ready to welcome you.

Ware, Jordan Haynie. The Ultimate Quest: A Geek’s Guide to (The Episcopal) Church. New York, New York: Church Publishing, 2017 (February 1). 176 pages. 5 stars.

Review: Sooner or Later Everything Falls Down to the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

Reviewing a collection of short stories has been a hard thing to wrap my head around. Do I review each individual story? Do I just review the collection as a whole? Or do I do something in between? To those who know me, it won’t be surprising that my answer falls in the last group: something in between.

To begin with, this is a lovely collection to read through. I needed to take a bit of a break in the middle of it, but I enjoyed reading all of the stories. There are thirteen of them, including one that is published here for the first time, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. There are several themes that she comes back to again and again, but I suspect from her biography that they are also the themes of her life. Music, both the writing and performing of it and traveling are two of the main ones, but the most important theme through her stories is that of the choices we make, the roads we have, and haven’t taken, and how to reconcile ourselves with all of those roads.

As for the stories themselves, I discovered that the two I enjoyed most were ones I’d already read: “Wind Will Rove,” and “And Then There Were (N-One).” This wasn’t a disappointment, since they were placed toward the end of the collection, so I read through the others first. In addition, both of her award-winning stories are present as well.

And so, the stories that made the most impression on me.

I enjoyed “Talking with Dead People,” mostly because I want to hear the What You Missed in History Class podcast about the concept, or about specific houses, or what have you. I was fascinated by the Nutshell Studies houses, which Pinsker references. In both cases, what stands out to me is the craft involved in making the houses, rather than the unsolved events.

Pinsker won the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2014 for “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind.” It’s my third favorite in the book, and a lovely story of a long-time marriage. Here again, the story of an architect with his buildings and the magnificent treehouse he built with and for his children appeals to my crafty side. Also the way the craft and the art fit together with their marriage is a lovely image that I can see in my own.

I read “Wind Will Rove” when I was reading all of the nominees for the 2018 Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is my favorite of her stories, that I’ve read to date, and I was delighted to read it again. This one is about the choices artists make when they create art in all of its forms, the choices we make when we experience art, and the choices we make when we curate art. The conjunction of folk music, especially fiddle music, with a generation space ship, is one that speaks to my heart, and I can hear the wind calling me.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” won the Nebula Award for the Best Novelette in 2016. It’s gritty and grungy and true, even if the main character did leave me frustrated. But I’m not punk.

“The Narwhal” is published first in this collection and it was the main supporting character that I was frustrated with in this one. (For Heaven’s sake, Dahlia, everyone will be better off if you take time to stop, smell the roses, and let Lynette collect a couple of souvenirs.) The odd stop along the way, and what you learn about history, evokes a chill or two along the spine.

“And Then There Were (N-One)” is a story of a woman who has been invited to a convention all about her. Another her, from another universe (or timeline) has discovered how to travel between them and, as a proof of concept, set up this convention, this exploration into different choices, not necessarily her choices, and what happens later. The narrator is an insurance investigator, but there are scientists, musicians, writers, horse trainers, men, women, and other choices available. All to set up a lovely murder mystery with a Heinleinian feel.

All in all, I enjoyed this collection and I will be keeping an eye out for Pinsker’s subsequent works. Pick up this collection and enjoy.

Pinsker, Sarah. Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea. Easthampton, Massachusetts: Small Beer Press, 2019 (March 19). 288 pages. 4 stars. Buy here.

Review: Fragment by Craig Russell

This is the first, and so far only, book that I’ve been given to review. It is both the best and the worst book I could have been given to review.

It is the best, or the best type, of book for me to review because I genuinely enjoyed reading it. It’s an engaging story, with realistic characters, and a theme I thoroughly agree with. I’d go to 4.5 stars, but none of the rating systems I use allow me to use half stars. And I give very few 5 stars; 4 stars is for a book I enjoy, would reread, and would recommend.

It is the worst, or the worst type, of book for me to review because I have no idea how to describe it. To say that it heralds environmental disaster, brought about by climate change, no matter how that climate change came about, is to shortchange it. But how else to do so.

I would say that this book has three major themes. The first is the obvious one, that comes from reading the back cover. It is, as I said above, a book about environmental disaster, about what might happen if several Antarctic glaciers avalanched and pushed off a piece of the ice shelf that was much larger and more massive than any group of icebergs in recorded history. Russell succeeds at this story well. I don’t have the scientific background to discuss the scientific accuracy of what happens in the book, but from what I do know, it seems possible, even likely. I also find myself paying close attention whenever the news talks about a major ice breakoff from either of the poles. My tag for these news stories is “Fragment”.

The second theme is the human side of the story. If something like this were to happen, how would we react? Unfortunately, I believe that Russell hits the nail on the head again. Few people believe that anything will happen in the magnitude that it will and does, and politicians use the bits and pieces that they allow the public to hear about against their political rivals. The characters’ motives range from idealistic to self-serving and hit everywhere in between, much like our own. The scientists who have the most thorough, clear-eyed understanding of the dangers have the least power to affect anything; the people in power mostly aren’t listening. The news media follow the story because it will advance their careers and their egos. It isn’t that no one tries to do the right thing, or even that they don’t sacrifice their own personal good for their society. Just like in real life, doing the right thing isn’t only costly; it can be difficult to do.

The characters are sharply drawn, but there are a lot of them, and this is a comparatively short book at 214 pages. I’d say there are too many characters for the length of the book, but it’s hard to know who to remove without hurting the story. This is a plot-driven book, rather than a character-driven book, but the characters aren’t cardboard. We just don’t get time to get to know them very well.

Which brings us to the third theme and, if you hate spoilers, skip this paragraph. This theme isn’t hinted at in the advertising. The final theme has to do with the other creatures with which we share our world, and what they think about what’s happening. The one character that stands out, that we really do get to know, is the one that is the most alien to us: the blue whale Ring. He and his pod are there when the Fragment breaks off; he stays to warn other ocean life about the disaster that is coming their way. It is by discovering how to talk with him (in perhaps the weakest scientific point in the novel) that the novel truly comes alive. In the end, the book is about how we interact with the world around us: whether it is intelligent or not.

I’ve enjoyed both reading and rereading this book. The plot carried me on and I turned the pages to see what happens next. Although I wouldn’t call it a literary masterpiece, it is a book with a lot to say about humanity and how we treat the world around us. Go, read it, and have a good long think after.

Russell, Craig.  Fragment.  Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Thistlepress, Ltd., 2016 (October 1).  214 pages.  4 stars.

Review – Vox by Christina Dalcher

I was looking forward to reading this book. The idea of a book actually showing how frequently women’s voices are silenced or unheard was one I was looking forward to reading. Unfortunately, the book I was looking forward to isn’t the one that Dalcher wrote, so that will color my review. You may disagree.

Vox is set in the near future, in a world in which a Pure Movement has gained control of the U.S. government through their relationship with the U.S. President. Their agenda is that of complete separation between men and women, and men will have complete control over the women in their lives. In addition to all women being fired from their jobs, each woman is given a counter to wear around their wrist. Each day, at midnight, that counter is reset to 100. That is the number of words a woman, or girl, is allowed to use throughout the day.

The main character of the story, Jean McClellan, is a cognitive linguist. She has been working with a team working on a treatment for Wernicke’s aphasia. Her husband, Patrick, is a physician, and she has four children, three sons and Sonia, her six-year-old daughter. Dalcher tells the story of how the Pure Movement, and the counters, have come to be. Jean’s oldest son, Steven, is indoctrinated into the philosophy in school and has become a believer in the Pure Movement. Her husband advises her to go along with what’s happening, that something will be worked out.

The beginning is interesting, but the remainder of the book doesn’t really live up to its promise. Instead, it becomes a “fix the problem” book. Due to a skiing accident, the President’s brother has suffered from brain damage that is causing aphasia. It is the same type of aphasia for which Jean had been working on a treatment, so his people have come to her for assistance. And, from there, Jean’s efforts to find the treatment, and then find a way to quiet those who have put this movement in place, continues.

We see some of the effects of the policy throughout the rest of the novel, but I would have preferred a more in-depth look, rather than the “thriller” Dalcher has written. It’s a great idea, but the execution doesn’t do it justice.

Dalcher, Christina. Vox. New York, NY: Berkley, 2018 (August 21). 336 pages. 3 stars.

Review – Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

As the first book in the Hugo-nominated series October Daye, I wanted to enjoy this book. Unfortunately, I think I will be putting Ms. McGuire on my “Do Not Bother” list.

This should not, however, stop anyone else. I suspect my issues with McGuire have more to do with my personal tastes than with her ability to write and tell stories. My best guess may be the same reason that I don’t enjoy Jemisin’s works even though I can identify that she’s a good writer and deserves every last Hugo that she has won.

There is very little happiness in Rosemary and Rue. In the very beginning of the book, Toby (October) Daye loses her beloved partner and child, and there’s likely no way for her to get them back. Then, an ally dies, leaving her with the mystery of her killer, and a curse that will kill Toby unless she figures it out.

I enjoy fantasies with Faerie Courts as a supporting character, which this definitely falls into. I enjoy mysteries, especially if I don’t have to figure out “whodunit” before the end. I’m lousy at it; as with this book, I generally figure it out at about the point that the detective should be collecting the final pieces of confirming evidence. (Not my kind of puzzle.)

I don’t require that the books I read be overwhelming cheerful; I don’t even require a happy ending (all of the time). I don’t read for beautiful writing; I enjoy it when I find it, but it isn’t a requirement. I don’t read for intricate plots; again, I enjoy them when found. I read to engage my brain, to visit other “worlds”, and to escape my world for a few hours.

Rosemary and Rue is well-plotted and well-written. The characters are fairly well-drawn, although I’m sure that will become more true as the series progresses. The mystery is a decent one; I figured it out just before Toby did (so I felt smart). But, just as with everything else of McGuire’s that I’ve read, it’s a dreary world with very little to be happy about, at least for Toby.

McGuire, Seanan. Rosemary and Rue. New York, NY: Daw Books, 2009 (September 1). 368 pages. 3 stars.

Review – The Million by Karl Schroeder

As long as science fiction novels have been written, there have been explorations of different ways of protecting the Earth from humanity. The Million is a somewhat different take on this trope than I’ve seen before. Limiting the population to a specific population, the “million” from the title, is hardly a unique idea, but cryogenically storing the rest of Earth’s population, about ten billion people, who are waiting to

Every thirty years, there is a Jubilee. The ten billion are unfrozen and set loose on Earth and the Million mostly hide for that month. At the same time, it is the time when the reports are given and the grand political trends are set until the next Jubilee. It is also when visitors, people from the ten billion, hide outside for their own purposes. The auditors are those who police the Earth, ensuring that all the agreements are kept to; they are also the ones who do the reporting.

Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee is a member of a family of the Million, but he’s actually a visitor. After an incident at a party that his father and brother give, Gavin finds himself stepping into the shoes of a young man who was trying to become an auditor. Through his training, he slowly becomes aware of the undercurrents in his society that indicate that things aren’t quite what they seem.

It’s an interesting enough book and a quick read, but I found it a slight, forgettable book.

Schroeder, Karl. The Million. New York, NY: Tor.com Books, 2018 (September 1). 160 pages. 3 stars.

 

Review – The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky is the sequel to The Calculating Stars and is set four years later, so this review will have spoilers for that book. If you haven’t already, go and read it; it’s excellent and I’ve babbled quite happily about it.

Not only has Elma York made it to the moon, she now travels there regularly. She is content with this, she sees her husband, Nathaniel, on a regular basis, and they’re even beginning to talk about starting a family. Then, terrorists strike, budget cuts are threatened, and Elma is asked to, once again, put her publicity behind the Mars expedition. The story continues on from there.

One thing I enjoyed about both of the books is that Kowal puts marriage, not romance, front-and-center. Elma and Nathaniel are married before The Calculating Stars begins and they’re still married at the end of The Fated Sky. Their marriage is strong, good for both of them, sometimes romantic, sometimes sexy, but always committed. Kowal gives us a look at a marriage through not just the good times, not just the epically bad times, but through the gritty “eh” times that affect us all. Not only does Elma support Nathaniel when he’s doing important work while she’s consigned to volunteering, not only does Nathaniel support Elma’s drive to join the astronaut corps, when she forgets to pay the electric bill, he accepts that it was a mistake and supports her. It’s not that they never get angry, it’s not that they have a “perfect” marriage, but it’s that they have a good, solid marriage that can handle whatever life throws at them.

Another thing I liked about these books is that there no one is all good or all bad. There are heroes, and people we root for, and there are good and evil actions, but people are a mix of both, and Kowal shows this in her characters. Elma spends a lot of time reminding herself of Parker’s good qualities in The Calculating Stars, because he does such a good job of showing her mostly his bad ones. He despises her because she had the audacity to report him for harassing other female pilots, and getting him into trouble. (Because his actions were, of course, completely acceptable.) On the other hand, she has a tendency to pick at those things that she knows irritate him, without real cause.

Elma really demonstrates that she is far from perfect when she is initially accepted to the Mars mission. Because she has decided she wants to do it, she ignores what it will mean to the others who have already been training together for months. She also steps forward to support, and speak for, the people of color in the group–without talking it over with them first. Racial discrimination is a real issue throughout both of these books, and Elma hates it and wants to stop it, but she’s not always considerate of the feelings of those who have to live with the ways she tries to help.

And, then, of course, there’s the trip to Mars. Which is wonderful, with all the terrific hard science details that make this series such a delight. I recommend this book highly to anyone who likes a good story. This is one.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Fated Sky. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018 (August 21). 320 pages. 5 stars.

Review – The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The fact that The Calculating Stars is an alternate history has very little to do with why I love it, even though I enjoy alternate histories. It’s hard science fiction, the kind that I first fell in love with decades ago and the kind that doesn’t seem nearly as common these days. It’s not a dystopia, although the world could be ending, but it’s not a utopia either. And, since I’ve read Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Glass Universe in the last couple of years, and need to read Hidden Figures, the women computers at the center of the novel seems very timely.

What I loved about this book, and the other stories in this universe, is Elma York. She has a Ph.D. in mathematics and physics, was a WASP pilot during World War Two, is married to a rocket scientist, Nathaniel York, and works for NACA (her universe’s NASA) as a computer. She’s Southern, she’s Jewish, and she’s someone I wish I’d met when I was a girl, because I would have followed her.

The event that sets the novel in motion is a meteorite that strikes Earth in the Chesapeake Bay in 1952. The effects it has destroys Washington, DC and causes destruction all along the eastern coast of the United States. Later calculations, largely done by Elma, indicate that the meteorite may be an extinction-level event. The result of this is an international drive to get mankind into space and start colonizing there.

Although Elma suffers from extreme anxiety when forced to speak before a group of people, she is otherwise a confident driven woman. Since she is a pilot, and was the first person to calculate the size of the meteorite and its long-term effects, she wants to be one of the first astronauts, and she’s willing to do the work to get there.

The book tells Elma’s story as she battles to become an astronaut and go to the moon. In addition to crippling anxiety, she has to battle discrimination because she’s a woman. While she’s fighting that, she has her nose rubbed in the fact that non-white people suffer from much greater discrimination than she does. When she realizes this, she does work to eliminate that as much as possible.

A traditional hard-science plot and a number of strong competent, intelligent women make this a book to enjoy. I talked it up so much that my spouse, who hasn’t had the time or energy to do much reading, even picked it up to read.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. The Calculating Stars. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018 (July 3). 384 pages. 5 stars.

Review – Once There Was a Way by Bryce Zabel

What if the Beatles had stayed together? What would it have looked like, what would have remained the same? What would have changed? Once There Way a Way, as any good alternate history, give plausible answers to these questions.

I found this book through the Sidewise Awards, which it won for 2018. It’s written as a retrospective on the Beatles’ careers since a The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson interview that is the turning point between the novel’s history and our own. Although I’m not the true Beatles fan in my household–that honor belongs to my spouse–I know enough of the history of the band, the men, and the times to see the similarities, the differences, and to be able to judge the plausibility between the two.

Zabel takes events that happened in our history and changes them into ones that could have happened. He changes songs, creates albums, films, interviews, and historical events, and gives his world the rich details that make it come alive.

Finally, it’s lovely to think about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones getting into a friendly competition as to who can tour the longest. I enjoyed the book and wish we could listen to these wonderful albums.

Zabel, Bryce. Once There Was a Way: What If the Beatles Stayed Together? New York, NY: Diversion Books, 2017 (December 5). 308 pages. 4 stars.

Review – Rocket Fuel: Some of the Best from Tor.com edited by Bridget McGovern

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I assumed that when a site devoted to science fiction and fantasy published a book of non-fiction essays that they would be on a variety of scientific subjects. Instead, these essays are on the science fiction and fantasy fields themselves, with a disquieting detour through centaur digestion. This isn’t a complaint, just a surprise as I read through the book.

The thirty-four essays in this collection cover a lot of territory. The one “science” essay, of the kind I’d been expecting, was on centaur digestion, which isn’t for those with a weak stomach. Some of the essays cover reviews and rereads of specific books, others cover films and/or television shows, and others are more general meditations on a specific aspect of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or writing in general. Nearly all of them are interesting, although I’ll admit there was a couple of long essays on series I’m not interested in that I skimmed. There were several that I’ve bookmarked to review later for writing tips and inspiration.

All in all, I’m glad I picked this up and I enjoyed the reading. In addition, after reading these, I’ve subscribed to the Tor.com website to see the newer material as it’s posted. Just don’t expect science essays.

McGovern, Bridget. Rocket Fuel: Some of the Best from Tor.com Non-Fiction. New York, NY: Tor.com, 2018 (July 17). 291 pages. 4 stars.