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.

Book Review – An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

This book started out as a series of posts on Tor.com call Revisiting the Hugos. It was the author’s, Jo Walton’s, look at the Hugos. She look at not just the winners, but the nominees, the books that didn’t make the short list, the other awards, and anything else she found interesting. When putting the book together, she included some of the most relevant of the comments; mostly those from fellow writers and editors.

That highlights the strength and weakness of this book. It’s put together by someone who isn’t only a science fiction/fantasy fan, but by a professional writer who has spent years not just reading but studying the works in the field. The comments that she uses are primarily from editors, who know the field as professionals, not as “simple” fans. The book covers not simply the works, but their place in historical and cultural context, how well they’ve aged, and how well they’re remembered.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read just a year or two at a time. I had to slog and really force my way through it, but I kept thinking that, at some point, I was going to want to go back and read this or that entry again, with more careful attention to it. I never paid a lot of attention to the politics, history, and culture of the science fiction community as a whole; I just read what I enjoyed that I could find.

The tone of the book is informal and chatty; it sounds very much like a conversation. My biggest issue with it is that she puts so much information into each year that it’s intimidating. She talks about books that she read once thirty years ago with actual memory of it; I struggle to do the same with some books I read last year, or last month.

She covers the Hugo Awards, mostly for the novels but the shorter works are discussed and all other awards are at least briefly mentioned, from 1953 to 2000. There’s a lot of material here and I look forward to reading it again…one chapter (year) at a time.

Walton, Jo. An Informal History of the Hugos. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon. August 7, 2018.

Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This is a book that I’ve seen a number of times that looked interesting but, for a variety of reasons, I’ve never picked it up. A good friend of mine recently recommended it, so I read it, and I’m so glad I did.

This is an historical novel, expanding the story of Dinah from Genesis 34. The author states that this isn’t an attempt at telling the “real” story, but a fictionalization from what is in the Bible and what is known about the peoples of that area of that time.

Briefly, the story of Genesis 34 states that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, went into the area to visit the women. Shalem, the son of Hamor, raped her, but then decided he was in love with her and asked his father to get her as his bride. Hamor went to talk with Jacob, asking for Dinah as his son’s wife and offering that Jacob could set her bride price. Jacob did so, but several days later, some of Dinah’s brothers went and killed all of the males of the city in revenge for their sister’s rape.

My interpretation of this story is that it’s telling the story of the transition away from “kidnapping the bride.” At the end of the story, Dinah is left as either a defiled maiden or a widow. We hear nothing more about her. As with many stories in the Bible about women, her sole purpose is to marry as a virgin and provide sons to her husband; anything else leaves her defiled and rejected.

Diamant takes this skeletal story and adds flesh to it. We see the world through Dinah’s eyes, and it is mostly a world of women. At that time, the world of men and the world of women were largely separate; Dinah knows her father and her brothers, but her deep relationships are with her mother and aunts. It is a world of polygamy; her aunts are also her father’s wives and many of her brothers are half-brothers. She follows the mother and mother-aunts she adores; learning their skills, and how to handle their strengths and weaknesses. She has less contact with her brothers and much less with her father. The image that the book continually comes back to is that of the “red tent”, or menstrual tent/hut, of the title.

A little over halfway through the book, Diamant tells the story from Genesis 34. What is stated in starkly simple words, with Dinah no more than a casus belli, takes pages of description. In the novel, unlike in Genesis, Dinah is not a victim. She is a willing and enthusiastic participant. Although she and Shalem are in part manipulated–his mother sees them as a good match, both personally and for their communities–their passion for one another is real and reciprocated. Dinah ignores the social stigma of what she is doing and allows Shalem to ask his father to send a royal bride price for her.

What happens between the Hamor, Jacob and Dinah’s brothers is part misunderstanding and part stiff-necked pride. Dinah’s wishes and interests aren’t taken into consideration; it is her father, her brothers, and their pride which are given priority. In the end, what happens is tragedy for Dinah; her husband and all of the males of his family are killed. She is brought back to her family still reeling from the carnage around her.

No longer willing to be a part of the men who destroyed the family she had joined, she curses her father and brothers and returns to her mother-in-law. They leave for her mother-in-law’s family, in Egypt. The last third of the story is set in Egypt, and tells the story of the rest of Dinah’s life.

This is a bare-bones description of a book that is rich in description, of the characters, the cultures, and the world in which the book is set. The author acknowledges in an interview included for this twentieth anniversary of the original publication that we don’t know if the culture truly works the way she wrote it. A good example is the menstrual tent: it is used in many cultures of the area in both space and time, but we don’t know if it was used in that part of Canaan.

The Red Tent is not an expansion of the historical events of Genesis 34. It is a fictional creation using those events as a starting point of a beautifully rich story of a young woman and the alien world in which she lived. I highly recommend it.

Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent. New York, NY: Picador, 1997. Kindle edition. Amazon.

Hugo Awards To Be Announced

On August 19, 2018, the Hugo Awards will be announced at Worldcon 76 in San Jose, California.  The finalists are listed below; the links go to my reviews of the work.  There’s some really good reading here; please enjoy!

Best Novel

Of the six novels, my favorite is Provenance, followed by New York 2140 and Six Wakes.  Judging by the last two years and the year’s Nebula awards, I suspect that The Stone Sky will be the winner.  Ultimately, they’re all good, solid reads.

For the next three categories, I reviewed all of the candidates for both the Hugo and Nebula finalists in one entry.  So, you can get even more reading if you so desire.

Best Novella

  • All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.
  • “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker.
  • Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor.
  • The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang.
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire.
  • River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey.

Again, some really good reading here.  MURDERBOT!  (Excuse me.)  My favorite is All Systems Red; in fact, I can’t wait until Rogue Protocol, the third in the series comes out next week.  After that, I recommend “And Then There Were (N-One)” and River of Teeth.  I’m really hoping I’ve picked the winner in this one; it’s delightful.

Best Novelette

  • “Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard.
  • “Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee.
  • “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer.
  • “A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
  • “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara.
  • “Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker.

My favorite of this group is “Wind Will Rove.”  I made my husband read it, which mostly I don’t bother with.  I also enjoyed “The Secret Life of Bots” and “A Series of Steaks”.  The other three didn’t appeal to me, but they’re well-written.

Best Short Story

  • Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim.
  • “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde.
  • “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
  • “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata.
  • “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon.
  • “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

My favorite of these is “Fandom for Robots,” with “The Martian Obelisk” and “Sun, Moon, Dust” following.

In short, there is a lot of good reading in the lead-up to the Hugo Awards this month.  While you’re at the beach, or wherever you go vacationing, take some with you.  And enjoy!

I’ll repeat this post the day before the awards and follow the day after with a list of the winners.

Review – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

This is the second book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. The first book in the series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the Nebula award and the World Fantasy award, and was a fun read.

This book starts off planning the trip set up at the end of the first one, an expedition to visit Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Harker nee Murray, and to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing. And the adventure itself is fun, full of adventure, kidnappings, fights, romance, and lots of familiar names. The seven women from the first novel all have their parts to play in this one, with several new women in this, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. After the rescue, our heroines take off to stop a Royal Society-type organization that is creating more monsters.

I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first one, and I think the reason is that, at 720 pages, it was too long. There are two stories, related, but I think it would have worked better if the stories had been separated. And, since the book was so long, the comments from the other women, which tend to be funny and add color and character, became distracting.

I’m hoping that the author gets advice to shorten her books so that the next entry in the series will be as entertaining as the first one.

Goss, Theodora. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. New York, NY: Saga Press, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon.

Review – Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I suspect that, like Uprooted by the same author, Spinning Silver will be nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards next year.  It is engaging and well-written and will certainly be a good contender for either award.  I especially enjoyed this novel because the central characters are all female and willing to take action to change their lives, and because it isn’t set in the standard Western European fairy tale kingdom, but an Eastern European one, which means that things aren’t as standard.  (Warning: there are spoilers in this review for the novel.)

The novel revolves around three young women, all of them isolated, belittled and scorned, who decide to take what actions they can to improve their lives or the lives of those they love.  Miryem Mandelstam, the Jewish moneylender’s daughter, is the only one who truly feels loved at the beginning of the novel, is also the one who sets things in motion. When the Staryk, winter fairies, begin expanding the winter, her mother becomes sick.  Her father is notoriously bad at collecting the debts owed him, so Miryem goes out and begins doing so to get what is needed to help her mother get well. Her parents are horrified, but aren’t capable of taking over the job, so she continues.

The second of the three young women is Wanda, the daughter of one of the farmers in the nameless town in which the novel begins.  Her mother dies after giving birth to eight children, of whom only three survive: Wanda, Sergey and Stepon. While trying to recover from the final birth, her father Gorek borrows six kopeks from Miryem’s father.  After drinking two and gambling two, he uses the last two to get medicine for his wife, which isn’t enough to save her. Years later, when Miryem begins collecting what her father is owed, Gorek claims he cannot pay.  Deciding that this is probably true, Miryem bargains instead for Wanda’s labor to care for the Mandelstams.

For Wanda, the most passive of the three young women, this is a rescue.  As long as she has to work for Miryem, her father can’t sell her off to be married.  In addition, once she begins to work for Miryem and her family, she discovers love and care that she hasn’t had since her mother’s death.  It is Wanda who uses the metaphor that Miryem can spin silver into gold by watching her employer turn a small investment into a greater profit.

The Staryk king hears this and comes for Miryem.  He first gives her a silver kopek and tells her to turn it to gold.  She goes to the jeweler fiance of her cousin, he turns the silver into a ring, and they sell that ring to Vysnia’s duke in return for a single gold coin.  As is common with fairy tales, the king demands greater quantities of gold. In return, he will not kill Miryem, but will marry her. The second quantity is turned into a necklace and the third into a crown.  All three are bought by the duke to give to his daughter, Irina, to convince the tsar to marry her. Irina is the third of the young women at the center of the novel.

Each of the young women has to face a trial at the hands of the brutal and violent men in control of their lives and, ultimately, wrest control back to their own hands.  Each of them finds strength in community, and in the women, and sometimes the men, in their lives. As with traditional fairy tales, the risks are perhaps greater than the reward, but that reward is not insubstantial.  And in the end, these women rescue each other.

The connection to Rumpelstiltskin is a little on the thin side, but that was never the main charm of this novel anyway.  That is in the women.
Novik, Naomi.  Spinning SIlver.  New York, NY:  Del Rey, 2018. Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969, the four Gold siblings, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, go to visit a fortuneteller on Hester Street.  They don’t go to get their fortune told, but to find out when they will die.  The rest of The Immortalists follow the siblings as they live their lives until each of them, except the last, dies.

This book is an unusual one for me.  When I read fiction, it is usually genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, mystery, and combinations thereof.  This novel is none of those: it is a story of a family as they live, and die, from 1969 until today, with forays into the past to see their parents and where they come from, in both literal and metaphorical terms.

Although I had a hard time getting involved with the story, I suspect that was less to do with it and more to do with me.  The characters were complex and the story was well-told, with forays into pre-and-early-AIDS San Francisco, stage magic, and longevity research.  The story focuses on the four siblings, but we get to see four generations of the Gold family, in glimpses at the very least.

As would be expected from the synopsis, it’s a story about family, about dying, about living, and, of course, about love.  Love and life in all its messy glory.

Not my usual cup of tea, but I enjoyed it more than most of its type.

 

Benjamin, Chloe.  The Immortalists.  New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale

Typically, when I review a series, I review each of the books separately.  For Kingdom of the Wicked, however, I’m going to review both of these books together.  This is largely because, even though the first one did come to a conclusion, they really are two parts of a larger work.

To address the technical issues first, although I didn’t have any trouble with perspective in these books, the tenses were not always consistent, which I found more annoying than confusing.

The other thing has to do with how alternate histories, or at least the ones I read, are usually written.  Typically, there is one event (a shard from an artwork carving out a six mile sphere of 2000 West Virginia and dumping it in 1631 Germany) and everything after follows logically (at least in the author’s mind) from that point.  These books, however, were specifically written to examine what how ancient Rome, with today’s technology but their legal system, would respond to a certain Yeshua Ben Yusuf (Jesus son of Joseph, or Jesus Christ).  It’s an interesting idea, and one that will work on my mind.

Although Roman sexual mores were much stricter than Dale portrays, I believe she is doing two things here.  First, she is positing what technology may have done to the sexual morals.  Second, I think she is comparing Rome and the Jews, with American and Muslim (or maybe just Middle Eastern) cultures today.

Certainly, her Rome is very concerned with law, and very concerned that the law be kept no matter what.  At the same time, they don’t believe that helping the poor or disabled helps anyone.  “Just giving to the poor encourages them to continue asking for help instead of making their way out of poverty,” seems to be the basic attitude.  Anyone who has been involved in a political debate about Medicaid and/or welfare in the U.S. will recognize the argument.  At the same time, the Jewish people are very concerned with taking care of the poor, even if that means some unworthy people get helped along the way.

The core of the story, though, is Jesus and his story.  Kingdom of the Wicked only focuses on the events of the “Holy Week”, from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to the end of the trial.  It is in this examination that I most enjoyed these two books.  The main characters we know are here, although you do need to know a little about Hebrew and Aramaic to recognize the names, (Yehuda is Judas, Petros is Peter, the Virgin Mary is Miriam Bat Amram), although others are clear, such as Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.  The familiar villains are here; some, like High Priest Caiaphas are much as expected although others, like Pontius Pilate, aren’t quite as villainous as might be expected.  (Much of that depends on what you know and what else you’ve read, as well.)

In this telling of the story, Jesus doesn’t come off quite as well as he does in the Gospels.  He’s more human, even as it’s obvious he’s trying to tell a story about God as Love, he’s more likely to make mistakes, lose his temper, and not treat people maybe as well as he should.  There are other stories from other traditions that Dale tells as well:  Yeshua Ben Yusuf’s father is a Roman soldier named Pantera, a story that was told in first and second century Jewish tradition.  Saul the tentmaker has an important role to play as well.

In the end, although there are many things I would quibble with, and although I would love to see an editor correct some of the technical shortcomings of these two books, this story of first century Jerusalem and Yeshua Ben Yusuf will stick with me.  I give it four stars.

 

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book One: Rules.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book Two: Order.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.