Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review – The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Apologies for the long silence here recently.  Work travel schedule has been a little crazy – in fact, there was only one day this week where I was not on an airplane.

But all this travel afforded me some good audiobook listening time in the various car and airplane rides, so I finally got around to one that has been on my list for ages.  I have wanted to learn more about the Mercury 13 for quite a while, so I used one of my stacked-up Audible credits to pick up The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann.

Written with a beautiful forward by journalist (and NASA journalist in space finalist, before that program was canceled) Lynn Sherr, the book tells the story of some incredible pioneering women in the early days of manned spaceflight.  Their stories are interwoven with political and social context of the times, giving excellent perspective on what was happening – and why- with astronaut selections.

It’s amazing to me just how close we came to having a female astronaut in the early days of the Mercury program.  The Lovelace Foundation privately put thirteen women through the same testing as the male Mercury astronauts, and they excelled.  In many cases, the blew the men out of the water with their performance on those tests.  Mary “Wally” Funk, for example, stayed in the sensory deprivation chamber for a record-setting 10 hours, 35 minutes.  There was also a strong argument for using astronauts who were smaller and lighter in a time when the U.S. space program was having difficulty getting larger payloads to orbit.

The frustrations, challenges, and – in many cases – outright sexism and unfairness did not deter these women.  They continued their personal careers pioneering as champion air racers, military reservists, FAA examiners, flight instructions, and commercial pilots, while also hoping and fighting for the chance to go to space.  NASA’s blanket policy of only using military test pilots unilaterally barred women.  Since women were not allowed to be military test pilots, none would ever pass that wicket  – NASA didn’t need to specifically say “no women allowed,” they just had to include a prerequisite that already said it for them.  The all-white-protestant-male face of NASA would not change for many more years, but it’s important that we don’t forget that there were women who were more than qualified and fighting to go.

The program was kept pretty quiet at the time, and so has almost been lost in history.  I think it’s important to remember these stories.  This book is a well-told story of some amazing women.  I strongly recommend reading this book as a fascinating piece of our history with examples of amazing female role models, and a good story of fighting for equality for all.

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Review: Boston Metaphysical Society

love me some steampunk and gaslamp fantasy.  And webcomics.  So I’m always happy to check out a new series or comic in one of those genres, especially one that’s appropriate for both adult and youth audiences so that I can write about it here.  This week I checked out M. Holly-Rosing’s Boston Metaphysical Society, which is both a webcomic and a series of prequel novellas.  I quickly was sucked in to the comic and enjoyed the story immensely.

It’s more on the supernatural side of steampunk – the characters deal with demons, ghosts, and monsters but there are also lightning-powered weapons and airships.  It also has flavors of historical fiction and alternate history, and you’ll probably recognize some of the characters from your school days: Tesla, Bell, Edison, and Houdini.

The art in the comic reminds me of the style in the Batman graphic novels I loved as a kid, but a little more sepia-toned to give it that Victorian feel.  The art is very well suited to the themes and storyline, and the people are drawn as fairly proportional people in clothing that makes sense for their jobs and culture (i.e. no women in strange, anatomically impossible poses with their chests falling out, but you will see some corsets and even bustles).

The characters range from the guy with an enormous upper-class superiority complex to a quiet, flawed hero with a past, to the under-appreciated genius whose station in life keeps him from being the tremendous success he should be.  There is also a talented young medium who the hero reluctantly lets assist him out of desperation.  She’s the only female character in the webcomic so far, and only a sidekick, but I have high hopes that in the future of the series she’ll get an even bigger role and continue to defy the conventions of her society.

The accompanying novella to the comic, The Demons of Liberty Row, is a prequel that gives background info on the early days of the Boston Metaphysical Society.  It’s written in a style similar to the comic so it’s just a little bit dark, and it leans towards the melodramatic.

The Demons of Liberty Row was an engaging story with interesting characters, but at first I kept finding myself distracted by the need for a heavier hand at editing.   Things like typos, repeated words, irregular use of commas, and long, run-on sentences with frequent use of semicolons made it hard to follow and focus on the story.   The ratio of exposition and description to dialogue and action was also a little high for my taste.

About fifteen pages in, though, I mostly was immersed and stopped being quite as distracted.  I was able to enjoy the really cool devices and doodads all over the home of genius Granville Woods.  I would totally give my right arm to have something like Granville’s amazing house filled with gadgets, workshops, and secret passages.  I also liked his spunky young niece, Sarah, and hope she features again.

My favorite part of the novella was how well it brought the steampunk and gaslamp fantasy genres together.  It has tons of cool gadgets and a healthy dose of mad scientists (both the sort with questionable morals and the simply angry sort).  But it also has plenty of supernatural and spiritual elements that make it a unique cross-genre story.

I would recommend starting with the webcomic, and if you are the kind of person who really likes more background info, then look into the novellas.  The comic and stories contain some violence and a bit of gore, but nothing overtly sexual or over-the-top bloody.  I consider it geared towards adults but appropriate for ages twelve and up, or possibly younger if you have a kid who likes spooky stuff.

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Review: Lightspeed Magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue

I’m calling this a book review because this special issue is about the length of a book.  The whole thing stemmed from yet another high-profile case of rampant sexism in the sci-fi community this year, in which a bunch of whiny men complained that “women are destroying science fiction.”  Well, this naturally caused some backlash, not to mention many people pointing out that a whole bunch of the best sci-fi and fantasy coming out right now is by women.

Examples?  Lois McMaster Bujold and her big stack of Hugo awards and best-sellers.  Elizabeth Moon.  Connie Willis.  Anne McCaffrey.  Ursula LeGuin.  J.K. Rowling, who was told boys wouldn’t buy books written by a woman.  Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice winning both the Hugo (fan-voted) and Nebula (peer-voted) awards this year.   I could go on and on.

But I don’t have to, because the lovely people at Lightspeed magazine did it for me.  They decided to push back against the ill-informed haters and create a special issue written and edited entirely by women.  And they called it the Women Destroy Science Fiction issue, which is just really cool.

Let’s just say it’s a resounding success.  They received over 1000 submissions.  The issue contains fiction – both new and reprints, non-fiction, interviews, articles, you name it.  All of it is high-quality and it was so well-received that they are now making a Women Destroy Fantasy and Women Destroy Horror.  Women are writing in every genre, and they are writing good stuff.

As to the special issue itself?  All good stories.  The intro alone is highly entertaining.  A few of the stories I didn’t particularly care for, but that’s normal in an anthology-type book or magazine.  I especially loved the variety in the issue, though.  The stories ranged from hard sci-fi to the whimsical and fantastic.  The reprints included some very well known short stories.  There was also a great collection of personal essays, some interviews, and even podcasts if you listen from the website link or get the ebook version.

I quite enjoyed the flash fiction section, since that’s not normally a story length I read much of, so it was new and enjoyable.  The reprints were some fairly famous classics, which got me to finally read the fabulous “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon).  Who, as you can tell from that last sentence, had to write as a man in order to get published back in the ’60s and ’70s.

My least favorite was probably Each to Each by Seanan McGuire – not because it was a bad story, but because it’s one of those things where stories/movies/TV that deal with your profession (the Navy, in this case) have to be spot-on or they rub you the wrong way.  Just ask any medical professional who has tried to suffer through watching ER.  The story was good, and creative, but from a standpoint of women serving in the Navy I found it pretty unrealistic.

The novel excerpt from Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold got me hooked, and so it has now been added to my “to be read sometime soon” list, hopefully to be reviewed here at some point.  Her fantastic huntress character definitely made me want more.

The interviews section is tremendously special.  It was enlightening to read some of the stories from women who were pioneers in the genre – what they dealt with, what has changed, and what (sadly) hasn’t changed much since they started writing and interacting with fandom.  The personal essays were a great mix of experiences, some sad, some empowering, all quite powerful.

I always like stories that make me think, or look at something from a new perspective.  Two of the best stories from that aspect were “Like Daughter” by Tanarive Due, and “Walking Awake” by N.K. Jemison.   Without giving too much away, “Like Daughter” explores an aspect of cloning I had never thought about before, and  “Walking Awake” is a darkly disturbing cautionary tale one a scientific advancement terrible people could abuse.

I found “The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced” by Sarah Pinsker to be utterly charming.  “Cuts Both Ways” by Heather Clitheroe contained the coolest bit of new technology.  “In the Image of Man” by Gabriella Stalker is a very interesting perspective on where American culture might be headed.  “A Word Shaped Like Bones” by Kris Millering was probably my favorite story, and you’ll just have to read that one – any attempt I make at describing it would probably ruin it.

Overall, this is one I can highly recommend – you may not enjoy every bit of it, but I think you will find within this special issue something new, something that will make you think, and definitely quite a few things you like.

 

 

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New Stephen Hawking Movie!

I don’t care if it’s overly dramatized.  I can’t wait to see this movie.  I adore Stephen Hawking.  I love his books, and I love that he hasn’t just beaten the odds in his life, he has smashed them to itty bitty smithereens.

He is one of those rare people who is not only brilliant, but also able to bring his ideas to the masses.  He has been quite the controversial figure in the last few decades, though, so I’m also interested in how they treat all that in the movie as well.

Watch the trailer.  Try not to cry.

As to other Stephen Hawking-related things, I highly recommend:

For teens and adults: A Brief History of Time (The classic!  There’s also a movie, but the book is better)

For kids: George’s Secret Key to the Universe

And for adults and kids around 10 and older, the Masters of Science Fiction TV series where Hawking does the intro is really fun.  It consists of six episodes made from some classic, well-known and loved, science fiction short stories.

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Book Review(s): Shift and Dust

I have finally finished all the Silo World books by Hugh Howey – all of them written to date, that is (if you’re reading this, Mr. Howey, I would be quite happy to read more!).  The series began with Wool, which I already reviewed here.  Next in the series is Shift, and the (current) end of the saga, Dust.

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The last two books were every bit as good as the first book – engaging characters, interesting plot twists, and a uniquely fascinating world.  The last two books jump around a little more, giving you the story from long before, during, and immediately after the events in Wool.  Howey artfully jumps around between the events leading up to the creation of the silo, current events in the silo, and a few scenes in between those two periods to tie it all together.

You do finally get to find out how and why the silo was made (and who was behind it).  And that’s all I can really say without spoiling it for you!

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Military Sci-Fi & Fantasy – Who gets it right?

The Military SF panel I was on at DetCon1 did not get to a lot of the topics we had hoped to cover (partially due to a ‘hijacking’ panel member and partially due to the fact that we only had 50 minutes!) and several con attendees asked me follow-up questions in the days after. I love Military SF&F, and enjoy talking about it, so I’m glad so many others wanted to keep talking about it, too.

The most popular question is always: so who gets it right? Not every Military SF&F writer who has been in the military gets it right. Sometimes this is because the person is far removed from their time in the service, other times because they are writing what they don’t really know (a desk jockey writing about special forces missions, for example), it’s possible they aren’t that great at writing or storytelling, and sometimes they are just sensationalizing it or following a cheesy trope trend in order to supposedly give the audience what they want.

That last one disturbs me the most, because I like to think that SF&F readers are smarter than that, and because it is damaging to military members to continue to be stereotyped. There are especially quite a few military SF&F stories that get women in the military wrong (really badly wrong) and even take us a step – or many steps – backwards, despite supposedly taking place in a better future.

People are still writing books where the square-jawed, beefy, swashbuckling white male hero serves in an all-male unit while blowing many things up and saving the day. If there are women, they are often just there as a sex object, motivation tool for the main character, or a secretary.  One panel member last week rightly called some of the worst stories “war porn” – that is, nothing but loads of gore and things going boom, and glorifying war… with no real plot to speak of and very cliche’d one-dimensional characters.

But enough on all that depressing stuff. What I really like to talk about is the people who get it right. These include both people who have served and those who have simply done their homework very well. I’ll list them here in both categories, and the branch the author served in if applicable, if I can easily find it. This list is, of course, limited to what I have read and what I enjoyed. Please share your own recommendations in the comments!

Note that there can be some debate about how ‘military’ some of these are. I include anything involving professional military members, mercenaries, civil defense forces, rebel fighting groups, and fights big enough to be considered battles under the umbrella for my own personal definition. That can be debated in the comments as well!

Good Military SF&F written by authors who have served (in no particular order):
Paksennarion series (fantasy, Elizabeth Moon, US Marine Corps)
Familias series (sci-fi, Elizabeth Moon)
Valor series (sci-fi, Tanya Huff, Canadian Naval Reserve)
Forever War series (sci-fi, Joe Haldeman, US Army)
Starship Troopers (sci-fi, Robert Heinlein, US Navy)
Dune (sci-fi, Frank Herbert, US Navy)
Lost Fleet series (sci-fi, John Hemry writing as Jack Campbell, US Navy)
Stark’s War series (sci-fi, John Hemry)
Paul Sinclair series (sci-fi, John Hemry)
The Healer’s War (fantasy, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, US Army)

Good Military SF&F written by civilian authors (also in no particular order):
Old Man’s War series (sci-fi, John Scalzi)
Vorkosigan series (sci-fi, Lois McMaster Bujold)
Ender’s Game series (sci-fi, Orson Scott Card)
Liaden series (sci-fi, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller)

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Resources for Road Trippin’

Soon we will be embarking on a summer road trip, complete with our first completely kid-free con (kiddo will be camping with the grandparents while we go to NASFiC). So lots of new experiences coming up for all of us.

Since we have approximately 80 hours of driving spread out over a couple weeks, I am doing a lot of prep work for entertaining a small child in the car. I don’t consider these efforts ‘spoiling,’ but rather ‘preservation of the sanity of the drivers.’

First step was to raid the dollar rack at Target and hit up the local Dollar Tree store. This, combined with one of those $5 cleaning gear totes, combined to make a well-stocked kit for ‘analog’ entertainment. Coloring books, stickers, small toys, and crayons joined some educational items and thinner books to make a nice tub of things to do that can sit next to her on the seat.

I also broke down and will buy her Frozen, which she will watch only with headphones on.  So I don’t go berserk by day two of the trip.

Today we finally spent all our stacked-up Audible credits on six new audiobooks to entertain the grownups. Our favorites to listen to in the car are usually Malcolm Gladwell’s books and Maisie Dobbs mysteries from author Jacqueline Winspear – these are narrated by the most pleasant-voiced British woman imaginable.  We also like to throw in some good, solid sci-fi.

This trip we will be listening to the two newest from Gladwell (What the Dog Saw and David & Goliath), the newest from Winspear (Leaving Everything Most Loved), and Redshirts by John Scalzi.

If we run out after listening to all of that, we also have some promising non-fiction downloaded: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon.

If you like audiobooks, the Audible monthly membership is a great deal. For $15 a month you get a credit a month for a single audiobook. If you’ve seen what audiobooks usually cost, this is a very good deal. And you can get some good discounts/special offers on the memberships if you sign up through an existing Amazon account.

You can also often add on the Kindle print version of the book (or if you have the Kindle version already, add on the audiobook), for just a few dollars more.  Audible has other special promotions and discounts pretty frequently as well.

Next, I need to shop for some new kid apps for the iPad, preferably of the educational and free variety. Anyone have recommendations?  I’ll share what we come up with for that in another post, so appreciate your inputs.

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Girl Genius – webcomics, comic books, and novels

As a follow-up to last week’s list of favorite webcomics, I checked out one of my brother’s recommendations, Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  I had seen their (Hugo-winning) books on display in the dealer’s room at various cons but had never gotten around to actually reading any – and I had no idea that they now have a free online webcomic to read in addition to the print books.

Today I checked out Girl Genius, and it’s awesome.  The storyline sucked me in right away.  The art is lovely, with diverse characters shaped mostly like real people, not creepy disproportionate stereotypical comic book people.  The storyline is fun, and chock full of mad genius-y goodness, terribly dastardly villains, and a bona fide Girl Genius.  The authors describe it as ‘gaslamp fantasy’ rather than Steampunk, which I think is a very fitting description.

I would definitely recommend this for the tween-and-up crowd, and perhaps even for kids as young as ten if your kid is already into reading comics or very precocious.   I’m looking forward to working my way through the archives and catching up on Agatha’s adventures.  It’s good reading for adults, and shows a solid strong female character for younger kids looking for good (and unusual) role models.

You can read it online as a webcomic, or purchase the comic books and novels.  There are also apps (I love the paper doll app) and other fun merchandise.  Check all of the goodness out here.

Are you a Girl Genius fan?  Do you have other recommendations for great comics with strong female characters or that show how cool science is?

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Book Review: Etiquette and Espionage

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In case you couldn’t tell from the profile pic, I am, among all the other things I squee about on a regular basis, a pretty big fan of Steampunk.  I also fully admit that since I tend to enjoy all books, I enjoy plenty of YA books – I don’t really go in for the snooty ‘I’m to grown up for YA‘ thing.  Plus, you know, I have a preschooler, so the books in our house gravitate away from ‘grownup’ material pretty frequently.  Like if I have to read a Llama Llama book one more time I might scream.  But I digress.

I have really enjoyed all of Gail Carriger’s books, which not only involve steampunk but also the supernatural.  The main cast contains werewolves, vampires, preternaturals, and plain old humans.  Her books are fun, slightly ridiculous, and have very likeable characters.  Also, many of the characters have completely ridiculous names, which I find oddly endearing – normally that kind of thing would just annoy the snot out of me.

They’re not exactly high falutin’ literature, but these books are solidly in my ‘reading for enjoyment’ category.  I thoroughly enjoyed Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series about the indomitable preternatural Alexia Tarabotti.  And now I find that I am actually enjoying her YA series, set a few decades earlier in the same universe, even more.

The first book in this series, Etiquette and Espionage, follows fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminnick away to a finishing school.  She is sent away by her mother, who can’t deal with her daughter’s troubling mix of mischief, brains, and tendency to speak her mind.

The school turns out to be a very different kind of finishing school than either Sophronia or her mother anticipated.  In addition to learning the finer points of fashion, landing a husband, and keeping a proper household, the young ladies at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality learn how to be spies and assassins.

The school is housed in a giant dirigible.  It is staffed by a vampire, a French inventor, a werewolf-soldier, a nun, a woman of ill repute, a fluff-headed headmistress who has no idea that her school is not a regular finishing school, impish lads in the engine room, and a whole lot of mechanical servants.

Sophronia starts and ends the book in heaps of trouble, and I’ll let you read it to find out how and why.  Overall, it’s a very fun read – but if you don’t appreciate steampunk, teenagers, silliness, and British humor, give it a miss.  I would especially recommend this to anyone looking for a YA book with a strong female protagonist, that is not in the current dystopian fashion.  It’s not Hogwarts, but Mlle Geraldine’s is certainly a school I would have had fun attending.

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Book Review – Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen in Today’s Military

 

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This book really rubbed me the wrong way.  A lot.  And I’m having trouble putting my finger on why.

A couple things I can identify right off the bat are that while it’s generally well-researched, a few things show that the author just… doesn’t get it.  She talks about someone exercising with cattle bells – it’s kettle bells.  Little things like that, that show someone who talked to people in the military but hasn’t done anything beyond talk.  She hasn’t lived it, and so the terminology and details are just that little bit off.  All military books/drama have little things wrong – or even very big things (I’m looking at you, Full Metal Jacket and JAG and NCIS), but those don’t bug me as much for some reason.

The phenomenon is probably comparable to the irritation my medical-type friends have watching shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy – sure, they had highly paid consultants, but some of it still ends up just plain wrong or unbelievable or unrealistic for the sake of entertaining TV.

But mostly it’s the overall attitude of this book that gets me.  The books screams, “Look at this woman in the military!  She’s such a novelty!  Still!”  And we’re not new or novelties.  We may still be outnumbered approximately 5-to-1, but we’re not new or novel or even exotic.

There’s also an implication over and over was that we’re still struggling really hard to find a niche and prove ourselves.  It says we’re fighting to find our place in a man’s world, instead of simply doing our jobs the best we can, and we’re really the second and third generations doing so.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about here because the stories focus on Soldiers and Marines rather than sailors, and I haven’t been one of those services in particular.  I have been an Army spouse and done a joint deployment though.  But I do know a lot of women in the other services, so I will have to see if any of them have read this book and have the same reaction or not.

I was surprised to find this on some of the services’ “professional reading” lists.  I might recommend a friend read it, just to see if he or she had the same gut reaction as me, but I would certainly never recommend this as professional reading.  It reinforces stereotypes – those of military women being outsiders and really not being able to ‘have it all’.   It shows only women who either don’t have families or who ended up divorced.

The book follows four women through their respective careers – sort of.  It’s fairly hard to follow, as it jumps around unpredictably between the four stories.  It ends abruptly, followed by an awkward epilogue.  Essentially the stories are of an Army Major who graduated from West Point, an Army Lieutenant who went to Norwich University, a Marine Sergeant who serves in combat and becomes a Drill Instructor, and a Marine General who deals with being both a woman and a minority.

Author Tanya Biank hits one of my sorest points, too, harping on how much harder it must be for women to leave their children to deploy, and how it’s so much less socially acceptable than for a man.  It reinforces the false message that you can’t be a good mom if you leave your kids for a deployment, but you can still be a good dad if you do so.

The book represents these stories as typical lives in the service for all women, and I don’t think they are.  The stories also imply that women in the military must be married to their jobs, or else have dysfunctional relationships.  Yes, the stats for married women in the services are depressing, but I think she overdramatizes the stories and ignores the fact that the stats are just as depressing for married men in the service.  I also have to wonder just how much of the book is exaggerated or embellished for drama’s sake, and how much of the very deeply personal anecdotes she was really given permission to use.

I haven’t read her other, more notorious work, Army Wives (yes, the one that gave us the TV show).  I don’t particularly care to, either, so someone else will have to fill me in on that one.  Anyone have feedback on that?

I’ll write some more here if I ever figure out what, besides the tone and focus on the negatives, irritated me so much about this book.  Army and Marine ladies out there, have any of you read this?

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