Review: Lady Astronaut Series

Lady Astronaut Series by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title:  The Lady Astronaut Series
The Lady Astronaut of Mars” – short story (free!)
The Calculating Stars
The Fated Sky
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: 2013 – 2018
ISBN 13:  9780765378385 & 9780765398949
Publisher: Tor
Twitter: @maryrobinette
What’s Auntie Reading Now? pictures:  Fated Sky

Publisher’s Blurb:   (Calculating Stars):  … with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.

(Fated Sky):  Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars.

Mary Robinette Kowal with yours truly
WorldCon 76 – 2018

I am not kidding even a little when I say these books jumped to the top of my list of favorites.  And getting to meet Mary Robinette Kowal was a highlight of my WorldCon experience.  She really is kind, patient and generous.

The Lady Astronaut series is entertaining, even while discussing important topics like sexism, racism and, climate change, just to name a few.

And her publisher Tor has announced there will be two more books in the series.

The Calculating Stars
This book literally starts off with a bang.  A cataclysmic event which takes out most of the east coast of the US, and precipitates a space race to move the world’s population to another planet.

It’s an alternate history of the US space program set in the late 1950s and grapples with the big question we find ourselves facing now, “How do we save ourselves?”

Elma is a mathematician who ferried planes around during World War II.  She is smart, capable and, stubborn.  Her only visible flaw is that she’s a woman in that time period.  She has to fight so much just to have her contributions to the space program noticed.  She’s fine  out of the public eye as a computer.  But that’s not what she wants for herself, or her friends who also fly.

Part of Elma’s story is her social anxiety.  In school she was shamed for being smart.  One of her coping mechanisms is to count prime numbers.  But doing that doesn’t keep her from throwing up before she makes public appearances.  So she does what any sensible person would do, she goes to the doctor for help.

Miltown prescription in hand, Elma is better able to handle her anxiety.  It has to be kept a secret though, because open knowledge would cause those the men in charge to view her as an hysterical female and drop her from the program.

It would have been just as easy to not write this about Elma.  It’s already nearly impossible for her to make any headway on equality in the space program.  Giving her protagonist social anxiety, Kowal shows just how determined Elma is to make equality a realty.

The things the women have to do to prove their worth are demeaning.  Something most women would identify with, no matter their generation or profession.  And all the women striving to be in the space program paste their best smiles on and go through the paces.  They know there’s a lot on the line for so many reasons.

By the end of The Calculating Stars Elma has earned her place in the program setting up the Moon as a way station to Mars.

The Fated Sky
There’s a colony on the moon now, and Elma rotates on and off, flying shuttles to Earth and helping prepare for the next big step, colonizing Mars.

It isn’t until the director realizes that the navigational computer isn’t reliable and too hard to program that a woman is considered for the crew.  Elma’s highly visible profile as the “Lady Astronaut” makes her the choice to go at the expense of someone else’s place.  And living in close quarters makes it harder on everyone involved.

Seven people on a space ship to Mars.  There’s a lot of tension.  Affairs are revealed, old wounds are picked at, and Elma does her best to roll with it.  We finally see what’s been festering between Stetson Parker and Elma York in both books.

We also get to see the astronauts try to work through the personal issues which could very well be the downfall of the mission to Mars.  The best thing about Elma is she’s always trying to understand, and learn, when her privileged white background gets in the way.

By the end of the book, landing on Mars has become not routine, but is well on its way.

Review: River Queens

River Queens by Alexander Watson

Title:  River Queens
AuthorAlexander Watson
Published:  2018
ISBN 13:  978-1939710-857
Publisher:  Orangefrazer Press
Twitter:  @riverqueenbook

Publisher’s Blurb:  River Queens is at once a romance of men and the river, a fantasy come to life, an unparalleled adventure story, one of the best travel journals around—and a glad picture for our turbulent times.

I received a copy of this book from the author for an honest review.  Thank you Alexander Watson!

Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant and the story of River Queens is so compelling I’m having a hard time finding my objectivity.  I want to write a fair review without seeming to shill for him.  But damn this book was good.  It’s one of the better ones I’ve read over the summer.

The book releases mid-October, they haven’t even gotten this one out yet and I’m already asking what he’s working on next.  That’s how much I want him to succeed and keep writing great books so I can keep reading them.

Ahem ….

When I was in 6th grade, my family lived in Hannibal, MO.  The three things which stand out in my mind all these decades later are the mannequin of Becky Thatcher with ankle long blonde braids, the address at which we lived, and the Mississip’.

We were a nomadic family and so were only in Hannibal for one school year.  But the impression that big brown river made on me stays, and makes me homesick for a place I’ve overly romanticized in my childhood memories.

Which is to say, I can relate in some small way to the call of the river.  And that is what Alexander and Dale,  their spotted dog Doris Faye, and a left for dead 1955  forty-five foot Chris-Craft Corsair answer.

It starts in Texas where Alexander finds the wooden yacht, and ends with a refurbished beauty which they sail to Betty Jane’s home berth in Cleveland.

I was smitten pretty early on.  A gay couple is gonna fix up their boat and sail it into unknown territory.  In the South.  They are going to sail right into the belly of unallayed bigotry, and count on the kindness of strangers to help them along the way.

I knew it was going to be good when Watson relates the story of finding The King & I (later renamed Betty Jane).  The man who handles the transaction for the boat tells them, “They think wood boats just sink or break apart … for no reason.  That’s bull.  They fail ’cause somebody quit lovin’ ’em.”

This is a hard life they’re putting themselves into, and it becomes apparent they have enough love for all concerned.  Alexander and Dale go into this knowing it’s going to be one of the hardest things they’ve ever done, and they do it anyway.  And they keep doing it, even when it gets harder than anyone could have expected.

Watson does not sugar coat anything.  Nor does he dwell on the difficulties.  He writes about it all.  And there are some heartbreaking moments in this book.

Awkward’s in there too.  One that had I been within earshot, I’m not sure I could have looked either of them in the eye afterwards.  Watson doesn’t flinch in the telling.  Their loud argument has a good reason to be in the story, it’s not there as some sort of nod to, “See?  We’re just like straight couples, we argue too.”  Nothing in this book is done to make anyone feel Alexander and Dale are other than what they are.

And they are two men who love each other fiercely and work together to rebuild this boat and fulfill their dream.  The people they meet along the way, for the most part, are polite and helpful.  River folk in the South are friendly and say, “See ya down the river.”

Even when they question what two ho-mo-sex-u-als are doing in their river.  And there are several encounters that make me wince for the state of grace which cannot allow people to just be people.

Gods and goddesses what adventures these two have.  It makes me want to pay for adult beverages while they regale me with tales and tell me how they got through heartbreaking death, horrifying weather, and the sweltering humidity of life on a boat on a river.

There’s not a whole lot wrong with the way this book is written.  It’s elegant in a way that so few books these days are.  It’s evident Watson worked hard, and lovingly, on River Queens, but it doesn’t read like hard work at all.  It reads smoothly, like a lazy day on the river when all is right with the world.

I am grateful Alexander Watson reached out to me and asked I read his book.  And I look forward to reading more of his writing as it becomes available.  The country could use a few more gentlemanly intrepid travelers.

Review: Wrinkle in Time Quartet

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Titles:
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
AuthorMadeleine L’Engle
Published:  1962-1986
Publisher:   Farrar, Straus, Giroux
What’s Auntie Reading Now? pictures:  WrinkleWindSwiftlyWaters
Publisher’s Blurb: Madeleine L’Engle’s classic middle-grade series,  A Wrinkle In Time, follows the lives of Meg Murry, her youngest brother Charles Wallace Murry, their friend Calvin O’Keefe, and her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys Murry. Beginning with A Wrinkle In Time, each novel features the characters encountering other-worldly beings and evil forces they have to defeat in order to save the world. The characters travel through time and space and even into Charles Wallace’s body in this beloved series that blends science fiction and fantasy.

A  Wrinkle in Time
For a teenage girl, a misfit herself living in the midst of a tumultuous dysfunctional family, A Wrinkle in Time was a gift.  What I saw at the time was the love of the family for each other, that I was enough like Meg to make me feel a little less alone.  Over the years, I remembered Meg, and her glasses, and the Mrs. W’s who swooped in and took her on a quest to find her father.

Now, in 2018, on my second reading I notice how I’ve changed.  The book I remember hasn’t aged well but the portrayal of love, family, and a place for all misfits still resonates.

That longing to fit in never goes away.  But I’m a long way from the girl who sat on the floor in her closet and read, longing to fit in anywhere.   I no longer strive to fit in.  I love and accept who I am and often revel in the weird quirks I have which make others look at me quizzically.  It is not I who doesn’t fit in, it’s them.

Many Waters
Many Waters is a time travel fantasy story about the time just before the rains fall on Noah’s ark.  The title is a reference to the biblical verse Song of Solomon 8:7, “Many waters cannot quench love.”  It’s both a reference to God’s love for his people, and the love of the Murry twins and one of the characters have for each other.

Sandy and Dennys are described in A Wrinkle in Time as “ordinary.”  And they are, especially compared to the rest of the Murry family.  Extraordinary things happen to the twins in Many Waters, but their reactions are strangely ordinary.

While illicitly playing on their father’s computer, the boys wish to be in a place that’s warmer and less humid than their New England winter.  Zip, zap, zere, their wish is granted, and they appear in the desert in what is now Eastern Turkey.

Always logical and practical, despite the adventures of Meg and Charles Wallace, they try to reason their way out of their predicament.  Surrounded by short humans (a point L’Engle makes repeatedly) who are characters from the Bible, seraphim and nephilim and, magical unicorns, Sandy and Dennys behave as though none of this extraordinary.

No matter, I was able to provide the sense of wonder for them.  Many Waters isn’t a strong story, nor does it add to the quartet, but I found it fascinating.  The bible only says God told Noah to build an ark, and that while following this directive, Noah was ridiculed by his neighbors.

What L’Engle does here is flesh the story out and explores one possibility of the events which led to the Flood.  I could buy into all of it, except the unicorns.  Really?

Magical unicorns who transport people across the desert and through time?  In the Bible?  One would think that a suspension of disbelief which includes time travel, angels and God talking to humans, unicorns would be just another magical element to accept.  I couldn’t.  The unicorns felt like a forced explanation of how Sandy and Dennys got from their cozy home to the desert in another time and place.  And the emphasis on the boys being virgins … just, no.

There’s a theory in Literature Criticism I’m just learning about called Reader-Response, which basically posits that a reader brings all their experiences with them to the book, and those experiences are how the text gets interpreted.

This definitely applied to my reading of Many Waters, because all my reading of ancient religions played a part in my interpretation of the book.  I was able to overlook the many faults of the story and find wonder in this imagining of Noah’s world.  It probably would have worked better if L’Engle had just left the twins at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New to the Stacks: Hugo Winner

The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin
  • Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks – DNF
  • In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
  • The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
  • The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
    1. The Fifth Season – Read
    2. The Obelisk Gate
    3. The Stone Sky