Audiobook Review: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 14 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Fated Sky continued the grand sweep of alternate history begun in The Calculating Stars. It is 1961, and the International Aerospace Coalition has established a colony on the moon. Elma York, the noted Lady Astronaut, is working on rotation, flying shuttles on the moon and returning regularly to Earth.

But humanity must get a foothold on Mars. The first exploratory mission is being planned, and none of the women astronauts is on the crew list. The International Aerospace Coalition has grave reservations about sending their “Lady Astronauts” on such a dangerous mission. The problem with that is the need for midjourney navigation calculations. The new electronic computation machines are not reliable and not easily programmed. It might be okay for a backup, but there will have to be a human computer on board. And all the computers are women.

I read The Fated Sky a year ago, but apparently didn’t write a review at the time. Don’t ask me why! But in any case, I’ve just completed a re-read via audiobook, and loved it all over again… so I think it’s about time to share my thoughts.

The Fated Sky is the follow-up to The Calculating Stars, which I love, love, love, love, love. A second book in a series is never quite as breathtaking as the first, in my humble opinion, because there’s already a familiarity with the world presented in the book. And so, while The Fated Sky didn’t blow me away the way The Calculating Stars did, it did keep me engaged in new and different ways, and was an altogether satisfying return to the world of the Lady Astronaut.

To get anyone new to this series caught up, here’s what you really need to know: It’s been about 10 years since a devastating meteor struck Earth, resulting in global catastrophe. The planet faces accelerating climate change, which will eventually become so extreme that human life on Earth will no longer be possible. In these dire circumstances, the international community comes together to pursue space exploration. After all, if people can’t live on Earth, they’ll have to live off Earth.

In book 1, we met Dr. Elma York, brilliant mathemetician and physicist, as well as a top-notch pilot who flew with the WASPs during WWII. Elma is married to Dr. Nathaniel York, an equally brilliant engineer. As the space program gets underway, Nathaniel becomes one of the lead engineers, while Elma pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut. It’s simply fascinating, and I urge you to read the book if you haven’t yet!

In The Fated Sky, we pick up in the early 1960s. Humans have established a colony on the moon, and the next target is Mars. The first Mars mission is about 18 months away — but not all on Earth are happy about the space program.

Earth Firsters are angry — they believe that space travel and colonization will end up being a privilege for the elite. How are the people left behind supposed to survive? With poorer areas still suffering the aftermath of the meteor’s destruction, with food, housing, and medical shortages, they feel that the country’s resources are being unfairly allocated to the space program. The protesters are becoming more outspoken, to the point of violence, in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Elma gained fame in book #1 as “the Lady Astronaut”, and when the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) assigns her to the Mars mission, it’s clearly with an eye on public relations. But with this assignment, Elma replaces a dear friend who’d already been training for the mission, so she’s not only behind in her training but also facing resentment and hostility from the other crew members who see her as an interloper taking someone else’s place.

The Fated Sky takes place during the preparation for the Mars expedition, as well as the months of the actual journey to Mars. And while the science is absolutely fascinating, it’s Elma’s personal struggles and challenges that make it all so real and so deeply affecting.

Elma is a brilliant scientist. She’s also a devoted wife, a Southern Jew, a woman in a man’s world, and a white woman who’s not always as aware of her privilege as she should be. In the world of the Lady Astronaut books, the social unrest and upheavals of the real-world 1960s has largely been moved forward a decade along with the scientific advancements. We see women struggling for opportunity, even while being expected to maintain traditional standards of femininity (like always having their hair and makeup done before public appearances and deferring to their male counterparts even when they have superior knowledge or technical expertise. Not to mention that the female astronauts seem to be the only ones assigned laundry duty on their space mission. Argh.)

Racial inequality and civil rights feature much more prominently in The Fated Sky than they did in The Calculating Stars. There’s suspicion of the Black astronauts and whether they’re conspiring with Earth Firsters. Mission Control assigns them less prestigious assignments during the Mars expedition than their white colleagues, even when they’re clearly the better choice, which leads to disastrous results. And in myriad other, more subtle ways, the matter of race permeates the crew relations, so that even someone as well-intentioned as Elma ends up causing offense, until she’s finally told point-blank:

“One thing: Don’t explain my experience to me. It’s annoying as hell.”

On top of all this, one of the expedition crew members is a white South African, and remember, this is the early 1960’s — he’s so full of apartheid-era hate that it’s incredible that he was actually allowed to participate in the mission, and if not for international pressure related to South Africa’s financial backing of the IAC, he probably would not have been. By showing the Earth protests, the more subtle racial profiling and preferences on board the ship, and the blatant racism of this one particular astronaut. the author evokes a time of change and volatility — and sadly, exposes issues that still permeate society today.

Elma struggles too with her mental health. She’s suffered from anxiety for most of her life, which she’s worked hard to control. Her coping mechanisms are put to the test during the mission in response to the ongoing hostility she experiences from her fellow astronauts early on, especially as she realizes that she’s the only crew member who doesn’t really fit in and isn’t completely trusted.

I think maybe one of the reasons I had time loving this book the first time I read it had to do with how entangled my feelings were with Elma’s experiences. I felt so awful reading about Elma’s struggles and personal pain and how terrible she often felt. So it’s not that the book isn’t excellent — just maybe that I become overly invested in Elma as a person and didn’t like seeing her feel bad!

Anyhoo… the audiobook is such a treat! Author Mary Robinette Kowal is the narrator, and she’s a total pro. (She also narrates Seanan McGuire’s October Daye audiobooks, and does an amazing job with them.) She clearly knows these characters and what makes them tick, and I could feel Elma’s personality, as well as many of the other characters’, coming through so clearly. Fabulous.

I love the world of the Lady Astronaut, which the author first introduced in her short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (which actually takes place many years after the events of the books, but provides some additional context — you can read the story for free here.)

Listening to the audiobook was a perfect way for me to revisit the story of The Fated Sky. The 3rd book in the series, The Relentless Moon, will be released in July, and I absolutely can’t wait to read it!

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Shelf Control #222: Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Two Old Women: An Alaska Legen of Betrayal, Courage and Survival
Author: Velma Wallis
Published: 1993
Length: 140 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine.

Though these women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die trying. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community and forgiveness “speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness and wisdom” (Ursula K. Le Guin).

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy several years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I love Alaska, and love reading fiction set in Alaska. I also love myths and legends. Sooner or later, reading lists related to Alaska, legends, or a combination of both feature Two Old Women — a book I’ve seen displayed prominently on the Native Alaskan fiction shelf in giftshops across Alaska. I think I’ve been missing out by not reading this sooner, and considering the length, I imagine it’s a quick read.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Book Review: Hella by David Gerrold

Title: Hella
Author: David Gerrold
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A master of science fiction introduces a world where everything is large and the problems of survival even larger in this exciting new novel.

Hella is a planet where everything is oversized—especially the ambitions of the colonists.

The trees are mile-high, the dinosaur herds are huge, and the weather is extreme—so extreme, the colonists have to migrate twice a year to escape the blistering heat of summer and the atmosphere-freezing cold of winter.

Kyle is a neuro-atypical young man, emotionally challenged, but with an implant that gives him real-time access to the colony’s computer network, making him a very misunderstood savant. When an overburdened starship arrives, he becomes the link between the established colonists and the refugees from a ravaged Earth.

The Hella colony is barely self-sufficient. Can it stand the strain of a thousand new arrivals, bringing with them the same kinds of problems they thought they were fleeing?

Despite the dangers to himself and his family, Kyle is in the middle of everything—in possession of the most dangerous secret of all. Will he be caught in a growing political conspiracy? Will his reawakened emotions overwhelm his rationality? Or will he be able to use his unique ability to prevent disaster?

Hella is a hella big place. It’s a large planet where, due to lower gravity as compared to Earth, living things grow to crazy huge size. And there are dinosaurs. And they’re HELLA gigantic. Herbivorous leviathans migrate across the plains, slowly stomping over everything in their path, and hungry carnosaurs attack them in groups, feasting for days on the huge carcasses that they manage to bring down.

Hella is not the most hospitable environment for humans, but these few thousand colonists are there to make it home. It’s already been a hundred years since the First Hundred made landfall, and since then, additional migrations of humans have helped the colony to grow and expand.

Caution is the highest priority. Everything is studied and planned for, because it’s crucial that the human population avoid cross-contamination with the Hella natural world. All food is grown within the enclosed colonies, and care is taken never to allow human-produced microbes or plants out into the planet’s own natural environment.

We get to know the world of Hella through main character Kyle, a neuro-atypical teen (roughly 13 years old in Earth years, or 5 years old in Hella years). Kyle is smart and detail-oriented, devoted to his family, but has challenges understanding nuance and reading other people’s emotions, doesn’t like to be touched, and is unable to leave a topic until he’s shared everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) he knows about it. He’s gifted and his talents can benefit the colony, but there are some who view Kyle as a freak and treat him that way.

While the colony seems to function on the principle of communal service toward the greater good, there are those who thirst for power, just like in any human society. When the chief power-hungry representative gets an opportunity to seize control, he takes it.

Hella is an interesting book, although I have some issues with it. At the beginning, the focus is on getting to know the planet and the colony. Kyle goes out on an expedition for the first time, and through his experiences, we get to see the plants, trees, strange creatures, and huge dinosaurs that roam the land.

We’re also introduced to the daily routines, the concept of work that’s at the foundation of this human society, and the myriad factors that go into maintaining safety and self-sufficiency.

We learn more about how human society has changed and evolved over the years since our own time as well. For example, gender is fluid and easily changeable. Kyle’s mother was born biologically male, but changed to female so she could experience pregnancy (which is in itself a fairly unusually choice, as many people prefer to have their babies bottle-grown rather than womb-grown). Kyle himself was born biologically female, but decided to change when his older brother did, largely because he too wanted to be able to pee standing up. Changing doesn’t have to be permanent; later in the book, Kyle has cause to rethink his decision and considers changing again in order to please his boyfriend (which is a frustrating reason to change, but fortunately, his boyfriend sees it that way too.)

By the second half of the book, the emphasis is less on the natural world outside the human habitats and much more on the political maneuvering within the human colony. There’s a conspiracy afoot, and Kyle and his friends may be in the best position to try to stop it. There’s plenty of danger and excitement as they chase through tunnels, hack networks, and try to avoid or defeat the bad guys.

My feelings about Hella are mixed. First off — cool planet! I really liked learning about this world, its dangers and its beauty, and what it takes for humans to adapt and survive there.

But, there’s just so much time spent with Kyle on the details! Granted, this is a piece of who Kyle is, but his need to go down the rabbit hole chasing every detail doesn’t always make for great reading, and I felt that the plot tended to bog down in detours.

At almost 450 pages, this book is longer than it needs to be. I think if 50-75 pages had been trimmed, the pacing might have improved, keeping the plot more on track and letting momentum build. As is, I didn’t truly feel caught up or swept along by the story until the 2nd half, and that’s too bad, as there are elements of a great story here.

As I said, I did really enjoy the (literal) world-building the author accomplishes in introducing us to the human society in this large and frightening world, and explaining how they find ways to improve their resources bit by bit, even while always protecting themselves from the dangers just outside their fences.

I was a bit startled looking at the author’s Goodreads profile when I realized that some of the characters in Hella appear in his earlier works. This made me wonder how much I was missing and whether a familiarity with other books would enhance the reading experience.

This is me being persnickety, but the author’s writing style got on my nerve in places. He has a tendency to throw commas into sentences to connect clauses. Random example:

Outside, the northeast slope was a rumpled landscape, hundreds of layers of lava flows had hardened here.

Just a little pet peeve of mine. Use a period! Separate your sentences! Or, you know, give semicolons a try!

Hella has a conclusion that ties up the major action of the story, but there’s certainly room for more storytelling about the colony, its people, and its politics — plus, it would be fun to get to see what happens next for Kyle, his family, and his friends.

I do recommend Hella, but wished that it was just a little tighter and faster overall. Still, it’s a fun and engaging story set in a really fascinating world, and I’m glad I read it.

The Monday Check-In ~ 6/22/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Well, it’s been rough. This was one of the worst workweeks I’ve ever gone through. My “day job” is in human resources, and this week, my organization laid off 150 employees. While I feel fortunate to still have a job, it was awful being on the back-end of all these layoffs, especially since it also meant saying good-bye to people I’ve worked with for many, many years.

Anyway, I don’t come to my blog to dwell on real-life bummers… but between the mood and the sheer amount of work that needed to get done, my reading time this week has been pretty limited and sporadic.

But hey, I did a cute puzzle, so there’s that.

(Sorry, my lighting sucks, but the puzzle really is adorable.)

What did I read during the last week?

How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior: Just a perfect read for me this week — sweet and uplifting! You know those books that you just want to hug? This is one of those. My review is here.

And that’s it! I didn’t manage to finish anything else this week.

Pop culture & TV:

Even more Jane the Virgin! I’m THIS CLOSE to finishing the final season. I’m loving it, and also getting super sad that I’m almost done.

Fresh Catch:

No new books!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Hella by David Gerrold: Sci-fi set on a planet called Hella, because everything there is HELLA huge. (I have to wonder if the author is from the Bay Area… ) It’s entertaining, but I just haven’t made as much progress as I’d hoped to.

Now playing via audiobook:

The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal: Getting close to the end! I’m enjoying the audiobook so much. Can’t wait for the next book in the series!

Ongoing reads:

Outlander Book Club’s re-read of Outlander started this past week. We’re reading and discussing one chapter per week. Woo hoo! It’s so much fun. And yes, I’ve read this book multiple times already, but it’s always a pleasure to go back to where it all began. Chapter 2 is coming up this week! If you’d like to join in, let me know and I’ll give you the links and info.

So many books, so little time…

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Book Review: How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior

Title: How the Penguins Saved Veronica
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A curmudgeonly but charming old woman, her estranged grandson, and a colony of penguins proves it’s never too late to be the person you want to be in this rich, heartwarming story from the acclaimed author of Ellie and the Harpmaker.

Eighty-five-year-old Veronica McCreedy is estranged from her family and wants to find a worthwhile cause to leave her fortune to. When she sees a documentary about penguins being studied in Antarctica, she tells the scientists she’s coming to visit—and won’t take no for an answer. Shortly after arriving, she convinces the reluctant team to rescue an orphaned baby penguin. He becomes part of life at the base, and Veronica’s closed heart starts to open.

Her grandson, Patrick, comes to Antarctica to make one last attempt to get to know his grandmother. Together, Veronica, Patrick, and even the scientists learn what family, love, and connection are all about.

You guys. This book is so delicious!

Hazel Prior’s debut novel, Ellie and the Harpmaker, was one of my favorite reads of 2019. And now she’s back with a brand new book, and magic strikes again!

Veronica McCreedy is a fussy, unfriendly, skeptical 85-year-old woman, living in her huge house in Scotland. She likes to be left alone, is sure that her memory is perfect (it’s not), and is, in general, fed up with the world, her housekeeper Eileen, and the hand life has dealt her.

While watching a nature program one evening, she stumbles across a documentary series focusing on penguins, and is instantly smitten. At the same time, Veronica’s memories of her ancient past are reawoken when Eileen finds a dusty old padlocked chest in a storage room — reminding Veronica of the secrets she herself has kept locked away for so many years.

High on the list of secrets is the fact that she once had a child, and now decides to find out if she might in fact have any living relatives. With Eileen helping navigate the internet and the outside world, Veronica discovers a 20-something grandson, but meeting Patrick turns into a disappointing experience.

Needing meaning in her life, Veronica turns back to the penguins, becoming especially enamored of Adelie penguins and fascinated by the team of scientists researching these penguins on Locket Island in Antarctica.

Well, what’s a stubborn 85-year-old to do? Veronica sends an email to the research station announcing her imminent arrival, and off she goes! The 3-person research team is dismayed by their unwanted visitor, who flatly refuses to turn around and go home. And when she missed the chance to leave by the same boat that brought her, they have no choice but to adapt to Veronica and keep her comfortable and safe for the three weeks until the next boat arrives.

Meanwhile, Veronica is enthralled by the flock of penguins and insists on rescuing an orphaned penguin chick. While she isn’t a huge fan of the rudimentary living style or the abruptness of one of the scientists, all in all, she’s determined to stay, enjoy, and make a difference.

There’s so much more, but I’ll let you discover the rest on your own! A key piece that I haven’t discussed is that over the course of the novel, Patrick gets the opportunity to read diaries written by Veronica at age 15, which explain so much about her own past as well as his. Through the diaries, and later, through time spent together with the penguins, Patrick and Veronica finally manage to forge a relationship and a possible future as a family.

Ah, this was such a lovely, cheery, delight of a book! Veronica is as crusty and grumbly as you’d expect, and it’s no surprise really that her tough exterior hides a (difficult, quirky, demanding) heart of gold. As we read Veronica’s diaries with Patrick, we learn about the heartbreak and sorrow that she’s lived with all her life, and it’s impossible not to ache for her and the tragic experiences she’s endured.

Of course, one of the delights of the book is the penguins! Through Veronica’s eyes, we get to learn about penguin conservation, the research project, and what mischief baby penguins get up to. Really, they are utterly adorable. I loved the setting so much, and the scientists are sweet and smart, obsessed, and quite adorable too.

How the Penquins Saved Veronica is just the uplifting sort of read I needed this week. It’s sweet and touching — don’t miss it!

Shelf Control #221: What If by Randall Munroe

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Author: Randall Munroe
Published: 2014
Length: 303 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD ‘a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language’ which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. ‘My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ‘ He liked these questions so much that he started up What If.

If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?

How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?

If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?

What if everyone only had one soulmate?

When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire?

How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy as a gift for my husband a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

My husband usually likes weird science facts, but for whatever reason, he just hasn’t felt like actually reading this book. Meanwhile, I think it looks amazing. I also love weird science, and just reading the questions listed in this book makes me laugh. I’ve heard the audiobook is amazing, and I’ve read some excerpts from this book online, so I know I’ll love it once I actually dig in.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!


__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books On My Summer 2020 TBR.

Some of these are new releases, some are books that I already own and just need to make a priority this summer. And I’m embarrassed to say that one of these books was on my summer 2019 TBR list, and I just never got to it.

  1. Peace Talks (Dresden Files, #16) by Jim Butcher
  2. The Unkindest Tide (October Day, #13)  by Seanan McGuire (a reread, but hey– I need to be ready for #14 in September!)
  3. Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald (my book group’s pick for July)
  4. The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut, #3) by Mary Robinette Kowal
  5. Blood of Elves (The Witcher series) by Andrzej Sapkowski
  6. Shades of Milk and Honey (The Glamourist Histories, #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal
  7. Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer (I know, I know…)
  8. Alice by Christina Henry
  9. Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
  10. Bookish & the Beast by Ashley Poston

What are you planning to read this summer? Please share your links!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 6/15/2020

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Although school already ended and my son got his diploma the previous week, this past week we had the virtual graduation. So now it’s doubly official — my baby is a high school graduate!

What did I read during the last week?

Devolution by Max Brooks: Terrific horror from the author of World War Z. My review is here.

The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn: A fun, entertaining novella about Robin Hood and Marian’s children. A terrific read! Part 2 of the story will be released in August.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: Just finished this lovely audiobook, right in time for my book group’s discussion this week. My review is here.

Pop culture & TV:

More Jane the Virgin! I’ve just started season 5 — the final season — and I’m already getting a little weepy at the idea of the story coming to an end.

Fresh Catch:

No new books this week. But I did treat myself to a few new jigsaw puzzles! And hey, here’s a tip for my fellow puzzlers out there: While prices are very jacked up on Amazon right now, Barnes & Noble has a good selection at normal, pre-pandemic prices. Score!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior: I adored this author’s debut novel, Ellie and the Harpmaker, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her new book, which releases this week! I’ve read about half. It’s adorable!

Now playing via audiobook:

The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut, #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal: This is a re-read for me, although my first time on audio. The author narrates these books, and is wonderful. (She narrates many of Seanan McGuire’s audiobooks too — very talented!). Book #3 in the Lady Astronaut series (The Relentless Moon) comes out next month, and I needed a refresher.

Ongoing reads:

Who’s ready for a re-read? Starting this week, Outlander Book Club is doing a group read of Outlander, reading and discussing one chapter per week. Interested in joining in? Let me know, and I’ll share the details.

So many books, so little time…

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Audiobook Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 12 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on bestseller lists for at least a year now, as far as I can tell. And the fact that this was a Reese’s book club pick doesn’t hurt at all when it comes to creating buzz. So is it worth all the hype?

Now that I’ve read it, I can give an answer: Definitely yes.

Where the Crawdads Sing is lovely, rich, sad, and powerful. It tells the story of Kya Clark, a girl who is abandoned at a very young age and yet manages to raise herself in the North Carolina marsh she calls home.

Kya’s family lives in a shack in the marsh, scrabbling for daily sustenance and terrorized by their abusive, unreliable father. Kya’s older siblings have already left, and as the story opens, Kya is six years old, watching her mother walk away, never to return. Kya is left behind with her father and older brother, but even her brother doesn’t stay long. Soon, it’s just Kya and her father, and he disappears for days on end, or shows up drunk or angry, and simply can’t or won’t care for his child.

And so, from the age of six, Kya raises herself. She loves her home and the marsh and the birds and wildlife that are her truest friends. She scrapes by on the pennies her father provides. Eventually, even he leaves, and she is completely alone, surviving by digging mussels and selling them to the local sundry store owner, a warm and caring man named Jumpin’ who comes to love Kya as a daughter.

Despite the love and support of Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, Kya is alone. When a truant officer comes to take her to school, Kya only lasts one day, feeling embarassed and tormented by the town kids who call her “Marsh Girl” and make fun of her. From then on, it’s just Kya in the marsh.

She does have one friend, a boy named Tate who once upon a time was friends with her brother. Tate is fascinated by Kya and takes it upon himself to teach her to read, opening up the world of science and biology and learning to her. Kya embarks on her lifelong passion to know and understand the marsh, collecting specimens and documenting them through writing and painting, turning her old shack into a personal natural history museum of sorts.

The story alternates between chapters following Kya’s life from early childhood onward and chapters set later, in 1969, when a local young man is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Chase Andrews had a history with the Marsh Girl, and although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence, she becomes a person of interest in the case, fueled by years of the townspeople’s harsh opinions and suspicions and gossip about her.

While I was less interested in the murder plot for most of the book, by the last third, the two story elements come together as the plot centers around the court case and resolution.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a moving and lyrical reading experience. I loved the descriptions of the marsh and the way the natural world is so much a part of who Kya is and how she looks at life. Kya’s life is horribly sad, yet also beautiful in its own lonely way. It’s incredible to think that a child could survive like that on her own all those years, yet she does. Between her natural intelligence and her lifelong study of her natural surroundings, Kya adapts and manages to thrive, despite her loneliness and sorrow throughout the years.

The audiobook narrator does a very good job of breathing life into the characters, especially Kya, using her voice to show her maturing over the years yet maintaining the core of who she is.

My one issue with the audiobook is that I feel I missed out a bit on certain written passages. Kya is passionate about poetry, and the poems she recites throughout the book are worth spending time on and contemplating a bit, but because I listened to the audiobook, they passed by a little too quickly for actual reflection. I think I’ll need to borrow a print edition so I can page through and spend more time on certain passages.

I won’t get into spoilers, so I can’t say more about the ending than that I was mostly satisfied and that the ending worked out pretty much as I expected despite a few red herrings — although there was at least one loose thread that I would have liked an answer to.

Overall though, the murder/mystery elements are not the most essential part of this book, in my mind. Yes, it was interesting, and yes, I felt that the ending made sense. But the biggest impact for me was the emotional resonance of Kya’s life, her loves, her relationships, and her incredible personal and professional achievements.

Kya is a woman to admire, one who overcomes extreme adversity to carve out a life for herself that’s meaningful and joyful.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a powerful and beautiful book. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Devolution by Max Brooks

Title: Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre
Author: Max Brooks
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The #1 bestselling author of World War Z takes on the Bigfoot legend with a tale that blurs the lines between human and beast–and asks what we are capable of in the face of the unimaginable.

As the ash and chaos from Mount Rainier’s eruption swirled and finally settled, the story of the Greenloop massacre has passed unnoticed, unexamined . . . until now.

But the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town’s bloody wreckage, capture a tale too harrowing–and too earth-shattering in its implications–to be forgotten.

In these pages, Max Brooks brings Kate’s extraordinary account to light for the first time, faithfully reproducing her words alongside his own extensive investigations into the massacre and the legendary beasts behind it.

Kate’s is a tale of unexpected strength and resilience, of humanity’s defiance in the face of a terrible predator’s gaze, and inevitably, of savagery and death.

Yet it is also far more than that.

Because if what Kate Holland saw in those days is real, then we must accept the impossible. We must accept that the creature known as Bigfoot walks among us–and that it is a beast of terrible strength and ferocity.

Part survival narrative, part bloody horror tale, part scientific journey into the boundaries between truth and fiction, this is a Bigfoot story as only Max Brooks could chronicle it–and like none you’ve ever read before. 

Quick, what do you think of when you hear the word “Sasquatch”?

If it’s this:

… you’re going to be in for one hell of a rude awakening when you read Devolution.

In Devolution, Sasquatches are real. And they’re very, very mean.

Author Max Brooks brings us the story of a Sasquatch massacre (not a spoiler — it’s right there in the subtitle) through the journals of a woman named Kate Holland, as well as through interviews and articles that shed light on the mystery of what happened to the community of Greenloop.

Kate and her husband Dan have just joined Greenloop at the start of the story. Greenloop is a high-tech, high-efficiency community formed of six families who’ve settled (in luxury homes) in the wilderness near Mt. Rainier. But it’s not really a back-to-nature, living-off-the-land arrangement. Greenloop is a quick 90-minute drive to Seattle, and while the settlement believes wholeheartedly in composting and living green, they’re not self-sustaining. Supplies and groceries are delivered weekly via drones, so there’s really no need to worry too much about the food supply or emergency backups. Everything is taken care of!

Well, of course, the peace and perfection of Greenloop don’t last. When Mt. Rainier erupts, Greenloop finds itself cut off from the outside world, its one road in or out completely blocked by the mud and lava flows and now impassible. But not to worry — the majority of the community members are sure that help will come soon, and that this is just a glitch in their happy little utopia.

Only Mostar, a war survivor who makes fabulous artwork but whose outlook is decidedly grim, realizes that they’re all in trouble. She recruits Kate and Dan to her survival project, planting a food garden, inventorying the calorie count of all items in their kitchens, and planning for worst case scenarios.

At first, Kate goes along with it all mainly to humor Mostar and have something to do. But then, strange things start to happen. She feels like something is watching, perhaps chasing her, when she’s out walking in the woods. A mountain lion encroaches into the settlement, but it seems more like it’s running away from something than running toward the people. And then there’s the smell — an awful stench of rot and garbage that becomes more and more overpowering.

Until finally, something comes out of the woods — a sasquatch. They’ve all heard the stories over the years. and most try to find other explanations for what they’re experiencing. But eventually, there’s no hiding from the truth: There’s a pack of sasquatches in the woods, and they’re strong, smart, hungry, and organized.

Mixed in with Kate’s journal entries about the looming danger and the threats and attacks that mount from day to day are snippets of articles about primate behavior, which highlight that primates in the wild are not the gentle giants that people would like to believe them to be. There’s plenty of evidence of primates’ ability to stalk, hunt, and carry out organized attacks, as well as documentation of their consumption of meat, including the flesh of other primates.

And yes, the humans of Greenloop sure look tasty to a group of invading, starving sasquatches.

I probably should have said this right from the start… this book has blood and guts and gore. The scenes of violence are disturbing and graphic and gross, so be warned — don’t pick up this book if you can’t stomach scenes that are… well… stomach-turning.

That said, Devolution is exciting and compelling, and I just couldn’t stop reading. I had to know what would happen next, and next, and after that, even while shaking my head and thinking to myself — no, it can’t really be working out this way. The author wouldn’t really do that, would he?

(Answer: Yes. He would, and he does.)

Max Brooks is the author of World War Z, which was an amazing read. Devolution lacks the global reach of World War Z, the sense of real life events unfolding via news coverage and interviews with survivors. The storyline in Devolution all takes place within the confines of Greenloop, creating (intentionally) a very claustrophobic feel. The people of Greenloop are trapped, and as a reader, I could practically feel the walls closing in around me, and the despair that the characters must be feeling knowing that there is no escape and no last-minute rescue on the way. If they have a chance of being saved, they’ll have to do it themselves.

Kate is a good main character, and I liked the changing nature of her relationship with Dan as they move from a disaffected and alienated married couple on their last legs to people with a mission, rising to the occasion. Mostar is vivid and heroic, but the other characters don’t stand out all that much. The founding couple of Greenloop is supposed to be charismatic and inspiring, but I didn’t feel like I got to see them in action enough for them to make an impact.

I did wish for a little more exposition at the start. I would have liked a bit more backstory on the founding of Greenloop, and more to pinpoint its location and setting. I didn’t get a true sense of the community’s isolation and dependence on a single access road until later in the story, and the eruption of Mt. Rainier itself, which triggers the main plot points, is rather muted and distant. I think a better sense of the geography of Greenloop relative to Rainier and Seattle would have been helpful.

But other than that, I was totally engrossed in Devolution. It’s horrifying but oddly compelling. If I’ve ever thought about Sasquatch mythology, it’s been simply of the supposed images caught on film of hairy men-creatures living in isolation in the woods. Devolution treats us to Sasquatch as a competing species of primate — and the question is, who really is the top of the food chain?

Don’t read this book in a cabin in the woods or on a camping trip… but if you’re safely located in a busy city far from the wilds, definitely dig in and enjoy!