Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: RTFM

Armchair Time-Travelling with St Mary’s

Oh, excuse me. That’s wrong. The highly secretive St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research doesn’t do time travel, they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. The historians of the institute are to observe and document, otherwise History will right itself (by erasing them). Add a bunch of eccentric scientists, technicians and engineers who like to blow things up on a regular basis, and you have a fun romp through time. In the case of this first book in the series, Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another, the catastrophes stretch from Norman conquest England, to France during World War I, the Cretaceous Period and the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria – mind you, that wasn’t St Mary’s doing, though they tried their best.

If you’re into history, and explosions, mayhem, snarky characters, an extra portion British humour, lots of tea and even more booze, this is the series for you.

Jodi Taylor definitely did her homework in preparation to this book. Honestly, she even knows how to distinguish whether a British person has Saxon or Norman ancestry, something only history nerds know. [Yes, I knew before I read the book; guess that’s saying enough.]

5/5 Harpy Eagles – queue the next book, please.

PS: Yes, I noticed the parallels to the TV series Timeless – which I binged with my daughter ages ago – but I venture that St Mary’s was first and is better.

Astronettes? Lady Astronauts? Astronauts!

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe series is the latest rabbit hole I fell down. Or should I say a black hole that drew me in? Three main works have been published so far, as well as two novellas. Book four will hopefully hit the shelves next year.

I’d wanted to read The Calculating Stars for some time but the audiobook kept gathering dust on my TBR. After listening to The Original, co-authored by MRK, I decided to not ignore it any longer.

In this alternate history the fate of humanity is threatened shortly after the end of World War II. This time not by war, but by a meteorite, which hits the east coast of the United States of America. The impact is similar to the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and doesn’t bode well for humanity. Colonising space might be the only option for humanity’s survival.

Elma York, a child prodigy with two doctorates and former pilot in WWII, is at the heart of this series. She’s working as a computer for the International Aerospace Coalition to help bring the first man to space. But with her skills as a pilot she soon wonders, why she can’t become an astronaut, too. Women will be needed in space colonisation sooner rather than later. Which leads her to notice that not only women are left out of the space programme.

This character driven story uses the sexism and racism of the 1950s and 1960s, sprinkles a good portion of humour, lots of ambition, some grief and heart break, and character flaws on it and out comes a story with characters to root for.

Without wanting to give away too much about the content of the sequel novel, The Fated Sky, let me just tell you, I bought book two and three (The Relentless Moon) right after finishing The Calculating Stars.

The Fated Sky reminded me, in part, of Weir’s Martian and Artemisin part! Yet, it is it’s own unique story about the possible colonisation of Moon and Mars, including months of space travel with all its obvious dangers, but far more interesting and gross are the not so obvious dangers, like regurgitating vacuum toilets. I’m looking forward to the third book in the series, but I am pacing myself a bit, because the fourth book, The Martian Contingency, won’t be published before 2022.

The audiobooks are narrated by the author herself. Something that I enjoy very much in general and enjoyed with this series in particular. MRK does an excellent job giving Elma and her friends and foes a unique voice.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that I truly appreciate all the research that MRK put into the series to represent science and history as accurately as possible. I especially enjoyed the lengthy acknowledgements and lists of bibliography at the end of the books, which probably only represents a fraction of what the author actually learned and looked up.

5/5 Harpy Eagles for The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky

Why’s there a pirate ship on the cover?

That’s more or less what I am taking from reading The Beholder by Anna Bright, published 19 June 2019.

This YA just shows me, again, that YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi should no longer make it onto my TBR. In other words, I had so many issues with this book, …

The main character, Selah, is the Seneschal-Elect of Potomac. That means she’ll be the leader of her people once her father dies. Her task is it, as the future leader, female but definitely NOT feminist, to find herself a husband. Since The One she fell for at home doesn’t want her, her stepmother is sending Selah to Europe to find her match. Fairy tale retellings ahead. Selah seems to see herself as Snow White, since her step-mother will certainly kill her father now that she has sent Selah out to never come back home one way or another. Either she’ll marry one of her suitors and then stay in Europe, or the Baba Yaga will eat(?) her; that irrational fear is based on a fairy tale and a nursery rhyme Selah keeps repeating.

Selah is the perfect pawn of her story; literally, plot happens to her not because of her. She’s naive and trusts people too easily. She wears her feelings on her sleeve, and her tongue, unwisely telling everyone and their grandmother what she thinks and feels. And she feels a lot, especially very fast for the members of her crew and the suitors she meets. Hello insta-love.

The story is supposedly set in something similar to the late 18th or early 19th century. Which means, I was annoyed at the anachronistic use of words like “barf”. I was further annoyed at how ignorant Selah was. For a YA heroine she had no backbone whatsoever. She ranted about one of her suitors being nine years older than her, but a nearly arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons was obviously alright to her; why then is the age difference important? And why, oh why, do we see a tiny sliver of feminism when her friend wants to choose her own husband, but Selah is unaware that her situation is the same?

The writing is nothing to write home about. There’s more tell than show throughout the book, and the retellings of fairy tales do not always work advantageously.

To come back to my initial question. Why is there a picture of a ship on the cover? Especially an artfully carved one that immediately reminded me of the TV series Black Sails, and hence of pirates. Not to mention the title of the book being the name of the ship, yet most of the story doesn’t even take place on the ship. I was definitely blindsided by the cover. Shame on me!

1/5 Harpy Eagles

How Not To Die On A Mountain

… is not really something this book will teach you. Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of his highly improbable survival in the Peruvian Andes. Together with his climbing partner Simon Yates, Joe set out to reach the summit of the Siula Grande via the West face. While the ascent was a struggle, bad weather turned the descent into a nightmare.

When preparing for their trip in the base camp (where they left their non-climber companion Richard Hawkins to wait for them, the poor guy), they did not pack enough gas to account for a delay in their progress. Sounds like a bad idea, right? Combine it with terrible weather and you get two very exhausted, cold and dehydrated climbers with no way to melt snow and ice for drinking water.

Disaster strikes on an ice cliff, when Joe breaks his leg in a fall. The descriptions are not for the faint of heart, let’s just say that his tibia ended up in his knee joint which is not a decent place to be. They both know that this is a death sentence for him. Simon’s chances of descending alone would be slim enough, without attempting to rescue Joe. They try it anyway, and Simon lowers Joe by using two ropes tied together to increase their length. Sounds scary? Now try to imagine that they have to repeatedly stop to switch the belaying device from one side of the know to the other, while Joe had to balance on his one good leg.

This works quite well for them. But one disaster just is not enough. Almost having reached safer ground, Joe is lowered over a cliff edge, hanging free with his whole weight on the rope. There was no way to let him down any lower, and he could not climb back up. After supporting Joe’s weight for the longest possible time and with his belaying seat disintegrating underneath him, Simon was forced to make the brutal decision of cutting the rope to save his own life. Traumatized, he reached the base camp alone and had to tell Richard that Joe was presumably dead.

Joe, meanwhile, had survived his fall into a crevasse and began the mind-boggling process of hopping and crawling towards the base camp. His injured leg was completely destroyed and useless by then. Nothing short of a miracle, he reached them mere hours before their departure back to Lima.

This book is filled with technical descriptions of the climb itself and the gear they used, but also offers a very interesting psychological angle. Simon Yates faced a lot of criticism for his decision to cut the rope. People argued that he should have decided to (probably) die with his friend instead of cutting Joe loose to save himself. Joe shows a huge strength of character. He offered comfort and voiced his complete support and understanding to Simon before being even remotely recovered.

All we need is a little Grace

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, publishing day 04 May 2021.

The story is about scientist Ryland Grace who wakes up aboard a spacecraft. He’d been in a coma, he has amnesia. All he knows is that he is a scientist on a suicide mission to save Earth, and by that, mankind from the next ice age brought on by strange microorganisms feeding off the suns in our galaxy. Yet, out there in space, about thirteen light years from Earth, there is a star that is not affected by these microorganisms. Why?

As the story unfolds and our hero regains some of his memories, we learn that Grace is a junior-high science teacher. And that is basically why the science in the book is easy to understand, the science teacher explains it very well. We also learn that the microorganisms feeding on our sun dim the energy output of the sun and that Earth has about three decades before the effects cause an ice age. All nations have to work together and strangely enough they do.

Earth needs Grace’s scientific expertise, but also relies on the fact that he is willing to plough on although he is on a suicide mission. A fact that Grace struggles with throughout the story. But he also knows he’s the only hope Earth has. Again, Weir writes the story of a hero alone fighting for survival, this time survival of all the life on Earth.

I enjoyed the book, apart from a bit of a lull period between 40% and 60%. Nothing much happened other than science and playing Robinson Crusoe in space, in the Arrival version. AKA, the hero meets an alien and they need to understand each other to work together.

[Mini-Rant about one plot point. SPOILER ALERT!]

When in Arrival we have a linguistics specialist who tries to communicate with the aliens, here we have a high-school science teacher encountering an alien species. An alien species he then works together with to find a solution to the microorganism problem. Working together means having to communicate. So, over a few days they learn each other’s language?! No big deal?!

It seems our hero has perfect pitch and a knack for languages. Some people have this knack, here though it feels not exactly forced but false. For example, there’s the scene where Grace meets another scientist for the first time and after a few words exchanged he knows the scientist is from Norway. Wow! Quite the feat. Anyone else might have said they are from Scandinavia, and then followed that up with a question as to which part of Scandinavia. Add the alien language, made up of melodies/strung together single musical notes rather than actual words and you have the by far most unbelievable part of the whole book. Why? Well, I used to teach English as a Second Language to scientists. A lot of my students kept telling me that learning languages had never been easy for them and that that was why they went into sciences. To make it more believable, I would have liked to see Grace struggle more with grasping the alien language. It would have made this learning process a bit more natural.

Not so invisible

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab, published 06 October, 2020.

Addie LaRue was born in the late 17th century. On the day of her wedding, or better after dusk has fallen, she strikes a Faustian bargain with an ancient god. A bargain that will grant her immortal life, but she will not be able to be remembered by anyone. And then, after 300 years of being unremembered, Addie meets Henry, and Henry remembers her.

I’m going to be honest here. I wanted to read the book so very much. Schwab herself said, she’d been working on the story for about ten years. So, as soon as the first ARCs were made available, I requested one. I was actually very sad when I first didn’t get an ARC and then didn’t even get a pre-ordered signed copy, because somehow the book-gods effed up.

Now, I have to say, I am no longer so sorry that I didn’t get a signed copy. The story was okay. But after all the raving I had read about it, after all the anticipation that Schwab herself built up with her posts about how much she loved the characters and the story, I was quite underwhelmed.

Throughout the book, Addie points out over and over that people meeting her have a sense of Déjà-vu. Just like these minor characters in the book, the whole story reminded me of so many other books I had recently read, but also of books/stories I hadn’t thought about for a very long time. It’s a story of possibilities, not unlike The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, or Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea. Addie’s musings about the advantages of men’s clothes and her wearing a tricorn hat that she pulls low over her face reminded me of Lilah Bard from A Darker Shade of Magic; only to realise a second later that this novel was also by VE Schwab. I gave myself a face palm and a huge eye-roll while chuckling. Furthermore and moreover, Addie and the Darkness and even Henry reminded me of Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.

It will not come as a big surprise when I say that I anticipated the big plot twist and the ending of the book long before I got there. It was as predictable as Addie’s memories of her life throughout the 323 years of her existence. The reader is constantly reminded that she had encounters with people who forget her soon after meeting her.

Although the writing of the book is good, and clearly shows how much affection the author has for her main character, a blatantly obvious historical inaccuracy kept throwing me out of the story. No, I don’t mean the anachronistic white wedding dress. I can forgive this blunder since it might have been white for a thousand reasons other than wedding dresses today being white. My peeve are the chapters set in Paris in the 18th century.

Soon after becoming immortal, in 1714, Addie goes to Paris. There Addie at first lives a life on the margins of society. All of this is depicted relatively historically accurate, but Addie mentions Paris’s Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre. In one scene she even sits on the steps of the church. A church that wasn’t built until the late 19th century though. It kept hurting my brain every time it was mentioned. I understand that rewriting those scenes would have thrown the whole story, but it was an avoidable mistake from the start. Or should have been worth a mention of the author taking artistic license.

Britfield & The Lost Crown

What a wild ride through England. Wow!

The story is following Tom and Sarah’s escape from an awful life at an orphanage. Trying to outsmart their followers the children steal a hot air balloon and their “road trip” around England begins. Their destination is London, but on the way there they have to land and refuel, they make allies in the most unlikely places, who not only help them avoid getting caught, but also try to find out what Tom’s connection to the word/family “Britfield” is.

This story is packed with information about landmarks and towns between Yorkshire and London, and the history of England.

The chase gets a bit unbelievable the nearer we draw to London. Suddenly there is a conspiracy and a secret organisation at work. Still, I’m sure young readers won’t mind this at all.

What young readers might also not mind are the Americanisms used in the story. It’s a story set in Britain, with British characters, but American English words – I’m just saying that no 12 y/o British girl would compliment her fellow escapee’s choice of “pants” when referring to trousers. That made me chuckle.

Of course the mystery of “Britfield” wasn’t entirely solved, we’ll have to wait for the next instalment to find out more.

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