Review of “The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

This is a fun and heart-warming space opera that takes place aboard the “Wayfarer,” a ship patched together for long-haul journeys to carry out the contractual creation of wormhole tunnels. It is manned with a small, diverse and endearing multi-species crew. The spaceship is “home” to the crew, and the crew members have become family to one another.

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Several changes in the status quo occur to set up the action. One is that the crew acquires a new member, Rosemary Harper, to serve as clerk to the affable captain. Rosemary has a secret, and it unclear at first what her actual role will be. The second is that the ship receives a very lucrative contract offer to make a new tunnel connecting Central Space to a far off planet in possibly hostile territory. The third is that several of the crew members face existential challenges that cause the crew to reevaluate their feelings toward one another, and their respect for one another’s cultures.

Discussion: The descriptions of the diverse species in the Galactic Commons, the disparities and similarities among them, and the ways in which they each strive to adjust and have consideration for the others, are quite entertaining. I also enjoyed the emphasis on the quotidian – such as the need to come up with clothing and ship decor, food that appeals to everyone, treating wounds, making the spaceship “homey,” and dealing with interspecies attractions.

There is much discussion about what species can and should do to survive, most of which involves a rejection of hatred and killing to solve problems. As one of the characters tells Rosemary:

“All you can do … all any of us can do . . . is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it.”

The pacing is slow, but not in an off-putting way. Rather, it just seems like one more resemblance to the television series “Firefly.” Each chapter could serve as an “episode.”

Evaluation: This is an entertaining story that is perhaps more about relationships than its status as a “science fiction” book would suggest.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2014

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Review of “50 Things You Should Know About Inventions” by Clive Gifford

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As the author explains at the outset, “Inventions are machines, objects, materials, or processes that did not exist before. . . . Many inventions fail, but those that succeed can transform the way we live and work.”

He then proceeds to review the development of notable inventions from batteries to rockets to trampolines to robots.

Like other books in the “50 Things” series, this small book is replete with excellent illustrations, fascinating fact-boxes, and easy to understand information.

Social ramifications are not part of the story. For example, as author Elan Mastai pointed out in All Our Wrong Todays, “when you invent a new technology, you also invent the accident of that technology. When you invent the car you also invent the car accident. When you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash.” And so on. It’s an interesting concept that could have added to the depth of the content.

Moreover, inventors who are white and male get primary coverage. The author calls Thomas Edison the “King of Inventors,” and he gets a large write-up in the book.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

But there is no mention of Granville T. Woods, the most prolific African-American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who came up with numerous inventions including a steam-boiler furnace, telephone, telegraph system, electric railway and automatic air brake for railroad safety. As a black man, however, Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his own device.

Granville Woods

Granville Woods

Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions; nevertheless, he spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of them. Thomas Edison, meanwhile, had an estimated net worth upon his death of $12 million in 2013 dollars.

Then there is Charles Drew, the African-American who described a technique he developed for the long-term preservation of blood plasma, and convinced hospitals to set up blood banks. His invention saved countless lives. Similarly, the black doctor Daniel Hale Williams was an important pioneer of open heart surgery. There is a section in this book for medical inventions that have saved lives, but these men don’t appear in it. (You can learn about many more important black inventors here.)

Charles Drew on the right (the caption only mentions the white man on the left)

Charles Drew on the right (the caption only mentions the white man on the left)

Women also rarely appear. In the section on computers and coding, there is no mention of Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer. She is often regarded as the first computer programmer.

Ruth Wakefield gets a mention in the text for her chocolate chip cookies. And Ruth Handler for the Barbie Doll. But there are many more who deserved inclusion, and for inventions more sophisticated than “women’s matters” like cookie recipes and doll development. These include Hedy Lamarr (a pioneer in the field of wireless communications), Mary Anderson, who invented windshield wipers, and Giuliana Tesoro, who obtained more than one hundred and twenty-five patents, just to name a very few.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

[In the “Who’s Who” of great inventors at the back of the book, which includes little thumbnail pictures and bios, there is one black (Otis Boykin) and two women (Katharine Blodgett and Grace Hopper).] Otis Boykin could also have been included in the section for inventions that save lives. He created an improved electrical resistor that is used today in computers, radios, and tv sets, but also pacemakers.

Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin

Nevertheless, there are lots of positives about this book. The author selected many interesting and fun aspects of a huge subject, and includes lots of fascinating factoids. (Did you know the first mechanical flushing toilet was invented by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson for her use?) It might not have occurred to many readers to realize that such everyday items like can openers and safety pins had to be invented by someone. Combined with some great photographs and infographics, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the subject matter.

Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the depth and breadth of inventions. All of the pictures and facts will make the time fly, and no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time any omitted portions will become clear. In addition, the author summarizes very potentially complex subjects, such as how to breathe underwater, how submarines navigate, and how rockets accelerate. A brief glossary is at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016

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Sunday Salon – Tribute to LibraryThing

The Sunday Salon.com

I enter all our books and reviews into LibraryThing. It is different from Goodreads in several ways. (I post a great deal – but not all – of my reviews on Goodreads.)

LibraryThing (LT) has fewer reviews than Goodreads, but they tend to be more “substantive” than those in Goodreads. For example, you can’t just post gifs expressing your desire to read the book in question. You can also rate using half-stars, a feature I much appreciate.

LT also includes “legacy libraries,” which means that volunteers upload information about libraries of famous people, such as Benjamin Franklin, whose library was extensively documented. Now you can see what books he had and how many you share in common with him. There are many legacy libraries that have been recorded – almost 300 at this posting, and they include those of actors, artists, authors, U.S. presidents, Royals, etc.

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I can access many fun statistics about my own collection, including how many books I share with Legacy Libraries and what those books are. (The person whose library I have the most books in common with is Ralph Ellison – we share 104 books.)

I can also see how many books I have that were written by men and how many by women. 67% of our books were written by a male author. Dead or alive? 72% of our authors are still living. Some of my favorite stats are Series, Awards, Characters, Places, and Events.

I can keep track of how many in a series I have read, and what they are. Sometimes I don’t even know a book I read was part of a series till I see it show up under Series. (Another good database for keeping track of series is fictfact.com. That site also sends you an email when new books are out in the series you follow. I have 110 series entered in fictfact but according to LT, I actually have read books in 630 series!)

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Every possible award or list you can think of is also tracked by LT – 1,312 of my books show up here. These stats include finalists, nominees, “short lists” and “long lists” as well as winners, Best Seller Lists, and even Book Club Picks. These aren’t just “merit awards” – I can also check to see, for example, which of my books made the list of “ALA 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.” Many I never heard of, such as the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee Prize, but I have twenty books that won this honor. I have many more books that show up on lists for National Book Award and Award Finalists, and National Book Critics Circle Award and Award Finalists. Who would have thought I had six books that made “South Carolina Children’s Book Award Nominee,” or that I have ten books on the list of “Norwegian Book Clubs Top 100 Books of All Time”?

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“Characters in Your Library” serves almost like an index for non-fiction books. Using this feature, I can how many books are about, say, Abraham Lincoln (although Lincoln is one of the tags I also use to categorize my books anyway), or Winston Churchill. If I want to know how many books we have read by Lee Child, I could search through my catalog by author, or I could check the character list for Jack Reacher. I not only see which books we have read, but what number each one is in the series.

With “Places” I find we have read a gazillion books set in Great Britain and Massachusetts (the latter because of Jim and his love for the Robert Parker books), but we have even read ten set on Mars! Fictional places are included also – for example, I have read six books set in the “Six Duchies” which refers to a place in Robin Hobb fantasy books. Alas, I have only one book listed (so far) for Skookumchuck Bay, in the state of Washington.

Events are a fun statistic to check also. One event I like to track is wars, divided into the wars themselves, such as Civil War, World War I, and so on. There are further distinctions within those categories, such as World War II – Pacific Theater. But you could also use this statistic to check for books about an event that interests you – say, 9/11, or The San Francisco Earthquake.

I can also see which members of LT have the most books in common with me in three different ways: weighted, raw, or recent. Not surprisingly perhaps, I have the most in common with another blogger, Bermuda Onion in the weighted category (which adjusts for library size). In terms of raw numbers, Jim and I share almost half the titles we own with a mother of four in Anchorage, Alaska. You can opt to “follow” the entries or reviews of any libraries you find to be of interest.

Besides fun stats, LT has groups you can join to discuss books or topics of interest, and there are a slew of them, including one called The Green Dragon – a “virtual pub” for discussions of fantasy and science fiction. They post this notice on the group’s bulletin board:

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There are groups for historical fiction, feminist theory, “girly books,” gardening, mysteries, local groups, travel books, cookbooks, “literary snobs,” fans of particular authors (two of the biggest groups are for Terry Pratchett and Jane Austen), anime fans, “LTers with dogs,” “Queer and Trans Lit,” and really any area you can imagine. If you don’t see what you want, you can start a new group. Within the group boards, you can see what the topics are, search by word or author, see what messages have been added since you last checked, and who the members are (by user names). (One of the most popular topic areas you will see for any group is “What are you reading now?”)

Finally I must mention that there are fun aggregate statistics that provide information such as “Top 25 Books by Rating,” “Top 75 Tags” (added to books by readers to categorize them), “50 Most Prolific Reviewers” (you will find my user name, nbmars, on this list), and “25 Most Reviewed Books.”

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This is actually only a small glimpse of what is available through LT, which also includes contests, free books each month for “Early Reviewers,” present exchanges at Christmas, and an app for your phone so you can check your library while out at the bookstore. Yes, it takes a bit of work to enter your books at the outset, but if you are already on Goodreads, you can sync your data. Once you have your library uploaded, then adding each additional book is quick and easy.

What about blogging? I never knew about book blogging, till I learned about it on LibraryThing. While I may opt not to continue with the blog, I plan to stay with LibraryThing no matter what!

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Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter” by Sonia Rosa

Brazil has the largest population of blacks outside of Africa, estimated at 90 million people, mostly descendants of the Portuguese slave trading operations that began in the mid-1500s.

Over a third of captured Africans forced into slavery were taken to Brazil to work in the sugar plantations and mining industry. Slavery was not abolished there until 1888.

This gorgeous book, translated by Jane Springer, tells the story of an enslaved African woman who lived in the late 1700’s in the Brazilian state Piauí. Her partial story became known after the 1979 discovery of a letter by her, in which she petitioned the governor to be allowed to be sent back to her family.

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Originally Esperança lived on a cotton farm where she and her family were owned by Jesuit priests. The priests taught her to read and write, and apparently did not treat her as badly as other slave owners.

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When the priests were expelled from Portugal and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, Esperança was separated from her husband and half of her children, and sent to work as a cook in the home of a cruel slaveowner. She sent a letter to the governor, explaining that both she and one of her sons were badly beaten, and that she and the other slaves had not been able to attend confession or baptize their children. She concluded:

“…I ask you, for the love of God and for his favor, to consider my request and send me back to the farm I was taken from, so that I can live with my husband and baptize my daughter.”

The author notes that no one knows if Esperança ever received a reply.

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Nevertheless, September 6, the date of the letter, is now known as “Black Consciousness Day” in Piauí.

Brazilian illustrator Luciana Justiniani Hees has created stunning vivid pictures employing elements from the rich Afro-Brazilian culture. (You can learn more about this culture at multiple sites on the web such as this one.)

Evaluation: This is a very interesting story and a way to educate Americans on slavery in other places. It is also so thought-provoking to consider the fate of this educated, talented woman, and to wonder if she ever got the relief for which she prayed. It would have been better – certainly for her – if this story had a clear, happy, ending, but the ambiguity about her fate also serves as a useful lesson.

Rating: 4/5

Published in English by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2015

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Review of “Friday on My Mind” by Nicci French

This is book five in the detective/psychological thriller series featuring psychotherapist Dr. Frieda Klein, who is the occasional collaborator of London Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson.

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This book begins with the discovery of a male corpse in the Thames, wearing a hospital band labeled Dr. F. Klein. This leads the police to Frieda, who identifies the body as that of Sandy Holland, her former lover. The police, especially those hostile to Frieda as well as to Karlsson, immediately suspect Frieda, although one has to wonder why they would think she would identify herself so plainly if she had murdered someone. When it becomes clear that the police intend to arrest Frieda, she goes into hiding, with the goal of finding out who actually did kill Sandy.

Discussion: Who Frieda is and what she wants continue to elude us. While Frieda has gotten better at asking for help, one wonders why her friends are so loyal to her; she gives so little of herself to them.

Evaluation: I can’t decide if I have reconciled myself to Frieda being so enigmatic, or if I am tired of it; perhaps a little of each. The authors (Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing team of husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) have apparently decided to keep her character opaque. In this book, I also think they did not come up with a good enough motive for the actual guilty person to have turned into a killer. Still, in spite of its faults, the authors have kept the series interesting enough, and I’m hoping to last through the end of the “week” in this series (one presumes Saturday and Sunday are to come).

Rating: 3.25/5

Published in the U.S. by Penguin Books, 2016

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