Mother’s Day 2022

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says this:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:6-8, NIV)

Many churches sometimes ask members to do a spiritual gifts assessment. That’s teacher-talk for a test, y’all. Anyway, these assessments generally indicate the area or areas wherein the Christian has gifts. However, mothers and grandmothers know that they’d better be pretty good at all of them.

Prophesying is, to an extent, discernment. Moms have much to discern these days, from social media to some really odd fashion trends. God does care about matters in today’s world, and it takes the Holy Spirit’s influence to help us deal with the craziness. 

Moms must also serve, whether it is hosting the rec department baseball team, chaperoning the youth group, or making sure that everyone has clean clothes for school. 

Moms are also teachers, with a huge curriculum to cover. Moms teach social skills, such as how to shake hands and make up after a playground dispute, practical skills such as tying shoes and making killer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Moms teach organizational skills, by making schedules to accommodate all the busy-ness of modern life. 

Moms are tasked with encouragement, too. Mom has to help kids get over the loss of a soccer match, a best friend, or a beloved pet, and help children have hope for a better tomorrow. 

Moms give, of their time, their talents, as well as their income. 

Moms often take on leadership roles, whether it is planning a homeschool outing, a bake sale to pay for summer camp tuition, or figuring out how to pay for a week’s worth of groceries with half a week’s worth of income. 

Moms must demonstrate mercy, because sometimes there’s some slight which must be forgiven. Yes, mothers need to have a lot of spiritual gifts.

Every person here either is a mother or had a mother. Some of us are fortunate to have the opportunity to honor our mother, and perhaps even a grandmother today. I lost my mother many years ago, but she was a good Christian as well as a great mom, and she modeled many of the spiritual gifts. I hope to honor her by following her example.

Thanks to all the folks here who are mothers, have honored mothers, or merely remember what your own mother did for you, whether it was today or long ago.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

The Neutral Zone Studios

Hubby and I decided to visit “The Neutral Zone” studios on one of their almost monthly fan appreciation weekends recently. Also, since these sets are rented out, the only time to see them is during scheduled events, so certainly see the calendar on the website prior to planning a visit.

The facility is actually a warehouse in Kingsland, Georgia, where the web series Star Trek Continues was filmed. The sets occupy a space just under 10,000 square feet, which is small by Hollywood standards, but the sets include many of the areas which would have been used on the original Star Trek series. While the original sets were destroyed more than fifty years ago, the blueprints are available, as are screen shots from the original series. The sets at The Neutral Zone were constructed over more than a year, then used for a while by the makers of Star Trek Continues. When CBS/Paramount decided to reboot Star Trek (making such series as DiscoveryPicard, and Prodigy) they basically told the folks making Star Trek Continues to wrap it up, so the sets became available for fan films. Indeed, it is possible to rent The Neutral Zone for an event or to make your own film, as long as the script meets the restrictions put in place by CBS.

The set visit begins with a guided tour. We began our tour with Ray Tesi, who currently owns the sets and manages the studio, then Vic Micnogna, who was the visionary behind Star Trek Continues, took over. Vic also plays Captain Kirk in the series, and if you haven’t seen it and are a fan, you really should take a look at the eleven full length episodes. Ray began with some background, then took us to engineering, then just across the entryway to the main ship, which is arranged in a circle, just like TOS. We visited sick bay, the briefing room, Captain’s quarters, the transporter room, auxiliary control, the Jeffries tube and brig, and the big finale is the bridge set. The guide(s) explained how the sets were built originally, and how the sets might be used in filming now. For instance, the Captain’s quarters, with a bit of redressing, can be any crew member’s quarters.

After the tour, with a bit of flexibility to avoid the next tour, attendees are welcome to take pictures. Just imagine, you, too can be pictured standing in the transporter room or on the bridge, either at the helm or even in the captain’s chair. We also purchased the entire series on DVD, and as Vic was there, he autographed the case for us.

Star Trek, even for non-fans, is a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Who doesn’t know such phrases as “Beem me up, Scotty?” For non-fans, The Neutral Zone is probably not a tourist destination, but for the thousands upon thousands of those who are fans of the original Star Trek series, the set tour is an amazing experience. I urge travelers to take a look at the websites for both The Neutral Zone and Star Trek Continues for a bit of research prior to scheduling a trip. As a fans of all vintage Star Trek series, including Star Trek Continues, this was a “must see” for us, and it did not disappoint.

The Sound of Music Companion by Laurence Maslon— a brief review

Since I was quite young, I have loved this musical, as have many other people. I’ve owned the sound track in various forms, as well has having first a VHS then a DVD of the film. However, recently I read a short but glowing recommendation for this volume, so off to eBay I go, and low and behold, I got the book in a box with yet another DVD and sound track CD. Sweet!

This is what I’d call a “coffee table” book in size, but the content is a bit more than some such books. The forward is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was engaged in putting on a revival of The Sound of Music for the stage in London around the same time as this book (2006) but the book itself begins with the story of Maria von Trapp, the subject of a couple of books prior to her story being turned into the now famous musical.

For those of us who discovered the story via the 1966 movie, the musical actually begins a bit earlier, as a Broadway vehicle for Mary Martin. The music was done by Rogers and Hammerstein, of course, and the book takes the reader through much of the creative process, with photos of notes and typewritten song lists, as well as pictures from the Broadway and traveling productions. There is quite a bit of detail regarding the modifications done as the play was transformed into the movie. Fans of the film will know much of the content, no doubt, but there are nuggets of information which should prove interesting for even well-read aficionados, and there are quite a number of pictures taken during the lengthy location filming in and around Saltzburg.

There’s a bit of information regarding the careers of the “children” in the film, and a couple of pictures showing them all grown up. However, the book doesn’t end there. As this play is still being performed in various venues, there is some detail regarding its continued success. The last section is a fairly detailed recount of the revival done by Lloyd Webber’s production company.

When it comes to these photo centric books, sometimes one thumbs through, reading the captions, and that’s that. With this book, I read it, all in a couple of days. While it was not suspenseful, it was interesting and kept my attention from the forward to the credits. That’s rare for me. So, for fans of the film, it a top pick. For those interested in how a feature film is developed, it is also of more than passing interest. And, as it is no longer new, it is quite affordable, too. Win-win!

Best of 2021

There’s a certain irony in the title of this post, as 2021 wasn’t a great year in some regards. Politics seemed crazy and crazier. People seemed to be getting over the virus, for the most part, but some were really sick or lost their lives. Healthcare providers seemed to get a handle on it, but not entirely. Oh, there were some bright spots in 2021, such as overall success for the stock market, and college football seemed almost normal.

And, entertainment, especially streaming video, always appreciated, became even more so. Everyone needs a break from reality. So, here’s some of the best books and shows I enjoyed in the past year:

On YouTube TV, hubby and I both very much enjoyed Yellowstone. This show is a modern western, with cowboys and rodeos, guns, big pickup trucks. The story reminds me of family shows of the past, such as “The Big Valley” which I saw in re-runs when I was much younger. However, the Dutton family is led by a patriarch instead of a matriarch, with Kevin Costner doing a fantastic job as the father of three grown children, and the head honcho of the ranch. His offspring are diverse and all interesting, if rather flawed. The Montana setting is certainly an important part of the series, and if you haven’t tried this show, unless you are extremely prudish or need a knight in shining armor to be the main character, I think you’ll like it.

Other streaming winners include the comedy series, Ted Lasso, which is now in its second season over on Apple TV, and Lost in Space in its third season on Netflix. Ted Lasso is a quirky story about an American football coach who is hired to coach a professional English soccer team. Lost in Space was originally a campy cult classic, but the modern iteration is more far more serious and has killer special effects along with good acting and quite a bit of suspense. The first season was amazing, the second season suffered from the sophomore blues, and season three is somewhere in the middle. Overall, it is one of the better space operas online, far surpassing any Trek or Star Wars recent entries that I have seen. (BTW, my son likes the Mandalorian, but I haven’t seen that, so the comment might not be entirely fair.)

The best book I read in 2021 was probably The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel. This novel is set in set in Europe, during World War II. In The Book of Lost Names, the point of view character remains the same, but there are some deliberate time skips as the story moves from 2005, wherein the main character, Eva, is quite elderly, and 1942-46, when a young Eva spent several months forging documents in order to save people from the Germans who were occupying France (and threatening all of civilization.) Eva’s story is a real page turner, as there are moments of suspense, of hardship, and (thankfully) success, both in saving children from the Nazi war on Jews, and in Eva’s growing affection for a fellow member of the resistance. While I don’t want to include any spoilers, the book in the title refers to a code added to an existing book in the library of the local Catholic church, and the code included the real names of children who were perhaps too young to remember their birth names, which had to be altered so they could travel using forged documents.

Other good reads included Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, which I reviewed on this site. And, since I didn’t read them until 2021, I will mention Inside Marine One by Colonel Ray L’Heureux and Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration. None of the honorable mention books are fiction, which is rather unusual for me, as I am primarily a fiction reader. My most oft used source for fiction these days is a daily email from BookBub. Depending on the taste (or tolerance) of the reader, many eBooks are free or very low in price. Reading hasn’t been this cheap since I used to go to the public library every two weeks.

Inflation may be raging, but between streaming and eBooks, entertainment is fairly inexpensive these days. Gas and groceries are skyrocketing, but being entertained is fairly easy. Welcome, 2022!

Redshirts by John Scalzi—a brief review and commentary

Fans of Star Trek, the original series, will immediately understand the premise of this very humorous novel. For the few folks who aren’t familiar with the show, there were a handful of officers who were the “stars” of Star Trek. In the show, the starship ventured from planet to planet. Often, one or more officers left the ship on “away” missions, and they were almost always dangerous. Those bridge officers were usually accompanied by security officers, and in the color scheme of the original series, security staff wore red shirts. As the show couldn’t lose any main cast members, the extras, playing security staff, would invariably be the ones to be maimed or killed.

In Redshirts, the author follows a young officer assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. Ensign Dahl is thrilled to be onboard, but soon becomes apprehensive, because he quickly realizes that when lowly crew members accompany the captain, its chief science officer, or its chief engineer, those lowly crew members would bear the brunt of any dangerous action. In other words, Ensign Dahl is a “red shirt” without actually wearing a red uniform. So, as a very intelligent young officer, Dahl must navigate the command structure of the Intrepid and learn how to stay alive. Quickly, he figures out that it is best to be anywhere other than on an “Away Mission.”

At times, Redshirts is laugh out loud funny. For instance, any attack on the ship will take out the lower decks, but the bridge always remains unscathed. And one young lieutenant has so many close calls, but he never dies, as he is a “main character.” Soon it becomes apparent that only a few characters will always survive. More experienced crew members seem to have figured out how to dodge being tapped for away missions, thus newbies like Ensign Dahl are more likely to end up dead. Rather than explain what they do and what the manage to figure out, I will simply say that the novel goes where the reader might not expect. And, while the novel really is funny, it is also a bit challenging.

Not since Galaxy Quest have I seen such a good parody of television space opera. Fans of the genre will certainly find something to like in Redshirts. And, for those few folks who have never seen Star Trek in any of its various iterations, this novel is still funny, but probably won’t resonate quite so well. However, the novel is rather, well, novel in that it doesn’t end at the end. Instead there are three sections after the end, called Codas. Some reviewers liked them, some did not. Hopefully, some of my readers will take up the challenge and try this book.

Science fiction fans tend to be smart, and it takes some smarts to appreciate this novel. That said, it is quite creative.

Joyful Passage: A Woman’s Path to Retirement, by Joan B. Reid— a brief review and commentary

While reading a business article about retiring in Florida, without a lot of monetary resources, the author was mentioned, hence my purchase. First off, I am a bit farther along this same path. So, I really wanted to like this book. At times I did enjoy her insights, and at times I was rather frustrated. I’m a very practical person, so I was hoping for some tips on how to make the path to retirement and into retirement in a better manner. This book is more about feelings and less about specifics.

Like many of the boomer generation, Ms. Reid moved from full time to part time employment. That’s not always possible, but often recommended. However, like many other boomers, she was less valued by her employer, and ultimately she was pushed into full retirement. (This happens a lot, trust me!) Fortunately, she had secured a second part time position, which gave her both a bit of income and validation. This book is really a series of very short essays, mostly first person accounts, but there are some others sprinkled in which recount similar journeys by friends and colleagues. Boomers will no doubt find something to identify with in these essays.

This book is self published via the Amazon platform, and while there are a few technical issues with formatting, it is overall fairly well done. While I noted a few punctuation issues, probably the average reader would not notice. Spelling and grammar were fine.

My non fiction reading tends to be either “how to” books or an occasional biography, and this is neither. I would liken it to a group therapy session for soon to be or newly retired boomers. There’s quite a lot about feelings, both good and bad, in this journey. Ultimately, Ms. Reid decides to love retirement. I wish her well. And, I hope she will write another book, with some of those practical tips that she must have acquired during her Joyful Passage.

Walter Issacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

This is a big book in so many ways. Walter Isaacson is known for in-depth biographies of such diverse people as Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin, so he is certainly a “big name” author. The book itself is 485 pages long, not including the notes, which brings the page count to 536. As the sub-title indicates, the central figure in this book is Jennifer Doudna, but many, many others have significant roles in this not so brief history of CRISPR (which can be loosely defined as a way to edit genes.)

Jennifer Doudna grew up in Hawaii, the eldest daughter of a college professor. Her father, who doted on her, once left her a copy of Watson’s book on DNA, The Double Helix, and she mentions this book as one of the reasons she pursued a career as a scientist, despite being told by her high school guidance counselor that “women don’t do science.” Rather obviously, she not only did science, but she has done it well enough to earn the Nobel Prize in 2020.

In The Codebreaker, Isaacson follows Doudna’s career, but intersperses it with pertinent information about the gradual unfolding of modern genetic studies, along with brief sketches of the scientists and scholars who influenced Doudna’s work. Two terms which come up over and over are RNA, which is the “worker bee” that carries out many functions in life, and CRISPR, which has to do with the structures which help organisms adapt to needed change (such as when bacteria “learns” to resist a virus.)

There are a lot of pages in this book devoted to what was discovered, by whom, when, and who managed to get published first. That’s the nature of academia. Then there’s the quest for patents and prize money, which is how some academic institutions manage to pay for enormous labs and pay their large supporting staff. Again, this is a book that is about more than a single researcher. Over and over, Isaccson stresses the importance of collaboration in modern science.

There are some really important concepts discussed in the later chapters, including the ethics of manipulating human genes. One researcher took it upon himself to edit the offspring of Chinese couples in an attempt to eliminate the possibility that they could have HIV, which is apparently quite shunned in modern Chinese culture. Other possible reasons to edit offspring would be to eradicate such conditions as Huntington’s disease, which ends in a horrible decline before inevitable death. Eliminating genetic diseases are worthy uses for CRISPR and other genetic engineering, where is the line? Should prospective parents be able to choose the genetic characteristics such as height, intellect, or even hair color of their offspring they way we might choose dishes in a cafeteria? A number of scientists, including Doudna, have had many meetings, discussing such topics, and these are summarized in The Code Breaker.

When the nasty CV hit, a situation that the author sometimes describes as “the plague year,” many of the scientists mentioned in this book, including Doudna, put aside their competition for prizes and first published honors, and collaborated to produce accurate and rapid tests for the pesky illness. Then, in short order, they turned to prevention, and the mRNA vaccines. Not only were these vaccines quick to develop, they also lay the groundwork for more to come, as the same techniques might be used to prevent other illnesses.

The Code Breaker is more than a biography, as the title states, and it is a longish, sometimes challenging book, but like other works by Walter Issacson, ultimately quite rewarding. It isn’t cheap to buy, compared to many of the books I read, nor is it “light reading.” Like a gourmet meal, it is complex, memorable, and enjoyable. Readers are urged to read, then think, and ultimately savor this work.

Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1) by Kevin Tumlinson— brief review and commentary

This is a pretty good novel. The main character, Alex Kayne, is sassy, super smart, and just vulnerable enough to avoid the “heroine can’t die” syndrome that afflicts almost all comic book super hero characters, or Lara Croft (heroine of the Tomb Raider games/films). Alex is a fugitive computer whiz who needs something to do as she hides from all the forces who want to either kill her or “bring her to justice”, so she kinda does her version of “The Equalizer” in that she helps people who have a specific need. The needy person in Shaken is a surfer/marine biologist named Abbey, who lost an arm to an encounter with a shark. Abbey received a prototype bionic arm, in part due to her high profile injury, and someone stole it. The arm and it’s charger, gone. Who the heck steals a limb from an amputee? (Literate folks might respond with another story, “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Conner, but I digress.)

So, we have Alex Kayne, who manages to change her appearance, her lodging, her cell phone, and her method of transportation more frequently than anyone in any spy novel I’ve ever read. In this book, she is mostly hiding out in Disney World. Other characters include Eric Symon, the FBI agent who nearly nabs fugitive Alex, Abbey who needs her arm back, and a cast of suspects or villains, depending on how the mystery unfolds. The action in this novel is well told, and not quite believable, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

Readers who enjoy puzzles and/or action heroines and want to be entertained for an evening (or two) should try Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1.)

Now, for the commentary. This was my first book by Kevin Tumlinson, but I certainly intend to try another. At the end of this book there’s a note wherein the author explains that he didn’t plan to self-publish this novel, intending to put it in the hands of an agent. However, he thought better of it and put it into his self-publishing stable of products. For many authors (yours truly included) self-publishing is better, due to control of the process and potential financial gain. That decision is understandable, but when the author said he wrote the book in roughly 15 days, I was shocked. Shocked.

Y’all, fifteen days is like two weeks. I can’t edit a book in two weeks, much less go from beginning to end. Wow. I had a whole new perspective on the novel after that. I thought it was a good, if not spectacular read, with very few errors. However, the very idea that such a book could be dreamed up and written in such a short time is simply hard to believe. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, “There is no new thing under the sun.” Shaken is a bit like that, in that the elements in the story have been used before, but perhaps not in precisely this manner. The author’s website is a feast for those who want to know more about marketing and branding, especially marketing self-published novels. Clearly, Tumlinson is not just prolific, but also understands how to get the product to customers, too.

Inside Marine One by Colonel Ray L’Heureux

While I seldom read biography, when I do, I usually really enjoy it. Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World’s Most Amazing Helicopter is a really good read. The author, a retired Marine, knows his subject matter, of course, but the book’s organization, which is both linear yet focused, helps make it an engaging read.

After an opening which describes the “victory lap” circling Washington on Inauguration Day, which is a taste of one of the final “missions” that the author participated in, the usual chronological approach takes the reader back to the time when the author’s love of flying helped him choose a career path. Lacking the funds to pursue a private education in aviation, Ray L’Heureux (call sign “Frenchy”) decides to join the Marine Corps as a pilot. During his very successful training, he decides to fly helicopters rather than jet aircraft, which most of his fellow Marines sought as their specialty. While on duty in California, Frenchy is in the audience gathered to see President Reagan land at his base. As he is impressed with this unit, Frenchy decided that he wanted a tour of duty with HMX-1, which is the name of the part of the Marine Corps which provides helicopter transportation for the President.

L’Heureux actually served in HMX-1 twice during his thirty year career in the Marines, hence the “Four Presidents” in the sub-title. He was a junior officer during the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations, meaning that he was part of the group that planned the helicopter trips (called “lifts”) and occasionally flew as co-pilot for dignitaries. L’Heureux returned as commander of HMX-1 during the presidency of George W. Bush, with whom Frenchy became friends. When Bush 44’s term was over, the author was still the commander of HMX-1, thus he flew the Obamas for a few months before his assignment ended and the reins of HMX-1 went to another Marine pilot.

While not overly technical, L’Heureux lets the reader know quite a lot about how helicopters work. The focus of the book is on HMX-1 and their two sorts of helicopters, all painted dark green with white on the top, but the author also flew in other types of helicopters with other missions, and that’s of interest. However, the “inside” view is largely about how the military goes to great lengths to insure both the safety, comfort, and efficiency in providing transportation for the President, the Vice President, and heads of state of visiting nations. Whether the reader knows much about helicopters, the military, or just recent history, or not, there’s something for everyone in Frenchy’s book. According to the author, President Eisenhower was the first U.S. President to use helicopters for day to day transportation, as it was faster and far more convenient for everyone. Motorcades require a number of security measures, which, of course, takes time and impacts traffic. When the President boards one of the “white top” helicopters, he can be where he needs to be more quickly, and traffic is unimpeded. So, since Eisenhower, most Presidents have relied upon Marine One for quite a lot of their transportation, whether going to Andrews to board Air Force One, or just a short trip to the Presidential retreat, Camp David.

One of the aspects that I found quite interesting were the stories about Camp David, which is a 45 minute ride from the White House via helicopter. The author describes playing “Wallyball” with Bush 41. Later, L’Heureux, both an athletic guy and a Marine, was invited to ride mountain bikes with Bush 44, and that experience began their friendship. During his time of flying George W. Bush, the author was frequently at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, and helped build a bike trail on the ranch.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that when the U.S. President travels abroad, the helicopters go over first, so that the President is always flown by Marine pilots. The effort necessary to dismantle, load, unload, and reassemble and then test the helicopters before the arrival of the President is a bit mind boggling. In his memoir, L’Heureux describes flying Marine One over Normandy for D-Day anniversaries, landing in Germany so the President could meet with Angela Merkle, and even landing at Windsor Castle, so the President could have tea with Queen Elizabeth.

For readers who enjoy history, insider information, or just an entertaining read, do check out Inside Marine One.

More from D.A. Boulter— One Trade Too Many and Trading for War

Some years ago, I discovered D.A. Boulter’s ebook series about a family of traders who traveled via space going vessels to various ports of call. Recently, I bought a couple more entries in the series, books 3 and 4, with the respective titles above.

As I previously touched upon earlier books in the series, here are links to Courtesan, Trading for the Stars, and Trading for a Dream. I’ve also read some of his stand alone books and other series, but the Yrden Chronicles remain my favorites in his growing booklist.

In One Trade Too Many, the Clay and Colleen Yrden are doing what their family does, traveling, trading, and raising their kids onboard one of the combo passenger and cargo ships, Blue Powder. During this entry, the Captain of Blue Powder (Clay Yrden) asks the head of security, Adrian Telford, to play passenger in an attempt to ferret out a possible saboteur, and one of the passengers, a widow, begins stalking Mr. Telford. While not boring, the story takes a while to build, but there is significant suspense toward the end of this third volume of the Trading series, and it has a cliff hanger ending. Some folks hate such endings, but as I purchased books 3 and 4 at the same time, I just swiped on over and read Trading for War. The latter is largely about warfare, and focuses on Colleen Yrden, who has a host of problems: her husband is missing, her son is growing into manhood with revenge on his mind, her family’s business is being disrupted by pirates and mercenaries, and her two mothers hate each other’s guts.

Nowadays, authors tend to follow other forms of media and rely upon bad language, sensuality, and inorganic plot twists to entertain readers. D.A. Boulter’s stories do not have any of those characteristics. Indeed, while not written for kids, or even young adults, these stories are entertaining but almost squeaky clean. Honestly, it is quite refreshing to read Boulter’s stories, which rely more upon world building, character evolution, and wholesome themes than anything shocking.

Fans of science fiction and multi volume stories should take a look at the works of D. A. Boulter. He’s one of the first eBook authors I ever read, and he remains a favorite a decade after I discovered his work.

Re-Reading, The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

My recent visit to a used bookstore netted me a couple of relics from my past reading, including a paperback of Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose. For those who have not read any of Asaro’s Skolian saga, this book might make a good starting point, but it is probably a better read for those who are already familiar with this rather involved science fiction/fantasy/romance series.

The Quantum Rose won the 2001 Nebula Award

Asaro’s bio is almost as mind-boggling as her stories: She holds a doctorate in chemical physics, and she is a former ballerina, jazz dancer, and sometime singer. Her books include near future science fiction, such as The Veiled Web and the Phoenix Code, the 14 (or so) volume Skolian saga, which begins with Primary Inversion, The Lost Continent series, The Uplift Saga series, and more.

For me, this book is really hard to quantify. One tag line is that it is a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Uh, not really. Another is that it is a physics allegory, and the author ‘s note at the end makes every effort to explain the book via that lens, and while interesting, I kinda got lost in her description of particle physics after a while. Certainly this book is a romantic science fiction story, and there’s really not much high brow competition in that sub-genre. While readable, Asaro is never simplistic.

This story does fill in some gaps in the Skolian saga, which generally tells the story of members of the Ruby Dynasty in a book (or two.) Interestingly, the point of view character in The Quantum Rose is Kamoj Argali, a young ruler of an impoverished province on a backward planet, and not a member of the Ruby Dynasty. Kamoj does end up entangled in their saga, because she becomes involved with Vyrl, one of the Ruby Dynasty, who is sojourning on her planet for a while, and they end up falling in love.

The first part of the book is all about Kamoj, Vyrl, and the complications of her previous engagement to a local leader of questionable morals, Jax Ironbridge. This first half is more romance than sci-fi, although sci-fi elements are present. The second half is mostly set off of that world, filling in certain backstory aspects of the Skolian saga, with more science fiction and a heavy dose of fantasy. At this point, the romance takes a back seat to the political machinations that are part and parcel of the Skolian yarn.

While I enjoyed The Quantum Rose once again, I have trouble understanding why it won the Nebula award, which goes to the best science fiction novel of the year (via a vote of the SFWA). Yes, it is skillfully written and the quantum part of the title is justified, at least in the author’s notes after the novel, as “playing with quantum scattering theory.” Still, I have to wonder if it was really the very best science fiction novel of 2000. I like most of the Asaro novels I have read, and I think some of the others are better than The Quantum Rose. Hum, maybe it was the lack of competition.

Re-reading, Goddess by Mistake

Recently, I got my hands on a used copy of a book I loaned and lost, Goddess by Mistake by P.C. Cast. Often, books are so similar that I don’t remember them well enough to write a decent review a week or two after I have finished them. Goddess by Mistake was memorable for me, so much so that I remembered it almost two decades after my first reading of it, so when I scored a used one on eBay, I put it at the top of to be read pile. The story still seems fresh, but the sassy narrator is the main reason I liked it then, and why I still like it. For those who want to know more, here’s a link to my “old” blog.

http://pamspages.blogspot.com/2007/08/

Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration

While all Star Trek series are worthy, some are just more interesting than others. Deep Space Nine has some great characters and acting, but initially suffered from being “stationary” rather than zipping around like the Star Trek ( the original series) or Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Roddenberry’s vision had sharpened and the syndication model freed him from many constraints, probably TNG is the overall best series. Certainly, the acting is amazing and the scrips are often really great, too. But, as special effects have become better and better, TNG suffers a bit in that area. Enter Star Trek: Voyager, which had a seriously huge void to fill, as it debut was a mere six months after TNG ended its seven year run. I also reviewed a book, Star Trek Voyager, A Vision of the Future, written during Voyager’s run, which is good, but last year, this volume, written as an anniversary edition, does a much better job of explaining the series as a whole, from development to the two part ending episode, “End Game.”

Upon receiving the book, I thought it would be one of those “coffee table” books, long on pictures and short on words. Nope, although there are many pictures. Indeed, the use of now decades old still pictures from the series is sometimes a weak point. However, there are drawings, pictures of behind the scenes contributors, and plenty of text. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is written in short segments which can be quickly read, but there are many sections, and these don’t necessarily need to be read in any fixed order.

The book begins, logically, with series development, and then there’s a short (two page) section devoted to the title sequence. I had no idea that this part (often “skipped” while streaming) was nominated for an Emmy award. Interspersed with the more technical aspects of the series are longer passages about the characters, beginning, of course, with Captain Janeway. The authors (two principal and two others, along with a general editor and a sub-editor) rely upon previously published material as well as newly conducted interviews with some cast members, as well as writers, producers, artist, and a host of others. Kate Mulgrew, who played Janeway, is among those who share memories in this book, and she discusses how much pressure was upon her as the first female captain of a Star Trek series, and how she approached the character as well as learning the scientific language necessary in this sort of show.

As there were many episodes (16 the first season, and 26 in each of the following six seasons) not all of them are featured, but sections devoted what are termed “key” episodes are mixed in with the other segments. The first, “Caretaker” is the two part pilot, and some of the other key episodes include “Tuvix” a character created by a transporter accident in which Neelix and Tuvok are blended into one individual. Each character gets a section, and most of multi episode villains do also. There are a couple of segments about the ship, one about the Delta Flyer, which is a smaller ship built by the Voyager crew about halfway through their journey, as well as segments about the special effects department, the makeup artists, the costumers, the writers, and the directors. As a fan of Voyager since it originally was broadcast, I knew quite a bit about the series, but there’s a lot of new material. For instance, I knew that some of the actors directed certain episodes, but I did not know that Star Trek actually fostered this by holding a “director in training” program. Roxann Dawson, who played Lt. Torres, directed a couple of episodes of Voyager, but went on to become a sought after director. She states that the program changed her life.

Bob Picardo took advantage of the DIT program and directed episodes of Voyager, but he also gets a writing credit, as he pitched a story line which was used, and he co-wrote the script. Robbie McNeil, who played Tom Paris, also directed multiple episodes of Voyager and went on to direct other projects.

When TNG was in production, many of the special effects were done with models, but by the time Voyager was being produced, digital graphics were beginning to be more cost effective, as well as allowing more creative shots, so as the seven seasons went by, more and more VFX were done digitally. However, in the show’s 100th episode, “Timeless”, the ship is depicted as crashing into a snow and ice covered planet. The visual effects crew found that digital snow wasn’t working, so they ended up doing a practical shot with a model crashing into a tray of baking soda. I’ve seen that episode several times, and I am amazed by how good it looks on the screen.

For fans of Star Trek Voyager, this book is a real treat. For readers interested in television, particularly directing, writing, and special effects, it is worthy. Casual readers or those who just “look at the pictures” might be a tad disappointed in this book, but I read it cover to cover, with a couple sections earning a second reading. For now, it has a spot on my “keeper” shelf, too.

Searching for Shelter: Aftermath Book 1—a brief review

In short, this is a disaster upon disaster yarn.

Searching for Shelter is actually a pretty good book. I was a bit surprised that it holds together as well as it does, with three authors listed. While I haven’t done a collaboration novel, most of them involve a “big name” author lending a helping hand to a newbie, or one author does an outline while another does the grunt work. I have no idea how these three folks did it, but Searching for Shelter gets better as it goes along, and it goes along at a good pace.

As a southerner, and one who has travelled in Mississippi, I appreciated the setting and the types of characters that populate the novel. Or maybe I liked it because I grew up in the era when “disaster movies” such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Andromeda Strain were blockbusters at the theatre. Anyway, this novel is in the genre of “you need to be a prepper to survive into the next book” that seems to be growing in popularity. While not as pedantic as the last “prepper” novel I read, this one does have some instruction interwoven into the plot.

A rather large cast of characters, in the Mississippi delta region, are introduced in the early chapters. They include a young couple (Edward and Maria) and their midwife (April), as their first child is about to be born in the midst of the biggest hurricane anyone in that hurricane prone area has ever seen. Indeed, the storm is labeled a category six (and there are only cat 1-5 storms now, so that lets the reader know just how bad this rascal is going to be for the landscape and its citizens.) Another main character is Rita Sloan, a young lady with a very troubled past, desperate to get home, who ultimately seeks shelter in a mechanic’s garage, along with the owner of the shop and his nephew. Other important characters include prisoners at the state penitentiary, as those are invariably built in rural areas. The storm first knocks down almost every building, then the storm surge floods all but the highest ground. In short, this is a disaster upon disaster yarn. As this is a novel about being prepared, or not, most characters have a skill or a stash, or want to take something from someone else. For instance, Edward and Maria have lots of food stores, as they are farmers, while April desperately wants to get home to her stash, which includes a good supply of medical items, from medicine to bandages. Even Rita has her “go bag” in the car and manages to hang onto it through the entire book.

Like the Johnny Cash song, eventually all of these characters, and a slew of others, are goin’ to Jackson. However, each one’s journey is fraught with peril, from ne’er do wells looting and stealing to gators looking for their next meal. And, once the characters reach the city, the devastation is so great and the population so ill prepared, that the shelter they are seeking remains elusive. Thus, while some plot lines are resolved, many are left for the successive novels to explore.

I haven’t decided to purchase books 2 and 3, but they are definitely on my “maybe” list.

Nowadays, there’s just so much free and cheap reading available. And, I’m a total reading glutton. For real!

Remember when journalism was compelling reading?

Hubby and I have been watching Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix, and since the storyline is anything but linear, we both looked for articles to help us understand the story. As we are chronologically gifted, we remember the case being in the news, but as it happened some 25 years ago, we wanted a refresher. Hubby looked at Wikipedia, because, as always, it comes up first on search engines. I went a bit farther and looked at the source material for that article and chose a piece in the NY Times archives. Oh, wow, is that a great article. A hell of a great read, and it helped me know more about the Unabomber case than I ever knew way back when. Also, it was a glaring reminder of how far the standards of good journalism have fallen.

Unabomber

One of my sisters is a journalism major, and she still thinks that journalists do a reasonable job. Oh, sure, she says, there are some bad ones, and some hacks, but that’s always been the case. My other sister works in communications and believes modern journalists are often poor writers managed by even poorer editors who are more interested in how many times articles are shared or clicked upon than actual quality. After reading the simply superb article about Ted Kaczynski in the NYTimes, I tend to agree with the sister that says journalism has fallen on hard times.

Manhunt: Unabomber is a good show if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend it, but the filmmakers do jump from scene to scene, sometimes with only a brief graphic telling the date, too quickly. In part, this seems to be an effort to create a bit of suspense, which is always tricky when telling a tale wherein the outcome is known by the audience. The folks behind the show do an excellent job of portraying the very complex man who chose to bomb those he deemed hostile to him or to his vision for the advancement of society, and it reveals the mis-steps of the initial profilers of the suspect labeled UNABOM because his targets were associated with universities or airlines. The NY Times story mentions Kaczynski’s failed attempt at getting articles (or rants, depending on one’s viewpoint) published. Indeed, only the Unabomber’s success at getting his “manifesto” published in a national newspaper actually caused him to be captured, and the FBI had a tip or it wouldn’t have happened at all.

The story in the NYT is not entirely linear either, as it jumps from witness to witness, but the story is primarily based upon a long interview with David Kaczynski the bomber’s brother, who ultimately helped the FBI identify the bomber. Still, the article is far more informative, if not as dramatic, as the television show. In particular, I was struck with the tremendous dilemma in that David had, because he knew that other instances of FBI vs. a long sought suspect ended in a firestorm (such as the Branch Davidians in Waco and the stand off at Ruby Ridge) so he was concerned. With the support and prompting of his wife, he supplied materials to support his suspicions and approached the FBI. Despite being assured that his role would be anonymous, someone in the investigation leaked it to CBS news. Nowadays, it is no secret that the FBI is more of a political organization than a crime fighting one, but even then, the younger Kaczynski brother was very wise be concerned, and even wiser to have an attorney.

One aspect of the NYT story that helps it be fascinating reading is the focus on Ted Kaczynski, from childhood on, and the use of excerpts from the manifesto. Despite being mentally unbalanced, the brilliant former math professor did have some profound observations about the deleterious effects of advancing technology on people and society. He attempted to wall off those technological intrusions by living as he did, off the grid, in Montana. For whatever reasons, whether one deems it mental illness or just plain evil, Kaczynski did try to fight technology by writing and bombing. His life, and those of his victims, would have been far better if he had written more, been a little less clueless about getting published, and never made those bombs, however.

The television series Manhunt has two seasons available. Season one is about the Unabomber and season two, entitled Deadly Games, is about Eric Rudolph and Richard Jewell, one of whom made bombs, and one of whom was falsely accused. Both shows are worthy of viewing. Sadly, I don’t think anything published in the New York Times today is as nearly as good as “PRISONER OF RAGE — A special report.;From a Child of Promise to the Unabom Suspect.”

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—