Review: The Calculating Stars

Author Mary Robinette Kowal doesn’t know anything about me …. so it’s not possible she understood that when she wrote “The Calculating Stars,” she was writing the one book I could not possibly resist reading.

Perhaps she was aware of the many women of my generation and older who can still remember the landing on the moon, and the fervor afterwards with which so many people wanted to go do that, too.

Some of those who were watching knew they could maybe do this. And some of us knew we couldn’t. And some of us thought that fact was terribly unfair.

Star Trek was exploring strange new worlds back then, and they had room aboard ship for my idol Lieutenant Uhura, and for whatever female ensign Captain Kirk had his eye on that week. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella struck me as more silly than admirable, but at least she was in outer space, too.

So, after the first landing on the moon, I bravely declared to my mother that I wished to become an astronaut. She looked at me curiously, like perhaps I possessed some troublesome quality she hadn’t been aware of.

“Find a more realistic ambition,” was all she said. I never brought it up again.

When I was little, my father flew small planes. Yet, he seemed every bit as puzzled as my mother once was, when years later I told him I had started to take flying lessons. I was out of college by then, making okay money as a technical writer. This is what I wanted to do with those earnings. I thought he’d be proud.

“Okay ….. ” was all he said. Before long, he sent me all his study manuals on flying, with a simple note. “If you’re going to be a pilot, be a good one.”

It would be decades more before I learned that he once flipped a plane while trying to land it, and had never flown again. The story we’d been told as kids was that it “got too expensive” for him to fly.

And it is expensive. Much as I loved it, I clearly was never going to be a commercial pilot, much less an astronaut. Before too long I moved on to other, more realistic dreams.

Then along comes this book.

It’s not just about women in space, it’s about women my mother’s age getting to go. Give me a break. How does this happen?

Oh. The blurb says a meteorite hits the earth and threatens to destroy all life. That’s all it takes to get women in the 1950’s into the space program? Cool. Bring on the meteorite. (Just kidding. Of course.)

Forgive the long preamble, but I felt I ought to explain why, by the time I was on about page 20, this had become my favorite book of all time.  A little context can be helpful.

Now, for a more objective look.

Pilot and mathematician Elma York is well qualified for the space program and she wants to join it. Author Kowal recognizes the difficulties of creating a character with a brilliant mind who is also a highly skilled aviator, is beautiful, is well liked by her family and friends, and who has a loving husband as talented as she is.

Kowal gives her an Achilles heel to balance out her many gifts and to make her goal of getting into space more difficult. On occasion I thought she took this “little problem” a bit further than was believable for a woman who had accomplished so much, but it did work to make the plot more interesting, and to make Elma a more believable human.

She also chose to give her an ethnicity (Jewish, right after WWII), which I thought was interesting but less pertinent to the story. Perhaps it ties better into the previous short works, or it will tie more into the sequels?

Much of the beginning of the book has to do with the meteorite and it’s aftermath. This part is chilling, and incredibly well written. I could hardly put the book down.

The second part centers on the accelerated space program being developed to help save humanity. Here Elma York encounters the sexism of much of the military, but she also faces the ingrained, even almost silly sexism of the time period. (Astronettes? Really?) It rings true.

Luckily, she is surrounded and supported by a strong group of women, many of them fellow pilots and quite a few of them also women of color, who are facing a whole ‘nother set of unfortunate biases. These women have a handful of male allies (including Elma’s husband) and, to no ones surprise, eventually they all prevail.

Kowal accepting the Hugo award

Kowal does try to bring in details about how her society reacts to the climate change brought on by the meteorite, and in doing so she obliquely addresses our own society’s struggles with abating climate change. She doesn’t hit you over the head with the comparison, and it adds a nice bit of social consciousness to the story.

The book is suspenseful in that the reader wants to see Elma go into space and wants to learn how she does it. However, it lacks any large plot twists or deep philosophical ideas. (Both of those are things I love in books.) So I have to admit this is more of “just a fun story” about talented and good people getting to do what they ought to be doing. It’s a cheer along book, but instead of being about a little league team or some such thing that doesn’t interest me, it’s about women getting to what I always wanted to do. So. I really enjoyed cheering along.

 

 

 

 

Now for something different …

I thought I knew what I was going to do next. It was going to be a clever combination of crime novel and speculative fiction, with a main character sleuth who has been growing in my head for over a year. I  called the project “Next” and made folders for it on my computer and in real life. “Next” was about to happen.

Then I got a day at a spa for mother’s day.

It was six hours of relaxing with cucumber slices over my eyes while people massaged my feet and poured me champagne. Yes, it was as wonderful as it sounds.

It was also the longest I’ve gone in a long time without prodding my brain to do what I wanted it to do. (Wait. Aren’t I and my brain the same thing?)

The point is I, or some part of me, went ahead and used this wonderful time to make up a story. A rather good story, really. It didn’t surprise me because making up stories is what I’ve always done when I relax, and there was no doubt I was relaxing. I was kind of surprised at how complex the tale got, however.

By the time I’d driven home, I knew what I had to do. You see, the only time I struggle with writers block is when I (okay, some part of me, let’s call her the adult manager in charge of my head) insists I write whatever Ms. Manager has decided I must.

No matter how hard Ms. Manager insists, it doesn’t happen.

The little kid in my head who makes up the stories simply stops making them up until she is once again allowed to tell her stories, in her way. I’ve learned that if I want to be a writer, I let this little kid do as she damn well pleases. The editor in me (who I suspect is in cahoots with Ms. Manager) can clean up her mess later.

And this little kid really, really wants to tell the story she made up at the spa. So ….

I’ve drawn her a map of the imaginary realm where it will take place.  She named the characters during the full body massage, but I fleshed out several important secondary characters for her, provided a rough timeline, and created a few new words to describe concepts she came up with that don’t have a word in English.

My best friend and chief research associate (who also carries the title of “husband”) has agreed to watch a few old movies with me to provide background I know I need.

Three other people I’m close to have been nice enough to listen to a verbal version of my story. I find that telling it aloud helps me clarify it and hang on to it better, sort of the way describing a dream to someone else helps move it into the conscious mind.

Now, I’m ready to start the messy, emotional process of writing a raw draft. It generally involves yelling, crying and laughing aloud on my part, so I tend not to write first drafts in public places. It’s a scary process for me, yet it’s an exhilaration beyond any I know.

Later, all the adults in my brain will take over, and hopefully turn it into a book. We’ll see …

 

 

 

How much changes in six years?

The Original Teddie

As my novels receive their new names, they’re also getting rewritten. Lingering errors are being fixed, and unnecessary words, phrases and entire scenes are landing on the cutting room floor. All well and good. My biggest conundrum doesn’t come from what should never have been that way to being with.  It comes from what shouldn’t be that way now.

The first draft of this novel was written in 2013. How much changes in six years?

Society continues to evolve. At least more so than not.

My book Layers of Light is not only about human trafficking and female heroes, it is a book about the obstacles faced by women everywhere. It was written before the Me Too movement, and before we had a major candidate for president who was a woman. It was written before “grab ’em by the pussy” and Stormy Daniels. In some ways, it feels to me as if it comes out of a more naive time. How much of the world of 2019 should go into a rewrite?

I also continue to evolve. At least I hope so.

The New Teddie

For over three years now, I’ve been a more or less full time writer. Thanks to classes, groups, and online opportunities, I’ve gotten better at my craft. Practice and study will do that for you.

I’ve also become more politically aware. Writing full time gives you a little more wiggle room to pay attention to the world. As you pay attention, you learn.

Having more free time has also allowed me to be a volunteer. I spend a day a week helping survivors of domestic violence. Individually and in aggregate, they and the social workers who assist them, have taught me so much. It’s no surprise some of that pertains to novel about obstacles women face.

So how much of the new me should go into a rewrite?

I’m making decisions about this all on a case by case basis. Definitely redo that. Don’t touch this. Modify a little here. I hope the result will be a realistic book about young women in 2012 that resonates with the real women of 2020. I think that’s possible.

 

 

Have Courage

In “Layers of Light” a teenage girl and an elderly woman join others in a daring rescue attempt. One of the themes of this book is that all humans are capable of impressive courage, including the many demographics we don’t usually associate with this trait.

I’m trying to show more courage in my own life, and for me right now that translates into being more honest about who I am. My deep dark secret? I write science fiction ….

This may seem to some as nothing to hide, but I’ve worn a lot of different hats and made acquaintances in a lot of different arenas.  In many settings, my secret life as a teller of fantastic tales would be considered odd at best.

None the less ….

When I reissued my first novel x0 as the the shiny new “One of One” last week, I decided to send an email about it to everyone in my contacts list. Everyone. I guess I saw it as a sort of therapy. Here I am. I make up stuff and I’m proud of it.

How many people are in your contacts list? I had no idea, but mine included over 700. So the first thing I accomplished was cleaning it out. Getting rid of people I knew I didn’t want in there took it down to more like five hundred, and getting rid of those I had no clue who they were got me to 434.

Then I parceled it into groups, thinking that way I wouldn’t have to hide everyone behind a bcc and have a greater risk of ending up in their junk folders. You know, high school friends. College friends. My husband’s relatives. I made my way through every category that had two or more entrants and I will say I learned a great deal about my own life and the people I’d bothered to stay in touch with along the way. Some segments are well represented, others barely at all. Interesting.

I finished it all with a category called “you’re a friend I can’t classify” and called it done.

Then I sent everyone an email saying

You know what happened? Yup, about 390 people didn’t get the email, didn’t open it, or didn’t respond. That’s not what matters. Forty or fifty people did, and they contacted me and said “wow, that’s really cool.”

Yeah.

 

Review: Off Season

This is a blog devoted to women’s issues, and I don’t usually review books here. However, I’m making an exception for Off Season, and will do so again for books related specifically to the challenges women face.  See the end of this post for details about reviews on this blog.

Review Summary: E.S. Ruete tells a difficult story with compassion and bursts of eloquence. I rate it 3.8/5.0. My full review is below.

About this book: Dottie woke up wondering where she was and why she was so cold. The first thing she noticed was that she must be outside – she was lying on cold ground and snow was hitting her in unusual places. That’s when she noticed the second thing. Her skirt was pulled up past her waist and her panties were gone. Damn those bastards. It started to come back to her. Dottie is now on an odyssey; a journey not of her choosing; a journey of healing, integration, and reconciliation that will involve her partner, her friends, her enemies, her church, her whole community. And her rapists. As she fights her way through social stereotypes about rape and rape victims, she also finds the strength to overcome society’s messages of who she should be and lays claim her true self. But the memories, the loss, the anger – and the fears – never go away. No woman chooses to be raped. I asked Dottie why she chose to tell me a story of rape. She said that millions of women, hundreds every day, have stories of rape that never get told. She told her story because she could. Because she had to. Because maybe people would hear in a work of fiction a Truth that they could not hear in any other way.

About the author: E.S “Ned” Ruete is an author, speaker, group facilitator, women’s rights activist, LGBTQIPA+ ally, lay preacher, guitar picker, and business analyst. He is the author of Seeking God: Finding God’s both/and in an either/or world and Lead Your Group to Success: A Meeting Leader’s Primer.

Now retired, Ned lives in Niantic, Connecticut with his second wife. He continues to offer pro bono group facilitation and facilitation training to schools, churches, community groups and not-for-profit organizations. He has led strategic planning retreats for United Action Connecticut (UACT), Fiddleheads Food Co-op, and ReNew London. He is actively involved in LGBTQIPA+ advocacy and annually attends and presents sessions at the True Colors Conference. He is a member of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) formerly served on the Association Coordinating Team (ACT, the IAF Board of Directors). He was associate editor of Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal and has contributed articles to Group Facilitation, The Facilitator, and other publications on group facilitation and management consulting.

Off Season is Mr. Ruete’s first fiction work. See his consulting products at MakingSpaceConsulting.com and his books at MakingSpaceConsulting.com/Publish.

Individual Author Links for Ned Ruete:
Twitter
FaceBook

Giveaway: The author will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN gift card at the end of the tour. Learn more and register to win.

My full review: This is only partly a heartfelt tale about the effects of rape. It is just as much the story of an older lesbian woman seeking acceptance from her church after having spent years living with her partner but hiding the true nature of their relationship.

What I liked best.

  1. At first, it is hard to fathom why a man would write such a book. Many women would be inclined to think this story should be told by those who can tell it authentically. Yet, when the author explains that Dottie appeared in his head to demand he tell her story, I understood. (I’ve had characters do that, too.) Indeed, he channels her emotions with all the understanding one could ask for. My favorite quote from the book:

We don’t have a word for what is taken from us in rape, but the only thing more intimate, more personal, more important, more irreplaceable is a life. We need a name for this thing, so we can talk about it, understand it, learn about the pain that comes when it is lost.

  1. The author picks an unlikely rape victim, I think at least partly to make the point that sexual attraction and interaction are not at the root of sexual assault. Dottie doesn’t fit society’s stereotype of beauty, she is older and a little overweight. Her complete lack of sexual interest in men makes it clear no misunderstood flirtation is involved, in spite of accusations to the contrary. Dottie’s assault is conveyed without an ounce of eroticism. In fact, the author has one of the perpetrators consider after-the-fact how different real sexual assault is from the fantasies he has had.
  2. This is not a story of despair, it is a story of courage. There is no sugar coating of the trauma or the recovery, yet there is recovery, not only by Dottie but by others as well. Assault survivor Alice, who is also the mother of a transgender child, was an excellent complex character. I loved her approach of “I’m still listening.”

What I liked least.

  1. This is as much about LGBTQ+ acceptance by fundamentalist Christians as it is about sexual assault. I wholeheartedly support this acceptance, but, like many readers, I am not part of this sort of Christian community. I had a great deal of trouble understanding why Dottie stayed with this church, or cared what its members thought of her. The author spends a lot of time presenting his arguments for this acceptance, including descriptions of biblical characters and actual quotes from the bible. If that is ones moral yardstick, I suppose these arguments are needed, but I thought they belonged in a different book, one written specifically for a Christian audience struggling with this issue. I found myself skipping over the lengthy sermons and religious debates, anxious to get on with Dottie’s story of recovery.
  2. On the other hand, the book is short; in my opinion shorter than it should be. I felt several secondary characters warranted having more of their stories told, and resolution reached. Many threads are dropped concerning Dottie’s struggles and concerning the criminal investigation and eventual fates of her attackers. I understand this is not meant to be a crime book, but those of us who came to the book based on its description understandably want to hear the full story we came for, and more about secondary characters we learn to appreciate.
  3. The book would benefit from a few minor corrections. At least twice the author drops into present tense mid-paragraph. While I am a fan of changing points of view, they approach a dizzying pace on some pages. Also, each chapter begins with lyrics from well known songs. I understand how tempting that is, because music is so powerful, but I doubt these lyrics were used with permission of the artists and believe a book about respect for others should do better in this regard.

In spite of these flaws, I commend the author for his deft handling of difficult topics and recommend this book to advocates of social justice everywhere.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The excerpt I liked best: (The font of the following excerpt is to indicate that the character is having a flashback.)

“This is bullshit.”

 “Now Sheri, we don’t use that language here.”

 “The hell we don’t. ‘Bullshit’ is a lot less dangerous than the language you’re using. Telling me that it was my fault, that I wanted it, that I probably enjoyed it. You weren’t there. You didn’t have some … jock sitting on your belly holding your nose while he poured liquor down your throat. … You didn’t get raped. And raped and raped and raped. “

 “Now Sheri, talk like that doesn’t help anyone.”

 “It helps me.”

 “No, it doesn’t. You’re fixating again. To recover …”

 “Recovery, hell…The girl was raped. Rape is not an issue. It’s not an obsession or compulsion or neurosis you recover from. It’s not an addiction that you are in recovery from. It’s not something you own, it’s something that owns you. It’s a violation. It’s a big gaping wound. If you’re lucky you survive it and it heals over, but it leaves a scar that is always there. You don’t recover from it. You don’t even get to the place where you say you’re in recovery. You just is. ‘Raped’ is a part of you the rest of your life. But you wouldn’t know about that, you tight-assed little white male f…”

This review is part of a book review tour sponsored by Goddess Fish Promotions.
Read more reviews at:
May 8: Stormy Nights Reviewing and Bloggin’
May 17: Emily Carrington

If you are interested in a review from me: I hope to review more books relating specifically to women’s issues. I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review romance novels here, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review contact me at Teddie (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Final Note:  I received a free pdf of this book, which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

 

 

Top Requirement for a Superhero

I love superheroes. And, I love it when women in fiction are strong and capable. But, for some odd reason I’ve never been much of a fan of Wonder Woman.

It could have been the tiara, way back when, or the silly skirted costume. This original heroine was before my time, but her image lingered, and it made her appear to me like a secretary out of the 40’s hustling to get her really angry boss a cup of coffee.

More likely it was the goofy boots and lasso I saw as a young girl. This modernized Wonder Woman had a faintly Texas air about her, and I wasn’t big on cowboy stories. Was I judging her by her appearance? Sadly, yes. I didn’t know much else about her, though, because although I read comics and watched superheroes on TV,  somehow her stories were never there. Her image was all I had.

Then I became a teen-aged feminist, and Wonder Woman became a sex object. Well, not totally I’m sure, but her outward appearance took a sharp turn, so once again I wasn’t interested in her. I preferred my heroes not to look like that they were prepared to do a lap dance in some sort of kinky bondage strip club.

Finally, I outgrew superheros for a long while, as I tended to the challenges of life in my own real world. It was only when I picked up my laptop and started to write books that I discovered how much I had missed heroes with superpowers.

Didn’t give Wonder Woman much thought though, until I caught an interview with the director of the upcoming movie. Really? Someone is making a movie about Wonder Woman?

It sounded interesting, and I went. And I loved it. Not because she was a woman, though that was nice. Not because she was strong and heroic, which of course she was. And not because the whole rest of the movie was basically done with taste and class, though I thought it was, too.

I loved it because she had what I need to see in every hero I appreciate. She had heart. Compassion. Kindness. Ethics. Morals. A desire to make the world better. All those things that all the guy heroes I liked had all along, and maybe she had it too but if all you get is an image and an occasional bit in a fight scene, then there is no way to show that heart is there.

I walked away loving her concept of “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s about what you believe.” That’s a great way to run an army, a country, or a world. In fact, I like that idea so much that all my other blog posts this month will be about letting beliefs shape actions.

I love superheroes. And, I love it when women in fiction are strong and capable. But, my favorite hero of them all is now Wonder Woman.

(For more Wonder Woman inspired thoughts, see Believe, It’s About What You Believe, I believe in appreciating those who protect us. All of them, and Believe in Tomorrow.)

 

 

And that’s the way it was, June 30, 1940

Young people will find role models where they can. I remember two of mine. The independent professional woman Lois Lane, and the fiery red-headed reporter Brenda Starr. I was eight or so, and I read the Sunday comics every week, and watched the kids program “Major Astro” most days after school.

Of course “Major Astro” had five or six programs, and the comics were full of stories, but all the other young women featured in my entertainment world seemed to do nothing but silly things. Only Lois and Brenda had adventures. They were reporters.

Ten years later I headed off to college to major in journalism. I didn’t particularly want to write for a newspaper, and in fact was poorly suited to asking anyone questions they didn’t want to answer. But I wanted to be independent and fiery and have adventures, you know, so even though I’d long since stopped caring about either of my heroes, I landed in their profession. Go figure.

I suppose it’s a good thing that Major Astro didn’t run Wonder Woman features  or I might have joined the army instead.

This year, I’ve fallen in the habit of reading about what happened today in history, because it is a calming antidote to the chaos of current events. Imagine my delight at discovering that seventy-seven years ago today, “Brenda Starr” the cartoon strip by Dale Messick, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune. More surprising to me was that Dale was a woman, and she originally tried to sell her newspaper on a cartoon strip about a female pirate. When that failed, she opted for her red-haired reporter instead, and for forty years she wrote and illustrated the comic strip, always fighting to keep Brenda as an adventurous woman. Two hundred and fifty newspapers carried her work at one time.

Lois kind of fell by the wayside for me, given how obsessed she was with superman. But Brenda, something in me still admires her and wants to be her.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 10, 1947, June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, and June 28, 1888.)