Monthly Reads: November 2019

A bunch of good stuff this month, including some surprises, but I think I’m going to have to give Book of the Month to War Girls, by Tochi Onyebuchi, despite the fact that I never got around to reviewing it here and there are books on there that I did.

Unread Shelf: December 1, 2019

I said something last month about how my unread shelf was completely out of control. There are the exact same number of books in this photo as there were last month. I am terrible at this, apparently. 🙂

I’m, like, four posts deep right now, by the way, so there may be a bit of a flurry of them over the next couple of days. November was pretty light so I suspect y’all will forgive me.

#REVIEW: Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

Longest post title ever? Possibly. Gotta love nonfiction books.

This is known: there exists an alternate-universe version of me who has a Ph.D and works as either an astronomer or a planetary geologist. I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for as long as I can remember, and every now and again I really wonder how it is that I didn’t take all that much math and science in college.

(Actually, I know why that’s true. My current enjoyment of mathematics dates to realizing how fascinating statistics was when I had to take a stats class for my … oh, wait, I was a Psychology major, among other things, so I guess I did have to take a fair number of science classes in college.)

(Let’s say “hard science” classes and piss off the psychology people. Like, science with math, which– other than stats– Psychology really doesn’t trouble itself all that much with. Shut up you know what I mean.)

Anyway. I followed the New Horizons mission with no small degree of fascination, and the data they’ve acquired about Pluto and its associated moons is endlessly interesting. Earlier this year the spacecraft did a flyby on a Kuiper Belt object now known as Arrokoth, and I believe there’s at least one more KBO flyby planned before the craft is shut down. Stern and Grinspoon’s book isn’t so much about the science, or about Pluto, however; it’s about the 20-plus-year effort to get the mission to explore the ninth planet(*) approved and the political and scientific process by which the mission itself actually came to be. As it turns out, there were a lot of people who for one reason or another didn’t want New Horizons to happen, and the mission was either actually cancelled or nearly cancelled five or six times, to say nothing of the number of times where something went wrong with the craft itself. For example, I wasn’t aware that they lost contact with the craft just a few days before the Pluto flyby began, and the book’s description of the mad scramble to not only reestablish contact with the by-then-several-billion-miles-away craft but to then slowly re-upload a bunch of mission-critical code updates before the thing sped by Pluto at thousands of miles per hour is compelling as hell.

So, yes– this book is less a work of popular science or a textbook about Pluto than it is a book about history and politics. It’s about the mission, not the planet, and while I wasn’t quite aware of that when I picked it up it’s no less of a good read for it– I’m always down to read something about NASA’s inner workings, and some of the squabbling that takes place between Caltech’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins over who was going to actually design and build the spacecraft that eventually became New Horizons is pretty damn cool. One way or another, while I haven’t read a ton of nonfiction this year I’m glad I finally let this stop languishing on my shelf and picked it up. You’ll probably see it mentioned again in a month or so, when I write my 10– or possibly 15– best books of the year post for 2019. In the meantime, check it out.

(*) For most of the book, Pluto is very much considered a planet, and the authors’ open derision toward the new definition of “planet” that reclassified Pluto is hilarious. Needless to say, for these guys Pluto is the ninth planet and it ain’t going anywhere.

#REVIEW: Upon the Flight of the Queen, by Howard Andrew Jones

Back in February I was able to get my hands on an early copy of Howard Andrew Jones’ For the Killing of Kings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and said so, as I’ve been known to do, and miraculously just recently ended up with an early copy of the second book in the trilogy, called Upon the Flight of the Queen. I finished it today, a few days before release– the book comes out on November 19, next week.

I’ve been a fan of Jones’ for a while; he basically writes modern sword-and-sorcery, which is a genre that’s directly up my alley. The Ring-Sworn books are a bit more European in tone than the previous books I’ve read by him, and the first one basically ended up being a sort of fantasy murder mystery for about the first 2/3 of it, only the setup was that most of the characters were pursuing the rest of them for the murder that the book started with, while the main protagonists were looking for the shadowy villains who were actually responsible for the killing.

Upon the Flight of the Queen is, unapologetically and directly, a fantasy war novel. Killing of Kings ends with an invasion, and the entirety of Queen bounces back and forth between several locations all simultaneously being invaded by a group called the Na’or, who are 1) generally not very nice, 2) have dragons, and 3) are sort of allied with the Queen, whose role in the story I’m not going to talk about all that much because spoilers and I’ve probably already said enough, although if you’ve read the first book you’re already aware that something not quite kosher is going on with her.

The strengths of the first book were the characters and the fact that Jones never stopped stepping on the gas for basically the entire length of the story. This is much the same, really, except that the book’s timeline is really compressed compared to the first book– it takes place over no more than a couple of weeks, at most, I think, and there’s absolutely no point where the author lets the momentum of the book flag at all. Now, one mistake I think I made: I’ve read, conservatively, probably 75-80 books since Killing of Kings, and it might have been smarter of me to have reread it before jumping back into the sequel. There are a lot of characters and a lot going on in this book, and I spent a bit more time trying to figure out what was going on than I generally like to, which I think is more my fault as a reader rather than the fault of the book– which is, after all, book two of a trilogy, which one might not reasonably expect to stand on its own all that well. I also could have benefited from a map. Fantasy books should always have maps, even if they don’t need them. This one involves war and invasions so it needs them.

The first two books in the Ring-Sworn trilogy came out ten months apart, so one assumes Volume 3 will be out sometime next year. I didn’t love this one quite as much as I did the first volume, but I’ll make sure to reread them before the third book comes out. If you enjoyed For the Killing of Kings, I’d go hunt Upon the Flight of the Queen when it comes out next week.

Monthly Reads: October 2019

Book of the Month: MIDDLEGAME, by Seanan McGuire. Also possibly interesting, this is the first MR picture taken with the new phone, which can take a picture of a stack of books in Portrait mode. I love how it looks.