The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” so I was very excited to see a novel about Elma’s earlier life. I nearly bought a copy of The Calculating Stars three times while circling the bookshop at Readercon but passed on it to purchase American Hippo instead (absolutely no regrets; you can read my review of how much I enjoyed American Hippo here).

I also wasn’t impressed by the quality of the materials used in the trade paperback hard copy. The cover curled and the paper felt cheap. The $18 cover price seemed too high. I know the higher price offsets the direct-to-paperback loss of hardcover sales, but I don’t like to buy chintzy books because I tend to keep them for a long time. So, when The Calculating Stars went on sale for Kindle for $2.99, I purchased immediately.

I was not disappointed by this book- it was fabulous. A League of Their Own meets Hidden Figures, The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of the 1950s and 60s space race in a time of accelerated global warming that necessitates off-world colonization, with a large and diverse cast of smart women all based on real historical people, fighting their way to the role of astronauts. In the real history of NASA’s voyages to the stars, women got men into space. Women were the mathematicians (called computers) behind the trajectories and engineering of space shuttles and lunar modules, doing the calculations by hand that early electronic computers were too slow and unreliable to do. Women also flew just about every kind of plane all over the place during WWII in the WASP program. Like women in the military today, the story that gets told is that these women didn’t go into combat, so it was never dangerous or difficult, but then and now, that’s a lot of bullshit.

Elma is a former WASP and a computer, a Doctor of Mathematics, married to a rocket engineer who is supportive and acknowledges her intelligence, talents, and ambitions. She has anxiety and struggles with whether or not to take medication and what people might think if they knew. She likes her work as a computer, but desperately wants to go to space, to the moon, to Mars. Elma is such a well-crafted character. In a brief description she sounds too perfect: smart accomplished woman with perfect marriage has one tragic flaw to overcome on her way to destroying the patriarchy and achieving her dreams! But she’s so much more complex than that, with little nuances and asides. She loses most of her family, constantly forgets about and then is reminded of her white privilege as the women of color around her suffer from racism, struggles with the lingering effects of being a girl and then a woman who moves through life outshining men and is bullied and traumatized to boost fragile male egos. She’s also Jewish, and grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust and the loss of her own family line among thousands of lost Jewish families. This story may be alternate history, but it is very grounded in its time and place. Elma does not destroy the patriarchy on her way to achieving her dreams. She eats a lot of shit, grits her teeth and smiles through it, because she knows she is building a better future.

The focus on global warming and society’s attitude toward it, is very timely. Sadly, so is the racism and sexism. Decades of advancement, and we haven’t come as far as Elma would hope. I’m looking forward to escaping into the world of the sequel, The Fated Sky, to spend some time in a hopeful fantasy of a better tomorrow.

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Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris

Five Quarters of the OrangeFive Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve had this book on my shelf for six or seven years, and finally read it because I saw that Joanne Harris has another novel in the Chocolat series coming out this year, and that reminded me that also want to read
Different Class
, her follow-up to Gentlemen and Players. However, I am determined to read the books on my shelf this year, so I plucked down Five Quarters of the Orange. I wish I had read it all those years ago when I first bought a copy, not long after I read and enjoyed Blackberry Wine. I may have loved it then on its own merits instead of merely liking it now and wishing for different books.

This novel has all the things I love about Harris’s writing—immersion into the life of the narrator, a deep sense of place built on exquisite details, tension and urgency mixed with syrup-slow moments of reflection and memory. (And, of course, descriptions and recipes of delicious food.) But what I really wanted from the experience was all of those things plus the touches of magic in Chocolat, or the mystery-thriller edges of Gentlemen and Players. The opening of Five Quarters has too much foreshadowing, too many moments of conversational “but of course you want me to get on with it,” and “we didn’t know what the consequences of our actions would be” after the reader is told that there’s a secret tragedy coming our way, that a Bad Thing™ happened. Harris’s prose moves you along with such surety, is so compelling in its immersion, the mentions upon mentions are hamfisted and unnecessary.

But I’m stubborn, and her prose so gripping, that I didn’t give up. I read the whole thing. I enjoyed adult Framboise more than her child self, with whom we spend half the story peeling back the layers of the secret tragedy. My saving grace was the retrospective narration, the adult wisdom layered into the memory of a child’s life, Framboise’s unflinching commentary on the failures and foibles of her family, and the moments of beauty and understanding as she dredges up long-buried memories. It’s masterfully done. However, I just finished a tightly-plotted, character-driven weird Western that took me from big drama to big drama, and moving on to Harris’s more florid, literary sensibility with a series of small dramas leading to the climax of the novel was jarring and impacted my experience of this book.

The climax is exciting, though, and the denouement lovely. I’m glad I made it all the way there.

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