Book Review – Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control

I have trying to get back to my stack of space-themed non-fiction books recently. This one was a short read that I picked up on sale last year and I read it on my Kindle. Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control is written by Hugh Harris, a journalist who worked as “the voice of launch control” for NASA.

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Here is the blurb:

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seventy-three seconds after launch, the fiery breach of a solid motor joint caused a rupture of the propellant tanks, and a stunned nation watched as flames engulfed the craft, killing all seven crew members on board. It was Hugh Harris, “the voice of launch control,” whom audiences across the country heard counting down to lift-off on that fateful day.

With over fifty years of experience with NASA’s missions, Harris presents the story of the Challenger tragedy as only an insider can. With by-the-second accounts of the spacecraft’s launch and a comprehensive overview of the ensuing investigation, Harris gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the devastating accident that grounded the shuttle fleet for over two years. This book tells the whole story of the Challenger’s tragic legacy.

While this book was short, it was also hard to read. I was one of many school children watching the launch live in my classroom when the tragedy unfolded. Up until that day I had wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. At only eight years old, I didn’t understand the risks of exploration and spaceflight. After the accident, I abandoned that dream (until later, but that’s a different tale).

The author gives a good overview of the events around the disaster and the investigations that followed. He doesn’t go into exhaustive detail, but just enough to relate the relevant information. The author focuses more on the dry details and less on the emotional side of the tragedy, so while those human aspects are all included, the way it was written made it easier to read than it might have been.

Next up in my space-themed non-fiction, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. What other non-fiction books about space exploration have you read? Let me know in the comments!

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Book Review – Ready Player Two

I have been so busy recently that I almost forgot to review this book. So while I have a few minutes to spare, I thought I’d finally write out my thoughts on the latest book by Ernest Cline, Ready Player Two. This is, of course, a sequel to Ready Player One which I had ready several years ago, and which was made into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

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Here is the blurb:

An unexpected quest. Two worlds at stake. Are you ready?

Days after Oasis founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything. Hidden within Halliday’s vault, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the Oasis a thousand times more wondrous, and addictive, than even Wade dreamed possible. With it comes a new riddle and a new quest. A last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize. And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who will kill millions to get what he wants. Wade’s life and the future of the Oasis are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

The plot picks up in the immediate aftermath of the first book’s conclusion. But I also had the same problem getting into this book that I did with the first one. The way the opening third of the story is told is through a first person point of view, with Wade simply telling the reader about all the recent events while he wakes up and goes about his daily routine. It lacks tension and would have been more engaging if written in a more direct way. Listening to this as an audiobook, made it tolerable, but I think if I had been reading a physical copy, I would have stumbled over this approach more.

The way Wade presents everything at the beginning also make him more unlikeable as his tale progresses. He loses his girlfriend, mistreats his friends, and becomes more isolated from society. Once the real antagonist shows up, only the enemy’s evil psychotic nature made me want to cheer Wade on at that point.

I did enjoy the book to some extent, but not as much as the first one. With the exception of the Tolkien-based world at the end, I didn’t relate to the rest of the scenes based on pop culture spheres as much. The tension does build and the characters are forced to work together to solve the new puzzle they are given. There are very real stakes as the author has contrived a way to pull the story out of the purely virtual world of the Oasis and give it real consequences. I did enjoy the way the ending was constructed, but I can’t say more about it without giving away spoilers.

Have you read both Ready Player One and Ready Player Two? Let me know in the comments!

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – All Clear

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of All Clear by Connie Willis, narrated by Katherine Kellgren. This book is the second part of one long story that started in Blackout, which I reviewed here, and is part of the author’s larger Oxford Time Travel book series. This duology won the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards.

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Here is the blurb:

In Blackout, award-winning author Connie Willis returned to the time-traveling future of 2060—the setting for several of her most celebrated works—and sent three Oxford historians to World War II England: Michael Davies, intent on observing heroism during the Miracle of Dunkirk; Merope Ward, studying children evacuated from London; and Polly Churchill, posing as a shopgirl in the middle of the Blitz. But when the three become unexpectedly trapped in 1940, they struggle not only to find their way home but to survive as Hitler’s bombers attempt to pummel London into submission.

Now the situation has grown even more dire. Small discrepancies in the historical record seem to indicate that one or all of them have somehow affected the past, changing the outcome of the war. The belief that the past can be observed but never altered has always been a core belief of time-travel theory—but suddenly it seems that the theory is horribly, tragically wrong.

Meanwhile, in 2060 Oxford, the historians’ supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who nurses a powerful crush on Polly, are engaged in a frantic and seemingly impossible struggle of their own—to find three missing needles in the haystack of history.

Told with compassion, humor, and an artistry both uplifting and devastating, All Clear is more than just the triumphant culmination of the adventure that began with Blackout. It’s Connie Willis’s most humane, heartfelt novel yet—a clear-eyed celebration of faith, love, and the quiet, ordinary acts of heroism and sacrifice too often overlooked by history.

I enjoyed this book more than the first half of the story in Blackout, probably because I was more invested in the characters by this point, and we see the characters figure out the mystery behind their problems with time travel. I think that the story worked better having the three main characters in contact with each other as well, rather than constantly missing each other as they did in Blackout.

The audio production of both these books was nicely done also. While this is quite a long story, my attention didn’t wander often while listening, which is more likely for me with an audiobook than a physical book.

The ending of the book brings everything to a satisfying close. I anticipated some of the outcomes but the author still threw in some facets that I hadn’t thought about. This is the kind of book that may be worth rereading once you know how it ends since there are many small pieces to the story that I likely missed on the first pass.

Have you read any of Connie Willis’s time travel books? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog is another book in Connie Willis’ time travel series based in a future Oxford. I had started this one before reading her World War II book, Blackout, since that is the official series order. I then jumped ahead to Blackout, returning to finish this book afterwards. I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Steven Crossley.

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Here is the blurb:

Connie Willis’ Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Doomsday Book uses time travel for a serious look at how people connect with each other. In this Hugo-winning companion to that novel, she offers a completely different kind of time travel adventure: a delightful romantic comedy that pays hilarious homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

When too many jumps back to 1940 leave 21st century Oxford history student Ned Henry exhausted, a relaxing trip to Victorian England seems the perfect solution. But complexities like recalcitrant rowboats, missing cats, and love at first sight make Ned’s holiday anything but restful – to say nothing of the way hideous pieces of Victorian art can jeopardize the entire course of history.

This was a much lighter read than The Doomsday Book or Blackout (see my review here). It’s about cats, dogs, fishing, and the Bishop’s bird stump, a hideous flower vase. Most of the story is set in Victorian England, with some scenes in the Oxford historians’ current time of the 2060’s and others during World War II. Unlike The Doomsday Book, it has a happy ending. It also won the Hugo and Locus Awards and was nominated for a Nebula Award.

I’m not familiar with Three Men in a Boat which is mentioned in the blurb, but I don’t think that detracted from my enjoyment of this book. The themes in this book are definitely echoed in Blackout and All Clear, so while it isn’t critical to read this book prior to the author’s WWII duology, it may add some perspective. (I have almost finished reading All Clear as I write this).

Have you read any of Connie Willis’ time travel books? Let me know if the comments below!

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Blackout

I am not a huge history buff and it has been decades since I took a history class. However, I did delve into Connie Willis’s time travel books a few years ago with The Doomsday Book, set mostly during the spread of the Black Death in medieval England. I really enjoyed that story, but I don’t think I ever reviewed it here.

My book club wanted to read Blackout, another book in the series, set mainly during World War II. This is a book that you can pick up even if you haven’t read the earlier ones, as they’re loosely related. However, Blackout is only the beginning of a two-part story that is finished in the book All Clear, which I plan to start reading next.

The duology won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

Here is the blurb:

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

I listened to Blackout as an audiobook (narrated by Katherine Kellgren), and while I enjoyed the book, I felt a little bogged down in some of the details. However, that is also one of the strong points of the book. The author does a wonderful job portraying the details of everyday life in WW2 England and interweaving that with the historical events. Being a terrible history student, I can’t say how accurate these details are, but it certainly feels authentic when reading it.

The characters feel well-drawn but are a bit frustrating to read about at times. I wanted to shout at them occasionally, but part of the story seems to be about how coincidence and accidents shaped history. The overall theme here relates to whether the past can be changed by these small events, and in the end, that question is still unanswered in this book.

In terms of pacing, I also felt like it took a while for the plot to emerge because there isn’t any real antagonist. Hitler is in the background of the plot, but the three main characters aren’t supposed to have any direct role in the war. Once things start to go wrong, it takes time for them to finally become convinced something is wrong and start to deal with it.

I did enjoy the book enough that I need to read the sequel though. None of the plot threads are resolved in this one, and I read that the publisher had split the original manuscript for the book into two volumes because of the length, so the author had intended it to be one long story.

Have you read Blackout or any of Connie Willis’s other books? Let me know in the comments.

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Book Review – Dragonflight

Sometimes I wonder if books I had read and loved when growing up would still stand up if I read them again now. One of my book clubs decided to read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey a few months ago, so I had a chance to evaluate that idea.

As a pre-teen and teenager, I read everything that Anne McCaffrey had written, including multiple re-reads of the Dragonriders of Pern series. I have to say that Dragonflight certainly still stands up as one of my favorite books of all time. While it is the first book in a series, it can also be read as a stand-alone.

Here is the blurb, which is a bit spoilery:

To the nobles who live in Ruatha Hold, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright.

But everything changes when she meets a queen dragon. The bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world. . .

The first sections of this book were originally published as novellas in Analog Science Fiction Magazine. The first of these, Weyr Search, won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novella, making McCaffrey the first woman to win either award.

The story follows two main characters, with Lessa being the more dominant lead character. She came across as more prickly and less trusting than I remembered her to be. The plot moves quickly and introduces the reader to the telepathic dragons and the civilization that has adapted to Pern and the unique threat of Thread that falls from the sky.

I have always felt like the Dragonriders of Pern were more fantasy to me than science fiction, but on this re-read I do see how the science fiction aspects are woven in to hint at the underlying science background to the world of Pern to a greater extent than I remembered in this first book.

If you’ve never read anything by Anne McCaffrey, this is a wonderful book to start with. You can also continue with books 2 (Dragonquest) and 3 (The White Dragon) to complete the first section of the series. In my opinion, the eleventh book, All the Weyrs of Pern should have been the last book, as I felt like nothing else needed to be resolved after that ending. I read one or two in the series after that, but it just wasn’t the same world to me.

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Book Review – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a book that intrigued me when it was first released in 2019. I finally had a chance to read it, and it is the best book I’ve read so far in 2021.

In the early 1900s, a young woman searches for her place in the world after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

This book can be described as a portal fantasy – where Doors open into other worlds and the story follows the characters who travel through them. Yet it is also more than this and is not a simple adventure through one such Door. The novel is written as a book within a book, with January reading sections of the strange book from the blurb as she explores her own glimpses of these worlds. It becomes more complicated than that, but I don’t want to spoil how this book evolves as you learn what is going on.

The characters were believable and January has to struggle through situations made worse by her race and gender. Every time she is told to “know her place” I wanted to slap someone. But she has friends who stand by her side through everything, and her dog, Bad, who never willingly leaves her side.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January was nominated for both the Nebula (2019) and Hugo (2020) Awards, as well as the World Fantasy Award and Locus Award for Best First Novel. I’m sure this book will end up as one of my favorites for 2021.

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Book Review – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I listened to Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James as an audiobook (narrated by Dion Graham), and while this book is technically listed as book 1 in a series, it can be read as a single contained story.

Here is the blurb:

Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.

As Tracker follows the boy’s scent–from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers–he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?

I’m torn with my reaction to this book. It was certainly a unique read, but it is very much not going to be for everyone. From the beginning, this book depicts specific violence, including torture, rape, dismemberment of children, slavery, and cannibalism. The themes in this story are dark, and the author doesn’t shy away from any of it.

That being said, the fight scenes are very well-written and I could follow every bit of the brutal action. The fights are also pretty realistic in that they end quickly, the wounds are gory, and the narrator in this audiobook edition is brilliant in terms of his inflection and pacing (actually for more than just the fights).

The story is also full of sexual innuendo and acts, and it covers a full range of sexual preferences. This aspect felt a little unnecessary in a few places, but for the most part fit in with the overall tone of the story.

The timeline in this book is convoluted and Tracker’s story is told as he relates it to an interrogator after all the events. Within this story, parts are told out of order, and I felt like this device wasn’t necessary. It made a complicated plot with an extensive cast harder to follow than it needed to be.

Otherwise, I did actually like this book. Once I had the characters straight in my head I had to read on to discover what was truly going on. Tracker is not privy to the truth behind his search and has to decide who to trust and why everyone wants to find a mysterious boy. There is no clear good and evil here and everyone is acting for their own personal reasons.

This book is noted to be book 1 in The Dark Star Trilogy, but this volume wraps up the main events by the end without any cliffhangers. I can see the potential for a greater story. Given the complicated nature of this book, I’d probably have to reread it before continuing with the series in the future.

Have you read Black Leopard, Red Wolf? Let me know what you thought in the comments. Please follow the links to help support this blog.

Find more of my reviews here.

Graphic Novel Review – Fence Volume 1

When I looked back at my books from 2020, I realized that I didn’t read ANY graphic novels. So I’m trying to catch up on some that I had really wanted to get to. Also – they’re always quick reads. So of course when I saw this series about fencing, I had to pick up the first collection (paid links support this blog).

Fence is a series of graphic novels by C.S. Pacat (writer), Johanna the Mad (illustrator), Joana LaFuente (colorist), and Jim Campbell (letterer). Here is the blurb:

Nicholas, the illegitimate son of a retired fencing champion, is a scrappy fencing wunderkind, and dreams of getting the chance and the training to actually compete. After getting accepted to the prodigious Kings Row private school, Nicholas is thrust into a cut-throat world, and finds himself facing not only his golden-boy half-brother, but the unbeatable, mysterious Seiji Katayama…

Through clashes, rivalries, and romance between teammates, Nicholas and the boys of Kings Row will discover there’s much more to fencing than just foils and lunges. From acclaimed writer C.S. Pacat (The Captive Prince) and fan-favorite artist Johanna the Mad.

I read this very quickly and I found myself wishing that I had the next volume! The story follows Nicholas, a persistent underdog fencer, as he tries to make the varsity team at a boarding school. If he fails, he won’t be able to keep the scholarship that lets him stay there. Who doesn’t want to cheer for the underdog?

Even through the fencing in this story focuses on epee, there are a couple of references about how sabre is the better weapon. And it is clear that the author is familiar with the fencing world.

In this early volume, I was a little confused to see the author’s approach to gender, but it seems like the fencing world in this story is genderless or maybe gender-equitable. The events aren’t split by men/women, and neither is the team at the school. One character who is pictured in a skirt and with more feminine features is referred to with male pronouns, and some characters are definitely queer and/or have same-sex relationships. Once I realized this was the approach being taken, it was fine and I had no further trouble following who was who.

I definitely enjoyed this book and already ordered the next two volumes because I need to find out who wins the tournament! Have you read Fence? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – Lover Revealed

Hah, I finished another book! This is part of a series that I stumbled into last year (The Black Dagger Brotherhood by J. R. Ward) and it’s basically about sexy vampires and their eternal battles against the slayers. I’m not going to go back to rehash the earlier books in the series at this point, but each one mainly focuses on one pair of characters and their romance as the main plot continues. Lover Revealed is book 4 (links help support this blog).

Here is the summary blurb:

Butch O’Neal is a fighter by nature. A hard-living ex-homicide cop, he’s the only human ever to be allowed in the inner circle of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. And he wants to go even deeper into the vampire world—to engage in the turf war with the lessers. He’s got nothing to lose. His heart belongs to a female vampire, an aristocratic beauty who’s way out of his league. If he can’t have Marissa, then at least he can fight side by side with the Brothers…

Fate curses him with the very thing he wants. When Butch sacrifices himself to save a civilian vampire from the slayers, he falls prey to the darkest force in the war. Left for dead, he’s found by a miracle, and the Brotherhood calls on Marissa to bring him back. But even her love may not be enough to save him…

I don’t remember how I found this series, but I have to think it was part of my effort to occasionally branch out and read something different. So while there is a huge romance component to these books, the author does a brilliant job in building suspense and tension through each one for the non-romance elements as well.

While the main episode of each book is resolved, numerous side plots and an overarching plot thread through the series. The story in this book did not completely go where I thought it would, which is always a nice surprise. By this fourth book, the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood has grown more complicated, with added political facets, deeper character relationships, and tragedy.

At over 500 pages, Lover Revealed is not a quick read, but it is an easy one. I’m sure I’ll pick up the next book in a couple of months. If you want to start reading this series, look for Dark Lover, book 1. Are you already a fan? Let me know in the comments!

Read more of my book reviews here.

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