Shifting Reality – book review

I just finished Shifting Reality by Patty Jansen. It’s been out a while, but I just stumbled upon it (it’s science fiction – so the story won’t be outdated for at least several more centuries).

The story is set on a space station filled with competing factions from bored, purposeless youth, to criminals to law enforcement, with a military base on top (plus geckos and chickens). Told from a single point of view, the story is fast paced with plenty of action.

Melati is from the worker class – originally taken from Indonesian, culture, heirlooms and all. Since they are low in the station hierarchy there is not a lot of options for this group – ice mining, small business, crime and selling their bodies. Melati works at a military support unit on the station caring for ‘constructs’ – people created for a purpose (how exactly is never explained). These people go on to become soldiers, technicians and pilots, but first they have a short childhood.

One of the minds to be installed into a group of construct children isn’t right. Melati realizes the problem isn’t a simple computer glitch. Her investigation takes her down an interesting rabbit hole of secret societies, internal politics, enemy factions and aliens.

Melati isn’t an stereotypical hero. She’s a compelling character caught between two worlds (plus she’s gutsy). Fitting in in either place is a challenge for her. Mostly she’s trying to do the right thing – even if it isn’t popular. The story has unexpected twists and turns that kept me reading. I’ll be going on to read the second book.

The Refrigerator Monologues – book review

Sometimes something keeps showing up everywhere I look – a couple of weeks ago, The Refrigerator Monologues dropped into this category. I first stumbled upon a guest post (on John Scalzi’s Whatever) written by the author where she discussed the idea behind the book. Later the same day, she was a guest on one of the podcasts I normally listen too (The Writer Files). Because the book caught my interest twice in one day, I ordered a copy. It turned out to be a quick read.

Catherynne M. Valentine has created an original universe of superheroes including Kid Mercury, The Insomniac, Platypunk, Mr. Punch, Retcon, Professor Yes, Zigzag, but the book isn’t about them.

Instead it’s a woven tale of six women tangled with superheros. Their stories have ended while the superhero’s go on. None of these women got their happy ending, instead they ended up as forgotten footnotes in someone else’s story – or as Paige Embry, one of these women, says: “trouble is, my story is his story.”

The idea behind the book comes from Gail Simone, a comic book writer. She pointed out that comic book women often get killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad or have their powers taken to further the storyline of a male superhero (details here and here).

In Deadtown, a richly complex underworld where it’s always the middle of the night and the River Styx now flows through the pipes of the Deadtown Municipal Waterworks, the women converge. Some are residents, some are passing through. Deadtown has “no fiery rings of artisanal punishment” – it’s just a place where residents can’t move on

The women are all now members of the Hell Hath Club – a forum to share their stories. And they do, the reader gets six tales of how each of them ended up in Deadtown and the spin is different each time.

“Dead. Dead. Dead. Flying ace of the corpse corps.” – and the whole book is full of this kind of wordplay.I love the author’s word smithing (okay I’m flat out envious). Overall, even with its tragic bent, The Refrigerator Monologues was a fun read.

Reading Fiction (my bookish secret)

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This beetle has nothing to do with this post – I just find bug collections fascinating.

Years ago, a friend hooked me on romance novels. For a while that’s all I read. Almost every Saturday, I’d pack up the stack I’d recently read and trek down to the used bookstore where I’d trade for a new stack. I have no idea how many books I’d cycled through when it dawned on me – the novels were all the same story. I know some people love a formulaic romance story but, it turned out, not me.

My major complaint is that none of those books stick out in my mind. I can recite off the formula but not a single character name. Stumbling upon Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, hidden on the same shelf as the others, dragged me out of my formulaic rut. Even though Outlander is at it’s heart a romance, it has so much more going on and a protagonist I relate to and remember.

I now look for more complex stories preferably set in fantastic environments like a far off space station or a medieval world drenched in magic. Overly flowery prose bogs me down, and I prefer action to keep my attention (if a book is critically acclaimed as literary fiction I’m unlikely to read it even if doing so would make me a better person (what this really means is I’m happiest reading entertaining fluff – but don’t tell anyone)).

Some books draw me in and I can’t put them down while others languish in perpetuity with a bookmark part way through (I never pick them up again).

Recently, I came across a space opera series with cyborgs that I couldn’t put down (The Fallen Empire series by Lindsay Buroker). While one the other hand, I tried to read two other space opera books (which were the first in series) where I didn’t even make it halfway in either book before I realized I just didn’t care. Based on the description, I should’ve liked all three series – so why did only one of them strike a chord with me?

Pinpointing what draws me into a story has been a challenge – it’s like unpacking ikea furniture and trying to determine if all the pieces are there. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • The protagonist needs to be imperfect but basically moral – and I need to like her/him (I know the anti-hero is a current trend, but that just doesn’t work for me). They could have terrible pasts where they’ve done less than moral things requiring atonement in the present. They can even be committing crimes in the time frame of the story with good reason.
  • I need a diverse cast of characters doing believable things. I want secondary characters to be interesting, even quirky – and I want to be able to tell them apart (unless they’re clones). Recently, I put down a book because it painfully failed here*.
  • The writing needs to be accessible and friendly with a touch of optimism. A requirement I’m currently testing by trying some Horror (Bird Box by Josh Malerman, which is creeping me out but I can’t put it down).
  • Every book has a typo somewhere – and I’m okay with that. However, continuity errors drive me nuts. Recently, I read a book with a ton of characters. Partway through the book a few of the characters ran into each other. They had never met or made contact of any kind – yet they knew each other’s names. I put down the book at that point.*
  • Bonus points for any story that can pull off a bit of humour (The Space Team books by Barry Hutchison pull this off well, kinda like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies)

So, what draws you into a novel?

* as a note – I will only be sharing titles of books I’ve enjoyed and recommend as I’m not comfortable writing negative reviews – the exception is Crime and Punishment, reading that left me clear on two points: killing two women with an axe is a crime and punishment is making me read about the protagonist wine about it.

Remembering the future

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched Arrival or read the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and are planning to, I must warn you I’m about to give a big part of the story away.

I did something I don’t normally do – I read the story a movie was based on after watching the movie.

Normally, I make a point of reading the book first. That way I get to create my own versions of the characters and settings before the Hollywood creative guru’s present me with their compelling imagery. My own versions of Rivendell or a habitat on Mars, or even what Elrond or Mark Watney looked like (…well in my imagination Mark Watney did look like Matt Damon) are always different.

Once I started watching Game of Thrones, I felt no desire to read the books – and generally this is true for me. But Arrival was an exception because it got me thinking.

It’s a first contact story where alien’s arrive on Earth, but the purpose of the visit isn’t clear. The protagonist, a linguist, is brought in to attempt to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is non-linear, and as the protagonist deciphers more and more she realizes the non-linearity extends to how the aliens experience time. As she become more proficient in the alien language, she begins to experience time in the same non-linear way.

When I walked out of the theatre I wasn’t sure I liked the movie or not (It was really well done) because it left me feeling unsettled. When I think about the protagonist, a scientist like me, I can’t help but wonder what if she was me? (or what if I was her?) Would I make the same choices? Was the gift of knowing the future actually a curse? And does knowing the future negate our notion of free will?

How we (humans) experience time is routed in our perception. Physics doesn’t require the temporal linearity we experience. Free will, that is our actions are not predetermined, may be an illusion. But the movie didn’t go into the ramifications of knowing the future on free will, so I read the short story the movie was based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

The story isn’t as slick as the movie and it has less action – but, I felt it was infinitely better. It’s still a story about first contact and communicating with aliens, but more so it’s an intimate story about time that isn’t linear. Best of all, my concerns about free will was addressed nicely though an optics example which took away my concern that the protagonist was cursed (my perception that knowing the future is a curse is entirely rooted into my human view that time is linear).

Solaris book review

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My alien mascot

Solaris by T.M. Catron is a quick, fun read setting up what I hope with be a run of future adventures. It’s the first of a new space opera series.

It’s about a small crew on an independent ship that are smugglers anonymous transporters. In need of a new crew member, they stop over on the Captain’s home world. We are introduced to her home based complexities and why she’s chosen life on a ship. A new crew member is found with a too perfect resume just as they are forced off world.

I like a strong female protagonist and the Captain is certainly that. Her new crew member is intriguing with special skills that could make for interesting future plots. The book (novella?) is pure escapism – and sometimes that’s exactly what I need.

A Close and Common Orbit book review

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The closest picture I have to an alien

I’m suffering the consequences of my gleeful debut working in the garden for the year. It was so nice to be out there and get mud on my hands that I stayed out too long. As I sit here, I can feel that I paid the price in my back, hands and glutes. So, since then I’ve been spending my evenings couch sitting doing a lot of reading.

I don’t consider myself qualified to discuss writing – if I don’t stumble over the words, or have to wade though overly verbose language, I won’t notice the words just the story. I recently heard this sentiment described more eloquently – prose is like a window pane, it can be a beautiful stain glass window atop a story or clear glass (or anywhere in between). Some people like looking through the stained glass masterpiece, but I like the clear glass.

However, since stories are a fundamental part of being human, I am qualified to discuss stories I like. And I’ve recently found one – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

It’s a sequel of sorts to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, (which I was going to write a review for and still might), but I just finished A Closed and Common Orbit last night and something about it really resonated with me.

Recently, I’ve been feeling inundated with news of public figures trying to exclude entire groups of people, it was so nice to read a book with such a sense of inclusiveness with vastly different sorts of people (and aliens) living together in a working society.

It’s a world with sentient AI’s, but they are not considered people and it’s illegal for them to take the form of a sentient being. The story follows an AI newly in a human form struggling to fit into her world. The book is science fiction, but not action. Even though they live on a tidally locked moon far off in the galaxy, it’s a very human story.

The world is complex and not without conflict, but it’s a future could live in. The characters are complex and flawed enough they could really exist. I hope she writes more stories set in this future.

‘The Hands-On Home’ book review

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My first experiment in vinegar making

My pre-ordered a copy of The Hands-On Home by Erica Strauss finally arrived last week. I regularly stop by Erica’s blog Northwest Edible Life because I enjoy her writing style and humour, so I expected I’d like her book. Well, this was not the books I was expecting! I thought I’d be getting a floppy cookbook, instead I got a tome like the fluid mechanics textbook I used for years to hold up my computer monitor, and it’s pretty enough to go on the shelf with my pretty cookbooks. Likely it’ll join the pile of cookbooks that live on my kitchen counter that I refer to all the time (a pile my neat-freak husband kindly hasn’t tried to put away).

The Hands-On Home is more than a cookbook extending into preserving, cleaning and self care with recipes fitting into each category. The book is broken down by season, so I started by trying out a couple of fall recipes.

Cambazola went on sale last week and there was a red cabbage in the fridge, so I decided to try ‘Red Cabbage with Cambazola’ first. I was perfectly prepared to try a new recipe by choosing a day my husband was late getting home from work and my toddler was grumpy and hungry (she snatched most of the apple for the recipe right out of the bowl before it even made it into the pot). I had no red wine, and if I did I likely would have poured myself a glass instead of cooking with it. The cabbage was quickly ready and served beside some left over pulled pork harmony was restored to my house.

The second recipe I tried was ‘Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Caramelized Apple and Cider Cream.’ Without a real excuse I skipped making the cider cream, laziness I guess, the soup would look pretty with it. This soup was a simpler squash soup than I normally make (tomatoes and coconut milk tend to find their way into my invented squash soups). The recipe had curry in it, and I prefer my squash to be curried. Like the cabbage, the soup was quick and easy to make – and it was tasty enough that it will likely be making a weekly appearance until my 67 kg squash pile runs out.

I’ve also started up a batch of ‘Cores and Scraps Fruit Vinegar.’ I finished my dried apple blitz about a week ago, so I didn’t have any apple peels to use, so I used quince peels instead (I’ve made quince paste and quince jam and have piles more quince I need to think of some way to preserve, any ideas?). I have no idea how quince vinegar will turn out, but I like experimenting. Yogurt and mayonnaise are both on the agenda to make over the next few days.

I already cook most my meals from scratch using a lot of homegrown produce and I’m a big fan of leftovers as they make my life easier. For a while now I’ve been pondering how to extend the leftovers concept into shelf stable, pantry staples ready to slap together for a weeknight dinner. Every time I look into store bought options I fall into a rabbit hole of complexity. Where did it come from? Do I recognize the ingredients? Is the can lining dangerous? Where was it made? How far did it travel to get to the store? and on and on. Since I trust what I grow and make I think I’ll finally have to get a pressure canner (the idea of them scare me). The Hands-On Home has recipes for canned meat and beans which look simple enough for me to start with – but not until I finish water-bath canning this year’s fruit harvest.

Finally, I was impressed with Erica’s discussion of cleaners. I’m now clear on when to use an alkaline based cleaner or a acid based one and I’m likely to remember now. After I use up the cleaners already in the house, I’ll try making my own. Erica has even inspired me to start thinking about cleaning up the bug mausoleum that’s been amassing in the light fixtures – a couple of my lights magnify the silver fish within creating quite a horror show effect.

The last two…

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Spring growth of kale and collards – it’s been so warm they are already trying to flower (their flower buds can be eaten like broccoli).

On to my last two library books I took out to scour for ideas…

The Book of Kale: the easy-to-grow superfood by Sharon Hanna is relevant to my kale growing ways so it will get added to my Christmas wish list. I may be an anomaly, but I really enjoy kale (and collards), especially in the late winter and early spring. Generally I saute it with a lot of garlic, occasionally I make kale chips which tend to get eaten as fast as I can make them. Other than occasional kale salads, that about all I do with kale – so some new ideas are welcome.

The author claims kale is “the stuff of legends and reportedly offering sustenance since the age of dinosaurs, kale is one of the earth’s most health-giving, nutrient-dense food.”

What I like about this book is that she goes into the history of kale, as there is always a convoluted story behind how certain plants came to be part of our diets which I find fascinating. Kale has been cultivated for more than 6000 years. This book starts with the ancient Egyptians who must have grown a very heat tolerant kale liking it so much to decorate the tombs of their pharaohs with kale carvings to wish them eternal good health.

From another direction, wandering Celts likely brought kale to Europe from Asia in roughly 600 BC. This green went on to flourish providing tasty nourishment that went in and out of fashion to today.

The book has an entire section on how to grow kale, which I skipped – I just plant the seeds in the spring then ignore them until the fall as I generally eat other greens over the summer (the kale does get watered). Because I’ve occasionally left kale in the ground long enough to set seeds, I tend to get random kales popping up all over the place. She suggests kale as a good plant for a kids garden as it grows so quickly.

Most of the book is recipes and they are diverse – kale smoothies, kale muffins, kale chips, kale gomasio, fermented kale, kale humous, kale fritters, kale caesar, kale soups, kale pastas ……. there are lots of tasty looking recipes to try.

My last book is Vertical Vegetable and Fruit: creative gardening techniques for growing up in small spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart.

Venturing into the third dimension is one way to produce more in a small space that I’ve only dabbled in so far. I make bamboo teepees for beans and peas and have blackberries growing along a fence. And every year I stake my tomatoes, I blink, and they have grown well over the height of the stakes and flopped over, producing a mass of jumbled tomatoes. I always miss a few ripe ones inside the mass, only discovering after that they have rotten on the ground. So there is plenty of opportunity in my garden to take better advantage of growing vertical.

The author claims: “plants grown vertically have access to more air and light, pest management is easier, and you typically will increase your yield.” Sounds good to me, perhaps this year I’ll try cucumbers and melons on trellises. I’m still going to use bamboo as I like how it looks. In addition we have an old crib which is scheduled to be disassembled to provide plant support (probably for scarlet runner beans on the deck). Bamboo and wood supports have an additional benefit over wire mesh I’d never considered – the wire mesh would heat up on a sunny day, potentially burning plants (I don’t know how much of an issue this would be).

She suggests A-frames for the heavier vines like cucumbers and melons and has a tomato support system I’ll try (I can’t describe it, so I’ll take pictures after I build it). Then there is some advice for kids: “a teepee is a great way to get kids excited about growing food, because as the vines cover it, the teepee creates its own secret garden, complete with snacks!”

The author suggests malabar spinach, a perennial in warmer climates than mine, that is a heat-loving vine. It is already in my plan for this year. It is native to Africa and southern Asia and apparently produces a mild green for salads or for cooking. Apparently it is also a good looking plant – I can’t imagine it is prettier than chard, but I’ll take pictures. I’ll try growing it against the fence.

There is also some unconventional ideas such as window farming (eg www.windowfarms.org), window boxes and plants grown in bags attached to walls. There are plans for multi-level raised beds, pot sculptures and tater towers – but, since I have space to grow plenty horizontally, a lot of these ideas I won’t bother with (I think they’d be great for much smaller spaces). A living wall is something I might try as these can look fantastic (see some examples here). A modest living wall as a screen might be the solution I’m looking for to hide my compost bins.

Now I just need to remember to return these books to the library.

Smart Permaculture Design

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This flower looks like it could be tropical, but I grew in my garden last summer.

My second library garden book is Smart Permaculture Design by Jenny Allen. I was drawn to the beautiful pictures and hoped to find inspiration to beautify my veggie producing space – but the book turned out to be about gardening in sub-tropical Australia (I bet they don’t look forward to getting snakes in the yard like I do). Allen writes about her efforts to convert a traditional yard to a food producing wilderness, describing its end state as “a garden that provides us with almost everything we need: abundant and varied food, entertainment, tranquility, living art and fascinating insights into nature” – exactly what I’m hoping my garden will provide, just in a different climate.

The author defines permaculture as “an ingenious design system based on working in harmony with nature. It looks at a garden as a whole, not just at its parts. Everything interrelates.” – and this book is a beginners guide to permaculture and covers basic concepts. She examines her gardening mistakes with good humor with the hope her readers will avoid making the same mistakes.

We do have some plants in common like the ubiquitous chard, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and basil. She highlights some exotic fruit that I’ve never heard of like chocolate pudding fruits, babaco, Panama berry, choko and midyim berries. Then there are the avocados – I adore avocados and am envious of anyone that can grow them (they are much to large of a tree for me to try growing them as a houseplant, maybe…).

She does discuss two sub-tropicals I can grow in my garden: feijoas and pepinos. Feijoas with fruit that gets compared to a guava, might thrive in the warm microclimate along my back fence, so I’m going to be on the hunt for a couple of these bushes later this spring (I tried growing feijoas from seeds last summer, but they didn’t sprout). Pepino, a plant on the continuum between tomatoes and eggplants, has already been planted in my dad’s greenhouse. For me this plant will be a annual requiring shelter and tastes (so I’ve read) like a melon but grows on a metre tall bush. I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.

Although I find the plants and wildlife of her garden fascinating, her garden decor is not to my taste – I won’t be posting quotes or investing in statues anytime soon.

On the hunt for ideas

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My stack of gardening books from the library

I took a smattering of gardening books out of the library with the hope of gleaning a few ideas for my own space (library books are great because I can be totally whimsical about my choices and I don’t feel I need to read the whole book if it turns out to be not to my taste). I tend to be a random idea generator – I already have more ideas than I can possibly implement, but I enjoy putting my feet up and flipping through books and it’s completely possible I’ll stumble across some great ideas.

First up – Indoor Kitchen Gardening: turning your home into a year-round vegetable garden by Elizabeth Millard.

Outside spring is bursting forth, it won’t be long until the first of this years crops will be ready to harvest (mustard greens, arugula and chard are all on their way), but I’m still intrigued by the idea of growing what I can inside. This book is aimed towards those with much colder winters than I have to endure and is filled with beautiful pictures including full-sized celery, hot peppers and photogenic red chard. She advocates having a plan for indoor gardening (which it true outside too) to avoid getting overwhelmed, very good advice which I’m guilty of regularly ignoring.

Although I grow food year round outside, come winter time it’s fun to watch new plants sprout without getting soaked in the rain, besides why can’t houseplant produce some food? I have a sunny kitchen and the luxury of a bit of space – the biggest danger to anything I grow inside is a carrot-stealing toddler. In the winter and early spring my counters are lined with sprouts and pea shoots at various stages of growth. We recently added some grow lights to start seeds, but I can also grow some microgreens under them or even some full sized basil, cilantro and lettuce.

Millard’s instructions to set up an indoor garden are detailed, which would be good for someone just starting out. Microgreens and sprouts are first up – easy choices, both of which I grow through out fall and winter. There are instructions to grow mushrooms and wheat grass. She goes through lists of herbs and categorizes them by ease of growing. Basil and cilantro are labelled as ‘more challenging’ – however, they can’t be that hard to grow as I have both growing in my kitchen right now.

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My indoor grown basil – almost big enough to start stealing leaves from.

She suggests growing lemongrass from the grocery store this way: “trim the top and put the stalk in a few inches of water. The stalk will produce roots on its own and dozens of new shoots and you can harvest from these.” I’ve looked into starting lemongrass from seed, and her way seems much simpler I’ll have to try it.

She does go into growing full sized vegetables inside, I have to admit, with the exception of hot peppers, I don’t think I’ll bother as I can grow what she covers outside. Unfortunately, tropical options like pigeon peas (a tropical bean that I understand can be grown to a crop producing size indoors, currently I’m testing this and will report back) are outside the scope of the book.

I’ll post about the other books shortly – it looks like they contain some good ideas for outside.