Guest Review: Station Eleven

Sestra Geek Girl Heather Thayer is back with a squeeing review of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel!

I recently finished Station Eleven, and for a long time I couldn’t communicate coherently because I was still so wrapped up in the world of the book that nothing else seemed to matter.

Station Eleven is, at its most simple, a tale of the apocalypse (a flu epidemic), held together by following the pre- and post-apocalyptic stories of a people loosely connected to an actor who dies in the first few pages of the book. In the “bookclub notes” in the back of the book, one of the questions is whether there is a main character in the book. I would posit that there is not, and the book is all the richer for it as we follow the very different characters to or through the end of the world.

It is difficult to describe just why or how this book excels in every way. Looking back on it, the sensation is of being embraced by a warm dream – a vivid dream of the end of everything. A dream of hope and nostalgia; a dream of life, determining what is important, and what we hold on to when everything we know is gone.

If the world ended, what would be important to you? What would you miss? What would you want to preserve? What would you want to teach the children about the world that was? This book asks all the important questions and takes the reader on an exploration of the possibilities, without providing pat answers – other than a line written by Ronald D Moore for a Star Trek episode – “Survival is insufficient.”

Written with prose that somehow manages to be both wistful and gripping, it doesn’t let words get in the way of an exquisitely drawn world, experiences and characters. So many books that win awards (this one has won several, including the Morning News Tournament of Books), have overwrought writing that drown the subject in words, reveling in their own cleverness, but this book is clean and enthralling – letting the story speak for itself. One doesn’t notice the writing as one is carried along by the narrative and the mood of the book. This is the kind of book that makes a person leave a party early so that they can go home and keep reading. Yup, that happened.

Through a compelling narrative with interesting characters, the book explores the ways that people create art, celebrate life, preserve the past, and do more than simply survive. While the larger themes are there, they hover in the background and do not get in the way of the story. It is only afterwards, when it is impossible to stop thinking about the book that one notices that there was all this meaty stuff in there to chew on and mull over.

Find some time, read this book, and marvel at the wonders of the world.

Book Review: AD ASTRA: the 50th Anniversary SFWA Cookbook

AdAstraCookbookI do not like to cook but I sure do love reading cookbooks. My latest treasure is the quirky, funny, delightfully weird AD ASTRA cookbook from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), edited by Cat Rambo and Fran Wilde. This book of recipes by speculative fiction authors is hilarious in several senses and has some recipes I might just use.

Here’s what I find so wonderfully funny about this cookbook – there are no “What to make for your family during the week” type recipes (although most of the potluck dishes would work for that). Apparently, writers do the following things:

  1. We eat the fastest food we can possibly come up with, often while weeping into our keyboards, while trying to meet a deadline – hence an entire section called “Tight on Time or Budget?”
  2. We drink, hence the chapter “Beverages”.
  3. We go to parties, hence all the rest of the book (“Savory Snacks”, “Sweet Snacks and Desserts”, “Brunches,” and “Potluck Dinners”).

I cannot argue with this assessment of a writer’s dietary needs (I’m particularly intrigues by Doom Cookies, submitted by Steven Straus, which combines graham cracker crumbs, chocolate, condensed milk, and coffee grounds). Writers are subject to sudden attacks of joy and despair as the writing ebbs and flows and pieces get picked up or rejected, so there’s a remarkable number of recipes for things like an individual serving of cake in a coffee mug (“Celebrations for One: Writer’s Break Sweets in a Mug” by Ricia Mainhardt). The masterpiece here might be “Toasted Cake” from Tina Connolly, who suggests that you bake a cake, frost one piece, eat it, and each day pop a new, individual piece in the toaster oven for a couple of minutes and then frost it – you get gooey drippy warm frosted cake that doesn’t taste stale.

I’m not sure how many things I’ll actually make from this cookbook but I sure had fun reading it. I got a kick from Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s faintly bitter recipe for tuna salad (“If you’re on a diet, it’s healthy, filling, and painless – and if’s you’re not on a diet, why are you eating tuna salad?”). Connie Willis offers a recipe for Mars Colony Cake, also called Bash Cake. Jane Yolen, who is also a fan of Bash Cake, offers a partial list of occasions in which she had to make it, plus a limerick:

As SFWA president for two years, I had plenty of times to need to bake this cake. There was the John Shirley/Scott Card bash cake. There was the Blue Jay books bash cake. There was the Nebula controversies (redux) bash cake. There was the who-hung-up-on-me-this-time bash cake.

And here’s the limerick:

There once was a writer of trash

Whose insides were knots, kinks, and mash.

So I taught him to make

A Delectable cake

Now instead of an ulcer, there’s Bash!

This cookbook also features cartoons by Ursula Vernon.

As general, all-purpose cookbooks go, this one is not the best, but as a cookbook for writers it’s a hoot and also quite useful since I do go to a lot of potlucks and there’s only so many times I can bring my crockpot Butternut Squash Winter Stew before they are on to me. I loved seeing recipes from all over the world and hearing the stories about how people got the recipe from a friend or from many generations of family members. For instance, Elaine Issak’s “Alien Scones”, so very aptly named, got their name by accident because her mother made a cookbook for the family, ran it through spellcheck, and didn’t notice that spellcheck replaced “Elaine” with “Alien”. It’s also a fun cookbook if you are familiar with any of the authors – whether you admire the work or whether you are lucky enough to have met them in person. It’s a bit of an in-joke cookbook, but I had a good time reading it and I am planning to make David Levine and Kate Yule’s “Country Pumpkin Chicken Chowder” just as soon as we get fall weather in California (so…not soon).

A final note, I fear the cookbook may deeply offend members of the alien and elf community. A section at the back gives directions on how to cook elf (step one is “Kill an elf”) and how to stew an alien “Do not, under any circumstances, use broccoli…brocoli is just awful in stew.” So there you go – no broccoli for you.

Between The Lines Book Club: The Sustainable Food Movement

between the lines book club logoHey Sacramento followers – Between the Lines Book Club meets tomorrow (9/26/15) at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM! Not in the Sacramento area? Leave your comments about The Third Plate here!

In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber talks about the importance of making sustainable agriculture part of elite cooking. Barber wants to make it fashionable to use all the parts of an animal or vegetable, rotation crops like barley and rye, and humanely and sustainably raised livestock.

Every culture has in some way grappled with the concept of sustainable agriculture, a term which basically means how to use land without using the land up to the point where it is no longer productive.. An early example from the Americas is that of the “The Three Sisters.” Several Native American Tribes had a practice of planting “The Three Sisters,” maize, beans, and squash, together. Each plant has components that keep the soil healthy, ensuring good farming in future years. The crops also proved a balanced diet when eaten together.

Sustainable agriculture is described today as agricultural practices that maximize human nutrition and quality of life while also maximizing the health of the environment and its ability to continue to provide food. This means that a farm cannot exhaust the nutrients in soil through over-farming, nor use chemical fertilizer that damages local water sources. My California readers will be most familiar with the concept in terms of water usage. While water is a renewable resource, California farms pull water out of the aquifer much faster than the aquifer can be refilled. The term “sustainable agriculture” became popular in the 1980’s. Other issues to consider are how much land is being used and how much energy a farm uses.

Discussions about sustainable farming can take a low-level approach (using different fertilizers and crop rotation, or a more radical approach (urban farming, vertical farming, and changes in the economy as a whole.


An Interview with D.J. McHale and Patrick Carman

61lVh+TOLNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_D.J. McHale and Patrick Carman are two of the six authors writing a new series for kids. Voyagers is an interactive series involving books as well as online games and puzzles. The other authors are Robin Wasserman, Kekla Magoon, Jeanne DuPrau, and Wendy Mass. You can read more about the Voyager project at

D.J. McHale, author of Book #1: Project Alpha, is better known as the author of the bestselling Pendragon series and TV shows including Are You Afraid of the Dark. Patrick Carman is the author of Book #3: Omega Rising. He is the author of several books for grade and middle-schoolers, including The 39 Clues. In this interview, they talk about working on the series, its connection to their other projects, and how to encourage reluctant readers.

What drew each of you to this project?

D.J.: The last space travel story I wrote was when I was nine years old.  So I figured I was due.

Pat: I was a Star Wars nut growing up. Those first three movies came out when I was 11, 13, and 15 – a very impressionable time for every kid in my seventies neighborhood. There was never anything that captured our imaginations like Star Wars did. We geeked out over every creature, sub-plot, villain, hero – and then, sadly, it was over. And so was my childhood! I’ve been trying to build a world like that ever since. A place the 12-year-old Patrick would go to escape whatever troubles were happening in the real world. A place I could return to, again and again, and just feel like a kid on an adventure, beating impossible odds and saving the day. It took several years to figure it all out, but Voyagers fills that void for me. I’m a kid again!

How much of this project was a collaboration between all the authors? Did you have input on the digital aspects? Did you have input on each other’s stories? Did you have to try to match each others’ writing styles, or do they all have a unique voice?

D.J.:  Being the first author up, I had the freedom to write my story the way I write all of my other stories without having to worry about what came before.  However, as I was writing away, the entire Voyagers team was still tweaking and hatching new ideas.  So I would often get notes saying:  “This has changed now” or “We need you to add this”.  One example of that came with the addition of the Zrks…the small flying robots that maintain the space ship.  I had no Zrks in my original draft so I had to go back and figure out a way to incorporate them into the story.  Working in the other direction, it’s been fun to see how some of the bits I created have found their way into the digital material, like the rock-moss-creature and the ankle-biting varmints on J-16.  Pat created an amazing universe and it was fun to help expand it even further.

Then again, I felt the stress of some of the other authors who were waiting patiently to see what I had done before starting on their own stories.  I don’t like to send out anything I’ve written while it’s still a work in progress, but I understood the time pressure.  They had to get writing!  So I reluctantly sent out a couple of early, rough chapters.  That was nerve-wracking.

Pat: Working on 39 Clues gave me some good experience that really helped with Voyagers. I was able to take the parts about writing 39 Clues that I loved and apply them to the work the team did on Voyagers. First and foremost, you need seasoned, excellent writing talent to make something like this work. And we have that covered with the Voyagers writing team – they brought their A game across the board! I provided a world bible for the series, along with an outline for each of the six books. But it was very clear from the get go that each writer should make their own choices about the book they were writing. For each writer, the outline was a line down the middle of a page, like a magnet pulling the plot in the right direction. But each author was encouraged to swing outside the line with whatever felt right to them.

The digital experience – both the interactive website and the game for phones and tablets – was handled by a completely different team. We partnered with 42 Entertainment and Liv Games, two best in class digital companies, and I think we’ve created a digital world that rivals anything we’ve seen in publishing so far. There’s so much for kids to plug into! The Voyagers world is big enough to hold any kid’s imagination.


Patrick, you wrote for the series The 39 Clues, which is about solving mysteries in a way that involves the reader interactively. In what ways is this approach similar to that of the Voyager series? Why is it important to make the reader a participant in the story?

I spend a lot of time at schools. 1400 of them and counting. So I get to interact with young readers across the country. I can sit down with them in a school library and ask them straight up: what’s it going to take to get you to turn more pages? More often than not the answer I get has to do with making books more interactive and bridging the gap between the printed page and the digital world they all live in. Voyagers answers that question with a resounding YES WE CAN! The big digital idea here is to allow young readers to join the crew of the Cloud Leopard, the ship that takes our characters out into space. They complete recon missions, collect dozens of robots, and fix the ship when it has problems. They also learn a lot about science, technology, engineering, and math. So the digital part of the Voyagers world extends the reading in a way that makes the whole experience richer and broader. Readers really feel like a part of the story.


D.J., Your Pendragon series combines fantasy, science fiction, and interstellar travel. How was working on this series similar or different?

D.J.:  All good stories have the same things in common.  They’re about interesting characters dealing with compelling conflict.  That applies whether you’re writing a romance, a comedy or a sci-fi space adventure.  I like to write stories about real and relatable characters who find themselves in a bigger than life adventure.  I don’t like to write about characters with super powers or incredible abilities.  That can be fun, but I want readers to relate to the characters and to imagine themselves in their shoes.   That’s very much what Pendragon is like, and so is Voyagers.  The fun part comes once you’ve done a good job creating those characters.  Then you can let your imagination run wild in creating the various dangers they face.  One thing that was very much the same for me in writing these two different stories is that I like to put my characters into dangerous situations where I’m not really sure how they’re going to save themselves.  It’s like living the adventure along with your characters as you put yourself into the situation and try to find your way out of it.  With Pendragon I created those situations myself.  With Voyagers, I was given some very big challenges that the characters would face.  It was almost as if I was thrust into the situation myself and had a blast trying to figure a way out.


What advice would you give parents whose kids say that they just aren’t into reading? how has a love of reading enriched your lives, and what sparked it?

D.J.: I have been a reader and a writer since I was very little.  I don’t know what else I would do if I couldn’t write.  Reading helps me to constantly learn new things about the world while challenging my brain to stretch and think in different ways.   The best advice I can give to a parent who has a reluctant reader, is to help them find the right books.  That isn’t always easy, but even the most reluctant reader will sit down and stick with a book if it sparks their imagination.  Here’s a suggestion.  Rather than handing your child a book and saying: “Read this!”, ask them to read their age.  If they’re 9, ask them to read 9 pages.  If they’re 15, get them to read 15.  It’s much less daunting than staring at a thick book, thinking they’ll never get through it.  After reading their age they’ll have a pretty good idea if the book is right for them or not.  If it isn’t, just as well.  Move on.  But if it is, those few pages will grab their attention and hold on tight until the final page is turned.

Pat: It took me awhile to get into books as a kid. I was fine with comic books, but a book with no pictures? That took some real work. I would have died for something like Voyagers when I was 10 or 11! Because like a lot of kids that age, I was into finding adventure in the neighborhood, playing video games, and building forts. So I think if you’re a parent with a kid who is easily distracted by all the fun of just being a 10-year-old, then plugging them into something like Voyagers is going to get them reading. Start by showing them, then download the game app, then hand them the first book. They will be all in! One other note – what did finally get me into reading were very descriptive, adventurous books. The Chronicles of Narnia, stuff by Roald Dahl, The Rats of Nimh – those kinds of books did it for me. And the Voyagers writing team delivers that kind of thrilling, page turning action.

Comic Review: Raising Dion, by Dennis Liu

image00421Last week I shared a trailer for the new comic book Raising Dion. This new series is about a single mom who is raising a seven year old boy who has superpowers. She has to teach him how to use his powers without burning the house down and she has to keep him safe from mysterious forces that seem to be out to get him. I loved the trailer so much that even though I’ve already posted it, I’m posting it again at the end of this very short review. I also loved the trailer so much that even though the first issue of the comic is available for download for free, I bought it anyway because a concept this great deserves my money.

The first issue is in my hands, and here are my first impressions:

I love the art.

The art is very detailed and painter-like and warm. I especially like how different pages have different color tones that help set the mood of the story. We know that the mom loves her son from the very first pages, because of the rich earth tones in the pages (alien stuff that signals danger is icy blue).

I love, love, love that this is is a story about a mother.

Look, I get it, fiction. Moms are a buzzkill. There you are trying to win battles in Narnia and your mom is all, “It’s snowing out there, put on your coat, what have I told you about following strangers around just because they offer you candy, put that sword down before you poke your eye out.” But moms are also badass purely in the sense that we get through every single day. And single moms with special needs kids are Super Badass. So I’m happy to see some mom representation here, and thrilled to see an African-American mom. I also love seeing what parenting is like for her day to day (“Don’t you dare float those cookies into your mouth!”) and I hope we see more of that. Dion seems like neither a horrible brat nor a convenient little angel – he’s a seven-year-old boy to the core.

There are so many places this story can go.

This comic starts off with the backstory – how did Dion wind up with super powers? And it looks like there’s a ton of backstory. Then there’s a ton of, for lack of a better word, forward-story since judging from the cover Dion is being followed by guys in suits and sunglasses (the standard uniform of creepy conspiracy guys).

Here’s the trailer, now go read the comic! I’ve watched this video about ten times and every single time I laugh my head off and then I get all weepy.