Friday, April 23, 2021

National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky, 2nd Edition

National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky, 2nd Edition
by Andrew Fazekas, Howard Schneider
3/19/19; 288 pages

It is time to start star gazing as warmer weather approaches in my location and the 2nd edition of the National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky by Andrew Fazekas and Howard Schneider is a very highly recommended perfect companion to this pursuit. This updated guide is user friendly and well organized to aide the novice in learning about the night time sky. (Since my current guide was a much earlier edition, any update is an improvement because of the many advances in telescopes, photography, and knowledge.)

The National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky, 2nd Edition, is well organized, especially for educational purposes. It starts with the basics and gives the reader simple tasks, studying the phases of the moon, tracking the motion of the stars and planets over weeks, and learning to recognize some of the brightest constellations. This sets a foundation for future sky watching. There is also a wonderful opening illustration on Sizing up the Galaxy, which will help set the scope of the nighttime sky. Take note of the use of your hand to find your way while observing the sky. This is a great idea for beginners, especially children. Even more than that, before we even get into space, there is information on our atmosphere and tricks of light that many people have observed, like a green flash, light pillars, halos, sundogs, auroras, noctilucent clouds, and sprites, for example. There are techniques presented for making the most of viewing eclipses and meteor showers. Then there is information about the more esoteric phenomena such as black holes and supernovas.

Chapters are logically organized into:  Discovering Starry Skies; The Atmosphere; The Sun; The Moon; The Planets; Comets & Meteors; Beyond The Solar System; Beyond The Milky Way; Navigating The Night Sky; Sky Charts; Viewing The Naked-Eye Planets; Further Resources and an index. Since it is a National Geographic guide, expect beautiful photographs and illustrations, charts and graphics. There are also a plethora of tips and techniques to assist in viewing the night sky with your naked eyes, binoculars, or a telescope. Since we are closely related to someone who lives out away from light pollution and has the perfect place for viewing the night sky, this is going to be a well used guide.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of National Geographic in exchange for my honest opinion for TLC Book Tours.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
5/4/21; 496 pages
Penguin Random House

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is a very, very highly recommended saving-the-world science fiction story. I love, love, love this novel and, in turn, Andy Weir for writing Project Hail Mary (and The Martian, and Artemis, which I enjoyed). After I read The Martian, I personally told everyone to buy it and read it, and I will do the same for Project Hail Mary. This will definitely be on my list of best books of 2021. I may even, gulp, love it more than The Martian, which is still way-up-there on my best books ever list.

Ryland Grace wakes up on a spaceship not knowing where he is, who he is, or what he is supposed to be doing while a computer is asking him what is 2+2. It becomes clear, after some time, that he is the sole survivor, and the task set before him is impossible. His task is to solve a mystery in order to save the Earth from an extinction-level event. Slowly Grace remembers that he was a junior high school science teacher. He also remembers that astrophage, a microscopic alien organism, is somehow eating the energy from the sun, causing it to dim, which will eventually lead to a new ice age on Earth in a few decades. Scientists have determined that all the other stars nearby seem to be suffering with the same affliction with the exception of Tau Ceti. The ship, named Hail Mary, has the task of identifying why Tau Ceti is immune and hopefully saving the Earth.  Before he taught junior high, he was a molecular biologist, but why would he, out of so many better candidates, be chosen to be on the task force studying the astrophage and then chosen be on this mission, which is a suicide mission with no way to return to Earth?

The un-put-downable, extraordinary, riveting narrative alternates between chapters following Grace in the present day on the Hail Mary with chapters of Grace remembering what happened before he woke up on the ship. Information about his past and the present is carefully disclosed and new facts are discovered as the plot unfolds. There is humor in the narrative; I experienced several laugh-out-loud moments while reading. Ryland Grace is an imminently likeable character. He is channeling McGyver, although not quite as much as Mark Watney did, as he figures out what to do. It becomes even more interesting when he discovers an alien spaceship near his ship that is on the same mission he is.

Naturally there is plenty of science and scientific speculation in Project Hail Mary. Yes, this is an outstanding science fiction survival tale, but it is also a story about friendship. Expect several plot twists, nail-biting suspense, jaw dropping moments, relentless tension, emotional reactions, and heart-stopping events in this perfectly paced novel. The final denouement is perfect, absolutely, positively perfect. It needs to be said again that I love Project Hail Mary. It is a phenomenal, remarkable science fiction novel that is sure to become a classic.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House in exchange for my honest opinion.


Oracle by Julie Anderson
5/5/21; 286 pages
Claret Press
Cassie Fortune #2

Oracle by Julie Anderson is a recommended murder mystery and the second novel featuring Cassie Fortune, following Plague (2020).

It has been two months since the events that occurred in Plague. Cassie is still reeling from those events and trying to recover emotionally. In Oracle Cassie has been sent to Delphi, Greece where she is representing the Prime Minister of the UK and is scheduled to give a presentation on tax policy. Her real purpose for attending is to secure a future meeting in London between a Greek government minister and the Prime Minister. The center where the conference is being held on the slopes of Mount Parnassus near the ruins of the Temple of Apollo. Helena, Cassie's interpreter, meets her at the center and the two work well together. Quickly, the narrative introduces clues even before the first murder happens and Cassie is asked to help with the investigation.

At this point the novel takes on the task of melding the tried and true plot device found in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express with Classical mythology. Storms hit the conference center and phone lines are down. They are all isolated and the weather along with the terrain make investigating difficult. Basics of Classical Mythology are introduced in a visit to the Delphi Temple (so you won't need to refresh your memory). Complicating the plot are environmental protesters, the uncooperative and secretive way those involved in the investigation are behaving, the history of authoritarianism and justice in the area, and the group Golden Dawn.

Cassie is an interesting character and has to overcome a language barrier as well as cultural differences in her investigation. Admittedly, I still have not connected with her as a character after two novels, but I was able to overlook my qualms and enjoy the narrative. The action moves along at a quick pace with clues being provided almost right from the start. Classical Mythology has been a long time personal interest and I enjoyed the introduction of elements from mythology into the plot. I also liked the use of the plot device of isolating the characters. Some suspension of disbelief is, again, required as you follow Cassie's involvement in the investigation. Intermixed in the plot are current social and political concerns the author holds.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Claret Press in exchange for my honest opinion.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Thirty-One Bones

Thirty-One Bones by Morgan Cry
5/18/21; 312 pages
Arcade Crimewise

Thirty-One Bones by Morgan Cry (pseudonym for author Gordon Brown) is a highly recommended mystery.

Daniella Coulstoun travels to El Descaro on Spain Mediterranean coast to bury her deceased mother, Effie. The two have had a distant relationship for twenty years so Daniella has little knowledge or information about her mother's life in Spain. She knows Effie left Scotland when Daniella was sixteen to move to Spain where she owned and ran a pub, Se Busca. Se Busca was patronized by British expats and certain criminals, and apparently Effie was the leader of the group of misfits who called themselves Expatriots. What Daniella didn't know was that the ExPatriots had a money making scam going on and had conned would-be-investors out of 1.3 million euros. The money was to be divided between members of the group to give them a new start in life. Now Effie is dead and no one knows where the money went.

As soon as Daniella arrives in Spain, her mother's friend and ex-lawyer, George Laidlaw, is surly and confrontational with Daniella. He wants to know where the money is and he is holding Daniella culpable for recovering it, under a threat of violence. Daniella, of course, has no idea what he is talking about so she must uncover not only what he is talking about but try to figure out where her mother, whom she didn't have a close relationship with, would have hidden the money. Threats and cons seem to be coming from all sides and Daniella quickly realizes she can't really trust anyone and she must rely on her own wits to find the cash.

This crime novel is really more of a madcap scramble of uncovering clues and fraud while facing lunacy and threatening physical intimidation. Thirty-One Bones is surprising lighthearted and humorous at times, even when physical violence seems an obvious conclusion to Daniella's search for the truth - as when she is threatened with having thirty-one bones broken if she doesn't provide the information sought. Daniella is a well-written character and likeable, so readers will hope she uncovers the truth, while also, maybe finding a new place for herself in El Descaro. Cry (Brown) does a credible job writing this novel through Daniella's point-of-view.

The writing is excellent. The chapters mainly focus on Daniella's search. In-between these chapters are brief excerpts of a police interview of the various players in the con. Humorously, these chapters all end with someone replying to a question, "It's complicated." The plot starts out at an even pace and picks up speed as Daniella's investigation begins to follow clues and uncovers new information. The ending wraps everything up neatly, almost too neatly, but it seems appropriate for this clever novel of misfits in the sun.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster in exchange for my honest opinion.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Lost Immunity

Lost Immunity by Daniel Kalla
5/4/21; 352 pages
Simon & Schuster

Lost Immunity by Daniel Kalla is a recommended medical thriller.

Lisa Dyer, Seattle’s chief public health officer, is suddenly facing a deadly outbreak of meningitis. The same strain broke out in Iceland six months earlier, with devastating losses. This outbreak explicitly emerged at a nearby camp and the virulent strain of bacteria is now infecting teens and children. Due to the Icelandic outbreak, a pharmaceutical company immediately began work on developing a vaccine and is currently commencing final-phase trials on it. Lisa contacts Nathan Hull, vice president of the pharmaceutical company that developed the new vaccine, and requests doses of it to release to Seattle's citizens in order to stop the meningitis outbreak and save lives. This decision is met with resistance from several fronts and tension increases when people who have been treated begin dying. Lisa must find out why the initial success is now resulting in fatalities.

Kalla is a well-respected writer of medical thrillers and, as a working ER Physician, he has insight into into the medical community that provide a realism to his novels. In Lost Immunity, Kalla takes observations from the current health crisis and applies his observations to a bacterial outbreak of meningitis instead of a viral outbreak. Controversy surrounding vaccines plays a major role in the plot. The believable plot moves along at a brisk pace, keeping the tension high and instilling a palpable interest in the outcome. In some ways this almost mirrors reality too closely.

My qualms about the book are two fold. Lisa wasn't a compelling protagonist for me and it was a challenge to overlook certain aspects of her personality. Secondly, keeping this wording spoiler free, I knew the antagonist almost from the start and what would be a major emotional plot point. So, this is a recommended medical thriller for the fast-paced plot, but parts of the narrative will be very predictable for many readers. It must also be said that I do look forward to Daniel Kalla's next book.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster in exchange for my honest opinion.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Last Thing He Told Me

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave
5/4/21; 320 pages
Simon & Schuster

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave is a highly recommended domestic thriller.

Hannah Hall and Owen Michaels have been married for one year and they are happily living on a houseboat in Sausalito with Owen's sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. When Hannah receives a note from Owen saying simply "Protect her," Hannah knows that something is wrong because Owen is devoted to his daughter and he is not answering his phone. Owen is a coder at The Shop, a tech firm, and Hannah hears on the news that his boss has just been arrested by the FBI. When Bailey finds a bag full of cash that Owen left in her locker at school, the two are even more flummoxed. Hannah and Bailey have had a rocky relationship, understandable for a new stepmother and a teenager, but they know Owen is a good man and they need to work together to find out what happened.

When a US marshal and later federal agents arrive at their home, Hannah knows that something is seriously wrong. The US Marshall says Owen is not a suspect in the FBI investigation and he just wants to know Owen's whereabouts. She doesn't know who she can trust, so she contacts an old friend, a lawyer, who discovers that Owen isn't who he said he was. It is obvious that Hannah must try to work with Bailey to uncover what exactly is going on and who Owen - and Bailey - really are.

Hannah is a well developed character while Bailey is less developed and portrayed more as a stereotypical teen with an attitude. They both have some advancement in their character development. Seeing Hannah and Bailey work together, learn to trust each other, and form an honest connection helps keep the plot interesting, especially when Bailey's early childhood memories lead them to Texas.

The Last Thing He Told Me is well-written, although a little uneven in some sections. Chapters in the narrative follow the present day search for the truth and alternating chapters offer glimpses into the past relationship between Owen and Hannah. The past chapters provide insight into the current situation as well as providing some clues for Hannah and Bailey to follow. Hannah as a novice investigator is a bit less believable and the final denouement is a little improbable, but the lead up to it helps make it all work together to create an enjoyable novel with a touching final scene. This is a satisfying and effective domestic thriller that will hold your attention throughout.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster in exchange for my honest opinion.

No Going Back

No Going Back by T.R. Ragan
5/4/21; 288 pages
Thomas & Mercer
Sawyer Brooks Series #3

No Going Back by T.R. Ragan is a highly recommended thriller and the third book in the Sawyer Brooks series.

Sawyer has been covering the female vigilantes dubbed The Black Wigs, but now it appears that there are copycats out there dispensing their own extreme and fatal justice to sexual predators and capturing their fear to share on social media. The police think that these copycat vigilantes are related to The Black Wigs group of women, The Crew, and their actions, but Sawyer is positive it is a new person and she sets out to uncover who is behind the crimes. Her investigation leads her to nefarious bullying by a group at a Sacramento children’s home and a gang rape at a fraternity party.

It was very enjoyable to return to Sawyer Brooks and her investigative journalism, setting aside the dark, disturbing content that leads to her investigations. Admittedly, I liked the second book a little more than this third installment in the series, but it still featured a compelling plot and returning readers, like me, will be invested in the novel. The first two thirds of the novel was gripping and much better than the ending in No Going Back. Since I felt book two, Out of Her Mind, did not have a resolution to one of the story lines, I was hoping for that this time around. There is more forward movement in character development and resolution of many of the story lines. It seems that the series may be continuing in a new direction and I'd be interested to see where it goes.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.