Friday, July 31, 2020

Short Book Reviews: A Reincarnated Chimera

Race the Sands, by Sarah Beth Durst (Harper Voyager)

I loved this world, in which Becar, a precarious desert kingdom, politics are based on karmic “readings” by Muses of a person’s past lives. The stressed, disenfranchised populace is distracted by races involving vicious, mindlessly destructive chimeric monsters called kehoks, the reincarnated souls of those so evil and depraved as to be beyond hope. When the King dies at a youthful age and quite unexpectedly, his brother cannot take the throne until the King’s spirit is identified, presumably in a traditionally noble beast. The search intensifies as neighboring kingdoms scent weakness and prepare for an invasion. Unstable conditions like this form the perfect settings for taut, dynamic stories, don’t they?

Enter a failed Muse student who finds a new life as an apprentice jockey, a woman who trains racing monsters to pay her daughter’s tuition at Muse academy, her patroness, a socialite with a flair for politics, a Muse agent charged with locating the King’s spirit, and assorted other characters. What links them together with the Prince is the black-iron lion, a kehok even more volatile and dangerous – and intelligent -- than others of his kind. With him, the trainer and her new apprentice jockey have a chance to win the grand championship, and with it, financial security and independence. With war brewing and the search for the King’s spirit intensifying, with their rivals resorting to ever more desperate sabotage, it’s a race against time as well.

An added delight was the effortless skill with which Durst moved from inner to outer action, her subtle handling of tension, her compassionate portrayal of her characters and their situations, and her imaginative magic. Recommended for adult as well as YA readers.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Short Book Reviews: From Sacrifice to Assassin

The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood (Tor)

I kept thinking of the worlds of Tolkien as I read this long, rich book. It seemed to be a series of related novels, each arc coming to a not-quite-resting place. The many worlds, linked by portals, were are much the focus as the characters themselves…until all the story threads were gathered together and then entire tapestry pattern emerged. I didn’t love every character or every world, but I was right with Csorwe, every step of the way.

“The Unspoken Name” refers to one of the many gods that inhabit the disparate worlds, in this case one whose name must never be uttered. Girls are brought to this god’s temple to study and serve in the hopes that one of them will become the Bride of the God, gifted with prophecy, living a pampered if drug-soaked life until she’s sacrificed in her fourteenth year. Csorwe is one such, fully prepared to die . . . until Belthandros Sethennai, a wizard who has petitioned her for answers, interrupts her journey to death with a question of his own: Do you want to die? Or do you want to come with me and create your own destiny?

Instead of complying with expectations, she runs away with him, accepts his training in martial arts, among other things, and ultimately becomes his bodyguard and hired assassin as he seeks to wrest control of his city from his usurper rival. That’s the initial movement in this many-act drama.

I loved that many of the characters aren’t human, Csorwe for example. She’s more orc-like, with “grey skin, grey freckles, yolk-yellow eyes, an overgrown mop of black hair,” … and tusks. Nobody from other races cares particularly. They just shrug and say, “She’s from Oshaar,” one of the many realms linked through the Serpent Gates. How great is that?

Monday, July 20, 2020

Author Interview: Helen Harper

Today I chat with Helen Harper, author of the delightful fantasy, Wishful Thinking (How To Be The Best Damn Faery Godmother In The World (Or Die Trying), which I reviewed here.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?

Helen Harper: I always thought of myself as a reader rather than a writer. I grew up
entirely immersed in books of all sorts, but fantasy was always my
favourite. In my early twenties I had vague notions of trying to write
for Mills and Boon but, when I tried to write something, I realised it
was far harder than I thought so I abandoned my efforts. Much later on,
when I found myself under a great deal of stress at work, I discovered
that writing was the perfect way to take a step back from life and
immerse myself in other worlds. Instead of slobbing out in front of the
television, I would write. I didn't have any plans to share what I
wrote. It was purely a release for myself. Nobody was more surprised
than myself when I realised that not only had I managed to write
complete books but that other people wanted to read them.

DJR: What inspires your books?
HH: I'm a pantser rather than a plotter so I tend to make things up as I go
along. However, I always start with a germ of an idea that can come from
anywhere. With The Lazy Girl's Guide to Magic, it was a chat with a good
friend about how we would make useless book heroines because we were too
lazy. With Highland Magic, the ideas came from wondering about the
divide between the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland and the
Dreamweaver series was inspired by an article I read about adult night

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Potpourri of Short Book Reviews

Tigers, Not Daughters, by Samantha Mabry (Algonquin Young Readers)

Tigers, Not Daughters is sort-of ghost story, in which the unquiet spirit of the oldest Torres sister returns to wreak havoc with the lives of her three surviving sisters and alcoholic, deadbeat father. Each sister has her own way of coping with her grief. At first isolated from one another by their very different personalities, Iridian, Jessica, and Rosa gradually learn to support one another, even when they don’t necessarily understand or agree. Ana’s ghost is at times a mysterious presence, a comfort, a source of fear and confusion, and ultimately a force that re-unites and empowers her surviving sisters. Definitely will be enjoyed by adult as well as teen readers.

Sea Change, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon)

The premise in Nancy Kress’s latest novel is chillingly topical: genetically modified organisms, run amok under the control of greedy corporations, almost devastate civilization. In the aftermath, people in undeveloped countries starve. Special police root out any effort at developing crops that might save them. An underground of scientists and their helpers, split into very small groups to avoid large-scale investigation, slowly begins creating new varieties of food crops and other organisms to benefit humanity. But – of course – the special police are hard on their heels. Dramatic, full of wonderful details and characters, all in all a satisfying and thoughtful read. But I would expect no less from Kress.

The Immortal Conquistador, by Carrie Vaughn (Tachyon)

I first encountered the work of Carrie Vaughn during my time on the jury for the Philip K. Dick Award (her novel, Bannerless, won that year). So I was curious to see what else she'd written. The setting of The Immortal Conquistador is quite different (and I had not read the related novels) but I found this one no less rewarding and thoughtful.

This tale of how one of Cortez’s conquistadors became a vampire, finding his way alone in Mexico and later north to the nascent United States, is a delightful, often poignant twist on the usual vampire tale. After newly turned Ricardo kills his “maker” and the rest of the next, rather than join them in a murder-fest, he has no guidance as to what he has become. Without a community to teach him the hierarchical “rules,” he proceeds to create a life in which he protects the humans upon whom he depends, treating them with fairness and consideration instead of preying on them. From there, each episode focuses on how the differences play out in different historical periods. The ancient European-based vampire masters will not tolerate any vampire not under their control (and concentrated in their cities), and Ricardo will not abandon his “family.”

I love the way this story challenges the usual trope of vampires as (a) intrinsically evil; (b) forever separated from humanity. Ricardo, who is anything but a bloodthirsty fiend, makes the world a better place by his compassion and kindness.

Moontangled, A Harwood Spellbook Novella, by Stephanie Burgis (Five Fathoms)

A lovely bit of lesbian romance, set in a school for magic. It’s weighted somewhat by a disproportionate amount of backstory for those who, like me, are new to this world and its characters, but the smooth prose, lively verbal repartee, and sympathetic characters held my interest to the end.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Coping Strategies in an Ongoing Pandemic

From time to time, I focus on an article that in my estimation offers valuable information or reflection on the stresses of the times. These last four years have presented one crisis after another. And now a pandemic that threatens not only my life and health, but those of my loved ones and friends. So it's a good time to review what enhances our resilience and remind ourselves that we are indeed resourceful. We are not always so, and not all of us are at the same time. Not every piece of advice will seem appropriate to each of us. One of the many benefits of community is that we can remind one another of our strength, we can role model sanity and self-care, and those of us who have hope at any given moment can carry those of us who are mired in despair through the dark hours.

We'll get through this. Together.

On to the article: This is by Craig Polizzi, a PhD Student in Clinical Psychology, and Steven Jay Lynn, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, both at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Your coping and resilience strategies might need to shift as the COVID-19 crisis continues

The authors highlight three strategies we might use to reduce stress and rebuild our lives, even while the pandemic is still raging. This is going to go on for a while, folks, so let's see what we can do to make the best of this episode in our lives.

Cognitive reappraisal involves reframing the way one interprets an emotional or stressful event or situation to regulate or neutralize its harmful impact. You can think about working from home, for example, as an opportunity to spend more time with family, engage in hobbies or get caught up on projects, rather than as a threat to job security. This strategy tempers the kind of all-or-nothing thinking – such as “the world is unsafe,” “I cannot do anything to help” and “our leaders know nothing” – that can take people down a road of anxiety, worry and mistrust of others. Instead, reappraisal helps you move toward healthy perspectives on stressful situations, dampens negative emotions and boosts positive emotions and keenness to participate fully in life.

Problem-focused coping can be another helpful strategy. It frames a stressful situation as a problem to be solved and fuels planning and the search for practical solutions. For example, people who know they feel worried or depressed after consuming news can plan to monitor and control the timing (such as not before sleep), nature and amount of news they consume. Effective problem-solving increases positive emotions, self-confidence and motivation. It also lessens the psychological impact of stressors.
As society opens up, you need to weigh the pros and cons of shopping, eating in restaurants, or seeking medical treatment, informed by the best available evidence. Problem-focused coping can help you make decisions about whether an activity is safe and consistent with your personal values and the needs of others.
Lovingkindness meditation can help you get through trying times. It involves contemplating and generating positive feelings and tolerance towards yourself and others. Combining lovingkindness meditation with empathy for those with different political views, for example, can help heal frayed bonds of friendship when social support is most needed. Pausing each day to embrace love and kindness counteracts self-blame, guilt, feelings of alienation and social isolation.
And anything that increases the amount of compassion and love in the world is surely a good thing.

For the complete article, click on the title link.

Two New Approaches to Treating COVID-19

There's a lot of very cool immunology research being done right now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-virals and vaccines top the list for many. But there are significant problems with each -- anti-virals have not proven to be wonder drugs, offering only modest help for those already seriously ill, and an effective vaccine is still months or years away. Vaccines may have to be tailored to the age and immune status of various groups, just the way flu vaccines are. But there are other ways of thinking about minimizing both mortality (deaths) and morbidity (illnesses). 

Coronavirus and cancer hijack the same parts in human cells to spread – and our team identified existing cancer drugs that could fight COVID-19

This is from Nevan Krogan, Professor and Director of Quantitative Biosciences Institute & Senior Investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, University of California, San Francisco
Kinases are proteins found in every cell of our body. There are 518 human kinases, and they act as major control hubs for virtually all processes in the body. They are able to add a small marker – a process called phosphorylation – to other proteins and thus change how, if and when a phosphorylated protein can do its work. Many cancers are caused by overactive kinases leading to uncontrolled cell growth, and drugs that slow kinases down can be highly effective at treating cancer. 
Kinases are also fairly easy to target with drugs because of how they add phosphorylation markers to proteins. Researchers have developed a huge number of drugs, particularly cancer drugs, that work by essentially throwing a wrench into the mechanics of specific kinases in order to stop cell growth. 
Viruses also change the function of cellular machinery – albeit on purpose – but instead of causing cell growth, the machinery is repurposed to produce more viruses. Not surprisingly, viruses take control over many kinases to do this. 
It is impossible to actually see which kinases are activated at any time, but since each kinase can attach phosphorylation markers to only a few specific proteins, researchers can look at the phosphorylated proteins to determine what kinases are active at any time. 
Some of the more interesting ones include Casein Kinase 2, which is involved in controlling how a cell is shaped. We also identified several kinases that work together in what is called the p38/MAPK signaling pathway. This pathway responds to and controls our body’s inflammation reaction. It is possible these kinases could be involved in the cytokine storm – a dangerous immune system overreaction – that some patients with severe COVID-19 experience. 
While identifying the kinases involved in SARS-CoV-2 replication, we were also able to learn a lot about how the virus changes our bodies. For example, CK2 becomes much more active during the course of coronavirus infection and causes the growth of little tubes that extend from the surface of the cell. Under a microscope, it looks as if the cell has a full head of hair. We think SARS-CoV-2 might be using these long cell outgrowths – called filopodia – as viral highways to get new viruses closer to neighboring cells, thereby making infection easier. 
There are 87 existing drugs that change the kinase-controlled pathways used by the coronavirus. Most of these drugs are already approved for human use or are currently in clinical trials to treat cancer, and could be quickly repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients.*

Liangfang Zhang, Professor of Nanoengineering, University of California San Diego describes another approach, playing defense instead of offense with the virus, as it were*

We create decoys that look like the human cells the SARS-CoV-2 virus invades. So far, we’ve made lung-cell decoys and immune-cell decoys. These cell decoys attract and neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus, leaving the real lung or immune cells healthy. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Reviews: A Jewish Teen in 1950s Atlanta

In the Neighborhood of True, by Susan Kaplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers)

In the Neighborhood of True is the most powerful, compelling book I have read this year. The story immediately captivated with the first-person narrative of a teenage girl, a secular Jew, who relocates with her widowed mother and younger sister from New York to Atlanta. But the year is 1958, just at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and Jim Crow, the KKK, lynchings, and segregation are very much alive. Sent to an elite private (and Christian) high school, Ruth is initially sheltered from these tumultuous events as she is drawn into the world of Southern belles, debutante balls, and a fairy-tale boyfriend. Her mother’s response is to begin regular family attendance at the nearest synagogue, which is already involved in protesting racism. Although torn between the glamour and romance of the conventional white world and the deeper values her Jewish roots, Ruth “passes” as a WASP.

From the opening courtroom scene, though, Ruth’s narrative conveys her understanding of overt and covert bigotry. She’s aware that whites and Negros, to use the terminology of the time, swear on different Bibles, but nowhere is there a copy of her own scripture, Tanakh. Her grandmother hands her a little pink book of Southern feminine etiquette, and her history teacher refers to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” Brown v Board of Ed (1954), the decision that desegregated schools, was considered a day of mourning.

Ruth struggles to keep the two worlds separate. She wants desperately to make herself into the ideal of Southern womanhood and for a romance with the most devastatingly cute boy she’s ever met. But her Jewish and her Southern selves move onto a collision course when the synagogue is vandalized with the words, JEWS ARE NEGRO LOVERS and a giant swastika. And from there, the violence against both Blacks and Jews escalates, and Ruth must make hard choices about where her commitment lies – to what is beguiling and easy, or to what is hard and terrifying.

The text is readily accessible and the story moves along with engrossing, page-turning speed, while at the same weaving a tapestry of complex moral issues. Teens may lack the life experience of their parents, but they are also capable of discernment and courage. Even as Ruth wrestles with her youthful insecurity, the longing for approval, and the seductive nature of rewritten history, she also responds to the call to justice that is the heart of her true heritage.

Highly recommended, relevant, and a meaningful read for both teens and their parents.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Disappearing Stars and Other Cool Science Stuff

A 'monster' star 2 million times brighter than the sun disappears without a trace

In 2019, scientists witnessed a massive star 2.5 million times brighter than the sun disappear without a trace. Now, in a new paper published today (June 30) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of space detectives (see: astrophysicists) attempt to solve the case of the disappearing star by providing several possible explanations. Of these, one twist ending stands out: Perhaps, the researchers wrote, the massive star died and collapsed into a black hole without undergoing a supernova explosion first — a truly "unprecedented" act of stellar suicide.

This suggests that even short training programs of 6–12 months are enough to positively influence the health of people suffering from metabolic disorders," says last author Carl Johan Sundberg, professor at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet. "The study identifies important 'exercise-responsive' genes that may play a role in metabolic diseases.

The red cloth-wrapped leather bootie, now part of the State Hermitage Museum's collection, is a stunner, trimmed in tin, pyrite crystals, gold foil and glass beads secured with sinew. Fanciful shapes—ducklings, maybe?—decorate the seams. But the true mind-blower is the remarkable condition of its sole. The British Museum curators’ explanation is that Scythians seated themselves on the ground around a communal fire, subjecting their soles to their neighbors’ scrutiny.

Flat spots on Saturn’s moon Titan may be the floors of ancient lake beds

Peculiar flat regions on Saturn’s moon Titan could be the dry floors of ancient lakes and seas. The suggestion, published June 16 in Nature Communications, may solve a 20-year-old mystery.
The researchers considered whether rainfall, dunes or dry lake beds could be responsible for the reflections, and found that only lake beds explain the timing and locations of the signals. It does rain on Titan, but not frequently enough to explain the reflections, and Titan’s dune fields are in the wrong spots. And the specular reflections come from two specific regions that look like other empty lake basins near Titan’s poles (SN: 4/15/19).

Friday, July 3, 2020

Short Book Reviews: An Inspiring Tale of Courage, Queerness, and Punk Rock

Music from Another World, by Robin Talley (Inkyard)

In the late 1970s, the gay rights movement was getting underway, with cities like San Francisco leading the way. Harvey Milk’s election as city supervisor (1978) catalyzed a generation of LGBTQ youth and their allies, while in other parts of the country Anita Bryant was campaigning for anti-gay laws. The punk music movement was in full swing, giving voice to the chaos and rage many of these young people felt.

Into this world come two young women, high school students at extremely conservative schools. A summer program pairs Sharon, a Catholic from San Francisco, with Tammy, a Baptist from Orange County. Each harbors a secret she dare not let her homophobic parents know: Sharon’s twin brother is gay, as is Tammy herself. Gradually, through diaries and their correspondence, the girls discover the courage to fight free of the homophobia, repression, and secrecy of their lives. Matters come to a head when Tammy is outed and flees to San Francisco. Under a pretext, she and Sharon convinced Sharon’s mother to let her stay with them. Here she’s caught up in the Castro Street scene and a radically, woman-owned bookstore. Tammy and Sharon find that adjusting to in-person intimacy is very different from the openness they enjoyed in their letters.

So much of this book evoked memories for me. I wasn’t in San Francisco when the story takes place, but my sister was. We both frequented book stores like the one in the story; we both knew people struggling with their sexual orientation, with the condemnation of their families. We knew the fear of bigotry such as Bryant’s and the exhilaration of Milk’s election. That said, we were both older, and Tammy and Sharon are still teens. The teen years are agonizing enough without issues of identity and the terror of being sent to a conversion camp or being rejected by family and friends. It was no wonder gay teens had such a high risk of suicide. But this story is filled with hope, too. The love and support of some friends and some family, and the riotous energy of the music, and the deep friendship between the two girls is a message of hope.

Nowadays it’s all too easy to look back on “those terrible times,” as if they will never happen again. That’s a false confidence, as daily news stories remind us. The eternal vigilance that is the price of freedom means that books like this one have enduring value. Even in “enlightened” times, there are teens who struggle, who come to loathe and even destroy themselves, because of isolation and hatred. I would love to give each one of them this book, with the message, “It Gets Better.”