The Door is Ajar: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton.

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Dragon Teeth – Michael Crichton (2017, HarperLuxe, New York)

Published nearly a decade after his death, Michael Crichton’s “undiscovered” novel Dragon Teeth is a decent mash-up of history, science, and good old-fashioned storytelling, inspired by the outlandish, well-documented, and sometimes extremely violent rivalry between late 19th century American paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edwin Drinker Cope. Their quests (competition?) to find and document fossilized dinosaurs and other creatures of the distant past in a cultural climate that was struggling to wrap its collective noggin around evolutionary theory is fascinating – especially when you consider that they did most of their bone-hunting and collecting in the wild west, where, if you weren’t bit by a rattlesnake or died of exposure or illness, you could suffer death, injury, or at the very least, be swindled out of all your worldly possessions by any number of unsavory characters.  A quick, (at times overly) simple, entertaining read.

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The Door is Ajar: Martians Abroad and Last Day on Mars.

This week, I’m featuring a couple of books about the Red Planet….

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Martians Abroad – Carrie Vaughn (2016, Tor, New York)

Martian teenager Polly Newton desperately wants to become a starship pilot and she is excited and ready to begin her training…until her mother, the high-powered, not-to-be-challenged director of the Martian Colony, derails Polly’s plans and sends her and her twin brother Charles to an exclusive boarding school on Earth.  Headstrong, stubborn, and understandably angry at her mother, Polly struggles to fit into her new surroundings and deal with bullying classmates and stern teachers, until she and Charles uncover a secret about the Galileo Academy that has dangerous ramifications for the students at the school and Polly launches herself into action to save them all.  (Pun intended, of course).

Sounds pretty tantalizing, right?  That’s why I picked this book up.  And I loved, loved, LOVED the whole “fish out of water” scenario – Vaughn’s descriptions of how the foreign students try to adjust to Earth (the gravity, the food, the air, the open spaces, the use of water) are absolutely captivating and realistic.  The details of travelling in space are thrilling, as well – it’s all extremely brilliant stuff and beautifully executed.  But…and here’s the thing. To be fair to Vaughn and her fans, I haven’t read the Robert Heinlein story that this book is apparently inspired/influenced by (Podkayne of Mars), so I should probably do that before making a snap judgment.  It is possible that Martians Abroad is a decent representation of that earlier work – but even so, it doesn’t mean I have to be impressed. It was disappointing to me that despite the juicy depth of its scenery, the book suffers from a pretty much non-existent plotline and the motivations of the characters are vague and unrealized and quite frankly, nonsensical in certain cases.  The surprise resolution is wimpy, undeveloped, and…utterly confusing.  To me.  I did read a review from NPR that suggested that this book hearkens back to the classic, more innocent SF novels, where the stories are heavy on tech and world-building and not so much on gritty plots and action, which seems accurate, and much nicer and way more positive than what I’m saying here.  So…pick up Martians Abroad and let me know what you think after you’ve finished it.  How off-base am I on this one? (Hee hee, another pun).

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Last Day On Mars – Book One of Chronicle of the Dark Star – Kevin Emerson (2017, Walden Pond Press, New York)

After the Earth is destroyed by the sun, which is beginning to go supernova, mankind establishes a colony on Mars to garner the resources and technology so that they can flee once again as the red planet is threatened.  In 2213, the time has finally arrived for the big departure, and young Martian student Liam Saunders-Chang and his friend Phoebe spend their final bittersweet day on the only planet they have ever called home trying to solve a terrifying mystery and desperately struggling to stay alive as everything they know comes crashing down around them.  Emerson’s first novel in the Chronicle of the Dark Star series is aimed at a pre-teen audience, but it transcends its target, with whipsmart humour, solid world-building, and an inventive, yet believable scientific foundation that will appeal to older readers (including adults) as well.  Liam and Phoebe are wonderfully-drawn and relatable, and I particularly loved the focus on the emotional rollercoaster they suffer on the Last Day.

If all that wasn’t enough, there is a positively gripping cliffhanger that has me utterly piqued for the next book.  Nicely done!

The Door is Ajar: Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.

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Public Library and Other Stories – Ali Smith (2015 Penguin Canada)

Smith’s collection of short stories was gathered together to celebrate the role of public libraries in personal and public life, of the value they bring to community, and the wealth of knowledge and the opportunity for engagement, thought, and creativity that they invoke.  Public Library is also a protest against the closure of libraries in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, the quashing of budgets, collections, and services in libraries that remain, and the overall decline of government and popular support for these previously-revered institutions.  Smith’s stories are framed by quotes from writers, thinkers, and other figures as they explore their personal emotions and connections to libraries, books, reading, and writing.

The stories themselves were a delight for me and I devoured them in a couple of very short sittings. I am not familiar with Smith’s other work and I loved her style and juicy depth of language as she wound her way around several accounts of relationships gone sour, reimaginings of history, and family life.  It’s difficult to pick a favourite out of this collection, but “The Ex-Wife” and “The Poet” are special standouts for me.  Highly recommended.

The Door is Ajar: Invasive by Chuck Wendig.

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Chuck Wendig – Invasive (2016, Harper Voyager)

A strange murder and the discovery of genetically engineered ants lead survivalist and FBI consultant Hannah Stander on a trip to Hawai’i – where things quickly escalate from paradise to apocalypse in Chuck Wendig’s blisteringly good novel Invasive.  Wendig reigns in his signature over-the-top style a smidgeon and produces a tight, brilliantly-characterized, and perfectly-paced thriller. The dustjacket comparisons to Michael Crichton’s work are definitely warranted – I’d say this is Wendig’s finest book to date.  More, please.

The Door is Ajar: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley.

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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d – Alan Bradley (2016, Doubleday Canada)

The eighth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series packs a right-between-the-eyes knockout punch – and no, I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say this is an even bigger deal than her temporary “exile” in Canada, where she attended a private boarding school, solved a weird murder involving a body stuffed up a chimney, and learned more about her family’s connection to a secret organization which I shouldn’t discuss further.  (Go get book seven, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and read it right now.  It’s a ragged and uneven go, but it serves as a decent set up for the new book).  In Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia returns home to her beloved Buckshaw just before Christmas, to find that her father is ill and the household is unsettled and cold.  The accidental finding of the body of a wood carver while running an errand cheers Flavia up immensely, as she goes to great lengths and concocts elaborate lies to uncover the murderer.  Despite remaining endearingly irrepressible, Flavia is definitely taking on a more mature, experienced voice (if that can even be possible) as the series develops and she approaches her teenage years.

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What are you reading this weekend?

Writing updates.

I’ve been super-busy and there are a few more articles and stories pending publication early in the new year, but here’s a list of some of my work that has been either very recently published or will go to press very shortly….

Garden Writing ~

Available now:

“Lacto-Fermentation with Herbs” in The Herb Quarterly, Fall 2015 issue – on North American newsstands

A couple of my sea buckthorn berry recipes are posted on The Canadian Organic Grower’s website – you can check them out here.

Forthcoming: 

“Growing Gooseberries” in The Prairie Garden 2017: Fruit and Berries (available for pre-order; book launch is 27 November)

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“Herb Straw Bale Gardening” in The Herb Quarterly, Winter 2015 issue

Short Stories ~

Available now:

“Sheeple” in the Wolfsinger Publications anthology Under a Dark Sign (available through Smashwords and Amazon)

What happens when a long-suffering evil villain finally gets his due?

“The Commute” in the Strange Musings Press anthology Alternate Hilarities 4: Weirder Science (available through Amazon)

An alien races home to attend to an urgent family matter.  The only thing he hasn’t counted on?  Getting stuck in heavy commuter traffic on Earth.  

Forthcoming:

“GEUs” in Fossil Lake’s anthology Unicornado

Genetically engineered unicorns?  Yeah, I went there.

For Children ~

Available now:

“Pet Horoscope: Warthogs” in the Fall Fun 2015 issue of the Canadian children’s magazine Bazoof! (formerly Zamoof!) – on Canadian newsstands

 

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Saskatchewan snapshot: Sunset.

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Photographed 11 July 2014.

The field featured is almost in Alberta – it’s actually in Saskatchewan, at a place called Alsask (fitting, if lacking originality).  I initially thought that Alsask was like Lloydminster and Cypress Hills, and was partly in Alberta and partly in Saskatchewan, but apparently, only the former village’s cemetery is in Alberta.  Alsask was the site of a military base between 1959 and 1987 but it no longer even holds status as a village; rather, it is considered a “special service area” incorporated within the nearby town of Milton.  I rather wish we had stopped to explore; according to Wikipedia, most of the original buildings are gone, but one of the military radar domes and an indoor swimming pool (used in the summer to this day!) are still there.

Forest fires were burning throughout Alberta and the Northwest Territories at the time, so the smoky air lent an eerie glow to the sun.   I just loved the way that power lines looked against the sky; there’s something vaguely alien about the landscape to me, it’s a bit like something out of a science fiction novel.

Speaking of novels, what is currently on your reading list?  Anything that stands out for you – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever?  I’m dividing my time between several excellent cookbooks (including Karen Solomon’s Asian Pickles, and Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden) and Kimberly Elkins’ debut novel, a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bridgman called What is Visible?.  (I’m barely into it but it’s captivating so far).