The Cassandra Project

cassandra jacketThe Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick

In 2019, NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon, while its current budget has the space program on hold. NASA’s Public Affairs director Jerry Culpepper is stunned when a routine release of old records brings up the possibility of an earlier landing on the moon. A recording of Sydney Myshko, orbiting the moon in an early 1969 mission (not Apollo 9 or 10), suggests he’s preparing to descend. A cryptic diary entry of astronaut Aaron Walker, on another 1969 spaceflight, indicates that he also walked on the moon. Does President Cunningham know the truth, and what secret could need to be kept for 50 years? Is it even possible that the truth could be kept from future presidents, and from NASA? As Jerry investigates the clues, including the possibility that 1969 photos of the far side of the moon have been doctored, he is pressured to stop. Billionaire entrepreneur Bucky Blackstone is planning to launch a private spaceship to land on the moon, and promises to reveal all. The authors have dreamed up a fantastic near-future adventure, fast-paced and believable.


Consider the Fork

consider the fork jacketConsider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

As many sweet and savory treats are prepared and enjoyed in the winter, it seems like a good time of the year to learn about the history of food by looking at the tools and equipment used in cooking and dining. British food writer Bee Wilson describes important inventions over the centuries, and how our tastes in food have changed along with the equipment. The first big inventions were roasting spits and clay pots. Wilson describes the evolution of the stove and refrigerator, appliances we would struggle without today. Chopsticks versus eating knives reveal the difference in culture, and how a cuisine that began by conserving fuel by quick cooking in a wok now consumes billions of disposable chopsticks annually, many now made in Georgia. Many cooks occasionally enjoy using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor can save large amounts of time and labor. Why do American recipes use measured amounts while other cultures give weights? Wilson has a theory. Even the grating of nutmeg and cheese get their turn here, as does an amusing look at the spork. And who would have guessed how much forks changed during and after the English Civil War? I really enjoyed Wilson’s look at food and history. Readers might also enjoy At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, and John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.


The Emperor’s Conspiracy

emperor's jacketThe Emperor’s Conspiracy by Michelle Diener

This is what good historical fiction should be! Take a little known conspiracy from history, weave in a fantastical storyline, add a pinch of  Jane Austen Regency culture, and you have a heckuva good novel. The pace of this novel runs quickly as our heroine, Charlotte Raven, runs in both the Regency world and the underworld of London. Charlotte was born to the slums of London and disguised herself as a chimney sweep as a young girl, but a lady of good standing took pity on her and took her in as her ward. As an adult, Charlotte uncovers a dangerous plot that would smuggle England’s gold out of the country into Napoleon’s army, but Charlotte and young Lord Durnham, who works for the Crown, are racing to stop the smuggling before it gets too late.  A fun and exciting novel–highly recommended!


The Best Books We Read in 2012

We read a wide variety of excellent books this year. I hope you find some memorable reading on this list. We’d love to hear what books were the best you read this year. I’m already adding some of these titles to my list of books to read next year. Brenda


11/22/63 by Stephen King (George)

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Chris)

Alien Diplomacy by Gini Koch (Denise)

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (Courtney)

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (Chris)

Canada by Richard Ford (George)

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (Brenda)

Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Chris, Pam)

The Confession by Charles Todd (Brenda)

Dear Life by Alice Munro (Chris)

Divergent by Veronica Roth (Joy)

Doc by Mary Doria Russell (Pam)

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear (Brenda, Pam)

Every Day, by David Levithan (Chris)

The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein (Courtney)

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Brenda, Joy)

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (Brenda, Chris)

Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King (Pam)

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Beth, Chris, Courtney)

Hammered (The Iron Druid Chronicles) by Kevin Hearne (Denise)

Harvest of Rubies by Tessa Afshar (Joy)

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe (Joy)

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (Pam)

Illuminations: a Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (Pam)

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (Brenda)

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Joy)

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters (Brenda)

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Courtney)

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (Joel)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Courtney)

Room by Emma Donohue (Courtney)

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Brenda, Chris)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (Courtney)

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (Joy)

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (Joel) 

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Joy)

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (Joy)

The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani (Pam)

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns (Brenda)

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (Brenda)

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Chris)

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Chris)

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman (Joy)

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (Courtney)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Chris)

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Chris, George)


Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis (Brenda)

America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert (Joy)

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (Courtney)

Death at SeaWorld : Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby (Beth)

A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor (Joel) 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (George)

I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship: Hilarious, Heartwarming Tales About Man’s Best Friend from America’s Favorite Humorists by Wade Rouse (Courtney)

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World by Mark Frauenfelder (Denise)

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings (Brenda)

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden by Mark Owen (George)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Joy)

Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (Courtney)

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by Anne Marie O’Connor (Joel) 

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (Brenda)

This Machine Kills Secrets: how WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information by Andy Greenberg (Denise)

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham (George)

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant (George)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Brenda, Courtney, Pam)

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans (Joy)


Lunch in Paris

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard

lunch jacketElizabeth is an American journalist living in England when she meets Gwendal at a conference. His hippy parents live in Brittany, but he’s a Ph.D. student living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris. The pair fall in love, Elizabeth moves to Paris, and feels like a fish out of water. The food is delicious, but the language barrier and culture differences make for a rough and lonely transition. Elizabeth is frustrated at the red tape that makes it difficult for her to work, learns that in Paris the customer is not always right and struggles as a freelance writer, while Gwendal is completely unambitious, although he’s the one who ends up visiting Hollywood. The meeting of Elizabeth’s Jewish mother and Gwendal’s mother is a great scene, and Elizabeth describes the people, settings, and food vividly. Eventually Elizabeth realizes that she can cook and write about food and life in France as a career and finally settles in, but not without losing a new family member. Many memorable meals are described, with recipes. Visit her blog for photos and more recipes. She comments that her husband hasn’t eaten hot food in three years because she’s always taking photos before serving meals. This book was published in 2010, but I missed hearing about it then; I’m happy my sister recently suggested that I read Lunch in Paris.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy lynn jacketBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Bravo Squad’s Mind-blowing evening in Dallas.  This novel is a confluence of three big players in the nation that we call America.  Big Military, Big Sports, and Big Hollywood.  Billy Lynn is a nineteen-year-old grunt soldier in the United States Army serving a tour of Duty in Iraq.  He is from a poor part of rural Texas and has joined the army as part of a deal, either join the military of go to prison.    He is part of Bravo Squad, an infantry unit.  During a patrol their unit comes under heavy fire.  Billy’s cherished friend and mentor, Schroom, is hit and killed and dies in his arms.  But, amazingly, the whole firefight has been caught on tape by an embedded Fox news reporter and camera crew.  The footage becomes a hit in the states and the military is quick to hit on these men as a moral boaster for the war.  Billy wins the Silver Star for gallantry. They are sent on a two week “Victory Tour” of the United States. The book concentrates on one of the stops on the tour, a Cowboys game at Texas stadium.  There they are trotted out to the public at a half time show featuring the Cowboy cheerleaders and the musical group “Destiny’s Child”.   In addition to free seats to the game, they discover that they are to be part of the big half time show. During their tour they are joined (more like stalked and harassed)  by Albert, a movie producer, who wants to turn their story into a film and is constantly on the phone with Hollywood trying to make a movie deal.

Billy and the rest of the squad are on a surreal journey through America, being treated like heroes yet always knowing that they will be sent back Iraq after the tour is over, where they may or may not come back.  They are constantly bombarded by cries of “Thank you for your service, bless you for your sacrifice.”  Also questions:  “Are we winning?  What’s it like over there?  What’s it like to kill people?” 

This book encompasses all the contradictions of the Iraq war.  Looking for heroes in an American venture that has no heroes.


The Walnut Tree

walnut tree jacketThe Walnut Tree by Charles Todd

When World War I breaks out, Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris. Agreeing to stay until the baby is born, Elspeth also accepts a promise ring from Madeleine’s brother Alain. Later, trying to return to England, Elspeth helps wounded soldiers and encounters family friend Captain Peter Gilchrist. In London, Elspeth trains to be a nurse, without requesting permission from her uncle, then works with the wounded in England and France. She struggles with her feelings for Peter and Alain, and waits impatiently for news of both men. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Fiona Hardingham, and found the vivid descriptions of wartime nursing, travel, and life in London absorbing. The mystery is a minor part of the book, which is a stand-alone novella connected to Todd’s Bess Crawford series. The Walnut Tree was also interesting because of the restrictions young women faced, especially the daughter of a Scottish laird.


The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose

confederate rose jacketThe Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

This is a great time of year to read this book, set during a hot April in small town Alabama in the 1930s. The Dahlias are members of a garden club in Darling, now growing a victory garden to help during hard times and getting ready to plant a variety of hibiscus known as the confederate rose at the town cemetery. They also solve mysteries in their spare time; this time trying to clear Verna’s name when she is suspected of embezzlement, solving the puzzle of a cryptic message that is Miss Rogers’ only link to her family history, and figuring out why Angelina is overwrought and losing her hair. It’s a fascinating look at how our mothers or grandmothers may have lived. This is the third book in a series; here’s what I wrote last year about the previous book. If you are in the mood to read a light mystery with quirky characters in a setting very different from ours today, I suggest meeting the Darling Dahlias. Susan and her husband Bill also write other mystery series. Visit their website for more information.


Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

bujold jacketCaptain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

I really enjoyed reading this book (partly in print and partly on cd), and didn’t want it to end. This is the first book in Bujold’s science fiction series to feature Ivan Vorpatril, and is an excellent introduction to her writing. Adventure, humor, and romance are the main characteristics, along with memorable characters; the science fiction aspect is less emphasized, except for the setting.

Ivan is the cousin of the short, over-achieving Miles Vorkosigan, who has involved Ivan in several of his adventures, to Ivan’s regret. They are both cousins of Gregor Vorbarra, emperor of the planets Barrayar, Komarr, and Sergyar. Working as an admiral’s aide on Komarr, Ivan is approached by undercover agent Byerly Vorrutyer and asked to befriend a young woman who may be in danger. Tej Arqua resists Ivan’s flirting so he follow her home, where he is stunned by Tej’s sister Rish. After some complicated adventures, Ivan discovers that he’ll go to great lengths to protect Tej, and they end up back on Barrayar together, where their families have varying reactions to their relationship, and the Arqua family arrives to search for buried treasure, resulting in an underground search is both dangerous and funny. Komarr would be a good introduction to Miles Vorkosigan, while A Civil Campaign is a humorous look at Miles and Ivan.