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The End of Astronauts: Why Robots are the Future of Exploration

Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees. Belknap, $25.95 (176p) ISBN 978-0-674-25772-6

Astrophysicists Goldsmith (Exoplanets) and Rees (On The Future) offer an evenhanded presentation of the pros and cons of using robots instead of astronauts for space exploration. They examine near-Earth orbit missions (such as work on the International Space Station), as well as voyages to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and the outer solar system. In each case, the authors conclude that the future of space exploration should be placed in robotic hands despite several advantages currently held by humans, mostly having to do with cognition and decision-making—though “the advantages that human explorers now hold over robots will continue to diminish as advances in AI and technology increase the robots’ abilities.” In the end, robotic missions are cheaper, safer, more likely to succeed, and eliminate the need to figure out how to keep humans alive in transit for years. Goldsmith and Rees provide plenty of data to back up their arguments, and balance optimism with logic: “If we choose wisely, examine our motivations, and use our robotic emissaries for exploration, a better outcome awaits us than if we insist that humans must go into space.” It lands as a provocative primer on the future of space travel. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific

Brandon Presser. Public Affairs, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5417-5857-5

Travel writer Presser debuts with a fascinating account of what happened after the HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions settled on the remote South Pacific island of Pitcairn in 1790. Interwoven with this dramatic history is Presser’s chronicle of his 2018 visit to Pitcairn to meet the island’s 48 inhabitants, most of them descendants of the mutineers. Drawn to Pitcairn in part because its “punishing verticality” made it so inaccessible, the fugitives kept their whereabouts hidden for 18 years. Presser focuses on their efforts to establish a settlement and the frightening ways their colony devolved through infighting, drunken rages, and a revolt by the Polynesians, who were treated like slaves. By the fourth year on Pitcairn, most of the Bounty mutineers were dead, Presser notes. Arriving in 2018 via the island’s only link to the outside world—a cargo ship that visits four times a year—Presser finds two warring clans bound together by the island’s “widespread legacy of sexual misconduct.” Though he occasionally veers into melodrama, Presser expertly intertwines the historical and contemporary elements of the story and brings Pitcairn’s unusual culture to vibrant life. Readers will have a tough time putting this one down. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth

Elizabeth Williamson. Dutton, $28 (496p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4657-5

New York Times reporter Williamson’s searing debut demonstrates that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol had its roots in the deeply troubling efforts to claim that the 2012 massacre of 26 first-graders and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax. After vividly depicting the horrors of Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage at Sandy Hook, Williamson delves into the vital part InfoWars radio show host Alex Jones played in spreading the conspiracy theory that nobody had actually died at the school. Encouraged by his conspiracy-mongering to pursue that wacko theory, members of his audience, already adamant in their distrust of government and the mainstream media, asserted that the tragedy was a stunt intended to bolster liberal efforts to pass gun control legislation and that the grieving parents were actually “crisis actors” faking even the existence of their dead kids. Williamson details how the pernicious reality-denying mentality Jones fostered in the Sandy Hook deniers spread to those Trump supporters who believed that he won the 2020 presidential election and who stormed the Capitol to “stop the steal.” Williamson’s years of research includes interviews with survivors of the school shooting, parents, and first responders, as well as analysis of court documents and other records. She has produced the definitive account of this dark chapter of American history. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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A Match Made in Lipa

Carla de Guzman. Carina, $5.99 e-book (354p) ASIN B09BNLHQ3M

De Guzman’s delightful second Laneways romance (after Sweet on You) is a breath of fresh air, eschewing easy, predictable tensions at every turn. After Anton Santillan is fired from his family’s Manila hotel, a chance meeting with his childhood friend and crush, Kira Luz, gives him new hope. Kira tells Anton that a well-loved hotel in their hometown of Lipa, where Kira still lives, is looking for someone to take over. Any chance at rekindling their childhood feelings from there fall by the wayside, however, as Anton spends the next three years pouring all his energy into revitalizing the old hotel to earn back his place with his family. Now Anton’s grandfather finally offers him a higher position in the company—but it would mean pulling Kira’s chocolate shop and her family’s property out from underneath them. Can he do it, or will he realize that the love and acceptance he desires comes not from his family but from the town he ran from years ago? De Guzman’s protagonists bravely put their hearts on the line with none of the usual miscommunication and secrets, and her gorgeously drawn depiction of Lipa will have readers hungry for a moonlit walk and a shared tartufo. The characters’ vulnerability makes this a standout. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Unbossed: How Black Girls Are Leading the Way

Khristi Lauren Adams. Broadleaf, $18.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-5064-7426-7

Baptist minister Adams (Parable of the Brown Girl) celebrates in this uplifting volume the stories of eight young Black girls who are united by their “sheer will, desire, and passion to turn unfortunate circumstances into something hopeful.” Among them is Hannah Lucas, 17, whose struggle with suicidal depression became the catalyst for her NotOK app, which notifies users’ close contacts during mental health emergencies. Sixteen-year-old Ssanyu Lukoma’s faith and love for reading inspired her to found the nonprofit organization Brown Kids Read, which promotes literature for young people that features traditionally marginalized voices. Grace Callwood, now 17, was diagnosed with cancer before starting first grade, but she found purpose in helping others and started the We Cancerve Movement to provide services to young people in need. Adams also analyzes the leadership style of each girl, such as the “transformational” approach of gun safety activist Tyah-Amoy Roberts that turns individuals into a collective in pursuit of a common interest. The author portrays her subjects with compassion and admiration, emphasizing their remarkable accomplishments while reminding that they are ultimately “ordinary girls who reach for the extraordinary.” This empowering collection offers plenty of inspiration to younger readers pushing for change. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted

Jeremy W. Peters. Crown, $28.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-57658-7

New York Times correspondent Peters debuts with a fluid and well-sourced, if familiar, look at how Donald Trump seized control of the Republican Party. Noting that Trump was fascinated by Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential campaign, Peters deconstructs how Trump drew on Palin’s playbook to channel the frustrations of working-class whites who feared they were losing their “cultural supremacy.” Recounting right-wing populist Pat Buchanan’s surprisingly strong showing against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary and the rise of the Tea Party during the Obama presidency, Peters credits the motley crew of strategists who surrounded Trump, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Kellyanne Conway, with understanding that moderate Republicans had lost the party’s base. Drawing on extensive interviews with conservative politicians, strategists, and commentators, Peters documents how Trump won the crucial support of Fox News’s Roger Ailes and persuaded Federalist Society members and evangelical Christians that he was their best bet to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s a persuasive and lucid analysis, but not especially revelatory, and the details about the Covid-19 pandemic and the January 6 Capitol insurrection feel tacked on. Still, this is a cogent and accessible history of how the GOP got to where it is today. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Little Women at 150

Edited by Daniel Shealy. Univ. of Mississippi, $30 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-4968-3799-8

The eight essays in this insightful collection spotlight the successes, conflicts, and legacy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In “Class, Charity, and Coming of Age in Little Women,” John Matteson focuses on the novel’s depictions of charity and its distinction between rich and poor, which he writes presents a “vision of an ideal America,” while in “Faithfulness Itself: The Imperative for Hannah Mullet in Little Women,” Sandra Harbert Petrulionis considers the March family’s idealized servant: “she is good-natured, loyal, and always ready to serve.” Gregory Eiselein argues that Alcott should be in the “literary hall of fame” (if one existed) in “Louisa May Alcott, Major Author: Little Women and Beyond,” and Beverly Lyon Clark makes a case in “Mobilizing the Little Women: Images of Transport and the Domestic” that the girls in the story traveled less often than the book’s “unusually mobile” author, and studies the book’s “gendering of transportation.” Some pieces tread on familiar terrain, such as the fan pressure that Alcott faced between the two volumes to “marry off” her heroines, and some entries drag a bit, but for the most part the contributors do a great job of considering the classic novel in original, surprising lights. Academics and literature students will savor these smart readings. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Town of Babylon

Alejandro Varela. Astra House, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-66260-103-3

A gay Latinx man reckons with his past when he returns home for his 20th high school class reunion in Varela’s dazzling debut. Back in his unnamed suburban hometown, Andres, now a professor of public health, crosses paths at the reunion with Jeremy, his first love; and Paul, a homophobic bully. As an old malaise returns, he confronts his feelings about his older brother’s death a decade earlier, and Varela sets the stage for a series of backstories. After being spurned by Jeremy as a high school senior, Andres begins frequenting a local cruising site known as the Queer Steer. Of Andres’s burgeoning identity, Varela writes, “Gay was after all dangerous.... Gay was a death sentence. Gay was a target.” Now, in the days after the reunion, Andres jeopardizes his marriage by reigniting things with Jeremy. He also confronts Paul, a Christian minister at a storefront church, about beating a gay man at the Queer Steer years earlier. Varela ably describes teenage Andres’s conflicted feelings toward Paul, who overcompensated in high school for being scrawny: “a push and pull of desire, belief, and self-hatred.” Throughout, he wrings a great deal of emotion from Andres’s return. It makes for an incandescent bildungsroman. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Abundance: The Inner Path to Wealth

Deepak Chopra. Harmony, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-23379-5

Bestseller Chopra (Metahuman) presents an engaging guide meant to “transform consciousness into wealth” through yoga and meditation. Chopra opines that because the human mind invented money, “money is actually the coin of consciousness.” He outlines the “inner path” to wealth and offers a seven-step plan to improve one’s “money karma” by taking such measures as seeking downtime when feeling anxious, reflecting on such questions as “Can I be more open to new choices?” and acting on one’s answers. The author encourages an “attitude of abundance” that rebukes austerity and privileges spiritual needs over material concerns. Easy-to-follow exercises, yoga instructions, and self-reflection questionnaires appear throughout, including, for instance, a set of questions intended to evaluate one’s attitude toward “lack,” and a controlled breathing activity to help one reach “simple awareness.” However, Chopra’s omission of supporting evidence sometimes undermines his claims, such as when he muses on the neuroscience of “mind over matter” and the relationship between consciousness and entropy. Though unlikely to convert skeptics, this will please the author’s fans. Agent: Robert Gottlieb, Trident Media Group. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Change for Good: An Action-Oriented Approach for Businesses to Benefit from Solving the World’s Most Urgent Social Problems

Paul Klein. ECW, $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-77041-631-4

Klein—the founder of Impakt, a company that advises businesses on ways to accomplish social change—debuts with an earnest but familiar treatise on why businesses should value social change and equity as highly as profit. Inspired by the business-for-social-change efforts of Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop, Klein takes a look at how in the 1990s businesses “began considering” strategies to support their communities, which grew beyond local involvement and into an interest in supporting society at large by the 2000s. Klein then introduces his “change for good” system, a framework for businesses to help address social problems including gender equality, poverty, and access to quality education. He outlines case studies—such as Nestlé’s efforts to help children “lead healthier lives” and PepsiCo’s initiative to “listen to what matters to its employees”—and encourages companies to implement employee outreach efforts and focus on empathy. He urges, too, that companies avoid doing “corporate social responsibility light,” or the bare minimum, such as empty Black Lives Matter statements from organizations without a single Black board member or leader. Klein is sincere and impassioned, but his guidance is nearly identical to that found in any number of recent books on the topic. There isn’t enough here to make this stand out in a very crowded field. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/04/2022 | Details & Permalink

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