I’m making an effort this year to read more books I already own. Like many readers, I’m a collector, and it gives me joy to buy books, receive them as gifts, and check them out of the library, but it can lead to a bit of a backlog since I know I can get to the books already on my shelf anytime. Of course, as new and shiny books are continually released, “anytime” doesn’t ever seem to come! So I decided to make “anytime” happen for my already-owned books with a few fun challenges.

This time I’ve got for you three books that all have the word “stars” in the title. As you might guess, a couple of them are sci-fi, including a space opera and an alternate history with lady astronauts, and the other is about a pregnant woman who escapes from her baby daddy in a stolen van. So yeah, plenty of variety here, which is one of the things I’m really enjoying about these challenges.

The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

A fun, fast-paced space opera with an element of mystery that will keep you turning pages. Callie is captain of the White Raven, a salvage ship. Her crew discovers a wreck—or rather, one appears in a way that shouldn’t be physically possible—and in it, a human who’s been cryogenically frozen for centuries. When they thaw her out, Elena has what she thinks is big news: humans have made contact with alien life! Sadly, she’s a bit behind the times after her freezer nap, as Callie and crew explain that humans have been in contact with aliens for years, and relations are good. But of course there’s more to the story than that, and Elena and her ship may be the spark that lights the fuse, so to speak. Lots of diverse characters here, which I loved, and definitely a scrappy us-against-the-universe vibe among the crewmembers, which I’m starting to think may be a hallmark of space operas—I haven’t read a ton of them, but the ones I have come across all seem to place a high value on team chemistry. Makes me want to run around high-fiving people, if not blast into space myself.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

This book was stressful to read because the setup is so dire: Scarlett Chen is pregnant and living in Los Angeles with other Chinese moms-to-be. She was sent there by her boss, who is also the father of her child. He has only daughters with his wife, but when he finds out that Scarlett is having a boy, he wants his son to be born on American soil. When Scarlett finds out her baby is not the much wished for male heir after all, she makes a desperate escape in the maternity home’s van, with a pregnant teenage stowaway in the back. There are comic moments here, and some of the scenes even have a cinematic quality to them (I’m thinking specifically of a scene in which one very pregnant woman chases another around a rest stop parking lot), but Scarlett’s plight felt very real to me and I was deathly worried about her throughout. This book has important things to say about immigration, poverty, and women’s agency to control their own lives.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Feministy alternate history set in the 1950s with women mathematicians, pilots, and astronauts? How about yes. A meteorite destroys Washington, D.C., but even worse than that, the ensuing climate changes are going to make Earth inhospitable to life. Elma and her husband work for the space program, he as an administrator and she as a computer, or mathematician. However, Elma’s experience as a pilot in WW2 makes her an excellent candidate for astronaut training—or it would, if she were a man. Somehow the misogynists in charge think they’ll be able to colonize the moon without the help of any women. It’s one of the ways this book is almost too realistic—even after an extinction event, old biases still persist. And biases of all kinds: Elma is treated derisively because she’s Jewish, her black and Asian friends are even less likely to be considered for training than she is as a white woman, and even when presented with conclusive scientific evidence, some people refuse to believe that the human race is done for unless they get the hell off of Earth. (“But the weather’s so nice today!”—Where have we heard this before, I wonder?) With all that, this is possibly the least escapist sci-fi I’ve ever read, but the girl power factor makes it worth it.