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A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert

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A poignant, surreal, and fearlessly honest look at growing up on one of the most secretive weapons installations on earth, by a young woman who came of age with missiles

The China Lake missile range is located in a huge stretch of the Mojave Desert, about the size of the state of Delaware. It was created during the Second World War, and has always been shrouded in secrecy. But people who make missiles and other weapons are regular working people, with domestic routines and everyday dilemmas, and four of them were Karen Piper's parents, her sister, and--when she needed summer jobs--herself. Her dad designed the Sidewinder, which was ultimately used catastrophically in Vietnam. When her mom got tired of being a stay-at-home mom, she went to work on the Tomahawk. Once, when a missile nose needed to be taken offsite for final testing, her mother loaded it into the trunk of the family car, and set off down a Los Angeles freeway. Traffic was heavy, and so she stopped off at the mall, leaving the missile in the parking lot.

Piper sketches in the belief systems--from Amway's get-rich schemes to propaganda in The Rocketeer to evangelism, along with fears of a Lemurian takeover and Charles Manson--that governed their lives. Her memoir is also a search for the truth of the past and what really brought her parents to China Lake with two young daughters, a story that reaches back to her father's World War II flights with contraband across Europe. Finally, it recounts the crossroads moment in a young woman's life when she finally found a way out of a culture of secrets and fear, and out of the desert.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published August 14, 2018

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Karen Piper

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 144 reviews
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
August 29, 2018
This book is about the author's childhood in the Mojave Desert while her parents worked designing missiles at China Lake. It's also about civilian vs military life, fundamentalism, and how much of childhood can be held on to. I enjoyed some funny descriptions of Eugene and Oregon weather from the perspective of someone accustomed to desert climate. I got a little bogged down in the middle but appreciated how so many topics come back around in the end, with one big surprise.

I had a funny moment where she is doing the pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Bible, and I flashed back to Awanas and Vacation Bible School - some of her childhood religious surroundings were identical to mine. And then when she talks about the books she read in school about missionaries breaking the rules - I also read those as a child! Bizarre.

The writing about the landscape that appears from time to time can really be evocative:
"A fierce wind kicked in and the sky smelled of creosote bushes, that musky electric smell, which meant it was raining nearby."

Military life:
"After a while, knowing that war fills your bellies, peace can feel like starvation."

"Growing up in a war town does not mean you know a thing about war."

I received an eARC from the publisher through Edelweiss, this came out August 14, 2018.
Profile Image for Jean.
1,709 reviews743 followers
December 23, 2018
I am very familiar with China Lake. I found this book interesting about growing up on the China Lake Naval Base. Piper’s parents both were scientist working on the base. Piper tells of her life as a child growing up on the base and as an adult working on the base. I was disappointed that Piper did not go into detail about life as a child in a small, closed and structured community.

The book has quite a bit of humor. Overall, I was disappointed in the book. Maybe because I also grew up in the area, I expected more from the book. There was also a number of inaccuracies in the book.

I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is ten hours twenty-eight minutes. Rebecca Lowman does a good job narrating the book. Lowman is an award-winning actress and has won the Earphone Award as a narrator.
Profile Image for Donna Craig.
910 reviews39 followers
February 18, 2022
This was really interesting as a cultural history of our country (the US), as experienced by a girl/woman who’s parents worked on the tomahawk and sidewinder missiles. It goes from the 1960’s to modern times. I do wish it had a more story-like structure or plot. It read like a rambling diary oftentimes.
This book was for book club, and I’m really glad I read it. I didn’t connect well with the main character, but I’m wondering if that was because I was rushed rather than due to a deficit on the author’s part.
Profile Image for Penmouse.
411 reviews7 followers
August 24, 2018
Very few books make me angry but A Girl's Guide to Missles by author Karen Piper angered me enough that I quit reading her book. I returned her book to Amazon due to Piper's poor research and due to the book's poor editing.

I have a deep understanding of China Lake history and how China Lake operates. China Lake was founded by the United States Navy during World War II. Today, China Lake supports national defense through research and development. A little known fact is China Lake's role in developing the popular Glow Stick. Glow Sticks were originally developed to help with military search and rescue, if I remember right, and are now used by many children to promote Halloween safety. Dare I digress.

Piper reports in her book her father designed the Sidewinder missile. In fact, the Sidewinder missle was conceived by Dr. William McClean in the mid-1950s. Many engineers and scientists have worked on the Sidewinder program throughout the years. McClean headed the engineering team though. Piper also relates her living at China Lake was filled with low flying aircraft near public areas, ordnance laying around, and how there were no religious services available at China Lake. All these things are incorrect. Naval aviators take great pride in flying safely. In fact, a local school was named after a naval aviator who elected to ride his failing jet to the ground to prevent hitting the elementary school. Ordnance testing is done on distant ranges and nowhere near public facilities including China Lake housing. Religious services have always been part of China Lake. The All Faith Chapel, I do believe was one of the original buildings constructed, and has been providing services to Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants who live and work at China Lake.

There are other fact-based issues wrong with this book which I won't detail here.

If you do read this book, do realize her book is based on her personal experiences and biases. The historical research is a bit lacking and suspect. As I wrote earlier I returned the book as it was poorly researched, edited and written.

Do not recommend.
Profile Image for Aria.
482 reviews41 followers
August 18, 2018
---- Disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads. ---

So, firstly I just want to say that I don't understand why people think this is a book about missiles. It says right there in the title that it is about growing up. Sure, it's about growing up in a particular place, but it unequivocally states that this is a book about "growing up." Honestly, if it had been a book about missiles I'd have been quite irritated at having been mislead. I signed up for a memoir, & that's exactly what I received. Really can not grasp what was so unclear to other readers.

As far as this book goes, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it. It's not like any other memoir I've come across. I noticed the difference in the honest goals of the scientific employees, as opposed to the military. The obvious despair that the scientists went through when they began to piece together that perhaps the military was not an honorable institution was of note. In that time period such thinking was not so common, so it had to be quite a thing for logical persons' psyches to try and process. Of particular interest was info. toward the end pulled from the declassified files, as well as from a convo. w/ an elderly former military man who had left the program amidst controversy. That info. points to directly to what can be surmised as no less than heinous & straight-up evil fuckery by the gov. that continues today & screws the entire globe, very much in line w/ the military-industrial complex warnings of Eisenhower. So, yeah. Pretty interesting stuff, right there.

That said, I do have a few complaints. There are a few statements that need to be re-written, b/c they are just wrong. Firstly, (p.67) she states that Catholics worship the Pope. What utterly obvious bologna. F'ing no, Catholics do not worship the Pope. If you are going to make distinctive statements of fact about someone else's belief system, maybe bother to verify it first. For something so easy to check, this is unforgivable. Ask any Catholic, or maybe, idk, use the bloody internet. Second, (p. 69) the Beatles did not say they were, "better than Jesus." Ffs, already. This one is particularly annoying b/c later on in the book it is correctly referenced as Lennon having said that they were more popular than Jesus. (Side note: they still are.) Now, here's the thing. It is possible that the author meant to write both of these as something like, "the preacher had told us," or "my Mother thought," or some other such thing that would change the aforementioned problematic statements from being simply definitive into something more like explanations of someone's thinking at the time. I honestly was unsure what might have been meant, b/c I was trying to give the author the benefit of the doubt, being that I read those things fairly early on in the book, & it is an ARC. However, as I got further into the book, I found that I kept coming across areas where the writing was just not all that clear, or didn't flow in a way that kept things clear. From someone that studied literature & writing (as the author claims to have done), this is really unacceptable.

See, the thing is, stuff like that makes it harder to believe the more serious info. one might glean from the book. It makes it all too easy for one already inclined to do so, to dismiss any info. in here that they simply don't like & therefore don't want to even consider accepting as possibly accurate. It's not an inconsequential problem. So, despite actually enjoying this read, I have to seriously knock off stars. I mean, I think the word for it, sadly, is sloppy. It's too bad, but the fact is that despite all the potential goodness in here, the execution really went full Sidewinder & just spun out into the equivalent of that cliche about shooting oneself in the foot. It needs work. It'd be totally worth it to clean up what remaining issues there are here & put it out in better form. As it stands now though, it's just not a clear piece of work, & the obvious inaccuracies make everything else presented suspect, which is just a shame. Walking away from it, I feel like I just want better for this. It's an odd feeling.

P.S.: That stuff about Amway & the DeVos family was something else. Capitalist Pyramid Scheme Jesus is now in the U.S. Dept. of Ed. Combined with the other info. presented there is so much in here that people don't need to be confused about, or given the easy opportunity to dismiss w/o checking deeper into it, so please, please, please fix the problems. I'll come back to give this all the stars, alter the review, & recommend it to everyone if I find the problems have been handled.

Profile Image for Matt Hiebert.
Author 4 books5 followers
July 4, 2018
No, this is not a textbook about military ordinance. For me, A Girl's Guide to Missiles is a story about “emergence.”

It is the memoir of a woman coming of age in the 80s, rising out of a barren culture of inflexible religion within the desert setting of China Lake, one of America's foremost weapons development facilities.

The story begins with Piper as a child, relocating from the Pacific Northwest to the hardscrabble of a southern California military base. She is close to her mother. Her sister is a beloved rival. Her father is a shy, born-again Christian, who only wants to do right by his family.

Through the first act of the story, we see Piper moving through the world of Christian indoctrination and growing up within the weapons industry that employs both her parents. We watch her rigid religious education, the misogynistic office politics her mother must endure, and her father's bewilderment with coworkers, supervisors and his renegade daughter.

We glimpse the mishaps of missile testing, but also are allowed to feel the values of a sincere, patriotic family who prays for war because it's good for business.

Along the way, however, something misfires, and it is Piper, herself, who becomes the errant missile.

As she enters adulthood – and the world of higher education -- the young woman who cried with joy when Reagan was elected President, is exposed to new philosophies, new people and the possibility of love. She moves to Eugene, Oregon to enter the postgraduate world of academia and......

You're welcome to find out the rest for yourself.

Piper's ability to move through the timeline of her life while maintaining narrative consistency, even as her values and perspective change radically through the years, made a Girl's Guide a wonderful read for me. It helps that I grew up during these decades. There were many times I remembered where I was standing during Piper's own milestones. She is someone I might have know back in the day.

The memoir is more than a personal/political coming of age story. It is a well-researched, engaging tale that lets us not only see, but understand, why Piper's hyper-conservative upbringing was the only origin story possible for the woman who would eventually emerge from that arid California desert and its culture of dogma and war.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
481 reviews
December 6, 2018
I received a free copy of this e-book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

2.5 Stars

I wanted this book as soon as I saw the title. If I ever wrote a book about my passion for Cape Canaveral, I would have used that title. By the end of the book, I felt the title was used because it sounds good, not because it accuratly reflects what happens in the book.

I am fascinated by the history of missile test sites, especially the oldest ones which emerged in the 40's and 50's. I knew of China Lake's test area, but I hadn't dug too much into it's history (I prefer the air breathing missiles and ICBMs). This book seemed like the perfect introduction.

While both the author and her parents worked at China Lake in various capacities, it felt like very little of the book was about what went on there. The book is more the story of the author's life, including various boyfriends, her brief job in the payroll department, going to college, getting married and her father's descent into Alzheimer's. I'm sorry, I got this book to hear about life in China Lake, not about trying to sell Amway.

At one point, she mentions the abandoned Lark missile ramp. Lark missiles were also tested at Cape Canaveral - but there was no ramp involved. I want to know more! But alas, the author has moved on to something else.

I suppose this book would be good if you liked memoirs of non-celebreties. It was definitly not what I hoped it would be.
Profile Image for Kira Flowerchild.
607 reviews
November 24, 2018
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as indicated by my four-star rating (equivalent to most reviewers' five-star ratings, since I reserve five stars for recognized classics). I was in the Air Force many years ago and was stationed in Southern California, so I am quite familiar with the landscape the author describes. I also grew up in a Christian fundamentalist household, so I could relate to those experiences as well, although like the author, I am no longer religious and in fact haven't been since I was about fourteen years old. So her attending Christian colleges was something I definitely did not relate to, and since I was truly a "flower child" back in the day, her attitude toward the hippies she met in Oregon was a bit annoying. But different strokes for different folks. I also found her various doomed relationships somewhat puzzling. Yes, she was young, but the two serious relationships she describes (including one that ended in a brief marriage) were both with men who were obviously not at all compatible with her. I guess we all have to kiss a few frogs before we find someone resembling a prince.

For those who expected this book to be a detailed description of all the missile research that went on at China Lake - if that's what you're looking for, don't look to a memoir for that kind of information. The author was a child when they moved to China Lake, not to mention the majority of the work done there was classified at the time, so her father wouldn't have been able to discuss details, anyway. However, the author does give quite a few details all throughout the book, some of which were told to her by her mother or by her father while he was alive, much of which came from research she did using documents that had been declassified and made available to the public. She also talks in detail about her father's adventures during World War II as a spy in Operation Sonnie. There is plenty here for those who are interested in the military as well as those who like memoirs. In fact, my husband, a retired AF major, wants to read the book now that I have finished it and given him a few tidbits from it to whet his interest.

In my opinion, Karen Piper manages to blend details of her life and information about China Lake and other stories about the military in just the right proportions so that there is something for everyone, whether you are interested in the military or not. There are even passages of interest to those who are anti-military, despite Ms. Piper's views on hippies. I highly recommend this memoir. I think it's a shame its aggregate rating on Goodreads is 3.4 stars. It rates much higher, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Emmkay.
1,184 reviews76 followers
August 25, 2018
Readable, slightly meandery memoir. The author grew up on the China Lake Station in California during the Cold War, where both her parents worked in weapons development. The parts of the book about this strange milieu and about her parents were especially interesting, as was the part about her sojourn at a downright disturbing private Christian school, where the children silently completed booklets in cubicles. Lost its way a little in a thicket of romantic relationships and a failed marriage (which seems to have left Piper with some weird ideas about Canadians), and was a bit choppy towards the end.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,615 reviews63 followers
July 23, 2018
My feelings about this book seem to echo most of the reviews that have already been written for Goodreads. This is a fine coming of age memoir about a woman who happened to grow up in China Lake, but it is not a book about China Lake. What she shared about "America's Secret Desert" was interesting, as was her fundamentalist Christian schooling (horrifying is probably a better descriptor than interesting in this instance), but overall the book fell a bit flat for me.

I received an ARC from NetGalley. The book will be released on August 14, 2018.
Profile Image for Andrea Olson.
130 reviews6 followers
September 6, 2018
If you want to learn anything about China Lake, this is NOT the book for you.
Just some hippy chick talking about her life, which has minor overlap with China Lake, but she talks more about Eugene Oregon college life than the base.
Profile Image for Amy.
266 reviews3 followers
January 27, 2019
A surreal and honest look at growing up on one of the most secretive weapons installations on earth, by a young woman who came of age with missiles. The China Lake missile range located in the Mojave Desert was created during the Second World War, and has always been shrouded in secrecy. People who make missiles and other weapons are regular working people, with domestic routines and everyday dilemmas, and four of them were Karen Piper's parents, her sister, and—when she needed summer jobs—herself. Her dad designed the Sidewinder, which was ultimately used catastrophically in Vietnam. When her mom got tired of being a stay-at-home mom, she went to work on the Tomahawk. Piper sketches in the belief systems—from Amway's get-rich schemes the brain child of Betsy Devos' father-in-law, propaganda, evangelism, along with fears of a Lemurian takeover from Mount Shasta and Charles Manson—that governed their lives. Her memoir is a search for the truth of the past and what brought her parents to China Lake with two young daughters. It documents the crossroads moment in Piper's life when she finally found a way out of a culture of secrets and fear, and out of the desert."
Profile Image for Phrodrick.
882 reviews36 followers
October 6, 2019
In reviewing Dr. Karen Piper’s, A Girls Guide to Missiles I cannot judge the factual content in her recollections of growing up at the US Navy research facility at China Lake. Instead I will take her at her word that this is intended to be her recollections and not a recitation of history. There may be a distinction between autobiography and what she has written, but I have no reason to doubt her intention to share her impressions without the necessity to confirm particular facts. To doubt her perspicacity, seems to be beside the point. We are in her head and in the moments she presents, as she remembers them.

Dr. Piper came of age in a time when Americans were moving from Our Government is us to the Beltway Bandits and the rest of conspiracy theory. Her initial influences were so politically and religiously conservative that the took a ‘D’ and lost a college scholarship rather than read assigned Karl Marx. Her later loss of philosophical innocence is more tied to the “What and When did he Know” of the Reagan Presidency and less to the draft marches during Viet Nam.
Her semi-isolation on a Navy base near a conservative community must have set her up as that much less prepared for the more varied, nuanced and highly left leaning west coast communities where she would find her scholastic maturity.

And it is here where she begins to lose me. Dr. Piper has lots of questions. Many of them insightful, many merely ironic. She seems to lack any internal drive to analyze. And not much desire to leave us with fleshed out conclusions. She is content to leave us with her targeted uncertainties and answers only by implication. Were this the end of her book, I would not be three star critical. In fact I think I would enjoy taking her courses. It is possible that city slicker that I am and hiker of trails woman that she is we might become friends. Much more likely I would bore her than the other way around.

What most bothers me about this book is that everyone mentioned in the book has no life or value or meaning except in reference to her. Late in A Girl’s Guide we do get some details about her father from his life before Karen. But that recitation only almost admits that people can have a life that is for them. Dr. Piper clearly loved her parents. While she has a classic little girl love for her father, her mom only seems to get mention in terms of what she does or did to the author and images of her mom as a self-effacing part of the work at China Lake. A kind of feminist appeal rather than a deep personal respect.

Images is also interesting from another aspect. There is a tiny selection of pictures included. Well towards the end. We never see the author except as a child. As if we are to read her book as the story of a child and not an educated adult. No Wedding photos, except of her sister, who may have a lot more on the ball than the book suggests. Her mom gets one picture at her office desk, her dad two and if such a thing is possible a sarcastic photo titled “US Navy Rock Art”.

I do not leave A Girl’s Guide to Missiles disliking Dr. Karen Piper, but neither am I inspired. The sense of things withheld and come no closer may be the alternative to a tell all expose’; but should a reader feel left in a person’s secret desert after reading her recollections?
Profile Image for Liz.
134 reviews
April 3, 2018
Perhaps 4 stars worth of enjoyment, but only 3 based on comprehensive, coherent delving into specific topics. I always enjoy memoir non-fiction, as a personal perspective provides "story" in addition to information. I liked the behind-the-scenes look at weapons development from the late Viet Nam War era onwards, and would have liked even more detail than we got. Not sure how much that limitation was due to the classified nature of some of the missile programs being discussed, or just in the interest of brevity/focusing on other topics.
Profile Image for Dawnny.
Author 1 book23 followers
September 4, 2018
A coming of age like you've never read before. Imagine growing up living on the China Lake Missle Range. I was riveted by this story. Truely a remarkable read.
Dawnny-Book Gypsy
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Profile Image for Jackie Mcgrath.
33 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2019
It's so good. Read it if you have parents, or a sister, or an interest in the history of military/technology. Read it for a well-told story about a family and a country. Read it because there is far more to it than missiles. Or girls.
Profile Image for Jodi.
394 reviews3 followers
August 13, 2018
This was an advanced readers copy, that I recieved through the Goodreads Giveaways. I might not have bought this book, if I hadn't won it, but I would have missed out on a sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, and sometimes sad, description of growing up in a place where every life is spent building bombs to wipe out our enemies...from WWII to Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and beyond. Karen describes a childhood of secrets learned and kept; of the love (and barely disguised fury) between siblings, the parents who couldn't talk about their work, the life on a military base in the middle of the desert, church school education, and growing up and moving on - escaping the barren dessert for a life in the outside world. Her description of her father's descent into Alzheimers' darkness is particularly poignant during her ill-fated wedding, when he couldn't remember the phrase she had drilled into him for "giving the bride away". The marriage was doomed to fail, just like the Sidewinder missiles that were made and tested at China Lake, and the foreboding feeling , the sense of doom, that hovers over her story of the brief good times, followed by the bad times, with Keith, feel as immediate as if you are watching them implode in front of you. All in all, this is a hidden gem of a book, warm and relatable, yet, impossibly distant and foreign to non-military brats, and all the more fascinating because of that distance.
3 reviews
August 19, 2018
At its core, Karen Piper’s memoir “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert” is about war. However, it’s not just about military warfare and the weapons used to wage it, developed in the laboratories in California’s China Lake Desert where Piper’s parents worked and raised her and her sister. Pairing keen childhood observations with contemporary thoughts on the way the world has shifted since her adolescence, Piper crafts a fresh, intimate perspective of America’s biggest wars and shows how they are not that much different from the small, daily wars we wage in our own lives.

At the heart of “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles” is the story of Piper’s parents, Earl and Mary, neither of whom wanted to end up a weapons developer. Earl, a WWII veteran who grew up poor and parentless, found there was little else he could do when no other job would take him and Mary found the work gave her a sense of purpose otherwise lacking from her life on the base. While there may have been more to unpack in the couple’s history on the base, Piper uses their decisions to show that after a while “knowing that war fills your bellies, peace can feel like starvation.”

Beyond the narrative of weapons within Piper’s family, the book marvelously captures the charms and dangers of the physical surroundings of the desert as well as enriching perspectives on iconic figures and events through vivid depictions of the cultural surroundings of each era. Piper traces war through Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush; through Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq; from newspapers, Tom Brokaw, 24-hour streaming, to social media. These seamlessly flow into one another, painting a glaring picture of the way war launched from policy to business and entertainment, all neatly confined into the perimeters of Piper’s childhood in China Lake.

There are occasional moments that stray away from these targets, such as Piper’s intricately-detailed history with religion and her various romantic relationships. These anecdotes seem to point toward her impression of the personal wars we wage, but end up distracting from the notion more than they correspond.

The book, as the name implies, serves as a guidebook and reminder of the irreparable damage we have caused in the past, where our reliance on war has taken us, and where it might lead in our future. At a point in time where even the next week is muddled with uncertainty, the book offers some, albeit grim, clarity as to how our nation operates in defending itself and suggests that we pay attention to the damage that we can mitigate in our own lives. It may be one of the few things left that we can still take control of.
Profile Image for Liz Marchiondo.
31 reviews7 followers
March 24, 2021
This book seemed to me an homage to the overly educated idiot.

From parents in STEM fields who didn't know that "making out" =/= sex to the writer who received multiple graduate degrees just because she wanted to spend her time reading? So much over reliance on religion - I almost felt bad for the family when Piper wrote of the records-smashing traveling priest and the not-school she attended when off the base but that shows a lack of backbone and research done by the parents. Finished the book but barely.
Profile Image for Rosemary.
11 reviews2 followers
October 26, 2018
Solid memoir.

Covers some fascinating topics, including missiles. What I found most interesting was how a "Reagan Girl" grew up and changed her spots. Worked well for me as an audio book and the writing was quite beautiful.
Profile Image for Valerie.
2,018 reviews164 followers
January 4, 2019
I checked this out of the library on a whim, and read it immediately. Karen Piper's story of growing up at China Lake, and being an unwitting part of the military industrial complex is beautifully told, and frightening.
Profile Image for Lesley Potts.
316 reviews3 followers
February 12, 2023
Although this is a memoir it reminded me so much of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. Instead of the family living and growing up inside the structure of a religious community, Piper’s family live and she and her sister come of age in the US top secret defense community. Specifically, China Lake in California’s Mojave Desert. The time frame is about the same, there’s some religious fervor to rebel against and sibling rivalry. A bonus delight was the unexpected photographs in the middle of the book. Which, incidentally, I bought at the Dollar Store.
9,635 reviews86 followers
August 9, 2018
This is very much a coming of age memoir with some details about China Lake, not a memoir about China Lake. Karen Piper has an interesting background, with parents who worked in the missile business (for want of a better description) and who had a strong religious bent. Her experiences with evangelism and struggle to move beyond that belief system, as well as her various relationships, form the bulk of the story. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC. This is a good read but not for the reasons I'd hoped.
Profile Image for Bruce Thomas.
459 reviews1 follower
April 5, 2019
Good nonfiction meeting my desire to learn something I previously knew nothing about. This one describes growing up in Death Valley where Navy jobs developing and testing missiles were located. Author continued into her adulthood outside China Lake/Ridgecrest, where she was conflicted with her growing knowledge of the outside world and her fairly strict and isolated Christian upbringing.
Profile Image for Sieglinde.
245 reviews
December 29, 2018
Have you ever read a biography or a memoir and decided you did not like the subject? Well in this case I think the author is a dork. First for the good stuff. I love the way she describes the desert. She obviously loves it. I worked at China Lake for 12 years and lived in Ridgecrest for 2 more years after I retired and I worked for the Navy at a sister base before that so I knew some of the history she wrote about. I contacted my former coworkers for their opinions and one had even contacted Liz Babcock who has written several comprehensive books on China Lake history. The opinion was universal, the author got things wrong and when called on it, she said that the book was selling well.
I know people who lived on the base when civilians lived there and her recollections match theirs. Her recollections of businesses in Ridgecrest was accurate. As of when I left in 2012, Corney's, Lindsays and the Old Albertsons still existed. Three Sisters closed and became a good Mexican restaurant. So her childhood memories were good. I would recommend reading Liz Babcock's books for the history of China Lake.
Unfortunately, the author seems to have an ax to grind about the military industrial complex. This is fine but it colors her memories and how she writes about her experiences. I suspect that most of us working on the base considered ourselves part of the fight against the existential enemy, the Soviet Union. We were still fighting with Cold War methods when asymmetrical warfare broke out in September of 2001. The we studied the Art of War and Arabic culture. So I disagree somewhat with her viewpoint.
Her criticisms of ACE, Accelerated Christian Education and the private school, Immanuel, are spot on. Unlike Catholic schools the teachers are not required to be credentials. Grossmont is a good school and it was good she went there.
She has stupid inaccuracies in the book such as the colors of the cover sheets for various levels of classification. Also a really stupid one since she mentions requiring her students to read this book, is that Edward Abby's the Monkey Wrench Gang is about blowing up the Glenn Canyon Dam on Lake Powell not the Hoover Dam. These kind of mistakes make the book somewhat hard to trust.
Maybe read the book up until she gets to college where she really acts stupid and marries an obvious jerk who is allergic to work. Then start back up when she talks about her father and mother.
Profile Image for Michelle Boyer.
1,296 reviews19 followers
June 3, 2019
The first half of the title may imply that this is going to be a book entirely about missiles, but if you read the second half of the title--which includes 'growing up'--you will realize that this is a memoir. Once I learned this was a memoir, as I'd randomly borrowed it from the public library as an audiobook to listen to while working, I was a bit bummed but decided to give it a go anyways. A memoir would be a good break in my normal non-fiction reading/listening and I figured Piper would still discuss aspects of growing up on a base.

I can divide my issues with this memoir into two categories. The first, of course, is that there seem to be factual errors throughout the memoir. While I realize that Piper is discussing her own memories, opinions, and interactions with China Lake, this doesn't mean that there can be serious factual errors. One might write something like "as a child I thought XXX, but now reflecting back I realize YYY" to show that perhaps she'd done some fact-checking. Maybe an editor could have done some simple fact-checking as well in areas? I complain because throughout the memoir I would have to wonder if information I was getting was entirely accurate. Google searchers, Wikipedia, and knowledge from my husband and his military family, would then prove things inaccurate. The more that I was finding things were half-truths, not truths, etc., I realized that I was losing interest on anything Piper had to say. Many other reviewers have given lengthy descriptions of many of these errors. I encourage those reading this work to take everything with a grain of salt...which isn't something I'd like to be advising.

The second issue that I had with the memoir was that it had an odd flow. We would start to learn about Piper's mother and her job at the base, then we'd flow back to the father's job, and for many chapters I wondered "but what about Karen?" because she was getting lost in her own memoir. Stripping away the military base, missiles, etc., I found that Karen's story becomes a little bland. She is a military brat, she gets a job, she interacts with boyfriends, goes to college...nothing amazing, extravagant, and overall I didn't feel everything needed much dedication. Mostly, I was interested in Crystal Lake, what her parents did there, and wanted more of a thorough discussion of those aspects of the book.

So for me, it is a flawed memoir that didn't bring as much interest as I wanted. While some of the topics Piper discusses are interesting, all of those moments are shorter than expected and aren't really 'her' part of the memoir but instead is Piper learning about her parent(s) work. I don't know. I just wasn't a fan.
Profile Image for Janice.
235 reviews
July 3, 2018
I enjoyed this ARC. I wish the author had gone into a bit more detail on life at China Lake. As soon as she became a teenager there was far too much about her various relationships with men. None of which were interesting. I would also have liked to learn more about her academic career. For the most part, her parents were to me, by far the most interesting characters in this memoir. A lot less of Karen and a lot more of her parents please. This is a pleasant book, don't look for anything profound in it. As such, it falls a bit short of the mark of really engaging the reader.
Profile Image for Leanna.
436 reviews4 followers
March 2, 2019
It took me a several chapters to figure out what disturbed me about this book. It isn’t the poor fact-checking that so many other reviewers who have lived in this area felt compelled to critique. Having read some reviews prior to starting this book, I ignored the glaring errors and decided to look upon this as Karen’s memoir, her reality of a place and time that may not ring true for the reader (that lived there at the same time), but it belongs to her. So with that in mind, I started the book.
Surprisingly there is no commentary from her. It is written pretty flat where the reader is expected to connect the dots of her life. I don’t want to be forced to do that in a memoir. I expect the author to take me on her personal journey, not give me a child’s diary with no depth of understanding from the adult author.
It is devoid of emotion and human connection until a small snippet at the end when she goes to visit her father’s grave. The focus on that is the love between her parents which helped me understand her a little.
Her only personal military connection was a marine she met in payroll that disappeared from her life as quickly as some other characters came and went. From my personal experience when you have had a house full of military friends in your home and know that any one of them can be deployed soon, your China Lake career can possess a motivation like no other. If you haven’t experienced that, then I guess you take your puzzle pieces and build a story about politics and war.
So it may sound like because of her personal point of view I am being miserly with my rating. I hope I am more objective than that. I had trouble with the writing style. It read as a somewhat cavalier approach to events that she has never fully analyzed. I choose to reserve my five stars for an author like Alexandra Fuller that can really engage you in her experiences.
Profile Image for Jenny Karraker.
160 reviews4 followers
September 9, 2018
Having grown up in the same time frame that this author writes about, I identified with many of her observations about the nuclear arms race. It was funny to see the competition between her and her sister about their summer jobs and who had the most secret clearance. It was interesting to hear her process her strict, religious background, something that seemed important to her deep down at a spiritual level, yet became just a set of rules that she abandoned, not something that met her deeply personal needs. Having been so isolated because of her parents' work and because of her religious upbringing, it wasn't a shock that she had a hard time adjusting to college and what others might call a "normal" life. It was sad reading about her relationships w abusive men. It was a relief when she seemed to discover herself and be happy with that. I didn't especially care for her writing style--it seemed to fit more into the category of young adult writing.
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