I spent a lot less time this year on social media. Mostly this was a conscious decision—the firehose that social media provides wasn’t doing my brain (or mood) any favors. So I dialed it back. At first, I had to trick myself, hiding my Twitter icon several pages deep on my phone so it was very inconvenient while making sure my Kindle app was up front and center.
As time went on I didn’t have to do that anymore. Like a dog learning that he gets a treat when he does a trick, I started to recognize that, at least for me, ten minutes reading left me in a much better state than ten minutes on Twitter. I can’t say I don’t occasionally dip in more than I probably should, but there’s a better balance now. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that I read more books in 2017 than I have since I started keeping track back in 2009.
There were fewer standouts this year though, at least for non-fiction. I loved The Lightless Sky—it’s easily my favorite non-fiction book of the year and one I would unequivocally recommend to everyone. After that, it would probably be Ghost in the Wires and Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy.
For fiction, The Old Man and the Sea, The Bear and the Nightingale and A Man of Shadows are probably my favorites, though Dark Matter, The Girl in the Tower and Down Among the Sticks and the Bones are right up there as well.
Below is the full list, for those who want a bit more detail. And, as always, please feel free to send any recommendations. I love hearing what others have read and enjoyed.
- Connections by James Burke 4⁄5
Burke’s Connections TV series is magnificent stuff. I love the way he manages to wrangle disparate topics across science and history to show how much of innovation and advancement is non-linear. The book sets out to do the same thing and does a pretty good job. At times I didn’t quite see how the dots connected, but I enjoyed the ride.
The final chapter, where he summarizes why this all matters, is I think the strongest. He talks about how learning history in a linear fashion (as we typically do) limits our perspective of the future and how these random connections make it clear that holding back funding or research from a topic that is deemed “not worthwhile” is dangerous. The statement that echoed the strongest with me, however, was a slightly tangential point about the impact of high rates of change.
The high rate of change to which we have become accustomed affects the manner in which information is presented; when the viewer is deemed to be bored after only a few minutes of airtime, or the reader after a few paragraphs, content is sacrificed for stimulus, and the problem is reinforced.
His point, very Neil Postman-esque, is particularly true in today’s world of entertainment-driven news and fast-moving social networks that I’m increasingly convinced that, by default, only amplify existing biases.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch 5⁄5
After having this book recommended to me by a few friends, I bumped it up my pile of books to read—as it turns out, an excellent decision. Dark Matter moves forward at an incredible pace and sucks you in—it’s a very hard book to put down. It’s not just action, either. There ends up being quite a bit of thought-provoking moments, asking questions about how much of our relationships and life are based on all the tiny little decisions we make along the way and also causing readers to maybe reconsider the “regrets” we carry from decisions made or unmade.
- A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 5⁄5
It’s been awhile, so I decided to re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories this year. A Study in Scarlet was the first novel (incredibly written in a mere three weeks) and holds up very well. The initial (iconic!) meeting of Watson and Holmes is one of my favorite introductions to a character, ever.
- This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips 4⁄5
Considering the state of current affairs going on, a book about trolling is incredibly relevant reading. The author’s case is that while we decry trolling as something horrible and disreputable, trolling is just what you get if you were to hold a fun-house mirror up to what is tolerated in our culture (media in particular).
I’ve read some criticism that she is not hard enough on the trolls. While it’s true that you can tell at times that her time masquerading amongst them has perhaps softened her stance ever so slightly, I think it only strengthens her research. This topic would be far too easy to cast in an emotionally charged, binary way. Her ability to understand the perspective of the people engaging in the behavior is exactly what enables her to have a rational and critical exploration of the broader link between culture and trolling.
The writing style is fairly academic (though not as bad as many), but the research is solid, fascinating and sobering.
- The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 4⁄5
The Sign of the Four is, according to many, behind only Hound of Baskerville in the short list of Sherlock novels. I think it’s a step back from A Study in Scarlet. Don’t get me wrong; there are some great moments. Sherlock’s deductions of Watson’s watch, Sherlock tricking Watson and Jones with his disguise—there’s even some romance and humor in this one. But the novel is tainted by the racist portrayal of the aboriginal characters in a couple of passages I know, I know…an artifact of the time in which the novel was written, but those portions make for uncomfortable reading today and taint what is an otherwise excellent novel.
- Future Crimes by Marc Goodman 4⁄5
Security is such an interesting problem to solve. On the one hand, it’s not given nearly enough attention considering just how critical of an issue it is. On the other hand, understanding its importance requires a certain level of appropriate fear. As a result, many pleas for recognizing the importance of security have often been hard to distinguish from fear-mongering.
Future Crimes teeters back and forth between those lines. It’s fascinating to read about the different ways our technology-reliant world is vulnerable to attacks. If anyone could make it through even the first couple chapters without feeling terrified about the current state of security, I would be amazed. Goodman doesn’t pull any punches, and he spends maybe 80% of the book outlining all the various technologies and how they leave us vulnerable.
The fact that he’s so compelling at it is what also makes me hesitant to give the book a full-on five-star rating. He makes his case clearly and convincingly early and then keeps hitting you with more and more. By the time you get to the last 50 pages or so where he starts to outline what we can do about it, I suspect many will have taken a fatalistic view of security and given up.
My recommendation to everyone is to read the book, but if you find yourself feeling overly defeated and on the verge of not reading anymore, jump to the final sections where he provides some really good ideas for how to make things better.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway 5⁄5
Once again, a book I’m glad I didn’t read when I was in high-school—I guarantee I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. The man’s epic battle against this fish—the pride and stubbornness of both mirroring each other, the fight against the fish also mirroring his fight against age—makes for powerful reading.
- Time and Again by Clifford Simak 4⁄5
A sci-fi novel that splashes a bit of everything into one: time-travel, artificial life, aliens…you name it. The result was a story that is compelling, with some interesting exploration of the idea of what it means to be human. It doesn’t quite manage to land with as much impact as it tries to, but still an excellent book ahead of its time.
- In the Land of Invented Languages by Anika Okrent 4⁄5
Read this one based on the recommendation of a friend, and it didn’t disappoint. Anika has a passion for invented languages, and it shows in her vivid and thorough accounts of the creation of languages like Blissymbolics, Esperanto, and Klingon.
- The Birth of Modern Politics by Lynn Hudson Parsons 4⁄5
This is a solid, if slightly on the nose, historical account of the election of 1828. If Parsons has a bias in favor of one of the two candidates, it doesn’t come through in the book. Though perhaps that’s because there isn’t a lot of deep analysis here. It’s a good recap of events, but any additional analysis of what transpired and why is pretty limited. Still, there are clear parallels here between what transpired in this election and many of the elections since (including the most recent) and it’s worth learning more even if just for the (somewhat depressing) reminder that politics has been divisive (and frequently, downright nasty) for a very long time.
- Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch 4⁄5
This is a very different book than the first in the series. Lies was an Ocean’s Eleven-esque story with a blistering pace that (in my opinion) cared less about developing the characters than it did about having fun. Red Seas is much more an adventure story (the caper stuff starts out strong, goes away nearly entirely in the middle, and then comes back for a relatively low-key reveal) that spends a lot of time with the two primary characters and has a tad slower pace. It also feels a bit more like a bridge to book 3—some key people and topics are brought up early and then never really mentioned again, and of course, the end is an obvious attempt to hook the reader for book three.
With all that in mind, I enjoyed it. While I would love to see the next book return more to the style of book one, Red Seas did help to give both Jean and Locke a little more depth while also incorporating a pretty strong cast of supporting characters.
- Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick 5⁄5
Look—I’m not sure why I enjoyed this book so much. Judging by the way the story is told, Mitnick is not exactly what you would call “humble”. There are also a few sections where I couldn’t help but laugh at him. For example, at one point he discusses a period where he was hacking on company time. The company assumed he was doing consulting work on the side while at work, so they fired him. Somehow he manages to present himself as the one who should be upset by this “wrongful” termination.
Despite this, I have to admit I tore right through the book. It reads like a fast-paced movie and hearing the stories of how we would manipulate his way into whatever information he wanted through a combination of technology and social engineering are fascinating.
- Learning HTTP/2 by Stephen Ludin and Javier Garza 4⁄5
Short, readable introduction to HTTP/2 from two people who have spent a ton of time working with it. Great starting point!
- The Code Book by Simon Singh 4⁄5
A fascinating walk through the history of cryptography! I loved getting the historical context and seeing how cryptography has evolved from its early and primitive forms. The book walks back and forth between stories and more detailed explanations of the various ciphers. While it’s not overly technical, some of the descriptions of how they each work can get a little dry—particularly as they become more complex. Mostly though, the book flows very well and provides a useful and important overview of how cryptography works and has evolved throughout time.
- The Nature Fix by Florence Williams 4⁄5
The pop-science genre gets a lot of (well-deserved) flack. Its incredible popularity has resulted in many shallow, poorly written books gaining great popularity. This isn’t one of them. Williams book is an example of why the pop-sci genre became so popular in the first place—it’s well-written, well-researched, engaging and entertaining. Williams makes a convincing case for the importance of nature in our mental and physical well-being.
Now, there may very well be a little confirmation bias coming out in my review—I live in a small town because I enjoy being surrounded by trees and lakes much more than I enjoy being surrounded by buildings. But even with this in mind, I was still a little skeptical early on that this would be more pseudo-science than anything of significant substance.
Thankfully it’s not. Williams cites study after study by researchers around the globe to demonstrate how nature—the scents, the sights, the sounds—all impact how we function and perform. She also never goes overboard with it—she points out that some percentage of us (~15%) just don’t seem to respond to nature and she never makes the mistake of overstating the benefits of being outside. It’s a very engaging book that will challenge anyone who reads it to spend a little more time hanging out with trees.
- #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age by Cass Sunstein 3⁄5
There’s an important discussion to be had about the divisive nature of our political system, and Sunstein does provide a fair share of interesting data points and commentary on the subject here. But all in all the book falls a bit flat. The writing is a bit dry and academic, and it feels like this book was an essay stretched out over 200-plus pages.
- The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden 5⁄5
I absolutely loved this book! Arden has written a wonderfully rich story steeped in Russian myth, with just the right amount of creepiness. I was sucked in from the very beginning.
The characters are all so rich and compelling. Even the supporting characters were so well fleshed out and so intriguing in their own right that I found myself wishing we would get more time with them. Thankfully, it looks like this is the first in what will be a three book series so hopefully, we will.
I’ve seen the book described as “Gaiman-esque”. It’s a description that always makes me both intrigued and skeptical—his dark fantasy writing is some of my favorite and such a lofty standard. Most books fall short. This one most definitely did not.
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan 4⁄5
It won’t win any awards for incredible writing, but 24-Hour Bookstore is a fun, lighthearted read.
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 5⁄5
The first collection of Sherlock in short story form, and full of gems. A Scandal in Bohemia, The Five Orange Pips, The Adventure of the Speckled Band….plenty of classics in this one.
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman 4⁄5
Mythology plays a part in so many of Gaiman’s great stories, so it should be no surprise that his take on the Norse myths is deftly done. It doesn’t hurt that the original myths are full of rich characters themselves. Combined with Gaiman’s incredible gift of storytelling, it’s a perfect match.
- Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher 5⁄5
After reading and loving The Bear and the Nightingale, I wanted to find a few more books that had some basis in Russian fairytales. Summer in Orcus features an 11-year old girl resentful of her mother’s smothering love and wants to set out on her own. When she meets Baba Yaga, she’s given the opportunity to do just that and seek her “heart’s desire”. The story was compared to Narnia by more than a few reviewers, but I think that’s mostly because of the transportation to a different “world” and the talking animals. Summer in Orcus tells a story that is much smaller in scale and throws a few delightful curves into the typical narrative you would expect.
- Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty 4⁄5
At first glance, Six Wakes is a space who-dunnit with a slight twist: the victims are trying to solve their own mass murder. Or, at least, the murder of the previous versions of their cloned selves. But that twist, the fact that cloning has allowed a person’s identity to be nearly immortal, makes it richer than your typical murder mystery (though as a straight mystery, it’s pretty compelling all in its own). Cloning is viewed very differently by different people, and without giving too much away, there are some interesting discussions about just how “human” these clones are and what sort of rights they’re entitled to. Fast-paced with more to think about than it first appears.
- Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman 4⁄5
I tend to prefer novels over short stories, but this collection from Gaiman was a lot of fun. As with any collection, there were a few shorts that I didn’t enjoy quite as much as the others, but it’s a good reminder of how talented a writer he is and shows off a bit more variety in his storytelling
- The Green Ember by S.D. Smith 4⁄5
- Ember Falls by S.D. Smith 4⁄5
Consider this my review of both of the first two books in this series. I read these originally to better gauge the reading level for my kids (the oldest is eight) and ended up enjoying them. The writing is geared to a younger audience, but the stories are compelling and you gotta love rabbits with swords. Book two is a bit darker and a little more complex than the first, as you often expect from second books in a series, but neither is particularly intense. My oldest (a bookworm) is probably ready to read these on her own, and I’ll be putting some copies on the shelf for the other kids to stumble upon as well.
- Borne by Jeff VanderMeer 4⁄5
A delightfully weird take on a post-apocalyptic world. The main character, Rachel, lives in a city in ruins after…what exactly we don’t know for sure, but climate is at least a part of it. The setting is imaginative and full of unique biotech. Mord the bear, a massive bear, generally controls the city though he is opposed by some, most notably a woman named “The Magician”. The real story here, though, is the relationship between Rachel and a creature called Borne—a biotech creature that she ends up raising. The whole thing is brought to life beautifully and vividly by VanderMeer. He has since published a novella set in this same world and I can’t wait to read it.
- Mini-Farming by Brett Markham 4⁄5
A solid overview of small-scale farming. Markham is an engineer, and you can tell in his detailed and analytical approach to topics like soil composition, as well as his prescriptive advice for bed sizes and square footage estimates. He has a very strong focus on the economics, which I’m sure will be very useful to some, but I found it a little less relevant and interesting for my purposes. It’s a good resource for anyone looking to be a bit more productive in their gardening, or thinking about getting into other homesteading-related topics.
- Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire 5⁄5
McGuire is just killing it with the Wayward Children series so far. This dark and creepy little fairy tale will be a hit with anyone who enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway. It’s a prequel to the first book, and I would recommend that you read them in publication order for reasons that are likely obvious once you’ve finished them both.
- The Mini-Farming Guide to Composting by Brett Markham 4⁄5
Another good resource from Markham, this time with a much more singular focus which frees him up to go into much more detail.
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik 3⁄5
This book comes with a lot of hype, but it didn’t quite live up to it for me. The story is vividly brought to life, but it was really hard to find any redeeming qualities in the Dragon—one of the main supporting characters. I love a good anti-hero, scoundrel type of character but there has to be something about them that makes you start to root for them. In this story, it seems more assumed that you’ll just come around to him inspite of his constant belittling and abuse of Agnieszka, the main character.
- All-New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew 2⁄5
The biggest issue here, quite frankly, is style. Mel is….well….he’s got a bit of a car salesman approach in his delivery. He makes more than a few sexist comments. He also tries to oversimplify at the expense of providing any context at all for why what he is suggesting is the “right” way.
There are much better books with much more detail.
- This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe 4⁄5
This book is just chock-full of interesting. Crickets that become suicidal when controlled by parasitic worms, all in an attempt to help those same words reproduce. A parasite that makes rodents have a fatal attraction to the smell of cats. There are some really weird and fascinating stories in here. Her storytelling is enough to make me overlook the fact that she spends two chapters on microbiomes, which are not parasites. She makes some leaps with the science towards the end, discussing how parasites may impact everything from religion to democracy. I didn’t always make the same leap with her, but the thought exercise was fun nonetheless.
- Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter 4⁄5
A fascinating and thorough account of the Stuxnet virus. Frankly, the whole story would seem very at home some modern-day action/techno-thriller movie. Zetter does an excellent job of walking you through the discovery and gradual unveiling of Stuxnet: detailing how traces of the virus was discovered, the clues each little piece left about its origin, functionality and ultimate goal. Given the depth she goes into regarding the functionality of the virus, she does a pretty good job of making it approachable even if you don’t have prior technical knowledge.
Somewhere around chapter 16 or 17, it does get a tab bit repetitive as she spends the bulk of the time putting things you’ve already learned in a clear chronological order. The final chapter, however, is a very important read. Once you get past the impressive workings of the virus, the messy follow-up discussion that has been largely lacking is the implications and consequences—ethically and technically—of opening “Pandora’s digital box”, as she puts it. Some think they’re severe, some downplay the risk of a digital attack (personally, I think those folks just lack imagination), but no matter the stance, the discussion needs to be given much higher priority.
- The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay 5⁄5
Humbling, heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. As a 12-year-old boy, Gulwali is sent, along with his brother, away from Afghanistan for his own safety. The two of them are soon separated from each other. What follows is an unsettling account of Gulwali’s year-long, 12,000-mile journey as a young refugee fleeing Afghanistan for the United Kingdom. The story sheds a critical light on the impossibly dangerous day-to-day life of a refugee.
That Gulwali emerges, eventually, to not simply exist but thrive in the United Kingdom is a testament to his incredible courage and willpower.
Everyone should read this book, and everyone should take his final words to heart:
None of us travel alone in life. We all have the power to help those around us, or to harm them. It is the choices we make that define our walk, define our own personal journeys, and make us the people we are.
- Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? By June Foray 4⁄5
The many talented men in the history of cartoon animation get the lion share of the attention. For example, Mel Blanc is a name that will instantly bring up memories of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Barney Rubble or any other of the numerous voices he performed. But mention June Foray, and you’ll get some blank stares, this despite the fact that, as Chuck Jones put it, “June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc was the male June Foray.”
This short autobiography gives a glimpse into June’s incredible talent and career. It jumps around a bit, but the chaotic feeling of the book was endearing to me and felt very authentic. June’s humor comes through repeatedly, and there are a ton of fun stories and anecdotes liberally sprinkled throughout the book. Anyone with interest in the creation of cartoons, or fans of any of the many characters she voiced, will enjoy this one.
- A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon 5⁄5
Let’s get this out of the way: this book will not be for everyone. The world Noon creates is one that is imaginative and frankly a bit weird. It all revolves around time. Time is a commodity. People live within different times: some standard, some commercially available for the right price. The city he operates in is divided between Dayzone (permanent day) and Nocturna (permanent night). In between is Dusk, a terrifying and fantastical place that operates by its own rules.
The story itself is ultimately a hardboiled detective story set in a world that is part science-fiction, part fantasy (Dusk, in particular, reminded me a lot of the “Other” world in Gaiman’s Coraline.) It’s fast-paced and creepy, with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Noon does a great job of world-building over the course of the book—in fact, many of the twists come in the form of revelations about the world itself. A unique and enthralling novel.
- The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey 5⁄5
The Boy on the Bridge is a fast-moving story following a small group consisting of scientists, military personnel and one gifted, autistic teenage boy as they search for a cure to plague sweeping over the globe. While Dr. Smrina Khan (one of the scientists) and Stephen (the boy) are the primary characters, the other characters are richly fleshed-out with their own background stories and personalities as well.The end is dark and sad, setting up The Girl With All the Gifts, the first book in the series, very well. While not as surprising as the first book, The Boy on the Bridge is still a blast to read. I highly recommend reading the two books in the order they were published to get the full effect from the surprise twists in The Girl with All the Gifts.
- The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld 4⁄5
This one isn’t an easy one. The book is haunting and dim and deals with some heavy subject matter. It follows a cast of killers on death row, an investigator whose job is to find background information that can keep those killers out of the electric chair, and a disgraced priest. There is a small whiff of magic in the book, though it takes place in the head of one of the convicts on death row and mostly works to show how he has escaped mentally during his years of solitary confinement.
The author, Denfeld, is a licensed investigator who has spent a lot of time working with people facing execution, and that insight no doubt helps her tell such a vivid story. Too vivid, I imagine, for some. Some of the scenes are very unsettling. That’s part of what’s challenging about this book: the jarring contrast between the humanity of the killers she manages to portray and the horrific things they’ve done. This book will stick with you long after you read it, and will no doubt be very difficult for many readers to get through.
- A Mind At Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman 4⁄5
A superbly thorough biography of Shannon, whose work laid the foundation for modern technology. The telling of his many important contributions are handled very well, and the descriptions of the science involved are approachable enough.
But my favorite tales are those set after he had made his most significant academic contributions. His desire to create never left, but he was free to create and learn for pure fun and enjoyment, building everything from making trumpets that shot fire when played and a machine that solved Rubik’s cube to an incredible variety of unicycles.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan 4⁄5
I really enjoyed this one, particularly the first sections. Pollan explores industrial food production, zeroing in on corn which is pretty much everywhere, followed by organic food, followed by more personal food consumption—foraging, hunting, mushrooms, etc. Pollan is naturally inquisitive and digs deep into each topic, constantly questioning himself causing him to go even deeper. He makes some fantastic points about the sustainability of different diets and their impact on the globe. The last section, where he forages and hunts for his own meal, was not as interesting to me and was a lot more anecdotal than the first two sections of the book. In the end, though, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great read that will have you thinking much more about what you’re eating and where it came from.
- Warcross by Marie Lu 3⁄5
I wasn’t at all familiar with the author or the book, but the description—teenage bounty hunter/hacker finds herself trying to solve a mystery in a massive VR game—sounded like a lot of fun.
It was, for the most part. The action was fun, and Emika is an easy character to root for. And while the twist at the end felt a bit rushed to me, it does set up a fun plot change for book two.
But I think I probably wasn’t the target audience here. The eventual romance between Emika and the brooding, mysterious billionaire was played up very heavily. Probably cool for some folks, just not my cup of tea.
- The Sky Below by Scott Parazynski 3⁄5
So first, the good: there are plenty of interesting stories about his time at NASA. While he doesn’t get very scientific, it’s still compelling. That I enjoyed.
But a lot of the book also rubbed me the wrong way, mostly in the way he portrays his personal life. He talks a fair amount about how his marriage was on the rocks (he does ultimately get divorced and then married to someone else), but the way he does makes it sound dismissive of the sacrifices his first wife had to make for him to achieve what he did. I don’t know that that’s intentional, but it’s the way it comes off. The way he discusses his daughter’s autism was felt similarly off-key.
You don’t get to do all the things Scott has done, to achieve everything he has, without a lot of help from those around you and there is little in the book that acknowledges that.
- Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy by Tim Hartford 4⁄5
Fifty Inventions sets out to accomplish something similar to Burke or Stephen Johnson’s “How We Got to Know” by telling story after story of different inventions and letting the reader see how they weave together. He’s a little less explicit in it, perhaps, than Johnson and Burke, but no less effective. Each of the inventions is covered quickly—its the kind of book you can easily read a chapter at a time when you have a few free minutes—but with enough detail to keep you interested and help you see connections without Hartford having to spell them out himself. It’s all written in an approachable way, with plenty of wit sprinkled in.
There’s one point in particular that Hartford brings up about all new inventions that stood out to me:
So whenever a new technology emerges, we should ask: Who will win and who will lose out as a result?
It’s a point he comes back to multiple times, and a theme that runs throughout the book. It’s also an important question we should all be asking whenever we create or support, a new technology.
- Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky 4⁄5
Children of Time has gotten a lot of attention and accolades since its publication, and for good reason. The story follows two groups of…creatures…stretched out over thousands of years. One set is the humans, the last of the humans, struggling to find a place to set down roots after Earth’s demise. The other set are spiders infected by a nanovirus, reaching new levels of intelligence and sentience as time passes. Watching their society expand and evolve was even more compelling than watching the humans struggling for survival.
The book doesn’t shy away from some big topics, and the portrayal of the spiders rise to sentience over the years is incredibly well-done.
The only fault I have with the book is the ending. While the conclusion is smart, it’s also pretty abrupt to the point of feeling a bit rushed.
- The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden 5⁄5
More fantastic work from Arden! The Girl in the Tower has the benefit of being the second in the series, so it doesn’t have nearly as much work to do building up the world. Instead, it drops you right into the action and never lets up.
The story spends a little less time with the Russian mythology, at least until the final few chapters, than book one. But we get a lot of time with both Vasya and Sasha. It was fun to see these two characters, with very different outlooks on life, interacting after everything that Vasya went through in book one.
I think there are two things in particular that continue to impress me with this series. First, is Arden’s dedication to historical accuracy. She takes both the mythology and the world build-up very seriously, trying to represent as accurate a portrayal of middle-ages Russia as possible. The result is vibrant characters and very vivid scenery.
The other thing that continues to impress me is the way Arden writes Vasya, the main character. Vasya is not an anti-hero—she’s likable and a good person. Arden makes it very clear Vasya is a flawed individual. She messes up constantly; she lets her temper and emotions lead her to bad decisions. In short, she’s a very relatable and realistic character.
Eagerly awaiting book three.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle 4⁄5
I had never read this book as a kid, somehow, though it seems like exactly the kind of book I would have thoroughly enjoyed. Given all the praise its received from friends over the years, I decided to change that. I’m glad I did.
One of my favorite quotes regarding “children’s books” comes from Maurice Sendak: “I don’t write for children. I write—and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”. It’s a quote I think of often as I’m reading to my kids, or reading “young adult” books. A good story is a good story, period.
A Wrinkle In Time is a good story. L’Engle does here what the best so-called “young adult” authors do: she writes a story that is rich, and that doesn’t attempt to oversimplify for the benefit of a potentially younger audience. The story and setting are wonderfully imaginative, as well as steeped in a love of physics, mathematics, and literature (one of the characters constantly quotes from Shakespeare, Descartes, the Bible, Dante—you name it). The book also never shies away from some rather heavy themes, exploring spirituality, moral responsibility, and individuality. While it’s not overly thought-provoking, the messages are strong and important.
I may have missed out on this book as a kid, but I will make sure my kids do not.
- The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss 5⁄5
I have loved the Kingkiller Chronicles so far, but I kept putting off this one due to very mixed reviews. Even Patrick himself was worried about publishing this one, calling it a “strange” story. I didn’t want to spoil what has been an excellent series with this questionable-sounding novella. Turns out, there was no need to worry. Rothfuss can flat-out write.
The book definitely has a very different feel from the primary books in the series, and I’m sure that leads to the mixed reviews. The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear are long, magical, fantasy novels full of suspense and intrigue conflict. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is short and features no real suspense, and no characters outside of Auri—the strange girl Kvothe befriended in the primary books. Magic is present, but very subdued.
The story follows Auri for a week as she explores the Underthing, constantly struggling to make sure every object is just where its meant to be, every room in just the right order. There’s not a lot that happens beyond that. The most conflict the story has is probably Auri’s attempts to find the right place for a gear she finds.
But the story is beautiful. Auri is sweet and broken, and there are times of clarity where she recognizes her own brokenness—and you feel for her and relate to her. So when she gets heartbroken about objects breaking, or objects not being in their proper spot, you start to feel it too. You find yourself rooting for her to get everything in its place and find some level of stability and calm in doing so.
This is a very different book than his other novels in the series, but it’s every bit as enjoyable.