Book Review: What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker

Book Review: What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Adam Becker

 

A basic thought experiment from the early days of quantum theory has meandered into the mainstream. As usually happens with these sorts of transfers into the common understanding, it is only partially understood and that part is more often misunderstood. A cat is trapped in a box. In the full version of the thought experiment, along with the cat is a Rube Goldberg device comprised of uranium, a geiger counter attached to a hammer, and a vial of cyanide resting under the head of the hammer. The experiment (fortunately for cat lovers, only transacted in the minds of physicists and other inquirers) relies on the fact that in time the uranium will release radiation, triggering the geiger counter, releasing the hammer, breaking the vial and killing the cat. However, at any given moment, the radiation may OR may not release. Therefore, the hypothetical cat may actually be either alive or dead–we will not know until we open the box. In a closed and unobserved system, the concept concludes, the cat is both alive and dead since both possibilities are equally probable. It is the observing that defines the cat’s untimely demise or it’s fortuitous release.

 

The full version of Erwin Schrodinger’s thought experiment opens the 2018 book What Is Real? Adam Becker provides a rousing history of quantum theory, looking at the personalities, mathematics, and experiments that have shaped this central theory of physics over the last century. With outsized characters like Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and especially Neils Bohr creating the foundations of the theory, it is little wonder that quantum physics moved to the center of our understanding of how atoms and electrons work. The math is sound: quantum calculations are at the heart of literally thousands of innovations in technology and have predicted many of the discoveries in physics that excited both scientists and laypersons alike throughout the twentieth century.

 

What even many scientists fail to fully understand, though, is that there is still no complete understanding of HOW and WHY quantum mechanics works. The math works. Find a quantum problem, enter the variables, and out pops the solution. The temptation then is to follow the advice of one key physicist: shut up and calculate. (In fairness, that scientist himself rejects his own advice.) But many scientists are unwilling to accept this practical solution. They want to know WHY it works. Certain principles of quantum mechanics seem to violate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by creating changes simultaneously in two bodies separated by great distance. If communication faster than light is impossible (Relativity says it is), then this can’t be. Other facets of quantum theory show behavior of objects changing based on observation (e.g. Schrodinger’s poor cat being both alive and dead until it is seen as being definitively one or the other). But exactly why does the behavior change upon observation? And what qualifies as “observation”? Were these particles behaving one way throughout time, waiting for someone with a PhD to come along? Or does behavior change if a cat, or a mouse, or a flea, were to observe it? These are the kinds of questions that scientists have been wrestling with since the beginning of quantum theory, and many of those questions remain unanswerable to date.

 

Various critiques of the traditional understanding of quantum physics have been offered, some gaining more traction than others. One which has become very popular in science fiction (if less so among actual scientists) is the multiple worlds theory, which holds that any action which has multiple potential outcomes has actually resulted in each of those potential outcomes, with the universe dividing again and again and again to accommodate those outcomes. In one universe the poor cat has died, in another it lives. That is again oversimplifying the argument to the point of devastating it, but the beauty of the multiple worlds theory is again that the math works. (I am taking Becker’s word for this–my math skills are not elite on any possible world.)

 

To a degree, though, this is both the agony and the ecstacy of quantum theory: it does a magnificent job of predicting what will happen, but we still cannot understand why it actually does this. Parts of quantum theory (especially as it relates to waves, electrons, and events occurring at a sub-atomic level) can be demonstrated as factually true. But why it works at the level of electrons and yet fails to predict the behavior of molecules as effectively is something scientists cannot yet answer.

 

Becker’s story is about the people who have looked and are looking for those answers. It goes beyond “just” the science and looks at the scientists as people and at the times they lived in. Becker deals squarely with the Nazi sympathies and collaboration of Heisenberg and other German scientists during WWII (and the disruption to European science in particular by the anti-Semitic prejudice and actions of the Nazis). He follows the path of one scientist exiled from the US during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s and how that affected the trajectory of quantum theory during a time when no one wanted to be accused of being “communist.” He traces the outsized influence of Neils Bohr, acknowledging his brilliance while noting that his influence was in part due to his amazing personality and warmth. Einstein’s critiques of quantum theory failed to gain as much traction, in part, due to Einstein’s more standoffish personality–Bohr won over critics with warmth and genuine affection when sometimes his math and writing were less precise.

 

The key question is the title of the book: What Is Real? In one sense, quantum theory answers this question. It works, therefore it is real. It predicts actual behavior of electrons. It leads to the creation of repeatable experiments. It results in actual inventions that have real world applications. That’s as real as you can get. But in another sense, the question remains unanswered. Can quantum theory predict the behavior of things larger than an electron? Can it be unified with the Theory of Relativity–which also works–in a way that explains the universe compellingly? If it is real, is it only real on a scale that we will never effectively observe? The search for those answers continues.

 

I loved the book–although I admit that I am not smart enough to fully understand it. Becker writes well. His stories about the people who shaped the theory are fascinating and fun. I will never be able to explain quantum physics or understand it nearly as well as my children do. But I appreciate the fact that scientists are people who struggle with bills and careers and politics as well as math and observation and theory. Becker’s book is about science and it is about the people who do science. That makes it a fascinating read.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Book Review Nonfiction: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

 

I’ll admit, I was hoping to read Nudge and get much smarter about making decisions. That is not exactly what the book delivers. Nudge is more for wonks — geeks focused on government and/or political policy. If you make decisions, set policies, create procedures, or design products that involve choices by other people, then Nudge is definitely for you. If you are looking for guidance in making better decisions for yourself in these matters, well, the lessons are a bit more abstract. Incidentally, Richard H. Thaler, co-author of Nudge, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to behavioral economics, the integration of psychology and economics. For more on the Nobel details see https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2017/press.html

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As an abstract guidance lesson, take the following example from Nudge. Educators in San Marcos, TX, wanted to improve the rates of college admission by graduates from local high schools. Obviously there are any number of things that potentially could have helped: increased emphasis on academic classes, better preparation for college admissions tests, etc. But San Marcos is an area where few parents had ever gone to college. For many students, the idea of college was not something they ever entertained. So San Marcos added a graduation requirement: every graduating student has to complete and submit a college application to the local community college. Counselors from nearby Austin Community College visited with students and helped them complete the application. They also talked to students about how much more money college graduates make (on average) compared to those who only finish high school. They provided financial aid information and assistance with other potential barriers to college attendance. The result: in one year the percentage of San Marcos High graduates who went on to college increased by 11%!

 

That is the kind of Nudge that Thaler and Sunstein are talking about. They coin a phrase, “paternal libertarianism” to describe the type of choice architecture they propose. Anytime a choice is offered, decisions are made as to how those choices are presented. A cafeteria might choose to group foods according to type, according to color, alphabetically, randomly, etc. The location and groupings of the food will influence the choices people make when eating. If it is a school cafeteria, the manager can choose to position the fare in a way that maximizes profit. That, though, may not be in the best health interests of the students. Thaler and Sunstein would propose that consideration must be given to maximizing the health interests of students.

 

The two words of their phrase must balance each other for their proposals to work. “Paternal” implies looking out for the benefit of those making the choices. It assumes that choices can be objectively measured as “better” or “worse.” An insurance plan that covers more medications at a lower price is going to be better than one that covers fewer prescriptions for a higher price, if you are dealing with a population that uses a lot of prescriptions. Thus, if you are presenting insurance plans to (for example) an elderly population, you might “Nudge” them toward making that better choice. This can be done in several ways: listing it first, making it the default choice, advertising it more aggressively, giving it a leading name (perhaps “the BEST insurance”).

 

But they firmly argue that “libertarianism” is equally important. One choice may be objectively better than another for most people, but removing people’s choices is removing their freedom. In the insurance example, they might suggest that the best prescription plan be the default plan for seniors who take a lot of medicine, but they would not want that to be the only choice. What about those seniors who expect to have a lot of surgery but not as many medications? What about those who are in excellent health and would prefer to pay a lower premium? They argue that a nudge is important, but choice is equally important. San Marcos may require applications to the community college, but none of their graduates is obliged to attend. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. That hypothetical cafeteria manager may group foods to encourage healthy eating, but she might still provide the option to eat cake and drink soda. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. Those are the types of examples that meet with Thaler and Sunstein’s approval.

 

Individually, the best parts of Nudge describe how humans generally make choices. In a word, they make them poorly. So the authors have some suggestions for fooling ourselves into making better choices. One example is in the area of saving. Americans are particularly bad at saving money. But we are good at making well-intentioned promises. They suggest starting saving with a small, easily managed amount of money. Make the withdrawals automatically on your payday so you never actually see the money in your checking account. Then, set up your IRA (or other savings vehicle) to increase that amount by a percentage every year, kicking in at the same time as your annual raise (assuming you get one). This way the amount withdrawn increases as your income increases, and continues to be “hidden” by not appearing in the checking account.  This does not reduce your choices: you can always change or even cancel this process. But it uses some of our own human weaknesses as leverage to attain a desirable outcome.

 

Although the authors do address objections and concerns within the book, I remained cautious after reading it. I see huge advantages to the kind of Nudge – paternal libertarianism they describe. But I also see the possibilities of less altruistic persons using their choice architecture to lead consumers toward decisions that benefit companies and not people.  The authors use the example of Enron, and the way their retirement benefits were geared toward pushing employees to reinvest their retirement money into Enron stock. They use this as a negative example, and indeed when Enron collapsed many of their employees lost their life savings along with their jobs. The authors encourage companies to do the opposite, to promote diversifying retirement investments and promote strategies that are both safe and employee-focused. Other than altruism, though, I am not sure they make a compelling case for companies to do this, and my experience has made me wary of the altruistic motives of most corporations.

 

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I would love to say that reading Nudge will change the way you make decisions and transform you into a healthier, wealthier, and happier human being. That outcome lies beyond the scope of the authors. However, it does give great insight into how choices can be presented in ways that encourage positive decisions and growth. Nudge is worth the read if for no other reason than to understand the motivators behind our decisions (and those behind our choices to NOT make certain decisions). Perhaps understanding ourselves is the best first step toward making better choices.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

If you are interested in political policy also see

Book Review Nonfiction: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Amy Chua

Quote Walter Cronkite: Whatever the cost of or libraries…

Quote Walter Cronkite: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.

Quote Walter Cronkite: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.
Walter Cronkite, Quote

Quote Walter Cronkite: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.

For more on Walter Cronkite see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Cronkite

Also see

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

 

Share your favorite quotes about libraries

Quote: Without libraries what have we? Ray Bradbury

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury
Quote: Ray Bradbury

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury

For more on Ray Bradbury see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury

Also see

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

 

Share your favorite quotes about libraries

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

 

Books were an everyday part of my boys’ life from the time that they were very little. Instead of wanting to sleep with a plush toy, they all opted to sleep with their current favorite book at night. And of course, they all tried the flashlight under the covers to read past bedtime trick. When Son #2 was in elementary school, he was devastated to learn that books were for the serious purpose of homework and learning because until he reached 3rd grade, he thought that books were only for fun like toys. Harsh reality of life for the poor little guy in 3rd grade. To encourage a love of books and reading try a few of these books about books, where books and stories are central to the overall plot.

 

Before Shared Reading

Review and label the parts of a book including the little noticed sections like the gutter, end pages, and dedications.  Books also include information about their publishing including the country where the book was actually printed and the fonts or type used for the lettering. If you have a library book edition, you may notice that the brightness of the inks maybe vary depending on the age of the book – recently published books tend to have more vibrant colors while older books have more muted colors due to advances in printing. Exam some of these usually overlooked details to find out something new about the book and how it was made.

 

During Shared Reading

Periodically talk about the importance of stories or books and the role it plays in the overall plot. Also, ask your child how they would feel, if they were in the main character’s place. Would they feel the same way about stories and books?

 

After Shared Reading

Look at the back of the book and see if there are any author notes. Some authors write letters to their readers to help the reader connect and understand the book better or the writer’s thought process. Sometimes there are also questions in the back of the book that can be used to encourage discussion on the book.

Make a point to ask your child to share a simple story with the family — about their day, favorite events, challenges they faced. Share a story yourself. All books start out as a story in the imagination of the author before it is written down — your child can be a storyteller or writer as well.

 

Books about Books for Shared Reading with Children

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How This Book Was Made

Words by Mac Barnett

Pictures by Adam Rex

Picture Book Ages 4 – 8

Go behind the scenes or rather inside the scene, to see how this book was made — with a big dose of humor in the form of a tiger and pirate. Also see other “meta-books” with a sense of humor: My Worst Book Ever, words by Allan Ahlberg and pictures by Bruce Ingman; Once Upon a Zzz, words and pictures by Maddie Frost; Whose Story is this Anyway? words by Mike Flaherty and pictures by Oriol Vidal; as well as, Help We Need a Title, words and pictures by Herve Tollet.

 

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This Book Just Ate My Dog!

Words and Pictures by Richard Byrne

Picture Book, Part of a Trilogy Ages 4 – 8

Bells dog disappears into the gutter of the book, the fold in the middle of the book when it is spread apart. Follow her adventure to rescue her dog as well as those who try to help her. Also see by the same author, This book is Out of Control! and We’re in the Wrong Book! For another carnivorous book tale see — Open Carefully: A Book with Bite, words by Nick Bromley and pictures by Nicola O’Bryne. Also enjoy the classic although not carnivorous, from Sesame Street, The Monster at the End of this Book.

 

 

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I am a Story

Words and Pictures by Dan Yaccarino

Picture Book Concept Ages 4 – 8

Reminds readers about the power of storytelling to bring people together — past, present, future — no matter what format or shape the story takes.

 

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A Child of Books

Words by Oliver Jeffers

Pictures by Sam Winston

Picture Book Ages 5 – 12

The guide, A Child of Books, takes a young boy and the reader through a  delightful adventure of the wonder of words, storytelling, and books. Includes snippets from classic children’s literature. Will be an encouragement to new readers and an inspiration to capable readers.

 

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How Rocket Learned to Read

Words and Pictures by Tad Hill

Picture Book Ages 3 – 7

Parents’ Choice Silver Honor

A little yellow bird teaches Rocket the puppy how to read. Also see by the same author, Rocket Writes a Story and Rocket’s Mighty Words. Great choice for new readers and those just starting to learn.

 

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Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books

Words by Kay Winters

Pictures by Nancy Carpenter

Picture Books Memoir Ages 5 – 9

Shares the story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood love of books and how reading helped him grow into the man who became the 16th President of the United States. See also Tomas and the Library Lady by Pat Mora.

 

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How to Read a Story

Words by Kate Messner

Pictures by Mark Siegel

Picture Books Concept Ages 5 – 8

Reminds readers of the perfect process for reading a story.

 

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A Squiggly Story

Words by Andrew Larsen

Pictures by Mike Lowery

Picture Books Ages 4 – 8

Reminds readers, that they too can be writers and authors and it all starts with one letter.

 

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Matilda

Roald Dahl

Chapter Book Ages 8 – 12

Matilda loves books. She also has a secret superpower that she uses to save herself from the dreaded head of the school. Also enjoy the 1996 PG movie adaptation of Matilda which was a family favorite through the elementary and yearly middle school years, for more on the movie see https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/matilda 

 

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The Librarian

Eric Hobbs

Chapter Book, Part 1 of a Series, Ages 8 – 12

A fantasy adventure, where the characters from classic children’s literature come alive in Astoria’s library.

 

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The Story Thieves

James Riley

Chapter Book Part 1 or a Series Ages 8 – 12

Owen teams up with classmate, Bethany, who is really a fictional character, to rescue her father by jumping into his favorite book for an amazing fantasy adventure.

 

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The Book Thief

Marus Zusak

Young Adult Fiction Ages 12 and Up

In 1939 in Nazi Germany, Liesel steals books to read to her foster family and the Jewish man seeking refuge in their basement. Also see the 2014 PG-13 movie adaptation for a review see https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-book-thief; for more on the Holocaust read The Diary of Anne Frank.

If you like this booklist, then see our

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Share your favorite book about books here

 

Quote: Albert Einstein, The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library

Quote: Albert Einstein, The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library

Quote: Albert Einstein, The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.
Albert Einstein Quote on Libraries

Quote: Albert Einstein, The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.

For more on Albert Einstein see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein 

Celebrate National Library Week with Scintilla, see

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

What’s your favorite quote about libraries?

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Celebrating National Library Week, April 8 – 14

 

Our boys grew up loving libraries. On son #2’s 10th birthday, by his choice, we did the two things he loved most in the world  – eat at the local Chinese restaurant and then visit the library. He had a special seat by the window in the children’s section where he would curl up and read a stack of books. Later when he was in 5th grade, he wrote a poem about the library that he gave to his favorite children’s librarian. Libraries are a safe haven that children of all ages can enjoy. Celebrate National Library Week! Visit your local library and check out some books about libraries.

 

Before Shared Reading

Depending on your child’s attention span, try reading two books in one shared reading time. Pair a story book with a concept or nonfiction book. Talk about what is the same and different between pretend stories and realistic stories.

During library story times, in addition to introducing the book’s title, author, and illustrator, librarians also include a short teaser lead-in to focus reader attention.  This teaser blurb is known as a “Book Talk”. Your local library may have a reference book of Book Talks for popular story time books or you can see examples of Book Talk in action by viewing episodes of PBS’ Reading Rainbow. Storyline Online also has great examples of Book Talks in action.

 

During Shared Reading

To build comprehension, point out what is the same and what is different between the story libraries in the books and your local library.

 

After Shared Reading

To celebrate libraries in the best way possible, plan a trip together to your local library or book mobile. Based on the book you read together discuss what to expect at the library.

During the trip talk about your local library’s policies, discuss what is age appropriate and necessary (for example, how old your child is or being able to write their own name) for your child to have their own library card. Celebrate with your child if they are ready for their own library card by checking out a book about libraries or books.

After the trip, set up a home library and role play visiting and checking out books.

 

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Celebrating National Library Week, April 8 – 14

 

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The Library Lion

Words by Michelle Knudsen

Pictures by Kevin Hawkes

One day a lion drops in for the library story time; Hmmm, let’s see what happens next.

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The Library Dragon

Words by Carmen Agra Deedy

Pictures by Michael P. White

Sunrise Elementary has a new librarian and she’s a REAL dragon. Who’s going to be brave enough to read a book? If you love dragons, also see Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library, words by Julie Gassmanand and pictures by Andy Elkerton which has library etiquette 101 delivered with humor and rhymes. 

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If You Want to Bring a Circus to the Library 

Words and Pictures by Elise Parsley

Part of the Magnolia Says Don’t series

Magnolia takes the “You Can Do Anything at the Library” sign literally and sets up her own big top. Loud and proud, Magnolia learns what not to do in this cautionary tale about library etiquette.

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Lola at the Library

Words by Anna McQuinn

Pictures by Rosalind Beardshaw

Picture Book Ages 2 – 5

Great for introducing toddlers and preschoolers to the local library. Also see Lola Loves Stories

Tomas and the Library Lady

Words by Pat Mora

Pictures by Raul Colon

Picture Book Memoir Ages 4 – 8

The true story of Tomas, from a family of migrant farm workers, who learns to love reading and books from his mentor a local librarian. Tomas grew up to be the first minority Chancellor in the University of California. See also, Abe Lincoln:The Boy Who Loved Books by Kate Winters.

 

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Chapter Book Ages 8 – 12
Part 1 of a Series
A library that’s a locked room puzzle. Mr. Lemoncello is a game maker extraordinaire and he designed the new library! To celebrate the opening of the library, there’s going to be an overnight lock-in at the library. Kyle and friends are on a quest to escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

More ways to celebrate National Library Week, if you like this Booklist about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children, then see our Book Review: The Invisible Library Series

Share your favorite library story or book about libraries here

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Celebrating National Library Week April 2018

Fiction Fantasy Series

The Invisible Library, Book 1 in The Invisible Library Series

The Masked City, Book 2 in The Invisible Library Series

The Burning Page, Book 3 in The Invisible Library Series

The Lost Plot, Book 4 in The Invisible Library Series

The Mortal Word, Book 5 in The Invisible Library Series

How are you going to celebrate National Library Week? Try reading a book about or set in a library or better yet, a whole book series about libraries! I have read the first three books in Genevieve Cogman’s series about The Invisible Library, and I am very eager to catch up with the rest of the stories. Cogman’s books are fun, with a kick-ass heroine, a dragon side-kick (he looks human most of the time), a Sherlock Holmesian detective, and rich settings in imaginative worlds that are both fun and fantastic. The Invisible Library: a fantastic series to read in celebrating National Library Week.  

Irene works for the library as a book collector cum spy. Her job is to go into alternate realities and collect unique books. Not rare. Unique. Shakespeare may be read in multiple realities, but in one of those realities perhaps Hamlet has an extra scene. The library collects and preserves those unique texts, and in so doing preserves the uniqueness and separateness of the various realities.

Along the way she picks up an assistant, Kai, a young dragon who wants to become a librarian. Dragons can choose to appear as human, and Kai typically remains in human form. When needed, Kai can pull some dragon magic to save the day. Usually, though, it is Irene saving him.

Irene is opposed by a fearsome entity, a former librarian who has forsaken his mission and has turned to stealing books for his own purposes. As the book series develops, we learn that her enemy is trying to replace the library with a creation of his own. He finds, though, that Irene is more than formidable, and that whatever dangers she may encounter in the multiverse, she is capable of handling herself and rescuing her friends.

Cogman’s worlds are creative and well drawn. Irene may find herself traveling through time, traveling around the world, or traveling between worlds. She may find herself in a modern car, a steampunk dirigible, or riding a dragon. Wherever she goes, though, she is armed with her quick wits, her sharp tongue, and both the bravery and the skills to confront any challenge.

Although the series is written for adults, it is quite appropriate for teens as well. Irene is no wilting flower, no damsel in distress, no woman waiting for rescue by a man. She is a bold and sometimes headstrong heroine. She is quite capable of rescuing herself and leading her assistant bravely into battle when necessary.

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The Invisible Library

For Genevieve Cogman’s website on the series http://www.grcogman.com/books/

More ways to celebrate National Library Week, if you like this Book Review on The Invisible Library Series, then see our

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Kids

What book will you read to Celebrate National Library Week?

Author Spotlights: If You like Tom Clancy, You will Like Mark Greaney

Author Spotlights: If You like Tom Clancy, You will Like Mark Greaney

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Tom Clancy

In the 1980s the Cold War was nearing its end, though no one knew it then. Into this backdrop of geopolitical tension and rivalry, Tom Clancy, an insurance agent from Maryland, published his first book. With brilliant and heroic CIA agent Jack Ryan working to help a Soviet submarine captain defect with his state-of-the-art sub, The Hunt for Red October became a bestseller. Promoted by no one less than the Book Critic in Chief, Ronald Reagan, Tom Clancy embarked on a second career as an author, turning out book after book that kept him at the top of the best seller lists for decades. Several of his books also became hit movies, starring the likes of Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and Chris Pine.

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Tom Clancy dominated the literary world like few others, from 1984 until his death in 2013. With iconic characters, sharp dialog, and technical accuracy, he shaped the genre of wide-focused geopolitical thrillers. Multiple conspiracies, nefarious political actors at home and abroad, bold action by our enemies and too often dithering and indecisiveness on the part of the US set the stage for crises that fortunately could be resolved at the end by Jack Ryan, John Clark, Rainbow Six, and the rest of his ultra heroic ubermenschen. His heroes did not have super powers, but they had few physical, mental, or moral weaknesses and never needed (nor ever received) oversight or punishment for overreach.

 

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Clancy could tell a story. To his credit, he often shared that story with others. He partnered with other writers during his life, and his estate has continued to do so since his death.  One writer to pick up his mantle is Mark Greaney. Greaney co-wrote Clancy’s last three novels, Locked On, Threat Vector, and Command Authority.

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Following Clancy’s death, Greaney has written four more novels in the same world: Tom Clancy: Support and Defend, Tom Clancy: Full Force and Effect, Tom Clancy: Commander in Chief, and Tom Clancy: True Faith and Allegiance.

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Mark Greaney

Greaney is also known for his Gray Man series of novels. These novels feature a disavowed CIA Agent who has become the best assassin for hire in the world, but one that holds to a moral code that prohibits him from killing “innocents” or good guys. You could hire him to kill your drug dealing rival, but not your ex-wife (unless she was a drug-dealing rival). As the novels progress, Court Gentry (the Gray Man) works out his differences with the CIA, but continues to hew to his own moral code even when it interferes with his agency missions. This usually means he is in a position where he is opposed by all of the competing parties in the novels, most of whom want him dead. Fortunately, the skill set and tenacity of the Gray Man allows him to walk–or at least limp–away at the end.

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There will never be another Tom Clancy. But in the world of high energy, world traveling, politically intriguing, death-dealing heroes, Mark Greaney fills the void.

 

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Celebrate First Contact in the Star Trek Universe, April 5th

Book Review Science Fiction: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Along with spin-offs, movies, toys, and inspiration to generations of scientists, Star Trek has given us something almost everyone can relate to: the “red shirt” joke.

Star Trek red shirt meme
Star Trek red shirt meme

Several episodes of Star Trek involved a minor or bit character getting killed. Disproportionately it seems, these extras who were in the script only to die, were wearing a red uniform shirt. Thus a joke was born that has inspired comedians and those who think they are for fifty years.

This joke is at the heart of John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts, a 2012 science fiction novel that blurs the line between author and audience, past and future, and invites readers to share in the love of and amusement at Star Trek. Andrew Dahl is a newly appointed ensign aboard the Universal Union’s flagship. Soon after arriving aboard, though, he discovers that the honor is, for many, short-lived. The Intrepid goes through young ensigns fast. Every away team has a victim (or victims). Avoid decks 6-10, especially if everything is going well. And try to stay away from one of the five key officers–although their presence may save you randomly, you are more likely to die in gruesome and improbable fashion in order to save one of them.

Dahl and his friends must discover why the body count is so high before they become part of it. The question, of course, is whether they can promote themselves to main characters before they become victims of the redshirt phenomena. When you’re not writing the plot of your own show, hijacking someone else’s show leads to a very strange and yet funny end.

Redshirts

Also, Other Books by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation

A reboot of the classic science fiction novel Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Jack Holloway is put on trial for murder, for defending a Fuzzy under attack by a human. When an entire planet’s ecology and indigenous species is on the court docket, the case will be determined by answering the question — what is sapience, are Fuzzies only cute animals or beings with rights?

Old Man’s War

The first book in a five book series.  Here’s the deal, at age 75 after you retire, you can fight for the Colonial Defense Force; if you survive, after two years you will be given a homestead on a colony planet.  Any takers? At age 75, John Perry decides to join the army.

For more on John Scalzi see

https://whatever.scalzi.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Scalzi

Of course, Celebrating First Contact Day in the Star Trek universe wouldn’t be complete without a Star Trek marathon featuring Star Trek – First Contact.

Be sure to serve cheese pirogies (a Voyager episode said these were Zefram Cochrane’s favorite)!

For more on Star Trek see

http://www.startrek.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek

Also see  — Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi 

Share how you plan to celebrate Star Trek First Contact Day with your favorite Redshirt moment here: