Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

 

 The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Nonfiction: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Before I get into The Art of Logic in an Illogical Worlditself, I have to admit I am a fan of Eugenia Cheng. I do not know the first thing about the “School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” beyond its title and a quick visit to its website. It is a higher educational institution that emphasizes studies in the arts: visual and creative arts, teaching, writing, architecture, and many others. It does not offer degrees (that I can see) in mathematics, biology, physics, or other STEM types of programs. Yet, Dr. Cheng is the “Scientist in Residence” at this school. First, good for the school! And second, just how cool do you have to be to get a gig like that? Don’t misunderstand me: Eugenia Cheng is very good at what she does. Writer, concert pianist, Cambridge educated mathematician, she is elite in multiple fields. Part of her life mission is to combat math phobia. My guess is that teaching in a school of art allows her access to the front lines of math phobia, and the opportunity to influence the world with her infectious passion for her subject in very new and different ways. Which brings us back to her latest book, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World.

 

Her first popular math book, How to Bake Pi, used cooking as both metaphor and analog for teaching math principles. This book is a little different. Here, she applies mathematical principles to logic. The two are actually quite intertwined. Logic and mathematics share common goals, they often use similar vocabularies, and although they appear to have differing applications, both actually seek to make the world more understandable and to give people a common frame of reference.

 

I enjoyed How to Bake Pi. I loved The Art of Logic. Cheng is a very good writer. She uses humor, clever analogies, real-life examples, and not too much complex math to help people (hopefully) become more logical. She points out how logical failures can lead to human conflict, and she devotes chapters to dealing with specific failures in logic. She forced me to reexamine some aspects of my own thinking, pointing out areas where I allowed myself to build a straw man or failed to see false analogies. (Fortunately there were not a lot of these, which may either mean I am relatively logical or that I am quite blind to my own flaws. I do rather hope it is the former!)

 

Cheng also offers some worthwhile cautions in the bid to be logical. One I will reword to say that logic does not necessarily empower one to win a Twitter war. Logic is not always compatible with brevity. One example she spends time on is the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Nice, brief, and sadly easy to manipulate negatively. Some argue that “All Lives Matter” is in some way a negation of the idea, or perhaps an improvement on it. Cheng points out that “Black Lives Matter” is really multiple ideas: 1) Black lives matter AS MUCH AS all other lives, 2) Black lives are not treated by society (in a variety of ways) as though they matter as much as all other lives, particularly the lives of those who are white, and 3) This second fact is a bad thing and we should do something to fix it. When understood in this fullness, “Black Lives Matter” is really trying to express the truth that “All Lives Matter.” They are not in opposition, or at least they should not be. If ALL lives matter, then BLACK lives matter, and in a world where too often black lives are ended prematurely, that matters. But the above paragraph, which condenses her much lengthier treatment of the topic, cannot fit into a social media posting. Logic does not necessarily fit into a tweet.

 

Which is a shame, because after reading The Art of Logic in an Illogical World I have some really great logical arguments for some annoying twitterers. Unfortunately, they just won’t fit!

 

Another caution she gives is to avoid separating logic from emotion. They may be different, but they are not incompatible. When it comes to persuasion, the two are both legs on the same stool. Few people are persuaded by only logic or only emotion (or only evidence, which is a third leg of that stool). Most of us require some combination before we are willing to change our minds. If I wish to convince someone that immigration is good for society, I will probably have to use a mixture of evidence (statistics show that immigrants add to the economy and commit fewer crimes), logic (current US birthrates are not sufficient to power the economy in the future), and some emotional appeal that connects to the person I am arguing with.

 

Of course, it may not matter. All of us have certain axioms, accepted truths, that form a bedrock for our decisions and opinions. If our axioms are in conflict, we may never be able to agree. But understanding that they are different is itself a step toward understanding each other. We may never agree on certain things, but sometimes knowing why we will never agree has its own value.

 

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World should be required reading for anyone who values thinking. (That is an opinion, but I would argue it is a logical one!) It is well written and thought out, and in a world where logic is in woefully short supply it is a delightful attempt to balance the scales.

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Eugenia Cheng

Book Review: The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Science Fiction: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

 

The Imperium was spreading inexorably through the galaxy. Earth was among the many systems under the thumb of Illyricum. Now, an unbeatable invasion force headed for Sabea. Eli Brody, one small part of that invasion force, was among the first through the interstellar gate in the vanguard of the attack. What he quickly found out is that he was also among the last. In an act of desperation, the Sabeans destroyed the gate, shutting their planet off from the rest of the galaxy, but also destroying the entire invasion fleet. Thousands of dead, trapped in the nothingness that was “between” areas of real space.

 

Five years later, a new gate opens and an agent of the Commonwealth visits Sabean space, their first visitor from the larger galaxy. He has one mission: get Eli Brody and take him back to Eli’s home planet of Caledonia. The Commonwealth is at war with the Imperium, and the Imperium is building a weapon on Caledonia that threatens to change the shape of that war. The information that the Commonwealth has received about the weapon has come from one source: Eamon Brody, Eli’s brother. And that source is missing.

 

The Caledonian Gambit is a lot of things, but most of all it is just fun. It careens through the dark alleys of an Irish-inspired planet. It has spies and secret networks and terrorists/freedom fighters. It has family tensions and a pretty girl who can knock you out with her fists. It is spy thriller and space opera and snarky humor all rolled up into one neat package. Dan Moren is a fan of science fiction, and his love for the genre shows in the pages of this delightful novel.

 

Science fiction is a very versatile genre. It has plenty of room for social commentary: economic disparity and racial inequality and social engineering. It let’s us explore scenarios of nuclear holocaust and climate catastrophe and computer meltdowns and global pandemics. It gives us hope in a future that is welcoming for LGBTQ and POC and the differently abled and the non-neural typical. And it leaves room for romps through space that just want to play with heroes and bad guys and secret agents and leave the deeper questions to others.

 

And I’ll admit it: as much as I love the works that shine a light on our present by exploring a potential future, sometimes it’s fun to just see heroes do heroic stuff and chase the secret weapon and fight the bad guys and let the music swell at appropriate times and let the credits run at the end. (Literally, there’s a long list of people at the end of the book that the author thanks.)

 

This may not be one of those books that makes me reflect on our world as it is. This is not a book that changed me or moved me or challenged me. Frankly, I read a lot of those books, and sometimes I don’t mind taking a break. This is a book that I had fun reading. I smiled, I cheered, and I hope that Dan Moren has some further adventures to come for his team from The Caledonian Gambit.

The Caledonian Gambit, Dan Moren

Book Review: The Caledonian GambitDan Moren

Book Review: Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Poetry Collection: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

 

Whereas some words typically only appear in official government proclamations.

Whereas the US Government issued an official apology to the Native American peoples.

Whereas this happened quietly in 2010, without fanfare or participation by any tribal leaders.

Whereas this apology carries no weight of law or expectation for corrective action, and

Whereas Layli Long Soldier is a poet from the Oglala Lakota Nation,

Whereas she is exquisitely positioned and capable to reflect on language and its effects,

Whereas is an extraordinary work by a gifted artist.

 

Finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, Whereas is the debut collection of poems by Layli Long Soldier. The poems cover a range of themes: motherhood, language and meaning, relationships, nature, and especially Native Americans’ relationship to the United States. Those seemingly disparate themes have more connective tissue than is immediately apparent. Just as European descendants forced out the original inhabitants through means that included genocide, their language, English, forced its way into the lives of the survivors, killing native languages and corrupting meanings. For example, “apology” is a word with no direct translation into most tribal languages. Expressions of regret without making something right or undoing a wrong are simply not part of many cultures. Long Soldier compares it to the removal of a tooth–a procedure necessitated in the narrator’s life (presumably the author) by the failure of the US government to uphold funding for tribal health services. Regardless of how much one may regret the loss, the tooth will never be restored.

 

Long Soldier includes elements of American history that don’t always appear in historical biopics or even traditional history classes. Her poem “38” remembers the 38 Dakota men executed by order of Abraham Lincoln for the Sioux uprising. This was the largest “legal” execution in US history. Their execution came during the same week Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Their execution was on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1862.

 

Starvation motivated the Sioux uprising. After confiscating Sioux land in what is now called Minnesota, the government assigned them a miniscule stretch of land to support their population. They were not allowed to hunt this land, or beyond, and they were not given any other financial means for support. Rather than starve, the they fought. They lost. Another 1000 Sioux were jailed, and their remaining strip of land taken. The survivors were exiled to reservations in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska. One of the white men killed by the Sioux during the uprising had mocked the starving people by suggesting they eat grass. His body was found with his mouth stuffed full of grass, an act Long Soldier describes as a poem.

 

Long Soldier dances with words. She questions the definition of “opaque,” suggesting that the word itself should mean the opposite of what it actually means. She physically divides her poems, one comprising a single line with the words rearranged as you follow the outline of a square. Others are divided by straight lines, or are two poems interwoven so reading the left column gives one poem, reading the right column gives a second, and reading the lines sequentially adds another layer. Some poems are taken from other passages that have words ellided. Others have words divided between lines, one letter followed by part of the word, concluding on a third line by the remainder of the word. The visual supports and upholds the lyrical, adding a different dimension to the art of the word.

 

Whereas is not a book for the faint of heart. It challenges and confronts, using history and heritage to forcefully speak out. Wrongs cannot be undone, but they deserve to be acknowledged and understood. Layli Long Soldier speaks for those who no longer can, and she does so with passion, eloquence, beauty, and fire.

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

 

 

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Thriller: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

An Atlee Pine Thriller

 

Atlee Pine is an FBI agent. Resident Agent in the Shattered Rock office, serving a large swath of territory in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, she is actually the sole FBI agent in the region that includes part of the Grand Canyon. She is also a former competitive weight lifter having just missed the Athens Olympics, and the survivor of a childhood encounter with a killer, an encounter that her twin sister, Mercy, did not survive. Long Road to Mercy is a multilayered story about an agent whose past has shaped her present, and taught her some lessons she will need to use if she is to see her future.

 

Being the sole FBI agent means you get called in for a number of different things. Nothing could have prepared her for the crime that takes her to the Grand Canyon. There she is shown the body of…a mule. Not the drug smuggling kind, but the actual horse-donkey hybrid used as pack and transport animals in the canyon. Someone has killed a mule and carved the letters “J” and “K” into its side. A hiker is missing also, which is bad and may be related, but much less unusual.

 

Still, it would not be a Baldacci thriller if the action stopped with a dead animal. Even a dead mule.

 

Pine’s search for the missing hiker, the reason for the mule’s death, and the reason why upper echelons within her own agency and other federal agencies want this case to go away lead her across the country to Washington, D.C., and back again. Accompanied by her no-nonsense secretary, a grandmother who carries a gun and an attitude, Atlee pursues the truth despite the increasing danger to herself and the increasing awareness that some members of the government will stop at nothing to hush this up.

 

Baldacci has created a badass heroine in this novel. Pine knows how to use a gun, knows how to use her fists and her feet, and is as strong as most men. One thing I liked, though, is that her toughness is consistent with her character. There are times when she needs to be rescued–not because she is a woman, but because anyone in the situation would need a hand. Most of the time, though, she is the one charging in to save the day.

 

I enjoy the thriller genre, and Baldacci is one of my favorite authors. His stories have the action, the high level of intrigue from power players working behind the scenes, the unlikely hero (or in this case heroine) working against all odds to save the world, and just enough mystery to keep it interesting through the end. Baldacci knows we are in a time (2018) when the FBI is being publicly challenged and its agents under greater scrutiny than is usually the case, and much of that scrutiny is politically motivated. He uses these current realities in the plot, but also uses them to show that although FBI agents are human, they are also dedicated professionals whose love for country and love for the law has led them to take an often dangerous and thankless job.

 

Long Road to Mercy introduces a new protagonist to the Baldacci canon, and she is up to the task. Atlee Pine is a great character, the other characters in the book make a great team, and I hope she has many more adventures to come in pages of future books.

Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Long Road to Mercy, David Baldacci

Book Review: Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Short Story Collection: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

I’m not sure I have ever used the word “luscious” to describe a book before. I probably would not use it often. I will use it here. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is luscious. Beautifully illustrated, rich, poetic and surreal, it is a visual and lyrical journey into a series of imaginary realms exploring imagined relationships between humans and animals, relationships that don’t actually exist. Some of them we can be grateful are entirely imaginary. Others, it might be nice if they were real. Either way, the paintings Tan pairs with each story or poem are gorgeous and give a visual dimension to the words that makes them even more vivid.

 

It will be impossible in this review to do justice to the Tales from the Inner City. It is worth buying just for the pictures. Tan is known for his graphic novels and children’s books, and won an Oscar for his short film The Lost Thing. Clearly he is comfortable with visual communication, but don’t think for a moment that the visuals detract from the words. If this were just a collection of short stories and poems it would be worth getting. The fact that Tales from the Inner City has both gorgeous and (again) luscious paintings illustrating creative, poetic, and surreal stories is almost unfair to other books.

 

Tales from the Inner City starts with a story about crocodiles living in a skyscraper. On the eighty-seventh floor. Most people do not know they are there, and the crocodiles themselves do not seem to know (or care) that they are in a skyscraper as opposed to a more traditional crocodilian location. Many of the stories follow this kind of strange, absurd premise. One of my favorite stories is of a family that goes fishing in the sky…and catches a moon fish. The painting illustrating this story is also on the dust jacket of the hardcover, a silhouette of a man holding a large silvery, glistening, light-filled fish with orange fins. Horses, unseen by adults but obvious to children, gallop across the skyline of a city. Pigeons live and raise their young in nests built in a flying bank. Owls wait with patients in hospital, assuring them of their constant care. These stories, some whimsical, some poignant, some eerie, some all of those together, tell of a world with magic and wilder than we usually imagine.

 

Most of the stories have just one painting illustrating them. An exception is his metaphor of wolves becoming dogs. More of a poem than a story, Tan writes,

One day I threw my stick at you.

You brought it back.

My hand touched your ear.

Your nose touched the back of my knee.

Then we were walking side by side

as if it had always been this way.

The poem follows the two, human and wolf/dog, together until they are separated by death. Death, though, is imagined as a road or path or river to cross…and the wolf/dog waits on the other side for their human to join them so they can walk together into the next adventure. Illustrating this is a series of paintings of different people and different dogs/wolves separated by different paths. The poses are the same, but everything else is different from one painting to the next. Then, finally, paintings reflect the reunion of the two as they walk together away from that place of separation. I know a lot of dog-lovers who would cry at this story.

 

Tales from the Inner City is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book. Some will love the pictures, some will love the stories, but most will love the way the words give depth to the pictures and the way the pictures give life to the words. Shaun Tan has created something absolutely luscious.

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

 

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Nonfiction: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

 

Light of the Stars could possibly be described as “speculative science.” I don’t know whether that’s a legitimate literary category, but it should be. Adam Frank’s book is nonfiction, a popular science book that puts discoveries in astrophysics, geology, paleontology, climatology, and many other hard sciences into accessible language. But it also examines the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence, exploring the odds of other technologically advanced civilizations having existed in the universe. As Frank himself acknowledges, although the math may be sound, right now there is no proof one way or the other. But, he may be right in asserting that thousands of other technological societies must have existed, given the number of exoplanets already discovered and given the resilience of life on our own planet.

 

Frank’s Light of the Stars is quite wide ranging. He looks at the origin of life on earth. Recent discoveries indicate that the building blocks of life are quite common in the universe. Analysis of space dust shows that many of the same elements found on earth are found in similar percentages beyond our planet. The composition of our planet is far from unique. No other planet quite like earth has been discovered, but neither does it appear that earth is an outlier in the planetary family.

 

One aspect that does make earth unusual is the prevalence of oxygen. Most planets do not have as much oxygen as our planet does. This is specifically the result of life on earth. That is not to say that any form of life would by definition oxygenate a planet, but the high percentage of the gas in our atmosphere tells the story of life here. It is an interesting story, one which shows a curious give and take between planet and inhabitants. Early life developed the ability to transform sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy, with oxygen as a by-product. As oxygen levels rose in the atmosphere, the atmosphere became toxic to the very life that created it. A new form of life then developed, one that could breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The result was a balance in the atmosphere that supported breathable air, and helped regulate temperatures as well. When natural geological processes release more carbon dioxide into the air, life responds by proliferating species that neutralize that carbon dioxide. When too much oxygen threatens to turn the planet into a fiery tinderbox, species which use oxygen flourish until the levels have abated.

 

This process, though, is neither a thoughtfully designed process nor an immediately reactive one. Over eons there is extraordinary stability which benefits life. Over the lifespan of any given species, though, there is plenty of fluctuation that can result in extinction. The very species that transformed the atmosphere into an oxygen-rich mixture were ultimately poisoned by their own success. Life survived, adapted, even benefited from this transformation. But the species that led the charge were undone by it. This is a not so subtle warning to us humans who through global warming are doing the same thing. Our technology is changing the climate in ways both predictable and unpredictable. Earth and life have survived previous warm periods, arguably flourishing with abundance and variety. However, our species was not around during those warm periods–and there is no absolute guarantee we will survive the warming period we have ourselves initiated.

 

It is a valid question, though, to ask whether ANY technologically advanced species will alter its planet almost by definition. Technology has defined our species for less than 200 years. During that time we have faced world destruction through both nuclear devastation and climate change. We are not finished with either threat, and it is entirely possible to guess that our technology could create new and different challenges to our own species even if we successfully survive the current challenges. Is it possible that the very creation of technology, like the transformation of the atmosphere through the introduction of biologically generated oxygen, may prove inimical to its creators? If so, then the likelihood of encountering other intelligent species becomes diminishingly small, if for no other reason than our own window of discovery is doomed to be limited.

 

Unfortunately, unless you accept the recent Harvard paper on the possible nature of interstellar object ʻOumuamua (the paper suggests the object may be a “solar sail”), there is simply no proof right now of any extraterrestrial technology. The absence of proof is not the proof of absence. But despite my strong hope that Frank is correct, I worry that we may not survive our own worst impulses long enough to reach out to the stars.

 

Do not allow my pessimism to turn you away from an interesting, intelligent, and engaging book. Light of the Stars is a thoughtful and fascinating look at possibilities. It is cautionary, but also hopeful. After all, if indeed there have been thousands or even tens of thousands of technological species in our universe, surely some of them survived their own destructive impulses. Whether we ever meet them or not, the possibility that there is a path through the changes we are wreaking on our planet is a promising thought.

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the EarthAdam Frank

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of SightMike Maden

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Fiction Series: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Fans of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series know that the world Clancy created continues in a series of novels about Jack Ryan, Jr. Using his cover as a financial analyst, Jack and his colleagues at the Campus serve as an off-the-books intelligence agency for his father, President Jack Ryan. In this latest offering, Line of Sight, from a new author to the series, Jack is sent on a mission of a different sort. His mother, eye-surgeon Cathy Ryan, hears he is heading to central Europe. She asks her son to look up an old patient of hers, Aida Curic. Dr. Ryan had operated on the little girl twenty years earlier and wanted to know how she was doing.

 

Jack’s trip starts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he has a financial consultation–and where he faces an attempt on his life by a beautiful hit woman. After successfully turning the tables on her, he flies to Sarajevo to look for Aida Curic. After several days unsuccessfully searching, Curic shows up on his doorstep, and the two of them quickly connect.

 

I do not believe in doing negative reviews, but I do have a couple of criticisms of this book. I am a red-blooded cis straight male, but wow! One character is described as a busty blond girl-next-door. Jack’s would-be assassin, or more accurately his first would-be assassin, is a beautiful woman who attempts seduction as her prelude to murder. When Aida Curic shows up on his doorstep, her curves are described in vivid detail–and in very short order Jack and she begin an affair. Given that both her Muslim faith and his Catholic faith are supposed to be central parts of their characters, and furthermore that Ryan is supposed to be a highly trained and disciplined operative who (we would think) is already on his guard after an attempt on his life, this seems more James Bond than Jack Ryan, Jr.

 

The other is probably more of a general criticism of the entire series, but it does specifically apply to this book. Recent novels in this series have been less overtly political–maybe because they were written during an era when Democrats were in the real White House. This book feels at times like a Republican campaign commercial. Granted, you don’t go into a Tom Clancy novel expecting subtlety or nuance in its politics, but the tone is much stronger in this offering, and I found it occasionally distracting.

 

Those criticisms aside, Maden checks the boxes for a Tom Clancy thriller. Multiple intractable foes, bringing both personal danger and global destabilization. The hero needing to use his spycraft, his brilliance, and his physicality to resolve the situation. Familiar names from the Campus bringing their skills to the party. (Though this book does spend much less time with other characters than other authors in the series have.) President Ryan and his cabinet being on-top-of-everything-in-amazing-fashion. These are expectations that fans of the series have, and Maden delivers.

 

Something else that Clancy fans have come to expect is detailed exploration of challenging subjects, whether that is the specs of a Russian sub or the destructive capability of a jumbo jet crashing into a government building. Maden writes with impressive sensitivity and detail about the aftermath and political consequences of the Balkan wars. NATO, America, and Western Europe may not have had any good options during those wars, but the failure to act and the refusal to protect civilians led to the worst atrocities and genocide seen on the continent since World War II, and the scars are still fresh in the region.

 

Tom Clancy Line of Sight is not a perfect novel, but it is a worthy continuation of a series that has entertained generations of readers since the 1980s. I look forward to seeing how the Ryans and the Campus next save the world–though Jack may want to ask a relative to set him up with dates in future books!

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

The Interdependency, Book 2

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Fiction: Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Emperox Grayland II is in deep. Most believe she is in over her head. She is the unexpected, unprepared ruler of the Interdependency, a series of worlds held together by their mutual need for each other and their connection through the “flow,” a poorly understood current outside the bounds of normal space which allows travel between select points in normal space. Humans cannot control the flow. They can access it in certain areas, then exit back out from it in other areas, but they are utterly dependent on the direction and current of the flow itself to get from one system to another.

 

But the flow is changing. Places that were connected to each other are losing that connection. Few know this, fewer accept that it’s happening, and fewer still believe the Emperox’s latest pronouncement: she has had a vision of the flow ending. Beset by enemies, facing inevitable environmental catastrophe, ill-prepared for the throne (she became Emperox because of the untimely death of her older brother who was the heir), and now of questionable sanity, it seems only a matter of time before her accidental ascendancy comes to an abrupt and likely terminal end. The question is whether humanity itself will be snuffed out in the consuming fire.

 

In The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi continues the story begun in The Collapsing Empire. We pick up the threads of Emperox Grayland II; of Lord Marce Claremont, the scientist who brought predictions of the flow’s end to the Emperox; of Lady Kiva Lagos, unlikely ally to the Emperox who loves money and sex with near equal fervor; and of Lady Nadashe Nohamapetan, in jail for a failed assassination attempt but still with cards to play in the game for power and control of the Interdependency. Scalzi weaves these threads together against a backdrop of impending environmental doom. Only one planet in the entire empire is self sustaining. All of the others were settled because of their locations near access points to the flow. None of them are naturally inhabitable. They all rely on each other for something: food, air, water. When the flow is no longer there, they will continue for awhile. But the end will come, sooner rather than later, and everyone will die.

 

Scalzi wrote The Consuming Fire in a two-week burst in June, 2018. (He does NOT recommend this as a model for writing a novel!) Given the timing, during a US election year and in the middle of political battles over climate change, it is easy to see parallels between real life and this book. But don’t think this is simply a parable for modern readers. The characters in Scalzi’s works are involved and complex. The universe he has created for them may face environmental challenges, but these are also people who forced hostile planets and empty space to make room for them. The Interdependency has involved and interconnected political, social, economic, and religious systems, and their differences from any current situation are as significant as any similarities we may see.

 

It may be a couple of years before the next book in this series is published. Considering that the author has multiple active series going at this time, he should be able to keep himself busy until then. I look forward to returning to the Interdependency, though. The Consuming Fire is full of the typical Scalzi wit and irreverence, and is a page-turning space opera that hurtles toward an exciting and climactic finish. If the next installment is as enjoyable as the first two have been, it will be worth the wait.

 

Even if it takes him three weeks to write it!

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book 3 of the Heroine Complex series

 

Bea Tanaka is not just the little sister of superheroine Evie Tanaka. She has super powers of her own: the ability to project emotions onto others and the ability to channel intense anger into a “sonic scream” (or “canary cry,” depending on your taste in comics) which can totally destroy most demon-possessed objects that are attacking. So it’s way past time for Aveda Jupiter and Evie to promote her to full-fledged superheroine and stop treating her like a child. In fact, she has put together a posterboard presentation to convince them of this very thing. To make the point even more compelling, she has used glitter. Lots. Of. Glitter. She even has her own superheroine costume, complete with cape. They totally have to promote her!

 

Heroine’s Journey is the third book of the Heroine Complex series. Like the first two, it is smart, breezy, and snarky. Told in the first person, this time by the aforementioned Bea Tanaka, it follows the ongoing story of our Asian-American superheroines as they protect San Francisco from the threats posed by demons crossing over through portals from another dimension. Bea is now 22, working part-time at a bookstore and hanging out with best friends Leah and Sam. She still lives at the house which serves as HQ for the superheroines Aveda and Evie, but tensions are high between the sisters. Bea knows she is ready to step up. Evie is not so sure. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Demons attack, and Bea is able to step in and make a difference.

 

And, Evie and Bea’s dad returns after 10 years away with virtually no contact.

 

Kuhn really does an amazing job of balancing humor and pathos. Bea’s feelings for her father and her late mother are powerful. Her longing and sorrow drive the character to make some questionable decisions, including hurting people who love her. But Kuhn also shows Bea is usually self-aware, knowing that she is making poor decisions and (usually) able to pull herself back from the brink. She is passionate and proud and simultaneously vulnerable and scared.

 

The characters are the reason to read these books. The plots are cute and funny: demonically possessed rocks and spider-rides from carnivals and killer pens attacking and porcelain unicorns coming to life. (Can anything really surpass the killer demon-possessed cupcakes from the first book in the series? That may be unbeatable.) But Kuhn’s magic is in her characters. I literally cried during one scene near the end when Bea and Evie are having a heart-to-heart. Kuhn writes characters that are truly super. Not just in their fantastic abilities: telekinesis, fire, hair-tentacles, empathic projection, etc. They are super in their feelings, their relationships, their passion, their sexuality, their friendships.

 

Balancing feelings for sisters and lovers and friends and mothers and fathers and enemies is hard in real life. It is seldom done effectively in literature. Kuhn’s characters are transcendent in the power of their emotions. Kuhn is not afraid of conflict or lust or even confusion. Emotions don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to follow a logical progression. Humans, especially those in their early 20s, are allowed to have strong and confusing and sometimes paradoxical reactions to other people. They can and do make mistakes and hurt people and manage to apologize and change and heal those wounds. Seeing it happen on the page makes you really care about these characters.

 

If the Heroine Complex stories are finished, then Heroine’s Journey is an outstanding conclusion. It did not feel like a conclusion, though, and I hope it is not. I feel like there are more stories from these characters, and Sarah Kuhn is the perfect storyteller for them. Read them for the fun, read them for the feels, but read them knowing that in the end you will care more than you thought you would going in.

 

See our reviews of the other stories in this trilogy, Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Book Review: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Fiction: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

I went into Little Fires Everywhere blind. I had read no reviews. I had seen no summaries. I knew it was highly regarded: book of the year according to several sources, NY Times bestseller. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for just how good this story is.

 

The Richardsons are a model suburban family living in an idyllic community, Shaker Heights, OH, an actual suburb of Cleveland. They have four children who are active in high school sports, drama, and music. And as the book opens, they are coming to grips with the fact that their house is burning down, and the likely arsonist is youngest daughter, Izzy.

 

Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, rent their house from the Richardsons. Mia is an artist, selling enough just to get by with help from part-time jobs, but not likely to become famous. She and Pearl have lived all over the country, moving as Mia’s artistic muse calls. Pearl is a student in high school with the Richardson children, and they are hoping to stay put for a few years so Pearl can have a normal high school life.

 

It’s easy enough to summarize the main plot threads. The families become more and more interconnected, as all of the Richardsons are drawn to one or both of the Warrens. Moody and Pearl become best friends. Trip and Pearl start sleeping together. Mrs. Richardson hires Mia to do some housekeeping. Lexie befriends Pearl and calls on her during a time of personal crisis. Izzy finds in Mia the love and support she cannot get from her own mother. As these ties grow stronger, Mrs. Richardson’s lifelong friend tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby who had been abandoned at a fire station. The baby’s birth mother wants to get her back. And this drama, played out in the courts, drives a wedge through the relationships.

 

There’s more. So much more. But frankly, any summary of the plot leaves so much out that it is unfair to the book and to the author. Celeste Ng has written a story about motherhood, about adolescence, about decisions that you carry with you for your entire life, and has written it beautifully and memorably. Her descriptions of Shaker Heights make it part of the book, another character that plays its own role in the drama. Ng grew up in the real Shaker Heights, OH, and you can tell from the details in this book that it was both a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to leave.

 

The mothers in the book are all very, very different. Elena Richardson plays by the rules. She grew up in Shaker Heights. She has some liberal views on things, but cannot abide by chaos or entropy. So when her friend runs into trouble with her adoption, that is unfair. Her friend played by the rules. Mia Warren makes up her own rules. Itinerant for most of her adult life, she raised her daughter as a free spirit. When her friend, Bebe Chow, pulls her life together and wants to reclaim the baby she gave up in a moment of desperation, Mia helps. Pearl is drawn to the stability and predictability of the Richardson household, and sees aspects in Elena that she has never seen in her own mother. Izzy is drawn to the freedom and acceptance of Mia, so different from the judgment she feels by being a less-than-perfect Richardson.

 

Little Fires Everywhere describes the destruction of the Richardson’s home. Gasoline poured on each bed, lit, came together in a conflagration. It also describes the process of starting over from scratch. No one thing destroys a relationship or leads to a life-altering change. It is a bunch of small things, seemingly insignificant on their own, that add up to a prairie fire. Celeste Ng. has written a fantastic book that shows these fires being set in the lives of two suburban families. Like most fires, this one is dangerous and beautiful to watch.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Book Review: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng