Category Archives: 5/5

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels was the last of the Thursday Next books sitting on my to-read shelf. I was a little excited about it, mainly because I’ve had a nonfiction reading jag, and I was ready to return to something I’d find more relaxing and less taxing. What I got was a purely delightful book that stands with its head just a little taller than most of the other Thursday Next books.

One of the best things about this book is that it starts off with Thursday as a middle-aged woman. She has her children and her husband, whom she has told she has given up her work with all enforcement agencies she was previously associated with. Instead, she owns a flooring business.

This is, of course, a lie.

Next works undercover, with the carpet-laying job being a ruse so that she can justify to Landen all the time she spends away from home. Life seems to be going along as smoothly as it can when one’s lying to one’s husband, and then there’s a surprise. Thursday’s son, Friday, who is a typical lazy teenager, is revealed to be the future head of the ChronoGuard — except that he should have started training a long time ago. The fate of the world hangs on his career choice; it appears the universe will end in a couple of days.

Thursday is also training herself from her fifth book, Thursday5, to become a Jurisfiction agent. Sadly, she also gets saddled with Thursday1-4, who turns out not to be cut from the correct cloth for this type of work.

I loved the fact that every plot part was easy to track. Fforde did a much better job of juggling the various aspects of the story within the reader’s mind; some of his other Next books have left me a little confused at points when I had to struggle to remember something that was mentioned quite a bit earlier in the book. This time, it was put together so well that I didn’t have to put forth the effort to find what he’s referencing, which is perfect. I read Thursday Next: First Among Sequels for fun and as a break from nonfiction.

Another great thing about this book is that there is a lot less jumping around between books and time. I prefer it when there’s a cleaner flow, and Fforde provided that wonderfully here. I also liked the fewer references — sometimes the earlier books fell into the fault of stretching for a pun or literary mention. There’s less of that here.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels left me excitedly anticipating my chance to read the next book in the series. That’s the mark of an awesome book.

Rating: 5/5.

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Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould

I have to love Stephen Jay Gould. I like most popular science writers, like Carl Sagan, but how many title their books so that the library clerk comes back with a surprised look on his face? He said to me, “It’s a little thicker than I was expecting.” It was about the thickness I was expecting, and I enjoyed every page of it. Gould has a way of writing about evolutionary science that makes it approachable without dumbing it down.

Gould breaks the book down into several sections, so I’ll talk about each section in turn.

The Scale of Extinction

The book starts out with several essays on modern extinction. I thought he spoke particularly well about the dangers of human-introduced flora and fauna, giving the example of land snails on the south Pacific island of Moorea being killed off by African tree snails. I think it’s an important topic (what with living in Michigan with the fear of Asian carp coming into the Great Lakes), but I also like that he discussed the difference between the wiping out of a particular population as opposed to the extinction of a species. He discusses how unique populations don’t necessarily warrant protection against human encroachment, which I thought was interesting.

Odd Bits of Vertebrate Anatomy
This section contains the eponymous essay. It discusses the history of how vertebrate toes have been viewed — for a long time, it was thought that five was the original number … and then came along older fossils with animals with seven and eight toes. I love how this shows that “scientific certainty” has the potential to change on a dime because of new evidence and new thinkers.

Gould also uses this section to talk about errors Darwin made in his writings. He reminds us that judging Darwin by our own standards leads to knee-jerk reactions without taking into account the times, and he makes the argument that, while some of his thoughts on human behavior and development are racist by today’s standards, they were an attempt to make sense of the world through the nineteenth century’s lens. I liked that essay a lot; it reminded me that my grandchildren will think I have all sorts of old-fashioned and biased ideas, and not to judge too harshly until you see the entire picture.

Vox Populi

Gould breaks this up into two sections, but I’ll just treat it as one big group. Here he talks about the true spirit of scientific inquiry, giving the example of his father, who honestly tried to understand concepts that were blurred for him by the sniping back and forth of two authors of different books on the same topic. I thought it was provoking; I liked the fact that he made me think about whether I can respect and trust what someone says based on authority — indeed, it hammered home that logical fallacy for me.

I also loved his article on Bishop Ussher. This is the man who said that the world started in 4004 B.C. Gould explores how he got that date — and provides the reader with a genuine way to respect the man’s technique (though not the motivation or the end result).

Musings

This is also in a couple of sections. Gould talks about how fallible memory can be while exploring one of his own false memories, and he also discusses authenticity, which I found especially interesting. How odd it is when something is taken out of its proper context, or when a replica is put in its place. Gould gives the example of London Bridge, which was disassembled, shipped to America, and then reassembled for display. That’s not nearly as awesome as seeing it in its original setting, and I get what he’s saying. If we don’t have the right context for something, it won’t make sense, and, worse, it won’t invoke interest or curiosity. Artificiality deadens the imagination — and I think he’s right.

Human Nature

Gould here talks about the human brain and the nature of genius, with Mozart as the example. Mozart wrote amazing music at a tender age, but remained the same developmentally in every other category. I liked that he pointed this out; smart people (or talented people) are not supermen. They’re normal except in specific ways, and we all have our high points.

We also get to hear about the branching of primates. How sad it is to learn that we aren’t a successful part of that lineage — too few primates to view it any other way — but that does make us precious, I suppose.

Grand Patterns of Evolution

This was probably my favorite part of the book. There’s one section that talks about creatures that had hard parts that fossilized easily that were once thought to be individual species because of the lack of any connecting material. It took until someone found a rare fossil that preserved soft tissue that it was known to be one larger creature! I thought that was great, and also very much in the spirit of this book — science is fallible and science is changing. Neat!

Revising and Extending Darwin

Here, Gould discusses the changes evolutionary theory has gone through. I think this is important information — we all know about Darwin and his ideas, but how many of us know the amount of tweaking those ideas have gone through? Gould talks about his own idea of punctuated equilibrium (although I’m not sure he actually ever uses the term), which states that things change little during down times, and then explode during times of great catastrophe or environmental upheaval. He also discusses neoteny,which is one of the few things I remember from my psychology classes in college — mainly because I think it’s a clever little tool evolution developed.

Reversals — Fragments of a Book Not Written

One of my favorite concepts is in this section. At one point, a species of clam was thought extinct because there were no fossils found of it after a certain point in the strata. Then they were found in the 1800s, alive, in Australian waters. Here Gould drives home the point that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How could it be? You can’t prove a negative — you just have to hope that you’re going in the right direction, and if there are exceptions, that you can accept them.

Overall, I love Gould’s writing. It shines with a humor and feels researched without being tedious. I think anyone interested in natural history or the history of science would love Eight Little Piggies.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

On the advice of a coworker, I put The Hunger Games on my reading list. I noticed that the third book in the series came out not too long ago, and I thought I would give it a shot — it’s a successful series and it came with a recommendation. I’m so glad I did.  The Hunger Games is a remarkable young adult book, and I’m pleased I got the chance to read it.

Suzanne Collins wrote the book in the present tense, which is unusual. It’s not every day that a piece of fiction is written that way. It serves The Hunger Games well, telling the story of Katniss and her entry into The Hunger Games in a spectacular way. Katniss’ journey is a kinetic one — there’s a lot of movement, whether it be benign hunting or the malevolent tracking and frantic running of the actual Games, someone’s always doing something. That’s why I love the choice of present tense for the book. It captures the moment because it is the moment.

The story could be summarized on two levels. The large-scale plot is that of Panem, the capital of the what used to be the United States, and its treatment of the outlying districts it has sovereignty over. At one point in the past, the districts rebelled, but failed in their rebellion. Panem then started The Hunger Games, a competition in which one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen must fight to the death for the amusement of the people in the capital. The citizens of the capital are well-fed and happy, while those who toil in the districts live fairly austere lives.

The small-scale story is of Katniss, who volunteers to take the place of her sister when she is selected to be the female representative for District 12, one of the poorer districts. Katniss has experience with hunting, which she did with Gale, a male friend. The male representative for The Hunger Games is Peeta, a baker’s son who has been on the periphery of Katniss’ awareness for a long time. The development of their relationship through the preparation for and the events of The Hunger Games is compelling and complex. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a relationship so well-written and heartbreaking.

If I had to pick a favorite part of The Hunger Games, it would be the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I really want to know what’s going to happen next. There’s little an author wants more than to gain readership, but I suspect if Collins’ other work is of similar quality, a lack of readers is not something she’ll have to worry about.

Rating: 5/5.

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Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

After a break, I’ve gone back to the Dresden Files.  My fiancé has nearly caught up to me (he’s on the third book in the series), so I felt the need to keep ahead of him.  What a good thing it is that he’s indirectly pushed me, because Summer Knight goes beyond the first three books in the series into creating an actual Dresden mythos, rather than being more reliant on traditional folklore to tell the tale.  I think this stretched Butcher more as an author, and the result is an engaging and eminently readable book.

The book starts off where a Dresden Files book usually starts off — with Harry in dire financial and emotional states.  Instead of being offered a well-paying job by a desperate woman, however, he gets a shock.  His faerie godmother has traded her claim over him to the Queen of Winter, Mab.  She offers to release him from all obligations to her if he performs three jobs for her.  The first she tasks him with is to clear her of the murder of the Summer Knight, the guardian of the opposing faerie court.

Not so bad, right?  Well, he is also tasked with passing a test from the White Council of Wizardry, which also involves the faerie courts.  If he isn’t able to pass the task, he’ll get turned over to the vampires (whom he started a war with in the last book).  This would not be a good thing.  No pressure, but Dresden has a lot riding on his shoulders — and the return of an old flame makes things even more complicated.

Summer Knight brings something completely new to the Dresden Files series.  We get an actual second world to explore.  There are some old characters making a return, but something feels really fresh and new about what Butcher is offering the reader.  It may be that I just haven’t read enough in the topic area, but, other than the names, I think a lot of what he delivers is out of his imagination in a different way from the other books.  It feels creative in the most basic sense — he’s making a new world for us to explore, with new characters and situations.

I really think that Summer Knight is the best of the Dresden Files books.  There’s a lot to keep track of, so it keeps the brain working.  Dresden’s path in this book is by no means predictable, and the fact that we’re taken on a wondrous trip through both Chicago and the Nevernever makes it special in a different way from the books that precede it.

Rating: 5/5.

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Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins

Hot Lights, Cold Steel is, in a way, like many other books I’ve read before.  It’s a medical memoir, a genre I have an interest in.  Yet it manages to set itself apart through Collins’ sensitive and insightful prose about not only his training, but, really, about the entirety of his life through the four years of his residency.  Collins has written a book enjoyable for many reasons, a feat not often achieved by a book typically focused on one, partitioned part of the author’s life.

The book starts off with a scenario Collins faced toward the end of his residency — being in charge of the almost impossible decision of whether to amputate a fourteen-year-old’s leg.  Collins then takes us back to the beginning of his residency at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in orthopedic medicine, outlining his four years there in chapters labeled by month.

One of the most refreshing things about Hot Lights, Cold Steel is that Collins is so open about the fear and uncertainty he had going in.  He felt inadequate and unprepared for a residency at such a renowned medical center.  He discusses his efforts to study up on procedures and conditions he would have to do.  He discusses the friendships that he made and the quick understanding he had to make of the personalities of each of the attending physicians he worked under.

More interesting was his discussion of the paltry amount of money a resident makes, even at a place like Mayo Clinic.  He found himself forced to moonlight at a hospital in a city ninety miles to the west, which meant that he was even more exhausted than the average resident.

Making his life more complicated was his family situation.  He had, at the beginning of his residency, a wife and a young daughter.  By the end of the four years, they had added three more children to the mix.  His wife, who had training as a nurse, became a stay-at-home mom out of necessity.  Collins is very open about the strain the long hours away from home placed on their marriage, and how his relationships with his children suffered.  This was actually the part of the book I found most compelling — many of these medical memoirs discuss the physical exhaustion, but rarely discuss the toll the long hours and unpredictable schedules can take on a family.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about Hot Lights, Cold Steel.  Collins has produced a book that allows the reader into both his personal and professional life with remarkable ease.  From his writing, he feels like someone anyone could know, yet he has the brilliance to write about his experiences with both respect and humor.  This ability just makes him more interesting, and makes his book more appealing.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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