Book – Books of Hours are the most common book we have from medieval history – beautiful, elaborate manuscripts created for one (very wealthy) person, providing them with a list of holidays throughout the year and prayers throughout the day. Inspired by this format, Jenkins has created a kind of uber-trivia book, a collection of small historical stories and interesting bits of information that match up with the hours of the day and the months of the year.
The cherry-blossom festivals of Japan, duelists who dreaded getting up in the morning more than the upcoming duel, writers’ personal schedules and national holidays, recipes and recommendations (including a recipe for Nostradamus’s aphrodesiac jam, and a recommendation not to try it), historical snapshots of Renaissance Florence, 1930s Shanghai, and desserts that you set on fire before serving – this book has a little bit of everything. More in-depth than a usual trivia book, but without a wholly defining theme, other than the passage of time, I found this perfectly wonderful for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of tea.
Book – The body you are wearing used to be mine. So begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas is holding when she awakes in a London park surrounded by bodies all wearing latex gloves. With no recollection of who she is, Myfanwy must follow the instructions her former self left behind to discover her identity and track down the agents who want to destroy her. She soon learns that she is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization that battles the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. She also discovers that she possesses a rare, potentially deadly supernatural ability of her own.
The single most important thing in a book written in the first person is that the reader likes the main character, preferably right away. Fortunately, I liked Myfanwy within about a page and a half. She has an entirely reasonable reaction to waking up surrounded by dead bodies without knowing who she is: she checks herself into the most expensive hotel she can find and panics. And then she thinks, I have got to figure out what is going on. And she does.
Myfanwy is that rare character who strikes a perfect balance between perfectly normal and exceptionally capable. The way she handles her job as supernatural administrator is hilarious – lots of “um, sure, okay, let’s move the meeting with my colleague’s second body up by half an hour.” If I have a complaint, it’s that the mystery behind the whole plot of the book is a little slight. There are so many characters coming and going that when the traitor was finally revealed, it took me a few minutes to remember who he was.
This reminded me delightfully of China Miéville’s Kraken and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series; readers looking for more deeply weird urban fantasy will like those as well. The sequel, Stiletto, is due out in June.
Movie – Caleb works for Bluebook, the world’s largest search engine, and he’s just won a contest whose prize is to spend a week living with the company’s founder, Nathan. When he arrives at Nathan’s isolated, ultra-modern estate, though, Caleb signs a nondisclosure agreement and learns that he’s been hand-picked to test Nathan’s most audacious new project: an artificial intelligence. Her name is Ava.
Ex Machina starts off as a beautifully realized science fiction story – one of the rare ones that make it all the way to film with all their complex ideas intact underneath the special effects. This is a small movie, resting on the shoulders of the actors and the characters rather than the effects (although the special effects on Ava’s transparent android body are so good you forget they’re special effects). Nathan embodies the modern brogrammer, and Oscar Isaac is note-perfect throughout. Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson (son of award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson), is the more stereotypical computer nerd. But neither of them are as compelling as Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Caleb is supposed to be testing whether or not Ava is really conscious, but as an audience who’s already seen plenty of movies where Robots Are People, Too, we’re waiting to see what he’ll do when he decides that she is.
And that’s where Ex Machina turns into a horror movie – a quiet one, nearly bloodless, but no less bloodcurdling for that. Why, after all, did Nathan put his AI into a female body?
And what are they all going to do with it?
Book – An undeniably alien communication is received on Earth. While governments bicker and argue about what to do next, the Jesuits quietly fund their own miniature space program, designed to send one small group of scientists and missionaries to the signal’s source, to see what they can find. It goes…about as well as first contacts with Jesuit missionaries traditionally goes: fine, until it isn’t, and then it’s horrible.
This is the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, priest and scientist, heretic and – perhaps – saint, who went to another world to meet the people there and suffered terribly for his mistakes. The story is told largely in flashback, as Sandoz is interviewed by the Vatican to determine exactly what went wrong with the mission and who is to blame. So even though large portions of the book are really very happy and cheerful, there’s an ominous cloud hanging over the whole as we wait to find out just what went so terribly wrong. It’s also a story about good intentions: how much having them can and can’t make a difference, and how we apportion blame for things we wish had never happened.
Book – I had so much fun with 7th Sigma. I love crossover genres, books that combine a little bit of everything to get something new, and I think this might be one of the most ambitious I’ve ever seen – science-fictional post-apocalyptic Western spy-fi. Wait, that doesn’t get the aikido in there. And the characters are great. Kimble starts out as a street kid who gets pretty much adopted by Ruth, a divorced aikido master who’s heading out to start a new dojo in the territory. This is definitely Kimble’s story – by the end of the book he’ll be heading off to college – but I loved Ruth from the moment she walked into town. She’s determined to make for herself the kind of life she wants, and she isn’t going to let anything get in her way. I admire that.
I think my favorite part was the serial nature of the story; aside from the last two adventures, each of the chapters is pretty much self-contained. It gave the book the feel of an old Western TV show. Heck, I’d love to see this universe as a TV show. SyFy, I’m looking at you.
Book – I read this book as a companion to the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn,” which is taught by the author and is, in fact, nearly identical to the book. But for once I wouldn’t brush it off as unnecessarily repetitive; in fact, I’d recommend both the video lecture-based course and the book together. Reading the book really helped drive home some of the key points from the lectures by actually putting them into practice. Spaced repetition and recall – reviewing material some time after you’ve learned it – are easy to do when the book and lectures are covering the exact same material, but you’re a little behind in the book where you are in the lectures, and vice versa. Oakley also recommends trying to recall the material in a different setting than you originally learned it, to build flexibility into your understanding – easy to do when I was watching the lectures at home on my computer and reading the book at work over lunch.
I’m not in school any more, but I’ve been trying to improve my math skills (I got good grades in school by avoiding math wherever possible), and this book & course have offered me some useful techniques for learning, partially just by making it clear what I was already doing instinctively to learn things that come easily to me. Now that I know what those things are, it should be easier to apply them in situations where I have to stretch myself a little more.
Book – What if everything we know about science were wrong, just a side-effect of a particularly orderly-minded god who is just the last in a long line of forces controlling the universe? And what would happen then if that god were dethroned? That’s the central premise of The Library at Mount Char, one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve read in years, but it’s not the central focus. The focus of the book is on Carolyn, one of several orphans who were raised and trained in the mysterious, convoluted Library, who is now fighting for her life and her independence after her father – the orderly force holding the universe together – has been murdered.
Part fantasy, part thriller, part – well, I don’t know what it is, but it’s a fascinating, fast-paced story. There’s time travel, so some things don’t make a lot of sense to start with, but Carolyn’s narration is so confident that it’s easy to trust her. It is a very violent book, with several scenes of graphic torture, which I’m not usually sensitive about, but the first thing I told people about it when they asked was, “It’s so violent!” It’s got a great payoff, though – and although it doesn’t need a sequel, I’d love to read one anyway.
Book – It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mad scientist in possession of an evil plan must be in want of a minion. Ballister Blackheart is a mad scientist. Nimona is a teenage girl who can turn into a shark. Obviously they’re made for each other.
Okay, Ballister’s plan isn’t really evil so much as it’s subversive – turns out the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all. And he’s a scientist, and yes he does invent giant lasers, but he’s not terribly mad. Nimona can turn into a shark, though. That’s pretty cool.
Nimona starts out full of wacky hijinks, but it has a very powerful story at its core, about friendships that have suffered unbearable things and about figuring out how to belong somewhere when you’ve never belonged anywhere before. The final chapters are heart-wrenching in the best way. If you’re sad at the end, be sure to check out the author’s tumblr, where she regularly posts little sketches of the characters being happy and adorable (as they should be). And, of course, check out her series Lumberjanes, which is also utterly fantastic.
Book – I admit it, I have watched Hoarders. It’s fascinating and horrifying all at once, and even while I felt like a bad person for watching these people’s lives splashed all over TV, I couldn’t look away. But what’s really going on when someone hoards? What are they thinking, and when they’re putting themselves in danger, how can we help them? Randy Frost is one of the few psychologists studying hoarding and its treatments – most therapists and psychiatrists say that it can’t be treated at all – and Stuff is his explanation, for a popular audience, of exactly what’s going on here.
According to Frost, hoarding happens on a spectrum, and a lot of things that are pathological in hoarders are things we all do – using our things as a way to express our identity, for instance, or using our things as a kind of security blanket. This is a little unsettling to read, to be honest, because you can see just how short the distance is from “I am most comfortable when surrounded by my own things” to “I can’t cope with my things going away.” He explains why dramatic clean-outs like they do on TV almost never work, and why they’re sometimes dangerous. I found the whole thing fascinating, and it certainly prompted me to re-think of my own relationship to my stuff.
Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.
I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.
I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.