Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3)

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4814-3048-7

“We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.”

It’s senior year, and Lara Jean Song Covey is anxiously awaiting her college acceptance letters, and looking forward to participating in traditions like the senior class trip, prom, and Beach Week. Her boyfriend Peter has already accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Virginia, but Lara Jean is worried her grades aren’t good enough to into UVA. She’s keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding to their next door neighbour, Ms. Rothschild, but sooner or later, the letters will come, and Lara Jean will have to make some big choices about her future.

As in previous installments, the Covey family dynamic is one of the standout aspects of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Kitty and Lara Jean have both adjusted to the presence of their father’s new girlfriend in their lives. But Margot has missed that adjustment, and so when she comes home to visit, Trina’s presence in their house suddenly feels tense in a way it never did before. For Kitty and Lara Jean, everything has changed slowly, but from Margot’s outside perspective, her family is changing at the speed of light. Each in their own way, the Song girls have to face what this means for their mother’s memory, and their family going forward.

Back at the beginning of the series, the action began with Margot breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Josh, before heading off to college in Scotland. Before she died, their mother advised Margot, “don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Now Lara Jean finds herself in Margot’s shoes, facing down her last year of high school, and her dead mother’s advice. Will she follow in Margot’s footsteps, or carve her own path?  Big decisions about her future lie ahead, and Jenny Han has placed this dilemma at the heart of the plot.

Unlike the previous two installments in the series, Always and Forever, Lara Jean has no embarrassing plot catalyst, which was a relief to me as someone who suffers from vicarious embarrassment. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean was forced to face up to her past crushes—including her sister’s ex-boyfriend—when a box of her old love letters got mailed out. In P.S. I Still Love You, her tentative new relationship with Peter was tested when a video of them making out in a hot tub on a school trip was posted to an anonymous Instagram account. Always and Forever, Lara Jean doesn’t rely on any such device, and the book does not suffer for it. Jenny Han really captures the essence of senior year, and strikes the perfect balance in her conclusion to this series.

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You might also like The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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On Tyranny

Cover image for On Tyranny by Timothy Snyderby Timothy Snyder

ISBN 978-0-8041-9011-4

“The mistake is to assume that rulers who come to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions.”

In On Tyranny, Yale History professor Timothy Snyder offers twenty principles for resisting authoritarian government, drawing cautionary examples from twentieth century European history. It grew out of a Facebook post Snyder made in the aftermath of America’s 2016 election. In it, he attempts to bring his wide knowledge of European history, and the collapse of democracies, to bear on the current political moment.

On Tyranny follows an arc that moves from the early days of rising authoritarianism, through the arrival and culmination of overt authoritarian government. Snyder’s first principle is “Do not obey in advance,” and the final principle is “Be as courageous as you can.” On that last point, he offers only one sentence of explanation: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” In between, he offers, and expounds upon, suggestions such as “Remember professional ethics” and “Investigate” the truth for yourself, detailing how the compromise of such values led to problems in the past.

A significant number of the examples used in On Tyranny are drawn from Nazi Germany. This makes sense given that this is part of Snyder’s area of expertise, but will no doubt prove problematic with some readers, for whom comparing anything at all to Hitler or Nazism is tantamount to hysteria. But central to Snyder’s argument is that the collapse of German democracy is not as unique as we might like believe. “Never again” is a commitment to remember and prevent such tragedies, not a statement that such things are no longer possible. Combine that with a certain strain of American exceptionalism that holds that the United States’ love of freedom makes such a thing impossible, and you have a dangerous brew. However, fascist Italy, Communist and modern Russia, and Czechoslovakia also provide cautionary examples that show this is not merely about the Holocaust. Synder is also explicitly concerned with the current political moment, and when relevant, he provides contemporary American examples of things that might be cause for worry.

Snyder is perhaps a little too dismissive of the internet. This is not to say that he does not make valid points about the vulnerabilities it opens us up to. But he warns against it even as he cites the example of Ukrainian success at countering Russian attempts to disseminate misinformation online. Moreover, he completely misses the warning sign that authoritarian states often seek to control the internet, in order to keep dissidents from sharing information, or spreading the truth about what is occurring in their country. Whereas the Nazis only allowed state-sanctioned radiobroadcasts, and banned listening to overseas stations, modern dictators seek to control television programming and internet access. We should be just as concerned about authoritarian attempts to control the internet as we are about curtailments in freedom of the press.

On Tyranny is a brief tract that can be read in an hour, but offers up thoughts and ideas that deserve much longer attention and consideration. It is a very short and accessible primer on the warning signs of authoritarianism, and the early actions that can be taken by ordinary people to guard against it. It is by no means comprehensive, but is excellent food for thought nevertheless. Think of this as politic disaster preparedness. You hope that you’ll never need that earthquake kit in your closet, but if the big one hits, you’ll be happy you prepared.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Cover image for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”

Once upon a time, twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott opened a trunk in their attic, and found an impossible staircase that led down, down, down, to a magical world called The Moors. A world where Jack didn’t have to be the perfect girly girl for her mother, and Jill didn’t have to be the sports-loving tomboy standing in for an absent son. But still a world where they would have to be polar opposites in a different way, choosing between The Master and Dr. Bleak, the vampire, and the mad scientist. If they still have one thing in common, it is that they want to stay on the Moors forever. But we all know that doorways come calling when you least expect them.

Every Heart a Doorway was a fan favourite last year, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’ve seen very few complaints about it, but I do remember some laments about the fact that it was not in fact a portal fantasy, but rather the aftermath of one. Down Among the Sticks and Bones scratches that itch, while also further developing Jack and Jill’s backstory, and how they got to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Getting a better look at their family background is particularly enlightening, and indeed proves to be a main theme of the novella.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is very much about relationships between parents and their children, the delicate balance of hopes and expectations, and how easily children can be suffocated beneath them. “It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own,” writes McGuire, in the voice of someone who clearly remembers. This dynamic not only warps Jack and Jill’s characters, but also their relationship with one another. The Moors is the first place where they can define their own siblinghood, beyond the parameters their parents set out for them, but they find that they don’t really know how. And of course, part of adulthood is defining oneself beyond the boundaries of your family of origin.

If there is one thing to lament about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it is that the story ends before Jack and Jill arrive at Eleanor West’s school. We don’t get to see their early days there, and nor do we learn more about the interesting system of worlds McGuire has set up. But more will no doubt be revealed with Beneath the Sugar Sky, due out in January 2018.

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You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Everybody Lies

Cover image for Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitzby Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

ISBN 9780062390875

“There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from the traditional sources but was quite apparent in the searches people made.”

Big data has been much hyped as the next big thing in science, but Everybody Lies sets out to show what can be done with big data that wasn’t possible before, while also acknowledging its shortcomings, and the ways it can be complemented by traditional small data collection techniques. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes the argument that the Google dataset he has been working with is particularly valuable, because unlike even anonymous surveys, users have an incentive to be honest, and little or no sense of wanting to impress anyone. To get the information they want from Google, they must query honestly about even the most taboo subjects, from sex to race to medical problems. Facebook, for example, is not nearly as useful, because people are consciously presenting a certain version of themselves to their friends. But if you want Google to bring you back the “best racist jokes,” you have to tell it so. You can’t hide, and still get what you want. The result is a partial but unprecedented glimpse into the human mind.

I picked up this book to get the interesting facts that Stephens-Davidowitz learned from his analyses of this revealing dataset. That said, there is also plenty of basic introduction to data collection and research methodology, which might be a bit tedious for anyone who is already familiar with this material. However, I appreciated the attention to basics when it came to statistical analysis, an area where I don’t have the same background knowledge or experience. The author also spends a good bit of time trying to convince skeptics on one side that big data is useful, and on the other side, warning evangelists of the limitations. A big dataset can actually be an encumbrance if you don’t know what questions to ask of it. However, I sometimes took issue with the way the author tried to present information in an accessible way. Comparing a large dataset to your Grandma’s lifetime of collected wisdom is more harmful than helpful because only one of those things is based on verifiable numbers rather than impressions.

One subject that doesn’t get much attention in Everybody Lies is privacy. Stephens-Davidowitz notes that the Google datasets are anonymized, and that multiple sessions by the same user are not connected. He does reference an old Yahoo dataset that released the search histories of anonymized users, which enabled a different level of pattern detection between searches made by the same individual. Later in the book, he delves into the ethics of using pattern detection from large dataset in particular situations. For example, a study has been done that examines which words in a loan application—God, promise, will pay, thank you, hospital—are most indicative of a potential default on the loan’s repayment. This study used the loan application itself, but what if in the future your suitability for a job was calculated based on analyzing patterns in the language of anything and everything you’ve ever written publicly on the internet? This really only brushes the surface of potential privacy problems.

So what did Stephens Davidowitz find that was interesting? A methodology of approximating the percentage of American men that are gay that accounts for those who are in the closet more accurately than any previous estimate. A behind the scenes look at where and when racist searches are highest that might explain discrepancies between polling numbers and Obama’s actual election results. The one telling Google search that also best predicted the current president’s success in any given electoral district, regardless of public polling numbers. These are the fascinating glimpses into the human psyche that I came for, but I had to read through a lot of other information of questionable interest to get at them.

Cork Dork

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker by Bianca Bosker

ISBN 978-0-14-312809-0

Bianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors.

Cork Dork is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the wine world, approached from the broad perspective of a reporter. Bosker looks at blind tasting, tasting notes, and sommelier certification, but also the history of how the current batch of terms for describing wine came into use, how science and chemistry are changing wine making, and the evolution of the sommelier profession. Much of the book takes place in restaurants, the setting we usually associate with sommeliers, but Bosker also ventures out to wine festivals, vineyards, and private tasting groups, providing a perspective that goes beyond the service we’ve come to expect with our meals.

Cork Dork is mostly a behind the scenes look at the wine world, but Bosker does spend some time unpacking the basic elements of wine tasting for beginners. If they’re not just doing it to be pretentious, then what are connoisseurs looking for when they swirl a glass of wine and watch it run down the inside of the glass? The size and speed of the drops that run down hint at the alcohol level of the wine. Ever get that puckery feeling in your mouth after sipping wine? Those are the tannins, which come from either the skin of the grape, or the barrels in which the wine is aged. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to letting civilians see the aspects of the wine world they might otherwise never have access to, rather than outright instruction.

The rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service. She starts out as a cellar rat, keeping inventory, and stocking bottles, and job shadows sommelier friends in high end Manhattan restaurants. A good deal of the humour of the book comes from the fact that Bosker is an outsider, with very little practical experience in the wine world. Even as she studies varieties and vintages, and memorizes vast wine trivia, she can barely decant a bottle, let alone smoothly execute proper service to a table of expectant diners. It is also here that she touches on the perils of being a woman in the wine world. Other women working as sommeliers warn her to always address the wife, lest she be accused of flirting, and to be especially demure and respectful when dealing with older people who may be skeptical of her knowledge.

With her journalism background, Bosker would be remiss if she did not address studies that have discredited wine expertise, including a study by Frederic Brochet which dyed white wine red, then asked oenology students to describe the flavour. They overwhelmingly used terms associated with red wine. This might indicate that even experts cannot tell red and white wine apart, or that even experts can be manipulated by environmental factors. Similar experiments have been performed by dyeing lemon Jello red, and asking tasters to identify the flavour, a test which regularly confounds people. By the end of the book, Bosker lies in an fMRI machine, and correctly identifies two wines given to her through a straw, sight unseen, with no bottles, labels, or prices to sway her judgement. She identifies both correctly, a task that utterly baffled her during her first forays into blind tasting groups at the beginning of the book.

Bosker also acknowledges the high degree of subjectivity and inconsistency among experts as to what constitutes a “good” wine. Experiments have shown that wine awards are no better than random, and that the same judge can vary wildly in their assessment of the same wine in a blind test. Bosker spends a lengthy section of the book trying to get to define “good” wine. With the refinements of science and modern technology, very few wines today are legitimately bad, that is to say, poorly made or gone off. An acceptable modern wine is narrowly separated from an excellent one compared to the range and uncertainty that once existed. Yet some bottles of wine cost as much as a latte, and others could consume your entire annual salary. Bosker ultimately decides on a highly subjective measure of quality suggested to her by a mentor—“one sip leads to another,” that is, you want to keep drinking it.

Cork Dork has a strong balance of history, humour, and reportage that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the world of sommeliers and wine connoisseurs. Even a reader skeptical about the science can be fascinated by the history of wine and the complex culture that has grown up around it, and Bosker makes for an excellent guide.

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Waking Gods (Themis Files #2)

Cover image for Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvelby Sylvain Neuvel

ISBN 978-1-101-88672-4

“I’m grateful for Themis, to be in her company every day. I feel drawn to her. She isn’t of this world either. She doesn’t belong here any more than I do. We’re both out of place and out of time, and the more I learn about her, the closer I feel to understanding what really happened to me.”

Almost a decade has passed since the events of Sleeping Giants, when Rose Franklin and her team hunted down and assembled the pieces of the giant alien robot known as Themis. Rose has dedicated her time to studying Themis, and Kara and Vincent have continued to try to master operating her. Then another robot materializes in the middle of London, and the government’s response inevitably leads to a deadly confrontation. The appearance of Hyperion also drives home how little the Earth Defense Corps really knows about Themis’ combat capabilities. And that knowledge will be more necessary than ever when more robots begin to materialize around the globe, in the world’s most populous cities. The aliens know that humanity has found Themis, and they are not happy about it.

The structure of Waking Gods continues in the interview format Sylvain Neuvel used with great success in Sleeping Giants, with the unnamed character who I always think of as the Interrogator resuming his contact with the Earth Defense Corp after a long silence. Neuvel continues to work this technique, for example by having General Govender practice his speech to the UN General Assembly for the Interrogator before he delivers it. This in fact makes for a more interesting scene than simply witnessing the speech directly, as we gain insight into the Interrogator through the changes he suggests. However, as the situation on Earth descends into chaos, the narrative structure devolves in parallel, taking on more of a transcript style than an interview format. Everything is falling apart, and the style mimics that. We do, however, find out more about the mysterious Interrogator, and his even more mysterious friend Mr. Burns.

It has been nine years since Rose Franklin returned from the dead, mysteriously missing three years of her life and memories. For all that time she has struggled with what this rebirth means, whether she is really Rose Franklin, or merely a copy with some of her memories and knowledge. That doubt has been eating away at her stability for nearly a decade, but when the robots begin to appear, and Themis is called into action, it is the world that has become unstable, and Rose who must hold steady in the face of the unknown. Her development is one of the most interesting aspects of this series.

One of the more disturbing plotlines picks up a dangling thread from Sleeping Giants. Before being ousted from the Earth Defense Corps, geneticist Alyssa Papantoniou harvested ova from Captain Kara Resnick without her knowledge or consent. Kara has never been informed about this violation, because those who knew about it decided that the situation had been taken care of with Alyssa’s removal. When it turns out that Alyssa may have had time to act on her plans before her ouster, they continue to delay telling Kara what was done to her as they try to confirm whether or not Alyssa succeeded. If I can get a little bit spoilery here for the remainder of this paragraph… I absolutely loathe plotlines where women who are childless by choice are forced into motherhood. And I especially hate the implication that their choice was just due to some sort of damage, and really they would be great mothers. In short, I really did not enjoy how Kara’s character was developed in this volume.

In Waking Gods, the genre elements of Sleeping Giants are intensified, and the plot becomes more fast-paced. There is now no question that Themis has alien origins, or that aliens visited earth long ago, and that some of them stayed behind. Waking Gods explores the fallout of these conclusions, but also the more dramatic effects of the aliens becoming aware of how humanity has developed since their last contact. At the same time, the aliens are not significant characters, since this is really an exploration of what it means to be human. Although the duology stands well together, the epilogue hints at the possibility of further adventures.

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You might also like The God Wave by Patrick Hemstreet

March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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The Prey of the Gods

Cover image for The Prey of the Gods by Nicky Drayden by Nicky Drayden

ISBN 9780062493033

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader Program.

If there’s one rule in planning for world domination, it’s to make sure you look good doing so.

South Africa, 2064. Sydney, a debased demi-goddess with dwindling powers, schemes to find enough fear, blood, and belief to feed on to return to her heyday. A new designer drug is hitting the market, and unleashing the divine potential of seemingly ordinary humans, and in it Sydney sees the possibility of chaos such as the world has not experienced for a long time. Meanwhile, her old mentor Mr. Tau is preparing to release a new demi-goddess into the world, one who may help her or undermine her, depending on how Sydney plays her cards. Can a pop star, two gay teens, a little girl, a politician, and a robot foil her plans?

To be honest, it is hard to give a concise, non-spoilery plot summary of The Prey of the Gods. There are at least eight point of view characters, and a lot of seemingly disparate elements that have to come together in this unusual novel. The book has elements of both fantasy and science fiction, as well as a distinct sense of humour. Sydney is a demigoddess, and mythology forms the underpinning of the story, but it is science that unleashes the action. The new drug hitting the market seems like a hallucinogen, but is really tapping into the divine potential of humans, including powers such as mind reading and manipulation that will create unprecedented chaos as they spread through the population. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous personal robots belonging to the human cast are gaining sentience, and questioning their role in society.

Perhaps the book’s strongest feature is its diverse and interesting cast of characters. I was particularly drawn to Nomvula, the young Zulu girl, and Councilman Stoker, the cross-dressing politician with a secret life as a drag performer who is starting to realize that he just might be trans. Drayden has also created an interesting character in Riya Natrajan, a fairly unlikeable pop diva who has been faking a drug problem to hide a more serious chronic medical condition from the public. Additional points of view come from Muzi, who is struggling with a crush on his best friend, Elkin, and This Instance, later named Clever 4-1, Muzi’s newly sentient personal robot. The mix of characters is exactly as odd and intriguing as you would expect, but works well once the reader gets everyone straight, and especially after the narratives begin to overlap.

Part of what gives nuance to the large cast is the theme of family, which is important for each character in different ways. When the book opens, Muzi is about to be circumcised not because he wants to, but because he knows that going through this traditional rite of passage will please his grandfather, whose approval he craves. Much of Riya’s backstory is defined by her mother’s death, and the complications that ensued in her relationship with her father, who she has not spoken to in years. Nomvula has grown up before her time caring for her sickly mother, with no father or siblings. When Mr. Tau and Sydney come along, her desire for family connections will change everything. Councilman Wallace Stoker is less interested in politics than music, but pressure to continue the familial political legacy keeps him from pursuing his dreams, or realizing his true identity. His domineering mother has her eye on the premier’s office, and will let nothing get in the way of her son achieving that landmark.

The Prey of the Gods is a humourous, genre bending romp through the near future, fearlessly mixing and matching demi-goddesses and robots, pop stars and politicians. Although it takes a while to settle in and get a handle on all the moving pieces of this narrative, the result is fresh and unexpected.

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