How Democracies Die

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Review #41: Non-Fiction

Blogging for Books #13

How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky

HowDemocracies

How Democracies Die is fast-paced and gripping, throwing history at you, analyzing current world governments, and contemplating the future state of world governments with an emphasis on America’s democracy at just the right speed to keep even non-political junkies hooked. It’s very easy to assume that this book is a Trump-bashing tome, but it’s an honest critique of current politics in America, with evidence from governments around the world through decades of struggle with democracy. And it’s a much shorter read than it looks (there’s an extensive Notes section that has successfully added dozens of books to my TBR, so thanks.)

Ziblatt and Levitsky give us just the facts, ma’am — and for anyone who is legitimately concerned about democracy, citizens’ involvement in government, the use of checks and balances, the US constitution — the facts point to democracy in America failing, and being increasingly jeopardized by a Donald Trump presidency. They build a very compelling case, one that does not place the weight of the destabilizing of America’s democracy squarely on Trump’s shoulders. Example after example of fluctuation governments in South America, in Europe, in Africa, etc., show how democracies have risen and fallen, and discuss the events that led up to those points.

What Ziblatt and Levitsky do is point out how each destabilizing event around the world can be related to something in past or recent American history. They pull no punches when calling out American politicians for straying from democratic behavior; they go back to Washington, discuss Lincoln, Nixon, and up through how Donald Trump was elected…and what could happen in the coming years if democratic norms are not restored. They weave an at once fascinating and terrifying story of the birth and weakening of America’s democracy, give us three possible outcomes of the Trump presidency, and thankfully leave us with optimism that there is still time to correct our path.

True believers in democracy will read How Democracies Die with a lump in their throat and finish it with a fire in their belly to make things right. Unfortunately, those who merely believe in their political party, regardless of how that party may be undermining the tenants of democracy, will probably write the book off as an attack on one party, one figure in particular, and may not get what they should out of this warning. Ziblatt and Levitsky have raised the alarm, and we would all do well to respond to it.

5 out of 5 stars

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Otherworld

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Review #38 Fiction

Blogging for Books #12

Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

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This book caught my eye based on so many connections people were making to Ready Player One, which I adore, so I couldn’t pass this one up when the chance to read and review came my way. I’ll say that if you also find yourself reading this book based on your interest in RPO, there are many similarities, so you’ll probably like this one.

My main interest in RPO was the 80s pop culture and nostalgia, which is something that Otherworld lacks. This is not a love letter to the videogames or movies or music of the 80s, but it is a really interesting look into the future of videogames, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Segel and Miller create a not-too-distant future where VR is taking over the real world, creating a world that people never want to leave – which becomes part of the problem.

Segel and Miller pull in other virtual reality troupes we’ve seen before – dying in the game could kill you in real life, an evil corporation (creatively* called “The Company”) putting profits over people’s lives, parallels made to a “Quest” or “The One” coming to save the world. The Company is a semi-faceless organization, we are given a few of the higher ups and some of the low level pawns in the overall scheme, but essentially, it’s a large, overarching nemesis that feels impossible to beat. Some of these low level people believe they are doing the right thing, they believe the Company will use its technology to help people, to make progress in quality of life, but are in the end naïve to the desire for power and money.

Otherworld begins a unique conversation about artificial intelligence, and what it could be someday. Segel and Miller create VR filled with AI that is so advanced, it’s nearly human. These entities exist only in Otherworld, but they have their own wants, and needs, and experience their own pain. This brings up so many questions about AI and what is ethical, concepts of God-like creation, and what existing truly means. Are these entities “alive,” does Otherworld belong to them? They live and breathe and breed in this world – does that not make Otherworld their own reality? And who decides? This concept, and these questions, is really what make Otherworld different from other videogame stories. Segel and Miller take VR to a new level and spark some deep and difficult ideas.

Throughout there is some really good action. The story builds and ends with a few realizations, gun fights and fleeing, and ends on enough of a cliffhanger to set up sequels. A few loose ends are left dangling – who runs the Company? How can they be stopped? After some of the breakthroughs with the technology, are they not just more invested in their goal now? And how far are they willing to go to reach them? Segel and Miller definitely pique an interest in reading further.

With any VR story, the world building is extremely important. Segel and Miller do a decent job of creating and describing Otherworld. We have to understand various aspects of the VR in order to follow our main characters through the world and understand all the creatures they come in contact with. Unfortunately, they do a lot of bouncing around in Otherworld; it becomes a bit hard to keep up. At times it’s difficult to understand where the characters are, who is in charge of the territory they are in (these are entities that naturally exist in Otherworld – the Children and the Elementals), what vice the territory provides (each seems to speak to a vice that people cannot partake in in reality – sex, drugs, gluttony, murder, etc.), and how they got there/how they move on. Though many things within Otherworld are fleshed out, many more questions exist. Some of the stops in each territory are long and detailed – we understand why our characters are here and what they will get out of the journey – others are short and feel thrown in without much thought which really hurts the flow of the story.

Overall, I think the time and attention to detail in a VR universe was successful, the characters were interesting and had a report that kept the story moving through dialogue and action, and the concepts surrounding AI were fascinating and left me asking even bigger and deeper questions. Otherworld is a strong start to this series.

*Please note the sarcasm.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

The Invisible Library

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Review #37 Fiction

Blogging for Books #11

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Invisible Library

The premise of this book had me from the get go. It just jumped out as something that encompassed so many of the things I enjoy about reading: fantasy, adventure, literature, mystery, romance, escapism. And all of those things come through in Genevieve Cogman’s first installment of the Invisible Library novels. If you enjoy Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, The Librarian/ The Librarians, or V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, you will be pulled headfirst into Cogman’s world.

Irene works for a mysterious library. Tasked with finding a dangerous book from an alternate London, Irene must take a new library recruit, Kai, on his first field mission. Their mission becomes beyond complicated when they arrive to find the book has already been stolen by a deadly underground society. Along with the threat of a legendary enemy of the library, Irene and Kai may not make it out of the chaos-infested London with the book, much less alive.

Cogman weaves an intricate tale filled with an eclectic cast of mythical and fantastic characters, including werewolves, vampires, fae, and dragons. There’s an element of steampunk just light enough to mingle with the classic detective narrative and make something fresh and funky. The alternate London that the story inhabits is beautifully rendered by Cogman, incorporating the dark and gloomy, foggy, cobble-stoned streets and the air of mystery surrounding the city.

Throughout, we’re taken on a bumpy Great Detective story, with twists and turns that shock the reader as much as Irene and her cohorts. Though this case is eventually solved, we’re left with a bit of cliffhanger, a whetted palate, wondering just what Alberich (a notorious Library enemy) is up to, how the Library came to be, and how Irene fits into the puzzle.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com
*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Armada

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Review #29: Fiction

Blogging for Books #10

Armada by Ernest Cline

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I am a HUGE fan of Ready Player One and could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Armada when it came out. Now, Ready Player One is much more focused on ‘80s pop culture as a whole: the music, the movies, the games, the style, etc — which is why I dug it so much. I was born right at the end of the era and sometimes feel I was born a little too late. ‘80s pop culture runs through my veins. I knew Armada is set in the current day, and that it is much heavier on video game knowledge and interest rather than strictly ‘80s culture, but nonetheless, it did not disappoint.

The story revolves around Zack Lightman and his friends who are high school-aged kids that are obsessed with two online multiplayer games; ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA. Both games focus on the human race defending itself against an alien invasion — ARMADA focuses on air defense and TERRA FIRMA on ground defense. Players remote-pilot unmanned drones in ARMADA and unmanned ATHIDS in TERRA FIRMA. Because I’m not a heavy gamer, there are definitely some aspects of Armada that went over my head a little. Some of the gamer language and slang was unfamiliar to me, and some of the descriptions of the games themselves as well as technology and materials used in the games were harder for me to visualize. However, Cline does a pretty good job of making this world and the concept accessible to everyone, and definitely to those who are already gaming nerds.

At the beginning of the book, Lightman notices a spaceship that looks a lot like the alien crafts in ARMADA flying over his school. Chalking this up to too much playing time, as well as some inherited insanity (his father was convinced of a video game/government training program to defeat real alien invasion using civilians — a lot like the idea behind Ender’s Game which Cline touches on several times throughout the book). Zack’s father was killed on the job when Zack was only an infant.

Eventually things happen that Lightman cannot easily explain away, and he and his friends (some of the best ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA players in the world) have to come together to figure out if Zack’s father’s theory holds any water…and if it does, what that means for them and the survival of the planet. If aliens were attacking, would a world full of gamers be enough to stop them? Would civilians trained to fight with nothing more than video games step up to the challenge? And if a government cover up were true, what actually happened to Zack’s father all those years ago?

There are a ton of ‘80s (and ‘90s) references thrown into this book, from old-school video games, to movies and music, and books. Cline once again uses this pop culture to drive his plot, giving us glimpses into his inspiration for the book, his characters, and also just throwing us a big nostalgia party. He references great hair metal bands; movies and TV shows like The Karate Kid, Star Trek,  E.T., Star Wars, and The X-Files (and on and on); and movies like Men in Black, Contact, and The Last Starfighter. This book brings back some great decades of pop culture and ties it to current-day gaming and the continued idea (and question) of whether or not the truth is out there…

Armada is action packed, fun from beginning to end, and a true first-person like book that turns the reader into Zack Lightman. Cline makes you feel like not only are you along for the ride, but you just might be the one driving the ship.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Martian

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Review #27: Fiction

Blogging for Books #8

The Martian – Andy Weir

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The Martian is a bestselling novel and a hit blockbuster film…and for good reason. Weir creates a fascinating cast and throws them into a not-so-sci-fi setting. As humans, we’ve always been curious. We’ve explored and traveled and asked questions about everything since the beginning of time. The universe, outerspace, is no exception. Even today we’re exploring the planet of Mars nearly to the degree that Weir imagines in his novel.

On top of an exciting and action packed space thriller, The Martian is both funny and endearing thanks to the group of characters Weir creates. Mark Watney, the astronaut that is stranded on Mars after a dust storm where his crewmates think him dead and must leave to save themselves, is smart, courageous and, at times hilariously human. Everyone can relate to being in a situation where they have no idea what to do, how to start accomplishing the task they must complete, and must dig deep within themselves to succeed. Mark Watney is everyman, which allows any reader to relate to him, and become engrossed in his story of survival.

The only criticism I could possibly find with the text is that it is very science and math heavy. I understand the need to have these details to really create an immersive and realistic story about outerspace and rocketships. A friend of mine described this book as “Math, Math, Science, Explosion, Math, Science, Dad Joke.” She wasn’t too far off. There is a lot of heavy mathematics and science equations and descriptions that at times took me out of the story and felt almost as if I was skimming a text book. However, the overall story, plot, and character development that surrounds these passages more that make up for the glazed over reading I had to do to get through them.

Again, this book is a bestseller, a huge blockbuster film…you don’t need me to tell you to read it. But you should.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Little Paris Bookshop

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Review #26: Fiction

Blogging for Books #7

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

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This novel is a love letter, an ode, to the beautiful, magical, healing power of books.

The story follows a man, Monsieur Jean Perdu, who, as a self-proclaimed literary apothecary, uses his wealth of knowledge of books and how they comfort people to help them while suppressing his own pain surrounding the love he lost nearly two decades prior. Monsieur Perdu owns a bookshop boat on the Seine. He refuses to sell books to buyers unless the book is the one he feels they need – he can read their souls and know what they need to read in that moment to find comfort. However, to find comfort himself, he needs to do more than read the right book.

When he reads a letter his former lover left when she disappeared 20 years prior, Perdu finally knows the tragic truth behind her departure, and to truly move on and find peace and new love, he must embark on a journey that takes him across France. On a whim, he packs up and sets sail with his floating bookshop to find closure. With a wonderful cast of characters he meets along the way, Perdu not only reaches the end of his journey, but finds a family, and himself, along the way.

In The Little Paris Bookshop, we are taken on an expedition of love, loss, and literature through the beautiful French countryside. With the various tales of heartbreak, lovesickness, and hope from the supporting characters, Perdu finally finds his comfort, while any reader surely finds theirs in these pages. The Little Paris Bookshop describes the beauty of a book, the solace one finds in literature, while expertly providing that service itself.

Several passages throughout have stuck with me; it is a book that I found exactly when I needed it, which is precisely the kind of literary happenstance that drives Perdu’s life’s work.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, there are little extra surprises at the end of the book – a few recipes for some of the delicious meals that are prepared through Perdu’s trip across France, and also a selection of book recommendations and the people/situations they are best suited for from the Book Doctor himself.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a delightful book, with a beautifully tragic, heartbreaking, hopeful, and heartfelt story. I am sure those who need this story will find it.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Spinster

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Review #25: Non-Fiction

Blogging for Books #6

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

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I was pretty excited to read this book; I’d heard some good things about it, friends had highly recommended it, and having recently ended my own engagement, it seemed like a fitting read as far as timing goes.

I didn’t, however, find what I was expecting. I thought it would be funnier, for starters. Though there are definitely tidbits here and there that forced a smile, a giggle, and in one case, an all-out head-thrown-back laugh, it is a mostly very serious book. This doesn’t make it bad, per se, but it did turn me off a little. There are things in life that humor helps ease, and coming to terms with the realities of human relationships and romance is, in my opinion, one of them.

Bolick give us a ton of information about her “awakeners” (the women who inspire or have influenced her “spinster” lifestyle) in this book. She has absolutely done her research and really brings these women to life through her own commentary about them, as well as their own writing and other secondary sources describing them in detail. Part of me loves all these details and inclusions, and part of me feels it was too much. At one point I felt like staying, “Alright already. If I wanted to know this much about this woman, I would read her biography and her life’s work myself.” I was left knowing a lot about Bolick’s “awakeners” but wanting for how they really influenced Bolick –what I was ultimately hoping for from this book.

It also felt extremely dated. Many of the women Bolick writes about span all the way back to the 1800s and the majority of their lives and decisions play out in the early 1900s. Bolick herself is writing about her life mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s. I had never heard of many of the women and other influencers Bolick mentions, and felt their lives and choices really couldn’t be related to the lives of women today. I definitely didn’t feel like I could really relate to Bolick well – in some ways, of course, but the world has changed so drastically from even the 1990s that these anecdotes fell rather flat.

Bolick’s life, arguable much more recent, felt distant from life for women (especially women writers in New York City today.) Many of the opportunities Bolick and others she writes had about just don’t exist in NY today. The publishing industry just isn’t the same, and Bolick’s opportunities and successes in NY offered her greater options in her personal life than many would be offered today. This is wonderful for her, don’t get me wrong (I’m admittedly jealous of what she was able to accomplish and the relationships she was able to experience), but I was unable to really connect to the writing knowing how these experiences probably couldn’t exist today.

Overall, the book started slowly, picked up in the middle but eventually became distant from the reader. Though there are a few grains of wisdom and valuable insight sprinkled throughout, it is by no means a must read.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.