BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith Cooper

BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith CooperTitle: The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Keith Cooper
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: January 21st 2020
Genres: Science
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Inside the difficult questions about humanity's search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
What will happen if humanity makes contact with another civilization on a different planet? In The Contact Paradox, space journalist Keith Cooper tackles some of the myths and assumptions that underlie SETI--the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
In 1974 a message was beamed towards the stars by the giant Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, a brief blast of radio waves designed to alert extraterrestrial civilizations to our existence. Of course, we don't know if such civilizations really exist. But for the past six decades a small cadre of researchers have been on a quest to find out, as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The silence from the stars is prompting some researchers, inspired by the Arecibo transmission, to transmit more messages into space, in an effort to provoke a response from any civilizations out there that might otherwise be staying quiet. However, the act of transmitting raises troubling questions about the process of contact. We look for qualities such as altruism and intelligence in extraterrestrial life, but what do these mean to humankind? Can we learn something about our own history when we explore what happens when two civilizations come into contact? Finally, do the answers tell us that it is safe to transmit, even though we know nothing about extraterrestrial life, or as Stephen Hawking argued, are we placing humanity in jeopardy by doing so?
In The Contact Paradox, author Keith Cooper looks at how far SETI has come since its modest beginnings, and where it is going, by speaking to the leading names in the field and beyond. SETI forces us to confront our nature in a way that we seldom have before--where did we come from, where are we going, and who are we in the cosmic context of things? This book considers the assumptions that we make in our search for extraterrestrial life, and explores how those assumptions can teach us about ourselves.

I am not a science-minded person and a lot of upper-level math boggles my mind, but I do love reading about science, especially space and astrophysics and what lies beyond our atmosphere. When I had the opportunity to read The Contact Paradox by Keith Cooper, I jumped on it, because I love the idea of examining what it means to achieve contact with extraterrestrials.

I really loved how Cooper presented his argument, circled back around to clarify and reiterate, and also used pop culture and science fiction references to illustrate some of the ideas about which he wrote. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is accessible and is not full of unexplained jargon so that a casual science reader like myself could pick it up, understand the concepts about which he wrote, and enjoy it. I think writing about a very specialized, specific field in a way that makes it accessible to people on the other side of the field is a difficult task, and I thoroughly enjoyed this from beginning to end.

Two quotes (taken from an unfinished copy, so they may be different in the final versions) really stuck to me that I ended up writing them down in my notebook illustrate the concept of the Contact Paradox:

… maybe the civilisations that last are the ones that keep their heads down and out of trouble. On the other hand […], maybe what other civilisations are looking for as evidence that we are stepping up and becoming a good galactic civilisation is a willingness to reach out, and maybe there are implications if we choose not to. This is the dichotomy at the heart of the Contact Paradox. It is a maze of assumptions, cherished beliefs and few facts.

SETI [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] is not just a search for aliens. It’s also a search for ourselves. We project our hopes and fears, our history and our expectations about the future of humanity onto what we think extraterrestrial civilisations might be like. The stars are a mirror and, when we gaze up at them, if we look closely enough, we see our reflection staring back. Study that reflection and we may learn something about ourselves.

The concept of extraterrestrial life is big in science fiction, and when I taught science fiction, I always liked to include bits like this (not so eloquently put, but I wanted to get my students thinking about what extraterrestrial life in fiction meant). Often times, in fiction, when characters go out exploring within the narrative laid out for them, they’re not always just searching for something else or the other. A lot of the times they’re also searching for themselves and their meaning within the greater context of their world, and the struggle in searching for themselves is that to themselves they must find definition. Who am I? Who are we? Who do I want to be? These and similar questions are also faced in the context of what it means to actually seek out or receive communication and visits from other planets and whether or not that’s possible in our lifetimes or any near-future lifetimes. And if it isn’t possible, then what? Then who are we?

Thank you to Bloomsbury for a gifted digital ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess KiddTitle: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Atria Books
Published: February 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 373
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.

Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.

Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.

Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.

Here is time held in suspension. Yesterday pickled. Eternity in a jar.

I love a good disturbing, yet still whimsical, historical fiction mystery. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars is set in the Victorian era, but right away, you notice that something is different. With elements of fairy tales and the obscure, I felt that this world was both familiar and unfamiliar, and I wanted to know more about it. The novel focuses on Bridie Devine, a detective, who is commissioned to find the whereabouts of a strange young girl named Christobel who is not an ordinary child. With the assistance of her extraordinarily tall lady’s maid Cora and a ghost of a prizefighter Ruby, Bridie goes on a trek through the seedy, dirty parts of London to discover the history and whereabouts of Christobel and to discover more about herself.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Bridie’s current time and Bridie’s past interweaving to give us a glimpse of the person she was and how she became the person she is in her present day. Sometimes these narrative shifts can be jarring, but these were seamless, illuminating the current day’s dilemmas and mysteries with the past’s introspection and revelation. The world building was exquisitely described. There were times I felt like I was right there as invisible eyes watching everything unfold. The characters were so fascinating and multifaceted that I wanted to learn more about them in more books, especially Cora. She was such a fantastic character to me at seven feet tall and truly herself. And I was left completely heartbroken at the end with Ruby and his final words to Bridie. I’m not giving anything away, because it’s such a perfect ending for this story, closing off bits and pieces, and opening up the door to more, making me hope for future installments in this world, however they might come along.

If you’re in the mood for a good, dark, entertaining historical mystery, do look into this one. It was one of my favorite reads in January!

Thank you to Atria Books for a gifted ARC! All opinions are my own.

Little List of Reviews #9: Non-Fiction Library Reads

I have finally finished the graphics for the new blog style, and I’m really happy with them! It’s been since 2018 since I really updated anything on here, and I’m going to be focusing more on content pages here in the upcoming weeks. Sometimes a small refresh is all you need to get some blogging inspiration!

Today’s Little List of Reviews features three reads I checked out from my new-to-me library, two of which I didn’t particularly like, and one that I did!

Little List of Reviews #9: Non-Fiction Library ReadsTitle: On Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Story of George Orwell’s Masterpiece by D.J. Taylor
Published by Harry N. Abrams
Published: October 22nd 2019
Genres: Non-Fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

From the author of the definitive biography of George Orwell, a captivating account of the origin and enduring power of his landmark dystopian novel 
Since its publication nearly 70 years ago, George Orwell’s 1984 has been regarded as one of the most influential novels of the modern age. Politicians have testified to its influence on their intellectual identities, rock musicians have made records about it, TV viewers watch a reality show named for it, and a White House spokesperson tells of “alternative facts.” The world we live in is often described as an Orwellian one, awash in inescapable surveillance and invasions of privacy. 
On 1984 dives deep into Orwell’s life to chart his earlier writings and key moments in his youth, such as his years at a boarding school, whose strict and charismatic headmaster shaped the idea of Big Brother. Taylor tells the story of the writing of the book, taking readers to the Scottish island of Jura, where Orwell, newly famous thanks to Animal Farm but coping with personal tragedy and rapidly declining health, struggled to finish 1984. Published during the cold war—a term Orwell coined—Taylor elucidates the environmental influences on the book. Then he examines 1984’s post-publication life, including its role as a tool to understand our language, politics, and government.
In a current climate where truth, surveillance, censorship, and critical thinking are contentious, Orwell’s work is necessary. Written with resonant and reflective analysis, On 1984 is both brilliant and remarkably timely. 

D.J. Taylor’s On Nineteen Eighty-Four is a short look at the history surrounding George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. While I initially found the premise interesting, the content of it actually fell irritatingly short, refusing to address or acknowledge Wikileaks, Snowden, Assange, a lot of the current surveillance issues, and choose instead to focus on the current president/administration and literally no one else? Yes, the current administration is frustrating and obviously a driving factor behind this book, but you have to include what comes before it that also contributed to the environment in which we exist.

Little List of Reviews #9: Non-Fiction Library ReadsTitle: How to Watch a Movie by David Thomson
Published by Knopf
Published: November 3rd 2015
Genres: Non-Fiction
Pages: 242
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

From one of the most admired critics of our time, brilliant insights into the act of watching movies and an enlightening discussion about how to derive more from any film experience.
Since first publishing his landmark Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975 (recently released in its sixth edition), David Thomson has been one of our most trusted authorities on all things cinema. Now, he offers his most inventive exploration of the medium yet: guiding us through each element of the viewing experience, considering the significance of everything from what we see and hear on screen--actors, shots, cuts, dialogue, music--to the specifics of how, where, and with whom we do the viewing. With customary candor and wit, Thomson delivers keen analyses of a range of films from classics such as Psychoand Citizen Kane to contemporary fare such as 12 Years a Slave and All Is Lost, revealing how to more deeply appreciate both the artistry and (yes) manipulation of film, and how watching movies approaches something like watching life itself. Discerning, funny, and utterly unique, How to Watch a Movie is a welcome twist of the classic proverb: Give a movie fan a film, she'll be entertained for an hour or two; teach a movie fan to watch, his experience will be enriched forever.
From the Hardcover edition.

I have been more and more interested in film as a medium due to a friend of mine, so lately I’ve been doing a little research into books I can get my hands on, and How To Watch a Movie caught my eye with the description and promises of revealing “how to watch a movie.” However, what’s on the tin doesn’t describe the actual contents of the book: a long, meandering blabbering of some guy’s experiences with movies he watched as a kid with little to nothing else? It read like some old guy’s self-important film subreddit posts.

Little List of Reviews #9: Non-Fiction Library ReadsTitle: Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac by Alex Dimitrov, Dorothea Lasky
Published by Flatiron Books
Published: October 29th 2019
Genres: Non-Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

From the online phenomenons the Astro Poets comes the first great astrology primer of the 21st century.
Full of insight, advice and humor for every sign in the zodiac, the Astro Poets' unique brand of astrological flavor has made them Twitter sensations. Their long-awaited first book is in the grand tradition of Linda Goodman's Sun Signs, but made for the world we live in today.
In these pages the Astro Poets help you see what's written in the stars and use it to navigate your friendships, your career, and your very complicated love life. If you've ever wondered why your Gemini friend won't let you get a word in edge-wise at drinks, you've come to the right place. When will that Scorpio texting "u up?" at 2AM finally take the next step in your relationship? (Hint: they won't). Both the perfect introduction to the twelve signs for the astrological novice, and a resource to return to for those who already know why their Cancer boyfriend cries during commercials but need help with their new whacky Libra boss, this is the astrology book must-have for the twenty-first century and beyond.

I love the Astro Poets twitter and find their day-to-day tweets hilarious and their weekly predictions interesting and heart-felt. The book is a great companion to their twitter and filled with much of the same insight and humor that I had hoped for. I borrowed this from the library and I’m glad I did, because it is one of those read & flip through once sort of books.

BOOK REVIEW: Waiting For Tom Hanks, by Kerry Winfrey

BOOK REVIEW: Waiting For Tom Hanks, by Kerry WinfreyTitle: Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey
Published by Berkley
Published: June 11, 2019
Genres: Romance
Pages: 288
Format: eBook
Source: Library
Goodreads

Can a romcom-obssessed romantic finally experience the meet-cute she always dreamed of or will reality never compare to fiction, in this charming debut adult novel from Kerry Winfrey.

Annie is twenty-seven years old, single, and obsessed with romantic comedies (she and her mother watched them religiously, before her mom died). Her dating life is limited by the expectations she’s formed from these movies. She is not as open to new experiences as she might be, because she’s waiting for her Tom Hanks–i.e., a guy she’ll find in the perfect, meet-cute romantic comedy way. When Annie does finally meet her perfect match, it’s not quite in the way she expected, and she’s forced to reckon with the walls she’s built around herself over the years.

“It doesn’t matter how someone in a romantic comedy affords their absurdly nice house, or whether or not their profession makes sense, or if technically they’re sort of stalking someone they heard on a call-in radio show. What matters is that they have hope. Sure, they find love, but it’s not even about love. It’s the hope that you deserve happiness, and that you won’t be sad forever, and that things will get better. It’s hope that life doesn’t always have to be a miserable slog, that you can find someone to love who understands you and accepts you just as you are.”

I’ve been reading a lot of romance this year, and it’s helped a lot through the more stressful and difficult times of this year. It’s light, fluffy, and a perfect escape from reality for a little bit. I do tend to gravitate toward historical romance, but some of the contemporary romances I’ve read this year have been super cute. I really enjoyed Kerry Winfrey’s Waiting For Tom Hanks because it ties in those Nora Ephron romantic movies with someone who has modeled their expectations around the characters Tom Hanks portrays in the romantic movies in which he’s starred.

The story explores Annie’s expectations versus reality and how she comes to terms with meeting her “Tom Hanks” and how he differs from and goes beyond her expectations throughout the course of the story. Drew is the good-looking Hollywood star who has come to film a romantic comedy in the town in which Annie lives, and they have their own movie-perfect meet-cute, but she has self-doubts that Drew actually is interested in her for real reasons rather than whatever she has concocted in her mind. As she and Drew get to know each other and sparks develop, Annie begins to learn more about herself and her past that shatter everything she’s ever known and reveal truths with which she must come to terms and make adjustments in order to grow and be who she needs to be rather than who she wants to be.

I loved the romantic comedy references sprinkled throughout the story, and the cast of characters is so much fun. I loved her friend Chloe, and I can’t wait to read the forthcoming book about her! Annie’s Dungeons & Dragons playing uncle, Don, was such an amazing character to include, and I don’t know if I’ve seen many nerdy characters like these portrayed positively in contemporary fiction like this (though my pool of reference is fairly small, so correct me if I’m wrong), and I hope to see more of him in the upcoming sequel and beyond!

This is a breezy, cute romantic story that I read in two sittings because I couldn’t put it down, so if you like Nora Ephron comedies and contemporary romance in general, definitely look into this one.

BOOK REVIEW: The Guinevere Deception, by Kiersten White

BOOK REVIEW: The Guinevere Deception, by Kiersten WhiteTitle: The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White
Series: Camelot Rising #1
Published by Delacorte Press
Published: November 5th 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

There is nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom's borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution -- send in Guinevere to be Arthur's wife... and his protector from those who want to see the young king's idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere's real name -- and her true identity -- is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old -- including Arthur's own family -- demand things continue as they have been, and the new -- those drawn by the dream of Camelot -- fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur's knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes a new fantasy series reimagining the Arthurian legend, set in the magical world of Camelot.

I’ve always loved King Arthur, it’s mythologies, and all of the various takes on the lore, but Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception blew me away. It had been so long since I’ve read anything King Arthur, and I was really excited when I got approved for this ARC from Netgalley.

The story opens with Guinevere arriving to Camelot before her marriage, unsure of herself and her future position in King Arthur’s court, and it’s soon revealed that Guinevere is not who she seems, not even to herself. She has been sent to protect King Arthur rather than merely be a bride sent from a royal family. Throughout the course of the story, Guinevere balances learning about her past and her realities while also getting to know the court in which she lives and the people with whom she is surrounded.

I absolutely love the duality of Guinevere’s character and thought that the struggles she faced while in the midst of all sorts of discovery were true to herself. The supporting case of characters were well-developed, had incredible range and depth, and delighted and surprised me at every turn. The first part of the book did feel a little slow, but since this is the set-up to what I hope is at least a trilogy, I did find it necessary. There’s a lot of ground to cover when reinventing a familiar story, and by the last half of the book, I was completely hooked and didn’t want this to end. I don’t want to spoil anything, but of all the supporting characters, I think Lancelot is my favorite and I’m so excited to see what White does with this character in the context of the familiar stories.

This is one of my favorite reads of the year, and not just YA reads, just because it was so much fun and so inventive on so many levels. I’ve never read White before, but I’ve had the physical ARC for her Frankenstein retelling and the first of another series on my kindle for a while, so I’m definitely bumping those up on my TBR because I enjoyed this so much.

Read this if you enjoy fantasy and/or King Arthur revisits, because this checked off so many boxes for me and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since I read it.

Thank you to Netgalley and Delacorte for the review copy! All opinions are my own.