Rick’s Recent Reads for February

Here are a few of my recent reads if you’re looking for a good book during the snuggle-up months of winter!

Adult sci-fi. By Chinese author Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem takes a classic scenario — contact with alien life — and cranks up the sinister factor to maximum. The story begins during the Cultural Revolution when young Ye Wenjie watches her scientist father beaten to death by fervent revolutionaries. She is sent off for hard labor at a re-education camp, but by a strange twist of fate gets a chance to work at a top secret government project seeking out extraterrestrial life. Fast forward to the present, when nanotech scientist Wang Miao is snatched up by cops and brought to a secret meeting of military officials who are fighting an unnamed enemy — some force that is trying to destroy the roots of human science and technology by killing scientists or driving them to suicide. Wang goes undercover in this strange conspiracy when he started playing a virtual reality game called The Three-Body Problem, which only the most brilliant scientific minds can hope to beat.

The premise is fascinating and well-grounded (as far as I can tell) in hard science. The book raises haunting questions: Do we really *want* to contact other civilizations? If you had the chance to pull the plug on the human race, would you do so? Is science truly objective and provable, or is it simply the best we can do given our limited understanding of four dimensions?

I found the novel a bit of a struggle until about halfway in. There are a lot of characters, and many of them seem like ciphers to advance the plot or mouthpieces to espouse ideas rather than living breathing people. Sometimes the prose seems like the summary of a novel rather than a novel. However, the ideas are compelling. This is about as close to “mind-blowing” as any book I’ve read. If you like big ideas and fantasy based on hard science, this is worth a read.

Middle grade contemporary fiction. This is a sweet, poignant novel about an elementary school student named George, who was born a boy but knows in her heart that she is a girl. When the chance comes to do the school’s yearly production of Charlotte’s Web, George knows that she wants to be Charlotte, the wise and kind mother spider, but will taking the role force her to reveal more about her true self than she is ready to share?
This is a fast read, great for giving elementary kids a glimpse of what it’s like to be a young transgender person in a world that doesn’t comprehend or accept you. I loved George’s best friend Kelly and her music-composer father. I loved George’s internal struggle to come out to her mom and her friend Kelly. The first scene is especially well done, where George’s big brother questions why she was in the bathroom with the door locked, and speculates that she was looking at girlie magazines. George’s brother is right, but not the way he thinks: George secretly peruses the pages of Girls’ Life and dreams of being accepted as female. 
Many transgender students know who they are well before puberty, as George’s story makes clear. I have seen this struggle with several of my own students during my time in K-8 schools. This is a timely and important topic, and not something schools can pretend to ignore until kids are “old enough to know about this sort of thing.” In my humble opinion, it’s never too soon to be accepting and inclusive. 
George would make an interesting comparative book study with Gracefully Grayson, also about a young transgender girl using a school play as a means of revealing her true self. The books are very different, but both tackle an important issue with sympathy and grace. 

YA/adult Fantasy. There isn’t just one London. There are, in fact, four cities sharing that name and geographic location, each in a very different plane of existence. The novel takes place in the early 1800s, when magical travel between the different Londons has been severely restricted. Long ago, the place called Black London underwent a massive magical accident — a sort of implosion during which the forces of magic consumed the humans who tried to wield it. Since then, the doors between the worlds have been sealed. The only ones who can travel from world to world are the blood magicians known as Travellers. When we first meet the traveler Kell, he has arrived in Grey London (in our own un-magical world) to deliver a message from his own sovereigns of Red London to King George III and the Prince Regent. The existence of other Londons, we learn, is a closely guarded secret that only the rulers know. We follow Kell’s travels from Grey London to his home, the magical Red London, to the sinister world of White London, ruled by a pair of despot siblings who make Vlad the Impaler look like a nice guy. At the same time, we meet a young thief of Grey London named Lily Bard, whose life becomes entwined with Kell’s accidentally as they are both plunged into a plot to reawaken magic and tear down the walls between the worlds.

Phew! Just describing the book makes it seem complicated, and it is an intricate world that V.E. Schwab has created, but it’s not as confusing as it seems. I highly recommend checking it out if you like fantasy. The idea of four separate Londons is fascinating, and like all the best fantasies, this novel makes its system of magic seem absolutely plausible. Me — I hope I never get stuck in White London. That place is YIKES. Having said that, I would definitely sign up for more adventures with Kell and Lily!

Rick Riordan