Fly by Night

by Frances Hardinge

As I sat down to write this post, I thought, “You know, the title really doesn’t make any sense. It has nothing to do with the book at all.” Oh my, I am losing it. I somehow failed to make the connection between the main character’s name, Mosca (in honor of the day she was born on – sacred to Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns), and the double meaning of the word fly. Sheesh.

The plot was extremely unique. In whatever world this takes place in (one thing I can hardly ever be bothered to pay attention to), there was originally a monarchy; several deaths lead to an argument over succession; a parliament was established, but the real force behind the realm – and the glue that held it together – was the guilds. Each has its own responsibilities and jurisdictions. Eventually it is decided that a parliamentary committee will decide on the best monarch to rule; meanwhile, the residents of the realm are free to support their favored monarch, as well as the Beloved (basically a Saint) that suits them best. There is a Beloved for each day and each night of the year, so babies are named for the Beloved on whose day or night they are born.

Mosca is a young girl who was taught to read by her father before he passed away in a remote village, where he moved when he was exiled (although we don’t learn why until later) many years before. She escapes the village and moves on to bigger, better, and more troublesome things.

The big question: did I see the plot twists coming? Heavens no, but I was really trying this time. I picked up on what clues I could, yet was completely blindsided by the sudden turn of events. The author did a great job balancing foreshadowing and real surprises. It was a quick, easy read, and as I said, the plot was fantastic. I actually grabbed the book at the library because it was thick and had a cool cover…luckily I was not disappointed this time.

Hooray for good children’s books!

The Black Swan

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I think maybe I should stop reading books, because apparently I have become impossible to satisfy. I thought a nice non-fiction would do me some good after several disappointing endings. Sigh. How wrong.

Actually, I absolutely loved the first quarter of The Black Swan (subtitled The Impact of the Highly Improbable). It was captivating, novel, well-written, and accessible. I was ready to become a convert of whatever Taleb wanted to tell me about the world.

But after a certain point, it got dull. Paragraphs spanned entire pages (something I vehemently oppose in nearly all cases), there weren’t enough interesting examples, and the writing turned too academic for me. It wasn’t fun to read, but a chore. I skimmed entire sections. (I feel ok about counting all the pages, though, after finishing every single word of The Count of Monte Cristo. If you want to challenge me, read that book first.)

The premise of the book I still find quite fascinating. You may wonder about the title. Taleb explains that for many years, Western culture was completely convinced that swans are white. All swans are white. Every time we saw another swan, it confirmed our belief that swans are white. Then, with the discovery of Australia, the first black swans became known to Westerners. It was something that challenged a deep-seated conviction upheld by years of observation. In Taleb’s view, then, a black swan is something unexpected, unpredictable, and influential (with positive or negative consequences). He says that “Black Swans” (events that meet the above criteria) are what drive history, although we have a huge emphasis in our modern world on controlling random events and predicting what is really unpredictable.

Altogether, it was worth reading, because I enjoyed the beginning so much. Maybe I just have too short of an attention span these days…