The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark: Not particularly interesting as a work of skepticism, unless you happen to have an interest in space aliens particularly for some reason. Fascinating as a look into the pre-New-Atheist skepticism movement.
Sagan pays a truly baffling amount of attention to what seem to me to be relatively unimportant kinds of woo, like psychic powers and alien abductions. Of course, neither psychic powers nor alien abductions are real, and it is better to not believe in them. But from my perspective there are far more important false beliefs that actually destroy lives. Sagan mentions false memories of abuse; equally important are certain incorrect medical beliefs (such as fraudulent cancer cures and anti-vaccine sentiment) and, of course, religion.
As someone who came of age as a skeptic around New Atheists, I am struck by Sagan’s restraint as regards religion. He several times makes arguments the logical implication of which is atheism, and then backtracks that there are many liberal religious believers who of course are very rational and accept evolution and support science. I don’t agree with all of Sam Harris’s excesses, but I think it is much more intellectually honest to say that the logical implication of skepticism is atheism.
Most interesting fact: quasars were originally believed to be aliens!
The Core: Teaching Your Child The Foundations of Classical Education: This is the worst homeschooling book I have ever read.
The author literally looked at the modern education system and said to herself, “what we really need is MORE pointless memorization and meaningless execution of rote techniques.” In the standard classical-education system, memorization is most of your education from first to fourth grade. After fourth grade education concentrates on logical reasoning and clear communication. The Core eliminates that frivolous “logical reasoning” and “clear communication” part of education and replaces it with more memorization.
It’s hard to say what the worst advice in this book is, because there are so many options. The Core advises requiring your child to do literally every math problem in their textbook, even if they have mastered the material and are complaining about being bored. (I literally cannot think of a better strategy to teach children to hate math.) History consists solely of memorization: memorizing the dates of 204 world events, memorizing the US presidents, memorizing “six stories of twelve sentences each” that summarize a major era, and copying and rewriting paragraphs from histories. (You do, also, get to read historical fiction.) Writing education consists of copying out sentences and paragraphs assigned by the teacher, memorizing a bunch of rules of grammar, and learning to write five-paragraph essays.
Star Wars: Thrawn: The greatest villain in Star Wars history has returned to his proper place in the canon. With the benefit of almost thirty years of hindsight, Zahn understands exactly what the reader wants out of a Thrawn book, which is more Thrawn. It was an absolute pleasure to open to a new chapter and realize that I didn’t have to return to reading about Luke or Leia or someone boring like that.
It is difficult to write a genius character; all too often, writers rely on technobabble or unjustified leaps of logic. Not so Thrawn. Zahn plays fair with the reader; Thrawn rarely has more information than the reader does, and in theory you could often figure out what his plan is before it is revealed, even though you rarely do. Nothing is left mysterious. Star Wars: Thrawn is wonderful and I am eager about starting the sequels.
[Here are spoilers for the Dark Lord’s Answer.]
Dark Lord’s Answer: A very cool premise, poorly executed. An economist 24/7 submissive is transported into a medieval fantasy world. Because sound economic advice is often counterintuitive or even evil-sounding, in order to get anyone to take her advice she had to set up shop as a Dark Lord. Because she’s an 24/7 submissive, she sets up a puppet Dark Lord whom she submits to while also being the power behind the throne.
Inexplicably, instead of choosing to explore this incredibly interesting character and teach the reader some economics along the way, Dark Lord’s Answer chooses to leave this as a ‘mystery’ the entire time and make it a big reveal.