April 30, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Ruth Downie, Medicus; Terra Incognita; Persona Non Grata; Caveat Emptor; Semper Fidelis; Tabula Rasa
Mind candy: historical mysteries set in early 2nd century Roman Britain (and southern Gaul), following the mis-adventures of a Roman legionary doctor and his British wife. (Well, originally Tilla is his slave, but it's complicated.) They are, for me, absolute catnip, and the perfect thing to binge read while in the stage of recovering from food-poisoning where I can read but can't do anything more useful. (I also can't help thinking that they are exactly the sort of thing my grandmother would have loved.)
Kathleen George, A Measure of Blood
Yet another Pittsburgh-centric mystery, taking place largely in the mind of the murderer. Much of the action happens around the University of Pittsburgh, i.e., just down the street.
John Brunner, The Gaudy Shadows
Mind candy, and not exactly recommended. Brunner was one of the great science fiction writers, the publishers of the ancient paperback edition I have played this up, and there is in fact a very light science-fictional angle to the story. But really it's a mystery novel which is very much a period piece of Swinging London. I enjoyed it, but I also found it funny in ways I doubt Brunner intended. For Brunner completists (in which case, this is, astonishingly, available electronically), or those seeking documents of the milieu.
Scott Hawkins, The Library at Mount Char
Strictly speaking, this is a contemporary fantasy novel set in exurban Virginia, where the main characters are American children who have been selected by a nigh-omniscient teacher to learn the mystic arts at the titular library. What raises it above the level of mind candy is the fact that such a description give you no idea whatsoever of how strange this story is, either in its content or in its narration. Hawkins is obviously showing off from the very first lines (which hooked me), and makes basically no concessions for weak readers. He also has a pitiless quality towards his characters which I, for one, found very agreeable. The only thing I can begin to compare it to is somebody reading Shadowland, and then saying "That was really good, but Peter Straub's imagination is just too nice and normal". Even that doesn't really convey how impressive a performance this is.
(Picked up on Kameron Hurley's recommendation.)
Jen Williams, The Copper Promise
Mind candy: old-school fantasy, clearly inspired by role-playing games (there are both dungeons, plural, and dragons), but very enjoyably written, delivering the pleasures of light-hearted adventure without being either morally obtuse or wallowing in self-satisfied grimdarkness. It's self-contained, but at least one sequel has come out in the UK already, and both will appear in the US within the year.
I forget where I saw this recommended, but whoever it was, thank you; and additional thanks to a surprisingly-good used English-language bookstore in Amsterdam last summer.
Eric Smith and Harold J. Morowitz, The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere
To quote some know-it-all from the dust-jacket, "This is a truly unusual work of scholarship, which offers both novel perspectives on a huge range of disciplines and a model of scientific synthesis. This is a remarkable, and remarkably impressive, book." --- I will try to say more about this book in the coming month.
Disclaimer: Eric is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and, despite that, a friend.
Kelley Armstrong, Forest of Ruin
Mind candy fantasy: a satisfying conclusion to the series, but not quite as satisfying to me as if \$SPOILER had not turned out so happily. (On the other hand, I really didn't see that particular twist coming.)
Jack Campbell, The Pirates of Pacta Servanda
Mind candy, continuing the story from previous volumes, and basically incomprehensible without them. In this installment, a group of ideological extremists our heroes establish a safe-haven in a failed state find refuge from the whole of the international community their enemies, running guns to support one warlord over another defending innocent civilians and the last remnants of a traditional monarchy.
Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity
A gracefully written survey of Epicurean themes in philosophy and science, and to a lesser extent general literary culture, during the 17th century — as in Bacon, Boyle, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, various erudite libertines, etc. Wilson considers physical, moral and meta-physical ideas, all at a very qualitative level. (E.g., she says relatively little --- though not nothing --- about the increasing role of mathematics in 17th century physical speculations, which from my perspective is one of the biggest differences between ancient atomism and its early-modern descendant.) Very appropriately, she also covers anti-Epicurean reactions, like that of Leibniz, including discussing what they owed to their opponents. The organization is thematic rather than chronological, but the themes are themselves fairly logically arranged. It definitely presumes a broad familiarity with 17th century thought, but not much knowledge of Epicureanism, and it's very skillfully presented.
This is the first book of Wilson's I've read, but lots of her stuff looks interesting and I will certainly be tracking down more.
Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project
Beautiful, beautiful photographs of the city from 1955--1957. (Many but not all of them can be seen online through Magnum.) The composition and selection are both incredible. Smith was evidently a real piece of work, but still the story of a multi-year, career-wrecking obsession with capturing the whole of the life of a city feels, except for the technology, as though it were ripped straight from the Romantic period.
(My neighborhood seems to have changed remarkably little in its character over the last sixty years.)
Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades
A short but compendious history of the African slave trades --- to the Americas and other European colonies, to north Africa, southwest and south Asia ("oriental"), and within Africa --- their place in world history, their impact on African societies, and their all-too-gradual dissolution.
An intriguing feature is the use of a demographic simulation --- what I'd call a "compartmental model" --- to estimate the historical sizes of the populations from which slaves were drawn, and so the impact of the slave trade on population growth and sex ratios within Africa. It would be very interesting to re-do the estimation here.
(Thanks to Prof. Manning for lending me a copy of his book.)
Tony Cliff, Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling
Comic book mind candy, in which Miss Dirk and Mister Selim find themselves compelled to go to England, and mayhem and social sniping ensue. (Previously)
Marie Brennan, In the Labyrinth of Drakes
Mind candy, enjoyable fantasy of 19th century natural history and archaeology division. (Previously; series conclusion.)
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
Epic fantasy, but I think it rises above the level of mind candy. The approach to story-telling starts out by looking like bog-standard epic fantasy, if well done, but then gets more complicated and interesting (in spoilerish ways). Even better is the world-building: a planet where plate tectonics is so active that the dominant ideology is that the Earth is our father, and he hates us. The "Fifth Season" of the title are the irregular geological disasters which make the only known continent nearly uninhabitable; their depiction is at once chilling and clearly a labor of love. (If it is wrong to be charmed by the range and depths of her catastrophes, then I don't want to be right.) Because this is a fantasy novel, there is also a minority group which has the useful ability of being able to quell these disasters. (Jemisin, characteristically, has thought about the thermodynamics.) They are simultaneously valued for their abilities and despised for their different-ness, with a range of plausible racial stereotypes, more or less internalized by the enslaved members of the group. Because Jemisin is a good novelist, none of this maps exactly on to any real-world minority.
There sequel is coming later this year, and can hardly arrive too soon. Update: and here it is.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Tales of Our Ancestors; Writing for Antiquity; The Great Transformation; Heard About Pittsburgh, PA; Commit a Social Science; Biology; Physics; Complexity; The Dismal Science

Posted at April 30, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

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