Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2016
Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.
- Ruth Downie,
Persona Non Grata;
- 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.)
- — Sequel.
- 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
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
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
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
- 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
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
- (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.)
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.
- Marie Brennan, In the Labyrinth of Drakes
- Mind candy, enjoyable fantasy of 19th century natural history and
archaeology division. (Previously;
- 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
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;
The Dismal Science
Posted at April 30, 2016 23:59 | permanent link