Sunday, June 19, 2005

Booking It

Because I really ought to do this sort of thing more often, here's some reviews of the books I've read so far this month:

Echo of the Big Bang by Michael D. Lemonick: A fairly short book about the WMAP satellite, which mapped the distribution of the cosmic background radiation that permeates the universe as a leftover from the Big Bang. I was a little disappointed in this, actually. I was hoping for more of a discussion of the science and the implications of the mission's results, but that stuff is mostly confined to the last chapter. Instead, we get a general history of detection and theorizing about this "echo," which is sort of interesting, but which I pretty much already knew. (You can't work where I work without hearing all about the early pioneers of radio astronomy. Repeatedly. Half the computers our office are named for these people.) Then it goes into a lot of detail about the personalities and the politics and the building of the satellite, which are less interesting, especially when it basically amounts to a lot of gossip-mongering. But when Lemonick does get around to explicating the science, he does it in a way that I think manages to get the main points across to the lay reader surprisingly well.

Dork Covenant by Jack Kovalic: A collection of "Dork Tower" comics, depicting the lives of gamer geeks. I may not have gamed much in far too long, but I can still relate. Not brilliant, but definitely amusing, if you happen to be a member of that particular subculture. Probably incomprehensible to anybody else.

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang by Terrance Dicks: What can you say about Dicks' Doctor Who novelizations? I think he sat down with a script and cranked 'em out in a couple of hours, which is longer than it takes to read them. But I kind of enjoy them, anyway. They're sort of the literary equivalent of candy between meals. And "Weng-Chiang" is a pretty good episode. Also, it seems fairly clear to me that the writers of the new Who series had been watching it recently...

The Shining by Stephen King: Like I said before, it's probably not King's best, but it's definitely not his worst. It's pretty effective in the creepiness department, but then, that's always been King's strong suit. Sadly, he's not nearly as good at endings. The Shining's climax is better than a lot of his books', but it still relies far too heavily on the Malevolent Force making a very elementary mistake. The POV's kind of weird. I'm not sure quite what to call it, because it isn't exactly omniscient, but it moves back and forth between characters' heads very fluidly, and, to further confuse things, one of the characters can sort of see into other people's minds, so you get their POV from his POV sometimes, so to speak. And there's a lot of use of italics and parentheses and things to indicate thoughts that are subconsciously intruding on people. King uses that sort of technique sometimes in his other books, too, but never this consistently, as far as I've noticed. Interestingly, it works much better than it seems like it ought to, though there were a few times when I was thrown out of the story by, for instance, being very deep in five-year-old Danny's point of view and suddenly stumbling across a sophisticated adult concept the boy clearly wouldn't understand even if he did see it in someone's mind, or vocabulary out of the league of most adults, let alone a five-year-old. But I suppose such occasional missteps are inevitable with this kind of technique. It's probably worth it, though, because it lets King capture his characters' psychological complexities in a way that makes them feel utterly believable, even the guy who's going crazy. Hell, especially the guy who's going crazy. Which is what makes the story really horrific and creepy, because ultimately it's not about ghosts and boogeymen, it's about what our own minds are capable of doing to us if pushed in the right -- er, the wrong -- ways.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke: This book... is not easy to describe. It's set in an alternate version of early-19th-century England, which, as far as I can tell, is very, very much like the real 19th-century England, except that its history includes a powerful magician-king who ruled northern England many centuries before and who instituted a tradition of "English magic" which has since fallen into decline... until one Mr. Norrell and his pupil Jonathan Strange make an attempt to revive it in a practical way. It's written in a faux-19th-century style that feels very authentic but reads very smoothly. It's long, and a little slow, and rambles a bit, with long expository footnotes and everything. But it features some fascinating and very believably rendered worldbuilding, an interesting plot, and a wonderfully dry and utterly deadpan sense of humor that would make all 782 pages well worth reading all by itself.

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