Brief reviews of books I've read.

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Michael Chabon, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" (reread)

2014-07-25 · in Books · 95 words

I enjoyed this enough the first time that I lent it to several other people to read. And then when I wanted to read it again, I couldn't find my copy...

This is an alt-history detective novel, set in a Yiddish-speaking Jewish state in Alaska. The world's well-crafted and the writing's excellent, with Chabon's usual sensitivity to genre, character and speech. I would have liked to see a more ordinary solution to the mystery — but that's not really Chabon's style, I guess!

Good stuff, anyway.

Henry Mayhew, "London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 1"

2014-07-24 · in Books, London Labour and the London Poor · 130 words

Henry Mayhew wrote a comprehensive series of articles for the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s about the poor in London, interviewing hundreds of Londoners about their lives and livings. He collected and summarised his articles in three volumes in 1851, of which this is the first.

Some of the analysis has dated badly, but the raw information is fascinating: his interviews are extremely impressive both in breadth and depth. This is a key source for anyone who wants to write about — or in the voices of — 19th-century London. Well worth reading — or at least flicking through for the bits that interest you.

Available from the Internet Archive. The copy they've scanned belonged to Edward Healy Thompson; I imagine he found the sections describing Irish Catholic life in London particularly interesting.

Charles Palliser, "The Quincunx" (reread)

2014-07-17 · in Books · 206 words

I was rather intrigued by the idea of writing a Victorian novel on a computer. One of the unforeseen consequences of this, however, was that I didn't notice how long the book was becoming.

From the author's comments at the end — in paperback form, it's nearly 1200 pages.

At the surface level, this is a pastiche Dickensian thriller, giving a whirlwind tour of the seamier side of London in the 1820s — but it's really a ferociously complicated multiple-viewpoints mystery along the lines of An Instance of the Fingerpost, and it's written using a mathematically-constrained structure in the same way as Life A User's Manual. This is an extremely impressive piece of work, designed to reward rereading, and there's a lot that I didn't pick up the first time through. I was particularly struck this time by John's behaviour in the final chapter; not one to read, bleary-eyed, late at night!

Many of the mysteries are discussed (but not necessarily solved) in a long discussion thread about The Quincunx on Simon Morris's blog — don't read it until you've completed the novel at least once, though. If ever there was a book that needed a wiki for annotations…

Michael Chabon, "Gentlemen of the Road" (reread)

2014-07-11 · in Books · 56 words

The original working—and in my heart the true—title of the short novel you hold in your hands was Jews with Swords.

In short, this is what you get when Michael Chabon decides to write a swashbuckling adventure story. Excellent stuff. I wish he'd do a sequel!

Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Volume 1" (reread)

2014-07-06 · in Books, The Escapist · 88 words

It would clearly be a shame not to try and realise some of the Radio Comics stories from Kavalier and Clay, and that's exactly what this Dark Horse series is doing, with a variety of guest artists and writers playing Sammy, Joe and Rosa at various stages of their careers. There's some really nice artwork here; in particular, the Luna Moth stories drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz and Dan Brereton, and the lost Escapist story illustrated by Gene Colan.

Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (reread)

2014-07-06 · in Books, The Escapist · 90 words

Michael Chabon's Great American Novel (and well-deserved winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), exploring the lightly-fictionalised Golden Age comics industry in wartime New York through the eyes of cousins Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, writer and author of The Escapist. This is a fantastic piece of work, deftly demonstrating Chabon's skill with a wide range of genres and milieus; highly recommended.

Those after more background may like to visit Michael Chabon's web site circa 2001, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

ed. Jonathan Strahan, "Reach for Infinity"

2014-06-18 · in Books, Infinity Project · 59 words

The third Infinity Project anthology, the theme this time being humanity preparing to leave Earth. As before, the quality bar is very high; I particularly liked Greg Egan's Break My Fall (which would have been equally at home in Engineering Infinity) and Adam Roberts' Trademark Bugs: A Legal History.

Leo Rosten, "O Kaplan! My Kaplan!" (reread)

2014-06-15 · in Books · 76 words

Leo Rosten's collection of stories about an American language class for immigrants, which I first heard through Kerry Shale's BBC Radio readings. These are both very funny and very well-written; in addition to his mastery of variably-mangled English, Rosten does a great job of capturing the pleasures and frustrations of teaching — something I wouldn't have recognised when I last read this ten-odd years ago! Highly recommended.

Leo Rosten, "The New Joys of Yiddish" (reread)

2014-06-13 · in Books · 47 words

I was actually looking for the Hyman Kaplan stories, but found this first... This is the 2001 edition with copious footnotes updating Rosten's original text; it's probably due for another update by now. Still a good read.

Alastair Reynolds, "Terminal World"

2014-06-03 · in Books · 85 words

Set in a far-future Earth where a Calamity of Physics has resulted in zones that allow different levels of technological sophistication — like Vinge's Zones of Thought but at town-sized scale — this is very nicely done. It starts off reading like a China Miéville story, where the details of how exactly the world works take a deliberate back seat to the interestingly-wacky not-quite-steampunk storyline, but by the end we're clearly back in Alastair Reynolds territory. Recommended.