book review: the stress of her regard

Tim Powers’ historical fantasy The Stress of Her Regard is a deeply cool gothic romance of a doctor named Crawford whose bride is killed on their wedding night because he mistakenly wed something inhuman at his bachelor party. He runs from the law, and his now dead wife’s twin sister, who assume he murdered her, but in France he learns that he’s part of a terrible jealous and predatorial family.

Crawford makes his way across the Alps and finds his life interwoven with John Keats, Percy Bysse Shelley and Lord Byron. All of them are tied to these creatures and some are trying to deal with them, while others try to free themselves.

It’s an excellent book, especially because there are so many things the characters try and are successful at, but then they backslide on their victories. It’s a tale of friendship and self-destruction. Because these are the Romantics, everything is done melodramatically, but for grand tragic purposes.

Powers also brings in the ideas of randomness and determinism (a la Last Call, my favourite book by him) and even a bit of quantum physics. I like it a lot and am glad it’s back in print (which is why even though it’s from the 1980s I hadn’t ever read it before).

book review: tanglewreck

I didn’t really like Jeanette Winterson’s children’s book Tanglewreck. It’s about a young girl, Silver, who has to find The Timekeeper because the world is being subjected to Time Tornadoes and other anomalies that are fraying the fabric of space-time. There are a couple of villains who want to use Silver to find it. One uses magic and one uses science.

There’s a side story of a couple of thugs searching her house (which is called Tanglewreck) that seems pointless, and there’s a veneer of quantum physics slapped on the notions of time, but they feel like very unconcerned with science interpretations. And [spoiler alert] one character escapes death in a black hole because “love is faster than the speed of light.” It seemed like such clumsy phrasing trying to reveal some great truth. In the end Silver is clever the way the story needs her to be and she’s in 11-year-old love with a boy who lives underground.

All in all a very meh book. Read A Wrinkle in Time instead.

book review: suspended in language

I will admit, I love reading biographies in the form of comics. Suspended in Language is Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis’ biography of Niels Bohr, one of the hugely important people for twentieth century physics. (Last year Ottaviani’s book Feynman, another physicist biography was published to great acclaim.)

This book doesn’t have the complicated framing structure of Logicomix, though the whole thing is geared towards explaining his ideas (and revelling in his inability to do public speaking). He was definitely no Richard Feynman who could explain them to us himself.

The arc of these physicists’ lives is so interesting because they don’t end at the height of their discoveries. It’s always a story about the great breakthrough they made at one point and then how later, other scientists point out what’s wrong with what they thought. I enjoy that story of science working the way it’s supposed to. I don’t know the narrative of post-war science well enough to know if there’d be good narratives like that to find in the future. But those quantum physicists, man. Good tales to tell.

book review: surely you’re joking mr. feynman

Somehow I hadn’t read Richard Feynman’s book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman until now. I’m not sure exactly how, though I recognized some of the stories he told.

It’s basically a collection of anecdotes from his life about being a scientist and having a really good time solving puzzles and figuring out how the world works. He tells funny stories and writes them in such a way that it feels like he’s talking. I felt kind of feisty and indignant at the stupid ways the world works and wished I had the confidence/lack of social inhibition to behave more like he did.

book review: vegas knights

I read Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights despite the concept being pitched on the cover:

It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Harry Potter when two college students scam a Las Vegas casino – using Magic!

(This was an ARC so I hope to death they change this on the real cover, because it does the book no favours.) The reason I picked it up is because I remember Matt Forbeck’s RPG work, especially on Brave New World. BNW was a bit metaplot heavy and too secretive for its own good, but had some interesting takes on superhero gaming.

A lot of my problems with Vegas Knights come from magic basically just being superpowers. The rules of magic are well-established and once a character does something one way he doesn’t forget that it worked, which can sometimes happen. The thing bout i was that there didn’t seem to be much of a cost to magic. It was just manipulating quantum probabilities and some things were easier than others and bullets got transmuted into air and you couldn’t phase through living things. So it was consistent, but not very grabby.

The characters were what you want out of a Vegas story. The poorer guy who is more timid and the risk taking life of the party who isn’t quite as smart. There’s also a half-Hopi woman who is the savvy local, the main character’s long-lost father and a pretty cool antagonist.

The plot felt pretty predictable, though there were points the characters had real choices to make and they didn’t do exactly what the plot required of them, which I applaud. But I never really got into it. Part of it may have been the constant references to Hurricane Katrina (the protagonist is from New Orleans) and other references that feel dated.

The best part of the book was the (slightly melodramatic) final battle scene. There was a lot going on and by that point you’ve surrendered yourself to the book and you come away thinking it wasn’t a terrible few hours you spent with it.

I suppose I sound a little luke-warm on this book and I am. My copy doesn’t say it’s being marketed as YA, but that’s definitely how it felt to me. If I’d known that going in I’d probably have had different expectations. There are some interesting ideas in there but in general it feels a little superficial. I’d suggest Tim Powers’ Last Call if you want to read a really excellent story about magic and Las Vegas.

book review: brasyl

Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is a sf book set in Brazil. It’s about quantum physics and reality television and admonishing fallen priests and about making the best of the universe we’ve got even if it’s not the only one. Like most of his work, I enjoyed it. Not as much as Desolation Road, but enough.

One thing I realized reading this was how much the idea of a doppelganger fucking with your life scares me. The idea that people wouldn’t know who was me and who wasn’t just set me on edge and I needed to move on to one of the other timelines. Which is convenient because the book takes place in 2006, 2032 and 1732 with different characters in each part of the story. They each came back regularly, in the same order which was a bit less interesting than how McDonald’s played his ensemble casts in other books, but whatever.

A good William Gibson-ish read, with an ending that I can’t determine if it filled me with existential dread.

book review: quarantine

Quarantine is an earlyish Greg Egan book. I think. I found a terrible-condition copy at a used bookstore and I felt pretty sure I’d never seen another edition of it anywhere before, so yeah. It’s sort of a detective story/technothriller kind of thing based on quantum mechanics and the idea that every time people make choices and collapse waveforms we’re killing off whole universes. Also, at some point in the 2030s all the stars disappeared; the solar system was isolated in its own little bubble.

There was a lot of exposition and some good twists (by the end it doesn’t really feel like the book you started). Egan returned to similar themes in one of the stories in Crystal Nights, “Singleton” though I don’t think the stars being gone was a part of that. In fact that story felt like a mirror reflection of this novel.