Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Books to savor, 2014 edition

I read a lot. Sometimes it's research for my own writing. Sometimes it's as competitive analysis (re-plowing the same ground as other recent books -- except, apparently, where vampires are involved -- isn't the easiest way to sell one's own works). Many evenings, it's for relaxation. Sometimes it's for two or all three reasons. If I finish a book, it has -- at the least -- been useful.

This post is limited to the handful of books I read in 2014 (which isn't to say they were all written this year) that rose beyond "useful" and even "memorable" to "I remember this fondly and can well imagine rereading at a future date."


Last year at about this time (Books to knock your socks off ...), I praised Neal Stephenson's epic historical and cryptological novel Cryptonomicon. This year the top of my list is Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. This is eight books, originally published in three volumes, comprising one multi-decade, world-spanning, wildly ambitious saga, that is -- among many things -- the story of centuries-earlier ancestors of main characters in Cryptonomicon. At about 3K pages, The Baroque Cycle is not an undertaking for the faint of heart.

The Baroque Cycle is a rollicking tale of natural philosophers (whom nowadays we call scientists) and alchemists; vagabonds and kings; odalisques and countesses; soldiers, pirates, and galley slaves; and many more -- with more than a few characters taking more than one role from that list. It's a tale of revolutions and restorations, religious strife, philosophical conflicts, professional rivalries, the rise of capitalism, and wars and colonialism and slavery.

The story unfolds across Europe (in London more than anywhere), the Barbary Coast, Egypt, India, Japan, New England, and New Spain. It's variously a secret history (with events running from roughly 1660 to 1714), an alternate history, a bawdy tale, a stirring adventure, and, from end to end, erudite and witty. It's chockablock with names you know from history (Newton, Leibniz, Louis XIV, various kings and pretenders of England, the Duke of Marlborough, Peter the Great -- and countless others so well described you'll be endlessly checking Wikipedia to ascertain who's real and who's fictional. It ... well, words fail me (as they evidently never do Neal Stephenson). The best analogy I can draw, and it's high praise indeed, is to John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor.

If you find this description intriguing, check out The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

But wait! There's more! Even after The Baroque Cycle I (somehow) found time to do other reading.

A brilliant debut
Also noteworthy: A Darkling Sea, the debut novel by James L. Cambias. It's a First Contact story (for one set of aliens) and an interstellar-conflict story (for humans and a second set of aliens). To convincingly write from any alien's point of view is a challenge; Cambias does it astonishingly well. (One set of his aliens are under-ice, undersea dwellers with parallels to some aliens of my own (see Quoth the Gw'oth), affording me an extra level of appreciation.) A star performance. 

One of his best
A couple months ago I posted re John Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In. Here's a snippet of that review:

Lock In is about transhumanism. And it's a murder mystery. A conspiracy novel. A police procedural. Hard SF, to be sure. And cyber-punk. It contains more than a dash of David Brin's Kiln People (another fine, highly original, SF novel). As in anything Scalzi writes, the text just flows.

Check out the earlier post for more.

Curses! Foiled again :-)
I read more than SF, mysteries being a favorite. That's recently included a great deal of Dashiell Hammett, of whose works I found The Dain Curse especially excellent. Twists, turns, and a great noir period piece. 


Mind-blowing stuff
I also thoroughly enjoyed the cosmology popularization Before the Big Bang, by Brian Clegg. As an overview of the history of cosmology and the underpinnings (and some open issues with) the Big Bang, Clegg's book is very good. (The last couple chapters, more speculative, IMO aren't as solid. Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, another fine book, is better in those areas.) 

What were a few of your favorites this year?

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