As a disclaimer, I did not review any of the following titles for Publishers Weekly. These are the things I’ve grabbed in my spare time, what laughably little of it there is.
The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson. Written by the same gentleman who brought us Everything Bad is Good for You (which is also a good read), Ghost Map is a grisly story told with an odd sort of panache. Not for the faint of stomach, this is the tale of an 1854 cholera outbreak in London — and a couple of guys whose excruciatingly logical methodology gave the world a new way of looking at contagious diseases. Interesting and smoothly shared.
Fangland, John Marks. One of the finer updates of Dracula that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Fangland deconstructs and reassembles the myth of the Count, shuffling the archetypes and playing tricks with the old tropes. Occasionally a smidge postmodern and hip, Fangland starts out slow … but so did Stoker, so I was prepared to hang on for the ride — and I’m very glad I did.
The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker. I’m a big fan of Pinker in general; his Language Instinct was my first foray into pop linguistics, and it remains a personal favorite. But unlike The Blank Slate or How the Mind Works, Stuff turns into something of a slog — and I say that as a someone with a deep-seated love for this sort of theory. It begins intriguingly enough, but bogs down midway — becoming masturbatory geek cud that’s too tough for me to comfortably chew.
Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert. As mentioned above, pop theory charms me — and Gilbert has a charming style that’s easy to read. But Stumbling is Exhibit A for how the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” By the middle of the book I had become intensely ornery about his formula of, “In the event of X, most people do Y” … because about half the time, I would’ve behaved quite differently in his hypothetical scenarios. Lots of cheerful speculation, not a lot of science.
The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson. Visit the world of obituary writers and aficionados with this strangely chipper read that’s downright adorable more often than not. I like Johnson’s fondness for synchronicity and her tender treatment of sensitive subjects; but the most interesting bits are the obituaries themselves, which condense into a paragraph the lives of fascinating, beloved, reviled, and dearly missed personalities.
Tales Behind the Tombstones, Chris Enss. Across the American West, strange tombstones with remarkable stories abound. Here’s a collection of them, as well as the available background information of the personalities interred beneath them. Not altogether different from The Dead Beat, but with older subject matter and a gritty sensibility that’s only occasionally chipper. Fascinating, nonetheless.
The Somnabulist, Jonathan Barnes. The speculative fiction community has embraced this quasi-steampunk pseudo-mystery like a long-lost child, so my hopes were high. And I confess, the first 100 pages are downright sublime. However, after those first hundred pages the tone, quality, and caliber of the story take a nosedive off a cliff. It’s as if someone exquisitely talented wrote the first three chapters and then died … leaving a lesser cousin to finish the manuscript. The most interesting questions are never answered; and the concluding absurdities stack up so high that the story makes a jailbreak over genre walls, landing on the other side in an embarrassing tangle of nonsense.
Next in the Queue:
Night Life, by Caitlin Kittredge
The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia
The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, by James P. Blaylock