The Birth of Classical Europe by Simon Price & Peter Thonemann
The Classical world of Ancient Greece and Rome is the foundation of Western civilization. The Birth of Classical Europe, then, is the story of that foundation's construction, from the Minoan civilization circa 2000 BC to the late Roman Empire of the fifth century AD, from the Nile to Scotland.
Written in an engaging style, the authors stand out in their engagement with material culture and archaeology in the narrative. Often, historians are prejudiced towards written material, but Price and Thonemann take great pains to incorporate both kinds of sources. Ancient peoples, Herodutus notwithstanding, had a very different conception of history and historicity. Myth blended into legend blended into actual history. Lack of unified timekeeping made accurate chronologies difficult. Political agendas distorted the past to their own ends. Primary sources weren't always, or even often, readily available to large groups of scholars. Thus, their history is not empirical Truth (and, really, it isn't today, either), but memory, with all the complications that entails. People had to "make" their history out of half-remembered oral traditions, the needs of the powerful, and the beliefs of the day. Much of their (and ours, of course) history, then, is constructed, but pot sherds don't lie. On the other hand, though archaeology is good at revealing long-term trends and developments it is terrible at shedding light on specific historical events. A balance of sources is needed, and Price and Thonemann largely succeed in doing so.
Plenty of good maps and illustrations help in contextualizing the narrative. For the breadth of the subject, it's not a ponderous or over-long book, either. Recommended for readers looking for a good overview/grounding in Greco-Roman history, or just those looking for a slightly different take on Classical history.
The River Kings' Road by Liane Merciel
I don't review all the books I read. For one thing, I read a lot of them. For another thing, not all of them, even if I enjoy them, are really interesting enough to merit a review. To conserve Bourgeois Nerd's incredibly valuable blogging space (?!), I try to chose for discussion books I think are important, interesting, or deserving of wider attention. And I'll admit that I try to stay a bit "high-brow" in keeping with my carefully constructed "sophisticated intellectual" persona (?!). In other words, I want y'all to think I'm smart or something.
On first glance, The River Kings' Road didn't really meet the criteria for Bourgeois Book Club attention. But as I read, I found in it an interesting mix of conventionality and subversion that merits discussion. That it's written by a woman (and we all know I'm still trying to combat sexism in book reviewing) from my almost-hometown of Philly only added to the impetus to review.
The frame of the story is fairly traditional. A village is brutally massacred. The survivors have to journey to safety while dodging the attempts of the villains to stop them. There's a brave knight, an evil sorceress, war-like lords, and a fairly standard medieval/feudal setting. Where Merciel departs from the conventional, however, is in the characterization. The brave knight is black, his companion is a female archer, one of the "heroes" is a mercenary who is, frankly, a violent bastard, the dastardly lord is actually a competent and just ruler, and the henchman is honorable man grappling with moral dilemmas. And, to my mind at least, the most unconventional character is an unattractive, unwed mother peasant woman who shows quiet strength and dignity without being secretly magical or a prophesied Savior. The only character with an entirely standard character is the eeeeevil sorceress, who, not coincidentally in my opinion is the only major character without a POV, is eeeeeeeeeeeeevil from a nation of eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil.
The River Kings' Road is an enjoyable read that injects some much-diversity into the same old, same old of sub-Tolkienian high fantasy.
Here's Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos
I have a confession to make: I have a guilty love of groan-worthy puns. Something about an absolutely terrible pun amuses me. Thus, what immediately attracted me to Here's Looking at Euclid was the punny title. But beyond the amusing title is an fun, interesting look at the world of mathematics.
Bellos is a great writer, with a journalistic past that is evident. Instead of simply reading a lot of sources, he gets himself intimately involved in the subject, traveling, interviewing, and even experimenting. Visits to Japanese abacus clubs, anthropologists researching Amazonian tribal counting methods, a chimpanzee mathematician, an Arizona numerologist, pi hunters, an origami guru, and a hyperbolic crocheter, as well as a months-long study of baguette weight, enliven the story and help connect abstract mathematical principles to concrete reality while entertaining the reader.
He's funny in a British sort of way, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. As he explains in his Preface, his goal is to show that math is not dull, dry, and difficult, but also exciting and wondrous and possibly humanity's greatest achievement. Math is astounding and weird and just plain awesome. Thus, rather than a mere tome of formulae and proofs, instead of just abstract mathematical formalism, he draws from such disparate disciplines as history, ethnography, animal behavior, neuroscience, anthropology, and psychology to explain the origins and uses of such topics as man's number sense, counting systems, geometry, the number zero, pi, algebra, probability, the bell curve, infinity, and non-Euclidean geometry (though no Cyclopean horrors from beyond space and time). Each chapter is a self-contained exploration of one of a mathematical topic, allowing for buffet-style reading about subjects that interest you and easy skipping of stuff that doesn't.
A fun, engaging tour of the mathematical world that can appeal to even the most mathphobic among us, Here's Looking at Euclid is superb educational entertainment.
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
The Quantum Thief is a terrible book to review. Not because it is a terrible book, but because it really is almost impossible to describe. I'm not even sure I understand it all; it might be something you have to read twice to get fully. But I'm bringing it up anyway because it is SO GOOD!
Set in an unspecified future where humanity has settled the solar system from Venus to the Oort cloud, diversified from winged posthumans to strings of code floating in the cloud, and settled walking cities on Mars and computer-worlds made of diamond. A master thief is sprung from the ultimate prison to retrieve his memories from a Mars where privacy is fiercely protected and Time is a literal commodity. Meanwhile, an architecture-student-cum-detective is embroiled in conspiracy and revolution is in the air.
It's told in first person present, which is a narrative style I generally hate, and filled with a dizzying array of jargon and futuristic physics and undigested backstory that is never really explained. (You can tease much of it out, eventually, in dribs-and-drabs, and I know that it's generally considered superior to worldbuild in this way than to have some character towards the beginning give a short lecture about the fictive world the book exists in, but I have to say that to my mind, sometimes a good info dump is a welcome thing. That might just be my anal-retentive/OCD talking, though.) And yet... it's compulsive reading. The worldbuilding is amazing, even if at times overwhelming. The characters are interesting, especially because many of them are convincingly posthuman.
Really, this is just a superior science fiction adventure, and judging by the ending first in a series, which makes me happy because I'm definitely on-board to see more of Rajaniemi's world. Maybe by the time the next book comes out, I'll even have fully figured out this one!