McDevitt, Jack. Infinity Beach.

NY: HarperPrism, 2000.

“First contact” is a well-used science fiction theme of long standing: What happens when the human race has its first meeting with an intelligent alien species? That’s assuming there are aliens out there to be discovered. Most SF fans, being technological optimists, take that to be almost an article of faith, but a great many people in our largely xenophobic world sincerely hope we really are alone. The idea of non-human civilizations, somewhere, frightens them silly.


Hall, Michael. Lasting Elegance: English Country Houses, 1830-1900.

NY: Monacelli Press, 2009.

I’ve developed, over the past couple of decades, a deep interest in the social phenomenon of the English country house — sparked, probably, by Mark Girouard’s marvelous Life in the English Country House. Much of this interest is rooted in my background in social history, but part of it, I confess, is a fascination with the pretty pictures in volumes like this.


Published in: on 25 January 2014 at 7:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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Just a note to regular readers . . .

I ordinarily post a new review every two or three days, . . . but this week was interrupted by an unexpected stay in the hospital. Everything’s fine now, and I expect to be back on my regular schedule.                                                           —Booksmith

Published in: on 23 January 2014 at 7:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Clarke, Arthur C. Rendezvous with Rama.

NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1973.

Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke are known as “the Big Three,” and they pretty much defined what “science fiction” meant to most people between World War II and the end of the 20th century. Each wrote in a distinctive style but all three were prolific (Clarke turned out more than thirty novels, none of them ever out of print) and all of them “believed” in science. Clarke had a particular interest in “first contact” as a theme: What happens when homo sapiens first meets members of another intelligent species, of which 2001 is probably his best known example (and probably Childhood’s End), but this one is far more of a hard science, nuts-and-bolts story on the same lines. It also has a lot in common with the “walk around and observe and explain” novels of Jules Verne, like A Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The story is set around 2130, far enough in the future to give the author an essentially blank canvas to work with, so he postulates a solar system run by the seven United Planets, inhabited bodies from Mercury to Titan, supporting a complex economic system in which space flight is routine. Fifty years earlier, a not terribly large asteroid had impacted northern Italy and killed hundreds of thousands, and ever since then the “Spaceguard” program has been in place to try to prevent, or at least warn of, a recurrence. A visitor from outside the system catches the program’s attention and turns out to be an obviously artificial body, a perfect cylinder of enormous size — fifty kilometers long and twenty wide — spinning on its axis and headed straight for the sun. It appears to be setting up for a slingshot approach, after which it presumably will be gone again, and mankind has only a very brief window of opportunity in which it can go and take a look.

The only ship within reach is a survey vessel captained by Commander Bill Norton, which hurries off to match courses inside the orbit of Venus with the newly-named “Rama” and he and his crew of specialists spend the next few weeks exploring the inside of the great ship and, not incidentally, searching for any inhabitants. (Do they find them? I’ll never tell.)

Clarke takes the reader on a tour of a wonderland of unknown technology (much of which remains unknown at the end) while, back on Luna, the solar government wrangles over what to do next. Are they sure the visitor really is just passing through? What if Rama changes course and takes up an orbit around the sun? Does it present a danger? Should it be destroyed out of hand — just in case? Without giving away the climax, I will say that many readers at the time were disappointed in the ending, but Clarke prefers realism (comparatively speaking). The result won both a Hugo and a Nebula, plus the Campbell Award, the Locus Award, and several others. And the U.S. Congress established a real-life Spaceguard program in the early 1990s, with the same mission as in the book.

I should add that three more “Rama” novels were written by Curt Gentry — with Clarke’s name on the cover, though he only contributed some ideas — which can generously be called mediocre. Don’t bother with them.

Horn, Pamela. The Rural World, 1780-1850: Social Change in the English Countryside.

NY: St. Martin, 1980.

Horn is best known, probably, for her excellent monographs on the English upper class and its servants in the 19th century, but she actually started out at the other end of the social spectrum, studying agricultural laborers, trade unionism in the countryside, village education, and other aspects of rural social life.


Published in: on 18 January 2014 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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McDevitt, Jack. Ancient Shores.

NY: Harper, 1996.

This novel isn’t especially typical of McDevitt’s work. In some ways, in fact, it reminds me of the methodical, slow-paced pastoral SF novels of Clifford Simak. It’s the story of the discovery of a mysterious artifact on a farm in North Dakota, in the form of a fully-rigged ketch. Well, the farm is on the edge of a vanished body of water from 10,000 years ago, what we now call Lake Agassiz. And the boat seems pristine, but it was buried under thirty feet of undisturbed soil. And the material of which it’s made is far off the end of the periodic table.


Leonard, Elmore. Split Images.

NY: Arbor House 1981.

This is one of Leonard’s earlier crime thrillers, but he was already on top of his game. (And stayed there.) Bryan Hurd is a homicide lieutenant in the Detroit PD — a city with an unusual number of murders every month, so he stays busy.


Published in: on 12 January 2014 at 9:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London.

London: St. Martin, 2003.

Awhile back, I read Picard’s volume on the everyday material and social life of London during the Victorian era — a period about which I know a good deal myself — and was very taken with it. Rather than simply providing lists of people and things, or giving explanations out of context, she instead takes you on a tour of the time and the place, describing what you see around you. And, while there’s a good deal of quiet humor, she manages it all without being cutesy.


Published in: on 9 January 2014 at 9:12 am  Leave a Comment  
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Rankin, Ian. Black and Blue.

NY: St. Martin, 1997.

Back in the late ‘60s, a serial killer had the Scottish police losing sleep and women all over Scotland looking over their shoulders. Because of his habit of leaving Bible verses with his victims, the newspapers dubbed him “Bible John.” And then he disappeared and the murders are still unsolved. (All this is true, actually.)


Barry, Michael Thomas. Great Britain’s Royal Tombs: A Guide to the Lives and Burial Places of British Monarchs.

Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2012.

I have a longstanding interest in the history of the royal and aristocratic families of Europe (even though I don’t actually approve of them), so when a new book appears on the subject, I generally seek it out. Barry is a criminal justice graduate who, besides crime writing, seems to have made the history of cemeteries and who is buried in them a hobby. (Doesn’t seem strange at all to me.)


Published in: on 3 January 2014 at 2:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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