October 2007 Archives

Guy Gavriel Kay: A Song for Arbonne

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So far I have simply loved Kay's alternative history novels. A Song for Arbonne is no exception to the rule: it's an excellent story. Set in beautiful Arbonne, the book's actual historical setting is the medieval France of the troubadours. Arbonne is ruled by women, full of music and courtly love, while the northern Gorhaut is an extremely masculine country bent on war.

One can guess what happens with a setting like that. However, despite that, the story manages to be surprising and full of unexpected twists. The characters are many-faceted and full of life. The plot makes sense and packs in plenty of action, intrigue and romance. Religion plays a big role, as does family.

Kay is a master: A Song for Arbonne is another fine story well told. Even though the book is labeled fantasy, there is very little supernatural in it, so as long as one is interested in medieval themes, even those who dislike most fantasy books will be able to enjoy this one. [ A Song for Arbonne at Amazon.co.uk ] [ A Song for Arbonne at LibraryThing ]

My guess is that more than 99% of what is written about tarot in English is about fortune-telling. That's too bad, as divination wasn't the original purpose of tarot cards. They are playing cards, made for playing games - and there are plenty of great games played with the several different tarot packs, many of which are played actively even today.

Michael Dummett is one of the leading experts in the field of tarot games, while John McLeod, the owner of Card Games web site is one of the leading experts on card games in general. Together they have created an excellent book, covering basically all forms of tarot played in Europe. The book is based on all sorts of documents and literary sources, but also plenty of fieldwork amongst the actual players of the games.

This is a very professional and serious book, filled mostly with rules of games. Casual card gamer will probably find it rather dry and over-whelming, and will fare better with what McLeod has published on his web site. For serious tarot fans, there just isn't another book like this. You need to have this book in your collection, no doubt about it.

The first volume covers tarot games of Italy, France and Switzerland, from the earliest games to the modern French and Italian games. The second volume covers the Austrian 54-card branch. [ A History of Games Played With the Tarot Pack: The Game of Triumphs, Vol. 1 at Amazon.com ] [ A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack: The Game of Trumps: v. 1 at Amazon.co.uk ] [ A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack: The Game of Trumps: v. 2 at Amazon.co.uk ] [ A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack in LibraryThing ]

Sheepshead is a card game played mostly in Wisconsin, USA. It has evolved from German Schafkopf the immigrants brought over from the old continent. These days the American game has became quite different from its German roots: the game is usually played with five players instead of original four, for example.

Erica Rosch, a Sheepshead fan for ten years, has written an excellent guide to the game. The book explains the rules and standard conventions of the game in a clear and entertaining way. The standard five-player game gets the most attention, but the book also describes the original four-player Schafkopf (both German and US variations) and Sheepshead for 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8 players.

What's even better, the book is not just about the rules. There's plenty of useful strategy, too! For an experienced player, the parts about tournaments and getting a Sheepshead game night going are definitely helpful. A book centered on one game will have limited appeal (especially if the game is not Poker or Bridge), but any true card game aficionados should read this book, particularly if they aren't yet familiar with Sheepshead or Schafkopf. [ Field Guide to Sheepshead at Amazon.co.uk ] [ A Field Guide to Sheepshead at LibraryThing ]

I was reading this book when I heard Doris Lessing had been awarded the Nobel prize in literature. As a science fiction fan I think Lessing was an excellent choice: she's both an interesting author and her bibliography includes science fiction - including some elements in this book.

Briefing for a Descent is about a man, who is found wandering around in London. He's taken into a psych ward for treatment and it soon turns out he has lost his memory. He sleeps a lot, dreaming intense and interesting dreams. Eventually he wakes up and the hospital staff find out his identity - then begins the task of making the man and the identity meet.

The book starts slowly and I'm fairly sure many people have started, but not finished. My recommendation is to skim through the early parts about floating in oceans - the book gets a bit more solid about halfway through and is actually quite interesting. Worth reading, definitely, if not the best one I've read from Lessing. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Briefing for a Descent into Hell at Amazon.co.uk ] [ Briefing for a Descent into Hell at LibraryThing ]

In New York of 1893, painter Piambo is suffocating. He's forced to paint society portraits of the nouveaux riches in order to make a living. A mystery comission to paint the portrait of Mrs. Charbuque offers a way out, as she offers a rather mind-boggling amount of money for her portrait. There's a catch, of course: Piambo is not allowed to see Mrs. Charbuque. He can only hear her talk behind a screen.

Piambo accepts the commission. While he struggles with the painting, a wave of mysterious murders hits New York. Soon Piambo finds out he's in a bit too deep for his own good, but getting out is not that easy - and does Piambo really want to get out?

Jeffrey Ford has written a marvellous book. The story was a real page-turner, this is a magical book full of new wonders. Both Piambo and Mrs. Charbuque are interesting characters and the story is riddled with interesting people and events. It's been a while since I've read a book this captivating. Highly recommended for the fans of magical and fantastic. [ The Portrait of Mrs.Charbuque at Amazon.co.uk ] [ The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque at LibraryThing ]

Hudson's The History of Chemistry promises to explain how chemistry was born and developed. It introduces the reader to a rather large number of notable chemists and explains their antics. It is all good and well, but unfortunately Hudson writes to a chemist, not to a general reader.

I'm sure this book is a good overview of the history of chemistry if you're a chemistry student or a chemist, but a general reader will bump into rather thick chemistry jargon that is not explained enough. My background in chemistry is the bit I learnt in high school and I had to skip rather large portions of the book because I didn't understand them. I was constantly asking "why?", "why is this important?", "what does this mean?" - but Hudson doesn't answer those questions.

So, if you're looking for popular history, you're looking in a wrong place. However, if one's interested in history of science and does have some knowledge of chemistry, this book will explain the general development of chemistry well enough. I'm sure there are better books about the topic, but I don't know them. (Review based on Finnish translation.) [ The History of Chemistry at Amazon.co.uk ] [ The history of chemistry at Amazon.co.uk ] [ The History of Chemistry at LibraryThing ]