Traditional book publishing has long lead times. What publishers are buying this week won't be on the shelves until next year (or longer, as this past year has annoying demonstrated), and what is coming out this week was determined in a time when we were all living by candlelight and eating cold mutton out of hammered iron pots. Which is to say that if you can look at a list of titles being released in a given week and see patterns and grand designs, well, you're probably imagining things.
Of course, that won't stop us.
First up, we have Walter Isaacson's The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. This is sort of a novelty for Isaacson in that the human subject of his book is still alive. The second anomaly here is that he's reporting on events and ideas that are, like, "OMG! This is so last week" fresh. Which is probably why The Code Breaker clocks in at less than six hundred pages.
But it's a gripping six hundred pages. Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize last year for her work with CRISPR—a means by which we are figuring out how to manipulate an organism's genetic code. That's right. We've been talking about "genetic engineering" for fifty years or so (and it's been a staple of SF writing for a long time), but now we're talking about actually doing it. Sure, it might be awhile before we all get to live through a paranormal romance plotline, but in the short term, CRISPR has been part of the front-line fight against COVID-19. Take that, stinky virus. We are going to science the sh*t out of you. (Virtual hat tip to Andy Weir.)
And speaking of science and the fringers, Carl Zimmer is back this week with Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive (though we could argue the definition is, simply: "Knowing how to properly capitalize that subtitle"). Zimmer, who has written a few books about the history of life and genetics and the like, is curious about the simplest definition of "life." It turns out that there's not a lot of consensus here. Zimmer doesn't claim to know the answer (sorry, spoiler), but the quest to answer this question is why we tag along. Zimmer travels to a number of exotic locales, asking pesky questions of cutting-edge thinkers and researchers. It's an engaging journey, poking at the edge of what is and what isn't.
Meanwhile, Maggie Hope, Susan Ella MacNeal's fiery protagonist, is back in The King's Justice. Maggie has been working behind the scenes in England during World War II, and after a series of high-wire adventures, she's hoping to take a little breather. Naturally, the world has other plans for Maggie, and she is quickly drafted back into service when trunks filled with bones start bobbing up in the Thames. A prisoner in the Tower of London says he knows who the killer is, but he's only willing to talk to Maggie. Oh, it sounds like this fellow has an ulterior motive, and as we're in the able of hands of MacNeal here, we're sure the twists will keep on twisting.
And speaking of twists, Donna Leon has another Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery for us. Transient Desires follows Brunetti as he eases toward retirement, complaining about his trousers and the tourists along the way. A pair of injured women who are abandoned at a hospital dock is the central mystery of Transient Desires, and while this may be the thirtieth adventure for Commissario Brunetti, Leon shows no signs of letting up. The mystery gets murky and the tension gets taut, as Brunetti and his colleagues race to find the criminals involved.
And speaking of crime dramas, here's Kate Quinn's The Rose Code, which is set in London's East End during the 1940's. As you can imagine, the ladies of this book work at that secret shop where the war effort is thoroughly clandestine and ultra top clearance. Naturally, there is some back-stabbing and betrayal, and these women have to put aside old grudges and aging bitterness to discern what really happened during their time at Bletchley Park.
Here's a fun thing. It's an oracle deck, but the cards are colors instead of complicated sigils or images. Well, okay, there are some key words associated with each color (and card), but the emphasis is intuition and emotional resonance versus, say, an eight-hundred page tome on related inferences and subliminal messaging. Perfect for the creative thinker that needs a subtle nudge versus a detailed map of the terrain.
And speaking of old terrain and new maps, Jess Zimmerman's Women and Other Monsters is a delightful collection of essays that explores the root of the age-old concept of women as monsters (drawn mostly from the author's self-admitted love affair with D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths). Zimmerman, eruditely and engagingly, argues that what the old myth tellers saw as horrible traits were actually strengths. Women and Other Monsters is subtitled "Building a New Mythology," and Zimmerman makes an able effort to transform this ancient message into calls to action for modern readers. It's all about how you read the signals, isn't it?
And speaking of decoding the mysterious workings of the universe, here's Angus Fletcher's Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature. It's not the most powerful books; nor is it the most powerful ideas. Rather, it's all about literary inventions—ways of telling stories, if you will. "The Framing Device." "The Fairy-Tale Twist." "The Monster as Metaphor." "The Elusive Narrator as a Mirror of Their Own Fragility." That sort of thing. It's a delightful approach to tracing interesting lines through the history of narrative, and will undoubtedly ruin many books for you in the future.
(Yes, but you'll also be the smart kid in the room when you see the plot twist coming, so there's that to consider as well.)
And speaking of old thoughts and new considerations, here's Annalee Newitz's Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. Newitz takes us on a road trip to a couple of destinations that are definitely not the same today as they were thousands of years ago. It's more than a just a travelogue through ancient ruins, as Newitz attempts to consider how and why these places flourished in the first place. It's not hard to draw parallels with our modern age, as we find ourselves both attracted and repulsed by the press of humanity that makes up a city. It's an engaging read that will make you think about the importance of your local community.
And finally, here's Kevin Brockmeier's The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories. Brockmeier has a puzzle for us. In this book, there are exactly one hundred stories. Each is two pages long. They are thematically arranged. Many of them will try to scar you emotionally. Some of them will make you wonder what the heck just happened. The trick is finding your way through these stories. What's on Brockmeier's mind? What is he searching for? Well, it might be something that you are searching for as well.
And with that, we shall quietly put all these in a stack for you and vanish into the ether. You don't have to solve all the mysteries this week, dear readers. Sometimes it's okay to get up, find some pants, and leave the house long enough to smile and wave at one person. Try for two people tomorrow. That's right. Tiny steps. We got this.