Rocks, (metaphorical) souls and His Dark Materials

Additions to my 2021 Book List.

Life at Rock Surfaces (2021) edited by Burkhard Büdel and Thomas Friedl

This is quite different to the other books I’ve been reading, both because it’s aimed at academics and because it’s not mine. I was lent a copy of the book by Pedro, my friend and colleague, who was an author of one of the chapters. Each chapter focusses on a different aspect of life, mostly microbial, at rock surfaces. Some of the chapters make for interesting reading on organisms living in quite an extreme habitat and some, like a taxonomy guide, are not chapters that lend themselves to normal reading.

As it’s aimed at an academic audience, it’s not really accessible unless you have a fair bit of familiarity with the field. Each chapter is written by a different set of authors and so the quality and style of writing varies wildly from chapter-to-chapter. The best chapters are fairly easy to read and follow but others are a slog. Part of this is due to the content of the chapters but, often, it is poor academic writing that is opaque or unnecessarily stilted. For example, there was one chapter written by a single author that repeatedly used phrases such as “The author hypothesises …” instead of “I think …” The former isn’t a more scientific way of writing; it’s stilted, it’s awkward and is the sort of thing that leads to multiple articles about why scientific writing needs to change.

Science in the Soul (2017) by Richard Dawkins

This is a collection of Dawkin’s essays and speeches from across the years. There is a lot of good content with a wide range of subjects, including science, religion, politics, humour and even a few eulogies. I had read probably about four of them before but that didn’t matter because it was still worthwhile reading them again. Out of the whole collection, there only a handful which I did not enjoy, which is a pleasant return to normality after Outgrowing God.

Despite the breadth of topics, there is an impressive depth of insight which one only gets from spending decades immersed in science. Dawkins’ clarity when writing and the knowledge beneath his writing is a welcome change from so much of the shallow and misguided thinking which is commonly seen today. Indeed, several chapters touch on issues which are still debated, even though they probably should’ve been settled many years ago. Dawkins is probably the best modern science writer and I can highly recommend this book.

His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass (2000) by Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is the final book of the His Dark Materials trilogy and it is a great conclusion. I won’t say I am entirely happy with the way that everything ended, but I can see why it ended that way. I won’t say much of what happens to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it is a brilliant story, set in vivid worlds and overflowing with imagination.

I really enjoyed seeing some scientific musings in this book. During the story, the characters travel between different worlds and, in one of them, evolution followed a very different path. It’s not in any way a scientific book but it did a really cool job of pondering a different path of evolution and showing the interplay between different organisms as well as their environment. That was really cool.

The entire trilogy was well-written but I have to be clear how addictive and easy-to-read it is. There are good books that I’ve enjoyed reading but, when I finished a chapter, I was ready to stop. All of the His Dark Materials books are those wonderful sort where, after I finished a chapter, I just wanted to keep going. I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and think I might need to look into the BBC series to see how it compares.

2021 Book List

This has been sitting around for so long. It has not been a good year for reading books and everything on here was actually read months ago. Due to the long time between reading and writing, I’m afraid I can’t give as good of a review as I usually would as my memory of the books is not as clear.

2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

14/12/2021 Added Life at Rock Surfaces, Science in the Soul and The Amber Spyglass.
31/12/2021 Added The Sheltering Desert and Why Vegan?

Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is a fantasy, crime thriller set in South Africa. Some people (known as zoos), who have done something bad, get a magical animal companion and a special ability. The animal companion marks zoos as criminals, which does result in a certain degree of discrimination, but they are also sometimes valued for their magical skills. The protagonist of Zoo City, Zinzi, has a sloth companion and has the ability to locate missing items.

My impression of South African writing in general is that it’s pretty dry; mostly dealing with realistic social issues, poverty, crime and so on. South African fantasies and fantasy authors seem to be pretty rare or at least not very well-known to me. Zoo City makes a nice change of pace. It has all the good aspects of magic and fantasy but in a familiar South African setting. It’s a refreshing combination.

I found the whole book very enjoyable for the reasons described above. In addition, I like the idea of animal companions, although it’s a pity one has to do something bad to get them. I’ll also note that the ending of the book is a bit darker than one would normally expect but it does also fit the themes. It was a great first read for the year.

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