Monthly Archives: March 2010

Burning Shadow – book review

Burning Shadows: A novel of Saint-Germain
 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
 352 pages
 December 2009

burning shadows3 stars

Love bites, as readers of the long-running Count Saint-Germain series know.

Burning Shadows, the twenty-first in the series about the vampire Count Saint-Germain, takes us to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Huns. In this novel which combines horror and history, as award-winning novelist Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has done from the beginning of the series nearly 30 years ago, Saint-Germain is the protector of village of the edge of the crumbling Empire.

As Attila and his hordes move through the area, burning and looting, Saint-Germain, the villagers and monks annoyed by the interruption to their contemplative lives, all take refuge in a monastery. With Saint-Germain is a mysterious woman, Nicoris, who learns of his true nature. For Saint-Germain, or Dom Feranescus Rakoczy Sanctu-Germainios, as he is known in this time and place, is a vampire.

The novel proceeds at a leisurely pace with an exploration of the romance between Nicoris and Saint-Germain. Equally slow paced is Yarbros examination of fifth century Hunish culture. Yarbro is acclaimed for the realistic depth of her portrayals of the various historical periods in which the long-lived Saint-Germain has starred over the course of the series, and Burning Shadows is no different.

Yarbro has found a great formula: combine elements of the romance novel with the uncanny in the form of a vampire story, and then keep retelling it in different historical periods. She writes great stuff and Burning Shadows finds her in fine form. New comers should be aware, however, that even though the Saint-Germain novels are marketed as thrillers, the thrills are actually pretty far and few between. More accurately, these are romance novels with an uncanny kink to them.

A Brilliant Darkness book reivew

A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious 
Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of 
the Nuclear Age
João Magueijo
Basic Books
304 pages
November 2009

bill darkness3 stars

“The dead are the pensioners of remembrance,” João Magueijo writes toward the end of A Brilliant Darkness. With his book, Maguijo has built a home for his pensioner, the probably dead but definitely disappeared physicist Ettore Majorana. It may be sometimes a cat house (and you thought physicists were all serious and cerebral and stuff), sometimes a house of mirrors, but Majorana does indeed dwell on every page.

Ettore Majorana, we learn, was the wunderkind of the early atomic age. In his native Italy, the Sicilian worked with Enrico Fermi — or worked circles around Fermi and his circle of geniuses, according to Magueijo. Himself a physicist of some repute, Magueijo isn’t a great writer (his sentences sometimes get tangled in their dangling participles), but he’s clearly a passionate one who cares enough about his subjects to have done vast amounts of homework.

The underlying metaphor in A Brilliant Darkness is that the mysteriously disappeared Majorana is the elusive neutrino which passes through ordinary matter unperturbed and is notoriously hard to detect. (In the time it took you to read the foregoing sentence some 100 trillion neutrinos passed through your body.)

It’s not just a conceit: Majorana was hot on the trail of the neutrino, whose existence had been theorized, when he disappeared on March 26, 1938. Majorana’s work was important to Fermi’s project during World War II: developing the atomic bomb. Magueijo wonders, if Majorana had disappeared, whether the younger man might have tempered the venerable Fermi’s decision to join the Manhattan project.

We’ll never know, of course, and Magueijo, a physicist who deals in probabilities but never in certainties, revels in the epistemological uncertainty. In any case, we get a mystery story wrapped up in a biography that unfolds the history of particle physics in a most enjoyable way.

A World without Ice

A World without Ice
Henry Pollack
Avery; hardcover; a world without ice304 pages
October 2009
3 stars

Henry Pollack is a venerable scientist with a thousand stories to share. He’s been doing ice science for over 40 years. He’s also been explaining what he does, and the implications of what he and his colleagues have learned, for nearly as long. All of that experience makes A World without Ice a great introduction to climate science.

Pollack doesn’t bother to tackle the climate change deniers head on. At this stage of the game, there’s really no point. Although surveys inform us that Americans remain stubbornly pig-headed about the subject, the rest of us are innovating and positioning ourselves to capitalize on the inevitably growing demand for greener, cleaner technology. For example, roughly thirty percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the buildings we live and work in. Reducing emissions from buildings (either by building new ones right or by retrofitting existing ones) not only lowers our overall carbon footprint but lowers utility bills, as well. So the deniers can fume all they want; they’ll modify their tune soon enough when their wallets are empty.

Alas, behavior modification won’t happen nearly fast enough to blunt the sharp edge of climate change extremes. The planet will be largely ice free by 2030, Pollack argues, which will mean severe hardship for many hundreds of millions of people. We’ve already seen the government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to dramatize rising sea levels, but tiny far flung islands hardly register in the media-clotted American’s brain. When New Yorkers start swimming to work, though, perhaps the tune will change.

We are who we are, Pollcak shows, because of ice. Our landscapes were shaped by ice, our cultures formed in the give and take of glaciers. Pollack writes, “Ice is nature’s best thermometer, perhaps its most sensitive and unambiguous indicator of climate change. When ice gets sufficiently warm, it melts…. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid. It just melts.” And that’s exactly what it’s doing.

Say goodbye to ice by taking a tour through time and place with Pollack. It may make you sad, but it’s a fascinating journey with a voluble guide. And, who knows? Maybe if enough people read this book, we’d wake up to the fact that we’re acting like a bunch of dope fiends and admit we have a problem. Then again, no. We’d just have a better appreciation of what’s going on as we watch the ice melt.