The Eyre Affair
By Jasper Fforde
An alternate fantasy world in which literature is followed as avidly as are pro sports in the real world sounds like a promising read for bibliophiles. To boot, throw in time travel and a thick plot in which the heroine physically enters the novel Jane Eyre to both catch the villain and alter the book's ending. Throw in pet dodos, a Crimean War that's still going on, and a romance that mirrors the protagonist's struggle to right Jane Eyre. A stew can absorb a lot of ingredients, but it takes a good storyteller to make them mesh, and in this case the colliding cross-currents are too much of a could-have-been-good thing. Set in England circa 1985, the novel nominally revolves around Thursday Next, a special operative in literary detection, and her quest to stop an extortionist who threatens to change and even destroy original manuscripts. (In this world, burning or altering originals causes every book around the globe to change or vanish.) The bombardment of side plots and fanciful ways in which history has been altered for this fantasy might exasperate less patient readers. Even so, it's not as exasperating as the sly cutesy humor -- one of the main bad guys is named Jack Schitt -- and the barrage of literary in-jokes that aren't as funny as they seem intended to be.
-- Richie Unterberger
A Shortcut Through Time
By George Johnson
Quantum computing -- using atoms, electrons, and photons to store the zeros and ones that are the basic building blocks of computer code -- is that exotic nexus where the information age and physics collide. If feasible, it could allow scientists to computationally unlock complex fundamental problems in a variety of fields, such as determining, in biology, how proteins know how to fold. Johnson, a New York Times science writer, guides us gently through the abstruse and paradoxical abstractions of quantum mechanics as well as the more plodding workings of computers. At times his folksy tutelage grates; nevertheless, in a slim volume, he manages to explain how quantum computing works, which is no small accomplishment. Quantum computing's advantage is, simply, size. If the infinitesimal particles of atoms can be used -- like computer chips -- to store data, a huge amount of computing power can be contained in a very small space. This is vital. Presently, even massive research supercomputers are stymied by advanced problems in cryptology and chess that require more computing power than they can summon. While the idea is theoretically possible, in practice it has been carried out only in very simple experiments under laboratory conditions. It has a long way to go to reach the desktop. Yet the idea of manipulating subatomic particles for practical purposes is compelling, and even readers disinterested in science will find themselves hard-pressed to put down this book.
-- Nora Ostrofe
The Forensic Casebook
By N.E. Genge
From handwriting analysis to blood-spatter patterns, this book reveals the subtle clues crime-scene investigators seek when solving mysteries. While many writers exaggerate investigators' success to the point that forensics seems more magic than science, Genge emphasizes that long hours and methodical legwork have more to do with uncovering vital evidence than do sudden flashes of brilliance. The book's core might be hard science, but it is liveliest in its interviews with experts who have used practical applications to crack cases. For instance, a fingerprint analyst foils a killer who tried to pin his murder on a rampaging gorilla. And when a threesome involving randy twins turns violent, a forensic odontologist uses UV photography to determine which twin bit a chunk out of her lover. Genge's writing style captures the tedious nature of the subject a bit too well at times, especially in an opening chapter that reads more like a checklist for crime-scene investigators than a book about them. This author sometimes has to fight a tendency to get bogged down in small details, but, considering that forensics is all about such details, it's more an unavoidable consequence of the subject matter than a literary failing.
-- Mike Rosen-Molina
The Journey of Man
By Spencer Wells
Princeton University Press, $29.95
From the Yagnob of Central Asia to Australian Aborigines, all men alive today can build a family tree with the same terminus: one man who lived 60,000 years ago in northeastern Africa. Wells, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained geneticist, does just that in this engaging and quickly paced volume, tracing human history through markers on the Y chromosome, which only males carry and is passed virtually identically through the masculine lineage. But mutations occurring along its genetic code can be followed to track the African "Adam"'s descendants as they settled throughout the world, landing in even the most impossibly remote outposts. Wells settled on studying the Y chromosome, rather than following earlier research on mitochondrial DNA (which passes from mother to daughter), on the premise that it has more "resolution" than mitochondrial DNA, containing more than 3,000 times more genetic parts, making the number of possible traceable mutations much higher. Wells does an excellent job of making complex scientific data accessible and weaves a tapestry of physical anthropology and archaeology as well as linguistics and, of course, genetics to piece together the rise of the agricultural society, the interrelations between far-flung languages, and the eventual settlement of humans into virtually every corner of the globe.
-- Elise Proulx
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