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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten


Valerie - Jordan Park Everyone who reads Golden Age science fiction will know the sad story of Cyril Kornbluth, often claimed to be the best pulp SF writer of all time. A bizarre, eccentric figure (among other things, he never brushed his teeth, which literally turned green as a result), he churned out a phenomenal number of novels and short stories before dying of a heart attack at the tragically young age of 34. Much of what he wrote is, of course, unremarkable, but a surprising amount is good. In particular, if you've never read any of the Marching Morons series, I strongly recommend checking it out; my favorite is "The Little Black Bag", a very fine short story by any standards. Sometime around 2007 or 2008, I discovered that Kornbluth wasn't just an SF author; he also wrote what were variously described as "romances" or "erotic novels", under the pseudonym of Jordan Park. I bought this one, but for some reason left it lying on my shelf for several years. Last night, I finally got around to reading it.

Well! Once again, I think, what a tragedy that he never got to realize his full potential. This book probably took him a couple of weeks to put together, but it's not at all bad. Though the first couple of chapters quite match the tacky cover. The story is set in early 16th century Scotland; Valerie, the beautiful, proud-spirited heroine, is noble-born, but has been forced by the death of her parents to work as a scullery maid at the castle. She decides to seduce a rich, ugly farmer, and sneaks into his room naked one night. But everything goes wrong, and she is utterly humiliated. To revenge herself, she joins the local chapter of witches and begins to learn the Black Arts.

From this unpromising beginning, Kornbluth manages to extract a continuation which is entirely readable. He seems to have done a fair amount of background research (famously, he educated himself by reading an entire encyclopedia from A to Z), and I got to learn some interesting things about life in late medieval Scotland. Fun facts: if you were rich enough to own a glass window, you would take it with you when you went visiting and have it installed in your bedroom; the two halves of a flail were joined with cured eel-skin, a rare commodity that would be obtained from the city. The process of determining whether a woman was a witch is described in particular detail. It turns out to be critical to the plot, which contains some nice twists.

My guess is that Kornbluth's publisher was displeased with the result, and the book is virtually unknown, but I liked it enough that I might check out another of Ms. Park's efforts. And, as usual, I wonder what Kornbluth could have done if he'd ever taken the trouble to try and write a real novel. Maybe it wasn't something he was capable of; or maybe he would have produced a work that excited people outside the narrow confines of trash literature, and made a lasting impression. We'll never know. Such a shame.