Humble Pi by Matt Parker (2019, Riverhead)
There aren’t many books about math anecdotes, but there weren’t many international bestsellers about grammar before “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves”. The immediate concern some may feel about tackling a book on a subject they were forced to abide in grade school should be set aside in both cases. Humble Pi threatens to be gimmicky via its page numbering system and occasional drifts into being pedantic, but on the whole it is an informative and pleasant reminder of the value of math in our lives.
The book is separated into areas in which math errors have appeared – engineering, accounting, computer programming and more – and provides a series of noteworthy examples ranging from amusing mistakes to catastrophe. In each case the technical reason for the math error is presented, often with musings about the psychological missteps which led to the mistake being made in the first place. Trivia about the circumstances leading to the error is often used to season the explanations. The result is a book that reads much like a series of well-written newspaper columns stitched together and arranged by topic.
Parker is a columnist for the UK Guardian, which immediately made me suspicious of the blurbs; it’s fairly easy for an industry insider to get other industry professionals to vouch for their work. It also raised suspicions that the book would promote leftward political philosophy, in the style of the Guardian. I need not have worried. While the author’s politics do manifest on occasion, they are typically kept at bay by his focus on the task at hand: talking about math in a way that makes it interesting.
Pussyfoot by Carole Nelson Douglas (1993, Tor)
Having covered the Joe Grey mysteries a few months ago, it seems appropriate to dive into one of the most successful entries into the “cat mystery” field, the Midnight Louie series by Carole Nelson Douglas. Pussyfoot (now renamed Cat in an Aqua Storm) is the second book in the series… or the fourth, or the sixth, depending on one’s perspective.
The Midnight Louie series bounces back and forth between perspectives: first person perspective for the musings of the titular cat, and third-person omniscient narrator for the human characters. This style of presentation is fairly common in detective thrillers, where the perspective of the story is often shifted between the predator and the hero. It tends to work because the reader is expected to make a dramatic shift in viewpoint and story progression when jumping between the perspectives. It’s typically a bad decision for the technique to be used when shifting between characters on the same side of a mystery.
Douglas makes it seem easy. She also navigates the pitfall of using noir-style language when writing from the cat’s perspective, rendering him a distinct character without becoming a complete caricature. If anything, his pulp-era viewpoint contrasts very nicely with the odd situations in which his new owner, PR representative Temple Barr, finds herself.
The books are fun, and they’re solidly constructed mysteries as well. They succeed on all levels, and they should; she had long enough to get them right.
The Midnight Louie books were initially created as a series of four related novels centered around a Las Vegas hotel In those books, romance novels, the central thread was an amorous relationship and around each of the pairings wove a large black tomcat who often displayed greater wisdom than did the principal players. Douglas, at that time still a fresh new writer, had the books accepted by an editor at Bantam… who proceeded to carve the four books down to two, excising most of the character motivation (and most of Louie’s scenes) and making Douglas’ descriptions of the hotel the star of the books. Crystal Days and Crystal Nights were published, and promptly forgotten.
Carole may have been a new writer, but she had other editors. While attempting to break into the “high end” romance market (a different beast entirely from the Harlequin-style weekly romance market) she’d had fantasies published by Tor, and those fantasies had sold very well for the company. She pitched them the notion of the Midnight Louie series for their new Forge imprint, their attempt to branch out into mysteries, and they took her up on the offer. She gathered the material gutted from the Crystal book fiasco and went to work on the new series.
This was book two. She proceeded to make it all the way through the alphabet at an average of one book every nine months, capping the series in 2016. It’s traditional to start at the first book, and that’s certainly an option (here, that’s Catnap, renamed Cat in an Alphabet Soup) because it provides a strong look at both Louie and Barr. The second book, as Barr settles into her new home of Las Vegas, is an introduction to the setting and secondary characters of her series and will be a good bellwether for the remainder of the series.