Chuck Berry performing; with insert 'The Aliens are Coming!' book cover

Book reviews

The search for extraterrestrial life, a hardboiled take on fundamental maths, and dystopian sci-fi in a fictional version of contemporary Russia.

Princeton University Press

LA Math: Romance, Crime and Mathematics in the City of Angels

By James D Stein, £16.95, ?ISBN: 9780691168289

The setup in ‘LA Math’ is one that goes as far back as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: two single men sharing a house who use their respective talents to solve mysteries. The difference this time round is that author James D Stein has tailored his stories to make the general maths topics that a typical US college student not specialising in science or engineering - the ‘LA’ stands for ‘liberal arts’ as well as the city in which the adventures are set - would be expected to cover in their first year a bit more digestible.

Stein, who is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach, knows his stuff. He also uses his local neighbourhood as a colourful backdrop whose locations around Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Malibu and Santa Barbara will be familiar to viewers of a host of US television shows.

Stein first had the idea for what has ended up as a collection of 14 stories about 20 years ago, and admits up front that the title is designed to grab attention by emulating other fiction invoking the glamour of Los Angeles.

This isn’t the hardboiled writing of James Ellroy’s ‘LA Confidential’ or Raymond Chandler though; the plots are more like a daytime cop show, but don’t suffer for that. And the cover may picture a quintessential gumshoe in fedora and coat lurking in the shadows, but the stories are set squarely in the 21st century. Making the two protagonists single men gives Stein an excuse to make technology like digital video recorders, subscription sports channels and of course the Internet a central part of the narrative.

Freddy Carmichael is a freelance private investigator who has moved to the west coast from New York following the breakdown of his marriage and moves in with sidekick, Pete Lennox, a sports betting enthusiast. In each story Freddy’s deductive instincts combine with Pete’s trusty maths skills to solve a crime.

A knowledge of topics ranging from percentages and probability to set theory, statistics, and the mathematics of elections comes to their aid. In fact there are two alternative contents lists: ‘Message from a Corpse’, in which the murderer of a wealthy widow is discovered, also goes by the title ‘Rules of compound interest: simple and compound interest, installment purchases and amortisation’.

With tight and engaging plots, the stories in ‘LA Math’ are neatly written and just the right length to read in around 15 minutes. An important factor is that Stein doesn’t let a detailed explanation of the maths get in the way of the denouement. Instead, readers can - if they like - flick to an appendix section in which the theory at the heart of each solution is explained in as much detail as anyone other than a serious mathematician will want.

Like all but the very best short stories - again, the Sherlock Holmes canon is one of the rare exceptions in the same genre and a few science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury have managed it - this is a book for dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover. In fact, at times the hardback format feels unsuitable and you wish you were reading from a dog-eared pulp magazine.

Entertaining as it is, you feel that Stein has pretty much exhausted the mystery/algebra crossover genre. Further adventures of Carmichael and Lennox would have to take the duo into some heavy-duty reasoning that even the most imaginative writer would be challenged to write an engaging plot around. But maybe I’m wrong. There’s not much geometry here, so perhaps the pair could team up with a civil engineer who’s a whizz at trigonometry and surveying to solve a further series of mysteries.

Dominic Lenton

Restless Books

Fardwor, Russia!

By Oleg Kashin, £9.99, ISBN 9781632060396

Oleg Kashin is a notorious Russian journalist whose open criticism of the Putin government may or may not have motivated unknown assailants to beat him to within an inch of his life back 2010. You’d think such an event would put the dampeners on a guy, but apparently Kashin was undeterred and returned full force to publish his first work of fiction, ‘Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin’, in Moscow, just two months later. Now, in a new edition translated by Will Evans, ‘Fardwor, Russia!’ has been made available for international audiences with a taste for controversial political satire.

The ridiculous sci-fi dystopia nestled within the garish pink covers bears more than a slight resemblance to Russia under Putin and, with new stories of corruption in the Kremlin making the front pages of international news sites each month, it has never been more topical.

The main protagonist of ‘Fardwor, Russia!’ is Karpov, an enthusiastic young scientist who, with the help of his grandfather, invents a revolutionary new growth serum that actually works. In an old wooden shack that serves as a makeshift laboratory, Karpov spends his days experimenting on common sewer rats and creating unspeakable monstrosities, while his long-suffering wife Marina sits mournfully in their dusty apartment, lamenting a life left behind in Moscow.

Delighted with his results, Karpov begins offering the serum to local farmers, promising fully grown livestock in exchange for new-born piglets and calves, before tracking down a circus midget. Unfortunately for poor, deluded Karpov he is wholly unequipped to deal with the full force of his discovery, and before he can reap any rewards all hell breaks loose.

The meat industry is furious with the prospect of cheap meat resulting from an abundance of livestock; a dwarf oil oligarch makes use of the serum before running away with Karpov’s wife; and a giant cat goes on a rampage and eats a man’s face and heart. But it is not until the professional scientists get hold of the serum that things get really ugly.

‘Fardwor, Russia!’ is wonderfully strange and fantastically frightening, a gruesome yet hilarious tale of genetic engineering gone awry, combined with a grim political parable of the danger of power in the wrong hands. A ludicrous satire with a serious twist, this is a ‘must read’ for those with an interest in Russian politics, or fans of science fiction that borders on the ridiculous.

Jade Fell

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