Following his previous books, What If and Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe is back with How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems (Riverhead, $28). In this indispensable and, as always, lavishly illustrated—in his signature stick-figure style—volume, Munroe offers solutions to how to “dig a hole,” “play the piano,” “play tag,” and “power your house,”—among many other common conundrums and problems. Some of these are so commonplace they don’t seem to require a solution, but Munroe demonstrates that physical laws underlie even the most straightforward things we do. How To is part entertaining collection of scientific facts—such as how many piano keys you will need to add to your keyboard to be able to play music for dogs—to tongue-incheek, possibly dubious advice on how to move all your boxes to another house just by pushing them with a pickup truck. This volume might not be 100% useful, but it is 100% fascinating—and fun.
Every chapter in Medieval Bodies (W.W. Norton, $29.95) could be its own book, but art historian Jack Hartnell does a fantastic job of presenting facts, analysis, and context in a way that is both detailed and succinct. This book is more than just a look back at medieval medical practices; it connects arts, stories, and religious thought of the era to paint a rich picture of how bodies and their functions were perceived at the time. Hartnell successfully demonstrates that the Middle Ages were quite far from the mistaken idea that they were purely a time of darkness, pain, and poor dental hygiene. He is a great advocate, versed in both art history and the scientific practices of the time. The volume is also richly illustrated, making it one of the most beautiful and unusual histories published this year.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth (Tor.com, $25.99) is science fiction, fantasy, a locked creepy castle mystery, an aesthetic, and a dozen Halloween costume ideas, all in one. This mashup might seem too wild to be good, but Muir perhaps possesses her own brand of magic, an ability to disregard any and all genre conventions and combine all these elements into something truly incredible. Gideon the Ninth is about a solar system of political intrigue, necromancers, secret knowledge, and martial arts. It is intricately wrought, with a full mythology behind it. It comes with wonderful characters and complex relationships, including the central one between Gideon and Harrow that will bring you both tears and joy. The dialogue is a giddy mix of modern-day language, stupid jokes, sarcasm, dark humor, and sharp comebacks. This is the perfect gift for that friend who thinks Halloween should be a year-round holiday. Or perhaps, if your soul is cynical, morbid, and queer, this is the perfect book for you.