I'm saving the best for last, so stick with me.
This book has been my constant bathroom companion for months now. I learned some new words - metope, prostyle, tholos. I discovered that a lot of architectural details, from the way buildings were built to design and structural elements, arose from the transition from wood and mud brick to stone. And I learned that a lot of things that wouldn't make sense if you didn't know how gravity works make perfect sense when you take into account the fact that very heavy things naturally want to fall down.
It was extremely detailed, more of a catalogue than a narrative, but wonderfully informative, with plenty of diagrams and illustrations to help things along. The best part, though, was the epilogue, which became positively poetic.
All in all, not a bad bathroom read - and my architectural ignorance is slightly less than it was before. Win!
Trees: Their Natural History
I've loved this book since the first sentence: "Everyone knows what a tree is: a large woody thing that provides shade." The rest of the book didn't disappoint. It's a clear, concise, and comprehensive introduction to trees, from how they evolved to how they work in this modern world of climate change and pollution.
Peter Thomas wrote this book because he became frustrated with the fact that there wasn't a single source for all our knowledge about trees. A lot of myths get dispelled, and most importantly, I learned things I never knew before - like how roots seek easy paths in order to grow, and how far they actually go. The strategies various trees have - deciduous vs. evergreen, conical vs. sprawling, tall vs. short - begin making sense once you know why natural selection molded them in certain ways. And there were things I'd never considered before, like how something so tall manages to stay upright for decades, hundreds or even thousands of years against the simplest antagonist of all: the wind.
Once I got done with this book, I felt I'd gotten into the mind of a tree. And it's hard to see them in the same way ever again. They may not be conscious in the way we understand, but they are living creatures that respond to their world. They're magnificent. And I'm very glad I got to know them better.
Towers of Midnight
This is the book I abandoned all y'all to read. Took me three nights, it did, and it was worth it.
It's never easy for an author to take on another author's characters and world and try to do them justice. And you know how complicated the Wheel of Time is. Cast of practically thousands, very detailed world, more subplots than a Borgia family reunion, and Robert Jordan's peculiar obsession with clothing. At times, I could clearly see Brandon struggling, especially when it came to describing clothes (I feel for him. No man outside a tailor's shop should have to pay that much attention to fabrics, colors and cuts). There was also that bit where, for several chapters, I thought he'd fucked up continuity big time, only to realize the continuity was fine, but his ability to skip back and forth between different time streams in said continuity had slipped a bit. I can't say as I blame him. The thing's almost 900 pages, hideously complex, and he wrote it in a year.
Any number of minor annoyances can be forgiven here. My hat is fully off to Brandon for tackling this at all, much less doing such a great job, not to mention ensuring Jordan's fans get to see how the story ends. Which it will, alas, next year. Brandon, can't you maybe be just a wee past deadline just this once?
I want to see how the story ends. Then again, I don't. I love these characters, I love how Brandon's managed to grow them further, and I don't want to see it come to an end. Then again, I do. Argh!
Sign of a good book, that. And this was a very good book. Kept me up past bedtime three nights running, and the only thing that saved me was the switch from Daylight Savings Time.
Life on a Young Planet
Lockwood recommended this one, and I'm glad he did. I love reading books that give me physical pain when I realize I'm getting close to the end. I hated finishing this book: it's so beautifully written, so fascinating, and so informative that I could have happily spent the rest of my life reading it.
From mere chemical traces to exquisitely preserved microfossils, from the first ambiguous hints of life to stromatolites, from extremophiles to extraterrestrials, from ancient atmospheres to oxygen revolutions, this book is a journey through life itself. Andrew Knoll's sense of wonder is only matched by his scientific chops. There are few people who can write using the big technical words and yet never for an instant seem dry. He's one of those rare talents. He also explains things well without stopping the narrative cold; tough concepts hold no terrors for the layperson in this slender book. At least, not if said layperson has read a few books on evolution and biology first - I'm not sure how a total neophyte would fare, but I suspect the sheer power of the prose would smooth over any difficulties.
I can tell you this: a lot of the things that confused me about how really ancient life is identified got cleared up in the course of reading this book, and I understand quite a bit more about how a little rock from Mars caused so much excitement with ambiguous evidence for life.
Andrew Koll, if you're reading this: I want a revised edition expanded by a factor of at least ten.
And that's it for now. Not much 2010 left, but I'm sure we'll have at least one or two more of these before the end.