By “recent” I mean “since January, more or less.” These are in no particular order.
The Cheese and the Worms (Carlo Ginzburg) — This book, translated from Italian, is an attempt to reconstruct what peasant culture in 16th century Italy was like through the story of a miller named Menocchio who held a number of unorthodox beliefs and was condemned to death by the church. I saw a play about Menocchio at the Berkeley Rep a few years ago, so I knew the story. In the play Menocchio seems like a bit of a hero, speaking truth to power, and is punished. That doesn’t seem to be the play’s intent, but performance makes the audience sympathize with the miller, so it was a little unavoidable. The book is clearer but still very engaging, especially if you like history with a story.
When Gravity Fails (George Alec Effinger) — This is the first instance of Arabian cyberpunk that I’ve come across, and it was really engaging. I think it appeals to the parts of me that like Naguib Mahfouz and sci-fi and noir all at once. It’s a gritty detective murder tale set in the Budayeen, a run-down district in a nea-futuristic Arab city. People can chip in new personalities and abilities into a port connected to their brain, drugs are everywhere, and there’s more intrigue than you can shake a stick at. Good stuff.
A Fire in the Sun (George Alec Effinger) — This is a sequel to the above, with the same main character, Marid Audran. Marid has to unravel a tangled web of back room deals while dealing with his past and trying to do the right thing. This one settles into some real character development that was lacking in the first book.
The Arabesk Trilogy (Pashezade, Effendi, Felaheen) (Jon Courtenay Grimwood) — More Arabian sci-fi! Although this is less cyberpunk and more alternative history. The trilogy is set in a world in which Germany won WWI and the Ottoman Empire still exists. The action centers on El Iskandriya and the prodigal Ashraf Bey, who is thrust into the middle of more intrigue than you can shake a stick at. Pretty good reads, I think.
Old Man’s War (John Scalzi) — This one is up for a Hugo. At the risk of sounding like every other review of the book, I’ll say it’s a must-read for Heinlein fans. It’s big in scale and has the same kind of humor.
The Algebraist (Iain Banks) — This one was up for a Hugo last year. It’s monstrously long, and as a friend put it, it’s like “taking an amusement park ride through Iain Banks’ imagination.” Interstellar plots, psychotic religious despots, civilizations that live inside gas-giant planets, and a humungous mystery hunt to save the world await. I liked it, but it’s not the best Banks book I’ve read.
Mumbo Jumbo (Ishmael Reed) — A hugely imaginative farcical take on American (and world) history. It’s all about the African-American artistic movement of the Harlem Renaissance era (Jes Grew) and its conflict with the Eurocentric artistic establishment (The Wallflower Order). The best thing about it is the writing, which really demands some attention to get it in your ear (or in your soul). This is a re-read for me, but I liked it even more the second time.