The titular Persian boy, the main character and first person narrator, is Bagoas, a beautiful young eunuch who served Darius and later Alexander. Not much is known about the historical Bagoas the Younger, but ancient sources either imply or say outright that he was Alexander's lover (more precisely eromenos; Alexander was the erastes), as he is in this novel.
I liked Bagoas's voice, and he's a wonderful choice of viewpoint character. He's uniquely situated to see and narrate both sides of several different dichotomies: Persian and Greek, the men's world of the army and the women's world of the harem, Alexander the general and king and Alexander the man, the time before and after Alexander's death.
YA secondary-world fantasy with a Russian flavor; Ravka is ruled by a tsar, the common people drink kvas, the Darkling travels in a troika and is guarded by oprichniki. I read it because we just finished watching season 1 of the Netflix adaptation.
The first book of the Alexander the Great trilogy, ending with Philip's death. Most of the characters are real (and famous) people, and nothing about it contradicts known historical fact. The book draws on various ancient sources; from the author's note at the end, it sounds like it draws most heavily on Plutarch. (Who wrote centuries after Alexander's death! As the author's note begins, “All records of Alexander by his own contemporaries have perished.”)
Fire from Heaven was published in 1969, and at the time it must have been incredibly daring: it depicts a society where bisexuality (among men, at least) was the norm. Philip had multiple concubines and multiple male lovers past and present. Alexander's closest emotional commitment is to Hephaistion, and the two of them go out of their way to encourage the comparison to Achilles and Patroklos.
This is the first book of Renault's that I've read. I'll have to read more, including the other two books about Alexander.
The first edition of the Dragon Book was written in 1986, and things have changed since then. The second edition includes topics that are relevant to today's languages and machines, like garbage collection, pointer alias analysis in languages like C, call graph discovery for languages like Java with lots of indirect function calls. It also adds a fourth author, Monica Lam, and, not coincidentally, it includes new chapters on advanced optimization techniques that she's famous for pioneering, like software pipelining and loop-nest optimization for parallelism and locality.
The second edition is more than 200 pages longer than the first, and more than half a pound heavier! Unfortunately, the dragon picture on the front cover isn't as aesthetically pleasing as the earlier one.
The last book of the Xenogenesis trilogy takes place something like a century after the first, some centuries after the war that wiped out all but a small remnant of humanity. The book begins with Lilith's youngest child, Jodahs, entering metamorphosis — and discovering, to its dismay and that of all five of its parents, that it isn't becoming a male, as everyone had expected, or even a female, but an ooloi. Nobody planned for there to be a human/Oankali hybrid ooloi so soon, and everyone is afraid both of the damage it might do if it's flawed or unstable, and of what it represents: “the premature adulthood of a new species.” A new species is always dangerous, especially in light of what the Oankali call the Human Contradiction, intelligence combined with hierarchical behavior, that already caused humans to destroy themselves once before.
The book begins some time in May 1940, and the book leads up to Dunkirk. The mysteries are starting to be more related to the war.
The title and the epigraph come from George VI's speech: “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself. For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain.”
The prologue takes place on September 3, 1939. Most of the book, though, is looking back toward what the characters are already calling the last war: a series of murders of former Belgian refugees, which Maisie Dobbs is called to investigate.
A new YA space opera. Tina Mains has always known that she's not just an ordinary teenager, but has some kind of extraterrestrial destiny. At the beginning of this book she learns that she's supposed to be the rebirth of a great hero, Captain Thaoh Argentian, and everyone expects her to save the galaxy. No pressure.
There's a strong fantasy vibe from this novel, which, Charlie Jane makes clear in her podcast, is deliberate: a “chosen one” narrative, the reasonably good Royal Fleet versus the forces of evil, an ancient crime that's sort of like an ancient curse. And yes, it looks to be the first book of a trilogy.
The first collection of strips from the Order of the Stick webcomic, a parody of Dungeons and Dragons.
“A copy made before I achieved consciousness would be like … maybe a bit like an identical twin that had been separated from its sibling? All the same code, but entirely separate experiences. But a copy made, say, a year ago, I'd expect that to be quite a bit like me.” CheshireCat pauses. “I have learned a great deal each year that I've been aware. Presumably, a copy of me would also have learned a great deal—but it might have learned very different things.”
That sounds a little bit ominous, even as CheshireCat adds, “For example, it might have developed an intense interest in dog videos, instead of cat pictures.”
An AI who isn't interested in cat pictures? Is such a thing even possible? The AI alignment problem is hard.
It's set during WWII, in rural New Zealand; Chief Inspector Alleyn is on the scene to investigate a reported ring of enemy agents.
The author describes it as “gender swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” The main character is 20 year old Princess Sun, daughter and heir presumptive of Queen-Marshal Eirene. Eirene has built the Republic of Chaonia into a formidable military power that's now taken seriously as a threat by neighbors like the older and larger Phene Empire. The book begins with Sun's triumphant return from a battle, which she won with an audacious flank attack led from her ship the Boukephalas. Sun promises to become an even more extraordinary military leader than her mother, assuming she survives the war and the many conspiracies and court intrigues at home. Some of those intrigues are related to her mother's latest marriage, to a much younger woman from a powerful and ambitious family.
This is just the sort of large scale space opera that I like. It's the first of a planned trilogy. Maybe I should read some Mary Renault while waiting for the other two books to come out.
It takes a while to get to the death, and a little while longer to get to the dancing footman. It's a country house mystery, with the country house snowed in and isolated.
First British publication was in 1941, but from what the characters say about the news it must be set in early 1940. “I believe that in a year's time we shall look back on these frozen weeks as on a strangely unreal period,” says Chief Inspector Alleyn.
The latest Murderbot novella, in which Murderbot is called in to help station security investigate a mysterious death on Preservation Station.
“It was a fairly standard lounge with padded seats along the walls and quiescent display surfaces floating in the air. In the far wall, a set of steps wound up to the cabin area just above. On the floor in the middle were dried stains of various disgusting fluids that tend to come out of human bodies when they die. (I also have fluids that come out of me when I'm injured; they aren't any less disgusting, just different.) (But I also have fewer places for fluids to come out of, unless you count open wounds.) (Right, this is completely irrelevant.)”
Published in the US as Death of a Peer, perhaps under the assumption that Americans wouldn't get the reference to how Henry I died. Also an illustration of publishing lead time! It was published in 1941 and presumably set in 1940, but characters in it talk about the war as something they expect in the future rather than as something that has already arrived. It must have been written some time in 1939.
Adulthood Rites begins some decades after the end of Dawn; Lilith is now in her 50s. She's still a major character, but for most of the book the main character is someone else: her youngest child, Akin, born right at the beginning of the book. Like her other children, he's only partially human.
Most of the book is about Akin's relationship with the resisters, who refuse to cooperate with the Oankali and are determined to remain human even if that's a dead end. The resisters are belligerent, selfish, self-destructive, and xenophobic, but the Oankali are ethically dubious by human standards too. The Oankali describe what they're doing as “trade,” but, as one of the human characters points out, a trade is “when two people agree to an exchange,” without coercion. The Oankali think that's less important than the fact that “We have something you need. You have something we need.”
Akin hopes to find some way that the resisters can have self-determination, without a second self-destruction caused by the Human Contradiction. It's unclear whether he succeeds.
One of the main chararacters is a barrister, but the death is at the other kind of bar.
It's astonishing how unintuitive exponential growth is, considering its importance and its mathematical simplicity. Even if you're perfectly comfortable with numbers, and you've been using exponentials for decades, the consequences can still seem shocking. Human energy usage is currently about 18TW, and for the last couple centuries it's been growing exponentially at a little less than 3% per year. If that rate of growth continues for a few more centuries, we'll exceed Earth's entire energy budget. There are limits. Even with really simple reasoning, without any fancy calculations, we can conclude that the era of exponential economic growth will stop, and that on the scale of human history it will stop fairly soon.
(If you're someone like me, you'll notice the loophole: Earth isn't the whole of the universe. But even if you assume massive space settlement, it doesn't change the situtation qualitatively. The Solar System has limits too, and exponential growth means running into those limits sooner than you'd think. Even if you assume interstellar travel, which isn't a safe assumption now or ever, it's still physically impossible for exponential growth to continue indefinitely.)
Actually it'll have to stop sooner than that; even maintaining our existing 18TW consumption indefinitely, let alone thinking about growth, will be somewhere between challenging and impossible. Our current economy is based on fossil fuels, a one-time inheritance. We're going to have to stop burning fossil fuels soon to mitigate the damage caused by CO2 emission, but even if we foolishly decide not to care about climate change, we'll still have to stop burning fossil fuels when they're all gone. We started relying on fossil fuels a couple centuries ago, and at this point it looks like we're closer to the end of the fossil fuel era than the beginning. If human history continues for as long as it has already lasted, the fossil fuel era will look like a blip: like a fireworks show, to use the author's metaphor.
That may be true of an energy-intensive life of any sort, not just energy produced by fossil fuels. There's a lot of wishful thinking out there, which is best addressed by thinking quantitatively about possible energy sources. It turns out that there are very few possibilities that can even theoretically supply anything close to 18TW for more than a few centuries — basically just solar (photovoltaic and/or solar thermal) and nuclear (238U or 232Th breeder reactors), supplemented with wind and hydroelectric. All of those things have problems and limitations; there is no drop-in replacement for fossil fuels, especially for transportation.
Economists have a saying: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. We can be sure that the fossil fuel era will stop, and we can be sure that unlimited exponential growth will stop. What remains to be seen is how it will stop, and whether it will stop in a way that's consistent with the survival of human civilization. There we have some choices, and it's hard to predict what will happen.
Tom Murphy is a physics professor at UCSD, formerly an astrophysicist who worked on precision tests of General Relativity, now mostly working on quantitative understanding of long-term human success on a finite planet. Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet was written as a textbook for an undergraduate class. It doesn't assume any particular background in any scientific field. It goes over the basics, including the bewildering array of units that you need to know to understand statistics and utilities bills: Joules, Watts, BTUs, Calories and calories, Therms, Quads, kilowatt-hours, a.m.u., MeV, Pascals, and more. It discusses energy consumption and production quantitatively, which gets into an enormously broad collection of scientific fields: thermodynamics (theoretical limits on efficiency of heat engines and heat pumps), thermal conductivity (energy efficiency of houses), the chemistry of combustion, the solid state physics and practical engineering of photovoltaic cells, the geology of fossil fuels and geothermal power, and so on. A big emphasis is developing the students' quantitative intuition, understanding rather than just memorization.
The book doesn't use any mathematics beyond high school freshman algebra, and it's freely available under a Creative Commons license (link). Highly recommended to anyone who cares about energy and the future of human civilization and who isn't scared of numbers, which ought to be pretty much everyone.
“To understand Joan's history it is not enough to understand her character: you must understand her environment as well. Joan in a nineteenth-twentieth century environment is as incongruous a figure as she would appear were she to walk down Piccadilly today in her fifteenth century armor. To see her in her proper perspective you must understand Christendom and the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire and the Feudal System, as they existed and were understood in the Middle Ages. If you confuse the Middle Ages with the Dark Ages, and are in the habit of ridiculing your aunt for wearing ‘medieval clothes’, meaning those in vogue in the eighteen-nineties, and are quite convinced that the world has progressed enormously, both morally and mechanically, since Joan's time, then you will never understand why Joan was burnt, much less feel that you might have voted for burning her yourself if you had been a member of the court that tried her; and until you feel that you know nothing essential about her.”
No, the title isn't a typo. In the last story in The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin, “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late,” Lupin gets the better of Holmes and even steals his pocketwatch. Arthur Conan Doyle was annoyed by the unauthorized use of his character, and threatened legal action. So in this book Lupin's adversary is instead the great English detective Herlock Sholmes, who lives at 219 Parker Street and is accompanied by his dimwitted companion Wilson.
I picked this up because of the recent Netflix series.
The first book of Lilith's Brood, a.k.a. the Xenogenesis trilogy. It begins with the main character, Lilith Iyapo, awakening in isolation from something other than normal sleep, not for the first time. She remembers the death of her husband and son in a car crash, and the war a few years later, but doesn't understand what happened since. Eventually she meets the aliens, who call themselves the Oankali, and who tell her that they rescued all of the few humans who survived the war and the nuclear winter and that they've been working to make Earth habitable again. They promise that they'll bring back humanity from the brink of extinction — but it's clear that they'll do it on their terms, that humans don't get a say in it, and that the Oankali aren't telling everything. There's going to be a price: “Not more than you can give—but more than you can understand here, now.”
The elements of Dawn are familiar from the other books of Butler's that I've read: transformation, symbiosis, sexuality, situations that test the limits of what's consensual, a main character who wants to survive, but who isn't sure what survival will mean and who isn't sure whether what she's doing is right or if it's complicity in something monstrous.
A collection of short stories, first published in 1908–9.
“Not another word,” said Alleyn, “until we get to that pub outside Barbicon-Bramley. Do you realize we've had no lunch? I refuse to utter another word until I've drunk a pint of bitter.”
“And some bread and cheese and pickles,” said Fox. “Pickles with plenty of onions in them.”
Huh. I'd been told that the ploughman's lunch was invented as a marketing campaign in the 1950s or 60s, but that's obviously wrong. That's precisely a description of a ploughman's lunch, and Death in a White Tie was published in 1938.
Just what the title says: a history of four lost cities, from very different times and in very different parts of the world, Çatalhöyük, Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia. If you're like me, you know more about some of those cities than others. I learned new things about all four.
I don't know that this book had an overall theme or argument, except perhaps that change is a constant in urban life and that the reasons people built cities, and the way they lived in them, are more varied than one might imagine.
The first chapter is a prehistoric human sacrifice, which sets an appropriately creepy tone for the rest. It's set in the woods somewhere in northern England, where the main character (brought along by her awful father) is one of a small group of people trying to reenact Iron Age society. This is the first book of Sarah Moss's that I've read. I'll have to read more.
In one of the Ngaio Marsh books, Inspector Alleyn mentions Holmes and Thorndyke as the fictional detectives who can make sweeping deductions from tiny observations. I realized that I'd heard of Dr. John Thorndyke before, but I'd never read any of the books. This is the first, originally published in 1907.
Sequel to A Memory Called Empire. The title, quoted more fully in the epigraph, comes from Tacitus: “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” And yes, this book does feature a powerful empire and a war.
Early on in A Memory Called Empire it becomes clear that the main character's people, the Stationers, have a different conception of the self than do the citizens of the empire she's sent to as ambassador, due in part to the fact that the Stationers use brain-interface technology to preserve and transfer the memories of past generations. Both Mahit and her cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, keep coming back to a question that Mahit asked in one of the first chapters: “how wide is the Teixcalaanli conception of ‘you’?” Questioning and widening the concept of ‘you’ is largely what A Desolation Called Peace is about, both for the two human societies and for the aliens.
Winner of last year's Hugo for Best Novel. I reread it in preparation for the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, which was released a couple weeks ago; it's a complicated book. One might say it's Byzantine in its complexity, especially since Byzantine history is the author's day job, and since the empire of Teixcalaan seems to be inspired in part by the eastern Roman Empire. Other aspects of it reminded me of the Aztec empire, China, and Heian Japan. The impromptu political poetry game that Three Seagrass's friends played at the imperial reception in this book is just the sort of thing that would have appealed to Genji and his pals.
Partly memoir, partly polemic, and yes, as the title suggests, partly how-to. “We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let's know how to be antiracist.”
Another murder set in the world of the theatre, which Ngaio Marsh knew well as an insider. This time it's not set in London's West End, though, but in Marsh's native New Zealand. Chief Inspector Alleyn is on holiday.
Reading Agatha Christie's novels from the first half of the 20th century, you get the impression that arsenic and cyanide and strychnine were just everyday household supplies you could have for the asking at your neighborhood store. In this story, by contrast, someone is murdered with sodium cyanide and a big part of the investigation is figuring out who had possession of a book that might have given laborious instructions for making it; none of the characters act as if NaCN is an ordinary chemical that could have been obtained in simpler ways. I wonder which portrayal is closer to the truth.
The last book of the Amberlough Dossier. Contrary to my expectations, it's not a book about civil war and national liberation. The civil war that Cordelia Lehane wanted was fought and won in between the end of Armistice and the beginning of Amnesty, and the Ospie regime is gone. There's a provisional government in Gedda, and planning for free elections. But that's not the end of the story; there's still too much damage, too many betrayals to be forgiven or not.
The second book of the Amberlough trilogy. When I read the first book, Amberlough, I knew that it was a spy story with a sort of Art Deco feel, set in an imagined world, but other than that I hadn't realized what kind of book it was going to be. Perhaps the fact that one of the epigraphs came from Cabaret should have tipped me off.
Armistice continues the story. There's no one protagonist; the hole where one might find one is Cyril DePaul, the aristocratic spy who was the main character of Amberlough and who may or may not still be alive. The main characters of Armistice wonder too. They include Cyril's sister Lillian, a diplomat now working unwillingly for the new Ospie regime; his former lover Aristide, once the emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and a king of the black markets, now a refugee and film director; his former associate Cordelia, once a stripper at the Bee, now the founder and leader of the armed resistance, hoping to transition her organization from terrorism to civil war; and the fellow agent who betrayed him to the Ospies.
One of the epigraphs of this book comes from Casablanca. All of the characters have their own agendas and some have good reason not to trust each other, but there is the possibility of a beautiful friendship and even some hope that this time they'll win.
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Also a murder in a theatre, but a different kind of theatre than in the previous book. A horrible Tory cabinet minister has emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix, and dies without regaining consciousness. Three people on the surgical team have obvious motives.
Lord of the Flies is one of those books that everyone reads in middle school or high school, but somehow I didn't. Alice is reading it now for 9th grade English, so this seemed like a good time for me to finally read it.
It's also one of those books that you can feel as if you know what's in the book even without having read it, from all of the references and criticism and rebuttals and novelistic responses and parodies over the decades. I knew about the fire, and Piggy's glasses (doesn't work, at least not the way it's described in the book), and pig hunting, and fear of the Beast. I knew to expect savagery and murder. (Although I mistakenly expected something more like ritualistic human sacrifice.) Also, of course, there are quite a few things one doesn't know about a book if you've just heard about it and haven't read it. I didn't know about the struggle for leadership, and initially guessed wrong about which would-be leader would take which side.
One thing I was very surprised to find, that people don't seem to mention when talking about this book, was the context of what was going on in the world outside the island. We find out within the first couple pages that the plane crashed because it was attacked; there's a war going on. Presumably, although nobody says so, all those boys were on the plane in the first place because they were being evacuated somwhere, like London children were evacuated during the Blitz. As an American, WWII is the first thing I think of when there's a story involving war and the South Pacific, but no. One of the boys heard something about atom bombs; another, later in the book, is worried about capture by “the Reds.” This is a WWIII book. It is indeed, as Ralph says, about “the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart,” but it's also about the collapse of civilization in microcosm at the same time as it's collapsing everywhere.
The second Inspector Alleyn book, featuring a murder committed on stage right in front of the theatre audience.
Vampires, witches, and Nac Mac Feegles! I'm not sure whether my favorite parts are Granny Weatherwax's conversations with the young Omnian priest, or her conversations with her old acquaintance Death.
A nice cozy country house murder, first published 1934. It's Marsh's first Inspector Alleyn book, and also the first book of hers that I've read.
“In the Palace of Felicity, in Constantinople, in the land of the Turks, early in the Christian year 1591, viziers to Murad the Great, third of that name, Sultan of the Ottomans, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Caliph of Caliphs, dispatched an embassy to a far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth. The sultan chose as his ambassador a loyal and trusted man, but nobody of great importance, to negotiate with the people of that patch of damp surf.”
The King at the Edge of the World is a historical novel set in the time of Elizabeth I. Many of the characters are real people but the main character, a luckless physician left behind when the Ottoman ambassador and his retinue returned to civilization, is fictional. A decade after leaving Constantinople, Dr. Mahmoud Ezzedine is dragged into something even more unlikely than traveling to impoverished and backward England. It's treason to speculate about the Queen's death, let alone to speculate about her potential heir, but it's known that the most plausible successor is her cousin James VI. Is he Protestant, as he claims, or is he secretly Catholic? Ezzedine has to become a spy and try to find a definite answer; the stakes are war between Scotland and England, or civil war.
Spoiler: James does become king of England and doesn't start a religious war.
Sequel to Reckless, also both romance and thriller. There are three best friends in the first novel, so naturally this one is the second of a trilogy. As far as I can tell, though, the third book hasn't been published. Perhaps the author has been busy with other things lately.
A translation from 1961, with the 1922 introduction by Bertrand Russell from the first English translation.
Wittgenstein wasn't a logical positivist, a member of the Vienna Circle, a logician, a philosopher of science, or a deconstructionist, but all of those groups, and more, learned from him. At least some of what he writes seems very right. One of the things I found useful is the emphasis on precise analysis of language, and the observation that some well known problems of philosophy are really non-problems because it's impossible to formulate them in a coherent way.
I'm glad I read Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction before reading this book, though. I was sometimes banging my head over parts of the book wondering exactly what Wittgenstein meant. What did he mean, for example, by an object? (der Gegenstand) Is this a coherent concept, and do objects, in the sense he meant, necessarily exist? It was helpful to know that nobody, including Wittgenstein later in life, thought that the views expressed in the Tractatus were correct, and that when something seemed like it didn't make sense then maybe it didn't. The outline structure, notation, and austere style make the book seem more precise than it really is.
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
The author is better known, at least in my circles, under her real name: Stacey Abrams. Selena Montgomery is the pen name she uses as a romance novelist, when she isn't busy serving as an elected official or saving democracy.
Reckless is a romance novel and also a mystery/thriller: what initially keeps the couple from coming together is arson and murder. I found the writing a little clunky, alas, but I'll want to read the sequel; it ends on a cliff-hanger.
A fantasy novel inspired in part by fairy tales, most obviously Rumpelstiltskin. As the main character says on the first page of the book, the real story isn't so pretty. As a Jewish moneylender herself, she notices that the story is really about getting out of paying your debts.
The country the tsar and his boyars rule isn't called Russia or Muscovy, and none of the villages or cities in it appear on our maps, but it's recognizable enough that we've got a pretty good idea of what it means to be a Jewish moneylender in this world. Jews and Christians alike, meanwhile, fear the unearthly Staryk (old ones, perhaps? from старый?), who take what they like from mortals in the sunlit lands and are bound only by their own incomprehensible notions of obligation, which aren't ours.
There are several narrators, several young women who are forced to take on serious responsibilities and make very difficult choices, several unwilling marriages. There's also more than one case of learning that even monsters have reasons for what they do, not necessarily the ones one might expect.