What I read in 2021

4/9 Octavia Butler, Dawn

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 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 isn't sure what survival will mean or what she's complicit in.

4/8 R. Austin Freeman, John Thorndyke's Cases

A collection of short stories, first published in 1908–9.

4/5 Ngaio Marsh, Overture to Death

4/1 Ngaio Marsh, Death in a White Tie

“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.

3/30 Annalee Newitz, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

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.

3/26 Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall

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.

3/25 R. Austin Freeman, The Red Thumb Mark

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.

3/24 Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

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.

3/20 Ngaio Marsh, Artists in Crime

3/17 Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

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.

3/13 Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist

Partly memoir, partly polemic, and yes, as the book 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.”

3/7 Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder

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.

3/2 Ngaio Marsh, Death in Ecstasy

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.

2/27 Lara Elena Donnelly, Amnesty

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.

2/20 Lara Elena Donnelly, Armistice

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.

2/9 Walter Tevis, The Queen's Gambit

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2/7 Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

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.

2/6 William Golding, Lord of the Flies

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.

1/30 Ngaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

The second Inspector Alleyn book, featuring a murder committed on stage right in front of the theatre audience.

1/30 Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

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.

1/27 Ngaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead

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.

1/25 Arthur Phillips, The King at the Edge of the World

“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.

1/18 Selena Montgomery, Deception

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.

1/16 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (tr. D. F. Pears & B. F. McGuinness)

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.

1/15 Selena Montgomery, Reckless

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.

1/1 Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

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.

Matt Austern