What I read in 2022

9/25 Charlie Stross, Dark State

The eighth book of the Merchant Princes series, although by this point in the series that name seems increasingly obsolete. Most of the book is about the confrontations of three great powers in two timelines: the United States of Timeline 2, a paranoid police state from a timeline similar to but a little worse than ours, and the North American Commonwealth (revolutionary successor state to New Britain) and the French Empire of Timeline 3. All three are suspicious of the others and two have large nuclear arsenals; the North American Commonwealth is technologically a few decades behind the United States, but under the guidance of the Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence (MITI, and of course the name was chosen deliberately) they're industrializing as fast as they can. Everyone realizes how high the risks are, even without the nagging question of just what happened to whatever forerunner civilization created interdimensional travel in the first place.

9/21 Robert C. Allen, The Industrial Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

The book begins by asking: why don't we live in a Breugel painting? Another question is why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did, meaning Britain from roughly 1770 to 1870. Chapter 3 begins with an answer to that question: “The Industrial Revolution was Britain's path breaking response to the challenges of the first globalization launched by the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus.”

Or in more detail, a unique set of preconditions came together in that particular place and time: capitalism, with a large and prosperous capitalist class; urbanization, and a large increase in agricultural productivity, which meant that fewer than half the population were farmers; the rise of pre-industrial factories for handicraft production; the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, which was directly linked to the most important engineering achievements of the 18th; imperialism, which made captive markets possible; globalization, which exposed Britain to superior technologies like Chinese porcelain and Indian cotton fabrics and created an incentive for local manufacturers to try to imitate them; high wages, which made capital intensive machinery profitable; low energy prices, due to abundant and easily accessible fossil fuel deposits, which made even the inefficient early steam engines economically feasible.

That last point is especially significant: a big part of the reason the Industrial Revolution was British was that energy in London was half the cost as in other large cities like Paris or Beijing, and energy prices in the north of England, where the Industrial Revolution began, were cheaper by yet another factor of 10. Tom Murphy suggests that instead of talking about the Industrial Revolution we should be describing the time from 1770 to the present as the fossil fuel era, a transient and exceptional moment. He's probably right.

9/17 Tamsyn Muir, Nona the Ninth

Nona! When I first heard about the title of the third book in the Locked Tomb series, I had much the same reaction as I. I. Rabi when the muon was discovered: Who ordered that? It's not a name that's mentioned or even hinted at in the first two books. Who's Nona?

Turns out that that's a major concern of many of the characters in the book, including Nona herself. “Pyrrha worked for Nona, Camilla looked after Nona, and Palamedes taught Nona, all on the understanding that she was not simply a person, but probably one of two people. Nona did not know either of her real possible names.” None of the narrators is exactly reliable.

9/6 Neil Gaiman (writer), Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III (artists), The Sandman, vol. 2: The Doll's House

In which we meet Rose Walker, her brother Jed, some escaped dreams, and a cereal convention.

9/3 Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III (artists), The Sandman, vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes

The first Sandman story arc, in which Dream, after a century of imprisonment, struggles to regain his tools and his power and to restore the dream realm.

Yes, I'm rereading Sandman for the same reason as everyone else. The first season of the TV series covers the story of this book and a little bit more.

9/1 Agatha Christie, The Seven Dials Mystery

Partly a thriller, including a masked secret society, a MacGuffin in the form of a formula that will revolutionize aviation, and a couple of mysterious murders. Also partly a comedy about upper class twits who wouldn't be out of place in a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

8/31 Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: Volume I: ‘The Golden Days’ (tr. David Hawkes)

The first of five volumes of David Hawkes's translation of The Story of the Stone, a.k.a. Dream of the Red Chamber, a.k.a. A Dream of Red Mansions, a.k.a. 红楼梦. It's a very long novel with a complicated textual history: it was originally composed in the mid 18th century, then circulated as incomplete manuscripts for several decades after Cao's death. The first printed edition was 1791–2, and scholars still argue about the authenticity of the various editions.

It's also a very famous novel, and if I were Chinese I'm sure I would have already read it more than once. As is, I read it because I recently saw Bright Sheng's operatic adaptation at San Francisco Opera. The adaptation is ruthlessly stripped down, of course, including only a tiny fraction of the characters and the story.

Volume 1 consists of chapters 1–26, including Chapter 5, where Jia Bao-yu, the main character, visits the Land of Illusion in a dream and is shown the supernatural records of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling in the Department of the Ill-Fated Fair and a performance of “A Dream of Golden Days.” There are hints that this chapter foretells the fate of many of the characters in the novel, but in cryptic form. Reading the novel for the first time, I didn't understand the references any more than Bao-yu did. The poetry in this chapter reminded me of A Shropshire Lad, which was perhaps a deliberate choice by the translator.

8/13 Darcie Little Badger, A Snake Falls to Earth

A YA fantasy novel, and one of the finalists for the 2022 Lodestar.

8/12 Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress volume six: The Vow

Collecting issues 31–35, and two special issues. I'm beginning to get a little lost with all the characters and factions, but it continues to be beautifully drawn.

8/11 Jordan Ifueko, Redemptor

Sequel to Raybearer, and one of the 2022 Lodestar finalists.

8/8 Jordan Ifueko, Raybearer

A YA secondary-world fantasy. It's set in the continent-spanning empire of Aritsar, which contains places and peoples reminiscent of Africa, Eurasia, and even parts of the Americas. The book is also sort of a chosen-one story, but not the nice kind — more the kind where a ruthless parent creates a child to be a weapon.

8/5 N. K. Jemisin (writer) and Jamal Campbell (art), Far Sector

Sojourner Mullein, the newest human Green Lantern, is conducting a murder investigation in The City Enduring, a far off space habitat with twenty billion people of three species. Their society is far from perfect, but this is their first murder in five hundred years.

I'm vaguely familiar with the general premise, but I don't think I've ever actually read any Green Lantern comics before. This is one of the 2022 Hugo nominees.

8/4 Xiran Jay Zhao, Iron Widow

A YA science fiction novel loosely based on Chinese history and mythology, and one of the 2022 Lodestar nominees. The main character is named Wu Zetian, and indeed this is sort of the Empress Wu story, but on an extrasolar planet, with aliens and giant mecha and where the gods are in orbit. Everything about the society is crushingly patriarchial, and a big driver of the plot is how angry the main character is about it. Much of the book is about her revenge.

Also obviously the first book in a series. By the end of the book we get a few hints about the history of the world and what the gods are, but much is unresolved. I liked this book a lot and I'm looking forward to the sequel, Heavenly Tyrant.

8/3 Charlie Jane Anders, Never Say You Can't Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories

A collection of essays about writing, originally posted on tor.com.

8/2 Tom King (writer), Mitch Gerads and Evan “Doc” Shaner (artists), Strange Adventures

Adam Strange, transported to the far off world of Rann by Zeta-Beam, saves Rann from an alien invasion and returns to Earth a hero. But then questions start being asked about the war… Initially Strange asks the Justice League to investigate and clear his name, but he doesn't like where the investigation ends up going.

This is part of the DC Universe, which I'm not terribly familiar with. I recognized a lot of familiar characters in the background, like Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, but I'm sure I missed a lot of nuances. Beyond the obvious, I'm not sure which of the characters were supposed to be familiar and which were new to this comic.

7/31 Aliette de Bodard, Fireheart Tiger

One of the finalists for the 2022 Hugo: a fantasy novella with a love triangle and lots of political intrigue.

7/31 Camestros Felapton, The Complete Debarkle

Camestros Felapton is a pseudonymous fan and blogger. (The name comes from medieval names for two types of Aristotelian syllogisms.) The Complete Debarkle, one of the nominees for the 2022 Best Related Work Hugo, is an exhaustive history of the Great Puppy Kerfuffle, when a few right-wing twits, who called themselves the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies, tried to take over or wreck the Hugo Awards. It was originally published on Camestros Felapton's blog, but it's easily book length. It discusses the main events of the Puppy Kerfuffle and the people involved, and contextualizes it with other things happening at the time, some of which were directly connected to the Puppies, including other fannish controversies, changes in SFWA leadership, the rise and fall of various media (AOL, LiveJournal, 4chan/8chan/8kun, Facebook), Gamergate (a harassment campaign aimed at female video game programmers and authors), Brexit and Trumpism, Pizzagate and QAnon, the broader Alt-Right movement, and the 9/11 and 1/6 attacks.

7/27 Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

Book 2 of The Scholomance, and one of the nominees for the 2022 not-a-Hugo Lodestar Award for best YA SF/fantasy novel. By the end of the first book the main character has survived to become a senior, and a growing number of her classmates have realized that she's something more than a forgettable loser. Now she and the rest of the school are coming to grips with the fact that there's something unethical about the whole social structure that wizards have created over the last few thousand years, and some of them are looking for alternatives. One of the things they're hampered by is that the school is completely isolated from the outside world. They hear a few ominous reports from the incoming freshmen, but there could be a full-on war between magical enclaves going on outside and they wouldn't know it.

The Last Graduate ends on quite a cliffhanger. I'm glad the third book is coming out soon.

7/26 Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education

Book 1 of The Scholomance, a YA trilogy about a magic school with a little flavor of Hogwarts and a little flavor of the Hunger Games. The students are under continual attack by monsters; typically about half of them survive to their senior year, and half of the seniors live through Graduation Day. (But those odds are still better than if they tried to get through adolescence outside.) The main character is the very bad tempered Galadriel Higgins, whose natural talents are oriented toward mass slaughter and who could easily become the most powerful and feared maleficer of her age, but who reluctantly makes different ethical choices.

7/24 Rachel Smythe, Lore Olympus: Volume One

The first collection of the Lore Olympus webcomic, and one of the 2022 Hugo nominees for Best Graphic Story. It's sort of a retelling of the Hades and Persephone story, but veering into all sorts of other corners of mythology. It's set in a world where the gods all have cellphones and apartments and go on dates and to parties.

7/10 Catherynne M. Valente, The Past is Red

The first half is “The Future is Blue,” originally published as a novelette in Johnathan Strahan's 2016 anthology Drowned Worlds. It's set in the floating settlement of Garbagetown, once the Pacific Ocean garbage patch, some decades after the Fuckwits wrecked the Earth and their world was lost beneath rising seas. The second half continues the story of the main character, Tetley Abednego, who remains cheerful and optimistic despite everything. Garbagetown, she's convinced, is the most beautiful place in the world.

7/6 Alix E. Harrow, A Spindle Splintered

A sort of riff on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale — very self consciously so. The main character has known since an early age that she has her own curse, that she'll die from teratogenic damage caused by chemical contamination and corporate greed and that nobody with this syndrome has ever lived past 21. She's always been fascinated by the Sleeping Beauty story in all its variations. She finds new versions of the story.

7/4 Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A monk and robot story.

7/4 Claudia Gray, The Murder of Mr. Wickham

A country house mystery featuring characters from all the novels, not just from Pride and Prejudice; the country house in question is Donwell Abbey. Wickham makes a very satisfying corpse.

7/2 Seanan McGuire, Across the Green Grass Fields

The latest Wayward Children novella, and one of the 2022 Hugo finalists.

6/27 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Elder Race

It's one of those books where a troublesome younger princess travels to a sorceror's isolated tower to beseech his aid against a terrible magical foe, and it doesn't take long for us readers to learn that actually said sorceror is an anthropologist from another star system. Tchaikovsky really seems to like stories about ambitious societies that leave random things behind in the wake of their collapse.

Part of the story is about depression and part of it is about the difficulty of communication. At one point Nyr tries to tell the locals how their ancestors arrived on their planet, but once he puts it in words they can understand he's unable to say anything they hear as any different than the origin stories they already know. He tries to tell them that he's no magician, that his magic is just knowledge, and the best he can do is “I am not a magician, but a wizard… Not a wizard but a sorceror, a magus. A…”

6/25 P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn

A Master of Djinn is a novel that's set in the same world as the novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It's set in an alternate 1912, with a sort of steampunk feel: airships, clockwork automata, goggles. Also djinn. The book takes place some decades after the Sudanese mystic and inventor Al-Jahiz did something that lowered the barrier between the worlds. Cairo is now the global center of modernity.

It's also a police procedural, complete with the trope of an investigator grudgingly coming to respect a partner she never asked for. Fatma, an agent of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, is investigating a crime that the ordinary Giza police immediately realize they need Ministry help with: a mass murder, with obvious magical elements, by someone who claims to be Al-Jahiz returned. Even worse, the murder comes at an especially bad time: just a week before the king of Egypt is scheduled to host a peace conference, to be attended by Kaiser Wilhelm II, President Poincaré, and representatives of the Ottoman, British, and Russian empires, with the hope that Egyptian mediation can prevent European war.

I liked this book better than The Haunting of Tram Car 015. The novella seemed more like a fragment than a complete story, but A Master of Djinn really is a story, with an interesting world and interesting characters.

6/20 Kieron Gillen (writer), Stephanie Hans (artist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), DIE, Volume 4: Bleed

One of the finalists for the 2022 Best Graphic Novel Hugo and the end of the Die story, complete with Tolkien, the Brontës, H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and H. G. Wells. Ultimately I thought it was too complicated for what it was — too many characters and factions, too much backstory.

6/20 Kieron Gillen (writer), Stephanie Hans (artist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), DIE, Volume 3: The Great Game

Collecting issues 11–15 of the comic.

6/19 Shelley Parker-Chan, She Who Became the Sun

Another finalist for the 2022 Best Novel Hugo. It's a historical novel with fantasy elements and a bit of gender reimagining, set in the 14th century — or more to the point, it's set during the Red Turban Rebellion at the end of the Yuan dynasty. If I'd known more Chinese history I would have recognized the names of some of the characters, some of whom are important historical figures, and I would have had a better idea of where the story was going.

According to the publisher's website, it's the first book of a duology.

6/10 Becky Chambers, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The fourth and last Wayfarers book, and one of the 2022 Hugo Best Novel finalists. It's a very localized book set in the space equivalent of a small truck stop, with just five major characters: the three guests at the Five-Hop One-Stop, the owner, and her adolescent child, all temporarily trapped there by a planetary disaster that prevents them from taking off or even leaving the dome. None of the guests knew each other or the hosts, and the five characters are from four different species. It's a hopeful book about strangers coming to know each other and helping each other in a time of difficulty.

6/5 Ryka Aoki, Light from Uncommon Stars

One of the 2022 Hugo finalists for Best Novel. The three main characters are Katrina Nguyen, a trans girl from the suburban East Bay escaping from her abusive family, Shizuka Satomi, a legendary violin teacher who has nurtured six world class stars, and whose nickname among elite violinists is the Queen of Hell partly because of her talent and icy elegance and partly because it's whispered (correctly) that she's made a deal with a demon and her brilliant students are all damned, and Lan Tran, the owner of Starrgate [sic] Donut, secretly a starship captain and refugee from the falling Galactic Empire but well disguised as a human.

Now I'll have to listen to the Bartok Sonata for Solo Violin.

5/30 Beowulf (tr. Seamus Heaney)

  • Beowulf maþelode,    bearn Ecgþeowes:
  • “Ne sorga, snotor guma!    selre bið æghwæm
  • þæt he his freond wrece,    þonne he fela murne.
  • Ure æghwylc sceal    ende gebidan
  • worolde lifes;    wyrce se þe mote
  • domes ær deaþe;    þæt bið drihtguman
  • unlifgendum    æfter selest.”
  • 5/30 Kieron Gillen (writer), Dan Mora (artist), Tamra Bonvillain (colors), Once & Future vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies

    One of the 2022 Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story. It includes Boris Johnson making an even worse decision than the ones he's made in the real world.

    5/28 Kieron Gillen (writer), Dan Mora (artist), Tamra Bonvillain (colors), Once & Future vol. 2: Old English

    Arthur versus Beowulf!

    5/28 Kurtis J. Wiebe (story), Owen Gieni (art), Rat Queens: Volume Four: High Fantasies

    5/23 Rebecca Roanhorse, Fevered Star

    Sequel to Black Sun, and clearly the second book of a trilogy. All of the viewpoint characters of this book were also viewpoint characters of Black Sun. It's a very complicated book, with all sorts of different plans and conspiracies in the aftermath of the events at the end of Black Sun, and it's a stunningly original world. I'm looking forward to the third book.

    5/20 Bram Stoker, Dracula

    No, I didn't do the Dracula Daily newsletter thing, reading every entry the day it happens, but I was inspired to reread it because of the uptick in online Dracula talk. It's worth rereading! I especially like the slow pace of the first part.

    5/15 Kurtis J. Wiebe (story), Tess Fowler (art), Tamra Bonvillain (colors), Rat Queens: Volume Three: Demons

    In which the past of one of the characters catches up with her.

    5/15 Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

    In 1922, instead of simply having him shot, a Bolshevik tribunal sentences Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to perpetual house arrest in the Hotel Metropol. The novel only rarely leaves the hotel, but the next 32 years of the Count's life are surprisingly eventful.

    5/9 Ngaio Marsh, Last Ditch

    The first Inspector Alleyn book was published in 1934, and Last Ditch was published in 1977. Time passes! The main character for most of the book is Alleyn's adult son. One of the people he meets in the village where he's staying thinks it's an astonishing coincidence that he's the son of a famous artist, and another thinks it's an astonishing coincidence that he's the son of a famous policeman.

    5/8 Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

    The cover blurb (by Jonathan Letham) calls it “The best science-fiction nonfiction novel I've ever read.” Yes, that oxymoronic description is about right. It isn't a character driven book, or even plot driven. A lot of what the characters talk about is some new fact one of them learned in their research, which of course is some fact the author learned in his research. There are memorable set pieces focusing on place, many in Zürich and some in Antarctica or one of the other wild places of the Earth, but mostly the book reads as a sort of oral history of the future, from the mid 2020s through perhaps the 2040s or 2050s.

    The book begins in Uttar Pradesh with a horrifying heat wave, wet-bulb temperatures that exceed 40° C and a death count that can't ever be known for sure but that's estimated at twenty million. From then on it's what the world, or at least some of the world, does about the climate crisis. It's a variety of efforts, some more savory than others: a renewed effort to make the Paris Agreement more effective, including a new international agency nicknamed the Ministry for the Future, new technologies for renewable energy and carbon-neutral transporation, geoengineering both authorized by the international order and unilateral (Pinatubo gets a mention here just like in Termination Shock), terrorism and targeted assassination, a new “carbon coin” blockchain currency backed by carbon sequestration, mass movements all over the world demanding popular accountability and transformative economics.

    I find some of those things more plausible than others. I'm more skeptical than the author or his characters about both blockchains and carbon sequestration, and I'm less convinced than they are about the power of bankers, but in broad strokes nothing about it seemed impossible. It's good to see at least one possible path for what success might look like.

    4/26 Ryan North, How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler

    Just what it sounds like from the title. This guide is provided along with your FC3000™ rental time machine, just in case there's a catastrophic failure and you're trapped in the past (hopefully some time after humans have evolved) and you have to restart civilization. It covers various useful technologies, including spoken language, domestication of horses (if you're in a time and place where they're to be found) and dogs, clay pots, charcoal kilns, glass, blast furnaces, crop rotation, birthing forceps, radio, spinning wheels, paper, bread and beer, music, trigonometry, and red grapefruit.

    Even if you're not seriously worried about getting stranded in your rental time machine, this book is still a fun way to learn about this history of technology. It's amazing how many detours and dead ends there have been, some of them lasting an astonishing number of centuries.

    4/19 John M. Ford, The Scholars of Night

    A thriller set in the shadowy world that's the intersection of academia, espionage, and quasi-government power. It's a Cold War story set in the present day (meaning 1988, when it was published) that's somehow also connected to Elizabethan conspiracies, including something that might be a newly discovered manuscript by that notorious spy Christopher Marlowe. It's a complicated story (although not as complicated as some of Mike Ford's books!), and one needs to pay close attention.

    Fortunately for all of us, Mike's books are no longer out of print: all of them are being republished by Tor, including two that were never published in his lifetime. Recommended.

    4/11 Ngaio Marsh, Black As He's Painted

    Published 1973, and the fact that it was written in the post-colonial era is significant. The president of the fictional newly independent country Ng'ombwana is coming to London for a state visit, and Inspector Alleyn is helping with his security. Protecting foreign heads of state from assassination plots isn't Alleyn's usual job, but, as it happens, he and the president are old friends from the posh school they both attended.

    The back cover of the paperback edition I read describes the president as “a flamboyant African politican with a Gandhiesque view of the world.” In 1978, when that copy was written, I wonder whether the person who wrote it would have meant Mohandas or Indira.

    4/9 Fritz Leiber, Swords and Ice Magic

    One of the later collections of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, published in 1977. Ice magic only appears in the last two stories, “The Frost Monstreme” and “Rime Isle,” but together they make up more than half the book; they're basically a short novel. In addition to ice magic they involve a couple of unknown refugee gods from another universe: Odin and Loki. As readers who are familiar with those gods might guess, Odin and Loki aren't telling everyone everything about their plans.

    4/7 Saul Griffith, Electrify: An Optimist's Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future

    The subtitle calls it an optimist's playbook. It might equally well be described as an engineer's view of the climate crisis: why it's urgent that we act, why we have less time than it might seem, and what we have to do to have any hope of keeping warming below 1.5° C (2.7° F), or at least 2° C (3.6° F). As the author says in his preface, this is about “solutions, not barriers”: what we can do using technology that actually exists, rather than with magical technology that we might wish existed. The book does discuss cost, because that's a pretty good indication of what's possible, but it very explictly doesn't address politics.

    So what do we need to do? The title gives a pretty strong hint, and it really is pretty simple: switch as many uses of energy as possible (which is almost all of them) to run on electricity, ramp up electric generation by a factor of about 3, and generate all of the electricity from carbon-neutral technologies—meaning mostly solar and wind, supplemented with hydroelectric and possibly nuclear. Electrifying everything has two advantages. Most obviously, we can get electricity without burning fossil fuels. Less obviously, it's much more efficient: heat pumps are far more efficient than oil or gas furnaces and electric motors are far more efficient than internal combustion engines, so the amount of energy we need to generate is less than we're replacing.

    Yes, this is a massive effort, reshaping almost every part of our economy. Putting rooftop solar on every house isn't enough, but it's a necessary start. We'll also have to build a new distribution grid, change utilities billing, rework factories, build industrial solar and wind farms, invest in energy storage and load shifting on massive scale, and more. But the subtitle is right that this is a fundamentally hopeful take, because the important thing to realize is that it's possible. The sort of effort to compare it with is the way we reshaped the entire US economy in just a couple years when we put it on a war footing at the beginning of the 1940s. All told, the clean energy transition will probably cost something like $20 trillion. Yes, that's an enormous amount of money. A different way of looking at it is that it's about 90% of the US GDP—compared to the 180% of 1939 GDP that we spent on the war. If we have the political will for it, if we genuinely believe that the climate crisis is an emergency of the same scale as WWII, then doing something about it is within our capabilities.

    So do we have the political will for this? Well, as I said, this book deliberately doesn't discuss what's politically possible, but obviously the answer is no. We don't have 50+1 votes in the Senate even for the far less ambitious Build Back Better plan, let alone for reshaping our whole economy around clean energy. Even within the environmentalist movement there isn't a solid consensus that this is an emergency that deserves that scale of response—not really. In an emergency one is willing to do things one otherwise wouldn't; if environmentalists all truly thought that this was an emergency, that moving to carbon-free energy needs to override other concerns, then we wouldn't (for example) see any opposition to offshore wind farms or new long-distance transmission lines.

    And the author knows all of that perfectly well, even though it's not what the book is about. But even if what's necessary is politically impossible, sketching a path to success in some detail is still valuable. The limits of what's politically possible are subject to change, and it's easier to fight to change them if we have a clearer idea of what to fight for.

    4/3 Ngaio Marsh, Tied Up In Tinsel

    “They didn't shuffle, but one almost expected them to do so. One felt that it was necessary to remark that their manner was not furtive. How far these impressions were to be attributed to hindsight and how far to immediate observation, Troy was unable to determine, but she reflected that after all it was a tricky business adapting oneself to a domestic staff entirely composed of murderers.”

    4/2 Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars (tr. Robert Graves)

    Biographies of the Julian and Flavian emperors: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. It covers a period from about 85 BCE — 96 CE. Suetonius served as secretary to Hadrian, and The Twelve Caesars was probably written some time around 120 CE. It's lively, readable, and fun, even gossipy. It includes not just the political acts of the emperors but also their physical appearances and their personal habits, good and bad. The biographies are self consciously literary and have a narrative shape to them, including omens and portents of future greatness or death.

    How accurate is it? Well, obviously Suetonius wasn't an eyewitness to events a century before his birth. He does describe one event he witnesed related to Domitian's persecution of Jews, and he was able to talk to people who lived from Nero or so onwards. He also had access to the imperial archives and he refers to many written sources that are now lost, including Augustus's correspondence, Tiberius's memoirs, and Claudius's history of Rome. He at least seems to be trying to establish facts based on the best evidence available to him, and he seems to be trying to be fair and complete. He includes lurid descriptions of Nero's many crimes, but defends Nero against the accusation of plagiarism: he saw the original manuscripts of Nero's best known poems, with clear signs that Nero was writing them himself rather than copying. If The Twelve Caesars includes things like Livia's laurel grove that fortold the death of every Julian emperor, or prophetic dreams, or omens read from the entrails of sacrificial victims, it's clearly because Suetonius sincerely believed that the intervention of the gods was a real thing.

    From a modern perspective, two things that stand out are how Rome-centric Suetonius's story is (there's scarcely any sign of how any of these things were felt in places like Spain or Gaul or Macedonia or Egypt or Numidia), and how it's all about individual personalities rather than any of the structural factors that led to the collapse of the republic and the rise of Sulla and Caesar and the Principate. Even if everything in The Twelve Caesars is completely true, which for the most part it probably is, it must be only part of the story. Another part would be an explanation of how, when most of the emperors died violently and many of them were outright monsters, the empire stayed intact.

    I hadn't known until last month that Graves published a translation of Suetonius. Suetonius was obviously an important source for Graves's own novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I haven't read those books in a long time!

    3/31 Ngaio Marsh, When In Rome

    3/27 Andrew Neil Gray and J. S. Herbison, The Ghost Line

    A caper story that turns into a haunted house story, set on a mothballed luxury liner somewhere between Earth and Mars.

    3/20 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius: Sparks and Monsters

    Girl Genius book 19, mostly set in the underwater kingdom of England. Yes, there are monsters.

    “It's too bad. I think there's a lot I could have learned from him.”
    “Yes! All kinds of things! Terrible, evil things! Ways to warp nature and create bizarre, monstrous abominations of science!”
    “— And that would be bad!”
    “I knew that!”

    3/19 Ngaio Marsh, Clutch of Constables

    The title refers to John Constable's landscapes, not to policemen. The murder is related to art forgery, and the detective's wife is a well known painter.

    3/17 Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way

    A novel about WWI and the Easter Rising. Willie Dunne enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in late 1914 to fight for king and country. (But which country?) Nobody tells him anything; none of the battles in the book are named, although there's enough information that someone who's familiar with the history of the War can recognize most of them. To Willie the fighting in both Belgium and Dublin is confusing and horrifying.

    Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. Thus far I've liked all the Booker winners and nominees that I've read.

    3/11 Harry Sidebottom, Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction

    The author is a classicist, so the actual subject of the book is a little more specific than the title would suggest: Greek and Roman warfare between about 750 BCE and 650 CE. A lot of it is about war in ancient thought, which looks like the author's own speciality; in the list of further reading he cites his paper “Philosophers' attitudes to warfare under the principate” and his forthcoming book Fields of Mars: A Cultural History of Greek and Roman Battle.

    The book begins and ends by critically examining an idea that the author seems to regard as conventional-wisdom ideology but that I'd never heard of before: the idea that there is a distinctive “Western Way of War” that originated in Greece, was adopted by Rome, and has continuity to the present day, in contrast to the way war was practiced by other peoples like Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, Germans, and Arabs. The book makes it obvious that one shouldn't take that ideology seriously as any sort of objective reality about continuity of practices, but that as ideology it was real and important in ancient times. “Those who subscribe to the ideology do not necessarily fight in a very different way to others, it is just that often they genuinely think they do.”

    The book also begins and ends by quoting Gladiator, comparing the way the movie portrays Roman warfare to what we know from archaeology, Roman art, and authors like Caesar. Reminds me I've never seen that movie.

    3/8 Alexis Hall, Murder Most Actual

    A send-up of British country house mysteries. Liza and Hanna Blaine, going through a rough spot in their marriage, travel to a luxury hotel in Scotland for what they hope will be a romantic long weekend. Naturally the hotel is full of eccentric and sinister fellow guests, and naturally there's no cell reception, and naturally the roads and phone lines are cut off by a snowstorm. Murders ensue.

    3/6 Ngaio Marsh, Killer Dolphin

    The Dolphin is a London theater half destroyed in the Blitz, now being restored to its Victorian glory. And there's another theatrical connection in the book: a centuries-old child's glove that might have once belonged to Hamnet Shakespeare. As the expert appraiser cheerfully says near the beginning of the book, “There's been murder done for less.”

    3/5 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

    The Karamazov brothers are the sons of the boorish and amoral sensualist Fyodor Pavlovich: the wild Dmitri Fyodorovich, the atheist (or is he?) intellectual Ivan Fyodorovich, the saintly Alexei Fyodorovich (Alyosha), and possibly the so-called Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov.

    The book has plenty of complicated and memorable characters and plenty of action, including passionate affairs and betrayals, a debauched spree squandering 3000 rubles in a single weekend, a murder, and a murder trial. Mostly, though, it's a very talky book: long speeches and long philosophical conversations about the “accursed questions” (проклятые вопросы) like the existence of God, the future of Russia, the problem of evil, what it means to have a good life. I share the conventional attitude that the most memorable part is the conversation between Ivan and Alyosha about a third of the way through, the one that culminates in “The Grand Inquisitor.”

    “Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”

    2/28 Ngaio Marsh, Dead Water

    2/12 Jon Gjengset, Rust for Rustaceans: Idiomatic Programming for Experienced Programmers

    A short book that's intended as intermediate material for Rust programmers. The intended audience is people like me: people who are familiar with the basics of Rust programming and who have already read standard introductory materials like the official book The Rust Programming Language but who aren't yet experts. Topics include macros, unsafe code, asynchronous programming, and good API design.

    2/5 Ngaio Marsh, Hand in Glove

    2/2 Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor (Fourth Revised Edition), updated with new commentary by Jason Zweig

    The 1973 edition of Graham's book, with 2003 notes and commentary by the financial journalist Jason Zweig.

    So why are people in the 21st century reading an investment book that was first published in 1949 and last revised in the early 1970s, and why do people still remember Graham's advice? In part it's because of his most famous pupil, Warren Buffett, who supplied the preface and the cover blurb. Graham was the great proponent of value investing, i.e. looking for opportunities to buy a solid company for less than it's worth, and Buffett and others learned from him. Note that the subject of this book is investing, not speculation; Graham is careful to maintain that distinction throughout. “An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return.”

    The Intelligent Investor is addressed to the general investing public, unlike Graham and Dodd's textbook Security Analysis, but the main point is still that when you're buying debt or equity in a business, the most important task is determining what that business is worth — not what it happens to be trading for today, or what someone predicts it might trade for tomorrow. The most famous passage of the book is the parable from chapter 8:

    Imagine that in some private business you own a small share that cost you $1,000. One of your partners, named Mr. Market, is very obliging indeed. Every day he tells you what he thinks your interest is worth and furthermore offers either to buy you out or to sell you an additional interest on that basis. Sometimes his idea of value appears plausible and justified by business developments and prospects as you know them. Often, on the other hand, Mr. Market lets his enthusiasm or his fears run away with him, and the value he proposes seems to you a little short of silly.
    If you are a prudent investor or a sensible businessman, will you let Mr. Market's daily communication determine your view of the value of a $1,000 interest in the enterprise?

    1/29 Claire North, Notes from the Burning Age

    The Burning Age is our age, which ended in burning and in the waking of the kakuy. By the time when the book is set, the remnants have built a new world where people consciously live as part of the earth rather than thinking they're masters of it. One of the roles of Temple, at least in the part of the world where the book is set, is to study and translate ancient archives, separating material of purely anthropological interest, like cat videos and pornography and fiction, from heresies like social media hatred or violence based on ethnicity and gender, and practical heresies like chemical weapons, forced sterilization, strip mining, and internal combustion engines. But not everyone is satisfied with this world; the Brotherhood is committed to humanism, the triumph of the human race, militarism, human inequality, and no matter how much they have, more, more.

    The first chapter is set in a small village, and takes place when the main character is a child. Then the book skips forward twenty years and goes in what, at least to me, was a disorienting direction. There are several other big changes later on.

    I found this book strikingly original. One of the things I liked about it is that although there's a lot of violence and plenty of big political changes, the moments that seem most important are the philosophical discussions between the various characters about how humans should live. Both the main character and the main villain end up feeling sorry for each other.

    1/23 Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock

    The book begins with Her Majesty Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia trying to land her jet in Waco, on a runway filled with feral swine. And what's a Dutch queen doing in Waco? Well, she was diverted there because the heat wave made it unsafe to land in Houston, and in Waco it's only 113°. And as for why she needs to get to Houston in the first place… We don't really find out for well over a hundred pages. If you like Neal Stephenson's books, which I do, you'll know that they're as much about the journey as the destination. Before we get to the reason for the Houston trip, we get (among other things) the technology of portable refrigeration suits, the history of the Comanches, the PanScan app, the transition from the Dutch East Indies to independent Indonesia, fire ants and relays, the Venetian empire, Sikh martial arts, flood control systems in New Orleans, even one character's encounter with Moby-Dick, which, considering how digressive that book is, seems awfully meta. But it's pretty obvious from the very first sentence that it has something to do with climate change, and specifically with the fact that the Netherlands is one of the countries for whom sea level rise is an obvious existential threat.

    There's no specific date for this book; from context it's probably some time in the 2030s. There are hints early on, even if you don't look at the very big hints of the maps and diagrams on the inside jacket covers of the book, that it has something specifically to do with geoengineering — a terrible idea, but the main characters think they've run out of time for good ones. They may be right.

    In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author promised that he'd post a bibliography on his Web site. There's some fascinating looking reading on it!

    1/12 Jacqueline Winspear, The Consequences of Fear

    The book is set in the second half of 1941; the height of the Blitz is over, but the bombings continue. The prologue begins with a murder for which there's a witness but not a body. Perhaps there's a connection to Maisie's day job, interviewing prospective SOE agents before they're sent to occupied France for espionage and sabotage missions.

    1/8 Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

    The title, of course, is a deliberate play on the familiar cliche of the dark ages. And as that title suggests, a big part of the book is correcting popular misconceptions about the European middle ages: they weren't a dark age, Rome didn't fall in the 5th century, Europe was never isolated from the rest of the world.

    It's a short book and a huge subject, both in time and in geographic scope, so it doesn't try to be comprehensive. It's not a chronological narrative, although it is arranged chronologically, but a sequences of vignettes, each one centered on a particular story, usually using that story to make a broader point. The book begins and ends in Ravenna: beginning with the life of the empress Galla Placidia, and with the chapel that she built some time between 425 and 450, and ending with Dante's 14th century exile in Ravenna. There's no specific evidence that Dante ever visited the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia during the years when he lived in Ravenna, but the authors like to imagine that he might have. The description and photos look beautiful, in any case! Now I'd like to go back to Italy and see it for myself.

    Any history of medieval Europe has to include places outside of Europe; this book includes the Middle East, Africa (including parts of sub-Saharan Africa), central Asia, China, and even North America. I was surprised to see no mention of India.

    1/2 Ngaio Marsh, False Scent

    The title turns out to be a clue.

    Matt Austern