What I read in 2014

12/30 Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

“What was that Sherlock Holmes principle? ‘Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’”
“I reject that entirely,” said Dirk sharply. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks.”

12/27 Siegfried Sassoon, Sherston's Progress

The third and last book of Sassoon's lightly fictionalized autobiography, The Memoirs of George Sherston.

If you've read Pat Barker's Regeneration (which I ought to reread), you're already familiar with much of the story. When Sassoon disobeyed the order to return to his unit and published A Soldier's Declaration, he expected to be court-martialed and sent to prison. The Army was cleverer than that. Partly at the suggestion of Sassoon's friend Robert Graves (called David Cromlech in this book), they choose to regard this as a medical matter rather than criminal. They sent Sassoon to a military mental hospital to be treated for shell shock, where he was put under the care of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers. (The only person who appears in this book under his own name. Sassoon obviously felt grateful to him, and the two remained close until Rivers's death.) Rivers didn't pressure Sassoon, and listened to Sassoon's anti-war arguments with respect, and eventually Sassoon decided that he owed it to his men to return to the trenches. This book takes Sassoon from Craiglockhart through the end of the War.

12/17 Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

The second volume of Sassoon's lightly fictionalized autobiography, The Memoirs of George Sherston, in which “Sherston” serves in the trenches, is decorated, is wounded, and in July 1917, after conversations with Bertrand Russell (here called “Thornton Tyrrell”) and other intellectuals, issued his famous statement of civil disobedience, A Soldier's Declaration.

“The field guns came first, with nodding men sitting stiffly on weary horses, followed by wagons and limbers and field-kitchens. After this rumble of wheels came the infantry, shambling, limping, straggling and out of step. If anyone spoke it was only a muttered word, and the mounted officers rode as if asleep. The men had carried their emergency water in petrol-cans, against which bayonets made a hollow clink; except for the shuffling of feet, this was the only sound. Thus, with an almost spectral appearance, the lurching brown figures flitted past with slung rifles and heads bent forward under basin-helmets. Moonlight and dawn began to mingle, and I could see the barley swaying indolently against the sky. A train groaned under the riverside, sending up a cloud of whitish fiery smoke against the gloom of the trees. The Flintshire Fusiliers were a long time arriving. On the hill behind us the kite balloon swayed slowly upward with straining ropes, its looming bulbous body reflecting the first pallor of daybreak. Then, as if answering our expectancy, a remote skirling of bagpipes began, and the Gordon Highlanders hobbled in. But we had been sitting at the crossroads nearly six hours, and faces were recognizable, when Dottrell hailed our leading Company.
“Soon they had dispersed and settled down on the hillside, and were asleep in the daylight which made everything seem ordinary. None the less I had seen something that night which overawed me. It was all in the day's work — an exhausted Division returning from the Somme Offensive — but for me it was as though I had watched an army of ghosts. It was as though I had seen the War as it might be envisioned by the mind of some epic poet a hundred years hence.”

12/7 Jessica Day George, Thursdays with the Crown

When Al finished the second book in this series, Wednesdays in the Tower, we introduced the term “cliffhanger.” Perhaps this is the book where we should talk about another important piece of literary terminology, “retcon.”

12/6 Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

My company's holiday party has a Sherlock Holmes theme this year, so naturally I had to reread some Holmes. “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

11/29 Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led the Revels There

“Now just as there are important Rules in Fairyland, there are Rules in Fairyland-Below, and I feel I must take a moment to curtsy in their direction. These are not the sorts of Rules that get posted in front of courthouses or municipal pools. For example, underworlds, on the whole, encourage roughhousing, speeding faster than twenty-five miles per hour, splashing and diving. Unattended children, dogs, cats, and other familiars are quite welcome. And if September had come underground at any other time, she might have seen handsome, clearly lettered signs at every crossroad and major landmark kindly letting visitors know how they ought to behave. But she came underground at just the exact time that she did, and Halloween had had all those friendly, black-and-violet-colored signs knocked down and burned up in a great fire, which she danced around, giggling and singing. Halloween felt it quite logical that if you destroy the rule-posting, you destroy the rules. The Hollow Queen hated rules and wanted to bite them all over.
“But some Rules are immutable. That is an old word, and it means this cannot be changed.
“Thus, both September and Halloween did not know something on the day our heroine entered Fairyland-Below. September did not know the Rules, and Halloween did not know that the Rules still ran on like a motor left idling, just waiting to roar into motion.
“I am a sly narrator, and I shall not give up the secret.”

11/29 Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg, with Alan Eagle, How Google Works

How Google works if one is a senior executive, that is; it looks somewhat different from my perspective. It was still an informative book, though, and it was recognizably describing the same company where I work.

11/19 Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express

“There are two possible solutions of the crime. I shall put them both before you, and I shall ask M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine here to judge which solution is the right one.”

One of the best Poirot novels. I read it years ago, and was reminded of it more recently by a 30 Rock episode.

11/18 Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

Siegfried Sassoon is best known as a poet, but Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a novel. (Albeit a largely autobiographical novel.) It's the first book of a trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston. Sassoon, unlike so many of his friends and fellow junior officers, survived the War to write about it. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, published in 1928, is largely the story of a privileged and callow young man growing up in the countryside, with no thoughts beyond tomorrow and no ambitions beyond cricket and fox hunting.

The last two sections take place in the trenches. Even without them, there's a faint sense of doom hanging over the idyllic earlier part — a sense that this is all being written about before, from the standpoint of after.

11/13 P. G. Wodehouse, Ring for Jeeves

It's often observed that England in Wodehouse's books is generally a nostalgic sort of version of the Edwardian era no matter when they were written or what year they're supposed to take place, and that this is easily explainable by the fact that Wodehouse left England when Edward VII was still king and spent most of his long life in the United States. There's one class of his books that's sort of a counterexample and sort of not: some of his later books that take place in the postwar era where it's as if the characters have suddenly woken up and realized that it isn't 1907 anymore, and where a lot of the humor is about the aristocrats' newfound poverty as a result of (a rather heavyhanded exaggeration of) the Labour government and the social revolution.

Ring for Jeeves, written in 1953, is one of those books. It's also, more unusually, a Jeeves novel but not a Jeeves and Wooster novel. Bertie never appears and is barely referred to; he is, we're told, still idly rich but worried, and he's attending a special school that tries to teach privileged Englishmen how to be competent and autonomous adults. Jeeves appears as the temporary butler for a hapless and none too bright earl.

11/11 Joe Sacco, The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme

Or is it a book? It's book shaped and it's made of paper and it has an ISBN. It doesn't have words, though, or pages: it unfolds into a 24 foot long “illustrated panorama” (the artist says he was thinking of the Bayeux Tapestry): an intricately detailed wordless black and white drawing telling the story of the first day of the First Battle of the Somme, from the preparation, to the immense British artillery bombardment (one and a half million shells) and the detonation of 19 enormous mines, to the disastrous infantry assault and its aftermath. Book or no, it's good reading material for Armistice Day.

11/9 L. Frank Baum, Ozma of Oz

In which Dorothy returns to Oz and meets Queen Ozma and General Jinjur as well as her old friends; and we meet Tiktok the Machine Man, the Hungry Tiger, and Bill the yellow hen (Dorothy, who seems to have trouble with gender fluidity, prefers to call her Billina); and the Nome King causes considerable trouble.

11/8 Peter Watts, Echopraxia

“‘Why.’ The Colonel snorted softly. ‘We're lucky if we even know what we've done. Any why simple enough for either of us to consciously understand would certainly be wrong.’”

That's one character in the book explaining to another that barely augmented humans have no hope of understanding the plans of vampires, or monks of the Bicameral Order, or aliens, or smart clouds, or other superhuman intelligences. It's also what reading this book is like. It's hard to understand what happened, and usually impossible to understand why. Which of course makes sense. I'm not even as smart as Dan Brüks or Jim Moore, so naturally anything that's utterly beyond them will be beyond me too.

11/2 L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

My favorite character is of course Mr. H. M. Woggle-Bug, T.E.

11/1 Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust

10/25 William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

“Exit, pursued by a bear.”

10/24 Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword

Sequel to Ancillary Justice, which won all of last year's awards. A lot of the discussion of the books has focused on the pronouns, mostly meaning the way the author uses the word “she.” This book makes it more obvious that the word “I,” when the main character uses it, is the complicated part.

10/15 L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a kid, but I never got around to reading the whole series. Al has now read all of the Baum books, though, and naturally wants me to read them all too.

10/12 Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea

The climax of this book is of course the Battle of Jutland, the only major naval battle of the war, and, as far as I can tell, the first and last time when two fleets of dreadnoughts ever fought. The Battle of Jutland takes up five chapters and 131 pages, almost a book within a book. As climaxes go, though, it's a rather anticlimactic one. In a battle with more than 250 ships the British lost 14 and the Germans 11, in both cases mostly light cruisers and destroyers. None of the 28 British or 16 German dreadnoughts were sunk. Germany initially billed the battle as a German victory, since after all they sank more ships than they lost, but it was really more of a draw that left the situation unchanged — which meant that in the grand scheme of things it was a British victory. Britain still controlled the North Sea, the blockade of Germany still continued, and, except for U-boats, the German navy mainly stayed in port.

Despite the subtitle, the most important fact is that the Great War wasn't won at sea. Admiral Jacky Fisher, who saw to it that John Jellicoe was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, wrote in 1911 that he wanted “Jellicoe to be Admiralissimo on October 21 1914, when the Battle of Armageddon comes along.” But there was no Battle of Armageddon, nor was there what everyone in the Royal Navy expected and hoped for, another Battle of Trafalgar. The war might have been won or lost at sea, but it wasn't. If Jellicoe or his opposite number, Reinhard Scheer, had blundered at Jutland, than one of the fleets might have been destroyed. If Admiral John de Robeck had succeeded in forcing passage of the Dardanelles and a British fleet had appeared off the coast of Constantinople, then perhaps at least the Ottoman Empire would have been knocked out of the war. If the U-boat campaign had been more successful then perhaps Britain would have been deprived of the food and fuel oil it needed to continue fighting. But none of those things happened.

The title of this book is a phrase from Winston Churchill, a gifted writer and as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, a major participant in these events. Churchill's The World Crisis is an important primary source for any naval history of the Great War, but not one to be taken at face value; Churchill was trying to rehabilitate himself and to deflect blame for the disastrous Battle of Coronel and the even more disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns.

10/3 James S. A. Corey, Cibola Burn

The fourth book of The Expanse. I was a little surprised to see it; I had assumed that the third book, Abaddon's Gate, was the end of the series. It's not a strained continuation, though, and if you read the other books and liked them, you'll probably like this one too.

9/21 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

9/13 Peter Sestoft, Java Precisely (2nd edition)

I asked my former coworker Josh Bloch for advice about a Java book that was written for someone who already knew how to program and who didn't need lots of historical discussion. (I don't need to know what it would have been like to write Java in 1992; if I ever get my hands on a time machine I'll use it for something more interesting than that.) This is the book he recommended for me, and given my needs I think it was a good recommendation. It's certainly not for everyone: it's short (142 pages) and very terse. It was written more as a reference than a tutorial. I found it useful, and I think I'll continue to find it useful as a reference.

8/23 Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland seems to have been marketed as a children's book, and successfully (it won awards and made the New York Times bestseller list), but it doesn't seem like one to me. It's a strange and wonderful book; it's consciously self-referential, a story partly about stories, a book where the narrator sometimes speaks directly to the reader and assumes the reader to be an adult, a book that relies in part on references to many previous works and events. Part of it, for example, is clearly a response to Narnia. I can only assume this is one of those works that children and adults can get different things out of.

“The trouble was, September didn't know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvelous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is either. Stories have a way of changing faces.”

8/20 Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Not a Hitchhiker's book; this is the first book of his less well known series. It starts out fairly confusing — the first four chapters appear to have no connection with each other whatsoever — but it ends up cohering into a simple romantic comedy and detective story about a ghost, a time machine, a lost cat, extinction, music, an inconveniently placed sofa, and an Electric Monk. Some of the jokes will be funnier if you've read “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

8/14 Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

This was the first time I read it, oddly enough. It comes close to crossing the line from sweet to saccharine, but it ultimately feels genuine. There's a reason people are still reading it a century after publication.

8/3 Hannu Rajaniemi, The Causal Angel

The third and last Jean le Flambeur book. I probably understood a little more than half of it. I'll have to reread the trilogy and see how much more I can understand on second reading.

7/31 Laura Miller, The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia

Is it possible to love the Narnia books if you're an atheist, or if you're Jewish, or a feminist, or if you're a progressive and you like the kind of school that Lewis caricatured as “Experiment House”? Demonstrably yes, but you're likely to have a complicated relationship with the books.

This is the story of the author's relationship with the Narnia books. It's a little rambling in the last half, but I did still learn things from it.

7/26 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 13: Agatha Heterodyne and the Sleeping City

That's quite a plot twist. I think I'd better start reading the web comic to keep up to date.

7/25 Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War

Just what the title suggests: a day by day account of the July Crisis, from June 28 through August 4. The bibliography is one of the most valuable parts: a list of some of the most frequently referred to sources, and a brief tour of some of the most important primary and secondary sources. “The place to begin any study of the July crisis remains Luigi Albertini's superb three-volume history of The Origins of the War of 1914,” which, unfortunately, seems to be out of print (at least in English translation). I'll have to try to find a used copy.

7/21 Nail Gaiman, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

A short story collection. Many of the pieces are very short, some not exactly stories but poems or fragments or collections of fragments, most (including “The Problem of Susan,” which various people had recommended I read but which I didn't like all that much, and “Other People,” the only one of the stories I'd read before) quite creepy. Some of the stories are very good, and some won awards. My favorite was probably the one original publication in the collection, “Sunbird.”

7/14 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 12: Agatha Heterodyne and the Siege of Mechanicsburg

Well that certainly ended on a cliffhanger, didn't it?

7/6 Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart

It's the first book I've read that includes both vampires and MapReduce.

7/4 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 11: Agatha Heterodyne and the Hammerless Bell

If you say in the first chapter that there is a Doom Bell hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be rung, it shouldn't be hanging there.

7/3 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse

In which we learn more about the identity of our hero's enemies, although some of her friends remain quite mysterious.

6/30 C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

It has its moments, but (as I think is typical) it's my least favorite Narnia book. It's not just Susan, although she's one of the reasons that the happy ending rings false; it's also the general tone of shabbiness, and that the story doesn't quite seem to hang together as a story.

6/24 Ben Hatke, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl

A kid's graphic novel, sequel to Zita the Spacegirl.

6/22 C. S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew

This has always been my favorite Narnia book. I like the creation of the world (which reminds me of the Ainulindalë) and the origin of things we saw earlier in the series, and I like the ruins of Charn.

6/21 Terry Griffin, The Art of LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT-G Programming

The LabVIEW-based graphical programming environment is reasonably flexible (it even handles multithreading in a reasonable way), and I'm having fun making my robot do simple things, but I'm not convinced that graphical programming is actually simpler than the ordinary textual kind. When I see a dozen lines of pseudocode in this book get expanded into a whole series of dragging blocks here and wires there and setting this and that configuration pane, I keep wishing I could just be using Python or C++ or something and translate the pseudocode into a program more directly.

6/17 C. S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

“‘Excuse me, Tarkheena,’ said Bree (with just the slightest backward tilt of his ears), ‘but that's Calormene talk. We're free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you're running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case Hwin isn't your horse any longer. One might just as well say you're her human.’”

6/13 C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

“No, no, my story can wait. Nothing worth talking about has happened to me. I want to hear the news. Don't try breaking it to me gently, for I'd rather have it all at once. Has the King been shipwrecked? Any forest fires? No wars on the Calormen border? Or a few dragons, I shouldn't wonder?”

Puddleglum is my favorite character in this book.

6/12 Peter Hart, The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War

It's just what the title says: a single-volume history covering all of the major fighting in the War: the Western Front, the Eastern Front, the naval war, the Italian Front, the Gallipoli campaign, the Mesopotamian campaign, the air war, the Egyptian and Palestinian campaign, the Salonika front and other fighting in the Balkans, the Arab Revolt, the Russian Revolution. It's written somewhat from the British point of view, but doesn't neglect the experiences of any of the major combatants. And, as the title says, it's a combat history, not a political or social history. Very few politicians get more than a brief mention; Lloyd George, whom the author obviously loathes, gets more than most.

One persistent theme in the book is an attempt to evaluate participants' decisions based on what they could have known at the time, as opposed to what is known now. In essence, Hart is defending the generals against the charge of being idiots. In the end he can't defend France's Plan XVII or Joseph Joffre's belief that courage and strength of will mattered more than heavy artillery, and he doesn't defend the Mesopotamian campaign, but he does at least argue that Joffre learned quickly from his mistakes and he does defend Douglas Haig, even Haig's decisions that led to the First Battle of the Somme. “The British generals' tactics were the best that could have been conceived at the time given a vibrant German defense that incorporated all the lessons from the fighting of 1915.” He argues that the popular quip about the British infantry, “lions led by donkeys,” is deeply unfair.

6/3 C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

5/31 C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

I think Nikabrik is my favorite character, with Trumpkin a close second.

5/31 Mira Grant (a.k.a. Seanan McGuire), Parasite

Near future medical science fiction, part techno-thriller and part zombie story. Nominated for the 2014 Hugo.

I don't think it'll my pick for the Hugo, but it's a compelling book, one that I read quickly because I had trouble putting it down, and I'll probably read the sequel(s). A lot of the suspense, oddly enough, was waiting for the main character to realize something that was completely obvious to most of the other characters and also (deliberately, I think) completely obvious to the reader.

5/28 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.”

5/26 Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide

Edward Snowden gave his leaks to two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. This is Greenwald's version of the story — both the story of how the leaks were revealed, and the story of what's in them. (Poitras is a documentary filmmaker. Her version of the story, a film, hasn't been released yet.) You're already familiar with much of what's in this book if you've been following the news: confirmation that the NSA has been engaged in ubiquitous surveillance, collecting metadata for all electronic communication of whole populations, including Americans, and full content for many. There's a suggestion that “collect it all” (General Keith Alexander's private motto) may have originally been put into practice in the US occupation of Iraq, before it started being applied in other countries.

One thing I got from this book that I hadn't previously seen in news coverage was some of the actual documents themselves, instead of just descriptions. In some ways that made Greenwald's arguments more convincing, in other ways less. It makes it obvious that what we're dealing with aren't detailed technical descriptions, but slides from PowerPoint presentations, and in some cases I'm pretty sure Greenwald doesn't understand what they're saying. Which isn't to say that I understand what they're saying either! It's just that I've sat through enough PowerPoint presentations on technical subjects to know how much is left out, how ambiguous they can be without a more complete explanation. At one point, for example, Greenwald quotes a report saying that “At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours based on available resources.” That could be a description of several very different architectures, implying wildly different amounts of data collected and wildly different resource limits. Or, for example, in his description of the X-KEYSCORE program, Greenwald makes assumptions about the capabilities of that program, and about what kinds of surveillance powers an individual analyst can unleash at will, based on PowerPoint slides with screenshots of a query form. But, again, seeing what a form looks like doesn't tell very much about what happens once the form is submitted; it could mean a number of very different things.

The truth seems to be scary, but there's also a lot we don't know. A lot of the reporting on this subject, not just Greenwald's and Poitras's, seems to have gotten ahead of what's known.

5/26 Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke

That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?”

5/21 Cory Doctorow, Homeland

A sequel to Little Brother (2008), and, like it, a YA novel about surveillance and how and why to resist it. The tone is somewhat different because the times are different. It's post Obama, post Snowden, post financial crisis and Great Recession, and the tone is disillusioned as much as outraged. “A couple years ago, I'd been in the midst of more excitement than anyone would or could want. I'd led a techno-guerrilla army against the Department of Homeland Security, met a girl and fell in love with her, been arrested and tortured, found celebrity, and sued the government. Since then, it had all gone downhill, in a weird way. Being waterboarded was terrible, awful, unimaginable — I still had nightmares — but it happened and then it ended. My parents' slow slide into bankruptcy, the hard, grinding reality of a city with no jobs for anyone, let alone a semiqualified college dropout like me, and the student debt that I had to pay every month. It was a pile of misery that I lived under every day, and it showed no sign of going away. It wasn't dramatic, dynamic trouble, the sort of thing you got war stories out of years after the fact. It was just, you know, reality.”

It's not all grim, of course. As with the first book it's part novel and part tutorial, including a tutorial on the things that Cory Doctorow, and the main character, think are fun. The book ends with an epilogue, two afterwords (one by Jacob Appelbaum, from WikiLeaks, and one by the late Aaron Swartz), and a bibliography in case you want to learn more about CyanogenMod, or hackerspaces (I wish I had time to join and play in one), or Kurt Gödel, or building quadcopters, or Burning Man, or making awesome cold brew coffee.

5/17 Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands

“Here's this huge empire, stretching half over central Europe — an empire growing like wildfire, I believe, in people, and wealth, and everything. They've licked the French, and the Austrians, and are the greatest military power in Europe. I wish I knew more about all that, but what I'm concerned with is their sea-power. It's a new thing with them, but it's going strong, and that Emperor of theirs is running it for all it's worth. He's a splendid chap, and anyone can see he's right. They've got no colonies to speak of, and must have them, like us. They can't get them and keep them, and they can't protect their huge commerce without naval strength. The command of the sea is the thing nowadays, isn't it?”

In the decade before the War there was a new genre in England, the invasion narrative: a novel, or in at least one case a play, warning about the danger of a German invasion (by then it usually was the fear of a German invasion specifically, not just some unspecified foreign power) and calling for some policy change to ward it off. Almost of the invasion narratives are forgotten today, and I imagine most of them are unreadable. The Riddle of the Sands, though, published 1903, is still read. If you like Edwardian thrillers, it's still worth reading.

5/11 Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Kate Atkinson's first novel (although not her first published work), and also the first book of hers that I've read. I'll have to read more. It's told in first person and it's the main character's story of growing up (beginning at the moment of her conception), interwoven with the previous three generations of her family. There's an odd contrast between how painful most of the events are — deaths in the wars of the 20th century, stifling marriages, lost children — and the stylistic jauntiness of most of the book. It's also an odd combination of an omniscient first person narrator (the sections from the past include things the present-day character who's writing them couldn't possibly have known) and an unreliable narrator with limited knowledge; it becomes obvious fairly early on that there are things she isn't saying, and maybe things she doesn't know about herself.

5/5 Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War

HMS Dreadnought, despite the title of the book, doesn't appear until after page 400, almost halfway through. This isn't a book about the Dreadnought, or really even about dreadnoughts in the generic sense. (HMS Dreadnought, commissioned in late 1906, was a revolutionary ship; by 1907 people were referring to all of the new generation of battleships, of all nations, as dreadnoughts.)

This is a book about the political and diplomatic history in the decades before the War, beginning with Queen Victoria and opening with her 1897 Diamond Jubilee, focusing on Britain and Germany and tracing how they ended up on opposite sides. (In the 1890s, after all, Britain's traditional enemies were France and Russia.) The naval arms race was a big part of the story, as were various imperialist conflicts and diplomatic crises. Mostly, Dreadnought is about the people who shaped the political world leading up to 1914; many of the historical events are presented in mini-biographies of figures like Lord Salisbury, and Otto von Bismark, and Jacky Fisher, and Sir Edward Grey, and Alfred von Tirpitz, and H. H. Asquith, and Arthur Balfour, and Winston Churchill, and Bernhard von Bülow, and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, and, of course, Victoria herself and her grandsons George V and Wilhelm II.

4/28 John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

Not much like the Hitchcock movie that was based on it, although Hitchcock did keep some incidents. It was written in 1915 and takes place in the first half of 1914, and it's about a German plot to gain crucial military intelligence for the war with Britain that they're secretly planning to start.

4/8 Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

“She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn't entirely certain. It wouldn't have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak — my own first language — doesn't mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn't help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.”

It's intelligent space opera that made the Tiptree Honor List and that's been nominated for a Nebula. What's not to like?

4/4 Diana Wynne Jones, House of Many Ways

Jones doesn't really do sequels in the ordinary sense. This is sort of a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle in that it's in the same world and it takes place later and Sophie and Howl and Calcifer appear in it, but it isn't a continuation of their story. It has different main characters and they have their own story.

4/2 Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni

Among all the immigrants in early 20th century New York, why shouldn't one of them have been a being from Jewish mythology and another a being from Arab mythology?

This is a first novel, and it's been getting a lot of attention. It's been nominated for a Nebula Award, and it's on the Tiptree Honor List. It deserves the attention. It's a big sprawling novel with a lot of characters and a number of different stories. It has interesting things to say about things like gender (the Golem is female; the Jinni is exaggeratedly male) and the immigrant experience, but it's the characters, including some of the minor characters, that are most memorable.

3/30 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles either.

I think this is one of those books that everyone reads when they're around 20, but somehow I never got around to it until now. I hadn't really known what to expect. The subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values,” and it is: partly a road trip, partly an intellectual discourse, only to a limited extent a novel of character. I hadn't expected that it would have so much to do with issues of personal identity, or the double-timeline structure, and I certainly hadn't expected that it would have so much about philosophy — meaning not woo-woo, but fairly detailed exposition of the ideas of Kant and Hume and Aristotle and Plato. (And others.) It's about a person for whom those ideas are of central importance, and they form the central conflict of the book.

It's also an example of a problem with ebooks: you still can't take proper formatting for granted. In the forward to the 25th anniversary edition the author says that the ending of the book was widely misunderstood, and says that in this edition he uses a sans serif typeface in parts of the last chapter to make a crucial distinction of voice that clarifies what's happening. That's a decision he could make in the paper edition, but, alas, that typographical nicety is missing on the Kindle.

3/22 Clay Breshears, The Art of Concurrency

I basically never write code that's intended to be run in a single-threaded context. Even if a particular component I'm writing doesn't explicitly involve creating and communicating between threads, it's always written with the knowledge that something else will be happening at the same time in the same address space. I don't think that's particularly unusual; it's just the way programming is nowadays.

This book is an introduction to multithreaded programming, mostly from the point of view of speeding up some particular task by throwing more cores at it. It mostly uses C, with a bit of C++ in some cases, and uses pthreads, Windows Threads, OpenMP, and Intel TBB as its four threading models.

Some of the book is valuable, like its analysis of safety in terms of interleaving (the reality is more complicated than that if you don't use mutexes, but it's a good place for your thinking to start) and its very good references to the literature. I can't recommend it as an introduction, though. It's a mixture of the basic and the weirdly advanced, and there's too much sloppiness in places. Some of that is just on the surface, like allocating memory in C++ with array operator new[] and deallocating it with free, but some is fairly fundamental, like the discussion of parallel depth first search in graphs, and a fairly basic misunderstanding of the MapReduce paradigm that hugely restricts the performance gains you can get from it, and, in a book focused on efficiency, a failure in many cases to step back and look at a parallel algorithm and ask how much better it's really likely to be than the simple serial version. If you're already experienced enough to take some of these things with a grain of salt, you can get something out of this book.

3/19 Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle

Al is reading it now, so I needed to reread it too. It's a very funny book, maybe my favorite of Jones's books.

3/17 Mary Anne Mohanraj, The Stars Change (illustrated by Jack Kotz)

It's a science fiction novel (yes, it feels to me more like a novel, one where the chapters have their own titles, than like a series of interconnected stories), and it's a story about a community coming together under the threat of war, and it's erotica. As Mary Anne wrote in the book proposal, “What would you do if the world were about to end? Many people would head straight to bed … War is breaking out and the whole world is going to hell, but people are still having sex. Lots of sex.”

Nominated for the 2014 Lambda Award for best LGBT science fiction and fantasy. Not all of the pairings in the book involve people of different genders. (And not all involve people of the same species.)

3/11 Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890–1914

The Proud Tower is a companion to The Guns of August, and there's even a Library of America omnibus of the two books. As the title suggests, the focus is different. It's also not a chronological narrative. Each chapter covers some aspect of the pre-War world; it's almost like a collection of independent essays. The first chapter is on the British ruling class, as exemplified by Lord Salisbury's government of 1895. The second covers the very opposite end of society, the anarchist movement and the extremes of poverty and oppression that inspired it. From then we move to the fierce debate over whether the United States should embrace a role as an imperialist power, and the Dreyfus Affair, and the international peace movement, and the music of Richard Strauss (used to illustrate Wilhelmine German culture more broadly), and back to Britain, the 1902 Liberal government and the new era in which political power begins to be shared more broadly. The last chapter is on the Socialist movement, the Second International, and the hope that international workers' solidarity would prevent war. The book ends with the murder of Jean Jaurès, by then Europe's leading spokesman for both socialism and pacifism, on July 31 1914.

“The Great War of 1914–1918 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours. In wiping out so many lives which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between two epochs. This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.”

This shouldn't be the first of Tuchman's books that you read; The Guns of August is better. The Proud Tower is still excellent, though.

2/26 R. L. LaFevers, Theodosia and the Last Pharoah

Apparently not the last book in the series; the author has said that she's working on a fifth (and possibly final) book, with the tentative title Theodosia and the Flame of Sekhmet. But even if that doesn't end up happening, Theodosia and the Last Pharoah wouldn't be such a bad stopping point. The end of the book is a major turning point more than a conclusion that wraps everything up, and it works well as an open ended sort of ending.

2/23 Jeff Potter, Cooking for Geeks

It's published by O'Reilly, which is best known for computer books; they publish a SQL Cookbook, a Java Cookbook, a PHP Cookbook, an iOS 7 Programming Cookbook, an Android Security Cookbook… A book that actually involves cooking food is unusual. The “for geeks” part of the title basically means: this is a book about cooking written for the same sorts of people who would buy other O'Reilly books. Like, for example, me. It's written in a breezy style, it doesn't make too many assumptions about how much the reader does or doesn't know about cooking, it assumes that the reader is interested in understanding why food behaves the way it does, including the physics of heat transfer and the biochemistry of protein transformations, it assumes that the reader enjoys playing with hardware and isn't afraid of experiments. And yes, there are real recipes; it's not just about the scientific background.

Recommended. If you're the sort of person who enjoys On Food and Cooking, you'll probably also enjoy Cooking for Geeks. I'm a fairly experienced cook, and I learned new things from this book.

2/20 Charles de Lint, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (illustrated by Charles Vest)

Important rule of thumb if you should ever find yourself in a story, especially if it's a fairy tale or a story for children: when you go ask a powerful magic user for a favor and she tells you something like “Thing like that, it never works out quite the way you think it will… Thing like this, there's always some consequence or other tends to make a body less happy instead of more,” and then she asks again if you're sure, you should hesitate and think long and hard before you say yes.

2/14 Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe goes to war

Catastrophe 1914 was published in 2013, but in a sense it seems like an old-fashioned book. It emphasizes German war atrocities (the most lurid stories were false, but some war crimes were quite real) and German war guilt. (“The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame,” from the penultimate paragraph.) The author is British and he's largely arguing that Britain was right to join the war and arguing against what he calls the “poets' view,” the attitude, as expressed by people like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, that the War was a gigantic waste and that all of the combatants deserve a great deal of blame. It was a live debate in Britain in 1914, and in 1918, and still is.

I didn't find his assessment completely convincing. He did explain well why British and French leaders thought and did what they did in July 1914, even if some of it is hard to understand from the perspective of 2014, but I don't think he made a similiar effort to put the reader in the place of the similarly alien world view of the German and Austro-Hungarian leaders. He takes it for granted that Russia couldn't have responded to Austria-Hungary's ultimatum any way other than it did while maintaining its dignity as a great power (which is probably true given the time and place), but doesn't discuss the ways in which Austria-Hungary's response to Serbia's actions would have seemed similarly constrained.

I should make it clear, though, that this book isn't a polemic. It's a history book with a point of view, which is a very different thing. It's mostly a narrative of what happened in 1914, running roughly from Sarajevo to the Christmas Truce. (As good a stopping point as any.) The author takes pains to be comprehensive and includes areas that a lot of books about the first few months of the War don't, like the Russo-Austrian front, and the war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and the British-German naval war, including the Battle of Heligoland Bight. Recommended, not so much for the analysis of the diplomatic events that caused the War (which weren't really the author's concern) but for the military history of the first six months of combat.

2/13 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Skirmishes

Part of the Diving series. My favorite work in the series is still the novella version of “The Room of Lost Souls,” but the rest of the series is worth reading too, and I always eagerly wait for the next novel to come out.

2/12 Dan Ariely and Tim Folger (ed.), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012

The title page lists Tim Folger as “Series Editor” and that the book is “edited and with an introduction” by Dan Ariely. I have no idea what that division of titles means for the division of labor. The selection of essays is pretty good, though. You'll have read many of them if you're a regular New Yorker reader, but by no means all.

2/6 R. L. LaFevers, Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus

In which we learn that there are more secret societies than we previously thought.

1/25 Alan Beaulieu, Learning SQL

SQL is definitely useful, but I also can't help finding it really grubby. (Partly because of the syntax.) I also keep wondering whether it has really been standardized in any useful sense. This book mentions an ANSI standard, and an ISO standard also exists, but for most features the book also says: here's how to do this is MySQL, here's how to to do it in Oracle, here's how to do it in Microsoft SQL Server. Is that just an artifact of the book, or is that what SQL development is really like?

1/18 R. L. LaFevers, Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris

Second book in the series that started with Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. It's still 1906 and Theodosia has to contend with cursed artifacts, secret societies, governesses, and a sinister plot involving ancient Egyptian magic and the just built HMS Dreadnought.

1/15 Agatha Christie, 4:50 From Paddington

Miss Marple.

1/13 Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Fabritius's The Goldfinch is a real painting, and a very famous one. It's hard to say whether it's the subject of Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch, or a central symbol of the novel, or just a MacGuffin. Some combination of the three, I think. It's not really a book about art, although many of the characters care deeply about art. (Too deeply, in some cases.) It's more a growing up story, a boy who lived through several horrible experiences trying to figure out what kind of person he is. A difficult problem! We spend almost all of the novel in his head and it's still hard for either the narrator or the reader to say why he does what he does. Most of the secondary characters are less perplexing, and some of them are wonderful.

The Goldfinch has a strong sense of place. It's set in New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, and all three cities are clearly drawn and almost characters in their own right. The sense of time is less strong. The book begins in something like the present day, say 2012, and it ends 14 years later, say 2026, but it doesn't feel like the future. The pop songs, the technology, the chatting about current events, the recreational drugs and the laws surrounding them, the brand names, none of that feels any different than the earlier sections. The characters change — some of them grow up, sometimes in unexpected ways, some of them diminish, some of them die — but the world doesn't. It's as if the main character lived for 14 years in a perpetual 2012.

1/6 R. L. LaFevers, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos

Middle grade fantasy, set in 1906, involving sinister goings on at a London museum where the main character's father is curator, ancient Egyptian magic, a cursed artifact whose curse accidentally gets transfered to a cat, and a secretive group that's trying to foment a war between Britain, Germany, Serbia, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, and Italy and plunge the world into chaos. Al is now on the second book in the series.

Matt Austern