What I read in 2022

12/31 Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: Volume V: ‘The Dreamer Wakes’ (ed. Gao E, tr. John Minford)

The last volume of the Penguin edition, consisting of chapters 99–120, in which the dream ends and the stone returns to Greensickness Peak.

I thought for most of this volume that I would be reading about the fall of the Jia family. There are plenty of misfortunes, including worsening financial woes, several major characters who die, and several who are convicted of corruption and punished with exile and confiscation of property, but no, the family does not fall. The forward to the first volume said that the book in the standard Cheng-Gao edition doesn't end the way that the annotations in manuscripts of the first 80 chapters suggest that it would, and perhaps this is one of the differences.

12/31 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 9

A couple of side quests: a new coworker assigned to the wine division despite not liking wine, and another coworker whose daughter is having trouble with her prospective inlaws.

12/30 Poul Anderson, Tau Zero

Tau Zero was first published in 1970. This isn't the first time I've read it, but it is the first time I've read it in decades. It's the book where I first heard of the idea of a Bussard ramjet, and where I first heard of ultra-relativistic interstellar travel, and the time dilation factor τ=√(1-v2/c2).

The gender politics of Tau Zero hasn't aged well. There have also been some relevant scientific advances in the last half century: the book was written before the discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy (and many other galaxies), and long before the discovery of dark energy and accelerating expansion of the universe. We also now know that Bussard ramjets don't work, alas. They are still a good plot device for a number of good science fiction stories, though, including this one.

12/25 Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot's Christmas

A.k.a. Murder for Christmas, a.k.a. A Holiday for Murder. A horrible old man decides to summon his family for Christmas at his large country house and amuse himself by stirring up trouble, and promply gets murdered in a particularly bloody way. If you're having troubles with your Christmas family gathering, just be glad it's not as eventful as this one.

12/19 Jacqueline Winspear, A Sunlit Weapon

This novel takes place in 1942 and is centered on the aviatrices of the Air Transport Auxiliary. Maisie is hired by a young pilot who thinks that someone on the ground might have been trying to fire on her aircraft and might have been responsible for the death of her friend. The investigation ends up going in several very different directions.

12/17 Michael S. Neiberg, Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

Primarily a book about European public attitudes just before the outbreak of the War and in its first year. There's a little bit about the diplomacy of the July Crisis, but only a little bit. The basic observation is that regardless of whether you think of it as something that was deliberately started with malice aforethought or as a series of blunders, it was a classic “cabinet war” at the beginning: the decisions that led to war were made by a tiny number of elites, at most a couple dozen men in Vienna and Berlin and St. Petersburg.

As late as the last week of July even the diplomatic elites in most countries thought that the murders in Sarajevo were a minor crisis at worst, and the general public cared even less. In no country did people want or expect war, and the first week of August came as a shock. Once the war started, though, almost everyone lined up behind it, because every country thought it was fighting a defensive war against aggressors who had attacked it. There was genuine national hatred then, but it was caused by the War, not a cause of it. Disillusion and alienation from official propaganda set in soon after in every country, well before the end of 1914, long before battles like the Somme or Verdun, but that didn't mean anyone was willing to see their enemies win.

12/12 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 8

Château Palmer, 1999

12/1 Eva Jurczyk, The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

Published by Poisoned Pen Press, and yes, it is about a crime at a university library, but it's more character driven than plot driven. The main character is nearing retirement, pulled out of sabbatical to serve as interim head when her boss has a stroke. The library is a small community and many of the people in it have known each other for decades, for good and ill.

11/27 Cao Xueqin and Gao E, The Story of the Stone: Volume IV: ‘The Debt of Tears’ (tr. John Minford)

Chapters 81–98 of the Penguin edition. The title page of this volume looks different than the previous three! We have a new translator: David Hawkes translated volumes I–III, while John Minford translated volumes IV–V. More important, the authorship situation becomes more complicated. All of the manuscripts that circulated in the several decades between Cao's death in 1765 and the first printed edition of the book, and all of the manuscripts we have today, consist only of chapters 1–80. Cheng Weiyuan and Gao E, who published the first printed edition in 1791–2, said that they found fragmentary manuscripts of the last 40 chapters and edited them together into a coherent whole. This volume includes Cheng's and Gao's original prefaces in which they explain some of their editorial decisions, and part of Minford's preface explains his view of the authorship.

This is the volume where we start seeing bad things happening to central characters, although it was hinted as far back as chapter 5 that we would be reading about tragedies. If I had been reading a European novel from the 18th or 19th century, I would have been absolutely certain that Lin Dai-yu was being coded as consumptive. I don't know whether Chinese fiction of the time had the same literary conventions or if we're supposed to interpret her illness differently.

11/26 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 7

Various subplots in this volume, including a wine tasting contest where Shizuku Kanzaki and his colleague at Taiyo Beer's wine division, the young sommelier Miyabi Shinohara, try to convince a rich luxury food retailer that brand name isn't everything and that he needs to look beyond just the top five châteaux of Bordeaux.

11/20 Agatha Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia

Is this the only one of Christie's novels that's set in an archaeological expedition? It must have been a world that was very familiar to her, considering that she was married to an archaeologist and met her husband on a dig.

11/19 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 6

Domaine Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru “Les Amoureuses,” 2001.

11/17 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 5

Shizuku and Issei both think they've identified the “First Apostle,” which is also the key to the identity of a beautiful amnesiac artist, but it hasn't yet been revealed to the readers.

11/12 Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Libary

Very recursive! The author is an Australian mystery writer; most of her books are a series of historical mysteries set during WWII, but this one is a standalone. The framing story is an epistolary novel: emails between an Australian mystery novelist and an Bostonian fan and aspiring novelist. As part of the correspondence we read the novelist's new book a chapter at a time, with commentary from her American reader; the main character is an Australian novelist living in Boston on a fellowship, writing a novel inspired by the murder she's caught up in.

11/12 John Keegan, The First World War

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, so I mistakenly assumed that I must have read it years ago. No, this is the first time I've read it. Perhaps I was also confused because I had remembered reading Keegan's excellent account of the First Battle of the Somme in his The Face of Battle.

The First World War is worth reading, as you'd expect of a book by a well known military historian. He does a good job both of explaining the top-down view of the battles as a whole (the Marne is still confusing, but that's not Keegan's fault) and the bottom-up view of what it was like to fight in them. One of the striking parts was just how callously ludicrous the eleven (!) Battles of the Isonzo were. Another, at the very beginning of the book, was the analysis of the great powers' pre-war plans: Germany's Schlieffen Plan (fatally flawed), France's Plan XVII (wishful thinking), Russia's invasion plans (detached from reality), and Austria-Hungary's plans for mobilization against Serbia and/or Russia (hardly plans at all).

11/7 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 4

In which Shizuku and his rival Issei finally begin to read Yutaka Kanzaki's will, a search for the wines that he calls the 12 Apostles. Here's his description of the first: “I wander deep within a forest thick with pristine, primeval growths. As the humid scent of life wafts from the moss-covered trees, I walk toward the heart of the forest in search of solace. Suddenly, I notice a ray of light that filters into my eyes. I smell flowers and red fruits that seem out of place in these woods. Laying a hand on my chest to calm my racing heart, I quicken my steps. Unexpectedly, the forest opens—pouring forth like a miracle, a small, clear spring. Like an oasis in the desert the restoring water appears out of nowhere. Lit by the heavens the surface glitters like so many jewels. Drawn by the beauty I quietly approach the spring. In that moment, the breeze rippling across the water delivers to my nostrils the smell of sweet flowers and wild red fruit. The harmony of scent makes me forget I'm deep in the wilderness. Feeling a little dizzy, I begin to yearn for moisture. I dip my hands into the fine, crystal-clear spring. I gently bring the surface water to my lips. So sweet, so exalted. The bounteous blessing of nature suits a virgin territory unsullied by human hands. Ah, behold a pair of violet butterflies, tangling in flight! Perhaps this little spring is your holy land.”

11/5 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 3

This volume focuses on a couple of side stories, not directly related to Yutaka Kanzaki's will. The first is an attempt to rescue a restaurant that received a devastating review for its poor wine pairings. The second is a confrontation with one of Shizuku's coworkers, who's obsessed with Italian wine and food and culture and who insists that the business should import Italian wine only.

11/5 Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: Volume III: ‘The Warning Voice’ (tr. David Hawkes)

Chapters 53–80 of The Story of the Stone. There are a number of important events in the extended Jia clan, including illnesses, two marriages, two suicides, and an uproar caused by a pornographic embroidery. Even more significant are two things that are building in the background. The first is that the main character, Jia Bao-Yu, is growing up; his mother and grandmother are talking about which of the maids would be most suitable for his concubine, and there's increasingly open speculation about an eventual marriage to one of his cousins, either Lin Dai-yu or Xue Bao-chai. (He would prefer Dai-yu.) And meanwhile there's steadily increasing concern about money: the Jias are rich, but their riches aren't infinite. More characters are beginning to notice that their spending is exceeding their income, there are more occasions when they have to scrounge to pay the bills when there's a lavish occasion like a grand funeral, and there's occasional quiet talk about finding ways to cut back, if such a thing is imaginable for a such a household as theirs.

11/1 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 2

In which Shizuku Kanzaki realizes that he actually wants to win the competition set up in his father's will — and that he's a great enough taster that despite his ignorance, he actually has a chance. The funniest panel in the whole volume is the one where Shizuku and his rival, Issei Tomine, have their first competitive tasting, scowling and holding their wine glasses as if it's a duel.

10/30 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 1

The Drops of God was a manga that ran between 2004 and 2014. It's been available in English translation for a couple years via ComiXology. The volume I read doesn't say who the translator was; it just says that the English translation is copyrighted by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto.

At least judging by the first volume, it seems a little like The Westing Game but with wine. We're introduced to the main character, Shizuku Kanzaki, the estranged son of a world famous wine critic and collector. In the first issue he learns that his father just died, that he adopted a rising young wine critic as his other son a week before his death, and that his will was set up as a contest: whichever of the heirs does better at identifying twelve great wines will inherit his priceless wine collection, including the legendary bottle that he calls “The drops of God.”

A big part of the story is Shizuku learning about wine, and it's extremely detailed both about wine in general and about specific wines. Apparently The Drops of God was extremely popular all over Asia, not just in Japan, and it actually affected the wine market — some of the wines it featured shot up in popularity and price.

I'm finding it a lot of fun, and maybe I'm even learning something about wine.

10/30 Eugenia Cheng, The Joy of Abstraction: An Exploration of Math, Category Theory, and Life

It really is a category theory textbook. It goes up through universal properties, duality, functors and natural transformations, and the Yoneda lemma. It mentions a few things that it doesn't cover in any detail, like adjunctions and monads, and at the very end it gives a little taste of the author's own research specialty, higher dimensional category theory. What's very unusual is that although the book is reasonably rigorous, and some of the latter parts are quite difficult, it has very few mathematical prerequisites. Not only does the book not assume that the reader already knows algebraic topology, but it doesn't assume that the reader knows what a group is, or even modular arithmetic. In the prologue the author writes that she's been teaching a class on category theory at the Art Institute of Chicago, where of course the students are art students rather than math majors, and that this book is based on her lecture notes.

John Baez (another category theory expert, and one of the people who wrote a cover blurb for this book) told me a few years ago that it was impossible to learn category theory from a book, that one needed a guru. Or as Eugenia Cheng puts it in the epilogue, “Most math textbooks focus on the formality and have less focus on the spirit, with face-to-face teachers being the ones to convey the spirit that the text couldn't.” This book has the goal of teaching both the formal content and the spirit of category theory. I found it very helpful.

10/8 Charlie Stross, Invisible Sun

The last of the Merchant Princes book. Like the previous two it's mostly a spy story, including detailed descriptions of what tradecraft is like in the presence of ubiquitous electronic surveillance and interdimensional travel. My second favorite part was the premise of a very long game created by the Stasi, one that long outlived East Germany. My favorite was Operation Zenda, which is just what it sounds like.

10/4 Naomi Novik, The Golden Enclaves

Book 3 of The Scholomance. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that Naomi Novik has read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

10/2 Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: Volume II: ‘The Crab-Flower Club’ (tr. David Hawkes)

The second of five volumes of David Hawkes's translation, consisting of chapters 27–53. These chapters are mostly about daily life in the immensely wealthy Jia clan's Rong-guo and Ning-guo mansions: New Year celebration; illnesses and recoveries; feasts; taking sexual advantage of the servants; tension between fathers and sons (although we actually see much more of mothers than of fathers); visits from poor relations and from their one grand relation, a daughter of the house with the exalted status of Imperial Concubine; gay-bashing (the basher, I'm afraid, is a more sympathetic character than the victim); a poetry-writing club created by the younger generation, from which Hawkes gets the title for this volume.

A lot of the book is about just how the finances of a grand household worked: where the money came from (mostly agricultural rents from their landholdings, of course, supplemented by Imperial bounty), the bookkeeping about who got how much as their monthly allowances, how much all their luxuries cost and how it was decided who paid for each. We know from Jane Austen how much money Darcy and Bingley had, but even she didn't go into detail about exactly how much it cost to host (say) a ball. Here's a poor relation from the country doing the calculation after a crab-eating party:

“Good crabs like that are selling at a pennyweight a catty this time of year,” said Grannie Liu. “If one catty is a pennyweight, fifty catties is two taels ten, and another thirty is one and ten; ten and two is twelve and twice ten is a tael, that's thirteen, and then there's the wine and the other dishes. It can't have cost less than twenty taels in all. Bless us and save us! that'd keep a farmer and his family for a year!”

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, the North American Commonwealth, the revolutionary successor state to New Britain and the dominant power in the western hemisphere of Timeline 3, and the French Empire, which dominates most of Eurasia. All three are suspicious of the others and are heavily armed; 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 rapidly catching up. Everyone realizes the risks of nuclear war, 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 and apparently never completed, 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 inspired by 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 anything up to 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 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 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 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 good to see a fantasy secondary world that isn't inspired by medieval Europe. 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 an 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 scale 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 liked this book a lot, and I'll have to read some of her other books. 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