What I read in 2023

12/28 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 31

A collection of side stories, none directly related to the apostle battle.

12/28 Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory

Notably dark space opera. Valkyr, the main character, is a 17 year old cadet, a good soldier in a heavily militarized society awaiting her permanent assignment and dreaming of avenging Earth. One of the inspirations for that society was ancient Sparta; they actually call one of their training tools the agoge, a word that anyone who's read Bret Devereaux's This. Isn't Sparta. series will find horrifying. The title, a quote from Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est,” is also a pretty strong hint about what kind of war the main character is engaged in and how much she should believe of what the rulers of her society are telling her.

12/24 Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914. Volume I: European Relations From the Congress of Berlin to the Eve of the Sarajevo Murder (tr. Isabella M. Massey)

A classic study of the causes of the War; I've seen more than one bibliography listing it as the single best starting point. Le Origini della Guerra del 1914 was written in the 1920s and 1930s and published posthumously in the mid 1940s. The English translation is from 1952, and seems to be long out of print.

As the title suggests, this is almost entirely a diplomatic history. It begins in 1878 with the Congress of Berlin, the peace conference that established the European status quo after Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire but failed to get everything it wanted from that victory. This volume is about how, over the decades, the European great powers gradually became two hostile armed camps that both planned and feared war, so that in the end a single mishandled crisis ended in catastrophe. The 1930s was an ideal moment to write a book like that. On one hand it was late enough that Albertini had access to many of the primary sources that historians rely on today: the memoirs and papers of key decisionmakers like Asquith, Bethmann Hollweg, Bülow, Conrad, Giolitti, Grey, Izvolsky, Joffre, Moltke, Paléologue, Poincaré, and Sazonov, and the tens of thousands of secret treaties and diplomatic documents from the official archives of all major powers, including the 11-volume British Documents on the Origins of the War, the 8-volume Österreich-Ungarns Außenpolitik von der bosnischen Krise, the 39-volume Die Große Politik der europäischen Kabinette 1871–1914, and the 41-volume Documents Diplomatiques Français. On the other hand it was early enough that many of the participants were still alive, and Albertini, a journalist and an Italian Senator, had access to them.

One of the things that's striking, in a very detailed diplomatic history like this, is that it's more about the actions of specific people than about countries as a whole; a country isn't a unitary actor. In Italy, for example, the chief of the general staff, negotiating military agreements with his peers in Berlin and Vienna in 1913, was never told the terms of the secret treaties between Italy and France or between Italy and Germany and Austria-Hungary. Albertini isn't at all shy in his judgments or about assigning blame, but it's specific named individuals he blames for specific blunders. His harshest words are for Wilhelm (whom he calls “infantile” and worse), Bülow, Aehrenthal, Berchtold, and Sazonov.

12/22 Alix E. Harrow, The Once and Future Witches

Feminist historical fantasy, set in New England in a slightly different version of the late 19th century.

“Witching and women's rights. Suffrage and spells. They're both…” She gestures in midair again. “They're both a kind of power, aren't they? The kind we aren't allowed to have.” The kind I want, says the hungry shine of her eyes.
“They're both children's stories, June.” Beatrice doesn't know if she's telling her sister or herself.
Juniper shrugs without looking away from the square. “They're better than the story we were given.”

12/14 Martha Wells, System Collapse

The latest Murderbot book begins immediately after the end of Network Effect, and, surprisingly, takes place mostly on the same planet. It's partly about Murderbot trying to deal with its trauma, the construct equivalent of PTSD, partly about its relationships with ART and its human companions, and partly about an attempt to prevent one of the many horrible corporations of the Corporation Rim from forcing or tricking the planet's colonists into slave labor.

12/8 Martha Wells, Network Effect

It's been clear since the beginning of the series that Murderbot is a person, not a thing. It's also been clear from the beginning that the corporation that built Murderbot, “a bond company known for intense xenophobic paranoia, tempered only by desperate greed,” treats it as a piece of corporate inventory that they rent out to clients as part of their security contracts. That is, it's been clear from the beginning that Murderbot is an enslaved person. That fact becomes more explicit in this book.

12/3 Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry

This one is essentially a straight-up murder mystery: Murderbot, now on Preservation Station, is called in as a security consultant to investigate the unexplained death of an unknown person. Naturally the crime turns out to involve corporate sociopathy.

12/2 Martha Wells, Exit Strategy

It's been clear from the beginning of the series that Murderbot is a person, not a thing — not a human or an augmented human, but a person. This book is where it becomes more explicit.

“I don't want to be human.”
Dr. Mensah said, “That's not an attitude a lot of humans are going to understand. We tend to think that because a bot or a construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human.”
“That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.”

12/1 Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol

In which Murderbot investigates what's supposedly an abandoned terraforming facility, trying to find evidence of even more crimes committed by the corporate criminals we met in the very first book, and in which, again reluctantly, it helps people and makes friends.

I would totally watch Murderbot's favorite soap opera, The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, if someone filmed it.

11/27 Martha Wells, Artificial Condition

In which Murderbot tries to come to terms with a traumatic incident from its past that it remembers only fragments of, becomes friends with “ART” (although it would deny any such sentimentality), and ends up helping people.

11/26 Martha Wells, All Systems Red

I'm rereading all of the Murderbot books to refresh my memory before reading the new one, System Collapse.

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don't know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

11/24 Harini Nagendra, The Bangalore Detectives Club

Set in 1921; there have been some changes in Bangalore in the century since then. I expect that my trip there will involve less murder.

11/19 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Another one of those books that everyone reads in high school or college but that somehow I'd never gotten around to. Al is reading it for high school English, so this seemed like a good time for me to read it too. Yes, it's as good as they say. It's about both colonialism and toxic masculinity. It would have been a tragedy with either one of those things, and the confrontation between them makes both even worse.

11/15 Charlie Stross, Season of Skulls

The final book of the New Management trilogy, in which we're reminded of one of the troubles with magic and time travel: you can't count on killing your enemies and having them stay dead. The literary inspirations for this book are Regency romances, Frankenstein, The Vampyre, and The Prisoner. Reminds me that I've never read Polidori, and I don't think I've ever watched all of The Prisoner from beginning to end.

11/11 Erich Maria Remarque, The Road Back (tr. A. W. Wheen)

“Along the road, step upon step, in their faded, dirty uniforms tramp the grey columns. The unshaved faces beneath the steel helmets are haggard, wasted with hunger and long peril, pinched and dwindled to the lines drawn by terror and courage and death. They trudge along in silence; silently, as they have now marched over so many a road, have sat in so many a truck, squatted in so many a dugout, crouched in so many a shell-hole—without many words, so too now they trudge along this road back home into peace. Without many words.
“Old men with beards and slim lads scarce twenty years of age, comrades without difference. Beside them their lieutenants, little more than children, yet the leaders of many a night raid. And behind them, the army of the slain. Thus they tramp onward step by step, sick, half-starving, without ammunition, in thin companies, with eyes that still fail to comprehend it; escaped out of that underworld, on the road back into life.”

All Quiet on the Western Front wasn't Erich Maria Remarque's only book, of course. The Road Back was published in 1931, two years after All Quiet on the Western Front, and it can be thought of as a sequel. The Nazis didn't like it.

The prologue begins in the last days before the Armistice and the bulk of the novel is about what comes after: the main character and his comrades from his platoon trying to make their way in peacetime in a bewildering defeated Germany, with food rationing, political chaos and possibly revolution, an educational establishment that doesn't know what to do with them, comfortable civilians who still spout patriotic drivel, wives and parents whom they no longer know how to talk to.

The main character wonders whether there can ever be any kind of life for him, or if he's now fit for nothing but the Front. In part the book is about how some of the main characters manage to get past the memories of what happened to them and what they did and return to life, and in part it's about a morally bankrupt society that made these boys into killers and then looked away.

11/6 Charlie Stross, Quantum of Nightmares

The second book of the New Management trilogy, in which the main character learns that her former boss's plans were worse and farther reaching than she had realized. If Dead Lies Dreaming was a pastiche of Peter and Wendy, the literary inspirations for Quantum of Nightmares are instead Mary Poppins and Sweeney Todd.

This is also the book where we get confirmation that Charlie Stross reads Squirrel Girl.

11/1 Charlie Stross, Dead Lies Dreaming

The first book in the New Management trilogy, a Laundry Files spinoff. It's set in the same world but it's not a continuation of the story and there are no characters in common, other than a brief scene with the Prime Minister himself: His Dread Majesty, the Black Pharaoh, N'yar Lat-Hotep. Some things have changed for the worse as a result of the New Management, like the reinstatement of the 18th century Bloody Code, and others remain disturbingly familiar. The ever-cheerful author writes on his blog that “the New Management, which started as a ghastly satire on the UK's government of 2016, now looks impossibly utopian.”

Dead Lies Dreaming involves a gang of (depending on how you look at it) small-time supervillains or aspiring filmmakers, a family curse and a very dangerous book, and a more than usually horrible Tory billionaire. It's also a pastiche of Peter and Wendy.

10/27 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Memory

Sequel to Children of Time and Children of Ruin. The three books collectively won the 2023 Best Series Hugo, and yes, they're all excellent.

This one is a first contact between the world of Imir, where it doesn't take long for the reader and some of the characters to notice that things aren't as they seem, and the vessel Skipper, crewed by three Portiid spiders, a Human, an octopus, a parasitic microbial colony that currently looks human, a machine intelligence with old and unreliable memories of having once been human, and two corvids, one with thought and the other memory, who maybe collectively form two halves of a single intelligent being. The chapter titles set an appropriately apocalyptic tone, titles like “Age Shall Not Weary Them” and “Look upon My Works, Ye Mighty” and “Twilight of the Gods.”

It's not exactly a book about what it means to be human, since most of the characters aren't, by any definition, but it is a book about what it means to have personal identity.

Gothi has information. Gethli helps her with the planning. She works with them, and every so often looks at their sharp black eyes and speculates about what's going on within and between them. And she wonders—with that example laid open before her—why she doesn't also wonder the same about herself more often. Why everyone doesn't.

10/23 Jessie Singer, There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

The book begins and ends with the death of the author's friend, who was killed when a driver ran him over. The driver certainly didn't deliberately set out to kill him. He was quoted as saying “I got into an accident. My car hit this person.”

The trouble is that calling something an accident shouldn't be the end of the story. There are always other questions to ask, like why it was physically possible for a car to be driving on a supposedly car-free bike path, or why cars are driving at 60 mph in the middle of a city, or how cars are and aren't designed to prevent injury to people they hit. Every death like this involves people making mistakes, but that goes without saying; mistakes are always inevitable. It's systemic decisions, about both society and the built environment, that determine which kinds of errors are more likely to happen and which kinds of errors are likely to be deadly when they do happen. That gets into questions about design, and it also gets into questions about power hierarchies and ideologies and whose lives matter. Streets would be designed very differently if keeping pedestrians alive were the designers' highest priority! Factories and mines would be designed differently if worker safety were a higher priority.

People who are serious about preventing harm look at every incident as an opportunity to learn and to improve things. The FAA is serious about preventing airplane crashes, for examples, which is why they don't just say “pilot error” every time and move on. The important questions in a crash investigation are why the pilot made that particular error, why it resulted in disaster, and how to change the system to prevent the next disaster. I'm also reminded of the lower stakes world that I live in, where errors result in outages or data loss rather than deaths. A lot of the principles in the SRE Book come down to the fact that the world has to be built for real people, who sometimes make mistakes even when they're being as careful as they can, rather than the mythical people who never do.

10/18 Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters on Ethics (tr. Margaret Graver and A. A. Long)

They really are letters, written by Seneca (~4 BCE – 65 CE) to his younger friend Gaius Lucilius Iunior. But although they undoubtedly were real letters, they also were undoubtedly written for publication, as a philosophical text, as well as being written for Lucilius himself. Seneca was quite explicit about the fact that he was writing this work for posterity, and it has been circulated as a book since Seneca's time.

This is specifically a work of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism, like other ancient philosophical schools, was a complete system, with its own distinctive views about logic, cosmology, ontology, epistemology, and the nature of the gods. For Seneca, though, the most important part by far was ethics: teaching us how to live well. Stoicism was similar to many other philosophical schools in teaching that seemingly good things, like wealth, public honor, good health, and physical pleasure, and seemingly bad things, like poverty, enslavement, torture, and death, are unimportant compared to the true happiness of wisdom. What's distinctive about Stoicism is the belief that wisdom, which is the same as virtue, or honorable behavior, is not just the most important good thing, but literally the only good thing. Our colloquial use of the word “stoic” isn't too far wrong.

“What is a happy life? It is security and lasting tranquility, the sources of which are a great spirit and a steady determination to abide by a good decision. How does one arrive at such things? By perceiving the truth in all its completeness, by maintaining orderliness, measure, and propriety in one's actions, by having a will that is always well intentioned and generous, focused on rationality and never deviating from it, as lovable as it is admirable. Let me sum it up for you like this: the man of wisdom should have the sort of mind that would befit a god. What can a person be missing when he possesses everything that is honorable? If other kinds of things are capable of making any contributions to the best condition, they will be necessary conditions of the happy life. But it would be utterly wrong and absurd to make the excellence of a rational spirit depend on nonrational things.”

10/17 Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

As the title suggests, opera plays a central role in this book, with plenty of Bellini and Puccini and Donizetti. The central character, the soprano Roxane Coss, was perhaps inspired by Renée Fleming. It's also more or less a thriller, a slow hostage crisis in an unnamed South American country, and a novel about the difficulty of communication — not even all of the guerillas speak fluent Spanish, let alone the Japanese and French and American and Swedish and German and Russian hostages. Since it's an opera, it's of course a tragedy.

ObNitpick: Mr. Hosokawa, the opera loving CEO whose ill fated birthday celebration sets the story in motion, listened to a recording of Maria Callas singing a collection of Greek songs on his business trip to Greece. An excellent choice to listen to on such an occasion — if, that is, Callas had ever recorded any such thing. As far as I can tell she never did.

10/14 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 30

2005 Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino.

10/11 Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games

A game player, a game, and an interstellar empire.

“They do,” Gurgeh said, “sound fairly…”—he'd been going to say “barbaric,” but that didn't seem strong enough—“…animalistic.”
“Hmm,” the drone said. “Be careful, now; that is how they term the species they subjugate; animals. Of course they are animals, just as you are, just as I am a machine. But they are fully conscious, and they have a society at least as complicated as our own.”

The challenge for Gurgeh is keeping the knife-edge balance of neither despising and dehumanizing the Azadians, nor being seduced by the glamour of their empire and forgetting its very real atrocities.

10/8 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 29

The Ninth Apostle is a wine whose theme is adversity and triumph. Shizuku and Issei make their way, by separate paths, to a marathon starting in Sienna, the home of Brunello di Montalcino. The enigmatic American Chris also thinks that the answer must be a Brunello di Montalcino, and he doesn't think he needs to go on any quests to find the answer.

10/1 Marjorie Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (artist), Monstress volume seven: Devourer

Collecting issues 36–41; one of the 2023 Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story. It continues to tell the story of everyone trying to possess Maika's power, and Maika trying to make a decision in a world where inner demons are sometimes a literal thing.

10/1 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 28

In which the clue for the Ninth Apostle is revealed and in which it's revealed that there will be a third competitor: Christopher Watkins, a wealthy young American man whose father was one of Yutaka Kanzaki's close friends.

9/27 Tom King (writer), Bilquis Evely (artist), and Matheus Lopes (colorist), Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow

One of the 2023 Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story.

9/18 Kieron Gillen (writer) and Dan Mora (artist), Once & Future Vol 4: Monarchies in the UK

Yes, monarchies plural. It's a story about stories, including two versions of Arthur and one of Lear. Reminds me I've never seen that play performed, and it's been a long time since I last read it.

9/18 Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

The first Culture novel to be published: one small incident within “A small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than 0.02% of the galaxy by volume and 0.01% by stellar population.”

9/11 Bartosz Sztybor, Filipe Andrade, Alessio Fioriniello, Roman Titov, Krzysztof Ostrowski, Cyberpunk 2077: Big City Dreams

One of the 2023 Hugo nominees for Best Graphic Story. Perhaps I'd have gotten more out of it if I'd had ever played Cyberpunk 2077 or read anything else set in that world.

9/11 Charlie Jane Anders, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak

Sequel to Victories Greater Than Death, and the second book in the YA space opera Unstoppable trilogy. In the first book the hero and her friends defeat the bad guys and save the galaxy, but that's not the end of the story. Turns out that fascism has a nasty tendency not to stay defeated.

9/10 Agatha Christie, Hallowe'en Party

A thirteen year old girl boasts at a Halloween party that she once saw a murder, although she hadn't understood at the time that that's what it was, and then clams up. Naturally she immediately ends getting murdered herself, and naturally Poirot thinks that there's a connection between those events and that the roots of the present day crime lie somewhere in the past.

9/6 Alexis Hall, Boyfriend Material

A gay romcom set in 21st century London, one of those stories where there's a pretend relationship entered into for convenience and eventually both partners realize that it's not so fake after all. The main character's coworkers could have walked out of a P. G. Wodehouse story.

9/4 Catherynne M. Valente, Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

“Now, now, no groaning. You are absolutely not too grown-up for fairy tales. Nobody is. The kind of people who think fairy tales are frilly or silly or simple are the ones most likely to get eaten by a witch before next weekend.”

8/30 Nghi Vo, Into the Riverlands

Not a sequel to the Hugo winning The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but set in the same world and with the same viewpoint character, Cleric Chih of the Singing Hills Monastery. It doesn't have quite the same themes but it's recognizably similar in that it's a story about stories. In this book Chih hears several stories from the companions they're traveling with, which may perhaps be fragments or different viewpoints of the same story, and realizes that it's hard or impossible to know how to put stories together to arrive at the truth.

I see, also, that I missed a novella! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first book of the Singing Hills Cycle, and Into the Riverlands is the third. I didn't notice the existence of When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. The first and third novellas are both very good; I ought to read the second.

8/27 Alix E. Harrow, A Mirror Mended

Sequel to A Spindle Splintered. This one, of course, is about Snow White more than Sleeping Beauty.

8/27 Seanan McGuire, Where the Drowned Girls Go

The latest Wayward Children novella, and the first one to focus on the other school.

8/24 C. L. Polk, Even Though I Knew the End

Lesbian supernatural noir, set in mid 20th century Chicago.

I took a bite of my eggs like I was thinking about it. “And all I have to do for my soul and a thousand dollars is find the White City Vampire.”
She lifted her half-filled coupe of champagne. “Correct.”
“That's quite the offer,” I mused. “Plus expenses?”
Marlowe threw back her head and laughed. “You're all right, Helen Brandt. It's a deal.”

8/23 T. Kingfisher, What Moves the Dead

A retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher” but transplanted to a European country somewhere near Ruritania, and with more fungi and more pronouns.

8/20 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 27

Jacques Selosse Cuvée Exquise N.V.

8/20 Tracy Deonn, Bloodmarked

Sequel to Legendborn, and one of the finalists for this year's Lodestar award. It feels like the middle book of a trilogy. As anyone who's ever read an Arthurian story is likely to expect, it turns out that pulling Excalibur from the stone doesn't guarantee you a happily-ever-after ending.

8/14 Tracy Deonn, Legendborn

YA Arthurian-inspired fantasy, sent in the present day UNC-Chapel Hill. The main character has complicated divided loyalties, and the Arthurian secret society, which is and long has been an integral part of the South's larger power structure, is morally ambiguous at best. A big part of this book is asking what it means for a Black girl to have a seat at the Round Table.

8/9 T. Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

“Don't cry,” her nurse said, as she stood on the castle wall, watching the prince's horses take Kania away. “Try to be happy for her. You'll have a prince of your own someday.”
Marra shook her head. “I don't think I want one,” she said.

No, she doesn't. This is another of this year's Hugo finalists for Best Novel. It isn't directly based on a fairy tale but it definitely has that vibe, beginning with the main character accomplishing three impossible tasks: sewing a cloak of nettles, building a dog of bones, and capturing moonlight in a jar.

8/8 Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

One of this year's Hugo finalists for Best Novel. It's set in roughly the same time as the H. G. Wells novel that inspired it but it's transplanted from Wells's remote island at 5°3′S 101°W to the Yucatán peninsula. Moreau in this version is arrogant, selfish, and sometimes cruel, and far from the worst person in the book. “I've met monsters. They weren't hybrids and they weren't you.”

8/3 Becky Chambers, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

A monk and robot novella.

8/2 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ogres

One of this year's Hugo nominees for Best Novella. It's a story where the lords of the manor are ogres, larger and stronger and more vicious than the human villagers, and also a story where it doesn't take long for the reader to realize that it's set in our future and that the ogres have sufficiently advanced technology (what counts as sufficiently advanced is contextual), and it's a radical story about revolution.

They have demanded for generations: can it not be slightly better for us? and been slapped down by the truncheon-wielding thugs the ogres employ as law-keepers. And then you arrive, and tell them that their entire bubble world is like a pot, only hot and seething becuase someone's keeping the fire beneath it stoked. The question they should have been asking is, why is it like this at all?

It's a very angry book.

8/2 Travis Baldree, Legends & Lattes

Basically a coffeehouse AU D&D fanfic. It's pleasant, feel-good, and light.

7/31 Rachel Hartman, In the Serpent's Wake

Sequel to Tess of the Road. My favorite part is the nation whose warriors are knights who fight mounted on ice tigers.

7/29 Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Woman

YA fantasy set in Nigeria, sequel to Akata Witch and Akata Warrior

7/20 Mary Robinette Kowal, The Spare Man

It's not exactly Nick and Nora in outer space, but that's what you're supposed to be reminded of, starting with the title: a honeymoon cruise to Mars traveling first class on a luxury liner, murder, banter, high society, and lots of cocktails. Each chapter begins with a cocktail recipe, some invented for the book.

“Do you want vodka or gin in your martini?”
“I said martini.” It was snark, but she could tell a lot about a bartender by their response. The ones whose taste aligned with hers would perk up. The others, like this one, looked blank. “Fun fact: a martini made with vodka is called a kangaroo.”
“No kidding?”
She needed to get off her very large, unnecessary soapbox before she spent her time ranting instead of investigating a murder.

7/19 H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau

It can be read as a parable about colonialism, or about religion. The last chapter is (I'm sure deliberately) reminiscent of parts of Gulliver's Travels. In our own time it seems especially topical because it must be one of the first books ever written, perhaps the very first, where a human scientist deliberately tries to create an artificial mind with safety boundaries built in.

“Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

7/17 Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road

I had this conflated in my head with Sarah Pinsker's “Our Lady of the Open Road.” Totally different! Tess of the Road is a YA fantasy, set in a world that vaguely resembles early-modern Europe except for the dragons and world serpents and such.

7/15 William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

It has twins, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, a shipwreck, gaslighting, dirty jokes, a clown, and a duke, and it ends in a double wedding. What more could one want from a Shakespeare comedy?

7/12 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 26

Shizuku and Issei both think they've identified the Eighth Apostle. Both of them have brought sparkling wines. But are they the same ones?

7/9 John Scalzi, The Kaiju Preservation Society

One of the nominees for this year's Best Novel Hugo. It's not deep, and doesn't try or pretend to be, but it's a lot of fun.

7/8 Arkady Martine, Rose/House

It's a science fiction story set in the Mojave perhaps a century from now, and it's a mystery story: the inverse of a locked room mystery in that it's not a mystery where it's impossible for the murderer to have left the room, but one where it's impossible for the murderer or the victim to have gotten in. (If it was murder. It's also impossible for the detective to get in.) It's also a haunted house story, and specifically it's very reminiscent of The Haunting of Hill House. A deliberate homage, I'm sure, given the way the first and last paragraphs are written.

7/6 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 25

In Bordeaux, Shizuku finally finds the bottle that led his father to devote his life to wine: an 1870 Léoville. Meanwhile the next Apostle battle is about to start.

7/5 N. K. Jemisin, The World We Make

The second book of the Great Cities duology that began with The City We Became. (Originally planned as a trilogy, but the author changed her mind after finishing the first book.) The most interesting part of it is the way that the author uses Lovecraftian tropes to confront Lovecraft's vicious racism. The Woman in White is the force behind an authoritarian right hate campaign that promises to end diversity training, stop funding CUNY since it's all just a bunch of wokists, get rid of sexual deviants, unleash the police to keep immigrants and minorities in their place, and Make New York Great Again. She's also a literal Lovecraftian horror, the living avatar of the nightmare corpse-city R'lyeh.

Not N. K. Jemisin's best work — as she says in the acknowledgments at the end, she had a rough time writing it because of COVID-19 and Trumpism. Still worth reading, especially if you enjoyed the first book of the duology.

7/2 Larry Wolff, The Shadow of the Empress: Fairy-Tale Opera and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy

I always marvel at those reminders that the lines between historical eras are arbitrary. For example, I think of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as something from a distant and long vanished sepia toned age, while on the other hand I'm old enough to think of 1989 as the recent past. But in fact 1989 is when the last Austro-Hungarian empress died: Empress Zita, the widow (by then long widowed) of Emperor Karl, the last emperor of Austria and king of Hungary.

There are two empresses in this book: the magical Empress of the Southeastern Islands, the titular woman without a shadow in Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's flawed but great opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Zita, the real life empress at the time the opera was being finished and who was exiled in 1919 shortly before its first performance. The book tells the story of the opera and how it was created, including events elsewhere in intellectual life and the rest of the world, intercutting it with the story of Zita, from her birth in 1892 as Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma through her death in Switzerland and her burial in the traditional Habsburg Kapuzinergruft in Vienna in 1989.

I appreciated the history of the opera, and I buy the idea of connections with what was happening in the rest of the world. Most of the work on Die Frau ohne Schatten was done during the War, and it's hard to believe that that didn't have an influence. Strauss and Hofmannsthal were both patriots, both were very aware of the abnormal times they were living in, and Hofmannsthal even served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. There's direct evidence that both men saw a connection: Strauss described the opera as a “problem child … completed in grief and worries during the war,” and Hofmannsthal wrote in 1914 that his original 1911 idea for the libretto must have involved a subconscious premonition of later events. The intertwining of the Frau story and the Zita story, though, seemed strained. I kept looking and kept failing to see any reason for juxtaposing those two things, other than that parts of the two stories happened at roughly the same time. The connections just weren't there.

6/29 Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West

Blood Meridian deserves both parts of its reputation: beautiful language and extreme ugliness of subject matter. It's a Western, mostly focusing on horrible acts of violence. Most of the slaughter is white Americans massacring Indians, but there's plenty of other killing too.

One of the characters, Glanton, was based on a real person, who may have been as awful in reality as the character in the book is. The most memorable and monstrous character, the Judge, may also have been based on a real person. At any rate he was based on something other than just McCarthy's own imagination.

6/19 Ann Leckie, Translation State

It's set in the same universe as the Imperial Radch trilogy, but it isn't a continuation of the same story. Most of this book is about Presger translators, hence the title. This book is strange and thought-provoking like the others, but in a different way.

“The Presger,” said Ambassador Seimet, “are very alien. They don't understand humans at all. Their Translators were… put together from material taken from human ships and stations that they'd disassembled. Put together in a way that made sense to the Presger themselves. And the Presger do not understand the idea of being a person. Or, to speak more clearly, they do not understand the idea of being an individual.” She sipped her tea. “So Presger Translators were assembled according to Presger logic. Or at least as close to Presger logic as human biology allowed. Which I understand is still quite strange to the Presger themselves, but closer than we can get.”

But of course that's a human talking (one of the few Radchaai characters), so take it with a grain of salt. She probably understands the Presger even less well than they understand humans, and probably half of what she thinks she knows about them is wrong.

6/18 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 24

In which Shizuku, hoping to understand his father better, goes to Bordeaux for his own private run of the Marathon du Médoc.

6/18 Donna Tartt, The Secret History

We learn about the murder on the first page of the preface. Most of the book is about what led up to it, and about the aftermath: a close-knit group of undergrads, clustered around a charismatic professor of ancient Greek at a small New England liberal arts college. Sometimes studying Classics can get out of hand.

Apparently there's now a whole subgenre, “Dark Academia,” inspired by this novel.

6/12 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 23

2003 Sine Qua Non “The Inaugural” Eleven Confessions Syrah. I'd never heard of the wine or the winery before, but apparently it's a California cult wine.

6/11 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 22

The clue for the seventh wine has been revealed: it's represented by Gaudí's Sagrada Família. Despite the obvious Spanish reference, both competitors think they're looking for a New World red. They head to opposite sides of the planet: Issei and Loulan visit Napa Valley, while Shizuku and Miyabi fly to Barossa Valley.

6/11 Rachel Smythe, Lore Olympus: Volume Four

Episodes 76–102 of the Webtoon comic. In this volume Hades and Persephone finally admit that they have feelings for each other, and Persephone finally tells off Apollo. Still no explanation of why Persephone doesn't realize she's a fertility goddess, or for that matter of why she acquired that name.

6/10 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 21

A trip to Bordeaux, a quest to select the perfect three wines for a wedding reception, and a challenge about which executive will lead Taiyo Beer's wine division.

6/6 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 20

2001 Luciano Sandrone “Cannubi Boschis” Barolo.

6/4 Rachel Smythe, Lore Olympus: Volume Three

Episodes 50–75 of the Webtoon comic.

6/4 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 19

The clue to the sixth wine is like a Zen parable, and Shizuku thinks he needs to find it without searching.

6/3 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 18

Michel Colin-Deléger Chevalier-Montrachet, 2000.

6/3 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 17

In which Shizuku and Issei do indeed both survive an encounter with a demon mountain, summiting the Matterhorn during a storm, and both return to Japan with an insight about the identity of the fifth wine.

5/31 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 16

The fifth wine of the contest represents the Matterhorn, but this volume of the comic also includes other wines and other mountains. Shizuku starts by climbing Mt. Fuji, and Issei wonders if he has to go to Switzerland. Yes, we are introduced to George Mallory and “Because it's there.”

5/31 Agatha Christie, Appointment with Death

One of those Christie stories where the suspects are much more sympathetic than the victim.

5/29 Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History

Just what the title sounds like: a military history of all of the important fronts in the War and some of the unimportant ones. And yes, it is indeed a global history, as is clear even from the cover photos, one showing Australian troops in the Dardanelles and one showing Indian troops in France. I found the book especially helpful for an explanation of why trench warfare on the Western Front was a hard problem, how commanders on both sides attempted to deal with it, and the weapons and tactics that finally existed in 1918.

I read this book at the recommendation of Bret Devereaux, and I also recommend both the book and his blog.

5/20 Naomi Novik, League of Dragons

The last book of the Temeraire series: the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and the start of something new.

5/16 Naomi Novik, Blood of Tyrants

Another very international book! The map at the beginning shows a voyage from Nagasaki to Peking to Moscow, with a side trip to Xian. It's 1812, of course. No Prince Andrei or Pierre Bezukhov that I could find, but Marshal Kutuzov is a fairly important character.

This is also the first book where we meet an American, a dragon from Salem named John Wampanoag. American history in this world is notably different! Wampanoag started out in the humble business of hauling freight for the trade with the Kwaikiutl on the West Coast. Now that he's a wealthy merchant he's met the president a half dozen times: “I should have rather had Hamilton in the job, of course, but there! You can't have everything, and for all that he isn't a Federalist, Tecumseh is a clever fellow.”

5/13 Naomi Novik, Crucible of Gold

Most of the book is set in South America; the Napoleonic Wars are truly a world war in this world, as they were in ours. The Tswana have sent armies against Spain and Portugal and the Portuguese colony of Brazil, as retribution for the slave trade. Meanwhile, both Britain and France are hoping for an alliance with the powerful and reculsive Incan empire. There's plenty of fighting in this book, but even more diplomacy.

5/11 Naomi Novik, Tongues of Serpents

Lawrence and Tememaire are exiled to Australia for reasons. As with Africa in a previous book, it turns out that the English settlers in Sydney know less about the continent than they thought they did.

5/9 Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles

Things are just as dire for Lawrence and Tememaire in this book as the title suggests. Part of it is reminiscent of the brutal Peninsular War, and yes, Wellesley (not yet Wellington) is a major character.

5/7 Rachel Smythe, Lore Olympus: Volume Two

A reimagining of the Hades and Persephone story, collecting episodes 26–49 of the Webtoon comic.

5/6 Mike Duncan, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

Not the story of the war between Caesar and Pompey and how the Republic was replaced with the Principate, but the time before that. The timeline is from 146 BCE to 78 BCE, including the sack of Carthage, the First and Second Servile Wars, the careers of the Gracchi, the Jugurthan War and Gaius Marius's consulships, the Cimbrian War, the Social War and the decades-long controversy over Italian citizenship, the civil war between Marius's faction and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (Marius himself died of old age early on in the war), Sulla's dictatorship. It ends with Sulla's retirement and his death from natural causes.

It's straightforward narrative history and it mostly seems to be based closely on the works of ancient historians, especially Appian, Plutarch, Sallust, and Cicero. The underlying story is pretty simple. Rome's acquisition of an overseas empire with its victories over Carthage and Macedonia meant immense wealth for a few and increasing hardship for small farmers. The balances between different part of society broke down: between the Senate and the Assembly, Consuls and Tribunes, the Senatorial and Equestrian classes and the plebs urbana, Rome and its Italian “allies.” The constitution, or res publica, was destabilized and never recovered. Both the optimates and populares, as well as ambitious politicians with no particular loyalty to a faction, started flouting mos maiorum, the way thing had always been done — sometimes ignoring the law, sometimes doing things that nobody had codified as illegal because nobody had imagined a politician doing them. Politicians increasingly started using violence as a tool, from manufactured riots to judicial murder to ordinary murder to private armies, and increasingly realized that there was no middle ground between clinging to power and being killed.

The culmination was Sulla's wave of “proscriptions,” or arbitrary extrajudicial killing of thousands of his enemies or people he imagined to be his enemies, and his dictatorship — the first dictatorship in more than a century and one without the traditional legal limits, including the crucial limitation of a dictator's term to six months. Sulla was perhaps sincere when he said that his goal was to restore an aristocratic Senate-dominated Republic, and perhaps he died believing that he succeeded. We know in hindsight that he didn't.

5/6 Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis, The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet

From the title you might think this is a book exhorting you to buy a reusable tote bag, eat more tofu, and sort your recyclables. No, it's better than that. Those things are all very well, but if we're going to limit global warming to less than 2° C it's not enough: we're going to need changes in public policy. “The world will not be saved by conscientious green consumers… Instead, we all need to become green citizens.”

The important point, the reason this book exists, is that public policy isn't just about the decisions made by a few dozen elite politicians in Washington and Beijing. A huge number of consequential decisions about carbon emissions are made by groups like your local Public Utilities Commission, or school board, or the committee that writes your city's building code. These are areas where ordinary citizens have a real chance of making a difference.


5/2 Kate Elliott, Furious Heaven

Sequel to Unconquerable Sun: the second volume of a science fiction trilogy inspired by the life of Alexander III. It's not quite the same story, since an unspecfied region of space some unknown number of millennia in the future isn't the same as ancient Macedonia, but the general outlines of the story are very familiar. One of the many assassination plots against Queen-Marshal Eirene of Chaonia finally succeeds. Her daughter Sun Shān inherits the throne and, using the formidable military that Eirene built, fights audacious battles and wins astonishing victories against the much larger Phene Empire and against everyone else in sight. But even her Companions and marshals wonder why Queen-Marshal Sun is so driven, why she's still campaigning, why she doesn't just return to her palace and take a consort or two and produce an heir and rule her Republic, whether anything can ever be enough for her.

Here's a conversation between Sun and a priest in Mishirru, a famously ancient world, one of the first planets to be settled by the Argosies that fled the ruins of the semi-legendary Celestial Empire where humanity originated. Think of it as the equivalent of Alexander in Egypt.

“Vision is a harsh taskmaster, a treacherous bedmate, and an uncertainly trustworthy partner. You might prefer to live a long and prosperous life and on your peaceful deathbed pass your legacy on to a grateful and numerous progeny. Why struggle with the impossible?”
“Only deeds proffer immortality.”
“Yet the Celestial Emperor died in her time.”
“We sing the pain, the courage, the heart, the storm-wrought wreckage through which the Celestial Emperor and Her Loyal Charioteer led the plague-struck people. Legend makes fame, and fame outlasts the lives of mortal creatures.”

4/24 Will Kurt, Bayesian Statistics the Fun Way: Understanding Statistics and Probability with Star Wars, LEGO, and Rubber Ducks

P(A|B) = P(B|A) P(A) / P(B)

4/23 Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory

One of the reasons for the French victory at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt in Black Powder War was just that in this world, as in ours, Napoleon was better than the Prussian generals. Another, more puzzling, is that the twenty dragons Britain had promised as assistance never arrived. Toward the beginning of Empire of Ivory we learn the reason: Britain has no dragons in any shape to fight. They're suffering from a plague, a terrible respiratory infection, and many have already died. There are hints that a cure might be found in Africa, perhaps having something to do with the unknown interior of the continent. It doesn't occur to the English characters that the ignorance might not be completely mutual.

4/20 Alexis Hall, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter

The adventures of Captain John Wyndham and the sorceress Shaharazad Haas, as narrated by Captain Wyndham. If those names have a familiar ring to them… Wyndham was invalided out of the Company of Strangers by a wound that manifests itself in his shoulder and/or leg, and, finding the city of Khelathra-Ven expensive, answered a newspaper ad: Co-tenant required. Rent reasonable to the point of arousing suspicion. Tolerance for blasphemies against nature an advantage. No laundry service. Enquire S. Haas, 221b Martyrs Walk.

The style is an imitation of stilted late 19th century prose, but it doesn't read like a pastiche of any particular author. Some aspects of the setting are vaguely Lovecraftian, and there are direct references to Dracula, Chambers's The King in Yellow, and more. It's very funny.

4/16 Naomi Novik, Black Powder War

In the previous book, Tememaire and Captain Lawrence meet the emperor of China. In this one, after their return to Europe, they meet the sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the king and queen of Prussia. Unfortunately for them, the battles of Jena-Auerstedt go no better for the Prussians in this version of history than in ours.

4/15 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 15

Château Lafleur, 1994.

4/15 Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big to Fail

A detailed account of the late 2008 financial crisis, written by a New York Times reporter in 2009. The strength of the book is the detailed reporting, which allowed the author to write exactly what all of the corporate and government leaders were doing day by day and hour by hour, what conversations they were having and what they were thinking. The weakness is a failure to explain context: how exactly did subprime loans create so much risk, what the difference is between an investment bank and a bank holding company, whether there was any truth to the accusations of self-dealing and fraud, and so on.

4/9 Eleanor Catton, Birnam Wood

Despite the title, this novel isn't directly related to anything Scottish. Birnam Wood is a direct-action environmentalist group, “an undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic gathering of friends,” based in Christchurch. The members of Birnam Wood have their own tensions and jealousies and differences of agenda, even before they find themselves entangled in the schemes of a Silicon Valley billionaire who's apparently doomsteading in New Zealand and preparing his bunker just outside the fictional Korowai National Park.

Very different from the other book of hers that I've read, the Booker-winning The Luminaries, but also very good.

3/26 Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop

The third Claire DeWitt novel, in which Claire attempts to solve the mystery of who she is and why her life is what it is. Is this the last Claire DeWitt novel? Not everything is neatly wrapped up, but perhaps one shouldn't expect it to be.

3/23 Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade

Near the beginning of the first book we learn that Temeraire is a Chinese dragon. Diplomatic consequences ensue, which Britain can't afford to ignore; China is rich and powerful, with more dragons in its army than all of Europe put together. A very long sea voyage on a dragon transport ship is in order.

This is the book where we first see something that becomes increasingly important as the series goes on: the very different role of dragons in different societies. In England and the rest of Europe, dragons are thought of as something like weapons or animals — intelligent animals who can talk, and who generally deserve good treatment and consideration, but certainly not full members of society. In China, by contrast, cities are built for humans and dragons to live side by side, there are traditions of architecture and fine cooking for draconic tastes, dragons can own property and sit for the Imperial examination, dragons can be generals or poets or ministers. Later in the series we see still other examples of human/dragon relations that are different from either Europe or China. Lawrence, and even more Temeraire, starts to realize that the situation in England is an injustice that needs to change.

3/23 Daniel P. Friedman and Anurag Mendhekar, The Little Learner: A Straight Line to Deep Learning

It's just what you'd think it is given the author and the title: another book in the series that begins with The Little Schemer, written in the same breezy Socratic style, but this one about machine learning. Using Scheme for machine learning is unconventional, but it's a clear exposition, and it makes clear why so much of the subject is about tensors and gradient descent.

Most of the book is easy and straightforward. The most challenging part, by far, is the two appendices on the implementation of automatic differentiation. (Remember, this is neural nets, so we're talking automatic differentiation of a complicated function in a high dimensional space.) That's the part where I'm sure things would look very different in a language like Python or C++.

The code, with instructions for running it in Racket, is available at thelittlelearner.com.

3/21 Naomi Novik, His Majesty's Dragon

Alternate history fantasy set during a different version of the Napoleonic Wars. It begins when a Royal Navy captain captures a French frigate that was carrying a dragon egg — an amazing prize since even a dragon of ordinary breed is at least the equivalent of a hundred-gun ship of the line, and, as we learn early on, Temeraire is no ordinary dragon. Naturally Captain Lawrence has to leave the Navy, and instead serve in the fight against Bonaparte as an officer of the Aerial Corps.

3/20 A. C. Grayling, The History of Philosophy

A history of philosophy written in the 21st century by a British philosopher. Mostly it's a history of the western philosophical tradition, starting with the pre-Socratics and ending with the contemporary “Analytic” and “Continental” traditions. (That division is one of the distinctive characteristics of the last few decades.) It does also include brief sections on the histories of the Indian, Chinese, and Islamic philosophical traditions. The author makes it clear in those sections that he's writing beyond the limits of his expertise, but it's still better to have them than to have just omitted those whole bodies of thought.

One of the questions with any book like this is where to draw the boundaries, since philosophy is adjacent to so many other areas of thought. The author is adamant about excluding theology, even though there were long periods when nobody would have imagined that theology was a different discipline. Similarly it's challenging to decide where to draw the line between philosophy and science, or, in the 20th century, between philosophy and mathematics. In today's world, one of the problems with an account of Continental philosophy is deciding where philosophy leaves off and sociology or history or literary criticism begins.

3/19 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 14

In which the identify of the Fourth Apostle, which is somehow related to the theme of first love, is teased but not revealed. An odd mistake that appears many times: we're told that Right Bank Bordeaux traditionally has a high percentage of Cabernet Blanc, which is very wrong. There is such a grape, but it's a recent cross and it's not used in Bordeaux. It should have said Cabernet Franc. I assume this is a mistake of the translation and that the original Japanese version got it right.

3/18 Sara Gran, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

The second Claire DeWitt novel, 21st century San Francisco neo-noir.

3/12 Nikole Hannah-Jones (ed.), The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

An expansion of the original set of essays published in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019. Like the original magazine issue, this is a collection of chapters written by different people covering different aspects of the history. Some of the essays are narrative history, some aren't. Few of them go as far back as 1619.

“Origin stories function, to a degree, as myths designed to create a shared sense of history and purpose. Nations simplify these narratives in order to unify and glorify, and these origin stories serve to illuminate how a society wants to see itself—and how it doesn't.”

You can tell a number of different truthful origin stories about any country; there's always a lot of history to choose from. This version of the United States's origin story ought to be better known than it is.

3/5 Sara Gran, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

A strange neo-noir detective story, set in a New Orleans that's just barely beginning to recover from Katrina. Claire DeWitt is, in her own assessment and apparently that of other characters, the world's greatest private investigator. Her life was changed as a girl when she read Détection by Jacques Silette, a controversial figure (among the few who have heard of him) whose version of criminology includes oracular pronouncements like “There are no coincidences. Only mysteries that haven't been solved, clues that haven't been placed. Most are blind to the language of the bird overhead, the leaf in our path, the phonographic record stuck in a groove, the unknown caller on the phone.” She was trained by Silette's former student and collaborator and lover, and her methods include drugs, dreams, and the I Ching.

The main case in this book is the disappearance and probable death of a well known DA, last seen just before the flood, but it's tied into other mysteries, like the disappearance of DeWitt's childhood best friend, and the mystery that Silette never solved, the disappearance of his own daughter.

First of a series. I'll read the rest.

2/23 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 13

If the comic is to be believed, one wine that pairs well with Korean food is a blanc de blancs Champagne. Supposedly another good choice is a red Calabrian varietal called Gaglioppo, which I've never heard of before.

2/22 Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Yes, I really do now read management books.

2/20 R. F. Kuang, Babel

I don't think that the saying “traduttore, traditore” appears as one of the epigraphs in this book, but it is about translation and betrayal. It's also about racism and colonialism, and about scholarship as a tool of empire. The author is a PhD student at Yale, and you can think of this book as a love/hate letter to academia.

All of these things exist in our world, but Babel is set in a slightly different version of the 1830s. Someone with fluency and scholarly knowledge of two languages can engrave a match pair in silver, like triacle-treacle or élan-energy or 無形-invisible. The gap between the two, the thing that can't quite be translated, can create magic. The silver industrial revolution and the scholarship of Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation — Babel Tower — has made Britain the richest and most powerful country in the world. This also means that languages like Mandarin and Sanskrit and Kreyòl are resources to be plundered by the empire, just like all the other things and people from the rest of the world.

The main character is “Robin Swift,” and we learn no other name for him; he was told that the name he was born with in Canton wouldn't do for England, and told to choose a new one. He was taken to London as a young orphan and tutored in English, Mandarin, Latin, and Greek, raised to study at Oxford and become a Babel translator. He realizes quickly what a paradise Babel is for a scholar, but it doesn't take him much longer to see some of the other things that colonialism means and to realize that he's going to have to make a choice about loyalties. The two subtitles on the title page, “The Necessity of Violence” and “An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution,” give a bit of a hint. It's a very angry book, justifiably so.

2/8 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“I wouldn't ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can't repeat the past.”
“Can't repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

2/5 Ngaio Marsh, Light Thickens

The last Inspector Alleyn novel, published 1982. It returns to the world of the stage and specifically to the Dolphin Theatre where an earlier novel was set twenty years earlier. Just before rehearsals begin, the director gives a speech to the cast against superstition: “I've directed it, in other theatres, twice—each time, I may say, successfully and without any signs of bad luck—so I don't believe in the bad-luck stories associated with it and I hope none of you do either.” But of course this is a detective story, so it isn't just Duncan and Banquo who end up murdered.

2/2 Naomi Novik, The Golden Enclaves

The first two books of the Scholomance trilogy take place in a single building, but The Golden Enclaves takes place all over the world. From the very beginning of the trilogy it's clear that the massive inequality of wizard society is deeply unjust, with enclave wizards living in safety and luxury and independent wizards desparately hoping to get a chance to become enclavers. This is the book where El gets to visit a few of the beautiful, shining enclaves, the ones in London, New York, Beijing, and Dubai, and also where she sees, as the enclavers prefer not to, what the cost is. The previous two books are pretty dark; this one is darker.

Also from the very beginning of the first book we know that when El was five, her great-great-grandmother, the world famous seer Deepthi Sharma, prophesied that El would someday bring death and destruction to all the enclaves of the world. El has always feared that prophecy, assuming that she's just one mistake away from tipping over the edge and becoming a monstrous and unstoppably powerful dark sorceress. Something that all fantasy readers know, and wizards all ought to know too, is that prophecies don't always come true the way one thinks.

1/31 Mara Bos, Rust Atomics and Locks: Low-Level Concurrency in Practice

Mostly what you'd think from the title, except it's actually even better than that. It starts with an explanation of basic Rust primitives like Arc, Cell, threads, and Mutex, then goes on to atomics and the Rust memory model, how the memory model relates to what's really going on in processors and OS kernels, and how to use low-level primitives to implement things like production-quality mutexes and condition variables and reference-counted pointers.

Highly recommended even if you're not planning to write your own lock-free algorithms in Rust (which most of us shouldn't). You should read it if you have any interest in Rust, even if you don't care about low-level concurrency, because among other things it has the best explanation I've seen for how to implement useful safe interfaces using unsafe Rust. You should also read it if you're interested in low-level concurrency in any language, even if you don't care about Rust; it has an excellent explanation of the C++ memory model.

1/31 Andrea Barrett, The Air We Breathe

A historical novel set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in upstate New York, in the days just before the United States entered WWI. A tuberculosis sanatorium in that period probably reminds you of The Magic Mountain, and yes, apparently the author was thinking of that too, but as a mirror image. This book is set in a public institution, not a luxurious Davos retreat, and the characters are working class, mostly immigrants.

1/27 Ngaio Marsh, Photo Finish

Published in 1980. The crime takes place in New Zealand and centers on a great operatic diva whose lover is said to be as rich as Onassis.

1/22 Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

Reread. One of the things that's fun about the Scholomance books is the narrator's voice. This book is funny in a dark way, partly because the horrors of the school are so over the top (usually about a quarter of the entering class survives through graduation — the rest are eaten by monsters or poisoned when they're insufficiently careful choosing their cafeteria food or blown up in alchemy lab or the like), and partly because of the way El describes them.

I gather that the usual purpose of a Field Day is to build school spirit by letting people run around doing sport in the fresh air and cheering each other on in their achievements. We don't have any fresh air or school spirit, so instead we all gather together down in the gymnasium and cheer each other on for having stayed alive long enough to experience another Field Day. Attendance is mandatory, and enforced by the cafeteria being closed all day, so the only place to get food is the buffet that gets laid on in the gym in an enormous bank of antique Automat-style cases … To add to the festive atmosphere, normally at least one or two kids get eaten on the way down to the gym, since there are enough mals out there who can remember dates and know there's going to be a buffet laid out for them along the stairs and corridors.

The other thing about El's voice that's more obvious on a rereading: she's bright and quick on the uptake, and when she puts two and two together and realizes what's going on she explains it for people like the reader who might be slower, but she isn't always right. If you've already read the whole trilogy you'll notice several places where her clear, logical, and authoritative explanations turn out to be wrong in light of later events.

1/21 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 12

What kind of wine pairs well with Korean food?

1/16 Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education

Rereading this after having read the whole Scholomance trilogy, it's interesting to see some of the hints about events that came later. Yes, it's pretty clear that the whole trajectory was well planned. One of the most striking parts is the main character's emotional trajectory: her real anger and bitterness at the realization that she's too ethical a person to make the sensible practical choices that she'd always assumed she'd make, like running away from a monster and letting the other people it's trying to eat fend for themselves, or like joining a magical enclave where she can live the rest of her life in safety and comfort.

1/15 Suzy McKee Charnas, The Vampire Tapestry

The vampire doesn't have fangs, can't turn into a bat, and doesn't wear an opera cape, even when he's attending a performance of Tosca at Santa Fe Opera. (Being a predator himself, he naturally sympathizes with Scarpia.) He's Dr. Edward Weyland, or at least that's what he's calling himself in his current incarnation: hiding in plain sight as a distinguished anthropologist, a professor first at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York and later at the University of New Mexico. As he explains in response to a question at a public lecture, pretending to be speaking hypothetically, he's just as much the product of evolution as his prey is, with nothing supernatural about him, although perhaps centuries ago, in a more credulous age, he might have believed some of the superstitions too. He tells himself that he thinks of humans only as meals, which may not be quite as true as he'd like.

The Vampire Tapestry is a series of vignettes. At first it seems more like a collection of linked stories than like a novel, but it does cohere. It's one of the best vampire novels of the 20th century.

1/13 Stephen Budiansky, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel

A biography, not an exposition of Gödel's work. It does explain why Gödel's incompleteness theorems are important, and what things like the continuum hypothesis are, and even gives a sketch of the proof of Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. Just a sketch, though. For a real understanding you'll want Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, or Nagel and Newman's Gödel's Proof, or, if you're feeling more ambitious, a textbook like Enderton's A Mathematical Introduction to Logic.

This book includes Gödel's childhood in Brünn (now Brno), his education in Vienna and membership in the Vienna Circle, his complicated marriage, the Nazi takeover of Austria and Gödel's subsequent move to Princeton, his friendships with Albert Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, and John von Neumann, the evolution of his philosophical ideas including his mathematical Platonism. The famous anecdote about Gödel getting overly excited during his US naturalization hearing is true in essence, although embellished versions are sometimes told. (He thought he had found a flaw in the constitution that would make it possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, and wanted to tell the judge about it.) This book includes Morgenstern's first-hand report of the incident.

The account is bookended by tragedies: at the beginning, the disintegration of the country of Gödel's birth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at the end, his final descent into isolation and paranoia and his death in 1978 from self-inflicted starvation.

1/13 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 11

Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Da Capo, 2000.

1/7 Mary Roach, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

The book begins by describing some pre-modern legal cases where animals were literally put on trial, but that's not the main focus of the book. It's basically about conflict between humans and non-humans: leopard attacks in North Bengal, bears in Estes Park, danger trees in British Columbia, invasive predators in New Zealand.

As with all of Mary Roach's books, this one is very funny, very digressive, and also informative. It gradually builds toward asking what a better model is for coexistence between humans and the rest of the world.

1/2 Ngaio Marsh, A Grave Mistake

One of the later Inspector Alleyn books, published 1978. That's early enough that the book mentions a translatlantic crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2, and late enough that there's another transatlantic crossing on the Concorde.

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

In which the clue to the third wine is read from Yutaka Kanzaki's will. It doesn't sound like the description of a wine at all, just a small childhood story, but Shizuku and Issei are starting on the quest.

Matt Austern