Dec 08 2019

Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Of the predecessor to Seven Surrenders, Too Like the Lightning, I wrote that Palmer directly tackles the problem of how different far-future humans will be from present-day people. As Mycroft Canner, her unreliable narrator, says near that book’s beginning, “You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. … It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.” (Too Like the Lightning, p. 7)

Seven Surrenders

The people of four hundred years hence are both familiar and strange; the future, too, is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. One thing that the people of the future largely thought they did not do was sanction violence to uphold the systems of their societies. They thought that such things had been dispensed with after the final wars of religion. The Hive system of choosable law and government, at once cornerstone and keystone of the current Enlightenment, were meant to preserve autonomy and bring the benefits of plenty to all of humanity.

Seven Surrenders picks up immediately from the end of Too Like the Lightning and shows, among other things, the violence inherent in the system. Not only has the present peace been a masquerade, some key people have been preparing to win, and perhaps even instigate, a new war. By the end of the book’s tumultuous events, each of the seven Hives has surrendered an important part of its autonomy and self-understanding. The introduction promises that the present order does not hold, although that transformation has to await The Will to Battle and the forthcoming Perhaps the Stars, which complete Palmer’s Terra Ignota series.

Although Seven Surrenders is also a middle book, it concludes the first part of the set, and contains transformations of its own thus avoiding some of the typical middle-book problems. The world is familiar enough from Too Like the Lightning, so the reader spends less time figuring out the world and more time seeing it develop and change. The sprawling cast of characters is likewise familiar, so it is simpler to follow their metamorphoses. And there are plenty of those, with many new connections revealed, alliances broken, and reversals suffered. It isn’t the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.

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Dec 07 2019

Luna by Ian McDonald

Several months after finishing Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy — Luna: New Moon, Luna: Wolf Moon, and Luna: Moon Rising — the two things that have stuck with me the most are the scale of the achievement and the vividness of so many scenes throughout the books. McDonald has brought a great deal of life to a dead world, given it firm ground to take root in, and set loose epic conflicts among larger-than-life personalities.

Luna New Moon

The moon has been colonized for decades, long enough for a substantial society to have been set up, with cultures and fashion and divergence from the mother world, but recent enough that the moderately extended lives of the founding generation are just nearing their ends as McDonald’s story begins. Or rather, some of those lives are nearing their ends; many more ended earlier in accidents or conflicts among the families who have come to dominate lunar society. The moon remains a harsh mistress, with missteps, mayhem, or radiation bringing many lives to premature ends. Nevertheless, people emigrate willingly to the moon. Wages there are fantastic, and opportunities in many earthside societies are even more limited in the future than they are in the present.

Luna’s main export to Terra is helium-3. In McDonald’s setting, fusion is no longer fifteen years in the future, as it has been on earth for the last forty years, but has become humanity’s main power source. Helium from the lunar regolith keeps the lights lit on humanity’s home planet. Much of the moon is a mining operation, and the rivalries among mining clans drive much of the conflict in the extended story.

McDonald opens his tale with a new rite of passage: a moon-run. Naked, exposed in the vacuum on the lunar surface. Twenty meters, ten strides for the six young people first crammed into a capsule and then dashing across the dust and rock to the safety of the next airlock. They are golden youth of Luna’s leading families: a Corta from the helium masters; two Asamoahs, Luna’s life-givers; a Mackenzie, the metal miners; a Sun of trade; and a Vorontsov from the controllers of the routes between earth and moon. These families are the Five Dragons of the moon, clans in constant intrigue, competition, enmity and alliance. They also draw on five earthside cultures reflecting their origins. The Cortas are from Brazil, Mackenzies from Australia, Asamoahs from Ghana, Suns from China and Vorontsovs from Russia. During the moon-run, one of the Asamoahs stumbles, a potentially fatal error. Lucasinho Corta risks his own life by helping his fellow runner to make it to the second gate safely. The obligations thus incurred will ripple throughout the story.

Luna Wolf Moon

For his second scene, McDonald moves to the opposite end of the lunar hierarchy. Marina Calzaghe is new to the moon, and her life is precarious. The Four Elementals — water, space, data, and air — are closely monitored, and nothing is free. Marina has quarters near the surface, where radiation can more readily penetrate than to the deeper homes of the wealthy, and work has been scarce so she has had to dial back her breathing to an uncomfortable level.

Contrasts established, McDonald brings the opposites together, begins to introduce his sprawling cast, and lets the clans pick up their conflicts that had been held in abeyance. Marina gets hired by the Cortas as part of the catering staff for a party, and her combination of previous training, good reflexes, and earthside strength undimmed by long tenure on the moon prevent the assassination of the Corta heir. From that moment, the action seldom slows, though sometimes various characters try to channel the conflict into less overtly deadly forms. On the other hand, with the moon set up as something of a libertarian utopia — there is no criminal law, and everything is negotiable under contract law, with trial by combat as a final resort — that is a purely relative matter. And even with a significant settled population on the moon and decades of experience maintaining habitats and vehicles, death by misadventure and vacuum is never far away.

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Dec 06 2019

Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen by Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow

The series introduction to Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen (Herr Dame’s Notebooks) calls it “the key novel about the Bohemian scene in Schwabing around 1900″ and the volume’s introduction notes that in it Reventlow worked through some of her experiences with the “Cosmic” circle that included writers and artists such as Stefan George (the only name I recognized), Karl Wolfskehl, Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler. The introduction matches characters from the book with the real people who were their models, so presumably the connections are obvious.

Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen

The Notebooks are framed by a story, which is set up as a direct address to the “friend and connoisseur” who receives a packet containing the Notebooks, of a brief shipboard acquaintance with Herr Dame (his surname means the same in German as it does in English) who had written down his impressions during an intense time in Munich but who had since left it forever. Having left everything behind, he was keen to dispose of the manuscript, leaving it with the authors of the frame story. Shortly after departing from the ship, he departed from life itself, perishing in a train wreck. The authors of the frame ask whether Dame’s diaries and sketches form a document humain (French in the original) and a suitable memorial for the engaging young man.

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Dec 03 2019

1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

1968 by Mark Kurlansky

Ok, boomer.

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Nov 30 2019

A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Taylor

A Symphony of Echoes is every bit as fun as Just One Damned Thing After Another, the first book chronicling the adventures of the historians of St Mary’s Institute, who definitely do not travel through time. No indeed, they investigate major historical events in contemporary time. Which is how the first quarter of the book takes Dr Madeleine Maxwell, the first-person narrator, to Whitechapel on a cold November night in 1888 for a look at the investigation into Jack the Ripper that turns out to be entirely too close for comfort.

A Symphony of Echoes

One disaster is hardly averted before the next one strikes: someone has absconded with the chief of St Mary’s technical section. Leon Farrell is not just crucial to the Institute’s operations, he’s from the future (long story) and he’s Maxwell’s sweetheart (shorter story). Evidence points toward cross-temporal enemies from the first book who are trying to set up a more profit-driven version of historical research and who would be happy to put St Mary’s out of the competition. Permanently and with extreme prejudice.

These developments send Maxwell up and down the timeline to save her love and her institute, keep History from unraveling, and bring a few dodos to the future (not necessarily in that order). Worse yet, she may be condemned to spend some time as management.

Along the way, the historians spend some time in the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh and the court of Mary Queen of Scots. They are perpetually a hair’s breadth from calamity, and the pace of the story never flags. Having pulled out all the stops in Just One Damned Thing After Another, Taylor only puts a few of them back in for the second volume. Fewer characters get killed along the way, and I wonder whether the series will begin to develop a redshirt problem as it goes on, or whether Taylor will find more non-fatal ways to put her characters in danger. She’s definitely not going to give them a quiet life of perusing manuscripts, going to academic conferences, and pursuing methodological feuds. Especially since the next volume promises a visit to the Trojan War.

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Nov 27 2019

An Interview With Lauren Duca, author of How To Start A Revolution

I was super excited to get a chance to chat with Lauren Duca, the witty, outspoken and occasionally controversial author of How To Start A Revolution, an accessible guide to fostering greater political engagement that’s also a brilliant look at the present-day alienation of the American voter. We talked about her book, politics, David Sedaris and what she’s reading today, among other subjects.


Let’s talk about How To Start A Revolution, which was probably my favorite political book of the year. What made you decide that you needed to write a book to further the cause of progressive politics considering that you already do so much with your articles, TV appearances and tweets? Why was a book so attractive to you?

Lauren: I went through this political awakening with Trump’s election, and it suddenly made no sense to be writing about anything other than politics. Freelancing is such a difficult feast-or-famine struggle, and it’s hard to find regular work writing about politics in what is pretty obviously a boys’ club of expertise. So I figured I would shoot my shot and I put together a plan for researching and reporting kind of ten different angles for how we had gotten to the dumpster fire of Trump’s election. Basically, my ask was “please let me spend all my time on this and just let me pay my rent and healthcare.” The sample chapter of that book proposal was my piece, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.

I’m really glad you decided to shoot your shot! How did How To Start A Revolution evolve from where the idea first germinated in your head?

How To Start A Revolution by Lauren DucaWhen Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America took off in Teen Vogue, it started the conversation about disinformation coming out of the White House, but also whether or not young women care about politics. There was kind of this patronizing contemplation of that because just the idea of the article being in Teen Vogue was apparently very surprising to some old white men in media. I started to think about the ways in which young people’s political participation or lack thereof is framed as a matter of not caring. I had just undergone this political awakening and I knew that my experience wasn’t that I didn’t care before. I was socially justice minded and interested in the grand project of equality, but I just did not have the sense of agency and self-determination in terms of traditional politics. I felt as if government was something that was happening to me. That’s what became the foundation for unpacking the difference between alienation and apathy, and trying to provide pathways for people to have this “click” moment of understanding that we are the ones that must be doing the work of democracy. The fact that we’re not isn’t a matter of laziness but of a system that boxes out our voices and doesn’t invite us to the table, and then chastises us for not showing up.

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Nov 26 2019

More Becoming by Michelle Obama

“Becoming Us,” the second part of Michelle Obama’s memoir tells how two very different people, two nearly polar opposite people in fact, came not only to love and cherish one another but to build a life and a partnership that would work from Chicago to the whole world.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

One of their first social functions together, a non-date, was an outing to Les Misérables with other lawyers where they are both working, he as a summer associate and she as a full-time attorney.

… I spent the next hour feeling helplessly pounded by French misery. … Millions of people around the world had fallen love with this musical, but I squirmed in my seat, trying to rise above the inexplicable torment I felt every time the melody repeated.
When the lights went up for intermission, I stole a glance at Barack. He was slumped down, with his right elbow on the armrest and index finger resting on his forehead, his expression unreadable.
“What’d you think?” I said.
He gave me a sideways look. “Horrible, right?”
I laughed, relieved that he felt the same way.
Barack sat up in his seat. “What if we got out of here?” he said. “We could just leave”
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bolt. I wasn’t that sort of person. I cared too much what the other lawyers thought of me—what they’d think if they spotted our empty seats. I cared too much, in general, about finishing what I’d started, about seeing every last little thing through to the absolute heart-stopping end … This, unfortunately, was the box checker in me. I endured misery for the sake of appearances. But now, it seemed, I’d joined up with someone who did not. (p. 104)

In Barack’s books, he writes about how, in addition to Michelle’s personal qualities, she gave him an extended Black American family, a sense of connection different from what he had grown up with. Not least, she has a father who is very present in her life and very supporting. (He’s also a little skeptical of Barack.) In Becoming, Michelle writes about what he added to her life, what he brought that she needed without having fully realized that she did.

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Nov 18 2019

The Spider Dance by Nick Setchfield

I love it when the second book in a series is better than its predecessor. And make no mistake, this is not a standalone novel, despite the odd lack of signalling otherwise. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t start with Nick Setchfield’s The War In The Dark, which sets the scene for why our 1960s spy Christopher Winter is, in this book, working as a hired thug for London mobsters after his none-too-gracious parting of ways from British Intelligence. A transaction gone wrong sees him back in contact with the SIS, however, who require his services once more. Seems an Italian spy working behind the Iron Curtain has requested extraction to the west, and has specifically asked for Winter. Well, not technically: she’s specifically asked for whom Winter used to be.

The Spider Dance by Nick SetchfieldWinter thought he’d left that all behind, but several factors, including a lack of gainful employment, persuade him to go undercover once more to help Alessandra Moltini escape. Aided by one of the service’s first female field agents, the utterly charming Libby Cracknell, he travels to Hungary and meets Alessandra, then things quickly go haywire. Double-crossed and forced to flee for Vienna, Alessandra brings the trio to her own masters, who set them on a chase through Europe to take down one of the most powerful figures of a rival establishment, mightier even than the SIS.

Standard spy stuff, deftly handled, but with an added twist: Alessandra is a demon who knew Winter when he was a death-dealing sorcerer, and needs his help in a game between ancient inhuman races jockeying for power over the mortal world. Mr Setchfield takes all the terrific stuff from his first novel — occult world-building, stylish espionage with a side of Bourne Identity amnesia — and adds greater depth in this follow up. I cared about the characters this time around, felt invested in their goals. I’m still kinda mad about the one death! The only thing I did want to see in this book that wasn’t there was Karina, but I’m hoping she shows up again in future novels. This was great stuff, and I’m only hoping Mr Setchfield continues to get better and better.

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Nov 17 2019

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

If Legacy of Ashes were a record album, Tim Weiner would surely have titled it The CIA’s Greatest Shits. As it is, the subtitle is The History of the CIA, which is a misnomer right off the bat because it’s a history and not the history, and as a history it’s mostly a litany of the CIA’s continuous selection of errors, both tactical and strategic. The title itself is not from Weiner, but rather from Dwight Eisenhower, assessing his efforts over two complete presidential terms to mold the Central Intelligence Agency into a useful tool for a democratic nation. Every president who followed would have similar experiences with the CIA, and only the first president Bush, who had taken on the thankless job of CIA director during the Ford administration, appears to have had a decent relationship with the Agency during his term of office.

Legacy of Ashes

The problems are structural, and to an extent known to any ruler who has ever had a spy agency. The spies’ stock in trade is deceit, and over time they often deceive not only their adversaries but their putative masters. All too often, in Weiner’s account, American spies deceived themselves as well. At times, it was lies all the way down: CIA directors deceiving Congress and presidents, heads of covert action deceiving directors, station chief deceiving both local ambassadors and headquarters, and certainly field agents deceiving nearly everyone they interacted with.

Other problems are particular to the CIA and the American intelligence community. In Weiner’s telling, the deep rivalry between the CIA’s analytical and operational parts has hampered the Agency’s functioning from its very beginning. Presidents theoretically want the most accurate assessments possible of America’s foreign enemies and competitors; again theoretically that should come from the CIA’s analytical side, drawing on information and resources from across the American intelligence community. In practice, though, the covert action side of the Agency has often commanded the lion’s share of the CIA’s resources, including the favor of leadership. When 90 percent of an organization’s resources are devoted to one approach, the other is bound to suffer.

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Nov 12 2019

Süden und der Strassenbahntrinker by Friedrich Ani

Tabor Süden works for the Munich police in the missing persons bureau. One day, a man turns up in their offices and says he is back, they don’t need to look for him anymore. Problem is, no one had reported him missing. That would be odd, but relatively easy to dismiss except that over the next few days, he keeps coming back and says the same thing. Then, when he gets up from a conversation that he had been having in the main train station with Süden and a colleague, he socks a passing woman on the jaw and disappears into the city. What is going on?

Süden und der Straßenbahntrinker

That’s what Süden sets out to discover, although technically speaking he is on vacation that week. He interviews people acquainted with the man, Jeremias Holzapfel, and the story makes less and less sense at each turn. Someone else is living in the apartment where he is registered; is Holzapfel’s ex-wife involved in a tax dodge? Why did Holzapfel turn up at an old lover’s apartment and steal a whole new outfit? What is happening with Holzapfel’s current girlfriend? And where was he, during the four years that he says he was away? What has happened to someone who was once a trusted voice in local radio and a fixture on local stages?

This is the fifth of Ani’s novels to feature Süden, a series that now runs to around 20 volumes. (It’s the only one I have read, and I came to it through “München erlesen,” the Süddeutche Zeitung‘s series of 20 books in and about Munich.) In Süden und der Strassenbahntrinker (Süden and the Man Who Drinks on the Streetcar), Süden is forty-four, and slightly disreputable for a policeman. He’s not set on climbing the career ladder, he resists new technology — I presume the book is set at the time of publication, 2002, when mobile phones were common but smartphones not yet on the market — and he gets much closer to his witnesses than I would think is good policing practice. He’s an interesting first-person narrator to spend time with, aware of his faults but also not really trying to fix them. One of the things that pulls him into the Holzapfel case is that during one of their conversations, Süden tells the unmissing man something he hadn’t even told his closest colleagues on the force. What is it about this odd character that prompted such a reaction from Süden?

The case drives the brief (155 pages) novel, but it is also, after a fashion, irrelevant. Some of the most important actions revolve around other members of the missing persons bureau, and what is going on in their lives. Ani also takes care to show that just because a case is at the center of the book, it is not the only, or perhaps even the most important case in the office at that moment. Other colleagues are working on the disappearance of some young girls, and the head of the bureau does not understand why Süden is spending his time on Holzapfel, especially since he is supposed to be on annual leave anyway. He’s even less understanding of Süden volunteering his time for the homicide bureau when a corpse turns up.

Ani shows a Munich that’s rougher than the “lederhosen and laptop” image of Munich in the early 2000s, though definitely a city that I recognize from living there at that time. It has left behind the desperate years of Tauben im Gras or Schellingstraße 48, although one of the characters’ recollections of wartime and the immediate post-war years links the prosperous present to the hardscrabble past.

Süden und der Strassenbahntrinker is a solid police procedural, and if I read more of those I would probably read more of Ani’s work. As far as I can tell, only one of his works has been translated into English. That’s The Nameless Day, and it belongs to another series.

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