Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.


Anvil, Christopher. Pandora’s Planet.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

Anvil never really hit the big time, but he was a popular author in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was a regular contributor to ANALOG. His signature style was wry and ironic observations and commentary about those irritating humans, and this novel (his third) is filled with that sort of thing. It’s an original on the “invasion of Earth” theme, in that the Centrans (who somewhat resemble humanoid lions) conquer our planet — but just barely.


Asimov, Isaac. Pebble in the Sky.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950.

I believe this book was my introduction to Isaac Asimov, so I must have read it around 1954 — the same period during which I was discovering Heinlein and Simak and Groff Conklin’s fat anthologies of short stories by every important writer of the period. More than six decades later, I’m pleased to find that the story holds up quite well.


Cherryh, C. J. Visitor.

NY: DAW, 2016.

This is the seventeenth volume in the "Foreigner" saga — and “saga” is definitely the word. Cherryh is famous for (among other things) her skills at world-building and in creating multidimensional alien beings and their cultures, and to my mind this epic is her masterwork.


Johnson, Marilyn. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rabble.

NY: HarperCollins, 2014.

I’ve been an archaeology junkie all my life, starting with my reading of Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology in 5th Grade many years ago. The summer after my freshman year in college, I was an unpaid volunteer for the National Park Service’s Missouri Valley Basin Project on the upper Great Plains — which mostly meant holding a surveyor’s rod steady, but I loved being associated with the guys who were searching for Indian hunting sites.


Clarke, Arthur C. Expedition to Earth.

NY: Ballantine, 1953.

Along with Heinlein and Asimov, Clarke is considered one of the Big Three of the Golden Age of science fiction. He was just as much a geek as the other two, but his literary style was rather more subtle, which made him a favorite (along with Ray Bradbury) with those who didn’t want to admit they read “that sci-fi stuff.” And after six decades, his books and stories are still well worth reading. They haven’t “aged out,” even if space ships don’t have radio tubes.


Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller.

Dragon in Exile. NY: Baen, 2015.

These two authors’ series of space operas — 18 novels so far and a couple dozen short stories — have been remarkably successful, considering they had to spend some time in the purgatory of self-publishing. They’re set a number of centuries in the future and mostly involve the very wealthy, highly formalized trading world of Liad — and especially the members of the frequently dangerous Clan Korval, “the Tree and Dragon.”


Cherryh, C. J. Tracker.

NY: DAW, 2015.

This is No. 16 in the “Foreigner” series — make that saga — so it’s the first of a new three-book arc in what is now a nearly 6,000-page continuous narrative. It picks up within days of where Peacemaker left off, with the cleansing of the atevi Assassins Guild and the return of Cajeiri’s three young human associates back up to the space station after a lengthy visit to the planet — and their first-ever experience of grass and trees and rocks. The atevi don’t have “friendship,” or even “loyalty,” exactly.


Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves.

NY: Morrow, 2015.

I read a great deal, well more than a hundred books a year, and by a large number of authors. Neal Stephenson, though, is one of a very short list of “automatic” authors for me, and has been since the appearance of Snow Crash in 1992. When I discover he has a new book coming out, I order it. I don’t even bother with reviews. Anything Neal writes, I want to read. And I’ve never been disappointed. It sometimes takes me awhile to figure out where he’s going with a narrative, what exactly it is that he thinks needs saying, but I always get there. And you sometimes have to be patient. The “Baroque Cycle” took me a couple years to work through, in thoughtful bites and chewing slowly. But it’s always worth the effort and the journey. His latest epic, Seveneves, definitely confirms that judgment.


Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert. Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction.

NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

I’m becoming quite attached to this series of brief overviews (100-120 pages) of important topics in Western culture, from Roman Britain and Mormonism to racism and medical ethics. There are more than three hundred now, many of them the work of recognized experts, and of the dozen or so I’ve read, only one has failed to impress me. Not a bad average at all.