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.


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.


Waldrop, Howard. Horse of a Different Color.

East Hampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2013.

If Howard Waldrop, the Trout-Hunter, is not officially listed as a bona fide American Institution, he certainly ought to be, and any long-time attendee of ArmadilloCon can tell you why. For years, the Howard Waldrop Show at the con has been SRO, as his friends and fans hunker down to listen to him read a new story. Complete with props and often with dramatic lighting supplied by a flashlight.


Millar, Mark. Civil War.

NY: Marvel Publishing, 2007.

Like nearly every other American kid in the ’50s, I read a lot of comic books, but even then I wasn’t really into the superhero thing. (My mother tried to steer me towards the Disney mags, but I much preferred Weird Tales and Tales of the Crypt.)


Luna, Jonathan. Alex + Ada.

Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2014.

Imagine a near future where humanoid robots are ubiquitous, and they make some people nervous. And awhile back, an experimental robot achieved sentience and went on a killing spree, but Congressional legislation took care of that. (Right?)


Utley, Steven. The 400-Million-Year Itch: Silurian Tales, Vol. 1.

Greenwood, Western Australia: Ticonderoga Publications, 2012.

Steve, who died recently at a shockingly young age, was one of the best of the handful of first-rate science fiction authors whom Texas produced in the 1970s and ’80s, and whom hardly anyone except their avid fans has ever heard of. I take that back: Most of the leading literary lights of science fiction themselves had a very high regard for Mr. Utley’s work. They recognized quality when they saw it.


North, Claire. Touch.

NY: Redhook, 2015.

This author has certainly hit the big time with a bang, first with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August last year, and now this one. Both of them deal with variations on the same idea, too: The ability to survive indefinitely by escaping death. Harry August was able to go back in time and be reborn with full memories and adult knowledge of his previous lives, while the nameless narrator of Touch (whom some call Kepler) is one of a tiny, tiny fraction of the human race who can jump from one body to another — any age, any gender — simply by touching a bit of exposed flesh.


Sawyer, Robert. Illegal Alien.

NY: Ace, 1997.

I’ve read most of Sawyer’s novels over the years and the one thing they all have in common is, they’re just so . . . Canadian. Sometimes almost to the point of cliché, in his portrayal of both nice Canadians and untrustworthy Americans.


Murakami, Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart.

NY: Knopf, 2001.

Every time I pick up a Murakami novel, I know I’m about to enter a new world inhabited by new people. They’re always Japanese, but they don’t really have to be. This author’s characters could exist anywhere, with only a few cultural details being different.


Arnold, John H. History: A Very Short Introduction.

NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

It has to be a challenge to write a useful overview of a large, complex subject in 120 pages or so, but the volumes I’ve read in this series so far have managed it pretty well. But I had my doubts about history, a field in various aspects of which I have been professionally engaged for half a century. I could undoubtedly fill half this slender volume myself with just a list of subtopics of history.