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.

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Black, Benjamin. Christine Falls.

NY: Henry Holt, 2006.

For anyone who doesn’t already know, “Benjamin Black” is the nom de crime of Irish novelist John Banville, and this was his first mystery novel featuring Quirke, a decidedly quirky forensic pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s, when the Church ran absolutely everything. But even though this is a “detective story,” it’s nothing at all like what Michael Connelly or Lawrence Block might write.

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Addison, Katherine. The Goblin Emperor.

NY: Tor, 2014.

I’ve been an avid fan of all sorts of science fiction all my life but I’ve always been much pickier about fantasy. There’s a tendency to posit non-human semi-supernatural races of beings for their own sake, and to just wave a wand and say “Magic!” as a cop-out when you don’t want to have to explain something that would be counter to natural law. Tolkien has a lot to answer for in my book. I am a fan, though, of authors like Joe Abercrombie, whose fantasy worlds are more “real.” Addison (who is really Sarah Monette, and has published a number of horror and weird fantasy novels under that name) is closer to that style, and this politics-heavy yarn has a lot to recommend it.

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Corey, James S. A. Cibola Burn.

NY: Orbit Books, 2014.

This writing team has recently been turning out some of the best hell-for-leather space opera I’ve read in years, and this fourth volume in the “Expanse” series maintains both the quality and the pace. The cumulative plot has become very complex (don’t even think of starting this epic anywhere but at the beginning), and I won’t attempt to summarize what came before, but suffice it to say that the Protomolecule hasn’t disappeared. Or at least its legacy is still around.

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Yukimura, Makoto. Planetes. Vol. 2.

Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2016.

The first volume, in which we met Hachi Hoshino, orbital garbage man, and the debris-collection crew of which he is a part, was an amazing combination of plot, narrative, characterization, philosophy, and nicely done, very clean art to support it all. The overarching theme there was the preparation for the seven-year exploratory voyage to Jupiter, and Hachi’s determination to be a part of it, no matter what.

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Yukimura, Makoto. Planetes. Vol. 1.

Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 2015.

It’s 2075 and Earth orbit is just another place to earn a living. Hachirota Hoshino — known to his cohorts as “Hachimaki,” because he often wears one — has been a professional astronaut for three years now, but any lingering romance that might still attach to working in space and living on the Moon has been squelched by the fact that he’s essentially a garbage man. He’s part of the three-person crew of an old, rather junky ship that collects dead satellites, broken-off booster parts, and other debris from the orbital traffic lanes near Earth.

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Hill, Reginald. Good Morning, Midnight.

NY: HarperCollins, 2004.

I began reading my way straight through this lengthy series several years ago (this is the 21st volume) and I’ve come to greatly enjoy the gradually developing collegial relationship between Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel, the boss of Mid-Yorkshire CID, and his star subordinate, DCI Peter Pascoe, who is about as different a personality as it’s possible to be — and also the recurring supporting cast, including Sergeant Edgar Wield, the ugliest cop in Britain, who is also gay and has a memory like a computer. Other members of the team have featured in the stories over time, most recently Shirley “Ivor” Novello and “Hat” Bowler, both smart and ambitious young DCs.

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Corey, James S.A. Abaddon’s Gate.

NY: Orbit Books, 2013.

This third volume in “The Expanse” continues the frantic pace and high narrative quality of the first two. There’s been more than a thousand pages of exposition already, which makes it difficult to summarize what has come before. I’ll limit myself to saying that the alien “protomolecule” — machine or organism or whatever it is — has left Venus behind, sailed off to the orbit of Uranus, and built a vast ring, which can only be a gateway, a teleportation point to someplace far away.

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Corey, James S.A. Caliban’s War.

NY: Orbit Books, 2012.

This second volume in the space-opera series “The Expanse” is at least as good as the first. The manufactured alien life form known as the “protomolecule” has been sidetracked to Venus instead of striking Earth, thanks to the fatalistic heroism of Detective Miller of Ceres, and our neighboring planet is undergoing major changes that no one understands. Captain Jim Holden and his tiny crew, hardcore survivors all, are working their way around the system in their stolen/salvaged Martian Navy assault ship, acting as enforcers for the rebellious Outer Planets Alliance, which is now on the way to becoming an actual goverment for the Asteroid Belt.

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Cole, Allan & Chris Bunch. The Court of a Thousand Suns.

NY: Ballantine, 1985.

This is the third volume in the ongoing military career of Sten (no first name) in the service of the Eternal Emperor in the 40th Century. The first two volumes, which began with young Sten’s successful quest for revenge and his early career in the Guard and then in the super-secret Mantis Corps, were pretty good action/adventure space opera, but this effort is considerably weaker.

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