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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Rankin, Ian. Flashmarket Alley.

NY: Little, Brown, 2004.

Like most police procedural mystery novels that are written as part of a series, this fifteenth story about DI John Rebus of Edinburgh combines a well-written and complicated multi-thread plot about murder with an investigation of current problems and issues — specifically, this time, illegal immigrants and people-smuggling in Scotland.

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Knight, Damon. A for Anything.

NY: Avon, 1980

Almost all science fiction novels are built, explicitly or implicitly, around the question, “What if.” What if we could fly to the Moon? What if there are other people out there? What if we could go back in time? Damon Knight, one of the most inventive authors of the second half of the 20th century, starts this one with “What if you could have any physical item you wanted just by flipping a switch?”

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Kent, Alexander. Richard Bolitho, Midshipman.

NY: Putnam, 1975.

Kent’s lengthy Royal Navy adventure series about Richard Bolitho is quite good (with one or two egregious exceptions), and this is the first installment by internal chronology. It’s 1772 and the sixteen-year-old Bolitho has already had four years’ experience at sea. It’s been pretty quiet, though, since Britain is temporarily at peace.

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Pratchett, Terry. Snuff.

NY: HarperCollins, 2011.

Sam Vines is a city-born-and-bred copper (he’s also Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Sir Samuel Vines the Duke of Ankh, and Blackboard Monitor Vimes) and he gets a bit panicky when Lady Sybil, his adored wife, insists he get out into the country for a holiday. And their son, Young Sam, is six now and needs to make the acquaintance of the large estate which he will one day inherit. Even Lord Vetinari the Patrician agrees, which leaves Vimes feeling a bit betrayed, but off they go. He’s supposed to leave his job firmly behind, but that’s not something he’s quite capable of. And, as he knows well, any copper can find a crime anywhere if he looks hard enough.

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Turtledove, Harry. The Guns of the South.

NY: Ballantine, 1992.

I read this above-average alternate history novel when it was first published and I was impressed. I knew who the author was via his several earlier Byzantine-themed stories, which I thought were pretty good (possibly because I had some background in the history of that period), but this was his first novel in a comparatively modern setting. It was also, I believe, his first real commercial success. Unfortunately, it kind of went to his head.

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Baker, Kage. The House of the Stag.

NY: Tor, 2008.

This is the second volume of the fantasy trilogy that began with The Anvil of the World, and it’s a far better book. It’s also not a sequel but a sort of prequel, and you still must have read the first book or you’ll miss the import of nine-tenths of what’s going on in this one. Every world, real or fictional, includes “furniture” — the history, cultural evolution, mythology, and religion that provide the background to present-day life.

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Fraser, George MacDonald. Flash for Freedom!

NY: Knopf, 1972.

Having recently returned from his stint as the fake consort to the ruler of a German dukedom, and having survived a series of encounters with the young Bismarck (a truly vicious bastard), Capt. Harry Flashman is back in London and taking it easy. He’s playing cards one evening at a country house (in a company including Benjamin Disraeli, no less) when he’s set up by an old enemy with a grudge (which Flashman brought on himself, as he usually does) — and suddenly he’s accused of cheating and of attempting to murder his accuser.

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