Saturday, January 01, 2022

Books read 2021

I’d decided to read fewer books in 2021 than in 2018-20, partly because I wanted to read more articles. And so it was, with 38 books read this year. They’re from all over the place, with a resurgence of fantasy and sci-fi.

Robert Jackson Bennett, Foundryside

This fantasy adventure is fun enough, and reminiscent of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other book of his I’ve read, the fantastic City of Stairs, however. The first part of the book comes across as almost procedural, with some jarring turns of phrase, and the setting isn’t hugely original - aside from “scriving”, the magic-technology concept that really sets this world-building apart from others. Some of the characters, such as the protagonist Sancia, are engagingly written, but others, such as Orso, seem underdeveloped given their role in the latter half of the book.

Artūras Ratkus, The Adjective Inflection in Gothic and Early Germanic: Structure and Development

A re-read of this PhD thesis. On the issue of which Greek Bible version to compare with the Gothic for linguistic purposes, this ought to be virtually required reading. The artroid hypothesis in chapter 5 is also extremely cool, and useful for some of my current research; chapter 4 contains much justified criticism of attempts to shoehorn early Germanic languages into a typological straitjacket. I’m less convinced by the usefulness of canonicity either as a descriptive tool or as a diachronically explanatory principle. But there’s no doubt that this is excellent research.

Private Eye Annual 2020

Maybe it’s just me but even the humour of this awful year seems to have been somewhat subdued. Still funny though.

Phil Torres, Were the great tragedies of history “mere ripples”? The case against longtermism

This is a minibook of 42 pages including front and end matter, so a bit of a cheat. But it’s a powerful read. Anyone who’s tempted by the seductive rhetoric of Nick Bostrom and colleagues’ “longtermist” ideology ought to read this and consider whether they’re willing to subscribe to a framework that licenses horrific atrocities in the name of the unknown mass of people who have not yet been born. It’s written by someone who’s become disillusioned with that framework after spending much time working in it, and hence has a virtually unparalleled overview of the relevant issues.

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record

I don’t know what I was expecting from this book, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be this good. Snowden writes lucidly and powerfully and gives the impression of an extremely principled yet thoughtful man. It’s fun for me to read the autobiography of a millennial – probably the first time I’ve done so, and there’s much I can relate to in his treatment of the early internet and the possibilities it afforded. And towards the end of the book it “reads like a literary thriller”, as the NYT puts it. Snowden also doesn’t sugar-coat more obnoxious figures in his general movement: Julian Assange is described as “self-interested and vain, moody, and even bullying”, regardless of his self-image, and Glenn Greenwald is really only mentioned in passing – one gets the impression Snowden’s trying to distance himself from him. In comparison, Laura Poitras and Sarah Harrison in particular get more positive write-ups.

Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower

In many ways this brings together bits of other fantasy series I’ve been reading recently. The idea of language directly shaping reality is also found in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, the economics of godhood (and the mystery element) is central to Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, and the ancient narrator focusing on a protagonist in the second person is a key part of N. K. Jemisin’s trilogy. This book caused none of the confusion I encountered with Ancillary Justice, and was a very compelling read, especially towards the end. It also has a protagonist who’s a trans man, respectfully dealt with as far as I am able to judge, and not in a way that overshadows the book’s many other selling points. A good read.

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War

More of a young adult book than most of what I read, the 500+ pages of this one absolutely zoom by. It’s hard to describe it as anything other than a somewhat darker, Chinese-themed Harry Potter - at least in the first half. The allusions to Chinese history and culture are unmistakable even to a HSK 3 n00b like myself - in fact, I wonder if they might not get too grating for those who know more. But it’s a fantastically readable book.

Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself

Epic fantasy again, and this one has all the usual ingredients: intrigue, an ensemble cast, magic, impending invasions, etc. etc. It was an enjoyable read but I didn’t love it, perhaps because the overall narrative structure is so heavily skewed towards introducing the characters and settings: it’s very clearly written as the first book of a series, and hardly works at all as a standalone novel, despite its 500+ pages of length. There are also far too many paragraphs that begin with the word “Shit!”. I might enjoy this one more as a TV series, though then you’d miss out on a lot of what’s going on in Logen’s and particularly Glokta’s heads.

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

This one was recommended to me as fantasy, but I wouldn’t call it that. The sole fantastical element is that the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is a “sharer” who feels others’ emotions. Otherwise the book is a combination of a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale and a road novel. In the former dimension, it hits harder than anything I’ve read in that vein - perhaps because of how intensely personal it is, particularly in the first half of the novel. Would like to read more. Fortunately there is more.

George Monbiot, How did we get into this mess?

I still don’t know how we got into this mess, but this is a fine set of essays by one of the best journalists out there (even if he is something of an egotist). Ranges from farming subsidies to ecofascism to niche backroom dealings. Don’t read it if you don’t  want to be angry.

Lucy Holland, Sistersong

Follows three siblings in the England of late antiquity, with magic, romance and intrigue. The second fantasy novel I’ve read this year to have a trans protagonist (and it’s hard not to read Keyne/Constantine as the protagonist, despite the narration being split with the two sisters), though unlike in The Raven Tower the issue is much more central to the story here. Also features Gildas as resident grump and magician-in-denial. This is a much more well-rounded work than the Worldmaker Trilogy by the same author. I would have liked to hear more about what was going on with Os - perhaps I was missing something obvious, though.

Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education

This book was a slow starter for me - the protagonist isn’t immediately likeable and there was a lot of exposition. That said, I think it’s one of my favourite books this year so far, on balance - the vertiginous hypervigilance and quirky protagonist make it stand out from the crowd. Again, there are Harry Potter similarities, but with everyone paranoid (and rightly so). I’ve wondered for a while what genuinely millennial fantasy might look like. With its pessimistic focus on social inequalities and omnipresent anxiety and self-examination, this might just be it, even though Novik herself isn’t a millennial.

Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem

This book is about nineteenth-century British cities, especially those outside London. It does occasionally veer into the dry and long-winded, but on the whole Hunt is an adept and engaging writer, and I learned a lot.

Tim Clare, The Ice House

Exciting, cerebral modern fantasy. It’s a sequel (which I didn’t know before I picked it up) so I wasn’t always sure what was going on, but it roared along, especially in the second half. Occasionally the flowery prose descriptions come across as trying too hard, but it also makes a change to read a fantasy writer whose style is more than workmanlike.

Hajo Holborn, A history of modern Germany, vol. 1: The Reformation

It’s been nearly twenty years since I last (and first) read this book, and a lot’s happened to me since then, so I have a very different perspective on it now. It’s still a very useful overview of the main religious and political developments in what is now Germany from the fifteenth century to the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know how many of his conclusions have held up in detail (the book was written in the 1950s), but one thing that stands out is the occasional reference to German national unity, as if this is a notion that can be taken for granted even in this period - occasionally even to something that approximates German national character. Holborn is definitively not a Nazi - he fled the country in the 1930s to get away from them - but his scholarship is still shaped by the context in which Nazism was able to take root, I guess, one in which nationalism was taken as something quite natural and unavoidable. The other thing that’s missing from this book is any sense of what life would have been like for an ordinary person - the focus is entirely on big-picture political and intellectual (and occasionally economic) movements, aside from the occasional mention of the absolutely horrific effects on the peasantry of the rise of professional mercenary armies in the early seventeenth century.

Adam Ledgeway, From Latin to Romance

This is an inspiringly erudite and wide-ranging book, but at the same time curiously divided. Chapters 3 and 4 explore an account involving the rise of functional structure, while chapter 5 presents a completely different Minimalist, cartographic, Kaynean account. The subsequent chapters 6 and 7 make reference to both types of account, so that it’s as if the author wants to have his cake and eat it. That’s hardly a comfortable situation. Are the two types of account notational variants? If not, which is right?

Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Broken Realms: Teclis

In some ways this feels like the army book we should have had last summer. The narrative part is fun, and a whole host of new units are added, including many which will make the Lumineth seem much more familiar to an old-school High Elf player like me: Bladelords (swordmasters), Starshard Ballistae (repeater bolt throwers), army standard bearers, standalone mage and mounted heroes, and more. There are some newer, more creative elements too: the Hurakan, air elementals and their elfy friends, which appeal to me a lot more than the earth-oriented Alarith. And as always the book is beautifully produced.

Josh Reynolds, Plague Garden

An Age of Sigmar novel, by probably the best Black Library author out there. I’m not a huge fan of the Stormcast Eternals - too preachy and po-faced, and a bit too much like the Space Marines that always turned me off the 40k setting. And this one is no literary masterpiece - more like one extended four-hundred-page battle scene. But it’s exciting and easy to read, and even made me sympathize with some of the Stormcast characters.

Ece Temelkuran, How to lose a country: the seven steps from democracy to dictatorship

In this book Temelkuran, an exile from Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, outlines the warning signs for the rise of a populist fascist state. Occasionally the writing deviates into a somewhat self-congratulatory pessimism (“I called it!”), which is pretty distasteful to me, to be honest. And not everything is as well connected narratively as it could be. Still, this is a useful checklist; the next thing to watch for in the UK is the attempt to police what the ideal citizen should look like, especially for women.

Leigh Bardugo, The Ninth House

I read this after enjoying the Grishaverse adaptation on Netflix. This is decidedly darker, and reminds me of Lev Grossman’s Magicians (which I’ve only seen the series of). Set at Yale, it’s all about magic, secret societies, and a murder mystery. All fairly standard stuff, but well done.

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London

Two urban fantasy/crime crossovers one after the other! This one reads like good Neil Gaiman fan fiction. It’s cool but not hugely coherent, and contains some edgy moments that border on the offensive. The two main storylines don’t really tie into each other very well.

Rachel Hendery, Relative clauses in time and space

An impressive book, and relevant to various bits of my current research. It’s made all the more impressive by the fact that it was originally a PhD thesis. The game plan is to establish a whole new research field: diachronic typology (basically, the intersection of typology and historical linguistics). The book is eclectic and cheerfully mixes abstract generative analyses with Givón-style functionalism and grammaticalization theory.

Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland

A timely discussion of how empire has shaped almost everything in Britain, with catalogues of inconceivable atrocities. Sanghera clearly wants to avoid being seen as the “woke elite”, so there are points where I think he verges into some uncomfortable middle-groundism. But that’s understandable in view of his desire to reach people and to open up the empire conversation: he’s adamant that it should be taught more in schools, and I agree (perhaps at the expense of the Tudors).

Max Adams, The First Kingdom

Another in the series of popular history books by Max Adams, this time focusing on the period of the adventus saxonum, 4th-7th centuries. It’s a tricky subject to make accessible, and to my mind Adams doesn’t really succeed - at least not to the same level as he does in The King in the North and Ælfred’s Britain. There’s no thread of narrative running through the book, and a lot of archaeological detail of the kind I don’t really enjoy. All of which is to say that it’s probably an accurate book rather than an entertaining one, and it does seem well-informed by recent and less recent research.

Mareike Keller, Code-switching: unifying contemporary and historical perspectives

A neat little book of not quite 100 pages that applies structural approaches to code-switching to historical data. Well argued and nicely written.

Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz

Enjoyable post-apocalyptic craziness. If there’s much of a deeper message I missed it, though.

Carola Trips, From OV to VO in Early Middle English

An extremely interesting work - the author’s PhD thesis. Subsequent reviews and discussions have been quite critical, but the actual perspective here is more nuanced than those discussions usually allow. There is high-level syntactic discussion here, and original empirical work on the Ormulum, making the case for Scandinavian influence. Unfortunately there are also many, many typos and other minor errors - Benjamins’ copy-editing and proofreading seems to have been nonexistent.

Alice Roberts, Ancestors: a history of Britain in seven burials

For someone who isn’t interested in archaeology, I sure seem to spend plenty of time reading about it. Roberts does a good job of conveying the excitement of archaeological discoveries, though I think she’s overstating the transformative potential of ancient DNA studies somewhat. And the most annoying part of the book is the humanist evangelizing in the final chapter.

Zen Cho, Black Water Sister

Urban fantasy set in Malaysia. Lively and personal - a different spin on ghosts and gods than what most of the literature has to offer. Notable is the use of Manglish for some of the characters’ speech.

Fran Colman, The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon England

I was expecting something philological. This book is that, but it’s also a dense web of theoretical linguistic argumentation of a kind I’ve never seen, and very difficult to follow, shifting from criticizing one perspective to criticizing another, with hefty amounts of citations of John M. Anderson. The linguistic diagrams were not followable for me. The discussion of weak adjectives and the -n exponent was interesting, but I fear that most people aiming to obtain a better understanding of Old English names by reading this book will come away disappointed.

Heather Rogers, Green Gone Wrong

A book about the pluses and minuses of current greenness. A variety of case studies go into it: Rogers is almost breathlessly positive about some developments (e.g. green living arrangements) while utterly damning about others (especially crop-based biofuels, but also the current organic movement and carbon offsetting). Not so much a coherent manifesto as a report on the state of various things.

Charles N. Li & Sandra Thompson, Mandarin Chinese: a functional reference grammar

A useful and insightful descriptive grammar of one of the world’s most-spoken languages.

Kwame Ture & Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The politics of liberation in America

It beats me why this book and this movement were ever considered divisive - everything in here ranges from commonsensical to very insightful. I was reading it mainly as part of a search for the historical roots of the concept of institutional racism, but ended up learning more about the history of mid-20th-century American racial politics than I thought I would.

Max Egremont, Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia

Through a series of interwoven vignettes of figures from the area, this book presents the history of East Prussia during the 20th century - an area I didn’t know much about, but which, like many areas adjacent to present-day Germany, have a history that can’t easily be reduced to one nation-state and one language. Dry in parts but moving in others.

Verena Schröter, Null subjects in Englishes

Much of the recent variationist work on null subjects has been somewhat dismissive of generative proposals even while mischaracterizing them. Schröter’s book is a welcome exception. She draws on a variety of traditions, though her own method is variationist, and conducts new empirical work on British English as well as Indian, Hong Kong and Singapore English. The results are unlikely to convince anyone that British English is a true null subject language in the generative sense, even on their own merits: outside coordination contexts, subjects are overt 97.88% of the time, and over 99% outside declarative main clauses. Indian and Hong Kong English do not show much more; Singapore English is out in front, with only 89.09% of subjects overt outside coordination contexts, and more examples in questions in particular. The lack of theoretical framework beyond logistic regression and fairly informal post hoc explanation for differences in constraint ranking is a bit disappointing, though by no means untypical for this sort of work. Still, it’s a valuable contribution to the literature.

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies

Mantel’s Cromwell saga plods on, this time dealing with the fall of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell himself has the opportunity to get revenge on the plotters against Wolsey in the guise of bringing down Anne and her alleged lovers, while Mantel has the opportunity to continue her weird pronoun use (“X”, he said; he, Cromwell). A slow read with some well-crafted dialogue.

Stephen Booth, Scared to Live

A crime novel set in the Peak District, where I grew up! It’s distinctly odd to see the trivialities of youthful life in that area (“the Pav”, Hulley’s buses, Gulliver’s Kingdom…) featured in print. I suppose this is what Londoners feel all the time. It’s mostly well-crafted, though it goes in a completely unexpected direction from about halfway through, and the dénouement feels very unsatisfyingly rushed.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart

This novel follows Salim, a Muslim who grows up in Tanzania and studies in London. There are some good postcolonial quotables, but I felt the narrative was too predictable at several key points to be truly powerful. Then again, perhaps that was the intention.