Susan’s Picks from 2014

I feel terrible for only squeezing in 27 books this year, a new low for me, but considering I wrote or edited three books in between, I don’t feel so bad. I am an unforgivable nerd, wallowing in science, history, psychology, and biography to the point I read almost no fiction at all anymore. I feel bad when people ask me to recommend something and I have no clue what to offer because the last really good book I read was on the histology of Ebola, or they’re looking for romance recommendations and my idea of a great romance is the novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here are the best and worst I read this year, not counting a reread of Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, which I love so much I gave out ten copies at Christmas:

Jacket.aspxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox. Fox covers the work by Michael Ventris, who eventually untangled the mystery of the early Greek/Mycenean Linear B glyphs, but spends much of the book discussing Alice Kober’s work, so much of it uncredited yet without which Ventris would not have succeeded. When Kober – who spent the majority of her life working on the syllabary – dies just a year before the pieces fall into place, you want to cry for her. If you love a good detective novel – this is a true story that shook the history world. (I warned you about the nerdism).

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. An incredible book about the decay of Detroit, a city so far gone America has forgotten it exists, while the people still try to survive in a place without – well, anything. No jobs, no police, no grocery stores, and most recently, no water. Made me incredibly angry to see America left to rot like this.


WJacket.aspxho Discovered America? by Gavin Menzies. Ever read a book that makes you feel like you woke up on an alien world, that everything you were ever told about history was wrong? This book takes Thor Heyerdahl to a whole new level, pointing out overwhelming scientific evidence that Asian, African, and European peoples were routinely coming to America long before Columbus was born. Utterly fascinating. Even if Menzies is only 10% right, it still changes everything we know about history. Easy to read, and you won’t be able to put it down.


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in Northern Korea, by Barbara Demick. This book is so touching and so sad, you cannot help but be moved by people who have so little control over their lives that even their food and clothing is doled out by the government, and if they say you will starve, then you starve, because they will not give you more. People risking death to swim to China, or pay for an underground railroad to South Korea, where they have extreme culture shock that defies the propaganda they have been fed for generations. Hate the leader, but love the people. I love Gavin Menzies, but I think this gets my vote for Best Book of the Year.

deafI Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language, by Lydia Denworth. Denworth’s youngest son is born profoundly deaf; this is her story not only of trying to decide how to educate him (as a lip-reader, a signer, or hearing w/ a cochlear implant). Interspersed with her journey is the science behind hearing and language, and the history of deafness, and it is utterly fascinating how much hearing and learning are interconnected, and why many deaf people never read beyond a fourth-grade level.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John LeCarré. I needed to read a couple of spy novels as research for a book I was writing. Every list I looked at said this was the best. I have no doubt they are right. A spy novel that will keep you guessing until the very end, it makes James Bond look like a pampered fool. Very British, but very, very good.


boyWorst book I read this year? There were a couple of stinkers, but I think the worst I read was The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood, by Roger Rosenblatt. I don’t care how many awards he’s gotten. I almost never abandon a book half-way through, but I just couldn’t finish this. It has a boy, and he’s in New York, but the rest is just a single run-on sentence of chapterless rambling. You know how your brain wanders foggy from topic to topic when you’re lying in bed half asleep? That’s this book. I read some clunkers, but I made it to the end of them. This one I couldn’t get past 50 pages. No, thank you.


What did you like/dislike this year?

Susan Reads: The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Every now and then a book comes along and all you can say is, “WOW!”

That’s my reaction to The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox.

Ever hear of the minotaur, the half-man, half bull that lived in the center of the labyrinth, built by King Minos on ancient Crete?  As with most myths, this was one of those partly based on fact.  There was a palace of Knossos, on ancient Crete (which lies in the middle of the Mediterranean), and there was a King Minos, although the name seems to have been a general title, not a specific person. His palace was huge, hundreds of rooms built, well, in a maze-like fashion. For reasons unknown, the palace burned down sometime between 1450 and 1400 BCE, or about 3400 years ago, and that marked the end of the great Minoan civilization. And this we know for fact because Arthur Evans dug up the palace in Heraklion, Crete, in 1900.

And he found a storeroom.

With more than 2000 written clay tablets, baked by fire, still sitting there.

But what script was it? It wasn’t Egyptian hieroglyphics. It wasn’t Phoenician. It was too old for Ancient Greek. Unraveling the mystery would shed light on Bronze-age European civilization.  Scholars worked on it for years, including one Antiquities professor of Brooklyn College, Alice Kober. Kober, with incredible intelligence, scientific method, and a knack for languages that was almost frightening, through extreme perseverance managed to work out the basics, realizing that the mysterious language – known as Linear B – was written left to right, had different endings for masculine and feminine, and was a syllabary – a language where each symbol (read ‘letter’, if you wish) stood for a syllable of a word, not an individual letter, much like Japanese kana does. Kober poured her life into decoding the script. She came very close, but died before she could finish it.

Enter Michael Ventris, a quirky little upstart twenty years younger, a lonely child prodigy who, like Kober, mastered languages the way a sponge absorbs water (because everyone should know ancient Hittite and Etruscan). Ventris had been intrigued by Linear B since he was 14, if not outright obsessed.  Untrained (he went to a trade school to become an architect, but never took a college class at all), he corresponded with some of the greatest scholars of ancient civilizations, read Kober’s papers, put ideas together, sometimes wrong but sometimes right, and just 18 months – 18 heartbreaking months after Kober’s death, broke through the code of Linear B – a writing system native to Crete, but bent to write an ancient Greek dialect 400 years older than Greek was thought to be. The discoveries of other, similar tablets also written in Linear B on the mainland of Greece and surrounding territories corroborated the information. A whole new era in historical understanding was broken open, and the timeline for civilization had to be pushed back to accommodate it.

This book reads like a fascinating detective novel.  I could not put it down.  It’s like watching the film of Titanic – you know the ending, but you’re gripping your seat the entire time anyway. Fox’s style is extremely easy to follow and to read – she drops little hints about what’s to come and then speeds ahead, and you can’t stop reading.  If you love ancient history, if you love languages, cryptology, biographies of women in science or just a really good story, then read this book. It was truly a pleasure to read it.