150 books

I started using this livejournal as a booklog almost a year ago. In that year I have read 150 books:

63 genre (sf or fantasy or borderline horror) novels
15 collections of genre stories (4 by single authors, 11 anthologies)
4 other short story collections (two of which included one or two stories with sfnal elements)
3 detective/mystery novels
6 “mainstream” novels
1 collection of short stories for children

(these categories do shade into each other a bit. I’ve put “Around the World in Eighty Days” as non-genre, and “The Confusion” as genre, but arguments could be made either way in both cases)

13 graphic novels (of which 9 by Neil Gaiman)

7 books about sf and fantasy literature
1 book about writing it

25 books in the biography/autobiography/history/politics area, roughly splitting as follows:
– 4 biographical or autobiographical monographs (Haradinaj, Parris, Pepys, Saki)
– 1 collection of biographical essays by different authors about the same person (Eleanor of Aquitaine)
– 1 collection of biographical essays about different people (Daily Telegraph Book of Military Obituaries)
– 2 collections of biographical trivia about US presidents
– 11 history books, of which 5 on Balkans/Caucasus, 3 on Ireland, 1 on the British Empire, plus 1 collection by Macaulay and 1 set of counterfactual essays
– 6 books on contemporary politics, 2 on 21st century US, 1 on 18th-century US (but written in 1790s so contemporary for the writer), 1 on Belgium, 1 on Britain, 1 on globalisation

(a particularly fluid category, that last; Dirk-Jan Eppink’s book on Belgium contains a lot of autobiography, and the Abbé Raynal’s reflections on the American revolution perhaps belong more to the history category, while several of the history books have such strong contemporary resonance that they would be counted as politics by some)

4 popular science or history of science, 2 maths, one physics and 1 biology

2 books on the English language

2 comedy books (one set of scripts for a stage show, and Molvania)

2 travel (not counting Molvania)
1 self-help
1 collection of random essays and fiction by Douglas Adams.

The best in each of the major categories:

Sf novels: Much enjoyed Felaheen by Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey, both third books in enjoyable series. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, as second book of two, and Dan Simmons’ Ilium, as first of two, also very impressive. Difficult to choose between those four and ‘s Singularity Sky.

Short story collections: No competition here – the Locus Awards collection is simply fantastic.

All three mystery novels I read were a bit disappointing.

In mainstream literature, I greatly enjoyed Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Seddon

All the graphic novels I read were excellent. Apart from Sandman, special mention for Persepolis and Maus.

The best book about sf I read was Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, though I also enjoyed the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction and Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion.

The Pepys biography by Claire Tomalin stands out in a strong field. In general history, Niall Ferguson’s Empire is excellent and provocative, and I found McKittrick and McVea’s Making Sense of the Troubles pretty gut-wrenching.

All six of the general politics books I read were interesting and thought-provoking. The prize perhaps goes to Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong. The others were Dirk-Jan Eppink’s Avonturen van een Nederbelg, George Monbiot’s Manifesto for a New World Order, The 9/11 Commission Report, Paxman’s The Political Animal and Raynal’s The Revolution of America.

Of the science-y books, none is especially memorable with The Measure of All Things perhaps the most engaging.

For the rest, Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry really does stand out.

In conclusion, I have to say that twelve months of keeping track of every book I read has been a very good self-discipline. I think there are fewer half-finished books hanging around the bedside table now; I think I’m reading books more carefully, with a view to saying something here about them afterwards. I doubt very much if it’s had an impact on anyone else reading this and thinking, “Gosh, liked that, I must rush out and buy it”; but at the same time I hope it’s an interesting contribution to the dialogue between author and reader that is part of what literature is about.

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Celtic New Year: Critters

Happy Samhain, to those who celebrate it.

I decided this time last year to keep a book log as a Celtic New Year resolution. It seems to have worked. So, based on that precedent, I’m making another Celtic New Year resolution now – to return to activity in Critters.

Critters is an on-line sf/f/h writers workshop. Every week you have the chance to critique a draft story by one of the other participants (or several stories, if you feel like it). The idea is that you would then use the opportunity (provided you’ve contributed three critiques for every four weeks you’ve been active) to run your own writing through the system.

Well, I’m not yet in a mental space where I’m doing much creative fiction writing, having abandoned an attempt at NaNoWriYe many months ago. However I think I can muster the ebergy to offer feedback on other people’s stories, and (as is aware) I’ve already started on this year’s resolution. Obviously the intention is that I will start trying creative writing of my own. But that can be next year’s resolution.

(And a belated grazie to , who first put me onto Critters, many years ago.)

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October Books 22) Walking the Bible

22) Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses, by Bruce Feiler

Travelogue through Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan, in the company of archaeologist Avner Goren who gets most of the best lines. It’s a very interesting exploration of the intersection between geography, history, archaeology and personal belief. Could perhaps have been a bit shorter; and I’d have got more from it if I were more familiar with the minutiae of the Pentateuch.

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Horror film meme

Your LJ Horror Movie (you are the main target in the movie) by shard_of_truth
the storyteller marykaykare
the first to get killed bring_back_food
the virgin nyphur
the one having sex when killed aynathie
the one given the “nude shot” communicator
the one given the “gory death scene” lostcarpark
the one thought of as the killer but isn’t britzkrieg
the one framed as the killer but isn’t jacobsmills
the screamer inner_storm
the humorous one leila_azziza
the killer/monster feorag
Quiz created with MemeGen!

Some of those roles seem quite appropriate – but I am not saying which!

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The new Interzone

I’ve been subscribing to Interzone for about four years now. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s the UK’s longest running professionally produced science fiction magazine, featuring four or five pieces of goodf quality short fiction every month. It introduced me to Serbian sf writer Zoran Živković and many other excellent writers; the book review section spurred me to get into some of the best genre books I have read (notably George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret HistoryAnsible.

So, after 193 issues the sole member of the founding editorial team, David Pringle, has handed over the entire magazine to Andy Cox. And, well, what a difference. The magazine just looks so much more interesting, and the eye-grabbing art on the cover is carried through and integrated onto the inside. The letters column has vanished, probably never to return, but I don’t really miss it. Langford and Lowe remain. There are new columns looking at comics and video games. And there is some really good fiction as well.

My one concern is that the book review columns only gave me the “Go out and buy that” feeling for two books, of which I already have one (River of Gods by Ian McDonald) and the other was already on my “buy on sight in paperback” list (The Iron Council by China Miéville). But as I said not long ago, I am not buying any more books for a while anyway…

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Inside the Big Tent

Took Anne’s parents and F on an excursion into Brussels yesterday to see the Pavilion Too Shocking To See and also the Big Tent, representing the Vision of Europe of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. F basically just loved the concept of running around the Big Tent and hiding under the mock summit table in the middle. But he was particularly fascinated by what to most people is the most boring exhibit – the entre 80,000 pages of the acquis communautaire, the collected body of European Union legislation, displayed on a low table all bound in a single binding. For F it was the “big big big book”. He tried to close it by getting the two end covers lifted up, but it basically isn’t possible.

The Roman exhibit in the Cinquantenaire museum was much less fun. Fortunately here is a playground beside the mosque (itself beside the Pavilion Too Shocking To See).

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We’ve had a mummy cat and four (now, sadly, three) kittens visiting our back yard for the last few months. Anne has been leaving food out for them and giving them names. She called the local cat protection people yesterday to get them trapped and spayed. So far only the friendliest of the kittens has taken the bait – so the cats are currently ahead 3-1. We’ll see if any more of them succumb to temptation today…

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October Books 21) The Golden Age

21) The Golden Age, by John C. Wright

Enjoyable space opera romp. Reminded me a bit of the setting of Wil McCarthy’s The Collapsium but I thought this was better. Took a few chapters to get into and understand what was going on, and I was worried at first that I was going to repeat my C.J. Cherryh experience, but in fact by the end all had become clear despite the superhuman transcendent intelligences who play a major part in the action and it seems well set up for the next volume – also on my “to read” pile but some way down.

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And another thing

I meant to list also books I’ve read in the last year by people I know. Books edited or written by lj’ers on my friends list include (obviously) Wondrous Beginnings edited by and Singularity Sky by . Apart from them, Chris Stephen (Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic) and Anatol Lieven (America Right or Wrong) are friends from the political/journalism world, and Rebecca Levene (Strontium Dog: Bad Timing) was a friend at college though I’ve lost touch with her since. There are maybe a dozen others who I have at least chatted with, exchanged one or two emails with, or persuaded to autograph books, in particular four authors who I enjoyed hanging out with at last year’s P-Con – Ken MacLeod, Juliet McKenna, Jim Hogan and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. It’s all part of the dialogue between reader and writer…

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October Books 20) Wondrous Beginnings

20) Wondrous Beginnings, edited by and Martin H Greenberg

Nice idea, getting the first published story of numerous well-known sf authors – to be specific, Murray Leinster, L Sprague de Camp, Anne McCaffrey, Hal Clement, Arthur C Clarke and so on, and publishing it in an anthology together with an introduction by the author in question (or in one case from his daughter). The stories are a bit variable in quality, but less than one might have thought, and the autobiographical material from each author more than makes up for it, especially for those who have since died (de Camp and Clement).

I did wonder what the rationale for choosing particular authors was. Why Clarke, but not Asimov or Heinlein? Why include authors as recent as Catherine Asaro (first story published 1993), Michael Burstein (1995), Julie Czerneda (1997)? And there’s a definite leaning towards the hard end of the sf spectrum. None of these are necessarily bad things but it would have enlightened me if the editors had explained them. As it is the choice looks a little strange – and why is the Ann McCaffrey story apparently out of the order-of-initial-publication sequence that seems to link the rest?

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October Books 19) Fermat’s Last Theorem

19) Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Simon Singh

My “to-read” pile is so huge that I’m not allowed to buy any more books until Christmas. That is, books for me; buying for other family members is OK. Anyway, I found this in the pile left over from my summer purchases and got through it reasonably quickly. It’s the story of mathematician Andrew Wiles and his predecessors in the solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem, the proposition that

a^n + b^n = c^n

has no solution for n>2 and a,b,c > 0. To be honest I was a little disappointed in this best-seller. Having a doctorate in HPS I expect a little more social grit with my history of mathematical Great Men (and, surprisingly, a couple of women in this case). As a former Cambridge astrophysics student I like a little more maths with my accounts of what they did – contrast here the Sarah Flannery In Code book. And as a Clare graduate myself, I was frankly mystified that the college where Wiles actually did his doctorate and where his father was Dean is not even named – the only college that is actually name-checked is Emmanuel, where his supervisor was a Fellow. So I’m glad I bought it second hand, rather than new, and it didn’t really enlighten me much more about any of my own occasional speculations into number theory.

I guess it’s pretty certain that Fermat was wrong. His “wonderful proof” which was too small to fit in the margin cannot possibly have included the work of any of the dozens of later mathematicians drawn on by Wiles to compile his eventual paper of more than 100 pages. So presumably he had found what he thought was a proof, but because he never shared it with anyone in his lifetime, he never discovered that it was unsound.

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That’s a relief

My trip to Dublin next week has been cancelled. Sorry not to be seeing any of you guys, but at the same time I’ve been travelling far too much recently and need to spend a nice few days in Brussels catching up. Lesson is: don’t take on commitments when you don’t feel completely whole-hearted about fulfilling them.

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October Books 18) Around the World in Eighty Days

18) Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

After watching the dismal Steve Coogan/Jackie Chan film on the plane a couple of weeks ago, I realised I had the novel on my PDA and decided to re-read it. And, well, it’s good. There’s a little bit of the nerdishness recently satirised here, in that every means of transport is described in total detail. There are one and a half total implausibilities in the plot. But basically, this is a story of its time, full of the new wonders available in 1872 – the Suez Canal had been open for only three years, so had the rail link across the United States,and of course the whole point of the book is that the railway across India opened only that year. And this is an India only fifteen years on from the 1857 Mutiny – as far as we are from the fall of Communism; a Japan that has just experienced the Meiji restoration; a United States recovering from the Civil War, and doing its best to deal with the Mormons. And of course this is written by an author whose own native France has been devastated by a catastrophic military defeat the previous year, and is a determined attempt to look outwards and forwards.

The half implausibility I mentioned above is this. The whole basis of the story is that as a result of the trans-Indian railway being completed, our hero, Phileas Fogg, makes a bet that he can go around the world in eighty days. Well, when he gets to India, it turns out the railway hasn’t been completed; and he has to complete the rest of the journey by elephant, rescuing the beautiful Aouda on the way. Now come on; the whole basis of the bet was that the railway was there, and surely the gap between Kholby and Allahabad is sufficient cause to call the bet off?

The complete and total implausibility is the punchline of the entire book, where we are asked to believe that in the course of 26 days travel between the International Date Line and London, none of our leading characters had actually checked the date and realised that they were a day ahead of themselves. So they saw no newspapers and experienced no weekends in America or between Cork and Dublin or Liverpool and London; and the schedule of steamers in New York and railways in Ireland and England was utterly insensitive to the day of the week? Come off it! Of course the plot simply doesn’t work unless you are prepared to overlook this gaping hole in it, and most people do.

And how come all the bells in London strike at ten to nine anyway? Philip José Farmer had an explanation of this in The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, an otherwise completely forgettable effort. Apart from the points noted above, this is really fun and everyone should read it.

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Public notice

If you are one of those people who occasionally skims my livejournal because you know me in real life, sign up for an account and I’ll put you on my friends list so you can read (some) locked entries.

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The worst book I ever read

Andrei Vassilov, unaeded [sic] and alone in the snowy night, had to get inside those forbidding and forbidden walls. Past the guards, and that death dealing electronic fence, across the mine field and the icy moat with its poison spikes, and into the castle itself. Even if he got inside the awesome fortress, could he hope to get out alive?

Extract found on line for The Secret Circle: Operation Royal Family, published 1974. The castle is in northern England, and holds the secret of Adolf Hitler’s true relationship with the British royals. And no, Andrei doesn’t get out alive. I lost my copy many years ago; I occasionally look out for a new one, but it’s not a priority.

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October Books 17) Pilgrim’s Progress

17) The Pilgrim’s Progress From this World to that which is to come, by John Bunyan

Huckleberry Finn says of this book that “The statements was interesting, but tough”, which I think is fair. Several things struck me – the unattractiveness of the main character, Christian, who wilfully abandons his family, and having lost his first travelling companion Faithful by gruesome means then becomes a know-all to his new friend Hopeful; the fact that the metaphors and allegory are about as subtle as a brick (actually, a brick is more subtle – perhaps “as subtle as a Vogon Constructor Fleet” is the simile I am looking for); the fact that when you think you’re finished the book it then turns out that his wife Christiana and four sons are going to do the same journey; the repeated use of prisons (as Anne said, write about what you know) and capital punishment; and the fact that the main characters are happy to drink wine without threat of eternal damnation, something that many of the book’s greatest fans today would probably disagree with.

I don’t think many people actually do finish the book. Perhaps its most best known image is the Slough of Despond, which is actually described in less than a page in its first appearance (page 31 in my edition). Vanity Fair, while a great name for a town, seems to change out of all recognition between Christian’s visit and Christiana’s. And their children get married off with rather indecent haste.

Two final thoughts. First, the opening poem says some interesting and almost charming things about writing (as well as of course reflecting the writer’s views on other matters); I think it’s rather nice.

When at the first I took my pen in hand
Thus for to write, I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode; nay, I had undertook
To make another; which, when almost done,
Before I was aware, I this begun.


Well, so I did; but yet I did not think
To shew to all the world my pen and ink
In such a mode; I only thought to make
I knew not what; nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour: no, not I;
I did it my own self to gratify.

And my second, much naughtier final thought is this: I kept on reading the dialogues between Christian and Hopeful/Faithful, and wondering what a skilled fic-writer like or or could make of that relationship. Ladies, if any of you chooses to try this one, I look forward to finding out…

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Major triumph for democracy

I know hardly any of you care about this, but I do passionately:

British Columbia is having a referendum on the Single Transferable Vote!!!

Good for BC. Enlightened on gay marriages, and now also on electoral systems.

(Not quite true to say that it’s a “first for Canada” – well, maybe having a referendum is, but a couple of the provinces used variations of STV at some point in the past.)

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