Books acquired in January

Wild Life by Molly Gloss
Doctor Who: Ten Little Aliens by Steve Cole
Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century by Matt Hills
Juba Arabic – English Dictionary, by Ian Smith and Morris T. Ama
Moon Stallion by Brian Hayles
Argonautica by Valerius Flaccus
Southern Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonoured by Abel Alier
Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth
Doctor Who Annual 1968
War of Visions: Conflicts of Identities in the Sudan by Francis Mading Deng
Faust (Part I) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Doctor Who: Prisoner of the Daleks by Trevor Baxendale
Return of the Living Dad by Kate Orman
The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong
Transition by Iain Banks
Travel Green Thailand by Richard Werly
Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiating History by Michalis Stavrou Michael
Elizabeth’s Irish Wars by Cyril Falls

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January Books

Non-fiction: 8

Fiction (non-sf): 7

SF (non-Who): 10

Doctor Who: 5

5/30 by women (Rendell, Austen, Orman, Blackman, Le Guin)
4/30 by PoC (Blackman, anonymous Confucian sages, Ama, Alier)
12/30 owned for more than a year (The Uplift War [reread], Ta Hsüeh and Chung Yung, The Wheel of Engaged Buddhism, Year’s Best SF 8, Irish Tales of Terror, The Two Faces of Islam, Cat’s Cradle: Times Crucible, Let It Bleed, Vampire Science, Mortal Causes, Thirteen Steps Down, Holy Disorders, The Wandering Fire)
1 other reread (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), total 2/30
page-count ~8400 (allowing for the fact that I didn’t read all the explanatory material of Ta Hsüeh and Chung Yung, and only the front and back matter of the Juba Arabic English Dictionary)

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Doctor Who Rewatch: 05

I was deeply irritated to discover that a draft I had written of this post mysteriously got deleted after I had rewatched (and written up) 23 episodes of the 26 covered here. But sometimes that is the way the cookie crumbles. The thoughts below are therefore not quite as spontaneous, or as long, as I would have liked. But I hope they will be mildly entertaining.

I am a real fan of The Savages, which is a rare case of Hartnell-era Who taking a standard sfnal plot and getting it right. The Doctor is a heroic, mythic figure to the Elders who have been following him for a long time; but he is also a heroic figure for us, standing up for Good against Evil even at the cost of his own vital essence. Indeed, the nastiness of the Elders is rather scary; a combination of Plato and Mengele. Note also Frederick Jaeger’s brilliant performance as Jano when possessed by the essence of the First Doctor. And the incidental music is superb, and Steven gets a decent sendoff. Poor Dodo is crying her eyes out.

Steven has now seen off Barbara, Vicki, Katarina, Sara Kingdom, and leaves only two episodes before Dodo. It must have been a bit frustrating for Purves being essentially Hartnell’s straight man, and I can also see why the new production team wanted a male companion who was less of a blank slate – I think we know less about Steven’s background than any other companion of the black and white era. His finest moment comes when he is on his own in The Massacre (and I’m sure he was totally bonking Anne Chaplette, and her [their?] descendant Dodo too).

I knew Purves when I was a child from his long years on Blue Peter, and remember being stunned to discover that he had been a Doctor Who companion. His restrained but dramatic tones illustrate the audio releases of his (sadly many) lost stories, and he did an early and good Companion Chronicle for Big Finish, set in the Napoleonic wars.

Incidentally, I am keeping a running tally of things still in the Tardis somewhere: the Fifth Key of Marinus, Susan’s other shoe, and Hi-Fi, Steven’s cuddly panda.

The War Machines is another great story. Good heavens, the First Doctor, of all Doctors, in a London night club? I think his only successor to venture to such a place is Nine, and that is during the Blitz. Indeed this is one of the most New Who-like stories, with an sfnal threat in contemporary London, and Kenneth Kendall performing a role taken by Andrew Marr in Aliens of London.

The theme of technology being misused is shared with the previous story; so is the Doctor being a known quanitity, who can just turn up with some companion to crash on Sir Charles’ spare bed. The plot is good and Hartnell in his element (likewise all three companions). The DVD extras point out that James Cameron uses the what-if-WOTAN-won scenario for the future in the Terminator films, and presumably this is the most likely source for a Canadian lad in the late 60s. Shame that the War Machines themselves are a bit rubbish, and Dodo deserved a better sendoff.

Speaking of which, I have already written a lot (probably far too much) about Dodo Chaplet. I think I must revise my opinion of Jackie Lane’s acting skills upwards, having now watched all her stories in sequence; she is no Jean Marsh or Anneke Wills, but she sometimes rises above the material (and lack of direction) and is lovely and cuddly with both Hartnell and Purves. She is far from being the Worst Companion Of All Time. (Kamelion, anyone? Adric? Jo Grant? Victoria? Ace?) Dodo gets a rather tragic post-Tardis story in David Bishop’s Who Killed Kennedy? which at least gives her a better send-off than she was given on TV.

The Smugglers is also particularly hampered now by the loss of the visuals – the very few surviving clips make it look like this was a beautifully shot and directed story, and there is a long fight sequence in the last episode which we can now only guess at. The script is a bit lame, but has the peculiar supernatural incidents of Ben and Polly practicing witchcraft and the Doctor indulging in cartomancy, demonstrating Brian Hayles’ interest in the supernatural which was to come to fruition in Moon Stallion. I note also Paul Whitsun-Jones as the Squire playing almost the same role as in The Mutants several years later.

There are two things everyone knows about The Tenth Planet, but before I discuss them I will just mention that a) it is a much more chromatic story than we have ever had (excepting perhaps Marco Polo) with a Caribbean astronaut and a silent bloke in Geneva in an African garment; b) it loses marks for having no visible women apart from Polly and another Geneva-based operative who gets about two lines; c) once again the Doctor appears as a repository of mythic knowledge (we never see exactly what he writes down about the appearance of Mondas); d) the Z-Bomb plot of episode 3 is a bit out of left field but actually carries through the theme of misused technology rather well, from Mondas to Earth and the Cold War; and e) Robert Beatty smashes up a Belfast pub run by William Hartnell in Carol Reed’s film Odd Man Out, so Hartnell returns the favour here by bringing chaos to Beatty’s Antarctic base.

The second thing everyone knows about The Tenth Planet is that it is the first Cyberman story. There is only one better Cyberman story in the whole of Old and New Who (Tomb of the Cybermen, of course). The idea of people who have removed everything that made them people is an audacious one, and the unearthly voices and excellent music make it unforgettable. It is also the first “base under siege” story, and one of the best of that sub-genre. I am not at all surprised that it topped my recent poll of most eagerly anticipated DVD releases.

The first thing that everyone knows about The Tenth Planet is that it is William Hartnell’s last hurrah. In the first two episodes and the surviving clips from the last one he seems to be on top form, enjoying it through to the end. That final surviving clip of him approaching the camera and telling us that it is not all over is very spooky indeed. And then he falls to the floor, and his face shimmers and changes, and goodness, Doctor Who has died and been replaced by someone else. I found it pretty shocking after I first watched The Tenth Planet on its own, but now after 28 (or 29) stories and 134 episodes, it comes as a huge disorientation: the Doctor has gone.

There are some who feel that Hartnell actually Wasn’t Very Good. I would strongly contest that viewpoint. I will admit that he fluffs his lines more than would be acceptable today (probably more than was really acceptable even back then), and occasionally resorts to comic chortles and sniffs (though usually to cover a bad script). But he creates the Doctor as an alien unknowable character, in a way that only Tom Baker and Christopher Ecclestone after him achieved.

It also surely must be admitted that the First Doctor is the only one pre-2005 who actually gets any character development at all. As remarked above, at the beginning he is an obscure and somewhat cynical outsider, brought into local disputes by accidents of transportation; by the end he is an insider of heroic inclination – he is known by the Elders and Sir Charles Summers, who won’t let the villagers be massacred by the pirates, who knows the secret of Mondas. He has also cast aside his links with his own past – Susan left on the post-Dalek Earth, the Monk abandoned on a hostile planet. He has changed, and the nature of the story changes with him.

I have a piece brewing in my head about Shakespeare and Doctor Who, and just wanted to respond to a comment I saw somewhere comparing the Doctor – specifically, the First Doctor – to Prospero. There are huge and insuperable differences, it seems to me. Prospero is not a traveller; he is a sorcerous despot. He is not a righter of wrongs; he intimidates both locals and visitors in order to set his daughter up with the right man. At the end, Prospero gives it all up for an honourable retirement; but the Doctor simply becomes someone else. I will admit that they are both somewhat magical; but (to pick two that come to mind) Gandalf is rather more closely related to Ogion than Prospero to the First Doctor, and even that is not very close.

I have the unfashionable view that The Power of the Daleks is the better of the two Troughton stories featuring the malignant pepperpots. It’s a story about identity and motivations, with the new Doctor trying to establish the same confidence with his companions that the Daleks are attempting with the human colony on Vulcan, each of them masquerading (as the Examiner, and as servants, respectively). There are several very impressive performances here: Robert James as deluded Lesterson, moving from naïve credulity to horror at the magnitude of his mistake; Bernard Archard as the ambitious Bragen, nine years before he returned as Marcus Scarman, once again a human who dooms himself by trying to cut a deal with destructive alien forces; Pamela Ann Davy as Janley, an unusually strong female part for the era; and most of all, Peter Hawkins given far more than usual to do as the Daleks pretend to be servile.

This is also of course Troughton’s debut, and although Ben and Polly may not be sure who he is, we the audience are left in no doubt; partly from the way he dominates as an actor, but also by the fact that we are reassured in non-verbal ways by the way in which it is directed. Yet this is a new Doctor, brave but also terrified, fighting the Daleks not from outrage but from fear, while tootling on his recorder and wearing a funny hat. The programme is going in a new direction.

After all that, The Highlanders is a bit of a shift backwards. It is essentially a standard Who plot – Doctor and companions land, get separated and variously captured by the bad guys and need rescuing, and leave again – but set in the eighteenth century, and really, now that Who has found its sfnal soul, it seems pointless to do this without aliens or mad scientists, or preferably both. Having said that, there are some good bits – Hannah Gordon before she made the big time as Kirsty, Polly using her feminine wiles, the Doctor playing with identities again. But they take the rather thick young piper with then for some reason at the end. I wonder how long he will last?

This is the first run of stories where the historicals are noticeably weaker than the sfnals, The Smugglers and The Highlanders both being rather forgettable. Clearly the Lloyd / Davis team had little interest in continuing the sub-genre, and it’s not surprising that The Highlanders is the last of its kind.

A final point – I am nearly at the end of the longest continuous gap in the video record – from the last episode of The Tenth Planet to the second of The Underwater Menace inclusive, a baker’s dozen – and it is pretty infuriating. What a shame it is that the BBC threw so much work away.

< An Unearthly Child – The Aztecs | The Sensorites – The Romans | The Web Planet – Galaxy 4 | Mission To The Unknown – The Gunfighters | The Savages – The Highlanders | The Underwater Menace – Tomb of the Cybermen | The Abominable Snowmen – The Wheel In Space | The Dominators – The Space Pirates | The War Games – Terror of the Autons | The Mind of Evil – The Curse of Peladon | The Sea Devils – Frontier in Space | Planet of the Daleks – The Monster of Peladon | Planet of the Spiders – Revenge of the Cybermen | Terror of the Zygons – The Seeds of Doom | The Masque of Mandragora – The Talons of Weng-Chiang | Horror of Fang Rock – The Invasion of Time | The Ribos Operation – The Armageddon Factor | Destiny of the Daleks – Shada | The Leisure Hive – The Keeper of Traken | Logopolis – The Visitation | Black Orchid – Mawdryn Undead | Terminus – The Awakening | Frontios – Attack of the Cybermen | Vengeance on Varos – In A Fix With Sontarans | The Mysterious Planet – Paradise Towers | Delta and the Bannermen – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy | Battlefield – The TV Movie >

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January Books 29) Juba Arabic – English Dictionary, by Ian Smith and Morris T. Ama

I got home to find this waiting for me (would have been nice if it had arrived before I went to Juba) and skimmed through it to get the most important points. Juba Arabic is used as a lingua franca across Southern Sudan (where the official language is [sometimes] English, and most speak their own tribal language). I haven’t as yet particularly felt the lack of it in Juba itself, where I stay at an Ethiopian hotel and hire a Kenyan driver, but making the effort is important.

From Smith and Ama’s account, it is a pretty simple language (like most creole languages) but has some interesting twists, like interrogatives going at the end of questions (“You did what?” “We are going where?”) and surviving without infinitives (“It is good to eat” “Food is good”). I know that some of you are interested in language construction – this seemed to me an interesting example of a language constructed over the last 200 years of Arab-speakers’ influence on the region.

Particularly useful – a section listing and explaining traditional foods, though it might not have killed the authors to provide the correct English names of the various types of fish and vegetables rather than just describing them. I was particularly amused that the samak yabis from Bor are named after the former political leader Abel Alier, while those from Nimule are named for his rival Lagu.

The book is also aimed at Juba Arabic speakers who want to improve their English. The very first sentence provided for them is the translation of the Juba Arabic Human azib-o lehaadi huwa worii le-oman sir: “They tortured him until he told them the secret”. I winced when I saw that, but then realised that in fact it is illustrating subtleties of translation of the verb azibu, which has a rather less dramatic meaning in the sentence Kelib de gi-azib ana: “That dog is bothering me”. I guess context is everything.

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January Books 28) Ta Hsüeh and Chung Yung

This is the Penguin edition of two of the Four Books of Confucian learning, their titles respectively translated as The Highest Order of Cultivation and On the Practice of the Mean. It is a bit of a shame that Penguin chose to stick to the old Wade-Giles transliteration; in the pin-yin more often used today the titles are Daxue and Zhongyong. (Or to be pedantic, 大學 and 中庸.) Although the two books are mercifully short, I found their conservative, paternalistic world view unappealing; a society built on this philosophy could easily become stagnated. I don’t have much knowledge of China, and this was probably not a good place to start broadening it (and perhaps it would have been better if not on an intercontinental red-eye at the time).

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Keiko Tobe, 1957-2010

Sorry to read of the death of Keiko Tobe, author of the With the Light series whose first volume I greatly enjoyed and whose second and third volumes are waiting on the shelf for me when I get home. (I don’t have any more details apart from that link; if you can read Japanese there is probably more available by googling for 戸部けいこ.)

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January Books 26) The Language of the Night, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book has been strongly recommended to me for years, and I am glad I finally obtained it and read it. It is a collection of Le Guin’s writings about sf and fantasy, almost all from 1973 to 1978 (one piece on Philip K. Dick dates from 1967), originally published in 1979 and revised for a 1989 edition. It is all fascinating stuff, with the standout essay being “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”, which describes the rhetorical style of good (as opposed to bad) fantasy, and also includes the memorable line, “they are not only crazy but Welsh”.

The other particularly remarkable piece is her 1988 fisking of her own 1976 essay, “Is Gender Necessary?”, where she critiques her earlier defence of The Left Hand of Darkness, admitting that from a feminist perspective the book is not a success, and concluding that “women were justified in asking more courage of me and a more rigorous thinking-through of implications”.

I am writing this in transit and may return to it for further thoughts if I have the opportunity, but meanwhile thanks to those (namely here and here).

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

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January Books 25) Short Trips [19]: Dalek Empire, edited by Nicholas Briggs with Simon Guerrier

In an agony of indecision before Christmas when Big Finish announced that they would stop not only publishing but even selling their Short Trips anthologies, I bought half a dozen of them (based on a combination of reported scarcity and LibraryThing ratings) of which this is the first in sequence. It’s a bit variable, to be honest; I was not blown away by the three Dalek Empire series of audio plays, and about half of these stories are explicit tie-ins to it (and it also includes the script for the Seventh Doctor crossover into that series, “Return of the Daleks”, which has a rather implausible though well-conveyed denouement). The standout pieces for me were Simon Guerrier’s “The Eighth Wonder of the World” (despite its unexpected revelation that Evelyn Smythe is an archaeologist as well as a historian) and James Swallow’s “Museum Peace”, which I already knew as it was released as a Big Finish audio freebie late last year.

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January Books 24) Let It Bleed, by Ian Rankin

Another good one from Rankin, where three bizarre suicides unlock a festering mess of corruption and evil within the Edinburgh political scene. I was not quite convinced that as smart a guy as Inpector Rebus should have so little knowledge of the way the Scottish political system works, even in the obscure days before 1999, but I suppose this was a bit of “as-you-know-Bob” for Rankin’s wider readership. There are some memorably horrible moments as well involving the Scottish weather, and the gruesome fate of Lucky the cat.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton

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January Books 23) The Turing Test, by Chris Beckett

As a fan of Beckett’s stories back when I still read Interzone (must pick that up again) and a booster of his first novel, The Holy Machine, I was delighted to hear that this collection had won a major prize, and made sure to get my hands on a copy. As I had hoped and expected, it is very good; I like Beckett’s writing for the same reason I like Brian Aldiss, that very English way of looking askance at the world as it is and as it could be. Particular gems here include the fading provincial horrors of “Monsters”, “Karel’s Prayer” which is a Philip K. Dick piece for our times, and “The Marriage of Sky and Sea” whose unpleasant protagonist gets exactly what he asks for. There’s also a flattering introduction by Alastair Reynolds. Well worth hunting down.

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Linkspam for 27-1-2010

  • The only hope you have of ever seeing another pay raise is if Congress passes health care reform. Without health care reform, the increasing cost of your health insurance will swallow this year’s raise. And next year’s raise. And pretty soon it won’t stop with just your raise. Without health care reform, the increasing cost of your health insurance will start making your pay go down.
    (tags: ushealth)
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January Books 22) Wooden Heart, by Martin Day

A decent story of the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones landing on an apparently deserted spaceship which suddenly acquires a woodland complete with frightened natives (disappearing children and ‘orrible monsters). Lots of familiar elements (and a reference to Beowulf, though that is not taken too far) but with some extra energy in the mix. Good stuff.

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January Books 21) The Two Faces of Islam, by Stephen Schwarz

Sent to me by the author after a chance meeting a couple of years ago, and now rather out of date as it was written in 2002 (slightly revised in 2003). The two eponymous faces are fanaticism and moderation; the book’s subtitle is “Saudi fundamentalism and its role in terrorism”, and the whole thrust of the book is to expose Wahhabism and its linkage with the Saudi monarchy as a driving force in Islamic terrorism worldwide. The tone of the book is offputtingly polemical at times, but there were a couple of good sections – Schwarz is pro-Shi’ite, so his take on Iran is much more sober than one usually gets from US sources; and his account of the failure of Wahhabism to make much headway in Bosnia or Kosovo is almost comical. However, he has a painfully unconvincing page on Iraq (I guess to try and exploit the 2002 market) and also numerous other surprising asides – that the Yugoslav wars might have been planned from the Kremlin, or that Trotsky’s assassination was the most famous terrorist act of the 20th century (the latter particularly surprising from someone who knows Sarajevo as well as Schwartz does).

However, despite the weaknesses of the argument, the case is well made that if the US is actually serious about fighting terrorism through regime change, there are worse places to do it than Saudi Arabia. Also Schwartz’s call for more intense monitoring and intervention by US authorities in their own domestic Islam religious and educational discourse is probably well-founded, and it has to be said that the recent incidents of home-grown extremism in America rather prove his point. But I would be interested to read a more sober and detailed account of the relationship between Wahhabism and Saudi money; the indications are all there but the details didn’t quite join up for me.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: New Moon, by Stephenie Meyer – second time that has come up this month.

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January Books 20) Doctor Who Annual 1968

Sorry for the mass posting of reviews, but I have been on a really uncomfortable intercontinental flight (usual issues of cramped seats combined with takeoff two hours late and a very large passenger next to me who overlapped unavoidably into my space).

Anyway, I’ve reached Power of the Daleks in my run through classic Who so it seemed a good time to look at this annual which includes eight stories, two comic strips, two board games, puzzles, and some actual publicity about the new Doctor and his companions Ben and Polly, and some factual pieces (one of which is about Atlantis, which was about to appear on TV; also one of the board games features a visit to Scotland in 1745).

The stories are rather interesting – some of them are distinctly downbeat or just odd in tone. The very last one has the Tardis materialising on H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Doctor for some reason deciding that he must prevent Nelson’s death (he fails). Very few of the stories come close to Troughton’s characterisation, and a couple read much more convincingly as First Doctor stories. No returning aliens from TV, though again one of the games references “mechanised robots” on the planet Skaro (presumably Terry Nation being tough on the rights to the Daleks again). Lots of good artwork and some excellent colour publicity pictures of Troughton, Craze and Wills. Definitely worth getting hold of.

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January Books 19) Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman

A grim young adult novel set in a world where the racism of our society is reversed and white “noughts” (or “blankers”, to be rude) are oppressed by the ruling Crosses. The two young protagonists are from politically active families on opposite sides of the divide, but are childhood friends and hurtle to a tragic conclusion. It is very well written, though I felt it got just a little cluttered with teenage pregnancy and capital punishment alongside the impressive treatment of the big central issue.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

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January Books 18) Irish Tales of Terror, edited by Jim McGarry

This has been lingering on my shelves for years, and it took an intercontinental plane flight to finally work through the fairly modest 158 pages of the book. It is a rather peculiar collection of short stories and extracts from longer works, including two ostensibly factual pieces by the editor on witchcraft accusations in Clonmel (1895) and Island Magee (1711). The only bit actually worth reading is a Sean O’Casey story, “The Raid”, which didn’t seem to me to have any supernatural element at all (unless you believe that randy Irish women are unnatural). The collection doesn’t really cohere and there is too much Oirishry.

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Moon Stallion

My inflight entertainment this evening was the 94-minute VHS edition of this utterly brilliant 1978 BBC children’s series, starring 16-year-old Sarah Sutton, several years before she became Nyssa of Traken, as the blind Diana who finds herself at the focus of ancient mysteries around the White Horse of Uffington in around 1902. The story also features the unforgettable music of Howard Blake (before The Snowman and “Walking Through The Air”) and the incomprehensible yet gripping script of Brian Hayles. (The supernatural is actually an understated recurring theme in several of his Doctor Who stories, most notably The Smugglers and The Curse of Peladon.) Dorothea Brooking directed a number of classic BBC children’s dramas, but this has to be one of the more remarkable ones. Anyone with a passing interest in paganism / English folklore / Doctor Who actors in other roles should try and get hold of it. (Also features the eternal John Abineri, Michael “Robot/Cyberleader” Kilgarriff and David “Pangol” Haig.)

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January Books 17) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

After my recent struggles with Belgacom I was rather comforted to remind myself of Arthur Dent’s problems with bureaucracy, many years ago. I more or less knew this book by heart when I was twelve, and the Adams genius still works for me; most of the good lines are in the various other incarnations of the story, but one or two are only found here – for instance, the information that Arthur “wasn’t aware of ever having felt an organic part of anything. He had always seen this as one of his problems.” Sometimes the magic survives, three decades on.

The edition I read is the movie tie-in which comes with 100 pages of back matter about the making of the film (which. I watched a year or so back – my verdict is that the Zooey Deschanel / Martin Freeman chemistry is the best thing about it). Interesting to find that most of the (pretty radical and thorough) plot changes in the film dated back to Douglas Adams’ own adaptation efforts; there is a rather self-deprecating piece by scriptwriter Karey Carmichael explaining that he didn’t do much and was sort of filling in time between The Chicken Run and Charlotte’s Web. The main cast are also interviewed, and I have to say that Mos Def comes across much better on the page than he did as Ford Prefect on screen.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: Humility: True Greatness by C.J. Mahaney

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January Books 16) The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

A gripping narrative of a girl growing up in Munich before and during the second world war; she steals books from the Mayor’s house, her foster parents hide a Jew in the basement and everything is distorted by Nazism and then by the war. The story is told in the first person by Death, who gets plenty of clients in the course of the book. Lots of good description, though I wasn’t entirely clear about the conclusion.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin

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January Books 15) The Uplift War, by David Brin

One of Brin’s novels of the future universe where humanity has become part of a galactic culture of species Uplifting each other from pre-sapience to civilisation, homo sapiens being unique in that we achieved that status without external intervention.

The book is fun in a lot of ways – smart humans and chimps, and their allies, manage to overcome the prejudices and wishful thinking of the more nasty aliens. The most sympathetic male characters get to have sex (more or less) with the most sympathetic female characters. There is a lovely plot twist involving gorillas.

But I have to say the book is not one I can recommend. Partly it is that the humans (and their allies) rarely lose a battle or an argument; we are rather compelled to cheer for our boys. But more seriously, I think the novel’s take on race issues is naïve and complacent. The intelligent chimpanzee characters are not allowed to rebel from the human agenda, yet disply no resentment of the control exerted over them, including their reproductive rights. Those who do make common cause with humanity’s enemies get their come-uppance. (The only Bad Human who displays racial and gender prejudice is explicitly South Asian.) I think I would have been happier if the book had explored colonialism and race a little more profoundly. And my own thoughts on this have been very helpfully informed by the various racefail discussions of this time last year.

The only other Hugo nominee of that year (1988 awards, for 1987 publications) which I have read is Orson Scott Card’s Seventh Son, which I guess is an even more blatant presentation of an American myth in genre terms. The other nominees were When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger, The Forge of God by Greg Bear, and The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. The Uplift War was also shortlisted for the 1987 Nebula but beaten by The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy, a much shorter and much better book.

Top LibraryThing Unsuggestion: New Moon by Stephenie Meyer!

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January Books 14) Vampire Science, by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum

I am going to read through the Eighth Doctor Adventures, though it will take me several years at a rate of one a month or so. Since I have already read Terrance Dicks’ The Eight Doctors, Vampire Science is the next in line. I winced at first at the depiction of California vampires, so familiar from Buffy, who actually gets referenced (presumably meaning the Kirsty Swanson film rather than the TV series which started only a few weeks before the book was published in 1997). But actually the book takes the vampire mythology in a couple of interesting directions, one of which (the vampire nest squabbling about strategy) was later followed by Buffy, but others (the vampire intellectual researching what makes them vampires, the possibility of turning in reverse) which were new to me. With all of this, the book doesn’t particularly tie into the vampire lore of the Whoniverse (ie Terrance Dicks’ State of Decay and Blood Harvest, and Paul Cornell’s Goth Opera). I also expected a bit more to be made of the San Francisco setting, given its relevance to the Eighth Doctor’s only on-screen appearance (according to the lore, Grace Holloway was originally intended to be in the book but they couldn’t get clearance). The book does however do quite a lot for the development of the Eighth Doctor as a character – he gives the vampires several chances for redemption – and his relationship with Sam (presented here as a companion of long standing rather than someone who tagged along at the end of the last book). There’s also some intriguing continuity with a Jonathan Blum story which apparently brought the Seventh Doctor into contact with the US branch of UNIT. Anyway, a decent start to this little project, and I shall keep going.

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Belgacom again

I don’t want to keep writing whiny entries about Belgacom, but while they keep failing to provide the promised service I need to vent somewhere.

The latest is that on Monday they cut the office phone and internet without warning (as it turns out, because I had refused to pay the reconnection charge for the last time they cut it). I paid up under protest, and they told me that the line would be back by the end of the day Monday.

Come Tuesday, no line. Called again. (In that simple phrase "called again" should be understood as ten minutes on hold, to be answered by someone who can’t deal with your problem and puts you on hold for another 20 minutes until the phone is answered by someone else who can’t deal with your problem.) Conclusion: internet connection at least was restored, phone and fax still out.

In the midst of last week’s problems I had phoned and emailed Belgacom’s official spokesman, Mr M*****, who had sent a suitably apologetic reply and promised to send my complaint on to the director of customer services. I raised Mr M***** again on Wednesday, and got a reply at last late that night (by which time I had left Belgium) from Mr C**** in Belgacom’s customer services, telling me that my line was now working again, and incidentally the correct number to call is 078 150036. He also agreed to refund the disputed payment.

On Thursday my long-suffering assistant discovered that the phone line is still down, and also that the 078 150036 number does not work either. I shall let my assistant tell the story of her day yesterday in her own words:

11:15 The Belgacom saga has nearly brought me to tears of frustration. I can’t understand Dutch well enough to navigate their menu (though I understand enough to get to the third level of the menu) but actually as I have tried every menu option and NONE has sent me to the correct person (each person subsequently sends me back to the menu page), I think the options are a bunch of bull. So I’m now back on the general help line, which will mean that I will then have to be transferred (if they’re capable of doing so today, as yesterday they weren’t) to the i-talk department and then they will probably tell me that everything is working on their side so it must be our side, which will require someone coming out to the office probably, meaning the saga will continue tomorrow…

11:24 After having no luck with the Dutch version of the I-talk number given to us by Mr C****, I again tried the number shown on the website page that Mr M***** sent us (080055700). After finally getting through, I asked to be directly connected to someone responsible for i-talk and was told that he could not do that but could write me a “ticket” for being called back by the relevant department in 30 minutes.

[Of course, nobody called her back from that department until much later, and by then she was on the phone to Belgacom again.]

16:03 I have HAD it with Belgacom: My last call was made at 15:23. I called the 0800 55 700 number, as it seems to be the only one in English. As I-Talk seems to be in a category of its own, I chose “all other Belgacom services” from the menu. T** answered; I specifically told him that my PHONE was not working and could he please transfer me to the department responsible for I-Talk. I also asked if he could make sure the person spoke English. He was accommodating. However, he sent me to the TELEVISION I-Talk department. From there, I was transferred again and the person I spoke to said he would check to see what the problem was and put me on hold. The next thing I know, I was connected to T** again!! He was baffled. He transferred me again (I asked him to please put me through to the CORRECT I-Talk department) and I was then connected to someone who said that there had been a lot of problems with I-Talk both today and yesterday but he would try to help. I was put on hold again and then after 10 minutes on hold, the line went dead!

Summary: T**-> I-Talk Television -> I-Talk Phone -> T** -> I-Talk Phone -> Dead line, total time wasted: 30 minutes

16:59 I got a call and was literally on the phone for 6 minutes. During these 6 minutes, Belgacom called and left a message, saying that they had been “trying since very long to reach [me]” (which is absolute bull). They left no contact name or number (just the general number that I have called at least 5 times today).

I nonetheless called this number again, got the customer service desk, was put on hold in order to be transferred and was then cut off AGAIN.

I am now on hold again.

17:32: After being on hold 10 minutes, I was again connected to the I-Talk phone department. The staff member said that there was no problem with our account from their side. I explained that as the phone was still not working, I disagreed. I asked if he could send a technician the next day. He replied that they wouldn’t be able to fit us in the next day but could send someone next week!  I opined that Mr M***** and Mr C**** would probably agree that someone should be sent the next day. He said he would have to transfer me to another department which could arrange for the technician to come. After waiting on hold for 10 minutes, a French-speaking woman answered. In broken French (she could not speak English of course), we confirmed that she was NOT the responsible department and she promised to transfer me to an English-speaking person who could help me. This time, a French-speaking man answered, though he could at least understand English. He informed me that I had been connected to the general French telephone customer service and he would have to transfer me to the I-Talk department.

Summary: English customer service -> I-Talk Phone -> French customer service -> French general phone service -> I-Talk (though at this point, I decided it was time to call it quits for the day). Total time wasted: 33 minutes 

Meanwhile I had received a text message asking me to call a particular number to set up a service appointment (which I cannot do since I am not in Belgium); and an email alert sent at 1730 saying that they had tried to reach my assistant on her mobile phone but been unsuccessful; could she call their general number again? (Interestingly this message was flagged as "Solved" which tells us that Belgacom assume the problem has been fixed if the customer does not call back and complain.)

Mr C**** sent me another email last night saying that the technical people have been told to contact my assistant in the morning and that he will follow it up personally. This morning’s message from my assistant:

Apparently there is a problem with our I-Talk platform, which only a technician can come out and fix (hmm, I seem to remember asking them to send a technician 24 hours ago…). However, this time, instead of transferring me to that department, the staff member I spoke to (should have gotten his name, darnit!) said that he would fill out the “ticket” and call me back when he had received confirmation.

But shortly after, a technician got through on the land line to the office, and I am glad to report that 96 hours later, my office phone finally actually works again!!!

But it really should not be like this; customers should not have to badger senior members of staff in order to get the service that we have paid for.

My problems are not unique. Just have a look at the latest Facebook updates which mention Belgacom. Or these blog entries by other people:

Jon Worth, 24 August:

I placed my order online on Tuesday last week and they promised a delivery of the equipment today. Nothing. So I called them.

Belgacom: “But sir, your account has not been opened?”
Me: “Sorry I don’t understand. I have made the order.”
Belgacom: “Yes, but the account has not been opened.”
Me (frustrated): “What does that mean? Is there something I need to do?”
Belgacom: “No, it’s that your account has not been opened.”
Me: “But my modem was supposed to be delivered today. And I urgently need the internet connection.”
Belgacom: “I’ll see what I can do.”

The woman then typed away on the other end of the phone, told me the modem would be delivered Wednesday and that the line would be opened Friday, 4 days later than I had previously been told. No apology, no explanation. And if I had not called to push the matter I wonder when anything would have been fixed!

Fons Tuinstra, 15 September:

End August I had to look for a telecom and internet provider in Belgium. Because that is mostly packaged in a deal with TV, it needed some more study, but I initially decided to deal with Belgacom, the former state-owned telecom company. Our first appointment for the installation was three weeks later. Panic started to emerge, since my internet connection would be gone the next week.

My whole business and a big part of my social activities had moved online, I had – hail Google – retired most of the Microsoft software and did all my writing online. Without a connection I could not keep up with my speakers’deals and miss potential lucrative assignments. For my work on the WageIndicator, I had to deal with online operations in 45 countries. Without an internet connection I could as well retire myself too. Customer service at Belgacom seemed to deal nicely with this despaired customer and promised to speed up the process. Installation was moved and it looked that I would only be offline for a few days and I started to look for local wifi-connection.

At the agreed day – we had to stay at home, since they could not give a time – an engineer arrived to fix a phone line. That was the only thing we still had and we started to make a set of annoyed calls to the Belgacom customer service. After much switching, talking and yelling, we learned that somebody had killed the request for an internet connection. Next appointment we could only have in two weeks time.

We decided to kill the deal, went to the only real competitor of Belgacom, Telenet, and they promised to have us online in less than a week.

"Jaywalker", 1 December:

I spent last night spinning in fury at the mind-boggling sadism of Belgacom (who failed to turn up, or indeed call, during the allotted NINE HOUR call out slot yesterday, this after a two month wait for phone/tv/internet). This included scratching away at my legs until they bled with irritation induced, well, irritation, marching up the road to the Belgacom shop to huff around and call them exceptionally rude names, curling up on the hall floor in a wailing snotty ball unable to breathe for crying, and lying on a bench in the park keening like an orphaned spider monkey.

It’s that last testimony of despair that captures very well the gutwrenching horror of listening to Belgacom’s awful music without having any confidence that the person at the far end will be able to deal with your problem, indeed knowing that they will probably try to blame you for dialling the wrong number or pressing the wrong button.

I’m lining up several other telcom service providers to talk to when I get back. And I have an appointment with Mr C**** to see if he can persuade me that Belgacom actually takes customer service seriously.

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2010 Films 3: Spice World

We know how we got this far
Strength and courage in a wonderbra

Facing a rather gruelling trip combined with grinding toothache and not enough sleep last night, I discovered to my delight that I could watch Spice World, the 1997 film starring the Spice Girls which I had never actually seen. I must say it cheered me up immensely. It is total nonsense, but not actually offensively bad; the music is toe-tappingly compelling; it is fun to see Meat Loaf, Richard O’Brien, Roger Moore, etc all doing their bit for this deeply silly project; also fun of course to see Naoko Mori in pre-Torchwood days (and likewise Richard E. Grant and Claire Rushbrook before their rather different Doctor Who connections). As for the Spice Girls themselves, it’s clear that while Mel C is the best singer, Geri Halliwell is the best actual performer, and already not quite in sync with the rest of the team. (Her best line: “Haven’t you ever heard of the word ‘compromisaton’?”)

It is perhaps 30 years since I watched A Hard Day’s Night, and I entirely accept the view that this is a pale imitation of it, but it lifted my spirits when they needed lifting, and you can’t ask much more than that.

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Easiest BookMooch ever

Having finished the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, I decided I didn’t need to keep them and listed them on BookMooch.

Where they were immediately requested by someone who works in the same corridor as me.

I’ll bring them in tomorrow, Aoife.

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January Books 11) The Wandering Fire 12) The Darkest Road, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Having read The Summer Tree a few months back, and noting the result of my 2010 reading poll, I thought I would tackle the other two books of the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy together. As I’ve said before, I am a huge fan of Kay’s later work, but as with The Summer Tree, I felt that in these earlier books he is still getting his talent together. The explicit resurrection of Arthur and Lancelot (and Guinevere reincarnated as a Canadian) sat rather more uneasily in Kay’s fantasy world than his previous plundering of Celtic and Germanic folklore, and the various plot strands are not always easy to entangle, particularly in The Wandering Fire.

But Kay shows early on that he is prepared to kill off key characters, so there is an underlying feeling of suspense as we wonder who will live and who will die. And the series is lifted by the climax: epic final battle, self-sacrifice, and a decent resolution. I am not sure that I would recommend the trilogy generally, but it is a decent enough portal fantasy in its own right, and of course points the way for Kay’s subsequent triumphs.

Top LibraryThing UnSuggestion for both books: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

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January Books 10) Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, by Marc Platt

I have decided to work through the Virgin New Doctor Who Adventures, and since I had already read the four Timewyrm novels, that meant starting with this, the first of the Cat’s Cradle trilogy.

It’s actually rather fascinating, just after watching The End of Time, to experience a completely different reinterpretation of the Time Lords and Gallifrey, the combination of Cartmel Masterplan and Marc Platt’s imagination which culminates in Lungbarrow (which is itself mentioned here as a concept for the first time). Like a lot of Platt’s writing it is eerie and confusing, early Gallifreyans and peculiar deserted cities, but with some fascinating insights and ideas, and some decent character development for Ace who has to carry most of the plot with the Doctor being in cold storage for much of the book. I do wish I’d been picking these up when they first came out in 1992.

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Doctor Who DVDs – what’s missing? and what do we want?

Ignore this if you have already seen on .

Dutifully filling in my Doctor Who Monthly annual poll, I realised that I didn’t have a convenient list of which Who stories are not yet available on DVD. So here are the as yet unreleased stories where all or most of the episodes survive (so including The Reign of Terror where there are two missing eps out of six and The Tenth Planet where there is one missing out of five). This list does not include DVDs due out in the next few months. It also doesn’t include The Ice Warriors, but that is my mistake.

I find it very weird that we got the complete Sixth Doctor before, say, Terror of the Autons, The Dæmons or Terror of the Zygons. But maybe we can pay them not to release The Dominators.

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