Books acquired in March

Doctor Who: The Final Sanction by Steve Lyons
British Science Fiction & Fantasy: Twenty Years, Two Surveys by Paul Kincaid and Niall Harrison
Lays of Beleriand: The History of Middle-Earth 3 by Christopher Tolkien
Book of Lost Tales: Pt. 2: The History of Middle-earth 2 by J.R.R. Tolkien
Doctor Who: The Murder Game by Steve Lyons
The Universe Between by Alan E Nourse
Leviathan or The Whale by Philip Hoare (borrowed)
The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett
Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett
Questioning the Millennium. by Stephen Jay Gould
Doctor Who Annual 1969
Cauldron by Jack McDevitt
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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March Books

Non-Fiction 6 (YTD 18)

Fiction (non-sf) 6 (YTD 15)

SF (non-Who) 5 (YTD 23)

Doctor Who etc fiction 8 (YTD 17)

5/25 (YTD 16/73) by women (Jones, Collins, Mehran, Montgomery, Picoult)
2/25 (YTD 7/73) by PoC (Mehran, Obama)
12/25 owned for more than a year (Hyperion [reread], Moby-Dick [reread], Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard, Forbidden Acts, A Different Kingdom [reread], Radical Islam’s Rules, War of the Daleks, Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark, Black and Blue, Wandering Star, My Sister’s Keeper, Profiles of the Future)
3/25 reread, total YTD rereads 6/73
Page count ~8,000 (YTD ~22,400) including a notional 100 for Dead Air and 200 for The Last Voyage.

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North Down latest

The plot thickens in North Down, where one of the UUP’s two assembly members has resigned in support of Lady Sylvia Hermon, the local MP.

The UUP’s strategic linkage with the Conservatives has thus so far seen the nomination in the only seat they won last time given to the Tories, the loss of their only MP and of another elected representative; meanwhile the most winnable of the other 17 seats, South Antrim, is also the only seat where no candidate has yet been agreed between the two partners. Perhaps voters will see this as a winning strategy; I am not myself a voter, but I am not hugely convinced.

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Aliens in the Mind

I’ve enjoyed listening to this 1977 sf radio story, in six 25-minute episodes, starring no less than Peter Cushing and Vincent Price (the latter with a mild American accent, but you can be sure it is him) delivering a script by one Rene Basilico based on a story idea by the great Robert Holmes. We start, à la Wicker Man, on a remote Scottish island where Funny Things Are Happening. Our heroes, who have turned up to discover more about the death of an old friend, conclude that the island is a nest of telepathic mutants. They pursue their investigations further in London, where they discover tendrils of the conspiracy percolating to the top of the Establishment (apologies for mixed metaphor). Hints are dropped that Sir Alec Douglas-Hume may have been one of those involved. Richard Hurndall, the stand-in for William Hartnell in The Five Doctors, makes an appearance as a respectable Scottish banker in the last episode.

It is not a flawless piece of drama: as with many six-part Doctor Who stories, there is not quite enough story to pad out the episodes, and also most of the time the mutants don’t seem to be very threatening to the rest of humanity. But of course this is a story of the Cold War era, we could see the mutants as concealed Communists (or the conspiracy theory target group of your choice – Catholics? Jews? Homosexuals? Scots???) and Cushing and Price do a good double act of trying to get to the heart of the matter; and anyway their voices are simply very pleasurable to listen to. An interesting curio which leavened my diet of Doctor Who audios.

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March Books 24) Ten Little Aliens, by Stephen Cole

I’m a fan of Stephen Cole’s more recent books, but this is experimental stuff which shows a talent still coming together. The story brings Ben, Polly and the First Doctor to an asteroid where a bunch of human soldiers are mounting a special operation against the alien Schirr; things go wrong it it becomes clear that they have collectively fallen into a trap laid by the aliens and their collaborators. The chapters (mostly) take their titles from Agatha Christie novels, which is a bit misleading – the real reference in the title is to James Cameron’s Aliens, where there are clear resonances.

The core plot is competently done, but there are a number of things that don’t work. First, Cole makes Ben a racist, and then this vanishes the moment Polly reproves him for it. This is too big an issue to be dealt with so casually. Second, there is a long section where the narrative is divided up between characters, choose-your-own-adventure style. I simply didn’t have the energy to play that game and just skipped to the next section. Finally, it may have just been my low energy levels, but I found ten supporting character too many to keep track of.

Having said that, Cole does a decent characterisation of the fading First Doctor and a very good Polly. But I wouldn’t recommend this to non-fans.

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Dental update

Thanks, all for your good wishes re my teeth. I saw the nice stomalogist / maxillary surgeon this afternoon at the curiously named Hôpital Deux Alices in Uccle, and she anaesthetised my jaw thoroughly and whipped out the errant fragments. “No hot food or hot drink this evening,” she warned me, but by the time I could feel my mouth enough to be sure of not biting my tongue, I could also feel it well enough that I did not want to eat anything much. Still, I’m glad that it is over, and relieved that I did not have to wait very long to get it done.

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March Books 23) Dead Air, by James Goss

How was your day? Mine started by bursting a front tyre as I grazed the kerb outside F’s school while dropping him off. Not too far to drive to the nearest tyre specialist, but it meant an hour of sitting around waiting for it to be fixed, when I had had a number of other things planned.

Luckily as I sat around contemplating the meaning of Michelin and Goodyear, I had with me David Tennant’s recorded voice, reading James Goss’s excellent Doctor Who novel, Dead Air, which took me from that Belgian industrial suburb to a pirate radio ship off the southern coast of England in 1966, where the Doctor is dealing with a mysterious entity called the Hush, which exists as an organism based on sound alone; it absorbs its victims and turns them into sound patterns – if they are lucky. It is tremendously creepy and enjoyable, and Dark Hints are dropped which one can interpret as tying into the Tenth Doctor’s final story; also Tennant is an excellent reader – the whole thing is done in character as a first-person narrative from the Doctor’s point of view, but he conveys the other characters very convincingly too. This is very strongly recommended.

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Gibbon Chapter XXI

  • We start briefly with the Donatist schism, which was basically political; and then we have a prolonged and detailed discourse on Platonism and the doctrine of the Trinity, which I must say explained both in more lucid and provocative terms than I recall reading anywhere else. Constantine’s inconstancy opens up further room for debate between Arius and the Catholics, led by Athanasius who gets about a third of the chapter to himself. Finally a brief survey of how well (or badly) the old beliefs were surviving.
    (tags: gibbon)
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March Books 22) My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

I got this book out of curiosity: LibraryThing listed it as the top UnSuggestion for both Rasselas and The Stainless Steel Rat, so I wanted to test the system. (This was before I had read Blue Like Jazz, which I got for the same reason, and duly hated.)

The basic plot of the book is revealed in the first chapter: Anna, aged 13, gets a lawyer to help her stop her parents make her donate one of her kidneys to save her sister Kate, 16, to the bewilderment and confusion of their parents. That much is a poignant and engaging story, and I ploughed on to find out how it would end.


Unfortunately there was too much cuteness in the story to keep my enthusiasm. Picoult really does lay it on thick, by the trowelful. I list the irritating factors here:

1) The girls’ mother is herself a lawyer and represents herself in the court hearing. She is probably the best conveyed and most credible character in the book, but I found this vanishingly improbable behaviour. The poor woman is caring for a dying child and hasn’t practiced law in over a decade (and no indication that she ever practiced family law). Yet she and her husband never seem to have discussed hiring a professional advocate.

2) Anna’s lawyer and her court-appointed guardian ad litem are still getting over their teenage break-up fifteen years earlier. I accept that some people who have their hearts broken as teenagers take a while getting over it, but in my humbe opinion most have got over it by their mid-thirties. What’s more, this is the first time they have spoken since then because in the busy world of family lawyers in Providence, RI, they somehow have never encountered each other before professionally. Rhode Island must be bigger than I had imagined.

3) Kate goes to a dance with a cute fellow patient who then romantically dies a couple of days later, the stress of the evening having proved too much for him.

4) Anna’s lawyer has a grand mal seizure at a crucial point in the proceedings, even though his dog which has been trained to warn him when he is about to have a seizure has been vigorously warning him that he is about to have a seizure.

5) Despite the fact that Anna has been a first-person viewpoint character off and on throughout the book, it is only in the climactic scene that we discover that Kate asked her to go to the lawyer in the first place because she is fed up of being ill and wants to die. This revelation fatally eroded the credibility of Anna’s characterisation for me.

6) It is therefore almost a relief when Anna is killed in a car accident shortly after winning her court case and her kidney is used to save Kate’s life anyway.

So basically I started off wanting to like this book, but found it more and more difficult to do so; and the twists at the end killed any mild whim I might have had to recommend it to other people.

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March Books 21) Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

A wholesome tale of an enthusiastic orphan girl accidentally adopted by a brother and sister in rural Prince Edward Island, bringing a mild amount of subversive chaos to their orderly lives and to the life of their small town. It’s not terribly challenging or profound, and the claim made on the cover that Anne is “the most beloved, beguiling and timeless heroine in all of fiction” seems just a tad exaggerated. I don’t think I shall bother with the sequels.

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I took B out for an excursion today; first of all crossing the linguistic frontier to the park at Hélécine, ten minutes’ drive from where she lives, a place she always loves visiting; she enjoyed running giggling across the lawns, holding my hand, and seemed to take some interest in the fountains and ducks. She was more hesitant about the climbing frames in the playground, which is a shame because she used to be very agile.

Then I thought I would try some ancient history, and brought her a little further east (and back into Flanders) to the Tumulus of Pepin the Elder, a Frankish magnate of the early 7th century who was, if I calculate correctly, Charlemagne’s great-great-great-grandfather (and therefore probably your ancestor too).

B was a bit dubious about climbing along the brambly paths to the top of the mound, but quite enjoyed running back down the side to the field below. There is a small museum, which is actually a large shed protecting the foundations of the old church on the site; but it was closed, so I didn’t have to tax B’s patience and brought her home (passing through Neerwinden). This page unsportingly suggests that the mound is a 13th-century motte which had nothing to do with Pepin, but I’ll take my romance where I can find it, thanks.

I’d love to read some more detail about early Frankish history. My appetite has been whetted for more information about Brunhilda, who appears to have been one of Pepin’s political rivals. But the only sources seem to be Gregory of Tours and Fredegar

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Dutch in Doctor Who

Gosh, it’s almost five years since I listened to episode 1 of Fury from the Deep, and commented on the accent used by John Abineri playing a Dutch character.

I can now bring you the full exchange of what must be the only use of Dutch in the whole Who canon (as far as I remember there isn’t any in Arc of Infinity even though it is set in Amsterdam).

Van Lutyens: Verdomme!

Fraser Hines, narrating: From a walkway overlooking the Control Hall, the Doctor and his companions observe van Lutyens storm off.

Van Lutyens: Koppige [?] idioot! Engelsman!

Jamie: What does kopples iddy oo [?] mean?

The Doctor: I think he’s Dutch, Jamie, and I don’t think he likes the English very much.

Abineri’s accent in Dutch is, er, not quite as far from the real thing as his attempt to reproduce a Dutch accent in English (which sounds simultaneously German and African), but I suppose a decent effort from someone who didn’t speak the language. Would be interested to know what others make of the adjective he uses – I think he is mispronouncing “koppige” as if it were a German word (given that he spoke German), though even then it’s an odd pronunciation of the “g”.

Note also that the Tardis translation circuits don’t seem to work in Dutch.

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Dental development

Facebook folks will have the headlines of this already, but in brief the dental merry-go-round has started again.

Four weeks ago I went back to my dentist for some final cleaning-up on the upper left molar which had been giving me so much trouble, and which the endodontist had at last thoroughly rooted for me. I asked her once again to look at the lower molar which I was sure was hurting, not just reflecting the pain from the upper one. She tapped it a couple of times and realised it was broken; a little more tapping and a large chunk of it came off. At least four dentists had looked at it over the last year or so and not spotten any problem, so I guess it either broke more recently or else just wasn’t very obvious – the crack was lengthways so wouldn’t show up on X-rays. She told me to go back to the endodontist to see if the tooth could be saved.

It took several weeks to get another appointment with the endodontist (she has a ten day waiting list and I missed my frst date when I had man-flu), but when I finally met up with her on Thursday, it took her about ten minutes to shake her head sadly and say that the tooth was too badly fractured to save; it had to come out. My own dentist is less busy and I was able to book her for an extraction first thing Friday.

I was a bit apprehensive but not too much – I had two wisdom teeth out fifteen years ago so reckoned I knew what I was in for. I was wrong; this was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life, as the dentist tried to wrestle fragments of my tooth out of my jaw; I found myself retching and weeping with pain on the chair. I still begged her to give me more anaesthetic and get on with the job, but after 45 minutes she decided that my twisted roots were beyond her skill, and referred me to another specialist, who she referred to as a stomatologist but whose business listing is as a maxillary surgeon. I have a date with her on Monday afternoon, down in Uccle.

Yesterday was almost a complete write-off as a result. I went home to rest and made it back to the office for some essential business in late afternoon, also to pick up the latest run of bacterial spray, painkillers and antibiotics. Young F commented that this had all started with my biting on an olive stone the summer before last, and I think he’s right – the problem with the lower molar may well date back to then, and simply wasn’t spotted because the problems with its upper counterpart were so obvious. But this is getting really old now and I cannot wait for it to be over.

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March Books 20) Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama

This is a fascinating autobiography. The book, first published in 1995, begins with the death of Barack Obama senior, announced down a bad phone line to his son over a decade earlier; and then divides more or less into two halves: first, of the young Obama’s life without his father, brought up by his mother and her parents and finding a career for himself in the deprived communities of Chicago; and then of his getting to grips with his African family heritage, in particular his father’s troubled personal life and career, culminating in a long narrative of a visit to Kenya. It is an eloquent and emotional account of self-discovery, the first half being particularly acute on the problems of race in the USA, where Obama almost reluctantly becomes an insider. Obviously my main interest in the book was the author’s remarkable subsequent career, but it is very much worth reading in its own right.

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North Down latest

I wrote a few months back about the possible configurations of the coming election in the Northern Ireland constituency of North Down, which until this week was represented by the only remaining MP from the Ulster Unionist Party, the former party of government under the old Stormont regime.

Well, Lady Sylvia Hermon announced her resignation from the UUP yesterday, which means that for the first time since the party was founded it does not have a single member in the House of Commons (there are handful of cross-benchers in the House of Lords who remain affiliated with the party).

I predicted in my previous post that if Lady Hermon, even running as an independent against the UUP/Conservative candidate, must be considered front-runner to retain the seat, especially if she gets the support, whether formal or informal, of parties like Alliance and the Greens. The Alliance candidate, my good friend Stephen Farry, says he is fighting on.

What I had not anticipated is the sudden swirl of rumours that the DUP, who I saw as the strongest competition to Lady Hermon, may actually decline to contest the seat against her. The DUP, now dominant in Unionism, have been running strong on ‘Unionist unity’ in the most recent period, challenging the UUP to agree joint candidates in the nationalist-held seats of Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Belfast, and even hinting that they might stand aside unilaterally in the absence of a formal deal. The DUP also have recent form on not contesting elections when it doesn’t suit them.

I suspect Lady Hermon must feel somewhat ambivalent at the prospect of DUP support. Her branding, after all, is as the sensible end of the Unionist spectrum, with the ability to gain votes from the entire population. I’m sure she would prefer to win by defeating the DUP candidate than with DUP support. But the choice is not hers to make.

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Lunch yesterday

We had all been invited to a working lunch with the Prime Minister. I was rather pleased with the way the seating worked out: I ended up sitting opposite an American bloke, who was seated between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister on the other side of the table. To my left was the nice lady who was paying for the lunch (and therefore opposite the PM); to my right, a Brussels thinktanker opposite the foreign minister and marooned beyond her a bloke who was advising the PM; and further to my left, another half dozen assorted people beyond the PM and our hostess.

The background noise was terrible. I knew the restaurant well – near my former place of work, and rather good for a confidential tête-à-tête. But for a “working lunch” with a dozen people, it was disastrous. The prime minister was sitting between the American bloke opposite me and his own ambassador, who was translating for him; my former boss, sitting directly on the other side of the ambassador, could not hear her translation at all (she is very soft-spoken and my ex-boss is very hard of hearing).

Once I found a polite way of talking down-table to the foreign minister while courteously ignoring the prime minister’s inaudible remarks up-table, it was OK. But still, frankly, awkward. I could see how this had happened – the ambassador (or more likely one of her staff) had recommended the restaurant because of the quality of the food, rather than considering the acoustics; the sponsors of the lunch, perhaps not knowing the venue as well as I do, had concurred without reflecting on the logistics. I enjoyed the meal anyway, though I noticed that the prime minister and foreign minister both left their main courses largely untouched.

In general this was a bit of a wasted opportunity of a lunch, but I suspect also important lessons learned all round. And the foreign minister and I were able to bond a little by whining to each other about the set-up.

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March Books 19) Leviathan, or, The Whale, by Philip Hoare

A good historical and literary survey of whaling: Hoare chases down all sorts of information about whales and their exploitation by humans; I had forgotten just how bad things had got in the 1970s before the whaling ban came into force (as far as it did); but it’s also amazing just how little is known about whales, because of the difficulty of carrying out direct research on them. Hoare also reflects on Herman Melville and the composition of his great work, and even tracks down a specific whale skeleton in Yorkshire which is explicitly mentioned in Moby-dick. I’ve only had one encounter with whales, and I have to admit that I found it rather difficult to process exactly what I was seeing; the scale of the creature is just so large that I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the evidence of my senses. Anyway, Hoare helped me make sense of it all, though Melville’s book is better.

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March Books 18) A Different Kingdom, by Paul Kearney

This is a brilliant, erotic, somewhat mystical novel, about a teenage boy in County Antrim in the 1950s who finds himself crossing into the Different Kingdom of the title and finding his faerie lover while looking for his lost relative (and then reminiscing about it in exile in London, years later). Kearney’s images of the Northern Irish countryside are perfect (“clouds of midges floating like gauze in the air”). His construction of the fantasy otherwhere has the energy of total conviction. I’m surprised that this novel isn’t better known – it addresses (sometimes a little cryptically) all the problems of identity with which we from Northern Ireland are all too familiar; and if it is a little naïve in places, it is none the less heartfelt.

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New BF audios

I wasn’t expecting these till the end of the month, so was very glad to be able to listen to both The Emperor of Eternity and The Architects of History which on various errands over the weekend. 

The Emperor of Eternity, unfortunately, didn’t really satisfy me. It’s a straight historical tale of Two, Jamie and Victoria ending up in the China of Emperor Qin in 210 BC, penned by Nigel Robinson who is rather far down my list of favoured Who writers. His prose is not as flat here as it sometimes has been, but he clearly doesn’t understand how to write for audio – dramatic incidents happen off-screen, peculiarly paced switching between direct and indirect speech, and also totally fails to convey the on-screen characterisation of the Tardis crew – I’m in the middle of the Victoria stories at present in my rewatch, and basically Robinson makes Victoria too stupid and Jamie too smart. In the extra track, Deborah Watling tries almost successfully to convey that she understood what was going on, while the production team compliment Robinson on how well he conveyed the sort-of samurai setting (further comment unnecessary I think).

The Architects of History is a decent close to the story of Elisabeth Klein, who we last saw trying to rewrite the ending of the second world war to suit herself; Stephen Lyons is a generally solid-to-good writer who invented her in Colditz in the first place, and now gets to bring in both some aliens called Selachians which he apparently had previously used in two Second Doctor novels (must try and get hold of them). The second best thing about the story is the intricate way in which Lyons sets up various alternative histories across which the Doctor and Klein are variously plotting (he reflects on the extra track that Star Trek: Voyager over-used this plot, which I must admit I was unaware of); the best thing about it is the way he personalises it with Lenora Crichlow of Being Human as a Seventh-Doctor-Companion-Who-Never-Was – very difficult to make us care about a character who is introduced to us as having loads of back story which we have never heard of before (and may never hear of again), but between Lyons’ script and Crichlow’s performance they pull it off.

Though I have an odd complaint – some of the guest cast are really very flat in the first episode or so, as if they hadn’t really read the script properly or just that the recording booth was not comfortable. They warm up as it goes on, but it’s unusual enough for this to happen in a BF production that I noted it.

In summary, The Emperor of Eternity is not strongly recommended, while The Architects of HIstory is a satisfying conclusion to the Klein arc but may not make much sense if you haven’t hear both Colditz and Survival of the Fittest.

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March Books 17) Moby-dick, or, the Whale, by Herman Melville

I reread this for Ian‘s classic book club, so am putting this below the cut in case anyone who will be at Monday’s discussion (I won’t be!) hasn’t finished it yet and is concerned about spoilers.

I really love this book. I first read it in 1985, and reread it again for a meeting at the TCD Theological Society in about 1992. The story of Ahab and his monomaniacal mission infecting the crew and accelerating to the disastrous climax is a compelling one anyway; but Melville packs it with parentheses on whales and whaling, veering off occasionally into other topics such as the evil side of whiteness. As far as there is a popular consciousness about whaling at all, we owe it to Melville. Some of his statements have not stood the test of time, but all add to the picture, and the wordsmithing of the descriptive writing is just fantastic.

But I also love the way Melville plays with the narrative voice. My own feeling is that the first dozen or so chapters are written in a consciously moock-heroic voice, and that the book only gets serious once we reach the church in New Bedford. From then on, this is a grave tale. Melville switches from the first-person of the first part of the book, to various arrangements of omniscient narrator, tight-third with Ahab or the crew, or even dramatic dialogue and soliloquy, keeping us readers on our toes, challenging us to assess who is telling us the story and how and why.

Moby-dick is a very religious book, but not a very Christian one. The Bible is quoted freely, and as I said earlier the church in New Bedford is an early pivotal point. But Queequeg’s worship of Yojo is in some ways better than, and certainly no more foolish than, the Christianity of most of Melville’s characters and contemporary readership. Several of the other crew members are identified by religion – Fedallah, the Parsee; the sailor from Belfast whose one line makes it clear that he is a Catholic. This is, fundamentally, the story of a man who elevates an animal to become his god, and determines to slay it; and is of course in the end slain himself by the object of his obsession.

I tried Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter a while back, and totally bounced off it, though the two authors were close friends and the two books published within a year of each other. Somehow Hawthorne’s novel was both too verbose and too comfortable in its acceptance of the framework of Puritan social norms for me; Melville is also verbose, but not over the top, and the novel deeply subversive of religion and class (though not so much of race). And in the end, the prose is just fantastic, and you can’t ask for more than that.

See also Ray Bradbury’s Green Shadows, White Whale, about making the film with John Huston in Ireland.

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Australian residents please note

My colleague Carne Ross is on ABC National’s radio show ‘Future Tense’ this morning (Thursday 18th, by the time you read this) at 0830, repeated Friday 19th at 1230. Details and downloadable extract here.

(Also downloadable for non-Australian residents who may be interested.)

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March Books 16) Wandering Star, by J.M.G. Le Clézio

When Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago, I had never heard of him. This is much his most easily obtainable book, and it was also strongly endorsed by , so I had been looking forward to reaching it.

I was very impressed. Le Clézio tells the story of Esther, a Jewish girl displaced from France over the Alps to Italy and eventually to Israel in the mid-1940s; her story briefly touches on that of Nejda, a Palestinian girl who becomes a refugee as a result of the 1948 conflict. The book is beautifully expressive of both the geographical landscapes of the Alps and Palestine, and of the psychological landscape of displacement, homelessness, and building new ties. I did wish we had learned more about what happens to Nejda in the end, and was a bit disappointed that the last few chapters were about Esther’s life decades later. But the pluses outweigh the minuses. I am still hoping for an English translation of Le Clézio’s Désert, which is about the Western Sahara.

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The Irish connection to the Yugoslav Partisans

It being St Patrick’s Day, I am going to post about the city of Tuzla, where I spent my first night in Bosnia back in early 1997. Looking around the office of my newly acquired colleagues, I spotted a map of the city – I think it may even have been this one. I had not studied much Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian at the time, but one word I did know was "Irac", meaning "Irishman". And I immediately spotted that one of the suburbs of Tuzla, off to the west of the city, rejoices in the name of "Irac".

I asked my Bosnian colleagues how this had come about, but they professed ignorance, other than confirming that "Irac" does indeed mean "Irishman", and so I left the issue as one of many intriguing mysteries about the country.

Well, I have come a little closer to resolving it. The street name next to the place name on the map is "Ivana Markovića Irca", and a little digging leads me to a Serbian Wikipedia page about Ivan Marković "Irac", a Partisan fighter during the second world war – Tuzla was always proud of its Partisan tradition, and Marković was a local boy from Gračanica, northwest of Tuzla – and was eventually hunted down by the Chetniks in 1942 a few km to the east of the city, so obviously the glorious people’s planners of a later decade decided to commemorate him. There appears to be a school (maybe two schools, I’m not sure) named after him in Špionica farther to the north.

The Wikipedia page does not, however, explain how he got his nickname, and I remain puzzled. Just for context, I note that he was a Bosnian Croat. It is not easy to dig into this when my command of the language is rather basic and when there are lots of other people with the same or similar names – such as for instance the Slovak intellectual Ivan Markovič who died in Buchenwald two years after his near namesake was killed on the Bosnian mountainside. So the mystery, though now slightly enriched, remains.

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Latest from Big Finish

Doing these in internal Whovian chronology (in terms of history, since four are set on earth and the fifth in the far future, it would be Freak Show, The Suffering, Klein’s Story, Hollows of Time and then Survival of the Fittest.

Jacqueline Rayner is a bit variable in her Who stories; the ideas are usually good but the execution sometimes wobbly. The Suffering brings Peter Purves and Maureen O’Brien as Steven and Vicki to England, just before the first world war, for an encounter with Piltdown Man and the suffragettes, and a feminist alien. I have to say that the gender politics of the plot, while not quite as skeevy as The Next Doctor, are not really a proof of the proposition that Doctor Who audio plays are an effective means of exploring the power relationship between the sexes. I am largely inclined to forgive it, however, a) because it’s not as crashingly bad as Mission to Magnus and b) for the coup of getting Purves and O’Brien together again after 35 years; the story is set immediately after The Time Meddler, recently out on DVD, so fairly accessible.

The latest Doctor Who magazine offers subscribers a free download of another Big Finish companion story. Now, I’m a bit dubious anyway about the way that the Companion Chronicles, originally just to bring back the first four Doctors, have expanded to include companions from later eras, and I wonder about the wisdom of showcasing a Turlough story to try and tempt subscribers into the range. Also the plot has been done before – James Swallow’s Ten/Martha novel Peacemaker has alien influences in the Wild West; Gary Hopkins’ Big Finish play, Other Lives, with Eight, Charley and C’rizz, has a male companion being kidnapped for exhibition in the circus. (Given the title of the piece this is not really a spoiler.) Having said all that, I think Mark Strickson does a fine job here, let down by a somewhat rushed ending.

Speaking of Mission to Magnus, the latest Lost Story isn’t quite as good as last month’s Leviathan, but would certainly have made a better Sixth Doctor story than most that made it to the screen. Christopher H. Bidmead wrote Hollows of Time as a sequel to Frontios, so it has Tractators, time tunnels and the Gravis, this time in a contemporary English country village with a villain called Mr Stream who, for licensing reasons, is not the originally planned anagram. Like all Bidmead’s stories it’s a bit incoherent and we really do miss the visuals (despite the smart framing device of Six and Peri telling each other the story once safely back in the Tardis) but there is some lovely characterisation; Susan Sheridan, the original Trillian from the Hitch-hiker’s Guide, plays both an old lady and a young boy very effectively.

The story of Elisabeth Klein continues (by rather odd coincidence, I know an Elisabeth Gross; she is a rather different character). For the first time (I think) BF have done a single-episode story followed by a three-parter. The singleton, Klein’s Tale, fills in the gaps for us between Klein growing up in a world where the Germans won the second world war, because the Seventh Doctor was cut down in a hail of bullets in 1943, and her unintentional screwing up of her own time line by appearing in Colditz. I thought it was a really neat idea – particularly when the mysterious Johann Schmidt turns up, with his knowledge of the Tardis, played by a very familiar voice. I don’t know if it will appeal to listeners who aren’t familiar with the back story, but I liked it a lot – my favourite of this month’s releases.

Can’t quite say the same for the companion play, Survival of the Fittest, which attempts to treat genocide and fascism about as successfully as The Suffering did with gender oppression. The aliens were decent enough but the political analysis not even up to undergraduate level.

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