March Books

I'm way behind on book write-ups from my just-concluded trip (which involved one flight departing at 7 am and another at 4 am; and I rarely sleep on planes), but for the record here is my tally for the month of March.

Non-fiction 0 (YTD 14)

Fiction (other than sf) 4 (YTD 8)
Beggars Banquet, by Ian Rankin
Desolation Island, by Patrick O'Brian
Savrola, by Winston Churchill
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco

SF (other than Who) 7 (YTD 21)
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
The War of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Waters Rising, by Sheri S. Tepper
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers
The End Specialist, by Drew Magary
Hull Zero Three, by Greg Bear

Doctor Who etc 8 (YTD 24)
Almost Perfect, by James Goss
The Plotters, by Gareth Roberts
Strange England, by Simon Messingham
Frontier Worlds, by Peter Anghelides
The Krillitane Storm, by Christopher Cooper
Borrowed Time, by Naomi A. Alderman
Into the Silence, by Sarah Pinborough
Darkstar Academy, by Mark Morris

Comics 0 (YTD 2)

Running totals
~6,000 pages (YTD ~20,600)
4/19 (YTD 16/69) by women (Tepper, Rogers, Alderman, Pinborough)
0/19 (YTD 1/69) by PoC (must do better)
Owned for more than a year: 7/19 (Frontier Worlds, Beggars Banquet, Strange England, The Plotters [reread], The War of the Ring, Desolation Island, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana)
Other rereads: 0 for total of 1 (YTD 4/69)

Big 2012 reading projects:
March 31 takes me to Book V, Chapter VII of War and Peace, and the end of 2 Samuel in the Bible.

Also started:
A History of God
, by Karen Armstrong
Washington Square, by Henry James
Rule 34, by Charles Stross

Coming next, perhaps:
The Godmother's Apprentice
, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda N. McIntyre
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
The Great Wall of China, by Franz Kafka
Among Others, by Jo Walton

The Word in the Desert, by Douglas Burton-Christie
The Great O'Neill, by Sean O'Faolain
Tickling the English, by Dara O Briain
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant
Hard Times, by Charles Dickens
The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865, by Van Wyck Brooks
The Best Science Fiction of the Year #4, ed. by Terry Carr
Sphere, by Michael Crichton
A Good Hanging and other stories, by Ian Rankin
Invasion of the Cat-People, by Gary Russell
Sauron Defeated by J.R.R. Tolkien
Surface Detail, by Iain M. Banks
First Frontier, by David A. McIntee
Parallel 59, by Natalie Dallaire

The Taking Of Chelsea 426, by David Llewellyn
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
(struck through = read in March)

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Identifying the author: Winston Spencer Churchill

I am on the road this week, and am therefore overdue bookblogging entries for (as of right now) abour half a dozen books. One of those is Savrola, the only novel of future British Prime Minister Winston Specncer Churchill (as opposed to the much better-known-in-his-day American novelist Winston Churchill). Savrola is the story of a liberal revolutionary leader overthrowing a dictatorial ruler; the latter at one point experiments with whipping up popular support by picking a fight with the British, and reflects as follows:

“I think,” said the President, “that the English Government also have to keep the electorate amused. It is a Conservative ministry; they must keep things going abroad to divert the public mind from advanced legislation.”

Well done , and .

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29 March 1912

We shall stick it out
to the end, but we
are getting weaker of
course and the end
cannot be far.

It seems a pity but
I do not think I can
write more.
      R. Scott.

Last entry.
For God’s sake look
after our People.

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March Books 10) The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers

Another of this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees, languishing at the end of the GoodReads / LibraryThing stats with The Waters RisingMr. Wroe's Virgins, but I get the impression that her work has often teetered on the edge of the genre, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb is certainly sf. I was really impressed with it; it felt in some way to be a response to the Wyndham-esque cosy catastrophe, in that it is a story of an ordinary middle-class girl in Manchester and what happens to her when catastrophe strikes. In this case the catastrophe is that the entire of humanity becomes infected with a condition where pregnant women die; Jessie Lamb volunteers to be part of a scheme for ensuring that the human race survives despite the appalling consequences for herself. It's not a very cheerful book, but I found it pretty vivid, and at the moment it's my pick among the nominees I have read.

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March Books 9) Desolation Island, by Patrick O’Brian

I read the first two Aubrey/Maturin books many many years ago, and while I enjoyed them I never quite got into the habit of pursuing the series. A couple of years back I picked up Desolation Island from Bookmooch (which seems incidentally to have lurched back into activity in the last month or so, which is good news) and have now submitted to various people’s urgings in my last couple of what-shall-I-read-next-year posts and digested it.

It is a cracking good read. There’s an awful lot packed in here; apart from the basic plot of Aubrey commanding a mission both transporting convicts and recsuing Bligh (of Bounty fame) and Maturin finding his personal and political allegiances increasingly tangled as the War of 1812 looms. Loads of the ship’s crew are killed by violence or disease. The high point of the book is an engagement with a Dutch ship, brilliantly described from Aubrey’s point of view as a testing to destruction of both vessels; the victorious but severely damaged British limp to what we now call Kerguelen Island, the island of the title of the book, and have a diplomatically tricky encounter with an American crew while they are there. O’Brian’s sensitivity to language and nuance is rather lovely, and I shall try and develop this habit a little more.

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Identify the author

Extract from a novel published in 1900; who wrote it?

“I think,” said the President, “that the English Government also have to keep the electorate amused. It is a Conservative ministry; they must keep things going abroad to divert the public mind from advanced legislation.”

And no sneaky Googling!

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March Books 8) The Waters Rising, by Sheri S. Tepper

All strength to Sheri S. Tepper! She will turn 83 this summer (she was born seven months after Philip K. Dick, three months before Ursula Le Guin) and keeps on turning out works dancing on the borderline of fantasy and science fiction, with deathly earnest political purpose. Her works repeatedly test Clarke’s Third Law to destruction, which is why it is appropriate enough that this latest novel has been nominated for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award.

I don’t think it will win. There is a brilliant concept behind it all of the future of humanity in a world where environmental catastrophe will swallow the land, and some impressive description and also misdirection of the reader as to where the focus of the plot really is. But I’m afraid there is also too much infodumping in the early chapters. Still the overall vision is daring – how will the first post-human children be born? – and well executed after the early glitches. And it is good to see a writer who I think has not received her due appearing on the shortlist even at this late stage of her career.

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Clarke Award shortlist

As Martin Lewis has mercilessly chronicled, I correctly predicted four of the six shortlisted novels for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Just to update the table I posted then, with the 1 March figures in parentheses:

Goodreads Librarything
number average number average
Embassytown, China Miéville 2819 (2539) 3.85 825 (787) 3.95
Rule 34, Charles Stross 1206 (1087) 3.56 354 (335) 3.75
Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear 849 (791) 3.23 299 (292) 3.35
The End Specialist (The Post-Mortal), Drew Magary 1072 (927) 3.83 171 (158) 3.74
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers 139 (128) 2.96 84 (81) 3.17
The Waters Rising, Sherri S. Tepper 167 (163) 3.47 75 (70) 3.23

Though it may not be immediately obvious, the big relative winner in the last three and a half weeks is Drew Magary's The End Specialist, which has 15.6% more entries on Goodreads and 8.2% on LibraryThing, comfortably ahead of the field in both cases. However in absolute terms, Embassytown is still far ahead, accounting for 45-46% of all copies of any of the six books, surprisingly consistently whether you count books registered as of 1 March, or registered as of today, or registered between the two dates. Rule 34 is also still ahead of The End Specialist in absolute numbers, and so is Hull Zero Three among LibraryThing users. The Testament of Jessie Lamb and The Waters Rising remain far behind. (The Waters Rising posted a big relative gain among LibraryThing users but from a very low base.)

I'm behind on reviewing (and have a busy week ahead, so it will be some time before I catch up); so far I have read Embassytown, The Testament of Jessie Lamb and The Waters Rising, and have made a start on Hull Zero Three and The End Specialist. I shall make a considered judgement when I have finished them all, but for me Jessie Lamb is way ahead so far.

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March Books 7) Strange England, by Simon Messingham

It was interesting to read this Seventh Doctor novel at the same time as the new Fourth Doctor audio The Renaissance Man, in that both involved Victorian-ish settings which turn out to be in some way representations of an inner space. This was apparently Messingham’s first book, but it’s a good combination of insect horror, worlds within worlds, and a new figure from the Doctor’s Gallifreyan past which casts a new light on his motivations. Ghost Light with mind projections, perhaps. One of the more memorable ones.

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March Books 6) Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay has written some amazing books, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them. In Under Heaven he has moved away from his usual fantasy European setting and gone for a barely fictionalised account of a real incident from Chinese history, and for once I felt that his fidelity to the original facts got in the way of telling a good story. The plot is one of political, military and sexual tension; there are a couple of small fantasy elements which are so marginal that it hardly seems worth including them; and there is a poet who, thank god, does not inflict too much poetry on us. It’s not a bad book, but disappointing in the context of Kay’s earlier heights of achievement.

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Links I found interesting for 24-03-2012

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Links I found interesting for 23-03-2012

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Coincidence or retribution? You decide

I woke up this morning to find an amusing blog entry from my old friend and former colleague Mark Mullen. Mark runs the local branch of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and he was posting online his carefully thought-out response to the EU's request for "your views on the future policy of the EU with regard to support to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in development".

Basically Mark feels that soliciting input via email in a public policy consultation is a mistake, and it would be better to set up on-line forums as a more interactive, interesting and productive use of time. He concludes, a little cynically,

Increasingly, “email us your thoughts and ideas” is being used by those who don’t really want those thoughts and ideas but want to say they have asked, so participation will continue to shrink as others are warmer to the idea of encouraging a conversation.

and then throws in an optimistic final thought,

I know that is not the case with this effort, but it may apear that way to some.

The kicker to all of Mark's carefully thought out argument is that the email address given for input into the European Commission's consultation actually bounces.

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification.
Delivery to the following recipients failed.
Final-Recipient: rfc822;
Action: failed
Status: 5.1.1

I thought this was sufficiently interesting that I immediately posed Mark's blog entry on Twitter and Facebook. Mark is very well known in the small circle of those who care about Georgia, but I suspect that only I and the Georgian Ambassador are reading his blog in Brussels. I'm glad to say that I immediately got a response from the head of the European Commission's office in London:

Antonia Mochan ‏ @euonymblog
@nwbrux noted and brought to attention of relevant people.

Of course, what she didn't know, and Mark didn't know, was that this afternoon at 2pm I actually was scheduled to meet the relevant European Commissioner whose underlings had put out this rather bogus call for input. I was to be the most junior member of a delegation which was meeting him on another topic entirely, so I doubted that I would have a chance to bring the subject up, but I found the coincidence amusing.

Well, would you believe it: at 1.55 pm, I was actually waiting in the lobby of the Berlaymont for the rest of my group to arrive when I was notified by text message that the Commission had determined that my presence at the meeting was not desired. As I said before, I was the most junior member of the delegation, and if one person was to be shed, it was always going to be me. But I do wonder if this may also have been partly the result of my earlier tweet being "brought to the attention of the relevant people".

Coincidence or retribution? You decide.

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Links I found interesting for 22-03-2012

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March Books 5) The Plotters, by Gareth Roberts

I had given this First Doctor story a try once before, and thoroughly bounced off it, but for the sake of completeness I thought I should give it another go. It’s not quite as bad as I thought first time round – in particular, I retract the accusation that the book itself is anti-Catholic – but the number of historical and linguistic solecisms is still far too great for me to appreciate what I will admit is a reasonably well-constructed plot, with quite a nice twist at the end about Guy Fawkes. (Among other irritations: several characters reminisce about the King’s father, who had in reality been assassinated almost forty years earlier in another country; the Lord chamberlain of the day was actually the naval hero and aristocrat the Earl of Suffolk, not the buffoonish and anonymous bureaucrat here; and the portrayal of priests, monks and nuns is utterly anachronistic.) Readers less burdened with knowledge of the period than I am may well enjoy it more than I did.

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Links I found interesting for 20-03-2012

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March Books 4) The War of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

More in-depth analysis of the story of how The Lord of the Rings was written. We start at Helm’s Deep, and follow through the end of Book III and Book IV (ie most of The Two Towers and then all of Book V (first half of The Return of the King). Tolkien’s biggest problem was getting the chronology to work between four separated groups of protagonists so that they would eventually end up in the same place at the same time; placing the Paths of the Dead smoothly in the narrative was a challenge as well – it’s probably the longest single flashback sequence in a book that generally avoids them.

The process of typing up the Helm’s Deep / Isengard chapters of The Two Towers seems to have lost a few sentences from Tolkien’s manuscript – none crucial but it seems to me that a “definitive” edition of LotR should be published which would at least include them in footnotes.

Finally, I was amused to see that the last person mentioned in the preface by Christopher Tolkien, thanking him for explaining an English folk-song reference, is one Mr. Neil Gaiman.

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March Books 3) Beggars Banquet, by Ian Rankin

Now that I’ve read all the Rebus novels, that only leaves the short story collections (and Rankin’s other books). The stories in this collection varyin in length from full novella (a variation on the opening of Dead Souls) to a few pages; about half of them have Rebus solving a mystery, and the weaker stories tend to be from the other half. Generally good and entertaining stuff, though.

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Links I found interesting for 19-03-2012

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Links I found interesting for 18-03-2012

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I do enjoy it when a slightly peevish Facebook post attracts comments from a 77-year-old German-based English folk singer and a former chef de cabinet to the Albanian Prime Minister.

Edited to add: Kind of the ex-foreign minister of Slovakia to indicate that he liked the post too.

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Five Irish history books (plus three)

Given the day that's in it, I though I would list five books about Irish history which I would strongly recommend:

1) William Marshal : court, career, and chivalry in the Angevin Empire, by David Crouch

William Marshall (1147-1219) was not in at the start of British rule in Ireland, but he came fairly close: in 1189 he married Isabella de Clare, the daughter of Richard "Strongbow" Earl of Pembroke and grand-daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, the last Gaelic King of Leinster; the last thirty years of his life were spent balancing the demands of running a huge Irish inheritance which he had never expected along with the high politics of the courts of Richard I and King John, a story which ended with him being appointed regent of both England and Ireland after John's unexpected death. While not a lot of Crouch's book is about Ireland per se, the increasing entanglement of both the Plantagenet dynasty and William Marshal himself with the island is an important element of the story.

2) The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates, by Des Ekin

Today is a day when Ireland is particularly celebrated in the English-speaking world, but there are connections with other places as well, including North Africa. In 1631 almost the entire population of Baltimore in County Cork was kidnapped in a pirate raid and sold into slavery in Algiers. The book is a wee bit journalistic, but entertaining and informative, and explains why, when the possibility of ransom came up fifteen years later, only two of the abductees opted to return. The North Atlantic was a vast network of commerce in goods and people, the pirate chief in question eventually retiring to New Amsterdam, where some of his descendants are very well known indeed.

3) Early Belfast: The Origins and Growth of an Ulster Town to 1750, by Raymond Gillespie

This list reflects my own obsessions, but I think this very short history of the origins of my place of birth has a lot going for it. Belfast was founded not long before New Amsterdam/New York, and the populations of the two were more or less level pegging for the first few decades, though Belfast suffered more from internal and external conflict, which must have hampered growth, and New York's natural hinterland is, er, a little bigger than Belfast's. I learned from this that the story I had been taught at school about the town's origins around High Street was completely wrong; the axis of the medieval settlement was a block to the south along what is now Anne Street, and the seventeenth-century town was concentrated a block to the north around Waring Street. Only 180 pages.

4) Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, by Charles Townshend

A superb analysis of one of the turning points of Irish history, the week in April 1916 when the centre of Dublin (and, as Townshend reminds us, a few other places around the island) were briefly held by rebels before they were shelled into submission and their leaders executed. I learned a lot from it – the British had almost no intelligence capacity in Ireland before the rebellion; even the Pope had been told about it in advance, but Her Majesty's Government was caught completely by surprise. Townshend also dissects the (lack of) military strategy which informed the planning of the rebellion and situated the whole affair in the context of the Irish politics of the first decade and a half of the twentieth century.

5) Report of the The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, by The Rt Hon The Lord Saville of Newdigate (Chairman), The Hon Willian Hoyt OC and The Hon John Toohey AC

I read all ten volumes of this soon after it was published two years ago (see my notes on volumes I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX and X) and came away feeling that the costs and effort involved were very much worth while. If Easter 1916 was a turning point at the start of the twentieth century, 30 January 1972 was a turning point in the Troubles; the use of deadly violence against unarmed civilians on such a scale by state forces, and the state's failure to account for its actions, handed political momentum to exponents of armed struggle in a way which until then might just have been avoidable. It took 28 years but the truth was eventually established, in enormous detail, by the Inquiry, and while there is still room for disagreement with the report's findings, at least we now have a view of the facts which is unlikely ever to be surpassed.

And three extra:

Church and State in Modern Ireland, 1923-1979 by John Henry Whyte – the book that established my father's reputation, still a very readable account of Irish politics in general (not just church-state relations) in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Interpreting Northern Ireland by John Henry Whyte – finished just before he died in 1990, but supplied an important analytical framework to understand what was going on during the Troubles, whose influence reached pretty far.
Science, Colonialism, and Ireland by Nicholas Whyte – all you could possibly ever want to know about the history of science in Ireland between 1890 and 1930.

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Links I found interesting for 16-03-2012

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Interesting Links for 14-03-2012

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