Links I found interesting for 31-05-2013

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May Books 22) Aldébaran 4: La Groupe, by Leo

I do like this particular sequence; Li, who has been in a relationship with the rather younger Marc, calmly tells him that she always knew it was only a matter of time before he realised his true feelings for Kim; in the last frame, Kim's expression is brilliant (as is Marc's) while Li is already on the lookout for her next lover.

In this penultimate album of the five that make up the Aldébaran sequence, it all comes together: Marc and Kim finally realise their attraction for one another, and together with most of the mysterious people they have encountered in the previous three volumes, they find themselves on a vast airship heading for the mystery at the core of their world – pursued by agents of the clericalist oppressive government which appears to be determined to stop them. I do hope that the last volume rounds this narrative off properly – the buildup so far has been very good.

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May Books 21) Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

When the Hidden Schools threw Tara Abernathy out, she fell a thousand feet through wisps of cloud and woke to find herself alive, broken, and bleeding, beside the Crack in the World.

One of the novels included in the Hugo Voter Pack to represent the author’s œuvre (so far) for the Campbell Award. It’s a decent enough fantasy novel with some vivid steampunk moments; I felt it comparable to Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is a Hugo nominee in its own right, in that the setting is more imaginative but the writing not quite as passionate.

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May Books 20) Toward the End of Time, by John Updike

My body fluids are leaking out into the community.

I'm trying to find comments made to my annual book polls here where kindly friends advised me to skip this depressing, miserable piece of whining, but apparently I imagined it. Author who hasn't done much sf writes a post-apocalypse novel where the decline of society mirrors the narrator's the decline into old age, and thinks it's something special. Avoid.

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May Books 19) Miracles of Life, by J.G. Ballard

In reality there are two Cambridges, the faculties on the one hand – history, physics, archaeology and so on – where research, lectures and laboratory work take place, and the colleges, which are residential clubs that provide poor food, a small amount of often poor teaching and the bulk of the myths about the Cambridge lifestyle. I was very happy with the first, and bored stiff by the latter.

This is a brilliant book – passionate, opinionated, reflective, sometimes angry and occasionally self-critical; fascinating on the details of life in Shanghai before and during WW2 (a fifth of his life, which takes up almost half of the book).

Empire of the Sun comes back towards the end, with an account of how Spielberg made the film of Ballard's book about his wartime experiences, but apart from that there is a lot of interesting reflection on how he became a writer, why in particular he chose science fiction – shown as a fairly calculated choice rather than instinct – and the rewards of being a parent to three children. It's rare I would say this of a book, but I actually wished it had been twice as long.

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Links I found interesting for 30-05-2013

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Wednesday reading

Aldébaran, tome 4: Le Groupe, by Leo (half way through)
Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone (almost finished)
The Gondola Scam, by Jonathan Gash (half way through)
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins (just started)

Last books finished
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
Grandville: Bête Noire, by Bryan Talbot
Tip of the Tongue, by Patrick Ness
The Peoples of Middle Earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: an Autobiography, by J. G. Ballard
Toward the End of Time, by John Updike

Next books
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Hugo nominees)
The Irish Constitutional Revolution of the Sixteenth Century, by Brendan Bradshaw (Tudor Ireland)
The Complete Stories of Zora Neale Hurston (birthday present)

Books acquired in last week:
London trip:
Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
[Doctor Who] A History Of The Universe In 100 Objects, by Steve Tribe and James Goss
[Doctor Who] The Dalek Generation, by Nicholas Briggs
[Doctor Who] Shroud of Sorrow, by Tommy Donbavand
[Doctor Who] Plague of the Cybermen, by Justin Richards
[Doctor Who] Tip of the Tongue, by Patrick Ness
Also acquired
Between the Acts, by Virginia Woolf
A Man of Parts, by David Lodge
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn

LT Unread books tally: 460 (several uncatalogued books also found on the shelves during a weekend stocktake…)

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Links I found interesting for 29-05-2013

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2013 Hugos: Best Novelette

Now that the Hugo Voter Pack is out, I’m working through the various folders and files; in response to one query, all the fiction (as far as I’ve checked) is available in .mobi and .epub formats as well as PDF. I’ve been reading them on iPhone/iPad in Kindle format (ie .mobi).

I liked this list more than the novels but less than the novellas. There was one that I felt definitely should not win, and my top vote is not very far ahead of my fourth.

5) “Rat-Catcher”, by Seanan McGuire. This was the story whose failure to spot the difference between Irish and Celtic, combined with anachronistic expressions, annoyed me last weekend.

4) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. An interesting concept, a tragic love story between two kids who are different from the rest – one made of glass, the other transparent in a different way. Marred by some misprints and infelicities of expression which should have been caught by the editor (eg “fuckup up” for “fucked up”).

3) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, by Seanan McGuire again. Like “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, a gay love story in which our protagonists face additional problems through not being exactly human, in this case shape-shifters with a difficult family heritage.

2) “The Girl Who Went Out For Sushi”, by Pat Cadigan. Story of post-humans exploring the moons of Jupiter, and the girl who wants to be like them. Some glorious use of language, and I may yet change my mind and put this first. It’s also the closest the list comes to traditional sf (not a recommendation necessarily, but an observation).

1) “Fade to White”, by Catherynne M. Valente. A series of vivid vignettes from an alternate history where McCarthy became President and infertility is widespread due to nuclear war; American society is constrained to promote reproduction. I don’t always like Valente’s style but this largely worked for me.

See also: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

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Ten years on: my Livejournal anniversary

pointed out to me the other day that 21 May was the tenth birthday of this Livejournal. Happy birthday to it! This was the first entry, in which I met both Neil Gaiman and the then prime minister of Serbia, though I have since imported into LJ entries from two previous desultory attempts at blogging.

Livejournal is not what it was. My backdated f-list page from the day I started it has about 150 entries of the same date; ten years on it's more like 50. Glad to see that some people are still posting just as much now as they did then (and you know who you are, or at least you will when you look at the page); some have drifted away entirely, but others are simply expressing themselves elsewhere these days. I guess the peak may have been around 2005-2006, before the lure of Facebook and Twitter and the irritations of LJ's policies and performance eroded the momentum. I'm aware that I don't post as often as I did in the hey-day, or comment as much as I used to on other people's posts; I agree with whoever it was that suggested that those of us who are now reading stuff online on devices with crappy keyboards (or no keyboards at all) write less than we used to, because it is a less pleasant experience. I detected a modest revival of fortunes in LJ activity last year, but I doubt that it will ever return to former heights.

I've enjoyed it though, and I think I will keep it up until there is good reason to stop. I do like LJ's archiving of my thoughts about life, as opposed to the black hole of Facebook and the brevity of Twitter, and I regularly back up with ljarchive and onto mirrors at dreamwidth and my own site. I have got to know some very pleasant and very interesting people here – most recently I met , before her I think the aforementioned . I'm sorry to have lost those who have gone – particularly thinking here of , who I never met but who I had many excellent exchanges with before his unexpected departure from the scene, and also , and . Stay well, the rest of you, and keep writing when you can.

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Links I found interesting for 25-05-2013

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May Books 18) The Peoples of Middle-earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Since the ceaseless ‘making’ of his world extended from my father’s youth into his old age, The History of Middle-earth is in some sense also a record of his life, a form of biography, if of a very unusual kind. He had travelled a long road. He bequeathed to me a massive legacy of writings that made possible the tracing of that road, in as I hope its true sequence, and the unearthing of the deep foundations that led ultimately to the true end of his great history, when the white ship departed from the Grey Havens.

So I have come to the end of The History of Middle-earth, with this volume. The first two-thirds are about the composition of the appendices of LotR; the rest brings together some short essays, mostly unfinished. Two of these are rather interesting. “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” looks at how the original ‘þ’ became ‘s’ in Quenya but remained ‘þ’ in Sindarin, as in the name Sindacollo, the Quenya version of Thingol; Sindarin itself is a Quenya word, the Sindarin calling themselves the Egladhrim. There is also an intriguing late set of thoughts on the true identity of Glorfindel, who appears in quite different contexts in both LotR and the fall of Gondolin; one fascinating possibility is that he actually was killed in the First Age but allowed to return from the Halls of Mandos to accompany Gandalf on his mission, which would explain why the Nazgûl are particularly perturbed by him.

There is also the fragment of The New Shadow, a sequel to LotR which clearly wasn’t going anywhere; it is a story of boyhood orchard-robbing near Minas Tirith which didn’t quite come together. It’s been rather instructive to see the number of false starts Tolkien made on what might have been substantial works – The Lost Road, The Notion Club Papers, and his various attempts, all pretty unsuccessful, to tell the story of Ëarendil. These are not journeyman pieces; they were mostly written when Tolkien was already a published author. Fortunately, of course, he had the luxury of abandoning lines of writing that were just not working out (though he went back to Ëarendil several times over). But it’s worth remembering that  many good pieces of writing have quite a lot of less good writing from the same pen behind and below them, most of which we readers will never see.

Most people will either buy all twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, or none of them. My recommendation for the curious is to try the tenth of the sequence, Morgoth’s Ring, with its essay on elf sex among other interesting fragments. As for me, I’ve got John Rateliff’s two volumes about The Hobbit on the shelf, and a few other bits of Tolkieniana; so I shall not get bored.

May Books 17) Tip of the Tongue, by Patrick Ness

“Honestly,” Nettie said, shaking her head again. “The lies people tell themselves and call it the truth.”

These wee Puffin Doctor Who ebooks are having a good run right now. Here we have the celebrated Patrick Ness, delivering a very solid tale of two marginal teenagers in wartime Maine, finding themselves dealing with a peculiar fad for truth-telling gadgets which turn out to be alien tech, with a mysterious celery-wearing stranger and his scandalously dressed companion all mixed up with it as well. This is the first of the books in this series which is not told from the tight narrative viewpoint of Doctor or companion, and all the better for it.

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May Books 16) Grandville: Bête Noire, by Bryan Talbot

Short listed for this year’s Hugos, this is another in Talbot’s alternate history of Grandville, where most people are anthropomorphised animals and England is only now recovering from two hundred years of French rule after defeat at Waterloo. As well as taking us to the dark heart of political conspiracy, with overtones of Tintin (and also, frankly, Dangermouse), Talbot reflects art history too in his distorted gaze; the character here illustrated is one Jackson Pollo, and he refers in an afterword to the CIA’s funding of Abstract Expressionism. It’s a witty, absurd and also rather bleak story. I will find it tough to choose between this and Saucer Country for the Hugo.

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May Books 15) A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

Telling history through things is what museums are for.

This brilliant book accompanies the brilliant series of podcasts which I listened to a couple of years ago. It is the same hundred objects from the British museum’s collection, but this time in dead tree format. The individual talks, which were 11-14 minutes on the radio, are down to 5-7 pages here, so I think quite substantially cut; but what we get in return is pictures of the actual objects, which radio cannot give. Actually in most cases I felt I actually had got a fairly good impression of the objects’ appearance from listening to the audio version, but there were a couple where the picture does make a big difference – the sexually explicit Warren Cup, and the extraordinarily detailed mechanical galleon of Augsburg. Anyway, it is all very nicely done (though I did notice as I browsed the maps at the end that none of the objects is from, er, Ireland).

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Georgian restaurant in London

Having reached London too late to get to last night’s BSFA meeting, I persuaded – who I had not seen in over two decades – to try Georgian food. There are in fact several Georgian restaurants in London, but the handiest by far, which also seemed to have a decent write-up in Time Out, was Iberia at 294 Caledonian Road, just north of King’s Cross. It was really yummy; all the proper recipes, served with Georgian wine, though there were a couple of gaps on the menu (sadly they were out of tarragon-flavoured lemonade). Strongly recommended, especially the khinkali.

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Wednesday reading

The Peoples of Middle Earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien (two thirds through)
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (nearly finished)
The Gondola Scam, by Jonathan Gash (half way through)
Grandville: Bête Noire, by Bryan Talbot (half way through)

Last books finished
Vincent, by Barbara Stok
Vincent van Gogh: De Worsteling van een Kunstenaar, by Marc Verhaegen and Jan Kragt

“I have an Idea for a Book …”: The Bibliography of Martin H. Greenberg
The Crocodile by the Door, by Selina Guinness
Final Sacrifice, by Tony Lee
Magic of the Angels, by Jacqueline Rayner

Next books
Toward the End of Time, by John Updike
Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: an Autobiography, by J.G. Ballard

Books acquired in last week:
Hugo voter pack:
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
Locke & Key: Clockworks, Vol. 5 by Joe Hill
Grandville Bête Noire by Bryan Talbot
“I have an Idea for a Book …”: The Bibliography of Martin H. Greenberg
A couple of Who books:
Hunter's Moon by Paul Finch
Magic of the Angels, by Jacqueline Rayner
Anne's birthday presents:
Japanese Number Puzzles by Tony Yoogi
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
The Saint Zita Society by Ruth Rendell
The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies
Lost At Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley

LT Unread books tally: 449

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Two graphic novels about Vincent van Gogh

Not as the result of any particular forward planning, we got two newish graphic novels about Vincent van Gogh recently: Vincent van Gogh: De Worsteling van een Kunstenaar, by Marc Verhaegen and Jan Kragt (also available in English); and Vincent, by my favourite Dutch comics writer Barbara Stok, which we got in English translation. Both are sponsored by the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, making the most of their cultural assets. It should also be said that part of van Gogh’s legacy is precisely to challenge all visual artists to match his depth and quality of expression, and this may weigh particularly heavily on his fellow Dutch speakers: Verhaegen is perhaps the leading Flemish comics artist of today, and Stok (whose other work I love) is a rising star of the genre in the Netherlands.

The two take surprisingly divergent approaches to their subject. Verhaegen’s drawing style is much more realistic than Stok’s; the colours and settings are lush and he includes references to a lot of van Gogh’s works in individual frames. But in terms of text and storyline, he and Kragt opt for edutainment: van Gogh’s biography is recounted to us via a series of infodumps, while a loose linking narrative has a comical art fancier called Dupont (perhaps a Tintin reference, though there is only one of him) chasing a lost van Gogh sketch through Paris. Stok, on the other hand, has a much more cartooney drawing style but sticks much closer to van Gogh’s own viewpoint during his crucial time in Provence, including substantial quotes from his correspondence with his brother (which I was surprised to learn was originally in French, at least during the last years of his life). A key difference between the books is how they portray his hallucinations: Verhaegen shows the scenery turning into lurid and detailed scary monsters to threaten him, while Stok shows us the artist’s despair as his world appears to disintegrate. Verhaegen and Kragt give us quite a good portrait of how van Gogh came across to other people; Stok gives us a strong sense of how he might have thought of himself.

(One other very trivial difference is that the Belgian Verhaegen devotes several pages to the young van Gogh’s time in Belgium, whereas the Dutch Stok barely mentions it.)

These are both good books. Verhaegen’s art is more gorgeous, but Stok’s sparse style is also pretty evocative; and she gets a strong sense of authenticity by using her subject’s own words. Well worth getting both if you are a comics fan with even a mild interest in Van Gogh, or vice versa.

Paul Gauguin patronises van Gogh in Verhaegen and Kragt.

Van Gogh fails to impress some new friends, as shown by Stok.

May Books 12) “I have an Idea for a Book …”: The Bibliography of Martin H. Greenberg

The Hugo Voter Pack is out! So I have merrily downloaded all the nominees I hadn’t already read (and a few that I had), and started with this from the Best Related Work category.

Unfortunately it’s not very interesting.

Dr. Martin H. Greenberg (1941-2011) was the most prolific anthologist and book packager in the world. During his nearly 40-year career in publishing, he created 1,310 anthologies (including 199 single author collections) and more than 950 novels, along with 228 nonfiction books, for a total of almost 2,500 published works. During this time, he commissioned more than 8,350 original short stories and reprinted more than 13,300 short stories (including 807 novels).

This is a list of all of the books he edited, including ebooks, and it will be useful to people who find this sort of thing useful. The authorship attribution is a bit puzzling; there is a short introduction by John Helfers, but no indication that he assembled the rest of the material (indeed he is explicitly given copyright only for the introduction); the very short biographical sketch from which I quote above is listed in the contents page as “Commentary by Martin H. Greenberg” but clearly isn’t, as it refers to him in the past tense and is cast in the first person plural, without ever saying who “we” are. I read the three pages of introductory material, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I even skimmed the rest.

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May Books 11) The Crocodile by the Door, by Selina Guinness

I'm coming back to Tibradden, to live with Charles again. I've driven down from Belfast with boxes stacked on the back seat; Colin will follow with the rest of his belongings when his term has finished.

Selina was one of my brother's college friends at TCD, and I always vaguely regretted not getting to know her better, and wondered what she ended up doing. Well, she ended up taking on the (small, run-down) family estate in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, and combining the burdens of twenty-first century farming with her academic career and family. This is an extraordinary book about dealing with changes in family and society, beautifully written, lucidly and emotionally told, and with no punches pulled in her own self-examination of dealing with the intricacies of both family commitments and government bureaucracy, in the years of the inflation and bursting of the Irish property bubble. It's brilliant and you should all go and get it. (I see it's just out in paperback as well.)

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May Books 10) Final Sacrifice, by Tony Lee and others.

scan0006Third (and last) in the series of IDW Tenth Doctor comic books that started with Fugitive and continued with Tesseract. Tony Lee’s narrative achieves a very happy union with Matthew Dow Smith’s art here, and the story arc arc is rounded off dramatically and satisfactorily. The book is rounded out with three stories from the 2010 Doctor Who Annual, which I now realise I hadn’t read; they too are very good. NB that the old man in the first story is called Barnaby Edwards…

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Nit-picking about the Celtic Otherworld of 1666

If you set a story in a Celtic Otherworld which is co-located with London, your otherworldly Celts are not all that likely to speak Irish; a lost eastern dialect of Welsh is more probable.

If you set a story in 1666, and your viewpoint character does not have access to time-travel, he probably would not be familiar with the concepts of telegraphing, or oxygen.

Just saying, like.

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A letter from George Bernard Shaw

Somewhere around 1994 I did some research for my PhD in the archives of the Plunkett Foundation near Oxford, as its founder – Sir Horace Plunkett – was quite important to my topic. In the end I found his own diary of rather little use, but I did come across this excellent letter about him from George Bernard Shaw, written to Margaret Digby (who Shaw assumed was male) in 1948, sixteen years after Plunkett's death, when Shaw was 92 but clearly still with it.

            16th June 1948

Dear Mr [sic] Digby,
      By all means quote as much as you please of my correspondence with H[orace] P[lunkett]. There were more interesting letters than the one you copied for me; but he may not have kept them.
      I do not envy you your job. Plunkett was a puzzle. He devoted his life to the service of his fellow creatures collectively; and personally he disliked them all. He kept open house in Foxrock for all visitors of any note, rich or poor, to Ireland; and he hated all his guests. He remained a bachelor for the sake of Lady Fingal[l], and was unquestionably in love with her; yet I never felt convinced that he quite liked her. He took the chair as a matter of course at all meetings in which he was interested. I have, perhaps, more experience of public meetings than most people; and I can testify that he ranked first among the very worst chairmen on earth. He went round the Congested Districts to persuade Irish farmers whose farms were uneconomic to move into better holdings: a task which would have taxed the persuasive powers of a barrister earning £20,000 a year, and took with him small schoolmasters of the £150 type, who could only make Plunkett's offer in the baldest terms, and when it was refused say no more than "Well, you are a very foolish man". Except within his own class he was a bad mixer.
      And yet with all this against him he was an amiable man whom nobody could dislike, a highly talented writer with a sense of humor [sic], great political intelligence, and tireless public spirit, the greatest political Irishman of his time.
      I liked him thoroughly and always stayed at Foxrock when I went to Ireland even after I found out that his hatred of his guests probably included me.
      I repeat, you will find it hard to do justice to a man of such high virtues hampered by so many trivial contradictions.
                        G.Bernard Shaw

I’ve linked to a few explanatory articles and pictures. The original letter is here and here.

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Links I found interesting for 19-05-2013

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