August Books 29) In Loco Parentis, by Ken Riley

In Loco Parentis: A light-hearted look at the role of a Cambridge Tutor is a memoir by Ken Riley, who was the Senior Tutor of Clare College, Cambridge, for 22 years from the 1970s to the 1990s, including my time there (1986-91). (If you want, you can download it from here.)

It's actually rather interesting and a little peculiar to see college life from the other side of the fence. He retells many incidents of college life, of which I was relieved to only recognise two – the bloke in Chapter 3 who forged his previous degree certificates to get a place at the college as a mature student, who was in my year, and the student to whose drunken climbing escapades the entirety of Chapter 9 is devoted, who was the year above me, both people who I knew by sight but neither particularly well. (I had not realised at the time that the Master's Lodge played a key role in both stories. The bloke of the bogus degree certificates was busted by the Master's secretary, after he ordered notepaper with the Master's own letterhead, preparing for the next round of forged credentials, from a printer who then followed up with their ostensible client. The drunken climber was busted when he threw up onto the windowsill of the Master's Lodge from the roof.) Much of the rest is plausible enough in terms of managing the college community, particularly in terms of how the college has had to react to the whims of changing government funding while maintaining a balanced admissions policy (where "balanced" means going for the brightest students from both state and private schools, and it helps if they are musical).

Perhaps the most generally interesting chapter is the one on how the various bits of the University of Cambridge manage to screw up examinations – one of the pithiest anecdotes concerns "two modern languages students entered for a Swedish literature paper [who] were presented with a paper containing only questions on works by Danish authors, none of whom they had ever heard of." This chapter includes a lot of material from an internally circulated set of reports on the exams between 1973 and 1993, which I suspect must be horrifying reading for anyone involved with setting and marking exams. There is also a chapter including three Christmas puzzles of fiendishly cryptic clues.

I must say I came away appreciating not so much the role of the Tutors – I am afraid I never got much value out of mine, a laid-back academic in a completely different discipline who died a few years back – as the role of the college's non-academic staff, who put up with a hell of a lot from students in particular but sometimes from academics as well. I did reach the end thinking much more kindly of the author, who was a rather fearsome presence in my college years (in fairness, he would probably have been less fearsome if I had worked as hard at my course as I did at other activities). There was perhaps more support available for struggling students than I realised, and I rather wish I had known that at the time. I think other Oxbridge alumni will enjoy the book as a mildly amusing reminiscence; but I would actually recommend it to any young people I knew who were thinking of going to Oxford or Cambridge, as a useful perspective.

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August Books 28) The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones

I had not realised that this is actually the fourth and final novel in a sequence of which I had read only the third, and that more than thirty years ago, so I found myself struggling a bit with events which were carried over from the previous volume. But it is certainly enjuoyable on its own, and I suspect is a good climax to the whole sequence of novels – our heroine, Maewen, is snatched two hundred years back in time to find herself playing a key role in the closing phase of a dynastic struggle between (fairly small) kingdoms, one of a small group who appear to have come together accidentally but actually are part of a larger plan of manipulation by the gods. A lot of DWJ’s trademark humanity in the face of awful challenges, and then an ending which brings the story back to Maewen’s present day. I wished I had read the others in the series, and now perhaps I shall.

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In Memoriam Seamus Heaney (1939-2013): from The Cure At Troy

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

Also, Heaney reads his Beowulf translation: Part 1, Part 2.

August Books 26) Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey, by Ian Rankin

In this book, Rankin pulls back the curtain to show us where Inspector Rebus came from. He introduces us to Fife, to Edinburgh, to Scotland as a whole, and to how his own personal history intersects with that of his creation. Rebus is older and more right-wing, but has mysteriously similar tastes in music to Rankin; they have lived on the same streets, and drunk in the same pubs. Rankin is not sure if he really likes Rebus; they have been too close for too long, with communication really only in one direction, for the relationship to be entirely healthy. It's thanks to Rebus that there is an Ian Rankin Close in their home town; the writer feels that this is a mixed blessing. It's a very good exploration of Scotland as a political and cultural entity, and how that is reflected in art.

There are some lovely photographs in the book, but they are badly presented, jammed into four different clutches and not well integrated with the text. I hope that a future edition will use better production methods to help readers appreciate them.

How quickly things can change. When this was published in 2006, Scottish devolution was half its present age; an SNP minority government appeared just possible, a majority government and an independence referendum were sheer fantasy. Now the Matter of Scotland looms over not just the United Kingdom but other parts of Europe as well.

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Wednesday reading

Royal Assassin, by Robin Hobb
The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, by Bryan Talbot
The Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie

Last books finished
The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie
Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, by Anne Chambers
Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
[Doctor Who] Spore, by Alex Scarrow
Rebus’s Scotland, by Ian Rankin
The Tunnel at the End of the Light, by Stefan Petrucha
The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones
In Loco Parentis, by Ken Riley

Next books
Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, by Katherine Ashenburg
The Theology of the Gospel of Mark, by W. R. Telford
The Queen’s Bastard, by C.E. Murphy

Books acquired in last week
The Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie
[Doctor Who] Spore, by Alex Scarrow
Patrick Leigh Fermor, by Artemis Cooper
In Loco Parentis, by Ken Riley

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An A-Z Book Meme

…to mark the end of the holiday, what better way to unwind after a two-day drive than with a book meme? With thanks to for flagging it up.

Author you've read the most books by:
Almost certainly Terrance Dicks. I have read 80 of his Doctor Who books, with two more on the shelf. Next after him are Roger Zelazny, William Shakespeare and Terry Pratchett.

Best sequel ever:
Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay. The first book in the sequence, Sailing to Sarantium, sets up a vividly realised alternate history of Justinian, Belisarius and Theodora, and the bloke who is called in to design the equivalent of the Hagia Sofia. But the sequel takes this promising start, broadens the geographical picture, brutally compresses and twists the history from our own timeline, and triumphs.

Currently Reading:
The Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie
Royal Assassin, by Robin Hobb
The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones
The Adventures Of Luther Arkwright by Bryan Talbot

Drink of choice while reading:
Black tea. Sometimes beer.

E-reader or physical book:
I have a lot of physical books on the shelf, and they are much easier to share with family and friends. However if it is a book that I don't expect the rest of the household to be interested in, or that I am in a hurry to get to, it's the e-reader. (These days that means the iPad/iPhone, usually with the Kindle app but sometimes iBooks.)

Fictional character you probably actually would have dated in high school:
I think I would have gazed across the classroom at Jo Walton's Morwenna until she took the initiative. (Having said that, she was at an all-girls school, so it might have been tricky to arrange.)

Glad you gave this book a chance:
Not sure how to answer this one. I note that I have reported that every Hemingway book I have read was much better than I expected.

Hidden gem book:
The one I recommend to everyone is Ali and Nino, by "Kurban Said", the great love story of the South Caucasus, set in and around Baku before, during and after the First World War, combining vivid cultural descriptions (the scene varies from Dagestan to Iran) with a classic romance plot, all in a surprisingly short number of pages. The identity of the author remains contested, though I am convinced that it was Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish convert to Islam whose mother had Stalin round for tea.

Important moment in your reading life:
When I read in a biography of Roger Zelazny that he planned out his reading so that he always had at least an sf book, a history book, a biography or autobiography, and a non-sf novel on the go. I had already been bookblogging for about a year, but decided to give this planning concept a try and have greatly enjoyed setting up and maintaining reading lists ever since. LibraryThing has been a great help there.
Another important point was after the racefail kerfuffle when I decided to monitor the diversity of my own reading, and to deliberately ensure I read more books by women and people of colour.

Just finished:
Rebus's Scotland, by Ian Rankin.
The Tunnel at the End of the Light, by Stefan Petrucha.

Kinds of books you won't read:
I have never tried pulp romance, not so much that I won't read it but more that I just haven't. Having said that, I really must give Georgette Heyer a try.
I must say I find a lot of immersive fantasies simply tiresome, and it takes a very strong and reliable recommendation to me to try a new author in that sub-genre.(Having said that, I've recently discovered both Robin Hobb and Patrick Rothfuss.)

Longest book you've read:
Either the Bloody Sunday Report, which I read in the summer of 2010, or Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I took at a chapter a week (and skipping a number of weeks), over the course of two years. Well worth it. (I also read both the Bible (OT) and War and Peace over the course of 2012.)

Major book hangover because of:
Possibly the combination of finishing the Bible and War and Peace within a day of each other at the end of last year! It took several months before I got my reading speed back up to my usual pace.

Number of bookcases you own:
Two in the office – which I don't own but am responsible for stocking. One still in Ireland. Two in the living room. One on the landing. Two in the spare room (one of which is double width). Three in F's room, which probably don't count as they are his books. One in our room. And, er, about eight in the study if you count each of the IKEA shelf ranges separately. So that's a fair number really.

One book you have read multiple times:
The Lord of the Rings
Preferred place to read:
In the back garden, in the sunshine. Failing that, on the train.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you've read:
Another difficult one. The end of A Tale of Two Cities always moves me. But there's also C.P. Snow's summary of how important it is to recognise one's own fallibility from The Masters:
"I want a man who knows something about himself. And is appalled. And has to forgive himself to get along."

Reading regret:
That I don't take more advantage of other people's bookshelves when I am staying with them. It is always educational and enlightening to get a fresh perspective. All my discoveries of great new books or authors have been from other people.

Series you've started but need to finish (all books are out in the series):
As noted above, I am doing well on Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy and Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle at the moment (both cases where my suspicions of yet another big immersive fantasy series proved ill-founded). Also enjoying a leisurely canter through Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolò books.

Three of your all-time favorite books:
I've already mentioned a dozen so far! But I will note that we have had very little non-fiction so far, and a lot of the questions rather excluded it. So let me add The Diary of Anne Frank, the About Time series of books about Doctor Who, and The Island at the Centre of the World.

Unapologetic fanboy for:
Doctor Who. (A shocking and unexpected revelation, I know.)

Very excited for this release more than all the others:
The Winds of Winter. Sorry, but it's true.

Worst bookish habit:
I get a bit obsessive about reading fifty pages of one book, then shifting to fifty pages of another, and about keeping my reading lists in sync. It doesn't bother anyone but me.

X marks the spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:
The top left shelf is my history of science shelf, and the 27th book is the excellent Church, State and Astronomy in Ireland: Two Hundred Years of Armagh Observatory, by my M Phil supervisor Jim Bennett.

Your latest book purchase:
Artemis Cooper's biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, picked up at a motorway service station this afternoon.

Zzzzz-snatcher book. Last book that kept you up way too late:
I suffer from insomnia anyway, and last year tried a strategy of picking one particular author to read when I am trying to get to sleep. At first that author was Jonathan Gash, but eventually I could not take any more of Lovejoy's violent misogyny, so I have now switched to Agatha Christie. This also has limitations, in that her books are ingeniously constructed to keep one reading. It's less of an issue for the ones I have read before, but Death on the Nile failed to help me go to sleep quite dramatically a couple of weeks ago.

So, what about you?

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August Books 25) Spore, by Alex Scarrow

Just published today, this is the latest of the short Who ebooks published by Puffin for the 50th anniversary. It being August, it is the Eighth Doctor’s turn, in a brief but effective tale of body horror: a flesh-absorbing alien attacks a small American town, and the Doctor and a hastily acquired Asian-American companion must deal with it. Decently constructed and with sufficient callbacks to The Movie to reassure that this is meant to be part of the same continuity. (No detectable callbacks to the other Eighth Doctor books/comics/audios though.) Scarrow is apparently a rising YA writer, and on this basis I would look for more of his work.

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August Books 24) Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston

Strongly recommended to me by , and very much worth reading. Hurston combines the research instincts of the anthropologist with the communication skills of a born story-teller, and looks in detail at local cult practices, especially regarding the undead, in Jamaica and especially in Haiti. It was especially interesting to reread this the week that Doonesbury reran the plot sequence where Duke becomes a zombie in the service of Baby Doc Duvalier, written fifty years later. Whether or not Gary Trudeau was aware of Hurston’s research, she has fundamentally informed the English speaking world’s take on zombies. Quite apart from that, it is a fantastic book, perhaps a little optimistic in the description of the status of American women, but otherwise very much taking Jamaica and Haiti on their own terms and in their own words. There are about twenty pages of musical transcriptions of traditional Haitian chants to the various deities.

Really it’s worth remembering that the supposedly well-ordered pantheons of European and Asian theologies all were in practice probably a lot more like the chaotic deities of Haiti which Hurston chronicles so well. What strengthens people’s belief isn’t really the intellectual coherence of their religious practice, it is how well it works to channel communal and social experiences which are difficult to deal with otherwise, and to give a sense of reassurance that the grottiness of this world may not be all that there is. Hurston conveys the Haitian experience of religion and belief very well.

I have to again complain about the presentation of the P.S. edition. The table of contents promises a foreword; there is none. There is an afterword by Henry Louis Gates, and then an after-afterword by Ishmael Reed which I suspect is the foreword misplaced. But the publishers really ought to have ensured that the contents page actually coincided with what is in the book.

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August Books 23) Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, by Anne Chambers

I think this may have been Chambers’ first book, before her best selling biography of Grainne O’Malley, the pirate queen. It is journeyman stuff; there is no very clear differentiation between other people’s research, Chambers’ own findings, and her speculation about Eleanor’s mind-set as she witnessed the collapse of her husband’s mini-kingdom in south-west Ireland and the political shape of the island was changed forever. I could have done with a bit more on the bigger picture, and perhaps also some reflection of the plentiful research that has been done on women in sixteenth-century Ireland.

Eleanor was a contemporary of my ancestor Sir Nicholas White, and I was hoping that he might put in an appearance. He is just offscreen twice – they came within spitting distance of each other on 17 June 1580, White being part of the punitive expedition sent deep into Desmond territory that summer; and in 1592-93, Eleanor was tending to her sickly son held captive in the Tower of London while White was slowly dying there. they must have met up on the battlements occasionally to discuss old times, not that it did either of them much good. Chambers doesn’t mention him anyway, which is fair enough.

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August Books 22) The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie

I have to say that after The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I was getting a bit dismayed by the Christie formula, and wondering how many more genteel tales of homicide I could take. But The A.B.C. Murders is a cut above any of the other Christies I have recently read, apart from the superlative Ackroyd.

There are several very attractive points to the book. First, the case takes Poirot and Hastings out of their usual socio-economic comfort zone: three of the four murders are in lower middle class or working class settings, and Christie largely reverses her usual view of the universe where poor people are normally invisible. Second, the fact that the villain sets the story up as a battle of wits with Poirot from the start of the book gives it a completely different dynamic: it’s not a case of Poirot inserting himself into someone else’s tragedy, instead he is dragged into a nefarious plot from the very beginning, and it is a little gratifying to see him lose the initiative (though of course we cheer when he regains it). And finally, the speculation on the mind-set of the serial killer, in a novel written and set in the mid 1930s, reminds us that this is a topic of horrified fascination that has been around for a long time. Oh yes, and the plot is well constructed and the solution reasonably fair.

This was one of the ones I had read as a teenager and had fond memories of; and I was not disappointed to return to it.

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August Books 21) The Dalek Project, by Justin Richards, ill. Mike Collins

A rather decent standalone Eleventh Doctor adventure, in which he gets drawn back to the First World War where the basic concept of Victory of the Daleks is brought into an arms race plot where the evil pepperpots have persuaded arms manufacturers on both sides to construct the great new fighting machines; shades also of three great Troughton stories, The War Games and the two Dalek ones, repackaged for a new generation with Justin Richards’ lucid prose and Collins’ superb art. It doesn’t take the Doctor anywhere terribly new but retreads old ground with confidence.

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August Books 20) The Best of Tardis Eruditorum, by Philip Sandifer

All of Sandifer’s essays are available on his blog, and all of them will eventually be available in book form as well; but for people like me who find the blog pieces a bit long to digest in the usual format, and want to find the good bits, this is a very useful selection – with each essay prefaced by some introductory thoughts about how they fit into the project and into his life.

This basically has two essays for each of the first eight Doctors, and one each for Nine and Ten. The latter two, on Rose and School Reunion, are among the best in the book (though the rhetorical impact of the Rose piece is stronger if you know Sandifer’s style); the other pieces which were new to me and caught my attention specially were the ones on The Movie and Mary Whitehouse.

The full list of essays here (and I won’t link to them all) is The Web Planet, The Tenth Planet, The Enemy of the World, The Mind Robber, The Claws of Axos, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The Brain of Morbius, Mary Whitehouse, City of Death, Earthshock, Terminus, Attack of the Cybermen, Doctor in Distress, Paradise Towers, The Curse of Fenric, White Darkness, The Movie, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, Rose and School Reunion. Worth noting that this includes three Cybermen stories, no Dalek stories, two novels, two pieces on music and an excellent attack on conservatism. I don’t know if this will be available again in future but I’m glad to have snagged it while it was going.

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At a garden-party in Hillsborough, County Down,
ten or more summers ago
a swarm of bees
rolled all its thingamy
into one ball
and lodged in the fork of a tree.
There was mayhem.
A few of us had the presence of mind
to grab another canapé
and hold on to our glasses of wine.
Mostly, though,
there was a mad dash for Government House.
Once inside, I found myself
smack up against Merlyn Rees
who was hugging his breasts
like a startled nymph.
I’m not sure what possessed me
to suggest he ask Enoch Powell
over from Loughbrickland.
I suppose that when I think of bees
I think of a row of hives
running up the side of an orchard
in Loughbrickland,
and then I think of Enoch Powell.
Believe it or not,
Merlyn took me at my word
and dispatched an equerry
to make the call.
I was stifling a chuckle
at the notion of Enoch Agricola
(and half-remembering how those hives are fake)
when the equerry slunk back
and whispered something in Merlyn’s ear.
They both left the room.
Now that I had the floor to myself
I launched into a small meditation
on Loughbrickland.
I described the ‘brick’ in Loughbrickland
as ‘a stumbling block’
and referred to Bricriu Poison-Tongue
of Bricriu’s Feast.
Then I touched on another local king,
Congal the One-Eyed,
who was blinded by a bee-sting.
This led me neatly to the Bechbretha,
the Brehon judgements
on every conceivable form
of bee-dispute,
bee-trespass and bee-compensation.
My maiden speech was going swimmingly
and I was getting to my point
when a cheer went up
and everyone crowded to the windows.
A man in hat and veil
(whom I still take to have been Enoch Powell)
had brushed the swarm into a box
and covered it with the Union Jack.
Try as I might to win them back
with the fact that 90 per cent of British bees
were wiped out by disease
between 1909 and 1917
I’d lost them …
Merlyn had chosen this moment to reappear
through a secret door
in the book-lined wall
(which raised a nervous laugh
among the Castle Catholics)
and, not to be outdone,
called for order as he reached
into his mulberry cummerbund.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is the very handkerchief
that Melmoth the Wanderer
left at the top of the cliff.’

by Paul Muldoon, first published in Meeting the British (1987)

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Links I found interesting for 22-08-2013

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Wednesday Reading

Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones
Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, by Anne Chambers
The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie

Last books finished
[Doctor Who] The Dalek Project, by Justin Richards
The Best of Tardis Eruditorum, by Philip Sandifer
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie
Resistance, by Anita Shreve
[Doctor Who] The Dalek Generation, by Nicholas Briggs
Far North & Other Dark Tales, by Sara Maitland
Far North, by Marcel Theroux

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, by Hergé

Next books
Royal Assassin, by Robin Hobb
Rebus's Scotland, by Ian Rankin
The Tunnel at the End of the Light, by Stefan Petrucha

Books acquired in last week:
The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie

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August Books 19) The Mysterious Affair At Styles, by Agatha Christie

Written in 1916, set in 1917, published in 1920, this was Agatha Christie’s first murder mystery and also the first novel starring Hercule Poirot – already described as old and a refugee from occupied Belgium, yet with another fifty years of detecting ahead of him. It’s a little rough around the edges – in particular, the narrator’s infatuation with one of the suspects is a bit overdone – but as John Curran says in the foreword to my edition, it has a lot of the ingredients of Christie’s future success in place: “an extended family, a poisoning drama, a twisting plot, and a dramatic and unexpected final revelation.” Still, I suspect its popularity rests on its crucial place in the chronology of the Christie canon and on a couple of decent screen adaptations rather than on general quality. I had read it as a teenager but completely forgotten any of the details.

My edition also includes the deleted original version of the final scene, where Poirot would have unfolded the solution while testifying in court; Christie’s publisher told her that this was too implausible (this, in a novel with time-travelling robots a Martian invasion three different people accessing strychnine the day the victim decides to change the terms of her will) and she opted instead for the grand revelation scene in the drawing room for which she was to become famous. It’s also notable that the story is illustrated with maps and handwriting samples, to add verisimilitude, a bit reminiscent of the way we are told that Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a montage of our hero’s own photographs; there’s probably a micro-study to be done of how and why Christie moved away from that technique.

This is the fifth most popular of Christie’s novels on LibraryThing, and the fourth starring Poirot, but only the first in which the perpetrator(s) of the crime are actually handed over to the police and judicial system at the end. And for all that Christie is seen as the poison queen, this is also the first which solely features poisoning – Roger Ackroyd is not poisoned, nobody in Death on the Nile is poisoned, and the victim on the Orient Express is drugged but done away with by more physical means. I shall keep tracking these statistics (if I keep up my Christie reading).

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August Books 18) Resistance, by Anita Shreve

Top ten books available in English tagged “Belgium” on LibraryThing:

King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
The Sorrow of Belgium, by Hugo Claus
The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier
Villette, by Charlotte Brontë
Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent & Antwerp
Resistance, by Anita Shreve
The Angel Maker, by Stefan Brijs
Asterix in Belgium, by René Goscinny
The Folding Star, by Alan Hollinghurst
The Misfortunates, by Dimitri Verhulst
Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb

It will be apparent that I am working very slowly through the fiction on this list. (Cloud Atlas comes in at #12, by the way.) Resistance is quite a decent wartime romance, American pilot inevitably has a secret love affair with the woman who saves him, and some quite interesting dynamics around the villagers, with everyone’s loyalty open to suspicion, especially with the (graphically described) brutality of German reprisals. I did not feel completely satisfied with the Belgianness of the setting, but I suppose it is a fair try from an American writer writing for an American audience who is interested in aviation rather than Belgium.

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August Books 17) The Dalek Generation, by Nicholas Briggs

Very nice to get a book by the bloke what does the voice of the Daleks, which is actually about the Daleks, autographed by him including the word "EXTERMINATE", which you have to imagine being read by Briggs doing his Dalek voice.

dalek generation

As with a number of the recent Who novels, this is aimed at a slightly younger readership, with the Doctor's co-adventurers being three children rescued from a spaceship by him after their parents' death (no novel with Clara yet, as far as I know, although she has been on the show since April, or perhaps longer depending how you count). I was very interested to note that, like Malorie Blackman's The Ripple Effect published last month, The Dalek Generation presents a situation where the Daleks are perceived as a force for good rather than evil, with the Doctor frustrated in his attempts to warn against them. I do wonder if this is a subtle (or maybe even unsubtle) hint about a storyline we can expect for the two episodes due to air later this year.

That apart, it's quite a different story from Blackman's; it's clear to the reader from the first chapter that the Daleks really are evil here, but the story of what they are looking for, and how the Doctor and his traumatised young friends thwart their plans in the face of a wilfully ignorant totalitarian society which won't believe them, is nicely convoluted and also evocative of various previous Who stories. If you are happy to adjust for the target readership, it is very enjoyable.

It is interesting that although there has been no Eleven-on-his-own TV story (unless you count Closing Time) there have been several books and audios now featuring neither Amy nor Clara. This does give the writers a chance to demonstrate their skill in catching the nuances of Matt Smith's portrayal, but I'm not really a fan of the Doctor-on-his-own stories. They can sometimes work very well – indeed, The Deadly Assassin is one of my personal favourites – but the interaction between Doctor and regular sidekick is an important part of the show's dynamic, and should be omitted sparingly, if at all.

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August Books 15) Far North, by Sara Maitland; 16) Far North, by Marcel Theroux

I was tickled by the thought of two books with similar titles by rather different authors to the extent of deciding to read them at the same time. They are, however, very different in format. Sara Maitland offers a series of short stories and vignettes, reworking various classic themes including various fair stories; Marcel Theroux’s novel is a post-apocalyptic tale of survival against the odds in Siberia after civilisation has collapsed.

Yet they do have something pretty fundamental in common: both are told from a female perspective. All of the Maitland stories are narrated by women either in first person or very tight third; Theroux’s first person narrator, Makepeace, is one of the few survivors of a wave of American settlers to arrive in Siberia just before things changed forever.

Maitland’s stories are good, and exemplify her English take on magical realism, but I found myself more engrossed in Theroux’s single narrative. He isn’t really known as a genre author, so I was hoping that he would do something a bit different with the post-apocalypse theme. He didn’t really – he advocates a general well-rooted suspicion of authority, plus some well-worn sexual clichés – but it is well enough done as it is.

The Theroux Far North was up for the Clarke award a few years back, but lost (fairly) to The City & The City, whose author is a fellow alumnus of Clare College Cambridge – indeed Marcel Theroux and I were exact contemporaries as undergraduates, though the only time I remember talking to him at any length was as I moved into a house in Eltisley Avenue that he was moving out of immediately after graduation. I may try some more of his work. (I am already a Sara Maitland fan.)

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August Books 14) Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, by Hergé

Even the most enthusiastic Tintin fan must admit that this, the first of the Adventures of Tintin, is one of the least impressive of the entire series. (The best order to read them is probably to start with Cigars of the Pharaoh and go through to the end, and then go back to read the first three for completeness.) It's not just the monotonous propaganda of Le Petit Vingtième's anti-Communist agenda, or the crudity of the artwork; it's also the way in which Tintin escapes from every threat by simply beating up the Soviets (at one point taking on five armed guards and defeating them almost unscathed). The climax, where he finds the secret bunker where Lenin Trotsky and Stalin have stored the wealth they have stolen from the Plain People of Russia, reminded me of the opening scene from The Naked Gun, only much sillier and executed more earnestly and much less competently (the bunker is located under a fake haunted house).

For all that, there are some points of interest. For the Tintin fan, it is notable that Snowy / Milou contributes a running commentary for the reader's benefit, a role he rather lost in later books. Some of the individual frames show the latent genius of the 22-year-old artist (one in particular foreshadows the cover of The Black Islandvery last frame Hergé ever drew of him, where he is faced with the prospect of being frozen into a clear plastic block as a sculpture).

It's also worth reflecting that when the police in Berlin give Tintin a hard time, this isn't yet the Nazi regime, which was still four years in the future; but the German occupation of Belgium was little more than a decade in the past, and Belgian troops were still in the Rhineland, occupying a strip from Aachen to Kleve, an would not leave for another year. Tintin does get a hero's welcome at the iconic Tempelhof airport in Berlin on his way back, but it is a case of mistaken identity. In the last frame he arrives at the equally iconic Gare du Nord on Place Rogier in Brussels, demolished half a century ago, to general rejoicing. I don't think there is a single speaking female character in the book.

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Links I found interesting for 16-08-2013

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August Books 13) Eater of Wasps, by Trevor Baxendale

The wasps surrounded him, settling on his face and hands. He yelled and brushed them away, felt the inevitable stings on his hands and his fingers.
More were flying around his head, crawling in his hair and on his neck. He stumbled over a kitchen chair and fell to his knees. The air was full of insects, his ears filled with their agitated noise.
They were after him. It was deliberate. Rigby knew it.

A very effective tale of body horror here, with some similarities in central theme and historical setting to the later TV story The Unicorn and the Wasp but without the Agatha Christie bits and with more killer aliens. The Doctor is starting to behave all unsympathetically, though, and veers closer to cruelty than I would like. However the two companions, Fitz and Anji, have plenty to do and the wasps themselves are tremendously well visualised, as is the village which appears normal but is concealing horror and abomination.

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August Books 12) The History of The Hobbit, vol 1: Mr Baggins, by John D. Rateliff

Having finished the History of Middle Earth series, I have made a start on the two-volume History of The Hobbit which I acquired a couple of years ago. It is actually rather good – as well as following through the manuscript changes (of which the most unsettling is that Gandalf was originally the name of the dwarf leader we know as Thorin Oakenshield; the wizard of early drafts was Bladorthin), Rateliff has taken the time to chase down the history of various elements of the story of The HobbitThe Hobbit was affected by and in turn affected the other writing Tolkien was engaged in at the time, some of which became The Silmarillion and some of which only saw light in The History of Middle Earth. Note also that Laketown is the only culture in Middle Earth which is clearly rooted in the Western European medieval period which was Tolkien’s own specialisation, and its Master is the only speaking character in the entire corpus who has won an election. Looking forward to the second volume now.

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Links I found interesting for 15-08-2013

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Wednesday reading (a little late)

Far North & Other Dark Tales, by Sara Maitland
Far North, by Marcel Theroux
Resistance, by Anita Shreve
[Doctor Who] The Dalek Generation, by Nicholas Briggs
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie
Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, by Hergé

Last books finished
[Doctor Who] Eater of Wasps, by Trevor Baxendale
The History of the Hobbit, vol 1: Mr Baggins, by John D. Rateliff
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson
Shakespeare's Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
Shakedown, by Terrance Dicks
The Gods of Pegāna, by Lord Dunsany
Standing in Another Man's Grave, by Ian Rankin
The Monsters and the Critics, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
Proportional Representation in Ireland, by James Creed Meredith

Next books
Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones
Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, by Anne Chambers
Royal Assassin, by Robin Hobb

Books acquired in last week:
The Gods of Pegāna, by Lord Dunsany
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie
Helen Waddell, by Felicitas Corrigan

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August Books 11) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson

When I left the infant school in disgrace for burning down the play kitchen, the headmistress, who wore black tweed because she was in mourning for Scotland, told my mother that I was domineering and aggressive.
I was. I beat up the other kids, boys and girls alike, and when I couldn’t understand what was being said to me in a lesson I just left the classroom and bit the teachers if they tried to make me come back.
I realise my behaviour wasn’t ideal but my mother believed I was demon possessed and the headmistress was in mourning for Scotland. It was hard to be normal.

I haven’t actually read any of Winterson’s fiction, and I realise that this autobiography is meant to be read by those who already know Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, but I really enjoyed it anyway. The first two thirds are about her childhood in Accrington, brought up by her adoptive parents, her abusive mother a deeply pious member of the Elim Pentecostal Church who had the teenage Jeanette exorcised for being gay, and her own efforts to escape the cultural shackles of her family to study in Oxford. It is tough and frank about sex, class, religion and parenting, and also very funny in places.

The final section is much less funny; it is the account of how she traced and got to know her birth mother, written much more as an emotional diary than as a procedural account (though the bureaucracy is clearly pretty infuriating). It is a story that surely fascinates us all, whether or not we have direct experience with adoption or long-lost family members. The ending of the story is pleasingly undramatic, given the intensity of feeling that got us there.

Winterson comes across as an intense driven personality, possibly rather difficult in person, but certainly very interesting to know. And the book, in its two unequal parts, is very readable.

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August Books 10) Shakespeare’s Planet, by Clifford D. Simak

He stopped dead in horror. Affixed above the door was a human skull, grinning down at them.
Carnivore saw him staring at it. “Shakespeare bids us welcome,” he said. “That is Shakespeare’s skull.”

One of Simak’s typically low-key stories, with lots of interesting ideas – the central character has been in cold-sleep for a thousand years, and is the only living human survivor on a ship whose central computer merges three people’s personalities; Shakespeare’s Planet itself is the end point for a network of poorly understood interstellar transport tunnels, where the only intelligent creature mildly regrets eating the human known as Shakespeare a while back; periodic psychic shock hits everyone left alive every now and then; a woman turns up from Earth to investigate, but the situation s resolved by inhuman and incomprehensible forces. It’s a bit like a combination of Red Dwarf with the end of A Handful of Dust. Not especially memorable but quite typical of Simak’s style.

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August Books 9) Shakedown, by Terrance Dicks

This New Adventure is an expanded novelisation of a 55-minute video made in 1994 and starring Jan Chappell (Cally from Blake’s 7) as the captain of a space yacht whose crew includes Carole Ann Ford (Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Brian Croucher (the second Travis from Blake’s 7) and Michael Wisher (the original Davros) as well as a guy who can’t act. The setting of the video is HMS Belfast which actually does rather a good job of conveying the cramped quarters of a small spaceship; the Sontarans and Rutans are (apparently for licensing reasons) a bit different to what we saw on the screen in Old Who, but well enough realised for a low-budget production; the worst bit about it is the guy who can’t act trying to be Sophie Aldred’s lover, and the second worst is the somewhat stereotypical roles given to her and Ford, but these are survivable flaws.

The novel compresses this to 60 pages in the second half of a 270-page book, apparently a partial sequel to ‘s Lords of the Storm which I read and enjoyed three years ago but now cannot remember much about. As usual, when Dicks lets himself run with an idea, he is a competent and solid writer, giving Benny some time alone in a murderous cult-ruled university, while the Doctor (with Roz and Chris, who get a bit marginalised) gets to grips with the Sontarans/Rutans problem with Jan Chappell and Brian Croucher’s characters. It’s a bit of a change of pace from the last two very colourful volumes in the New Adventures series, but it also ties the post-1989 Seventh Doctor a bit more firmly into the overall continuity.

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