My books of 2015

I read 290 books this year, precisely one less than last year's 291. However 24 of these were dives into the first 50 pages of Clarke nominees that I knew were unlikely to win or be shortlisted. My total pagecount was 80,100, compared to last year's 97,100 (cf ~68,000 in 2013, ~77,800 in 2012, ~88,200 in 2011). However, those totals are for books only; since August I've been reading a lot of short sf which had not yet been collected into book form – nine months' worth of Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Asimov's and Strange Horizons – so I guess my "real" total won't be a lot less than last year's.

Diversity: 86 books out of 290 by women, just shy of 30%. That's the highest in both numerical and percentage terms since I started measuring. (81 [28%] in 2014, 71 [30%] in 2013, 65 [25%] in 2012, 22% in 2011, 23% in 2010, 20% in 2009, 12% in 2008.)
20 (7%) by PoC, a shade under last year's 11 (5%). (cf 12 [5%] in 2013, 5% in 2011, 9% in 2010, 5% in 2009, 2% in 2008.)

Most books by a single author: 6 by Justin Richards, who also topped my 2014 tally. (Previous winners: Agatha Christie i 2013, Jonathan Gash in 2012.)

Non-fiction

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
47 48 46 53 69 66 88
16% 16% 19% 20% 23% 24% 26%

Best non-fiction read in 2015: The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin – brilliant biography of fascinating woman.
Runner-up: Letters to Tiptree, eds Alissa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce – I hope we'll be seeing this on some shortlists next year.
The one you might not heard of: Martial Power and Elizabethan Political Culture, by Rory Rapple – looking at the politics of violence in Ireland, not only in the 16th century.

Non-sfnal fiction

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
42 41 44 48 48 50 57
14% 14% 19% 19% 16% 18% 18%

Best non-sff fiction read in 2015: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieBildungsroman set in Nigeria, the USA and the UK, with hair.
Runner-up: Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro – Brilliant short stories.
Welcome rereads: Ulysses and Les Misérables.
The one you might not heard of: The Twenty-two Letters, by Clive King – the origin of literacy in the Levant.

Non-Whovian sff

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
130 124 65 62 78 73 78
45% 43% 27% 24% 26% 26% 23%

Best non-Who sff read in 2015: I'm going to cheat slightly, in that I read a couple of them first in 2014, but I'm collectively re-nominating the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, in particular the winner, Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. But I also really enjoyed The Affirmation, by Chris Priest.
The one you might not heard of: The Last Man (aka No Other Man) by Alfred Noyes – novel set after almost all of humanity has been wiped out by a super-weapon, published in 1940.

Doctor Who (and spinoff) fiction

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
43 59 72 75 80 71 70
15% 20% 30% 29% 27% 26% 19%

Best Who book read in 2015: City of Death, by Douglas Adams and James Goss – true to the televised story with extra dollops of style.
Runner-up: Walking to Babylon, by Kate Orman – mild homage to Iain Banks as well.
The two that even dedicated Whovians may not have heard of: Doctor Who and the Vortex Crystal and Doctor Who and the Rebel's Gamble, both by William H. Keith, Jr – two US-published game books from 1986 that are way better than the British game books of the same year.

Comics

2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
18 19 30 21 27 18 28
6% 7% 13% 8% 9% 6% 8%

Best graphic stories read in 2015: I'm still making my mind up between The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud, and The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua – leaning a bit more towards the former, if I'm honest.
The one you might not have heard of: De Tweede Kus (originally published in three separate volumes, Ringo, Martha and Hanne), by Conz (Constantijn van Cauwenberge). If you don't read Dutch or French, you have a treat to come when some wise publisher translates it into English.

Poetry

I don’t read a lot of poetry but I do try and get through at least one collection each year. This year that was amply rewarded with Colette Bryce’s tremendous The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, reflecting on growing up in Northern Ireland.

Worst book of the year: It's a matter of public record that I bounced off several of the Hugo finalists. It's fairly close at the bottom, but the absolute worst was the infamous Wisdom from my Internet by Michael Z. Williamson.

Next year I shall probably ease off on new sf once the Hugo nominating season is over. (BSFA members! Get you nominations in tonight!) I would like to read a few more comics, and alsowork through some of the more obscure corners of Who literature,

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December Books

Non-fiction: 2 (Year end 47)
When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson
Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014, by Adam Roberts

Poetry: 1 (Year end 1)
The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (Year end 42)
Between the Acts, by Virginia Woolf
The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, ed. Dennis Pepper

SF (non-Who): 18 (Year end 130)
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 3, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Keeping it Real, by Justina Robson
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
Sunset Mantle, by Alter S. Reiss
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 4, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Fattypuffs and Thinifers, by Andre Maurois
Moon Over Soho, by Ben Aaronovitch
Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss
Captain Future and the Space Emperor, by Edmond Hamilton
The Last Man, by Alfred Noyes
Helliconia Summer, by Brian Aldiss
The Just City, by Jo Walton
Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente
Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss
Jews vs Zombies, ed. Rebecca Levene and Lavie Tidhar

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (Year end 43)
Instruments of Darkness, by Gary Russell
The Gallifrey Chronicles, by Lance Parkin
The Medusa Effect, by Justin Richards
Doctor Who: Big Bang Generation, by Gary Russell

Comics: 2 (Year end 18)
Hark, A Vagrant!, by Kate Beaton
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, by Sydney Padua

~7,500 pages (Year end 80,100)
10/29 by women (Year end 86/290) – Robinson, Bryce, Woolf, Robson, Okorafor, Valente, Walton, Levene, Beaton, Padua
3/29 by PoC (YTD 20/290) – Wilson, Okorafor, Padua

Reread: 5/29 (Helliconia trilogy, Fattypuffs and Thinifers, The Gallifrey Chronicles), YTD 22/290

Reading now:
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

Coming soon (perhaps):
Saga vol 5, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
Bételgeuse, tome 3 : L’Expédition by Leo
The Story of Ireland by Brendan O'Brien
Streetlethal by Steven Barnes
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
A People's Peace for Cyprus by Alexandros Lordos et al
Tik-Tok by John Sladek
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
The Magic Cup by Andrew M. Greeley
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Naamah's Curse by Jacqueline Carey
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park
Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
Legacy: A Collection of Personal Testimonies from People Affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland by BBC Northern Ireland
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst
1491 by Charles C. Mann
See How Much I Love You by Luis Leante
Zodiac ed Jacqueline Rayner
Citadel of Dreams by Dave Stone
Dry Pilgrimage by Paul Leonard

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Thursday reading

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

Last books finished
Hark, A Vagrant!, by Kate Beaton
Helliconia Summer, by Brian Aldiss
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, by Sydney Padua
The Just City, by Jo Walton
Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente
Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014, by Adam Roberts
Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss
Jews vs Zombies, ed. Rebecca Levene and Lavie Tidhar

Next books
Short Trips: Zodiac, ed. Jacqueline Rayner
Travelling Light, by Tove Jansson

Books acquired in last week
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott
Hark! a Vagrant, by Kate Beaton
The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, by Jerry Brotton
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark
The Queen’s Spymaster, by John Cooper
A Buzz in the Meadow, by Dave Goulson
The Ice Cream Army, by Jessica Gregson
The Humans, by Matt Haig
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann
Lying Under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe
Touch, by Claire North
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, by Sydney Padua
The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, by Cliff Stoll
The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Waltonj
Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014, by Adam Roberts
Guided By The Beauty Of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, by Philip Sandifer
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto: Reinventing God (and other modest proposals), by Dave Tomlinson
The Parrot’s Theorem, by Denis Guedj

It was a good Christmas haul. Next year I’ll be publishing my weekly roundups on Fridays rather than Thursdays.

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Links I found interesting for 31-12-2015

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Links I found interesting for 31-12-2015

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Links I found interesting for 30-12-2015

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Links I found interesting for 29-12-2015

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My year on Livejournal

I've had a significant uptick in Livejournal activity this year. I'm not sure if this is because some people are returning to it who had left, or because I'm posting more interesting material; the biggest factor is certainly that the debate around the Hugos boosted LJ as a whole, thanks to , and I think this particular channel was a partial beneficiary of that grim situation.

Anyway, in the last 12 months, 37 posts here got ten or more comments, almost as many as the previous two years combined (18 in 2014, 23 in 2013). Roughly a third of those had to do with this year's Hugos and the proposed fixes; but another 11 were part of my whimsical project of identifying the best known book associated with each European country, using infallible online metrics. A couple of personal posts and even some normal enough book reviews also pulled in commentary. So my conclusion is that LJ has not yet shuffled off this mortal coil.

(Compare also 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

31 December 2014: What should I read in 2015? [poll] – 25 comments

2 Jan 2015: I Will Fear No Evil: A novel that isn't set in 2015 – 12 comments
3 Jan: Literary Anniversaries [poll] – 10 comments
27 Jan: What is the best known book set in England? – 29 comments
28 Jan: What is the best known book set in Scotland? – 28 comments
30 Jan: What is the best known book set in Wales? – 14 comments
31 Jan: What is the best known book set in Ireland? – 12 comments

2 Feb: What is the best known book set in Russia? – 15 comments
6 Feb: What is the best known book set in France? – 13 comments
7 Feb: What is the best known books set in Italy? – 17 comments
9 Feb: What is the best known book set in Ukraine? – 11 comments
13 Feb: What the online ratings say about the BSFA and Kitschies shortlists – 10 comments

1 Mar: As of today, I am a Visiting Professor at Ulster University – 26 comments
27 Mar: What are the best known books set on the Channel Islands and Isle of Man? (And Gibraltar?) – 12 comments

5 Apr: Of the 2015 Hugos – 13 comments
11 Apr: Famous books by geography – what I have learned – 11 comments
12 Apr: On why George R.R. Martin is wrong: No Awarding the slate – 37 comments
15 Apr: On how and when the Guardian was informed about the 2014 Hugo shortlist – 14 comments
18 Apr: On crowdsourcing Hugo nominations – 19 comments
25 Apr: Hugo short fiction categories: my votes – 10 comments

15 May: My vote for Best Novel – 12 comments
30 May: The science fiction of 1967 – 14 comments
31 May: Revisiting past Hugos: No Award's previous victories [poll] – 19 comments

21 Jun: E Pluribus Hugo, and other proposals (long post) – 12 comments
21 Jun: 18th birthday – 16 comments
23 Jun: E Pluribus Hugo, revisited – 26 comments

3 Jul: 2015 Hugo fiction: How bloggers are voting – 22 comments
5 Jul: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer – 12 comments

23 Aug: While we are waiting for the full stats, a thought on how the #SadPuppies failed – 11 comments
23 Aug: Hugo Awards 2015 – full analysis – 26 comments
25 Aug: Next year's Hugos: What I'm going to do – 17 comments

6 Sep: 11/22/63, by Stephen King – 11 comments
14 Sep: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson – 12 comments

5 Oct: At the controls: the inside of the Tardis – 12 comments
25 Oct: 1941 Retro Hugo Awards: Eligible novels, ranked by popularity – 14 comments

(none in November)

13 Dec: Happy 150th birthday, Jean Sibelius! – 10 comments
21 Dec: The 2016 Hugos and me – 37 comments

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What should I read in 2016?

As ever, I found your votes very helpful in leading me to interesting reading in 2015, and I would once again very much appreciate your advice on what books to read next, by filling in this poll. This is not the complete contents of my unread shelf; I’ve stripped out Doctor Who books, Dutch-language comics and books by white men which I acquired before this year. The books are listed in each category by descending popularity on LibraryThing.

With the gradual decline of Livejournal, and also as I dig down through my TBR pile to less well-known works, I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to keep up these annual posts (see previously here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). But for now I think we’re good for at least this year.

I believe that even if you don’t have a Livejournal account, you can sign in with your Twitter or Facebook credentials to tick boxes. Individual recommendations, pro and anti, regarding books actually on the lists are very welcome in comments. Apologies in advance to editors listed below as authors, or to any co-authors and co-editors whose names are omitted; this is scraped from my LibraryThing catalogue so some important details do get lost. Any miscategorisation, however, is entirely my fault and cannot be blamed on software.

NB that the question for the sf books is different from the questions for the other two categories.

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The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua

Back in the summer of 1991 I was finishing up my M Phil in Cambridge, and dropped in one day on my supervisor, who at the time was the curator of the Whipple museum of the history of science. He welcomed me into his office, shuffled through some manuscript papers with strange cylindrical diagrams on them, and flourished them at me: “These,” he said, “are Charles Babbage’s original blueprints for the Difference Engine.” He had a tendency to do that. I remember one seminar on Newton where he brought in an authentic 17th-century widget, “just like Newton would have had”, and showed the original owner’s notes of how it had been used, almost casually indicating at the end that the original owner in this case had in fact been Isaac Newton. We would occasionally see the then Lucasian Professor, a post previously held by Babbage and Newton, trundling through the cobbled streets in his motorised wheelchair.

This book is a true delight – another web comic, now collected and edited in hard covers, exploring the possible alternate nineteenth century if Lovelace and Babbage together had built the Difference Engine (strictly the Analytical Engine) and therefore implemented computer programming over a century early. Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Eliot, Sir William Rowan Hamilton and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson all make guest appearances. The whole thing is meticulously footnoted. I literally laughed until I cried at the revelation of the identity of Coleridge’s Person from Porlock. This is absolutely and firmly getting my nomination for next year’s Hugo for Best Graphic Story, and for anything else I can nominate it for as well.

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Hark, A Vagrant!, by Kate Beaton

A collection of Canadian comics artist Beaton’s pieces, mainly from her website, mainly on literature. I love the Brontë sisters piece that opens the collection and have linked to it before; I must admit some of the other material didn’t tick my personal boxes, and I also felt that the author isn’t always trying very hard with the art – perhaps that’s part of the point, but it spoils my enjoyment. Still, there are enough fun moments here to justify it.

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My year on Facebook

My top Facebook post for the year was a decent screenshot that I managed to take when playing back the BBC election coverage the following morning:

It got the most likes (468) and by far the most comments (60). A couple of livejournal posts also got more than 30 comments: my visiting professorship, and my line on the Hugos (since they are friends-locked I can't embed them).

The second most likes (381) went to what was also the most widely shared post of my own content, this comment on the Irish marriage equality referendum, also in May. Of the 65 shares, I can see only 38, so it travelled further than I had dared hope.

To my Irish friends and relatives voting on Friday:We have had marriage equality in Belgium since 2003, and the world…

Posted by Nicholas Whyte on Sunday, 17 May 2015

The most liked post of someone else's content was, to give them due credit, this philosophical reflection from the letter column of the Telegraph, which picked up 300 likes, once again in May:

Credit where it's due, this is hilarious.

Posted by Nicholas Whyte on Thursday, 14 May 2015

Finally, my Christmas Day photo of our three teenage offspring, though friends-locked, got a gratifying number of likes (236 at last count).

Facebook has basically become the default path for online engagement in my wider social and family circle. But for how much longer, I wonder?

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My year on Twitter, by @nwbrux

Since my last roundup on 29 December last yer, I have emitted 4,011 tweets (up from 3,337) and gained 778 followers, taking me to 3,172 from 2,394, including a net gain of 45 on election night (8 May).

By far my most successful tweet was a New Yorker cartoon which I got somewhere off the Web and launched on Twitter at the end of March; it got hundreds of retweets then and then got a significant further signal boost when a major Spanish tech blog (@microsiervos) picked it up in August.

I can't claim credit for the content, but I can claim credit for 709 retweets (with an aggregate number of followers of 1.38 million, second best of the year), 378 likes (best of the year) and 17 replies (also best of the year).

My most successful tweet (by retweets and likes) of my own original content was an observation that came to mind late in the Hugo ceremony in August:

This got 167 retweets, including Paul Cornell, Arthur Chu and Charles Stross (each of whom had 25,000 followers), and 127 likes. The aggregate of potential impressions was 250,000, the fourth best of the year.

Two others (again, sharing others' content rather than originating my own) got more than 50 retweets, this news story (which I guess I picked up from FiveThirtyEight) about a peculiar American election:

And this glorious adaptation of a classic song into sonnet form:

The tweet with the most aggregate impressions was another bit of news on the Hugos from earlier in the cycle. It picked up only 27 retweets, but since one of them was Neil Gaiman (who got it I think from Paul Cornell), the total potential number of viewers was 2.26 million.

This barely counts as my own content. My best-scoring original tweet, measuring by metric of followers, was a sad piece of news from October:

That scored over 300,000 potential impressions in just five retweets – but 294,000 of those were courtesy of Jardine's family members who is well-known in a completely different branch of the arts.

While I've been glad to share interesting or timely content, I've been much less good at participating in conversations on Twitter. I have got drawn into some long exchanges, but they were mostly about the Hugos and generated more heat than light. Here's hoping for a more enlightening year in 2016…

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Links I found interesting for 28-12-2015

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Circe’s Cup, by Clare Carroll

Running through my list of books read this year, I realised I’d missed this one which I read in January. It’s a collection of essays on culture and politics in early modern Ireland – more looking at the period immediately after my own focus of interest, but relevant none the less in challenging the reader to new thinking about colonial rhetoric and the political intention behind writing. There’s a chapter on Spenser, of course, and another on Machiavelli; there are also several pieces on relations between Ireland and Spain, the rival imperial power. I’ll come back to it some day when I have a chance.

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The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce

Earlier this year I attended the presentation of the 24th Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in the Irish Embassy in London. The prize itself was won by Charles Townshend for his The Republic: the fight for Irish independence 1918-1923, but the judges also gave a special award for this collection to Colette Bryce, born in Derry but now based in Scotland, to honour the memory of fellow Derry poet Seamus Heaney.

It’s a tremendously good collection. Bryce summons up and conveys what it was like to grow up in Derry in the 1970s and 1980s, focussing on the family home but looking also at what was happening outside, exploring the contradictions between warmth and claustrophobia, her relations with her mother, violence both domestic and political, and finding new ways to be oneself in a stranded society.

The central poem, from which the collection takes its name, is simply called “Derry”, and I make no apology for reproducing it here. Some will notice that it leans on Louis MacNeice’s “Carrickfergus”, but it goes its own way and delivers a hefty punch at the end for those of us who like her have chosen the path of exile. (NB that there are some difference between this and the version first published in the Irish Times in 2009.) It is surely going to be a classic in children’s textbooks to come.

Derry
by Colette Bryce

I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside
      to the sounds of crowds and smashing glass,
by the river Foyle with its suicides and riptides.
      I thought that city was nothing less

than the whole and rain-domed universe.
      A teachers daughter, I was one of nine
faces afloat in the looking-glass
      fixed in the hall, but which was mine?

I wasn’t ever sure.
      We walked to school, linked hand in hand
in twos and threes like paper dolls.
      I slowly grew to understand

the way the tall Cathedral cast
      its shadow on our learning, cool
as sunlight swerved from east to west.
      The adult world had tumbled into hell

from where it wouldn’t find its way
      for thirty years. The local priest
played Elvis tunes and made us pray
      for starving children, and for peace,

and, lastly, for ‘The King’. At mass we’d chant
      hypnotically, Hail Holy Queen,
mother of mercySmall oak grove, O Derry mine
.

*

We’d cross the border in our red Cortina,
      stopped at the checkpoint just too long
for fractious children, searched by a teenager
      drowned in a uniform, cumbered with a gun,

who seemed to think we were trouble-on-the-run
      and not the Von Trapp family singers
harmonizing every song
      in rounds to pass the journey quicker.

Smoke coiled up from terraces
      and fog meandered softly down the valley
to the Brandywell and the greyhound races,
      the ancient walls with their huge graffiti,

arms that encircled the old city
      solidly. Beyond their pale,
the Rossville flats – mad vision of modernity;
      snarling crossbreeds leashed to rails.

A robot under remote control,
      like us, commenced its slow acceleration
towards a device at number six,
      home of the moderate politician

only a hoax, for once, some boys
      had made from parcel tape and batteries
gathered on forays to the BSR,
      the disused electronics factory.

*
The year was nineteen eighty-one,
      the reign of Thatcher. ‘Under Pressure’
was the song that played from pub to pub
      where talk was all of hunger strikers

in the Maze, our jail within a jail.
    A billboard near Free Derry Corner
clocked the days to the funerals
      as riots wrecked the city centre.

Each day, we left for the grammar school,
      behaved ourselves, pulled up our socks
for benevolent Sister Emmanuel
      and the Order of Mercy. Then we’d flock

to the fleet of buses that ferried us
      back to our lives, the Guildhall Square
where Shena Burns our scapegoat drunk
      swayed in her chains like a dancing bear.

On the couch, we cheered as an Irish man
      bid for the Worldwide Featherweight title
and I saw blue bruises on my mothers arms
      when her sleeve fell back while filling the kettle

for tea. My bed against the door,
      I pushed the music up as loud
as it would go and curled up on the floor
      to shut the angry voices out.

*

My candle flame faltered in a cup;
      we were stood outside the barracks in a line
chanting in rhythm, calling for a stop
      to strip searches for the Armagh women.

The proof that Jesus was a Derry man?
      Thirty-three, unemployed, and living with his mother,
the old joke ran. While half the town
      were queuing at the broo, the fortunate others

bent to the task of typing out the cheques.
      Boom! We’d jump at another explosion,
windows buckling in their frames, and next
      you could view the smouldering omission

in a row of shops, the missing tooth
      in a street. Gerry Adams’ mouth
was out of sync in the goldfish bowl
      of the TV screen, our dubious link

with the world. Each summer, one by one,
      my sisters upped and crossed the water,
armed with a grant from the government
      – the Butler system’s final flowers –

until my own turn came about:
      I watched that place grow small before
the plane ascended through the cloud
      and I could not see it clearly any more.

Ewart-Biggs Prize winners: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness | From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull | Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell | The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend | The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce | The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

Links I found interesting for 27-12-2015

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BSFA awards – nominations signal boost

The 2015 BSFA Awards (awarded at next year's Eastercon, Mancunicon in Manchester) have taken an innovative step. Individual BSFA members and Eastercon members can nominate anything in each of the four categories up to 31 December; these nominations collectively will form long lists for each category, which voters will then cull down to shortlists of five in the month of January. Nominations so far are visible here, though it's not indicated when the list was last updated.

This was one of the procedures that was discussed as a possible fix for the Hugo Awards; I wasn't convinced that they would improve that process, but the BSFA Awards are a somewhat different case (smaller electorate; fewer categories; tighter deadlines) and I'm reserving judgement until we see the outputs this year. In particular, I'll be looking to see the impact of this new arrangement on Best Non-Fiction, a category where I have occasionally felt grumpy about past years' BSFA shortlists.

Along with the usual roundups of the sf of 2015, Nina Allan (here and here), Ian Sales and rather briefly Jo Lindsay Walton have posted their thoughts on the BSFA process specifically. As far as I remember (I don't seem to have kept a record) I myself have put in nominations so far for Letters to Tiptree, The Story of Kullervo, Luna: New Moon, The Shepherd's Crown, Penric's Demon and "The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill", which is two of my four allowed nominations in each of those categories. (I won't nominate in the art category as I don't entirely trust my own taste and am content to see what other people nominate.) I expect to fill the other slots before Thursday's deadline.

What about you?

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Four Doctor Who novels

I've fallen a bit behind with bookblogging again, so here's the start of an attempt to catch up before the end of the month/year. For the last few years, I've gradually and systematically working through the published Doctor Who novels; I had a lapse in writing them up at the height of Clarke Award concentration last year, but kept on reading. This month, as usual, I read four of them.

Instruments of Darkness, by Gary Russell (2001)

I've been reading the Virgin Missing Adventures, the BBC Past Doctor Adventures and the Telos novellas in internal chronological order; but actually finished the Missng Adventures with Killing Ground, which I never got around to reviewing, back in July. Instruments of Darkness is, by internal chronology, the second last Sixth Doctor novel, followed by Spiral Scratch, also by Gary Russell, which I read a few years back and wasn't wowed by.

I liked Instruments of Darkness much more. It's the last of three novels featuring the half-human Irish twins as possible villains; they first appear in The Scales of Injustice, and the story is taken further in Business Unusual which I read quite recently. It also features both Mel Bush and Evelyn Smythe, who had been introduced to the Whoniverse only the previous year by Big Finish, as portrayed so wonderfully by the lamented Maggie Stables. (The author was the producer of the Big Finish audios at the time.)

The plot is a fairly standard worldwide consipiracy to do something or other, and by the standards of such plots is pretty convoluted, and apparently involves another character from 1990s spinoff Who (I missed this but picked it up from online reviews afterwards). I confess I didn't completely follow it, but I enjoyed the Mel/Evelyn/Six interplay on the page (Mel is particularly well-served), and also felt that the Irish twins – apart from the Eighth Doctor's audio companion Molly O'Sullivan, the only Irish regular characters in Who as far as I know – got a decent ending to their story as well.

Next year I'll be reading the Seventh Doctor PDAs and Telos novellas that I haven't previously read, starting with Relative Dementias.

The Gallifrey Chronicles, by Lance Parkin (2005)

This is the last of the 73 Eighth Doctor Adventures published by the BBC between the TV Movie and the 2005 relaunch – actually this came out in June 2005, when New Who was already well udner way. I had previously read it in 2007, Back then it was instrumental in making me decide to go back and start reading the two main ranges from the beginning. Having now read the previous 72 novels in the series, I can report that my enjoyment was enhanced, but not massively so, by being better informed abnout the continuity. In particular, I was able to cheer for Fitz at finally scoring with Trix (though Trix herself remains a bit of a cipher for me) and also to cheer the returns of the former companion Anji Kapoor and the Doctor's adopted daughter Miranda. The core concept of the Gallifreyan survivor fictionalising the Doctor's adventures is also still pretty sound. And there are a number of concepts that have been borrowed by RTD and even more so Moffatt as they deal with the mythology of Gallifrey in New Who.

Summing up the Eighth Doctor Adventures as a whole: the series has a rather flabby start, and I felt perhaps unreasonably annoyed by some of the internal continuity that I never quite bought into or cared about – Compassion, the Doctor's amnesia, Sabbath, the origin of Trix. I'm also not an evangelical admirer of Lance Parkin and the Faction Paradox line of stories. But I did like some individual books of the series very much; Father Time, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, City of the Dead, The Space Eater, Escape Velocity (the only Who book set in Brussels), and – completely against received fannish wisdom – I really liked Legacy of the Daleks. I'm looking forward to Philip Sandifer's next volume of Tardis Eruditorum which will treat the McGann era at length.

Next year I'll be reading the Big Finish Short Trips anthologies, omitting those that I have already read.

The Medusa Effect, by Justin Richards (1998)

This is the twelfth of the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures published by Virgin, marking precisely the halfway point in the series of 23 novels. It's also the sixth book I've read in 2015 by Justin Richards, after four other Who novels and a Clarke Award submission. I've said before that Richards is in some ways the Terrance Dicks of today's Who, having written more non-novelisations than any other author. Actually I'm not sure if that is strictly true any more; he's written only one Who novel since 2010 (though also four Big Finish plays).

Anyway, I feared at first that The Medusa Effect, in which Benny and a bunch of others are sent on an expedition to find a lost spaceship (the Medusa), was going to end up in a similar place to this year's Deep Time, in fact it ends up much closer to the Buffy episode "I Only Have Eyes For You" (which, interestingly, also dates from 1998) in that Benny's expedition find themselves being taken over by the personalities of the Medusa crew and re-enacting their fate. I thought it was well enough done, though has few links to other continuity. The central third is particularly strong.

Next year I'll continue reading this series to the end, and then pick up on the Big Finish novels and collections about Benny.

Big Bang Generation, by Gary Russell (2015)

My second book by Russell this month (and fourth this year), this is the middle of three linked Twelfth Doctor novels collectively dubbed the Glamour Chronicles, following Deep Time by Trevor Baxendale and in turn followed by Royal Blood by Una McCormack (and also picking up threads from earlier New Who novels The Glamour Chase and Ghosts of India). But that doesn't really matter, because the only important thing about Big Bang Generation is that it brings Bernice Summerfield into contact with the Twelfth Doctor, and indeed into New Who continuity, for the very first time. And this isn't the early Benny of Justin Richards' 1998 novel, this is Benny after 23 Virgin novels, another 23 Big Finish novels and collections, and 16 series of Big Finish audio plays, now equipped with her half-human son and two sidekicks of her own.

I do wonder how readers who haven't previously encountered Benny will react to this. For my money, Russell writes her her with passion, wit and verve, and I think this may encourage a lot of New Who fans to get into her earlier appearances. As John Seavey writes, it's such a pleasure to read her interactions with Capaldi's Doctor that one barely worries about the plot, though I rate that higher than he does. (It's about interlocking cons and plots to unwind time, and a lot of it is set in Australia.) Anyway, nice to have a different archaeologist companion unexpectedly returning.

Next year I'll continue to read New Who books as they come out; I have a backlog right now with Royal Blood, the Lethbridge-Stewart books and the collection The Legends of Ashildr which I haven't got yet.

And I'll hope to write them up a bit more promptly.

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The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, ed. Dennis Pepper

A gift from a few years back which conveniently worked its way to the top of one of my lists this month. A lot of good short (mostly very short) Christmas-related stories and extracts from longer works (eg Pickwick Papers, Adrian Mole). Many are about children, some are spooky. There’s a particularly vicious piece by Frank O’Connor which is unusually dark (both for him and for this book). Suitable for browsing, but in particular for reading aloud at this time of year if you have people who will stop and listen.

Classifying this as non-genre, though as noted there are a number of spooky stories too (and one with an alien).

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Christmas dinner

Starter: Figs and Prosciutto

10 figs
20 small cubes of blue cheese
prosciutto (thinly sliced, cut in half lengthwise)

Cut the figs in half and place a piece of blue cheese on each fig half. Fasten a piece of prosciutto to each fig through the cheese with a cocktail stick.

Put in a hot oven for long enough for the cheese to soften. Eat it all up.

Comment: In an ideal world, where one has a functioning grill, one is supposed to grill the whole lot to make the prosciutto crispy and the cheese soft and then drizzle with salt, pepper and olive oil. Also in an ideal world where one has well-behaved prosciutto, one is supposed to carefully wrap a long strip around each fig rather than pin disintegrating bits to the top. We do not live in an ideal world; in the real world, this was more than fine.

Main Course/Meat: Wild Boar with Apples

1kg wild boar

marinade
600 ml apple cider
125 ml apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon allspice
2 garlic cloves, minced

mustard-sage rub
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

apples
4 apples cut into wedges, cored, unpeeled
1 sprig rosemary, chopped
50g butter

Combine the apple cider, apple cider vinegar, garlic, and spices. Marinade the wild boar mini-roast in this mixture for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Take the wild boar roast out of the marinade, pat dry, reserve the marinade. In a small bowl combine mustard, oil, sage, garlic, salt and pepper. Rub the mixture all over the wild boar. Slow roast in the oven on 120 C until it reaches an internal temperature of 75 C, basting occasionally with a few spoonfuls of marinade.

Pour 2-3 cups of the marinade into a sauce pan and reduce until the mixture thickens, serve as a sauce for the wild boar roast.

Melt butter in a skillet. Add apples and rosemary and cook until the apples are light brown.

Slice the wild boar roast, pour the sauce over, and serve with apples.

Comment: Use of the oven thermometer gave me the best boar I've managed to cook for years. The sauce was not too rich but set off the meat nicely, rather than the usual very heavy junpier berry recipe I have used in the past.

Main Course/Carbs: Mămăligă

600 ml water
125 g yellow cornmeal(medium or coarse ground)
salt, as needed
butter to grease bowl(s)

Bring the water to a happy boil in a medium pot and stream in the cornmeal, whisking as you go. Season with a smattering of salt, to taste.

Cook, stirring often (eventually switching to a wooden spoon), until the mămăligă pulls away from the side of the pot and you can stick a wooden spoon in it and it stays standing straight up. Reduce heat if it begins to spatter and sputter.

Butter up one large or several small bowls; pour in and allow to cool. Can be reheated for eating, or eaten cold. Traditionally eaten without cutlery, and cut with thread rather than a knife.

Comment: This is the national dish of Moldova, and the coincidence of having a Moldovan guest for Christmas dinner and the fact that the boar recipe as I received it specified an accompaniment of polenta (which is only one step away from mămăligă) emboldened me to try it. It's dead easy and our guest expressed polite appreciation. I might do it again.

Main Course/Veg 1: Cauliflower Satsivi / ყვავილოვანი კომბოსტოს საცივი

Satsivi (Georgian: საცივი) is a thick paste made from walnuts and served cold (‘Tsivi’ means ‘cold’ in Georgian). It is used in a variety of meat (usually chicken and turkey), fish and vegetable dishes – in this case cauliflower.

Ingredients

1 medium cauliflower
3 white onions
300 g of walnuts
4 cloves of garlic
2 cloves
1 quarter tsp of cinnamon
1 tsp dried fenugreek
1 tsp dried marigold (if you can get it!)
1 tsp dried coriander
1 tsp dried hot red pepper
salt
1 tbs vinegar
4 tbs oil

Grind the walnuts and garlic together and add to a mixing bowl. Crush the cloves and add to the bowl, together with fenugreek, marigold, coriander, cinnamon, hot red pepper and salt.

Mix thoroughly. Add 1 tbs of vinegar and then gradually add boiled, cooled water, stirring as the water is added.

Keep adding a little water until the paste has a thick but not wet consistency. Leave for 2 hours.

Wash and separate the cauliflower. Boil in a deep pot for 10 minutes.

Slice the onions and add to a pan of oil. Fry on a medium heat until the onions brown.

Add the boiled cauliflower to the pan of fried onions. Fry for a further 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Pour the walnut paste onto the cauliflower and onions and allow to cool for at least half an hour before serving. We garnished ours with pomegranate seeds.

Comment: This gives you a vast amount of cauliflower covered with walnut paste, and with five of us around the table we got through only half of it. It was also a bit of a tactical error to serve this cold when everything else was warm. It is very yummy, though, and would have been fantastic for a more salad-y meal rather than merely good and tasty.

Main Course/Veg 2: Burnt Sprouts

Ingredients
3 tbsp oil
400g Brussels sprouts, halved
25g cold butter
1 tbsp sesame seeds
100g pomegranate seeds

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Put the sprouts in the pan, cut-side down, and leave them to sizzle away happily for 10 mins without disturbing them.

Halfway through cooking, dot over the butter and leave it to sizzle and brown – the sprouts need to be really crispy and dark brown. If they are just lightly brown, carry on cooking for another 5-10 mins.

Scatter over the sesame seeds and stir-fry everything until the seeds are toasted. Off the heat, toss through the pomegranate seeds, then season the sprouts with salt and tip into a serving dish. Drizzle with honey if you like before serving.

Comment: This was the surprise hit of the meal. Sprouts are sort of traditional with Christmas dinner, but I had never though before of frying them, let alone frying them with interesting extra tastes. I didn't bother with the honey option – this was already a calorific enough meal – but I could see how it might work.

Pudding

We cheated and bought a pudding from the British shop in Everberg. Discovered I had run out of brandy, but have plenty of Ракија left over from previous Balkan adventures so was able to draw on reserves a bit.

How To Get The Seeds Out Of A Pomegranate

Cut the pomegranate in half.

Submerge one half in water in a large bowl.

Dig into the fruit with your fingers releasing the seeds from the pith inside. The seeds will sink to the bottom and the pith will float to the top.

Repeat for the other half.

I hope you ate well today too.

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Thursday reading

Current
Helliconia Summer, by Brian Aldiss

Last books finished
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 5, ed. von Dimpleheimer
The Last Man, by Alfred Noyes
The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, ed. Dennis Pepper
Doctor Who: Big Bang Generation, by Gary Russell

Next books
Selected Stories, by Alice Munro
A Princess of Roumania, by Paul Park
Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss

Books acquired in last week
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 5, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Lois McMaster Bujold, by Edward James
Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster
The Last Man, by Alfred Noyes

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#RetroHugos1941 The Last Man (aka No Other Man) by Alfred Noyes

I know, I thought I’d wrapped up my Retro Hugo reading, but then over on File 770, Kyra alerted me to this interesting novel, in which almost all of humanity is destroyed by a Doomsday Weapon at the very beginning, the hero spends many chapters exploring dead cities and finding the heroine, and they must then deal with the villain (the hero’s surname is Adams; the heroine’s first name is Evelyn). It’s pretty heavily steeped in the writer’s Catholicism and hostility to war; there is a lot of poetry (including some very coy use of Theocritus in the original Greek when the central relationship is consummated); the twist at the end appears to be a case of direct divine intervention. But it’s nicely done, and it knocks Jack Williamson off my nominations list.

The author is best known for his ballad The Highwayman, first published many years earlier in 1906.

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Links I found interesting for 24-12-2015

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#RetroHugos1941 My 1941 Retro Hugo nominations in the fiction categories

I feel I've done my due diligence by the Retro Hugos for 1941 as never before. I read the Asimov/Greenberg edited collection of 1940 stories, and the relevant stories from Heinlein's The Past Through Tomorrow and Sturgeon's The Ultimate EgoistThe Clock Strikes Twelve, a collection of spooky stories by H. Russell Wakefield, and Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree, a collection of stories in an imagined and rather Orientalist China by Ernest Bramah, which actually had very little sfnal content (there's a magician in one story and a prophetic dream in another). I've also read the five collections of stories compiled by the diligent von Dimpelheimer, to whom much credit is due for rescuing and propagating many gems. (See his collections here, here, here, here and here.) And I found some more available for free online.

Before I get into the specifics, one point that struck me: a lot of the stories of 1940 are set either in New York or on Mars. It shows the power of attraction of the lead city for American culture, and the superior imaginative grip of (imaginary) canals rather than clouds. It may also show the impact of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast from two years earlier, though my memory of the 1939 Retro Hugos, most of which would have been written before the Halloween broadcast, is that New York and Mars were similarly prominent.

Anyway, parking that thought, I am minded to nominate the following:

Short Stories

Novelettes

  • "Farewell to the Master", by Harry Bates – classic story of alien contact with Earth gone tragically wrong, basis of famous film, probably getting my vote if it is a finalist.
  • "Into the Darkness", by Ross Rocklynne – a rather spectacular Stapledonian story of vast discorporeal intelligences, in the Asimov/Greenberg anthology.
  • "New York Fights the Termanites" by Bertrand L. Shurtleff – glorious: they are half human, half termite, and are trying to Conquer! The! City! Another von Dimpelheimer find.
  • "It", by Theodore Sturgeon – great story of undead monster in small town America, in the Asimov/Greenberg anthology and the Sturgeon collection.
  • "The Sea Thing", by A.E. van Vogt – shark god v humans on a Pacific island.

Novellas

  • The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares – surrealism meets magical realism.
  • Fattypuffs and Thinifers, by Andre Maurois – the title is rather awful, but the point of the book is actually a parable about tolerance of difference, obviously from the context relating to France and Germany.
  • If This Goes On, by Robert A. Heinlein – nominating this having reread the 1953 expansion and a note on how it differs from the 1940 original, probably getting my vote if it is a finalist.
  • "The Mound", by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop – OK, so there's magical Indians, but there's also time travel and Elder Gods. Written many years earlier, but published only in 1940.
  • "But Without Horns", by Norvell Page – very nicely done story about a superman who never actually appears.

Novels

I'm sure that Slan and Gray Lensman will be on the list anyway without my support, but in hope of diversifying I'm nominating five others from the long list I compiled. They are:

  • Kallocain, by Karin Boye – a forgotten dystopia that merits reviving.
  • Captain Future and the Space Emperor, by Edmond Hamilton – pulpy but memorable start of a long series
  • Edited to add: I’m changing my original preferences and dropping Jack Williamson for The Last Man, aka No Other Man, by Alfred Noyes – a Doomsday Weapon post-apocalypse tale of love and religion.
  • Twice in Time, by Manly Wade Wellman – not sure if the Baen e-version is the 1940 original, the 1957 shorter version, or the 1988 expansion, but in any case it's a rollicking good story of time travel and becoming part of history.
  • The Ill-Made Knight, by T.H. White – third of the four parts of The Once and Future King, the story of Lancelot; will probably get my vote if it is a finalist
  • The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson – decent retelling of Theseus legend, with much else thrown in.

There's a lot of good stuff out there. I recommend that the curious try the five von Dimpleheimer collections, and also get hold of the Asimov/Greenberg collection for the short stories; your mileage will certainly vary from mine. (Some other anthologies and collections containing 1940 stories are listed here.) The novels, and several of the novellas, are all available by the usual means (The Ill-Made Knight as part of The Once and Future King, If This Goes On in The Past Through Tomorrow).

This project has deflected me from my ambition of reading widely in the short fiction of 2015. Fortunately, lots of other people have been doing so. But more on that another time.

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