Can you identify this story?

An old friend writes:

"I remember a short story (but not the title or the author) I read many years ago, in which a man travelled into the future; was surprised, when he arrived, to see the streets mostly deserted and the roads and buildings uncared-for; is picked up by men in white coats who think there's something wrong with him for just wandering around; and learns that in this future world the only goal of humanity is to get themselves permanently wired up to a virtual reality device in which they can live out their favourite fantasies."

Does that ring any bells for anyone?

<b>Edited to add:</b> The story has now been identified as <a href="">"Spectator Sport</a>, by John A. MacDonald</a>.

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My books of 2016 – including poll

I read only 212 books this year, which is my lowest total since 2006. Basically this is because I got sucked into feeding from the information firehose of social media around the times of both the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election; I read precisely three books in November, which I think is the lowest since I started bookblogging at the end of 2003. It is addictive, but I get much more from reading books and have managed to restore the balance in the last few weeks.


2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
37 47 48 46 53 69 66 88
17% 16% 16% 19% 20% 23% 24% 26%

Best non-fiction read in 2016: Between the world and me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates -tremendous (and short) polemic about racism and violence in the United States.
Runner-up: SPQR, by Mary Beard – great account of the history of Rome.
The one you might not heard of: Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, ed. Janet Brennan Croft – fascinating essays on at the influence of the global conflict on the origins of the fantasy genre.

Non-sfnal fiction

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
28 42 41 44 48 48 50 57
13% 14% 14% 19% 19% 16% 18% 18%

Best non-sff fiction read in 2016: Alice Munro's short story collections, The Love of a Good Woman, Selected Stories, and The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose – all fantastic vignettes of Canada.
Runner-up: Nemesis, by Philip Roth – the effects of polio on middle-class America in the 1950s.
Welcome rereads: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James JoyceWalking on Glass, by Iain BanksThe Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.
The one you might not heard of: Dark Horse, by Fletcher Knebel – the Republican candidate dies just before the Presidential election; his swiftly conscripted replacement is an obscure New Jersey politician who starts shaking the political system.

Non-Whovian sff

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
80 130 124 65 62 78 73 78
38% 45% 43% 27% 24% 26% 26% 23%

Best non-Who sff read in 2016: Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge – creepy doppleganger story set in England just after the first world war.
Runner-up: Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand – I never write this up properly, but it's an excellent fantasy/horror story, again set in England.
Welcome re-reads: Watership Down, by Richard Adamsthe Alice books by Lewis Carroll.
The one you might not heard of: Time Bangers #1: One Does Not Simply Walk Into Tudor, by Luna Teague and Ivery Kirk – OK, this is not exactly great art, but the authors clearly had a lot of fun writing it.

Doctor Who (and spinoff) fiction

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
39 43 59 72 75 80 71 70
18% 15% 20% 30% 29% 27% 26% 19%

Best Who book read in 2016: The Legends of Ashildr, by James Goss, David Llewellyn, Jenny T. Colgan & Justin Richards – all good stories, some really good
Runner-up: The Mike Tucker (and Robert Perry) Seventh Doctor/Ace novels, Illegal Alien, Prime Time and Loving the Alien – great examples of respect for continuity and also bringing more.
Worth flagging up for Whovians: Drama and Delight: The Life of Verity Lambert, by Richard Marson – excellent biography of the show's first producer.


2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
27 18 19 30 21 27 18 28
13% 6% 7% 13% 8% 9% 6% 8%

Best graphic story read in 2016: Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot – brilliant exploration of the town and its links to literature in general and Alice in particular.
Runner-up: The Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III, Dave Stewart, Todd Klein – very satisfying prequel/sequel to the classic story, which won the Hugo
The one you might not have heard of: Toch Een Geluk, by Barbara Stok – fun Dutch comics writer, sadly not translated into English yet.

One is slightly comparing chalk and cheese here. I was lucky enough to see Hamilton in Chicago this month, but had also read the Hamiltome which has loads of information and is a must-have for any fan.
However I also read the complete Christopher Marlowe, and particularly enjoyed Edward II and The Jew of Malta.

Worst books of the year: To be found on the Best Related Work ballot for the Hugo Awards.

Now your turn. How much has your reading overlapped with mine this year? People with Facebook, Twitter, Dreamwidth and maybe even Google accounts should also be able to participate.

And if you have time, I’d appreciate your input on my 2017 reading poll.

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December books and weekly reading blog

Books read this week:
Last Exit to Babylon – Volume 4: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny
The Listener, by Tove Jansson
Christmas Days, by Jeanette Winterson
The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà
What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF, by Jo Walton
Brain Fetish, by Kinga Korska

Books read this month

Non-fiction: 4 (2016 total 37/212, 17%)
Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, by Paul Cartledge
Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà
What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF, by Jo Walton

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (2016 total 28/212, 13%)
The Listener, by Tove Jansson
The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom

sf (non-Who): 6 (2016 total 80/212, 38%)
Kings of the North, by Cecelia Holland
AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, ed. Ivor Hartmann
Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany, by Neil Gaiman
The Star Rover, by Jack London
Last Exit to Babylon – Volume 4: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny
Christmas Days, by Jeanette Winterson

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (2016 total 39/212, 18%)
Short Trips: The History of Christmas, ed. Simon Guerrier
Bullet Time, by David A. McIntee
Twilight of the Gods, by Mark Clapham and John de Burgh Miller

Comics: 4 (2016 total 27/212, 13%)
Apostata, Bundel I, by Ken Broeders
Apostata, Bundel II, by Ken Broeders
Apostata, Bundel III, by Ken Broeders
Brain Fetish, by Kinga Korska

Currently reading
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony

Page count for December: 6200
Page count for the year: 62,300 (80,100 in 2015; 97,100 in 2014; 67,000 in 2013; 77,800 in 2012; 88,200 in 2011)
Books by women in December: 6/19 (Jethà, Walton, Jansson, Holland, Winterson, Korska)
Books by women in 2016: 65/212, 31% – highest percentage since I started tracking (cf 86 [30%] in 2015, 81 [28%] in 2014, 71 [30%] in 2013, 65 [25%] in 2012, 22% in 2011, 23% in 2010, 20% in 2009, 12% in 2008
Books by PoC in December: 2/19 (Cacilda Jethà, the AfroSF anthology)
Books by PoC in 2016: 14/212, 7% (20 [7%] in 2015, 11 [5%] in 2014, 12 [5%] in 2013, 5% in 2011, 9% in 2010, 5% in 2009, 2% in 2008)

Most books by a single author: Christopher Marlowe (previous winners: Justin Richards in 2015 and 2014, Agatha Christie in 2013, Jonathan Gash in 2012, Arthur Conan Doyle in 2011, Ian Rankin in 2010, William Shakespeare in 2009 and 2008, Terrance Dicks in 2007, Ian Marter in 2006, Charles Stross in 2005)

Coming soon (pehaps)
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution, ed. Margarette Lincoln
Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman, by Harlan Ellison
Rhyme Stew by Roald Dahl
The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare
To Lie with Lions by Dorothy Dunnett
See How Much I Love You by Luis Leante
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett
The Other Islam by Stephen Schwartz
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
The Humans by Matt Haig
The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
The Parrot’s Theorem by Denis Guedj
Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock
Argonautica by Valerius Flaccus
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd
Warriors ed. George R. R. Martin
Short Trips: Farewells ed. Jacqueline Rayner
Rip Tide by Louise Cooper
The Dead Men Diaries ed. Paul Cornell

Best of the year and poll to come.

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The case of the missing books, by Ian Sansom

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Back at the council offices Linda Wei had got him to sign several forms on the dotted line, and had issued him with papers and instructions as to his exact role and responsibilities, and details of bank accounts had been confirmed, and then it had taken him an hour – a whole hour – to find Ted's Cabs following Linda's directions wandering up and down the endless grey-black streets of Tumdrum, which meant that in total he'd been on his vast trek now from London to here for nearly two days – two whole days – and when he finally made it to the so-called offices of Ted's Cabs, it turned out to be nothing more than a large shiplap and corrugated-iron shed on a patch of weedy waste ground next to a barbed-wired electricity sub-station on the edge of Tumdrum. There was a red neon sign attached to the roof of the shed, flashing TED'S CABS into the cold Northern Irish sky, and as he got closer Israel could see a faded motto painted on hardboard in a wobbly hand which hung on chains down and across the front of the shed, and which was banging forcefully in the high winter winds: IF YOU WANT TO GET THERE, announced the flapping sign, CALL THE BEAR.

To my surprise, this book that I had never heard of turned out to be the best known book set in Northern Ireland when I did my survey last year. It's the first of a series; I must say I don't think I'll bother with the rest – there's a little too much pointing and laughing at the funny Irish people, and the actual plot is wafer-thin. In particular, the treatment of local politics is completely ludicrous; libraries in Northern Ireland are not actually under the control of local councils, and any local council that treated its staff the way Tumdrum council treats Israel Armstrong, the novel's Jewish protagonist, would get hauled in front of an employment tribunal pretty rapidly. The model I guess is the old Moyle council, if it had had some larger towns than Ballycastle in it, with added layers of Troubles trauma which seem to have left remarkably little impact on local politics. I guess people who like whimsy in an Ulster accent will like this, and good luck to them.

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What should I read in 2017?

As usual, I’m asking advice from my collective readership as to what I should read next year. You should be able to participate in this poll with Twitter, Dreamwidth, Facebook or maybe even Google logins. Make the most of it – I have a feeling that this may be the last time I do this, with the decline of LJ and as my unread books become increasingly obscure.

Your advice is much appreciated, and particular recommendations (of books on the lists below) are very welcome in comments. I got most of the way through last year’s recommendations.

NB that the questions for each set of books are slightly different. The first and third polls exclude books on my shelves by white men bought more than a year ago; I’ll get to all of them eventually, I hope!

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Interesting Links for 30-12-2016

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Livejournal, you are reprieved – for now

Well, my resolution to shift to Dreamwidth has lasted less than a day. Several things changed my mind, of which the most important is that Livejournal seems to have started working again. But also Dreamwidth is really lacking in a number of the good features that LJ has built on in the last few years – there is no image hosting as far as I can see, the embedding of media from other sites is clunky and unrealiable, and there is no way to schedule a post in advance (for the last year or so I’ve been writing the coming week’s book reviews the previous weekend and scheduling them to come out each day). On top of that, to reflect posts to Facebook and Twitter, you have to cross-post to LJ as DW doesn’t have that capability. It’s basically where LJ was five years ago. So I am returning to LJ for now.

But LJ is on notice. The system is clearly under financial and political pressure, and I am preparing backup options. A kind friend has hosted a WordPress backup for several years now, and I will probably go that way eventually. But I will plan it carefully, and ensure that I have set up all the necessary bells and whistles. A lot of my public life is in this blog, and I want to preserve it securely.

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The Listener, by Tove Jansson & Christmas Days, by Jeanette Winterson

By sheer coincidence, my Christmas goodies included two collections of short stories by two different lesbian authors, and I think it makes a neat pair to review together. Not, mind you, that the two collections have anything much more in common with each other than two collections both by straight men would have; it’s more that the two of them have approched the craft of writing in interestingly different ways.

The Listener, by Tove Jansson

Second paragraph of third story (“The Birthday Party”):

“Couldn’t you wait with that?” said Vera Häger. “They’ll be here any moment. I think we should greet them together. I’m not used to…”

This is the most recent of Jansson’s story collections to be translated into English, but it was the first collection of Tove Jansson’s short stories to be published in her native Swedish (apart from the semi-autobiographical The Scupltor’s Daughter). They show her already at the top of her form, quietly understated observation, sometimes brief vignettes, sometimes mapping out a brief section of a character arc that you can extrapolate further if you want. The two that particularly jumped out at me are both about a third of the way in, “Black-White”, a tribute to Edward Gorey, about an illustrator who becomes consumed by his work, and “Letters to an Idol”, no doubt inspired by her own experiences on both ends of the fannish dynamic, about obsession, communication and acceptance. But they are all good, and give a real feeling of life in Jansson’s Bohemian urban and rural spaces.

Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days, by Jeanette Winterson

Second paragraph of third story (“Dark Christmas”):

Highfallen House stood on an eminence overlooking the sea. It was a square Victorian gentleman’s residence. The large bay windows looked down through the pines towards the shore. Six stone steps led the visitor up to the double front door where a Gothic bell-pull released a loud mournful clang deep into the distances of the house.

This is much more intense stuff, a collection of stories with a Christmassy theme (nine or ten of the twelve have supernatural elements, so I’m putting it in my sf basket). The stories are interspersed with reminiscences about Winterson’s own life, and people who she has loved – deceased friends, such as Ruth Rendell and Kathy Acker; her parents; her wife Susie Orbach; and also Christmassy recipes. None of the recipes is particularly original or startling, but it’s a nice extra set of content to put alongside the stories themselves. I had not read any of Winterson’s fiction before, and I honestly did not expect the stories to be so funny.

The two authors are coming from very different places – Jansson from a well-off city backgrouod, with liberal parents and friends and connections to her country’s elite from an early age; Winterson from a small town and an oppressive household dominatred by religious ideology, from which she has negotiated escape on her own terms. Both collections are great, in very different ways.

On another topic entirely, I think this will be the last post I put directly onto Livejournal. There has been no resolution of the bugginess of the last couple of days, and the news that the servers have all physically been transferred to Russia may not be unrelated. I will post to Dreamwidth, cross-posted to here for now; I don’t promise to check my friends page here regularly, and unfortunately the Japanese spam problem that Imentioned last year has started to overwhelm my comment notifications, so posting a comment here is unlikely to be an efficient way of getting my attention. Sad, but there you go.

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My year on social media – Instagram

Instagram is just lovely. I wish I remembered to use it more often. The default behaviour is to be nice to people and say how much you like their picture. It’s much more difficult to work up the energy to be nasty to people on Instagram. Everyone should use it. (Except nasty people, of course.)

Chances are if you’re reading this that you’ve already added me on Instagram, but if not, please do; I am @nwbrux there as I am on Twitter.

My most liked picture on Instagram this year was taken in a Brussels pub, London Calling on Place de Londres, in November. It followed the announcements that the Brussels blogosphere Superhero, Captain Europe, was retiring and hanging up his cape for good; and that the Vice-President of the European Commission, Kristalina Georgieva, was resigning to take up a new job at the World bank. The Commissioner responded positively to an invitation posted in public on Twitter, and loads of people showed up, including me, to witness the meeting of two departing icons (who had never met before).

My second most liked Instagram picture was from just a few days ago – the evening of 24 December, to be precise.

The third most liked was also a seasonal picture, of me and some of my colleagues wearing a T-shirt supplied by Stow Shirts. We are an international crowd: the countries represented are, left to right, England, Italy, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Poland, Ireland, Slovenia, Romania/Hungary, and, kneeling, Italy again and Greece.

I’m already discovering the limitations of Dreamwidth. The Instagram embed code doesn’t seem to work, and there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent of the LJ Scrapbook (which I must now download and archive).

I’ve switched my primary blog to Dreamwidth. Feel free to comment here or there, but I will see it more quickly there.

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My year on social media – Twitter

Most retweeted, a massive 412, well ahead of the field – and original content too! – was a comment on the Hugo awards, picked up particularly by Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths), The Grugq (@thegrugq), Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) and Harper Reed (@harper) which put it on a cumulated 650,000 potential impressions, the second highest for the year, and also got the most replied:

Second most retweeted: my comment on a Guardian report on British foreign policy in the new age of expert-free policy-making:

Third most retweeted, definitely not my original content unfortunately, but very funny:

Fourth highest, but with the most potential impressions (771,000) entirely due to being picked up by Graham Linehan (@glinner) was also not original content but a very interesting story about Chuck Tingle (to which I added a one-word comment):

The highest number of replies was 15, to two posts: the Boris Johnson piece already mentioned above, and my 22 March post.

Still alive.

I’ve switched my primary blog to Dreamwidth. Feel free to comment here or there, but I will see it more quickly there.

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My year on social media – Facebook

This is my first time posting to Dreamwidth! Hopefully it will also crosspost to Livejournal seamlessly.

Facebook has increasingly become my most used channel of interaction online. Most of my content is not expecially original – I repost links to a lot of articles, and to my own Livejournal entries (now Dreamwidth), and sometimes I repost pictures that I have found on Twitter or Instagram.

My most shared Facebook post of the year was a case in point – a fun picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton as students, that I probably saw on Twitter, saved to my phone and posted to Facebook. It clearly hist the Zeitgeist, three weeks before the election. My own posting got 492 likes (fourth highest for any of my 2016 post)s, of which I thnk fewer than half were from friends of mine; and it was shared an astonishing 5,521 times. I checked, and these were definitly all reflections of my original post. I just wish it had been my original material!

My most liked Facebook post of 2016, also the second most widely shared, was original content: my last-minute plea to British voters to vote Remain in the referendum on EU membership (also posted to LiveJournal, and mailed to about 1300 people who I knew living in the UK). Obviously it did not have the desired effect, but there was little else I could do, and I am glad I did it. The 522 shares indicate that it went far and wide.

My most commented-on Facebook post of 2016, also the second most liked, was also original content, but very much shorter. Facebook has become an important channel of letting people know that you have survived whatever disaster may have happened in your town. On the morning of 22 March, unusually, I drove into work (I normally take the train), and even more unusually, my phone was not working and I was effectively out of contact for the two hours between leaving home at 8.30 and arriving at the office through inexplicably apocalyptic traffic at 1030. Once I arrived, I discovered that two bomb attacks in Brussels had killed dozens, and posted this announcement as soon as I had made the most urgent phone calls to my family.
I’m still alive and well, and now posting to Dreamwidth.

I’ve switched my primary blog to Dreamwidth. Feel free to comment here or there, but I will see it more quickly there.

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Last Exit to Babylon, by Roger Zelazny

Second paragraph of third story (“Home is the Hangman”):

I sat in a chair turned sidewise from the table to face the door. A tool kit rested on the floor to my left. The helmet stood on the table, a lopsided basket of metal, quartz, porcelain, and glass. If I heard the click of a microswitch followed by a humming sound from within it, then a faint light would come on beneath the meshing near to its forward edge and begin to blink rapidly. If these things occurred, there was a very strong possibility that I was going to die.

Very glad to start this write-up with a quote from a favourite story, the Hugo and Nebula-winning climax of the three stories of a nameless protagonist which make up My Name is Legion. The later 1970s were a productive and fertile time for Zelazny’s imagination; the one problem with this volume, the fourth of six collecting his short fiction, is that I have read it all before – My Name is Legion, Dilvish, the Damned, Unicorn Variations – I even have a copy of The Illustrated Roger Zelazny with the Jack of Shadows prequel “Shadowjack”. Still, there is plenty of explanatory material outlining how each story came to be written, and a useful afterword linking the short fiction and poetry to Zelazny’s novels and other life events (notably the births of his children). For a Zelazny completist like me, it’s indispensable; but it adds less than previous volumes did.

This was the last book left on my shelves bought in 2009. That now opens up all my 2010 lists: non-fiction (The Other Islam, by Stephen Schwartz), non-genre (See How Much I Love You, by Luis Leante), sf (Argonautica, by Valerius Flaccus), short books (De Piraten van de Zilveren Kattenklauw, by “Geronimo Stilton”), and most popular (The Palace of Dreams, by Ismail Kadarë).

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Interesting Links for 29-12-2016

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The Star-Rover, by Jack London

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Meanwhile Captain Jamie fretted his head off and prepared for the night, while Winwood passed the word along to the forty lifers to be ready for the break. And two hours after midnight every guard in the prison was under orders. This included the day-shift which should have been asleep. When two o’clock came, they rushed the cells occupied by the forty. The rush was simultaneous. The cells were opened at the same moment, and without exception the men named by Winwood were found out of their bunks, fully dressed, and crouching just inside their doors. Of course, this was verification absolute of all the fabric of lies that the poet-forger had spun for Captain Jamie. The forty lifers were caught in red-handed readiness for the break. What if they did unite, afterward, in averring that the break had been planned by Winwood? The Prison Board of Directors believed, to a man, that the forty lied in an effort to save themselves. The Board of Pardons likewise believed, for, ere three months were up, Cecil Winwood, forger and poet, most despicable of men, was pardoned out.

I am not sure that I had ever read any Jack London before, and picked this up many years ago under the impression that it was sf in some way. Well, it is; but it’s a story of reincarnation rather than starships, with some social commentary along the way as well. The protagonist is a university professor, (justly) imprisoned for murder and awaiting execution, who discovers that when horribly constrained in solitary confinement, he is able to relive what are apparently his own past incarnations – all very manly white men (and one boy) who do manly things with other white men, often involving killing, and making love to beautiful women from foreign cultures. Within those constraints (!) I thought that both the prison passages and the reincarnations were very well imagined and described. One chapter is set in and around the Crucifixion without being too mawkish; another relives the Mountain Meadows Massacre from the viewpoint of one of the victims. It all hangs together moderately well – I see some complaining that the reincarnation passages are not integrated, but I think they are telling different parts of the same story.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2010. Next on that list is The Palace of Dreams, by Ismail Kadaré.

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Apostata, by Ken Broeders

I got the first six albums of Ken Broeders' epic saga of the life of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who I previously knew really from Chapters XXII, XXIII and XXIV of Gibbon. It's great stuff, taking some liberties with the actual historical facts (with added prophetesses of varying accuracy and usefulness) but conveying a rollicking story of the young man, plucked unwillingly from relative obscurity to take on leadership, and equipped with a vision of turning back the adoption of Christianity to restore the old gods. It's a little sketchy in places – all deformed characters seem to be evil, women have a tendency to be peril monkeys with a consequent risk of fridging – but the art is gorgeous and the construction of the story fascinating. I'll certainly be getting other volumes when they come out. (I got the first six in three double "Bundels", which I slightly regret now.)

Here are the second frames of the third pages of each of them (skipping the prose intrductions in most volumes):

(The Alamanni sack Colonia Agrippina/Cologne)

Emperor Constantius: "Attack? My dear boy, why would we do that? We have forced the Persians back across the Euphrates… Victory is already ours!"

Milius: "General Barbatio, my men can start out in pursuit today. If we stay close behind Chnodomar, and our troops are able to join with Caesar Julian's…"
Barbatio: "Then we've got the barbarians in our pincers, a simple and effective strategy, my friend.”

Milius: "Primigenia… that's the third time! The driver is really frightened… What is it?"
Primigenia: "It… it's nothing… I had a nightmare… that's all… a nightmare."

Eusebius: "All right. Even drunk and obtuse, the prince is essential. By supporting him we will unbalance the political equilibrium in Armenia…"

Maximus: "And I… I am no more than a humble and simple messenger… and sometimes the mighty gods speak to me at the most unexpected moments!"

Unfortunately only the first three volumes have been translated, and that only to French; an enterprising English-language publishing house could make a real success of this (and several of the other Flemish / Dutch comics hits that I have been reading in the last couple of years).

I picked this as the next non-English-language comic on my pile; plenty more to choose from.

Covers are of the three bundels rather than the six separate albums.

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Livejournal acting up again

Can’t post-date entries, can’t see comments, can’t choose userpic, can’t select multiple spam comments for deletion; preparing my backup options… Maybe 2017 will be the year I finally abandon ship and find a new home for blogging.

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BSFA Awards – nominations close 31 December

Nominations are open for the first round of the BSFA Awards, until 31 December. You can nominate up to four works in each category (Best Novel, Best Short Fiction, Best Art, Best Non-Fiction) and you can do it here. You can also see some of what has been nominated by others so far here. (Both Best Artwork and Best Non-Fiction currently look a little underpopulated.) You do have to be a member of the BSFA to vote.

The shortlists in each of the four categories will then be selected during January by further online vote of the BSFA mambership – but only works nominated in the first round will be eligible. So this is the moment to ensure that work you enjoyed is not overlooked. The winners will then be chosen from the shortlists emerging from the January vote, by ballot of the BSFA membership and Eastercon attendees.

Apart from being a voter and occasional commentator (though commenting less this year due to my other commitments), I am particularly interested in seeing how this works out, because I am one of the co-sponsors of a proposal to move the Hugo Awards to a three-stage rather than two-stage process – though it is very different in detail to what the BSFA are doing this year and next. (For the detail, see here pages 3-5; for the rationale and debate, see here page 101-103 and 109-114.)

Our proposal was passed by the WSFS Business Meeting at MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City last August, and to come into effect must be ratified by the next WSFS Business Meeting in Helsinki at Worldcon 75 next August. There are a lot of other changes to the Hugos this year, particularly regarding the nominations process (see my summary here), and the outworkings of these changes will probably be the main elements of the debate on whether to take the proposed three-stage voting process forward. But the experiences of the BSFA’s three-stage ballot will also be very relevant.

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Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat

Second paragraph of third chapter:

One hundred and thirty miles – a surface of packed, crusted snow going across barren plains and through frail birch groves. At every relay they drank scalding tea at the inn, hung thick with the smell of smoke, leather and cabbage. Grandmother's coach was in the lead, hoisted up on its high wheels, as comfortable as a house. There was food inside to last for ten days, a medicine kit, dressing case, and a night commode, so that the passengers might relieve themselves without getting out of the coach. Frozen by the wind, footmen clung to jutting platforms on either side of the box. The carriage was so monumentally big that it could not get through the archway of the post-house at Serpukhov, but apart from that, the trip went off without incident. They slept in the upstairs rooms of the inns, which were cold and full of bedbugs. The next morning – for the last lap of the journey – Papa invited each of his sons in turn to sit with him in his sledge. It was at his father's side that Leo entered Moscow at last, after a four-day voyage.

Having immensely appreciated both War and Peace and Anna Karenina in recent years, I picked this book up to try and get acquainted with the great author.

Oh dear.

Tolstoy was a truly awful person. Having had a couple of (extraordinary) literary successes, he set himself up as a political prophet and became the centre of a cult following which does not appear to have embarrassed him in the slightest. His disciples were in constant conflict with his wife and family as to who controlled access to the great man and who could profit from his literary endeavours. He was entirely capable of writing an essay on how important it is to put sex aside only to then immediately go and impregnate poor Sonya for the umpteenth time. The story of the last few years of his life is a tedious tit-for-tat in his entourage, enlivened by the occasional bit of actual writing.

Henri Troyat (real name Lev Tarasov) ducks almost all of these issues. The biography relies too heavily on the copious written materials left by Tolsty and his family and fans, and never steps back to consider where we have come from. One telling example: in the account of Tolstoy's wedding to Sonya, Troyat lets slip that the great man had already had a son with Axinya, one of the serfs on the family estate – and there is no further examination of this, apart from its effect on Sonya's state of mind (already somewhat perturbed by reading Tolstoy's secret diaries, a detail later written into Anna Karenina).

I am sure that better biographies of Tolstoy have since been written. But I'm not sure I would want to read them.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2013. Next on that list is The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.

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Twilight of the Gods, by Mark Clapham and John de Burgh Miller

Second paragraph of third chapter:

She woke in a sweat, her cotton nightshirt soaked and clammy. Her mouth was dry. Light streamed through the window, and there was the sound of raised voices outside. Morning. So much for a good night‟s sleep. Draining the glass of water by her bedside, she stumbled to the bathroom for a long, long soak. When she returned, she pulled on fresh clothes and towelled her hair, feeling far more human. The noises could still be heard outside, so she walked to the window and pulled open the curtains.

This is the very last of the Bernice Summerfield Virgin New Adventures, closing a series of 23 novels which I think is the longest sequence for any one companion (there are only 19 Torchwood books). It’s decent enough but not great; it winds up the Gods storyline established earlier in the sequence, without really tying much into the books in between. Benny, Jason and Irving Braxiatel get some good moments, and there is a crazed cult bent on human sacrifice. The series doesn’t really end with a bang, but it’s not a whimper either.

That may be the end of the Virgin New Adventures, but there are a load more Bernice Sunmmerfield books published by Big Finish, starting with The Dead Men Diaries, an anthology edited by Paul Cornell.

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Interesting Links for 27-12-2016

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Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, by Paul Cartledge

Second paragraph of third chapter (parsing a contemporary report of what else was happening at the time of Alexander's birth):

Philip and Parmenion we have already met. The Illyrians were Macedon's traditional enemies on their western border. The Olympics were the most prestigious of the Panhellenic festivals. Alexander's mother was Philip's fourth wife, Olympias, a Greek princess from Molossia in Epirus (to the south of Illyria), who had given birth at the Macedonian administrative capital of Pella. Alexander's name was already a royal one within the Macedonian kingly house. But the fact that it was also the alternative name of Homer's Paris may not have been irrelevant either, given our Alexander's passion for all things Homeric.

The author is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and I was dimly aware of his existence when a student there myself, but do not recall ever having met him. This is an interesting but somewhat frustrating biography of Alexander the Great. It assumes a better knowledge on the part of the reader than I could summon up from my memories of L. du Garde Peach's Labybird Book on the subject more than forty years ago, hanging a structure of chapters each addressing different themes of Alexander's short life, which necessarily means that the same incidents get cited over and over again from much the same angle. (Alexander as leader, Alexander's sexuality, Alexander as a Greek, Alexander as a Persian ruler, Alexander as a living god among men, etc.) The most interesting chapter was the last, in which Cartledge looks at the difficulties of working out exactly what happened given the diversity of the sources – it reminded me a bit of the digressions on De Selby in The Third Policeman, only for real. I guess I should let fiction fill in where fact is lacking, and finally get to grips wwith Mary Renault.

This was the top book on my shelves acquired in 2012. Next on that list is The Stormcaller, by Tom Lloyd.

(Please excuse provocative userpic.)

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Bullet Time, by David McIntee

Second paragraph of third chapter:

A plane coming into Kai Tak took a perilous descent between Hong Kong's skyscrapers, pulled a 90-degree turn to avoid running straight into Diamond Hill, and then tried not to drop off the end of the runway into Kowloon Bay.

The final Seventh doctor novel in terms of continuity, actually it is much more about Sarah Jane Smith in Hong Kong just before the 1997 handover, getting sucked into what at first appears to be a criminal conspiracy but turns out to be the work of aliens – well, one alien in particular… I felt that Hong Kong itself was well conveyed, and the plot had enough twists involving characters I was interested in to make up for the fact that it’s relatively light on the Doctor. I’m also not in general a big fan of the Seventh=Doctor-as-cosmic-manipulator, but it worked OK here. However, certain events at the end don’t sit so well in overall Who continuity.

This is the last of the Seventh Doctor novels, in terms of internal continuity. That still leaves a few Eighth Doctor and other pre-New Who novels, apart from those I have already read. The next will be the Telos novella Rip Tide, by Louise Cooper.

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Marcassin De Flandres

We’ve had boar for Christmas for the last umpteen years, but this year I tried a new recipe, patriotically named Marcassin De Flandres. The marinade is much the same as previously, but boiling rather than roasting struck me as risky. However, it worked, and even little U, often dubious about strange food, ate hers all up. The recipe is as follows:

1 chunk young wild boar for roasting (1-1.5 kilos)
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 0.5 cm cubes
1 rib celery, cut into 0.5 cm cubes
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed with the flat of a knife
bouquet garni: 3 springs parsley, 1 sprig thyme, and 1 large bay leaf tied together with kitchen string
6 juniper berries
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
400ml full-boiled red wine, such as Burgundy, Spanish Rioja, or Merlot
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
60 g unsalted butter
30 ml vegetable oil
100 ml Cognac
1 to 2 tablespoons redcurrant jam
1 to 2 teaspoons cornflour if needed

1 One to two days before you plan to serve, place the meat, onion, carrots, celery, garlic, bouquet garni, juniper berries, and salt and pepper in a large glass or earthenware bowl. Pour in enough red wine to just cover the meat and add the vinegar. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate, the longer the better.
2 Remove the meat from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Heat half the butter and the oil in a large casserole dish (Dutch oven) over high heat until hot but not smoking. Reduce the heat to medium, add the meat, and brown on all sides, about 15 minutes. Off the heat, carefully flambe the roast with the Cognac. Add the marinade and all the ingredients in it. Simmer, partially covered, over low heat until the meat is tender, about 1 hour. Transfer the meat to a cutting board and let rest wrapped in foil before slicing.
3 Strain the cooking liquid through a sieve, reserving the vegetables. Discard the bouquet garni. Return the cooking liquid to the casserole and boil it, uncovered, over high heat to reduce by one third, 5 to 7 minutes.
4 Finish the sauce: Puree the vegetables and cooking liquid in a blender to a smooth consistency. You should have a thick, full-flavored sauce. Return it to the pan and reheat it. Add the redcurrant jam and whisk until well blended. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If the sauce seems thin to you, add a little bit of cornflour dissolved in 1 tablepsoon water or wine. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Do not boil the sauce beyond this point.
5 Slice the meat and arrange on a platter. Spoon some of the sauce over the sliced meat and pass the rest in a sauceboat.

Comment: for a slightly smaller chunk of meat, as we had, 45 minutes seems fine for the main phase of the cooking (I should really have used a meat thermometer), and the sauce did not need further thickening at the end. But it was very yummy.

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Luke 2:1-20 in Aramaic

ܗܘܐ ܕܝܢ ܒܝܘܡܬܐ ܗܢܘܢ ܘܢܦܩ ܦܘܩܕܢܐ ܡܢ ܐܓܘܣܛܘܣ ܩܣܪ ܕܢܬܟܬܒ ܟܠܗ ܥܡܐ ܕܐܘܚܕܢܗ܀
1 Now, it happened in those yawmatha {days} that a command went out from Augustus Qesar {Caesar} that the names of all the Ama {the People} of his dominion should be nethktheb {written i.e. registered in a census}.

ܗܕܐ ܡܟܬܒܢܘܬܐ ܩܕܡܝܬܐ ܗܘܬ ܒܗܓܡܘܢܘܬܐ ܕܩܘܪܝܢܘܣ ܒܣܘܪܝܐ ܀
2 This makthbanuwtha {writing} first happened during the Higmanuwtha {the Governorship} of Quriynus {Quirinius}, in Suriya {Syria}.

ܘܐܙܠ ܗܘܐ ܟܠ ܐܢܫ ܕܢܬܟܬܒ ܒܡܕܝܢܬܗ ܀
3 And every one was going, so that, they might be nethktheb {written/registered} in mdiyntheh {his own City}.

ܣܠܩ ܗܘܐ ܕܝܢ ܘܐܦ ܝܘܣܦ ܡܢ ܢܨܪܬ ܡܕܝܢܬܐ ܕܓܠܝܠܐ ܠܝܗܘܕ ܠܡܕܝܢܬܗ ܕܕܘܝܕ ܕܡܬܩܪܝܐ ܒܝܬ ܠܚܡ ܡܛܠ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܗܘܐ ܡܢ ܒܝܬܗ ܘܡܢ ܫܪܒܬܗ ܕܕܘܝܕ ܀
4 And then, Yuseph {Joseph} also went up from Nasrath {Nazareth}, a mdiyntha {a City} of Glila {Galilee}, unto Yehud {Judah}, unto the mdiyntheh d’Dawiyd {the City of David}, which is called Beth-Lekhem {Bethlehem lit. the Place/House of Bread}, because, he was from the Baytheh {the House}, and from the Sharbtheh d’Dawiyd {the Family/Tribe of David},

ܥܡ ܡܪܝܡ ܡܟܝܪܬܗ ܟܕ ܒܛܢܐ ܕܬܡܢ ܢܬܟܬܒ ܀
5 with Maryam {Mary}, mkiyrtheh {his betrothed}, while she was batna {pregnant}, so that, there they might be nethktheb {written/registered}.

ܘܗܘܐ ܕܟܕ ܬܡܢ ܐܢܘܢ ܐܬܡܠܝܘ ܝܘܡܬܗ ܕܬܐܠܕ ܀
6 And while they were there, her days of thilad {bearing} were fulfilled,

ܘܝܠܕܬ ܒܪܗ ܒܘܟܪܐ ܘܟܪܟܬܗ ܒܥܙܪܘܪܐ ܘܐܪܡܝܬܗ ܒܐܘܪܝܐ ܡܛܠ ܕܠܝܬ ܗܘܐ ܠܗܘܢ ܕܘܟܬܐ ܐܝܟܐ ܕܫܪܝܢ ܗܘܘ ܀
7 and she gave birth to Brah buwkra {her Son, the Firstborn}, and wrapped Him in azruwre {swaddling clothes}, and laid Him in an uwrya {a manger}, because, there wasn’t a dukatha {a place} for them where dashreyn {they were lodging}.

ܪܥܘܬܐ ܕܝܢ ܐܝܬ ܗܘܘ ܒܗ ܒܐܬܪܐ ܕܫܪܝܢ ܗܘܘ ܬܡܢ ܘܢܛܪܝܢ ܡܛܪܬܐ ܕܠܠܝܐ ܥܠ ܡܪܥܝܬܗܘܢ ܀
8 Now, Ra’awatha {Shepherds} were there in that athra {region} that they were lodging, and they were keeping watch there at night, over maryathhuwn {their flocks}.

ܘܗܐ ܡܠܐܟܐ ܕܐܠܗܐ ܐܬܐ ܠܘܬܗܘܢ ܘܬܫܒܘܚܬܗ ܕܡܪܝܐ ܐܢܗܪܬ ܥܠܝܗܘܢ ܘܕܚܠܘ ܕܚܠܬܐ ܪܒܬܐ ܀
9 And behold, the Malaka d’Alaha {the HeavenlyMessenger/Angel of God} came to them, and The Teshbukhtheh d’MarYa {The Glory of The Lord-YHWH} anhrath {shone} upon them, and they feared with a dekhlatha rabtha {a great fear}!

ܘܐܡܪ ܠܗܘܢ ܡܠܐܟܐ ܠܐ ܬܕܚܠܘܢ ܗܐ ܓܝܪ ܡܣܒܪ ܐܢܐ ܠܟܘܢ ܚܕܘܬܐ ܪܒܬܐ ܕܬܗܘܐ ܠܟܠܗ ܥܠܡܐ ܀
10 And the Malaka {the Heavenly Messenger/Angel} said unto them, “Don’t fear, for behold! I declare The Hope unto you! A khadutha rabtha {a great joy} which will be for all the Alma {World}.

ܐܬܝܠܕ ܠܟܘܢ ܓܝܪ ܝܘܡܢܐ ܦܪܘܩܐ ܕܐܝܬܘܗܝ ܡܪܝܐ ܡܫܝܚܐ ܒܡܕܝܢܬܗ ܕܕܘܝܕ ܀
11 For, unto you is born yawmana {today}, in The Mdiyntheh d’Dawiyd {The City of David}, The Pharuqa {The Savior/Deliverer}, who is MarYa Mshikha {The Lord-YHWH, The Anointed One/The Messiah}.

ܘܗܕܐ ܠܟܘܢ ܐܬܐ ܡܫܟܚܝܢ ܐܢܬܘܢ ܥܘܠܐ ܕܟܪܝܟ ܒܥܙܪܘܪܐ ܘܣܝܡ ܒܐܘܪܝܐ ܀
12 And this is an atha {a sign} for you: you will find an uwla {an infant/baby}, who is wrapped in azruwre {swaddling clothes}, and lying in an uwrya {a manger}.”

ܘܡܢ ܫܠܝ ܐܬܚܙܝܘ ܥܡ ܡܠܐܟܐ ܚܝܠܘܬܐ ܣܓܝܐܐ ܕܫܡܝܐ ܟܕ ܡܫܒܚܝܢ ܠܐܠܗܐ ܘܐܡܪܝܢ ܀
13 And suddenly {lit. from the quiet/calm}, The Khaylawatha Sagiye d’Shmaya {The Great Army of the Heavens} appeared with the Malaka {the Heavenly Messenger/Angel}, while mshabkhiyn {giving praises} unto Alaha {God}, and saying,

ܬܫܒܘܚܬܐ ܠܐܠܗܐ ܒܡܪܘܡܐ ܘܥܠ ܐܪܥܐ ܫܠܡܐ ܘܣܒܪܐ ܛܒܐ ܠܒܢܝܢܫܐ܀
14 “Theshbukhtha d’Alaha b’amrume {Glory unto God in the heights}, and on the Ara {the Earth}, Shlama {Peace}, and Sabra Taba {Good Hope} unto the bnay-Nasha {the sons of Men}!”

ܘܗܘܐ ܕܟܕ ܐܙܠܘ ܡܢ ܠܘܬܗܘܢ ܡܠܐܟܐ ܠܫܡܝܐ ܡܠܠܘ ܪܥܘܬܐ ܚܕ ܥܡ ܚܕ ܘܐܡܪܝܢ ܢܪܕܐ ܥܕܡܐ ܠܒܝܬ ܠܚܡ ܘܢܚܙܐ ܠܡܠܬܐ ܗܕܐ ܕܗܘܬ ܐܝܟ ܕܡܪܝܐ ܐܘܕܥ ܠܢ ܀
15 And it happened, that when the Malake {the HeavenlyMessengers Angels} had departed from their presence, unto the Shmaya {the Heavens}, the Ra’awatha {the Shepherds} talked one with the other, and said ‘Let us journey up to Beth-Lekhem {Bethlehem, lit. the Place/House of Bread}, and let us see this matter that happened, as MarYa {The Lord-YHWH} has made known unto us.

ܘܐܬܘ ܡܣܪܗܒܐܝܬ ܘܐܫܟܚܘ ܠܡܪܝܡ ܘܠܝܘܣܦ ܘܠܥܘܠܐ ܕܣܝܡ ܒܐܘܪܝܐ ܀
16 And they came quickly, and they found Maryam {Mary}, and Yuseph {Joseph}, and the uwla {the infant/baby}, who was lying in the uwrya {the manger}.

ܘܟܕ ܚܙܘ ܐܘܕܥܘ ܠܡܠܬܐ ܕܐܬܡܠܠܬ ܥܡܗܘܢ ܥܠܘܗܝ ܥܠ ܛܠܝܐ ܀
17 And when they saw, they made known the matter which was spoken with them concerning Him; about the Talya {the young Boy}.

ܘܟܠܗܘܢ ܕܫܡܥܘ ܐܬܕܡܪܘ ܥܠ ܐܝܠܝܢ ܕܐܬܡܠܠ ܠܗܘܢ ܡܢ ܪܥܘܬܐ ܀
18 And all who heard, marveled, concerning that which was told unto them from the Ra’awatha {the Shepherds}.

ܡܪܝܡ ܕܝܢ ܢܛܪܐ ܗܘܬ ܟܠܗܝܢ ܡܠܐ ܗܠܝܢ ܘܡܦܚܡܐ ܒܠܒܗ ܀
19 But, Maryam {Mary} was keeping all these words, and weighed them in lebah {her heart}.

ܘܗܦܟܘ ܪܥܘܬܐ ܗܢܘܢ ܟܕ ܡܫܒܚܝܢ ܘܡܗܠܠܝܢ ܠܐܠܗܐ ܥܠ ܟܠ ܕܚܙܘ ܘܫܡܥܘ ܐܝܟܢܐ ܕܐܬܡܠܠ ܥܡܗܘܢ ܀
20 And those Ra’awatha {Shepherds} returned, while mshabkhiyn {glorifying} and amhalliyn {giving praises} unto Alaha {God}, concerning all which they had seen and heard, as it was spoken with them.

(Text copyright

Aramaic was the local language spoken in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time, and it’s likely that it was the first language that the New Testament was translated into (some diehards insist that it was the other way round).

Enjoy your celebration, whatever the tradition you commemorate.

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Saturday reading

Last Exit to Babylon – Volume 4: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny

Last books finished
Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, by Paul Cartledge
Twilight of the Gods, by Mark Clapham and Jon de Burgh Miller
Apostata, Bundel I, by Ken Broeders
Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat
Apostata, Bundel II, by Ken Broeders
Apostata, Bundel III, by Ken Broeders
The Star Rover, by Jack London

Next books
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore
To Lie with Lions, by Dorothy Dunnett
The Colour Of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

Books acquired in last week
Apostata, Bundel III, by Ken Broeders

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The Moomins and the fir tree

(The Moomins, who normally hibernate, have been woken by a well-meaning neighbour and are trying to get to grips with Christmas. They have worked out that everyone is very anxious about it and that a fir tree is involved.)

‘Now keep quiet a moment, please, and let me think,’ Moominpappa said. ‘If the fir tree is to be dressed as beautifully as possible, then it can’t be for the purpose of hiding in it. The idea must be to placate the danger in some way. I’m beginning to understand.’

They carried the fir out into the garden and planted it firmly in the snow. Then they started to decorate it all over with the most beautiful things they could think up. They adorned it with the big shells from the summertime flowerbeds, and with the Snork Maiden’s shell necklace. They took the prisms from the drawing-room chandelier and hung them from the branches, and at the very top they pinned a red silk rose that Moominpappa had once upon a time given Moominmamma as a present.

Everybody brought the most beautiful thing he had to placate the incomprehensible powers of winter.

From “The Fir Tree”, last in Tove Jansson’s collection Tales from Moominvalley.

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