July Books

Non-fiction: 10 (YTD 29)
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
First Generation, by Mary Tamm
The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, by Paul Bew
Better Than Sex, by Hunter S. Thompson
1913: The World Before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson
For the Love of a Mother: The Black Children of Ulster, by Annie Yellowe Palma
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook
Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story, by John Bossy
Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 19)
Gigi, by Colette
The Cat, by Colette

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 56)
The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang
Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull
The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty
The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 17)
Night of the Kraken, by Jonathan Green
Adorable Illusion, by Gary Russell
Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale
The Showstoppers, by Jonathan Cooper

Comics 3 (YTD 15)
Plastic Man #1, by Jack Cole
Het Amusement, by Brecht Evens
The Story of Garth the Strong, by Stephen Dowling

6,900 pages (YTD 38,400)
9/25 (YTD 60/137) by non-male writers (Obama, Tamm, Yellowe Palma, Kingsolver, Colette x2, Kuang, Hull, Chakraborty)
4/25 (YTD 22/137) by PoC (Obama, Yellowe Palma, Kuang, Chakraborty)
2/25 (YTD 14/137) rereads (Better Than Sex, The Time Machine)

Reading now
Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman
Kate Bush: Under the Ivy, by Graeme Thompson
De Bourgondiërs, by Bart Van Loo
Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace
The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter

Coming soon (perhaps):
The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory, by Deborah M. Withers
Berlin Book Three: City of Light, by Jason Lutes
Smallworld, by Dominic Green
Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
Alina, by Jason Johnson
Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, by Brian Morris
Cat Country, by Lao She
Oyasumi, by Renee Rienties
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
Be My Enemy, by Ian McDonald
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Eilif Shafak
The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
How To Be Both, by Ali Smith
A Local Habitation, by Seanan McGuire
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
True Stories, ed. Xanna Eve Chown

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Tuesday reading

Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman
Kate Bush: Under the Ivy, by Graeme Thompson
De Bourgondiërs, by Bart Van Loo
Ben-Hur, by Lee Wallace
The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter

Last books finished
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook
Het Amusement, by Brecht Evens
The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story, by John Bossy
Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

Next books
The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Adorable Illusion, by Gary Russell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘What’s what?’

The last (so far) Bernice Summerfield novel, published in 2014, this is apparently tied into an audio box set that I haven’t yet heard. I didn’t mind. It’s set on a spaceship called the Adorable Illusion, with Benny disguised as a disgraced fellow-archaeologist for Reasons and a motley assortment of crew and other passengers regarding her with more or less justified suspicion. Then about two thirds of the way through the book, there is a massive plot twist, and it turns out that we do actually care about everyone on board – very nicely done, as you would hope for from Russell who is one of the best Who writers when on form. I think you’d need basic familiarity with the Bernice universe to really appreciate it, though. You can get it here.

Next (and penultimate) in the set of Bernice Summerfield books is True Stories, edited by Xanna Eve Chown.

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The making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, by Paul Bew

Second paragraph of third essay (“Modest Realities Lurk behind All-Embracing Rhetoric of Document”, published in The Times on 23 February 1995):

The Framework Document meets none of Sinn Fein’s demands for a timetable for withdrawal. Yet, most unionists were angry yesterday, and the impression persists that the government may have miscalculated. How has this happened? The core belief of Ulster unionism is clear: “It is better to be separated from the rest of Ireland than from Great Britain”. There is a definite implication: unionist politicians are unlikely to make major sacrifices to bring about a local assembly if the price is to give Dublin an unacceptably large role in the north. Hence yesterday’s proposal for a northern assembly will not, in itself, calm unionist fears about the content of the document.

I’ve known Paul Bew since I was 13; he was a colleague of my father’s at the Queen’s University of Belfast and succeeded him as Professor of Irish Politics. This is a collection of his newspaper and magazine articles (as opposed to academic publications) from 1994 to 2007, the year in which he became a member of the House of Lords. (He is now the Chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, having previously chaired the Committee on Standards in Public Life.)

These pieces very much reflect the times in which they were written, and also noticeably shift to reflect the perspective of Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble at the point where the author was closest to him in the early 2000’s (and then back away again after Trimble’s defeat). But what really interested me was to be reminded of how far Northern Ireland has come, an important perspective given the gloomy current situation; 25 years ago, when the first of these pieces was written, the terrorist campaigns of both sides remained in full swing, and there was no perspective of a DUP/Sinn Fein-led power-sharing government (and even though that arrangement collapsed in early 2017, both parties stipulate that they want it restored).

It’s also a salutary reflection that in those days, it was the Dublin government which was still getting to grips with the reality of Northern Ireland, and Westminster which had an in-depth knowledge, as opposed to today when the British establishment has retreated to absurd superficiality and it is Dublin that is keeping its finger on the pulse. (Officials from both Northern Ireland and Scotland tell me that they are getting more and better information about Brexit from the Irish government than from London.)

All of these essays have dated, in that they were very specific descriptions of the latest political developments, written for a literate but not well-informed audience. But they are well-written and clear, and useful for anyone wanting to track how we got from the chaos of 1994 to the settlement of 2007. You can get it here.

This was the shortest book left on my shelves of those acquired in 2011. Next on that list is Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory, by Deborah M. Withers.

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Choose Your Future: Night of the Kraken, by Jonathan Green; Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale

I’ve previous written up the Find Your Fate, FASA and Decide Your Destiny Doctor Who game books. These are two Twelfth Doctor choose-your-own-adventure books, both published in 2016. I’m not aware of any more of this type of book being produced since.

Night of the Kraken, by Jonathan Green

Second paragraph of Chapter 3:

Warily, the Doctor approaches the rider and, when the man still doesn’t react, grabs hold of his hat and throws it aside. What he sees makes him leap backwards again.

As with Green’s previous game book, The Horror of Howling Hill, this is set in southern England – 18th century Cornwall, to be precise – and is rather well written, capturing the Capaldi Doctor very well. It has several different storylines, most of which revolve around the Kraa’Kn (an aquatic alien monster, of course) with a galactic smuggler and a barmaid playing walk-on roles, but other variants include the Terileptils and a brief appearance of a clockwork robot. There are numerous endings, including one in which the Doctor is killed by zombies and another in which he is stuck in a perpetual time loop.

A structural gimmick which was new to me – at several points your choice is constrained by what has happened before, eg chapter 78:

If the Doctor has already visited the Hispaniola Inn, go to 142.
If not, go to 103.

This is a very interesting way of creating new lines through the structure. Unfortunately it’s a bit too clever – there is a set of five chapters, starting with Chapter 12, which are orphaned (and I couldn’t see where they were meant to fit – Chapter 12 starts with the Doctor heading toward the village with the smuggler, but no other chapter offers that as an option).

Anyway, more interesting than I expected.

Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Voice-activated photonic projectors raise the light level. The Doctor is standing in the middle of an extensive laboratory littered with advanced scientific equipment.

A somewhat more diffuse book, with lots of different and quite independent timelines for adventures of the Twelfth Doctor on an unnamed moon. (Though in one variant he goes back to contemporary earth for an adventure with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.) This also has the feature I noted from some of the Decide Your Destiny books, where the player makes choices that I would have expected to be made by the writer, eg Chaper 78:

If you think the sonic will open the airlock, tap here to go to Entry 118.
If you think the airlock will stay shut, tap here to go to Entry 83.

Some rather good lines, but I prefer when the multiple storylines in these books are all set in more or less the same universe as each other. Baxendale also wrote three of the Decide Your Destiny books, which I likewise found average rather than compelling.

You can get Night of the Kraken here and Terror Moon here.

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My Worldcon schedule

See you in Dublin!

Is it about a bicycle? The influences of a comedic genius and their funniest book
15 Aug 2019, Thursday 11:00 – 11:50, Wicklow Room-2 (CCD)

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a significant and well-loved novel, especially in Ireland. (One of its central characters, de Selby, has become a cult hero. Cited as Alan Moore’s favourite book, its prodigious footnoting was a major influence on Robert Rankin.) Yet it was initially rejected by publishers and finally issued only after the author’s death. See what our panel make of this!

Jenna Maguire, Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Nicholas Whyte, Nigel Quinlan (M)

Using SFF as sandboxes for ideas on politics and society
Format: Panel
16 Aug 2019, Friday 16:00 – 16:50, Wicklow Room-3 (CCD)

Speculative fiction can offer readers and writers a space, removed from ‘real’ life, to explore and criticise society and politics and offer possible solutions. From the economy of your galactic empire to the status of dwarves in your epic fantasy, it is impossible to separate the political from the fantastical, and SFF is a great place to imagine other ways of existing.

Nicholas Whyte (M), Sam Hawke, Eyal Kless, Taiyo Fujii
The 2019 Hugo Awards Ceremony
Format: Event
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 20:00 – 22:00, Auditorium (CCD)

The premiere event of the Worldcon will take place on Sunday evening, as we celebrate the best science fiction and fantasy of 2018. Hosted by Afua Richardson and Michael Scott, we invite you to join us in congratulating this year’s finalists and winners of the prestigious Hugo Awards.

Afua Richardson (M), Michael Scott (M)

Irish science and scientific discoveries
Format: Talk
19 Aug 2019, Monday 10:30 – 11:20, Odeon 3 (Point Square Dublin)

From Boyle’s Law to the later speculations of Schrödinger, Ireland and its scientists can claim many world-changing scientific discoveries. How did this happen? What linked Irish science with the island’s political situation?

Nicholas Whyte

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Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull

Second paragraph of third story ("Sleeping Dogs", by Joe Haldeman:

Low gravity and low oxygen. My heart was going too fast. I stood for a moment, concentrating, and brought it down to a hundred, then ninety. The air had more sulfur sting than I remembered. It seemed a lot warmer than I remembered that summer, too, but then if I could remember it all I wouldn't have to be here. My missing finger throbbed.

This is a collection of stories, poems and essays celebrating the 90th birthday of Frederik Pohl, which was in 2009 (though the book was not published until 2010). Only a couple of them are really good, Haldeman's "Sleeping Dogs" which takes a veteran back to the site of conflict with a memorable twist, and Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" which links to both The Space Merchants and Gulliver's Travels. There's also the last Stainless Steel Rat story by Harry Harrison, and late stories by Brian Aldiss and Sherri S Tepper.

Worth also noting Neil Gaiman's poem:

The [Backspace] Merchants

The [backspace] merchants sell deletions and removals,
masters of the world (or so they claim)
they go by many hundred different names
and live inside a giant block of Spam.

It quivers, as if alive, is fed
by tubes and tendrils, and is inhabited.
Portions are cut from it continually to feed the people.
Insidious, invidious,
(occasionally in videos),
the [backspace] merchants seek to sell you:
V1agRa and all its magical cousins
(If you had a larger thing in your pants your life would have been better!!)
(She'll love the new growth!)
(Make nights turbulent.)

Also, designer watches, diplomas,
diplomats who will entrust you with their missing millions.
There are girls in your town who want to
meet you.

The [backspace] merchants want so to delete you.

The [backspace] merchants click and they erase
our faces, so we keep on losing face.
The [backspace] merchants
offer relief from their own excesses:
The products will not work as advertised
The Spam is vast and must be satisfied.

In the old days of the future
our freedom fighters lived deep inside the chicken meat
Their coffee was the coffiest, their dreams the dreamiest.
The rest of us craved and grazed our lives away
and wondered if we should emigrate to Venus.

These are the poles we navigate between:
Yesterday's futures now reshape our days
into futures past, somewhere between last week and day million
as ancient as a black and white TV show, watched so late
and all the names we conjured with appeared to us in monochrome
with their faces, such young faces,
to those of us who would learn to be plugged in at all times,
they told us of the future, that it was what they saw
a Game of If when they opened wide their eyes.

So we avoided all their awful warnings,
ignored the minefields as the klaxons sounded
played “Cheat the Prophet” just as Gilbert said,
we sidestepped cacotopias unbounded
and built ourselves this gorgeous mess instead

I wish we could still emigrate to Venus.

Sometimes I wonder what the Spam makes of us:
does it define us by our base desires,
or hope we can transcend them? Like small gods,
the [backspace] merchants offer us all choices
and each day
we can be tempted
or delete.
They lay their traps ineptly at our feet.

The present moves so quick we can't describe it,
so Science Fiction limns the recent past.
We future folk are just another tribe who
hyperlinked our colours to the mast,
When now is always then and never soon
Our freak flags will not fly upon the moon.

Our prophets opened gateways, showed us pitfalls
gave us worlds of if and galaxies uncountable.
They made us think then take the other road.
But future yesterdays are growing cold.
The [backspace] merchants huddle in their meat
while we demand a finer, nobler future:
It waits for us beyond the blue horizon.
Our future will be glorious and gold.

If it lasts more than four hours
consult your physician.

It's not quite as mind-blowing a collection as I would have liked, given Pohl's significance and the rank of the authors involved, but it's still pretty good and you can get it here.

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Smallworld, by my old friend Dominic Green.

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First Generation, by Mary Tamm

Second paragraph of third chapter:

At seven, at Lilycroft Primary, I was chosen to sing a solo verse in the carol In The Deep Midwinter. As I innocently started the verse, I was astonished to see the heads of the watching parents jerk up suddenly from their programmes, and listen in rapt attention. It was my first taste of power over an audience, and I loved It. Nor have I forgotten my earliest night of stage triumph in Karel Čapek's Insect Play, performed at Bradford Girls' Grammar, circa 1966, in which I was playing the lead role of the Tramp. I had not told anyone in rehearsal, least of all the form mistress who had directed the play, but I had a secret prop that I intended to use in one scene, which I started with a long monologue. The lights went up and I strolled to the front of the stage. The audience coughed and rustled expectantly. I took out a pipe and matches (items I had secretly borrowed from my father) from my pocket and proceeded to light up. The reaction was as expected. Shocked gasps of mingled horror and amusement erupted. I was vaguely aware of angry hissing in the wings, no doubt from the drama mistress invoking me to cease, but I was relishing the moment too much to pay any attention. Where I got the boldness from I shall never know; but it was the talking point of the school for days. I was well on the way to pursuing the secret ambition I had nurtured since the age of six – that of becoming an actress.

Published in 2009, three years before the writer's early death, this is the autobiography of Mary Tamm, who played the first incarnation of Romana in Doctor Who. It's interesting on her early career and romantic life, but the heart of the book is her visit to Estonia in 1990, the home country of her parents, just as it was shaking off the Soviet Union. (The only time I myself have been to Estonia was in August 1990, during her time there, and it is tantalising to think that I may have brushed past her in the streets of Tallinn.) The experience of being taken out of her comfort zone and reconnecting with relatives who she had never seen before clearly moved her deeply, and she expresses it well.

Otherwise, the account of her career stops with Doctor Who in 1979, which is a bit surprising as she continued acting until 2009 according to IMDB. And in fact she goes into detail only about the first three stories of her six, though also gives a brief account of her decision to leave and why she didn't get a proper regeneration scene (Graham Williams, the producer, couldn't believe that she was really leaving; she obviously got on well with Tom Baker, much better than her immediate predecessor had). It's as if she just ran out of energy for doing the writing. (Her obituaries from July 2012 say that she had been ill for eighteen months, but perhaps she was already feeling something. Her husband died hours after her funeral, while replying to condolence messages.)

The other point I found of interest was her comment that she was the first high-profile actress to play the companion. She was certainly the first for several years, but I think Anneke Wills and Deborah Watling both had equally high profiles before joining the TARDIS crew. I must try and watch The ODESSA File, her biggest cinema role. There's also a funny story of a disastrously organised cruise with Peter Davison and Deborah Watling. So it's not at the top of my list of Who memoirs, but it's charming enough in its own way. You can get it here.

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Tuesday reading

Het Amusement, by Brecht Evens
The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook

Last books finished
Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale
Better Than Sex, by Hunter S. Thompson
1913: The World before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson
The Showstoppers, by Jonathan Cooper
A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr
For the Love of a Mother: The Black Children of Ulster, by Annie Yellowe Palma

Next books
Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver
Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman

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Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Craig's biggest fear, however, was also probably the most realistic, and that was fire. House fires were a regular occurrence in Chicago, in part due to slumlords who let their buildings slide into disrepair and were all too happy to reap the insurance benefits when a fire tore through, and in part because home smoke detectors were a relatively new development and still expensive for working-class people to afford. Either way, inside our tight city grid, fire was almost a fact of life, a random but persistent snatcher of homes and hearts. My grandfather Southside had moved to our neighborhood after a fire destroyed his old house on the West Side, though luckily nobody'd been hurt. (According to my mother, Southside stood on the curb outside the burning house, shouting for the firefighters to direct their hoses away from his precious jazz albums.) More recently, in a tragedy almost too giant for my young mind to take in, one of my fifth-grade classmates—a boy with a sweet face and a tall Afro named Lester McCullom, who lived around the corner from us in a town house on Seventy-Fourth Street—had died in a fire that also killed his brother and sister, the three of them trapped by flames in bedrooms upstairs.

I reviewed her husband's autobiography back in 2010, and here we are with the other half of the team. Michelle Robinson's background was less unusual than her future husband's – growing up among the African-American population of Chicago, but succeeding in qualifying as a high-flying lawyer until she decided to accept the realities of being a political family. But it's a story well told, and in particular the environment of her Chicago youth, which will be the least familiar for most readers, is well conveyed.

There's much less about her husband's election campaigns than I had expected – I guess that Michelle Obama is not a campaign diary sort of person, and she makes it very clear that she did not like the idea of Barack going into politics in the first place, and is rather glad that it is all over now. She does reflect on the demands made of her by campaigning and her occasional failure to rise to the occasion. There is a very moving little passage about celebrating the birthday of one of their daughters on the campaign trail in 2008, and both parents feeling that they had not delivered for the little girl, only for her to confound them by telling the whole campaign team that it was her best birthday ever.

Still, the most interesting part of the book is her exploration of being the first black First Lady at the same time as bringing up her daughters. She has nothing but good things to say about her predecessors. She is charmed by the Queen and awed by Nelson Mandela. She wisely says little (but not nothing) about the White House's current occupant. She grumbles that quite a lot of entertainment expenses had to be met from the Obamas' private means, as the White House budget does not cover the activities that are now expected of a First Lady. Having said that, they could afford it thanks to Barack's own best-selling writing; no US President since Truman has been worth less than $8 million, and the Obamas have several times that amount. But anyone who has had to juggle a demanding career (at any level) with family responsibilities will find resonance here.

Basically, it's a great read. You can get it here.

This reached the top of three of my lists simultaneously – top unread book acquired last year, top unread non-fiction and top book by a woman. Next on all three lists is Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O’Driscoll

Second paragraph of third chapter:

There was a new self-consciousness, yes, and probably some bewilderment when the book was published. But confidence, too, from the fact of having written the poems. In 1966 Marie and I were living on a housing estate on the outskirts of Belfast, a characterless sort of a place, and I remember getting my six free copies, probably in late April. The actual book looked very good: a lime-green and solid-pink dust jacket, and on the back a list of the Faber poets. Fabulous names: Auden, Eliot, Hughes, Larkin, Lowell, MacNiece, Spender. It was certainly strange.

I don't actually know Heaney's poetry all that well, but I like what I know. As an O-Level student in the early 1980s, several of his poems were on our curriculum; the one that sticks in my mind is "Digging", which is something of a mission statement:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

This book, published in 2009, goes through Heaney's early life in rural Northern Ireland and then through each of his poetry collections one by one, and certainly whets my appetite to become more familiar with him. It misses of course Book VI of The Æneid, published only after Heaney's death. I found some unexpected personal resonances – when I was a Fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies in 1995-96, many of the people who had worked alongside Heaney during his time at QUB in 1966-72 were still around, including Edna Longley for whom I did some editing, and whose "Cliquey Clerihew" must be quoted:

Michael Longley
Is inclined to feel strongly
About being less famous
Than Seamus

I was struck last year by Ruth Padel's observation of the importance of Northern Ireland and the Troubles to English-language poetry in Europe. It's uncontroversial that Heaney's voice was one of the clearest in this phenomenon – pulling together words and phrases to capture a way of looking at things, anchored in all the wider traditions of world literature but firmly rooted in Castledawson and Bellaghy.

There's lots of stuff here – the importance of translation (The Æneid is mentioned, Beowulf isn't); the famous encounter with Danny Morrison (disputed by the only other person who was thereget it here.

This was the top book I had acquired in 2013 but not yet read. Next on that list is Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss.

Incidentally, here is the second poem from Heaney's third collection, "Bog Oak" from Wintering Out.

Bog Oak
A carter's trophy
split for rafters,
a cobwebbed, black,
long-seasoned rib

under the first thatch,
I might tarry
with the moustached
dead, the creel-fillers,

or eavesdrop on
their hopeless wisdom
as a blow-down of smoke
struggles over the half-door

and mizzling rain
blurs the far end
of the cart track.
The softening ruts

lead back to no
'oak groves', no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

Perhaps I just make out
Edmund Spenser,
dreaming sunlight,
encroached upon by

geniuses who creep
'out of every corner
of the woodes and glennes'
towards watercress and carrion.

You can get Wintering Out here.

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The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Second paragraph of third chapter:

'Couldn't you ask him here for dinner or something?' said the Mole.

Way way back in 1976, we were on a family trip to London and as a treat went to see A.A. Milne's stage version of Toad of Toad Hall, starring

  • Richard Goolden as Mole – his 17th year in the part, aged 81! His last ever acting role was Zaphod Beeblebrox IV in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series in 1980,
  • John Warner as Water Rat,
  • David King as Badger, with his faithful dog Dougal appearing in the first scene, and 
  • Ian Talbot as Toad – much the youngest of the main cast, and I remember his performance best; he also appeared twice in Doctor Who, as Travis in The Silurians and Klout in The Leisure Hive.

I can still count the number of West End productions I have been to on the fingers of both hands, but this was particularly memorable as the dramatisation of a book that I already knew, so my pedantic soul twitched a bit at the divergences from the plot (notably of course the pruning away of most of the scenes without Toad in) but also hugely enjoyed the visuals. (If you're interested, the rest of the cast were Annabelle Lanyon, Tricia George, Jonathan Blake, Clive Carter, Robert Bridges, Albin Pahernik, Frank Vincent, Paddy Ward, Zoe Bright, Rita Henderson, Babs McMillan, Fiona Clare, Colin Copperfield, Rita Henderson, Tom Kelly, Myra Sands and Sally Templer.)

Going back to the book after many decades, I picked up on how marginalised the women characters are – two are cheated by Toad, and that's about it. There is no hint of how the animal characters reproduce, just manly friendship – with the striking exception of the Otters who take central stage in the single most memorable chapter, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", in which Rat goes in search of a neighbour's child and encounters the ineffable. It's also interesting that Toad has his encounters with human-world justice, but must resort to brute force rather than the law to regain residence at Toad Hall. (Though his quick forgiveness of former foes is rather charming.) It is a charming, quick read, but it has dated ever so slightly. You can get it here.

This was the top book on my shelves which I had previously read but not written up. Next on that pile is David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

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Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir, by Stan Lee, Peter David and Colleen Doran

Second frame of third page:

This is Stan Lee's autobiography, in graphic novel form. I spotted it in the English-language bookshop in Luxembourg the other weekend, and grabbed it. It's a book of two halves really; the early part, explaining Lee's New York upbringing and gradual ascent to the top of the comics industry, is very interesting; later on it gets a bit repetitive – "and then I had the idea for the Hulk! and then I had the idea for Iron Man! and then I had the idea for Stripperella!". Having said that, Lee was an iconic figure and it's interesting to read his own story as he wants it to be told (the book was published in 2015 when he was still alive). You can get it here.

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City of Belfast Youth Orchestra tours Belgium

Long long ago, between 1983 and 1985, I ascended the dizzy heights of Second Percussionist in the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra, the fruit of many Saturday mornings at Rupert Stanley College in East Belfast, rehearsing for church services (once a City Hall reception) and ending each year with a concert at the Ulster Hall.

The City of Belfast School of Music was a crucially important institution in those days. I made lasting friendships there with people from other schools than my own who I am still in touch with, notably clarinettists Geraldine Denny (now Geraldine Green) and Christine Bell (now professor of constitutional law in Edinburgh). Presided over by Leonard Pugh, an irascible and memorable Welshman, it was one of the few places where Catholic and Protestant kids met on equal terms, despite being located in a rather Loyalist corner of the city centre. (Not actually very far from the flat I lived in when I moved back to Belfast in 1991.) These days, it has moved to the north of the city centre, but remains a place where young people from all backgrounds learn and work together.

To my delight, I discovered that the CBYO was touring Belgium and the Netherlands this week, staring with a Tuesday lunchtime performance at the Northern Ireland representation in Brussels, then again that evening at Notre Dame du Sablon downtown, and finally at the university concert hall in Leuven last night. I was able to go to all three of the concerts. (They are paying tribute to the war dead at Ypres today, and playing in Amsterdam tomorrow to finish the tour.)

I was further delighted to meet the orchestra’s current percussionists, Miriam and Izzy, who are far far better performers than I ever was.

And even more delighted to find that Mike Smyth, who overlapped with me as a percussionist in my first year with the CBYO, was also there. We had not seen each other for 34 years but picked up immediately, exchanging memories and anecdotes. He stayed in Northern Ireland and now trains the Youth Orchestra’s perussionists. Apologies to him for the camera angle which makes it look as if he has grown an off-centre pair of antennae; I need to improve my selfie game.

The performances were nostalgic, and energetic, and inspiring, and also technically rather good. Here’s a quick shot from each of the concerts, featuring the back of conductor Paul McBride (also Principal of St Malachy’s, one of Belfast’s best known grammar schools):

At the Northern Ireland representation, strings only (plus cimbalon soloist, see below)
At Notre Dame du Sablon, where I had never been before
At the Rector Pieter De Somer hall in Leuven

The soloists were also impressive. Erzsébet Gódor, a Hungarian performer, played the cimbalom at the two Brussels concerts – a remarkable instrument I hadn’t seen before.

Miriam performed one of the same pieces on the xylophone at Leuven.

Two other very impressive soloists – Ellen Quinn on the cello in Brussels, and Yuan Chen on the violin in Leuven. (And apologies to trumpeter Eoin O’Gorman who I didn’t manage to get a decent shot of.).

I wasn’t, frankly, all that good a percussionist; certainly nothing like as good as Anthony Kerr, who was in the CBYO alongside Mike Smyth and me, and has gone on to become Britain’s best-known jazz vibraphone player. Here’s a recent video of him playing Gershwin’s Summertime (which I think we performed as an orchestra back in the day).

Actually, to finish on a slightly sour note: the head of the School of Music, appointed five years ago, remains only an Acting Principal rather than fully in place, pending a reorganisation of music education services across Northern Ireland whch hasn’t happened due to the lack of devolved government. Yet another case of the instability at the top political level affecting the lives of people trying to make the community a better place.

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Moon Blink, by Sadie Miller

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Bland’s appearance befitted his name to the letter. He was tall and fair with ice-blue eyes and a bone structure that was singularly without peak or trough, giving him an oddly flat, even face. Bullied as a youngster both at home and at school, Bland had vowed to never again experience the same powerlessness as an adult that he had had to endure as a child. Bland was a corporate man with the ear of President Nixon, or Dickie as Bland called him. Everyone was afraid of Bland, and no one stepped out of line at the Laboratory now that he was in charge.

I’ve worked my way through almost every Doctor Who novel that actually features the Doctor, and am now delving deep into spinoff lines: this is the first of a “second season” of books from Candy Jar about Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart in the months between The Web of Fear and The Invasion, and for extra recursive Who-ness, its author is the daughter of Brian Miller, who appeared in Old Who as Dugdale in Snakedance (1983) and in New Who as Barney the tramp in Peter Capaldi’s first episode, Deep Breath (2014). Oh yeah, her mother was Elisabeth Sladen, who appeared in Doctor Who once or twice as well.

This is a decent first novel. There’s lots of Whovian fan-service, including to the Sarah Jane universe (a very peculiar origin story for Brendan Richards of K9 and Company); but the focus is on Anne Travers much more than Lethbridge-Stewart himself (which is refreshing). All the bits are there – moon-landings, drugs, babies – and they combine pleasantly enough. I hope Miller keeps on writing.

Net in this series is The Showstoppers by Jonathan Cooper. You can get Moon Blink here.

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