My 2020 books

I read 266 books in 2020, the seventh highest of the seventeen years that I have been keeping track, so a nudge above the average.

(Full numbers: 234 in 2019, 262 in 2018, 238 in 2017, 212 in 2016, 290 in 2015, 291 in 2014, 237 in 2013, 259 in 2012, 301 in 2011, 278 in 2010, 342 in 2009, 371 in 2008, 236 in 2007, 207 in 2006, 144 in 2005, 149 in 2004)

Page count for the year:

70,400, ninth highest of the seventeen years I have recorded, bang in the middle.

(64,600 in 2019, 71,600 in 2018, 60,500 in 2017; 62,300 in 2016; 80,100 in 2015; 97,100 in 2014; 67,000 in 2013; 77,800 in 2012; 88,200 in 2011; 91,000 in 2010; 100,000 in 2009; 89,400 in 2008; 69,900 in 2007; 61,600 in 2006; 46,400 in 2005; 46,800 in 2004)

Books by non-male writers in 2020: 77/266, 29% – third highest absolute number, sixth highest percentage, less than the last couple of years as I dig into my archives of unread books.

(88/234 [38%] in 2019, 102/262 [39%] in 2018, 64/238 [27%] in 2017, 65 [31%] in 2016, 86 [30%] in 2015, 81 [28%] in 2014, 71 [30%] in 2013, 65 [25%] in 2012, 65 [22%] in 2011, 65 [23%] in 2010, 68 [20%] in 2009, 49 [13%] in 2008, 53 [22%] in 2007, 34 [16%] in 2006, 30 [21%] in 2005, 33 [22%] in 2004)

Books by PoC in 2020:25/266, 9% – third highest in both absolute numbers and percentages, higher than any year before 2018.

(34/234 [15%], in 2019, 26/262 [10%] in 2018, 17/238 [7%] in 2017, 14 [7%] in 2016, 20 [7%] in 2015, 11 [5%] in 2014, 12 [5%] in 2013, 15 [5%] in 2011, 24 [9%] in 2010, 16 [5%] in 2009, 6 [2%] in 2008, 5 [2%] in 2007, 8 [4%] in 2006, 4 [3%] in 2005, 2 [1%] in 2004)

Most-read author this year: Kieron Gillen, as I read all nine volumes of The Wicked + The Divine.

(previous winners: Brian K. Vaughan in 2019, Tove Jansson and Marcel Proust in 2018, Colin Brake and Leo in 2017, Christopher Marlowe in 2016, 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, Neil Gaiman and Catherine Asaro in 2004).

1) Science Fiction and Fantasy (excluding Doctor Who)

2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
114 77 108 68 80 130 124 65 62 78 73 78 54 75 68 79 76
43% 33% 41% 29% 38% 45% 43% 27% 24% 26% 26% 23% 15% 32% 33% 55% 51%

Third highest total, fourth highest percentage, as I work into my backlog from earlier years.

Top SF book of the year:

The first book I read in 2020 was Ted Chiang's collection Exhalation, which included some old favouites and a couple of brilliant new stories, both of which got on the Hugo final ballot. You can get it here.

Honourable mentions to:

Tade Thompson's The Rosewater Insurrection, a BSFA finalist, in which near-future Nigeria (like other parts of the world) has been subject to an alien intrusion; this plays out on the ground in micropolitics, including sexual politics, for an interesting and intelligent exploration of what it actually means to be human in an unforgiving and rapidly changing world. You can get it here.

Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on CatNet, a Lodestar finalist, a cracking good read, with conscious AI, dysfunctional family, a courageous road trip across the northeastern USA, and a hilarious robot sex education scene. You can get it here.
The ones you haven't heard of:

The BSFA long-list included several stories from two anthologies which I consequently sought out and enjoyed, Distaff: A Science Fiction Anthology by Female Authors, eds. Rosie Oliver & Sam Primeau, which you can get here, and Once Upon A Parsec: the Book of Alien Fairy Tales, ed. David Gullen, which you can get here. Sadly none of them made it to the short-list.

The one to avoid:

The worst book I read all year, with some stiff competition, was A Woman in Space, by Sara Cavanaugh (probably a pseudonym). Our heroine is twenty-six, and already a spaceflight veteran. The entire plot lacks any credibility even in its own terms. The sexual politics is awful, and the sex is pretty badly written as well. It's so bad you have to finish it once you've started. (It's only 192 pages.) You can get it here.

2) Non-fiction

2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
50 49 50 57 37 47 48 46 53 69 66 88 70 78 70 42 42
19% 21% 19% 24% 17% 16% 16% 19% 20% 23% 24% 26% 19% 33% 34% 29% 28%

Bang in the middle of the historical range.

Top non-fiction book of the year:

From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull. More on this below.

Honourable mentions to:

Two biographies of women. The first is Felicitas Corrigan's biography of the Ulster writer and historian Helen Waddell, looking at how her star rose and fell – she was invited to lunch at 10 Downing Street with J.M. Barrie and Queen Mary, but died in obscurity. You can get it here.

The other is a finalist for the Hugo for Best Related Work, Mallory O'Meara's biography of Milicent Patrick, a Hollywood designer who rose and fell much more quickly than Helen Waddell; after the triumph of creating the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she was basically fired for not being invisible enough. You can get it here.

The one you haven't heard of:

Philip Winter's personal account of co-ordinating the internal peace process within the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000-2002, a fascinating view of implementation of peace agreements at the sharp end with many lovely glimpses of detail and a real sense of time and place. You can get it here.

The one to avoid:

A Popular History of Ireland, by Thomas D’Arcy McGee – chloroform in print (as Mark Twain said of the Book of Mormon). You can get it here.

3) Comics

2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
45 31 28 29 27 18 19 30 21 27 18 28 6 20 6 8 8
17% 13% 11% 12% 13% 6% 7% 13% 8% 9% 6% 8% 2% 8% 3% 6% 5%

Surpassing last year's all-time high, again due to Hugos and Retro Hugos, and because of more Doctor Who comics coming through the system.

Top comics of the year:

Two of the Hugo finalists which were standalones, LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin, which you can get here, and Mooncakes, by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, letters by Joamette Gil, which you can get here.

Honourable mention:

The second half of Leo's Survivants series, continuing the Aldebaran cycle. You can get them in English translation here, here and here.

The one you haven't heard of:

Rick Lundeen's glorious adaptation of The Daleks' Master Plan, not on sale anywhere but you can find it in the darker corners of the internet.

The ones to avoid:

The ending of Marc Legendre's Amoras, an adult reworking of classic Belgian kids' comic heroes Suske en Wiske, fell pretty flat for me. You can get the last two volumes here and here.

4) Non-genre fiction

2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
40 45 36 26 28 42 41 44 48 48 50 57 24 33 35 9 19
15% 19% 14% 11% 13% 14% 14% 19% 19% 16% 18% 18% 6% 14% 17% 6% 13%

In the middle of the historical range.

Top non-genre fiction of the year:

The triumphant conclusion to Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. We've always known where this wasa going to end up, but the journey is a tremendous achievement. You can get it here.

Honourable mentions:

I found myself enjoying Larry McMurtry's Terms of Endearment, on which the film was based, much more than I expected – funny and also humane. You can get it here.

Michael Morpurgo's Listen to the Moon is a sensitive and effective story about wartime in the Scilly Isles for young adult readers. You can get it here.

The one you haven't heard of:

A wee jewel from a family member, Muddy Lane by Andrew Cheffings, about men loving each other in a lost corner of England. You can get it here.

The one to avoid:

Bruges-la-Morte by George Rodenbach. Very silly and over-written. Ends with the protagonist strangling his lover with a lock of his dead wife's hair. There, I've saved you the bother, but if you still want to, you can get it here.

5) Doctor Who

Novels, collections of shorter fiction, etc excluding comics
2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
18 32 32 51 39 43 59 72 75 80 71 70 179 27 28 5 1
7% 14% 12% 21% 18% 15% 20% 30% 29% 27% 26% 19% 48% 11% 14% 3% 1%
All Who books including comics and non-fiction
2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
25 43 42 55 42 54 68 81 75 87 78 80 180 49 32 5 1
9% 18% 16% 23% 20% 19% 23% 34% 29% 29% 28% 23% 49% 21% 15% 3% 1%

I took a bit of a sabbatical from Who reading this year, but am planning to read more next year, particularly comics and the Erimem and Lethbridge-Stewart spinoffs.

Top Doctor Who books of the year:

I've been enjoying the Time Lord Victorious sequence, and the two best bits so far are Una McCormack's novel All Flesh Is Grass, featuring the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Doctors, which you can get here, and Jody Houser's graphic novel Defender of the Daleks with the Tenth and Thirteenth (marketed for some reason with a very similar cover to Una McCormack's novel, showing Eight, Nine and Ten, rather than Ten and Thirteen), which you can get here. I haven't yet blogged about either of them.

Honourable mention:

Paul Cornell's Third Doctor story Heralds of Destruction is true to the spriti of early 70s Who and takes it a little further. You can get it here.

The one you haven't heard of:

Already mentioned under comics: Rick Lundeen's graphic novel adaptation of The Daleks' Master Plan.

The one to avoid:

The 2020 Official Annual, is a poor piece of work. You can get it here. Glad to say that the 2021 version is better.

My Book of the Year

No hesitation at all in naming my Top Book of 2020 as From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull, the account of a life punctuated by the 1979 bomb which killed his 14-year-old twin brother, along with their grandfather Lord Mountbatten, their other grandmother and another boy. As one might expect, Knatchbull's relationship with Ireland is very complex. It was a magical place of childhood holiday memories, which turned to horror in an instant. He has found a way of making sense of the terrible thing that was done to his family, and it is a truly compelling read. I'd had it on the shelves for years but only now got around to it, and I should not have waited. You can get it here.

Previous Books of the Year:

2003 (2 months): The Separation, by Christopher Priest.
2004: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread).
– Best new read: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin
2005: The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto
2006: Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea
2007: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
2008: The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, by Anne Frank (reread)
– Best new read: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray
2009: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (had seen it on stage previously)
– Best new read: Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi (first volume just pipped by Samuel Pepys in 2004)
2010: The Bloody Sunday Report, by Lord Savile et al.
2011: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (started in 2009!)
2012: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
2013: A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
2014: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
2015: collectively, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, in particular the winner, Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. However I did not actually blog about these, being one of the judges at the time.
– Best book I actually blogged about: The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin
2016: Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot
2017: Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light
2018: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
2019: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo


Since nobody much is on LJ these days, I've outsourced my 2020 book poll to Listchallenges. How many have you read?

Posted in Uncategorised

Thursday and December reading

Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake
At Childhood's End, by Sophie Aldred

Last books finished
The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson
House of Music, by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason
Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
Explaining Humans, by Camilla Pang
Palimpsest, by Charles Stross
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke
Tales of Terror, no editor given

December Books

Non-fiction: 4 (2020 total 50)
Our War: Ireland and the Great War, ed. John Horne
Utopia For Realists, by Rutger Bregman
House of Music, by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason
Explaining Humans, by Camilla Pang

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (2020 total 38)
Terms of Endearment, by Larry McMurtry
Tono-Bungay, by H.G. Wells
The Prisoner of Brenda, by [Colin] Bateman

Scripts: 2 (2020 total 2)
Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
A Belgian Christmas Eve, by Alfred Noyes

sf (non-Who): 15 (2020 total 114)
After Me Comes the Flood, by Sarah Perry
Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle
"The Persistence of Vision", by John Varley
The Children of Men, by P.D. James
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Company Articles of Edward Teach, by Thoraiya Dyer/Angælien Apocalypse, by Matthew Chrulew
2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke
Above, by Stephanie Campisi/Below, by Ben Peek
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
Planetfall, by Emma Newman
Macrolife, by George Zebrowski
The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson
Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
Palimpsest, by Charles Stross
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Doctor Who: 2 (2020 total 18)
All Flesh is Grass, by Una McCormack
Tales of Terror, no editor given

Comics: 1 (2020 total 45)
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Volume 1: A New Beginning, by Jody Houser, Rachael Stott, Giorgia Sposito, Enrica Eren Angiolini

8,200 pages (2020 total 70,400)
14/27 (2020 total 77/266) not by men (Henderson, Kanneh-Mason, Perry, Gentle, James, McIntyre, Dyer, Campisi, Newman, Henderson, Sharma, Clarke, McCormack, Houser et al)
3/27 (2020 total 25/266) by PoC (Kanneh-Mason, Pang, Sharma)
6/27 reread (2020 total 43/266) – Ash: A Secret History, "The Persistence of Vision", Dreamsnake, 2010: Odyssey Two, Perdido Street Station, Palimpsest.

Coming soon (perhaps)
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Volume 2, by Jody Houser
A Day in the Life, by Hank Stine
The Home and the World, by Rabindranath Tagore
Gallimaufrey, by Colin Baker
Into the Ashes, by Lee Murray
Midnight Blue-Light Special, by Seanan Mcguire
The Lowest Heaven, by Jared Shurin
Kaamelott: Het Raadsel Van de Kluis, by Astier/Dupre
T.K. Whitaker, by Anne Chambers
The Food of the Gods: And How It Came to Earth, by H. G. Wells
Greybeard, by Brian Aldiss
Symbiont, by Mira Grant
The Kappa Child, by Hiromi Goto
A Buzz in the Meadow, by Dave Goulson
Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves
Mostly Void, Partially Stars, by Joseph Fink
Sandkings, by George R.R. Martin
Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason (2017)
Foucaults Pendulum, by Umberto Eco
Doctor Who: Adventures in Lockdown

Posted in Uncategorised

My tweets

Posted in Uncategorised

Whoniversaries 31 December

i) births and deaths

None. There's quite enough for today as it is.

ii) broadcast anniversary

31 December 1965: broadcast of third episode of The Highlanders. Polly overpowers Ffrench; the Doctor overpowers Perkins; but Ben is thrown into the cold sea…

iii) dates specified in canon

31 December 1879: Queen Victoria issues the Torchwood Charter, as seen in Children of Earth (2009). (Though it must be a fake since she is referred to inaccurately as 'HRH', ie 'Her Royal Highness', rather than 'Her Majesty'.)

31 December 1930: setting of the framing narrative of the 2002 Eighth Doctor / Charley audio, Seasons of Fear, by Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox.

31 December 1965 (?) setting of end of "Volcano", the eighth episode of The Daleks' Master Plan.

31 December 1986: setting of Paul Grice's short story "Mondas Passing", featuring Ben and Polly, included in the very first BBC Short Trips anthology.

31 December 1999: setting of most of Doctor Who: The Movie.

also 31 December 1999: setting of most of Craig Hinton's 1995 Sixth Doctor / Mel novel, Millennial Rites.

also 31 December 1999: setting of Gareth Roberts' 1994 DWM comic strip story featuring the Seventh Doctor and Mel, Plastic Millennium.

also 31 December 1999: Torchwood Three wiped out (apart from Jack Harkness) in a multiple murder / suicide by its leader Alex Hopkins (as shown in the 2008 episode Fragments).

also 31 December 1999: Setting of Mark Magrs' 2009 Iris Wildthyme audio play, The Panda Invasion.

31 December 2004: Rose Tyler misses a New Year's Eve party and bumps into this odd bloke wearing a suit and sneakers on her way home, as seen in The End of Time II (2010).

31 December 2018: Astrid Ferrier's helicopter registration was set to expire, as seen in The Enemy of the World (1967).

31 December 2599: setting of part of Justin Richards' 2000 novel The Doomsday Manuscript, first in the Big Finish series of Bernice Summerfield books.

31 December 4999999999: setting of third issue of the 2008 IDW Doctor Who comic, written by Gary Russell, in the series which has been retrospectively named Agent Provocateur.

Posted in Uncategorised

House of Music: raising the Kanneh-Masons, by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I didn't know how to speak in these tutorials where students talked about Evelyn Waugh and travelling abroad to places that I had never been. I tried to flatten the Welsh accent that would keep singing into my mouth, ringing oddly in the room when I tried to say something. My voice became a tight croak in my throat and I put it all into writing. When I wrote, I could sing as much as I wanted. One student who was studying a different subject tried to stretch out a hand of friendship to me over the perceived racial divide. He told me, with great politeness, that it was okay because when you shaved a monkey it was white underneath, so I was probably no closer to an ape them he was. Why he thought it necessary to tell me this was a mystery.

I confess that I am far enough cut off from the UK's media culture that I was completely unaware of the Kanneh-Mason family. All seven kids are very musically gifted, and one of the boys won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 and was then asked to play at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle. Their father and mother have clearly had an intense experience of parenthood. Kadiatu, father from Sierra Leone, mother from Wales, husband from Antigua, tells the story of their lives with warmth and humour, with also enough distance to feel that this is a fair portrait (though of course who knows, really). My own experience of parenthood has been rather different. You can get it here.

Posted in Uncategorised

My tweets

Posted in Uncategorised

Whoniversaries 30 December: two weddings, Enemy of the World #2, Three Doctors #1, Power of Kroll #2

i) births, marriage

30 December 1970: birth of Saul Metzstein, director of several Eleventh Doctor stories.

30 December 2011: wedding of David Tennant and Georgia Moffett.

30 December 1996: birth of Vivian Oparah who played Tanya Adeola in Class.

ii) broadcast anniversaries

30 December 1967: broadcast of second episode of The Enemy of the World. Giles Kent asks the Doctor to help him against Salamander. Jamie and Victoria manage to infiltrate Salamander's headquarters.

30 December 1972: broadcast of first episode of The Three Doctors, starting Season 10 and bringing back Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell. The Time Lords are losing energy; UNIT is besieged by strange special effects and the First and Second Doctors return.

30 December 1978: broadcast of second episode of The Power of Kroll. Kroll starts grabbing people with his tentacles.

iii) date specified in-universe

30 December 1999: the Seventh Doctor arrives in Los Angeles and is immediately shot in gang war crossfire; he later dies on the operating table. (As seen in The Movie, 1996)

Posted in Uncategorised

July 2009 books

This is the latest post in a series I started last year, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days I've been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I've found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I seem to have spent most of July 2009 working with no travel, which explains why I managed to read 34 books in the course of my lengthy daily commute. I wrote a post about Big Finish, ten years on (now it's 21!) and on versions of "Улетай на крыльяхь вҍтра". On the last day of the month we set off for our annual break in Northern Ireland via relatives in England.

Non-fiction 10 (YTD 55)
A History of Modern Sudan, by Robert O. Collins
The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars, by Douglas H. Johnson
Emma's War, by Deborah Scroggins

Queen Elizabeth I, by J.E. Neale (did not finish)
The Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron
Dalek I Loved You, by Nick Griffiths
How to Make School Make Sense, by Clare Lawrence
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston
Veeps, by Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger
Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale, by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

Non-genre 4 (YTD 31)
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadarë
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

SF 7 (YTF 50)
Malpertuis, by Jean Ray
So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, eds Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein
Misspent Youth, by Peter F. Hamilton
Making Money, by Terry Pratchett
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri

Doctor Who 11 (YTD 27)
Torchwood: The Sin Eaters, by Brian Minchin
Doctor Who Files 1: The Doctor, by Jacqueline Rayner with a story by Stephen Cole
Doctor Who Files 2: Rose, by Jacqueline Rayner
Doctor Who Files 3: The Slitheen, by Jacqueline Rayner
Doctor Who Files 4: The Sycorax, by Jacqueline Rayner with a story by Stephen Cole

The Price of Paradise, by Colin Brake
Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, by Tony Attwood
Downtime, by Marc Platt
Verdigris, by Paul Magrs
The Plotters, by Gareth Roberts (did not finish)
Torchwood: Hidden, by Stephen Savile

Comics 2 (YTD 18)
Fables vol 5: The Mean Seasons, by Bill Willingham
Shattered Visage [The Prisoner], by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith

Total page count ~8,500 (YTD 56,600)
8 (YTD 42/199) by women (Scroggins, Lawrence, Kingston, Hopkinson/Mehan, 4 x Rayner)
2 (YTD 13/199) by PoC (Kingston, Hopkinson/Mehan)

Top books this month were Emma's War, about a young Englishwoman who became involved in the Sudanese civil war in the 1990s, which you can get here, and The Writer's Tale, a comprehensive account of the writing of the fourth series of New Who, whose updated and even better edition you can get here. You can avoid The Plotters, a Doctor Who novel set around the Gunpoweder Plot in 1605, full of historical mistakes, though if you want you can get it here.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson

Second paragraph of third story ("Something Bright"):

If you had a quarter – first find your quarter – and five hungry kids, you could supper them on two cans of soup and a loaf of day-old bread, or two quarts of milk and a loaf of day-old bread. It was filling – in an afterthoughty kind of way – nourishing. But if you were one of the hungry five, you eventually began to feel erosion set in, and your teeth ached for substance.

I have no idea why I bought this, other than perhaps a sudden whim based on my ambition to read more work by women. I had never heard of Zenna Henderson before. But these are really good short stories, most of them liminal fantasies involving children in small-town America; the most famous one apart from the title story is "Subcommittee", where a human woman and her child manage to find a channel for peaceful communication with aliens where the grown men (of both sides) have failed. I did not even realise that it was a collection, and after finishing the first story was expecting another 150 pages of adventures for the child and teacher with the Anything Box (and then found myself on an alien world). Really something out of the ordinary. I see that most of her stories had a shared setting, and are published in two other collections, which I will now look out for. You can get this one here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016; next on that pile is Mostly Void, Partially Stars, by Joseph Fink.

Posted in Uncategorised

My tweets

Posted in Uncategorised

Whoniversaries 29 December: Bernard Cribbins, Time Warrior #3, Horns of Nimon #2, Girl in Fireplace

i) births and deaths

29 December 1928: birth of Bernard Cribbins, who played Tom Campbell in Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966) and Wilfred Mott in various Tenth Doctor episodes from Voyage of the Damned (2007) to The End of Time II (2010); also Arnold Korns in the 2007 Eighth Doctor audio Horror of Glam Rock

29 December 1963: birth of Julian Bleach, who has played Davros in New Who, the eponymous Nightmare Man in Sarah Jane, and the Ghostmaker in the Torchwood episode From Out of the Rain.

ii) broadcast anniversaries

29 December 1973: broadcast of third episode of The Time Warrior. Irongron's attack on Edward of Wessex's castle fails; the Doctor and Sarah infiltrate Irongron's castle, but are caught by Linx.

29 December 1979: broadcast of second episode of The Horns of Nimon. The Doctor and Romana end up in the maze with the teenage sacrifices.

iii) Date specified in-universe

29 December 1758: Setting of the climactic scenes of The Girl in the Fireplace (2006).

Posted in Uncategorised

The unseen episode of Secret Army, and Kessler

I’ve been a bit lazy about finishing off the Secret Army project, partly because I’m a little sorry to see the end of it. (In case you missed them: Series One, Series Two and Series Three.) Before discussing the spinoff series Kessler, we need to have a look at the fourteenth episode of Series Three, What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?, which was filmed in 1979 along with the rest but has never actually been shown on TV. Samizdat copies are floating around the internets, and you can see it here.

It’s a startling break of pace with the rest of the series. It’s set in 1969, so almost 25 years after the final episode that was shown but still ten years before it was made. We have the old gang coming back together to identify Kessler’s new identity as industrialist Manfred Dorf, as part of a British TV show about the resistance. It just doesn’t work dramatically. Secret Army was about a time and a pace, and the experiment of unmooring the show from its context can sometimes work (eg the last episode of The Prisoner), but here it doesn’t.

The final scene doesn’t work very well at all, with Natalie expressing her dedication to fighting Communism everywhere; although Communists were also bad guys on the show, this conclusion doesn’t really seem to follow from the premises that we have. And the floaty effect is really awful.

Imagine if we’d been left with that rather than the dancing in the Candide as the final scene of the whole three series? So it was right, on aesthetic grounds, to keep it from the viewers of 1979.

In parenthesis, writers of big works like this often do like to do a twenty-years-on epilogue. Tolkien wrote one for The Lord of the Rings, but was persuaded to drop it. J.K. Rowling wrote one for Harry Potter, and should have taken the advice to drop it that I’m sure she was given. Often it’s better to let the story stand for itself, without the writer popping in to tell us what it all means.

So, on to Kessler, shown in November and December 1981. I didn’t watch it at the time; at 14 I think my parents would have allowed me to if I did, but I wasn’t interested. It is set around the present day (hints that it may be late 70s rather than early 80s), and starts with the reunion in Brussels from the unshown What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?, but then develops into a story of West German anti-Nazi security agent Richard Bauer and freelance Israeli Mical Rak, played by Alan Dobie and Nitza Shaul, pursuing Kessler to try and expose his new identity and his plans. They chase him to Paraguay (these scenes filmed in Spain) with his daughter, herself a convinced next-generation Nazi. After some running around, Kessler’s daughter is killed, he takes his own life and justice is served. I must say I found it minor stuff.

It does vaguely capture the fragility of the Bonn Republic, which always felt a bit more provisional than it professed to be. But it’s disappointing not to get the context for Bauer’s work; we sense that he is also freelancing in his pursuit of Dorf/Kessler, but it would have been fair to West Germany to unpack that a bit more.

There is one really outstanding episode, the fourth, in which Kessler arrives in Paraguay to face interrogation by the senior Nazis there, headed by Josef Mengele, played memorably by Oscar Quitak. In reality Mengele died in 1979 in Brazil, but this was not known until 1985, so at the time the show was made he was thought to be the senior escaped Nazi. (Martin Bormann also makes an appearance, though the consensus since the mid-1970s is that he died in 1945 and that his remains were discovered in Berlin in 1972.) The scene where Mengele and his colleagues discover that Kessler has been tailed to Asuncion by Rak and Bauer is pretty good.

But basically Kessler doesn’t quite have the heart and soul that Secret Army did, and while it’s interesting for a completist like me, I would not otherwise particularly recommend it.

There is a book as well, Kessler by John Brason, and the second paragraph of the third chapter is a solid bit of exposition:

Half-an-hour later Rückert stopped the machine playing, and pressed the re-wind as he turned to Kessler. Both men were silent and unhappy. They had watched snippets of interviews with Nazis living in comparative security in various places in South America. Pathetic, frightened creatures who lived in the bars and shadows of towns and cities from Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires and Maracaibo – old faces of old comrades-in-arms. Bur they thought most of all of an interview between van Eyck and the man calling himself Manfred Dorf, head of the Dorf industrial empire, a respected international industrialist being accused of false identity … the truth being that he, Dorf, was none other than Standartenführer Ludwig Kessler, one time Head of SS and Gestapo in the Low Countries, the much-feared Höherer SS und Polizeifiihrer from 1942 to 1944, a territorial leader with the corresponding significance of Gauleiter. The lack of birth papers, the absence from census, the startling likeness to the military records photographs, the coincidences, and possibly the supreme coincidence of the Belgian wife whose name just-happened to be Madeleine.

Unlike the Secret Army books, this is a straightforward novelisation of the complete TV series. (The first Secret Army book is a prequel, and the other two mix novelised TV episodes with original material.) In the days when home taping was something you did by holding a microphone up to the TV, this was the best you could get to relive the show, and it’s a faithful account; the good bits are still good, and the background exposition is still not as full as I would have liked. You can get it here. (the DVD of Kessler is no longer available, but of course it can be obtained in the usual way.)

Macrolife, by George Zebrowski

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But much of the Old City had endured, as had London and Paris, Tokyo, Rome, and major areas of Moscow and Peking—subterranean haunts tucked away in the world's memory like dear, unwanted relations.

I picked this up as one of the few sf novels set in 2021Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Children of Men) are better, and also only half of this is set in 2021, the rest being in the year 3000. At the end of the first half of the book, the planet earth disintegrates due to some carelessly wielded new technology. I can say with confidence that this is the most pessimistic of all of the future 2021s I looked at. The rest of the book sees the remnants of humanity zipping between star systems on a converted asteroid, occasionally descending to settled planets to bonk some of the primitives and fight some of the others, and eventually achieve transcendence. The book seems to have a lot of fans who feel it had an important Message. Frankly it seemed to me much the same plot as the Cities in Flight series, with perhaps a little jazzed-up tech (but really only a little). You can get it here.

Posted in Uncategorised

My tweets

Posted in Uncategorised

Whoniversaries 28 December

i) births and deaths

28 December 1916: birth of Noel Johnson who played King Thous in The Underwater Menace (Second Doctor, 1967) and Sir Charles Grover in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Third Doctor, 1974).

Also 28 December 1916: birth of Dennis Edwards who played the Centurion in the story we now call The Romans (First Doctor, 1965) and the surgeon Time Lord Gomer in The Invasion of Time (Fourth Doctor, 1978).

28 December 1990: death of Edward Brayshaw, who played Léon Colbert in The Reign of Terror (First Doctor, 1964) and the War Chief in The War Games (Second Doctor, 1969).

28 December 1999: death of Donald Cotton, who wrote The Myth Makers (1965) and The Gunfighters (1966) as well as the novelisations of both stories and of The Romans (1965), three of the best Who novelisations in the range.

ii) broadcast anniversaries

28 December 1963: broadcast of "The Survivors", second episode of the story we now call The Daleks. The Doctor, Ian and Susan join Barbara as prisoners of the sinister metal creatures, but are suffering from radiation poisoning. Susan returns to the Tardis to get anti-radiation drugs. (Or gloves.)

28 December 1969: broadcast of first episode of The Krotons, the first but not the best from Robert Holmes. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arrive on the planet of the Gonds and witness the destruction of the brightest of their young people.

28 December 1974: broadcast of first episode of Robot, first full episode for Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan. The newly regenerated Doctor starts to investigate mysterious thefts at military establishments, involving the sinister Think Tank and Professor Kettlewell. Oh, and a robot.

28 December 1981: broadcast of A Girl's Best Friend, the first and only episode of K9 and Company, starring John Leeson as the voice of K9 and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Our heroes disrupt a local human-sacrificing coven.

28 December 1987: broadcast of third episode of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. The Doctor and Ace start to unravel the mystery of the Psychic Circus; but the Doctor is trapped in the ring with a werewolf.

Posted in Uncategorised

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

We're silent as we trudge through the grasses, Sung-Soo exhausted and malnourished, Mack and I trapped in our own little spirals of guilt and dread. He's taking us on a route that makes it far less likely we'll be spotted, but there's still a chance. He's probably trying to work out what to tell everyone else and buying time to figure that out at his own pace.

First of the Planetfall series, which was up for the Best Series Hugo this year. I have previously bounced off the third and fourth of the books, ranking them last on my BSFA ballots for 2018 and 2019. I actually liked the first one a bit more, and will complete the set by reading the second in due course. As with one of the other books, I felt that the denouement became clear to the reader much quicker than it does to the protagonist, but the path there is interesting, with a closed isolated society finding its core founding myths challenged by the arrival of an outsider who is the long-dead founder's grandson, and a narrator whose OCD hoarding is sympathetically portrayed but also a serious obstacle to her seeing what is really going on. You can get it here.

I'm not convinced that the Best Series Hugo category has really proved itself. The four winners so far have definitely been worthy, but I am not sure that you could say the same for all of the finalists.

This was my top unread book by a woman. Next on that list is Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire.

Posted in Uncategorised

Wild Life, Ash: A Secret History, Perdido Street Station

Having decided that I'll review the winners of the Tiptree, BSFA and Clarke Awards of a give year together, the turn of the century provided me with a massive reading project. I think I started Wild Life on 17 October, and finished Perdido Street Station on 23 December. Together they are 2249 pages in length.

Ash: A Secret History and Perdido Street Station were on all three shortlists/final ballots. Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds, was on both the Clarke and BSFA lists. Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson, was on the Tiptree shortlist and also the Hugo and Nebula final ballots. This was the year that the Hugo went to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling, and the next year's Nebula went to The Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro, which was published in 2000, two of the less defensible results in either award's history. By contrast, the Tiptree, BSFA and Clarke processes came out with good answers.

Wild Life by Molly Gloss, which won the James Tiptree Jr Award for the year, was the one I had not read before. The second paragraph of the third diary entry is:

We raised the sail on Otto’s fine little skiff so as to catch a following air, and coasted upriver into the Elochoman Slough, then George and the twins rowed turn and turn about, a winding course amongst the tiny clay-bank islands of the river delta until we had agreed on a mote of prairie fletched with red huckleberry bushes and bare legs of viny willow. The ground was soft and wet, the grasses laid flat by the months of rain, but we overspread a tarpaulin before putting out the picnic cloth, and built a fire up from driftwood and dead clumps of alder thicket, and were comfortable lying about in the thin sunlight munching roast beef sandwiches and sour cream cookies. The boys disappeared into the bushes as soon as the food was eaten, and the men cast their fishhooks into the river; Edith and I lay on the picnic cloth with our shoes off and our belts unbuckled and put the whip of gossip to various and sundry Skamokawans.

This is set in early 20th century Washington State, the central character Charlotte being a pulp writer with five young sons who heads off into the wilderness to join a search for a missing girl. She is sidetracked and joins a tribe of woodland primates (the words Bigfoot and Sasquatch are not used), and makes discoveries about herself, gender and humanity. It is told in the form of Charlotte's diary, interspersed with other material. The style is very immersive and convincing. I was not quite so convinced about the story itself, but this was a good read. You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle, winner of the BSFA Award for Best Novel, is:

By the age of nine she had a mass of curls that she kept long, halfway to her waist, and washed once a month. Her silver hair had the grey shine of grease. No one in a soldiers' camp could notice the smell. She never showed her ears. She learned to keep dressing in cut-down hose and doublet, often with an adult's jerkin over them. Something in the too-large clothing made her look even more of a little child.

At first sight this appears to be set in the fifteenth century of our own era. Ash, a teenage mercenary commander, has taken strategic advice for years from voices in her head and as a result is one of the most successful mercenaries in Western Europe. But the near-future (ie early 2000's) researchers who are trying to compose a new biography gradually realise that her history is not their history, and the two realities begin to leach into each other. This book gave me very strange dreams when I first read it; my dreams have generally been strange this year so I didn't notice any difference this time. Admittedly the history and presentation are dodgy – I doubt that any of the female mercenary commanders of the fifteen century were still teenagers, and the whole thing is presented as a translation, complete with scholarly footnotes for difficult bits, from a manuscript which is not written in the style of any medieval text. I'm also a bit better informed about medieval Burgundy than I was twenty years ago, thanks to Van Loo and Dunnett. But in the end I love the intensity of description and the leakage between realities. It's awfully long, but I found myself thinking at one point, oh no, there's only 250 pages left to go. It's also rather an adventurous choice by BSFA voters, which is not a bad thing. You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is:

Her father was whispering to her, entertaining her with prestidigitation. He gave her a pebble to hold, then spat on it quickly. It became a frog. The girl squealed with delight at the slimy thing and glanced shyly up at Isaac. He opened his eyes and mouth wide, mumming astonishment as he left his seat. She was still watching him as he opened the door of the train and stepped out onto Sly Station. He made his way down and onto the streets, wound through the traffic for Brock Marsh.

Another big long but excellent book. The Clarke judges gave themselves a tough choice here, the other shortlisted novels being Ash and Revelation Space, as already noted, and Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod, Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler and Salt by Adam Roberts. Perdido Street Station is set in New Crobuzon, a city with elements of London in it, a melting pot of all races – and races in this world include many who we would regard as hybrids; the protagonist's girlfriend has the head of an insect, for instance, and cactus-people and frog-like vodyanoi feature too. The protagonist, an inventor named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (clearly meant to evoke Isaac Newton), acquires a larva which grows up to become a deadly slake moth, hypnotising its victims with their wings and then drinking their souls, and our hero and his friends then need to deal with the situation, not especially helped by New Crobuzon's power structures, both formal and informal. There's a lot of vivid baroque description, and yet I also felt that Miéville kept control of the plot with a bit more discipline than in some of his later books. In particular he helps the reader distinguish between what seems bizarre to us but normal to his characters, and what is horrific and supernatural for both. You can get it here.

Anyway, there were two great rereads and a good first read. Next up: The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto, Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones and Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds.

Posted in Uncategorised

My tweets

Posted in Uncategorised

Whoniversaries 27 December: Christopher Benjamin, Paul Joyce

i) births and deaths

27 December 1934: birth of Christopher Benjamin, who played Sir Keith Gold in Inferno (Third Doctor, 1970), Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Fourth Doctor, 1977) and the Big Finish Jago and Litefoot stories, and Colonel Hugh Curbishley in The Unicorn and the Wasp (Tenth Doctor, 2008) as well as Tardelli in the 2008 Eighth Doctor audio Grand Theft Cosmos.

27 December 1940: birth of Paul Joyce, who was the director of Warrior's Gate (Fourth Doctor, 1981)

ii) broadcast anniversaries

None. This is the last such day in the calendar year (I was wrong last week to say that 20 December was); the next 177 days (178 if leading into a leap year) all have broadcast Whoniversaries, until 22 June ends the run.

Posted in Uncategorised

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Going out of sequence for my next Hugo-winning film write-up; this was on TV the other day and I caught most of it, and then went back to watch the beginning on Netflix. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade won the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo in 1990; the other finalists were, in order, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Batman, and Field of Dreams, which I have seen, and The Abyss, which I haven't. I am pretty clear for myself that Batman is the best of these, but IMDB users are closer to Hugo voters than to me, rating …Last Crusade top on one ranking and third on the other (after National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Steel Magnolias). That year's Oscar winner was Driving Miss Daisy.

On returning stars: I've already written lots about Harrison Ford, who has been in five previous Hugo-winning films. Sean Connery, oddly enough, was in no previous Hugo or Oscar winners. Denholm Elliott and John Rhys Davies are back from Raiders in the same roles. There are loads of crossovers with Doctor Who, but I'll take the four who get major billing here, one of whom was also in a Star Wars film and a previous Oscar winner; I refer of course to Julian Glover, here the evil German Donovan, previously General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back and Northerton in 1963 Oscar-winner Tom Jones. In Doctor Who he was Count Scarlione/Scaroth, Last of the Jagaroth in the great Fourth Doctor story City of Death, and also King Richard the Lion-Heart in the 1964 First Doctor story that we now call The Crusade.

I don't think I've reported this on LJ previously, but I actually met Julian Glover in February at the Brussels Comic Con (which as it turned out was the last big fannish event I was able to go to before the world came to an end) and sopke briefly with him.

The other three Doctor Who crossovers start with Julian Glover's wife, Isla Blair, credited here as a Bechdel-failing "Mrs Glover" in her role as spouse of her husband's character. She had been on Doctor Who as the lead female guest star in The King's Demons (Fifth Doctor, 1983), playing Isabella Fitzwilliam.

Better known for many other things, Alexei Sayle plays the Sultan here and four years earlier was the DJ in the funeral home that was a front for the Revelation of the Daleks.

My final Doctor Who crossover is a lot more obscure. Kevork Malikyan plays Karim here, and way back in 1968 played space tech Kemel Rudkin in the Second Doctor story, The Wheel in Space. He gets killed by the Cybermen.

Having said that, further down in the credits there are some more Who crossovers – Vernon Dobtcheff, Frederick Jaeger, and Adolf Hitler in his brief non-speaking appearance is played by Michael Sheard, who got more significant roles in more Doctor Who stories than anyone who was not in the regular cast (and indeed more than some of those). Apparently it was the fourth time Sheard had played Hitler. But it's Boxing Day and I'm pretty wiped out, so you can tracke them down yourself.

Well, I won't go on too much about the film. Total erasure of non-white people, and utter Bechdel fail, though 21-year-old Irish actor Alison Doody is pretty good as thirtysomething Austrian archaeologist Elsa Schneider, with her sudden yet inevitable betrayal.

The film is owned by Ford and Connery, though, and they are a great double act – it was a great idea to give Indiana Jones, so much an alpha male character, a father figure with whom he had unresolved conflicts.

The action and music are great fun, and there is some tremendous tension releasing as comedy – the Adolf Hitler scene being one of them. But the plot makes very little sense, and one of the major implausibilities (Jones senior sending Jones junior his diary) is simply lampshaded into the script. I watched it and enjoyed it, but I did not feel that this was cinema for the ages.

Posted in Uncategorised

My tweets

Posted in Uncategorised