Non-fiction 8 (YTD 38) John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, by Fred Kaplan Groetjes uit Vlaanderen, by Mohamed Ouaamari The Ambassadors of Death, by L.M. Myles Dark Water / Death in Heaven, by Philip Purser-Hallard Free Speeches, by Denis Kitchen, Nadine Strossen, Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller The Ryans of Inch and Their World: A Catholic Gentry Family from Dispossession to Integration, c.1650-1831, by Richard John Fitzpatrick (PhD thesis) Those About to Die, by Daniel P. Mannix Discipline or Corruption, by Konstantin Stanislavsky
Non-genre 2 (YTD 24) The Wych Elm, by Tana French Time Must Have a Stop, by Aldous Huxley
Scripts 1 (YTD 4) Day of the Dead, by Neil Gaiman
SF 15 (YTD 109) Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson
"Fire Watch", by Connie Willis Little Free Library, by Naomi Kritzer The Empire of Time, by David Wingrove – did not finish Crashland, by Sean Williams – did not finish City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson Splinters and the Impolite President, by William Whyte Axiom's End, by Lindsay Ellis Splinters and the Wolves of Winter, by William Whyte Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan The Vanished Birds, by Simon Jimenez The Unspoken Name, by A.K. Larkwood Blake’s 7 Annual 1982, eds Grahame Robertson and Carole Ramsay
Doctor Who 5 (YTD 18, 24 inc comics and non-fiction) Prime Imperative, by Julianne Todd The Xmas Files, ed. Shaun Russell Mind of Stone, by Iain McLaughlin The Crimson Horror, by Mark Gatiss Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death, by Terrance Dicks
Current Not Before Sundown, by Johanna Sinisalo The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright The Empire of Gold, by S. A Chakraborty
Coming soon (perhaps) Summer, by Ali Smith Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot Waste Tide, by Qiufan Chen The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J R R Tolkien Sweeney Todd & Other Stories, by Neil Gaiman The Ice Cream Army, by Jessica Gregson Exploding School to Pieces: Growing Up With Pop Culture In the 1970s, by Mick Deal Shanghai Sparrow, by Gaie Sebold The Last Witness, by K. J. Parker The Last Defender of Camelot, by Roger Zelazny Le dernier Atlas, Tome 3, by Fabien Vehlmann Ann Veronica, by H. G. Wells
"Blood Music", by Greg Bear An Introduction to the Gospel of John, by Raymond E. Brown The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman The 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, 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.
At work, Anglo-American M left my office and moved in with a nice Bulgarian chap D, who I had actually introduced her to one evening in July. They are now married with a little girl, and currently in Bulgaria where D is running in the election next month. M's replacement was Swedish/German L.
I had a fair bit of travel in September 2013: to Berlin, for reasons I cannot now remember, to Poland for the first time for a conference in Krynica-Zdrój, where I bonded a bit with Pete Wishart, and to Dublin for a one-day mission. But the biggest work development was that I found myself rather oddly representing Somaliland at the big Brussels conference on Somalia, after the government representatives of Somaliland pulled out at the last moment. Since I wasn't allowed inside the hall, this mainly meant hanging around in the atrium of the Egmont Palace looking for people to talk to, though there was one exciting moment when I found myself (successfully) lobbying the Italian foreign minister (who I knew) about the final communique.
The Northern Ireland representation in Brussels had a fantastic culture night, with this amazing piper (whose name I have sadly forgotten), followed by the head of the office performing.
We also had the Oud-Heverlee Zomerfeest.
And Loncon II became the seated Worldcon, with this fantastic handover video, which I don't think has been excelled:
~5,200 pages (YTD 49,900)
7/19 (YTD 58/191) by women (3xChristie, North, Hobb, Murphy, Orman)
0/19 (YTD 8/191) by PoC
The best of these, though a reread, was The Moment of Eclipse, by Brian Aldiss; you can get it here. I enjoyed almost all the rest, especially poetry collection Meeting the British, by Paul Muldoon, which you can get here, and chick-lit novel Home Truths, by Freya North, which you can get here – fourth in a series where I had not read the other three, but very accessible to a new reader. Was very unimpressed by the Agatha Christie Evil Under the Sun, which you can get here.
Somewhat late to the party, we've been watching the first series of Parlement, a comedy set in and around the European Parliament. Here's a trailer:
It is the story of Samy (Xavier Lacaille), a naive young French chap, who comes to Brussels in early 2019 to work for Michel Specklin (Philippe Duquesne), a French MEP who has been successfully practicing invisibility for years, and is appalled when Samy lands him with responsibility for fisheries legislation banning shark finning. British parliamentary staffer Rose (Liz Kingsman) steals every scene she is in. Here she and German staffer Torsten (Lucas Englander) put Samy right about the nice Swedish girl (Elvira Tröger) who he has just met.
Here is Samy's disastrous attempt to get his boss to role-play a confrontation with their group's adviser, the sinister Maurice:
Meanwhile Rose's Brexity boss (Jane Turner) is trying to solve the Irish border issue (this was still 2019). My friend Jennifer makes a cameo appearance as the reporter at the end.
Here's the opening of the ninth episode, which catches the surrealism of the Strasbourg buildings:
It's a sitcom, but it's rooted in reality. My own most vigorous lobbying of the European Parliament in my almost 23 years in Brussels was also on a fisheries issue, and I winced with recognition at several of the scenes, to the point where I wondered if the writers had been standing behind me taking notes back in 2011. The most egregious variation from real life that I noted was the lobbyist who argues for one side of the issue in an early episode and for the other side in a later episode – not because this never happens, but because Samy and his friends find out by consulting the Transparency Register, which is not usually updated in real time. I would add that the European Parliament staff in the show are more ethnically diverse and less Eastern European than in real life. But speaking of real life, Pascal Lamy, a fomer European Commissioner (and Director-General of the World Trade Organization) turns up a couple of times playing himself.
I have no idea how one could get hold of it in other countries, but it's well worth hunting down. Apparently there is now a second series as well. Also Liz Kingsman is doing a one-woman show in London these days, and if I can possibly catch it I will do so.
The third of the Black Archive books is by L.M. Myles, who I last saw at the fantastic Gallifrey One convention last year. Here she is in the bar on the first night, in the thick of things.
When I first watched The Ambassadors of Death in 2007, I wrote:
Jon Pertwee’s first season in 1970 was certainly his best, but also in a lot of ways quite unlike any other season before or since. The Ambassadors of Death is Who as James Bond-ish adventure story with lots and lots of shootouts and fighting, and aliens who can kill at a touch. I thought Caroline John as Liz Shaw was particularly good here, though she does scream once or twice. Not quite sure what the point of the time experimentation at the beginning was. The plot was exceptionally convoluted in order to cover the seven episodes, and I felt the camera lingered on guest star Ronald Allen for longer than the quality of his acting really deserved (some of the other recurring actors, eg John Abineri and Michael Wisher, were rather better I thought), but altogether it is pretty compelling. It’s quite uncomfortable and spiky in places; the congealing of the UNIT “family” in the next season made for a much safer and basically less exciting programme.
was eager to hear my views of The Ambassadors of Death, and I guess the first point is how little of the story is actually about the eponymous aliens. The first five episodes focus on UNIT trying to battle bad guys who have stolen an alien weapon and are using it for crime, and have also infiltrated UNIT’s own chain of command; each episode has a mandatory action sequence pitting good guys vs thugs. Only in ep 6 does the Doctor transmigrate to the alien spaceship where astronauts are in an altered state of consciousness, which could be symbolic of something. We take a long time to get close to the action; it’s actually rather reminiscent of The Invasion, with seedier human opponents and less willing aliens.
John Abineri does put in a good turn as Carrington – even if his means and motivation are not well explained, he is conveys the deceptively psychotic general rather well. I am, however, mystified and distracted by the cameras’ concentration on Ronald Allen as Cornish; perhaps the director was obsessed by Allen’s good looks. Come to that, I am still a little mystified as to what the story was really about. Nice to see Michael Wisher for the first time. Dudley Simpson, always reliable, utterly excels here with a Jethro Tull-like soundtrack which conveys a slightly weird yet rather English atmosphere.
Rewatching it again I appreciated all of these points, especially the Dudley Simpson soundtrack.
I still found myself baffled by the plot, and the means and motivation of the bad guys, but it’s not the only Who story of which that is the case.
I also noticed that there are practically no women in the story apart from Liz; there are two credited actresses, Cheryl Molineaux (for whom this is her final credit on IMDB, after a career that had started with the lead role in a 1961 children’s series call The Skewbald) who plays Ralph Cornish’s assistant Miss Rutherford in the first two episodes, and Joanna Ross, for whom this is the first role of a brief career, who plays an identical but quieter role in the last three episodes. (Maybe Cheryl Molineaux didn’t want to come back?)
Here’s a fan attempt to make a trailer for the story – rather impressive.
The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:
One, clearly the senior in both age and rank, was a sparely-built middle-aged man with short hair, a neatly trimmed moustache and the kind of expensive Savile Row suit that is almost a uniform in itself. He wore a red carnation in his buttonhole. His name was Carrington.
This is not particularly good. We lose out on the action scenes which were one of the original story’s strong points (along with generally good direction), and Dicks adds little new to the plot (having said which, see below for a point on a minor character) which basically exposes its weaknesses rather more mercilessly to the reader. Published in 1987, this was the last of the televised Third Doctor stories to reach print (wording chosen carefully to allow for Barry Letts’ novels based on his two audio dramas).
…we are told that Reegan (as played by William Dysart)
had been born in Ireland, though he had spent much of his life in America and other parts of the world, frequently on the run from the law. He had begun his criminal career robbing banks for the IRA, and had left Ireland in danger of his life when it had been discovered that he was keeping more of the proceeds for himself than he was donating to the Cause.
More recent events notwithstanding, Reegan’s history sounds more like Odd Man Out than anything else; Dicks celebrates his 73rd birthday this coming weekend, so would have been twelve when Odd Man Out was first released. England seems an odd choice of refuge for a former IRA bank robber to flee to.
I think I was a little harsh. Squeezing seven episodes into a Target novelisation is a considerable challenge which the late great Terrance Dicks managed effortlessly, and he also gives us brief introductory characterisation paragraphs for all of the significant characters. It’s still not my favourite novelisation, not even of Season 7 (Cave Monsters for the win!) but I should have been fairer. You can get it here (for a price).
The second paragraph of the third chapter of L.M. Myles’ monograph on the story is (with footnote):
The dynamic is set up quite succinctly in the first half of episode one, when the Doctor watches the television broadcast of the Recovery 7 mission. ‘And the Brigadier thinks it’s his business,’ he says, waspishly, after spotting the military presence in mission control. ‘I suppose he’s got to do something to occupy his mind now that he’s blown up the Silurians.’ The Doctor’s rudeness might extend to the Brigadier, but the Brigadier, being fully aware of the Doctor’s brilliance and how he’s brought it to bear against alien attacks on the Earth, has considerably more patience for the Doctor’s snark than any other human. And the will to intercede on his behalf, to press him towards politeness, and to ask others for patience with his tetchy colleague. Importantly, the Doctor is prepared to listen to the Brigadier on these points: when he takes the Doctor aside after he barges into Space Centre, and reminds him that there is a hierarchy here, and that Cornish is in charge, the Doctor calms down instantly, and takes the point. This Doctor, more than any other, is aware of human hierarchies, having been forced to live within them for an extended, continuous “amount of time. At the Brigadier’s urging, he attempts politeness and persuasiveness, arguing that the message must be decoded for the safety of the astronauts, who are Cornish’s primary concern. ‘I suppose we must try everything,’ says Cornish, conceding both to practicality – whatever they can do to help the astronauts, they must – and the Doctor’s argument, whilst subtly, and so Britishly, rebuking the Doctor for his rudeness2. 2 Episode one.
Again, it’s not my favourite story, but Myles successfully persuades me that there is quite a lot going on here, with chapters on:
the opening titles, which have a unique-for-Old-Who pre-title sequence and a musical sting for the words “OF DEATH”;
the triple Doctor/Brigadier/Liz dynamic;
the Doctor/Brigadier relationship;
the Doctor/Liz relationship;
the villainy or not of the three main guest characters, Reegan, Cornish and Carrington;
the fact that there are no women apart from Liz;
the problem of UNIT;
fictional and real British space programmes;
class divisions, especially Sir James Quinlan;
the problem of the Ambassadors themselves;
the problem of the absent TARDIS (though actually this does explain for me the silly time-travel bit in the first episode);
the CSO special effects;
the genre shading into spy adventure and crime-fighting;
a note on Quatermass;
a conclusion. “Ambassadors has been my favourite of season seven since I first watched it, and putting it under such close scrutiny has only increased my admiration and love for it. It’s a complicated, nuanced story that explores humanity’s conflicted, messy reactions to the unknown, and comes down firmly on the side of patience, knowledge, curiosity and trust.”
As is probably clear, I don’t go all the way with Myles on this – the internal inconsistencies annoy me too much – but it’s still nice to read someone else’s appreciation, even for something I don’t like as much as she does. You can get it here.
Current Not Before Sundown, by Johanna Sinisalo The Unspoken Name, by A.K. Larkwood The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright
Last books finished Splinters and the Wolves of Winter, by William Whyte Those About to Die, by Daniel P. Mannix Day of the Dead, by Neil Gaiman Discipline or Corruption, by Konstantin Stanislavsky Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan The Vanished Birds, by Simon Jimenez
Next books Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot
Edited to add: Well, that’s embarrassing. I had carefully planned out my day so that I would do an astute update here to go live later in the evening, but in fact my “holding” entry went live when I was still in the office.
It was a very annoying day, coming at the end of a lovely visit from my sister C and her daughter S. We totally failed to take any pictures with C in them, which is a shame as it was her birthday on Monday and we went out for dinner on Sunday.
Further edit: F did get a picture of the birthday girl.
We also went to visit B.
And took U for a walk in the woods.
This morning I had decided to work from home as C was leaving for the Glasgow climate conference and Anne was also heading off to England for two nights for a funeral; but at 9.30, in the middle of a vital call with a colleague, the internet disappeared from our house and refused to come back. So I went into the office mid-morning, having basically lost two hours of the working day which I am still striving to make up this evening.
Anyway. The surge in the Belgian COVID numbers that I noted last time has broken out into a full-blown fourth wave of COVID infections. But in Belgium at least, more than half of the new cases are among school-age children who have not been vaccinated, so the impact on those of us whose work does not involve school-age children has been much lower. For comparison:
Today’s reported daily average infection rate is 5691, 75% up from a week ago. This is higher than the third wave (April 2021) peak of 4827. In November 2020 I missed the numbers on the 15th, but the reported weekly infection rate on 14 November was 6213 and on 16 November 5246, so 15 November must have been about equivalent to today.
On 16 November the numbers in hospital were 6504. Now it’s 1379. Also on 16 November the ICU occupancy was 1423. Now it’s 255. Also on 16 November the weekly reported death rate was 202, the peak of the second wave. Now it’s 15.
Yes, you may say, but that’s while the second wave peak was declining. What about on the way up?
Well, I have those numbers too, from a year and twelve days ago.
On 16 October 2020, the reported daily average infection rate was 5976, a new record and 96% up on the previous week. The hospital numbers then were 1949, 41% more than now. The ICU numbers were 327, 28% more than now. The death rate was 23, 50% more than now.
There was still some time to go before the second wave peaked – 15967 daily infections, reported 1 November (so more than 1% of Belgium’s population had tested positive for COVID in that reporting period); 7485 in hospital, reported 4 November; 1474 in ICU’s, reported 10 November; and 202 fatalities, reported 16 November as noted above. For what it’s worth, I think the fourth wave will peak way below the second, though it has already beaten the first and third, and that the hospitalisation, ICU and fatality numbers will be correspondingly lower.
It’s still not good, but we seem to be adapting to a new normal.
Wed, 15:21: RT @reclamation2022: We are delighted to announce that the award winning Tasha Suri will be a Guest of Honour at Reclamation, the 72nd East…
Wed, 16:05: Climate Change Misinformation in the Age of COVID-19 – APCO Worldwide https://t.co/gd7AIe7txX Published ahead of COP26, a new report by Logically and APCO Worldwide found a worrying link between climate change misinformation and COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Second paragraph of third chapter (Sura 114 of the Qur'an, in Dutch in the book but I'm giving both the Arabic original – the Warsh recitation, which is used in Morocco – and the English translation):
Zeg: ‘Ik zoek bescherming bij de Heer van de mensen. De Koning van de mensen. De God van de mensen. Tegen het kwaad van de wegsluipende influisteraar (Satan). Degene die in de harten van de mensen fluistert. Van de djinn en de mensen.’
Say, "I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind. The King of mankind. The God of mankind. From the evil of the retreating whisperer (Satan). He who whispers into the breasts of mankind. From among the jinn and mankind."
Interesting autobiography of a Flemish writer and commentator with Moroccan roots; he tells the story of growing up between two worlds – decaying Antwerp suburbs and the Moroccan Rif – and the prejudices he faces at both ends, though more particularly at the Belgian end. And yet he identifies as Flemish before anything else, within a lasagne-like set of layers of identities, even when many of his fellow Flemings vote for parties that reject him and his people (there's a grim tale of being singled out as a ten-year-old Muslim by his schoolteacher in class after 9/11). He gives a particularly funny-not-funny account of being arrested at a business conference for making a joke on Twitter that, er, went down badly with the police. A really interesting account from a Belgian who like my own children has parents born outside the country, and has faced rather different challenges to our family. I hope it gets translated into French and English, though some of the humour is a bit Dutch-specific. (How can you translate "bakfietsvlamingen"???) Recommended for those who have the language. You can get it here.
This was the top unread book by a non-white writer on my pile. Next is Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan,
Constant Killer (C.k2-00452)
You have a new display name?
Sorry, this is a story with cute doglike killer robots, and I can't stand stories about cute robots. It's not you, it's me.
5) “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse”, Rae Carson. Second paragraph of third section:
The second thing I do is gather Marisol and our baby and take them to the infirmary to see Eileen.
Sorry again, it's a zombie apocalypse story, and they don't do anything for me, even with added insightful interrogations of gender roles and motherhood.
I liked all the rest.
4) “Open House on Haunted Hill”, John Wiswell. Second paragraph of third section:
The afternoon is sluggish. There are four more visitors, none of whom stay long enough to check the basement for treasure. The hours chug by, and Mrs. Weiss spends most of the time on her phone.
Lovely story about a haunted house that just wants to be happy and have a family living in it comfortably. Veers towards horror but not very horribly. Will probably win.
3) “Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, T. Kingfisher. Second paragraph of third section:
“You have eaten my ship,” said their captor. “I have spent five thousand years here, building it up, and you have eaten it. It will take me another five thousand to repair it. What say you?”
A story with AIs which are definitely not cute at all, but grappling with an unfair universe and concepts of truth and falsehood. Memorably done.
2) “The Mermaid Astronaut”, Yoon Ha Lee. Second paragraph of third section:
But Kiovasa could only think of how she was going to lose her sister, and Essarala felt the weight of the witch’s shell knife, carried in a pouch of gold-washed chainmail, as though it would drown her.
Fantastic evocation of colonialism, body dysphoria and the differential passage of time, in dialogue with Ursula Le Guin.
1) Little Free Library, Naomi Kritzer. Second paragraph of third section:
She could see the Little Free Library from her living room window, and watched the first day as some of the neighborhood kids stopped to peer in. When she checked that afternoon, she noticed that Ender’s Game, Dragonsinger, and Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine had all been taken. The next day, someone had left a copy of The Da Vinci Code, which made her grimace, but hey, there were people who adored that book, so why not. She put in her extra copy of Fellowship of the Ring along with two Terry Pratchett books.
I don’t know about you, but we have two little free libraries within a stone’s throw of our house. But what if they really were gateways to another world, as we always like to say that books can be? Short but very effective, and gets my vote.
Mon, 16:04: Delighted to be able to encourage everyone to sign up for next year’s Eastercon, to be held at the Radisson Heathrow (former Park Inn) 15-18 April next year. Look forward to seeing you there! https://t.co/mqOQTwOQlC
Mon, 16:05: Unfreezing the ice age: the truth about humanity’s deep past https://t.co/jQRI209sAb Archaeological discoveries are shattering scholars’ long-held beliefs about how the earliest humans organised their societies – and hint at possibilities for our own. Fascinating.
He came in through the porch, wreathed in smiles, his bony hands knotted together and his eyes darting all around. ‘Ooh, yes. Lovely! Smashing dado. You’ve got this place very nice, I must say.’ He glanced at the various stuﬀed animal heads that lined the hallway. Relics of the previous owner, a Colonel of Dragoons, who had shot every living thing he could set his rheumy old eyes on. There was an empty space on the wall – above a lioness and adjacent to a warthog – and the Doctor wondered what might go there.
Novelisation of Gatiss's Eleventh Doctor TV story The Crimson Horror, the one set in a nineteenth-century Yorkshire factory with guest stars Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling. I really liked it. There is a lot more setup – we reach the first scene of the TV story on page 67 of a 178-page book!!! – which really helps to immerse us in the steampunk / Victorian industrial grunge aesthetic; and then the script itself is largely kept, but massaged for better pacing and to reduce the reader's reliance on visuals that we can't see on the page. As well as appearing a couple of times on screen, Mark Gatiss has written several good Doctor Who books, and this is another of them.
Before I get started, I just want to say that these are all really good. Some years it feels like the novelette is the ideal range for speculative fiction, and this is one of those years. I wish that all of these could win.
6) “Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, A.T. Greenblatt. Second paragraph of third section:
At least that’s what he keeps telling himself. His new office is really quite large and nice. Or would be if the floor wasn’t smothered by boxes and files. Or if the whole set up didn’t look like it never met a computer and didn’t reek of dust and disuse. Or if the office wasn’t in the basement 9 of the old community center.
Alas, we have to start pruning somewhere, and superhero stories aren't as much my thing as they are for some people. This is a good look at the superhero who is marginalised in a society where they are generally not all that respected and where his super power isn't actually all that useful. Nicely done.
5) “Monster”, Naomi Kritzer. Second paragraph of third section:
Everything around me looks quaint and old, but in fact it was built from scratch just a few years ago to showcase local ethnic cultures and attract tourists to the area. Local people are employed to wear traditional costumes, walk the street playing traditional instruments, make and sell traditional crafts. It reminds me of a Renaissance festival.
A somewhat grim tale of a woman who tracks her only friend from a bullying high school down to China where he is engaging in genetic manipulation. Vividly envisaged.
4) “The Pill”, Meg Elison. Third paragraph (doesn't seem to have sections):
Third para: She [the narrator's mother] did them all: the digital calorie monitors that she wore on her wrists and ankles for six straight weeks. (I rolled my eyes at that one, but at least she didn’t talk about it constantly.) The strings like clear licorice made of some kind of supercellulose that were supposed to accumulate in her stomach lining and give her a no-surgery stomach stapling but just made her (and everyone else who didn’t eat a placebo) fantastically constipated. (Unstoppable complaining about this one; I couldn’t bring anyone home for weeks for fear that she’d abruptly start telling my friends about her struggle to shit.) Pill after pill after pill that gave her heart palpitations, made her hair fall out, or (on one memorable occasion) induced psychotic delusions. If it was a way out of being fat, she’d try it. She’d try anything.
Challenging story about body image – what if there was a widely available pill that eliminates obesity? What does that do to society, and to those who don't want to take it? The icky ending is depressing but entirely plausible.
3) Two Truths and a Lie, Sarah Pinsker. Second paragraph of third section:
She headed out to Denny’s house. She paused on the step, realizing she was in nicer clothes this time. Hopefully she wouldn’t be there long.
A good spooky story about childhood memories of a creepy local TV presenter which turns into fighting off an otherworldly menace. A little closer to horror than I usually like, but very memorable.
2) “The Inaccessibility of Heaven”, Aliette de Bodard. Second paragraph of third section:
For a moment, as I started the computer and checked the accounts for the day, I contemplated calling Cal’s mobile—but it was a foolish idea, dismissed as soon as it occurred to me. She wouldn’t want to talk to me in any case.
A whodunnit with fallen angels. I like Aliette, I don't always get on with her prose, but this worked very well for me, nicely structured and paced with believable characters in a credibly portrayed situation. has already won the Ignyte Award.
1) “Helicopter Story”, Isabel Fall. Second paragraph of third section:
We are here to degrade and destroy strategic targets in the United States of America’s war against the Pear Mesa Budget Committee. If you disagree with the war, so be it: I ask your empathy, not your sympathy. Save your pity for the poor legislators who had to find some constitutional framework for declaring war against a credit union.
This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, 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.
We started our holiday with a Doctor Who event in Slough, attended by no fewer than twelve Doctor Who companions. (This was also where filming took place for The Five-ish Doctors Reboot.)
Left to right: Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman), Ace (Sophie Aldred), Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), Tegan (Janet Fielding), Leela (Louise Jameson), Romana II (Lalla Ward), K9 (John Leeson), Victoria (the late Deborah Watling), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and Polly (Anneke Wills).
We saw lots of old friends while in Northern Ireland, but I don't seem to have taken photos or kept much of a record. (I was very stressed.) I also noted that Seamus Heaney died at the end of the month.
Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2000, and four others: Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. It lost in seven categories, three each to Traffic and to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won both Hugo and Nebula that year.
Of the other four Oscar nominees, I have not seen Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Erin Brockovich, though I have seen Chocolat. 2000 was a difficult year for us, and apart from Chocolat, the only other 2000 films I have seen to the end are Almost Famous, Chicken Run and The Dish, all of which I really like, probably more than I liked GladiatorO Brother, Where Art Thou and Bring It On. IMDB users rank Gladiator as the best film of the year on bothrankings. Here’s a trailer.
Two actors here have returned from previous Oscar-winners. Most notoriously, Oliver Reed, as gladiator trader Proximo, actually died of alcohol poisoning partway through making the film; way back in 1968 he was bad boy Bill Sykes in Oliver!
More recently, Tommy Flanagan, who is our hero’s loyal servant Cicero here, was also a close ally of the doomed hero of Braveheart in 1995.
There are a fair number of Doctor Who crossovers as well, starting of course with Sir Derek Jacobi, Senator Gracchus here and six years later Professor Yana and briefly the Master in Utopia:
Tony Curran is one of the assassins who fail to kill our hero, and also was Vincent van Gogh in Vincent and the Doctor (2012).
David Scholfield is Falco here and went on to be Odin, leader of the Mire, in The Girl Who Died (2015).
I could not find good Gladiator shots of David Bailie, credited as the engineer operating the catapults in the opening battle scene, and also of course Dask in Robots of Death (1978), or of Alun Raglan, here a Praetorian guard, and Mo Northover in the 2010 story The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood.
So. Before I start, the opening titles greatly amused me:
That’s “Northern England”, or, as the locals call it, “Scotland”. (Subsequent social media discussion revealed that the Antonine Wall has a bit of a marketing problem.)
The film is the story of Maximus, chosen successor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is displaced by the Emperor’s horrible homicidal son Commodus. Maximus escapes Commodus’ assassination attempt, but is captured by slavers in Spain and sold into slavery in North Africa. He comes to Rome as a gladiator, wins all his battles and challenges Commodus for power in Rome. They both die. It’s great to look at, especially if you are the sort of person who likes to see acres of rippling male flesh (limited appeal for me, I’m afraid). But I think we had a rather similar plot with a happier ending 41 years ago.
The scenes set in Africa, like Casablanca, have a notable lack of actual Africans, apart from Djimon Hounsou as Juba, our hero’s ally and the black guy in the film.
I thought Connie Nielsen was very good as Commodus’ elder sister Lucilla, even though she is given very little to work with and has the only female speaking part to have more than one scene. (Later to appear as Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, in Wonder Woman.)
The core performances of Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Russell Crowe as Maximus are all solid and carry the story. (And Oliver Reed and Derek Jacobi, already noted, are good too.)
The filmography is good and the music really good.
But at the same time there isn’t really much there there. I’m putting it two thirds of the way down my list of Oscar winners, ahead of My Fair Lady, which may have more parts for women but is much more sexist, and behind How Green Was My Valley, also a spectacular landscape film but with a bit more of a human heart.
Its influence is undeniable, of course, and I can’t resist posting the stunning 2004 Pepsi commercial starring Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Pink and the music of Queen:
The film is supposedly based on Those About to Die, a 1958 book by Daniel P. Mannix IV, which starts off as a historical survey of Roman games and then becomes two short stories, the first longer than the second, about men who worked in and around the arena. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
The greatest naumachia of all time was the naval engagement staged by Claudius. As Augustus’ lake was too small, the mad emperor decided to use the Fucine Lake (now called the Lago di Fucino) some sixty miles to the east of Rome. This lake had no natural outlet and in the spring it often flooded many miles of surrounding county. To overcome this trouble, a tunnel three and a half miles long had been cut through solid rock from the lake to the Litis River to carry off the surplus water. This job had taken thirty thousand men eleven years to finish. For the dedication of the opening of this tunnel, Claudius decided to stage a fight between two navies on the lake. The galleys previously used in such engagements had been small craft with only one bank of oars. For this fight, there were to be twenty-four triremes (three banks of oars), all regulation ocean-going warships — and twenty-six biremes (double bank). This armada was divided into two fleets of twenty-five ships each and manned by nineteen hundred criminals under the command of two famous gladiators. One fleet was to represent the Rhodians and the other the Sicilians and both groups wore the appropriate costumes.
In fact the book is much less about gladiators and more about the people who arranged fights with animals in the arena, particularly the arrangements for torture and execution by damnatio ad bestias. Mannix has a bit of a fixation with the unpleasant things a trained animal can do to a woman prisoner. But he also makes interesting comparisons with the showmanship of the twentieth century, and although it’s really not all that interesting a subject he covers it breezily enough.
The next Oscar-winning film is A Beautiful Mind; but before we get there, it’s going to be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Fellowship of the Ring.
Excitement last night. The sirens went early and some of the chars who clean offices in the City sheltered in the crypt with us. One of them woke me out of a sound sleep, going like an air raid siren. Seems she'd seen a mouse. We had to go whacking at tombs and under the cots with a rubber boot to persuade her it was gone. Obviously what the history department had in mind: murdering mice.
"Fire Watch" by Connie Willis won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette presented in 1983; it also won the SF Chronicle Award. "Fire Watch" is set in almost the same universe as Willis' later novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog"Fire Watch" is sent to guard St Paul's in 1940 during the Blitz, rather than to accompany St Paul as he had anticipated. This failure to communicate vital information is a recurring theme in Willis' work; think of the incapacitated computer technician in Doomsday Book, the appalling interdepartmental assistant in Bellwether, the messages which may or may not be from the dead in Lincoln's Dreams, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage. In this case it seems a little odd that the narrator claims to have spent four years preparing for the wrong mission, and I was thrown by his reference to the time he'd wasted learning Latin – surely Greek would have been more appropriate? – but most readers are prepared to go with the flow.
Another Willis theme that one can track from "Fire Watch" through most of her later work is death; horrible, unfair, untimely death. Death is a major player in all the above-mentioned books except the comedic To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether. Death and the imminent threat of death are ever present in the London of the Blitz; every relationship the narrator forms is coloured by the knowledge that death is quite possibly just around the corner. The narrator knows, as the citizens of London do not, that St Paul's Cathedral will survive the Blitz but be destroyed in a surprise terrorist attack by Communists in 2007. (In 1982, Communist attacks on Western cities were plausible, even if the idea that major buildings could be utterly destroyed in single acts of terrorism still seemed far-fetched.)
For me, however, no matter how convincing Willis' portrayal of the Blitz or how moving her sense of the impermanence of it all, the entire story is completely ruined by the implausibility of 21st century Oxford. The narrator, who is a final year undergraduate, has a room-mate called Kivrin, a woman graduate student. In our world, Oxbridge student accommodation practices are completely different; individual accommodation rather than room sharing is prevalent; it is rare to get an opposite-sex couple sharing accommodation unless they are sexual partners (which does not seem to be the case here); it is almost unheard-of for graduate students to share with undergraduates (because their fees are different, their expected time of residence in the college is different, and they basically don't want to). On top of that, the narrator refers to himself as a "history major"; I don't know any UK or Irish university which uses the term "major" in that sense, and I confidently predict that even if it becomes fashionable in the future Oxford will be among the last to adopt it.
The result was that I spent most of the story picking up on the deliberate hints about the fate of St Paul's and at the same time wondering what the author was trying to hint about the fate of Oxford. This sort of thing happens all the time including in some of my favourite writing – in Mary Gentle's Ash, A Secret History, the historically inappropriate Gregorian calendar is used, for instance; or indeed Shakespeare has striking clocks in Julius Caesar, followed by Cleopatra playing billiards and wearing a corset – but in this case I just couldn't overlook it. By making her 21st Oxford so similar to yer standard 20th century US campus, Willis no doubt intended to propel her readers from a familiar environment into an alien war-torn city, and it probably succeeds for most of them. For this Oxbridge graduate who grew up in Belfast, it just didn't work that way.
This time around, I was even more infuriated by the academic setting. The idea that someone would spend four years preparing for (and being prepared for) the wrong mission is simply ridiculous; the investment of resources for a time trip is surely significant enough to make certain that the person sent back in time is fully prepared for their environment. On top of that, it's not even very clear what the mission is in the first place; can the narrator change the course of time, or not? If not, what's the point? It's a story where Willis has written a heart-wrenchingly sentimental account of a confected history, and it worked for Hugo and Nebula voters, but not for me in 2002 or on rereading in 2021.
"Swarm" by Bruce Sterling was also on both Hugo and Nebula ballots. Also on the Hugo ballot were "Nightlife", by Phyllis Eisenstein; "Pawn's Gambit", by Timothy Zahn; and "Aquila" by Somtow Sucharitkul. Also on the Nebula ballot were "Myths of the Near Future", by J. G. Ballard; "Understanding Human Behavior", by Thomas M. Disch; "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson; and "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman", by Joanna Russ. Both "Swarm" and "Burning Chrome" have a very strong record of republication.
The Best Novel awards that year went to Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (Hugo) and No Enemy But Time, by Michael Bishop. The Best Novella awards went to "Souls", by Joanna Russ and "Another Orphan", by John Kessel. The Best Short Story awards went to "Melancholy Elephants", by Spider Robinson and "A Letter From the Clearys", by Connie Willis. The Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo went to Blade Runner.
The following year there were two joint Hugo and Nebula winners, "Blood Music" by Greg Bear (the original short rather than the novel) and Startide Rising by David Brin, so I'll get to them next.
Fri, 10:45: Class Doctor Who spin-off: An oral history of Class 10 years on https://t.co/13jIW98Exr Er, 5 years on actually! The spinoff that didn’t quite take off. Today also 15th anniversary of first episode of Torchwood.
Current Discipline or Corruption, by Konstantin Stanislavsky Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan Splinters and the Wolves of Winter, by William Whyte Those About to Die, by Daniel P. Mannix
Last books finished Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh Free Speeches, by Denis Kitchen, Nadine Strossen, Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller The Ryans of Inch and Their World: A Catholic Gentry Family from Dispossession to Integration, c.1650-1831, by Richard John Fitzpatrick (PhD thesis) The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson Splinters and the Impolite President, by William Whyte Axiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis
Next books Day of the Dead, by Neil Gaiman Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright
‘Evening clothes were a class symbol, and it was a crime to spend money on useless luxuries when people as good as oneself were starving!’ Sebastian knew in advance what his father’s arguments would be. But behind the arguments was the man—dominating and righteous, hard on others because even harder on himself. If the man were approached in the right way, perhaps the arguments would not be pressed home to their logical conclusion. The great thing, Sebastian had learnt from long and bitter experience, was never to seem too anxious or insistent. He must ask for the dinner jacket—but in such a way that his father wouldn’t think that he really longed for it. That, he knew, would be to invite a refusal—nominally, of course, on the score of economy and socialist ethics, but really, he had come to suspect, because his father took a certain pleasure in thwarting the too explicit manifestations of desire. If he managed to avoid the pitfall of over-eagerness, perhaps he would be able to talk his father out of the other, avowable reasons for refusal. But it would take good acting to bring it off, and a lot of finesse, and above all that presence of mind in which, at moments of crisis, he was always so woefully lacking. But perhaps if he worked out a plan of campaign in advance, a piece of brilliant and inspired strategy …
I had got this last year on the basis that it had been published in 1944 and might therefore feature on that year's Retro Hugo list (I was deputy administrator). In the end it got only four votes (though another 1.5 nominating points would have seen it on the ballot). But in fact it's not very sfnal, the non-realistic bit being a character who dies about half way through and then tries to communicate with the living, to no avail. It's also not terribly interesting, being a story of beautiful and selfish teenager Sebastian who tries to slake his lusts with older women and also get a dinner jacket from his leftie London father and his rich uncle in Italy. Huxley probably thought he was being funny, but the humour has not really lasted. You can get it here.
I had this (incorrectly as it turns out) at the top of my unread sf books pile, but also at the top of my bought-in-2020 pile. Next on those lists respectively are Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, and Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright.
Wed, 19:17: RT @BCommNI: We have now published our initial proposals for UK Parliamentary constituencies in NI. You can read the proposals and find out…
Wed, 21:10: For no particular reason: For no particular reason: ‘The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered’ The book of my enemy has been remaindered And I am pleased. In vast quantities it has been remaindered Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
Dashing around London as fast as good horses and a carriage could take them from one famous sight to another, they visited St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, and the Royal Academy, then Windsor, Bath, Oxford, and Cambridge, where the new astronomical observatory made a great impression on John Quincy. They attended art galleries and theaters. At Westminster Abbey, John Quincy was overwhelmed with “Awe and Veneration” at the monuments to the great poets, especially the inscriptions, the quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the invocation “O rare Ben Jonson.” At Drury Lane and Covent Garden, he reveled in every sort of play, from Shakespeare to Tom Thumb. His theater of the mind became a theater of the stage. The monuments to great warriors struck a different chord, for how much to love and how much to hate England was both a personal and a political negotiation. With his father, he attended the opening of Parliament. The king “made his most gracious speech from the Throne: All the Peers were in their Robes which are scarlet and white: the King’s and the Prince of Wales’s were of purple velvet.” His father years later published an account of their reception on entering the lobby of the House of Lords. The usher appeared “in the room with his long staff, and roared out with a very loud voice, ‘Where is Mr. Adams, Lord Mansfield’s friend!’; I frankly avowed myself Lord Mansfield’s friend, and was politely conducted to my place.” That distinguished jurist had not too long before told “that same house of lords, ‘My Lords, if you do not kill him, he will kill you.’” It was great political theater, and a lesson for John Quincy about the conduct and courtesies of international relations: an enemy today can become a friend tomorrow.
Really interesting book about one of the less successful American presidents, at least considered as a president – only the second (after his own father) to fail to be re-elected. But John Quincy Adams had a long political career both behind him and, uniquely, ahead of him apart from his four not very happy years in the White House; he had been the USA's diplomatic representative to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom, a United States senator, and Secretary of State before becoming president, and then after losing re-election in 1828, went on to serve in the House of Representatives from 1831 until he had a fatal stroke at his desk in the chamber in 1848. (No living US President has ever served in the US House of Representatives; the last were the elder Bush, who served two terms more than fifty years ago, and Gerald Ford, who was a Congressman from 1949 to 1973.)
The climax of his career came in 1841, a decade after he had left the White House, when he defended the captured slaves who had taken control of the Spanish slave ship Amistad and subsequently been captured by the US coastguard; he successfully convinced the Supreme Court that the treaty with Spain which he himself had negotiated did not apply here, and exposed some embarrassing inconsistencies in the paperwork supplied by the Executive branch, as a result of which the Africans were liebrated back to Africa. He had always been viscerally opposed to slavery, though felt he could not say so out loud until near the end of his career.
Adams, like his father, left a lot of writing behind, including a lot of poetry which Kaplan integrates into the narrative. A lot of it is written to his deeply loved wife Louisa, who was born and brought up in London, though by American parents; she was the only First Lady born outside what are now the United States before Melania Trump. He was in St Petersburg during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. He negotiated the Spanish cession of Florida to the United States. He wasn't a good party politician, which is why he barely scraped into office in the Presidency (the only President apart from Jefferson to be elected by the House due to lack of majority in the electoral college). But his intellectual ability was clearly valued even by those who opposed him politically.
Tue, 12:56: Brexit isn’t done – and Boris Johnson can’t answer the Irish Question https://t.co/HeFx9PmHri “Boris Johnson has no interest in Northern Ireland. He can win no votes there. There is scant evidence of him ever having visited the province before he achieved high office. He once c…
Tue, 13:11: RT @NicholasPegg: I don’t know about you, but I’m appreciating all the lectures on kindness from a government which in recent months has be…
Tue, 16:05: When God was an alpha male: How the Hebrew deity evolved from predatory strongman to a friend to human frailty https://t.co/JWAgN5hd7G Good review by Rowan Williams of what sounds like a good book.
‘Are you OK?’ Melissa asked in an undertone, reaching over to squeeze my hand.
A rather good novel about young folks in an extended contemporary Dublin middle-class family, who find a mysterious death from ten years ago coming back to haunt them. The somewhat clueless narrator is very well portrayed; as a straight man, he is oblivious to the challenges faced by his two cousins, one gay and one a mother of two, and only gradually develops a clue. It's weird to realise that Gen Z have always been deep into social media as part of their world. The end did not quite work for me, but the rest did; and Dublin as a place is very well observed. You can get it here.
This was my top unread book by a woman and my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next on the first of those piles is The Empire of Gold, by S. A Chakraborty, and on the second it's Summer, by Ali Smith.