November 2021 books

Non-fiction 6 (YTD 44)
Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright
Building Healthy Boundaries: An Over-giver’s Guide to Knowing When to Say ‘Yes’ and How to Say ‘No’ in Relationships, by Helen Snape
Image of the Fendahl, by Simon Bucher-Jones
Ghost Light, by Jonathan Dennis
A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar
Exploding School to Pieces: Growing Up With Pop Culture In the 1970s, by Mick Deal – did not finish

Non-genre 3 (YTD 27)
The Ice Cream Army, by Jessica Gregson
Summer, by Ali Smith
Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney

Poetry 1 (YTD 5)
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J R R Tolkien, ed. Verlyn Flieger

SF 13 (YTD 122)
Not Before Sundown, by Johanna Sinisalo
The Empire of Gold, by S.A. Chakraborty – did not finish
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Burning God, by R.F. Kuang
Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman
Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve
River of Gods, by Ian McDonald
Waste Tide, by Qiufan Chen
Iron Council, by China Miéville – did not finish
One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright
The Last Witness, by K.J. Parker [Tom Holt]
The Last Defender of Camelot, by Roger Zelazny (2002) – did not finish
Shanghai Sparrow, by Gaie Sebold

Doctor Who 5 (YTD 23, 31 inc comics and non-fiction)
The Book of the War, ed. Lawrence Miles
The HAVOC Files 3, ed. Andy Frankham-Allen
The Witchfinders, by Joy Wilkinson
Doctor Who and the Image of the Fendahl, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who – Ghost Light, by Marc Platt

Comics 3 (YTD 37)
Sweeney Todd & Other Stories, by Neil Gaiman
The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn
Le dernier Atlas, Tome 3, by Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval

7,300 pages (YTD 67,900)
12/31 (YTD 111/262) by non-male writers (Snape, Nasar, Gregson, Smith, Rooney, Flieger, Sinisalo, Chakraborty, Kuang, Sebold, Wilkinson, Coryn; Gwen de Bonneval is male)
4/31 (YTD 41/262) by PoC (Nasar, Chakraborty, Kuang, Chen)
5/31 rereads (YTD 31/262) – Camouflage, River of Gods, Iron Council, Doctor Who and the Image of the Fendahl, Doctor Who – Ghost Light

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine
Ann Veronica, by H. G. Wells
Lying Under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro

Coming soon (perhaps)
The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend
"Blood Music", by Greg Bear
An Introduction to the Gospel of John, by Raymond E. Brown
An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett
Seven Deadly Sins, by Neil Gaiman
The 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene
A Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff, by Neil Gaiman
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Jani and the Greater Game, by Eric Brown
Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver
Calvin, by F. Bruce Gordon
Staring At The Sun, by Julian Barnes
Once & Future Vol. 2, by Kieron Gillen et al
Tower, by Nigel Jones
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Scherven, by Erik De Graaf
The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest
A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg
The War in the Air, by H. G. Wells

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February 2014 books

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, my Swedish intern L left and was replaced by another L, this time English. Swedish L has gone on to a career in international affairs, and announced her first pregnancy a couple of weeks ago. Work otherwise continued to be grim. My only trip that month was to London for a Worldcon planning meeting, with the evening of the 28th seeing the start of the Jonathan Ross debacle, probably the worst media storm any Worldcon has ever had to face.

Here's B at the ruined church that she loves in Tienen:

I read 19 books that month:

Non-fiction 5 (YTD 9)

Double Down, by Mark Halperin and John Heileman
Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, by Damien Broderick and Paul di Filippo
Jane Austen, by Claire Tomalin
The Kindness of Strangers, by Kate Adie
The Unfolding Of Language, by Guy Deutscher

Fiction (non-sf) 2 (YTD 6)
Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard
The Snowman, by Jo Nesbø

SF (non-Who) 6 (YTD 12)
Crowe's Requiem, by Mike McCormack
God's War, by Kameron Hurley
The Shining, by Stephen King
Evening's Empires, by Paul McAuley
Ack-Ack Macaque, by Gareth L. Powell
The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest

Doctor Who 6 (YTD 11)
Speed of Flight, by Paul Leonard
GodEngine, by Craig Hinton
The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, by Lawrence Miles
The Forever Trap, by Dan Abnett
Into the Nowhere, by Jenny Colgan
Keeping Up With the Joneses, by Nick Harkaway

6,300 pages (YTD 12,800)
4/19 (YTD 13/40) by women (Tomalin, Adie, Hurley, Colgan)
0/19 (YTD 1/40) by PoC

The best of these were J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, which you can get here, and Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen, which you can get here. None particularly awful. 

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Doctor Who: The Witchfinders, by Joy Wilkinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Right now, it was hurtling on a course towards Westminster Abbey on the bright, frost-flowered morning of 15 January 1559. After their tangle with sinister robots and exploding bubble-wrap at Kerblam!, the whole fam favoured a trip into a tech-free era, far enough back to not jeopardise the existence of any close relatives, but somewhere civilised enough to have decent grub and no cesspits to mess up Ryan's new trainers. Graham suggested the coronation of Elizabeth I, as the feast and flooring were bound to be top notch, and also because his recording of Cate Blanchett's film Elizabeth had clashed with his series-linked Bake Off repeats, so it seemed easier to hop back and watch the real deal rather than hunt down a DVD.

This is actually the first novelisation of any Thirteenth Doctor story to be published. I was one of the relatively few who really did not appreciate the televised story it is based on, writing:

This one also fell very flat for me, my personal low point of the series, though a lot of people seem to have loved it; it simply had too many egregious historical errors for me to enjoy it. I was reminded of my similarly hostile reaction to The Plotters, a Who spinoff novel set in the same historical period. Alan Cumming is clearly having great fun as King James; perhaps a bit too much.

I'm glad to say that I liked the novelisation a bit more. As is often the case when bulking out a 50-minute script to 178 pages of novel, Wilkinson has used the extra latitude to give a lot more depth to her setting and characters – particularly the villainous Becka Savage, whose means and motivation are made a lot clearer. She also has the Doctor discovering that being treated as a woman isn't much fun. And the ending is changed, tying in to wider Who continuity. Definitely worth getting hold of, for a Who fan. Not really sure I could recommend to others! You can get it here.

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The Ice Cream Army, by Jessica Gregson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Irfan had been quieter than usual for a couple of weeks. As the ship ploughed on, southbound and unstoppable, he’d seemed paler, too, and while Irfan had always coughed for as long as Halim could remember, a dry-throated tickle that flared up when he was nervous or embarrassed, the racking, shuddering cough that he had picked up on the ship was new, a cough that seemed to rattle his membranes and tear him up from the inside out. Irfan had assured him that he was perfectly fine, it was just a bit of a cough, it was the change of environment and the dusty, thick-aired dormitory, and Halim had believed him because he’d wanted to believe him, despite his friend’s uncharacteristic lethargy, his increasing reluctance to explore the ports when the ship docked, with the unconvincing excuse that he wanted to stay on the boat and study the English primer he’d filched off one of the Arab boys when his back was turned. That morning, when they had docked in Ceylon, it had been Halim urging Irfan to come and investigate the docks, instead of the other way round. Irfan, sitting, sweating, on the over-bright deck, had just shaken his head, and when Halim insisted, increasingly concerned, Irfan had just grinned wearily and told Halim to tell him all about it later, and when Halim did return, hours later, having swarmed around the port with a haphazard collection of Italian and Egyptian boys, resolutely refusing to worry, he had found Irfan in the exact same position that he’d left him in the English primer, tellingly propped open at the same page Halim and Irfan had been poring over the night before. In all his life; Halim had never known Irfan to sit still for minutes at a time, let alone hours, and he finally collected his courage and demanded to know what was wrong.

Jess is about to publish her third novel, so it’s just as well that I’ve finally caught up with her second. This is an intensely told tale of two Turkish ice-cream sellers and the young Irish woman who befriends them in the Australian outback during the first world war. Things go downhill very rapidly after Gallipoli – even the Turks’ fellow Muslims, mostly Arabs from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, start to shun them – and the situation accelerates to a dramatic ending based on a real historical incident. A grim story told with a very human touch. You can get it here.

I’m sorry to say that this was the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Lying Under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro.

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COVID, day 10 and 620 days of plague

Not a lot better today in fact, and I’ve been out of bed less than yesterday. I am coughing a bit more but I’ll take that as a good sign as my lungs start to clear themselves. My oxidation level is as good as it’s been, usually around 94%. But I think the story from here is going to be one of dull slow recovery, so I don’t propose to keep up my daily updates after today.

Meanwhile poor B has had a positive diagnosis. It is impressive that her care home has managed to hold the line as long as they did in such a high risk environment. But it cannot be pleasant for her.

As expected, the Belgian infection rates are the worst they have ever been and still climbing, but the other key numbers – deaths, hospitalisations, ICU occupancy – are still some way below previous peaks. I have not really enjoyed becoming part of the statistics.

My kind work colleagues have sent me A Desolation Called Peace to read. I expect I will finish it fairly quickly. Thank you, chaps.

Chicago (2002)

Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002, and five others: Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones, beating fellow cast member Queen Latifah), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It lost in another six categories, two of them to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. That year’s Hugo and Nebula winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, also won two Oscars that year.

The other four Oscar nominees were The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which I have of course seen, and Gangs of New York, The Hours and The Pianist, which I haven’t. This was a year when I was settling into a new job and preparing for our third child’s arrival; the only other 2002 films I have seen are Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Minority Report, Die Another Day, Men in Black II, Austin Powers in Goldmember and Scooby Doo. Naming no names, I know someone who watched Scooby Doo in late pregnancy and laughed so much that she went into labour. I think they are all entertaining enough but none stands out for me. IMDB users rank Chicago 25th on one ranking and 28th on the other, behind most films mentioned above. Here’s a trailer.


Slightly surprisingly, none of the cast had been in previous Oscar-winning or Hugo/Nebula-winning films, or (less surprisingly) in Doctor Who.

It is a story about murderesses awaiting trial in 1920s Chicago. In some ways it is a blast from the past. Four of the eight winners from 1961 to 1968 were musicals; this is the first one since then. Seven of the eight from 1967 to 1974 were about crime and law enforcement; the only other one since then was The Silence of the Lambs.

I have a bad case of COVID, so I’m not going to go into my usual depth. I did enjoy Chicago. However the erotic and sexualised dancing was somewhat lost on me last week; I think my libido has not been lower since I hit puberty. I was really struck at how well the old classics All That Jazz and Razzle-Dazzle were integrated into the script, and then discovered that both songs actually originated with the 1975 stage show of Chicago. They must have penetrated popular culture really quickly; I am sure I remember Morecambe and Wise doing a routine to at least one of them, which must have been very soon after. The West End show ran from 1979 to 1980.


The other song that really made me sit up was the Cell Block Tango:


Renee Zellweger as the main character gets only one really good song, with Catherine Zeta-Jones:


Also shoutout to Queen Latifa, Lucy Liu and John C. Reilly for their roles.

Sure, Toronto doesn’t look much like Chicago, and one may object that in real life, no woman was executed by the state of Illinois between 1845 and 1962. But that’s beside the point. The film is not at all subtle in calling out the celebrification of criminals and the flaws of a justice system driven by showmanship. Watching it in the week of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, I felt the point just as relevant today as in 2002, or when the musical came out in 1975, or when the original play was written in 1926.

I’m putting it about a third of the way down my ranking, just below that other Chicago-set film, The Sting, and ahead of The English Patient.

Next up is the only film to win Oscar, Hugo and Nebula. (But first, The Two Towers.)

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

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Friday reading

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Shanghai Sparrow, by Gaie Sebold
Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney
The Last Defender of Camelot, by Roger Zelazny (the 2002 collection, not the 1980s one of the same name)

Last books finished
Exploding School to Pieces: Growing Up With Pop Culture In the 1970s, by Mick Deal – did not finish
Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve
The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, by Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn
River of Gods, by Ian McDonald
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J R R Tolkien, ed. Verlyn Flieger
Waste Tide, by Qiufan Chen
Iron Council, by China Miéville – did not finish
One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright
The Last Witness, by K. J. Parker

Next books
Le dernier Atlas, Tome 3, by Fabien Vehlmann
Lying Under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro

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The HAVOC Files 3, ed. Andy Frankham-Allen

(This was the last review I had written before I went down with COVID. if you have been wondering how I kept up my daily book posts for the last week, it's because they had all been written some time before…)

Second paragraph of third story ("Eve of the Fomorians", by Robert Mammone):

All Danny saw was the faintest edge of the moon: pale and ghostly and sickle sharp, sailing dreamily through the gathering clouds. The faint hiss of waves running onto the shingle beach reached him, as did the lonely clanging of the buoy in the harbour, nodding and bowing with the tide.

Another collection of really strong short stories in the Lethbridge-Stewart continuity. I think my pick would be the first, "The Bledoe Cadets and the Bald Man of Pengriffen", by Tim Gambrell, a tale from the Brigadier's childhood with, as it turns out, no sfnal elements, but they are all good, requiring not too much familiarity with the surrounding novels. You can get it here.

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COVID, day 9

Well, I am very glad to say that I feel a bit better today, and spent most of the afternoon downstairs. F ventured forth to the supermarket, armed only with a long shopping list, but seems to have survived the experience.

I did some mild blogging and even cleared this morning’s work emails, though that still leaves me more than a week in arrears. I generally write my book posts a couple of weeks in advance; tonight’s is the last that was written before I got the bug. But I expect to be able to do some catching up at the weekend, and the odds are that I will be fit for work on Monday.

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COVID, day 8

Nothing drastic to report, after yesterday’s exciting adventure. I am 54 years old, and have not had to spend a night in hospital since my parents brought me home from the maternity ward. That record still stands, just.

The good news is that my appetite has returned – I had the same dinner as the rest of the family, for the first time in a week – and without going into detail, my digestive system seems to be back on track as well. These are the first real upticks I have had since I went down with the bug, but I am still very tired and again spent the day in bed.

A couple of people have asked what medication I am taking. Very little, is the answer. Belgian clinical guidance is to take the maximum safe level of paracetamol (four grammes a day), and I have combined that with advice from my old friend Emma in Stroud to take an aspirin daily to deter clotting. (And that may have worked.) Otherwise, a cup of coffee in the morning, herbal tea through the day, and most crucial of all, a hot water bottle to keep me warm in bed. I also have a TENS machine for micro massage. (Thanks to Esther for letting me try hers out when we were in Buxton.)

And I have been lucky, I know. Another old friend in Antwerp, a year and a half younger than me, is in intensive care with COVID. We had a damn good lunch together just six weeks ago. Wishing him well.

Building Healthy Boundaries: An Over-giver’s Guide, by Helen Snape

Full title: Building Healthy Boundaries: An Over-giver’s Guide to Knowing When to Say ‘Yes’ and How to Say ‘No’ in Relationships.

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The one topic that I get asked about time and time again from my clients is how to set boundaries and how to say 'No'. My dearest wish is that you will read this book and it will give you both hope that you too can set healthy boundaries and it will give you practical steps to take to help you achieve that.

A very succinct (28 pages) self-help book for people who have difficulty with boundaries in their relationships, and who as a result become vulnerable to abusive partners. The author (who is known to me personally) endured an abusive marriage for many years, and eventually realised that she had to get out for her own mental survival; and she has converted that awful personal experience into a new career as a coach and counsellor. She particularly concentrates on the problem of asserting yourself and your own interests in the face of a spouse who has no interest in your own welfare. It's not a situation I have directly experienced myself, but this is a useful little text that I might share with people who I suspect might need it. (And do contact me if you think you might know such a person.) You can get it for free here.

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COVID, day 7.1: a trip to hospital

I am fine (ish). I spent five hours last night in the local hospital, but they released me without immediate need for further treatment, so I am back at home again.

Late yesterday evening, my pulse oximeter was giving a reading of 92%, which is below ideal, and I had a fever. Anne is a doctor’s daughter, checked the official Belgian clinical guidance, and got me to call the duty doctor who recommended that we go straight to hospital. So I had five somewhat dazed hours on a comfortable enough bed, being prodded, pricked and scanned; blood tests, EKG, lung scans.

The lung scans were particularly aimed at checking my vulnerability to a pulmonary embolism. I take a rather keen interest in this for three reasons:

  1. Embolism and thrombosis are the biggest killers of COVID patients in hospitals, because the virus makes your blood more likely to clot unhelpfully. In normal times, they are usually caused by blood clots from elsewhere in the body making it to the lungs; with COVID, the clots are already there.
  2. More personally, last year I was (successfully) advising the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis on how to get the World Health Organisation to recommend thrombosis risk screening in global clinical guidance for all new COVID patients in hospitals (I did not mention it at the time, but this was part of my motivation for going to Geneva in July 2020, where I directly lobbied ambassadors on the issue).
  3. Even more personally, my grandmother died of a pulmonary embolism at 31 in 1946, more than twenty years before I was born, leaving four small children, one a new baby. (My great-aunt, at 105, says that my son F has a real look of his great-grandmother, her sister who has been dead now for 75 years.)

So I was perfectly happy for them to take all the time they needed to assess the risks. In the end though, while my lungs are indeed speckled with COVID (and I didn’t need a scan to tell me that) the risk of clots seems to be low, which is a relief.

The other significant extra risk is of secondary infection, but they ruled that out with the first set of blood tests. Again, a relief.

So I was sent home at 2.30 am, with instructions to come straight back if I experience serious breathing difficulties, and/or if the oximeter reading drops below 90%. And I have just woken up.

COVID, day 7

There really isn’t much new to say today. I am still feeling pretty much the same, horizontal most of the time and sleeping a lot. We have been regularly checking in with the oximeter which shows my oxygen levels just in the not-too-worrying zone. The first measurement I took this morning was definitely on the low side, but after my first cup of coffee it went back into the safe zone, and has stayed there.

The Belgian numbers are very bad. As of this morning the infection rate is a hair below the peak of last October/November, but increasing at 54% a week, so will certainly blow through that record tomorrow or Friday. More than 1% of the Belgian population has had a positive diagnosis in the last seven days reported. The health services are officially overwhelmed. F had his latest test today and had to queue for half an hour. I will be cautious of course, but I’m also not going to put the system under further strain unnecessarily.

This is a real bore.

The Book of the War, ed. Lawrence Miles

Second paragraph of first entry under C ("Caldera"):

In itself the caldera wouldn't appear to be a remarkable site. Though now covered over, at first glance it would seem to be little more than an absence, where the Yssgaroth incursion ate away all local matter and the Houses later surrounded the area with defences and utilities of their own devising. But its position is key. Anything exert-ing an influence on the site of the caldera will, by definition, affect the rest of history. It's the focal point not just of time but of the Houses' culture: as the Protocols of the Great Houses are worked into the very nature of history, coded into every one of the "threads" which criss-cross the Spiral Politic, then more than any other location the caldera is the centre-point of all that the Houses know and all that the Houses are. Theoretically, from here everything about the Houses – their past, their future, their collective memory, even their language – could be manipulated. The Houses themselves have never risked any significant experimentation, but during the War Era at least one abortive attempt was made to introduce foreign matter to this empty space at the heart of the oldest civilisation. That the site might be vulnerable is a constant worry to the ruling Houses, something which may have been a factor in the decision to construct the Nine Homeworlds shortly before the War began.

The first in the series of Faction Paradox Doctor Who spinoff books, this is supposedly an encyclopedia of things in the Faction Paradox world which sort of comes together to make a story or several stories (an approach also used by Christopher Priest in The Islanders). I admit I did find it all pretty confusing, but it was engaging enough that I've got hold of the next few volumes in the series and will start getting through them at the rate of one a month for the next while. This is not easy to get hold of.

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January 2014 books

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.

A month when I don't appear to have travelled outside Belgium. A work trip to Barcelona was cancelled at the last moment. (Work continued to be pretty grim.) I attended the showdown between Olli Rehn and Guy Verhofstadt, which ended with sweetness and light.

I read 21 books in January 2014. From this month on I started to post the covers of (most of) the books Iread in my monthly roundups, so I'm keeping them for the reprises.

Non-fiction 4
About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who, 2005-2006; Series 1 & 2, by Tat Wood
Amsterdam, by Russell Shorto
British Interventions in Early Modern Ireland, eds Ciaran Brady and Jane Ohlmeyer
Do Elephants Ever Forget?, by Guy Campbell

Fiction (non-genre) 4
Saints of the Shadow Bible, by Ian Rankin
The Secret River, by Kate Grenville
Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner
The Saint Zita Society, by Ruth Rendell

Sf (non-Who) 6
The Next Generation, vol ii and vol iii, by John Francis Maguire
Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
Walk to the End of the World, by Suzy McKee Charnas
Motherlines, by Suzy McKee Charnas

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

Doctor Who 5
Last of the Gaderene, by Mark Gatiss
Happy Endings, by Paul Cornell
Grimm Reality by Simon Bucher-Jones and Kelly Hale
Pest Control, by Peter Anghelides
The Death Pit. by A.L. Kennedy

Comics 2
With The Light vol 6, by Keiko Tobe
The Rabbi's Cat v2, by Joann Sfarr

~6,500 pages
9/21 by women (Ohlmeyer, Grenville, Rendell, 2xCharnas, Ohlmeyer, Hale, Kennedy, Tobe)
1/21 by PoC (Tobe, though possibly I should count Sfarr too)

No particularly awful books this month, and four good ones:

COVID, day 6

Not much change today – still horizontal, still on tea and painkillers, still not much appetite (or sense of taste or smell). But a couple of things to cheer me up.

First off, we got an oximeter from the local pharmacy, and it’s very reassuring to have a device you can stick your finger in to find out if you are just sick or Very Sick. Belgian advice is that you seek further medical help if the oxidation number is consistently at or below 93%. I’m just above that, consistently at around 94%. Which is not great, but could be worse. (I am not really interested in hearing if your local guidance is different.)

Second, I am glad to say that I checked with London colleagues, after my two days in the office there last week, including two working lunches, and nobody else has had a positive diagnosis. (Nor has my dinner date on Monday night.) So it looks like the only other person I have infected is Anne. Which sucks for both of us, but again, it could have been worse.

But I don’t think I will be up and about again before the weekend, and I don’t think I will be up for a planned trip to Portugal for SMOFCon at the end of next week, so alas will have to cancel that.

Meanwhile our Brussels office has gone to teleworking four days a week, in line with the latest restrictions, which obviously makes no difference to me this week anyway. Supposedly this is just for the next three weeks. We’ll see…

My tweets

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Paul: A Biography, by Tom Wright

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As we shall see later, Paul is writing this [Galatians 1:15-17] in his own defense. He has apparently been accused of getting his "gospel" secondhand from the Jerusalem apostles. His opponents are therefore going over his head and appealing to Peter, James, and the rest, like someone objecting to the way a band was playing a cover from an old Beatles song and phoning up Paul McCartney himself to check on how it should really be played. Paul is therefore insisting that his message was his own; he had gotten it from Jesus himself, not from other members of the movement. It had come, he says, "through an unveiling of Jesus the Messiah."2 "The message" in question was not, after all, a theory, a new bit of teaching, or even details of how someone might be "saved." "The message" was the news about Jesus himself: he was raised from the dead, he was therefore Israel's Messiah, he was the Lord of the world. All of that was "given" to Paul on the road to Damascus. Knowing Israel's scriptures as he did, he didn't need anybody else to explain what it all meant. Start with the scriptural story, place the crucified and risen Jesus at the climax of the story, and the meaning, though unexpected and shocking, is not in doubt. That is the point he is making.
2 Gal. 1:12

This book by the former Bishop of Durham is meant to be a popular biography of the Apostle Paul, tracing his voyages, both intellectual and across the Eastern Mediterranean, in the middle part of the first century AD. St Paul is probably the most important historical figure in Christianity apart from Jesus Christ, and it's therefore of interest to get a better understanding of what he was actually trying to do. We are impeded by the fact that there is no contemporary record of his existence outside the New Testament, where he is a key character in the Acts of the Apostles and traditionally regarded as the author of a dozen or so of the Epistles, with most modern scholars agreeing that he really did write more than half of them. We are also impeded by the fact that while a lot of his surviving writing seems to be arguing against other lines of thought inside and outside the early Christian community, we barely know what the other side really said because only Paul's side of the argument survives.

Faced with all of this, it's a difficult task to make sense of the story for the non-specialist reader, and for this non-specialist reader, it didn't quite come together. I got that Paul's particular innovations were to cast Jesus as a fulfiller of Jewish tradition, and to embrace non-Jews in Christianity. I didn't really get the basics of what Paul thought the faith basis of Christianity is – I felt that Wright was striving to avoid being trapped in the traditional Protestant v Catholic debate here and ended up not saying all that much. I think there is probably more to be said about Paul's views on women, especially women in ministry, which I suspect were more modern than most people like to believe. I did like the nitty-gritty (if largely imagined) detail of Paul continuing to ply his trade as a maker and repairer of tents while also evangelising the Levant. I was frustrated that Wright presents very little of other scholars' views, and gives no recommendations for further reading.

The single most interesting thing about St Paul is that he had a sudden conversion experience one day while travelling to Damascus, probably in the mid-30s, only a few years after the Crucifixion. Until then, he had been colluding in the persecution of Christians (not yet called that of course) by Jewish and Roman authorities. But in that moment on the road, he experienced the direct presence of Jesus, was struck blind for several days, and then felt compelled to preach Christianity for the rest of his life (probably about thirty years). It's pretty difficult to explain, let alone explain away, and Wright doesn't really try. Of course it comes near the very start of the story, and we don't know a lot about the end (though apparently his remains have recently been identified).

Anyway, I found this not totally satisfying, but you can get it here.

This was my top unread non-fiction book, and my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next on those piles respectively are The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, and Summer, by Ali Smith.

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COVID, day 5

Well, yesterday was gruesome. Horrible gastric symptoms in the evening; I am a little better today but my appetite has completely disappeared and I have not yet got out of bed.

It has also become clear how I got infected last weekend. No blame at all to the person who I caught it from; we took all sensible precautions, but in the end it’s risk reduction and not elimination.

Anne is a lot better than me, but still very far from 100%. We are both better off then the husband of a friend who died of Covid, aged 62, in just five days earlier this year. But it’s going to be another few days before I’m fit to work again.

My tweets

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COVID, day 4

Woke up this morning with bad headache and cough. Anne’s positive results came through, and indeed I found mine on the website. She thinks she is improving; I am definitely not – very bad gastric symptoms this evening. When this is all over my weight will have improved!

2021 Worldcon Business Meeting agenda: my comments

The draft agenda for this year's WSFS Business Meeting is out. For well-known reasons, I will not be in DC myself, but I have the following observations.

A.1.1: Mark Protection Committee – I would like to be a candidate for the Mark Protection Committee, which will elect six members in DC, three for two-year terms and three for three-year terms. I like to think that my professional experience in public affairs could be an asset to the MPC. I would need a proposer and seconder who will (unlike me) be present in DC. Expressions of interest welcome. Edited to add: Apparently only a proposer is necessary.

A.2.1: Nitpicking & Flyspecking Committee – appears to be doing an excellent job. Commentary on individual proposals below.

A.2.2: Worldcon Runners Guide Editorial Committee – This body has never approached me for input. The Hugos section of its WSFS page is very out of date.

A.3.1: Formalization of Long List Entries (FOLLE) Committee – no comment.

A.3.2: Hugo Awards Study Committee – I was one of the original proposers of this committee. I am very disappointed with the results. The only concrete output that it has achieved in four years of existence is the addition of the words “or Comic” to the category title of “Best Graphic Story”. In the meantime other proposed changes have been killed off by referring them to this committee, which has then failed to consider them. I would not support the continuation of this committee’s mandate. I do not blame anyone, especially in the circumstances of the last two years, but I think we have proved that this is not a format that will deliver change.

On the other hand, if it is renewed, I would prefer to continue as a member, and I strongly urge (yet again!) that it takes the reform of the Best Artist categories as a priority. This was the main motivation for my proposing the committee in the first place. It is the single issue that has caused most headaches in my four years of Hugo administration. The Artist category definitions are very out of date, and present a risk to the future reputation of the awards because it would be very easy to make a public and embarrassing mistake. A bit more on this further down.

B: Financial statements – no comment.

C: Standing Rule changes – as yet, nothing to comment on.

D1-D4: extension of eligibility requests – provided these are technically correct I would be inclined to generosity.

D5: swapping the order of “Best Related Work” and “Best Graphic Story or Comic” in the list of Hugo categories – good idea, from the Nitpicking & Flyspecking Committee.

E: Business Passed On – mostly stuff that was passed in Dublin in 2019 and rejected but re-proposed in New Zealand last year, needing ratification in DC to become part of the rules. The first two however are votes on sunset clauses.

E1: making Best Series permanent – as my regular reader knows, I'm not a fan of the Best Series category. I feel it's important that the Hugo Awards represent the best in the genre of the previous year. With the Best Series final ballot, we are being asked to judge between a series that started in 2009, four recent trilogies (one of which has some associated short fiction) and a series of novellas capped by a novel. I don't think it's really comparing like with like, and we're certainly not comparing 2020 with 2020.

In addition, as a conscientious Hugo voter I generally try to read every work on the final ballot every year I have a vote. That's completely impossible with Best Series.

The four winners of Best Series so far have been worthy victors, but I can't see that level of quality being continued indefinitely. No winner can be eligible again; no finalist can be eligible again until another two volumes with 250,000 words have been produced. I think we are already starting to see the well of plausible nominees run dry.

I expect that the Business Meeting, which cares little for the concerns of Hugo administrators, will vote to make it permanent anyway, but I would oppose it if I were there.

E2: making the Lodestar Award permanent – here I go the other way. I was very dubious about introducing yet another category to the burden of administration, but I have to admit that the finalists and winners so far have really added to the quality of the awards. So I’d vote to keep it.

The next five are outputs from the Nitpicking & Flyspecking Committee.

E3: Clarification of Worldcon Powers – simply makes it clear that a Worldcon cannot revoke a previous year’s Hugo Award. I support this clarification.

E4: Disposition of NASFiC Ballot – a technical tidying up of site selection rules which looks OK, but I have no strong feeling about it.

E5: A Problem of Numbers – a welcome update clarifying an apparent discrepancy between a strict reading of the rules and the realities of online Hugo voting. I support this clarification.

E6: The Needs of the One – again clarifies part of the counting rules and codifies existing practice. I support.

E7: That Ticket Has Been Punched – tidies up part of the eligibility requirements for Best Series. As noted above, I would prefer not to have the category anyway, and I don’t have a strong opinion on this amendment.

E8: Keeping Five and Six – this directly reverses a proposal I made in 2019, to return to five finalists per category given that the Puppy emergency is now long over. Oppose.

E9: No Deadline for Nominations Eligibility – this again directly reverses a proposal I made in 2019. If passed, it will also be a big change to voter eligibility for nominating in the 2022 Hugos just two weeks before nominations open. Oppose.

E10: Preserving Supporting Membership Sales for Site Selection – No strong feeling either way. Not sure that this is a problem requiring a solution.

E11: Clear Up the Definition of Public in the Artist Categories Forever – a tweak to the Best Fan Artist definition which I respect because it comes from the community of artists who are directly concerned, but it barely scratches the surface of the bigger problems with the Artist categories. Support faute de mieux.

F: new constitutional amendments

F.1: One Episode Per Series – would restrict TV series to only one episode (rather than the current maximum of two) on the ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. I am very opposed. This would be the Business Meeting going way beyond previous practice in telling voters what they can have on the ballot. It will increase the burden on administrators who will have to contact confused TV executives and acquaint them with the technicalities of Hugo rules. It’s also not clear if a two-episode story (such as the She-Ra story nominated this year) would fall foul of this rule. And basically I don’t see any demand for it; on the contrary, I suspect that most voters think it’s cool that a popular show should have more than one bite of the cherry.

There seems to be no F.2!

F.3-6: more sensible proposals from the Nitpicking & Flyspecking Committee which should go through without dissent. F.4 and F.5 are particularly important to keep Worldcon GDPR-compliant.

F.7: Non-transferability of Voting Rights – I have read this several times and I still do not really understand it, even though it is supposedly making life easier for Hugo administrators.

F.8: Best Audiobook – a proposed new Hugo category. I think it is clear that in general I oppose category inflation. For any new Hugo category proposal, I would like to see evidence 1) that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, 2) that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and 3) that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on. I don’t see a problem here with the third of these criteria (unlike, say, the Best Translation proposals), but not much evidence is presented on the first point, and mere hand-waving on the second.

Again, as my regular reader knows, I’m a huge fan of Big Finish’s output myself, but I have long since reconciled myself to the fact that Big Finish is not getting Hugo nominations because its overlap with Hugo fandom is minimal, and not because it needs its own category. So I would oppose this amendment (or refer it to the Hugo Awards Study Committee, which comes to the same thing). If it were to be taken forward, it would require a lot of definitional tweaking.

That's it so far.

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The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I opened the drawer of my desk and pulled out a small mirror. A woman with somewhat ordinary features stared back at me. Her hair was a plain mousy color and of medium length, tied up rather hastily in a ponytail at the back. She had no cheekbones to speak of and her face, I noticed, had just started to show some rather obvious lines. I thought of my mother, who had looked as wrinkled as a walnut by the time she was forty-five. I shuddered, placed the mirror back in the drawer and took out a faded and slightly dog-eared photograph. It was a photo of myself with a group of friends taken in the Crimea when I had been simply Corporal T. E. Next, 33550336, Driver: APC, Light Armored Brigade. I had served my country diligently, been involved in a military disaster and then honorably discharged with a gong to prove it. They had expected me to give talks about recruitment and valor but I had disappointed them. I attended one regimental reunion but that was it; I had found myself looking for the faces that I knew weren't there.

I had read this ages ago, probably soon after it came out in 2001 (and before I started bookblogging in late 2003). It didn't hold up quite as well as I had hoped. It's still funny to have an alternate version of England where literature is to an extent real, and people are annoyed by the way Jane Eyre ends with the title character going to India with her cousin, with lots of throwaway lines about culture and memory in Fforde's parallel world. But (not Fforde's fault) war in the Crimea is a lot less funny now than it was then; and (more his fault) the book now seems very white and the humour a bit more laboured in general. So I'm revising my opinion of it downwards, alas.

This was the most popular book on my shelves not yet reviewed online. Next up is The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.

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