March books

Pressure of work and Hugos meant I only read 15 books this month, the lowest since March 2019, when I was Hugo Administrator.

(NB I’m still struggling with the best way to display images in WordPress.)

Non-fiction 5 (YTD 21)
The Twinkling of an Eye, by Brian Aldiss
The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe in Contemporary Culture, by Mark Bould
Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades, by Anna McFarlane
Elles font l’abstraction/Women in Abstraction, by Christine Macel and Laure Chavelot
Nine Lives, by Aimen Dean

SF 6 (YTD 21)
The Green Man’s Challenge, by Juliet McKenna
Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley
Light Chaser, by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell
The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest 
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao
Shards of Earth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 11)
The Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1972, ed. Mark Worgan
A Very Private Haunting, by Sharon Bidwell
Human Nature, by Paul Cornell

Comics 1 (YTD 3)
Snotgirl Volume 1: Green Hair Don’t Care, by Brian Lee O’Malley and Leslie Hung

4,300 pages (YTD 16,600); average length 288 pages
Median LT ownership 54 (Skyward Inn)
7/15 (YTD 21/63) not by men (McFarlane, Macel/Chavelot, McKenna, Whiteley, Zhao, Bidwell, Hung)
3/15 (YTD 10/63) by PoC (Dean, Zhao, Lee O’Malley/Hung)
321 books currently tagged “unread”, 4 more than last month

Reading now
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Blackthorn Winter, by Liz Williams
Human Nature / Family of Blood, by Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard
Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell

Coming soon (perhaps)
Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher
Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe
Tower, by Nigel Jones
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
Demons and Dreams: v. 1: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Make Your Brain Work: How to Maximize Your Efficiency, Productivity and Effectiveness, by Amy Brann
A Modern Utopia, by H. G. Wells
Junker: een Pruisische blues, by Simon Spruyt
Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon
Intimacy, by Jean Paul Sartre
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson
The Happier Dead, by Ivo Stourton

October 2015 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.

I started the month in Windsor at a work retreat, and had another trip to London within the week, followed by a family trip to Luxembourg and another work trip to Geneva. The best photograph I took all month was actually of the Dijlepark in Leuven at twilight on the 31st.

With lots of daytime travel I read only 15 books that month.

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 43)
TARDIS Eruditorum – An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 6: Peter Davison and Colin Baker, by Elizabeth Sandifer
The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us: Or Why You Have No Idea How Your Mind Works, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to “Faerie”, by Verlyn Flieger
A Star Chamber Court in Ireland: The Court of Castle Chamber, 1571-1641, by Jon G. Crawford
Family Britain, 1951-1957, by David Kynaston
TARDIS Eruditorum 6 Invisible Gorilla Question of Time Star Chamber Court Family Britain

Fiction (non-sf): 1 (YTD 32)
Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo
Les Mis

SF (non-Who): 7 (YTD 96)
Jacaranda, by Cherie Priest
Forsaken, by Kelley Armstrong (did not finish)
Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds
The Arabian Nights, ed. Muhsin Mahdi, tr. Hussein Haddawy
The Dark Tower and Other Stories, by C.S. Lewis
Slan, by A.E. van Vogt
Jacaranda Forsaken Galactic North Arabian Nights Dark Tower Slan

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 35)
Business Unusual, by Gary Russell
The Deadstone Memorial, by Trevor Baxendale
Walking to Babylon by Kate Orman
Business Unusual Deadstone Memorial Walking to Babylon

~6,400 pages (YTD 64,000)
4/15 by women (YTD 68/228) – Flieger, Priest, Armstrong, Orman
1/15 by PoC (YTD 15/228) – Mahdi/Haddawy

The best of these was of course Les Misérables, which you can get here; the best new reads were The Invisible Gorilla, which you can get here, and Family Britain, 1951-1957, which you can get here.

I bounced off Kelley Armstrong’s Forsaken, but you can get it here.

A Very Private Haunting, by Sharon Bidwell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Silence stood sentinel between them for a few minutes. Bishop broke first. ‘I read the report about the last encounter. That kid was lucky.’

Another good entry in the sequence of short novels about Brigadier Alexander Lethbridge-Stewart in the earlier part of his career. Here he and Anne Travers go to Scotland (again) and get caught up in a missing persons mystery combined with a sinister doll. Well executed, and recommended. You can get it here.

BSFA Short Fiction

(See also: Best Art)

There are only four finalists in the Short Fiction category for the BSFA Awards this year. From shortest to longest, they are:

“Things Can Only Get Better”, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third section:

“What?” Wills set her drink down very carefully on the melamine-look surface.

A fun short story about intelligent machines (“Things”) and crime.

“O2 Arena”, by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Second paragraph of third section:

We had a plethora of assignments and projects that kept us buried to our eyebrows, even on weekends. But assignments were rarely my concern on weekdays, much less weekends. And on this weekend, Ovoke was gone.

Grim tale of a near-future Nigeria where people have to pay for everything, even the air that they breathe.

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard

Second paragraph of third section:

It burnt. The tea burnt. Soggy tea leaves caught fire right in the throne room, in full view of everyone else. Not just in her nightmares or in her bedroom.

Vietnamese-flavoured court politics combined with a g/g love story. Loved it.

Light Chaser, by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell

Second paragraph of third section:

“Hello.” She bent down and tickled the purring creature behind its ears. “You liked the fish I made for you, did you?”

Very interesting timeline mystery where the central character keeps visiting planets after very long intervals to find a peculiar legacy.

I liked all of these, but one has to express a preference, so I think mine will be 1) Fireheart Tiger, 2) “Things Can Only Get Better”, 3) “O2 Arena”, 4) Light Chaser. I don’t see an obvious front-runner.


My daughter and the king

The king died suddenly, aged 62, on 31 July 1993, on holiday in Spain. He is affectionately but not deeply remembered in a country where people are generally positive but unenthusiastic about the monarchy. A modest man, there are not many things named after him, apart from the country’s major football stadium and the canal from Bruges to Zeebrugge.

There is one small corner of land dedicated to his memory. Hoegaarden, 40 km east of Brussels, is most famous for its distinctive white beer. Like many small Belgian towns, it was originally a settlement around a monastery. The monks were kicked out in the late eighteenth century revolutionary period, and the chapterhouse with its gardens sold to a local family. The last of the family died in 1980 (murdered by his gardener, as it happens) and the municipality took over the property, renting out the gardens to the Flemish Show Garden Association from 1991. They weren’t able to maintain it in the long term, and management has now reverted back to the municipality.

A number of small show gardens were set up in the park in the 1990s, and a year after the king died, a special patch was created in his honour, a prize-winning design by Ingrid Garcia Fernandez. In 1998 a terracotta bust of the late monarch was unveiled, produced by local artist Karel Hadermann. The king’s dovecote was moved to be near the bust and garden, but unfortunately the doves were all eaten by stone martens and the dovecote itself was allowed to decay. It has now been demolished and there is a new entrance to the park at the corner of Elst and Maagdenblokstraat, opening straight onto the memorial garden.

My daughters live close to Hoegaarden, and it’s one of the places I sometimes take my older daughter B when I visit. The first couple of times that we went, I got the feeling that she didn’t really like it that much, and then in the summer of 2016 she spotted the king, and fell in love.

I don’t bring her all that often – you don’t want the charm to wear off – but I take her one a year or so. Here she is in 2018, getting up close to the king.

In 2020 I got a short video of her interaction with him.

And we went back again last weekend, where I took the picture at the top of this post.

I think that for someone like B, people are fundamentally puzzling and not always attractive to engage with. She often likes to get up close and stare into people’s faces. The king doesn’t mind her doing that, and he doesn’t mind her poking him with her fingers. Looking at these pictures again, I think she’s also interested by the way his body merges with the plinth. He has a somewhat enigmatic and intriguing expression, which on the other hand is not at all threatening. (Here’s a better shot of his face, with F beside him.)

So, if you’re in the Hoegaarden area, do pop by and visit the king; and say hi from me and B.

Edited to add:

I sent this post to the sculptor. He replied:

Dear Nicholas Whyte,

I was very moved by your email and the information on the webpage.  The statue of King Boudewijn was my first commissioned statue.  King Boudewijn was not a very happy man.  He loved children very much but did not succeeded in having one of his own.  He was very young and rather unprepared when he was put upon the throne after the abdication of his father King Leopold III.  So I gave him that look that is at the same time worrying and friendly.  I have since that statue evolved in the use of techniques and materials.  Your daughter demonstrates exactly what I think that art should do.  It cannot make the world a better place but when it succeeds – even for a short moment – to bring joy (or another emotion) to a person it has fulfilled his goal.  Many thanks for sharing this with me.

Greetings to you and your daughter,


Saturday reading

Nine Lives, by Aimen Dean
Human Nature, by Paul Cornell
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Shards of Earth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last books finished
Snotgirl Volume 1: Green Hair Don’t Care, by Brian Lee O’Malley and Leslie Hung
Elles font l’abstraction/Women in Abstraction, by Christine Macel and Laure Chavelot

Next books
Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell
Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher

The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As I should have known it would, though, the next move came from Amelia, for waiting for me on the Saturday evening was a letter postmarked in Richmond.

I was given this by the author back in 2016, with an entertainingly ambiguous inscription:

Chris Priest autograph

I guess that the love story which is not between the characters is an old one between the author and H.G. Wells. It’s a very entertaining mash-up of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Our protagonist is a goggles salesman, who hooks up with the lovely Amelia (who is way better than he is; we can see this, though he does not know it); they are transported to Mars, where she undermines the structures of government by bringing them revolution; and return to Earth where they encounter H.G. Wells in the flesh. Witty and well-executed. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that list is Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt, of which I have lower expectations.

September 2015 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.

This month saw the beginning of a short project in (North) Macedonia, work trips also to Paris, Belgrade and London, and my godson’s wedding in Wales.

This was immediately followed by a visit to the Doctor Who set in Cardiff. The lights were off but the thrill was there.

Even though my uncle photo-bombed me at the Tardis door.

This was also the month in which I was approached for the role of Hugo administrator for the 2017 Worldcon, a role which has continued to resonate for me (much more than the Promotions Divion head role I’d had for London the year before).

I read 17 books that month.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 38)
The Ancient Languages of Europe, by Roger D. Woodard
Companion Piece, eds. L.M. Myles and Liz Barr
Who’s Next?, by Derrick Sherwin

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 31)
Girls in Love, by Jacqueline Wilson
The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

SF (non-Who): 7 (YTD 96)
A Vampire Quintet, by Eugie Foster
The End of All Things, by John Scalzi (did not finish)
The Wild Reel, by Paul Brandon (did not finish)
Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Manuscript Found in a Milk Bottle, by Neil Gaiman
The Unlimited Dream Company, by J. G. Ballard
Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 35)
The Shadow in the Glass, by Justin Richards and Stephen Cole
The Sleep of Reason, by Martin Day
Tempest by Christopher Bulis

Comics : 1 (YTD 13)
It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Seth

~4,600 pages (YTD 57,600)
4/17 by women (YTD 64/213) – Myles/Barr, Wilson, Adichie, Foster
2/17 by PoC (YTD 14/213) – Adichie, Foster

Standout best for me this month was Americanah, which taught me a lot about Nigeria. You can get it here. Least impressed by Manuscript Found in a Milk bottle, which Neil Gaiman describes as his own worst short story; I would not disagree. You can’t get it anywhere.

The Twinkling of an Eye, or my life as an Englishman, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Some years previously, one of the innumerable Framlingham bullies, a creature with the skin of a bullfrog and hyperthyroid eyes to match, grabbed me and declared that I resembled Adolf Hitler. Dragging me into his foul den, he pulled a lock of my hair down over my forehead and painted a moustache of black boot polish on my upper lip. I was then made to goose-step round a senior common room, giving the Sieg Heil for the delectation of all the other bullies – many of whom would doubtless have given their eyeteeth to dress up in Nazi uniforms, rape Slav women, and bugger each other while strangling Jews.

One day, back in August 2015 I happened to be in London not too far from Forbidden Planet, and spotted that Brian Aldiss, then almost 90, was doing a signing that evening. I got there just in time to buy this book and get his signature on it before sprinting for the 1935 Eurostar; whew! I knew that there would not be many more chances, and indeed it was the second and last time that I met Aldiss in person before his death, two years later. (This, a year earlier, was the first.)

I realised on reading this now that I had read it before, around the turn of the century; I don’t know what happened to my previous copy, but it was great to come back to it again. Even if you have no interest in his work, Aldiss is very good at the self-perception of the various elements and experiences that go to make up a human soul. He goes in some detail into his childhood, school days and military service (much of which has been recycled in his novels). He is frank about his marital difficulties, in both of his marriages, and even goes a bit mystical on how he managed to unblock himself psychically to become healthier.

He was also devoted to making British science fiction an accepted part of British literature, pushing hard to find allies. This despite himself not being initially all that strongly moored in fandom – when he woke up one morning to find that the 1962 Hugo Award for Hothouse had been left outside his door with the milk, he did not actually know what it was. But this did not last long; by 1965 he was the guest of honour at the second London Worldcon, and in 2014 the massed members of the third London Worldcon sang “Happy Birthday” to him at the closing ceremonies.

One winces for Aldiss occasionally – he was the architect of most of his own romantic misfortunes (though not of his first love affair, with the matron of his boarding school); a crooked accountant’s bad advice meant that he had at one point to sell his house and, (one senses this was worse) his science fiction collection. But he is admirably devoted to his children and to his second wife, who died after this written but before it was published in 1998. His daughter Wendy returned that devotion.

Recommended. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had spent longest on my unread shelf. Next on that pile is Make Your Brain Work: How to Maximize Your Efficiency, Productivity and Effectiveness, by Amy Brann.

The Twinkling of an Eye cover

The Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1972, ed. Mark Worgan

Second paragraph of third chapter (“Phantoms of the Mind”, by Paul Vought):

In Elm House, a recently built concrete tower block, in a very contemporarily furnished apartment an author sits at tier desk tapping away at the keys of her typewriter, totally absorbed in tier work. Now and then site takes a break by sipping a tepid coffee front a brown mug with an orange floral pattern on it. She has completely lost track of the time.

One of several unofficial annuals produced recently by Terraqueous, edited by Mark Worgan, filling the gap between the official 1971 Annual and the official 1973 Annual. In fact it has more pages (180) than the two of them combined, featuring comment from Katy Manning, Mike Tucker, John Levene and Richard Franklin, and twenty stories in prose and comic strip format, almost all of which also feature the Master, as well as the usual rather pointless games. It’s a little variable but its heart is in the right place. It seems to no longer be obtainable, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1972 cover

Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders

Third entry in full:

Perhaps people don’t notice these glimmering, lyrical moments enough anymore, but the way the moon reflects and leaps across the black water of the ocean at night is surely a sight to behold.


n. The road-like reflection of the moon in the water

This is very easily digestible; a young writer’s collection of fifty words in other languages that she describes as “untranslatable”, while also supplying translations for them. For anyone who speaks more than one language, it’s no surprise that there are ideas that can be expressed more effectively in one language rather than another. In general the ones I already knew raised more of a smile for me than the ones with which I was less familiar. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a woman, my top non-fiction book and my top book acquired in 2018. Next on those piles respectively are Demons and Dreams: the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (1989), eds. Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling; Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebastyen; and The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter.

Lost in Translation

The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 8: the Sablon in Brussels, Beaulieu Castle in Machelen

As my regular reader knows, I have been hunting down the remaining stucco ceilings of the 17th century artist Jan Christian Hansche for the last few months. (The story so far: Park Abbey in Leuven; the Chateau de Modave near Namur; the ones that have been destroyed in Germany; the Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brussels; the Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namur; the Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp; and two ceilings in Gent.)

Earlier this week I came across a fascinating article by Marc Van Vaeck of the Catholic University of Leuven, which looks in detail at three of Hansche’s ceilings, two of which I had seen and one of which I haven’t yet. The article is in Dutch, but I think anyone can appreciate the photographs.

One fact particularly caught my eye: there is actually some of Hansche’s work in Brussels, in the church of Our Lady of the Victories between the Place du Petit Sablon and Place du Grand Sablon, beside the Rue de la Régence. I have gone past the church probably hundreds of times in the last 23 years, but only been inside once, for a concert three years ago.

The Sablon is only a quarter of an hour’s walk from my office, so I went over there one day last week, and by coincidence professor Van Vaeck phoned just as I was walking and we had a long conversation while I looked at the ceilings. You can actually tour the Sablon church virtually – the Hansche stuccos are on the vault immediately above the entrance and under the organ loft.

There’s not all that much here – I think only the church at Franc-Waret has less Hansche work, of what I have seen – and I was a bit confused by the iconography, no doubt reflecting my own ignorance. But the panels themselves are typically vivid examples of Hansche’s work, three-dimensional figures leaning out of the ceiling into our space.

It’s three large panels flanked by two smaller ones; my pictures of the smaller ones are not good, but going left to right we’ll start with a pope, though I do not know which one:

Then a knight (St George?) slaying a dragon:

In the middle, a really ambitious piece showing Our Lady and the Holy Child on a ship, from which a pennant flies with her name on, and two other passengers or crew lurking at either end. There may be a specific legend at play here that I don’t know; in any case, Our Lady, Star of the Sea is the patron saint of the Netherlands, and a miraculous statue of her in that capacity is venerated at Maastricht, which is not so very far away.

Next is another dragon-slaying knight, or possibly the same one again. St George is very popular around here.

And finally, I’m afraid I did not get as good a shot of the final panel, which appears to be Our Lady again.

Hansche helpfully dated the work, so we know it was done in 1684.

That was unexpected and very welcome, and those of you in or passing through Brussels can easily check it out for yourself. There is much else to see in the church, of course.

Earlier today, Anne and I were able to visit the Kasteel van Beaulieu in Machelen (which is a different place from Mechelen), on the northern fringe of Brussels. The castle has had a chequered past; the Duke of Marlborough stayed there in 1706 after the battle of Ramillies, but in the twentieth century it fell into disrepair, before being rescued by the Quirynen family. who now maintain it.

The main reception room in the castle originally had nine panels by Jan Christian Hansche, reflecting excerpts from the Labours of Hercules. Three of the nine have been completely lost, and two are damaged and stored in the attic. There was also a Hansche ceiling on the vault at the very top of the castle, which has been lost apart from a few fragments. Jo Quirynen was good enough to give us a tour.

Despite the fragmentary survival rate of the Beaulieu panels, they are tremendously gripping. The most vivid is the depiction of Hercules slaying the Hydra – here the Hydra has the usual multiple serpentine heads sinuously rippling out of the ceiling, but also a tremendous arthropod-like set of legs. If you are able to cross your eyes for the stereoscopic effect, you may be able to see just how strong it is. Herk’s nephew stands behind the beast with a flaming brand to cauterise the stumps as each head is cut off – if he did not, two would grow to replace each one as it is removed.

The other particularly three-dimensional panel (above Anne in the photo) is Hercules slaying the dragon that guards the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, which is also one of the vivid panels in the Brouwershuis in Gent. I am interested that, unlike in Gent, the apples themselves are not visible.

There are in fact two different and contradictory versions of the story of Hercules and the Golden Apples, and we have both in Beaulieu. In one as we have just seen, Hercules does the job himself by slaying the dragon. In the other, he encounters the giant Atlas, holding up the heavens, whose daughter is the guardian of the Apples, and Hercules persuades Atlas to go and ask her nicely for them in return for holding up the burden while he is away. There is then a moment of drama, as Atlas unsuccessfully attempts to trick Hercules into holding the heavens up forever, and that’s what we have here, Herk’s elbow and knee sticking out.

Finally for my purposes (actually earliest in the internal chronology of the legend), Hercules battles the three-headed Geryon, in a scene later stolen by Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Hercules has already slain Geryon’s two-headed dog, Orthron, whose hindquarters are also visible in the panel (above Jo Quirynen in my photo above). Geryon’s cattle, who were the object of Herk’s quest, are not seen here. I’m struck by the loving depiction of Hercules’ own hindquarters, and there is more evidence from one of the lost panels (which sadly I cannot yet share here) that confirms my suspicion that Hansche was more interested in the male than the female body.

The lost panel also has the date 1659, so these are a full quarter-century older than the stuccos in the Sablon, and have survived the ravages of three and a half centuries for us to enjoy today.

That leaves just two more castles to visit with Hansche ceilings, both near here, both of which I hope to get to in April, though I have also picked up a rumour that there is some more surviving Hansche work down near Namur. I will keep you informed.

Saturday reading

Nine Lives, by Aimen Dean
Human Nature, by Paul Cornell
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Shards of Earth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last books finished
A Very Private Haunting, by Sharon Bidwell
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Next books
Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell
Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher

August 2015 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.

Apart from a quick work trip to London – where Brian Aldiss signed his The Twinkling of an Eye for me – we spent most of the month in Northern Ireland. On the way, we looked in on the replica of the great clock of Richard of Wallingford in St Alban’s.

Little U was not completely convinced by the seaside.

The Hugo Award results came through, and No Award won in five categories, equal to the total number of times it had previously won in the history of the awards. The Puppies were defeated, but had inflicted damage,

I read 31 books that month, some of them mercifully short.

Non-fiction: 8 (YTD 35)
1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro
Building Confidence in Peace, by Erol Kaymak, Alexandros Lordos and Nathalie Tocci
Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiating History, by Michális Stavrou Michael
A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, by Suzannah Lipscomb
Selected Essays, by Virginia Woolf
Space Helmet for a Cow, by Paul Kirkley
The Story of Kullervo, by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Verlyn Flieger
Letters to Tiptree, eds Alissa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce

1606 Building Confidence in Peace Resolving the Cyprus Conflict Visitors Guide to Tudor England Selected Essays Space Helmet for a Cow Letters to Tiptree

Fiction (non-sf): 6 (YTD 28)
Divorcing Jack, by Colin Bateman
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Tragedy of the Goats, by Francis Hamit
History, by Elsa Morante
The Land of Green Plums, by Herta Müller
The Twenty-Two Letters, by Clive King

Divorcing Jack The Lowland The Tragedy of the Goats History The Land of Green Plums Twenty-Two Letters

SF (non-Who): 12 (YTD 89)
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Buffy: The Lost Slayer: Prophecies, by Christopher Golden
Buffy: The Lost Slayer: Dark Times, by Christopher Golden
Buffy: The Lost Slayer: King of the Dead, by Christopher Golden
Buffy: The Lost Slayer: Original Sins, by Christopher Golden
Transition, by Iain Banks
Naamah’s Kiss, by Jacqueline Carey
Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories, by Michael Moorcock
11/22/63, by Stephen King
The Shepherd’s Crown, by Terry Pratchett
And Another Thing…, by Eoin Colfer (did not finish, totally failed to grab me and I gave up at page 70)

Lord Valentines Castle Prophecies Dark Times King of the Dead Original Sins Transition Naamahs Kiss Penrics Demon Elric 11/22/1963 And Another Thing

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 32)
Mission: Impractical, by David A. McIntee
The Tomorrow Windows, by Jonathan Morris
Mean Streets, by Terrance Dicks
Erimem: The Last Pharaoh, by Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett

Mission Impractical Tomorrow Windows Mean Streets Erimem: The Last Pharaoh

Comics : 1 (YTD 12)
An Age of License: A Travelogue, by Lucy Knisley

An Age of License

~9,500 pages (YTD 53,200)
12/31 by women (YTD 60/196) – Tocci, Lipscom, Woolf, Flieger, Krasnostein/Pierce, Lahiri, Morante, Müller, Carey, Bujold, Bartlett, Knisley
1/31 by PoC (YTD 12/196) – Lahiri

Several very good reads this month: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which you can get here; History, by Elsa Morante, which you can get here; Selected Essays, by Virginia Woolf, which you can get here; and Letters to Tiptree, eds. Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce, which you can get here.

However you can avoid the official Hitch-hiker’s Guide sequel, And Another Thing…, by Eoin Colfer in good conscience. If you want to get it anyway, it is here.

730 days of plague

So, here we are, two weeks later to the day since the first lockdown in Belgium. It’s St Patrick’s Day, and I cannot forget that the cancellation of the Irish embassy party in 2020, which would have been the farewell for the retiring Permanent Representative, was one of the first things to really hit. But here we are: the Northern Ireland representative office held an Ulster Fry get-together this morning, and the Irish College in Leuven, which started the tradition of St Patrick’s Day as a diaspora festival, is having an event tomorrow evening. We’ve waited a long time for this.

It’s been fun, and good discipline, updating these posts every ten days. I may have to revive them at some stage; infection numbers are still surging, and who knows what variants lie around the corner. But for now this is a good point to stop.

84k, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The man lies on the couch, and dreams and memories blur in a fitful crimson smear of paint.

I’m a big fan of Claire North’s work anyway, but this is a bit different – a well-realised near-future dystopian England, where crime and social transgression have been transformed into accounting units (along with the privatisation of most public services) and the underclass is oppressed by cosy collusion between big business and government. Our protagonist, a minor cog in the bureaucracy of punitive taxation, is moved by a shadow from his own past to begin fighting back against the system. A couple of interlocking plot lines, so that you can look at the story from slightly different angles. Grim but convincing. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018, and my top unread book by a woman. Next on both of those piles is Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders (which I’ve already read and will review next).

Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five by Neil Gaiman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Their debut gig was at Birmingham’s Barbarellas, supporting a local band called Fashion. People who saw them back then say they were awful. Nick Rhodes has said ‘The original Duran Duran wasn’t so much a group as a series of get-togethers… an evening of pretence with Duran Duran just about sums it up: John has been equally dismissive of the early years. ‘We were really on a bit of an art school trip at the time: he told one journalist. And later, ‘We tried all sorts of line-ups in the early days. In fact we were something of a joke in Birmingham.’

Neil Gaiman’s first ever book, and the last of the Humble Bundle of Gaiman rarities that I acquired a few years ago. I confess that I was never particularly into Duran Duran; they pleasingly drew their name from the film version of classic French comic Barbarella, and recently little U has decided that she likes the video for Save A Prayer.

The kindest thing that can be said about this book is that at least its writer went on to greater things. 1984 was the peak of Duran Duran’s original burst of fame; the five central musicians were all still in their mid twenties, dealing with the sudden acquisition of fame and riches about as well as any self-centred young men do (which is to say not very well). Gaiman can’t quite disguise the fact that the people he writes about are not very nice, or in the end very interesting. Nick Rhodes’ androgynous presentation does leap out as unusual for the time; but Boy George was already taking it further. Not really recommended, and not all that easy to get either.

This was the shortest unread book on my shelves of those that I had acquired in 2015. Next on that pile is The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe.

Erhard Busek, 1941-2022

Very sorry to learn of the death yesterday of Erhard Busek, a few days before his 81st birthday. When I first came to Brussels in 1998 looking for work, Peter Ludlow and Michael Emerson put me in front of him as a sort of interview rite of passage, to see if I could hold my own in debate with a former Vice-Chancellor of Austria. He was charming, modest, and tolerant of the young, and I passed the test. I did not know then of the brave role he had played within his own party a decade earlier, suggesting that maybe Kurt Waldheim was not such a good candidate to have as president. I did know that as Vice-Chancellor in the mid-90s, he had led his party and co-led his country into the EU.

We saw quite a lot of each other over the next decade, as he carried out his various roles in keeping the EU engaged with the Balkans. I was impressed that, as EU Special Representative in charge of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, he did not hold back from challenging his own paymasters for their lack of ambition towards the future EU membership of the Western Balkan countries.

But I also remember sharing a flight with him from Brussels to Vienna for a conference where we were both speaking. I remarked that I was surprised that he was not up in business class rather than slumming it in economy with the rest of us. He retorted something along the lines of ”Quatsch! I have my papers, my pyjamas and a book to read; why would I need to be in business class for an hour or two?”

I last saw him at the GlobSec conference in Bratislava in 2019. He was recovering from a stroke, but still radiating goodwill and constructive engagement, venerated by all of us there who knew his record. Someone who left his country and his continent in better shape than he found it.

After Atlas, by Emma Newman

Second paragraph of third chapter of After Atlas, by Emma Newman:

I’ll watch your back if you’ll watch mine.

This is the second in the four-volume Planetfall series by Emma Newman, which I have read completely out of order. (Thirdfourthfirst.) I’m afraid this lost me pretty early on when the protagonist, a police detective, was compelled by his bosses to investigate the murder of a former close friend. Sure, he is indentured through an ‘orrible system of cyber-slavery, but really, assigning someone like that is a crazy thing for a police force of any size to do. I read patiently through for the payoff, but it didn’t come. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next on that list is Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon.

Border poll – the precedents

There is much discussion in Northern Ireland – and in the Republic – on the conditions for a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, or become part of a united Ireland. I’ve been fairly clear in my own mind about this for a number of years. I wrote in 2014 that an Assembly election in which Nationalist parties exceed Unionist parties in either votes or seats, or two non-Assembly elections in a row where that happens, would surely be sufficient grounds for the Secretary of State to call a Border Poll.

I’m also fairly clear – and wrote about this in the Irish Times in 2019 – that for the pro-United Ireland side to win such a referendum requires three things to happen: 1) Brexit working out badly; 2) Unionists continuing to talk only to their own core voters and not to the centre ground; 3) Nationalists coming up with a better offer, especially on health services. The first two of these conditions are close to being fulfilled at present; the third, however, is also necessary and we are not there yet.

But there has been much less examination of where such votes have happened previously. Self-determination referendums and plebiscites are not exactly rare in world history. But it’s pretty unusual for the options to be restricted to a choice of which already existing state you want to be part of. Much more often, voters are choosing between independence, on the one hand, and rule by someone else, on the other. I was myself involved in the two most recent independence referendums to have succeeded, in Montenegro in 2006 and in South Sudan in 2011.

Referendums have their advantages and their flaws, and I’m not really going to go into the merits here, just present the historical detail. I’ll note that (of course) they are a pretty blunt instrument, offering little nuance or reassurance for minorities, and that not every one of these historical votes could really be described as having taken place under free and fair circumstances.

Historically I find the following internationally recognised precedents for a popular vote where the electorate were asked about future sovereignty, and independence was not one of the options. There are (arguably) twenty-one of them. In eight cases, voters chose to remain in the country they were currently ruled by. In ten cases, voters chose a change of sovereignty, though in three of those nine cases the will of the voters was not in fact implemented and they stayed where they were. And in the remaining three cases, the territory was split between the two states who wanted to rule it.

1527: Burgundy. The scholar Mats Qvortrup cites this as a very early example of a plebiscite. Under the 1526 Treaty of Madrid, Burgundy was to have been ceded by France to Spain; but King Francis I of France organised a vote of male property owners in Burgundy, who rejected the Treaty, and Burgundy remained French.

1860: Nice and Savoy. Between 1849 and 1870 there were a dozen referendums on self-determination in Italy, as states voted (usually by huge and dubious margins) to join with the new kingdom, effectively merging with Piedmont in the process known as the Risorgimento. Most of those votes do not count for present purposes, as the choice was between continued independence and Italian rule. However, there is one exception: the price for French support of the Risorgimento, under the Treaty of Turin, was the annexation of the town of Nice and province of Savoy, which had until then been under Piedmontese rule. Two referendums in 1860 ratified the transfer.

1868 and 1916, Danish West Indies; 1877, Saint-Barthelemy. A couple of interesting cases in the Caribbean, where on three occasions, islanders voted on which external power they wanted to be ruled by – the Danish West Indies choosing whether to be ruled by Denmark or the United States, and Saint-Barthelemy choosing whether to shift from Swedish to French rule. In all three cases, the referendum was in favour of change, but the US Senate rejected the annexation of the Danish West Indies in 1870, changing its mind almost half a century later; they are now the U.S. Virgin Islands.

1919-22, post-War Europe. The end of the first world war brought a number of new states into being, none of which chose to ratify their independence by referendum. However, there were a number of cases of border adjustments being made by holding a vote in the disputed territories. Only a minority of these votes resulted in a transfer of sovereignty. Two of them were frustrated, both in 1919, when the Vorarlberg province of Austria voted to join Switzerland, and the Åland Islands off the coast of Finland voted to join Sweden, but in both cases, the result was not internationally recognised and they were compelled to remain under Austrian and Finnish rule respectively.

In 1920, there were five such referendums, three of which resulted in votes to stick with the country they had previously been ruled by. So, in February 1920, the northern part of the German province of Schleswig voted to become part of Denmark – the only successful transfer of sovereignty from a single referendum. But a month later, in March 1920, central Schleswig voted to remain in Germany, and the planned vote for southern Schleswig was cancelled. Later that year, the formerly German towns of Eupen and Malmedy voted to join Belgium in a very dodgy process where there was no secret ballot; East Prussia voted to stay in Germany rather than join Poland; the southern zone of Carinthia voted to stay with Austria rather than join the new state of Yugoslavia. In 1921, the district of Sopron voted to stay in Hungary rather than join Austria.

The biggest and messiest of these referendums was the last, held in Upper Silesia in March 1921, in a situation of violence and vote-rigging from both sides. The vote was 60% for Germany and 40% for Poland; the territory in the end was divided, with both sides getting about half of the population, Germany getting more of the land and Poland more of the heavy industry. (It should be added that intimidation and violence were standard features of these referendums.)

1935, Saarland. In a hangover from the First World War, the Saar Basin Territory (now the Saarland), which had been under international rule through the League of Nations, was given a choice between the status quo, joining Germany, or joining France. The German option won more than 90% of the vote, with the status quo a very distant second. So few voters chose France that I hesitate to include it on this list. It’s a rare case of a referendum with more than two options, not that it made much difference in the end.

1947, India/Pakistan. I find only five more internationally recognised referendums in the last hundred years where voters chose between different countries, without independence being on the table. Two of them were parts of the Indian independence process in 1947, with both the North West Frontier Province and the District of Sylhet voting to join Pakistan rather than India. Sylhet was divided, with a small part of it staying in India and the rest now in Bangladesh.

1961, British Cameroons. There have been a number of referenda and plebiscites in Africa, but in almost every case independence has been one of the options on the ballot (including, as mentioned, Southern Sudan, now South Sudan, in 2011). The only exception that I have found was the former territory of the British Cameroons in 1961, in which the population were given the choice between joining the former French colony of Cameroon to the east, or Nigeria to the west. In 1959 they had already voted on whether or not to join Nigeria, and chose not, or at least not yet. In 1961, the Muslim north voted to join Nigeria, and the Christian south to join Cameroon, and that was what in the end happened.

1967 (and 2002), Gibraltar. The 1967 referendum on Gibraltar’s sovereignty clearly satisfies my criteria for inclusion on this list. It was the result of a talks process between Spain and the United Kingdom, and voters were given a choice between integration with Spain or continued British rule. They chose British rule by an overwhelming majority. In 2002 the government of Gibraltar held another referendum, but I don’t think this counts for my purposes: it was a declarative (and again overwhelming) rejection of unpublished proposals for shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain, without any positive option being on the ballot.

1973, Northern Ireland. It is almost fifty years since voters anywhere in the world were given the choice of which country to be part of, without independence being one of the options, and the last such vote was the March 1973 Border Poll in Northern Ireland. On a 59% turnout, 99% of voters supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, and only 1% voted for Irish unification. I find it interesting that 50-60,000 votes for the Union were cast by people who did not then vote for pro-Union parties in the local council and Assembly elections a few months later.

Next time, the result will certainly be closer.

Saturday reading

A Very Private Haunting, by Sharon Bidwell
Nine Lives, by Aimen Dean
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Last books finished
The Green Man’s Challenge, by Juliet McKenna
The Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1972, ed. Mark Worgan
Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley
The Twinkling of an Eye, by Brian Aldiss
The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe in Contemporary Culture, by Mark Bould
Light Chaser, by Peter F Hamilton and Gareth L Powell
Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades, by Anna McFarlane
The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest

Next books
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell

July 2015 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 busy travel month, as I visited London, Barcelona and, for the only time in my life so far, Nigeria for work purposes, and also went to my cousin’s housewarming/wedding party in Luxembourg.

En route to the latter, we detoured to Trier in Germany, where the Emperor Constantine’s throne room, built in the early 300’s, is now the main Protestant church in the city and was hosting a sculpture exhibition.

As we drove home, the EU summit was sorting out Greece’s finances.

Puppy madness was still dominating my reading time, so I read only 18 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 27)
Splintered Light: Tolkien’s World, by Verlyn Flieger
The Prisoner, by Dave Rogers
Gulp, by Mary Roach
The King’s Speech, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

Splintered Light The Prisoner Gulp The Kings Speech

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (YTD 22)
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson
Ulysses, by James Joyce
The Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hust

The Luminaries The True Deceiver Ulysses Sorrows of an American

SF (non-Who): 3 (YTD 77)
City at the End of Time, by Greg Bear (did not finish, 100 pages only)
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
Kushiel’s Mercy, by Jacqueline Carey

City at the End of Time A Scanner Darkly Kushiels Mercy

Doctor Who, etc: 6 (YTD 28)
Killing Ground, by Steve Lyons
Halflife, by Mark Michalowski
Ghost Devices, by Simon Bucher-Jones
Doctor Who and the Vortex Crystal by William H. Keith, Jr.
Doctor Who and the Rebel’s Gamble by William H. Keith, Jr.
Doctor Who – The Drosten’s Curse, by A.L. Kennedy

Killing Ground Halflife Ghost Devices Vortex Crystal Rebels Gamble Drostens Curse

Comics : 1 (YTD 11)
Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, by Mary M. Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot

Sally Heathcote

~6,300 pages (YTD 43,700)
9/18 by women (YTD 48/165) – Flieger, Roach, Catton, Jansen, Hustvedt, Kennedy, Talbot/Charlesworth
0/18 by PoC (YTD 11/147)

The best new read of these was Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, which you can get here, though I also enjoyed returning to Ulysses, which you can get here, and A Scanner Darkly, which you can get here.

I thoroughly bounced off The Sorrows of an American, but you can get it here.

A new home

After almost 19 years of blogging on Livejournal, and almost 15,000 entries, the time has come to move to a dedicated WordPress site, managed by the amazing Damien at Elucidate. I have archived all of my old entries to the new site (or rather, Damien has); and I hope to import all comments and tags as well. I don’t plan to delete my Livejournal, and I will crosspost to it once I work out how, but I have a strong suspicion that it won’t stay up for much longer.

This is still a work in progress, and I hope to improve the look and feel of the blog over the next weeks and months as I get to grips with the power of WordPress. Already I feel it’s something I probably could and should have done years ago. Look forward to hearing from you all.

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Postmistress:

There was France and Germany. Austria. England. Poland. Letters printed in straight lines in the comforting typeface of school, the world ordered as neatly as the men now were. Since the draft had begun in October, each man’s number pulled by hand from the War Department’s glass fishbowl and recorded, the roads and rails were full of American boys being sent all over the country, leaning over books and maps in their olive drab, sprawled in the too tight seats moving from Ohio to Omaha. Tennessee. Georgia. The Carolinas. From town the two Snow brothers would go first, then a Wilcox, a Duarte, and a Boggs. Johnny Cripps and Dr. Fitch had numbers so high, it was as good as if they hadn’t been called. They’d never be needed now.

A novel about three American women during the second world war, two of whom are rather boring and live in Massachusetts and one of whom is more interesting and does some gripping journalism from Europe. One of the two in America is a postmistress who doesn’t deliver a letter. It didn’t really engage me. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a woman, my top unread book acquired last year and my top unread non-genre book. Next on the first list was 84k, by Claire North, which I have since read. Next on the other two is Intimacy, by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Nebula ballot, Goodreads / LibraryThing stats

The Nebula Awards final ballot is out, so here are the ratings of the nominated books on Goodreads and LibraryThing. The top number in each column is in bold.

Best Novel

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine128214.384894.18
A Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark89994.154473.96
The Unbroken, C.L. Clark40333.882083.64
Machinehood, S.B. Divya14473.691113.83
Plague Birds, Jason Sanford803.8144.38

One of these is not like the others.

Best Novella

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers203474.295404.25
Fireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard31353.511783.84
Flowers for the Sea, Zin E. Rocklyn7043.57473.79
Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, Aimee Ogden3913.47343.85
And What Can We Offer You Tonight, Premee Mohamed1243.93144.17
The Necessity of Stars, E. Catherine Tobler793.91123.83
“The Giants of the Violet Sea”, Eugenia Triantafyllou

The last of these was not published as a standalone and so is not comparable. (Martha Wells declined nomination for Fugitive Telemetry.)

Andre Norton Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
Iron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao238914.264134.23
Redemptor, Jordan Ifueko49824.321163.95
Victories Greater Than Death, Charlie Jane Anders19213.552013.63
Root Magic, Eden Royce16714.24764.38
A Snake Falls to Earth, Darcie Little Badger12144.14863.42
Thornwood, Leah Cypess2103.82212.5

Again, a bit of variation here.

Scherven, by Erik de Graaf

Second frame of third section of Scherven:

Chris: “It’s about time you had a wee chat with her.”

I picked this up on spec last year from one of the local comics shops. It’s a story of young Dutch people in the occupied Netherlands during the second world war; after it’s all over, the protagonist, Victor, meets up with his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and reminisces in a series of nested flashbacks about the good times, the bad times and the terrifying times with their friend Chris, who got killed by the Germans (this is not a spoiler, the first page shows his gravestone in detail). The plot is yer typical young-folk-under-occupation tale; the art consciously refers to Dutch propaganda posters of the period, and as is often the case with graphic stories sometimes catches feelings and events that mere prose cannot. It’s backed up by photographic and documentary evidence about what happened to the real people on whom the story is based, which I guess makes it more immediate, though personally I’m generally happy to accept that fiction can have truth without being tightly linked to actual historical events.

The title translates as “Splinters”, and a second and final part of the series has now been published with the title “Littekens” / “Scars”. To be honest I made yet another of my mistakes in buying it – I thought it was by a Flemish writer, and it wasn’t until I got to the bits about Queen Wilhelmina that I made sense of the various hints that it was not set in Belgium after all. Still, it was engaging enough that I will probably get the second half.

You can get it here in Dutch and here in French; not yet in English apparently.

This was my top unread graphic novel in a language other than English. Next on that pile is Junker: een Pruisische blues, by Simon Spruyt.

2021 BSFA Awards: Best Art

A very interesting selection this year for the best Art category in the BSFA Awards, with the shortlisted artworks all being single static images – this has not always been the case; last year’s list included digitised 3D images of several murals, there was an outdoor art piece three years ago, and of course Tessa Farmer’s Wasp Factory sculpture rightly won the award for 2014 (at the 2015 Eastercon).

Glasgow Green Woman
One of the five nominees is "Glasgow Green Woman", a promotional piece for the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon bid by Sunderland-based Iain Clark. A similarly purposed piece won last year's BSFA Award, and Clark was a finalist for the Best Fan Artist Hugo in both of the last two years.
I tend to think of the Green Man legend as more of an English thing, but there are over 100 carvings of Green Men in the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, scene of the denouement of The Da Vinci Code. Clark has depicted the feminine aspect of the Green Man, sampling the scent of a Scottish thistle (which has a sexy wiggle to its stem). I found this a very cheering piece as the spring comes in.
Silhouette of a woman falling
The other four are all covers of books by authors with strong links to Africa. Two of them are collections of stories by Eugen Bacon, born in Tanzania and now based in Australia. The first is this stark silhouette by Kara Walker, possibly the most famous artist on the shortlist this year, with the design credited to Peter Lo (who appears to be different from the Scottish artist of the same name) of Transit Lounge, the publisher of Danged Black Thing. It's clearly very evocative of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests
The second is for Saving Shadows, published by Newcon Press in the UK, image by Italian artist Elena Betti, design credited to Newcon owner Ian Whates (who I replaced as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge in 2015, and he in turn replaced me the following year). It's an interesting combination of fluids and reflections.
Perhaps the most traditional of the nominees is the cover of Son of the Storm by Nigerian writer Suyi Davies Okungbowa (now in Canada). The art is by Dan Dos Santos, a six-time Hugo finalist and three-time Chesley winner, with design by Lauren Panepinto of the publisher Orbit Books, both Americans. It’s nicely done, with the protagonist staring at us vividly.
Finally, Okungbowa and Bacon are both contributors to this anthology of African speculative fiction, edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. The cover is by Filipina artist Maria Spada (who presumably designed it as well, as unlike the other three book covers, no separate designer is credited and she describes herself as a professional designer). I love the resonance between the traditional African mask and the act of uncovering to find that you really did not know what was behind it.

These are all lovely works, and it’s difficult to choose between them. At first I was a bit underwhelmed by Kara Walker’s silhouette for Danged Black Thing, but as I’ve been writing this I have found my eye drawn to it again and again, so in the end I think I will give it my first preference vote, followed by Maria Spada, Iain Clark, Dan Dos Santos and Elena Betti, probably in that order. But I may change my mind again in the next seven weeks.

720 days of plague

This will probably be the second last of my ten-day bulletins on COVID. Today, almost all restrictions were lifted in Belgium. Masks are compulsory only on public transport and in hospitals. The passenger locator forms for entering the country and the COVID-Safe pass for entering restaurants have been scrapped. We’re in a very different world.

My tweets