July Books

Non-fiction 8 (YTD 62)
The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt
A Short History of Kosovo, by Noel Malcolm
Stability Operations in Kosovo 1999-2000: A Case Study, by Jason Fritz
The Smell of War, by Roland Bartetzko
Presidential Election, by John Danforth et al
Make Your Brain Work, by Amy Brann
Heaven Sent, by Kara Dennison
Hell Bent, by Alyssa Franke

SF 10 (YTD 60)
Guy Erma and the Son of Empire, by Sally Ann Melia (did not finish)
Victories Greater than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders
The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente
The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik
Moon Zero Two, by John Burke
Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko
A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger
Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell
Soulstar, by C.L. Polk (did not finish)
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 18)
The Unofficial Master Annual, ed. Mark Worgan
The New Unusual, by Adrian Sherlock and Andy Frankham-Allen

5,100 pages (YTD 43,700)
11/20 (YTD 69/167) by non-male writers (Northcutt, Brann, Dennison, Franke, Melia, Anders, Valente, Novil, Ifueko, Little Badger, Maxwell, Polk)
4/20 (YTD 24/167) by non-white writers (Ifueko, Little Badger, Polk, Rushdie)

315 books currently tagged “unread”, 1 less than last month

Reading now
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
The Initiate, by Louise Cooper
Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher

Coming soon (perhaps)
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Manifesto, by Bernardine Evaristo
Alaska Sampler 2014, ed. Deb Vanasse and David Marusek 
Sprawl, by Cat Sparks
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
The Kosovo Indictment, by Michael O’Reilly
The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall
“Tangents”, by Greg Bear
Mr Britling Sees it Through, by H. G. Wells
Voorbij de grenzen van de ernst, by Kamagurka
Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney
The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
The Clockwise War, by Scott Gray
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
What If?, by Randall Munroe
Empire Of Sand, by Tasha Suri

Enola Holmes and the aristocratic appellation

Just a brief note on the film which we watched a week ago. Millie Bobby Brown, who we already knew as Eleven in Stranger Things, is great as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ smarter younger sister Enola, as is Helena Bonham-Carter as their mother. It’s a lot of fun.

BUT. The chap at the centre of the mystery (such as it is) is referred to as Viscount Tewkesbury, although he also has the title Marquess of Basilwether. Normally, someone who holds both a marquessate and an earldom is referred to by the former rather than the latter. (Except if the two titles are from different jurisdictions, in which case they will be referred to by the earldom title when they are in the appropriate place, but Tewkesbury is in England and it does not sound like Basilwether is anywhere outside England.)

A long but interesting Facebook discussion prompted me to do more research, discovering that only three women in England have ever held a marquessate in their own right. The first was Anne Boleyn, who was not Marchioness but Lady Marquess of Pembroke; the second was George I’s lover Melusine von der Schulenburg, created Marchioness of Dungannon but known as the Duchess of Kendal as it’s the higher title; and the third was the curious case of Jemima Campbell, Marchioness Grey, whose title was created for her grandfather in 1740, but he died almost immediately after, so she inherited it at the age of 16 and held it for the remaining 57 years of her life.

The other massive plot hole is that we are supposed to believe that Tewkesbury / Basilwether’s vote is critical to pass legislation in the house of Lords. In fact, hereditary peers could not take their seats at the time the film is set until the age of 21, and though we are not told Tewkesbury / Basilwether’s age, the actor is only 17. (Quite apart from the fact that it’s never been possible to whip the House of Lords as tightly as that.)

As I said, apart from that, I really enjoyed it, and Millie Bobby Brown, who produced it as well as starring at the age of 16, is clearly someone to watch.

District 9

District 9 won the Ray Bradbury Award from SFWA (effectively the Nebula for Dramatic Presentation) the first year after it was repurposed, beating Avatar, Coraline, Moon, Star Trek and Up. As previously noted, it actually topped the nominations poll for the Hugo and came close to winning. In a surprising divergence, it ranks 5th on one IMDB rating but only 32nd on the other.

None of the cast had been in previous Hugo, Nebula or Oscar-winning films; they are all South African, and this is the first of any of those films set in that country.

This was as good as people had assured me it would be. It is set in Johannesburg in a slightly different timeline to ours, where several years ago, a spaceship full of aliens arrived in the sky over the city and millions of them came down to the earth’s surface; they are all accommodated in appalling squalor in a camp near the city, and the authorities (mostly white South Africans) decide to forcibly move them to another more distant camp, which will be equally squalid and violent but less visible to the world.

To start with what I didn’t like so much, there are not all that many black characters, though it has to be said that almost all the human characters are pretty evil and most of them are white, which tells its own story. The plot is centred on one white man who finds himself transforming into an alien, and undergoes a character shift as a result. There are so many interesting roots here – the body horror is reminiscent of The Ark in Space, the situation with the aliens from Ian McDonald’s Sacrifice of Fools, the aliens themselves are very well realised.

Also, the action sequences, well done as they are, go on a bit too long, to the point that you start to notice that there is not a lot of actual plot.

But it’s still pretty good. The standout performance is Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe, set up as the stooge for the alien clearing operation. This was his first major film appearance; apparently he improvised most of his lines. He is tremendously watchable and human, even while he becomes more physically alien – and of course that is part of the message.

Unusually, this is based on a short film rather than a written work or a play. Alive in Joburg, from 2006, has a very similar scenario, but is only six minutes long, and lacks the Peter Jackson production values.

This is the 51st Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury-winning film that I have watched in this sequence. I have been trying to do overall summaries when I reach every tenth film, but miscounted this time. My definitive and unassailable ranking of them all is as follows (the eleven most recent in red):

51) The Canterville Ghost (Retro Short, 1945)
50) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Retro Short, 1944)
49) Curse of the Cat People (Retro Short, 1945)
48) The Sixth Sense (Nebula, 1999)
47) Heaven Can Wait (Retro Long, 1944)
46) The Incredible Shrinking Man (Outstanding Movie, 1958)
45) A Boy and His Dog (1976)
44) Pinocchio (Retro Short Form, 1941)
43) Destination Moon (Retro, 1951)
42) Slaughterhouse-Five (1973)
41) The War of the Worlds (Retro, 1954)
40) Sleeper (Hugo/Nebula 1974)
39) The Incredibles (Hugo 2004)
38) The Princess Bride (1987)
37) 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
36) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1990)
35) Fantasia (Retro Long Form, 1941)
34) Return of the Jedi (1982)
33) Edward Scissorhands (1990)
32) Bambi (Retro, 1943)
31) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
30) WALL-E (2009)

29) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
28) Howl’s Moving Castle (Nebula 2006)
27) Moon (2010)
26) Young Frankenstein (Hugo/Nebula 1975)
25) Soylent Green (Nebula 1973)
24) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Retro, 1946)
23) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
22) District 9 (Bradbury 2010)
21) Serenity (Hugo/Nebula 2005)
20) Stardust (2008)

19) The Truman Show (1998)
18) Aliens (1986)
17) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
16) Dr Strangelove (1965)
15) Jurassic Park (1993)
14) Pan’s Labyrinth (2007)
13) A Clockwork Orange (1972)
12) Superman (1978)
11) Contact (1997)
10) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Hugo/Nebula 2001)
9) Galaxy Quest (Hugo/Nebula 2000)
8) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
7) Blade Runner (1983)
6) Back to the Future (1985)
5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
4) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
3) Star Wars (Hugo/Nebula 1978/77)
2) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
1) Alien (1979)

Next: Inception.

Saturday reading

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
The Initiate, by Louise Cooper
Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher

Last books finished
Heaven Sent, by Kara Dennison
Hell Bent, by Alyssa Franke
Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell
Soulstar, by C.L. Polk (did not finish)

Next books
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Manifesto, by Bernardine Evaristo

June 2017 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.

The month of the 2017 UK general election, where I provided BBC commentary again. The election of course left Theresa May dependent on the DUP for her parliamentary majority.

I also had two work trips to London, one of which had sidebars to Coventry for a client meeting and Canterbury for a conference – where I also caught up with my oldest first cousin, R.

I read 27 books that month.

Non-fiction: 9 (YTD 25)
Belgian solutions 1, by David Helbich
The Case for Impeachment, by Allan J. Lichtman
Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America, by Donald J. Trump

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper
Europe In The Sixteenth Century by H. G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse
Walking the Woods and the Water, by Nick Hunt
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, by Yuval Noah Harari
In Xanadu, by William Dalrymple

sf (non-Who): 10 (YTD 50)
The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, translated by David R. Slavitt
Warriors ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling
Acceptance, by Jeff VenderMeer
Dune, by Frank Herbert
De piraten van de Zilveren Kattenklauw by “Geronimo Stilton” [Elisabetta Dami]
HWJN by Ibraheem Abbas
A Woman of the Iron People, by Eleanor Arnason
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Doctor Who, etc: 5 (YTD 18)
Short Trips: Defining Patterns, ed. Ian Farrington
The Infernal Nexus, by Dave Stone
Joyride, by Guy Adams
The Stone House, by A.K. Benedict
What She Does Next Will Astound You, by James Goss

Comics: 3 (YTD 12)
Professor Bell 1: De Mexicaan met twee hoofden by Joann Sfar
Professor Bell 2: De Poppen van Jerusalem by Joann Sfar
Marzi: A memoir, by Marzena Sowa

7,300 pages (YTD 30,400)
6/27 (YTD 38/115) by women (Cooper, Rowling, “Stilton”, Arnason, Benedict, Sowa)
1/27 (YTD 13/115) by PoC (Abbas)

Great to reread In Xanadu, which you can get here, and to read for the first time both A Woman of the Iron People, which you can get here, and Artemis Cooper’s bio of Patrick Leigh Fermour, which you can get here. Donald Trump’s Great Again is as awful as I expected, but you can get it here.

The Kröller-Müller Museum; with Bosch, and a reunion

Anne and I took the opportunity of Belgium’s National Day last week to, er, get out of Belgium, and return to the Hoge Veluwe and the Kröller-Müller Museum, which we had previously visited 17 years ago in 2005. Again we stayed in the luxurious Hotel Sterrenberg; again, we spent most of Friday wandering around the museum, which boasts a fantastic sculpture park and an impressive indoor art collection.

Lots of pics of Art here. It was particularly amusing to return to Jean Dubuffet’s “Jardin d’émail” and try to reproduce the photos we had taken on a less crowded day on our previous visit.

This is the whole “Jardin d’émail” from outside.

There is a lot more. The odd Hepworth:

A very sensual “Love” by Joseph Mendes da Costa:

These are the Rocky Lumps II by Tom Claasen, made after the first Rocky Lumps succumbed to too many children climbing on it.

Indoors they have the world’s second largest Van Gogh collection.

But also other artists who I am less familiar with, like Fernand Leger and his “Soldiers Playing Cards” (1917):

And Charley Toorop and her fascinating self-portraits.

Finally, there was an exhibition of photographs under the title of “Mother, Wonder” by Roni Horn, all of landmarks (Icelandic hills, I think) that look vaguely like breasts.

Oh, also finally, here is Lois Weinberger‘s 2010 “Green Man”. Made of cactus. You can fill in the obvious joke for yourself.

On the way up the previous day, we stopped in ’s Hertogenbosch, home town of the great medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch, and visited the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center. This is a former church with no original art by Bosch, but with accurate reproductions of pretty much all of his surviving work, arranged in chronological order. I found this a fascinating way of presenting the artist’s work, and really got a lot more out of it than from the usual one or two works by him in a larger gallery.

There’s a glorious reconstructed astronomical clock with the souls of the Saved ascending to heaven at the end of time:

And finally (really finally this time), after we’d finished up at the Kröller-Müller Museum, we went just a little further to Apeldoorn and met up with A, our former au pair in 2003, who we had not seen since she was expelled from Belgium in 2004. She hadn’t changed a bit, and we had a lovely dinner with her and her partner M, before going home on the Friday night.

Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon

Second paragraph of third story (“Ghost of a Chance):

It sort of got me. Maybe because she was so tiny and her hair was so white. Maybe because, white hair and all, she looked so young and helpless. But mostly, I think, because of what she said. “There’s something following me.” Not “someone.” “Something.” So I just naturally hauled out after her.

I got this in 2020 expecting that the title story would be a finalist and indeed likely winner of the 1945 Retro Hugo for Best Novelette, and indeed it won by a long way. But it took me until now to get around to reading the rest of the collection. These are all above average stories for the pulp era, with women characters who show signs of three-dimensionality, and some great ideas. “Killdozer!”, the story of a large machine possessed by alien forces, is still the standout of the lot. You can get it here.

I was struck that in the story “Chromium Helmet”, the villain’s name is Wickersham, which was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Her nephew, Lieutenant-General Cornelius W. Wickersham, had just been appointed head of the New York National Guard when the story was written in 1946, so it was a name in the news.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next is The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell, though I think I’ll take the chance to read all of my unread Lychford novellas.

Lost, Not Stolen: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election, by John Danforth et al

Second paragraph of third chapter:

According to Michigan election officials who certified the results, President Biden carried Michigan by a margin of 154,188 votes out of 5.5 million cast.113 Biden received 50.6% of the vote and Trump received 47.8%.114 In 2016, Trump carried Michigan by a margin of 10,700 votes out of roughly five million cast.115 Trump received 47.3% of the vote.116 Clinton received 47.0%.117
113 Michigan Election Results 2020, POLITICO (last updated Jan. 6, 2021), https://www.politico.com/2020-election/results/michigan/; Michigan Bureau of Elections, Audits of the November 3, 2020 General Election 1 (2021), https://www.michigan.gov/documents/sos/BOE_2020_Post_Election_Audit_Report_04_21_21_723005_7.pdf.
114 Michigan Election Results 2020, supra note 113.
115 Id.
116 Id.
117 Id.

A short but very stern report signed by eight leading American conservative lawyers; the two I had heard of are former senator John Danforth, who was briefly the US ambassador to the United Nations in 2004, and Ted Olsen, who was solicitor-general under the younger Bush and whose wife was killed on 9/11. The actual author of most of it is presumably an unnamed researcher working for one of the eight (my money would be on Michael W. McConnell, who is a university professor and thus has access to the necessary resources of both young people and information).

In any case, it’s very straightforward: the report simply summarises all 64 lawsuits initiated by the Trump campaign and its supporters in the six key states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and describes why each was lost or withdrawn. I don’t think it will be news to anyone reading this that there is simply no evidence of fraud on behalf of the Biden campaign in those states at all, let alone anything large enough to have affected the outcome. It’s forensic and not too long (69 pages).

I dabbled in this issue a bit myself, on the morning after the 2020 election when a journalist friend called me for comment on Trump’s threat to take the election result to the Supreme Court. At a moment when a lot of commentators were holding their fire (in many cases because they were still in bed), I said on the record that Trump had no case, and that even if he did, he’d have to fight through lower level courts first. I consequently found my name popping up in mentions in Chinese (both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and presumably the mainland as well), Indonesian and Vietnamese as well as the less unusual Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Greek.

I did not think I was doing anything more than stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated, and this report does it at greater length and more effectively than me. I spoke, of course, before the 6 January 2021 attempt to overthrow the democratic results of the election, which Trump incited and directed, so it still needs to be said. You can get the report here.

The Unofficial Master Annual 2074, ed.  Mark Worgan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

A student at the London School of Economics, Delgado did not complete his degree. He only lasted 18 months working in the business sector before pursuing his dream of being air actor at the age of 20. Starting out in repertory, through sheer determination, hard work and natural talent, he became a familiar figure on film, television and radio. The list of names he worked with is a who’s who of film stars, including Alex Guinness, John Mills, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Diana Dors, Rex Harrison, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The diversity of that list shows that, whilst often typecast as the villain, Delgado was far from being a one-trick pony. He could lend his talents to a variety of genres, from the swashbuckling adventure and Hammer horror, to pantomime and comedy.

Another of the unofficial annuals, following the unofficial Doctor Who annuals for 1965, 1972 and 1987, this takes the Delgado!Master as the central character and has him endure various adventures of his own. One or two of them could have benefitted from a firmer smack of the editor’s hand, but in general it’s an entertaining exploration of one of the most important secondary characters of the show. There’s a particularly good early one with the Monk.

My copy is in the Omnibus edition with the unofficial 1965 and 1972 Doctor Who annuals, and also includes a few Seventh Doctor/Ace stories in case the series had been continued.

Out of print, sorry!

May 2017 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 Loughbrickland but immediately travelled to London for the third leg of my 50th birthday, in The Sun Tavern.

Later in the month I went to Strasbourg…

…Andorra, with its public sculptures by Dali…

…and Berlin, where I didn’t take any photos. But back in Brussels, I paid a visit to the site of the 1927 Solvay conference, beside the European parliament.

By the end of the month I was girding my loins to go to Belfast again for yet more election commentary.

A good month for reading, aided by some long flights and other journeys, and a couple of sunny weekends of sitting in the garden.

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 16)
Descartes’ Clock, by Gary Powell
Broederschap: Pleidooi voor verbondenheid / Fraternité: Retisser nos liens, by Frans Timmermans
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen, by Josephine Wilkinson

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (YTD 9)
The Parrot’s Theorem, by Denis Guedj
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
Every Step You Take, by Maureen O’Brien
A Motif of Seasons, by Edward Glover

sf (non-Who): 14 (YTD 40)
The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin
All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
This Census-Taker, by China Miéville

Lavondyss, by Robert Holdstock
The Jewel and her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde
The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire
The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd (did not finish)
Argonautica by Valerius Flaccus, translated by J.R. Mozley
An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, by J. Mulrooney
Everything Belongs to the Future, by Laurie Penny
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 13)
Short Trips: Ghosts of Christmas, ed. Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
The Dalek Factor, by Simon Clark
The Squire’s Crystal, by Jacqueline Rayner

Comics: 3 (YTD 9)
Butterscotch, by Milo Manara
Ms. Marvel Volume 5: Super Famous, by G. Willow Wilson and Takeshi Miyazawa
Saga, vol 6, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

8,500 pages (YTD 23,100)
12/28 (YTD 32/80) by women (Wilkinson, O’Brien, Jemisin, Anders, Johnson, Wilde, Maguire, Penny, Bujold, Rayner, GW Wilson, Staples)
7/28 (YTD 12/88) by PoC (Seth, Jemisin, KA Wilson, LaValle, Miyazawa, Staples)

The best of these were A Suitable Boy (you can get it here), All the Birds in the Sky (you can get it here) and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (you can get it here). The worst was The Stormcaller (you can get it here).

Moon (2009 film)

Moon won the 2010 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating District 9 (which won the Bradbury/Nebula), Up, Star Trek and Avatar. It was actually only third in terms of nominations, and won the award by only 15 votes on the final count, its lead over District 9 having steadily narrowed. I have not been keeping track, but I think that is one of the closest results in this category.

IMDB users rate it 17th and beneath the other four nominees on one system, and 26th and behind all but District 9 on the other, which is surprisingly low for a winner. I have not yet seen District 9, but I must say that while I enjoyed Moon, I would probably have voted for Star Trek myself. It looks like a strong field – I’d have certainly nominated Watchmen and Children of Earth too. (The End of Time would have been a better fit for the following year.)

There’s one returnee from a previous Hugo winner: Sam Rockwell, playing the protagonist Sam Bell in all his versions, was Fleegman the publicist in Galaxy Quest ten years earlier.

Kevin Spacey, the protagonist of American Beauty, is the voice of the computer GERTY, but we don’t see him so no pics.

Sam, our hero, whose surname ends with -ell and is played by an actor whose first name is Sam and whose surname ends with -ell, is mining Helium-3 on the far side of the Moon. He encounters his double and realises that they are just the latest in a series of clones of the real Sam, who are activated in sequence by the evil Lunar Industries and then casually disposed of. His wife, who he thinks he is speaking to on Earth, turns out to have died some time ago; his little daughter is now a teenager.

It’s not so different in concept from The Sixth Sense, but I liked it a whole lot more. It’s a modest plot, with the core concept of discovering that your identity is not what you thought it was, and the desperation of trying to work out what is going on when all available facts seem unreliable. There are some silly bits as well – why mine Helium-3 on the far side? Is animating clones by remote control really less expensive and more reliable than just training and sending new astronauts? But I think it succeeds by not trying too hard.

The effects are convincing – actually I was reading the novelisation of Moon Zero Two while watching this, which reminded me that it’s part of a long tradition. The music is great as well. So I’m putting it exactly half way down my list of Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners, in 25th place out of 49, below Young Frankenstein and above Howl’s Moving Castle, which is still a pretty good ranking.

Next up: District 9.

Saturday reading

Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen

Last books finished
Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko
The New Unusual, by Adrian Sherlock and Andy Frankham-Allen
A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger

Next books
Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Half Life, Shelley Jackson; End of the World Blues, Jon Courtenay Grimwood; Nova Swing, M. John Harrison; The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente

These were the four novels that won the BSFA, Clarke and Tiptree Awards in 2007 for work of 2006. I should say also that the Tiptree jury gave a special citation to James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, which I too found an excellent book. When I read it in 2007, I wrote:

This is surely a model of how to write a biography. Although her subject died in 1987, Julie Phillips has been through all her private papers, done the necessary bureaucratic sleuthing through her career, dug into her parents’ background, interviewed the elderly first husband and many other relatives and friends, reflected on the wider social and literary currents of the time illustrated by the main narrative, and supported it all with extensive notes.

But that’s not enough to make a successful biography. To do that you have to not only know your subject; you have to have chosen someone who is in some way fascinating in their own right, and be able to communicate that fascination to your readers. Phillips has done that admirably. I haven’t read a lot of Tiptree’s work (having said which, there isn’t so very much to read), but I think you could safely give this book to someone who had never heard of her, even someone who never reads science fiction, and sill expect them to enjoy it.

Most readers, however, will have bought this book largely to find out more about Tiptree/Sheldon’s writing; we don’t get anything about that until halfway through, but I don’t think anyone will be bored by the first fifty years of Sheldon’s life – privileged Chicago upbringing, childhood safaris to Africa, a Christmas elopement and disastrous first marriage, World War II and the CIA, psychological research, a better choice of second husband.

And then the decade of fame as SF writer James Tiptree, Jr, producing strange, memorable stories, winning Hugos and Nebulas for them, engaging in intimate correspondence with the luminaries of the genre, but all under a pseudonym which was eventually exposed. I had not realised, however, that the Hugo and nebula for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” both came after the revelation of her true identity.

The one weak point in Phillips’ analysis has been well illuminated by Farah Mendlesohn: she doesn’t convincingly explain Sheldon’s attitude to sexuality – in fairness, a complex question, and one to which we will probably never know the real answer (although Farah’s answer is more convincing than Phillips’).

I am in a rush this morning in Georgetown, just a few miles from where Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree lived and died, so don’t have time to write more about this brilliant book. But we are promised that the paperback will include more photographs, and more of Sheldon’s own art, so I may find myself buying it all over again. [So far, I haven’t.]

You can get it here. It won the relevant Hugo and Locus Awards as well, and got a citation from the BSFA (who did not make a Non-Fiction award that year).

The four novels were all new to me. I read these in reverse order of popularity on LibraryThing, so the first up is the second of three Tiptree books in this post, Half Life, by Shelley Jackson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The fact was conceived on the bus from Hollywood, where Mama’s big break had just fallen through. She had fired her agent in a fit of pique and was going back to New York, where they loved her. They being the regulars at a bohemian nightclub where she did a theatrical number that combined song and dance with dramatic monologue. Men wet their hankies when she did the sad song, and ladies in top hats licked their lips and sent her flowers. Mama peevishly plucked greasy bits out of a bag of doughnuts. Across the aisle sat my father, with sandwiches and soda and a dollhouse on his lap.

I really enjoyed this, and am somewhat stunned to find a host of much more negative online reviews. I’m used to not liking things that everyone else likes (for an example, see below), but it’s unusual for me to like something that a lot of people don’t. It’s a story about a conjoined twin in a world which is like ours except that, due to more nuclear testing, there are a lot more conjoined twins, giving rise to a whole subculture and liberation movement, and it gives Jackson the excuse to explore the politics of selfhood and medical intervention in a firm but ludic way. The sort of book that the Tiptree/Otherwise Award should be honouring. You can get it here.

The BSFA Award for Best Novel went to End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Elegant, middle-aged, and happily naked, the Japanese woman lifted herself onto one elbow, revealing a heavy breast. “He’s busy.”

I enjoyed this one too. There are two intertwined plots: an Englishman in Tokyo trying to find out who killed his wife, and a girl from a far future dying earth who has ended up in our time. I got slightly lost in places but I really enjoyed the ride. Jesse Hudson suggests that Grimwood is the 21st century Zelazny; I take the point. You can get it here.

The Clarke Award went to Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Vic’s home was a coldwater walk-up in South End which he inherited, along with his entree into the business, from a retired entradista and tour guide called Bonaventure. He had two rooms and a shower. He never cooked or ate there, though there was an induction stove and the place always smelled of old food. It smelled of old clothes, too, old tenancies, years of dust; but it was close enough to the event aureole, which was his professional requirement. Vic slept on a bed, he sat in a chair, he shaved in a mirror; like anyone else he bought all those things at a repro franchise at the end of the road, the day he moved in. He kept his zip-up gabardine jackets and Inga Malink artisan shirts in a wardrobe from Earth, rose veneer over boxwood circa 1932AD, that far away, that long ago. Out one window he had a good view of a bridge; out the other it was a segment of the noncorporate spaceport, primarily weeds and chainlink fence.

I disliked Light, the first volume of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and didn’t much enjoy Empty Space, the third volume. True to form, I found Nova Swing unmemorable and uninteresting. A lot of people rave about Harrison’s work, but I find him pretty unreadable. You can get it here.

End of the World Blues and Nova Swing were both on both the BSFA and Clarke ballots, but the other nominees were all different and I have not read any of them. The BSFA for Short Fiction went to “The Djinn’s Wife”, by Ian McDonald.

Finally, as already discussed, the Tiptree Award went jointly to Half Life and to The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente. The second paragraph of the third chapter of the latter is:

Instead, he glanced awkwardly at the steaming food. On the little square of silk lay a glistening roasted dove, fat peaches and cold pears, a half loaf of buttery bread covered in jam, broiled turnips and potatoes, a lump of hard cheese, and several sugared violets whisked away from the table garnish. He drew from his pocket a flask of pale watered wine, the great prize of his kitchen adventures.

I enjoyed this a lot. It’s a revision of the Arabian Nights, in a fantasy world of many kingdoms and races, with a much more gender-balanced set of narratives than the original (which was itself not all that bad). Lots of nesting of narrative within narrative; lots of old orders ripe for subversion or overthrow; some witty moments as well. Half Life is still my favourite of these four, but In the Night Garden is close. You can get it here.

Apart from two winners and a Special Mention for the Phillips biography, the Tiptree Award had a relatively restrained honor roll of seven novels, none of which I have read; one, The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow, was also on the BSFA ballot. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. None of the Hugo or Nebula finalists was on the BSFA, Clarke or Tiptree lists.

Next in this sequence: The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall; Brasyl, by Ian McDonald; and Black Man, by Richard Morgan.

The Lackprofil of Klingenberg

Here I am, at the age of nineteen, at the bottom of a ditch. I spent four months in the summer of 1986 working on an archæological site near Heilbronn in Germany, in the village of Klingenberg, as a volunteer on the payroll of the Land of Baden-Württemberg. (Actually the only time in my life when I have been directly paid by the taxpayer, though I’ve had plenty of taxpayer-funded work since.)

The site was a promontory fort that had been identified by cropmarks in photos taken a few years earlier. Two curved ditches had cut off the end of the hill from potential invaders. The excavation, overseen by the genial Dr Biel, was to record and rescue the remnants of a mesolithic settlement of the Michelsberger culture before a housing estate was built on it. (Pictures are from Dr Biel’s article, which is in German.)

The field, incidentally, belonged to the Count of Neipperg, who died last year at the age of 102. In the summer of 1986 he was in his mid-sixties, and would occasionally drop by to keep an eye on things. His great-great-grandfather, the dashing Adam Albert von Neipperg, famously seduced and later married the Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife. (The Count who I knew was descended from Adam Albert by his first marriage.)

Archæology has a dreadful career structure. I was doing it to scratch an itch in my year off between grammar school and university, and never planned to go into it long term. But it’s truly fascinating to find artifacts left behind six thousand years ago. Some of the clay from buildings or ceramics still had visible thumbprints made by people who died a thousand years before Stonehenge was built. It makes you think.

The picture at the top was taken by my then colleague Jan Grabowski (who has since become rather well-known for other reasons) as we created a rather wonderful thing under the direction of Dr Biel: we took transverse sections of each of the defensive ditches, and then placed canvas against them, splashed varnish over the canvas liberally to make it stick to the exposed soil, let it set and then peeled away the canvas with the soil still sticking to it, to preserve the appearance of the transected ditch. The varnish fumes got quite overpowering and we were allowed only a minute or so in the pit at a time. I’m in the less exciting outer ditch; both are on display in the museum in Stuttgart.

You can see that the version of the inner ditch on display in the Stuttgart museum is reversed.

It may not be clear from the above, but the end of the settlement at Klingenberg was not a happy one. The black marks from the inner ditch are the remains of a burnt palisade, which had broken and fallen inwards. At the bottom of the ditch we found an enormous aurochs horn, which mush have adorned the fortification as a show of strength to outsiders, ultimately unsuccessful. We found one corpse untidily dumped in a rubbish pit. A forgotten conflict, whose only remaining record was the marks in the soil and the charcoal in the ditches. As I said, it makes you think.

Three books about Kosovo

I am working on a small project about Kosovo at the moment, and improving my reading around the subject. No detailed write-ups as those are for my project notes.

Kosovo: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Unfortunately there is very little direct evidence about conditions in Kosovo during those earlier centuries of Bulgarian and Byzantine rule. We can assume that the Slav population that had settled in Kosovo was brought within the cultural realm of the Bulgarian empire, which means that it would have been included in the Bulgarian dioceses of the Orthodox church. Thanks to the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius (and their followers) in the ninth century, the Slavs had a liturgy and other texts in their own language, written in either of two newly invented alphabets: Cyrillic and Glagolitic. The western macedonian town of Ohrid developed strongly as a cultural and religious centre in the ninth and tenth centuries, and by the end of Tsar Samuel’s reign the archbishopric of Ohrid included bishoprics in Skopje, Lipljan (Alb.: Lipjan; a town just south of Pristina) and Prizren.1 Although the formal division of the Christian Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox did not occur until 1054, it would not be anachronistic to describe this Bulgarian Christianity as Eastern in the ninth and tenth centuries; the roots of the conflict between East and West went back a long way. (The Slav liturgy was at first violently rejected by the Roman Church, on the grounds that God spoke only three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin).
1 Gelzer, Patriarchat, p. 4; Gjini, Ipeshkivia, pp. 79-80.

Magisterial stuff, which unfortunately takes us only to 1997 and the emergence of the KLA. Unlikely to be bettered as a summary of historical knowledge, especially in the medieval period. You can get it here.

Stability Operations in Kosovo 1999-2000: A Case Study, by Jason Fritz. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The President and NATO members supported an air campaign because it excluded the obligation of ground forces, pressured Milosevic toward compliance, and limited allied exposure to losses. The rejection of a ground option satisfied domestic political interests across the Alliance, but limited the seriousness of the threat posed to Milosevic. NATO publicly ruled out ground forces to assuage citizens concerned about starting a new war, but the announcement also signaled to Serbia the limits of U.S. and NATO commitment.94 The guidance from the NCA, discussed in the following section as the plan developed, provided a limited set of strikes to draw Serbia back to negotiations, going so far as to give a break in hostilities to signal NATO’s preference for a bargain, while allowing for an accelerated series of strikes if that failed. Theoretically it was an ideal strategic approach: a limited use of force to compel the adversary to a negotiated settlement. It limited friendly, enemy, and civilian casualties, did not tie down U.S. forces into an occupation, and while Serbian allies such as Russia would disapprove, it was limited enough to keep Russia on the sidelines. Of importance after the operation began, not only did NATO reject a ground component, it refused to plan for any contingency that included ground forces in Kosovo.
94 Nardulli et al., Disjointed War: Military Operations in Kosovo, 1999, 22–23.

Looks at the NATO intervention, especially the air campaign in 1999, from the perspective of lessons to be learned by the US military, of which the most general conclusion is that it is sensible to think ahead of what the political leaders say they want this week, and plan for what they might want next week. You can get it here.

The Smell of War, by Roland Bartetzko. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Be a little coward! Take it easy in the beginning and don’t volunteer for any dangerous assignments. Wear your body protection, even when the whole squad is laughing at you.

Personal account of a German who fought for the Croats in Bosnia and for the KLA in Kosovo. Author subsequently convicted of murder, attempted murder and terrorism for a post-war bomb attack on a Serbian government office. You can get it here, but I think you can give it a miss.

The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

If humans are no longer evolving, the premise of the Darwin Awards is flawed. And even if the premise of the Darwin Awards is valid, do the particular stories in this book actually represent instances of evolution in action?

I got this as a freebie at Eastercon (I think as a prize in a raffle or something like that). It’s an anthology of accounts of deaths and gruesome injuries caused (supposedly) by the foolishness of the victims, the central concept being that be removing themselves from the human gene pool, the victims deserve awards for implementing natural selection. It was not really to my taste. You can get it here.

This was actually my top unread book by a woman, at the time I acquired it. Next on that list (and acquired subsequently) is Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Aleksievich.

Guy Erma and the Son of Empire, by Sally Ann Melia

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He paused to look up at St Joseph’s Cathedral, said to be the beating heart of the Dome. At the top of the entrance stairs, there was a massive door where a bishop and head teacher waited for him.

Bought this back in 2015 because it was being hyped relentlessly by the author; took until now to read it; bounced off the leaden prose and won’t finish. You can get it here.

This was both my top unread book acquired in 2015 and the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on both of those piles is Jocasta, by Brian Aldiss.

April 2017 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 Helsinki, filming the Hugo ballot announcement, which was a thing of beauty, sadly now lost from the internets. I was one of a crew of four who spent the whole day running around the city, finishing in the cemetery.

I also went to Eastercon, where I was caught on a panel with Dave McCarty talking about Hugo administration.

And the month finished with my 50th birthday.

I had a great party on the day itself in Brussels:

And another in Loughbrickland on the last day of the month, jointly with my aunt, who turned 60 the same week.

Starting to get back into my groove, I read 15 books that month.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 12)
Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg by Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman
Words are My Matter, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Fiction (non-sf): 1 (YTD 5)
The Habit of Loving by Doris Lessing

sf (non-Who): 8 (YTD 26)
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
Pounded In The Butt By My Second Hugo Award Nomination, by Chuck Tingle
The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley
Daughter of Eden, by Chris Beckett
Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer
Death’s End, by Cixin Liu

Doctor Who, etc: 2 (YTD 10)
The Cabinet of Light, by Daniel O’Mahony
The Gods of the Underworld, by Stephen Cole

Comics: 2 (YTD 6)
The Vision vol 1: Little Worse Than A Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Lars (Anders vol 1), by Kristof Spaey

4,500 pages (YTD 14,600)
5/15 (YTD 20/60) by women (Le Guin, Lessing, Chambers, Whitely, Palmer)
2/15 (YTD 5/60) by PoC (Lee, Liu)

Of these, I enjoyed Words are my Matter the most (and was delighted when it won the Hugo in Helsinki) and Too Like the Lightning least. You can get them here and here.

The easternmost dead president

So I came across this interesting article yesterday, listing the gravesites of all of the presidents of the United States (apart from those who are still alive). It is illustrated by this lovely map:

The westernmost tomb is that of Ronald Reagan in California; the southernmost is Lyndon B Johnson in Texas; the northernmost is Calvin Coolidge in Vermont. But who is easternmost? Both John Adams and John Quincy Adams rest in the crypt of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. It must be one of them.

This charming news piece has CBS reporter Levan Reid exploring the crypt and inspecting the dead presidents for himself. As seen from the entrance to the burial chamber, John Adams is on the left, followed by his wife Abigail, their son John Quincy, and finally John Quincy Adams’ wife Louisa (the only First Lady born outside the United States, apart from Melania Trump).

It’s not completely clear from this film which way round they are with respect to the rest of the church. But Openstreetmaps suggests that the crypt is at the eastern end of the church, with John Adams’s tomb the northernmost of the four and a little to the west, and John Quincy Adams therefore the easternmost of the dead presidents.

But next time I am in that part of the world, I think I will go have a look for myself.

Edited to add, 28 August 2022: I was wrong, as I discovered when I visited Quincy today. In fact the crypt is located below the portico at the western end of the church, accessed by a staircase from the interior. John Quincy Adams and Louisa are in the northern end, slightly west of John and Abigail. John Adams père is therefore the easternmost of the dead presidents.

A duel in 1723

I mentioned a few months back that I had discovered that one of my 5x great-grandfathers, John Ryan Glas (1692-1723), was killed in a duel by another of my 5x great-grandfathers, John White (married as a teenager in 1704, so born around 1685; died in 1741). White’s descendants changed the spelling of their surname to Whyte.

A correspondent who is really into the Ryan family’s history has sent me an account of what actually happened. This is from a diary belonging to Andrew Ryan (or O’Ryan) of Gortkelly Castle; unfortunately all we have is a transcription of a transcription and the last sentence doesn’t make sense. But the core narrative is there.

Oct 26th [1840]. Went as far as Drombane to Father Carey’s funeral. Met Mr. Dwyer of Annogrove and family and Miss Ryan of Clonmel and Father Butler of Templemore, met on my walk old Bill Feehan.

Had a conversation about John Ryan Glas of Inch, who he said was sent by Baron Purcell of Loughmore to value his estates.

He did so, one of the Baron’s daughters, Mrs. White (or her mother) whose husband and sisters, as she had two and no brother, wished to get the estates in lieu or part payment of her fortune, asked him hastily thinking he over valued them, would he give as much himself as them, he replied in the affirmative, on which the Baron took him at his word and told them to have them.

Ryan is reported by others to have said that he had not too much ready money but could give £300 in hand and pay the remainder £500 in a little time, the offer was accepted.

White, in some time after perceiving him in or outside a barber shop in Dublin, handed him his glove as a challenge. Both drew their rapiers and commenced to fight.

The barber’s wife, seeing the battle obstinate and victory incline to neither side, fearing lest Ryan, her customer, might receive any injury, raised the latch of the door against which Ryan, one of the most expert swordsmen of his time, had placed his heel.

Finding something give way behind his foot and turning his eye in that direction, he exposed himself to his adversary’s thrust and received the point of White’s sword in the neck. He died of the wound and was interred in Dublin.

He was married to a daughter of Theobald Mathew of Annfield , for his fighting and dual instead of Thomas Mathew (her brother) and beating antagonist.

[that last bit is confused and must be a transcription error.]

So, some of this is clear. I was aware that the fatal dispute was around the legacy of some of the land belonging to Nicholas Purcell of Loughmoe, also Baron Loughmore. The sequence seems to have been:

  1. the elderly Purcell asks Ryan to value the estates, or part of them at least.
  2. Purcell’s daughter, Mary White (or possibly Purcell’s wife, Rose nee Trevor), expecting to inherit the property in the near future, challenged Ryan’s valuation as being too high (presumably worried about tax implications) and asked if he would be willing to pay that price for the lands himself. Ryan said that he would.
  3. Purcell decided he would like the ready cash and asked Ryan to buy the lands from him, for the price he had stipulated. Ryan did not have £800 to hand, but came to terms with Purcell to pay some immediately and the rest in installments. (It is tricky to make comparisons, but £800 now is maybe £200,000 today.)
  4. Not stated, but implied: the Whites were furious, perhaps because Mary would now not be getting the lands which had been sold (Purcell may well have simply spent the cash in the meantime), or perhaps because they thought that Ryan had taken advantage of the elderly Purcell, or maybe they just did not like Ryan.
  5. Some time later (after Purcell’s death on 4 March 1722), White encountered Ryan outside the latter’s favourite barber’s shop in Dublin and challenged him, starting with the ritual slap of the glove.
  6. The two duellists were both in their 30s, and Ryan was considered an expert swordsman. But he may have been pressed by White, as he needed to brace himself against the barber’s door.
  7. The barber’s wife, thinking that she was helping Ryan, opened the door a crack, distracting him enough for White to land a fatal blow, and Ryan died soon after.

This account dates from 120 years after the event, it’s obviously not first hand (“old Bill Feehan” would surely have been born at least forty years after the duel happened) and, as I said, we have only a second-hand transcription. But most of it is consistent with what I already knew, and the one new detail – the role of the barber’s wife – is sufficiently remarkable that one can accept the story making its way from Dublin to Tipperary, and a folk memory surviving the event by four or five generations.

Also it is interesting that this is recorded in 1840. In 1839, the previous year, Ryan’s great-grandson George Ryan had married White’s great-great-granddaughter Catharine Whyte. (In 1862, their daughter Caroline married another of White’s great-great-grandchildren, John Joseph Whyte, and they were my great-grandparents.) So that will have stirred up memories of the duel among those who enjoy talking about family lore; not exactly a minority pursuit in Ireland, in 1840 or indeed now.

Many thanks to Derek Ryan for sending me the details.

Saturday reading

The New Unusual, by Adrian Sherlock and Andy Frankham-Allen
Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

Last books finished
The Smell of War, by Roland Bartetzko
Victories Greater than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders
The Unofficial Master Annual, ed.  Mark Worgan
The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente
The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik
Lost, Not Stolen: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election, by John Danforth et al
Moon Zero Two, by John Burke
Make Your Brain Work, by Amy Brann

Next books
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009 and five others, Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman winner), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The other nominees for Best Picture were Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air. Amazingly enough, I have seen none of them as yet (this was not a year when I watched the Hugo finalists). The Hugo that year went to Moon, and the Ray Bradbury Award (replacing the Nebula) to District 9.


IMDB lists it as a 2008 film, 13th on one ranking and 19th on the other. However Oscar procedures took it as a 2009 film. The other 2009 films that I have seen (so far) are Watchmen, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Coraline, and I think that’s it.

Here’s a trailer.

I found a couple of returnees from previous Oscar winners, the most visible being Ralph Fiennes as the short-lived British officer. He previously had the title role in The English Patient, and played the lead Nazi in Schindler’s List.

Anthony Mackie, now of course more famous as Falcon, is Sanborn here and was Shawrelle in Million Dollar Baby.

And we have a Doctor Who crossover: Sam Spruell is Contractor Charlie here, and was Swarm in last year’s Flux season of Who.

This is yet another war film. I knew nothing about it going in, but my heart sank as I realised that it was about American soldiers in Iraq; Platoon is my least favourite Oscar winner of them all, and I braced myself for another two hours and eleven minutes of sympathy for soldiers in an occupying army, unleavened by much consideration for the people they were shooting at. In fact it was not quite as bad.

As usual, I’ll start with the things I did not like about the film. As with Platoon, the presence of American soldiers in hostile territory is presented as an unfortunate accident of circumstances which puts our protagonists in danger, rather than the deliberate result of US government policy. (That’s as far as the script goes; but see below for a caveat.)

The US Army is shown as multi-ethnic, with Mackie’s Sanborn the second lead. But apart from the football-loving, DVD-selling kid, the only perspective that we get from actual Iraqis is that they are terrified of the Americans, or trying to kill them, or both. In reality, Iraq is a real country, with real people in it, but you would not know it from The Hurt Locker.

Given that it’s a film about bomb disposal, there is a lot of gore, including a particularly unpleasant scene with a booby-trapped corpse which may have been dramatically necessary but which I found very unpleasant to watch. Lots of shooting and a couple of beatings.

As with many (but not all) war films, it is very male. There is an Iraqi woman who is terrified of the Americans and says so loudly. The protagonist’s wife, played by Evangeline Lilly who deserves much better, appears in the last few scenes as someone for him to talk to. She has a total of one minute and thirty-seven seconds in the movie.

I’m sufficiently familiar with the methods of military bomb disposal to wince at the procedural inaccuracies as portrayed on screen. Sure, our hero is a maverick, but there are a number of basic safety things that we learned as kids in Belfast and were drummed into me again in Bosnia that you just don’t do, even as an expert. This spoiled some of the most suspenseful scenes for me.

What I did like, rather to my surprise, was the fact that the protagonist, Sergeant First Class William James as played by Jeremy Renner, is a real asshole. I think most of us have worked at some time or another with people like him – determined to be the hero, and/or the clown, and/or the rule-breaker. This transposition of a very familiar workplace dynamic into the horrors of a combat zone actually did a lot to humanise the story, more so perhaps than any of the other war movies that I have seen in this sequence. James is not a naïve young man sucked into a conflict that he cannot comprehend; he is a hardened and unpleasant veteran, who is transformed by the suffering that he witnesses, and sometimes causes.

I also really appreciated the filmography, and I am a little surprised that few other reviewers seem to have picked up on this. The whole thing was filmed on location in Jordan, literally next door to Iraq, and the urban scenes in particular conveyed what the script did not: a society devastated by conflict caused by outsiders, with a traumatised population doing their best to pick up the pieces. The desert scene with the British soldiers was a bit gratuitously Lawrence of Arabia, but well done for all that. The effects were also impressive, when I could bear to look at them.

So I’m putting it just below the three-quarter mark in my ranking of Oscar winners, in 63rd place out of 82, just below Ordinary People and just above The Departed.

The next Oscar winner is The King’s Speech, but before that I will look at District 9, Moon and Inception.

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)

Ninth Doctor and Thirteenth Doctor audios

The end of a week of Doctor Who audio-blogging – book-blogging will return shortly, but I also will try and keep more up to date with the other media I have been consuming here.

Lost Warriors is the third volume of plays featuring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, following from the welcome first set and the excellent second set. Two are OK and one that is excellent.

The first of these is The Hunting Season by James Kettle, a new writer for me, bringing the Ninth Doctor to a posh country house in the early twentieth century, which he naturally dislikes, with aliens infesting the estate. Not all is as it seems of course. Annette Badland is great as the cook, but it doesn’t quite seem to find its soul. One reviewer comments that it is the only one of these three not rooted in historical events, which may be part of it.

We’re on an upward curve with the next one, The Curse of Lady Macbeth by Lizzie Hopley. This is largely a two-hander between Eccleston and the lovely Neve McIntosh as Gruach, the historical Lady Macbeth, with an optimistic reading of her role in Scottish history which surely nods to Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, bothered by aliens again of course but also fulfilling a progressive government role.

And it peaks with Monsters in Metropolis by John Dorney, where a lone Cyberman gets involved with Fritz Lang’s movie-making in 1920s Berlin. It has a similar plot to the TV story Dalek, with Nicholas Briggs playing the monster which is changed by its survival in a human world, but the historical setting and intersection with early sf make it very different. Helen Goldwyn, a Big Finish veteran actor, director and writer, shines here as one-off companion Anna Dreyfus, Fritz Lang’s assistant.

You can get them here.

Dorney throws in a lovely and not completely gratuitous reference to Norman Hartnell, the fashion designer whose career was just getting started at the time that Lang was making Metropolis. His cousin William, seven years younger, is also known to Doctor Who fans.

And finally, I finish this write-up of recent Doctor Who audios with one that didn’t come from Big Finish.

Doctor Who: Redacted is a ten-part audio story featuring Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, released by the BBC between April and June 2022, mostly by Juno Dawson. Although Whittaker makes frequent appearances, along with Anjli Mohindra as Rani, Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver as Kate Stewart and Osgood, and a recast Doon McKichan as Madam Vastra, the protagonist is Charlie Craggs starring as Cleo Proctor, supported by Lois Chimimba as Abby and Holly Quin-Ankrah as Shawna, three podcasters who are trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Doctor and her blue box – especially when people associated with the mysterious traveller start to disappear. It’s all very well done.

The whole thing is very different from a Big Finish production – much more podcasty, much less TV-on-the-radio. It’s something of a hymn to fandom, but given Dawson’s authorship and Craggs’ leading role, it’s not surprising that it’s also a salute to Who as a safe space for inclusivity. And it’s the BBC showing the way yet again: it’s difficult to imagine Big Finish running a story with a trans lead and the two most important supporting roles played by actors of colour, or at least it was until the BBC showed it could be done.

Even outside the UK I was able to download all 10 episodes (none longer than half an hour) for free from here.

Back to books. Soon.

Jenny and Susan: The Doctor’s daughter and the Doctor’s granddaughter

Two more Big Finish audios to report on in my week of BF write-ups: these concern the only canonical descendants of the Doctor in TV Who (though there is an adopted daughter as well in spinoff fiction). Carole Ann Ford returns after fifty-something years to play Susan in the aftermath of the Daleks’ Invasion of Earth, and Georgia Tennant comes back for a second series of adventures as Jenny, the Doctor’s daughter. In both cases they are backed up by Sean Biggerstaff as the male lead.

I hugely enjoyed the first series of audios featuring Georgia Tennant as Jenny, and hugely enjoyed the second, Jenny: Still Running, as well. (In the meantime we’ve also had an excellent double header-with Peter Davison and another with Michelle Ryan as Christina de Souza.) In all cases she is backed up by Sean Biggerstaff as the naive but enigmatic Noah, who does not know his own origins.

The first of these, Inside the Moldovarium by Adrian Poynton, brings back Simon Fisher-Becker as Dorium Maldovar from the TV stories A Good Man Goes to War and The Wedding of River Song. Jenny and Noah discover that he is trying to sell a TARDIS to the highest bidder, and attempt to intervene; but the situation turns out to be more complex than they thought. Everyone is clearly enjoying themselves.

In the second, Altered Status by Christian Brassington and Matt Fitton, a closed society is gradually being taken over by Suits who strongly resemble the Mondasian Cybermen of The Tenth Planet and Spare Parts; I have always found the Cybermen the least interesting of the classic Who monsters, but a good effort is made here.

The highlight of the set is the third play, Calamity Jenny by John Dorney. As you will surmise from the title, it’s a Western story with narration by Michael Brandon (Mr Glynis Barber) and only two other named actors, Jana Carpenter (killed by the Dalek in Dalek) and veteran voice actor James Goode. There are a couple of lovely key concepts here – an unlucky crystal that causes the owner to achieve the opposite of what they want, and a neatly done time paradox. Dorney is one of Big Finish’s best writers, and that is high praise.

But I also really liked the final installment, Her Own Worst Enemy by Lisa McMullin. The first Jenny series featured Jenny and Noah being pursued by a killer cyborg played by Siân Phillips, who you may remember from I CLAVDIVS and who turns 90 next year. In this story Jenny and Noah go back along the cyborg’s timeline to try and prevent it from becoming a killer, making interesting discoveries about the future society from which it came. A core plot element, of social engineering and weeding out the unfit, is reprised from Altered Status but I think done a bit better, and there is a brutal twist ending setting up the next Jenny series. Anyway, recommended and you can get it here.

I think Siân Phillips is not quite the oldest actor to appear in a Big Finish audio; that honour must belong to William Russell, who was born in 1924 and reprised Ian Chesterton in a 2020 story starring Carole Ann Ford as Susan. I listened to that and enjoyed it during the pandemic, but failed to write it up at the time (I may get back to it).

In After the Daleks, Roland Moore (who I think is a new writer for me) tells the story of Susan and her boyfriend David (played by Sean Biggerstaff, as noted above, rather than Peter Fraser who has not been seen since 1981) in the immediate aftermath of the repulsion of the Daleks and the departure of the TARDIS without Susan on it. We have another character called Jenny, retained from the original 1964-5 story but this time played by Lucy Briers, daughter of Ann Davies who originated the role (but sadly died earlier this year) and also of Richard Briers. It’s a good complex drama suggesting that the worst monsters sometimes come in human form. You can get it here.

Dodo rebooted (with @LCornelius_): new First Doctor audios

Back in February at Gallifrey One, Big Finish of course did their best to encourage us to take an interest in their latest output; I had a couple of encounters during the convention with Lauren Cornelius, who has been hired as the new Dodo. She was born after Old Who ended, a generation after Jackie Lane appeared as the first incarnation of Dodo on the screen, but conveyed immense enthusiasm for the role and successfully charmed me into buying her first two audios.

The Secrets of Det-Sen, released two months after the death of Jackie Lane last year, features Peter Purves playing both Stephen and the First Doctor, and is the prequel to The Abominable Snowmen, where if you remember the Second Doctor has somehow ended up with the holy ghanta, a sacred bell from Det-Sen monastery, which he brings back after 300 years. It’s by Andy Frankham-Allen, whose Lethbridge-Stewart spinoff books feature a lot of Yeti. To be honest, while I loved the performances, especially Cornelius throwing herself into Dodo, I felt the plot was a bit thin, but I enjoyed it anyway. You can get it here.

The two-story boxed set The Outlaws is better in a lot of respects. Both stories are by women – Lizbeth Myles and Lizzie Hopley; the first is set around the historical siege of Lincoln in 1216, though has a strong flavour of Robin Hood and reminded me a bit of the excellent Jonathan Morris story, “The Thief of Sherwood“, not least because both feature the Meddling Monk. Myles puts in some excellent twists and gives Cornelius as Dodo some good lines, with Glynis Barber as the (entirely historical) chatelaine of Lincoln Castle and Rufus Hound as the Monk.

The second story, The Miniaturist, is a really interesting experiment – I don’t recall another First Doctor story set in or near our present day, in this case 2019. Here we have scientific investigations in a salt mine that intersect with the titular alien entity (who is played by Annette Badland), and cause both the Doctor and Dodo to take a long look into themselves as well as trying to save the day. A thoughtful piece. You can get both stories here.

I’m sorry to say that I am not yet convinced by Stephen Noonan’s First Doctor. I have perhaps been spoiled by the different interpretations of Peter Purves and David Bradley, both of whom came to it via William Hartnell (Purves knew him personally of course, Bradley played him before playing the First Doctor). Noonan felt to me a bit unmoored, giggling and chortling more than necessary. You can judge for yourself from the behind-the-scenes video:

March 2017 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 March 2017 in Northern Ireland for the Assembly election, finished the month in Helsinki for Hugo preparation and went to London twice in between for work. Here’s the first part of the election show:

And before-and-after photos with my comrade Mark Devemport.

I managed very little reading in March 2017, a combination of the Northern Ireland election and the deadline for Hugo nominations in my first time round as Hugo administrator.

Non-fiction: 2 (YTD 9)
The Intimate Adventures Of A London Call Girl, by Belle de Jour; you can get it here
The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher; you can get it here

sf (non-Who): 1 (YTD 18)
Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock; you can get it here

Doctor Who, etc: 1 (YTD 8)
Short Trips: Snapshots, ed. Joseph Lidster; you can get it here (for a price)

Comics: 1 (YTD 5)
Black Panther Vol. 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze; you can get it here

1,000 pages (TYD 10,100)
3/5 (YTD 15/45) by women (“Belle de Jour”, Fisher, “Stix Hiscock”)
1/5 (YTD 3/45) by PoC (Coates/Stelfreeze)

With only five books, it would be invidious to choose a best and worst of the month, so I won’t.

Blake’s 7: The Way Forward, and The Classic Adventures Series 01

Housekeeping point: I spent the last two weeks mainly commuting to work by car rather than by train, so my blogging has caught up with my reading backlog. This week I’m going to write up my recent audio listening instead of bookblogging. Normal service will resume at some point.

Absolutely ages back I listened to a few of the Big Finish Blake’s 7 audios (here, here and here). Around the start of this year I got a couple of full cast stories: the 40th anniversary The Way Forward, from 2018, and the first series in BF’s sequence of Classic Adventures of B7, released in 2014.

I probably listened to them in the wrong order: the absence of Gareth Thomas, who died in 2016, from the first half of the 2018 The Way Ahead is palpable. It’s a two parter centring around the character Avalon (from the episode Project: Avalon), the first part set during Series A and the second during Series C. Avalon herself and Dayna have been recast (Olivia Poulet and Yasmin Bannerman), and Glynis Barber plays Soolin’s daughter rather than Soolin for rights-related reasons, but everyone else is there – Paul Darrow as Avon, Michael Keating as Vila Restal, Sally Knyvette as Jenna, Jan Chappell as Cally, Steven Pacey as Tarrant, Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan and Stephen Greif as Travis. It’s a cracking script by Mark Wright and a great nostalgia fest. You can get it here.

Series One of the Classic Adventures certainly gave me the appetite for more. It starts with an excellent psychodrama, Fractures by the ever reliable Justin Richards (who has written more Doctor Who books and stories than anyone else alive, I think); and then goes into a sequence of five tightly linked stories by different writers, Andres Smith, Mark Platt, Peter Anghelides and the last two by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright. Gareth Thomas was still alive in 2014 and gives his best here, along with the aforementioned Paul Darrow, Michael Keating (who gets a particularly good Vila plotline), Jan Chappell and Sally Knyvette, with Brian Croucher as Travis this time, and Hugh Fraser coming in at the end as the tremendously nasty President of the Federation. This is six hours of top-notch drama for (in my country) €25, incredible value. You can get it here.

The King of Almayne: a 13th century Englishman in Europe, by T.W.E. Roche

Second paragraph of third chapter:

On the morning of 7th March, 1220, a royal messenger arrived at the gatehouse of Corfe Castle with the command of the Council to Peter de Mauley to convey the Lord Richard to Westminster for the coronation of his brother. The preliminary ceremony at Gloucester had been something of a dress rehearsal, designed to bind the country together. Now that order was restored there was no further obstacle to the fulfilment of the coronation in the traditional place. On his deathbed the Marshal had entrusted the person of Henry to Pandulf, the new Papal Legate,1 who had rather annoyed Hubert de Burgh and Peter des Roches by adopting a de haut en bas attitude towards them. Behind this ill-assorted triumvirate was Stephen Langton, ‘in the minds of many men as well as in his own the spiritual successor of St. Thomas of Canterbury’;2 and it was he who was chiefly responsible for organizing this second coronation.
1 Powicke, 46
2 ibid., 47

OK, hands up – how many of you knew about the thirteenth-century English prince who captured Jerusalem and got elected Holy Roman Emperor (though he was never crowned), at the same time doing his best to defend the Jews of England from being massacred?

Richard of Cornwall (1209-1272) is a fascinating character who has been almost completely forgotten. He was the younger son of King John, and younger brother of Henry III. As Earl of Cornwall from the age of 16, he became fabulously rich on the profits of the tin mines and took his Cornish responsibilities seriously. In 1230, he married Isabel Marshal, a rich widow and daughter of everyone’s favourite medieval knight, William the Marshal. She died in 1240 and in 1243 he married Sanchia of Provence, whose sister Eleanor was already married to his brother Henry III (their two other sisters were also married to kings); she died in 1261, and in 1269 he married a teenage Dutch noblewoman, Beatrice of Falkenburg, who survived him by only five years.

The politics of Henry III’s reign is very messy, but the dominant narrative is that of struggle between the king and the leader of the nobles, Simon de Montfort, who was incidentally married to Henry and Richard’s sister Eleanor. De Montfort is regarded in English political tradition as one of the founders of parliamentary democracy. In fact he was French, started his career in the brutal Albigensian crusade, and then took advantage of Henry III’s disastrous leadership to mount a coup and hold Henry and Richard prisoner, ruling England for a year, robbing and killing the Jews, before in turn being overthrown, killed and dismembered.

This was the most dramatic case of Richard of Cornwall’s life being disrupted by trying to extract his brother from the latest political mess he had got into. Richard’s diplomatic skills, used frequently to calm the situation in England, were frankly amazing. On crusade in 1240, arriving in Palestine after a series of military reversals, he picked up the situation and negotiated the return of Jerusalem to Christian rule without fighting a single battle. The front cover of Roche’s book shows a contemporary sketch of the negotiation.

He also negotiated the release of French soldiers captured during the unsuccessful military first leg of the crusade. This paid off less than a year later, when he and Henry III, on a speculative military expedition in France, found themselves unexpectedly confronted with a massively larger French force and facing annihilation. Richard stripped off his armour, donned a pilgrim’s smock, walked unarmed into the French camp (to the cheers of the French soldiers who recognised him from Palestine) and negotiated a dignified retreat. Extraordinary.

He had impressed other European leaders, and in 1257 the Archbishop of Cologne decided to support his election as Holy Roman Emperor, persuading three of the other six electors to vote the same way. Richard was never able to get officially crowned by the Pope – the next Holy Roman Emperor as such was not crowned until 1312, forty years after his death – but he did hold the title of King of the Romans, was crowned with that title in Aachen Cathedral, and successfully administered the Rhineland for fifteen years, though often at long distance from England.

The end of Richard’s life was not happy. In 1271 his older surviving son, Henry, was murdered in church in Italy by his own first cousins, the sons of Simon de Montfort, and a few weeks later his great-nephew, Henry III’s grandson John, died at the age of four while staying with Richard. (If he had lived, Edward I’s successor would have been John II rather than Edward II, which would have given Christopher Marlowe one less thing to write about.) Richard had a stroke that winter and died in early April the next year.

His younger son, Edmund, was a successful courtier who served as regent of England in the 1280s, but died without children in 1300. (Edmund’s wife was a granddaughter of Isabel Marshal, his father’s first wife, by her previous marriage. Pay attention, there at the back.) Richard had no other surviving children by any of his three wives, though apparently there were a number of others from less formal liaisons.

The 1966 biography by T.W.E. Roche is infused with a sense of reconnecting England to the positive elements of its continental past, and one can feel the optimism of the new approach to Europe, and Germany in particular, emanating from its pages. How times have changed…

I was left wondering about two aspects of Richard’s life. First off, he was married three times, but we are told that he also had many other relationships and several illegitimate children. Roche is a bit coy about this side of his hero’s personality.

Second, I really wondered what languages Richard would have used and known? The English court language was still Norman French, and he must have had enough Latin to manage administration, but surely neither would have got Richard very far when speaking to people in Germany or Cornwall, let alone negotiating with the Ayyubids in Palestine?

I’m glad to see that there is a new biography coming out in September – the first one in English since this was published in 1966 – and I suspect I’ll just have to get that as well. Richard’s story is crying out for a decent fictional treatment – it would be a great basis for a film or graphic novel. Meantime, you can get The King of Almayne here.

Saturday reading

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente
Victories Greater than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders
Make Your Brain Work, by Amy Brann

Last books finished
Guy Erma and the Son of Empire, by Sally Ann Melia (did not finish)
The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt
A Short History of Kosovo, by Noel Malcolm
Stability Operations in Kosovo 1999-2000: A Case Study, by Jason Fritz

Next books
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen

Intimacy aka The Wall, by Jean-Paul Sartre

Second paragraph of “Erostratus”/”Erostrate”, third story in my edition (it has been published under two different titles, so I give both above):

On a seventh floor balcony: that’s where I should have spent my whole life. You have to prop up moral superiorities with material symbols or else they’ll tumble. But exactly what is my superiority over men? Superiority of position, nothing more: I have placed myself above the human within me and I study it. That’s why I always liked the towers of Notre-Dame, the platforms of the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Coeur, my seventh floor on the Rue Delambre. These are excellent symbols.Au balcon d’un sixième : c’est là que j’aurais du passer toute ma vie. Il faut étayer les supériorités morales par des symboles matériels, sans quoi elles retombent. Or, précisément, quelle est ma supériorité sur les hommes ? Une supériorité de position, rien d’autre : je me suis placé au-dessus de l’humain qui est en moi et que je contemple. Voilà pourquoi j’aimais les tours de Notre-Dame, les plates-formes de la tour Eiffel, le Sacré-cœur, mon sixième de la rue Delambre. Ce sont d’excellents symboles.

A collection of five short stories by the famous philosopher, two of which, the first and the last, are really good; “The Wall” is the story of a man condemned to death in the Spanish Civil War awaiting his execution, and “Childhood of a Leader” is the story of an authoritarian politician’s rise to power and abandonment of his emotional connections. I was not as overwhelmed by the others; “Intimacy” is a rather dull story about sex, and portrayal of a serial killer in “Erostratus” is not really in tune with today’s Zeitgeist. But the two good ones are very good. You can get it here.

This was my top book acquired last year and my top non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney, and The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard.