January books

I have logged 45 books this month, my second highest ever monthly total since I started keeping track in November 2003. A lot of them were very short; a lot were Clarke submissions that I have put aside after fifty or a hundred pages and will get back to some time; also as the new year dawned I had almost finished several books which automatically boosted the total. I’ve also had a high page count, not quite the highest ever but I think in the top five since November 2003. I doubt if the whole year will be like this, but there’s an awfully large pile of Clarke submissions to get through…

Non-fiction 9
God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt
Diary of a Witchcraft Shop 2, by Trevor Jones and Liz Williams
Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol
Horror of Fang Rock, by Matthew Guerrieri
Battlefield, by Philip Purser-Hallard
The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams
Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan
Representing Europeans, by Richard Rose
Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland

Non-genre 2
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
λ2 (did not finish)

Plays 1
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness

Poetry 2
Metamorphoses, by Ovid tr. Stephanie McCarter
Tales from Ovid, by Ted Hughes

SF 22
Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest
All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva
“The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold
ε2 (did not finish)
η2 (did not finish)
θ2 (did not finish)
The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo
At The Edge Of The World, by Lord Dunsany
Death Draws Five, by John J. Miller
ξ2 (did not finish)
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić
The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore
π2 (did not finish)
The World Set Free: A Fantasia of the Future, by H.G. Wells

Doctor Who 5
Doctor Who: Galaxy Four, by William Emms
Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii, by James Moran
Rise of the Dominator, by Robert Mammone
Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who: Battlefield, by Marc Platt

Comics 4
Alternating Current, by Jody Houser et al.
Sin Eaters, by Cavan Scott, Adriana Melo, Cris Bolson and Marco Lesko
Neptune – Épisode 1 by Leo
Neptune – Épisode 2 by Leo

9,900 pages
17/45 by non-male writers (Williams, Cheney/Lofgren/Murphy/Luria, “Williams”, van Ivan, λ2, McCarter, Sachdeva, Bujold, δ2, ε2, η2, Vo, ι2, Ugrešić, Doore, Houser et al, Melo)
5/45 by a non-white writer (Thompson/Aguilar/Murphy, λ2, γ2, Sachdeva, Vo)
416 books currently tagged “unread”, 21 more than last month, with more Clarke Award submissions to come…

Reading now
The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus Du Sautoy

Coming soon (perhaps)
Agent Provocateur, by Gary Russell et al
Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light, by Rona Munro
Lucy Wilson & the Bledoe Cadets, by Tim Gambrell
Doctor Who: Timelash, by Glen McCoy
Timelash, by Phil Pascoe
Listen, by Dewi Small
Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. John Jos. Miller
Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard
Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C Clarke
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel
The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Howlers aside, the broader ramifications are especially worthy of note. It is not just scientists such as Dawkins, but also many philosophers (Richard Rorty being a notable example) who fail to see that secular humanism is not a neutral standpoint. It is an alternative metaphysical vision revolving around what a more searching thinker, Charles Taylor, has called ‘images of power, or untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession’.¹  We will return to this vision and its very mixed legacy more than once.
¹ Cited in Christopher J. Insole, The Realist Hope: A Critique of Anti-Realist Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Ashgate, 2006), p. 166.

One of the religion books that I have logged on my LibraryThing catalogue, even though it’s really Anne’s. I found it a lot more to my taste than most Christian apologetic works; Shortt is arguing only that there should be space in public and private for an honest appreciation of spirituality and belief, and that the New Atheists completely and deliberately miss the point. There’s a quote from Rowan Williams referencing Doctor Who. The weakest part of the (mercifully short) book is when he gets into the specifics of Christian belief, as opposed to others, but as a general defence of religion as a concept, I felt it went to a lot of the places where I find my own sympathies engaged. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book on my shelves acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams.

Sunday reading

Lots of short reads this week!

Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland
The World Set Free: A Fantasia of the Future, by H.G. Wells

Last books finished
Death Draws Five, by John J. Miller
λ2 (did not finish)
The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams
ξ2 (did not finish)
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić
The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore
π2 (did not finish)
Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan
Representing Europeans, by Richard Rose

Next books
Agent Provocateur, by Gary Russell et al
The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus Du Sautoy
Roadside Picnic, by Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky

Seaver family notes

I’ve had a good afternoon transcribing the notes of my first cousin twice removed, Henry Morse Seaver, about his family. This is also a bit of an experiment as I have published them as pages on this WordPress site, so we’ll see how that works long term.

Here are Henry’s notes on his father and the rest of the family. He had three siblings, and wrote separate notes on each: a fair bit on his older brother Walter, who moved to California, and short and sad notes on his younger siblings, sister Alice and brother Philip.

All very interesting slice-of-life stuff for me. Henry has one living grandson, and Walter has many living descendants – his second oldest grandchild was the actress Sally Seaver.

Charles and Sue Seaver
I’m pretty sure this is the four Seaver kids, maybe taken around 1887 with the two older boys sitting down; so left to right that would be Philip (born 1881), Henry (born 1873), Alice (born 1878) and Walter (born 1870).

December 2019 books and 2019 roundup

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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.

Ach, the innocent days of late 2019! We had no idea what was around the corner. At the start of the month I took B to explore a deserted church in Wallonia, little knowing that the opportunities for such excursions were shortly to become very scarce.

That was followed by an epic trip which started in Rome, went on to London, then Belfast for general election coverage and finally giving an after-dinner speech in Oxford where I sat beside Congresswoman Linda Sánchez for the evening. An old friend captured her household’s fascination with the election coverage.

H came for Christmas, and helped us get the traditional family photo.

H and I also went to the superhero exhibition at the Brussels Jewish museum:

And we had a further expedition to Laeken Cemetery:

And the week before Christmas was Gauda Prime Day, so I finished my rewatch of Blake’s 7:

I read only 16 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (2019 total 49)
Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution
, by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria Augusta Trapp
The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, by Garrett Carr
I Love the Bones of You: My Father And The Making Of Me by Christopher Eccleston

Fiction (non-sf): 5 (2019 total 46)
Girl, Woman, Other
, by Bernardine Evaristo
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
Hild, by Nicola Griffith
She Was Good-She Was Funny, by David Marusek
The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

sf (non-Who): 4 (2019 total 77)
My Morning Glory and other flashes of absurd science fiction
, by David Marusek
Being Human: Bad Blood, by James Goss
Being Human: Chasers, by Mark Michalowski
Dragonworld, by Byron Preiss (did not finish)

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (2018 total 32)
Revelation of the Daleks
, by Eric Saward
Revelation of the Daleks, by Jon Preddle
Wildthyme Beyond!, by Paul Magrs
Doctor Who: The Target Storybook, ed. Steve Cole

~4,600 pages (2019 total ~64,600)
4/16 (2019 total 88/234) by non-male writers (Trapp, Evaristo, Griffith, Massey)
3/16 (2019 total 34/234) by PoC (Dumas, Evaristo, Massey)

Several very good books here. I loved Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, which you can get here, and also really liked:

I did not especially like:

2019 roundup

I read 234 books in 2019, the fourth lowest of nineteen years that I have been keeping count. Being Hugo Administrator ate into my reading time.

Page count for the year: 64,600 – sixth lowest of the nineteen years I have been keeping count.

Books by non-male writers in 2019: 88/234, 38% – fourth highest ever (exceeded both in 2021 and 2022).

Books by PoC in 2017: 34/234, 15% – highest percentage ever, though I have exceeded the raw number both in 2021 and 2022.

Most books by a single author: Brian K. Vaughan with 7.

Science Fiction and Fantasy (excluding Doctor Who)

77 (33%), lowest of the last few years.

My top three sf books of 2019:

3) Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Great combination of loads of different SF themes – the degenerate generation starship, a very non-human civilisation; AIs pushed beyond their limits – and an intricate and well thought out plot with a satisfying ending. Won the Clarke Award in 2016. You can get it here.
2) Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman – A great YA novel combining elements of Tess of the d’Urbevilles, with a story of redemption from trauma and travel across a richly imagined landscape. A Lodestar finalist so I didn’t review it at the time. You can get it here.
1) Time Was, by Ian McDonald – Fantastic queer romance timeslip war story, tying in lots of lovely detail (both historical and narrative) and building to a conclusion that I didn’t quite see coming. Won the BSFA Short Fiction award. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard ofCat Country, by Lao She –  A very very direct satire on China of the 1930s, portrayed as a country on the planet Mars inhabited by cat people. You can get it here.

The one you can skip: Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson – A pretty rubbish example of the Celtic misht subgenre, where manly men fight battles and women do womanly druidic magic. In the very first chapter our hero is attacked by a cougar (there are no cougars in Ireland). There are tame wolves (wolves basically cannot be tamed). Ireland’s eastern coast is much more rugged than the west (it isn’t). Misspellings of Irish names abound. If you want, you can get it here.


49 (21%) – average.

My top three non-fiction books of 2019:

3) Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, The Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin, by Paul Hockenos – It’s always good when someone you like writes a book you like about a subject you like. This is about West and East Berlin before the fall of the Wall, and the early years of reunification, and music. You can get it here.
2) Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee – Great book about the men who made the Golden Age of science fiction, warts and all; a Hugo finalist which I therefore didn’t review. You can get it here.
1) Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage, by Luuk van Middelaar – A tremendously lucid look at the weaknesses of the EU’s internal architecture, and the possible ways forward. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard ofCycling in Victorian Ireland by Brian Griffin – A short but comprehensive book about the evolution of cycling from upper-middle-class fad to a mechanism to erode patriarchal and class oppression in late nineteenth-century Ireland. You can get it here.

The one you can skip: Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory by Deborah M. Withers– A jargon-filled PhD thesis which makes a fascinating subject dull. If you want, you can get it here.

Non-sfnal fiction

45 (19%) – highest in the last ten years.

3) A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara – It’s a tough read but a very good one, about four friends, one of whom is deeply damaged. The whole scenario is delicately and sympathetically observed. You can get it here.
2) The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters – It’s 1922. Frances and her mother take in Lilian and Leonard as lodgers; there is a restrained clash of cultures – and then romance, and then murder. Frances as the viewpoint character is tremendously sympathetic even when she does things that are fundamentally not very nice. You can get it here.
1) Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo – A huge range of characters across contemporary London (with some flashbacks to earlier times and other places), almost all women, almost all black, all telling their stories from their own perspective, but often those stories intersect and overlap, and we see the same relationships from different angles. Great ending. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard ofIn Another Light by Andrew Greig – Great novel cutting back and forth between 2004 Britain (mostly Orkney with bits of London and elsewhere) and 1930s Malaya, both of them vividly portrayed. You can get it here.

The one you can skip: Alina by Jason Johnson – A badly written book about unpleasant people in Northern Ireland and Romania. If you want, you can get it here.


31 (12%) – then an all-time high, since exceeded in 2020 and 2021.

My top three comics of 2019:

3) The Berlin Trilogy, by Jason Lutes – A tremendously well-done story of Berlin from 1928 to 1933, seen by just a few people caught up in the wider politics of the times. You can get volume 1 herevolume 2 herevolume 3 here, and (my recommendation) the whole lot here.
2) Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang – An everyday story of four 12-year-olds delivering newspapers in 1988 in Cleveland, Ohio, all from different ethnic backgrounds, who get swept up into a mysterious time war which takes them to the future and past, both near and far. You can get the six volumes hereherehereherehere and here.
1) Saga, vol. 9, by Brian K. Vaughan (again) and Fiona Staples. I’ve been following this story of angel-girl and devil-boy In Space for years, and the latest novel brings us to a spectacular climax, at least for now. I understand that the authors are pausing before the next one, which is frustrating but understandable. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of: Animate Europe +, by David Shaw, Marta Okrasko, Juliana Penkova, Bruno Cordoba and Paul Rietzl – Shortlisted entries from this year’s International Comics Competition on European themes, run by the Brussels office of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. You can get it here (for free).

The one you can skip: Frédégonde, La sanguinaire, by Virginie Greiner and Alessia de Vincenzi – In fairness, the first volume is fine, but the second is poorly paced and most crucially fails to finish telling the story. You can get get vol 1 here and vol 2 here, but only in French (I think there is a Dutch translation, but not English).

Doctor Who (and spinoff) fiction

32 (14%) – same number and slightly higher % than the previous year, pretty low because I had now read almost all of the Doctor Who books that there are to read. 

3) The autobiographies, and one biography – of John Leeson (buy), Mary Tamm (v1 reviewbuyv2 reviewbuy), Robert Holmes (buy), Matthew Waterhouse (buy), Peter Davison (buy), Andrew Cartmel (buy), and Christopher Eccleston (buy). That’s roughly the increasing order of quality and interest, Eccleston’s being much the best – not that Leeson’s is terrible, mind you.
2) Two particularly gorgeous handbooks from 2010 and 2014 respectively, The TARDIS Handbook by Steve Tribe and The Secret Lives of Monsters by Justin Richards. A lot of thought and effort has gone into these, and it shows. You can get The Tardis Handbook here and The Secret Lives of Monsters here.
1) The Target Storybook, edited by Steve Cole with stories by Joy Wilkinson, Simon Guerrier, the much-missed Terrance Dicks, Matthew Sweet, Susie Day, Matthew “Adric” Waterhouse, Colin “Sixth Doctor” Baker, Mike Tucker, Cole himself, George Mann, Una McCormack, Jenny T Colgan, Jacqueline Rayner, Beverly Sanford and Vinay Patel is a total delight. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of: In Time, ed. Xanna Eve Chown, the last to date of the Bernice Summerfield spinoff books from Big Finish, this one an anthology with some very good stories (which, alas, will be mostly lost on those not familiar with Benny’s continuity). You can get it here.

The one you can skip: Eric Saward’s novelisation of Resurrection of the Daleks. For completists only. If you want, you can get it here.


Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, is much much better than Faustus Kelly, by Flann O’Brien. You can get Pygmalion here and Faustus Kelly here.

Book of the year 2019

No hesitation at all in naming my Best New Book of 2019 as Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

Alternating Current, by Jody Houser, Roberta Ingranata and Enrica Eren Angiolini

Second frame of third issue:

I’ve seen some rather negative reviews of this online, but I really enjoyed it – another story of the Tenth and Thirteenth Doctors coming together, with a parallel timeline where Rose Tyler is leading human resistance to the Sea Devils, and also a return to the more recent story Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Houser catches a lovely dynamic between the two Doctors, in general it’s well realised by the artists, and I thought it was a lot of fun. You can get it here.

This was my top unread comic in English. Next on that pile is The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel.

“The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold

Second paragraph of third section:

The interior of the pavilion was shady and cool after the glare outside. It was furnished with comfortable old chairs and tables, one of which bore the remains of a noble breakfast—Miles mentally marked two lonely-looking oil cakes on a crumb-scattered tray as his own. Miles’s mother, lingering over her cup, smiled across the table at him.

Next in my sequence of joint Hugo and Nebula winners, this is an old favourite of mine. If you don’t know Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, I urge you to give it a try. Most of the stories are about Miles, a nobleman from a conservative planetary empire which is only just re-engaging with the rest of the galaxy and with modernisation, who suffers from restricted growth and brittle bones in a society where disability is abhorred.

In “The Mountains of Mourning”, one of the earlier stories in the sequence, Miles investigates and judges a case of infanticide in the impoverished back-country of his ancestral fiefdom. It’s about change to an ancient way of living, and poisonous family dynamics, and about disability in society. Every character is credibly, in some cases agonisingly, drawn. I think I first read it when I was getting to grips with my own family’s situation, and it has a special place in my heart for that reason. I think also it would be a very good place to start your journey into the Vorkosigan saga. You can get it here and here as a standalone, and here as part of a larger collection.

I’d also note that apart from the “truth drug” which Miles and his henchmen use to discover the identity of the murderer, the story could be perfectly well set in other times and places, with no sfnal elements at all.

It is interesting that the cover by Alan Gutierrez for the original publication in the May 1989 Analog, and for the later Arc Manor publication (artist not known to me), both concentrate on Miles as the focal point; whereas Ron Miller’s cover for Bujold’s own version concentrates on the empty cradle.

Also on both Hugo and Nebula ballots for Best Novella were “Tiny Tango”, by Judith Moffett, and “A Touch of Lavender”, by Megan Lindholm. The other Hugo finalists were The Father of Stones, by Lucius Shepard, and “Time-Out”, by Connie Willis. The other Nebula finalists were A Dozen Tough Jobs, by Howard Waldrop; “Great Work of Time”, by John Crowley; and “Marîd Changes His Mind”, by George Alec Effinger. I can’t recall having read any of them.

The Hugo for Best Novel that year went to Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, and the Nebula to The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another”, by Robert Silverberg, and the Nebula to “At the Rialto”, by Connie Willis. The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Boobs”, by the late Suzy McKee Charnas, and the Nebula to “Ripples in the Dirac Sea”, by Geoffrey A. Landis. And the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The following year there were two joint winners of both Hugo and Nebula, “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson and “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman, so I’ll get to them next.

All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva

Second paragraph of third story (“Logging Lake”):

He went to stand beside Terri, who was bent over a park map, nodding her head seriously as a ranger drew his finger along various possible routes.

I don’t know how I picked this up, but I am very glad that I did. These are nine tremendously varied and uniformly excellent stories. There’s John Milton, there’s a man with glass in his lungs, there’s a mermaid, there’s a girl who vanishes; more than half of them are on the sff side of the divide, and all of them are pretty magical. I usually find it difficult to write up short fiction collections, and this is no exception, but I really recommend it. You can get it here.

This waas my top unread book by a writer of colour. Next on that pile is The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo.

Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

Second paragraph of third section:

Working methodically, by midday I had filled two haversacks with canned food and had stolen for future barter three road maps from abandoned cars. I did not see the other man, Rafiq, again during the morning.

This was one of Christopher Priest’s first books, published over half a century ago in 1972, depicting a near-future Britain with a populist right-wing government, over-run with refugees from African conflicts, and the consequent disintegration of the social order. It’s told through the viewpoint of Alan Whitman (“White man”?) who is frankly unpleasant; he cheats on his wife and on his travelling companions, not for the sake of any grand strategy but because he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the book was published, the topic of migration and refugee flows has become considerably more toxic than it was then. Priest is clear that the two things he had in mind while writing were the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which saw the biggest forced population movement in Western Europe since the second world war, and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, many of whom came (and as it turned out integrated well) to the UK. Those were different times, and for us it’s impossible to read the book now outside the context of the 2015 migration crisis and the poisonous and dishonest rhetoric of recent years.

It’s not what Priest was getting at; he was looking at the disintegration of his own society under the shock of the future, a sort of It Can’t Happen Here, and mapping the disintegration of his protagonist’s household and family onto this social crisis. His target is not the refugees but the corrupt right-wing government that presides over the chaos. The narrative itself is disjointed, three different timelines (as a fugue has three different themes) jumping between several different phases of the crisis as things get worse.

I read this as a teenager and wondered how it would hold up. It’s all grimly credible from a 1971 viewpoint, but of course the world has moved on, and Priest revised the novel in 2011 to smoothe some of the parts that had aged less well. This is not one of his better known books – tenth on LibraryThing, fourteenth on Goodreads – but it was an interesting return. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016 (kindly given to me by the author, who signed it for me). Next on that pile is At the Edge of the World, by Lord Dunsany.

November 2019 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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.

November 2019 was the month that I started doing these posts rounding up monthly reading, beginning with November 2003 when I started bookblogging.

This was also the month of my infamous Ghostbusters cosplay at a work event in France.

The month had started with a trip to Washington, New York and Boston, where I caught up with an old college friend, the musician Nicholas White. (Yes, I know, confusing.)

I also went to London for the Magnitsky Awards ceremony, and wrote a blog post looking at the coming Westminster election in Northern Ireland.

I read 21 books that month.

Fiction (non-sf): 10 (YTD 41)
(counting the two Dr Strangelove books in this category, even though the punchline depends on a fictional technology)
Normal People, by Sally Rooney
The Camelot Club, by Brian Killick
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
Red Alert, by Peter George
Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, by Peter George
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
One of the 28th: A Tale of Waterloo, by G. A. Henty
My Century, by Günther Grass

Plays 1 (YTD 2)
Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw

sf (non-Who): 6 (YTD 73)
The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh
“Catch That Zeppelin!”, by Fritz Leiber
In Black and White, and Other Stories, by Jan Mark
Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss
The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikowsky

Comics 4 (YTD 31)
The Highgate Horror, by Mark Wright, David A. Roach, Mike Collins, Jacqueline Rayner and Martin Geraghty
Dragon’s Claw, by Steve Moore
Survivants: Anomalies Quantiques, vol 1, by Leo
Survivants: Anomalies Quantiques, vol 2, by Leo

5,600 pages (YTD 60,000)
5/21 (YTD 84/218) by non-male writers (Rooney, Morrison, Mark, Traviss, Rayner)
2/21 (YTD 31/218) by PoC (Morrison, Ghosh)

I really enjoyed Children of Time, which you can get here, Normal People, which you can get here, and The Bluest Eye, which you can get here. Halo: The Thursday War sailed over my head, but you can get it here (at a price).

Sunday reading

Death Draws Five, by John J. Miller
The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore

Last books finished
Neptune – Épisode 1, by Leo
At The Edge Of The World, by Lord Dunsany
Neptune – Épisode 2, by Leo
Doctor Who: Battlefield, by Marc Platt
Battlefield, by Philip Purser-Hallard

Next books
The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić

The Cubes of Herne

For Christmas, I got F a book called De Gekste Plek van België, a list of 111 weird and wonderful places in this country, which is after all the home of surrealism; and this weekend I offered him his choice of place to visit for a day trip. He picked one of the Cubes of Herne – only one is mentioned in the book, but it turns out that there are five altogether. Belgian public art has its moments, and this is one of them.

Herne is about an hour’s drive from us, as far on one side of Brussels as we are on the other. A few years ago, local campaigners persuaded various funders (mostly taxpayers) to support the construction of the wooden cubes. They are all open in one way or another, all embrace the landscape and the surroundings, and four of the five celebrate the painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who among other things painted Flemish landscapes, though I am not aware of any that have been specifically tied to Herne.

The first cube (at 50.73154, 4.03759) commemorates Brueghel himself. Like all of them, it’s 3m x 3m x 3m. There’s a Little Free Library outside.

It’s a straightforward open box, with the words “connected”, “resilient”, “respectful” and “authentic” inscribed on one wall.
Someone on Facebook asked when our album is gonna drop.
Thought to be a self-portrait of Brueghel.

The second cube (50.71373, 4.06526) commemorates Brueghels’ famous painting, “The Fall of Icarus”. (Some sources, including the information boards by the cubes themselves, have the identities of the second and third cubes the other way round; but checking local information I think this is Icarus and the next is Mayke.)

It sits in a river valley, with a pattern of open slats on the sides, maybe making you think of a catastrophic fall which leaves the surroundings untouched? Or possibly echoing the shapes of the original picture?

Icarus’ feet.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, William Carlos Williams

The third cube, “Mayken”, is named after Brueghel’s wife, Maria or Mayken Coeck. We have no records of what she looked like. She is said to have been a painter too, but no identified works have survived. The cube sits on a hill (at 50.74158, 4.10979) with good views of the surrounding countryside; it’s a long way from the centre of Herne.

We came seriously unstuck visiting the fourth cube (at 50.71207, 3.99217). It is named “Dulle Griet” after the woman in Flemish folklore who raided Hell, and is the subject of a very Boschian painting by Brueghel.

Perhaps the shape of the cube reflects the opening of Hell, a place of transition? But then why is it aligned with a distant church steeple?

It turns out that our gallant steed is not well suited for off-road action, and it managed to dig an impressive hole in the mud, attracting much scorn from passers by (including a club of elderly hunters with rifles). But a man came with a long cable and a thick accent and got us out of it.

Finally, the fifth cube, so far unnamed, sits outside a Dominican convent just north of the linguistic frontier (at 50.7009, 4.03758), welcoming visitors.

You could visit all the cubes as a long day’s walk (as this couple did), but my recommendation would be to do it by bike, starting and finishing at Herne and Enghien. We discovered the hard way that you cannot drive all the way up to some of them.

Noises Off, West End show (2023) and film (1992)

I was in London this week, and my originally booked return train on Thursday evening was cancelled due to a general strike in France (protesting Macron’s outrageous plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64). So I had an unexpected evening free in the Great Wen.

I had a browse of the last-minute tickets available for the West End. I have not been to many West End shows – the last was Hamilton, almost exactly five years ago – so it was about time to do it again. There’s actually a lot of good stuff there – I wonder if theatres are not yet back up to full capacity post-pandemic? I was tempted by Six, of which my brother is a big fan and it’s also conveniently between office and hotel; but then I spotted that Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, and starring Felicity Kendal, was actually opening that very evening; and decent tickets were available for a mere £20. Well, that was an easy decision.

It wasn’t the first night of the show – it has been touring for several months, starting in Bath (which of course is ironic because it’s about a touring play) – but it was the first night in the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road. Here’s a trailer.

In case you don’t know, it’s a play about a play, a farce about a farce; the actors and crew are performing a sex comedy while at the same time feuding with each other behind the scenes. It was first written in 1982 – this was a fortieth anniversary tour – and filmed in 1992; we’ll get to that.

I’ve been mildly obsessed with Felicity Kendal since The Good Life (which started when I was seven). She gets top billing as the veteran actress Dotty, who plays the housekeeper, Mrs Clackett; she is a sprightly 76 these days, and was a bit hoarse on Thursday night but still has what it takes, doing all the physical stuff with gusto but also not particularly hogging the limelight.

I thought that everyone was good, but that there were two standout performances. Tracy-Ann Oberman, who I know from her Doctor Who performance as the head of Torchwood who gets turned into a Cyberman, really shines as Belinda, the actress who plays Flavia, the female half of the older of the two couples in the play-within-the-play. It’s not necessarily scripted that way, but she magnetically attracts our attention as the grownup in the room trying to make sense of a crazy world.

And I had not previously seen Joseph Millson, as Garry, who plays Roger, the male half of the younger of the two couples. He has great physical presence, and in particular has a very impressive tumble down the stairs towards the end. He is 48; I don’t think I would have felt able to do that at half his age.

Given that it was the play’s first night in London, two lines in particular drew laughs, both spoken by Alexander Hanson as the director Lloyd Dallas, a role originally played by Paul Eddington:

Think of the first night as a dress rehearsal.


We all know you’ve worked in very classy places up in London where they let you make the play up as you go along, but we don’t want that kind of thing here, do we?

On the downside, I thought that the script does few favours to the two junior women characters, Brooke who plays Roger’s girlfriend Vicky (Sasha Frost here), and stage hand Poppy (Pepter Lunkuse, the one PoC on the stage). The humour of the play is a bit uncomfortable anyway, which is after all the point, but here it veers into having women characters who are funny because they are stupid, and shagging the men. The film version has a plot twist at the end about Vicky’s true mission, but if that was in the play, I missed it.

I am not complaining about the performers, who made the most of what they were given; and the staging and direction are all very tightly and credibly done. There are a couple of great sight gags with the theatre curtain itself.

The show finished just before 10, which gave me six hours of sleep before my 4.30 start for the 6.15 Eurostar on Friday morning. As I got back into my hotel, I chatted to the older couple who were sharing the lift with me, and it turned out that they too had been to the same play. We all agreed that Tracy-Ann Oberman was particularly impressive.

For an encore, F and I watched the 1992 film version last night. (Anne is away so we are experiencing a few days of bachelor life.) I had seen it years ago, but it was really interesting to watch it again with the stage show so fresh in my memory. Here’s a clip from the first act.

The dynamics of the film are completely different, even if the words are mostly the same. Michael Caine, the biggest star in the film, gets a whole framing narrative to himself. Denholm Elliot, who died of AIDS soon afterwards, is a more sympathetic Selsdon (the old alcoholic actor who plays the burglar) than was Matthew Kelly on stage, though there is a size thing here too, Kelly being much bigger physically than Elliott was.

To my surprise, Christopher Reeve seems rather miscast in the film as Frederick, who plays Philip, the male half of the older couple; Jonathan Coy, who I don’t think I had seen before in anything, seemed much more comfortable in the role on stage. And Julie Hagerty, who I generally think is great, is wasted as Poppy in the film. Reeve at 39 also seems a bit too young for his role, and Hagerty at 36 maybe a bit too old for hers; by contrast, Jonathan Coy is 68 and Pepter Lunkuse 32 (and playing it younger).

I was interested to note that the film script is a bit more risqué than the stage show; some of the humour has been toned down for 2023. Sorry, I can’t recall any specific examples, but I felt that the stage show had cut or softened some of the lines unnecessarily; though there is more use of the word “fucking”. Also, as noted above, Vicky in the film (played by Nicolette Sheridan) turns out to have a secret role which I don’t recall from the stage show, and which gives her character (though not Brooke’s) a bit more oomph.

And perhaps it was just my state of mind after a short night and a long journey, but I found the film less effective as comedy, in the second and third acts. I had expected that the camera following the various bits of slapstick closely would highlight them better for the viewer than is possible for a stage audience who have to pay attention to the whole tableau, but in fact I found myself losing track of the action. I admit that this may have just been my fatigue; F laughed his head off throughout.

Anyway, the show was well worth the twenty quid I paid for the ticket, and I think I must do this a bit more often.

Metamorphoses, by Publius Ovidius Naso, translated by Stephanie McCarter; and Tales from Ovid, translated by Ted Hughes

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault

My normal practice is to give you the second paragraph of the third chapter of the books I read. Here there is a problem because the second paragraph of Liber III of the Metamorphoses is a bit meaningless out of context, and also not translated by Hughes; whereas the second paragraph of the third of Hughes’ extracts from Ovid is an interpolation by him with no original Latin text to compare it to. So instead, here is the third paragraph of Liber I, starting with the original and the McCarter translation, part of the passage on the Creation:

Sic ubi dispositam quisquis fuit ille deorum
congeriem secuit sectamque in membra coegit,
principio terram, ne non aequalis ab omni
parte foret, magni speciem glomeravit in orbis.
tum freta diffundi rapidisque tumescere ventis
iussit et ambitae circumdare litora terrae;
addidit et fontes et stagna inmensa lacusque
fluminaque obliquis cinxit declivia ripis,
quae, diversa locis, partim sorbentur ab ipsa,
in mare perveniunt partim campoque recepta
liberioris aquae pro ripis litora pulsant.
iussit et extendi campos, subsidere valles,
fronde tegi silvas, lapidosos surgere montes,
utque duae dextra caelum totidemque sinistra
parte secant zonae, quinta est ardentior illis,
sic onus inclusum numero distinxit eodem
cura dei, totidemque plagae tellure premuntur.
quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu;
nix tegit alta duas; totidem inter utramque locavit
temperiemque dedit mixta cum frigore flamma.
When he (whichever god it was) had carved
that now neat heap and shaped it into parts,
he next, to make it equal all around,
sculpted the earth till it became a sphere.
He poured out seas, then ordered them to swell
with gales and wrap the shores of circled land.
He added springs, great lakes, and ponds. He shut
the sloping rivers in meandering banks—
some of these are absorbed by earth, while others
flow to the deep and, welcomed in its vast
expanse of water, pound not banks but shores.
He ordered fields to spread, valleys to sink,
leaves to enshroud the woods, and peaks to rise.
And as two zones divide the sky’s right side
and two the left, the middle fifth one warmer,
just so the god partitioned earth within,
imprinting it with tracts of this same number.
The middle zone is far too hot for life,
the outer two too deep with snow. He placed
two more between, a blend of heat and cold.

48 tracts of this same number: The earth

is divided into five zones: the middle
equatorial zone (too hot for life), the two
outer polar zones (too cold for life), and,
between these, the two temperate zones
(conducive to life).

Ted Hughes’ translation of the same passage:

When the ingenious one
Had gained control of the mass
And decided the cosmic divisions
He rolled earth into a ball.
Then he commanded the water to spread out flat,
To lift itself into waves
According to the whim of the wind,
And to hurl itself at the land’s edges.
He conjured springs to rise and be manifest,
Deep and gloomy ponds,
Flashing delicious lakes.
He educated
Headstrong electrifying rivers
To observe their banks – and to pour
Part of their delight into earth’s dark
And to donate the remainder to ocean
Swelling the uproar on shores.
Then he instructed the plains
How to roll sweetly to the horizon.
He directed the valleys
To go deep.
And the mountains to rear up
Humping their backs.
Everywhere he taught
The tree its leaf.
Having made a pattern in heaven –
Two zones to the left, two to the right
And a fifth zone, fierier, between –
So did the Wisdom
Divide the earth’s orb with the same:
A middle zone uninhabitable
Under the fire,
The outermost two zones beneath deep snow,
And between them, two temperate zones
Alternating cold and heat.

Way way back 40 years ago, I studied Latin for what were then called O-levels, and one of the set texts was a Belfast-teenager-friendly translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I loved it. If you don’t know, it’s a narrative poem in fifteen books re-telling classical legends, concentrating in particular on those where there is a change of shape – usually humans turned into animals, vegetables or minerals, though with other variations too. It’s breezy, vivid and sometimes funny, and it’s been a store of easily accessible ancient lore for centuries.

I’d always meant to get back to it properly, and it finally popped up on my list of books that I owned but had not yet blogged here. However, my 40-year-old copy is safely in Northern Ireland, so I acquired both the latest Penguin translation, by Stephanie McCarter, and Ted Hughes’ selection of twenty-four choice chapters, and read them – I took the McCarter translation in sequence, and then jumped across to read the relevant sections if Hughes had translated them, though he put them in a different order.

I do find Ovid fascinating. In some ways he speaks to the present day reader very directly – a lot of the emotions in the Ars Amatoria could be expressed by lovers two thousand years later. But here he’s taking material that was already very well known, the Greek and Roman classical legendarium, and repackaging it for a sophisticated audience in the greatest city in the world. The book ends (McCarter’s translation):

Where Roman power spreads through conquered lands,
I will be read on people’s lips. My fame
will last across the centuries. If poets’
prophecies can hold any truth, I’ll live.

And he did. I have been particularly struck by Ovid’s popularity among the patrons of my favourite 17th-century stuccador, Jan Christiaan Hansche. A number of his most interesting ceilings feature stories from Ovid, some of them well known, some less so. Sixteen centuries after Ovid laid down his pen, his work was still part of the standard canon of literature known to all educated Western Europeans.

So. The two translations are different and serve different purposes. McCarter’s mandate was to translate the whole of the Metamorphoses into iambic pentameter in English. She is necessarily constrained to giving us an interpretation of Ovid’s text, with all of its limitations, and confining her own original thoughts to footnotes and other supporting material.

In a very interesting introduction, she is clear about the many scenes of rape in the story. But she also makes it clear that Ovid has a lot more active female characters than are in his sources, and they get more to do. She gives some telling examples of previous translators projecting later concepts of femininity onto Ovid’s fairly unambiguous original words.

Given the contemporary debate, it’s also interesting that Ovid has several examples of gender fluidity – not really presented as a standard part of everyday life, but nonetheless as a phenomenon that happens. For Ovid, we must simply accept that someone’s current gender may not be the one that they were born with.

Ted Hughes, on the other hand, was translating favourite bits of Ovid because he had reached the stage of his career where he could do what he wanted. He could leave out all the bits he found boring (I haven’t counted, but I think he translates about only 40% of Ovid’s text), and he could add his own flourishes at will. Inevitably this makes for a more satisfactory reading experience, though it is incomplete.

Both translations bring to life Ovid’s vivid imagery, which really throws you into the narrative. For a compare and contrast passage, here is the beginning of their treatment of the story of Phaethon, the son of the Sun who crashed to disaster trying to drive his father’s chariot (a favourite topic for Hansche). I think that the differences speak for themselves:

The Sun’s child Phaethon equaled him in age
and mind. But Epaphus could not endure
his boasts, his smugness, and his arrogance
that Phoebus was his father and declared,
“You crazily trust all your mother says!
Your head is swollen by a phony father!”
Phaethon blushed as shame repressed his wrath.
He took these taunts to Clymene, his mother,
and told her, “Mother, to upset you more,
although I am free-spoken and quick-tempered,
I could not speak, ashamed these insults could
be uttered and that I could not refute them.
If I am truly born of holy stock,
give me a sign and claim me for the heavens!”
Wrapping his arms around his mother’s neck,
he begged—by his life, Merops’ life, his sisters’
weddings—that she give proof of his true father.
When Phaethon bragged about his father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him.
‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’
In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.
‘If it’s true, Mother,’ he cried, ‘if the sun,
The high god Phoebus, if he is my father,
Give me proof.
Give me evidence that I belong to heaven.’
Then he embraced her. ‘I beg you,
‘On my life, on your husband Merops’ life,
And on the marriage hopes of my sisters,
Only give me proof that the sun is my father.’

I think I’d recommend that a reader unfaniliar with Ovid start with Hughes and then go on to McCarter to get the full story. You can get the McCarter translation here and Hughes here.

This was the top book on my shelves that I had read but not yet blogged. Next on that list is rather different – The Cider House Rules, by John Irving. It’s also right at the end of my 2023 books queue so it will be a while before you hear about it.

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Chisom’s mother agreed. ‘Yes, indeed. If only we had stayed in touch.’

A 2009 novel set in Belgium, about four women who have been trafficked from Nigeria for sex work in Antwerp (on Zwartzusterstraat, though in the novel the street name gets an extra ‘e’). Their back stories in Nigeria (and in one case Southern Sudan, as it then was) are well depicted, but the Antwerp sections are inconsistent, sometimes tightly described, but particularly towards the denouement at the end (which is signalled from the beginning) rather under-written in places. It’s important to give the victims of human trafficking their voices, and the novel asks and answers important questions, but I was a bit frustrated by the inconsistencies of structure and style. You can get it here.

This is the last blog post about a book that I finished in 2022, other than the Clarke nominees. (The last book I finished in December was Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric, but I have already written it up.)

What If? by Randall Munroe

Second paragraph of the answer to the question in the third chapter, which is “What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?”

Spent fuel from nuclear reactors is highly radioactive. Water is good for both radiation shielding and cooling, so fuel is stored at the bottom of pools for a couple decades until it’s inert enough to be moved into dry casks. We haven’t really agreed on where to put those dry casks yet. One of these days we should probably figure that out.

This is a collection of short pieces originally published on the XKCD website, scientific answers to peculiar questions. They all seem to be well thought out, with plenty of detail, and it’s also very very funny in places.

They say lightning never strikes in the same place twice. “They” are wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a little surprising that this saying has survived; you’d think that people who believed it would have been gradually filtered out of the living population.

I guess I didn’t learn a lot from the book, but it’s great that it states the obvious in a breezily engaging manner. One thing that I did get from it is the brilliant Welikia website which reconstructs Manhattan Island before European settlement. But mostly I just enjoyed the ride. You can get it here.

This was my top unread non-fiction book. Next on that pile is My Family and Other Animals, by George Durrell.

A Ship is Dying, by Brian Callison

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Had she not been swinging hard under full helm − had she, instead, taken the initial impact of the blow full on her reinforced stem − then she would have crumpled, flooded her forepeak tank, breached the collision bulkhead, even breached her forward hold space . . . yet Lycomedes might still have survived.

I had read this when I was 19 and living in Germany, and was moved to search it out again a few years ago – but then did not get around to reading it; it was the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. It’s a vivid and succinct account of the sinking of a cargo ship in a storm on the North Sea, as the result of a collision with an uncrewed barge. The writer takes us inside the heads of many of the crew as catastrophe hits them hard and swiftly. I remembered several of the most striking images very clearly from thirty-five years ago. No women, of course, and a rather dodgy portrayal of the one Chinese crewman (though that is somewhat subverted at the end). But the big picture is very memorably done. You can get it here.

Next in the stack of long-unread non-genre fiction is Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness.

October 2019 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

We started the month with a wedding anniversary trip to Dordrecht in the Netherlands, reported in two blog posts:

I also went to a conference in the mountains in Slovakia, where there were lovely views:

And linguistic education:

I seem to have had a day in London too, but I can’t remember why. At the end of the month, colleagues from work had a volunteering day assembling tents for the Halloween party at the institution where B and U live.

And I blogged about the origins of the letters of the alphabet.

In the real world, the agony of Brexit reached a temporary pause as Boris Johnson agreed the bones of a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU; I reflected on why I had not seen it coming.

I read 17 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 45)
Sheelagh Murnaghan, 1924-1993: Stormont’s Only Liberal MP, by Ruth Illingworth
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence
Is There Life Outside The Box? An Actor Despairs, by Peter Davison
Luck and the Irish, by Roy Foster
849FD71B-1A8E-4FF1-AB14-A6DFACBC20E1.jpeg 912DDAAA-AC4C-4F96-94B5-79913BDF93B5.jpeg B47B0334-756F-4C84-9462-B361CF7FF988.jpeg 4578C5AF-5846-4A27-AEFE-9738EB15B8D5.jpeg

Fiction (non-sf): 6 (YTD 31)
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
Sybil, by Benjamin Disraeli
The Nannies, by Brian Killick
The Heralds, by Brian Killick
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Eilif Shafak
Beneath The Dome, by Brian Killick

sf (non-Who): 4 (YTD 67)
Cloud and Ashes, by Greer Gilman
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Be My Enemy, by Ian McDonald
The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester

Doctor Who, etc: 1 (YTD 26)
The Triple Knife, and other Doctor Who stories, by Jenny T. Colgan

Comics 2 (YTD 27)
Frédégonde, la sanguinaire, Tome 1, by Virginie Greiner and Alessia de Vincenzi
Frédégonde, la sanguinaire, Tome 2, by Virginie Greiner and Alessia de Vincenzi

5,400 pages (YTD 54,400)
7/17 (YTD 79/197) by non-male writers (Illingworth, Shafak, Gilman, Russell, Colgan, Greiner/de Vincenzi x 2))
0/17 (YTD 29/197) by PoC (I don’t think Peter Davison counts himself in this category)

Of these, I really enjoyed The Bastard of Istanbul, which you can get here, and was pleased to return to The Sparrow, which you can get here. However, as noted here recently, I rather bounced off Cloud & Ashes, which you can get here.

Sunday reading

At The Edge Of The World, by Lord Dunsany
Neptune – Épisode 1 by Leo

Last books finished
η2 (did not finish)
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness
θ2 (did not finish)
Rise of the Dominator, by Robert Mammone
Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol
The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock, by Terrance Dicks
Horror of Fang Rock, by Matthew Guerrieri

Next books
Death Draws Five, by John J. Miller
Penric’s Progress, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Doctor Who: Battlefield, by Marc Platt

BSFA long-lists: Goodreads and LibraryThing stats

I’m glad to see the BSFA long-lists are out, always a fun start to one’s reading year (except that at present I am overwhelmed by Clarke submissions).

But these long-lists are long. 18 for Best Book for Younger Readers; 32 for Best Non-Fiction; 36 for Best Artwork; 68 for Best Novel (down from 74 last year); and a stonking 77 for Best Short Fiction. I have to wonder how useful any long-lists as long as this can really be. I also wonder to what extent such an open nominations process can be exploited for marketing purposes. There is still some desirable kudos to being a BSFA long-listed author, even if the barrier to achieving that status is rather low.

As I have done before, I’ve looked at the Goodreads and LibraryThing statistics for the two most relevant categories, Best Book for Younger Readers and Best Novel, ranked by the geometrical average of the number of Goodreads users who have rated each book, and the number of LibraryThing users who have recorded owning it.

For Best Book for Younger Readers, I have bolded the top five in each column. The only book to get all four numbers in bold is All That’s Left in the World, by Erik J. Brown.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating 
Only A Monster, by Vanessa Len157073.914433.67
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, by Juno Dawson79483.893773.78
Violet Made of Thorns, by Gina Chen91893.653044
All That’s Left in the World, by Erik J. Brown117204.31874.12
This Vicious Grace, by Emily Thiede64834.12254.11
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, by Xiran Jay Zhao23244.19894.22
The Kindred, by Alechia Dow12063.68634.17
Beasts of Ruin, by Ayana Gray8594.2594
Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge5644.22474.2
Illuminations, by T Kingfisher7214.19294.06
Mindwalker, by Kate Dylan5844.23344
Survive the Dome, by Kosoko Jackson6163.62304
Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods, by Catherynne M. Valente2334.36334.5
Secret of the Stormforest, by L.D. Lapinski2784.369
The Comet, by Joe Todd-Stanton1634.48114
Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Taking The Blame, by Louie Stowell894.3664
Born Andromeda, by K.M. Watts253.6853
The Fox’s Tower, by Sam Thompson00

And here’s the Best Novel long-list, with the top quintile in each column in bold. Again only one book manages this in all four columns: Babel, by R. F. Kuang.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating 
Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel1121064.1515734.07
Babel, by R. F. Kuang453304.3613104.24
The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd425993.679383.52
Daughter of the Moon Goddess, by Sue Lynn Tan378404.188613.95
Upgrade, by Blake Crouch525603.845803.78
To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara275833.795363.86
Nettle & Bone, by T Kingfisher218934.246044.29
How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu248533.895253.83
What Moves the Dead, by T. Kingfisher202603.984414.07
Lapvona, by Otessa Moshfegh222003.593253.36
The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean145683.724663.98
Amongst Our Weapons, by Ben Aaronovitch103844.353943.99
Sundial, by Catriona Ward96413.812413.86
Spear, by Nicola Griffith31964.142464.02
Eyes of the Void, by Adrian Tchaikovsky58874.221314.02
Stone Blind, by Natalie Haynes40244.031733.82
The Grief of Stones, by Katherine Addison32074.332124.16
Eversion, by Alistair Reynolds35654.041683.96
Ocean’s Echo, by Everina Maxwell27354.231423.91
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments, by Tendai Huchu21153.971594.06
Leech, by Hiron Ennes22543.71243.57
Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi10943.311503.57
Time Shelter, by Georgi Gospodinov27124.08563.64
Light Years From Home, by Mike Chenn17973.57664.1
A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys8413.711203.4
The Spear Cuts Through Water, by Simon Jimenez10004.27964.21
Children of Memory, by Adrian Tchaikovsky16174.16574.58
The Moonday Letters, by Emma Itaranta11623.82693.63
The Path of Thorns, by Angela Slatter11624.09584.06
Stars and Bones, by Gareth Powell9743.7593.29
The Men, by Sandra Newman9743492.54
Under Fortunate Stars, by Ren Hutchings8434.01554.05
Braking Day, by Adam Oyebanji8544.02523.84
Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman8103.88503.88
The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard4653.65604.18
Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge5644.22474.2
The Circus Infinite, by Khan Wong3933.62453.5
City of Last Chances, by Adrian Tchaikovsky3324.04414.25
The Immortality Thief, by Taran Hunt3724.23344
The This, by Adam Roberts2573.92453.9
Echoes of Eternity, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden6054.53155
Mischief Acts, by Zoe Gilbert2403.98323.75
Picard: Second Self, by Una McCormack2394.26175
Beyond the Burn Line, by Paul McAuley1453.66283.5
Flight of the Aphrodite, by Simon Morden1983.99163.83
Glitterati, by Oliver K. Langmead1443.73193.92
Plutoshine, by Lucy Kissick1124.1163.5
Expect Me Tomorrow, by Christopher Priest743.65234
A Fractured Infinity, by Nathan Tavares743.76153.5
Cold Water, by Dave Hutchinson654.37174.75
The Green Man’s Gift, by Juliet E. Mckenna1354.4564
HellSans, by Ever Dundas893.8483
Mage of Fools, by Eugen Bacon324.03223.22
Embertide, by Liz Williams484.4694.25
Jackdaw, by Tade Thompson474.115
In the Heart of Hidden Things, by Kit Whitfield434.214
The Way the Light Bends, by Lorraine Wilson274.4144
Resilient, by Allen Stroud234.174
Night Ivy, by E. D. E. Bell174.293
Celestial, by M. D. Lachlan213.192
The Coral Bones, by EJ Swift94.784
On the Brink, by R. B. Kelly44.755
Ocean of Stars, by John Dodd123.921
Empathy, by Hoa Pham141
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way, by Alistair Mackay674.640
From Death to Dawn, by Chele Cook134.540
Cast Long Shadows, by Cat Hellisen163.880
Harpan’s Worlds, by Terry Jackman130

It is interesting to note that some of these books have had more nominators for the BSFA awards than they have registered owners on Goodreads or LibraryThing. Not pointing any fingers, but I think there may be a couple of cases of friends and family helping out here.

Spotlight (Oscar-winning film)

Content warning: references to child sexual abuse.

Spotlight won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2015 and only one other, Best Original Script. As previously noted, Mad Max: Fury Road won six Oscars that year as well as the SFWA Ray Bradbury Award. The other Best Picture contenders included Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian (which won the Hugo), and five that I have not seen, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, The Revenant and Room.

2015 is another year from which I have seen very few films. Apart from those already mentioned, I have seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Terminator Genesys and the Belgian film The Brand New Testament. It is difficult to rank them, especially as Spotlight is the only one which is not science fiction or fantasy, but I think they are all pretty good and Spotlight is perhaps the most Oscar-y. IMDB voters put it 10th on one ranking and 24th on the other, with Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian ahead of it on both rankings.

Here’s a trailer.

One of the male leads was also the male lead in last year’s Oscar winner, Birdman; is is Michael Keaton, journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson here and disappointed actor/superhero Riggan last year. It’s not the first time we’ve had a lead actor in consecutive Oscar winners, and in fact we had Clark Gable in three years out of six in the 1930s. (Mutiny on the Bounty, It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind.)

Mark Ruffalo, the other male lead this year as journalist Mike Rezendes, was Bruce Banner / The Hulk in Hug-winning The Avengers in 2012.

Further down the list, Dennis Lynch has a bit part here as a courtroom clerk and was also one of Jack Nicholson’s henchmen in The Departed nine years ago, but I can’t be bothered to hunt down pictures.

The film is about the work done in 2001-2002 by the Spotlight team of journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper to expose the Catholic church’s systematic cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests, which resulted in the resignation in disgrace of Boston’s Cardinal Archbishop, Bernard Law. I thought it was pretty good. It is a hugely dramatic and sensitive topic, but the story concentrates on the shoe leather worn out by the team of journalists in pursuing the story, illuminating it with the details of the crimes that had been committed. It’s a subtle approach which works.

Inevitably I must note that there are practically no black speaking characters – there is a cop who I think gets three lines. Of course this is a story about white people being evil to other white people. But I was a bit surprised at just how white the film turned out to be. Boston is 25% African-American, and they can’t all be Protestants or Muslims.

There’s only one important woman character, Rachel McAdams playing journalist Sasha Pfeiffer, and she’s great as are the rest of the leads.

This is the second Oscar winner after The Departed to be set in and around Boston, and the second after Gentleman’s Agreement about journalism exposing a massive scandal. I liked it a lot more than either. Although I am not a journalist, I have hung around enough news rooms to get a sense of what they are like as working environments, and I am part of the information economy in the broader sense. I am sure that many of the actual details in Spotlight are not exactly as they happened in real life, but I liked the fact that the film portrays its protagonists as hard workers rather than heroes; there is a painful scene of reflection at the end where they discuss how and the Globe had sat on the story for years, despite having a decent lead.

The ongoing clerical child abuse scandals were the biggest factor that pushed me personally away from the Catholic church, and I am not alone. Fortunately this is not the result of any personal experience of mine. I was educated by nuns, who are in general less likely to be perpetrators than male priests, but as a sixth-former I did spend a week on an exchange visit to the Catholic school at Downside Abbey in Somerset. I felt then that it had a dreadful internal atmosphere of repression. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that several monks at Downside had abused pupils, though as far as I can tell, none of them were teaching there at the time of my visit in 1984. However, a later headmaster burned a wheelbarrow’s load of confidential personnel files in 2012. I am drawing my own conclusions.

I thought that the film dealt with the subject sensitively. Abuse is at the centre of the story, but it is not sensationalised; key elements of the narrative also include the cover-up of the truth by the establishment, and the bitter disappointment of people like me who expected better from their spiritual leaders.

So, in general a thumbs up for this, and I am putting it a third of the way down my league table of Oscar winners, below The Sting but above Chicago.

Next up is Moonlight, of which I know nothing.

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)

The Ahtisaari Legacy: Resolve and Negotiate, ed. Nina Suomalainen and Jyrki Karvinen

Second paragraph of third chapter (“The Right to be Buried”, by Helena Ranta):

When we boarded the plane again, there were only four Finns left. The plane flew low and the devastation of the war could be seen clearly as we approached Sarajevo Airport.

This is a lovely collection of eleven short papers by Finns involved with peace-making in the Balkans, pulled together to commemorate the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari in 2008. I myself worked with Ahtisaari quite a lot in the 2002-2008 period, and the collection was given to me by co-editor Nina Suomalainen. He is ill now, but I am sure that he appreciated this collection at the time.

These are all very good papers. Contributors include Ahtisaari himself, three others who I know personally (Olli Rehn, Alpo Rusi and Kai Sauer), and also Elisabeth Rehn – who was defeated by Ahtisaari in the 1994 presidential election – and the late Harri Holkeri, who I knew by sight from both the Northern Ireland peace talks, where he was one of George Mitchell’s co-chairs, and his stint as head of the UN in Kosovo.

The Finns have a reputation for being somewhat silent (the joke is that you can tell an extrovert Finn, because they look at your shoes), but these are all eloquent accounts of personal experience in a region where the Finns felt needed and useful. Most of the details are about Kosovo at its different stages, with both Ahtisaari and Sauer giving their accounts of the diplomatic process that led to independence, and Holkeri trying to give his own side of the story to explain his disastrous tenure. (Ahtisaari pushed for his appointment, which was surely a mistake.)

But I learned most from two people I had not heard of; Arto Räty gives an account of what it is like to be a peacekeeper in a NATO mission at a time when Finland’s relationship with NATO was less comfortable than it is now, and Terhi Nieminen-Mäkynen tells us about being the unelected, UN-appointed mayor of the southern Kosovo town of Prizren.

The other thing I learned – though of course the authors are a self-selected and not necessarily representative sample – is that Finns feel quite strongly about the Balkans. Their own nation emerged from conflict and spent most of the twentieth century uneasily balance between two blocs; older Finns can recall when they and Tito’s Yugoslavia were the lynchpins of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Helsinki hosted the signing of the Final Act which laid the groundwork for the peaceful ending of the Cold War fifteen years later.

I should note that Finns feel equally strongly, if not more so, about Ukraine, having themselves emerged from a century of Russian dominance. The current war has pushed them directly to join NATO. It did not always look inevitable. I remember a lunch in Kyiv in 2005 where I was sitting between Martti Ahtisaari and Thorvald Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian foreign minister. Stoltenberg leaned across me to say, “Martti! Congratulations! I hear that you have tripled the support for NATO membership in Finland!” Ahtisaari replied, “Yes! From 5% to 15%!” That was then, this is now, and Stoltenberg’s son is now the NATO Secretary-General.

Unfortunately this book is out of print and there seem to be no second-hand copies available, so I can’t supply my usual “get it here” link, and I am all the more grateful to Nina for giving it to me in 2016. I’m ashamed to say however that this was the non-fiction book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Diary of a Witchcraft Shop 2 by Trevor Jones and Liz Williams.

Shadows of Amber, by John Betancourt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Two hundred yards away, I paused and looked over my shoulder. At that moment, branches and tree trunks burst outward into splinters. Something large and black and nearly shapeless moved half behind the cover of the forest, half in the open. Rounded black limbs reached a hundred feet into the sky. More limbs stretched from the forest at ground level, toward me. At their touch, bushes and trees lost their leaves, turned gray, and collapsed in puffs of dust. Grass withered and died. The stream froze. Even as far away as I now stood, I felt a sharp coldness radiating from its darkly massive body.

Fourth and, praise be to God, final of the prequels to Roger Zelazny’s classic Amber series. It’s noticeably shorter than the other three, as if the writer had simply given up. Understandable if so. I read it several days before writing this and can’t now remember anything about it. You can get it here.

This was the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Death Draws Five, edited by George R.R. Martin.

“Schrödinger’s Kitten”, by George Alec Effinger; “The Last of the Winnebagos”, by Connie Willis; and the art by Charles Pfahl and Laura Lakey illustrating both stories

Content warning: brief mention of sexual assault

These two stories both won the Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1989 for work published in 1988. For completeness, the Hugo for Best Novel went to Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, and the Nebula to Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold; the Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick and the Nebula to “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge” by James Morrow; and the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The second paragraph of the third section of “Schrödinger’s Kitten”, which won both Best Novelette awards, is:

Leaning against a grimy wall, Jehan heard the chanted cries of the muezzins, but she paid them no mind. She stared at the dead body at her feet, the body of a boy a few years older than she, someone she had seen about the Budayeen but whom she did not know by name. She still held the bloody knife that had killed him.

Before I get into the story, I’m going to talk about the art that illustrated it. The opening page has this gorgeous painting of a woman wearing a flowing red dress, seen from above, credited to Charles Pfahl.

I have checked with Pfahl’s widow, his third wife Sharon van Ivan, and she informs me that this is “Patterns I”, part of a set of three paintings for which his second wife Charlotte Pfahl (nee Charlotte Weltys) was the model. Here is “Patterns II”, from a 2017 auction card:

In the third painting, “Spectrum”, shown in Joe Singer’s 1977 book, Charles Pfahl: Artist at Work, the model is definitely Charlotte again, wearing what appears to be the same dress but this time back to front – note the very high neckline, and the two blue buttons which are visible on her back in the first picture.The setting is their apartment on 45th Street in New York.

Sharon van Ivan informs me that all three paintings would have been done between 1973 and 1975, long before Omni published one of them in 1988. Charles died in 2013, aged 67; Sharon maintains his legacy website, and Charlotte is still practicing law.

The story was accompanied also by two unrelated humorous cartoons, neither of which is really very funny.

Anyway. “Schrödinger’s Kitten” is about a young Arab woman, Jehan Fatima Ashûfi, living in the 1930s, who is conscious of numerous diverging realities a la Everett’s “many worlds” hypothesis. Maybe she is raped by a neighbour and disowned by her family; maybe she kills her future rapist and is sentenced to death; maybe she is rescued from the scaffold by a passing German physicist, becomes a lab assistant to Heisenberg and Schrödinger and single-handedly stops the Nazis developing nuclear weapons.

The story’s heart is in the right place – woman of colour defeats fascism! – but I don’t think it really works for today. The Arab world is depicted as barbarous and uncivilised, compared to the sophisticated German scientists; but which of them was planning to exterminate their Jews at the time? Indeed, which country makes a rape victim who killed her attacker pay his family $150,000 in compensation? Much less important, Jehan prevents the Nazi bomb by sending boring scientific papers to the political leadership to make them lose interest; if only life was that easy! The layering of narratives is intricately done, I’ll give it that.

The whole original printing of the story in Omni has been scanned and uploaded here, but I also have it in Donald A. Wollheim Presents the 1989 Annual World’s Best SF, which you can get here.

Also on both ballots were “Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?” by Howard Waldrop, “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett, Jr, and “Peaches for Mad Molly” by Steven Gould. The fifth Hugo finalist was “The Function of Dream Sleep” by Harlan Ellison; the other three Nebula finalists were “The Hob” by Judith Moffett, “Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh” by Ian McDonald and the Hugo Short Story winner “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick, which is the only one I can remember having read.

The second paragraph of the third section of “The Last of the Winnebagos”, which won both Best Novella awards, is:

Toward the end, it wouldn’t even let my grandmother near it, but she refused to have it put to sleep and was unfailingly kind to it, even though I never saw any indication that the dog felt anything but unrelieved spite toward her. If the newparvo hadn’t come along, it probably would still have been around making her life miserable.

The art is of cute women, one old and one young, and cute dogs, by Laura Lakey, who is best known for her collaborations with her husband John Lakey illustrating role-playing-games, especially D&D.

Unlike the illustrations in Omni, it’s clear that these were commissioned by Asimov’s for the story. I wondered if Laura Lakey herself was the model for the younger woman; according to her website, she and her husband “often used themselves as characters in stories they illustrated”. But I checked with her and she says it is someone else, and also incidentally she still has the original art in case anyone is interested in buying it.

There’s also a wee rocket, uncredited, at the end of the story.

I am sorry that I am posting whiny reviews today of two stories that many other people love. But “The Last of the Winnebagos” sucks. The single biggest negative is that the protagonist is still mourning the death, years ago, of his dog, whose name was Aberfan.


What possessed Connie Willis to use this name? And what possessed Gardner Dozois to let her? Would anyone find it acceptable to call a pet, even a fictional one, “Sandy Hook“? Or “Chernobyl“? Or do dead Welsh children just not count? Actually, maybe don’t answer that last question.

This is a consistent problem with Willis’ writing (see also: “Fire Watch“, Blackout here and here, All Clear). She is so relentless about maintaining a single emotional tone of loss and mourning that she does not care enough about the significance or accuracy of the details. Seemingly, neither did Hugo or Nebula voters in those years.

Having been thrown out of the narrative, I began to question other parts of it. The unseen villain of the story is a sinister quasi-government force called the Humane Society, which has massive powers of intervention to protect animals, in the aftermath of a plague that killed all dogs. There are very valid questions to be asked about the use of coercive force by the American state, but this premise a) trivialises that issue and b) panders to lazy libertarianism. If only the problem were simply that the state was protecting animals, rather than the entrenched power structures of capitalism and patriarchy.

The core emotional dynamic of the story is that the elderly couple who are driving the eponymous vehicle, the last of the Winnebagos, are concerned that they may lose the right to drive it because they have accidentally killed a wild animal. We are also told that they are in their late eighties. Sorry, people in their late eighties should not be driving, full stop.

The protagonist’s own deep regret is that he has no photographs of his dog, Aberfan. A professional photographer, who never took a single photograph of his best friend? I mean, I remember that in the Before Times, when we did not have cameras on our cellphones (indeed, we did not have cellphones), we didn’t habitually take quite as many photos of friends and family and household as we do now. But none at all?

I was uneasy about a couple of other aspects as well – the protagonist’s unrealistic relationship with his (woman) boss, his nonchalant ease of access to other people’s private data – but never mind. The characterisation and descriptions are fine, but once you have been thrown out of the narrative by the above rather major reservations, the tragic tone of the story starts to seem manipulative rather than convincing.

You can read the whole of that issue of Asimov’s here, but I also have the story in the collection Impossible Things which you can get here.

All four of the other Hugo finalists in this category were also on the Nebula ballot, an unusual degree of overlap. They were “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians” by Bradley Denton; “Journals of the Plague Years” by Norman Spinrad; The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter by Lucius Shepard; and “Surfacing” by Walter Jon Williams. The Nebula ballot also included The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I think I’d have voted for Lucius Shepard myself, though I say that because it’s the only other one I remember having read.

Next up in this sequence is a real favourite of mine, “The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold; I hope that it will turn out to have stood the test of time a bit better than these two.

September 2019 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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 started with the sad news of the passing of Terrance Dicks. We then had the usual dorpfeest in the first weekend of the month, with local festive dancing.

Other artistic explorations are reported here, in a post made the following month:

I started rewatching Blake’s 7, and researched the oldest shop at Finaghy Crossroads. We went to the Fete de la BD in Brussels.

In real life the Brexit situation got crazier and crazier. I was in London briefly at the end of the month but haven’t recorded much about that trip. The month ended with a positive experience:

I read 23 books that month.

Non-fiction: 6 (YTD 41)
Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell
De Bourgondiërs, by Bart Van Loo
Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, by Brian Morris
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
Cycling in Victorian Ireland, by Brian Griffin
In Ethiopia with a Mule, by Dervla Murphy

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (YTD 25)
Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
Make Out With Murder, by Lawrence Block
The Topless Tulip Caper, by Lawrence Block
How To Be Both, by Ali Smith

sf (non-Who): 2 (YTD 63)
The Devil in Amber, by Mark Gatiss
A Local Habitation, by Seanan McGuire

Doctor Who, etc: 5 (YTD 25)
Resurrection of the Daleks, by Eric Saward
Resurrection of the Daleks, by Paul Scoones
Doctor Who: 365 Days of Memorable Moments and Impossible Things, by Justin Richards
In Time, ed. Xanna Eve Chown
Lethbridge-Stewart: The Havoc Files, ed. Shaun Russell

Comics 6 (YTD 25)
Paper Girls Volume 1, by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls Volume 2, by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls Volume 3, by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls Volume 4, by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls Volume 5, by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls Volume 6, by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

5,000 pages (YTD 49,000)
7/23 (YTD 72/180) by non-male writers (Campbell, Dillard, Murphy, Kingsolver, Smith, McGuire, Chown)
6/23 (YTD 29/180) by PoC (Chiang x5)
5/23 (YTD 23/180) rereads (The Topless Tulip Caper, Resurrection of the Daleks (Scoones), Paper Girls 1, 3 and 4)

I’ll concentrate on the good books and omit the bad.

  • Paper Girls – wonderful comics series. You can get it here.
  • De Bourgondiërs / The Burgundians by Bart Van Loo, brilliant exploration of this part of Europe’s heritage. You can get it here in Dutch and here in English.
  • How To Be Both, by Ali Smith – nicely constructed two-part novel set in different times with surprises. You can get it here.
  • Cycling in Victorian Ireland, by Brian Griffin; does exactly what it says on the tin. You can get it here.

Zink, by David Van Reybrouck

Second paragraph of third section:

Voor Marie Rixen, het dienstmeisje in Düsseldorf, is alles pas begonnen met die fijne, zwarte knoopjes, of beter: is alles misgelopen bij die knoopjes, onherroepelijk misgelopen. Na enkele maanden zegt ze het hem, prevelend, ze liggen naast elkaar. Ineens is het gedaan met zijn lieve handen op haar huid, met zijn volle vochtige lippen in haar hals. Zijn mond is zijn mond niet meer, maar een zwarte vlek die brult als een van zijn staalovens. Uit zijn ogen. Uit zijn huis. Dat ze maar had moeten oppassen. Dat het een schande is. Is ze niet beschaamd? In zijn eigen huis? Hij als familieman! Trouwens, is het wel van hem? Hoe durft ze dat te beweren? Hij kent haar soort volk! En nog huilen ook?For Marie Rixen, the maid in Düsseldorf, everything just started with those fine, black buttons, or rather: everything went wrong with those buttons, went irrevocably wrong. After a few months she tells him, muttering, they are lying next to each other. Suddenly there’s an end to his sweet hands on her skin, his full moist lips on her neck. His mouth is no longer his mouth, but a black smudge roaring flame like one of his steel furnaces. Out of his sight. Out of his house. She should have been careful. It’s a scandal. Isn’t she ashamed? In his own house? He, a family man! By the way, is it his? How dare she say that? He knows her kind of people! And now the waterworks?

David Van Reybrouck is one of Belgium’s best known public intellectuals, and this was his essay commissioned for the annual Dutch language Book Week Essay in 2016. It’s the story of the peculiar enclave of Neutral Moresnet, a small territory run jointly by Prussia and the Netherlands, later Belgium and Germany, from 1815 until the first world war, noted for its zinc mine, casino, gin distilleries and freedom from neighbouring jurisdictions. It was annexed by Germany in the first world war, and by Belgium afterwards, and survives only in its boundary markers today.

Van Reybrouck tells the story of one of its inhabitants, born Joseph Rixen in 1903 but brought up as Emil Pauly, and explains the shifting concept of Neutral Moresnet’s identity through his story. There are also diversions to Esperanto, which claimed Moresnet as its world capital at one point, and to the last living person who was born there, Catharina Meessen. Overall it’s a fascinating glimpse at a forgotten corner of Western European history. You can get it here in Dutch and here in German (no English translation as far as I know).

This was the shortest unread book that I had acquired in 2016. Next on that pile, if I can find it, is God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt.

Sunday reading

With the change of the year I’m moving my weekly reading roundups by a day, to ensure that we finish on 31 December. So the below represents eight days rather than seven of reading. It’s also boosted by a) a lot of short books and b) as the New Year began I was on the verge of finishing several. So not every week will see me finishing 14 books…

The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo

Last books finished
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
Tales from Ovid, by Ted Hughes
Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest
All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva
“The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold
Alternating Current, by Jody Houser et al.
ε2 (did not finish)
God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt
Sin Eaters, by Cavan Scott, Adriana Melo, Cris Bolson and Marco Lesko
Doctor Who: Galaxy Four, by William Emms
Diary of a Witchcraft Shop 2, by Trevor Jones and Liz Williams
Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii, by James Moran

Next books
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness
Rise of the Dominator, by Robert Mammone
Neptune – Épisode 1by Leo

The Oberkassel puppy

13,000 years ago, a puppy was born in what is now Germany. The puppy was not healthy, and had to be nursed by its humans through three bouts of distemper when it was four to five months old. That is a disease that still kills dogs, especially puppies, to this day.

Sadly, when it was about six months old, the puppy died. It was found in Oberkassel near Bonn in 1914, along with two humans, a woman in her mid twenties, and a man aged about forty. They were all buried with honour and ceremony, sprayed with red rock powder, covered with basalt blocks so that nobody would disturb them.

We don’t know much more than that. We know that the the two humans were related, but not closely. We know that a tooth from another dog was buried too, along with a carved bone pin, a sculpture of the head of an elk carved into an elk antler, a bear’s penis bone (lots of male animals have penis bones, though humans don’t) and a red deer tooth. No other humans or animals were buried in the immediate area.

It seems to me that the most likely scenario is that the two humans were leadership figures in their village, their clan, their tribe, whatever the larger social unit was. He had a couple of healed broken bones. She had had at least one child. They both had bad teeth. There’s no obvious cause of death – no marks of immediate violence.

I would bet that man, woman and dog died together in an accident that left no trace on their bones; asphyxiation caused by fire or flood, perhaps. And their grieving kin laid all three of them to rest together, speaking words we can never hear, in a language we will never know, for them to be found 14,000 years later.

The Oberkassel puppy is the earliest known example of a domesticated dog. It was ill for much of its short life, and could not have been useful to its humans as a hunter or guard. They spent a lot of time looking after it, because they loved it.

Don Hitchcock’s web page has lots more information, links and photographs. The best recent academic source on the Oberkassel puppy is by Luc Janssens of the University of Gent and colleagues: “A new look at an old dog: Bonn-Oberkassel reconsidered”, Journal of Archaeological Science (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2018.01.004.

Galaxy Four – the new(ish) DVD

My loving spouse got me the three most recent Doctor Who animated DVDs for Christmas, and I have started working through them. First up is the first story of the original Season 3, Galaxy Four, which as with many other stories I first watched in 2007. I wrote then:

Galaxy Four was the opening story for the original third season of Doctor Who back in September 1965. No new or departing companions, just the First Doctor, Steven and Vicki landing on a doomed planet and finding themselves forced to decide whether to help the beautiful but militaristic Drahvins or the repulsive Rills with their robotic Chumbly servants. I thought it was rather good, and I say this as one who doesn’t normally like reconstructions (I will probably get hold of the narrated audio as well to compare). [Note: I didn’t.]

There is great violence done to astrophysics in the set-up – as so often, there seems a basic confusion between the concepts of “galaxy” and “solar system”, and I can’t quite believe the idea of a planet in orbit around several suns simultaneously, which is about to be destroyed by the gravitational stresses, and nonetheless is habitable with a breathable atmosphere. But hey, this is a story where a police box with an impossibly large interior travels through time and space, so we shouldn’t complain too much.

Anyway, I thought the idea of two completely inhuman races in the story, and appearances being deceptive, made a very nice tale.

When I came back to it in my Great Rewatch a couple of years later, I wrote:

The only completely missing story of this run is Galaxy 4, which means we are in a slightly chalk-and-cheese situation. From surviving clips, the look and sound of the alien planet was pretty impressive – I see it is Geoffrey Hodgson who gets the credit for the background noises, which really deserve to be described as incidental music. It’s also a rather interesting reintroduction of the Doctor, now shorn of his original companions, as an ethical hero – the Rills recognise his moral superiority, to the point that they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for him if necessary. And the story itself has a more explicit moral message (“don’t judge by appearances”) than most Who stories. This third season starts with far future allegory and ends with contemporary political commentary, by way of epic and slapstick. Having said all that, unfortunately the actual plot details of Galaxy Four are pretty silly – why on earth would the Drahvins send the Doctor and Vicki to capture the Rills’ ship? What possible scientific basis can there be for the planet exploding? Poor Steven, as Peter Purves bitterly points out, ends up playing a part originally written for Barbara. It is a somewhat wobbly start to the new season.

I’m taking my reminiscences slightly out of order. Galaxy Four was one of the rare stories which I first encountered through reading the novelisation in New Who era – I happened to pick it up as a freebie given away with a magazine in June 2007. This was the month of Blink and Utopia, two of the best episodes of the Tenth Doctor era (or indeed any era). Unusually, the book just has four chapters, one covering each of the televised episodes (most novelisations break up the narrative into multiple chapters). The second paragraph of the third chapter, briefly, is:

‘What is it?’ Vicki gasped.

When I first read the book, I wrote:

Galaxy Four was the first story from the third season, shown in 1966 (odd to think of it as the Classic Who equivalent of Smith and Jones). It’s the only one from that year I haven’t yet seen/heard, but I got the novel for free yesterday with the SFX Doctor Who special and read it pretty quickly. It’s actually rather good, up there with the average Missing Adventure of the Virgin series [note: I had read very few Missing Adventures at this stage] with Emms (who wrote nothing else for Doctor Who) letting us inside the mind of the Doctor very convincingly, and also attempting to flesh out his rather one-dimensional villain, Maaga, leader of the female Drahvin warriors. Must try and catch up with the actual series now, though I have a suspicion this may be one of the cases where the novel is better than the story.

Coming back to it fifteen years on, I remain favourably impressed. Emms was clearly a fan, and fills out the narrative not only with scenes that he would have liked to include in the actual show, but also with subsequent Who lore – most of the references to the TARDIS crew being from Earth are removed, and there are several mentions of the Doctor having two hearts, which of course wouldn’t become TV canon for another five years. We also find out that the Rills don’t share our concept of time. It’s well done, and you can get it here.

(By the way, this is the first blog post here about a book I read in 2023; otherwise I’m still working through a substantial 2022 backlog.)

Emms apparently pitched three more stories to Doctor Who without success, one for Patrick Troughton and two for Peter Davison, and the first of these was repurposed into a Make Your Own Adventure game book starring the Sixth Doctor in 1986. I read it in 2014 and was not impressed:

This was apparently based on ideas that Emms (who wrote Galaxy 4) had put together for a Second Doctor story to be called The Imps. I fear it may be one of those cases where we should be rather glad it wasn’t made. The plot, such as it is, is about a rather tedious effort to manage dangerous plants on a vital spaceship run. The next sentence of this paragraph is not an opinion I shall often have cause to express, but in this case it is true. Terror of the Vervoids did it better.

The structure of the book is much the laziest of any of the six: at every turn, you are presented with three choices, of which in every single case the first two lead to failure and the third to success. From both section 14 and section 23, the two wrong options are section 8 and section 16, while sections 12 and 22 are fatal snippets which are not attached to any preceding text. I couldn’t actually be bothered to work out which ending was meant to go with which previous section. The one mildly saving grace is that a couple of the false turns are so silly as to verge on gonzo surrealism: one option, for instance, has “you” gobbled up by Dracula and his brides (who are somehow occupying a cabin in a spaceship to Venus), and another leaves “you” trying to emulate the Scarlet Pimpernel in revolutionary France. But this is lazy stuff, contemptuous of the reader.

You can get it here.

Emms wrote no other books, but he wrote 80 TV scripts between 1963 and 1980, including twelve episodes of The Newcomers, the now forgotten soap that was Verity Lambert’s next assignment – Galaxy Four was her last complete credited story as producer.

Anyway. In 2011, one of the missing episodes of Galaxy Four was found, and the new (well, 2021) DVD includes it and a colour animation of all four episodes. I had previously watched the Loose Canon animations, which give a decent sense of the scale of the ambition of the production. But there is nothing quite like seeing the original. Here (for the time being at least) is a side by side comparison of the two.

I think Galaxy Four has some great concepts. I’ve mentioned several above: the appearances-can-be-deceptive approach to the two races of aliens, the Doctor as ethical hero, the grand sweep of the planetary setting, Geoffrey Hodgson’s electronic sounds. Stephanie Bidmead (a Kidderminster girl) is great as Maaga, leader of the Drahvins. The music is stock music rather than specially composed, but very well chosen. Peter Purves famously complained about the script, but actually I think Stephen gets as much to do as anyone. And I think it’s the first but not the last time that the TARDIS itself is used as an external energy source.

The downside is that these great concepts are united by a plot that doesn’t make much sense. There’s confusion about how long there is until the planet will explode, and no clarity about why. The plot consists entirely of the Doctor and companions running from the TARDIS, to the Drahvins’ ship, to the Rills’ ship and back again, for no very good reason. The “Trap of Steel” which is the title of the third episode doesn’t actually appear until the fourth episode. The regulars and guests carry it off well, and if you switch your forebrain off and enjoy the concepts, you’ll like it. It’s a very agreeable early case of Doctor Who engaging with classic science fiction tropes.

The new colour animation will now become the standard that fans think of as the “real” Galaxy Four. As usual, it’s good but I feel not quite as good as the real thing would have been. Some decent tweaks are made to the action, and the planetscape is beautifully realised as well. And the info text is, as usual, interesting and informative. I have not yet rewatched it with the audio commentaries by cast and others. Here’s the trailer:

Extras include the Loose Canon reconstructions for the first, second and fourth episodes – I think there would have been no harm in including the third episode as well. There is n extended interview with Peter Purves, featuring a few other people involved with the production (including Clive Doig, who I always remember for his work on Vision On), and also an interview with Terry Burnett, the man who turned out to have had the missing third episode stashed away for decades. It also has the camera scripts. A fine investment for the serious Doctor Who collector. You can get it here.

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

None of that applied to Pizlo’s life.

In a future galaxy where humans are practically extinct, society continues through various races of uplifted animals, of whom the elephants – Fants for short – are exiled on their own planet, Barsk, and are both reviled by and essential to the other races. There’s some fairly obvious analogies to contemporary human societies, which at least are not signalled too virtuously, and a couple of good twists at the end. I got it because I know the author – to whom I wish swift and full recovery from recent illness – and it was nominated for the Nebula. You can get it here.

This was the top book on my unread shelf acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest, which I have in fact previously read, but many years ago.