March Books

Non-fiction 9 (YTD 22)
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins
Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper
Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, by James Mortimer
The Kosova Liberation Army, by James Pettifer
The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama

Non-genre 1 (YTD 4)
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

SF 23 (YTD 64)
θ3 (did not finish)
ι3 (did not finish)
κ3 (did not finish)
ξ3 (did not finish)
Luca, by Or Luca
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard
Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Best of Ian McDonald
Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, eds. Sheree Renée Thomas, Pan Morigan and Troy L. Wiggins
χ3 (did not finish)
ψ3 (did not finish)

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 10)
Warring States, by Mags Halliday
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed ???

Comics 2 (YTD 7)
Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel

10,100 pages (YTD 26,200)

17/37 (YTD 46/110) by non-male writers (Albright, Moore, Jacobs, θ3, λ3, μ3, ξ3, Luca, de Bodard, ο3, Thomas/Morigan, σ3, τ3, α4, Halliday, Casagrande/Florean, Bechdel)

7/37 (YTD 21/110) by a non-white writer (θ3, ξ3, Luca, de Bodard, ο3, Thomas/Wiggins, ψ3)

395 books currently tagged “unread”, 10 more than last month with the final Clarke submissions in.

Reading now
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston
The Weeping Angels of Mons, by Robbie Morrison, Daniel Indro and Eleonora Carlini
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond

Coming soon (perhaps)
Erasing Sherlock, by Kelly Hale
Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, by Malcolm Hulke
Doctor Who and the Silurians, by Robert Smith?
Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace, by Nigel Robinson
The Underwater Menace, by James Cooray Smith
The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
The Race, by Nina Allan
The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard
Winter, by Ali Smith
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
The Memory Librarian, by Janelle Monáe
“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
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
Doctor Who Magazine Presents: Daleks
Living with the Gods
, by Neil MacGregor
Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam

Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

Second paragraph of intro to third story (“Publicity Campaign”):

Although the references in the story are somewhat dated, the questions it raises are certainly not. And by a curious coincidence, I’ve re-read it the very week the media are ruefully celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast. (CBS’s Mercury Theatre of the Air, 31 October, 1938.)

Second paragraph of text of “Publicity Campiagn”:

R.B. heaved himself out of his seat while his acolytes waited to see which way the cat would jump. It was then that they noticed that R.B.’s cigar had gone out. Why, that hadn’t happened even at the preview of ‘G.W.T.W.’!

Of the three great mid-century sf writers, Clarke has aged much better for me than Asimov or Heinlein. This collection, originally published in 1989, brings together some familiar friends (“‘If I Forget Thee. O Earth…'”) and some unexpected discoveries (“Wall of Darkness”) in the Clarkeian œuvre. (I checked, and they are all in the Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke which I read in 2016, but not all of them had lingered with me.) What’s also nice is to read his introductions to each story, written in 1988 when he had just turned 70. It’s old-fashioned stuff but I found it really refreshing, reading it in the middle of my Clarke Award duties for this year. You can get it here.

I also want to shout out to Michael Whelan’s art. The cover is also rather glorious – though he notes on his website that the spaceship to the top right of the primitive human’s head was added at the publisher’s insistence, rather than the egg which the artist had originally painted. Greyscale snippets from the cover photo illustrate each of the sixteen stories.

This was the top unread book that I acquired in 2021. Next on that pile is Twelve Caesars, by Mary Beard.

October 2020 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.

Alas, after several months of relaxation, COVID restrictions were re-imposed in the middle of the month and working from home started again. This meant that I also re-started my ten-day updates on the COVID situation, which continued until early 2022.

I don’t seem to have written it up elsewhere, but little U and I got to the newly opened permanent exhibition at the Royal Library in Brussels just before the museums closed.

Art commentary on Jean Mayné and his daughter Berthe Flaminé Mayné:

Sadly, we lost Colin Wilkie. And I admitted my Reddit addiction.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 44)
Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England, by Steve Jones
Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, by M. Mitchell Waldrop
Helen Waddell, by Felicitas Corrigan

Fiction (non-sf): 9 (YTD 34)
Kramer vs. Kramer, by Avery Corman
Secret Army, by John Brason
Secret Army Dossier, by John Brason
Ordinary People, by Judith Guest
Secret Army: The End of the Line, by John Brason
This Must be the Place, by Maggie O’Farrell
Kessler, by John Brason
Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig

sf (non-Who): 6 (YTD 92)
Palestine 100: Stories from a century after the Nakba, ed. Mazen Maarouf
Gateway, by Frederik Pohl
Carmilla, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
To Be Taught, if Fortunate, by Becky Chambers
The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan
Wild Life, by Molly Gloss

Doctor Who: 1 (YTD 11)
The Knight, the Fool and the Dead, by Steve Cole

Comics: 6 (YTD 39)
Defender of the Daleks, #1, by Jody Houser and Roberta Ingranata
Survivants, Tome 3, by Leo
Defender of the Daleks, #2, by Jody Houser and Roberta Ingranata
Survivants, Tome 4, by Leo
Survivants, Tome 5, by Leo
For the Love of God, Marie!, by Jade Sarson
DotD1.jpg DotD2.jpg

5,900 pages (YTD 58,800)
9/25 (YTD 69/219) by women (Corrigan, Guest, O’Farrell, Chambers, Brennan, Gloss, Hoser/Ingranata x2, Sarson)
1/25 (YTD 19/219) by PoC (Maarouf)

The best new book of the month was Felicitas Corrigan’s biography of Helen Waddell, which you can get here, but I also enjoyed returning to Gateway, which you can get here, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which you can get here. Nothing too awful.

BSFA Short Fiction

This rounds off my BSFA posts this year – see previously how to get the finalists, Best Art and Best Non-Fiction. I’m a Clarke judge this year so won’t comment on the Best Novel finalists, and won’t have time to read the Best YA finalists.

I found it fairly easy to rank these, though I think the vote between my top two will be close.

5) ‘Seller’s Remorse’, by Rick Danforth, Hexagon Magazine, Issue 11

Second paragraph of third section:

At the gloomy door, Sheytl performed his routine of slicking back the hair and a triple knock.

A bit of a Shaggy God story. Our protagonist tries to raise supporters for a dying deity and shenanigans ensue. A bit uneven in writing style.

4) ‘A Moment of Zugzwang’, by Neil Williamson, ParSec #4

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

Wehlstrasse was a quiet street. Seldom frequented stores and cafés lined one side. Along the other, trees evenly ranked like soldiers guarded the low balustrade above the rolling, grey river. They’d proved poor guardsmen, at least as far as Albert Vogel was concerned. Stina had watched the bee footage a thousand times. The old man visible at the edge of the frame making his way down that side of the street, coming and going behind the trees as he approached the bridge. The distinctive bushy beard jutting before him. The slow but steady gait suddenly faltering, the hand going to the jaw is if he’d forgotten something as the induced heart failure had kicked in. The stumble, the lurch. The plummet into the waters below. No witnesses, either in person or online, so no one had come to his aid and his body hadn’t been found until a couple of days later among the Hundred Island reed beds six miles downstream. Bloated, the skin of his extremities wrinkled and nibbled at by hungry critters.

A near-future police procedural about a perfect murder committed despite panopticon surveillance. I’m always a bit wary of future police stories where the boys and girls in blue don’t behave much like real policemen in our timeline, and in addition here the technology is just sufficiently flawed to allow the twist in the plot to happen. God world0building though.

3) Luca, by Or Luca

Second paragraph of third section:

She’s sitting on the stone-cold floor of the shower, folded into herself. She watches the blood run from her wrist and into the drain.

Some good things in this novella: impressive depiction of the two major characters’ psychological and personal issues, and they are brought together neatly at the end. But I did wonder if it actually qualifies as science fiction or fantasy? The unreal elements of the story are explicitly the title character’s hallucinations, which didn’t seem to me to have much direct impact on anyone other than her. I also wasn’t hugely convinced by the setting, a country in the Middle East which doesn’t feel very Middle Eastern.

2) Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Second paragraph of third section:

Stunned silence from them. And then… a medley of reactions; quite the range, now you think back on it. Because some still have that core in them, hammered there by church and village life before they did whatever each one did to make them outlaw. Some are shocked that you could even lift a hand against the Masters, let alone shed so much of that vast reservoir of blood that it might kill one. Taboos like that, beat into you from earliest childhood, they don’t get shaken free so easily. Garett, the oldest of them, is pale and shaking his head, and Nell Wilso sucks at her toothless gums. But some of the others, their eyes are lit up. They’re the ones whose crimes were against the property, not of humans but of ogres. They lost that reverence, and maybe they’ve dreamed of doing just what you did every night since. And right then you’re in no position to appreciate it, lost in a welter of guilt and panic, but it’s the first time people look at you like that. Not fond, not exasperated. You’re not the prodigal son or the lovable rogue right then. You’re the hero who slays the monster.

Dystopian agricultural future where an elite minority of big people (the ‘ogres’ of the title) holds the majority of humanity in brutal slavery, and our protagonist discovers the awful truth and begins the overthrow of the system. Enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite convince me.

1) Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

When Asmodeus saw the unfamiliar dragon trailing behind Thuan, his hand moved — and came back holding a knife he didn’t bother to hide.

I found this a total delight and it’s getting a firm first preference from me. I didn’t completely get on with the earlier parts of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a magically devastated Paris, but this is very digestible; the protagonists are a dragon prince and a demon, and the story has them sorting out a murder mystery where the ghost is still around while also babysitting some very inquisitive children. Unlike ‘A Moment of Zugzwang’, there is no police force to get wrong here, and one has the sense of a small but fascinating incident in a much broader and richly thought out society. I hope it wins.

Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle

Second paragraph of third chapter (“Elizabeth on Ireland”, by Leah S. Marcus):

In shortchanging Ireland in our volume of Works we were doubtless influenced by an anachronistic view of Britain as comprising its present territories and therefore including Scotland, but not most of Tudor Ireland. We were likewise influenced by the fact that James VI of Scotland went on to become James I of England. But we were, I suspect, also motivated by a desire to present Queen Elizabeth I in a positive light. The project of editing her writings was hatched during the heyday of second-wave feminism: we wanted to show that a woman could demonstrate all the skills and savvy that were usually attributed to men, and Elizabeth was for us a prime example. We avoided Ireland, perhaps, because the story of Elizabeth in relation to Ireland is not, by and large, a success story. Most of Elizabeth’s biographers – especially the most hagiographic among them – have also had disproportionately little to say about Elizabeth in Ireland.

Back in 2009 I had immense fun attending a conference on Elizabeth I and Ireland, held at the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut. This is the book of that conference, with a number of the papers that were presented, refined for the delectation of an academic audience.

Lots of interesting stuff here. I admit that some of the literature chapters sailed over my head – my Irish is not up to epic poetry, even in short doses, and my tolerance for Spenser is rather low as well. But this is amply compensated by the chapters on politics and what might be called ideology; what did the rulers of Ireland, including Elizabeth herself, think that they were doing, or trying to do? Of course, it’s a messy picture, with individuals located along a spectrum ranging from those who wanted to engineer a durable political settlement to those who were just in it to get as much property as possible. But it’s lovely to have so much evidence, from different perspectives, gathered in one set of covers, and it took me back to that exciting weekend in 2009, of which I still have fond memories.

My not very secret agenda in reading books about Elizabethan Ireland is to look for mentions of my ancestor, Sir Nicholas White, who as Master of the Rolls was one of the leading Irish politicians of the day. I spotted three: Ciaran Brady describes him as one of “the most far-seeing members of the English-Irish elite”, and Valerie McGowan-Doyle mentions him twice, once briefly as the object of a patronage dispute but also quoting at length from one of his letters to Burghley, defending the right of the Queen’s loyal subjects in Ireland to complain about high taxes. All very useful if I ever get my project of writing his biography off the ground.

This was the unread non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Deep State of Europe: Welcome to Hell, by the late great Basil Coronakis.

Sunday reading

The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville
The Kosova Liberation Army, by James Pettifer

Last books finished
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, by James Mortimer

Next books
The Weeping Angels of Mons, by Robbie Morrison, Daniel Indro and Eleonora Carlini
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston

The Shape of Water

Back after a bit of a break, this is the 90th post I have done on winners of the Best Picture Oscar. Only five more to go.

The Shape of Water won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar, and three others: Best Director (Guillermo del Toro), Best Original Score and Best Production Design. Four Oscars is a relatively low total haul for a Best Picture winner, but no other film did better that year. The other contenders for Best Picture were Get Out, which I have seen and which won the SFWA Ray Bradbury Award, and Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. To my surprise, The Shape of Water came only fifth out of six in that year’s Hugos; I voted for it myself, though I also enjoyed Wonder Woman, which won.

The only films I have seen from 2017 are the Hugo finalists, which I ranked as follows from top to bottom: The Shape of Water, Wonder Woman, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Get Out, Blade Runner 2049 and Thor: Ragnarok. IMDB users rank The Shape of Water 9th and 16th of the year’s films on the two rankings, which is not super high but is better on aggregate than any Oscar winner since No Country for Old Men, a decade previously. Blade Runner 2049 is top of one ranking, and Logan on the other. Other films ahead of The Shape of Water on both metrics are Get Out, It, John Wick: Chapter 2 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Here’s a trailer.

No actors had previously appeared in any Oscar-winning film, or in Doctor Who. (A lot of them are Canadian.) Doug Jones, here the amphibian creature, was also the main non-human in Pan’s Labyrinth, which won the Hugo and Nebula. (We know him also as Captain Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.)

Shout out also to Octavia Spencer, who was in the previous year’s Hidden Figures and got Oscar nominations for both performance, the first African-American actress to do so in consecutive years.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, this is about a humanoid amphibian captured by the US military and brought to a research centre in Baltimore for experimentation. One of the janitors, a mute woman played by Sally Hawkins, falls in love with him and engineers his escape, facilitated by her friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her gay artist landlord (Richard Jenkins) and a disenchanted Russian spy (Michael Stuhlberg). The baddies are the US military personified in the head of the base (Michael Shannon). In the end the amphibian man rescues Elisa, his saviour, from apparent death and she becomes like him and, we are told, they live happily ever after.

I found myself in a surprising debate on Facebook the other day as to whether The Shape of Water is science fiction or fantasy. I must say I had automatically assumed that it is science fiction. A non-human race, albeit from Earth and therefore not alien, getting mixed up with government-funded scientific research – it seemed to me an exact parallel with the Silurians and Sea Devils from Doctor Who, and nobody calls them anything other than science fiction. (Indeed in New Who it turns out that Silurians can have sex with humans too, or at least the females of each species can.)

But I see that the film is generally classified as fantasy, including by the makers, and I suppose the creature’s paranormal healing abilities, and the parallels with the non-human creatures of mythology, establish a case for that reading as well. It’s a live issue for me at the moment as we decide which books are and aren’t science fiction for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Anyway. I loved it. I wrote briefly in 2018:

I really liked the detailed paranoid portrayal of the world of 1962, the navigation of race, gender and disability, and the core question of what makes us human at the end of the day. It looks and sounds fantastic.

I will add to that that the acting and direction are also fantastic. There is a great contrast between the explicit but not at all erotic sex between base commander Strickland and his wife, and the erotic but not at all explicit sex between Elisa and the creature. And the music is memorable while also not being at all intrusive.

I’m putting this in the top 20% of my Oscar film rankings, just below Midnight Cowboy and above A Man for All Seasons.

Incidentally, my 3x great-grandfather‘s uncle, Richard Key Heath, had an office on the docks at Baltimore (specifically at the corner of Cheapside, now the intersection of Light Street and Pratt Street). However, The Shape of Water was entirely filmed in Canada and the docks here are not the Baltimore docks of the script but at Hamilton, Ontario.

Now that we’re up to the 90th Oscar winner, I’m going to split my ranking of previous winners by thirds. These are my bottom 30, with those from the last ten years in red:

90) Platoon (Oscar for 1986)
89) The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
88) Cimarron (1930-31)
87) Cavalcade (1932-33)
86) Wings (1927-28)
85) The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
84) All the King’s Men (1949)
83) Argo (2012)
82) Forrest Gump (1994)
81) Patton (1970)
80) Braveheart (1995)
79) American Beauty (1999)
78) The Artist (2011)
77) No Country for Old Men (2007)
76) A Beautiful Mind (2001)
75) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
74) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
73) Crash (2005)
72) Tom Jones (1963)
71) Gone with the Wind (1939)
70) The Departed (2006)
69) The Hurt Locker (2008)
68) Ordinary People (1980)
67) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
66) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
65) Birdman (2014)
64) Annie Hall (1977)
63) Going My Way (1944)
62) The French Connection (1971)
61) My Fair Lady (1964)

And the middle 30:

60) Gladiator (2000)
59) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
58) Mrs. Miniver (1942)
57) On The Waterfront (1954)
56) The Godfather, Part II (1974)
55) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
54) Grand Hotel (1931-32)
53) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
52) Marty (1955)
51) The Deer Hunter (1978)
50) Rocky (1976)
49) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
48) The Last Emperor (1987)
47) Titanic (1997)
46) Out of Africa (1985)
45) Dances With Wolves (1990)
44) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
43) Gigi (1958)
42) Slumdog Millionaire (2007)
41) It Happened One Night (1934)
40) You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
39) The Lost Weekend (1945)
38) Hamlet (1948)
37) From Here to Eternity (1953)
36) Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
35) Ben-Hur (1959)
34) The English Patient (1996)
33) Chicago (2002)
32) Spotlight (2015)
31) The Sting (1973)

And my personal top 30 of the first 90:

30) The Godfather (1972)
29) Unforgiven (1992)
28) 12 Years a Slave (2013)
27) Oliver! (1968)
26) The Apartment (1960)
25) All About Eve (1950)
24) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
23) Amadeus (1984)
22) Moonlight (2016)
21) Gandhi (1982)
20) West Side Story (1961)
19) A Man for All Seasons (1966)
18) The Shape of Water (2017)
17) Midnight Cowboy (1969)
16) Terms of Endearment (1983)
15) Shakespeare in Love (1998)
14) Rain Man (1988)
13) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
12) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
11) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
10) Million Dollar Baby (2004)
9) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
8) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)
7) Rebecca (1940)
6) Schindler’s List (1993)
5) Chariots of Fire (1981)
4) An American in Paris (1951)
3) The King’s Speech (2010)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

A somewhat polarising decade for me, with half of the winners in my top third, but four out of ten in my bottom third.

Slumdog Millionaire is the only one of the most recent ten based on a novel. The King’s Speech, Argo and 12 Years a Slave are all based on published biographies or autobiographies. The other seven were original material for the screen, though The Hurt Locker and Spotlight drew to a lesser or greater extent on historical events.

Only six and a half of the most recent ten were set in the United States of America, in .a variety of places: Hollywood (The Artist), Washington and Hollywood (Argo), mostly Louisiana (12 Years a Slave), New York (Birdman), Boston (Spotlight), mostly Miami (Moonlight), and Baltimore (The Shape of Water). The others are set in Mumbai, India (Slumdog Millionaire), somewhere in Iraq (The Hurt Locker), Tehran, Iran (Argo again) and London, England (The King’s Speech) – so two and a half in Asia, and one in Europe.

One of these last ten was set in the 19th century (12 Years a Slave), two mostly in the 1930s (The King’s Speech and The Artist), one in the 1960s (The Shape of Water), one in the 1970s (Argo), one stretching from the 1990s to the present day (Moonlight), two in the recent past (Spotlight and The Hurt Locker) and two in the present day (Slumdog Millionaire and Birdman). I’ll do a tally of historical periods when I get to the end of the whole exercise.

Next up is Green Book.

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)

September 2020 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 highlight of the month was a trip to western Belgium with Anne, staying at my old friend Lex’s R&Breakfast in Roeselaere. This gave rise to several blog posts:

Only later did I realise that part of my attraction to the portrait of the Jonet family may be that I have almost exactly the same age difference with my own daughters.

We also had an appropriately socially distanced work party in a park near the office; I was going in three days a week at this point.

I read only 17 books that month, but some were very long.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 41)
An Inland Voyage, by Robert Louis Stevenson
East West Street, by Philippe Sands
Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside, by Matthew Tree

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 25)
Bruges-La-Morte, by Georges Rodenbach
The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

sf (non-Who): 7 (YTD 86)
Jerusalem: Vernal’s Inquest, by Alan Moore
The Sky Road, by Ken MacLeod
Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
Distraction, by Bruce Sterling
Beren and Luthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Jeffty is Five”, by Harlan Ellison
“Stardance” by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson

Comics: 5 (YTD 33)
Isabelle, by Jean-Claude Servais
Blood Monster, by Neil Gaiman and Marlene O’Connor
Chronin Volume 1: The Knife at Your Back, by Alison Wilgus
Chronin Volume 2: The Sword in Your Hand, by Alison Wilgus
Being An Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolus, by Neil Gaiman

5,000 pages (YTD 52,900)
6/17 (YTD 64/194) by women (Mantel, Hartman, Robinson, O’Connor, Wilgus x2)
None AFAIK (YTD 18/194) by PoC

Standouts this month were Hilary Mantel’s triumphant The Mirror and the Light, which you can get here, and East West Street by Philippe Sands, which you can get here. Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach is total rubbish, but you can get it here.

Lyra McKee, and why I split up with the News Letter

I had the great pleasure last night of watching Alison Millar’s documentary, Lyra, about the life and death of journalist Lyra McKee. It’s a tremendous portrait of a committed young woman, killed in the middle of doing her job just before Easter in 2019. The showing was presented by the UK mission to the EU and the Northern Ireland representation in Brussels, as part of the Brussels Irish Film Festival, and Alison Millar was on hand to answer questions both formally and informally. The film is beautiful and I strongly recommend it. Here’s a trailer:

I did not know Lyra McKee myself – she was six years old when I left Northern Ireland – but inevitably we had a lot of mutual friends (38 according to Facebook, I’m sure a lot more in reality), all of whom seem to remember her fondly. She first hit my radar screen in 2013, when she began her research into the murder of Robert Bradford, nineteen years before she was born. This particularly fascinated me because he was our local MP, and he and the caretaker for his office were killed just ten minutes’ walk from our home. Her book was eventually published, available here, an extract here.

In July 2019, three months after Lyra’s death, the News Letter, one of the main Belfast news outlets, ran a front page story revealing that the royalties from the book were going to a non-profit organisation, one of whose directors was a former paramilitary. The article evoked a furious response from Lyra McKee’s publisher and family. I too felt that this was a crappy piece of journalism. A former paramilitary being associated with a non-profit organisation is hardly news and not really interesting, and it was barely relevant to Lyra McKee’s work. The News Letter subsequently successfully defended a libel case, with the defence that the article was true (or at least, that the points complained of in the article were true). But what is true is not always right, even without considering the innuendo in the piece.

Over the previous few years I had written a few pages of political analysis for the News Letter in advance of each election in Northern Ireland, often featuring on the front page of the newspaper’s election specials. But I felt very uncomfortable about what they were now putting on the front page. I wrote to the then editor, saying that in my view the article was “sensationalist and did not serve the public interest. I am very disappointed. I thought you were better than that.” Consequently, I permanently severed my relationship with the newspaper. I am all in favour of being part of a broad spectrum of voices, but only if I can feel confident in the ethical values underlying the editorial choices being made.

I haven’t discussed any of this in public previously because fundamentally it’s not really about me. But I had the chance to tell the brief story last night to Alison Millar, and now that I’ve ticked that box I may as well go public here.

Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He had put his mother, a highly intelligent woman of German parentage, through a long and difficult confinement: she had died a few days after his birth, leaving Percival in the care of his father and aunt. Theirs was a modestly well-to-do Cornish family, whose ancient Celtic stock had been infused, perhaps since pre-Roman times, with the blood of successive exotic visitors to Cornwall’s shores. Percival’s father, who had been a child at the time of the Great War, joined up soon after the more recent hostilities were declared, and died in France when Percival was twelve.

A book in the series based on Honoré Lechasseur aka the Time Hunter, a character from Daniel O’Mahoney’s Telos novella, Cabinet of Light, which I see I read in April 2017 but never wrote up here. This particular one is a bit of a homage to Olaf Stapledon; I’m afraid I felt it was too invested in a fandom that I don’t share, and it went over my head. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2016. Next on that list is Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond.

BSFA Best Non-fiction

Five finalists here, three of them online essays and two monographs. I found it pretty easy to rank them, and I will be very surprised if voters choose something other than my own first preference. (Having said that, I was surprised last year!)

5) “Preliminary Observations From An Incomplete History of African SFF”, by Wole Talabi

Second paragraph of third section, with footnotes and graphs:

The database contains 30 nationalities represented by 497 authors, but Nigeria and South Africa make up more than 73% of the works. Reasons for this are likely colonial legacies of proximity to Western publishing, size, economics, etc. Looking at this in the context of population[3] and gross domestic product (GDP)[4] and limiting to countries with total works having proportional significance (> 1%), it’s clear that these are key factors in the trend, and the number of works is most strongly correlated to GDP with a linear regression R2 value of 0.97. South Africa produces a lot more than its population would suggest, and Ghana and Tanzania produce less.
[3] Based on the United Nations (UN) official 2021 statistics.
[4] Estimates for 2022 from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

I’m always up for a good bit of statistical analysis, and this has some decent crunchy numbers about science fiction in Africa. I must say that I am surprised to see so little from Francophone countries (let alone others) and wonder if there is some selection effect going on. The writer disarmingly admits up front that it is incomplete.

While I found it interesting, I’m not ranking it higher than fifth out of five. The main text has less than 1100 words.

4) “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

It has often been surmised, most especially around discussions of war, climate change, natural disasters, and more recently the outbreak of COVID-19, in articles like this in Wired and on The Apeiron Blog we are living in a dystopia. This realization has weaned many of the need for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, and has them preferring instead to immerse themselves in lighter, more upbeat and positive work. This is of course valid, as we all must do what we feel right. But beyond personal preferences of individuals for lighter, “happier” works in this period of gloom, there is a wider and more general assertion that dystopias, apocalypses, grimdark, dark fantasy, and the like are now unnecessary because we live in and have it all around us. A Publishers Weekly piece talks about dystopian fiction losing its lustre due to the pandemic and spells doom for the subgenre of doom. But is this really so? In a viral tweet, the account tweets its disagreement, which I quite agree with, saying that “Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.” The dystopian reality is not new and has been with us for a while. Its fictionalizing continues till date despite those debates regarding its relevance or necessity.

Another very interesting piece, making the point that a lot of concepts which European and US writers consider to be the stuff of dystopian fiction are happening right now in the reality of Africa, specifically in Nigeria. It’s an important perspective and I hope people read it. I’m marking it down, however, for two reasons: first, it could have done with a bit of editorial smoothing – it reads rather first draft-y (even the above paragraph shows this); second, again, it is rather short (3100 words) and I prefer the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction to celebrate substantive contributions.

3) “The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker“, by the much-missed Maureen Kincaid Speller

Second paragraph of third section:

Similarly, Garner has ranged back and forth in time. The Stone Book Quartet (1976–8), ostensibly about Garner’s own family—and its cantankerous patriarch, the stonemason, Robert—brought with it the first hint of Garner’s interest in deep time. When Robert takes his daughter, Mary, under Alderley Edge to visit a chamber whose clay floor is marked by thousands of footprints, representing all the Garners who has visited it, we are asked to marvel at this sense of continuity. It is presented as a family rite of passage, although so far as anyone knows, there was no actual family ritual of this sort.

One of MKS’s last bits of criticism, this is a detailed examination both of the reception and of the content of Alan Garner’s recent novel, ending with a reflection on the role of the critic which is perhaps a suitable envoi for her own career. Over 8,000 words, which is getting a bit more substantial compared to the two above. I have not read Treacle Walker, and to be honest Maureen’s review doesn’t strongly incline me to do so. But I like her ending:

As I’ve noted, disagreeing is very much part of the critical process. And reviews are part of the critical process too, even if, in this instance, they do not offer that much critical insight into the novel.

And it is the insight I’m in search of, both when I read criticism and when I write it. I’m not interested in whether X likes a novel, any more than you should be interested in whether I dislike a novel. The questions should always be, “What is this piece of fiction doing, does it work, and if not, why not?” Everything else unfolds from that.

2) Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The first type of leadership theories we will be considering are the earliest to emerge, largely between the 1920s and the 1960s, and are known as “behavioural theories of leadership”. What they have in common is that they generally assume (a) that there are leaders (as opposed to followers); (b) that leaders can be identified and classified into types; and (c) that those types can be defined by certain ways of behaving. Despite their age, they also, more or less overtly, still tend to have a strong influence on popular management literature and leadership teaching, and some of them have passed into popular culture with regard to leaders and leadership.

Fiona Moore is a professor of Business Anthropology in her day job, and a fan and critic on the side (at least I think it’s that way round), and this is her elucidation of some of the principles of basic management theory as they are demonstrated in the TV series Game of Thrones, with occasional reference to the books where needed. It’s always useful for someone like me to see some of the principles I find myself engaged with at work applied in fiction, so in a sense the book ticks both a fannish box and a professional box for me. Also mercifully short.

1) Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Granny Pratchett, Terry’s paternal grandmother, rolled her own cigarettes. Then, having smoked them, she would take the butts from the ashtray, pick the paper apart and return any strands of unburnt tobacco to the tin where she kept her supply. Waste not, want not. As Terry wrote in a short essay about her in 2004, ‘As a child this fascinated me, because you didn’t need to be a mathematician to see that this meant there must have been some shreds of tobacco she’d been smoking for decades, if not longer.’

This is also a very good book about a very important subject. A lot of us know parts of the Terry Pratchett story – I first heard him speak in public in Cambridge in, I think, 1987, and last saw him at the 2010 Discworld Convention, and spoke to him a couple of times in between. It’s lovely to have it all between two covers, with the laughs and the tears, and with Rob also explaining the complicated nature of his relationship with Terry over the years, beginning as amanuensis and ending as nurse. At 439 pages, it’s easily twice as long as the other four finalists combined, and also surely has more weight and relevance than the other four combined; I am voting for it and I expect that others will do so as well.

I’m conscious that I have ranked these in order of increasing length; but to be honest, if we are ranking finalists by the extent of their contribution to our appreciation of the genre, length is an important indicator of the magnitude of that impact. It’s nice that the BSFA final ballot has a certain diversity of form, but it doesn’t always turn into a fair comparison for the shorter pieces.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Second paragraph of third section:

My knowledge of garden Aves had been limited to those of northern Europe but a young New Wye gardener, in whom I was interested (see note to line 998), helped me to identify the profiles of quite a number of tropical-looking little strangers and their comical calls; and, naturally, every tree top plotted its dotted line toward the ornithological work on my desk to which I would gallop from the lawn in nomenclatorial agitation. How hard I found to fit the name “robin” to the suburban impostor, the gross fowl, with its untidy dull-red livery and the revolting gusto it showed when consuming long, sad, passive worms!

The only Nabokov book I knew before this was Lolita. Pale Fire is very different. It’s an international political murder mystery told through the medium of footnotes to an epic poem. I have to confess that I really wondered what the heck was going on, until it all became clear quite late in the day. It’s a great example of an unreliable narrator who reveals unwittingly what is really going on – rather like Humbert’s unwitting self-revelation in Lolita; I wonder if this is a common theme for Nabokov? Anyway, I enjoyed it more than I expected at first. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired last year and my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, and The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman.

Sunday reading

The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, by James Mortimer

Last books finished
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard
Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed. ?Shaun Russell
The Best of Ian McDonald
Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis

Next books
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Enoch Burke, attention-seeker: what the judges said

I don’t know to what extent the tedious case of Enoch Burke has been covered outside Ireland, or Irish circles. He is currently at the centre of a series of court cases surrounding his misconduct as a teacher at a school in central Ireland. Last May a pupil at the school came out as trans and requested the school to use a new name and they/them pronouns. Burke – who did not actually teach any classes including the child in question – wrote to the principal of the school saying that he was not prepared to do so, spoke angrily about the issue at a staff meeting and then disrupted a school religious service by heckling the principal and the local bishop in front of the pupils.

The school suspended him as a teacher and and then fired him, on the grounds of misconduct, but he continued to turn up to the school demanding to be allowed inside to continue teaching. The police and court system got involved; he continued to defy court orders to tell him to stay away from the school and ended up in prison for contempt of court for several weeks before Christmas. After he was formally fired in January, he continued turning up at the school, and was arrested when he went inside. The court has now imposed a fine of €700 per day for each day he turns up at the school premises; he now owes the school over €24,000.

The usual suspects are trying to make a case that this crazy bigot who refuses to give assurances that he will not harass a child who is going through a difficult phase of their life, disrupted a religious service, attempted to intimidate his colleagues and their pupils and has repeatedly defied the law, is in fact a heroic martyr for the cause of free speech and standing up for the principle that biological sex is real. Although it should be noted that Fred Phelps Jr of the Westboro Baptist Church thinks he has ‘gone too far’, which is a line you won’t see often.

I read with interest the rulings of three judges on the Court of Appeal who threw out Burke’s attempt to overturn the previous judgements against him on 7 March. (The Burke family disrupted the Court of Appeal session and had to be removed by police. Since then, Burke lost another case last week.) The three judges take somewhat different routes to arrive at the same conclusion.

The most interesting judgement is from Justice John A. Edwards. You can read it in full here. He goes in some detail into the history of Irish legislation on recognising gender transition, particularly the Foy case, which I wasn’t really aware of. He then looks at cases of people taking controversial stances of conscience, including (rather to my delight) Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. He makes this important point:

Conscientious objections are to be taken seriously. Beliefs sincerely held are to be respected, whether they be on social or religious or other principled grounds. All the more so, where the beliefs on which the objection is founded, and the right to express them, are supported by personal rights guaranteed to the citizen under the Constitution, and perhaps also under international instruments. However, nobody has a monopoly on rights and rights such as freedom of conscience, the right to free profession and practice of religious belief, and freedom of expression are not wholly unqualified rights. Further, those rights may intersect with the same or other rights, arising under the Constitution or otherwise, of others who do not share their beliefs.

If you are in the mood for it, the two other rulings bear reading too. The President of the Court of Appeal, George Birmingham (who in a previous life was Ireland’s first ever Minister of State for EU Affairs, back in 1986), mainly looks at the legal technicalities (because the Court was looking at alleged failures of procedure, according to the Burkes, in the previous court rulings). You can read his judgement here. But he too makes some very important points of wider application. I was struck by this at the end:

It seems to me that the approach of the school is very much in accordance with wider public policy as articulated in legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2015. That Act is not directly applicable in the circumstances of this case, as the pupil involved, being under 18 years of age, has not applied for and is not in a position to apply for a gender recognition certificate. However, it is part of the statute law of the State, and is, to a degree, I believe, declaratory of public policy. The long title of the Act is that it is “An Act to recognise change of gender; to provide for gender recognition certificates; to amend the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, the Civil Registration Act 2004, the Passports Act 2008 and the Adoption Act 2010; and to provide for matters connected therewith.” Against the background of the statute law of the State, it seems clear to me that the decision of the principal and of the school is in no sense an outlier.

Isn’t it interesting that Ireland has come to the stage where recognising transgender people for who they are is seen by a 68-year-old senior judge as the default, and the behaviour of the Burkes is in every sense an outlier?

Finally, Justice Maire Whelan, formerly the second longest-serving attorney-general in the history of the Irish state, whose own appointment to the court in 2017 was somewhat controversial, weighs in on the school’s ethos and duties to its pupils, and Burke’s failure to respect either. One of the points of interest of the case is that the school is actually a Protestant school by background, run by the Church of Ireland. The village where the school is located has a total population of less than 200, and only 2% of the 95,000 population of the whole of County Westmeath identify as Church of Ireland, so it seems likely that the school takes in pupils of other faiths and none. (My research, not Justice Whelan’s.) Justice Whelan looks at the role and responsibilities of the school and of Enoch Burke, and comes down very firmly on the side of the school.

Contrary to Mr. Burke’s contentions the safety, health and welfare of the individual student is of central importance in this case. In was incumbent upon the school to ensure that a parental request that respect be afforded by the school for the diversity arising should be accommodated in accordance with the school’s own Admission Statement and characteristic spirit.  As stated above, both the school and Mr. Burke stood in loco parentis to the student. It was incumbent upon the school to ensure that no conduct, by act or omission, as might cause harm or be potentially discriminatory or that could impact detrimentally upon the student in question or the student body would be engaged in…

Leaving aside all legislation, the school and its Board had continuing and significant common law obligations towards children in respect of which it stood in loco parentis.  Mr. Burke himself had – and continues to have – like obligations at law… 

Further parents and students were entitled to expect that no individual student would be at risk of less favourable treatment than their peers, of being left vulnerable to discrimination, of not being accorded or treated equally with other students in terms of their human dignity by virtue of the potential conduct of a teacher in the school.  The school having adopted its mission statement and statement of ethos as it was required to do by statute was bound by its terms.  Not alone was it not open to the school, by omission, to resile from its obligations but, in my view, it had a positive duty to defend and vindicate the school policy in circumstances where a clear risk had been identified in the conduct of Mr Burke which was capable of visiting discrimination and/or impacting detrimentally on the welfare of the student body in general and the individual student in particular. That was particularly important where the school was one which in the very words of Mr Burke “ all teachers have interaction with all pupils”.

It is powerful stuff. Apparently several St Patrick’s Day parades yesterday featured floats mocking Burke’s removal from the school and the High Court by Gardaí, to cheers from the crowds. Ireland has changed.

(Though I hope that the student is getting the necessary support from their family and community. They did not pick this fight, and just want to live life as their own self.)

August 2020 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 began grimly, with the notorious 2020 Hugo Awards ceremony unfolding in the early hours of 1 August (in my time zone). I think we have to be clear that it went very badly wrong. Having put many hours of my own time into working on the awards that year, I felt personally that my efforts had been thrown back in my face. The fact that the first actual Hugo winner was not announced until more than an hour into the ceremony demonstrated a fundamental lack of respect for the people who should have been at the heart of the occasion. (Not to mention the rest of us.)

There was some emotional high points of the grim evening, however, and the one that will linger with me was Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for Good Omens.

I blogged about the Hugos, the Retro Hugo trophies and the Retro Hugos that weren’t; I also blogged about famous Welsh lesbian Amy Dillwyn, who was a distant relative; the Lib Dem leadership election; and the Bible and the Bechdel test.

This was another month when, due to the pandemic, I did not leave Belgium, but I plucked up my courage to go to Train World with U for a Paul Delvaux exhibition.

Also culturally, Anne and I went to the Fondation Folon south of Brussels, which I strongly recommend.

And I had an exciting physical meeting with an EU official.

I made one last local video on a cartographic curiosity.

Not so many books this month – several were very long, and my demi-commute hit my reading.

Non-fiction: 1 (YTD 38)
From Barrows to Bypass: Excavations at West Cotton, Raunds, Northamptonshire, 1985-1989, by Dave Windell, Andy Chapman and Jo Woodwiss

Fiction (non-sf): 5 (YTD 23)
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
Jerusalem: The Boroughs, by Alan Moore
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

sf (non-Who): 3 (YTD 79)
A Boy and His Dog, by Harlan Ellison
Jerusalem: Mansoul, by Alan Moore
The Conqueror’s Child, by Suzy McKee Charnas

Comics: 1 (YTD 28)
Star Wars IV: A New Hope, by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin

Doctor Who: 2 (YTD 10)
The Secret in Vault 13, by David Solomons
The Maze of Doom, by David Solomons

3,700 pages (YTD 47,900)
4/12 (YTD 58/177) by women (Woodwiss, Mantel x2, McKee Charnas)
None AFAIK (YTD 18/177) by PoC

Best books this month were the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (which you can get here) and Bring up the Bodies (which you can get here), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which you can get here).

Hugely unimpressed by Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (which you can get here).

Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. George R. R. Martin

Second paragraph of third story (“Walking the Floor Over You” by Walton Simons):

A lot of the customers were smoking, but Carlotta’s routine was doing the opposite. It wasn’t the material, and her delivery was spot on. Well, as good as it ever was, anyway.

The last of the books I got with the Zelazny Humble Bundle in early 2016, an anthology of vaguely linked stories in the Wild Cards series. I quite liked the first one, “Storming Space” by Michael Cassutt, about a secret space programme. None of the rest was particularly special, and one of them, “Promises”, by Stephen Leigh, really annoyed me.

“Promises” is set in Rathlin Island, off the coast of Northern Ireland, and like the rest of the Wild Cards stories the background is that an alien virus has infected a small but significant proportion of humanity with superhuman (or just inconvenient) powers. The major infection was in New York in 1946 but it turns out that there was also a smaller infection in Belfast in 1962. The infected “jokers” have been isolated on Rathlin Island.

So, two points of detail. First of all, although it is made clear that Rathlin Island and Northern Ireland as a whole are still part of the UK in the 1990s (as in our own dear timeline), the local police in Northern Ireland are referred to as the “garda” (sic). As many of you know, the Garda Síochána are the police in the Republic; “garda” is not a viable Irish translation of either “Royal Ulster Constabulary” or “Police Service of Northern Ireland”. (That would be “póilíní”.)

Also, one of the protagonists talks casually about how she could have got an abortion in Belfast in 1962. I know we are in alternate history here, but I can’t see the late Brookeborough government suddenly legislating to overturn the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 even under alien attack.

On top of that the ebook is badly formatted, as is the case with other ebooks in the Humble Bundle published by the now defunct iBooks.

Deuces Down was republished by in 2021 with more stories and a linking narrative, and reviews suggest that this has been a significant improvement. You can get the new version here.

This was both my top unread book acquired in 2016 and the sf book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves. Next on those piles respectively are The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama, and The Best of Ian McDonald.

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Second paragraph of third chapter:

— Мы всё это учтём, — сказал наконец Нунан, дорисовав десятого для ровного счёта чёртика и захлопнув блокнот. — В самом деле, безобразие…“We’ll keep all that in mind, Valentine,” Noonan said finally, finishing his tenth doodle for an even count and slamming his notebook shut. “You’re right, this is a disgrace.”

One of the classic sf works of Eastern Europe, well indeed of the world, which I realised that I had never actually read in English – when living in Germany in 1986 I bought a German translation, which is probably the most recent work of any length that I have read in German.

I enjoyed it more than I expected. There have been some notable incomprehensible alien incursion stories since, thinking of Ian McDonald, Jeff VanderMeer and Tade Thompson in particular, but this is the first really detailed exploration of what the SF Encyclopedia calls a Zone. The aliens have come and gone, leaving obscure and dangerous objects for us to look at and attempt to exploit; the effect this has on the immediate human society of those who try to explore it is brutally depicted. It’s interesting that the characters are coded as Americans, even in the original Russian. It’s also mercifully short. You can get it here.

This was my top unread sf book. Next on that pile is A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske.

BSFA Best Art

This year, because I am a Clarke judge, I won’t have time to read the BSFA Awards’ YA category and I also won’t be commenting on Best Novel. But that still leaves three categories, and the easiest in term of research is Best Art. It’s also easy in that all six finalists are book or magazine covers, and indeed four of the six feature single human or humanoid figures as the centre of attention. (One of the other two is centred on a single non-humanoid creature, and the other has two humanoids.)

6) You’ve got to start winnowing them down somewhere, and I’m afaid my last place goes to Vincent Sammy’s cover of Parsec 4. We lose a bit by not seeing the hooded central figure’s face, and there’s something not quite right about the dynamics of the posture. (Also, though this is hardly the artist’s fault, I was surprised to see a couple of pilcrows ¶¶ on the cover text.)

5) Jay Johnstone’s cover of The Way the Light Bends, by Lorraine Wilson, has a very pretty dragonfly with Celtic knotwork, but others are more eloquent.

4) There’s a lot to like about Alyssa Winans’ cover of The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard, with the central couple of the story in front of a starscape, their attention on each other. In the end I just like the others a little more.

3) Manzi Jackson’s cover for Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donal Ekpeki and Zelda Knight, has a young woman in a spacesuit regarding us implacably from a flower-filled dell. I hope there is a good story there.

2) There is clearly a story in Miguel Co’s cover for Song of the Mango and Other New Myths, by Vida Cruz-Borja. It’s graphically the simplest of any of the finalists, but I feel that it says a lot very economically.

1) Fangorn/Chris Baker’s cover for Shoreline of Infinity 32, edited by Teika Marija Smits, hints not just at a story but at a whole universe. On the front we see a feminine robot, plugged into the ceiling (which itself is held up by classical columns), examining a fragment which seems suspended in space; but over on the back cover, we see that this is just part of a wider scene with two more sprawled robots, various discarded pieces of equipment and several masks, and you know that there is more going on. It gets my vote.

The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus du Sautoy

Second paragraph of third chapter:

From ancient civilizations all around the world we have a fascinating assortment of games. Stones thrown in the sand, sticks tossed in the air, tokens placed in hollows carved into wooden blocks, hands used to compete, pictures drawn on cards. From ancient mancala to Monopoly, from the Japanese game of go to the poker tables of Vegas, games are invariably won by whoever is best at taking a mathematical, analytical approach. In this chapter I will show you how maths is the secret to the winning streak.

I read another of du Sautoy’s books twenty years ago in my early book-blogging days. This one is a straightforward romp through various bits of mathematical theory – prime numbers, topology, probability, cryptography and dynamics. I didn’t learn a lot from it, but it is breezily done and will probably appeal to smart older kids who are presumably the target audience. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is Deuces Down, edited by John Jos. Miller.

Sunday reading

The Best of Ian McDonald
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed ???
Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, eds. Sheree Renée Thomas, Pan Morigan and Troy L. Wiggins
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard

Last books finished
Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore
Warring States, by Mags Halliday
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins
Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel
ξ3 (did not finish)
Luca, by Or Luca

Next books
Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

July 2020 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 high point of the month was getting out of Belgium for the first time since lockdown, a three-country trip to my cousin in Luxembourg, my sister in France and work/tourism in Geneva. While we were there we watched the Disney Hamilton and saw Comet NEOWISE.

We enjoyed watching Picard and Staged, and I delved into the etymology of the Ardennes. More seriously, the Spanish Comisión de Arbitraje, Quejas y Deontología del Periodismo found completely in my favour in a complaint I had raised against a journalist who published a false story about me.

I also paused my ten-day COVID updates, but restarted my Doctor Who anniversary posts, which I had first done in 2010-11. I am still doing them, but on Facebook only.

The Hugo Awards gave us a lot of grief. The preparation of the online voting system on the final ballot was so badly delayed that we were within hours of just using Surveymonkey, before the local software solution finally came through at the last moment. Online commentators were rightly scornful of the fact that we opened voting so late, but they didn’t know the half of it. The final ballot results came through as we were driving home from Geneva, and to my astonishment it turned out that there was a tie for the Retro Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form). I checked and rechecked the votes, but there was no error.

The CoNZealand Retro Hugo ceremony passed off OK on 30 July, though my connection was poor and some of the actual winners were a bit embarrassing. At midnight on July 31st, I was at my computer waiting anxiously for the 2020 Hugo ceremony itself. We had heard worrying hints about the presentation, but as administrators we had little to do with it (indeed, the pronunciations we had painstakingly gathered earlier in the year somehow were not communicated to the ceremony team [edit: turns out they were communicated, just not used]); surely the convention leadership would take action to protect their own reputation?

…well, I’ll write more about that when I get to August 2020.

Anyway, in July 2020 I read 21 books:

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 37)
EU Lobbying Handbook, by Andreas Geiger
The Complete Secret Army: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Classic TV Drama Series by Andy Priestner
George Eliot, by Tim Dolin
Yugoslavia’s Implosion: The Fatal Attraction of Serbian Nationalism, by Sonja Biserko
Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, by Mary Trump

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 18)
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Guban, by Abdi Latif Ega
Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo

sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 76)
City of Lies, by Sam Hawke
Tooth & Claw, by Jo Walton
TOR: Assassin Hunter, by Billy Bob Buttons (did not finish)
“Houston, Houston, do you read?” by James Tiptree Jr
The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
“The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov

Comics: 6 (YTD 27)
The Wicked + The Divine vol 6: Imperial Phase Part 2, by Kieron Gillen etc
The Wicked + The Divine vol 7: Mothering Invention, by Kieron Gillen etc
Gaze of the Medusa, by Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby and Brian Williamson
The Wicked + The Divine vol 8: Old is the New New, by Kieron Gillen etc
The Wicked + The Divine vol 9: “Okay”, by Kieron Gillen etc
The 1945 Retro Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story or Comic

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 8)
Doctor Who Annual 2020
Doctor Who and the Cybermen, by Gerry Davis

5,700 pages (YTD 44,200)
7/21 (YTD 54/165) by women (Biserko, Trump, Hawke, Walton, Tiptree, Lyons, Beeby)
1/21 (YTD 18/165) by PoC (Ega)

As so often, two non-fiction books stood out for me this month, Andy Priestner’s delightful Complete Secret Army, which you can get here, and Sonja Biserko’s horrifying Yugoslavia’s Implosion, which you can get here. I also enjoyed rereading James Tiptree Jr’s “Houston, Houston, do you read?”, which you can get here.

Some awful books too. The 2020 Doctor Who Annual was a poor effort; you can get it here. Guban, by Abdi Latif Ega, is very badly edited; you can get it here. TOR: Assassin Hunter, by Billy Bob Buttons, is rubbish; you can get it here. And Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” has not aged well, but you can get it here.

Nebula finalists – Goodreads/LibraryThing stats

How the Nebula finalists have hit the markets. As usual, ranked by the geometric average of the number of Goodreads users who have ranked the book and the number of LibraryThing owners who have logged it; highest numbers in each column are in bold.

Best Novel:

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Babel, by R.F. Kuang69,4484.311,7284.22£8.49 from Amazon
Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree57,0234.331,0114.29£12.99 from Amazon
Nettle and Bone, by T. Kingfisher27,0334.227384.29£7.49 from Amazon
Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir20,7654.395944.22£18.30 from Amazon
Spear, by Nicola Griffith36374.132614.03£13.35 from Amazon
The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler31614.092224.07£14.99 from Amazon

Best Novella (NB that one of these has not been published as a standalone):

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers23,5614.466184.34£12.85 from Amazon
Even Though I Knew the End, by C.L. Polk42463.971474.24£14.53 from Amazon
High Times in the Low Parliament, by Kelly Robson7373.28733.64£9.99 from Amazon
I Never Liked You Anyway, by Jordan Kurella153.875£11.30 from Amazon
“Bishop’s Opening”, by R.S.A. Garcia

Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction:

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, Maya MacGregor6984.20354.25£13.99 from Amazon
The Scratch Daughters, by H.A. Clarke3074.53284.75£16.80 from Amazon
Every Bird a Prince, Jenn Reese1344.07154.10£10.36 from Amazon
The Mirrorwood, by Deva Fagan1924.1410£12.54 from Amazon
Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion, K. Tempest Bradford704.1612£11.94 from Amazon

The World Set Free: A Fantasia of the Future, by H.G. Wells

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Leblanc was one of those ingenuous men whose lot would have been insignificant in any period of security, but who have been caught up to an immortal role in history by the sudden simplification of human affairs through some tragical crisis, to the measure of their simplicity. Such a man was Abraham Lincoln, and such was Garibaldi. And Leblanc, with his transparent childish innocence, his entire self-forgetfulness, came into this confusion of distrust and intricate disaster with an invincible appeal for the manifest sanities of the situation. His voice, when he spoke, was ‘full of remonstrance.’ He was a little bald, spectacled man, inspired by that intellectual idealism which has been one of the peculiar gifts of France to humanity. He was possessed of one clear persuasion, that war must end, and that the only way to end war was to have but one government for mankind. He brushed aside all other considerations. At the very outbreak of the war, so soon as the two capitals of the belligerents had been wrecked, he went to the president in the White House with this proposal. He made it as if it was a matter of course. He was fortunate to be in Washington and in touch with that gigantic childishness which was the characteristic of the American imagination. For the Americans also were among the simple peoples by whom the world was saved. He won over the American president and the American government to his general ideas; at any rate they supported him sufficiently to give him a standing with the more sceptical European governments, and with this backing he set to work — it seemed the most fantastic of enterprises — to bring together all the rulers of the world and unify them. He wrote innumerable letters, he sent messages, he went desperate journeys, he enlisted whatever support he could find; no one was too humble for an ally or too obstinate for his advances; through the terrible autumn of the last wars this persistent little visionary in spectacles must have seemed rather like a hopeful canary twittering during a thunderstorm. And no accumulation of disasters daunted his conviction that they could be ended.

Next in my reading of Wells’ novels, this was written in 1913 and published in 1914. It’s quite a short book, an account of a near future where nuclear weapons are developed, major cities are devastated and the nations of the world come together to decide against future war and create a Utopia. It must have been at least indirectly inspiring for the creation of the United Nations thirty years later, and it’s striking how much closer to the mark he got with the impact of new technology on war than he did in The War in the Air, only six years earlier.

I have to say that as a novel it is not all that great. Good chaps, some of whom are royalty, get together in a remote resort to sort the world out, and there is not a lot of drama other than the big bangs of war. There are two named women characters, who have a dialogue on women’s place in the new order at the end. (And there’s a point-of-view unnamed secretary in Paris who witnesses one of the bombings in an earlier chapter.) It’s part of the chain of thought that ends with The Shape of Things to Come, and I think interesting mainly for that reason. You can get it here.

This was my top unread novel by Wells. The next is Love and Mr Lewisham.

Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland

Second paragraph of third chapter:

However, the Arrow-Debreu theory does not take into account adaptive interactions typical of a CAS [complex adaptive system]. From the CAS viewpoint, the ‘fully rational’ agent assumption is a very strong assumption. Each agent must act on full knowledge of the future consequences of its actions, including the responses of other agents to those actions. Clearly no realistic agent possesses such omnipotence. Arrow was aware of this difficulty from the start, pointing out that real markets involve diverse traders of bounded rationality, with different agents employing different strategies. Moreover, realistic agents change their strategies as they gain experience with the diverse actions of other traders—they adapt. Markets made up of such agents rarely reach an equilibrium, even temporarily; rather, there are often large fluctuations (‘bubbles’ and ‘crashes’) caused by the traders’ ongoing, diverse adaptations.

On the basis of reading two books from the series, I’m rather impressed with the Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press (the other one I have read is Modern China, by my old friend Rana Mitter). I complained after reading one of the earlier accounts of complexity that I was still looking for a good introduction to the topic, and I think I have found it. Mathematics is not really my thing these days, but I found this a very helpful overview of the theoretical side of complex adaptive systems, pulling together a lot of topics that I vaguely knew about. I still need to find something on the more organisational management side of it, but this is a good start. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019 which was not written by H.G. Wells. Next on that pile is When Christians were Jews, by Paula Fredriksen.

How to get the BSFA nominees, and their Goodreads/LibraryThing stats

Slightly slow to get to the BSFA shortlists, as I had a busy few days, but here are the Goodreads / LibraryThing stats for the Best YA and Best Novel categories, compared with the long lists; and also links for them and for the nominees in other categories.

As usual, I have ranked the finalists in descending order of the geometrical average of their number of owners on Goodreads and LibraryThing, and also provided the average rating on both systems, bolding the highest in each category. I’ve also given Amazon links where I have them – I know, I know, evil big river, but I get a (pathetically) small commission from it…

The Best Novel list is curious. The top novel on the shortlist was 35th, just over half way down, on the long list ranking by GR/LT ownership, and the second novel was 30th; the other three were all in the bottom half of the long-list ranking and one was in 61st place out of 68. To be specific, more people appear to have nominated The Coral Bones for the BSFA Award than own it on LibraryThing.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard8113.401044.06£9.99 from Amazon
Stars and Bones, by Gareth Powell10523.68643.29£8.01 from Amazon
City of Last Chances, by Adrian Tchaikovsky6264.05594.25£8.79 from Amazon
The This, by Adam Roberts2883.92543.90£9.99 from Amazon
The Coral Bones, by E.J. Swift134.545£9.72 from Amazon

The nominations for Best YA Book are much more in line with the long list, with 7 of the long list’s top 11 making the cut, and all of the top three.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Only A Monster, by Vanessa Len170953.914633.60£7.49 from Amazon
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, by Juno Dawson94813.884183.61£7.91 from Amazon
Violet Made of Thorns, by Gina Chen107013.633404.00£8.99 from Amazon
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, by Xiran Jay Zhao25794.17994.09£7.35 from Amazon
Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge8664.20674.27£11.99 from Amazon
Illuminations, by T Kingfisher10954.20504.10£12.99 from Amazon
Mindwalker, by Kate Dylan6814.20383.75£13.16 from Amazon

The Short Fiction shortlist includes three stories published as standalones, and two in magazines.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikowsky19344.26664.06£25.00 from Amazon
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard2664.22334.15£8.50 from Amazon
Luca, by Or Luca143£11.55 from Amazon
“A Moment of Zugzwang”, by Neil Williamson (ParSec 4)£5.99 here
“Seller’s Remorse”, by Rick Danforth (Hexagon Magazine 11)free here

The Non-Fiction category includes two books and three online articles. NB that the books have higher ratings on Goodreads and LibraryThing than any of the other finalists in any other category.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins12544.721834.34£14.00 from Amazon
Management Lessons from Game of Thrones, by Fiona Moore45.003£19.95 from Amazon
“The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker“, by Maureen Kincaid Spellerfree here
“Preliminary Observations From An Incomplete History of African SFF”, by Wole Talabifree here
“Too Dystopian For Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpekifree here

Finally, six book covers for Best Art – I link to each and give thumbnail extracts here.

Alyssa Winans, cover of The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard
Manzi Jackson, cover of Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donal Ekpeki and Zelda Knight
Fangorn [Chris Baker], cover of Shoreline of Infinity 32, edited by Teika Marija Smits
Vincent Sammy, cover of Parsec 4, ed. Ian Whates
Miguel Co, cover of Song of the Mango and Other New Myths, by Vida Cruz-Borja
Jay Johnstone, cover of The Way the Light Bends, by Lorraine Wilson

Because I am a Clarke Award judge this year, I won’t comment on the Best Novel list and I won’t have time to read the Best YA Book finalists, but I’ll cover the other three in due course, starting with Best Art next Tuesday.

June 2020 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.

Things began to improve this month. with restrictions gradually easing; I went for a triumphant lunch with a colleague the day that the restaurants opened again.

We were allowed to see B again for the first time in more than three months, on her 23rd birthday.

Even so, I kept up my ten-day plague posts.

I also wrote about some of the TV we had been watching – Derry Girls, Unorthodox, The Good Place, Normal People and The Beiderbecke Affair. And I asked the thorny question, Who was both oldest former US President and oldest former Vice-President, but not at the same time?

More locally, I went to church, and made a final local video about an ancient enclave of imperial territory just across the river from us.

I read 20 books that month.

Non-fiction: 6 (YTD 32)
The Beiderbecke Affair, by William Gallagher
The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England, by John Cooper
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry
Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, by Rana Mitter
From A Clear Blue Sky, by Timothy Knatchbull
The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, by John Bolton

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 15)
Local Hero, by David Benedictus
The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies
Laatste schooldag, by Jan Siebelink (did not finish)

sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 70)
The Sleeper Awakes, by H.G. Wells
Heaven’s War by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt (did not finish)
Dreaming In Smoke, by Tricia Sullivan
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Extremes, by Christopher Priest

Comics: 6 (YTD 21)
The Wicked + The Divine vol 2: Fandemonium, by Kieron Gillen etc
The Wicked + The Divine vol 3: Commercial Suicide, by Kieron Gillen etc
The Wicked + The Divine vol 4: Rising Action, by Kieron Gillen etc
De dag waarop de bus zonder haar vertrok, by BeKa, Marko and Maëla Cosson
The Wicked + The Divine vol 5: Imperial Phase Part 1, by Kieron Gillen etc
De dag waarop ze haar vlucht nam, by BeKa, Marko, and Maëla Cosson

5,000 pages (YTD 38,500)
4/20 (YTD 47/144) by women (Davie, Sullivan, 2x Ka of BeKa and Cosson)
1/20 (YTD 17/144) by PoC (Mitter)

The best book of this month, indeed of 2020, was Timothy Knatchbull’s From a Clear Blue Sky, his account of the Mountbatten bomb in 1979 and its aftermath; you can get it here. I also had a car-crash fascination with John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened; you can get it here. Rana Mitter’s Modern China: A Very Short Introduction is not as exciting than either of the above but also very good; you can get it here.

I read some pretty bad books too. I gave up on Goyer and Cassutt’s Heaven’s War after a few pages; you can get it here. The short story collection Laatste Schooldag by Jan Siebelink fell flat for me; you can get it here. So did the second of the bandes dessinées by BeKa, De Dag Waarop Ze Haar Vlucht Nam; you can get it here.

Sunday reading

The Best of Ian McDonald
Warring States, by Mags Halliday
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel
Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore

Last books finished
Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke
θ3 (did not finish)
ι3 (did not finish)
κ3 (did not finish)
Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright

Next books
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed ???
The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama
Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, ed. Sheree Renee Thomas 

Representing Europeans: A Pragmatic Approach, by Richard Rose

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Europe has always been a continent of diverse peoples but diversity has never been an obstacle to political union. To strengthen alliances or gain territory, monarchies arranged dynastic marriages that created the multi-national empires that dominated Europe before 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an extreme example of diversity, for the majority of peoples living under the Habsburg crown were neither Austrians nor Hungarians. However, nationalist movements led to the break-up of multi-national empires. After the First World War, new nation-states were created that emphasized ethnic exclusivity, even when they had large minority populations and Germany under Adolf Hitler sought continental domination claiming to represent a Herrenvolk (master race). The Second World War discredited claims to national superiority while the Holocaust and the displacement of minorities increased the ethnic homogeneity of European states.

Richard Rose will turn 90 in April this year; his first two books, co-authored in 1960, were an analysis of the 1959 election and an investigation of why the Labour Party kept losing. He also carried out a very important analysis of public sentiment about politics and government in Northern Ireland just before the Troubles broke out, which has become an essential baseline for understanding what happened last century. My father greatly respected him, and when he came to Brussels in between the Brexit referendum and the pandemic, I made contact and we had a couple of very friendly dinners on the Grand’ Place.

He was kind enough to give me a copy of this short book about the political system of the EU, and its democratic deficits. It’s a lucid guide to how the structures actually work – too many such guides are hypnotised by the institutions’ own accounts of themselves – and makes a lot of the points on the dangers of disconnection between the EU decision-making process and the citizens who are affected by it. The book came out before Brexit (and assumes that it won’t happen) and before the pandemic, both of which have changed things a bit but maybe not all that much.

I’m going to disagree, however, with a couple of the points he makes. He spends an entire chapter criticising the allocation of seats between countries in the European Parliament, which (as you know, Bob) varies between Malta’s six (one MEP per 80,000 population) to Germany’s ninety-six (one MEP per 800,000 population). I don’t really think that this is a problem. Divergences from proportionality are tolerated in a lot of democratic electoral systems for different reasons, usually in order to give extra representation to groups who need it. The large member states already have a massive amount of soft power within the EU system, and I don’t find it outrageous that they shave a couple of the MEPs that they would have been entitled to on a strict population ratio, in order that the diversity of voices from smaller states is not completely extinguished. I think Rose’s argument also faces an issue about differential turnout between different countries, which he doesn’t address.

He also has a solution that I disagree with – holding EU-wide referendums on crucial issues. Here I think he unrealistically discounts the practical and political difficulties of doing this; election laws and procedures are very different across the 27 member states, referendum laws even more so; and how do you explain to, say, Slovaks that the democratic choice they make nationally can be over-ridden by French and German voters? My own feeling is that we should not try too hard to erode the extent to which the EU is a union of member states, since that’s an important element of its legitimacy.

Anyway, these are debating points surrounded by thorough and lean analysis. You can get it here.

Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

By the time I was born, she [Sharon’s great-grandmother] was already in her late 70s and devoted to daily Bible reading and listening to religious music on an old record player.

I got this after corresponding with the author about the art of her husband, Charles Pfahl. It’s the story of a grim childhood of neglect and occasional abuse with alcoholic parents in Ohio and Brooklyn, followed by a series of unsuccessful relationships and marriages, at the end of which she reunites with Pfahl two decades after splitting up with him, and they resolve to make a go of it again (and apparently did quite well). The cover illustration was painted by Pfahl for the book, but he died before it was published.

There’s a lot of personal insight here, and the various awful relatives and boyfriends / husbands are all portrayed with humanity – even though they behave terribly, they are not monsters but flawed human beings. There’s also a tremendous sense of place; Akron, Ohio has a completely different feel to Brooklyn, which is again different from Manhattan. And (always a plus) it’s quite short despite the brutal subject matter. You can get it here.

The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Long night?”

Part of the 2020 Hugo Voter packet submitted by Diana M. Pho, but I’ve only just now got to it. It was very nice of several editors that year to give us more novels to read (in a year when we needed them), but it is of course impossible for the reader to know what contribution the editor made to the final product.

It’s a fantasy novel set in a parallel world’s medieval Middle Eastern city, where the guild of assassins is struggling for legitimacy and against an unknown opponent, who our young protagonist is tasked with tracking down. Excellent world-building, layering various bits of ghost lore onto the secure foundation of the Thousand and One Nights; I groaned at the sudden-yet-inevitable betrayal near the end, but actually it was played out better than I had anticipated. It’s the first of a trilogy; while I enjoyed it, I won’t make special efforts to get the other two. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020 (after Penric’s Progress, which I can’t find). Next on that pile is Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon, by Al Worden.