Sunday reading

Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Last books finished
υ4 (did not finish)
φ4 (did not finish)
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace, by Nigel Robinson

Next books
The Fountains of Forever, by Nick Abadzis et al
The Race, by Nina Allan
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Green Book

Green Book won the 2018 Best Picture Oscar, and two others: Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley) and Best Original Screenplay. Bohemian Rhapsody, which I also enjoyed, won four Oscars that year, more than any other film. As well as Bohemian Rhapsody, the other contenders for Best Picture were Black Panther, which I have also seen, and BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Roma, A Star Is Born and Vice, which I haven’t. The Hugo that year went to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with Black Panther second.

The only other films I have seen from that year were Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man and the six Hugo finalists, which I did not comment on because I was the administrator of the awards. I voted for Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, A Quiet Place, Sorry to Bother You, Annihilation and Avengers: Infinity War in that order. IMDB users rate Green Book 4th and 7th best film of the year, with no film ahead of it on both lists.

Here’s a trailer.

A couple of high profile returnees from previous Oscar-winners here. Viggo Mortensen, starring as Tony Lip, led the Army of the West to the gates of Mordor before being crowned King of Gondor as the second of two title characters in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. (He was of course in the two previous films of the trilogy as well.)

Mahershala Ali, here the other main character Don Shirley, was Juan in the first section of Moonlight two years ago.

Nick Vallelonga, the writer of the film and son of Tony Lip, appeared as a young wedding guest in The Godfather, 45 years before, and also has a minor speaking part here. (Tony’s father and father-in-law are played by his real-life brother and brother-in-law). I didn’t spot any other Hugo/Nebula or scar crossovers, let alone Doctor Who.

I rather enjoyed this. True, it’s the story of a white man’s education about racism, rather than an in depth exploration of racism from the point of view of the oppressed; but it’s also a witty buddy movie, of two men who are different in many ways coming to a joint understanding of their common humanity, and each having a humanising effect on the other. The mixture of music is sensitively done. The scenery all looks like Louisiana, because it all is Louisiana despite being set in various other places. Loses marks for Tony being a white saviour a little too often, and for not much agency for the women characters. But the banter between the two principals is crackling.

I’m putting it just over half way down my ranking, below It Happened One Night and above Slumdog Millionaire.

Next up is Parasite, 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)

March 2021 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.

Another month when due to COVID restrictions I did not leave Belgium, and indeed I appear to have gone to the office only twice. It was a year since the first lockdown. Apart from diplomatic walks in Brussels parks, my two excursions were to the Dolmen of Duisburg and the video games museum at Tours et Taxis.

I kept up my ten-day posts:

I also researched the parenthood of the baby in the park, but came to the wrong conclusion.

Hugo Award nominations closed, and it became clear that we had some potentially controversial finalists, including a blog post whose title gave a very direct instruction to a well-known author. From the technical point of view it was relatively smooth; we had one nominated editor decline nomination, one artist inform us that they were not eligible and one TV series that we disqualified from the Long Form category because it also had two episodes in Short Form. (Some felt that we should have disqualified others too, but we did not.)

I read 20 books that month.

Non-fiction 5 (YTD 13)
The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, by Paul Kincaid
Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason
It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of?, by Adam Roberts
Romeinse sporen: het relaas van de Romeinen in de Benelux met 309 vindplaatsen om te bezoeken, by Herman Clerinx
Scottish independence: EU membership and the Anglo–Scottish border, by Akash Paun, Jess Sargeant, James Kane, Maddy Thimont Jack and Kelly Shuttleworth

Non-genre 1 (YTD 5)
Dances With Wolves, by Michael Blake

Scripts 2
Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry
Mostly Void, Partially Stars, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

SF 12 (YTD 35)
The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Comet Weather, by Liz Williams
“Sandkings”, by George R.R. Martin
Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds
Enemy Mine, by Barry B. Longyear
The Doors of Eden, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Threading the Labyrinth, by Tiffani Angus
The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke
Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake
Light of Impossible Stars, by Gareth Powell
Water Must Fall, by Nick Wood
The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, by M. John Harrison

5,600 pages (YTD 16,500)
3/20 (YTD 24/61) by women (Williams, Angus, Sargeant/Thimont Jack/Shuttleworth)
1/20 (YTD 12/61) by PoC (Paun)

A lot of these were very good, and I’m going to recommend three by friends which were also shortlisted for the BSFA Award:

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, by Paul Kincaid (review; get it here)
Comet Weather, by Liz Williams (review; get it here)
Threading the Labyrinth, by Tiffani Angus (review; get it here)

On the other hand, Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake is a dismally poor ending to the Gormenghast trilogy. Stick to the first two books, folks. You can get it here.

Doctor Who and the Silurians and Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, by Malcolm Hulke, and The Silurians, by Robert Smith?

When I first watched Doctor Who and the Silurians in 2007, I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Silurians was the second story of Jon Pertwee’s first season in 1970 (and for some reason the only TV story with “Doctor Who and” in the title). Those who have seen Quatermass are keen to point out the links; for me, it was one of the most X-Files-like of Doctor Who stories, with our team of investigators checking out mysterious happenings which turn out to have an entirely Earthly explanation (rather rare among Who stories). The first three episodes seemed reminiscent of yer standard rural horror story, but the second half, alternating between science labs and the Silurian caves, steps back into familiar territory. Very familiar in fact – there’s Peter Miles, to return playing essentially the same character in Invasion of the Dinosaurs and even nastier in Genesis of the Daleks; there’s Geoffrey Palmer, who lasts two episodes this time before dying horribly (he was only in one episode of The Mutants before dying horribly; and now of course he is due to return as the captain of the Titanic – spot a pattern here?); and, most surprising, there’s Paul Darrow, nine years before Avon became one of Blake’s Seven, being the Brigadier’s second-in-command. The Young Silurian is overacting a bit though. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Spearhead from Space and Inferno, but I can see why some regard this as Pertwee’s best season.

In 2010, when I came back to it for my Great Rewatch, I was less forgiving:

There are some good bits in Doctor Who and the Silurians, but they are an awful long way apart; this would have been an undisputed classic if it were a four-parter. The length of the story may not have been the choice of director Timothy Combe (who also did Evil of the Daleks and The Mind of Evil, after which he was apparently barred from future Who work), but it has other problems that clearly are his fault: too many static scenes of the Brigadier sitting talking to someone in an office, several of which are interrupted by the Doctor arriving just as his whereabouts are beng discussed. This all made me wonder about the distance between the research centre and the caves; I didn’t get a good sense of that (and Malcolm Hulke’s map in the novelisation is actually a bit confusing).

The story falls quite naturally into two halves – the “something nasty in the woodshed” bit before we actually meet the Silurians properly, and the “clash of civilisations” bit when we do. The two halves are not linked well (what’s the story with the dinosaur, for instance? or the Silurians’ relationship with Quinn?) but the second half is better, and for once we get monsters with decent characterisation, balanced by the Brigadier’s monstrous behaviour at the end – the first time we have seen a regular character defy the Doctor so wilfully, and as a result we viewers are asked to sympathise with the alien agenda rather than the forces of the British state.

It’s also a great story for spotting guest stars: Avon is the Brigadier’s second-in-command, Khrisong / Hieronymous is also there, Nyder is running the research centre, and Geoffrey Palmer, who dies horribly every time he is on Doctor Who, is the Permanent Under-Secretary. (If you haven’t heard the super two-hander audio between Paul Darrow and Peter Miles set in Kaldor City, I do recommend it.) Finally, of course, by pure chance I was watching it immediately after the New Who two-part Silurian story was broadcast, but my thoughts on that will have to wait.

This time around I found myself in between my two previous takes. The pacing is slow, and not everything in the early episodes makes sense compared with what we learn in the later episodes. But the tensions between and among the human and Silurian characters are well depicted, and this time around I was particularly grabbed by Fulton MacKay, in his only Doctor Who appearance of a distinguished career, as the misguided and doomed Dr Quinn. And after recent years, I must say that I sat up and paid attention a lot more during the plague sequences.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation, Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, is:

Miss Dawson’s mother had died, of incredibly old age, a year ago. At last free, Miss Dawson immecliately applied for, and got, this job at the research centre at Wenley Moor. Derbyshire wasn’t exactly Australia or America, but at least it was some distance from London, and it was the start of her new life.

This was a favourite when I was a kid. When I reread it in 2008, I wrote:

This was the second original novel in Target’s series of novelisations after Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, the first of Hulke’s six books for the range. It is a good one; Hulke tells the story in part from the point of view of the eponymous cave monsters (the word “Silurian” is not used here), showing us humans as alien vermin. He also makes the story a more overt parable about authority and power, and adds little bits of character especially for the Brigadier and Liz. (And see note below on a minor character.) I suspect this will be near the top of my list of Third Doctor novels.

[It has an explicit reference] to Northern Ireland, which are otherwise very rare in the Doctor Who mythos (though see also Daragh Carville’s play, Regenerations). In Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, we get the following back story for Major Barker (renamed from Baker in the TV story, where he was played by Norman Jones without a beard):

“…he saw himself one rainy day in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, leading a group of soldiers who were trying to pin down an IRA sniper. The sniper had already shot two of his men dead, and wounded a third. The Major carefully worked his men into a position so that the sniper was completely surrounded. Then he called upon the sniper to surrender. A rifle was thrown down from a window, and a man appeared with his arms raised. As Major Barker called on his men to break cover and arrest the sniper, shots rang out from a sniper in another building, instantly killing the young soldier next to Major Barker. Without a second’s thought, Barker aimed his revolver at the sniper standing with his hands up in surrender, and shot him dead. For that moment of anger, Major Barker had been asked to resign from the British Army and to find another job.”

Things had changed rather drastically in Northern Ireland between the time of broadcast of this story (January-March 1970) and Hulke’s novelisation, published four years later. According to the grim and masterly Sutton index, before the summer of 1970 the only people killed by the British Army in Northern Ireland were two Protestants shot during riots on the Shankill Road. IRA sniper attacks on the army began only in February 1971. (I don’t know if this is at all helpful for the UNIT dating controversy.) The idea that Barker would have been removed from the army in the circumstances described is rather grimly laughable; even the odious Lee Clegg was eventually allowed to walk free and return to the ranks.

I still think that the book is one of the best novelisations, with a lot of the plot points rounded off, the Silurians (not given that name here) getting much more characterisation and agency, and Major Barker voicing the ideas that Hulke himself hated.

‘It’s as plain as a pikestaff there’s sabotage going on,’ said Barker, taking the Doctor’s bait without realising it. ‘Anyone can see that.’
‘I may agree with you,’ the Doctor said. ‘But sabotage by whom?’
‘Communists, of course.’ Major Barker gave his answer as though it should have been obvious to everyone.
‘Why should communists cause these power losses?’ said the Doctor.
‘They hate England, that’s why.’ Barker started to warm to his subject. ‘They train people to come here to destroy us.’
‘I see,’ said the Doctor. ‘Are these Chinese communists or Russian communists?’
‘There’s no difference between them,’ said Barker. ‘And if it isn’t them, it’s the fascists. Or the Americans.’
‘The Americans?’ said Liz, almost but not quite laughing.
Major Barker turned to Liz. ‘Miss Shaw, England was once the heart of an empire, the greatest empire the world has ever known. But the bankers and the trade-unionists have destroyed that great heritage. Now we are alone, backs to the wall, just as we were in 1940, only there is no Winston Churchill to lead us. The whole world is snapping at us like a pack of hungry wolves. But the day will come, Miss Shaw, when England will rise again…’

I also want to salute Chris Achilleos’ lovely internal art, a tradition that I wish had been continued for novelisations of later years (of course I understand the commercial constraints too). They gave us a tremendous sense of the visuals of the story, at a time when we had no reason to think we would ever be able to see it for real.

You can get it here (for a price).

After all of that, I found Robert Smith?’s Black Archive monograph on the story, titled just The Silurians, a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, he explores the themes of the story in some depth. But on the other, I found his presentation of some of the political issues a bit out of date; and in particular, I don’t think you can really write properly about any Malcolm Hulke story without reference to Doctor Who and the Communist, by Michael Herbert, which looks at the relationship between Hulke’s politics and his writing. Only one previous Black Archive volume is mentioned; I think the book could have benefitted from more dialogue with its own predecessors.

The first chapter, “Can Technology Solve All Our Problems?”, looks at the Cyclotron as a supplier of free (or at least cheap) energy, and the shadow of the atom bomb, as twin aspects of technology.

The second chapter, “What’s the Ideal Length for a Doctor Who Story?”, defends the length of Doctor Who and the Silurians, arguing that, for instance, the whole Hartnell era could be considered as one long story, if you like. It would have been interesting to know if there are other episodic Sixties and Seventies series from which comparisons could be drawn.

The third chapter, “What’s the Point of UNIT?”, actually concentrates on the Doctor’s role and character especially in an Earth setting. The second paragraph is:

‘In science fiction, there are only two stories. They come to us or we go to them.’3 So claimed Malcolm Hulke, when despairing of the then-new Earthbound format that he felt Doctor Who had been saddled with for the start of the 1970s. Consequently, he went and wrote a story that was neither: they come to us, except that they’ve always been here.
3 Quoted by Gordon Roxburgh in Matrix, Issue 6.

The fourth chapter, “Who Has the Moral High Ground Here?”, looks at the story’s takes on colonialism and violence.

The fifth chapter, “Is Doctor Who a Science Show?” points out the rarity of science as such actually being portrayed in the show (as it is here), also veering into conspiracy theories and animal rights.

The sixth chapter, “Could the Silurian Plague Have Killed Us All?” is the one which turned out to be the most timely for a book published in January 2020. Unfortunately this also means it has dated badly; most of the gosh-wow facts about epidemics are now either common knowledge or overtaken by events. This is hardly Smith?’s fault, of course.

The seventh chapter, “Who’s Responsible for All This?”, attempts to round off the narrative by looking at the Doctor, especially the Third Doctor, as a character and explaining that the end of the story ought to be a “hyperobject”, a concept that is not really well explained.

Anyway, I’ll keep going with these; you can get this one here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Andrée Tainsy, 1911-2004

A brief look at one particular year in the career of Belgian actor Andrée Tainsy, born in Etterbeek 112 years ago today, on 26 April 1911. She trained in Paris in the mid-1930s where she fell in love with the singer Jane Bathori, thirty-four years older; they stayed together until Jane’s death in 1970. Together they fled the Nazis to Argentina, where they set up a French theater in exile; back in Paris after the war, Andrée kept acting until the end of her life (she lived to be 93). She appears uncredited in Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

In 1967, the year that she turned 56, Andrée Tainsy was a well established character actor in France, and thanks to IMDB we know what TV shows she appeared in. Her big project that year was a French TV version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, shown on 24 October, where she plays Hedda’s husband’s aunt Julie.

She also appeared on 18 July 1967 in an episode of a historical crime docudrama series, En votre âme et conscience, as Anne Dumollard, wife and accomplice of the nineteenth-century serial killer Martin Dumollard.

Here she is in video, in an episode of the show Allô police, shown on 20 June, where she plays a grumpy concierge (from 12:06):

I have a smaller picture of her from one more crime show episode that she filmed that year, as the dodgy nanny in a kidnap story from Malican père et fils, shown on 24 July:

I’m posting this because I was born on Andrée Tainsy’s 56th birthday in 1967, and today is my 56th birthday. I think she wore her years well, and I hope I have the energy to keep going until I am 93!

I think I prefer her to another figure born on the same day, Paul Verner, who became the second most important man in the Communist regime of East Germany. Here he is receiving a delegation of the Free German Youth in 1967:

More positively, the noted photographer Max Yavno was also born on 26 April 1911. Here is his photograph “California Street”, from 1967:

Also born on that day: minor Belgian politician Werner Marchand, Dutch-American artist Kurt Sluizer, Austrian archaeologist Gilbert Trathnigg, Corsican criminal Auguste Ricord, American ecologist Frank Edwin Egler, and Canadian-American journalist A.H. Raskin.

26 April 1911 was also the day that Albanian chieftains declared independence in the northern village of Orosh, and Australians rejected two referendums on strengthening their federal government. The F.A. Cup Final, replayed after a draw on 22 April, was won 1-0 by Bradford City, beating Newcastle United. Aren’t you glad you know that?

57(ish) countries in 56 years

(Updated from here.)

I have been fortunate enough to travel to many places. In fact, the number of countries I have been to has generally kept pace with my calendar age. Today seems like a day to reflect on the places I have been, in seven-year cycles.

I was born in Belfast, and celebrated my 7th birthday in Washington DC. In the meantime I had also been to the Republic of Ireland, Italy, France and Canada, for a total of 6 countries before my 7th birthday.

By 1981, we had had family summer holidays in Bulgaria, Romania, Malta, Spain (with a side trip to Andorra), and we lived for a year in the Netherlands with side trips to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Yugoslavia as it then was (Ljubljana and Zagreb), Switzerland and Liechtenstein. That got me to 19 countries by the time I turned 14.

By 1988, I had added only three small countries to the list – Monaco and San Marino in our 1981 family summer holiday, and the Vatican City while inter-railing with my then girlfriend in 1986 – for a total of 22 countries by the time I turned 21.

By 1995, Yugoslavia had split up, giving me an extra notch for the earlier visit to Zagreb and Ljubljana which were now in separate countries; I’d had a Nordic trip to Finland in 1990 with my sister, going overland via Denmark and Sweden with a side trip across the water to Estonia (then still part of the USSR); I went to Portugal with another girlfriend, and then to Cyprus on honeymoon when I married her, which all got me to 29 countries by the time I turned 28.

By 2002, I’d added what were then the other successor states of the former Yugoslavia – Bosnia/Herzegovina (where I lived in 1997-8), Serbia/Montenegro (Serbia in 1998, Kosovo in 2000 and Montenegro in January 2002), and Macedonia, now North Macedonia (first visited in 1997, and I love going back – my favourite of the Balkan countries). I’d also visited Hungary, Greece, the Czech Republic, Moldova, and Israel, with a foot into the territories not internationally recognised as part of Israel. So that takes me to 37 or 38 countries, as they then were, by my 35th birthday.

By April 2009, I had added the three South Caucasus countries – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – also Russia and Ukraine, and the last South-East European gaps, Albania and Turkey, and Slovakia for extras. In addition, the independence of Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008) gave me another two. So that takes me to 47 or 48 by the time I turned 42.

The following year added another four, as my trips to South Sudan (then part of Sudan) took me through Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. (I have never been to the northern part of what was then Sudan, so I get no extra point for South Sudan’s independence in 2011.) I went to Poland for the first time in 2013, and 2014 brought business trips to Iraq and Nigeria. So as of my 49th birthday, I had been to 54 or 55 countries.

The last seven years (especially the last three) have seen fewer additions to the list. I went to South Africa in 2017 and Latvia in 2018. So as of today, my tally is either equal to my calendar age, 56, or still one ahead on 57 if I’m allowed to count the Latrun salient and/or East Jerusalem. (I am not tallying the TRNC, or the Green Line, separately from the rest of Cyprus, for technical reasons.)

I still have not been to four European countries – Iceland, Norway, Lithuania and Belarus. I’ve never been to Latin America or the Caribbean, or to Africa outside Nigeria, South Africa and the eastern cluster, or to Asia apart from three countries in the Middle East, let alone the Pacific. But I hope I will have a few more years to put some of that right.

As I landed in Azerbaijan for the first time in May 2004 in the company of my then boss, I mentioned to him that it was my 41st country. He growled that he was roughly 100 ahead of me. I suspect that he still is.

Erasing Sherlock, by Kelly Hale

Second paragraph of third chapter:

OK. No reason to panic. Why should he suspect a dirty wench with her head in the fireplace? Still, it was all terribly déjà vu, or unpleasantly coincidental, seeing as I’d had my head in a fireplace when they’d spoken of whores. And me.

Last of the books I bought when I was thinking of giving the Faction Paradox sequence a try, and I must say the most enjoyable of those that I have read, perhaps because it is barely connected to the incomprehensible main story-line. Our protagonist is a far-future researcher who installs herself as a maid at 221b Baker Street in order to observe the young Sherlock Holmes at work. Romance, sex and criminal violence ensue. I really liked it. Hale’s Sherlock Holmes is not the somewhat austere figure of Doyle (and indeed most theatrical presentations); he’s a young man starting to establish himself, often short of money, emotionally vulnerable, and a lot more convincing as a human being. Good stuff. You can get it here.

I’m afraid that one hit out of five for the Faction Paradox series is not enough for me to want to continue/resume reading, though.

Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He batted her hand away. “Just ’cause you finally be sixteen, you know it all, huh?”

A pretty intense novel set between 1898 and 1913 (with a brief excursion to 1893), partly in Georgia and partly in Chicago, about the relationship between Redwood, a young black woman, and Aiden Wildfire, half Irish and half Seminole, and their friends and relatives in the course of their separate journeys. There is a lot of magic; there is a lot of racist oppression; there is a decent amount of romance; I thought it was pretty good. You can get it here.

Redwood and Wildfire won what was then the James Tiptree Jr Award for 2011 in 2012. The Honor list included five novels and four short stories; I have read I think one of the five novels, God’s War by Kameron Hurley. The long list included eight novels, five shorter works and one collection. Again I have read one of the novels, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which won the previous year’s BSFA Award.

I was interested to see that one of the other long listed novels is Outies by my old friend Jenny Pournelle, who I had not realised was also a published author among her many other talents; it’s an authorised sequel to The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand by her father.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award went to The Testament of Jesse Lamb, by Jane Rogers; I read the entire shortlist for an Eastercon panel, the others being Embassytown by China Miéville, The End Specialist by Drew Magary, Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear, Rule 34 by Charles Stross and The Waters Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. This was the shortlist that Chris Priest famously excoriated.

Priest himself won the BSFA Award for Best Novel with The Islanders, which I also voted for, the other shortlisted novels being By Light Alone by Adam Roberts, Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith, Embassytown by China Miéville and Osama by Lavie Tidhar.

Next in this sequence are the two Tiptree winners for the following year, The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan and Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam, as I have already read the BSFA and Clarke winners.

Sunday reading

Got through a lot of Clarke submissions this week…

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister

Last books finished
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, by Malcolm Hulke
ν4 (did not finish)
The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis
ξ4 (did not finish)
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
ο4 (did not finish)
π4 (did not finish)
ρ4 (did not finish)
σ4 (did not finish)
The Silurians, by Robert Smith?
τ4 (did not finish)

Next books
Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace, by Nigel Robinson
The Race, by Nina Allan
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

The first ever plane bombing: who blew up United Air Lines 23?

(Content warning: aeroplanes being destroyed in mid-air, consequent deaths)

Insomnia can lead you to some strange places, and this is one of the places it has brought me recently: an unsolved mystery almost ninety years old, where I humbly propose an explanation of what might have happened.

On 10 October 1933, a Boeing 247 airliner operated by United Air Lines, on the Cleveland to Chicago leg of a journey from Newark, NJ, to Oakland, CA, crashed near Chesterton, Indiana, killing all four passengers and three crew. Subsequent investigation determined that a nitroglycerine charge in the blanket cupboard above the toilet had exploded, blowing the tail off. Two of the four passengers were immediately sucked out of the plane to their deaths; its front end then flipped over, crashed into the ground and burned to a cinder with the other five victims still on board. It is the earliest known case of a civilian plane flight being destroyed by sabotage.

(That is, the first known definite case of sabotage destroying a civilian flight. Just over six months before, on 28 March 1933, a British passenger flight caught fire and crashed in western Belgium, killing all fifteen on board. Suspicions were raised at the time, and have lingered, that one of the passengers might have deliberately caused the crash. But personally, I am not convinced, and I agree with the conclusions of Wout Wynants, who thinks that a bird strike or similar accident severed the fuel lines which then ignited the rest of the plane.)

In 2017 the FBI declassified 324 pages of investigation of the October 1933 crash by its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, already run by J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover put his best man in Chicago, the notorious Melvin Purvis, on the case. Before the end of the next year, Purvis would achieve fame as the man who trapped and killed several of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters, including Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. The Mob was a prominent element of American life in 1933.

One has to admire the thoroughness of the investigators. Every lead was followed up, with Purvis reporting on the state of play to Hoover personally. But it all led nowhere. Could it have been left-wing activism over a labour dispute? Actually the labour dispute had been resolved a few days before, and anyway none of the crew were involved. What about the package that one of the passengers guarded jealously? It was probably liquor (which was still illegal, for a few more weeks), and his interests did not run beyond baseball and duck hunting. Several travellers had had reservations on the fatal flight and then changed their plans, but all for good and non-suspicious reasons. The case was eventually closed with no resolution.

Three points occurred to me as I read through the files. The first is that no detonating mechanism was ever found. A timing device or pressure switch would have been pulverised by the explosion, but there would still have been some recognisable components in the debris. I suspect that the bomber stowed the nitroglycerine in the blanket cupboard in a glass or metal flask, hoping that it would be spontaneously set off by the shock of an air bump in mid flight, and the fragments of the flask were indistinguishable from the other wreckage. But managing raw nitroglycerine is not an exact science, and also nobody had ever blown up a plane before. So in my view, the Cleveland to Chicago flight on 10 October may not have been the real target of the bomber.

The second point is that although the mechanic who inspected the plane before it took off from Newark said that he did check the blanket cupboard, he admitted that he only slid his hand behind the folded blankets and did not actually take them out to check that there was nothing else there. (Page 65 of the dossier.) I think he missed the fairly small but deadly flask concealed behind them, as did whoever had checked the plane the previous day or days. A fatal mistake; but again, nobody had ever bombed an aeroplane before, so how was he to know?

The third point (see page 228 of the FBI’s 324-page dossier) is that two days before the bombing, on 8 October 1933, the same plane had done the same run from Cleveland to Chicago with two very interesting passengers on board: Joseph B. Keenan (1888-1954) and Adlai Stevenson II (1900-1965). Keenan was an anti-Mob prosecutor from Ohio, who had just been appointed as a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney-General, and three months later became Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division. In October 1933, he would have been very high up the list of public officials who were an inconvenience to organised crime. After the war, he was the Chief Prosecutor of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Adlai Stevenson II became a notable historical figure. In October 1933, he was in his first government job, special attorney and assistant to the general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, but was preparing to become chief attorney for the Federal Alcohol Control Administration as soon as Prohibition was repealed. This would make him interesting to the Mob, but not as much as Keenan. He went on to be Governor of Illinois, was the losing Democratic candidate in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections (both won by Eisenhower for the Republicans), and was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of his death. (His grandfather, Adlai Stevenson I, was elected Vice-President of the United States in 1892 for Grover Cleveland’s second term, and ran again and lost in 1900.)

The investigators actually interviewed Stevenson about the 8 October flight (page 252 of the dossier); he said that he recognised Keenan but did not speak to him until they reached Chicago, and nothing on the flight seemed out of the ordinary.

(The G-Men did not quite dare to interview Keenan himself.)

My theory is that an opportunistic mobster in Cleveland spotted that Keenan was planning to take the flight and somehow slipped the nitroglycerine into the blanket cupboard. Explosives were easy enough to obtain; one would need a little specialised knowledge to pull this off, but only a little – the absence of an actual detonator is telling. And it would be smart of the Mob to have informants in the airports in their areas of operation. I think that the bomber hoped that the explosive would be triggered by an air bump between Cleveland and Chicago, eliminating Keenan and his fellow passengers. (Another possible jolt – someone closing the toilet door too firmly. One of the two passengers who was sucked out had been seated near the front of the plane, suggesting that he was at the rear near the toilet at the time of the explosion.) Indeed, I think it was triggered by an air bump or door slam between Cleveland and Chicago, but two days later than planned, and was not spotted during the cursory checks of the plane in the meantime.

Most of this theory is not actually original to me. The Chicago Tribune ran a story on 3 November 1933 (pages 120 and 136 of the dossier) saying that a gangster brought the nitroglycerine onto the plane on an earlier flight, feared that it would be found if he was searched on landing, and left it in the blanket cupboard. It seems to me vanishingly improbable that anyone would casually take raw nitroglycerine in their cabin baggage in the first place; I think it’s much more likely that it was planted by someone who did not travel on the plane at all (and the investigators did investigate everyone who did travel on it, as far as possible). However it’s close enough to my theory that I think that one of the investigators in Washington had come to much the same conclusions as me, based on the same evidence, and leaked it to the Chicago Tribune. We’ll never know the full story.

These were the seven people who died on United Air Lines Trip 23, the first victims of airborne terrorism:

Pilot: Richard Harold “Hal” Tarrant (“Harold R. Tarrant” in most reports), born 8 April 1908 in Swindon, England; aged 25; married Bessie Olsen in May 1932. Boarded the plane in Cleveland to replace Robert Dawson, later to become a celebrity pilot, who had flown it from Newark.

Co-pilot: Harold Eugene “Harry” Ruby (“A.T. Ruby” in some reports), born 19 September 1905 in Milwaukee; aged 28; married Catherine Davis in 1926; married again to Pearl Eichholz in June 1933; appears to have had a daughter.

Stewardess: Alice Theresa Scribner, born 11 September 1907 in Bancroft, Wisconsin; aged 26; was engaged and planning to get married a few weeks later. Her funeral was conducted by the minister who had planned to preside at her wedding. The first United Air Lines stewardess to die in service.

Warren Fairhill Burris, born 22 July 1888 in Fairhill, Pennsylvania, aged 45 (death certificate says he was 35, but this is wrong). Married Helen Leona Miller in 1918. Radio operator with United who was flying to a work assignment. Two sons and a daughter; the younger son and the daughter both died as recently as 2012.

Emil Smith, born 14 December 1888 in Chicago, aged 44; had sold the family grocery shop and was living on savings; single; attracted attention from the investigators because he brought a package onto the flight which he was very protective of; but in the end turned out to just be an average guy with an interest in baseball and duck-hunting. Although his assigned seat was near the front of the plane, it was he and Burris who were sucked out by the explosion at the back, so he must have been out of his seat at the time.

Frederick Irving Schendorf, born in Wauconda, Illinois on 14 November 1904, aged 28; married Christine Mulroy in 1929; two sons; manager of a refrigerator company. Wrote on a feedback card that he was “quite satisfied with the ride” just before the explosion happened.

Dorothy M. Dwyer, born 13 October 1907 (according to her death certificate), supposedly about to turn 26; her parents were both born in Ireland but emigrated in the mid-1890s; I have not been able to locate her birth certificate, and census returns suggest that she was actually born before 1907 (7 years old in 1910, 17 in 1920; but 24 in 1930); she would not be the first or last person to adjust her official age.

Hers is the saddest story of the lot, and they are all sad stories. Dorothy Dwyer was flying to Reno, Nevada to marry her fiancé, Theodore Baldwin, who had just got his divorce from a previous marriage; she missed the flight she was originally booked on because of a puncture and so ended up on United 23. Baldwin was distraught as he flew east to take her body home to Massachusetts, raving to fellow passengers that his girl had been killed by a bomb; he worked in mining and knew about explosives. Her brother had been killed in a car accident only five months before.

A final point that struck me is that the victims were comparatively young – five in their 20s and two in their 40s. Clearly, commercial plane travel was already reasonably affordable for Americans – Schendorf was well off and flying for business, and Burris presumably had his ticket paid for by United, his employers; but Smith and Dwyer were not especially rich, and were flying for pleasure. (Smith had savings, of course, and Dwyer a rich boyfriend; but still.) It’s for another post, but my sense is that the victims of the Diksmuide crash six months earlier were in general much wealthier.

Thank you for bearing with me.

February 2021 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.

Still under lockdown, my biggest expedition that month was to visit a bunch of Belgian megaliths with the hardy J.

As well as musing on Northern Irish referendums, I researched the history of Patience Kershaw, heroine of a well-known song.

And I kept up my ten-day postings about the plague, though only two this month.

That month’s Worldcon crisis was the unprecedented revocation of Guest of Honour status for a publisher whose website hosted far right discussions, in the context of the 6 January coup attempt in the USA. More Worldcon drama was to come in future months (this was by far the most dramatic of the seven Worldcons I have been involved with).

Stuck at home, I read 22 books that month.

Non-fiction 4 (YTD 8)
The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China
A Buzz in the Meadow, by Dave Goulson
Ties That Bind: Love in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Francesca T. Barbini
Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves

Non-genre 2 (YTD 4)
Sugar and other stories, by A.S. Byatt
Three Daves, by Nicki Elson

SF 13 (YTD 23)
The Kappa Child, by Hiromi Goto
Koko Takes a Holiday, by Kieran Shea
Ring Shout, by P. Djèlí Clark
The Autumn Land, by Clifford D. Simak
The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin
Bold As Love, by Gwyneth Jones
Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, by Gary Wolf
Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, by Martin Noble, based on the screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter Seaman
Club Ded, by Nikhil Singh – did not finish
Ivory’s Story, by Eugen M. Bacon
Science Fiction: The Great Years, eds. Carol and Frederik Pohl

Comics and photo books 3 (YTD 5)
My Father’s Things, by Wendy Aldiss
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor – Old Friends, by Jody Houser
A.I. Revolution vol. 1, by Yuu Asami

5,400 pages (YTD 10,900)
13/22 (YTD 21/41) by women (Aldiss, Barbini, Byatt, Elson, Goto, Jemisin, Jones, Hereaka, “Kingfisher”, Bacon, C Pohl, Houser, Asami)
8/22 (YTD 11/41) by PoC (Puyi, Goto, Clark, Jemisin, Ihimaera/Hereaka, Singh, Bacon, Asami)

Of these, I particularly loves Wendy Aldiss’ elegiac My Father’s Things, commemorating the possessions of Brian Aldiss after his death. You can get it here. I also really liked Graves’ Goodbye to All That, which you can get here, and N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, which you can get here. On the other hand, I totally bounced off Club Ded, by Nikhil Singh, which you can get here.

Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Robinski looked charming in her simple rages. Her one perverted extravagance, was a pair of shoes with flat mirror buckles. She was knickerless and her pudenda shone brightly from her feet. Her footwear had been a gift from Fatman; and yet another example of his peculiar sexual tastes.

This book is a novel by ’70s sex symbol Fiona Richmond, about a young woman astronaut whose husband, also an astronaut, has been replaced by an alien double in league with the Soviets. At least I think so; it was quite difficult to follow the plot, with a densely written sex scene every couple of pages. (And yet the sex doesn’t have a lot of variety – I counted precisely one blow-job, quite close to the end, and there’s one scene of girl-on-girl action in the middle.) The kindest thing to say is that it has not aged well. But you can get it here.

I bet that Richmond’s other books of the time, billed as autobiographical (Fiona, Story of I, On the Road, The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful) are just as fictional. I won’t especially be looking out for them.

This was the shortest unread book I acquired in 2016, at Eastercon where I’m always on the lookout for women authors who I haven’t previously read. Next on that pile, continuing the theme perhaps, is The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill.

The Weeping Angels of Mons, by Robbie Morrison, Daniel Indro and Eleonora Carlini

Second frame of third instalment:

Next in the sequence of Tenth Doctor comics, continuing his adventures with New Yorker Gabby Gonzalez. Most of the album is taken up with the title story, which on the face of it looks well qualified for my list of Belgium references in Doctor Who, except that most of the action is explicitly set across the border in the (fictional) French town of St Michel. Gabby gets a bit more character development here, and knowing as we do what the ultimate fate of Amy and Rory is, the Angels are a source of real menace. A shorter story at the end, Echo, takes Gabby back to New York to fend off an alien threat and reconnect with her family. Enjoyable stuff. You can get it here.

This was the first book I finished this month, so I’m running almost three weeks in advance right now.

Next in this sequence is The Fountains of Forever, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande, Eleonora Carlini, Rachael Stott, Leonardo Romero, H-Fi and Arianna Florean.

The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Le Sueur had helped complete the sculpture for the Pont Neuf and, evidently, he wanted to make something as imposing for Charles I, who, like his father, James I, had styled himself King of ‘Magna Britannia’ – Great Britain. When Inigo Jones, James’s master builder, came through Paris and suggested that Le Sueur (a Protestant) travel to England, the sculptor crossed the Channel, arriving in 1625, the same year as Charles’s French Queen, Henrietta Maria, a time when London artists were still overwhelmingly a foreign colony: Flemings, Dutchmen, Italians and a few French. Under Elizabeth, there had been little call for monumental sculpture, but the Stuarts, with their grandly European taste, changed that. Le Sueur was hired to produce frieze figures for the bier of James I, designed by Jones, and for the late King’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. Charles, an avid collector and connoisseur, wanted his own copies of famous classical statuary – the Spinario of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot and the recently excavated Gladiator (actually a swordsman) in the Borghese collection, so Le Sueur was sent to Rome to take moulds from which casts could be made back in England.

This book is about pictures in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery, attached to a BBC series which I didn’t see. I have come to appreciating art rather late in life, and perhaps as a result I really enjoyed this look at the history and culture of portraiture. Every chapter is a nicely shaped story about a particular artist or group of artists, or occasionally about their subjects – the section on Emma Hamilton is a real eye-opener if all you know about her is her romance with Nelson. It’s a big book – 600 pages before you get the the end notes – but well illustrated and well worth it.

It’s always great to find new artists to enjoy, and my particular discoveries here were Gwen John, who I had at least heard of before, and Laura Knight, who I’m ashamed to say was a new name to me. This in itself says something about my previous encounters with art – she is not a minor figure, and lived to be 93, and I see that the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester has 13 of her works but I failed to notice any of them when I was there. Her Self-Portrait with Nude is absolutely stunning.

I learned a lot from this very entertaining book. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is The Race, by Nina Allan.

January 2021 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 rest of the world will remember January 2021 for the attempted coup by supporters of Donald Trump against the democratic system, a terrible moment of political deterioration.

Over here, we were still under tough COVID restrictions, and I continued my ten-day posts, four of them on the 1st, 11th, 21st and 31st:

The farthest I travelled was with B, to visit a necropolis in Tienen and a new park in Landen.

But the most significant and unexpected development was that in one of several bizarre twists in the story of the 2021 World Science Fiction Convention, the entire Hugo Award administration team resigned, as did one of the co-chairs. I offered to pick up the work of the WSFS Division, as it’s new Division Head, and my offer was accepted. I rapidly put a new team in place, and we managed to get Hugo nominations open before the end of the month (the departing team had left things in good shape).

Tired of lockdown and busy with Worldcon, I read 19 books that month.

Non-fiction 4
Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen
Endgames: Political Cartoons and Other Stuff, 2015-2020, by Martyn Turner
Watling Street, by John Higgs
T.K. Whitaker, by Anne Chambers

Non-genre 2
The Home and the World, by Rabindranath Tagore
Gallimaufry, by Colin Baker (mostly non-sfnal)
51RWOnHTgxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpg 1907959025.01._SX350_SY500_SCLZZZZZZZ_[1].jpg

SF 10
A Day in the Life, by Hank Stine
The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern
Into the Ashes, by Lee Murray
Midnight Blue-Light Special, by Seanan McGuire
The Lowest Heaven, eds Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin
The Food of the Gods: And How It Came to Earth, by H. G. Wells
Greybeard, by Brian Aldiss
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake
Elatsoe, by Darcie Little Badger
51DoB9EfMYL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpg 51v8nLdJ5QL[1].jpg 1472113225.01._SX350_SY500_SCLZZZZZZZ_[1].jpg 41CeCQi77cL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpg a062f4dcb4fa531592b4b725577426f41514141_v5[1].jpg

Doctor Who 1, 2 including comics
At Childhood’s End, by Sophie Aldred

Comics 2
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Volume 2: Hidden Human History, by Jody Houser et al
Kaamelott: Het Raadsel Van de Kluis, by Astier/Dupre
17e7d2887e09bf7596a61757467426541665142_v5[1].jpg 51QSH8ISD3L._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpg

5500 pages
8/19 by women (Blixen, Chambers, Murray, Mcguire, Perry, Little Badger, Aldred, houser)
3/19 by PoC (Tagore, Murray, Little Badger)

Best book of the month was Anne Chambers’ biography of T.K. Whitaker, which you can get here, followed by Out of Africa, which you can get here, and Watling Street, which you can get here.

Totally bounced off Midnight Blue-Light Special, which you can get here, and Het Raadsel van de Kluis, which you can get here in the original French (L’enigme du coffre).

Sunday reading

The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell

Last books finished
ι4 (did not finish)
κ4 (did not finish)
Erasing Sherlock, by Kelly Hale

Next books
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, by Malcolm Hulke
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He parked the Vauxhall Victor in the small courtyard adjoining the guesthouse. Fitzpatrick had handed him the keys along with a roll of pound and ten shilling notes, telling him not to go mad on it.

A thriller set in and around Dublin in 1962. President Kennedy is coming; a series of brutal murders has eliminated several former Nazis who had been given unofficial asylum by the Irish government, specifically by the justice minister, Charles J. Haughey; and our protagonist, Irish military intelligence officer Albert Ryan, is brought in to protect former SS commander Otto Skorzeny, the most prominent of the fugitives. It turns out (this is hardly a big spoiler, given the theme and timing) that the Israelis are behind it.

I feel rather ambivalent about the book. The violence is unrelenting, graphic and icky. Ryan as protagonist makes some very strange choices of allegiance, and it’s not clear what his motivation is. There’s a girl who performs the function of peril monkey. For all that, it’s exciting stuff, tautly written.

My other reservation is that Haughey is depicted as the sinister and corrupt bastard that he certainly became by the end of his career. But he was only 37 in 1962, and in his first real job as minister for justice, where he was an innovative and (relatively) liberal figure. I felt that his portrayal here was a bit lazy (as is the revelation that the Israelis are Behind It All).

Neville has written a lot more Irish crime fiction, and I might give some of his more contemporary stuff a try. I’m not sure why I bought this – it must have been an impulse. Anyway, you can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is Living with the Gods, by Neil MacGregor.

The Kosova Liberation Army, by James Pettifer

Second paragraph of third chapter:

In the chaotic new climate in Tirana, the Communist state remained intact at a formal level but was disintegrating from within. The party leader Ramiz Alia was interested in the possibility of freedom in Kosova and had seen the Irish Republican Army as a possible model for a military force against the Yugoslav People’s Army.11 When his interest became known to Western governments via their spies in Tirana, they feared a ‘Greater Albania’ might soon emerge if the old barriers between Tirana and Prishtina collapsed.12 Alia saw the secular, class-based ‘Official’ IRA as a much better model for the KLA than the Provisional IRA with its Catholic nationalist ideology.13 It is questionable, though, whether Alia and other Albanians really understood that it was the Provisionals who had shown the capacity to bring back guerrilla warfare to the streets of Western Europe for the first time since the Second World War, and the Official IRA had not.14 The LPK avoided contacts with radical Eastern bloc countries in this period — insofar as they still existed — and had never had contacts with countries like Cuba or radical Arab and Islamic states. The Albanian link was all-important to them.
11 Interview with James Pettifer, Tirana, see above.
12 This was a main preoccupation of British foreign intelligence officials in 1991-92.
13 Interview, Tirana, July 2005.
14 See B. Hanley and S. Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party, London, 2010.

A substantial and important book by one of the UK’s major experts on Albania and Albanians. Pettifer has unparalleled access to all the key players in Kosovo and Albania, and in the western part of North Macedonia, and I don’t think it will ever be possible to improve on the factual detail of his blow-by-blow account of how, where and by whom the Kosovo Liberation Army was set up and its progress to the point where its leadership became a key political force in pre- and post-independence Kosovo. I was paying pretty close attention at the time, I thought, but there is a lot here that I had only suspected or had not suspected at all – not only in the 1995-99 period, but also in the 2001 Macedonian conflict. A number of myths are very helpfully and convincingly exploded here. I am sure that there are points of historical incident where there is still room for argument, but the narrative shape of the KLA’s origins and progress is clear. With all that material, it’s surprisingly short, only 256 pages for the main text.

There are some irritating weaknesses along with the mastery of the facts. One of them is Pettifer’s treatment of ideology – the KLA founders are described as “Enverist” without that term ever being defined, and it is never demonstrated that political ideology was a strong motivator for the behaviour of leaders or followers, rather than the existential question of survival in a hostile state. Another is that several key actors are described as being puppets of the Serbs, or the British, or the French, or the Americans, or the Italians, or the Vatican; it’s as if nobody had free will to make their own decisions, except for the people the author is really interested in. And there are some annoying mistakes with names – mostly simple misspellings of Serbs and Macedonians, but also my old friend Ian Oliver is confused with my old friend Iain King; I don’t think that they even know each other in real life.

Apart from those issues of coloration, I think it’s an essential book for understanding the Kosovo conflict. You can get it here.

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

On first watching The Sound of Drums in 2007, I was blown away, but kept my commentary for the following week, posting merely (under the title “Anticipation“):

♪ ♪ ♪ ♩.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♩.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♩.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♩.

I was disappointed however by Last of the Time Lords.

Well, It wasn’t actually bad, but it was disappointing; didn’t rise to the heights of Blink, or even of the two previous season finales. The pacing was curiously off, almost always a problem with RTD scripts.

Martha in general was pretty cool throughout, including her (temporary?) departure, and her links with the real world. The devastated Earth was well done, though you know immediately that this means that the cast just have to find the Reset button and press it.

did like the Doctor/Master relationship, and the Doctor’s devastation at being the last of his people again, even though I am Old Skool enough that I cannot really believe it is the Master without a beard or a decaying face.

The Doctor-goes-all-glowy bit is, IMHO, actually a homage to the end of the Pertwee story The Mutants, where the same effect is tried (not on the Doctor but on another character) and done really really badly. Several other Pertwee-era homages, mainly to stories I haven’t seen (Claws of Axos, Sea Devils).

The Doctor-turns-into-Dobby-the House-elf bit was, sadly, rubbish; and the Master keeping Martha’s family alive on the off-chance that she might show up doesn’t make sense.

Jack didn’t get much to do except turn into the future Face of Boe, did he? And Mrs Master did hardly anything except shoot her husband. Waste of good characters.

When I came to my Great New Who Rewatch in 2013, I was no less forgiving:

The “with a bound they were free” transition [from Utopia] to The Sound of Drums is a bit annoying given the buildup to the cliffhanger the previous week, but after that we are on fairly solid ground again, with Simm’s Master’s first appearance being much his best. Despite his obvious insanity, at this stage his intention to simply capture the Doctor and friends and do unspecified nasty things is pretty clear, and it gives the plot a terrific momentum. Apart from the regulars, Alexandra Moen is superb as Lucy Saxon, given few lines but an inescapable presence. And the continuity with Old Who’s Gallifrey is terrifically pleasing, and completes a theme we’ve had since the start of the season (if we count The Runaway Bride as such). I found that I didn’t even mind the “Here Come the Drums” song as much on rewatch; I felt it intrusive first time round.

And then, alas, we have Last of the Time Lords. On first watching, I was just slack-jawed in disbelief that such a promising setup had been so badly wasted, and unable to articulate quite why I hated it so much. This time round, I knew what was coming so was spared the crashing disappointment of the first broadcast, and actually thought it was not quite as awful as I had remembered. But that is not saying much.

Where it fails first, I think, is that the humiliation meted out to the Doctor and friends by the Master is neither funny nor interesting. There’s something very skeevy indeed about making some of the most visible black characters ever in the show into slaves, and the script never quite acknowledges that. Torturing Jack Harkness is just nasty. Turning the Doctor into Dobby the House Elf is bizarre and incomprehensible, and then transforming him into Tinkerbell at the end is an appalling lapse of dramatic judgment. The story of Martha is a decent enough plot thread (and of course Freema Agyeman carries it well), and the Doctor’s emotion for the Master is effective but would have been a lot more so without the previous 40 minutes, and the massive plot reset button actually comes as a relief because of the inanity of what has come before.

Rewatching both episodes again ten years on, I remain of the same view. The Sound of Drums is fast-paced, exciting, and builds anticipation. Last of the Time Lords squanders that for the sake of spectacle, always an obsession of RTD’s. Ten years on, I’m also more aware of just how good an actress Adjoa Andoh is, and how much she is wasted as Martha’s mother. It’s the first (but not the last) example of New Who getting the season finale not quite right.

The one point that did jump out at me was the Tenth Doctor’s invitation to the Master:

MASTER: You still haven’t answered the question. What happens to me?
DOCTOR: You’re my responsibility from now on. The only Time Lord left in existence.
JACK: Yeah, but you can’t trust him.
DOCTOR: No. The only safe place for him is the Tardis.
MASTER: You mean you’re just going to keep me?
DOCTOR: Mmm. If that’s what I have to do. It’s time to change. Maybe I’ve been wandering for too long. Now I’ve got someone to care for.

The Twelfth Doctor more or less does exactly this with Missy. I had not spotted that before.

There are two spinoffs available about Martha’s year of circumnavigating the globe. The first was The Story of Martha, a 2008 anthology of three novellas, edited and with a linking narrative by Dan Abnett. When I read it in 2010, I wrote:

A book set during the year while the Master ruled the Earth, as seen at the end of New Who Season 3, with a rather good linking narrative by Dan Abnett, during the course of which Martha recounts four of her past adventures with the Doctor to people she meets. The embedded stories are less good than the framing narrative, with the exception of Robert Shearman’s excellent “The Frozen Wastes”.

You can get it here.

More recently, Big Finish produced three stories with Freema Agyeman as Martha and Adjoa Andoh as Francine. Here’s the trailer.

After listening to it last year, I wrote:

…better [than the Abnett anthology], getting off to an excellent start in The Last Diner by the always reliable James Goss, a more Western-y The Silver Medal by Tim Foley, and a well-executed climax in Deceived by Matt Fitton. Martha is joined by Adjoa Andoh playing her mother Francine, who has apparently escaped the Master, and Serin Ibrahim as old friend Holly. (Also Clare Louise Connolly plays the Toclafane in all three stories.) Guest stars include Marina Sirtis, best known as Deanna Troi in Star Trek, in the first episode.

You can get it here.

James Mortimer’s Black Archive analysis of the two-parter starts with the premise that both episodes are equally good (or bad) in different ways, which as will be by now fairly clear is not my starting point. (And I’m not alone – IMDB users rate The Sound of Drums at 8.7 out of 10, and Last of the Time Lords at 8.3.)

The first of three long chapters, “The Saxons”, looks in depth at the Master as developed over the years to this point, and at the problematic depiction of Lucy and the Jones family.

The second chapter, “The Heroes”, looks in even more depth at Martha and at her relationship with the Doctor, and the problematic aspects of that portrayal.

The third chapter, “The Lonely God”, starts with the Doctor as religious figure and then diverts into the Hero’s Journey as engaged in by Martha and the justification for the Toclafane. Its second paragraph, with footnotes, is:

This idea of a ‘lonely god’ is reinforced by the use of religious imagery that Davies deploys throughout the series. Indeed, when the Doctor is ‘transfigured into a being of light’2 at the close of Last of the Time Lords, in a process generated by what the Master calls ‘prayer’, it’s hard to deny the visual similarities to how one might imagine the return of a Messiah. It is, in Davies’ words, a ‘glorious’ return3. When the Doctor forgives the Master, it is hard not to be aware of the religious connotations of this.
2 McCormack, Una, ‘He’s Not The Messiah: Undermining Political and Religious Authority in Doctor Who’, in Bradshaw, Simon, Anthony Keen and Graham Sleight, eds, The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (2011), p51.
3 Davies, The Valiant Quest.

The conclusion returns again to the issue of Lucy’s black eye and the enslavement of the Joneses and expresses disappointment that these are not well addressed in the episode itself.

An appendix justifies treating Utopia as “a separate story even if it’s not a separate arc”.

I’m afraid that this is not my favourite Black Archive. Mortimer has written much more about the second episode than the first, and that’s not where I’d have placed the balance. He raises a lot of good questions, but some of his points are rather belaboured. The Black Archives have a lot more hits than misses, but this is one of the weaker volumes. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

William Wordsworth, Annette Vallon and their daughter Caroline

I was put onto the story of William Wordsworth’s French daughter by Alison Bechdel, in her The Secret of Superhuman Strength:

An interesting footnote to literary history, I thought. A quick bit of googling brought me to Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper, published in 1921; and a little more to William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis, published in 1922. Both are available online. Harper’s book is very short and has no sections; its third paragraph is:

Sara Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth’s sister, was to accompany Dorothy. They dreaded the inconvenience and dangers of travel, these two middle-aged ladies, in a foreign country against which England had been at war for nearly twenty years, and wished they could go under the protection of Henry Crabb Robinson, the more so as they intended to carry presents of English manufacture. From a letter begun on the last day of 1814, we learn that the wedding was postponed till April and that they were hesitating about going so late in the spring because they expected to stay nine or ten weeks and would thus be in Paris in June, when King Louis XVIII was to be anointed. They feared the public disturbances and possible outbreak of civil war which might attend that event. “Besides,” adds Dorothy, “the journey will be very expensive, which we can ill afford, and the money would be better spent in augmenting my Niece’s wedding portion. To this effect I have written to her. She would not consent to marry without my presence, which was the reason that April was fixed.”

Legouis’ book is a bit longer. The second paragraph of the third section, including poetic quote, is:

We know what Paul’s physical appearance was: he was a small dark man, with a thick-set neck, and large bold eyes under heavy black brows. We have a glimpse of his character in the memoirs of his grandson Amédée, a magistrate, who declares him to have been “one of the wittiest men he had the privilege of knowing” with an excellent heart. His chivalry and generosity tended to excess, and his carelessness of money was so great that his financial position suffered by it. The appearance of Annette’s daughter is also known to us. It is a face which, according to its age, wears a look of frank gaiety, or a gently mischievous smile. But Annette dwells so much on her daughter’s likeness to her father that it would be illusory to expect to find the expression of the mother in the face of the child. The portrait of Annette published in this volume is not well enough authenticated for us to place much reliance on it. It does not seem as if liveliness had been outstandingly characteristic of her, though kindness and generosity certainly were. In the letters of Annette that have recently been discovered the dominant note is that of an irrepressible, exuberant sensibility which is a trait of her nature and is not exclusively due to the harassing circumstances in which the letters were written. She abounded in words, was prone to effusions and tears. These emotions of a “sensitive soul” were, moreover, quite of a nature to win her the young Englishman’s heart. He himself was in those years inclined to melancholy and the elegiac mood. His very first sonnet <super><small>1</small></super> had been inspired by the sight of a girl weeping at the hearing of a woeful story. At that sight, he said, his blood had stopped running in his veins:

Dim were my swimming eyes my pulse beat slow,
And my full heart was swell’d to dear delicious pain.

The maiden’s tears had made manifest her virtue. The poet’s turn for sentimentality found in Annette many an opportunity of satisfying itself, while the garrulity of the young Frenchwoman fell in splendidly with his intention of learning the language.

The story is very simple. In early 1792, William Wordsworth, about to turn 22 and fascinated by revolutionary France, fell in love with Marie Anne Vallon, known as Annette – not in Paris, as Alison Bechdel would have it, but in Orleans, 110 km to the south. She was four years older; her family were strongly Royalist and Catholic, and the political pendulum was swinging against them.

Harper takes the view that for such a family, marriage would have been impossible that year, as hardliners like the Vallon family would have simply boycotted the state-run Church and the state’s annexation of marriage registration. Legouis is more sanguine; he points out that for the upper middle classes in France and England, having children out of wedlock was really not as big a deal in the late eighteenth century as it would be in the mid nineteenth century (or indeed the early twentieth century when he and Harper were writing). For Wordsworth as a foreigner, it would anyway have been difficult to stay in France.

On 15 December 1792 the state registry office in Orleans registered the baptism of Anne-Caroline, daughter of Marie Anne Vallon and William Wordsworth. He and his sister Dorothy stayed in touch with Annette and, when she was old enough, with Caroline too, as far as possible through the wars. They met only twice. During a brief period of international peace in 1802, Dorothy and William spent a whole month with Annette and Caroline in Calais. Wordsworth wrote this sonnet about the nine-year-old daughter who he was seeing for the first time:

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson a few weeks later, having come into an inheritance which enabled him both to marry and to make arrangements for his first daughter. He and Mary had five children, two of whom died young; Annette did not marry again and had no more children.

In 1816 Anne-Caroline, now 23, married in her turn, Wordsworth giving his formal consent (and Anne-Caroline signing her surname as Wordsworth). The wedding had originally been planned for April 1815, and Dorothy was all set to attend it with Sara Hutchinson, Mary Wordsworth’s sister, but the Hundred Days intervened.

The whole lot of them finally got together in Paris in October 1820, William, Mary and Dorothy spending a week with Annette, Caroline, Caroline’s husband Jean Baptiste Martin Baudouin and their first two daughters, the older nearly four and the younger ten months old, Wordsworth’s first grandchildren. They never met again, though Annette lived until 1841 and Wordsworth until 1850.

The older daughter in due course married the painter Theodore Vauchelet. Legouis has a great compare and contrast between Vauchelet’s portrait of his mother-in-law, Wordsworth’s daughter Caroline, and the classic portrait of Wordsworth himself: There’s something pretty unmistakable about the nose.

Legouis has much more to say about Annette’s life. He has a fascinating account of how her monarchist family twisted and turned to stay alive during the First Republic and the Empire. Annette’s brother Paul was imprisoned several times and could easily have been executed; Annette herself was a firm opponent of the new regime (Wordsworth’s feelings were more ambivalent).

The whole story only came to light just over a hundred years ago, seventy years after Wordsworth’s death. Wordsworth’s literary executor was his nephew Christopher Wordsworth, an Anglican clergyman and future bishop, and apparently he destroyed all the records he could find relating to Annette and Caroline in the family correspondence; Harper and Legouis have done their best from incidental notes in Dorothy’s diary and also the rich store of French official records.

Just one of Annette’s letters to William and Dorothy survives, written in 1793 when Caroline was still a baby. It survives because the police seized it and it remained unseen in the Blois city archives for 125 years. Strictly there are two letters, one to William and one to Dorothy folded up together. Legouis transcribes them both in an appendix, and it’s riveting to get her voice so clearly, still at that stage desperately hoping that she and William (and indeed Dorothy, who she cannot have met) would someday soon get together.

signoff to WIlliam
signoff to Dorothy

It’s always good to hear a voice speaking as clearly as this from the past, reminding us that there’s more to history than names and dates.

You can read Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper here, and you can read William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis here.

Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh

Next in the sequence of Black Archive analyses of Doctor Who, and the first to tackle the Thirteenth Doctor, published in 2019 about a story broadcast in 2018. I did not much like Kerblam!, and thought it one of the weakest stories of Jodie Whittaker’s first season. I wrote at the time:

[Kerblam!] left me cold. I was not happy that the Doctor leaves an evil system un-overthrown, having defeated the revolutionary who was trying to bring it down. As Darren Mooney points out, “The episode’s happy ending has the company giving the employees four weeks off, but only paying them for two of those four weeks.” It is totally out of whack with the show’s progressive history. The script, performances and especially the effects were all good, but the politics left a bad taste in my mouth.

Re-watching it four years later, I felt much the same. I also felt that the fridging of the youngest woman guest character was a bit gratuitous.

The Black Archive on the story is by Naomi Jacobs, who co-wrote the volume on Human Nature / The Family of Blood which I enjoyed, and Thomas L. Rodebaugh, who wrote the volume on The Face of Evil, which I enjoyed rather less. The result is somewhere in between.

An introduction admits that the story is politically problematic, and also asks about Doctor Who’s attitude to robotics and artificial intelligence, finishing with the question, “Who killed Kira?”

The first chapter, “Political Animals”, goes to some lengths to try and quantify the political ideology of the Doctor (and the show) along left-right and libertarian-authoritarian axes, which I did not really find compelling. It makes a valid comparison between the Doctor’s approach to Charlie in Kerblam!, and his approach to Taran Capel in The Robots of Death, making the point that the resort to violence is generally a problem for the Doctor. But this ignores the fact that Taran Capel is literally genocidal, whereas Charlie is not.

The second chapter, “Thinking Machines”, looks into the concepts of artificial intelligence and thinking machines, and the extent to which we could realistically expect a future computer to behave like the computer behind Kerblam.

The third chapter, “Some of my best friends are Robots!”, looks at the depiction of robots in fiction in general and in Doctor Who in particular. The second paragraph, along with the quote it introduces, is:

Karel Čapek first used the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which told the story of artificial workers in a factory who gain self-awareness and incite others around the world to rise up against the humans. The word was originally coined by his brother Josef, and comes from a Czech word ‘robota’, which means ‘forced labour’ or an indentured servant 1. The play deals with issues not dissimilar to Kerblam! in considering human dependence on commodified labour and its consequences. The word and concept have a long history in science fiction, and the research field of robotics takes its name from the works of writer Isaac Asimov, who popularised many of the modern ideas and concepts of robots in his work. Most famously, he coined the Three Laws of Robotics, rules that he described as forming the foundations of the programming of any autonomous robot. These are:
‘First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
‘Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
‘Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.’ 2
1 Pappas, Stephen, ‘Karel Čapek and the Origin of the Word Robot’.
2 Asimov, ‘Runaround’ (1942), reprinted in the collection I, Robot (1950).

The fourth chapter, “Making Connections”, looks at the Internet of Things and RFIDs and drones as they are today, and compares their depiction in Kerblam! with that in the Twelfth Doctor story Smile.

The fifth chapter, “Automated for the People”, looks at automation and employment, and the economic effects of greater mechanisation of work.

The sixth chapter, “Automated Message”, looks frankly at the weakness of the episode’s writing, proposing that it evades deeper analysis of the societal questions raised by its setting because of the demands of writing an exciting plot. It also looks at why the death of Kira is so problematic – unlike the traditional fridging, it doesn’t even change the behaviour of the key character (Charlie in this case). “[W]e are left with the sense that it is perhaps not so much that the episode doesn’t know what to do with the exciting inspiration from which it has plucked ideas, but that it thinks that merely using them in pursuit of structure and plot is clever enough.”

The seventh chapter, “Wrapping it all up”, finds a convincing metaphor for the story and indeed for the book. “The bubble wrap is not a plot hole, but, as with Kira’s death, is symptomatic of how the allegiance to the story’s structure makes many of the story’s clever concepts seem somewhat hollow: shiny on the surface, but liable to burst if some critical pressure is applied.”

Like Philip Purser-Hallard’s volume on Battlefield, this volume looks at a story I did not like so much and analyses what it was trying to do. I found it refreshing that the authors admitted the story’s weaknesses, but I ended up not really convinced that it could sustain the level of analysis that they had brought to bear. Be that as it may, you can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

December 2020 books, and 2020 books 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.

Lockdown having hit again, I did not go very far this month except to nip across the border to France for a haircut. However I did have the satisfaction of comiling a video about science fiction predicitons for the year 2021 – probably a little too long, but I did love the Moon Zero Two opening titles.

And I kept up my ten-day updates in plague times.

And on Christmas Day I managed to get a rare picture of the family all looking in the same direction and all looking happy.

I read 27 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (2020 total 50)
Our War: Ireland and the Great War, ed. John Horne
Utopia For Realists, by Rutger Bregman
House of Music, by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason
Explaining Humans, by Camilla Pang

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (2020 total 38)
Terms of Endearment, by Larry McMurtry
Tono-Bungay, by H.G. Wells
The Prisoner of Brenda, by [Colin] Bateman

Scripts: 2 (2020 total 2)
Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
A Belgian Christmas Eve, by Alfred Noyes

sf (non-Who): 15 (2020 total 114)
After Me Comes the Flood, by Sarah Perry
Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle
“The Persistence of Vision”, by John Varley
The Children of Men, by P.D. James
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Company Articles of Edward Teach, by Thoraiya Dyer/Angælien Apocalypse, by Matthew Chrulew
2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke
Above, by Stephanie Campisi/Below, by Ben Peek
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
Planetfall, by Emma Newman
Macrolife, by George Zebrowski
The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson
Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
Palimpsest, by Charles Stross
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Doctor Who: 2 (2020 total 18)
All Flesh is Grass, by Una McCormack
Tales of Terror, no editor given

Comics: 1 (2020 total 45)
Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor Volume 1: A New Beginning, by Jody Houser, Rachael Stott, Giorgia Sposito, Enrica Eren Angiolini

8,200 pages (2020 total 70,400)
14/27 (2020 total 77/266) not by men (Henderson, Kanneh-Mason, Perry, Gentle, James, McIntyre, Dyer, Campisi, Newman, Henderson, Sharma, Clarke, McCormack, Houser et al)
3/27 (2020 total 25/266) by PoC (Kanneh-Mason, Pang, Sharma)

Several really good books this month, and I’m going to single out the RTE history Our War, which you can get here, and Priya Sharma’s short Ormeshadow, which you can get here. On the other hand I completely bounced off Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood, which you can get here.

2020 books roundup

I read 266 books in 2020, the ninth highest of the nineteen years that I have been keeping track, and 70,400 pages, eleventh highest of nineteen, so pretty much in the middle.

Books by non-male writers in 2020: 77/266, 29% – fifth highest absolute number, eighth highest percentage of the last nineteen years.

Books by PoC in 2020: – 25/266, 9% – fifth highest in both absolute numbers and percentages, higher than any year before 2018.

Most-read author of 2020: Kieron Gillen, as I read all nine volumes of The Wicked + The Divine.

1) Science Fiction and Fantasy (excluding Doctor Who)


114 (43%), fifth highest total and percentage of nineteen years.

Top SF book of the year:

The first book I read in 2020 was Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation, which included some old favouites and a couple of brilliant new stories, both of which got on the Hugo final ballot. You can get it here.

Honourable mentions to:

Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Insurrection, a BSFA finalist, in which near-future Nigeria (like other parts of the world) has been subject to an alien intrusion; this plays out on the ground in micropolitics, including sexual politics, for an interesting and intelligent exploration of what it actually means to be human in an unforgiving and rapidly changing world. You can get it here.

Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet, a Lodestar finalist, a cracking good read, with conscious AI, dysfunctional family, a courageous road trip across the northeastern USA, and a hilarious robot sex education scene. You can get it here.

The ones you haven’t heard of:

The BSFA long-list included several stories from two anthologies which I consequently sought out and enjoyed, Distaff: A Science Fiction Anthology by Female Authors, eds. Rosie Oliver & Sam Primeau, which you can get here, and Once Upon A Parsec: the Book of Alien Fairy Tales, ed. David Gullen, which you can get here. Sadly none of them made it to the short-list.

The one to avoid:

The worst book I read all year, with some stiff competition, was A Woman in Space, by Sara Cavanaugh (probably a pseudonym). Our heroine is twenty-six, and already a spaceflight veteran. The entire plot lacks any credibility even in its own terms. The sexual politics is awful, and the sex is pretty badly written as well. It’s so bad you have to finish it once you’ve started. (It’s only 192 pages.) You can get it here.

2) Non-fiction

50 (19%), bang in the middle of the historical range.

Top non-fiction book of the year:

From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull. More on this below.

Honourable mentions to:

Two biographies of women. The first is Felicitas Corrigan’s biography of the Ulster writer and historian Helen Waddell, looking at how her star rose and fell – she was invited to lunch at 10 Downing Street with J.M. Barrie and Queen Mary, but died in obscurity. You can get it here.

The other is a finalist for the Hugo for Best Related Work, Mallory O’Meara’s biography of Milicent Patrick, a Hollywood designer who rose and fell much more quickly than Helen Waddell; after the triumph of creating the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she was basically fired for not being invisible enough. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

Philip Winter’s personal account of co-ordinating the internal peace process within the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000-2002, a fascinating view of implementation of peace agreements at the sharp end with many lovely glimpses of detail and a real sense of time and place. You can get it here.

The one to avoid:

A Popular History of Ireland, by Thomas D’Arcy McGee – chloroform in print (as Mark Twain said of the Book of Mormon). You can get it here.

3) Comics

45 (17%), highest ever percentage, total number only exceeded in 2021, due to Hugos and Retro Hugos, and because of more Doctor Who comics coming through the system.

Top comics of the year:

Two of the Hugo finalists which were standalones, LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin, which you can get here, and Mooncakes, by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, letters by Joamette Gil, which you can get here.

Honourable mention:

The second half of Leo’s Survivants series, continuing the Aldebaran cycle. You can get them in English translation here, here and here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

Rick Lundeen’s glorious adaptation of The Daleks’ Master Plan, not on sale anywhere but you can find it in the darker corners of the internet.

The ones to avoid:

The ending of Marc Legendre’s Amoras, an adult reworking of classic Belgian kids’ comic heroes Suske en Wiske, fell pretty flat for me. You can get the last two volumes here and here.

4) Non-genre fiction

40 (15%). In the middle of the historical range, though higher than 2021 or 2022.

Top non-genre fiction of the year:

The triumphant conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. We’ve always known where this wasa going to end up, but the journey is a tremendous achievement. You can get it here.

Honourable mentions:

I found myself enjoying Larry McMurtry’s Terms of Endearment, on which the film was based, much more than I expected – funny and also humane. You can get it here.

Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to the Moon is a sensitive and effective story about wartime in the Scilly Isles for young adult readers. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

A wee jewel from a family member, Muddy Lane by Andrew Cheffings, about men loving each other in a lost corner of England. You can get it here.

The one to avoid:

Bruges-la-Morte by George Rodenbach. Very silly and over-written. Ends with the protagonist strangling his lover with a lock of his dead wife’s hair. There, I’ve saved you the bother, but if you still want to, you can get it here.

5) Doctor Who

Novels, collections of shorter fiction, etc excluding comics: 18 (7%), lowest since 2005.

All Who books including comics and non-fiction: 25 (9%), also lowest since 2005.

I took a bit of a sabbatical from Who reading in 2020.

Top Doctor Who books of the year:

Una McCormack’s novel All Flesh Is Grass, featuring the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Doctors, which you can get here, and Jody Houser’s graphic novel Defender of the Daleks with the Tenth and Thirteenth (marketed for some reason with a very similar cover to Una McCormack’s novel, showing Eight, Nine and Ten, rather than Ten and Thirteen), which you can get here.

Honourable mention:

Paul Cornell’s Third Doctor story Heralds of Destruction is true to the spriti of early 70s Who and takes it a little further. You can get it here.

The one you haven’t heard of:

Already mentioned under comics: Rick Lundeen’s graphic novel adaptation of The Daleks’ Master Plan.

The one to avoid:

The 2020 Official Annual is a poor piece of work. You can get it here. Glad to say that the 2021 version is better.

My Book of the Year

No hesitation at all in naming my Top Book of 2020 as From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull, the account of a life punctuated by the 1979 bomb which killed his 14-year-old twin brother, along with their grandfather Lord Mountbatten, their other grandmother and another boy. As one might expect, Knatchbull’s relationship with Ireland is very complex. It was a magical place of childhood holiday memories, which turned to horror in an instant. He has found a way of making sense of the terrible thing that was done to his family, and it is a truly compelling read. I’d had it on the shelves for years but only now got around to it, and I should not have waited. You can get it here.

All Books of the Year:

2003 (2 months): The Separation, by Christopher Priest (review; get it here)
2004: (reread) The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (review; get it here)
– Best new read: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin (review; get it here)
2005: The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto (review; get it here)
2006: Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea (review; get it here)
2007: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel (review; get it here)
2008: (reread) The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, by Anne Frank (review; get it here)
– Best new read: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray (review; get it here)
2009: (had seen it on stage previously) Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (review; get it here)
– Best new read: Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi (first volume just pipped by Samuel Pepys in 2004) (review; get it here)
2010: The Bloody Sunday Report, by Lord Savile et al. (review of vol I; get it here)
2011: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (started in 2009!) (review; get it here)
2012: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë (review; get it here)
2013: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf (review; get it here)
2014: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (review; get it here)
2015: collectively, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, in particular the winner, Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel (get it here). However I did not actually blog about these, being one of the judges at the time.
– Best book I actually blogged about: The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin (review; get it here)
2016: Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot (review; get it here)
2017: Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light (review; get it here)
2018: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling (review; get it here)
2019: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo (review; get it here)
2020: From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull (review; get it here)
2021: Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins (review; get it here)
2022: The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell (review; get it here)

Sunday reading

Erasing Sherlock, by Kelly Hale
The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell

Last books finished
ε4 (did not finish)
ζ4 (did not finish)
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston

Next books
Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen

The Best of Ian McDonald

Second paragraph of third story:

If he likes the tilt of your hat or the colour of your luggage, if the smell of the cologne you’ve splashed on in the washroom reminds him of all those Oldsmobile days hung up with his jacket on the peg by the door, Sam My Man will solicit you with his magic never-ending cup of coffee. He’s a dealer in biography, paid for by the minute, the hour, however long it takes until the driver calls you on into the night. Sam My Man has whole lifetimes racked away under the bar where he keeps the empty bottles. He can tell a good vintage just by looking: given the choice between the kid in tractor hat, knee-high tubes, and cut-off T-shirt, the bus-lagged pair of English Camp-Americas propping their eyelids open with their backpacks and coffee the strength of bromine, and the old man with the old precise half-inch of white beard and the leather bag like no one’s carried since the tornado whisked Professor Marvel off to the Emerald City, Kelly By the Window knows which one he’ll solicit with his little fill-‘er-ups of complimentary coffee.

I got this at the Eastercon where Ian McDonald was a Guest of Honour in 2015, and he kindly signed it for me; though looking at it now, I realised that I cannot read what he had written, and when I sent this picture to him, he said he he couldn’t read it either!

This is a great collection of great stories by a great writer, taking in the first 25 years of his career from 1988 to 2013. A lot of them I already knew, some of them are set in the same world as some of his novels, some were completely new to me. I guess from the earlier stories, the one that stood out for me was “After Kerry”, a tale of dysphoria and dysfunctional families; of the later ones it was the Belfast-set “Tonight We Fly”. Ian McDonald doesn’t set all that many of his stories in either part of Ireland, but that’s still more than most writers. All written in that lush, enviable prose. I’ll come back to this, I think. You can get it here.

This was (shamefully) the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Creation Machine, by my former cohabitee Andrew Bannister.

The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed. ?Shaun Russell

Second paragraph of third story (“A Moment in History”, by Andy Frankham-Allan):

At least this time he wasn’t a child. If he were to guess, he’d place his new… host? As good a term as any… in his mid- to late-twenties. Intelligent blue eyes, fair hair slicked back, cut very short, and dressed in formal clothes. Shirt and tie, brown slacks, brown shoes. A professional of some sort? Although, going by the paraphernalia in the surrounding room, he had a feeling this was just how men dressed in the era he’d found himself in. The bedroom had a distinctly 1930s feel to it. Everything from the light shade hanging from the ceiling, to the dresser before him and the design of the blanket covering the ornate looking bed. But who was he?

A set of short stories set in the sub-sub-narrative of the Laughing Gnome, where Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart and his comrades Bill Bishop and Anne Travers Bishop find their minds displaced into people and places in the past century or so. I must say that while I have been frankly disappointed with a couple of the novels of this sequence, the short story format worked very well for me. Particular standouts are S.J. Greonewegen’s “Locked In”, a quick tale on a botched WW2 military exercise that has more than it seems, and Roland Moore’s “The Last House on Sandray”, which brings back an unexpected character from Classic Who. Overall generally an uptick. You can get it here.

Two formatting points though: there is no table of contents, and the editor (if it is Shaun Russell) is credited in tiny print on the inside cover.

Next in this sequence: Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel

Second frame of third chapter:

I hugely enjoyed Bechdel’s first major work, Fun Home, a secret biography of her father, but was less wowed by her second, Are You My Mother? In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, she turns to herself, and her own relationships with fitness, literature, writing and other women. I loved this. Wry and self-deprecating, but also raging when it is appropriate and necessary, she takes us into the world of the fitness maniac (which I am not, though many are) and also relates her own struggles to those of, for instance, Wordsworth and Coleridge; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller; and Jack Kerouac and Adrienne Rich. Margaret Fuller in particular sounds like someone I should know more about.

Anyway, this is excellent and would be a great gift for any fitness fanatics, literature nerds or even normal people in your life. You can get it here.

Warring States, by Mags Halliday

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘Ah, of course,’ he remarked. ‘I suppose you can’t enter the building without permission? Like a vampire?’

I gave the Faction Paradox series a try last year before abandoning them as just not really interesting enough. This short novel would have been next in the list if I had persisted. It’s actually not bad, with the Factions of the series getting tangled up in Chinese politics (and European interference) of the Boxer Rebellion period, and the return of the enigmatic Doctor Who character Compassion (featured in several of the Eighth Doctor novels). I was interested enough to finish reading it, though not enough to try getting back into the series again. (I do have one more to get through.) You can get it here.

November 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.

Very little travel in November 2020, thanks to the newly reimposed COVID restrictions, but on the first day of the month I took B to the nearby park at Helecine.

I discovered that the American artists Howard Gardiner Cushing and his daughter Lily Emmet Cushing were distant cousins of mine; and better yet, that Lily was married to the grandfather of one of my best friends in the USA.

My ten-day updates on the COVID situation continued:

F and I mounted an expedition to see various megalithic monuments roughly south and east of us, listening to The Daleks’ Master Plan as we travelled.

More art, this time at the abbey of Villier-la-Ville, by Jean-Michel Folon – Anne and I had visited his museum near Brussels a few weeks before.

I updated my list of the appearances of Belgium in Doctor Who:

And in the real world, Joe Biden convincingly defeated Donald Trump in the US election, though it took a worrying length of time before the result was acknowledged and some are still not convinced. I got some decent press coverage for predicting (correctly) that Trump did not have any chance of overturning the result in court.

I managed to read 25 books that month, but several were very short and I failed to keep a record of what I thought of them.

Non-fiction: 2 (YTD 46)
Selected Prose, by Charles Lamb (did not finish)
Mahatma Gandhi: His Life and Times, by Louis Fischer

Fiction (non-sf): 1 (YTD 35)
The Inside of the Cup, by the other Winston Churchill

sf (non-Who): 7 (YTD 99)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Borderline, by Mishell Baker
SS-GB, by Len Deighton
Painless, by Rich Larson
The Time Invariance of Snow, by E. Lily Yu
Blood is Another Word for Hunger, by Rivers Solomon
More Real Than Him, by Silvia Park

Doctor Who: 5 (YTD 16)
The Nth Doctor, by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier
The Official Doctor Who Annual 2021, by Paul Lang
Doctor Who: Mission to the Unknown, by John Peel
Doctor Who: The Mutation of Time, by John Peel
The Astraea Conspiracy, by Lizbeth Myles

Comics: 5 (YTD 44)
Neil Dreams, by Neil Gaiman
An Honest Answer & Other Stories, by Neil Gaiman
The Daleks’ Master Plan, adapted by Rick Lundeen
The Empire Strikes Back, written by Archie Goodwin, art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon
Return of the Jedi, written by Archie Goodwin, art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon

4,000 pages (YTD 62,800)
6/20 (YTD 75/239) not by men (Baker, Yu, Solomon, Park, Lofficier, Myles)
3/20 (YTD 22/239) by PoC (Yu, Solomon, Park)

The best new read was Rick Lundeen’s graphic story adaptation of The Daleks’ Master Plan, which unfortunately is not commercially available anywhere. It was also good to return to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which you can get here. Several less good books this month, but I will draw a veil over them.

Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The young women who entered Wellesley in the fall of 1955 (the class of’ 59) were either the last of the silent generation with its contingent of bright, dutiful daughters prepared to join the ranks of well-educated, bright, dutiful wives or the first class of women eager to be taken seriously in the workforce and recognized as independent individuals, not just appendages to their much sought-after husbands. Actually, they were both; in any case, I was both. I was preparing myself for a career in journalism or diplomacy, while I wanted to get married as soon as possible to the perfect partner. The notion that there might be a contradiction between these two aspirations didn’t occur to me. So I concentrated on my studies and worried about my social life.

My closest encounter with Madeleine Albright was in Banja Luka in the summer of 1997, when she descended on the Bosnian Serb capital with the full force of the State Department to visit the local leader, President Biljana Plavšić. The US government took over the central Hotel Bosna for the day; I was among the crowds that watched as the official motorcade took the Secretary of State from the hotel to the President’s offices in the main government building, the Banski Dvor. But the Banski Dvor is literally across the road from the Hotel Bosna, the front doors being less than 100 metres apart; the American motorcade was literally longer than the distance it needed to travel. It was a strange sight.

Anyway, this is a fascinating if rather long first-person account of life on the way to the top, and then at the top, of American politics. Though born in Prague in 1937, her family fled to the USA after the Communist take-over in 1948 and she settled down to become a smart American in an immigrant family. Her father, formerly a zech diplomat, became a political science professor; she followed in his footsteps, but also managed to catch a superbly well-connected journalist husband, which can’t have done any harm as she rose in DC.

A side hobby of fund-raising got her the attention of Democratic veteran Ed Muskie, who hired her for his Senate team in 1976; Zbig Brzezinski then snagged for the the National Security Council in the Carter presidency. The Democrats were out of office for the next twelve years, though she was involved as a senior foreign policy adviser in the unsuccessful 1984 and 1988 campaigns. Finally, a victorious Bill Clinton appointed her as ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, and Secretary of State in 1997, shortly before my near brush with her in Bosnia. She was also closely involved with the National Democratic Institute, my employers in Bosnia, though she had stepped back from it while in office. The book was published in 2002, very soon after the end of the Clinton presidency.

The circumstantial detail of her life before Washington is all very interesting, but like most readers I was fascinated by the insider accounts of Washington (and New York) policy-making. The Rwanda genocide, the Bosnia and Kosovo wars, the escalation against Saddam Hussein (which was firmly bipartisan in Washington in those days), relations with China and Russia, and above all the ins and outs of the Middle East from the high point of the Oslo accords in 1993 to the failure at Camp David in 2000, are all lucidly described; I am more familiar with some of these than others, but had no difficulty in following the thread. She is pretty clear on her own motivation, which usually coincided with US policy – though not always; she happily confirms that she tended to be on the hawkish side regarding the use of force, particularly after Rwanda.

There is a particularly moving chapter where, newly appointed as secretary of state, she discovers that her parents were Jewish and that three of her grandparents, who she remembered from her own childhood, had been killed in the Holocaust (one grandfather had died in 1938). Her parents had brought her up as a Catholic and she had no idea of her personal connection. Having been delving into my own family history of late, I know the feeling of genealogical surprises, though I don’t think that anything quite like that is lying in wait for me.

Anyway, it’s a lengthy book, but I found it enlightening. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a woman writer. Next on that pile is Winter, by Ali Smith.

Sunday reading

Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston

Last books finished
The Kosova Liberation Army, by James Pettifer
χ3 (did not finish)
ψ3 (did not finish)
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville
The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama
The Weeping Angels of Mons, by Robbie Morrison, Daniel Indro and Eleonora Carlini
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond

Next books
Erasing Sherlock, by Kelly Hale
The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell