July 2023 books

Non-fiction 9 (YTD 48)
Amy Dillwyn, by David Painting
After the War: How to Keep Europe Safe, by Paul Taylor
The Popes and Sixty Years of European Integration
How to End Russia’s War on Ukraine, by Timothy Ash et al
Blackpool Remembered, by John Collier
Drawing Boundaries, eds John C. Courtney, Peter MacKinnon and David E. Smith (did not finish)
The Deadly Assassin, by Andrew Orton
The Awakening, by David Evans-Powell
One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, by S.E. Gillingham

Non-genre 7 (YTD 14)
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
A Burglary, or, Unconscious Influence, by Amy Dillwyn
Jill, by Amy Dillwyn
Jill and Jack, by Amy Dillwyn
Nant Olchfa, by Amy Dillwyn
The Murder on the Links, by Agatha Christie
Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Poetry 1 (YTD 4)
The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran

SF 12 (YTD 122)
The Memory Librarian, ed. Janelle Monáe
Atlantis Fallen, by C.E. Murphy
In the Serpent’s Wake, by Rachel Hartman
Ancient, Ancient, by Kiini Ibura Salaam
Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, ed. Paula Guran
The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
Tofu Brains: Life on Zeeta 21, by Lars Koch
There Will Be War Volume X, ed. Jerry Pournelle (did not finish)
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Knights of God, by Richard Cooper
The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 21)
Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who – The Awakening, by Eric Pringle

Comics 4 (YTD 14)
Arena of Fear, by Nick Abadzis et al
Saga, Vol. 10,  by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Once & Future Vol 4: Monarchies in the UK, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamara Bonvillain

8,200 pages (YTD 54,900)
17/35 (YTD 94/225) by non-male writers (Gillingham, Dillwyn x 4, Christie, Sayers, Monáe, Murphy, Hartman, Salaam, Guran, Kiernan, Novik, illustrators of Arena of Fear, Staples, Bonvillain)
2/35 (YTD 30/225) by a non-white writer (Gibran, Salaam)
5 rereads (Whose Body?, Breakfast of Champions, Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, Doctor Who – The Awakening, Once & Future Vol 4: Monarchies in the UK)

360 books currently tagged unread – up 41 from last month, as I reintegrated the Clarke submissions that I want to get back to, and made some other updates.

Reading now
Representatives of the People?: Parliamentarians and Constituents in Modern Democracies, ed. Vernon Bogdanor
The Outcast, by Louise Cooper
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden

Coming soon (perhaps)
Sins of the Father, by Nick Abadzis et al.
Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion, by Peter Harness
The Shadowman, by Sharon Bidwell
Doctor Who and the Stones of Blood, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who: Stones of Blood, by David Fisher
The Stones of Blood, by Katrin Thier
Arachnids in the UK, by Sam Maleski
Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Life Span, by Digby Tantam
Collision Course, by Robert Silverberg / Nemesis from Terra, by Leigh Brackett
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver
“Beggars in Spain”, by Nancy Kress
The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd
The Return of Eva Perón with the Killings in Trinidad, by V. S. Naipaul
DALEKS, ed. Marcus Hearn
Rupetta, by N.A. Sulway
Living with the Gods, by Neil MacGregor
What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, by Rose Macaulay
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality, by Jaron Lanier
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, by Nick Montfort
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Jaren van de olifant, by Willy Linthout
The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman: Including the Brother
, by Flann O’Brien

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“The kids you babysat during the memorial tested positive,” my mother said through an intercom next to my bed. “Their parents swore they’d been tested. We thought they were safe. I’m so sorry, Jun.”

It is a book for our time, looking at worldwide plague and its consequences, in the form of a closely linked sequence of short stories. I felt that most of the stories were very good, but a couple missed the mark, including, crucially and catastrophically, the ending. You can get it here.

Sunday reading

The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik
Representatives of the People?: Parliamentarians and Constituents in Modern Democracies, ed. Vernon Bogdanor
The Outcast, by Louise Cooper
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden

Last books finished
The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran
Tofu Brains: Life on Zeeta 21, by Lars Koch
There Will Be War Volume X, ed. Jerry Pournelle (did not finish)
Doctor Who – The Awakening, by Eric Pringle
Once & Future Vol 4: Monarchies in the UK, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamara Bonvillain
The Awakening, by David Evans-Powell
One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, by S.E. Gillingham
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Knights of God, by Richard Cooper

Next books
Sins of the Father, by Nick Abadzis et al
Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Life Span,by Digby Tantam
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells

In search of Phoebe Hurty, Kurt Vonnegut’s mentor

I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions again after many years, and was struck by the dedication:

who comforted me in Indianapolis—during the Great Depression. 
When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. —JOB

The introduction to the book expands on this a bit:

The person to whom this book is dedicated, Phoebe Hurty, is no longer among the living, as they say. She was an Indianapolis widow when I met her late in the Great Depression. I was sixteen or so. She was about forty. 

She was rich, but she had gone to work every weekday of her adult life, so she went on doing that. She wrote a sane and funny advice-to-the-lovelorn column for the Indianapolis Times, a good paper which is now defunct. 


She wrote ads for the William H. Block Company, a department store which still flourishes in a building my father designed. She wrote this ad for an end-of-the-summer sale on straw hats: “For prices like this, you can run them through your horse and put them on your roses.”  

Phoebe Hurty hired me to write copy for ads about teenage clothes. I had to wear the clothes I praised. That was part of the job. And I became friends with her two sons, who were my age. I was over at their house all the time.

She would talk bawdily to me and her sons, and to our girlfriends when we brought them around. She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything. 

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty. I think now that grace was easier for her than it is for me because of the mood of the Great Depression. She believed what so many Americans believed then: that the nation would be happy and just and rational when prosperity came. 

I never hear that word anymore: Prosperity. It used to be a synonym for Paradise. And Phoebe Hurty was able to believe that the impoliteness she recommended would give shape to an American paradise. 

Now her sort of impoliteness is fashionable. But nobody believes anymore in a new American paradise. I sure miss Phoebe Hurty.

Well, I thought, what can I find out about Phoebe Hurty, using the resources of Ancestry.com?

At first the trail was somewhat confusing. The 1940 city directory for Indianapolis has the following entries under Hurty:

Two years later, the 1942 directory has this:

So it looks like Phoebe was the wife of Gilbert, who died some time between 1940 and 1942, and that he was president of the Hurty-Peck favouring extracts company; and her mother-in-law Ethel also died between 1940 and 1942. Meanwhile there is a Gladys S. Hurty who works for the William H. Block Company as a copywriter, but seems to live at the same address as Gilbert and Phoebe.

This doesn’t quite match Vonnegut’s account. He has Phoebe, not Gladys, as the copywriter at Block’s. (Also he implies that she was already a widow when they first met when he was about sixteen; but he was born in 1922, and Gilbert was definitely still alive in 1938.) A bit more digging and I found documentary evidence for the following timeline:

  • June 1891: Gladys Sutton is born in Austin, Texas. Her parents are John Adam Sutton (1858–1917) and Katherine Belle Miller (1867–1944). Her father is 32 and her mother is 24. He is from Indianapolis, she is from Texas.
  • 1907/08: birth of her only sibling, John A. Sutton. Gladys is 16 or 17.
  • by 1920: she has married her first husband, Robert Leroy Craig (1891–1974) and the 1920 census records them living with her widowed mother and her brother in an apartment at 2456 Meridian St, Indianapolis. (NB that Meridian Street is now split between North Meridian Street and South Meridian Street, both of which have buildings numbered 2456.) The census, enumerated on 14 January, gives her and her husband’s ages (correctly) as 27.
  • 8 February 1921: birth of her first child, Robert Leroy Craig Jr (1921-2009). Gladys is 29.
  • 9 July 1923: birth of her second child, David Frederick Craig (1923-2003). Gladys is 32.
    (Both sons appear to have living children.)
  • The 1930 census records Gladys as aged 38, divorced and living as a boarder with a German family; the boys, aged 9 and 7, are living with their father, his second wife and her 19-year-old daughter.
  • 13 Jan 1935: Gladys married Gilbert Johnston Hurty (1878-1940). She is 43; he is 56.
  • The 1940 census records her and Gilbert living with the two boys at 1210 Pickwick Place (the address given in the city directory)
  • 24 Jun 1940: Gilbert dies. He is 61; Gladys has her 49th birthday that month.
  • 11 Nov 1940: Ethel Johnston, Gladys’s mother-in-law, dies, aged 84.
  • 29 May 1956: Gladys dies, aged 64.

There is only one reference to a Phoebe Hurty in official records anywhere that I could find: it is cited as the name of Robert Craig Jr’s mother, on his 2009 death certificate.

So, it begins to look as if Gladys and Phoebe Hurty were the same person, but were listed separately in the Indianapolis city directory in the different roles of Block copywriter and Gilbert’s wife. I got confirmation of this from her obituary in the Indianapolis News of 29 May 1956:

Gladys Hurty, former news writer, is dead

Gladys (Phoebe) Sutton Hurty, 61 [actually 64], former writer, had always been keenly interested in literature. She was attending a class on great books at Butler University last night when she suffered a stroke. She died on arrival at Methodist Hospital. Her home was in Golden Hill.

Born in Texas, Mrs. Hurty had lived in Indianapolis more than 50 years. She was the widow of Gilbert J. Hurty, former owner of Hurty Peck dealers in extracts.

For a number of years Mrs. Hurty wrote articles for The [Indianapolis] News’ editorial page under the name of Phoebe Craig. Also for a time she wrote a column in the [Indianapolis] Times under the pseudonym of Jane Jordan. For 20 years Mrs. Hurty had been an advertising executive at Block’s.

Her work there included writing copy for men’s clothing ads. Mrs. Hurty was planning to retire at Block’s June 30 and take a European tour. She was a member of the Woodstock Club, Great Books Club and the Contemporary Club.

Services will be at 3 p.m. Thursday in Flanner Buchanan Fall Creek Mortuary, with burial in Crown Hill Cemetery. Survivors are two sons by a former marriage, Robert L. Craig, Indianapolis, and David F. Craig, New Orleans; a brother, John A. Sutton, Indianapolis, and six grandchildren. Funeral: Home, with burial in Crown Hill. 

It’s sad that she died so suddenly, just a month before she would have retired.

Dan Wakefield, who knew Kurt Vonnegut from their childhoods in Indianapolis (but is ten years younger), did a little more digging for his biography, Kurt Vonnegut: The Making of a Writer, told in the second person, present tense.

One of the mothers who reads the Echo [a high school newspaper] is Phoebe Hurty, an advertising copywriter for the William H. Block Company, one of the big downtown department stores. She likes what you write and sees that you write often; she hires you to write advertising copy for the Echo about the clothes that Block’s Department Store sells to teenagers. The deal is that you wear the clothes that you write about to school, and you pose as a model in ads that the store makes for its teenage clothes.

Phoebe Hurty becomes your mentor. Her legal name is Gladys Sutton Craig Hurty, but she doesn’t see herself as a Gladys, so she picked out a name she thinks suits her better: Phoebe. She uses another name for the advice column she writes for the Indianapolis Times: Jane Jordan. Her advice is to the point and practical.

A girl writes to tell “Jane Jordan” that she likes a boy who was respectful and nice, but on her last date with him, he’d been drinking and said if she really cared about him, she’d “surrender.” Here is “Jane Jordan’s” advice: “I think I would ignore the incident. If he behaves properly when he is sober, enjoy his company, and avoid him when he drinks.”

In an interview in the Indianapolis Times, Phoebe tells about her philosophy for raising her two sons to become independent.

“When they were very little, the garage was their playhouse,” she says, and one cold day they started a fire to keep warm. Phoebe came home from work to find the street clogged with fire trucks. The fire the boys had made to keep warm had nearly burned down the garage. Phoebe says her son Bobby “gave me one agonized look and said, ‘Mother, I will eat turnips.’ I saw that he wanted to be punished to relieve his sense of guilt and that in his opinion, nothing could be worse than turnips. So we had turnips for dinner and nothing more was said. We’ve never had a fire since.”

You get to be friends with Phoebe and her sons Robert, who is a year older than you, and David, who is a year younger, and you hang out at their house all the time.

Phoebe Hurty talks bawdily to you and her sons and to your girlfriends when you bring them around. She’s funny. She’s liberating. She teaches you and her sons to be impolite in conversation, not only about sexual matters, but also about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about everything.

So I’m pretty satisfied that I’ve filled out Vonnegut’s brief reference to Phoebe Hurty, born Gladys Sutton, for a few years Mrs Craig, and Jane Jordan in her advice columns. There’s one more log to add to the fire, though. The Indianapolis State Library has digitised several dozen editions of Block’s Booster, the in-house magazine for the employees of William H. Block and Company, and Phoebe Hurty is mentioned several times (as Phoebe, not Gladys). Notably, in the May 1948 issue, there is a two-page photo spread on the store’s advertising department, and one of the pictures features an indistinct Phoebe. (I’ve shifted the caption from its original position in the article, for clarity.)

That’s her on the right, the month before her 57th birthday. It’s a shame that the photographer didn’t catch her as well as her colleagues, but I’m grateful for what we have; and anyway Vonnegut’s pen-portrait is much more descriptive than any image could be.

CODA, and La Famille Bélier

CODA won the 2021 Best Picture Oscar, and two others: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s father), in fact a clean sweep as those were the only three categories in which it was nominated. Dune won six Oscars that year, and the Hugo, and the Ray Bradbury Award. Apart from CODA and Dune I have seen two of the there nominees for Best Picture, Belfast and Don’t Look Up; I have not seen Drive My Car, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog or the remake of West Side Story.

Apart from this, I have also seen the other four Hugo finalists, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (which I voted for myself), Encanto, Space Sweepers and The Green Knight. I think the only other film I had seen was The Dig, about Sutton Hoo. Sticking my neck out, I liked CODA better than any of them. IMDB users rank it 23rd of 2021’s films on one list and 35th on the other, which is rather low. Dune and Spiderman: No Way Home top the two lists.

Here’s a trailer:

There’s one actor who has been in Doctor Who, and one who was in a previous Oscar winner. The Doctor Who crossover is rather spectacular: it’s Emilia Jones, who plays CODA’s protagonist Ruby, and was also the child singer Merry in the 2013 Eleventh Doctor story The Rings of Akhaten.

The Oscar crossover actor is the rather less prominent Armen Garo, seen here on the left in CODA as Gio Salgado, the guy who runs the fish auction:

Fifteen years before, he was the unnamed First Providence Gangster in The Departed, on the right here with Leonardo DiCaprio on the left:

The film is about Ruby, the child of deaf adults (hence the title, CODA), who can hear, unlike her parents and older brother, who communicate with her through American Sign Language. They run a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which as it happened I visited with my family in 2005. Times are hard for the family and the fishing industry, and a new music teacher discovers that Ruby has an impressive talent for singing. She navigates her parents’ utter incomprehension, her feelings for the cute boy in the choir, her best friend’s romance with her brother and her own self-esteem in order to get to an audition for a top music school in Boston.

It’s beautifully filmed with the northeast Massachusetts sea, town, school and countryside all vividly depicted. (There are some great scenes with Ruby and the Cute Boy swimming together at an isolated lake.) The acting is absolutely top notch. I loved Marlee Matlin as pollster Joey Lucas in The West Wing (she was in at least one episode in every season, from 2000 to 2006) and I loved her here as Ruby’s mother. As mentioned previously, Troy Kotsur got an Oscar for playing her father.

And I have to be honest, the basic story of disability as a part of life that people live with and get on with, but also the effects that it has on a family, hit home very hard for me. The climax where Ruby sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (in the video above) had me in tears. The last Oscar-winner that did that to me, I think, was The Sound of Music, though Terms of Endearment and The King’s Speech came close. That doesn’t necessarily make it a great film objectively, but it does shoot it right to the top of my personal table, and I’m ranking it at 7th place out of 94, just below Schindler’s List and ahead of Rebecca,

This is the first Oscar winner specifically made as a remake of an existing film – though Marty was based on a previously broadcast teleplay, and My Fair Lady stands on the shoulders of the 1938 Pygmalion, tracking it shot for shot in some scenes. CODA is based on the 2014 Franco-Belgian film La Famille Bélier, which I also sat down and watched. Here’s a trailer.

It’s almost exactly the same story as CODA, with some changes which don’t affect the thrust of the plot. The Bélier family have a farm rather than a fishing boat. The deaf brother is younger rather than older than the protagonist. The music college is in Paris, not Boston. The dad decides to run for mayor rather than to challenge the vested interests of fishing. (I remember reading somewhere, a couple of decades ago, that out of every sixty adult French men, one on average then held a locally elected municipal office of some kind. That’s probably shifted a bit with population growth and better gender equality, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still in that ball park.)

We still have the protagonist forced to take on an adult role for her family’s business; we still have the cute boy singer in the choir, and the best friend’s romance with the deaf brother; we still have the hilarious scene in the doctor’s office, and the parents having loud sex while the protagonist’s friend is in the house; we still have the eccentric music teacher who spots the young girl’s talent; we still have the dramatic fade-out of the sound-track during the school concert so that we can appreciate the experience of the deaf parents; we still have the dramatic dénouement of the audition. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake, but it’s very much the same story, told somewhat differently.

La Famille Bélier is funnier than CODA, and it’s also sexier (the songs are much more explicit and there’s a totally hilarious scene involving a condom). The music is also, frankly, better. Here, the music teacher is obsessed with the work of singer-songwriter Michel Sardou, and makes the choir and the protagonist sing nothing else. This gives the soundtrack a musical unity that the American remake lacks, and makes the whole thing much more earwormy. In particular, Paula’s final song at her audition, Sardou’s “Je vole”, made me cry even more than Ruby’s “Both Sides Now” in the American version. It’s a song about suicide, but the film turns it into a hymn to emancipation. Stunning stuff from 17-year-old Louanne, whose real life was not without complications; her father had died the previous year, and her mother died while the film was being made.

Mes chers parents, je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant
Ce soir
Je ne m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien, je vole
Sans fumée, sans alcool
Je vole, je vole
My dear parents, I’m leaving
I love you but I’m leaving
You won’t have any children any more
This evening
I am not running away, I’m flying
Understand, I’m flying
No tobacco, no alcohol
I’m flying, I’m flying
Elle m’observait hier
Soucieuse, troublée, ma mère
Comme si elle le sentait
En fait elle se doutait, entendait
J’ai dit que j’étais bien
Tout à fait l’air serein
Elle a fait comme de rien
Et mon père démuni a souri
Ne pas se retourner
S’éloigner un peu plus
Il y a gare une autre gare
Et enfin l’Atlantique
My mother was watching me yesterday
Anxious, troubled
As if she felt it
In fact she suspected, heard me say
That I was fine
Looking quite serene
She acted like nothing
And my poor father smiled
Don’t look back
move away a bit more
There is another station
And finally the Atlantic
Mes chers parents, je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant
Ce soir
Je ne m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien, je vole
Sans fumée, sans alcool
Je vole, je vole
My dear parents, I’m leaving
I love you but I’m leaving
You won’t have any children any more
This evening
I am not running away, I’m flying
Understand, I’m flying
No tobacco, no alcohol
I’m flying, I’m flying
J’me demande sur ma route
Si mes parents se doutent
Que mes larmes ont coulé
Mes promesses et l’envie d’avancer
Seulement croire en ma vie
Tout ce qui m’est promis
Pourquoi, où et comment
Dans ce train qui s’éloigne
Chaque instant
I wonder on my way
If my parents suspect
That my tears have flowed
My promises and the desire to move forward
Just believe in my life
All that’s promised to me
Why, where and how
In this train that is moving away
Every moment
C’est bizarre cette cage
Qui me bloque la poitrine
Je ne peux plus respirer
Ça m’empêche de chanter
It’s very weird, this cage
Blocking my chest
Stopping my breath
Keeping me from singing
Mes chers parents, je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfant
Ce soir
Je ne m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien, je vole
Sans fumée, sans alcool
Je vole, je vole
My dear parents, I’m leaving
I love you but I’m leaving
You won’t have any children any more
This evening
I am not running away, I’m flying
Understand, I’m flying
No tobacco, no alcohol
I’m flying, I’m flying
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
Je vole, je vole
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la la
I’m flying, I’m flying

I loved La Famille Bélier, but CODA does score over it in a couple of important respects. The more important issue is that the supporting actors in CODA are genuinely deaf, whereas the French parents are played by hearing actors (the brother is genuinely deaf in both films). This is just really important for honest representation. We’ve come a long way from the second Oscar-winner, The Broadway Melody, where there was a character with a comic disability. (It’s currently at the very bottom of my league table of Oscar winners.) But we still need to give people their own voices.

The other point is that CODA is more politically on point. La Famille Bélier has a patronising mayor ultimately getting his just deserts at the hands of the voters, with Paula’s father as the agent of his downfall. CODA has the grim reality of late-stage capitalism dragging down the entire town and its industry, and the efforts of Ruby’s family to reverse the tide while also overcoming their own challenges. It’s played for real, rather than for laughs, and I think helps give it the edge as the better of the two films.

Only one Oscar-winner left: Everything Everywhere All At Once, which is also up for the Hugo this year.

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)

Amy Dillwyn: Nant Olchfa (but not Maggie Steele’s Diary)

Amy Dillwyn’s last novel for adults, Nant Olchfa, was published in The Red Dragon: The National Magazine of Wales in 1886 and 1887. I covered 1887 in my previous post; 1886 also saw the publication of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and The Bostonians by Henry James. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

There was a story that one day when Reginald was a lad at school he, for the first time, heard the saying, chacun pour soi. Not catching it quite correctly, he was presently heard repeating thoughtfully to himself: “chacun pour moi. That’s a ripping good motto to take! The worst of it is that perhaps some of the other fellows won’t see it. They are so beastly selfish.”

This is the shortest of Dillwyn’s novels, I think, and it’s a straightforward though rather dark family melodrama. Reginald will inherit the Nant Olchfa estate if his cousins David and Gladys die, or if he marries Gladys who has just got engaged to someone else. At David’s 21st birthday party, Reginald kills him and makes it look like an accident, and then sows sufficient discord between Gladys (another of Dillwyn’s teenage girls) and her fiancée to get them to break up. Reginald then pursues a path of carnage to try and get his way, and eventually meets his just doom horribly while trying to escape through a steel foundry. It’s not very deep but it is a rollicking good read, with lots of circumstantial detail of the Welsh countryside.

Nant Olchfa has never been reprinted since it appeared in nine successive issues of the Red Dragon magazine. However I have downloaded all of the component parts and stuck them together, and you can access the 151-page file here. It’s 18 MB I’m afraid. Some day I may run the whole thing through OCR and see if I can get it into a more convenient form.

I have not been able to get hold of Maggie Steele’s Diary, Amy Dillwyn’s last novel, published in 1892, though I have found a detailed review in The Spectator. (Since you asked, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle was also published in 1892.) It sounds like it was another upper-class family melodrama, with the interesting twist that Dillwyn kills off her protagonist in the end. (Though this is often the case with novels which are told in diary form.) I see that copyright libraries all have it, but I’m nowehere near any of them.

Amy Dillwyn’s novel-writing career lasted only from 1880 to 1892, though she lived for another four decades. In 1892, her father died while campaigning for his tenth term as MP for Swansea, and the house where she had lived all her life passed to cousins; all she got was the foundry for the zinc-lead alloy spelter that he father had founded. It turned out that the spelter works was deeply in debt, and Dillwyn devoted herself to turning it around and then running it as a profitable concern, eventually selling it to Metallgesellschaft AG. This must have absorbed all of her energy. She never had a full-time romantic partner, though her passionate friendships seem to have continued; as the years went on she got active in politics and civic life, and died six months after her ninetieth birthday. A fascinating figure, who we can still get to know through her writing.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter (a long ‘un):

All three siblings attended this luncheon, and David’s favorite moment was not the expressions on the children’s faces when they were greeted with the sight of their feast but, rather, the one they assumed when they stepped into the bank’s lobby. He understood their awe, for he never failed to experience it as well: the vast floor of silvery marble, polished to a shining finish; the Ionic columns, hewn from the same stone; the grand rotunda ceiling, inlaid with a gleaming mosaic pattern; the three murals that occupied the length of three whole walls, painted so high that one was all but forced into a supplicative posture to properly see them the first depicting his great-great-great-grandfather, Ezra, the war hero, distinguishing himself in the battle for independence from Britain; the second, his great-great-grandfather, Edmund, marching northward with some of his fellow Utopians from Virginia to New York to found what would become known as the Free States; the third, his great-grandfather, Hiram, whom he had never known, founding Bingham Brothers and being elected mayor of New York. In the background of all the panels, rendered in browns and grays, were moments from his family’s and country’s history alike: the Siege of Yorktown, where Ezra had fought, his wife and young sons at home in Charlottesville; Edmund marrying his husband, Mark, and the first wars with the Colonies, which the Free States would win, but at great human and financial cost; Hiram and his two brothers, David and John, as young men, unaware that of the three of them, only Hiram, the youngest, would live into his forties, and that only he would produce an heir—his son, Nathaniel, David’s grandfather. At the bottom of each panel was a mounted marble plaque carved with a single word—Civility; Humility; Humanity—which, along with the phrase on the bank’s crest, was the Bingham family’s motto. The fourth panel, the one over the grand front doors, which opened onto Wall Street, was empty, a smooth blank expanse, and it was here that David’s grandfather’s accomplishments would one day be recorded: how he had grown Bingham Brothers into the wealthiest financial institution in not only the Free States but also America; how, until he had helped America fund its fight in the War of Rebellion and secured his country’s autonomy, he had successfully protected the Free States’ existence against every attempt to dismantle it and dissolve the rights of its citizenry; how he paid for the resettlement of free Negroes who had entered the Free States, helping them establish new lives for themselves in the North or the West, as well as escapees from the Colonies. True, Bingham Brothers was no longer the only or, some might argue, the most powerful institution in the Free States, especially with the recent flourishing of the arriviste Jewish banks that had begun to establish themselves in the city, but it was, all would agree, still the most influential, the most prestigious, the most renowned. Unlike the newcomers, David’s grandfather liked to say, Bingham did not confuse ambition for greed, or cleverness for wiliness—its responsibility was as much to the States themselves as to the people it served. “The Great Mister Bingham)” the journals called Nathaniel, occasionally mockingly, as when he attempted to initiate one of his more ambitious projects—such as his proposal, a decade ago, to advance universal suffrage throughout America as well—but mostly sincerely, for David’s grandfather was, indisputably, a great man, someone whose deeds and visage deserved to be painted on plaster, the artist swinging perilously on a rope-and-wood seat high above the stone floor, trying not to look down as he stroked his brush, glossy with paint, over the surface.

Three sections, set in an alternative 1893 and 1993 and a future 2093 based on the previous two. Passionate on sexuality and the history of Hawaii. Last part was less convincing for me. You can get it here.

July 2022 books

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

We’re up to only a year ago now, a month which started for me in Sofia, Bulgaria:

At work we celebrated the resignation of Boris Johnson with a kayak trip (well, actually the trip was already planned):

I found myself in Paris on the hottest day of the year, and one of 1000 people in the Gare du Nord at 40 degree temperatures.

We finished the month with a lovely trip to the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.

And voting finished in the Hugo awards.

I read only 20 books that month:

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

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

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

It was great to revisit Midnight’s Children, which you can get here, and Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo, which you can get here. Also good to encounter the two Black Archives on Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, which you can get here and here. But I bounced off the leaden prose of Guy Erma and the Sons of Empire; you can get it here.

Amy Dillwyn: Jill, and Jill and Jack

Two more of my distant cousin Amy Dillwyn’s novels today, a natural pairing.

Jill is in my view the best of Amy Dillwyn’s seven novels (or at least of the six that I have read). It was published in 1884, the same year as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

We were making a tour through Holland and Friesland, and, when at Amsterdam, happened to make acquaintance with a Mrs. Grove, a widow, accompanied by two daughters, who were respectively two and three years older than me. I did not take to her at all, and thought she seemed a flattering, lying, pushing, cringing, vulgar individual; but having carelessly thought that much of her, I dismissed her from my mind as a person with whom I had nothing to do, and whose character was quite immaterial to me – little thinking what a bête noire she was to prove to me afterwards!

Gilbertina Trecastle, known as Jill, flees her abusive stepmother and stepsisters and disguises herself as a lady’s maid in order to get close to the woman she loves. She has numerous adventures, including burning the whiskers off an amorous valet, a hilarious but unsuccessful stint as a dog-walker, and getting locked up in a Corsican charnel-house with the object of her affections. She is cheerfully amoral and doesn’t let herself get ground down by adverse circumstances. It would make a great TV mini-series – the story is pretty episodic, and well-told. I found the (electronic) pages turning really quickly. I hope someone recommends it to Russell T. Davies.

There was one plot point that I found legally questionable: at the end, Jill is financially redeemed because her father forgot to change his will when marrying her stepmother. I know that under current British law, a will is invalidated upon a later marriage, and I’d be a bit surprised if that wasn’t already the case in 1884.

This is the third and last of Dillwyn’s novels republished by Honno Welsh Women’s Classics, and you can get it here. The introduction is by Kirsti Bohata, who is the current queen of Dillwyn studies.

Jill and Jack, the sequel, came out in 1887, the same year as A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, and Allan Quatermain and She by H. Rider Haggard. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

For a right comprehension of Lady Wroughton’s attitude it must be explained that she was quite incapable of having set her heart as she had done on the match if she had not really entertained a sufficiently good opinion of the proposed bride to justify this conduct; and that she was not one of those heartless , unscrupulous mothers who care only for worldly advantages , and could be so destitute of right feeling and true regard for a son’s happiness as to have desired him to marry any one whom she thought seriously objectionable. On the contrary, such a marriage would have been abhorrent to her; and she did really and honestly believe Miss Trecastle to be a person possessing merits enough to render her likable and estimable, and worthy the high honour of becoming the wife of Sir John.

Here Jill and her friend, Sir John Wroughton (an eligible young baronet), get together to rescue a friend who is being victimised by her guardians in house nearby both of theirs. There are frightful threats, intricate knowledge of local train timetables, and a daring rescue mission with one of the villains plunging to an awful doom. It’s non-stop melodrama and very entertaining if not quite up to the level of Jill on her own. Meanwhile Sir John’s mother, who starts by thinking of Jill as excellent daughter-in-law material, finds out what she got up to in the previous book and changes her mind; but it’s okay, as Sir John’s own views change in the opposite direction, and there is a happy ending all round. It would make a decent single episode of the Russell T. Davies mini-series, or maybe a two-parter.

Jill and Jack isn’t in print, but you can get the two volumes from Google Books, here and here.

Amy Dillwyn: Chloe Arguelle, and A Burglary

Chloe Arguelle was Amy Dillwyn’s second novel, published in 1881 – the same year as The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

To turn against all humbugs would be out of the question; for in that case she would have to begin at Alice, who was false and superficial, quite as a matter of course, and evidently never had a qualm as to the scores of untruths which she uttered or otherwise expressed daily. Yet though Chloe saw that clearly enough, she knew also that Alice was good and kind, and like a mother to her; and Chloe’s affections were closely entwined round this only near relation that she possessed, and she could not believe it possible for her to do any great wrong. Certainly matters seemed very confusing when one came to think about them seriously, and it was very hard to settle whether to go in for honesty or for conventionalism – in other words — unblushing lying !

Like a lot of Dillwyn’s heroines, Chloe Arguelle is only seventeen but already making the big decisions of womanhood, ie who to marry. She moves in a society of adults whose behaviour is generalised as “humbug” by the omniscient narrator. I found one of them particularly interesting, Lady Jane Dorville, whose behaviour is not all that different from what is reported of the author herself in later life:

Lady Jane has blunt, straightforward, masculine manners… Her assumed manliness is merely put on, and very far from being her real self. She had from childhood greatly desired to excel in some way or other, without caring much what the way might be; but she knew herself to be neither beautiful, accomplished, nor clever enough to have a chance of distinction against other competitors in either of those lines, and was therefore puzzled as to how she could gratify her ambition, until it at last occurred to her that she might go in for being more independent and masculine than any other woman, and never allow herself to be outdone in that direction.

Accordingly she took to wear her hair short, to smoke, hunt, shoot, swear, bet, and generally comport herself in as manly a manner as it is possible for a lady to do.. She has no intention of giving up the role which she has thus far found successful, and wherein she has yet met no one to outstrip her; but it is not at all really congenial to her, and to keep it up often costs her a good deal.

It’s a good character description, which doesn’t quite land right. Lady Jane actually secretly hates acting masculine, just as a number of the other characters are acting against their own real inclinations – there’s also an Irish aristocrat who dumps his impoverished girlfriend for a rich widow, which has eerie resonances in the author’s own family.

The most vicious caricature is Chloe’s brother-in-law, Sir Cadwallader Gough, a particularly stupid Liberal MP. We must bear in mind that the author’s father had been the Liberal MP for Swansea since 1855 (and died suddenly in the run-up to defending his seat in the 1892 election). I really hope that he was in on the joke.

“A little more a — a — experience will convince you, Chloe — I may say a — a — conclusively convince you — how impossible it is for every person to attempt individuality. Look for instance at myself — one of the members of the supreme Parliament, one of those a — a — chosen men to whom the whole country looks for guidance, a — a — legislation, and wisdom ; do even I venture to adopt the a — a — pernicious course that you advocate. Emphatically not! Notwithstanding that I have been called to belong to that most a — a — important and influential body, the House of Commons, and notwithstanding the heavy weight a — a — of responsibility inseparable from that position which weighs upon me, yet my a — a — distinguished position has not blinded me to the great truth that without a — a — union there can be no strength ; and consequently, whatever question may arise, I invariably sink my own individual fancies and opinions in regard to it, and a — a — vote with the party to which I belong. And if this is the course which a man of my well-ripened, practised, and a — a — matured judgment sees the necessity
of pursuing, then surely there can be no hardship in a — a — deeming it the only safe one for women, and a — a — other men of lesser calibre…”

Sir Cadwallader is humiliated by the local poachers, though not as drastically as the squire in The Rebecca Rioter, and we readers cheer for the insurgent peasants.

Chloe meanwhile rejects the obviously suitable young man who likes her; her best friend decides that she may as well go for him in that case, and they get engaged; Chloe realises that she actually really likes the chap, and spends a chapter or two agonising about having left it too late. Meanwhile her best friend’s father has foolishly annoyed his butler, to the point that the butler grabs a gun and shoots both father and daughter dead (Dillwyn often resorts to melodramatic denouement to resolve her plots). So once a decent interval has passed after the double murder, the young man and Chloe get married after all and there is a happy ending.

Like The Rebecca Rioter, this was published in Russian almost as soon as in English, but I really wonder what the Russian readers would have made of it; this is not exactly Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. The Spectator commented that the melodrama was more successful than the satire, but to me they are roughly equally flawed.

Chloe Arguelle isn’t in print, but you can get it from the Internet Archive in two volumes, here and here.

A Burglary, or, Unconscious Influence, was Dillwyn’s third novel, published in 1883, the same year as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson and Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

There was an imposing procession, a ceremony, military escorts, bands, a public luncheon, toasts, flags, bell-ringing, firing of guns, singing, illuminations, fireworks and enthusiasm. All classes with any claim to consideration, were represented at the function lords, commons, clergy, soldiers, sailors, volunteers, dissenters, railway directors, friendly societies, and tradespeople. Immense efforts had been made to secure the presence of as many notables and school children as possible the former to make speeches, be gazed at, and regaled upon salmon, chickens, pineapples, champagne, and similar delicacies; and the latter to swell monster choruses in the open air, and enjoy the magnificent feast of one plum-bun apiece. Some magnates of very first-rate importance, indeed, had been induced to attend from a distance, and all local grandees were present as a matter of course. Wealth in every shape and form was conspicuous in all the best places, whilst poverty was graciously permitted to stand and stare wherever the police thought it would not be in the way of its betters; and might further look forward to the high privilege of sharing with them in bearing the burden of additional taxation, which would fall upon all ratepayers as a necessary consequence of the costly decorations and entertainments in which the town thought fit to indulge.

This time, rather than juggle a large number of characters, Dillwyn has a basic triangle of her teenage protagonist, Imogen Rhys; the chap she probably likes more, Sir Charles Dover (a young baronet, not the only one in Dillwyn’s works); and the chap who really wants her to like him more, William Sylvester. We know, but none of the other characters do, that the impoverished Sylvester has committed a heinous crime by stealing the jewels of a family friend staying at the Rhys’s house in Wales – the burglary of the title. To make things more complicated, Imogen has a deep romantic crush on Ethel, the victim of the theft, depicted as an entirely normal part of the spectrum of emotional experience.

Imogen, who is tomboyish and headstrong, gets stuck into the defence of the local Welshman who is unjustly accused of the crime, much to the consternation of her family. She gets the innocent man acquitted, and must then deal with the competing calls on her affection. Meanwhile Sylvester undergoes agonies of conscience which are sympathetically portrayed.

Then Dillwyn’s love of melodrama strikes again, and just as Ethel, who has put two and two together, is about to reveal to Imogen that Sylvester was the thief, an accidental fire devastates the London social gathering that they are all attending. The fire seems to take up a large number of pages, and by the time it is over, Sylvester is safely dead and the others alive if crispy. It’s a little more gracefully executed than in the previous book, and of course Imogen and Sir Charles end up together.

You slightly wish that Imogen had found a way of getting together with Ethel rather than with Sir Charles, and you wonder why Ethel restrains herself from exposing Sylvester. But the story is told in a leisurely fashion, without the previous sense of hurry. It feels a bit more under control than Chloe Arguelle.

This was the one book by Amy Dillwyn that I could not find in electronic format. You can get a paper copy, published by Honno Welsh Women’s Classics, with a foreword by Alison Favre, here.

The Transfer Problem by Adam Saint (brief note)

Second paragraph of thid chapter:

The Aerodrome was only accessible down a winding country lane marked by an apologetically drooping road sign appearing to point into the bowels of the earth. It was so incongruously ugly, so ashamed of its architectural shortcomings compared with its bucolic surroundings, that it was inescapably quaint and was regarded by the local inhabitants with a proprietorial affection, especially the pork pies served at the airport cafe. Even the angry buzzing of the aircraft every five minutes as they took off and landed only served as a natural counterpoint to the harmonious sounds of the country: birdsong, chattering of insects, the occasional diesel belch of a tractor negotiating the winding roads.

Failed to grab me and I put it down after 50 pages. You can get it here.

Amy Dillwyn: biography and The Rebecca Rioter

I’m going to blog this week about my third cousin once removed, Amy Dillwyn, who lived from 1845 to 1935 in Wales, and wrote seven novels in the 1880s, six of which I have been able to obtain and read. She has been reclaimed in recent years as a Welsh lesbian feminist writer, who inherited a failing metal foundry from her father and turned it around; she was a suffragist who stood unsuccessfully for election; she famously wore men’s clothes and smoked cigars. Her father was a Liberal MP. Her grandmother was born a Whyte, but died before Amy was born, after a scandalous life. I am in touch with a couple of collateral relatives on her side of the family.

The only book-length publication about her dates from 1987, updated in 2013, by David Painting of Swansea University (who died in 2021). The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

That she saw so much was more of a tribute to her acute intelligence than her eyesight, because she was not wearing her glasses which she felt would have detracted from the dignity of the occasion until she noticed that another woman from Wales, the famous bluestocking Lady Charlotte Schreiber, ‘wore her spectacles all through everything at the drawing-room which struck me as being rather an idea for there were heaps of short-sighted people there’. The day after letting Minnie have all her news of the presentation there was yet more famous jewellery to be seen, this time at Garrards where they were displaying the Prince of Wales’s wedding presents to Princess Alexandra, and again Amy’s critical faculty came into its own. ‘It is a magnificent diamond and pearl necklace and two handsome brooches of diamonds in the form of the Prince of Wales plume. But I was not much struck by the guard ring – beryl, emeralds, ruby, turquoise and jacinth, nor yet by the lockets for the bridesmaids – pink coral and diamonds.’

It’s pretty short – only 120 pages – and basically takes us through the events of Dillwyn’s life, drawing largely on her own accounts. Painting soft-pedals the subversive parts of the story – Dillwyn’s love for Olive Talbot and her firm Welshness – but he allows her voice to ring out, and doesn’t get in the way of the story that his subject wants to tell us from a century or so ago. I hope that Dillwyn’s next biographer will look a bit more into the stories she didn’t tell through her correspondence and diaries. It’s a good start, though, and you can get it here.

Dillwyn’s first novel, The Rebecca Rioter, was published in 1880 – the same year as The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Then the stories Miss Gwenllian read me were wonderful too. They were not all about good children who get rich and become lords and ladies, and bad children who come to a bad end; but they were stories of people who travelled about, and had adventures, and fought with lions, and bears, and wolves, and snakes; or else they were stories about fairies who could do whatever they liked with wands that they always carried in their hands – something like Moses’s rod, I used to think.

The Rebecca Rioter is the only one of her books not set in the present day (ie the 1880s); instead it tells the story of an episode of revolutionary unrest in her part of Wales in 1843, two years before she was born, in which agricultural workers and small farmers joined together to destroy the toll-booths which controlled access to the roads. Crucially, the insurgents became known as the Rebecca Rioters because they disguised themselves by dressing up in women’s clothes before mounting their attacks on state property.

Her account is told in the first person by Evan Williams, one of the rioters, and is totally sympathetic to them and their cause, though a bit tainted by the charming condescension of the local squire’s daughter (and stand-in for the author), Gwenllian, who takes our hero on as a special project and then (implausibly) successfully pleads for his life after he unintentionally shoots her father dead. He gets transported to Australia, and the narrative is presented as a dying account to the local doctor there, who sends it home to Wales.

I must say that I found it refreshingly robust in its defence of uprising against the tyranny of London, and it’s interesting that it was translated into Russian almost as soon as it had been published in English. Dillwyn’s sources included her own father’s diary account of managing the authorities’ violent suppression of the rioters, so the fact that she takes the other side is even more interesting. The 2001 Honno Welsh Women’s Classics edition has a thoughtful and analytical introduction by Katie Gramich; you can get it here.

Tomorrow I will look at two more of Dillwyn’s novels.

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The offices for KPS the name of the organization on the card Tom gave me were on Thirty-seventh, in the same building as the Costa Rican consulate, on the fifth floor. The office apparently shared a waiting room with a small medical practice. I had been in the waiting room for less than a minute when Avella came to get me to take me to her personal office. There was no one else in the KPS office. I guess they, like most everyone else, were working from home.

Very readable and engaging story which I read to the end, a parallel universe with Godzillas; but as usual with Scalzi, all of the characters sound exactly the same (and indeed exactly like Scalzi himself in real life) and the social commentary is paper thin. You can get it here.

Sunday reading

Tofu Brains: Life on Zeeta 21, by Lars Koch
One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, by S.E. Gillingham
There Will Be War Volume X, ed. Jerry Pournelle
Doctor Who – The Awakening, by Eric Pringle

Last books finished
Nant Olchfa, by Amy Dillwyn
Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, by Terrance Dicks
Drawing Boundaries, eds John C. Courtney, Peter MacKinnon and David E. Smith (did not finish)
The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
The Deadly Assassin, by Andrew Orton
Murder on the Links, by Agatha Christie
Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Next books
The Awakening, by David Evans-Powell
Representatives of the People?: Parliamentarians and Constituents in Modern Democracies, by Vernon Bogdanor
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden

Doctor Who rated on the Internet Movie Database, part 2: best-rated episodes

As with yesterday’s post, I’m trying to derive some meaning from the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings of Doctor Who episodes. Here, for your edification and delight, are the top-rated episodes from each of the incarnations of the show. (Based on these statistics.)

The twentieth episode of the Australian K9 spinoff series, 2010’s Taphony and the Time Loop, has a better rating, at 5.7, than any of the other twenty-five K9 episodes, but that is still lower than any episodes of the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors, or of any of the other spinoffs. I agree that it’s probably the best of the undistinguished run of the Aussie show, with an escaped Time Being in the shape of a cute girl (Taphony, played by Maia Mitchell) draining the essence of the regular cute girl character (Jorjie, played by Philippa Coulthard) and K-9 sorting it all out. It’s still not particularly good, though; I rewatched it last week for this post and I think it deserves a little better than 5.7. Maybe 5.8.

The metal mutt takes both of the bottom places in this list, in fact, with A Girl’s Best Friend, the only episode ever made of the unsuccessful 1981 spinoff K-9 and Company, scoring a lowly 6.1 with IMDB users. This brought back both Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and John Leeson as the voice of K9, but had a very silly plot involving pagan cultists in the English countryside – not natural Who territory, and a story that has been told much better before and since by others. Sarah Jane, of course, also went on to have her own much more successful spinoff.

The second and final episode of 1985’s Revelation of the Daleks is the top-rated Sixth Doctor story at 7.7 (and the first episode of the story is in second place at 7.6). I agree that this is the one story where the Six/Peri pairing comes together, partly because they’re not actually in the story all that much. If you can overlook the huge plot flaw of Davros feeding the entire galaxy with the corpses of a few rich people, it’s very well done, with various different factions of characters motivated for different reasons.

Village of the Angels, the fourth of the six-part Flux storyline, is the top-rated Thirteenth Doctor episode. I am among the many who found this series difficult to follow, but this was a good instalment, with many murky and dramatic goings-on in the Village, culminating with the Doctor herself being transformed into a Weeping Angel. IMDB users rate it at 7.8, which again seems a bit mean.

The top-rated episode of short-lived 2016 spinoff Class is its finale, The Lost, ranked at 8.1 and ending with a massive battle between the Coal Hill Academy kids who have been charged with the defence of Planet Earth and the alien Shadowkin. Alliances and friendships are forged and broken and several significant characters are (apparently) killed off. We are left with a massive cliff-hanger regarding the new nature of regular girl April, which presumably would have been resolved had the BBC commissioned a second series. It’s a shame that they didn’t. I couldn’t recommend watching this on its own, but there are only eight episodes altogether, so you might as well watch them all. I was myself rather disappointed by this episode; my own favourite of the eight is the third, Night Visiting.

The top-rated surviving First Doctor episode, broadcast the day after Christmas Day in 1964, saw the first ever departure of one of the regular characters in Flashpoint, rated 8.3 by IMDB users, the last of the six-part story that we now call The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, falls in love with a Scottish resistance fighter against the Daleks who bears an uncanny resemblance to David Tennant (six years before David Tennant was born), and is left behind on Earth to build a new life, Hartnell delivering one of his great set-piece speeches in farewell. Actually my own favourite episode of this story is the third, Day of Reckoning, which features a desperate scramble across a deserted London. But I won’t fight (much) with those who prefer this one.

The top-rated Seventh Doctor episode is the second of the opener to his second season, Remembrance of the Daleks, at 8.5. It took me a while to warm to this story, but I have come around to its good points. I still prefer the middle two stories from the final season of Old Who, Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric, but there are a couple of great set-pieces in this episode, with the Doctor retrieving the Hand of Omega from a London gravesite in 1963, and Ace menaced by Daleks.

The top-rated Third Doctor episode, also at 8.5, is the second last of his 1970 debut season, the sixth of the seven parts of Inferno. The story concerns a dangerous experiment to drill into the Earth’s crust; for several of the episodes, the Doctor is transported to a parallel Earth where his friends are all fascists and the experiment is further advanced. In the sixth episode, despite the Doctor’s efforts, the parallel Earth begins to disintegrate and he escapes back to our timeline. It’s dramatic doomed stuff, and I think I’m with the IMDB voters here.

I’m surprised to see a lost episode outpolling all of the surviving First Doctor episodes, but it’s a good one. My favourite Hartnell story is the thirteen-part epic that we now (mostly) call The Daleks’ Master Plan. Only three episodes survive, and they do not include the finale, Destruction of Time, in which the Doctor activates the Time Destructor in order to defeat the Daleks by aging them into oblivion, but loses his own companion Sarah Kingdom in the process. IMDB voters rank it at 8.5, which I think I can agree with. You’ll appreciate it more after experiencing the previous twelve parts of the story.

I think that the best single story of the Sarah Jane Adventures is Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane Smith? from the 2007 first series, in which she is replaced in her life history by the ambiguous Andrea, played by Jane Asher. IMDB users rate its two episodes third and fourth at 8.6, but rank two other episodes with visiting guest stars from the parent show just a bit higher at 8.7: in second place, the second part of 2010’s Death of the Doctor, with Matt Smith (and Katy Manning), and at the top, the second part of The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, for which David Tennant did his last filming in his first run as the show’s regular star in 2009. Sarah has been yanked into a prison dimension through a fake wedding with a rotter played by Nigel Havers and the Doctor turns up to save her with her friends. Great stuff.

There’s a fairly strong fan consensus that the Fifth Doctor’s final story, The Caves of Androzani, is also his best, and IMDB voters also subscribe to that view; its four episodes hold four of the top five Fifth Doctor spots in the system (the other going to the last episode of Earthshock). And the best of the four, according to IMDB where it is rated 8.8, and also frankly in my own opinion, is the last, where desperate people fight over dwindling resources and lives are brutally and dramatically ended, including the Doctor’s own. Poor Peri doesn’t get much to say except at the end, but it’s her second appearance in this list.

While I’m not surprised that the Eighth Doctor’s unexpected 2013 return in Night of the Doctor rates higher then The Movie, I am surprised that it rates as high as 9.0 on IMDB. It’s less than seven minutes long, and I feel that fannish enthusiasm at the time of the fiftieth anniversary has not yet been tempered by sober reflection.

In general I’ve been concentrating on the top-rated single episodes for each case, but for the Ninth Doctor’s 2005 series, the top two episodes, rated 9.0, are a two-part story, The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, which also incidentally won the Hugo Award that year. This is the one introducing Captain Jack Harkness, set in WW2 London, famously featuring the gasmask zombie child asking “Are you my mummy?” My own favourite Ninth Doctor story is Dalek, but I’m clearly not with the majority. The second part, The Doctor Dances, is a hair above the first part on IMDB.

My own favourite Second Doctor episode is the completely bonkers opening to The Mind Robber, but IMDB voters disagree. Their top-ranked episode of the black-and-white era is also the very last: the tenth episode of epic 1969 story The War Games, rated 9.1. Having invoked his own people, the Time Lords, to defeat an alien mastermind’s evil plans, the Doctor himself is put on trial for interference in cosmic affairs, and sentenced to exile on Earth, his companions sent home with their memories wiped. The final shots, as he howls in protest at the Time Lords changing his face, are among the bleakest of the whole of Doctor Who (cf above mentions of The Daleks’ Master Plan and Earthshock).

My favourite story of Old Who is the Fourth Doctor’s The Deadly Assassin, from 1976. But I find it difficult to argue with the verdict of IMDB users that the best single episode of Old Who, rated 9.1, is the sixth and final part of 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, in which their crazed creator Davros loses control of the malevolent pepperpots. (It’s their fifth appearance on this list.) There are many beautiful moments here, including Davros’s large button marked “TOTAL DESTRUCT” which lurks like Chekhov’s gun.

The spinoff shows have had a mixed success rate here, but Children of Earth, the third series of Torchwood (co-starring Peter Capaldi as a harassed senior British government official), is in a league of its own, its five episodes ranked between 8.7 and 9.2, all of them higher than any First, Third, Sixth, Seventh or Thirteenth Doctor stories. The top-ranked episode is the fourth, which features the growing evidence of Jack’s involvement with the alien threat to the world’s children, and famously ends with the demise of the much-loved Ianto, and I think I’d support that choice, though maybe not put it as high as 9.2.

We’re getting near the end here. I totally agree with the final three verdicts by IMDB voters. Their top-ranked Eleventh Doctor story, at 9.3, is Vincent and the Doctor, with its intense portrayal of artistic genius and mental illness, leavened by an alien incursion. I was surprised that the 2010 season closer, The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang, won the Hugo that year; the verdict of history, I think, is with Vincent.

The top-rated Thirteenth Doctor episode, 2015’s Heaven Sent at 9.6, is again my favourite from the era, with the Doctor, newly bereaved of Clara, trapped in a mysterious castle where he must recapitulate a cycle of death and renewal, over and over. I think it’s tremendous, though very different from the norm.

And finally, my favourite Doctor Who episode of all time, and also well clear at the top of IMDB’s rankings, is the Hugo-winning 2007 Tenth Doctor story Blink, which introduced the Weeping Angels and communicated much of its plot through DVD Easter eggs. I loved it on first broadcast and I still love it now. IMDB voters give it a massive 9.8 out of 10. It also won the Hugo Award. Although it barely has the Doctor and Martha in it, I think you could safely show it to someone who had never seen Doctor Who before, and who wondered if they would like the show; it would be a valid litmus test.

Steven Moffat wrote four of the above (Night of the Doctor, The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, Heaven Sent and Blink) and Terry Nation is credited with two (Genesis of the Daleks and Flashpoint, though there are varying reports of the real extent of his input). Graeme Harper, David Moloney and Douglas Camfield are each credited with directing two of them (Harper: Revelation of the Daleks and The Caves of Androzani; Moloney: The War Games and Genesis of the Daleks; Camfield: Destruction of Time and Inferno, though in fact he was too ill to direct episode 6 of the latter).

I am a little surprised that the greatest Old Who writer Robert Holmes appears in both the “best” and “worst” lists, for The Caves of Androzani and The Space Pirates respectively. As previously noted, I think The Space Pirates is underrated. Director Andrew Morgan did only two Doctor Who stories, but one of them is on each list, Remembrance of the Daleks here and Time and the Rani yesterday.

To round off the post, the average ratings for each Doctor and spinoff show:

10th Doctor: 8.04 (highest 9.8, lowest 5.9)
9th Doctor 7.93 (highest 9.0, lowest 6.9)
11th Doctor: 7.81 (highest 9.3, lowest 6.7)
12th Doctor: 7.80 (highest 9.6, lowest 5.8)
Torchwood 7.72 (highest 9.2, lowest 6.2)
8th Doctor 7.65 (higher 9.0, lower 6.3)
Sarah Jane Adventures 7.56 (highest 8.7, lowest 6.7)
4th Doctor 7.55 (highest 9.1, lowest 5.8)
3rd Doctor 7.47 (highest 8.5, lowest 6.4)
Class 7.46 (highest 8.1, lowest 6.9)
2nd Doctor 7.36 (highest 9.1, lowest 4.9)
5th Doctor 7.12 (highest 8.8, lowest 5.9)
1st Doctor 7.05 (highest 8.5, lowest 5.6)
7th Doctor 6.94 (highest 8.5, lowest 5.3)
6th Doctor 6.72 (highest 7.7, lowest 5.3)
13th Doctor 6.25 (highest 7.8, lowest 4.2)
K9 and Company 6.1
[Australian] K9 4.87 (highest 5.7, lowest 4.1)

If you have been, thank you for reading this.

Doctor Who rated on the Internet Movie Database, part 1: worst-rated episodes

I’m perhaps a little more obsessed than I should be with extracting meaning from the Internet Movie Database. Thinking about the question of what to show (and what not to show) a friend who doesn’t know much about Doctor Who, I wondered if the user rankings for individual episodes might shed any light? Well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t.

This is in no way meant to be competition for the ruthless ongoing vote run by @Heraldofcreatio on Twitter, in which The People vote on paired Doctor Who stories to decide which is better and which worse. But I encourage those of you on Twitter to participate.

So, which are the worst-rated episodes for each Doctor and Whoniverse spinoff series, as voted by IMDB users? I have compiled the numbers.

The Doctor with the highest rated worst episode, if you see what I mean, is Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, who graced our screens in 2005. Aliens of London, the one with the spaceship crashing into Big Ben and farting monsters, scores 6.9 from IMDB users. It actually includes the first scene ever filmed for New Who, where Eccleston’s Doctor, and Naoko Mori as Dr Sato (later to return in Torchwood), inspect the alien pig.

You may have missed Class, the 2016 spinoff about some kids at Coal Hill School who are charged by the Doctor with defending the Earth. (One of the kids is in fact an alien prince, and one of the teachers is his secret and reluctant bodyguard.) The worst-ranked episode, Brave-ish Heart, also at 6.9, is the second of a two-part story which sees two of the kids sucked into another dimension while the others fight off an invasion of carnivorous petals and an alien who has taken over the school’s board of governors. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but the unearthly dimension is a bit naff.

The worst-ranked episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures, at 6.7, is the second of the sadly truncated 2011 final season, the closing half of a two-parter named Sky, after the new regular character who it introduces. Sinead Michael, playing the new girl, was only twelve years old when the episode was filmed, making her the youngest actor ever to play a regular character in the Whoniverse. The story sees her transformed from a living planet-busting bomb to a human girl, and Sarah adopts her at the end. Again, nothing terribly wrong with it, but a slightly awkward introduction of a new character. (I should note also that I’m not counting the 2009 Comic Relief Special with Ronnie Corbett and more fart jokes, which scores only 6.1.)

I remember watching the worst-rated Eleventh Doctor story, The Curse of the Black Spot, after a full day at the BBC studios in Belfast where I had been covering the 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly election. IMDB users give it a rating of 6.7, but I rather enjoyed it, a tale of swashbuckling nonsense aboard a pirate ship that isn’t what it seems. I may have been tired and my critical faculties dulled. But I think there were a couple of worse Eleventh Doctor episodes. (IMDB also rates a factual minisode about the making of a different Eleventh Doctor story a hair below The Curse of the Black Spot, but I’m not including it here.)

On the other hand, I think that IMDB voters have it about right in their disdain for the third episode of the 1972 Third Doctor story, The Time Monster, rated at an average of 6.4. The story in general is a pretty silly tale of the Master attempting to Conquer The World by linking up with the mystic powers of ancient Atlantis, and this is the silliest episode of the six, culminating in Pertwee’s Doctor constructing an anti-timewarping device from a corkscrew, while he and the rest of the cast struggle to keep their faces straight.

There are only two televised Eighth Doctor stories, made 17 years apart, and they are very different kettles of fish. The lower-rated of the two, at 6.3, is The (1996) Movie, which saw Sylvester McCoy regenerate into Paul McGann and get involved with a plot to thwart another attempt by the Master to Conquer The World and incidentally steal the Doctor’s remaining lives and the TARDIS. I think it is enjoying a bit of a renaissance among fannish opinion at the moment, but its overall rating remains perhaps unfairly low.

The worst-rated episode of Torchwood is Cyberwoman, from the 2006 first series, at 6.2, in which it turns out that Torchwood crew member Ianto has been keeping his semi-cyberised girlfriend in the cellar without anyone noticing. She wakes up and goes on the rampage, and comes to a nasty end, clearing the way for Ianto’s subsequent romance with Jack. The episode is mainly memorable for Caroline Chikezie’s costume as the Cyberwoman. I must say that I personally enjoyed it, but many others didn’t.

(K-9 and Company: A Girl’s Best Friend, fits here at 6.1, but I’ll cover it tomorrow.)

The Tenth Doctor may be the favourite of the masses, but that doesn’t go for all of his stories. Fear Her is set around the opening of the 2012 Olympics, six years in the future when the story was shown in 2006, and rates 5.9 on IMDB; it features the Doctor being transformed into a child’s squiggly drawing, and just generally looks a bit low budget. However I feel it’s underrated here, and Nina Sosanya is especially good as the kid’s mother.

However, the worst-rated Fifth Doctor episode is one that I remember watching with crashing disappointment when it was first broadcast in 1982. Season 19 of Old Who, Peter Davison’s first, ended with a story called Time-Flight in which the Doctor’s old adversary, the Master, attempts to entrap him with a time-travelling Concorde aircraft. The plot made little sense and the director made little effort. At the end of the story, loyal and long-suffering companion Tegan is casually left behind (though retrieved in the first story of the next season). The fourth and final episode is rated 5.9.

For my money the worst Twelfth Doctor story is the ridiculous Kill the Moon in which it turns out that the large ball of rock orbiting the Earth is actually an alien dragon’s egg. IMDB users disagree. The worst rated Twelfth Doctor episode, at 5.8, is the 2015 story Sleep No More, which I couldn’t remember much about and rewatched for this post. The Doctor and Clara get involved with investigating the apparently abandoned Le Verrier space station; the story is told in documentary form, narrated by the guy who set the station up. It’s a different format but I found it effective enough, not especially memorable but not awful either.

The worst-rated Fourth Doctor episode is another that I watched on first broadcast with feelings of disappointment and almost of betrayal. After the glory years of Robert Holmes as script editor, the arrival of his successor coincided with a funding crunch, and the 1978 story Underworld, though ambitiously riffing off both Greek mythology and Time Lord lore, ends up being remarkable for its cheap-looking special effects, and I agree with IMDB voters that the third episode, also rated 5.8, is probably the least impressive of an unimpressive quartet.

The worst rated surviving episode from the Second Doctor era, at 5.7, is rated ahead of several lost episodes from the black and white era, but I am listing it anyway. It’s from 1969, the second episode of The Space Pirates, an ambitious attempt at space opera written by Robert Holmes, the greatest of Old Who script writers. I tend to think that this (and the whole story) would be in better regard if more of it had survived, though I’ll admit that it probably didn’t quite hit the mark even in 1969. Again there’s a notable female costume, this time Lisa Daniely’s hairdo as mining magnate Madeleine.

The lowest-rated surviving episode of the black-and-white era is from 1964, when individual stories did not have specific names, but each episode had its own individual title; it’s The Centre, the sixth and final part of the First Doctor story that we now call The Web Planet. As with The Space Pirates, it’s an ambitious story which doesn’t quite meet the mark of today’s production values, this time with insectoid alien races and a disembodied intelligence duelling for control of the planet Vortis. I don’t think it is so very terrible myself, and would give it more than 5.6.

The lowest-rated Sixth Doctor episode will come as little surprise. Colin Baker’s 1984 debut story, The Twin Dilemma, features bizarre characterisation for the show’s central character, very poor acting from a couple of the guest performers, and unambitious (to put it politely) direction. A friend of mine who lives in Spain told me that her new English neighbour proudly informed her that his dad had written the worst Doctor Who story ever; it was this one. Fans can debate which of the four episodes is worst; myself I’d have said the first, but IMDB users say the last, with a rating of 5.3.

To my surprise, that’s not the lowest-rated surviving episode of Old Who; it is pipped by another closing episode from a debuting Doctor’s first story, the fourth episode of Time and the Rani starting Sylvester McCoy in 1987. This story was adapted by authors Pip and Jane Baker from a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and involves a crazy conspiracy by rebel Time Lord the Rani to harvest the brains of geniuses from Earth’s history. After some initial confusion the actor and Ace defeat her and herd the curiously docile geniuses into the TARDIS to go home.

The lowest-rated episode of Old Who is a lost episode, the sixth and final instalment of 1969’s The Space Pirates, as referred to above. I think this must reflect general lack of knowledge of the story more than anything. There is quite a good reconstruction available on Dailymotion, and it seems to me that The Dominators, from earlier in that season, is a far weaker story in every regard. (And The Twin Dilemma is weaker still.)

The worst-rated episode of Doctor Who proper is the 2020 Thirteenth Doctor story Orphan 55, at a dismal 4.2. I confess that as with Sleep No More, although I watched it on first broadcast, I had completely forgotten what it was about and rewatched it for this post. The Doctor and fam end up at a resort which turns out to be constructed on the ruins of Earth and also under alien attack. There are a couple of doomed romances and lots of bangs. Whitaker, as always, does her best to inject energy into it; the Doctor preaches a sermon about climate change at the end. It does a lot of the things that other episodes do, but doesn’t do them any better than any of the others. I agree that it’s not all that good, but myself I’d still rank it above The Twin Dilemma, and indeed Kill the Moon.

The worst rated episode from the televised Whoniverse is one you have probably forgotten even if you ever saw it. Mind Snap, the twenty-second episode of the twenty-six in the Australian spinoff series about the Doctor’s robot dog, K9, is a cheap and lazy filler 2010 episode in which K9 loses his memory and needs to be reminded of his true self by re-experiencing clips from the previous twenty-one episodes. The IMDB rating of 4.1 is harsh, but I agree with the voters’ verdict in giving this one the wooden spoon. Bob Baker, who co-authored both this and Underworld, is the only writer with two different stories on this list. (Robert Holmes has two episodes from the same story, so it doesn’t really count.)

More cheerfully, I’ll be celebrating the best-rated episodes of each Doctor and spinoff show tomorrow. (Including K9 and Company, in case you were wondering.)

June 2022 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.

I started the month with a couple of days of enforced silence after my throat oepration, but have made a full recovery. (Well, almost – I don’t think I’ll ever hit the high notes again.) I had three work trips, one to Berlin, where I visited the site of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder:

and London where I relived one of my favourite urban walks, from Tottenham Court Road to Westminster.

I ended the month in Sofia where I met (among others) Finnish politician Astrid Thors.

And I discovered that my great-great-grandmother’s biological father was not her mother’s husband, but a distant cousin of President Grover Cleveland (also of Shirley Temple and Fritz Leiber).

I read 28 books that month.

Non-fiction 9 (YTD 54)
Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985, eds. Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman
Directed by Douglas Camfield, by Michael Seely
Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, by Elsa Sjunneson
The Eleventh Hour, by Jon Arnold
Face the Raven, by Sarah Groenewegen
No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media, by Peter Steven
The King of Almayne: a 13th century Englishman in Europe, by T.W.E. Roche

Non-genre 2 (YTD 11)
Intimacy, by Jean Paul Sartre
Q&A, by Vikas Swarup

SF 7 (YTD 50)
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson
The Happier Dead, by Ivo Stourton
Queen of the States, by Josephine Saxton
End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis
Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison
Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon

Doctor Who 1 (YTD 16)
The HAVOC Files, Volume 4, ed. Shaun Russell

Comics 9 (YTD 12)
Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Far Sector, by N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell
Lore Olympus, by Rachael Smythe
Die, vol.3: The Great Game, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles 
Die, vol 4: Bleed, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles 
Once & Future, vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain
Once & Future, vol. 4: Monarchies in the UK, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bon-villain
Junker: een Pruisische blues, by Simon Spruyt
Strange Adventures, by Tom King, Mitch Gerads and Evan “Doc” Shane

7,100 pages (YTD 38,600)
12/28 (YTD 58/147) by non-male writers (Srinavasan, Sjunneson, Groenewegen, Jackson, Saxton, Liu/Takeda, Jemisin, Smythe, 2x Hans, 2x Bonvillain)
4/28 (YTD 20/147) by non-white writers (Srinavasan, Swarup, Liu/Takeda, Jemisin)

Three outstanding books this month:

  • Half Life, by Shelley Jackson – I can’t believe that nobody recommended this to me before; you can get it here.
  • The King of Almayne: a 13th century Englishman in Europe, by T.W.E. Roche – ho many of you knew about the thirteenth-century English prince who captured Jerusalem and got elected Holy Roman Emperor? You can get it here.
  • The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan – difficult but important reading; you can get it here.

On the other hand, as usual for this author, I bounced off Nova Swing by M. John Harrison. You can get it here.

Appliance, by J.O. Morgan (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The forest’s red floor was spongy from the long fall of pine needles, a slow accumulation through the years, but it was the steady soft pounding of Frank’s feet that the floor now supported. The tips of sunken stones and the ridges of slow-searching tree roots disrupted the clean line of the path, but Frank’s running shoes trod firmly upon them, finding their angles, their roughnesses, a momentary grip and release as he pushed on up the slope.

Glorious set of stories about the revolution in society caused by the invention of a teleporter. Strong thumbs up. Recommended. You can get it here.

How to End Russia’s War on Ukraine, by Timothy Ash et al

Second paragraph of third chapter (“Fallacy 3: ‘Ukraine should adopt neutrality'”, by Orysia Lutsevich):

Imposed neutrality would leave Ukraine exposed to a continued existential threat. It would invite more aggression from Russia and is contrary to a fundamental principle of international law – the sovereign right to choose international alliances. Russia itself formally recognized this principle as a co-signatory of the Istanbul Declaration of 1999.

In line with my commitment to blogging more about my work-related reading, this is a report from Chatham House which came out last month, in which ten authors look at some of the underlying principles of the current conflict – the title is slightly misleading, in that it doesn’t mean “By adopting these recommendations, the war can be brought to an end”, it’s more “This is the intellectual framing in which the end of the war should be imagined”.

There are nine chapters, each by a different writer, book-ended by pieces from James Nixey, who has ceded to Tim Ash the distinction of being first-named contributor, I guess on alphabetical grounds. Each chapter tackles a particular fallacy – and these are not straw men, these are arguments I have actually seen and heard people make, including some who surprised me. In general I agree with the writers of the report, and disagree with the following propositions:

  • ‘Settle now: all wars end at the negotiating table’
  • ‘Ukraine should concede territory in exchange for peace’
  • ‘Ukraine should adopt neutrality’
  • ‘Russian security concerns must be respected’
  • ‘Russian defeat is more dangerous than Russian victory’
  • ‘Russia’s defeat in Ukraine will lead to greater instability in Russia’
  • ‘This is costing too much, and the West needs to restore economic ties with Russia’
  • ‘Ukraine’s pursuit of justice hinders peace’
  • ‘This war is not our fight, and there are more important global problems’

Several of the authors presented it last week at a thinktank in Brussels, and I was really rather shocked that a couple of audience participants made the argument that we have to find a way to let the Russians off gently. Fundamentally, it’s important to help Ukraine to win, and not to impose external limits on what that victory is going to look like. What the Russians do is their responsibility. They chose this war, completely without provocation, and they can sort themselves out afterwards.

You can get the Chatham House report here.

Wormhole by Keith Brooke and Eric Brown (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

They accessed the original police interview with the suspension scientist, Rima Cagnac, conducted by two Genovese Homicide inspectors a day after her husband’s murder and just five days before she was due to leave Earth. Apparently still in a state of shock, Cagnac answered all the questions factually, stating that she’d been in a meeting with Captain Xavier Fernandez at the time of the killing. The interview was in French, auto-translated for Kemp’s benefit, although he knew Danni understood the original. When asked about the state of her relationship with her late husband, Kemp noticed that Cagnac blinked and hesitated fractionally before replying, ambiguously, that after five years of marriage they remained good friends.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always annoyed by police detectives in SF novels who don’t behave at all like police detectives in real life. Anyway. Twin narratives of detective solving decades-old future crime and alien contact from Earth’s first colony ship, plus corruption and murder in high places. Kept me reading to the end, but it’s not very subtle. And did I mention that I found the police bit unrealistic?

Though I am vey sorry that we have lost Eric Brown since I read it.

You can get it here.

The Popes and Sixty Years of European Integration

Second paragraph of third papal document (Paul VI’s Apostolic letter Pacis Nuntius of 1964, proclaiming St Benedict as the Principal Patron of Europe):

Sic igitur spiritualem illam unitatem Europae coagmentavit, qua quidem nationes, sermone, genere, ingenio diversae, unum populum Dei se esse sentiebant. Quae unitas, fideliter annitentibus monachis, disciplinae tanti parentis alumnis, peculiaris nota facta est mediae, quam vocant, aetatis. Illam, quae, ut ait Sanctus Augustinus, «ommis pulchritudinis forma» est, lugenda rerum vicissitudine discissam, quotquot sunt bona praediti voluntate, restituere temporibus nostris conantur. Libro, seu ingenii cultu, idem venerabilis patriarcha, a quo tot monasteria nomen vigoremque traxerunt, vetera litterarum monumenta, cum liberales disciplinae artesque obruebantur caligine, diligenti cura servavit et ad posteros transmisit, atque doctrinas studiose excoluit. Aratro demum, seu re rustica, aliisque subsidiis loca vasta et horrida in agros frugum feraces et hortos amemos mutavit; et precationibus fabrilia iungens, secundum verba illa «ora et labora», humano operi excellentiam addidit. Haud immerito ergo Pius PP. XII Sanctum Benedictum «Europae patrem» appellavit, cuius quidem terme continentis populis ille amorem et studium recti ordinis inspiravit, in quo socialis vita eorum inniteretur.It was in this way that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture, perceived that they constituted the one People of God – a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages. It is this unity, which St. Augustine calls the “exemplar and model of absolute beauty”, but which regrettably has been fragmented through a maze of historical events, that all men of good will even in our own day seek to rebuild. With the book, then, i.e. with culture, the same St Benedict, – from whom so many monasteries derive their name and vigour – with provident concern, saved the classical tradition of the ancients at a time when the humanistic patrimony was being lost, by transmitting it intact to posterity, and by restoring the cult of knowledge. Lastly, it was with the plough, i.e. with the cultivation of the fields and with other similar initiatives, that he succeeded in transforming abandoned and overgrown lands into fertile fields and greaceful gardens; and by uniting prayer with manual labour, according to his famous motto “ora et labora,” he ennobled and elevated human work. Rightly, therefore, Pius XII hailed Saint Benedict XII as “the father of Europe”; for he inspired the peoples of this Continent that loving care of order and justice that forms the foundation of true society.

This is an old-fashioned little publication (108 pages), lent to me by a colleague, pulling together fifteen major statements by the popes on European integration from 1957 to 2017. It is nicely illustrated, the photograph of the EU leaders meeting the current Pope in the Sistine chapel is particularly striking.

There’s nothing very surprising here for anyone familiar with the EU and the Vatican. Successive popes have been opposed to war and to Communism, and the EU was constructed as a bulwark against both. More recent themes include an emphasis on social justice and on environmental protection, with the Church’s own particular wrinkles on those themes. There’s not much here that anyone could object to, frankly.

There was a time when the relationship looked closer. Of the six founding mamebr states of the EU, four are largely Catholic by religious tradition and the other two (the Natherlands and West Germany, as it then was) were balanced between Catholicism and Protestantism. Now things are vey different; of the 27 current member states, you’d have to put at least four in the Orthodox column, three in the firmly Protestant tradition, and anyway most of them are part of the rising tide of secularism. The European People’s Party, Europe’s largest political grouping, came from the post-war Christian Democrat tradition, but has moved firmly away from anything too church-oriented (though often gets tempted by anti-wokeness, which is not quite the same thing).

I do remember attending a conference for Northern Ireland party activists in the early 1990s, at which a Unionist participant informed us that Pope John XXIII had endorsed European integration in order to ensure Catholic domination in Europe. One of the others present snorted that not many of John XXIII’s plans for the church had worked out in the end. The EU’s two openly gay prime ministers are both from traditionally Catholic countries. Pius XII would not have approved.

Anyway, this is co-published by the EU External Action Service and L’Osservatore Romano, and you can get it from their websites, here and here.

The Immortality Thief by Taran Hunt (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Hi,” I said, while they took me up in the mysterious freight elevator to another cloak-and-dagger meeting with that asshole Quint. “Long time no see.” I repeated myself in a couple new languages and dialects when they didn’t answer, just in case it really was all a matter of misunderstanding.

I thought this very good. Race against time with unlikely allies in an abandoned space structure inhabited by horrible creatures. I didn’t think it put a foot wrong. You can get it here.

In the Serpent’s Wake, by Rachel Hartman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Her father, the old count, had always had protégés—young priests, mostly, some of whom became bishops or advisers to Count Pesavolta. It had never occurred to Marga that she might have a protégé of her own, or that she’d want one. But looking at Tess—curious and eager, smart enough to have taught herself Quootla, resourceful enough to have found the Continental Serpent on her own—was like looking at herself at that age. There were things Marga needed to tell that young self.

Putting my money where my mouth is, I bought and read this, the book on the Hugo ballot with the best page-to-dollar ratio. I was glad to see it because I hugely enjoyed the previous book in the series, Tess of the Road, but did not write it up in 2020 because I was on the Hugos that year too. In the Serpent’s Wake takes Tess on a polar expedition led by a hilariously unperceptive aristocratic lady, where they tour also colonialism and rape culture. It didn’t move me quite as much as the previous book – seemed to be a lot of circumpolar circling – but I still enjoyed it a lot. Hartman’s imagined world is richly drawn and internally consistent. Worth getting all four books in the series for the YA reader in your life. You can get this one here.

A Hugo shopping list; and while we are waiting for the Hugo voter package…

…please bear in mind that it is a privilege, not a right.

There is nothing about the Hugo voter package in the WSFS constitution. It depends entirely on the goodwill of creators to produce the works, and also the goodwill of volunteers to assemble it. It’s probably the most laborious of any of the tasks involved with Hugo administration, and definitely one of the most thankless. (I hope that I have thanked those who have done it for me.)

I’ve had my share of Hugo-related tensions over the years, but among the most annoying are the entitled complaints of people who expect the Hugo voter packet to be designed for them and their specifications. To be very clear, I’m not talking about accessibility here – people with visual difficulties deserve consideration from publishers and Hugo administrators alike – but about those who demand the free reading material but then can’t be bothered to install the free software. (And then there are those who “forget” to download it in time and still want to get hold of it after the deadline has passed, and get all miffed when we have the audacity to honour the terms of our agreement with publishers, and say no.)

Inevitably some creators will provide their material poorly formatted, or in a form that some people don’t like, and readers will blame Worldcon for it. Inevitably the packet will be released later than had been hoped, because nobody in their right mind does the packet more than once, and it always takes longer than first expected. Inevitably other things go wrong. (My top complaint about creators – those who expect us to download sample copies of their work from NetGalley. Hardly anyone will bother to try, and those few who do try usually find that it doesn’t work.) The fact it that we are lucky to get the Hugo packet at all, and it frustrates me when I see commentary that doesn’t take that into account. My best wishes to those dealing with this year’s challenges.

While we are waiting for this year’s packet, I urge you to start buying (or borrowing) Hugo finalist books, rather than wait until you can get them for free. Creators deserve your money. One possible approach, if you want to be efficient about this, is to work through them from cheapest to most expensive. If you want to be super efficient, you could work through them in order of value measured by the number of pages per dollar, pound or euro. How to calculate that, you ask? Well, as it happens I’ve crunched those numbers for Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Graphic Story, Best Related Work (for four of the six finalists, the other two being an online essay and a Chinese website) and the Lodestar Award, and I can share it with you here. (Prices are from Amazon.com on Kindle, but links go to Amazon.co.uk hard copy, for Reasons.)

CategoryTitlePrice ¹pagespp/$
RelatedBuffalito World Outreach Project, Lawrence M. Schoen$6.73764²113.5²
LodestarIn the Serpent’s Wake, Rachel Hartman$7.0450371.4
LodestarAkata Woman, Nnedi Okorafor$7.0741658.8
GraphicSupergirl: Woman of Tomorrow$3.8122358.5
NovelThe Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Silvia Moreno-Garcia$6.0232153.3
LodestarBloodmarked, Tracy Deonn$11.3557350.5
LodestarThe Golden Enclaves, Naomi Novik$9.2639142.2
NovelThe Kaiju Preservation Society, John Scalzi$6.5025639.4
LodestarDreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, Charlie Jane Anders$8.1931738.7
RelatedTerry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, Rob Wilkins$11.4243037.7
LodestarOsmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods, Catherynne M. Valente$11.1841336.9
NovelLegends & Lattes, Travis Baldree$9.4731833.6
NovelNona the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir$14.1746733.0
NovelThe Spare Man, Mary Robinette Kowal$11.9836830.7
NovelNettle & Bone, T. Kingfisher$9.3226228.1
RelatedStill Just a Geek, Wil Wheaton$16.6946227.7
RelatedBlood, Sweat & Chrome, Kyle Buchanan$15.8742827.0
NovellaWhat Moves the Dead, T. Kingfisher$7.6316521.6
NovellaWhere the Drowned Girls Go, Seanan McGuire$10.3715014.5
GraphicMonstress vol. 7: Devourer$12.1317314.3
NovellaA Mirror Mended, Alix E. Harrow$9.8212813.0
NovellaEven Though I Knew the End, C.L. Polk$10.3913312.8
GraphicCyberpunk 2077: Big City Dreams$5.296412.1
GraphicSaga, Vol. 10$14.9016911.3
NovellaOgres, Adrian Tchaikovsky$9.6410210.6
GraphicOnce & Future Vol 4: Monarchy in the UK$15.3415710.2
NovellaInto the Riverlands, Nghi Vo$10.331009.7
GraphicDune: The Official Movie Graphic Novel$13.761208.7
¹ As checked recently on Amazon.com for the Kindle version, which is generally what I read. Other regions and formats will likely be broadly similar.
² Buffalito World Outreach Project consists of thirty translations of a single story. Taking that into account, the number of pages of original content per dollar would put it at the other end of this table.

NB that the above list totals 7,500 pages, not counting the Buffalito World Outreach Project, nor the other two Best Related Work finalists, nor anything from the other categories. That’s why I am getting reading now…

Sunday reading

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Last books finished
In the Serpent’s Wake, by Rachel Hartman
Ancient, Ancient, by Kiini Ibura Salaam
Jill, by Amy Dillwyn
The Popes and Sixty Years of European Integration
How to End Russia’s War on Ukraine, by Timothy Ash et al
Jill and Jack, by Amy Dillwyn
Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, ed. Paula Guran
Blackpool Remembered, by John Collier
Saga, Vol. 10 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

Next books
Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, by Terrance Dicks
Drawing Boundaries: Legislature, Court and Electoral Values, eds. John C. Courtney, Peter MacKinnon, David E. Smith 
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris

May 2022 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.

As the pandemic finally receded, I had two very interesting trips in May 2022: at the beginning of the month, to Northern Ireland for the coverage of the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly (which at time of writing has yet to resume sitting):

And a couple of weeks later to Geneva, Switzerland and Podgorica, Montenegro for work. The end of the month had me under the surgeon’s knife for a (benign) lump in my larynx.

I also posted on the brief cinematic career of my third cousin, Sally Seaver (who died aged 35 two years before I was born)

I blogged on the Northern Ireland Protocol, correctly speculating that Liz Truss was using it as part of her plan to become prime minister.

And went to a lovely display of acoustic sculptures in Leuven.

With all the travel, I managed to read 35 books that month.

Non-fiction 16 (YTD 45)
Carnival of Monsters, by Ian Potter
Thursday’s Child, by Maralyn Rittenour
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
Queens of the Crusades, by Alison Weir
A Norman Legacy, by Sally Harpur O’Dowd
Tower, by Nigel Jones
The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places (circa 385 A.D.), trans. John H. Bernard, with an appendix by Sir Charles William Wilson.
The Pilgrimage of Etheria, trans. M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe
Signs and Symbols Around the World, by Elizabeth S. Helfman
The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit, by Simon Bucher-Jones
The Pilgrimage of Egeria: A New Translation, by Anne McGowan and Paul F. Bradshaw
Terrorism In Asymmetric Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects, by Ekaterina A. Stepanova
Marco Polo, by Dene October
The Halls of Narrow Water, by Bill Hall
Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders
CBT Workbook, by Stephanie Fitzgerald

Poetry 1
The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

Non-genre 1 (YTD 9)
The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

SF 11 (YTD 43)
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers
Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djélì Clark
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Demons and Dreams: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror v. 1, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelly Parker-Chan
Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
A Modern Utopia, by H. G. Wells
Mythos, by Stephen Fry

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 18)
Unofficial Doctor Who Annual 1987, ed. Mark Worgan
I am the Master, by Peter Anghelides et al
Doctor Who – Marco Polo, by John Lucarotti

9,700 pages (YTD 31,500)
15/32 (YTD 47/120) by non-male writers (Rittenour, Weir, Harpur O’Dowd, 3x Egeria and commentators, Helfman, Stepanova, Anders, Fitzgerald, Shafak, Aoki, Datlow/Windling, Parker-Chan)
4/32 (YTD 16/120) by non-white writers (Shafak, Aoki, Clark, Parker-Chan)

Several good books this month, and none that were too awful:

  • Mort, by Terry Pratchett, a welcome reread (get it here)
  • The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, a great Hugo finalist (get it here)
  • Anne McGowan’s translation of The Pilgrimage of Egeria (get it here)
  • Dene October’s analysis of the Doctor Who story Marco Polo (get it here)
  • Gail McConnell’s The Sun is Open, my book of the year (get it here)