The Angel of Redemption: a 2010s story, by Nikita Gill

Second verse of third chapter:

Trying to find each other,
in the distance they saw
what was a shooting star.
And desperate to see each other
to know themselves,

So, this is very unexpected. It’s a story written in the form of poetry, the internal reflections of the Weeping Angel who is destined to yank Amy and Rory back in time in The Angels Take Manhattan, telling the story of the origin of the Angels, their desperate attempts to feed and deal with a hostile universe, and towards the end their interaction with the Doctor and with the world of the early twenty-first century in England. Doctor Who stories rarely take the perspective of the monster, and even more rarely do it well (though see the Century 21 Dalek comic strips for another example). You can get it here.

A Bechdel fail for an unusual reason. Most stories that fail Bechdel step 1 will also fail steps 2 and 3 (that two female characters must have a conversation, and that it is not about a man). The Angels present as female, and they have many interactions (which can pass for conversations here) about the nature of reality and the fate of their race; but none of them has a name, so while the book would pass the original form of the Bechdel test, it doesn’t get over the first hurdle of the generally understood criterion that there must be two named female characters.

The Monster in the Cupboard: a 2000s story, by Kalynn Bayron

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As soon as it’s light outside, I get up and go to my room to change. I thought I’d feel better if I could be in my own room for a while, but I feel like I’m stuck in a nightmare. Noah should be up, running through the halls, complaining about wanting cereal for breakfast instead of something healthy like my mum would suggest. My mum should be coming in to wake me up and telling me to get ready for school.

Fifth in the set of six Doctor Who YA novellas, and I’m afraid not one of the better ones; young protagonist teams up with the Ninth Doctor and Rose to rescue mum and brother from the monster which, er, lives in the cupboard. A number of implausibilities in the story’s own terms, and I wasn’t very satisfied with the characterisation of the Doctor either. A bit more skippable than the rest. But you can get it here.

Edited to add: I forgot to note that this is a fairly easy Bechdel pass; most of the characters (apart from the Doctor) are women. If you want to be specific, there’s an exchange between Rose and the protagonist at the end of Chapter 8 in which no men are present or mentioned.

Wannabes: a 1990s story, by Dave Rudden

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘Well, that’s a comfort,’ the Doctor said acidly, as a pulse round exploded a bloom behind his head, splattering his cheek with thick, sweet-smelling sap. ‘I’ll tell that to our lungs, shall I? I’m sure they’ll understand.’

A story of the Tenth Doctor and Donna, visiting Dublin to witness the first ever gig of (fictional) girl band the Blood Honeys, only to find that the event has been infiltrated by a trio of alien sisters out to exploit the emotional energy generated by the event. The aliens have a number of near relatives in both Doctor Who (the Carrionites) and Irish mythology (many cases of three sisters).

Rudden, who is himself Irish, gets the feeling of Dublin in the early Celtic Tiger days very well (even though he would have been roughly eight years old at the time the story is set), and you can very plausibly see Donna and the Doctor interacting with the changing entertainment scene. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who the five-member girl band making their debut in the mid-1990s are based on, but a pinch of satire can help a story run smoothly.

I am preparing a post grumbling about the failures of Big Finish to get Ireland right in a recent audio play, but I have no such grumbles in this case. I enjoyed this and you can get it here.

Bechdel pass in Chapter Four, where the three alien sisters discuss their plans for Earth.

The Self-Made Man: a 1980s story, by Mark Griffiths

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Doctor strode briskly from the TARDIS, fedora hat balanced on his thick thatch of curls, long scarf streaming behind him. Romana followed a little warily, still uncertain of her friend’s current mood. She glanced up into the flawless blue sky, shading her eyes with her hand. It was a warm morning, no doubt about to turn into a scorchingly hot summer’s day.

This is the longest of the Six Stories for Six Decades in wordcount (the next one has more pages but fewer words), though the story is straightforward enough. The Doctor and Romana, taking a break between seasons 17 and 18, arrive in a London council estate in 1984 where a local lad is achieving great things with technology. But where is he getting the technology from, and what price are he and his neighbours paying? And can police officer Hazel Harper put a stop to it?

About halfway through, it becomes fairly obvious which classic monsters have turned up and from then on the story runs on fairly predictable if entertaining lines. But I did like the way that the bad guy’s downfall has been triggered by Thatcherite economics, tying the merciless and logical free market to the merciless logic of the SPOILERS. I see a number of other reviewers who didn’t get this; perhaps you had to be there. Anyway, not quite as good as the first two in this sequence, but you can get it here.

Bechdel pass when Romana and Tiger Lily talk about cocktails in Chapter Nine.

Tuesday reading

Current
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Witch King, by Martha Wells
The Heart’s Time, ed. Janet Morley

Last books finished
Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh
Seeds of Mercury, by Wang Jinkang
The Self-Made Man, by Mark Griffiths
The Angel of Redemption, by Nikita Gill
Rose/House, by Arkady Martine
Orlanda, by Jacqueline Hartman
Wannabes, by Dave Rudden
The Monster in the Cupboard, by Kalynn Bayron

Next books
The Girl Who Died, by Tom Marshall
Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

The Cradle: a 1970s story, by Tasha Suri

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I don’t love everyone knowing my business. And I don’t love the way you have to run, sometimes, from people who want to bash your head in.

Where the previous story in this series took a fictional town and a timespan mainly in the 1960s but stretching to the present day, The Cradle is set very firmly in 1978 in Southall, at a time of maximum tension caused by the National Front, with the protagonist a gay Indian teenager who is at the front line of racism. I know Tash Suri a bit from our joint stint as guests of honour at the 2022 Eastercon:

I remember an Eastercon discussion a few years ago about places that Doctor Who cannot go – the Holocaust, for example, or indeed Ireland (other than symbolically). 1970s racist London might at first sight seem to be potentially one of those places, but Tasha Suri has found a way of doing it, taking her protagonist and friends on a personal journey mentored by the Twelfth Doctor. At the end of the story everything is not all right, everyone is not OK, but the Doctor has helped and the future looks just a little better than it did. I liked this one too. You can get it here.

Bechdel pass in the first chapter when Seema and her grandmother talk about cooking and the strange lights in the sky.

Imaginary Friends: a 1960s stpry, by Jacqueline Rayner

Second paragraph of third chapter:

We went to Rome, which is from history and sometimes from Sunday School. There was a lion! I think I mite like lions even more than cheetahs. The Emperer chased Barbrar and the Doctor pretended to play a liar and made it sound silent. I wish Anne would play silent when she does piano practice. There was a lady and her job was to poison people! I thought the police would come and arrest her but they did not.

This is the first in a series of six YA Doctor Who novellas published to commemorate the recent anniversary. It’s a very good start. Young Gerry has dreams of the Doctor, his companions and their adventures together, in a world that is just the same as ours, except that there is no TV show called Doctor Who and strange things happen like the unsolved murder of a pesticide researcher, or the odd goings-on at the Post Office Tower…

Really this is lovely. Jacqueline Rayner on form is one of the best current Doctor Who prose writers, and she’s on form here. She brilliantly evokes the decaying industrial atmosphere of the mid 1960s and the need for escapism, and the changing dynamics of family relationships over the last sixty years, and the universal difficulty of growing up. I loved it. You can get it here.

Bechdel fail, I’m afraid, with tight third around the boy protagonist.

The best known books set in each country: Pakistan

See here for methodology.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Three Cups of TeaGreg Mortenson343,98412,951
I Am MalalaMalala Yousafzai (and Christina Lamb)577,7326,439
Midnight’s ChildrenSalman Rushdie124,11313,908
Exit WestMohsin Hamid138,9123,617
Home FireKamila Shamsie65,4501,737
I Am Malala (Young Readers Edition)Malala Yousafzai31,7042,433
Stones Into SchoolsGreg Mortenson16,9941,904
ShameSalman Rushdie12,3632,444

Well, this is a bit grim: the top book set in Pakistan among LibraryThing readers is a real White Saviour narrative about a guy who just goes and does good to the people of Paksitan, whether they want it done to them or not. I haven’t read it, and I have seen nothing about it that encourages me to do so. (And the same goes for the sequel, in eighth place on this table, which I suspect may be anyway more set in Afghanistan than Pakistan.)

Malala Yousafzai, who wins among Goodreads users, is a different matter. Although her autobiography is ghost-written by Christina Lamb, it’s a genuine insider story of life in Swat, and I think I will look out for it. It’s noticeable that the young readers’ edition comes in sixth place.

To my dismay, I need to rule out the next three books because less than 50% of each is set in Pakistan. Midnight’s Children and Exit West are both favourite books of mine, but most of Midnight’s Children is set in India and none (as far as I remember) of Exit West is set in Pakistan. Similarly, Home Fire is mostly set in England.

So the top fiction book set in Pakistan is Salman Rushdie’s Shame. I will look out for it too.

The cemetery of the Protestant Cathedral at Belfast – Chesterton’s ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’

You can read ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, with the original 1911 illustrations, here.

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A DETECTIVE STORY PUBLISHED IN 1911

I have been a fan of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories since I was a child, but one point in ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, a short story first published in 1911, has niggled at me for almost half a century. I was reminded of this last month when I was staying in a hotel on one side of St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, and giving two lectures at the new Ulster University campus on the other side of it, so that I walked past it four times in the space of a few hours. The passage in question comes just after the halfway point in the story when Father Brown reveals to Flambeau, his French ex-criminal friend, the current location of the broken-off part of the titular weapon.

  “I cannot prove it, even after hunting through the tombs. But I am sure of it. Let me add just one more tiny fact that tops the whole thing over. The colonel, by a strange chance, was one of the first struck by a bullet. He was struck long before the troops came to close quarters. But he saw St. Clare’s sword broken. Why was it broken? How was it broken? My friend, it was broken before the battle.”
“Oh!” said his friend with a sort of forlorn jocularity. “And pray where is the other piece?”
“I can tell you,” said the priest promptly. “In the cemetery of the Protestant Cathedral at Belfast.”
“Indeed?” inquired the other. “Did you look for it?”
“I couldn’t,” said the priest with regret. “There’s a great marble monument on top of it; a monument to the heroic Major Murray who fell fighting gloriously at the battle of the Black River.”

The reason this passage has always niggled at me is very simple. There is no cemetery at St Anne’s Cathedral, the Protestant (ie Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Belfast. In fact, only one person is buried on the cathedral’s premises at all: Edward Carson, the Unionist leader and founder of Northern Ireland. In 1911, when the story was published, he was alive and sinnin’ (he lived to 1935). St Anne’s Cathedral was devoid of tombs, inside and out, at the time when Chesterton was writing.

This is very unusual for cathedrals in Britain or Ireland, either Protestant or Catholic. Most Church of Ireland cathedrals are in ancient ecclesiastical centres which have seen better days. I did a quick check and all of the other Protestant cathedrals in Northern Ireland do have graveyards. Many big cathedrals also have many interments inside the building – St Paul’s in London has Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington; St Patrick’s in Dublin has Jonathan Swift. St Anne’s, as noted, has just the one.

But St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast is very new as cathedrals go. It serves two dioceses, Connor (which is roughly equivalent to County Antrim) and Down (which is not equivalent to County Down), each of which also has a cathedral of its own (in Lisburn and Downpatrick respectively). The foundation stone for St Anne’s was laid in 1899 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1904; this is long after the fictional battle of the Black River, which we are told was at least twenty years before 1911. It is located in a city centre site with commercial and residential buildings pressing around it. The south transept was not completed until 1974 and the north transept was not completed until 1981, when I was already a teenager.

St Anne’s Cathedral in the early 20th century. The block immediately north was cleared for the Art College in the 1960s, and the area to the southwest for Writer’s Square more recently.

Chesterton’s Major Murray, if buried in Belfast, would have been interred at the Clifton Street Cemetery if his family had a concession there, or up the Falls Road in the Belfast City Cemetery if not. Though thinking about it, it would be really unusual for even a very senior officer who had been killed in action abroad at that period to be brought back home. Looking at the 1899-1902 Boer War, the two British generals who lost their lives in the conflict, Penn Symons and Andrew Wauchope, are both still buried in South Africa.

We are told that Murray was a Presbyterian, which is unusual but not impossible. In the 1901 census, according to Barry Griffin’s data, although 88.65% of people in Ireland with the surname Murray were Catholics (like my great-grandfather), 5.24% were Anglicans (as the fictional Murray must have been to be buried in the fictional cathedral graveyard), concentrated especially around the shores of Lough Neagh with outposts that seem to be around what is now Newtownbreda and also Carrickfergus.

G.K. Chesterton had never been to any part of Ireland in 1911; he wrote a book called Irish Impressions after his first visit in 1918. (You can read it here.) He was instinctively sympathetic to Home Rule and unsympathetic to colonial wars such as the Boer War, which is clearly the basis for the fictional Brazilian war in the story – the popularity of Chesterton’s Brazilian leader Olivier with the British, years after the war had ended, must be a reference to the shift in the British attitude to the South African leader Jan Smuts at the same time.

I don’t really blame Chesterton for getting Belfast’s ecclesiastical geography wrong. The fictional British Invasion of Brazil is a much bigger invention than a graveyard in Belfast. (There was historically a dispute between Brazil and the UK about the border with what was then British Guyana, but there does not seem to have been any armed conflict and the issue was resolved by Italian arbitration in 1904.) Anyway, neither the graveyard nor the war is what the story is really about.

SPOILER FOR A STORY PUBLISHED IN 1911

The bodies of both General Sir Arthur St. Clare and the Ulsterman Major Murray were retrieved after the battle of Black River – Murray found on the field, and St. Clare hanged from a tree. But the punchline is that St. Clare was a traitor, he killed Murray (who had found out his secret) with his own sword which broke in the process, and attacked the Brazilians, despite it being certain that he would lose with many casualties, so that Murray’s body would be unnoticed in the carnage. He was then strung up by his own men after the battle when they realised what he had done. The secret was kept by the British soldiers, who allowed it to be assumed that St. Clare was lynched by the Brazilians, and the fallen general was honoured as a tragic hero.

The narrative thrust of the story is that Father Brown works out what really happened from scraps of information and his knowledge of human nature. But the point of the story is that we should be wary of spoonfed narratives by the authorities about war heroes, or indeed about anything at all. One wonders if Chesterton had any particular person in mind – Baden-Powell? But he lived. Gordon? But his body was never recovered. In any case, the point is well made.

In the 2015 TV adaptation starring Mark Williams as Father Brown, the main action takes place in the 1950s with flashbacks to Dunkirk. The tableau is shrunk from national delusion to internal (and deadly) barracks politics. It’s nicely done, but it’s longer and less interesting than the original story.

When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But tonight they were not those children. Tonight, they were Sam and Miel, and he was pulling her on top of him and then under him. The way she moved against him made him feel the sharp presence of everything he had between his legs and, for just that minute, a forgetting, of everything he didn’t.

This won the Tiptree Award in 2017; I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have read four of the nine works on the Honor List, Borderline by Mishell Baker, Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Like the Tiptree judges, I liked When the Moon Was Ours most.

The BSFA Award for Best Novel that year went to Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award to Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. The BSFA and Clarke ballots that year shared two novels, Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, but neither list had any crossover with the Tiptree list.

It was my first year as Hugo Administrator, and the Hugo for Best Novel went to The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin, but I myself voted for All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, which won the Nebula. All the Birds in the Sky and Too Like the Lightning were also on the Hugo ballot, and Borderline and Everfair were also on the Nebula ballot.

I really liked this book, and once again kudos to the Tiptree Award (as it then was) for spotting something that others had passed by. It’s set in a world very close to ours, where the protagonists are a Latina girl and an Italian-Pakistani boy in love, but there’s a lot of magic going on (she grows flowers out of her arms; he has a well-hidden secret) and the four red-haired neighbour girls may be witches. It’s an intense exploration of body dysmorphia and the experience of being trans, in a well-realised small town, where the grownups have back-stories too. One of the best novels I have read so far this year, and strongly recommended. You can get it here.

With so many female characters, an easy Bechdel pass.

Next in my list of Tiptree winners (only two left!) is Who Runs the World? by Virginia Bergin.

Two very different books about Belfast

Belfast: Approach to Crisis, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary
Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, by Feargal Cochrane

I got hold of these two books in preparation for the lecture I gave in Belfast last month about the electoral history of the city, which you can watch here:

These are two very different books from very different times. The second paragraph of the third chapter of Belfast: Approach to Crisis is:

The cause of this increasing prosperity, the greatest that any Irish city has known, was twofold. First, the expansion of the linen industry which became fully mechanised between 1852 and 1862 with the rapid acceptance of the power loom.3 With the coming of the American Civil War Lancashire mills were starved of raw cotton and the Belfast mills soon found a new market for their high quality finished goods.4 The linen trade continued to expand until the 1870s,5 but while the labour force trebled between 1850 and 1875 (from 16,000 to 50,000), the proportion represented by adult male workers never exceeded one third.
3‘In 1852 there was only one power loom in Belfast. Ten years later there were 6,000.’ (Jones in Belfast, p. 109)
4The number of new buildings constructed annually between 1861 and 1864 ranged from 730 to 1,400 – thereby increasing the total valuation by about 20 per cent. (B.N.L., 2 January 1865.)
5The number of flax spindles in Ireland increased from 300,000 in 1850 to nearly 600,000 in 1860, and nearly one million by the end of the 1870s. This peak figure was never equalled – too much machinery had been installed for normal output, cf W. E. Coe, The Engineering Industry of the North of Ireland, pp. 60-61. In 1870 80 per cent of spindles and 70 per cent of power looms in the whole of Ireland were to be found in Belfast and its environs. D. L. Armstrong, ‘Social and Economic Conditions in the Belfast Linen Industry, 1850-1900’, Irish Historical Studies VII (September 1951), 238.

I don’t know Ian Budge (who is now 87) but I did know Cornelius O’Leary, an eccentric colleague of my father’s at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and this book represents good political analysis combined with very poor timing. It has two parts. The first half, more or less, is a survey of the political history of Belfast, paying special attention to the city council (known as the Corporation for most of the period), from the earliest days to the 1960s, when the book was written. I got a lot out of this (and plundered it extensively for my lecture last month).

Until 1832, Belfast was a pocket borough of the Chichester family, but the Great Reform Act opened up its politics to the mainly Presbyterian merchant classes. The first successful political organiser was a John Bates, who managed to combine the roles of main organiser for the Conservative Party (which won all the elections) with that of Town Clerk once the municipal council was reformed in the 1840s. He fell spectacularly from power in 1855 when he was exposed for diverting public funds by a public inquiry. I’d love to see some more about his story.

The book goes in detail through the next 110 years of political history, including a couple more times when the Corporation was suspended and the city was run by administrators. And the second half of the book gives the outputs of an exhaustive political survey of Belfast, including most of the councillors, and many of their supporters and voters in general, along with some comparative research on the attitudes of councillors in Glasgow. The data set is very rich.

The problem is that the research was largely carried out in 1966, and the city collapsed into chaos over the next couple of years, so that when the book first came out in 1973, it was a deep analysis of a political system that had already ceased to exist. The Belfast of 1973 was very different from the Belfast of 1966. The authors do look in depth into the questions of naming the new bridge and the Sunday swings issue, but compared with what happened over the next few years it all looks rather silly. (In fairness, a lot of people thought the swings issue looked rather silly in 1966.)

Really a book only for the most dedicated of Norn Iron politics nerds (and I am proud to count myself among that number). You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Belfast: The Story of a City and its People is:

Some years ago a friend of the family who stayed with us for a few days proceeded to tell me all about the cranes as soon as they arrived and saw the painting. ‘Hey, nice painting!’ they exclaimed, breezing into the living room. ‘That’s David and Goliath in Belfast, you know.’ ‘No, it’s actually Samson and Goliath,’ I responded – politely but firmly. ‘No, I’m sure it’s David and Goliath,’ they ploughed on. ‘You should check it out.’ I walked out of the room, my face burning with indignation, muttering through clenched teeth not entirely sotto voce: ‘Well I lived under them for nearly two decades so I think I should know what they’re called!’ My partner, her laugh stifled by the fear of a meltdown at the beginning of a social visit, rapidly changed the subject to a less divisive one as I harrumphed upstairs. ‘So let’s talk about Brexit then…’ she said.

This on the other hand is a much more accessible book, rooted in Cochrane’s personal story of having grown up as a Catholic in a mixed but traditionally Protestant area of the city (as I did), reflecting on the early history of the city, where he is keen on the radical political tradition of the McCrackens, the Assembly Rooms (now dilapidated) and the Linen Hall Library (of which I was a Governor back in the mid-1990s), and also looking at culture – music, theatre, poetry, and other parts of the arts. I found the first part more engaging, the second feeling a bit too structured, but the information is all good, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about how it feels to be in or from Belfast. You can get it here.

If I can be excused a second video, this is the percussion section of the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra performing Scheherazade in 1985. I am the third percussionist in view, holding the tambourine. The CBYO is still going strong.

The Devil Kissed Her: the Story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson

The demands of her parents, both ill in their different ways, were endless. She was physically drained and mentally wound up. From morning to night, she worked and worried, her daily life encompassing the worst of both worlds – she was lonely, isolated in her burden of work and care – but never left alone to recoup her spirits. All her resources – time, energy, money, skills – were pressed into a struggle to keep the feeble Lamb family afloat. No part of her life was truly her own, there was no minute of her day that was not already claimed in the service of someone else. Even at night, there was no privacy; she shared the bed of an elderly invalid. Insomnia is now recognised as a warning signal in manic-depressive illness and it was impossible that Mary could sleep properly in these circumstances. With sleep deprivation, that peculiarly disorienting and distressing mental state, problems are magnified tenfold and rational thought flies out the window. That year, September was as hot as June – 78 degrees Fahrenheit – and working with fabric in that heat would have been miserable and oppressive. And September was traditionally a bad month for dressmakers. So added to the normal family worries over money, there was a seasonal dip in income.

A short but really interesting biography of Mary Lamb (1764-1847), who is well known for two things: the 1807 collection Tales from Shakespeare, in which she and her brother retold a number the great Shakespeare plays in terms deemed suitable for children of the day; and the fact that in 1796 during an attack of mental illness, she stabbed her mother to death in the family kitchen. I had previously listened to a rather good radio play by Carlo Gébler about them.

There’s a lot more than just those two things to Mary’s story. The Lambs were of humble stock – their father was a servant in the Inner Temple, and Mary was trained as a seamstress at a time when the market for sewing was saturated. Charles was a clerk in the East India Company. But he had a scholarship to a boarding school where he befriended Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and that friendship gave him and Mary the contacts in the literary world, in particular with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, which made them able to establish a literary salon and to get a good reception from publishers for their own writings – and they wrote a lot more than Shakespeare. Their network included William Godwin, widower of Mary Wollstonecraft, who actually commissioned Tales from Shakespeare.

This was punctuated by periods of serious illness for Mary, and less frequently for Charles. To be honest, two centuries of advance in medical science would not have helped them very much. In today’s world, they would have benefited from some medicated relief, but not enough to eliminate their problems entirely; and in countries with a decent welfare system, there would have been perhaps more care available and more respite for Charles who ended up carrying most of the burden of Mary’s illness. Even so, Mary lived to her eighties.

Watson tells the story breezily but sympathetically, and even if you don’t know any of the Lambs’ writings (and I bounced off a collection of Charles’ writings a few years back) the human story is of interest. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next up is Discovering Tudor London: A Journey Back in Time, by Natalie Grueninger.

Tuesday reading

Current
Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh
Orlanda, by Jacqueline Hartman
The Self-Made Man, by Mark Griffiths

Last books finished
The Then and the Now, by Si Spurrier et al
Starter Villain, by John Scalzi
Moroda, by L.L. McNeil (did not finish)
Promises Greater Than Darkness, by Charlie Jane Anders (did not finish)
Imaginary Friends, by Jacqueline Rayner
The Cradle, by Tasha Suri
When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant

Next books
The Angel of Redemption, by Nikita Gill
Belfast City Hall: One Hundred Years, by Gillian McIntosh
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch

Second paragraph of third chapter:

In the absence of coffee, I had a shower, and, by the time I was dressed, Dominic had texted me to say that he was on his way. The air was still fresh but the sun was already sucking up the moisture from the fields and you didn’t need to be chewing on a straw to know it was going to be another hot day.

I’ve read the previous installments of the Rivers of London series before and enjoyed them (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). In this volume, our protagonist, a London detective who has found himself sucked into magical investigations, is called to Herefordshire with his goddess girlfriend to investigate the disappearance of two girls. There’s lots of rural/urban tension, some glorious but not explicit erotic moments, and a look at how the boundary between our world and Faerie might manifest in the twenty-first century. There’s also a really good sense of place within Herefordshire’s geography. I think you could enjoy this book without having read the previous five books, but you’d enjoy it more if you had. You can get it here.

Not quite sure if this is a Bechdel pass. Plenty of women characters, who talk to each other a lot, but because the narrator is a man he is usually in the conversation too, or else being talked about. There’s a sequence at the top of page 117 where three goddesses are discussing mobile phone technology which possibly passes.

Next up: The Hanging Tree.

The best known books set in each country: Indonesia

See here for methodology.

This is a case where actual Indonesian writers are much better represented on Goodreads than on LibraryThing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Eat, Pray, LoveElizabeth Gilbert1,746,16922,140
Lord JimJoseph Conrad31,1429,039
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883Simon Winchester20,7784,139
Max HavelaarMultatuli [Eduard Douwes Dekker]9,3061,654
Bumi Manusia / This Earth of MankindPramoedya Ananta Toer19,907762
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of HistoryGiles Milton4,9271,731
Cantik itu Luka / Beauty Is a WoundEka Kurniawan14,764467
Laskar Pelangi / The Rainbow TroopsAndrea Hirata30,237224

So, I’m excluding Eat, Pray, Love because less than 50% of the book is set in Indonesia – the Indonesian section is longer than the Italian or Indian sections, but still less than half. In Lord Jim, the settlement of Patusan where the protagonist finds redemption is certainly in what were then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia, but we don’t get there until just over halfway through the book, so it also fails my 50% test. (But it’s a great book.)

I haven’t managed to get hold of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, but it sounds very much like the kind of book that I would like, and importantly for our purposes, most (but not all) of it deals with events in and offshore from the current territory of Indonesia. I am less certain about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, but it seems more likely than not that the majority of its pages are set in the islands.

On the fictional side, Max Havelaar does well on LibraryThing, but three Indonesian works do much better on Goodreads, with Laskar Pelangi / The Rainbow Troops scoring best on GR. It seems to have a real following in other Asian countries as well as Indonesia.

Pakistan next!

Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll

The six-part 2021 season of Doctor Who was produced under pandemic conditions, and by the time it ended, I was myself recovering from my bout with COVID and didn’t feel inspired to write about it. A year later, after the broadcast of The Power of the Doctor, I returned to Flux and wrote:

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years [of the show’s history]; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

I rewatched it again for this blog post, and felt very much the same. This time around I had various plot summaries to hand, which helped me make a little more sense of it; but TV science fiction at its best, unlike say opera, is not normally one of those art forms which requires the consumer to follow along with notes. I love Whittaker as the Doctor, but there are far too many moments where she is attempting to carry the full burden of audience interest through facial expressions and body language, and not helped by the dim studio lighting, the lack of other actors to interact with, or (crucially) the script.

Once again, I did like the fourth instalment, Village of the Angels, much more than the rest – a coherent plot which is more than adequately explained, higher production values, and interestingly the only episode of the six for which a co-writer (Maxine Alderton) is credited alongside Chibnall; and it ends with one of the best visual cliff-hangers ever, as the Doctor herself becomes a Weeping Angel. Interestingly, when I surveyed the Internet Movie Database for the top-rated episode of each era and spinoff of Who, Village of the Angels was a clear winner for the Thirteenth Doctor.

In his editorial foreword, Paul Driscoll explains that the fact that there are six very tightly linked episodes provided a challenge for the Black Archive series. What they have done is to commission six essays from six different authors, topped and tailed with shorter pieces by Alasdair Stuart.

Stuart’s introduction reflects on the terror of the time, when Doctor Who became to an extent a pandemic coping mechanism.

James Cooray Smith’s essay on The Halloween Apocalypse, ‘Apocalypse? Now!’, starts by reflecting on Chris Chibnall’s previous career and how different his Doctor Who turned out to be from his previous work, looks also at the importance of Liverpool as a setting and 31 October as the date for the episode, and recognises the weaknesses in the characters of Karvanista, Swarm and Azure; as I like to say, their means and motivation are never made entirely clear.

Emma Reed’s ‘A History in Flux’, looking at War of the Sontarans, examines the role of history (and fictionalised history) in Doctor Who, especially the Chibnall era’s emphasis on women in history. It also explained to me what the Temple of Atropos stuff was meant to be about, a point which had escaped me on both viewings of the story.

In ‘The Primordial Division’, Once, Upon Time is examined by Philip Purser-Hallard. I found it a thoroughly confusing episode on both viewings, and rather hoped that everything would come out right with the rest of the show. Purser-Hallard explains to me much better what is going on than the actual script did. He makes a number of interesting observations also about the role of double identities in the story and the Jungian resonances, but basically he enjoyed and was interested in this episode and I didn’t, and he doesn’t sell me on it. The second paragraph of his piece is:

She’s perfectly correct, as ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ has already shown: in the Ravagers’ introductions, Swarm was confined to a cylindrical energy shield, supposedly ‘since the dawn of the universe’, while Azure was reduced to ‘Anna’, a human woman living with her partner Jón in the far north of Iceland, without recollection of her extraterrestrial past.

Village of the Angels was broadcast on the worst day of my bout with COVID in 2021, and I did wonder when re-watching if it would hold up to re-watching. I’m glad to say that it did, and as noted above it’s my favourite episode of the series. I therefore had high hopes of Oliver Tomkins’ analysis, ‘The Angels Have the Goggle Box’, and they were fulfilled – it’s an in-depth look at the Weeping Angels, where the come from in terms of story and what they mean, why they are frightening and what they do, and how they break the fourth wall. Tomkins also looks at how the Bel plotline integrates into the Flux story.

‘Doctor Who’s Mother’, by James Mortimore, looks at Survivors of the Flux, considering the colonial framing of the Time Lords (vis-à-vis the Shobogans, and the rest of the universe), and looking at Tecteun and representations of motherhood in the show.

Finally, we get to The Vanquishers. In ‘The Three Doctors… and a Sontaran Stratagem’, Matt Hills is disarmingly frank about its failure to provide satisfactory narrative resolution, and puts this down to Chibnall’s emphasis on surprise. He then looks at the triple-Jodie Whittaker Doctor in the episode as a tribute to The Three Doctors, and reflects on how a fannish show-runner reacts against fannish expectations. It’s a good explanation of what the episode was trying to do, though again I do not feel that it succeeded.

Alasdair Stuart’s conclusion, ‘You are the Universe, Doctor’, defends the whole sequence of episodes, though as will have become apparent, I am not convinced.

Incidentally there are six ways of arranging three different things, and I have arranged the episode title, essay title and essay author’s name differently in each of the previous six paragraphs.

In sum, I did learn quite a lot from this Black Archive, largely because it explained to me what several of the episodes were supposed to be about. I’m afraid that underlines to me that the entire thing was a failure of art. I prefer to understand my TV at the time that I watch it, rather than waiting until I read serious analysis two and a half years later. But you can get it here.

From here on in, I’m switching to doing just one Black Archive write-up per month, as I am catching up with current releases all too quickly.

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

Ara Güler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs

Third photograph in book (title: Eminönü, 1956):

I got this coffee-table book as a thank-you for giving a lecture in Istanbul a few years back, and it is really lovely. Although the title is 40 Years of Photographs, they are concentrated in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, giving a sense of a vibrant and human European city full of change but also of history. Although they are at opposite ends of Europe, a lot of the people in Güler’s photographs look very much like their Irish counterparts. And in any case they are just beautiful compositions. The book has an impassioned foreword by Orhan Pamuk. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson.

April 2024 Books

Non-fiction 10 (YTD 25)
All These Worlds, by Niall Harrison
Kinda, by Frank Collins
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll
The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson
Belfast: Approach to Crisis, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary
Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, by Feargal Cochrane
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, by Robert Kaplan
Chindit Column 76, by W.A. Wilcox
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt

Non-genre 3 (YTD 14)
The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse
De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhout
DOOM 94, by Jānis Joņevs

SF 11 (YTD 27)
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu
Mammoths at the Gates, by Nghi Vo
Translation State, by Ann Leckie
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch
Liberty’s Daughter, by Naomi Kritzer
The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera
Life Does Not Allow Us To Meet, by He Xi
Thornhedge, by T. Kingfisher
The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 6)
Doctor Who: Kinda, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road, by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson

Comics and art books 5 (YTD 11)
Conversion, by Al Ewing et al
Saga, vol 11 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Ara Güler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs
The Witches of World War II, by Paul Cornell and Valeria Burzo
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Jimenez, Gene Ha and Nicola Scott

7,500 pages (YTD 21.200) 
12/31 (YTD 34/85) by non-male writers (Watson, Chakraborty, Vo, Leckie, Kritzer, “Kingfisher”, Older, McLemore, Jikiemi-Pearson, Staples, Burzo, DeConnick/Scott)
9/31 (YTD 10/85) by a non-white writer (Chakraborty, Vo, Chandrasekera, He, Older, McLemore, Jikiemi-Pearson, Staples, Jimenez/Ha)
1/31 rereads (Doctor Who: Kinda)

314 books currently tagged unread, down 7 from last month, down 75 from April 2023.

Reading now (as of last night)
Starter Villain, by John Scalzi
The Then and the Now, by Si Spurrier et al

Coming soon (perhaps)
Imaginary Friends, by Jacqueline Rayner
The Cradle, by Tasha Suri
The Self-Made Man, by Mark Griffiths
The Angel of Redemption, by Nikita Gill
Wannabes, by Dave Rudden
The Monster in the Cupboard, by Kalynn Bayron
The Girl Who Died, by Tom Marshall
Moroda, by L.L. McNeil
Belfast City Hall: One Hundred Years, by Gillian McIntosh
Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Discovering Tudor London: A Journey Back in Time, by Natalie Grueninger
When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray
Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Fevered Star, by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Virgin In The Garden, by A.S. Byatt
“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge”, by Mike Resnick
Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez
The Sol Majestic, by Ferrett Steinmetz
L’Affaire Tournesol, by Hergé
Who Runs the World?, by Virginia Bergin
The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
The Wonderful Visit, by H. G. Wells
Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
The Hanging Tree, by Ben Aaronovitch
South, by Ernest Shackleton