Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

BSFA Best Non-fiction

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

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

Second paragraph of third section, with footnotes and graphs:

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

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

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

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

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

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

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

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

Second paragraph of third section:

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

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

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

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

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

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Second paragraph of third section:

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

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

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

Sunday reading

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

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

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

Enoch Burke, attention-seeker: what the judges said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 2020 books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I made one last local video on a cartographic curiosity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

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

BSFA Best Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

Sunday reading

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

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

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

July 2020 books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, in July 2020 I read 21 books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nebula finalists – Goodreads/LibraryThing stats

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

Best Novel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 2020 books

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read 20 books that month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday reading

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

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

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

Representing Europeans: A Pragmatic Approach, by Richard Rose

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Long night?”

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

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

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

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić

Second paragraph of third chapter, in original Croatian, and English translation:

– Koje?‘What?’

This won the Tiptree Award in 2010, but is also of interest to me because I know Croatia a bit – we lived in Zagreb for several months in 1998, and I get back when I can.

It’s a novel in three parts. In the first, the (Croatian) narrator talks about her elderly (Bulgarian) mother in Zagreb, and visits Bulgaria; the second part, which occupies the middle two quarters of the book, is about three old Czech ladies at a spa, and the various people they interact with, including a Bosnian masseur; and a fictional anthropologist’s guide to the lore of Baba Yaga, the mythic Slavic crone who flies in various conveyances (often a mortar bowl) across the land.

The stories are engaging in themselves, and also very layered in folklore, with the last section explaining some of the roots of the first two. It’s very entertaining to see old themes reworked, and it works in part because the old folkoric themes are so powerful and tap us at a deep level, and in part because it is funny. The third section, an academic essay in form, ought not to work – I’ve seen other authors earnestly explaining the symbolism of their stories, usually very badly – but it does, I think because Ugrešić’s humour comes through as well.

I also found it interesting that Ugrešić has pulled together perspectives from several different Slavic traditions – Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech and Bosnian – and found threads unifying them. Certainly I had always thought of Baba Yaga purely in Russian terms, and it’s salient to be reminded that there are a lot of other places that share the old Slavic traditions in different ways.

It’s also quite short, another point in its favour. You can get it here.

Of the other works on the Honor List for that year’s Tiptree Award, I think the only one I have read is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. There were also four other novels, a non-fiction book, and two short stories (both by the same writer).

I read all five BSFA shortlisted novels that year and recorded my vote, which was for Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game; it was won by my second choice, The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. The other three nominees were Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes; The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi; and Lightborn, by Tricia Sullivan.

I also read all six novels on the Clarke shortlist that year. I would have voted for The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, but was happy enough that the winner was Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. The others were Lightborn, by Tricia Sullivan, again, joined by Generosity, by Richard Powers; Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness; and Declare, by Tim Powers.

That was the year that both Hugo and Nebula Best Novel voters went for Connie Willis’ massive and awful Blackout/All Clear. For Best Dramatic Presentation, both sets of voters chose Inception, which I think has stood the test of time better.

The following year, again, I have read both the Clarke and BSFA winners, but not the Tiptree winner, Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston, so it’s next on this pile.

February books

Non-fiction 4 (YTD 13)
The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus Du Sautoy
Timelash, by Phil Pascoe
Listen, by Dewi Small
Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle

Non-genre 1 (YTD 3)
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

SF 19 (YTD 41)
σ2 (did not finish)
Roadside Picnic, by Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky
Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. John J. Miller
χ2 (did not finish)
ψ2 (did not finish)
ω2 (did not finish)
α3 (did not finish)
β3 (did not finish)
Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser Hallard
ε3 (did not finish)
ζ3 (did not finish)
Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C Clarke

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 8)
Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light, by Rona Munro
Lucy Wilson & the Bledoe Cadets, by Tim Gambrell
Doctor Who: Timelash, by Glen McCoy

Comics 1 (YTD 5)
Agent Provocateur, by Gary Russell et al

6,100 pages (YTD 16,000)
12/28 (YTD 29/73) by non-male writers (McGowan-Doyle, σ2, τ2, υ2, φ2, χ2, ψ2, α3, β3, ε3, Munro, η3)
9/28 (YTD 14/73) by a non-white writer (ρ2, σ2, τ2, υ2, φ2, χ2, ψ2, α3, McCoy)
385 books currently tagged “unread”, 31 less than last month after some recalibration.

Reading now
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
The Best of Ian McDonald

Coming soon (perhaps)
Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean
Warring States, by Mags Halliday
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed ???
Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, by James Mortimer
The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits, by Simon Schama
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond
The Deep State of Europe: Welcome to Hell, by Basil Coronakis
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel
Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, ed. Sheree Renee Thomas
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
Winter, by Ali Smith

May 2020 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in late 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 continued to labour under COVID restrictions in May 2020, but our office had reopened for one day a week by the middle of the month and I certainly took advantage of being able to (cautiously) share physical space with colleagues.

I also indulged in some nostalgia, digging out photographs from my 21st birthday party in 1988. The lady in the red jacket later married the guy who is visible over my shoulder, who was one of my co-hosts. The lady in green married another of the co-hosts. The fourth co-host was the much missed Liz.

We finished the month with a visit to the park at Tervuren on a blisteringly hot day.

I kept up my ten-day plague posts:

And I did a last few videos from the village.

I read only 18 books this month.

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 26)
The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe, by Thomas Levenson
Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones
A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003, by P. E. Winter
Roger of Hereford’s Judicial Astrology: England’s First Astrology Book?, by Chris Mitchell
A border too far: the Ilemi triangle yesterday and today, by Philip Winter

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 12)
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
The Accident, by Ismail Kadarë

sf (non-Who): 9 (YTD 65)
Riverland, by Fran Wilde
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime 1: Breaking Strain, by Paul Preuss
Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Nightmare Stacks, by Charles Stross
The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht
Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

Comics: 2 (YTD 15)
Peanuts: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz, ed. Shannon Watters
The Wicked + The Divine vol 1: The Faust Act, by Kieron Gillen etc

5,000 pages (YTD 33,500)
6/18 (YTD 43/124) by non-male writers (Jones, Wilde, McGuire, Dorsey, Olbreht, Walters)
0/18 (YTD 13/124) by PoC

The best of these was my former colleague Philip Winter’s account of peacemaking in DR Congo, A Sacred Cause, which you can get here. I also enjoyed rereading The Godfather, which you can get here, and reading for the first time Make Room! Make Room!, which you can get here. Nothing too awful this month.

Sunday reading

Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C Clarke
The Best of Ian McDonald

Last books finished
Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle
ε3 (did not finish)
ζ3 (did not finish)

Next books
Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean
The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel

Los Angeles: A bookshop and a cemetery

Just a few more photos from last weekend, taken after I wrote my blog post on Monday.

First of all, a nice fannish moment in the hotel lobby with Daniel Anthony, who played Clyde in the Sarah Jane Adventures, and does not appear to have aged in the last ten years.

Also, fashionable slippers that I envied a little.

Then we went up to Hollywood with a bunch of Doctor Who writers, first stop the Mystery Pier Bookshop, owned by former actress Pamela Franklin and her husband. (She was out shopping.)

They specialise in first editions, including signed copies of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, and of Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands.

Then it was on to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which has a tremendous setting.

We were there to pay our respects to Tony Beckley, who played Harrison Chase in The Seeds of Doom (1976) and was one of the first prominent British actors to die of AIDS, in 1980.

We held a little commemoration.

Other interesting graves there include Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, with the epitaph “That’s All, Folks!”

This extraordinary grave belongs to Mike Szymanski, who is still alive:

Another striking monument to Romanian film director Mihai Iacob:

I had no idea that there were so many Armenians in the film industry, or in Hollywood at least:

And the cemetery has peacocks, though we are advised not to feed them.

Finally, H and I had a good long chat with Kenny Smith of Big Finish on our way home as he too was flying to Heathrow. He grumbled that I didn’t mention that in my previous post, but in fairness that was written first thing Monday morning, hours before we flew together!

The Karmic Curve: How to have it (nearly) all, but not all at the same time, by “Mary I. Williams” (Ian Vollbracht and Nadine Toscani)

Second paragraph (with heading) of third chapter:

Tip 7 – Well-trained, well-educated, enthusiastic

We may be woefully out of date, but we struggle to improve much on the ancient advice on how to succeed in an Oxbridge interview. Well-trained means you know your stuff. Well-educated means you have some breadth, knowledge of the world, and at least an inkling of the social skills you’ll need to get on over time. We can’t teach you these things here, but any good interviewer will certainly test them.

I picked this up after a positive mention in POLITICO years ago, but have only now got around to it. It’s a book about managing work-life balance, a genre I used to read fairly frequently but haven’t looked at for years (perhaps because I feel my work and life are a bit more balanced than they used to be). The point of local interest is that the authors are based in Brussels, so some of the anecdotes have more resonance for me than might be the case for most readers.

It’s quite a thin book, to be honest, but there are a couple of good points. One nice tip is to have a special email account to which you send the venting emails that you might otherwise foolishly send to colleagues and contacts. I also liked the characterisation of the Scrappy-Doo in the workplace:

They work hard all of the time, battle for everything, and then wag their little tails whenever Uncle, or Auntie, Scooby gives them a cookie. And bosses love them for it. Note also that scrappies may be bright and capable, but this is certainly not a requirement for moderately – in some cases hugely – successful Scrappy-hood, however exhausting it may be.

We’ve all known people like this, and indeed a lot of us have been people like this at some point in our career; and the authors give some useful tips on dealing with Scrappies compassionately but effectively.

You can get it here.

This was the shortest book that I had acquired in 2016 which was still on the unread shelves. Next on that pile is Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard.

Death Draws Five, by John Jos. Miller

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It certainly wasn’t his brain. If he’d thought about it at all, he’d have run away from the flying bullets. Whatever it was that made him accompany Ray was something deeper in his make-up. His heart. Perhaps his gut. His reaction was more instinctive than rational. Jerry would have sighed to himself if he’d had the time. He’d always considered himself a smart guy, and this was just crazy.

A full-length novel in GRRM’s Wild Cards series, which I got in the same Humble Bundle as the Amber prequels. The setting is a roughly contemporary America decades after thousands were infected with a virus that gave them varying superhero powers. A former President and a dissident wing of the Vatican believe that the child of two such “Aces” is the Messiah reborn, or possibly the Antichrist. It’s tricky to handle this topic in pulp format, but Miller makes a good fist of it.

Unfortunately I’m going to complain again about the formatting of the electronic book. Most of the chapter headings have been displaced to the end of the book, as a weird appendix, and that means the text is not broken up helpfully for the reader. The publisher, iBooks, folded before the paper version of the book went on general release, but that’s no excuse. It’s not as bad as the Zelazny collection, but it’s not good.

You can get the Tor re-release here; hopefully it won’t have the same problem.

This was the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next is another Wild Cards book, Deuces Down, an anthology edited by Miller.

Neptune, vols 1 and 2, by Leo

Second frame of third page of volume 1:

It’s the end of three years in Paris, of boring courses, unpleasant trainings and being forced to follow military discipline, which I can’t stand.

Second frame of third page of volume 2:

They finally let themselves be convinced, given that our minds were made up. Once the decision was taken, we got on with our preparations and said the difficult goodbyes to our comrades.

As my regular reader knows, I have a long-term fascination with the Aldébaran series of bandes dessinées by Brazilian-French artist Leo. Last year he published a two-episode story, Neptune, which takes us on the next steps of the story of the series’ central character, Kim, and her new young colleague, Manon. Despite their young age, their life experience makes them ideal members of a team sent to explore a mysterious alien structure that appears in Earth’s solar system; it’s a nicely done homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama, and other similar stories. The mysterious object turns out to contain some mysterious humans in a jungle habitat filled with new forms of alien life, so Leo executes his usual flamboyant otherworldly landscapes. It’s a good taster for the rest of his works, so if you want to see if Leo writes the kind of bandes dessinées that you might like, you could do worse than starting with Neptune. You can get volume 1 here and volume 2 here in French; volume 1 comes out in English translation next week, and volume 2 in April.

April 2020 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in late 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.

Not surprisingly, I went no further than Brussels in April 2020, and that was only once to deliver essential supplies to two colleagues who had joined just as lockdown hit. We met in the open air by the monument to the brave carrier pigeons of the first world war.

I kept up my ten-day plague posts…

…and also my occasional videos about our village.

The last Sunday of the month was my birthday, and I had a virtual party on Zoom to which dozens of friends and relatives came. It was very affirming.

I read 28 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 21)
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, by Mallory O’Meara
The European Parliament, by Francis Jacobs, Richard Corbett and Michael Shackleton
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, by J. Michael Straczynski
The French Connection, by Robin Moore

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 10)
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
Muddy Lane, by Andrew Cheffings
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

sf (non-Who): 14 (YTD 56)
The Wind on the Moon, by Eric Linklater
Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka
The Wicked King, by Holly Black
The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsin Muir
A Woman in Space, by Sara Cavanagh
Catfishing on Catnet, by Naomi Kritzer
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson – did not finish
Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee
The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells
The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Comics: 7 (YTD 13)
Mooncakes, by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
Wiske, by Willy Vandersteen
Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Barabas, by Willy Vandersteen
LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin
Torchwood: World Without End, by John Barrowman, Carole Barrowman, Antonio Fuso and Pasquale Qualano
The Heralds of Destruction, by Paul Cornell and Christopher Jones

7,800 pages (YTD 28,500)
14/28 (YTD 37/106) by non-male writers (O’Meara, Levy, “Kingfisher” [Vernon], Black, Jansson, Muir, Cavanaugh, Kritzer, Solomon, Lowry, Xu/Walker, Liu/Takeda, Okorafor/Ford, Barrowman)
5/28 (YTD 13/106) by PoC (Levy, Solomon/Diggs, Xu, Liu/Takeda, Okorafor)

I particularly loved Catfishing on CatNet, which you can get here, and The Lady from the Black Lagoon, which you can get here.

A Woman in Space, by “Sara Cavanaugh” (surely a pseudonym) is so bad that it must be deliberate. You can get it here.