A planet where human beings, for some reason, have started to behave like bees (as far as this is convenient for what the author wants to do with the plot): rival queens duel to the death in naked single combat, non-working males are brutally killed off, and the female workers who really keep things going are kept on a low-protein diet to prevent them from becoming fertile. Our subversive and intelligent heroine meets an expedition from Earth, eats meat for the first time and thus becomes a Real Woman; and society collapses into monogamy and nuclear families. I think there is some great analysis waiting to be done here.

I got this ages back from Arc Manor, who send a free ebook monthly to subscribers. I realised pretty early on that I would never have time to read them so I think this is the only one I have downloaded.
A short but intense book about family histories echoing and suddenly climaxing across the decades, with Esme and her great-niece Iris suddenly discovering each other's existence and forced to navigate two different generations' poisoned sibling relationships. Esme is a particularly fascinating creation, institutionalised for no good reason for sixty years, then forced to come to terms with a new world - and finding this a reason to explore her own past in more detail. A very short book that packs a heck of a punch.
The magisterial work on late 16th century Ireland, originally published in 1885-90 and now available from iTunes (vol 1, vol2, vol 3). I've already read a lot of the later literature on the period, so it's interesting to look at this as a somewhat flawed foundation stone for everything that came later. I was pleasantly surprised that the author's supposed Unionist sympathies were not more obvious; but he does rather concentrate on the internal dynamics of the Dublin government, rather than engaging with what the Irish chieftains might have been thinking, and also rather more on Munster than on Leinster, Connacht or Ulster. I don't much mind the former, as I too am trying to track the relations between Dublin Castle and London, but the latter is a bit annoying, especially given the rather uninformative maps in the volume, which are essentially outline sketches of the whole island with a few regions offhandedly shaded in. The first section, which takes the story to the reign of Henry VIII (his father is dealt with in a single chapter), is also quite informative. But I was struck by the extent to which Bagwell rather glides over the military denouements which are the cornerstone of later narrative - the Battle of Kinsale being the most obvious example. The term "Nine Years' War" is not used at all.

Plenty of quotes from Sir Nicholas White, though he fades out of the story without explanation at the point of Sir John Perrot's imprisonment and death.

Asquith's notes, 29 July 1914


The Amending Bill and the whole Irish business are, of course, put into the shade by the coming war, for it now seems as if nothing but a miracle will avert it. After dinner I went across to E[dward] Grey and sat with him and Haldane till 1 a.m.; talking over the situation and trying to discover bridges and outlets. It is one of the ironies of the case that we, being the only Power who has made so much as a constructive suggestion in the direction of peace, are blamed by both Russia and Germany for causing the outbreak of war.

July Books 12) Crash, by J.G. Ballard


Gosh. Difficult to know where to start or finish with this very disturbing book about a group of people who are brought together by their sexual interest in car crashes. It's very grittily and credibly set in West London; the car crash scenes are somewhat more erotic than the sex scenes, which are full of somewhat disgusting detail; and the whole is awfully well done, but I'm not sure I would want to read it again, or that I would necessarily recommend it to anyone else.


A rather impressive little ebook from the BBC, downloadable from here - free to people in the UK until 31 July, the rest of us have to pay. Gavin Collinson has assembled the usual material, complete with video clips from both Old and New Who, about the Cybermen, and Joe Lidster supplies a suitably creepy story. Aimed at the 6-12s, but I was pretty satisfied with it myself. Apparently this is by way of being a pilot project to see if there is take-up for it; I hope there will be more.

A novel set in a near future, in a city supposedly on the Pacific coast of America but in fact closely based on Belfast (neighbourhoods called the Queen's Quarter, Titanic, the Village, Tomb Street), where mobsters and programmers recreate Jesus, who has been largely forgotten, as an AI. It didn't really work for me; I think if you bring a recreated Jesus into a story you need more robust underpinning, including a better explanation of why he has been forgotten so quickly, particularly in a story whose setting is based on a city so heavily impacted by people claiming to follow him.
doctor who

I thought this was a rather good Eighth Doctor adventure, with Team Tardis getting caught up in a complex struggle between time travellers seeking the eponymous artefact, the Doctor, Fitz and Anji each being subjected to separate but entertainingly appropriate adventures. Apparently this was a point when the series was winding down, but there seems to have been a bit of an uptick in quality.

Asquith's notes, 26 July 1914

No one can say what is going to happen in the East of Europe. The news this morning is that Servia has capitulated on the main point, but it is very doubtful if any reservation will be accepted by Austria, who is resolved upon a complete and final humiliation. The curious thing is that on many, if not most, of the points Austria has a good and Servia a very bad case, but the Austrians are quite the stupidest people in Europe. There is a brutality about their mode of procedure which will make most people think that this is a case of a big Power wantonly bullying a little one. Anyhow, it is the most dangerous situation of the last forty years. It may incidentally have the effect of throwing into the background the lurid pictures of civil war in Ulster.
A collection of fifteen short comic strip stories about Brussels, funded by the Flemish Independent Guild of Comic Strips (yes, it exists) and the Flemish Brussels Cultural Cell (yes, it exists too) and edited by Marc Verhaegen (who we have met before). The stories are all told by an old man sitting in the corner of a contemporary cafe, but all take place in the medieval period (and we are to understand that he has somehow survived from that day to this). None of them is terribly deep; there are three different origin myths for the Mannekin Pis. My favourite was probably the second one, about Saint Guido, supposedly the patron saint of taxi drivers, written by Lük Bey and subversively illsutrated by Reinhart Croon. The point of the book is of course that it's there and it's in Dutch.
A textbook mainly for language teachers (which I am not), from which I got two interesting things. The first is that it's amazing how little we actually know. Even the apparently obvious point that children find it easier to learn languages is only weakly backed up by research. There's obviously a big difference between learning your first language (or languages) and learning another after you can already talk. But I didn't feel that researchers had got much beyond accumulating data.

The second point is that one of the things that is known is that some grammatical elements are easier to learn than others. Take this list of English grammar points:
  1. present progressive –ing (Mommy running)
  2. plural –s (Two books)
  3. irregular past forms (Baby went)
  4. possessive 's (Daddy's hat)
  5. copula (Annie is happy)
  6. articles the and a
  7. regular past –ed (She walked)
  8. Third person singular simple present –s (She runs)
  9. Auxiliary be (He is coming)
Apparently a child who has learnt the lower items is sure to have also managed the upper ones, but the reverse is not true. (Slightly odd that irregular past tense should be learned before regular past tense; but there you go.)

I'd be hugely interested to know if anyone has tried researching such a table for cases other than English - looking at it, I thought immediately of Russian, which uses neither copula nor articles, but of course has numerous cases for nouns and distinguishes between transitive and intransitive verbs. Surely we could learn quite a lot about deep structure, including whether there is really much evidence for it in the first place, by comparing surveys like that across different (or indeed similar) languages?

Anyway, I shall continue the occasional browse of our language shelves.

Links I found interesting for 25-07-2014



So, poor old Roz, eh? Having done due service to the Seventh Doctor for 18 books, she dies in battle defending her high-powered family, one of whom is an even closer relative than she first seems, against a peculiar shape-shifting alien threat. I'm afraid the plot rambled a bit too much for me, but I did like the lifting of the veil to Roz's background - rather as we were told about Turlough back in 1984, only done better this time. Not one of the great New Adventures unfortunately, but an important building block of the (soon to be completed) series.
I very much got into this story of a young American in Mexico who ends up working for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, is present at the murder of Trotsky, moves to the USA (where in fact he has not previously lived) and gets caught in the web of McCarthyism.  Lots of good description and acute personal observation. Not quite as gripping as The Poisonwood Bible, but perhaps a bit more circumstantially convincing.

Asquith's notes, 24 July 1914

At 3.15 we had a cabinet, where there was a lot of talk about Ulster, but the real interest was Grey's statement of the European situation, which is about as bad as it could be. Austria has sent a bullying and humiliating ultimatum to Servia, who cannot possibly comply with it, and demands an answer in 48 hours - failing which she will march. This means almost inevitably that Russia will come on the scene in defence of Servia, and if so it is difficult both for Germany and for France to refrain from lending a hand. So that we are within measurable distance of a real Armageddon.

Wednesday reading

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

Last books finished
[Doctor Who] So Vile a Sin, by Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman
How Languages are Learned, by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada
Brussel in Beeldekes: Manneken Pis en andere sjarels, ed. Marc Verhaegen 
Plastic Jesus, by Wayne Simmons
[Doctor Who] The Book of the Still, by Paul Ebbs
Doctor Who: Cybermen Monster File
Crash, by J.G. Ballard
Ireland Under The Tudors vol 3, by Richard Bagwell

Last week's audios
[Doctor Who] Destroy the Infinite, by Nicholas Briggs
current: [Bernice Summerfield] The Revolution, by Nev Fountain

Next books
Rogue Queen, by L. Sprague de Camp
334, by Tom Disch
Billionaire Boy, by Davd Walliams
train, tintin, leuven
After my sampling of Suske en Wiske last month, young F was anxious that I should get a decent impression of the more recent stories in the series, and lent me this one from 2008 in which our heroes fly to the newly established Belgian base in Antarctica to investigate strange goings on there (the story is therefore in part advance publicity for the actual base, which opened for business in 2009). As with De Apenkermis forty years earlier, the core sf element is meteoric radiation which causes animals to acquire human intelligence and makes them conspire to take over the world; as with Het Aruba-dossier, poor aunt Sidonia is sidelined from the story from the beginning and doesn't get to travel. Indeed, Suske and Wiske themselves are almost left behind and have to smuggle themselves into Antarctica. (This gives rise to one of several metatextual moments in the book, when Suske indignantly asks whose names are on the front cover anyway; at another point it is so cold that the speech bubbles freeze as they leave the characters' mouths.) I do admit that it is a bit cleverer and actually funnier than the other volumes I read, though the entire problem could have been solved pretty quickly by Jerome working to Professor Barabas's orders, with Suske, Wiske and especially Lambik just getting in the way (when Lambik gets hit by meteoric radiation, he suffers an explicitly Hulk-like transformation and gets in the way even more). The Suske en Wiske line doesn't look to be in immediate danger of fading away.

Links I found interesting for 23-07-2014

There are sometimes diminishing returns in publishing material that a long-dead writer never saw fit for publication; sometimes, when the work is put away in a drawer for the rest of the creator's life, it is the right decision. Adam Roberts has written of his disappointment with this publication of Tolkien's translation of Beowulf, though I actually found there was enough here to keep me entertained. As well as a 200-page prose translation of the poem itself - which did give me some new insights, in particular in that Tolkien is not at all shy about the Christian content - we get Tolkien's lecture notes on the first two-thirds of it, which are full of fascinating and wide-ranging Anglo-Saxon speculation (Scyld Scefing's name points to ancient corn cults, for instance).

We also get "Sellic Spell", a reworking of the Beowulf story by Tolkien to get nearer what he would have liked the original version to be - a very interesting riff on ancient tales, which I think is in the same respectful spirit of innovation as, say, the 2005 Icelandic version starring Gerald Butler, or the 2007 Robert Zeleckis animated version whose script was co-written by Neil Gaiman. It's an interesting insight into how Tolkien conceived of story-telling, and a snapshot, or a series of snapshots, of his own take on the poem that inspired his best known academic work and clearly lay behind his writing.

Let's be clear, Seamus Heaney's 1999 translation is far superior, but also veers a little further from the original meaning, if creatively so. Here's a good example from lines 286-289 of the original, where the watchman on the beach resiles with dignity from his initially hostile reaction to Beowulf's arrival:
Weard maþelode,                ðær on wicge sæt,
ombeht unforht:                "æghwæþres sceal
scearp scyldwiga                gescad witan,
worda ond worca,                se þe wel þenceð."
Heaney's translation:
Undaunted, sitting astride his horse,
The coast-guard answered, "Anyone with gumption
And a sharp mind will take the measure
Of two things: what’s said and what’s done.["]
The watchman spake, sitting there upon his steed, fearless servant of the king: ["]A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds[."]
Tolkien's lecture notes, recasting the spoken sentence:
"A man of acumen, who considers things properly, will naturally show discernment in judging words and deeds."
Note the differences:
  1. Tolkien's translation is potentially ambiguous as to whether the watchman or the steed is the fearless servant of the king! His "fearless" is anyway not as good as Heaney's "undaunted", in that the original "unforht" clearly refers to the relationship between the speaker and Beowulf; Heaney's coast-guard is standing up to a suspicious bunch of armed men, Tolkien's watchman is just generally not frightened. And the king, mentioned by Tolkien, is not mentioned in this part of the original, though I guess he's implied as the employer of an "ombeht"; Heaney takes it as read that we understand who the coast-guard works for. (I am tickled by the link to Dutch "ambtenaar", meaning "civil servant", which comes from "ambacht", which now means something different but was originally the same word as "ombeht".)
  2. Tolkien is consciously archaic: "spake" instead of "answered"; "steed" instead of "horse". Heaney uses the good colloquial word "gumption" rather than "keen wit" or "acumen" to translate the standard that the coastguard sets himself.
  3. In both the translation and the lecture notes, Tolkien dissipates the force of the final line's "worda ond worca" - "words and deeds" is not bad in English, but doesn't have the same ring as "what's said and what's done"; more importantly, the fact that the sentence starts with "æghwæþres" flags that there's a choice involving two things coming up (yeah, I am simplifying a bit), and Tolkien's "both words and deeds" tagged on at the end loses that emphasis, whereas Heaney builds up to it and delivers a punchline.
Of course, it's deeply unfair to make the comparison. Heaney produced this towards the end of a long career, shortly after winning the Nobel prize; Tolkien knocked this off as a teaching aid in the 1920s, years before he started on his best known writing, and with no intention of ever publishing it. We Tolkien completists will not be too disappointed by it.
A decent enough story of the Fourth Doctor meeting up with an older Harry Sullivan at the end of 1999, to prevent aliens exploiting fears of the Millennium Bug to Conquer The Earth. The Fourth Doctor does need a female companion, though, it's not quite the same just with Harry (who misses Sarah; don't we all). Justin Richards is this generation's Terrance Dicks, in that he's written more Who novels than anyone else (indeed, than anyone except Dicks if my count is correct); this is a case of him doing a decent job.
We picked this up at the commemoration of the Battle of Wavre. It's pretty awful; not just a case of the English being an imperfect translation from the French, but I suspect the French original is as poorly structured and rambling as the English version. Readers will, for instance, be startled to learn that "Wellington was an Englishman, a bit like Paddington Bear." None of those things is quite like the other. Wellington was born in Ireland, and Paddington Bear was a) from Peru and b) a bear. The book is aimed at the 6-12 age group, and they will like the illustrations but may not learn much from the text.
A competent retelling for today's younger audience of the story of Aillén the Burner from the Boyhood Deeds of Finn MacCool, enlivened by McGann's own illustrations.
Won the 1995 Tiptree Award. I wasn't quite sure what to expect; it's not terribly closely related to Shelley's own Frankenstein (and I'm baffled by the numerous online reviews whining that it's not a "sequel" - most of the book is set before the action of the original novel, so if anything it would be a prequel; but in reality it is an extended meditation on the character of Elizabeth Frankenstein and what might have shaped her life and Victor's to their date with destiny. It provides an unexpected background of the creation of the monster in the obsession of the senior Baroness Frankenstein with alchemy, and her manipulation of Elizabeth (who is presented as Victor's adopted sister, as well as his eventual wife) and Victor as part of her own grand plan, which inevitably grinds to a halt against Victor's interest in science rather than alchemy, though he shares the goal of creating a new form of life (and indeed is more successful). Poor Elizabeth is nastily manipulated by everyone, though I was amused by the outraged scholarly apparatus purportedly provided by an older Robert Walton (who, as everyone forgets, is the narrator of the framing story in Shelley). Inevitably one must compare with Mists of Avalon, which is the same sort of book (reframing of familiar legendary material through perspective of an alternative, more female-centred and largely fictional belief system). I think Roszak is a bit more disciplined than Bradley, but is also drawing on a smaller canvas which may make that easier.

June Books 26) Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler

I thought this was a fascinating and gripping book, with Butler exploring symbiosis and slavery - topics she often returned to - in the context of renewing humanity after future disaster and alien intervention. In particular, her portrayal of human/alien intimacy, both physical and emotional, is pretty vivid without being titillating. Also commendably short. First of a trilogy; will look out for the other two.

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