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Monday reading

Current
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing
Patrick Troughton: The Biography of the Second Doctor Who, by Michael Troughton
Providence, Act 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
Watching the English, by Kate Fox

Last books finished
An Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute
You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hermans
The Tree of Life, by Mark Michalowski
Quoth the Raven, by Jane Haddam
Rather Be The Devil, by Ian Rankin
Five Escape Brexit Island, by Bruno Vincent

Next books
Daystar and Shadow, by James B. Johnson
The Island Of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy

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Earlier today Anne and I went to the Abdij van Park, a former monastery near Leuven, to see their current exhibition, "Van de Wereld: Beelden van Beslotenheid en Bevrjding" which they translate as "(Un)worldly. Images of Seclusion and Liberation". It's a small but quite powerful exhibition with some fascinating images of monasticism and mysticism. Just a couple of pieces that really struck me:



This is the only signed work by Jan Mandijn, clearly a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (who would have been at least a generation older), showing the Temptation of St Anthony, painted around 1550. Normally it's in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem up north in the Netherlands, so it's nice to have it locally. I am a Bosch fan anyway, but it's fascinating to see another painter picking up the same themes and taking them in a slightly different direction.



This is St Catherine of Siena, drinking the blood of Christ as part of her mystical experiences (the right panel shows her fainting, which is not terribly surprising). Very strange but also fascinating.

There are some very silly plaster Child Jesuses.

As well as lots of medieval and early modern paintings, sculptures and books, there are some contemporary artisis on display. We were pretty impressed by Mario De Brabandere's images of the monastic life, quite enjoyed Marlene Dumas' paintings, but were frankly puzzled by the two pieces by Ann Veronica Janssens.

Anyway, the exhibition continues to the end of February; as the Michelin guides used to say, worth a detour if you are in this part of the world.
In my last job, I got very much engaged in the issue of Western Sahara - the territory in northwest Africa which was abandoned by Spain in 1975 and mostly occupied and illegally annexed by Morocco in the subsequent years, with a promised referendum on its future status perpetually postponed by the Moroccans. In particular, my best achievement in EU politics was to help persuade the European Parliament to reject a 2011 extension of the EU-Morocco fisheries protocol which would have allowed the continuing exploitation of the seas off the territory. (Unfortunately a later extension was approved in 2013 and remains in force until later this year.)

The argument on fisheries was as follows. The pro-Western Sahara side argued that the territory is occupied and therefore subject to the rules of international humanitarian law (as was eg Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003-04). Its resources, including off-shore resources, must therefore be exploited only with the consent of the local population, and for their benefit. The EU should not therefore be in the business of making agreements that treat the Western Sahara as if it was any part of Morocco.

EU officials who I picked this up with would reply that they were agnostic about the Western Sahara's status, and it was Morocco's business, not the EU's, how and where the fisheries agreement would be applied. This later got modified to acknowledging that some of the fisheries profits needed to benefit local people, but with no explicit mention of Western Sahara in the legal documents themselves. This of course was driven by the (entirely real) needs of Spanish fishermen to continue fishing those waters, which had been part of the understanding on which Spain joined the EU in 1985, and the political closeness between Moroccan and French political elites.

The counter-argument is that the EU and its treaties should be subject to international law, and that the fisheries agreement clearly breached it. The problem was finding a legal means by which this can be done. We tried and failed to get the European Parliament to refer the question to the ECJ in 2011.

In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that a different EU-Morocco agreement on agriculture was illegal because it included the Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The EU succeeded on appeal in having the agreement reinstated, but only insofar is it did not apply to Western Sahara. Those actions were brought by the Polisario Front, the liberation movement of Western Sahara. A substantial part of the proceedings revolved around whether or not the Polisario Front, which obviously is not itself an EU-based organisation, should have the right to appear in the proceedings at all.

Last week the ECJ's Advocate-General, the official whose job it is to lay out the legal principles of each case to the judges and report on the likely ruling, published his opinion on the fisheries agreement. It's pretty hard-hitting. He says,
Since the assertion of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is the result of a breach of the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination, the Advocate General concludes that the EU has failed to fulfil its obligation not to recognise the illegal situation resulting from the breach, by Morocco, of the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and also not to render aid or assistance in maintaining that situation.
(Full opinion here, full of juicy lawyerly details.) The Court may (and sometimes does) choose to go in a different direction from the Advocate-General, but they are all reading the same texts and are therefore likely to come to the same conclusion.

This matters because Morocco's policy for forty years has been one of normalising the status quo and the illegal occupation of their southern neighbours. The EU, by not differentiating between Morocco and Western Sahara in its international agreements, was colluding in that process. The ECJ has now said, twice, that that must stop.

Total congratulations to John Gurr and his colleagues in Western Sahara Campaign UK, a tiny NGO headquartered in Cardiff, which found a legal path to take this case through the British system and up to the ECJ, shaking the foundations of the EU's policy in its neighbourhood. It is a proof of Margaret Mead's dictum: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

(I should add that these days I am a mere observer of this question; I haven’t worked on the Western Sahara issue since 2014.)

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Duolingo - how it worked out

A bit over a year ago I blogged about my experiences with Duolingo, the language-learning app. At that point I had been trying it only with Irish and Dutch; the system gives you sentences to translate and other exercises, some of which are rather amusing.

Dutch

The Dutch course in particular displays a bit of a fixation.
     

It would occasionally also lapse into conteporary post-Brexit politics:

And tautology:

And surrealism.
 

Though on Valentine's Day, it was a bit more relevant.

Irish

Meanwhile on the day of the Assembly election in March, the Irish course, whether by accident or design, had several relevant exercises:
   

At other times it had geographical/linguistic observations:

But also the occasional existential sigh:
 

Russian

On top of Irish and Dutch, I also picked up the Russian course as well. It has a distinct twist towards not only the surreal but even the fantasic.
           

Which of course leads to the only question that matters (formal Вы on the left, informal Ты on the right):
 

There is also a certain amount of contamination from the Dutch course to the Russian and Irish courses:
 

Well, it was all good fun - and I did the French and German courses too - but after about a year of it I realised that I had very definitely stalled, and Duolingo had got me to particular levels in all five languages - which in the case of French, Dutch and German was not a lot ahead of where I already was - and would get me no further. In particular, although I got to the stage where I had actually finished the Irish course, with all 60-odd exercises gratifyingly completed, my Irish remains in terrible shape. My basic vocabulary is somewhat improved, but my instinct for the grammar is still pretty poor, and I remain baffled by eclipsis and lenition. I think my Russian benefited a bit more from the experiment than my Irish did - the course is more substantial. (I also completed the French and German courses, which were a lot less surreal; my Dutch is still better than either, though Duolingo did not seem to think so.)

So I've gone back to reading on the train, and listening to Doctor Who audios as I walk from home to station and station to work, and so far this year I have finished reading 14 books and it's only January 13th. So you'll see more bookblogging this year, and no more Duolingo screenshots.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
The nation seemed to stand still during the special broadcasts, as the Recovery 7 craft was sent into space to link up with Mars Probe 7. City streets were virtually empty and cinemas complained of a massive drop in attendances. They blamed the Mars Probe crisis - why should people go to the cinema to see simulated drama when the real thing was being beamed directly into their homes 24 hours a day? The event turned presenter John Wakefield into a television star overnight as his intelligent and thoughtful commentary gave simple explanations to the complex manoeuvrings going on behind the scenes.
When I first read this in 2007, I wrote:
An unusual spinoff novel this: investigative journalist James Stevens (fictional, though listed on the cover as a co-author) decides to write up The Truth about UNIT and the mysterious set of individuals going by the code name of "The Doctor". He ends up playing a very "Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are dead" role, as the man on the far end of the Brigadier's yelling at journalists in seasons 7 and 8; and Bishop explores what the TV adventures would have looked like from the outside point of view - how the authorities would have covered it all up. Dodo comes into the picture because the very first Doctor Who story set in the "present day", The War Machines, sees her brainwashed and written out of the series by being sent to the countryside to recuperate. Who Killed Kennedy? picks up her tragic story from several years later. Bishop describes her as "a late addition to the cast of the [book] and was originally only going to appear in [one] chapter, passing on information to Stevens. But once she appeared on the page Dodo wanted to stick around. It's a strange experience when a character takes charge of their own destiny while you're writing and Dodo was the first time this had happened to me." Certainly the relationship between Dodo and the narrator is a core element of the story, in a way that (as the author admits in his on-line notes) the actual assassination of JFK, which is after all the title, is not. Some would probably accuse this novel of too much "fanwank", ie obsessive references to continuity with the TV series, but I think that would be unfair; Bishop is actually doing something very different here, telling familiar stories from a different angle, and I think it largely works.

His commentary and notes for the online publication of the book seemed to me more engaging than any others I have read. I wonder if this is because Bishop, a native Kiwi, was writing for the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club, rather than for the BBC; so it's a letter home about the book that he wrote, rather than an extra element in the official website for the programme.
I would add that although the actual Kennedy assassination itself is rather detached from the plot, Bishop successfully applies the same narrator-as-observer approach to it as he did to the 1970s in Doctor Who canon.

Bishop has now rewritten the last chapter (still available on the New Zealand Doctor Who fan Club website) to give the book a different (and happier) ending, bringing in the Twelfth Doctor to enable the dénouement. I agree with him that it works better now.

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Second snippet from third chapter:
A clear sightline could not be obtained for the crush; one moved dazed through a veritable bazaar of scents, colognes, perfumes, fans, hairpieces, hats, grimacing faces, mouths held open in sudden shrieks, whether joyful or terrified it was difficult to say.
In “All This Did I See: Memories of a Terrible Time,” by Mrs. Margaret Garrett.
This has already won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, and ought to make a few of this year's sf lists as well. It's set in 1862, in the immediate aftermath of the death of President Lincoln's 11-year-old son, with the main thrust of the narrative being reflections from the ghosts of others who are buried nearby - most of them in denial about their own deaths, sure that they are merely sick - interleavened with quotes from historical sources, some genuine, some invented (the latter includes “All This Did I See: Memories of a Terrible Time,” by Mrs. Margaret Garrett). I thought it was really well done; often stories about the afterlife end up being twee or incoherent, but Saunders has set up a weird situation and exploited it well, mainly for emotional impact but also with some reflections on race and social class, and on the enigmatic character of President Lincoln. There are some points where he misses the right words for the 1860's, but one has to make allowances. Get it here.

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As part of my gradual catching up with Big Finish audios, these are three main sequence releases from 2014, all starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, and Francesca Hunt (India Fisher's half-sister) as temporary companion Hannah Bartholomew.


The first of these, Moonflesh by Mark Morris was the last BF audio I wrote up before I got out of that habit. I wrote then:
Oh dear. There are some nice ideas in this Fifth Doctor / Nyssa audio; a country-house story in the same style as Black Orchid and The Unicorn and the Wasp, an alien which turns out to be a bit different from what we might have expected. But the guest characters are total cliches, including in particular Silver Crow, a mystical Native American played by a white English actor - that's the worst, though the doomed lesbian is pretty facepalming as well. The cast give it their best, but this should have been looked at more carefully before it was made.
I liked it a bit more on second listening, but I don't think it's a brilliant start to the arc. I will say that the cast give it a decent push - Tim Bentinck (more recently a monk in TV story Extremis / The Pyramid at the End of the World, here proudly on the front cover), Hugh Fraser and indeed Francesca Hunt, whose character turns out not to be doomed after all. Just to add one important detail - set in 1911.


Tomb Ship, by Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby, has one brilliant idea and one brilliant guest performance, and that makes it the best of these three. (I think it would work as a standalone too, as Hannah only appears rather late in the day.) It's the old storyline of explorers daring to tamper with a curséd tomb, except that the tomb is a pyramid in deep space (soundscape very well done), and the explorers have their own horrifying secret which only gradually becomes apparent. There is perhaps not quite enough plot for four episodes, but Eve Karpf is a real delight as the matriarch in control of the tomb raiders.


Masquerade, by Stephen Cole, starts off in a French château in 1770 and ends up somewhere else entirely. So does Hannah Bartholomew, who leaves the Tardis crew at the end in such a way that she's unlikely to return. There's a lot of good ideas here, with I felt slightly flawed execution - the awful threat didn't quite come across as sufficiently dreadful, and the linkage between 1770 and What Was Really Going On didn't quite work for me. Still, I may not have been paying enough attention, and the whole thing rounds off the trilogy suitably.

I felt that none of the three plays really stretched Davison or Sutton very much - they are both really good when pushed, but in all three cases they were more or less slotted into their usual roles here, apart from the first episode of Masquerade.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
La première nuit, j'ai fait un rêve : j'étais sur un arbre en train de couper une branche avec une scie. En bas, ma mère jouait avec un medecine-ball orange. Ce n'était qu'une petite fille aux cheveux d'or, mais dans le rêve, c'était ma mère. Elle courait après le ballon en fredonnant une ritournelle. Soudain, elle s'est arrêtée de taper dans le ballon. Il y a eu un silence bizarre. Ma mère avait du sang qui gouttait sur sa tête, sur ses épaules nues, à ses pieds. Elle a levé les yeux sur l'arbre, et elle a blêmi : Kurt, a-t-elle hurlé, qu'est-ce que tu fais ?... J'ai porté mon attention sur ce que j'étais en train de faire, et je me suis aperçu que ce n'était pas la branche que je sciais, mais mon bras... Une douleur fulgurante m'a réveillé : mes chaînes s'étaient enfoncées dans mes poignets à les cisailler. On the first night, I had a dream: I was on a tree cutting a branch with a saw. Below, my mother was playing with an orange medicine ball. She was only a little girl with golden hair, but in the dream she was my mother. She was running after the ball and humming a tune. Suddenly she stopped hitting the ball. There was a strange silence. Blood was gushing from the top of my mother’s head, over her bare shoulders, and down to her feet. She looked up at the tree and turned white. Kurt, she cried, what are you doing? … I shifted my attention to what I was doing, and realised it wasn’t the branch I was sawing off, but my arm … A sudden pain woke me; my chains were digging so hard into my wrists, they’d almost cut them.
The lovely Helen gave me this as a Christmas present in the original French, and I have to admit that I enjoyed the first section a lot but realised my language skills were not up to it, and retreated to an English translation. It's the story of a German doctor, dismayed by his wife's suicide, who sets off on a long sail journey with a friend; they are kidnapped by pirates and he ends up, after numerous rather horrible adventures, in a refugee camp in Darfur, where eventually he is rescued; but he finds that he cannot find peace in Frankfurt, and returns to Africa.

There are a couple of whopping big problems with it that require some suspension of disbelief. The pirates who capture the narrator and his friend are surprisingly eloquent for a bunch of militia. (One of them turns out to be a published poet, but the others are not.) The path from the Gulf of Aden to Darfur is politically implausible and geographically weak - there is no mention of the River Nile, which flows firmly across any conceivable route and is rather hard to miss. While Darfur is not exactly lush, it's not as desertified as portrayed here either. The parts of the book in Frankfurt seem a bit more grounded in local knowledge.

Of course, "Khadra" (in real life Mohammed Moulessehoul, using his wife's name as a pseudonym) is Algerian, and I suspect that some of the scenes of violence and indeed of refugee camps are more closely drawn from experience and knowledge of his home country rather than places further to the east or south. And certainly I've met militia leaders with literary pretensions, and even white Frenchmen who have adopted African-ness as a new identity like the character Bruno. So if you can swallow the implausibilities it's an interesting narrative.

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Monday reading

It’s a new year, so a new day of the week.

Current
An Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute
Quoth the Raven, by Jane Haddam

Last books finished
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
L’Équation Africaine, by Yasmina Khadra
Who Killed Kennedy: The Shocking Secret Linking a Time Lord and a President, by “James Stevens” [David Bishop]
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
"Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber
The Talons of Weng-Chiang, script by Robert Holmes
Ys de Legende: v 1 Verraad, by Jean-Luc Istin and Dejan Nenadov

Next books
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing
Providence, Act 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
The Tree of Life, by Mark Michalowski

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It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Second paragraph of third chapter:
But Isaiah College has come up in the world today - excepting educationally- for in 1931 it held the Dartmouth football team down to 64 to 36.
My first book of 2018 - a near future history of a far-right takeover in the USA in the mid-1930s, which of course seems all too relevant today. Buzz Windrip, a populist governor who is clearly related to the real-life Huey Long, displaces Franklin Roosevelt as the Democratic candidate in 1936 and wins the election on a platform of guaranteeing every man a basic income, unless they are black in which case they get a maximum income, and basically making America great again. Within days of his inauguration, he removes Congress and the Supreme Court and rules supreme. Like Hitler, Windrip co-opts partners on the way up and casually tosses them aside once he has got there. Meanwhile, repression of anyone who resists or criticises the regime becomes the state's most visible interaction with its citizens. The only thing missing is genocide, though the treatment of black Americans comes close. The hero is Vermont liberal journalist Doremus Jessup, whose family and lover feel the brunt of the new regime at first hand; he endures a hellish time in a prison camp before escaping and joining the resistance as the regime crumbles.

Obviously one looks for parallels to the current US situation. It's not as bad as Lewis's world. Most notably, there is no militia out there employing violence to further the president's agenda. Congress and the Supreme Court may be pretty awful, but they are not under White House control either. Windrip's master of propaganda, Lee Sarason, becomes Secretary of State and then displaces him completely, whereas Steve Bannon has now been relegated to the outer darkness. Basically the Trump administration is nothing like as competent as the Windrip administration - also of course nothing like as popular; Windrip wins the election handsomely whereas Trump lost the popular vote.

I read Main Street more than a decade ago and really enjoyed it; this was excellent also. Get it here.

This was the most popular book I acquired in 2017. Next on that list is The Island Of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells.

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The BSFA Award long lists are out!

This is the third year of the three-stage process, similar to the one which was rejected (as I hoped it would be) by WSFS for the Hugos at last year’s Worldcon. It works better for the BSFA. First, because there are far fewer categories - only four, compared to 18 for last year’s Hugos (and 19 for this year’s) - which makes the demands on voters much less. Second, it is only a matter of voting positively for stuff you like rather than for or against particular candidates. I think there are still problems - a glance at the table below will demonstrate that some works can get on the ballot despite being near-invisible to the wider public - but it spices up the process considerably.

The table below shows the 48 novels on the BSFA long-list, ranked by their combined Goodreads and Librarything ownerships. I have listed the number of owners on each system, and the average rating by those who have rated them; and I have bolded the top quartile in each column (ie the top twelve, except for the last column where there are a number of null returns and it’s only the top ten).

This doesn’t have tremendous predictive power about the outcome of the BSFA voting. Last year’s long list had 34 novels; the finalists ranked 9th, 23rd, 26th, 28th and 29th on my equivalent table. In 2016 the finalists were 19th, 22nd, 27th, 41st and 44th out of 57 (my table was less complete but ranked on the same system).

Still, it’s a guide of sorts to which books have been getting buzz, and might therefore figure on other final ballots this year.

Goodreads LibraryThing
owners av rating owners av rating
Andy Weir – Artemis 167277 3.73 651 3.59
Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale 125245 4.14 763 4.16
Mohsin Hamid – Exit West 116349 3.82 792 3.95
Omar El Akkad – American War 56496 3.87 460 3.87
John Scalzi – The Collapsing Empire 39852 4.1 438 3.89
Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland – The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. 32443 3.93 414 3.66
Mark Lawrence – Red Sister 54808 4.31 162 4.14
Kim Stanley Robinson – New York 2140 18919 3.61 306 3.72
Ann Leckie – Provenance 17527 3.9 223 3.97
Mur Lafferty – Six Wakes 16578 3.86 221 3.96
Daryl Gregory – Spoonbenders 20641 4 144 3.93
Kameron Hurley – The Stars Are Legion 15591 3.72 162 3.52
Peter V Brett – The Core 24240 4.23 88 4
Nicholas Eames – Kings of the Wyld 17792 4.4 97 3.83
Jaroslav Kalfař – Spaceman of Bohemia 7824 3.89 97 4.15
Ada Palmer – Seven Surrenders 6067 4.2 117 4.14
Yoon Ha Lee – Raven Stratagem 5709 4.23 120 4.2
Frances Hardinge – A Skinful of Shadows 6802 4.17 74 4.23
Lisa Carey – The Stolen Child 3910 3.62 124 3.94
Benjamin Percy – The Dark Net 4282 3.29 69 3.31
C Robert Cargill – Sea of Rust 4063 4.12 65 4.37
Jeff Noon – A Man of Shadows 3274 3.52 49 3.64
Nick Harkaway – Gnomon 2967 3.96 43 4.4
Paul Cornell – Chalk 1834 3.69 36 3.96
Ada Palmer – The Will to Battle 2121 4.48 31 3
Jonathan L Howard – After the End of the World 2131 4.14 24 3.92
Nina Allan – The Rift 1455 3.38 24 2.9
Jen Williams – The Ninth Rain 1963 4.31 17 4
Nicola Barker – H(A)PPY 802 3.5 32 2.5
Chris Brookmyre – Places in the Darkness 1339 3.85 19 3
Paul McAuley – Austral 840 3.57 23 4
Ian McDonald – Luna: Wolf Moon 264 3.99 67 3.63
Adam Roberts – The Real-Town Murders 757 3.73 17 3.38
Adam Christopher – Killing is My Business 806 3.73 15 5
Anne Charnock – Dreams Before the Start of Time 747 3.55 14 3.75
Adrian Tchaikovsky – Dogs of War 491 4.33 8 4.5
Peter McLean – Damnation 440 4.13 8 3.25
Tricia Sullivan – Sweet Dreams 391 3.89 7 -
Chris Beckett – America City 200 3.92 8 3.5
Gavin Smith – The Bastard Legion [The Hangman’s Daughter] 317 3.62 5 5
Ian R Macleod – Red Snow 658 4.4 2 -
Philip Miller – All the Galaxies 211 3.33 6 2
Justina Robson – The Switch 214 3.67 5 -
Andrew Bannister – Iron Gods 52 3.65 1 -
Anthony Laken – One Cog Turning 60 4.4 0 -
Karen Traviss – Black Run 23 3.7 0 -
Allen Stroud – The Forever Man 7 5 0 -
Kenneth Steven – 2020 4 4 0 -


As usual I have read none of these yet. I note that Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence, is the only book to finish in the top quartile of all four columns. (Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale only just missed doing the same.)

The Power, by Naomi Alderman

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Tunde is twenty-one, just out of that period of his life where everything seemed the wrong size, too long or too short, pointing in the wrong direction, unwieldy. Enuma is four years younger but more of a woman than he is a man, demure but not ignorant. Not too shy, either, not in the way she walks or the quick smile that darts across her face when she understands a joke a moment before everyone else. She’s visiting Lagos from Ibadan; she’s the cousin of a friend of a boy Tunde knows from his photojournalism class at college. There’s been a gang of them hanging out together over the summer. Tunde spotted her the first day she arrived; her secret smile and her jokes that he didn’t at first realize were jokes. And the curve of her hip, and the way she fills her T-shirts, yes. It’s been quite a thing to arrange to be alone together with Enuma. Tunde’s nothing if not determined.
I spotted Naomi Alderman when she wrote a particularly good Doctor Who book a few years ago; here she has taken The Handmaid's Tale and #MeToo and turned them around, to create a world in the very near future where women have developed the ability to strike down their enemies with bolts of electricity. It's well imagined, with the intersection of new media, religion, politics, and culture well integrated. She lost me a bit with a section in Moldova late in the book which doesn't really bear much resemblance to the Moldovan landscape in real life. but otherwise I really enjoyed the tight writing and the challenge of a world like ours but with one fundamental change. Worth getting.

This was the last book I read in 2017! Thank you all for following.

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Second paragraph of third entry ("And"):
Why get so excited over a 'little word' like and? In most wordbooks, it's the 'content words' that attract all the attention - the words that have an easily statable meaning, like elephant and caravan and roe. The books tend not to explore the 'grammatical words' - those linking the units of content to make up sentences, such as in, the and and. That's a pity, because these 'little words' have played a crucial role in the development of English. Apart from anything else, they're the most frequently occurring words, so they're in our eyes and ears all the time. In our eyes? The four commonest written words in modern English are the, of, and and a. In our ears? The four commonest spoken words are the, I, you and and. In Old English, and is there from the very beginning, and when it appears it's often abbreviated.
I've had slightly bad luck with books about words recently, but this is excellent - a guide to the history of the English language, illustrated by 100 words, some common, some less so, some with new meanings acquired over the centuries (eg Doctor Who brought new meaning to the word matrix in 1977). The first recorded English word is "roe", carved as ᚱᚨᛇᚺᚨᚾ onto a 5th-century deer bone in Norfolk. (Hah, another alphabet for me to test.) Crystal looks at all kinds of influences and varieties of English; the chapters on "ddilly-dally" and "doobry" are particularly enlightening. Well worth getting for its insights into language in general and English in particular.

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The Master trilogy from Big Finish

One of my vague ambitions for the year ahead is to get back into Big Finish again. There are a load of Big Finish audios which I did listen to a few years back, and never got around to writing up here; I haven't gone into it systematically, but I'll listen again to all those I haven't yet posted about.


Back in 2016, Big Finish had a plot line with two different Masters, a year before the BBC brought Michelle Gomez and John Simm together on TV. The first of the three, And You Will Obey Me by Alan Barnes, has Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor involved with Geoffrey Beevers' decaying Master from Traken, at a contemporary English auction of antiques where a grandfather clock, mysteriously escaping the fate of its late owner Mr Masterson, is the object of attention from all, including giant alien dragonflies and a task force of Russians. It's really well done, and Davison is if anything slightly overshadowed by the guest cast.


The second of the trilogy, Vampire of the Mind by Justin Richards, introduces Alex McQueen as a future Master. I knew him as the bad guy's sidekick from Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, but apparently he has more recently been an MP in Peaky Blinders (which I haven't seen). He's very good, and so is Kate Kennedy as one-shot companion Heather Threadstone (she was just out of BBC Wales' A Midummer Night's Dream). The setting again in contemporary England; now we are in a disused castle, once a prison and now home to the sinister Dominus Institute (get it?) which of course is central to the new Master's plans. Colin Baker is up to his usual high audio performance standards here as well, and I think I liked this best of the three.


Alas, I felt that the sequence over-reached itself with the closing installment, The Two Masters by John Dorney, where I got thoroughly confused by the plot twists and turns involving body-swapping between the Beevers master, the McQueen Master, and Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, as well as gaps in time and the end of the universe. Lauren Crace, who apparently was in East Enders for a couple of years, is good as another one-off companion, and the repartee between the two Masters (and to a lesser extent the Doctor) very much redeems the piece and made it worth listening to for me. (I should add that fannish reaction in general seems to have been much more positive than mine.) Also if you've listened to the first two you'll want to hear how the stories end.

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Brave New Worlds, ed. John Joseph Adams

Second paragraph of third story ("Ten with a Flag", by Joseph Paul Haines):
It only took him a couple of seconds to connect to the traffic web. Johnnie didn't like being out of control, it was one of the things I'd found endearing in him; quaint even. This time though, he didn't even double check the connection. The steering wheel folded and collapsed into the dash, and he turned to face me. "What does that mean, exactly?" he asked.
This was circulated by John Joseph Adams in 2012 as part of that year's Hugo voter packet in support of his case for the Best Professional Editor, Short Form category. There are some stories missing from this version which were in the print version - "Billennium" by J.G. Ballard, "The Pedestrian" by Ray Bradbury, "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick, "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut - though everything else seems to be there, including "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Funeral" by Kate Wilhelm and "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said The Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison. There are also three original stories, one of which came second in that year's Hugos (though to be honest I ranked it in last place).

I was struck by just how many of the stories focussed on future dystopian interference with reproductive or sexual rights. Of course, it's not absent from the classic dystopian novels - state regulation of sex is a key element of Zamyatin's We, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley's Brave New World - but for them it is one of several elements combining to create oppression. By contrast, my rough tally is that more than half of the stories in Brave New Worlds take it as a central theme.

They are all pretty good and some of them are very good stories. There is a short comic by Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot, "From Homogenous To Honey", about the infamous anti-LGBT Clause 28 introduced by the Conservative government in 1988. Geoff Ryman's "Oh Happy Day!" looks at a particularly grim dystopia where the gender boot is on the other foot. "Civilisation" by Vylar Kaftan takes the choose-your-own-adventure format and applies it to dystopias. Generally a good collection.

As for my own vote in 2011, I'm afraid I left the Best Professional Editor, Short Form category blank; I didn't feel I had enough information to make a considered judgement. But, well, I got around to reading this in the end.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2012. Next on that list is The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing.

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