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December 2003 books

In December 2003 we celebrated little U's first birthday, and at work I was dealing with the fallout from the previous month's events, rushing out a report on Georgia on the first of the month (actually most of it had been writen before the revolution on 25 November, but obviously needed updating) followed by one on the Preševo Valley in Southern Serbia. At the end of the month Serbia had an election.

The books I read in December 2003 were:

Non-fiction 3
The Myth of Greater Albania, by Paulin Kola
The Music of the Primes: Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics, by Marcus du Sautoy
Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss

SF 4
Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold
After London, by Richard Jeffries
Carolan's Concerto, by Caiseal Mór
Gateway, by Frederik Pohl

Comics 6
Sandman V: A Game Of You, by Neil Gaiman
Sandman VI: Fables & Reflections, by Neil Gaiman
Sandman VII: Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman

Sandman VIII: World's End, by Neil Gaiman
Sandman IX: The Kindly Ones, by Neil Gaiman
Sandman X: The Wake, by Neil Gaiman

3,500 pages
2/13 by women, none by PoC.

I think Brief Lives is the best of the Sandman volumes, and probably ahead of Paladin of Souls as my favourite book of the month. You can get it here. I will get back to Paladin of Souls in due course as I do my Hugo/Nebula joint winners reread.

The one I would not recommend: Carolan's Concerto.

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Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Second to fourth paragraphs of third chapter:
You should study English, says Marianne.
Do you think I should, or are you joking?
I think you should. It’s the only subject you really enjoy in school. And you spend all your free time reading.
I had missed all the hype around this book, which won the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year, the Costa Award for Best Novel and was the Waterstone's Book of the year 2018 as well as being on the Mann Booker Prize longlist. The two protagonists grow up in the same County Sligo town and end up both attending Trinity College Dublin, and develop a deep friendship which is also an on-again, off-again love affair. Connell, the working-class popular kid at school, finds that at university he cannot fit in, while Marianne, posher but a loner at school, blossoms in Dublin (and elsewhere in Europe). Both are children of single mothers (Connell's father was never on the scene, Marianne's has died) who are also well portrayed (Connell's mother is basically sound, Marianne's isn't).

What I found particularly refreshing is that Rooney shows both protagonists as entirely mature and adult, making conscious choices if sometimes bad choices. They both have other relationships and friendships which are all convincingly and economically depicted. There is plenty of sex here, but it is again economically portrayed rather than going into titillating detail (though Marianne does get a bit kinky). What happens before and after the physical part is more important, and the journey that both of them take makes sense. Apparently there is a TV series coming.

My student days are long ago, but I found a lot to empathise with here. My siblings both studied at Trinity, and so did some of my friends from school, so although I was a Cambridge undergraduate and went on to do my PhD in Belfast, I hung out often enough in the same places as Rooney's fictional characters twenty-five years later, and had one or two winces of recognition. And of course my own memories of student romance and relationship building, whether in Ireland or in England, are still pretty vivid. I liked it a lot. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018. Next on that list is Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson.

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Tuesday reading

Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss

Last books finished
The Highgate Horror, by Mark Wright, David A. Roach, Mike Collins, Jacqueline Rayner and Martin Geraghty
"Catch That Zeppelin!", by Fritz Leiber
In Black and White, and Other Stories, by Jan Mark
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

Next books
One of the 28th: A tale of Waterloo, by G. A. Henty
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikowsky

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November 2003 books

I've been bookblogging since November 2003, and will reach the twenty-year mark about four years from now. So I'm going to try and do some retrospective posts, every six or seven days, starting today, looking at the books I read each month a while back with also some reflections on what was going on for me in each month.

November 2003 was politically momentous - there were elections in Northern Ireland and Croatia, a major political crisis in Moldova, and an election followed by a revolution in Georgia, all of which affected my work, though we were able to publish a report on Mostar. I also attended a conference in Vienna with my American intern B, who is now a computer game designer in Arizona. He left halfway through the month and was replaced by a Croatian journalist, S, who is now back in Zagreb working as a press officer for an international organisation.

At home, we took the kids to a snoezelruimte, which the older two both enjoyed.

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For me and U it was a bit overwhelming.


The books I read in November 2003 were:

Non-fiction 1
Why is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond

SF 6
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer
Floater, by Lucius Shepard
Double Star, by Robert Heinlein
The Separation, by Christopher Priest
Ersatz Nation, by Tim Kenyon

Comics 1
Sandman IV: Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

2,300 pages
8/8 by white men.

Links above are to my reviews; links below to Amazon(.co.uk).

The one I wrote least about at the time, but that on reflection I think is definitely the best of them, is The Separation, Christopher Priest's story of dual identites, overlapping histories and alternate timelines for the second world war. I'll return to it reasonably soon, as it won both the Clarke and BSFA Awards. You can get it here. (I think American Gods, which is certainly by far the best known of these eight books and would have been even before the recent TV series, is interesting but flawed; you can get it here.)

The book I would not recommend is Ersatz Nation, a poorly written and jumbled narrative.

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The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh

Second paragraph of third chapter:
He slumped back in his chair, yawning. His eyes began to glaze over at the thought of the steaming cup of sweet, dark tea that was waiting for him at the neon-lit doughnut shop in Penn Station; of the other regulars who occasionally dropped by to sit around the plastic-topped table—the Sudanese bankteller, the well-dressed Guyanese woman who worked in a Chelsea used-clothes store, the young Bangladeshi man from the subway newsstand. Often they just sat in companionable silence around a circular plastic-topped table at the back of the shop, sipping tea or coffee out of paper cups while watching tapes of Arabic and Hindi films on a small portable monitor. But every once in a while, there would be a discussion, or they would exchange tips–about a gadget that was on sale somewhere, or some new scam for saving on subway tokens.
The Calcutta Chromosome is a fascinating book in which the research of Ronald Ross into malaria in 1898 turns out to have been something of a sham, in fact the outcome of manipulation by shadowy forces whose nature is only hinted at. The story is told in roughly three timelines: a near-future New York (probably roughly 2019), where an unassuming Egyptian with a friendly Siri-like AI is sucked into research on how and why a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross disappeared in 1995; the story from the former colleague's point of view, as he goes to Calcutta to get first-hand evidence on what Ross actually did; and the story from Ross's own point of view, which does not really explain all that much. The western versions of science and history are in conflict with Indian traditions, and subverted by the mysterious immortal character Behind It All; there is a memorable ghost train moment as well.

It's a really fun read - Murugan's obsession with Ross could have been weritten as tedious info-dumping, but Ghosh turns it into some very strong characterisation, and the other Indian characters of 1995, the poet Phulboni, the journalists Sonali and Urmila, and indeed Calcutta itself are vividly visualised. The ending is a bit of a let-down, in that the various plot strands are not really brought together and none of them is really resolved, though hints are left for the reader to draw their own conclusions. Still, I'm glad that the Clarke judges stepped outside the usual circles of genre fiction to recognise this. You can get it here.

The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1997, the year that The Sparrow won the Tiptree Award and Excession the BSFA Award. The other shortlisted books were Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson; Gibbon's Decline and Fall, by Sheri S. Tepper; Looking for the Mahdi, by N. Lee Wood; The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt; and Voyage, by Stephen Baxter. (Odd note: the losing five all had the same publisher.) I have not read the Wood, and think I have read the McDevitt but cannot remember anything about it. I have certainly read the other three. I don't think Blue Mars stands well on its own considered separately from the two previous volumes of the Mars trilogy, and would question whether it is really even a novel, though admittedly it won the Hugo; and Gibbon's Decline and Fall is not Tepper's best.

But it's interesting that the judges decided to go for The Calcutta Chromosome rather than Voyage, which is much more firmly in the Arthur C. Clarke tradition and which I think would have got my vote if I'd been a judge in 1997 (it has a much more satisfactory ending). Poor Stephen Baxter has had seven novels shortlisted for the Clarke, but has never won it. Voyage did win the Sidewise Award for Alternate History that year.

Next up in this sequence will be that year's BSFA-winner, Excession, by Iain M. Banks (a reread).

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Tom Jones: film (1963) and book (1749)

Tom Jones won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1963, and picked up another three: Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best Substantially Original Score (John Addison) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (John Osborne). Five of the actors got nominations, which I think may be a record (I haven't been counting) - Albert Finney in the title role for Best Actor, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western for Best Supporting Actor, and three (which is definitely a record) for Best Supporting Actress - Edith Evans as Miss Western, Diane Cilento as Molly Seagrim, and Joyce Redman as Mrs. Waters/Jenny Jones.

The other Best Picture nominees were America America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won and Lilies of the Field, none of which I have seen. On the two IMDB rankings of 1963 films, Tom Jones does not rank highly, 32nd on one list and 22nd on the other. The only Oscar-winning film so far that does worse on these metrics is Cavalcade (25th and 40th). Seventeen films are ranked ahead of Tom Jones on both systems; I have seen four of them, From Russia With Love, The Sword in the Stone, The Pink Panther and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The other 1963 film I am sure that I have seen is Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday, which is (rightly) ranked lower. The Hugo was not awarded that year.

Here's a trailer.
It's a Bildungsroman of Merrie England, based on a famous 18th-century novel, and starring good-looking up-and-coming English actors. I liked some aspects of it, but I was ultimately a bit dissatisfied - perhaps it fitted the 1960s Zeitgeist, by fitting that into an older boisterous tradition - and for the first time in ten years I'm adding this to my bottom ten films, just ahead of The Greatest Show on Earth (the plot is less boring and cinematography more interesting) and below Gone With The Wind.

We have just one actor here who has already been in an Oscar-winning film, Hugh Griffith as Squire Western. He blacked up as Sheikh Ilderim for an Oscar-winning performance in Ben-Hur four years ago; here he has perhaps rouged up as the alcoholic squire (he was apparently not acting the alcoholic bit).

This was the film debut for two actors who both went on to become significant in Doctor Who and (in one case) Game of Thrones. Both play bad guys here. Julian Glover is the nasty Lieutenant Northerton; two years later he was in Doctor Who as Richard the Lionheart, again in 1979 as Count Scarlioni in City of Death, and finally in GoT as Grand Maester Pycelle.

And David Warner, here the unpleasantly priggish young Blifil who almost gets Tom killed, has done several Doctor Who voice roles and appeared on screen as Professor Grisenko in the Matt Smith episode Cold War.

A bit more obscurely, James Cairncross is Parson Supple here, and also appeared twice in black-and-white Doctor Who, as Lemaitre in the William Hartnell story now known as The Massacre (which is lost from the archives) and also with Patrick Troughton as Beta, one of the Gonds in The Krotons (which survives).

There is a lot to like about this film, and I'm trying to identify why it didn't really work for me. As with All The King's Men, I watched it on Eurostar after a long day in London, which possibly didn't help. In the end it comes down to two things, I think. First, there are lots of brilliant scenes and little bits and pieces, but it somehow doesn't come together. The director, Tony Richardson, himself described it as "incomplete and botched in much of its execution". Second, a lot of the characters simply are not very nice - Tom Jones himself is a completely irresponsible casual user of women, and we cheer his rescue from hanging at the end not because he is good but because he is innocent of that particular offence. Grotesques can be funny to watch but are usually difficult to relate to. Somehow the characters in the original book came over as more three-dimensional.

An awful lot of Oscar-winning film adaptations have erased or minimalised non-white characters from the original books that they are based on. This is the first one that I have noticed actually adding a non-white character, though it is a very small non-speaking and uncredited role - a boy servant in Lord Fellamar's house in London.

Although three of the cast received Best Supporting Actress nominations, the film is not especially enlightened on the battle of the sexes - we are invited to admire Tom's behaviour and the damage that he does is treated humorously. Having said that, the actresses all deserved their nominations. Here's the famous erotic dining scene with Albert Finney in the title role and Joyce Redman as Jenny:

Diane Cilento absolutely smoulders as Molly:

And Edith Evans hits the mark as Miss Western:

But I actually think Susanna York was robbed of a nomination - even though she is the Good Girl, I think she carries it off awfully well and has very convincing chemistry with Albert Finney.

The cinematography is tremendously quirky. There are a lot of innovative cuts between scenes, stop-motion interludes, the opening sequence done as a silent movie (though in colour), occasional breaking the fourth wall. Micheal MacLiammoir's voice provides a lovely warm narration. It's a shame that it doesn't really come together. The classic scene is the hunt, expanded from about three lines in the book to six minutes on screen - a tremendous bit of filming.

Finally, a couple of historical trivia: this was the last film that President Kennedy saw before he was assassinated; and the singer Tom Jones took his stage name from the title. You can get it here.

Next up is My Fair Lady, a film I know well.

I went back to reread the book as well (am slightly regretting this policy decision after both this and Lawrence of Arabia turn out to be very long). Second paragraph of third chapter:
And true it is that he did many of these things; but had he done nothing more I should have left him to have recorded his own merit on some fair freestone over the door of that hospital. Matters of a much more extraordinary kind are to be the subject of this history, or I should grossly mis-spend my time in writing so voluminous a work; and you, my sagacious friend, might with equal profit and pleasure travel through some pages which certain droll authors have been facetiously pleased to call The History of England.
When I read the book back in 2012, I wrote:
The classic novel of 1749, whose prose style is in places a bit tedious but also in places very funny. The plot is a basic romantic comedy, but it is enlivened by the authorial asides which open each of the individual books within the novel, and by the author's grasp of character which must have inspired Dickens. There are also a couple of passages which pastiche Homer, Vergil and I think the King James Bible, and there must have been others that I missed.

Some social points of the 1740s that I found interesting: women had few enough rights, but in Fielding's account retained an absolute right to accept or refuse an offer of marriage. Presumably coercion was a ground for divorce or annulment, and there must have been enough cases for it to be a real issue. I was also interested that Sophia's father is depicted as having much the thickest West Country accent of any of the characters, despite being the local squire. A hundred years later, I guess all gentlemen of his class would have been assimilated into poshness by public school; but in the 1740s you only needed to communicate with the locals in your rural fastness. Mr Western of course has no time for education or politics (his sister, who serves as comic relief, is also the most politically aware character in the book). I was also struck by the relative lack of animus to the Irish (cf Shakespeare, who scores rather badly there):
Sophia heaved a deep sigh, and answered, "Indeed, Harriet, I pity you from my soul!----But what could you expect? Why, why, would you marry an Irishman?"

"Upon my word," replied her cousin, "your censure is unjust. There are, among the Irish, men of as much worth and honour as any among the English: nay, to speak the truth, generosity of spirit is rather more common among them. I have known some examples there, too, of good husbands; and I believe these are not very plenty in England. Ask me, rather, what I could expect when I married a fool."
It was a bit of a slog in places but I am glad to have read it.
Slightly cheating here, as I haven't finished rereading it yet, but I stand by what I previously wrote - Fielding's characters are much more solid and three-dimensional than the grotesques of the film.

One bit of context worth noting is that the book is set firmly during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and its characters (including the soldiers) are widely dispersed along the spectrum of allegiance to King George or Bonnie Prince Charlie - and remember that this isn't ancient history for Fielding and his readers, it was only four years before publication. Fascinating that a writer could depict loyalty to a treasonous (if defeated) cause in such a sympathetic light, and get away with it.

You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester

Second paragraph of third chapter:
We pulled him off the poor old Shortie and were met at the gate by Fee, who seemed rather impressed by Nemo’s performance. Muggings she knew all about, but this was the first time she’d ever seen one used as an excuse for a lecture. Fee conducted us to the landing site and it was my turn to be impressed.
Very much in the shadow of Bester's better-known The Demolished Man (winner of the first Hugo for Best Novel) and The Stars My Destination, this was his first novel for almost 20 years when it came out in 1974. Critical reaction then was disappointed; Bester had perhaps laid the path for the New Wave writers of the intervening period but was now behind the curve. Forty years on, I must say I enjoyed it a lot; the plot concerns a group of immortals in the very near future, who are dealing with a supercomputer that has acquired human intelligence, and the style remains pyrotechnical - and yet I never lost track of what was going on, or why we should care about these characters. Bester's reading of Native American traditions would not really pass muster today, but in fact he uses the perspective of his Cherokee characters to make some statements about American society in general and to an extent also about gender politics. I came away feeling that his has been underrated and might be due a reappraisal. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that list is Dragon World, by Byron Preiss.

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Be My Enemy, by Ian McDonald

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The centre of the ring suddenly blazed with light, whiter than white, painfully bright. Two men in dark suits stepped out of the light. The first was a sharp-faced white man with fair, curly hair. Everett recognised the second as the Prime Minister. Their steps, begun on another world, carried them a long way in the moon's low gravity. The Prime Minister lost his footing for a moment but recovered with dignity. Madam Moon stepped forward to meet them. A nod from her indicated that he should do the same. He had worked out a way of walking here that didn't send him bounding into the air looking stupid. It was a kind of low shuffling. It was not very elegant, but it kept him on the floor. The fair-haired man had the trick of it but the Prime Minister did not. Every stride took him up into the air and down again.
Sequel to Planesrunner, which I read last year. Our protagonist continues to try and tie things together between his/our own reality, a steampunk alternate timeline, and some much nastier worlds. I got a bit lost with the evil robot doubles but generally enjoyed it. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2013. Next on that pile is Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss.

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Blake’s 7, second season (second half)

These were all new stories to me, as far as I can recall, and I watched them with forty years of pent-up excitement for each next episode.

2.7: Killer, written by Robert Holmes, directed by Vere Lorrimer

Apart from the regulars (Michael Keating, Paul Darrow, Jacqueline Pearce), none of the guest cast this time has acted on Doctor Who. But, wow. Here is Robert Holmes, writer of some of the best Doctor Who stories, script editor for the first glorious half of Tom Baker's time in the TARDIS, applying his talents to a new situation. And Morris Barry, in front of the camera here as Dr Wiler, was of course the director of three Doctor Who stories, including the classic Tomb of the Cybermen (and the less classic The Moonbase and The Dominators).

Blake's 7 is at its best when balancing two related but different plot lines evenly in the same episode, and this is one of those: on the one hand, Avon is hoping to get a valuable decryption crystal from an old friend out of loyalty (and, when that fails, blackmail); on the other, there is a ZOMBIE. This is a tautly written episode, with excellent guest stars (Paul Daneman as the lead doctor on the base, Ronald Lacey as Avon's frenemy) that also shows what is to come - the girls are in the background, Avon gets some more character development, and the banter between him and Vila is great:
Avon: I told you, he's a friend of mine.
Vila: Yes, I always knew you had a friend. I used to say to people, "I bet Avon's got a friend, somewhere in the galaxy."
Avon: And you were right. That must be a novel experience for you.

2.8: Hostage, written by Allan Prior, directed by Vere Lorrimer

Sorry to keep being shallow about Doctor Who crossover appearances, but there are two absolute classics here (and one less famosu). The great Kevin Stoney makes an appearance as yet another senior Federation official, having previously been the two best villains of the black and white Doctor Who era, Mavic Chen of The Daleks' Master Plan and Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion. (He was also in Revenge of the Cybermen, but we can't all be perfect.)

And playing Blake's turncoat uncle Ushton is none other than John Abineri, who was in four Old Who stories, most notably as green alien Ranquin in The Power of Kroll (also by Robert Holmes), hapless Railton in Death to the Daleks!, General Carrington in The Ambassadors of Death, and Dutch oilman Lutyens in Fury from the Deep.

The one I didn't spot was Andrew Robertson, the Federation commander at the beginning, who was also Mr Fibuli in The Pirate Planet - utterly different!

Fandom seems to be generally negative about this episode, but I rather enjoyed it. OK, the Liberator crew completely stupidly walk into an obvious trap to keep the plot going, and almost nothing that Ushton does makes sense (why would he need to fake a limp, for instance?) but we have some entertaining chasing around, Travis is now marginalised by the Federation and trying to get back in with Servalan, and Blake has a cute cousin, played by Judy Buxton, who he used to bonk and who stays behind to bring wellness to her adopted planet.
And the Avon/Vila dynamic continues to develop:
Vila: What did I do to deserve this?
Avon: How long a list would you like?

2.9: Countdown, written by Terry Nation, directed by Vere Lorrimer

OK, Doctor Who crossovers here: most notably, Tom Chadbon, as the mercenary brother of Avon's former lover and accomplice, was Duggan in City of Death.(And also Merdeen in The Mysterious Planet. And he plays Harry Sullivan's brother in the Big Finish Sarah Jane audios.)

Paul Shelley plays the evil Major Provine here, with a terrible haircut, and was also the Minister for Persuasion in the Peter Davison story Four to Doomsday, with a much better haircut.

And the disposable rebel Arrian is played by Nigel Gregory, also the repentant Satanist policeman who dies horribly in K9 and Company.

This one is really brilliant. We are closing in on the story arc which will end the season, but we run up against another Avon frenemy who thinks Avon betrayed his sister. Also Avon and his frenemy have only a short time to defuse a planet-busting bomb. Meanwhile one of the Federation bad guys is hiding in the ducts (more or less). It's Terry Nation, doing what he does best. (Meanwhile the girls still haven't done anything much for several stories in a row.)
Avon: Hello, Del. It's been a long time.
Grant: I heard you were dead.
Avon: I heard the same about you. Wishful thinking perhaps.
Grant: I'm glad the stories were wrong. I felt cheated. We have some things to settle.
Blake: You two can talk about the old days some other time. Right now we have a problem that's just a little more pressing.

2.10: Voice from the Past, writen by Roger Parkes, directed by George Spenton-Foster

Just one Doctor Who crossover here, and it's a pretty minor one: Nagu, who is the most disposable of the pseudo-rebels, is played by Martin/Martyn Read, who was to be a security guard in Silver Nemesis.

Fandom generally doesn't like this episode, and neither did I. I worked out Travis's disguise quite early on by looking at the cast list and realising which character wasn't credited. (The one whose face is disguised.) The behaviour of the Liberator crew is very silly - Blake has clearly lost his faculties, and they should have relieved him of command; Vila is particularly weak here. Frieda Knorr as the defecting governor is just awful. Why doesn't Travis take the opportunity to kill Blake when he has him at his mercy. There isn't even a really decent bit of dialogue to quote. At least we are getting closer to Star One.

2.11: Gambit, written by Robert Holmes, directed by George Spenton-Foster
OMG. This is just extraordinary. Is there a more camp episode of Blake's 7 to come? (Please don't tell me.) Before I get into the detail, let's look at the Who crossover guest stars - plenty this time. Let's start with rogue surgeon Docholli, played by Denis Carey, who was Professor Chronotis in Shada and the title character of The Keeper of Traken. (Also in Timelash, but never mind.)

Aubrey Woods plays a commanding figure both here and in the Pertwee story Day of the Daleks. Here he is Krantor, seven years ago he was the Controller.

Krantor's sidekick Toise, unrecognisable under make-up, is John Leeson, the voice of K-9 (he was also in Mission to Destiny last year).

Paul Grist plays the sidekick Cevedic here, and was the unconvincingly accented American Bill Filer back in The Claws of Axos.

Sylvia Coleridge, at 70 years old, is an impressively svelte croupier, having been botanical expert Amelia Ducat in The Seeds of Doom a few years before.

And let's not forget Deep Roy as The Klute, having been Mr Sin in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (also one of the Decimas in The Web last season).

Look, this is just glorious, and if you don't think so, I refer you to the Onion's classic review of Mamma Mia II.

The idea of Avon and Vila overcoming their friction to go and use Orac to beat the house at a notorious gambling den - while they are supposed to be minding the Liberator for Blake and the girls (who get something to do for once, though apparently some of their best bits were cut) to locate Star One - it's just bonkers. The whole thing is hilariously good fun. This is one of my favourite episodes. It's made watching Series 2 worthwhile almost on its own. And Servalan's costume may be the best yet.

Dialogue - the Avon/Vila relationship continues to flourish.
Vila: There are times when I almost get to like you.
Avon: Yes, well, that makes it all worthwhile.

2.12: The Keeper, written by Allan Prior, directed by Derek Martinus
Just one significant Who crossover this time - and it's back to The Pirate Planet again, as Bruce Purchase's Captain is reincarnated as tribal leader Gola.

(Also Ron Tarr plays a patrol leader here and an uncredited prisoner in Destiny of the Daleks, but I'm not chasing down pictures of either.)

Another episode with good stuff from Jenna (just before she is written out) as the potential bride of the barbarian king, and also fun for Vila as the court jester. For such a small planet, Goth has got some jolly intricate dynastic politics. There are some crashing plot holes, but I think it's redemmed by the fact that Jenna and Vila are having fun, along with most of the guest cast - a particular shout-out to Cengiz Saner as the jester.

Vila: I could be president.
Avon: Ah.
Vila: Or we can take it in turns.

2.13: Star One, written by Chris Boucher (directed, uncredited, by David Maloney)
Just two Doctor Who crossover appearances this week, neither of them massive. Chief evil alien Stot is played by David Webb, whose character Eric Leeson was killed off in the first episode of Colony in Space.

And deputy evil alien Parton is played by Gareth Armstrong, who had a bigger role as Giuliano in The Mask of Mandragora.

This is a really strong climax to the season. David Moloney directed some of the great Doctor Who stories (The War Games, Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin, Talons of Weng-Chiang); Chris Boucher wrote most of Blake's 7 even when other people (including Terry Nation) got credited. There's a huge amount of plot in here, Servalan double-crossing the Federation, Travis double-crossing the human race, Avon not quite sure if he is double-crossing the rest, Blake critically injured (and after Gan, we know that regulars can be killed off); and ending on a huge cliff-hanger:
Avon: Stand by to fire.
Vila: Avon, this is stupid!
Avon: When did that ever stop us? Fire!
After watching this you really feel that you've seen twenty-six episodes of epic sf (and you forget the ones that were less epic); and having ended on the massive cliff-hanger of the Liberator alone defending humanity, you can't wait for the next episode. Original viewers had to wait nine months, from April 1979 to January 1980, an interval in which Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, the Iran hostage crisis erupted and the IRA assassinated Lord Mountbatten. Revolution was in the air; but which way would it go?

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Tuesday reading

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
The Highgate Horror, by Mark Wright, David A. Roach, Mike Collins, Jacqueline Rayner and Martin Geraghty
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton

Last books finished
The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh
Normal People, by Sally Rooney
The Camelot Club, by Brian Killick
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

Next books
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
"Catch That Zeppelin!", by Fritz Leiber

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The Camelot Club, by Brian Killick

Second paragraph of third chapter:
No eyes were cast in the direction of Chile Gongaro to see what might be the effect on him of the implied aspersion upon his sub-continent. Chile Gongaro continued to grin broadly. The fact that his friends rarely displayed any con-sideration for his feelings might be taken as an indication of the extent to which they regarded him as one of themselves. The Grand Duke Ferdinando, whose sister was married to the President of Peru and who ordinarily took an insult to one of his family as an insult to himself, the head of the family, might have protested at the blanket condemnation of South American republics but decided to let it pass and not mar the happiness of the gathering.
The fourth and last novel by my distant cousin Brian Killick, published in 1977. This features a disparate group of friends united by the Camelot Club, “the premier gaming-club of London”. Almost of of them are rich men, but a key strand of the plot concerns the one mature woman of the group, who successfully makes money with a scheme for the part-time and short-term hire of richer people’s chauffeurs, while they are waiting for their main employers to get back from lunch - played for laughs, but perhaps a presentiment of the gig economy. Another member of the group is the chronically poor exiled Emperor of Byzantium, who I’m afraid is funny because of his poverty and dynastic aspirations.

Another strand includes the separate attempts of both the Govenment and the members of the Camelot Club to bail Britain out by throwing the country on the mercy of a visiting Arab sheikh and ruler of a very wealthy country. The team of chauffeurs is used to kidnap him, and the Camelot Clubbers then discover that the sheikh is in fact a British aristocrat by birth, so That’s All Right Then. I find it fascinating that in these early years of the UK’s European engagement, there was still a yearning to find a separate (preferably at least partially indigenous) source of stability.

The Grand Duke Ferdinando, exiled heir to an unspecified principality, invades Paraguay, but fails and is executed. Another clubber, an MP, disappears under a cloud of financial misdemeanour leaving his clothes folded on the beach (a topical reference). The lower classes (as opposed to impoverished gentility) get very little notice, other than the chauffeurs (identified by their employers). It is rather striking that in a novel named for a fictional gaming club, there is very little actual gambling.

Family is quite important here, a more secure basis than the pretensions of the state (government and police) or capitalism (the proto-Uber scheme is played for laughs). One of several incstances of the hereditary aristocracy has been mentioned. The Grand Duke wants to bestow one of his sisters on the exiled Emperor (who has been turned down by the Ethiopians, which is also interesting). The proto-Uber lady has a marriageable niece. Most of the main characters are referred to by their names rather than by their roles - unlike in the other three books.

I can’t claim that this is great literature. But it has the best integrated plot and most attractive characters of Brian Killick’s four novels, and it’s an interesting insight into an insecure moment of British history as well. If you like, you can get it here.

Another John Lawrence cover, featuring the proto-Uber lady, the sheikh and a chauffeur being anxiously watched by the other club members.

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Beneath The Dome, by Brian Killick

Second paragraph of third chapter (a long one):
'Well, it's nice to know that the creature can smile,' continued Beatrice. 'I sometimes wonder whether Madame Balzac is human.' Sidney tittered again. The third occupant of the lift stretched her smile a little further as evidence of continued politeness. Beatrice and Sidney seemed to be forever talking of that Madame Balzac, who must be a very old and dear friend. So real had she become as a result of constant reference that she might have been in the lift with them. It seemed that almost as soon as her changing moods were known to Beatrice and Sidney they were communicated indirectly to the caretaker, who was the third person in the lift. The caretaker learnt by overhearing, which she could not but do, when Madame Balzac looked sour in the morning or surprisingly cheery in the evening. 'Perhaps Madame Balzac has won the football pools.' Sidney would giggle helplessly. The state of Madame Balzac's health was equally promptly and thoroughly known to the caretaker. 'I should keep well away from Madame Balzac if I were you, Sidney. I think she has a cold coming on.' The surprising thing was that the caretaker could not remember ever meeting the much talked of Frenchwoman. She knew by sight many of the visitors to the flat of Beatrice and Sidney and had never laid eyes on anyone who could be identified as the mysterious Madame Balzac. What was the Frenchwoman doing in London and how had she come to occupy such a large part in the lives of Beatrice and Sidney? The caretaker felt that she knew her almost as well as did Beatrice and Sidney and thought that she did not like her. She sounded a tiresome woman, preoccupied with her health and her moods and selfishly taking up a disproportionate amount of time in the lives of her long-suffering friends. Perhaps she was lonely, a foreigner on her own in London. Beatrice and Sidney were well-known for their adoption of lame ducks. So surely had Madame Balzac become part of the small change of daily life that in early days the caretaker had been moved to enquire after her when most unusually Beatrice and Sidney, sunk in their own thoughts, had not mentioned the name. The caretaker was hurt and offended by the wholly unpredictable response to her kindly-meant enquiry. Beatrice became quite hysterical with laughter and Sidney almost fell about the place. After a few such reactions the caretaker learnt to desist from introducing the name of Madame Balzac. She felt that she had been very obviously put in her place. It was one thing for Beatrice and Sidney to discuss their friend in her hearing, but it was another, and forbidden, thing for her, a servant of a sort, to presume to take an interest in that friend. The lift arrived at its destination. Beatrice, scooping up Camus from the floor and tucking him securely under one arm, stalked forth. Sidney trotted behind. 'How is Sir Charles?' the caretaker remembered to call after the retreating backs. Beatrice and Sidney paused and turned. 'Sinking,' said Beatrice portentously. 'Sinking,' echoed Sidney.
This is the third of the mid-1970s novels by my distant cousin Brian Killick, in this case about a fictional English version of the Academie Française, with the central characters being its secretary Sidney and his wife Beatrice (the allusion to the Webbs is lampshaded pretty early on). As with The Heralds, an opening comes up with the death of Sir Charles Mortlake, and most of the plot concerns itself with the intersection of Beatrice and Sidney's propensity to play practical jokes and the contest for the vacant seat, which is filled by vote of the surviving members of the Academy. Once again, I wondered when the book was meant to be set - there are references to the 1970s, but Sidney is said to have been appointed by Ramsay McDonald, whose last term as Prime Minister ended in 1935, and Sir Charles Mortlake's African research is implied to have been before the first world war.

My big problem with the plot is that the protagonists, Beatrice and Sidney, are just not very nice, although their marriage is sympathetically portrayed (the most sympathetically of any marriage in Brian Killick’s four novels). They mock the caretaker of their building by referring to her as Madame Balzac to her face (she never gets it); they also play practical jokes on the Academy members, which can lead to quite serious consequences. They themselves then suffer the (unexplained) killing of their dog. Having said that, there is some really well-written humour of misunderstanding, in particular centring on Pobjoy, a second-rate writer who is aiming for the vacant seat in the Academy, who is mistaken for a mental health worker, a travelling salesman and a spy at various points. There is also a particularly comic Field-Marshal (most of the members of the Academy are identified only by their current or former titles, which is true of a lot of the characters in Brian Killick's books). And the central theme, of a fading institution of the Establishment trying to get to grips with the spirit of the 1960s, never mind the 1970s, is similar to that of both The Nannies and The Heralds, but maybe done a little better here because the institution at the core of the story is wholly fictional.

Anyway, you can get it here. As with The Heralds, a nice cover by John Lawrence.

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The Heralds, by Brian Killick

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The race was begun. From an early stage the magnificent Clarenceux was clearly the front runner. He had been passed over once before. When he, whose impending retirement occupied the thoughts of the members to the virtual exclusion of all else, had been appointed Garter King of Arms at the end of the war no one was more surprised than Clarenceux. It was as one who was already second in rank at the College that Clarenceux had gone to the war. He had taken it for granted that he would automatically succeed to the first place. When another and lowlier member was preferred to him the blow was crushing. By the time that an election had come round again Clarenceux, who was basically fair-minded, would have been prepared to admit, if anyone had been found brave enough to ask him his opinion, that in the peculiar circumstances existing at the end of the war probably the best man had been chosen. Clarenceux recognized that he was impatient and blundering and not equipped to cope with the difficulties of those early post-war days, but all that had changed now. The ship had entered calm waters. There was no reason why Clarenceux should not aspire to the highest position.
This is my distant cousin Brian Killick's second and best-known novel, published in 1973, which actually has a Wikipedia page (basically because it caught the attention of a Wikipedia editor who is a heraldry expert, back in 2006). It also has more owners than all his other books combined on both LibraryThing and Goodreads (this is not difficult).

The Heralds has a more coherent plot than The Nannies; unlike the other three, it's pretty obviously derived from a particular source, the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, whose protagonist serially murders nine of his relatives (all played by Alec Guinness) so that he can become the Duke of Chalfont. Here, Cecil Gascoigne, the Chester Herald, decides to eliminate all competitors from the race to become the Garter King of Arms, the UK's Chief Herald - though unlike in Kind Hearts and Coronets, his plan is not murder but intimidation and blackmail. Nonetheless, several of his targeted rivals do indeed die in the process.

The fundamental weakness of the plot is that it gradually becomes clear that someone else apart from the protagonist is also plotting against the heralds, but SPOILER we do not find out who it is, and the ending therefore left me a bit unsatisfied when I read this as a teenager and left me unsatisfied again now. Still, the eccentricities of the Heralds are sketched humorously and also sympathetically, and Gascoigne's plans to eliminate them from the race to become the next Garter King of Arms are intriguingly devious. I was also pleased to note minor characters named after my aunt Ursula and a favourite cousin known in the family as Bunty (neither sadly still with us). You can get it here.

The cover, like those of the other two books that I haven't got to yet, is a striking image by John Lawrence. He is still alive, at 85, and also did fantastic illustrations for the 1979 Watership Down, Tales from Watership Down and Lyra's Oxford. Here the heralds sullenly process through London, clearly not enjoying each others' company.

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The Nannies, by Brian Killick

Brian Killick is my second cousin once removed, born the same year (1928) and the same generation as my father. His mother, Muriel, was my grandfather's first cousin, one of the first women to graduate from UCD, born in 1884. Her first husband, Sydney Killick, was killed in the first world war, and she married his brother, Neil Killick, Brian's father, who died in a Japanese POW camp in the second world war. It is really bad luck to lose a husband in each World War. Muriel's father Edward Whyte was my great-grandfather's younger brother, born around 1830. (My great-grandfather, the oldest brother, was born in 1826, and there was a brother and maybe a sister or two between them. Muriel, like her son Brian and indeed like my grandfather, was the fruit of a second marriage.)

Brian spent most of his career as an accountant, but published four novels in the mid-1970s. I met him a couple of times and read most of the books when I was much younger. I was delighted to discover a few weeks ago that he is still vey much with it, and hope to catch up with him sooner rather than later (he is 91). Meanwhile it was not very difficult to get hold of the four novels and read them.

The Nannies was published in 1972 (and is dedicated to the author's mother). Internal evidence suggests that it was written earlier. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
‘Who is that dithering over there?’ she demanded sharply. ‘The girl’s got a uniform on.’
The Nannies sets the tone of the other four books, the slow disintegration of a traditional institution. In this case, the institution is a regular gathering of nannies in Kensington Gardens, women pledged to uphold the traditions of society and pass it to the next generation. The Bonham-Carters and Abel-Smiths are upstarts, orbiting around the periphery of the group. The first third of the book is spent building up the characters of the group; the rest of it tells how the group disintegrates through a variety of household disasters. The rot sets in when one of the nannies is kidnapped on a holiday in North Africa and ends up as a valued member of a harem, deciding that she will do better there than back at home; several others move on for one reason or another; the book begins and ends with Nanny Crumpet joining the group from her home in Ireland, and then returning once the group has disintegrated. It's gentle, establishment humour, based around people who are not very conscious of their own flaws.

I did wonder to what extent it drew from The Great Dinosaur Robbery, published in 1970, which features a group of British nannies (albeit in New York). But in fact I think that Brian Killick had finished this book before 1970, and it simply took a while to get published. One of the sub-plots is about a Tory MP who lost his seat in 1966 and is still struggling to find another in time for the 1970 election. One of the nannies has a certificate of her accomplishments signed by Princess Arthur of Connaught, who died in 1917; this is barely credible even in the late 1960s, and still less so for the 1970s. In general the mood is of a slightly older generation trying to get to grips with the Sixties.

The front cover is by Michael Foreman, who has done quite a lot of children's books over the years, but also illustrated the first, banned edition of J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition.

You can get The Nannies here.

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October Books

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 45)
Sheelagh Murnaghan, 1924-1993: Stormont’s Only Liberal MP, by Ruth Illingworth
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence
Is There Life Outside The Box? An Actor Despairs, by Peter Davison
Luck and the Irish, by Roy Foster

849FD71B-1A8E-4FF1-AB14-A6DFACBC20E1.jpeg 912DDAAA-AC4C-4F96-94B5-79913BDF93B5.jpeg B47B0334-756F-4C84-9462-B361CF7FF988.jpeg 4578C5AF-5846-4A27-AEFE-9738EB15B8D5.jpeg

Fiction (non-sf): 6 (YTD 31)
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
Sybil, by Benjamin Disraeli
The Nannies, by Brian Killick
The Heralds, by Brian Killick
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Eilif Shafak
Beneath The Dome, by Brian Killick

sf (non-Who): 4 (YTD 67)
Cloud and Ashes, by Greer Gilman
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Be My Enemy, by Ian McDonald
The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester

Doctor Who, etc: 1 (YTD 26)
The Triple Knife, and other Doctor Who stories, by Jenny T. Colgan

Comics 2 (YTD 27)
Frédégonde, la sanguinaire, Tome 1, by Virginie Greiner and Alessia de Vincenzi
Frédégonde, la sanguinaire, Tome 2, by Virginie Greiner and Alessia de Vincenzi

5,400 pages (YTD 54,400)
7/17 (YTD 79/197) by non-male writers (Illingworth, Shafak, Gilman, Russell, Colgan, Greiner/de Vincenzi x 2))
0/17 (YTD 29/197) by PoC (I don't think Peter Davison counts himself in this category)
4/17 (YTD 27/197) rereads (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Heralds, Beneath the Dome, The Sparrow)

Reading now
Normal People, by Sally Rooney
The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh
The Camelot Club, by Brian Killick
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

Coming soon (perhaps)
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
"Catch That Zeppelin!", by Fritz Leiber
One of the 28th: A tale of Waterloo, by G. A. Henty
Halo: The Thursday War, by Karen Traviss
The Last Days of New Paris, by China Miéville
My Century, by Günther Grass
The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells
Dragon’s Claw, by Steve Moore
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
Les Survivants, vol 1, by Leo
Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, by Stephen Zunes
She Was Good-She Was Funny, by David Marusek
Being Human: Bad Blood, by James Goss
Dragonworld, by Byron Preiss
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson

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