April 5th, 2006

earthsea

April Books 3) The Jennifer Morgue

3) The Jennifer Morgue, by autopope

I got this book from the author himself; he very kindly beamed a copy from his PDA to mine across the table at an Indian restaurant in Dublin last month. Just as well, as it won't be out in hardback until the end of this year and the paperback comes out next February. (At work we have an average turnaround between final text and publication of perhaps 48 hours, with little amendments still possible up to the last minute; the longest I've had to wait was for the paper we decided to launch in three languages simultaneously, so had to wait two weeks for the translation; I am aware that for commercial publishers conditions are rather different.) I had actually had a look at some of the earlier chapters in draft, and am gratified to see some of my suggested tweaks were accepted. (And indeed acknowledged in the introduction.)

It's a sequel to The Atrocity Archives, and thus to the Hugo-winning novella "The Concrete Jungle"; Bob Howard works for the little-known British government agency combining cutting-edge information technology with combat against the forces of darkness of the type first described by H.P. Lovecraft. As usual, Charlie writes breath-takingly fast and smart prose, in a story that takes the standard James Bond plot and warps it through disturbing dimensions. The settings, memorably evoked, include the Caribbean island of St Martin, shared between France and the Netherlands, in and around which most of the action takes place; I hadn't previously heard of it but it turns out to be quite real.

There are a few mind-numbing in-jokes - the villain's head of security is named after a well-known figure in British sf fandom, and Bob's middle initials are a neat subtle touch. The reader who doesn't get these will I think be entertained anyway, and there may well be others I didn't spot.

Added to the end of the book is a brief meditation by autopope on "The Golden Age of Spying", mostly entirely factual but including an amusing little interview with Blofeld set in Transdniestria. That doubles the number of sf stories I have read referencing that peculiar place (the other being Walter Jon Williams' "The Green Leopard Plague").
not happy

Ooogh

Slept really badly last night - I thought at the time due to having had too heavy a lunch yesterday. Still, made it into town in time for Very Important Meeting at 9. Then went to the office, but rapidly realised that I just wasn't up to it and baled out before midday. Have spent most of the time since then in bed, and so will miss a work dinner this evening I had been rather looking forward to.

Thinking about it I have been feeling a bit under the weather for the last week, and slept very badly last Thursday night as well, so perhaps it's some minor bug that has chosen today to come to a head and not just the grilled bacon and sausage at the Irish pub near work. I do hope so - I have a busy day scheduled for tomorrow. (And I like the food at the Irish pub as well so would hate to think it was the problem.)

On the plus side, I did a good deed on Monday - driving to lunch at the European Commission, I saw a cyclist drop her handbag right in front of me. She zoomed blithely on; I stopped the car, picked it up, tried to catch up with her (but was stymied by one-way streets), found her Commission ID card and handed it in to the guards at the front desk. On my way out of the building to my lunchdate I bumped into her again at the next corner. She was very relieved, and very nicely sent me a bottle of Spanish wine and Belgian chocolates as a thank you, which arrived at the office this morning.

Though in my current state it will be a day or two before I enjoy them.
earthsea

April Books 4) Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

4) Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman

I'm not in principle a big fan of the 18th century, but I read McCullough's John Adams just over a year ago and have spent today in bed with the Duchess of Devonshire, as it were. They were contemporaries (she was born just over twenty years after him, and he died just over twenty years after her) but neither book actually mentions the other's subject, though they must surely have met when Adams was in London in the 1780s, given her interest in America.

The fact that Foreman's book is two hundred pages shorter than McCullough's has nothing to do with its subject's shorter lifespan. Their public careers were in fact close to contemporaneous. Adams, aged forty, was thrust into prominence by the Constitutional Convention in 1776; Georgiana, aged only 23, had become a national figure by 1780. Adams' career ended with his presidency in 1801, though he lived another quarter century; Georgiana succeeded in putting together the Ministry of All the Talents, which took office in February 1806, just a few weeks before she died.

Foreman's is much the better book. I confess that I had very little idea who Georgiana was before I picked it up from the lower recesses of my "to read" pile. As I said above, I don't especially care for the 18th century. But Foreman made me care much more about the politics of the time, the factionalism between Fox, Pitt, Burke, Addington, Grenville, and the rest, far more than McCullough's rather blasé treatment of the Federalist/Republican split.

It must also be said that Georgiana had much the more interesting love life of the two. There is not even the faintest whiff of suspicion about Adams' fidelity to his wife Abigail. Georgiana had three children by her own husband and a fourth by one of her lovers, and Foreman concludes, having tantalisingly raised the question, that we will never know quite how physical her passionate friendships with other women were.

But an interesting subject doesn't guarantee a good biography. Foreman has done the legwork, seeking out primary sources and secondary sources, not ashamed to tell us when she feels she has got something especially new (as in her account of Georgiana's construction of the new government in 1804-06), and stringing it all together to form a coherent and compassionate account of a complicated life. And she makes a convincing call, based on her research, for women's history not to be segregated from men's history. Georgiana's indirect influence was considerable. On one or two occasions she exercised direct influence, as in 1783 when (aged 26!) she persuaded the Prince of Wales not to push his luck with the government lest it fall. Her impact on election campaigning methodology in 1779 and 1784 seems to have been considerable, and largely her own idea. The tragedy was that her male political allies were so useless, shown most clearly by their screwing up in the Regency crisis in 1789.

Her experiences in Paris and Belgium during the revolutionary years would be material enough for a book on their own, but are just an interlude here. (She was on intimate terms with Marie Antoinette, and left Paris just before the Bastille was stormed.) In 1792 she was back in France again, to give birth to Charles Grey's child, exiled from England by her husband in an episode which seems to have resulted in her taking up science rather than sex as a diversion. Georgiana's own expertise in mineralogy and chemistry, we are told, was recognised by her male contemporaries, and she also sponsored the discovery of nitous oxide (actually this is one poiont where I would have liked a few more details).

She had her faults. Addiction to gambling, most obviously; a certain amount of wishful thinking as well, both in her personal life and in politics (her trust was often betrayed, by her husband's lover Lady Elizabeth Foster, and on a wider political level by Fox and indirectly by Napoleon). But I find it possible to comprehend and forgive. In particular, she stuck her neck out in 1798 to insist that the minimum of force be used to oppose the Rising in Ireland that year, and did her best to get Catholic Emancipation (though that foundered on the rock of George III's intransigence). I wish there were more biographies like this.