April 16th, 2011


April Books 20) Declare, by Tim Powers

I rather liked Declare. As a fan of both Tim Powers' earlier work and of John Le Carré (though I haven't read either for years), I was impressed both by the audacity of the one trying to write like the other, with added djinn (rather than gin) and by the fact that he pretty much succeeded in pulling it off. It added local colour that I read the passages set around the Soviet/Turkish frontier while myself on a business visit to a former Soviet state which unexpectedly turned out to include a reception at the residence of one of the Western ambassadors posted there. He captures the tone of the disheartened and disreputable spy thriller awfully well, with the added awful secret that is not merely national security but too dreadful to be told or even fully described ("Lovecraft meets spycraft", though that tagline gives the incorrect impression that the style is particularly Lovecraftian). I should add, however, that I think Le Carré tends to do slightly better by his women characters than Powers has managed here. Not a quick read, but I enjoyed it.

April Books 21) A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin

Another excellent Rebus novel, let down a little bit by the end - the solution to one of the mysteries depends on someone simply by coincidence having been in the right place at the right time and then doing something rather unexpected conveniently for the plot, another mystery depends on the memory of one of the viewpoint characters and is revealed to us only at the very end though presumably the character in question has been aware of it all through the book. Also I now have spotted that whenever we start to hear in great detail about Siobhan's (Rebus's sidekick's) observations of her surroundings, something 'orrible is about to happen to her. But on the way there we have the usual brilliant interweaving of professional jealousies, moments of heroism, awful politicians (a recurrent Rebus/Rankin theme), music, and stories from various levels of society which intersect each other in unexpected ways. Pretty accessible to the newcomer as well, I would think.

April Books 22) Judgement of the Judoon, by Colin Brake

Another Ten-on-his-own Who novel, this time featuring a feud between crime lords on a spaceport, a petty thief recognisable by his skin colour, a seventeen-year-old girl detective (whose name is Nikki rather than Mary Sue), and on the plus side a Judoon commander who is actually allowed to develop a character. Rather minor stuff, frankly.

Industrial archaeology revisited

Last week I wrote of the abandoned steam tram line which passed through Sint-Joris-Weert. A little subsequent googling came up with these two picture postcards showing the two stations in operation, railway on the left, steam tram (with rails in front of it) on the right:

I can't read the sign on the near end of the tram station - its inscription seems to start with 'Ma'. The sign saying 'Sint-Joris-Weert' or possibly 'Weert-St-Georges' (or both) would have been over the front door.

I reckon that the upper picture is the earlier one, given that the road seems not to have been tarmaced and that there is no tree at the near end of the railway station - the tree is still there today (and I do mean today - picture taken this morning):

I notice also that the steeple of the tram station has been replaced by a smaller structure at some point.

Non-Belgians may be amused by the nature of the fast-food stall in front of the old tram station today, waiting to serve spectators at a bike race this afternoon.

Heroes of Sontar, and The Sentinels of the New Dawn

Barely at the midpoint of the month and there are two new Big Finish audios to enjoy: the main range release brings the Fifth Doctor, Turlough, Tegan, and an older Nyssa together with abunch of Sontarans, and a Companion Chronicle has Liz Shaw timewarped in Cambridge.

Heroes of Sontar, by the reliable Alan Barnes, is the better story of the two. At first it seems a rather peculiar and not necessarily successful attempt at a humorous twist on the Sontarans, as a bunch of deadbeat veterans are sent on a mysterious mission to a planet deep in Rutan space. But this being Alan Barnes, all is not what it seems, and Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson in particular get some good moments as Tegan and Turlough as the Tardis team work out the awful truth behind the apparent absence of sentient life on the planet. Poor Sarah Sutton is not as well served as the older Nyssa, though she gets some sentimental moments with Tegan near the end, and I was not wild about the characterisation of the Doctor. But I was much more impressed by Barnes' ringing of the changes on the Sontarans here than by, say, Colin Brake's retake on the Judoon.

I was less wild about The Sentinels of the New Dawn by Paul Finch, which turns out to be a sort-of prequel to the Lost Story Leviathan, adapted by Finch from a script by his father Brian. Liz Shaw, having recently left UNIT, summons the Third Doctor to Cambridge to help her with a case of timewarping machinery which turns out to have political implications for the year 2014. It didn't especially grab me, though Caroline John is always good to hear; a slightly personal grumble is that I wish people who actually know Cambridge would write Liz Shaw stories - time travel experiments would surely be a bit more likely to be done at the Cavendish rather than at DAMTP as here, DAMTP not being well known for its experimental facilities (or indeed inclinations). Maybe things are different in the Whoniverse. (I recently became familiar with the term Brit-picking; is there a specifically Cambridge version of it which I suffer from?)