December 31st, 2011


December Books 24) The Silent Stars Go By, by Dan Abnett

Latest Doctor Who book from the prolific Abnett, this one with a bit of a Christmassy theme (the chapter titles, like the title of the novel, are all lines from carols), but bringing back the Ice Warriors (who as far as I can tell haven't been in a Who novel since 1998) interfering with a generations-long terraforming project, whose human crew have lost most of the details of their assignment over the centuries. Lots of references both to Who continuity and to the classic generation starship stories of Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss, with perhaps a nod to Riddley Walker as well, and some great flashes of humour on the way. This year's main sequence of Eleventh Doctor / Amy / Rory hardcovers have generally been a cut above the norm and this one continues the pattern.

December Books 25) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vols 5 and 6, by Edward Gibbon


December Books 26) Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies

I was very glad to get this as a Christmas present, a book with fifteen chapters exploring the demise (and occasional revival) of European states. The first eleven chapters look at countries which once existed and appeared to be as permanent as any other, but have now disapeared; three of the last four look at countries which have (re)gained their independence (Montenegro, Ireland and Estonia); and we also explore the brief appearance of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine which lasted for less than a day in March 1939.

It's all fascinating stuff. I felt most interested where Davies is most comfortable, on his favoured territory of what is now Poland and its surroundings; the chapters on Poland/Lithuania, Prussia, Galicia and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha are passionately written. I had not realised, for instance, that the Hohenzollern rule over Prussia (as opposed to Brandenburg) came about as a result of the commander of the Teutonic Knights, a junior Hohenzollern, converting to Lutheranism and shifting his territory to a hereditary monarchy. Nor had I known that Queen Victoria had two older siblings (from her mother's first marriage). And the second chapter, on the Brythonic heritage of what is now south-west Scotland, was also an eye-opener; I knew very little of the Hen Ogledd, a cultural tradition that has been completely erased but once challenged for dominance of Great Britain and the Irish Sea. Even in the less exciting chapters one runs across odd eye-catching details:
....the sister of Juan II of Castile was married off to Alfonso of Aragon, while the sister of Juan II of Aragon married Juan II of Castile. Both of these brides were called Maria; they were first cousins, and each of them married a first cousin. After their marriages, Princess Maria of Castile became Queen Maria of Aragon, and Maria of Aragon became Maria of Castile. The phrase 'keeping it within the family' gains new significance.
Unfortunately I found that in the two chapters about countries which I know particularly well, while Davies' heart is generally in the right place, there are many annoying errors of detail. On Montenegro: Adria Airways is Slovenia's national airline, not Montenegro's. Djukanović did not break with Milošević over the Dayton Accords, which he did not consider too conciliatory (I know Wikipedia says otherwise, but Wikipedia is wrong). In the local language the country's name is Crna Gora, not Črnagora, and it just means "Black Mountain", not "land of the Black Mountain". Count de Salis was never referred to as "the earl de Salis". To describe the current democratically and fairly elected coalition government as "Putinesque" is unjustifiable, and if the reference is to politicians serving terms as prime minister (or president) interrupted by a term as president (or prime minister), it would be more appropriate to descibe Putin as "Djukanović-esque" since Milo did it first (and then gracefully retired, twice).

On Ireland: Captain Boycott was not a landlord. While there may well have been a prospect of "looming confrontation" between the Ulster Volunteers and Irish Volunteers in 1914, both groups were more interested at the time in defying British authority. Sinn Féin does not mean "Ours Alone". Edward Carson and F.E. Smith may have seen "British law as the sole fount of legitimacy" but had no difficulty in defying it when it suited them, and their support for Ulster long predated the Ulster Volunteers being "slaughtered on the Western Front". There was no "second vote" after the first Northern Ireland election in May 1921 to determine the future of the statelet (the Northern Ireland Parliament unanimously approved a "loyal address"). W.T. Cosgrave never used the title 'taoiseach'. Lord Brookeborough's name is misspelt. Terence O'Neill was never known as Sir Terence O'Neill. County Offaly has no beaches, and anyway the incident reported to have occurred there actually took place in County Longford (which also has no beaches; like County Offaly it is landlocked). I will admit that I cannot challenge Davies on his real area of expertise, which is well to the north of Montenegro and far to the east of Ireland, but it's disappointing that he could not find a handy Balkan or Irish expert to smooth out the bumps.

This should not detract from Davies' main argument, which is that small and forgotten states are important, that history written from the perspective of the winners is misleading and even dangerous, and that all constitutional arrangements must be regarded as ephemeral in the longer run of things. He takes inspiration from Gibbon, who of course I have just finished reading myself, in wanting to get into the detail and seeing how this can be translated to get a better understanding of the bigger picture. He writes of how he would have liked to write about ancient Cornwall, Nieuw Amsterdam and D'Annunzio's Fiume but did not have space; I am sorry about that, and would also have liked to see mention of my favourite forgotten Balkan state, Eastern Rumelia. Strongly recommended, though with the occasional pinch of salt where indicated. (And my Estonian friends will be annoyed that their chapter bears the title "СССР".)

Books and audios of 2011

Total number of books for the year: 301 (counting the various Gibbon volumes as one). This is up from 278 in 2010 but below 2009's 346 and 2008's 374, thanks to watching old TV episodes (mostly Doctor Who) on my commute.

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Incidentally I read one book called Blackout and listened to an audiobook also called Blackout. Both were pretty poor.