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Second paragraph of third chapter (apologies for the scatological content):
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A few years back I read the autobiography of Jayne Olorunda, child of a Nigerian father and a Strabane woman, which was a tough read. Annie Yellowe also grew up in difficult circumstances, but in Portadown; her mother went to Liverpool as a young woman, and came back with no husband and no money, but three mixed-race children. Her Protestant relatives provided a certain amount of support, but her mother was an alcoholic who abused her children and also allowed her rotating succession of boyfriends to exploit her. Reading through, it is frankly astonishing that social services, even at the limited extent that they were operating in the 1970s, did not step in and move the children into foster care (also something that one notices by its absence from Jayne Olorunda's story); there seems to have been a certain amount of collusion between extended family and authorities to prevent state meddling. In the end, Annie did OK at school, and finally went to London to start her new life (where she is now a social worker and published poet). Her elder brother, who gets a good write-up here, is a well-known Northern Irish footballer.

I have to say that this is not a particularly well-written book - the author's style is rather breathless and stream-of-consciousness. But it comes from the heart. You can get it here.

This was my top book by a non-white writer. Next on that list is Cat Country, by Lao She.

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A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

Second paragraph of third chapter:
During my weeks there I had only two bad nights. Once when I dreamed that the tower was crumpling and, once, sliding forward into machine-gun fire and no pit to creep into, slithering on through mud to mutilating death. And then my screams too joined with the night creatures. Well, there was a third sleepless night but that came much later and for a different reason.
I saw the film with Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth when it came out in 1987, and greatly enjoyed it; the original book is very short, but very intense. It's the story of two shell-shocked veterans in an isolated English village in the early 1920s, one restoring a medieval wall painting of the Last Judgement, the other on a single-handed archæological dig, both confronting and to an extent exorcising their demons. The place and time are very convincingly invoked; there's a lovely contrast between the unwelcoming established church (apart from the vicar's wife who is a bit more welcoming) and the warm communality of the local Methodists; the climactic moment (spoilers, sorry) is when the narrator finds himself giving an impromptu sermon. The final twist, which I didn't think the film handled very well, is much better in the original. You can get it here.

This was one of the 34 winners of the Guardian Book Prize, which ran from 1965 to 1998. Looking at the list, I think the only other three that I have read are The Condition of Muzak, by Michael Moorcock, Kepler, by John Banville, and Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard.

This was the top unread non-genre fiction book on my shelves. Next on that list is Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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The Showstoppers, by Jonathan Cooper

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Perhaps he’d have time this afternoon to devote some thought to it, though it was already approaching 11am and the stacks of paperwork Corporal Wright had sent over, accompanied by a sweet yet scathing note detailing the dangers of not returning them promptly, had not even been depleted by a fraction. Lethbridge-Stewart sighed. He didn’t expect the duties of a colonel to be wholly blood and thunder, but he hadn’t expected the rot of bureaucracy to set in quite so quickly either.
Sixth book in the Candy Jar Lethbridge-Stewart sequence, second of the second series, this sees the future Brigadier, Ann Travers and journalist Harold Chorley investigating a mysterious TV spy show in which almost all the characters are played by the same actor, who is also the show-runner - the concept of Dr Strangelove, but taken to a new extreme. I had not come across the author before, though he's written a couple of Space: 1889 books. It's very nicely done - a novel that is a spinoff from a TV series whose hero changes faces from time to time, about a TV series which features an actor of many faces; Cooper balances the absurdity of the set-up nicely with the tension of how-the-heck-will-they-get-out-of-this. There are a couple of lovely moments of fan-service, but nothing too intrusive. A new (and black) regular character is introduced to the Lethbridge-Stewart universe. Basically, I am enjoying this series. You can get this one here.

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1913, by Charles Emmerson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Visitors to Berlin, over a million of them in 1913, found a city full of nervous, unchannelled energy; a city that wrapped itself in the mantle of the German Reich but which was, inside, still the provincial capital of Prussia; a city which was reckoned the most modern in Europe, an industrial powerhouse and a capital of science; a city on parade. Their reactions were mixed. Some saw a metropolis more suggestive of the future than any other, more urban and more modern, the very expression of the global economic force which the German Empire had become. But other visitors found a parvenu, blaring its new-found prosperity but with no finer sensibilities, an ugly and uncouth city. Many found both.
The author worked alongside me in the International Crisis Group back in the early years of this century, and went on to greater thinktanky things; in this book, he looks at 1913, the last year before the first world war, from the perspective of twenty-three great cities, starting and ending with London, but visiting the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia and the rest of Europe en route. It's a masterly synthesis of what was going on in global politics, pulling together loads of primary sources - newspapers, diaries, etc - to build a clear picture of human politics as it was experienced by the people of the day. It was particularly interesting to get the perspective of cities from outside the European cultural space, such as Bombay, Peking, Shanghai, Tokyo, Tehran. It's quite a long book but a refreshingly quick read.

The concentration on individual cities does mean that two aspects of the world in 1913 are underplayed. First, most obviously, the countryside is seen only in relation to the city. Sure, the cities were where change was taking pace most quickly, but the politics of land ownership and agricultural technology are also fairly crucial drivers and are largely not included. Second, of course you can only pick so many cities; Brussels is not listed in the index, though there are a couple of paragraphs on the World's Fair in Ghent; Ireland's impact on England is described, but not from Ireland's pint of view; we hear from Algiers and Durban, but little from the continent they fringe. And third, there is little space for transnational phenomena - for instance, there is a throwaway remark about the meeting of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Budapest, which the Persian delegation was unable to attend; Lenin and Stalin pop up very briefly in the chapter on Vienna, as does Adolf Hitler.

But I guess you have to take your framing devices where you can find them, and I must admit I liked this a lot more than the last such book I read (1688, not counting 1434). It's fluent and engaging. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2014. Next on that pile is Two Brothers, by Ben Elton.

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Better Than Sex, by Hunter S. Thompson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
On some days you wonder what it all means. And on some days you find out. It’s like suddenly seeing a huge black pig in your headlights when you’re running 80 miles an hour on ice. Boom. Total clarity. No more gray area.
One of the classic accounts of American politics, not quite as remarkable as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 because the election of 1992 was much less remarkable, and also frankly because Thompson's own style was becoming much more self-indulgent. Thompson's drug-fuelled raging stream of consciousness writing comes over now as rather white and male. He picks up on the importance of Hillary Clinton, but fails to really interview her. The one African-American who is mentioned in passing is Roosevelt Grier, who he utterly unfairly blames for the death of Robert F. Kennedy. He fumes about the fundamental evil of George H.W. Bush without really proving the case.

And yet there are moments of sheer genius. It starts with a flashback to the failed McGovern campaign which is basically the set-up for a punchline:
Another thing I still remember from that horrible day in November of ’72 was that some dingbat named Clinton was said to be almost single-handedly responsible for losing 222 counties in Texas—including Waco, where he was McGovern’s regional coordinator—and was “terminated without pay, with prejudice,” and sent back home to Arkansas “with his tail between his legs,” as an aide put it.

“We’ll never see that stupid bastard again,” one McGovern aide muttered. “Clinton—Bill Clinton. Yeah. Let’s remember that name. He’ll never work again, not in Washington.”
A passing reference brought me to H.L. Mencken's obituary of William Jennings Bryan, which makes it clear how much Thompson's style owed to Mencken's writing:
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.
There is a hilarious passage describing Bill Clinton's supposedly odd behaviour at his first interview with Thompson, later explained by a mutual friend as the effect of Thompson's eerie resemblance to Clinton's childhood nemesis (way too good to be true, alas). I had also completely forgotten that Ross Perot's excuse for dropping out of the 1992 presidential election was that the Republicans were planning to spoil his daughter's wedding by distributing fake compromising photographs of her. Yes, really.

The book ends with a postscript written after the death of Richard Nixon, Thompson's old nemesis, in 1994. For all that Thompson says he hated him, there is evidence of some respect between the two:
Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”
Anyway, I should get hold of the better, earlier books of the Gonzo Papers. It's a little sad to get the sense from reading that Thompson's powers were waning, and that he knew it. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016 (cheating slightly because I had in fact read it years ago). Next in that list is The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester.

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July Books

Non-fiction: 10 (YTD 29)
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
First Generation, by Mary Tamm
The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, by Paul Bew
Better Than Sex, by Hunter S. Thompson
1913: The World Before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson
For the Love of a Mother: The Black Children of Ulster, by Annie Yellowe Palma
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook
Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story, by John Bossy
Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver


Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 19)
Gigi, by Colette
The Cat, by Colette

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr


sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 56)
The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang
Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull
The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty
The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells


Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 17)
Night of the Kraken, by Jonathan Green
Adorable Illusion, by Gary Russell
Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale
The Showstoppers, by Jonathan Cooper


Comics 3 (YTD 15)
Plastic Man #1, by Jack Cole
Het Amusement, by Brecht Evens
The Story of Garth the Strong, by Stephen Dowling


6,900 pages (YTD 38,400)
9/25 (YTD 60/137) by non-male writers (Obama, Tamm, Yellowe Palma, Kingsolver, Colette x2, Kuang, Hull, Chakraborty)
4/25 (YTD 22/137) by PoC (Obama, Yellowe Palma, Kuang, Chakraborty)
2/25 (YTD 14/137) rereads (Better Than Sex, The Time Machine)

Reading now
Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman
Kate Bush: Under the Ivy, by Graeme Thompson
De Bourgondiërs, by Bart Van Loo
Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace
The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter

Coming soon (perhaps):
The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory, by Deborah M. Withers
Berlin Book Three: City of Light, by Jason Lutes
Smallworld, by Dominic Green
Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver
Alina, by Jason Johnson
Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, by Brian Morris
Cat Country, by Lao She
Oyasumi, by Renee Rienties
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
Be My Enemy, by Ian McDonald
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Eilif Shafak
The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester
Two Brothers, by Ben Elton
A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson
How To Be Both, by Ali Smith
A Local Habitation, by Seanan McGuire
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
True Stories, ed. Xanna Eve Chown

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Tuesday reading

Current
Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman
Kate Bush: Under the Ivy, by Graeme Thompson
De Bourgondiërs, by Bart Van Loo
Ben-Hur, by Lee Wallace
The Time Ships, by Stephen Baxter

Last books finished
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook
Het Amusement, by Brecht Evens
The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story, by John Bossy
Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

Next books
The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin
Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Adorable Illusion, by Gary Russell

Second paragraph of third chapter:
‘What’s what?’
The last (so far) Bernice Summerfield novel, published in 2014, this is apparently tied into an audio box set that I haven't yet heard. I didn't mind. It's set on a spaceship called the Adorable Illusion, with Benny disguised as a disgraced fellow-archaeologist for Reasons and a motley assortment of crew and other passengers regarding her with more or less justified suspicion. Then about two thirds of the way through the book, there is a massive plot twist, and it turns out that we do actually care about everyone on board - very nicely done, as you would hope for from Russell who is one of the best Who writers when on form. I think you'd need basic familiarity with the Bernice universe to really appreciate it, though. You can get it here.

Next (and penultimate) in the set of Bernice Summerfield books is True Stories, edited by Xanna Eve Chown.

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Second paragraph of third essay ("Modest Realities Lurk behind All-Embracing Rhetoric of Document", published in The Times on 23 February 1995):
The Framework Document meets none of Sinn Fein's demands for a timetable for withdrawal. Yet, most unionists were angry yesterday, and the impression persists that the government may have miscalculated. How has this happened? The core belief of Ulster unionism is clear: "It is better to be separated from the rest of Ireland than from Great Britain". There is a definite implication: unionist politicians are unlikely to make major sacrifices to bring about a local assembly if the price is to give Dublin an unacceptably large role in the north. Hence yesterday's proposal for a northern assembly will not, in itself, calm unionist fears about the content of the document.
I've known Paul Bew since I was 13; he was a colleague of my father's at the Queen's University of Belfast and succeeded him as Professor of Irish Politics. This is a collection of his newspaper and magazine articles (as opposed to academic publications) from 1994 to 2007, the year in which he became a member of the House of Lords. (He is now the Chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, having previously chaired the Committee on Standards in Public Life.)

These pieces very much reflect the times in which they were written, and also noticeably shift to reflect the perspective of Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister David Trimble at the point where the author was closest to him in the early 2000's (and then back away again after Trimble's defeat). But what really interested me was to be reminded of how far Northern Ireland has come, an important perspective given the gloomy current situation; 25 years ago, when the first of these pieces was written, the terrorist campaigns of both sides remained in full swing, and there was no perspective of a DUP/Sinn Fein-led power-sharing government (and even though that arrangement collapsed in early 2017, both parties stipulate that they want it restored).

It's also a salutary reflection that in those days, it was the Dublin government which was still getting to grips with the reality of Northern Ireland, and Westminster which had an in-depth knowledge, as opposed to today when the British establishment has retreated to absurd superficiality and it is Dublin that is keeping its finger on the pulse. (Officials from both Northern Ireland and Scotland tell me that they are getting more and better information about Brexit from the Irish government than from London.)

All of these essays have dated, in that they were very specific descriptions of the latest political developments, written for a literate but not well-informed audience. But they are well-written and clear, and useful for anyone wanting to track how we got from the chaos of 1994 to the settlement of 2007. You can get it here.

This was the shortest book left on my shelves of those acquired in 2011. Next on that list is Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory, by Deborah M. Withers.

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I've previous written up the Find Your Fate, FASA and Decide Your Destiny Doctor Who game books. These are two Twelfth Doctor choose-your-own-adventure books, both published in 2016. I'm not aware of any more of this type of book being produced since.

Night of the Kraken, by Jonathan Green

Second paragraph of Chapter 3:
Warily, the Doctor approaches the rider and, when the man still doesn’t react, grabs hold of his hat and throws it aside. What he sees makes him leap backwards again.
As with Green's previous game book, The Horror of Howling Hill, this is set in southern England - 18th century Cornwall, to be precise - and is rather well written, capturing the Capaldi Doctor very well. It has several different storylines, most of which revolve around the Kraa'Kn (an aquatic alien monster, of course) with a galactic smuggler and a barmaid playing walk-on roles, but other variants include the Terileptils and a brief appearance of a clockwork robot. There are numerous endings, including one in which the Doctor is killed by zombies and another in which he is stuck in a perpetual time loop.

A structural gimmick which was new to me - at several points your choice is constrained by what has happened before, eg chapter 78:
If the Doctor has already visited the Hispaniola Inn, go to 142.
If not, go to 103.
This is a very interesting way of creating new lines through the structure. Unfortunately it's a bit too clever - there is a set of five chapters, starting with Chapter 12, which are orphaned (and I couldn't see where they were meant to fit - Chapter 12 starts with the Doctor heading toward the village with the smuggler, but no other chapter offers that as an option).

Anyway, more interesting than I expected.

Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Voice-activated photonic projectors raise the light level. The Doctor is standing in the middle of an extensive laboratory littered with advanced scientific equipment.
A somewhat more diffuse book, with lots of different and quite independent timelines for adventures of the Twelfth Doctor on an unnamed moon. (Though in one variant he goes back to contemporary earth for an adventure with Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.) This also has the feature I noted from some of the Decide Your Destiny books, where the player makes choices that I would have expected to be made by the writer, eg Chaper 78:
If you think the sonic will open the airlock, tap here to go to Entry 118.
If you think the airlock will stay shut, tap here to go to Entry 83.
Some rather good lines, but I prefer when the multiple storylines in these books are all set in more or less the same universe as each other. Baxendale also wrote three of the Decide Your Destiny books, which I likewise found average rather than compelling.

You can get Night of the Kraken here and Terror Moon here.

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My Worldcon schedule

See you in Dublin!

Is it about a bicycle? The influences of a comedic genius and their funniest book
15 Aug 2019, Thursday 11:00 - 11:50, Wicklow Room-2 (CCD)

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a significant and well-loved novel, especially in Ireland. (One of its central characters, de Selby, has become a cult hero. Cited as Alan Moore’s favourite book, its prodigious footnoting was a major influence on Robert Rankin.) Yet it was initially rejected by publishers and finally issued only after the author’s death. See what our panel make of this!

Jenna Maguire, Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Nicholas Whyte, Nigel Quinlan (M)

Using SFF as sandboxes for ideas on politics and society
Format: Panel
16 Aug 2019, Friday 16:00 - 16:50, Wicklow Room-3 (CCD)

Speculative fiction can offer readers and writers a space, removed from ‘real’ life, to explore and criticise society and politics and offer possible solutions. From the economy of your galactic empire to the status of dwarves in your epic fantasy, it is impossible to separate the political from the fantastical, and SFF is a great place to imagine other ways of existing.

Nicholas Whyte (M), Sam Hawke, Eyal Kless, Taiyo Fujii
The 2019 Hugo Awards Ceremony
Format: Event
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 20:00 - 22:00, Auditorium (CCD)

The premiere event of the Worldcon will take place on Sunday evening, as we celebrate the best science fiction and fantasy of 2018. Hosted by Afua Richardson and Michael Scott, we invite you to join us in congratulating this year’s finalists and winners of the prestigious Hugo Awards.

Afua Richardson (M), Michael Scott (M)

Irish science and scientific discoveries
Format: Talk
19 Aug 2019, Monday 10:30 - 11:20, Odeon 3 (Point Square Dublin)

From Boyle’s Law to the later speculations of Schrödinger, Ireland and its scientists can claim many world-changing scientific discoveries. How did this happen? What linked Irish science with the island’s political situation?

Nicholas Whyte

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Gateways, ed. Elizabeth Anne Hull

Second paragraph of third story ("Sleeping Dogs", by Joe Haldeman:
Low gravity and low oxygen. My heart was going too fast. I stood for a moment, concentrating, and brought it down to a hundred, then ninety. The air had more sulfur sting than I remembered. It seemed a lot warmer than I remembered that summer, too, but then if I could remember it all I wouldn't have to be here. My missing finger throbbed.
This is a collection of stories, poems and essays celebrating the 90th birthday of Frederik Pohl, which was in 2009 (though the book was not published until 2010). Only a couple of them are really good, Haldeman's "Sleeping Dogs" which takes a veteran back to the site of conflict with a memorable twist, and Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" which links to both The Space Merchants and Gulliver's Travels. There's also the last Stainless Steel Rat story by Harry Harrison, and late stories by Brian Aldiss and Sherri S Tepper.

Worth also noting Neil Gaiman's poem:
The [Backspace] Merchants

The [backspace] merchants sell deletions and removals,
masters of the world (or so they claim)
they go by many hundred different names
and live inside a giant block of Spam.

It quivers, as if alive, is fed
by tubes and tendrils, and is inhabited.
Portions are cut from it continually to feed the people.
Insidious, invidious,
(occasionally in videos),
the [backspace] merchants seek to sell you:
V1agRa and all its magical cousins
(If you had a larger thing in your pants your life would have been better!!)
(MAGIC PENIS ENLARGEMENT PILLS)
(She'll love the new growth!)
(Make nights turbulent.)

Also, designer watches, diplomas,
diplomats who will entrust you with their missing millions.
There are girls in your town who want to
meet you.

The [backspace] merchants want so to delete you.

The [backspace] merchants click and they erase
our faces, so we keep on losing face.
The [backspace] merchants
offer relief from their own excesses:
The products will not work as advertised
The Spam is vast and must be satisfied.

In the old days of the future
our freedom fighters lived deep inside the chicken meat
Their coffee was the coffiest, their dreams the dreamiest.
The rest of us craved and grazed our lives away
and wondered if we should emigrate to Venus.

These are the poles we navigate between:
Yesterday's futures now reshape our days
into futures past, somewhere between last week and day million
as ancient as a black and white TV show, watched so late
and all the names we conjured with appeared to us in monochrome
with their faces, such young faces,
to those of us who would learn to be plugged in at all times,
they told us of the future, that it was what they saw
a Game of If when they opened wide their eyes.

So we avoided all their awful warnings,
ignored the minefields as the klaxons sounded
played “Cheat the Prophet” just as Gilbert said,
we sidestepped cacotopias unbounded
and built ourselves this gorgeous mess instead

I wish we could still emigrate to Venus.

Sometimes I wonder what the Spam makes of us:
does it define us by our base desires,
or hope we can transcend them? Like small gods,
the [backspace] merchants offer us all choices
and each day
we can be tempted
or delete.
They lay their traps ineptly at our feet.

The present moves so quick we can't describe it,
so Science Fiction limns the recent past.
We future folk are just another tribe who
hyperlinked our colours to the mast,
When now is always then and never soon
Our freak flags will not fly upon the moon.

Our prophets opened gateways, showed us pitfalls
gave us worlds of if and galaxies uncountable.
They made us think then take the other road.
But future yesterdays are growing cold.
The [backspace] merchants huddle in their meat
while we demand a finer, nobler future:
It waits for us beyond the blue horizon.
Our future will be glorious and gold.

If it lasts more than four hours
consult your physician.
It's not quite as mind-blowing a collection as I would have liked, given Pohl's significance and the rank of the authors involved, but it's still pretty good and you can get it here.

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Smallworld, by my old friend Dominic Green.

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First Generation, by Mary Tamm

Second paragraph of third chapter:
At seven, at Lilycroft Primary, I was chosen to sing a solo verse in the carol In The Deep Midwinter. As I innocently started the verse, I was astonished to see the
heads of the watching parents jerk up suddenly from their programmes, and listen in rapt attention. It was my first taste of power over an audience, and I loved It. Nor have I forgotten my earliest night of stage triumph in Karel Čapek's Insect Play, performed at Bradford Girls' Grammar, circa 1966, in which I was playing the lead role of the Tramp. I had not told anyone in rehearsal, least of all the form mistress who had directed the play, but I had a secret prop that I intended to use in one scene, which I started with a long monologue. The lights went up and I strolled to the front of the stage. The audience coughed and rustled expectantly. I took out a pipe and matches (items I had secretly borrowed from my father) from my pocket and proceeded to light up. The reaction was as expected. Shocked gasps of mingled horror and amusement erupted. I was vaguely aware of angry hissing in the wings, no doubt from the drama mistress invoking me to cease, but I was relishing the moment too much to pay any attention. Where I got the boldness from I shall never know; but it was the talking point of the school for days. I was well on the way to pursuing the secret ambition I had nurtured since the age of six - that of becoming an actress.
Published in 2009, three years before the writer's early death, this is the autobiography of Mary Tamm, who played the first incarnation of Romana in Doctor Who. It's interesting on her early career and romantic life, but the heart of the book is her visit to Estonia in 1990, the home country of her parents, just as it was shaking off the Soviet Union. (The only time I myself have been to Estonia was in August 1990, during her time there, and it is tantalising to think that I may have brushed past her in the streets of Tallinn.) The experience of being taken out of her comfort zone and reconnecting with relatives who she had never seen before clearly moved her deeply, and she expresses it well.

Otherwise, the account of her career stops with Doctor Who in 1979, which is a bit surprising as she continued acting until 2009 according to IMDB. And in fact she goes into detail only about the first three stories of her six, though also gives a brief account of her decision to leave and why she didn't get a proper regeneration scene (Graham Williams, the producer, couldn't believe that she was really leaving; she obviously got on well with Tom Baker, much better than her immediate predecessor had). It's as if she just ran out of energy for doing the writing. (Her obituaries from July 2012 say that she had been ill for eighteen months, but perhaps she was already feeling something. Her husband died hours after her funeral, while replying to condolence messages.)

The other point I found of interest was her comment that she was the first high-profile actress to play the companion. She was certainly the first for several years, but I think Anneke Wills and Deborah Watling both had equally high profiles before joining the TARDIS crew. I must try and watch The ODESSA File, her biggest cinema role. There's also a funny story of a disastrously organised cruise with Peter Davison and Deborah Watling. So it's not at the top of my list of Who memoirs, but it's charming enough in its own way. You can get it here.

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Tuesday reading

Current
Het Amusement, by Brecht Evens
The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent, by Tim Crook

Last books finished
Terror Moon, by Trevor Baxendale
Better Than Sex, by Hunter S. Thompson
1913: The World before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson
The Showstoppers, by Jonathan Cooper
A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr
For the Love of a Mother: The Black Children of Ulster, by Annie Yellowe Palma

Next books
Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver
Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman

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Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Craig's biggest fear, however, was also probably the most realistic, and that was fire. House fires were a regular occurrence in Chicago, in part due to slumlords who let their buildings slide into disrepair and were all too happy to reap the insurance benefits when a fire tore through, and in part because home smoke detectors were a relatively new development and still expensive for working-class people to afford. Either way, inside our tight city grid, fire was almost a fact of life, a random but persistent snatcher of homes and hearts. My grandfather Southside had moved to our neighborhood after a fire destroyed his old house on the West Side, though luckily nobody'd been hurt. (According to my mother, Southside stood on the curb outside the burning house, shouting for the firefighters to direct their hoses away from his precious jazz albums.) More recently, in a tragedy almost too giant for my young mind to take in, one of my fifth-grade classmates—a boy with a sweet face and a tall Afro named Lester McCullom, who lived around the corner from us in a town house on Seventy-Fourth Street—had died in a fire that also killed his brother and sister, the three of them trapped by flames in bedrooms upstairs.
I reviewed her husband's autobiography back in 2010, and here we are with the other half of the team. Michelle Robinson's background was less unusual than her future husband's - growing up among the African-American population of Chicago, but succeeding in qualifying as a high-flying lawyer until she decided to accept the realities of being a political family. But it's a story well told, and in particular the environment of her Chicago youth, which will be the least familiar for most readers, is well conveyed.

There's much less about her husband's election campaigns than I had expected - I guess that Michelle Obama is not a campaign diary sort of person, and she makes it very clear that she did not like the idea of Barack going into politics in the first place, and is rather glad that it is all over now. She does reflect on the demands made of her by campaigning and her occasional failure to rise to the occasion. There is a very moving little passage about celebrating the birthday of one of their daughters on the campaign trail in 2008, and both parents feeling that they had not delivered for the little girl, only for her to confound them by telling the whole campaign team that it was her best birthday ever.

Still, the most interesting part of the book is her exploration of being the first black First Lady at the same time as bringing up her daughters. She has nothing but good things to say about her predecessors. She is charmed by the Queen and awed by Nelson Mandela. She wisely says little (but not nothing) about the White House's current occupant. She grumbles that quite a lot of entertainment expenses had to be met from the Obamas' private means, as the White House budget does not cover the activities that are now expected of a First Lady. Having said that, they could afford it thanks to Barack's own best-selling writing; no US President since Truman has been worth less than $8 million, and the Obamas have several times that amount. But anyone who has had to juggle a demanding career (at any level) with family responsibilities will find resonance here.

Basically, it's a great read. You can get it here.

This reached the top of three of my lists simultaneously - top unread book acquired last year, top unread non-fiction and top book by a woman. Next on all three lists is Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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