You can easily chart my obsessions this year by the types of books I read, which tended to reflect my desire to learn more about some subject or other. My normal practice is to write a review shortly after reading the book and post it online, but I was extremely busy the second half of the year so many of the reviews I am only getting to now. Graphic novels are indicated by *.
*Gotham by Gaslight – Brian Augustyn / Mike Mignola
The Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliff
*BPRD 1947—Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart / Dave Stewart, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba
BPRD stands for Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and is part of the Hellboy universe, centering on that anti-hero's youth in New Mexico under the care of Trevor Bruttenholm. This definitely had the Mignola motifs—Nazis, vampires, zombies—and was interesting because of its historical setting. Good art as well.
An interesting entry into Steampunk comics, but hardly mind-blowing.
Mozart – Kenneth & Valerie McLeish
An enjoyable young person's insight into Mozart's life, society, and works.
Beethoven: The Man and the Artist, Revealed In His Own Words ed. Friedrich Kerst
The translation, undoubtedly from 1905, was not particularly good, but hearing Beethoven from the horse's mouth must be considered quite valuable.
Founding Mothers: Women of America in the Revolutionary Era –Linda Grant DePauw
1776 – David McCullough
The Art of Eating – M.F.K. Fisher
Spies of the American Revolution – Howard Brinkley
His Excellency George Washington – Joseph P. Ellis
The Silver Branch – Rosemary Sutcliff
Ruso and the Root of All Evils – R.S. Downie
*The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty – Hawthorne / Atiyeh
*Glacial Period – Nicholas de Crecy
*Isaac the Pirate vol. 1 – Christophe Blain
Chicks Dig Comics: A Celebration of Comic Books by the Women Who Love Them– ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis
Batmanga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan – Chip Kidd
An oversized coffee table book full of the interesting and often baffling ephemera of Batman in Japan from the 1960s onward.
*Fables: Rose Red – Willingham/Buckingham
*Fables: Animal Farm – Willingham/Buckingham
Mozart's Women – Jane Glover
Interesting and entertaining with perhaps a little too much editorializing comment. I got really lost in the section in which Glover described and critiqued all of Mozart's operatical heroines and the real life singers and friends who inspired them. I would have liked a bit more context and less “poor” Anna Maria and “poor” Nannerl. The book's heart was certainly in the right place and the best part were the stunning color images of the Mozarts in the center of the book.
Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls – R.S. Downie
An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire - David Mattingly
Adrian Mole: From Minor to Major – Sue Townsend
*Fables: Witches – Willingham / Buckingham
*DC: The New Frontier Vol. 1
The Red Queen – Philippa Gregory
Best Little Stories of the American Revolution – Kelly & Smyer
Despite the attractive reprinting, this book preceded most of the sources I have already read and is therefore somewhat lugubrious in comparison; it doesn't help that neither writer can quite get the tone right between historical and conversational. Light was shed on a few incidents or characters that I hadn't heard of before, but overall it was a bit disappointing.
The Diary of Adam and Eve – Mark Twain
This was very amusing and affectionate, if cynical, provocation of Paradise Lost, relocated (as it were) to North America. Some of the vocabulary screams 19th century, but the majority of the narrative is a timeless conflict of the sexes. Satan is portrayed very differently than in Milton. Eve is still hopelessly the portrait by a chauvinist, but she would fit in quite well in some chick lit.
The Saviours – Clemence Dane
Very interesting radio play sequence; I would love to hear it performed.
Unlikely Friendships – Jennifer S. Holland
An interesting and cute if somewhat lightweight coffee table book.
*A Treasury of Victorian Murder
*The New 52: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1 Faces of Death – Tony S. Daniel
*Birds of Prey/End Run – Gail Simone
Treason's Harbour – Patrick O'Brian
The Ancient Guide to the Modern World – Natalie Haynes
This was an excellent book that was very thought-provoking (though I did constantly find myself thinking about The Dark Knight, as that appears to be one of the most potent sources in my brain for civics lessons!). The premise is to help us make sense of our modern world by looking at the politics and civics of the ancients (specifically the Greeks and Romans), as described by an enthusiastic Classics scholar.
One of Haynes' most persuasive chapters focuses on the way the Athenians elected their politicians and public officials and contrasting that with our current democratic system in the West. “For all their occasional impetuousness,” she writes, “we must assume that the Athenian people were actually far more tolerant of mistakes than we are now. If we instituted monthly competence checks nowadays, starting on 1 January, it's difficult to imagine most politicians or military leaders staying in office past February” (11). Furthermore, the stipend granted in this system made it possible for all to be elected into office – it was an arbitrary, egalitarian lottery. “The rest of the time that man would be of fifty men in the prytany1, or 500 in the Boule2, or several thousand in the Assembly” (11). Furthermore, despite a character named Thucydides being on trial for military incompetence in 423 BCE and in exile for 20 years, “we never read of the slightest suggestion that men weren't prepared to put themselves forward for this potentially risky job” (12). Haynes pushes hard to suggest that the ancients' system has modern applicability: “But actually, the Athenians should fill us with hope: they made a lot of excellent decisions, and when they made bad ones, they could be men enough enough to admit it and perform a speedy U-turn. If only our politicians, and perhaps our media, could be so open about their errors, then we might yet live in a more sensible world” (20).
Though Haynes spends a lot of time explaining that we can't expect the Romans to have the same morals as we do today--“Ability is relative: it's about what you achieve with what is available to you. And ethics are relative, too: expecting the Romans to shudder at the same things that revolt us is a waste of time and thought” (42)--she also draws parallels between our modern democratic relationship with the law and that of the Romans. What specifically made me think of The Dark Knight was what Haynes calls our schizophrenic attitude toward the law: we make cynical jokes about it, but we believe in it fervently and expect it to protect us, the little guy.
Her discussion of morals and civics also made me think of The Dark Knight, especially in this quote: “We don't need to worry about what happens in one ticking bomb scenario, because bomb scenarios rarely happen just once. We need to worry about what happens in five or ten ticking bomb scenarios” (44). She then goes on to look at the way different philosophers approached morality in the ancient world. Among them Socrates with his paradox that infuriated people to the point they had him arrested: No one is wise, because none of us know anything. But Socrates knows that he doesn't know a thing, which makes him wiser than the rest of us. “Complete self-sufficiency is a refusal to participate in the greater social model, and when the world around you seems chaotic, and you don't know who will invade your city next, that's quite a tempting idea” (84). She links religion and morality with the introduction of Christianity in the ancient world; “We want things both ways: we demand free will, and the belief that our actions shape our lives. But plenty of us believe simultaneously that Taureans are obstinate because, apparently, bulls are too” (117).
Her chapter on women is one of the best parts of the book. Pericles' ideal of a homebound, silent, obedient wife, was proven to be an ideal, not reality: he divorced his first, Athenian wife, then dated Aspasia, the most notorious woman in 5th c. BCE. I was most surprised to learn the origin of that most famous question from Juvenal: quis custodiet et ipsos custodes? Haynes clearly has a lot of affection for Juvenal, given that he ranted against everything he hated, which is a very long list. Among the things he hated was unfaithful women. Therefore, he questioned the practice of setting up guards to make sure that your women don't sleep around. If you do that, who will watch the guards to make sure they don't sleep with the women? “Girls were very often considered literally worthless. And before we pat ourselves smugly on the back at how very far we've come, this is still true in many parts of the world today” (135). Clearly the ancient attitudes toward women were fraught and inconsistent.
Her final chapter tries to make the broad strokes connections between our modern society and the ancients'. She compares The Wire to a Greek tragedy and suggests that the way we loathe and praise celebrities for certain behaviors is something we learned from the ancients as well.
*Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury – Mignola
*Superman: True Brit – Kim Johnson, John Cleese
Shooting Leave: Spying Out Central Asia in the Great Game - John Ure
Though I’ve read a few books on the Crimean War3, the fact is that I’m woefully uneducated about this part of the world in both historical record and in contemporary geography. Arrested though I was by the colorful cover (it often does make a difference, I’m afraid), what really drew me in was the desire to learn more for writing purposes, as a long-projected project takes place in this very area and smack-dab in the middle of the long nineteenth-century as contemplated here. The book was, however, not quite what was I was expecting, though I should have understood as much when I read Ure’s preface:
Inevitably, my selection of candidates has been somewhat arbitrary. There are no common denominators—in terms of nationality, profession, age, or even shooting enthusiasm—that apply to all of them. The criteria for selection have been their dash and daring, their desire to mix sport and duty, their operation as individuals rather than as part of organized military units or diplomatic missions and their patriotic commitment to the cause in hand (xv).
The young British officers with whom this book is concerned have often only had walk-on roles in other memorable books about the Great Game; they will be centre-stage in this one (xxiv).
So while the book was enjoyable, I found myself slightly frustrated with a lack of context (intervening events like the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny excepted). Fortunately, Ure’s bibliography is very helpful. He has whetted your appetite and sent you forth to make your own discoveries, should you wish, about the men in the book4.
As Ure has already made clear, the men introduced in the book had many different strategies, as well as beliefs and agendas, that guided them on their (more-or-less) shooting leave. Some of them infiltrated remote areas by use of disguise, pretending to be something far less interesting than European officers. Henry Pottinger in the second decade of the nineteenth century disguised himself as a Muslim, and his knowledge of his target culture, along with nerve and quick wits as well as the humility to do things more stereotypically imperialist characters in the book would scoff at, saved his life many times. For example, carelessly he and his compatriot Christie were caught speaking something other than Hindustani. Bluffing their way out of confessing it was English they had been speaking, Pottinger said it was Telinga (a southern Indian language). “His enquirer came back with a fakir who allegedly spoke Telinga and wanted to practise it. Pottinger bombarded him with a barrage of English and, when the fakir was obviously baffled by this, declared that clearly the fakir could not speak Telinga after all—which happily turned out to be the case” (9). (Pottinger and Christie were so embedded by the end of their journey that they failed to recognize each other after a long separation.) Pottinger also got through worshipping in a mosque by copying what all the Muslims around him were doing. Being exasperated by an officious Syynd, who asked Pottinger where the Almighty was, Pottinger retorted, “where the Almighty was not present,” which shut him up. Pottinger’s vision of the Persians of Kerman and their cruel punishments would not be out of place in Leroux’s and Kay’s accounts of the Shah-in-Shah and “the little sultana.”
The rather famous Alexander “Bokhara” Burnes was a keen sportsman, but also a good linguist, a collector of ancient coins, with geo-historical and industry interests. He also had a streak of diplomacy that some of his contemporaries lacked; refused entry into the fort at Attock, he and his men slept in a dilapidated mosque nearby, persuading the inhabitants that “there was nothing improper in a couple of infidels seeking such shelter” (25). In the Peshawar, his diplomacy extended to enduring local Afghans dropping into his quarters at all times of day or night just to visit. On the long rides through the Black Pass, he spent his time learning formal Islamic address, a proficiency which later, unsurprisingly, saved his life. When going before the hostile, anti-European Murad Beg, Burnes had to get some boots to “hide my provokingly white ankles” (35). In Bokhara, his success enabled him to mix in cosmopolitan crowds of Persians, Turkomans, Tartars, Cossacks, Chinese, Russians, Afghans, Armenians, and Bokharan Jews while hiding his gaze when the Emir’s harem passed on horseback.
Somewhat later, in the 1870s, Valentine Baker was a shooting companion of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and a rakish commander of the 10th Hussars. A really passionate shooter, he took two compatriots (and a lot of ammo) via Vienna and Constantinople to Trebizond on the eastern edge of Turkey. Baker’s Persian support staff were greatly impressed in the Elburz when he and his friend stopped a party of robbers by charging at them on horseback, then wrestling them to the ground and tying them up with handkerchiefs. In Mazenderan, a tense situation narrowly missed ending in bloodshed; Baker was ‘most anxious the English name should not be associated with violence and bloodshed’” (122). You have to admire Baker’s drive to force his way from the Persian coast of the Caspian while still recovering from illness in snowy terrain (during eight days he ate nothing but “ ‘figs, biscuits, and some Crimean wine . . . upon which diet we got on famously’” (129)).
Not all the men fit the sporting type; John Wood was a hydrographer and surveyor with an interest in shooting but far less of a political agenda than many of the other men. In ascending at Kila, he found out that the wolves of the region would take down a horse and rider by throwing up snow with their hind feet, frightening the horse and surprising the rider. At Christmas, Wood missed his native Scotland. One of the more unusual characters was Charles Masson aka James Lewis, who had deserted the East India Company in 1827, taken on the identity of an American, and became so proficient that the British government were able to take him back in rather exceptional circumstances. “His advice was usually well-informed and intelligent, but frequently ignored” (93). Like Burnes, he was interested in antiques. He fell out almost immediately with the British representative at Kalat, Lieutenant Loveday. Later, Masson escaped with his life but Loveday did not.
Most of the British men were devout Christians. In 1880, Charles Stewart, veteran of the Indian Mutiny, took a similar route to Baker’s, packing with him his trusty Bible; “one of his hosts in Persia [remarked]: ‘You English are extraordinary, you always carry a Bible in your pocket’” (208). He threw his pith helmet down a well when he changed into the dress of an Armenian trader, though he later regretted not having something to shield him from the sun. In Mohammabad, he made a convincing enough traveller that Edmund O’Donovan, a correspondent for the Daily News, believed he was a Calcutta Armenian. It took the tall and powerfully-built Fred Burnaby sixty hours of rail travel across Russia to reach Kuybyshev in 1875. He managed to free himself, his horses, and his driver during a blizzard. Falling asleep in the sleigh with his bare hands tucked into his sleeves, a band of Cossacks saved his hands from frostbite by rubbing naphtha and ice on them, a kindness he never forgot. At a Russian fort, he was shocked his hostess’ lighting up a cigarette and smoking it in front of him.
James Abbott, an explorer from the 1830s, was ambitious and arrogant. He constantly changed on his journeys between native dress and his splendid East India Company uniform, especially when he wanted to impress someone. In the Oxus Valley, though short of cash, he refused his servants’ offer to chip in with their savings to finance the trip, either through principles or pride. In Russian territory, he was put out when referred to by his first names and patronymic, James Henry Alexiowitz. He was also typically racist, remarking in Khiva that “the women showed their faces boldly but that their ‘countenances were too round or square for beauty . . . and their eyes ill-opened’” (55). To avoid being caught writing (for writing was seen as evidence of spying), he made strategic notes into verse and committed them to memory.
Abbott is nothing, however, to Nikolai Przhevalsky, an aggressive bully who, you may have guessed, discovered the Przewalski Horse but only wanted to shoot it (he was obsessed with shooting and hunting5). Furthermore, he was not only (probably) homosexual, some have even suggested he was Stalin’s real father! When in doubt, Przhevalsky shot and beat up people. He never bothered to learn languages or observe local customs.
Certainly what Ure has done here is instil within us a real sense of adventure and lawlessness, the depths to which bad diplomacy and bad luck could sometimes take you, and the amazing exhilaration captured in one of my favourite books, Patrick O’Brian’s The Road to Samarcand. I am definitely going to try to read some of the primary sources, dated though they are.
Fortunately, the maps of the region—missing from Treason’s Harbour by some ludicrous oversight—are present, as are Toby Ward’s illustrations, which unfortunately do nothing for me.
Torchwood: Skypoint – Phil Ford
This is the first Torchwood novel I’ve read, and I have to confess I haven’t thought seriously about the show in a long time. Miracle Day had its moments, but mostly it was a befuddling disappointment. This book brought me right back into series 2, which made for a very enjoyable, undemanding read. Toshiko is on the cover, but I would say this is a true ensemble piece. Owen certainly shoulders much of the narrative, and Gwen, Jack, and Rhys get some stand-out moments. Even Ianto has a few solo scenes (being stuck in a lift with gay couple in Cardiff Bay raised a smile).
I’ve admired everything in the Doctor Who universe that Phil Ford has ever done. So I was very surprised that the first few pages of this book were creaky and cringe-inducing, spoonfeeding backstory and employing lurid adjectives that made my joints seize up. Upon reflection, I think perhaps this opening was tacked on by an editor, in order to initiate the uninitiated into Torchwood. Fortunately, whatever seizure that paralyzed the book was gone before we got to indulge, with Gwen and Rhys, in some house-hunting.
I think that Phil Ford’s strengths as a writer are his sensitivity with rendering character (something Torchwood badly needed) and his command of humor (“Something Borrowed” was hilarious). He is also good with the mundane. I get a real sense of the characters of Gwen and Rhys as they explore Skypoint, Cardiff Bay’s luxury apartment with a sinister secret:
‘It’s like a statement, isn’t it? Moving on. We’re going forward.’ Then he looked at her, held her hands. ‘Two bedrooms.’Gwen raised an eyebrow and kinked one corner of her mouth. ‘You’re not talking about when you snore and I kick you out of bed, are you?’Rhys said nothing, just raised his eyebrows a fraction and returned her smile.They were talking in eyebrow semaphore, and they’d only tied the knot two weeks ago.
(By the way, it’s instructive to remember that they were Mr and Mrs Williams before Rory and Amy.) I also almost can believe in an amoral Latvian crime mogul who has made Cardiff his home and who listens to Wagner. As Torchwood villains go, Besnik Lucca is both flamboyant and as human as they come—greatly refreshing, actually.
Lucca owns Skypoint, you see, a fact Rhys and Gwen are not aware of while browsing, and which leads Jack and Toshiko to investigate after Gwen and Rhys’ estate agent disappears into thin air. Jack, roguish as ever, gives the following alibi when discovered by Lucca’s security.
‘Thing is,’ Jack was telling the concierge, ‘my girlfriend and me, we have this thing. About doing it in show homes. You get me?’
Jack may feature less prominently in this book than some of other characters, but he definitely leaves his mark—particularly when he has to convince Gwen he’s not a Weevil and shouldn’t be shot on sight.
Toshiko was always my favorite Torchwood character (despite Ianto’s acerbic wit—‘But estate agents don’t just vanish into thin air,’ Ianto observed. ‘We’re just not that lucky’). I could identify with her slightly more than I could the others, and I rather felt for her, what with her impossible (and inadvisable) crush on Owen. On the other hand, I always disliked Owen and felt he vastly improved after death. Things changed slightly, as I began to enjoy some of Burn Gorman’s other work. And Phil Ford’s writing here helps: he gives Owen a recognizable human personality (even though he’s dead). He is still the same Owen—a subplot involves his clandestine nocturnal sightseeing with twin homicidal aliens—but he’s allowed to quote Eric Idle and feel awkward around children (clearly not nurturing natural father material!). He also exhibits feelings like guilt, jealousy, and embarrassment, which I never really found the TV Owen capable of.
It’s all come from that heady plot device—one of my favorites—the sham marriage. Owen and Toshiko have a short-lived undercover op as Mr and Mrs Harper at Skypoint. It’s not fluffy, nor does it end in a sweep of romantic passion—this is Torchwood and he’s dead, remember?—but it makes for conflicted emotions and uncomfortable acknowledgements from both of them.
Owen felt something stir inside. He knew instantly that it was nothing biological, unless jealousy was a chemical reaction.Hey, how was that for a headline? Dead Man Gets Jealous!
He even gets a rather Phantom-y moment:
Jealous Dead Man Breaks Glass and Doesn’t Notice!
The incidental characters are all good in this, and, like Torchwood at its best, it does have some interesting meditations on death and religion. Jack gets to compare himself to Batman, which of course pleases me, and there are no easy answers, even for those who have easy quips. Yes, all in all, a very enjoyable read—dreadful opening aside.
Can it be a coincidence that the first mainstream superhero comic that I can remember which does not include an exploitative centrefold of a female character was written (if not drawn by) a woman? I doubt it, and as with the first (Wonder Woman) title I read by Gail Simone, her name on the spine was a big draw in the first place. (Though I had rather a mixed reaction to Birds of Prey: End Run.) To be fair, The Cat and the Bat was an arguably exploitative male-oriented version of Batgirl and I really liked it (though at the time I read it, I argued that at least it employed equal opportunity-nudity). Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed The Darkest Reflection and its interior monologue from Barbara Gordon, albeit a re-set button Barbara Gordon who has regained the use of her legs after some years spent in a wheelchair. If Simone is against comics portrayals of women as “venal, selfish, boy-crazy, overly emotional, and not particularly bright,” as she describes in Chicks Dig Comics, then she has done good work to reverse that portrayal in The Darkest Reflection.
This Babs is young and occasionally overconfident, self-deprecating, and looks a bit like Amy Pond! The villain-du-jour knows how to press all her buttons, though Batgirl’s guilt and Barbara’s attempts to move into a shared apartment with a roommate give The Darkest Reflection a bit of twenty-first century oomph. Barbara isn’t unemotional, but neither is she weak, and she is certainly the opposite of “not particularly bright.” She is not boy-crazy, merely somewhat romantically confused (and with crushes on all the wrong people!).
Adam Hughes’ covers are fantastic, and Adrian Syaf/Vicente Cifuentes’ art is brisk, colorful, and makes a big splash from page to page. That said, I’m not too thrilled with the way Bruce Wayne is drawn, but it’s more than made up for with the Nightwing.
Like one of the unsettled writers in Chicks Dig Comics, I agree that it does feel a bit weird and revisionist to blow out of the water all the work Barbara Gordon did as Oracle in order to give her a new, perfectly functioning body in order to physically fight crime once more. This collection addresses that somewhat, though I doubt anyone could give it quite the right spin unless they, themselves, had been in a wheelchair (which the Chicks Dig Comics writer had).
I had been a little iffy about the whole New 52 thing, but I’m willing to keep reading if there’s more like this.
Doctor Who: The Way Through the Woods– Una McCormack
I wrote a review for this, but I can't find the notebook it's in at the moment. Once I do, I will post it retrospectively. In the meantime, I will say it's an Eleven/Rory/Amy novel, and quite enjoyable, I felt.
The Resurrectionist – James Bradley
I felt anxiously unsatisfied after reading this novel; it was well-written, and its poetic, vignette-like style reminded me of Naturalism to an extent. However, the “twist” was not well-handled and should have been structurally more integrated. An interesting read, but not a great book.
Twitter Who Vol 1: The First Doctor – Hannah J. Rothman
A very enjoyable read and suitable for a Whovian in any stage of fan-savviness. Critics might be wondering what the purpose of a book composed almost entirely of “live-Tweeting” of Classic Doctor Who stories in chronological story order actually is and what it might offer to the average reader. The answer is that Rothman's Tweet-prose is incredibly funny and often winningly insightful, striking just the right balance between the Internet-generated lingo of the Noughties (“Steven Taylor. In ur cavez, nabbin ur gunz”) and the timeless language of sincere Who fans (“ 'DOC . . . TOR . . . WHO . . . IS . . . RE . . . QUIRED . . .' I don't even need to comment on that. I'm sure we're all thinking the same thing”). Rothman is a warm, forgiving, deeply invested fan with a keen sense of the absurd, which she brings to each story, from the humor of “The Romans” to the pathos of Hartnell's regeneration. In addition, Rothman brings a needed feminist angle to the proceedings without the stereotyped “fangirl” reaction which many (probably unfairly) rail against. In summary, Rothman has created in her Tweets an identifiable voice we would gladly follow across the galaxy. I can't wait to read the next volume.
Torchwood: Trace Memory – David Llewellyn
Another book for which I'm sure I wrote a review but I cannot at the moment find it. I found this quite an enjoyable Torchwood novel, especially the sections with Jack in the Swinging Sixties hiding out in London, and the sections of Ianto riding the Docklands Light Railway to work at Torchwood in Canary Wharf before the events of Torchwood series 1.
The Ipcress File – Len Deighton
I suppose this was an unusual choice for me, but given I remembered it from the Dominic Sandbrook history of the 1960s and because it was a prominent Michael Caine vehicle6, I thought I would give it a chance. I was pleasantly surprised. I am not really a fan of the spy genre, but I did find this an intriguing, thought-provoking and interesting read. Not having lived through the Cold War (well, the last six years of it doesn't really count), I can't say whether its ambitious plot was any more fantastical than some of the early '60s Fleming titles. However, Deighton's unnamed hero and Bond could hardly be more different; their only similarities are their unswerving sense of duty to Queen and Country and their habit of describing clothing! (That said, whereas Fleming narrates with sensuality, Deighton is often clinical and perfunctory about objects or even emotions.)
I really rate Deighton's unnamed narrator (whom the films have dubbed Harry Palmer). His utter laconic composure at all situations in the book—and believe me, many are sensational and/or horrific7--builds him up as a character of offhanded courage, despite all other indications to the contrary. He has an enormous classist chip on his shoulder which in some ways proves his undoing.
Ross and I had come to an arrangement of some years' standing—we had decided to hate each other. Being English, this vitriolic relationship manifested itself in oriental politeness.
He is surprisingly insubordinate, even to those he professes to like or at least respect. Is it insecurity, an act, or instinctive recognition of his own worth?
Dalby said, 'Surprise me, do it without complaint or sarcasm.''It wouldn't be the same,' I said.
Despite the narrator's obvious skills—he constantly narrates, with his unimpressed aplomb, Spy Things that I, being a complete moron, would never in a million years think to do—a lot of his survival depends on luck. And his rather shockingly consistent mistakes are manifold. A rather humorous incident on a plane to Beirut—we've all had the jolly, naïve seatmate-from-hell—turns out to be a near-miss of fatal proportions.
Although the narrator spends most of his time in crummy offices, seedy clubs, banal sandwich shops, and the like, all in the kind of sooty, foggy, yellow London T.S. Eliot wrote about, he does have his glam moments—his stint in Beirut, for example, reminded me a lot of the opening to Skyfall, and he spends a good part of the book in an American atoll. What is lacking, then, are the gadgets, the girls, the gambling, the bling, and the mad, cackling cliched villains (though some of the villains here could be said to be mad, they don't cackle). When the bombshells drop, they are stupendous (both literally and metaphorically). It's a tightly woven web of very sound plotting, and Deighton has taken pains that his highly intelligent narrator is just as surprised as you. A lot of people die, but it is impressive the length and detail to which the narrator tries, at the end, to make amends. It has the element of a happy ending you might find in the first two Harry Potter books.
It's impossible for me to tell whether it comes courtesy of the narrator or the author, but I really enjoy the voice in this novel. It is so distinctive as to be almost outrageous and sits in complete opposition to the laconic observations.
Ross was a regular officer; that is to say he didn't drink gin after 7.30 pm or hit ladies without first removing his hat. He had a long thin nose, a moustache like flock wallpaper, sparse, carefully combed hair, and the complexion of a Hovis loaf.One might be tempted to call it wit.Dalby was having a little genteel fun with me. 'But I am sure you will be able to overcome your disadvantages.''Why think so? You never overcame your advantages.'His face screwed into a smile like an old gardening glove.
The narrator has had, at first glance, a rather troubled relationship with women and perhaps typifies the Englishman of the early 1960s (I hardly think Bond does, do you?). A random woman in a coffee shop 'hated me because I was trying to pick her up, or not trying perhaps, but anyway, she had her reasons.' If the narrator is chauvinist—which he no doubt is: after ascertaining that his new assistant Jean can speak eight languages, he says,
'It doesn't say whether you can sew,' I said.'No,' she said.'Can you?' I said.'Yes,' she said.'Trousers?' I said.'Yes,' she said.'You're in.'
--he is a different kind of chauvinist than is Bond. The narrator's one recorded dalliance is so brief, if you are not reading carefully, you'll miss it. Is that out of respect? Circumspection? British reserve? Lack of interest in the woman? Because it doesn't add anything to his narrative? If it was Fleming, of course, the diehard sensualist, we would know a good deal more than that they slept together.
But if the narrator doesn't sexually objectify, might he be guilty of treating women like machines, to be utilized for work purposes and ignored as fellow human beings? Perhaps so, in the case of Alice, who effectively runs his department, is some unspecified number of years older than Jean, and who is, I think, the secret hero of the whole piece.
She paused a moment, then raised an eyebrow. She had her tight-fitting tweed two-piece on today, and her hair had been slightly intimidated in a high-class coiffure joint.'Your seams are crooked.'If I thought I'd make her angry or happy I couldn't have been more wrong. She nodded her head deferentially like a Chinese mandarin and went on her way.
Jean is a trained agent and treated like an assistant, though the way she and the narrator interact is more akin to mid-season Key to Time Fourth Doctor and Romana than it is Third Doctor and Jo Grant. I also have a feeling that in addition to being genuinely fond of the narrator, Jean is the more circumspect agent. Just as, despite appearances, I think Alice is an extremely capable character who needs her own trilogy.
'Look, Alice, surely with your vast knowledge of the screened personnel available to us you must be able to locate a sexy little dark number to do those things of everyday for me. Unless you're getting a crush on me. Alice, is that it?'She gave me the 'turn-to-stone' look.
I am very much looking forward to watching the film and reading the other books in the series.
The Biba Experience – Alwyn Turner
Enjoyable and readable history of a very interesting and unique style experiment.
Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s – Alwyn Turner
A very brisk and engaging summary of the decade, very much on the pulse of the politics but dipping further into popular culture (Coronation Street, for example) than Sandbrook's books.
Zero – Brian McCabe
Rather pedestrian and so accessible as to border on the banal.
Doctor Who: Night of the Humans – David Llewellyn
An Eleven/Amy novel set in the far future with lots of elements in common with “The Face of Evil,” “Full Circle,” and possibly other stories in which future generations come to misrepresent and misremember the past and ancestry, with often disastrous results.
'We have always been here,' he snarled, baring his yellow, misshapen teeth. 'There is no shipwreck.'The Doctor was gazing up now, at the broken hull of the GOBO ship.'Er . . . Excuse me?' he said. 'But . . . Where exactly do you think you are?''This,' said Tuco, grinning ominously, 'is Earth. And you, stranger, are a heretic.'
There are aliens, Westerns, a too-droll mercenary named Slipstream, and innumerable complications in a swamp I found difficult to visualize.
Black Moon – Matthew Sweeney
Very cynical, enigmatic, distant, sometimes incomprehensible poems.
Crossing the Snowline - Pauline Stainer
In concentrated form, her poems were a bit much, too much similar subject matter, exploration of colors. Singularly, her poems are tightly crafted and just what I look for in a poem.
Human Chain – Seamus Heaney
Excellent collection, but elegiac.
Everything is Sinister – David Llewellyn
This isn't quite what I was expecting. The satire on modern consumer-driven, celebrity-adoring life was incisive and depressing, and then the apocalyptic conspiracy/blog plot sidled out of nowhere. Thee are plenty of novels where the protagonist bewails the banality of modernist life, life but none quite like this one. A lot more profound than I expected, though not for the faint of heart—or the homophobic!
The Trials of Radclyffe Hall – Diane Souhami
This was a totally addictive biography that I couldn't believe was true. When hearing of The Well of Loneliness, which I've never read, I thought it was an impressive achievement for gay rights. The story behind the woman who wrote it is histrionic, dramatic, and painfully human. It's difficult to know how Radclyffe Hall (born Marguerite) would have turned out if she had been raised by her kind maternal grandmother. She had extremely irresponsible, selfish parents who completely twisted her into an insecure, controlling, self-absorbed woman; you sympathize with everyone in this story, but Marguerite only up to a point as you see the destruction she wreaks in her wake, resembling unconsciously the consequences of her parents' disastrous union. However, if you believe solely in genetics, then Marguerite was doomed when she was born, no matter how much support she might have received from a more balanced family.
The mother she had, Mary Jane Hall, ‘late Sager formerly Diehl,’ was attracted and attractive to rakish men and had startling mood swings. She gave birth on 12 August 1880 to a daughter she had tried to abort, whom she never liked and to whom the acutest insult she could fling was, ‘You are like your father.’ Not an ounce of the child’s blood, she said, came from her. The girl was Radclyffe through and through. Her hands, nose, temper and perversity were the curse of the father, the devil incarnate (4).
In 1879, her father, informally known as Rat (?!), inherited a fortune of £90,000. Marguerite's mother was granted judicial separation, custody of the child and a substantial maintenance. She was unhappy, however. Grandmother Diehl saved her soul. She called her “sugar plum” and “Tuggie.” She took her to matinees, read Dickens aloud, took her shopping, did not scold and was not unkind. She nurtured Marguerite’s writing talent. Marguerite could memorize stories, poems, and songs, but she was dyslexic.
Marguerite recoiled, so her mother wept the more and said that even her own daughter did not love her. Then abruptly she would go and tell Mrs Diehl to get ready to go to the theatre. ‘Why Mary Jane,’ Mrs Diehl would say, ‘you’re up and down like a thermometer.’ And Marguerite, alone in her room, learned to hate her (9).
No one seemed to care much what Marguerite did during her days. “Mary Jane denigrated her husband and all his relatives and denied her daughter contact with any of them” (9). Mary Jane eventually had a third disastrous marriage to her music teacher, Alberto Visetti, who seemed to have sexually abused Marguerite. Marguerite, confused as ever, began having crushes on Visetti's pupils. (Then the whole thing starts to resemble a Sarah Waters novel.)
When Rat died, all the family money went to Marguerite upon her majority. In 1898, this was a small fortune: £100,000. Marguerite left her mother’s house as soon as she had financial independence. Her mother called her “vile, filthy, corrupt, depraved, against nature and against God and hit Grandmother Diehl when she intervened” (27). “Using her father’s fortune, which her mother coveted but was denied, Marguerite controlled her lovers and punished her mother with the money at her command” (29). Thus followed a period where Marguerite's main occupation was living well with her kept (female) lovers, who were often widows and often related to her mother (cousins, usually). She spent a period in the US with one such lover.
Then she met Mabel Batten. Mabel, known to Marguerite as Ladye, was a quirky memsahib, having married in India in the 1870s and by the time Marguerite met her, a still beautiful although mature woman accustomed to taking lovers. Mabel called her John—“By reconstruction she was not the same gender. She was an English squire from a time-honored family, with horses, lands, and a wife. For Mabel too it defined the partnership in society's terms. It was John who opened the doors, carried the bags, hired the servants and of course paid the bills” (42). Mabel brought many things into John's life, including Catholicism, which, interestingly, the two found did not impinge on their unusual lifestyle. “They were royalists, patriots, Conservatives, Christians, with allegiance to country, God, and class” (48). John's money solved most problems.
Both Mabel and Una had encouraged Radclyffe Hall's writing, an occupation she then took up with gusto. Souhami, however, does not have a high opinion of Hall's novels. When The Forge was published in 1924, John and Una spent the day driving in their Buick to London bookshops to check it was stocked. “Given that these were years of literary innovation it was surprising that publishers liked it [Adam's Breed, her next novel]” (143). “Socially she was a society lesbian for whom these were party days” (130). Then came The Well of Loneliness, which was to make Radclyffe Hall infamous, part “pathological case study, religious parable, propaganda tract and Mills & Boone romance” (160). This part of the book was the most riveting, as Souhami did a good job communicating the gravity of the situation with the lightweight quality of the actual novel at the heart of the storm. “It is doubtful whether Radclyffe Hall and Una, Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Winnaretta Singer, Toupie Lowther, Colette, Evelyn Irons, Gabrielle Enthoven, Teddie Gerrard, Tallulah Bankhead and the rest, with their fine houses, stylish lovers, inherited incomes, sparkling careers and villas in the sun, were among the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world” (167).
For all the respectable moral detractors, Hall had her defenders, many of them believing that in terms of human rights, the story deserved to be heard; the majority, however, were more interested in defending free speech. Virginia Woolf called The Well of Loneliness “a meritorious dull book” and that Hall “screamed like a herring gull, mad with egotism and vanity” when EM Forster questioned its literary worth (186). By 1931 the furore was over, the book was banned, and Una and John moved to Rye to continue their lives as respectable, religious, conservative lesbians.
In the early 1930s, the balance of power shifted again when Hall met Evgenia Souline, a refugee from Russia who was living in Paris. The much older Hall became obsessed with the young nurse. “Love was to do with money, sex, and coercion . . . Long years with Una had not led to subtleties of expression” (267). “ 'If you're anyone's slave, you're going to be mine,'” Hall told Evgenia (268). Evgenia felt beaten down by Hall's persistence and found it difficult to refuse the financial security that her would-be lover offered her. At the same time, she felt a bit weirded out by the homosexual quality of her liaison, and furthermore, “could not bear being a kept woman, an appendage to her and Una. She wanted to take a degree at the Sorbonne, do a secretarial job, start a chicken farm. She said John wanted a meek little subordinate to hang on her every word and 'lie down like a tart whenever she wanted her physically'” (290). The imbalance in Hall's mind was evident in her desire that she make a “baby Chink” with the Russo-Asian Evgenia (despite the physical impossibility—it might have worked out in our day and age, but I would hope in our day and age Evgenia would have called out a restraining order).
The story of Radclyffe Hall as told by Souhami is dramatic in the extreme, but thoroughly well-researched and very evenly-handled.
Disappointingly derivative after The Woman in Black, though an interesting idea.
The Sword and the Scimitar – Ernle Bradford
A superb summary of the events of the First through the Sixth Crusades, but more importantly an excellent grasp of the attitudes that led to the tragedies—and occasionally the triumphs—of human nature on all sides of this bizarre and mostly unwarranted conflict.
vN – Madeline Ashby
This science fiction novel, published by Angry Robot, was a new take on the moral dilemmas posed by synthetic life-forms. As such, it was much better than I had expected, with strong female characters, a sophisticated and somewhat unusual grasp of the moral and philosophical problems with these particular kind of robots, and it never went where I thought it would go. I could see this easily being made into a film, but I'm sure its essence would be diluted because the core issues of the story are very dark.
The Three Richards – Nigel Saul
A very good premise for a book—Richard I, Richard II, and Richard III—but executed only adequately. (Or maybe I'm just annoyed that he continued the “Richard III killed his nephews” shtick.) Certainly his knowledge of Richard II seemed the most extensive and indeed taught me a lot I didn't know.
Wilderness – Lance Weller
This debut novel was set in three time periods: 1965, following the life of elderly blind woman, Jane Dao-Ming; 1899 on the West Coast of the US, following the hardscrabble life of Glenn and Ellen Makers, aided by Oyster Tom, Silas, Edward, and Charley, and antagonized by Willis and the Haida; 1864 at the Battle of Wilderness, where Hypatia, Sherman Grant, Virgil, Ned, and David Abernathy meet the main character, Abel Truman, who binds all the threads of this book together. This was an affecting book, full of pain and cruelty. The characters were all struggling to survive, whether they were freed slaves looking for a new life, Civil War soldiers demobbing, or new settlers moving West. The history was gritty and fecund, and for me it was an excellent tutorial in how to include the American landscape in a post-Western. I was definitely welling up on the last few pages. “The Rebs are on the other side and we can all hear them plain as day. I think they are all fine Fellows and am not ashamed to say so. Many others think as I do and do not hate the Rebs but rather hate the War because it is a Bad and Hateful thing.” Also, it is clearly a novel written by a man who loves dogs.
The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction ed. Gardner Duzois
Contrary to popular belief, I haven't read a lot of science fiction (or fantasy for that matter). Therefore, it was highly enjoyable and quite a wake-up call to read this collection of the crème de la crème, published in 2003, and over 700 pages in length. What perhaps surprised me the most is that much of it was not what I had hitherto considered science fiction: I would have classified it within the banner heading of “speculative fiction,” much of it being alternate history and a surprisingly small chunk being space opera or even hard science fiction, both of which I have experienced in a very limited way (usually through TV or film). Once I got over that surprise, I find myself gravitating toward many of the alternative history stories, which is hardly unexpected.
My favorite story was “The Undiscovered” by William Sanders, which postulates that William Shakespeare left England by mistake in the 1590s and lived out his life with an Eastern Native American tribe who appreciated his dramatic works in a way he probably didn't expect. This was a wonderfully told and delightful story, extremely funny and clear in its affection for Shakespeare (“He Who Shakes Spear”) as well as being written from an authentic native voice. My second favorite story was quite different; it was “Lambing Season” by Molly Glass from 2002, which combines within it the hardscrabble prairie life known to us from E. Annie Proulx with compassion, love of all things canine, and a touch of the Christmas spirit, even if that was unintentional. This was a haunting story about a solitary (but not lonely) woman shepherd who makes a unique bond with an alien.
Of the stories I would personally classify as science fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin's 1995 story “Coming of Age in Karhide . . .” and Tony Daniel's 1996 “A Dry, Quiet War” stood out. The former dealt with gender and sexuality in a suitably alien fashion, as did “Breathmoss” by Ian R. MacLeod and the comic “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan (1985). “Guest of Honor” by Robert Reed from 1993 was the first story in the collection as arranged which actually took us into space—a sad but interesting story. Greg Egan's “Wang's Carpets” from 1995 further postulated long-distance, long-term space travel but also looked at the consequences of cloning. Quite a few stories dealt with memory and virtual reality, among them “Recording Angel” by Ian McDonald (1996), “Second Skin” by Paul J. McAuley (1997), the very relevant “The Wedding Album” by David Marusek (1999), and the unbearably sad “Daddy's World” by Walter Jon Williams (1999).
There were many stories in the alternate history sub-genre, such as “Tales from the Venia Woods,” by Robert Silverberg from his “Roma” series in which the Roman Empire never ended; “The Lincoln Train” by Maureen F. McHugh which looks at a slightly different American Civil War; “Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling; and “Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman, a very ambitious tale of a Chinese seamstress. There were also quite a few stories that I was surprised were catalogued as science fiction, though I would be hard-pressed to know what to call them, other than speculative fiction, such as the truly haunting “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson (1990). “A Cabin on the Coast” by Gene Wolfe (1981), “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” by Howard Waldrop (1984) (though this was quite hilarious), “None So Blind” by Joe Haldeman (1994) also qualified.
Needless to say, I didn't like everything I read. “The Winter Market” by William Gibson, “Mortimer Gray's History of Death” by Brian Stableford, “Salvador” by Lucius Sheperd, and “Lobsters” by Charles Stross were fairly incomprehensible to me, though I suspect that is a taste thing as all are in a similar vein. Some of the more humorous stories felt a little slight, though entertaining—“Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn and “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis. “Trinity” by Nancy Kress (1984) and “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998) were among the most ambitious stories, the latter reminding me (in a good way) of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol – Graeme Curry
Disappointing. One or two insights that went beyond the broadcast version, but overall too interested in the one-liner to make good prose.
*Gotham City Sirens: Volume 3: Strange Fruits – Andres Guinaldo
As usual, it would have been better to have started at the beginning. Nevertheless, I liked where this was going, with Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman all sharing a house (with guest appearances from Talia al-Ghul and Zatanna).
*Star Trek the Next Generation: The Gorn Crisis - Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta and Igor Kordey
Reissued and stunningly beautiful. Riker is proving his toughness making repairs on a Klingon citadel while Picard and Data are negotiating with rogue Gorn (best known from the Kirk episode).
Crusades—Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
With a more potent authorial voice than the previous books on the Crusades that I had been reading, I learned a great deal from its direct and interesting style.
Get Carter – Ted Lewis
A very entertaining book but very sexist and violent. Not a single (morally) good or likeable character. Nonetheless, I've no doubt it gives me an authentic picture of life amongst a certain group of people at a certain era. Despite its easiness to read, I doubt it would have reached classic status without the film. It's somewhat a shame to have ended out the year on such a bleak note. Nevertheless, here are the stats this year:
35% nonfiction, 31% fiction, 29% graphic novels, 0.06% poetry
1One tribe, rotated
2Drew up the agenda for Assembly meetings
3And three-quarters of The Far Pavilions, does that count?
4And I’m afraid they are all men; it seems likely that a woman, even in disguise, would find most of these travels impossibly dangerous and come out the victim of all kind of violence, up to and including death.
5He shot and killed wolves after one stole and ate a box of his cartridges.