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About 18 months ago I reviewed James Goss' novelisation of City of Death, Douglas Adams' Fourth Doctor / Romana story set in Paris. It had never featured in the Target Books line of adaptations, because Adams would not consent to anyone else turning it into a novel, and the BBC wasn't prepared to pay him anything like his going rate to do so. In the end, Goss did what I felt was a pretty good job of capturing Adams' style, and the result worked very well as a stand-alone book, even if it did have to try to deal with some of the stranger aspects of the plot.

Douglas Adams wrote two other Who scripts. Shada famously fell victim during production to an industrial dispute, although a cobbled-together version exists (I've not seen it). The Pirate Planet, by contrast, is well-remembered for its audacious central conceit and for Tom Baker and Bruce Purchase (as the Captain) engaging in what TV Tropes refers to as Ham-to-Ham Combat.

Well, Goss evidently did a good enough job with City of Death to get the gig of adapting The Pirate Planet, and as he explains in his afterword he was able to visit the Douglas Adams archive at St John's College, Cambridge, which turned out to hold not just the original draft script but also an earlier story treatment by Adams that much of The Pirate Planet drew upon. Goss' novelisation is based to a substantial extent on these, and so whilst it is very recognisably the story we saw on television it is fleshed out and sometimes unfolds a little differently. In some respects this is because the page doesn't suffer the budget limitations of the 1970s BBC, so for example scenes set in Zanak's main city actually feel as if they're in a crowded metropolis where it periodically rains diamonds rather than one small set with half a dozen extras and a few fake gems scattered on the floor. Another scene extensively rewrites and expands the third-episode cliffhanger to give a very different explanation of how it was resolved that gives far more agency to Romana.

Adams wrote The Pirate Planet shortly after writing The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and even on watching the TV series the similarities come across. Goss turns this up even further for his novelisation, adding point-of-view scenes in which characters - notably the long-suffering Mr Fibuli - reflect on the absurdly comic horror around them in a very HHGTTG style.

Goss' novelisation came out last Friday; I downloaded the Kindle version and started reading. Even though I knew how the story turned out, the combination of Goss' respectful pastiche of Adams' style and the new elements of plot was captivating enough that I finished that evening. I promptly wanted to remind myself of the original series so S and I bought it on iTunes and watched it last night. Even with the constrained budget and limited special effects, it still works very well, and the playoff between Mary Tamm (as keen young - for a Time Lord - graduate Romana) and Tom Baker is delightful. On reflection, that order was probably best, as it meant I read the book with only vague images of the TV episodes in my head and so my imagination was unconstrained by some of the more painfully low-budget aspects of them. (As the BBC's own archive page on the story admits, the Mentiads spend a lot of time marching across fields to get from A to B in a rather Pythonesque manner).
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I've recently re-read (or rather, listened to via audiobook having read it long ago) The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and having been reminded how much I enjoyed Sacks' writing I sought out Hallucinations, the most recent and as it happened the last of his books on aspects of neurology.

Some of the material will be familiar to readers of Sacks' previous books, as many of the neurological case studies he has previously discussed included hallucinations as one of their symptoms. But most of the cases he discussed were new to me, and even those previously referred to in other books were shown from a fresh perspective, as illustrations of one of the many types of hallucinatory experience.

Most people will think of hallucination in terms of visual experiences, and indeed Sacks discusses those, both those induced by brain injury or drugs and those, such as Charles Bonnet syndrome caused by loss of sight. Auditory hallucinations are not 'hearing voices', which tends to be a symptom of psychiatric rather than neurological problems, but as in several of the cases Sacks relates often involve music. Finally, tactile hallucination are most commonly experienced as phantom limbs; I'd assumed these were a universally negative phenomena, but Sacks indicates that some degree of phantom limb awareness is important for successful use of a prosthesis.

Something that surprised me, given the impression of Sacks' persona from his earlier books, was his frank discussion of his quite spectacularly varied and extensive use of mind-altering substances during his neurology residency at UCLA. I rather got the impression that he ended up scaring himself quite badly in the process, and can't help wondering what a fitness-to-practise panel would make of a trainee doctor experimenting on himself in quite such a fashion today. He seems to have drawn a sudden line under such a lifestyle though and if nothing else it gave a source of personal anecdotes. (I understand that Sacks eventually revealed that one of the case studies in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, that of Steven D, the medical student whose drug use led to radical changes in his sense of smell, was in fact about himself.)

I've had very few hallucinatory experiences and even the migraine-like headaches I get every year or two are devoid of the visual phenomena usually associated with such events (which is why I'm not even really sure they're migraines). I've had a few instances of sleep paralysis, although usually without any accompanying hallucinations apart from one horribly memorable instance of Night Hag syndrome, which is every bit as terrifying as Sacks describes. What I was slightly disappointed Sacks didn't discuss, although I can see it would be a distinct and probably non-neurological issue, is the kind of 'negative hallucinations' I suffer from in my OCD - an inability to convince oneself that something you can observe and indeed are concentrating on, such as locking a door, is actually real.

Hallucinations is very much recommended for anyone who enjoyed Sacks' other books, and indeed would be a good introduction to his style of writing for someone new to him. For myself, I think I'll get his recent autobiography - which I think was in the end his last book - and add the film version of Awakenings to our to-watch list.
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Doctor Who: City of Death, James Goss (2015)

City of Death is often picked as one of the better Classic Who stories, thanks to the (at the time unusual) location shooting in Paris, the quality of the script as heavily - and frantically - rewritten by Douglas Adams, and the performance of Julian Glover as Count Scarlioni, alias Scaroth, self-described last of the Jagaroth. Unusually, it never got a novelisation, because it was unthinkable that anyone but Adams could write it, but Adams felt obliged to hold out for something proportionate to his usual advance, which was far above what was usual for such a book, and so it never got written.

That's now been rectified via James Goss' novelisation, although 'novelisation' doesn't really do it justice; it's based on the original script, script notes, elements of earlier drafts and even the original story Adams heavily adapted, allowing Goss to explore or develop ideas that were jettisoned or abbreviated for time. Goss also interpolates some nice continuity touches and references to other Who stories (he ties in Pyramids of Mars to nicely explain something we see), and gives a very interesting take on Scarlioni/Scaroth. It's potentially a risk to go inside the head of a character only seen in the third person on screen, but Goss, building on Adams' script notes, succeeds quite well.

How well Goss succeeds in capturing Adams' writing style will be something for each reader to decide. He doesn't try to pastiche it, but rather to write in what one might call an Adamsesque style. Judge for yourself:

spoilers if you've not seen the serial )

For my part I felt Goss does a very good job of capturing the quite distinctive tone of City of Death and the result is very readable; I may even re-watch the serial in light of doing so.
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Martin Mobberley’s biography of Sir Patrick Moore is saddled with perhaps the most ungainly title ever for such a work, and the first impression that the title conveys is only amplified by the subtitle: ‘A Fan’s Biography of Sir Patrick Moore.’ In the face of such, a reader could be forgiven for expecting a hagiography heavy on anecdote and light on research, and that is certainly what I was prepared for. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mobberley has produced a well-researched, very thorough (640 pages) and, frankly, surprisingly honest examination of the life of the man who from the late 1950s onwards was synonymous with astronomy in the public eye.

Read more... )
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The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison (1961)

A quick re-read in the week of Harry Harrison's death. Stands up surprisingly well, with only the odd anachronism (punch cards, film cameras) reminding the reader that this was written more than half a century ago. Only one female character, although she is the main antagonist. I'm surprised this was never filmed, although I'm assured that HH expressed the hope it never would be as the continued re-optioning paid very nicely!

The Wheel of Ice, Stephen Baxter (2012)

Stephen Baxter has never made any secret of being a Doctor Who fanboy and his love of the show, particularly the Patrick Troughton era in which TWOI is set, very much shines through in this novel. But Baxter's own style and interests are unmistakable, and this is very much a Stephen Baxter Doctor Who novel; crucially, though, it stops short of being a Baxter novel with Who elements shoe-horned in. So Baxter fans will find many elements familiar (the setting has some echoes of Raft, the supporting characters are very typical of Baxter, and there is a blatant shout-out to an aspect of the Manifold series) but at the same time this is first and foremost a Doctor Who novel, and moreover one which sits well with the in-show period of its setting.

(In terms of continuity, TWOI falls in the second half of Season Six, featuring as it does Zoe and Jamie, and references to the events of The Seeds of Death. Mind you, continuity geeks will find TWOI a joy, with numerous references both to the events of other Doctor Who stories or to the technology featured in them; this even leads to the odd allusion to Fourth and Fifth Doctor stories.)

I am less familiar with Troughton-era Who than many of my friends, so I'll have to bow to the opinion of others as to how well Baxter captures the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie. What I can say is that they all work very well as characters, and are pushed in some interesting directions, mostly in terms of their relationships with the mining colony's children; Zoe has to learn how to relate to them, whilst Jamie finds himself in the odd position of being a half-resented adult rather than a young sidekick.

Anyone who likes either Stephen Baxter's writing or classic Doctor Who will probably enjoy this; anyone who likes both is likely to devour it as quickly as possible with a big grin.
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When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis got onto my reading list as the winner of the 2010 long-form Sidewise Award for alternate history. What-ifs about Cuba in 1962 are not exactly unknown (e.g. Stephen Baxter's H-Bomb Girl, although that's more than just a pure counterfactual) but Eric Swedin presents his as a history of the events of 1962 as written by a historian in the mid-1990s.

Spoilers, not that you can't guess what ends up happening )

I well recall the film Thirteen Days doing a remarkable job of depicting the politico-military manoeuvring during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and conveying the feeling that the leadership of both sides was desperate to avoid escalation but could not back down. When Angels Wept is a frighteningly believable depiction of how, in a world where matters unfolded only slightly differently from in our own, the balance could so easily have tipped into escalation beyond anyone's ability to control. Although not a novel in the usual sense, it was a worthy winner of the Sidewise Award, and I'd commend it to anyone interested in alternate history or the Cuba crisis.
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'Bogs, Baths and Basins: the story of domestic sanitation', David Eveleigh (2006)

If you asked most people to sum up the history of the toilet they would probably suggest something along the lines of 'people used to use chamberpots and then Thomas Crapper came along and we've been flushing ever since'. Eveleigh's entertaining but comprehensive history of domestic sanitation aims to show how there was rather more to it than this; Crapper was one of many ingenious inventors seeking to improve water closets, and there were many more forms forms of waste disposal than just a pot under the bed. I had no idea that in the Midlands the dry ash privy was widely used for many years, owing to the ready availability of cinder ash. I was equally ignorant of the detailed history of the flush toilet, which took a very long time to reach its current form. Flush lavatories were developed in the late eighteenth century, but for many years used a mechanical action to tip a pan into a drain, leading to complex and hard-to-clean mechanisms. The quest for an effective syphonic flush was a long one and success was clearly much striven-for; apparently the 1884 International Health Exhibition awarded a gold medal to a toilet that '...successfully disposed of ten apples, a flat sponge and four pieces of sanitary paper stuck to the sides with plumbers' smudge'. Informative and prosfusely illustrated (lots of Victorian engravings of plumbing technology for those who like such things) it is, er, excellent toilet reading...
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(Posted last night on Dreamwidth but cross-posting is still down so copied across.)

Having thoroughly enjoyed Thus Was Adonis Murdered, I sought out the next two in Caudwell's 'Hilary Tamar' series, and wasn't disappointed. Once again the junior tenants of 62 New Square (and Julia from 63) feed clues to the carefully androgynous Tamar so as to lead to a surprising but logical solution to a mystery in which they have become embroiled. In The Shortest Way to Hades, it is the question of who killed one of the subsidiary beneficiaries of a complex family trust, whilst in The Sirens Sang of Murder the trustees of a Channel Islands tax scheme are being progressively bumped off.

Of the first three books in the series, I'd say TSWtH has the best actual mystery, nicely combining aspects of the relevant area of chancery law with aspects of Tamar's own expertise as a historian. TSSoM perhaps suffers a little by putting the hitherto comic-relief character of Cantrip in the centre of the action, and one has to allow a little dramatic licence to forgive his ludicrously extravagant telexes back to 62 New Square from the midst of the action. Both will be enjoyed by fans of the first though, and Caudwell's prose is as fun as ever, as witness Julia's description of the effect upon the elegant and unflappable Selena of some rather special fudge served up at a party - well, orgy actually - to which the two female barristers have been lured and from which they are too polite to try to escape:

"You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment. She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation."

If there is something that did strike me about the books, it is how little the characters develop over the course of them. There is little sense of them maturing or even ageing, and I rather feel that Caudwell developed her setting and stuck with it, irregardless of the real passage of time. We know that TWAM is set in late 1977, and a reference to the Friday after Easter being the 27th of April puts TSSoM in 1984, despite it having been published in 1989. Even seven years seems far too long a span for the internal chronology of the books though; they all sit in an eternal present where Julia is in her mid-to-late twenties and Cantrip is blithely immune to the maturing effects of time. I've just ordered The Sybil in her Grave, the fourth and final in the series; published a decade after TSSoM, it will be interesting to see how it compares.
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Having thoroughly enjoyed Thus Was Adonis Murdered, I sought out the next two in Caudwell's 'Hilary Tamar' series, and wasn't disappointed. Once again the junior tenants of 62 New Square (and Julia from 63) feed clues to the carefully androgynous Tamar so as to lead to a surprising but logical solution to a mystery in which they have become embroiled. In The Shortest Way to Hades, it is the question of who killed one of the subsidiary beneficiaries of a complex family trust, whilst in The Sirens Sang of Murder the trustees of a Channel Islands tax scheme are being progressively bumped off.

Of the first three books in the series, I'd say TSWtH has the best actual mystery, nicely combining aspects of the relevant area of chancery law with aspects of Tamar's own expertise as a historian. TSSoM perhaps suffers a little by putting the hitherto comic-relief character of Cantrip in the centre of the action, and one has to allow a little dramatic licence to forgive his ludicrously extravagant telexes back to 62 New Square from the midst of the action. Both will be enjoyed by fans of the first though, and Caudwell's prose is as fun as ever, as witness Julia's description of the effect upon the elegant and unflappable Selena of some rather special fudge served up at a party - well, orgy actually - to which the two female barristers have been lured and from which they are too polite to try to escape:

"You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment. She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation."

If there is something that did strike me about the books, it is how little the characters develop over the course of them. There is little sense of them maturing or even ageing, and I rather feel that Caudwell developed her setting and stuck with it, irregardless of the real passage of time. We know that TWAM is set in late 1977, and a reference to the Friday after Easter being the 27th of April puts TSSoM in 1984, despite it having been published in 1989. Even seven years seems far too long a span for the internal chronology of the books though; they all sit in an eternal present where Julia is in her mid-to-late twenties and Cantrip is blithely immune to the maturing effects of time. I've just ordered The Sybil in her Grave, the fourth and final in the series; published a decade after TSSoM, it will be interesting to see how it compares.
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Julia's unhappy relationship with Inland Revenue was due to her omission, during four years of modestly successful practice at the Bar, to pay any income tax. The truth is, I think, that she did not, in her heart of hearts, really believe in income tax. It was a subject which she had studied for examinations and on which she had thereafter advised a number of clients: she naturally did not suppose, in these circumstances, that it had anything to do with real life.

I think it may have been [personal profile] liadnan or [personal profile] legionseagle who first mentioned the legally-themed mystery novels of Sarah Caudwell. A good outline is given here on Caudwell's Wikipedia page and the premise seemed intriguing enough - especially in view of the very positive comments I'd seen on the books - for me to order the first in the series, Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

I am very glad I did. Even in a year where I've read Reamde and the whole of A Song of Ice and Fire so far published, Thus Was Adonis Murdered is likely, I suspect, to remain one of my most memorable reads. It helps of course that I am familiar with the world of English barristers, which is not so very far even now from Caudwell's depiction of it in the late-1970s setting of the book. I am by no means sure that all readers will be snorting in mirth quite so much as I was, but by heavens, Caudwell nails it:

Henry is the Clerk at 62 New Square. From references which will from time to time be made to him some of my readers, unfamiliar with the system, may infer that Selena and the rest are employed by Henry under a contract more or less equivalent of one of personal servitude. I should explain that this is not the case: they employ Henry. It is Henry's function, in exchange for ten per cent of their earnings, to deal on their behalf with the outside world: to administer, manage and negotiate; to extol their merits, gloss over their failings, justify their fees and extenuate their delays; to flatter those clients whose patronage is most lucrative; to write reproachfully to those who delay payment for more than two years or so; to promise with equal conviction in the same morning that six separate sets of papers will be the first to receive attention. By the outside world, I mean, of course, solicitors: nothing could be more improper than for a member of the English Bar to have dealings, without the intervention of a solicitor, with a member of the general public.

Caudwell's style is one which, I suspect, you will love or loathe. Her characters are so arch you could construct a treatise on architecture out of them, whilst the extent to which much of the first two-thirds of the book comprises letters from one character being read out and sardonically dissected by her friends may test the patience of those accustomed to more dynamic plotting. But for those who find Caudwell to their taste, there is a rich feast indeed. Few novels feature seduction via the Finance Act, or indeed detailed expositions of the tax implications of domicile that nonetheless drive a key part of the plot. And any graduates of Oxford are likely to enjoy the regular barbs aimed at those who studied at less, well, Oxonian universities:

Cantrip is a Cambridge man – it is not always easy to understand what he says. ‘Nobbled? By whom, Cantrip? Or, to adopt the Cambridge idiom, who by?’

At times the writing can feel old-fashioned: Caudwell's female characters are almost invariably referred to by their forenames, while males go by surname alone. In other respects though Thus Was Adonis Murdered is almost surprisingly liberal; gay relationships, or the possibility of them, are taken for granted, as is casual pleasure-seeking sex. (A number of reviews I found commented on the extent to which Caudwell consciously inverts expectations of male-female seduction; the character of Julia bemoans at length the necessity to flatter a man's mind in order to get access to his body.)

Talking of sex, or rather gender, another oft-remarked-upon aspect of Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the care that Caudwell takes never to specify whether Professor Hilary Tamar is male or female. I am confident that there are reams of analysis and speculation on this point; for my part, I found myself picturing Tamar as a woman, albeit a rather asexual one.

One oddity, given Caudwell's background as a barrister, is that she has Tamar refer to one of the younger characters as Tamar's former pupil. In the context of the Bar, that would normally imply that Tamar was the barrister who had trained said character as an apprentice, but it's made clear that Tamar's knowledge of law ends in the early medieval period and that she/he is a purely academic lawyer. So why not say 'student' - is this, perhaps, the Oxford idiom?

(As a legal aside, Caudwell is quite prescient when, in Chapter 13, she has Selena muse about the scope of overturning the arrangement she suspects Kenneth has with Eleanor as an abuse of bargaining power against a young artist. Although the ball had already been set rolling in this respect in Macaulay v Schroeder Music Publishing Co. Ltd [1974] 1 W.L.R. 1308 it was not until a string of cases in the early 1990s - involving artists such as George Michael, the Stone Roses and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, that the doctrine really established itself. Given that Thus Was Adonis Murdered is set in 1977 - see the newswire report quoted in Chapter 5 - one likes to imagine that Selena went on to do quite well for herself representing exploited young pop stars.)

The mystery itself - who killed the handsome young Inland Revenue employee whose murder Julia is suspected of during a holiday in Venice - is tied up nicely, with a twist that one might have seen coming with a lot of careful thought. I have already placed orders for the next two books in the series, and anticipate regretting that Caudwell died before writing more than four.
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One of the odd side-effects of reading a Neal Stephenson novel whilst on the plane to Istanbul to take part in a conference on cloud computing is that you find yourself - at least, if you're me - feeling as if you're a character in a Neal Stephenson novel. At least, my inner narrative seems to fix on to Stephenson's sardonic-detached-observer writing style and adopt it for itself.

Reamde (the titular computer virus is indeed a misspelling of README) certainly passes a long trip. At 1050 pages, most of which are continuous action, even though I found it a compulsive page-turner it still took four flights, several departure lounges and a couple of hours on the sofa at home to get through it. It's fun and engaging, but is it thought-provoking in the same way that, say, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon or Anathem were? On reflection, I'd say not: it' a postmodern and rather cerebral thriller, much more in the vein of Interface and The Cobweb, the novels he jointly authored in the 1990s with an uncle under the name Stephen Bury.

I also, despite enjoying Reamde very much, have some Issues with it.

Lots of spoilers )

Verdict: recommended, but be prepared to go '...hang on a minute' after you've recovered from the exuberance of the ride.
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Shapes | Flow | Branches

Nature's Patterns is a beautiful and fascinating collection of books; each stands alone, but they build together to form (as summarised in the final section of Branches) a survey of how shape and form arises in the natural world. Ball - who readily confesses to having been inspired by D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form - covers both the patterns and shapes of life and those found in the inorganic world, as in the shapes of convection cells and the spirals of oscillating chemical reactions. Indeed, he shows how the same underlying principles turn out to govern both, for reaction-diffusion patterns in the developing skin of embryos seemingly underly the spots and stripes of animal patterns.

I picked up the hardback set last year but only recently got around to reading them. As it happens, OUP has just brought the set out in paperback, so now is an excellent time to be recommending it. Of interest to anyone who has contemplated the stripes of a zebra, or the pattern of sunflower seeds, or the patterns of eddies in a stream.
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Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World


I have a confession to make: it seems that I have something in common with Margaret Thatcher. She apparently chose Telstar as one of her Desert Island Discs, and whatever else I might not agree with the Iron Lady on, I'd back her on that. But for me it is, despite its self-consciously futuristic mood, an incredibly nostalgic piece. Rather oddly so, because what it makes me nostalgic for is an era that was over nearly half a decade before I was born. You see, I cannot hear Telstar without it conjuring up black-and-white newsreel images of 1950s British aircraft displaying at Farnborough, of RAF Lightnings and Vulcans streaking overhead, and of Blue Streak thundering into the sky over Woomera. Yes, my nostalgia is for the glory days of post-War British aviation, despite being born a generation too late to have experienced it. How must it have felt to have been a young aviation enthusiast at the time?

Well, we don't need to wonder, because James Hamilton-Paterson was one, and describes the era in intense, almost poetic detail in Empire of the Clouds. (This was the first I'd heard of him, but on digging a little it turns out that he is a well-regarded if reclusive novelist; on the strength of his writing in this, I may have to search out some of his fiction.) As a book about the sheer joy and excitement of aviation it is a delight, but as well as the author's recollections of his obsession with the aircraft and test pilots of the 1950s - household names of the day - it is also an excellent at at times very critical history of how the British aviation industry went from a world leader in the 1940s into a shrunken vestige of itself by the 1960s.

Among aviation geeks - a tribe I count myself as a member of - there's a popular myth of how an innovative and dynamic British aircraft industry was mismanaged to ruin by short-sighted, technically ignorant mandarins and self-serving politicians. Exhibit A in this story is always the TSR.2, cancelled by the incoming Labour Government in 1964 at the behest of the Treasury / the Navy / the Americans (pick your villain) when it could have been a world-beating strike aircraft. But Hamilton-Paterson, whilst pulling no punches on the almost vindictive manner of the TSR.2's cancellation (with plans being burned and production jigs wrecked, so as to preclude any risk of the project being restarted) is also frank about the aircraft's problems. It was late to first flight because of chronic mismanagement arising from little more than personal grudges between heads of the still-fragmented aircraft industry, and was not, he suggests, quite the wonder plane it's usually made out to be. Its small wing, intended to allow fast, low-level flight, actually gave even the lightweight prototypes a poor takeoff performance; Hamilton-Paterson points out that pictures of the TSR.2 taking off look very dynamic, but the very nose-high flight angle was due to the poor lift offered by the limited wing. A fully-operational version, he suggests, might have had dismal takeoff performance and been rather hairy to land.

(When I was in the RAF a colleague recounted a conversation from way back with an engineer who'd been involved with TSR.2, and had reckoned that it's incredibly complex but pre-solid-state avionics would in practice have been a maintenance nightmare, and that it might never have entered reliable service, at least without a major update. Putting that together with Hamilton-Paterson's comments it is hard to avoid the feeling that some of the contemporary criticisms of the TSR.2 may have been well-founded).

But similar problems are noted for other aircraft. In the early 1950s in particular many aircraft were rushed into production when really little more than prototypes, and whilst this may have been forgiveable in wartime (the Gloster Meteor was a deathtrap for years, and was never entirely purged of its vices) it was less so for aircraft such as the Javelin (unstable), Lightning (unreliable, underarmed and fuel-thirsty), the Hunter (very pretty but would suffer engine flameout if it fired its guns in early versions) and of course the Comet airliner, which had to crash several times before its design faults were noted.

In large part, Hamilton-Paterson puts this down to the refusal of governments to force the industry to rationalise. The merger of classic names such as Avro, Handley Page and so on into BAC and eventually British Aerospace is often decried, but Hamilton-Paterson argues it came too late, so that the 1950s was full of half-finished prototypes put together by design teams that often lacked the breadth of skill to tackle the barely-understood complexities of supersonic aircraft design. (As another author commented on the Victor / Valiant / Vulcan V-Bomber force, it seemed as if the Air Ministry forgot that the original plan had been to pick just one.)

Empire of the Clouds is at times anecdotal, and although each chapter is heavily referenced I couldn't help but note that some of the more spectacular stories are conspicuously devoid of acknowledgement - meaning, I suspect, that they owe more to the Officers' Mess Bar than they do to flight logbooks. But this isn't a technical history; it's a social one, reminding me of nothing so much as Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys, or Harry Pearson's hilarious memoir of wargaming Achtung Schweinehund. For anyone fascinated by the shiny silver aerial exotica of the 1950s, this book is a must.
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The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, Patrick Hennessey.

There aren't many books I would rate as almost impossible to put down; keen bookworm though I am, I can usually set one aside to pick up as and when convenient. But Patrick Hennessey's account of three years as a junior officer in the Grenadier Guards (and the prior year training at Sandhurst), during which he saw more sustained and intense action than any generation of soldiers since the 1950s, kept me reading till the early hours three nights in a row.

I'm hardly a neutral reviewer, of course. The midpart of Hennessey's memoir relates to his time at Shaibah Logistics Base in Iraq, in the summer of 2006; only a few months later, I visited SLB several times during my stint at COB Basra, ten miles and a nerve-shredding one-hour drive to the north. The little details brought it all back, but Basra - even during the mortar and rocket-heavy run-up to the withdrawal from Basra City - was a holiday camp compared to his tour in Afghanistan the following year. Hennessey combines a gift for eloquent and descriptive writing with a startlingly blunt ability to convey the culture shock of the XBox generation fighting a savage and bloody war for weeks and months on end.

A few of the reviews for this book have been very negative, accusing Patrick Hennessey of glorifying war and killing. That wasn't my interpretation; rather, he very honestly relates the adrenaline-fuelled joy many soldiers confess to feeling in combat. But he goes on to relate its mutation into crushing stress and his sense of growing alienation from friends and family - an recognition that led him to leave the Army after only three years and, in an echo of my career, study law with the aim of becoming a barrister.

Compelling, sometimes shocking, sometimes incredibly funny (the anecdote about the ceremonial snuff-box is worth the price of the book alone) and very highly recommended.
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This isn't going to be a review as such; [livejournal.com profile] coalescent and [livejournal.com profile] tamaranth have done much better jobs than I could here and here respectively. Instead there are a few aspects of the novel I just feel the need to pass comment on.

Spoilers, not surprisingly )

None of this detracts from The Company being a very readable book, and arguably a good introduction to Parker for those wary of wading into a lengthy trilogy. I'm quite tempted to recommend it for our book group, although I'm not sure how they'd react to such a non-fantasy fantasy, if you get my meaning.
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Many years, there is one book on the Clarke Award shortlist that the author probably doesn't think is science fiction, or at least not sf in the sense commonly understood by the so-called literary establishment. If there's any justice, I'd like to see Turbulence be that book next year. It is as much sf as Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a book it very much resembles in subject if not style. Both books feature rather geeky protagonists drawn by the Second World War into a situation where their hitherto abstract field of research has suddenly assumed deadly importance. Rather than code-breaking, Foden concentrates on meteorology, and in particular the need for the Allied command to forecast the weather in the run up to D-Day. Accurate forecasting is bedevilled, however, by its inability to cope with the chaotic effects of turbulence, and a young Henry Meadows is sent to Scotland to try to extract hints from the one man believed to have meaningful insight in the area. But Wallace Ryman - an incredibly thinly-disguised Lewis Fry Richardson - is a devout Quaker unwilling to countenance any application of his theories to war; indeed, he is far more interested in trying to model and understand the statistical dynamics of war itself.

Turbulence is superbly written, and Meadows is well drawn as a character whose intellect is let down by his immaturity. If it has faults, they lie in the plotting. The book seems to finish rather abruptly; one feels that having reached the point he wanted to, Foden felt obliged to wrap up with almost indecent speed. And the framing story, featuring a much older Meadows, is rather odd - without giving too much away, it seems to be set in an early 1980s that featured one rather spectacular project that never happened in our timeline. Mind you, that's another reason to consider Turbulence as sf.

My prediction: expect to see a somewhat Merchant Ivory style film, dropping the framing story, upping the love interest, and emphasising grim wartime London and idyllic Scottish Highlands.
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A History of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr

Andrew Marr may be a well-known news anchor, presenter and occasional Dr Who extra, but how good a writer of history is he? Very good indeed, if my reaction to A History of Modern Britain is anything to go by. There aren't many non-fiction doorstops that I devour in a couple of days and immediately want to re-read, but this was one of them. Marr takes on a huge task in seeking to give what is essentially a political history of the nation since 1945, but he does so very well; the book runs up to mid-2007, but an extended foreword to the paperback edition updates it to early 2008.

Read more... )

Verdict: well worth reading. You may disagree with bits of it, but you'll probably learn a lot on the way.
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Possibly the most thought-provoking book I've read this year.

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Thud, Terry Pratchett

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The Tyrannicide Brief, Geoffrey Robertson QC.

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Simon Bradshaw

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