Reverting to type


ANNO D[OMINI] 1701 is the year this façade was built, now part of Bristol Galleries shopping mall

The Field Guide to Typography:
typefaces in the urban landscape
by Peter Dawson.
Thames & Hudson 2013

Nowadays our familiarity with typefaces derives from the choices we have when writing electronic documents, such as Arial, Book Antiqua, Comic Sans, Courier New, Lucida Console, Palatino Linotype, Times New Roman, Verdana and so on. But did you know that there are well over 150,000 typefaces available, a number that grows with every day? And that many of these typefaces have been around in one form or another since at least the middle of the 15th century, when the printing press was introduced into Europe, and some a lot earlier?

Appropriately, this book’s Foreword by Stephen Cole points to ornithology as an analogy, with typography enthusiasts as preoccupied as any birder with identification, classification, distinguishing features and documentation. Even more aptly this guide includes a photo of a pile of books on birdwatching, with an explanatory key to the various typefaces used on the individual spines.

Peter Dawson’s Field Guide is just a little different from those birding books.

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Mundane to magical


Polly Shulman The Grimm Legacy Oxford University Press 2012 (2010)

It’s an unprepossessing nameplate: The New York Circulating Material Repository. Elizabeth Rew is hoping her new job will involve working with books, but it turns out to be more than that, “like a circulating book library with far more varied collections”. She’s given a brief rundown on its history — informative but not very enlightening, she thinks — on the day she starts as a lowly-paid ‘page’, assisting the librarians with day-to-day tasks:

We’ve existed in one form or another since 1745, when three clock makers began sharing some of their more specialized tools. That collection became the core of the repository in 1837, when a group of amateur astronomers pooled their resources and opened shop. Our first home was on St John’s Park, near Greenwich Street, but we moved uptown to East Twenty-fourth Street in 1852 and to our current location in 1921…

Elizabeth is starting to understand this is no ordinary lending and reference collection. Furthermore, she begins to find herself fascinated by a mysterious restricted section. And then situations and events commence moving away from the mundane. Towards the magical.

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On bookmarks

Bookmarks in a 1922 Missale Romanum

When I worked in public libraries — even contemplating getting qualifications — I became aware of the surprising range of objects people used to show where they had got with their reading. Paperclips, scraps of newspaper, bus tickets, sewing thread, a ladies glove — all supplemented the usual dog-ear solution of folding down a corner of the page. A colleague even recounted the tale of the fried egg bookmark, though I suspected that may have been apocryphal, a bit of urban legend or friend-of-a-friend ‘foaflore’.

Of course, older books had their own built-in cloth bookmarks, especially when multiple page-marking was required — as in Roman Catholic missals — and even modern diaries come provided with these. But many of us, when we’re eschewing the disfiguring habit of dog ears or substituting old airline tickets use purpose-made commercial bookmarks. These come in a spectacular range but most are familiar to us in a standard format of a longish thin card. I don’t buy these at all, and am rarely given them as presents, but of the few I have most are acquired from a bookshop or library. Four I have to hand are from London’s Primrose Hill Books, Fishguard’s Seaways Bookshop, Foyles (London and Bristol) and Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, the latter featuring Peter Blake’s magical painting The Owl and the Pussycat (completed in 1983).

But by far the most common of the bookmarks I use are postcards. Granted, these are a little wider than commercial bookmarks, but as they are mostly shorter they don’t stick out at the top of the book to, over time, get frayed and bent. And they are mostly free, which is an added bonus.

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Snapshots of the author


House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones.
HarperCollins, 2008.

Many of the pieces in Reflections, the collection of writings by and about Diana Wynne Jones, address the question authors often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? And of course there is no single simple answer. She does however offer this suggestion, in an item entitled ‘Some Hints on Writing’:

When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out.

With House of Many Ways I found it hard to force a plan onto a review, so adopting Jones’ modus operandi for this commentary seemed an appropriate way to go about it. The beginning has been taken care of, and the conclusion is virtually foregone, and now it’s time to move to the images that arise almost unbidden from a second reading of this fantasy. Many of them involve snapshots of the author herself.

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A magic carpet ride


Diana Wynne Jones Castle in the Air
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1990)

This, the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, begins in an Arabian Nights fashion, which seems light years away from the European land of Ingary. Genies in bottles and flying carpets have nothing to do with a Welsh wizard and a fire demon called Calcifer powering the moving castle, surely? And many of the other distinctive characters in that famous first instalment must be unrelated to the eastern city of Zanzib in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, mustn’t they?

But appearances are deceiving in this parallel world where magic can and does happen. Continue reading “A magic carpet ride”

Intimations of mortality


Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones’ books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance request by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults? Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Easy, engaging and enchanting


Philip Reeve No Such Thing as Dragons
Marion Lloyd Books 2010

Reeve is best known for his award-winning Mortal Engines series of SF novels, set in a future post-apocalyptic world, and for the standalone title Here Lies Arthur which won the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book of the year, while his illustrations have graced many another title including several in the ever-popular Horrible Histories series for youngsters. All of which makes for a promising fantasy novella set in the High Middle Ages.

This is a charming, single-strand narrative about a mute boy, Ansel, his master (a knight called Brock) and the search for a dragon which may or may not exist on a mountain in Germany. If there was a dragon, what would it look like? Would it exist in the traditional medieval image familiar from the stonework and woodwork in churches and cathedrals and in illuminated manuscripts? Or would it be more akin to our modern concept of a living prehistoric fossil, an archeopteryx, perhaps, or pteranodon? Continue reading “Easy, engaging and enchanting”

No justice in Giudecca?

Donna Leon Uniform Justice Arrow 2004

Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti has been compared to Camilleri’s Commissario Montalbano so many times that I felt I had to at least sample one of the titles in her series, and I’m glad I did. In Uniform Justice Brunetti is a world-weary detective investigating an apparent suicide at a cadet school run on military lines on the Venetian island of Giudecca. I was intrigued immediately, as I remember seeing the island from the windows of our overnight hotel opposite. Especially when it was blotted out by a passing cruise ship.

World-weary detectives are two-a-penny in crime fiction, especially when they are saddled with unsympathetic superiors as Brunetti is, and Venice is such an obvious setting that we could be forgiven for thinking that this is bound to be a run-of-the-mill mystery. Well, we would be wrong. Continue reading “No justice in Giudecca?”