Willoughby reads

Willoughby Chase, by Pat Marriott, as it appears only in the American first edition https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/willoughby-chase-chosen-as-a-creepy-house-for-this-years-summer-reading-challenge/

A brief notice for all fans of Joan Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles: a number of enthusiasts will be doing a group read of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sometime in August, and tweeting about it using the hashtag #WilloughbyReads.

The read is hosted by Benjamin Harris (@one_to_read), the tag originates with Ed Finch (@MrEFinch) and other signed-up members include Lizza Aiken (@LizzaAiken) and of course myself (@calmgrove). Do join in if you’ve a mind to and are on Twitter.

I meanwhile will be ploughing through the remainder of the Chronicles, taking a slight excursion next with Midnight is a Place (in the same world but not directly linked) before rejoining the saga proper.

All through May I shall be reading fantasy of various stripes and shades, courtesy of Wyrd & Wonder (#wyrdandwonder), and even if you’re not a fan of the genre I hope you’ll find something of interest in my several ramblings.

Finally, here’s the official reminder of my seventh year anniversary with WordPress, received today!

Seven Year Hitch

Marvels that defy

Our Lady of Guadeloupe

Robertson Davies: Fifth Business (1970)
in The Deptford Trilogy
Penguin Books 2011 (1983)

This is a saga of three boys — the narrator Dunstable Ramsay, his contemporary Percy Boyd Staunton, and Paul Dempster, ten years their junior — told over the space of half a century from their origins in a small town in Ontario across two continents and on to a final chapter in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

Yet, of course, it is more than that: this is a tale of love gained and lost, of magic and miracles, of action in a theatre of war to that of the theatre of illusions. We are presented with evidence both of abilities and disabilities; amongst all the fun and games there is, nevertheless, an underlying sense of futility. Rabelais is reported to have said on his deathbed, “Tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée”; but for us the show hasn’t ended, for happily this is just the start of a trilogy.

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Once-upon-a-time realms

Inverted commas 9: Imaginary Worlds

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea.
— from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)

The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.

In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.

But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:

The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

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“A near-divine miracle”

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm.
A memoir of childhood reading
Vintage 2018

“[Y]ou simply never know what a child is going to find in a book (or a graphic novel, or a comic, or whatever) — what tiny throwaway line might be the spark that lights the fuse that sets off an explosion in understanding whose force echoes down years.”
— Chapter 8

Lucy Mangan knows what it is that makes someone a bookworm because she is one herself. And as a retired teacher (and former schoolboy, now recidivist bookworm) I can vouch for the fact that throwaway lines, whether written or spoken, are often the unexpected catalysts in later life determining personal philosophies or prejudices, likes or hates, potential triggers for creativity or lasting pessimism.

Bookworm is for all those who from an early age discovered that books are one’s entry to lives beyond our immediate experience. It’s also for those who have forgotten what it was that they read at that age, or have foolishly put it behind them as inconsequential: because this is not merely a nostalgia-fest, it’s an examination of how one person went on a voyage of discovery to visit people and places and different times, to see how others have lived and may still live their lives; and through her voyage one may see what nuggets of truth she has brought back that may enrich our own lives.

Above all it’s a plea not to deny children the pain and pleasure that access to all literature affords them:

[C]hildren should be allowed to read anything at any time. They will take out of it whatever they are ready for. And just occasionally, it will ready them for something else.

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Interlace

As I’ve previously posted here April has so far proved to have been a Month of Random Reading, positioned as it is between a March of Readathons and a May of Fantasy.

But, as is the way of things, my choice of reading has unwittingly pointed me in the direction of books that bear some relationships with each other, however slight. Those relationships have reminded me quite a bit of the art of interlace.

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Tragicomic

James O’Brien: How to be Right … in a World gone Wrong
WH Allen 2018

In Britain, as elsewhere, there is a sense of a great divide where once there was only a polite distance between different viewpoints. Undoubtedly exacerbated by social media — or at least, the manipulation and abuse of such media — the world seems to teeter between reason and irrationality, calm argument and blind rage, sense and insensitivity, even between stability and chaos.

James O’Brien is a British journalist and talk show host on LBC Radio (originally London Broadcasting Company, now flying with the slogan Leading Britain’s Conversation). He has developed a huge following, not just for his broadcasts but also for his viral YouTube clips and incisive tweets (@mrjameob). In a Britain where much broadcasting is, to say the least, conservative with a small ‘c’, O’Brien is refreshingly left of centre.

But he is more than just the leftie his critics love to deride: he is one of the few radio broadcasters trying to intelligently engage with listeners, many phoning in with extreme views about current affairs; and he doesn’t just engage politely and rationally, posing pertinent queries and interjecting statements of fact, but actually asks the challenging questions that other broadcast interviewers seem to shy away from in their irritating vox pops. And now he’s written a book about it all, and more.

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Fantasy subgenres

April is proving to be a Month of Random Reading. Which is good, I think. Especially as May will be a month of fantasy reads under the Wyrd & Wonder banner.

There are eight fantasy subgenres offered for consideration, and in this anticipatory post I shall be looking at them in a little more detail, seeing what I’ve already read that falls in each category (links are to my reviews or discussions) and ruminating on what I might choose to read in the merry month of May. Though I may change my mind at the last moment.

It’s possible I shall read one example of each subgenre in the space of four weeks, perfectly achievable at the rate of two a week, but I’m making no promises!

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Flights of fancy

Illustration: Mackenzie Crook

Mackenzie Crook: The Windvale Sprites
With illustrations by the author
Faber 2011

That is when the thought struck him. ‘I’ve found a fairy.’ Just like that with no exclamation mark. […] Not wand-waving Tinkerbells but sinewy insect-men: wild creatures that must be secretive and hardly ever spotted.

A boy. A storm. An unexpected encounter. A library. Wild places. Classic ingredients for a children’s mystery, written and illustrated by Mackenzie Crook who knows how to spin a yarn that’ll draw in any imaginative young reader (and the odd adult too). Though this is a tale about fairies it’s not a fairytale in the conventional sense; while there are traditional elements this is essentially an adventure story involving young Asa Brown attempting to solve a centuries-old conundrum, and what he did after he found the answer.

What do we think of when we encounter traditional fairytales? Magical beings no doubt. Do they appear, only to disappear when humans burst in on them? Are they our size, only dressed in outlandish or anachronistic garb, or are they diminutive with butterfly wings? Do they grant wishes, or do they bring down misfortune upon our heads? Does time warp and change when you stray into their realms, or are there taboos which you must not contravene?

Asa will find some answers to these questions when investigating these sprites. But first he has to research the eccentric Benjamin Tooth, an eighteenth-century antiquary locally notorious for his flights of fancy, who has reputedly left some documents to the town which may or may not reside in the local library. It’s only just a matter of Asa somehow finding the key…

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The meming of things

“Your face when…” (image: writerspace.com)

If you read my posts on a regular basis you will know this face applies to me. It’s fairly likely it applies to you too. The possibility that anybody who is a bibliophile — a bibliomane, even — recognises this reaction is high. That’s the power of the meme.

Memes might seem a new thing but they’ve been around a long time, certainly long before Richard Dawkins defined them in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a unit of cultural information, one spread by imitation and, like genes, subject to evolution and mutation.

So when I recently had a till receipt from a Waterstone’s bookshop I was quite taken by the meme included on the print out.

They say money can’t buy happiness, but I have a receipt from the bookstore telling a whole different story.

As with many memes, the ultimate genesis of which it’s almost impossible to identify, I wasn’t able to find a quoted source, but from the use of the term ‘bookstore’ I’m assuming it’ll be North American. But I liked its quiet wit: not only can buying books be a fountainhead of pleasure, but the notion that even a bookshop receipt is able to tell a story gave rise to a small smile.

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Smoke, mirrors and planes

Christopher Priest: The Adjacent
Gollancz 2013

“We were naïve, all of us but especially me — we thought we were making a breakthrough into something that would neutralise weapons. It would always be safe to use, non-aggressive in nature, harmless because it would remove harm. But what we all feared soon came to pass: minds other than ours worked out how to make quantum adjacency into a weapon of war.”
— Professor Thijs Rietveld, discussing Perturbative Adjacency Field.

This is a novel of ideas, of obsessions, and of the emptiness when a loved one disappears. It’s a work of speculative fiction, but one in which one mustn’t look too closely at the science nor expect any magic (except that being accomplished by smoke and mirrors). It’s a narrative that jumps around in time and space, told in both the first and the third person, in which we encounter many individuals; but ultimately there is one thread and one couple on which our attention is focused. It’s a novel that is by turns illogical and alienating but yet strangely satisfying.

Told in eight parts, The Adjacent begins in a dytopian 2030s. Hopping between Anatolia and the Islamic Republic of Great Britain we come to realise that the world is in the grip of two crises, one of extreme weather brought about by rapid climate change, the other produced by random terrorist strikes using a frightening, almost apocalyptic, weapon. It is this last that has apparently caused the disappearance of Melanie Tarent while on relief work as a nurse in Turkey, to the distress of her husband Tibor, a freelance photographer, who travels back to the IRGB, towards Lincolnshire and Hull, then one of the seats of government.

Thereafter, while continuing to follow Tibor’s story we also find ourselves travelling to the western front during the first world war with stage illusionist Tommy Trent and H G Wells, then to the home of Nobel prizewinner, the physicist Thijs Rietveld in East Sussex, where he is photographed by a younger Tibor; this is followed by a Second World War airfield for Lancaster bombers in the Lincolnshire Wolds (modelled on RAF Binbrook) where we meet Aircraftman Mike Torrence, and then the apparently fictitious island state of Prachous where we follow the career of Thom, a stage magician, and Tallant, an overseas visitor. What is the connection, if any, between all these individuals with curiously related names; and of the women whom they meet, whose names equally seem to share resemblances?

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Passing ships

Katy Mahood: Entanglement
The Borough Press 2018

“Trains don’t stop at every station.”
— A mother’s response to her child’s query, from a moving railway carriage.

“Ships that pass in the night,” as Longfellow wrote, are like all us humans “on the ocean of life,” engaging with “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Sometimes there is not even that look or voice, the encounter completely unconscious, and yet the voyagers may still have unforseeable influences on each other.

This is the kernel at the heart of Katy Mahood’s impressive debut novel Entanglements. The title refers to a concept in quantum physics, a connection (as I understand it) whereby subatomic particles may be separated by distance but still affect one another; observation of this connection, paradoxically, causes it to change or even cease to be.

Of course, non-physicists see entanglement in a much more mundane way, along with the frustration that comes from strands of string or wool being intertwined, and this more prosaic aspect is present too as a potent symbol in this most engaging of novels.

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Eighteen Nineteen

Contemporary engraving of Queen Victoria

Are you one of those people who loves seeing 12.34 appear on a digital clock, gazes delightedly at the mileometer (odometer) as it clicks over to all the same digits in a row, or got excited at one minute past eight in the evening of the 20th of January, 2001?

No? No matter; you clearly won’t be excited at the arrival of the year Twenty twenty (no vision, see). But this year at least gives me a chance to look back two centuries to 1819 — I do savour saying “eighteen-nineteen” — and a few greats, particularly literary greats, of the Victorian era.

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Seven Year Hitch

Image WordPress Free Media Library photo

This month, April 2019, sees seven years of the Calmgrove blog since I hitched it to WordPress (although I’ve since reposted revisions of some of those early posts and deleted others).

Now, it was a score or so of years ago that I started hearing more and more about weblogs appearing online. My first instinct had been to think it ridiculous for people to put out personal diaries into the ether: whoever would want to read about the lives of random strangers?

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Wings over Wales

Llywelyn Vaughan, Cadwaladr Gough et al.
‘Pterosaurs in Late Jurassic Wales.’
Mesozoica Cambrensis Vol IV No 1, 2019

In this interesting monograph from the academic journal Mesozoica Cambrensis the authors describe initial research into two pterosaurs from the Late Jurassic period (200 to 145 million years ago) recently uncovered from the Snowdonia eminence known as Dinas Emrys.

The Mesozoic period, roughly 252 to 66 million years ago, is the era we associate with dinosaurs but the flying creatures known as pterosaurs (“flying lizards”) mostly existed during the Jurassic years, some surviving through the Cretaceous until the extinction event about 65myo. What distinguishes the Dinas Emrys pterosaurs is that they appear to belong to two distinct classifications and, unusually, appear in close proximity.

I’m no geologist or palaeobiologist but what I understand is that Snowdonia has multiple layers or strata — Llanberis Slates from 400 million years ago under gritstones, mudstones, siltstones and volcanic ashes, all covered over by more slate beds, then contorted over eons by tremendous geological forces.

Into a remnant of sedimentary layers on Dinas Emrys, as though part of a dried-up pool, were deposited the intertwined fossils of the pterosaurs, almost as if locked in combat. What is fascinating about these two specimens is that, contrary to popular dinosaur belief, they weren’t cold-blooded or scaley but warm-blooded and covered in fur. Extraordinary to relate, traces of pigment were even found.

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