See my shadow

SpecOps-27 postcard of operative Thursday Next (https://www.jasperfforde.com/)

Jasper Fforde: The Eyre Affair
World Book Night UK 2013
Hodder 2013 (2001)

“Shine out fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.”
— Richard III, Act II Scene 4

Fforde’s first novel, superficially a comic fantasy thriller, is essentially a romp through several literary genres — though at times it’s more like a drive-by shooting than a frolic through the daisies. In fact he’s been described as a postmodernist writer, and postmodernism is an ideal way to regard the few works of his I’ve read.

It’s easy to justify this by considering Fforde’s running joke about Richard III: the monarch is depicted as a slot-machine mannequin dispensing speeches, then there is a pantomime production of Shakespeare’s play in a Swindon theatre; finally, the introductory quote for this review refers to Richard preferring to see the reflection not of his misshapen body but of his sinister shadow.

In fact, all the numerous threads, motifs and plotting — among them a continuing Crimean War, a Welsh Republic, and science fiction trappings like plasma guns, chronological black holes and cloned dodos, plus characters unaware their names are parodies and puns, and unaccountable shifts from first-person to omniscient narrative — are effectively exercises in Ricardian self-reflexivity, ignoring the substance for the shadow; and self-reflexivity is a hallmark of postmodernism.

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Summer reading

I’m coming to the end of one reading focus, the Wyrd and Wonder fantasy blogging event (cohosted by Lisa, Imyril and Jorie) and have been pleased with the material I’ve got through. And so the next focus which I fancy subscribing to is Cathy Brown‘s 20 Books of Summer.

Actually, for this event one is free to go with any number of options and so it is that I’ve aimed to be sensible by choosing just ten titles (though, as Cathy says, one can up this number, change titles, or even admit defeat).

Also, next month is Jazz Age June, a new event set up by Laurie @ Relevant Obscurity and Fanda at ClassicLit. This reading event runs from June 1st to 30th, aiming to explore the 1920s through literature and other arts.

So as we approach the cusp between one month and the next here is my catalogue raisonné of books read and to-be-read, which I offer for your possible delectation and deliberation.

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Ruthless and reckless

Inverted Commas 16: Recklessness

Ruthlessness creates its own rules. So my mother taught me. People are intimidated by a man who acts with no apparent regard for consequences. Behave as if you cannot be touched and no one will dare to touch you.
Assassin’s Apprentice, chapter 23.

It feels as if the world is dominated by machismo at the moment — some might say this is how it has ever been — but the advent of universal suffrage and democratic conventions was supposed to put on a brake and a limit to it all. That people in too many countries have insanely acted like turkeys voting for Christmas is, I think, the greatest failure of modern democracy, allowing unbridled machismo to disregard those who need the most support.

Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice (like any good literature, including much fantasy of course) presents us with a mirror to view our modern lives, and this quote drew me up short. One of the principal antagonists at an apparent moment of triumph crows about his ruthlessness. ‘Ruth’ of course means pity, and showing no pity or compassion is here held up as an effective means justifying its ends. It is a ‘virtue’ that should be exercised by a successful politician, many think, indeed it’s a stance recommended in Machiavelli’s The Prince.

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The dreadful summit

Robin Hobb:
Assassin’s Apprentice
Book One of The Farseer Trilogy
Harper Voyager 2015 (1995)
Special edition for World Book Night UK 2015

There are general expectations for an epic or high fantasy: it’s set in what Tolkien called a Secondary World; the protagonist is usually young and, following much fairytale tradition, often an orphan; they have hidden talents or gifts, frequently of a magical nature, which only reveal themselves gradually and after much tribulation; and there is a malevolent antagonist which the protagonist has to prevail against or even overthrow.

On the basis that Assassin’s Apprentice displays these features it qualifies as high fantasy, but it takes more than box-ticking to ensure that a novel like this succeeds — readability, convincing characterisation, vivid worldbuilding, plot twists, in fact everything that may encourage the reader to suspend disbelief and invest in the protagonist’s success, plus a certain je ne sais quoi which renders the premise distinctive and memorable.

I can report that Assassin’s Apprentice doesn’t fail in any of these departments and I’ll attempt to explain how.

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A wondrous web

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales

This review is the final instalment of a series of posts of Jenny Nimmo’s fantasy, all part of an online discussion between Nick Swarbrick and me.


Jenny Nimmo: The Snow Spider (1986)
in The Snow Spider Trilogy
Egmont (2004)

Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still “Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, Act III Scene 4

Such a curious title: can spiders be active and survive in the outside temperatures that allow snow to fall? Of course, being cold-blooded creatures, this isn’t the case, which may be what makes the concept so appealing. Once, however, you can accept the premise that at least one special spider can survive it makes it easier to suspend disbelief about the other things that happen in this story.

This paradox will be the first of many, for Jenny Nimmo’s novel, the first title in a trilogy, is often underrated as a fantasy because there is so much under the surface of the narrative that may not be evident to the casual reader.

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Autism, Bullying and the Child

Emily Lovegrove:
Autism, Bullying and Me.
The Really Useful Stuff You Need to Know About Coping Brilliantly with Bullying.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2020

This is not a review — but it is a notice about a useful and accessible self-help book for those who feel different, written by my partner and published tomorrow.

It’s not always easy to stand out from the crowd, especially if you’re a teenager. There’s a lot of information out there on how to deal with bullying, but a lot of it is contradictory or seems like it won’t work…

But this guidebook is different! Helping you sort fact from fiction, the book looks at the different forms bullying can take and debunks commonly held myths such as ‘bullying makes you stronger’ and ‘ignore it and it will stop’.

You’ll learn techniques to clear your mind so that you can respond to bullying situations calmly and confidently and be positive about who you are.

Finally, it’s packed with self-empowering strategies for coping with being autistic in a neurotypical world, and practical tips so you can handle any bullying scenario.

Emily is a psychologist whose doctoral thesis was on appearance and bullying, and on strategies to manage bullying. Being only recently diagnosed as autistic means she writes from experience and with insight on how feeling — as well as looking — different can affect how others treat you; and as a professional she’s well positioned to advise on how to cope positively to that treatment.

She previously authored Help! I’m Being Bullied (Accent Press 2006) which sold out its print run. She tweets and blogs as The Bullying Doctor — a passive aggressive title foisted on her, I should add!

Published by Jessica Kingsley
ISBN 978 1 78775 213 9
eISBN 978 1 78775 214 6

Published at £12.99 in the UK, it’s available from all good outlets such as indie bookshops (eg Book-ish, Crickhowell at http://www.book-ish.co.uk) so do support them at this difficult time, especially if they take online orders.*


* If you order from Book-ish you could ask for a signed copy with a personal message from Emily

A quixotic quest

Tianjin (Tientsin) old city

Charles G Finney:
The Magician Out of Manchuria
Panther Books 1976 (1968)

A comic fantasy not quite like any other, The Magician Out of Manchuria is part satire, part quest story, part picaresque novella and part fantasy, but constantly shifts ground to keep the reader guessing. Ostensibly it is about a Manchurian sorcerer who, with his apprentice chela and donkey Ng Gk, is intent on escaping an encroaching materialism in China, sometime in a legendary past. Already we can see that the author is mixing names and terms from different cultures: for example, chela is a Hindi word for a disciple.

But already, within the first couple of pages, we’re in medias res, for descending to the seashore the magician is easily constrained to rescue from fishing nets the lifeless body of a naked woman, not of a particularly pleasing visage as it happens (an incident portrayed rather lasciviously if not quite accurately the cover of this edition).

The said magician, unnamed like his chela, not only brings her back to life but by his art renders her beautiful. His motivation arises from the fact that he realises she is the infamous Lustful Queen of La, bumped off by the evil warlord Khan Ali Bok, and he decides that this is the perfect excuse to return northward — so the Queen can get her revenge and he can restore magic to the land. And so begins the quest by three unnamed humans (each known only by their status) and a named donkey (which only knows that its status is lowly).

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Open and shut case?

L D Lapinski:
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Orion Children’s Books 2020

Felicity Hudson may only be twelve, but a family house move from a city to a village, combined with the scary prospect of a new school after the summer, means Flick has to grab chances to explore whenever she can. And what she comes across wandering down a Victorian arcade is a shabby shopfront:

Beside the church, leaning drunkenly into the alleyway, was a tiny, squashed-looking shop with a big bay window [which] looked the same as the other shops on the street: old, unpopular, rather unloved, and as though it might have a bit of a weird smell.

This is the travel agency of the title. And a very odd travel agency it is with, unsurprisingly, a clue in its name. But first of all Flick has to cross the threshold, after which the things will never be the same. Is it fate that has driven her here?

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Calan Gaeaf

Farmhouse in the Preseli Hills

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider has been the subject of a conversation the inestimable Nick Swarbrick and I have been having on his blog and here over a number of weeks, and now we’re approaching the end with the final two questions we’ve each set ourselves to answer.

Briefly, the novel concerns young Gwyn Griffiths who has been given five gifts for his ninth birthday, four years to the day when his sister Bethan left their Welsh hill farm and disappeared in a snowstorm. The five objects — a mutilated model of a horse, a piece of seaweed, a musical pipe, a scarf, and a broach — exert an ancient magic when ‘offered’ to the wind, put in train by Gwyn’s innate talent inherited from his legendary ancestor Gwydion.

My intention is to end this series of posts with a review before I tackle the remaining two instalments of Nimmo’s trilogy, but for now we’re both looking at the novel’s Welsh contexts in an attempt to appreciate what makes The Snow Spider different from other fantasies written for children.

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The 1903 Delhi Durbar

Delhi Durbar, 1903

It’s about time for another visit to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and this time there’ll be just one painting for my virtual viewing: The State Entry into Delhi, also known as The Delhi Durbar of 1903.

Painted in 1907 by the British-born American artist Roderick Dempster MacKenzie (1865–1941) it’s a mammoth canvas, 2.9 metres by 3.7 metres (nine and a half feet by twelve). Protected by reflecting glass I found it impossible to get a clear overall shot as it was marginally obscured by pillars supporting a balcony above, but I was at least able to get in close to observe details. (The original version in Delhi is even larger: 3.3 metres by 5, or eleven feet by seventeen.)

It’s a controversial painting these days, of course, with its explicit imperialist and colonialist messages. And, rightly, the museum last year had placed it opposite Devolved Parliament, Banksy’s 2009 satire of Britain’s archaic parliamentarianism, with adult chimpanzees taking the place of the honourable members: both canvases, each separated by a century, had been curated to encourage questioning about traditional attitudes and their relationship with evolving values in the 21st century.

Here I want to look at a few details of Mackenzie’s work and discuss its artistic merits within a broader context.

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Books in the time of coronavirus

Phil Shaw’s Shelf Isolation 2

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis many of us have resorted to fiction for consolation, distraction and information.

Myself, I have generally avoided harrowing dystopian tales, inventive novels about conspiracies, and books about personal tragedies — there’s enough of all this in real life which I can access through print, social and broadcast media.

Instead I have gone for more optimistic fiction, whatever ends in what Tolkien dubbed eucatastrophe, the upbeat ending, instead of the catastrophic conclusions where hearts hang heavy and melancholy pertains.

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Spines tingled, funny bones tickled

Penny dreadful of Spring-heeled Jack

Philip Pullman:
Spring-heeled Jack
Illustrated by David Mostyn
Puffin 2018 (1989)

From 1837 onwards reports began circulating in London of a terrifying devilish figure who terrorised women: sporting horns he breathed fire and leapt superhuman heights and distances. As is the way with urban legends there were several sightings with conflicting descriptions, even sensationalised accounts in penny dreadfuls, but nobody ever convincingly explained the phenomenon.

In due course Philip Pullman took this enigmatic figure and turned Spring-heeled Jack from a legendary molester to a cartoon crimefighter:

In Victorian times, before Superman and Batman had been heard of, there was another hero who used to go around rescuing people and catching criminals.

With the aid of a sidekick, cartoonist extraordinaire David Mostyn, Pullman tells the story of how Jack comes to the aid of a trio of orphans escaping the nefarious attentions of the orphanage superintendent, his assistant, and Mack the Knife and his gang.

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Hic et ubique

Moon's far side: NASA Apollo 16
Moon’s far side: NASA Apollo 16

Philip K Dick: Ubik
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2000 (1969)

Caveat emptor!

My worry with Ubik was that, as with the metaphor of the onion from Peer Gynt, I would peel away its several layers to find either that there was nothing in the centre or, worse, that I’d discarded its essence along the way. Even after waiting some while, years in fact, after first reading it — to let its ideas marinate, as it were — I find I’m only a little closer to even a vague understanding of its subject matter.

The confusion partly arises from the way Dick places his characters in a complex plot governed by wandering timelines, resulting in altered realities and alternate pasts and futures. His characters are malleable too, so that while nondescript novels might offer us easily identifiable heroes and villains, Ubik‘s characters can present themselves as morally ambiguous.

One way to approach Dick’s conundrum is to consider his appropriation of Elizabethan texts, particularly Shakespeare, in novels such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Time Out of Joint. Here the title Ubik hints at Hamlet referring to the ubiquity of the Ghost, his father: “Hic et ubique? ” he laughs, ‘here and everywhere’? Hamlet might well prove a possible entry to Dick’s textual labyrinth, but I glimpse other portals too.

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A magical landscape

Foel Cwm Cerwyn, Mynyddoedd y Preseli

Over a few posts Nick Swarbrick and I have been discussing the first instalment of Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, The Snow Spider. Nick began with a fine piece entitled Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis and I followed with Motifs, emotions and myth. Next I discussed Loss in the novel to which Nick responded with
Need Called Knowledge Out, an analysis concerning young magic-users coming into their powers.

We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.

We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!

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From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)

I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.

However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.

But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.

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