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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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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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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The Island of the Mighty

Harlech Castle: Four Square to All the Winds That Blow (1898) by Henry Clarence White (National Museum of Wales)

W J Gruffydd:
Folklore and Myth in The Mabinogion
University of Wales Press 1958

This slim booklet (with a little under 30 pages of text) reproduces a lecture given at the National Museum of Wales in 1950. However, despite a slightly misleading title discussion ranges a little more widely than it implies: it doesn’t deal exclusively with the several native Welsh tales in the collection commonly called the Mabinogion, nor is it limited to folklore and myth — fairytale is also involved (sometimes argued as a subgenre of folklore, other times as distinct), and literature too of course, the texts having come to us in written form with evidence of substantial editing.

In fact, a large part of the lecture is taken up with discussion of the nature of fairies in Welsh traditions; but I’m leaping ahead, as poet and academic William John Gruffydd begins with an attempt at defining what ‘folklore’ actually is.

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A ‘novel’ novel

rocks
West Wales beach, looking west towards a mythical Gwales (personal photo)

Review first published 19th February 2015, then reposted 21st October when Tim Burton’s film of the same name was on general release. Reappearing again as part of Dewithon19, this is the last of my reposts of reviews for this event.


Ransom Riggs:
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Quirk Books 2013 (2011)

There is a technique storytellers use whereby cues — words, phrases, scenes, characters suggested by audience members — are randomly inserted into an improvised narrative. Italo Calvino built up his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies upon a sequence of Tarot cards, using the images to suggest not only a possible narrative but also to link to other classic narratives. These processes are similar to the ways in which Ransom Riggs constructs 16-year-old Jacob Portman’s journey from suburban Florida to a wet and windy island off the coast of Wales. Authentic ‘found’ vintage photographs of sometimes strange individuals placed in enigmatic positions or curious scenarios — these are the bones on which the author constructs his fantasy of children (with, shall we say, unusual talents) and the dangers they potentially face. For the reader the inclusion of these photos at appropriate points in the text is not only an added bonus but an integral and highly effective facet of the tale.

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