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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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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Of shreds and patches

Table Mountain or Crug Hywel hillfort, Crickhowell, Wales

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

At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.

On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.

The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.


I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,

A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…

Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.

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A fictive Principality

Somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Continuing the theme of Reading Wales during March, this Dewithon post focuses on a selection of Principality-related fiction that I’ve reviewed over the years.

To make it marginally more manageable I’ve deliberately excluded the following categories:

  • Non-fiction titles (obvs) like Roald Dahl’s Boy
  • Fiction that’s set in a non-specific area of what could be the Welsh Marches, as with Jill Rowan’s cross-genre novel The Legacy, being neither Wales nor England (I covered an aspect of this in a previous post, ‘At the margins’, though I might return to this theme at some stage)
  • Reviews and related posts about Wales concerned with works by Tolkien and Joan Aiken (as I’ve already gone on and on and on at length about them)

The titles cross a surprising number of genres: fantasy, speculative fiction, police procedural, historical, alternate history and supernatural horror. Feel free to explore the links to the reviews—or not, as the case may be!

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Primitive catastrophe

Bryn Hall, Llanymawddwy, Gwynedd (image credit: © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Alan Garner: The Owl Service
Postscript by the author
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (1967)

“Possessive parents rarely live long enough to see the fruits of their selfishness.”
— 1965 quote from Radio Times used as an epitaph for The Owl Service

We often unconsciously live our lives according to a script, seeing ourselves acting out a tragedy or a quest, a journey or overcoming major obstacles, human or otherwise. Sometimes those scripts follow a fairytale trope, such as the arc of the Cinderella story. More rarely do we mirror an ancient myth, but in The Owl Service that’s exactly what Gwyn, Alison and Roger do, aided and abetted by the mysterious Huw.

The three youngsters, unwittingly at first, take the parts of Gronw, Blodeuwedd and Lleu from the Mabinogion tale of Math, the son of Mathonwy, but even when they become aware of the parallels they seem almost powerless to avoid a descent into darkness. And yet this is not just a simple updating of a medieval plot for modern times: the author also offers insights into psychology, family dynamics and social mobility, all contained within a strong sense of place, in North Wales.

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Death and the maiden

Nine Bawden: Carrie’s War
Introduction by Michael Morpurgo
Virago Modern Classics 2017 (1973)

Guilt is a terrible thing. And when it’s brought about by such a tenuous belief as sympathetic magic, the sense of culpability can overwhelm—even when there may be no actual cause-and-effect involved between an act and what happens subsequently. Such is the case with Carrie when, as an adult, she revisits the South Wales mining community where she was evacuated during the Second World War and where she has to confront fears engendered thirty years before.

As with many child evacuees Carrie and her younger brother Nick are separated from her widowed mother, sent to the Valleys while their mother relocates to Scotland for the war’s duration. They stay with the odious Mr Evans and his anxious sister Aunty Lou in a bleak mining village (based on Blaengarw, north of Bridgend, which is where the author was herself evacuated to). Nothing they do seems to ingratiate themselves with the self-righteous bullying Mr Evans, who rules his little domain with spite and parsimony.

Luckily there are altogether more friendly people to leaven their existence: Albert Sandwich, another evacuee who lodges with Norfolk-born Hepzibah Green and the child-like Mister Johnny, whom Nick instantly befriends. These all live outside the village at an old farmhouse called Druid’s Bottom, just within sight of the railway line; it’s the home of the now widowed Mrs Gotobed, estranged sister of Mr Evans.

And so the scene is set for the inevitable misunderstandings, conflicts and possible tragedy, as seen through the eyes of the twelve-year-old, and as remembered by her adult self.

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Ifor y Peiriant … who?

Daniel Postgate: Cenhadaeth Nadolig — Bluebell
An Ivor the Engine Story
Pictures by Peter Firmin
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad 2009

Grown-up British children of a certain age will surely remember Ivor the Engine, a stop-motion 2D animated series created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin sixty years ago, in 1959. While primitive by today’s standards—originally black-and-white before becoming colour, and very jerky—that was all part of its charm, along with its slow gentle narratives and quirky deadpan narration. Accompanying picture books and annuals meant one could keep the enjoyment going, reading them to younger children (as I did with our kids, for example with The Dragon).

Fifty years after its first appearance and a year after the death of Oliver Postgate his son Daniel revived the series’ characters for this one-off picture book in aid of veterinary charity SPANA, with versions in both English and Welsh. With a very rudimentary knowledge of the language and memories of the original TV broadcasts I’ve struggled through the Welsh version at leisure, but with pleasure too.

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A real page-turner

M R Hall: The Coroner
Pan Books 2013 (2009)

When one woman has to contend not only with conspiracy, obfuscation and corruption in high places but also antagonism and intimidation from colleagues and opponents alike, you would think that it’s too much for one individual to manage. If you add in personal difficulties arising from divorce and psychiatric problems stretching out of childhood trauma you can be sure the odds are stacked against her.

And yet this is what Jenny Cooper, the newly appointed coroner to the fictional Severn Vale Dictrict in Bristol, has to face when she discovers that the suspicious deaths of two young offenders have not apparently been properly investigated by her deceased predecessor.

You might think that the flawed individual trying to right wrongs is a cliché in crime fiction, and you’d be right; but in this instance the conflicts Jenny has with both inner demons and corporate villains are entirely believable and gripping. The Coroner emerges, for all its 400-plus pages, as a real page-turner.

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Bookish town

Today, 7th March 2019, is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland: “The main aim of World Book Day in the UK and Ireland is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own.”

This post has a twofold purpose: to mark World Book Day and, as part of Dewithon — the Wales Readathon — to celebrate the contribution of Book-ish bookshop in Crickhowell‘s High Street to the literary life of Wales. As a resident I’m quite happy to blow the trumpet and bang the drum for this small market town!

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A classic in the making

Catherine Fisher: The Clockwork Crow
Firefly Press 2018

Catherine Fisher’s children’s fantasy has many of those wonderful spooky Victorian and steampunk tropes parcelled up in one package: an orphan, mist-wreathed railway platforms, a tall dark stranger, a mysterious mansion with a fierce housekeeper, a talking automaton, a blizzard at Christmas and the ever-present threat of a dangerous fairy realm. Orphan Seren Rhys is travelling by train to Wales from London to be adopted by, she hopes, kindly relatives; instead she finds a depleted household with a dark secret history, a household in which she is treated with suspicion and hedged by injunctions.

And it all starts with a clockwork crow delivered all in bits and wrapped up with newspaper.

The mansion at Trefil is called Plas-y-Fran (Welsh for Crow or Raven Court), highly appropriate as the corvid family is associated with the supernatural as well as death. Seren (her name means ‘star’ in Welsh) is dismayed to find that Captain Arthur Jones, Lady Mair his wife, and their young son Tomos are nowhere in evidence, only the grumpy Mrs Villiers and the factotum Denzil in a building where everything is covered in dust sheets.

Left to her own devices she has few options: to read her favourite books, to put together the mechanical crow she has been left with in a station waiting room, and to explore the mansion—including the attic room she has been forbidden to look at.

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In like a lion

Tomorrow sees the meteorological first day of spring with the arrival of March, a month which itself begins with St David’s Day.

For the next 31 days I shall be joining in the Wales Readathon (aka Dewithon19) by reading and reviewing books with a Welsh slant, right through to the end of the month; and you can do so too by going to Paula Bardell-Hedley’s Dewithon HQ page at Book Jotter, where you will find many bookish hints relating to Welsh literature.

This blog’s post will also focus on two great fantasy writers who left us in past March months, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, in the event now known as March Magics.

This was inaugurated by Kristen Meston at WeBeReading back in 2012 as DWJ March, to celebrate Diana’s legacy the year after her death, before morphing to include Sir Terry’s work after he died in March 2015.

As Kristen writes, it gives us an excuse to read our favourite DWJ and STP titles, “to pick up the books from these authors that never get old, the ones that we’ve read dozens of times already but plan to read at least a dozen more times.”

Kristen’s outline schedule is:

Saturday, 9th March — Discussion for Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men
Saturday, 23rd March — Discussion for Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle

Finally, Cathy Brown of 746books, co-host with The Fluff is Raging‘s Niall, has been successfully running Reading Ireland Month (St Patrick’s Day is March 17th) for some years now: it’s also known as Begorrathon. I hadn’t got round to joining in before but this year I hope to start in a small way.

The schedule runs thusly:

25th February–3rd March – Contemporary Irish Novels
4th–10th March – Classic Irish Novels
11th–17th March – Irish Short Story Collections
18th–24th March – Irish Non-Fiction
25th–31st March – Miscellaneous (Drama, Poetry, Film etc)

If you’re joining in on social media with any or all of these events don’t forget to use the following hashtags:

  • #dewithon19 (or #WalesReadathon)
  • #MarchMagics (or #DWJMarch)
  • and #Begorrathon19 (or #readingirelandmonth19)

to share how you’re participating.

As I shall too!

“In like a lion, out like a lamb.”

— Proverb about the weather for March. Or it may be about astrology. Or possibly something else. Maybe reading? Yes, it’s about reading!

Credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

Middle Earth and Mid Wales

Detail of Pigot & Co.’s New Map of England & Wales […] &c.: Wales in 1830


As part of my anticipation of March’s Wales Readathon (or Dewithon) this post revisits and expands a little on an idea I first posited in the post Parallel lines — the possible connections between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the alternate Wales of Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain was first published in 1968, based on research she’d conducted in Brecon public library, undertaken (I’m assuming) the year before. Coincidentally 1968 was also the year that the authorised one-volume UK edition of The Lord of the Rings was issued, which I personally remember purchasing that autumn as a student (and avidly reading when I should have been studying).

LOTR of course was originally published between 1954 and 1955, and I fancy that Joan Aiken, just in her thirties, would have been familiar with the three-volume hardback edition before she embarked on the so-called prequel to the Wolves Chronicles, The Whispering Mountain. Why do I suggest this, in the absence of any written evidence that I’m aware of? Just consider the following coincidences.

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Reading about Wales

As I’ve previously posted here, Paula Bardell-Hedley of Book Jotter is introducing the first Wales Readathon, Dewithon19 for the month of March. The first day of March is of course the feast day of Wales’ patron St David, also familiarly known as Dewi. With just one month to go, I’ve been giving thought to how I shall approach the readathon.

Firstly, I’ve been drawing up a list of books to consider reading (and subsequently review); this include titles by Welsh authors and books set in or about Wales and about Welsh culture. Here is my initial shortlist, though I may add to or remove some of these works:

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Both real and magical

Newgale beach, Pembrokeshire

Cath Barton: The Plankton Collector
New Welsh Rarebyte 2018

Winner of a New Welsh Writing Award for 2017 in the novella category, The Plankton Collector is one of those dreamlike pieces that at odd moments rises unbidden to the surface of this reader’s thoughts like a bubble from unknown depths. To describe it as magic realism is not the whole story, yet the narrative does in fact drift like a leaf on a pond from one magical moment to another before catching on the rocks of reality, the reality of authentic lives lived with pain and sorrow and maybe, ultimately, hope.

We begin at the seaside with a beautiful piece of nature writing, as lyrical, say, as anything Charles Kingsley wrote in Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Here we meet the Plankton Collector himself, a shapeshifter who sifts sand and shells for living creatures, ultimately to show them how they might fit into the mysterious patterns of existence.

Lest the prologue, all told in the historic present, should appear too airy-fairy we may note that it is titled ‘In the Beginning’—as with Genesis we shall find that all is not perfect in the garden, that there’s a worm in the bud which will upset a family’s idyll for some time to come. The novella gropes towards a resolution that at times seems just out of our grasp.

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