Today, on the eve of the halfway mark for the twenty-eight days of February, I’m already getting excited about March. As well as planning on reading books for the Wales Readathon and Reading Ireland Month I’m hoping to revisit titles by the late Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both of whom left us in this month.
I’m glad to see that Kristen at https://WeBeReading.com is again running March Magics, the annual celebration of these two fantasy writers (who were both West Country authors by adoption, with connections to my hometown Bristol).
Kristen’s introductory post gives an outline plan of the focus of this year’s event, and I’d like to share with you her principal aims and how my response may shape up.
Diana Wynne Jones: Eight Days of Luke Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)
Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.
Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.
After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.
Lloyd Alexander: The Book of Three
Square Fish / Henry Holt and Company 2014 (1964)
I had a hardback copy of this in the late sixties or early seventies and then — foolishly — gave it away; so I was pleased to come across this 50th anniversary edition and to revisit the land of Taran, his friends and adversaries after decades of absence. And though the author specifically says the Land of Prydain “is not Wales — not entirely, at least” my now long term residence in the principality made me even more eager to return to this world.
But first, the story. Young Taran is made an Assistant Pig-Keeper to Coll, his charge being the sow Hen Wen. She is a special creature being as how she’s oracular, but unfortunately she suddenly ups and disappears. Thus Taran sets off without warning in a quest to retrieve Hen Wen, but the task proves increasingly difficult as he stumbles across dastardly plans by dark forces to overcome all that is good in Prydain.
Can Taran forge alliances to combat the coming evil? And if he does will they be up to the struggle? Of course — this being a children’s fantasy — the answers are likely to be yes, but it won’t be easy and things will frequently hang in the balance.
Daniel Morden: Secret Tales from Wales Illustrated by Brett Breckon
Gomer Press 2017
Enough for one,
Too much for two,
Nothing for three.
What is it?
— epigraph to Secret Tales from Wales
I always smile to myself when I see journalistic headlines like The Top Ten Secret Beaches or The Secrets Only Locals Know, because once those details are screamed out at you and tens of thousands other readers, whether in hard copy or online, by definition it’s no longer a secret. They become the Top Ten Best Known Beaches or Famous Local Facts All the World Knows.
So the title of this book doesn’t refer to tales never ever revealed before but to stories about secrets. And the tales are from Wales because the writer is Welsh, not because they are unique to Welsh tradition.
You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.
Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…
I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.