Dismal days

Turning of the year also marks my birthday, and yes, it is a bloody rubbish time of year to have a birthday as everyone you know is busy with their own Hogmanay stuff, so it gets largely forgotten, even when it is one of those tedious “landmark” birthdays when you hit some supposedly socially important age. Quite why it is important, I have no idea, and given that, as usual on my birthday, I spent most of it on my own, it doesn’t exactly feel special, in fact it feels like a waste of bloody time, an event more likely to make me feel depressed and isolated than inspire celebration.

And yes, there are people with far more pressing problems than that, I know, but it still does little for one’s sense of self or self-worth or mental health, quite the reverse. What a bloody rubbish day. Birthdays, I wash my hands of you, especially “landmark” ages (Ohh, that’s a special age, you must be doing something big to celebrate!)  Yeah, right. What? With whom?). It also really doesn’t help when someone tells you to “pull yourself together” or “others have it worse, what’s your problem”. That really doesn’t help when someone is in a depression spiral, in fact you make them feel worse with that well-meant but idiotic nonsense, instead you make them feel even lower – they’re right, I’m pathetic, I don’t even deserve to feel included or happy, no wonder I am like this, I deserve to be like this. And so on, the black spiral feeds itself, you turn in on yourself and see nothing but mistakes and wrong and it is very hard to pull yourself out of it, in fact you often then attack yourself thinking how pathetic you are to be so lost like this, everything feeds the black dog.

Time for some self pity cake, which of course I had to buy for myself and eat by myself. Wow, birthdays are such fun!

Festive lights

Charlotte Square, the elegant Georgian space in the West End of Edinburgh’s historic New Town. Over summer this is the home of the largest literary bash on the planet, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which I love going along to and indeed have been fortunate enough to take part in for quite a few years. At this time of year though it is back to being private gardens for those who reside in this very wealthy square, save for this lovely Christmas tree. It’s actually a “memorial” tree – you can donate to have a light in the name of a loved one to help Saint Columba’s Hospice, so you can light a light for a departed loved one and help a good cause at the same time, a lovely idea:

Light up a Life

Register House in the East End of the New Town is being used as a giant Advent Calendar this year, the Advent windows being projected onto the building are alternated with all sorts of animations and images and music. It’s rather wonderful to just see as you are walking home from work on a winter’s night:

Register House at Christmas 01

This blue and white, dome-shaped light installation is at the western end of George Street, lighting up the area – it’s large, covering the whole of a junction space in the temporarily closed road, so you can walk under and around it:

Christmas lights, George Street 01

Christmas lights, George Street 02

Tombstone shadows

Walking through historic Greyfriars kirkyard recently, the winter sun now very, very low in the sky. Clear but freezing day, low angle of sun creating a lovely, soft, golden light quality and casting long, long shadows, such as here where it stretched long shadows from the old tombstones out across the kirkyard.

low sun and long shadows in the old boneyard

Normally it’s not good practise to point the camera lens towards the sun, but I needed an angle looking in that direction to get these shadow strips into frame as I wanted, so I simply moved around a little until from my perspective the sun was blocked by a tree trunk just enough that I could get the shot without flaring out the image. Some days you get lucky…

Hellboy: Kramupsnacht

Hellboy: Krampusnacht,

Mike Mignola, Adam Hughes,

Dark Horse

Now here’s a very timely seasonal treat for all the good readers (the bad ones aren’t allowed, they’re on a list and it has been checked twice): Hellboy in Krampusnacht. Actually this is a double treat as it sees HB’s creator Mike Mignola teaming up with superstar writer Adam Hughes (and I’m guessing Adam was most likely delighted to get to play in the Hellboy sandpit). The long winter nights are ideal for spook stories, and there is a long tradition of a ghost story around Christmas – just the other evening my long running SF book group enjoyed some classic M R James ghost stories for our final meeting of the year, in dark, wintry Edinburgh. And here we not only have a nice spook tale for a dark, winter night, but one with a distinctively Christmas theme but, thankfully, not the type of festive theme that lays on the sugar and heartstrings, no this is one more suited for us, thank you.

Krampus himself is an ancient piece of folklore, in latter centuries associated more as a dark partner of Saint Nicholas, but while jolly old Nick delivers presents to the good girls and boys and non-binary children of the world, Krampus punishes the wicked. As is often the case with such folklore, the origins stretch far further back, and more than likely the modern version of the last couple of centuries lifts from several earlier, pre-Christian fokloric versions. In the modern day Krampus has become better known in the Anglophone world, becoming something of a pop-cultural figure in horror and fantasy circles as a nice antidote to the artificial sweetness of much of Christmas, but his roots are much more steeped in that Mittel-Europa culture (the same that has been home to all sorts of wonderful mythic archetypes, from the vampire to the Baba Yaga), and this offering from Mike and Adam draws on that background.

It’s 1975, and Hellboy is making his way slowly through a deeply snow-filled forest in rural Austria, when the ghost of a woman appears, and begs him to save her little boy, before vanishing, leaving only an old-fashioned, carved wooden child’s toy in the snow. Pushing further through the icy forest he sees the lights of a lonely house and on approaching, the inhabitant, an elderly man, opens the door and hails him by name – he is expected, won’t he come in for some food and drink and warm himself by the fire? Naturally it is not what it appears – the old, genial man had previously made an appearance in a local church, causing a supernatural incident, specifically to draw Hellboy’s attention, for he has something he wishes to get off his chest, and a favour to ask, something only Hellboy can do.

And I’m not going to risk spoiling this for you by going any further on the story front. But I will say I enjoyed the hell out of this, no pun intended. As you’d expect from Mignola, the story is littered with references to folklore and myth, from the mysterious, solitary house in the woods, the dangers of the dark forest, through the dead offering advice and help, to the Krampus figure himself. There are shades of Dracula too as “Herr Schulze” invites Hellboy into his lonely, isolated dwelling to take food and drink; I almost expected him to say “Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring…” Unlike the Count, however, Schulze does drink wine…

Hughes’ art creates a lovely contrast between the icy blue-white winter forest and the warm, yellow glow of the candle and fire-lit home, and you can almost imagine knocking the snow off your shoes before stepping inside. That contrast is also carried over to a lovely vingette back at the BPRD with his adoptive father and Liz, by a roaring fire, hot drink to hand and Christmas tree in the corner, again standing against the cold, blue of the winter forest (a scene which, intentionally I imagine, recalls the like of James telling his yuletide ghost stories to friends in his college chambers), with great use of colour here to convey mood and atmosphere almost as much as the art itself does. Hughes also does a grand job of deploying his own fine style but ensuring it visually fits with that iconic Mignola Hellboy imagery, which is not the easiest balance to strike, but he does so admirably.

A lovely little seasonal one-off Hellboy gift to readers – do yourself a favour, take half an hour out of the frentic festive frenzy, treat yourself to a copy of Kramupsnacht and a hot chocolate or a nice mulled wine, and sit back (preferably at night, by the fire) and enjoy a good read.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

After dark at the festive market

festive market at night 016

It’s dark by half past three now, but the festive market brings light and noise and scents and life to the winter nights, with people browsing, eating, drinking, the aromas of mulled wine and hot cider and cooking food, and the bustle of excited people. It’s also a happy hunting ground for me to take some people-watching shots after dark:

festive market at night 015

(look at the size of those frying pans!!! Handles the size of baseball bats!)

festive market at night 014

festive market at night 012

festive market at night 09

festive market at night 010

festive market at night 08

festive market at night 06

festive market at night 05

festive market at night 07

festive market at night 06

festive market at night 05

festive market at night 04

Who betrayed who? Judas #1

Judas #1,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom Studios

Performing my normal early-morning perusal of the new titles at the start of New Comic Book Day, this one jumped out at me, something a bit different from most of the other four colour delights on offer this week. Judas is a character I have found fascinating since being forced to sit through excrutiatingly boring Bible classes on a Sunday as a child. I always found the simplistic portrayal of Judas taught in those classes to be very limited – they were, unsurprisingly for those kinds of indoctrination groups (because that’s what they really were, as far as I could see) it was presented in simple black and white, good and bad lines.

This always seemed to me to be skipping serious questions around the supposed greatest betrayal in human culture: was Judas just selfish and evil, and that is why he betrayed his friend (and saviour)? If he was evil then why on Earth did Jesus ask him to become one of his disciples? Or was it his plan all along to use Judas to betray him because he needed a sacrifice, even of himself (and how many tales of various gods involve some kind of sacrifice, deities, it seems, just cannot get enough of those) and here was the perfect man to use, his very own patsy, his own Oswald? If so that’s hardly the actions of a decent, moral person, is it?

Or was it that Judas knew this had to happen and only he could do it, knowing he would be damned for it, but he did it for the greater good, off his own bat or because his friend told him there was no other way, it had to thus and only he could do it? There are many complex moral and philosophical questions around that kiss, the thirty pieces of silver, that betrayal. And if all that happens is God’s will then presumably the betrayal was always ordained, and so poor Judas was a marked man from before he was born (and does that mean he is responsible for his actions then?). Indeed some gnsotic texts – beyond the pale to mainstream religious authorities – hail Judas for setting in motion what had to happen for human salvation.

Where the teacher in Sunday School was reluctant to engage, I have found over the years that many others have had similar thoughts, and the character of Judas has been explored many times in fiction, those complexities of the nature of morality, responsibility and destiny (free will or are we all following a pre-ordained script) and more have been fertile grounds for compelling drama, so it’s hardly surprising storytellers would pick up on it, from novels by Amos Oz or Tosca Lee, to the film Dracula 2000, which wove the myth into the vampire tapestry. Only a couple of years ago W Maxwell Prince and John Amor gave us the interesting Judas: the Last Days, which I found fascinating – review here. Loveness and Rebelka’s take, certainly in this first issue, continues that tradition of mining the motivations and actions of Judas Iscariot for some exceptionally compelling human drama.

That infamous betrayal is handled economically but efficiently and powerfully within the first few pages – this is a well-known story, and both writer and artist know they need only call forth a few specific scenes, such as the bag of silver coins, the leaning in for that kiss to mark out Jesus, the carrying of the cross by the scourged Christ, then the suicide by hanging of a bereft Judas, and those are sufficient to conjure forth the story in the mind of the reader. It’s a lovely bit of efficient and yet powerful storytelling by Loveness and Rebelka, and those few panels have real power, even to a non-believer like me (because this ancient story is a powerful one, regardless of faith or lack thereof, its human aspects make it endlessly compelling). Especially that single panel of the kiss, only half of the faces visible, below the eyeline, the intimacy and the betrayal so close they are interwoven, the colours muted, save for hints of bright red highlights that hint at the blood to be spilled.

No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

By only the third page we have seen the kiss, the betrayal, the thirty pieces of silver and the sad, lonely suicide, dangling from a solitary tree as a blood-red sunset stains the evening and night falls. And then Judas opens his eyes to find himself elsewhere, somewhere dismal, horrible – the Pit. Where else would the great betrayer go but Hell, of course? But does he truly deserve to be there? As he starts to walk through this nightmare landscape and the damned souls and the demonic entities that reside there to torment them, his dialogue continues and we see flashes back to his life on Earth, before meeting Jesus, and then also as a disciple.

And he asks the questions many would ask? He believes in his Lord, but if he can truly heal the sick, why are so many ill? If he can feed the hungry why do so many starve? If he can raise the dead, why then do we endure the immense pain of losing our loved ones? And if he was his friend and the source of all forgiveness, couldn’t he forgive Judas? But as Judas recalls the overpowering call from his very first encountered with Jesus, of hearing that voice calling him forth, he also recalls another voice, one which sowed doubts, that told him to question, which would lead him to this path in life and the hereafter and even now, in Hell, he can hear that voice still…

This is a hugely thoughtful and compelling piece of storytelling, and beautifully handled by both writer and artist here. There are some lovely touches too – in a lot of early Christian art (and indeed still common in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church art), the disciples and saints are often depicted with their golden halo (usually like a bright, golden disc behind their heads), and here Judas too has such a symbol behind his head, but his is jet-black instead of the glittering gold of a saint, a small detail, but a very telling and clever one, or little changes in lettering by Bell (Jesus’s lettering in red, seems to infer a voice different to normal ones, a voice that cannot be ignored, that compels, reminiscent of Jesse Custer in the Preacher comics). One of the more unusual comics of the year, and one which not only spins a good narrative, but which will leave you arguing with yourself over morality, the nature of free will and more questions that have been asked for eternity and which we rarely can answer completely.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Curios of the Paper Moon

The Curios of the Paper Moon,

Kat Hall,

One Little Apple

Kat Hall’s charming fantasy The Curios of Paper Moon is available as a regularly updated webcomic, but I must confess I hadn’t come across it (more interesting webcomics out there than there is time to browse them all!), before chatting to her at the recent Edinburgh Comic Art Festival. While we were nattering at her stall I was having a browse of a collected print edition of the series, and my initial impression made me want to buy it right away, which is usually a good sign.

Having had a wee chance to sit down and read it now, I am once more glad I listened to my instincts and picked it up, as this was just a lovely, lovely read, the sort of one that charmed me and left me smiling. The print version includes both the Prologue, which sets up the basics of what you need to know about Kat’s fantasy world of Little Garden, and the first chapter of the webcomic, which delivers a decent, self-contained story, the pair of them combining to give you a tale which you can take on its own, but more likely will leave you interested in reading more.

In this world there are treasures, monsters and dungeons, and treasure hunters like Clair who enjoy questing for them – for financial gain, either on behalf of a client, or to claim the treasure for their own. Clair, who between adventures has her own small store, also has a bit of an advantage on these quests as in addition to her formidable treasure hunter knowledge and skills she is also a witch. When she comes across the diminutive form of young Marina, the young woman persuades her to help find her friend, Barrett who unwisely ventured into a dungeon himself, seeking a special treasure. Clair isn’t indifferent, but she’s no charity case either, and agrees to help, for a fee.

I’m not going into too much detail on the quest here, because it would be a shame to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there are some elements you’d expect – and indeed, want – in a dungeon quest: the experienced, confident leader, the younger sidekick who has to learn fast (but is better than they think), surprises and twists, some very lovely tea cups (well, even a dungeon questor need to sit down and have a cuppa now and then). And, oh boy, some fabulous dungeon locations – not just the dark, dank caverns under the earth, but terrific fantasy architecture, bridges over chasms, Kat embraces the fantasy element to let her visual imagination indulge itself, and why the heck not? I mean if you can’t indulge yourself with wonderful visuals in a fantasy tale, where can you?? And that also includes some cracking fantasy creatures to encounter (yes, including dragons, I mean come on, you can’t have a proper dungeon quest and no dragon, can you? Just not the done thing!).

You can follow Curios of Paper Moon online as a webcomic, but it’s far more satisfying to have the print version, so I’d highly recommend picking it up (it also means you give some money to the creator, which is always a good thing). It’s utterly charming and delightful, the art manga-tinged but not too much, and nicely coloured (giving depth and feel to the fantasy world without going over the top), with some lovely visuals, and a story which functions as a good, standalone tale but also as an introduction to this world and characters, hints at paths to follow further and histories as yet undiscovered, and a nice little bit of world-building (including nice touches like what look like magical talismans but which on closer inspection also seem to be a sort of phone and social media device too). Still smiling just thinking about this comics…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: climbing the tower – Senlin Ascends

Senlin Ascends,

Josiah Bancroft,

Orbit Books

Sometimes I’m waiting eagerly for a new book by an author I admire, always a happy moment. And then some other times a book from an author you haven’t encountered before arrives on your desk, and you have an even happier moment of a new literary journey, a walk onto a new area of the fantasy map you’ve not explored before. And for me that was the case here when an advance copy of Senlin Ascends appeared in the Blogcave; the first in the “Books of Babel”. That caught my attention, the name of that great structure – real? Mythical? More likely a fusion of later myth overlaid over some actual historical root like one of the great ziggurats of the ancient world. Babel. The tower to the heavens, a combination of humanity’s ambition, ingenuity and unbridled hubris, it’s a symbol that has cast a long shadow over human storytelling for centuries, there is something irresistible about it, and when a writer has a new angle on this ancient symbol it’s always going to be intriguing. My bookselling Spidey-sense was tingling, and it rarely points me wrong.

Meet Thomas Senlin, headmaster of a small coastal town, until recently a bachelor and a rather upright chap, something of a fuddy duddy, perhaps, and a man who is, as you’d expect for a teacher, well-educated. At least in terms of what he has read, but he is about to learn that the wider world doesn’t always conform to what you may have read, no matter how eminent the source book supposedly is. And Senlin has surprised his local village by finally taking not just a wife, but Marya, not only a very beautiful lady, but one with an impish and playful, adventurous  streak, almost the polar opposite of the fairly austere Senlin. And yet Marya has seen something in Senlin the other villagers never suspected, and she has awoken something in him. And for their honeymoon Marya and Senlin have taken the train to the Tower of Babel, the famous site he has told his students all about in school, but never visited.

The base  of the vast Tower is surrounded by the huge and teeming market, which right away pitches our newly weds into an exotic casserole of merchants from all over the world and goods from every corner, bustling, vibrant, overwhelming to a couple from a small, distant town, especially to Senlin, while Marya, resplendent in her new bright-red Pith helmet (so he can always spot her in a busy crowd, she tells him with a smile) seems to revel in it all.  A wonderful wife, a honeymoon in an astonishing location he’s dreamed of, what could go wrong? Well, of course things do go wrong, I mean there wouldn’t be much drama if they just had a nice holiday and went home with some postcards. There are little warning signs – Senlin, from his history and guide books, expects a land of wonders, cultured, the pinnacle of civilisation, and instead their first impressions are more like a wild and disreputable souk, the sort of place where you tread carefully and watch your belongings. Or your wife…

Because just like that, a few pages in, barely arrived at their destination – in fact not even in the Tower itself yet – Marya vanishes. And this teeming place seems to have no real authority, no police to turn to (there are some security types, but most are thugs posing in uniform to take advantage of the unwary). When he realises he has lost her he searches, but the market surrounds the base of the Tower, so it is massive, and he has no chance. Eventually Senlin concludes all he can do is proceed up the Tower to the Baths, two levels up, where they intended to stay at one of the hotels – Marya is a capable and independent woman, chances are after realising she may never locate him in the busy market she’s decided to go there already and wait for him.

This is, of course, assuming she is merely lost. But soon Senlin starts to hear stories from others that they too have lost loved ones, and in fact the base of the Tower – the Skirts – is festooned with notes from those desperately seeking missing family members, a scene with disturbing similarities to those posters placed around the 9-11 site as people urgently tried to find what happened to their loved ones. Senlin, a man who lives a very conventional, straightforward life is totally unprepared for  the world he is about to enter when he first moves into the Tower, and into the Basement. Each level of the Tower is a world unto itself, each different, but related, each stage is a “ringdom”, and like any good quest, any hero’s journey, Senlin will need to traverse each of them and meet their individual challenges.

(a glimpse into the lower levels of the Tower of Babel, borrowed from the Books of Babel site)

Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what.

And I’m not going any further into this narrative because I don’t want to risk spoilers – this is a journey, literally and metaphorically, and the reader needs to undertake those discoveries and challenges as much as Senlin does. The idea of the “ringdoms” is a great one, allowing for totally different worlds within worlds, and many different scenarios to test Senlin. And it also allows Bancroft much scope for some fabulous world-building and some lovely descriptions. It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor.

And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

An engrossing, intoxicating delight – I can’t wait to climb higher…

Senlin Ascends will be published by Orbit Books on January 18th, 2018; check out The Books of Babel site for more glimpses into this fascinating world, and you can read an excerpt from the book here on the Orbit blog.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The blue fortress of winter…

One from my photo archives, taken on this day in 2010, during the very heavy winter and snowfall we had that year, and reposted here to mark 30th November, Saint Andrew’s Day:

Edinburgh Castle, Saint Andrew's Night

I came out of my book group that evening, Edinburgh was covered in snow. And the Castle atop its great rock above the city was illuminated Saltire-blue to mark the day of our nation’s patron saint. The skyline of my gorgeous city is remarkable at any time, but on this winter’s night, the Castle in blue, the city draped in snow, it was magical, and I just stood there in the cold taking it in. These are the sorts of sights you just come across living in Edinburgh, no wonder I love it so much. As I was out at my book group I wasn’t carrying a tripod, I improvised by jamming the camera between railings overlooking the Gardens to steady it, and with so much streetlight being reflected by the snow it was enough to get a clear night shot. I didn’t expect it to come out so clearly, being an improvised shot, but it’s digital so not wasting film, may as well try, because sometimes they don’t work, other times you capture a moment like this forever…

After dark

Had a nice photo walk around The Shore, the Water of Leith and near the Port of Leith recently, around dusk and then night. With the sun setting so early now it’s pretty easy to take some nocturnal shots without having to wander the streets late at night with the camera and tripod. I’m rarely down this part of town so this was a chance to take some night shots of an area I’ve not covered much of with the camera. Good, long walk, took a bunch of pics, got some exercise but man, damnably cold – okay when you are walking about, but very chilly when standing still to take a long exposure shot.

This is Commercial Quay at “blue hour” (when it’s dark but there is still a slight bit of pale light in the sky from the now vanished sun, one of my favourite times for taking night shots. This was a long series of old warehouse buildings – you can still see the attachment at the top floors for the pulley to lift up loads) for the nearby docks at Leith. They were very run down for a long time, but have, like the waterfront areas in many formerly industrial or commercial areas in many cities, been regenerated, which is preferable to tearing down those fine, old stone buildings, and it’s now a busy area of bars, cafes and restaurants:

Commercial Quay, winter night 01

Commercial Quay, winter night 03

Nearby is Teuchter’s Landing, which is the same company that has Teuchter’s in the West End of the New Town, which is slightly pricey but still a favourite pub of mine (also dog friendly, which is handy if I am meeting my chum and his hounds). This one is right on the waterfront, where the Water of Leith starts to meet the Port of Leith, and then the mighty Firth of Forth. In fact the back of the pub not only sits over the edge of a spur off the river by the docks, it even has its own floating outside beer garden moored on the water! Although understandably nobody was using it on a cold evening in November (although a couple of smokers were sitting outside the front of the pub, heavily wrapped up.

Teuchters Landing at night 01

Teuchters Landing at night 03

It wasn’t quite full dark as I walked back over to the Water of Leith, although it was darker than it appears here where the camera sat drinking in much more light on a long exposure. This is down at the very end of the Water of Leith, which winds its way through the city (it runs near my flat and offers a “countryside” walk to the National Gallery of Modern Art rather than walking through town) and eventually makes it down to Leith and the busy Shore area of bars and restaurants. This is by the Malmaison, and after this spot is just the old swing bridge and then it opens into the actual docks.

The Shore, winter night 02

Only a few moments walk later and by now, even though it was probably only about half past five, it was fully dark, allowing for some nice reflections of the lights and buildings in the now dark waters. For some reason this part of town often reminds me of parts of Belgium and the Netherlands:

The Shore, winter night 03

The Shore, winter night 010

The Shore, winter night 09

The Shore, winter night 06

The Shore, winter night 07

And this is Mimi’s Bakehouse, a family-run cafe, where I thawed out with some really nice hot chocolate and a delicious raspberry Nutella cake:

The Shore, winter night 011

Music of the spheres

Michael Hann in the Guardian considers the Sonar electronic music festival in Barcelona marking its twenty-fifth anniversary by beaming music segments to a star some twelve light years distant. He then goes on to ruminate on humans taking music into space, from Gemini astronauts in the 60s playing a mouth organ to Chris Hadfield playing music in the International Space Station. And, of course, the famous golden discs on the two Voyager probes, now moving faster than any human-made objects in history, out of our solar system (in fact one has now passed the boundary which marks the edge of our solar system, and is the first human craft in interstellar space).

And his thoughts on this? He thinks it is mostly hubris that drove the science team to include these musical representations of human culture on these probes, on records that could, theoretically, last until long after the Earth itself is gone and the sun burned dim (unless it is found by intelligent aliens and played). Those discs could, in fact, one distant day be all that remains of human culture in the far, far future, preserved forever in the cold of deep space, with music and sounds and languages from around the globe and across the centuries.

That wasn’t hubris. It was something far, far better: it was hope, it was optimism, it was reaching out for a hoped-for better future for an expanded humanity and perhaps, just perhaps, a shared future with who knows what other new friends we might find out there. Who hopefully dig our music. An infinitesimally small chance of ever being found, a message in a bottle on a cosmic ocean; probably never be found or played or even if it is, understood. But it could be, it’s improbably, not impossible. No, not hubris: hope. And wonder. And joy. Far too easy to be cynical and critical, as this journalist has been, at such artistic and cultural reaching out beyond. We need to look with better eyes than that.

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog