Hazy sunset

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Crossing North Bridge recently, very hazy day – haar in the morning had almost hidden the summit of Arthur’s Seat and turned the Castle into a faint pencil on tracing paper outline, but the spring sunshine came out and burned it away. Then as dusk fell the mist returned off the Forth and along with some wispy clouds gave us this incredible diffused sunset turning the sky orange, pink, purple and copper, silhouetting the Castle, the spires and old buildings of Edinburgh. Only lasted a few precious moments, utterly ephemeral and yet so beautiful, stopped me and many others in our tracks, just pausing the commute home from work to drink in this magical scene. Things like this can just happen in this remarkable city, it’s another reason why I love living here.

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Reviews: Thor, Goddess of Thunder

Thor, the Goddess of Thunder Volume 1

Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina

Marvel

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Following the events of Original Sin, Thor has been badly affected – since Nick Fury whispered a secret into his ear, a secret stolen from the Watcher, Thor has not been the same man (or god). Mjolnir, his famous hammer, lies on the surface of the Moon and no-one, not even Thor, can pick it up. The hammer decides who is worthy, and it seems the Odinson is no longer worthy to wield it with the power of Thor. Broken, devastated, he has little idea of what to do, and matters are further complicated with  the return of his father, Odin, who now assumes that his wife Freyja and the council will simply roll over and return control to his arrogant hands as if he had never been away.

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And then as the Asgardians are both weakened and in a demoralised, confused, divided state, a horrible, vicious attack by Frost Giants takes place on Earth, on a deep sea research based owned by the villainous billionaire Roxxon, with much slaughter. Odin shows no interest in defending Midgard. Thor finally snaps from his torpor by his now off-limits hammer, arms himself with a favourite axe instead and mounts his ram to fly into battle. But without Mjolnir he lacks so much of his power, and his added bitterness and anger has unbalanced him. The Frost Giants are being lead by an ally, a scheming Dark Elf who wants something Roxxon has, and who is perfectly aware of the turmoil in Asgard and that Thor no longer wields the hammer. And Thor is no match for him – he loses, and he loses badly, defeated and his bodily badly mutilated. Others try to lift the hammer – including the incredibly arrogant Odin – but none can. And then a slim woman, features concealed by a silver helmet, steps forward after the rest have gone. And she picks up Mjolnir… A hero is always needed, and if the Odinson has been judged unworthy of Mjolnir, then another must step forward to take his place, the hammer lifted, the lightning unleashed.

There must always be a Thor.

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This new Thor has little time to try and come to terms with the vast power of Thor that Mjolnir imbues her with (she even finds herself speaking like Thor, “thees” and “thous”) – how does she even use it to fly? Oh yes, she’s seen Thor do that twirl it around then throw and zooommm. Hel, yes, that works! And it’s fun! Fortunately Mjolnir’s relationship with her seems to be almost symbiotic; this is no mere tool or weapon, the enchantment which allows it to judge who is worthy also seems to work with the new Thor, guiding her, helping her, it wants to help her, wants her to succeed, to be the best hero she can be. And as she arrives at the scene of the Frost Giant invasion she will need all the help she can get, literally thrown in at the deep end into a huge fight against the odds deep under the ocean. And then a partly recovered Odinson, dragged back to Asgard for treatment after his defeat, turns up. And he is not amused that someone else wears the mantle of Thor. Who is this unknown usurper? Now she has a Dark Elf, Frost Giants and and embittered, furious Odinson to deal with. Hel of a first day…

Aaron and Dauterman (with Jorge Molina on art duties for the final part) deliver one of the best Thor story arcs for ages here, giving us not one but two very powerful women who have to use their power and influence while navigating a very male-centric world, both the new female Thor and also Freyja, queen of Asgard. Often wiser and a better ruler than her arrogant husband, and also more understanding of the new Thor. The All-Father sees a thief and usurper – despite the fact Mjolnir chose her and rejected him – but Freyja sees nobility and honour in this new Thor, of a woman who has stepped up because if the Odinson can no longer be the heroic Thor then someone must be. Because Thor is needed. It’s pure, selfless heroism. And to Dauterman and Molina’s credit even when powered up by Mjolnir the new Thor doesn’t suddenly become some ridiculously proportioned uber-Amazonian caricature, she remains the same, slim woman (thank you for not going down the six foot legs, gravity-defying bosom and revealing costume route, this shows far more respect for the character and what she will need to undergo to be worthy of the mantle).

It’s a steep learning curve for this new Thor – she has to learn to control her new powers, to wield Mjolnir effectively (although the hammer seems happy to help her – in fact it does things in battle it never did even for the old Thor, much to his amazement, helping him to start realising that perhaps this woman is no thief but is truly worthy to hold it). She has Frost Giants to deal with, Dark Elves plotting with more clearly threatening to erupt on both Midgard (Earth) and Asgard at any moment. And she has to somehow convince the Odinson that she is not his enemy or an usurper. And then there are the everyday battles a superhero has to fight, including a wonderfully drawn and scripted fight with the Absorbing Man and his other half, Titania. And as well as fighting supervillains she has to fight his condescending, macho, misogynistic attitude too:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.

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And the female Thor rather satisfyingly beats the living tar out of this chauvinist pig, using Mjolnir in a way he has never seen, making him gasp, “what kind of Thor are you?” And as she punches him in the face she replies “the kind who just broke your jaw!” while in a thought bubble we can see her also thinking “that’s for saying “feminist” like it’s a four letter word, creep.” Titania arrives to bail out her defeated husband, but decides this one time she won’t fight. Call it a superwoman to superwoman nod of respect for the sorts of attitudes they have to face. It’s a wonderful scene an it’s not hard to detect in it a rebuke, not just to sexist attitudes in general and those extra hurdles many women are forced to jump to be successful (like life isn’t plain hard enough already for anyone), but also to the well-known problem of sexism in the comics industry, among publishers, creators and some readers. More than a few male readers howled, outraged at the idea of a female Thor, as if it somehow emasculated them. Goodness knows what they’d make of the actual Norse Sagas where Thor has to dress up as a blushing bride at one point!

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The identity of this new Thor isn’t revealed till a later volume, but it is someone we know well from the Marvel Universe and it is taking a huge toll on her, and yet she will keep doing it because in her innermost core of being she is a hero, and that hero is needed. It’s pure Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces stuff, mining the very nature of what makes a hero, the trials, the ordeals, the sacrifices, male or female, and as such it fits the mythic-rich  idea of Thor perfectly, while the gender issues and the politicking in Asgard add more layers (often inter-related layers – would Odin be so outraged if a male hero had been chosen by Mjolnir?), upping the interest and hinting at more to come. I won’t spoil things by revealing who the new Thor is – I’m sure some of you have heard already, but for those coming fresh to this new chapter in Thor’s life I’d rather let you find out at the pace the creators decided. Solid superhero action, strong female characters, slowly building larger story arc in the background, cracking artwork, shining heroism, mythic heroism and as bonus dealing with gender issues in a positive way, this is one of the best Marvel superhero tales going right now.

Reviews: Ancestral Fire

Ancestral Machines,

Michael Cobley,

Orbit Books

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(Ancestral Machines cover artwork by Steve Stone)

A few years ago Mike Cobley moved from his popular fantasy series to science fiction, with his hugely enjoyable Humanity’s Fire trilogy, centred around a lost colony world (settled mostly by Scots and Norwegian colonists) being rediscovered, only to be brought into the middle of galactic politics and power-plays they didn’t even know existed until contact with the Earthsphere was re-established. Over the course of the trilogy Mike gleefully indulged himself in some fine world-building, both on his lost colony planet and then a wider galactic canvas. Ancestral Machines is set in the same universe as Humanity’s Fire, but it is a standalone novel, and while those of us who enjoyed the heck out of the original trilogy will welcome this return to that setting, I think it establishes itself and its setting so well that you can still enjoy this even if you haven’t read the trilogy (and you will probably find afterwards you will want to seek those out!).

Brannan Pyke is a pleasingly irascible scoundrel from Cobley’s Scots-Norwegian colony world, now master of the Scarbarus, with a motley collection of crewmembers from various worlds, taking on legal and, well, slightly less above board jobs to make ends meet, now that their world is connected into that larger universe again. There’s more than a hint of Joss Whedon’s much-loved (and cut far too damned short) Firefly here, I was thinking as I read it, then found Mike actually referencing Firefly in his afterword. There are other influences visible here, notably from fellow Scots-based SF writers like Ken MacLeod and the late Iain M Banks, and readers who have enjoyed those authors will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say this is slavishly following those other creators, Mike’s too good for that, he takes his influences but the characters, setting and compelling narrative are very much his style.

After a shady deal goes wrong Pyke and his crew wake up in their de-powered ship, their partners having left them to die and make it look like an accident with power and life support. Understandably angry they try to pursue the double-crossing former partners, little knowing that a smuggling deal gone wrong is about to lead them straight into a situation they could never have imagined, and a desperate struggle, as they are dragged into the Warcage, an unbelievably vast series of worlds, all connected by ancient technology, around an artificial star, travelling into our galaxy, built by creators so ancient and distant that even the AIs of the Construct, who monitor the galaxy from various tiers of hyperspace, had thought this travelling group of worlds to be a myth. Originally conceived as a utopia, creating harmony, it was long ago usurped by those who saw it as a tool for power; instead of harmony between various worlds now the various races all train in martial arts, competing in regular deadly tournaments to keep their skills sharp (and to ensure they are always going to have grudges against the other species, therefore unlikely to combine to take control).

All of this is overseen by a group of five cold, violent, loathsome beings, the Gun-Lords, so called because they are a hybrid of an organic host with a quasi-organic-machine parasite, which also includes a sentient weapon arm on the host body. These vicious beings took control of those harmonious worlds and turned them into the dreadful Warcage, and now it’s moving towards out part of the galaxy. The Construct and Earthsphere Intelligence are concerned and plan a covert mission to investigate, little knowing the human Pyke and his crew have already been drawn into this struggle and that their paths will cross.

This is an absolute cracker of a space opera, fast-paced despite being over 400 pages, with both the personal level – Pyke and his crewmates desperately trying to save themselves and also being inexorably drawn into a greater struggle – and the large scale (entire planets destroyed, the misuse of power and how tyrants craft their vile states and hold onto power through a mix of lies and violence, an origin going back millennia), the larger scale exciting the imagination, the personal scale keeping it nicely relatable, which characters we genuinely care about.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Spring sunset

Edinburgh this evening:

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Actually shot from top of double decker bus as it stopped on North Bridge (which connects Old Town and the Georgian-era New Town, giving some great views over the city as it does so). Normally you’re not meant to shoot pointing the lens straight into the sun or any other light source, it flares everything out and causes light streaks, lines and blobs, but I pressed the lens up against the window (to minimise reflections) and took it anyway, the colours were too nice, and besides I kind of like the light blobs and lines that resulted. Now gone from sun having set just a little before I leave work to now setting just after I leave, slowly nudging into spring and longer, lighter hours.

The great stone spine of the land

Out at the weekend with dad, visiting Field of Bannockburn, the memorial to the incredibly pivotal battle which secured Scottish independence against the violent Plantagenet tyranny spreading across the British Isles, and changing the way the history of these islands would play out. The sun came out from behind the clouds and in the distance, looking towards Callendar we could see this magnificent site:

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Where the already impressive hills of Scotland start to rise into majestic mountains, still covered in winter snow but now basking in early spring sunshine, glittering and shining, gateway to the Highlands, the great stone spine of Caledonia and a reminder that our Scotland boasts the most beautiful scenery in the whole of the British Isles.

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City at dusk

Still dark by the time I leave work now, but only just, reached that time of year where there is still that glimmer of light in the western horizon for a few brief moments after the winter sunset. Walking down Cockburn Street, which curves steeply down from the Royal Mile to connect Old Town to the New Town, trying out the new camera’s low light mode (handheld, no tripod) and got this:

Cockburn Street, dusk

And crossing North Bridge last night, again sun not long dipped below the horizon, giving this view westwards across Edinburgh, the great Gothic rocket of the Scott Monument silhouetted on the skyline:

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Nocturnal reflections

Walking home from work this week, huge, long puddle by modern offices of major company, water turned into dark mirror by the fall of night, nicely reflecting the buildings around it. No tripod since I was coming from work, didn’t think it would actually come out freehand at night, but the new camera has a lot more low light sensitivity than the previous one so sometimes I can get lucky with handheld night shots. Funny how something as mundane as a rainy puddle can become interesting in a pic…

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Reviews: Tim Powers returns with Medusa’s Web

Medusa’s Web,

Tim Powers,

Corvus Books

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Tim Powers has been one of my favourite authors for many years – I tend to have a tottering tower of books and graphic novels waiting to be read at any one time, but Tim is one of the authors I will shove everything else in the queue out of the way for. Ever since the remarkable Anubis Gates back in the early 1980s I’ve been addicted to his work, which frequently takes real historic events and characters then slips them in and around the fictional characters, not contradicting the established histories of real people he uses, rather taking areas where there are gaps in their lives or parts we simply have no knowledge of, and then using those as an area where he can spin story elements, be it the Romantic poets in Anubis Gates or the spies and counter-spies like Burgess in the Cold War era Declare or the spirits of Edison and Houdini in Expiration Date. It makes for an intoxicating, immersive read, and the historic details leave you wanting to go and seek out some books on those people and periods to learn more (always a sign of a good book, I think, one that inspires you to want to read several more books).

Madeline and Scott Madden are sister and brother, living in Los Angeles, orphans, their mother and father having vanished in mysterious circumstances when they were young, leaving them always wondering what happened and why their parents just left without a word, never tried to contact their children again. Growing up somewhat damaged, they were raised by their Aunt Amity, alongside their cousins,  Ariel (who seems to harbour some grudge against Scott for reasons he doesn’t understand) and reclusive, wheelchair-bound Claimayne in her sprawling old mansion, Caveat (and with a name like that you already know this isn’t going to be a happy family home…). His aunt had been a writer for decades, although in later years her books had gone out of fashion, and the estate and house is rather run down, permeated with that faded glamour of long-gone better days. Once it was almost rural, a large house and estate with small guest cottages that were often rented out to Hollywood starlets back in the earliest days of the movies, but these days LA’s great sprawl means it is surrounded by dense neighbourhoods and the nearby log-jam of the eternally blocked LA Freeway.

After their aunt’s death (by a bizarre supposed suicide method that I will leave you to discover for yourself) they are summoned to Caveat, their first return in many years to the odd home where they grew up, a home with connections to the Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s, even having a corridor lined with doors salvaged from old Hollywood homes of famous people (they’re just doors, of course, fixed to the wall but opening onto nothing, just decorative architectural salvage. Or are they? Somehow you suspect there may be more to them than that…). Apparently their aunt had changed her will just before her death, leaving Caveat to them rather than her son Claimayne or Ariel, who both still live there and are, understandably, not happy about this state of affairs, although none of them, including Scott and Madeline, expect the will to be upheld when challenged as the nature of her suicide would indicate their aunt was clearly mentally unbalanced when she changed the will.

Or was she? Did she have an ulterior motive for changing the will? Is it a slight against her son? Sudden late affection for her troubled wards? Or did she have some plan which involves Scott and Madeline, something they have no knowledge of, a plan designed to work even in the event of her death? And where do the “spiders” fit into this? Strange patterns of lines which went glimpsed send the viewer into a strange state, as if different dimensions are crossing one another, and also connecting different parts of time together during a trance-like state. What did their aunt use them for? Why has she left some for them to discover, why do Claimayne and Ariel use them almost like a drug and who are the people in a shadowy, secret underworld of spider-users and what is their interest in all of this? Scott and Madeline seem increasingly to have been maneuvered into multiple labyrinths, some of which they aren’t even aware of, can’t even see, closing around them, while others are planning and stalking around them with purposes they can’t even guess at yet.

It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, each new, hard-won revelation illuminating fragments of this multiple-level conspiracy, but also offering more questions. Who is out for what and who means ill to Scott and Madeline is frequently hard to tell, Powers refuses to spoon-feed the reader with simple answers, but instead teases us into walking the labyrinth with the character. The spider viewing open up connection to other people and times – Caveat doesn’t just have many historical links to early Hollywood, in some ways it is still connected to it, and those connections are not just one way…

Early Hollywood history leaks into the present (as history so often does), and real historic characters like Rudolph Valentino (arguably the first great star of Hollywood) are tangled with the modern day characters, while closer to the present the family history of Scott and Madeline, their missing parents and aunt are all woven into the narrative, making it a century-long mystery and linked conspiracy, full of rich historical details and how that past shapes the present still as well as a satisfyingly emotional family history tale, arrived at through a wonderfully confusing and intoxicating puzzle across history, time and dimensions. The modern day story arc is compelling, while the historic elements pushing their way into the present are rich and evocative.

This post was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

A day at the beach…

Look, an actual day when it wasn’t howling a gale with the rain coming down horizontally!

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And it was also very mild, temperature-wise, in fact too mild for me to wear my winter coat, had to slip to something lighter. Such a weird winter, we’ve had endless storms of high winds and driving rains then spells where the temperature has risen so much we’ve seen daffodils starting to poke out of the soil (even in December!) and petals appearing on the cherry blossom trees, then back to winter chills and gales again.

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But this day was dry (it even brightened up a little later too) and fairly warm for a January day, and since that coincided with a weekend lots of folks hit Portobello beach and Promenade (lots of kids wobbling around on new skates or bikes they obviously got at Christmas but have had little chance to play on because of the lousy weather). Also gave me a chance to play with the new camera (lousy weather means I’ve had little chance since I got it, especially during the sort daylight hours), still getting used to it.

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I wasn’t the only one taking photos of course!

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While others were lost in thought

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And some just happy to sit down by the sea and relax…

relaxed

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And there’s always coffee and snacks from the Little Green Van to perk you up on your Promenade strolling

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(as ever click the pics for the larger versions on my Flickr)

Step aside, Pops! More from the wonderful Kate Beaton

Step Aside, Pops! A Hark! A Vagrant Collection,

Kate Beaton,

Jonathan Cape (UK), Drawn & Quarterly (Canada/US)

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Oh, where to start with this wonderful collection… Those of you who read our blog will have already seen us praise Canadian creator Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant work over the years – as well as a previous collection, Kate generously posts a huge amount of her work online for all to read, and we’ve absolutely loved it. It’s mostly short-form cartoon strips, just a few panels (although she also does quite a few linked together in a series), but Kate packs an enormous amount into her short strips, she’s a tremendously skilled comicker. I don’t just mean in the technical sense of her ability to draw (although her artwork alone frequently cracks me up – just the cover alone for this book had me smiling hugely, I so want that on a T-shirt), but in the way she can use just a few, short panels so damned cleverly. It’s far too easy to have a good giggle and them move on without thinking too much about the effort that went into those four panels, but with a lot of Kate’s work they lodge in your brain and leave you thinking about them long afterwards, they’re not just funny, they’re funny-clever, and that tickles me just right.

Kate’s subjects range all over the place on her site and here in this collection too. There are strips drawn from worries and incidents in real life, or modern concerns (several linked strips see parents having to chase bizarre militant scary feminists from their children’s bedroom like some strange modern fairy tale creatures), others draw on popular culture, like her take on famous comics characters – in a series on Lois Lane she pokes fun at the way the whole Lois-Clark Kent-Superman relationship has been depicted over the years. As Kate adds in her footnote “don’t give me those comics where Lois is a wet blanket who can’t figure out the man beside her is Superman. If Lois isn’t kicking ass, taking names and winning ten Pulitzer Prizes an issues, I don’t even want to know.” Following this comment with a strip which shows Clark Kent in full nudge-nudge, wink-wink mode:

Lois, I have a secret.”

Clark, I don’t have time.”

Lois, it’s a big secret.

Well, I have a secret too. Psst, come here…”

YOU. ARE IN. MY GODDAMNED WAY.”

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It’s not just the final gag, it’s the whole short build-up, her art showing Clark so pumped up with a sense of himself he’s radiating smugness and is too clueless to pick up on Lois’ body language which is clearly saying if he doesn’t stop hassling her, she’ll stick a lump of Kryptonite where the sun doesn’t shine… Or a bystander asks Wonder Woman why she isn’t chasing a bad guy who is running away, “Girl, I’m wearing a strapless bathing suit and high heel boots, what would you do?” And then there’s her pretty prickly persona for Wonder Woman…

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A running theme with Kate’s work, for which she’s rightly become both loved and respected, are her delightful – not to mention frequently damned clever – strips which riff on classic literature or on historical figures. Sometimes it can be a very well-known historical figure, such as her series of “Founding Fathers in a Mall”, some loving this modern shopping experience while others like George Washington go and sit on a bench, despondent and complaining this is worse than Valley Forge… Sometimes it can be a historical figure new to you – one I hadn’t heard of before was Doctor Sara Josephine Baker (known to her friends and patients as “Doctor Jo”), a pioneer and campaigner in hygiene and in children’s health, Kate poking fun at the way some things we take for granted today weren’t known back in the day, so we get the lady telling her that her baby is sick. Doctor Jo looks, takes the child and rights him, commenting “you baby is upside down” in a perfectly timed piece. I’m impressed that Kate also got a couple of strips in on Catalonian inventor Monturiol and his remarkable early submarine, a historical curiosity I’ve always found fascinating but few folk seem to have heard of, so I was cheered to see her covering him and his amazing machine in this collection.

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Classic literature proves a rich and fertile seam for Kate’s pen and wicked sense of humour – the Brontes being a particularly happy hunting ground (“Next time on Wuthering Heights – no-one is lonely in a graveyard” complete with raving mad Heathcliff clutching Cathy’s bones). Or in another Byron and Shelley discuss their dreams, Shelley being sure a dream of a naked child rising from the seas was a portent of his death by drowning, Byron more interested in hey, when you say kid, you mean like who cares or more like eighteen and naked, as he pervs away oblivious to Shelley’s worries. “You know, I don’t like it when they call us pariahs,” adds Shelley. “Yes you do,” replies Byron… Or Pride and Prejudice gets reworked but this time with a whole “house full of Mulders”. Yes, our favourite “I want to believe” FBI man, but lots of him, all catching the eyes of the ladies at the local ball (except for “Miss Scully” who is less than impressed). Some old Broadsides woodcut images from the Bodleian Library’s online collection also prove great starting points for Kate to go off on her own tangent (one classic one ruminating on mortality shows a woodcut of three skeletons, leading into Kate’s strip where one complains about their expressions: “ok, so we’re skeletons, but do we have to be sad skeletons?”).

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Ultimately it’s hard to really get over in words just how effectively these strips work, you really have to read them for yourselves to get the full effect, from the artwork and the brilliant expressions Kate gives so many of her characters (I was frequently in kinks of laughter just from the art and expressions alone) and the beautifully observed timing of the frames of each strip (and so much of comedy relies on that innate good timing). And while we all enjoy a good laugh at a decent “gag strip”, there is so much more going on in the world of Hark! A Vagrant – the literary references for some strips are knowing but not elitist, anyone can get them (and they show a love for the original books while still poking fun), the historical strips are funny but also rely on actual knowledge, which just makes them both funny and also clever, the asides on everyday life and pop culture are well-observed (and frequently make a quiet point that will linger in the mind afterwards, more effectively than any amount of soap-boxing might have done).

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The amount of laughter this generated between me and colleagues all demanding to know what I was laughing at, only to be reduced to guffaws themselves when they looked… It’s a real pleasure to read so much of Kate’s work in one big hit like this, it’s truly smile-inducing work. If you’ve already encountered Kate Beaton’s work then you’re probably already ordering this; if you haven’t then go check her Hark! A Vagrant online and I’m sure you’ll soon be wanting to give her money by purchasing her books too.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

City built on books

Reading today that the vast knowledge the great consulting detective Mister Sherlock Holmes displayed was due largely to his Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attending classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens in his teens. One hundred and forty year old records show a young Conan Doyle’s signature for attending his classes, where he would have learned about a number of interesting plants, including the deadly Belladonna, which would prove very useful several years later when he began writing the Sherlock Holmes tales, along with the already very well-known inspiration for Holmes himself which Doyle had in the shape of the remarkable Edinburgh lecturer Doctor Joseph Bell.

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This is one of the things I most love about living here in Edinburgh – not just the very long, rich history, not just the culture (like having the largest arts festival in the world), the amazing architecture, perched in turn on top of even more astonishing geology (giving Edinburgh a skyline like no other and wonderful walking opportunities along streets which curve down and up, and around), it’s the books: this is a city built on literature as much as its geology. Books are everywhere here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious form of bookstores or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (again largest in the world), it’s the way so many corners of this old city are deeply tied to authors and writing, from Robert Burns, Hume and Scott, Stevenson and Doyle to publishers like Chambers with their great reference works.

Robert Burns on the Mile

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Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today you can still see Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle’s childhood homes, drink in pubs they visited… And it goes on, from the mid 20th century “poet’s pub” in Milnes, where rhymers and bards got together (the Portrait Gallery here has the wonderful painting of them all together in the pub, for where else should a Scots bard be?) to the cafes where a struggling single mother was writing what would become the Harry Potter novels which so galvanised the reading habits of millions of children (and adults!) or a drink in the Oxford Bar where Ian Rankin’s bestselling Inspector Rebus enjoys a jar or three, and indeed it is not unknown to bump into contemporary Edinburgh authors when out patronising one of our city’s many fine drinking establishments, enjoying a small refreshment. It’s a book-lover’s city.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

2015 in pictures

Having a week look back through my Flickr stream and decided to pick out some of my favourites from the photographs I shot during 2015. No theme here (other than being roughly chronological from January through to December), not the ones which got the most views on Flickr or anything like that, or even technically the best shots, just the ones I was most pleased with capturing through my lens last year.

This old, crumbling cemetery is St Machan’s, complete with ruined church, nestling at the foot of the Campsie Hills by Campsie Glen, and it looked especially atmospheric in the snow and that blue light quality we get on some winter’s days:

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Out for a walk after dark back in January with the tripod, taking some night shots of the city – for some reason while I shot buildings and other scenes it was this simple shot of an enclosed lane which runs along the side of the Assembly Rooms, something about the angle, the lights and shadows, all screamed for a black and white shot:

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From the same winter photo walk, I’ve long meant to bag a pic of this shop, an antiques and pawnbrokers, I think, on a corner in the New Town on Queen Street, with these very distinctive eagle sculptures along the top, and as I was passing by with the tripod I thought now was the time…

Duncanson & Edwards at night

This was an improvised night shot on the walk home from work – no tripod since I was coming from work, so I set the timer for a long exposure and rested the camera on top of one of the small metal bollards along the Union Canal used for tying up barges, which seemed to make it steady enough for a long exposure – how cosy do these houseboats look?

floating homes

An afternoon in the local pub, this particular one doesn’t just allow dogs in, they don’t mind them being on the seats (as long as humans don’t need the space), and as we drank my chum’s greyhounds made themselves very comfortable, so I used the timer again and sat the camera on the seat next to them to get this low perspective shot in very low light:

sleeping pub pooches 03

March – should be springtime, but on the way to work as I crossed North Bridge (which strides over the valley the railway station lies in, connecting Old Town and New Town) early on a freezing morning, I saw this view of a snow-dusted Edinburgh Castle and paused to get a quick photo before heading on to work. These are the sorts of views I can get just going to and from work, another reason I love living in Edinburgh…

springtime in Scotland 02

I’ve taken many photos along the East Lothian coast near North Berwick as my chum often drives down there with his dogs for a good walk and I sometimes tag along. No matter how many times I’ve taken the mighty Bass Rock off the coast it’s always tempting to take another as the light and seasons change how it looks. Here though the tide was in, save for a small, flat spit of sand projecting out, and when I took the shot from this perspective it made it look almost as if the people looking towards it were walking on the water:

walking on water

In May dad and I were driving past Chryston and I had noticed a now closed petrol station – not unusual these days, so many have closed down, unable to compete with the ones run by the giant supermarket chains next to their stores. But what was unusual was that everything was still in place – normally the pumps and other equipment are taken away, leaving just the weed-strewn concrete apron behind, but here building and pumps, rusting, some burst open, all still in place, and on a bright day with good light, so we pulled over so I could shoot some images of this abandoned, rusting derelict:

this petrol station is no more, it has ceased to be 07

On the same day dad and I had driven out to Hogganfield Loch, a loch in a large park in Glasgow, which we used to go to a lot when I was a kid (it was very popular for boating and had nearby golf and putting greens), first time in years I had been there. No boating anymore there, but huge amounts of birds:

Hogganfield Loch 09

Out for a walk on a pretty cold spring afternoon in May, taking some pics, and as I passed Peter’s Yard, the Swedish bakery and cafe on Middle Meadow Walk, I paused to take a few “people watching” shots, and caught this rather nice moment between two friends sitting on the outside of the cafe:

sharing coffee outdoor 02

June arrived, Film Festival time for me, and this year the festival had asked me to write up some pieces for their site as they were showing Future Shock, a documentary about 2000 AD, and the comic’s founder and major UK writer Pat Mills was up for the screening to do a Q&A afterwards. I’ve met Pat a few times and he was kind enough to do a signing in our store before the film festival showing, where I snapped this pic:

Pat Mills signing Forbidden Planet Edinburgh 03

Late June and the Canal Festival and annual raft race came along just up the road from my flat. I took a bunch of shots but this was one of my favourite ones, as a band played on the old Leamington Lift Bridge – I think it was the smiles I captured in this shot that made me like it so much, they were clearly enjoying themselves:

music at the Edinburgh Canal Festival 05

Walking along the Union Canal near my flat during the early summer, always swans and ducks around on there, but this day an entire family out, the adult swans and these adorably fluffy-looking wee cygnets:

The Swan Family 02

Tom Gilzean is now in his nineties – despite this, this veteran is regularly seen on Princes Street rattling his cans to collect for charities, he’s raised more than £100k doing this. I’ve always wanted to get a shot of him at “his post”, so to speak, but never managed one, until I was on the way to work, the bus stopped at the lights right next to where he was just setting himself up, so I grabbed the camera from my bag and got this very quick shot through the window from the top deck of the bus before the lights changed and we moved off. Another reason why I always have the camera in my bag – never know who or what may present itself to you for a good pic as you go round town…

Tom Gilzean, charity fundraiser extraordinaire

Festival time and Edinburgh is bursting at the seams with tourists, performers and luvvies, and as usual I try to get as many shots as I can of the performers, who all congregate on the Royal Mile near the Cathedral, in a section of road given over to them during August, some doing excerpts from their shows on small open-air stages, others in costumes, walking up and down the Mile with posters and flyers to drum up interest (with hundreds of shows at the biggest arts fest in the world you need to fight for an audience). I always take a huge amount of shots on this stretch during August, but this performer from the Paperplay puppet theatre was one of my favourites, just as I was taking pics of her and some of her colleagues she turned just as I zoomed in a bit on her and gave me this smile just as I clicked. Sometimes the photo gods smile on your timing…

Edinburgh Fringe on the Mile 2015 063

Another Fringe performer on the Royal Mile last summer, on one of the small stages on the street, so she was standing a bit higher than me, light was good and I managed to zoom in and get this portrait shot that I was quite pleased with:

Edinburgh Fringe on the Mile 2015 081

More from the Fringe: sci-fi musical spoof Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens has become a regular visitor to the Festival, and I’ve snapped some of them in previous years, but this time they were doing a number from the show on one of the small stages and I caught this moment with one of the actors singing away:

Edinburgh Fringe on the Mile 2015 089

Still on the Royal Mile during Fringe time (well, I said I take a lot of pics in August!) – I still don’t know if this was an actual couple enjoying a sudden romantic moment surrounded by the bustle of Festival-time Edinburgh, or if they were from a show and promoting it (if they were they didn’t have any obvious flyers or promo material with them). I was actually shooting some other performers, looked around, saw them behind me, whipped up the camera thinking dammit, they will have finished before I can get them in frame, zoom in and focus, but no, this clinch went on and on and it gave me the few extra seconds I needed to zoom in and capture this moment. I think this was going to be my favourite pic I took this year, but one I took a couple of months later just beat it (see further down):

ae fond kiss

August also means the Edinburgh International Book Festival and of course I was there, enjoying a number of events as well as chairing a couple of the talks as well. And catching up with fellow book people, such as the fab Sarah McIntyre. This was “backstage” by the Author’s Yurt, Sarah was getting ready for her own event and had just changed into her costume, so I grabbed some photos, including this one with her own badge for her Dinosaur Police:

edinburgh book fest 2015 - Sarah McIntyre 03

Back on the Royal Mile and a pair of very young but very talented ladies who were playing classical music in the street, lovely strong light and after shooting a couple of general pics of them with their instruments I thought I would try to zoom in a bit as I wanted to capture their expressions as they played. It’s not perfect, trying to balance strong sunlight on one side with shadow on the other, and she moved just after I had zoomed in a bit more to get that close up, so it isn’t perfectly framed, but hey, shooting live on the street you grab what pics you get and while technically not a great photo frankly I loved it because it caught her expression of delight as she played her violin in front of a Fringe crowd, and I’ll take capturing a moment over being technically proficient any day of the week:

Edinburgh Fringe on the Mile 2015 0145

This was a pure chance shot – walking along George IV Bridge on a bright summer day, people sitting outside the bars and cafes having a drink and eating, I saw this couple having an animated discussion at their pavement table, sunlight right on them. I was on the opposite side of the street, in the shadow side, aimed camera and zoomed in across the street and had to try and grab a shot before traffic blocked the view, got this little moment:

animated conversation

September and a very warm, bright day – better than much of the summer had been, in fact, and so I went for a photo walk, ending up at one point on a busy Calton Hill, and the autumn light was so nice on the National Monument, and all the young tourists sitting on it in the sun, that I thought I’d try a monochrome shot:

Calton Hill, bright autumn day 03

A couple of comicker chums, Neil Slorance and Colin Bell came to do a signing, I was snapping away when they did this pose just as I clicked another shot:

Neil Slorance & Colin Bell signing Forbidden Planet Edinburgh 02

Late autumn, walking home from work on evening, that wonderful golden light we get on clear autumn days, and the long, long shadows because the sun is so much lower in the sky. I love the light quality here in autumn, it’s warm and golden, like honey on hot toast. This was the last half hour or so of daylight, sun sinking in the west, the east and north sides of the buildings sinking into deep shadows while the west-facing flanks of these tall, old stone buildings radiated that glowing copper light:

autumn evening in Edinburgh 03

Late autumn again, walking through the Meadows, unseasonably warm and again beautiful clear, autumn light, when I happened to just pass this chap making giant soap bubbles, so naturally I stopped for a pic. I love just coming across something like this, brightens the everyday world up a bit…

I'm forever blowing bubbles 03

Dad and I had a great day out visiting the Kelpies, the gigantic sculptures of these creatures from Scottish folklore, rearing up by the Forth & Clyde Canal near Stirling, quite wonderful to see. Would love to get back some time to do some shots of them by night…

Myth made steel 02

Same day out with dad, we had a quick visit to The Pineapple – I think you can see how this 1760s structure for the earls of Dunmore, near the Forth, got its name. It used to contain a hothouse for exotic plants being brought back by the many expeditions round the world at the time, the pineapple being an example of that (common to us now but then a sign of status, wealth and having travelled to far climes), while it looks down into a walled garden, which creates a micro climate allowing plants which would not normally survive the Scottish weather to flourish. The Pineapple roof is hand-carved and very clever – the projecting fronds also channel the water from it so it doesn’t collect and then damage the sculpture in winter by freezing. A wee hidden gem of a place:

The Pineapple 01

Into late October and a scene I have taken numerous times because I often walk home from work this way, straight up the famous Royal Mile. And by the end of October it is just becoming dark as I leave work – in fact the sun has actually set at this point, the streetlights are one, but there is a magical, extended twilight in autumn. I set the timer for a long exposure and sat the camera on top of a traffic bollard to steady it, pointing westwards up the Mile towards the cathedral. I’ve taken this shot several times over the years, but dammit, it’s so wonderful standing there that I just take another one to share anyway… This scene was much darker to my eyes, but I had a long exposure here, so the camera drank in what little light there was to give this brighter image, capturing what photographers call “the blue hour”, that moment when the sun has set but the western horizon still glows blue on a long exposure, only lasts a short time, but it’s wonderful when it does:

Royal Mile, blue hour

Autumn also saw a great visit from the entire Canadian contingent of our clan, including some of the younger kids who we hadn’t seen yet. At one point my uncle and I took some of them to the playpark nearby to let them run around for a wee while, and I took a bunch of pics, this one of one of my cousin’s wee girls became my favourite and probably my fave pic I took all year, just because she was so adorable and after shooting a bunch of her playing I finally got a decent close up before she moved out of frame again:

cousins at play 011

Winter and out for a shorter photo walk with dad, visiting the vast Necropolis, the huge Victorian cemetery on a small hill by the medieval Glasgow Cathedral, an astonishing place, terraced mausoleums going up the steep hillside, many large and ornate memorials, and from the top some splendid views over the city. It is reached from this, the evocatively-named Bridge of Sighs (so called because of the sighs and weeping of mourners accompanying funeral processions across the bridge taking loved ones from the vibrant city of Glasgow into this large city of the dead). An amazing place to visit:

Necropolis 012

Properly into winter and the annual festive market and fair in Princes Street Gardens had just opened, so after work I went on the prowl with the camera to take a few night shots around the market, and I couldn’t resist taking a B&W shot of these metal and glass candle holders on one stall:

glowing white in the night 02

Meanwhile, literally just a few feet from one of the brightly-lit entrances to the festive market, and all the lights, and shops and food stalls and happy browsers, this chap on the street, a reminder that not everyone gets to share in it all:

not all are included in the festive spirit

And once last night shot from the festive market – my new camera had arrived and was supposedly better at low light so I was desperate to try it out, but the weather had been so relentlessly awful, howling gales and driving rain, that most nights weren’t very suitable for a quick photo stroll after work. So when it was actually dry one night I had to go and play with the new camera – still getting used to it (unlike most bridge cameras it has manual focus and zoom options), and several times I could have sworn I had it in focus only to find out when I put them on the computer at home that the pics weren’t right, but that just needs more time getting used to the new picture box. This one came out very clearly though, especially considering it was a handheld shot at night with people moving around. Be fun to see if I can get as much out of the new camera as I did the previous one…

festive market 015