Photography Milestone

This evening’s uploads to my Flickr photo stream saw the Woolamaloo Flickr pass the 24, 000 images mark. Since I first purchased a Pro Flickr account back in 2007 I have uploaded 24, 000 photos and videos to my Flickr, and it has taken some 33.7 million views of those images across those years, which to be honest is pretty damned amazing. Quite a milestone – to mark it I thought I would pick out some photos from 2022 so far:

Spring Day In Princes Street Gardens 03
People watching in Princes Street Gardens, folks enjoying a bright, spring day

Lock Life 06
Water pouring over a lock gate on the Forth and Clyde Canal

Smoke Signals
Sudden burst of warm, spring weather, of course some men will cook up a huge cloud of very stinky BBQ smoke to ensure everyone within a hundred yards is enveloped by it! It’s like an inexorable law of nice weather here…

Snoozing Rowboats 01
Evening light creating some lovely reflections of the old rowboats on the Union Canal at Harrison Park and the surrounding area:

Evening Reflections 03

Barefoot
Barefooting it at Porty Beach

Literary Butterfly 02
Came back from getting myself another pint to find the book I was reading had fanned itself out like this and was being illuminated by a burst of spring light coming in the pub window, of course I had to take a pic.

People Watching On Princes Street 02
Juggling a tote bag on Princes Street

Beginning To Bloom 02
The annual spring miracle as the cherry blossoms beging to bloom again

Falkirk Tunnel 06
The Falkirk tunnel for the Forth and Clyde Canal, finished in 1822, running some 630 metres. In an interesting historical aside, two of the navigators – navvies – who excavated this were Irishmen, Burke and Hare – yes, the later, infamous Resurrection Men and Bodysnatchers of Edinburgh’s Old Town…

Shoreline of Infinity March 2022 035
Krow on stage at the welcome return of the Shoreline of Infinity journal’s Event Horizon evenings in the Pleasance Cabaret Bar; as it was March, the month that includes International Women’s Day, the line up of musicians, performers, poets and writers was entirely female.
Shoreline of Infinity March 2022 015

Shoreline of Infinity March 2022 08

Peaceful Pub
Peaceful afternoon drink and read in Cloisters pub

Nothing Beats A Good Cuppa
Nothing quite like a good cuppa! Street photo of chap enjoying a cuppa in a cafe on the Grassmarket

Sunny Seaside Selfie Smiling By The Shore
Smiling seaside selfie by the sea shore (how’s that for alliteration?)

Daffies 01
Daffies!!!!

Holy Corner At Night 02
Holy Corner at night; improvised night shot, just after work so I didn’t have the tripod, made do with sitting camera on timer mode on top of the button box for the pedestrian crossing to steady it.

Paisley Book Festival - Nicola Sturgeon and Kathleen Jamie 01
First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, chairing a talk with the Scottish Makar, Kathleen Jamie, as the Paisley Book Festival in February, and bestselling Scottish author Denise Mina being interviewed at the festival.
Paisley Book Festival - Denise Mina 02

Wet Night In The New Town 07
Dreich night! Pouring rain on a cold, dark, winter night by the Royal Scottish Academy

Winter Day 04
Wee dusting of snow around Holy Corner

Evening Stroll By The Canal 09
Union Canal towpath at night, Fountainbridge

Evening Stroll By The Canal 03
Dusk on a winter’s evening at the Union Canal, viewed from the old, stone bridge at Viewforth

Six Nations Crowd At Haymarket 02
Stewards guiding the huge crowd coming from Murrayfield stadium after the opening Scotland versus England rugby match of the Six Nations.

Haymarket At Night 03
Haymarket at night

Evening Street 01
Shops and cafes at night, Bruntsfield

As ever click the pics to see the larger versions on my Flickr.

Reviews: The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society,
John Scalzi,
Tor/Macmillan,
Hardback, 272 pages, published March 2022

Jamie (whose gender is never explicitly mentioned) has put up with corporate nonsense and an entitled trust-fund owner of the tech start-up they are working at, to try and get ahead, only to find themselves laid off, right as the Covid nightmare is manifesting and Lockdown beckons. The only job they can find is delivering food during the Lockdown, and in a bitter irony for a company that her former tech company did the software for. Depressing as this is, it does lead to the happy accident of delivering to someone – Tom – who turns out to be someone they vaguely know, a friend of a friend sort of thing. And on hearing of Jamie’s recent employment woes, Tom reveals the animal protection charity he works for has been left short-handed at the last minute and he’d much rather have someone he knows if he can manage it.

Tom can’t tell her the full details, it is all very secretive, but it involves working with “large animals”, Jamie’s work would mostly be grunt work of helping move stuff and help out the science and tech teams, and the remuneration package is superb. Grabbing this offer, Jamie is soon given numerous shots for various diseases – including an early form of the Covid vaccine, not yet out to the public – and bundled off with a team of returning staff and some other new recruits to an airbase in Greenland.

The destination seems puzzling – what large animals are they working with here? But Greenland is just a way-point – from here they take a special portal, one of just a handful secreted around the globe, to, well, Earth. Except this is a parallel Earth, one where giant monsters, the eponymous Kaiju – are the dominant species. It transpires there are indeed numerous parallel worlds to our reality, but this is the only one we’ve been able to access, and only since the Atomic Age: nuclear energy, especially large-scale explosions, thins the walls between the worlds for a while. In fact one 1950s A-bomb test in the Pacific brought over a Kaiju looking for a radioactive snack, only to encounter the US Navy (yes, in this world the inspiration for Godzilla were the stories that leaked of this Kaiju incursion!).

In Scalzi’s world one of the reasons the atomic test ban treaties were agreed by world powers was not just for safety in our world, but to prevent more of these enormous creatures coming through – imagine if one entered our world near a major city. Of course only a few people know the reality behind this – the organisation, a number of senior members of world governments, and a few big corporate heads who also donate to the budget for operations (nice parallel to the billionaires having their rocket-measuring competitions at the moment, and yes these CEOs are just as big a bunch of numpties as you’d expect).

While bad things can and do happen to good people, for the most part this is a joyful romp of a book – it’s laced with a lot of humour (which will not surprise many Scalzi regulars), and the main characters (and even most of the supporting cast) are immensely likeable and indeed, loveable. Actually I came away from this with the sort of warm feelings for the characters as I have from Becky Chambers’s wonderful books, while Scalzi also works in some sound ecological themes and the sheer sense of wonder at such creatures really existing.

In an afterword, Scalzi reveals this was not the book he was originally writing; he was partway through something far darker when Covid hit. Lockdown, then falling ill himself, then a computer failure eating several thousand words of the work in progress, and he realised he just couldn’t finish it. Tor was understanding – it has been a weird two years for everyone – and with the weight of that book lifted from him, the Kaiju story popped into his head, and he wrote it swiftly, offering up instead of that grim, dark tale, something full of wonder and joy and humour. I don’t think I realised how much I needed this book, it left me content and smiling. An utter delight.

This review was originally penned for The Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s premiere journal of new science fiction.

Snow day

Light snowfall overnight, woke up to cold but bright winter morning, snapped a few photos on the way to work:

Winter Day 01

Holy Corner (so named because it has a church on all four points of this busy junction) was looking especially beautiful on this February, just a small amount of snow, but draped across the roofs, chimneys and ledges, outlining them in white against the slowly rising winter sunlight, had to grab a couple of photos on my way into work. The Italiante architecture of Morningside United Church (where Eric Liddell, whose story was told in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, worshipped – one of the stained glass windows still commemorates that Olympian) looked especially handsome.

Winter Day 03

Winter Day 04

Reviews: Beyond the Hallowed Sky

Beyond the Hallowed Sky,
Ken MacLeod,
Orbit Books

I’m always happy when there is a new Ken MacLeod book to be read; for my money he is one of the UK’s most consistently impressive and thought-provoking SF writers. In Beyond the Hallowed Sky we have not only a new book, but the start of a trilogy – the Lightspeed series. As that would suggest, this is a story in which the development of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel is fairly prominent. In the summer of 2067, Lakshmi Nayak receives an old-fashioned, physical letter, containing detailed mathematical proofs, which would seem to indicate that FTL travel is in fact possible. It seems to echo some thoughts she has already had but not fully formulated, but who was thinking not only on the same lines but ahead of her, and knows of her interest to contact her? Examining the letter the seemingly impossible explanation is that she sent it to herself – from the future…

After finally publishing the work, Lakshmi’s reputation is ruined by many of her peers; she eventually decides to take an offer to defect to the Union bloc and travels to Scotland, a member state, where after some Le Carre-esque spycraft in the middle of Edinburgh, the Union’s AI guides her around the spies of rival powers and to a job interview on the west coast. The job offer is genuine, but the AI has other reasons, not least the development of her FTL ideas into a workable engine for a starship.

This brings us to the Clyde Coast and John Grant, a “responsible” (a person who was seriously active and important in a previous revolution in the Union) and his comrades who run an engineering co-operative making ships on the Clyde. The AI guides them together to start a collaboration which could create the first FTL ship – rather pleasingly, Clyde-built, like the great ships of the previous two centuries of tradition on that great river.

But there’s more going on here – out for a coastal stroll John sees a submarine leaving the Faslane naval base – in this decade Scotland is no longer part of the UK, but an independent member of the Union. However, Westminster held onto the vital nuclear submarine base of Faslane as part of the deal, and shares it with their US allies. When John sees a submarine leave the base and sail out into open water it’s nothing unusual – until it seems to hover above the waves for a moment before vanishing in a shimmering haze. Most don’t believe him, the all-seeing AI carefully wipes his photographic evidence from his devices. Is it possible that FTL is not only possible, but other power blocs already have it?

MacLeod proceeds to gives us an expanding universe with three main arcs: our future Scotland and the small team trying to engineer their FTL ship (without the rival power blocs knowing), a Union science team on a floating base in the violent atmosphere of Venus, paying host to a visiting android who is also a spy for British Intelligence (which they are aware of, all sides are playing a version of The Great Game here), and a distant world around another star, reached by FTL, and the science teams operating there. Crossing all of this is a discovery that ties all three worlds together in a way that isn’t clear yet.

The multiple, overlapping story arcs work nicely to build up a three dimensional picture of this future society, dominated by three rival power blocs; as with a number of his previous works, MacLeod conjures up a believable socio-political structure, giving it just enough details that we can grasp the situation but not bogging it down with too much exposition, so the narrative flows at a good rate of knots. Along the way we get to consider various weighty topics, from the notions of political ideology and patriotism to the use and limits of AI in the human sphere, and the exploration/exploitation of other worlds. Looking forward to the second volume.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Reviews: Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquillity,
Emily St, John Mandel,
Picador

Mandel, who won huge acclaim and the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award for Station Eleven (recently adapted into a TV series), returns with a fascinating take on the time travel tale. Taking us from the vast forests of British Columbia in 1912, where a young aristocrat, Edwin St. Andrew, has a strange, momentary audio-visual experience involving a glimpse of a building and violin music, a famous author, Olive Llewellyn, two centuries later, leaving her Lunar colony home for a book tour on Earth, with a new novel that includes a scene with a violin player in a huge airship terminal, but momentarily seeing huge trees, and further into the future, the unusually named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts (named by his mother for a character in Llewellyn’s novel), in an era where time travel exists but is understandably tightly controlled. Gaspery-Jacques is tasked with investigating a potential anomaly in different time periods, an anomaly involving violin music…

Mandel takes us chronologically through these different lives in different periods, introducing us to the different characters, giving us a glimpse of their lives, their worlds, and then deftly drawing them together, through the anomaly. Is it just a weird coincidence linking these disparate lives and time periods, or is there an actual fault in time itself – and if so, is it naturally occurring or the result of human interference? Or… could it be something else again? Gasper-Jacques’s sister, a physicist with the Time Institute has an interest in Simulation Theory, the idea that what we assume is the real universe around us is in fact an advanced computer simulation, that we are, in effect, all living in the Matrix. And perhaps this anomaly is a glitch in the Matrix?

The narrative manages to be both chronological yet circular, exploring the nature of this potential anomaly; I really am wary of saying too much because I don’t want to spoil it, and with all three segments being so interrelated it’s impossible to talk about certain events without massive spoilers. Suffice to say I found Mandel handled this rotation through the timelines and the various people in a very satisfying manner. The book also raises a lot of interesting questions – for instance, the few licensed to go back in time have a strict non-interference policy, like the temporal Prime Directive in Star Trek. Very sensible you may well think, protect the integrity of the timeline – after all, we can’t know what even minor alterations could have on the unfolding centuries of events that follow.

But, as Gaspery-Jacques is told in his training, when they visit a period, they know everything about most of the people they will encounter, their entire biographies. He could meet people at a party, for example, and know that one woman he is chatting to so amiably is destined to die soon, and not in an unavoidable way such as a fatal disease, but by a simple accident. Despite knowing this he absolutely could not tell her to avoid driving on that particular road next week. As his sister tells him, you effectively have to shut down your empathic, human side and remain totally detached; easier said than done. The issues raised by the possibility of Simulation Theory are likewise fascinating in their philosophical ramifications (I was reminded of the compelling documentary A Glitch in the Matrix which came out last year and explored this in some depth), both to the Big Questions of Life, The Universe And Everything, and the smaller, personal, individual elements (what would this mean for our lives, the lives of those we love?).

I can see this being a cracking read to do for my long-running book group, there’s a lot of questions and moral quandaries raised here that would be perfect for book group discussion material! Thought-provoking and very satisfying reading, I raced through this and couldn’t stop.

Sea of Tranquility is published late April 2022 by Picador

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

 

Reviews: of memories and forgetting in The Glasshouse

Glasshouse,
Directed by Kelsey Egan
Starring Jessica Alexander, Kitty Harris, Adrienne Pearce, Hilton Pelser, Anja Taljaard, Brent Vermeulen

In this intriguing, often almost dream-like dystopia, Kelsey Egan has crafted an unusual apocalypse: The Shred. An airborne virus which slowly destroys the memories of anyone exposed, piece by piece, until there is little left but animal instinct. The eponymous Glasshouse is a beautiful place, a botanical garden structure, one of those wonderfully airy, glass and steel structures the Victorians crafted so well in so many places, all descendants of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition. Concealed by some of the last surviving greenery to protect it, it is a sanctuary, a safe place for several young women – Bee (Jessica Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), and the very young Daisy (Kitty Harris), a single male, Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), overseen by their matriarch, Mother (Adrienne Pearce).

The Glasshouse is not just a safe place in a world that has fallen apart, the plant life nourished there feeds the small group, while also generating fresh oxygen in a sealed environment, that they can breathe without fear of inhaling The Shred (outdoors masks and air cylinders are required for protection). Understandably they protect this sanctuary – with any infrequent intruder most likely to be a Shred victim they simply shoot without hesitation; it’s a brutally efficient method we see early on when an approaching figure is gunned down without warning, then parts of his body harvested, chopped up and used to help fertilise the soil for plants in the Glasshouse, like a sacrificial offering to some plant god. Other religious overtones are apparent in the rituals the group observes, even the stained glass they have added to the Glasshouse, depicting their version of the events that lead them to this place.

It’s a very controlled, very female space – Gabe is the only male, a young man in body, but a child in mind due to exposure to The Shred. His greatest tragedy, perhaps, is that he was not exposed long enough to lose everything he was and become completely oblivious, which may have been more merciful. Instead we see Vermeulen portrays the torture in his damaged mind, glimpses of half-erased memories, struggling to recall the words of the group ritual and failing, unable to manage it but aware enough to know he is failing. For any of us who have watched the cruel advance of dementia on a loved one, it’s painfully familiar, and deeply emotional as we watch this half-life struggling on, part of him gone, but enough left to be slightly aware of what has happened to him.

Into this almost literally hermetically sealed bubble comes The Stranger (Pelser). Bee is on sentry duty, but fails to shoot The Stranger – she hesitates because he is wearing a gas mask. Is he untouched by The Shred? He collapses, she, against all the rules, brings him inside. Mother is not pleased, but with The Stranger confined to one room and on chains so he cannot go far, she can also see possibilities here – just as they pollinate their plants in the Glasshouse, they could use him to impregnate her oldest daughter, Bee.

But The Stranger’s arrival creates ripples in this contained eco-system of closed family and ritualised, selective remembrance – to begin with it unbalances the existing gender dynamic by bringing in a male who is adult in both mind and body, unlike Gabe (who does not react well to this change). It also brings back to the surface the question of their missing brother Luca, who went out on an exploration mission but never returned. They repeat to each other that he will come back some day until it has almost taken on the overtones of The Second Coming, but it seems far more likely Luca lies dead somewhere, and if he never returns but The Stranger has come, what does that mean? No closed system can remain fully closed off forever, change is inevitable for both people and the environment.

This is a beautifully shot film – you’d never realise it was made on a micro-budget. The location, the Pearson Conservatory in South Africa, has been a location writer Emma Lungiswa de Wet has known since childhood, and she created the story with it in mind; she and director Kelsey and the production team were immensely fortunate the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, which administers it, were so open and helpful in letting them make the film there. The women’s clothing and the location give it a feeling that is at the same time pseudo-Victorian and yet timeless; the date is left ambiguous, and I was left with the impression this is our future, but one living in part of our shared past, essentially a world with little real future left, living in a memory of the old order, another metaphor for the film itself, in which our memories and our grasp of our own narratives, both individual and our shared societal memories, have been so badly disrupted.

There are echoes here of the oft-overlooked early Clint Eastwood film from 1971, The Beguiled, where Eastwood’s injured soldier is nursed to health in an isolated house filled only with women, upsetting the dynamic there (in that film the outside world is also in a state of chaos, this time from the raging US Civil War), while the isolated tending of remaining natural resources like plants under protective glass also stirs vague memories of another 70s film, eco-SF Silent Running.

The South African setting also ties to this narrative which is about both enforced and chosen aspects of what people and groups forget or remember, or indeed even rewrite their pasts, something that land has had to do to move on. I think the more you consider it, the more this is a film you could find so many parallels to, both individual and on the larger scale, and that gives it a depth and emotional resonance, aided and abetted by beautifully crafted cinematography, excellently exploiting this unusual location, and a wonderfully tight small cast that showcases the increasing friction between trying to be a cohesive family living outside the ruins of the world and a desperate desire to be something else, even if it involves forgetting all.

Glasshouse is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from February 7th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: compelling new Brit-horror with Censor

Censor,
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond,
Starring Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Michael Smiley

I read good things about Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor last year and have been eagerly awaiting a chance to finally see it – fortunately the always-reliable Second Sight crew are bringing out an impressive limited edition Blu-Ray at the end of January, so I finally got my chance to watch it. I must confess that, in addition to being a life-long horror fan, I also wanted to see this for personal reasons. I hit my teens in the “Video Nasty” era, before this new, emerging world of home video was regulated by the BBFC in the way film already was, so my friends and I got to watch, well, pretty much everything (and despite the rants from people like Mary Whitehouse about how they were affecting Impressionable Youth, none of us grew up to be serial killers), so this is an era and films I have strong memories of.

Years later in the 90s I used this period and the frantic, illogical, tabloid-driven, whipped-up fears (what academics like Cohen have called “folk devils and moral panics”) for some of my college essays on censorship. Even a free, democratic society probably requires some censorship and classification, to protect vulnerable groups, both in the viewing audience and those making the films. But it’s also unhealthy for freedom of speech, and viewing for adults to be dictated by the screaming “outrage” headlines of tabloid media and small interest groups (this would recur again in the 90s and affect even a film-maker of the stature of Oliver Stone, with Natural Born Killers being denied a BBFC certificate due to tabloid pressure, only to be passed pretty much as is a year later once the furore had passed, pretty much making it clear the censors didn’t just work to a list of categories as they said, but also to media jackals, which is worrying).

Enid (Niamh Algar), is in the middle of this era and the growing media controversy (carried out on the airwaves and the red-top tabloids for the most part – this is long before social media and the internet), working as a censor in the gloomy offices and viewing rooms in Soho. A very buttoned-down (almost literally, going by her wardrobe choices) person, she seems to eschew any close connections to her work colleagues (bluntly cold-shouldering a very gentle colleague who clearly likes her, and not caring about the hurt she causes him), and as we learn, her relationship with her parents is distant and strained; it feels like there is nobody in her life at all, just the work, to which she is committed, telling her mother that she is “protecting people”.

As we get further into the film, though, it becomes clear that at least some of Enid’s detachment is a form of psychological withdrawal, from a traumatic childhood event that she has largely blocked most of the details of from her mind, involving her younger sister going missing in the woods. Enid was the last one to be with her, but even as an adult she claims she can’t remember what happened. After so many years her parents, obviously deeply worried about her ongoing refusal to face what happened and get on with her life, tell her they have finally sought permission to have her sister declared legally dead, in the hope that drawing a line under this long trauma will help her to move on too, but instead it seems to have the opposite effect. This also dovetails in a storm caused by a high profile murder case, in which the perpetrator claims a scene in a film inspired his crime, a film which Enid viewed and passed, placing her right on the front-line of frantic protest (doorstepping hack journalists, even threatening phone calls).

This could be enough to threaten the mental well being of anyone, no matter how stable, but for Enid it’s cracking the emotional-distance armour she has built around herself since her young sister vanished all those years ago. And then more fuel to the fire: sleazy, sexist producer Doug Smart (brilliantly played by the always excellent Michael Smiley), in-between leering at a disgusted Enid, tells her the famous (or infamous) horror director Frederick North has personally requested she be the one to view and advise on ratings for an older film of his, Don’t Go Into the Church. A film with a plot that triggers Enid with flashes of memory – is this film based on what happened to her sister? How could it be? But what if her long-gone sister isn’t dead but was kidnapped and being used in grindhouse films like a film-slave?

As to where it goes from there, I will not spoil it for you, but suffice to say Bailey-Bond does a sterling job of cranking up the tension, while also adding to it by having it shown in such a way as to make the viewer wonder, is this an already damaged Enid finally breaking and embracing a dangerous fantasy, or are some of the increasingly surreal and sleazy producers and directors she has to go through to try and track down North and confront him indicators that yes, there really is something horrible going on behind the fictional horror of the video nasties?

The film drips with loving attention to detail and homages to that period and the wave of horror films that were unleashed onto then-new home video boom of the 80s – even the opening Film4 and other logos get the 80s styling and the dodgy, wobbly video tracking and static burst of a bad VHS tape starting up, and the smaller screen format (the film itself apparently used a mix of 24mm film and video footage, giving it a very period visual feel), even the soundscape helps generate that period atmosphere (something as simple as the clunking then whirring sound of slapping a tape into a VCR and starting it is quite the memory-jab for anyone old enough to have used one).

The cinematography, by Annika Summerson, is excellent, as are the use of some of the sets: the enclosed, claustrophobic, almost windowless BBFC officers and the even more enclosed viewing booths and the lighting used in them feeds a feeling of alienation, wrongness and disconnection. Some of the scenes, both in the main narrative and in the segments of films being viewed by the censors, also hint at loving homages to older horror films (certainly feels like a couple of scenes tip the hat to some vintage Cronenberg, for instance). An unusual and compelling addition to Brit-horror, and even more fascinating for those of us who remember those 80s video horror nights.

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with new artwork (by James Neal), a book with a number of relevant essays and production photographs, collector’s art cards, three options on commentary tracks (including one from Prano Bailey-Bond), a making of, deleted scenes, a whole smorgasbord of interviews with cast and crew and documentaries on the Video Nasty scare and the resulting media-stoked Folk Panic.

Censor gets the limited edition Blu-Ray treatment from Second Sight on 31st January

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

Quoth the Raven

Quoth The Raven

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
” Edgar Allan Poe

Snapped this with long zoom, simply looking out of upstairs window back at the family home on a very dark, grey-skied day, seemed very brooding and Gothic, so Poe came to mind.

Some Books of the Year For 2021

Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using  your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.

The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books

I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.

The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio

A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.

Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books

I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.

City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books

I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.

The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books

Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.

Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins

For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.

It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”

The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press

History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).

As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.

Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador

In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.

However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)

Putin’s Russia, Darryl Cunningham, Myriad Editions

I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.

Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)

Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion

Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).

Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books

I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.

We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.

Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn

Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.

But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)

Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate

I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.

However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.

City of Night

Being December, it is now dark here well before four in the afternoon; while most people bemoan the very few, short hours of daylight we get in our wee northern kingdom at this time of year, I rather like it and tend to use it to get some nocturnal shots of my city.

Project Coffee After Dark 02

Project Coffee After Dark 01

Cafe Grande At Night 01

Cafe Grande At Night 02

Project Coffee and Cafe Grande after dark, in the Bruntsfield area of the city. There’s something about the dark, winter night outside and bright, warm lights and people inside the cafes and diners and bars that just cries out for a good black and white photo. Slightly rough as these were all taken freehand on the way home from work, so no tripod with me.

Fountain Bar After Dark 04

Fountain Bar After Dark 02

Fountain Bar at night, Fountainbridge

Blue Note

Blue note: corner shop lit up brightly against the winter night, Fountainbridge.

Ghost By The Steps

“Ghost” strolling near the benches by the Union Canal. I love the way long exposures capture the surroundings clearly, but a moving person or object becomes blurred and translucent, like a ghostly, spectral figure, which sometimes quite suits the photo.

Festive Barge 01

Festive Barge 02Homes With A View

Golf Tavern At Night

Tenements overlooking Bruntsfield Links, one of the ancestral homes of the game of golf (there's still a putting green there right in front of the apartments). Always coveted one of these flats, but way out of my price range. The old Golf Tavern can be seen on the far right of the upper pic, and a closer view of it in the second pic.

Tollcross At Night 02

Theatre Crowd

Busy junction at Tollcross at night, and the King's Theatre, with a crowd waiting to go in for a show.

Cinematic Nocturne

Cinematic Nocture: people waiting at the bus stop under the marquee over the entrance to the lovely, old Cameo Cinema. I miss marquees on most moden cinemas, to me they were always part of the magic, all lit up, the regularly changing signs telling you what films were screening, I like that the Cameo still has it.

Castle Of Lights 01

Edinburgh Castle during a light show, seen above and behind the old Victorian tenement buildings around Bruntsfield Links and the Meadows, because you just get views like this in Edinburgh as you casually stroll across a park path after work...

Dreich Night

Walking back from my long-running book group on a cold, very wet winter’s night through the New Town, I was heading for the bus stops on Princes Street late evening. Despite the pouring rain and the hour, there were still a few folks going around the festive market on the Mound and Princes Street Gardens, most clustered around the food stalls.

Dreich Night 01

Dreich Night 02

Dreich Night 03

As I was coming from my book group, I wasn’t carrying my tripod, so all these night shots were freehand, with the zoom, in the rain – not exactly ideal situation for taking nice, clear, sharp shots, of course! But you take wat you can get with street photography, which left me with a choice of rough shots or nothing. The way the rain and the lights made the streets glisten was too irresistible though, so I fired off a few shots – perhaps the roughness of the shots actually suits this kind of night street photo (even if it doesn’t though, it was all I could manage with what I had!).

Dreich Night 04

Dreich Night 05

Dreich Night 06

Dreich Night 07

(as ever, click on the pics to view the much larger version on my Flickr)