Travel: August 15 & 16, 2018: Gardens on Foot, and Mountains on Horseback

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August 15

That Wednesday was mostly a rest day. My sister slept in, and I went that morning to walk through Singleton Park and the Swansea Botanical Gardens on my own. The park is huge, and it would have been easy to get lost. I stayed on the paths. I don’t have many photos, just a few of the gardens in riotous color.

All this was free to enter, free to wander. I spoke briefly with a gardener who found me on the paths in the Botanical Garden, but frankly, I was having a difficult time understanding him through the accent. I’d brought a book. I sat on a bench overlooking the campus below a sweep of lawn and just behind the campus’ buildings a glimmer of the sea. No photo captured it well enough to take. The paths wandered over hills, between woods and across fields, and around a shaded pond.  I stumbled upon the seemingly misplaced Swiss Cottage, built in 1826, but the old building was looking a little worn.

August 16

Thursday, though, it was time to check something else off of my bucket list. We were going pony trekking in the Brecon Beacons! I’d queried several area stables by email, but only heard back from the Ellesmere Riding Centre in Llangorse. We set up an appointment by email, and my contact there was always kind and accommodating, even though we were still finalizing as late as August 13. I was really excited.

We took the bus from Swansea through the Brecon Beacons National Park up to the small town of Brecon.  Our route took us between the Black Mountain and Fforest Fawr regions of the park.

In Brecon, we found the taxi rank from the directions that I was given by my contact in Ellesmere. Finding a taxi took a little longer than I thought it would do. We ought to have scheduled ahead of time or have found a taxi company’s number beforehand.

But a kind driver hurried us to the stable and knew just how to get there.

There’d been a transcription error between the emails and Ellesmere’s handwritten appointment book, and they had thought that we were scheduled for the day before! There was a further error in my phone number, so though they had tried to contact us, they hadn’t reached us.  I panicked a little, I don’t mind saying, but the guides there helped us into helmets, and my sister and I (we both have years of experience horseback, though it had been more than a decade since for her) helped to quickly tack up two more horses for the group that was about to head out, though neither of us actually ended up riding the horses that we tacked.

My sister rode a big bay cob-cross named Captain who looked like he deserved the name, a proper police horse. I rode a little bit daintier, bay mare named Thistle. Thistle was still so much more horse and more horse-power than I have gotten used to riding with my little 13 hh pony that I’ll admit I was a little intimated when I realized quickly that Thistle was more immune to my cues than was my mare, both my requests to slow down and my requests not to graze on the verge, and that I was out of practice being forceful.

But I was never in any danger as much as Thistle had more “go” than my mare and was constantly going faster and wanting to ride nearer the front of the herd.

I personally struggled far more than I expected to do giving over control to such a large horse.

I think I needed to have trusted these horses more than I did.  I’m used to riding meaning that I have to make decisions and sometimes fight to be minded.  I wasn’t making decisions in this group, and the horses knew the route and each other far better than I did.  If Thistle felt comfortable right up behind another horse, I should have trusted her to know which horses wouldn’t want her there.

That’s a good lesson for me to bring to any future trekking trips.  And for you to bring to any of yours too.

Most of the riders in our group were younger children there with their two moms. We all talked a little as we rode through the streets of Llangorse and then onto country roads that wended between fields and farmland, often shaded by trees, and from there onto a narrow bracken-lined path along the slope of Mynydd Troed.  From Mynydd Troed, we had a view across the valley towards Pen y Fan, southern Wales’ highest mountain.  Then we turned back downhill, joining again with more country lanes, most of these framed by hedgerows, and ultimately back onto the roads of Llangorse.

The horses never spooked. Not when we encountered an obstacle in the form of large machines clearing the trees from the road. Not at passing cars. Not at dogs barking from behind their fences.

At one point the saddle of one of the younger riders slipped sideways, and the horse—all the horses—just stopped while we fixed it and got her back up and on with a tighter girth. At one point Captain went into a few strides of canter to catch up with the herd; no one raced to join him. My sister said that his canter was actually much more comfortable than his trot, and it wasn’t that much faster. Our ride was walk and trot.

I didn’t ask at the farm and should have done whether or not we were allowed to bring cameras. I left my bags at the stable and my phone and camera with them so I was unprepared when we stopped near the peak of our ride to take photos. (Ordinarily, I always carry a phone with me while riding, never knowing when I might be stranded in a field and need help, and I would remind others what a blessing that tech can be, but having several adults with us who had more knowledge of the area and who would not in panic dial 911 instead of 999 made me feel safe enough to go without.)

I did find our route I think on Google Map’s street views, so I can give you some taste of the green vistas that we enjoyed from horseback.

I was fairly sure that I had found the right route when I had taken these screen captures in September 2018, but now writing this in July 2019, I’m just less sure, so I’m afraid I don’t have a map for a you, or a way to look for other screens to capture.

By the time we returned to Brecon (the taxi driver from before had given us a card with the number to call, so we were easily able to get a ride back), most of Brecon was closed and the bus was not too long in coming. We had time to duck into a nearby Morrison’s for a few end of the day supplies.

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Back in Swansea we got fast food takeaway and ate in Castle Square before wandering up to the castle ruins.  What’s left of Swansea Castle is greatly dwarfed by the surrounding modern buildings, and there isn’t a lot left.  Compared to nearby Oystermouth, it isn’t very impressive, but it is very neat to see a castle so much surrounded by modern structures.

Then it was back to the university campus for the night.

Most photos mine, except those that are screen captures from Google Maps, which are clearly labeled.  Most can be viewed more largely by clicking on them.

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Book Review: Japanese Fairy Tales for the Casual Western Reader

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Click to visit the WorldCat listing for the book for a summary.

This Dover edition has only five of the stories that Yei Theodora Ozaki published in 1903, selected and edited by Philip Smith in 1992.

I got a distinct sense that these were Japanese tales written up for a Western audience. The tongue-cut sparrow for example is described here as a fairy, but fairies are British; the fairy has no directly correlating Japanese equivalent. So what type of creature is the sparrow? Yōsei is the Japanese word that I can find most closely related to British fairies, but this doesn’t seem the right word for the sparrows of this tale any more than does fairy. Without the proper terminology, digging deeper into the folklore was difficult, though I tried to supplement my reading of this skinny paperback several times. The Westernization at once made this translation more accessible but also less complete, somehow lacking. I don’t know a lot of Japanese folklore. After reading this, I feel a little more informed but skeptical too about how much this textbook was altered for a Western audience and of how much I might be missing.

A few words were translated either in parentheses or via footnotes, sometimes smoothly within the text as “Momotaro, or Son of a Peach,” but the choices of which words to translate seemed odd. Sake, for example, was translated as a rice wine. Several titles and names were within the same story translated only sometimes (O Jii San as old man, daimios as lords, Suzume San as Miss Sparrow, Murasaki as Violet, Ojisan as Uncle). These were rarely names that needed translation for the story to have meaning. Particularly Murasaki only lived for the span of two pages, and violets played no part in the whole of the story (“Princess Hase”). “Princess Hase” itself is an odd phrase to have translated and oddly translated besides. Within the story, she is known primarily as Hase-Hime meaning Princess of Hase. Tamtate-Bako is translated as the Box of the Jewel Hand. The translation here lends no more to my understanding of Tamtate-Bako than would a good description. O kage sama de was not translated at all, which was an odd choice (that phrase I was able to look up). Dokoisho was translated with a footnote, and this I liked because knowing that this is an exclamation used primarily by the lower classes helped me to better grasp Urashima Taro’s character.

In these five stories there are many themes and characters that are familiar from Western/European stories. In “Momotaro” there is the child born already overly mature of a piece of fruit to a kindly old couple (Thumbelina-type but also Disney’s interpretation of Hercules). This child, like Hercules, is excessively strong and defeats monsters. There’s a nagging wife in “The Tongue-cut Sparrow.” In “Princess Hase” there’s a jealous stepmother who tries to kill her stepdaughter (that’s “Snow White”). In “Urashima Taro” there’s a creature saved from harm that turns out to be royalty and who offers itself to its rescuer in marriage (I recognize that actually most from Yep’s The Dragon Prince, which calls itself a Chinese Beauty and the Beast story). Several of these stories, “Urashima Taro” and “Tongue-cut Sparrow”, feature boxes that the characters are warned never to open like that given to Pandora. The “Ogre of Rashoman” reminds me of Tailypo, “The Headless Horseman,” and other nightmare creatures that come through campfire stories searching for their severed body parts.

Though of course it is difficult and probably inaccurate to generalize Western heroes too much—and certainly my sampling here of Japanese fairy tales is not broad enough to do so—these five bear as much similarity to the Grecian mythologies as Western fairy tales.  In Western fairy tales, most masculine heroes seem to be tricksters who outwit villains. The women—no, the girls—are gentle and kind; grown women are more often villains—or die. Here the masculine heroes seem either to be strongmen and warriors, or they are kind and compassionate. “Princess Hase” offers the only feminine heroine in this group.

Ozaki was uniquely qualified to bring these stories to a Western audience. Her parents were Baron Saburō Ozaki, one of the first Japanese men to study in the West, and an Englishwoman, the daughter of one of Ozaki’s teachers. Yei Theodora was raised in England but went to live with her father in Japan as a teenager. As an adult she split her time between the Japan and Europe, and eventually married a Japanese politician who shared her last name and who kept receiving her mail accidentally prior to their marriage.

So she was uniquely familiar with both cultures.

In all, I was glad for this introduction to Japanese fairy tales—I enjoy fairy tales—but I wish mostly that Ozaki had more sparingly translated names and phrases and particularly creatures into English.

In reading these stories, Westerners will find familiarity among that which is unfamiliar, new names for characters whom they recognize or whose situations bear resemblance to their own childhood tales.  In that familiarity, there’s a call, a reminder that we—humanity—are more alike than we are different.

***

Ozaki, Yei Theodora. Japanese Fairy Tales. Ed. Philip Smith. Illus. Kakuzo Fujiyama. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1992.

This review is not endorsed by Yei Theodora Ozaki, her estate, Philip Smith, Kakuzo Fujiyama, or Dover Publishing. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Travel: August 14, 2018: The Cost of Touring Tenby

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We were underprepared for the tourism economy of Tenby.

We took a bus from Swansea to Carmarthen and the train from Carmarthen to Tenby.  We followed other tourists up Warren Street into White Lion Street and to its conclusion at the sea.

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We had come with the intention to leave Tenby for Caldey Island. After getting coffees because the morning was chilly and gray and we had woken fairly early, we found the Caldey Island Shop down a narrow alley off of Tudor Square. We asked about tickets there, but the tickets onto the ferry for Caldey Island were more expensive than we had anticipated.

The Cistercian monks of Caldey Island are said to produce the best chocolate in all of Wales. We found some of their chocolate in the Caldey Island Shop in Tenby.  My sister and I both brought home bars and thought it very good chocolate.  We passed on tickets to the ferry though.

Our main plans thwarted, we ended up spending a good deal of time wandering the streets inside the old city walls (east of the Five Arches, so we really only explored a small portion of Tenby), ducking into bookstores, art galleries, quirky shops, and tourist shops.

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Image made with GoogleMaps

The same alley as Caldey Island Shop boasted an old fashioned sign that just read books. The bookstore that that sign marked, Cofion, was too disorganized, its books stacked higgledy-piggledy and floor to ceiling, for me to dare to venture inside. I have had too many stacks of books collapse on top of me for me to find such an environment relaxing. But we ventured into other of the city’s bookshops including Tenby Bookshop, and admired many of the children’s books and bookish gift displays.  We stopped in the art gallery of John Cahill and his friends.

We also hunted for a sweatshirt to keep my sister warm.

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St. Catherine’s Island and Castle Beach

We wandered up to the remnants of the castle, a gate and a tower on a hilltop. We climbed Bridge St, passed through the gate, but found that way to the tower blocked by the Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, which had an entrance fee too, so we turned around again to continue wandering.

Eventually our wandering brought us down to the beach, as all good wanders should do.

We’d arrived at low tide so were able to cross to the tidal island of St. Catherine’s. To climb the steps onto the island and enter the fort cost another fee. So I played around in the caves and the natural bridge beneath the island for a little, though the largest cave at the time we were nearby was flocked with children on a tour, so I stayed in the smaller of the caves.

We found a set of stairs from the beach that did lead up to the top of Castle Hill, so we were able to reach the solitary tower that remains of the castle and walk on the heights above the beaches where there was an asphalt walking path that looped a small park.  The path follows the original curtain walls.

We found the lifeboat station, and entrance to that was free, so we went inside there for a moment to admire their lifeboat and read the placards.

The pastel houses and narrow alleys and medieval walls and certainly the sea were beautiful, but it was a city in which we should have planned to spend more money. Too little was free. A good deal of that onus is on us for not doing the research ahead of time.

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Crackwell St. and the steeple of St. Mary’s Church

Then it was nearing time already to catch the train back east, though I found time to briefly follow a path a little ways past the Tenby Golf Club that claimed to lead to “South Beach;” I didn’t have time to find the beach.

We’d bought return tickets in Swansea that morning. When we arrived in Carmarthen however, we’d missed the last bus back to Swansea, and Carmarthen was all shut up for the night when we arrived. We talked to a bus driver in Carmarthen when one arrived, explained our situation, and that driver very kindly helped us out. We needed new tickets, but we eventually did get home. We were taken to Tycroes. We were at that point trusting the drivers to get us home. We were let off on at a stop not far above the company offices and directly across from a public footpath. Our first bus driver talked to our next, who was just setting out. We were retrieved and brought back to Swansea.

The confusion left us tired and exhausted, but I am so glad there were kind adults who took pity upon two weary travelers on a foreign adventure. Otherwise I really don’t know what we would have done.

Tenby

Made with GoogleMaps.  We took no suggested route, back to Swansea especially, so I pretended that we drove to convince GoogleMaps to let me map a more roundabout route and have made it as near as possible to the routes I think the buses and trains drove.

All photographs are mine. Several can be enlarged if you click on them.

Book Review: What Again, but Better Needed to Do Better (and Why it Wasn’t for Me)

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Spoilers have been whited-out.  Highlight to read.

I was the wrong person to read this book, but this was another that work required.

I wasn’t aware of Christine Riccio as a booktuber, so I could not be blinded by stardom.

I read an ARC that, thankfully, was line-edited once more before being published because there were some spellings errors in my copy that grated on me particularly as someone once hired to edit to match Rowling’s canon (Horcrux was misspelled several times, but the misspellings were fixed in the final printed edition).

I don’t read many books that would be shelved as romances. I’m ace; romance tends not to interest me; it’s not my lived experience and not the constant, humanity-defining story that most think that it is. I don’t like that romance is so especially pervasive in teen literature—in any and every genre. I can, for example, read an adult or middle-grade fantasy and escape a romantic subplot, but I’m hard-pressed to name a book marketed as for teens without such a subplot. I am especially bored by white, cishet romances, which Riccio’s is here.

I too studied abroad in London—and only a year before the protagonist Shane does in this story. I’ve been to Rome. I’ve been to Edinburgh (though I haven’t gotten to climb Arthur’s Seat). Riccio had to convince me that she had been to all these places too. And and the first British person with whom Shane interacted (on the plane on her way to London) acted so aggressively against the British code of conduct that I was thrown out of the book, my disbelief animated, and Riccio struggled to draw me back. (This woman later is revealed to be an important, recurring character, which at least explains to some degree her trashing of cultural norms, but I think Riccio could have waited to introduce this character until Shane had at least interacted with one other British person—or had this woman not be British—and I would have been better able to suspend my disbelief for her.)

For all that Shane describes herself in the beginning as painfully socially inept and awkward, she makes friends quickly, she takes more initiative to travel than I did while abroad, she drinks more often than I did with friends, she dances in clubs, she makes up excuses to see friends. She rarely studies. She is not socially inept. She is a social butterfly and party creature compared to me when I was her age and studying abroad in London. I did my homework, went on trips with my classes, and I explored the parks and the museums on my own—and I enjoyed myself. (Admittedly, travel and engagement with London and with England was far more a part of our international program curriculum than it seems to have been for Shane—or for most international students studying in London.)

I never found Shane or her friends particularly relatable though Riccio tries painfully hard to make Shane so through popular culture references (not all of which I could catch), making her a Lost fanatic, a Potterhead, and a voracious reader as presumably is the person reading the book or following Riccio as a booktuber. I also didn’t find Shane particularly likeable. Though I can understand her desire to escape her parents’ expectations, her solution is so extreme that I don’t find her parents’ reactions entirely unjustified. [SPOILER] Certainly by showing up unannounced in London [END] her parents demonstrate a certain lack of thought for Shane’s plans, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. To justify Shane’s lie to her parents perhaps I needed to meet them prior to her betrayal of their trust. Or perhaps I am showing signs of adulthood, relating more to the adults than the child heroes, to Triton more than Ariel.  Pilot, her love interest, I was ambivalent towards too at best.  He seemed supportive, and he and Shane seemed at times very well matched, but he lacked emotional maturity and avoided his problems to such an unhealthy degree that I couldn’t consider him a healthy romantic partner for anyone.

The writing style (a close first person present)—especially in the first half of the novel—is somewhat juvenile. It’s possible that in the first half of the book especially this immaturity is intentional as the second half of the story revolves around the question of returning to old circumstances with new wisdom, but this makes the writing no more enjoyable to read—especially not knowing that maturity (or lack thereof) is going to become such a key part of the books’ plot.

Riccio did something a little different by adding an element of fantasy to this otherwise realistic, contemporary romance (set in 2011 and briefly 2017), but it wasn’t nearly enough to win me back. What it seemed to do was allow Riccio to play out two sets of mistakes for Shane and for Pilot.

Shane when the magic occurred didn’t react in a way that I found believable. [SPOILER] With her mind, soul, person thrown into the body and circumstances of her self from six years earlier, she didn’t seem to realize it, to realize that her body felt different, didn’t hurt as much, she was less tired, that her hair was probably different. These are the cues I think that I would recognize if someone were to shove me back to my college-aged self. Mostly I think I would notice that my body hurt less. [END]

A younger me might have enjoyed this story more, but present-me did not.  And really, what was the lesson?  You can’t have both career success and love without magic and more time than is available to anyone without magic?  That’s not what I want to hear, true though it might be.  Few I think read fantasy or romance books to lose hope; it’s certainly not what I seek in my escapism.

**

Riccio, Christine. Again, but Better. Wednesday-St. Martin’s-Macmillan, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-18.

This review is not endorsed by Christine Riccio, Wednesday Books, St. Martin’s Press, or Macmillan Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Travel: August 13, 2018: Battling the Dragon of Rhossili

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The next day we were off to one of the most highly rated beaches in Wales: Rhossili.

Our bus (about an hour either way) took us along narrow roads lined with hedges and through some adorable small towns where sheep grazed freely on the roadsides. There were even some free-grazing sheep on the green town square in Reynoldston.

Right around the time that we reached Rhossili, the weather cleared.  Now that we were going home to Swansea every day, we could plan our outings a bit more by the predicted weather than just by the itinerary.  We got a great beach day!

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But we never actually went down to the beach, though the sweep of golden sand was stunning from up top of the cliffs. We were too distracted by the challenge of Worm’s Head.

We finally had good weather on a day that we intended to climb a mountain! If anything, it was maybe even a little hot.

Worm’s Head is a series of tidal islands accessible for 2.5 hours on either side of low tide. The islands look vaguely like a dragon rising out of the sea.

The islands are reached by a walk along the clifftops, which descends steeply along first stone steps, then a well-worn dirt track before the grassy slope ends abruptly in a short ledge maybe 2-4 feet high, dropping to the jagged rocks and tidal pools that form the temporary land bridge known as the Causeway.

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Early in our trek across the Causeway, we heard one father warn his children not to get distracted. My sister took up the motto, and I tried to keep up with her.  There’s no path across the Causeway.  It seemed best to watch others’ paths and imitate them if they seemed successful.  Some of the rocks were narrow and sharp.  Some of the tide pools were deep.  This is a walk that requires good footwear.  I did alright in my trekking shoes and my sister managed in her flat-soled sneakers.  I have fewer photos of the Causeway because we were hurrying but also because I was nervous about balancing and dropping the camera.  I was glad to have a cord that kept it around my neck, but if I fell, that would not protect the camera.  We passed a foundered anchor, maybe from the nearby wreck of the Helvetia that lies on the beach.

It took us nearer to a half hour to cross the land bridge. We scrambled up a short cliff and onto the Inner Head, where we sat down and enjoyed our lunch overlooking the land bridge, Rhossili Bay on one side with its sweep of golden sand and the crashing waves of (I think) the Bristol Channel (it’s hard to say where one water feature becomes another).

I decided to set out to explore towards the farther end of the peninsula while my sister again waited for me.

I found a narrow dirt path through the bracken to the left of the head, which curved around the seaward side of the landmass, and eventually let out into short-cropped grass.

I didn’t make it out to the Outer Head, but instead climbed the backside of the Inner Head, gaining the altitude up a steep incline, which was despite being steep, a fairly easy climb.

I opted to take the shorter way down, which was little more than a goat’s trail. While we had been lunching, we’d watched several hikers take this way to the top of the Inner Head. I think in retrospect, that path might have been easier going up than down.

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My sister while she waited spotted our only semi-aquatic or aquatic mammal of the trip: a sea lion who bobbed fairly far below us in the bay.

I took her by my easier trail around the backside of the Inner Head to see the end of the peninsula and the Devil’s Bridge (an odd name that I am only discovering now for a land bridge that looks from a distance like its bridge forms a heart).

We didn’t climb the head again, but I wanted her to see the far end of the peninsula.

We climbed then back across the Causeway, with a little more urgency this time, and hiked back along the clifftops towards the town and the bus stop. We did get to marvel at a hovering bird of prey. I eyed the Vile, a medieval system of agriculture involving long, narrow divisions of the fields, about which I had read, and about which I was curious for the setup of one of the towns in my WIP.

The area around Rhossili is a treasure trove of history for someone who knows how to look and what to look for.

There is also on the walk from Rhossili to Worm’s Head the remnants an Iron Age fort called Old Castle Camp. The fort looks more like unnatural rises and falls in the fairly flat ground, and I think we actually passed it without a thought, remaining on the more prominent, kept, gravel path.

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You can see the Vile fairly well in this view from Google Maps.  I used the coordinates from Ancient Monuments to locate Old Castle Camp, the red marker.

St. Mary’s Church still has elements of the original Norman construction from the late 12th century. We passed it on the way into town, and it isn’t far from the bus stop, so with a little time to spare, maybe I should have stepped away to explore.  Instead we chatted with another pair of young women waiting for the bus, a native Welshwoman who reveled in the sunshine and her friend from Australia.  We connected over our Harry Potter merchandise.

Then there’s the wreck of the Helvetia on the beach at Rhossili that I already mentioned. She wrecked in 1887.

Back in Swansea, we went to the Pub by the Pond, one of the favorite haunts of the Swansea University students, if only because there is an entrance to the pub directly from campus. We drank ciders and ate our meals out on the back deck beneath a willow overlooking the pond, known more formally as Singleton Boating Lake. I smiled to sea dragon boats beside the swan boats. We could have done without the falling willow flowers, but the view was fantastic, and the walk back to the dormitory for the night after having a drink was difficult to beat.

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All photos are mine.  Those without a frame can be viewed more largely by clicking upon them.

Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, samples, trailer, and a drawing tutorial with the author.

Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

I read nine of the twelve novels in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series between 2011 and 2015. Then I sort of stalled. I had hoped that this, the first book in her newest series, might help to springboard me through those last three novels by reminding me of all that I had originally so loved. Comparison between the two series is for me truly unavoidable because it is in fact what I was seeking.

And I don’t think that this series was able to accomplish what I’d hoped that it would.

I stalled on this book too. I began reading it on a plane in October 2018. I finished it in June 2019.

This very British story is set in a Britain before it was Britain, during a fantastical conflict between magical Wizards and iron-wielding, fortification-building Warriors; even setting aside the magic of the Wizards, I’m finding no exact historical matches for these cultures to set the story at any historical point (the Bronze Age Beaker culture vs the Iron Age, hill fort-building, Celtic Britons maybe being the nearest since the Wizards can’t bear iron, and the Warriors definitely have iron).  This seems more to me more like a mythic version of Britain, Arthur’s Britain maybe before even he was born (though Arthur’s Britain has a more concrete place and time than this) than a representation of the actual Britain.

As in How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative here is peppered with some fantastic lines, particularly oaths that build her world such as “by ivy and mistletoe and green things with long, hairy whiskers” (183) and some very choice descriptions like “a splintering scream like the death agony of five hundred foxes” (60)—I wish I had marked them as I read along. The text too is littered with allusions to British and Norse myths and British literary canon. Finding those allusions was a fun game. But I don’t think the prose was enough to carry me through what I found most difficult about this novel:

I just don’t like Xar. He’s not a very likable hero. He is arrogant. He puts his followers in danger. He is willing to break the rules to achieve his goals, and his goals are selfish. It takes the imminent death of a friend (follower? pet?) before Xar feels any responsibility or regret or humility. He then does try—he really tries—to save his friend, and that is admirable. But even that quest is not wholly unselfish for in achieving it, Xar can save himself as well.

Xar and Hiccup are near enough one another in circumstance if not in personality that the comparison is fairly unavoidable. Both’s fathers are the leaders of their peoples. Both boys lack the characteristics that are valued in their societies. Xar has a lot more growing to do before he becomes as likable as Hiccup was in the first book, let alone in the later books when Hiccup is becoming more and more the King of the Wilderwest who will unite the Vikings. Hiccup pushes back against his society’s standards when they are wrong (he promises to free the slaves, promises to free the dragons, speaks to dragons in their own language instead of shouting at them in the Vikings’). Xar seeks to conform even knowing that what he does endangers others as well as himself.  [SPOILERS] Xar leads his father to believe that Wizard society needs a place for the magic-less but without ever setting out to do so, then he lies again to his father and his people and he uses his accidentally retained Dark magic without guilt. His reward is not being accepted into the society as he is but rather obtaining that which he no longer needs to be accepted—and perhaps at great personal cost. [END]

Wish is a bit more likable. She is a Warrior who does not live up to the expectations of her mother, Queen Sycorax. She should be fierce and orderly and tidy but is instead disheveled with an odd eye over which she wears a patch and has a big heart, even keeping a secret pet of which her mother definitely wouldn’t approve. Wish wants to make her mother proud but always comes up short. She can be brash.  [SPOILERS] She does show her mother in the end that she can be fierce by standing up to her mother. [END]

Bodkin I liked best, but he is the sidekick and isn’t given the page-time that I would have liked him to have. He is nervous, anxious, cautious, fainthearted. He is trying to protect his charge as an Assistant Bodyguard. He wants to make his family proud too.

***

Cowell, Cressida. The Wizards of Once, Book 1. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Travel: August 12, 2018: Retraced Steps Around Swansea Bay

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It’s been almost a year, and I haven’t finished typing up my British adventures for you!  Though a lot has gotten in the way, I haven’t forgotten.  These may not have as many details in them as they might have done a year ago, but I can still share photos and recommendations with you all, and I hope you’ll still enjoy them.  I hope you aren’t too upset by the delay, and I hope you can enjoy these despite the passed time.

As we come up on the anniversary of my travels, my hope is to keep up an alternating pattern for a little bit, one week a travel blog and the next a book review.  I have 4 more travel blog posts after this, so I think even alternating, we should be back to all books all the time (or most of the time) by September’s end.

If you’re just joining us, you can find the earlier posts about this UK adventure here.

And while I’m doing some housekeeping, check out my newest page!  I’m selling my used books, and I still have another 2 and a half boxes of books to post, so keep an eye on that shop.  There’s more fantasy in this next box.

After traversing Ireland and northern Wales, Swansea University, where my sister was earning her master’s degree, became our home base for the rest of our travels. The first day in southern Wales, we decided to spend the around Swansea Bay, especially as the day’s forecast was a bit gloomy.

The day began with a tour of the campus itself and all the hidden gardens and gems that my sister had discovered in her months there. The main office buildings of the campus were once part of Singleton Abbey, the 19th century estate of the Vivian family, but the majority of the campus is housed in modern buildings, of which I didn’t take any pictures.

We went through a corner of the next-door Singleton Park to reach the road, and just across from the road, just across from the University, is the beach.

We walked along the boardwalk back into town to catch the bus to Mumbles.

More or less, we followed my sister and mother’s earlier path through the small town of Oystermouth so that I could experience all of the places about which they had been raving for months.  My mother was particularly enamored of the Mumbles area, where they stayed when my sister first came to Wales.  We first ate lunch at a pub called The White Rose in sight of Oystermouth Castle. The White Rose has been on that site since 1856, though the mock-Tudor style building is from the early 1900s.

After a relaxing lunch, we went up the short hill to Oystermouth Castle, a fairly well-preserved castle—there are even stone fireplaces and chimneys still intact.  I’ve been in a few ruined castles and monasteries and forts and estates that are called castles, but this was by far the most impressive, I think, in any country.  With a castle on the site since 1106, the oldest of the remaining stone structures is from the 12th century, but the majority of the stone structures that remain were constructed by the de Braose family in the 13th century. The castle was briefly the primary residence of the lords of the Gower in the late 13th century.  The de Braose connection was especially interesting to me as Count Falkes de Braose is a prominent figure in Stephen Lawhead’s Hood, which I was rereading prior to my trip to Wales in anticipation of perhaps stumbling upon some of the book’s locations.  (Falkes himself is fictional as far as I can tell, but the family is obviously not, and they were eminent in southern Wales.)

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Armed with a free-to-borrow map from the gift shop and informational office, we gave ourselves a tour.

We wandered the outer walls and then through the remaining residential structures, including several basement rooms and the second story 14th century chapel with its remaining tracery windows. The chapel’s design is attributed to the Alina, daughter of the last de Braose to be lord of the Gower.  She became Lady John de Mowbray, fled by boat to Devon following her husband’s unsuccessful rebellion against Edward II, survived imprisonment in the Tower of London, and then succeeded in securing the Gower for herself and her heirs.  She’s a pretty awesome, 14th century lady!

Oystermouth Castle definitely offers some of the best views of the seaside town.

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There were a few exhibits too about the castle’s history.

Leaving the castle, we carried on down Mumbles Road towards the tip of the peninsula, pausing to explore art galleries along the way. Most were closed (it was a Sunday), but I know we climbed all the floors and explored the crannies of Gower Gallery and Picture Framing, and I ogled the paintings visible through the windows of others.  Gower Gallery is neat for its eclectic, busy collection of British art in all sorts of mediums, some of it quite inexpensive too.

We left the street at the parking lot for the pier.  The road blocks at the pier were all decorated for the Festival of Stitch, adding an extra bit of fun to the seaside scenery.

At the end of the pedestrian road, which housed a few shops and restaurants, we found the stairs to the beach that was exposed by the low tide. I had been too long from any beach to keep away.  I like a great deal about the city and area that I have come to call home, but one of its features that I most dislike is that it is at least 4 hours’ drive to the ocean.  The Mumbles (the tidal islands themselves) separate Swansea Bay and Bracelet Bay, both bays visible from the beach.  I went out along the sand and then the stones to explore the rocky outcroppings of the nearest tidal island at the beach’s end and its crannies that are sometimes underwater. I didn’t make it all the way out to the lighthouse, choosing to keep in sight of my sister, who waited, like a saint, on the stairs above the sand.

I’ll admit that though the draw is supposed to be the long, Victorian pier, I was far more interested in being near the water than above it.  We walked back along the boardwalk, me soaking up as much of the seaside as I could do.  Before we left for Swansea, we made sure to stop for some of Joe’s vanilla ice cream. Joe’s didn’t live up to the hype for me, but it was good ice cream.

Our adventures over, we visited Swansea’s Tesco Superstore and had a quiet night in the dorm, getting in an earlier night in preparation for the next day’s adventure.

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Image created using Google Maps. We didn’t take a car, but I was better able to manipulate the route pretending that we did. This should be a fairly accurate route map, though not exact.

All photos are mine.  Most will be more impressive if you click on them.

Book Review: A Less Compassionate Robin in Hood

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and sample.

I started rereading Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood mid-July 2018 for my August 2018 trip to Wales but was interrupted by the trip, and only now, almost a year later, am I finishing it.

I had read this book 11-12 years earlier; it was one of the books that was allowed to come with me when I moved into my freshman dorm.  (This was before bookstagram was a thing, but apparently, I already had the idea.)

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The Welsh countryside had already stolen parts of my heart via Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series before this novel found its way to me, so I was predisposed to like it.

I had fond memories of it and was excited to reread it, but 11-12 years is a long time.

Now, I have not read Pyle’s version of Robin Hood or any other version that I remember besides Lawhead’s. The versions of the story that I know best are Disney’s with its foxy hero and BBC’s 2006-2009 television series.  It’s been a long while, but I’ve watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights too.  Robin and his entourage showed up once in Doctor Who.  Then I know just bits of the myth that have filtered into common cultural knowledge, that have been referenced in other stories.  And I have actually had the chance to walk the halls of Nottingham Castle and the paths of Sherwood.

I very much like Lawhead’s premise for this novel and the reasons for his conclusions about Robin Hood that he presents in the notes in the back of this book (these notes really ought to preface the book I feel instead of ending it; if you pick this book up for the first time, do yourself a favor and read those first. There is the map. There is the pronunciation guide. Page 473 in my copy begins the notes). In essence he argues that the legend of Robin Hood presumably arose from a historical fact and that the legend makes more sense as a Welshman, the Welsh being masters of the longbow, fighting from the wild, primeval forest of the March than an English noble in the shrinking Sherwood. Robin is believably a bastardization and Anglicization of Rhi Bran, and Lawhead offers several explanations of Hood (coed being a Welsh word for woodland or a reference to the hooded costume that Bran uses).  Like Robin of Nottingham, Bran is disinherited by an overreaching British monarch, not Prince John rewarding loyalists, but William II allowing his nobles to conquer Wales, killing unyielding Welsh kings in battle.

But I don’t find Bran as likeable as Disney’s or BBC’s versions. Lawhead’s Bran has to learn selflessness on a hospital bed, and his motivations are less generous than other Robins throughout, even after that revelation. He is prone to bouts of violence. He is reintroduced as a young man while coercing kisses from Mérian (and that I think more than anything else really soured this book for me; he cares about Mérian’s consent no more as he develops into a leader, though their interaction late in the book is brief, and perhaps he improves in sequels, which I have never read). When he is enjoying himself, he can be impish. When he is contemplative, he shows promise as a ruler. He can be bold, but that boldness borders on recklessness and sometimes endangers others. Some of my unfavorable impression of Robin might be what Lawhead intended. He says Robin in the earliest stories “was a coarse and vulgar oaf much given to crudeness and violence” (474).

I empathize with the ousted and hunted prince, but I too often dislike him. I root for the Welsh cause without much liking the leader of the rebellion.

Mérian just seems young. She is irresolute, one moment wholly opposed to the Ffreinc invaders and the next dreaming of parties in Ffreinc castles. She is acted upon rather than taking any actions herself and seems to hold no firm convictions.

Disney’s Robin is roguish, romantic, and compassionate. Disney’s Marian is gentle.

BBC’s Robin is roguish, romantic, compassionate, and a conscientious objector after he learns respect for Islam while fighting in the Holy Land at King Richard’s side. BBC’s Marian is passionate, a fighter for justice and the poor.  She acts against tyranny despite the risk to herself.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of Hood is historically accurate.  William Rufus, Bernard Neufmarché, his daughter Sybil, and Philip de Braose all are historically recorded. Bernard did capture Talgarth in the early 1090s.  Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed in Bernard’s Welsh conquest in 1093.

But more often, Lawhead relies on common names. There was a Brychan—but not a Brychan ap Tewdwr—who was king of Brycheiniog (a term not used in Hood, but that’s the only King Brychan I can find in Welsh history).  Elfael was not part of Brycheiniog, but was adjacent to it.

And sometimes the facts just don’t line up.  Elfael in fact did not become its own cantref until 1140, and Lawhead’s map sets the story between 1080 CE and 1100 CE.  Before that, Elfael with Maelienydd was Ferlix.  And while there is a Llanelli in Wales, it is nowhere near where it is on Lawhead’s map, being a coastal town in Carmarthenshire.

All this I fact checked using resources freely available on the Internet, but admittedly, there is some fuzziness to the historical records from this period.

Despite my dislike of Bran and Mérian and my uneasiness about some of the history and geography that Lawhead uses to set his novel, I still find this an interesting fictional representation of the Norman invasion of Wales and Welsh life and resistance at the time of William II.

I enjoy the ease with which Lawhead makes his story align with the Robin Hood legend, defending his case for a Welsh genesis for the myth.  And I like Lawhead’s writing. He captures the settings well. He writes a good battle.

I just wish that this story had more central characters that I actually enjoyed being around.  I do like Iwan (Little John) and Friar Tuck.

***

Lawhead, Stephen R. King Raven, Book 1: Hood. Nashville: Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2007. First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Stephen R. Lawhead, Thomas Nelson, Inc, or HaperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Enormous Scope of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

SPOILERS included in an attempt to linearly layout the story.

I have meant for a while to dive into Salman Rushdie’s canon. He is a man whose conviction I greatly admire. For the Satanic Verses, his execution was ordered by an Iranian Ayatollah, leading Rushdie to hide under an alias on British soil.  But he has stood by his publication and continues to write about religions and the big questions.  He has used his fame to speak out on a vast number of social and political issues of our time and to benefit nonprofit programs and generally (to borrow a term) “decrease world suck.”

This is nevertheless the first book of Rushdie’s that I have read.

Rereading The Golem and the Jinni recently ignited in me new interest in the jinn, the mythology of which I think could be useful in my own writing. Finding this book on audio CD at the local library when the book that I’d gone for was missing seemed a sign, and I took it.

The bulk of the story told is about a near future but is told from the perspective of a historian or storyteller 1000 years past the main events, a period of 1001 nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty eight days—that is known as “the time of the strangenesses.”  The story spans from the time of Ibn Rushd’s exile from the court at Cordoba when he lived in the mostly Jewish village of Lucena (c. 1195) until 1000+ years past our present, a stunning scale (1825+ years).

By Rushdie’s account, during Ibn Rushd’s exile, he loved a girl called Dunia, who bore him many children, which Ibn Rushd, when his favor in court was restored, largely cast off along with Dunia. Dunia, awakening the dust of Ibn Rushd long after his death, around our own present, reveals herself to be the princess of Qaf in Peristan, the parallel world that is home to the jinn and other lesser magical creatures. With the veil between the two worlds loosened, other jinn return to the world of men, including the grand ifrits, dark jinn. This sparks a rash of “strangenesses,” unexplainable plagues that affect humanity, and broadly, the return of magic to men. Dunia’s and Ibn Rushd’s descendants have multiplied, and the jinn magic within several of these descendants is awakened by the strangenesses and by Dunia. She deputizes several of these descendants as warriors in her fight against the dark jinn and the grand ifrits. Much of the story focuses on the lives of a few of these deputized warriors, which include a failed graphic novelist who finds himself possessing the powers of his imagined superhero, a woman with lightning’s electricity, and a widowed gardener. These three are viewed as among the human heroes of “the war of the worlds” by the account of the narrator, and they participate in the final battle between Dunia and the last of the grand ifrits. After the closing of the gaps in the veil between the worlds following that battle, according to the narrator, the world is reborn into an age of rationalism, absent the fear of gods or religions or the supernatural, but humanity loses the ability to dream.

It’s a complicated story without a strict linear telling, with many point of view characters, and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interrupts with his opinion and many asides on the nature of the jinn and the nature of humanity.  The action takes place across our globe and in Peristan too.

Mostly I read (or listened to) this story as a fantastical telling of a battle between mythological creatures that takes place mostly in our world, and I was pleased. It is a good action story, a battle between good and evil with a host of characters from around the world and pieces of history thrown in for good measure and grounding. But it is certainly a reflection on the nature of humanity and of the nature and reality or fantasy of a god or gods. It is a warning against prejudice and the creation of the “other.” The world is saved by a several immigrants to the US. It is at once an examination of the worst instincts of humanity and a praise of humanity’s endurance and stolidity. Certainly it is a tale of human reason and ingenuity versus unreasonableness, irrationality, and magic.

This is one of those stories definitely for a much older audience. There are graphic depictions of violence and lots of discussion about sex, consensual and otherwise, if those acts themselves are never described in much detail. I at several times questioned whether I should be playing this audiobook with the windows down at a stoplight, not knowing if young ears were open in cars with open windows around me.

Allusions are dense on the ground in this book, its scope of art almost as vast as its scope of time. I missed many of them but was pleased when I did catch a reference.  I learned more about philosophical texts and ideas than I brought knowledge of philosophy to the book.

Robert G. Slade does voices if not maybe distinct for every character then certainly for some of them who stand out.

****

Rushdie, Salman. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days. Narr. Robert G. Slade. Random House Audio-Penguin Random, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Salman Rusdie, Robert G. Slade, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.