Tag: book reviews


Review – Silver on the Tree

Posted 27 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Silver on the Tree, by Susan CooperSilver on the Tree, Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree combines all the best of the other books of the sequence: the magic, the genuine moments of terror and alarm, the weaving of legends and the everyday, the mysteries that leave you to wonder, the sense of place… And more than any of the others it combines both sadness and joy; in that, it’s the most adult of the sequence.

I especially enjoy little touches like Bran getting to meet Owain Glyndŵr; one thing I did miss was Barney not having more of a reaction to actually meeting King Arthur who he’s idolised since before the first page of the first book. I can’t remember having noticed it before, but that jarred me, this time. Also, I remember someone mentioning to me how much it bothered them that this book plays into the betrayal of a woman theme (as does The Dark is Rising, in the form of Maggie Barnes, “a sweet face” to lure people into the Dark). Thinking about it this time, I see their point, even though the White Rider is otherwise ambiguously gendered. It’s as if women can somehow hide their allegiance to the Dark behind womanly charms, where the men are immediately picked out (Mr Mitothin doesn’t fool Will for a moment; Maggie Barnes, however, has to act wickedly to get him to realise, and “Blodwen Rowlands” fools John entirely until the very end).

We do have some great female characters in these books — the Lady and Jane, mainly, with Will’s sisters, mother and aunt and other such minor characters — but it’s a bit nasty that the alluring side of the Dark is pretty unambiguously female.

Still, that’s not enough to ruin the books, and nor is it suggested as something all women could/would do. It’s just something that may bother you, particularly if you forget how old these books are.

I think I’ve ended my reviews of this book with this quotation before, but it’s still true. The book ends with a call to arms to all of us, to stop relying on anyone else to change the world and know that we are, alone, responsible for our own choices.

“For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.”

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Review – He Said, Sidhe Said

Posted 26 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of He Said, Sidhe Said, by Tanya HuffHe Said, Sidhe Said, by Tanya Huff

As usual, Tanya Huff’s stories collected in this ebook are fun; it’s a solid mix of fun and a more serious story. The title story (a sort of retelling of Tam Lin) was probably my least favourite. Since it’s a shortish collection (seven stories), I’ll review each story separately, albeit briefly.

‘A Choice of Endings’: I didn’t remember the character of Mrs. Ruth very well — I read Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light quite a while ago — but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. It’s always interesting when older women are the heroines of a story, you really don’t see it enough, and it was good to get into Mrs. Ruth’s head. And her antics are quite entertaining: she’s deadly with bottles of Tabasco sauce…

‘Finding Marcus’: One of Tanya Huff’s few first person stories, apparently, and narrated from the point of view of a dog — and she’s a cat person. I think she got the essential traits of a dog pretty well: that literally dogged loyalty and persistence which I think is one of the most lovely traits of a good dog. (I’m biased. My nan’s dog, in my childhood, was very dogged and loyal, and heaved his arthritis, tubby body up a step and along the hall to check on me while I curled up on my own in the front room, reading.) The story was pretty simple, but it worked well, even for being something Tanya Huff doesn’t do much.

‘He Said, Sidhe Said’: As I said, my least favourite of the collection. I just didn’t find it very remarkable. The various parallels to Tam Lin are clever, but it wasn’t absorbing for me.

‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’: I have a fairly ‘meh’ reaction to this one, too, for all that its seasonal. Or perhaps because it’s seasonal? I’m not good with seasonal. There’s only one Christmas-themed album I like, in music (Thea Gilmore’s Strange Communion), so maybe I’m the same about stories. It just didn’t grab me, anyway.

‘Tuesday Evenings, Six Thirty to Seven’: I liked this one. Again an older female heroine, and a very non-conventional Brownie troop. I thought that was kind of clever, and I enjoyed the Brown Owl’s attempts to adapt to them and to do her best by them. It was filled with a kind of tenderness toward the whole Brownie movement, too, which I can understand — I never was a Brownie, but I so wanted to be.

‘Under Summons’: I haven’t read Summon the Keeper yet, though I have it, but this story made perfect sense even without it. Loved the pissy cat and the helpful fish. It makes me want to hurry up and read the original series.

‘Word of Honour’: I’m not sure about the quality of the history detail around the events in this story, and the portrayal of the Templars, etc (my knowledge about Templars, such as it is, comes mostly from Assassin’s Creed). I didn’t find the story as emotional as Tanya Huff mentions she does in her introduction, but it is an enjoyable story and there are a couple of moments in it that did really get to me.

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Review – The Grey King

Posted 24 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Grey King, by Susan CooperThe Grey King, Susan Cooper

Normally, The Grey King would be my favourite of the five books that make up this sequence. Something about the setting in Wales, and Bran’s loneliness and arrogance, and of course the tie-in with Arthuriana, and the way that it begins to bring in some more moral ambiguity when John Rowlands questions the coldness at the heart of the Light. Somehow, I didn’t love it as much as usual this time — possibly because I’d just spent a lot of time debating the merits of Greenwitch with various people, and thus missed some of the stellar things about that book (more involvement of female characters, more mysteries like the various hauntings of Cornwall, contact with the Wild Magic) when reading this one, which is more straightforward in some ways. If you’ve read the series before, then there’s little mystery about who Bran is and what role he has to play.

Still, it’s a lovely book, with Susan Cooper’s usual understanding of people and lyrical way of describing things so that the sound of the words is an important part of the experience for me. The relationship between Owen and Bran, with that lovely section so near the end; the levels you can see, particularly depicting Owen and in the character of John; the touches of mystery there are like the issue of the Grey King himself — all of it is as wonderful as ever on what must be at least my tenth reread, and probably more than that.

And, of course, there’s Cafall — the courage and loyalty, and the heartbreak. That whole section brings a horrid lump to my throat every single time.

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Review – Greenwitch

Posted 23 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Greenwitch by Susan CooperGreenwitch, Susan Cooper

Greenwitch isn’t really my favourite book of the series, though it is the one with the most mystery — I wonder a lot about the background mythology, the legends of Cornwall that the Greenwitch brings to life and what lies behind each glimpse of part of a story. It occurred to me last night while reading that maybe Susan Cooper has come closer than Tolkien to a “mythology for England”. Granted, he’s closer if you’re looking at England as “the land under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons”, but Cooper has touched on the legends of the land, the real stories that matter, rather than inventing a quest and a ring. Her quests come organically out of the mythology she’s using, and the places where she joins on her own are pretty seamless.

(Tolkien has created a world of his own, I think, and people often put too much emphasis on the “mythology for England” stuff. I don’t mean to do that: whether or not he meant to achieve that, what he achieved in the end was great. I just think the idea of a mythology for England is maybe actually achieved by Cooper.)

Greenwitch also features one of the things I love most about this series — the characters. They’re people. Simon and Barney are good-hearted boys who get jealous and possessive when another boy of a similar age seems to encroach on their time and their friends. Captain Toms, an Old One of the Light, gets laid low by gout. And I liked that the Dark is personified in a single character, this one time — not as the tide of the Dark, but as a single man of the Dark. We see hints of individuality there; his bitterness when he says “I have no friends”, his genuine artistic talent. It’s another of those moments where I think the black/white Dark/Light dichotomy cracks a little.

There are also some gorgeous passages in this book about the beauty and danger of the sea, the amoral and uncaring world of the Wild magic (and then, again, that hint of the Greenwitch as a child, as a lonely creation in need of something to hold on to, of kindness).

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Review – The Dark is Rising

Posted 22 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

The Dark is Rising by Susan CooperThe Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper

This book has maybe one of my favourite ways of looking at England, the country and people:

“He saw one race after another come attacking his island country, bringing each time the malevolence of the Dark with them, wave after wave of ships rushing inexorably at the shores. Each wave of men in turn grew peaceful as it grew to know and love the land, so that the Light flourished again.”

It doesn’t quite work, I think: there’s the issue of colonialism, which was arguably wave after wave of the Dark coming out of our island (and the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish have never yet sat perfectly comfortably together, there’s still colonialism at work there). And there’s, well, the BNP and the EDL, etc. But recognising that that is Britain’s identity — our genetic makeup, our language, our history — is something a lot of people forget. We can’t say “get out, foreigners”; most of us have ancestors from elsewhere, somewhere along the family tree.

I’ve loved The Dark is Rising a long time, so I doubt there’s anything new or critical I can say about it as a whole, but each time these small fragments of the narrative catch at me and make me think about them as I haven’t before. That was one of them; there are other snippets, like Will’s sudden understanding of the difference between a child’s fear and an adult’s fear (made up of understanding and care for others).

The Dark is Rising is, I think, one of those books that have a number of layers, and more so through each book. There’s a simple layer of plot, and then there’s all sorts of other stuff about understanding feelings and fears, and if you watch for it, some moral ambivalence. We’re seeing this world through Will, essentially, and he’s one of the Old Ones but he’s also a young boy, and in his horror at what Merriman has done to Hawkin, you can see a subtlety of dealing with the things the Light has done. And then Merriman turns around and shows his human face too, and just — I might, to some extent, be too willing to give these books wiggle room. Too willing to bring my own needs to the table and see the book in those terms. But I think that stuff is there — particularly as it comes up more in the person of John Rowlands in The Grey King and Silver on the Tree.

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Review – Over Sea, Under Stone

Posted 21 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan CooperOver Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper

It’ll surprise no one who knows me that I’m rereading this set of books at this time of year: Over Sea, Under Stone is more of a summer book, I suppose, but the one most rooted in a particular time of year is The Dark is Rising, the second book, in winter. (The runner-up would be The Grey King, set in the autumn around Samhain.) So I imagine that a few more reviews of these books will be added to my total before the end of the year…

I read Over Sea, Under Stone in one go, this time. There are still a couple of things that bother me, aside from the Enid Blyton-esque tone of the boys-own-adventure stuff. Like, why would Merriman leave them alone up on top of the hill? Why wouldn’t he ask more questions about who is attacking them? Why —

But it’s probably best not to ask those questions of this book, the earliest and least subtle. There are many subtle touches which I love later in the sequence, but this book is decidedly less mature. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have some very powerful sections: the last two chapters have an unbearable build up of tension that gets to me even at twenty-four years old. Mostly, I love that the characters feel real, squabble and support each other and have fears and weaknesses like real kids, real siblings. Simon’s such a superior brat, but he’s the more real for it. Jane’s a little bit stereotyped, I think: she’s more easily frightened than the other two, carries around “practical” things like a roll of cotton (but no mention of a sewing kit of any kind?), isn’t interested in male pursuits like fishing and sailing, etc. But even that isn’t so bad — she’s not Blyton’s Anne or George, but something closer to a rounded individual.

(Has anyone written an essay where each member of the Famous Five reflects a facet of a single psyche, or something? Because I just came up with that idea on the spot, and I’m too lazy to explore it myself.)

And, finally? Barney’s “cleversticks” is still the best pseudo-insult ever.

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Review – Irregular Creatures

Posted 19 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Irregular Creature by Chuck Wendig, coverIrregular Creatures, Chuck Wendig

Irregular Creatures is a collection of Chuck Wendig’s short stories. Someone recently compared his work to Stephen King’s, and I can see where they’re coming from: there’s something robustly readable about all of it, and the fantasy/horror aspects are all handled in a matter of fact sort of way. I can’t remember how King handles narrators, at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find similarities there.

I think someone also mentioned a sort of cheerful vulgarity, and there’s that, too. Sometimes I find that uncomfortable, e.g. in ‘Mister Mhu’s Pussy Show’; it’s really not my kind of thing.

Mostly, the stories are fun, very readable, sometimes completely fascinating in their bizarreness. Chuck Wendig is an author I follow because I know he writes solidly and prolifically, and always has ideas I want to see played out.

Must get round to reading more of his Miriam Black books…

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Review – The Postman Always Rings Twice

Posted 19 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. CainThe Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain

I’d often heard of this pretty classic crime novel, but I’d never read it. However, it was on my ereader, and I was settled in for a looong car journey, so I randomly picked it up and got going. It’s a very easy read: the language is simple, to the point, which helps to define the narrative voice. More flowery language wouldn’t work with the character.

Once it gets to a certain point, parts of the plot are obvious, but the trick pulled in court is amazing. It’s a simple story, in one sense — guy meets married woman, they want to get rid of her husband — but the tangle of passion and brutality stands out more against the relatively simple plot (except for the bit in court, which is less simple).

Definitely worth reading if you enjoy crime fiction and have missed out on James M. Cain thus far. Where now?

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Review – Little Brother

Posted 16 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Little Brother, by Cory DoctorowLittle Brother, Cory Doctorow

I’ve been meaning to read Little Brother for a long time, so when it came up for the SF/F course on Coursera, it seemed like it was finally time. Maybe it got built up a bit too much over time, because I found it fairly disappointing. There’s something very immature about it — in some ways, that’s part of its charm, because it’s enthusiastic and straightforward and the characters/plot are earnest.

But. While I enjoy Cory Doctorow’s non-fiction writing (he writes very clearly about copyright, piracy, etc), I haven’t enjoyed his fiction nearly as much. He seems to write still partly in a non-fiction mode: we get lectured about the world he’s setting up, rather than seeing it in action. It’s like a thought experiment, a way of playing out his concerns. There’s a place for that, of course, but it’s a lot easier to swallow when it’s wrapped up in prose like that of Ursula Le Guin. This probably is a fairly direct comparison to books like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland: it’s a story born of convictions more than of the urge to tell a story, I think.

For a reader who is used to Cory Doctorow’s work and already interested in this kind of thing, the narrator’s explanations are unnecessary, and even for those who are not, it’s a bit heavy-handed. Doctorow’s writing is clear, and he gets his points across… but for me, that was a trade off against flow and interest.

I don’t really see why people found this so fascinating and absorbing, I’m afraid.

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Review – Flash Fiction Online #3

Posted 15 December, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

One of my Christmas presents: a subscription to Flash Fiction Online. I was really interested in this, because flash fiction is something I’m good at and something I really enjoy: you have to be clever, and choose every word just right. You have to know just what to leave out. It’s not a form I’ve seen people pay much attention to, but it’s a form I love to play with, and to read when it’s done well.

Unfortunately, there was nothing really special in this month’s issue. The second story, Mercedes M. Yardley’s ‘Milk and Moonshine’ was probably the best, though it required a bit more editing (even a single typo will stand out in a piece of flash fiction). It is nice, however, that there seems to be a willingness to play mix and match with genres, and accept anything that’s interesting. I might end up submitting to this publication myself; it’ll be interesting to see it develop.

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