If you don’t actually know much about the history of science, this book might well be for you; for me, it was painfully obvious, hitting exactly the topics I expected, skimming over what I expected it to skim. A worse crime, however, is that the author simply wasn’t accurate: if you’re going to write a non-fiction book, it’s important to make sure you don’t speak beyond your research.
It does not take much research to find out that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not pictographic representations of language. (To be perfectly accurate, some of the characters echo in form the thing they name; a cow head shape might mean the word cow, for instance. However, the languages also contain phonetic characters.)
I didn’t read beyond that. On that point, I knew the author was wrong — on a subject that isn’t even a particular area of expertise for me; how, therefore, could I trust him to have done his research about anything else? If we’re talking deeply technical details, that’s different, but it is widely understood that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not solely logographic. There’s too little time for something where I distrust the research and editing and I’m bored.
Greenwitch is the shortest book in the sequence — in my collected edition it is, anyway — but I find that there’s a lot more to chew on than in the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone. Here the world of the first book and the world of Will Stanton collide, and we glimpse both the high purpose and the kids at play. There’s more moral complexity here, a little more maturity… and then there’s also those very human kids getting jealous because Will’s friends with their Great-Uncle Merry.
I think the most appealing thing about this book for me is firstly the focus on Jane, on her actions, on her decency and insight as a human being actually being the key that unlocks victory for the Light… and secondly all the weird and wonderful hauntings of Cornwall that Cooper invokes. I want to know all the background of the weird night of horrors Jane glimpses relived due to the Greenwitch; I want to know who captains the black ship… It’s all fascinating and tantalising, and Cooper never explains too much. She leaves us wondering.
It’s not my favourite book of the sequence by far, but it has its own wild magic, for sure.
In this book, Amory and her husband Milo go — together, as a couple! with no drama about who is sleeping where! – to a country house at the request of her cousin, a dear friend, who was once on the periphery of a murder and has been called back to the site, along with other people, for some new revelation. Feeling uncomfortable, and knowing Amory’s stuck her nose in a few police investigations, she asks Amory to come — and though she’s no detective and not qualified, etc, etc, she goes, to support her cousin. So far, so very typical of the genre, honestly, and the rest of the book more or less continues that.
I don’t think I’ll continue with this series; it’s nice mindless stuff, and at least she’s stopped (for now at least) playing with the drama about Milo being a playboy. But it’s just a bit too much like everything else, and Amory hasn’t caught my attention in the way Daisy has. I might pick up the next book if I’m bored sometime, but the library wanted it back, and I didn’t care enough to reserve it again, so… there you go.
Part discussion of the Burgess Shale, part rebuttal of Stephen Jay Gould’s premises in Wonderful Life, this book was a bit of a slog to get through for me. It’s a topic I find fascinating, but something about the style mostly had me snoozing, even when he entertainingly decided to take a turn for the science fictional and imagine a whole dive into the seas at the time of the Cambrian explosion. (That bit was mostly entertaining through being surprising, though also through trying to bring to life the animals that could’ve been seen if that could happen, and how they would have behaved — the most speculative bit of the book, basically.)
I feel like Wonderful Life is probably the more fun to read and the more comprehensive, but it’s still fascinating to read about the point of view of a scientist who has actually worked with the Burgess Shale. Whatever you think of Conway Morris’ style, he’s a scientist Gould respected and an expert in his field.
After rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey books at a fairly leisurely pace for a while, I more or less sat down and devoured the ones I had left, in December. Murder Must Advertise has long been a favourite for the fun of seeing both somewhat of how an advertising agency works, and how Dorothy Sayers herself worked in such an environment. (One feels one’s glimpsed her particularly in the figure of Miss Meteyard, I think — though Sayers herself was writing copy, more in Wimsey’s job than Miss Meteyard’s.) The book features Peter’s one real sustained undercover op: he embeds himself into an advertising agency under the name of Bredon, sniffing out a murder and a dope gang, all at once.
It’s also one of those books with a sincere sense of danger, and a bittersweet ending in which Peter allows a man the dignity of choosing the manner of his own death rather than immediately telling the police what he’s worked out. That tendency is one of the things that irritates me about Peter as a sleuth; his code of honour means he feels he has to allow people an out, even if that out is an honourable suicide. Of course we know that it never does go wrong, for Peter, but it could and it’s a flaw in him for me that he’s always so tempted to put the decision in a murderer’s hands. In this case, he suggests a method of suicide to someone that means their family won’t be overshadowed by the trial — but leaves him no chance of a fair trial. Peter is judge and jury, and the murderer themselves becomes their own executioner. It might not feel like cricket to turn people in to the police, but darn it, the legal system is there for a reason. Peter’s meant to be too decent to back someone against a wall and make them think all is lost, but still. Real people aren’t always right, or always decent.
All the same, for the most part it’s a bit of a romp, with Peter coming up with advertising slogans, and leading a double life to provide himself with alibis (of sorts). Harriet’s not really mentioned, and Bunter and even Parker are often in the background, with the setting and characters of the advertising agency taking centre stage. It makes a nice change.
I was surprised to read that this was something of a filler book, while Sayers was actually working on The Nine Tailors to get all the details right, but it makes sense in a way. It doesn’t advance Peter’s character arc much, or really do anything profound — apart from the last act of bravery on the part of a particular character.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
As so often with books that have enraged certain types, this isn’t the screed against white people that folks would have you believe. The essay of the title was written to explain that the author, Reni Eddo-Lodge, is tired of explaining prejudice to people not equipped to listen. She acknowledged in the original piece and in this book that that doesn’t mean all white people, and it certainly hasn’t meant that she’s stopped talking about race. But she’s given herself permission to avoid doing Racism 101 every five seconds, and more power to her — it’s easy enough to Google that shit, people. Whenever you have a minority identity, there’s questions you get asked and comments you have to hear that just recur like clockwork. I refuse to go back to my last hairdresser because I heard that tape starting with regards to my sexuality: “But have you ever tried going out with a man?” It’s tiring, and I can imagine it’s much more so when your difference is visible, when you can never choose whether it even has the chance of becoming a topic of conversation.
That said, this whole book is a way for Reni Eddo-Lodge to talk to white people about race — if we’re willing to listen. It’s UK focused, which I think was very much needed: a lot of the narrative online focuses on racism against African-Americans, and it’s different here in the UK… though, after reading this book, I have to admit it’s not as different as wishful thinking imagined. A lot of the problems with institutional racism are the same, and though we may have fewer shootings, that seems more likely to be because we have fewer armed police officers than because our attitudes are markedly different.
It’s very much worth reading this, even if you think you’re pretty up to date and in the know. There’s history I had no idea of, attitudes that are alive and well which I didn’t know were still considered acceptable, and overall, further to go than I thought. For that reason, this isn’t an easy read (though it was easy in the sense of being well-written and easy to follow) — and I sense that Eddo-Lodge was still pulling her punches for white people’s sake, even so.
Dead in the Water is the 6th in the Daisy Dalrymple series. In this book, Daisy and Alec are officially engaged, and he’s actually got to face her family — thankfully, her more likeable aunt, and not more time with her strict and old-fashioned mother! Of course, as usual, Daisy quickly falls over a fraught situation, expects murder, and eventually gets it. The same formula is in place here as usual: a crime is committed, and by the time Alec investigates, Daisy’s picked someone to champion. In this case, it’s actually someone she doesn’t even like, who she feels deserves better than he’s been getting all the same.
It’s little things like that (Daisy not liking the person she champions) that help bring some variety to the series; if it was always the exact same kind of person, it’d quickly get tedious, but there’s always just enough variation that it works. For me, and so far, at least. Daisy herself is a worthy sort of heroine: not totally unflappable, but practical and trying to keep her head; a girl who works for her living when she doesn’t have to (except of course, she considers that she does have to, valuing the work); someone with a sense of justice. Alec, too, is a basically decent guy, doing his best to find the culprits and put aside personal feelings. And their relationship is sweet, too.
It didn’t blow me out of the water (heh), but again it’s a fun entry in a series that’s working for me.
This is a mostly textbookish sort of primer on the Mycenaeans: a bit more up to date than the Penguin classic on the Greeks I read recently, by Kitto, but not necessarily in line with the latest ideas as I remember them either. He relies quite heavily on Homer as a historical source; although I know there is certainly some historicity in Homer (the descriptions of armour and other artefacts are often correct in Homer for when we think the Trojan War occurred, rather than for when the epic was written down, suggesting that it does have a good deal of content from being originally composed nearer in time to the actual events), it’s also full of Gods and magic — not usually considered key markers of accurate history writing.
It was basically what I expected from something of a rather textbooky nature, though: dry at times, expanding on some not-necessarily-interesting (to the casual reader, anyway) points, and generally taking a long time to get where it was going. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to those without a deep interest in the details.
It strikes me, reading these books now, that just as Tolkien tried to write ‘a mythology for England’, so did Cooper try to write ‘a mythology for Britain’. This book is addressed rather insularly to the British reader — the Old Ones are ‘as old as this land’, not ‘as old as Britain’: the reader is assumed to be British. However, and this is a relief for me, the reader is rarely if ever assumed to be a child or to belong to a particular era or group of people. Cooper is more subtle in her editorial than Tolkien or Lewis (given here as examples because both of them speak directly to the reader a good deal).
All the same, it’s a mythology for Britain, or even of Britain (don’t get Tolkien scholars arguing too much about which he said and what he meant): even in the most juvenile of the books, Over Sea, Under Stone, there’s a good deal about invaders assimilating and becoming British, about the power of the British character. It’s explicit, oddly enough, when Will’s father speaks to Merriman: “You’re not English, are you?” And Will is surprised to notice hostility in his usually mild father’s eyes. (And I was surprised to note that he said English; I shouldn’t have been, given the historical gulf between Welsh and English, but I thought this series in particular would be better about that, given the setting of the fourth and fifth books, and the narrative importance of King Arthur and his very Welsh son.)
Perhaps a modern liberal writer would be inclined to paint the Dark not as the invader, but the insider who refuses to change. Not the waves of invaders (or migrants, or refugees, depending on how you view them) but those who insist upon Englishness as an inherent good that can be corrupted and ruined by contact with the non-English… Mind you, Cooper covers that angle too, in Silver on the Tree, so I’m getting ahead of myself.
Putting the insularity of the book aside, The Dark is Rising is the first in the series to give a real idea of what’s going on. It’s here that the mythology takes shape: the Light versus the Dark, the role that Merriman (and now Will, and the other Old Ones we’re introduced to) has to play, and some of the tangled British legends that contribute — Herne the Hunter, the anonymous king given a partially Viking ship burial (suggested by Drout as being the son of Scyld Scefing, from Beowulf), Merlin…
It’s also the first to evoke and try to portray more adult emotions. Instead of being purely focused on children, this book has an odd half-life. Sometimes Will is a child (and behaves as such, forgivably — his moment of jubilation when the Dark are drawn back, which leads to the Lady having to expend her power, is a lovely touch in my opinion) and sometimes he’s much older than his years, understanding of the nature of people, time, religion… So you have both his delight in snow on his birthday, and his lonely understanding that he is now set utterly apart from his family, from everyone he has ever loved. The story of Merriman and Hawkin is full of love and regret, and is not a simple story of betrayal and forgiveness: there is much going on between the two that a younger reader can simply ignore, but the older reader can savour as a more complex layer on top of the adventure story.
There are also some beautiful set-pieces in this book: some of the descriptions of awe and delight in the magic of the Light, but also the moments of being part of a family, the warmth of Will’s family Christmas.
It’s worn better than Over Sea, Under Stone because there is a lot more to consider, but all the same, I think I need to set it aside for a couple more years now so I can come back to it fresh. That I will come back, I have no doubt.
At one point, I read The Dark is Rising trilogy at Christmas every year, lining up the timeline of The Dark is Rising itself with the season, as the most obviously timed event in the books. I still maintain that it’s a good series: Cooper did some clever things with mythology and history. I recently read an article by Michael D.C. Drout, ‘Reading the Signs of the Light’, which made that very clear (though that essay is more focused on the second book of the series onwards than on this one). Cooper also has a very deft touch with character: the children behave like real children, with their bursts of moodiness, sibling rivalries, etc.
The main issue, really, is that I’ve read these books too much. Everything is all too familiar — though there are scenes that bring back the old dread and excitement even so, like Barney’s journey alone into the cave under the rocks, and Simon’s chase scene when he escapes with the map. This is the most juvenile of the books, and has worn the least well, all the same. It’s focused on the story from the point of view of the children, without a real idea of the seriousness and significance of the quest.