Review – The Dark is Rising

Posted 5 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

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

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.

Rating: 4/5

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 5 January, 2019 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Hello folks! It’s been a slow week and I’m only just properly getting back to my posting schedule, but there have been some posts and there has been a new book! Technically I took back a book I already had and got a new book as a swap. I’m super interested in this one since I spent my Christmas prep time learning a new fabric-based craft for people’s gifts… Actually, first, let me show off said gifts! (Click to embiggen!)

The first pic is finished and framed ones; the second pic contains some of the other pieces I finished, and shows them drying on the radiator before being pressed and framed! (Thank you, wife, for making the pressing and framing part happen.)

So here’s the new book:

Cover of The Golden Thread by Kasia St Clair

Books read this week:

Cover of Rattle His Bones by Carola Dunn The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper Cover of Greenwitch by Susan Cooper Cover of The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip

Reviews posted this week:

Death Wears a Mask, by Ashley Weaver. Not bad, but mostly just kinda lukewarm brain candy — and the romantic entanglement between the main character and her playboy husband is wearing on me. 2/5 stars

Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper. The weakest of the series, and probably could’ve done without rereading this one, though Cooper’s deft touch with characterisation is still a joy. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

The Last Ten Books. A book tag with mostly interesting questions!
Game of Books 2019. My points-based ‘game’ that gives equal credit for many short books or one long book, while encouraging me to read my backlog too!
WWW Wednesday. An update on what I’ve been reading recently.
2018 Stats. A look back at my year in books!

Out and about:

NEAT science: ‘Neanderthal diets.‘ How do we know what Neanderthals ate? This post goes through one of the ways!

How’s everybody doing? Reading anything exciting?

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2018 Stats

Posted 5 January, 2019 by Nikki in General / 3 Comments

A belated happy new year to all of you! 2018 was a heck of a year which saw me completing a degree (for the third time), moving in with my wife permanently in the UK, and getting a new job (jobs, even!). Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve read less this year on an average books-per-day basis than ever since I started tracking. Last year I did some neat graphs using this site, so let’s go again! You can click each graph to see it larger; last year’s stats are here.


Other stats:

Total read: 245
Number of rereads: 45
Total page count: 73,891 (+17,005 from last year)
Most-read genre per month:

  • January: Fantasy
  • February: Fantasy
  • March: History
  • April: Fantasy
  • May: SF & Fantasy (tied)
  • June: Fantasy
  • July: Fantasy
  • August: Fantasy & Mystery (tied)
  • September: Mystery
  • October: Fantasy
  • November: History
  • December: Mystery

Number of ratings:

  • Five stars: 21
  • Four stars: 124
  • Three stars: 75
  • Two stars: 23
  • One star: 2

First book read: The Unbelievable Gwenpool: Believe It (Christopher Hastings)
Last book read: Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)
First book bought: The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood)
Last book bought: The Golden Thread (Kasia St Clair)

So pretty much no surprises here, and only minor changes year-on-year. The biggest changes have been in my consumption of science non-fiction (down this year) and mysteries (up this year). I’ve done a little more rereading, and maybe a little more reading from my backlog. Game of Books and the number of books I read are actually more closely related to each other this year, but despite reading fewer books overall, I read way more pages this year. So, Game of Books has been a success!

Overall I read less this year, of course, but I can report that the value (mostly based either on what I paid for the book, or RRP) of the books I read was way in excess of what I actually spent on books this year, so I’ve been making good use of libraries and my backlog!

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Review – Over Sea, Under Stone

Posted 4 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

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

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Death Wears a Mask

Posted 3 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Death Wears a Mask by Ashley WeaverDeath Wears a Mask, Ashley Weaver

Death Wears a Mask is another competent cozy-ish mystery in the same vein as the first, with the side plot of Amory’s playboy husband being, well, a playboy. There’s a fair bit of relationship drama here, where he gets into compromising situations and she refuses to quite believe he’s faithful to her. Plenty of misunderstandings on her side, while he’s actually mostly perfect (cares about her, acts wild but is faithful, etc). Spare me. I hope the oh-no-is-he-cheating drama is over as of this book, because yeesh.

The mystery itself was somewhat predictable, as was the resolution of the relationship drama. The attraction remains that it’s just a really easy and fast read, without being too involving emotionally or too full of guts and gore. A mild pleasure rather than something that bowled me over in any fashion.

Actually, I’m so lukewarm on this and only a little warmer on the following book (which I’ve already read — I’m just behind on actually writing up my reviews) that I wonder why I’m continuing with the series when I have so many lovely things to read.

Rating: 2/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted 2 January, 2019 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

Cover of To Davy Jones Below by Carola DunnWhat are you currently reading?

No surprises here this week: I’m partway through the next Daisy Dalrymple book, which is To Davy Jones Below. I’m enjoying Alec and Daisy being married at last, and so far free of making asinine assumptions about each other’s emotions (I’m still not over Styx and Stones and the weird blow-up in that book that lasted all of a chapter). Sending them off on a boat to the US is a good way of varying the setting.

Cover of Greenwitch by Susan CooperWhat have you recently finished reading?

I finished up rereading Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch; it felt so short! I love all the stuff it hints at with Barney being able to scry — there’s always so much material in this series for wondering about things for yourself. And Cooper is just so good with characters: the resentment of Will by Simon and Barney was great. Of course they didn’t welcome another boy hanging round with their Great-Uncle and having adventures too with open arms!

Cover of The Fellowship of the Ring by TolkienWhat will you be reading next?

I need to finish a library book or two, so probably John Man’s Ninja, or my reread of Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority (which I’ve been neglecting horribly). Or I might just curl up with my reread of The Lord of the Rings, which has also gone untouched so long. The possibilities are more or less endless.

What are you reading right now?

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Game of Books 2019

Posted 31 December, 2018 by Nikki in General / 15 Comments

It’s almost that time again! For the past few years I’ve been playing a kind of sort of game: a Game of Books! This year, I’m already set up to do a third year of it, alongside my sister (third year) and my wife (freshman). Basically: read books, earn points, stay on track.

A "Game of Books" image, based on the Iron Throne

The idea is to encourage me to meet not an arbitrary deadline of x books per year (which could be 200 really short books) but to give me a way of earning equal credit for each book, depending on effort and a few other factors.

So here’s the points system (for me):

PointsAcquisitionLengthJoy FactorSeriesHow long did it take to read?Bonus
12019Comic book, sub-150 pagesGIMME ITNone / Gave upTwo days or lessBook club book read on time
22017-2018200+ pagesI'm pretty excitedFirst book of a seriesA week or lessARC (2018 onwards)
32015-2016300+ pagesIt can waitMid-seriesA fortnight or lessRead within a week of purchase or borrowing
42013-2014400+ pagesBit reluctantLast book of a trilogyA month or lessRead in a day (if 300 pages+)
52011-2012500+ pagesWhy am I doing this?Last book of a seriesO shit, what?ARC from backlog (pre-2018)

So let’s take the book I just finished, Rattle His Bones. I bought it in 2018, so it’d earn me two points for that; it has around 250 pages, so another two points for that; I was pretty eager to read it, so two for that as well. It’s from the middle of a series (three points) and took me more than two days but less than a week to read (two points). It doesn’t fit any of my bonus criteria, so that’s 11 points in total.

How do I pick my yearly goal? I pick an average sort of book, calculate the points, and then multiply that by the number of books I’d like to read this year. That way, I get plenty of credit for books that are a big time investment, one way or the other, or more important for me to read — and I don’t get tempted to hit an arbitrary goal of 150 books this year by just reading a ton of comics (though comics have their place).

Why am I blathering on about this? Well, you’re all invited to join in! The spreadsheet is here. To join in, just claim yourself a sheet, lock it so no one else can edit it, and set yourself up. Feel free to copy/paste from my formatting, edit the points system yourself (you’ll see both my wife and my sister have different point systems to me, and that’s fine — the point is self-motivation), and generally play around with it.

See you in the spreadsheet?

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The Last Ten Books

Posted 30 December, 2018 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

This tag caught my attention — particularly since I had it by way of Calmgrove, who rarely (if ever) goes in for anything uninformative and dull.

1. The last book I gave up on:Cover of A Little History of Science by William F Bynum
Apparently it was A Little History of Science, by William Bynum. I didn’t think much of it; not only was it very brief and obvious for someone with my level of background knowledge — not that I’ve ever particularly studied the history of science, but the Open University is pretty keen on giving credit where it’s due and describing how discoveries were made — but there were things that were just plain wrong. Neither hieroglyphs nor Chinese characters are purely “pictographic” languages…

2. The last book I re-read:
I’m still in the middle of doing it: The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. It’s a seasonal reread for me, and I think I skipped last year, so it’s been good. Unfortunately, I think I’ve read it a bit too much; it’s overly familiar, these days, and has got rather worn. I’m trying to remember to see the little touches that I always liked best — I’ve always wondered about things like who Cooper meant by the half-Viking English king who received a secret ship burial with the Sign of Water, for instance.

3. The last book I bought:
The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, by Kassia St Clair. It looks satisfyingly wide-ranging — from Egyptian mummies to sports fabrics. I guess my appetite for this has been whetted by the Great British Sewing Bee, which has some references to where particular fabrics came from in the educational segments between challenges.

4. The last book I said I read but actually didn’t:
I don’t generally do this. So probably it’s something from university where I nodded and smiled through a lecture; I’m pretty sure I did actually finish Moll Flanders, but I might’ve abandoned Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note. Lor’, I hated that book. After that year I picked my own modules, of course, so there were much fewer things I just didn’t care to read.

5. The last book I wrote in the margins of:
I don’t do this to novels or even non-fiction I’m reading for fun, so the answer will be one of my textbooks. I think the last printed textbook the Open University sent me was Investigative and mathematical skills in science — I’m not sure now if Cell Biology or Human Biology had textbooks. If they did, then it will have been Unit 3: Challenging Cells, or some such title.

6. The last book I had signed:Cover of Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
Hmmm! I think the last book I actually had signed in person might be Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, but I’m sure I’m forgetting something, since that was so long ago!

7. The last book I lost:
I can’t think of it, it’s so lost! I think I’ve misplaced copies between my various abodes, but always kind of knew the book would be at the other place. Last one I noticed was Blood and Circuses, by Kerry Greenwood, and I know now that my mother has that. Oh no, I’ve thought of one — I have no idea where my copy of The Positronic Man is, which is a shame, since I read that over and over (and for which I racked up the most glorious library fine in my history of library fines, at the tender age of nine).

8. The last book I had to replace:
I think The Dark is Rising might be coming up for a replacement, if I can find a copy with the right kind of font. (I hate the big font used in a lot of children’s books!) I tend to be a fairly careful reader, so it’s not common. I know as a child my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth had to be replaced, possibly even twice; my mother read that to bits in tandem with me, though, as we both loved it.

Cover of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer9. The last book I argued over:
I keep having people argue with me over my distaste for Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval EnglandI’m thinking of getting up a bingo card for it with squares for ‘I’d like to see you do better’ and ‘life was just like that for women’.

10. The last book I couldn’t find:
Isn’t that more or less the same question as #7? Unless lost means ‘you definitely know you won’t get it back’, in which case my answer for #7 should’ve been my copy of The Gormenghast Trilogy, which a flatmate of mine carried off and never returned — we’ve pretty much lost touch now, so it’s lost to time for me, I think.

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 29 December, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Well, that was a Christmas! Lots of books have been acquired, including a vast amount of Daisy Dalrymple, and with that I have nooo problem!

Books acquired:

Cover of An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris Cover of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Cover of An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson. Cover of Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Cover of The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay Cover of A Mourning Wedding by Carola Dunn. Cover of Fall of a Philanderer by Carola Dunn Cover of Gunpowder Plot by Carola Dunn.

Cover of The Bloody Tower by Carola Dunn Cover of Black Ship by Carola Dunn. Cover of Sheer Folly by Carola Dunn. Cover of Anthem for Doomed Youth by Carola Dunn.

Books read this week:

 Cover of Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper Cover of Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers Cover of Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon Cover of Striding Folly by Dorothy L. Sayers

Number of books in: 12
Number of books read: 5
Number of books from the backlog read: 1
Rereads: 3
Library books: 0
Bought 2018: 1

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Christmas Limericks.‘ I wrote a limerick for each of our bunnies for the tag of their Christmas presents. This post has all four.
NEAT science: ‘Types of flu vaccine. Why are there three different types, and why do people get a different one based on age? I tell all!

And that’s it for this week! It’s been a very quiet week around here. Back to normal operations soon!

So how’s everyone else been? Good Christmas, if you celebrate?

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Weekly Roundup

Posted 22 December, 2018 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Hey all! It’s getting really close to Christmas, and everything’s being flung to the wind as I finish up the last few hand-crafted items I need to do. Am I overdoing it? Probably! Anyway, that’s why I’ve been quiet — I hope to be around a lot more once Christmas is done.

Still, there’s some new books this week, so this post needn’t be empty excuses!

Books acquired:

Cover of Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan  Cover of Mistletoe and Murder by Carola Dunn Cover of Die Laughing by Carola Dunn Cover of The Cobbler's Boy by Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison.

Cover of Bloodsworn by Erin Lindsey. Cover of Bloodforged by Erin Lindsey. Cover of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin and Charles Vess

Books read this week:

Cover of Rivers of London audiobook Cover of Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

Reviews posted this week:

The Roman Forum, by David Watkin. A fascinating, if somewhat anti-archaeology, view of the Roman Forum through time. 3/5 stars
Damsel in Distress, by Carola Dunn. Don’t worry, the damsel in the title isn’t Daisy, as she gets herself in and out of trouble with her usual aplomb. A fun entry in the series. 4/5 stars

Other posts:

Discussion: Libraries. Do you use ’em?
WWW Wednesday. The usual weekly update!

Out and about:

Once Upon A Blue Moon: ‘Transcript from the interview that contributed material for the article ‘Aliens from Outer Space: Make Us Into Your Leaders’, published Oct 2036‘. A short story about science, progress, and aliens. I wrote it for submission to an anthology, but it was rejected, so now it’s out in the world for free!

How’s everyone doing?

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