Tag Archives: Susan Cooper

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Dark is Rising’ (Sequence)

The intrepid Booksmugglers have been reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books over the past while, reviewing them each in turn, and reading their take on the books finally gave me the impetus to dust off my omnibus edition and read the whole sequence, start to finish. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and so for several weeks now I’ve been cooking dinners with this book in one hand, or taking a morning cup of tea while reading a chapter or two, and slowly but surely I’ve worked my way through it.

It’s been a bittersweet experience, weirdly enough.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

One of the reasons the Booksmugglers’ posts made me yearn to read the books again was that, well, their mini-reviews weren’t entirely positive. Some of them spoke of vague plots and wishy-washy worldbuilding, and suchlike, and I immediately sprang to the defence of my beloved books. ‘You’ll not talk about one of my favourite series that way,’ I thought. ‘I’ll show you!’

But. Well. Actually, the Booksmugglers have a point.

I read these books years ago, and I think time might have gilded them slightly with an air of perfection that they don’t, strictly speaking, really have. They’re still marvellous books – and they’re still up there in my pantheon of ‘best of all time’ – but there are things about them that I notice now, on my re-read, that I didn’t pick up on before. Perhaps that’s because when I read them first, I was only beginning to immerse myself in the fabulous world that is children’s fantasy fiction and I wasn’t as familiar with the genre as I am now. It might also have something to do with the fact that the first book in the series – Over Sea, Under Stone – was originally written in the 1960s, with the sequels following throughout the 70s. One of the first things I’ll say about the story here is that we don’t really get a feel for what, exactly, the heroes are fighting for until the very very end – and, in my edition, that means you need to read over 700 pages to get to that point. All the story up to then is amazingly rich in language and folklore and dialogue and characterisation, of course, but sometimes the proceedings can feel a bit lacking in tension, or drama, or danger. This, I think, is a bit of a problem.

The first book introduces us to the three Drew siblings (Jane, Simon and Barney) who are irrepressibly energetic, and have a wonderful dynamic. They’re drawn so well, and their interactions are so true to life, that the characters make the story a joy to read. They are on holiday in Cornwall with their parents, staying in a rented house with their ‘Great Uncle’ Merry, a man who is a friend of their mother’s family and has been in their lives as long as they can remember. They know he’s not really related to them, but they refer to him throughout as ‘Great Uncle’, or as ‘Gumerry’, a childhood shortening of the name. Tall and grey-haired, Merry is (in my mind) always going to look and sound like Sir Ian McKellen, possibly due to the fact that he’s slightly mysterious, comes and goes as he pleases, and talks in riddles a lot of the time, rather like another famous character played on-screen by that venerable actor. In any case, the first book is an adventure to find the first of several Objects of Power which will help the Light hold out against the Dark, which is (apparently) rising. So far, so good.

Book Two, The Dark is Rising, is where we first meet Will Stanton and his massive family. Will is the youngest of nine children (though he later finds out he had a brother, Tom, who died in infancy), and one of the most charming aspects of the Stantons is the way in which Cooper portrays them. Every scene in which they appear is filled with life, and bustle, and noise, and chatter – just as a real oversized family would be. Will turns eleven at the beginning of The Dark is Rising, and this momentous birthday heralds a huge change in his life. He realises he is not only a small boy, but also the last in a long line of Old Ones – beings of huge power, sent to stand against the Dark. He has a quest, to find the six Signs which will give the Light power to hold off the Dark when it rises, and they sort of fall into his lap as he goes about his quest. And so, on we go.

Then, we’re back to the Drews, in Cornwall, for Greenwitch, in which another Object of Power has fallen into the wrong hands, and the children need to get it back. This, I think, is my favourite of the books; I adore the Greenwitch, and the mythology surrounding her, and the fact that Jane plays a vital role in this story. But, again, we’re constantly reminded of the fact that the children are never in any real danger. ‘I will not let you come to harm,’ Merry tells them, over and over; this dilutes the power of the tale, in my eyes.

For The Grey King, we’re in Wales, where we meet Bran Davies, a young boy with white hair, tawny eyes and mysterious origins. He and Will are thrown together on another quest, to find the source of (and neutralise) the power of the Grey King, a major Lord of the Dark, and retrieve another Object of Power from him. Bran is an awesome character, and I love the Welsh language which is used so liberally and effectively throughout this book and the next, and I really loved Bran’s backstory. When we find out the truth of who he is and where he comes from, it’s a moment of huge emotion.

And then, finally, we come to Silver on the Tree. The Dark is finally rising. The showdown takes place. Another quest – with Will and Bran at the heart of it – has to take place, to find another Object of Power, the most important one of all. Then, the boys, along with Merry and the Drews and a few brave mortals, stand against the mighty powers of the Dark at a pivotal point in Time and space. It’s beautiful, and wonderfully written, and evocatively described. But it takes ages.

These books are complex, and layered, and full of mythology, folklore, Arthuriana, and natural knowledge about seasons, flowers, landscapes, and farming that give them such a whole, rounded richness – that beauty is what I remembered so well. Cooper’s language is stunning, and the descriptions can be breathtaking. But for all that, there is a lack of development of the world (or worlds), there’s very little logic, sometimes, in the quests (the children are told to do things ‘just because this is how it has to be’), and there’s ambiguity the whole way along about why, exactly, the Light is seen as the ‘good’ side and the Dark the ‘bad’. The Light seems to do terrible things, at times, to achieve its ends, and the Dark doesn’t seem to do much besides get thwarted and make threats, up until the end. I did love the way Cooper links the rise of the Dark to the waves of invaders to the British Isles, and ties it in to British history, and I loved all the characters, particularly the noble and courageous John Rowlands, who makes a choice at the end of the sequence that seems beyond the power of any mortal man – but he does it to save the others, and because he always does what is right.

So. I love these books. I loved them first time, and I love them still. But it’s true; they’re a bit woolly at points, and rather vague, and if you’re looking for solid worldbuilding, you won’t find it here. But they’re amazing stories all the same, featuring some of the best writing – for children, or for anyone – that I’ve ever read. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge and read them again.


Book Review Saturday – ‘Ghost Hawk’

Susan Cooper’s most recent novel, Ghost Hawk, is a masterpiece.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

This is a big statement coming from a person who has adored every word of every Susan Cooper novel that she has, thus far, read: but I stand by it.

Having said this, I have read several reviews of Ghost Hawk which criticise its author’s treatment of Native American characters and traditions. I am no expert, so I won’t have much to say about Susan Cooper’s treatment of her historical sources, but I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect at all by saying that I enjoyed this book.

Ghost Hawk opens with a description of a young Native American man using a bitternut hickory tree to form the handle of a tomahawk. He places the blade in a natural ‘V’ formed between two branches, and ties the branches together so that they grow around the blade. Eleven years later, the man brings his young son to this same tree and, apologising to it, cuts it down in order to give the boy the completed tomahawk. The young son is Little Hawk who, at eleven, is ready to undertake the initiation ceremony of his tribe which will turn him from boy to man. As well as the tomahawk he is presented with double-lined moccasins and a dangerously sharp knife, which his father received from a white man in exchange for some expensive goods; with these treasures, he is sent out into the wilderness in the middle of winter to survive – and to listen for the voice of his Manitou, or spirit guide. The first section of the book takes us through Little Hawk’s struggle to live through his ordeal, his encounters with wild animals and weather which almost spell his death, and his intelligent way of thinking about the natural world and resources all around him.

Eventually, Little Hawk returns home to find his village utterly changed. In time he meets a white man, Benjamin Wakeley, and Benjamin’s young son John – and these characters become central to the second section of the book. One day there is a terrible accident, witnessed by John, and as a result of what happens that day he and Little Hawk become inextricably linked to one another, their lives tied together in a profound way.

The second section of the book deals with John who – also aged eleven – is sent away from home to become an apprentice cooper. His foster family are kind and welcoming, but the people among whom he now lives are – like the stepfather his mother married shortly before he was sent away – hardline Puritans. They are bent on conquest and the seizing of land from the Pokanoket tribe, and others, who have lived in the area they are now claiming as their own for thousands of years. I found the descriptions of life among the colonists absorbing, even though much of it was familiar from texts like The Crucible; a people running from religious oppression in their own country who take refuge in another, and proceed to destroy it and its people in the name of ‘God’. It made me angry, and sorry, and sad to be a Christian – and I think that was the point. Several characters, such as the sharp-nosed, cold-eyed Ezra, made me want to scream. There are kind and loving people among the New World colonists too, of course, including the Medleycotts, among whom John ends up living, and Huldah, the gentle girl who eventually becomes his wife. but even the most gentle and kind-hearted of them still keep a gun behind the door because ‘…no savage could be trusted’ (p. 291).

I found the book’s conclusion to be profoundly upsetting and ultimately very powerful, despite the fact that it has enraged other reviewers, who wondered what the point of the book had been. I would suggest that the very pointlessness of the plot’s denouement is its point; such is human nature. I didn’t much care for the very end, when the narrative intrudes into the modern day: had I been the author, I would have found another way to finish the story out. That, however, is the only thing I didn’t really enjoy. I found the twist mid-way to be one of the bravest and most effective things I’ve ever read, and I loved Little Hawk, and his grandmother Suncatcher, and his sister Quickbird, and I loved John and Huldah too. As one would expect, a Susan Cooper-penned novel is always a work of beauty, and this is no different; it’s gorgeously written and wonderfully paced, though its historical span and length might make it more a book for teens or adults than children.

However. And this is a big however.

As mentioned above, I have read several commentators who have taken issue with this book and how it ventures dangerously close to ‘white saviour’ territory, wherein a ‘white’ (usually ‘old’ European) character is portrayed as somehow saving the ‘native’, whether it’s by literally saving the life of a character in the text or by playing a central role in a historical event that didn’t actually occur that way in reality. There are some examples of that in this book, including one where John saves the life of a Native American child who turns out to be Metacom, who goes on (in history) to become King Philip of the Wampanoag. Some commentators have taken offence at this, saying that it’s ridiculous to portray a white man as the ‘saviour’ of Metacom; I would respectfully suggest it’s nothing more than a plot necessity in order to work John’s story into that of Metacom and his tribe. I do see why some readers would be upset or offended by the episodes in the book where John inserts himself into tribal business, but there were white people of this period who did learn Native American languages and who did try to bring peace between the peoples, and who – for various reasons – did not treat the native peoples like lesser human beings. I didn’t pick up on any of the controversial points while I read the book, and while I don’t wish to be an apologist for colonialism I would say that I don’t think Susan Cooper was trying to be, either.

What I was left with after I’d finished reading Ghost Hawk was a profound sadness at how native peoples were destroyed by European settlers, as well as sadness at how these same European settlers tore one another apart, all in the name of religion. The book is about how all people are one, and how manmade misunderstandings and lack of common language can cause such huge rifts and such terrible destruction, and how even a small amount of consideration, compassion and kindness can make the difference between war and peace.

So, even though some Native American commentators have, for entirely understandable reasons, decided to come out against this book I would recommend it, and I enjoyed it. It broke my heart into shards, though, so be warned.

For a highly spoilerific (do not read this if you don’t want to have the brilliant twist mid-way through the novel ruined for you!) treatment of some of the cultural problems in the novel, have a read of Debbie Reese’s articles on the American Indians in Children’s Literature website.

A portrait of Metacom, or Metacomet (a.k.a. King Philip) taken from Benjamin Drake's 1827 history of King Philip's War. Image: en.wikipedia.org

A portrait of Metacom, or Metacomet (a.k.a. King Philip) taken from Samuel Drake’s 1827 history of King Philip’s War.
Image: en.wikipedia.org

Top Ten Tuesday REWIND – Klaatu Barada Nikto*

There’s this really cool meme I’ve been seeing on all the best blogs (dahling) over the past few weeks, and it’s called Top Ten Tuesday. It’s hosted by the lovely people over at The Broke and the Bookish, and – I’ve got to say – I’ve been wondering about taking part for a while now.

So, in honour of the fact that I took the plunge back into submitting work for publication yesterday (because it’s the ‘being brave enough to submit’, not ‘actually getting the nod’ that counts), I thought perhaps I’d try this other new thing today.

Because, you know me. I love new things.

Image: marottaonmoney.com

Image: marottaonmoney.com


Today is a ‘Top Ten Tuesday Rewind’, which means you have the pick of a long list of Top Ten lists to choose from (the full list is on the Broke and the Bookish website); my choice is number 86 on that list.

Top Ten Books I Would Quickly Save If My House Was Going to Be Abducted by Aliens (or any other natural disaster)

Because aliens are so a natural disaster.

1. Elidor (but only if I can bring all my editions, currently three)

This one should come as zero surprise to anyone who has read this blog, ever.

Image: lwcurrey.com

Image: lwcurrey.com

The book which fed my childhood imagination? The book which gave me my love for medieval stuff? The book which frightened my shivering soul itself almost to the point of insanity – but which had me coming back for more? Yes. A thousand times, yes. I love this book, and so should you.

2. The Earthsea Quartet

Oh, wizard Ged and your wonderful ways! I couldn’t possibly leave you behind. Not even if giant silver humanoid killing machines were smashing through my window. What would I do without the magnificence of Orm-Embar, the calm dignity of Tenar, the terror of the Dry Land? No. I would bring my Earthsea Quartet, and I would try to smuggle in ‘Tales from Earthsea’ and ‘The Other Wind’, too.

Dash it all. I’d just clear off my entire Ursula Le Guin shelf, and have done with it.

image: aadenianink.com

image: aadenianink.com

3. Six Middle English Romances, ed. Maldwyn Mills

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

I don’t have a reason for this beyond the following: I am a huge giant nerd; I love Middle English, particularly these six texts, and I can’t imagine not having them to hand; I would want to save them from the huge squid-like aliens with their giant fangs and scant regard for human culture; most importantly, they rock. Seriously.

4. Lords and Ladies

Terry Pratchett has written a lot of books. I would, of course, want to save them all if something with far too many legs was attempting to rip off my head, but I think I would save this one as a representative volume. Mainly, it’s because ‘Lords and Ladies’ is my favourite of the Discworld books, but it’s also because my current edition was a gift from my husband. So, you know. Kudos.

5. The Dark is Rising Sequence

Aha. I see you are on to me. ‘What’s all this, then? Saving trilogies and quadrilogies and that? You’re cheating!‘ Well, yes. Yes, I am. But the ‘Dark is Rising’ books are all in one volume, so therefore it counts as one book. Stuff it, aliens.

image: yp.smp.com

image: yp.smp.com

This book is far too excellent. I couldn’t allow it to fall into the hands of an alien civilisation, possibly because they’d eat it and spit it out and that would be that. So, it’s coming.

6. The Little Prince

I have four editions of this. Two in English, one in French and one in Irish. I’m bringing ’em all.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

What would be the point of surviving an alien attack, I ask you, if I leave behind a book which teaches me about the love of a little boy and his flower, or the loneliness of a fox, or the fact that every desert has an oasis at its heart, or how laughter amid the stars sounds like little bells, or what a boa constrictor who has swallowed an elephant looks like? Non. This book is precious. It’s coming.

7. Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, ed. Christopher Betts/Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales/Alan Garner’s Collected Folk Tales/Grimm Tales, ed. Philip Pullman

This speaks for itself, I feel. Yes, they are four separate books but come on. How can you save Perrault without Grimm? How can you leave behind Garner’s British folktale treasury? How can you expect me to walk out the door Angela Carter-less? It’s not happening.

image: goodreads.com

image: goodreads.com

This isn’t just about saving my favourite books (even though these are all my favourite books); it’s about saving human culture from the ravening maw of destruction. These books are, collectively, a brilliant gem of human culture. Truth. (Also, they’re pretty.)

8. Neverwhere and/or American Gods

I’m beginning to get the feeling that I’ll be eaten like an oversized, screaming hors d’oeuvre by these alien overlords. I’ll be too busy dithering at my bookshelves to bother about running away. Perhaps I should prepare a grab-bag of necessities, just in case?

Image: list.co.uk

Image: list.co.uk

I cannot choose between ‘American Gods’ and ‘Neverwhere.’ I can’t! Could you?

Then, of course, there’s the graphic novel adaptation of ‘Neverwhere’ (as illustrated handsomely above), which I also love, and then – horrors! – there’s my ‘Sandman’ collection, which I could hardly bear to leave behind… curse you, Neil Gaiman, for being so talented. You, and you alone, will be responsible for my being chewed up by aliens.

9. What Katy Did/What Katy Did Next

Susan Coolidge’s masterpieces kept me company all through my childhood. I owned a beautiful hardback edition of these two books, all in one volume, which – now that I think about it – I haven’t seen for a while.

I was fascinated by Katy and ‘all the little Carrs’, and the lemonade they used to make and the swing outside their house and the descriptions of their area and Katy’s utter gawkiness and… all of it. Just all of it. I loved these stories as a little girl, and so they’re coming.

I just hope I find my copy of the book before the aliens get here.

10. Whatever Jeanette Winterson I can get my hands on before the killer death-rays start blowing the roof off my house

Yeah. So, I have a problem with Jeanette Winterson, too. Do I save ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’? How can I save that and not save ‘Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy’? And then, how can I ask myself to live the rest of my (probably, rather short) life without ever casting my eyes upon ‘Sexing the Cherry’ again? I don’t feel life would be worth living without ‘The Passion.’

And that’s before we get anywhere near her children’s books.

Image: harlequinteaset.wordpress.com

Image: harlequinteaset.wordpress.com

I think what we can all take from this exercise is that if aliens do arrive on my fair isle, I shall not survive. However, at least I shall die happy, in the company of my books, and that is more than I deserve.

Happy Tuesday to you.

*Psst! Did you see what I did there?

Here we go again…

I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.

If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’

Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.

Image: unrealitymag.com

Image: unrealitymag.com

My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.

The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.

In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.

Image: cafepress.com

Image: cafepress.com

For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.

One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.

And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.

Image: m.inmagine.com

Image: m.inmagine.com


Book Review Saturday – ‘King of Shadows’

There are some of you who will know that ‘King of Shadows’ is a Susan Cooper novel, and of you’re aware of this author and her work, you will probably also know that there is no such thing as a bad Susan Cooper novel. You might also be wondering why I’m reviewing a book which was first published in 1999; I hate to admit this, because I’m a huge fan of the author, but ‘King of Shadows’ is a new book, to me. I really wish I hadn’t left it so long to read it.

Image: boomerangbooks.com.au

Image: boomerangbooks.com.au

I am going through a ‘time travel’ phase with my reading at the moment. As well as ‘King of Shadows’, I’ve also read ‘Hagwitch’ by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick in the last few weeks and I’m currently reading the (utterly marvellous) ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ by Connie Willis. This is largely because ‘Tider’, my own little book, features time-travel, of a sort; becoming familiar with the norms of the genre is important to me. I love books which use the idea of ‘time-slip’, where there are two interlinked stories being told side by side, one which takes place in ‘the present’ (whenever that is) and the other which takes place in the past, or the future; ‘Hagwitch’ is a book like this. ‘King of Shadows’ has some time-slip features, but it’s largely a book about a boy going back in time, for a very specific and important reason.

The book opens in a rehearsal room. A group of young actors are preparing themselves for a special performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, to be staged in the refurbished Globe Theatre in London; all the players are American, and to them, it’s the trip of a lifetime. They are a specially assembled troupe, all male, designed to mimic the original staging conditions of Shakespeare’s play – because, of course, in Shakespeare’s time women could not act on stage – and they have all been hand-picked for their particular acting talents. Among these wonderful young actors is a boy named Nathan Field, who, as well as being a marvellously talented actor, is dealing with the painful loss of his father and mother. The dynamics between the boys in the acting troupe – the inevitable bullying, friendship-forging, and competitiveness – is really well handled, and Cooper skilfully brings us into the heart of the group.

When the boys arrive in London, Nathan (or ‘Nat’) barely has time to acclimatise before he falls ill. After dinner one evening, he becomes extremely sick, and is rushed to hospital; he slips into unconsciousness, but not before having a vision of himself being taken out of the world, and flying over the surface of the earth like he was floating in space…

When he wakes, he finds himself in a strange place – a smelly, loud, overwhelming place, where people speak with strange accents. The strangest thing of all, though is this: everyone seems to know Nat. They know his name, they know who he is, and in this new and disorienting setting, Nat is still an actor with a dramatic troupe. He is engaged in rehearsals for a play – a new, exciting play called ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – and gradually, Nat realises he has travelled back in time. He has, for some reason, wound up in 1599, and even more astoundingly, he is one of Shakespeare’s own players, and part of the play’s original production.

Image: shakespeare.mit.edu

Image: shakespeare.mit.edu

Susan Cooper is an author whose writing leaves me breathless. She never fails to reduce me to tears at least once during the reading of her novels, and this one is no different. The relationship which develops between Nat and Shakespeare is almost unbearably beautiful; Nat has lost his parents in a life-rending tragedy, and Shakespeare has just lost his son, Hamnet. The two bond, in a deep and loving way, over their shared grief, and Cooper explores this in a way which is never mawkish, but which is simply touching and true. As an actor, Nat knows how lucky he is to have ended up as part of this group of actors, and he makes the most of every second, never knowing where (or when) he will be when he wakes up or whether he’ll be wrenched out of this world at any moment. His initial disorientation and discomfort at Elizabethan life soon turn into deep attachment, both to the era and the people he meets, and every moment he spends there is filled with urgency and the poignancy of imminent loss. Every tiny detail of his life and of the Elizabethan world is described with such skill that the reader feels they are living in sixteenth-century London as they read; I felt, at all times, that I was part of the book I was reading.

Eventually, of course, things have to return to normal. The book’s ending is a little exposition-heavy, but I hardly even noticed: I was so busy enjoying the explanation for Nat’s adventure, and the connections between him and the past, that I was happy to ignore the slightly unrealistic way in which Nat’s announcement that he has met the real Shakespeare is accepted, eventually, by his friends. I found myself moved to tears by the story, and by the sensitive way Susan Cooper handled her material, but also because I loved Nat so much. As a character, he is marvellous. The burden he has to bear is one which would crush even the strongest of adults, but he has held on to his passion for acting throughout everything he has suffered, and the reader knows he is going to have a wonderful and beautiful life. He is exquisitely described, as one would expect of Susan Cooper, and the interplay between the modern and Elizabethan world is thrilling.

Of Susan Cooper’s books, nothing will ever replace ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence in my list of favourites. ‘Victory’ was my next favourite, after those, but it has now been knocked off that spot by ‘King of Shadows’. I loved this book. If you haven’t read it already, then read it now. If you’ve read it before, read it again.

Whatever you do, just read.

Happy weekend!

Recommended Books (Vol. 1)

The other day on Twitter, a very kind lady named Steph asked me if I’d ever blogged a list of books I’d recommend. I thought about it, and realised that I hadn’t, really, ever written a post like that. I do random book reviews, and I’ve talked a bit about why I buy certain books and not others (which, no doubt, you’re aware of if you’ve been hanging out here for a while), but I’ve never put together an actual list of books I would recommend to others.

It’s been on my mind for a few days now, and I think I’ll give it a go.

It’s a bit scary, though, in some ways. It’s sort of like opening the door to your mind and showing people around, hoping they won’t turn their nose up at your choice of curtains or finger your upholstery in a derisory way, going ‘Really? This fabric? Couldn’t she afford anything better?’

'Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn't see that at one of my candlelight suppers!' Image: politicsworldwide.com

‘Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn’t see that at one of my candlelight suppers!’
Image: politicsworldwide.com


So, the list of books below are some of those which I found world-enhancing, life-changing, utterly wonderful in every way, and which I’d recommend everyone reads as soon as possible. Here goes. Be gentle.

The Silver SwordIan Seraillier. I first read this book in first class at primary school (so, I was about seven or eight); we were going through a World War II phase, wherein we read this book, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank, and another book I adore called I Am David by Anne Holm.  Everyone in the world has heard of Anne Frank, but not everyone has heard of the others. So, that’s why these ones are recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle. I brought this book on a family holiday when I was about ten, and I lost it. I almost lost my reason, too. The strop was almighty and unmerciful, and nobody escaped my wrath. I actually found it again years later, after I’d already bought myself two replacement copies, but I didn’t apologise to my family for the temper tantrum. So it goes.

Speaking of l’Engle, though – as much as I adore A Wrinkle in Time, I’m not completely sold on the other books in the series of which this book is the first volume. As they go on, they get a bit less interesting and a bit more ‘preachy’. But Wrinkle is definitely worth reading.

I’ve already wittered on about The Little Prince and Elidor before, so I won’t do it again.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and The Owl Service, all by Alan Garner, are so amazing that I don’t have a word to describe them. Just read them, as soon as possible, and then read everything Alan Garner has ever written, including Boneland, Strandloper, Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, The Voice that Thundersand anything else I may have forgotten.

I need to go and have a lie-down now, after thinking about Alan Garner’s books. They’re that good.

Right. Next, move on to Susan Cooper, and her magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence of books; once you’ve read them, try Victory for size, a story which links the modern day to the Battle of Trafalgar, and which is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. I read the last fifty pages of it through a veil of tears. Just a fair warning.

Then, there’s Jenny Nimmo, and her Snow-Spider Trilogy, which is fabulous.

There’s also John Connolly, who has written for children (beautifully), but who also has the marvellous Charlie Parker detective novels, all of which are worth reading; my favourite is Bad Men.

I’ve spoken before on this blog about Jeanette Winterson. To be honest, I’d find it impossible to recommend one of her books above any of the others, but if I had to, it’d be Sexing the Cherry. Or The Passion. Or The Power Book. Or Written on the Body. Gah! I can’t choose. Read them all, and you decide.

Margaret Atwood. What can I say about her? Read The Edible Woman, and follow it up with Surfacing, and then let me know if your mind is blown. Because mine was when I first read these books. I was the same age as Atwood had been when she’d written them, and I went into a funk of ‘what on earth am I doing with my life?’ that lasted about four years.

It’s pretty unfashionable not to read and love Neil Gaiman these days; I’m no exception to the rule. Pick anything he’s written and give it a go, and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it. I recommend all his novels (perhaps not Anansi Boys as much as the others, for some reason), but my absolute favourite Gaiman is Sandman, his graphic novel. Genius.

I love Garth Nix. I read The Abhorsen Trilogy several years ago, and was astounded. Those books inspired me to write more than (I think) any other young adult/children’s book I’ve ever read. Give them a whirl, if you haven’t already.

When it comes to Ursula le Guin, everyone recommends The Earthsea Quartet. Of course, I do, too. But there’s so much more to her than that. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Word for World is Forest are also amazing.

I’ve just finished reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, either. I took a chance on it, as I’d never read anything by the author before, and I was richly rewarded for it. A beautiful, completely unique book, it’s great and should be widely read.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando changed my life when I first read it. It showed me what a novel can do, by breaking every single narrative rule in the universe and then making a brilliant story out of the shards. Incredible.

Also, Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of stories). This book left a lasting impression on me. Everyone has read The Bell Jar (also wonderful), but not as many people have read Plath’s stories. So, do it.

I reckon that’s enough for one day. I have a feeling I’ll revisit this topic, because I’ve really enjoyed taking a stroll through my bookish memories.

Have you read any/all of the books I mention here? What did you think? Would you agree that they’re worth recommending to others, or am I off my trolley?

The Morning After

So, the world didn’t end as predicted, either for me personally or for humanity in general, which is good news. Even though it took the threat of an apocalypse to make me do it, I’m glad I exposed the bones of my WiP-idea yesterday. I was afraid, in many ways, to make it public – it felt like a world-ending thing, to me. But, of course, it wasn’t. Like so many things, it seemed much bigger before I did it, and once it was done, I realised how small it was in the grand scheme of things.

It can be hard to keep going when you realise how tiny a speck you are, a dust-mote in the cathedral of the universe. Yet, we all manage it – day after day, lifetime after lifetime, we all keep on keeping on. I’m trying to understand my own insignificance as being a good thing; everything is fleeting, and nothing is forever. So, in the long view, it doesn’t matter if you have a bad day or if something doesn’t work out the way you wanted. My favourite quote from a movie is from ‘Terminator’ (1984); it’s not my favourite movie, but the words of the quote have resonated with me for years. The quote is: ‘In a hundred years, who’s going to care?’ It’s delivered by a waitress, who’d been having a very tough day, just before she meets her untimely death. In a hundred years, who’s going to care that I was ever here – it’s a liberating thought, and that’s important. It’s good to have some perspective, because it can be easy to panic and lose sight of the big picture when things seem to be working out wrongly. Perhaps my philosophy is a bit nihilistic, or a little too bleak – but it works for me!


Anyway. I’m taking my cheery little self off to do some Christmas shopping now. I hope this will be the last of the shopping, as I’m not a big fan of it at the best of times, but when you have to elbow your way through hundreds of people just to grab the last string-bag of sprouts, I think I’d rather be in that restaurant from Terminator, just before the killer android himself bursts through the door. I bought myself some books the other day as a small present to myself, because I intend to do a lot of reading this festive season – whether or not I get time to indulge is a different thing, though. I’m currently reading ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared’, by Jonas Jonasson – it’s as unusual and enjoyable as its title suggests. I’ll then be moving on to John Green’s ‘Paper Towns’, before (hopefully) getting to S.J. Watson’s ‘Before I Go to Sleep’, Darren Shan’s ‘Zom-B’ and Alan Early’s ‘Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent’.

hundred year oldAnd then, once I’ve devoured all of those, I intend to re-read Susan Cooper’s magnificent ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I probably won’t manage to get to it all, but hopefully I’ll get through as many words as possible. I think my well of inspiration needs to be refilled a little with the writings of others, and you just can’t go wrong with Susan Cooper. If you haven’t ever read her, I recommend you rectify that situation at your earliest convenience.

Because things might get a little crazy around here for a few days, and my blogging might not be as regular as normal, I’ll take this opportunity to wish all of you who celebrate Christmas a very happy festive season, and I hope the New Year brings peace, happiness and fulfillment to all of you.

(On a side note: 2013? It feels like we’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel…)

Happy Christmas! Happy New Year!

Christmas Lights in Dublin's Fair City

Christmas Lights in Dublin’s Fair City