#TheDarkIsReading – a write up of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

The recent The Dark is Rising readalong on Twitter was hands down one of my favourite collective reading experiences. It couldn’t have been a more perfect example of how art inspires art, how creativity begets creativity. And that fuzzy feeling you get when you discover a whole army of like-minded people just can’t be beaten.

I was one of the readers discovering the books for the first time.

I did read Over Sea Under Stone first, back in mid-December, and loved my trip to the fictional Cornish village of Trewissick, and the opportunity to meander around the Grey House. A relatively simple story of three children who discover an Arthurian map in the labyrinthine depths of their holiday house, I so enjoyed Cooper’s ability to conjure place, atmosphere and the breathtaking excitement of being on an ‘adventure’. There’s also a strong sense of threat throughout (Cooper doesn’t hold back on the scares, which I always admire in good children’s writing) and Barney, Jane and Simon quickly discover that they’re not the only ones searching for the prize, and that the forces against them might be darker and less human than they imagined.

Over Sea Under Stone also introduces Great-Uncle Merry. Pay attention to him. He’s important. Not that you can easily gloss over him, of course. I loved this introduction:

‘Nobody knew very much about Great-Uncle Merry, and nobody ever quite dared to ask. He did not look in the least like his name… In his grim brown face the nose curved fiercely, like a bent bow, and the eyes were deep-set and dark. How old he was, nobody knew. ‘Old as the hills,’ Father said, and they felt, deep down, that this was probably right. There was something about Great-Uncle Merry that was like the hills, or the sea, or the sky; something ancient, but without age or end.’

I can see why more people connect with the second book, The Dark is Rising, as it really is the kind of book that creeps under your skin and pulls you into its world. There is a clever connection between the books but you really don’t need to have read one to enjoy the other, nor does the order in which you read them matter particularly, I’d have thought.

The Dark is Rising takes us to the Home Counties – Buckinghamshire to be more specific – moving between the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills. The book opens on Midwinter’s Eve, with Will waiting for his 11th birthday to begin. There’s an unsettling sense of something strange and evil massing outside his cosy family home and, although Will doesn’t know it yet, the gathering forces will pull him into a life-changing adventure in which he will discover that he is one of the Old Ones and must learn to harness their ancient power. What follows is a story of awakening, history, magic, knowledge and the awesome force of the natural world.

TDIR is such a wonderfully primal book. I so love stories, and writing in general, that plants its roots so deeply in the natural world. Cooper weaves a fabulous extended pathetic fallacy out of the weather so that it comes to feel like a character in its own right. And the gathering forest sentinels outside Will’s front door become powerful symbols of place and time. There’s a strong sense that the natural world acts as a gateway between time present, past and future, via pathways – or old ways – that can still be walked by those with instinct or intuition enough to know where their feet stand.

I think that idea of instinct or trusting to one’s senses is one of the things that makes the book resonate so well with readers today. In a world where so many people feel a sense of disconnection between their lives and nature, where screens take us out of a place where we can indulge in what it means to smell, touch and fully engage with the world around us, it’s so reassuring to feel like the natural world can still exert such a big influence on our lives. Of course, that ended up being truer for some than others when England saw some unusual (these days, anyway) December snow both before and after Christmas, and some American readers, including Cooper herself, were affected by the snow bomb cyclone.

It’s probably not a coincidence either that a book about dark forces should reassert itself in such a public way at the end of a particularly gloomy year and at a time when many people feel there are dark forces at work in the wider world. Funny how reviled politicians always seem to have shameful environmental policies too – that link between evil and the destruction of the natural world is a strong one.

If you’re thinking of reading TDIR, I’d say do it. I suspect I’ll become one of the many who re-read it around Midwinter each year.

And if you haven’t yet caught up on the Twitter discussion, it’s well worth a look using the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading (or #TheArtIsRising). Some admirably in-depth discussion of core themes, given the character limits, excellent photography, and some atmospheric and inspirational original artwork in a huge variety of mediums. @EmmaJGrey collected together some particularly good pieces of thematic art and for original works check out @RobinsonKH, @claireddean, @marlinhoister and @rudivanetteger.

Plus – SUSAN COOPER REPLIED! Which I’m still smiling about.

What a way to begin a new reading year.

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#TheDarkIsReading – A Midwinter Reading Group

Isn’t ‘midwinter’ just the best word?

A quick post today to bang a drum for an event that I’ve been quite excited about since hearing of it over on Dove Grey Reader.

Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird are hosting a worldwide readalong of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, second in her sequence of 5 books that goes by the same name. I missed out on the books as a child; how, I’m not quite sure. It’s so exactly the sort of thing I would have devoured and loved. It’s always a little sad not to catch a children’s book at the perfect, ‘magical’ age so when I heard about the readalong, the idea of enjoying them for the first time in the company of a few thousand other people (some newbies and some long-term fans) sounded like the ideal way to capture a little of the magic I might have experienced reading them as a child.

Because I am an annoying completist, I had to read the first book in the sequence beforehand – Over Sea Under Stone – but I’ve been reliably informed that isn’t essential.

The Dark Is Rising begins on midwinter’s eve, so the readalong picks up at the same otherworldly time of year (i.e. TODAY!). It’s due to carry on until Twelfth Night, but you can read at whatever pace suits you.

Julia Bird featured the event on her blog here, and you can keep abreast of the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading (inspired).

A book is not just for Christmas: 9 Christmas gift ideas for book lovers

Lots of people have already finished their Christmas shopping and to them I say ‘Congratulations!’ I very much wish I was done, but I’m not quite.

For anyone who might still be looking for some inspiration, I thought I’d share a few ideas for ‘Things to buy for book lovers who already own and buy a lot of books, making it tricky to buy for them without spending ages checking their shelves first’.

Persephone books – always a good option for gifting because they are just so beautiful. Persephone also do box sets and a book-a-month subscription service.

If you’re interested in subscription services, the gold standard (priced accordingly) is Heywood Hill’s A year in books. I would LOVE to try this one day; I’m currently living vicariously through Thomas at Hogglestock’s subscription. There are cheaper options out there, of course. Not on the High Street offer a couple of options and if you really know your giftee, you could always try doing your own!

For the book lover who regularly loans out their favourites, how about a personal library kit?

Someone once bought the book map for me and it is hands down one of my favourite things hanging on my wall. Good for hours of poring over!

If your giftee happens to like both books and Christmas, how about a book about Christmas? I’ve read Judith Flanders’ The Making of Home and can recommend her engaging style and eye for an interesting detail.

If you want to risk buying a book, go for a current one. How about the Waterstones’ Book of the Year? (I have seen SO much buzz about this and am desperate to read it. It’d be lovely to own the beautiful hardback version.)

Another recent book getting a wonderful write-up (and one that is so beautiful it is automatically elevated to ‘GIFT’) is Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’ enormous The Lost Words

How about giving someone the chance to meet one of their bookish idols? Both the Hay Festival and the Cheltenham Literary Festival offer gift vouchers for their events. There are bound to be others who do a similar thing.

And if you’ve saved every penny you found down the back of the sofa since the reign of Queen Victoria, you could perhaps swing for this? My own personal, well-a-girl-can-dream item.

An emotional move (and Margaret Forster’s ‘My Life in Houses’)

Sometimes books come into your life at just the right time. I’d had Margaret Forster’s sort of biography My Life in Houses on my ‘to read’ list for some time but had largely forgotten about it. Then I spotted it in the library a few short weeks ago. As the sad news of her death had broken only a little while before, I felt it was a very appropriate time to read some more of Forster’s measured, insightful prose and the topic couldn’t have been more fitting given events in my own life.

We’re moving you see, from the lush rolling hills of the Chilterns up to Worcestershire. As the crow flies (or the M40 corridor stretches, which is so much more prosaic), it’s only about 1 1/2 hours from here to there but the psychological and emotional leap that it represents is making into a very. big. thing. indeed.

Where we live now we have made friends and connections that run pretty deep. It’s hard to have a baby somewhere and not encounter comrades in arms who move swiftly from acquaintances to lifelines. We’ve reached that lovely stage where a jaunt into town is always rewarded by a familiar face and the occasional chat, which is a complete joy to someone who works from home.

Our little house, perched on the edge of the Chilterns AONB, walkable to the stately Thames, adjacent to a thriving market town and at the crossover point of not one but THREE national walking trails has been a very happy location for us indeed. I’m a lifelong member of the ‘location, location, location’ club and would happily sacrifice square footage for something inspiring and green outside my front door any day. My little home has been my idyll and my sanctuary and I’m so sad to be leaving it.

But sometimes there must be different priorities.

Our little girl, for one, who really needs her own bedroom. Our families, who we would like to be closer to and to see more of. Our work/life balance, which was being unduly affected by my husband’s job regularly taking him here and there across the country or keeping him tied to a screen late into the evening. So we made some big decisions. And sometime in the next few months, at the whim of solicitors, estate agents and the ominous “chain”, we will exchange here for there and start a new phase of life. It might look very different from this one but I’m hopeful it will have all the right things at it’s heart.

Forster’s words made a difference to me at a time when I was having quite an emotional wobble. I was getting a little caught up in what I was leaving behind and feeling overwhelmed by the strangeness of the soon-to-be new house – with its undiscovered quirks and unfamiliar sounds – and the idea that it just wasn’t home. But when you look at the place of a house in the context of a lifetime, it gives you quite an interesting perspective.

Here’s Forster writing about the same house, at a distance of 50 years:

“…did we really want this house? Does it speak to us, we asked each other mockingly. No. The answer was a resounding No. On the contrary, it yelled at us to run a mile. Its voice, if it had had one, couldn’t compete with that of Heath Villas … The agreement was signed on 18th February 1963. It felt terrifying. We picked up the keys and went into the house, our house. It still smelled bad, it was still unwelcoming, sulking, not at all pleased to see us. We wandered about all the rooms making lists of what needed to be done. There was no feeling of elation whatsoever.”

forster_cover_3090340a

“Yet somehow the house itself, its very fabric, is of importance. An intimate knowledge of its layout, of how all the rooms are arranged and used, stimulates a weird pleasure. I know this house. It has been changed by us not only in the real, practical sense of altering its appearance and internal geography, but by our living within it. Instinct guides me everywhere … I share Leonard Woolf’s conviction that … a house lived in for a long time by the same people reflects something of them and gives them something back.”

Forster’s book encouraged me to remember that our new house is, for the moment, just that. It’s a house. When trawling through Zoopla and attending viewings, a house is all we could hope to find. Only by living in it – as we have lived here – by imprinting ourselves on the rooms, by discovering the creaks and the quirks, putting them right or learning to live with them, experiencing happiness, sadness and all the emotions in between, can we hope to turn it into a home.

So I’m adjusting my expectations for our new house, while looking forward to the life we will live in order to transform it.

And I’d thoroughly recommend Forster’s book for anyone who is interested in the process by which bricks and mortar become the beating hearts of the complex lives that we live.

What is a book blog without any books?

And no, there is no punchline here. It turns out a book blog without any books isn’t really much of anything at all.

This year has been a most unusual one all things told. For starters, I finished reading a book the other day and it was the first one I’d read since March. It was only the 19th book I’d read this year and my reading muscle was so withered that I could only cope with a book I’d already read twice before (Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black – if you haven’t, do).

While I wasn’t reading, I was growing a tiny human…

Hands

But my version of pregnancy was most definitely not what you see in films. There were no floaty dresses and I didn’t glow. No laughing over funny cravings, while glowing, and then marvelling at how lustrous and thick my hair had become. From about week 5, it was nausea and vomiting, relentless and all consuming. The vomiting eased up from about week 26 but the nausea never went away. And that was it. Just the thought of reading a book was enough to make me dry heave. It would have been like being forced to read in the back of a car while experiencing horrendous travel sickness. There’s a lovely tall, double-stacked bookshelf of my ‘to read’s in the living room and I couldn’t even bear to look at it after a while.

It all sounds terribly sad but I actually didn’t miss the books. I missed the days of ‘not feeling sick’, of course, but that was about all really. But for someone whose life was so dominated by books it was a bit like being someone else for a time.

Then when my tiny person got to be about 3 weeks old (she’s nearly 6 weeks now), I was sitting feeding one day when I picked up Beyond Black and thought I’d experiment with a paragraph or two. And it was like holding a match to a pile of dry kindling. Whooomph! Before I knew it, I was utterly consumed by my desire to read ALL THE WORDS as quickly as possible. So much so, that while temporarily stranded without a book the other day I read and reread the instruction leaflet for our new Snufflebabe nasal aspirator a few times over.

Of course, having a tiny person makes reading ALL the words hard to achieve and I do still need to carve out plenty of time in my day for staring at her like a love-sick puppy. But at the very least, there are now a few books. And that means there might just be a book blog.

Storytelling and a plug for the Grimm Tales at the Bargehouse

In 2013, Phillip Pullman brought out his Grimm Tales for Young and Old in which he took 50 of his favourite Grimm tales and presented them in his own voice. And it was also Pullman who said:

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

I read Pullman’s collection in April 2014 on a ferry to Belfast and they were every bit as magical as I’d hoped. Fairy and folk tales have long been one of my favourite escapist reads.

frog

So I’m plugging a recent theatre experience that was so amazing that I want to shout about it on every forum out there. An adaptation of six of Pullman’s tales is currently on in London at the Bargehouse on the Oxo Tower Wharf. And I was fortunate enough to see it on 15th Feb.

The website bills it as an immersive fairytale and it definitely is. From the minute you arrive, every little detail has been crafted to help you get as lost as possible in the experience, whether you’re in the bar, the toilets or even the corridors and stairwells. And the Bargehouse is the most perfect venue as you follow the action through a series of dressed rooms. There’s little sense of ‘stage’ and ‘audience’ here – you move in and out of the set with the actors and, perched on a succession of wooden benches, listen in as the tales are told.

hansel

And at the very end, there’s an additional surprise which I won’t reveal here.

My face ached from smiling.

While I thought I was seeing the last performance, I just found out that they’ve extended the run until 11th April. So if you’re within reach of London and a fan of fairytales, I couldn’t recommend this more.