#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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Reading Bingo 2017

Given that I’m still catching up on 2017 reads here on the blog, I thought it might be fun to take part in the 2017 Reading Bingo. I spotted this on Susan’s A Life in Books, where the idea is credited back to Cleopatra Loves Books. I think I might have cheated slightly so I’m probably not deserving of a full house, but it’s a nice way to wave a flag for some good reads that didn’t make my Best of 2017.

A book with more than 500 pages: A few contenders (surprisingly, given the amount of short and YA fiction I read last year), but I’m plumping for Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl because it was genuinely huge and didn’t just have big, generously spaced print! Worth a read if you’ve even a passing interest in Dahl and his work.

A forgotten classic: It’s hard to know for sure if a classic is forgotten, especially when it might just be an example of your own ignorance. But I read Dahl’s Esio Trot this year for the first time and thought it was so sweet. This tale of unrequited love and 140 tortoises seems to be much less well-known than many of Dahl’s other books.

A book that became a movie: I did read Murder on the Orient Express for the first time this year, although not because of Branagh’s adaptation. I ended up watching the film a few months later and thought it was quite fun, although the opening section is just madness and I really only got ‘on board’ (ha! puns!) when it calmed down a bit, stopped trying to do ‘all the things’ and focused on the characters and the train. Would definitely pick book over film. [For an example of film over book, I also read The Sword in the Stone this year and was a bit underwhelmed…]

A book published this year (2017): Quite a few contenders, given I’m usually late to the party, but I’m picking Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister – a tense account of Matthew Hopkins’ witch-hunt of 1645 told from the perspective of his (imagined) sister – because I haven’t yet had a chance to write it up and it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

A book with a number in the title: Angela Thirkell’s sort-of memoir, Three Houses, about three significant houses from her childhood that shaped the adult sensibilities evident in her writing. Two of the houses belonged to her grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones.

A book written by someone under 30: Ooh, this was a hard one to figure out. Eventually I sussed that Amy Sackville’s The Still Point was published when she was just 29. You can read my review here.

A book with non-human characters: Lots of options here given that I re-read a lot of Dahl in preparation for Sturrock’s biography. I’m going to flag three of them, because two are only very short… 😉 – Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, Rob Ryan’s lovely A Sky Full of Kindness about two birds embarking on parenthood, and Marie Phillps’ Gods Behaving Badly, which takes the Greek Gods and sticks them all into a 21st-century London house-share.

A funny book: I particularly enjoyed Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels this year for their cosy, gentle, rose-tinted humour (ignoring the death, bodies and motherlessness for a second…). Also funny was Lemony Snicket’s series All the Wrong Questions.

A book by a female author: Oh. So many. I’m going to flag three women writing about their own inspiring lives – Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers: The Autobiography, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped: A Memoir, and Judy Fairbairns’ Island Wife: Living on the Edge of the Wild.

A book with a mystery: In order not to repeat titles already used, I’ll highlight Michele Roberts’ Daughters of the House about two young girls growing up in post-World-War-II Normandy. Guilty silences and secrets abound – what is the mystery of the broken shrine in the woods and how does it relate to their own cellar?

A book with a one-word title: To highlight a book I read back in March and never wrote up, I’m choosing Eleanor Wasserberg’s atmospheric debut Foxlowe, about a cult called The Family. Told from a child’s perspective, the chillingly innocent ‘Green’, it has a sucker punch of an ending.

A book of short stories: Although I’ve been working my way through Daphne du Maurier’s novels, I’d only ever read her short story collection The Birds. This year I added The Breaking Point and they were just as gripping and unsettling.

A book set on a different continent: This category highlighted a reading weakness of mine. Most of my books were based in Europe with a scattering of American locations for flavour. So I’m choosing the book set furthest away, Lily King’s Euphoria, which I wrote up here.

A book of non-fiction: I decided to ignore memoirs, collections of letters and biographies for this one, which narrowed the NF field. I choose Tracy Borman’s Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction for it’s well-researched exploration of the witch-hunts of the 15th-18th centuries, focusing on specific events at Leicestershire’s Belvoir Castle.

The first book by a favourite author: I’m not sure whether this counts as it’s a repeat AND it’s tricky to justify a favourite author based on just one book, but I’m desperate to read Amy Sackville’s Orkney based on how much I enjoyed The Still Point.

A book you heard about online: All of them? Honestly, book blogs pretty much dictate my reading life. But I’m going to highlight Sophie Divry’s short, sweet, humorous novella The Library of Unrequited Love because you’ll motor through it in one sitting and you won’t be sorry. I know more than one blogger highlighted this but I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember who in particular.

A best-selling book: It’s hard to know for sure as I certainly haven’t verified my figures(!) but I’d be surprised if Dahl’s The BFG wasn’t one of the best-selling novels on this year’s list of books read. A re-read but one that never gets old and I’m so looking forward to reading it with my daughter.

A book based on a true story: I remember being shocked at the time that Judy Blume’s book In the Unlikely Event, a story about three plane crashes in three months in a small American community, was based on true events. And not just true events, events that Blume herself lived through.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile: The book that had been on my TBR list and in my collection unread for the longest was Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. I can’t begin to think why. She’s one of my favourite authors and it was, predictably, wonderful. Maybe I was saving it up for the sheer pleasure of reading it. It made my Best Reads of 2017.

A book your friend loves: They’re sadly not my ‘in real life’ friends, but the twitter community of #TheDarkIsReading are united in their love for Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, which I read for the first time this year in the readalong.

A book that scares you: I mentioned Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions here, but I’m choosing Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved because it was easily the most chilling thing I read this year. It would be presumptuous to suggest I reviewed it, but I captured some thoughts here.

A book that is more than 10 years old: Lots of options, but I choose Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, a harrowing story and a great example of extended journalism.

The second book in a series: I read all four books from Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions, including book two – When Did You See Her Last?

A book with a blue cover: Helen Dunmore’s page-turner Your Blue-Eyed Boy. I’ve promised to write this up already and I will definitely do so.

Free square: I’m going to flag Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch here because it nearly made the cut in so many other categories. It’s a really interesting examination of George Eliot’s life and best-known novel through the prism of Mead’s own life experiences and the perspectives brought by re-reading the book at different ages.

Now to start looking ahead to some 2018 goals…

2017 – 12 reading highlights

Image credit: UMagazine http://urdu-mag.com/blog/

Well the minutes are ticking down on 2017. It was an odd sort of reading year in many ways. I read for comfort a lot more than I normally do, which meant that my final tally features less reads that one might consider challenging or those that ask for a more sizeable emotional or intellectual commitment. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the rather tough year that it’s been, both personally and on a global scale.

For me, comfort reading often features books from series (i.e. familiarity), books targeted at young adult readers or books set in a rose-tinted past. I read through almost the entirety of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries over the course of the year and discovered Lemony Snicket’s series All The Wrong Questions, which is brilliant and I urge you to read it, particularly if you’re already a fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events. A major highlight was discovering Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising quintet, of which more below.

I’ve skimmed through my 2017 reads – 102 in total – and highlighted 12 books that I’m most glad I read over the last few months. They’re books I read this year, not necessarily those published this year (I’m always slower on the uptake with those). They appear in the order in which I read them and (by complete and pleasing coincidence) are an even spread between fiction and non-fiction. Although the poor blokes don’t get a look-in – just one male author, who I promise is not a ‘token’! Oops.

  1. Penelope Lively – Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time: Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors and this had been languishing on my ‘to read’ shelves for far too long. It was as wonderful as I hoped. No one writes about the juncture where history, memory and time meet in quite the same way as Lively. Thanks to the Waterstones sale, her new book Life in the Garden is on its way.
  2. Jessmyn Ward – Men We Reaped: A Memoir: In five years, Ward lost five young men who were close to her to suicide, drugs and accidents. This is not an easy read but it’s a searing indictment of what life is still like if you’re a young black man living in poverty in the USA.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates – My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike: Loosely based on the death of 6-year-old beauty pageant winner JonBenet Ramsay, who was found murdered in her own home in 1996, Oates’ story about ice-skating champion Bliss Rampike is told from the perspective of her older brother, Skyler. I picked this up on a whim and wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the subject matter, but I was blown away by how immense an achievement it is. It’s enormous, epic, incredibly well plotted and structured, with material presented in many different forms. You can’t help but tip your hat to Oates’ superior skills and her masterful handling of the complex effects of trauma, grief and guilt.
  4. Mary Roach – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space: A great blend of science, fact, story-telling and ‘what??’ moments, all wrapped up in an accessible, engaging read. As the blurb says ‘space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human’ and this book makes that crystal clear. Plus it answers the questions EVERYBODY always asks!
  5. Sue Gee – Trio: An impulsive library grab led to an unexpectedly beautiful, elegiac and nuanced story about grief, music and the tremulous connections between gentle, quiet people. Beginning in Northumberland in 1937, the book follows history teacher Steven Coulter as he tries to find his way following the death of his wife.
  6. Donald Sturrock – Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl: With unprecedented access to Dahl’s archives, Sturrock’s biography is an absorbing, detailed and balanced read. Despite being a 600+ page chunkster, I motored through this surprisingly quickly and learned a great deal about the complex character and fascinating life of Dahl. Although I’ll never read Boy in quite the same way!
  7. Oriel Malet – Letters from Menabiliy: Portrait of a Friendship: I read this because of the connection to Daphne Du Maurier, who fascinates me. But I came away extremely pleased to have ‘met’ writer Oriel Malet, who I can now only ever imagine in her houseboat home on the banks of the Seine. Malet and Du Maurier’s correspondence offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two unique and thoughtful authors, with a pleasing insight into the behind the scenes of a writing life.
  8. Barbara Pym – A Very Private Life: an autobiography in letters and diaries: Pym! Pym! And in her own words! Lovely and moving. You can see my review here.
  9. Amy Sackville – The Still Point: I guessed that I’d still be thinking about this cleverly written book a long time after finishing it, and I was proved right. Find out more here.
  10. Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions: A recent read with a generous dollop of gothic spine tingle. You can read my review here.
  11. Helen Dunmore – Your Blue-Eyed Boy: A gripping read from a truly great writer who so sadly died in June of this year. Based on the outpouring of love and respect in book blogging circles, I’m probably not the only one trying to fill personal reading gaps in her back catalogue. I’ll not say anymore about this particular book here as I’m planning to write a proper review in the new year. If you wanted a reminder of just how wonderful a writer Dunmore was, just click here.
  12. Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising: This book is significant in two ways. Firstly, it’s an absolutely cracking read. Secondly, it taught me (finally) what twitter is for. Thanks to Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird, I’ve been taking part in my first shared reading experience, enjoying TDIR alongside a few thousand others. It’s been a wonderful way to discover a ‘classic’ that I missed as a child and has given me such a wonderful variety of perspectives on the story and it’s universal themes. Having always been a bit phased by Twitter, and a bit distracted by its negatives, I’ve discovered that it’s all about finding your tribe.

Hope you all have a wonderful time seeing in the new year; I guess some of you might already have started! I’ll be back in the next few days with a look ahead to 2018 and a bit of literary bingo…

#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).