What are you reading Wednesday

What have you recently finished reading?
The Younger Gods (Michael R. Underwood). I wasn’t really impressed, sadly. Before that I read Venomoid (J.A. Kossler), which was similarly unimpressive. Both books for review, alas.

What are you currently reading?
Fair Game (Josh Lanyon), in preparation for reading the sequel for review. I’m at least sure that that’s going to be fun; Josh Lanyon is like my brain’s cheesecake. I’m also reading The Old Ways (Robert Macfarlane), because the title makes me think of The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper), and Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut), because that’s on my list of 101 sci-fi books.

What will you read next?
ARC-wise, I need to catch up with the Flavia de Luce books and review the most recent, so that’ll probably be soon. New book-wise, either Clariel (Garth Nix) or Maplecroft (Cherie Priest), because I’m excited about both. Library-wise, probably The Bone People (Keri Hulme).

My life is complicated, y’all.

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday is “Ten Books For Readers Who Like Character Driven Novels”. I thought this one would be easy, initially, since characters are really important to me when I read, but it’s actually tougher than I thought.

  1. Pretty much anything by Guy Gavriel Kay. Even where his writing was less polished, more derivative, I fell completely in love with the characters. He’s one of the few authors who can reliably make me cry.
  2. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb. Sure, there’s a lot of plot too, but Fitz’s voice is the most important aspect of the story, and you just want to reach in and bang his head against something to force the sense in, sometimes.
  3. Sunshine, Robin McKinley. Not only is it vampires-done-right, but it’s first person narration, and everything Sunshine is as a character shapes the way the plot turns out.
  4. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern. If you count the circus as a character almost on its own (I do), then yeah, this one definitely counts.
  5. Seaward, Susan Cooper. I need to reread this soon. I loved it so much, and despite the shortness of the book, Cooper built up a relationship between the two main characters that I genuinely loved and wanted to follow.
  6. The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers. Actually, as far as being character-driven goes, you’re best reading the whole series chronologically, to get a feel for the way everything fits together, for the way the characters develop. I don’t even think I’d necessarily say I’d start with this one. But it’s the one that really made me understand Lord Peter.
  7. Chime, Franny BillingsleyTo say much about this would be to spoil it. A brief excerpt from my review: “Briony isn’t an easy narrator, and she isn’t reliable either, as she constantly tells us. The narrative isn’t a straightforward quest, it’s a maze, it’s full of funhouse mirrors.”
  8. Heart’s Blood, Juliet Marillier. This is the book where me and Marillier really clicked — I tried some before this one, and wasn’t impressed. But I got really involved with this, with the characters and their problems.
  9. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin. The narration is brilliant, the way it all slowly comes together, and I love what Jemisin does with her main character, and with the characters of the gods around her. Particularly when it comes to the child-god, Sieh, who has to act in accord with his nature, or he suffers.
  10. Among Others, Jo Walton. I strongly connected with this because I connected with Mori. Watching her grow up and begin to understand her world better over the course of the novel is a delight.

Wow, that actually took a lot of thought. Veeeery keen to see other people’s picks for this one!

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s theme from The Broke and the Bookish is apparently the back to school edition: top ten characters I’d have sitting at my lunch table. Given I was the deeply unpopular kid in a tiny school, I rarely ended up sitting with anybody except the other deeply unpopular kid, so I’ll choose to believe that I get to pick who is at my table and they can’t say no, even if they’re way cooler than me.

  1. Mori, from Among Others. Because she actually is one of the less popular ones, and we have a lot in common.
  2. Bran, from The Dark is Rising. Because being Welsh and an outcast, he has plenty in common with me and Mori.
  3. Cath, from Fangirl. I haven’t actually read all of this yet, but Cath’s anxiety issues and fangirlishness mean we have plenty in common too.
  4. Harriet Vane, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey Mysteries. Because omg, Harriet.
  5. Peter Wimsey, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey Mysteries. Because he’d be hilarious and wouldn’t give a fig about me being unpopular.
  6. Steve Rogers, from Captain America. In skinny!Steve mode, he fits in with this group pretty well. Post-serum, he’d sit with us anyway because arbitrary stuff about cool/uncool people is not fun.
  7. Bucky Barnes, from Captain America. Because how exactly you’d have Steve without Bucky following somewhere behind, I don’t know.
  8. Peeta Mellark, from The Hunger Games. Because he seems pretty nice.
  9. Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games. Silent, glaring, and sticking close to Peeta.
  10. Susan Pevensie, from The Chronicles of Narnia. Because she gets a raw deal from her family in the end, who dismiss her for not fitting in with the rest of them. God knows I don’t have much in common with Susan, but she went to Narnia once. She must be a good person.

Okay, what’s everyone else thought of that will undoubtedly make my list look uncool?

Review – Travel Light

Cover of Travel Light, by Naomi MitchisonTravel Light, Naomi Mitchison

I came across this because of Amal El-Mohtar’s NPR review; the idea of a book in dialogue with Tolkien, by one of the women around him who he encouraged and listened to, definitely appealed: I think just recently I was asking if anyone’s written anything about Tolkien’s female students, about whom I know very little except that I’m sure I have been told they existed. (Time for a woman to write a biography of Tolkien? Move over, Humphrey Carpenter, Tom Shippey?)

And this book delivered. It is rather slight — it’s short, and on first glance, rather fable-like. Naomi Mitchison resisted any urge to insist on a moral, though: while there are religious people in the story, and Hella’s travelling light seems a virtue in her, there are good people who struggle with faith, good dragons who keep out of the gods’ way, and though for a while it looks as though there might be a moral about Christianity in there, then there’s also a bit of a wry look at the church in Constantinople, and it ends with some more Norse mythology. I don’t think she honestly ever pushes any moral except finding your way through life and being good to people and creatures, and in the meantime she has an intriguing wander through different cultures and traditions.

Mitchison is a lot less sure than Tolkien about the period and the people she wants to write about, I think. Tolkien talked about creating “a mythology for England”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Susan Cooper succeeds, but I don’t think Mitchison is as rooted in a place, an idea. Like her protagonist, she’s willing to wander. I wonder what a difference it’d have made to genre fiction now if Mitchison had a greater role, and Tolkien a lesser? Maybe we’d have less to worry about from the constant onslaught of medieval European fantasy.

It won’t scratch the same itch as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for sure. It’s a different sort of story — if you’re a fan of Le Guin, perhaps, it’s more like the stories of Earthsea. Or it’s like a more fantastical, more female Rosemary Sutcliff. Don’t read it for The Hobbit 2.0 — it’s something all its own.

Oh, and it can be quite amusing, too: Dragon Economics 101…

Review – Silver on the Tree

Cover of Silver on the Tree, by Susan CooperSilver on the Tree, Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree combines all the best of the other books of the sequence: the magic, the genuine moments of terror and alarm, the weaving of legends and the everyday, the mysteries that leave you to wonder, the sense of place… And more than any of the others it combines both sadness and joy; in that, it’s the most adult of the sequence.

I especially enjoy little touches like Bran getting to meet Owain Glyndŵr; one thing I did miss was Barney not having more of a reaction to actually meeting King Arthur who he’s idolised since before the first page of the first book. I can’t remember having noticed it before, but that jarred me, this time. Also, I remember someone mentioning to me how much it bothered them that this book plays into the betrayal of a woman theme (as does The Dark is Rising, in the form of Maggie Barnes, “a sweet face” to lure people into the Dark). Thinking about it this time, I see their point, even though the White Rider is otherwise ambiguously gendered. It’s as if women can somehow hide their allegiance to the Dark behind womanly charms, where the men are immediately picked out (Mr Mitothin doesn’t fool Will for a moment; Maggie Barnes, however, has to act wickedly to get him to realise, and “Blodwen Rowlands” fools John entirely until the very end).

We do have some great female characters in these books — the Lady and Jane, mainly, with Will’s sisters, mother and aunt and other such minor characters — but it’s a bit nasty that the alluring side of the Dark is pretty unambiguously female.

Still, that’s not enough to ruin the books, and nor is it suggested as something all women could/would do. It’s just something that may bother you, particularly if you forget how old these books are.

I think I’ve ended my reviews of this book with this quotation before, but it’s still true. The book ends with a call to arms to all of us, to stop relying on anyone else to change the world and know that we are, alone, responsible for our own choices.

“For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.”

What are you reading… Thursday?

Whoops! Yesterday being Christmas Day, it didn’t “feel” like a Wednesday… Though I doubt anyone missed it.

What did you recently finish reading?
He Said, Sidhe Said by Tanya Huff, which I’ve reviewed already. Before that, I’ve been working on my reread of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising; I’m up to The Grey King.

What are you currently reading?
Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper is the first book open on my ereader. The second one is I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley; I’ll probably finish both of those tonight.

What do you think you’ll read next?
Well, I’m still working on the epic unfinished list. I think either my next ones will be the rest of the Flavia de Luce books, including the ARC I have of The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, or I might take a break from Flavia and work on some of the books that aren’t in a series. Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop, maybe, or Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni. I’m not sure yet. All my new Christmas books are very, very tempting… *snatches hands away from one of the genetics ones*

Books acquired:
Many, many and varied. See this post

Review – The Grey King

Cover of The Grey King, by Susan CooperThe Grey King, Susan Cooper

Normally, The Grey King would be my favourite of the five books that make up this sequence. Something about the setting in Wales, and Bran’s loneliness and arrogance, and of course the tie-in with Arthuriana, and the way that it begins to bring in some more moral ambiguity when John Rowlands questions the coldness at the heart of the Light. Somehow, I didn’t love it as much as usual this time — possibly because I’d just spent a lot of time debating the merits of Greenwitch with various people, and thus missed some of the stellar things about that book (more involvement of female characters, more mysteries like the various hauntings of Cornwall, contact with the Wild Magic) when reading this one, which is more straightforward in some ways. If you’ve read the series before, then there’s little mystery about who Bran is and what role he has to play.

Still, it’s a lovely book, with Susan Cooper’s usual understanding of people and lyrical way of describing things so that the sound of the words is an important part of the experience for me. The relationship between Owen and Bran, with that lovely section so near the end; the levels you can see, particularly depicting Owen and in the character of John; the touches of mystery there are like the issue of the Grey King himself — all of it is as wonderful as ever on what must be at least my tenth reread, and probably more than that.

And, of course, there’s Cafall — the courage and loyalty, and the heartbreak. That whole section brings a horrid lump to my throat every single time.

Review – Greenwitch

Greenwitch by Susan CooperGreenwitch, Susan Cooper

Greenwitch isn’t really my favourite book of the series, though it is the one with the most mystery — I wonder a lot about the background mythology, the legends of Cornwall that the Greenwitch brings to life and what lies behind each glimpse of part of a story. It occurred to me last night while reading that maybe Susan Cooper has come closer than Tolkien to a “mythology for England”. Granted, he’s closer if you’re looking at England as “the land under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons”, but Cooper has touched on the legends of the land, the real stories that matter, rather than inventing a quest and a ring. Her quests come organically out of the mythology she’s using, and the places where she joins on her own are pretty seamless.

(Tolkien has created a world of his own, I think, and people often put too much emphasis on the “mythology for England” stuff. I don’t mean to do that: whether or not he meant to achieve that, what he achieved in the end was great. I just think the idea of a mythology for England is maybe actually achieved by Cooper.)

Greenwitch also features one of the things I love most about this series — the characters. They’re people. Simon and Barney are good-hearted boys who get jealous and possessive when another boy of a similar age seems to encroach on their time and their friends. Captain Toms, an Old One of the Light, gets laid low by gout. And I liked that the Dark is personified in a single character, this one time — not as the tide of the Dark, but as a single man of the Dark. We see hints of individuality there; his bitterness when he says “I have no friends”, his genuine artistic talent. It’s another of those moments where I think the black/white Dark/Light dichotomy cracks a little.

There are also some gorgeous passages in this book about the beauty and danger of the sea, the amoral and uncaring world of the Wild magic (and then, again, that hint of the Greenwitch as a child, as a lonely creation in need of something to hold on to, of kindness).

Review – The Dark is Rising

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

This book has maybe one of my favourite ways of looking at England, the country and people:

“He saw one race after another come attacking his island country, bringing each time the malevolence of the Dark with them, wave after wave of ships rushing inexorably at the shores. Each wave of men in turn grew peaceful as it grew to know and love the land, so that the Light flourished again.”

It doesn’t quite work, I think: there’s the issue of colonialism, which was arguably wave after wave of the Dark coming out of our island (and the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish have never yet sat perfectly comfortably together, there’s still colonialism at work there). And there’s, well, the BNP and the EDL, etc. But recognising that that is Britain’s identity — our genetic makeup, our language, our history — is something a lot of people forget. We can’t say “get out, foreigners”; most of us have ancestors from elsewhere, somewhere along the family tree.

I’ve loved The Dark is Rising a long time, so I doubt there’s anything new or critical I can say about it as a whole, but each time these small fragments of the narrative catch at me and make me think about them as I haven’t before. That was one of them; there are other snippets, like Will’s sudden understanding of the difference between a child’s fear and an adult’s fear (made up of understanding and care for others).

The Dark is Rising is, I think, one of those books that have a number of layers, and more so through each book. There’s a simple layer of plot, and then there’s all sorts of other stuff about understanding feelings and fears, and if you watch for it, some moral ambivalence. We’re seeing this world through Will, essentially, and he’s one of the Old Ones but he’s also a young boy, and in his horror at what Merriman has done to Hawkin, you can see a subtlety of dealing with the things the Light has done. And then Merriman turns around and shows his human face too, and just — I might, to some extent, be too willing to give these books wiggle room. Too willing to bring my own needs to the table and see the book in those terms. But I think that stuff is there — particularly as it comes up more in the person of John Rowlands in The Grey King and Silver on the Tree.

An update on my reading list

So! I have been somewhat successful since 8th December in finishing some books from the currently reading stack. I’ve managed to finish the following books:

  • Alan Bradley, A Red Herring Without Mustard.
  • Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders.
  • Adam Christopher, Hang Wire.
  • Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness.
  • Patricia A. McKillip, Alphabet of Thorn.

5/50. So I get £5 from my mother, woo! But, on the other hand, I’ve remembered a few books that I missed off the original list, and some that I’ve started since…

  • Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls.
  • Sarah Addison Allen, Garden Spells.
  • Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds.
  • Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising.
  • James Renner, The Man from Primrose Lane.

So… we’re still running about even. And it’s about to be Christmas and I know I’m getting books, not to mention the books I’ve bought during the last few days (oops).

And let’s not even talk about the number of books I’ve started but also finished since I made that list. (Again. Oops.)