Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third novel in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. I loved the first two books, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this one just as much. It brings together characters from both the first book and the second, so I would recommend reading both of those before starting this one, if possible.

The novel opens with the Drew children – Simon, Jane and Barney – whom we met in Over Sea, Under Stone, returning to Trewissick in Cornwall with their Great Uncle Merriman. The Grail, which played such a big part in Over Sea, has been stolen from the British Museum and the children know who is responsible: the forces of the Dark. However, the inscription on the Grail can be of no use to the Dark without the manuscript that will help to decipher it – and the manuscript is lost at the bottom of the sea.

To help the Drews in their quest to recover the Grail and locate the missing manuscript, Merriman has brought along Will Stanton, the boy we first met in The Dark is Rising. But Will doesn’t reveal to the others that he, like Merriman, is one of the Old Ones and working for the forces of Light, so they are left feeling uneasy and resentful about his presence and his relationship with their Great Uncle.

Like the previous books in the series, this is an atmospheric and eerie story, steeped in magic and ancient folklore. The ‘Greenwitch’ of the title is a giant effigy in the form of a woman made of sticks, constructed by the women of Trewissick and sacrificed to the sea in a yearly ritual – not just an inanimate object, but a living being, with a mind of her own. This is referred to as a type of ‘Wild Magic’, or the magic of nature, another element in the ongoing battle between Light and Dark. The Greenwitch holds the key to understanding the Grail, but the children will have to persuade her to give up her secrets before the agents of the Dark get there first.

I found this book as compelling as the first two and read most of it in one day; as a book aimed at younger readers, it’s quite short and the plot moves along at a fast pace, but as an adult there’s still enough depth and complexity to the story and characters to hold my attention. It was good to see the three Drew children again, after they were absent from the last book, and this time I particularly liked the large and important part Jane played in trying to befriend the Greenwitch and defeat the Dark. At first I was disappointed by the children’s hostility towards Will and the way he seemed to have a much quieter, more passive role in this novel after being the central protagonist of the last one, but later I decided that the decision to tell most of the story from the Drews’ perspective was actually quite effective. It made Will appear aloof and otherworldly, in keeping with his position as one of the Old Ones working on behalf of the Light. Still, I found the reluctance of Will and Merriman to confide in the other children quite frustrating, as it would have made things so much easier for them.

There are some wonderful moments and set pieces in this book: the ritual sacrifice of the Greenwitch; the evil that emanates from the paintings produced by the artist of the Dark; Jane watching from her window as magic and madness take hold of the village of Trewissick. Although this is the middle book in the series and so there are still things that haven’t been resolved and things that I don’t quite understand yet, I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to continuing with The Grey King.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list. Obviously I am not going to complete the list this summer, but I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read, which is the most important thing!

Lady of the Highway by Deborah Swift

This is the third book in Deborah Swift’s Highway trilogy set in 17th century England in the aftermath of the civil war. All three novels revolve around the character of Kate Fanshawe, who is loosely based on the legendary highwaywoman known as ‘The Wicked Lady’. The books do all stand alone to a certain extent, but reading them in order makes much more sense. The first volume, Shadow on the Highway, is written from the perspective of Abigail Chaplin, a maid in Kate’s household, while the second, Spirit of the Highway, is the story of Abigail’s brother, Ralph, who becomes Kate’s lover. Now, in Lady of the Highway, we finally get to hear Kate’s own point of view.

Following the events of the previous two novels, poor Kate has very little left in her life. Her husband, Thomas Fanshawe, and her cruel, overbearing stepfather, Simon, are still away from home, having been on the losing side in the recent wars – and although Kate is not too unhappy about that, she is struggling to continue with life at Markyate Manor on her own. Impoverished and desperate, she can expect little support from her neighbours, who have no sympathy for a woman from a family of defeated Royalists. Her beloved Ralph is gone, although she still feels his presence all around her, and to make matters worse, Abigail is ill and there is no money for medicine. When an attempt to seek help from her friends in the Digger community doesn’t go quite as planned, it seems that Kate has no choice but to take to the highways again…

The Highway novels are aimed at young adults but have plenty to offer an adult reader too. This book is as enjoyable and interesting as the previous two, although it’s also quite relentlessly sad and tragic; nothing at all seems to go right for Kate and she meets with rejection, anger and hostility everywhere she turns. Sometimes she deserves it – she is not the most loveable of characters and, for me, Abigail is the real heroine of the series – but often the cruelty she receives seems unnecessary and disproportionate. I think that’s maybe one of the areas where the book lacks the depth I would expect in an adult novel; there are good characters and there are bad characters but not much in between and no real explanation as to why the villains are so villainous.

Despite the titles of the books, the action we see on the highway – when Kate, out of desperation, goes out armed with her pistols in search of rich travellers – is only one small aspect of the story. Other topics that have been covered in the previous two novels and developed further in this one include the work of the Diggers, who believe that land should belong to everyone and not be bought, sold or enclosed, and what it is like to be a deaf person living in the 17th century. There’s a little bit of romance in this book too, not for Kate but for Abigail – and although I found it very predictable, I was pleased with the outcome! I liked the way the story was resolved for Kate too…both a sad and a happy ending at the same time.

I enjoyed all three books in this trilogy, including this one. I thought it was a good idea to use a different narrator for each book – first Abigail, then Ralph and finally Kate – as it meant they could each tell the part of the story most relevant to them and give three different perspectives on the same period of history. If you read these books hoping to learn more about the real Katherine Fanshawe (or Ferrers, as she is often known by her maiden name), however, bear in mind that the details of the legend are very hazy – it is not clear how and when she died, for example, and there is no evidence that Ralph actually existed, although his name is usually linked with Kate’s. The historical notes at the end of each novel give some guidance and for a different approach to the ‘Wicked Lady’ legend you may like to read The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements too.

Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift

Shadow on the Highway Since reading Katherine Clements’ The Silvered Heart last year, I have been interested in reading more about Lady Katherine Fanshawe (or Ferrers), the seventeenth century highwaywoman known in legend as ‘the Wicked Lady’. On discovering that Deborah Swift had written a trilogy of novels about Lady Katherine, I had made a note to look out for the first one, Shadow on the Highway, so I was delighted to be offered a copy by Endeavour Press after signing up for their Virtual Historical Festival (taking place next week, 18-22 April).

Shadow on the Highway is aimed at young adults but can be enjoyed by readers of all ages; I certainly enjoyed it and thought it had a lot to offer an adult reader, as well as being a good choice for teenagers who are just starting to get into historical fiction. The story is set during the English Civil War and Deborah Swift does a good job of describing the history and politics of the period in a way that is easy to understand.

The novel is narrated by Abigail Chaplin, a young deaf girl who lost her hearing as a result of childhood measles. The Chaplin family has fallen on hard times and Abigail finds herself sent to work as a maid at Markyate Manor, home to Lady Katherine Fanshawe, a young woman not much older than Abigail herself. Katherine sees little of her husband, Thomas, and lives in fear of her hated stepfather, Sir Simon, who can be brutal, violent and controlling, so she quickly comes to value Abigail as a friend as well as a maid.

Desperate to escape from the manor for a while, Katherine persuades Abigail to help her dress as a servant and walk into the village with her so she can see how other people live. By chance she meets Ralph Chaplin, Abigail’s brother, while still in disguise and the two are instantly drawn to one another. This puts Abigail in a difficult position: should she tell Ralph that ‘Kate’ the servant is not what she appears to be? To make things worse, the Fanshawes are a Royalist household whereas the Chaplins are Parliamentarians. And then there’s the matter of the pistols Abigail has found inside Katherine’s writing desk and the worrying tales of a ‘Silent Highwayman’ holding up coaches on the London Road.

I found Shadow on the Highway a quick and entertaining read, although I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more actual action on the highway. Instead, the focus is on the family at Markyate Manor, the romance between Ralph and Katherine, and Abigail’s own personal story. It took me a while to warm to Katherine, but I liked Abigail from the beginning. Her deafness adds another intriguing angle to the story; as Deborah Swift explains in her Historical Note, the seventeenth century was a time of great advances in methods of communication for deaf people, including the beginnings of sign language.

As this is the second novel I’ve read featuring Lady Katherine, it was noticeable that Shadow on the Highway differs from The Silvered Heart in many ways. Although both books are based on the same legend, there are several different versions of that legend, leaving plenty of scope for an author to use her imagination. In particular, almost nothing is known of Katherine’s lover, except that the name Ralph or Rafe Chaplin is usually associated with the legends. In this novel, Deborah Swift creates an interesting story surrounding Ralph, making him a Digger – a member of a Protestant movement who believed in equality for all and who took their name from the fact that they attempted to settle and farm on common land:

“They’ll not stop us,” Ralph said. “Right is on our side. How far down do they own this land?” He grabbed up a handful of wet earth, showed it round in front of us. “To here? Or further down to where our spades reach? Does a mole recognise these boundaries? No, he can go where he wishes on God’s land. Are we less than a mole? We who are made in God’s likeness? No. We will persevere.”

The second book in the trilogy, Spirit of the Highway, is written from the perspective of Ralph rather than Abigail, which should be interesting. I’m looking forward to reading it – as well as the third book, when it becomes available.

Summer Reading Challenge: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Until today, the biggest decision seventeen-year-old Mia has faced is whether to go to Juilliard to study music or stay at home with her family and boyfriend. Now she has an even more important choice to make: a choice between life and death.

It’s been snowing outside and school has closed for the day. Mia, her parents and her younger brother Teddy decide to take advantage of the unexpected day off to visit friends. They pile into the car, laughing, joking and arguing about which music to listen to, like any other family going on a drive. The next thing Mia knows, she’s standing in a ditch looking down at the wreckage of their car. At first she thinks she’s survived unscathed, but then she discovers her own body, unconscious on the ground…

If I Stay follows Mia as she watches herself lying in a coma in a hospital bed and witnesses the reactions of her friends and family as they sit outside her room, waiting for news. In a series of flashbacks, we learn what Mia’s life was like before the accident and why she’s finding it so difficult to decide whether she wants to live or die.

I don’t read many YA novels anymore (I think this might even be the first one I’ve reviewed here) but I probably should, because it means I’m missing out on great books like this one. Although If I Stay may sound like a dark and depressing book, it’s actually not. It’s a story about the importance of love and friendship and is a book that can be enjoyed by both adults and teens.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was because Mia was a character I really cared about. She seemed a genuinely nice person, the type of girl I would have liked to have been friends with at school. She does have some insecurities – she loves playing the cello and listening to classical music for example, and worries that she’s too incompatible with Adam, her rock musician boyfriend – and these are explored throughout the book. I liked the way the musical aspect of the book was handled to show how people from different musical backgrounds are able to respect each other’s tastes and how music can form a bond between them. At the end of the book Gayle Forman gives us her reasons for choosing the various songs that are mentioned in the story, which I thought was a nice idea.

There was one part of the book that I thought was unrealistic – a scene where Adam’s punk rocker friends descend on the hospital – but apart from that, I really enjoyed If I Stay. It’s a very moving and emotional read and I was kept guessing what Mia’s decision would be until the final page.

I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.