The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Since reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone earlier this year, I have been looking forward to reading the rest of her The Dark is Rising sequence, especially after I was told that Over Sea, Under Stone is usually considered the weakest of the six books. The second book, The Dark is Rising, sounded appropriately dark, so I decided to read it for this year’s R.I.P event. The first thing to say is that although Over Sea, Under Stone was the first to be published, I don’t think it’s essential to read it before starting this one. They are linked by the character of Merriman Lyon and the same overarching theme, but otherwise they are quite separate stories.

The Dark is Rising, published in 1973, is set in the fictional English village of Huntercombe during the Christmas period. The novel opens with Will Stanton celebrating his eleventh birthday on Midwinter Day – 21st December – and wishing it would snow. He gets his wish because snow does soon begin to fall…and keeps on falling, covering the landscape in a thick blanket of white as far as the eye can see. Stepping outside into a world transformed by snow, Will quickly discovers that it has been transformed in other ways as well – the houses and roads of his own time have disappeared, to be replaced by the dense forest of an earlier age.

As Will begins to explore this strange, enchanted land, he learns for the first time that he is one of the Old Ones, destined to join the people of the Light in their ongoing battle against the forces of the Dark. With the help of Merriman Lyon and the mysterious Lady, Will must look for the six Signs of the Light and only when he has collected all six will he be able to ward off the powers of the Dark.

The Dark is Rising is described as a children’s classic, but even reading it as an adult I found it genuinely creepy in places. The villains, particularly the sinister cloaked Rider, are quite menacing and the way the snow keeps falling, day after day – too heavy and too persistent to be natural – adds to the general eeriness. For any tale of the conflict between good and evil to be effective, the evil needs to feel really evil and that is certainly the case here. But although the Light is obviously the ‘good’ side, Will discovers over the course of his quest that sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices and difficult choices – and that sometimes innocent people will be made to suffer in furthering the cause of the Light.

Will himself could have been a fascinating character – an intriguing mixture of ordinary eleven-year-old boy and wise and powerful Old One – but I didn’t find him as interesting as I would have liked. This is maybe because his quest just seems a little bit too easy – he is led straight to most of the six Signs without really needing to search for them – and so he comes across as somebody to whom things happen rather than somebody who actively makes them happen. I also wondered at first why Susan Cooper had given him so many brothers and sisters (he is the youngest of nine children and I found the number of characters introduced in the opening chapters a bit overwhelming), but the significance of that soon becomes clear.

There are some elements of English folklore incorporated into the plot, such as the legend of Herne the Hunter, and Christmas traditions and customs play a big part in the story too: giving and receiving presents, decorating the tree, singing carols. While this book was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. challenge, I wish I had saved it until December as it would have been a perfect Christmas read. Anyway, I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

This is book #4 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

One of the first books I read this year was Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street, the first in a new mystery series set in Victorian London. I enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to meet its hero, Leo Stanhope, again. Now that I’ve read the second book, The Anarchists’ Club, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this one just as much as the first. If you’re wondering whether it’s necessary to read the series in order, I don’t think it’s essential…you will have a better understanding of Leo and his background if you do, but otherwise both books work well as standalone mysteries.

Catching up with Leo again at the beginning of The Anarchists’ Club, it seems that not much has changed in his life. He is still renting a room above a pharmacy, still working as a hospital porter, still meeting his only friend Jacob for an occasional game of chess. One day he is helping out in the pharmacy when a woman comes in to buy some bromide. Lacking the money to pay, she asks for credit, but Leo refuses, telling her she will have to speak to the owner. It’s only a brief interaction but one which Leo will remember forever, because a few days later he receives a visit from the police. The woman, Dora Hannigan, has been murdered and a scrap of paper with Leo’s name and address on it has been found on her body.

Among the suspects is John Thackery, a man Leo knew many years ago – when he was quite literally a different person. If John makes his former identity known, the whole new life Leo has built for himself could be destroyed, so he agrees to give John an alibi in return for his silence. Has Leo done the right thing or is he allowing a murderer to walk free? The only way to be sure is to investigate the murder himself…

Leo’s investigations lead him to, as the title of the book suggests, a club of ‘anarchists and socialists’ with whom the dead woman had become involved. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t find out as much about these people and their work as I’d expected; although the division between the rich and poor in society is one of the book’s main themes, the mystery itself doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. As with the first novel, the most interesting aspect of the story is the character of Leo himself. Although he is known as Leo Stanhope now, he grew up as Lottie Pritchard before deciding as a teenager that he could no longer continue living as a woman and denying who he really was. Being transgender in the 19th century is not easy and a few words from someone who knows the truth – someone like John Thackery – could ruin everything for him. For Leo, though, being true to himself is worth the risk and the danger. As I am not transgender myself and, as far as I know, Alex Reeve isn’t either, I can’t really say whether the portrayal of Leo and his thoughts and feelings is accurate or not, but it does feel believable to me.

The books are narrated by Leo in the first person and I find him a very likeable character. For obvious reasons, he tries not to attract too much attention to himself and has a quiet, unassuming nature. In this second novel, I loved his relationship with Aiden and Ciara, Dora Hannigan’s children, whom he befriends and tries to look after once it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to. This is particularly touching because there are so few people in Leo’s life whom he still cares about or who care about him, having become estranged from his parents and sister after making the decision to leave his life as Lottie behind.

I was also pleased to meet Rosie Flowers, the pie maker, again; I said earlier that Jacob is Leo’s only friend, but that’s not quite true because although Rosie and Leo exasperate each other at times, they formed a close bond during their investigation of the previous mystery and work together to try to solve this one as well. I’m hoping to see them both again in future books; I haven’t seen any news of a third Leo Stanhope mystery yet, but I will certainly be looking out for it.

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #3 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

My Commonplace Book: September 2019

A selection of words and pictures to represent September’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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‘What credulous creatures we are, really. We believe evidence as though it were gospel truth. And what is it really? Only the impression conveyed to the mind by the senses – and suppose they’re the wrong impressions?’

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie (1929)

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“So it will go,” Merriman said. “He will have a sweet picture of the Dark to attract him, as men so often do, and beside it he will set all the demands of the Light, which are heavy and always will be.”

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

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Illustration of a winged, fire-breathing dragon by Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806

She couldn’t decide if she was flattered or insulted. ‘It’s because he remembers so much more than the others. I sometimes think that age is based more on what you’ve done and what you remember than how old you are.’

Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb (2010)

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Conscience? It struck me like a blow from a hunting whip, fine and cutting. What was conscience? A jackdaw, picking up one shiny object, then discarding it for another, whatever would suit the occasion. Or haphazardly collecting one bright stone after another, until it had a whole array of glittering trivia in its nest.

A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien (2019)

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Leon Kryder had replied with an exposition of the greater burden of conformity to socially sanctioned behaviour patterns that American adolescents have to bear. Although the individual has a great deal of freedom, it is only freedom to enjoy the same sort of freedom as everybody else of that age and that group.

Death on a Quiet Day by Michael Innes (1956)

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Aurora Borealis

‘Why wait?’ Bullmer shrugged. ‘One thing I’ve learned in business – now almost always is the right time. What feels like prudence is almost invariably cowardice – and someone else gets in there before you.’

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2016)

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The truth is not so simple, I thought. The truth is that I am a man, from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I have a man’s thoughts and a man’s desires. And yet, if you were to look at my skin, Mr Whitford, heaven forbid, you would think I was female. That would be your truth. Whose truth is more important, do you think: yours or mine?

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve (2019)

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You spend months stalking a problem that constantly escapes. Then cover more ground in half a second than your brain can comprehend.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis (1989)

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Favourite books read in September:

The Anarchists’ Club and The Dark is Rising

New authors read in September:

Lindsey Davis

Countries visited in my September reading:

England, Norway, Italy (Ancient Rome), the Realm of the Elderlings

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy in September?

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

After reading Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key last month, I knew I wanted to read more of her books but wasn’t sure which one to try next. Some of you recommended The Death of Mrs Westaway, which does sound good, but as my library had The Woman in Cabin 10 available first, that is the one I’ve ended up reading. I had seen some very mixed opinions of the book and it doesn’t seem to be a favourite of Ruth Ware fans, but I enjoyed it and thought it was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. XIV challenge.

Laura Blacklock, known as Lo, is a journalist working for a London-based magazine, Velocity. With her editor in hospital, Lo has been given the job of reporting on the maiden voyage of a new luxury cruise liner, the Aurora Borealis. She knows it’s a wonderful opportunity – a free cruise around the Norwegian fjords in search of the Northern Lights and the chance to make new and influential contacts – but when her home is broken into a few days before the trip and she almost comes face to face with the burglar, she is left feeling nervous, violated and unable to relax. She doesn’t really feel like going on the cruise at all but hopes she will at least be able to have a good night’s sleep on the ship…

Unfortunately, there is more trauma ahead for Lo. On the first evening of the cruise, she knocks on the door of the cabin next to her own – Cabin 10 – and borrows a mascara from the young woman who answers the door. Later that night, after going to bed, she hears a scream from Cabin 10 and then a loud splash. Convinced that someone has been thrown overboard, Lo calls security – but when the door is opened, the room is completely empty; there are no signs that anyone had ever been staying there at all. What has happened to the woman in Cabin 10? Has Lo been imagining things or is one of her fellow passengers trying to cover up a murder?

I loved the mystery element of this book. A cruise liner makes a perfect ‘locked room’ setting; as it’s not likely that anyone will arrive or leave once at sea, that means the suspects are limited to those on board at the beginning. These include the wealthy businessman who owns the ship, his invalid wife, a renowned photographer, a travel journalist, a food writer, an ‘extreme adventure’ expert, and even Lo’s own ex-boyfriend. The Aurora Borealis is not a huge ship, but a very small one with only ten cabins – described as a ‘boutique cruise liner’ – and this increases the feeling of danger and claustrophobia as Lo becomes aware that if one of the other guests is trying to do her harm she really has nowhere to hide.

When the truth was revealed I was annoyed with myself because I felt that it was something I should have guessed or been able to work out – but didn’t. Still, it meant that I was taken by surprise because I hadn’t been expecting it at all! After this revelation, though, I felt that the rest of the book was too drawn out; although there was still a lot of drama, there wasn’t much more suspense and it seemed to take a long time to get to the final chapter. Some of the developments towards the end were hard to believe and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I did at the beginning. I did find it entertaining though and am looking forward to my next Ruth Ware book.

This is book #2 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

Top Ten Tuesday: My Autumn TBR

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl, asks us to list ten books on our Autumn TBR. As usual, I have a lot more than ten books that I’m hoping to read in the next few months, but I have chosen a selection of them to list below.

Two books I’m hoping to get to soon for the R.I.P. XIV event:

1. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

2. Tombland by CJ Sansom

A book left over from my 20 Books of Summer List:

3. The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

My Classics Club Spin result, announced yesterday:

4. Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

Some review copies I haven’t read yet:

5. To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

6. A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

For the Read Christie 2019 Challenge:

7. Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

Next in a series started earlier this year:

8. Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb

Non-fiction, because I don’t read enough of it:

9. The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

10. Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor by Phil Carradice

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Have you read or will you be reading any of these? Which books are on your autumn/fall TBR?

Classics Club Spin #21: The Result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin has been revealed today!

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book I have to read before 31st October 2019. The number that has been selected is…

5

And this means the book I need to read is…

Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

Lady Constantine, breaks all the rules of decorum when she falls in love with beautiful youth Swithin St Cleeve, her social inferior and ten years her junior. Together, in an ancient monument converted into an astronomical observation tower, they create their own private universe – until the pressures of the outside world threaten to destroy it.

This is not one of the books I was particularly hoping for but I’m still quite happy with this result as I love Thomas Hardy and it’s been a while since I last read anything by him.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

September Quiz – The Answers!

Thanks to everyone who took part in my historical fiction first lines quiz last weekend. As promised, here are the answers:

1. I was down in Surrey, on business for Lord Cromwell’s office, when the summons came.
Dissolution by CJ Sansom

2. It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.
Outlander/Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

3. His children are falling from the sky.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

4. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn was born in a camp near the crest of a pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket.
The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye

5. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

6. When the east wind blows up Helford river the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

7. On the step of her new husband’s home, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

8. Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.
The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

9. On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

10. The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

11. My father is Sir Richard Woodville, Baron Rivers, an English nobleman, a landholder, and a supporter of the true Kings of England, the Lancastrian line.
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

12. When the year one thousand came, Thorkel Amundason was five years old, and hardly noticed how frightened everyone was.
King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

13. In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

14. In the tender green time of April, Katherine set forth at last upon her journey with the two nuns and the royal messenger.
Katherine by Anya Seton

15. At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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I hope you all had fun with the quiz. I think every book apart from The Three Musketeers and Days Without End was correctly guessed by at least one person. Well done everyone!