February 12th, 2012

enterprise sail

Book #2: Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

Title: Over Sea, Under Stone
Author: Susan Cooper
Genre: Adventure, fantasy, Arthurian

This is the first in Cooper’s fan-favourite The Dark is Rising Sequence, although it was originally intended as a standalone and was written some years before the four that eventually followed it.

From the blurb:
On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that – the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril.

It’d been a while since I read this book (the last time was in 2008 or so) and oh my goodness, I think I’d forgotten how good it is. Others in the Sequence may be stronger when all five are taken as a whole but this story is perfectly good on its own too. On this re-read – probably only my third ever of this book – I gained a (perhaps) renewed sense of appreciation for this story and I was able to rediscover the depth of detail in it. The descriptions of some of the moments the three children experience, particularly a scene when one of them is being chased by an unfriendly figure and the scenes near and at the end of the quest, really stood out to me.

I can also really relate to one of the children, an Arthurian legends enthusiast, much more now than I think I’d have been able to earlier. The Arthurian legends are a somewhat recent discovery as items of interest, delight, and (a bit of) scholarship for me – in fact, it’s about as recent as the last time I read this book! :D That might be one reason I found I liked it so much this time, but I know it’s not the defining one.

All the characters in this are great, whether they’re our heroes and their allies or the story’s main antagonists. On the side of the ‘good guys’, we really get to see the complexities of each of the three children’s personalities, and while their parents only get brief mention one does get a ‘sense’ of what they’re like. I like Mr. Drew, who comes across as a person with quite a sense of humour, and I also like the detail that Mrs. Drew knows her daughter well enough to realize she’ll be happy to wander around on her own after declining to go with the boys and Mr. Drew on a trip one morning.

Other fascinating characters who are the children’s allies include their mysterious ‘Great-uncle’ Merry and their holiday pet, a dog called Rufus. Merry serves as their guide and confidant in this story, sort of an Obi-Wan figure to their Luke Skywalker, and Rufus proves to be a valuable companion as well.

The antagonists are also portrayed well. More are introduced as the story progresses, and they start becoming more effective as the days in-story pass, so by the last chapter they’re quite creepy.

I recommend this as a fun children’s adventure with some intriguing dark parts mixed with the lighter fare. It’s also a great set-up for the rest of the Sequence, but it can be enjoyed just as well alone.
jimmy kick original series

Book #3: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Title: The Dark is Rising
Author: Susan Cooper
Genre: Adventure, fantasy, Arthurian

This is the second book in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. It gave the series its name and is a Newbery Honor book.

From the blurb:
On the Midwinter Day that is his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers a special gift – that he is the last of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the forces of evil, the Dark. At once, he is plunged into a quest for the six magical Signs that will one day aid the Old Ones in the final battle between the Dark and the Light. And for the twelve days of Christmas, while the Dark is rising, life for Will is full of wonder, terror, and delight.

This is such a lovely lovely book! The story is about an English farmboy (of sorts!) who is ten going on eleven and his post-birthday adventures one very memorable Christmas/New Year season. If he succeeds on his quest, it will not only help his ‘side’ (the Light) in a future battle, but will also help him prevent a permanently miserable present for everyone in the British Isles (and presumably worldwide, too).

The prose is quite often lyrical with rich and vivid descriptions and intricate details. Cooper does great world-building – in a scene where Will first starts to realize that he’s taken a step into a larger world, there are some great hints of what's to come in later books as well as a quick image of an important location in the previous book – something I only realized on this re-read! Towards the end there is a slightly longer but still brief mention of the events of Over Sea, Under Stone as well - and I love that because it really does tie the two together more subtly than in another, soon-made-obvious way.

Will is a great character who is very likeable, as are his wonderful family members – eight siblings, most of whom are given very distinct and individual personalities, and two awesome parents. There’s banter, magic, warmth, music and music appreciation (lots of it!), lessons learned, tension, displays of power, fear, urgency, mythology, and hope mixed in with seasonal charm and wintry weather in this story.

I hadn’t read this one cover-to-cover in ages either (sort of like with Over Sea, Under Stone), but I’m glad I started re-reading it last year. It reads particularly well at the time of year when it is set – there’s a fairly clear timeline of the events that take place from Midwinter Day to Twelfth Night, and reading the chapters that take place on a particular day on those days really put the whole story into a new light for me. I recommend trying it if you haven’t done so already, apart from wholeheartedly recommending the book in general.
  • cat63

Book 12 for 2012

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch. 373 pages.
Second book about PC Peter Grant, the Metropolitan Police's newest apprentice wizard.
I loved the first book in this series, Rivers of London, and hoped that this one would be as good. If anything, it's better. I think you probably need to have read the first book to get the most out of this one, but Moon Over Soho is better paced and plotted, while retaining the quirky humour and pop culture references that made the first book so much fun.
This time Peter has to contend with mysterious deaths among the city's jazz musicians and gory ones elsewhere. And at the same time he's still dealing with the consequences of things which happened in the first book, which is one of the reasons I like this one so much - the fallout from prior events doesn't stop just because it's a new volume.
The cover has a quote from Diana Galbadon  saying "What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz", but honestly I think that's doing Aaronovitch a disservice - not only  are his books not derivative of Harry Potter (although he makes reference to them for humorous effect now and then) but he's also a far better writer than J.K. Rowling. in my opinion.
The third book of this series come out in June. I think I shall have to pay Aaronovitch the greatest accolade I can give a writer and shell out for the hardback.
jimmy kick original series

Book #4: Inferno by Mike Carey and Michael Gaydos

Title: Inferno
Author/Illustrator: Mike Carey/Michael Gaydos
Genre: Comic/Graphic Novel

From the blurb:
Murdered by an unknown assailant, John Travis finds himself in Inferno, a Hell not of fiery demons and satanic majesty, but an endless city seething with corruption, intrigue and despair. Yet death is the least of Travis’ problems; he is accused of being Jacomo Terence, dead 800 years and the first man to escape Hell and live his life again. Naturally, this did not sit well with the Infernal Powers, and so Travis finds himself at the centre of a vast power struggle and thrust into battle with Inferno’s seneschal – Lord Baal.

I borrowed this from my library mostly on the value of Mike Carey’s name – being as I am a big fan of The Unwritten, a series that he and Peter Gross are working on at Vertigo Comics, and having enjoyed his miniseries Sigil*, drawn by Leonard Kirk** – but the fact that this is early work by Michael Gaydos (famous for drawing Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias) was also a hook.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself being engaged by the story because I’m not usually a reader of books with plots like “[a] guy goes to Hell, and that’s where his troubles start”*** or others like it. So when it ended, somewhat abruptly, I was disappointed to realize that there isn’t more available. This is the first and only collection of a series that was cancelled after about five issues.

Plot wise, the question posed to and by the hero – is he Travis or is he Terence? – is intriguing, and so is the way he sets about trying to answer it while dealing with situations and obstacles that are completely new to him simply by the nature of what they are. Some readers may not like the answer that’s finally given, but I think it works. There’s a mystery to solve/puzzle to be figured out, magic performed, a sense of history, some violence, and some humour to be found in this book.

Carey and Gaydos also do good character work. I like Travis/Terence’s supporting cast – an old man called Michel de Notre Dame (also known as Nostradamus) and a woman named Shule Borraial, whom I found fascinating. What happens with her, added to the nature of the setting, is one of the reasons that I wish there had been more tales in this universe. The cliffhanger the book ends on this definitely another! In addition, the antagonists of this are also interesting and formidable people in their own ways.

The art, quite recognizably Gaydos, is very different from his work in Alias. Readers who didn’t like his stylistic choices for that book shouldn’t be put off this one. This book is also entirely in black and white, which is something I’ve not had much experience with apart from newspaper comic strips and suchlike. Reading a whole book without any colour was a new, and good, experience for me.

Since finishing Inferno I’ve decided that a Mike Carey story is, for me, worth at least one complete read-through because I will very likely become interested in – and even end up enjoying – it, even if the subject was not my usual fare. I’m reading another of his comics, Faker, right now.

I’m glad I gave Inferno a try.

* part of Marvel Comics' reinvention of the CrossGen line.
** who also worked on Jeff Parker’s 2006 miniseries Agents of Atlas, a book I love dearly.
*** The ‘starting point’ that Carey and Gaydos were given for the story by their publisher, Gary Reed of Caliber Comics.
book and cup

#17 Miss Buncle Married - D E Stevenson (1936)

From Persephone books

Miss Buncle’s Book, Persephone Book No. 81, is about a woman who writes a novel about Silverstream, the village where she lives, under the pseudonym John Smith, and is then involved in the comedy as her neighbours try to discover the identity of the viper in their midst. Eventually she is forced to leave, and having married her publisher Arthur Abbott, moves to his house in Hampstead. The Abbotts then move out of London, which is when Miss Buncle Married, begins. Early on Arthur thinks: ‘But I really hope, in a way, that [Barbara] won’t want to write ... because this place is delightful – simply charming – and if she starts writing about our neighbours, we shall most probably have to leave Wandlebury – just as she had to leave Silverstream – in a hurry.’

DE Stevenson’s great-granddaughter Fiona Bevan writes in the Persephone Afterword: ‘It is the truthful depiction of people, and the exposure of their faults, that makes Barbara’s writing dangerous.’ For, although witty and readable, DE Stevenson can be sharp and caustic, indeed occasionally verges on the cruel when she lampoons some of her characters. However, she is also intensely sympathetic to the less fortunate, for example the reader knows that Miss Foddy, the governess to the neighbouring children, faces a bleak future where ‘it is so extremely difficult for a woman of my age and uncertified qualifications to find a post‘ and DE Stevenson never forgets ‘the potentially bleak outlook for women who cannot marry into a secure life.’ Yet despite moments of seriousness, Miss Buncle Married is overall a funny, touching and interesting novel that most Persephone readers will enjoy very much.

I almost goes without saying that I loved Miss Buncle’s book – I say almost – because there are in the world those who are not aware of the wonderful books published by Persephone and so therefore may not have read Miss Buncle’s book as DE Stevenson books seem pretty hard to come by these days.  I received this book for Christmas and have been looking forward to it enormously. It didn’t disappoint, in fact I fairly gulped it down. It looks like a fairly thick Persephone book, one that may have lasted until at least tomorrow night – but alas it was a much quicker read than I had anticipated and the pleasure of reading it all too soon over. I now feel quite bereft that I have finished it so quickly. I would have probably finished it hours ago – had I not deliberately slowed myself down – gone for walk, watched some TV etc.

One of the main delights in this novel for me was in the relationship between Barbara and her husband Arthur Abbott, although sometimes slightly confounded by his dear Barbara – ultimately he gets her in a way that no one else ever has or ever could.  I was amused and charmed by how meek little Barbara turns into a veritable lion when she come across something she want so very badly as she wants The Archway House in Wandlebury.

 As the Abbotts settle into their new life in Wandlebury, Barbara begins to involve herself in the lives of her neighbours. With her usual quiet perceptiveness she picks up on things; she learns a secret, one she even feels unable to share with Arthur – a secret which causes Barbara no end of worry. Arthur stumbles across an old friend of his from the trenches and Sam Abbott – Arthur’s nephew falls in love.  Wandlebury is a wonderful setting – one in which Barbara and Arthur Abbott fit perfectly – they are surrounded by a host of marvellous characters – some wonderfully humorous creations of DE Stevenson, who give Barbara Abbott  much to think about and are wonderful fodder for her imagination. Barbara and Arthur are rather afraid of her imagination – after what happened in Silverstream – they realise Barbara’s writing could be dangerous to their happiness. 

This book was a complete joy – and I am desperate to read The Two Mrs Abbotts – the third in the series but it is pretty hard to find, and expensive the cheapest on abebooks today being nearly £28.  I only hope that following the success of the Miss Buncle books Persephone decide to do the decent thing and put her fans out of their misery.



Among the arts that have been lost, thanks to (take your pick) constructivist education or the reliance on spell-checker software or greater tolerance for incompetence, appears to be the art of proofreading.  There are a number of books in the stack awaiting publication of a review, and probably more in the stack awaiting reading for review, in which the spelling and grammar errors may be more annoying than the end-noting convention or the failure to form a coherent argument.  I took the title of Book Review No. 5 from page 151 of Charlie Sykes's A Nation of Moochers: America's Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing, which would be representative of the conservative grousing about Public Assistance, but for its recognition that mulcting the taxpayers has turned out to be profitable for unsuccessful businesses generally and overconfident bankers particularly.  That's the bulk of the book, summarized at page 97.
If transfer payments and subsidies were limited to low-income individuals, this would be a book merely about the welfare state.  But the reliance on [other peoples' money] extends far beyond the poor into corporate America, upper-income owners of beach homes, affluent farmers, public employees, and entitled yuppies who have developed the habit and expectation of mooching off others.
What follows, however, is a collection of examples, set off by the juiciest quotes Mr Sykes or his research team can find.  There's little by way of systematic analysis, references to Robert Nozick or William Voegeli notwithstanding, and little by way of concrete action to change things.  The absence of such a plan might be understandable.  If, per Bastiat, the state is a grand fiction by which each attempts to live at the expense of the other, the dominant strategy equilibrium is one of going along to get along, because defection in the form of opting out of benefits, whether those be farm subsidies, student loans, deposit insurance, or food stamps, simply means consenting to be looted and mooched from without recompense.   The book has the potential to make readers angry.  Whether policies will change remains to be seen.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)