#20 Books of Summer, #13 and #14: True Believer and Over Sea, Under Stone

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

I feel like a bit of a cheat choosing two children’s/YA books (Skellig did not count because it was so awful I read it very slowly) but, to be fair, nothing against it in the rules I set myself.

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The UK edition I own – couldn’t find a stock photo online. I love the very ‘early 00s’ font choice, reminiscent of the cover of Nicola Griffiths’ The Blue Place.

Before rereading: I first read this book in 2002, when I was fifteen years old, the same age as the main character. I don’t remember much about it other than that I resonated with its themes of oppressive, evangelical Christianity and first love.  It stands out in my memory because I liked it despite the fact it was an ‘issue’ book written in blank verse – two things I usually steered clear of as a teenager. I didn’t write anything down about the novel at the time, but it was ‘Commended’ in my monthly book awards.

After rereading: Ah, I completely see why I loved this so much as a teenager, but I still really enjoyed it as an adult. The central themes of the novel – unrequited love, religion, and biochemistry – were also three of my obsessions at this age. Like LaVaughn, the protagonist of True Believer, I was disturbed by how many of my fellow classmates had become vocal evangelical Christians, committing to fundamentalist ideas about evolution and hellfire, and resisted their attempts to convert me. Although our adolescent experiences were otherwise very far apart – American LaVaughn lives in a rough inner city area with frequent shootings, both inside and outside her high school – I identified with her concerns. It also features a very early 00s take on adolescent homosexuality: our sympathetic, straight protagonist discovers that a male friend is gay and, after the initial shock, accepts it. It’s interesting how the few YA novels at the time that did tackle this topic often did it in this sidelong way (and totally unsurprising that the gay characters were always male). Passages from the book came back to me as I was reading, making me realise that they must have stayed with me ever since. And while I still struggle with novels written in blank verse, this, along with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Otheris a rare exception that works for me: Wolff uses verse so cleverly to convey the cadence of LaVaughn’s voice.

(This book is actually the second in a trilogy. I read the first, Make Lemonade, after reading this one and wasn’t too impressed with it. The third, This Full House, came out in 2009, when my teen years were over, and doesn’t seem to have got great reviews, so I’m hesitant to try it).

My rating in 2002: ****

My rating in 2022 (twenty years later 😲): ****

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Before rereading: I read this book multiple times as a young child. The American edition suggests to me that I first read it in the States, so I was probably around six or seven (c.1993-4). I remember it as being quite similar to Enid Blyton, The Magician’s Nephew and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in its Cornish holiday setting, quest narrative and hint of something darker via the character of Great-Uncle Merry, who I remember as having a bit of a Gandalf vibe. I did not read the rest of the novels in The Dark Is Rising sequence until I was a teenager, and never clicked with them in the same way. I think it was a combination of not being a big fan of high/Arthurian fantasy and feeling resentful that there were (initially) so few connections between this book and the rest of the series.

I’m rereading this as part of Annabel’s Dark Is Rising Sequence Readalong #TDiR22.

After rereading: This took me back! I read it when I was so young I still believed all books somehow existed in the same world, so it’s muddled in my head with Weirdstone – which was published five years earlier, and with which it shares certain key similarities – and other children’s books I read that dealt with Cornish folklore. It starts off feeling very Blytonesque, as the three Drew children embark on their seaside holiday, but Cooper expertly weaves in a darker and more menacing thread as they find a mysterious map and search for the Grail, and the final revelation about Great-Uncle Merry confirms my dim memory of the novel. This was a perfect read for a sunny few days spent largely on the north-east coast – plus one misty morning.

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Annabel asks:

  1. We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you? YES – especially the sequence when the children explore a cave at low tide.
  2. This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this? I find this a bit puzzling. I devoured many E. Nesbit books as a child – Five Children and It, The Story of the Amulet, The Story of The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Enchanted Castle (hated The Railway Children, sorry) – and this book doesn’t seem to owe much to Nesbit. As I’ve said, to me the obvious readalikes are Blyton and Garner. Over Sea, Under Stone recalls a world of ‘high’ magic linked to local legend, which doesn’t fit with the feel of the more prosaic magics in Nesbit’s books. The closest Nesbit novels are probably Treasure Seekers/Wouldbegoods, but there is no element of fantasy in those two, and they adopt a much more imaginative and interesting style of first-person narration than Over Sea, which is very straightforwardly told.
  3. I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any? I don’t remember the Narnia novels well enough to answer this, but I was interested by the way the three children are characterised. Although Cooper’s writing is far superior to Blyton’s, there are traces of familiar roles. Simon is the leader and protective older brother, Barney is the maverick younger brother and repository of random facts, and Jane is more caring, more easily frightened and more timid. Cooper is careful to have all three children contribute equally to the quest for the grail, but I was sorry to see Jane sometimes relegated to more traditionally feminine roles – for example, waiting for the boys outside the cave.
  4. And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five? I’m not really sure why there was a dog in this book – although he does a good line in alerting our protagonists to the presence of evil.

My rating c.1994: *****

My rating in 2022: ****

18 thoughts on “#20 Books of Summer, #13 and #14: True Believer and Over Sea, Under Stone

  1. I remember reading The Dark Is Rising a few years ago and being really forcefully struck with the way a working-class woman is painted as a repository of pure evil, while the middle-class women (mum and sisters) are generally cheery, apple-cheeked, vague, or misguided presences. It made the book much harder for me to love, although it was still amazingly atmospheric.

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    • Ouch. I remember absolutely nothing about it other than I didn’t really get on with it. I’m trying to decide if Over Sea… has the same problem; there are a network of locals in league with the Dark but they are from different class backgrounds. (Indeed, I think what makes the working-class female character quite so chilling is that she originally occupies the stereotyped role of kindly older female cook/dogsbody, there to do whatever the children want and make them marvellous picnics etc., but turns out to have an agenda of her own).

      The parents don’t appear much in Over Sea, but I enjoyed the dad’s heavy sarcasm whenever his kids are annoying him.

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  2. I’m surprised to see your Scholastic cover of a Susan Cooper — I hadn’t heard of her until a few years ago (when my husband did Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter readalong of The Dark Is Rising), so assumed she had never made it in the US or I would have read her stuff as a child. I’m going to try The Dark Is Rising next month for Annabel’s readalong. No need to apologize for choosing kid lit/YA — surely part of the joy of rereads is the nostalgia factor!

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    • Ah, interesting. It’s definitely a US edition as it has the price in dollars on the spine – I don’t think they were as well-known in the US though. This is my one and only entry in the readalong, I don’t think the rest of the series is for me!

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  3. “I read it when I was so young I still believed all books somehow existed in the same world” – I love this, I have a feeling I thought that of all fantasy books, too (I scared myself silly with Garner’s The Owl Service and was going to re-read him but have come over all funny about him having the White Horse of Uffington on the cover of his latest!).

    I love the Susan Coopers and I’m planning to have a big old feast of them ALL in December – I remember liking this one because the girl is the hero for once. I need to look at that class aspect, though. Hm. Funny edition, I think I have two as I have the omnibus then bought separates to read with Matthew one Christmas/New Year.

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    • The gender politics of this one are a bit weird – it’s a step up from Blyton but Jane still embodies some traditionally female traits. I know the children turn up again in later books in the series so I don’t know if this improves.

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      • Yes, it is a bit gendered, but “of its time” I suppose. I remember Will as being a not very over-masculine gendered child. I’ll have to read this through a more critical lens I think next time, hoping I don’t spoil it for myself!

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  4. Thank you for joining in. My post will be up on the 24th, but I did love this book – first time for me! I devised my questions before I read it, so I would probably have asked about comparisons with Weirdstone/Gomrath which I love and re-read some years ago.

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    • Ah, I didn’t realise you hadn’t read it before! Weirdstone is definitely the better book – so much scarier! – but I’m glad you enjoyed Over Sea. Look forward to reading your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I came here via Annabel’s TDiRS22 post and am glad I did – a fascinating review and I enjoyed all the comments too! In fact, seeing the True Believer cover you also feature I wondered if there was a Grail theme linking them as the silhouette evokes the Rubin vase illusion with its implied chalice outlined by the facing figures!

    I had never linked the Alan Garner novel with OSUS until you and Annabel made the connection so I’ll have to consider that further, although I was naturally aware that they borrowed heavily from Arthurian themes, as their atmospheres seem to hail from the two authors’ different approaches. But yes to Lewis and Blyton and
    to Nesbit’s Bastables.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Ah, I’d never spotted that on the True Believer cover! I don’t think it’s intentional as the scene is directly taken from a pivotal moment in the book, but I do like the mirroring with the vase illusion!

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  6. Pingback: #TDiRS22 – The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1: Over Sea, Under Stone – Annabookbel

  7. I recently did a re-read of this book and The Darkness is Rising with my husband, who hadn’t read them before, and I didn’t find that they held up that well for me. I remembered them as being more action-packed than they were, so they felt quite slow to me. I think as a younger reader, the creepy atmosphere and fun references to mythology were enough to make it feel exciting to me.

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    • I never clicked with The Dark Is Rising as a teenager, so won’t be rereading it. I quite like the slow pace of 60s children’s books – though this couldn’t compete with my all-time favourites from this era (Weirdstone, Charlotte Sometimes, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Marianne Dreams).

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  8. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

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