Second (or third, or fourth) chances

The story of my Diana Wynne Jones reading life is this:

Stage One: Begin book. Find world it is set in confusing. Find characters depressing and unpleasant. Give up reading it, or finish it with grim sense of duty to beloved author. Lament dissimilarity to books previously read by Diana Wynne Jones. Attain acceptance by telling self that no author can write good books every single time. Reread Fire and Hemlock consolingly.

Stage Two (discovery of DWJ – 2003ish): Receive assurances from sister that book in question is good. Doubt her taste because of Juliet Marillier and similar. Point out to her with superior air that no author can write good books every time and this one is simply not my cup of tea. Remind her about The Time of the Ghost. Insert fingers in ears. Go la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.

Stage Two (2003ish – present): Remember all those other Diana Wynne Jones books not loved upon first reading. Begin to doubt judgment. Remind self of Dark Lord of Derkholm, Archer’s Goon, Deep Secret, and Homeward Bounders. Remind self about Time of the Ghost. Struggle to hold onto feelings of justification in abandoning book.

Stage Three: Allow time to pass. Have no new Diana Wynne Jones books to read. Begin to feel book could not have been as bad as all that. Begin book again. Either return immediately to Stage One and do whole thing over with calcifying feelings of dislike for book, or carry on to Stage Four.

Stage Four: Finish book. Have no idea what was wrong with self before. Promise self to bear this in mind in future. Possibly give The Time of the Ghost another try, despite never ever progressing beyond Stage Three with it.

Knowing this will happen does not, by the way, fend it off. Out of Diana Wynne Jones’s dozens of books, there have been maybe six I liked on the first try. I do not know how to account for this, but I will say that it has given me a healthy doubt for the accuracy of my first impressions.

As you may have discerned, I have never progressed to Stage Four with The Time of the Ghost. It’s about the ghost of one of four sisters (she cannot quite work out which sister she is), who in present times, her own adulthood, has been in an accident and is lying ill in a hospital bed. She keeps traveling back in time to her childhood, and the events surrounding a game (a sort of game) about worshiping a dark goddess called Monigan. Some way, Monigan is connected to what has happened to the ghost, and she must change the past in order to keep herself from being claimed by the goddess.

I have read this book, in part or in full, at least seven times in the last decade; and each time I have found it tiresome and creepy and unspeakably dreary and awful. But as Diana Wynne Jones Week grew closer, I felt more and more that it was shabby of me to hold such a week while also retaining such strong dislike for one of Diana Wynne Jones’s books. When I saw it at a book sale a few weekends ago, therefore, I grabbed it.

“Ew,” said my sister. “You’re buying that?”

“I have disliked so many of her books, the first time through,” I said (stoutly) (firmly in Stage Three). “One of these days, I’m going to have a breakthrough with The Time of the Ghost. I’m going to read it, and I’m going to like it,” so I bought it.

And lo, it did come to pass that I curled up in a blue university armchair with The Time of the Ghost, and I did decline to read the flap copy on it for verily I remembered finding it confusing before. And I looked upon The Time of the Ghost and read it, and found it good; and yea, I did not know what was wrong with me before. And so it was that after ten years of travail and misery, The Time of the Ghost and I progressed to Stage Four at last, and I entered it into my catalogue on LibraryThing, that I might keep it forever as a sign of joy and a reminder of past follies.

I may have said a few times this week that I love Diana Wynne Jones. I love her for many reasons. Most of these are to do with her skill as a writer: the vivid life of her characters, her humor, her deft, elegant plots, and her boundless imagination. But I particularly love her for the dozens of times my experience of her books has reminded me to try again, to be aware that the reader has to be able to meet a book halfway in order to enjoy it. (People, too, as it goes.) My life is happier for these reminders.

This has been Diana Wynne Jones Week, lovely internet people. I am enchanted with my first experience of hosting a blog event and may do it again someday. Like maybe I will actually start up that mental health challenge I have been talking about for a year. A big thank you, again, to Sami Saramäki for letting me use her beautiful illustration for the button; and to you, delightful people of the blogosphere, for playing along with me. I shouldn’t be surprised, after two and a half years of blogging, at how amazing and fun and enthusiastic y’all are. I hope you all enjoyed your Diana Wynne Jones books and will read on. 🙂

If you haven’t entered my DWJ giveaway, hasten to do so, because it closes at midnight tonight!

Review: House of Many Ways & Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I love Diana Wynne Jones, and because I have not told you why I love her with sufficient vehemence or frequency, I will tell you why right now.  It is because her characters discover things about themselves!  They discover things, and they learn!  Glorious!  People in her books proceed by instinct and guesswork, and although these are not my own preferred means of proceeding, I like it that Diana Wynne Jones’s characters succeed.  Their approach to magic is beautifully matter-of-fact.  People can learn to do magic better, or more specifically, from teachers; but at a fundamental level, and often very successfully, they do it by instinct.  Charmain in House of Many Ways says “Pipes!  Freeze!”, and they do it.

House of Many Ways is about a sheltered girl called Charmain who only wants to sit and read.  Her family sends her to care for the house of her grandfather while he goes away to be healed by the elves.  There are piles and piles of dirty laundry there, and a kitchen full of dirty dishes, and Charmain, without the first idea of how to do regular household chores, settles for reading books and learning how to do magic and helping the king and princess organize their library.  Unlike in most books where the protagonist likes to read and her parents wish she would desist, Charmain’s reading has served her ill in some ways (well, that and her mother’s determination that she should be Privileged).  She’s incapable of doing regular chores like laundry and dishes and cooking, which gives rise to much mockery by a boy called Peter who comes to stay at her grandfather’s house to be his apprentice.

Oh, and Howl and Sophie make an appearance.  And Calcifer.  Howl and Sophie and Calcifer and Morgan all make an appearance.  Though the book is not about them, and I do not feel there is enough of them, they are their usual delightful selves.  More Sophie!  More Sophie and Howl!

Other reviews:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Becky’s Book Reviews

In more recent news, Enchanted Glass is about a professor called Andrew who inherits a house from HIS grandfather.  Having failed to reach his grandfather in time to get instructions as to how to care for the magical area over which his grandfather held dominion, Andrew has to figure out how to care for it his own self.  His memory is helped by the arrival of a young boy called Aidan, who is running away from Social Workers and scary magical monsters.  There is a cantankerous old neighbor who seems obsessed with barbed-wire fences, Security, and what he calls “counterparts”.  I could have done with more cool glass-related magic, but otherwise I was very happy with it.  The glass is plainly the glass from Deep Secret, by the way – I’m glad she found a use for that glass, which did not get any real (as opposed to theoretical) play in Deep Secret.

Diana Wynne Jones!  I love you!  Live forever!

Other reviews:

Charlotte’s Library

Did I miss yours?  Surely I missed some reviews of Enchanted Glass!  Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
Epiphany

Tell me if I missed yours!

Writing swear words in the margins (Review: Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones)

I was trying to figure out, earlier today, what year it would have been that I started reading to my little sister.  I have read her scads of books over the years, but I’m pretty sure the first one was Half Magic, and I’m pretty sure that after finishing it, we went straight on to Magic by the Lake, which means I must have had them both at the time.  I have definite proof that I got Magic by the Lake for Christmas of 1995.

Let’s say I started reading to Social Sister early in 1996.  That was fourteen years ago now.  We read a lot of books together.  I mean we shared a room in our childhood!  It’s not like either of us had to make any big effort to get together and do some reading.  Plus, my family had a big car trip every summer to Maine, which meant three solid days of driving to get there, and three solid days of driving to get back.  That is a lot of time to read.  There are times when we got strapped for books to read next.

I mention this because I wouldn’t have bought Deep Secret if I had had some easy alternative of what to read Social Sister instead.  I had decided to read it to her in the time between finally deciding I liked it, and actually buying a copy.  I liked it easily well enough to buy it, but the one they had in the YA section at Bongs & Noodles had a stupid-looking cover:

The back cover blurb is stupid too!  I didn’t want to buy that stupid book.  I was just going to read to Social Sister from our oldest sister Anna’s copy, but there were pages missing out of the front of that copy.  So I sighed heavily to make sure Anna knew how severely she was inconveniencing me by having a damaged book; and also to impress upon Social Sister the painful and difficult nature of the sacrifices I had to make on her behalf; and I bought the stupid copy of Deep Secret and resigned myself.

(I always wanted Social Sister to be pretty clear on how kind I was being to read to her at all.  When I finished a chapter, and was willing to go on and read another chapter, I would start to close the book very slowly while keeping my place with my finger, and I’d say, “And maybe next time—” which was Social Sister’s cue to start howling and begging for me to continue.  She’d screech and plead and grovel, and after several minutes of this I’d sigh and say grudgingly, “Well – okay”.  It was sort of control-freaky.  I AM NOT PROUD.)

It turned out that in addition to having a stupid cover and a back-cover blurb made out of fail, this copy of Deep Secret had been censored to make it more kid-friendly.  All the swear words had been changed into less sweary words (except the ones that hadn’t – it was very inconsistent), and anything that would have implied that anyone, anywhere, was thinking about having sex (mind you, this book is set at a fantasy fiction convention) had also been removed.  They left in all the violence though – some pretty violent violence!  It was an idiotic way of doing it.

I didn’t appreciate it.  I so much didn’t appreciate it that I read out of the stupid copy to Social Sister with a pen and Anna’s old copy in my other hand, and I checked the versions against each other and made corrections in the margins of the stupid copy.  I did it straight through.  Here is a sample (I chose these pages as an extreme example – in most of the book it’s just a few swear words here and there) (and sorry about the fuzzy edges – I was trying to scan these without cracking the book’s spine):

So reading it was sort of like this:

I apologized – (Brace yourself, Social Sister, there’s a bother coming up, and I suspect not naturally).  One of the six said, Bother – oh, for heaven’s sake!  Bother!  I mean they didn’t mind us seeing that kid get executed at the beginning, or all the business with the sticky drippy blood a little while ago, but they can’t bear the idea that we might read the word Damn in a book marked as appropriate for ages 12 and up.  Social Sister, don’t you feel that a majority of kids ages 12 and up know the word Damn already?  There, I’ve fixed it.  One of the six said Damn, and Social Sister, let’s be clear, one of the six said damn, damn, damn, and before that they said damn the convention and damn the centaur-”

“I like the centaur,” said Social Sister.

“Nobody cares what you like!” I howled.  “I am on a mission to restore the smut to desmutted books!  And this part says, One of the six said Damn, and everyone is having an orgy in the stairwell, and if they didn’t like the way she wrote the damn book in the first place then they shouldn’t have published it!  This asinine bowdlerization is an insult to the intelligence of every person ages twelve and up!”

Luckily there was a heat wave in London when I was there in 2005, which forced me to spend all my time in the air-conditioned bookshops on Charing Cross Road, and while I was there, I found an undesmutted copy of Deep Secret with, moreover, a rather cool and understated cover that does not embarrass me when I am out in public with it.

So I need never worry about that ridiculous copy again.  I have given it to Social Sister, who professes to be madly fond of it.

I have posted this pocket drama of sisterhood and smuttiness rather than reviewing Deep Secret because – well, mostly because I think it is funny.  Also because if you do not believe me by now that Diana Wynne Jones is an amazing writer, indeed that she is just everything that is great about being great, then you never will.  If you do believe me, and just haven’t read Deep Secret, I highly recommend it.  It starts out a bit boring, and you don’t think you’re going to love the characters, but if you push past that, the characters all end up at a fantasy convention and are totally lovable.  WORTH IT.

(The Guardian and Orson Scott Card both rhapsodize rhapsodically about Diana Wynne Jones and her varied ways of being amazing.)

Do you choose your reading material for public places (trains, waiting rooms, classes at university) based on how unembarrassing the covers are?  I’d like to say that I don’t but honesty compels me to admit that it is a consideration.

Reviews of Deep Secret:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Books and Other Thoughts
Bart’s Bookshelf

Tell me if I missed yours!

Chrestomanci Chrestomanci Chrestomanci

I can’t get any posting done for heaven’s sake!  I have finished and not reviewed five books I was planning to review.  There are two more books sitting atop the bookshelf by my bed, nearly finished but I don’t want to actually finish them because then I’d have seven books that I was planning to review that I haven’t reviewed yet.  Peter and Max and The Book of Secrets will just have to wait.  I AM ONLY HUMAN.

In a frenzy of love for Diana Wynne Jones, I fetched out Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Conrad’s Fate – they are the ones that feature Chrestomanci as a main character, and I call them the C books, loftily ignoring at least six other books with C-words in the title – and read them all very fast, gobble gobble gobble.  They are not my favorites of all her books, but I was exactly in the mood for them.

The Chrestomanci books were the first DWJ books I picked up after finding The Tough Guide to Fantasyland amusing. and I felt so let down by them.  From The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, I was expecting that same kind of thing, high fantasy that played with high fantasy clichés.  I was expecting, essentially, The Dark Lord of Derkholm.  But what’s good about Diana Wynne Jones is that she manages to write oodles of YA fantasy novels without ever doing the same thing twice.

Virtue though this is on her part, it has led to some pretty severe frustrations on mine.  I read Deep Secret expecting it to have the same Edwardian-but-with-magic setting, only to abandon it in a huff when I found it was closer to being urban fantasy; once I grew to love Deep Secret, I got mad at its sort-of sequel The Merlin Conspiracy for being more country and wildernessy.  I was cross with The Homeward Bounders for not being Power of Three, and then cross with Archer’s Goon for not being The Homeward Bounders, and I am not quite over being cross with The Ogre Downstairs for not being Archer’s Goon.  I may never forgive Hexwood for not being Deep Secret.  Why isn’t Hexwood Deep Secret, anyway?

Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Conrad’s Fate are the three books that are sort of about being Chrestomanci.  (And maybe The Pinhoe Egg but I have not read it enough times to be sure.)  In Charmed Life, orphan siblings Cat and Gwendolen come to live at Chrestomanci Castle, Gwendolen seeking to carry out the rather nasty plans of her magic tutors, and Cat simply wanting to be looked after.  This does not prove a good desire for Cat, and the book turns on his claiming agency – not at Chrestomanci’s behest, or to help Gwendolen, but because he wants to manage his own life himself.

The Lives of Christopher Chant tips us backward to Chrestomanci’s youth, when he is a young boy called Christopher with useless parents and a penchant for traveling to alternate worlds (which he calls “Anywheres”).  (Everyone in DWJ’s books has useless parents.  Even the nice parents are useless.)  Christopher’s shady uncle Ralph employs him to bring things back from the other worlds, which Christopher does because he admires Uncle Ralph desperately.  As the reader can see from the beginning, Ralph is Up to No Good, but he is dashing and has a winning smile; whereas the old man Chrestomanci that Christopher has to go live with?  Old and cranky.  So this one’s about Christopher being slung between these two opposing forces in the world of magic, and figuring out where he wants to align himself.

Then Conrad’s Fate is set in a whole different world, one of Christopher’s Anywheres, more properly called Series Seven.  Conrad works in a bookshop near the grand mansion of Stallery, and in Stallery there are magicians who keep changing the world slightly.  The magicians in Conrad’s town realize that Conrad has an Evil Fate left over from a previous life, a Fate that can only be expiated if he kills the person he was supposed to kill in his last life.  Conrad is to take a place as a servant at Stallery in order to kill the person, and get rid of his Evil Fate.  While there, he meets Christopher, an arrogant, charming enchanter from another world, who is taking a place as a servant at Stallery too, in order to find a friend of his that’s gone missing.

This is my point about Diana Wynne Jones.  Even when she’s writing in the same world for several books, Diana Wynne Jones takes the world and swivels it, and gives us it again from a different angle, so that the books in the series end up being very different.  We see Chrestomanci as his adult self in Charmed Life, terrifying and vague and polite; we see him as a child, from his own perspective, in Lives of Christopher Chant; and we see him at a halfway point in Conrad’s Fate, through the eyes of a kid who doesn’t, necessarily, appreciate Christopher’s high-handed approach to life.

What I’m trying to say is this: If you have tried DWJ and only liked one of her books, you may be suffering from the same expectations gap that plagues me every time I read a new one of her books. The key may be to start her books having absolutely no expectations at all. In fact it was foolish of you even to read this review.

Review: Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones

I am selectively craving Diana Wynne Jones right now.  Diana Wynne Jones is so great that I’ve devoted nearly half of the spinning bookshelf my father made me to her books alone.  (The spinning bookshelf denotes great favoritism and also contains Martin Millar, J.K. Rowling, and Rumer Godden.)  (Er, just so we’re clear, it doesn’t spin perpetually, like those spinny restaurants.  It’s more like spinning earring racks at gift shops, except bigger and wooden and it has books on it rather than accessories.)

Does anyone else take great notice of words whose letters are all standards, which is to say, letters that neither stretch tall (like t) nor drop low (like g)?  All-standard words include scarecrows, savannas, and renascence; if you are willing to fudge a bit and include the letter i (like I am), you can have reconnaissance and accessories, which is what brought this to mind in the first place.  What’s also fun (if you are a total dork already) is to find words that are all standards and can be typed with only one hand, like scare and raze and verses.  Continuing on the assumption that you are a total dork, it might please you to know that the bottom row of your keyboard has six standards, the middle two, and the top six again; that the bottom row has the fewest non-standards (only one); and that the top row has a pleasing and palindromic (if you count i as standard) pattern of non-standard, standard standard standard, non-standard non-standard, standard standard standard, non-standard.

But, Witch Week.  It’s set in an alternate world quite like ours, except there is magic there, and the magic is illegal.  If a witch is caught, she or he is burned straightaway.  Mr. Crossley, the English teacher of Class 6B at the Larwood House boarding school, is dismayed, therefore, to find an anonymous note amongst his textbooks accusing someone in 6B of being a witch.  Is it plump, unpopular Nan Pilgrim, descended from the famous Archwitch Dulcinea Wilkes?  Is it perpetual victim Brian Wentworth, the deputy headmaster’s son?  Charles Morgan with the evil stare and the encoded journal?

(Not telling.)

I’ve said I like Diana Wynne Jones because her characters tend to move from selfishness to self-awareness; I also like her because her nicest characters have flaws (which they learn to work around), and her nastiest ones have virtues (which sometimes get lost in their pursuit of – well, whatever it is).  Her books do not look kindly on small-mindedness or selfishness, in the villains or the heroes.  The day gets saved when people overcome their fear and selfishness and act like their best selves.  Not in a moralizing way.  Just in a, sort of, look how good humans can be sort of way.

Spoilers in this paragraph only!  And if you have read Witch Week already, please tell me what you think about this.  I ordinarily come away from a Diana Wynne Jones book feeling absolutely satisfied with the ending, even if it’s a quite sad ending (Homeward Bounders breaks my heart every time); with Witch Week I never feel this way.  Their whole world disappears at the end!  It is less than ideal!  And sure, they end up with a nicer version, but they don’t get to be witches anymore!  Plus, how come the unpleasant boys – Dan Smith & Simon Silverson – get to stay at Larwood, and even be friends with the sympathetic characters, while the unpleasant girls – Theresa and her lot – all get shipped off to the other school?  Hmph.

It took me several tries to like Witch Week, which is typical of my relationship with Diana Wynne Jones’s writing, but now it’s one of my favorites.  Whereas my little sister, to whom I read many DWJ books aloud in our youth, has never warmed to it.  If you are thinking of reading it, I’d suggest reading Charmed Life first, just because – well, mainly because I like Chrestomanci, and I feel you will appreciate him more as a character in Witch Week if you are already familiar with him and his awesomeness.

(awesomeness – all standards.)

I have not said enough about Diana Wynne Jones on this blog.  The extent of my love for her is not adequately reflected here.  But all that’s going to change, my friends.  I love Diana Wynne Jones and I am totally in the mood to reread all the Chrestomanci books, and the Dalemark Quartet, and the books with the Magids, and the books with Howl; and I suspect I am in the mood to give those of her books that I haven’t been mad about in the past another chance.  I am counting 23 of her books that I could totally go for right now.

Other reviews:

the stacks my destination
Puss Reboots
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Let me know if I missed yours!

Two more short reviews

Sheesh, I just can’t get it together to write proper reviews this month.  So here are two unproper ones.

One Perfect Day, Rebecca Mead

I love the title of this book, but it wasn’t as SHOCKING as I had hoped.  I was anticipating lots of SHOCKING anecdotes about the SHOCKING American tendency towards excess in weddings.  And there was a bit of that, sure, but the book is properly called One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, and it is indeed mainly focused on the selling and marketing of weddings.  Mead talks about many aspects of the marketing – popular wedding locations like Vegas, selling of dresses, wedding planners, and bridal magazines.  The wedding industry is very industrious, but not very SHOCKING.  I want to read more about weddings, with hopefully more SHOCKING stuff, and more about the wedding participants versus the wedding industry people.  Thanks to Schatzi for the recommendation!

Power of Three, Diana Wynne Jones

And now for something completely different: one of the very few books by Diana Wynne Jones that I truly loved the first time I read it. Power of Three is about three races of people that live on a Moor – regular people, who live in mounds under the Moor; Dorig, who live in the water; and Giants, who are – you know – us.  The titular Three are the three races, or else the three Powers (Sun for the regular people, Earth for the Giants, and Moon for the Dorig), or else the three siblings – Ceri and Ayna and Gair.  There are many groups of three in the book, lots of sets of three powers coming together.

Diana Wynne Jones always writes a disconnect between how characters perceive themselves, and how others see them, and their emotional journeys always lead to self-awareness.  Hooray for self-awareness, perhaps the personal quality most valued by me in myself and other people.  The “regular people”, Ayna and Gair and Ceri, understand the world in one way at the start of the book – they are people, and the Dorig and Giants are enemies to be feared – and they gradually find that they’re all, essentially, the same.  It’s nice.

Review: Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones

There are only a very few books by Diana Wynne Jones that I don’t own, and here they are and this is why:

1. The Time of the Ghost.  Written in 1981, right before Diana Wynne Jones went on her crazy winning streak made out of amazing brilliance and win, between 1981 and 1986, this is my very least by a lot favorite of Diana Wynne Jones’s books.  I have read it over and over, and I have never managed to like it.

2. A Tale of Time City.  Because I have only started liking it recently, and I have not definitely settled down to Like It from Dislike It.

3. Eight Days of Luke.  I.e., the book that apparently gave Neil Gaiman the germ of the idea for American Gods – it’s out of print and difficult to obtain, and I have not yet used it enough times to love it enough to take the time to bother finding it used.  I should really check it out of the library again.

4. Dogsbody.  No idea why.

Dogsbody is great.  See, the being that establishes Sirius, the Dog Star, is convicted of having killed another luminary with his Zoi, an immensely powerful object that has now fallen to Earth and been lost.  As punishment, he is placed in the body of a dog on Earth.  If, during his dog life span, he can retrieve the Zoi, he will be reinstated; if not, he will die as a dog.

Really I just don’t know why I don’t own it.  I own the entire Dalemark Quartet, which I like significantly less than Dogsbody (or Luke or even maybe Time City, now that I think about it.)  Dogsbody, it’s fun and interesting, and it’s from the perspective of a dog without being cutesy.  As a dog, Sirius cannot access his full luminary self – he wants to run around and sniff things and be a dog, and he has to fight these impulses and focus fiercely on locating the Zoi, the exact nature of which he struggles to remember.  Where has it fallen, and who has it now?  And if Sirius did not kill the luminary, then who did?

Also, Diana Wynne Jones?  Not afraid of a bittersweet ending!  Hello, Homeward Bounders?  And while I’m on the subject, you are probably wondering what I was talking about before, when I said the thing about Diana Wynne Jones and her insane winning streak.  Between 1981 and 1986, Diana Wynne Jones wrote all of my very favorites of her books.  She wrote The Homeward Bounders, Archer’s Goon, Witch Week, Fire and Hemlock, and Howl’s Moving Castle.  All between 1981 and 1986.  Yummy.

P.S. Nymeth and words by Annie also liked Dogsbody.  I bet you would too!

The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford

I read about this on Nick Hornby’s Waterstone’s “Writer’s Table” – authors pick out books that are supposed to have “shaped their writing”, and they write little reviews in a few words.  I can’t remember why I was looking at Nick Hornby’s Waterstone’s Writer’s Table – although Nick Hornby is absolutely inextricably linked in my mind to the month I spent in London in 2005.  There was a heat stroke in the second week of July, and the dorm where we were staying didn’t have air conditioning of course, and my room was on the third (American fourth) floor, so it was absolutely boiling.  I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on food in air-conditioned restaurants.  Instead of that I wandered around London finding bookstores with squashy armchairs and air conditioning, and I read A Long Way Down and About a Boy and How to be Good.  It was good times apart from how guilty I felt for sitting in Waterstone’s bookshops (and Borders and Blackwell’s and Foyle’s) all over London reading books I had no intention of buying.

In any case, this book looked very appealing.  I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but one of the reasons I carry on loving reading so much is that I love that moment when you are reading a book and you come across a sentence and you think, This person knows me – this person is me.  Admittedly I worry more than most people about being crazy, so maybe I find it disproportionately reassuring to read my own thoughts in somebody else’s book.  The world is a complicated and bewildering place, and it’s hard to decide whether you’re behaving in a way that’s acceptable and normal.  It’s so legitimizing to read that someone else is doing the same thing, because then, if you’re not doing things right, at least you’re not doing them uniquely wrong.

(Oscar Wilde said, Life reflects art.  Not the other way around.)

The Child that Books Built is a memoir about books and reading, and how they shape a child’s life.  The author talks about the books he read as a kid, how he used them as an escape from finding a way to deal with his younger sister’s very serious illness.  He explores all this in the contexts of child development, cognitive psychology, and all that lot, which is really interesting too.  He talks about how he used to read books in bookstores and feel that he had stolen from the bookstores because the book would be in his head when he left; and he also says he can sometimes spend thirty minutes picking a book to read while he cleans his teeth, which is so exactly me too.  (Hooray.)

I would have liked him to talk more about more books I read as a kid, though that’s not of course his problem.  But when he was talking at length about books I read as a kid, it was fascinating.  He talked about the Narnia books and how captivating he found them, and how sensory C.S. Lewis made his world, even though Narnia wasn’t very cohesive (with the witch and the shades of the Arabian Nights and Father Christmas and slavery).  I’d never really thought about it but the descriptions of food in his books were always gorgeous – whenever I drink water that’s really good, clear, nice water (i.e., whenever I drink tap water at home, God bless my home and its clean water), I am always, always thinking about the sea water they drink at the end of Dawn Treader.  Remember that water?

Then it was also interesting when he talked about American literature.  He said he had a hard time placing America, in time as well as space, so that it was never exactly clear to him when the American books were set, how they lined up with English history.  (Oh, he also said that his town celebrated their octocentenary.  I had to go back and read that twice to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.  Octocentenary.  There is nothing in America that is celebrating its octocentenary.)  I was so interested to read about the Little House books from the perspective of a British dude.  He said a thing about how in America, individual freedom is an end in itself, not leading to something else the way (he says) it tends to be in Britain – which I’d never thought of before.  And because I haven’t read those books as an adult, I haven’t really thought about the extent to which the family puts a tremendously high premium on freedom.

Anyway, there was a load of stuff about Ursula LeGuin that sailed right over my head because I never read any of her books until recently and I hated The Wizard of Earthsea; and then some things about science fiction which again were no good to me at all – just have not read very much science fiction.  And I wish he had said more about Diana Wynne Jones.  Everyone should say more about Diana Wynne Jones; I love Diana Wynne Jones.

So thanks, Nick Hornby and Waterstone’s!  I got the book out of the library yesterday, and returned it today, and now I’m pretending it never happened, because really, it’s just getting ridiculous, I must absolutely not get any more books from the library, because I haven’t finished the ones I’ve got, and I want to start reading the books I bought at the book bazaar.  This weekend I’m going to be a reading fiend: I’m going to finish my Murrow biography and read that book about dancing and that book about Wales, at least, and if I have time I shall also read Beyond Black and/or that Barbara Hambly book whose title I can’t remember.

Year of the Griffin, Diana Wynne Jones

I didn’t exactly mean to read this.  I am still intending to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, which I had forgotten about until just now.  I am in the middle of rereading the entire Sandman.  I have a whole bunch of books out of the library about sexual ethics and other interesting things – art controversies, STDs, Bohemians – and instead of reading any of those things, I’ve been reading Diana Wynne Jones.  Once I read The Dark Lord of Derkholm I yearned and yearned for Year of the Griffin and couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

In Year of the Griffin, Derk’s youngest griffin daughter Elda goes to University to learn how to be a wizard.   The book is all about the troubles that she and (mostly) her University friends have.  All of her friends have troubles.  Lukin is an impoverished Prince, and his father doesn’t want him to come; Felim has crept away from the Emirates in secret and has assassins after him; Ruskin has been sent by a tribe of dwarf revolutionaries; Olga is the daughter of a totally wicked pirate; and Claudia is the half-sister of the Emperor of the South, and she is a half-breed so the Senators all don’t want her.

Completely good book.  The characters I liked from The Dark Lord of Derkholm are back in this, and the ones I don’t aren’t.  The students are taught by teachers who don’t want them thinking freely, and they all become very clever at thinking of the possibilities their magic has.  Hurrah for free thinking!  I love Diana Wynne Jones!