3.03.2011

Diana Wynne Jones

When a friend discovered I'd never read anything by Diana Wynne Jones, she immediately brought me their family's favorites to sample. I loved them. Although Diana Wynne Jones writes for the juvenile/young adult audience her books are absorbing whatever one's age. These are the ones I've read thus far. I recommend them all.
  • Howl's Moving Castle
    I loved the movie and a friend who had been telling me how superior the book is was kind enough to lend it to me. I began glancing through it and found myself pulled in by the humorous beginning. It was written with a bit of self awareness but not so much that it ever took over the story. The story is complex and yet the author managed to keep it all clear as the story ramped up, extra characters appeared, and everyone came together at the end. (Although I was a bit confused about the two piecemeal characters until that was completely sorted out ... but perhaps that is as it should be.) Definitely better than the movie!

    I can't really describe the plot well except to say that Sophie's troubles all begin after an encounter with the Witch of the Waste which leaves her artificially aged to about 90. When Sophie goes out to find help she winds up at Howl's moving castle (which whirs through the countryside at an alarming pace). Those are the simplest elements but it is an entrancing book.

  • Dogsbody
    The dogstar Sirius has been convicted of a crime and condemned to a mortal life, as a dog. He is being given a chance to find who actually committed the crime he is accused of. First, however, he must learn to navigate the world and life as a dog, beginning as a newborn puppy. This gives the author the opportunity to write about understanding the world from a canine point of view and later, as he meets some cats, from his interpretation of a feline POV as well. Sirius belongs to a gentle, nature loving girl who is much put upon by her aunt, upon whom she depends for everything.

    While the insights into canine understanding are well written, I was not very interested in that aspect. I was much more interested in Sirius' true nature and quest. That is understandable, however, as the book was written for juveniles and I am far past that point. That makes it all the more remarkable that this author still held  my interest in the story and characters.

    The last half of the book proved to pick up the pace and focus more on Sirus's attempts to achieve his goal rather than his life as a dog ... they were probably divided about evenly. I found it a most satisfying book to the point where I stayed up late to finish it.

  • The Homeward Bounders
    Following my reading of Dogsbody, I went on to this book in sampling Diana Wynne Jones' oeuvre. She came up with yet another completely different concept, unique world system, and set of problems to solve. As well, Jamie, the protagonist seems different from those I read about in Howl's Moving Castle and Dogsbody.

    Jamie has a happy enough life with his family in a poor but active neighborhood of a large city. One day, when delivering groceries for his father's store, he happens upon a building that seems unlike those he has encountered before. When looking through the windows, he sees Them (which is the only way that these persons are ever described). They seem to be playing a gigantic board game and the glimmers of overheard conversation are tantalizing. He escapes detection and seeming danger but can't resist coming back later to see more. This time They see him and turn Jamie into a discarded player in their game, where he is doomed to walk the boundaries between worlds, bouncing from one to the next in the hopes of being able to find his way back home. He is not the only discarded player and meets those somewhat familiar to us (the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman) and those who definitely are not. Jamie's discoveries and struggles make for absorbing reading and a book that I couldn't put down.

    Aside from some plot points that are probably much more obvious to the adult reader than to the intended audience, there is enough here that one never really feels as if the book is written for a lower age group. Highly recommended.

  • The Lives of Christopher Chant
    For as long as he can remember Christopher could walk in his dreams through the Place Between to different valleys for visits to the different towns and people there. Sometimes, if he worked hard at it, he could even bring back some of the gifts they gave him. This led to his uncle noticing his abilities and setting a series of experiments for Christopher to do while in these worlds. As time goes by, we watch Christopher grow, go to school, and eventually discover what his true talent is and what it means to the world.

    I don't want to include spoilers so the above description sounds dreadfully boring and this book is anything but that. I stayed up late last night in order to finish the last thirty pages at break-neck speed. I finished and thought of the Harry Potter books, a comparison which hadn't occurred to me until that moment. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books very much, but felt that this was so much fresher and more original that I was surprised.

    Diana Wynne Jones has a talent for developing personalities as well as worlds and we feel that main characters have become our friends. When the Goddess expresses a heartfelt desire to go to school, we understand and want that for her too. When Christopher suddenly sees how the face he's been showing to the world is not what he thought, we feel his shock too. As with the other books I have read, the author is highly imaginative at developing new worlds and scenarios that do not seem at all derivative of any of the others that preceded it. I am curious to read more of this series to see how it is handled.

  • Fire and Hemlock
    This is a modernization and re-imagining of the ballad of Tam Lin, a young man stolen by fairies who must be rescued by his true love. My experience with Pamela Dean's attempt to do this to a story made me leery but I should have trusted Jones from the beginning. She uses her vivid imagination to create the story of a young girl, Polly, who encounters a grown man with whom she fashions home-grown heroic adventures. (The imagining of the giant in the supermarket is particularly humorous and effective as an illustrative event.)

    As Polly grows up, her life is punctuated with these imaginings as well as the man's regular gifts of books shipped from anywhere he happens to be on tour in his profession as symphonic cellist. Thus, not only do we get a wonderful story, but we see Jones's idea of what books are suitable for encouraging imagination in children. As I read many of these same books when I was growing up, this was a particularly enjoyable bit of detail. It is bit of detail that becomes very important later in the book, I might add. The entire story is set in the framework of Polly as a college student, realizing with shock that she had forgotten this entire segment of her life. Thus the story is at once ongoing and a series of flashbacks. Highly recommended.

  • Charmed Life
    Charmed life is the first book in the Chrestomanci series, of which I previously read The Lives of Christopher Chant, which is the number 2 book of the series (though first chronologically in the series' timeline) and which I enjoyed immensely. So I picked it up from Paperback Swap on the strength of that experience.

    Cat and Gwendolyn are orphans who are wards of their little town. Magic is commonplace although not everyone can work magic and there are different levels of ability and talent. Cat cannot do any magic while Gwendolyn is a witch with seemingly endless abilities. After they discover that they are related to one of the most powerful wizards in the world, Cat and Gwendolyn go to live with him and his family. It is there that we learn more about what Cat and Gwendolyn are really like as the story is told by Cat and he is a very unreliable narrator. He doesn't deliberately not tell us the truth but he is fairly blind to a lot of what is obvious to the reader once they get to the castle, where everyone around them does not have an agenda. Gwendolyn has a plan to become Queen of the World. Yes, you read that right. She once had her fortune told and upon hearing that was her future Gwen determined to make it happen as soon as possible. This causes Cat quite a few problems and isn't easy on anyone else around them either.

    I enjoyed reading this sequel (in the timeline) to The Lives of Christopher Chant but it was clearly oriented to a younger reader than that book was. Still, it managed to have several surprises and watching the story unfold was a fast but good read. The one thing that I would say I found problematic was how passive Cat's behavior was. But that is my own reaction and actually is quite in line with his story and history. Recommended, especially for younger readers.

  • Archer's Goon
    One day Howard and his sister Awful (you soon discover just how "awful" Anthea is and the reason for her nickname becomes evident)come home from school to find a huge goon in their kitchen. He says he was sent by Archer because Howard's dad hasn't turned in his quarterly payment of 2000 words. Just who Archer is and how 2000 words can be payment for anything turn are the beginning of a quest that take Howard and Awful on an adventure that truly is indescribable. It is a mystery that constantly shifts. Just when you think it's figured out, an entirely new dimension is revealed. It is fantasy where every detail matters. Every detail. Perhaps this preface will show just how indefinable the plot is:
    This book will prove the following ten facts:

    1. A Goon is a being who melts into the foreground and sticks there.
    2. Pigs have wings, making them hard to catch.
    3. All power corrupts, but we need electricity.
    4. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the result is a family fight.
    5. Music does not always sooth the troubled beast.
    6. An Englishman's home is his castle.
    7. The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
    8. One black eye deserves another.
    9. Space is the final frontier, and so is the sewage farm.
    10. It pays to increase your word power.
    And it does. Just read it.

    I must add that I read this book in one day. One day. I was astounded by the fact that three-fourths of the way through, Jones did a "reveal" about a character I loved which completely ruined my previous love. I hated that betrayal. THEN, she did it again with a different character. I felt even more betrayed.

    THEN, by the end of the book, she had flipped those reveals so that I loved those characters as much as before. Simply amazing.

  • Power of Three
    Though the Moor is enchantingly beautiful, it holds great perils for the people who inhabit it. Powerful Giants, with extraordinary magical machines, clumsily roam the land, while silent Dorig, who possess devious shape-shifting abilities, terrify anyone unlucky enough to happen upon them.
    Then there are, as they call themselves, "the People" and it is among them that this story takes place. A cursed gold collar, a broken promise, ignoring a warning vision, and the clash of cultures for survival are all at the heart of this story. Although these are traditionally elements of epic tales, it is told in a way that makes it completely understandable.

    This story has much more the feel of a traditional sort of fairy tale than the others I've read. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that it wasn't until I was about 2/3 of the way through the book to really become emotionally engaged. Not coincidentally, that was when the reader is given interaction between the three cultures: Giants, Dorigs, and the People. It is the give and take that rachets up the interest. Not to mention, Wynne Jones' trademark cliffhanging plots that take off at a whirlwind pace. It is not that the story was bad until that point, just that I felt Gair's problems were more those of a typical adolescent and I didn't care about that part of the story (being far past that point myself).

    This is another Wynne Jones book that is different in feel and plot from the others I've read. How does she do this? I'm glad that she does though. It makes each of her books an adventure. The one thing, above all others, that I would tell to those reading her books is to ignore the descriptions on the back of the book. They can do no justice to the plots and would give away the entire thing if they made the attempt. Just dive in and see where it takes you. (You must keep in mind that, thanks to my pal's careful lending, I haven't come across any of her weaker books ... and I am told they are out there, which is only to be expected.)

  • Deep Secret
    Rupert Venables is a magid. These are a few gifted individuals who we on Earth might think of as "magicians." Tasked with keeping overall planetary progress toward the good instead of the bad, magids may have several planets under their care. Rupert, as the least experienced magid, has just one under his care but since it is undergoing a severe governmental crisis which may lead to overall chaos, he has his hands full doing the small amount he is allowed to do. Meanwhile, his mentor magid has died and left Rupert with the task of finding a replacement to become a magid. Through the usual confluence of indescribably plot events, Rupert and his recruit candidates wind up at a science fiction/fantasy convention. This leads to what I considered some of the most enjoyable writing I have come across in one of Wynne Jones' novels. It is all too easy to see her personal commentary on such conventions, authors, books, and fans coming through.

    I notice from the other reviews at Goodreads that this is a book you either love or hate. It is very different from her other sorts of characters, story telling and venues but I enjoyed it for those very reasons. I can't wait to read the second in the Magid series.

  • Witch Week
    Someone in 6B is a witch. And, in the alternate reality described in Diana Wynne Jones's Witch Week, that's not at all a good thing to be. Jones plunks her readers directly into the life of Larwood House, a school in a present-day England that's a lot like the world we know, except for one major difference: witches are everywhere, and they are ruthlessly hunted by inquisitors. With witty, erudite writing, Jones tells of the adventures of the class of 6B as they set about to discover who among them is a witch. Clearly it's not the popular Simon or the perfect Theresa. Could it be fat Nan or sluggish Charles? Mysterious Nirupam or shifty-eyed Brian?
    This is the third of the Chrestomanci series. It was clearly written for much younger readers than some of Wynne Jones' books and, consequently, I found myself rather impatient over some of the story lines which seemed interminable. Please note that if I had encountered this as a younger reader myself or had discovered it in time to read it to the girls when they were young, I probably would have enjoyed it much more. As it was, for my own leisure reading, I didn't begin to really enjoy it until about the last fourth of the book, once Chrestomanci was introduced to the story. Like Eileen (was that her name?), I tend to have a crush on him and everything goes better with a bit of his character. The end was quite satisfactory and original.

    4 comments:

    1. Thank you so much for these! Diana Wynne Jones ought to be much better known than she is.

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    2. What a great summary. I adore DWJ and have read her Chrestomanci series and Howls series but need to read some of her standalones. Thanks!

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    3. Diana Wynne Jones passed away on March 26, 2011. Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful remembrance of her on his blog: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/03/being-alive.html. Thought you'd want to know.

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    4. Thank you! I saw the sad news but not the Gaiman tribute. I'm going over there now. :-)

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