Tag Archives: Diana Wynne Jones

Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

Black Maria - Diana Wynne JonesBlack Maria – Diana Wynne Jones
Published as Aunt Maria in the US

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2000
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

In Black Maria, Mig, her brother Chris, and her mother visit their aunt Maria in a seaside town. On the surface, Maria is everything one may expect of an elderly aunt in fiction: she is a little stiff and boring, she upholds the social conventions, and the children are not particularly fond of her.

Quickly, however, Mig and Chris discover that something more and entirely different is going on beneath the surface. With her polite correctness, aunt Maria seems to control an awful lot of people in their life, stifling them with correctness, so to say. The men, meanwhile, all appear to be grey-suited zombies without a will of their own. When Chris rebels against her aunt, she turns him into a wolf. It is now left to Mig to try to turn her brother back into a human, and to do so, she has to go against her aunt and the social mores of the town..

As always, I turned to Ana for advice on what to read next by Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended Black Maria since she knows I am interested in gender. I admit, I was a little sceptical. I don’t particularly like the cover for this one (I admit I like it a lot better in retrospect) and I don’t know.. I just had trouble to look past that. But of course I should have known better. Ana knows what she recommends, and Diana Wynne Jones was too smart to merely have this be the cutesy tale that I somehow expected from the cover.

What makes Black Maria such a great read is the combination of Jones’ utterly engaging writing style and storytelling with a very smart and layered commentary on gender relations. To be more precise, through Aunt Maria’s particular position and the social conventions of the town, Diana Wynne Jones magnifies the power relations and consequences of a strict interpretation of a “natural” gender divide. Moreover, by turning this divide on its head, by having women as naturally belonging to the domestic sphere, but also giving them the control of the village instead of the men, she also questions emancipatory ideas that use the “natural spheres of men and women” argument to argue that women are actually more capable of ruling. She then counters those experiences with the arguments of a few men who fight Maria’s regime, who also use the idea of “natural” gender competences in their effort to gain power. All this is preceded by small comments of Maria on how Mig should behave more in a manner that befits a girl, thus leading up to the larger themes underlying the novel.

In the midst of this fictional and very well-executed world that always remains subtle in its references to the critique below the surface, it is a joy to follow Mig in her navigation of all these claims and power relations. To see her waver, but also find her own path.

[insert contented sigh here]

What more can I say? This is Diana Wynne Jones, everyone: of course you should read it. As for me, I am happy that I still have so many of her books left to explore. And yet, with every new treasure I find, I am also saddened knowing that it means I have one book less to look forward to.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, We Be Reading, Shelf Love, Yours?

Shelf Selection August

Since I bought so many books in the past months, I figured I should aim to select present reads from my own shelves and not visit the library all that often for regular reads (I will still use it for audiobooks and possible read alongs). However, that would mean no Library Loot posts ad I would miss them as they seem to give a quick overview of your immediate reading plans. So I figured I could do I ‘library loot’ style post from my own shelves every month or so.. Hopefully it will help me remember all the wonderful books I already have on my shelves, helping me to read instead of buy more ;-)

There we go:

You can also find this on my instagram profile, which I hope to actually use from now on.

You can also find this on my instagram profile, which I hope to actually start using from now on.

Now, I should admit that I have already finished reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but it was August when I read it so I figured I had better include it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is for a joint read with Amy and Hannah. Perhaps it will allow me to finally add this classic to my ‘read’ pile? I think this must be one of the books that has been on my shelves longest without getting read.

Hah, I just realised I should probably picture War and Peace in every single one of these until the end of the year? You will just have to imagine it for this month..

Anything you’d recommend in particular?

The Mythosphere (Diana Wynne Jones’ The Game)

“This is the mythosphere. It’s made up of all the stories, theories and beliefs, legends, myths and hopes, that are generated here on Earth. As you can see, it’s constantly growing and moving as people invent new tales to tell or find new things to believe. The older strands move out to become these spirals, where things tend to become quite crude and dangerous. They’ve hardened off, you see”
“Are they real, the same as atoms and planets?” Heyley asked.
“Quite as real – even realler in some ways,” Grandpa replied.

The Game - Diana Wynne Jones

While Diana Wynne Jones’ The Gamewas not my favourite book of hers that I have read to date, the concept of the mythosphere still fills me with so much joy. This idea, of a sort-of hidden world (or galaxy?) or stories, creating different strands each time someone invents a new tale, or builds upon an old one, is simply wonderful. Perhaps that was the very reason why the rest of  the book felt a little underdeveloped, because I was simply impatient for more about the mythosphere. Come to think of it, the characters and story were really quite lovely, just.. the mythosphere definitely took the prize for most wonderful thing in the book.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Collection of Mini Reviews

After reading Howl’s Moving Castle two years ago, and then Fire and Hemlock early in 2012, I went on a bit of a Diana Wynne Jones binge. Four other titles were added to the list of books I’ve read by her between April and September: The Game, Earwig and the Witch, Enchanted Glass, and Charmed Life. I think we can safely say that I’ve found a new author I like very much. And yes, she will be added to that ever-growing list of “must read everything” authors. Below you find mini-reviews of three of the books mentioned above. As so often happens with books I like very much, I postponed writing about them for forever, which means I do not recall all the details perfectly anymore.

Earwig and the Witch - Diana Wynne JonesEarwig and the Witch – Diana Wynne Jones
Harper Collins, 2011

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

One of the things I enjoy most about Diana Wynne Jones’ books is that she always takes magic for granted in the story she creates. And so the characters don’t go around explaining the fact that it is there to each other and to the reader. Instead, they might have to find out how it works, or what to do with it. This is what happens in Earwig and the Witch.

Earwig does not want to leave the orphanage, because she is able to convince everyone to do things her way. So when a pair of visitors come to look for someone to adopt, she tries her hardest not to look attractive. Unfortunately, she is picked out by Bella Yaga, who lives with a demon and a cat. Once she leaves the orphanage and has to go live with what soon turns out to be a witch, Earwig needs to figure out a way to set things to her hand again.

Earwig and the Witch is a very funny story for younger children. There is nothing truly scary in there, though there are many “eek” moments when Earwig learns about the ingredients for some of the spells she tries. I can just imagine the fun you might have reading these passages to children. Of course, there is very little that makes Earwig endearing per se. But her strongmindedness is funny and enjoyable, which leaves the reader rooting for Earwig despite knowing that in the “real world” she might be considered to be a little spoiled and ill-behaved. Really, the fact that Earwig is allowed to act out is half the fun of this small little book.

Other Opinions: My Favourite Books, Bart’s Bookshelf, Charlotte’s Library, We Be Reading, Yours?

Enchanted Glass - Diana Wynne JonesEnchanted Glass – Diana Wynne Jones
Harper Collins, 2010

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Andrew Hope has inherited his late grandfather’s home: Melstone House. However, he missed seeing his grandfather one last time before his death, which means that he is unaware of the particular details involved with his grandfather’s property. With the house comes a “field of care”, but what does this mean? And how come he can feel someone stealing power from his field?

At the same time, Aiden Cain has fled his orphanage because otherworldly creatures are chasing him and want him dead. Chased by these creatures, Aiden arrives on the doorstep of Melstone House. Will Andrew be able to help Aiden? Or is Aiden really helping Andrew? And are their problems interconnected?

This feels so much like a perfect example of a Diana Wynne Jones book. And because by now I had become rather familiar with her style, I felt myself enjoying the journey where things might have left me puzzled before. I enjoyed the gradual build-up; I enjoyed the manner in which Andrew and Aiden accept the supernatural and yet have to figure out ways to deal with it; I enjoyed the faerie’s, whose appearance I for once anticipated instead of being startled by them; I even accepted the rather fast-paced ending after the slow-paced world-building, having come to terms with the fact that this is part and parcel of Jones’ books (even though I sometimes might have liked a little bit more breathing space to figure things out).

Another thing that made this book so lovely was the fact that almost each and every one of the characters that make an appearance (and there are quite a lot) are well-rounded, never perfect, but perfectly charming. There are moments where this book is incredibly funny, and there are moments when things are happening and you just want to continue reading non-stop. There is a wonderful wonderful theme in the book regarding different worldviews and perspectives and the magic that can come of them, portrayed through the recurring appearance of glasses (as in eyewear) and a window pane.

This is a definite reread, and a definite recommended read for all those who would like to get acquainted with Diana Wynne Jones’ books.

Other Opinions: The Speculative Scotsman, Charlotte’s Library, Vulpes Libris, Confessions of a Bibliovore, Jenny’s Books, My Favourite Books, Tales of the Marvelous, Skunk Cat Book Reviews, Bookwyrme, Cecelia Bedeliabetween a rock and a hardcover, Creativity’s Corner, Becky’s Book Reviews, The Written World, We Be Reading, Yours?

Charmed Life - Diana Wynne JonesCharmed Life (Chrestomanci #1) – Diana Wynne Jones
Harper Collins, 2000
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Whereas I think Enchanted Glass has one of the prettiest covers ever, Charmed Life is another example of covers that would have never convinced me to pick up the book, would I not have known Diana Wynne Jones, or the fact that this is the first book in one of her best-loved series.

In Charmed Life Cat and Gwendolen are two orphans, having lost their parents in a boat crash. Cat lives in his sister’s shadow, who is a promising witch. When sister and brother are summoned to live at Chrestomanci Castle, their lives change. Chrestomanci is a castle where strange things seem to happen. The castle functions as a school for magic, but Gwendolen is refused further education in magic before her regular school topics are up to par. But Gwendolen is not one to back down, and Cat subsequently becomes torn between starting to enjoy his life at the castle and his loyalty to his sister and her schemes of sabotage.

There is a rather odd pull in reading about Cat and Gwendolyn, which I think might not be for every one. Gwendolyn is not sympathetic, at all. Rather, she treats her brother like dirt. However, Cat always remains loyal to her. For the first half of the story, I was left feeling confused who I should feel sympathy for, and whether this was supposed to be the story of Cat or Gwendolyn. I can say that things become clearer in the second half of the book, but I cannot say anything besides that without giving too much of the plot away.

For me, the dynamic and the development of the story did not bother me. Rather, they fascinated me. Charmed Life is another example of Diana Wynne Jones daring to go against the grain by playing with the idea that childhood equals innocence, and having Gwendolyn treat her brother horribly without her experiencing any consequences for it at first. I like that Jones dares to go there, and that she is very unapologetic about it.

But more than anything I loved Cat, his background story, and the potential for a series (this is the first book in the Chrestomanci series) that I hope revolves around him and the Chrestomanci castle.

Other Opinions: Bart’s Bookshelf,  Stella Matutina, Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog, The Written World, Books Love Me, Buried in Print, arch thinking, Dogear Diary, Jenny’s Books, Chachic’s Book Nook, Yours?

RIP VII button 2I read Charmed Life as part of R.I.P. VII. Admittedly, it is definitely a light read for this event, but considering the otherworldly occurences and the appearance of ghosts in the story, I am still counting it towards the challenge. In the same vein, Earwig and the Witch fits RIP season as well. Readers Imbibing Peril is hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. Click over to the RIP Review Site for more reads with a autumnal feel.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne JonesFire and Hemlock – Diana Wynne Jones
CollinsVoyager (Harper Collins), 2000

Kristin at We Be Reading hosted a Diana Wynne Jones reading month in March, and I felt this was the perfect time to pick up Fire and Hemlock by Jones. I once won a copy of this book on Ana’s blog, and knowing it was a particular favourite of hers I felt the book merited some particular attention while reading. I’m glad to say I did not need to remind myself of that once I started reading. Fire and Hemlock is simply magical and pulls you right in.

Fire and Hemlock is about a girl, Polly, who one day realises she has two sets of memories. A “regular” one, and another that feature strange and sometimes dangerous adventures with a man called Tom Lynn. Adventures that they would imagine together, but that would inevitably come true. Reliving her memories of that time, she comes to realise that she did something terrible one day, that made her forget about Tom and that other life. And through it all, she begins to realise the urgency of her recovering those memories, and determining a way of setting things right.

One of the truly astounding things about Fire and Hemlock is that it can be read on so many levels, and that all of them work.

On one level, Polly’s story is that of a girl growing up in a broken home, with a father and a mother who are both too caught up in their own drama to really give Polly the attention and love she deserves. As a child of 10, when she meets Tom Lynn, and in the subsequent years, the stories that Tom and Polly think up together could very well be read an escape from reality. Diana Wynne Jones handles realistic childhood and teenage stories well: friends growing apart, the feeling of losing grip, confusion about your place in the world, etcetera. Fire and Hemlock also heavily features reading and stories as ways of learning about the world and your role in it. Tom often sends Polly stories to read, and it is hard not to wish for a similar childhood friend who provides you with literature, when you are a voracious reader yourself. Furthermore, the stories Tom sends her provide clues towards the reader and Polly on what is happening to her and Tom, a remarkably clever way of using intertextuality.

Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that the supernatural elements of the book cannot just be read as Polly telling herself stories (although the importance of stories remains). Slowly, faerie myth enters the story. And I have to say, Diana Wynne Jones does it beautifully. There is the whole element of the creepy and wonderful about it. Her world building is pitch perfect. With the faerie aspect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell sometimes, because it has the same perfect blending of the real and imaginary world (though in a different manner). There was a rush to the second half of the story, even more so than the first half, that kept me in my chair and wouldn’t allow me to stop reading (except to tell twitter how much I loved this book) before I got to the end.

The ending of the book is slightly weird and confusing. It is not straightforward at all, and it can feel a little rushed. I think it might take some joy out of the story for some. However, after discussing the ending with Ana (which I would recommend to anyone), I feel that on top of being confusing, it also lends itself for a reading of the book that packs even more meaning into those 400 pages. Ana send me a link to a remarkably clever essay on Jones’ inspiration for Fire and Hemlock, with the remarks that it borrows elements from the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer ballads, as well as the Odyssey and Cupid and Psyche. Now, don’t let all those names scare you off. I haven’t read any of them and the story still worked perfectly for me. But I think it might be interesting to return to the book and reread it once I know more about those other stories.  But more than my admiration of Diana Wynne Jones’ superb way of incorporating other texts into her own story, it was Ana’s reading of the book as portraying different forms of love (Polly’s mother’s controlling and obsessive love, her grandmother’s and Tom’s selfless love, Polly’s own love that undergoes several changes) that put this book firmly into the favourites list.

I loved this book. Diana Wynne Jones’ is a star in blending elements of the realistic and the supernatural, and doing it in such a way that every bit of story resonates with even more meaning. The ending might have been slightly over my head (there are parts I still do not understand: the horse, the car crushing the roses?), but nevertheless it was a spectacular read that I cannot wait to reread it. Or read more by Diana Wynne Jones, for that matter.

Other Opinions: Valentina’s Room, Jenny’s Books, A Striped Armchair, Necromancy Never Pays, Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog, Shelf Love, BookLust, Page247, Stella Matutina, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Tales from the Reading Room, Dogear Diary, Tip of the Iceberg, We Be Reading, everyday reads, Rhinoa’s Ramblings.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.