The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

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Master of mischief

Diana Wynne Jones:
Eight Days of Luke
Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)

Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.

Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.

After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.

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Beating the Bounds

Physics building, Royal Fort House and Gardens, Bristol (photo: Ben Mills)

Even if your patience hasn’t worn too thin you may nevertheless be glad I’m planning to make this a last discussion post about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Homeward Bounders (1981).

If you’ve arrived new to the wider discussion, my review of the fantasy is here, some observations about the author’s intentions here, and possible links with another novel, Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, can be found here.

But (as usual) my thoughts may well be rather too eclectic, so I humbly apologise if my speculations prove a tad over-enthusiastic. If you’ve read the novel you may more easily follow my line of argument; if not then just enjoy the ride! (But beware, there are massive spoilers.)

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Unbound

Titian’s Prometheus (Prado, Madrid)

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Homeward Bounders
Illustrated by David Wyatt
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1981)

“Are you one? Do you call us Homeward Bounders too?”
“That is the name to all of us is given,” he said to me sadly.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought I’d made it up.”

Jamie Hamilton is twelve going on thirteen, living in a past which we can establish is 1879. But when, in exploring his town, he comes across a mysterious building where cloaked and hooded figures flit about his curiosity get the better of him and, by intruding on them, he becomes an outcast from the life with which he has grown familiar.

And it is all the doing of Them, as he soon terms those figures, games players who decide the fates of individuals, societies and worlds. As a ‘discard’ from the game They play he is forced to be both bystander and wanderer as he is thrown from one world to another without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

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Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

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Getting into difficulties

Statue outside Old Library, Cardiff

Fellow literary blogger, tweeter and teacher Ben Harris recently expressed slight dismay at Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘difficult’ novel The Homeward Bounders, first published in 1981 early on in her writing career.

Coincidentally I had been ruminating about which DWJ book to read (or, rather, reread, as bar a handful of titles I’ve read virtually all her works) for Kristen’s annual blogging event March Magics. This novel, then, seemed as good a book to tackle as it’s one of a few of her titles I haven’t yet reviewed.

So this post is by way of an introduction to a second reading, a post in which I’ll mostly be making use of clues from Jones’ own words. These will be from the collection of her non-fiction writings in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (David Fickling Books / Greenwillow Books 2012) published the year after her death on 26th March 2011.

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Like a lion

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

It’s coming up to that time of year when the door to one season starts shutting while another slowly swings ajar.

Following my New Year commitment not to commit to specifics concerning my 2020 reading I’m not therefore going to detail what exactly I intend to read for March — mainly because I have no idea at the moment!

Nevertheless, vague possibilities are coalescing around upcoming events in the reading calendar.

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder

Cart and Cwidder HarperCollins UK edition 2016

When their father, a travelling minstrel is killed, three children involved in rebellion and intrigues inherit a lute-like cwidder with more than musical powers.
— From the first edition of Cart and Cwidder, Macmillan 1975

You’ll by now be aware that Witch Week takes its title from a novel of the same name, ostensibly for children, by Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011. So it seemed apt to have as this year’s novel for discussion Cart & Cwidder, the first volume in a fantasy quartet set in a polity called Dalemark. In fact the very first Witch Week featured The Spellcoats, another Dalemark novel in which the principal villain is actually identified.

Three of us have had a detailed online chat about this — an edited version is offered below — but a number of you have also taken up the challenge of reading it beforehand so that you could join in today’s conversation, and you are very welcome to add your comments below. The participants in the online chat were Laurie Welch (red), Chris Lovegrove (green), and Lizzie Ross (blue). Our comments coalesced around topics such as magic, historical setting, bildungsromans, zeitgeist, and of course villains!

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 5: Sinister Relations

Jean Lee is a blogger, author and massive fan of Diana Wynne Jones.

Jean was an obvious choice, therefore, for inviting to participate in this event as one of DWJ’s books was the principal inspiration for it, and we’re very grateful she responded so enthusiastically!

She has chosen to focus on one of Jones’ most sinister figures, Aunt Maria from Black Maria (1991), published as Aunt Maria in North America.


Firstly, dear readers, I am honored to be here with you during this most magical Witch Week. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite writers for many reasons: her arduous childhood, her steel resolve, her motherly devotion, and her bottomless love for sharing the gift of storytelling with others. While others wrote what she called “Real Books,” books that described real-ish kids in real-ish situations going through all the real-ish problems that kids deal with in real life, Jones stood firm on the position that Real Problems can be solved with Unreal Books. The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a lovely example of a blended family coming together when a magical chemistry set forever alters the “chemistry” of their lives (ba dum CH!). Indeed, Jones has never been one to shy away from the tough conflicts that can arise inside the family unit. Heavens, in Charmed Life Gwendolyn doesn’t just kill her own parents but her kid brother Cat, multiple times. Divorce, too, impacts characters such as young Polly in Fire and Hemlock, and Mig in Black Maria. Polly and Mig both learn who truly cherishes family … and who doesn’t.

Which brings us to the sweet old lady that is Aunt Maria.

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#WitchWeek2019 starts here

…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…
Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to the sixth Witch Week where, aided and abetted by Lizzie Ross, I’m hosting what Lory of Emerald City Book Review originally planned as an annual event celebrating our favourite fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme — you may already have spotted it — is

VILLAINS

Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week (1983) is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th — Bonfire Night — marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament. We’ve used this time frame to set up eight days of magic and mayhem for Witch Week 2019, beginning today.

Our readalong this year is Diana Wynne Jones’ Cart & Cwidder. A few of us had an earlier discourse on this, but we hope that some of you will join in a general discussion later in the week.

Here then is the schedule:

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Unwelcome guests

Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)

I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.

“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.

— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’

Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.

At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.

I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.

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City break

Edinburgh Castle, from Prince’s Street

We’ve just returned from a mini-break in The Athens of the North, also known as Edinburgh! This second visit gave us a little more time to not just revisit what we enjoyed before but to seek out some more delights — Holyrood House, Arthur’s Seat and the Botanical Gardens, for example.

As is our wont we walked everywhere, all the better to see the architectural highlights and quirks of the city’s built environment.

Literature wasn’t neglected either. I began racing (well, probably strolling leisurely) through Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, a title I’ve had on my radar for a while thinking this would be an ideal occasion to get stuck into it, seeing as it’s set here. What an unexpected surprise then to see that Scotland Street actually exists! No Number 44, however… More on this later.

I also devoured a mini-collection of short stories by Diana Wynne Jones called Stopping for a Spell, an apposite title for the witching month of October. More too on this for another post.

And I polished off and posted a review of Nina Bawden’s The Witch’s Daughter, as you will have seen, which because set in Scotland (on the east coast, though, not the west) was an apt choice too for reasons both seasonal and sojourn-related.

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Music, magic and maturity

Trees

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1:
Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet
Eos 2005

There is sometimes an assumption that if a novel’s protagonists are youngsters then the novel can only be for other youngsters to read. This is not always the case, and for me many of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘young adult’ stories can and ought to be enjoyed by youngsters of all ages, reasoning which prompts me to resist tagging this volume as ‘children’ or ‘YA’.

It is also sometimes assumed that fantasy is a lesser genre than more mainstream novels. I don’t accept that needs to be so, and the author herself has made clear that to dismiss fantasy as escapist is a mistaken attitude (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-bd). The best fantasy has as much to say about the human condition as more literary examples, and Jones’ fantasy mostly falls into this category. Add to that the fact that Jones attended lectures by Tolkien himself at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be taken seriously.

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Crossing boundaries

Inverted Commas 11: Genres

There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.

Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).

She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.

I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.

Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.

Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”

In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.

But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.

Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?

And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.

It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.

Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.

Good things come in threes

Snettisham torc, Norfolk, 1st century BCE (image: Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, slightly edited)

Diana Wynne Jones: Power of Three
Harper Trophy 2003 (1976)

Another wonderful offering from the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones, Power of Three is an early-ish fantasy but one which displays all her trademark tics: a tricksy plot with an ending which has you rereading the last few pages wondering what has just happened (and how), a self-doubting protagonist with talents largely hidden from them, and a narrative that — while riffing on traditional themes, tropes and traditions — still manages to read as a one-off original.

We begin the novel assuming this is high fantasy: a seeming pastoral medieval community that is also au fait with magic, with some individuals able to divine the future, find distant objects and gifted with the power of suggestion. As we delve further we realise that it’s quickly morphing into so-called low fantasy with the modern age beginning to impinge, first at the fringes and then at the centre.

Underlying this is the growing sense of triadic groupings, as suggested by the book’s title: three siblings; Three Impossible Tasks, in the best fairytale tradition; three peoples (humans, the Dorig and the Giants); three powers (the Sun, the Moon and the Earth); and over all these, the Old Power, the Middle and the New. It all makes for a heady concoction, with a twist about a third of the way in.

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