Snapshots of the author

mindmap

Diana Wynne Jones House of Many Ways
HarperCollins 2008

Many of the pieces in Reflections, the collection of writings by and about Diana Wynne Jones, address the question authors often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? And of course there is no single simple answer. She does however offer this suggestion, in an item entitled ‘Some Hints on Writing’:

When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out.

With House of Many Ways I found it hard to force a plan onto a review, so adopting Jones’ modus operandi for this commentary seemed an appropriate way to go about it. The beginning has been taken care of, and the conclusion is virtually foregone, and now it’s time to move to the images that arise almost unbidden from a second reading of this fantasy. Many of them involve snapshots of the author herself. Continue reading “Snapshots of the author”

Mundane to magical

grimm

Polly Shulman The Grimm Legacy Oxford University Press 2012 (2010)

It’s an unprepossessing nameplate: The New York Circulating Material Repository. Elizabeth Rew is hoping her new job will involve working with books, but it turns out to be more than that, “like a circulating book library with far more varied collections”. She’s given a brief rundown on its history — informative but not very enlightening, she thinks — on the day she starts as a lowly-paid ‘page’, assisting the librarians with day-to-day tasks:

We’ve existed in one form or another since 1745, when three clock makers began sharing some of their more specialized tools. That collection became the core of the repository in 1837, when a group of amateur astronomers pooled their resources and opened shop. Our first home was on St John’s Park, near Greenwich Street, but we moved uptown to East Twenty-fourth Street in 1852 and to our current location in 1921…

Elizabeth is starting to understand this is no ordinary lending and reference collection. Furthermore, she begins to find herself fascinated by a mysterious restricted section. And then situations and events commence moving away from the mundane. Towards the magical.

Continue reading “Mundane to magical”

The magic of reading

WWButton

This is a speedy repost of my September 6th item on autumn, in view of Lory’s Witch Week celebration on her Emerald City Book Review blog; this starts today, October 30th, with a preview. Amongst other goodies there’ll be reviews of Diana Wynne Jones novels such as Fire and Hemlock, Power of Three, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Spellcoats and, on November 4th, a discussion by me of Deep Secret.

As autumn stutters into being with a stop-start easing-off of summer I thought it might be a good moment to look forward to a magical time that truly marks out autumn in the British consciousness — that period between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night. Continue reading “The magic of reading”

Patterns and Portraits

Möbius strip
Möbius strip

Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret
Gollancz 1998 (1997)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since [1976]. All my other books [after the first nine, plus three plays] have been written here. [… ] Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. — Diana Wynne Jones, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Greenwillow, 2012)

I used to live in Bristol. Ironically I had to move away before I became aware of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing but now, apart from her plays, books for younger children and a couple of short story anthologies, I have read all her other works save Changeover and A Sudden Wild Magic. And yet I still continue to be astounded by her writings, especially how she includes — magpie-fashion — all manner of curious things in the nest of her plotlines, and how she ruthlessly includes so much of her own life in her fiction. Including, in Deep Secret, a snapshot of her adopted town.

First things first. Deep Secret is predicated on patterns. Continue reading “Patterns and Portraits”

Zine, not herd

minizine

Magazines come in all shapes and sizes, finesse and finish, from professional to amateur, glossy to gauche. With its largely leisure associations it’s strange to realise the word has industrial and even military origins, from the Arabic makhazin (“stores”) through French magasin and Italian magazzino (“warehouse”), and on to its conflation with arsenal. It only acquired its modern meaning of periodical after the 18th-century Gentleman’s Magazine included it in its title to suggest a “storehouse of information”.

So we’re all familiar with the concept of magazines now but, innocent that I am, I’d never come across mini-zines before. So I was pleased to be sent (via an offer on Lory’s blog Emerald City Book Review) two Elsewhere Minizines. These really live up to their name. Continue reading “Zine, not herd”

Resolutions

Scilla in the Banzoota school library
Scilla in the Banzoota school library (from The Winter Sleepwalker)

I’ve always been a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to marking certain times of the year — birthdays, New Year and so on. No doubt that’s down to some disappointment in childhood which I’ve since rationalised away by arguing it’s just mere superstition to grant significance to certain dates, an accident of an arbitrary calendar. But I’ve been trying to mellow a bit in recent years and, while I draw the line at New Year resolutions, I’m willing to contemplate a look back at the past year of blogging. Here’s hoping you don’t Bah Humbug what follows!

First, a look at some titles I’ve reviewed during 2014. I’ve selected a range of genres, from history to drama, classic to thriller, pulp fiction to science fiction, fantasy to autobiography. Continue reading “Resolutions”

Chrestomanci who?

Bosch Garden of Delights

Long regarded merely as children’s fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci novels, like most of her work for the young reader, deserve more respect from adult readership. Her mix of apparent whimsy and magic with a small pinch of science fiction, plus the alliance of young protagonists with the most curious adult magician imaginable (he has a penchant for elaborate dressing-gowns, rather like Sherlock Holmes, but with added sorcery), might persuade those of us who have reached and passed the teenage years that the series is not for us. But they would be wrong, as I hope to show in an occasional series of reposts over the next few weeks.

Intimations of mortality

path

Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)

This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series. Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Master of his own fates

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Diana Wynne Jones Conrad’s Fate
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2006 (2005)

In the English Alps
Conrad tries to change his fate.
Unsuccessfully.

Conrad’s Fate is a first-person narrative by the eponymous Conrad Tesdinic, a boy who lives in a world where England is geologically still attached to continental Europe, in an alpine town called Stallery dominated by the slightly sinister Stallery Mansion. Ironic, really, when it’s possible that the author may have derived the name via St Allery (of possible French origin, a variant of St Hilaire) from Latin hilaris meaning cheerful: Stallery is anything but a happy place.

Like many a traditional fairytale hero Conrad is thrust into a magical adventure where he has to balance his innate gifts with the usual resourcefulness required of such a hero. These gifts aren’t really identified till the end, but his other talents seem to include getting into trouble.
Continue reading “Master of his own fates”

Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”

Alike in indignity

19th-century Florence
19th-century Florence

Diana Wynne Jones
The Magicians of Caprona
Collins 2002 (1980)

Two families, both
alike in magic, fight till
forced to face real foe.

First things first: I wondered why Diana Wynne Jones had chosen the name Caprona to use in the title of this children’s book. Was it from the Latin caprona ‘forelock’? Or from a type of butterfly? Or perhaps in homage to an island featuring in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot? None of these notions really convinced.

It seems most likely that she borrowed the name from a village in the Arno valley in Tuscany, upriver from Pisa and to the west of Florence. While relatively insignificant now, in the Middle Ages Caprona was of enough importance to feature in Dante’s Inferno when its castle was squabbled over by the opposing armies of Pisa and Florence. In this book the town is besieged by the 20th-century armies of Pisa, Florence and Sienna, city-states all bordering the unfortunate Dukedom of Caprona which, in this alternate world fantasy, retains a mix of medieval and early 20th-century customs and technology, not to mention magic. Continue reading “Alike in indignity”

School for sorcery

Entrance
Former Court House, Congresbury, North Somerset

Diana Wynne Jones Witch Week
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1982)

a parallel world
where they persecute witches
and children aren’t safe

Witch Week was the first Chrestomanci books to focus solely on a female protagonist’s point of view, and is much the better for that. It feels as though Diana Wynne Jones has included a lot of autobiographical material in her treatment of Nan, an orphan witch girl who is at Larwood House, a boarding school in Hertfordshire. Nan is much more of a rounded character than the young male leads in previous books in the sequence, Christopher, Cat and Conrad, who sometimes come across as pleasant wimps or clueless actors in the unfolding story. True, Nan is largely pleasant and clueless in her attempt to discover the truth about the magic that is happening around her, but I get more of a sense of a real person here than the ciphers that are Christopher, Cat and Conrad.

The premise of the story is that Nan and her classmates exist in a world where witchcraft is punishable by death but where magic undeniably exists. Continue reading “School for sorcery”

Fun is a serious business

zodiac-woodcut

Diana Wynne Jones Mixed Magics Collins 2000

Publishers and booksellers think they know their market when it comes to the fantasy novels of Diana Wynne Jones and her ilk: young readers aged 9 to 12 or, at a pinch, young adult or teens for her more ‘difficult’ novels. This despite the fact that her fans range upwards in age to other adult fantasy writers, filmmakers, academics (and not just in the literary field — I knew a professor of sociology who rated her highly as a writer) and, of course, bloggers of all ages. Those who treat books merely as commodities — and there’s no denying that the publishing business exists to be commercially successful — often fail to recognise the reach of an author’s readership except when (as, say, with Philip Pullman and J K Rowling) it becomes as plain as the noses on their faces; they then respond with ‘adult’ editions, which sport less garish covers to go on genre shelves — or even under General Fiction — and receive notices in the review sections of broadsheet newspapers.

This long preamble (and it gets longer, I’m afraid) is a prelude to lauding this collection of light fiction, Continue reading “Fun is a serious business”

When magic’s misused

towers

Diana Wynne Jones The Pinhoe Egg
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2007 (2006)

The last of the Chrestomanci books written by Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg was also the longest and, arguably, the most complicated in terms of plot. Unlike some of the novels preceding it Chrestomanci doesn’t just have a walk-on part at the end but takes on the most integrated role in proceedings since Charmed Life, the very first Chrestomanci story of all. The story actually centres on young Eric ‘Cat’ Chant, who lives at Chrestomanci Castle near Helm St Mary, and his contemporary Marianne Pinhoe, who lives about ten miles away in Ulverscote. Marianne’s grandmother appears to lose her mind in a blast of magic — did I mention this is a fantasy? — and poor Marianne’s long-anticipated summer holidays start to disappear over the horizon as her extended family gets drawn into a feud with a neighbouring village. Not only this but her family also fear the attention of Chrestomanci, the ‘Big Man’ at the Castle, whose job is to monitor any misuse of magic. And it turns out a whole lot of misuse of magic is going on.

Continue reading “When magic’s misused”

Twists in the tales

"Veneto 0006" by Bartolomeo Veneto - Laura Pagnotta: Bartolomeo Veneto, l'opera completa, Firenze : Centro Di, 1997, ISBN 88-7038-316-4Bound. - Contains notes, bibliography and indices. - First catalogue raisonné of the complete works of Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1481-1531). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of a man with labyrinth design on his chest, by Bartolomeo Veneto, Italy, early 16th century. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones editor
Hidden Turnings
Douglas Hill, Tanith Lee, Robert Westall, Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle, Diana Wynne Jones, Mary Rayner, Geraldine Harris, Helen Cresswell, Emma Ball, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett
Teens Mandarin 1990 (1989)

When, in the late eighties, Diana Wynne Jones was asked to choose authors for a short story collection the only stipulation was for twelve tales “to do with the imagination”. When the submissions came in the main theme they all shared was “hidden turnings of the mind” where the reader is led into “remarkable new places”, an aspect which easily suggested a title for the collection. The sad fact is that, of the twelve authors, half have since gone round their own hidden turnings: Robert Westall (1993), Roger Zelazny (1995), Helen Cresswell (2005), Douglas Hill (2007), Diana Wynne Jones herself (2011) and, most recently, Terry Pratchett (2015). How lovely though to have such an assemblage of writers, all authors whom the editor tells us she loved to read herself: “the people who keep me on the edge of my seat, or awake all night, or gently chuckling — or all these things — people who I think write really well.” The collection, then, sounds very promising.

Continue reading “Twists in the tales”