The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.
I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.
Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.
The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones, illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)
Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.
As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.
For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.
So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby, afterword by Rob Wilkins. Doubleday 2015
In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.
There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.
At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.
A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books / Harper Trophy 2001 (1987)
And it seemed to be true that all your life came flooding into you mind in your last moments. She thought of Mum and Dad and London and the War and Time City, and she wanted to shout at Mr Lee, Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!
Time certainly does play tricks on you; in my case I was certain I’d read this fantasy when I acquired it a decade and a half ago, but now that I’ve finished it very little seems familiar other than the initial premise. In a way, however, that’s quite appropriate for a novel about time travel in which the past is sometimes not only a different country but also not what you thought it was.
The first thing the title does is remind the reader of A Tale of Two Cities, and whether that was fortuitously arrived at or chosen from the start it does indicate that one of the themes the author intended to make use of was the trope of confused identities: young evacuee Vivian Smith escaping a London about to undergo the Blitz is of a kind with London barrister Sydney Carton during the period of the French Revolution. Dickens’ doppelgänger motif is one of a number of parallels Diana Wynne Jones plays with here, and you will note that as well as London being one of the cities of the Dickens novel there’s another city involved, Paris in one and Time City in the other: both are in turmoil from a Revolution, Time City almost literally so.
What is Time City? It’s a environment outside of time and space: its architecture takes inspiration from our own past, present and, presumably, future, and at times resembles Escher’s famous Relativity etching; and if Time itself can symbolised by a clockface, Time City is situate precisely at that infinitesimal moment represented when the clock’s hands all point to 12. Its function is to oversee Earth history, filled as it appears to be with periods both stable and unstable; meanwhile its functionaries patrol and where necessary intervene in history, tweaking events to ensure all is well. That is, however, providing that chronons — particles which destabilise time — don’t attach themselves to someone who then travels through time. Somebody like 11-year-old Vivian.
Today, on the eve of the halfway mark for the twenty-eight days of February, I’m already getting excited about March. As well as planning on reading books for the Wales Readathon and Reading Ireland Month I’m hoping to revisit titles by the late Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both of whom left us in this month.
I’m glad to see that Kristen at https://WeBeReading.com is again running March Magics, the annual celebration of these two fantasy writers (who were both West Country authors by adoption, with connections to my hometown Bristol).
Kristen’s introductory post gives an outline plan of the focus of this year’s event, and I’d like to share with you her principal aims and how my response may shape up.
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.
Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Corgi Books 1989 (1988)
‘You know, Hwel, I reckon responsible behaviour is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.’
— Tomjon in ‘Wyrd Sisters’
The fourth in Pratchett’s Discworld series is full of witches behaving badly, meddling yet not meddling in the affairs of men. Preceded by Equal Rites it focuses on the kingdom of Lancre with its usurping ruler Duke Felmet and his wife, a castle full of ghosts, a troupe of travelling players and the aforementioned witch trio of Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick.
It’s not the assassination itself that sets things awry — Lancre has seen dastardly deeds done to royalty before and survived — but the misrule following it, and Granny Weatherwax senses the land is unhappy. For this reason and others (such as her being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian) she determines, along with her coven of three, to nudge things along a bit.
And that includes a bit of messing around with time, accomplished in a manner similar to the ending of Superman the Movie, except with a black-caped Granny flying her broomstick round the kingdom.
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’.
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.
You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.
Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…
I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …
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.
At the southern edge of the Black Mountains in Wales, high above the market town of Crickhowell, sits a hillock called Crug Hywel or Table Mountain. Geologically it is an example of a translational slide, a piece of the Black Mountains that has slipped downhill towards the River Usk before coming to a halt.
On top of Crug Hywel’s plateau sits an Iron Age hillfort, named after some forgotten historical or legendary figure called Howell.
The feature is, in effect, Howl’s Moving Castle.
I don’t for a moment believe that the author had this ancient hillfort as a model for the titular castle, nor do I even suggest she was aware of the coincidence of name, only that I’m sure she would’ve been delighted with this parallel. Because, as the Q&A extra at the end of this edition shows, the genesis and composition of a novel such as Howl’s Moving Castle is made up of bits and pieces of her own family life, chance encounters, unconscious jokes, past memories, and so on. As Nanki-Poo in The Mikado sings,
A wandering minstrel I, | A thing of shreds and patches, | Of ballads, songs and snatches, | And dreamy lullaby…
Shreds and patches typify the make-up of this fantasy, and of many of the characters in it (in particular the Howl of the title); but what holds it all together — as in all good stories — is heart, both literally and metaphorically. And though some of the stitching is evident in the writing we forgive the imperfections because the whole is just so enchanting.
The first March Magics event (then called DWJ March) was inaugurated by Kristen of We Be Reading in March 2012 to celebrate the worlds of Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011). This year’s March Magics has as its featured DWJ book Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps her most famous title and the subject of a delightful Studio Ghibli animation.
For any followers of this blog unfamiliar with DWJ’s work (and a few days before I post my second review of this fantasy, on the anniversary of her death, the 26th March) you may find the following links, to my reviews of other titles, helpful in deciding which of her fictions might appeal to you.
Let’s start with the series loosely associated with that peregrinating edifice.
Another year starts, and we’re all encouraged to plan ahead… Well, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have targets. I don’t set challenges.
What I have instead are goals: something to generally aim for but no pressure other than satisfaction at reaching them or even making the initial effort.
A better metaphor might be a framework: something that provides shape but the cladding for which is more random and the amount of cover more arbitrary. Imagine a big wide open goalmouth, the posts set wide apart and the crosspiece high, the netting a patchwork of different materials and loosely spread over. It’s pleasing to get the ball in the net but, heaven forfend, I’ve never had dreams of being a Premiership player…
So, Reading Goals. (No, not Reading Gaol, that was Oscar Wilde.)
Not long after the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, three quarters of the way into March — a month in fact featuring two patron saints of Celtic countries — and I’ve missed marking this period in any special way. But anyway, what’s a date but an arbitrary point in the calendar? Measure time in any way other than by the solar year and all our anniversaries, birthdays and feast days count for little.
Still I feel a little bit put out because I failed to celebrate one of my favourite authors. Maybe it’s because I’ve read almost all her books. Maybe it’s because I’ve been too busy celebrating the bicentenary of another author — Mary Shelley, ‘onlie begetter’ of Frankenstein — or was still stupefied after a revisit of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea that I forgot to check in on Kristen’s We Be Reading blog where she hosts March Magics, a celebration of the worlds and works of Terry Pratchett and … Diana Wynne Jones.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.