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Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Archer’s Goon

archer's goonNote: Throughout June, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Diana Wynne Jones. There are definitely spoilers below, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

Archer’s Goon is the very first DWJ book I ever read. I picked it up from my middle school library and was intrigued by the beginning (“The trouble started the day Howard came home from school to find the Goon sitting in the kitchen”). And then I was enchanted by the weird and lovely world I found myself in. Although I have come to love many of DWJ’s books, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Archer’s Goon because of this.

I noticed several of the threads I’ve been pulling out in other DWJ books showing up here as well. Howard’s family–both of Howard’s families–have that sense of being both complicated and even at odds, while also being warm and ultimately loving. Obviously this doesn’t hold true for all of Howard’s original family, but even there, Hathaway and Torquil balance the others out to some extent.

Another check: intergalatic evil overlords. Actually, in this case, we don’t know exactly who or what the family is, aside from the fact that they have vast though not unlimited powers and don’t age in the same way as normal humans. Also in this case, DWJ shakes things up a little bit by adding in Howard/Venturus, Hathaway, and Torquil, who at least have some sense of responsibility to others and things they shouldn’t do.

And one of the big ones I’ve noticed through several books is the character, usually the main character, who is hidden from both others and even themselves. This thread is pretty central here, as Howard spends most of the book unaware that he is actually Venturus. He believes that he’s simply Howard Sykes, and yet underneath he’s also puzzling over the problem and when he discovers that he’s also Venturus, it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.

On the other hand, common threads don’t mean that DWJ simply repeats stories–each has something new to add. In this case, one of the new threads is the sense of cyclical time. There’s a feeling that all of this has happened before, and may happen again. But more specifically, the main characters have spent the last 26 years caught in the town, trapped by Venturus. There’s also the fact that Hathaway is called Hathaway and lives in the past and has a daughter named Anne who marries a man named Will; they’re not actually Anne Hathaway and Will Shakespeare, but there are quite deliberate echoes.

If what I’ve said so far sounds a bit English essay-ish and intellectual, it’s because I found that while I really enjoyed reading this one (I have an especial soft spot for Awful), and while I still remember quite vividly reading it for the first time and reaching the twist and having this feeling of the world changing around me, it hasn’t ever really sunk in the way some of DWJ’s other books have. Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, the Dalemark Quartet–those are all heart-books for me. Archer’s Goon is a smart and fun book that I’m happy to re-read when I think of it.

All the same, it is a book that I truly like and appreciate. I’m fond of Howard, and of the family interactions, and of Ginger Hind. I’m not very comfortable with the depiction of Shine, for several reasons. Nonetheless, between my nostalgia and the real strengths of the book, this is one I’ll certainly return to.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1984, Greenwillow; middle grade

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Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Howl’s Moving Castle

howlNote: Throughout June, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Diana Wynne Jones. There are definitely spoilers below, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best known and most popular books. It has two sequels, Castle in the Air, and House of Many Ways. It’s also one of my favorite books by DWJ, and yet one that I have never really reviewed until now.

The opening of this book is really delightful. “In the land of Ingary where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” It’s such a perfect set up for the story that will follow, with the fairy tale echoes, and also the parts that push back against fairy tales. And the character sketches that follow give us Sophie’s point-of-view so clearly, while also showing us that things might not be exactly as she thinks.

It also establishes this as a story that is in conversation with other stories. There are references galore. In addition to the fairy tales, Howl’s curse is, of course, “Song” by John Donne. There’s another Donne reference (“Busy old fool, unruly Sophie,” says Howl), as well as Raleigh and Shakespeare. Moreover, Megan’s house in Wales is called Rivendell. I mean, really! I even had a moment where I started thinking about possible parallels to Pride and Prejudice (am I going too far? Maybe but also maybe not?).

All in all, I felt re-reading this, that DWJ was having so much fun with this story. She’s playing around with characters, conventions, expectations. It’s not frothy–there’s substance to it too–but it is light. It comforts rather than challenges as, say, Hexwood does. And of course, Howl at his most histrionic is really funny to read about (maybe less to live with). The slime! Despair! Anguish! Horror! His dramatic cold! (Apparently based on her husband’s–“I just had to write it all down,” she says in the Q&A. Also: “He blows his nose exactly like a bassoon in a tunnel.”)

But, despite the sheer enjoyment factor of this book, it’s also doing some tricksy things. There is lots of hiding in plain sight. Remember how I mentioned characters who are in disguise, even from themselves? That describes multiple characters in HMC. There’s Sophie, there’s the wicked wizard who isn’t wicked, the dog-man–even Lettie & Martha.

It’s even crafty in terms of the plot. Sophie’s central quest is to find out and break the contract between Calcifer and Howl, and we’re basically told the solution right at the beginning (“he was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard”) but in a way that misdirects us for ages. This is a clever book, in the best way–not crowing over its own wit, but waiting for you to uncover it.

When it comes down to it, though, for me the real heart (heheheh) of the book is Sophie. It’s Sophie’s point-of-view we get, Sophie who is so unaware of her own strengths for so much of the book, and yet so clear at the same time. Sophie who is often a mystery to herself, who is prickly and stubborn and brave. The shepherd she meets thinks she’s a witch and she gets indignant even though she very clearly is one. This is the story, in so many ways, of a teenage girl growing up and seeing her own strengths. They’re always there–one of my favorite moments in the whole book is just after the Witch turns Sophie old and she thinks, quite matter-of-factly, “Well, of course I shall have to do for her”–but she doesn’t always believe in them. This is the story of her learning to believe in her own instincts, her own desires, her own worth.

What I sometimes forget, because she’s so much Sophie through the whole book, is that she does all of this while an old lady. There’s a very interesting bit where Sophie thinks that as a girl she “would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman she did not mind what she did or said.” I can quite manage to pull this into a thesis, What Diana Wynne Jones is Saying About Women and Age and Societal Expectations, but it’s there.

If Sophie is one central point of this story, Howl is the other. I said on Twitter as I was reading this that he really does remind me of Gen in many ways, and then almost the next line was “‘What a lie that was,’ Howl remarked as he walked into the wall. ‘My shining dishonesty will be the salvation of me.'” They’re both characters who hide their hearts, who mask the fact that they care with abundant flamboyance and deliberate botheration of those around them. They’re both slitherer-outers, for sure.

But when it comes down to it, Howl is quite selfish; or not selfish exactly but certainly self-centered. He quite likes helping people, and yet he’s rather ruthless when it comes to things he does or doesn’t want to do. I’m quite pleased when he meets his match in Sophie, who’s just about as stubborn and has more care for other people.

The one note of this book which I don’t quite love is the treatment of Megan. “I love Wales, but it doesn’t love me,” says Howl, but he’s really talking about his sister. This is realistic, perhaps, but Megan remains such a one note character without any real reason that we’re given for her uncharitable depiction. We’re shown that she’s annoying, but well, so is Howl. (As an aside, this is yet another DWJ book where the main action takes place in one world with excursions to another world, which is ours. Reverse portal fantasy, if you will.) It’s not enough to sour the whole book for me by any means, but I do always notice and sigh a little.

I feel slightly the same way about the Witch, but far less so because she really has done nasty things and treated people in an awful way. Oddly enough, she reminded me just a little of a more evil, and witchy, version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (This was the point at which I started thinking of HMC and P&P and wondering.) So I can notice that her depiction falls into a pattern that I don’t love, but also accept it and keep reading.

Despite these hiccups, this is really a book which I find delightful as a reading experience, and which also touches me deeply. If you asked me which characters I feel most like, I would say Betsy Ray and Sophie Hatter. Perhaps it’s because I’m also the oldest child of three & always resented that fairy tales rewarded the youngest, perhaps it’s because the way Sophie sees herself is really quite familiar. Regardless, for me reading this book the first time–and all the times since–has felt like coming home, like greeting an old friend.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1986, Greenwillow; mg/YA

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Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Hexwood

hexwoodHexwood is a standalone novel, first published in 1993. It’s also a book that I love and I feel like no one else does? If you’re a fellow Hexwood fan, let me know!

I can understand why people don’t necessarily like it. It’s a bit like the end of Fire & Hemlock, except an entire book’s worth–and quite a few people dislike the end of Fire & Hemlock. And the Reigners are really nasty, in an insidious way that is actually worse than out and out EEVILLLLL!

It’s also undeniably weird. I mean. In the space of one book, there’s a King Arthur motif, plus the events in the modern world, plus evil galactic overlords, plus handwavy science fantasy, plus dream sequences and some time travel, plus characters who don’t know who they are or what’s happening. There’s a lot going on. And most of the characters spend most of the book continuing to not know, caught in the middle of a situation they don’t even understand.

So why do I love it? Well, primarily it’s for Ann. I really love how stubborn and uncompromising she is, how she’s able to see the truth of people even when it’s fairly hidden. She’s not afraid to call people on their mistakes, but she also wants to help them, and she feels badly when things don’t go well. I also like Mordion; while he’s not my favorite version, characters who try really hard even when things are awful are kind of catnip for me.

And I found the descriptions of the wood really textured and lovely. DWJ tends to write in an understated style most of the time, so whenever she breaks into a more descriptive passage, I enjoy it. In this case, the sights and scents of the wood are so beautifully described that I could understand the characters’ reactions to it.

And secretly I love the end of Fire & Hemlock. I like the weird dream sequenceness of this story. It’s one that maybe shouldn’t work and maybe doesn’t work for many other readers, but which for some reason I find entrancing. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s not easy; that it requires you to work for meaning and comprehension.

If we’re looking at  common themes in DWJ books, there’s certainly the warm but complicated family, the intergalactic evil (like Mr. Chesney’s company in Dark Lord, for instance). And perhaps most of all, the characters who aren’t as they seem and/or are hidden in some way, even from themselves.

So ultimately for me, this is one that I do appreciate and even enjoy, although at the same time, I do see why other people may have a different reaction to it.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1993, Methuen; YA

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Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: The Dark Lord of Derkholm

dark lord

Note: Throughout June, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Diana Wynne Jones. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

Dark Lord of Derkholm is the first of two books, with a sequel called Year of the Griffin. It’s one that I absolutely loved when I first read it, but which I haven’t re-read as often and which hasn’t gone in quite as deeply as some other DWJ books. I was curious to see what my reaction on re-reading it this time would be. As it turns out, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found that it’s really doing quite a few interesting things.

There’s a gentle prod at Tolkien and Tolkien-style fantasy. We could probably have guessed this from the title–Dark Lord conjures up Sauron fairly effectively (this was published in 1998, just a year after Harry Potter). But the fact that DWJ very cheekily calls one of her dwarves Galadriel (Derk wonders what his parents could have been thinking!) really makes it explicit. Plus, there is something that’s so small I’m not even sure it’s meant as a reference: at one point, Scales is referred to as “the great green dragon,” a phrase which began Tolkien’s interest in philology and the why of words and phrases. While it’s possible that Tolkien told this story in the lectures that DWJ attended at Oxford, it’s impossible to say that this is really meant as a reference, however much I want it to be.

Anyway, having been promised a Dark Lord, it’s something of a shock to open the book and find ourselves in the middle of a meeting of (for some of us) a sadly familiar type. The world where the story is set has been forced into a contract with Mr. Chesney, a nasty man who runs Pilgrim Parties from his own world and makes quite a bit of money from them. (His description is so wonderful and vivid–he looks almost normal until you realize his mouth is upside down.) Mr. Chesney and his minions are actually almost the only nasty people in this story. The whole conceit of it is that the Dark Lord and the Forces of Good are really just people who all live on this world and are forced to enact these rather silly battles for the benefit of tourists, at almost no benefit to themselves.

In fact, Derk himself, the eponymous Dark Lord, is a terrible Dark Lord. He’s a wizard who lives with his wife Mara (also a wizard) and their children, two human and five griffins, in a cheerful and ramshackle house. He likes animals and experimenting and he has no interest in the Pilgrim Parties or the world of wizards either. He’s not interested in power as such, and is much more a Radagast than a Gandalf (if we’re making Tolkien comparisons).

One of the things I found most interesting about this book, both when I first read it and now, is the way DWJ uses this human-griffin family to talk about the idea of families and who is in them. Outsiders often don’t recognize the griffins even as intelligent or people, let alone family. But for Derk and Blade and Shona, they’re just children/siblings. Ones with unusual powers and capabilities, maybe, but their place is not in question. For instance, at one point Blade thinks of Callette as his “more-or-less twin sister, who had hacked her way out of her egg while Blade was being born.” He has the familiarity of long and close relationship that can’t even see the other person clearly. On the other hand, there is some uncertainty throughout the book, as Derk is quite worried over the state of his marriage with Mara.

I had also forgotten how complex this one is; it’s in some ways a fun and funny story, but it also takes on some big questions. There’s a lot about personal responsibility and the use of power. Derk feels personally responsible for almost everything, including the mayor’s cows, while Mr. Chesney and the other nasty characters feel no personal responsibility whatsoever. It’s also interesting to note that there’s some quiet subversion going on with the female characters, who at a certain point organize themselves and go on strike. (Maybe also a prod at Tolkien?)

I also found the treatment of religion intriguing. Umru, the main religious figure, is treated quite sympathetically and his religious beliefs and experience are given both weight and seriousness. Without wanting to be too spoilery, the end also reaches for the kind of description and real understanding that I tend to associate with the Dalemark Quartet.

All in all, this is one I’m glad I revisited. It’s doing a number of neat things, often slyly poking fun at the works that came before it, and also giving a story that stands on its own (ie, it’s not simply satire). It’s worth noting that I did have a few uncomfortable moments, mostly when it came to the descriptions of the Emirates. As a whole, though, this is one of DWJ’s most thoughtful and complex books.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1998, William Morrow; YA? adult? pov characters from both

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May 2015 round up

Books I’ve already talked about
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia
Ms. Marvel vol. 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Ravensbrück by Sarah Helm
Picture Book Monday
Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens
Curse of the Iris by Jason Fry
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Rose Under Fire: audiobook review
Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand

Other books
House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones: I do like this one, although I almost wish it weren’t connected to HMC at all, since I think I would enjoy it more on its own merits. But Howl as a toddler is pretty hilarious.

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold: Dark and layered. I loved the way myths & fairy tales were woven in, and I appreciated a lot about it. However, when I read it, I was burnt out on Important books, however well written and necessary. So I’m not sure how much that flavors my feelings of slight frustration with this one; I wanted it to be a little less slight, maybe?

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi: Complex, interesting look at friendship and grief and what happens when we ask too much of each other. The text is interspersed with graphic novel panels, which worked a little less well for me than the standard narration. It wasn’t my favorite, but I’m glad I read it.

Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond: I’m not a huge Superman fan (*ducks for cover*) but I really enjoyed this YA book focusing on Lois Lane in high school. Girl reporter! Trying to find out the truth and tangling with authority figures. It’s lots of fun.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson: Brandy mentioned that both she & her daughter loved this mg graphic novel about roller derbys, so when it came into my library I had to check it out. It’s a great look at growing up and friendships and roller derbys (!!). Also great for Raina Telgemeier fans–I know everyone is pitching it as this, but it fits so well.

NIMONA by Noelle Stevenson: I loved Nimona. It was originally posted as a webcomic and I started reading about 2/3 of the way through the series. I wasn’t sure how it would be to read it as a book, but the format worked really well and HarperCollins did a great job with the colors & quality. And I loved the characters & story just as much. (I’m a SHARK!)

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones: I listened to this as an audiobook and am saving it for a Reluctant Listener review later.

All the Rage by Courtney Summers: Hard read, wonderfully written. I think Romy is the most tender & vulnerable of Summers’ characters (that I’ve read, anyway) and I found myself hurting so much for her. It’s really all about fallout and how you keep going. I think what I found most extraordinary was the way Summers gives us Romy’s point of view without justifying all her thoughts and actions, but also without condemning them.

The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo: This is a small, odd little middle grade fantasy. It’s set in Wales, which is totally catnip to me. However, I felt a bit distanced from all the characters–it was like emotional beats were set up but not fleshed out enough for me to buy them.

The Bell Family by Noel Streatfeild: This was a Streatfeild that I don’t think I’ve read before. It was reissued recently, and is a charming little book. Perfect for lying on a couch with a bad cold, although I think it lacks some of the texture of her best books.

A Volcano Beneath the Snow by Albert Marrin: A juvenile biography of John Brown. This one did a nice job of really focusing on the context, so it’s not simply telling the story of one individual. Also, imo, a nice example of showing individuals–including Brown, Lincoln, and Douglass–as complex and contradictory, without trying to smooth out their weaknesses and inconsistencies. (I’m less sure about the conclusion at the end.)

Most Likely to Succeed by Jennifer Echols: review coming closer to the release date

The End of the Sentence by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard: This is a weird little book and I’m still not sure if I actually liked it or not. I think maybe not? But I liked some of the echoes? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

This Side of Home by Renee Watson: I’d been hearing how excellent this one is for awhile, and it absolutely is. It takes a close look at universal issues of growing up and dealing with personal changes, while at the same time looking at wider changes of gentrification and racism. Maya is a thoughtful narrator, and the story doesn’t give any easy answers but treats a complex issue with the care it deserves.

Other posts
Links: 5-3-15
Authors I’d really like to meet
Made and Making: May 2015

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July 2014 reading list

Books I’ve already talked about
Picture Book Monday
Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale
Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks
Biggest Flirts by Jennifer Echols
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly
Alchemy of Fire by Gillian Bradshaw
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
I also re-read all of Laura Florand’s books in preparation for this guest post
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Exiles at Home by Hilary McKay
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner (and I shared some favorite quotes on Tumblr)
A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith–on this read, the judgement of the other girls annoyed me a bit
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Other books
Deliverer by C.J. Cherryh: I don’t remember this book. All of the Bren Cameron stories are starting to meld together a bit. I enjoyed it, because I’ve found the most recent books in the series to be excellent, but I couldn’t tell you which one this is to save my life.

A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner: My friend B. recommended Rose Lerner to me, and specifically A Lily Among Thorns, since she knows I like Cecilia Grant’s books a lot. And yes, I did very much liked this one! It’s a more grounded version of Regency romances–not a duke or a marquess in sight (well, one or two, sort of). I had to strain my credulity a tad at the end, but I was happy to do so.

Princeless, vol. 1 by Jeremy Whitley: Graphic novel about a black princess who takes off with the dragon that’s supposed to be guarding her tower. If you sat up and said, “ooh!”, then this is for you. While I didn’t feel that it went very deep, I really liked the thoughtful commentary on families and narratives and choices.

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay: I’ve really enjoyed Kay’s sweeping historical fantasies in the past, especially the Sarantium duology. Many of the same elements are present in this one, but I didn’t personally feel all that invested in the characters, and I felt somewhat irked by the way the incidental peasant appeared, had their entire life summed up (significant events occurring only in proximity to the main characters, of course), and was dismissed.

The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson: Historical fiction about the Blue Plague (cholera) epidemic in London in the 1850s, and the scientific advances that led to its halt. Unfortunately, characters and plot take a back seat to Historical Details. I ended up wishing that this had simply been non-fiction, since it would have been much more engaging without also trying to be a story.

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones: I apparently have never reviewed this book here! In fact, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve read it before. It’s a bit of a weird one, but as the story of a blended family learning to live with each other. There are some attitudes about corporal punishment that will likely read as old-fashioned to many people; I noticed them, but they didn’t jolt me out of the story, personally speaking.

Major Crush by Jennifer Echols: Brandy read this one recently and I realized that although I’ve read almost all of Echols’s other books, I hadn’t tried this one. It definitely reads as a first novel, in retrospect, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Certainly not the strongest of her books, but if you’re looking for an entertaining romance, it’s one to check out.

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What to read after Howl’s Moving Castle

howlA few days ago on Twitter, Sophie Brookover mentioned she was reading Howl’s Moving Castle and that it was her first Diana Wynne Jones book ever. I, being the DWJ fan that I am, promptly offered to give her a list of suggestions for what to read next.

This list is naturally fairly subjective. I like some DWJ books better than others. I have read some DWJ books more often than others. I’m sure there are some I’ve missed, and others that I’ve semi-purposefully forgotten. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments!

Of course, the natural place to start is with Howl’s two sequels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. However, neither of these are–in my opinion–as strong as Howl, nor do they feature enough of Howl and Sophie. I did enjoy House of Many Ways quite a bit.

If you like HMC for the wacky hijinks:
Archer’s Goon (my review)
Chrestomanci (starting with Charmed Life)
Deep Secret
The Merlin Conspiracy
Dark Lord of Derkholm (my review)

If you like HMC for the fairy tale retelling elements:
Fire and Hemlock (my review)
Hexwood (my review)
Eight Days of Luke

If you like HMC for Sophie:
Deep Secret
Fire and Hemlock (my review)
The Spellcoats (my review)

If you want something with some epic scope:
The Dalemark Quartet (my review part one and part two)
Homeward Bounders
Dogsbody

If you want to possibly cry a lot:
Homeward Bounders
The Crown of Dalemark (my review)

And, of course, there’s the Diana Wynne Jones page I put together here.

I hope this is helpful for Sophie, and anyone else who thinks they might love Diana Wynne Jones but isn’t sure where to start!