I am a cat. I am a cat like anything. Keep stroking me. I came in here because I knew you were good at stroking. But put your knees together so I can sit properly, front paws under. That’s better. Now keep stroking, don’t forget to rub my ears, and I will purr and tell.
– “What the Cat Told Me”, Diana Wynne Jones
“Controller Borasus sighed with relief. Libraries were not places of danger. It had to be a hoax.” ― Diana Wynne Jones, Hexwood
It’s funny how long I’ve waited to reread Hexwood, when it’s the book that made me think about doing this reread in the first place. I first read this book when it was reprinted back in 2000, and was thoroughly confused by it. A couple of years later, I distinctly remember enjoying it but I barely remember the plot. I remembered a forest and a roleplaying game gone wrong, and characters being pulled in to act out scenarios, but nothing more. I also remember that it was more difficult to get through compared to the other DWJs I had been reading at the time. And… that was about it. Continue reading “Getting lost in the Great Forest (DWJ’s Hexwood)”
The first time I read it my brain was in this fuzz, right after The Spellcoats, because I got the omnibus editions which are always a bad idea (for me). Not that I had any other choice back then. I rushed through the book, thought it was nice enough, and forgot all about it.
This is my second time experiencing The Crown of Dalemark, this time on audio, forcing me to take my time instead of rushing, and I am so in love with this whole quartet. WHY DID I NOT SEE THE BRILLIANCE OF THIS QUARTET BEFORE.
The book starts with Mitt, who’s in North Dalemark after the events in Drowned Ammet. He had been training to be a hearthman when he was tasked to murder Noreth Onesdaughter, who claimed to be the true Queen of Dalemark and wanted to reunite the lands. But then, it changes perspective to 200 years in the future, where a girl named Maewen meets an Undying who sends her back to the past (Mitt’s present) to take Noreth’s place, as the real Noreth had disappeared, and Maewen looked exactly like her. Continue reading “The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones”
In the same year Diana Wynne Jones published her first adult fantasy, she also published her first (and only, as far as I know) picture book. Yes, Dear is a sweet narrative with folky, sometimes dreamlike art by Graham Philpot.
Kay is a child with a large family that largely ignores her. They aren’t unkind, or outright neglectful, but everyone – her brothers, sisters, and parents – are too busy with their gardening or music or washing to attend to her. This story is set only within one day in her life, but I get the feeling that the absent-minded “yes, dear”, “run along, don’t bother me/us” are words that Kay hears often.
In this story she finds a leaf that turns out to be magic. It turns her sand pies real, and made a huge red rose with a caterpillar that talked, and conjured up a band, among other things. Kay tries to tell her family this, but of course, no one listens. In the end, she finds one member of the family that does – her grandmother.
Being a picture book, Yes, Dear is nowhere near as complex or exciting as her novels, and really is rather predictable. But it’s still pretty DWJ-esque, to me. We don’t really know if her leaf is magic or if it’s all her imagination, but it doesn’t matter – as a young child, Kay and her adventures are overlooked by most of her family. Even though it’s been forever since I was a child, I can still remember the frustration with how oblivious the adults around me used to seem, how impervious they were to magic. (And when you’re a child, every little thing can be magic!) This is something that happens a lot in DWJ’s books, where the children would end up taking charge because the adults are either too inept or cowardly or too busy adulting to do much. And Kay’s grandmother is the only one who listens, and is able to see and recognise magic, because eventually those of us that grow out of fairy tales do grow back into them.
The art is quite dated, which works in the book’s favour to me personally. This book was first published in 1992, so it wasn’t really when I was young enough for picture books, but the art makes me feel a complicated sort of nostalgia, because while I didn’t exactly enjoy childhood, this book reminds me of all the better parts of it. The hairstyles and the clothes and the rooms (especially the rooms) look so familiar, it’s as if I was wandering around in my then best friend’s house – and her house had been a sort of sanctuary for me, so I remember things like reading The Neverending Story together, and her older sisters’ homemade cookies, and us making up fairy stories that made me feel like I had this soft fuzzy sort of protection against my building anxiety. And yeah, this is all very personal, so I figure others may enjoy or dislike the art for other reasons, but it’s hard for me not be biased about it.
Anyway, that was 1992. In 1993, DWJ would finally publish the final book of the Dalemark Quartet, The Crown of Dalemark. It’s been so long since my reread of the previous Dalemark books I wonder if I ought to reread them AGAIN before starting on the fourth.
There are multiverses, and this never seemed to matter very much, until a mage who is also very good at computers discovers that all – well, many – of the bad things that happened in our world, from the world wars to the great depression and even global warming, were a result of our world being toyed around with by wizards in another universe. Basically, the mages of Arth put us into situations where we would have to invent things or solve certain problems, after which they would steal the ideas for their own world.
Mark, the mage who discovers all this, went to Gladys, the wisest (and kookiest) witch he knew. And somehow this all led to a group of witches being sent to Arth and sabotage the evil otherworld mages with, among other things, kamikaze sex.
Er… maybe I should back up a bit.
This is a Diana Wynne Jones novel, yes, but this is not a children’s or YA fantasy.
After Changeover (the debut novel I probably won’t ever get to read), all of the published DWJs were for children/teens… until 1992, when A Sudden Wild Magic was published. Of course, even before I started this book, I thought of DWJ’s essay “Two Kinds of Writing?” in which she wrote about some unspoken assumptions about grown-up vs. children’s/teen fiction:
I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers.
Starting on the first chapter, this was what I noticed the most – longer explanations about everything. I showed the first page to Kit, whose desk is next to mine at work, and she said it gave her a headache. I found A Sudden Wild Magic to be a bit weird, but still somehow, very Diana Wynne Jones. There’s the protagonist that doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of themselves, but everyone who knew them seem to admire, until they slowly become aware of their own inner strength. There’s the mention of bad, horrible parents, and in this book, on how that could go on to influence the kind of adult you became. There’s the wordplay and sly jokes and things that are fun buy may not make much sense in terms of the plot until you get to the end and all the pieces just fit together perfectly. I also thought that this particular novel reminded me a lot of Doctor Who, a feeling that I didn’t get with her other novels. And when I reread “Two Kinds of Writing?”, I saw that DWJ mentioned that “anyone who can follow Dr. Who can follow this in their sleep.”
So. This book has “sex, violence, politics, and the arcane skulduggery of science or magecraft”, which, as mentioned in her essay, were also apparent in DWJ’s children’s books, only not spelled out loud with 100% more explanation and more Doctor Who vibes. All of which spells “perfectly good read” to me, even if it won’t be in my top ten favourite DWJs. I dragged out my reading for as long as I could, gleefully savouring the feeling of reading a “brand new” Diana Wynne Jones, and finished it with the sober realisation that this was the last novel in my “reread” list that I had to read for the first time. I could always reread it, of course, and the whole point of my DWJ reread is that every read brings out something new, but still. Not counting Changeover, there are no new worlds from her for me to discover. That made me sad, and I kind of dread reaching Chaldea in my rereads, even though I know that after that, I could always start all over again.
(Happy Friday the 13th! Also, Zillah Green is probably in my list of top ten favourite DWJ characters. But I’ll write more on that one day, when I reread this book.)
“A Slice of Life” is a poem published in the anthology Now We Are Sick, edited by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones. This book is currently out of print, but some editions bear the subtitle “An Anthology of Nasty Verse”, and that’s basically what it is. Among the authors included in the anthology are Brian Aldiss, Terry Pratchett, S.P. Somtow and Alan Moore – so I knew to expect a good variety of nasty, which is what I got.
Diana Wynne Jones’ contribution is a week’s worth of verses by a student narrating their school lunches. Of course, if you’ve read Witch Week you’ll know that Diana Wynne Jones can describe food in a way that makes you see worms instead of pasta or brains instead of peas. And this is what goes on in the poem, along with the student’s suspicion that they were really eating one of their teachers, who had been missing from Day 1.
I almost skipped this title when I was looking up DWJ’s uncollected stories and poetry because (1) it’s a poem, and (2) the anthology was pretty hard to come by, but I’m glad that I did get it in the end – besides the appropriately nasty poem that I would’ve appreciated so much when I was still in school, I enjoyed most of the other poems from the anthology that I’ve read. Some of them were more darkly whimsical in nature, while others were outright gross, they’re mostly funny as well. Probably should have included this in my RIP challenge last month. Never mind; I will be finishing it this weekend, and maybe reread it next October.
My next DWJ read will be A Sudden Wild Magic, which I haven’t read before – can’t wait!
“And I won’t bother with breakfast, now Lavinia’s not here to bring it me in bed, dear,” was Aunt Maria’s final demand. Mum promised to bring her breakfast on a tray at eight-thirty sharp. It’s a very useful way of bullying people. – Black Maria, Diana Wynne Jones
My current copy of Black Maria is also my first copy, which is kind of rare when it comes to my DWJ books – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lent it out before. I received my copy from a classmate back in high school. Even now, I wonder about it – we weren’t close, and it wasn’t a special occasion, but one day she presented me with the book with a note saying she knew I loved Diana Wynne Jones. (As a result, she is one of the very few classmates I still remember now.) Anyway, the first time I read it, I thought – how gloomy. Diana Wynne Jones’ books aren’t exactly all cheery, and books like Homeward Bounders are pretty dark, but the gloominess of Black Maria struck me deeper, probably because it was a gloominess I knew all too well from my own childhood.
Another thing about Black Maria is that even though it was first published in 1991, it was really written before The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988). Since I’m reading in published order, I figure I may as well make a note of that here. In “A Whirlwind Tour of Australia” (published in Reflections), Diana Wynne Jones wrote that unlike some of her other books that were published long after they were written, Black Maria was suppressed by her. The reason? It was too frightening. To me, it isn’t a direct sort of horror – it is that utter gloominess, a claustrophobic sort of dread and resignation that comes with having to live with someone like Aunt Maria.
Mig Laker and her brother Chris had never met their father’s Aunt Maria, not until his sudden death. Then, after a series of phone calls from poor, frail Aunt Maria who reminds them that they were her only family left, their mother takes them to Aunt Maria’s for a holiday.
It didn’t take long for the Lakers to realise that Aunt Maria – who appears to be so cozy and cuddly – rules the village of Cranbury-on-Sea. She’s the queen bee, flanked by the twelve women who live down the street. All the men might as well have been zombies in suits. And all the other children seem like clones, even if they don’t resemble one another physically. On top of that, there’s a ghost haunting Chris’ room, and a cat that looks uncannily like one of Aunt Maria’s previous servants.
For most of the book, you get the feeling that something is off, and that it was more than Aunt Maria’s pretense at frailty to manipulate everyone around her, and more than the enforced gender stereotypes that made all the women tending to Aunt Maria and the men “away” all the time. Mig played along at first, letting her brother take the active role (as a boy, he was encouraged to be outdoors while Mig had to help her mother look after Aunt Maria). But as Chris’ attitude towards Aunt Maria gets more and more rude – providing for some of the best laughs in the book – and Aunt Maria gets more awful but in this unbearably SWEET way until she finally does something to get Chris out of her way for good. This forces Mig to take the lead, to uncover the truth about the people of Cranbury-on-Sea so that she could find a way to get her brother back.
The whole story is written from Mig’s point of view, so it is only from here onwards that we truly see beyond the tea parties and coziness to all of the darkness running underneath. I love that Mig’s adventure recalls some of my favourite fairy tale tropes but of course, this being a Diana Wynne Jones book, everything is flipped over and nothing is what it seems. I had remembered this book as a horror, and in my reread I realised that it’s not REALLY horror, but it’s got elements of horror. And it has SF elements but it’s more of a fantasy – reading it, I remembered DWJ’s mentions of not wanting to be boxed in by genre in Reflections. I guess it gets claustrophobic, just like the villagers of Cranbury-on-Sea being forced into specific male/female stereotypes. I really hate the whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality, and loved the way it’s treated in this book. In the end a person is a person, and a good book is a good book, and Black Maria makes a great Halloween reread.
* published as Aunt Maria in the US. Sadly, both US and UK versions are out-of-print now.
**reread earlier in the year, but reread again for the RIP Challenge.