Thursday, February 3, 2011

January Book Report - Part 2

Continuing the discussion of books I read in January, I see that I could also have called this the Diana Wynne Jones report. I did read quite a few of her books all at once and was entranced by this "new" author.
  • Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
    I loved the movie and a friend who had been telling me how superior the book is was kind enough to lend it to me. I began glancing through it and found myself pulled in by the humorous beginning. It was written with a bit of self awareness but not so much that it ever took over the story. The story is complex and yet the author managed to keep it all clear as the story ramped up, extra characters appeared, and everyone came together at the end. (Although I was a bit confused about the two piecemeal characters until that was completely sorted out ... but perhaps that is as it should be.) Definitely better than the movie!

    I can't really describe the plot well except to say that Sophie's troubles all begin after an encounter with the Witch of the Waste which leaves her artificially aged to about 90. When Sophie goes out to find help she winds up at Howl's moving castle (which whirs through the countryside at an alarming pace). Those are the simplest elements but it is an entrancing book. Although Diana Wynne Jones writes for the juvenile/young adult audience her books are absorbing whatever one's age and this is one which I highly recommend.

    My friend then brought me several other of her family's favorite books by Jones and I enjoyed them all as you can see below.

  • Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
    The dogstar Sirius has been convicted of a crime and condemned to a mortal life, as a dog. He is being given a chance to find who actually committed the crime he is accused of. First, however, he must learn to navigate the world and life as a dog, beginning as a newborn puppy. This gives the author the opportunity to write about understanding the world from a canine point of view and later, as he meets some cats, from his interpretation of a feline POV as well. Sirius belongs to a gentle, nature loving girl who is much put upon by her aunt, upon whom she depends for everything.

    While the insights into canine understanding are well written, I was not very interested in that aspect. I was much more interested in Sirius' true nature and quest. That is understandable, however, as the book was written for juveniles and I am far past that point. That makes it all the more remarkable that this author still held  my interest in the story and characters.

    The last half of the book proved to pick up the pace and focus more on Sirus's attempts to achieve his goal rather than his life as a dog ... they were probably divided about evenly. I found it a most satisfying book to the point where I stayed up late to finish it.

  • The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
    Following my reading of Dogsbody, I went on to this book in sampling Diana Wynne Jones' oeuvre. She came up with yet another completely different concept, unique world system, and set of problems to solve. As well, Jamie, the protagonist seems different from those I read about in Howl's Moving Castle and Dogsbody.

    Jamie has a happy enough life with his family in a poor but active neighborhood of a large city. One day, when delivering groceries for his father's store, he happens upon a building that seems unlike those he has encountered before. When looking through the windows, he sees Them (which is the only way that these persons are ever described). They seem to be playing a gigantic board game and the glimmers of overheard conversation are tantalizing. He escapes detection and seeming danger but can't resist coming back later to see more. This time They see him and turn Jamie into a discarded player in their game, where he is doomed to walk the boundaries between worlds, bouncing from one to the next in the hopes of being able to find his way back home. He is not the only discarded player and meets those somewhat familiar to us (the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman) and those who definitely are not. Jamie's discoveries and struggles make for absorbing reading and a book that I couldn't put down.

    This is a juvenile fiction work but, aside from some plot points that are probably much more obvious to the adult reader than to the intended audience, there is enough here that one never really feels as if the book is written for a lower age group. Highly recommended.

  • The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones
    For as long as he can remember Christopher could walk in his dreams through the Place Between to different valleys for visits to the different towns and people there. Sometimes, if he worked hard at it, he could even bring back some of the gifts they gave him. This led to his uncle noticing his abilities and setting a series of experiments for Christopher to do while in these worlds. As time goes by, we watch Christopher grow, go to school, and eventually discover what his true talent is and what it means to the world.

    I don't want to include spoilers so the above description sounds dreadfully boring and this book is anything but that. I stayed up late last night in order to finish the last thirty pages at break-neck speed. I finished and thought of the Harry Potter books, a comparison which hadn't occurred to me until that moment. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books very much, but felt that this was so much fresher and more original that I was surprised.

    Diana Wynne Jones has a talent for developing personalities as well as worlds and we feel that main characters have become our friends. When the Goddess expresses a heartfelt desire to go to school, we understand and want that for her too. When Christopher suddenly sees how the face he's been showing to the world is not what he thought, we feel his shock too. As with the other books I have read, the author is highly imaginative at developing new worlds and scenarios that do not seem at all derivative of any of the others that preceded it. I am curious to read more of this series to see how it is handled.

  • Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
    This is a modernization and re-imagining of the ballad of Tam Lin, a young man stolen by fairies who must be rescued by his true love. My experience with Pamela Dean's attempt to do this to a story made me leery but I should have trusted Jones from the beginning. She uses her vivid imagination to create the story of a young girl, Polly, who encounters a grown man with whom she fashions home-grown heroic adventures. (The imagining of the giant in the supermarket is particularly humorous and effective as an illustrative event.)

    As Polly grows up, her life is punctuated with these imaginings as well as the man's regular gifts of books shipped from anywhere he happens to be on tour in his profession as symphonic cellist. Thus, not only do we get a wonderful story, but we see Jones's idea of what books are suitable for encouraging imagination in children. As I read many of these same books when I was growing up, this was a particularly enjoyable bit of detail. It is bit of detail that becomes very important later in the book, I might add. The entire story is set in the framework of Polly as a college student, realizing with shock that she had forgotten this entire segment of her life. Thus the story is at once ongoing and a series of flashbacks. Highly recommended.


  1. Tante Léonie2/3/11, 12:21 PM

    Re: Tam Lin

    Have you ever heard the musical version by the band Fairport Convention, sung by the inimitable Sandy Denny? I'm sure it was before your time, so you might not know it.

    It was a popular with us old hippies back in the day. It's on the album see how I'm dating myself!) Liege and Lief.

    Give it a listen sometime if you're not familiar with it.

  2. I have not! But I'll have to look for it. :-)

  3. I have loved Wynne Jones writings for some time. I wasn't introduced to her until I was an adult and have always felt a little guilty when reading her works as they often have a more juvenile tone than other YA works. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed them so much too.

  4. I love Howl's Moving Castle. I too read the book second but preferred it more. I've not read tons of DWJ, but everything of hers I've read I've enjoyed.

    I'm late to the party, but love your template, BTW.

  5. Well, first off, most YA works today are talking about stuff that wasn't YA when I was YA or when she wrote them. Also, at least half of her books were written as outright elementary school children's books, which librarians shelve under YA so the YA and adults don't feel bad about checking them out. So "juvenile" isn't really fair.

    The amazing range and scope of her books is only partially indicated here, not to mention her infinite spectrum of moods and styles and characters. You literally don't know what will happen next. She does comedy, drama, and some astoundingly bleak horror, and then the scene changes again. She's also prolific, even at her age, and a great encourager of young writers. I think a lot of her.

  6. I used the word "juvenile" meaning only the age group at which some of it was aimed. AND also because to many people YA means an entirely older set who would think of the Twilight books.

    I just read the first of the Chrestomanci (sp?) books and that is definitely aimed at a juvenile aged reader. It is a much younger mind set than the other books. I never think of juvenile as meaning unimaginative, predictable, or limited in range.

  7. I read the book "Howl's Moving Castle" first and, frankly, was disappointed that Miyazaki decided to make the Witch of the Waste ambiguous, a kind of re-do of the witch from "Spirited Away". Without her, it didn't seem so harmful for Howl to have made a pact with a supernatural creature. Also, the use of a real poem as the curse was one of my favorite parts of the book.