The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Let me introduce the nine-year-old heroine, Tiffany Aching, of The Wee Free Men in her own words:

I don’t know a single spell. I don’t even have a pointy hat. My talents are an instinct for making cheese and not running around panicking when things go wrong. Oh, and I’ve got a toad.

Tiffany Aching decides that she wants to be a witch. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she DECIDES to be a witch. Partly it’s because she doesn’t understand why witches in all the fairy tales are called wicked: “where’s the evidence?” as she puts it. And partly it’s because all the stories that she’s read only happen to “blond people with blue eyes and the redheads with green eyes,” with “no adventures for people who had brown eyes and brown hair” like Tiffany. And then there’s what happens to a woman who people thought was a witch (she was an old woman who was thrown out of her house at the peak of winter which she did not survive).

Terry Pratchett has created a remarkable little girl, one who I suspect may well become one of my all time favorite heroines.

Tiffany is a little girl who THINKS. She sees the logical inconsistency in someone who could “magic away a boy and a whole horse” being unable to “magic away the men who came for her.” She has a sense of quietness about her which is a thing of ferocity. And she engages with the world, and thinks about it in ways that most people usually don’t. And through it all she sounds and feels like a nine-year old, though a highly unusual nine-year-old.

the wee free men terry pratchettI’m in love with the way Pratchett weaves little bits of philosophy and life-thoughts through the length and breadth of his story (the whole “Second Thoughts” bit reminded me of how watching your thoughts is an actual method taught in some of the meditation practices). Here’s one conclusion that Tiffany keeps circling back to that I think is true for life in general:

That was how it worked. No magic at all. But that time it had been magic. And it didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.

Oh, and I definitely love this definition of magic that is offered in the story:

“Ah weel,” said Rob Anybody. “What’s magic, eh? Just wavin’ a stick an’ sayin’ a few wee magical words. An’ what’s so clever aboot that, eh? But lookin’ at things, really lookin’ at ‘em, and then workin’ ‘em oout, now, that’s a real skill.”

“Aye, it is,” said William the gonnagle, to Tiffany’s surprise. “Ye used yer eyes and used yer heid. That’s what a real hag does. The magicking is just there for advertisin’.”

Then there’s the way silence, and listening is brought up over and again. Oh, I love the way silence is celebrated in this story, and the way its depths are plumbed, and the way it’s shown to be a thing of such SOLIDITY and STRENGTH in this book. From one of my many favorite parts of this book (I could probably quote the whole of it):

She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards and listen to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up onto the downs somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t enough time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

There is such humor in this book, a lot of it of the laugh-out-loud variety, especially when the Nac Mac Feegle aka the “Wee Free Men” who are incidentally about six inches high, call humans “bigjobs,” and Tiffany their “hag,” come into the picture. There’s also a gentle subversion of what is accepted as the normal—be it in the real world or in the fictional world—that goes on in the story. And so here is a bit that had me chuckling:

“Anyway, you don’t have to have a witch ancestor to be a witch. It helps, of course, because of heredity.”

“You mean like having talents?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her brow.

“Partly, I suppose,” said Miss Tick. “But I was thinking of pointy hats, for example. If you had a godmother who can pass on her pointy hat to you, that saves a great deal of expense. They are incredibly hard to come by, especially ones strong enough to withstand falling farmhouses.”

The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. He likes scrambling things up, and putting them together in ways that they are generally not. He plays ever so slightly with the way the “ordinary” works to stretch it into the extra-ordinary.

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam. . .

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. “Onomatopoeic,” she’d discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like cuckoo. But she thought there should be a word meaning a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn’t, but would if it did.

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go glint! And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like glitterglitter. Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And glisten was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

I am so, so glad that Ana’s review made me seek these books out.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn (A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle) by Dana Simpson

I’m not sure how to talk sensibly or intelligently about Phoebe and Her Unicorn (A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle). How about if I say that I want to put it in the hands of all the little girls and the little boys that I know?

The introduction to Phoebe and Her Unicorn compares it to Calvin and Hobbes and I say Yes! to that. BUT Dana Simpson’s comic is also very much its own animal. (HAHAHA. Its own animal—get it?) Phoebe finds Marigold Heavenly Nostrils while skipping a stone in a pond. When granted a wish by Marigold, she wishes for Marigold to be her best friend.

Marigold is a superior sort of being (some people may call her vain but that’s just being uncouth). She’s magnificent at squashing any and all of Phoebe’s schemes that venture into pretentiousness and the I’m-getting-too-big-for-my-britches territory.

marigold roasting phoebe phoebe and her unicorn

Phoebe is no less of a match for this “heavenly” creature, quick and sure-footed as she is at taking Marigold down a peg or two.

phoebe taking marigold a peg down phoebe and her unicorn

Human and Unicorn have the usual adventures—from pillow fighting to fighting crime as Claustrophoebea, the Super Hero and Pointyhead, the Super Villain—and through it all they continue to roast each other in the best of manners in much the same fashion as all other budding best friends’ duos have through history!

roast phoebe and her unicorn

Exuberance is the word I want to use for this book. It truly does sparkle (even though its Unicorn doesn’t). That’s partly due to the artwork especially Phoebe whose face expresses each emotion with such wholeheartedness and facility that the character just leaps off the page and jumps straight into your heart.

And partly it’s because of Phoebe’s delightful weirdness, and Marigold’s unshakeable conviction in her own splendor. The duo are the perfect foil for each other and together strike the right balance.

perfect foil phoebe and her unicorn

I just love how the humor in this book is all sorts of funny without resorting to any kind of meanness.

umm phoebe and her unicorn

My very first comic book/graphic novel as an adult and it couldn’t have been more perfect!

human-unicorn

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

I agree with JennyThe Lives of Christopher Chant is waaayyy more fun than Charmed Life. It has tons more plot, and the almost constant presence of a kick-ass goddess (who seems to be Indian from the sounds of it!) forms a nice counterweight to the boy magician. Plus, the world building is much bigger in scope. Literally. As gets revealed in this book, there are 12 series of worlds in the Chrestomanci series. The way to reach these worlds is through the appropriately named The Place Between, also known as The World Edge which is “like a leftover piece of world.”

So, I’m trying to figure out why I enjoy reading Diana Wynne Jones so much. Part of it is that reading her stories feels like I’m watching a play—so vivid are her characters, and the world she conjures that I’m plunged into her universe straightaway.

the-lives-of-christopher-chantShe also seems to get kids really right. Christopher’s anxieties ring true, as does his fascination with cricket, or the way he wants to please his uncle—the one adult who takes an interest in him, or the way his conscience pricks him about not fulfilling his bargain with the goddess.

Speaking of Christopher’s anxieties, I have to share this bit that seems to me such a good example of Wynne Jones’s perspicacity:

He understood that Mama cared very urgently about his future. He knew he was going to have to enter Society with the best people. But the only Society he had heard of was the Aid the Heathen Society that he had to give a penny to every Sunday in church, and he thought Mama meant that.

Christopher made careful inquiries from the nursery maid with big feet. She told him Heathens were savages who ate people. Missionaries were the best people, and they were the ones Heathens ate. Christopher saw that he was going to be a missionary when he grew up. He found Mama’s talk increasingly alarming. He wished she had chosen another career for him.

This mash-up of stray strands of thoughts into a worrisome whole is decidedly hilarious (and rings painfully true!). The book is filled with such episodes of situation comedy.

Here’s another bit that tickled me, and struck me as wholly British in its wryness.

“No, Christopher,” Papa panted sternly, looking strange and most undignified, with his coat flapping and his hair blowing in all directions. “A gentleman never works magic against a woman, particularly his own mama.”

Gentlemen, it seemed to Christopher, made things unreasonably difficult for themesleves in that case.

And then there’s the details that Jones fills her stories up with (something that I mentioned in my review about Charmed Life as well). There’s an “ordinariness” about these details—these descriptions—that makes them just so delightful to read about. And so plausible! As if, (for example), it would be the most natural thing in the world for a couch to scoot over if it’s feeling a little moody. The day-to-day-ness of her magic is charming in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced before. Compared to Diana Wynne Jones, Harry Potter’s world feels a bit fanciful!

I’ll end with this nice piece of description of how Christopher dashes about (well figuratively speaking that is) to ready a room for a girl:

Christopher summoned fire for [the room], almost in too much of a hurry to notice he had got it right for once. He remembered a saucepan and an old kettle by the stables and fetched those. A bucket of water he brought from the pump by the kitchen door. What else? Milk for the kitten. . . . Teapot, tea—he had no idea where those came from, and did [she] drink tea? . . . What then? Oh cup, saucer, plates. He fetched the ones out of the grand cabinet in the dining room. They were quite pretty. She would like those. Then spoon, knife, fork. . . . Christopher fetched what must have been the whole kitchen cutlery drawer with a crash, sorted hastily through it and sent it back.

Books! Ba-ba-loo-ba-la, BOOKS!

In case you guys were wondering about my disappearing act—it’s been a busy past month at our household, what with cousins coming over from half-way across the world from Singapore, and then our own two week trip to London which was VERY productive because. . .

I GOT ME SOME BOOKS!

Behold all the books I brought back with me:

Persephone Books

Because, of course, I had to visit Persephone Books.

thumb_IMG_0320_1024

And also the venerable Hatchard’s!

Hatchard's

Books

I bought the one at the top of this pile as a joke for husband. It’s called Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, and is ahem, as you can imagine, a list of the covent garden ladies in whose company the gents could find some, ahem, pleasure. Here’s my current favorite lady:

Miss Godf-y, No. 22, Upper Newman-street

If parts can conquer great and small,
Sure—and Godf-y—must needs do all.

This lady is a kind of boatswain in her way, and when she speaks, every word is uttered with a thundering and vociferous tone. She is a fine lively little girl, about 22, very fond of dancing, has dark eyes, and hair, well shaped, and an exceeding good bed-fellow, will take brandy with any one, or drink and swear, and though but little, will fight a good battle. We apprehend this lady would be an extraordinary companion for an officer in the army, as she might save him the trouble of giving the word of command.

She resides in the first floor.

I know, I know. I should be horrified. And outraged. But right now, I’m only capable of gurgles of laughter!

I was also very pleased to find an omnibus of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, a collection of stories set in the small village of Malgudi, some of which I remember reading and enjoying hugely as a kid!

And alas, my library does not carry The Ruby In The Smoke, so I knew I was going to buy that at some point.

Dog Ears is a children’s book that I searched for high and low in the U.S. but couldn’t find! The wonderful nobodyjones characterized it as Blytonian so of course I had to try it out! Also, can I just say how RELIEVED I was to find Enid Blytons stacked up and down all over London’s bookstores? Their absolute absence in the U.S. had me start questioning if they were a figment of my imagination!

Then there’s Elizabeth Goudge whom I remembered being a children’s author though I have no recollection which book of hers I read. This one though, The Dean’s Watch, seems like a grown-up book with an interesting enough story. Oh, and it was gifted to someone in 1960!

Reader, I have discovered the pleasure of second-hand bookstores! And London simply BRIMS with them. The whole of Charing Cross Street is lined with one second hand bookshop after the next. It has made me want to seek out some here in my own city too!

Rose Macaulay, and Angela Thirkell, I recall wanting to try out, but never succeeding in finding any of their work.

Homestead is the only one amongst this lot that I have absolutely no idea about except that it has a blurb, and a setting (Switzerland) that sounded intriguing.

Middlemarch

And then there’s Middlemarch. I have been meaning to get around to reading it and I just could not resist this gorgeous edition.

Have you guys read any of these books? I’d love to know what you thought!

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life

The first thing that I love about a Diana Wynne Jones story is this feeling of being immediately sucked into another world as soon as I start reading. She plunges one directly into a scene with characters (metaphorically) flailing their arms around, and talking to each other, and going somewhere, and this sense of motion and activity immediately drops me into another world. She dispenses with descriptions for outright action. Or at least that’s what I felt as Charmed Life opens.

Charmed Life is about a boy who’s forlorn and clings to his sister, Gwendolen, even though it’s obvious that his sister could not care two hoots about him. One could tell right from the beginning the way this would all turn out though I do so wish that Gwendolen hadn’t turned out to be such a witch! And I’m not using witch in a magical sense here! Why couldn’t DWJ have endowed Gwendolen with any redeeming characteristics? Or rather why was Gwendolen’s naked ambition portrayed as being all witchly? And again I don’t mean that in a magical way!

Charmed_Life Diana Wynne JonesOk, I understand that what she was doing was BAD but I’d sure have liked to understand more of where she was coming from, you know? (though Janet does make up for some of it. Oh, and also the fact that Gwendolen seems to have gotten the happy ending that she would have wished for).

But anyway even though one could sense the direction in which the wind was blowing it was still SO MUCH FUN TO READ IT ALL!

And that brings me to what I’m beginning to think is a Diana Wynne Jones specialty. She has this way of EXCELING at the details that make up the bulk of a thing. They’re just so INTERESTING to read about! For instance, in Charmed Life Gwendolen makes all the surrounding trees uproot themselves from their regular spots and come squash themselves right next to the house. And well the way DWJ goes about describing it is just so vivid and fun:

Feeling tired and Mondayish, Cat dragged himself out of bed and found he could not see out of the windows. Each window was a dark crisscross of branches and leaves—green leaves, bluish cedar sprays, pine needles, and leaves just turning yellow and brown. One window had a rose pressed against it. And there were bunches of grapes squashed on both of the others. And behind them, it looked as if there was a mile-thick forest. “Good Lord!” he said.

“You may well look!” said Mary. “That sister of yours has fetched every tree in the grounds and stood them as close as they can get to the Castle.”

I think FUN is the word I would associate the most with Diana Wynne Jones. It was palpable in Howl’s Moving Castle and Castles in the Air too (the two other DWJ books that I’ve read).

I’m already thinking of her as a comfort read, and for sure, for sure, for sure, my children are going to have DWJ thrust into their hands at some point or the other! I’m very much looking forward to making my way through all of her books.

With Charmed Life there were ample of instances where I wanted to shake Cat (isn’t that an awesome name for a boy?) and tell him to wake up to the reality of what was going on but I guess a boy’s got to do what a boy’s got to do and follow his own meandering path, and take his own roundabout way, till he reaches the point where he decides that enough is enough.

Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

He just hoped she would not reward him by making gingerbread men. As a rule, gingerbread men were fun. They leaped up off the plate when you tried to eat them, so that when you finally caught them you felt quite justified in eating them. It was a fair fight, and some got away. But Mrs. Sharp’s gingerbread men never did that. They simply lay, feebly waving their arms, and Cat never had the heart to eat them.

Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse

I came across Merrie Heskell’s The Princess Curse on LizMc2’s blog. Her description of the book as “a middle grade fantasy . . . involv[ing] a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man” reeled me right in!

The story’s a retake on “The 12 Dancing Princesses” fairytale. I’m not very familiar with the original tale except for the knowledge that the titular princesses are cursed to dance the night away. Thankfully, my lack of knowledge of the original had no bearing on my enjoyment of The Princess Curse which does have enough loose ends for there to be a sequel!

Reveka, the 13-year-old heroine, is exactly the kind of 13-year-old girl that I love to read about: smart (and self-aware enough to know that she’s smart), spunky, and scheming. She also has a limited store of patience, is full of confidence that borders on cockiness, and usually acts like an express train going on full steam—in other words, she reads and feels like a teenager. She dreams of having a herbary, and being “the herbalist for an entire abbey” because as she puts it:

[C]onvent was the best choice for me. A place where I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs. I didn’t really care for all the silence and singing and obedience—but my own herbary!

See what I mean about being smart and scheming? I want to be friends with this girl!

Also, the rich and varied description of all the herbs made me want to start a herb garden of my own! Immediately!

Reveka lives and works as an apprentice-herbalist at a castle with 12 princesses who mysteriously disappear each night. Attempts to investigate their whereabouts have resulted in either the said investigator disappearing completely or being put into a slumber from which nobody wakes up. There’s a prize for “breaking the curse” which our girl has her eyes on.

I love how we can see Reveka’s evolution as a character even in something as simple as her desire to break the curse: while money is the reason that Reveka becomes interested in the curse, very soon it takes on more personal tones as her co-apprentice gets caught in the curse’s tentacles.

The force at the center of the curse aka “the villain” is fleshed out and multidimensional rather than being rendered in a single color (in that it reminded me of another “evil villain” whose evilness had more to it than appeared on the surface). Same goes for Haskell’s description of the “Underworld” which is neither “dead” nor simple.

Reveka also has a complex relationship with her father. I don’t think I’ve seen father-daughter relationships as one of the main foci of a YA story and I really like that Haskell weaves this into her narrative: a pivotal point in the story hinges on Reveka’s love for her father. Of course, neither Reveka, nor her father, are very good at expressing their love for each other.

My one quibble with the book is the resolution of the curse and Reveka’s final decision which seemed a little too fatalistic, and too abrupt, and also a little troubling. I understand it’s the author’s prerogative to build her world the way she/he deems it fit but I find it troubling that [SPOILER ALERT—HIGHLIGHT TO READ FURTHER] the survival of the underworld hinged on Reveka’s acceptance of herself as a bride to Dragos. Till that point, I seriously thought that our whiz-kid would find a herb-based solution while her romance with Dragos would proceed on its own pace without there being a forcing of hands, so to say.

Despite the quibble, I think it’s a story worth reading. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

I jumped when the door banged open and Pa’s voice asked, “Have you seen Mihas? He hasn’t been around all day.”

“No, I haven’t seen your apprentice.” Brother Cosmin answered.

“Wait—where’s Reveka? Did she go off with him?”

“Go off with him?” Brother Cosmin repeated, sounding surprised.

Pa’s voice was grim. “He’s got something of a crush on her.”

I buried my face in my hands. Why did Pa know this?

“Why would you think that means she’d go off with him?” Brother Cosmin asked.

A good question, Brother Cosmin! Why would Pa think that I’d be interested in a cowherd’s stupid crush and take up a dalliance with the boy—to the point of neglecting my work and letting Mihas neglect his? . . .

“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Brother Cosmin said. “She’s about as interested in Mihas as she is in my donkey. Which is to say she might stoop to giving him mashed juniper berries for his colic, but that’s about all the notice she pays either of them.”

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle

I’ve had a really busy fall with my mum visiting and us gadding all over the city! But I am back now! And I want to start off with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

I’ve only ever heard good things about her books and so it was with trepidation—and also delight: because yay! Oyster had it! Has the next in the series too! Also, I love Oyster! (the book subscription service. Not the seashell animal. In case you were wondering)—that I approached the story. BUT I thoroughly enjoyed it! I wouldn’t call it blew-my-socks-off spectacular but I suspect that the book and perhaps Miss Jones in general might become one of my go-to comfort-read authors.

Here’s a synopsis of the story:

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I loved Sophie. And the Wizard Howl. And Calcifer (the fire demon). And Sophie’s two sisters. And Fanny. And the king (who makes an appearance for just one chapter). And Mrs. Fairfax. And the [spoiler alert for someone who hasn’t read the book! Highlight it] hybrid Suliman-Prince Justin-Scarecrow-Skull-head. And Michael. Ok, I guess it’s fair to say that I quite enjoyed everyone who makes an appearance in the story.

Diana Wynne Jones writes characters who are just so. . . I want to say delightful but I don’t mean that in a twee sense. There’s a solidity to them—she makes them look like real people with both things to admire about and things which makes them appear incredibly frail. The king’s description was one that really stuck out for me:

And there was the King . . . [T]rue, he sat with one leg thrust out in a kingly sort of manner, and he was handsome in a plump, slightly vague way, but to Sophie he seemed quite youthful and just a touch too proud of being a king. She felt he ought, with that face, to have been more unsure of himself.

And then I loved the fact that Sophie is a 90 year old for most of the story (thought she still has to deal with the doubts that plagued her as a 17 year old). The early chapters in which she’s trying to settle in at the castle have this marvelous energy (Literally. She’s dusting and cleaning her way through all of it) that was just such fun to read (and was also laugh out loud hilarious at times):

In the days that followed, Sophie cleaned her way remorselessly through the castle. She really enjoyed herself. Telling herself she was looking for clues, she washed the window, she cleaned the oozing sink, and she made Michael clear everything off the workbench and the shelves so that she could scrub them. She had everything out of the cupboards and down from the beams and cleaned those too. The human skull, she fancied, began to look as long-suffering as Michael. It had been moved so often.

The world-building is wrought finely and with a light hand. It is integral to the story but does not overshadow the characters—a characteristic that I liked very much. Neither the magical world, nor the magic within it offers a solution for the problems our young (and not so young) hero and heroine have to face. Both Howl and Sophie have to step up and face their fears to move on.

And speaking of the world that our characters inhabit, Market Chipping felt like a quaint English village. And the use of present world Wales was, I thought, a stroke of genius! (and that reminds me—I would love a book on Wizard Sulaiman! How did he end up finding this world? I can imagine it being easier for Howl after he finds it first!)

Last but not the least I love a romance with absolutely no bells and whistles. While Howl’s Moving Castle in no way qualifies as a romance as per the definition of the genre I did so enjoy watching Sophie poke at Howl and Howl poke right back at Sophie! More of such stories with nothing to signal that a romance is unfolding right under the reader’s nose would be very welcome!