In Brief: Recently Read (Neels, Pratchett, Wynne Jones)

betty-neels-vicars-daughterThe Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels: I take my time with a Betty Neels story, and I like taking my time with a Betty Neels story. In no rush to reach the end, I savor all the details that I know for sure I will encounter in one of Neels’s story. This one was no different. In fact, it was a pleasant revelation of sorts! A few pages into the story, it hit me that I’d read this one years ago, and disdained its nothing-happens-in-it-ness. I also recall feeling disgusted at the sheer stupidity of its heroine. What a pleasant surprise to find that it was exactly its quietness that made me enjoy the story this time around. And what I’d labeled as Margo’s stupidity, now came across as an endearing quality. Isn’t it fun, and funny, how a few years, and some living of life changes the way we perceive a thing? Have you had any reading experience where you’ve swung from one side of the pendulum to another? (Or perhaps just drifted along the spectrum?)

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett: Need I mention that I loved it? If there were such a thing as a spirit author, I think Terry Pratchett would be mine. I find myself highlighting/marking reams and reams in any Pratchett story I read. He’s thought-provoking, funny (even when things are NOT fun!), and generally some flavor of what I’ve experienced as “true” in my own life. I’ve already put another of his Discworld stories (Going Postal) on hold (I want there to be some passage of time between Wintersmith, and the next Tiffany Aching story that I read).

Tiffany grows up some more in Wintersmith. She (and we) experience the power of the stories we tell ourselves (and others), and come to inhabit, even more forcefully. There’s this whole “Boffo” plot in the story centered around this concept that I absolutely loved (and don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling it!)

It made sense. Of course it made sense. It was all Boffo! Every stick is a wand, every puddle is a crystal ball. No thing had any power that you didn’t put there. Shambles and skulls and wands were like . . . shovels and knives and spectacles. They were like . . . levers. With a lever you could lift a big rock, but the lever didn’t do any work.

Annagramma, who we met in A Hat Full of Sky, returns in Wintersmith.  She’s as unthinking, stupid, and annoying (Tiffany’s words!) as before but it’s interesting to note that in time of need she turns to Tiffany, and that Tiffany finds it in her to see to the truth of Annagramma—annoying but also perhaps a little frightened at her core, and deserving of Tiffany’s help. I’d call them frenemies, and I actually find their relationship oddly satisfying.

Annagramma does not suddenly transform into a kind soul herself as a result of all the kindness she receives. She continues to be annoying but her annoyingness does lose its edge. It becomes more rounded, and she herself becomes more bearable as we see this side of her where she’s willing to ask for help, and follow-through on what she receives. I really like how her character developed in Wintersmith, and I hope there’s more of her in the next two books!

Also, this!:

Tiffany had looked up “strumpet” in the Unexpurgated Dictionary, and found it meant “a woman who is no better than she should be” and “a lady of easy virtue.” This, she decided after some working out, meant that Mrs. Gytha Ogg, known as Nanny, was a very respectable person. She found virtue easy, for one thing. And if she was no better than she should be, then was just as good as she ought to be.

witch-weekWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones: So here’s the thing. I find Diana Wynne Jones intellectually satisfying but I find Pratchett intellectually AND emotionally satisfying. Does that make sense? Has anyone else experienced this with respect to these two authors (or maybe another pair)? Maybe you’ve felt the exact reverse of what I stated?

This is my sixth Wynne Jones (I’ve read the first two in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the first four in Chrestomanci), and I am very definitely going to be reading A LOT more of her books but I find myself contemplating this difference in the way I connect with Jones, and Pratchett.

I think part of it maybe because of the fact that in most of the books I’ve read so far (by Jones), I have NO IDEA what is going on till more than the half-way mark while I have some dim sense of the meaning underlying the gobbledygook in Pratchett. Then there’s the setting of Pratchett’s story vs. Wynne Jones’s. Tiffany Aching’s world is one of plains, and forests, while most of the Wynne Jones’s stories that I’ve read so far happens in buildings—schools, castles, houses. In and of itself, I wouldn’t find this particularly claustrophobic. But when I juxtapose it with Pratchett’s stories, I can’t help feeling slightly confined by them. There’s this sense of openness, this sense of an all-encompassing-ness that I feel in the Tiffany Aching stories, and that I find myself responding to which I don’t feel in Wynne Jones’s books. It is of course possible that this does indeed exist in Wynne Jones’s world too and is just something I haven’t tuned in to yet! Even in terms of their systems of magic, Wynne Jones’s just is (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) but I do so love the way it seems to work in Pratchett’s, or Tiffany Aching’s world at any rate. It’s this heady mix of a zen-like practise, common sense, the use of herbs and plants, and a leveraging of folklore that appeals to me! (And I am not even referring to what “witching” is really supposed to be about!)

What about Witch Week itself? It is so clever! (Also, the next paragraph MIGHT be considered spoiler-ish so consider yourself warned)

At its heart, this is a book about the ways in which we cope with being different. The characters in the book try to hide their differences, feel scared at being different, and do their best to blend in. And yet, they can’t help feeling pulled towards what they perceive as being different within them. I thought the twist in the end regarding this was simply spectacular. Turns out EVERYONE is different! I’m a little in awe of the way the story and the theme are so inseparable in this one!

I liked this but I enjoyed Conrad’s Fate and The Lives of Christopher Chant more. I’m also really looking forward to The Magicians of Caprona, and The Pinhoe Egg, both of whose summaries make me think that I’ll probably enjoy them! Fingers-crossed!

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.

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.

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!