Sunday, March 26, 2017

#DWJMarch : The Pinhoe Egg

The Pinhoe Egg is simply Diana Wynne Jones at her best. This final Chrestomanci book has a stellar cast of heroes, animals, and villains. It takes us out of Chrestomanci Castle and down into the surrounding villages, exactly where those who live there don't want "The Big Man" and his family to be. The villages are mostly populated by magical families of long-standing, the Pinhoes and the Farleighs, and they have a war brewing between them. This is because the head of the Pinhoe family has gone a bit mad and has begun using her power against her friends and enemies alike. The best hope of stopping her comes from her grandchildren, Marianne and Joe, but their lives soon become entangled with those of the Castle kids and everyone has to figure out what they are best at before they can help others.

I honestly got teary a couple of times while reading this one because it is just so wonderful. Of all of DWJ's many worlds, this is the one I would want to live in ... preferably as Marianne. I love the animals (griffins! unicorns! horses! cats!), the very sweet Jason/Irene story, the parallels between Cat and Marianne, the partnership of Joe and Roger, even the adventures of Chrestomanci himself. And I love that Cat is still trying to recover from the damage that his sister did to him in Charmed Life and trust himself and others. This is probably-definitely on my top five DWJ books of ever list.

Question of the Day: There are three different kinds of magic in this story: enchanter magic, dwimmer (natural magic), and the hybrid tech-magic that Joe uses. Which kind of magic would you most like to have?

My answer? If you can't tell from many of my questions this month, I really, really, really wish I could live in a world with magic! As for which kind, I think it would be the strong dwimmer that Cat has. I have a pretty brown thumb so the ability to make things grow and thrive seems like magic to me even coming from those who can do that in our world. The connection to animals like Syracuse would be amazing too. Sigh.

Dreaming a beautiful dream,

p.s. Don't miss Deborah O'Carroll's humorous How to Read a Diana Wynne Jones Book post!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#MarchMagics : Soul Music

It seemed almost predestined that I would be reading Soul Music when the inestimable Chuck Berry died last week. This story is an homage to the power and the eternal nature of rock and roll. It is also a study of humanity and fate. Death has been overwhelmed by an expected but unavoidable loss and he goes in search of oblivion, leaving his job to be automatically filled by his sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Susan. One of Susan's first empty hourglasses belongs to Imp y Celyn, a young musician. But, just as she prepares to break the rules and save his life based on a strange feeling of familiarity, she is preempted by a chord. The music instead saves him and takes over his life.

This is one of those books that has SO many references that it is impossible to catch all of them on the first or even the second read. Even the smallest throwaway phrase can be a joke or a play on words. The big ideas though are easy to catch. The music of the universe began with the big bang and rock and roll has the power to change the world. Also, a human would not make a successful Grim Reaper because it's a job that has to be done without emotion, no matter what ... usually. I loved all of the side characters, even C.M.O.T. Dibbler and Ande Supporting Bands. This is a good, solid book that must have taken ages to put together so seamlessly.

Question of the Day: In this story, almost everyone who hears the Music With Rocks In has an urge to play it or worship at its altar. Did you ever dream of a rock and roll lifestyle? What is your musical life story?

My answer? As a kid, I sang in the church choir and in one or two school musicals, played the trumpet for eight years, and studied classical piano for a bit. None of those seemed particularly "cool" though and I always wanted to learn guitar. I tried one lesson but the guy was a 90's metal band type who taught songs instead of fundamentals and it just wasn't the right fit for me. After high school, my daydreams turned to waiting for the day that one of my favorite bands desperately needed me to be a backup singer in the middle of a show. But, no matter how many concerts I went to, they never felt the need to grab my hand, pull me up on the stage, and marvel at my skill. Sigh. Now I just crank up the car radio on sunny days and sing until I'm hoarse.

On the backbeat,

Friday, March 17, 2017

#DWJMarch : Conrad's Fate

Conrad's Fate takes place a few years after The Lives of Christopher Chant, while Gabriel de Witt is still Chrestomanci. It has a complicated plot but here are some of the elements:

A mountain setting in Series Seven (Chrestomanci's world is in Series Twelve)
A kid, Conrad Tesdinic, with bad karma, a flaky mom, a runaway sister, and a controlling uncle
A ridiculously big mansion (Stallery)
A teenaged stowaway, Christopher Chant, from another series
A missing enchantress (Millie)
A grumpy butler
A mysterious "pulling of the possibilities" -- using magic to affect stock markets and such
And ... a raucous troupe of actors

I always forget that Conrad's Fate is my second favorite Chrestomanci story until the next time I binge read it and find myself hating that it's over far too soon. I adore the friendship of Conrad and Christopher, the upstairs/downstairs world of Stallery, and the mysteries of the probabilities and Millie. I also love the fact that DWJ chose to write this book in the first person. She didn't do that very often (The Spellcoats might be the only other one) and it's interesting to have the story from the point of view of a kid who is being manipulated. This book definitely needs to be read after The Lives of Christopher Chant because it has spoilers for that one but could be your second Chrestomanci read.

Question of the Day: If you were to discover a family secret, would you rather it be: a noble title, money, or magic?

My answer? Magic. I have been trying for decades to activate my secret magical abilities and I'll keep trying for decades more. :)

Reveling in the possibilities,

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#MarchMagics : Reaper Man

Reaper Man is the story of what happens to Discworld (and to Death himself) when Death is "fired" for developing a sense of self. In Ankh-Morpork, the life forces of everything that should have naturally transitioned start backing up and some souls that should have passed are stuck. Oh, and Death heads to a farm in the country to put his stellar scything skills to use.

This is a book that I liked the first time I read it but didn't love. I thought the two plot lines weren't equally compelling. That definitely changed this time through. I loved Windle Poons, the zombie wizard, and his motley band of undead compatriots. I also loved the transformation of Death into Bill Door. The moment when he told Miss Flitworth that he was afraid to die was heartbreaking. There were so many funny and bittersweet moments in this story that I was a bit disappointed when everything resolved. Even the strange snow globe/trolley/mall plot was amusing.

Question of the Day: Some of the extra life force in Ankh-Morpork causes head-wizard Archchancellor Ridcully's swears to be personified. They remain in a little swarm above his head and perched on his hat.
The word he uttered was unfamiliar to those wizards who had not had his robust country upbringing and knew nothing of the finer points of animal husbandry. But it  plopped into existence a few inches from his face; it was fat, round, black and glossy, with horrible eyebrows  It blew him an insectile raspberry and flew up to join the little swarm of curses.
 If your favorite swear word/phrase turned into a creature, what would it look like?

My answer? My swear would be slim and white with piercing acid green eyes and terrible teeth and claws and would be shaped a bit like a mink stole, always resting on my shoulders. I'm pretty sure it would growl quietly at just about anyone, friend or foe, that came near me.

Contemplating the possibilities of life,

Friday, March 10, 2017

#DWJMarch : The Lives of Christopher Chant

The second Chrestomanci book, The Lives of Christopher Chant, happens about twenty-five years before the first one. It has another nine-lived enchanter, a different Chrestomanci, travel to the related worlds, lots of death, and, best of all, Throgmorten, one of the Asheth Temple cats!

This is a well-crafted story that has so many twists and reveals that it's a joy to explore. The last time I read it, I was apparently annoyed by Christopher but now had no problem with him. I think that his moodiness and mine must have aligned this time. Instead of being annoyed, I saw a kid that is being pulled in many different directions by family and obligation and is expected to do great things but at the same time is given very little reward or credit. I can understand why he would be so frustrated! The moment that his strength is acknowledged and respected, he lives up to it and becomes a better person.

Question of the Day: When The Living Asheth gets to World Twelve-A, she needs a new name so that she can hide from The Arm of Asheth. She chooses Millie because of the boarding school books that she adored from Christopher's world. If you needed a new name, which bookish moniker would you choose?

My answer: I think I might choose Celia Bowen (from The Night Circus) but would be tempted to choose Sophie Hatter (Howl's Moving Castle). My favorite fictional name is Thursday Next but I'm assuming that would draw too much attention and, if I've had to change my name, I'm probably trying to lay low.

Jenny posted about this book earlier this week so head over there for more TLoCC love! Also, she suggests reading it first if you haven't read any of the Chrestomanci books yet and I agree.

Contemplating aliases,

Monday, March 6, 2017

#MarchMagics : Mort

Mort was the fourth Discworld book written, the second published in 1987, and the first to have Death as a main character. The long and short of this one is that gawky, brainy but spacey teen Mortimer (Mort) isn't wanted around his family vineyard because of his tendency to ruin things so his dad and uncle decide he should find an apprenticeship. That job ends up being with the one and only Death. Why Death has decided to take an apprentice when he has the job for, well, life is unknown but the fact that he has a marriageable, adopted human daughter might be part of it.

This is actually one of the stranger Discworld books that I've read. Death takes an apprentice, the apprentice makes a major mistake, Death doesn't seem to notice and instead begins trying to more fully understand human emotion and purpose. He also goes fishing. In the meantime, as apprentice Mort tries to repair his mistake, he begins losing his humanity. And the ending is so fast and unexplained that it even perplexes the characters. I like some of the ideas explored in this book and the characters themselves but, overall, it's a tough one to love, even on this second reading. (I do love this amazing Gollancz cover, though!)

Question of the Day: Death has a soft spot for Discworld's kittens and cats. If you were not fully of this (our) world, what would be the thing that would attract/intrigue/charm you the most?

My answer? I think it would also be the animals. The variety, the color, the adaptations. It was nice to see Death get so angry when he found a sack of drowned kittens. When I wasn't doing whatever I needed to be doing in my regular existence, I would probably be down here watching puffin parties or elephant families or whale migrations.

Also exploring humanity,

Friday, March 3, 2017

#DWJMarch : Charmed Life

Charmed Life! Let me tell you a little about it. There's this kiddo named Cat (Eric, really) Chant and he and his sister, Gwendolen, have been newly orphaned by a boat accident. They live for a bit with a kindly witch where Gwendolen gets magic lessons and Cat gets violin lessons -- until his sister changes his violin into a cat. Everything seems okay until Gwendolen and her tutor concoct a mysterious scheme, of which one of the steps is to get the kids living with their parents' cousin, the current Chrestomanci. They don't really know who he is or what he does but head off to his castle anyway, taking nothing with them but Gwendolen's secrets.

Many will see this story as a cautionary tale -- either about choosing carefully whom you trust or about telling the truth and not holding things back. If Cat had done any of these things, he wouldn't have already (unknowingly) lost some of his nine lives. I also think it's a tale about finding your place and your talents and embracing them. If only we all had the chance of our place being Chrestomanci Castle!

And, since we are focusing on lives this month ...

Question of the Day: The reason an enchanter has nine lives is that he has no counterparts that existed or survived in the eight related worlds. Would you rather have nine lives all to yourself or eight living counterparts in the other worlds?

My answer? The thought that I would have to die some sort of death nine times before leaving the world is actually a bit stressful. Knowing that the ones who are more or less "me" in the other worlds are survivors in a variety of conditions would actually be reassuring. But, the magic ... hmm ...

Living one non-magical life,

Thursday, March 2, 2017

#DWJMarch Guest Post: Three DWJ Books You Need to Read Right Now

Today, I'm pleased to share with you a guest post from Lory of The Emerald City Book Review, host of the Witch Week event in October/November and a true fan of both Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett. She is here to remind us of the power of fiction and fantasy. Thank you, Lory!

Three DWJ Books You Need to Read Right Now

In an age of conflict, confusion, and uncertainty, it’s natural to reach for facts and verifiable truths to give a sense of firm ground. We might be forgiven for setting aside fantasy literature as a form of escapism, fine for comfort reading but basically irrelevant to the tasks that face us in the “real” world. An event like March Magics — which celebrates master fantasy authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett — might be seen as a fluffy distraction from the more important tasks on which we ought to be spending our time.

I feel that this would be a huge mistake. Our current crises stem from a failure of the imagination, which alone can bridge the gap between self and other and enable us to work out of love and empathy rather than narrow self-interest. Only through the imagination can we first conceive and then create a better future. And while undisciplined, wild fantasizing can lead us astray, it’s the truths of the imagination that can guide us through a world that seems to be splitting into a million alternative realities.

All fiction exercises our imagination, but in fantasy this aspect is brought to the fore, is made into the very substance of the story itself. Maybe that’s why fantasy has long gotten little respect in a society that primarily values materialistic success, and that in turn may be why we now seem so little versed in the ability to see through the delusions that are flying so freely.

Whatever the reason, it’s all the more reason to read and learn from the works of these two authors right now, and to share them with others in your life. I have the very great pleasure of reading out loud every night to my ten-year-old son, and I’m delighted that he’s decided that Diana Wynne Jones is one of his favorite authors. As we work our way through her books, I’m struck by how much they offer as a counterbalance to the negative forces at work today.

With these stories as part of his being, I have hope that my son’s imagination will grow strong and healthy to meet the enormous challenges in store for the next generations. And I myself appreciate them as nourishment for my own fight to preserve a world that he can grow up in.

Here are three books that strike me as particularly relevant at the moment. As you read your way through this month, I hope that you will share your own thoughts and insights with us.

Witch Week by Kecky
Witch Week

Witch Week is part of the “Chrestomanci” sequence, which Kristen has chosen to focus on this year. Thus it features the idea of alternative worlds, split off from decisive moments in history, which forms the basis of that set of books. It also features an appearance by Chrestomanci (Christopher Chant), though not at such length as in some of the other titles in the series.

But none of this is apparent at the start. Instead, what we are presented with at first is a “realistic” setting: a boarding school with a rather ordinary population of cliquish students, bullies, loners, and clueless teachers. However, it soon becomes clear that there is one very important difference from our world ­— here, witchcraft is both real and illegal, punishable by death.

The descriptions of witch hunts and burnings, while not emphasized to the point of horror, are quite chilling for those of us who know how easily our society can turn on elements found to be unacceptable. This is something that we must be vigilant about today. It also becomes clear how the repression of power produces negatively charged energy that will tend to explode if not moved into more positive channels. At the end this is accomplished through the very power of imagination and storytelling that I mentioned at the start of this post, showing how these essential human abilities can truly change the world.

I wrote at more length about Witch Week here, and even named a blog event after it. It’s a book that I’ve read many times but that always makes me think, never more so than now.

Power of Three

This is another book I’ve read many times and even blogged about twice; here is my original review, and here is the guest post that Kristen wrote at my request for the first Witch Week event. It’s the book I’m reading right now to my son, and as we go deeper into the world of the three groups living on the Moor — the pale, shape-shifting Dorig, the loud, clumsy Giants, and the mound-dwellers who define themselves as the only real “people” — he already wants to know: do they become friends?

I’m not telling him, but I can see he’s already been set up by other reading to expect that initial conflicts and misunderstandings have the potential to be transcended and transformed, and that this is a common resolution in fiction. The real world is unfortunately not so neatly and easily managed, and such a resolution can seem impossibly far away — yet I believe this hope is important to hang on to. With a mere shift in perspective, the utterly alien Other may become a friend, may be shown indeed to be an essential part of the whole framework of our life.

Making that shift involves a sacrifice, which again can feel impossible when we think it needs to come from the outside. But inner strength may accomplish what outer force cannot. Within its exciting and never didactic narrative, I find Power of Three to embody one of most important messages we can give a child today, one that we need to constantly remind ourselves of in adulthood.

Joris, Jamie, and Helen by Chira Art
The Homeward Bounders

This standalone novel, like the Chrestomanci books, plays with the idea of a multiplicity of worlds, but adds the element of Them, mysterious figures who play with events and people in the various worlds as if they were giant boards and game pieces. Most people are unaware of this activity, but those who do see Them and perceive what They are doing become “discards,” wanderers who cannot enter play in any world. Jamie, a boy from our world, becomes one of these, and as we follow his journeys we learn more about his seemingly inescapable situation, and the narrow margin of possibility that might lead to freedom for him and others.

As we start to wake up to some of the hidden forces and entities that are trying to play games with our lives, using us as if we were mere objects, this story feels ever less fantastic. Once we become aware of such activity it can be paralyzing and make us feel hopeless. Finding hope in a hopeless situation is part of what drives the narrative in The Homeward Bounders, as in our own lives — but ironically, hope turns out to have another side. It can help us move forward, but it can also keep us back. Jamie must find a way to use this paradoxical truth to break the hold of Them over the worlds.

Like Power of Three (and also Witch Week, come to think of it), this book ends with a sacrifice. It’s a sobering conclusion, showing us the terrible cost of confronting and counteracting the ruling powers. And yet, it must be done, as Jamie bravely acknowledges. As we move beyond the realm of hope, may we find our own strength and courage to enable us to do what must be done, in the service of all worlds and all people who wish to become truly free.