Review: Changeover, Diana Wynne Jones (a book you will probably never read)

I get a lot of credit within my family for being a good gift-buyer. Which is fair. I am really good at gifts. However, I sometimes feel concerned that Legal Sister’s considerable gifting prowess is underappreciated. I am always trying to find Legal Sister presents that will blow her mindhole, and I never exactly feel like I’ve accomplished it. Meanwhile she gets me crazy good presents including, most recently, Diana Wynne Jones’s extremely rare, difficult-to-find, and now that I’m thinking about it I really hope Legal Sister did not spend a fortune acquiring it, first novel.

(You didn’t, did you, Legal Sister? No, right?)

Anyway! I got Changeover for Christmas, thanks Legal Sister!, and saved it for this very occasion because I knew-slash-hoped that Kristen was hosting DWJ March again. The edition I have includes a very sweet introduction by Diana Wynne Jones in which she explains that she wrote this book because she was living in a very cold, miserable house with a sick husband and sick kids and sick self, and Africa is hot and it cheered her up to write about a hot place; and also she wrote it because Britain was divesting itself at that time of all its colonies, and every other week they’d be declaring independence in yet another former British colony.

That…is fascinating to me. Mumsy reports that when Robert Kennedy was killed she was like, “Eh. Everyone gets assassinated.” Perhaps was it the same with the former British colonies in the same era? Where you’d just be like, “Eh. All the former colonies get independent.” Because, seriously, when the Sudan/South Sudan split happened, I was enthralled with the idea of a brand new entire country for the map, and sort of shocked that everybody else wasn’t comparably intrigued. (Like when Leap Year rolls around and everyone’s super blase about the fact that we get a free extra day’s worth of time.)

Oh, plus, she briefly mentions in this introduction — I’m sorry it’s taking me so long to get to the fireworks factory, but seriously this is so interesting and you probably want to know about it anyway, right? — that Ian Smith of Zimbabwe just declared independence there one day and Britain was like, “Hey, no, we haven’t agreed to that yet,” and Ian Smith was like, “Too bad! Unilateral Declaration of Independence!” and I loved how super-super-ballsy that was. But then I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that Ian Smith, eh, maybe he was not the greatest guy. He didn’t want the country to be governed by the will of the majority, which was black, because he was really into having it be governed by white people. This wasn’t racist! (he insisted) but was just because white people are smarter and better equipped to govern. Oh really, Ian Smith, really, IS THAT WHY?

(I know this is not History. It was all extremely recent. I just didn’t know about it before.)

Okay. Sorry. Digressions are over. Changeover is an excessively British book in the sense that it starts out with a small misunderstanding, and through many instances of incompetence, idiocy, timidity, insecurity, and intimidation on the part of every available character, it snowballs into a massive absurdist catastrophe. (See also: every episode ever of Fawlty Towers.) The misunderstanding occurs when a high-ranking colonial official mishears one of his aides and comes to believe that there is a person called Mark Changeover, and that person intends evil to the about-to-be-independent African country of Nmkwami.

(Nmkwami: Jokey spin-off word from numquam, Latin for never, as in, Neverland; as in, Diana Wynne Jones hated her whole life that year and was writing Changeover to escape from it.)

I don’t know what to say about this book, honestly, especially considering that you will probably never read it because it’s really rare and I own the only copy of it I’ve ever seen. It’s completely British. All the characters are running around the country in planes, cars, bikes, etc., bashing into each other literally and metaphorically, creating more and more ridiculous disturbance to themselves and those around them, until matters have reached such a fever pitch that the only available option is Revolution. There is some quiet commentary on racism and paternalism  and bureaucratic incompetence (very quiet indeed; the social criticism equivalent of scowling blackly at queue-jumpers), but really it’s mostly about everyone misunderstanding each other hilariously. If that is your cup of tea then you will like this book. It is my cup of tea except it makes me feel a little anxious if I can’t tell from context clues (or reading the end) that everything is going to turn out okay.

What’s particularly interesting to me — predictably — is the nascent Diana-Wynne-Jonesiness of it all. Like this:

[His] face was thin, with a lively sort of twist to it — the sort of twist men have who have been eccentrics from their boyhood on. He wore a tropical jacket-thing which did not fit him, with innumerable bulging pockets…Everything about him looked as if it had come from a junk shop, and over him hung a furtive smell of unpaid bills.

I submit to you this is the Diana-Wynne-Jonesiest sort of introduction a character can possibly have. Although she turned her talents to very different sorts of books than Changeover for the bulk of her career, the basic makeup of her writing is the same. It always has this matter-of-fact ruthless quality about it, whether she’s describing kids who’ve been shot to death (not in this book! in a different one!); or women who are realizing they tend to go for one particular sort of person and maybe should seek out some slightly different, nicer, sort; or just very common everyday things like new characters and their jackets.

I came away feeling, as I always do, that it’s lucky we got to have Diana Wynne Jones for 40 years. And also that 40 years isn’t nearly long enough for a writer as prodigiously talented and insightful and great as Diana Wynne Jones to have been writing books. 60 years would really not have been enough, or 100. I miss her.

2nd Annual DWJ March

More on this later, my dumplings, but for the moment I just wanted to alert those of you who don’t know: It is DWJ March once more! The lovely Kristen of We Be Reading is hosting. Readalongs of Howl’s Moving Castle and A Tale of Time City will be occurring in the first and second halves of March, respectively, so feel free to join in on that.

As for me, I will be doing the former but not the latter, because I have my copy of Howl’s Moving Castle with me in New York (duh, like I could ever live without Howl’s Moving Castle), while A Tale of Time City languishes in my parents’ house. Also because I don’t like A Tale of Time City that much.

(Yet, I’d like to say? But honestly, I think if I don’t love it by now I never will. Hexwood is the same. On the other hand, until 2010 I felt that way about The Time of the Ghost, which I’ve since reread a preposterous number of times to make sure it’s still good (it is).)

Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones

March has whizzed by in a whirlwind of cherry blossoms and other even lovelier events, doing me a great disservice by never letting me catch my breath long enough to schedule a post about a Diana Wynne Jones book for the Diana Wynne Jones March operated by the wonderful Kristen of We Be Reading. March has happened so fast I didn’t even remember to relish March 4th, the only day of the year that’s a command. Ordinarily I say “March forth!” with tedious frequency on that day, and this year I forgot. Sigh. March, you whirlwind vixen.

Archer’s Goon, fittingly enough in a post that began with a time gripe, is a book about the constraints of time. Howard’s father Quentin, a writer, has for years written 2000 words each month and sent them to a friend called Lovejoy as a way of keeping his creative juices flowing. This month, an enormous Goon turns up at the house demanding the 2000 words, which Quentin says he has already sent. The Goon says that Archer — apparently Lovejoy’s boss — hasn’t received the words and demands to have them. Howard’s family is gradually beseiged by a group of seven siblings (Archer, Dillian, Shine, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus, and yes, I have read Archer’s Goon often enough that I know those names in order by heart) who run various aspects of the town, are confined to stay within the town limits, and inexplicably seem desperate to acquire Quentin’s 2000 words.

As with many Diana Wynne Jones books, Archer’s Goon did not immediately take its place in my heart as a DWJ favorite. Because I apparently can’t talk about Diana Wynne Jones without saying “She’s better on a reread,” I’ll say it again. There are never too many times to say it! Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread. And Archer’s Goon particularly is better on a reread. The plot is fairly complicated, and because it takes a while for most of the basic questions to be resolved, I missed a lot of the small, fun stuff about Archer’s Goon.

And the small fun stuff is what makes it so great. The power-mad siblings persecute Quentin relentlessly to make him give in and send them the words, and the things they invent to do, within their own spheres of power, are really funny and terrible. It’s brilliant fun how Diana Wynne Jones gradually lets you see the dynamics between the siblings: that Archer hates Dillian and Dillian hates him right back, but Dillian and Torquil are sort of allies. Sibling dynamics are DWJ’s best thing, and the Archer’s Goon siblings are, if not my favorites, at least in my top two. It’s between them and the Dark Lord of Derkholm family.

Moreover, the end of Archer’s Goon is one of the best and most satisfying endings of any of her books. A common and true complain about DWJ is that her endings can feel a little rushed and confusing, but not with Archer’s Goon. The characters realize things that they’ve been building up to realizing all along. The questions that were raised at the beginning get resolved. The good guys put paid to the bad guys. And the climactic fight is just so, so funny. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that I can never read the scene without picturing Diana Wynne Jones at her typewriter giggling madly as she wrote it all out. It’s the best.

As many longtime readers know, I am the hugest Diana Wynne Jones fan. As you may also know, she died last year, in March. I am so grateful for all the books of hers that we do have, and I am terribly sad that there won’t be any new ones forthcoming. But if you haven’t read anything by her, you are in for a treat.

They also read it:

things mean a lot
Books Love Me

Review: A Curse as Dark as Gold, Elizabeth Bunce

Oh, the Once Upon a Time Challenge has returned to gladden our lives once again! I am delighted about this, as you may imagine, because it is making me get back into the swing of reviewing, which I completely fell out of while on vacation. Also because I love hearing about the books y’all are going to read, and also no. 2 because I have a girl-crush on Anne-Julie Aubry and rejoice in any excuse to display her beautiful art. I’ve decided I’m going to choose which banner to display based on which one I think matches the book in question better.

A Curse as Dark as Gold is my first Once Upon a Time Challenge read, a retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. After the death of her father, Charlotte Miller and her sister Rosie find themselves in financial difficulties as they work to keep their mill in operation. Working against them are an alleged curse on the mill, a mortgage that threatens to eat up all their profit, and a louche uncle who shows up to “help” them. Unwilling to lose the mill, Charlotte and Rosie call upon the services of one Jack Spinner, who claims to be able to spin straw into gold.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that I have never liked the girl in Rumpelstiltskin. Oh, yeah, go on and have my firstborn son, that’s totally fine, I’m sure I won’t care about the kid once I have it. Really, Rumpelstiltskin girl? Really? In a similar spirit I wanted to take Charlotte Miller and shake her until her teeth fell out of her head. Not sure what that would accomplish except I guess she would have to get dentures and I bet dentures weren’t very comfortable in pre-Industrial Revolution times. So, uh, take THAT, unsympathetic protagonist!

One of my big bookish pet peeves is when the protagonist’s big problem has an obvious solution and s/he refuses to take it for a reason that doesn’t really make any sense. Like when kids refuse to tell their parents/teachers/the cops about their problem because they don’t think their parents would believe them — this can be okay sometimes, but mostly it’s just a cheap way of keeping the plot up and running. Charlotte acquires a source of funding that would solve all her problems, particularly the problems that make her agree to the first-born-child thing (she doesn’t agree to it specifically; she says “Anything” but that’s obviously a stupid thing to say to a sketchy fairy man). But she just won’t use it. No genuinely good reason is given for this, and nobody ever says “What the hell, Charlotte?” about it later. Dislike. If you are going to have your protagonist behave badly, you should at least let her be taken to task.

The fantasy aspects of the book didn’t hang together terribly well either. Dire hints were dropped about a curse, but given wildly varying degrees of credibility, so when they start taking the curse seriously I still wasn’t sure if I should do the same. The book was a messy hodgepodge of village magic (corn dollies, things happening at crossroads), the occasional splodge of high fantasy language (people saying “gods” as an exclamation), and modernization clashing with tradition (banks with mortgages, more efficient mill tools).

Nevertheless, I am not giving up on Elizabeth Bunce! I never wanted to read A Curse as Dark as Gold in the first place. I always wanted Starcrossed, and A Curse as Dark as Gold has not put me off wanting to read Starcrossed.

Review:

Aelia Reads
Always Dreaming
bookshelves of doom
Teen Book Review
Bib-Laura-graphy
Sarah’s Random Musings

Tell me if I missed yours!

In other news, Diana Wynne Jones has died. If you have been reading for a while, you probably know that I adore Diana Wynne Jones. I am crushed. I wanted her to live forever. She wrote magic.

Second (or third, or fourth) chances

The story of my Diana Wynne Jones reading life is this:

Stage One: Begin book. Find world it is set in confusing. Find characters depressing and unpleasant. Give up reading it, or finish it with grim sense of duty to beloved author. Lament dissimilarity to books previously read by Diana Wynne Jones. Attain acceptance by telling self that no author can write good books every single time. Reread Fire and Hemlock consolingly.

Stage Two (discovery of DWJ – 2003ish): Receive assurances from sister that book in question is good. Doubt her taste because of Juliet Marillier and similar. Point out to her with superior air that no author can write good books every time and this one is simply not my cup of tea. Remind her about The Time of the Ghost. Insert fingers in ears. Go la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.

Stage Two (2003ish – present): Remember all those other Diana Wynne Jones books not loved upon first reading. Begin to doubt judgment. Remind self of Dark Lord of Derkholm, Archer’s Goon, Deep Secret, and Homeward Bounders. Remind self about Time of the Ghost. Struggle to hold onto feelings of justification in abandoning book.

Stage Three: Allow time to pass. Have no new Diana Wynne Jones books to read. Begin to feel book could not have been as bad as all that. Begin book again. Either return immediately to Stage One and do whole thing over with calcifying feelings of dislike for book, or carry on to Stage Four.

Stage Four: Finish book. Have no idea what was wrong with self before. Promise self to bear this in mind in future. Possibly give The Time of the Ghost another try, despite never ever progressing beyond Stage Three with it.

Knowing this will happen does not, by the way, fend it off. Out of Diana Wynne Jones’s dozens of books, there have been maybe six I liked on the first try. I do not know how to account for this, but I will say that it has given me a healthy doubt for the accuracy of my first impressions.

As you may have discerned, I have never progressed to Stage Four with The Time of the Ghost. It’s about the ghost of one of four sisters (she cannot quite work out which sister she is), who in present times, her own adulthood, has been in an accident and is lying ill in a hospital bed. She keeps traveling back in time to her childhood, and the events surrounding a game (a sort of game) about worshiping a dark goddess called Monigan. Some way, Monigan is connected to what has happened to the ghost, and she must change the past in order to keep herself from being claimed by the goddess.

I have read this book, in part or in full, at least seven times in the last decade; and each time I have found it tiresome and creepy and unspeakably dreary and awful. But as Diana Wynne Jones Week grew closer, I felt more and more that it was shabby of me to hold such a week while also retaining such strong dislike for one of Diana Wynne Jones’s books. When I saw it at a book sale a few weekends ago, therefore, I grabbed it.

“Ew,” said my sister. “You’re buying that?”

“I have disliked so many of her books, the first time through,” I said (stoutly) (firmly in Stage Three). “One of these days, I’m going to have a breakthrough with The Time of the Ghost. I’m going to read it, and I’m going to like it,” so I bought it.

And lo, it did come to pass that I curled up in a blue university armchair with The Time of the Ghost, and I did decline to read the flap copy on it for verily I remembered finding it confusing before. And I looked upon The Time of the Ghost and read it, and found it good; and yea, I did not know what was wrong with me before. And so it was that after ten years of travail and misery, The Time of the Ghost and I progressed to Stage Four at last, and I entered it into my catalogue on LibraryThing, that I might keep it forever as a sign of joy and a reminder of past follies.

I may have said a few times this week that I love Diana Wynne Jones. I love her for many reasons. Most of these are to do with her skill as a writer: the vivid life of her characters, her humor, her deft, elegant plots, and her boundless imagination. But I particularly love her for the dozens of times my experience of her books has reminded me to try again, to be aware that the reader has to be able to meet a book halfway in order to enjoy it. (People, too, as it goes.) My life is happier for these reminders.

This has been Diana Wynne Jones Week, lovely internet people. I am enchanted with my first experience of hosting a blog event and may do it again someday. Like maybe I will actually start up that mental health challenge I have been talking about for a year. A big thank you, again, to Sami Saramäki for letting me use her beautiful illustration for the button; and to you, delightful people of the blogosphere, for playing along with me. I shouldn’t be surprised, after two and a half years of blogging, at how amazing and fun and enthusiastic y’all are. I hope you all enjoyed your Diana Wynne Jones books and will read on. 🙂

If you haven’t entered my DWJ giveaway, hasten to do so, because it closes at midnight tonight!

Review: House of Many Ways & Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I love Diana Wynne Jones, and because I have not told you why I love her with sufficient vehemence or frequency, I will tell you why right now.  It is because her characters discover things about themselves!  They discover things, and they learn!  Glorious!  People in her books proceed by instinct and guesswork, and although these are not my own preferred means of proceeding, I like it that Diana Wynne Jones’s characters succeed.  Their approach to magic is beautifully matter-of-fact.  People can learn to do magic better, or more specifically, from teachers; but at a fundamental level, and often very successfully, they do it by instinct.  Charmain in House of Many Ways says “Pipes!  Freeze!”, and they do it.

House of Many Ways is about a sheltered girl called Charmain who only wants to sit and read.  Her family sends her to care for the house of her grandfather while he goes away to be healed by the elves.  There are piles and piles of dirty laundry there, and a kitchen full of dirty dishes, and Charmain, without the first idea of how to do regular household chores, settles for reading books and learning how to do magic and helping the king and princess organize their library.  Unlike in most books where the protagonist likes to read and her parents wish she would desist, Charmain’s reading has served her ill in some ways (well, that and her mother’s determination that she should be Privileged).  She’s incapable of doing regular chores like laundry and dishes and cooking, which gives rise to much mockery by a boy called Peter who comes to stay at her grandfather’s house to be his apprentice.

Oh, and Howl and Sophie make an appearance.  And Calcifer.  Howl and Sophie and Calcifer and Morgan all make an appearance.  Though the book is not about them, and I do not feel there is enough of them, they are their usual delightful selves.  More Sophie!  More Sophie and Howl!

Other reviews:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Becky’s Book Reviews

In more recent news, Enchanted Glass is about a professor called Andrew who inherits a house from HIS grandfather.  Having failed to reach his grandfather in time to get instructions as to how to care for the magical area over which his grandfather held dominion, Andrew has to figure out how to care for it his own self.  His memory is helped by the arrival of a young boy called Aidan, who is running away from Social Workers and scary magical monsters.  There is a cantankerous old neighbor who seems obsessed with barbed-wire fences, Security, and what he calls “counterparts”.  I could have done with more cool glass-related magic, but otherwise I was very happy with it.  The glass is plainly the glass from Deep Secret, by the way – I’m glad she found a use for that glass, which did not get any real (as opposed to theoretical) play in Deep Secret.

Diana Wynne Jones!  I love you!  Live forever!

Other reviews:

Charlotte’s Library

Did I miss yours?  Surely I missed some reviews of Enchanted Glass!  Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
Epiphany

Tell me if I missed yours!