Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

I have a couple of half-finished blogs, but I have to put them on hold to pay tribute to one of the great writers who has just passed away. If only I could come up with words to do her justice.

First I'll send you over to this post from Book Aunt, because she does a great job of summing up Diana Wynne Jones' multiplicity of books. Then you should read Jones' rather astonishing autobiography.

After reading about her life, it won't surprise you to hear that Diana Wynne Jones' books are odd, quirky, funny, "tilted away sideways*" from anything else you've ever read. Her writing is endlessly imaginative, sharply humourous, and deeply complex. There are books of hers I've reread several times and still don't get. My favourite books I reread often and get something new out of them every time. Even the lightest-hearted stories leave you feeling vaguely disquieted, as if some of your cherished assumptions have been subtly altered but you're not sure how.

Where should you start? You're most likely to be able to lay hands easily on Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci books, as they are justifiably her most popular works. The wizard Howl and Chrestomanci are both marvellous creations: powerful, arrogant, good but deeply flawed. And Sophie (of Howl's Moving Castle) is the best heroine ever. Period. Calcifer the demon is fasinating and the castle itself is brilliant; I could go on and on about Howl's Moving Castle. It's one of my all-time-favourite, bring-to-desert-island, reread-whenever-I'm-feeling-down books. The Chrestomanci books, besides having Chrestomanci himself (and don't we all wish there really were such a person, to step in and fix everything at the last minute, though not without challenging us to do most of the fixing ourselves, thus discovering our own hidden strength; and not without getting thoroughly exasperated at our ability to have screwed things up this badly in the first place) are a wonderful introduction to the Diana Wynne Jones' multiverse, her collection of parallel universes, most of which are far more interesting than our own. Here's a suggestion from her website about how to read the Chrestomanci books; like the multiverse itself, they proliferate in multiple directions, and it doesn't really matter which one you read first. They are short, easy reads and great fun, but there's a core of seriousness--Jones' villains are truly scary, once you find out who the villains really are.

My next favourite books after these (in fact, I may even like them more, but I don't have my own copies so I haven't reread them in a while) are The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. These are absolutely hilarious. They manage to be both a brilliant satire of the whole fantasy genre and perfectly plotted fantasy novels in their own right. I think I'm going to have to order these online because they should be in my library.

Then there are her books for older readers with seriously mind-bending concepts and narration: Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock are the ones I have read. If you like books where you're never sure what's real because someone is messing with reality, check these out. Dogsbody is another more serious novel for older readers, a wonderful, sad story that many people mention as a favourite (not nearly so mind-bending, in case you were worried).

She returns to the multiverse with The Merlin Conspiracy, which I could explain as Chrestomanci for people who can follow really convoluted plots--convoluted in a good way, with a crazy cast of characters and universes and an ending that comes much too soon despite the 472 pages. And she plays with reality again, doing yet another take on magical people who have to take care of things so everything doesn't fall apart, with Enchanted Glass. (Best use of vegetables in fiction, BTW.)

I'm going to go on a quest for Diana Wynne Jones books I haven't read yet (and she's a prolific author, so there are many). I'll let you know when I find more favourites. In the meantime, you can tell me which your favourites are. Let's make a point of introducing her to as many people as we can.

*A quotation from The Merlin Conspiracy

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Death, Rebirth, and a Book Club Recommendation: Matched, by Ally Condie

My computer died! Life came briefly to an end; I was bereft; I was useless. But all turned out well in the end, because I have an automated backup program. My life was returned to me, intact, with a new hard drive and all the same ridiculously unorganized data I can't seem to live without. It's a little scary how dependent I am on this screen with the little icons lined up at the bottom. (And if Google wants to take over the world, I don't think it would be very hard: we're all little Google slaves already!)

Speaking of taking over the world, I recently read Matched. Apparently it's now on bestseller lists, so it doesn't exactly need my recommendation. However, the other day I was a bit intimidated to discover that someone's book club was looking to my blog for a new book recommendation. (I hope they all like The Lost Conspiracy!) (I hope they can find enough copies; there are a couple in my local library, but that might be a bit far to come!) Considering books for a book club is a quite different matter than recommending to individual readers: you want something that appeals to a wide range of tastes and sensitivities, and something meaty enough to generate discussion (other than "she should have picked the other guy"!).

Given those criteria, I would have to suggest Matched as an excellent book club choice. It's science fiction in so far as it's a dystopian vision of the future, but it's a quiet, introverted kind of dystopian novel. The anti-Hunger Games, if you will. And it's a love story, of course. (The theme song could be from Muse: "Love is our resistance.")

Condie creates a perfect world where every decision--what to eat, what to wear, what job to choose, who to marry--is made by the Society. There is no violent repression or coercion: everyone willingly participates because they believe this is the best way to be happy. At least, that's what Cassia thinks. Her doubts about the beneficence of the Society begin when she Matched to her best friend, Xander, but her information packet shows her the face of Ky. Is Xander the one she is meant to be with, or is it Ky?

I thought it was brilliant of Condie to present this society to us from Cassia's point of view: as a teenager who has grown up in this peaceful, controlled world, she takes it for granted and is invested in its continuation. This is what life is like, and it works, and there's no reason to question it, is there? The subtle and obvious ways she is manipulated are all the more horrifying to the reader because Cassia thinks they're normal. Cassia wants nothing more than to take her place as a contributing adult in her society, but her growing relationships with Xander, Ky and her family start her wondering, and once she starts to question, there is no going back.

Matched is not an action-packed violence-fest. The suspense is quiet but constant and the conflict is almost entirely internal. The critical moments are not so much Cassia's actions as her decisions.  I loved that her first rebellion was over poetry. The actions are all so small, but the decisions they represent are huge. Holding a scrap of paper can be terrifying. Each decision Cassia makes leads to a slightly larger action with wider repercussions, until she makes a life-changing mistake. There is a sequel, due Fall 2011. I won't say it's a cliffhanger ending, exactly, but I am quite anxious to read the next one!

Matched is like salted caramel ice cream: a smooth, quiet surface with surprising hidden piquancy.

I'll leave you with a friendly reminder: when was the last time you backed up your hard drive?