Does anyone else remember that place in Daddy Long-legs when Jerusha Abbot has just read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and she cries from the heart: “How can there be a man like Heathcliff?”

I didn’t care for Heathcliff.  In fact, when I first read Wuthering Heights at age fifteen or so, I remember asking pretty much the same question in disgust.  Whatever floats your boat.  It’s just one of those things.  Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.  Heathcliff, or Rochester.  A jar of Miracle Whip that has been left out in the sun for five hours, or fresh-whipped French egg mayonnaise made with real lemons.

Now that I’ve alienated half of you, I would like to bring up the delicate subject of CUTE SHY GUYS or perhaps, SULKY SMART GUYS WHO ARE SO COOL, or even NAKED WIZARDS IN THE BATHTUB in the fiction of Diana Wynne Jones.  I didn’t want to be the first, but . . .

I’m just going to assume that none of you (now that all the Wuthering Heights lovers have left the room; and at this point the straight men can go too, and anyone else so inclined) are so silly as to think I want to leave my my husband for 12-year-old enchanter in training.  What I’m talking about isn’t a fantasy roll in the hay, but personal magnetism.  Diana Wynne Jones does male mystique like no one else!

You will find very little overt romance or love in a typical Diana Wynne Jones novel.  Characters learn about each other, become friends, admire one another, understand one other (sometimes) and have adventures.  Then, rather abruptly from the reader’s perspective, they occasionally announce their engagement–or in the next book they happen to be married.  You could just say Jones doesn’t do lust and standard romantic conflict because her books are written for children who would say ick to those things.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think she is simply inclined to hang her characters’ relationships on a more equivocal framework than “love story” because she finds that more interesting.

Writing about young people (and others whose lives are ruled by forces greater than themselves, like magic-users) gives Jones’ a lot of scope for this preference.  Some writers forget that not only are teenagers They of the Raging Hormones, but also They of the Raging Ideas, They of the Raging Anxiety As To How They Can Possibly Find A Place In The Adult World, Raging Creativity, Raging Independence, and the Raging Need Not To Turn Into Their Parents.  Most real teenagers aren’t looking around for a Prince or Princess Charming and a happy ending; they are too busy negotiating the relationships in front of them, doing battle with evil, and generally surviving.  These are the ones Jones writes about.

Teenagers!  All that raw energy going off in all directions!  A lot like magic.  As readers of fantasy know, unharnessed magic can be very dangerous.  It comes on you without warning.  You must learn to harness it.  You must learn how to live with it.  Remind you of anything else?  Despite the lack of overt romance and desire in her fiction, Jones’ books are not asexual.  Drama (good drama, not melodrama) is sexy.  The raw energy of adolescent self-definition is pure aphrodisiac.  Magic is hot.  Why?  Because like the best sex, each of these things creates a raised pitch of emotion, a sense of revelation, and a feeling of commonality.  A metaphor made in heaven.

I will not harp on the mallet-over-the-head trend to capitalize directly on this connection in certain popular fiction.  Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy characters are a different breed.  They are real people first and foremost; they weren’t created as vehicles for magical sexiness, and they never do the same song and dance twice.  Jones can write a novel that appeals to a third grader for its sly humor and inventive plot.  An adult can read the very same book and find deep wells of motivation, multi-faceted characters, scenes full of teasing undercurrents.  That is Jones’ virtuosity.

In her essay (from a 1992 lecture) on heroes, she remarks, “I do find, myself, that the Hero, the protagonist, is the story. This is not to say that the other people in it are of no importance. Before I can write about anyone, I have to consider them as my close personal friends, even the Baddies.”

The more I read Diana Wynne Jones, the more flattered I am by her good opinion of her readers.  Whatever our age, without fail she treats us as if we were smart enough to take as much as we like from her books, be whoever we like in them, and scratch under the surface as deeply as we please–trusting us to find the way (or one of the ways) she has laid out for us.  She repays our enthusiastic blundering by packing her stories with ideas and crafting them on multiple levels.  Reading her comment on submerged alter egos in the essay mentioned above, I suspect she would take it for granted that it is possible both to want to be an eccentric wizard and find him hot at the same time.

Because it does not revolve around wanting a guy to ask you to the prom or turn you into a vampire, the sexiness in a Diana Wynne Jones novel not does not depend on your identifying with one character and desiring a different one.  (Readers aren’t known for their compliance in this department, but still.)  The sexy intensity is embedded in the story and everything that comes together to make it.  When the story is the hero, and the story is sexy, that makes the hero sexy too.

I can only speak from where I’m standing, so you will notice all of the following characters are male.  I don’t doubt there are readers crushing on Mig and Polly, but Jones happens to have a particularly fine hand with men and boys (for reasons that may become clearer if you read the essay I mentioned above), and she has written a lot of them.

So get comfortable and channel your inner fourteen-year-old.  Without further ado I bring you an incomplete list of–

The Hotties of Diana Wynne Jones

Jamie:  An intelligent urchin who gets handed the rawest of raw deals and turns out to have a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.  Triumphs over the odds then gives up his winnings.

Tom Lynn:  Shadowy, prickly professor who refuses to pull his intellectual punches, never condescends to youth, and still knows how to enter unabashedly into the delights of a pretend game.  The man with a secret sorrow.

Nick Mallory:  Here is a cocky trickster who, as a teenager, is willing to dance an impromptu witchy dance in public with his older girl cousin.  Astoundingly healthy self-image, clear goals, good sense, and no illusions about his mother!

Howl:  Gorgeous, mercurial, preening wizard who shelters his shrinking heart behind a multiplicity of just-barely-self-conciously humorous personae, and conceals his virtues from everyone, including himself.  The most powerful sorcerer, but off-handed with it.  Surprisingly good with kids.

Sirius:  Dispossessed angel.  Kindness perfected through suffering.  The empathetic sweetheart.  The otherworldly, perceptive male.  And sometimes is a dog.

Chrestomanci:  Ah, Chrestomanci!  (If I said it a third time I’d be in trouble.)  I am rendered nigh speechless.  Frock coat, I blurt.  Dressing gown.  Tangled mess all better.  Will recklessly risk his life(s) and his impeccable dignity in the pursuit of Sweet Magical Reason.  The steady hand on the pull-rope of the Deus Ex Machina.  The Maestro.  If you find competence sexy . . .  (Unfortunately also a married man.)

Conrad:  Harried, responsible teenager.  The underdog.  The good guy.  The unwilling rebel trying not to get taken for a ride.  Everyman.  With good hair.  In footman’s togs.

Dagner:  Unreliable artist.  The young tragedian with the fatal flaw.  If you ever went through your parents’ or older sibling’s record collection, found an old album with the face of a long-haired young man, played it, and suddenly understood that you were grown up and that the world was a sad place and poetry was its only hope . . .

Moril:  Down-to-earth mystic.  The worried, hardworking soul who attracts the Profoundest Magic.  A boy with his own concerns who tries, but will never quite be able, to give you his whole attention.  The craftsman.  The humble Lancelot.

The Ghost in Aunt Maria:  Harlequin.  Refracted personality.  A self-abnegating jester who knows all the tricks and tries to do what good he can, under the radar.  The martyr.

Charles Morgan:  Mastermind.  Cipher.  The Cold Face of Vengeance. . . and he wears glasses with the same threatening air as a shoulder-holster!

Rupert Venables:  My most recent addition.  I re-read Deep Secret a few months ago.  This time I was struck by his capacity for accurate self-assessment.  A bit of a stuffed shirt, but he knows it.  Prejudiced against tiresome people, but owns up to it as prejudice, and is willing to have his mind changed.  Proud of his magical ability, but justifiably so, and equally aware of his limitations.  I had no idea this quality could be so endearing!

So now my big question is: Who is your top Diana Wynne Jones heartthrob?  Is he on the list?  Did I miss one?

And one last:

How can there be an enchanter like Chrestomanci?

Greenwillow, 2010

Finished July 23, 2010

Genre: children’s fantasy with magic in the real world

I liked the cover design for this book with the magic spilling from the skylight as rainbow streamers, especially the way the designer took a blown-up portion of the illustration and wrapped it around the back cover and the flaps.  While I had the book open to read it, rainbows peeped out at me all around the pages.  (A further note on the cover–it looks to me like something is spilling from Aidan’s nose.  I know it is only magic sparkles coming from the glasses he is holding in front of his face.  Still, every time I glanced at it…)

This is worth mentioning, because streaming rainbows and chirping bluebirds of happiness is what it feels like to hold a NEW Diana Wynne Jones novel in my sweaty little hands.  Enchanted Glass doesn’t offer the complex plotting of some of her works that are geared for older readers (though in part that’s moot; all Diana Wynne Jones’ books have something for everyone), and there are a few loose ends, but I enjoyed the homey setting.  Books about people who inherit old, magical country houses full of old, magical stuff in English villages always make me jealous.  There should be more rich old magicians in the world, naming obscure distant relatives as heirs.

Andrew inherits Melstone House from the grandfather with whom he spent summers as a boy.  This means he can retire from his university teaching job and finally write the history that’s been on his back burner.  The book Andrew means to write is one of those loose ends I was talking about; because really, though Andrew is slow to realize it, Melstone isn’t just an inherited house, it’s an inherited post.

I had a couple of different favorite things about Enchanted Glass, and one of them was how the magic comes slowly on Andrew.  Diana Wynne Jones perfectly conveys the way you can forget things from childhood without really forgetting them; the feeling of things you remember without exactly remembering.  Sorry that is vague, but if you want to know what I’m talking about you should read the book!

Andrew is both admirably businesslike (no stagey skepticism, which I hate) and sweetly surprised as he rediscovers the magic around Melstone House.  A sense of wonder for grownups, in a book for kids that is also about about a grownup growing up–don’t you just love that?  And what other writer could pull it off so well?

I suppose his age is why I find Andrew more interesting than Aidan, the orphaned boy who shows up on Melstone House’s doorstep with magical peril on his heels.  The simple fact that I am no longer 12 (or 16, or 20, or even 30) means I can sympathize with a middle-aged professor more than a kid.  Aidan is nice, and it’s easy to get into his head, but he is definitely more of a children’s-literature-style protagonist than a young adult one.  He’s reflective, but not complicated.  His problems are pretty straightforward.

Which brings me to my other favorite thing about this book.  Melstone is what’s referred to as a “field-of-care.”  When Aidan and Andrew go out to walk the boundary (borders and boundaries are a theme in lots of Jone’s work, if anyone wants to jump in and discuss), we get Aiden’s kid-like take on it:

When there were no cars coming either way, Andrew led the way down the bank, to cross the road just beside the dip where the ghost had been.  Going as slowly as he dared, in case someone was speeding, he wove up and down the slight rise in the road, until he had fixed in his mind what the boundary felt like.  The side where the field-of-care was felt like what he now thought of as normal: deep and slightly exciting.  The other side–

“Oh!” Aidan exclaimed.  “It’s all boring and dangerous on this side!  Like standing on a runway in the path of an airplane.  Flat, but you’re lucky you’re not dead.”

This passage, and others, had me in raptures.  In giving us the magician’s perspective on the magical vs. the non-magical, Jones is also giving us a perfect metaphor for literature vs. real life.  Entering the world of a fantasy novel as fine as Diana Wynne Jones’, whether writing it or reading it, is much like entering a field-of-care where everything is “deep and slightly exciting.”  Take it that way, and he dry humor in “flat, but you’re lucky your not dead,” as an assessment of real life: priceless.  And Jones all over!

If all this sounds good to you so far, and you can get behind the idea of cauliflower casserole as a tool of revenge, a giant zucchini as a deadly weapon, giant vegetables (and giants in general), I’m sure you will enjoy this book.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!