Sunday, 31 March 2013

Diana Wynne Jones - Charmed Life and Archer's Goon

          I am coming in under the wire, just, for Diana Wynne Jones reading month.  During this month I read two of her children's fantasy novels:  Charmed Life, and Archer's Goon.

Charmed Life is the story of Gwendolen Chant and her younger brother Eric, known as Cat.  Gwendolen is a strong witch.  Cat has none.  Their parents are dead and they are living with the kind strangers in their home village,  and come across some letter from Chrestomanci Chant to their father, while looking for something to pay for magic lessons for Gwendolen.  Chrestomanci is a famous powerful wizard, it turns out.  And a relative of theirs.  Chrestomaci is contacted by Gwendolen and her creepy wizard friends, and the next thing, Gwendolen and Cat are taken to Chrestomanci's home to live.  They are both given magic lessons (as well as ordinary school lessons), and while Gwendolen is convinced she is going to be a powerful sorceress one day, Cat is showing no signs of magic at all.   He does however, seem to have a charmed life, which through the story is slowly revealed to be much more than anyone thought.  Alternate universes, other selves, all play a part in this fun, and funny, story about how Cat learns who he is.

Charmed Life was a re-read for me, and it has been many years since I read it first.  My 24 year old son was around 10 when I read it, before I gave it to him to read then.  I was trying to interest him in reading something.  He was obsessed with dinosaurs and Star Wars then.  It was difficult to find a children's fantasy book for his age, from 8-12, at that time.  And it had to be fantasy, he wasn't going to read anything else.  To my surprise, he liked it, and he read the others in the Chrestomanci series.  He went on to read more in the fantasy world, and I credit Charmed Life for being the door that opened reading for him.  He had a reading disability, which all of my children have also, in varying degrees.  As the other two grow older, they too will have Charmed Life put into their hands.

Diana Wynne Jones is that kind of writer, some one who makes her characters real, and the family situations are always funny and very realistic, and the magic is of the kind that everyone wishes they had,when they are young.  A perfect book for every child, I think.
Archer's Goon is set in the real world also - I think this is part of the real charm of Jones's novels.  Her children's books (other than the Dale Quartet) are set in the modern world, and magic exists without extra explanation.  It simply is.  Archer's Goon is set in England, though it is hard to know if it is a real town.  It opens with a large man appearing at the Sykes household, demanding payment of words written by Howard's father.  The words were payment to a man named Archer, and the Goon was there to get the payment as it had gone missing. Why is Mr Sykes writing payment?  For what?  Who is Archer?  Who is the Goon?  Howard's world is about to be turned upside down as he discovers that nothing in this world is as it appears, especially people.  Time is important in this novel, the past and the future, as Howard discovers that  Archer is part of  a group who control the town, and want to rule the world. This was the first time I read Archer's Goon, and I really enjoyed it.  Howard's family made me laugh, and the situations they find themselves in as they try to find who is in control - and how Mr Syke's words are the key - is fun and unconventional.  This was nominated for the Best Novel 1985 World Fantasy Award, and rightly so.  It is a fantasy full of wonderful inventiveness, and never loses track of the meaning of family, and love.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

Diana Wynne Jones month:

I am glad that I finally was able to participate in Diana Wynne Jones month, held by Kristen at We Be Reading for the second year. All month Kristen has posted about Diana, her books, and has had several guest posts from bloggers about their favourite Diana Wynne Jones books, or memories.  Here is a link to several of the books Kristen read in March.  This is an excellent resource for finding more about Diana Wynne Jones, and the wonderful legacy she has left us all.  Thanks to Kristen for hosting this challenge again.

I have read some books by Diana Wynne Jones:  Howl's Moving Castle and Witch Week are  among my favourites;   Fire and Hemlock is very good, as is Time of  the Ghost.  I have Hexwood, and Pinhoe's Egg, The Merlin Conspiracy, and Enchanted Glass on my shelf, to read.  One I want to get is The Dark Lord of Derkholm, reviewed here by Gavin at Page 247.

The breadth and width of Wynne Jones writing is breathtaking.  She wrote mostly fantasy, and changed children's literature forever.  If you haven't read her, then she is perfect for the Once Upon a Time Challenge currently taking place over at Stainless Steel Droppings.  If you have read her, then you will know that fantasy lost a wonderful writer when she died two years ago. She is sadly missed.  There are many wonderful writers now in children's fantasy, as well as young adult, and many of them owe a debt to the trail blazed by Diana Wynne Jones.

This is not to say she is or was the only good writer in children's fantasy books back in the 1970's and 80's.  Susan Cooper was writing the Dark is Rising series, Alan Garner had written his Weirdstone series, Ursula K. LeGuin had written the Earthsea  trilogy, there was the Pern series  by Anne McCaffrey, and Madeleine L'Engle had Wind in the Door.  After that, there was little.  So the fantasy world for children has really changed since then.  All of these writers laid the way for the current richness of children's fantasy literature that we are currently enjoying.  But there is something in each of these for me that makes each of them each stand out for me, a tone in their writing that always makes it original, fresh, and a work that I can return to again and again.  I think Diana Wynne Jones will be among these in children's books for me.

 Whether you want to read something new in fantasy, or reread something delightful, charming and very often moving, pick up one of her books, and get ready for a treat.


Arabella said...

I second everything you said about Diana Wynne Jones, she was also a favourite of my daughter. There is so much more to kids fantasy than just Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jones is a great author to give to kids who love fantasy.

Susan said...

Arabella: Yes, there are so many good authors now, and wonderful children's fantasy books. It's such a rich field now. No wonder so many of us are reading them too! lol

Does your daughter read much fantasy now? I'm curious if other kids keep reading it as they grow older, as my son did.

Arabella said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to drop back, (to much stuff demanding attention). In answer t the question did she keep reading fantasy? Yes and no, she reads huge amounts both for study and for relaxation. She ended up doing an arts degree with a double major in English literature and history so that directs a lot of her reading but she still reads a lot for relaxation, about a quarter would still be fantasy including some fan fic but she also reads widely according to any current interest she might have. I think kids who read as kids keep reading as adults no matter what, at least I hope they do.

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