Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Charmed Life

From the very start of Charmed Life it feels evocative of most of my childhood. Some of this may have to do with growing up in small towns in England, but more of it is because I spent so much of that time rereading this book.Although I'm afraid I'm mixing it up with the Lives of Christopher Chant in my head.

I wanted to note how brilliantly she sets up a whole world in a few brushstrokes. This is truly master world-building.

And ohhhh Gwendolyn makes me so mad! Stop abusing your brother! The older Chrestomanci always frustrated me too. He just seems so obtuse and stuck in his ways and convinced he's right and grrarg. Perhaps I'll grow to like him more, seeing him now as an adult with many responsibilities? I doubt it. I think she wanted us to kind of dislike him.

Something I find really fascinating are the glimpses we have of Gwendolyn being nice to Cat and taking care of him - like playing snap with the divination cards. Knowing what she's actually doing, I can never figure out if she's just making sure he stays amenable to her (secretly) stealing his magic? Or if there really is still some warmth and family love in there somewhere. And if there isn't, I have to question the whole beginning. Did she drown the family to make her way? Or was she just an opportunist?

There's something magical about writing from a small child's perspective. Everything is bewildering and strange, so a new bed or a disgusting tasting cocoa assume equal importance to magic or abuse or larger problems. So it gives books like these a great charm and feeling of...normalcy? Magic is used to shove marmalade in someone's face, Chrestomanci's robe looks fancy and also important! things! occur! in one paragraph and they all feel like a vaguely bewildered ten year old boy.

I'm trying to figure out whether I'm predisposed to like Mr. Saunders because of what I know of the book, or whether it's because he's so deftly portrayed as young and smart and earnest but funny and slightly threadbare. Like....Remus Lupin as a grad student?

Oh! Here's a fun and awkward moment. When Gwendolyn's replacement comes, she makes a face in the mirror and makes her eyes "long and Chinese".  I remember as a kid in the UK, a decade or so after this book was written, we used to do the same thing. But now, reading it, it feels jarring and offensive.

Ah Janet, you generally soothe my Gwendolyn-hurt sole. Plus I love the touch of adding in the reader. Essentially Janet - to me at least - feels like she's me, or at least pulled from my world into Gwendolyn's, which is just how I feel in this book anyway.

Ah! The tiny dragon! I remember it well and fondly! Sometimes I think that my cat looks like a tiny dragon and now, reading of the baby dragon in Michael's workshop, it reminds me of a cat.

It's fascinating to me that the climax of the book is essentially Cat saying "erm, can I have it back?" in regards to his magic, and yet it feels entirely tense and dramatic. I think it's to do with how invested I become in his emotional journey so instead of it sounding flat, it sounds like he's finally, truly breaking with his sister and recognising how she used him. It is, weirdly, a major coming of age story I think, in a pretty sad way. In other news, however, I love The Family so.

I do like the resolution, partially because it discusses the ways in which magic and Adventures can change you. Janet can't go home and live a normal life and while - because it's essentially middle-grade - it's all wrapped up a little neatly, with each girl being better off, I like the fact that it gets explained and worried about. Mostly I think Janet really saves the ending by being curious and smart and practical.

It's interesting reading this one first, rather than The Lives of Christopher Chant and I'm not sure I can see why you should. Perhaps the world-building is a little sharper and faster (though not the worlds building she does in TLoCC) but why start when the hero and heroine of your next book are all grown up already? I think this is an instance in which I'd prefer to do them the other way round. Still, Christopher doesn't seem all that much like himself in this one, though I can entirely imagine Millie becoming the Millie she is here (and kept imagining lots of golden bracelets on her wrist.) Julia and Roger seem perfectly alright children for them to have, though I'd have assumed Millie might have wanted to send them off to school, and they could have a little more spark and interest.

Mostly I think I'm disappointed in Christopher/Chrestomanci though. Throughout the whole book everyone overlooks Cat for Gwendolyn, because she's the mean, magical, brilliant, flashy one. Chrestomanci knowsis  that to be untrue and still becomes sufficiently caught up in her web that he doesn't stop to consider that Cat doesn't know what's going on. Chrestomanci jumps to conclusions too early and too...meanly, to really ring quite true or be entirely sympathetic. Of course, Cat is entirely lovable, so that there's no problem of not connecting, I just would have liked everyone to be a little smarter a little earlier.

Now I'll see how he compares to the Grown-Up-Chrestomanci of the other books. The more I come to think of it, the more I'm sure he's distant and slightly out of touch in all the books. Oh Chrestomanci, be more with it please! Also continue to wear the most fabulous dressing gowns.

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

I never knew DWJ personally, but I remember hours of my childhood going around bookstores trying to figure out if they'd shelved her under "W" or "J' (especially in small, independent bookstores or at airports and railways stations, this was a confusing question). I first started reading Diane Duane mostly because I was enamoured of the idea of another children's book author who was called Diane. I think I thought they must be connected writing-wise.

When I moved to the States, when I was about 13, most of my DWJ books got lost in the transition, and I spent a year or two rereading The Magicians of Caprona over and over and over again because it was the only one I had. One afternoon I sat in the bookstore on 86th Street in Manhattan and read Deep Secret in a few hours.

I've been slowly rebuilding my Wynne-Jones (shelved on it's own shelf, so as to avoid any alphabetising confusion in my home) collection and only recently did a friend give me Castle In The Air as a holiday gift reminding me that there are whole DWJ books I haven't read.

So I'm going to try to re-read - and indeed read for the first time in some cases - all of Diana Wynne Jones' books and mark down my comments and thoughts. Her books changed, shaped and ameliorated my life - first as a child and now again as I grow up - so hugely, that I'm excited to explore the emotional impact they have on me now. Plus, I'm hoping that wrapping myself up in her words, like a blanket, will in some way, help ease my grief over the passing of one of my favourite authors.

So here is the beginning of my reading list. I'm starting with the Chrestomanci books, but in the order she recommended they be read (which is in fact different from the order I read them as a child) and then adding on ones that have been published since after I first read them. Starred are the ones that I haven't read/didn't read originally back in the early '90s.
 Next post to come with thoughts on Charmed Life!