Tag Archives: Diana Wynne Jones

Akata Witch

Author: Nnedi Okoraforakata-witch

My rating: 5 of 5

Finding her place and her own rhythm seems nearly impossible for twelve-year-old Sunny. She’s just moved to Nigeria–her parents’ native home–from the United States where she was born. She has Nigerian features but albino skin . . . which means she can’t play ball with the other kids outside during the day like she wants. Plus, her father never can seem to approve of her. Then there’s that terrifying vision she recently had in a candle flame. . . . But when Sunny becomes friends with Orlu (after all her so-called friends at school desert her) and subsequently also becomes friends with his friend Chichi, life begins to take shape for her. It begins to expand in unexpected, wonderful, dangerous ways into a world of magic where Sunny can become her true self.

I was unfamiliar with Okorafor’s work when I randomly heard that Diana Wynne Jones had praised her writing–certainly sufficient incentive for me to try reading her books, and I’m glad I did. Akata Witch is a wonderful journey into unknown places both without and within. The writing itself is superb from the descriptions to the characters to the brilliant fusion of Nigerian culture and magic. There are elements of this book that remind me almost of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–mostly in the sense that a young person goes from knowing nothing of magic  to being immersed in the world of magic and all its wonders. That whole experience is presented here, and it’s glorious, especially since Sunny’s world is so richly imagined and so unique from anything I’ve ever read before . . . while still being reminiscent of Rowling’s world in all the best ways. I really enjoyed the rich cultural experience that Okorafor presents here; she could totally have written a slice-of-life coming-of-age story in this setting and it would have been wonderful. Adding this whole huge magical, epic fantasy element to the tale is just overkill, not that I’m complaining. The one thing I found . . . not bad so much as just unnerving, was the teachers’ attitude towards their students being put in dangerous situations. They seem almost to not care whether they survive or not, which is just really different from the mindset of anyone in a role mentoring and leading children that I’ve experienced. I think because of that, I would recommend Akata Witch as more of a YA/Adult book, even though the main character is twelve and the content is otherwise fine for middle-grade readers.

 

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Deep Wizardry

Author: Diane Duanedeep wizardry

Young Wizards, vol. 2

My rating: 5 of 5

Young wizards and best friends Kit and Nita are looking forward to a pleasant vacation at the ocean after their huge ordeal fighting back the forces of darkness and entropy to save their world. But it looks like they’re finding that responsibility begets greater responsibility as they find themselves once again dragged into some great wizardry with the safety of any number of people–and other beings–in the balance. Only this time, the action is all happening in the ocean itself, as the two friends encounter the great wizards of the sea–whales, dolphins, and the like–and discover entirely new ways to do wizardry. But neither of them could have truly calculated just how much this task would demand of them.

Deep Wizardry was an incredible follow-up to Duane’s So You Want to Be a WizardIt occupies a sweet spot just on the verge between children’s fiction and YA, without really being either exactly. In that regard, I think it reminds me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s writing–stylistically and thematically as well. The writing is excellent, and the pacing–while slower than many books I’ve read–has a steady deliberateness that works really well for this particular story. The characters are great, and the way in which the author handles the very real struggles they deal with is really quite excellently done. This book is different from a lot of books in that it addresses themes such as responsibility, sacrifice, and redemption; it’s very moving and also unique enough to be both a difficult read and an incredible one. Highly recommended.

 

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Earwig and the Witch

Author: Diana Wynne Jonesearwig and the witch

Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky

My rating: 4.5 of 5

In the children’s home where Earwig and her friend Custard grew up, most of the children are excited and nervous when foster parents come through to pick which children they’ll take home. Not Earwig; she makes faces and tries hard not to be chosen. Why would she want to leave when everyone at the home does exactly what she wants them to? But one day, and ugly, wrinkly old woman and a tall, skinny man (whom Earwig could swear has horns) come through and, against all odds, decide to take Earwig home. Not home to a loving family, of course, but to be the witch’s assistant–the ugly woman being the witch, naturally, and a mean one as well. Earwig, not so easily discouraged, takes up the challenge to make this ornery, strange household do what she wants just like the people at the home did . . . and quite a challenge it’s going to be!

If you’ve been around my blog much at all, you’re well aware that Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite authors. Earwig and the Witch was actually a new read for me, and quite the fun story it was as well. It’s a shorter story than most of hers, only 6 chapters, if I recall correctly (I’m not bothering to look right now), but told with all her usual aplomb. The plot is also a bit simpler, making this accessible to a younger (say upper elementary, perhaps?) audience. I think what struck me most about this story is that the main character is, in a sense, rather as awful and ornery as the witch herself–which is possibly why they fit so well together. But the way in which this clever, determined child finds ways to beat the stronger, better-positioned adults is oddly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s writing at times. I really loved it! Earwig and the Witch is a highly recommended read all around.

 

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Witch’s Business

Author: Diana Wynne JonesWitch's Business

Also published as Wilkin’s Tooth

My rating: 5 of 5

Jess and Frank opened Own Back Ltd. when their parents stopped their allowance for the summer. It seemed like a clever idea at the time. But when their first customer is the town bully–the very person they were hoping to initiate revenge upon!–they begin to rethink their idea. Not that it’s so easy to back out at that point; Buster would probably beat them up if they tried. Soon, however, they find themselves way out of their depth, frighteningly so. The two siblings would gladly retire from the revenge business entirely–if only they can make things right first.

As always, Diana Wynne Jones brings a creative, unique tale in Witch’s Business. The entire story is a sort of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie chain of events, with attempts to solve one problem leading right into new problems, again and again. It really is quite the cautionary tale, although most folks contemplating revenge are unlikely to end up in as much trouble as Frank, Jess, and their friends encounter with their local witch. As expected of Jones’ writing, the characters, prose, and plot are all excellent. I really can’t praise her writing style in general enough. I particularly liked, in this story, that 1) the characters’ presuppositions about one another are challenged, and 2) they end up becoming friends with people they would never have considered interacting with before the events unfolded. The growing relationships are quite interesting, and I think the story’s a good challenge to us all in regards to those two items. I also enjoyed the slightly old-fashioned country setting; it’s the sort of place where it seems like anything could happen. Which it did. Witch’s Business is an ideal adventure/fantasy/slice-of-life story for upper elementary to high-school readers, but even better, it’s the sort of tale that just about anyone of any age can enjoy. Highly recommended.

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The Ogre Downstairs

Author: Diana Wynne Jonesthe ogre downstairs

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Johnny, Caspar, and Gwinny are pretty much convinced that their new step-father is the worst thing that could have happened to him; he’s grumpy, demands quiet all the time, doesn’t understand children at all, and gets angry at the slightest things. The three siblings actually call him “the Ogre” when he’s not around to hear. The Ogre’s two sons, Douglas and Malcolm are fairly high on their “worst things” list as well–stuck up prigs that they are. But there’s nothing like a good distraction to keep your mind off your troubles, and the Ogre inadvertently provides the best distraction possible: two chemistry sets (one each for Johnny and Malcolm) that have some most unusual effects. Giving the ability to fly, just for instance. . . . Soon all five children are way out of their depth, experimenting with all sorts of combinations to see what magical effects they can achieve–and trying to clean up the unexpected results!

With her classic good sense and amazing writing, Diana Wynne Jones produces another magical (in all the best senses of the word) tale in The Ogre Downstairs. Although this is an older story (copyright 1974), it’s full of the excellent characterizations, beautifully accessible writing, incredible observation of people, and neverending sense of wonder and adventure that mark, well, all of her works that I’ve ever read. I found it intriguing that, in this story, rather than the usual buildup to a huge finish toward the end, the pacing is more gradual with more seeming to happen right from the start. It actually reminds me of an Edith Nesbit story somewhat, what with the magic chemistry set providing the catalyst for all sorts of rather episodic adventures. Everything ties together beautifully though, which is something I’ve always admired about Jones’ writing. And the characters are wonderful–the kids avoid being stereotypes and are people you can relate to easily, yet each of the five has an individual personality that is kept quite distinct. Very artistically done. My sole complaint, and the one reason this isn’t a 5-star read in my opinion, is that some of the Ogre’s actions were construed, in my mind at least, as being outright abusive–as opposed to a bit ornery and unaccustomed to children but generally well meaning, which I think was the intent. Part of that is the children’s perspective, part is that this is a 70’s story and things were seen differently then, and part is that I work with kids and am trained to be unnaturally sensitive to that sort of thing; however, even with those explanations, the situation was enough to bother me, especially with the ending being what it was. Still, on the whole, even considering that issue, I found The Ogre Downstairs to be a very enjoyable children’s fantasy that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Jones’ books (or Edith Nesbit’s or Edward Eager’s, for that matter).

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Wild Robert

Author: Diana Wynne JonesWild Robert

My rating: 4 of 5

Heather has a most unusual home situation: her parents are the caretakers of the old, once-wealthy estate of Castlemaine. Which can be interesting, but during tourist season it’s mostly annoying. Her parents are always busy, there are hordes of strangers around messing up the place, and it’s nearly impossible to find a place to be alone in quiet! One day, in a fit of frustration at being driven from every quiet place she knows, Heather does something that has greater consequences than she could have originally imagined. You see, there’s a legend that a member of the Castlemaine family–one who practiced magic and mischief, if rumors are to be believed–was buried in a mound in the forest and that if you call him, he will rise from the mound. Well, Heather calls, and Wild Robert comes. Whether Heather’s ready for the aftermath remains to be seen. . . .

Wild Robert demonstrates many of the qualities that make me love Diana Wynne Jones’ writing so much. It’s quirky and unexpected, inventive, original, and full of humor and character. The characters, especially Heather and Wild Robert, are interesting and well developed. Robert, in particular, is a very unique individual, capricious, resentful, quick but caught still in the grandness of the estate his family once owned, unable to accept the common folk trampling all over “his” land. The results of his moods are, to say the least, quite amusing. The quality of the writing is definitely up to Jones’ impeccable standards. My one . . . not exactly complaint so much as sad observation . . . is that the story, while complete in itself, feels like it could have been a great deal longer. Actually, it feels like the real story is only beginning. I can only imagine that Jones had originally intended to make this into a longer book, but it never came together and she wrapped up what she had as best she could. And “as best she could” for Diana Wynne Jones is quite well indeed, it’s an excellent story and flows nicely. So, if you’re a fan of her books, this is a must-read part of her collection, and if you’re not familiar with her books, at about 100 pages, Wild Robert has the advantage of being a short volume to try her writing.

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Dogsbody

Author: Diana Wynne JonesDogsbody

My rating: 5 of 5

The great luminary who inhabited and ruled over the dog star Sirius is brought to trial for killing another luminary and for loosing a Zoi, an object of great power and importance. And thus, he is sentenced to life on the planet where the Zoi fell as one of the creatures native to that world. In short, he was born on Earth as a dog. His one hope of being restored to his rightful place is to find the lost Zoi, but being a dog with an animal’s limited mental capacity (even for such a highly intelligent dog as he), Sirius doesn’t even remember what the Zoi is, so how is he supposed to find it? Moreover, he finds himself overwhelmed by the inborn dog-ness of himself–smells, impulses, limitations. Not to mention the ever-growing affection and loyalty he feels for the human girl Kathleen who took him in as a half-drowned puppy. Sometimes the situation seems hopeless, but Sirius finds help in some of the most unlikely places.

Diana Wynne Jones. Enough said. Dogsbody is a multiple-time-over re-read, and I have found it deeply enjoyable every time. Like every one of Jones’ books, it is a masterpiece of originality that crafts and weaves ideas no one else would consider, yet makes them entirely credible and extremely interesting. This book in particular is really neat in that it is both this huge fantasy novel about these powerful heavenly beings, yet it is also, at heart, a dog story as well. Her descriptions of Sirius and his experiences growing up as a puppy and truly magnificent even if taken only as an animal story–all the emotions, reactions, and frustrations of a pet in a home where he and his mistress are not truly welcome. The interactions between Sirius and the cats are fantastic as well. And then the connections between Sirius’ story and Kathleen’s are so sweet and touching and sad and beautiful all at once sometimes. Dogsbody is an unexpected and wonderful fantasy that I would recommend to basically everyone; it’s one of my favorites.

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