Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Super Diana Wynne Jones List

Since DWJ is one of my favorite authors, I've been wanting to write about her books for a while. However, I was afraid that the post would either be too short (two words: OMG! Squee!!!!) or too long (expanding those two words almost into infinity.) Here is a compromise: a list of her books with my favorites first, very brief descriptions, and publication date.

First Prize
  • Fire and Hemlock (1985) - this is absolutely her best. I like it because it's kind of scary. An adult man takes an interest in a prepubescent girl. He wants to use her for something, but he can't tell her what. She ends up repressing her memories of certain events. I don't believe that it's really about pedophilia, but the hints are disturbing nonetheless. (Usually I don't like horror at all - or rather, this is the kind of horror that I like, very understated.) And you ask why I like it? Because it's also a romance, a mystery, and a realistic depiction of adolescence and dysfunctional families. Plus she crams it all in without ever really telling us what's going on, and still makes it all work.
  • Howl's Moving Castle (1986) - contains several DWJ specialities: surprise ending, people who have magic powers but don't realize it, people who love each other but don't realize it and have lots of arguments instead, travel between 20th century Britain and other worlds, lots of humor, etc, etc. The movie does not do it justice. Sequels, less good: Castle in the Air (1990 - which I do like), House of Many Ways (2008 - which I haven't read)
  • The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) - This is my favorite of the "Chrestomanci" series, because the hero, without realizing it, assists some very bad people to do some very bad stuff. When he does realize, he has to stop them. I think this is kind of rare in a "children's" book, to give the protagonist something to feel genuinely guilty about - and yet make it clear that it wasn't his fault. Other books in this series that I like are Witch Week (1982) and Charmed Life (1977). The Magicians of Caprona (1980) is not very memorable. Conrad's Fate (2005) and The Pinhoe Egg (2006) are two recent additions which are good but not great. Resisting comparison to Harry Potter, of which I only ever read the first book and thought "This is like a cross between Witch Week and The Lives of Christopher Chant, only much worse."
  • The Homeward Bounders (1981) - I like this one a lot too. The ending is unusual for DWJ - won't tell you what it is.
  • Hexwood (1993) - another very well plotted book. The tagline on my copy says "Things are never what they seem to be" and that about sums it up.
Second Prize
  • Eight Days of Luke (1975) - I like this. Similar to Fire and Hemlock, it brings mythology into the present day, without spelling things out until the end.
  • Time of the Ghost (1981) - another "things are never what they seem to be."
  • Archer's Goon (1984) - mostly about time travel. The surprise ending is, perhaps, predictable once you've figured out what DWJ endings usually consist of, but I thought it was well done.
  • A Tale of Time City (1987) - I've written about this elsewhere.
Honorable Mention
  • The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) - nonfiction, in a sense. Not fiction (unfortunately.) Very funny.
  • Wilkins' Tooth (USA: Witch's Business - 1973) - this deserves honorable mention because it was her first published children's book. Themes to be developed later appear: magic coexisting with everyday life, dysfunctional families, amusing euphemisms for swear words (this was a trend in her early books, seems to have faded away.) However, she hadn't figured out endings yet. She paints her characters into a corner and has to rip off a fairy tale to get them out. (Why is it that we mind less when someone "borrows" the beginning of a fairy tale and takes it in a new direction, but borrowing endings is seen as cheating?)
  • (Updated 10/5/2010) The Ogre Downstairs (1974) - her second published children's book.  Interesting as a preliminary sketch for ideas she expanded on later.  Should be read as a precursor to Time of the Ghost and the short story "Carruthers."
Less Good
  • Dogsbody (1975) - doesn't really pull it off, in my opinion. Ending was predictable (in other worlds, she does similar endings better elsewhere), hordes of talking animals and a Cinderella/political subplot (yes, that's what I mean) are ambitious but overdone.
  • The Magid series: Deep Secret (1997) and The Merlin Conspiracy (2003) - good but not great.
  • The Dalemark series: The Spellcoats (1979), Drowned Ammet (1977), Cart and Cwidder (1975), The Crown of Dalemark (1993) - DWJ's excursion into pure fantasy. I read them but don't remember much about them.
  • A Sudden Wild Magic (1992) - I read this a while ago and completely forgot about it until just now. I remember that it has a slightly more "adult" approach to sex than her other books, which shocked me a little at the time.
  • The Derkholm series: Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998), Year of the Griffin (2000) - again, not memorable, except for a very funny line in Year of the Griffin. A romantic youth opines, "To write poems to a cruel love is the height of artistry." The heartless lady's brother is heard to remark "that that was what they all said." Somehow putting it in the third person makes it funnier, to my mind. Should be read along with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, since they are set in that "world."
Short Stories

  • "Carruthers" - good
  • "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" - good
  • "Everard's Ride" - novella, good, not in her usual style
  • "The Fat Wizard" - funny
  • "No One" - I liked this
  • "The Plague of Peacocks" - funny, liked it a lot
  • "The Sage of Theare" - A Chrestomanci story - pretty good
  • "Little Dot" - pretty good, based on opera(!)
  • "The True State of Affairs" - good, scarier than her usual stuff
Ones I didn't like as much:
  • "Aunt Bea's Day Out" - funny
  • "Carol O'Neir's Hundredth Dream" - A Chrestomanci story, not bad
  • "Enna Hittims" - not very good
  • "The Fluffy Pink Toadstool" - not very good
  • "The Girl Who Loved The Sun" - interesting but predictable
  • "The Green Stone" - somewhat funny, set in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland world
  • "The Master" - a bit scary, not her best
  • "Nad and Dan adn Quaffy" - a bit funny, not her best
  • "Stealer of Souls" - A Chrestomanci story - pretty good
  • "Warlock at the Wheel" - A Chrestomanci story - not bad
  • "What The Cat Told Me" - not bad

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Torchwood (second look)

Well, I've been making my way through Torchwood, and I've now seen two episodes that really stand out.
  • "Countrycide" - I liked this a lot, even though a) I usually don't like horror at all and b) "countrycide" is actually a dumb name. Literally it would mean "killing the country" (on analogy with "homicide" - killing a person) but in this case it's arguably the countryside that's doing the killing. And that's what I liked about it.

    The Torchwood team gets stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and as the camera pulls back to show us the desolate hills looming over them, we understand that they are in deep trouble. One of the characters complains, "I hate the countryside." This is supposedly because he's a city boy, but those of us who have grown up there understand with all our hearts that, as Sherlock Holmes said many years ago, all kinds of bad stuff can happen out in the country, where there are no witnesses. In this particular episode, the explanation of what's going on might be implausible in spots, but it's fundamentally true, and that's why it works.

  • "Greeks Bearing Gifts" - again, this is a case where the "explanation" of the plot is a bit iffy, but the heart of the episode is powerful enough to make up for it. Toshiko feels that her teammates have betrayed her. A charming stranger is taking advantage of her loneliness. We see her being manipulated, and the details of the scam don't matter. She's truly suffering, and the actress, Naoko Mori, does an absolutely perfect job. (Ironically, although I felt that these episodes are superior to earlier ones, according to the episode commentary several scenes of "Greeks Bearing Gifts" were among the very first Torchwood scenes filmed.)
At this point I feel like mentioning that special effects don't usually do much for me. I mean, I'm a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, and it's a great pleasure to be able to watch TV shows and movies that do no disservice to the genre (a fairly recent development). Obviously, you can't have SF&F without the FX. But I'm more interested in character than in watching things blow up.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blood Orange vs. Regular Orange

A friend of mine asked me what is the difference. Here is a visual aid:

As for the taste, blood oranges are slightly less sweet and slightly more . . . intense. I like them better than regular oranges.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Howl's Moving Castle (Miyazaki)

Finally saw it. So behind on everything. Knew that it deviated from the book, but what interested me was the habit it has of deviating and then wandering back. Book and film are still mostly about the same thing: the danger of catching falling stars. Isn't that right?

I thought the biggest change was in Howl's character. In the movie he's much more heroic (which makes the tantrum he throws over a hair dye malfunction seem rather out of place.) He doesn't flirt with anyone except Sophie - that was a major change. (In the book, in fact, Howl resembles Genji.) The unexpectedness and combativeness of their relationship is pretty much gone, which is kind of disappointing.

The only other comment I have is that Howl's apprentice is named Michael. The Japanese version of that seems to be "Murkl"??? and the English translation did not restore the English name. That's really weird.

Final verdict: not bad. Miyazaki is cool. Very very cool to see DIANA WYNNE JONES's name on the big screen. It's about time.