Witch Week Day Four: An Appreciation of Oz

WITCH WEEK 2016-200At the center of Witch Week this year, I wanted to place a set of books that were central to the development of American fantasy: the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. They’ve also been important in my own reading life, as you can perhaps tell from the title of my blog.

I knew that Deb of The Book Stop was a fellow Oz fan (we were both using a picture of Ozma as our avatar at one point), so I asked her to share some thoughts about what these books mean to her. Her eloquent words express much of what I myself would say about Oz, and I hope will strike a chord with you as well — whether or not you have already fallen under the spell of that magical land.

For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.


An Appreciation of Oz

by Deb of The Book Stop

L. Frank Baum, 1905
L. Frank Baum, 1905

I was so happy to write about the Oz books for Witch Week, because those books literally changed the way I grew up, in much the same way Harry Potter has changed the lives of many young readers. The Oz books were published between 1900 and 1920, and just like Harry Potter, many young Americans of that time grew up anxiously awaiting their next Oz book.

It’s sad that so many people know only The Wizard of Oz, and then only the movie. There are 14 Oz books, with a huge cast of characters, and they featured some of the strongest female characters to be seen in fantasy literature. In Oz the women aren’t just witches, they are rulers, explorers, and sorceresses. When I was growing up, I found few fantasy books where women and girls played such a leading role. Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda (and Betsy and Trot and the Patchwork Girl) were my heroes.

Lyman Frank Baum was born in 1856 in upstate New York. He was born with a weak heart and spent much of his time as a child reading, growing up with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. As an adult, he tried many different careers, from managing an opera house, to opening a department store, to editing a newspaper. After a series of failed ventures, in 1891 he began to write down the nursery rhymes he had invented for his children. His first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, was published in 1897, and he published Father Goose: His Book, in 1899. In 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.

Illustration by WW Denslow from The Wizard of Oz
Illustration by WW Denslow from The Wizard of Oz

Baum meant for The Wizard of Oz to change our perception of fairy tales, from horrible and moralistic to something more positive. Baum set out to create a fantasy world full of adventure but with less fear. Most of his characters can’t die or feel pain (although elements of these books are genuinely scary) and the books are written in a light-hearted, often humorous tone. One of the first fantasy books to be set in the United States, Oz is grounded in America’s spirit of individualism. The characters in Oz are unique, and a frequent theme in these books is the importance of accepting others’ differences and seeing what makes them uniquely valuable.

Significantly, Baum challenged the perception of witches from the Grimm and Andersen fairy tales as horrible, ugly, wicked women.

“Oh, gracious!” cried Dorothy; “are you a real witch?”

“Yes, indeed;” answered the little woman. “But I’m a good witch, and the people love me. I am not as powerful as the Wicked Witch was who ruled here, or I should have set the people free myself.”

“But I thought all witches were wicked,” said the girl, who was half frightened at facing a real witch.

“Oh, no; that is a great mistake. There were only four witches in all the Land of Oz, and two of them, those who live in the North and South, are good witches. I know this is true, for I am one of them myself, and cannot be mistaken.”

Glinda, the good witch of the South, helps Dorothy find her way home, and becomes the reigning Good Witch of the series. The second book, The Land of Oz, introduces Ozma as the ruler of Oz and establishes Glinda as her benevolent guide.

Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

Baum believed that women are powerful, and his witches exemplify the notion that magic isn’t inherently bad or good, but depends on the person using it. He was heavily influenced by his educated wife and her mother, Matilda Gage, who was an intellectual, a political radical, and a feminist. Gage published a book in 1893 on women’s oppression by Christianity, in which she discusses the persecution of women as witches, and it was Gage who encouraged Baum to write children’s stories. Baum’s stories feature strong, wise, magical women, although he has plenty of characters (male and female) who are wicked and foolish. The Wizard, for example, is a humbug who controls the people of Oz through fear. He hides in the Emerald City because, he explains to Dorothy, “while I had no magical powers at all I soon found out that the witches were really able to do wonderful things.”

Magic in the Oz books comes from knowledge and tools more often than inherent ability, and a magical artifact can be evil in the hands of one character but used for good by another. In Baum’s world, magic doesn’t just happen; it requires learning and effort, and power brings responsibility. Glinda doesn’t just use magic, she studies her Magic Book, and the Wizard learns the art of real magic from her. Dr. Pipt in The Patchwork Girl of Oz follows a meticulous recipe and spends six years stirring four kettles with both feet and both hands, just to produce a tiny amount of the Powder of Life.

The Oz books wouldn’t be much fun if Ozma and Glinda were all-powerful. In several of the books they face serious challenges to their magical abilities. In Ozma of Oz, Ozma and her friends are turned into ornaments, doomed to decorate the Nome King’s shelves for ever. In The Lost Princess of Oz, Ozma is kidnapped and hidden away, and in Glinda of Oz, Dorothy and Ozma are trapped under water in a city under a dome. Those are some of my favorites in the series, for exactly that reason. When magic is easy, it’s not nearly as interesting.

Map of the Land of Oz
Map of the Land of Oz

Why is Oz important to me? I can’t say for sure if it began with my family’s annual viewing of the movie, or if it began with the books themselves. Whichever came first, once I began reading I couldn’t stop until I’d absorbed every one, and while I liked some better than others, they still felt like home to me. Like Dorothy, Oz became the place I escaped to, the place where magic came to life. His stories and characters are relevant to me every day, from the exuberant spirit of the Patchwork Girl, to the Woozy who thinks he has a terrifying growl (but it’s really just a squeak), to the Bunny King who wants to live free of responsibilities, but is afraid to give up his material possessions.

glinda-bookThere are theories about what Baum meant when he wrote The Wizard of Oz, and I don’t subscribe to most of them, nor do most Baum scholars. I don’t think he’s writing about the gold standard or Communism, although he clearly has views about politics. His books are about being kind, and honest, and working together, and being yourself. And if Baum didn’t set out to teach any lessons in his books, he did anyway. For me the greatest one was this: if you keep your eyes open, you never know what world you might stumble into.

And I think the best fantasy children’s books are about exactly that. It’s the door to the wardrobe, the rabbit-hole, the cyclone on the prairie. Children’s fantasy is about discovering you’re stronger and more powerful than you thought you were, and that the world is a more magical place than you believed it to be. For me, Oz was the perfect place to start that journey.

New Release Review: Summerlong

Peter S. Beagle, Summerlong (2016)

summerlongThe Puget Sound setting and mythological overtones of Peter S. Beagle’s new novel, Summerlong, made it sound irresistible to me — and it turned out to be a lovely end-of-summer read. A long-term unmarried couple, one living in Seattle and the other across the water on Gardner Island, find their lives transformed in unexpected  ways when they meet an enchanting but mysterious young waitress. Where does she come from, and what is she fleeing? Why does she have such a magical effect on everyone around her? As her secrets are slowly revealed, we find that nothing can ever be quite the same again.

I really appreciated how Beagle treated the theme of mature love and relationships, a subject not often approached in fantasy fiction these days. He’s brave enough to acknowledge that some hurts cannot easily be healed, that endings in life are often not as tidy as turning the last page of a book. I liked seeing the characters constantly evolve, as old routines die away and new capacities come to light — being retirement age doesn’t mean losing one’s capacity to learn and grow, after all.

I did find that I enjoyed the build-up of the story, characters, and the setting — which is very vividly and accurately evoked — more than the denouement. To me the mythological aspects were more effective when hinted at than when overtly referenced. Still, the world and people of Summerlong will linger in my memory for more than a season, leaving traces of beauty, wisdom, and heartache behind.


Reading New England: The Witches of Eastwick

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)

eastwickWhen I said I planned to read The Witches of Eastwick for the Reading New England challenge, I also said I didn’t expect to enjoy it — and I was right, I didn’t. So this is going to be one of the rare times on this blog when I talk about a book I did not like at all. Usually I prefer not to spend my blogging time on negativity, but this time I do want to try to work through my thoughts and see if I can articulate them in a comprehensible way. If you’ve read the book, I’d be very interested to hear yours as well — whether you agree with me or not.

According to the author himself, this is a book about female power; some even consider it a feminist book. But the power is entirely negative, life-denying, solipsistic. The witches themselves (three middle-aged women in the coastal Rhode Island town of Eastwick, who gain magical powers upon losing their men through divorce or death), are primarily interested in having affairs with a succession of local men, crowned by the newcomer to the town, Darryl Van Horne. All the men are unattractive, but Darryl — who is never explicitly identified with the Devil — is the most horrendous of all, with his ice-cold semen and rampant vulgarity. Yet the witches are obsessed with him and become murderously jealous when he takes up with a younger woman, with disastrous results. Does this lead them a moral awakening? No, only a few minor qualms, followed by escape with another set of magically conjured men. The end.

It was striking to me that the witches are all mothers, but they have barely any scenes with their children. They complain about them, they plot how to get them out of the way so they can have sex with their lovers, they groan about what terrible mothers they are. But we almost never see them interacting with them, and more than anything else, this made the book seem like a male fantasy to me. Get the children out of the way; insinuate yourself into the female brain, and see how all she thinks about is you, you, you. Other women are just obstructions to be gotten out of the way, or to make victims of petty revenge and spite; even animals who interfere with the pursuit of selfish pleasure are simply objects to be destroyed at will. And men are also objects of mere desire, disposed of when they become boring. Naturally, female power has a dark side, and maybe that’s all that Updike set out to portray; but I do not believe that’s all there is to it.

The handling of magic also bothered me. The book’s premise is that when women become free of the confines of marriage, they become witches in the literal, medieval sense: sprouting extra nipples to suckle their familiars, saying backwards Latin chants, making wax figures, and so on. This seems to be Updike’s idea of a joke; the novel takes place during the Vietnam era, when such women in a small town would indeed have been thought of as witches — so why not make that the truth?

The thing is, this spontaneous arising of witchcraft out of nowhere does not entirely make sense. Sometimes it’s intuitive and psychologically true (the witches making an image to destroy their enemy); other times it’s silly and over the top (turning tennis balls into various objects during a game). Some of their spells are primitive forms of sympathetic magic; others are more sophisticated, like the backward prayers that pop into their heads untaught. The mix of magics felt random and sloppy to me, and too un-subtle in its manifestations.

Was there anything I did appreciate? Well, Updike writes in a highly sensuous, tactile way, and turns some beautiful phrases. Nearly every description turns into a sexual reference, of course, making one feel trapped in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy, but at doing that he is very effective. Darryl, in all his sliminess, was a rather brilliant modern take on the unholy charms of the Devil; his sermon (held in a Unitarian church) was disgustingly mesmerizing, and his “Vote for me” ending fit right in with the political situation, both then and now. And there was one character for whom I felt a smidgen of sympathy and understanding, one of the men who is driven by the witches into madness and suicide. Finally, I felt there was a human character I could believe in — not particularly like or identify with, but at least find convincing. So it might be worth reading one of Updike’s books centered on the male perspective, where his writing might ring more true. This one, I’m afraid, held no magic for me.


New Release Review: The Evil Wizard Smallbone

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone (2016)

evilwizlgWhen a book gets compared to the work of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m not sure whether to read it or not. On the one hand, there’s the hope that the reading experience will evoke the brilliant qualities of my all-time favorite fantasy author. On the other, there’s the dread that the latter-day work will be derivative, uninspired, or otherwise lackluster, and that the disappointment will simply increase the pain of what I’m missing.

Fortunately, although The Evil Wizard Smallbone does have some scenes and motifs that could have been lifted from a DWJ novel, Sherman works with them in a way that feels fresh and original. When Nick Reynaud, a runaway from an abusive home, stumbles across the “Evil Wizard Bookshop” in the picture-perfect Maine town of Smallbone Cove, he at first wants to stay just one night and move on. But he soon finds out that “evil wizard” is not just a cute name, the bookshop is truly magical, and the animals and humans of the town are not all they seem. He also finds that he himself might have some abilities and potential that his relatives and teachers have overlooked, and that might help to save Smallbone Cove itself.

Though not as mind-stretching or inventive as the best of Diana Wynne Jones, this was an entertaining story with warmth and heart, memorable characters, a fantastic setting (who wouldn’t want to live in a magical bookshop?) and a satisfying conclusion. Nick’s inner and outer journey, in which magic is a counterpart to emotional growth, is sensitively portrayed without being heavily didactic. Unlike lesser fantasy works that just throw magic around like firecrackers, leaving nothing behind, there’s real substance here, for readers both young and old.

Much as I enjoyed Smallbone, there was something about its construction and pacing that bothered me. I think it has to do with the fact that although the bulk of the story belongs to Nick, it kept getting interrupted with other points of view — especially at the beginning, which had me quite confused for a while. Even though these parts were well done in themselves, they somehow felt like a distraction; they were not given enough weight to become a true second/third/fourth story thread, but pulled us away from Nick’s narrative just as I wanted it to be filled out more.

However, this was in the end a minor drawback for me, and it might not bother you at all. If middle grade fantasy is your cup of tea, do read The Evil Wizard Smallbone, and be sure to let me know what you thought. (It’s a perfect choice for both Witch Week and the Reading New England challenge, too!)


Paris in July: Four French Delights


Paris in July is an event hosted by Thyme for Tea that encourages us to enjoy and blog about all things French — books, movies, food, what have you. In a burst of synchronicity, when I learned of this event I already had not just one, but four books on my shelf to go with the theme, including several newly published or reissued translations from French, and one debut novel in English. I had a fabulous time immersing myself in French history, culture, and atmosphere with these books, and I hope you will too!



The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Lego and Denis Lepee, translated by Sue Dyson
This historical novel is set during the early years of the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. A highly complex tapestry of voices, and plot threads, it seems to attempt to put a “Da Vinci Code”-type spin on French history, with mixed success. For me the first half, which we spend waiting for the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the real power behind the throne for many years, dragged a bit. The second half, when Louis comes into his own and some fortunes rise while others fall, was more exciting, but the concluding reveal of the great conspiracy that had been anticipated throughout the book was a letdown — silly and unconvincing. The large cast of characters and short chapters, with their abrupt scene changes, could also be confusing. Still, I enjoyed the panoramic view of a time and place about which I had previously read very little, even though the perspective on certain historical characters and events should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Gallic Books, April 2016 (reissue) • Source: ARC from publisher

Constellation by Adrien Bosc, translated by Willard Wood
On October 27, 1949, the Air France aircraft Constellation-BAZN took off from Orly airport with 48 souls. In the early hours of October 28, as it was landing for refueling in the Azores, the plane disappeared. In this short novel, Bosc gives voice to some of the individuals who perished, both famous and unknown, as well as retracing the response of the world to the tragedy, and even giving some insight into his personal research journey. Structured as brief vignettes that switch from one topic and point of view to another, it was more like a tantalizing set of appetizers than a full meal, leaving me wanting to know more about some of the lives we glimpse so fleetingly. Yet perhaps that was partly the point — to highlight the briefness and transience of life, leaving us with an impression like a sprinkling of stars in the night.
Other Press, May 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

Girl in the Afternoon by Serena Burdick
Burdick’s debut novel was a compelling read that I finished in nearly a single sitting, with its story of two young painters in 1870s Paris, and the web of family secrets, deceit and betrayal that both binds and divides them. Though the subject matter is sensationalistic, Burdick’s treatment of it is not; rather than aiming at big, splashy effects, she quietly makes us feel the emotional impact of the events she describes, through subtle and evocative turns of phrase that make her writing a pleasure to read. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be — the artistic themes stayed more in the background than I had expected — but that turned out not to be a problem, as the result was moving, surprising, and thought-provoking.
St. Martin’s Press, July 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but I already know that it’s one readers will find either magically poetic or utterly impenetrable — and I know that I tend toward the first camp, though with understanding for the second. An atmospheric, slow-moving fantasy about two extraordinary girls in pre-WWII France and Italy, it’s one of those rare books I can enjoy without always entirely understanding what is going on. It reminded me in various ways of Little, Big; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; the Gormenghast books; and The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. . . so if you love any of those, it is probably worth a try.
Europa Editions, February 2016 • Source: E-book from library

Some copies were received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.


Top Ten Funniest Books by Women


When I was writing my review of Lucky Jim, one of the most acclaimed comic novels of all time, I looked around to see what else was included on lists of the funniest books. I found that they were heavily dominated by male writers; this one from AbeBooks, for example, was chosen by British readers and only includes two female authors, Helen Fielding and Sue Townsend.

Now, it’s not to say that these women’s books are not hilarious, nor to denigrate the comic talents of Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Bryson, and Pratchett, all of whom I adore, but there are some other writers out there whose works really deserve our attention as well. I find it quite depressing that when New York Times editors were asked to choose the funniest novel, not a single woman made the list. I can only imagine that those editors’ reading habits are very different than mine, because when I started making a list featuring female authors who make me laugh, I found it difficult to stop. Here are ten or so of my personal favorites — sorry, I was laughing too hard to count.

BrandonsPeriod Piece – Gwen Raverat
Written and illustrated by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who became a fine artist, this marvelous memoir of the Victorian age affectionately pokes fun at the habits of our ancestors.

The Brandons – Angela Thirkell
For fans of Trollope, Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire with a social comedy full of witty phrases and sly allusions.

Friday’s Child – Georgette Heyer
One of Heyer’s funniest, sunniest Regency romances, this is about a young couple who have to grow up — and fall in love — after they get married.

Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim
When unsympathetic English relatives send a pair of half-German twins to America during World War I, nothing turns out quite as expected. The absurd dialogue of the Twinkler twins is the highlight here.

The Egg and I – Betty MacDonald
MacDonald turned a difficult life on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest into superb comedy. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children are also both hilarious and psychologically astute, with their magical solutions to child-rearing problems.

UnderfootShowPlease Don’t Eat the Daisies – Jean Kerr
The wife of New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr was a playwright and humorist in her own right. Some of the humor in her 1957 book of essays has dated, but it remains a lively and intelligent take on family life.

Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Hanff is mostly known for 84, Charing Cross Road (which is also a very funny book), but I wish more readers would pick up her delicious memoir of trying to make it on Broadway.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
For over sixty years, starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004, storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and wacky results.

Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam can take the painful realities of life and turn them into comedy like nobody else. Her early coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in a boys’ school is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

YearoftheGriffinYear of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’s delightful send-up of the “magical school” trope is also very likely the only book ever to feature a female griffin who goes to college. Please ignore the bizarre cover art; it makes Elda look like a menacing monster, but really she’s a sweetheart.

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I haven’t yet read Three Men in a Boat, a popular choice for funniest book of all time, though it’s on my list. Even so, I found Willis’s slapstick time-traveling homage to Jerome’s Victorian classic a hoot.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell
First in an all-too-brief mystery series, featuring a group of young British barristers and their older mentor — who, in a tantalizing twist, narrates their adventures without revealing his/her gender. As is appropriate to legal mysteries, a highly stylized, double-edged writing style is key to the humor here.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lisa Lutz, Margery Sharp, Maria Semple, Shirley Jackson, Susannah Clarke … just thinking about them makes me smile. What are your favorite funny books and writers?



Elizabeth Goudge Day Wrap-up

EGButton2016_edited-1Thank you to all who joined me in celebrating Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday last Sunday, April 24. Whether you read a book in her honor, posted your own review, or just enjoyed the contributions of others, I’m so glad we got to take this day to celebrate an author who has fallen out of fashion, but still has much to offer. On that topic, I’d like to point you toward an excellent article, Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal by Kari Sperring, which appeared in Strange Horizons back in February. It does a fine job of describing what makes Goudge’s novels so special for many of us. (Thank you to Terri Windling for pointing me to it — and to Helen and Lark for pointing me to Terri’s blog post about Elizabeth Goudge, which was another lovely discovery this week.)

Here are the links I’ve gathered; if I’m missing anything, please let me know. And mark your calendars for next year!

I wrote about The Rosemary Tree:

Old wrongs are brought to light and their pain dispelled, relationships are created and strengthened, and new resolutions for reconciliation and healing are made. Some might find such a tale lacking in bite and conflict, and the solutions Goudge offers too simplistic — but they have hidden depths.

Jane of Beyond Eden Rock also chose The Rosemary Tree:

‘The Rosemary Tree’ is a quiet, slow book, but it speaks profoundly. The spirituality threaded through it may feel old-fashioned or odd to some, but  I think that Elizabeth Goudge is simply addressing the same concerns that might today be addressed in the language of psychology or social concern in a very different language.

GreenDolphinJean of Howling Frog Books ventured into the land of Green Dolphin Street:

Goudge was really quite a genius at taking a hackneyed old plot like “two sisters in love with the same man” and turning it into something unexpected, fresh, and redemptive.

And so did Kelsey of Kelsey’s Notebook, preferring the original title of Green Dolphin Country:

Most books are add-ons to life: you read them and they capture your surface attention, but you’re always conscious of your real life. Green Dolphin Street: not so for me. It became a part of my life while I was reading it, and now that I’m finished, I miss it. I feel like I do when I return home from a great trip.

Helen of She Reads Novels enjoyed The White Witch:

What I loved most about this book were the details of daily village life in the seventeenth century, the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, and the undercurrents of magic, mystery and mythology which run throughout the story.

Lark of The Bookwyrm’s Hoard loved revisiting The Blue Hills (aka Henrietta’s House), and is still working on her review. I’ll link it here when it’s finished!

ValleySong2Helen of A Gallimaufry felt lucky to find The Valley of Song:

The Valley of Song is just so wonderfully beautiful and so perfectly described, with a sensitivity to inner as well as outer beauty. I would like to quote chunks of it at you all day.

And thanks to a comment from Helen I learned that Terri Windling had written about Elizabeth Goudge: A Sense of Otherness a few days earlier from her Dartmoor studio. She includes beautiful pictures of the area along with quotes from Goudge’s autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, and from Sperring’s essay. I hope you’ll stop by her lovely blog.

Finally, congratulations to the winner of the giveaway, Valentine! She chose to receive Green Dolphin Street from Hendrickson Books, our generous sponsor. They’ve just added Island Magic to their list of Goudge reprints, bringing the total to ten. Whether you take advantage of these, or find them and more at the public library, or hunt down copies in used bookstores or online, I hope you will read something by Elizabeth Goudge over the coming year and join us again on April 24, 2017.

New Release Review: The Lie Tree

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree (2016)

LieTreeI think that Frances Hardinge is destined to become one of my new favorite authors. I loved The Lie Tree (as well as her previous novel, Cuckoo Song) for the interesting things she does with ideas and relationships and history and myth. Hardinge’s prose is vivid and distinctive without being overly stylized, and her concepts spring out of real imaginative power rather than gimmicky formulas. Her young-adult characters are striving toward selfhood in a complex, nuanced way that can be appreciated by readers on both sides of the child/adult divide. With so many ingredients that are very much to my taste, the result was a delicious treat for me.

In The Lie Tree, we are introduced to Faith Sunderly, a bright, talented girl on the threshold of Victorian womanhood. Neither her father, an renowned paleontologist, nor her social-butterfly mother have the least idea of what is going on inside her head, or that she might want to break out of the bounds of what society has decreed for her. But when the family suddenly moves to a remote island for a research project, Faith finds that the surface veneer of her family’s safe, conventional life is beginning to crack. What was the true motivation for this abrupt dislocation? Why have none of their servants been brought along? What is her father hiding in the summerhouse? And what is the inner and outer menace that threatens him? As she begins to investigate, danger comes close to her as well, and cannot be escaped without demanding a dark sacrifice.

The theme of lying and deception is intricately woven into the plot and embodied in the image of the Lie Tree. This is a fantastical creation that yet is plausible within the world of the story, which takes place during a time when science was opening up undreamed-of wonders and shaking the foundations of human knowledge. Theories and notions about the relationship between the physical and spiritual world proliferated wildly, and the notion of a plant that feeds on human mendacity would fit right in. Hardinge’s slow build-up of the insidious Tree made for a narrative that was both thrilling and psychologically astute.

Though I enjoyed much of the book immensely, I admit to feeling somewhat disappointed in the ending, which left me wishing for more development of certain characters. Friends turned into villains, villains into friends, but then the rising action culminated in a frantic chase that cut off any opportunity to explore these surprising developments further. I wouldn’t have minded another chapter or two in that direction.

That’s not going to stop me from reading Hardinge’s next book, though, and seeking out as much of her earlier work as I can. For thoughtful, emotionally satisfying, imaginative entertainment, she’s one author that I will treasure.


Brooding about the Brontes: The Eyre Affair

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair (2002)

EyreAffairWhen The Eyre Affair first came out, I was doubtful. It sounded like an overly cutesy idea to me: in an alternate universe, agent Thursday Next (ugh, that name!) is after criminal mastermind Acheron Hades (ugh, again) who’s figured out how to enter books and capture fictional characters, such as Jane Eyre. Can Thursday save the world from this dastardly plot, and find her own happiness in the process?

This didn’t sound appealing at all, so I passed on it and all the wildly popular sequels that Mr. Fforde — if that really is his name — has concocted since. But with Girl with Her Head in a Book’s Brooding about the Brontes event coming up, I became curious again about this book that dared to play havoc with the characters and plot of one of my favorite works of fiction. Susie had liked it a lot, so it seemed worth giving the old 50-page try at least. (If I can’t get into a book after 50 pages, I feel justified to stop reading.)

Well, The Eyre Affair passed the 50-page test, and in fact I ended up enjoying it very much. Yes, there are those stupid names — in addition to Thursday and Acheron, we’re subjected to Braxton Hicks, Runcible Spoon, and — oh, please! — Jack Schitt. Even Warner Brothers cartoons were a bit more subtle in this department, I feel. There are also awkward point-of-view shifts and some other infelicities that a good editor could have helped this first-time novelist to avoid.

But the sheer exuberance of the book’s imaginative world won me over: an alternate reality where the fashion for cloning extinct species has resulted in a surplus supply of Dodos, nuclear weapons have never been invented but the Crimean War has been dragging on for 130 years, and Wales rejoices in its status as a separate country. It could have been too whimsical for words, but somehow it managed to hold the balance between sublime and ridiculous well enough to keep me reading, and smiling too.

The most fantastic thing (in several senses) about this fantasy world is that people care about literature, art, and culture as matters of life and death. Instead of sports heroes on their trading cards, kids covet Henry Fielding characters (“I’ll trade you my Sophia for your Amelia”). Surrealist artists who want the right to melt clocks and Raphaelites upholding the banner of realism battle in the streets. A Rocky Horror-style version of Richard III is performed every week at a Swindon theater, taking all its actors from the raucous audience who have participated in it countless times. And of course, there’s the little matter of a device being invented that lets us enter into the world of a favorite book, interact with the characters, and maybe even alter that ending that has always been so unsatisfying…for us bookworms, it’s the ultimate in wish fulfillment, and Fforde makes our dreams come true.

Though I think that some of the jokes will be best appreciated by English majors and others who know their Sophias from their Amelias, there’s plenty here to raise a chuckle from all kinds of readers. (Just make sure that you either have already read Jane Eyre, or don’t mind having the entire plot revealed beforehand, because otherwise the experience will be seriously spoiled for you.) The world itself is the main attraction; none of the characters is well-rounded enough to hold our interest independently, and even Jane and Rochester come across as cardboard-cutout versions of their “real” selves. Still, though as a booklover’s treat The Eyre Affair is not terribly deep or serious, it turned out to be a substantial enough concoction to satisfy me.

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March Magics: Two with witches

Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (1988)
Diana Wynne Jones, Witch’s Business (1974)

WyrdSistersThis month, I’ve been happy to join in the fun of March Magics, reading and rereading several books by two of my favorite fantasy authors. Both of them excel at playing with tropes from tradition and folklore, in very different but equally inventive and thought-provoking ways. Here, for example, are two books featuring witches and witchcraft that put some spin on those old-fashioned pointy hats and broomsticks.

In Wyrd Sisters Granny Weatherwax, the formidable elder witch we first met in Equal Rites, is joined by the boisterously fecund matriarch Nanny Ogg and young witch-in-training Magrat Garlick. Maiden, mother and crone form a tiny coven in the kingdom of Lancre — the kind of coven where the question “When shall we three meet again?” is answered by “Well, I’m babysitting on Tuesday, but I could manage Friday,” and Magrat is in charge of bringing the snacks (bat-shaped scones with currant eyes). It soon becomes clear that this trio, while humorously riffing on Halloween-costume stereotypes with their messy hair, black clothing, and cauldrons, are “wise women” rather than evil practitioners of the dark arts. Though they like to keep their moral options flexible — “We’re bound to be truthful,” says Granny, “But there’s no call to be honest” — and are not averse to keeping the general populace wary of their powers, they’re on the side of good, of helping rather than hurting. That’s unless there’s someone who truly deserves to be hurt, of course.

The real evil in Lancre, it soon becomes evident, lies in the hearts of the usurping Duke and Duchess, who loudly insist that they had nothing to do with the former king falling downstairs and landing on his own knife. The witches happen to be on the scene when the heir to the throne is being spirited away, and do some spiriting of their own. The wicked nobles become suspicious of the weird sisters and try to frame them through the medium of some traveling players…while the Duke slowly goes mad…and a storm is brewing in the mountains…

If this sounds like a fractured version of several Shakespeare plays, it is, and there’s some clever use of both pseudo- and real Shakespearean dialogue that will amuse anyone with some degree of familiarity therefrom. (Prithee.) There are also multitudinous puns and wordplay, slapstick comedy, twisted twin-based plots, and a Fool who is not as foolish as he seems. In short, it’s a worthy homage to the Bard, but with a sublime silliness of its own. If you haven’t yet experienced Pratchett’s Discworld, this is not a bad place to start; even though it’s not the first one chronologically, I think it provides a fine introduction to many elements of the Disc, and is one of my personal favorites of the series so far.

WitchsBusWitch’s Business, meanwhile, starts in our own world rather than an alternate reality, and at first seems to have nothing to do with magic at all. The opening situation is a familiar one: two children short of pocket money attempt to start a “business” to earn some change. But their field of choice (OWN BACK LTD) soon brings them into conflict with Biddy Iremonger, who turns out to be something more than the slightly mad old lady they’ve always considered her.

Indeed, Biddy is not outwardly-sinister-yet-inwardly-benign like Pratchett’s witches. She injects a rather chilling touch of evil into the otherwise mundane plot of children making new friends, hunting for treasure, and getting into trouble. In this, her first published children’s novel, Jones is already a master at mixing fantastical and realistic elements, making it believable that malevolent forces can lurk just on the other side of what we’re willing to perceive. But what I really appreciate about her is that she also makes it clear without the least bit of preachiness that these forces are not just an outer threat, but live within each one of us. The battle to overcome them is one that we all must fight, and stories are the primary way we’ve always been instructed in how to do that. Both Pratchett and Jones give us new stories that address age-old human concerns and conflicts, in such a light and entertaining way that we may never realize we’re learning something. That’s why their books are so marvelous for any age.

Compared to some of Jones’s later books, this is a comparatively slight, uncomplicated story, but there is much going on beneath the surface. I’ll point you to Chris’s fascinating review to learn about some of the nuances, and appreciate just how brilliant Diana Wynne Jones really is. Thanks again to Kristen for this month of celebration; it’s always a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for these authors with others.



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