Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Re-reading all of DWJ

Here’s a post at tor.com: Making the Metaphor Literal: Fantastic Reality in The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones. The post starts like this:

Over the last few months I have been rereading the complete works of Diana Wynne Jones in publication order….

My instant reaction: What a great idea! I’m absolutely up for that.

I’ve actually been reading Andrea K Host’s Touchstone books, in reverse order of publication, starting with the snow day short story and moving backward to In Arcadia and then going to the Epilogue. These are the most completely soothing books I know, plus I have read them a lot of times, so it’s relatively easy to dip in and out of them while I work on my own stuff. I’m now reading the actual trilogy (in correct order).

When I’m through with these books, I think I will do exactly what this post suggests and read all of DWJ, although possibly not in publication order. Anyway, she goes on:

Jones’ books are simply brilliant. Some are undeniably better than others, but even a dud DWJ is a decent read, and at her best she is extraordinary. In fact I would argue that she is one of the greatest fantasy writers of the last fifty years. So the value of my reread (still ongoing!) has turned out to be considerably more than the nostalgia of returning to beloved children’s books that you first read decades ago. Speaking as an adult reader, and an adult writer of fantasy: there’s a real joy in watching a master at work.

This is all true, although I’m not sure that I think even the duds are necessarily worth a re-read. This particular book, The Time of the Ghost, is not one I particularly liked, as I recall. I’ve only read it once. But perhaps this post will persuade me to read it again.

The Time of the Ghost, in my opinion, belongs squarely in this last [Best of DWJ] category.

It comes from a period in the early 80s where Jones seems to have had a creative blossoming—The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders, Witch Week, Archer’s Goon, Fire and Hemlock, and Howl’s Moving Castle were all published between 1981-1986. From a writer’s perspective this kills me with jealousy. Most of us can only dream of publishing six books that good in six years. This is also a pretty dark period in Jones’s oeuvre—with the exception of Howl, all of these books deal with themes of abuse, isolation, and neglect. (I would argue you can still see echoes of this in Howl too, albeit handled much more lightly.)

A lot of people really love Fire and Hemlock, I know. Me, I’d pick The Homeward Bounders out of this list. Let me see …

Okay, this is officially a really good post. That is, I very much like the observations this person is making, even if I probably wouldn’t rank-order DWJ’s books in the same order she would.

This is, I think, a perfect example of how not to start with the action. Nothing happens on the first page of The Time of the Ghost. Most of it is taken up by an exceedingly lovely and lyrical description of a quiet afternoon in the English countryside in summer. Notice the sounds and colours of Jones’s descriptive writing—the sleepy, heavy humming; the distant flap and caw; fields, just as she expected, sleepy grey-green; trees almost black in the heat haze. Try reading it aloud, and hear the lazy, rocking rhythm of those long sentences, perfect for that summer afternoon.

The post quotes the opening paragraphs and points out how Jones starts not with action, but with tension, brilliantly conveyed through description. Really, this is an excellent analysis. You should certainly click through and read the whole thing.

I don’t really know that this analysis makes me want to re-read the story, though. I mean, in a way, yes, to watch how DWJ puts it together. That’s what this post makes me want to do: join in the analysis. But I don’t find that I want to re-read this story to enjoy it. No wonder I only read it once and only sort of liked it. Dark indeed.

I don’t know that I feel up to ranking DWJs books from top to bottom. Instead, I think I’ll list the ten DWJ novels I would like to re-read, which won’t include this one.

Let me see. All right, I’m going to start with the two I like best and then toss in another eight I like a lot, in no particular order:

  1. Dogsbody. The dogs are really well drawn, and so is Kathleen, and in fact so are the other people in the family. And the ending is bittersweet, not bitter. This book has had a lot of covers. Here’s one I like:

2. Power of Three

3. The Ogre Downstairs

4. A Tale of Time City

5. Charmed Life

6. The Lives of Christopher Chant

7. Cart and Cwidder

8. Dark Lord of Derkholm

9. Year of the Griffin

How about you all? Which are the DWJs novels you like best, and perhaps the ones you like least?

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8 Comments Re-reading all of DWJ

  1. Mary Anderson

    I just reread Howl’s Moving Castle this past ear, then followed it with the other books in the series, which I had not read before. I liked Howl the best of them, but really liked the others as well. It’s been a long time since I read some of the others – I remember really liking The Ogre Downstairs, and I read both Power of Three and The Magicians of Caprona multiple times as a kid. I remember when Harry Potter first came out, and I read the first book, and thought, “Well, that was pretty good, but if all the crazy fans had read Diana Wynne Jones first they would not have been so blown away!”

  2. Elaine T

    Dislike the one with the elephant… Merlin Conspiracy? It was amazingly forgettable. And Sudden Wild Magic.

    Hexwood is rather dry.

    Not too fond of Howl #2, either, although it had its moments.

    Others I like..just about everything else. Power of Three, Dogsbody, Homeward Bounders, eight days of Luke,…

  3. E.C.

    Personally, I love The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (not technically a novel, but a fun read all the same, and a delightful companion to The Dark Lord of Derkholm), Dogsbody, The Homeward Bounders, Eight Days of Luke, Deep Secret (though not so much its sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy), Howl’s Moving Castle, The Game, Conrad’s Fate, and Cart and Cwidder. Of her short stories, the one that comes to mind is The Girl Who Loved the Sun, which is as wonderful a retelling of Greek mythology as could ever be wished.
    I’m the kind of obsessive reader who finds certain authors and reads everything they’ve ever written, so I’ve read nearly all of DWJ’s books and short stories. I’m not quite as committed as my friend, though; she literally named her daughter Jones.
    I find that I have to be in a Mood to read Dogsbody or The Homeward Bounders, but Howl’s Moving Castle is the one I reach for when I just want the world to right itself. It wasn’t my first Diana Wynne Jones book, perhaps not even the best one for sheer literary quality, but it’s the one I’ve quite literally worn to pieces.
    For me, Howl’s Moving Castle is the book that best captures the feel of fairy tales in novel form; no other retelling or derivation has succeeded quite so well (with the possible exception of Robin McKinley’s short stories). I love the movie, too, though it’s more like an homage to DWJ’s original story than a direct corollary.

  4. Allan Shampine

    Agree completely with E.C. on Howl book and movie. I think movie adaptations tend to work best when the director is willing to put their own spin on them, or as E.C. put it, homage rather than direct corollary. I love both the book and movie, but they are pretty different.

    On the Harry Potter movies, I thought the best one was when Alfonso Cuaron took the helm and was willing to do a shorter movie with his own vision rather than a line by line copy.

  5. Maria

    My favourite is Howl’s Moving Castle, loved House of Many Ways, liked the second Howl book as well but not that much.

    And in no particular order: Enchanted Glass, unlike others:) The Merlin Conspiracy, Dogsbody, The Ogre Downstairs, Power of Three, the novella Everard’s ride, and the short stories Little Dot and Plague of Peacocks.

  6. Rachel

    I like movies that just give visual life to the exact book — usually. I did like both the movie and book of Howl’s Moving Castle, even though they movie departs so much from the book.

    I’m glad so many of you are picking out Dogsbody! I think it’s a great story, even though it involves such wildly disparate elements.

    I have forgotten Merlin Conspiracy, so I guess I agree with (most of you) about that one. But I plan on re-reading it, so we’ll see!

  7. Megan

    My absolute favorite DWJ is so hard to pick. I’ve always been torn between Archer’s Goon and Dark Lord of Derkholm. She was a brilliant author who could pack so much into a short book, and still make it really FUNNY.

    I actually quite like Hexwood, although it’s one of those books I always need to read twice in a row, once for the story, and once for the “THAT’s what happened here.”

    My least favorite books were the ones like Aunt Maria where the villain(ess) is just so good at casual cruelty I want to punch them through the pages.

  8. Jeanine

    I’m another vote for Howl, although I like Year of the Griffin and Dark Lord and the Chrestomanci books as well. Howl the movie is great too, even though it is a bit of a departure from the book.

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