Saturday, 26 March 2011

RIP Diana Wynne Jones.

Diana Wynne Jones died today, and I feel like I've lost a friend. I've been reading her novels for over thirty years. I love her work so much that I bought Enchanted Glass the other day at the school book fair, (allegedly for my daughter, but I'm enjoying it a great deal thank you very much).

I can still remember the first DWJ novel I read. I was in the school library one lunchtime when I came across  Power of Three. Browsing through the shelves I picked out a nice chunky book, with an enticing front cover - a grey shape emerging out of the water. I sat down and began to read and was immediately drawn into the atmospheric world of Otmounders, Dorig and Giants, and the story of how the curse of a dying Dorig has to be undone if the three communities are going to survive. I couldn't put it down, and though I haven't read it for years, I have never forgotten it. As a gawky, unsure thirteen year old, I completely identified with the central character Gair, who is the only child in his family to lack a special gift. I loved the way Gair learnt to believe in himself, to act courageously and that the very thing he thinks makes him useless, is in fact the best gift of all. It took me a couple more years to develop my self-confidence but books like Power of Three were a great comfort to me in the mean time.

After Power of Three, I read The Homeward Bounders, a  somewhat dark tale of children trapped in a virtual gaming world that seems enormously prescient now. Next was Wilkins' Tooth, a group of kids responding to bullying by trying to set  up Own Back Ltd with disastrous results. In The Ogre Downstairs, two families come together when their parents marry, creating conflict between the children. When they are given magical chemistry sets, chaos ensues, and they learn to understand each other better. Then there's Dogsbody ( I love Dogsbody) which tells the story of Sirius the Dog Star, who loses his powers and comes to earth as a dog, in order to find a Zoi. The trouble is he can't remember what a Zoi is, and is too full of doggy thoughts to work out how to find it. Eight Days of Luke rewrites Norse mythology when an unhappy boy curses his relatives and releases the God Loki from his prison. And of course, there are the Chrestomanci stories, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad's Fate,The  Magicians of Caprona and others, set in a parallel world where magic is part of every day life and managed by the government post of Chrestomanci.

My absolute favourite has to be Hexwood which I picked  up at my Mum's house, my sister had brought it for our nephew and he had left it behind. It is a stunning book, not really for children at all. It starts with a girl, Ann Stavely sick in bed, watching the strange comings and goings of people to the Hexwood Farm opposite, whilst she talks to four voices in her head, The King, the Prisoner, The Boy, The Slave. Then suddenly, we are transported to another planet where a group of shadowy leaders are trying to rectify a virtual game on Earth that has gone awry. Various characters are sent off to see what has happened, without resolving matters. Meanwhile, as Ann recovers from her illness, she decides to visit the Farm  where she meets a strange character called Mordion and a boy called Hume. The story is told in a complicated time frame with Ann encountering the two of them at different stages of their lives, and then reaches a startling revelation about half way through which completely changes everything you've read up to that point. A very complex narrative structure is wrapped up with a satisfying ending in a story that has explored issues of power, corruption, child soldiers, and slavery. It's fantastic, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Overall, what I have loved about Wynne Jones all these years was her ability to create believable authentic fantasy worlds, tell stories with wit, compassion and heart. But her stories weren't just about magical worlds, they all had a message: the importance of reconciliation; self discovery; overcoming fear, standing up to bullies. But she did it in such a subtle way, that I never felt she was preaching and I always learnt something.

Coincidentally, I learnt of Diana Wynne Jones' death just as I reached Hyde Park today at the end of the anti cuts march. The middle of a good humoured crowd of people, standing up for what they believed in, seemed a good place to mourn the loss of a writer, who has inspired me for years.

So thank you Diana, for all the wonderful books and characters. I know I'm not alone in saying I'll miss you. The world is a duller place without you.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Red Shoes #fridayflash

The girl totters on the edge of the pavement. The heels on her red stilettos are high enough and thin enough that if she moves one inch forward she'll fall in front of the cars racing past her. I feel like yelling, "Be careful love," but she won't hear me from down there. Instead I watch her trying to put her umbrella up. It looks like one of the crap ones from the 99p store - it ain't no wonder,  it keeps blowing inside out.  Despite the weather, she's wearing next to nothing - a thin white cardigan over a low cut blouse, a short black skirt, bare legs. She must be freezing dressed like that, yet she don't seem to notice. She just teeters on the brink of danger. Looks like she's trying to decide something.

I used to dress like that, not caring about the wind and rain, so long as the look was right. I even had a pair of shoes to match - ruby red and glistening with fake diamonds. The were magic - my red shiny shoes - just one click of the heels and off we'd dance on other adventure  - clubs, parties, concerts, we went everywhere together. Why, we even once tripped off with a fella up to Blackpool to see the lights. Fantastic they were, and so was he. And he wasn't the only one, neither. My lucky shoes took me dancing, night after night, bloke after bloke.Lovely days they were. Till we danced into George. And after that, I didn't need no more excitement, I had enough right here at home. Life was like that for ever such a long time.

Of course, we don't get up to much these days, George and I. There's not much scope in this tiny flat. And who wants to go out in this wind, when you need thermals just to go to the post office? I'm not like that girl in the street no more. Those days are long gone.

The rain has eased off and  the girl's put her brolly down. She turns her head slightly and gazes back this way. Perhaps she's looking at someone, her eyes rest on the flats next door. I'm probably making it up- but it seems to me she's saying goodbye. She turns back towards the road, as if she's come to a decision. Yes, she's taking a step onto the street. There she goes, dashing across the traffic on the dual carriageway. I watch her trip her way towards the tube. You go my girl - I think - click your heels and be off.

The clock strikes five. The sun comes out from behind a cloud. Perhaps there'll be a rainbow in a minute. I don't have to wait though. George needs his tea. He don't like it when I keep him waiting. I slip my red slippers back on and head to the kitchen. I think we'll have chops tonight.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Writing Heroes (1)

It being World Book Day, it seems like a good moment to celebrate my Writing Heroes (and answer my daughter's question as she asked  me this the other day).

So here, in no particular order, are SOME of them.

Virginia Woolf - I find it comforting to share my name with such a literary genius. She wrote stream of consciousness like no-one else can, and made it accessible too. I love the inherent sadness of the passing o f time in To the Lighthouse,  the rollercoaster exuberance of Orlando but my all time favourite is Mrs Dalloway.  A masterclass in stream of consciousness, she makes it look so simple, as she hops between the minds of her characters, panning out to take in huge scenes and then back to tiny, intimate memories. And it goes without saying that her seminal lecture - A Room of One's Own  will always be my inspiration.

Charles Dickens - Victorian fiction is sometimes seen as a little old fashioned these days. But I ADORE old fashioned. Good, straight narrative with passion and heart. Dickens is fantastic at creating memorable characters, from the "ever so humble" Uriah Heap, in David Copperfield,  the cold, but conscience stricken Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, the uptight, violent school teacher Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, hard-hearted mercenary Estella in Great Expectations, and her slightly kinder sister, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, Lady Deadlock and Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.  I could go on, and on. He's also brilliant at creating atmospheric landscapes, the marshes in Great Expectations,  the river in Our Mutual Friend, the mean streets in Oliver Twist. He's funny and ironic, and his writing burns with a passionate rage at the social injustices of his day. What's not to love?

Charlotte and Emily Bronte - As I said, I'm a sucker for Victorian fiction. I like most of Charlotte Bronte's books, but obviously, Jane Eyre is the favourite.The opening scene where sensitive Jane is locked in the Red Room by her cruel aunt packs a powerful punch. The hypocrisy of Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood Orphanage, the burgeoning relationship with Mr Rochester (bordering on the sadistic from his point of view), the chance of happiness ruined by the secret he harbours. And Jane's finest hour when she refuses to be Mr Rochester's mistress, and then later St John's wife, in order to be true to herself. Wonderful stuff. Equally wonderful is Emily's Wuthering Heights (I refuse to rate one above the other). I love the way she describes the landscape and how storms rage outside and within the character's lives. And though it's often painted as a love story, in fact the central Heathcliff/Cathy romance is more a tale of terrible obsession and how it destroys everything around it. Emily is ahead of her time in showing how the cycle of abuse is created from generation to generation, but can be broken in the end by true love, as the burgeoning relationship of young Cathy and Hareton demonstrates. Love them both.

Graham Greene - I blogged at length last year about Graham Greene's skill. So I'll just say here, he's a great storyteller, with fine novels on good/evil/hope/despair/faith/politics, and creates fantastic landscapes and characters with the sparest details. Particular favourites are Brighton Rock, Stamboul Train, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of Matter, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Third Man.

EM Forster - At his best EM Forster is peerless, quietly and humorously debunks the mores of his time. In A Room with A View he attacks English lack of feeling and hypocrisy, in praise of experiencing real emotion and living life truly. A Passage to India challenges the very notion of the British Empire, not only giving the Indians a voice, but allowing them to laugh at the British too. He's also a fine story writer, with my favourite "When the Machine Stopped"  envisaging a world where people stayin their rooms underground speaking to each other on video machines. But his best work has to be "Howard's End" a brilliantly crafted novel highlighting the clash of the personal and political, the emotional and practical, the spiritual and logical selves, and how we have to  unite them, if we are to live as full human beings.

Margaret Atwood -  Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, ends with the main character eating a cake of herself in a wedding dress, after she realises she is selling herself short with the man she was going to marry. Her early novels follow on the theme with her heroines breaking out from stultifying lives in a hygienically clean Toronto. I particularly like the writer in Lady Oracle who keeps running away from her life, changing hair colour and faking her own death at one point. But the wonder of Atwood is she keeps trying new things. There's The Handmaid's Tale a terrible dystopia where a woman's lot is decidedly unhappy, The Blind Assassin (a writer remembers the real story of her youth), The Robber Bride (three friends unite to defeat the woman who stole their men), Alias Grace (the mind of a possible murderess) and more recent forays into science fiction, Oryx and Crake and After the Flood. Atwood is in England tonight, reading to 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square. Lucky them!

And that's just the start...Looks like this will have to be a regular feature.

Happy World Book Day!