Quantum Young Earth Virginity Unicorns: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Summer rereads, book two: I haven’t read Many Waters in years and years, I mean probably about fifteen or eighteen years. In it, Murphy twins Sandy and Dennis get to hop off the back burner of their siblings’ famous adventures and into the Biblical Noah story. The only things I remembered about it were the tiny woolly mammoths and the impression that it was WEIRD WEIRD WEIRD. It is weird! The mammoths are very much the least of it. A lot of the same weirdness is already there in A Wrinkle in Time, where L’Engle is already writing spiritually driven science-fantasy. It definitely gets weirder when you put the broader history of Earth in this perspective, and age up the characters so puberty comes into play.

When I say “puberty comes into play,” what I actually mean is, ninety percent of this book is about, not tiny mammoths (alas), but about awkward sexy tinglings and bodily morality for fifteen-year-olds (and hundred-year-old Bible characters). There’s a lot of repeated talk of how the twins Are Not Children Anymore, and the same goes for Yalith, the No Longer Child daughter of Noah who isn’t in the flood story and must therefore die, but does have a great nurturing personality and well-described breasts. She is into them, they are into her, and there is a lot of If Only We Were Older, which turns out to be more confusing if you, the reader, don’t share L’Engle’s (and by extension, her fictional teens’) apparent assumption that teenagers would never consider having sex before marriage.

It’s all much, much stranger because of the Good Pure Angels, the Bad Sexy Angels, and the Unicorns. None of these groups seem to be good for much except as plot devices to serve or push around the human characters. The Seraphim (good angels) heal some wounds and brood a lot while listening to the stars. The Nephalim (sexy angels), who feel mad about not being able to listen to the stars due to FALLING FROM HEAVEN, catcall girls and get them pregnant with horribly gigantic babies and try to badger the less pleasant relatives into not quite murder. All the angels have pretty wings in many colors, unnaturally beautiful eyes, and spend a lot of time in the forms of animals, which are their Earth forms but somehow don’t mind being stretched into angel shape. They come in two personalities: mopey bird good angel and viril snake bad angel.

The unicorns flicker in and out of existence like fairies in Peter Pan, e.g. they exist when someone believes in them, and how they move reminds the twins of science. They’re an extremely useful form of transit, and solve pretty much the entire plot by existing at the right moments. L’Engle also decided the unicorns should hang onto their worst mythological trait:  VIRGINITY DETECTOR. Yes. Every time unicorns show up, we get to be reminded of everyone’s sexual status. We get to reminded a lot that Sandy and Dennis are pure virginal youths from the future, whose first trembling sexy feelings keep showing up but haven’t threatened their lovely innocence. (Guess what? I do not love this.)

The other side to this coin is the Nephalim, who sleaze around making some of the neighborhood ladies more Bad Sexy and are always trying to seduce more. On of the ladies, Mahlah, marries a Nephalim (sort of) and has his giant baby. Another, Tiglah, is trying to snag a Nephalim for herself. They have this exchange at one point:



This is about the level of sexiness that the sexy parts of this book achieve throughout. Women married to human men are generally awesome (and make normal-sized babies by the end of the book). All of the Nephalim-sexy characters are used to highlight how pure Sandy, Dennis and Yalith are. One of the Nephalim keeps feeling up Yalith, which is mostly titillating because of how tiny and virginal and proto-saintlike she is.

Tiglah, who has gone to the sexy side, tries to seduce the twins. She gets nowhere, but the twins’ disgust reminds us of how nasty she is! Also how pure the twins are. In fact, she and Mahlah are both scorned by the story, the narrator, and the other characters. The language everyone uses for them is unpleasant, and their characters are disloyal, sex-driven, and dishonest. That doesn’t mean other characters have let go of love for them entirely, but there’s a bad attitude taken towards them both, and Tiglah unremittingly. I was very startled when one of the twins outright refers to Tiglah as a slut.

Well, okay, tall white unicorn boy that everyone mysteriously loves so much.

It’s funny (not very) because at the end L’Engle tries to round it all up by saying that the Nephalim took advantage of people and warped them, and by having one of the twins rail against the chauvinism of the Bible story that doesn’t even mention the women by name. At that point it is far, far too late to be arguing about ancient sexism. Most of it comes straight from 1986.

The other weird as heck thing about this book is that its relationship with science and religion is a lot more muddled than before, and that makes the world smaller rather than bigger. For example: there is no natural explanation for the flood (although their could have been, without diluting the divinity of it). Both twins know as soon as they hear the name Noah that it’s THAT NOAH. It’s acknowledged that the Bible is written over time by numerous people, but the crux of the plot is that they know from the Bible exactly who does and doesn’t survive the flood by going on the Ark. Weirdest of all, this has to take place a few thousand years ago, and L’Engle over and over mentions the constant tremors and the volcanic murmurings of an Earth that is still being born. She’s literally writing a Young Earth novel! That is, I’m sorry to stay, just straight up non-science. Or nonsense.

Everyone is worried because the Bible doesn’t mention Yalith and neither has god, whom Noah talks to a lot. Yalith is apparently the literal only good woman on Earth not married to one of Noah’s sons, so everyone is very disturbed by this. NO WORRIES, THOUGH: Yalith is so pure that she gets OT raptured like Enoch! This is apparently not the same as dying. Therefore everyone in the Noah family is joyful and satisfied with the loophole, and can go back to being not concerned about the destruction of every other human and animal on the planet.

Not wanting to drown, the purity twins ride a couple of unicorns through time and space. The good boring angels come along and take away their sunburn so no one will know about them going to Young Earth Noah World, and they can suffer the loss of a second family and a year of their lives in complete isolation. Then the rest of the Murphys get home and the twins make cocoa. Well, golly, I guess that’s that!

In accidental good timing, there are a number of parallels between Many Waters and The Magician’s Nephew: early world, a present god, visitors from our own world, a blend of fantasy and theology. But Lewis had a better handle on his, especially comparing these two books. When Lewis does deal with puberty, he just kicks people out of Narnia, and although he treats Susan a lot like Tiglah (sexy lipstick, doesn’t get on the Ark), he doesn’t drag her into Narnia and call her a slut first. I suddenly appreciate that.

Many Waters Verdict: still weird. Wish it had more mammoths.



Divergent by Veronica Roth

first read : audiobook : 11:12/11:12

 DIVERGENT! It is the thrilling tale of a butt-kicking girl teen for fans of The Hunger Games who have already read The Hunger Games. DIVERGENT! It takes place in a future Chicago. At some point in slightly less future Chicago, everyone got together and decided in an act of consensus that reminds me of nothing that has ever happened on this Earth, that society’s problems are not racism, religious bigotry, poverty, and so on, NO, the problem is Myers-Briggs types. 

The unknown forebears, determining this, decide that segregation is usually a good option in these situations. So they establish the five Cyberhogwarts houses that will reductively and peculiarly dictate the lives of the people of Chicago for at least several more generations. These houses are Evil Ravenclaw, Puritanical Hufflepuff, Friendly Stoner Hufflepuff, Mrs. Weasley, and EFFED UP GRYFFINDOR.*

In this completely realistic society where no one is sure what exists outside of Chicago but one imagines that internet quizzes are read as holy scripture, you live with your parents until you are 16. Then you and all the other sixteen-year-olds play a VR game with the worst programming of all time and it tells you what you should do with your life. 

The protagonist of Divergent is an Abnegation (Puritanical Hufflepuff) girl called Beatrice. Later, when she becomes cool and starts getting tattoos and punching people’s teeth in, she is Tris. Right now she is Beatrice, because that is the kind of name you have when you’re a white girl future Puritan who will be needing a tough-sounding nick-name later. Beatrice, Roth tries really hard to tell us, us a BAD, BAD girl, who is not nearly giving and selfless enough to stay in Abnegation. She sometimes feels pride. It’s despicable, you can only imagine how despicable is. This is real important setup for Tris not staying in Abnegation, where probably you could not fit fight scenes into the mix until close to the end of the book? 

Tris goes to her super secret test and goes into the VR that will tell her her fate and she has–a choice. The One Choice, from the very cover. The One Choice that will change you forever. I am ready now for the SH*T TO GET REAL. This is a gritty, action-packed, sexy future-story where Tris is A TRUE OUTLIER, A DANGEROUS ANOMALY, A MYSTERIOUS AND ENDANGERED RARITY. That is the PREMISE of the ENTIRE SERIES. TWO BASKETS. TWO OPTIONS. WHO WILL YOU BE? I. AM. PREPARED.

The VR wants Tris to pick between a knife and…a block of…cheese.

Nooooooo there isn’t CONTEXT, she’s just standing there in front of these virtual baskets on virtual pedestals and there’s just this BLOCK OF CHEESE (or you could have this knife, what will it be?) WELL HOW WOULD ANYONE ON EARTH KNOW? Is it to EAT? Is it to OFFER A HOMELESS PERSON? Is it a LIFELONG INVESTMENT, like a knife will probably be more useful over time than a block of cheese…? BUT MAYBE…? IT IS FOR SEASONING SOMETHING? Can I not just USE THE KNIFE TO EAT THE CHEESE?

Apparently Tris and I are the only people to get stymied at this point, apparently everyone else looks and goes OH OBVIOUSLY BLOCK OF CHEESE I WILL TAKE THE BLOCK OF CHEESE, CLEARLY or whatever, because suddenly the whole simulation is messed up in its virtual head, it does not know what to do. And Tris’s results are…IN CON CLU SIVE. Her inability to choose at random between cheese and a knife make her a dangerous subset of humankind, with a computer-defeating superbrain who MIGHT singlehandedly destroy the Myers-Briggs society….somebody…? created. So the test-giver is like HOLY CRAP BEATRICE DON’T TELL ANYONE EVER FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, YOU HAVE SUPERBRAINS AND THEY’LL TAKE YOU DOOOOOOOWN.

Listen. Here is the thing. This means almost nothing for the rest of the book. The test means NOTHING. Because you don’t even have to commit yourself to the faction you come from OR the faction the computer puts you in. You. Just. Pick. One. You pick one by cutting yourself in the hand like everyone ever to take a stupid oath in every book and TV show and movie for fifty years, like your hands aren’t important and delicate appendages that you can completely destroy with that kind of nonsense.

The only reason that your choice matters, aside from your family will hate you forever possibly if you switch factions, is that if you fail your initiation you end up factionless. This is kind of like college admissions where you are forced to stab yourself and move across the country before beginning the admissions process, and oh, if you don’t get in, you will live on the streets for the rest of your life.

It’s both worse and more hilarious because Roth’s idea of Untouchables-style jobs is, like…train conductors. Janitors. You know, normal moderately well-paid blue-collar frequently unionized jobs, so, totally the lowest rung of society ROTH. YOUR PRIVILEGE IS SHOWING. (Then again, you might have known that from the fact that she wanted to write a dystopia only after she’d tossed out all those pesky Real World Issues.)

You can pick, let me reiterate, ANY FACTION YOU FEEL LIKE, NO MATTER WHAT YOUR RESULTS SAY. And Tris has already belaboredly informed us that she doesn’t fit in at Abnegation, where action sequences will be limited. So she and her brother both pick other factions, and their boss-Puritan dad is deeply disturbed by this. Brother picks Evil Ravenclaw, which looks good on the surface, but Tris picks Dauntless, and I can’t figure out why. She should have known better. In her defense, knowledge is a spotty thing in future Chicago. Like, Tris knows ALL about how other factions perceive her way of Abnegation life, apparently, and she knows what the Hancock building used to be called even though she definitely like all other future people calls it the Hub. Buuuuuut she does not know that you have to get initiated after you pick a faction, and she doesn’t know not everyone makes it even though her faction are in charge of feeding the Factionless ? ? ?

On the surface, the Dauntless are punk police forces that wear only Hot Topic remainders and do a lot of body-mod. That doesn’t seem great to me. But also, as Tris would probably know if knowledge made sense in this world, Dauntless members hurl themselves on and off the L, which no one else rides and which NEVER STOPS, EVER. (Is this where the factionless work? Why? Who is paying for this train to drive all around future Chicago just so Dauntless can hurl themselves on and off it?) And that I think says most of what you need to know about Dauntless. THEY ARE NONSENSE CHILDREN. NOW TRIS IS AMONG THEM. WHAT COMES NEXT?


*In order: Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless.

8.2.14 ALEX READS The Year of the Griffin

The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones

first read / library book / 178/178

The number of Diana Wynne Jones books I can read for the first time is rapidly dwindling, which is fairly terrible; but one of many good things about Diana Wynne Jones is that you can always read her again, because almost every single one of her books is infinitely re-readable.

Year of the Griffin I put off reading for a long age because I didn’t adore Dark Lord of Derkholm. I don’t know why, and I do adore the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which spawned it. I think it’s that DLoD is spotted with violence in a way that’s meant to be unnerving, except it unnerves me out of enjoying the book. That’s incredibly subjective, so everyone else should probably go read DLoD immediately.

Point one: Griffin sexuality is weird as heck.

Point two: Year of the Griffin is nothing like Dark Lord of Derkholm. Year of the Griffin is, like Witch Week, partially a critique of British schooling (in this case university) and partially an eventful and good-humored tumble through several interesting young people’s coming into their own.

In Dark Lord of Derkholm, a man with a plan and a demon wreaked havoc over the land with yearly hordes of fantasy-adventure enthusiasts (“tourists”), until he and his demon were overthrown. Eight years later, one of the wizard Derk’s children (a griffin) has started at wizard’s college. She’s in a class along with a number of other somewhat misfit young magical people, most of whom aren’t supposed to be there and some of whose magic has…hiccups. Jinxes and things. But they’re all smart and willing and just need something to jolt them out of their troubles and into KNOWLEDGE.

UNNNNNNNFORTUNATELY, everyone who works at the university was trained by people whose only concern was getting a lot of nominally competent wizards into the field for Chesney’s devastating Tours. So most of the faculty know next to nothing about magic. They also know next to nothing about teaching, so it’s a lot of harshly put down questions and BIG HEADINGS / LITTLE HEADINGS, and Wizard Corcoran REALLY wants to get to the moon but he is completely clueless. And their administrative bungling is directly responsible for waves of angry bandits and assassins and kings and murderous dwarf forgemasters and centurions.

The HEADINGS and the teachers who aren’t taught to anything but train for the exam and the general tendency of university administration to make everything as horrible as possible, beyond even the scope of their offices, is incredibly realistic, and DWJ makes it funny. You can tell that in real life it’s awful because DWJ usually gets the funniest right around the worst parts.

The best part, obviously, is the imminent arrival of a magical renaissance, in the hands of claws of the first year students, who all learn in the course of the book a lot about themselves and about their magic. (The magical problems of which are unsurprisingly personal and not just magical problems.) And it’s event after event, the whole way through, so there is no time to be bored and plenty of time to watch DWJ play one of her best self-acknowledged writer tricks–that is, to take a small idea and blow it up to its ultimate possibility, so it’s absurd and exciting and really does fill your book up with great stuff. She does that trick particularly well in this book.

One of the cultures in this world (from which one of the students comes) is a sort of generic fantasy Arab country, and this is just a statement of fact and preparation, because it made me somewhat uneasy but I couldn’t gauge its efficacy/appropriateness. If you happen to have an opinion on that I would love to hear it.

7.13.14 Hexwood

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones

Photo on 2014-07-13 at 07.09

reread : 446/446

I wish I could tell you that I now thoroughly understand this book, after reading it like, five times, and that this post was going to be a perfect chronological explanation of everything that happens so that future readers and past readers alike could come here and go OHHHHHHHHHHH I SEE. UNFORTUNATELY, Diana Wynne Jones worked in mutated layers, not scattered pieces of a single picture.  Her books are also puzzles, but rather than being puzzles where every piece snaps neatly together (see: Megan Whalen Turner) they’re more made out of bits of cloud. You can smoosh them into one big cloud at the end but GOOD LUCK seeing a perfectly clear picture in all that.

Warnings: forced pregnancy, death, gore, torture, child harm/death, brainwashing, forced cyborg life, murder, violence towards women, a woman who really hates other women in a way I find unnecessary.

First of all, wow, that’s a gritty sort of DWJ novel, that doesn’t happen very often! I actually forgot how disturbing some of the disturbing parts are, mainly because I can’t keep all of this book in my head over time. It slips away, carrying bits of OH GOD WHAT IS THIS? with it.


The plot seems to be this: an English girl called Ann, on her first jaunt into the world after a nasty illness, goes into the local patch of woods in Hexwood Farm housing estate, and finds that it’s a lot bigger and more magical than she remembers. She meets a scary-looking guy with a killer smile, called Mordion, and they make a kid called Hume out of their blood, AS ONE DOES. As Ann returns to the wood over and over, though, it becomes clear that time and reality are not working the way they normally do. It seems a machine has been turned on that is called a Bannus, able to play out scenarios in full reality until a decision about a course of action to take in real life.

Of interest to a terrifying group of space aliens called the Reigners are the scary-looking guy and the Bannus, and these incredibly bad people who have been ruling the galaxy for thousands of years one by one descend to Earth to try to deal with it.

Everyone has pretty strong feelings about their place in the universe, but it’s not clear when exactly anyone really arrives in relation to anyone else, or why maybe some of them are kind of King Arthur, or where they got a super intelligent robot called Yam. IT IS A GREAT BOOK.


Here is kind of what happens, I am pretty sure.

(These are definitely spoilers and if you have not read the book it is much, much better DWJ’s way around.)

A long time ago in a galaxy which may or may not be a version or this galaxy or may be far away from us (or a version of us), there were a group of Houses that were…capitalists, basically, that ruled stuff. To keep balance between these powerhouses, they invented THE HOUSE OF BALANCE, which took one person from each of the other five houses to rule together for ten years. This, Reigners one through five, was called a hand of Reigners.

At some point along the line, the Reigners took some robot parts and some previous Reigners’ brains and torturously forced them into being the Bannus. (Later known on Earth as Yam the robot.) The Bannus was used to fairly select new hands of Reigners. Eventually there is a Reigner One called Martellian, who starts breeding children to make and train a “Servant”–someone who will do his dirty work for him, basically, a sort of knight in Martellian’s case. He is particularly successful a few times, as apparently our own records show. (See: Fitela in Beowulf, and King Arthur and his half-sisters.)

This relatively okay guy Martellian is ousted, however, by 100% scum Orm Pender, who puts himself in power, locks Martellian, Arthur and Fitela up on Earth, and also banishes the Bannus there, where it will keep them in stasis. Then he promotes his girlfriend to the position of Reigner Three. With nothing to compel them to retire and a lot of technology on hand, they procede with some other jerks to rule for thousands of years.

Orm Pender, new Reigner One, decides also to breed servants, but he does so by coercion and rape, kills the children’s mothers, and isolates, tortures, trains, brainwashes and occasionally sweettalks the kids until there is one left and that one is unswervingly loyal and completely messed up. He does this over and over, but scary-looking guy Mordion is the relevant one here.

When Mordion is young he has a sort of mental contact with three other people–real or fake, he’s scared to know–called Girl Child, Boy, and King. They get wiped out in the brainwashing, except for Girl Child. Keeping her part of his mind for himself while doing everything the Reigners make him do (largely, kill people).

The Bannus is rightly not happy about this, so when it is turned on, it begins to exert itself to bring all the Reigners to Earth, end their reign, and elect a new hand.

The Reigners have some vested interest in distant Earth because Earth unwittingly exports something incredibly valuable: flint. A peculiar disturbance on earth, at Hexwood Farm in England, is brought to their attention. Reigners go one by one to sort it out, turn off the Bannus, and get rid of any problem people who may now know too much. Reigner Two brings the Servant (Mordion) with him. But they all keep disappearing into the Bannus’s field of influence (which is also the Wood’s own field of influence, but no one can tell the difference).

At last Orm Pender and his woman-hating ex-girlfriend Reigner Three go to Earth themselves. Reigner Three brings Vierran, the girl from the House of Guaranty who manages the offworld wardrobes for traveling officials, along as a maid. This irritates Reigner One, who knows she and her family are rebels, and that he’s just had most of her family exiled to Earth, but he accepts the intrusion because he wants to breed her with Mordion and it’s easier to do that on Earth than bring Mordion back in stass and do it before killing him.

However, even Orm Pender can’t control the Bannus. Not surprising–he cheated it to become a Reigner to begin with. In the Bannus’s and the Wood’s field, time starts to repeat, and a motif of the Arthurian court is laid over everything because the Bannus was started up by a local Raynor-Hexwood clerk who told it he wanted a D&D adventure, basically.

On arrival, Reigner Three integrates into castle life, which already includes the maintenance team, Reigners Two and Four (as the fisher king with a bruise and Sir Fors, respectively), and some of the other levels of management who have been sucked in before the Reigners started arriving. Vierran’s arrested cousin Siri is also there. They worship the “bannus”, whatever they think it is, and worry about bandits in the woods (that would be Vierran’s family members etc. who Orm Pender banished). Sir Artegal is King Arthur, out of stass.

Orm Pender turns into a dragon and immediately flies off into the woods and starts eating people.

It seems very straightforward: the Bannus is expanding the wood, and the wood is the range of its field. Actually that is the wood’s field. The Bannus’s field expands all the way into the village. So when a girl called Ann who gets three voices in her head (Slave, King, Boy) gets up from an illness and ventures into a magical wood, she’s venturing from another illusion. She’s not Ann, but Vierran. At some point, the bannus tricked her. Her greengrocer parents are anything but. Her little brother is Fitela, also out of stass. Half the people in their cozy little town aren’t from Earth.

Ann doesn’t know who she is for quite awhile. The first time she goes into the wood, she meets Mordion (for what she thinks is the first time, but Vierran has talked to him for ages and researched him like crazy as a somewhat incompetent rebel), and they make the boy Hume together out of their blood. After that time swaps around over and over: Hume grows and shrinks, Mordion finds a robot and repairs it, but it seems to know too much in every piece of time the Bannus puts them in.

Things do come to a head, because the Bannus (Yam all along) nears its decision point, and all excellent plot conclusions aside, everyone finally sorts out who they are–including the four people, who are the King (King Arthur – Sir Artegal), the Girl Child (Vierran – Ann), the Slave (Mordion) and the Boy (Fitela – Martin). And those four, plus old Martellian, who was apparently decent enough the first time around and hates to go back so much that the Bannus is making him anyway.

And that is about how that book goes, which is the first time I’ve really understood what is happening at all. Remind me to check back here when I FORGET again. (Isn’t that just like the Bannus?)

6.13.14 Half Bad

Half Bad by Sally Green


First Read / Library Book


This book is like a sadistic Demon’s Lexicon.

TW: gore, death, violence, suicide, torture, parent death, imprisonment

(I am too tired to write a blog post, would it be gauche to just leave it like that?)


Half Bad takes place in a Britain with a small, secret witch population. There are WHITE WITCHES and BLACK WITCHES and the white witches have things like counsels and edicts and they like to hunt the black witches down and kill them. The white witches claim moral superiority but behave disgustingly throughout. The black witches, on the other hand, also feel good about themselves, but they tend to run around murdering people and one another, particularly if they’ve married into each other’s families. So whatever moral questions might be raised in this book, the answer is generally, no, they are all horrible, how would you like this scene of excruciating violence.

Important note: the only characters not described as racially white (actually described, not just left to the reader’s white-defaulting imagination) are Black Witches. There is not enough time spent fleshing out this odd tiny culture to definitively say whether this is an authorial commentary on racism or is, in fact, racism. In any case I am not sure what the commentary would be, since as I said, pretty much everyone is a murderer in this darn book.


Nathan is half-White and half-Black (witch) (he appears to be brownish). His mother is dead of suicide and his father is THE WORST WITCH* IN ALL OF BRITAIN OR WHEREVER HE HAPPENS TO BE. Probably the counsel of white witches would just kill Nathan like they kill all the Black Witches, but first his test results keep being unclear, and then they probably want to use Nathan to catch said bad dad. It’s not immediately apparent that he’s the only “Half Code” in Britain because the counsel keeps sending him edicts (increasingly restricting his movement) to the tune of “all Half Codes”. When you do find out that all of this stuff, framed as far-reaching, is specifically targeting him, it’s very chilling. Eventually they take him from his family and he’s kept in a cage for awhile by a white witch named Celia. Eventually he gets out of the cage and goes on the run.

There’s also a sort of nascent romance plot with this white witch girl he goes to school with, AND THERE IS LATE IN THE BOOK A SURPRISE GAY FRIEND PLOT TWIST???? WILL NATHAN TURN GAY OR IS HIS FRIEND’S GAYNESS JUST A NECESSARY FOR HIS ROLE OF CLIFFHANGER DAMSEL IN DISTRESS? answers unknowable until the second book! Anyway the romance feels very out of place, although I do buy Nathan’s developing oddly intense attachments to anyone who has been nice to him.

The book is not chronological. It opens in the future, dabbles with second person for early childhood, reins it in and goes first person for the future,  jumps back again in time to cover most of his childhood, and then jumps forward again, in a slightly confusing way, because the second jump happens somewhere in the time period of this last jump but doesn’t actually…happen in it. The effects are there, but the event is invisible on the second pass. I can think of one specific friend who would HATE this. It didn’t bother me, per se, but I can’t say it was entirely effective–I don’t usually mind tense/POV/chronology jumps but these threw me off a little.

The way it’s like a sadistic Demon’s Lexicon is like this, AND THIS MAY BE A SPOILER FOR DEMON’S LEXICON: English kid with black, creepy eyes and a loving brother cannot connect to fellow people, has a hard time reading and writing, is hated by his mother unto death. His father is an evil magic-user. There are witch circles and rules. His father likes to kill people. The shape of the character’s existence actually feels really similar. The crucial difference is that Nathan is always fairly certain both of his own monstrosity and the nature of it; it’s a much more bitter and cynical version of Nick’s living with himself. If Sarah Rees Brennan were merciless to her characters, you could imagine that this is the life her character would have instead of the one she gave him.

In general though, it has some serious violence, and I read the whole thing in under three hours of commuting because I kept speed-stress-reading past all the horrifying parts.

Maybe it was the speed or maybe it was the book–I found it a little difficult to settle in and find deep roots. But I think I’d read the next one when it comes out, at a similar pace, because I am interested to know what happens, even if the ending was sequel-bait and that is one of my worst peeves in YA fiction.

I think I need to read something that’s not overtly violent for awhile. HOW DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?


*Not like The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy. Another, more murderous witch.

4.23.14 Reflections on the Magic of Writing

Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones. Fresh read/new book: 354/354.

Photo on 2014-04-22 at 18.16 #2

I wrote all over this book because I was reading it like a LEARNING BOOK and it is so much easier to LEARN when you are scribbling on things. (Not library books, don’t worry, I’m not completely heinous.) This set of essays and talks, published posthumously, is all about Diana Wynne Jones’s approaches to, influences in, and beliefs about writing. There’s a fair amount of repetition, which could be a bit wearing, except really I think what it does is bring forward the things that mattered most in her mind to talk about, in terms of her writing and in some cases her life (never entirely) outside writing.

I’d warn anyone reading it that her childhood, in World War II England under the dubious care of largely absent parents, was punctuated by upheaval and neglect, and that most of her childhood recollections are unnerving, to say the least.

Here are some key points, however, about writing books.

1. Hilarity and horribleness go hand in hand. If you’re writing about something terrible happening, find a way to make it funny. Frequently, terrible things are funny, in the moment, in a terrible kind of way. You can do this when you write.

2. You must know more than you write down and you must never try to fit it all in. The world you are writing about should always feel full but should never feel stuffed. This is very obviously something she carried out in any of her books; there are always these neat references to things that never get taken out of the drawer and unwrapped and explained to you; it’s obvious from how she refers to it that it’s substantial, and you as a visitor to the world had better just decide to keep up.

3. Books that are designed to teach are bad books. You can learn from a well-made story but stories that are made to the purpose of inculcating virtue are usually dreadful. Sentimentally virtuous books are the worst, and apparently they ended up on a childhood shelf that she and her sisters called the Goddy Books and never read twice. That said, she does seem to have liked Pilgrim’s Progress, which may escape the Goddy Book fate by being interestingly heroic as well as virtuously educational.

4. Do not overwrite your language. Tolkien did not write in the labored high prose of modern fantasy novels and heavy written dialect is a cumbersome detraction that can be just as well achieved by cadence as spelling. I’ll add here that dialect is usually classist, racist, or both, so there’s another good reason to avoid it. In general she argues there’s frequently nothing to be gained in tormenting your prose.

5. Publishing has fads. They will probably hate things you would like to write. It’s a struggle. You will not know why the fads are what they are, but they will probably try to thwart you at every turn. She calls them RULES, and they constantly change; and in children’s books particularly, she says, the rules are so arbitrary because they usually have nothing to do with what children are capable of reading or what they want to read.

6. Mythology is perfect material. Mythology is so bare-bones that only the recognizable, near-universal core is left by the time we see it as something called myth, and you can layer that into a story until it is hardly visible and it will still help to power you. It does not have to be obvious to be strengthening.

7. Boredom is deadly. If you are bored with what you are writing, your writing will die. Follow the story, and do not suffocate it in a plan you’ve made ahead of time. Don’t go on writing something the way you’re writing it, if it isn’t working for you.

8. Writing is messy. Sometimes story ideas have to sit for years. Sometimes they get half written and fade out. Sometimes you have to throw the whole thing away. Sometimes you keep drawers and drawers of unfinished projects. Sometimes all you know is the beginning, the end, and a bit in the middle, and you sit down and let the story tell you where it’s going, and it goes. She managed to publish over forty books in all the messiness, so I find that very comforting.

9. The real world is too strange for fiction. If you write down the strict truth and put it in a story, sometimes no one will believe it can happen, even in make-believe. You have to tone it down or wrap it up for people to believe you, even when you’re telling your own history.

10. Take a “What if?” and follow it all the way. You can get a lot of story out of a single question if you just start chasing down the answer and don’t let up until you’ve got the whole thing in your hands. You can take any little moment, in fact, and it grows into something wild and funny and surprising, because you tried answering in the fullest, most interesting way, instead of making a little solemn bullet point and connecting the line from one of those bullet points to the next without any chaotic, adventurous crescendos.

11. The fantastical, wondrous parts are important. Fantasy matters because it lets us say things in a particularly truthful way, even if the “facts” of the story sound less plausible than the “facts” of some other kinds of novels. It lets us escape ugliness in our presents and pasts by finding places that understand us, and giving us heroes who survive their uglinesses. And they show us beauty and imagination and a complete refusal to be stomped down into what we’re told is Reality. Numerous times, she talks about the dreamy, out of place chapter of The Wind in the Willows called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” This chapter was skipped over by their mother when the book was read to them as children, because it was fanciful; but she read it eventually on her own, and it mattered so profoundly that it comes up seven times in the course of this book. Fantasy is important.

I have most of her books and I adore them, but I wouldn’t say I experienced many rushing moments of recognition in the course of reading this one. But it really didn’t matter; what she did worked, and I love the books she made with her way of thinking, and you can sometimes learn a lot more from someone whose brain puts things together in a completely different way.