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1. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
“Polly has always loved the fire and hemlock photograph which hangs above her bed, with its suggestion of mysterious dark figures and undiscovered secrets.
But now, it sparks memories in her that don't seem to exist any more. Memories of Thomas Lynn, who became her greatest friend… Memories of the stories they made up together – adventures in which Tom is a great hero and Polly is his assistant… Memories that these adventures had a nasty habit of coming true…
What has happened in the years between? Why has Tom been erased from Polly's mind, and form the rest of the world as well? And why is Polly so sure that she must have done something dreadful? Determined to uncover the awful truth, she casts her mind back ten years to when it all started. At the funeral...”

This was my favourite Diana Wynne Jones when I was younger, and I feel almost in awe of it now, it’s so clever. I’m really glad that I happen to have been given her book of essays as a birthday present last year, otherwise I wouldn’t have understood all of the overlapping and interplaying themes and references to myths, legends, and classics. I’ve ended up making myself a reading list of everything she used, feeling like I’m back at university, researching. Even without this layer of cleverness, this is an impressive book. Past, present, reality, and imagination are very inventively mixed to give a dreamlike atmosphere that I remembered from the first time I read it, years after I’d forgotten the plot. And there are so many interlocking plotlines, ordinary and fantastic, at work, subtly reflecting one another. This is a book that you could read over and over and get something new from it every time. Polly is so great, too, just an excellent heroine who brings it all together by being completely relatable-to from ten-years-old to the present.

2. Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones
“Magids look after all worlds, steer them towards magic, and keep history happening. But Rupert Venables’ mentor has just died, and as the junior Magid on earth he has to find a replacement while also trying to find the lost heir of a collapsing empire, worlds away. Rupert interweaves the fate lines to get all the candidates together at a sci-fi and fantasy convention, and havoc ensues as they all converge on a very strange hotel, where everything is always linked, the walls keep moving, people are trying to kill him, and nothing is as it seems…a magical, epic story from the Godmother of fantasy.”

This is like grown-up Chrestomanci! It kept getting suddenly serious after I’d been laughing my head off, in a way that I maybe haven’t seen in her books before. I tried to read this when I was about fifteen, but at that time I couldn’t stand first-person narratives. This time, I appreciated how the narrators’ very different personalities came through in the voices of their sections. The plot was that great balance of complicated and dramatic enough to keep you frantically turning pages and speculating when you have to stop, and just clear enough that you can have sudden, illuminating realisations. I really liked how and why the Magids worked, and the observations she then made about our attitudes to anything that could possibly be magical were very thought-provoking. And one of the best things about it was it’s affectionate and funny portrayal of fandom!

3. The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones
"When the Merlin of Blest dies, everyone thinks it's a natural death. But Roddy and Grundo, two children traveling with the Royal Court, soon discover the truth. The Merlin's replacement and other courtiers are scheming to steal the magic of Blest for their own purposes.
Roddy enlists the help of Nick, a boy from another world, and the three turn to their own impressive powers. The dangers are great, and if Roddy, Grundo, and Nick cannot stop the conspirators, the results will be more dreadful than they could possibly imagine.”

This sequel to Deep Secret is definitely not as strong - the ending is a bit rushed, and there are some parts where I didn’t think that people’s motivations were adequately explained, when that’s something that she usually makes incredibly interesting. The mythology was great though, especially the magic of the land, and the further exploration of the numerous worlds. I really like how she’s made magic work in these two books, where it depends so much on the person and their mindset in a way that really makes sense. As always, there was an interesting mix of characters, all with their own very distinct, believable personalities, though I found more of them irritating than usual... As time has gone by, I’ve realised that she’s actually played really interestingly with time in this novel. I just accepted various twists, and am only now realising that they wouldn’t have been possible with a linear timeline. Intriguing!

4. The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones
“How are you supposed to turn into a Wise Woman if your powers just won’t show up? Aileen is convinced she’ll never become as magical as her Aunt Beck.
Then one day her aunt is set a seemingly impossible mission. She must go to the island of Logra and rescue the kidnapped High Prince from the enemy, and Aileen must go with her. They set off along with Ivar, Aileen’s spoilt cousin, and Ogo his clodhopping servant, recruiting on their way a huge and elusive cat, a monk with an uncannily wise parrot, and a boy inventor who keeps a pet lizard up his sleeve. But this is no band of mighty warriors, and the evil Lograns and their wizards have blocked the way with an invisible barrier in the sea. Aileen doubts that even with all the magic in the Islands of Chaldea, including Aunt Beck’s, they will be able to penetrate it.
But Aileen is about to discover that she could be more important to the mission than she realises. Perhaps it is her, above all, who is being drawn to Logra, and for a very special purpose...”

I’m not sure that I could pinpoint an exact place where I think Diana Wynne Jones stopped writing and her sister took over, but there was something missing in the latter part, something that became really apparent when I was reading Fire and Hemlock, but which is what makes all her books so special - a sense of the author’s vibrancy and quick, incredibly intelligent mind, coming clearly through her words. From that energy in her books, Diana Wynne Jones seems to me to have been someone who was truly alive and aware, and I find it amazing that she put that energy right into her books. It’s like you not only know her through them, but she knows you too, somehow. Even if The Islands of Chaldea couldn’t always be full of that life, it was uplifting, with a slightly bittersweet tinge. It had a fairytale atmosphere to it, but with the strong and contradictory characters that DWJ was always portraying. The places were perhaps the most interesting part - people’s connections to their lands and homes. I especially liked the northernmost island of Skarr :)

5. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
"Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.
No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
Until now.
As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.'
This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.”

Above and beyond the page-turning plot, this was a really fascinating look at how time might work, making you question reality. I’ve ended up reserving a recommended introductory text to physics at the library, to explore the theories which were discussed in just enough detail to make me really curious. The structure of the book, going back and forth between his lives, skillfully added to the confusion about how it could all work, and made for an intriguing pace that was alternately fast and slow as we went from the action to backstory to things that didn’t quite make sense yet. The sort of rigid and sometimes self-conscious style took me quite a long time to get into, especially after Diana Wynne Jones’ frank and funny writing, but in the end I came to like it for the way it characterised the narrator.

6. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
"Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning ‘red pine’, and Oumi, ‘blue sea’, while the girls’ names were Shirane, ‘white root’, and Kurono, ‘black field’. Tazaki was the only last name with no colour in it.
One day Tsukuru Tazaki’s friends announced that they didn't want to see him, or talk to him, ever again.
Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago."

I found the translation style really interesting. I've previously preferred Jay Rubin's translation style to Philip Gabriel's - they worked together on 1Q84, which meant an easy comparison of their techniques. The book translated by Philip Gabriel seemed clunkier, and with less of that whimsical soul in it, whereas I really sensed Murakami's energy in Jay Rubin's writing. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage again had an awkwardness, and I could tell what the original Japanese sentence must have been like. I didn't like this as much, but I have to wonder why... In my Masters dissertation I argued that making the text appear 'foreign' is a good thing, because then the reader can't forget that this is not a book from the English-speaking world, but something from another culture whose differences must be respected, rather than erased to fit Western conventions. The other side of this argument is that this foreignisation is exoticising, letting Western readers think of other cultures as quaint, rather than real and equal, and that if the text is not odd to its original audience, it shouldn't be odd to the translation audience. This is such an interesting question. Even though I didn't think that Murakami's voice was quite as well-captured in this book (though maybe his tone was a bit different from usual in the original and I'm being unfair...), it did still have that whimsical, slightly melancholy atmosphere that I associate with him. I find his style of magic realism really fascinating. He seems to be speaking to you so earnestly and truthfully, but at the same time he's playing with your perceptions of reality and what's possible. This novel was set in Tokyo, and reading it made me, for the first time, properly want to go back to Japan. I felt again affection and curiosity for the place, wanting to explore new places and revisit known ones. I think leaving Japan was so painful that I shoved all my true emotions about the country deep down, somewhere where they couldn't hurt me, but this meant that I just felt a bit blank and cold towards it. Something to explore...

7. Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
"'All I did was ask you for a role-playing game. You never warned me I’d be pitched into it for real! And I asked you for hobbits on a Grail quest, and not one hobbit have I seen!'
When Controller Borasus receives a strange letter from Earth he is both curious and alarmed. Someone has activated an ancient machine - and is using it for the most trivial purposes! Surely no one would dare to tamper with Reigner seals in this way? Yet the effects of such interference could resonate throughout the universe, so he decides to go to Hexwood Farm to investigate...
On Hexwood Estate, Ann watches the mysterious comings and goings with interest. Hexwood Farm is a bit like human memory; it doesn’t reveal its secrets in chronological order. Consequently, whenever Ann enters Hexwood, she cannot guarantee on always ending up in the same place or even the same time. She knows something deadly is going on - or is Hexwood simply altering her too?”

This was my other favourite Diana Wynne Jones book when I was a teenager, and again, like Fire and Hemlock, I thought it was incredible this time round too. When I’d finished, I started again at the beginning. It’s such an inventive blend of sci-fi and fantasy, and the chronology is excellently done - that was part of the reason that I went back to the start, to get it straight when each part had happened, as well as to go over how early clues fitted into the things revealed later. I love how she has the action and intrigue happening on various levels all at once, so that untangling everything is satisfying challenging. I had forgotten what happened, so was completely confused at the beginning, and riveted from the first page, desperately searching for hints about what was really happening. Because of the unusual chronology, character development also unfolds in a really interesting way, which can be surprising and unsettling.

8. CultureShock! France: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Sally Adamson Taylor
"The ‘CultureShock!’ series is a dynamic and indispensable range of guides for those travellers who are looking to truly understand the countries they are visiting. Each title explains the customs, traditions, social and business etiquette in a lively and informative style. ‘CultureShock!’ authors, all of whom have experienced the joys and pitfalls of cultural adaptation, are ideally placed to provide warm and informative advice to those who seek to integrate seamlessly into diverse cultures. The books in this series have a friendly and honest writing style and are full of personal experiences, practical advice and useful information. Each ‘CultureShock!’ book contains: insights into the people and their culture and traditions; advice on adapting into the local environment; linguistic help and hints on how to learn the language and do business; a useful list of foreign words and phrases and a comprehensive resource guide; and how to get the most out of your travel experience.”

This was really interesting, and would definitely have been useful before moving to France... But I think we’ll probably live there again at some point, and now some things are clearer. Being prepared for the horrendous bureaucracy would have been helpful, but now I’m most interested in her descriptions of different attitudes to relationships and life in general. Apparently friends are a serious commitment that you take a long time to make, who you love as your family, and who you expect to do a lot for you; you’re not expected to make friends with your neighbours, as that would be invading their precious at-home privacy; and life is supposed to be about debate and food, definitely not work. Some things that we experienced did make more sense after reading her explanations, and the section about body language was intriguing. It’s interesting to me to see how much more radical I’ve become, politically, as well - reading previously innocuous things like “Columbus discovered America” now irritates me.

9. The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy

"In this collection of speeches and essays, gathered together here for the first time, Arundhati Roy writes, with passion, clarity and urgency, about the subjects dearest to her heart, subjects which must be of the utmost importance to any of us interested in democracy, in global justice, and in the direction certain powerful agencies beyond our control are taking the world.
Focusing largely on that intense period leading up to and beyond the UN's attack on Iraq, Roy systematically deconstructs the US government's argument for going to war. She brilliantly exposes the gaping errors in their thesis, the hypocrisy and false ideology behind the rhetoric that led to 42% of the American public believing that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Centre, and that a bombed, besieged and starved country such as Iraq was a direct threat to the safety of the mighty USA.
Roy opens our eyes, like no other writer can do, to the problems that our increasingly divided world is creating, highlighting the growing disparity between rich and poor, with the world's poor increasing by 100 million in the last ten years.
Every article Arundhati Roy writes, every speech she gives, attracts worldwide attention and this collection, controversial, polemical, provoking but always inspirational, is an essential addition to her work.”

In some ways this was preaching to the converted, but the scale of some of her pieces (such as ‘Come September’, describing what the 11th of September means to countries other than America; for example, the 11th of September, 1922, being the date of the British declaration of a mandate in Palestine) was heart-breaking. It’s important to be reminded that our relative comfort in the UK is at a horrific cost to other parts of the world. (Even more important, I think, is to work out what to do about it. I can’t just keep reading these horrendous testimonies and crying; that doesn’t stop the atrocities. While using your consumer power is important, I don’t think it’s enough. Much better to not directly fund companies benefiting from or actually carrying out crimes, but if your government is doing the same, then your individual financial voice is dwarfed. The idea of consumer power is a partial gift to corrupt organisations anyway, putting all the emphasis on the individual’s responsibility, so that the responsibility of massive corporations and governments falls into the background. It seems to me at the moment that participative democracy is the answer. Where and how and what I’m still lost about.) A couple of her points really stood out - that governments ignoring the peaceful protests of their own citizens (for example, about the Iraq war) while immediately responding to and publicising terrorism obviously seems to say that only violence gets anything to happen; and that globalisation has opened borders for the free movement of money, but not at all the free movement of people.

10. Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon by Jane Austen
“These three short works show Austen experimenting with a variety of different literary styles, from melodrama to satire, and exploring a range of social classes and settings. The early epistolary novel Lady Susan depicts an unscrupulous coquette, toying with the affections of several men. In contrast, The Watsons is a delightful fragment, whose spirited heroine Emma Watson finds her marriage opportunities limited by poverty and pride. Written in the last months of Austen's life, the uncompleted novel Sanditon, set in a newly established seaside resort, offers a glorious cast of hypochondriacs and speculators, and shows an author contemplating a the great social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution with a mixture of scepticism and amusement.”

Lady Susan - I think this is her only epistolary novel, and I really liked what she did with the style - she seemed to have fun with letting people misrepresent themselves and other people. The first letter is Lady Susan’s to her brother-in-law Mr Vernon, so your first impression of her is as she wants to be seen (mostly), and I couldn’t help continuing to have some kind of strange quasi-affection for her from that. I think you’re supposed to be intrigued by her and almost admire her, at the same time as disapproving of her, which is really interesting for that time period. This was one of her funniest works, to me, full of sarcasm and cheek.
The Watsons - The characterisations in this one confused me - just as I was making a judgement about someone based on their actions, they were declared to be the opposite... I suppose part of that is her experimenting with the potential difference between first impressions and deeper truths. I liked the main character, outspoken but sensitive. I was left with so much curiosity about the rest of her family, and the characters that you’re only just beginning to know when it’s cut off.
Sanditon - It was much more frustrating that this one was unfinished, compared to The Watsons, where you can tell what she's setting up - Sanditon has a lot of uncertainty, especially about the town itself, and whether it will prosper. She was quite bitingly sarcastic about various kinds of people - hypochondriacs, people who are rich but tightfisted, people who have overly romantic views of themselves... - but the focus was slightly less on human interaction that usual, and more about the tension between old and new, modernisation and its uncertainties and gains. 
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