“One Crazy Summer” and The Birth of Consciousness

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In just about every Diana Wynne Jones novel, there is a moment in which a child looks at an adult and realizes that behind that face is another person. A flawed person, a person with their own strengths, weaknesses, and failings. A complex person who is capable of anything.

It’s a moment of consciousness, and in “One Crazy Summer,” the growth of her consciousness is the subject of the entire novel. Her consciousness of herself as a young black woman, her consciousness of the historical moment she lives in–but most of all, her consciousness of her mother.

Abandonment is never an easy thing for a child to deal with. Abandonment by a mother, which is so unusual that it means constant reminders of the child’s strangeness, is perhaps even harder to deal with than a father’s abandonment. But to hold onto hate and resentment is poisonous, and it takes all summer for her to finally release her pent up frustration at her mother, to shout her blame.

That’s when she finally learns her mother’s story. That’s when she finally sees the person under “mother.” When she understands that to be a woman is not always an easy thing, and that sometimes adults have to choose between betraying themselves and betraying those who love them.

The question of names is a recurring theme in “One Crazy Summer.” Black Panthers choose new names and call each other “brother” and “sister.” Her mother has chosen a new name, and writes her poetry under it. And her mother refuses to use her youngest daughter’s name, because it was not the name she chose for her.

But her mother has to change too, and everyone must choose their own names. She makes the choice to tell her little sister what her first name was. She gives her little sister ownership of that name. And it doesn’t disempower her mother–instead, it makes them closer.

We are all who we choose to be. Those choices define us. And every kid has to learn that the adults in their lives have made choices. And to grow up is to understand why those choices were made. Why those names were chosen.

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The Tale of Despereaux and the Narrative Voice

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The fourth wall is what stands between the audience and the story. The fourth wall is itself the narrator in most books, and it often comments on the story before it. The narrator mediates the world of the story to us, but it does not speak to us.

Except when it does. In “The Tale of Despereaux ,” the fourth wall is as friendly to the audience as it is to the characters in the story. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is not just to get the joy of a delightful story, to watch the rise of an underdog, the rescue of a princess, the creation of a perfect villain. To read “The Tale of Despereaux ” is to make a friend. The narrator is telling you the story, and the narrator is kind to you. The narrator is your friend, and thus the story is more real and true.

On Diana Wynne Jones and Good Villains

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Every Diana Wynne Jones novel has a villain. Jones herself was of the opinion that there are truly toxic people in the world, and kids need to learn how to deal with them. So the villains of her stories are utterly, squirmingly real. You know them, or you’ve heard about them from someone, and you recognize the truth of their existence on some deep level.

I think that the central feature of a Jones villain is that they believe the world should be a certain way, and they will not countenance a world any different. If everyone should be well-behaved, they will make everyone well-behaved. If this or that should belong to them, they will take this or that and be baffled and hostile to any suggestion that it isn’t their due.

Somehow, Jones is practically always able to balance a fascinating cognitive dissonance in her villains.  None of them consciously acknowledge that the world is, in fact, not exactly as they imagine it. Thus, it makes no sense for them to struggle to form the world in their image. Yet, they constantly have to adapt and adjust to force the world into that image–the same one they will not admit is not what they imagine it to be.

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It’s an incredible piece of characterization every time Jones tries it. Her villains want everything from a place to stay to a town to rule. Sometimes magic helps them, and sometimes magic defeats them–but no matter how much magic goes into the story, the painful reallness of the villain gives the whole thing a grounding in truth.

Balancing the Real Audience and the Imaginary Audience in the Memoirs of Lady Trent

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“The Memoirs of Lady Trent” are not, of course, real memoirs. They’re novels, and they take place in a world similar to our own but with a different geography and alternate history. Jews and Muslims are present, practicing their religions in familiar ways–but Christianity just didn’t happen. Anyone who would have been Christian is Jewish. A lot of the countries and geographies are similar, but there are no familiar names. I didn’t actually realize that the main character is Jewish until embarrassingly late.

However, the fictional writer–Isabella Trent–believes that her world is real. And she is writing her memoirs for an audience in her world. Not only that, she is writing to them about familiar stories, having lived a very public and often scandalous life. She is writing a history, and she touches on news articles, scientific journals, academic societies, and many other books.

This gives Marie Brennan a unique challenge: how to maintain the fiction that Isabella is writing to an audience already familiar with many of the high points of her career, while still keeping the reader in suspense.

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Take Isabella’s second marriage (spoilers for the latest book!). It is a well-known scandal in her world, and when the man she married–Suhail–appeared in the third book, everyone in her imaginary audience would have recognized him. Yet, while a real memoir would probably have identified him early on as ‘the man who would become my husband,’ Brennan obviously cannot do this. The tension between Suhail and Isabella is a key part of the third and fourth books, and to have said they would end up married from the outset would have drained all the victory out of the moment when Isabella finally cracks and proposes to him.

It’s a difficult balance for Brennan to maintain, and I admit that re-reading isn’t quite as much fun as I thought it would be. I know, re-reading the third book, that Isabella is an old woman re-living her meeting and romance with her current husband. But you wouldn’t really know it from the book, because Brennan needed to hold onto the will-they-or-won’t-they. But this aside, it’s a hard task Brennan has set herself, and she does it so well she makes it look easy.

Creating and Breaking a Familiar Story

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I was a bit confused by the latest “Memoir of Lady Trent.” I was expecting a big political upheaval to kick in. I thought there would be a battle, a thrilling chase, a geopolitical firestorm.

I thought this because that was how the last two “Memoirs” went. Go somewhere, study dragons, stumble into a war, play a public and pivotal role in that war, be banned from coming back, go home. A similar plot played in the first novel.

So, as I neared the end of “In the Labyrinth of Drakes,” I was expecting something big to happen. Plots to pay off, a villain to be unmasked. I even thought I knew which character would turn up with an army of bad guys. But nothing happened.

I’m still a little torn on how I feel about this. On the one hand, I felt like the previous two books promised me something, and that promise was broken in this book. I feel a bit of a letdown. On the other hand, Brennan was very clever in designing the plot. The political upheaval is replaced by scholarly upheaval, the shuttered personal becomes public, and all around the book feels fresh.

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Perhaps any experiment with form must accept the risk of breaking promises  made. Some people will probably always feel upset about this. But everything familiar began as unfamiliar, and the greatest joy comes in a promise fulfilled in the most unexpected of ways.

Prague In Literature

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There has to be a graveyard. If there isn’t a graveyard scene, the book isn’t really taking place in Prague.

Prague is an odd sort of city, a melancholy, dark place. The greatest Prague writer was Franz Kafka–that tells you a lot right there. And every once in a while, Prague turns up in an unexpected place. When that happens, the way to tell if the author has actually been to Prague is to ask “is there a graveyard scene?”

Helen Oyeyemi, author of “What is Not Yours is Not Yours,” lived in Prague. I know that because I read an interview, but also because her book is full of eerie puppets in Prague graveyards. Jonathan Stroud, author of “The Golem’s Eye,” spent time in Prague. I don’t have a clue if he admitted that in an interview, but his protagonist went to the Prague Cemetery pretty quickly.

Certain places are alive in ways that are not quite understandable to the human eye. And when the feel of those places is captured in books–something special happens.

The Goats and the Power of Adolescence

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“The Goats” is a camp book, a wilderness book. In it, two teenagers are marooned on an island by their fellow campers because they have been marked out as “different,” “immature.” They are stripped naked and left to have sex. This will normalize them.

It’s a horrifically disempowering situation to be in. But the two protagonists of “The Goats” aren’t disempowered. They flee the island on their own steam. They get by themselves, without compromising their senses of honesty, for days. They find power.

The be a teenager is to feel powerless. Teenagers are victims of their hormones, victims of their own fears. They live in a complicated and difficult world, where any friend can become and enemy and vice versa.

In “The Goats,” the characters take ownership of their lives. They turn their own powerlessness into independence, turn their forced relationship into a source of strength. The start as victims, but emerge victors.