More about those old books! (+giveaway)

When I last wrote to you, it was about a few old books. It has recently come to my attention that many well-educated, bookish people I know have not Heard the Good Word of Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones. I don’t judge (much) because although I knew of Diana Wynne Jones growing up, I hadn’t read Howl’s Moving Castle until very recently myself. Frankly, I innocently asked Terri at my local book shop whether it was really worth reading and she nearly keeled over backward when she realized I hadn’t yet read it.

And now I feel evangelical myself, so when I was talking to a family friend (hi, there!) who hadn’t read either Aiken or Wynne Jones and– oh my God, I was texting with him and had to delete several texts because they either read: “WHAT NO YOU’RE A PRINCETONIAN HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE” or “LET ME IN I’M OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT WITH MY COPIES READ THEM NOW.” So I thought it would be better to write up a useful post and help people figure out whether they want to read them (OF COURSE YOU DO) and if so where to start. To that end, read to the end and you’ll see my bit about a giveaway. Because apparently I’m a Book Evangelist.



Let’s start with Joan Aiken. First of all, are you sure you’ve never read any Joan Aiken? She’s written a lot of short stories, for starters. I grew up with A Necklace of Raindrops, now sadly out of print, for example, which I still consider to be among the finest examples of the short story ever written. They, like Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, combine a deep knowledge of the fairy and folk tale with a remarkable level of originality. Think of Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, and you’re not too far off. (If you decide to hunt it down, make sure you get a copy with Jan Pieńkowski’s glorious illustrations. And, yes, I only mentioned that here after I found a copy for myself.)

Moving on to her novels, the same level of originality rooted in tradition is at play. For example, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase features an evil governess whose ploy to overtake her employers’ estate must be thwarted; Black Hearts in Battersea features children with mysterious pasts who must find their families. And yet– everything is fresh and new, and I think it comes down to two particular skills: a) Her characters: Aiken absolutely mastered the art of creating warm, believable, flawed-yet-lovable characters whose stories you want to read; b) Her prose: Without ever wasting a word (these books are short!), Aiken writes description which brings streets and islands and boats and hot air balloons vividly to life. This same skillset keeps you turning pages because you know the place and you’re familiar with the characters, so you want to know what happens next.

Word of warning: I was heartbroken by the end of Battersea, for many reasons. THERE ARE MORE BOOKS! They’re just out of print. Terri tells me they’re wonderful, too, and I believe her.

So, Diana Wynne Jones. As I said in my earlier post, Diana Wynne Jones writes very much in the same tradition as Joan Aiken. Indeed, they were both English, born only a decade apart. Diana Wynne Jones, too, plays with fairy tales and folklore. She too is strikingly original in her treatment thereof.

Where they differ is voice. They wouldn’t be original if they shared the same voice, now, would they? (Boy, do I love to state the obvious!) Both write character-drive, beautifully composed page-turners. Both have warmth, humanity, wisdom, and humour. But there’s something sepia toned about Joan Aiken, and jewel toned about Diana Wynne Jones. That, of course, doesn’t make one jot of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books, and perhaps only makes sense to me, ever. (Read the books and find out!)

But take Howl’s Moving Castle, for example: The colours and fabrics and sensory experience of the book just explodes off the page. Silks and flowers and the chink of gold coins respectively run softly through your fingers, tickle your nose, and clink richly in your ears. The characters meet you powerfully and really, to borrow a phrase from an editor of my acquaintance, “make you sit up and take notice.” Even mousy Sophie, before her transformation, is vivid.

Not that Joan Aiken lacks colour! This is not to the detriment of my beloved childhood hero. No. But where Joan Aiken privileges the warmth of her characters, Diana Wynne Jones features their spiciness. Joan Aiken has flawed characters, to be sure, and ones we dearly love, but Diana Wynne Jones has very few flawless characters. The sensory richness that comes with Howl’s Moving Castle is what I recall most powerfully about the story; the humanity of Simon and Dido is what lives with me after Battersea.

Now, I hope I’ve inspired you to try out a few of these books, so I have a limited time offer for you and your friends. I want to give you a book to read!


a) I will, if you email me at give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

Some Old Books

Dear fellow readers, I’m positively swamped. Just… swamped. But my head is full of books I want to share with you! So I’m going to put down a sentence about some oldies but goodies you can explore until I’m back. (I hasten to add: Things are GOOD busy. I’m getting writing done! Just… past-every-deadline busy.) These are books I’ve noticed a lot of Americans haven’t read, even among really deep, good readers, and they all fall into the “have you got a treat in store for you!” set of books.

These two come sort of as a set. They’re in the same world by Joan Aiken, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. We’ll talk more about her another day. While they’re loosely connected, they each can stand alone, and they’re short beauties. The prose is beautiful, but they’re very character-driven with powerful, lovable protagonists. You can read each of them in a day, or an evening, and I urge you, if you haven’t already, to do so.

Howl's Moving Castle.jpg

Diana Wynne Jones writes in the same tradition, I feel, as Joan Aiken. Her stories are deeply imbued with tradition, history, and folklore and fairy tales, but entirely, beautifully, richly original. Her protagonists are flawed, human, and lovable (I dare you to try not to love Sophie), and her prose wastes nary a word. Again, like Joan Aiken, she’s an author to learn from. I like to read good authors before I start writing, just to get the word-blood pumping, and Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones are good authors for that.

Wishing for Tomorrow.jpg

This one is a little more recent than Howl or the Joan Aiken novels, but it’s written in response to a true oldie but goodie: A Little Princess. Hilary McKay is an author to trust, so I trusted her and read this even though I’d never have read it if written by anyone else. After all, I thought suspiciously, what else is there to be done with A Little Princess now that the story is over? Who can finish it, truly? But then I thought the fatal question: “What happens next, after all…?” And, well, I read it. Well. What happens next is funny, poignant, and strangely beautiful. It’s a page-turner, because the side characters of A Little Princess come to the forefront here (Ermengarde, Lavinia, even the Miss Minchins become more lifelike), and you do want to know… what happens next to them? Note: Hilary McKay is too smart to try to write Frances Hodgson Burnett’s sequel. No, she writes her own, and it’s very safe to read it.

So there are a few books for you to enjoy until I can return to reading and writing about new releases! I have got my eye on more than a few I’m excited about– there’s a new Segio Ruzzier coming in March— but until now these old ones are probably new to more than a few of you, and they’re wonderfully well worth reading. In the meantime, talk to me in the comments or by email (! What are you reading?