skygiants: (wife of bath)
I feel at this point that I'm sort of playing a long-term drinking game with Joan Aiken: every time an inexplicable Arthurian reference shows up out of nowhere in her fiction, immediately go to the nearest repository of alcohol and grab a bottle!

...although to be honest last night was just a really good night for drinking a beer and reading an entire [personal profile] rachelmanija-recommended Regency Gothic on the porch, and I didn't think of the drinking game angle until this morning. Also, the Arthurian references in The Five-Minute Marriage pretty much limit themselves to unusual naming conventions and are honestly the least weird I've ever encountered in Aiken. The Five-Minute Marriage overall is really only about as weird as, say, a particularly madcap Georgette Heyer. Not a murderous beehive, exploding can of soup, or immortal Queen Guinevere in sight!

Our Heroine is Philadelphia Elaine Carteret, an impoverished Regency music teacher struggling to maintain herself and her ailing, amiably confused mother, who of course happens to be a DISINHERITED DAUGHTER OF THE GREAT HOUSE OF PENISTONE.

Unfortunately, when Delphie turns up at Penistone Manor (it has a name, but I've forgotten it) to try and claim some financial support for her mother, she is met by a plot twist: there's already a Philadelphia Elaine Carteret in the family and the current lord has been supporting her for the past twenty years.

ARROGANT ALPHA HERO GARETH PENISTONE (current heir): However, imposter, you have turned up just in time! Because the current lord is DYING and he's going to disinherit both me and Elaine if we don't get married before he dies, which everyone expects to happen, like, right now, today.
FRIENDLY MORDRED PENISTONE (illegitimate relative, definitely not a villain, why would you think that?): It's OK! We'll get a FAKE bishop to write a FAKE marriage certificate and in exchange for this DEFINITELY FAKE MARRIAGE we'll slip your mother into the will. OK? OK.
DELPHIE: Every proper feeling is mortified by this offer! ... but it's true I could use the cash, and it's not like I ever actually want to see any of you again.

So Delphie and Gareth get fake married, just until the current lord dies, which is almost certainly going to happen right that night!

24 HOURS LATER, in a TOTALLY SHOCKING twist:

FRIENDLY MORDRED PENISTONE: Oops, I accidentally forgot to tell the definitely real Bishop to perform a fake ceremony, so ... congratulations on your marriage! Also, the current lord has made a miraculous recovery!

Everyone's favorite fanfic tropes follow )
skygiants: fairy tale illustration of a girl climbing a steep flight of stairs (mother i climbed)
At a con last year, [personal profile] coffeeandink handed me the Joan Aiken book she'd been reading on the way down there, remarked that it had not been her favorite Aiken, and asked if I wanted to read it on the way back anyway.

I said all right, because mediocre Aiken is still usually bound to have its redeeming qualities, and then forgot about it until just recently when I was feeling in the mood for a.) Aiken and b.) Gothics.

Morningquest is not really quite a Gothic, as it turns out, though a girl definitely does meet a house in it. I don't really know what it is. It begins when Our Heroine Pandora Crumbe is introduced by her mother -- a very quiet and self-contained person with an unhappy marriage and a quiet, narrow life -- to the wealthy, talented and eccentric Morningquest family.

On their first visit, Pandora's mother keels over of a heart attack at the dinner table!

Thus, Pandora is sort of accidentally bequeathed to the Morningquests, who include:

GIDEON MORNINGQUEST, a tremendously successful conductor with a moderately limited interest in his children
MARIANA MORNINGQUEST, a beautiful and famous soprano who has a mysterious connection to Pandora's mother (subtext: they were probably in love), with whom Pandora falls promptly also in love

and the Morningquest children

DAN, possibly a musical genius, definitely a smug asshole with no morals
BARNEY, the good-looking brilliant one, who leaves behind him a trail of abandoned girlfriends and cats (all named Mog)
TOBY, the sweet scientifically brilliant one who only really talks to his sister Selene
DOLLY, the passive-aggressive and mildly toxic one who is, alas, not really brilliant at all
SELENE, the reclusive one who only really talks to her brother Tony
ELLY AND ALLY, chaotic neutral telepathic twin geniuses

plus assorted household extras

UNCLE GRISCH, an artist, former dancer, and gay Holocaust survivor who is busy rewriting great works of English literature
TANTE LULIE, a Jewish refugee relative of Gideon's first wife, who makes all Mariana's clothes and keeps the household fiscally solvent
DAVE, a useless American that nobody likes

The rest of the book sort of weaves through Pandora's interactions with various Morningquests, her development as an artist, and her search to find out more about her mother.

Along the way, there are various plot threads that spring up involving baby theft and attempted murder and incest and the aforementioned telepathy and drug smuggling and secret underground tunnels and surprise marriages, but, like. Most of these .... don't actually turn out to be all that significant to the shape of the book? Not in a dropped plot-thread way, exactly; more in a 'life just sort of goes on' way. The woman whose baby is stolen in chapter five or so is obviously really devastated, and eventually ends up leaving town, and by the end of the book she's remarried and has another baby, and eventually towards the end of the book a working theory emerges about what the hell was going on with the baby theft, but by that point it's too late to do anything about it, so ...

What actually is significant to the shape of the books? Families, I guess, and a sense of home, definitely, and what home means for refugees, immigrants, people whose past has been lost -- Tante Lulie and Uncle Grisch are the most constant and stable presences in Pandora's life, Pandora's non-Morningquest love interest is a Czech filmmaker-in-exile, Mariana's a possibly-Jewish refugee from Europe, and eventually Pandora finds out that her mother was Jewish too. Which is a surprise to her, but it wasn't a surprise to me.

Because the thing is, the whole Bohemian intellectual cobbled-together family of refugees full of complicated backstory revelations feels -- well, kind of seventies, sure, but one hundred percent real to me. My grandmother and grandfather were both Jewish refugees -- he German, she Czech -- who met and married in the UK in the 1940s. My grandmother was one of a handful of women in her Cambridge med school graduating class. I never met her, but by all accounts she was a wildly brilliant and charismatic person whom everybody fell in love with, who had a habit of picking up lost people and installing them in her house. On my shelf, I have a photocopied book of the letters that she wrote to her long-term lover, who lived in Israel, which his wife sent to my aunts after my grandmother died. My mom and her sisters had a very Morningquest childhood. I'm still finding out things that I never knew, and so, I think, are they.

And, I mean, I NEVER expect to walk out of a Joan Aiken book going 'wow, such realism! what a true portrait!' ESPECIALLY GIVEN the telepathy and the baby theft and all the rest, but there we are.

(And maybe I would have been less punched in the chest by refugee feelings had I read this a different week than this week that we are in right now. There's that too.)
skygiants: cute blue muppet worm from Labyrinth (just a worm)
There is no one for weirdness like Joan Aiken, NOBODY. I love her so much.

The Monkey's Wedding And Other Stories is a posthumous Joan Aiken collection that I picked up as part of a book bundle, and includes:

A Mermaid Too Many: in which a sailor brings home a mermaid, is COMPLETELY MYSTIFIED why his wife is not thrilled by this, and then has to figure out what to do with her
Reading in Bed: a weird dream about a meeting with the Devil, not too notable
Model Wife: which felt like one of those Katharine Hepburn rom-coms about a Feisty Woman who gets herself into a Scrape by being Too Proud (For A Man) -- you know, those movies you enjoy because they're charmingly presented AND YET
Second Thoughts: about the saintly vicar who reincarnates as the most asshole of asshole cats, scandalizing all the pious ladies of the village; unsurprisingly A DELIGHT
Girl in a Whirl: another Katharine Hepburn rom-com but about 10x weirder than the first & featuring several death-defying motorcycle stunts
Hair: a young man meets his dead wife's mother; very creepy and very sad
Red-Hot Favorite: SUPER ADORABLE rom-com in which a magazine illustrator accidentally gets his profile printed as an Eligible Bachelor in the magazine and has to run away to the country to avoid getting constantly hit upon, where he promptly breaks his glasses and spends the rest of the story mostly blind, confused by everything, and accidentally involved in a racing-horse heist
Spur of the Moment: another cute rom-com but not quite as cute as 'Red-Hot Favorite'
The Paper Queen: someone is trying to Modernize the Quaint Seaside Town, which Our Hero Will Not Stand For, but then there are a series of random events and a ghost and actually everything's fine
Octopi in the Sky: a sad young man who works in advertising is about to be forced into a dynastic marriage which he does not want, but is (probably rightfully) more concerned about the fact that he's constantly haunted by hallucinogenic stout-drinking octopi
The Magnesia Tree: a famous author dies, leaving behind a potentially-supernatural magic writing tree which HATED HIM
Honeymaroon: a typist is shipwrecked on an island of talking revolutionary mice who won't stop asking about nationalizing the means of production; POSSIBLY my favorite story in the collection
Harp Music: young man gets stuck as the babysitter in someone else's divorce-remarriage Katharine Hepburn rom-com
The Sale of Midsummer: reporters interview various townsfolk about the story behind why their town is said to only appear three days out of the year; weird and lovely
The Helper: quietly creepy story about a grieving father, the French family that he blames for the death of his daughter, and a robot
The Monkey's Wedding: psychological story about an artist who never actually appears onscreen, his elderly mother, his long-lost painting, his long-lost past, and a burglary
Wee Robin: castle ghost story/legend, cheerfully ruthless
The Fluttering Thing: very short dark piece about a prisoner, a forced march, and a thing that grants wishes
Water of Youth: man pops up in town selling water of immortality, wistful hijinks ensue

Some stories definitely have more heft to them than others, but, I mean. Would be worth it for the revolutionary socialist mice alone, and there is much more in here than just the revolutionary socialist mice.
skygiants: Fakir and Duck, from Princess Tutu, with a big question mark over Duck's head (communication difficulty)
My favorite thing about Joan Aiken is how you can never tell whether she is writing a parody, or if this is how she genuinely thinks her chosen genre ought to go. Beware of the Bouquet is a typical Gothic much like The Whispering Mountain, which contains a secret tribe of lost camels under the mountain and tragically ill attack snakes who need to receive immediate medical attention, is a typical numinous Welsh fantasy.

The heroine, Martha, works for an advertising company which has had the bad fortune to pick up some unpleasant new clients who want them to promote their fabulous new perfume. Martha has the brilliant idea to get all Arthurian on it and take them to a tiny British castle on the coast to do the shoot.

MARTHA'S LOVE INTEREST: So, why that castle, Martha?
MARTHA: Well, ten years ago, I was briefly and tragically married to a devastatingly attractive young man who then became obsessed with the monks who live near that castle, developed a major personality disorder, and mysteriously disappeared, so I figured I might see if he happened to be there and drop in to say hi. You know, closure.
MARTHA'S LOVE INTEREST: ...
MARTHA: Also if we're on the beach we can also take the opportunity to do some shoots for our other project, the one with the cans of miracle self-heating explosive soup!

So everyone, including Martha, her love interest, her coworker who is angry Russian nobility (not that this is relevant to the plot in any way), and the mysteriously beautiful Italian wife of the unpleasant perfumer all head out to an isolated castle. Shortly afterwards, Martha is driving back to set one night when her car breaks down and she accidentally stumbles over some sinister persons kidnapping the world's prettiest baby! At which point she takes the sensible step of scooping up the baby and running.

MARTHA: Great, now I gotta be responsible for this baby! I hate babies!
THE WORLD'S PRETTIEST BABY: *smiles*
MARTHA: ...except this baby. This baby is the BEST baby. *___* I will call her Shrubsole.
(SHRUBSOLE: ...why.)

Martha temporarily drops the world's prettiest baby off with the local sinister monks, who a.) happen to have a baby collection and b.) also happen to include her ex-husband --

MARTHA'S EX: Yo.
MARTHA: Yo.
MARTHA'S EX: ...so this is awkward.
MARTHA: Yeah. Uh, so you help take care of the baby collection, then?
MARTHA'S EX: Oh god, no, I hate babies! They're the worst! things! in the world! NOOOOOO *runs away*
MARTHA: ...so that was weird.

-- and in short order figures out that the baby belongs to the beautiful and mysterious Italian wife! who is being menaced by her husband and his friends! because of PERFUME-RELATED SECRETS!

THE BEAUTIFUL AND MYSTERIOUS ITALIAN WIFE: But, I mean, you're cool helping the monks take care of the baby for a while, right? I have to keep her safe from my evil husband and also it is very important that I go out partying with this visiting Sultan who has turned up in this tiny British town.
(VISITING SULTAN: Heyo!)
MARTHA: This would not be OK if it was not for the fact that your baby is the WORLD'S BEST BABY, omg. *__*

Then there's some more life-threatening incidents, including a BOX OF POISONOUS SPIDERS, and Martha decides it is time to take the baby back to London to stay with her love interest's sister.

THE MONKS: You can't take the world's best baby away from us though! ;__;
MARTHA: Look, I really have got to take the baby. You've still got a whole collection of other babies!
THE MONKS: ... ok, it's fine, here's a baby. TAKE THIS BABY. DON'T LOOK AT THE BABY'S FACE.
MARTHA: ...Why...
THE MONKS: No .... reason ....

It takes Martha like four hours and a kidnapping to figure out the baby swap, for the record. FOUR HOURS.

Everything escalates rapidly from there, with all the dramatic chase scenes, exploding soup cans and surprise elopements with visiting Sultans that one might expect from a standard Gothic novel, but my favorite part is how all of the dramatic motivations for the bizarre actions of the cast members are just, like, "Martha's ex just really doesn't like kids, OK?" and "the sinister monks really DO just think that Shrubsole is the world's prettiest baby!" Sure, makes sense. Seems legit.
skygiants: (wife of bath)
I just read a super adorable Pride and Prejudice fanfic!

It's called Lady Catherine's Necklace and you can buy it through Amazon, because it was written by Joan Aiken, author of the most amazingly cracked-out children's books of all time. Normally I tend to avoid published Jane Austen fanfic, but in this case I felt it was worth it just to see what she would do!

And while for the first third of the book or so everything seems fairly standard for a Jane Austen fanfic -- scheming adventurers have turned up at Lady Catherine's house, awkward romantic entanglements, etc. -- by midway through it turns out the answer actually is:

- KIDNAP LADY CATHERINE and strand her hilariously on a flooded rock with a depressed sailor-poet with prophetic dreams and a tragic past so that she can LEARN TO COPE WITH LIFE. (The best part is when they try and play Whose Life Sucks More; "she was obliged to concede that to have lost a wife, three children, his entire fortune and an unpublished volume of verse which he had hoped that some English publisher would accept and bring out -- all this greatly exceeded the loss of a son in his third year and a husband whom she had never valued above half")
- meanwhile, turn Anne de Bourgh basically into Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden and have her wander around being cranky to everyone except the garden boy and the gay painters down the road, who teach her about FRIENDSHIP
- meanwhile, ship Maria Lucas/Colonel Fitzwilliam, which is set up to be a love triangle between Maria and Colonel Fitzwilliam and Anne de Bourgh-who-he-is-supposed-to-marry, except Maria keeps thinking instead "Anne looks so nice when she's happy, I hope we'll be friends! :D"
- meanwhile there is a subplot about Lady Catherine's dead husband's SECRET TRAGIC BACKSTORY LOVE AFFAIR, and Lady Catherine's brother has a MYSTERIOUS TREASURE IN THE ATTIC, and someone has a SECRET SIBLING who may or may not have been cross-dressing the whole time, and someone else commits suicide by walking into a blazing bonfire

All of which is pretty much exactly what I would have expected from Joan Aiken but I am delighted nonetheless! I am especially delighted by spoilers )
skygiants: Lauren Bacall on a red couch (lauren bacall says o rly)
You guys know I love Joan Aiken, in all her fabulously cracked-out glory. Most of what I've read is her YA stuff, but the one of her forays into Gothic novels that I've read happens to be one of my VERY FAVORITE takes on the genre, the amazing A Cluster of Separate Sparks, which features giant retractable organs, kitchen oubliettes, and swarms of angry killer bees. It is AMAZING.

Naturally then when I saw Voices in an Empty House, another adult Joan Aiken, at the one-dollar sale at the charity bookstore where I volunteered, I snatched it up. But - hmm. I was fully prepared for cracktastic developments, but Joan Aiken here attempts to be writing a serious and philosophical novel about love and death and the possibly-negative impact of a Great Person on other people's lives with all the melodramatic plot twists of a Gothic, and while it is possible for that to work in theory, I'm not sure that really works here. Also, it's highly problematic.

I mean, the book starts out interesting, and I do quite like what she does with sort-of protagonist Thomas, who has severe arthritis and also occasional inconvenient attacks of thirty-minute amnesia - all right, so it's not so much that I find the occasional inconvenient attacks of thirty-minute amnesia plausible, but as a plot device it is hilarious and exactly what I would expect of Joan Aiken. But then there is the other protagonist that Thomas has come out to look for, brilliant teenaged Gabriel, who has a serious heath condition and has decided he is so disgusted with the HYPOCRISY Of ALL ADULTS EVER that he is going to run away and house-squat in NYC until his inevitable demise. Everyone in the book loves Gabriel and spends the whole book searching for him. Even the people who are secretly trying to assisted-suicide him for his fortune are also sort of in love with him. I have zero patience for him. That is the first problem.

The second problem is Gabriel's mother and her incestuous twin brother (I am trying to remember the last time I came across a pair of male-female twins in fiction who were NOT incestuous!), both of whom were sexually abused as children and have therefore grown up to be evil bisexuals whose moral decay is expressed via kinkiness both within and without the incestuous relationship. (Well, all right, only the uncle is explicitly bi, the mom just enjoys threesomes. Actually, the uncle may be gay-except-for-the-incest. The important thing regardless is that he is MORALLY DECAYED.) These characters are not treated entirely unsympathetically, but one can I THINK see the problem here.

And then the rest of the plot twists involve MURDERS and SECRET ADOPTIONS and BACKSTORY ANGST and a number of things that Thomas has conveniently forgotten due to his thirty-minute amnesia, which would all make for a perfectly serviceable Gothic if Joan Aiken were not so clearly trying to be seriousfaced about it, and also if so many of the twists were not utterly unsurprising and/or facepalmingly problematic. Also, a sad lack of killer bees and surprise telepathy. I think I need to start skimming the back-cover copy for oubliettes and elephants, because it's clear that the more cracked-out the plot twists, the more enjoyable the Aiken.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (crackbible)
Apartment-moving stress -------> the need for short brain-candy reading --------> finishing the Dido Twite books!

I have now read the last two in the series, Midwinter Nightingale and The Witch of Clatteringshaws, and - okay, brain candy is the wrong word here. These are not candy. They are CRACK IN ITS ESSENCE. Like, I know I say that about every Joan Aiken book, but this is new levels of ridiculous!

Midwinter Nightingale has the King of England (or bits of England, since apparently England has now divided into five or six countries without anyone bothering to mention it by this point in the series) being smuggled out to the country in Top Secret, because Our Heroes think it is a shame that the poor man should have to deal with things like, you know, succession and government, CAN'T A MAN BE ILL IN PEACE WHILE THE ENTIRE COUNTRY RUNS AROUND IN A PANIC WONDERING WHERE HE IS, OKAY. (It is things like this that make me think that it would be better if the bad guys just took over, because at least they seem to have some interest in making sure someone is running the country!) Simon spends most of the book hanging out with him and befriending random animals, including some bears imported from Russia by mistake (the army wanted boots! BOOTS! But the Russians mistranslated, alas.) Dido, meanwhile, has to deal with a werewolf baron, a moat full of man-eating fish, poisoned cakes, a flood of molten silver, an army of meditating levitating rebels, and the development of surprise precognition that is never explained (and vanishes by the next book). In the grand climax, our main characters stand around and watch in mild bemusement while various evil-doers attempt to attack them and then accidentally fling themselves in front of spears and over cliffs. Hooray for Team Good!

The Witch of Clatteringshaws is even less plot-coherent. What's left of England goes to war against the Saxons, but fortunately the day is saved by a complicated board game! Dido goes north to hunt for the missing heir to the throne, the answer to which question is hilariously convenient and random! Half the book is told in letters written by an exiled witch/social worker who lives in an abandoned ladies' restroom and has made friends with the faux-Loch-Ness monster! Everyone constantly talks about a group of monsters or elves (I am really not sure which) that steal and - eat? kill? - unsuspecting passersby, but they hardly ever appear or do anything plot-relevant! There is another plotline about saints and their last words that I cannot make head or tail of! One thing I am sure of, however, is that A GROUP OF OLD PEOPLE IS BEING ABUSED BY EVIL PLASTIC SURGEONS, AND IT IS VERY SERIOUS! I - I have no idea. It is a hilarious if nonsensical read, though! And I am charmed by any book where the witch rides a golf club because it's more comfortable than her broom and nags the townspeople about recycling and social responsibility.


I have to admit, I really want to hunt down Joan Aiken's Jane Austen fanfics now just to find out if they feature Emma Woodhouse thwarting evil zombies! Given the evidence of the books I have read so far, I WOULD NOT PUT IT PAST HER. (She would do it better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, too.)
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (find the light)
I feel like I have mentioned in many of my reviews that Joan Aiken is CRAZY. I mean, in a good way, but still, her plot twists are on the crack. In the case of the Dido series, the books seem to be veering further and further away from genial friendly pink-whale-oriented crack and more into dark and twisted Gothic crack, but I am not complaining really!

Cold Shoulder Road is another book following Dido's little sister Is. It is not quite as dark as the last one, which featured a full colony of children forced to work in dark underground minds, but it is still pretty dark - at one point a large group of relatively friendly people SUDDENLY EXPLODES.

The plot is pretty whacked out and involves a religious sect that refuses to speak, some Evil Smugglers, buried treasure, a boat in a tree, and cursed jewelry! I do not even actually remember how all of these fit together. What's really interesting is the dynamics between the characters, who include Is (relatively sane), her sister Penny (sour and antisocial and AWESOME; like a grown-up Mary Lennox!), her cousin Arun (who feels the need to act like a cat when he is under stress, which Is considers UNHELPFUL), Arun's mum Ruth (definitely not a demonstrative lady, but a great painter!) and Pye, an abused hostage that Ruth has rescued who is emotionally scarred, possibly developmentally disabled, and very much not an adorable moppet. Everyone in this very weird family is cranky and practical and stompy and jealous and awkward and gets into fights and it's so awesome I can't even complain about the sudden explosion of Twites.

The Whispering Mountain, on the other hand, is set in the same universe (although I can't for the life of me figure out the timeline) but has no Twites at all and in fact appears to be Joan Aiken's attempt to write a Susan Cooperish YA Welsh Fantasy. Or possibly to parody a YA Welsh Fantasy. I - I can't actually tell!

The book has all your basic required YA Welsh Fantasy elements:

1. A ~legendary golden harp~
2. A MYSTERIOUS RHYMING PROPHECY. About MOUNTAINS
3. An Boy-Hero who Doesn't Fit In
4. A Wise Herb-Gathering Welsh Girl who throws bach and cariad in every other word
5. With a Special Hawk Friend. (Named Hawc.)
6. Small mysterious craftspeople Under the Mountain
7. An absent-minded poet!

HOWEVER, it also has, among other things:
1. Small mysterious CAMELS Under the Mountain!
2. WILD BOAR ATTACKS
3. Deus ex drunken Prince of Wales!
4. Surprise . . . Turks . . .? (I don't even know, it is too weird even to be Orientalism!)
5. Evil attack snakes who are feeling ill and need to be given medical attention at once, AT ONCE!
6. Brother Ianto, the chipper monk who just walked his way back to Wales from a mission in China!

Joan Aiken does all this, so far as I can tell, with a perfectly straight face, and I really cannot tell whether it is for the subtle lulz or whether she honestly thinks that every generic YA Welsh fantasy should include the camels under the mountain. I'M SO CONFUSED, GUYS.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (golden-haired ghost)
So I am pretty sure that these two books bring me up to as far as I got in the Joan Aiken books when I was young, which means that after this it is all brand-new territory!

The books have always balanced the dark with the cracktastic, but Dido and Pa tips a little bit more on the 'dark' side of the scale - which is not to say that there are not cracktastic plot elements, because there totally are. (My favorite is how the bad guys are picking off everyone in the British government as part of their Evil Plot to replace the King with a double, and NOBODY NOTICES, it is all "oh dear, it seems that Minister so-and-so had a terrible boating accident! Just like the last six!") But the main theme here is Dido's relationship with her father, who is a flat-out terrible human being and also an incredibly genius musician; Dido is completely aware of both of these things, and spends a lot of time trying to reconcile them in her head. We also get more of her with both her older sister Penny, who is sour and cranky and completely antisocial and sews creepy stuffed animals for a living and WHOM I LOVE, and her possibly-younger-sister Is, who is even more of a starved and neglected rat than little Dido ever was. Also there is some Simon and Sophie being good and kind and generally bemused, but mostly it is all about the street children. There are plot developments foreshadowed through creepy children's games, some crossdressing, and a high-speed wolf chase or two, and, in my favorite bit at the very end, spoiler! )

Is Underground leaves Dido for a bit and follows the adventures of Is, who is almost but not really Dido Jr. - for one thing, she's a great deal less socialized and comfortable around people than Dido is, which I like a lot as a distinction between them. ALSO she is capable of creating telepathic hiveminds. (No, seriously.) This book is for some reason the one that stuck with me most when I was young, possibly because it is bizarre. For a start, the basic premise is that the North of England has seceded from the South and is luring London children up to its coal mines with a secret midnight train to work as child slave labor! (Hilariously, every time someone asks "but - seriously, the North just picked up and seceded?" everyone else is just like "I AM SORRY BUT THE KING HAD A LOT ON HIS MIND AT THE TIME, OKAY.") Also at one point there is a giant tidal wave over the coast of England. And did I mention the telepathic hivemind? Aside from the strangeness of the premise, it is also extremely dark, with a great deal of implied child death, and the happy ending is not unambiguous either.

I am increasingly curious about the next one, which I understand features more Is and her cousin who thinks he is a cat. And I believe another upcoming one has werewolves!
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (Default)
Man, the Great Dido Twite reread continues awesome. So awesome!

First we've got The Stolen Lake. Not only does Aiken completely jettison all claim to realism here, she expands her AU Britain to include possibly the most UTTERLY CRACKED OUT interpretation of the Camelot story I have ever read, involving as it does Guinevere calmly packing up the lake that leads to Avalon and moving it (and the court) to South America to hang out for a few hundred years while she waits for Arthur to come back across it! Of course everyone else, especially Great Britain, thinks she is a bit daffy, but that does not stop them forming inconvenient diplomatic alliances. There are evil shape-changing seamstresses named Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Ettard and Mrs. Vavasour and desperate messages sent via cats and a dictionary; someone is crushed to death in a constantly revolving castle door, someone else escapes durance vile by riding on the back of a tiger, several other people ride off in a flying machine, and Dido Twite crushes hardcore on the Once and Future King. NEVER CHANGE, JOAN AIKEN. <3333

It is sort of hard for The Cuckoo Tree to live up to this level of cracked-out plot-twist glory . . . but it tries valiantly anyways with telepathic twins (or possibly triplets), dramatic elephant rides to the rescue, and an evil plot to put a famous building on rollers and send it into the sea! The tone is quite a bit darker in places than in some of the other books, and there is a highly problematic Ethnic Fortune-Teller Stereotype, but Dido remains gloriously herself (my favorite - when she calmly breaks an enchanted lock despite its constant shrieking at her) and I have never wanted to hug her more than at the very end of this book. So much so that I went ahead and read the first few pages of the next one on Amazon, since it has not yet come in for me at the library. >.>

IN OTHER NEWS: Flist, I need advice! This is one of those Adult Things I am supposed to know and do not yet. How much does it generally cost to have a picture framed? I wandered into Books of Wonder yesterday and saw some signed Charles Vess artwork from Stardust up on display, and basically there is NO WAY I am not buying one of those prints, but they are significantly more expensive with frame than without and I am wondering if it would be cheaper to buy without the frame and then take them somewhere else to get re-framed.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (dickon mary cuteness)
Due to my lucky bookstore discoveries of two weeks ago, I have been rereading Joan Aiken's Wolves/Dido Twite books (is there a a consistent name for that series?), which I have not read since I was an extremely small thing and remembered almost nothing about.

Entirely unsurprising conclusion: THEY FILL ME WITH JOY. Joan Aiken, you are made of pseudo-Gothic crack, and I love you for it.

The first book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, is probably the most well-known and the most standard: spunky young girl and her sweet cousin are misused by a villainous imposter governess who wishes to steal the family fortunes. Subsequent plot developments involve secret passages, cruel orphanages, slavering wolves, and a cheery Dickon-esque Yorkshire boy who herds geese. Even this relatively understated plot (by Aiken standards) features glorious moments like this: "Oh yes, we had quite a pleasant journey. A wolf jumped into our compartment last night, but Mr. Grimshaw - that gentleman - stabbed it to death and we moved into another compartment."

Black Hearts in Battersea doubles the Dickensian, and also the crack levels, following goose-herder and would-be-art student Simon (who has mysteriously lost all of his Yorkshire accent between the first and second book) as he uncovers a convoluted plot involving evil Hanoverian conspiracies, secret islands, kidnapped painters, long-lost heirs, and babies switched at birth! Mince pies, a giant balloon, and an army of art students also form crucial parts of the plot. My favorite exchange:

Comically French Art School Director: "Etudiants! Away, all, to Battersea Park, to sketch ze castle against ze sunset!"
Student: "I say, though, dear old sir, what about the wolves in the park? Know how it is when you're sketching - get absorbed - wolf sneaks up behind - poof, snip, snap, swallow! - and all your paint water's spilt."
Director: "Vraiment, zat is a difficulty. Aha! I have it. One student will paint, ze osser fight wiss ze wolves."

The other thing that makes this book fabulous are a pair of Bratty Yet Secretly Heroic(ish) Children! Well, okay, Dido is significantly more heroic than Justin, but they are also both amazingly bratty and cranky and demanding, and you know how I love realistic brats; they are much more fun than your standard YA Heroic Children. (Also awesome: the number of times people's lives are saved with embroidery.)

HOWEVER. Even the level of crack!plotting in Black Hearts in Battersea is thoroughly outmatched by Nightbirds on Nantucket, the sequel following Dido's adventures (sadly for me, she is signicantly less bratty when she has to be the Responsible One, but she remains awesome nonetheless!) I probably should not spoil the awesomely cracked-out Hanoverian plot that needs to be foiled this time - and believe me, it is AMAZINGLY cracked out - but really I feel I need tell you guys no more about the story than that it involves the EPIC TRUE ROMANCE between a sea captain and a GIANT PINK WHALE. OH JOAN AIKEN YES!!!

Excuse me, I have to go see if the next one has come in at the library yet.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (cowboy glee!)
The last two books I read were both full of CRACKTASTIC AWESOMENESS, albeit in very different ways.

The first, Joan Aiken's A Cluster of Separate Sparks, is a Gothic thriller of the insane and self-mocking variety, as a heroine with a Tragic Past bumbles her way into a Mysterious Greek Mansion/School/Ex-Templar Monastery full of kitchen oubliettes, giant retractable organs, killer bees, and enormous pottery ovens (all of which will of course come into murderous play sooner or later), all the while asking herself, throughout these tribulations, 'what would Esther from Bleak House do?' I have to say that this last is one of my favorite things about the novel, although I was also very fond of the Tremendously Polite and Helpful Terrorists, the Muddle Principle, and the throwaway reference to a drug that could turn an entire country into schizophrenics. It is the sort of book in which, when the heroine finds herself in yet another series of mysterious tunnels, she thinks to herself, "Am I going to find the Chief of Police knocked unconscious down here again, that seems a bit much!" As you might guess, I enjoyed it tremendously.

At the same time, I was reading E. Nesbit's The Magic City on Project Gutenberg, which was actually a Nesbit book I had never read before. Philip is the cranky boy hero whose beloved older sister, who has been his mother figure throughout his life, is finally getting married to a widower with a daughter. Philip promptly decides to despise both widower and daughter - a resolve that holds until he and the girl, Lucy, find themselves in a magic city that he built with blocks and books and other knickknacks, and, in making his escape, he accidentally leaves her behind. Then of course he has to go back and rescue her, and meanwhile perform the seven tasks that will prove he's the fabled Deliverer of the city instead of the Destroyer (they're the only roles open, you see, as the inhabitants of the city explain to him.) Lucy isn't passive either, though; she solves about half the tasks for him (including one about slaying some lions in the desert, which caused me tremendous cognitive dissonance) and is constantly characterized as bold, heroic and clever. Like all Nesbit books, fabulously insane situations pop up on every other page; I am particularly fond of the Jolly Child Islanders who import bored M.A.s from Oxford to do all their construction projects. I also really want someone to write a paper about the character of the Destroyer, also known as the Pretenderette to the Deliverership, who is characterized by her red hair and goes off into a long rant at the end about class issues, but I will try not to go off on that right now.

Basically, both of these books are the kind of reads where you turn a page and suddenly find yourself giggling at an incredibly insane event or coolly bizarre turn of phrase; I did not so much read them for deep analysis, but they were ridiculously fun.

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