Sunday, April 19, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (J)

I had more luck with J, than with I. Interestingly enough when I thought about it, all my selections were female and all best known as authors of books for children or young adults. It's a fun list, at least I think so.

Tove Jansson - August 9, 1914 - June 27, 2001. I think the picture above is just so Tove Jansson that I fell in love with it. That just screams I am the mother of the Moomins! Tove Jansson came from an artistic and liberal Swedish speaking family in Finland. Her father was a sculptor and her mother a graphic designer, her siblings became artists. Tove herself was as much artist as she was author. She illustrated her own books and did a Moomin comic strip. Her most famous creation of the Moomins, a cuddly sort of troll, began life as something she drew to amuse and possibly frighten her younger siblings, later on it morphed into a trademark that she used to identify her work.

In 1945 inspired by the depression of WW 2 she wrote something that was whimsical, naive and innocent. It was The Moomins and the Great Flood (although it was the first Moomin book written it was among the last to be translated into languages other than Finnish, and was largely unnoticed. Many regard Comet in Moominland as the first book of the series).

Comet in Moominland (1948) started the popularity. Jansson went on to write 6 more Moomin books and became Finland's most widely read author outside her homeland. She won the biennial Hans Christian Andersen award in 1966 for her contribution to children's literature.

She continued to write for the rest of her life, but ventured outside of the world of the Moomins after 1970. She wrote a number of novels and short story collections, as well as continuing to create art and comic strips. A number of documentaries about her life on the island of Klovharu and her travels with her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietila (the inspiration for the character of Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter), were also shot by Pietila.

She passed away in 2001 from lung cancer (Jansson was a lifelong smoker) at the age of 86.

I love all the Moomin books (although there are only 7 of them, including The Moomins and the Great Flood, it feels like there are so many more. They're only slim, but they pack a lot into the pages), so it was a hard thing to pick just one. For a long time I had a liking for Moominsummer Madness, but I'd have to revise that to Finn Family Moomintroll now. Finn Family Moomintroll is the 3rd of the books, and it was the first one I read. My mother bought a copy for me when I was 8 years old, it introduced me to the Moomins, and I made it a mission to track down and read the others. Finn Family Moomintroll just has a feel about it that I don't think the others quite matched. Moominsummer Madness probably came close. Finn Family Moomintroll probably has the most complete cast with Moomintroll himself, his parents Moominmamma and Moominpappa, Sniff and Snufkin, the Muskrat, the Hemulen, the Hattifatteners, Moomintroll's girlfriend the Snork Maiden and her brother the Snork, as well as the Hobgoblin and his magical hat, that can turn eggshells into clouds and a handful of weeds into a jungle. It also featured the terrifying Groke for the first time and is the only book to feature the verbally dyslexic Thingummy and Bob. It's one of those books that crosses generational boundaries and can be read by children and adults alike, each finding something different to appreciate in its pages.

Further and related reading: there are 6 other Moomin books: The Moomins and the Great Flood, Comet in Moominland, The Exploits of Moominpappa, Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November. Following Moominsummer Madness the books became more reflective and examined feelings more closely than they had previously. Moominvalley in November is more of a series of stories about characters who have interacted with the Moomins, and does not feature the family themselves (during it they are in fact either en route or on the island featured in Moominpappa at Sea). She also wrote a short story collection about her creation: Tales from Moominvalley, and there were a number of picture books: The Book about Moomin, Mumble and Little My, Who Will Comfort Toffle? Dangerous Journey, An Unwanted Guest and a song book: Songs from Moominvalley. There are also collections of the Moomin comic strips written and drawn by Jansson.

There have been plenty of books since that try to capture the same feeling as the Moomin books, but I don't think anyone really succeeded until I saw Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland series. It's the closest I can think of that has come to creating that same feeling or the sort of concepts that Jansson dealt with. These are things that shouldn't work, but somehow do. They also have that same sort of cross generational appeal and that feel that there is nothing in the books that could ever be considered offensive or harmful.

I'll be surprised if many people reading this have ever heard of Catherine Jinks. She's an Australian author who grew up in Papua New Guinea and now lives in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Despite her relative anonymity she's written 41 books. Her first book Wrong Way Out came out in 1991 and she has steadily written since then. Most of her work is aimed at the YA market (although she has written for both adults and younger children) and covers a wide spectrum from vampire/werewolf fiction (The Reformed Vampire Support Group and The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group), the Genius science fiction series, historical fiction with The Pagan Chronicles and many other genres. Unlike plenty of other authors out there, from Australia and outside, she sets a lot of her work within the country, generally in and around Sydney.

She has a presence on the web at:, which has a brief bio and details about all her books across the spectrum.

This is why she made the list and how I first found out about her. I loved the above cover (strangely enough it's since been replaced by something much less inspiring and misleading. It looks like every other YA vampire book out there, and that's not what it is). I actually call The Reformed Vampire Support Group, the anti-Twilight book. It covers the trials and tribulations of a group of vampires in Sydney, who don't actually want to be vampires. They were turned against their will, and they don't particularly want to kill people and drink their blood ,or never go out during the day. They run the gamut of ages, and the central character; Nina Harrison, was turned when she was 15 years old. As far as Nina is concerned being eternally 15 isn't all that modern fiction has cracked it up to be. She won't ever age, she can't go out during the day, all of her former friends have aged and left her behind, she still lives at her mother's house and writes fiction about a teenage vampire hunter to make some money and not be a financial drain on her ageing mother. The fun really starts when someone begins killing members of her support group. In the course of the investigation and trying to save themselves they also meet up with werewolves who have their own problems and that springboarded into the sequel. I think the book has been criminally underrecognised in this Twilight obsessed age, where teen vampires are all the go.

Further and related reading: there's all of Catherine Jinks' other work, but as it's all different from this, unless you read The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group, you'd probably be disappointed, although fans of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl would probably enjoy the Genius series.

In terms of vampire fiction aimed at teen audiences that's almost a genre unto itself with the success of Twilight. I'd recommend Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires, in which the twist is most of the cast actually don't want to be vampires and one only becomes one because otherwise he'll cease to exist. There's also Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy, which had a half decent film made out of it.  Moving into the adult book sphere you're getting into Paranormal Romance territory which can include Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, Kim Harrison's The Hollows series and even Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse books, although they all take things much more seriously than Catherine Jinks irreverent take on it.

Diana Wynne Jones - August 16, 1934 - March 26, 2011. It was a sad day when Diana Wynne Jones departed this earth. She was a giant of children's and YA fantasy literature, and had that knack of holding readers from childhood to adulthood.

She began writing in the 60's when her youngest of her three sons was two years old, and she said that she did it mostly to keep her sanity.

That first book was Changeover and from that point on she wrote full time. She ranged across the gamut. Best known for the Chrestomanci series, which is an odd sort of portal fantasy, she also achieved success with the quasi historical Dalemark quartet, and the Derkholm series, which was born out of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which poked fun at every fantasy cliche ever from dark lords to stew. Outside of Chrestomanci, she achieved lasting fame with the Howl's Moving Castle series, which was turned into a financial and critically successful film by Japan's Studio Ghibli.

She was still working at the time of her death, and her sister Ursula finished The Islands of Chaldea and it was published posthumously in 2014.

I chose The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as my favourite DWJ book over things like the other two Derkholm books, Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci series, because while I liked them I couldn't say I loved them. I did with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The book is written like a tourist guide for someone visiting the generic pseudo medieval fantasy setting. It's written alphabetically. The first entry is Adept and the final one is Zombies. Each entry has a suitably amusing and often 'factual' description. It makes aspiring writers like myself squirm with how neatly it skewers cliches and tropes and I wince every time I see one of my own depictions so perfectly laughed at. The book served as inspiration for the Derkholm series, with the author going on to write about a fantasy world being used as a tourist attraction by an unscrupulous off world tour operator. The world of fantasy owes the book a great debt for pointing out some of it's failings in such a delightful way.

Further and related reading: there's all of Diana Wynne Jones' wonderful work, especially the Derkholm series. There are in excess of 40 novels, including the various series, and I haven't even gone into short story collections or picture books. A few people have copied The Tough Guide to Fantasyland format, but no one has done it quite so successfully. The closest I can think of are some of Terry Pratchett's 'non fiction' about his own fantasy creation of Discworld. A number of other authors parody the genre; Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin, Tom Holt, but no one did it quite like Diana Wynne Jones, they are however worth a read, especially Terry Pratchett. In some ways this type of fiction does owe a small debt to the Harold Shea stories by L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt.

Honourable mention: I haven't done this before, but I felt in this case that I should explain the omission and include something about the man and his work.

People may be wondering why I didn't include Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time. I am aware of them and did like the series to a point, and I did include inferior work like Brooks' Shannara and Eddings' Belgariad. I think it's largely because after the first 4 or 5 Wheel of Time books I started to wonder when, and if, this thing was ever going to end. I gave up after about 3 books filled with nothing but the minutiae of the world Robert Jordan had created. The final straw was The Crossroads of Twilight, which includes about 30 pages worth of plot development in it's 700+ page total. One critic summed the entire thing up as 'drivel'.  I did go back later and read The Knife of Dreams, which was a little better, but I've never been able to bring myself to read the final three books written by Brandon Sanderson from Robert Jordan's notes. It was an idea that largely collapsed under it's own weight. The genre owes Robert Jordan a debt for proving that immense sprawling multi book epics like The Wheel of Time could work, but it just missed out on making my favourite's list for some of it's own failings.


  1. Good choices for the "J" authors, although I probably would have chosen different books as the favourites.

    For Jansson, my favourite would have been Midwinter, although it's been a very long time since I've read them, and it may change if I re-read them now.

    With Jinks, I agree with you about the Vampire book, and it sucks that we don't know where our copy is at the moment. :)

    Jones has such a variety of books and themes that it's hard to choose a favourite. I love Howl's Moving Castle, and I would probably class that as my favourite, but I also adore Fire and Hemlock, but that's a more mature book and really isn't for everyone (it's a retelling of Tam Lin). The Tough Guide is just hysterical for a reader/writer as you can see so many tropes being skewered.

    You got further through Jordan's work than I did, I think I bailed at about book 3 and hav had no real interest to read them any further.

  2. I had to really think about the Janssons. I did consider having all the Moomin books, but the Finn Family Moomintroll still retains the same sense of wonder for me that it did the first time I read it.

    I like the other DWJ's but Tough Guide was a revelation the first time I read it.

    Jordan started off well, but became a real slog. WoT fans will still defend them to the death, though.