Chris and Mig have been plagued by their father's Aunt Maria ever since his car plunged over a cliff when he was on his way to visit her in the village of Cranbury Head. Selectively deaf, manipulative, and of very fixed notions (including horror at females wearing trousers), it was bad enough when she rang, every day after school - if nobody answered the phone then Aunt Maria would ring around all their friends and their mother's work, sure something had happened to them. Mig became adept at deflecting questions about Chris, who - a boy - was allowed to be out as long as he was doing something worthwhile. Aunt Maria was content thinking him a maths genius who studied with a phoneless friend. But then Chris, Mig and their mother went to stay with Aunt Maria, and things became truly odd. There seem to be no other children in the village, except the orphans, and though they all look different they seem somehow the same. A ghost comes to Chris' room every night and searches for something. The men all seem like zombies, except for Mr Phelps across the road, and the women are all boring and pander to Aunt Maria. But it's not until Aunt Maria turns Chris into a wolf, and somehow bespells their mother into not noticing he's gone that Mig decides she has to take action.
Jones always writes interesting novels, her work informed by a panoply of influences from Norse legends to great British literature, and Black Maria (published in the US as Aunt Maria) is no exception. In some ways reminiscent of Nicholas Fisk's Grinny, Aunt Maria uses words to ensorcel the unsuspecting, and there are some archetypes loosely scattered through the novel, which is not set in Jones' usual eight-world universe. This is not my favourite of her books but even a mediocre Diana Wynne Jones is better than many writer's better works, and it was an enjoyable enough escape. - Alex