Fire and Hemlock: A (ReRead) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Polly Whittacker is nineteen and preparing to return to college after visiting her grandmother over break. She has a flatmate, a boyfriend, and all of the other things she would expect as a college student. It’s ordinary but it feels like enough.

That is until Polly stares at the picture that’s hung above her bed for as long as she can remember. Here, now, of course, Polly knows that “Fire and Hemlock” is just a photograph of some hay bails burning with a hemlock plant in the foreground. But when she was younger didn’t the picture used to have figures dancing and racing around the fire?

The more Polly remembers about the painting, the more she realizes that her memories of the past ten years aren’t quite right either. She has the ordinary set, the ones she always thought were true. But if she thinks back far enough and hard enough, Polly starts to remember another set of memories from a very different, very not ordinary life.

It all started nine years ago when Polly accidentally crashed a funeral and met an odd cellist named Thomas Lynn. Her friendship with Mr. Lynn took the form of fantastical letters, exchanged books, and one very odd visit to his flat in London. Those memories are easy to hold onto once they start to come back.

But something else happened the last time they met. Something worse. And now, here, Polly knows that she and Tom are inextricably tied together–maybe as friends and maybe as more. But Polly won’t have the chance to figure any of that out unless she can gather her memories and figure out not just how to get back to Tom but how to save him in Fire and Hemlock (1985) by Diana Wynne Jones.

Find it on Bookshop.

I originally reviewed Fire and Hemlock in 2007 just a few months after I started blogging when I first read the novel. Even a decade later I still think about Polly and Tom all the time and almost since the moment I finished it, this book has held a place as one of my most favorite books of all time.

I read this book again in 2017 and was thrilled to see that it absolutely stands up to closer readings. If you can, get your hands on the edition I like to above–it has one of the best covers this book has ever gotten, includes an introduction from Garth Nix, and features an essay Jones wrote about writing this novel–something she rarely talked about in interviews.

Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of Tam Lin, a meditation on what it means to be a hero, a sweeping romance, and one of the best fantasies you’ll ever read. I still haven’t read all of Jones’ novels, the thought of running out is a bit too depressing so I try to keep a few in my figurative back pocket. But if you have to pick just one to read, consider starting here.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Entwined by Heather Dixon, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Glass Casket by Templeman McCormick, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

The Agony of Alice: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Agony of Alice by Phyllis Reynolds NaylorIn the world of children’s literature (and in recent years also YA), one name is mentioned above all others: Alice. To be specific, Alice McKinley–the intrepid heroine of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s long running children’s/YA series.

The Agony of Alice is the debut novel of this series, originally published in 1985 (find it on Bookshop) and now out in a variety of reprints with myriad versions of cover art. Personally, I’d be more willing to consider Naylor’s prequel novel Starting With Alice (from 2002) to be the actual beginning of this series, but having read both either seems appropriate as an introduction to Alice’s world.

When this story begins, Alice is preparing to move with her father and older brother. As the family packs up, Alice remembers all of the embarrassing things she did in the years leading up to the move and also wishes that, just maybe, some people like Donald Sheavers and the milk man might disappear or suddenly develop amnesia to save Alice some of her embarrassment.

Of course, life doesn’t work that way, so instead Alice just has to keep moving forward in her new town as she tries to make new friends, find a new mother (Alice’s mother died when she was a young child), and earn a place on the coveted street patrol. Meanwhile, Alice has to decide whether she’s growing up properly or backwards, cope with the worst teacher in the entire grade, and figure out how to buy a pair of jeans. Sixth grade is going to be nothing if not exciting for Alice!

This is the kind of book where not many “major” things happen, it’s more like opening a window into Alice’s life. Happily that works. Alice is likable and entertaining. Naylor does a great job creating an authentic and readable voice in her first person narration. On a more minor note, it’s kind of fun to read the early books in the series that are set in the 1980s just to get little touches like the cassette tapes thrown in to make the setting authentic.

When I started The Agony of Alice I must admit that the book seemed a bit slow (as slow as such a short book can seem). That might have more to do with my usually reading crazy, action-packed fantasy novels. It might also have to do with my resistance to starting this series. Having done my time with sweeping series–the ones that go on for years and require a continued commitment to follow–I was hesitant to start another. Then I found out that the series would be ending when Alice turned eighteen and realized the end was in sight (Alice was already a high school junior in the latest installment). Plus, the book got more interesting the more I read which made me rethink my initial doubts.

Finally, Alice is a great character. Certainly Alice has her stumbles along the way, but she always gets up and dusts herself off. It’s a hard lesson to learn, so it’s nice to see a character in a children’s book who is already getting the hang of it.
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: The Agony of Alice