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 Homeward Bounders: A (hesitant) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Have you ever heard of the Flying Dutchman? No? Nor of the Wandering Jew? Well, it doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you about them in the right place; and about Helen and Joris, Adam and Konstam, and Vanessa, the sister Adam wanted to sell as a slave. They were all Homeward Bounders like me. And I’ll tell you about Them too, who made us that way.

The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne JonesThe Homeward Bounders (1981) by Diana Wynne Jones (find it on Bookshop) is the rare type of book where the first paragraph shown above tells readers everything they can expect from it. For those who would like further elaboration, though, I offer my own summary.

The first twelve years of Jamie’s life were pretty great. Unfortunately it goes downhill after some badly timed exploring when Jamie finds himself in a mysterious garden that seems to have passed notice by his entire city. Inside the garden, in a building hidden from prying eyes, mysterious hooded figures lurk playing a strange game with the entire world as their game board.

Seeing Them at play, Jamie is discarded as a random factor left to wander the Bounds lest he corrupt the games’ integrity. His only hope is to find his own world at which time Jamie can “reenter play” and get back to the life and family he left behind.

Unfortunately, getting Home isn’t quite as easy as Jamie as thought. Drifting from world to world, it seems impossible to find the right one. (If this premise sounds at all like the 1990s TV show Sliders that’s because it is. Written in 1981, I have a strong suspicion that the show’s creators were familiar with this title.) Eventually, despite his literal detachment from any world he lands on, Jamie does find some allies. Along with Helen and Joris, children lost like him yet at the same time, nothing like children from Jamie’s Home, Jamie sets out to stop Them once and for all so that perhaps, he and the rest of the Homeward Bounders can finally rest.

The premise of The Homeward Bounders was interesting to read. It was impressive when I realized the the opening so neatly outlined the ensuing plot. That said, the book never grabbed my full attention the way other books so often do. While Jamie is extremely likable and clever, his first-person narration always felt like it was at a distance, which in a way is fair since the entire story is set up as a dictation. Toward the halfway point, my interest began to lag in direct proportion to the diminished action.

It’s a strange comparison, but this novel reads very similarly to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, like that Old English classics The Homeward Bounders is fundamentally an exercise in story telling. Jamie is telling readers his story, when he meets new allies he shares his story, they in turn explain their own path to becoming Homeward Bounders. While the story is dramatic, it is not action packed. The ending is also not all rosy greetings and victory parades.

On the other hand, Jones presents here a strong, literary fantasy novel with a great boy as the main character. An excellent choice for any students looking for suitable independent reading books in school.

Possible Pairings: Flight by Sherman Alexie, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Planesrunner by Ian McDonald, Sliders (television series)

House of Many Ways: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne JonesLike many seniors, my attentions have shifted recently from life at college to life after. In my own case, that means thinking about the start of rigorous librarian training which others might know more commonly as graduate school. Since I’ve consequently been thinking even more about libraries than usual, I decided to focus on two of my favorite things for my latest CLW review here: fantasies and libraries. Specifically, Diana Wynne Jones’ newest fantasy novel House of Many Ways which centers on an aspiring librarian of sorts.

Find it on Bookshop.

Surprisingly few recent fantasy novels feature libraries. After some deep thought, I could only come up with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Lirael by Garth Nix. I am going to go out on a limb and say that House of Many Ways does a better job as a fantasy novel with a library angle than either of those books.

House of Many Ways is Jones’ third novel featuring Howl and Sophie, following Howl’s Moving Castle from 1986 (also a movie adaptation made by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004) and Castle in the Air from 1990. Although all of these novels stand alone very nicely, certain nuances of the story will make more sense if you read the novels in sequence. Certain characters’ cameo appearances will also be more satisfying with the background afforded by reading all three novels.

This particular story starts in High Norland with Charmain Baker. Born to lovely parents determined to make their daughter respectable, Charmain is ill equipped for almost everything besides eating and reading—a fact that has escaped the notice of her parents and doesn’t much bother Charmain.

The only problem with her tame existence is that Charmain is unable to do the one thing she has always, desperately, wanted to do: work in the royal library with the elderly Princess Hilda and her even more elderly father, the king of High Norland.

As part of her plan to gain entry to the library, Charmain agrees to watch the royal wizard’s house while he undergoes treatment from elves for a mysterious illness. Upon her arrival at the house, it becomes clear that this house-sitting venture will be more than Charmain had expected what with the angry kobolds and the sudden arrival of the wizard’s new apprentice, Peter. It may, however, also be exactly what she needs.

There are a lot of reasons that I like this book and its predecessors in the series. Diana Wynne Jones has a particularly charming writing style that is both cozy and engaging. There is something decidedly old fashioned about the prose, ranging from the chapter titles reminiscent of those found in E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View to the swift and casual narration so similar to the voice Jane Austen favored in her novels. At the same time, amazingly, Jones integrates elements of the fantastic like magic and wizards and elves without ever seeming outlandish or contrived.

House of Many Ways is a particularly appealing title, by an already well-liked author. First and foremost, for obvious reasons, I like that Charmain is a bookish character who wants to work in a library. The other characters that populate this novel, including some from both Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, are original and appealing though not by any means perfect.

Even Charmain, the novel’s heroine, has moments where she is quite mistaken about a variety of things. Happily, never long enough to become problematic for readers. At the same time, it is refreshing that Charmain is utterly useless despite her being so well read. When she arrives at the wizard’s house she cannot cook, wash clothes, or do many other things that most people take for granted.

This story is about magic and a fair bit of adventure. But it is also about what every college senior has to think about sooner or later: being an adult. As the novel progresses, Charmain learns about more than books and magic, she learns how to grow up and take care of herself, even when that means admitting she might need some help.

Possible Pairings: A Room With a View by E. M. Forster, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Lirael by Garth Nix, Murder in Exile by Vincent H. O’Neil, The Archived by Victoria Schwab, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Castle in the Air: a review

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne JonesCastle in the Air is Diana Wynne Jones’ sequel to her amazingly awesome novel Howl’s Moving Castle.

Find it on Bookshop.

It was originally published in 1990 (four years after Howl’s Moving Castle). At first glance, this novel doesn’t sound like a sequel–it sounds more like a companion book at best–but I promise it does explain more about Howl and Sophie, just not right away and not, perhaps, in the most obvious way.

That said, this story is set in the Sultanates of Rashpuht a land far to the south of Ingary (where Howl and Sophie make their home). Instead of a land akin to King Arthur and Merlin, Rashpuht is much more likely to harbor Aladdin and other desert-dwellers. This change in setting, along with a new protagonist, make for the most dramatic differences between Castle in the Air and its predecessor.

Abdullah works as a carpet merchant in the city of Zanzib. Abdullah’s stall may not be as prosperous as his father’s first wife’s relatives would like, but Abdullah can’t stand most of them so he doesn’t worry too much. What really bothers Abdullah is the fact that he’s selling carpets at all. Abdullah is convinced there is more to life and spends a good deal of his time daydreaming about what his life could be like if, say, he were a prince who had escaped bandits and disguised himself as a carpet merchant before he found his true love.

All in all, the young man doesn’t give his daydreams much thought until he is sold a mysterious carpet. With the carpet, Abdullah finds that all of his dreams seem to be coming true with alarming accuracy. Whisked to a magical garden, Abdullah meets and falls in love with the beautiful and intelligent Flower-in-the-Night only to have her abducted by an evil djinn. So begins Abdullah’s adventure as he and his carpet set off to rescue his true love.

This being a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the plot is filled with charming twists and enjoyable characters throughout. The other great thing about this novel is how much Jones fleshes out the world she introduced in Howl’s Moving Castle. As the novel progresses, readers learn more about the relations between Ingary, Rashpuht, and Strangia (a land that becomes important later, trust me). At the same time, Jones also creates a completely new set of customs and even a new diction for her Rashpuhtian characters which gives the novel an impressive depth.

I don’t know if this was the intended effect but, even though both novels are written in English, this change in diction also creates the effect that the characters here speak a different language and that, on some level, their customs would be very foreign to those found in Ingary. One of Jones’ best inventions is that buyers and sellers in Zanzib always speak to each other “in the most formal and flowery way.” This habit creates a lot of conversations that function on a variety of levels much in the same way body language can add to an exchange. For example:

“It is possible that my low and squalid establishment might provide that which you seek, O pearl of wanderers,” he said, and cast his eye critically over the stranger’s dirty desert robe, the corroded stud in the side of the man’s nose, and his tattered headcloth as he said it.

“It is worse than squalid, might seller of floor coverings,” the stranger agreed.

Exchanges like this appear throughout the novel and make it really enjoyable to read. At the same time this type of double talk suggests that Abdullah is a shrewder narrator than Sophie might have been at the start of the novel. Abdullah doesn’t always know exactly what’s going on during the novel, but he always tries to make sure he comes out on top (or at least not on a forty foot pole).

On its own, Castle in the Air is a lot of fun as far as fantasies go. Read in combination with Howl’s Moving Castle and House of Many Ways (Jones’ latest novel featuring Howl and Sophie due out in June 2008 ) this book is excellent.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Arabian Nights, Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel by Kathleen Karr, Hero by Alethea Kontis, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner


Howl’s Moving Castle: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne JonesBefore Hayao Miyazaki made Howl’s Moving Castle into a feature length animated film in 2006 (2004 if you saw it in Japan), it was a book written by Diana Wynne Jones in 1986. Due to the inherent difficulties of creating an animated film, Miyazaki greatly abridged and adjusted the plot of the novel for his movie. I happened to enjoy both film and novel but after reading the book I realized that the plot is extremely different in the novel–enough that the book and movie become completely different viewing experiences.

Find it on Bookshop.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about the movie. On to the discussion of the book:

Sophie lives “in the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist.” In other words, all of the traditional fairy tale stories are real. Not so bad, except that Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, which everyone knows means Sophie is doomed to failure should she ever set out to seek her fortunes. Sophie is resigned to her fate–living obscurely, and less than successfully, working in the family hat shop. Except that this is not a traditional fairy tale and events soon intervene to set Sophie on a very unexpected course indeed for an eldest daughter.

It all starts in the hat shop after some interesting things begin to happen when Sophie talks to the hats she trims. Interesting enough to attract the attention of the dangerous Witch of the Waste. When her encounter with the Witch of the Waste leaves Sophie cursed in the body of an old woman, she has no choice but to go out and seek her fortune in hopes of breaking the curse (even if she is an eldest daughter).

Along the way, Sophie comes upon a mysterious moving castle that has taken up in the hill’s of Ingary. The castle belongs to Wizard Howl “who was known to amuse himself by collection young girls and sucking the souls from them. Or some people said he ate their hearts.” Either way, he was not anyone Sophie expected to ever meet let alone move in with. Until she does. Adventure ensues as Sophie tries to break the curse and help Howl with his own uniquely magical problems.

In terms of fantasy novels, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorites. The world Jones creates is fully realized without ever getting boring or limiting the reader’s imagination. The tone of her narrative is also spot on. Readers of Jane Austen’s novels or the “Sorcery and Cecelia” series will notice a similar narrative voice. Although this novel is largely timeless, the prose has a charmingly Victorian tone–taking its time to arrive at the action, the better to familiarize readers with the characters involved and show the readers just how fantastic they (and the story) really are.

I also adore this story because it is romantic, thrilling, and completely absorbing. Even at 329 pages, the novel is far too short. Happily, Diana Wynne Jones follows up Howl’s Moving Castle with Castle in the Air (1990) and a brand new book featuring Sophie and Howl (House of Many Ways) is due out in May of 2008.

Possible Pairings: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Leviathan by Scott Westefeld, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Howl’s Moving Castle (movie)

Fire and Hemlock: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne JonesDiana Wynne Jones is at the top of my list of best fantasy writers for children and young adult fiction (along with Vivian Vande Velde and Garth Nix). Her books are well-crafted, rich enough that I’d say most could be crossover adult books, and truly original.

Fire and Hemlock (1970) (find it on Bookshop)  is one of my favorite books by Jones. It’s place as number one is rivaled only by Howl’s Moving Castle. Fire and Hemlock is a modern retelling of the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer–Scottish legends about woman wooed by a fairy man whom she has to hold onto through a variety of obstacles to save him from being a sacrifice in the fairy realm. Fire and Hemlock veers pretty far from that original premise so it isn’t necessary to be well-versed in the related lore to follow the story.

Polly seems to have a normal life. She is getting ready to return to college with her roommate, she has a boyfriend, her grandmother. All of the memories seem mundane. Yet, as Polly sits packing at home, she realizes that some of her memories don’t make sense. In fact, some of her memories don’t seem right at all.

It all started nine years ago when Polly walked in on a strange funeral at the mansion next door. After that Polly came into possession of an entrancing picture of burning bales of hay called “Fire and Hemlock.” Nine years ago was also when Polly began having adventures with Tom Lynn–a man she can barely remember in her “normal” memories.

Told in Polly’s present and flashbacks to her not normal memories, the novel follows Polly’s efforts to separate fact from fiction and discover why everything changed before it’s too late.

There is no gentle way to say this: the novel starts slow. Faithful readers will be rewarded once they get into the narrative, but that does take time since the story starts with Polly doing little more than packing her bags. The style is common as Jones blends elements of the modern world with old world elements (the Tam Lin lore here).

Polly and Tom’s interactions are the bread and butter of the story. The dialogue between them is vividly authentic and humorous. Tom Lynn is one of those dashing heroes that come up too rarely in contemporary fiction while Polly is a persistent, strong young woman who most parents would want their daughters to see as a role model.

The writing here is strong. Jones creates an interesting story. My only qualm is that the ending gets quite confusing, requiring several readings to make sense of exactly what happens. Despite that weakness, the book as a whole is amazing. It’s a fantasy without being too fantastic, a romance without being too mushy.

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