Archive for the ‘Diana Wynne Jones’ Category

What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.



Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!


10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)


Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.


So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.


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archer's goon dianna wynne jones 001Archer’s Goon by Dianna Wynne Jones ~ 1984.This edition: Greenwillow Books (William Morrow & Co.), 1984. Hardcover. First American edition. ISBN:0-688-02582-X. 241 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Lost a point at the end. Alpha Centauri – seriously?! Total cop-out, DWJ! But that’s such a minor quibble – I loved this book – slyly humorous the whole way through.


I came to reading Dianna Wynne Jones late in life. Like right now. Of course I’ve long since met Howl (with a very serious anime-fan kid how could I miss Miyazaki’s amazing Howl’s Moving Castle? – and of course we had to read the book – loved both versions – wow wow WOW!) – and the Chrestromanci books, but the yet-to-reads vastly outnumber the already-reads. I’m remedying that.

DWJ’s books were not among the choices in my school library growing up, or, if they were, I was completely unaware of them. We had very well-stocked libraries in my grade school days – times in B.C. were good and there was plenty of school district budget money for books and such, much more so than at present. Looking at the publication dates in DWJ’s Bibliography, I now realize that she really hit her stride after I’d left school, so that logically explains the DWJ-shaped blank spot in my childhood reading experience.

Anyway – Archer’s Goon. Good stuff. Where to start, where to start?



This book will prove the following ten facts:

  1. A Goon is a being who melts into the foreground and sticks there.
  2. Pigs have wings, making them hard to catch.
  3. All power corrupts, but we need electricity.
  4. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the result is a family fight.
  5. Music does not always soothe the troubled breast.
  6. An Englishman’s home is his castle.
  7. The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
  8. One black eye deserves another.
  9. Space is the final frontier, and so is the sewage farm.
  10. It pays to increase your word power.

Got that?

Not quite?

Don’t worry, by the time you’ve finished this story, you will.

So, ultra-brief review, because this is one you’ll want to discover for yourself and figure out as you go.

Thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes comes home from school one day and finds the kitchen full of Goon. Not just any Goon, but this one comes, or so he says, from Archer.

“We don’t know anyone called Archer!” Howard snapped.

The Goon grinned, a daft, placid grin. “Your dad does,” he said, and went back to cleaning his nails.

Turns out Mr. Sykes – Quentin – owes Archer something. Words. Two thousand of them. The quarterly payment hasn’t reached its destination, and Archer is peeved, hence the Goon.

Howard, his little sister Anthea (known widely and appropriately as Awful), au pair Fifi, and Howard and Awful’s mother Catriona are stumped by this strange situation, and things just get more complicated when Quentin arrives. Disclaiming knowledge of anyone named Archer, he miffily remarks that Mountjoy gets the words, and that they were sent on time.

Tracking down the missing words, and the reason they are in such apparently high demand, brings Howard and the rest of the Sykes family into a strange parallel world, and puts them all at the mercy of the mysterious beings who “farm” different sections of the town infrastructure: Archer (Finances and Power, ie. Electricity), Hathaway (Roads, Records and Archives), Dillian (Law and Order), Shine (Industry and Crime), Torquil (Music, Religion, Sports and Commerce), Erskine (Water, Drains and Garbage) and Venturus (Housing, Education and Technology).

The human characters are outstanding, and family relationships (of all sorts) are a key focus of this wonderful story. Don’t let the “kid’s book” designation put you off – it’s a grand read for adults, and very, very funny.

I’m stopping right here, but if you want to know more, the internet abounds with rave reviews. Here are two good places to start.

Jenny’s Books – Archer’s Goon

Green Man – Archer’s Goon

Did I say highly recommended yet? If so, I repeat it. Highly recommended.

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Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones ~ 1985. This edition: Greenwillow, 2002. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-06-029885-5. 420 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Half point off because of the typical DWJ ending – a re-read and an explanation by the author almost mandatory. Maddening. So close to perfect!


This one took two tries. The first time I didn’t make it 20 pages in, but the second go, several months later, I was completely enthralled. I knew I would like it (I always end up liking Diana Wynne Jones, but sometimes I really need to work at it), but that the timing would need to be just right. Hit it perfectly, obviously.

Okay, here we go. This is a book that deserves a long, scholarly explanation, but I will try to keep it fairly brief – I need to work on that – brevity – I really tend to ramble on. Stream of consciousness typing. Heh.

College student Polly Whittaker lies on her bed in her room in her grandmother’s house and muses on a number of things. On the coming academic year; on the mysterious photograph on her wall which she has loved since childhood – hay bales burning in a field, with a huge hemlock plant enveloped in smoke in the foreground – as a child Polly remembers seeing people in the picture, but that was surely youthful imagination, because they certainly aren’t there now; and on the book of stories she’s been reading, another childhood favourite, except that the stories are not quite as she remembered. Growing up is so dreary, Polly sighs to herself; you see things as they are.

Or do you?

As she muses and digs deeper in her mind, Polly begins to remember more details that certainly can’t – couldn’t possibly – have happened. But there they are, that second set of memories, emerging from the hidden recesses of her mind and forming as she thinks about them. This set of memories begins at the age of ten, with the meeting of Tom at the funeral…

Flashback! And we’re off. Polly now remembers meeting a rather shy, mildly dreary young man at a neighbour’s house where she has inadvertently trespassed into an after-the-funeral will reading. Tom had looked over at Polly, realized that she really shouldn’t be there, and inconspicuously spirited her away, out of the house. The two are immediately and deeply attracted to each other in some elemental way, though Polly is, as I mentioned earlier, a child of ten, and Tom Lynn is an adult. He’s a musician, a cellist in an orchestra in London, and after returning Polly to her grandmother’s house, with the fire and hemlock picture which he has given Polly from his share of his just-announced inheritance – six pictures – he vanishes from her everyday life, though a letter soon comes from him, and the two then embark on a running epistolary narrative, with Polly reinventing herself as a Hero, or rather, assistant-Hero, to the Tom figure she has embellished into a heroic crusader-for-goodness, Tan Coul.

They write, and occasionally meet, while Polly’s life goes through some shattering events, such as the separation of her parents and her mother’s disastrous relationships with new men; Polly fortunately has a haven in her grandmother’s house, and keeps emotionally afloat though we wouldn’t blame her if she gave up and let herself drown in misery; awful things happen, many of them fantastically unlikely.

This book is, by the author’s own explanation, deeply influenced by a number of legendary tales: Tam Lin is the most obvious, with Polly obviously taking on the role of Janet, and Tom Lynn the doomed hero whom she saves from the sacrificial rites of faeryland. We also have Thomas the Rhymer, who cannot speak a lie, the gift-curse of his particular faery queen; for our tale’s Tom this becomes the gift/curse of whatever Tom imagines taking on reality. Tom’s faery queen is his divorced wife Laurel, an ominous figure who maintains her grasp on Tom even though they are supposed to have parted ways. The Odyssey is in there,  with Tom/Odysseus journeying through the years and often being seduced away from his faithful Polly/Penelope labouring away at home; Cupid and Psyche, and the tragedy of Psyche’s curiosity separating her from her true love; and eventually and most hard to pick up on, unless tipped off by the author’s explanation, as I was, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and this stanza:

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
       You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
       You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
       You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And this bit:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Confused? Trust me, it will make sense when you get to the last chapter, and chaos ensues, and nothing seems to work by the rules you think you know about, about Janet clinging to Tam Lin to bring about his salvation. Something very different happens.

This is really a non-review, an un-review; you need to read this book, and, if you are in the right time and space, it will be perfect for you, and you will love it. If not, set it aside, for weeks, months, years – but do give it a second try. This may be Diana Wynne Jones masterpiece; the book which elevates her considerable body of work to the next level, to something beyond juvenile fantasy to a very mature level indeed.

(It also works beautifully as a plain and simple story, though that darned ending rather knocks the unwary reader down.)

And once you’ve read the book – and NOT before – read the author’s thoughts on Fire and Hemlock here, in an essay called The Heroic Ideal – A Personal Odyssey

Here are some more reviews you will appreciate, because the writers give proper plot summaries (unlike my wishy-washy avoidance of doing so) starting with the one which contains the links to The Heroic Ideal, copied above:

Two Sides to Nowhere – Fire and Hemlock

Valentina’s Room – Fire and Hemlock

Jenny’s Books – Fire and Hemlock

Shelf Love – Fire and Hemlock

A Musical Feast – Fire and Hemlock (a more critical review, worth reading because it puts into words the bothersome flaws in DWJ’s technique)

This is just a small sampling. Happy reading!

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