Classics Club: The Fledgling

Jane Langton, The Fledgling (1980)

Although I read and enjoyed the first three books in Jane Langton’s “Hall Family Chronicles” as a child, I never ventured further for some reason. So when I saw book four, The Fledgling, on the Phoenix Award list, I wanted to finally catch up with it.

Like the first three books, this is a gently whimsical fantasy inspired by the setting of Concord, Massachusetts, and by its most famous inhabitants, the transcendentalist writers of the 19th century and their associates. Eleanor and Edward Hall, whose adventures occupied the first books, are still here, but the main protagonist now is Georgie, their young step-cousin.

Georgie is disturbing her family with her desperate wish to fly, which causes her to take unwise leaps and sometimes to bruise herself on the stairs. As she negotiates the difficult threshold between reality and imagination, childhood and growing up, Georgie finds a magnificent guide in the “Goose Prince,” a Canada goose who is visiting Walden Pond as his flock flies south for the winter. This noble bird shows Georgie how to truly fly, and in the process gives her a most precious gift, one that will survive her transition into the seemingly ordinary, adult world.

Thoreau is obviously the main guiding genius here, with the Walden location and references to his rapport with the natural world. (Interestingly enough, the main passage quoted from his work is about the joys of hunting — a pursuit that is not looked on very favorably by the book’s characters!) The lyrical passages about Georgie’s night flights will have young readers (and even some older ones) longing for a Goose Prince of their own. Providing comic relief are the villains who also appeared in the first books, Mr. Preek and Miss Prawn, who add a dose of silliness to the more serious themes.

I found it a bit of an unwieldy mix of philosophy and fable and satire, and sometimes the transitions were jarring, but to me it was worth reading for some passages of beautiful writing that captured how from a child’s point of view the world is full of wonder and mystery:

“It was because people had thick smooth outsides like the walls of houses. When you walked past houses in the street, you couldn’t see the people inside. And it was like Uncle Freddy’s wristwatch. Uncle Freddy had opened it up for Georgie, to show her how it worked. The inside was full of tiny springs and little wheels going back and forth, back and forth. Secretly. Quietly. There inside the watch where nobody could see. Like Eleanor. Just look at Eleanor! Eleanor had her book open on the table, and her hair was orange and her shirt was blue and she was glancing up at Georgie out of the corner of her eye. Eleanor was thinking something secret too, and Georgie didn’t know what it was. Inside Eleanor’s head the little springs and wheels were going back and forth and back and forth. Quietly. Secretly. Inside where nobody could see.”

I loved entering into Georgie’s perspective on such simple yet profound questions — a perspective that we can awaken in ourselves at any age if we have the courage to look at things afresh.

The Fledgling is not a perfect book, but it is an unusually thoughtful and imaginative one — with some wonderful images and language that certain young readers might just take to their hearts, as they are finding their own wings to fly.

Classics Club List #7
Phoenix Award Honor Book 2000


New Reprint Review: The Mark of the Horse Lord

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)

MarkHorseLordI haven’t read much Rosemary Sutcliff, but I really need to change that. This new edition of The Mark of the Horse Lord from Chicago Review Press brings one of Sutcliff’s classic works of historical fiction back into print 50 years after its original publication, and it’s a stunner. Winner of the very first Phoenix Award, it’s a perfectly paced, thrilling, emotionally engaging foray into that time period that Sutcliff made her own: the Roman occupation of Britain. In this story of a gladiator from a frontier town who ends up as chief of the Dalriadain (better known to us as the Scots), both Roman and British culture are brought vividly, savagely to life.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because I want you to have the pleasure of having it unfold according to Sutcliff’s intentions; it is masterfully done. I will say that I wouldn’t have thought that I could pick up a book about a gladiator, a finely honed fighting machine, and be so instantly drawn into his drama and sympathize so fully with his quest. Phaedrus is a magnificent character, and in The Mark of the Horse Lord you will meet many others: Conory, his companion and rival; Murna, the woman who is a true match for him; Sinnoch, a wily horse trader. You will feel you have really inhabited the past with them, and touched the spirit of the northern tribes, which is at once foreign and familiar.

Sutcliff’s prose style is a joy to read, and beautifully creates an atmosphere and a mood without distracting from the drive of the narrative. Every word begs to be read and savored.

Phaedrus found himself riding at the head of a fiery cloud of horsemen that churned the glen trails to a puddled slush; and his ears were full of the soft rolling thunder of hooves and the exultant throat-cries of the riders.


It was Murna’s face looking up at him, gray-white and somehow ragged, as though in pulling off the bridal mask he had torn holes in something else, some inner defense that she was naked and terrified without.


“What has the Great Mother to do with gentle or ungentle? She does not do, she only is. She is the Lady of Life and Death.”

This is one of those books where age-related labels don’t really fit well at all. Published as a children’s book, it could indeed be read by a child and be an extraordinary and transformative reading experience. Its mature themes and violence make it more what we would call “YA” today (a label that didn’t exist 50 years ago). But it can, and should, be read by anyone who loves history, or thinking about what motivates human beings, or the British landscape and people, or great writing. It’s going on my shelf along with other favorites by Mary Renault, Naomi Mitchison, and Robert Graves, and I hope you will add it to yours as well.

Classics Club List #9
1985 Phoenix Award Winner


A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book


Out of the Gutter: Smith

Leon Garfield, Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket (1967)

But there was great determination in him. Each fresh disaster he endured seemed to strengthen his bond with the document…and whatever it might contain. In a way, it seemed to be payment in advance.

Leon Garfield historical

“Dickensian” is a word freely tossed about in describing a certain strain of literature, but Smith is one of the rare books that actually deserves it. (It’s no accident that another of the author’s works is a completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood). A singularly stylish adventure story for young readers, set in the raucous milieu of eighteenth century London, it seems less an imitation of the master than a natural extension of his work, and that of earlier comic novelists like Fielding and Smollett.

Twelve-year-old Smith is an accomplished pickpocket, but he gets more than he bargained for when he takes some papers from an old country gentleman just moments before he’s murdered by two sinister men in brown. Smith wants to know what is in the dangerous documents that must be so supremely valuable…but he can’t read! And so he sets out on a determined quest for knowledge, which takes him to places beyond his dreams (or nightmares): a fine gentleman’s house, where he is memorably washed for the first time perhaps since birth; Newgate prison, from which he finds a most unusual mode of escape; Finchley Common, where he takes part in an exciting chase worthy of his most revered highwaymen heroes.

Smith‘s pace never slackens for a moment, as the reader becomes as desperate as Smith himself to know what is in those dratted documents, but Garfield keeps us guessing till the very end. He writes as if he were discovering the story rather than creating it, and it’s this exuberant, conversational style that redeems the absurdly improbable plot, and brings a true comic sensibility to what otherwise might have been a grim and somber tale. Here’s a sample, from Smith’s early attempts to find someone who will teach him to read:

Very educated gentlemen, the debtors. A man needs to be educated to get into debt. Scholars all. The first Smith tried was a tall, fine-looking gentleman who, though still in leg-irons, walked like he owned the jail — as well he might, for his debts could have bought it entire.

He smiled; he was never at a loss for a smile. . . which was, perhaps, why he was there; when a man can’t pay what he owes, a smile is a deal worse than nothing!

“Learn us to read, mister!” said Smith, humbly.

The fine debtor stopped, looked — and sighed.

“Not in ten thousand years, my boy!” and, before Smith could ask him why, he told him.

“Be happy that you can’t! For what will you get by it? You’ll read and fret over disasters that might never touch you. You’ll read hurtful letters that might have passed you by. You’ll read warrants and summonses where you might have pleaded ignorance. You’ll read of bills overdue and creditors’ anger — where you might have ignored it all for another month! Don’t learn to read, Smith! Oh! I implore you!”

Then the gentleman drifted, smiling, away, with his back straight, his head held high — and his ankles jingling.

There are other rollicking historical novels for young people out there; I already know and love those by Joan Aiken, Philip Pullman, and Lloyd Alexander, to name a few. Garfield’s distinctive narrative voice was new to me, though, and I found it charming and intriguing. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of this author’s work; he deserves a second look.

A Folio Society edition is also available

Review copy source: Print book from library
1987 Phoenix Award Winner
Classics Club List #5


Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day Five

Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars (1970).  

Today’s Armchair BEA theme is middle-grade/YA fiction, so I’m taking a second look at a YA science fiction classic. This was the recipient of the 1990 Phoenix Award and has been praised by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry, so it quickly rose to the top of my list.

Enchantress from the Stars is a space-age fable that takes on some knotty questions of truth, belief, freedom and sacrifice. It posits the existence of human-like beings at three stages of evolution: members of the Federation, who have advanced beyond war and exploitation and have developed psychic powers such as telepathy and telekinesis; citizens of the Empire, who have advanced technology that they are using to take over other planets; and the medieval-stage people of Andrecia, a planet in the process of being colonized.

The Federation’s goal is to preserve the freedom of less-evolved civilizations, to allow them to continue to progress on their individual paths without annihilating each other (on the planetary level…it seems they are free to have wars and commit injustices with other people and civilizations on the same planet). To do this, specially trained agents interfere selectively in situations like the one on Andrecia, appearing within the native belief system as beings from a world of mystery and enchantment. To give the account of one such mission, Engdahl uses the device of narrating it from three alternating points of view. The primary voice is that of young Elana, who tells her own story of stowing away on a Federation mission to save the endangered inhabitants of Andrecia, with life-changing consequences for all concerned. A third-person narrative thread follows Jarel, a doctor whose view of the Empire is being soured by the treatment of the “natives” who have the misfortune to be in the way on their new planetary colony. The final part is narrated in classic folktale style, telling of Georyn, a woodcutter’s youngest son who sets out to slay the dragon that is menacing the land.

It’s an ingenious notion, and Engdahl plays it out well, with all the shifts in perspective smoothly and convincingly done. (Ostensibly the entire book is actually being written by Elana as her report to the Federation following the mission, which would seem to qualify her for a career as a novelist if space exploration doesn’t work out.) Each incident that seems magical to the Andrecians has a logical explanation from another point of view. The rock-chewing “dragon” is actually an Imperial machine that’s working to clear the land for the colonists, for example, and the magical trials that Georyn goes through are engineered by the Enchantress (Elana) and her colleagues to strengthen him for his task of frightening away the invaders. Things get complicated as Elana becomes more involved, and more emotionally invested, in the mission than she had ever expected to be. She wonders about the ethics of manipulating Georyn in this way, while the necessity to conceal the very existence of the Federation from the Imperial colonists (to avoid their gaining access to ideas and technology they are not yet ready for) becomes increasingly fraught.

I don’t have a strong memory of this book from reading it as a child or young teen. I think I liked it, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me — unlike A Wrinkle in Time, which is somewhat similar in using space travel as a vehicle for philosophical exploration, and is engraved on my heart. Reading Enchantress again today, I was distracted by questions about the plausibility of the whole idea, which of course is fatal to a fable, as well as bothered by the oversimplified opposition between science and magic, which implies that all numinous or magical experiences can be made mundane by a shift in perspective. I was also uncomfortable with Georyn and Elana’s relationship — to him, she’s something like a goddess, while to her he’s like a highly intelligent pet; yet they are supposed to fall in love. Perhaps this is meant to be a comment on how love can reach across boundaries, or obviate the need to actually know a person, but I found it hard to swallow.

Quibbles aside, I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this book, which is well-written and thoughtful, even if I don’t agree with all the thoughts in it. It might strike just the right chord with you, as it has done with many readers through the years, and could spark discussion and contemplation of many interesting questions. Although I didn’t whole-heartedly enjoy it, I had to think hard about why — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1990 Phoenix Award winner


Harriet’s Sister: A Long Way From Verona

Jane Gardam, A Long Way from Verona (1971)

Can you believe Harriet the Spy is 50 years old? Yes, she first made her appearance in 1964. In honor of this anniversary here’s a recent reread at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy that goes through the whole book with chapter-by-chapter reactions, ending up with a more considered review. For those of us who grew up with her, it’s a fun way to remember and reconsider some of our own experiences with the inimitable Harriet M. Welsch.

Since that’s been done quite thoroughly, I want to write instead about another character who could be Harriet’s sister in spirit: Jessica Vye in Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona (winner of the 1991 Phoenix Award). Verona was published just a few years after Harriet, and though the setting is England during the Second World War rather than the Upper East Side in the early 60s, the rebellious and questioning mood of the time informs both books. Harriet and Jessica are both smart, quirky misfits who want to become writers. They are similar in how they observe and comment on the world around them, from the ridiculous antics of incomprehensible adults to the perplexing behavior of their peers.

For example, here’s a passage where Jessica and her friends decide to challenge the local teashop to actually give them some tea (this is during rationing, remember).

There was a thin woman behind the counter in a lavender overall reading a magazine. Now and then she gave a colossal great sniff and turned a page. Florence gave me a push. ‘Go on then,’ she said. I coughed.

The woman didn’t look up. She turned a page and flexed her feet and I coughed again.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘may we have some tea?’

‘Eh?’ she said.

‘Tea,’ I said.

‘Tea?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Like it says.’

‘Well I don’t know,’ she said. She looked hard at the card. It was pinned to an archway where two long red plush curtains were caught back in the middle at the top of the three steps.

[. . .]

It grew very quiet.

‘Look,’ said Helen after a while, ‘why did you want to come out to tea? I can’t see what you wanted.’ She has narrow hands and a narrow face, Helen Bell. She is good at playing the piano. On the whole I don’t like people who are always playing the piano. They have mean little mouths.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s an outing, isn’t it? It’s nice. It’s something to do at the end of term.’ [. . .] We’d had this all out before I may say, we’d discussed it for hours. We’d got permission–letters from our mothers and a shilling each and everything. The way they plugged on at things in this school! It takes them ages to get on and do anything. There is a lot of Danish blood on this part of the coast my father says, and the Danes tend to stand about rather. After all, look at Hamlet.

In her first novel, Gardam, who has since produced more than 20 acclaimed works of fiction for children and adults, is already an accomplished and subtle writer. She suggests rather than explaining; for example, when a major trauma hits Jessica, we are left to infer for ourselves what happened, and how she learns and changes throughout the story is hinted at rather than stated outright. This can make reading her story challenging, but this style (which Gardam perfects even more in later books) seems an attempt to portray the way most of us really think and understand the world: not in tidy narrative packages, but in glimpses, fragmentary experiences that we may only later put together and comprehend. Gardam’s ability to approach this, without being annoyingly opaque or archly “experimental,” is a sign of her genius, in my opinion.

Jessica is older than Harriet, closer to the threshold of adulthood, and the wartime setting, with the constant risk (and occasional fact) of being bombed, obviously brings in more serious aspects. However, both books have a deep emotional impact that comes from the central characters being so finely drawn, so real and so human. As we feel and think and suffer with them, we learn what it means to be true to oneself, and that that is the only thing that really matters. It’s an important message for any age.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Jane Gardam says of her writing process, “It’s about getting to know a character and loving them, I think.” While Harriet has legions of fans already, I hope that many more readers young and old will have the pleasure of getting to know and love Jessica Vye.

Thanks to Europa Editions for their reissue of this and some of Gardam’s other early novels; she’s a wonderful writer who deserves more attention.

1991 Phoenix Award winner
Midnight Garden Classic YA/MG Challenge


The Sally Lockhart Trilogy

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke (1986)

Philip Pullman, The Shadow in the North (1988)

Philip Pullman, The Tiger in the Well (1990)


Before there was Lyra Belacqua, there was Sally Lockhart. Prior to creating the unforgettable Lyra of The Golden Compass and its blockbuster sequels, Philip Pullman was perhaps best known for his trio of books featuring another kick-ass female: a pistol-packing, checkbook-balancing, mystery-solving Victorian orphan. I adored these books as a teenager (like Sally herself, I was sixteen when the first volume was published), but hadn’t read them in years when the chance came to review them. Would they still be as compelling as I remembered, half a lifetime later?

The Ruby in the Smoke certainly doesn’t waste any time in getting our attention. “On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver…Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.” From this arresting opening, the story moves briskly along, following Sally as she tries to figure out what the deadly phrase “The Seven Blessings” means, the real circumstances of her father’s death, and why her own life appears to be in danger. Along the way she makes the fortuitous acquaintance of Frederick Lockhart, a young photographer, and his actress sister Rosa, who provide her with a job as a bookkeeper and a welcome alternative to living with her odious aunt.

This was Pullman’s second published children’s book, and like his first, Count Karlstein, was based on a play that he wrote for his middle-school students. One can easily imagine it on the stage, with its swift scene changes, colorful characters, and dramatic dialogue. It is strongly reminiscent of the more sensationalistic Sherlock Holmes stories (Pullman also wrote a play called “Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror”), with
its cursed jewel, opium dens, and vaguely ominous Chinese secret society. It’s a confection, an exuberant and unapologetic melodrama, one that is rescued from banality by Pullman’s skill in handling these time-worn elements and making them feel fresh and exciting again.

In The Shadow in the North, Sally has grown up. A strong, independent woman, she runs her own financial consulting business in the City of London. Fred wants to marry her, but she hesitates because she balks at the notion of all her property automatically becoming his, at least until the Married Woman’s Property Act is passed. In the meanwhile, another deadly plot surfaces to lead her into danger: who is behind the mysterious North Star company, and what exactly are they manufacturing? Fred is engaged in a seemingly unrelated investigation of a music-hall magician who can’t quite explain why he is the target of so many homicide attempts. As the two strands come together, Sally and Fred are drawn deeper into danger than ever, and closer to one another.

Even twistier and trickier than its predecessor, The Shadow in the North is equally entertaining. Pullman also continues to catalogue a wide array of Victoriana, from spiritualism to railroads to feminism early motion photography. It can hardly be considered a serious historical effort—and I have to question the plausibility of Sally’s career, inspiring though it may be. But it does give young readers a vivid and entree into the period, one that can be tempered by further reading later. For me, this was probably the first step on a path that led me to a college degree in English literature and a thesis on Charlotte Bronte. Fellow feisty orphan Jane Eyre is certainly one of Sally’s ancestresses.

The Tiger in the Well takes place a couple of years later, and Sally is now a mother. Her idyll of independence is shattered when she receives a summons that claims that her daughter belongs to a man she has never met, who now wants to dissolve their supposed marriage and claim his child. She embarks on a desperate quest to prove him wrong, in which she gains an unlikely supporter: a Jewish Socialist writer, who has charisma to burn. Can they defeat the evil from Sally’s past that has arisen to haunt her?

In this novel, Pullman aims to take a giant step into more serious, adult themes and situations. In doing so, he sometimes loses the verve that gave much of the charm first two books. When a social worker literally takes Sally on a tour of the dreadful living conditions in the East End, didacticism threatens to outweigh drama. (Of course, this may simply be an homage to Dickens, who did exactly the same thing.) The violence, both actual and threatened, is several degrees crueller and more painful to imagine. Sally’s anguish is excruciating, and the fate Pullman posits for Sally’s little daughter is horrible to contemplate. Perhaps that’s why this was always my least favorite of the three books.

Still, once you start reading, it’s impossible to put down, as are the first two. Pullman’s talent as a storyteller is evident from the beginning to the end. If you haven’t yet met Sally Lockhart, you have a treat in store. I’m glad I got to visit her again.

2006 Phoenix Award Honor (Shadow in the North)


My Favorite Witch and Wizard: Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (Greenwillow, 1986)

Some people just don’t “get” fantasy. They are unable to comprehend the appeal of stories full of people who never existed and never could have, genealogical tables composed entirely of unpronounceable names, and endless endpaper maps portraying craggy coastlines that look like Wales, but aren’t, quite. They prefer to stay within the known world, with names which somebody, somewhere, can pronounce, and lands reliably mapped by National Geographic.

There’s plenty of great reading in the realms of realistic fiction, to be sure; but there is nothing quite like the pleasure of opening a book and stepping into a world that is purely of the imagination, yet inwardly coherent and recognizably real. Something in the human mind and spirit, something of its boundless possibilities, can perhaps best be expressed thus. Some authors, we can feel, are not so much painstakingly inventing a world full of cumbersome accoutrements, but discovering one that reveals a hidden aspect of ourselves.

Such a world is given to us by Diana Wynne Jones in Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her blithest and most enchanting novels. “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three,” she begins, and immediately we are caught up in the realm of fairy-tale logic, where everyone knows the eldest of three is doomed to failure, should three siblings set out to seek their fortunes.

Sophie Hatter, who happens to be the eldest of three sisters, never questions this law of existence. She resigns herself to a mundane existence in the family hat shop (not even being “the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success”). Her determination to be ordinary is disrupted by a call from the wicked Witch of the Waste, who casts a very inconvenient spell on her; and by the fearsome Wizard Howl, who, in spite of his reputation for sucking out the souls of young girls, allows her in to his mysterious moving castle, and seems to be in need of some saving himself.

As Sophie puzzles through the riddle posed by witch, wizard and castle, she finds that all is not as it seems, including her assumptions about herself. Is magic all about showy transformations and fiery battles? Or is there even more power in the stories we tell ourselves?

Creating a fairy-tale pastiche that brings something new to the old tales in a satisfying way is not so easy. Jones succeeds brilliantly with a comic tone from somewhere between Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett, starting with the chapter headings: “In which Sophie talks to hats.” “In which a Royal Wizard catches a cold.” “In which Sophie expresses her feelings with weed-killer.”

Jones is a master at creating fast-moving stories full of surprises. Unlike some of her rivals, though, she never leaves us feeling empty or cheated at the end. Her books have a quality I can only refer to as “heart,” not in any cheaply sentimental sense, but springing from shrewd and compassionate observation of human relationships. Howl and Sophie are one of my favorite examples of this. Their bickering could rival that of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick.

‘By the way,’ Howl said, ‘Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon’s the name I go under here.’

‘Whatever for?’ said Sophie.

‘For disguise,’ said Howl. ‘Pendragon’s a lovely name, much better than Jenkins.’

‘I get by quite well with a plain name,’ Sophie said as they turned into a blessedly narrow, cool street.

‘We can’t all be Mad Hatters,’ said Howl.

How they work through to an understanding of themselves and each other is literally the “heart” of the story. (Read it to find out why.)

Once you enter the land of Ingary, I’m sure that you won’t want to leave. Fortunately, Jones has obliged us with a sequel, Castle in the Air, in which tales from the Arabian Nights are given the same lovingly irreverent treatment.

1991 Phoenix Award winner