Book lover’s leap

You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.

Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…

I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …

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Falling under a spell

Tove Jansson: Comet in Moominland
Kometjakten (1946)
Translated by Elizabeth Portch (1951)
Puffin Books 2019

A visitor from space is hurtling towards Moominland but it isn’t friendly, in fact it could cause devastation. Young Moomintroll and his friend Sniff set off to an observatory on a mountain to find out exactly when and where the comet will land.

Comet in Moominland is therefore a tale of their expedition — but it is not really all about that, for Jansson’s story is, as all good stories are, about the people involved and their relationships with each other.

For those, like me, faintly familiar or even strangers to the Moomin tales, it was an adventure in itself to meet with Moomintroll, his family, Sniff, a muskrat, a silk monkey, Snufkin, some Hemulen and others, all with their characteristics and idiosyncrasies.

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Getting into difficulties

Statue outside Old Library, Cardiff

Fellow literary blogger, tweeter and teacher Ben Harris recently expressed slight dismay at Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘difficult’ novel The Homeward Bounders, first published in 1981 early on in her writing career.

Coincidentally I had been ruminating about which DWJ book to read (or, rather, reread, as bar a handful of titles I’ve read virtually all her works) for Kristen’s annual blogging event March Magics. This novel, then, seemed as good a book to tackle as it’s one of a few of her titles I haven’t yet reviewed.

So this post is by way of an introduction to a second reading, a post in which I’ll mostly be making use of clues from Jones’ own words. These will be from the collection of her non-fiction writings in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (David Fickling Books / Greenwillow Books 2012) published the year after her death on 26th March 2011.

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Riddle-me-ree

Illustration by Pat Marriott

My first is in Abion, never in Blastburn,
My second’s in twisting but never in return,
My whole is a lass who is brave, true and bold
In a tale of old times which Joan Aiken once told.


I come now to the second part of a pair of posts about themes in one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles Is (also known as Is Underground).

Last time I drew out Arthurian motifs such as the quest for the Holy Grail and the sunken land of Lyonesse; this time I draw attention to themes in this novel common to others in the Chronicles as a whole, a feature which helps to give an identity to the series.

Do these repeated themes mean a sameness, and are they symptomatic of a paucity of ideas? I would of course dispute any such accusation; for if a critic were to censure classical composers for laziness in respect of movements entitled Theme and Variations we would label them an utter philistine, would we not?

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Of chivalry and shysters

Landing craft LCT

Hammond Innes: Dead and Alive
Fontana 1990 (1946)

With a title doubtless designed to recall those wanted posters from the wild west of America, Innes’ novel is about an equally lawless region, Italy in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. And yet it opens, not in the dry, fly-ridden south of that Mediterranean peninsula but on the cold, wet North Cornish coast.

Intriguingly, the star turn opening the show is a wreck. Specifically a landing craft, an LCT Mark 4, stranded on Boscastle beach not far from King Arthur’s Castle at Tintagel. And it will lead to a quest in which narrator David Cunningham will play the chivalrous knight seeking a damsel in distress.

But not before he, his business partner and his crew of two have black marketeers, gun runners, resurgent fascists, gangsters, a forger and a rapist to cope with, and a ruined infrastructure to negotiate.

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Deluge

Crickhowell Bridge after the Usk overflowed its banks

Storms across Northern Europe are becoming more frequent and more violent. The most recent, Storm Dennis, affected not only Ireland and the UK but continued to wreak havoc on Denmark, Germany, Estonia and around the Baltic.

Global warming puts more moisture into the air which then has no choice but to precipitate in torrents, saturating the earth and causing flooding, landslips, environmental damage and, of course, severe disruption to human activity and distress to communities.

Ever since the floods associated with the Sumerian Utnapashtim, the Greek Deucalion and the Biblical Noah we have all been familiar with tales of ‘universal’ deluges and their survivors — not just the who but the how and the why — and my mind drifts to how modern writers have depicted similar disasters in fiction.

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Quest for the Saloop

‘And did he — by any chance — let fall the cause — er, that’s to say, the regime, nostrum, jorum, physic, diet, whatever it is he does or takes — to which he attributes his great number of years?’ — Roy Twite to his niece, chapter 5

The so-called Matter of Britain — la matière de Bretagne — permeates Joan Aiken’s marvellous Wolves Chronicles. The term comes from the prologue of the Chanson des Saisnes (“song of the Saxons”) by Jean Bodel (d 1210) in which he distinguishes three thematic strands suitable for epics: the myths and legends of Rome; the stories arising from the heroic Carolingian period in France; and the Arthurian and Celtic romance tradition associated with Britain and Brittany.

The Arthurian strand has continued to thread through literature since it emerged in the pseudohistorical History of the Kings of Britain by the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. Joan Aiken somehow couldn’t help but introduce Arthurian motifs into her fiction, whether Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur for younger readers or several times in the series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

She’d previously included Welsh Arthurian motifs such as the Hunt of the Giant Boar in The Whispering Mountain and the Return of King Arthur in The Stolen Lake. In Is Underground (Is in the UK) one particular Arthurian legend comes to the fore — that of the Holy Grail, sometimes called the Sangreal — but, as we’ll see in due course, it isn’t the only recurring Chronicles theme that we will meet in these pages.

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