Revisited read: Archer’s Goon, by Diana Wynne Jones

Has anyone else been having a hard time keeping up on their reading? I have.

I thought a couple of nights ago that perhaps I might get round it a little by picking up a “comfort read,” perhaps one of the YA books I’ve made the effort to hang onto. Several of those are by Diana Wynne Jones, an English author whose work I stumbled on via Howl’s Moving Castle, back before the film existed (and yes, the book is better even if the movie IS by Studio Ghibli.) I mean, how could pre-teen me possibly turn down cover art like that?

But perhaps we’ll talk more about Howl and Sophie later – I was more in the mood for Archer’s Goon when I raided the shelves.

One afternoon, thirteen-year-old Howard Sykes and his younger sister Anthea Awful arrive home from school to find that a Goon is taking up most of their kitchen. He’s here on behalf of someone named Archer, and he intends to collect a past due payment from Howard’s father Quentin – the two thousand words that haven’t been delivered this quarter.

So unfolds the first tantalizing little peek at the hidden world gradually unveiled in this charming little book – a family of seven mysterious wizards, all of whom have been “farming” various facets of life in the city (power, crime, law and order, etc.)…and one of whom has been doing something with Quentin’s quarterly words that really needs to be stopped.

There’s this whole world out there, you see. And it would be so very lovely to be farming that, instead of just the one town.

Even though I read this so often as a pre-teen that I think I might just have bits of it memorized, it was still immensely gratifying to read again – Jones’s prose is witty and delightful and if you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett – or know a younger someone that you might like to introduce to Terry Pratchett some day – you’ll find it easy to settle into.

The central conflict is straightforward enough – powerful and mysterious folk want something from our hero’s family, our hero’s dad decides he is absolutely not going to play along, and varying degrees of hilarity and/or chaos ensue. We’ve got a likeable young hero in Howard, an especially-vividly-rendered holy terror of a younger sister in Awful, and quite a number of funny scenes courtesy of the titular Goon and the histrionic Quentin, with a few surprisingly-touching little moments mixed in.

Adult me reflects that in a lot of ways this book is really about family dynamics. Yes, the events of the plot are focused mainly on the wizardly doings and the Sykes family’s resistance to them; yes, there is a threat that the world might be taken over if our heroes fail to think of a way out of things. But in a very real way everything happening here is about the bonds between one and one’s parents, one and one’s siblings.

Looking after someone in spite of yourself. The soul-jangling clash when the ego of one party in a relationship collides forcibly with another’s sense of responsibility. The way elder siblings find themselves responsible for – and occasionally blamed for – the actions of the younger; the younger siblings’ vigorous struggles for attention, for legitimacy. The way some of these relationships explode under pressure, and the way they are sometimes found to be intact after all. I recognize all of these things, and they feel oddly realistic against the backdrop of whimsical craziness.

…Though, I mean, honestly it’s also just good fun.

I may have ripped through it in one sitting, staying up far too late and setting myself up for a headache the next day.

Not sorry. 😛

In which I tackle a long-standing Situation

I am not the most organized person.

Actually that’s not quite true. In some ways I can be tremendously organized. Planning a trip? I’m ok there. Making sure I have ticked all the boxes on projects at work and following up on a pile of emails? Also okay. Herding the necessary cats to schedule a get-together? Can do.

Where I run into trouble seems to be the organization of physical objects in space. It is weirdly easy to put something down and forget about it, or to come up with a scheme for arranging something that seems like genius at the time, only I forget what exactly the plan was between then and when I next need it, so it turns out not to be all that useful.

Oh, my books end up on bookshelves and my clothes live in the closet and I can usually…more or less…make a space vaguely presentable. But fucking hell my pantry is a goddamn nightmare.

Partly this is because the shelves are very, very deep, and so there is a tendency for things to get shoved to the back if they’re not used very often; I can only JUST reach to the very back myself, and I am relatively tall.

I have long since resigned myself to never being one of those people whose real-world house looks like something from Instagram, but the Pantry Situation has been vaguely irritating me for months and months. This is especially true when I think I am out of something, buy it, and then discover oh wait we had some all along but it had got to the back of the damn shelves…

But somehow this irritation has never really turned into action, at least not yet.

Last week I spotted a moth fluttering about in the ground floor space of my house, and even though I know we’ve had something of a gypsy moth epidemic here in Toronto of late, and I am pretty sure that particular moth just fluttered in from outside…I had a sudden horrible vision of something lurking back there.

And suddenly enough was enough, and I immediately went forth to search the internet for its favorite pantry-storage containers for dry goods, and within the space of a few hours I had placed an order.

Yesterday the containers came. This morning I washed all of them out with soapy water, and they are patiently air-drying on my counter, and I have attacked the first of the terrifying shelves and purged it of its contents, fairly ruthlessly discarding anything unidentifiable, of a terrifyingly-distant age, or that otherwise seemed to be unsuitable for consumption.

And even just from trying to empty this one shelf, my kitchen is a mess, you guys.

And for some reason I started this the day AFTER garbage day.


Oh well. It needs to be done, so let it be done.

I’m probably not going to restore any kind of harmony to my kitchen any OTHER way.

Well, that was odd, but I learned something.

So, today I was walking down to the local fishmonger to buy some salmon. (One of the luxuries of working from home, I suppose.)

As I emerged into the steamy Toronto afternoon with my prize in hand, I vaguely noticed an unusually-pink car parked a little further down the street. Didn’t think anything of it in particular, but when I got close enough for a better look I noticed that whoever owns it has gone for an extremely distinctive paint job:

As far as I can tell, all the Germanic-looking words there are…cuts of meat. Kotlett. Schinken. Schulter. Lende. Not sure about “Ripple.”

So, someone out there had bought a relatively pricey-looking convertible (a Porsche?), added a “28” as though they intend to race with it, and then painted it to resemble a hog-butchering diagram. For some reason.

Did they intend to race with it?

For some time I could not decide if I wanted more to find out what the story was, or if I would rather never know, and preserve the glorious mystery of why on earth someone would do up a car this way.

In the end, as it often does with me, curiosity won out, and I discovered that in fact what this means is that the mystery driver is likely a fan of classic race cars: Behold the “pink pig.”

…And now I cannot decide if I am more amused, gratified that there IS an answer, or a little disappointed that it’s not just that some iconoclast decided it would be amazing to have a car painted like a butchery diagram.

Ah well. At least it’s not white like seemingly every other car in the world.

It’s hard to think what to write, some days.

There isn’t really much going on, and nobody really really wants to hear how things are going with work, or homework – and what is left other than that? Housework?

In my head I hear Ming The Merciless: “Klytus, I’m bored.”

So let’s start with this, I guess: I think The Magnificent Seven is possibly one of the most macho films I’ve ever seen.

This is not really a controversial statement.

We watched it again tonight, for…reasons; my husband needs it for research, as he prepares to try and run a tabletop campaign loosely based on it. It’ll be the second go at it – the first having fallen prey to the great demon Scheduling; here’s hoping the second try is more successful.

I still remember helping put together the backstory for it, and building the…McGuffin, working through finishing touches together over a pint and a plate of fish and chips at our local pub.

I’ve thought at some length here about Westerns before, and my assessment of them hasn’t really changed much with time; I still find the genre difficult to connect with, though moments of it can be enjoyable. There are some great action scenes, and some lovely earnest moments, and some gorgeous scenery…but it’s just. so. macho.

Perhaps I’m just more in the mood for something swashbuckly. Something with…flouncier clothes, witty repartee, perhaps someone sliding down a banister or swinging on a chandelier. That’d be about the right speed, just now.

Something fun.

How long has it been since something was last fun?

Things that have, in recent memory, made me feel old

In no particular order:

  • Buying a set of canisters intended to reorganize my pantry. On purpose. This was the first tangible object I bought for myself that was not food in…longer than I really care to think about.
  • Thinking about my favorite roleplaying campaign I’ve ever been involved in, and realizing it began 13 years ago.
  • Having a hard time finding someone to watch Rear Window with me, because it is old.
  • Having a hard time finding a text-based guide for a game I was playing, and realizing that this is because everyone and their dog is doing things on YouTube now.
  • Listening to a podcast episode about this year’s “summer jams” and having the disconcerting sensation that a lot of the music wasn’t for me (though there was certainly a good bit that I liked!)
  • Largely not being on social media, and being okay with that.
  • Sitting down to write here, being fully aware that a substantial portion of the world does not read anything larger than a tweet.
  • Feeling like fonts with serifs are okay, actually.
  • A sense of passionate objection to microtransactions in games, especially games one has already purchased.
  • Simultaneous appreciation for streaming services and discomfort with the idea of never actually owning anything.
  • Listening to my husband talk about some potential new hires.
  • Eating some just-barely-cooked vegetables and finding them weirdly delicious.
  • Gathering for dinner with friends and reflecting that actually everyone was talking about management problems now instead of the sort of work problems I remember from some decades ago.
  • Being reminded that I should consider doing some estate planning activities.

The funny thing here here is that, as I have said before, no matter how long my body has been active upon this earth, all of the selves I have been are present in it.

The little girl who made of a rocking-horse Christmas ornament a little adventure all round the tree, only to cringe in shame and clam up when she realized her father was videotaping her is still here.

So is the teenager who just didn’t get why her friends were going on about romantic movies all the time and kept a kind of exchange diary with her then-bestie that probably contained some deeply cringey adventure fiction (but was great for maintaining her sanity.)

So is the college student who stayed at the computer labs until they closed, went for chicken strips once a week at a dive-y student bar, and somehow gained a reputation for being the Person Who Knew Things About Books Or Mythology.

I am simultaneously all of those people.

In a way, age is really just a sign that one has accumulated a large number of selves; that one has become many. Some day (hopefully) there will be many of me here indeed.

It’s funny to think about.

Just a brief Friday visit.

There is a lot going on today (well, “a lot” in pandemic terms – homework to do, errands to run, the week’s groceries to buy, etc.), and as a result I’m not feeling much of a strong throughline, unfortunately.

Still. Doesn’t mean I can’t share a few Delightful Things:

The webcomic Cat’s Cafe, in which a cuddly kitty…well, runs a cafe, where a host of adorable animal patrons come to have a little something delicious and relax, taking a break from the everyday troubles of living. The cuteness does a pretty good job of at least softening the blow when things inevitably become a bit too emotionally Real – and they will do that. Characters struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem and depression; recently the artist has lost his father, and that comes through in some ways that are…uh…yeah. I know that feel. (But don’t let that scare you away, either!)

The “Return of the Mac” pizza available at one of Toronto’s local pizza joints. This absolutely positively does not seem like it should work – it’s a pizza crust, yes, but topped with cheese, onions, “secret sauce,” meat (or Impossible Meat, recently), pickles, and lettuce – a Big Mac in pizza form. It can be a pain to get, too – that lettuce doesn’t travel well, and so you can only order this one via take-out. But. You guys. It’s delicious. No, I don’t understand it either, but give it a chance if you have the opportunity.

The blog McMansion Hell, which I hadn’t thought of in forever and that suddenly returned to mind yesterday. It may or may not be defunct (the last post was a while ago) – but even so those archives are full of delightful snark about a flavor of architecture I remember all too well from the suburbia of my childhood. (There’s also a subreddit taking up the torch, it seems – and every Thursday they take a break to do some appreciation of beautiful architecture, so we can all enjoy looking at some lovely homes none of us could ever realistically afford.)

“I myself am strange and unusual.”

Last night I watched “Beetlejuice” again for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

Which I guess makes this a good time to let anyone looking at this know: This post may contain spoilers for a movie released 33 years ago. I believe this puts it beyond the spoiler statute of limitations, but if you’re concerned, stop reading now.

When that movie was released in 1988 I was under the age of ten; in the age of videotape I watched it over and over, drawn to the raw, weird imagination on display as well as the somewhat-macabre humor. It’s startling how well I remembered it. I was able to quote along with many of the lines, the imagery still quite fresh in my mind in many places.

…And yet, re-watching as an adult it’s also kind of interesting to see what things I did not remember. What things I didn’t even really register properly at the time, because there are things kids don’t so much think about.

Here are a few of the things that whooshed over my head as a Little Person:

  • The casual hurtfulness of the realtor’s eager, benign insistence to Barbara Maitland that “this house is too big for you! It should belong to -” To a family with children, obviously, and the look on Geena Davis’s face says it all. Oof.
  • The equally casual hatefulness of yuppies, at least the ones in this film. The status-seeking and the social-climbing and the hankering to turn absolutely everything – everything! – into money haven’t really gone away of course; now these people run tech startups, and instead of weird, cold edgy designs without warmth like those favored by Delia Deetz they favor bland, benign, equally cold designs that are meant to suggest warmth without containing any. (If I were a ghost and one of them moved into my house, I would also be rather peeved.)
  • How sleazy Betelgeuse actually is. Little-kid me hadn’t yet been catcalled and had no context in which to be grossed out by his rapacious pursuit of anything remotely female in the vicinity, including Lydia (who has got to be underage, you guys. Ick on a number of levels).
  • Why exactly Otho flees screaming into the night after finding himself in a different outfit. Hey, I didn’t know what a leisure suit was back then.

Adult me also appreciates in a way that the younger me did not that the thing about the afterlife that seems to cause the most trouble is that it is a badly-managed bureaucracy, one that doesn’t give the people it supposedly serves good direction and which seems to be strangely low on resources considering that one would presumably not need to pay anyone who works there anything. I wonder if there’s something there that is reflective of the general mistrust of government/the centralization of power that was, I’m pretty sure, building even in 1988. (Admittedly going with a private contractor in this case was a fairly awful plan, too, so maybe the real philosophical underpinning there is something along the lines of “Hey! Fund public services damn it!”)

…then again, who or what exactly would be “funding” the management of the afterlife? Hmm. Clearly I am overthinking this.

It’s an Extremely 80s Movie in a number of ways, though you can definitely feel the beginnings of some of that 90s irony creeping in there. I’m not sure whether you’d be able to get away with making it these days, but I’m going to have this particular infectious little ditty in my head for a good long while, so let’s share:

I live.

Though man, it really felt like the vaccine side effects were trying to change that last night; woke up at about 4 am with a parched throat, a nasty stomachache, and a complete inability to get comfortable for…what seemed like forever.

Outside, a thunderstorm hit; bright flashes outside, and then a distant rumbling.

Perhaps that’s why I dreamed, close to the morning, that there was a mighty BANG from the room next door and when I went to investigate the entire interior of our closet had collapsed, making a spectacular mess of most of our bedroom floor.

Today’s episode of Aria Code is about Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. There was a book, The Best Tales of Hoffmann, that I used to check out from the library. It had a bright-yellow library binding, indestructible and innocuous, that belied the sheer stark fucking darkness of some of the material inside it, and I checked it out over and over again, my tweenage self eagerly devouring the nightmare universe of The Sand-Man alongside a half-plate of indifferent, greasy pizza rolls that even now feel a little shameful to think about.

But The Sand-Man is the story behind the aria they chose for today. I wonder very much if the rest of the show has as much in it about eyes. In this case, the singer of the aria is the doll Olympe – Olimpia in the story – whose mindless, rhapsodic agreement with anything and everything presented to her rouse positively tormented depths of love in our hero Nathanael – or Hoffmann himself, in the opera.

In any event, the presentation in the episode is charming, and does rather make me want to go and watch the show – and the accompanying meditation on the nature of chatbots and what, exactly, is most societally desirable in women is…well, chilling, even if it also happens to be fascinating into the bargain. Even if you’re not into opera, I think it’s worth the listen.

Also, related to nothing, but: The Toronto Public Library has passes you can get to read the New York Times (for those of you who like to check out a little news every now and then). Go use them (and support your local libraries, everyone. They are the actual best.)

In which I labor under the weight of vaccination side effects, and Cannot Even

I got my second vaccination shot yesterday.

Sometime on the evening of July 19, if we’re being very precise about the whole two weeks for full effectiveness thing, I should be safe to hug my friends again, or go to the grocery store with less unease about what I might pick up from some random person in line.

Perhaps when I feel less terrible I will be happy about that.

It’s not so bad that I feel I can’t manage, which is okay I guess, but I can’t pretend the urge to just go lie on the floor for a few hours isn’t…significant. (I did not sleep well; the pain in the arm where I got the shot is mighty enough that it kept waking me up.)

…though if it gets much worse than this I might have to give up for today on doing much of constructive use. I am TIRED, you guys. Oof.

I think being so tired is making me feel rather bleak about everything else, too. Way too much brooding about contemplation of the status of my Social Links.

I miss everybody.

(Yet again, the weather outside is beautiful on a day when I feel terrible. What’s up with that?)

In other news, this is a rather delightful Kickstarter if you are like me and have a little collection of Tarot decks.

A spirit log for the campfire: Cozy Grove considered

There is a genre of game that isn’t so much meant for playing as it is for “tinkering around with for a little while, regularly.” Commute games. Games for waiting in the lobbies of doctors’ offices or for fidgeting with on long car trips.

Last year’s Animal Crossing was one of these, and one I know was a bit of a pandemic savior for many, as it gave us all a little something to do in the mornings besides read the invariably-terrifying headlines and ponder, you know, the seemingly inevitable degeneration of the world into a blazing mess as we bear witness to the unholy convergence of the accelerationism of the desperate and the indifference of the powerful into…well. This. Screaming a little inside every day. Y’know.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that 2021 has brought us something of the love child of Animal Crossing and Edward Gorey, the creepy-cute Cozy Grove.

No, this was not followed by a rampage.

Here’s the elevator pitch: You are a Spirit Scout, a member of a community-service group for kids that will look suspiciously like the Scouts we all know with the serial numbers filed off. Your avatar is a bright-eyed young thing with a sash just itching to be filled with merit badges by providing assistance and comfort to the spirits of this world.

Unfortunately for you, you’re stranded on the island of Cozy Grove, which has something of the vibe of a state park and its accompanying small rural town if both had been broken up into jigsaw pieces and scattered about in Limbo. (Not the video game, Limbo as in “a kind of ever-shifting purgatory.”) The only points of true stability here are your campsite (where Flamey, your trusty…familiar? Demon pal? hangs out) and the homes of the spirit folk (mainly bears) you’re assisting in working through their afterlife issues; everything else is constantly shifting.

Each bear (like Patrice the mail-bear above) has their own set of quests for you to do, and their own story to tell, revealed in chunks as you complete said quests. In and around that, you will fish and tend gardens and catch bugs and dig up treasures and do all the other classic things one does in games like this. (At least there is not an exorbitant mortgage to pay off, so there’s that.)

The game is structured so as to reward frequent play in small increments: Complete enough quests and you will be advised in no uncertain terms that you’re done with anything major for the day.

…Like so.

You’re still free to putter about making money or catching fish or decorating or whatnot, but otherwise you’re good to head out and go make of the rest of your day what you will. Tomorrow there will be a few more story bits to complete, and thus the cycle shall continue.

Aesthetically, the game’s certainly appealing – the creepy-cute visuals are accompanied by an extremely chill soundtrack heavy on summer-camp-flavored instrumentation, mainly guitar/banjo-adjacent. The same creepy-cute quality extends through the narrative as well; nearly all of the game’s little plotlines so far have wavered between bleakness and adorability, and the regular emails from your scoutmaster acknowledge what ought to be a rather dire situation (a single child stranded on a remote island) with a remarkably blase cheeriness. There has not, thus far, been any indication that I am likely to be rescued. (It’s certainly possible that your Scout is in fact Dead All Along as well, but I suppose we’ll find out.)

…So how do I feel about it?

I wouldn’t class it as one of my favorite games of all time, or even of 2021 so far: this is a type of game I’ve seen a lot, and other than its black humor it’s not bringing much to the table in the way of novelty. However, as a commute game, it’s solid enough; the little stories are entertaining, the art and writing are amusing, and I appreciate that the experience is deliberately self-limiting to just an hour or so before one is encouraged to come back later.

It definitely beats watching the news while I have that second cup of coffee before work.