Book Thoughts: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

HowlTitle: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author:  Diana Wynne Jones
First Published: 1986
Rating: 4/5
Challenges:  TBR Pile

This post will be a short and not especially structured one, hence it’s better filed as Book Thoughts rather than a proper book review.  I finished Diana Wynne Jones’s delightful Howl’s Moving Castle several weeks ago but never got around to writing about it.  So as it’s one of the books on my list for Roof Beam Reader‘s TBR Pile Challenge, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my thoughts on the book.

Like many others, I was first introduced to this story via the (also delightful) 2004 anime of the same name by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.  I had been meaning to read the source book by Jones for many years, so I included it on my TBR Pile list to encourage myself to get on with it.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I am pleased to report that the animated film remained largely true to the book, capturing the charm and quirk of each scene perfectly.  However, the movie version changed or omitted a few details, from the age of the wizard Howl’s apprentice – a child in the film, a young man in the book – to the lives of Sophie Hatter’s sisters – much more fleshed out in the book, with strange twists of their own subplots –  to the recasting of some of the characters, but honestly I feel these changes for for the better, as they streamlined the story and made it more fully about the central characters.  In written format, following multiple side stories works very well, but on the screen, especially with a story suited for younger audiences (…although I don’t feel like Jones originally intended her story to be only for kids…it’s pretty universally-appealing…)  it works better with a cleaner plotscape.  One large and obvious addition that Miyazaki added for his adaptation:  the war (rather, anti-war) subplot. This is not to be found in the book at all, but I do think it enhanced the film and helped round it out, making up for some of the meatiness lost be the snipping out of other details.  These changes aside, the majority of the scenes in the movie are straight from the book, and reading them felt like visiting an old friend.

At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story.  But it’s not a standard example of that genre, as Sophie (whose name, appropriately, means “wisdom”) is not so much literally growing up, having been fairly mature already, supporting herself and being both thoughtful and responsible.  But she becomes cursed by a spellcaster jealous that Sophie’s hats seem to have a magical ability to bring out the best in their wearer, and is forced to endure her body aging to a progressed elderly state.  She spends the duration of the book not only looking for a way to lift her curse, but also learning much about herself and viewing the world and others through changed eyes.  She better understands the motivations, pains and foibles of others and is able to both empathize and see with a clearer sense of objectivity now that she is in many ways moved outside society, viewed as not a viable and vital member of the community but as a weak, old thing to be pitied.  This affords her also a new sense of freedom as she is able to act and make decisions without thought for reputation.  She gains true independence and agency even as she must endure aches and pains and a loss of her youth and potential.  But she makes for herself new potential, chooses new paths and finds, at last, true happiness and contentment.

I daresay this is less a coming-of-age and more a story of breaking free of constrictions – a story of lightening and of enlightenment.

I highly recommend this not only for lovers of fantasy but also for readers who may be resistant to modern YA literature or who want to recapture the feeling they had when they first encountered fairy tales.  It would be awesome for reading aloud to a mature child and perfectly suitable for an 8-12 year old to read alone.  And if you know an anime lover of any age, get a copy of this book into their hands right now, especially if they enjoy more thoughtful, less whiz-bang anime stories.  It would also be especially wonderful for readers who enjoy remade myths and unconventional character studies.  Not only Sophie, but also each of the other major characters are all fascinatingly multi-faceted, not at all simple and conventional.  Jones does a better job with her characters than many writers of adult-aimed literary fiction.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story!


Book Thoughts: The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven HallTitle: The Raw Shark Texts
Author:  Steven Hall
First Published: 2007
Rating: 4/5
Challenges:  TBR Pile

I titled this post Book Thoughts, as opposed to Book Review, because I’ve come to the realization that I can not actually review this book.  Please don’t take that to mean I didn’t enjoy it!  On the contrary – I enjoyed it very much.  I’ve planned to read Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts for several years, and when I finally managed to take it from the shelf and crack it open, what I discovered there was, well…complicated from a review standpoint.

In many ways, this book is exactly the sort of book I most enjoy:  unusual, layered, surreal, heavy on metaphor and dealing with psychological and/or linguistic themes.  It even has an amnesiac protagonist, and for whatever reason I have a weakness for those.  But so much of this story is impossible to talk about without spoiling something.  I’ve read a number of reviews that just ruin the whole thing, and I don’t want to add to that unfortunate trend. Nothing is as it seems in The Raw Shark Texts, and my attempts to dance around what is actually happening (as if I even know for certain what was happening…some questions remain on that count…) while still illuminating why I think someone might enjoy this title have not been successful.  I always come up against a boundary between what I need to relate and what I can say without giving too much away.  So I’m not going to stumble around a full review any longer.

I will let the Goodreads synopsis of the book speak for it, because I had no luck coming up with a better summary:

Eric Sanderson wakes up in a house one day with no idea who or where he is. A note instructs him to see a Dr. Randle immediately, who informs him that he is undergoing yet another episode of acute memory loss that is a symptom of his severe dissociative disorder. Eric’s been in Dr. Randle’s care for two years — since the tragic death of his great love, Clio, while the two vacationed in the Greek islands.

But there may be more to the story, or it may be a different story altogether. As Eric begins to examine letters and papers left in the house by “the first Eric Sanderson,” a staggeringly different explanation for what is happening to Eric emerges, and he and the reader embark on a quest to recover the truth and escape the remorseless predatory forces that threatens to devour him.

The Raw Shark Texts is a kaleidoscopic novel about the magnitude of love and the devastating effect of losing that love. It will dazzle you, it will move you, and will leave an indelible imprint like nothing you have read in a long time.

That about covers it.  Well, it covers about a tenth of what this book is actually about, at least.  This is not only a memory loss novel but is also a weird mystery, a love story, a musing on pyschology, linguistics and reality, a “secret society” story, a horror novel, and an experimental title, with all sorts of interesting fiddling about with the text and font and structure.  It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, which I suppose means some folks also feel it’s a science fiction novel.  It won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Borders Original Voices Award, which suggest that I’m not alone in my admiration for the thing.

I would suggest this book to the following readers:  fans of Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell or of books like House of Leaves, appreciators of surrealism, readers interested in language and its relationship to thought-forms, people who like strange, twisty quests full of unconventional characters, implausible truths and truly unusual peril, and those who are not turned off by the idea of CONCEPTUAL FISH.  That last part is probably important.

That’s about the best I can do with this one, folks.  As I am aware that I’m merely offering crumbs here, allow me to at least garnish the plate a bit. Check out this official Canongate Books video of the perpetually-awesome Tilda Swinton serving up a brief reading from the book.  There are no spoilers here, as the section being read is part of a letter Erik sends to Erik-the-next. Although there is no actual plot involved in this passage, it does serve as a good example of the tone of the book.


Book Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara ComynsTitle: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Author:  Barbara Comyns
First Published: 1954
Rating: 4.5/5
Challenges:  The Classics Club, TBR Pile

I am swiftly becoming a Barbara Comyns fangirl.  I previously read and really enjoyed The Vet’s Daughter, but I loved Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Until falling for the wonder that is Virago Press, I’d never heard of Comyns.  Now I can’t get enough and want to collect everything she’s ever written.  (As luck would have it, The Classics Club’s monthly theme for March is Feminist Lit and Virago/Persephone books, so this title fits in nicely as my contribution to that event.)

The thing I most love about Barbara Comyns’s stories is that she always seems to be writing a dual or parallel narrative.  On the one hand, she is a master of realism, with wonderful characterization and great detailing of setting.  But on the other hand, there is always – whether it is literal, metaphorical or a misdirection – a vein of the strange, even fantastical to her writing.  The most serious, literal events seem mythic or archetypal.  You can almost choose your own adventure with Comyns.  Do you want a family drama or do you want a fantasy?  Character study or village narrative?  You can have them all in one book if you prefer;  it’s simply a matter of perception.  And the darkness…oh, so surprisingly dark, but always tucked neatly into a genteel and pleasant package.  Comyns is a bit of a cypher.  Her writing is sly, her perception sharp, and her written sense of humor is wicked.  What an odd duck she must have seemed to her literary contemporaries!Barbara Comyns

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is full of dark humor and social satire and weird situations and colorful characters. It pokes fun at early-20th century tropes and managed to get itself banned in Ireland upon publication for being too “morbid.” It’s not too morbid…but it is morbid…and funny! Just DO NOT read the introduction (at least in the Virago Press edition; I don’t know about other editions) until you’ve finished the book, as it gives away far too much of the plot, including the essential twist! Grr.

The story focuses on the eccentric Willoweed family in Warwickshire:  Ebin Willoweed – ineffectual and irresponsible widower,  Grandmother Willoweed – his imperious, mean-spirited and stingy elderly mother who owns most of the land in the area and lords it over her tenant farmers and her family, the young children Hattie and Dennis, Emma – the discontented oldest daughter on the cusp of womanhood, and the servants – sisters Norah and Eunice, the cook, and “old Ives.”  The cast of characters is filled out with many other well-drawn villagers.  The town and its oddities was so perfectly detailed that it took on an odd life of its own in my mind – a weird world in miniature.

Our first encounter with this bizarre little world begins this way:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.  The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.  Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.  Old Ives stood on the verandah steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shining towards the tennis court.  Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water.  All around there was a wheezy creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields.”

This really sets the tone for the rest of the book.  In describing the very real event of a flood, Comyns manages to impart a gloss of fantastical glamour by describing things in such a way as to make them feel somehow uncanny.  This feeling grows throughout the course of the book.  After the flood, people in the village begin to die one by one, some in unusual ways.  Some villagers understandably panic, others try to puzzle out a cause, but many take this in stride like it’s a perfectly normal chain of events.  Yes, there is definitely more going on that it might at first seem, and if you are anything like me, you will find yourself again and again chuckling – even giggling, perhaps a guffaw or two – at the most horrid occurrences at the absolute least appropriate of times.  The Comyns brand of humor brings the reader in on the dark joke, and you feel simultaneously tickled and guilty.

If none of this entices you to give Comyns and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead a try, there is a character named Lumber Splinterbones, for pity’s sake!  Lumber. SPLINTERBONES.

Book Review: Cathedral (collection) by Raymond Carver

Title: CathedralCathedral by Raymond Carver
Author:  Raymond Carver
First Published: 1983
Rating: 3/5 (5 for the writing itself and the author’s skill with subtle social critique, 4 for character development and atmosphere, 2 for my own personal enjoyment)
Challenges:  The Classics Club (Spin pick)

My Classics Club Spin book was supposed to be the Raymond Carver collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  But I ended up on a waiting list at my local library behind multiple other patrons, with the only copy of the collection already over a week overdue.  So, doubting I would get my hands on the book in time to complete it by the end of March, I opted to substitute another Carver collection published two years later, Cathedral.

I have reviewed the title story in this collection in greater detail for the Deal Me In short story challenge, here.  I just want to talk a bit about the collection as a whole.

I always suspected I would enjoy Carver’s writing.  I recall reading a couple of his stories back in the ’80s and thinking them well-crafted.  Furthermore, he was an inspiration and friend of one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, so I had high hopes.  But I have to say that I didn’t much care for this particular collection.  I can’t be certain whether it is Carver’s style in general not meshing with me now or if it is something unique to this collection, with its themes of suburban angst and perpetual loneliness, but for whatever reason these stories just didn’t set off sparks in my brain.  In fact, the collection depressed me more and more with each story, until I had to find ways to coerce myself to continue.  I respect Mr. Carver’s writing ability, which he had in abundance.  I suppose his knack for bringing out certain emotions in me is another sign of his strength as a storyteller.  I respected this collection;  I appreciated it.  But I did not enjoy it.

The stories are saturated with melancholy, focusing on themes of loneliness, regret, infidelity, betrayal, desertion, job loss, and things falling apart.  No one stays happy for long, and any semblance of stability is merely an illusion or the calm before a storm.  Carver’s characters are discontent, resigned, inconstant, bitter and often numbed or seeking anesthetization.  I can’t recall a single character that I actually liked enough to root for, with the oddly notable exceptions of a bossy and delightfully incongruous peacock and the “exceptionally ugly” baby boy with whom he was raised.  These are not terrifically likable people, although they are often pitiable.  More often, for me at least, they were simply exasperating and exhausting.

A few bullet-points:

  • As I read, I kept thinking these stories were set in the 1950s or 1960s…something about that suburban middle-American vibe, the certain flavor of keeping-up-with-the-neighbors coupled with simmering discontent and ennui.  But the collection was published in  1983 and is apparently set around the same time.
  • Carver’s characters – nearly all of them – drink a lot.  They are champion imbibers.  No matter where they are or in what they are engaged, there will always be alcohol close at hand, be it whiskey, gin or beer.  Booze seems to be the glue holding these relationships together, and it is as poor an adhesive as one might imagine.  Carver himself struggled with alcoholism much of his life, and the tides of his personal life and writing career can almost be mapped by the peaks and valleys of his own drinking.  The Airship has an interesting article on this topic:  How Many Drinks Does It Take to Make a Raymond Carver Story?
  • Ye gods, but the suburbs can be a bleak, hollow and joyless place!  I already knew this, but Carver does a bang-up job of drawing his settings in “vivid” shades of gray, grayer and black.  This guy could have written cautionary pamphlets warning of the pitfalls of chasing the suburban American dream.  Then again, I suppose he did just that.
  • In its original 1983 review of the collection, the New York Times compared Carver’s writing to Hemingway’s.  I can see that, but while Hemingway rarely makes me feel good, neither does he often make me despondent.
  • This may sound flippant, but I wonder if the reader should be enthusiastically drinking while reading Carver’s stories.  There are elements in several stories that I can see being oddly funny if one were under the influence.  I am not inclined to test this theory, so it shall remain but mere conjecture.

I can’t say I would recommend this as a general selection, but it would be a wonderful choice if one were looking to read something subtly satirical and focused on the miasma of suburban striving and internalized dramas. Furthermore, if you find yourself in want of a book that may just drive you to drink, Raymond Carver’s got you covered.



Book Review: Houdini Heart by Ki Longfellow

Houdini HeartTitle: Houdini Heart
Author: Ki Longfellow
First Published: 2011
Rating: 5/5 (Originally, I gave it a 4, for my lack of enthusiasm for the ending.  But the longer I think about it, the more the ending feels right, making this a solid 5.)
Challenges:  TBR Pile

Where does grief end and madness begin?  What is the boundary between reality and fiction?  How much are our creations a part of us?  Can we face our deepest pain and fear before they devour us?   The narrator/protagonist of Houdini Heart must face all of these conundrums and more as she explores both the innermost recesses of her own psyche as well as the many potential shades of meaning behind the word “haunting.”

I first learned of Ki Longfellow in 2005 when her book The Secret Magdalene was published.  But the first book of hers I read was 2009’s Flow Down Like Silver, a brilliant historical fiction concerning the life of Hypatia of Alexandria.  Since then, anything Longfellow writes goes immediately on my to-read list, regardless of genre.

Houdini Heart couldn’t be more different from Flow Down Like Silver in setting, tone or theme, yet both books are brilliant.  HH falls somewhere between psychological study and Gothic horror.  On the surface, this is the tale of a female author in a writing slump who has recently been through a series of traumas in which she lost both her husband – a famous and charismatic Hollywood A-lister who is also a chronic alcoholic – and her young daughter.  She retreats to  lick her wounds in a place that fascinated her during her (difficult, bohemian) childhood – a historic home that spent many years as a hotel which played host to many celebrities, including a number of horror authors, and is currently languishing as shabby rooms-for-rent.   She has determined to write one last book, after which she will end her own life.  But none of her plans go as expected or intended.  As the days wear on, her internal landscape begins to unravel, and it becomes harder and harder for her – or the reader – to discern what is real, what is imagined, what is remembered and what might even be fiction.  She sinks inexorably into an alcohol- and grief-infused miasma of madness.

Because of this precarious state, our narrator is highly unreliable, but just how much so only becomes evident as the story progresses.  Presented in a first-person, familiar and conversational tone – often through journaling, note-making, brainstorming or internal musing about her writing and her life – her story draws the reader in, sparking our empathy, horrifying us even as we can’t bring ourselves to abandon her in such a state.  For me, it was like watching a friend caught in a self-destructive spiral which I am powerless to stop.  Longfellow’s emotional wizardry is impressive.  Additionally, there may or may not be anything supernatural at play here – we can only try to deduce what is really going on.  Longfellow suggests potentials; she doesn’t make definitive statements as to the truth behind her narrative.  I loved the ambiguous, mutable nature of the story.  Different readers might well say there were reading completely different books, based on their personal perceptions and interpretations.  This is a book that begs re-reading and would be great for a mature discussion group.

Houdini Heart has been compared to the films of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock and to the literary works of several authors, including Lovecraft, Poe, Shirley Jackson and Steven King, as well as specifically to The Yellow Wallpaper and House of Leaves, and I can raise no argument against such comparisons.  These authors are mentioned by name several times during the narrative, in addition to Harry Houdini and the Wendigo legends.  There are musings or metaphorical engagements on creativity, inspiration, aging, memory, marriage, parenthood, addiction, bitterness, longing, complacency, abuse, fame, architecture, small towns, love, hate, guilt, revenge, facing fears, running away and many other Big Themes, including those of an archetypal or mythic nature.  Oftentimes, the more elements an author adds to his or her narrative stew, the more muddy and indistinct the flavors become.  But in the case of Houdini Heart, Ki Longfellow has whipped up a veritable banquet of thought-provoking, twisty plotlines and psychological labyrinths, peppered liberally with literary references and homages and served up in a fiendishly-delightful neo-Gothic spread.  The result is both stunning and satisfying.

This is what I was hoping Marisha Pessl’s Night Film might be like.  I didn’t hate Night Film, but I feel the author lost control of many of her threads somewhere in the middle, and I was unable to sustain my suspension of disbelief.  In contrast, Longfellow managed to keep me invested emotionally and intellectually so that I could allow myself to be placidly, even enthusiastically, led into the funhouse of her protagonist’s mental breakdown.

I would recommend this to fans of psychological ficiton, character studies, unusual mysteries and Gothics, as well as fiction about writers.  Ki Longfellow has created one of the most fascinating female anti-heroes I’ve ever encountered, and her story is well worth reading.