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: 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.

Book Review: Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage by Alexei PanshinTitle: Rite of Passage
Author: Alexei Panshin
First Published: 1968
Rating: 4/5 (The first 2 sections were closer to 4.5 for me, with part 3 landing somewhere around a 3.5.  So all in all, about a 4.)
Challenges:  TBR Pile, Vintage Science Fiction Month

Alexei Panshin is an American author born in 1940.  He has published a handful of novels, many short stories available in two collections, and several nonfiction volumes of essays and critique on the subject of science fiction literature.  He was in his mid-20s when he began writing Rite of Passage, which won the 1968 Nebula Award for Novel and was nominated for the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Rite of Passage is one of those books that by all rights should be considered a classic of its genre but for some odd conjunction of reasons seems to have been largely forgotten.  This is, in my opinion, a terrible shame, as the book is an engaging, intelligent and refreshing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age in a future human society – a story that would delight many readers of YA literature today. Panshin has created a believable, layered protagonist and managed to avoid many of the gender-related pitfalls that plague a lot of science fiction of the era.

Roger Zelazny, in his blurb of the book, wrote:

“Alexei Panshin has done a rare thing for a young man: he has captured the feelings of a young girl, at the point in her life where all young girls are most beautiful and most pathetic.  And he has done it within the framework of a science fiction story.  I am very impressed.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Zelazny.  Mia Havero, our young protagonist, practically leaps from the page, with her intelligence, recklessness, curiosity, stubborness, questioning, insecurity, over-confidence, jealousy, humor and casual cruelty coming together to paint a fully-realized young girl on the verge of so many huge changes.  There were many times I had trouble believing this wasn’t written by a woman, so spot-on was the inner litany of Mia’s thoughts, questions, fears and dreams.

The short-form backstory, which takes place 150 years before the events of the narrative:  Earth, having become drastically over-populated, suffered a series of devastating wars, famines and plagues and eventually lost its viability as a human habitat.  Colony ships were created by coring out asteroids – which actually makes some sense the way it’s explained in the story – and various groups of humans strike out for the stars.  The intention was that upon reaching worlds suitable for colonization, the colonists would proceed to do just that, but when the time came, many of the ships’ most highly educated, skilled and/or specialized populace determined they did not want to go back to square one, scrabbling for basic existence in the dirt, and essentially losing thousands of years of human progress.  These people stayed aboard the ships, and a dual society was formed – technologically-advanced people living on the ships with access to everything from libraries of human history and science, advanced medicine, hydroponics, shuttle travel, etc., and agrarian folks on various colony worlds, struggling against the environment, local wildlife and/or other races and their own limitations while dealing with low tech and a whole host of new superstitions and traditions that developed over time to replace those lost by the severance of society with the ships.  Trade is established, with raw materials mined by those planet-side traded for tiny bits of tech doled out by the ship-dwellers.  The trade is quite lopsided, and both groups develop a distrust and resentment of one another as they become less and less alike.

This brings us to the actual meat of our story.  The year is 2198.  Mia lives aboard one of the Ships.  She is nearing the time of her Trial – a ritual “rite of passage” upon turning 14 that must be passed to graduate into full adulthood within the Ship’s society, with full voting rights and the ability to make her own decisions without parental oversight.  It entails surviving alone on one of the planets for a month, fending for oneself for food, shelter, dealing with wildlife, the human population, etc.

Mia’s life pulses with realism, and the world of the Ship and its culture are drawn superbly.  She has philosophical differences with her father, trouble integrating into what is essentially a new neighborhood and school, peer rivalries that often result in fist fights, insecurities about her slow-to-develop body, realistic thoughts about menstruation, a penchant for exploring hidden crannies of the Ship, a mean football/soccer leg, a subtly brilliant mind, a taste for reading old books from “before,” a bit too much egotism and classism, and a tendency to believe the stereotypes about the “mudeaters” (planet dwellers) commonly accepted by her people.  (To be sure, the planet-siders have the same sort of wrong-headed, generalized negative beliefs about the ship-folk, too.  This sort of thinking goes both ways with neither culture being shown as fully in the right or wrong.)

The first two sections of the book deal with Mia’s life on the Ship, with the second covering her preparation for Trial, and part 3 deals with Trial itself.  The first and second sections were fantastic and really filled out Mia’s world for the reader.  The third section, while definitely containing some interesting bits and plot developments, fell behind for me.  It felt a bit rushed, as if Panshin, after having taken his time to really flesh things out in the first two sections, had become hurried to complete his work and condensed some things too compactly.  Another 20 or so pages would have done wonders to help with this, but overall the book was so enjoyable and unusual for its time that I’m not going to complain too much about this.

The plot could be simply summarized, perhaps, in this way:  A young girl lives on a colony spaceship, makes friends and enemies, learns to make her own decisions, comes to realize adults aren’t infallible and majority opinion won’t always agree with yours.  Along the way, she gains some skills and confidence, has some of her beliefs challenged and others reinforced, faces fear and pain as well as joy and pleasure.  In short, she grows up.  And there are horses, perhaps somewhat improbably, but some of them have really adorable and amusing names.

But to leave it at that would miss so much of what is wonderful about the story. As I don’t want to spoil everything, allow me to list some of the interesting things that stuck out for me:

  • While the culture of the Ship does recognize gender, there is no gender bias restricting roles nor is there a hierarchy based on gender.
  • As long as those involved are consenting adults, there are not restrictions on sex. People may or may not pair up or group up for relationships, and there is no suggestion of any particular level of hetero-normativity.  But procreation is a different matter.  No one can procreate without applying and being approved, to prevent the over-population that caused Earth’s downfall.  Violating this rule is a Big BIG No-No.
  • The book presents a lot to think about regarding social structures, the power of knowledge and its restriction, determination of what is and isn’t ethical, and the democratic process of decision-making.
  • The populace of the Ship is very multi-cultural, with names suggesting a wide variety of heritages.  Many of the heritages are expressly noted, and there seems to be no racial bias on the Ship.
  • Spirituality is a laid-back concept for Ship dwellers.  Some believe in a god, some in many, others in none.  People accept this diversity, and no religious structure is enforced or prohibited.
  • Technology is handled fairly deftly.  The people of the Ship are obviously more technologically advanced than we are in the early 21st century, and Panshin was wise not to describe all sorts of fancy whiz-bang gizmos that would date the story and make it seem silly down the road.  Hydroponics is an important food-provision source, as is vat-grown protein.  Medical technology is very advanced.  The only thing that really stuck out as anachronistic is that communications on the Ship are less advanced than our own, with no sort of instant messaging, although they do have the internet-ish archives for knowledge and data storage.  I can hardly fault Panshin for not predicting social media and email, however.
  • On a related note, Panshin set his story far enough in the future that we don’t find ourselves rolling our eyes at the idea of interstellar travel in 1999 or some such.
  • Although some of the details of how the Ship works and how things are immediately outside the Ship might not hold up to serious scientific scrutiny, they are satisfactorily explained within the context of the fictional universe. I had no trouble suspending my disbelief and just going with the flow.
  • In addition to honest mention of menstruation, one thing that surprised me (considering the time the book was published) was the frankness with which sex between two 14-year-olds was approached.  It happens only once, and it is rather sweet and not explicit and is fully in context and consensual. The characters don’t know if they will survive their predicament and feel strongly for each other, and one muses that this is something that is only for adults for good reason.  I thought it was well-handled and wholly realistic, but more sensitive readers might be a bit put off that it happens at all.
  • Often in today’s YA lit, the hero/ine is a bit too close to perfect, a bit of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu template for the reader to project on.  Flaws are presented as positives (Her rebelliousness allows her to save her people.  His seeming coldness protects his heart.  Etc.)  and the protagonists are generally likable – someone the reader might like to be or to befriend or fall in love with.  Mia Havero has a lot of positive qualities, but she also has flaws that she never really jettisons.  In this, she is more realistic, if less heroic-seeming, than many modern central YA characters.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes to give you a taste of the feel of the book, taken from section 2 when Mia and her classmates are just starting a several-weeks-long eclectic training regimine aimed at helping them survive Trial:

“Then there were dancing lessons.  You may well wonder what we were doing with dancing lessons, but they were actually a part of our Survival Class training. 

Mr. Marechal said, ‘This isn’t meant to be fun and it isn’t meant to be funny.  It is deadly serious.  You stumble over your own feet.  You don’t know what to do with your hands.  When you are in a position where you have to do the exact right thing in an instant, deft movement is the most important element.  You want your body to work for you, not against you.  No only, by God, am I going to give you dancing lessons, but I’m going to start you on needlepoint.'”

Long before The Hunger Games and His Dark Materials and so many other well-loved young adult spec-fic standards, Alexei Panshin created a rich worldscape full of interesting people with believable flaws and foibles.  He created a strong and vulnerable, relatable young protagonist who should appeal to adults and young people alike, both male and female.  The adventure is rollicking, the questions raised are truly thought-provoking, and I feel it holds up very well almost 50 years later.  It’s a bookish tragedy that it’s fallen into obscurity.