Thursday, December 30, 2010

Howl's Moving Castle: Diana Wynne Jones

An award-winning animé film called Howl's Moving Castle was released in 2004. Not being a fan of animé, I chose not to see the film, despite my piqued interest. It wasn't until last month when I found this copy of the middle readers novel that I realized the film was based on a book. Here was my chance to experience the story in a media I fully enjoy! Having absolutely no idea what the book was about, I toted it home and immediately cracked the cover.

To read Howl's Moving Castle you must suspend your adult need for disbelief and acknowledge that there might be places, times, planes of existence where magic exists and is a part of daily life. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and she is quite aware of what that means for her--doom. Every fairy tale ever told has made it perfectly clear that if the eldest of three sisters goes out to seek her fortune, she will be doomed. It is with this knowledge that Sophie resigns herself to a quiet life. Upon her father's death, Sophie and her sisters are sent to three different locations where they will be able to learn a trade and earn their keep. As expected, Sophie is kept on as an apprentice in the family hat shop. As she creates artful hats for the customers, Sophie entertains herself by talking to the hats (if you read the book you'll realize why this is an important note). After not so long, Sophie goes to visit her sisters and finds that they have swapped places (also important to the overall story). On the same day, she encounters the Witch of the Waste who casts a spell on Sophie, turning her into an old crone. Deciding not to return to the hat shop, Sophie wanders until she finds a great looming castle that moves about the countryside. Sophie soon meets the Wizard Howl and his apprentice, Michael, as well as the fire demon Calcifer, who all inhabit the moving castle. In no time at all, Sophie is embraced into the heart of their home and made a member of their quirky family. The adventures they have together and the characters they meet toss Howl and Sophie together until she finds that she loves the pompous wizard, in spite of his conceit. After a great battle with the Witch of the Waste, Sophie is finally able to make a choice for herself, regardless of her role as the eldest of three sisters.

Diana Wynne Jones has an extraordinary imagination. In every minute detail there is a hint of magic, bringing her story to life. While a castle that moves about the countryside at a leisurely pace seems entirely impossible, it takes no more than a chapter or two for the reader to completely accept that the door will never open to the same place twice. And while Howl is a conceited snot, Jones has also given him touches of sincerity and made him a likable character.

However, the most lovable character is the ever-present Calcifer. He has entered a contract with Howl and is now obligated to stay in the moving castle's fireplace. He essentially keeps the place running. For only being a flame, Calcifer has a wonderful personality. He is called a fire demon, so it seems like we're not supposed to like him, but he's actually the most enjoyable character in the book!

This was a delightful read that offered an escape similar to The Mysterious Benedict Society (a borrowed review since I read it before The Reader's Book Blog was a thing). Howl's Moving Castle is wondrous and exciting, at times surreal, but not entirely foreign. It was very exciting, but also very safe for readers of all ages.

Rating: $$

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Mistress of the Art of Death: Ariana Franklin

I have no idea why I picked up this book. It was on sale and then also on clearance. I was in a mood to read something Victorian. The cover art was interesting. I honestly don't know what compelled me to pick up this book, especially since it's not the kind of thing I normally read, but I'm glad I did!

The story begins with a band of travelers on their way to Cambridge in the twelfth century. Among the travelers is a killer. A murderer and sodomizer of children who has been kidnapping, raping, and murdering children of Cambridge and blaming it on the Jewish community. Also among the travelers is a woman doctor from Salerno, trained in the Art of Death--we would call her a coroner. Adelia, along with Jewish detective Simon and Muslim eunuch Mansur, has been sent to Cambridge by the King of Italy to quietly assist in the case. Determined to unearth the deranged killer and clear the Jews of any wrongdoing, the trio embark on a covert mission to infiltrate the community and learn as much as they can. The list of suspects quickly thins out until even the reader thinks they know whodunnit. However, as any good mystery will do, this story takes a wild turn for the unexpected that will likely leave you shocked and disgusted.

This isn't a new story. It's not even a sort-of-new story. In fact, as the author writes in the Author's Note, there was in fact a string of kidnappings in the twelfth century that was blamed on the Jews. However, what makes this novel so refreshing is the pure talent that Franklin delivers. At first I thought she was simply verbose. So many, many words! And yet it is obvious that author and editor alike have combed this novel within an inch to ensure that every word is necessary. The descriptions are intensely satisfying, reanimating an entire era and culture. The characters are colorful and independent; there is no confusion with overlapping traits as are so often found with lazy contemporary authors. And the villain. It has been awhile since such a monster made it's way into mainstream media. I don't remember an antagonist so humanly grotesque since George Harvey of The Lovely Bones. And I do mean grotesque. Sensitive readers should steer clear!

By far the most interesting character in this novel is Adelia. An educated woman in the twelfth century was most likely to be hanged/drowned/burned for witchcraft. To be a competent woman, trained to put together the pieces of a body's death, carries a stigma even in our "enlightened" 21st century. Adelia is also without faith, believing instead in science, which is one more mark against her favor. She is also young, unmarried, and intentionally celibate. Realistically, she seems more like someone who would exist on the Sarah Lawrence campus in the late 1990's.

While The Mistress of the Art of Death is gruesome, it is also a fantastically crafted thrilling mystery.

Rating: $$.5 (The gore kept it from receiving $$$)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Borders Conflict

Most bibliophiles will recognize the name Borders as the franchise that peddles new books at discount prices, which brings up an array of emotions in readers. Movies like The Shop Around The Corner and You've Got Mail are known for villainizing large box stores as evil entities, out to devour small independent shops. While I am a proponent of buying local, I am also a low-wage employee who simply can't always afford to pay $15 for a book that Borders can sell for $4.99. But that's an argument for another day.

The big news is that the downtown Portland flagship Borders is closing. As of January 7th, there will cease to be a downtown Borders. Fortunately, Portland, Oregon is a city of readers in a saturated market. There are many, many other options for affordable reading (and I'm not even mentioning the plethora of well-kept libraries!). And yet, somehow, I feel like Portland is losing something valuable. While this closure will surely mean higher profits for our locally-owned and locally-beloved Powell's, it is also a sign of something much larger happening in the book world. Is it possible that ebooks really are effecting book sales? How long will it be until bookstores are an archaic piece of our history? Regardless of your feelings about franchise book stores, surely we readers can all agree that the closure of a book store is a loss to it's neighborhood.

On the other hand, bad news for the company is great news for me. I stopped in at the closing Borders last night and took great advantage of the 30-40% off closeout sales. I picked over everything in the store. I bought brand new books for $1-5 each. A giant plastic bag of perfectly good books for $55! I was gleeful about my purchases, as I lovingly inspected each book in the comfort of my own home. But this morning brings new light to my book spree. That was $55 given to a failing company. $55 I could have spent on full priced books in an independently owned, local bookstore that needs the revenue to keep it's doors open. Have I just further hindered the stability of my local economy? Did my spending at a closing box store mean that a local bookseller will be that much closer to going out of business?

I can't know how much impact I have on my local economy. I can't foresee what will happen to my neighborhood bookstores. What I can do is commit to, and encourage readers to seek out the independent booksellers in our communities. We need to support the invaluable trade of knowledge by buying books from stores in our neighborhood. The higher cost we might have to pay just doesn't compare to the possibility of books becoming obsolete.