Category Archives: Favourites

Favourites: Howl’s Moving Castle

The last favourite book. I still haven’t figured out what to do for bi-monthly post next year, so any ideas are welcome!

FAVOURITES

DIANA WYNNE JONES: HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE

Howl's Moving Castle

Published: Methuen Children’s Books Ltd 1986

Pages: 302 (Harper Collins 2005)

Series: Howl’s Moving Castle #1

“How about making a bargain with me?” said the demon. “I’ll break your spell if you agree to break this contract I’m under.”

In the land of Ingary, where seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility do exist, Sophie Hatter attracts the unwelcome attention of the Witch of the Waste and is put under a curse. Determined to make the best of things, Sophie travels to the one place where she might get help – the moving castle which hovers on the nearby hills.

But the castle belongs to the dreaded Wizard Howl whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the hearts of young girls…

I’ve been watching Hayao Miyazaki’s films since I was a kid, and of course I went to see Howl’s Moving Castle when it came out 2005. You have probably seen the film, or at least heard of it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie.

However, it’s vastly different from the book, and I like the latter better. Although a children’s book, Howl’s Moving Castle is surprisingly violent and serious. Not too much of those though, only enough to keep an adult reader entertained and just as intrigued as the child reader. I have read the book several times now, and there is always something I have missed before: a literary reference (my particular joy), a hint of an adult topic, a reference to something that to the main character Sophie seems incomprehensible but that comes from our world.

There’s also the matter of ages. Sophie is about eighteen, Howl in his early twenties. I’m still close enough to them in age to see how they think; when I first read the book, they seemed old. This is also one of the messages of the book – the perspective age gives. As an old woman, Sophie sees Howl as a child. Michael, Howl’s apprentice, is even younger. This makes the book so wonderful to read again and again: you are of a different age yourself, so you get a different view on things.

There is also a puzzle in the book. I’m not talking about the spell – John Donne’s wonderful poem ‘Go and catch a falling star’ is here utilized very deftly – but the puzzle of identities and motivations. What is Sophie’s stepmother Fanny really like? What does the Scarecrow want? What or who is the dog? What happened to Prince Justin? You won’t know until the end, although you can take your guesses and, if you’re very clever, be right. The movie will not help you here, as it has excluded all this.

I also have to mention the wonderful chapter titles. My favourites would have to be, ‘Chapter Six, in which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime’, ‘Chapter Fourteen, in which a Royal Wizard catches a cold’, and,  ‘Chapter Nineteen, in which Sophie expresses her feelings with weed-killer’. Of particular charm is also ‘Chapter Eleven, in which Howl goes to a strange country in search of a spell’.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a wonderful book, and a fairly quick read. It’ll keep you entertained on consecutive readings as well, and I promise it will always give you something new.

Also, the scene with drunk Howl is particularly hilarious.

Diana Wynne Jones died in March 2011. A great loss for the field of fantasy literature. She will be fondly remembered by all her readers, even those like me who would like to read more of her works but only seem to manage one every couple of years.

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Favourites: Sharp Teeth

Better late than never – here’s the second to last favourite books post!

FAVOURITES

TOBY BARLOW: SHARP TEETH

 

Published: 2008 Harper Collins

Pages: 313

An ancient race of lycanthropes survives in modern L.A., and its numbers are growing as the pack converts the city’s downtrodden into their fold. Stuck in the middle are a local dog-catcher and the woman he loves, whose secret past haunts her as she fights a bloody one-woman battle to save their relationship.

It was getting close to Christmas of 2008 when I saw this book in the “new releases” shelf at the bookstore. It looked fascinating: the cover, the title, the blurb at the back, all good. I’m a bit of a sucker for werewolves, and leafing the book and reading bits from the beginning convinced me to put it on my Christmas list. Santa was kind enough to bring it, and so I read it over the New Years.

So what is Sharp Teeth about, exactly? You can see some of it in the blurb, although I don’t think it does the book much justice. It exaggerates the love story. It’s there all right, and it’s a quite a central bit, but it’s not just a love story. There’s also more than one pack, which adds tension.

Oh yeah, and I guess the blurb leaves out the fact that it’s written in beautiful blank verse.

Yup. It’s nothing to be scared of – I speculate that that’s why it’s been left off the cover altogether – quite the opposite! It adds much to the action, to the general flow. It’s dynamic and intense. Sometimes it’s so pretty I have to put the book down for a while to muse over a nice turn of phrase.

Bone, love, meat, gristle, heat, anger, exhaustion, drive, hunger, blood, fat, marrow

 

Fifteen men lying in one house.

Listen to the night as

they softly growl

someone chases something in his dreams

desperate for satisfaction

then silent.

There’s one woman here.

There’s one leader here.

The pack does what he says,

she comes and goes

as she pleases.

There are lots of different kind of elements in the book. Love is a big one – the dog-catcher and Her above all, although other couples are seen as well – but between the lines there’s coincidence, or, more like, the explanations we tend to form for things that happen completely by accident. The main observer of these coincidences is Detective Peabody, who gets more in the middle of the whole business than the lovers mentioned in the blurb do. And then there’s revenge, on several levels.

For this post, I read the book for the fourth time. I now noticed how enticed I’ve always been by Barlow’s style: this is the first time that I actually managed to piece together the details that make up the connections between events. Let me tell you, it’s like magic. I think this book needs to be read a couple of times at least, unless you’ve got a good head for small, off-hand details. I’m not sure it’s even possible to link the details the first time around because you don’t know where it is all going. On subsequent readings the details become more significant, and the puzzle starts to form a picture.

It’s got some very heart-wrenching sections. Amusing sections. Sections filled with intense action.

There has lately been talk of a movie. Simon Beaufoy is working on the script, and Danny Boyle (they’ve worked together before, in Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) has expressed keen interest. I’m a little scared, naturally. I’m afraid they’ll make the movie pounce and attack, when I want it to prowl, to stalk. And I have this irrational fear that they’ll cast Michael Fassbender… (Before anyone asks, I have nothing against him per se. He’s a good actor. It’s just that he’s sodding everywhere! And he doesn’t fit the part of anyone in the book. As I said, it is a completely ridiculous fear, but there you go.)

There is also a new book coming from the author, apparently due to be released next year! It’ll be called Babayaga: A Novel, and I hear it’s about Russian witches in 1950s Paris. (If you do a search on Babayaga, you’ll find she is indeed a witch from Russian fairy tales.) Looking forward to it!

Let’s sing about the man there

at the breakfast table

his olive hand making endless circles

in the classifieds

‘wanted’ ‘wanted’ ‘wanted’

small jobs little money

but you have to start somewhere.

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Favourites: The Privilege of the Sword

Time for another favourite book! This time we dive into the charming subgenre of Fantasy of Manners, also known as Mannerpunk – and my favourite of all fantasy subgenres, to tell the truth.

FAVOURITES

ELLEN KUSHNER: PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD

Published: Bantam Spectra 2006

Pages: 459

Series: Riverside (third published, second chronologically)

Welcome to Riverside, where the aristocratic and the ambitious battle for power in the city’s ballrooms, brothels, and boudoirs. Into this world walks Katherine, a well-bred country girl versed in the rules of conventional society. Her mistake is thinking they apply. For Katherine’s host and uncle, Alec Campion, a.k.a. the Mad Duke Tremontaine, is in charge here – and to him, rules are made to be broken.

When Alec decides it would be more amusing for his niece to learn swordplay than to follow the usual path to marriage, her world changes forever. Blade in hand, it’s up to Katherine to navigate a maze of secrets and scoundrels – and to gain the self-discovery that comes to those who master… THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD.

Ellen Kushner was a guest of honour at the 2010 Finncon. It was also my first time attending the con (or, indeed, any con), and I thought it would be a good idea to familiarise myself with the work at least one GoH. Neither Kushner nor Nalo Hopkinson could be found in the library, so off to the bookstore it was. The only Kushner available was The Privilege of the Sword, and it came home with me. And I fell in love with it.

Making sure that her fingers were well licked and dried, the Ugly Girl went to take a book from the pile on the mantelpiece. She sat by the window reading her treatise on mathematics, ignoring the duke as he received and donned his new shirt, received and interviewed an informant (who was not offered strawberries), received and made fun of a small but very ugly lamp meant as a bribe and finally went back to his fireplace excavations.

Although it is more YA than her other books, I still chose Privilege of the Sword as my favourite among the Riverside books. It’s light, witty, and fun – a growing up story of Katherine, a picture of Riverside after Alec has become Duke, and a delightful comparison of two girls; Artemisia Fitz-Levi has everything Katherine initially wanted, but all the beautiful dresses and exciting parties and numerous beaux don’t a happy life make.

Of course, if one has read Swordspoint, this book also offers a look at Alec’s adult life, and let me tell you, it’s heartbreaking. Seriously.

We found the old armory, full of antique weapons and country things like boar spears. My teacher picked us out some old, blunt practice swords, and we started back through the hall.

Suddenly, he grinned at me. “Hey!” he cried. “On your guard!”

I raised my sword, and he retreated before me. “Don’t worry,” he called. “I’ll keep falling back – just come on!”

And so I advanced on him, all the way down the long gallery, driving the master swordsman back with my clumsy tipped blade, sweeping past the portraits and landscapes, the swathes of sheeting, the covered mirrors, over the polished parquet.

He fetched up against a door, his face bright with laughter, and spread his arms open to me. I sighted my spot, to the left of his breastbone, and lunged – but he deflected the point with the tiniest of motions and my sword jarred in my hand.

“You want to relax your grip,” he said, “but that was good: a nice, clean attack.” He was laughing, looking back down the length of the hall. “God, I’ve wanted to do that ever since I got here! Thank you.”

The foremost praise for Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer (not part of the Riverside series) has been the masterful handling of different points of view. In Privilege of the Sword, I feel, the POV business is absolutely beautifully executed. Katherine’s story is conveyed in first person, whereas other main characters are written in third person. The effect is quite wonderful, even if it sounds suspicious when thus explained. Trust me. It’s great.

One point I would like to make. Katherine gets a swords master to teach her to fence, and reading the scenes he appears in are reminiscent of Syrio and Arya in A Game of Thrones. It appears though that Kushner has not read ASOIAF and only recently found out the books have this little bit in common.

Just in case someone was wondering.

So get yourself some Kushner! If you haven’t read any, here, let me help you out by arranging the three books in reading order:

Swordspoint

Privilege of the Sword

The Fall of the Kings

There are also various short stories situated in Riverside, such as “Red-Cloak”, “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death”, “Death of the Duke”, “A Wild and Wicked Youth”, “The Man with the Knives” and “The Duke of Riverside”. I have yet to read Wicked Youth and Duke of Riverside, but I can already tell you all these short stories are excellent.

Kushner gets you addicted. I swear. Give mannerpunk a shot!

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Favourites: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

It’s no secret that I’m a total and complete potterhead. I read the first book at the age of nine or ten, fell in love around age twelve, and when the last book came out it was about a month after my 17th birthday. I’m of the Potter Generation and grew up with Harry, and he has a special place in my heart even though I don’t list J. K. Rowling among my favourite authors (anymore). It’s practically all my tween and teen years. Yes, I’ve always been into other fandoms as well, but Harry Potter is the one I’m most comfortable with. A book has never made me cry like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows did.

However, the seventh book is not my favourite. The favourite ranking inside the series varies, but number one is always the same.

FAVOURITES

J. K. ROWLING: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Published: July 8th 1999 Bloomsbury (UK)/ Scholastic (US)

Pages: 317 (UK) / 435 (US)

I think it’s not exactly necessary to summarise the book here, so I won’t. If you haven’t read the series, but are going to and don’t want to get spoiled, don’t read any further. I’m not going to be cautious about details or what happens in the latter books.

About a year ago I admitted to myself I’ve grown out of the first two books. It’s perfectly obvious why people older than me never fell in love with Harry the way people my age did. But the third book is getting more mature, if only slightly. It’s not nearly as dark as the fourth one, no, but it’s not as straightforward as the first two. It’s the calm before the storm. Voldemort is not seen in person; Harry learns new things about his parents and their lives; he meets new people who have a previous connection to him.

The characters are what make me a very biased judge of this book. Remus Lupin is the biggest literary crush I’ve ever had, and honey, it’s still on. He’s a good man who has suffered a lot, and in this book I believe we witness some of the best things that have happened to him in thirteen years, maybe even more. He gets a job, he meets the son of some of his best friends, and gets his living best friends back. Okay, so the friendship situation is more complicated than that with Peter and things finally coming together and making sense about the Fidelius Charm, but anyway. I’m very partial to the Marauders, who are introduced in this book. That’s one of the things that endear this particular book to me.

Mr Moony presents his compliments to Professor Snape, and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.

Mr Prongs agrees with Mr Moony, and would like to add that Professor Snape is an ugly git.

Mr Padfoot would like to register his astonishment that an idiot like that ever became a Professor.

Mr Worm tail bids Professor Snape good day, and advises him to wash his hair, the slimeball.

It’s very hard to pinpoint the reasons for my love of this book. I’m just utterly comfortable with it. It has a neat plot. I don’t know it all by heart anymore, not the way I used to, but close enough so I can only look at details while reading if I want to. There are all the tensions and relationships between the adult characters that weren’t much there in the first two books. It’s just delicious.

For a course on audiovisual culture and society, I wrote an essay on fandom. Initially the chosen fandom was Harry Potter, and I managed a couple of pages before it became evident a change of fandom was in order. I’m in too deep, and it’s hard to see anything to do with Potter objectively. That’s how it is with this book, and the reason why this introduction/explanation is so short. I recognise that it’s not the most brilliant prose since Austen or Wilde. I’m well aware that it’s not the most intellectual book ever. But it is a part of a great story, and a cornerstone in my becoming a fantasy reader.

Oh, and rereading the series after the last book is an exciting and emotional experience. I can heartily recommend it. You keep noticing the little details that will be significant later on.

Besides, I read somewhere that rereading is good for your brain.

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