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

51gKAVDyENL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In a world where magic is ordinary, where witches and wizards live among florist and princes and bakers, Sophie Hatter is a plain, hard-working, sharp-tongued eldest of three sisters, convinced that her lot in life is one of drudgery and loneliness since she is, after all, the eldest. But then she meets Howl, the dashing young wizard who eats young girls’ hearts and hails from the mysterious and other worldly land of Wales. And then she meets the Witch of the Waste, an ancient woman of considerable beauty and power, whose penchant for nastiness will wreak havoc in more than one world, more than one life, but none more than that of Sophie Hatter.

I first encountered Howls’ Moving Castle in the film adaptation drawn by Hayao Miyazaki and his legendary Studio Ghibli. I’ve avoided the books ever since, convinced that either the book would be a bitter disappointment (it’s happened before) or – more likely – the book would so outshine the film as to overshadow and belittle my first love’s magic.

I am very happy to announce that the book is brilliant. It’s sarcastic and warm-hearted and full of beauty and horror. They two versions of this story are very, very different, of course. Apart from an opening scene which is mirrored almost perfectly between book and film, the two renditions part ways swiftly and completely on all the details, large and small alike. As he plotted the film, Miyazaki erased worlds, merged characters, and parsed in his own thematic overtones so that his imaginative creation stands quite independent of its muse. But the essence of the characters remained inviolable, as they always must. The clever, romantic spirit of the story shone through.

In short, they’re both good.

Fantastic, even.

I highly recommend book and film alike to young readers everywhere.

Book Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

15161Susanna Clarke, associated with crazy greats such as Neil Gaiman himself, is best known for the monolithic achievement which was her first novel: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Following in the same tradition of urban fantasy (if than urbanity can be said to translate hundreds of years back) and English literary style at its antique best, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is a collection of short stories in which the dividing line between human and Fae is treacherously, delightfully thin.

So confident, so sure-footed is Ms. Clarke in the worlds of mysterious and unlikely adventure, one is often tempted to believe she is, in fact, reading history. Clarke’s genre has been called Alternative History, but I think that title fails to communicate the light touch and darkly-humored charm of her writing.

I’ve often said that Master Neil Gaiman’s stories are fairy tales for adults, too disturbing for my youngsters, but not to be missed by anyone who is young at heart. If Gaiman takes you traipsing through the dark and twisty, the ne’er before traveled deer paths of tangled woods, Clarke calls you to a parallel path , I feel, only she keeps the safe and well-lit beaten trails in sight. You never feel at a total loss for where and when  you are with Clarke, you only occasionally recognize, with a shudder, that you are NOT safe at all, only lulled into believing so.

I loved this book. When I next find myself able to read for hours at a time of uninterrupted attention, I will certainly be tackling her masterpiece, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Book Review: The Sparrow

“Kinda spooky, ain’t it. Hell of a lot of coincidences. Like we say back home, when you find a turtle settin’ on top of a fencepost, you can be pretty damn sure he didn’t get there on his own.”

Russell, Mary Doria (2008-05-27). The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series) (pp. 121-122). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Mary-Doria-Russell-The-Sparrow.jpg

Father Emilio Sandoz of the Society of Jesus has never considered himself to be a mystic or a saint. His faith is not founded in a “feeling” about God, or even in any kind of love for Him. Sandoz was attracted to the centeredness, the morality of the faith as a mere boy, when he was rescued from the slums of La Perla by a Texan Jesuit priest with a penchant for swearing and an eye for diamonds in the rough.

So when first contact is made with an alien world in the neighboring galaxy of Alpha Centauri, and that first contact comes in the form of lovely, wistful, transcendent music, Father Sandoz is astounded and amused and intrigued. But when he and each of his closest friends turn out to have the precise skill sets required to make the journey out to this new world, he is shaken. And when, against all possible odds, Father Sandoz and those dearest to his heart land on that far away alien Garden of Eden just eighteen short months later, he is transported. For the first time, he feels, he has encountered and fallen in love with the Living God.

But crossing languages, cultures, and species is a treacherous business. As missionaries throughout the millennia of human history have learned, the cost of leading the vanguard of discovery can be very, very high. How will a fledgling faith hold up in the face of loss and suffering and despair? Can we love a God who takes away as much as He gives, who is neither simple, predictable, or safe?

Mary Doria Russell accomplished in her debut, award-winning novel what I thought was impossible in the modern age. She married the foremost theories of medicine and technology with one of the oldest and most rigidly structured religious faiths. She took atheist and Jesuit characters and treated each with the same honest affection, bound them together as a family unit, and then dissected them in a ruthless pursuit of literally “universal” truths. She did not shy away from a single charged, political question. She looked the reader in the face as she led us to an abyss we all recognize, but work very hard to ignore.

I have a new favorite book, folks. And I am challenged, once again, to expand my own view of what’s possible to achieve in fiction.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

There is a silence which follows Kote the innkeeper. The root of the silence is in the stories of Kote’s youth, when he was known as Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Kingkiller, Re’ Lar Kvothe of the Arcanum. He is finally willing to tell his story, from his childhood days in a troupe of traveling troubadours, to the death of his childhood and his struggles at the University; even the tale of his one great love. He’ll tell it all, now that the renowned Chronicler is here and ready with his pen. But the silence still haunts Kvothe’s every step, death still lingers on the doorstep, and dark, treacherous hints of magic are beginning to seep into Kvothe’s little backwoods town.
Patrick Rothfuss has been hailed as a world builder to rival the grand master Tolkien himself. My first exposure to the Kingkiller Chronicles lived up to those rumors. Languages, cultures, histories, and religious traditions flow through this book like a rain-gorged river. In the dedication, Rothfuss thanks his mother for teaching him the love of story, and his father for teaching him to take the time to do things well. When it comes to the creativity and depth of this fantasy series, Rothfuss must be acknowledged as a crazy great.

That being said, this book was a struggle for me, from beginning to end. Rather than argue with the loud protests of many fellow readers whom I hold in the highest respect, I’m going to put my ardent dislike of this book down to a matter of interpretation and personal taste. Rothfuss did indeed take the time to build his story very carefully, although I could have done with a few less redundant descriptions and cliché euphemisms (a sigh should only “deflate” a character once, not three times in a single scene). But the real crux of my problem with Kvothe as a character and Rothfuss’ choice of narrative style was the myopic, pompous, exclusive tone that ran rampant throughout. (Before you turn red in the face and start stabbing your keyboard to decry this less than positive reader response, please refer back to the disclaimer at the beginning of this paragraph.)

I will give one example of my complaint before I leave this alone and move on to other reads. Ok, two examples.

Toward the end of the book (no spoilers here), Kvothe opens the case of an instrument so that it can “feel a little sun on its strings”. He goes on to tell the reader that he doesn’t expect anyone who isn’t a true musician to understand why he did this. I scoffed aloud. It would have been so simple a thing, the most minute of shifts in the semantics, for the narrator to express this same sentiment with an air of inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness. He could have said, for example, “Anyone who has had a long and intimate relationship with a musical instrument will understand.”

If this was a one-time choice of phrasing, I could be quite legitimately accused of nitpicking. But of course, it wasn’t. I got so fed up with the words “I don’t expect you to understand” by the end of this book, I considered making it a drinking game. But then, I’ve got responsibilities to tend to and taking that many shots in a given day cannot be good for one’s health.

In addition to the grating hubris of the narrator, the character Kvothe was a quintessential “Gary Stu”.

A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu or Marty Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.

See full article here.

Kvothe is a wunderkind from the very start: supernaturally intelligent and mature for his age, blessed not only with survival skills most eleven year olds have never even heard of, but also with a knack for acting, music, languages, dialects, horse taming… Oh, and he knows EVERYTHING. Any time any question in any field of study or social etiquette or street wisdom arises, this kid knows the answer. Every. Time. The only people who don’t like him are either ignorant or straight up two dimensional bad guys. He’s the guy the ladies love and the haters love to hate.

Ok I’m done. So sorry guys. Maybe I’ve grown cynical in my middle age, but this was just not for me.

Book Review: The Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

 What a great title. What a great cover. What a great premise!

What. a pointless. book.

In her latest book, The Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock attempts to explore the hearts and minds of three women.   Antonia, Toni, and Toniah, women of the 15th, 21st, and 22nd centuries, wander through parallel lives, each burdened by a tragic past. Each woman (aged 11, 15, and 30ish) strives to find her place in a world which is largely indifferent to her hopes, to her needs, to her hidden heartbreaks. 

That’s it. No need to warn of spoilers, because nothing of substance happens to any one of these characters. From the beginning of this book to the end, these women do not learn or grow or change. There were so many opportunities to demonstrate and to speculate on the varying paths of women in three very different centuries. But no.  

I struggled from the beginning (only very rarely can I stomach stories told in the present tense) and by the abrupt and hopelessly existential conclusion I was exhausted. The pacing could not have been slower. The end results for each character could not have been less climactic.

Charnock did take an admirable amount of time researching for the glaringly obvious theme of this book: 15th century Italian Renaissance Art.  But instead of enriching the story, all the data and pedantic lessons on color and perspective and art history only weighed down an already cumbersome plot. Normally, I love stories set in a richly detailed history. But, I learned a valuable lesson from this experienced author: don’t study something that’s new to you in order to write a story about it. Write what you know. Write what’s natural to you and second nature, so that you can be the insider who invites intrepid explorers into a world of intimately familiar detail. Otherwise, you’ll write like a museum guide and put your readers to sleep.

Book Review: The Magical Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

51H8x07Fd7L._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Marie Kondo, a Japanese career “tidier”, has released upon the world her personal expertise in keeping your home “tidy”, once and for all. The KonMari method is based on Kondo’s experiences both personal (apparently, she’s been tidying since she was first laid in her crib) and professional (as an organizing consultant, she has a waitlist of 3 months). From how to fold your t-shirts and roll your socks (for GOD’S sake, don’t ball them up like miserable little poppies!), to how to part with those keepsakes your ancestors are demanding that you keep forever, Kondo leaves no throw pillow unturned. She doesn’t just organize your stuff, she thins it out to include only those things which give you joy.

Despite the alien-feeling Asian philosophy and the narrow view of the world presented in this book, I absolutely love the result it has had in my own home. I’m a serial purger (thanks in large part to my darling dad, who’d show up with a trash bag and tell us we could keep three stuffed animals. Three). I figured I had this whole clean out, organize, tidy up business pretty much handled. But Kondo taught me a lot. I not only learned some nifty organizing principles that had simply never occurred to me before, I also learned the freedom and exhilaration of letting go of anything and everything that does not bring me joy. I enjoy the things I’ve chosen to keep more. I see them more because they aren’t hidden behind the clutter. I use them more because my home is organized so that I don’t forget what I own. I know where every single thing is in my house. Literally. Not least of our life changes, we’ve thrown out and donated upwards of thirty bags of stuff!

I strongly recommend this book to tenacious tidiers and hopeless hoarders alike. It’s a gem.

Book Review: The Five Times I Met Myself by James Rubart

Not too many mid-life crises come with adventures in lucid dreaming, tantamount to time travel. 52 year-old Brock enjoys and suffers the rare experience of playing out alternate timelines in his life, based on a series of pivotal choices. It seems an impossible turn of events, but then, Brock is not dealing with the disappointments and regrets of life on his own. As a man of faith, his first and last thoughts run to the promises of the Christian faith. That cornerstone anchors and guides him through an unbelievable journey of self-discovery and painful transformation.

Despite the compelling premise, this book was a struggle for me. To all appearances, I meet more than one of the intended markers for the book’s audience (educated, church-going, middle-aged, Christian), but I failed utterly to connect with the characters. Details that did not matter to me even the littlest bit (like the particular brand and style of one character’s putter) crowded out the details which would have actually kept me interested in the story (like the particular “lucid dreaming techniques” employed by the lead character).

It is entirely possible that the challenges I faced in finishing this novel were of my own making. It seems other readers sailed through these pages of mostly dialogue and introspection, rapt and fully satisfied. But for me, the dialogue was painfully stilted, which was rough since it made up so much of the book. Almost all exposition took place in conversations of the infamous style known as, “As you know, Bob“. And while every novel absolutely does not need to be a thriller, this one lacked any truly consequential conflict.

In short, not my favorite.

 

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”