Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why do I like Howl's Moving Castle so much?

This is an important question, particularly during #MarchMagics #DWJMarch, when we celebrate all things Diana Wynne Jones (head to Kristen's blog on March 23 for the Howl's Moving Castle readalong).

I just reread the book and then rewatched the Miyazaki animated movie, and they both made me so happy I just had to sit down to analyze what is so wonderful about them. (Illustrations (other than the one from the movie below) are taken from the finalists in the Folio Society's competition to illustrate their edition of Howl's Moving Castle. Aren't they all gorgeous?! (Bigger versions at the link.) The winner is Marie-Alice Harel, and I am putting her illustrated edition on my Christmas wishlist now!)

Studio Ghibli

Katerina Cupova
The castle. What a fantastically brilliant, endlessly interesting idea. Like much of DWJ's magic, it's weird and complicated and there's no explanation of how it actually works. And yet, somehow it resonates as something that really should exist. Because doors—thresholds—are inherently magical, so being able to open a door into one place and then open it again into another—it just makes sense on some fundamental level. And the castle's movement is both metaphysical—inhabiting several places at the same time—and literal: the castle actually moves around, which is ridiculous and incongruous and hilarious and also ties back to folktales like Baba Yaga, so there's something deep in our psyche that believes in moving castles. Then DWJ isn't satisfied with all the levels of movement she's already got, so she moves the moving castle. (No, it makes sense, really!) That scene has got to be the most mind-blowing bit of magic any magician has ever accomplished! And the movie does it quite well.
Alejo and Vivian de los Rios

Lulu Chen
Sophie. One of my all-time-favourite characters, literary girl-crushes, people-whose-head-I-want-to-spend-time-in. I related (and still do relate) so much to her: I'm an oldest child; nothing exciting was ever going to happen to me; I was the responsible one who wanted her sisters to go out and find their dreams. But when Sophie starts talking to hats you can see DWJ's brilliance at creating characters: maybe she's quiet and responsible, but Sophie is also observant and imaginative and funny, and she has power she knows nothing about. (DWJ leaves it to us to figure this last part out. You can miss it the first time you read those pages.) When she is struck with the curse turning her into an old lady, her response is perfectly unexpected and perfectly in character and perfectly hilarious. She channels her inner old lady and marches off to stand up to wizards, sorceresses, kings and demons. (She's still pretty terrified of scarecrows, though.) I think the movie gets Sophie perfectly (even though they miss out on her power).

Marie-Alice Harel

Marina Evlanova
Howl. "He's fickle, careless, selfish, and hysterical ... but then I find out how awfully kind he's been to someone." "My impression," said the King, "was that Howl is an unprincipled, slippery rogue with a glib tongue and a clever mind." "You left out how vain he is." A very powerful wizard with some serious character flaws: Howl is so much fun! On this reread  I finally put my finger on what makes him so compellingly attractive: He respects Sophie. He whines at her, gets exasperated with her, complains about her, but he treats her as an equal, holds her agency inviolable and trusts her moral compass. He tries to protect her, but he listens to what she wants and seeks out her opinion. The movie portrays this very well, though I don't think Miyazaki made him grumpy enough!

Marie-Alice Harel
Kateřina Čupová
This post will get far too long if I talk about Calcifer, the fire demon, who was brilliantly voiced by Billy Crystal in the movie, or about Sophie's sisters and the brief but warm glimpses of sisterhood, or about all the layers of themes like illusion and deception and identity and what it means to have a heart. The movie makes some significant changes to the plot, but it gets the essence, and it's beautiful and colorful and a lot of fun.

I'm off to experiment with ginger lemon oatmeal cookies, which if they turn out to be as delicious and bright and different as I'm hoping will be the perfect food metaphor.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

#MarchMagics and #DWJMarch

A bit late off the mark, but I wanted to send everyone to We Be Reading, where Kristen is hosting her annual celebration of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

This month the read-alongs are Pratchett's Wee Free Men (discussion starting March 9) and Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle (discussion starting March 23). These are both ultimate comfort reads for me, so I will be happy to participate.

Also I'm going to rewatch Miyazaki's beautiful animated movie of Howl's Moving Castle.

But I think my goal this month will be to read one of the few of her books I haven't read yet (I've been saving them as little treats to myself.) Hmmm. Possibly Wild Robert.

Unfortunately, I'm behind on the reading I wanted to already have done, because I had the flu, and I was so sick I couldn't read! (That's the worst!) And of course there are all the other things I couldn't get done while I was sick. Well, even if I don't manage to reread Wee Free Men by this Saturday, I've practically memorized the thing, so I can still join the discussion!

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver astonished me. It astonished me more with every page I turned, and the ending floored me—if I hadn't been sitting down I would have collapsed. It was just so utterly perfect.

The whole book is plotted like an intricate puzzle jewel box, the kind you have to know the trick to open, with little pieces moving in seemingly random ways to make other little pieces able to move, and when it falls open in your hands you don't know how she did it. It is entirely original in its mythology, but drawn so expertly from all the folktales we know and don't know that every new revelation of magic feels inevitable and true.

Novik starts with a kernel from the story of Rumplestilskin, plants it deep into Russian tales like Vasilisa the Brave, and fertilizes it liberally with the history of Jews in Eastern Europe. The tree that grows from these roots has three heroines (shush! I know my metaphor is falling apart!)—three girls representing the narrow possibilities their society would allow them, girls made wise and cold by the necessity of their circumstances.

Miryam is the daughter of a moneylender who is too kind to be any good at it. Wanda is the daughter of a drunkard who beats her and wants to marry her off for whatever dowry he can get. Irina is the daughter of a duke, who doesn't beat her, but wants to marry her off for whatever dowry he can get, despite her disappointing lack of beauty.

I loved that this is a story about their choices. They are not given agency but they take it anyway, and their choice to stand up and exercise it transforms their world. I love the courage they each forge in different ways from their desperation, the various moments when they say "No!" because nothing could be worse than what they are saying no to. And the power they get from that realization.

I love that Miryam's power to transform silver into gold is economic: she's smart and knows how to value things and how to invest. It's a magic as potent as the magic of reading and figuring that she teaches Wanda. Knowledge is power; knowledge transforms. All kinds of transformations going on, in all the characters, in their perceptions, in the readers' perception of them and their perceptions of each other. The power of perception.

The themes in this book! I absolutely loved the way she started with a moneylender and blossomed off into an examination of promises and debt, honour and generosity, justice versus fairness. Value: who gives it? Where does a person get their value from? Power. Ooooh, all kinds of angles of looking at power: male power, female power, political power, magical power, the power of promises. Bonds, covenants, bargains. Fascinating! I've never found bookkeeping to be so emotionally resonant.

It was also a brilliant illumination of faith. Miryam is Jewish—I don't know if Naomi Novik is Jewish, but she certainly depicted that religion as if she understood it in her bones—and the concept of religion, of faith, the purpose of it, is lovingly represented by Judaism.
I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.
... high magic: magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it.
Somewhere I hope someone is writing a PhD thesis about this book, because there's just so much going on in it! But you don't need to analyze it: you just need to let Novik's writing carry you away into a magical, entirely real land, full of heart-stoppingly lovable characters.

Miryam, Wanda and Irene are each fierce and clever and brave on their own, but it is unutterably wonderful when they reach across what divides them and come together to help each other. In the words of a Goodread reviewer (whose name I can't tell you because it's written in Arabic, sorry!): "I love this book so much—the kind of love that is peculiar to inhabiting the perspective of young women with agency and the relationships they form when relying on each other." (Her whole review is wonderful and says everything I want to say, but it tells you a lot more of the plot than I'm willing to—I don't want you to have too many expectations going in!)

I'm a bit late reading this book, so you all probably know how wonderful it is already, but if you don't: stop everything, swipe off your TBR and read this book!

This has to be something with layers: lots of different layers of flavours and textures that highlight and complement each other, so when you taste it you taste each individual thing but also something greater than the sum of all the parts. I'm making myself hungry and I don't even know what food I'm thinking of! Is there a Russian version of lasagne? Or maybe Black Forest Cake, or some Russian variant thereof. Mmm, going to eat lunch now!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What caught my eye at the bookstore today

I went into the bookstore for board books for a baby shower gift (my go-to baby gifts, in case you were wondering: Sandra Boynton, Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Each Peach Pear Plum by the Ahlbergs). Of course I had to wander past the display tables in the YA and kids' section. 

Here are a few books I hadn't heard of that looked interesting enough for me to keep my eyes open for library versions:

Fox magic in space. Sign me up now!

Inhabitants of paintings come to life: sounds cool! Also the cover is shiny.

I'm a sucker for kids-kicked-out-of-the-academy-are-the-only-ones-who-can-save-it stories. Might be my early Han Solo crush or something.

 I didn't even read the synopsis. The cover is so pretty! (I think it's the second book of a series?)(Something to do with skyscrapers, I'm guessing!)

Magic, Versailles and the French Revolution. Yes, please.

And the one book I did buy, because it's Kenneth Oppel:

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tess of the Road wins Cybil award!

I'm so happy, and so proud of Rachel Hartman (she's not only Canadian—she lives right here in Vancouver!). Tess is such a deserving book. Here's my review of it, in case you need more convincing to try it out. Books like this are why I read and blog about YA literature.

I've been on an unintentional blog hiatus for the last several months. Life has been taking up too much brain space for me to feel like writing, particularly something as self-indulgent as a blog about books I like. But the announcement of the Cybils' winners seemed like a good reason to climb back onto the blogging wagon. There are worthy books out there, and if I can get even one more person to hear about a book they'll love, then maybe that's a tiny bit of good I'm doing the world.

I did want to highlight the other books on the YA Spec Fiction shortlist, because they were all fabulous—and so diverse—and it's too bad only one can win!

Dread Nation I reviewed here. It's gotten quite a lot of press, but it lives up to the hype, and I can't wait for the sequel. I'm really not a fan of zombies, but this was way too much fun to miss.

Mirage was gorgeous and entirely original, and held my attention through an audio book (which I normally can't sit through because they take so long!). It's got a space opera setting, but it feels like intimate fantasy, with a princess, her body-double, a hostage prince and a rebellion. Lovely, poetic but spare writing, believable characters, rich Moroccan-based mythology and imagery, a sweet, impossible romance but an even more compelling relationship between Amani and the princess she first hates, then pities, then comes to understand. Evocative and beautiful.

Summer of Salt: this one was quirky, magical and a little heart-wrenching, with heaps of weather-y island atmosphere and a fascinating cast of characters. Twin sisters from a long line of magical women, a famous, mysterious bird, a very odd murder investigation, lesbian romance and sisterly support. Funny and sweet with a core of wildness and the smell of salt in the breeze.

Not Even Bones is dark, gory, seriously twisted, and I can't believe I loved it as much as I did! A protagonist who dissects the dead bodies her mother brings home so the magical body parts can be sold on the black market—and who really enjoys her work—how could I possibly love this character? But Nita is so brilliantly crafted that I was on her side from the start. She's unapologetic, fierce, resourceful, thoughtful, ruthless and very self-aware. Then there's Kovit—you want complex villains? You want to know how to humanize a monster? You would want Heath Ledger to play this character, I'm just saying. I found this book utterly compelling and the twist at the end seriously messed me up: need sequel now!

Pitch Dark: to be honest, the plot didn't make a whole lot of sense, but I didn't care, it was so much fun! It takes the whole woken-unexpectedly-out-of-stasis-on-a-spaceship-to-find-monsters-chasing-everyone space horror trope and mashes it (quite literally: they crash into each other!) with space-archaeologists-with-political-agendas-racing-to-save-humanity-from-terrorists (because, you know, that's totally a trope). Two strong, likeable protagonists narrate a thrill ride of non-stop action with a side-order of social commentary. If you liked the Illuminae series, you'll love this.

This Mortal Coil has yet another insane premise: people can now rewrite their own DNA, and our survivalist heroine is a genius gene-hacker hiding from a "shadowy organization" that has kidnapped her father, the only man who can cure the plague decimating the world. There's post- (or rather mid-) apocalypse on-the-run-from-scary-people-while-trying-to-save-the-world (with-a-really-hot-soldier-you-probably-shouldn't-trust) shenanigans and enough plot twists to make you question your own version of reality, as Cat certainly has to question hers.

So many good books! Such diversity of characters, writers, settings, atmospheres and themes. This is why YA literature is so awesome! Yay Cybils for celebrating all these good writers: go check out all the categories and find out what you have to read next.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor has done it again. She has exploded my brain, and all the little brain bits turned into stars and flowers as they floated down around me. (That's the kind of thing Laini Taylor says all the time, but she says it more elegantly so it doesn't sound stupid!)

Muse of Nightmares is the conclusion to Strange the Dreamer, and you cannot possibly read it if you haven't read Strange the Dreamer, so go read Strange the Dreamer now (I told you to a year ago, so if you didn't listen to me then you should rectify that lapse immediately.)

I'm not going to spoil either book in this review. If you've read the first book, you don't even have to read this: I'm sure you had Muse of Nighmares on preorder! (That cliffhanger! It's up there with LOTR and Riddlemaster of Hed, right?) All you need me to tell you is that it doesn't disappoint. It's tense, heart wrenching, shocking and entirely satisfying.

Strange the Dreamer introduces a crazily fascinating world with all of Laini Taylor's brilliantly imaginative touches: a city that no one can remember; a floating castle shaped like an angel; blue-skinned gods with terrible powers; a librarian no-one notices who has a knack for languages and who defines the world in kinder ways than anyone else.

Muse of Nightmares takes that world and expands it fractally, going forward and backward in time to explain and warp our understanding of everyone and everything

Strange the Dreamer gave us a cast of loveable, hateable, pitiable, admirable, terrifying and deeply understandable characters. (Most of them are all those things at one time or another, or all at once, like real people.) Laini Taylor must be a telepath, or a super-psychologist or something, because she is so good at understanding what goes on inside people's heads. I think Lois McMaster Bujold is the only other writer I know who is as good at forging character motivations out of their history. Everything each character does is completely inevitable based on who they are and what they've been through, even when they completely surprise you (as her characters often do).

Muse of Nightmares takes all those characters and gives them arcs you never would have dreamed of, mostly based on throwing them into even worse situations than you have imagined. And she adds a few more characters, because we need to understand how the gods got there and why they did what they did. Strange the Dreamer was about Lazlo and Sarai discovering themselves, and each other. Muse of Nightmares follows them but also dips into several other points of view as it answers why, and how, and WTF, and questions whether redemption is possible. When unthinkable things have been done to save people from even more unthinkable things, can there be forgiveness?

Minya is one of the best characters I've ever read. So broken. So strong. Can she be defeated? Can she be saved?

My other favourite character arc is Thyon Nero's. One of the many things Laini Taylor is great at is making all of her characters have agency, even the minor ones. She creates these ridiculously insoluble crises for her protagonists that you can't see how they can possibly get out of it, but you forgot about that other character who's been busy doing something you thought was irrelevant but turns out to be crucial and changes everything. Awesome plotting.

Since I can't say anything more specific about the plot, I'll just give you some favourite quotations:
... it spidered a crack through the atmosphere of threat.
... an affinity, a rush—like the turn of a page and a story beginning.
And when her hearts resumed beating, she imagined she could feel a spill of light into the veins that carried her spirit.
Lazlo's chances came without warning, and when they did, he didn't dither, and he didn't stop to pack.
[A character], earthbound, felt every choice he'd made, every action he'd taken, as a weight he carried with him. He wondered: Was it weight he could shed or throw off, or was it forever a part of him, as much as his bones and his hearts? 
Also, Laini Taylor is the absolute best chapter namer of anyone, ever:

  • From a Long Line of Indignant Nostrils
  • Like Eating Cake in Dreams
  • The Sea Stared Back
  • "Dead" Was the Wrong Answer
  • Like a Man Tearing Out His Own Beating Heart
  • Dread Was a Pale-Haired Goddess
  • Peace and Pastries
  • It Would Be Stranger If There Weren't Dragons 
And two quotations that probably define Laini Taylor best:
Even under dire circumstances, there is a unique pleasure in introducing the bizarre and inconceivable to others.
New dreams sprout up when old ones come true, like seedlings in a forest: a new generation of wishes.
Keep sprouting dreams for us, Laini. We need you in our brains!

Every once in a while I taste a cheese that makes my eyes roll back in my head it's so sharp but with so much depth and richness to the flavour; it does different things to every part of the tongue and keeps revealing new sensations as the after taste lingers. I tasted a cheese like that in Spain. Then they gave me a second piece with some quince jam spread on top, and my tongue and my brain exploded in much the same way as when I read this book. I just didn't know it was possible to taste/feel that much all at once. I'm still processing. (The book and the cheese!)

Monday, October 1, 2018

Cybils nominations are open!

It's official: the 2018 Cybils Awards have begun! You can now nominate your favourite kids/YA books of 2018. Yes, you, whoever you are! Here is the announcement page with all the categories you can nominate in. And here is the link to the nomination form.

Please nominate awesome books that deserve to get awards! And then go ahead and use the nominee lists to make your TBR pile even longer!

My job is to read as many of the YA Spec Fic nominees as I can and collaborate with my fellow Round 1 Judges to come up with a short list, from which the Round 2 judges will pick a winner next February. I will be posting quickie reviews of as many of the books I read as I can, so follow along, and feel free to weigh in on which books you loved. The more conversation that goes on, the better! That's what the awards are all about.