“The Testing” by Joelle Charbonneau

It’s easy to critique today’s education system, from the woefully underpaid teachers to the financial inaccessibility of higher learning. Not to mention the competitiveness behind scholarships, grants, and just getting into college (let’s not even start on the subject of loans…). But Joelle Charbonneau takes this idea of competition to the next level, painting a gruesome future in which your grades can make all the difference between a life of glory and a gory death. It’s a frightening thought that, to an extent, is all too real today: what if everything depended on how well you scored on your next test?

The Testing is one of many YA dystopian stories to come out in the last decade, and in some ways, it sticks to the formulaic plot-line of its predecessors: there is a “strong” (more on that in a second) female protagonist, Malencia “Cia” Vale, who is tasked with fighting a corrupt system that threatens the safety of her family and friends. She has a love interest with ambiguous moral coding… but he’s a fairly bland character whose main contribution to the story involves praising and supporting Cia. And of course, like with most YA dystopians, the backdrop to The Testing consists of poverty, starvation, and murder.

The aforementioned protagonist, Cia, is a smart, 16-year-old girl who has just graduated from school. Like many recent graduates, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Well, that’s not entirely true – she would love to attend University and become one of the leaders of society, like her father. But each year, only a select few students are invited to attend The Testing, where they compete for one of these prestigious higher education slots. No one from her colony has been chosen in ten years, so it comes as quite a surprise when Cia and three other students are whisked off to attend. None of them know what to expect, but her father warns her to prepare for the worst.

Quickly, Cia realizes the true depths of what it means to be a Testing candidate – if you get something wrong, the government is unforgiving. They have no room nor patience for anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of leadership, and those who fall short are dealt with through unconscionable means. Fortunately, Cia aces test after test, from written exams to more hands-on challenges. But many around her are not so fortunate, and Cia is forced to watch friend after friend mysteriously disappear, or die right before her eyes.

Cia’s reaction to the brutality around her is very muted, and her father’s one warning does not account for how well she contains her emotions, nor does it explain how easily she understands the design of The Testing and what is expected of her performance. Several times, she seems to survive simply due to a lucky guess, one that is erroneously attributed to her intelligence. And when her success is directly linked to her figuring out some psychological puzzle, Cia seems far too intelligent in comparison. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief concerning a government that murders hundreds of students each year, you might as well do the same for Cia and her off-the-charts-knowledge-of-everything. If you can do that, you’ll find that Cia is very likable. In fact, many of the characters have a charm to them that makes you root for their success.

Despite my criticism, The Testing is a pretty enjoyable read. I read the book in one sitting, then finished the sequel that same day – there’s enough suspense and fun characters to keep your interest, even if the story follows several tropes of other YA dystopians. The thing is, these tropes aren’t bad, just overdone. If you’ve liked them before, you’ll probably like them here.

I give The Testing 3 stars out of 5. I’m doubting it’s a score that would go over well in Cia’s society, but for me, it’s a passing grade – certainly not an A, but definitely worth a look.

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“Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie Hatter is a sensible girl, reasonably kind and not necessarily unattractive. The problem is that she had the poor fortune to be born the eldest of three daughters. All that awaits her beyond the doors of her family shop is failure and an awful lot of noise. She’s content to grow old this way, trimming hats by candlelight—until the Witch of the Waste decides to speed the process.

To break the curse, Sophie seeks the aid of Wizard Howl, a powerful man rumored to devour the hearts of lovely young girls. He turns out to be a powerful man indeed, if not necessarily the cold, monstrous creature of rumor.

All right—by now, a lot of people are probably quite familiar with the title—it was made into a beautiful film by Hayao Miyazaki and the talented staff over at Studio Ghibli. It also happens to be one of my absolute favorite pieces of animation, but enough of that.

I first found out about the novel because of the brief ‘based on’ byline citing the original work, and for years I wondered about it. Was the book any good? Did it explain the—admittedly numerous—things that the movie threw at viewers with absolutely no explanation?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Howl's Moving Castle by D TAILOR

Spoiler : It’s smaller on the inside.  (Photo credit: DrJohnBullas)

If you’re a fan of the Studio Ghibli adaptation, you need to read this book. The characters are just as (if not even more) lovable and far more well-rounded, the action is more detailed and fulfilling—in fact, the plot line of the book veers off very pointedly from the plot of the movie, resolving into a far richer experience and a deeper understanding of the universe’s development as a whole.

If you’re not a fan of the Studio Ghibli adaptation, guess what? You still need to read the book. I went in expecting a slightly more detailed account of what was going on with all of the falling stars and paper doll people that popped in and out of nowhere for absolutely no reason, and I was not disappointed. The book took my expectations for a brief foray into a flower shop and gave me a cotton candy fairy world of explanations and a whole mess of new plot and wonderfulness that even now makes me want to pop but I can’t because I have to write this review IT IS THAT AMAZING.

            To begin, Sophie is a brilliant heroine. Though initially resigned to her lot in life, she is not in any way a weak character. Once challenged by the witch, she exhibits her first spark of self-confidence, which propels her through the rest of the novel. Transformed into an old woman and no longer sensitive about, well, anything but her aching bones, she becomes a force of nature.

During her stay at the castle, her relationship with each resident allows her to build that confidence and use her innate charisma and kindness to bolster their interactions. She is clever and takes absolutely no nonsense, quickly forcing her way into a ragtag family that is instantly better for her inclusion. Sophie’s relationship with Howl, also, expands and gains new life. There is inter-dimensional travel, jealousy, and housecleaning most foul in a sort of domestic circus that leaves you with a smile on your face and laughter ringing in your ears.

I was enamored with the development between them in the book–of watching Sophie observe and understand Howl and, as a result, him beginning to understand himself. I won’t spoil it for you–but the final result of all of their back and forth in the book culminates in a much more understandable relationship for all parties involved. And no schizophrenic hair morphing just for giggles.

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If teenage girls could dye their hair as much as the characters in this adaptation…

The castle’s residents, too, receive far more development in the book, rather than their prescribed ‘sidekick’ roles from the film.

I fell in love with the characters, thanks to this book.

The Witch of the Waste receives far more depth and intrigue, taking a much deeper and darker turn than the one displayed in the film—as well as a decidedly better motivation. It was as if everything suddenly became much better rounded!

On that note, I wanted to point out that the supporting characters—Lettie, Fanny, Sophie’s stepmother whose name escapes me but whom I would readily look up if I knew where exactly my copy was—they are all such wonderful, well-used characters. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but it becomes very obvious to the reader that Hatter women—no matter their age or order of birth—are simply not a lot to be messed with.

This book, beyond being an amazing and engaging fairytale perfect for any age, comes equipped with the best rolemodels ever, more sass and magic than you can shake a walking stick at, and a fire demon! What’s not to love?!

You may well disagree, but for me, curling up on the bed with my copy was an experience that reminded me of when I first became really involved with reading. I loved every word, every new twist and turn, and every twitch of Sophie’s bony fingers.

This is one book that needs to be read by every person who has ever carried a fairytale in their heart, by each and every one who’s ever wondered what it means to learn, with a little bit of magic, what it means to be unapologetically true to oneself.

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And yes, this still happens.

Final Rating : 5, a very nicely trimmed 5.

If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where,
Lives a woman true, and fair.

–          John Donne