“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

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“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” and “The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag” by Alan Bradley

If Flavia de Luce offers you tea, don’t accept it. At the very least, she’s trying to trick you into an untimely admission—but, really, it’s probably poisoned. Don’t worry, though: she’s just trying to solve a murder.

Though she lives in the idyllic 1950s village of St. Tancreds, England—author Bradley’s a Canadian retiree, so expect nostalgia rather than racial tensions or post-War rationing—there isn’t anything very conventional about Flavia. Well, she is an annoying kid, kind of a know-it-all, and that’s a type we’re all familiar with, but once you get past her spotty-faced brashness, and even leave aside her prankish sense of fun, she has a remarkable mind.

Sherlock Holmes can identify brands of tobacco from their ashes, but, after a trip to the laboratory she inherited from her uncle, Flavia can give you the exact chemical composition of anything. Did I mention she’d then find a way to make it poisonous?

Remarkably, Flavia isn’t at the center of either of these revenge plots—either as poisoner or poisonee. As antiheroic as Flavia is, the mysterious red-haired man who turns up dead at the end of her garden and the cruelly violent puppeteer who’s electrocuted during a church hall show are vastly more despicable, with plenty of enemies willing to put them in the ground.

 Flavia’s debut in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is as delicious as the name suggests. Flavia’s chemical quirks combine with a cast of equally interesting characters—her mother, the dead mountaineer; shell-shocked veteran and friendly gardener, Dogger;  or Mrs. Mullet, the cook whose nose spends more time in other people’s business than her food does in their stomachs—and layer the book with a light-hearted complexity that delivers plenty of twists and turns before the thrilling resolution. I’d rate it four and a sip out of five cups of tea—that’s Harrisons & Crosfield’s Tempting Mango Tea, delicate and fruity for a sweetly elegant book.

The young sleuth’s sophomore outing is an altogether earthier affair. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Noose keeps on many characters from The Sweetness, but Bradley’s less adept at weaving them here, and heavy-handed story-lines clunk against each other. Dogger and Flavia continue to deliver some of the series’ most heartfelt interactions, but many of the other relationships fall flat. Still, Bradley concocts with a charming whimsy, and tea fans might find it worth reading for the story of a samovar called Peter the Great. Personally, I’d give it three out of five cups of tea for faithful Dogger: he’s a simple man, so we’ll make the tea Yorkshire Gold, and we’ll drink it as a real builder’s brew.

I’ll go put the kettle on.

Till next time,

Eleanor

An Introduction

Welcome to Literatease, a review blog of (moderately) epic proportions. We say moderately because we’re not really going anywhere, unless you count the library, the tea shop, your occasional record store, and, okay, maybe we are a little more epic than we thought.

We’re happy to bring our reading and raving to a screen near you, and will hopefully be adhering to a steady Monday, Wednesday, Friday post rotation. I tend to have distracted giggling fits and put things on my head when people try to introduce me to the concept of structure, and Marisa gets distracted when I put things on my head, so Eleanor’s planning finesse is our collective best bet.

We thought it would be appropriate to start off with the ever so lighthearted theme of revenge.

Marisa will be reviewing Red by Dallas Mayr (Jack Ketchum).

Eleanor will be reviewing Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley.

Hillary will be reviewing A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield.

Regards,

H

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