Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.

High Note (2016), by Jeff Ross

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.1.

High Note (2016)

ross-high-noteHigh Note is part of Orca Publisher’s Limelight series, each novel of which presents a teen character experiencing life in the performing arts. In High Note, Hailey and her best friend Crissy are both contenders for an important role in the production of The Marriage of Figaro being staged at the Paterson Centre for the Performing Arts, which they both attend. This sets the stage for conflict and jealousy, competition that could be handled by the two girls in a number of ways. Hailey is essentially part of the opera group because Crissy asked her to join; she has other interests, although her singing abilities and love of music make opera her dream. For Crissy, on the other hand, opera is everything; she is driven to succeed, pushed by her mother, and has focused on little else in her schooling. As these truths unfold, we can see the direction the plot will take, yet still wonder how the girls will react. The tensions are palpable; the outcome remains uncertain until the end. Caught up in the backstage drama—Crissy championed by the famous Isabel Rosetti and Hailey by the rising star Denise Cambridge—the girls are shown first-hand the drama that rages behind the curtains. In solid narrative tradition, the choices that they make reveal their true characters, and readers are satisfied with the realistic ending Jeff Ross provides us.

High Note is told in Hailey’s voice, an excellent choice for explaining to the reader the intricacies of the operatic world. Hailey tells the reader the basic plot of The Marriage of Figaro much as if the reader were a classmate who had asked. This technique does not always work, but Hailey’s character is well-constructed, her narrative voice consistent, so that we really do feel that she is talking to us, not the author. We feel more keenly, then, the betrayal Hailey struggles to come to terms with, and her mature realization that one cannot be responsible for others’ choices and behaviours. In a world of stiff competition, Hailey learns, it is difficult but necessary to retain one’s integrity and sense of self above all else.

Homecoming (2014), by Diane Dakers

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Dakers -  HomecomingThe title Homecoming brings up images of The Waltons, and nostalgic Christmases surrounded by love and family. This is not 15-year-old Fiona Gardener’s experience of life. Far from it. The homecoming in her story is something she dreads: her father has just been released from prison, having been incarcerated for the rape of one of Fiona’s classmates, Morgan. Fiona is fairly certain he is innocent, but struggles to deal with her uncertainty, especially when validated by the behaviours of those around her. Deemed a social pariah when her father was first charged, then again during his trial, Fiona dreads his return and the accompanying notoriety it brings.

Diane Dakers deals sensitively with the complicated emotional space that Fiona finds herself in, but also the awkwardness of those around her: her mother, her aunts and uncles, her father’s friends… people who tell her that “your father didn’t do what he was accused of doing” (20), but nonetheless walk on eggshells in his presence. Her friend Lauren is forbidden to come over; the bullies at school warn her that her father “will be looking for another playmate” (27); and the school social worker is explicit in telling Fiona what to do if she “ever feel[s] scared or threatened” by her father (35). It’s therefore not surprising that Fiona accepts the dubious friendship of Charley, a grade-twelve girl from the “hard-core crowd” (50). This friendship, again unsurprisingly, leads Fiona somewhat astray, but Dakers does not let her slip out of character: she knows what she is doing is wrong, that her parents will not approve, and yet she goes: rebellious, but also guilty and conflicted. When she is asked to trick a host’s step-father into giving them some alcohol, and resists the request, her “friends” tell her it is easy: if he is being difficult, just “pull a Morgan” (101). The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; her suspicions are confirmed. Her doubts dissolve and her new-found certainty gives her the strength to stand up and speak out. The fall-out is as expected: Fiona is “seriously grounded” (104), but content at having released her father from the social stigma that hounded him.

Hexed (2014), by Michelle Krys

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Krys - HexedYou’ve got to love a book that disses Twilight not once, but twice. That being said, there are myriad other reasons for reading Michelle Krys’s Hexed, not the least of which is Krys’s engaging characterization and willingness to subvert narrative expectations.

Indigo Blackwood is having a rotten day. Her best friend, Bianca, is being a hag (in the colloquial rather than supernatural sense); her undesirable neighbour, Paige, successfully corners her for a ride (which seriously infringes on Indigo’s cool factor); and a body lands in front of her car as she drives home. What is most disturbing, though, is that the dead man was holding a paper inscribed with Indigo’s mother’s Wicca shop address.

Enter Bishop: previously dead, seemingly stalking Indie, overflowing with sarcasm, yet apparently necessary in Indie’s quest for answers. Indie’s mother is almost paranoid about protecting her “Bible,” properly titled The Witch Hunter’s Bible. When she is accosted, and the Bible goes missing, Indie swears she will get it back and sets out to find Bishop, whom she knows is somehow connected. Instead, he finds her, and insinuates himself into her life, revealing to her the world of magic to which he—and Indie, it turns out—belongs. Magical stuff happens. I can say no more than this without spoilers; suffice it to say that lurking within the events that ensue are moments in which the reader’s expectations are—sometimes violently—disrupted. Krys manages nonetheless to retain her readers’ loyalty; her writing inspires readers’ trust in a way that is necessary to carry us through the rough patches. The one narrative expectation that is not subverted is our desire for an at-least-somewhat-happy ending.

The dénouement, though, is the one moment that disturbed me. I felt betrayed. Hexed contains an epilogue, three pages in length, which reveals the central conflict of the as-yet-untitled sequel. Why was this necessary? It is almost as if the publisher needed a hook to lure readers into purchasing the next installment… But Hexed in and of itself contains a successful, cohesive narrative arc. There is a hint of where the story might go, and that is enough. Krys’s characters, her plot, her narrative voice all engage the reader successfully: we want to stay in her world. The attempt to trick readers into further engagement seems crass and manipulative, when the story inspires reader loyalty on its own merits.