coraa: (bookworm)
Ever since Diana Wynne Jones passed away, I've been doling out the new-to-me books a few at a time to make them last. This is one of my most recent "new" reads.

It's clear from the beginning that magical things are going on at Melstone House, because Andrew is first informed that his grandfather has died and left him the place by his deceased grandfather's ghost. But Andrew can't figure out exactly what's going on: why everyone keeps referring to his "field-of-care," what document he's supposed to be finding among his grandfather's voluminous papers, or why Aidan Cain has run away and sought him for help. But he'd better figure it out quickly, because something sinister is rapidly encroaching on the property...

This is what I think of as a very typical Diana Wynne Jones book: set in a world almost but not quite ours, with a large cast of highly eccentric characters, a scale that is small but with potentially far-reaching results, and a protagonist (or protagonists) who is always just one step behind the rapidly-unfolding (and rapidly-complicating) plot. That said, "typical Diana Wynne Jones" is in no way a criticism. This book contains many of the things that I like about her as an author, particularly the large, eccentric, mostly-likeable cast of characters and the way all the tangled plot threads tie up at the end in a big, messy climactic ending. DWJ does the "gloriously chaotic ending" better than pretty much anyone I can think of.

Some of the things that I liked about the book are hard to talk about outside the spoiler cut, like the way it plays with a certain set of tropes. Let me just say that it manages to deal with some common tropes in way that are a little uncommon without hanging a big "I am subverting this trope! Look at me subvert!" sign on it.

The book did some other things that I think of as classic Diana Wynne Jones, and again, in a good way. It is very funny, in some places funny enough to make me giggle out loud. The humor is character-based, which is my favorite kind. And that ties in with another thing I appreciated: serious emotional subjects are handled with a sensitivity and a deft touch that makes them feel honest without being sledgehammer-like. There is one scene where a character grieves, and it felt completely real to me, but it wasn't like wading through a quagmire of angst.

I wouldn't say this was one of my very favorite DWJ books. It's very light, and again, it's doing something she has done many times. But good DWJ is great by most other standards, and this is definitely good. I'd recommend it, especially as a book to read if you're having a bad day.

Spoilers have a magic stained glass window. )

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
coraa: (bookworm)
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

After Diana Wynne Jones passed away earlier this year, I started rereading some of my favorites of her books. (Not in any kind or orderly or organized fashion; for that, see [livejournal.com profile] swan_tower's DWJ project.) It's hard for me to actually decide what my favorite DWJ book is. Archer's Goon is a possibility, Charmed Life is a possibility; Witch Week is a possibility. But Howl's Moving Castle is a strong contender for favorite. It's also one of the earliest DWJ I read: after Archer's Goon but before Charmed Life.

The book is set in a mildly fairy-tale-esque world—fairy-tale-esque enough that its protagonist, Sophie, knows that (being the oldest of three children instead of the youngest) she is not meant for great things, and is only going to get into trouble if she sets off to seek her fortune. So she settles into the boring but sensible work of trimming hats at the hat shop her father owned before he died. But the Witch of the Waste arrives on Sophie's doorstep with a curse, and sets her off to seek her fortune (and cross paths with the wicked magician Howl) whether she planned it or not.

I think the thing I love most about this book, have always loved most about it, is how grounded and sensible it is. For instance, Howl has a pair of seven-league boots that Sophie and Michael (Howl's apprentice) use to visit one of Sophie's sisters. Seven leagues is twenty-ish miles... and of course it's hard to steer or navigate if you go ten miles at a step. And the way Sophie justifies sticking around Howl's castle is by acting as a housekeeper... complete with details of exactly how much work it is to clean up after a layabout wizard and his teenage apprentice if they haven't cleaned in years. (It made me want to go do some spring cleaning of my own, in fact.)

The characters are really what make this book. Well, and the setting (I love the odd combination of fairy-tale and realistic of the world, and of course the castle is marvelous). There's a plot involving the Witch of the Waste and a missing prince, but it's really an excuse for Sophie to be clever and sensible and no-nonsense, and for Howl to be brilliant and lazy, and for Calcifer the fire demon to be... thoroughly Calcifer, and so on. Even the more minor characters, like Sophie's sisters and the dog, are so beautifully-drawn even in just a few lines that I feel like I know them, and would happily have tea with them.

This is part of the genre I think of as "cozy fantasy," and it's one of my ultimate comfort reads. It's funny and warm, tremendously readable, and I highly recommend it.

(The Miyazaki movie tends to split the opinions of fans of the book. While it has the same story, in fairly broad strokes at least, it turns the sensibility of the book upside-down: where the book is pragmatic and grounded even in its more magical details, the movie is dreamlike even in its more mundane details. I think that's why it feels so different—at least to me—even though the characters and plot are largely similar. I like both, but they are very much not the same.)

I have not yet read the sequels, partly because I'm afraid that very few things could live up to this book. Those of you who have read Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways: what do you think of them?

And now for some spoilery commentary:

Spoilers express their feelings with green slime )
coraa: (house mouse)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien

When Mrs. Frisby's frailest child, Timothy, comes down with pneumonia, the doctor insists that he cannot be moved—cannot be taken outside—must remain safe and warm indoors. This presents a problem, though, because Mrs. Frisby is a fieldmouse, and the entire family must move house from the garden to the stream banks soon, lest their home be torn apart when the farmer plows the garden. Mrs. Frisby's quest for an answer leads her to a crow, an owl, and finally the mysterious rats who live beneath the rose bush... and who have an unexplained connection to Mrs. Frisby's late husband.

Oh, I adored this book when I was a kid. I read it for the first time when I was eight? nine? and then again every couple of years until I was in high school. This was my first re-read in a long while, though, and I was pleased by how well it stood up.

In a lot of ways, it's really a remarkable little book. If you leave aside the fact that Mrs. Frisby is clearly too intelligent to be a 'normal' fieldmouse, there's no magic in the book at all. Mrs. Frisby achieves everything she does through courage and fortitude, and the rats do their part through wits, intelligence and good planning (as well as a dose of bravery of their own). And, while the book does include unusual, even superhuman (superrodent?) characters, the heroine is a quite ordinary fieldmouse, a mother, sensible and kind and determined, and while there are other remarkable characters she remains central throughout. (Although I confess, I had a confused little cross-species crush on Justin. I still kind of do.)

Another thing about the book: there really aren't any villains. Even the humans who appear as antagonists are more like forces of nature than "bad guys," which makes perfect sense given their roles in the lives of the animals on the farm.

I think those two things are why I never really could love the movie The Secret of NIMH. On its own, it's not at all a bad animated film—and I'm not a stickler for accuracy in conversions of book to movie; I know that what makes a good book doesn't necessarily make a good movie. But The Secret of NIMH added both magic and a villain, and, to me, that took away a lot of what had made the book special.

Anyway. This is quite clearly a middle-grade book, but if you can see past that, I think it holds up quite well. I just reread it in one gulp, one sitting, one long bubble bath, and I'm glad I did. Highly recommended.

There is one way in which the book dates itself: the rats have gender roles, and the males seem to be in charge. I think the strength of Mrs. Frisby's character (in both sense of the word—she's as well-rounded, and as courageous, as anyone in the book) makes up for the implied gender inequity among the rats, but mileage may vary.
coraa: (bookworm)
Uglies / Pretties / Specials / Extras, by Scott Westerfeld

Tally can't wait until she turns sixteen: then she'll get the surgery to become Pretty, move to New Pretty Town and enjoy constant entertainment and parties, and—most importantly—be reunited with her best friend Peris, who, being a few months older than her, is already Pretty and enjoying his new life without her. But while she's waiting, alone, for her sixteenth birthday, Tally meets Shay. Shay is the same age as Tally, and is an exciting daredevil with a fascination with history of the old Rusty civilizations... and she's not as enthused as Tally about getting a shot at being Pretty. But when Shay runs away, Tally finds out that everything's more complicated than she had suspected.

The Uglies series is fairly distant-future science fiction, set in a world that sought to resolve the inequities of human life and the problems of ecological depredation (after "our" society collapsed and burned, literally) in two ways. First, most human needs (both material and emotional) are satisfied by the city; second, the city makes everyone look the same: everyone is Pretty. (You may be thinking, as I was, that that's overly simplistic, but the book does know that. It's just that Tally doesn't know that, not from the start.) But the price of being both beautiful and well-cared-for is relying wholly on the city, and its omnipresent monitoring, and its secretive leaders.

Tally doesn't care about that at the beginning: she's fifteen, almost sixteen, and she misses her friend, and she wants to join the 24-7 party going on in New Pretty Town. This probably makes her sound pretty shallow, but it's a) pretty believable to me, and b) part of her character trajectory in a way I find very satisfying. One of the things I liked about the book is the way Tally matured and grew throughout, not only in terms of learning about the society she lives in but also in that she discovered strengths and a moral core of her own. And she does it gradually, rather than by large Important Epiphanies. To put it another way: she grows up. And a big part of how and why she grows up lies in her tumultuous friendship with Shay.

While reading this, I wound up thinking a great deal of the "Female Friendship in Fantasy" panel at Sirens. Tally and Shay are best friends, and yet they wind up at odds with each other regularly (sometimes in romantic conflicts, but often not). While I might have preferred a bit less in the way of romantic conflict, I did like that that wasn't the only thing they wound up arguing over, and I liked that the relationship between Tally and Shay was the most important one in the books. That's not something you see all that often. And it did remind me of a few of my friendships over the years. (I also liked that neither Tally nor Shay was wholly right, when they argued. Often one was partly right and the other was, too, or one was perhaps more purely morally right while the other was more pragmatic, or both had totally sympathetic reasons for being at odds. And it wasn't all about "girl rivalries:" they really were friends, which made the times they were at odds all the more affecting.)

I also appreciated the way the plot snapped along, lively and compelling. I kept reading on because it was really hard to stop.

The series isn't perfect: the story stumbled a little before it caught its stride (I wasn't totally hooked until the second book, Pretties), and I wasn't always sure of motivations of certain characters, and—while I liked the romances, actually—I wasn't as enamored of the romantic rivalries (although they were thankfully not the focus of the story). But the books do a good job of keeping up tension and interest without becoming repetitive or overly grim, and I read the whole quartet in about two days. The plot just zips along. I like that.

The other thing I noticed was Westerfeld's hand with invented slang. I know that any discussion of invented slang tends to be very personal and hard to quantify beyond "it worked for me" or "it didn't work for me"—and I know that there are certainly people for whom the slang in the Uglies series didn't work—but it did work for me. (With the occasional exception, but overall, it worked.) I found the slang believable as slang, and I didn't have any trouble following it.

It's hard to speak of anything but the first half of the first book in anything but the vaguest terms without spoiling, partly because the end of each book contains a major hairpin turn. (I am, in retrospect, glad I am reading them now that the whole series is complete.) So I'll continue under the cut, with the understanding that there are potentially book-breaking spoilers for all four books there.

Spoilers have spinning flash tattoos )

Recommended, especially if you like science fiction that explores social issues and social programming.

A caveat: as is probably obvious even from the titles, this is a series that deals with what it means to be pretty (or Pretty), what it means to not be pretty, what it means to be unusual, and so on. Especially early in the series, Tally is bluntly critical of her own "ugly" (normal) appearance, and longs to undergo her society's coming-of-age surgery and become beautiful. In addition, the series deals with brain modification and brain damage in an unflinching way. This is, absolutely, not something the series accepts uncritically (quite the opposite, in fact), but if you're likely to find a lot of discussion of physical appearance and/or brain modification triggering, well, then you probably ought to know.
coraa: (bookworm)
Starting my book-every-couple-days resolution off right...

White Cat (Curse Workers, Book 1), by Holly Black

Cassel Sharpe grew up in a family of workers—people with the inborn (and, in the USA, illegal) ability to perform magic on others by touching their hands to their target's bare skin—but he himself is no worker. His mother is in jail for using her emotion working ability to scam a rich man; his grandfather is a retired death-worker, with half his fingers missing due to blowback from the killings he's done; his brothers work for one of the crime families that both use and protect curse workers. But Cassel's attempt to live a normal life is destroyed when a white cat invades his dreams, literally, leading him to sleepwalk up onto the roof of his boarding school. And worse. It doesn't help that Cassel himself, though not an illegal curse worker, nonetheless has a history that includes a really horrific crime.

It's a noir con artist story, based on a comparatively obscure fairy tale, with alt history and magic and great worldbuilding! What's not to like?

I really enjoyed this book, and a big part of that is because of the setting. There's a lot of urban fantasy that uses the trope 'our world, but magic,' but Black's take (entirely lacking in weres and faeries and vampires) is fresh and interesting—even 'magic is illegal,' not itself a new idea, goes in some directions I hadn't seen before. In this alternate US, not just alcohol but also magic-working was made illegal in the 1920s; unlike alcohol, the criminalization of working was never lifted. Accordingly, by the 'present' of the story, magic is almost entirely in the hands of organized crime families. Everyone wears gloves all the time (except with trusted intimates), because bare hands are as plausible a threat as an unsheathed knife.

The characters were as well-realized as the setting, even though most of them were pretty unlikeable. (I did like Cassel and his friends, and a couple of others, but mostly the cast is a bunch of nasty folk—which I actually appreciated: it undercut the all-too-common fantasy trope of your thieves and assassins who all conveniently have hearts of gold.) They were all solid and believable, and even when they occasionally did stupid things they had plausible motivations.

But mostly I thought the plot was very good, half caper (Cassel's family were all curse workers, but even more fundamentally, they were all con men and women) and half mystery, with a strong dose of magic. If I hadn't known from Holly Black's talk at Sirens, I wouldn't have realized this was a fairy tale retelling, because the feeling of it is more noir, or possibly heist film, or both. It's one of those books where the twists and turns made me think both, "Wow, I didn't see that coming!" and "Oh, but of course!" at the same time, which is quite a trick and also very satisfying to read.

In retrospect, this is a pretty dark book, but it didn't feel dark in the reading, if that makes sense. Nasty things happened, and things happened that made me cringe for Cassel, but in a way that was exciting and compelling, not that made me feel flattened by the Cement Truck of Grim.

This is one of those books that I am glad I wasn't spoiled for, so I'll put my further thoughts under a spoiler cut.

Spoilers pull a fast one on you )

Anyway, highly recommended. Especially if you like stories about con men, or noir, or just urban fantasy with an original and interesting setting. The second book's coming out next year, and I can't wait (but this story ends at a place where I didn't feel like I'd gotten cliffhangered, which I also like).

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