Andrew Smith, Middle Grade

The Size of the Truth by Andrew Smith

I can probably count on my ten little fingers the number of authors whose complete published oeuvre I’ve read. On just one hand, or five little fingers, I can fit those whose books I pre-order as soon as I hear there’s a new one coming. Andrew Smith fits into both of these categories. He is, in other words, a two-handed experience in my reading life. I won’t go so far as to say I’m double-fisting, because innuendo. But you catch my drift.

It is both safe and fair to say that I’ve enjoyed every Andrew Smith book I’ve read, and that would be all of them. When a new one is coming, I know I’m probably going to like it. This is what we call an “informed opinion” based on prior experience. It’s a dangerous thing, though, because, well, what in the world would happen if I were to read a dozen books by a beloved writer, let myself get worked up over a new release, and then find it to be completely disappointing?

What would I do if Andrew Smith let me down?

The answer: I have no idea, because it still hasn’t happened.

The Size of the Truth is Andrew Smith’s first middle grade novel, and what an achievement it is. The book itself stands out to me as one of Smith’s best, even without taking into consideration that he has shifted from a young adult to a middle grade audience. That said, I’m beyond excited that a new demographic of young reader is about to be introduced to one of today’s finest contemporary writers, and that these readers will have such a catalog of options available to them as they get older and discover Smith’s other works!

For those familiar with Smith’s catalog, you might be excited to know that The Size of the Truth takes us back to the world of Winger and Stand Off. It is in effect a prequel to Stand Off, in that its protagonist is a younger Sam Abernathy, the precocious, dorky, adorable, troubled younger roommate to Ryan Dean West of Winger/Stand Off fame. What Smith does so well in the earlier novels, he continues and even builds on in this one.

Friendship and family, masculinity and identity, coming-of-age and coming into one’s own. These are, as always, the core themes in Smith’s new novel; but in this case, these themes revolve around a mysterious trauma, a mistaken memory, and the biggest question of all: what is true? In other words, how do we find the courage to acknowledge painful and difficult realities, ones that we might not even fully comprehend?

This kind of exploration, this kind of wonderment about life and dreams and passion, is the kind of thing Andrew Smith does in the most paradoxically unique but ubiquitous ways, in the most timeless but timely fashion. That he follows this path with Sam Abernathy, of all characters, is testament to just how deeply Smith think about the world and how seriously he takes the joys and pains of growing up, the sorrows and brilliancy of simply being in the world – an individual in the chaos.

Truth – like love, like fear- is one of the most elusive concepts I can think of. The idea that it can be described or narrated, illustrated or made universal, would have been, just a week ago, almost laughable. But as Smith introduces us to young Sam Abernathy, the boy in the well, and we witness how this boy deals with his trauma, how he builds troubling friendships with armadillos but avoids meaningful ones with the real life humans around him, we begin to understand the size of the truth and to experience what it feels like to discover the meaning of it for one’s self.

Middle grade? Young adult? Retiree? Much like little Sam Abernathy’s well, with its winding tunnels and ancient mysteries, The Size of the Truth is big enough for us all.

Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Coming-of-Age, Fantasy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horror, Middle Grade, Mythology, Potpour-reads, Rick Riordan, Stephen King, Thriller, Young Adult

A Garden, A Maze, A Sematary*

In this second “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in May. The Secret Garden was a title on my Classics Club Challenge list. The Burning Maze is third in the Trials of Apollo series by Rick Riordan, and I read Pet Sematary because a new film adaptation is supposedly in the works and I tend to get caught up in that sort of thing. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I recently read The Secret Garden as part of my Classics Club Challenge, after many years of seeing it come and go from my various TBR lifts and shelves. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years but have always put it off, probably because, subconsciously, I thought of it as a children’s book – a sorry excuse indeed because why should that matter? How many children’s books, especially classics, have I read and loved? Nevertheless, I have these tendencies, as I’m sure all readers do, to approach my reading with certain prejudices, and this being both a “child’s” book and a “girl’s” book, I wondered, isn’t it likely to be well beyond my interest at this point? Of course, then I actually started reading the book and couldn’t stop myself thinking, where has this book been all my life? Confession time? I guess I’m a bit of a reading diva, and it’s pretty stupid.

Anyhow, The Secret Garden begins in India under British colonial rule. We are introduced to the protagonist in this way: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.” Hilarious. Who begins a children’s book by dissing the main character’s appearance!? Something about that opening, and the honesty of the narrator throughout, drew me into the story and had me feeling equal hatred and empathy for little Mary and even little Colin, her cousin, both of whom are really rather terrible little brats at the beginning. But then a farm boy named Dickon starts to come around, and the secret garden is discovered, and the magic of humanity found in friendship, childish wonder, and the natural world begins to do its work. And it’s stunning and romantic in the best way imaginable.

For some reason, I thought this book was going to be more of a magical realism/mystery/fantasy kind of tale. It is actually firmly rooted in naturalism and realism; it is a coming-of-age tale that expresses magic in the everyday experience, and in the way children, even horribly disagreeable ones, can grow and change into wonderful people, given the right environment, the best challenges, and some great friends. I wasn’t expecting this kind of story, but it was exactly the kind I needed at the time of reading it. And Dickon, the nature sprite who is all things dirt and animal, plant and hill, is now one of my favorite characters of all-time. If Burnett had written a sequel from Dickon’s perspective, I could easily imagine it becoming a favorite of mine. The other characters, including the adults, are human enough and just present enough to matter without getting in the way of the children’s’ tale, which is and should be front and center. There are some very adult themes, a truly underlying sadness, and some dark commentary on colonialism, which makes reading this one as an adult all the more interesting and moving.

Now the real question: Should I watch the movie? Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0.

The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan

The Burning Maze is Book Three in the Trials of Apollo series. Apollo has been sent to earth in the form of a pudgy, pimply teenage boy, largely without any kind of godly power at all, and is tasked with helping the Roman and Greek demigods fight the horrors of the Triad: three evil, dangerous, and powerful former Roman Emperors with plans to take over the world. Beneath their plot, even, lies the power of Apollo’s most feared antagonist, Python, the god of snakes. As is typical with Riordan’s books, the pace is fast and the plot is fun. There is a lot to learn regarding roman mythology, especially, and that is always exciting for me. There is also a bit of tragedy in this third book, one that the reader is somewhat eased into but that is nevertheless difficult for those who have been invested in the two Roman series’ so far.

In this third installment, we learn much more about Meg, the twelve-year-old demigod who is essentially Apollo’s “master,” and her background. Some old and familiar characters from other books in this series, as well as the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series’, reappear. As with many of the other books, this one follows a certain formula that readers of Riordan’s books should come to expect; Burning Maze even revisits one of the original Percy Jackson battlegrounds, the Labyrinth, but in this case the visit is short and sweet, and the maze then becomes an underlying menace rather than a place of action for the entire plot.

Riordan has also taken more and more chances with his books over the years, something he began with (I think) the Heroes of Olympus series and then carried over into the Magnus Chase books (I have not kept up with the Kane Chronicles, unfortunately, so I can’t speak to that one). Riordan is an outspoken LGBTQ ally, for example, and a number of LGBTQ+ characters have been written into the stories, some major and some minor. This has been extraordinarily exciting to witness in the middle grade genre, and it has been particularly effective, I think, because Riordan does a nice job of delicately handling the reality of “coming out” with the kinds of reactions his queer characters receive from other characters, mostly accepting but sometimes with shock, wonder, curiosity, etc. The humor is still excellent, as are the character relationships. One of the most interesting and rewarding elements is the way that Apollo is growing from book-to-book. One of the themes of all the Riordan novels is how flippantly the gods take their relationships with humanity and their human children. The fascinating piece of this series is that we have a god who has been made human and who is now experiencing all that it is to be human, which is changing him in very profound ways. It is a smart and meaningful take on the modern myth series. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I was going to check my Goodreads account to see how many King novels I have read so far and where this one falls in that line, but I realized it would take more time than I’m willing to give it. We’ll just say, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King. The reason why I like King so much is actually not because I like horror/thrillers (it’s quite frankly not a genre I read very often). Instead, I like King because he has so much to say about the human psyche and human instinct. Pet Sematary is considered to be one of King’s most chilling horror novels and, while I don’t think it’s really his scariest or goriest or any of that, I can agree with the assessmentbecauseit treats the human condition in such an honest, and horrible, way.

The book is about Dr. Louis Creed and his young family, all of whom move to Ludlow, Maine so that Creed can take a job as a University physician. The majority of the novel is background, character building, and scene-setting. Almost all of the real action, the terror, takes place in the third and final section, which is much shorter than the first two. This helps create a false sense of security throughout most of the book while simultaneously allowing the ending to be much more dramatic and exhilarating, even unexpected (if anything from King can be considered unexpected – maybe that’s silly!) The horror begins when Creed’s daughter’s cat is killed and Creed’s neighbor, perhaps against his will, shares a secret that is better left unknown. This sets forth a series of ominous events that increase in impact and effect, until at last, a force beyond anyone’s control grips Ludlow, especially the Creeds, and begins to pull all the strings.

Pet Sematary was written between 1979-1982 and then published in 1983. King was reluctant to send it out to his publishers because he himself was so concerned with what he wrote, and it is not hard to understand why. Few popular novels that I can think of at this time so honestly and deeply addressed the lengths to which a person will go in order to ease an unthinkably painful emotional and psychological burden. Creed is suffering the worst pain imaginable, as is his wife, and his grief causes him to be compelled further and further down a path he knows is horribly dangerous and morally wrong. How can a man be driven to make all the wrong steps? In small increments and through tiny justifications and false ratiocination (as Poe would call them), until, without realizing what is happening, the decisions have been made and the actions have been taken, and all hell has broken loose.

Pet Sematary reminded me very much of King’s other most popular of horror novels, IT. The ominous force is even described as “IT” –an unnamed thing—and various points in the novel. I wonder if King was already working on that idea as early as 1979, even though IT itself did not appear until 1986. There are so many similarities, but the most prominent is the theme of evil as an uncontrollable force of human nature: good and smart and decent people being compelled to do terrible things. What is scarier than that? Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0. 

Adventure, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah by Allan Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah is a prehistoric adventure tale of young Zan, a tribal boy and twin brother, who earns his name “Zan-Gah” after fearlessly slaying a dangerous lioness and, in the eyes of the local clans, proves himself a hero and future leader. The book spans more than a year (or more, with flashbacks), in which time Zan goes on a journey to find his lost twin brother, who has been captured by a dangerous clan, more powerful than even the Wasp People, Zan’s clans bitterest and most deadly foes. Zan must survive on his own, fashioning new weapons and tools, and improvising for food and water sources. While the tale is interesting and Zan’s story fascinating to watch, much was packed into this little book, so that no time is spent truly developing the plot or characters, or allowing the story to breathe.

I actually quite enjoyed the different characters in this book. There is an appropriate depth to each, being a novel for young readers. Still, there is some complexity in the characters; descriptions of Dael’s psychological trauma, for instance, and Zan’s devotion to his family and burgeoning leadership skills, are well-done. The author is also careful to create a balance between the serious and the joyful. Chul and his wife, for instance, remind me almost of a prehistoric Lucy and Rickie of I Love Lucy. They balance out Zan’s rather sad parents. Also, the book includes representatives of the wise and the foolish, the brave and the spineless. The greatest achievement in this regard, though, is that each of the characters are simple enough to understand, but complex and independently imagined enough so as to avoid becoming caricatures or grotesques of an idea.

There is a bit of an imbalance, I think, in the reading level versus maturity level of the targeted audience. While the prose and structure are simple and easy to follow, there are varying degrees in vocabulary and thematic difficulty levels. Also, there are instances of rather adult elements and situations, such as the graphic slaying of a rival clan member. For this reason, I felt at times that the story itself would be more suited for the “Independent Reader,” in general, except that I would not encourage a child under the age of 12 to read it (due to some of the more difficult vocabulary and the graphic scenes). Still, for those young teenagers or middle schools who do read this book, it does have a decent balance of difficulty and maturity, with ease of reading, so that the young reader may be challenged without feeling “burnt out,” particularly if he/she is a developing reader.

There are certainly some larger issues at work, here – like the ideas of courage and bravery, and responsibility to duty and family. Physical and emotional pain, too, and their lingering effects on the injured and their loved ones are also presented fairly and with prominent importance. I enjoyed the inclusion of ideas like compromise, teamwork, and resourcefulness, all great elements for a young adult reader to encounter. Still, and unfortunately, due to the rushed pace (three days or a year might pass within one or two sentences), these elements did not have much time to develop or grow, or really implant themselves in the reader’s psyche, before the story moved on. The same could be said for the settings, which change quickly as Zan moves quickly across the landscape. It might be enough for a new reader, wetting the appetite without overwhelming, but adult and experienced readers, I think, would be underwhelmed, though appreciative of the attempt.  All-in-all, I believe young readers, particularly adventurous or historically/culturally-inquisitive young boys and girls, might have a great time with Zan’s adventure, but experienced or adult readers might find it difficult to connect with.

Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Halloween, Horror, Middle Grade, Ray Bradbury, Young Adult

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

“The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of . . . boys. And it was the afternoon of Halloween” (3). Thus, begins Ray Bradbury’s entertaining, eerie, and historically fascinating middle grade novel, The Halloween Tree (1972). At the center of the novel is a group of nine boys, eight of whom come galloping out of their respective houses, doors slamming joyously behind them as they run to greet each other for the start of what should be a raucously fun evening trick-or-treating. When they meet up, however, they soon realize that their dear friend, Pipkin, is missing. And Pipkin never misses Halloween.

Soon enough, the aptly named Tom Skelton, leader of this rag-tag little gang of festive Illinoisans, leads the group to Pip’s house, where they discover their friend disturbingly melancholy. Pipkin is usually the “boy’s boy,” the one who holds the whole group together and who ensures a good time is had by all, every time. But tonight, on Halloween, he seems to be fading fast. What could be wrong with him? And how can this gang of eight help their dear friend before it is too late?

The answer arrives, ominously, at the haunted house near the end of the neighborhood’s main street, where lives a mysterious man named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. This beastly specter invites the boys through a rollicking tour of world history, spanning eons of time and a number of cultures, from the ancient Egyptians to the classical French, to Mexican catacombs. Each time and place has one thing in common, though: it is Halloween night and Pip, or some version of him, is there, and he is in trouble.

Bradbury’s prose is swift and exotic, with a lyricism that will be familiar to anyone who has read his adult novels, such as Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dandelion Wine. Somehow, the spooky mystery of his stories is echoed by the fluid but ominous style he employs. The reader is both seduced by and weary of the poetic form applied. Is it a soft and simple beauty, or is it the call of a siren leading us to our doom? The boys’ own adventure is wrapped-up in a similar question. Surely, the young men have a marvelous time. They are whisked along by magic, beginning with a tree filled with pumpkin poltergeists and ending with the discovery of their friend buried alive in another country, at another time. How bizarre to be with these boys, exhilarated by their journey and yet tensely aware of the thread of danger weaving its way through the narrative.

In the end, the boys must decide, together, whether they will sacrifice a part of themselves in order to save their friend. What is a Pipkin worth, to boys like these? What is the price of friendship, and is it ever too great?

I stumbled across this one quite randomly at Barnes & Noble about a month ago. I had never heard of it, but it stuck out to me like a Jack O’ Lantern in the midnight darkness of All Hallow’s Eve – beckoning, take me home! And I did. As a fan of Bradbury, and a deep lover of Halloween (I was married on that day, after all!) I was not let down by The Halloween Tree. I think it is sure to become an annual October read. What a ride! Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes

“The Romans cut the Druids, their oaks, their God of the Dead, bang! down! And put in their own gods, eh? Now the Christians run and cut the Romans down! New altars, boys, new incense, new names . . .” (79).

“Every town has its resident witch. Every town hides some old Greek pagan priest, some Roman worshiper of tiny gods who ran up the roads, hid in culverts, sank in caves to escape Christians! In every tiny village, boy, in every scrubby farm the old religions hide out” (85).

“A religion gets big, yes? A religion gets big! How. With buildings large enough to cast shadows across an entire land. Build buildings you can see for a hundred miles. Build one so tall and famous it has a hunchback in it, ringing bells” (91).

“They went down the steps in single file and with each step down the dark got darker and with each step down the silence grew more silent and with each step down the night became deep as a well and very black indeed and with each step down the shadows waited and seemed to lean from walls and with each step down strange things seemed to smile at them from the long cave which waited below” (125).

Book Review, British Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, James Hanley, Middle Grade, Modernism, Philip Pullman, R.L. Stine, Young Adult

Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

Book Review, Brandon Mull, Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade

Review: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 22

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Fablehaven is book One in a 5-book series by the same name.  After a death in the family, Kendra and Seth’s parents agree to go on a long cruise, in order to satisfy the dying wishes of their relative.  The kids are going to stay with their reclusive grandparents for the same time.  Certain mystery has always shrouded the kids’ relationship with their grandparents – why do they never want visitors? Why do they only visit the family one at a time, but never together?  How come it is always so long between visits?  And where has Grandma really been for the past few months?  On their visit to Fablehaven, they soon find the answers to all these questions and more, much, much more.  Soon, Kendra and Seth are immersed in a world of dangerous fantasy – where magical creatures really do exist, but where the laws protecting mortals from certain doom are fiercely enforced and dizzyingly easy to break, mistakenly or on purpose.  When Midsummer’s Eve comes around, the mystical world comes alive and Seth and Kendra find themselves in a rapid quest to save Fablehaven, and their grandparents, from destruction.

3 – Characters well-developed.

There are two primary characters in Fablehaven, Kendra and Seth.  Ultimately, Kendra is allotted more page time than Seth and it is her quest near the end of the story which becomes the falling action and resolution of the story – so it is safe to say that she is the primary character, though it is hard at times to tell.  While Seth and Kendra have clearly distinct personalities and while the reader is clearly guided as to who is speaking or whose journey is being witnessed at the time, having two main characters is ultimately a bit distracting and detracts from the possibility of forming a strong bond between the reader and either of them.  Minor characters, though, such as the grandparents and the magical creatures (particularly the Witch, the Satyrs, the fairies, and the Golem) are interesting creations.  The kids, too, have recognizable characteristics: Seth is bold, rash, and eager to break the rules; Kendra is cautious, patient, and studious.  These characters could be the kind one might grow attached to, with a bit more development.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

For most of the book, the prose and construction are very well done.  The chapters are a bit longer than expected in a Middle Grade (MG) book, but they read fast, so younger readers probably won’t have an issue with the length.  The vocabulary is an added bonus – as it is relatively comparable to the level, but with some great and appropriate inclusions of more advanced words which help make the prose more interesting for older readers and which provide a learning opportunity for younger ones.  At times, description is somehow simultaneously over-and-underdone.  There are moments, particularly where the end, where much is being described at the same time (a plethora of magical creatures in a battle, for instance) and these descriptions are spouted-off in rapid fire, to create a sense of thrill/danger which echoes the battle, but the descriptions are ultimately many in number, but without much depth (the Bear-Octopus hybrid creature, for instance, just seemed like something thrown in because another creature had to be thrown in – not because it had an actual or believable place).  Overall, the language is enjoyable and the story is fast-paced, though a bit too thinly constructed and over-reaching near the end.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

The best part of fantasy books tends to be what they say about real life, when they are immersing their readers in a fantasy world.  This particular book is primarily about growing up, learning to be responsible, and coming to terms with the fact that actions truly do have consequences.  Seth, who is adventurous to the point of being thoughtless, makes grave mistakes which put the family in peril and force him to become reflective and cautious for the first time.  Kendra, the toe-the-line loner, is left on her own to save them all after great evil is released.  She must learn to be confident and to sometimes break the rules, when its necessary, or Fablehaven will fall.  Other interesting elements include sibling relationships, discussions of good and evil, empathy/consideration of others, and family.  Death/dying and loss is also a theme, however mourning was not approached so the primary theme is muted.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade
Interest: Fantasy, Child heroes, Adventure, MG Series, Siblings.

Notable Quotes:

“In their youth, mortals behave more like nymphs. Adulthood seems impossibly distant, let alone the enfeeblement of old age. But ponderously, inevitably, it overtakes you.” 

2012 Challenges, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Diana Wynne Jones, Fairy Tale, Family, Fantasy, Magic, Magical March, Middle Grade, Satire, Sibling Rivalry, Young Adult

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 13

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Diana Wynne Jones’s Howls Moving Castle came about when a young boy asked the author to write a story about a castle that moved.  Knowing that ahead of time added an interesting element to the experience, as it was fun to see how that one small, random request morphed in Jones’s imagination and eventually came out as this very entertaining and surprisingly meaningful book.  The story is about a young woman, Sophie Hatter, who is the eldest of three sisters.  The book immediately takes on a satirical tone, simultaneously mimicking and mocking the literary fantasy (and particularly fairy tale) traditions of yore.  Sophie and her family live in the Kingdom of Ingary, where conventional fairy tale tropes are in effect facts of life.  As the eldest sister, Sophie knows she must take care of her family first – probably living to become an old maid while her sisters get to go to the balls, court dashing princes, and study the magical arts.  Things begin to change, though, when Sophie is mistaken for her sister by the Witch of the Waste. She is cursed into appearing like a haggardly old woman and she soon leaves town to find a cure, bringing her to Howl’s moving castle.  There she meets Howl’s apprentice, Michael, and learns that she has certain magical talent of her own.  She eventually helps Howl in a final show-down between good and evil (or, perhaps, bad and worse?) against the Witch of the Waste, and learns that her curse might not have been all it –or she- appeared to be.

4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

Although a traditional young fantasy tale in many ways, Howl’s Moving Castle is very much about a young woman’s coming-of-age.  Just as Sophie is learning to appreciate herself – seeing herself as attractive for the first time and exchanging drab gray clothing for brighter hues, she is cursed and becomes a gnarled old woman.  Jones is exploring the nature of individuality and self-worth; only by becoming this older woman can Sophie begin to understand and appreciate who she is – a strong-willed, confident, powerful individual.  She begins to realize that she is not destined to be just “the eldest sibling” as tradition would have it.  Sophie discovers that she is in command of her own fate and that those around her, including her family and new friends, will love and respect her all the more as she embraces who she is and learns to respect herself.  The other characters in the story are equally deep, though they may appear flippant or standardized at first glance.  Wizard Howl, for instance, is an excellently drawn Byronic hero.  Seduction of young maidens is his modus operandi, so much so, in fact, that he is feared throughout the kingdom as the wizard who eats young girls’ hearts (taken literally by the people – which makes him a feared character, although in reality he is quite harmless and endearing, if not more than a bit vain).  The reader discovers through Howl’s assistant Michael, that Howl has never truly been in love with any of the women he has courted – and he knows this because Howl always looks so incredibly dashing when he goes out on the prowl.  Near to the end of the story, though, we realize poor Howl must have fallen head-over-heels for someone because, for the first time, he is totally disheveled. Ultimately, the characters are much deeper than they first appear to be; when the reader sits back and examines their purpose and their connections to other characters, the development of and sub-layers for each, but particularly the major characters, is quite striking.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

One minor point of contention for me was that the smartness of the story did not quite seem to gel with the middle grade reading level of the prose.  It is, after all, a middle grade book – so making it readable by the prospective age group is absolutely paramount.  While I understand the primary audience is young readers, I couldn’t help but be a tiny (tiny) bit put-off by the sparse style and simple language, when the story itself is so witty and multi-layered.  Still, this is the smallest of small complaints because, in reality, Jones does what she sets out to do; she has produced a well-written, well-constructed, well-paced story for young readers, with added elements that give the book richness which older readers will enjoy and appreciate too.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of this book, for book lovers, is that it is rife with literary allusions.  Jones references a plethora of authors and stories from the fantasy canon, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Arthurian Legend, and also from British literature, including Shakespeare and John Donne.  These little gems are delightful for those who recognize them, but also work well in the storyline in general, so young readers will appreciate their presence at face-value.  This type of sub-context, coupled with the major themes of love and destiny (Sophie is grappling with the fates, fighting to break the fairy tale mold placed on her as eldest sister, though on the surface she has seemed to resign herself to the traditional role) makes for a fascinatingly and surprisingly rich story for young (and older) readers.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Middle Grade

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family, Coming-of-Age, Sibling Rivalry, Love, Perception, Fairy Tale, Satire, Jealousy, Destiny.

Notable Quotes:

“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 the three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

“I assure you, my friends, I am cone sold stober.”

“I must apologize for trying to bite you so often. In the normal way, I wouldn’t dream of setting teeth in a fellow countryman.”

This book was recommended to me by Amanda.