Monday 26 March 2012

Howl's Moving Castle

It's one year today since the wonderfully talented writer Diana Wynne Jones passed away.

She wrote so many wonderful works, including Archer's Goon which was adapted into a kids' TV series that I used to watch when I got home from school. It starred Roger Lloyd-Pack (Trigger) from Only Fools and Horses.

However, the one that she is perhaps most famous for is Howl's Moving Castle, which was adapted to anime by Studio Ghibli.

Like many, I knew the film before I found the books. I fell head over heels in love with Howl, Sophie and Calcifer.

The books run as a trilogy:

Book One: Howl's Moving Castle

The first book introduces the key characters of Wizard Howl, Sophie and Calcifer.

It tells the story of how the eldest hat-maker's daughter, Sophie, is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. Whilst on her way to find her sister, who is studying magic and may be able to lift the curse, she accidentally ends up in Howl's Moving Castle.

The Wizard Howl is feared throughout Ingary for eating young girls' hearts, but Sophie thinks she has nothing to fear because she has been turned old.

Howl himself is a magnificently complex character: dazzling, dashing, charming and a complete coward prone to depressive tantrums. His antics at trying to charm every woman he meets, even Sophie's own sister, start to raise a modicum of jealousy.

Meanwhile, Sophie has promised Calcifer, the fire demon that keeps the moving castle moving, that she will find a way to break the bond of slavery on him if he will help to rid her of her own curse.

Book Two: Castle in the Air

Book two in the Moving Castle trilogy begins very differently, and in a land far, far away called Zanzib, where Abdullah, a carpet trader harassed by his father's family, is trying to eke out a living opposite his good friend's fried squid stall.

But nobody leads a simple life in these books, and Abdullah soon finds himself the owner of a magic flying carpet and a genie. He has also fallen for Flower-in-the-night, daughter of the Sultan, to whom he is magically transported each night when he sleeps on the flying carpet.

However, a dastardly demon has stolen Howl's moving (and now flying) castle and is using it as a holding place whilst he abducts every princess on earth - including Flower-in-the-night.

This book also introduces Howl and Sophie's son: Morgan.

Book Three: House of Many Ways

For the final book in the series, we move to High Norland, where the King and his elderly daughter have lived in poverty for years because someone is stealing all the gold from the treasury.

Sophie is called in to investigate, bringing with her Morgan (now a toddler) and Howl in the disguise of Twinkle, a second - and very mischievous - child.

The story also involves Charmain, granddaughter of Royal Wizard William, whose house she looks after whilst he is taken away by elves to be cured of a mystery illness. She begrudgingly shares this responsibility with Peter, his new apprentice.

What's more, the strange goings on at the palace have something to do with Lubbocks and Kobolds. The first are giant insects which lay their eggs in people, and the second are small, blue creatures that do housework.

Image courtesy of AnimeGalleries.Net

In the DVD extras of Stephen King's 1986 classic Stand by Me - also an adaptation - he explained (paraphrasing badly) that: 'Books and films are like apples and oranges. Both good, but for different reasons.'

One of the outstanding differences with Howl is that, in the film, he rescues Sophie from a group of letchy blokes outside a pub. In the books, he is the letchy bloke outside the pub.

For that, I loved these books from the first moment I turned the page. The film also neglects to mention Howl's Welsh heritage. Yes, Howl is a good name for a Wizard in the Waste, but actually his real real name is Howell Jenkins, and the black door in his castle leads not to the abyss, but to Wales... though you could, I won't.

The wonderful thing about Diana Wynne Jones is that her characters are flawed, and therefore real. Like all the best fairy tales, Prince Charming isn't always that. As for the Princess, well, she can kick some arse if she needs to. It's good soul food for young and old alike.

I shall leave you with one of my favourite pieces of music. It's from the Ghibli adaptation, titled The Merry-go-round of Life, played by Joe Hisaishi.

Sunday 25 March 2012

PG = Pickled Gherkins

Oh, what a redundant bloody idea.

Came across a rather odd review site called The Books Debut today. Your first warning should be its awkward use of grammar. If you're going to set up a literary site, you just don't struggle with the singular/plural possessive like that. Even if it's not a possessive, why on earth pick such a troublesome title?

That forgiven, it looks like a fairly nice site. A good idea. Somewhere for authors to get those much-needed first reviews. Fairly easy submission process to follow, too. Until you read the form.

The conversation went something like this:


ME: What on earth is a 'book rating'?

THEM: rating means is it r, pg erotica, g etc like a movie rating

[Your second warning should be that no website administrator in the literary world should manage to miss the shift key that many times in a row...]

ME: Do books have a rating? Is this common in the US, perhaps? I don't know what to rate a work of historical fiction.

THEM: No, it is not exactly common for books to be rated that way except for erotica and sometimes for foul language. Make sure you always download the sample if possible and check it out thoroughly before you purchase (even my books).


At this point I just gave up. If it's not common, why use it on your submission form?

PG, 15, 18... on a book?


You're serious about that? 

What exactly is a PG book rating anyway? Does it mean your parents have to stand behind you, reading over your shoulder? 

"Yes dear, it's pronounced dee-cap-ee-tate..." 

I've noticed this on Smashwords, too. When you publish a book online with them, they ask whether it has any 'adult content'. 

I think it's fairly safe to assume that any book without Spot the Dog on the cover is likely to have some adult content. But then, what is 'adult content'? Kissing? Getting angry? Hitting someone? Shooting a gun? Smoking a cigarette? Drinking a pint? Getting drunk? Having consensual sex after the debutant ball? With people watching? Somebody dying? Committing suicide? Somebody choking to death on a fish bone? Somebody being stabbed, but not dying?

And at what age can you read about each of those things?

Books are not films!

That's the point.

Somebody recently asked me what age range my books were suitable for. I found myself explaining that:

Unlike films, books have an age rating of 'ability to read' and 'ability to imagine'. It varies wildly.

Books are about exploring emotions, thoughts and feelings. They're the safest medium through which to do so, because they are governed by our own ability to imagine. A film can make you see things you can't imagine, crashing through your psyche's protective shields like a visual sledgehammer. Books don't do that. We construct their images in accordance with our own understanding. 

To curtail that, and to tell a young person that they cannot read something like Oedipus because it includes incest, is a type of extreme ignorance usually only suggested by people who themselves do not read, and who have little love - or understanding - of literature.

The chances of a child who is not old enough to handle The Shining either attempting to read it, or showing any interest in doing so, is negligible. A young person is old enough to read a book when they have the technical capability (the skill) and the interest (the will). You cannot force a work of horror, or even the greatest piece of classical literature, on a mind that cannot read it and doesn't want to.

Should a person be both able and willing, then that is an incredible thing in modern times. The fact that they would rather do that than play X-box or football is to be rejoiced over!

It's like somebody went: look, there's something that isn't regulated! Quick, we'd better regulate it - the one thing the world doesn't have enough of is pointless red tape! 

Is anybody really about to turn around and say, "Sorry, The Pillars of the Earth - rape - you have to be eighteen to read that."

If they are, at least it's more likely to make their kids want to go and read it.

Absolute unenforceable, illogical, and ridiculous gump.

Sunday 4 March 2012


Well, it's one-thirty in the morning.

Back in January, I was walking by Islington canal when I encountered a book barge. A narrow boat full of books, replete with cats and wood-burning stove. My idea of floating heaven.

I hopped aboard and, late for a bus, had to make a hurried decision.

I came away with a copy of Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Hadn't heard of it but, according to the reviews, it was pretty big in 1999/2000. Inside, it also lists his first novel as The Tie that Binds, which I haven't read but have heard of by reputation. No relation to the '95 film of the same name.

I put the book in my bag and liberated it from the waterways, then rediscovered it the other day and sat down to read it.

Within the first few pages, I was sure that I wasn't going to like it. I felt quite disappointed at this, having found it in such an auspicious place. I had been so sure that any book I happened to choose from the shelves on that day, in that place, couldn't possibly be bad.

First off, it was set in the American Midwest. Both this and The Tie that Binds are set in Holt County, Colorado. The language reflects that. It's so straightforward you can see the horizon. Worse, though - there's not a quotation mark to be seen! Nothing distinguishes dialogue from action except for the occasional line break.

It's formatting Jim, but not as we know it.

I was absolutely ready to hate it.

Until I realised how short the chapters were.

In realising this, I read a couple of them.

Suddenly, it was over.

Kent Haruf, I doff my cap to you sir. That there's a mighty fine read.

It is thoroughly deceptive in its simplicity. I went to google it halfway through and actually found myself typing in Simplesong. It takes me a while to catch on. 

It's told from several people's perspectives, all of whom speak simple. Yet there are vivid moments of happening that just suck you in like a vacuum. I was interested by voyeurism at the window, I was engaged by the dusty description of cattle ranching; by the dead horse, I knew that I was sitting it through to the end. It was read quickly, because it was easy, yet left a lasting impression.

There's a character called Roubideaux. What a wonderful name! And two young brothers, nine and ten, mirrored in two older brothers well into their twilight years. Unusual, and clever. When little Roubideaux goes into labour, the older brothers panic and inform her that: "in effect altogether she should hurry up and do it in a slow way."  

I smiled at that, and admit to shedding a tear at the homecoming. 

Nothing in the book takes you wholly by surprise. There's no soaring climax or plunging hidden depths. 

It's just a story. As the title suggests, a plain song. 

I'm challenged by that. In this day and age of 'the first three chapters' - books so slick you could oil your car with them - it's nice to know that there is still a place for simple storytelling. For a little look into people's lives somewhere far away. I really enjoyed it. Feels a bit like I've been on holiday for a couple of days.

Guess the book barge was a magical place after all.