Saturday, 29 December 2012

2012 - A Reading Year In Review

The close of the year is a decent opportunity to reflect upon and share a few of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading and haven’t yet had time to feature here.  Unsurprisingly, there are a few of these.

2012 was a year I set myself to expanding consciously upon my previous reading horizons and looking to material outside of my normal comfort zone, this being something I achieved in part – both as a result of ensuring varied content for the blog and otherwise.  This notwithstanding, there has also been plenty of time for genre reading – this being a firm favourite and something I tend to revert to at varied intervals.

Spec Fic

I’ve been reading spec fic ever since my parents bought me a copy of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl’s Moving Castle for a previous birthday.  Looking back, a number of this year’s reads fall within this category, such as the subject of my previous review entry; this also being a re-read for this year (as for many). 

Additional stand out reads for this year include Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls and my first reading experience in connection with the works of Catherynne M Valente – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, described within the blurb upon the cover as “a glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom” by Neil Gaiman.  Winner of the Andre Norton Award and similarly lauded by the author of The Last Unicorn, Tamora Pierce and Holly Black, this is one novel which deserves the praise heaped upon it.  I was similarly impressed by the highly anticipated follow up The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There.  Intelligent writing for smart readers.  Highly recommended.

Mixing YA into the melting pot here, I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed Kate Milford's The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands, which I read almost back to back, having ordered one whilst I was approximately halfway through the other.  Milford blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction by adding a certain amount of historical background into her tales of crossroads bargaining and demons and produces something noteworthy on each occasion as a result.  Genuinely entertaining reading.

Short Fiction

Probably not as many in this category as I would have liked, although I’m always on the look-out for suitable shorts.  I have, however, been dipping in and out of Shadow Showthe tribute anthology to Ray Bradbury and particularly enjoyed Kelly Link's contribution, Two Houses

During my random internet trawls for short fiction I also came across Calum Kerr's collection of flash fiction, 31, inspired by recent participation in NaNoWriMo and each entry of which was written in a single 10 to 20 minute sitting.  I, for one, enjoyed them, being partial to the odd piece of “shorter than short”.

Kate Milford’s The Kairos Mechanism probably also deserves a mention here, being novella length.  This is effectively a “bridge” story between The Boneshaker and her subsequent prequel novel, The Broken Lands but well worth the read simply on its own merits as a folklore based fantasy tale.  The project was originally Kickstarter self-funded but is also available in paperback and e-book format via Milford's own website.

Despite not having been published this year, I’m also mentioning Kat Howard's The Calendar of Saints as one of the pieces of short fiction which has had a significant effect upon me more recently.  A beautifully written tale of the blade as both instrument and point of honour.

Historical Fiction

YA also features here, with Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity being the one which impressed me the most.  Wein produces an affecting duel narrative detailing the fate of two friends who become involved in the British war effort – the “sensational team” referred to upon the back cover.  Gripping and full of well researched detail.


Despite being (arguably) better known for her genre fiction, my most recent experience of Elizabeth Hand's work stems from her foray into the world of crime/literary thriller in the form of Generation Loss and Available Dark (another example of a prequel published subsequent to the events which follow it, similarly to Milford’s The Broken Lands).  An unlikely examination of art and redemption.

Graphic Novels

Graphic novels also feature within my 2012 reading list, despite this previously having been a neglected area for me.  Some of this is due in part to the sheer readability of Locke and Key, a series I’ve been following throughout this year and which arguably opened my eyes to a subsection of the bookshelf I’d previously been missing out on.  I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion to this series and will hope for the possibility of stand-alones, even once the overall narrative arc is concluded.

Whilst this isn’t a comprehensive list of the works I haven’t previously referred to here for this year and isn’t intended to act as a “best of”  or “top five” or “ten” in the strictest sense, it does highlight at least a couple which I feel are well worth the time expended upon their contents.  Hopefully there’s something which may take your fancy and provide some reading material for the next occasion on which you have time for the written word. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Feet Firmly Facing Forwards

Howl's Moving Castle will be familiar to many, whether as a result of prior knowledge of Diana Wynne Jones' work (of which I’ve made no secret that I’m a fan) or as a result of the more recently released Miyazaki illustrated film, which is also highly recommended.

The book is deceptive and, ultimately, fascinating in light of its subtly subversive effect.  Whilst the narrative commences as what purports to be traditional fantasy, set in the Land of Ingary in which the workings of destiny and magic play a pivotal part, matters soon take a twist towards the less certain. 

We begin with Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three sisters, apparently doomed to fail “first, and worst” if the three set out to seek their fortunes.  As such, she seems consigned to an unremarkable life, not even being the “child of a poor woodcutter”.  It is at this point that it becomes clear that the narrative is intended to play upon the reader’s preconceptions of the fantasy genre in much the same manner as is seen to be employed in Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Soon enough, Sophie becomes aware her younger sisters have switched places with one another, having been sent off to gainful employment and apprenticeship as apparently befits their station in life – a solution both are dissatisfied with and for which they find their own solution, having teamed up together.  Not only this but Sophie is confronted by the infamous Witch of the Waste; someone who has apparently formed an ill opinion of her for reasons Sophie herself is incapable of explaining.  As punishment for her supposed competition with the witch, Sophie is transformed into an old woman and finds herself forced to leave her life behind her.  The search for her fortune leads her to the moving castle which is the subject of the title to the novel. 

By this stage, all three sisters are seeking to live their lives on their own terms, to a greater or lesser extent, notwithstanding their apparent predetermined destiny – even Sophie has left the hat shop which was intended to be her inheritance behind, although she attributes this to her unexpected transformation, inferring there was little choice in the matter.  Despite this potential unreliability within our main protagonist, clearly, we have left the realms of the straightforward behind.  Matters are not as they would seem and, apparently, cases of mistaken identity abound.  Sophie’s sisters, Lettie and Martha, are now masquerading as one another and Sophie is forced to pass herself off as “Old Sophie” in light of the spell cast upon her.

Similarly, there are many forms of magic at work once Sophie sets off upon her travels.  Seemingly, the transformation has affected more than just her appearance.  Sophie finds she is capable of exerting herself more, freed from the trappings of her status as the eldest of the family – even manipulating her way into a position and board at the moving castle which is the subject of the novel’s title.  This is not without its hazards.  Howl, the wizard who owns the castle is vain, cowardly, stubborn and prone to chasing after the local women – but only until he has secured their interest.  At that stage, he abandons them for new territory.  Add in a fire demon with whom Sophie makes a bargain, several magical contracts which require to be broken, the continued opposition of the Witch of the Waste and a spell cast unwittingly which appears to have rebounded against its originator and you have the basic elements which constitute the narrative.

This is a journey in more ways than one, with Sophie’s literal journey forming the basis for self-discovery, having set off on her travels.  Ultimately, it transpires that Sophie’s true destiny can only be discovered through standing on her own two feet, as opposed to accepting what is deemed acceptable or appropriate for her.  Being both stubborn and outspoken, she is an engaging heroine and sparks fly in more ways than one when she and Howl confront one another.  Howl, too, learns from their encounters, being forced to confront his own fears and engage in genuine honesty – something which leads directly to the concluding denouement with the Witch of the Waste and, therefore, in some senses, rebounding against him.  It is for the reader to discover how successfully the pair are able to battle against these odds towards the tying up of loose ends and happiness on their own terms.

The strength of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in taking what is arguably a standard fantasy format with which to commence a narrative arc and spinning a less than traditional tale via its composite elements.  Neither Howl nor Sophie constitute the “standard size fits all” hero or heroine, both being as stubborn as one another and it is this which speaks so powerfully to the reader.  They are flawed.  Both demonstrate significantly bad moods, on occasion, with humorous and unexpected consequences.  They make mistakes which they are forced to seek to remedy.  They flounder and grow as a result.  Ultimately, both are unquestionably human in their portrayal and we, the reader, empathise wholly as a result. 

Further, despite being written several decades ago, the novel remains fresh in its message that life is to be lived on our terms and is what we make of it – this being something Sophie learns by its conclusion.  Having reading it on several occasions, I find myself returning to it at regular intervals – perhaps the highest praise I can offer.