Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Howl’s Moving Castle

howlNote: Throughout June, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Diana Wynne Jones. There are definitely spoilers below, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best known and most popular books. It has two sequels, Castle in the Air, and House of Many Ways. It’s also one of my favorite books by DWJ, and yet one that I have never really reviewed until now.

The opening of this book is really delightful. “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.” It’s such a perfect set up for the story that will follow, with the fairy tale echoes, and also the parts that push back against fairy tales. And the character sketches that follow give us Sophie’s point-of-view so clearly, while also showing us that things might not be exactly as she thinks.

It also establishes this as a story that is in conversation with other stories. There are references galore. In addition to the fairy tales, Howl’s curse is, of course, “Song” by John Donne. There’s another Donne reference (“Busy old fool, unruly Sophie,” says Howl), as well as Raleigh and Shakespeare. Moreover, Megan’s house in Wales is called Rivendell. I mean, really! I even had a moment where I started thinking about possible parallels to Pride and Prejudice (am I going too far? Maybe but also maybe not?).

All in all, I felt re-reading this, that DWJ was having so much fun with this story. She’s playing around with characters, conventions, expectations. It’s not frothy–there’s substance to it too–but it is light. It comforts rather than challenges as, say, Hexwood does. And of course, Howl at his most histrionic is really funny to read about (maybe less to live with). The slime! Despair! Anguish! Horror! His dramatic cold! (Apparently based on her husband’s–“I just had to write it all down,” she says in the Q&A. Also: “He blows his nose exactly like a bassoon in a tunnel.”)

But, despite the sheer enjoyment factor of this book, it’s also doing some tricksy things. There is lots of hiding in plain sight. Remember how I mentioned characters who are in disguise, even from themselves? That describes multiple characters in HMC. There’s Sophie, there’s the wicked wizard who isn’t wicked, the dog-man–even Lettie & Martha.

It’s even crafty in terms of the plot. Sophie’s central quest is to find out and break the contract between Calcifer and Howl, and we’re basically told the solution right at the beginning (“he was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard”) but in a way that misdirects us for ages. This is a clever book, in the best way–not crowing over its own wit, but waiting for you to uncover it.

When it comes down to it, though, for me the real heart (heheheh) of the book is Sophie. It’s Sophie’s point-of-view we get, Sophie who is so unaware of her own strengths for so much of the book, and yet so clear at the same time. Sophie who is often a mystery to herself, who is prickly and stubborn and brave. The shepherd she meets thinks she’s a witch and she gets indignant even though she very clearly is one. This is the story, in so many ways, of a teenage girl growing up and seeing her own strengths. They’re always there–one of my favorite moments in the whole book is just after the Witch turns Sophie old and she thinks, quite matter-of-factly, “Well, of course I shall have to do for her”–but she doesn’t always believe in them. This is the story of her learning to believe in her own instincts, her own desires, her own worth.

What I sometimes forget, because she’s so much Sophie through the whole book, is that she does all of this while an old lady. There’s a very interesting bit where Sophie thinks that as a girl she “would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman she did not mind what she did or said.” I can quite manage to pull this into a thesis, What Diana Wynne Jones is Saying About Women and Age and Societal Expectations, but it’s there.

If Sophie is one central point of this story, Howl is the other. I said on Twitter as I was reading this that he really does remind me of Gen in many ways, and then almost the next line was “‘What a lie that was,’ Howl remarked as he walked into the wall. ‘My shining dishonesty will be the salvation of me.'” They’re both characters who hide their hearts, who mask the fact that they care with abundant flamboyance and deliberate botheration of those around them. They’re both slitherer-outers, for sure.

But when it comes down to it, Howl is quite selfish; or not selfish exactly but certainly self-centered. He quite likes helping people, and yet he’s rather ruthless when it comes to things he does or doesn’t want to do. I’m quite pleased when he meets his match in Sophie, who’s just about as stubborn and has more care for other people.

The one note of this book which I don’t quite love is the treatment of Megan. “I love Wales, but it doesn’t love me,” says Howl, but he’s really talking about his sister. This is realistic, perhaps, but Megan remains such a one note character without any real reason that we’re given for her uncharitable depiction. We’re shown that she’s annoying, but well, so is Howl. (As an aside, this is yet another DWJ book where the main action takes place in one world with excursions to another world, which is ours. Reverse portal fantasy, if you will.) It’s not enough to sour the whole book for me by any means, but I do always notice and sigh a little.

I feel slightly the same way about the Witch, but far less so because she really has done nasty things and treated people in an awful way. Oddly enough, she reminded me just a little of a more evil, and witchy, version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (This was the point at which I started thinking of HMC and P&P and wondering.) So I can notice that her depiction falls into a pattern that I don’t love, but also accept it and keep reading.

Despite these hiccups, this is really a book which I find delightful as a reading experience, and which also touches me deeply. If you asked me which characters I feel most like, I would say Betsy Ray and Sophie Hatter. Perhaps it’s because I’m also the oldest child of three & always resented that fairy tales rewarded the youngest, perhaps it’s because the way Sophie sees herself is really quite familiar. Regardless, for me reading this book the first time–and all the times since–has felt like coming home, like greeting an old friend.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1986, Greenwillow; mg/YA


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Links from around the web: 6-17-15

How I Discovered I am White” by Janelle Hanchett: “I realized the reason I had never thought about race was because I was of the privileged one, because I didn’t have to, NOT BECAUSE RACIAL DISPARITY DIDN’T EXIST. I didn’t have to think about race because I was having a fundamentally different life experience than people of color. But I could ignore them, because of my privilege.”

“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” — G.D. Anderson

A helpful self-care checklist.

A new Anne of Green Gables mini-series is in the works. Starring Martin Sheen as Matthew. Personally, I’m not excited.

Other people also love UPROOTED! The Book Smugglers, Renay @ Lady Business, Rachel Neumeier

WARNING: HERE THERE BE PUPPIES. As discussed a bit on Monday, the 2015 Hugos just keep getting worse. I would say that we’ve hit rock bottom at this point, but I’m pretty sure that’s not actually true. At any rate, here’s the gross message from Tom Doherty (plus almost 500 comments, almost completely unmoderated, BEWARE). Also responses from: Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, Natalie Luhrs, and Brenna Clarke Gray.

Okay, having saddened you all with that, I have recently fallen in love with a few Parks & Rec mashup blogs. There’s Parks and Rings, Parks and Cap, and Parks and Prejudice (LBD).

I’ve seen some excellent DWJ fanart in the last few weeks! Here’s one for Dark Lord of Derkholm, and also Tanaqui (and a character sketch).

I loved this quote about fairy tales.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Summer TBR

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

This week the topic is our summer TBR lists. I’ve talked quite recently about releases that I’m looking forward to for this month and for the rest of the year. Rather than talk about new and upcoming books, here are a few reading goals I want to achieve. (This list is not binding. Also, it doesn’t include things like my ongoing Reading Notes series.)

1. Finish the published Foreigner books
2. Read Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc and re-read Nicola Griffith’s Hild
3. Re-read The Winter Prince, Gaudy Night, Queen of Attolia, and A Civil Campaign, and maybe Swordspoint (at which point I will collapse from the Feels)
4. Read Call the Midwife!
5. Read a book by Sarah Waters (any suggestions for which one?)
6. Finish Courtney Summers’ backlist
7. Try the Frances Brody books
8. Finish Judith Riley’s books!
9. Read some more Mary Renault
10. Read the next book in the Steerswoman series

And in the interests of actually doing some of these, I’ve put several books on hold. Hurrah!


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A letter to Tor and MacMillan

I’ve spent much of the last week appalled and upset by this message from Tom Doherty, the head of Tor Books. I’m not going into the backstory or ramifications in this post, but suffice it to say that once again, it has made me feel that being a female SFF fan, writer, or editor means fighting for your place forever. It means your boss choosing to give words of support to a noxious racist rather than to you.

Part of what’s been hard is the feeling of helplessness, that there is nothing anyone can do to change what has been said. And this is true. But Theodore Beale/Vox Day (noxious racist, see above) has asked his followers to email Tor/MacMillan to complain about Irene Gallo. Someone suggested that people write to them in support of her, and I have. My email is below.

(Warning: I will be watching the comments and moderating as needed.)

“Dear Tor & MacMillan folks,

I’m a long term SFF fan, a librarian and blogger. I’ve grown up reading and loving science fiction and fantasy in all its complexities and grandeurs. I also support publishing and promoting books which show us worlds from diverse voices and points of view. The Puppy campaign, both Sad and Rabid, stands in direct antithesis to everything I believe in, to all the SFF books I know and love. They want to shut down the voices I want to hear from. The fact that one of the major people involved in both campaigns is racist, sexist, and homophobic in the extreme only underscores the fact that they want people like me out of the SFF fandom.
I understand that as a company, Tor/PanMacMillan cannot take sides. However, the fact that a female Tor employee was publicly chastised for comments she made on her personal, private Facebook account, that support was given to the Puppies and not to her is appalling to me. I don’t know Irene Gallo in the slightest, but I do know I stand on her side. I am a SFF fan and my voice matters too.
Maureen Eichner”


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Picture Book Monday: June 2015

finding the music hug me murilla gorilla wolfie

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora: Funny, sweet, with just a touch of danger to keep the story going.

Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo: I found this one fairly predictable, although the theme of finding the people who fit in your life is nice.

Murilla Gorilla and the Hammock Problem by Jennifer Lloyd, illustrated by Jacqui Lee: This is kind of an adorable story, about a gorilla detective. It’s a nice early chapter book for those readers transitioning from early readers.

Finding the Music by Jennifer Torres: I really like the sense of history and community in this one, and the connections with family and creativity; I think it’s one that will resonate with kids who have strong relationships with their grandparents.

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Bullet Journaling, revisited

Back in January, I wrote a post about how I was using my bullet journals. Since then, I’ve made some changes to how I use them and I thought I would post an update here. I’m going to focus on my personal bullet journal, since the way I use my work journal has remained mostly the same.


The first change is mostly cosmetic. My dad had a set of nice fine-tipped markers which my mom sent me last year, and I decided to use one color per month to make my journal look a little more artistic. Here’s my monthly planning page for June–what’s on the page has remained the same as earlier this year, but I like having the color. I’m also writing the day of the week & date larger and in the same color marker as the month for the daily pages.


This is how I’m laying out my daily pages at this point. At the beginning of the year, I was worried about how much space each month was going to take, but at this point, I’m not as concerned about that. Also, if I need to buy a second notebook, I’ll buy a second notebook. I’m still giving myself 15 lines/day, but I’ve doubled that space by letting each day take up two columns.

In the left-hand column, I have tasks and appointments that I want to complete that day. Some of these are date-specific; others are ongoing projects, but projects that do have an end-date. In the right-hand column, I have daily personal tasks, like cleaning and reminding myself to floss.

I also wanted to have a record of what I’m doing for meals, mostly so I can look back and see how well my menu planning for a given month worked. And if I have space and want to, there’s a place for journal-type notes.


I abandoned the stars/priority method I talked about in my earlier post. It was working for awhile, and then it started becoming too much work, and wasn’t actually helping me accomplish the goals I needed to. So now I try to list the most urgent/important goals first for each day, but aside from that I’m not using priority markers except for occasional urgent tasks (like mail, below).


I’m also experimenting with a visual representation of my day. It’s helpful to me to have a sense of how much time I have and when, especially since my work schedule is variable. I’m marking work hours, and then marking off time in half-hour increments, since I often work on projects for that amount of time. I haven’t been doing this very long in my personal journal, but I’ve found it to be helpful. (I find the idea of choronodex planning appealing, but the actual system is very confusing and counter-intuitive to me.)

Finally, I had been using an adapted system of checks and crossing out, instead of the official bullet journal legend. I’ve actually gone back to the original system, at least for now (you can see on Wednesday that I did some checks, but then started filling in squares again). That’s part of the beauty of the Bullet Journal system, in my opinion–it’s both structured and flexible, and you can adapt so it meets you where you are right now.

Other bullet journal resources:
Kelly Jensen’s post at Stacked Books
A Bullet Journal FB group started by Sophie Brookover

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Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Hexwood

hexwoodHexwood is a standalone novel, first published in 1993. It’s also a book that I love and I feel like no one else does? If you’re a fellow Hexwood fan, let me know!

I can understand why people don’t necessarily like it. It’s a bit like the end of Fire & Hemlock, except an entire book’s worth–and quite a few people dislike the end of Fire & Hemlock. And the Reigners are really nasty, in an insidious way that is actually worse than out and out EEVILLLLL!

It’s also undeniably weird. I mean. In the space of one book, there’s a King Arthur motif, plus the events in the modern world, plus evil galactic overlords, plus handwavy science fantasy, plus dream sequences and some time travel, plus characters who don’t know who they are or what’s happening. There’s a lot going on. And most of the characters spend most of the book continuing to not know, caught in the middle of a situation they don’t even understand.

So why do I love it? Well, primarily it’s for Ann. I really love how stubborn and uncompromising she is, how she’s able to see the truth of people even when it’s fairly hidden. She’s not afraid to call people on their mistakes, but she also wants to help them, and she feels badly when things don’t go well. I also like Mordion; while he’s not my favorite version, characters who try really hard even when things are awful are kind of catnip for me.

And I found the descriptions of the wood really textured and lovely. DWJ tends to write in an understated style most of the time, so whenever she breaks into a more descriptive passage, I enjoy it. In this case, the sights and scents of the wood are so beautifully described that I could understand the characters’ reactions to it.

And secretly I love the end of Fire & Hemlock. I like the weird dream sequenceness of this story. It’s one that maybe shouldn’t work and maybe doesn’t work for many other readers, but which for some reason I find entrancing. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s not easy; that it requires you to work for meaning and comprehension.

If we’re looking at  common themes in DWJ books, there’s certainly the warm but complicated family, the intergalactic evil (like Mr. Chesney’s company in Dark Lord, for instance). And perhaps most of all, the characters who aren’t as they seem and/or are hidden in some way, even from themselves.

So ultimately for me, this is one that I do appreciate and even enjoy, although at the same time, I do see why other people may have a different reaction to it.

Book source: public library

Book information: 1993, Methuen; YA


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