Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Book Review: Terminal Alliance


Book Review: Terminal Alliance by Jim C Hines 

Goodreads Description: The Krakau came to Earth to invite humanity into a growing alliance of sentient species. However, they happened to arrive after a mutated plague wiped out half the planet, turned the rest into shambling, near-unstoppable animals, and basically destroyed human civilization. You know—your standard apocalypse.

The Krakau’s first impulse was to turn around and go home. (After all, it’s hard to have diplomatic relations with mindless savages who eat your diplomats.) Their second impulse was to try to fix us. Now, a century later, human beings might not be what they once were, but at least they’re no longer trying to eat everyone. Mostly.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is surprisingly bright (for a human). As a Lieutenant on the Earth Mercenary Corps Ship Pufferfish, she’s in charge of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team. When a bioweapon attack wipes out the Krakau command crew and reverts the rest of the humans to their feral state, only Mops and her team are left with their minds intact.

Escaping the attacking aliens—not to mention her shambling crewmates—is only the beginning. Sure, Mops and her team of space janitors and plumbers can clean the ship as well as anyone, but flying the damn thing is another matter.

As they struggle to keep the Pufferfish functioning and find a cure for their crew, they stumble onto a conspiracy that could threaten the entire alliance… a conspiracy born from the truth of what happened on Earth all those years ago.


My Review: Terminal Alliance is a rip-roaring adventure through space from the first page to its very last. Hines uses humour to hook the reader and keep them invested in the foreign environment filled with different alien races, relying mostly on dramatic irony as characters fumble about with human history. The story focuses on Mops and her janitor crew who happen to be the only ones unaffected by an attack that kills their alien captains and leaves their human crewmates feral. From the first page, the book launches into plot-heavy action interjected with humor that doesn't waste time trying to catch the reader up to speed on the intricacies of this galactic society. Despite that, Hines is very skilled at layering important information throughout the action, so the reader isn't bogged down by information while also never feeling lost in the action. 

My biggest issue with the book came down to its characters. I'm a character-driven reader, and this story was very plot-driven, with little depth given to its characters. Hines kept his characters solid and consistent, and even managed to buck a few tropes, but the book isn't interested in who they are beyond the surface level or diving into their inner worlds. They are merely the players that help the plot move forward, which just isn't my style. Aside from the interesting mystery behind what happened to the human crew, I struggled to keep myself invested in the story. For readers who prefer more action heavy, "less talky, more blowing shit up," kind of reads, these characters are probably perfect. They're fun, funny, and each distinct without feeling like something I've seen before, but they don't grow or change much throughout the story. They encounter a problem and they solve it, while having sassy space battles along the way. 

The writing is solid, accessible, and cleverly utilized. This is clearly not Hines' first book, as he uses his words wisely to save 'space' and increase the flow. Instead of showing something and then having a character react to it, Hines will have a character react, and in that reaction, show us what's happening. This is a great tool for keeping the reader moving forward. The mystery was also written in such a way that I felt really smart? Which sounds like a funny thing to say. I don't usually play detective while reading, but if the clues line up just right, then it's hard to ignore an obvious solution. That's definitely how it felt in TA, and I can't tell if that's because Hines made the mystery too easy to solve, or if he just laid all the clues out in a way that felt obvious to me. While I didn't feel the mystery was stupid or 'too easy,' I did find myself getting frustrated with Mops by the end when the enemies all but told her the truth, and she still struggled to put together what I had pages ago. If you're someone who likes to solve puzzles, this one may be too frustratingly easy for you, but if you're just along for the ride, you may get the added benefit of feeling like Sherlock. 

Aside from my struggles to connect with the story, I really enjoyed the ride. TA was like that crazy sci-fi action flick you turn on, enjoy it for its popcorn simplicity, and then never watch again, though you remember it fondly. The world in TA was delightful and layered in a way I could see myself being drawn into, lore-wise, and I really enjoyed the worldbuilding scenes at the beginning of each chapter, with excerpts from military manuals, alien cookbooks, scenes from alien POVs, etc., that all helped to flush out the expansive starsystem. And again, Hines adds a touch of humor that keeps things from feeling like a dry alien textbook.

TL;DR: All in all, 3.5/5 stars. An all around fun, sassy space-opera driven by its exciting plot and inter-species mystery. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Book Review: Whose Land is it Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization

 


Book Review: Whose Land is it Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization. Edited by Peter McFarlane and Nicole Schabus

Goodreads Description: Whose Land Is It Anyway? A Manual for Decolonization; inspired by a 2016 speaking tour by Arthur Manuel, less than a year before his untimely passing in January 2017. The book contains two essays from Manuel, described as the Nelson Mandela of Canada, and essays from renowned Indigenous writers Taiaiake Alfred, Glen Coulthard, Russell Diabo, Beverly Jacobs, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Kanahus Manuel, Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, Pamela Palmater, Shiri Pasternak, Nicole Schabus, Senator Murray Sinclair, and Sharon Venne. FPSE is honoured to support this publication. 


My Review: I know I don't often review non-fiction, but I found this manual to be really insightful and a joy to read, so I figured I would give it a boost. Every day it becomes more apparent why it's so important to live in an intersectional society where we not only look out for our own group's interests, but of our neighbour's as well. Living in Canada the last five years, I've watched the American political landscape shift like sands in a dessert, never leading itself to stability. It's hard not to get riled up watching the politics to the south, but I think it's especially important to apply that critical eye to the homeland, and try to stop the same patterns from emerging up here. 

Whose Land is it Anyway? features prominent Canadian voices advocating for Indigenous rights in Canada, most notably the right to land. This handbook doesn't bother itself with the nitty gritty details, like statistics and dates, and focuses more on the emotions of Indigenous people living in Canada and their arguments for why their struggles should be addressed. This handbook felt like it was written for average Canadians who may know about these issues, but have never heard about them from the perspective of Indigenous activists. The various essays tackle subjects like blockades, the savage narrative and the strategy to disenfranchise Indigenous peoples, grassroots activism and why chiefs are 'giving in' to the government, two-spirit people, violence against Indigenous women, the fight to keep culture alive, and on, and on. 

These perspectives were not only refreshing and enlightening, but very moving at the same time. They were written in a way that was fun, enjoyable to read, as well as super approachable and emotional. While the arguments for new ways of thinking and being were very strong, it was hearing about the individuals living as Indigenous in Canada, their struggles and their feelings on the matter, that really hit home the importance of these changes. Through the essays, the various writers were able to show the reality behind Indigenous peoples' suffering and thriving in Canada, and were able to argue for why changes are not only necessary, but will improve well-being for everyone. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. All in all, a great introductory book about Indigenous land claims from the perspective of Indigenous activists. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Bell.... Let's Talk

 


Yesterday was Bell Let’s Talk day here in Canada, so let’s talk, seriously, about Bell. 

The campaign began 10 years ago as a way to spread awareness about mental health, and while I have my criticisms, I will admit it has had a positive impact. A major corporation opening up a conversation about mental health was very helpful in breaking down some of the stigma and making it less taboo to talk about.

However. 

Bell has made it pretty clear over the last 10 years of this campaign that their allyship is strictly performative. Performative allyship is behaviour that pretends to support those in need, but never actually follows through on concrete actions that would actually, y’know, support people. They preform allyship only in the way that benefits them: more social status, being able to pat themselves on the back, and in the case of corporations, profit and advertising. Bell has proven they only care about performative support by putting out ad campaigns that are no more than feel-good advertisements, which come across as hypocritical to employees and tone-deaf to people struggling with mental illness. 

You only need look at their list of hypocrisies to see they’re not committed to their cause. 

While they boast about their campaigns for mental health, in recent years, employees have been fired for requesting mental health days, and the mental health struggles of employees are largely ignored or punished.  

Bell acknowledges in their Let’s Talk campaign that a lot of mental health stress is workplace related, but apparently that doesn’t apply to their own employees. Despite some programs put in place at Bell, the pressure to produce has employees taking stress leaves

And then there’s the… *checks notes* profiting off of vulnerable prison populations by making it more difficult and expensive to call friends and family while incarcerated, worsening their mental health. Very cool, Bell. 

So, yeah. It’s not hard to see that the company doesn’t really care, but I don’t feel like this paints the whole picture of what’s wrong with Bell Let’s Talk, so… let’s dive into their financials. 

While they like to tout about how much money is donated through their campaign each year, the real winner is always Bell, whose profits have tripled since beginning the campaign in 2011. And let’s be frank, the amount that Bell donates each year is rather minimal. To put it into context, Bell averages about 7 million in donations each year for the campaign (which the company writes off in taxes), but their CEO, George Cope, who stepped down in 2020, was receiving a 10 million dollar annual salary. (The Current CEO, Mirko Bibic is only taking home a little over 4 million a year. Talk about a deal!!) 

Bell is not even one of the biggest donators to mental health in the country, and yet they reap the most social reward. Oil companies knock Bell out of the park when it comes to donations. Cenovus just put up 50 million for housing for Indigenous communities, with a promise to double it in 5 years if it’s successful, which will go a lot farther to improving mental health than awareness campaigns. And that’s only one of many donations Cenovus has made. You may think it’s unfair to compare Bell to an oil company, but Cenovus only reported a net income of 2.2 billion in 2019, while in the same year Bell reported a net income of 3.25 billion. And you may be thinking, “Well that’s just the profit, not how much they sold.” And yet, in that same year, Cenovus reported a revenue of $21.35 billion while Bell scored an easy $23.96 billion. I may be brainwashed from growing up in oil town, but I’m staring at the numbers and I STILL CAN’T BELIVE IT. For a “leader” in campaigning for mental health, that 7 mil is starting to look pretty pathetic, especially since they only donate after consumers work as their advertisers. 

So, wow. Wow. WOW. (I still can’t get over those numbers). So we’ve got, company that doesn’t care? Check. Pennies for the poor? Check. But what about the campaign itself? 

Bell Let’s Talk has a wide reach with their campaign, but what is it exactly they’re saying? Join the conversation? That’s a great theme to start with, but ten years down the line, what exactly are we supposed to be talking about? Bell makes no attempt to actually initiate conversation about mental health or spread any actual awareness anymore, they simply expect consumers to do the work while they reap the advertising benefits for free. While I respect the people around the country having intelligent discussions about mental health because of this campaign, I can’t support Bell preforming allyship without actually doing the work to improve people’s lives. 

This YouTube video from an anonymous Bell employee illustrates, what I believe, is probably an average case of a worker struggling with mental health. 

 As the employee outlines, it’s the conditions of having to work ridiculous hours and still not being able to cover expenses that causes the most stress, which is not a problem only at Bell. Most employers in Canada do the things complained about in the video: abusing the PT/Freelance/Contractor laws that allow employers to hire people for FT hours but not give them any benefits, no raises, the lack of in-house resources, etc. etc. 

To be fair to Bell, they’re not a mental health agency and I don’t think they should try to be. An employer can’t be expected to fix all the problems of its employees. However, by opening up the conversation on mental health and committing to helping the cause, Bell needs to be prepared to hear what people have to say. When people point to the system keeping them in pain, and point out that Bell continues to perpetuate that system when they have the power to set an industry standard, that is a problem. They have the resources to solve some of the issues, such as providing benefits to all employees so they’re able to access mental health support, relaxing their sales tactics, and using this campaign to say something meaningful, and yet. And yet. 

Imagine if Bell’s “workplace initiative” involved training other organizations how to enhance employee mental health, if they built information packages and seminars, if they held conferences for other major corporations to learn how to maximize employee mental health. Imagine if they worked in tandem with the mental health agencies to build a comprehensive guide to workplace well-being. Imagine if Bell took steps to really change things.

Do I really think Bell will become a leader in mental health advocacy, quit their hypocrisy and make definitive changes? No. But I still think that criticism is important. If not for Bell, then for everyone out there exposed to this campaign and wondering what sort of effect it’s having. I hope that whenever you see the Bell Let’s Talk hashtag, remember that they are not the leader in donations to mental health, employees report feeling unsupported with their mental health, they exploit prisoners, and ultimately, Bell Let’s Talk is a large scale ad-campaign where the consumer advertises for the company, and pennies go to charities while the corporation rakes in billions. Next time you see one of these campaigns, next time you hear about a company taking steps to “help the community,” next time you hear about millions going to charity, ask yourself some serious questions. 

Who really benefits from this? 

What change does this bring?

Is this really helping? 

If this allyship authentic or performative?

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Book Review: Family

 


Book Review: Family by Micol Ostow 

Goodreads Description: It is a day like any other when seventeen-year-old Melinda Jensen hits the road for San Francisco, leaving behind her fractured home life and a constant assault on her self-esteem. Henry is the handsome, charismatic man who comes upon her, collapsed on a park bench, and offers love, a bright new consciousness, and—best of all—a family. One that will embrace her and give her love. Because family is what Mel has never really had. And this new family, Henry’s family, shares everything. They share the chores, their bodies, and their beliefs.  And if Mel truly wants to belong, she will share in everything they do. No matter what the family does, or how far they go.

My Review: **There will be some minor-ish spoilers for the climax in this review. 

Well... it was a book all right. 

I picked up Family many years ago and added it to my TBR pile because I'm a fan of fucked up things, generally, so an exploration into cult dynamics seemed right up my alley. Over the years that it's sat at the bottom of my pile, I forgot (or never realized) that this was a verse novel, which is not something I usually partake in. Regardless, I did find myself enjoying the verse style at times, especially because it allowed the author to touch on some poetic emotions that might have been considered superfluous in a traditional narrative. As a fan of purplier prose, I did enjoy this, but quickly found the style tiresome in its repetition. A lot of the book felt like the same lines over and over, and I honestly wonder how much book would be left if all the repetition was removed. Some of this repetition worked to reinforce ideas, and other times it just became annoying. 

The verse style also focused more on the main character's emotions than communicating details of the plot, which gave the impression of an unreliable (if not just freakin' clueless) narrator. Because of this, what actually happens isn't the focus, leaving a thin plot that bordered on boring and stereotypical. Part of my interest in this book, and what the back cover bragged it was, was an exploration of someone pulled into a cult. I was under the impression that the book would showcase the transformation: how someone from an ordinary life could turn into a cult member willing to commit murder. However, that was not what I got. I can't blame the verse for this either, this was just plain poor writing. The book presented Mel, the main character, as born broken, a concept that is highly problematic. Mel lived in an abusive home, with her mother emotionally neglecting her while her step-father sexually abused her. This is a fairly stereotypical set-up for a runaway situation, but not a death knell, if only the author put some development into Mel herself. Instead, Mel is the perfect cult member before she even joins the cult. The first time Mel meets Henry, the cult leader, she describes him as if she's already a devoted member: talking as if he's god, with abstract descriptions that give me no sense of who Henry is, aside from perfect. There is no attempt to show how a stranger on the street could become someone so important to Mel that she would willingly surrender her identity without thinking about it. It gave the impression that Mel is just 'crazy,' leading into that premise of some people just being 'born broken.' We don't see how she loses herself to the cult, from page one, she just willingly submits, taking a lot of the power out of the novel. Instead of reading about someone's fall, I instead get a boring story about a family who commits a murder, without any interesting plot twists. If the author wanted to focus more on emotions and relationships, they still could have accomplished this while having the 'murder plot' still be fairly simple, but there's no effort put into the character dynamics, nor does the book dig into how these dynamics could influence the cult 'family,' which would have made for a far more interesting book. Instead, the cult members all seemed like a hive mind at times, with only hints that they might have their own thoughts and ideas. 

Finally, that ending just pissed me right off. If you're going to commit to writing a novel about cult members who do bad things, and more so if you're creating a fall arc, don't chicken out at the last minute. During the climax where Mel and several other family members murder a fictionalized Sharon Tate and Alfred Hitchcock, Mel backs out and lets the 'singer' free, and runs away from the family herself, which not only made no sense for how Mel was written, but robs the story of its believability. How and why would the family let her go? We didn't see Mel's transformation into this person, so how do we know what pulled her out of it? Why the sudden change of heart when she was so freakin' devoted to Henry? Not to mention, way to cop out on the promise of the novel. Readers picked up the book because they wanted something dark and gritty, and instead of showing us a true fall arc, we get a crybaby who runs away when things get tough. 

Ultimately? Boring, unimaginative, stays within the box, flat characters, NOTHING HAPPENS UGH, and a cop out ending. But, uh... at least there's some pretty writing? 

TL;DR: 2/5 stars. It's a book, but probably not worth reading. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Book Review: City of Ghosts

 


Book Review: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab 

Goodreads Description: Cassidy Blake's parents are The Inspecters, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspecters head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn't sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn't belong in her world. Cassidy's powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself. 

My Review: If there's one thing Schwab has always been good at, it's atmosphere. And City of Ghosts has that to spare. 

If there's one thing Schwab has always struggled with, it's humour. Which could have saved City of Ghosts from its pallid existence. 

The book is good, don't get me wrong, but there's nothing in the book that sinks its teeth into the reader and makes them care. There isn't enough character to make this book great. Cassidy and her ghost sidekick are simply bumbling through their time in Scotland without any real direction or motivation. They're largely dragged along by the events of the plot, or rather, Cassidy's parents as they bring her to each filming location filled with creepy specters. While there is plenty of tension, and clearly defined stakes which Schwab wasn't afraid to raise, this book lacked an emotional core that made me invest in the characters. This may be due to the fact that every character was kind of... flat. Cassidy's parents were simply caricatures of TV hosts, Findley played the role of "good adult who sort of understands the magic," and the brief glimpses we see of Lara don't give us enough to show her as a fully formed character. Cassidy is arguably the most developed, and still she comes across as flat, uninteresting, and without passion. Even if Schwab wanted to skip the deeper emotional notes, a little humour would have made the reader just as invested in these characters, and would have made more sense for a middle grade audience. 

Since I know Schwab can do better, character-wise, I'm tempted to blame the faults on it being a middle grade book, or rather, Schwab underestimating middle grade fiction. Just because a book is for children, doesn't mean it needs to be stripped of complexity or character. 

As far as middle grade goes, this book is VERY MG. I would even put it at the lower level of middle grade, more suited for 8-10 year olds than 12 year olds. Part of this is due to the simplicity of the story. Not only were the characters very straight forward, but the plot went straight from point a to b without any interesting twists, which may make it easier for a younger reader to follow. As well, Schwab's writing style was parred down to reflect the reading level she targeted. Schwab is known for flowery prose and atmospheric descriptions, which has been dialed back in this book to simpler sentences and straight to the point descriptions. It was fascinating to see how Schwab adjusted her style for the audience, although she tends to slip into telling over showing more than I think is necessary. 

The only other complaint I 'd have is the Harry Potter references REALLY date the book. I'd like to think Schwab wouldn't put in so many references if the book was written today, with JK Rowling outing herself as transphobic, but as it stands the references were in poor taste. I wouldn't have minded if there was only one or two, but they were peppered throughout the book. As well, the Harry Potter books themselves are a far more interesting world and story than City of Ghosts, so the constant references only reminded me how much more interesting the story could be. Hopefully next time Schwab will put more effort into worldbuilding so she won't have to reference other fantastical worlds to compensate. 

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. City of Ghosts was good, but certainly nothing to write home about. 


Monday, January 4, 2021

Book Review: Blood of Olympus

 


Book Review: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan 

Goodreads Description: Nico had warned them. Going through the House of Hades would stir the demigods' worst memories. Their ghosts would become restless. Nico may actually become a ghost if he has to shadow-travel with Reyna and Coach Hedge one more time. But that might be better than the alternative: allowing someone else to die, as Hades foretold.


Jason's ghost is his mother, who abandoned him when he was little. He may not know how he is going to prove himself as a leader, but he does know that he will not break promises like she did. He will complete his line of the prophecy: To storm or fire the world must fall.

Reyna fears the ghosts of her ancestors, who radiate anger. But she can't allow them to distract her from getting the Athena Parthenos to Camp Half-Blood before war breaks out between the Romans and Greeks. Will she have enough strength to succeed, especially with a deadly hunter on her trail?

Leo fears that his plan won't work, that his friends might interfere. But there is no other way. All of them know that one of the Seven has to die in order to defeat Gaea, the Earth Mother.

Piper must learn to give herself over to fear. Only then will she be able to do her part at the end: utter a single word.

Heroes, gods, and monsters all have a role to play in the climactic fulfillment of the prophecy in The Blood of Olympus, the electrifying finale of the best-selling Heroes of Olympus series.

My Review: Every time I sit down to review a Riordan book, I go through the same thought process. First, I wonder if there’s even a point. I struggle to find any major flaws to discuss, and I feel it’s not much of a review if all I’m saying is “This good. Buy this.” Second, it’s hard to dig into each book, since not only are they chunks to a bigger story, they’re not as independent as some book series. Each one flows into the next to create this epic adventure, so it’s hard to understand the context of one without reading them all. As well, Riordan books follow a very particular formula that makes each book kinda the same. Not in a way that becomes boring, thank god, but in a very brand-specific way that means I know exactly what I’m getting from each book, without there being a lot to differentiate it from the others.

Every Riordan book I read, I’m determined to find a reason, any reason, NOT to give it 5 stars. And without fail, every time, Riordan sinks his claws into me and plays my heartstrings like a lyre, and reluctantly I have to admit to myself that the Riordan machine has pumped out another banger. 

Blood of Olympus is no exception. 

The finale to the prophecy of seven has come to fruition, as our seven demigods arrive in Athens to stop the giants from resurrecting Gaia. They bounce from one trial to another, bringing them closer and closer to the Parthenon of Athens, where the resurrection will take place. The thing that really keeps me hooked into these stories is not so much the action, but the heart that Riordan weaves into the quiet moment between every big battle. Don’t get me wrong, the action is smashing, and Riordan describes it in a way that is not only simple and easy to follow, but also very visual, but it’s those character pieces crammed in between that keep me slobbering for more. Riordan has a way of weaving both action and character into scenes so they’re not distinct. It’s not a case of action in one box and then character moments in the next box, but instead woven together so characters may be having pivotal interactions while dealing with dangerous creatures, making it feel more real. Sometimes the feelings a character has for another interferes with the mission, and that makes the story much more delicious to read. 

I mentioned earlier that I thought Riordan’s book were a bit repetitive, and I feel like I need to expand on this before the Riordan stans come breaking down my door. Riordan’s formula for his books is rolled out in a way that you know exactly what to expect of his stories, even if the characters, events, and obstacles will vary from book to book. Before opening a Riordan book, I hesitate because of this. Will this be the same story I’ve read before? How much longer can I find this formula entertaining? And yet every book is thrilling, funny, and difficult to put down, even if due to the structure of the narrative, it feels like the same shit, different day. From a branding perspective, this is incredibly powerful. Riordan knows exactly what to keep the same and what to change. From a narrative perspective, I’m struggling to find a huge fault in this method as well. Because even if every book feels similar, I’m still coming back for more and walking away happy each time. 

It’s been a few years since I read the House of Hades, but it wasn’t difficult to pick up the story when we left off. As a finale to the prophecy of seven, Blood of Olypmpus slaps, and the series on the whole is a great read. Riordan’s books also get more and more inclusive as time goes on. The cast has become much more diverse racially and ethnically, but it was exciting to see Nico coming out as a gay demigod, as well as reckon with his feelings as an outsider. Nico’s perspective felt refreshing in this book, since his experiences are so different from many of his demigod counterparts, and that also helped to flush out the feelings of ‘diversity’. Even kids who are hurting have someone they can identify with, and Nico does an excellent job in this book of showing how you don’t have to stay in the shadows forever. 

TL;DR: All in all, I cried, I laughed, I just can’t believe how good this man is. 5/5 stars. An epic conclusion to this demigod adventure that measures up to the true meaning of the word epic.  

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle

 

Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Goodreads Description: Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

My Review: I wanted to write a review that focused solely on the book, but I have watched and loved the Studio Ghibli movie for years, so it feels impossible not to compare them. Especially since the stories are so close yet decisively different in very important ways. There will be SPOILERS in this review, so if spoilers spoil for you, then, y'know, look away now. 

Sophie Hatter is doomed. It's something she's known and accepted about herself since she was young. As the eldest of three, she is destined to never find her fortune, while her younger sisters are sure to find success in their endevours. Feeling curbstomped by fate, Sophie resigns herself to work at her family's hat shop for the rest of eternity with nothing but the hats to talk to. This ages and cripples Sophie long before she ever meets the Witch of the Waste. She identifies as the boring old spinster in grey so completely that by the time the Witch curses her with the body of an old woman, it's more of her outside transforming to match her inside, rather than Sophie turning into something she's not. She adapts to her new body shockingly well because of this, and the true conflict of the book becomes convincing Sophie to change back. 

Ghibli's movie version may have been a love story, but Jones' book is a self-love story. Sophie has little to no self-esteem /self-worth and resigns herself to the inevitable. Unique to the book, Sophie is also a witch with the ability to speak life into things, and this, ultimately, seals her fate. Howl (as well as others) would have been able to remove Sophie's curse right off the bat, were she not a powerful witch who reinforced the Witch of the Waste's curse with all her negative self-talk. Through Sophie, we get to see the very real power of negative self-talk, how it limits us and distorts our perception, and ultimately how we can overcome it, even if it never entirely goes away. 

As for the other characters, they're all so much more alive than their movie counterparts. While Studio Ghibili took these characters and filed down all their sharp corners, the book delivers us characters with juicy flaws that both aggravate and soften the reader. Howl is the flamboyantly dramatic king of train wrecks in every scene as opposed to one (*coughhairdyescenescough*), Michael is a teenager with his own goals outside of Howl, and both of Sophie's sisters are fierce, independent women who fight for their futures. Seeing these characters with their own flaws and motivations makes you realize how much of them was stripped away for the romanticized movie version of them. 

The movie also simplified the plot extensively, in ways that didn't always make sense, but hey, it looked pretty, right? The Witch of the Waste is a more serious villain, Howl is actually a college student from Wales, Sophie's sisters swap places with magic and start courting Michael and Howl, and a schoolteacher back in Wales tries to capture Howl's heart in a dangerous way. All of this leads to a much more satisfying story than the aesthetically pleasing but nutritiously hollow snack of a movie by Ghibli. 

Sophie is an unreliable narrator which makes this book so good to re-read. I suppose calling her an unreliable narrator is unfair, since she's not, really, but Jones is so good at making sure we see the world through her perspective that we can miss what's happening. She doesn't catch on to Calcifer's clues right away, and so those clues are buried, without any narrative cues to the reader to let them know this is IMPO INFO YO. Sophie's self-esteem issues and her judgement of others keep her from being able to see Howl's feelings towards her, which leads her to wildly misinterpreting situations and creating a wonderful duality where the reader can see why Sophie thinks this way, while also seeing that it's not actually true. Jones accomplishes this with a deft touch that doesn't make Sophie look delusional, nor is it overtly obvious that her perception has clouded her vision. 

The only complaint I'd have, is I didn't feel there was enough romantic payoff after an entire book full of longing and will-they-won't-they. Though, I suppose that's what the sequels are for. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. If you think you know this story from the movie, think again.