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Book/Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diane Wynne Jones

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle

Author: Diane Wynne Jones

Series: Howl’s Moving Castle #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: 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. -Goodreads

The Review:

I may be the only person on the planet who hadn’t seen the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, but in a way I’m grateful because it gave me the ability to tackle the book with an unbiased opinion. And I’m glad it did because the book was just okay.

And actually, after watching the movie and seeing all the story elements brought to life and enhanced, I found myself looking back on the book with more fondness. What surprised me is how closely the movie kept to the source material. All of the major elements were included, even down to exact quotes on occasion. All save one component: the romance.

In the book there was a connection between the main characters, but their focus was always on others and rarely on each other, lacking any sort of depth. It was kind of odd, and I think that lack of interpersonal connection is the reason I found the story a bit lackluster – it never felt like we were working towards anything meaningful, and so all of the smaller plot points felt, well, pointless. The movie did a brilliant job at adding in what was missing by giving the viewer a through-line to root for (i.e. are they going to end up together?).

I loved the movie. The visuals were stunning, the story components expanded on and enhanced, and the flow and momentum of the pacing perfectly on point.

And the dog. Omg.

In both versions I loved the main character, Sophie. She had a lot of depth and both formats did a great job highlighting certain aspects of her mannerisms. Particularly how her personality changed with different circumstances. The basic premise of the story is this young girl gets changed into an old woman. Watching Sophie deal with the ramifications of that and face her own mortality brought out this beautiful narrative of perspective – where she realizes life’s too short to be held up on petty concerns and starts to speak her mind, not worrying about what others think. It wasn’t a heavy-handed theme, but even so it resonated with me profoundly.

Overall, I think experiencing these two versions in tandem enhanced them both. Because I’d read the book and seen the components the film makers were working with, it make me appreciate their choices on what to adapt and how to make it better. So many brilliant decisions that honored the book and made the movie into the beloved classic it has become.

Recommendations: while the movie was easily my preferred format for the story, reading the book allowed me to appreciate it even more. If you’ve already seen the movie, the book probably won’t add any depth or interest to your experience. However if like me you’ve the new to both, reading the book first will make you appreciate the movie even more.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting

Title: Body Finder

Author: Kimberly Derting

Series: Body Finder #1

Genre: Teen Paranormal

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Violet Ambrose is grappling with two major issues: Jay Heaton and her morbid secret ability. While the sixteen-year-old is confused by her new feelings for her best friend since childhood, she is more disturbed by her “power” to sense dead bodies—or at least those that have been murdered. Since she was a little girl, she has felt the echoes that the dead leave behind in the world… and the imprints that attach to their killers. Violet has never considered her strange talent to be a gift; it mostly just led her to find the dead birds her cat left for her. But now that a serial killer is terrorizing her small town, and the echoes of the local girls he’s claimed haunt her daily, she realizes she might be the only person who can stop him. Despite his fierce protectiveness over her, Jay reluctantly agrees to help Violet on her quest to find the murderer—and Violet is unnerved by her hope that Jay’s intentions are much more than friendly. But even as she’s falling intensely in love, Violet is getting closer and closer to discovering a killer… and becoming his prey herself. -Goodreads

The Review:

Hail the first YA I’ve enjoyed in ages! Join me for a minute for a mini-rant before we get to the review stuff:

I’m testing a theory on why I haven’t been enjoying YA as much lately (5 or so years). Now, I don’t think it’s because I’m no longer a YA – I first got into the genre long after that ship had sailed lol. It might have something to do with the number of books I’ve read and getting tired of similar tropes. But many of the books I’ve picked up over the last few years have actually been quite original. So what changed?! I spent some time examining my reading history, and then it hit me:

Audiobooks.

That’s it. Audiobooks. As soon as I discovered them as a means to consume more content, my average YA rating plummeted dramatically (I could draw up a chart, but I can’t be bothered atm – just trust that there’s a strong correlation). I love audiobooks in general, but something about the production of YA books where it’s always the exact same sounding 20-something woman trying to make her voice more vocal fry to appeal to the younger generation just throws me off. And they never get the content out fast enough, where even listening at 2.0+ speed makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. And the love interests. Omg the love interests who sound anything but appealing, despite the narrator’s best attempt to infuse masculinity. I just don’t like them. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I don’t think I’ve listened to one yet (note: I did not try listening to the audio for Body Finder, so I’m not specifically criticizing any one production here, just speaking in generalities based on my personal experience).

Anyway, so I tried an experiment – physically reading my next YA book…. And Attempt 1/1 was a huge success!

The Actual Review! (thanks for sticking with me)

I loved this book! Now, granted, I was starting with a gem to begin with. The concept is compelling – a girl who can sense the resonance left by the dead and gets caught up in a local murder mystery. It had the perfect blend of paranormal and whodunnit that had me page-turning all the way to the end.

The book also included a surprisingly good romance! The type where the characters already had a deep history of companionship and you could totally see and feel their draw to one-another throughout the book. It was based on connection and experience without a single insta-love trope in sight. I loved it. I will say the drama may have played out just a tad too long for my tastes when considering overall pacing, but at the end of the day it’s still one of the most delightful ones I’ve read (uh, ever).

I’m hoping the next book will contain even more mystery and magic and perhaps slightly less emotional drama, but after all it’s still a YA, so it’s par for the course.

Another thing I appreciated is that the main character wasn’t a total idiot. There were one or two questionably borderline decisions, but for the most part I thought she handled the situations shrewdly. I liked that.

I had the chance to meet Derting at a signing event several years ago and listen to her speak on a Q&A panel. To this day she is still one of the coolest authors I’ve ever met. Her approach to storytelling and her dry humor in person translates perfectly into her books, and I can’t wait to read more from her. I still have the rest of this series, a prep-school one, and an alien one (I’m really interested in the last one).

Recommendations: if you want a fun mystery infused with a cool paranormal magic on top of a compelling romance, this is a great book! One of my favorites I’ve read this year.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

Book Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium

Title: Delirium

Author: Lauren Oliver

Series: Delirium #1

Genre: YA Dystopian

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In an alternate United States, love has been declared a dangerous disease, and the government forces everyone who reaches eighteen to have a procedure called the Cure. Living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Portland, Maine, Lena Haloway is very much looking forward to being cured and living a safe, predictable life. She watched love destroy her mother and isn’t about to make the same mistake. But with ninety-five days left until her treatment, Lena meets enigmatic Alex, a boy from the “Wilds” who lives under the government’s radar. What will happen if they do the unthinkable and fall in love? -Goodreads

The Review:

The book takes place in a reality where love is considered a disease. Making you do things that don’t make sense and go against your better judgment. There are even physical signs – shortening of breath, increased heart rate; it can be dangerous. Don’t worry, though, because luckily, there’s a cure.

When I first picked up Delirium I was certain it would sound like every other YA on the market. No surprise: it does. Here’s the funny thing, though… I really liked it. There’s something incredibly absorbing about the author’s writing. A relaxed quality that makes you feel like you should be in a cozy chair with some tea while reading. I also found this true with her novel, Panic, which is even further away from my preferred reading genre, but I loved it also. Something about her storytelling just works for me.

I’ve heard a lot of people bash Delirium because, even though it’s a dystopian, it lacked the same edge people expect from comparable novels like Divergent and Hunger Games. It’s definitely more of a romance-heavy title (for obvious reasons, given the concept), which didn’t bother me too much in this first book. In fact, I’ve read it twice. The second time was in preparation to continue the series, but I never quite made it around to reading more… again. I think I’m worried it will go the route of most YA trilogies and give me an entire middle book of useless angst and very little plot progression. I also think, aside from a few side enigma characters I’d like to know more about, I probably have a pretty good idea where the story is going to end up, and am not sure I want to commit the time to get there. It’s weird lol. Maybe eventually I’ll finally pick up the rest of the trilogy, but for now I’m content to consider it an open-ended stand alone that I enjoyed immensely.

Recommendations: if you like the more fanciful, romance-driven YA dystopians, this is one of the better ones. There’s a whole sub-genre that I call “girls in pretty dresses in a slightly dystopic world” that I can’t seem to get enough of. This book has the same feel as those.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Guardian by A.J. Hartley

Title: Guardian

Author: A.J. Hartley

Series: Steeplejack #3

Genre: Either YA Fantasy or Adult Fantasy… it’s one ofthose that straddles both genres and I keep changing my mind on where to shelve it. It reads more YA, but the format of the books suggests it belongs in a different category. Perhaps even Mystery.

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: The city of Bar-Selehm is tossed into a whirlwind of scandal when the Prime Minister is found dead on the floors of Parliament: and Anglet Sutonga’s friend and employer, Josiah Willinghouse, is the one holding the knife. Determined to prove his innocence, Ang investigates leads throughout the city, only to discover even more chaos wherever she goes. A mysterious but fatal illness is infecting the poor. A fanatical politician seizes power, and rolls out his plans to make Bar-Selehm great again. Amidst these surrounding dangers, Anglet Sutonga must gather her friends from places high and low to form a resistance… and hopefully, protect everything she knows and loves. -Goodreads

The Review:

There are a lot of things I liked about about this series, but unfortunately The Guardian was just a bit too ridiculous for my tastes.

The author does a great job hanging a lantern on diversity, discrimination, and racism in this series. In fact, the whole plot of this book kind of hinges around those ideas. I just wish the story hadn’t gotten so far-fetched because it stole momentum from other really solid components.

For one, the writing. The author has a very sophisticated yet accessible writing style and I quite enjoyed it. Another great element is the cultural immersion through settings, dialogue, world-building, and plot. It has a 1920s vibe with some South African indigenous people and wildlife along with a subtle albeit weird fantasy twist. It’s such a unique atmosphere, I’ve never read anything like it, and that’s saying something these days. I’d also never heard of a steeplejack before but loved every single page describing the profession. It’s just now occurring to me that I don’t even know if it’s a real thing or just made up for the series. Whatever the case, it gave the main character some interesting background skills and knowledge that played an active part in the unfolding mystery of each book. I really loved that aspect, even when things got weird.

There were a few eye-rolling moments where I thought “okay, I know I’ve been pretty amiable about just going with all the weird ideas up to this point, but that was so completely far-fetched. I just can’t.” A few such scenes really cheapened a lot of the other fantastic things going on. I also thought the overall conflict was too oversimplified; resolved a bit too seamlessly. The idea behind it was great, it just needed a more realistic approach and a longer timeline to satisfy what I wanted out of it.

Recommendations: read this series if you want something fun, unique, and slightly odd.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Title: Empire of Dreams

Author: Rae Carson

Series: Girl of Fire and Thorns #4

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Even though Red Sparkle Stone is a foundling orphan with an odd name and a veiled past, she’s about to be adopted into the royal family—by Empress Elisa herself. Sixteen-year-old Red can hardly believe her luck. Then, in a stunning political masterstroke, the empress’s greatest rival blocks the adoption, and Red is left with no family and no future. Grieving and lost, but determined to find her place, Red hatches a daring plan: she will prove herself as a recruit for the world’s most elite fighting force, the legendary Royal Guard—something no woman has done before. But it’s no coincidence that someone wanted her to fail as a princess, someone whose shadowy agenda puts everything she loves at risk. As danger closes in, it will be up to Red and her new friends—and maybe some new enemies—to save the empire. If they can survive recruitment year. -Goodreads

The Review:

The first book in the Fire and Thorns series happens to be my favorite YA book of all time. The first two Goldseer books also rank high up on the list. I love Carson’s writing, characters, and knack for storytelling. That said, I enjoyed Empire of Dreams (which felt more like a spin-off than a continuation – it follows a side character), but not quite as much as I thought I would.

The basic premise is a girl joining the royal military in the hopes of proving her worth. It offers a bunch of flashbacks to her rough childhood, which gave her a lot more depth than we got in the trilogy – I particularly enjoyed those passages. It balanced that with a plethora of interesting training sessions. I complain a lot about YA books that include training but don’t take time to let the reader experience any of it. This novel had sparing and practicing in abundance, which was the highlight of the novel for me.

Now, I realize the book is a YA and not meant to really be compared to robust adult fantasy novels, but even taking that in consideration, I thought the military training and Red’s relationships with the other initiates was rather juvenile. There was some good “us vs. them” dynamics at first, but then all the other characters got SUPER emotionally supportive and communicative about their feelings. It made the recruits come across much younger than they were. I think the story could’ve benefitted from a bit more grit. However (a big however), that sort of cooperation and teamwork wasn’t unpleasant to read about. It’s a feel-good story for sure, and I’m fighting some guilt at criticizing it for something I should probably be appreciating it for. So I’m splitting the difference by celebrating the expanded training sequences with the disclaimer that they’re not robust, they’re just fun.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I have a lot of patience for narrators in general and can usually work past ones I’m not particularly enjoying (heck, I even tolerate text to speech on my Kindle app). I’m sorry to say that the narrator for this book was one of my least favorite I’ve ever listened too. Literally every line and piece of dialogue was delivered with this sharp conviction that pierced my ears. There were no dynamics or variety in the performance, so the entire book was an endless experience of being snapped at. It was really unpleasant. I half wonder if my rating would’ve been higher had I physically read the whole thing rather than just part of it.

Recommendations: this is a YA fantasy for fans of the Fire and Thorns series. I don’t think it added anything to the experience as a whole, but I do think it was a lot of fun. Skip the audiobook for this one.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

Title: The Summoning

Author: Kelley Armstrong

Series: Darkest Powers #1

Genre: YA Paranormal

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Chloe Saunders used to have a relatively normal life. But now she finds herself in the middle of some really strange situations because:
~She suddenly starts seeing dead people.
~She gets locked up in a group home for unstable teens.
~The group home isn’t what it seems.

“My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again. All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me. Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House… before its skeletons come back to haunt me.” –Goodreads

The Review:

Well, color me surprised, this book was great!

I’ve been such a grinch with YA over the last few years because they’re just not singing to me like they once did. A small part of that is poor title selection, but the bigger part is that I’m tired of all the repeating tropes and weak writing that gets forgiven as long as the book has a love story and a trendy theme. But hallelujah, The Summoning had some real substance and depth.

I went in with high expectations because Armstrong is an author I’ve read (Women of the Otherworld) and enjoyed (mostly… the series is hit or miss). My success rate with YAs written by adult-genred authors is much higher. But even here I was surprised at how off the beaten path the story took me.

For starters it’s dark, taking place in a group home / asylum for disturbed teens. The main character is young but seems to have a good grasp on common sense and how to take care of herself (a rarity), but still gets the benefit of the doubt for human error. Also, it contains some not so typical characters, including (gasps!) a few somewhat unattractive ones. In the spotlight!! Wow. That alone gets kudos.

And finally, what impressed me the most was how much the book creeped me out. I listen to most YA before bed to help me fall asleep (because I don’t have to pay as close attention as I’d need to for an adult fantasy), and there were a few scenes that had me staring at the dark ceiling in the middle of the night, trying to ground myself back into reality so I could sleep. Granted, I’m a total, unapologetic wimp when it comes to scary stuff (can’t do it. Nope.), so take my marveling with a grain of salt. However, it did ding my creep-o-meter a lot more than almost all of the adult urban fantasy / paranormal books I’ve read, so either it appealed to my personal scare triggers or it was just exceptionally done. Either way, for a YA, it blew expectations out of the water.

Recommendations: I’m not sure where the story is headed, so I’m still reserving final judgement, but overall this is a strong read and I recommend it to paranormal fans who are tired of the same old YA tropes. It was well written, creepy, and a totally unexpected delight of a read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes