Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hatters, Spells, and Poetry! REVIEWING: Howl's Moving Castle

Welcome back to The Real World According To Sam. Today I'll be telling you about a book (astonishing, right?). But wait!!! This isn't just ANY book. Oh no, not by any means. This is a good book. In fact, I'd easily call it a VERY good book....but before I can tell you about the book, I need to mention a few other things.

The author of today's book is Diana Wynne Jones. I've never read a Diana Wynne Jones novel until now....however, I hear that she was a very good author, especially of fantasy books. She also won a few awards, so that's always a good sign.

Also, the book I'll be reviewing today is a very popular animated feature. Anyone familiar with the work of Hiyao Miyazaki will know exactly which one I speak of. This book was adapted into a cartoon by Studio Ghibli (google them, they do some really interesting work), an animation studio based in Tokyo Japan. They have a partnership with the Disney company, in order to have their cartoons more widely distributed. I can't help but include that they have some of the best animation that I've seen in cartoons lately. They go for a more classic, traditional style that has been passed up here in the States due to computer technology. Computer animation is great and all (like Toy Story and Cars), but it isn't the only form of animation that can be used. I find classic animation to be much more appealing and artistic.  I digress, Studio Ghibli has had many popular films including, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo and Princess Mononoke. Arguably, one of the most popular is Howl's Moving Castle. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where I shall begin the review.

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Howl's Moving Castle
Author: Diane Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Publication: 1986


Let me just say something right off the bat before I really get started here. I have never seen the animated feature by Studio Ghibli for this book. Shame on me, yes, I know. I was actually checking out the movie when I found out about this book. So no, I didn't even know that it was a book either. How did I find out? Easy. When I checked out the DVD, the librarian said that she didn't know that it was a video and that she really enjoyed the book. Bells in my head shot off ringing in my head, "Ohmygosh what?! Its a book? Who wrote it? Does this library have it?" Did I ask her any of those questions? No. I went online, accessed the library's catalog and searched for the title. Luckily enough, they had it available and I picked it up soon after.

That's the story of how I came to read this book. Why don't we get to what the book actually is about and what makes it good?
Howl is a wizard...a fearsome wizard. He eats the hearts of young girls. He lives in a castle.....that moves (you had to see that one coming, right?). Sophie is the eldest of 3 sisters. That's already bad news for her. Eldest sisters are.....well, to put it bluntly, pretty much screwed. They are the least likely to be successful (Hey wait....I'm the eldest child....darn it!). Oh well. Sophie's family runs a hat shop. So she could technically be called a mad hatter, I suppose. Her mother died when she was young and her father remarried and had more kids. One? or was it two? Either way, there are 3 daughters total, and the stepmom. Her two younger sisters are sent off to seek their fortunes elsewhere and Sophie gets stuck with the shop. The stepmom does whatever it is she does while Sophie works. But wouldn't you know it, the Wicked Witch of the Waste decides to come and mess with Sophie....and Sophie ends up cursed. She's old now. She looks just like an old lady and her life has been severely shortened. So what does she do? What any cursed old person would do! She goes away to see if she's better off elsewhere. She runs into a scarecrow and a dog and winds up at Howl's door, which she enters since there's no point in being afraid of him since she's old and he pry won't want to eat her heart. What happens next? I'm not saying, but its very entertaining and makes for a great story.

Howl is a very interesting character. I enjoyed reading about him a whole lot. His way of being just makes me laugh. Sophie is feisty and.....loves to clean. It's what she does for a lot of the book, but never did it bother me or get tiresome. I don't mind her cleaning and being nosey for half the book (I'm actually being totally honest, no sarcasm intended). Calcifer is such a great character. I think he has one of the most interesting stories I've heard for side characters. He's really not much of a side character at all. He shares the spotlight with Sophie and Howl. Michael is funny. I like the way he runs around sometimes, like a chicken with its head cut off. He gets so concerned and flustered.

The best thing...is that all of the characters are different!!! They have their own thicker-than-paper personalities. Each character, not just the main ones. The sisters, the stepmom, the main characters, the villainous character. They are all very distinct and distinguishable. That was awesome.

The setting...how do I even start here? I liked the scenery. All the places that serve as settings in the book are pretty neat. The coolest thing, though, in regards to setting and scenery, is Howl's castle. I mean...WOW. What a neat, intriguing idea. It can move but it has several doors that open to different spots? That's just genius.

But I can just hear you asking me "what about the plot?". Well, dear reader, let me tell you. I really greatly enjoyed the plot. At first, I didn't quite see where it was going, but once I found out I was psyched and so excited to see what was to come. I was hooked from the start, because Jones just knows how to write a gripping book. It wasn't chalk full of adventure from the start, but it was interesting and made me want to read more about Sophie. The best thing was that it was more about Calcifer than anyone else really! The way all the puzzle pieces come together was just so cool. I especially like the use of John Donne's poem "Song". I've heard it before, but never have I seen poems used in a book as a way of urging the plot forward. Its a big part of the book and I will never read it the same way. Plus the extra little bits of romance were just perfect to make me an all around happy reader. This book was just loaded with things that made me happy.

Here is the important part of the poem:

"GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind. "

 I really like the beginning of this poem, because all it does it list impossible things (it reminds me of Alice in Wonderland...thinking up 6 impossible things before breakfast). Howl's Moving Castle only uses the first stanza, which is my favorite part of the whole thing. The rest of the poem is irrelevant to the story and rather annoys me as a whole, so I'm just going to leave it out from here and not waste the valuable typing space I have. I actually had to read this for my 17th Century Prose and Poetry (English) class. Ironically, it was just after I finished reading this book....don't you just love life's little coincidences??

Overall, I say that this book is one that just DEMANDS to be read. I give Howl's Moving Castle a marvelous 4 out of 5 hat rating. So you should go and read it....I highly recommend it. Why is it not a 5? I don't know....I just needed a little bit more at the end. I wanted some more sappy sweetness. That would've been sooo great and would've made this book a definite 5. But it comes super close and was way enjoyable, earning it a remarkable 4.5. Read it, I'm sure you won't be too disappointed. I plan on watching the movie pretty soon so I'm hoping that's really good. Hopefully it'll add some more dimensions to the book and make me notice things and make connections where I hadn't while reading it. Fabulous book. I would DEFINITELY read this book again. As a matter of fact, it happens to be part of a trilogy. The public library here has a copy of the second book, so you can bet that I'll have to read it at some point!

Thanks for coming to The Real World According To Sam and reading this review, come back soon for more!!!


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jedis, Padawans and Death Stars: Reviewing William Shakespeare's Star Wars

Hello and welcome to The Real World According To Sam.

Today's review is going to be a joining of a contemporary classic and a very familiar English face. Let us begin....although I have to say that the Force is not strong with this one.

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William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope
Author: Ian Doescher
Genre: Humor/ Play/ Tie-In
Year of Publication: July 2013


                 
 Allow me to begin my review by saying that I was incredibly excited to read this book. Those of you who have been reading for the past year or so may have seen my post back in June or July about things I noticed online that I was excited about or found interesting (What's Up with Sam? #1). Star Wars + Shakespeare was included there, as well as a *hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge* to my parents to try and get it for me for my birthday. Suffice it to say, they didn't and I'm GLAD. I definitely needed to give this book a trial run before buying it. Let me talk about it a bit first before I actually start critiquing it and giving my opinion. That's a rather important step to take.

                     William Shakespeare's Star Wars is what the title says it is. It is the first (technically, so long as you're going by release date and not actual title of episodes) Star Wars movie in play format, written in Shakespearean English, or so it claims. The cover is really cool, with Darth Vader taking on the portrait of Shakespeare in a similar kind of clothing but with his trademark robot suit underneath. There are 5 acts, multiple scenes, and asides galore. There are also really neat illustrations inside which I found to be greatly enjoyable. At first glance, it appears as though this book would be the perfect gift for someone who loves both Star Wars and Shakespeare or at least has a rather high respect or general interest in either. But now we should get to the nitty gritty of this review.

                        I am an English major. This coming semester I will be taking a class focused solely on Shakespeare. I have read 5 of his plays and many of his sonnets, repeatedly for pleasure and study. I have seen every Star Wars movie and went on Star Tours when my family vacationed to Walt Disney World a few years ago. I have the soundtracks to The Phantom Menace and for Episodes 4-6. I saw Star Wars Live! in concert when it came to the Don Haskins Center at UTEP a couple years back. So I really like Shakespeare and Star Wars. That being said, I did not like this book.

                     At first, I was super ridiculously excited about it and reading it. It seemed like a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, I have to admit that it probably should've stayed at just an idea. There are so many flaws with this book. I had so many issues with it, that I couldn't really even enjoy it all that much. I was disappointed and that made me really sad. Books should not make me sad in this manner. Emotionally taking stabs at my heart with characters or events? Sure. Go for it. Failing to deliver on a great idea and wasting my time? I draw the line there.
                   
                   I honestly have no clue why Mr. Lucas would put his stamp of approval on this work, but then again, none of us know why he would alter such miniscule moments that make us shake our heads (we all know who shot first in that cantina and it was NOT Greedo).  However, that is another matter entirely. This book actually addresses that segment in one of the most cowardly ways I've seen. I would call spoiler alert, but I don't really think it's necessary for this book. If you haven't seen Star Wars: A New Hope, then go do it before continuing on. If you have, then I welcome you with open arms and implore that you leave some feedback when the curtain closes on this review.

As I was saying about the cantina who shot first scene, Doescher simply leaves it at something along the lines of: Who shot first, we'll never know. Something like that, which is a terrible thing to do. The thing to do is either please all the fans of the original Star Wars who know that Han shot first, or just follow Lucas's alterations and say that Greedo shot first. You can't have it both ways. One thing happened or the other. Saying we'll never know is just a lie and its a bad way out of this scenario. It's not funny, it's not cute. Pick one and go with it. Stick to your guns. Based on the author info given in the book, I would assume that if he's a real fan, he has a side he's on and he should've just gone with it. It seems like a minor detail, but all the issues with this book exist because of those minor details. To be honest, I'm just nitpicking this point anyway. It's not a life death matter and it didn't make me dislike the book, but its something that I didn't find to be pushing me towards liking it all the more either. Moving on.

                    The real problem I have with this book is the authenticity of it and the style. The format is great, the idea is great, the execution is terrible. The sentences are oddly structured to be "Shakespearean". Even though this was said to have been checked by many English professors, I kind of doubt it. Maybe one or two checked a couple segments but overall it is a mess. Some of the sentences are flipped, to fit the verb at the ending. This however, is not so much authentic, as awkward. Most of the time it felt like Doescher was trying to channel Yoda instead of the immortal Bard. Yoda doesn't have a place in A New Hope. He never has and in this book, his speech mannerisms shouldn't either.
               
                    Furthermore, there are way too many asides. An aside, for those unfamiliar with the finer points of plays, are when a character on stage is talking to someone else, but takes a moment and thinks something out loud for the audience to hear, that the other character being spoken to isn't hearing. This is a way of getting into the mind of characters in a play. It's a great idea in theory and in a lot of plays it works excellently. Here, it doesn't. Simply because there are too many. Sometimes, less REALLY IS more. I took the liberty of tallying the asides, just to illustrate the point that there are too many, and I can assure you that half of these aren't even necessary and do little to move the story along.

  Act 1 (18)
  Act 2 (23)
  Act 3 (21)
  Act 4 (24)
+Act 5 (14)
______
Total: 100 

Something else I found awkward was Doescher's placing of a song. I haven't seen very many Shakespearean songs in the plays I've read yet, but for some reason I'm certain that they have better placement in his plays than they did here in this book. There's a point where Doescher is retelling the part where Darth Vader tests out the Death Star on Leia's home planet of Alderaan. After it is destroyed, Leia does not cry, nor does she really fight back....she sings. The problem here is that the song is not one of real sorrow in my way of seeing things. She uses a line or two saying she misses a friend that she once spent time with who is nameless. Repeatedly she says hey nonny. It is short and utterly useless. It doesn't tell us how Leia is really even feeling. It feels cheap and superficial, as if it was just tossed in there to get in an English song that says hey nonny over and over again. I can't even imagine how a song with these words would sound. I can't think of a really good fitting tune for it. It was bad timing and was a waste of words. The right time for a song would've been when Luke is on Tatooine looking up at the twin suns and wishing that his uncle would let him go off to become a pilot at the Academy with his friends. That's the perfect time! He's sad and feels alone and wants something more that he isn't being given. There's no life death situation, so its nice and peaceful and fitting. That's just my opinion though and I'd be curious to see if anyone actually enjoyed the placement of Leia's song and the reason why. 

Speaking of bad timing, what was up with Leia's spiel about the kiss she gives to Luke?? There's the scene in the movie where Han, Chewbacca, Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids are freeing Princess Leia from the Death Star's prison and she flees with Luke and they're running from stormtroopers and have to swing across a massive gap of doom. Before they swing, she kisses his cheek for luck. Quick, simple, no biggie, right? In this book, its such a big deal that Leia has to get all poetic about the kiss she's giving to him. This is also poor timing for the fact that Stormtroopers are right at the door behind them, burning their way through to recapture Leia and take Luke too. Wouldn't that qualify as a life and death situation and thereby the inappropriate time for a spiel about an irrelevant kiss since nothing comes of it (being that Leia goes with Han anyway since Luke's her long lost brother)??? I would say that it should be a quick sort of deal, even in wording, to exaggerate the danger they are all in. It'd be as easy as Leia saying its a kiss for luck and gratitude or something and moving on with the story. Could we get that? No, of course not. Things have to be dragged out forever and a day with ridiculous song and poetics. Shakespeare may have taken time for poetry, but he wasn't exactly at the open end of a blaster, was he? 

One last little gripe and it'll be curtain call time. This may be the biggest problem of all that I have however, aside from the drawn out nature of the book, and this regards character loyalty. One of the most popular villains in 20th century pop culture is Darth Vader. Even if someone has never seen Star Wars, or doesn't like it, they probably know who Darth Vader is. Aside from his cameo in Night at the Museum 2 where he was ridiculed by the lead villain, Darth Vader is known as being one of the most evil and misunderstood villains in the history of villainy. He's lost everything, has nothing much to live for aside from the massive amount of power he can wield and the havoc he can cause. In Star Wars Episode 4, Darth Vader is a show stealer. At first, you don't know who he is (unless you saw Episodes 1-3 first which is crazy talk), all you know is he has a crazy outfit and he means business. He isn't nice and he isn't sympathetic. You say one wrong thing and he will force choke you. In other words, you DO NOT mess with Vader. In this book, Vader is practically a joke! Why? Well he has basically all the same lines as he did in the movie, just slightly altered.....but one gets altered horrifically and in my opinion, it makes him lose all the edge he may have had. In the scene where he senses Obi-Wan on board the Death Star, things get badly tampered with. In the movie, he simply says: "I sense something...a presence I've not felt since..." and he turns away with a flick of his cape. That's when you know that things are about to go down. That there was something significant that happened in the past. It's simple and super effective.  In this book, Vader goes on a poetic tangent. It gives everything away and its terrible. He goes on about "This presence.....This presence......Now I shall present..to this presence that is present," or something like that that sounds just as ridiculous. Its close, but not word for word. Doescher tries to pull off Shakespeare's word play and wit here but it really just falls short while also ruining a much respected and beloved character. Vader isn't a poet. He's a scarred man with nothing left but power and an evil master who'd throw him away as soon as he isn't necessary anymore. He's lost everything and has gained many dark skills. He's most intimidating when he says very little and just moves to take action. Making him have that moment was a really bad choice on Doescher's part. That tips the scale that was already leaning away from this being a great book. 

Not only is this book too drawn out and wordy in a displeasing way, an excellent character has been altered in a bad way and ruined on these pages. I really wanted to enjoy this book, but at a point it just became tedious and I literally had to FORCE myself to read this (no pun intended at all). I entered the pages excited and came out super tired and annoyed. This isn't Star Wars at its finest. 

Normally a book like this would get recommended to Star Wars fans or Shakespeare fans, or those who enjoy both. I would say, only read it if you are too curious to refrain or if you won't be put off by its lengthy tediousness. I read somewhere that the author would like to continue with the next episode of Star Wars. I think he should leave it be unless he's fully prepared to make it tons better than this one. The only part I really enjoyed was the end scene where the pilots are all fighting and trying to blow up the Death Star at its one weak point. Also, the illustrations were pretty awesome and I really enjoyed seeing some of the most memorable scenes from the movie (including a force choke and the Cantina Band). Aside from those things, I'm going to have to pass on purchasing this book (I checked it out at the library, THANKFULLY). 
In the end, I really had a hard time figuring out what rating to give this book. I still semi enjoyed it. It wasn't a totally flop, but it definitely isn't one that I'll pick up a second time. If we round, it gets a 3...but to be exact, then I have to say that William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope gets a 2.8

This concludes my review, I hope you enjoyed it and will come back for the next review!