Cover/Title/Blurb

The art and first impressions of selling a book

I am currently doing what I should have done long ago and actually focussing on the trawl for representation. I am wading through the agent websites and I am discovering how agents sell themselves, and how they promote the authors they represent.

And with a tell I have shown before, I only now begin to realise what I don’t know.
What has helped me realise this is the arrival of a GoodReads list of, “44 new novelists are making waves in the YA world”.

I don’t take the time often enough to actually observe the market I’ve been plucking books from the YA list at random, but I think after I’ve finished Wolf Hall/…The Bodies, I shall focus a little more on the contemporary YA scene. Just this brief review really makes me realise how important a good agent’s ‘feel’ for the market can be: how they present the raw material you submit; how the impact of three things: Cover, title and blurb will shape a books destiny.

So these 44 authors of the literary firmament (far above me, down here, yet to be repped, let alone published) have worked hard to produce their manuscripts and this is the modern shop window where their agents and editors, publishers and wholesalers have prepared a place for you to land: a place where I admittedly, do not often linger long enough.

But not this morning! This morning, I am among you! I see you all, bright starlings! Sing to me! Your work, as presented by the publishing industry and the modern salesperson. I begin to imagine how I might fit in amongst these little snippets, and wonder how I sharpen my own arrows – my query, my sample and synopsis – to plunge into the heart of an agent, skewering them with the exactitude and potential of my narrative flight.
(OK maybe the dead agent imagery’s needs work.)

The full list of authors and their works ( I salute and cheer you all) is here, but here’s my own personal reaction. How do the three work in combination? The cover, is the first attractor…

Cover

Rebel of the Sands appeals; If I Was Your Girl is very striking; A Shadow Bright and Burning has a nice palette; The Girl from Everywhere is typographically bold and does something interesting with scale; The Way I Used To Be is similarly bold with a great full bleed photo in the background; Girl in Pieces is equally bold, if very different; Same sort of space for A list of cages which I like more, the more I look at it; The Black Witch is a very clever illustration, although I’m not sure I trust it; in a similar vein to, ‘Rebel of the Sands’ is The Hazel WoodThe Astonishing Color of After is graphically lovely; and again, the palette of Girls of Paper and Fire drew my eye; We Hunt the Flame makes me nostalgic for the books of my childhood, and; Descendants of the Crane makes me want to know more. But my absolute favourite for its wit and style is Again, but Better, a fact perhaps related to its title, which is also one of my favourites.

Title

So from that list of covers which drew me closer that I might read their titles, my initial reaction would be (a final “…” indicates me scrolling over to read the blurb):

Rebel of the Sands : ‘Hmm, OK; I’ll look because I like the cover…’
If I Was Your Girl : ‘This book and I will never be friends’
A Shadow Bright and Burning : ‘Ooh, no.’
The Girl from Everywhere : ‘Hmm; don’t like books with ‘Girl’ in the title, but that is a great cover…’
The Way I Used To Be : ‘I think I can guess what this’ll be like and it won’t be my cup of tea, but…’
Girl in Pieces : ‘Really wanted to like this but now I read it, its just screaming Manic Pixie Dream Girl’
A list of cages : ‘Great cover, strong title…’
The Black Witch : ‘Hmm. that’s a nice illustration detail, it implies things that might imply clevernesses and subtexts. The title isn’t great, but…’
The Hazel Wood : ‘Bit of a nothing title, but…’
The Astonishing Color of After: ‘Mmm, nice whooshy graphic cover, sort of disguises the title; what does it… Oh Christ no.’
Girls of Paper and Fire : ‘What is it with all these “Girl” titles!?…’
We Hunt the Flame : ‘Mmmh. Hunting and ‘fire’ feel a bit laboured…’
Descendants of the Crane : ‘Too much what I would have expected’
Again, but Better : ‘This looks like a book about funny time travel…’

 

Blurb

Blurbs on GoodReads come in two parts: the instant preview and then a longer version, available via a ‘…more’ tag. Some of these I knew within those first few lines, others I needed more, and those I did read further generally didn’t convince me.

Rebel of the Sands
Short: Hmm… Long: too wordy, too much *does a finger sprinkle* mystery… mentions romantic passion and there’s a typo (even though it is super-minor).
The Girl from Everywhere
Short, not sure about this… Long: wasn’t looking too hopeful, but when it did finally get to the part where it laid out what happens, I was sold.
The Way I Used To Be
Short: This is very much a ‘sold’ book – blurb opens with lots reasons why I should be reading it… Long: the narrative blurb seems repetitive and shallow. I’m sure this is an important and useful book, but it is not for me.
A List of Cages
Short: American high schools/colleges all seem a bit done to death as a setting and I don’t know what an ‘elective’ is (I deduce from the rest that it’s an extra study area? A choice?)… Long: and then it mentions how the hero is struggling with ADHD and I’m out.
The Black Witch
Short: I don’t like books that mention prophesies. It’s too much of a ‘Because PLOT’ device… Long: I got as far as ‘Vertax’ and stopped reading.
The Hazel Wood
Short: I don’t feel this. The premise seems hackneyed and too generic for my taste… Long: No. Not for me.
Girls of Paper and Fire
Short: Reads well – the concept of the paper girls looks like it might be interesting…Long: but having read it all, I’m just not willing to defend the Cover/Title combination to the cynics.
We Hunt the Flame
Short: The words ‘cursed forest’ make my eye twitch…Long: too many adjectives and too many by-the-numbers plot points.
Again, but Better
Short: I was feeling good about this, until , ‘ romance…what’s that?’ happened…Long: Oh, how can I have misunderstood you so badly, beautiful cover and good title?

 

So, despite having ‘Girl’ in the title, the only one of these I’m still holding is, “The Girl from Everywhere’. So now I ignore my initial reactions to the cover, and go on titles and choose a few more to scroll through:

Stalking Jack the Ripper
I have a bit of a problem with the Ripper industry: it’s the archetypal ‘pretty dead girl’ you get at the start of every TV crime series and it’s all a bit done to death: why doesn’t someone examine… then I see this is about  someone hunting him, and now I look closer and see the woman in the bodice is holding a knife…
Blurb is very salesy and I’m almost put off by the decision to lead with ‘James Patterson’s latest publishing project’, but I grit my teeth and like what the story is about. A good start… Long: more teeth gritting over the forbidden secret life, but said life does sound pretty interesting. If I was going to use a nerdy analogy, I’d say I wasn’t  sure on the CSS, but the HTML and the <content> look good.

The Crown’s Game
The cover really doesn’t work for me, and the title is only OK, but as soon as I start to read this, I’m hooked: the character names, the detail of the magic described, the political intrigue. Yep. Not even gonna read the long, just “Putin” it straight in the basket.

The Hate U Give
Investigated this one because I’ve heard it mentioned a lot. Really don’t like the title or the cover, but what I read actually interests me and I wonder if I’m missing something and maybe my first reactions are wrong. And I read the long blurb after the sales recommendation it opens with and I think I should read this and it will be very important. Basket.

American Street
I initially passed this over because of the blunt red, yellow, blue colour splashes, but now I look closer, I like the graphic and the title is strong…
But then the blurb opens with a proverb and I’m out.

To Kill A Kingdom
The detail of the cover isn’t bad actually; the octopus with daggers looks like there might be intrigue (I like intrigue)… short: Seventeen hearts in a box, I like it… Long: wait, what? Humans are bad? So it’s not allegorical or magical?
No, it’s outright fantasy; that’s an actual tentacle holding an actual dagger. ‘Sirenkind’? Oh, no then. (A brief lesson in the perils of skim-reading and the decision not to capitalise ‘siren’ in the first line.)

 

Final Call for flight to fancy

OK, so the undisclosed hurry is set in an airport WHSmiths, and I’m leaving with The Girl From Everywhere, The Crown’s Game and The Hate U Give to read on a hastily sketched beach.

Meanwhile…

In reality, we’re  heading off to the Loire for a week towards the end of August, where I intend to immerse myself in short morning bicycle rides to get bread and wine and afternoon flops into the pool. Mostly though, I will be neck deep in volumes one and two of Hilary Mantel’s  Cromwell trilogy. (I’ve already started WH, and it is hypnotising). After that though: new YA, here I come!

 

 

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Eight days of Luke

Diana Wynne Jones

Oh how a cover can colour a book. This is the second DWJ book I’ve read this year and the second to have been possessed of a cover which… well. Fashions change, I guess?

This is a clever and lucid retelling of the Ragnarok legend (my second this year) and possibly my third, If I get round to reading American Gods (although, having now read that Neil Gaiman relied heavily on this book to produce that tome, I’m less minded to) –  especially having also half-watched the Amazon version.

Again, I can see this making an excellent BBC Family show: the way she builds character, playing to archetypes just enough to make them familiar and believable is one of DWJs great talents, I think.  That, and her ability to make complex and challenging scenarios appear simple, but to carry a much greater depth and weight than at first appears.

BR1 read this before me and having not (as far as I know) read any versions of Ragnarok didn’t think it was that good. I enjoyed the recasting of the heroes of the original in contemporary (ie: 1975) Britain, and how she (DWJ) resisted the urge to ram the retelling home. It was there to be found, not laboriously rolled out.

On the shelf: Nnng… never judge a book by its… but… 2

On loan: Phew – a much better tale than was outwardly suggested – 4

On return: Noting monumental, but further arrows in the quiver of DWJ – 4

 

All Among The Barley

Melissa Harrison

I’ve sat on my thoughts about this book for a while. Not for any great reason; more I think because it made me sad. it is a sad story, and all the sadder for being so well told.

BR1 has just finished this and wasn’t quite so enamoured of it as I was, but I would still recommend its subtle blend of magic and madness that made for such a sad disillusion at the end. It did less in the writing to build a link between fascism and ‘the land’ than I thought it was going to, that presence of the cuckoo from the city being more run as a parallel tale than as a central theme.

[SPOILER] Events prove to be disastrous for Edith, the girl at the heart of the story, but I guess that was the truth of it. Working class lives, especially those of girls’, were easily discarded in them days. That Edith could be condemned to an asylum, purely for having an active imagination and being convinced by a boy and by curiosity to do more than just lie amidst the harvest, was as brutal and unsympathetic an outcome as her father was a parent.

On the shelf: an EU prize winner, trailed as exploring the simplistic answers offered by fascism and its place in the rural landscape between the wars: 4.5

On loan: a timely book, beautifully wrought with fine agricultural detail and sense of a farming life, and with hints of what may lie ahead in Brexit… 4.5

On return: never wove the fascist subplot into the story of the land as much as I had hoped, being in the end a more personal tale of faith in magic and being let down – 4

 

 

 

This Is Going To Hurt

Adam Kay

Yet more (as if any were needed) evidence that the people to whom we pay the most are the least worthy of the financial rewards they accrue, whilst those to whom we dispense the most meagre monies are more likely to be those to whom we owe the greatest debt. As we endure yet more politicking from the duplicitous and the underhanded, attempting to bind us to the US with lucrative ‘trade deals’ and their disastrously effective (for the already obscenely wealthy) private health market, take up this book and treasure anew our National Health Service.

Via a series of (mostly) highly amusing anecdotes recounted in diary form from the authors journals while he was an ‘obs ‘n’ gynae’ (Obstetrics and Gynaecology) junior doctor and registrar, This Is Going To Hurt lays bare the extent of human stupidity and the gallows humour required of those who choose to confront the universe’s utter lack of compassion. (Trigger warning: it does not end well).

I spent long periods shaking my head while I read this: always in disbelief. Sometimes at the innate curiosity- nay, obsession, we as a species have with inserting objects into parts of our bodies where said objects are not intended to fit, and at other times at the level of sacrifice the Doctors and Nurses of the NHS make to keep us alive. At one point, the author recounts just how many hours junior doctors are expected to work and calculates (for our amusement) the hourly rate the people to whom we entrust our lives are being paid, based on the actual hours they work – as opposed to those they are contracted to do. [Spoiler:] It’s about £6.50.

If you believe fervently and hopefully in God, avoid this book because it will reveal in no uncertain terms the utter randomness with which ill fortune can descend upon any of us. There is no great design here: there is only cold, hard, chance.

I know Doctors: one of them (A GP) is one of my best friends. I will be seeing him this weekend and I will pass this book to him. I will also be asking him how he is, as this book’s parting advice is that as these people need our support (obviously) the best way to offer it is to ask them if they want to talk: to hug them if they look like they need it.

If for any reason you don’t have profound respect and gratitude for medical professionals and the NHS, read this book. It will hurt, but it will be worth it.

On the shelf – Again, lots of promotion from the twitter-verse, and I know some doctors… let’s see what its like: 3

On loan – Oh my.. oh… in where?4

On return – Doctors and Nurses of the NHS, I salute you: 5

The Hunting Party

By Lucy Foley

This was OK.

It was the tale of 8 (or was it 10?) Russell Group University friends who get stranded in the remote Highlands for a New Years’ party where everything falls apart amidst the isolated beauty and their petty jealousies resolve to reveal a dark truth which leaves one of them dead at the foot of a waterfall. It was a well-plotted mystery, and cleverly structured, shifting backward and forwards from the discovery of the body on News Years’ Day to their arrival at the lodge and the slow reveal of their motivations, shifting amongst the characters for their accounts  of the unfolding events. But.

I’m sure Lucy Foley is very nice, but this really just felt like it was written for her friends to guess which snippets of which character belonged to which of them: like a publishing industry insiders dinner party with a little light drug use and little light infidelity amidst the recollections of Oxbridge japes. I just didn’t like any of them, the main characters: there was a mixed couple, a gay couple (none of which really got much of a role and so ended up feeling like they were only there to tick boxes) there was a jock, an alcoholic, a workaholic, the insider trader, the ravishing beauty and the latecomer to the group who was trying super hard to fit in. Alongside these elite house-guests were the working class characters who ran the place, one of whom I found myself disproportionately annoyed by because he was written in the third person while the rest were all first. I suppose it was to give the impression he was going to be the murderer, but it was so obviously not going to be him, I couldn’t fathom why she wrote him that way.

The (master) work this most reminded me of was The Secret History, but whereas DTs characters pulsed with real-life privilege, these self-absorbed, self-regarders just sat there, expecting to be admired. I do not like them or really care in the end which one of them died.

On the shelf: a lot of people I follow on twitter were upping this and it was ludicrously cheap on Amazon (4.99!? For a hardback!?) so I was looking forward to it: 4

On loan: As readable as this is, I do not like these people: 3

On return: This was a well-structured story, but the one-dimensionality of the characters and the lack of self-awareness made them very hard to care about: 3

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman

Beta Reader No1 read this and loved it and everyone at my writers group raved about it too. I did not love it to begin as I felt it was exploitative and prurient: that it held a shield of ‘exploring loneliness’ in front of it to mask an over-the-garden-fence prurience concerning mental illness: like this woman who was clearly unwell was just being spied on.

BUT (I like big buts, I cannot lie) it won me round as Eleanor grew and developed and healed: I thought the fact she healed herself was beautiful and uplifting and in the end, I did come away having thoroughly enjoyed it. It was uplifting. I was uplifted.

And maybe it was the name, but for almost 3/4 of the book I imagined Eleanor was black: there was something about the description of her isolation that managed to evoke a sort of racism in the way she was excluded. I know Reese Witherspoon has bought the rights and so it’ll probably be her in the lead, but I would love to see Letitia Wright or Lupita Nyong’o given the chance in the lead. Wouldn’t that be something?

On the shelf: I resisted as I suspected it was not for me: 3

On loan: Oh dear, I was right, this is not only chicklit, it is exploitative and mean and… hang on, maybe this is… OK, no… no, OK… actually, this is great : 2… 4.5

On return: A really lovely story of self-possession and courage and friendship, only slightly marred by my suspicion that the too-loud insistence ‘THIS BOOK IS ABOUT LONELINESS’ was being used to disguise the fact we’re all still Victorians visiting Bedlam to poke the crazies for a penny : 4.5

The Essex Serpent

By Sarah Perry

Myth and reality intertwined, this was a salty tale, richer in symbolism and character than in plot, it was a string of freshwater prose strung across the estuary, asking a lot of questions but offering no straight answers.

Set in the Victorian era and painting a vividly refreshing backdrop from quite familiar colours, it was well researched and followed the freshly-widowed Cora Seaborne as she seeks herself amidst the mud of the Essex countryside. She develops two suitors: a man of science and a man of faith about whom she twirls and twists in her quest to find the titular serpent, while her patrons, friends, female companion and diffident son dip and weave in her wake. Interestingly, it is only the man of science, a surgeon, who actively pursues her, seeking out her affections as questively as he does the answers to the riddle of the human body, while the priest she forms a more spiritual, intellectual bond with matches her stride for stride as they traverse the Essex countryside.

It really was beautifully written and I appreciated the distance Ms Perry created between the interspersed letters the players send each other and the way each month opened with a graceful glide across the lives of them all, filling in the spaces created by the structure and letting half glimpses emerge like the possibility of the ancient creature the villagers of the parish insists they have seen through the mist, writhing and twisting in the blackwater.

UPDATE: It is several months since I read this and wrote the above. I’ve read a couple of other things since and as wonderful as the writing was, I cannot really recall what happened, and I realise it was virtually without plot: the moods and the whims of the characters being the only thing that directed it. I’ve come back to publish this now and have toned my response a little as once back on the shelf, its not as fulfilling in hindsight. [SPOILER] the titular snake proves to be a chimera: a half-sunken boat; a man-made thing, not a creation of nature. While that’s all very clever, what with the whole debate about science and the spirit that the novel explores, but it wasn’t particularly satisfying, in the end.

On the shelf
I read this with an eye to my own work and was apprehensive that it would be too good and render my scribblings irrelevant. Excitement tempered by anxiety: 4

On Loan
A masterclass of style and character with no discernible plot : 4

On Return
An erudite collection of scenes and portraits, that as smart as reading it made me feel,  isn’t a book I will recall in years to come, other than for the spectacular description of raging onanism spewed across the marsh by God’s servant. I’m sure any future TV adaptation (which is bound to star Olivia C as Cora S) would win awards for its camera work rather than for its script : 3

The Loney

By Andrew Michael Hurley

This was not a tale for a younger audience, despite two teen protagonists, as it features  some pretty dense examination of the psyche. It is a dark lump of contemporary folklore that draws into its weave a grimy stash of half conceived and half recalled thoughts of what might go on, in out-of-the-way backwaters. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good yarn; in fact, it was an absolute cracker.

Told primarily in flashback from the present day, the central story takes place during a pilgrimage from the narrator’s childhood as he and his silent (and apparently simple) brother, Hanny, explore the bleak and windswept reaches of the titular waterway, relating the shifting sands’ habit of taking the unwary to a watery grave as high tide sweeps across the stretch of land connecting the isolated manor house at the heart of the dark tale to the mainland.

Its told with a fair amount of backwards and forwarding between times at the start and at the end, and I did get a little lost to begin with the proliferation of names and ages – not a fault of the book I don’t think, more to do with my having fallen asleep over it a few times. Which brings me, tangentially, onto my reading schedule.

Without a commute, I find my reading is all done at home, mostly at bedtime these days, so I often only manage a page or two before my eyes
start to
to
before my eyes start to

This is a problem age has brought and one I find haunts me through the day as well if I do any daytime reading: I start nodding off whenever I read a proper book (latest example, this Saturday’s attempt at the introduction to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners). I can write and can read any old crap (looking at you twitter; the guardian website) no problem, but as soon as I delve into anything of substance, without some other distraction, I can feel myself sliding inexorably into
sliding inexorably
in…ex… in exor

There was a pull quote from a reviewer on the cover of The Loney which made me roll my eyes; ‘I read it in one sleepless night’. That is was from the Telegraph made me roll my eyes even harder. But, a few nights ago, as I awoke at 2.21 (as is often the way) I  decided that instead of just lying there recalling my wrongs and missed opportunities, I would instead do some reading.

Of course I was knackered the next morning (I got the lunchboxes back to front and everything) but for ninety whole, uninterrupted minutes in the middle of the night, I read, and consumed a vast swathe from the dark and eery heart of this book.

What I liked especially about The Loney was that it didn’t feel it needed to spell everything out, creating an echoing disquiet in the unsaid and the implied. This is a book about faith and belief, contrasting the Catholicism of the visitors with the much darker beliefs of the natives. The pilgrims have an immense distrust of the locals, despite all they do (and they do a lot) . And while some of the ritual imagery could have been little more than hokey B-movie twaddle, it was infrequently used and the quality of the writing managed to invest it with a believable disquiet. Nasty things happened, but they weren’t lingered over.

Films rights for this have understandably sold as there is some remarkably powerful imagery and visual storytelling, with impressions of The Wicker Man, An American Werewolf in London and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as a snickeringly funny running gag: the boys’ mother is called ‘Mummer’ and it is she who clings tightest of all to orthodox religion that has brought them to this windswept outpost. Her greatest horror comes when the ‘Pace Eggers‘ appear to perform for the group at the invitation of their accompanying priest (an newcomer to the group of whom Mummer does not approve). There’s also a great piece of misdirection involving a rifle, which having appeared from a hidey hole beneath the floorboards in act 1, is then used to save someone from drowning (suggesting an inversion of the dramatic trope) but then, when you think its purpose has been served,  to do what it says on the tin after all. It’s a proper masterstroke and the kind of emblematic overlaying of theme and plot which deservedly wins prizes.

Perhaps this is what adult fiction has that YA/Children’s literature is unable to do: to imply rather than spell out. Maybe i’ve been reading so much fiction aimed at the younger audience, I’ve forgotten the allure of that which may pass unsaid: the absence that makes the heart grow fond.

On the shelf: 5
A long time ‘to read’ list entry, I took it down as part of a short series of contemporary urban folklore reads.

On loan 4.5
Shifts of timeframe and a confusion over priests, pilgrims and relations meant it took me a while to get into it, but the central pair and the brooding presences around them soon had me hooked.

On reflection 5
An easy one to recommend, and a set of allusions and omissions which continue to grow in size and power the more I consider them.

 

The Girl in Between

by Sarah Carroll

Recommended to me by Beta Reader No2, I didn’t love this to begin with: it felt, as I suspect a good many hard-working YA novels do, like it had been worked to death: that those first three chapters had been whittled and kerned and edited to within an inch of their lives, and maybe its my growing familiarity with the genre, but it just felt really obviously worked on. Perhaps readers-who-aren’t-authors (are there any?) don’t get that  feeling, but the polishing of openings is currently irritating me (perhaps the virtually permanent scouring of my own opening first three chapters has over sensitised me to it.) However, I stuck with this, despite the blatant telegraphing of what the ‘surprise!’ was going to be, and I grew to enjoy the characters and the complex sadness of the story. The dialogue was particularly strong, I thought, and the delicate lack of specifics around the lead’s mother’s drug dependency was artfully done. I liked the believable menace of the peripheral characters, and the flashbacking through the variety of no-hope-holes the mother and daughter at the heart of the story found themselves in.

From an industry PoV this was a ‘limited edition proof’, which made great promises about and for the author’s upcoming publication. That publication (which I see from Amazon did go ahead) was nearly two years ago…

That is the business, I guess, but it makes me realise just how much work goes into trying to make it happen. Why shouldn’t this book succeed any less than all the others? It’s not bad; BR2 had loved it (which was part of the reason I finished it: to be able to tell her honestly what I thought, although BR3 gave up quickly, declaring it ‘boring’) but it seems to have become just another YA shelf filler. It’s a depressing reality I am already aware of: getting an agent is only the first step on an increasingly steep and difficult slope.

But hey: who am I, if not nobody? At least SC managed to get an agent and a deal and into print; I am as yet possessed of none of that. So well done Sarah Carroll.

On the shelf: 3
I wasn’t that excited by prospect.

On loan: 2/4
Almost put it down after the first few pages, but it improved as it went on.

On return/reflection: 3/4
Has stayed with me, but not perhaps for reasons to do with the content.

 

Howl’s Moving Castle

by Diana Wynne Jones

When you’re submitting queries to agents, you often find them asking for authors or books alongside you imagine your work might sit. I’ve always struggled with this, making me feel a little naive and under-read  (I mean, I guess I am still fairly new here) but I  hadn’t read anything so far which has ever made me think, ‘yes; I see myself in you,’ (*WARNING! trailer-trope incoming*)

…UNTIL NOW

There was something splendid about this book; something whimsical but deeply nuanced. I’d seen the (Ghibli) film several times (a children’s favourite) but was unprepared by how far the film version had deviated from the book: beyond the central characters and the title and a few key scenes early on though they are hell-different. The book is so much better plotted and informed than the anime (I think the film is great: it’s a beautiful vision, but it does feel a little like it loses its way around after the first act, whereas the source material is informed of a purpose). It has just as many images, but they’re so lightly described, rendered so casually as to provide ample space for you to pour in your own impressions: I’ve come away feeling like I’ve learnt a great deal without being taught anything at all.

The story centres on Sophie, the eldest of three sisters in a non-nuclear family, who thinks of herself as the least interesting and the most likely to cause problems. Her father, a milliner, dies and leaves his wife, Sophie, and her two sisters to forge their own paths. Sophie is given the task of maintaining the hat shop by her step mother while the other two are apprenticed out. Feeling as if this is her duty, Sophie begins to trim the hats and without realising it, pours herself into each one she makes, imagining the heads the hats will sit atop, she eventually realises, bringing these dreams to life through her craft. She’s just beginning to regret the willingness with which she accepted her role, when the Witch of the waste appears and in an act of Witchy-spitefulness, transforms Sophie from a young girl into an old woman. Sophie flees the town, hobbling up the road, imagining this is all for the best and what she deserves, until she finds herself  beset by the aches and fears of an old woman; alone in the mountains at night, at the mercy of every imaginable terror and pursued by a scarecrow she has liberated from a bush. With nowhere to turn but to the terrifying Howl, reputed to eat young women hearts, she faces a terror at least knowable (and one which, as an old woman, she imagines she will be immune). Having forced her way into the eponymous Castle, and with no sign of the aforementioned heart-eating wizard, she does what she imagines old women are supposed to do, and sets about cleaning the filthy kitchen. The wizard’s apprentice, Michael, appears and she tells a vague enough story for him to assume Howl has invited her, and before long she’s made a deal with Calcifer the fire demon (who keeps the castle on the move from his place in the hearth). Howl when he does appear lets her stay, before disappearing into the bathroom to beautify himself for several hours, leaving Michael and Calcifer to explain that of course he doesn’t eat young girls hearts, he merely makes them fall in love with him – then when they do, he becomes bored and moves onto the next. Sophie is horrified by this selfishness, and sets about teaching him a lesson by doing even more cleaning.

Amongst the many magics at work within the castle, the door through which Sophie has come is able to access four realms, depending on which way the dial beside it turned, and it was at this point I found myself falling in love with DWJ.

As I said, having seen the film several times and already recognised how far it trails in the wake of the book, the greatest deviation from the source came about when the door was turned to the black quarter and opened onto… Wales! Actual, in-reality Wales, where Howl is known as Howell, and goes to visit his sister and his niece and his nephew, who’s playing video (or to use the vernacular, vid-yo) games. Colour me taken aback.

Another reason I found myself falling for this story was the way each of the characters seemed to understand their faults, to recognise their worst traits, but continue to act them out, seemingly unable to stop themselves from blundering into scenarios which epitomise everyone’s worst impressions of them: Howl even sends Sophie to the King of one of the other three realms to tell his majesty what a dreadful coward Howl is, so the King won’t send him to find his lost brother: however Sophie becomes flustered and manages instead to convince his Majesty to do exactly that.

Admittedly at this point, I did wish the book had focussed more on the main plot of hunting for the King’s brother (which Howl continues to avoid) but both Howl and the book avoid it in such a charming way, and it is for Sophie’s benefit that he/it avoids it, I couldn’t really mind so much. Subsequently, the conclusion does feel a little hurried and I felt like I wanted a bit more depth and description.

 

On the shelf: 4
Knew the film and enough about DWJ as an author to to look forward to it.

On loan: 4
Subtle and graceful and with some unexpected surprises but a few plodding passages and a bit dithery in the third act/fourth act transition.

On return/reflection: 5
A great book that has its themes subtly woven through it. Clearly, I wouldn’t consider myself alongside DWJ, but I do now have an author to whom I can point and say; ‘that. I want to be like that.’