Howl's Moving Castle, written by Diana Wynne Jones:
Thank you, thank you shannonb for recommending this book to me.....I loved it! In fact, I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I finished it, I started reading it again immediately. I just wasn't ready to leave Howl's world and all the characters that inhabit it.
This is the story of Sophie, a young girl of around age 18 or 19 who finds herself an apprentice in her family's hat shop after the death of her father. Sophie lives in a magical world, where there are witches and wizards and in this world, at least according to Sophie, no good can come of being the eldest of three sisters (here, the author is having some fun at some well known tales, in which the youngest is always the one who gets the "happily ever after"). Sophie talks to herself a lot, as her step-mother is out most of the time and she finds herself alone often. She tells certain hats what fate they will have and what kind of owner they require. Sophie doesn't think much about her talking to inanimate objects, but after an unfortunate run-in with the notorious Witch of the Waste, in which Sophie is turned into a 90-year old woman, she learns that things in her world are not always what they seem.
From here, Sophie wanders about until she comes across Howl's moving castle, which hovers and moves around the land. The people in town have been talking about the mysterious Howl, and it is rumored that he eats the hearts of young girls. Sophie figures since she is no longer a young girl, and that she needs a place to sleep for the night, she has nothing to lose by trying to enter the castle. Here is where her adventure begins, among the wizard Howl, his eager-to-please apprentice Michael, and the fire-demon Calcifer.
What I most enjoyed about the book were the characters. They were all so real, practically jumping off the page. Howl spends two hours in the bathroom every day to work his magical charms to perfect his hair and to get perfumed up for the ladies. Michael is willing to run up and down the castle steps throughout the day to get Howl whatever he demands when he's sick. Calcifer leaves Sophie clues about his contract with Howl, which he can't tell her outright, and tells her through gritted teeth that he did leave her a clue when she tells him he needs to give her some clues! (Incidentally, I never found any of Calcifer's clues until I read the book a second time, and then I couldn't help but laugh each time I found one.) But the best is Sophie, who changes from a shy, timid, mouse-like girl to a self-assured, snooping (Howl calls her "Mrs. Nose" at one point) , who-cares-what-anyone-thinks kind of old lady. Her transformation is such fun to read and her attitude towards everything just adds to the richness of her character.
Diana Wynne Jones injects a great amount of subtle humor into her characters and writing. I loved her chapter titles, things like "Chapter 5, which is far too full of washing" or Chapter # (I forget which #), in which Howl expresses his emotions with green slime. When the Witch of the Waste asks Sophie if she knows about Wales, Sophie asks if it's under the sea. When Sophie talks to the skull on Howl's workbench, she tells him he's got it worse than she does. There are lots and lots of little jokes and humorous moments in the book - Jones and her characters do not take themselves too seriously.
If you enjoy audio books, you'll love listening to this story. The version I listened to was read by Jenny Sterlin, who did little voices for each of the characters. I was reminded of listening to the Harry Potter series, read by Jim Dale, who also made up voices for each character. It's a hard task to elevate an already wonderful book to the next level, but in both cases, these readers achieved that task.
I read in one review that the plot is dizzying, and that's a good way to describe it. There's so much going on, and so many elements to the storyline that things can get confusing. I must admit, I'm still not 100% certain why the Witch of the Waste put the spell on Sophie in the first place (something about her sister Lettie and the Prince, but none of it made sense to me). The second reading clarified some of my questions about the plot, but it picks up a lot of speed towards the end and might leave readers scratching their heads. If that's the case, no matter, just read it again - once, twice or more, this book is pure magic.
ETA: corrected the title of Chapter 5 (I finally found the post-it-note that I had scribbled it on)