Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls Book Cover A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Review:

At first glance, Conor O’Malley appears to be a mature, self-sufficient young man. Despite being only 13 years old, he accepts the hardships in his life – his father’s desertion to start a new life and a new family overseas, his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health – with a brave face. He prepares his own meals, cleans the house without being told, and patiently helps his mother through her bouts of radiation-induced vomiting. He is bullied at school but takes it stoically, without cowering or tattling. He gives every impression of being a boy who is dealing with an unfortunate situation with admirable grace and composure.

Until, one night, he hears a monster whispering his name.

The monster is a wild, fearsome thing, made of branches and thorns and night: “‘Who am I?’ the monster repeated, still roaring. ‘I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! […]’ It brought Conor up close to its eye. ‘I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.’” 

The monster claims he’s been called by Conor himself, to assist in a matter of life and death. He announces that over the next few days he will tell Conor three stories.  When he has finished these stories, Conor must tell a story as well. And not just any story – Connor must tell a true story, the one that he is most afraid of.

The stories the monster tells are marvelous, full of witches and healers, princes and farmers. There is a magic to them, and the power and importance of stories is one of the themes of the book. As the monster explains Connor, “Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt.” I loved this line, as well as many others throughout A Monster Calls. It’s brimming with memorable quotes full of mind-blowing insight, especially in the monster’s tales. Here are just a couple:

“‘You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.’”

And:

“‘…[I]t does not matter what you think, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day…Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.’”

As the days go by and the monster continues to visit Conor and tell him stories, the boy’s carefully maintained composure begins to crack. He grows farther and farther away from everyone around him, until only the monster seems real. It soon becomes clear that Conor’s world is falling apart, and so is he.

Ness has written a dark, intense, powerful novel that shows how isolating and destructive loss can be, especially for a child. A Monster Calls isn’t a book, it’s a force, and it impacted me on a conceptual, intellectual level rather than a personal, emotional one. For this reason I’m not able to say, like many other bloggers have said, that I was shattered by this book, or that I was moved to tears or felt an intimate connection to it. Instead, I appreciated it as a work of art, both in terms of the gorgeous writing and the stunning, shadowy illustrations that creep along the margins of the pages.

I had a hard time assigning a rating to A Monster Calls; it’s like no other story I’ve ever read and defies all attempts at classification. In the end, though, this distinctiveness is what prompted me to grant it five stars. I appreciate any book that can show me something new or make me look at a subject in a way I never have before, and A Monster Calls does both of these things. This, combined with Ness’ exceptionally wise, beautiful prose, make for a book you don’t want to miss.

Review: The Beginner’s Guide to Living by Lia Hills

The Beginner's Guide to LIving Book Cover The Beginner's Guide to LIving
Lia Hills

Seven days after his mother is killed in a sudden, senseless accident, seventeen-year-old Will Ellis begins to write a list of questions in his notebook, feeling like he wants to break the whole world open and dig around until he gets some answers. His search for meaning leads him to the great philosophers – Seneca, Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – and to Taryn, the beautiful girl he meets at his mother’s wake. Overwhelmed by grief and simultaneously intoxicated by first love, Will is desperate to find, however he can, something authentic, something so true he would live or die for it. But as his quest intensifies, it leads him down a dangerous path. Is he willing to risk losing Taryn – losing everything – to seek the answers he craves?

Review:

The Beginner’s Guide to Living is a book that you may not appreciate until you finish reading it and have a chance to sit back and reflect. While I was in the process of reading, I wasn’t impressed. There are a few passages that just seem weird, as if there is no real purpose for their inclusion. There’s a moment in the book, for example, when Will is taking a bath and farts in the tub. What the heck is that about? Why did the author feel the need to mention it? Again, super weird.

Luckily, Hills compensates for these occasional odd moments. There’s a wealth of wisdom and insight to be found on these pages, and a couple of lines are so heartbreaking that they just stopped me in my tracks. For example, there is a point in the novel when Will asks his dad what he feels is the worst thing about the death of Will’s mom. His dad answers simply, “That I didn’t die first.” After I read this, I was so overcome with emotion that I had to put the book down for a minute or two.

There are also some observations and statements that struck me as incredibly profound. Will is full of grief and rage and despair, and his life is nearly unbearable; making it through a single day without his mother seems impossible, let alone the rest of his life. Taryn is one of the only people who can reach him through the haze of grief, and Will observes, “The fact that I love her makes it possible to exist.” This sentence may be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.

One thing that didn’t appeal to me, at least initially, is the fact that the book’s structure seems very loose. I wasn’t able to discern much of a story arc, at least in terms of major action. Will mostly just writes in his journal, meditates, reads and questions, and while these things are all well and good, they’re not what I think of as the components of a solid plot.

This really bothered me at first, but my opinion changed after I reached the last page and took a moment to really think about what I’d read: a story about how losing someone sets you adrift. In the real world, there is no rhyme or reason to grief, no clearly defined path from Point A, devastation, to Point B, healing. It makes sense, then, that there isn’t an easily identifiable plot to The Beginner’s Guide to Living. The structure mirrors the reality of the grieving process, blind and aimless and desperate. It’s actually kind of brilliant that Hills wrote the book this way, and I have a greater appreciation for it as a result.

Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash Book Cover Ash
Malinda Lo

In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Review:

I’m always amazed at how creative authors can be when re-imagining fairytales. I’m still deciding whether Malinda Lo’s new take on Cinderella was really for me, but I can say that I respect her work and acknowledge it as a valuable contribution to the wealth of adaptations already out there.

One of the most interesting ways in which Ash differs from other versions of Cinderella is the absence of a Prince Charming character. Most of the other familiar elements are there – an orphaned girl forced to serve her wicked stepmother, a royal ball, enchanted coachmen, etc. – but the romance has been completely transformed.

Taking the place of our prince are Kaisa, the king’s young huntress, and Sidhean, the fairy who has captivated Ash since her youth. Yes, that’s right; we’ve got ourselves a love triangle, and an LGBT love triangle at that. I know there are readers out there who abhor the very thought of love triangles, but in Ash’s case the relationships are important to the plot. One of Ash’s love interests represents new beginnings, friendship, and the continuation of life after loss, while the other represents the pull of magic and the escape from reality that it provides.

While I like the idea of the Ash love triangle in theory, in practice there’s a bit of a problem: the triangle seems more isosceles than equilateral (am I impressing you with my geometry knowledge right now?). The whole point of a love triangle is for a protagonist to be conflicted in his or her choice between two love interests, and in order for that conflict to be believable those love interests should be closely matched, equally appealing. If one character is incredibly alluring and the other is just so-so, there’s no real tension because the choice between them seems obvious.

This is where I struggled with Ash. One side of the love triangle – Sidhean, the fairy – is great. Sidhean is no flitting, sparkling, pixie-dust-covered fairy, but rather one of the cold, dangerous fey capable of luring you into the woods and dancing you to death. He’s cold and conflicted but also alluring and mysterious, with a draw that’s undeniable.

It is Kaisa’s side of the triangle that falls short. In order for a literary romance to work for me, I need to be able to fall in love – or at least lust – with the love interest, and I had a hard time doing that with a female character. Kaisa is nice enough, but she seems kind of boring and I just wasn’t attracted to her. This lack of interest was a major contributor to why I couldn’t give Ash a higher rating.

Issues with Kaisa aside, I still appreciate the direction Lo has taken with her version of Cinderella. It’s a testament to Lo’s talent that she is able to retain the feeling of a traditional fairy tale even while putting a very unconventional spin on the story by making Ash bisexual. This classical feel is due in large part to Lo’s beautiful descriptions and choice of diction and syntax. The level of detail she provides does slow down the pace of the story, but her writing is undeniably lovely. As an example, here’s a short excerpt:

“When Ash finally fell asleep, she dreamed of the Wood, the tall dark trees, the shaft of sunlight that shone through the canopy to the soft forest floor. She could smell the spicy pine, the dampness of bark after rain, and the exotic fragrance that clung to Sidhean. It was the scent of jasmine, she remembered, and night-blooming roses that had never felt the touch of a human hand.”

Beautiful, no?

Something else I really liked about Ash is that there is a strong undercurrent of magic throughout the story. There are curses and covenants, bewitched dreams and fairy circles, magical rings and an enchanted Wood. This really added to my enjoyment of the story and is much cooler than a one-time conjuring of glass slippers and a ball gown.

It’s funny – now that I’ve written this review and taken the time to really evaluate Lo’s work, I’m realizing that maybe I liked this book more than I originally thought. I’m still disappointed that I wasn’t enthralled by Kaisa, but the originality of the story and the quality of the writing goes a long way to making up for a less-than-perfect love interest.

Review: Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

Something Like Normal Book Cover Something Like Normal
Trish Doller

When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother’s stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It’s not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he’s had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again. 

Review:

Something Like Normal is the story of Travis Stephenson, a 19-year-old Marine home on leave after spending a year in Afghanistan. He should be relieved to be home, and yet he can’t help but wish he were anywhere else. His mother smothers him with her good intentions, his father views him as a disappointment, and his previous friendships feel stilted and awkward. All Travis wants is for life to go back to normal, a wish that seems impossible.

Travis is dealing with all sorts of issues, from flashbacks and PTSD to the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. He’s struggling to cope with the grief of losing his best friend and to figure out why his fellow Marines, whom he’s known for only a year, feel more like family than the people who raised him. Although he can be an ass at times, it’s impossible not to sympathize with him, and I found him to be a very real, very relatable protagonist.

I really admire how Doller manages to make Travis’ story moving and sad without stepping into the territory of sappy and overdramatic. The themes of family, war, and loss are dealt with seriously, but at no point in time do the events of the book cross over to the theatrical or seem like difficulties are being blown out of proportion simply to add tension to the plot.

An example of this is a point in the book where Travis describes the experience of returning to civilian life as feeling “like you’re a glass that’s filled to the top. Then you have to face everything back home and the glass overflows.” This statement, so simple and understated, beautifully conveys how overwhelming the transition is for a soldier and does so much more effectively than some long monologue about sadness and hardship.

Another strength of Something Like Normal is the authentic feel of the sections that focus on Travis’ experience in Afghanistan. It’s the little details that do it, like a description of Travis’ hands, full of “calluses, ruptured blisters, and scars from cuts that took too long to heal because my hands were always dirty,” or how Afghan sand, “the consistency of powder,” permeates everything and always makes the “first spit” brown when the soldiers brush their teeth. It’s the friendships that develop among the guys in the platoon, the jokes they tell, their nicknames and the stories of how they got them. Doller made me forget that I was reading a book, made me feel that I was actually a part of their world.

Between the emotional punch this book packs and the fact that it feels more real than many other novels out there, I was very pleased with Something Like Normal. I definitely recommend it, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Doller’s work.