Tag Archives: Patrick Ness

Catching Up #1 (2012 mini reviews)

And it’s suddenly December.. That time of year when you notice that you have a ton of books that you were going to review because they evoked questions, or tears, or ALL THE LOVE… By now I might have forgotten some of the details so in the following weeks I plan to just offer you a number of mini reviews with the promise that I plan to reread some of these books and offer you an extensive overview of thoughts and feelings someday, maybe.

O Pioneers! - Willa CatherO Pioneers! – Willa Cather
Girlebooks (originally published 1913)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *
Or get a free ebook version from girlebooks

O Pioneers! is the story of a Swedish immigrant family who tries to make a life in rural Nebraska. The story centres on Alexandra Bergson who inherits the family farm and tries to make it prosper at a time when many immigrant families  give up and move away.

Last year I read My Antonia and I mentioned how I always felt a little distance when reading stories about the American frontier and how, even if fascinating, these stories never truly seemed to become real to me. I think the general consensus is that My Antonia is a better book than O Pioneers! However, I think I loved this particular book more. Oh, the prairie setting and frontier-feel still seem somewhat alien to me, but it also felt a lot more human in this particular book.

Perhaps the secret is that, as Dead White Guys says, it is a deceptively simply story that hides quite a lot beneath the surface. For me, it was its decidedly subversive character that attracted me. It´s not that Cather does not revert to the socially acceptable throughout her story, but she also leaves room to discuss things that one can imagine were not often openly acknowledged in this type of literature at the time: to have a woman inherit, make a success of a farm, and have so much agency throughout the story; to have an unhappy marriage openly discuss and to reveal the tragic consequences (as I said, there is an adherence to dominant morality in this story) of an affair, and yet to romanticise it at the same time (the white butterflies?). So yes, as much as I do not remember all the particular details, there are still, 11 months after reading this particular book, details that stand out in my mind. I think I can safely say that I enjoyed O Pioneers very much, even if I had not expected it before picking it up.

Other Opinions: Dead White Guys Lit, That’s What She Read, Fingers & Prose, Melody & Words,  Stephanie’s Books, 1morechapter, an adventure in reading, Joyfully Retired, Yours?

A Monster Calls - Patrick NessA Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Jim Kay
Walker Books, 2011

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Sometimes you read a book and it is so perfect that you are at a loss for words that could possibly do it justice. That’s how I felt while I was reading, and once I had finished, A Monster Calls. That, and all the tears and gratefulness combined.

Patrick Ness is of course the king of tackling impossibly difficult subject, and although this is nothing like the Chaos Walking Trilogy, it is simultaneously just as good as that trilogy. The main difference is, perhaps, that this is a children’s book instead of a dystopian story for the slightly older, and that as such this book might have a more universal appeal.

In A Monster Calls  Conor meets a monster during three subsequent nights. Conor has not been having an easy time: he is lonely and does not find comfort in school, his mother is suffering from cancer and asks her grandmother to help out, and Conor is frequently tormented by nightmares at night. However, this monster he now encounters is different from his previous nightmares. The monster tells him three stories, and after those three stories are finished, it asks Conor for his own story, and the monster won’t settle for anything less than the truth.

This is a book about cancer and how it impacts the lives of Conor’s mother, his grandmother, and most of all, his own. It is a story of loss and dealing with that loss. And it is unapologetic in discussing all the feelings involved in that process. It will make you cry, almost guaranteed. It was created with such love and honesty that even now, months after reading it, I cannot discuss it here without feeling the shivers of emotion creep up my spine. I cannot recommend this book enough, but I want to add the warning that even though I have seen the impact of cancer on the lives surrounding my nearest family, I have not closely encountered it myself. I am not sure when and how this book will be read, and what reactions it would evoke, if you are currently going through the sadness associated with this disease.

Other Opinions: too many to count. You can find a detailed list here. For any discussion of Patrick Ness’ work I would recommend the posts over at Things Mean a Lot, which also features a beautiful post on A Monster Calls.

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth WeinCode Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
Electric Monkey, 2012

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

This must have been the hit of the first half of 2012. And deservedly so (if you ask me). It is a clever story that is compelling for its execution but also for its themes of friendship, war, truth, and its emotional intensity.

The thing is, you cannot discuss what is so great about this book without giving anything away. And I want to avoid spoilers this time. So there you go. I will only give you the plot summary of the very beginning of this book:

When you open Code Name Verity you quickly discover that this is the story of a female British agent, Verity, who is captured by the Germans in France. During her imprisonment she has to write down her whole tale. She has two weeks to do this and at the end of those two weeks she will be shot.

Reading Verity’s story you find out that there is one person who is very important to her: her best friend Maddy who was a pilot for the British.

Code Name Verity is a story of friendship, as I mentioned before. And it is the friendship between Verity and Maddy that brings the emotional punch to this book. It is rare to find actual female best friends that do not hurt each other through jealousy or what-not in books, but it exists, for it is the very core of this book. This is why almost every review out there will quote the following to you. And yes, I need to do the same, because it is truly the best summary of this part of the novel:

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

On top of this theme of friendship comes the fact that Maddy and Verity are both very strong women. It is impossible not to fall in love with their agency and decisiveness and, yes, I secretly wanted them to be real. It is difficult to imagine them as unreal, for Wein did such a stellar job with bringing them to life.

What makes this story so interesting besides these themes are the questions it constantly evokes. Truth is a large theme in the book, and you never quite know what the true story is in here. I am not going to go into detail here, but I need to tell you that Code Name Verity is divided into two parts, and the second part sheds light and illuminates many of the questions you are left with in the first part. This is where the astounding cleverness of the story comes in, for as convincing as the first part felt for me, it is the slower part of the story. During the second half, I could not stop reading. Moreover, while reading that second part I kept wanting to return to the first part, to see how everything fit.

For me, the drawback of this book might have been all the hype it had received., Believe me, I still loved it. But there was a certain scene that I had been anticipating, and that I had been promised would have me in tears. And perhaps exactly because of that promise it didn’t evoke quite that much feeling. More details on that can be found over at The Book Smugglers where Thea mentions the same experience. Overall though: Code Name Verity is utterly brilliant. Go read it.

Other Opinions: Things Mean A Lot, My Friend Amy, Chachic’s Book Nook, The Written WorldDear AuthorThe Book Smugglers, Presenting Lenore, Steph Su Reads, Rhapsody in Books, Book Addiction, You’ve Gotta Read This!, Books and Movies, Book Harbinger, Capricious Reader, Kristi Loves Books, Semicolon, Bookworm 1858, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Sunday Salon: On Authors, Series, and New Releases

On 27 September, a little over a week ago, The Casual Vacancy was released. The first novel by J.K. Rowling set outside the Harry Potter Universe. The book had been announced for months. Its cover, in itself, set people talking [I am one of those who does not like it much]. There was a build-up, and excitement, and everything that was to be expected of the author of possibly the biggest series in the world releasing a new book into the world. The puzzling thing is that this Harry Potter fangirl wasn’t all that excited.

It is not so much the setting, the story in itself, the sex or the strong language that made me feel mostly apathetic about this release. It wasn’t even the endless stream of “this is not Harry Potter” warnings and interviews and reviews popping up everywhere (although I do admit that after reading that for the third time, I sort of got the message). I like the idea that Rowling is exploring new waters. I like the idea that she’s writing again and willing to show it to the world despite the fact that she’s probably made enough money to never write again. So really.. Why did I care so little for The Casual Vacancy’s release? Why was I more apathetic than exited (which I feel I should have been)? Well, there’s the rub: I don’t really know.

This is what I have been pondering about the past 10 days. I’m not sure I have any answers, but I did come up with a possible suggestion as to the why – which only left me feeling more puzzled in the end.

Because here’s the thing: Perhaps my apathy really is a case of The Casual Vacancy not being a Harry Potter book. Now, you might think that that is no surprise in itself, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what you think I mean when I tell you that. You see, it’s not that I wanted her to write another Harry Potter book. I think the series is pretty perfect as it is. I’d be okay with there never being another Harry Potter book released, even though the idea that this series is over fills me with nostalgia. It’s the fact that Harry Potter is not equated with J.K. Rowling in my mind.

It was only on the book’s release date that I somehow came to the realisation that the quality of the Harry Potter series is really the quality of J.K. Rowling as a writer. Somehow, in my mind they always were somewhat separated. To the point where I might think to myself that Harry Potter means so much to me, its universe, its story, its characters, I love them all. But, somehow, that never made me think of Rowling as a favourite author, or an author whose writing I really enjoy for the writing in itself. This does not mean I do not appreciate her as a person, as much as the next one I like her interviews and I had tears in my eyes when she appeared at the premiere of the last Harry Potter movie.. It’s just that somehow I’ve never equated my love of Harry Potter with J.K. Rowling’s qualities as a writer. Undeservedly, I now realise. But it’s true nonetheless.

The Casual Vacancy - JK RowlingIn a way this is a compliment, I think: it means the world of Harry Potter feels so real to me that I believe in it as a separate entity from the author. To some extent, I feel the same about Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy, with the difference that I’ve already read a book by him set in a separate universe which means I’m better at acknowledging his quality as an author as opposed to a single series. In a similar vein, it means The Casual Vacancy will be Rowling’s chance to convince me that she is a favourite author of mine, instead of the creator of a universe I love. That in itself is quite exciting, isn’t it? Perhaps this post will convince me to feel a little more anticipation for the book that’s currently lying on my desk in a reminder that it’s there, ready to be read. (Because yes, for all my apathy, I did pre-order it at the last minute).

I’m left to wonder if I’m alone in this. If when you say you have a favourite series, book, or author, the book(s) or the author takes priority? And if the books are more likely to take priority in case of a series, especially with authors who’ve written only one series to date? I somehow feel it was easier for me to decide Margo Lanagan was a favourite author based on the one book, Tender Morsels, I had read by her, than it is to acknowledge Rowling as a favourite despite my growing up with Harry Potter as one of my favourites stories ever, so much so that I felt justified in exclaiming on twitter that Harry Potter was my teenage life. Perhaps this is because a stand-alone book ultimately makes you accept in advance that it will be the beginning and end of the created setting, whereas that’s different with a series? Which leads to the question if this changes once an author has released more?  I don’t know, I’m just playing around with ideas here. In a way, series or books perhaps do not make a difference. Perhaps it’s really the idea of knowing an author can create separate worthwhile universes?

I really hope any of this makes sense.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men - Patrick NessMonsters of Men – Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2010

Who expected anything other than me loving this book after my enthousiasm about the first and second installment of the Chaos Walking series? I thought so. And you are right, of course. I love this series. I want everyone to read it, but at the same time I am scared that someone will find fault with it, because I am not sure if I can remain impartial in that kind of debate. I may take it personally. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but, unfortunately, I really think it may be true. I will add that Monsters of Men did not surpass my love for the second book in the series, but then, what could top The Ask and The Answer? Actually, I think this may the book I liked the least of the series. And yet I loved it to death. There you have it, another glowing, gushing review from me, because I honestly couldn’t do anything but, because of how fiercely I feel about this story, its themes, and its characters.

In my post about The Ask and The Answer I said that I felt “war makes monsters of men” was the central theme of the series. To some extent, this is true, but at the same time the humanity that can be found in anyone, despite the monstrosity of war, despite how much you’d like there to be a “big bad”, may be more dominant in the book. If this series portrays anything, it is the ambiguity of any situation. How we would like to pick sides, and be right, but how no one is ever just “evil” or “good”. This perspective is underlined through the multiple narratives in this third installment, enabling the reader to get an even broader view of the situation than just having Viola and Todd as narrators in the second book. There are traces of good, and evil, and being caught up in circumstances and ideologies on “your” side, to every narrator of the story. The ambiguity of war is further underlined in many dialogues, in which the perspective of the people at hand is always an important factor. For example:

“…as far as any objective observer can see, the President is a mass murderer and Mistress Coyle is a terrorist.”
“I’m a general,” the Mayor says.
“And I’m fighting for freedom,” says Mistress Coyle.

On the personal interests tied up with any grander scheme of war:

“But you can’t make war personal,” I say, “or you’ll never make the right decisions.”
“And if you didn’t make personal decisions, you wouldn’t be a person. All war is personal somehow, isn’t it? For somebody? Except it’s usually hate.”
“Lee—”
“I’m just saying how lucky he is to have someone love him so much they’d take on the whole world.” His Noise is uncomfortable, wondering what I’m looking like, how I’m responding. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“He’d do it for me,” I say quietly.
I’d do it for you too, Lee’s Noise says.
And I know he would.
But those people who die because we do it, don’t they have people who’d kill for them?
So who’s right?

Ambiguity is caught in the characters and the development of them in this third book too. Todd, Viola, the third narrator (which I won’t name to avoid spoilers?) all make decisions that could be labeled “wrong”, and yet you manage to feel and sympathise with them. That is the power of this series, in showing that there is never an absolute right or wrong, that the personal may necessitate decisions that are wrong on a larger scale, or the other way around, that on both sides people believe, and hurt, and die. Ness manages to get the ambiguous nature of humanity and war across because he does not shy away from the more painful descriptions of casualties and full-on battle, but he also never forgets the personal side to the story.

Just a few things I loved about this series:

  • ambiguity; the creation of artificial divisions to enable discussion of them, to enable the portrayal of humanity across gender, class, and ethnic lines.
  • the role of love in any form: friendship, family, relationships that are just developing or that are old, and the portrayal of gay relationships as completely natural. No big fuzz surround them, no “pom-pom-di-dom, here comes the big reveal”, no need to discuss them, they are just there. I may love the fact that they are not made problematic even more, since they are part of what was originally a religious settler community.
  • Animals. I cannot get over the noise of animals. Manchee, the “boy colt” -s and “submit” from the horses that enable you to learn about the nature of the people taking care of them in just a few syllables…
  • It does not shy from the difficult, the painful, and the beautiful. Ness chose to portray a society in all its aspects, without sugar coating any of it because it was written for Young Adults.

[spoilers]

Two spoiler-y things that I would like to discuss. First, the return of Ben. There was a moment there, when he was re-introduced, when I was angry at Ness. “Why do you do this, now I need to worry about another person, and surely you will kill him off, and I do not need the extra drama, because there is so much here already!” But in the end, I appreciated his introduction all the more. Todd needed Ben to comfort him into knowing that despite his mistakes and misinterpretations, and the blame he will carry with him, he did the best he could. Furthermore, Ben’s position as a “bridge” between both societies, his ability to learn and adapt to the information overload in a non-violent way.. [Can I just add that I loved that for once, it wasn’t the “white, male, and dominant” society that won out, but it was shown that adaption and learning from eachother can be worthwhile, how perhaps, the “ethnic other” has a valuable lifestyle, that may be the healthier approach?]

Second, Todd. That ending. For once I am the optimist and I believe he will heal. He has to heal. But I do not blame Ness for another round of ambiguous endings. I think it was rather perfect to end on the note of division between hope and the loss of such an important character in the book.

[/spoilers]

I am rather afraid that this post does nothing but reiterate again and again how much I loved this series. As I said to Ana on twitter yesterday, my review can be summarised as:

Writing Monsters of Men post right now. It kind of looks like this “gush, gush, gush, loved it, loved it, write more plz mr. Ness”

But all of it is true. I firmly believe the Chaos Walking series is (one of) the best things that happened to Young Adult lit. It is also the series that I will remember for a long time as one of the most important and beautiful of the last few years in my personal reading life.

Now, if only we could start a lobby to have any Dutch publisher publish the translation of this series. I can’t believe that hasn’t happened yet!

Other Opinions: Vulpes Libris, Things Mean A Lot, Bart’s Bookshelf, Book Journey, Rhapsody in Books, It’s All About Books, Life With Books, There’s A Book, Jenny’s Books, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Presenting Lenore, Rat’s Reading, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Books, Time, and Silence, Book Addiction, Coffee Spoons, Page247, Bookish Blather, Book Harbinger, Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Sci-Fi Fan Letter, thebookbind, Alita Reads, Regular Rumination, Librarian’s Book Reviews, In Which Our Hero, Eclectic/Eccentric, The Written World, Lindy Reads and Reviews.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

Monsters of Men

I am reading it…

“And what other kind of man would you want leading you into battle?” he says, reading my Noise. “What other kind of man is suitable for war?”

A monster, I think, remembering what Ben told me once. War makes monsters of men.

“Wrong,” says the Mayor. “It’s war that makes us men in the first place. Until there’s war, we are only children.”

Are you excited, Ana, Sandy, JillJenny, Alita? I will soon be able to DISCUSS & SHARE, and there will be no need for secrets anymore (I have a feeling there still are).

Hundred pages in, I am already such a mess of nerves & empathy.

The Ask and The Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and the Answer - Patrick NessThe Ask and The Answer – Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2009

First things first: I LOVED it, if you haven’t: GO READ IT (but start with the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go).

Like the first installment of the series, this book proves how intelligent dystopian YA can be. How cleverly some of the big questions and inequalities of human history can be discussed in a fictional setting. It also showed how unsatisfying some of the other dystopian Young Adult worlds were that I previously read about. And it for once and for all silences the argument that Young Adult books are just for teens and have nothing to offer adults. Want to disagree with me about that? Go read this series first, and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Ahem. Have I ever voiced such a strong opinion before on this blog? I don’t think so. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I just, feel so passionate about this book.

The Ask and The Answer picks up where The Knife of Never Letting Go left off. Which was predictable, perhaps, given the major cliffhanger at the end of that book. As Ana states in her review, it takes the themes of “gender and identity and growing up and violence” as present in The Knife of Never Letting Go, further, describes them in a different and even more complicated world, and turns the story a whole lot darker. Whereas the Knife of Never Letting Go tackled difficult subjects, but allowed the reader to be charmed with Todd and Viola, The Ask and The Answer is far less friendly. However, the quality of the story is such that whatever bad things occur, the reader is still allowed to care for the main characters. A difficult, and sometimes confusing, feat, which is one of the many reasons that I think this book is of such quality. I would not have been able to fall in love with the series had I not found the charm in the first book. This second book only further substantiates that love, albeit in a dark and more challenging way. It may not have been the natural progression of the story I had somehow envisioned at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, the second half of the book in particular takes the story towards themes I would never have imagined possible to discuss so outright in Young Adult literature (though I am awfully glad Ness did), but having read it, I feel it was an amazing thing to do. And I am left somewhat in awe of Patrick Ness as an author. Is there anything he wouldn’t be able to pull off?

And that is really all I can say without spoilers. So warning: ALL THE SPOILERS for this book and The Knife of Never Letting Go ahead. Do not read on if you haven’t read The Ask and the Answer.

Continue reading