Posts Tagged ‘A Monster Calls’

the-trees-by-ali-shaw-front-cover

This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!

But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?

As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.

Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:

Then the trees came.

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.

Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.

The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.

It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.

Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.

Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?

Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.

However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.

But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.

Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.

Woohoo my first finished novel of 2015 and a start to my Reading Challenge!

2015/01/img_6453.jpg

This book was not what I expected. There was something very evocative and intriguing about both the title and cover – as well as the photographs inside. Almost all of which, according to the note appended to the novel, are genuine and authentic found photographs. I was expecting something haunting and thought provoking and this … wasn’t.

Now, I fully accept that my dissatisfaction with this book is probably in part because I misjudged the audience for it. But I think Ransom Riggs may have done the same. I had expected this to be an adult book and it’s not. Hence disappointment. But here’s the thing: as any cursory review of my blog will reveal, I have no problem with Young Adult books. I love Young Adult books and see no reason why they shouldn’t be included in the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prizes. I mean, look at just three: My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Anything by Patrick Ness. Sublime.

So, the shift in gear in my expectation from Adult to Young Adult was not the source of my problem. It just wasn’t hugely good.

Here’s the premise: Jacob Portman was brought up on his grandfather’s tales of monsters and children with strange powers. He believed these to be fairytales or repressed memories of Nazi oppression until he nearly witnessed one of these monsters murdering his grandfather. A series of clues lead to an island off Wales where his grandfathers fairytales suddenly prove themselves true.

There are echoes here of the X-Men’s School For Gifted Children, of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts… It’s all a little familiar. A little derivative.

I also had a problem with the narrative voice. It is a first person narrative from the point of view of a teenager. And the language just wasn’t right for that voice. Some very long, tortuously clumsy sentences such as

I was following my dad into our suspiciously dark living room as he muttered things like “What a shame we didn’t plan anything for your birthday” and “Oh well, there’s always next year,” when all the lights flooded on to reveal streamers, balloons, and a motley assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins I rarely spoke to – anyone my mother could cajole into attending – and Rick, whom I was surprised to see lingering near the punch bowl, looking comically out of place in a studded leather jacket.

Wow. That’s nearly 100 words. Including an Oxford comma. And a whom.

It is just clumsy and typical of a tendency towards over long sentences and oddly formal language. Riggs just doesn’t seem very good at voices and I wish his editor had picked up the phone and said “Ever thought of the third person?” Here’s another e ample which jarred with me. It’s from the finale after a life-and-death battle

“When we leave here, this loop will close behind us. It’s possible you may never be able to return to the time you came from. At least not easily.”
“There’s nothing for me there,” I said quickly. “Even if I could go back, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

I’m sorry! What? His mum, whom he left in America? His dad, who brought him to the Welsh island in the first place being stranded alone with the horror of having somehow lost his son?

No voice and character are not Riggs’ strength! There was almost nothing to distinguish any of the peculiar children save for their power. And the fact that Jacob hooks up with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend. As you do.

Don’t even get me started on Miss Peregrine’s interminable info dump exposition about peculiar children, ymbrynes and time loops.

Putting all that to one side, though, the conclusion had promise. Escaping from time loop to time loop allowing for a myriad of different historical and geographical world’s to be explored. Again, it’s nothing shatteringly novel – the anomalies in BBC’s Primeval spring to mind – but promising. This was Riggs’ debut novel and I may be persuaded to delve into the sequel Hollow City. Maybe.

Anyway I shall conclude with a selection of the photographs which litter the book. They are undoubtedly cool even if they lack the power of the illustrations in Ness’ A Monster Calls. I wonder how much of the planning of the story derived from the necessity to shoehorn in these pictures….

2015/01/img_6457.jpg

2015/01/img_6456.png

2015/01/img_6455.jpg

2015/01/img_6458.jpg

2015/01/img_6459.jpg

IMG_5061-0.JPG

I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!

Let me put that out there at the start of this.

I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.

This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.

At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.

Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.

Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.

Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.

There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.

It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.

And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.

And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.

It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.

Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies

“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”

And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.

And he questions that. And we question it.

Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?

And does it matter?

This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:

“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”

In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.

The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.

Remarkable.

IMG_5072.JPG

IMG_5073.JPG

IMG_5057-0.JPG

With a week to go before the summer holidays, my reading list is starting to grow. Currently queued up on the ereader I have the following:

20140713-131336-47616263.jpg

20140713-131336-47616641.jpg

20140713-131336-47616486.jpg
These are crime thrillers penned, under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, by John Banville who wrote The Sea. I was particularly intrigued by The Black-Eyed Blonde as a new Raymond Chandler book.

Continuing with both the crime and pseudonym motif, I’m also ready to try

20140713-131647-47807353.jpg

20140713-131647-47807301.jpg which I have so far avoided for the same reason that many others will have leapt on them: Robert Galbraith is the nom-de-plume of J. K. Rowling.

As a break from crime, I’m also looking at

20140713-131832-47912817.jpg which is the new Joe Abercrombie offering, escaping the realism of crime fiction by delving back into fantasy. And I have Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost For Words which satirises the self-indulgent and self-important world of book prizes and awards.

20140713-132109-48069368.jpg

Slightly more self-consciously literarily, I’ve also loaded up

20140713-132216-48136120.jpg

20140713-132216-48136019.jpg


Finally, as I am currently reading The Long War (and not hugely enjoying it) for the sake of continuity and completion I also have the third Long Earth book.

20140713-132509-48309489.jpg

And this doesn’t take into account the paper books I’ve got or the work I need to do over the summer. Or the twelve-month old baby squatting in my floor as I type this. I can just hear my wife’s voice as she reads this saying, “Well, we won’t be seeing much of you then…!”

Of the paper books I’m hoping to get time to read, I’m particularly looking forward to Patrick Ness’ (one of my all time favourite Young Adult writers after the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls) new novel

20140713-155133-57093797.jpg and continuing the crime / thriller genre, John le Carre’s

20140713-155225-57145327.jpg

Roddy Doyle is a great writer.

He wrote The Commitments which is a fabulous book and one of my favourite films of all time!

He wrote Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha which is a fantastic evocation of a ten year old boy’s childhood.

Roddy Doyle does voices extremely well. He creates the voices of children extraordinarily vividly.

So I was excited to see him on the Carnegie Shortlist. I was brimful of excitement and anticipation.

20130410-074145.jpg

Alas, I have come away distinctly nonplussed. This is not a bad book – not at all – perversely I’d have preferred to have hated it – it just didn’t grab me. Or I didn’t get it, perhaps. It was sweet, it was pleasant, it was… okay. I came away from it thinking m’eh.

Now the book cover didn’t inspire: that insipid yellow; the static, limp-looking girl; the rather unconvincing greyhound. But, as we are told, as I teach, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover so I ploughed on!

The tale revolves around Mary, a twelve year old girl. We are told repeatedly that she is cheeky and clever. Beyond her adding the phrase “I’m not being cheeky!” to half of her dialogue, I didn’t feel her to be witty. Compared to Shorty in Nick Lake’s In Darkness who never tells us he is intelligent but whose voice clearly is, Mary’s didn’t.

Mary is dealing with the fact that her grandmother Emer is poorly and has been hospitalised. Mary and her mother Scarlett go to see Emer every day. One day, Mary meets a strange old woman named Tansy who looks old but isn’t and who turns out to be the ghost of her dead great-grandmother, Emer’s mother, who died when Emer was just three.

Tansy, Emer, Scarlett, Mary.

There is (deliberately and consciously) an absence of men in this story.

Now, normally, the gender of the main characters doesn’t terribly matter to me. But there are men here who have a story but who are given no chance to tell it: Jim, Tansy’s farmer husband who is left a widower with Emer and a baby to bring up; Gerry, Scarlett’s Dubliner father and Emer’s husband; Paddy, Mary’s father; and even Dominic and Kevin her teenage brothers who preferred to be called Dommo and Killer and skulk around the house.

Did I as a male reader feel excluded from the narrative in the same way as these characters were excluded? I think I did, actually, and I don’t usually react like that. The sublime A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – the 2012 Carnegie winner – showed that male characters can do emotion just as well as female ones in a similar context as the supernatural helps a child come to terms with a family member’s dying. But Ness’ book is raw and painful; this one is… sweet.

And a tad sentimental.

Twee.

Tansy has appeared to “help” her daughter in her final days. Apparently, her concern for Emer had kept her “lingering” rather than moving on. And the form that this ghostly help takes is a nighttime road trip from Dublin back to the farm where Tansy died and Emer grew up. Ok. I get that.

And then Tansy steals ice creams for them.

Then they go back.

No, I’m sorry, I don’t get it. Perhaps I am lacking in emotion, lacking in empathy, lacking in x-chromosomes but I don’t get it.

And little, silly, practical things in the book niggled and distracted me which I’d have let slide normally. Tansy goes through a locked door to get the ice creams but comes out with them through the chimney because the ice creams are too solid… But was not the money she took with her to pay for them solid? The doctor agrees for them to take Emer out to meet someone… But no one raised the alarm when they didn’t return at all?

I wanted to like this book, I did; I expected to like it.

But I didn’t.

It’s that time of year again: the Cilip Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced!

It is genuinely one of the highlights of my year! I reserve the Easter holidays to reading as many as I possibly can of the list. I mean, we do shadow the Carnegie Medal in our school and I like to have a heads-up on the kids’ reading before the trawl and trundle of the GCSE form filling begins, but I love these books!

The Carnegie and Booker prizes punctuate my year!

I am still waiting for one book to win both. The quality of writing for young adults and the power of some of the topics – World War Two seems to be a recurring theme last year and this – is amazing.

Anyway, this year I am approaching the Carnegie blind: unlike last year when I had read and loved and wept with A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, this year all the books are new to me. And so far I know nothing but their names.

My starting point will be Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood, the strapline for which is “What would you sacrifice for someone you’ve loved for ever?”

Midwinterblood_Marcus_Sedgwick

I enjoyed Sedgwick’s interplay between the present and past in the previous Carnegie nominated book White Crow as well as his macabre and sinister subjects. Looking at the cover here, the blood red colour and the focal point of the knife, I’m expecting something similarly dark and Gothic.

The we have Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water which is a beautifully evocative title.

weight

I’m not getting much from the front cover: there seems to be a journey… I’m reserving judgement!

Next in the list is A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle. I’ve only read Doyle’s adult fiction: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Commitments but he has a wonderful ear for dialogue and character so looking forward to this one.

greyhound-of-a-girl

But, I’m sorry Roddy, I do not like the cover! I don’t like the yellow; I don’t like the twirly framing.

Maggot Moon comes next on the list, by Sally Gardner. Now, this title I dislike- it reminds me too too much of Button Moon or Sailor Moon and I feel prejudiced! But look at the front cover:

maggot-moon

How wonderful and intriguing is that? Is the lettering in a cyrillic style – will this be an account of the Russian’s Sputnik Programme? How will the lettering become significant? Is it a book about letters? The heterochromia of the boy; the ladder between the boy and the moon; the maggotiness of the moon! Very intrigued! Probably my second read… if I can get this: currently unable to get it on my ebook, which is where all the others currently reside.

We continue with In Darkness by Nick Lake:

in darkness

It looks to me post-colonial, African… a decent evocative title.

Now we come to Wonder by R J Palacio, the only author here to eschew his own name! This one looks good!

wonder wonder 3

Now this makes me feel bad: what have I been doing throughout this? Judging books. By their covers!

Next we come to a very young looking book: A Boy and A Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton. Looking at this, I feel that Pip, young Daisy P, may be the intended audience. The cover is beautiful but I’m thinking at the very younger end of the Carnegie audience:

boy bear boat

I love the Japanese feel to the cover and the immediate recourse to a cup of tea to prevent oncoming disaster! Also not one I’ve been able to download yet.

Finally, but by no means least, we have Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

verity%20cvr17 code name verity

Again we’re looking perhaps World War Two setting; again the covers suggest a challenging and emotional read.

A MASSIVE congratulations to Patrick Ness for the historic achievement of winning the Carnegie two years running AND winning both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Prizes simultaneously.

A Monster Calls is a truly exceptional book and a mighty winner! It is one of those books that EVERYONE should read! The story is moving, evocative, primal, mythic and personal; the language is beautiful and elegant and so economical; the illustrations are breath taking. Truly, genuinely inspiring!20120615-061732.jpg

20120615-061752.jpg

20120615-061759.jpg

20120615-062325.jpg