Monster-calls_shadow“Are you crying, Mom?”

My daughter was settled in at the foot of my bed playing on her iPhone and I was  reading the last few pages of Patrick Ness’s remarkable novel, A Monster Calls.

And, yeah, I was crying. Hard by the end of it.

Damn you, Patrick Ness.

Siobhan Dowd is credited for the idea for A Monster Calls, but sadly Ms. Dowd died  – at the age of 47 – before she ever had the chance to see her idea through to the end. As Ness acknowledges in his Author’s Note, “the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas. Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.”

A Monster Calls is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives with his mom in a little house in a little town in England. His parents are divorced and his dad now lives in the States with his new wife and a baby daughter. Conor rarely sees him.

Conor’s mom is ill. Readers will figure out early on that she has cancer and that Conor is doing his level best to cope, with varying degrees of success.  Then the monster shows up “just after midnight. As they do.”

Conor isn’t particularly afraid of this monster. Despite its “great and terrible face”, Conor tells the monster he’s “seen worse.” And even though he claims not to be frightened of the monster, the monster replies that he will be “before the end.”

The monster continues to visit at night with stories that make no sense to Conor. The monster also claims that there will come a time for the fourth tale – that is Conor’s story. Conor knows what the monster is talking about: a recurring nightmare which terrifies him and which he insists he will not be sharing. In the meantime, his mother grows weaker, his grandmother steps in to help out (much to Conor’s dismay) and his father visits from America – a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

The monster drives Conor to action, but also to irrefutable truths. The monster says,” Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

Conor’s truth is one that he is unwilling to face, but which comes barrelling towards him anyway. And as a reader, I have to say, I was unprepared for its impact.

A Monster Calls reminded me a little bit of John Connolly’s brilliant novel The Book of Lost Things. Connolly’s story is also about a boy on a journey from innocence to experience. You should definitely check it out.

As for A Monster Calls – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

 

 

The Sky is EverywhereJandy Nelson has written a debut novel which will resonate with anyone who has ever lost someone they’ve truly loved.  The Sky is Everywhere is seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker’s journey through the grief of losing her nineteen-year-old sister.

My sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.

The loss of her sister isn’t the first significant loss of Lennie’s young life. She lives with her grandmother and her uncle ‘Big’ (yes, he is indeed) because her mother abandoned her and her sister when Lennie was only one. Despite the fact that Gram and Big are awesome, Lennie is finding it difficult to cope. Lucky for her, Bailey’s boyfriend, Toby, is on hand to share her grief.

“How will we do this? I say under my breath. “Day after day after day without her…”

“Oh, Len.” he turns to me, smooths the hair around my face with his hand.

I look into his sorrowful eyes and he into mine, and I think, He misses her as much as I do, and that’s when he kisses me –

There isn’t a thing I didn’t love about Lennie. She’s lived, thus far, in her sister’s shadow; Bailey was the outgoing, beautiful one.  Now, suddenly, Bailey is gone and Lennie is lost. Perhaps that’s what makes Toby so desirable. They can share their grief, but also their memories of someone they both loved.

But, then it gets complicated.

“Even in the stun of grief, my eyes roam from the black boots, up the miles of legs covered in denim, over the endless torso, and finally settle on a face so animated I wonder if I’ve interrupted a conversation between him and my music stand.

Meet Joe Fontaine, the “gypsy,” “rock star,” “pirate,” who arrived at school while Lennie was away. Suddenly Lennie finds herself in a precarious predicament: she is  impossibly drawn to Toby even as she crushes hard on Joe. Those feelings are compounded by her guilt because she’s supposed to be sad. And she is.

Make no mistake, The Sky is Everywhere is not a romantic comedy; it’s a beautifully written novel about loss, about being left behind and about what it means to be alive. All the characters are fully realized; even the adults have interior lives, a fact Lennie only begins to understand months after her sister’s death. She also comes to understand that grief is a living thing. Lennie thinks, “I don’t know how the heart withstands it.”

I’m not a fan of eReaders, but I can’t imagine reading this book on one would offer as satisfying an experience as reading the book the traditional way. The novel is filled with poetry written on scraps of paper and found in various places which are named on the back of the found object.  How they came to be collected is revealed at the end of the story. The poetry itself is beautiful (Nelson herself is a poet) and I loved its inclusion in the book.

This is a novel I will really look forward to passing on to and talking about with my students.

My love affair with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy began with The Knife of Never Letting Go. The next book, The Ask and the Answer was also fabulous. Last night I finished the third book, Monsters of Men. I am not ashamed to say that I cried.

Monsters of Men begins on the eve of war. Todd and the Mayor, and  Viola and Mistress Coyle are not only at a stand-off with each other, The Spackle (the indigenous people of New World) have risen up to annihilate them. War proves to be frightening and messy and dangerous.

The flames spill out from the top of the horned creacher and cut thru the middle of soldiers and men are screaming  and burning and screaming and burning and soldiers are turning back and running and the line is breaking and Angharrad is bucking and bleeding and squealing and we’re slammed by a wave of men retreating and she bucks up again and-

The lines between hero and villain, good and evil, are  blurred in Monsters of Men. I found my feelings about the Mayor constantly changing. Is he a decent man caught up in extraordinary times? Is he a master manipulator? Is he a monster? Mistress Coyle didn’t fair much better in my estimation. Viola and Todd ask the same questions about the adults nearest them and as they aren’t physically together for much of this book, they also ask it of each other. How have circumstances changed them?

There’s also a new point of view to consider in Monsters of Men: the Spackle. For the first time we get to hear their noise. Truthfully, I found some of this bothersome because of the names they ascribed to things: the Burden, the Clearing, the Knife, the Sky, the Source. I was caught up in the narrative and it slowed me down trying to figure out who or what  they were talking about. Nevertheless, the Spackle are no longer a faceless enemy – if they ever were the enemy at all.

There are big questions to be considered in this novel, in the series as a whole. Despite the fact that Chaos Walking is marketed as a Young Adult series, Ness doesn’t shy away from asking them. Why do we fight? What does it mean to be human? I even think there is something in the books about this information age – the constant bombardment of data and noise we endure every day. With no quiet space to think, don’t we all have the potential to be driven a little mad? Alternatively, can’t we use this information to better understand and empathize with each other?

As the Mayor says to Todd near the end of the book, “War makes monsters of me, you once reminded me.” It is messy business, to be sure. But there is great humanity in these books. And Todd and Viola, as characters, will be with me for a long, long time.

A Must Read series!

Patrick Ness …I think I may love you just a little bit. Okay, maybe a lot. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where I literally had to force myself to slow down while reading. I’d start a page and I just couldn’t stand it – my eyes would race to the bottom of the page, skip over to the next page…I was so invested in these amazing characters and this  story and look, I’m doing it here.

Context coming right up.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy (The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men are the other two titles in the series.) I purchased it based on someone’s blog review – sorry, don’t remember the blog – and it languished on my tbr pile for several months before I finally picked it up. I read about 10 pages and put it aside. I had the same sort of lukewarm feelings about the book as I did after my first attempt to read The Book Thief. And we all remember how that turned out, right?

The second time I picked up Ness’ book, I fell into the narrative. By page 38 there was NO WAY I was putting the book down; I couldn’t have put it down even if I’d wanted to.

Todd is just days away from becoming a man; that’s what he’ll be on his 13th birthday. He lives in Prentisstown, a place notable for two reasons: there are no women and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. Todd calls it the ‘noise’ and we hear about as he heads off to the swamp to pick apples.

…the swamp is the only place anywhere near Prentisstown where you can have half a break from all the Noise that men spill outta theirselves, all their clamor and clatter that never lets up, even when they sleep. men and the thoughts they don’t know they think even when everyone can hear. Men and their Noise. I don’t know how they do it, how they stand each other.

This visit to the swamp is remarkable though; Todd hears…silence. But that can’t be because “there’s no such thing as silence. Not here, not nowhere. Not when yer asleep, not when yer by yerself, never.” When he returns to the home he shares with Ben and Cillian, he gets an even bigger surprise: Ben tells Todd he has to go. There is no time for discussion or explanation, Todd must run.

The shocks keep coming for young Todd and his faithful dog, Manchee. (And can I just say here that I have never been one to fall for the old ‘boy and his dog’ story until now – I love that dog, whose thoughts Todd can also hear.)

Patrick Ness has created a compelling, suspenseful narrative.  Todd’s life is constantly in danger and  he has to keep adjusting his own story because, clearly, he hasn’t been told the whole truth about the town he comes from or even his own personal history. He leaves Prentisstown with a book he can’t read and a knife and a sense of urgency that propels him forward with barely a chance to catch his breath. I felt like that, too.

I know that dystopian literature is all the rage these days and yes, I am a fan of The Hunger Games, but I think Ness has done something else quite original with The Knife of Never Letting Go. This is a story that grabs you by the throat and shakes the living daylights out of you for 479 pages.  The subject matter is often dark. The character of the preacher, Aaron, is one of the creepiest psychopaths I’ve encountered in literature in a long, long time. And this is a book I want to hand to people and say “read this now!” I love it when that happens.

 

 

 

Before I talk about Allison Pearson’s delightful novel, I Think I Love You, I have to talk about David Cassidy.   I think it’s important for you to understand my total predisposition to love this book based on my adolescent feelings about David. I LOVED HIM! Oh, I know I wasn’t alone – millions of girls my age loved him. It’s just that I loved him more. And to illustrate the deep personal connection we had, let me tell you about what happened to me in 1995 at the backstage door of the London production of  Blood Brothers. For four weeks only, David Cassidy played the role of Mickey. As luck would have it I was living in England at the time, where I’d been teaching high school English in a little town outside of Birmingham. We were due to fly home for Christmas and so we arranged to go down to London early so I could see the play. I was 34.

Let me back up. My love for David Cassidy came on the heels of my love for Davy Jones (The Monkees). Call me fickle, but who hasn’t heard “Day Dream Believer” and fallen just a little bit in love with Davy’s accented voice?

Then The Partridge Family debuted on television and I was knocked off my feet. I joined the fan club (wish I still had that little plastic record they sent!) I bought TigerBeat magazines by the truckload; I still have have scrapbooks and pictures galore. I sent hundreds of friendship books and slams through the mail. (Anyone else remember those?) I bought all the records – still have them  –  and the puka shells and the Indian cotton shirts. I believe when I was 13, I even had David’s shag hair style. Trust me, it didn’t look nearly as good on me!

So to be sitting in a theatre where I would be hearing David sing live was slightly surreal. I have to admit, I was a little bit nervous. I was dreading that moment when I learned that my childhood memories of him were eclipsed by the reality. After all, he was 20 years older, too. And what if he couldn’t really sing? I shouldn’t have worried. While he didn’t sing enough, when I did hear that clear beautiful voice live for the first time it took me straight back to my childhood. I think I started to cry after the first note. I think I cried pretty much through the rest of the performance.

The musical was spectacular and so was David. After it was over, I said “I need to meet him.” In my head, our eyes would lock, I would invite him for drinks and because I was from North America and so was he, he’d agree and it would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I wasn’t counting on the fact that at least 75  other women of my vintage  would also be waiting for their opportunity to have their moment with David.  Even when I turned the corner of the theatre and saw them all standing there, I was still convinced that he’d pick me.

Finally the stage door opened and David appeared, with Petula Clark (the hussy!) on his arm. There was an audible intake of breath from all the ladies – and an amused chuckle from their long suffering husbands – and then David spoke: “Thanks for coming. I’m happy to sign autographs for everyone, but if I could just ask you to take a step back that would be great.”

I hung back and rehearsed what I would say to David. “Hi. I’m from Canada. I’ve loved you since I was 10. I have all your records. Do you want to go for a drink?” Something like that. Not very eloquent, I guess, but it was the best I could do considering the blood pounding in my head and my heart racing in my chest. David Cassidy! OMG!

The crowd didn’t exactly thin out, but as women got their autographs, they’d move aside and let others have their opportunity. The kind lady standing next to me offered me her pen when I realized I didn’t have one and then…

I was standing in front of him, playbill in hand, staring up into those soulful hazel eyes (he was standing on a step; height isn’t one of DC’s attributes, sadly!) I think David said “Hi. Thanks for coming.” I think I said, “Grdodvnlsnolrijosrivl.”  He signed my programme and then I burst into tears and had to be led away.

Soon afterwards, David and Petula got into a fancy car of some sort and sped off into the London night. I wish I could say that this was the only time a celebrity has made me cry. I’ll save my story about David Boreanaz for another day though.

Here’s a great clip of David and his brother Shaun talking about performing in Blood Brothers on Broadway on the Regis and Kathy Lee Show. Near the end, they sing together. It never fails to make me teary.

 

All this brings me to Allison Pearson’s novel, I Think I Love You.

Petra is thirteen, Welsh and hopelessly devoted to David Cassidy. She remarks early on in the story:

Honest, it’s amazing the things you can know about someone you don’t know. I knew the date of his birth – April 12, 1950. He was the typical Aries, but without the Arian’s stubborness. I knew his height and his weight and his favourite drink, 7Up. I knew the names of his parents and his stepmother, the Broadway musical star. I knew all about his love of horses, which made perfect sense to me because when you’re that famous it must be comforting to be around someone who doesn’t know or care what famous is.

I Think I Love You captures – in glorious detail –  that first  giddy adolescent crush just about every girl has had on a celebrity. Petra is a very real creation. She’s smart and beautiful (but not in the right way for a 13 year old) and she plays the cello. She longs to be popular like her classmate, Gillian. Her one true friend, Sharon, shares her love of David and the two girls spend hours in Sharon’s bedroom, making scrapbooks and taking turns kissing David’s posters. (Petra’s stern German mother would never let her put posters of a pop star on her walls.)

Petra’s story is paralleled by Bill’s. Fresh out of college with a degree in English, Bill is hired to write for The Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Not just hired to write, hired to be David Cassidy – writing notes about his life and answering letters from fans. There’s a hysterical moment when he arrives for his interview and mistakes a picture of David on the cover of a magazine for a girl, exclaiming she’s not his type.

Petra and Bill’s lives collide when they both attend David’s famous White City concert. At the height of his career, when David Cassidy was pretty much the biggest star on the planet, he played a show at this London venue and a young girl died. David retired from performing after that.

Pearson’s novel isn’t just a trip down memory lane, though. We revisit Petra as an adult just as her life begins to unravel – as lives sometimes do. Her mother has just died and her husband, Marcus, has recently announced that he is leaving her. Her daughter, Molly, is 13 and has her own celebrity crush on Leonardo Di Caprio. Suddenly Petra is adrift. The life she thought she built is falling apart and she isn’t quite sure what to do about that. Her salvation comes, strangely enough, in a pink envelope addressed in her very own hand.

I Think I Love You was so much fun to read. I was that girl – totally in love with a pop star. I have also been adult Petra, trying desperately to hold onto the dangling ends of my fraying life.  Lots of touchstones in this book for me.

And I don’t think you have to have  been a David Cassidy fan to appreciate the references to those popstar magazines we all read religiously. Sure, being of a certain age allows certain references to resonate more strongly, but I Think I Love You has lots to say about first love, childhood friendships, dreams dashed and even more miraculously, realized.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, The Babysitter’s Club series is coming back.  That series was wildly popular – 213 titles and 176 million copies sold – in its day.  I can’t comment on the series’  literary merit because I’ve never read one. When the series began in 1986, I was already an adult.

For me, the equivalent of The Babysitter’s Club would be The Bobbsey Twins. Oh, how I loved the adventures of Nan and Bert and Flossie and Freddie, two sets of twins solving mysteries in and around Lakeport. Laura Lee Hope, the series’ author, was actually several authors overseen by Edward Stratemeyer, the man behind The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and several other juvenile series.  Of course, I didn’t know that back in that day. I thought Miss Hope was wonderfully inventive and I thought the  Bobbsey twins were courageous and funny and clever.

The first Bobbsey Twins books was published in 1904 and the never-aging twins continued to solve mysteries until the mid-seventies.

Every year for my birthday, my uncle would give me a couple hard cover Bobbsey Twins books and I would devour them. They were always my favourite gift. I’ve never reread them as an adult and I have no doubt that they wouldn’t be nearly as magical as I remember them…but no matter. They served their purpose and did what all great literature does – transported me to another place.

I still own several of the books – although many were lost or given away during my childhood. They now have pride of place on my daughter’s shelf. Although she’s read them, she is not – of course – the same sort of kid I was. Still, it’s wonderful to know they are cherished.

I was an avid reader of these books when I was 8 and 9, and while they weren’t the only books I loved (I adored Trixie Beldon books and The Famous Five and The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, too) they have a very special place in my heart.

How about you – I’d love to hear about your first literary love(s).