A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness (inspired by Siobhan Dowd)

illustrated by Jim Kay

published 2011

download (1)So I am going to do something that I rarely do – start, finish, and review a book all in the same day.  This is something that only happens when I read a book that hits me so deep and so hard that I am more or less compelled to write about it.

Except when a book strikes me like that, I am at somewhat of a loss as to what to say….

It is not unheard of for me to rate a book five stars…  I have many books I love.  Many of my five stars are old friends, books I have read since I was a girl, and have read over and over again.  They are books that I love not because they are flawless, but despite their flaws.  But every now and then I read a book that is pure magic.  Every word is exactly the right one.  Those books tangle up in your heart strings and pull on something deep in your soul with the same kind of aching beauty that strikes you when you watch the perfect sunrise.

A Monster Calls is a book about grief, sorrow, and tragedy.  But is also a book about truth, hope, and survival.  The stark drawings embrace the words, forming a seamless story that flows through both the illustrations and the print.

book6 I will freely admit that it is possible that part of the reason that this book hit me so hard was that I was reading it while sitting in a hospital room next to a bed in which someone I love is quietly dying of cancer.  I had no idea what A Monster Calls was really about; it had been on my TBR since I read a review on Reading, Writing, and Riesling’s site quite some time ago, far too long ago for me to actually remember what the review said!  I’m not usually a huge one for sad books, but I have zero regrets about this one.

That said, I will also freely admit that I didn’t just tear up while reading this book – I out and out cried.  And it was a book that I found myself really struggling to decide what to quote, because every page struck me with something new and profound and beautiful.

Stories are the wildest things of all…  stories chase and bite and hunt.  

AMC_Steel-and-Brick_for-Alison

The justifications of men who kill should always be heard with skepticism.

If you speak the truth, you will be able to face whatever comes.

 

This is a book of stark beauty, of hard reality.  This is a book that talks about the difficulty of truly struggling with grief and loss, especially the grief and loss that happens before death has happened…  that yearning for normalcy in a life that will never truly be normal again, the bitterly difficult emotional balance between believing death will never come and recognizing that it is, in fact, inevitable.

In conclusion, simply this: read this book.  It is the kind of magic that does not happen every day.

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side

The_Mirror_Crack'd_From_Side_to_Side_First_Edition_Cover_1962by Agatha Christie

published 1962

In this Miss Marple mystery, we return to the village of St. Mary Mead.  It has been several years since we last saw that little hamlet (back in The Body in the Library), and while many of the characters reappear, Christie actually dwells a great deal on the changes in village life, discussing the modernization of the homes, the appearance of department stores, and the building of The Development on the edge of town.

Although Miss Marple contemplates these things, as well as her own aging, at length, Christie manages to write about these topics in a way that actually propels/provides a setting for the story, rather than dragging it down.  Part of the reason may be because Christie/Miss Marple does not necessarily make a judgment as to whether these changes are good or bad.  Certainly, they have their disadvantages, at least from Miss Marple’s perspective, but overall she seems to recognize them as a part of life.

The mystery itself must have been buried somewhere within my subconscious, as I’m usually quite bad at mysteries, and this one I knew immediately who the murderer was and why.  I’m just not that clever, so must have read this book sometime long ago.  Still, despite the fact that the mystery was not at all mysterious, I rather enjoyed seeing the clues and red herrings for what they really were as the story progressed.  It also allowed me to relax and enjoy some of the old faces (especially Mrs. Bantry, although the Colonel, sadly, has passed away in the interim).

In the end, beyond the mystery, what I enjoyed about this book is the fact that Miss Marple realizes how although our trappings and technology may change, human nature is ever and always the same.  I am a strong believer in this myself (it’s no secret that part of the reason I enjoy Christie’s writing so much is that her worldview so closely follows my own!), and I love the way that as Miss Marple gets to know new people, and people from The Development, she recognizes afresh how we all have the same struggles and complications and desires as humanity ever has.

While this is not, in my opinion, one of Christie’s best works, it is still a good read, and an easy 3/5.

NOTE:  This is my first attempt publishing a review on queue instead of live.  We will see how it works!!!

The Far-Off Land

download (2)  by Rebecca Caudill

published 1964

As a little girl, I loved the book The Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill.  Aimed at a much younger audience than this title, that book is more a series of little stories about the same family.

The Far-Off Land is more of a YA novel of sorts.  Set in 1780, the story is about Ketty, a young woman who, orphaned, has been taken in by a community in North Carolina comprised of people known as the Moravians.  I’d never really heard of the Moravians before, but they appear to be a Christian religion similar to the Quakers, in that they are very peaceful and (at least in the 1780s), focused a great deal on acceptance, hard work, non-aggression, and kindness to all.  Ketty has lived within this community for several years when our story opens, but she doesn’t stay there for long – in the first chapter her long-lost older brother appears from the North Carolinian frontier.  He sweeps her up to come live with him and his family, and to journey with them even further west to an area on the North Carolina-Tennessee border known as the French Lick.

While Ketty isn’t completely sure she wants to go with her brother, who is practically a stranger, the Moravian elders urge her to remember and embrace the importance of family unity.  Ketty sets off with her brother (Anson).  He and two other men have built a flatboat, on which they intend to float down various rivers with their families until they arrive at the French Lick.  Over the next several months, Ketty does a great deal of personal growing as she faces situations and difficulties that she never imagined.  Of course, she finds some romance along the way, but it’s a rather minor part of the overall story.

The Far-Off Land was an interesting book because it wasn’t exactly a happy one.  Life in the 1780 frontier is no joke, and the group faces some hard situations, including injury, disease, hunger, bad weather, and Indians.  Through it all, though, Ketty learns the importance of loyalty and trust, but she also learns the importance of standing strong for her own beliefs.  While Ketty respects her brother and his position of leadership in her life, she isn’t afraid to do what she believes is right, and, in the end, she is respected for her actions.

The treatment of the Indians is the big division between Ketty and the others.  Because the Moravians have always treated the Indians with respect and kindness, Ketty has never known them to be dangerous or frightening.  However, the other settlers have all experienced violence at the hands of the Indians – and have delivered violence of their own.  Ketty struggles a great deal with trying to understand how to hang on to her convictions, even in situations where  her convictions seem dangerous or foolish.

Before she left the Moravian town, one of the women there gave Ketty two life-rules, to which Ketty clings throughout the story:  To be present and to be reverent.  Sister Oesterlein explains that  by being present, Ketty can hear and respond to the needs of those around her, and that by being reverent she can learn to value and cherish life and beauty everywhere they are found –

“By loving people, Ketty, you will come to understand their needs.  By loving and caring about people – all people.  See people as we Moravians see them – not as friends or enemies, but as people, red people and black people as well as white, Tories as well as patriots, the gentleman’s slave as well as the gentleman.  If love goes with you through the wilderness, Ketty, you needn’t be afraid.  There isn’t any evil in the world that won’t give ground before a loving woman.

…Reverence God and all that He has created.  Especially reverence life, Ketty – all life.  Reverence and enjoy the lovely things of earth – wind in wheat fields, cucumber vines in bloom, the smell of scythed hay in windrows, the noise of thunder, and the stillness of the snow.  Whatever falls to your lot, lean times or times of plenty, if you care about people and walk reverently, Ketty, you will be doing right.”

This isn’t a book of gripping excitement or intense doings, but a story of a young woman who is trying her best to learn to walk lovingly and reverently through life, even when she is surrounded by people who tell her that that is a foolish way of life, and that the only way to survive is by being the strongest, and taking whatever one needs from the weakest.  It is not at all an overtly religious book, and I really felt that the concepts of being present and being reverent were equally applicable to life whether someone is religious or not.

Really, my biggest beef with this  book is that it ended quite suddenly.  We spend all this time traveling to the French Lick, and the book ends before they get there!  It really felt like we could have cut out a little bit of the traveling and showed a more conclusive ending than Ketty and her man paddling off in a canoe to start their new life, but maybe that’s just me.

Overall, this book was a thoughtful 4/5.  While not a beloved classic like A Happy Little Family, The Far-Off Land still  has plenty to recommend itself in thought-provoking and engaging story-telling.

PS I haven’t looked into very closely, but apparently the Moravian Church is still around?  And, more intriguingly, still based in North Carolina!

UPDATE: More on ‘Across a Star-Swept Sea’

If you just read my post on this book, you’ll find that I was slightly annoyed by the sudden addition of a new plot-twist towards the end.  Well GUESS WHAT: even though there is nothing in the book to indicate that it is so, apparently this book is a sequel to For Darkness Shows the Stars.  I really, really hate it when people don’t bother to mention that this is BOOK TWO OF A SERIES, wow.  And, it appears from Goodreads, that that additional plot twist would probably make more sense it the picture of the overall whole, so, apologies on that complaint.  I’ll have to read THE FIRST  BOOK THAT NO ONE MENTIONED and go from there.

Across a Star-Swept Sea

//by Diana Peterfreund//published 2013//

17331341 Okay, I know I said that I was going to review The Far-off Land next, but, honestly, I’m way more excited about this book, so I decided to do it first.  :-D

So a while back I came across a list of books, and all the books on the list were retellings of other stories.  Of course, fairy tales were the main bulk of the list (and I do love a good fairy tale retelling), but, to my surprise, there was also listed a retelling of one of my all-time favorites, The Scarlet Pimpernel!  

If you are unfamiliar with The Scarlet Pimpernel, you really should read it, as the book is a delight.  Is it old-fashioned and a bit ridiculous?  Absolutely, but that doesn’t keep it from being quite a lot of fun.

The original Pimpernel story is set in England during the French Revolution.  While most Britishers are sitting about writing their hands and shaking their heads over the blood-bath across the Channel, one man is consistently risking his life to rescue endangered aristocrats and bring them safely to Britain.  This man, a master of disguise and intrigue, is known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and no one knows his true identity (except, of course, his band of merry men).

There is much more to the story, but that is the basic premise, and it should be enough to get you going on Across a Star-Swept Sea.  

In this version, our setting is far in the future.  Civilization as we know it has been destroyed, and all that remains are two neighboring islands, jointly known as New Pacifica, and individually known as the countries of Galatea and Albion.

At the time of our story, Galatea is in the midst of a terrible revolution, and the aristocrats are being sentenced to a fate worse than death – Reduction (more on this later).  While Albion dithers as to what they should do, one Albionian is willing to risk life and limb by sneaking into Galatea and rescuing prisoners.  Known as the Wild Poppy, everyone assumes that this person must be a young aristocrat from Albion, and they’re right.  Except…  it’s a girl.  

Okay.  Good points.  Overall, I really, really enjoyed this book.  The pacing was excellent, the characters were engaging and likable, the plot was just enough like the original to be familiar and comfortable, but enough different to be intriguing and to keep me reading.  I really liked Persis, the Wild Poppy, and her love interest/other protagonist, Justen.  The other friends were also good secondary characters, and I also appreciated the strong family bond between Persis and her parents.

Biggest good point?  THIRD PERSON PAST TENSE IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL I LOVED IT!!!!

Negatives: the Reduction thing got really confusing; I got super tired of the overt in-my-face quasi-feminist message; with only about a quarter of the book left to go, Peterfreund introduced a gigantic new plot twist that felt unnecessary, and, in the end, made the conclusion feel a lot less satisfying.

Overall, though, this book got a strong 4/5 (super unusual for me for modern YA), and was a super fun twist on an old favorite.

Now, if you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the three big negatives…

Reduction

I’m going to try to make this as simplified as possible, but it’s super confusing.  I found myself flipping back to earlier chapters to try and match up information presented there with what I was learning later in the book.  In this story, the world as we know it progressed to a point where people were able to genetically modify their unborn children (a little vague on why/how/into what, but one assumes that they were being modified into pure awesome).  Of course, only rich people could afford such a procedure, so in a few generations, rich people = genetically modified, poor people = normal.

Well, then there was this terrible thing where a bunch of the genetically modified people started having this problem called Reduction, wherein they lost a lot of their mental capacity.  Then there was this whole vague war (still not clear on that bit) and then the whole world gets blown up except for some mysterious person lost in the eons of history, who created New Pacifica and brought some people to populate it.

However, when this happened, the people who used to be rich became the slaves, because these people were all Reduced, so the previously-poor people were now able to control the previously-rich people.  So the old poor people, genetically normal, become the new rich aristocrats, while the previously-rich people, genetically modified/Reduced, become the new poor peasants.

THEN someone comes up with this way to make Reduced people normal, and time passes, and then the peasants, now normal (“regs”) revolt against the genetically normal aristocrats and start feeding them this medicine that turns those people into Reduced.

Do you see why I was confused???  For me, it was especially confusing in terms.  Technically, the aristocrats are also “regs,” but instead of meaning “regular genetics”, “regs” is used to describe the peasant/non-aristocrats, which was super confusing to me.  There’s this whole bit about needed to study genetically regular people, but everyone acts as though the aristocrats are their own thing??  I don’t know, it was complicated for me.  Overall, it didn’t detract from the story too much, but it did, at times, make me having to review the information I’d found so far and try to make better sense of it.

Obnoxious Feminism

Here’s a thing that annoys me.  A thing that annoys me is when people create a completely new, made-up world.  In this world that they have created out of their own head, they insert one thing about our real, modern society that really annoys them. Then they proceed to spend the entire book whining about this thing that they, the creator, put into the world.

We already have a society where people spend a lot of time whining about inequality and how horrible oppressed women are.  What boggles my mind is why someone would create a whole new world and insert the same situation.  It seems to me that what would be fantastic is if someone would create a world where inequality between the sexes wasn’t a problem – give us an example of men and women working together in harmony.  Show us what it should look like.  That, in my mind, would be actually productive.

I didn’t really mind the gender-swapping of making the Pimpernel a girl, and confused aristo from the other side a guy.  However, I found it ironic that Peterfreund fell right into the same trap she claims (repeatedly) to disclaim: she makes Persis act like the fluff-headed fashion guru silly giggly useless one, while Justen gets to be the sciency genius.  And sure, Persis isn’t really all of those things, and she’s actually quite intelligent and logical and self-aware, but, in the original, the Pimpernel (a man) is the fluff-headed fashion guru silly giggly useless one, and I actually think that this story would have made a much stronger feminist statement if a guy had been playing the fool while a girl was the clever scientist.  Peterfreund seems to think that she is really ahead of the game because the “rescuer” is a girl, but it just doesn’t really impress me as all that daring.

But it appears that Peterfreund, like most YA writers, would rather whine about gender roles than do anything about them, so such is life.  And in the meantime, I’m forced to read statements of male recrimination that just make me roll my eyes and gag:

How odd that an array of gorgeous dresses and a few well-placed dumb comments were all it took to disguise her true self.  Was it because she was a woman?  Was it because Justen was actually far shallower than Persis had ever appeared to be?

That’s right, Justen.  Continue to berate yourself.  That’s what modern feminism is really all about: making guys feel guilty.

Wildly Complicated Plot Twist

This book was really well-paced, and I loved that. There were just enough story threads working together to feel like they were creating a cohesive and engaging whole.  Then, with only about a quarter of the book left, Peterfreund drops a gigantic and extremely complicated plot twist into the whole thing.  It was very frustrating because it didn’t really feel like it was necessary to move the story on, and, in the end, left me with a lot more questions.  It just felt like the story could of wrapped up in a much neater fashion without this additional complication.  Ah well.

Conclusion

I actually really, really liked this book, and am definitely checking out Peterfreund’s other works.  While there were a few things that irritated me, I overall felt like it was well-written and definitely worth my time to read.

No one is innocent in the tide of history.  Everyone has kings and slaves in his past.  Everyone has saints and sinners.  We are not to blame for the actions of our ancestors.  We can only try to be the best we can, no matter what our heritage, to strive for a better future for all.

Rearview Mirror: January 2015

So, inspired by Sophie’s PaperPuffs and Stephanie’s new monthly recap, I thought, what the hey?  I’ll try to post a little monthly review myself.

This month was super busy.  Besides reading a lot more books than I actually reviewed, we also did a huge remodeling project on the kitchen.  I’m also trying to be a good girl by dieting and exercising every day (which is going better than hoped).  I’m also trying to keep up on both book and house blogging.  The book reviews are so much more fun if I write them close to when I actually read the book, and the house blog is way more interesting if the posts are close enough together that I can actually go into some detail about what’s been happening.

This month, I only reviewed five books:

However, I did read four more books, so you can expect reviews for these coming soon:

  • The Far-off Land by Rebecca Caudill
  • Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund
  • The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
  • Old Mother West Wind by Thornton W. Burgess

Tragically, loads more books got added to the TBR. I’ve given up on any kind of restraint, and am just letting the list develop as it will.  It’s not unusual for me to add a book, get it from the library, and then decide that it’s not for me, so I like to keep the field pretty wide.  This month, among others, I added:

  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs – thanks to Lady Fancifull’s review (which was in December but I didn’t read the review until January so!)
  • The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean
  • Curse of the Thirteenth Fey by Jane Yolen – thanks to a review on Tales of the Marvelous (another December review I didn’t read until January!)
  • The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly – thanks to Stephanie’s book review
  • Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
  • Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kastner – pretty sure I’m not going to be able to find a copy of this book, but it was the inspiration behind Disney’s The Parent Trap, and lately I’ve been on a kick of reading the books behind the movies
  • The Fox in the Hound by Daniel Mannix and The Apple Dumpling Gang by Jack Bickham – in the spirit of finding books behind movies
  • And if that wasn’t enough, I added the entire Arthurian series by T.H. White and, thanks to Lady Fancifull’s review, L.C. Tyler’s Elsie & Ethelred cozy mystery series

Of course, those are probably all months away from being read.

So, there is your little review/preview.  I may even get around to reviewing The Far-off Land today.

Until next time, keep the happy reviews coming.  I love reading everyone’s reviews, even of books I would never imagine reading.  It’s so amazing how everyone can read the same book yet read a different story, and I love it.

Happy February!!