A Monster Calls

The award for most heart wrenching read of 2011 (if only culled from the number I consumed this year) goes to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  Thankfully, this isn't simply a story that is engineered to rip at your heartstrings for the perverse glee of watching you sob (though you will sob).  The sadness in this tale comes with an attempt to help the protagonist understand and cope with terrible things happening around him.  It's an emotional lesson in grief and the fact that sometimes the thing we most fear will happen... and what is even harder is that we'll need to keep living after it does.

A Monster Calls is a story about a young boy visited one night by a monster after midnight... but this is not the monster he was expecting.  Conor is expecting the monster from his nightmare, but instead he's visited by something ancient and wild... something that will make him face far scarier things than anyone so young should ever have to face (which, incidentally, are part of his nightmares).  Conor's mother has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments and the latest round has taken a particular toll.  Conor's grandmother -- who, in his opinion, acts nothing like a real grandmother should act and who Conor dislikes intensely -- has come to look after Conor, though he is used to looking after himself and his mother, so he remains convinced that his grandmother's assistance is not needed.  Conor's father now lives in America with his new family and rarely sees his firstborn son, though it appears even Conor's father is coming to visit and that doesn't really bode well.  As his mother's condition worsens, Conor is repeatedly visited by the monster and while Conor might simply wish to dismiss this monster as a nightmare, he can't quite dismiss the rather tangible evidence that he is, in fact, not entirely dreaming it all up.  The boy who has had to grow up quite quickly and is so used to handling everything must find a way to survive the terrifying fact that his mother will die and he cannot do anything to change this.

If you are not in tears by the end of this book, then you must have a heart of stone.  I freely admit that I bawled and even now, recalling the novel, my eyes are misting.  The brilliance of the novel, though, is not in a sob-story.  It's in the inventive creation of a monster that provides Conor with other things to think about... that all end up tying back to the fact that Conor must deal with his grief.  There are many lessons that Conor learns from the monster... among which is the fact that it is okay for Conor to really feel whatever he's feeling... whether that's sadness or rage or selfishness or pure and simple sorrow.  For anyone who has lost a loved one, this book will hit home and hit hard.

As a final note, somewhat apart from the reading experience but still tied to the book, I suggest that you go and watch the book trailer for A Monster Calls, as it's quite possibly the best book trailer I have ever seen to date: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8-psqOON-Y


The Girl of Fire and Thorns

I knew The Girl of Fire and Thorns was going to be fantastic the second I saw the Tamora Pierce praise on the cover. (Blurbs work, people, they really do.) I grew up reading and re-reading Tamora Pierce novels to the point where I had to put plastic laminate on my copies so the covers wouldn't fall off. Allow that particular tidbit of information to give proper weight to this statement: while I was reading Carson's novel, I felt a spark of that feeling I had so many years ago of reading Woman Who Rides Like a Man for the very first time. It was this quiet delight mixed with anxious desire that the story keep up with its fascinating arc and not take a turn for the predictable or tame -- and I was never once disappointed. There's an awareness that the culture and mythology presented here is new and not simply a recycled version of another novel; while Carson's writing might reveal echoes of something like Pierce's influence, she has her own brand of magic, religious twists, cultural depth, and intricate detail. All of this combines to make Rae Carson a wildly talented new voice in YA fiction that you should read straight away so you can experience her storytelling prowess for yourself.

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, Princess of Orovalle, is the chosen one. Every century, a person has been called to the service of God -- and when the princess was seven days old, God's light descended upon her during her dedication day ceremony and left the Godstone lodged in her navel. The Godstone is very real sign that she has been chosen for service, and Elisa has grown up with the burden of this knowledge physically lodged in her body. Unfortunately, Elisa also feels grossly incapable of doing anything noteworthy and struggles with the awareness that many also share this opinion, knowledge she gleans when she catches their silent stares of disbelief and disgust. Overweight and only truly committed to studying religious scriptures, Elena is not the usual candidate for service to God, despite her elevated royal status. The Girl of Fire and Thorns opens on Elisa's wedding day. A very rushed decision was made for Elisa to marry King Alejandro de Vega of Joya d'Arena, a northern ally of Orovalle. Deeply aware that she must have been the counteroffer to the idea of marriage to her beautiful and capable elder sister, Juana-Alodia, Elisa hopes that King Alejandro will be old and ugly so she is not such a disappointment to him. When King Alejandro turns out to be a quite handsome and charming widower, Elisa doesn't know what to think, though she's much relieved when he appears kind and doesn't seem put out at her request that they do not immediately become intimate. Instead, they talk and Elisa is uncertain what her feelings are towards her new husband when they set out for Joya d'Arena, leaving behind everyone and everything Elisa knows except for two trusted servants. The journey is dangerous and one of Elisa's servants dies along the way, fatally wounded while escaping a burning carriage that was set ablaze in an attack on their party. During that same attack, Elisa saves Alejandro's life and begins to understand that her Godstone goes ice cold when she is in serious danger. (Having been sheltered in the palace her whole life, Elisa assumes there will be a certain amount that she'll learn about the world, but she really has no idea just how shielded she has been.)

Upon arrival in Joya d'Arena, Elisa realizes that Alejandro is not ready to tell his people about his marriage, and so it is kept secret and she has to navigate the treacherous waters of court life without her secret husband's assistance. She makes an immediate enemy of a woman on the king's council that Elisa believes must be Alejandro's mistress, a woman who sends her personal maid, Cosmé,to assist Elisa (and, presumably, spy on her). Constantly watched and yet quite lonely, Elisa discovers that the only benefit to her arrival in Joya d'Arena is something she had never even suspected she had been without -- a whole world of information about the Chosen ones that Elisa had never known... and, indeed, information that was purposefully kept from her, not just by her father or sister or trusted servant but by her entire kingdom. The reader and Elisa both have even more questions as we go further down the rabbit hole. The Chosen ones might all have a destiny, but what happens if they die before fulfilling it? And how would they even know if their role was fulfilled? Does a great contribution have to be a large gesture or perhaps it's something small? And why do the enemies of her people command a powerful magic that no one else can seem to channel? How is Elisa ever to help her people triumph over such a fearsome foe? This is only the beginning of Elisa's story and the most dramatic action is to come as Elisa is kidnapped from the palace and marched across a vast desert so she, the Chosen one, might help a struggling people. The complications continue as she comes to understand that her kidnappers might not be the true enemy -- for there is one far more fearsome quickly crossing the desert to destroy all who oppose them. They wield dark magic, magic with a deep connection to Elisa and her godstone, and their victory would mean death to Joya d'Arena, Orovalle, and the world as Elisa knows it.

Things do not come easily to Elisa and for that, she's a heroine to be admired. Much of her life is dictated to her and she finds it hard to motivate herself to take action. That's most obvious when it comes to her weight, but is a common thread in her life as she spends more time reacting to events than taking action. When Elisa finally does take charge, the reader wants to cheer, having seen her grow and become more confident in herself, but it's not an easy journey. Be prepared to wade through the self-pity at the beginning of the novel -- I promise it serves a purpose -- so you can watch Elisa blossom in to a young woman who can wield real power. I despise the way so many books assume you'll take up the side of the main character simply because the author tells you to. In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, the reader comes to believe in Elisa... even before Elisa really believes in herself. Additionally, many novels feature a main character who is an outsider and is forced to quickly learn about a new place, but I appreciated the twist in Elisa's case: she's always been in the thick of things and yet was incredibly sheltered from so much knowledge. She and the reader learn about the history of other Bearers and there's no massive infodump. Learning about the world is another matter, though, as the reader gleans bits and pieces as the story progresses. It's not unpleasant and left me hungering for more, asking questions that were only tinged with curiosity and not impatience for deeper understanding. There is such rich material in this world that one feels as though Carson could spend volumes on the culture, religion, and history of Orovalle, Joya d'Arena, and its surrounding area.

For those wondering, while I think this novel is purposely focused on Elisa and her personal development (and I greatly appreciate this), there are romantic elements to this story. Undoubtedly, there will be a romantic story that comes more to the foreground, but I'm glad The Girl of Fire and Thorns keeps its real focus on Elisa as she develops her own self-reliance and determination. She might be aided by others, be they friends or those with the potential to be more, but Elisa is standing on her own two feet as she works through the problems she faces. I'm not dismissing the romantic developments within this novel -- Carson makes some brave moves and her characters are all the stronger for it, but we're still dealing with a teen novel and a teenage heroine, so it's only right that we have some heart-fluttering moments and questions. That said, you'll also note that I'm giving no hints here about any leading fellows. No characters are quite as fully developed as Elisa, who takes center stage throughout the story and I believe this is a deliberate move. The reader might come to identify a few favorites and we certainly come to appreciate other characters and their particular contributions to the story, but one has the constant feeling that we'll get to know the key players better as we continue through the series arc.

A final note to address, if only because it's a somewhat unique element of this story, is the religious storyline that runs throughout the novel. Elisa, given a destiny by God, finds her greatest solace in reading sacred texts and is almost constantly praying. People who have a huge problem with religion might be displeased with this book but despite the emphasis on "God," I think it's important to recognize that this is not Christian lit. (Not everything with one god qualifies as Christian, guys.) Elisa has faith in a God and this God is important and very very real in her life and the lives of the people of this world. (Aside from the whole godstone thing, there are facts hinted to in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and more fully noted in The Crown of Embers, the sequel, which discusses how Elisa's people were actually brought to this world from a dying planet by God.) The presence of this God ensures that we accept there's a higher plan at work here, even if it doesn't (often) lead to deus ex machina styled scenarios. (This is much more of a clockmaker God than one who takes an active role, despite having relocated a whole people to a new planet which is, admitted, very hands-on.) Religion can be a touchy subject, so it's often skirted in fantasy YA that isn't specifically trying to address it. Personally, I had no problem with the addition of a religion to the mythology of this world -- I even welcomed it as an intriguing aspect to the story. There's the possibility for things to stretch too far in to the "God has a plan" direction but I'm willing to see what Carson has in store for us with this. I have faith it will be somewhere fascinating.

So as you can see, I was a huge fan of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I devoured the book and was immediately hungry for more. Carson can't write fast enough for my taste and I can't wait to find out what happens to Elisa and those supporting characters who will come to play larger roles in the series. One can already tell that strong personalities don't always lead to constant harmony and Elisa will have to step on even some familiar toes if she's to assume her destined role and continue to make tough devisions. I don't quite know where Carson will take us with this series, but I'm content to be swept away with the story. She's proven herself worthy of my literary trust and I hope she has the same impression on many, many readers.

Full disclosure: I do not work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. However, my review here expresses my own personal opinion.


A Christmas Carol

The story of A Christmas Carol is one that most of us in the Western world know fairly well... in fact, I would wager that most children over the age of 7 in the US or UK could give a pretty good breakdown of the general plotpoints with ease. But did we actually read the Charles Dickens classic to gain this knowledge? Or is your understanding of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future the result of a film adaptation? I'm not railing against movie adaptations, as I think A Christmas Carol translates brilliantly to film... to the point where we might all know the plot of this particular story as a result of a movie that puts a twist on the original tale. My personal favorite is The Muppet Christmas Carol, though a close second is Scrooged.

My only previous read of the actual text of A Christmas Carol occurred back in sixth grade. It's a short little novella and was a good introduction to Dickens, as his other tomes seemed daunting to an eleven-year-old. One can easily breeze through A Christmas Carol in a single evening, curled up by the fire with Christmas lights twinkling and presents under the tree. That said, A Christmas Carol really isn't something I would opt to re-read year after year. Here's where those film adaptations become very, very useful. You watch the Muppets, Bill Murray, Ebbie, or Scrooge and you've had your yearly dose.

This year, I noticed an Audible performance of A Christmas Carol done by Tim Curry and it simply had to be purchased and immediately loaded on to my ipod. I listened to it over the course of three days, knitting a Christmas present on my commute to work. I was surprised at how few details slip through the cracks in various performances and I was comforted by how familiar the words were to the point where I could have recited many passages along with Curry. (And some of them were even ones I could do without Gonzo's voice.) The story is timeless and it's hard to imagine the holidays without this particular tale in existence, when in fact it was only published in 1843. This might be a bit blasphemous to say, but it's second only to the actual origin story of Christmas in terms of our association with this time of year. Beyond Christmas, think of the cultural contributions of this novel to our general lexicon. Think of such outstanding quotes as "Mankind was my business," "as solitary as an oyster," "there's more of gravy than of grave about you," and even "'Bah,' said Scrooge. 'Humbug!'" Tim Curry gives a fun reading with voices that are never too ridiculous. I'll admit that I hoped for a little bit more, though I'm not quite sure what. Some flash, a bit more panache, something. I've listened to Curry read the first in the Series of Unfortunate Events and that was pure magic. Here, it was certainly amusing enough but I didn't feel the same delight for which I had hoped. I'm not sure I could reconcile the visual of Tim Curry anywhere in the story but as a voice in your ear, it's a fine way to experience A Christmas Carol for the first time in its original form or as a re-telling that isn't brought out with the rest of the Christmas DVDs and tinsel each year.

So on this Christmas Day, I leave you with this, quoted from memory:

"And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any many alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!"


Last-Minute Knitted Gifts

This just goes to show that you can never be quite sure what I'll be reviewing here.
I don't often review knitting books, but Open Road put this up on NetGalley and one should always try to review what one requests. A pretty little book, Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson delivers exactly what it promises -- a collection of patterns that take less time than you might otherwise think. The gifts that are truly short on time aren't necessarily something that serious knitters will be tempted by (and, let's face it, the "linen tassel" for a bookmark is a bit of a joke and doesn't quite belong here), but for those knitters who are just starting to stretch their legs, this might be a nice book to consult when you're looking to find something that knits up "quickly." Note that "quickly" is a somewhat relative term, as there are patterns for blankets and sweaters in here... they just happen to be somewhat simple ones. The book itself doesn't seem concerned that "last-minute" usually implies that most of these patterns should be for quickly knit items... not perhaps one-skein things, but at least things you could conceivably finish within a few days (where the entirety of that time isn't spent furiously knitting). Some of these are definitely "Oh dear, so-and-so's birthday is a month and a half away, what do I do?" kind of things, so take "last-minute" with a grain of salt. There are some particularly pleasing scarf patterns that provide some nice inspiration and there's a pretty set of hand/wrist warmers. I, for one, will be making ample use of the angora bootie pattern as I struggle to keep up with knitting some tiny-yet-heartfelt presents for pregnant co-workers.



Meg Cabot's latest series is a dip in to the supernatural and mythological. Abandon features a marketing tagline of "She knows what it's like to die. Now Death wants her back." It's... sort of accurate, but rather sounds like a horror movie rather than a supernatural romance, right?

With a new spin on the Persephone myth, Abandon moves the story of a young girl drawn in to a relationship with Death to the setting of modern-day Florida... specifically, to Isla Huesos (aka Island of Bones) where secrets (among other things) don't seem to stay buried. Seventeen-year-old Pierce Oliviera is a bit different from the average teenager. You might point to her family's incredible wealth (her father is CEO of a large, environment-damaging company) or her parents' messy divorce that has her mother dragging Pierce back to the mother's own family and hometown. But really, the main thing that separates Pierce from every other teen (or adult, for that matter) is that she's died and returned to life. She can patiently explain the scientific descriptions of her body's shut-down and revival or what studies say the often-reported bright light might mean... but she can't actually describe what happened to her or she'd be labeled as crazy. Crazy is exactly what most people thought when she came back to life and started talking about much more than a bright light: finding herself in a place where she was pushed into a line, this man on a giant horse who she'd met before as a child, her sudden removal to a very calm room with him before he talked about her staying there forever, and the moment when she threw tea in his face to escape...

But let's back up for a second here.

The story begins with all that death experience in the past and Pierce trying to start again as a normal teenager in this new town. Cabot chooses to reveal information about Pierce's past in flashbacks, often triggered by the sudden appearance of the dark and brooding lord of the underworld, who seems to lurk around town with alarming frequency... particularly when we go in to this bit about how there isn't just one underworld and this guy is actually not Hades or anything, he's just the designated overseer for this particular underworld entry point for this zone. Hm. I'll also note that Pierce's moments where she pauses to remember something aren't clear and obviously delineated from what's going on at the moment. They're really hazy and sketchy flashbacks that make the reader wish she'd be just a little clearer and just get it all out there already. Quite honestly, that's my big criticism of the book, so I might as well get it out there, too. If Cabot is trying to distract you from the fact that this is a story about a boy (whose name is John, btw) who wants a girl back and a girl who doesn't quite want to admit she wants the boy back... well, then at least she succeeded in confusing you for long stretches of time.

When you finally have all the puzzle pieces, the story is mildly intriguing -- Pierce, as a child, met a dark man in a cemetery as she waited for her mother and grandmother to finish dealing with the details of her grandfather's funeral. Years later, Pierce drowned in the swimming pool in a theoretical accident and met him once more. This time, he was very interested in keeping her with him, but she fled (which is somewhat uncharacteristically brave of Pierce) and now she's back in the real world... unable to separate her near-death experience from the rest of her life, no matter how hard she tries (which isn't very hard at all) as stalker-John keeps popping up.

Readers of Twilight might be particularly intrigued with Abandon as it had a similar feel of fated (yet founded on nothing substantial) love that the characters struggled against in a half-hearted way while darker forces lurk about. As a set-up to a series, Abandon doesn't quite feel complete enough on its own, so you should probably be willing to commit if you embark upon this one. It's not unpleasant, but Pierce wasn't exactly a strong heroine. She was, in fact, quite a dim bulb at times (example: trying to catch a lecherous teacher in the act but failing to have a camera or something stashed away? or a plan as to how to escape?). John always has to swoop in and save her and we then proceed with the inevitable descriptions of cosmic attraction.

Abandon is a quick read and will, I imagine, have some adult cross-over fans who appreciate a twist on Greek mythology and some steamy (yet still YA acceptable) romance. Rather than give this two stars, I yielded to the fact that I did fall in to the world quite quickly, though I think a large part of the interest was in untangling the narrative as it looped around on itself. As far as the Persephone stories for this year go, I preferred The Goddess Test, but I'll still be interested on seeing where Cabot takes this series arc, as I can't quite suss out exactly where this is headed while still sticking with the mythological angle.


Shatter Me

My advice to you is this: if you are a YA fan and have not read (or, indeed, do not know anything about) Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, then don't read this review beyond the first paragraph. Go find yourself a copy but do not read the summary, do not look for anything online, just start reading. Let this utterly fascinating and completely riveting story engulf your senses and steal away with your afternoon. Bid it farewell with delight, for the hours spent reading at breakneck speed be well spent. Be warned, though -- if you read this on public transportation, you will miss your stop. If you try to read this while something is cooking, your food will burn. Attempting to only read part of this novel will be a very hard task, as it will set upon your attention like a terrier, refusing to relinquish its hold until you've read every last word. So just trust me and go.

I will assume the rest of you who are still reading have already (a) read the book or (b) at least read enough to know the general plotline. I'll confess that I knew nothing whatsoever about Shatter Me before reading it which might be surprising, since everyone around me was raving, but I absented myself from conversations that got too specific. I only knew that those people were being so complimentary and several of them were people whose opinions actually mattered in my estimation. Rather than trying to educate myself, I decided to just start the novel and I cannot begin to describe my delight in this experience as I was swept away in the strong current of Mafi's storytelling. The story is deceptively simple and, frankly, somewhat common in its basest form if one considers the large number of dystopian novels piling up on our shelves these days. Yet I feel as though Shatter Me is a unique and precious tale, made rich by an author who allows us to see with new eyes.

Our narrator, Juliette, has been locked up for 264 days, during which she hasn't spoken to or touched another living soul. The reason the whole "hasn't touched" part is important is because Juliette's touch is what landed her in this cell, a prisoner of the Reestablishment. By touching someone, Juliette can inflict pain and can even kill. It's unintentional; it just happens. She doesn't know how or why but the mere fact has made her a prisoner, someone far too dangerous to allow to remain uncontrolled, particularly when it seems the Reestablishment is having difficulty maintaining power. Much of the beginning of her story is told in crossed out lines -- journal confessions adjusted so that the reader knows the conflicting thoughts and feelings within Juliette, who's struggling with her own comprehension of her situation, not to mention her sanity.

Stuck within the confines of this cell, with only her own thoughts for company, it's no surprise that Juliette herself clings to language like a life preserver and while some might find the prose to be a bit much, I thought it was rather fitting for someone who has all the time in the world to turn thoughts over in her mind. She's a bit strange, but then, so would we all after 264 days without real contact from another living soul. It's no surprise, then, that the introduction of a cellmate throws Juliette's world in to total chaos... particularly when that cellmate is a young man and perhaps not a stranger.

I won't go any further than that, really, where it comes to specifics. Juliette does see the world outside of this prison and we come to understand that the world is in chaos and the Reestablishment is barely holding on to control. While Juliette might see herself as a monster, there is the undeniable fact that she is powerful... and Juliette needs to decide whether she'll become a weapon or a warrior in the fight that could see the Reestablishment firmly in control or completely overthrown. It cannot all happen in the course of one book, but we definitely see a set-up for Juliette that presents her with options for her own life, love, and purpose.

There appear to be two camps where Mafi's writing is concerned and I'm rather firmly in positive camp. There are moments when action or emotions could have been described more succinctly, but personally I was never truly displeased with the more elaborate style of communication that Mafi/Juliette adopts. The love triangle is both strange and a bit predictable. The obvious good choice is so very good and the obvious villain is perhaps even more appealing for sheer interest value. The dystopian society is intriguing enough for a first novel in a series where one knows the second will likely take us further in to the complications and details of conflict. As I mentioned before, it's not the world itself that is the most intriguing, but Juliette's perspective and journey. Great storytelling can come from a tale that everyone has heard as long as the story is told well and I feel that Shatter Me is very illustrative of this concept.

I know that Juliette's power is all very X-Men, so I have trouble pinpointing exactly why it still felt like a unique idea for a dystopian novel setting. I think my favorite parts were all a little twisted, so maybe that's where my X-Men affection comes in. We might think we know exactly who's good and who's bad, but I'm looking forward to learning more about what compels both sides. I have a feeling it's all more complicated than we think. And with so many dystopian novels out there, I'm really relying heavily on my connection with the characters to be what sees me through. The crumbling world isn't what kept me reading late in to the night... it was Juliette and watching her cope. Everyone else might be falling to pieces, but Juliette is just learning to build herself up in to something strong and fearsome because her power cannot be ignored. She is not normal and that isn't something for her to lament any longer. She has to embrace it if she's going to survive. Shatter Me features a female character who has to find her own strength and courage (sure, there's a cute boy around to help her do that, but the romance here can be quite fun, so I accepted it... harder to accept is the standard girl in a pretty dress on the cover but whatever) and I'm looking forward to the next stage in this series. I sure hope it keeps the momentum going because I was delighted with this and it deserves some fantastic follow-up.

Full disclosure: I don't work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. My review is my own personal opinion, though, so weight this knowledge as you see fit.