An Epic of Love, String Theory and Donuts: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy DiesPublished: January 11th, 2011
Publisher: Audible, Inc.
Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 23 hrs and 41 mins

As you might imagine, Skippy Dies opens with the death of the titular character, one Daniel Juster (nicknamed Skippy). Skippy dies of mysterious circumstances at a donut shop named Ed’s, then the story jumps back several months to tell the sprawling tale of life at Seabrook College before and after that fateful day. Skippy Dies has a wide-ranging cast of colorful, hilarious and occasionally maddening characters, and the Audible production brings them all to life with a wonderful full-cast recording.

Although Skippy is the catalyst for much of what happens in the book, he isn’t necessarily the main character. Instead, Skippy Dies is an ensemble story with a half-dozen or more plot-lines that weave in and out of Skippy’s life. First and foremost is the story of Ruprecht Van Doren, Skippy’s roommate. Ruprecht is socially awkward, horribly overweight, exceedingly intelligent and obsessed with string theory. At one point in the book, Ruprecht manages to convince his friends to test a device that might open a portal to another dimension if only they can get it into the girl’s school next door.

Then there’s Carl and Barry, two burnouts who start selling “diet pills” bartered from kids with ADHD to girls looking to lose weight fast. Carl is dangerous, psychotic, and hopelessly in love with a pretty girl named Laurie, who is also Skippy’s number one crush. Despite the seemingly huge gap in their social stations, Laurie and Skippy do actually get together at one point in the book, and it only inspires more fits of rage and destruction on Carl’s part.

Murray doesn’t just focus on students, however; he also tells the story of Howard “The Coward”, a Seabrook alum who finds himself back at school, teaching history to the sort of kids he was not so long ago. Howard, who has a loveless relationship at home and terrible guilt from an “incident” that happened years ago, barely holds the respect of his students until a pretty substitute comes to Seabrook and up-ends his life. Howard also butts heads with Greg “The Automator”, acting headmaster of the school, who seems to care more about branding and merchandise than education. The Automator is the kind of subtly dangerous imbecile who tends to rise to the top in management positions out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

All of these characters and more interact in scenes that are hilarious, touching and occasionally even disturbing. Murray weaves mundane events, satire and occasional flights of fancy with such a deft hand that he makes Seabrook College feel like a living, breathing world. The book is simultaneously epic and intimate; filled with lofty ideas and discussions of the nature of reality, but focused entirely on life in a small community in Ireland. Skippy Dies is a huge, long book, but if you have the time, I highly recommend the audiobook version. The full cast recording makes the world of the book feel more real and makes it easier to keep track of the huge cast of characters.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Reincarnation on Repeat: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifePublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 15 hours, 34 minutes

Life After Life opens with its main character, Ursula Todd, dying as an infant… and then being born again. This time, the doctor arrives in time and Ursula lives, only to die a few years later when she drowns at sea. She is born again and saved from drowning by a man painting a seascape who gets to her in time. Ursula lives her life over and over, never entirely aware of the process. She just gets a strange foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. It isn’t until the end of the first World War, when the family’s housekeeper comes home with a bout of Spanish Flu after a night of celebration, that Ursula begins actively trying to change her fate. Up until this point I was enjoying the novel, but after this series of harrowing deaths I was thoroughly hooked.

Atkinson handles Ursula’s multiple lives with a deft hand, always presenting a slightly different perspective when she returns to familiar ground. For long stretches of time the book is an entirely realistic portrayal of life in England during World War I and II, and the only hints of fantasy come into play when Ursula slowly begins remembering more of her previous lives. Her parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist to discuss her constant feelings of “deja vu”, but that doesn’t stop Ursula from feeling certain she’s experienced things before.

However, Atkinson largely avoids turning Ursula’s life into a tale of her trying to change the future with foreknowledge. For the most part, she lives her life and turns left where she once turned right out of an unconscious desire to avoid horrible death or dreary misery. At one point in the book Ursula finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage so fraught with tension that I began hoping she would die soon so that she could take another crack at life. In another life, Ursula becomes intertwined with the German Third Reich at very high levels and Atkinson provides a surprising and sympathetic portrayal of Eva Braun that only makes those scenes more tense and disturbing as the war descends into chaos.

Ursula takes lovers or gets married, she has a child or she doesn’t, she lives her life and dies and lives again. With each successive life Ursula has a chance to make things right this time, and although that is sometimes true, it is also occasionally true that getting what she wants makes things far worse than they’d ever been before. Atkinson never explains what causes Ursula to live over and over, and the ending is open to interpretation. However, over the course of the story, we’ve experienced a myriad number of alternate Ursula Todds, each with slight variations on the same hopes and dreams, and the result is a deep, layered portrayal of life during wartime, as well as a striking character study of one woman growing up and coming into her own.

I’ve enjoyed previous Atkinson books, but Life After Life might very well be her masterpiece. When I describe it to my friends, I refer to it as “Downton Abbey with infinite reincarnation”, and if that sounds appealing to you, you should definitely pick it up. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, which has a pitch-perfect narrator with a supremely British name – Fenella Woolgar.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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The Long, Slow End of the World: Black Feathers by Joseph D’Lacey

Black FeathersPublished: March 26th, 2013
Publisher: Angry Robot
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror, Post-Apocalypse
Format: eBook
Length: 496 Pages

Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers is an interesting anomaly in the world of apocalyptic fiction. Instead of focusing on a dystopian post-apocalypse, as is the fashion nowadays, Black Feathers consists of two interlocking plot threads: one that starts in modern-day and continues through the fall of society, and one that follows a character hundreds of years in the future. It’s also the first part of a two-book series which continues in The Book of The Crowman (December 2013).

In the modern-day, Black Feathers focuses on the Black family, specifically their young son Gordon Black, who may be connected to a mysterious messiah figure named The Crowman. Crows seem to follow Gordon everywhere he goes. His mother and father are oftentimes accosted on the street by people with prophetic visions of a future where The Crowman heralds the beginning of the Black Dawn and Gordon’s part in it. The Crowman is an interesting combination of savior and destroyer, sometimes described as a demonic presence, a half-man half-crow who only wants to destroy the world and at other times as a healing presence with a deep connection to nature. The more we hear about The Crowman, the more unsettling and dangerous he seems, even as it also becomes increasingly clear that Gordon is deeply connected to The Crowman.

In the far future, Black Feathers tells the story of Megan Maurice, a young woman picked to apprentice with her village’s Keeper, a sort of combination medicine man and archivist tasked with keeping the story of The Crowman alive. Megan must travel along the Black Feathered Path to cement her destiny as the next keeper, a journey that involves visions of the past as well as harrowing encounters with The Crowman’s more animalistic aspect. Megan experiences visions of Gordon’s life and tasked with recording them in a special journal for safekeeping. One thing I really liked is that Megan’s world might be “post-apocalyptic”, but it doesn’t feel ruined. She has a comfortable life in a small village, and it is only when she ventures outside that safe place that she begins to encounter danger, all in the name of traveling on her path towards becoming a Keeper.

In fact, there are a lot of things I liked about Black Feathers; the portrayal of The Crowman was particularly nuanced and unsettling, and I also liked the juxtaposition between the modern-day and far future. I love the idea of a messiah who isn’t so black and white, simply because maybe the world needs a little destruction before it gets saved. The book’s true villains, the power-hungry Ward, were a bit more stereotypically drawn – the bloodthirsty corporate influence made flesh – but that didn’t make their methods any less terrifying.

My biggest complaint is with the book’s pacing. It took me a long time to make it past the first third of the book, and it was only when I decided to make a concerted effort to finish it that I finally started making progress. However, as I neared the end it became clear that Black Feathers wasn’t actually going to resolve anything major. Gordon and Megan both have some intense experiences as the book progresses, but these events seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Black Feathers, sold as the first volume in a two-book series, feels more like the first half of one massive novel. I liked it enough to finish this first volume, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ll make the effort to pick up the second book later this year.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Bright, Bloody and Intense: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsPublished: June 4th, 2013
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

Lauren Beukes first came to my attention thanks to William Gibson or maybe Cory Doctorow. Some great author who recommended her on Twitter. I picked up her first two books, Moxyland and Zoo City, and read Moxyland a few years ago. I liked it, but it definitely felt like Gibson’s sensibility filtered through a South African setting. On the other hand, The Shining Girls, her third novel and first for Mulholland Books, reads like Beukes striking out on her own and making a name for herself. The result is stunning, harrowing and immensely readable.

The Shining Girls follows the interlocking lives of two characters: Curtis Harper, who discovers a mysterious house that lets him travel in time as long as he murders the “shining girls” mapped out on the bedroom wall, and Kirby Mazrachi, one of Harper’s attempted murder victims who manages to survive and devotes her life to tracking him down. We are also treated to heartbreaking vignettes of the women Harper kills throughout the 20th century; every woman he murders is full of endless potential that he snuffs out by torturing them to death and mutilating their bodies.

Although time travel is part of the narrative, The Shining Girls feels more like a crime thriller than a scifi story. It helps that the story all takes part in the past – Kirby’s “present day” is the early nineties. The speculative elements exist mostly as plot devices and a way to build tension, and Beukes doesn’t spend much time explaining how Harper is able to do what he does. Beukes has a background in journalism, and it’s clear that a lot of research went into this novel. The women we meet throughout the story span multiple social classes, decades and races, and each one is carefully drawn in the short moments before she dies terribly.

My only criticism of the novel is that it feels like Kirby discovers the truth very late in the story, and after that point everything kicks into high gear until the ending. I would have liked to see a bit more of Kirby exploring the strange world of the house and its dangerous inhabitant. If nothing else, Beukes left me wanting more at the end, which is definitely a positive thing. My hope is that The Shining Girls is just the first of Beukes’ forays into crime/thriller writing. It’s a genre that suits her well.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Sex, Death and Teleportation: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

The Teleportation AccidentPublished: February 26, 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy
Format: eBook
Length: 369 pages

Egon Loeser, protagonist of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident, is an asshole. He’s obsessed with sex, contemptuous of his friends, hopelessly infatuated with a girl who doesn’t return his affections, and completely untalented as a theatrical director. In the hands of a lesser author, such an unlikable main character could be the fatal flaw that alienates most readers. However, Beauman makes up for Loeser’s bad behavior by populating the novel’s supporting cast with striking, sharply drawn characters and filling it with laugh-out-loud comedy throughout.

At the start of the story, Loeser is a set designer in decadent pre-war Berlin. Loeser’s 1931 is full of never-ending parties, desultory work on a play production that never seems any closer to performance, and an ever-vigilant search for good cocaine. The play he is working on is the story of the life of Adriano Lavicini, a seventeenth-century stage designer best known for the tragic accident that ended his career and life.

Lavicini, it seems, built a complex special effect known as the Teleportation Device which brought down half the walls of a theater and killed two dozen people (and a cat). Loeser, set designer for the play about Lavicini’s life, builds a much more modest Teleportation Device that merely serves to accidentally dislocate the star actor’s arms. Different types of Teleportation Devices are a running theme throughout the play; Lavicini’s, Loeser’s and a literal Teleportation Device built by a Californian professor named Bailey who Loeser meets later.

After the failure of Loeser’s stage device, he heads to yet another Berlin party, where he fortuitously runs into a girl named Adele Hitler (no relation). Loeser was Adele’s tutor when she was younger, and when he discovers the pudgy girl he knew has transformed into an incredibly beautiful young woman, he is instantly smitten. This encounter completely changes the course of Loeser’s life; he becomes obsessed with Adele and follows her first to Paris and then to Los Angeles.

As Loeser fruitlessly follows Adele around the world, he runs into a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom leap off the page. Loeser becomes a fan of the hard-boiled fiction of Stent Mutton and accidentally meets Mutton and his wife one day while wandering lost in California. Dolores Mutton, Stent’s knock-out wife, is beautiful but also incredibly terrifying, later threatening Loeser with death in no uncertain terms. Loeser ends up living in the guest house of one Colonel Gorge, a gruff, powerful man who is suffering agnosia, which causes him to confuse pictures for the real thing – hold up a picture of a woman, and he becomes convinced she is there in the room. The book also includes a few chapters from other perspectives; in one, Beauman focuses on a con artist named Scramsfield, who gets Loeser caught up in one of his scams. In another, Beauman tells the story of the surprisingly unhinged Dr. Bailey, whose fraught personal history has influenced the unconventional means and methods he uses to research teleportation.

Even if The Teleportation Accident occasionally rambled, I was always drawn back in by Beauman’s flair for characterization and comedy. I laughed out loud a good dozen times throughout, which is a rare achievement for any book. The only real criticism I’d level against the book is that the opening pages are needlessly obtuse; I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of readers put it down at the beginning out of a worry that the novel would continue at that pitch throughout. Thankfully, once Beauman settles down and gets to business, The Teleportation Accident is a thoroughly readable and highly enjoyable book.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPublished: October 11th, 2011
Publisher: Ember
Genre(s): Young Adult, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 272 Pages

One day, while browsing in the Strand bookstore in New York City, Dash finds a red Moleskine notebook hidden next to a copy of Franny and Zooey. He opens it and discovers that the owner, a girl named Lily, has left a series of mysterious clues and instructions for anyone who reads the book and passes certain requirements. Dash passes the test, does as instructed by the notebook, and the epistolary adventure at the heart of Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are underway.

The story unfolds in alternating viewpoint chapters narrated by Dash and Lily, two bookish, lonely teenagers living in New York City. Dash responds to Lily’s initial challenge with a challenge of his own, and they begin building a relationship through increasingly personal notes left in the Moleskine journal along with dares that put them right in the middle of Christmas-shopping crowds in downtown New York. Levithan writes Dash’s chapters while Cohn writes Lily’s, and although each character has a fairly distinctive voice, the two styles mesh together well and the book never feels disjointed.

The thing I liked most about Dash & Lily is the way it juxtaposes the main characters’ romantic ideals with reality. Dash and Lily both begin to idealize each other through their written interactions, but we also get to see the versions of themselves they keep hidden. Dash is a bit of a loner, possibly too clever for his own good, and Lily is a bit high-strung in stressful moments. Neither of them quite matches up to the other’s romantic ideal, and their experiences as they learn to navigate the differences between fantasy and reality are what make this book more than a fluffy rom-com conceit.

However, compared to some of Levithan’s solo work, Dash & Lily is admittedly still a bit fluffy. The stakes in the core relationship are never too high, and the dares are ultimately fairly benign. On one hand, you could argue that keeping stakes low for a high school romance is more realistic, but I have to admit that I missed the emotional punch of Every Day and The Lover’s Dictionary. Even still, I enjoyed the book, and will probably pick up the other Cohn and Levithan collaborations at some point.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Bandits by Elmore Leonard

Bandits by Elmore LeonardPublished: April 10th, 2012 (Audio version)
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 35 minutes

Reading Raylan got me in the mood for more Elmore Leonard, and in fact I’m now on my third Leonard book in a row. The second, Bandits, first published in 1987, tells the story of a convicted thief named Jack Delaney who works at a funeral home with his brother-in-law. Jack doesn’t much like driving a hearse, but he’s trying to make ends meet and stay on the straight and narrow after a stint in prison.

That all changes one day when he goes on a job to a leprosy hospital to pick up a body and discovers that the patient – a girl named Amalita – is still alive. It turns out that Amalita is on the run from a murderous Nicaraguan colonel named Dagoberto (Bertie for short). Aiding her on her journey is a young, beautiful nun named Lucy who immediately fascinates Jack and ends up having a huge impact on his life.

Lucy tells Jack that she isn’t actually a nun any more; among other things, she saw a massacre at the hospital where she worked, and decided it was time to get out of the country. More importantly, she brings Jack a proposal for a different kind of job, one with more serious implications than the thrill of sneaking into a hotel room to steal jewelry while the guests are sleeping. Dagoberto isn’t just in America to hunt down a girl, it seems; he’s also in the States to raise money for the fight against communist Sandinistas in his country. Lucy suggests they steal the money from Dagoberto, and the ball gets rolling. Jack recruits a few friends he knows from prison, and they start planning the heist.

Where Raylan had crisp dialogue but flat characterization, Bandits finds Leonard at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. The book is full of wonderful, fully drawn characters who practically leap off the page. My favorite by far is one of the colonel’s henchmen, a man named Franklin De Dios who is simultaneously likable and dangerous. Spending time with him and other characters quickly reminded me why I loved Leonard so much in high school.

The other way that Bandits excels is the sexual tension between Jack and Lucy. Leonard draws out their scenes in a way that reminded me of the incredible flirtation scene in North by Northwest. Dialogues between Jack and Lucy are thick with tension and longing, skillfully intercut with descriptions and observations that are stunning in their simplicity. At his peak, Leonard has an economy with words that rivals Hemingway.

My only criticism of the book is that the heist feels a bit anticlimactic. It’s not a big problem, though, because at its heart this book focuses on the characters. I loved Bandits, and especially recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late Frank Muller, who is an ideal choice for Leonard’s style.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Raylan by Elmore Leonard

RaylanPublished: January 17th, 2012
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 15 mins

When I was in high school, I watched Out of Sight and Get Shorty and became intrigued by Elmore Leonard, whose books were turned into such crackling crime thrillers. I quickly took it upon myself to familiarize myself with his work. I actually read the first two Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, back then, so when my book club suggested we read Raylan, I was curious to see where Leonard would take the character. From what I remembered of the first two books, Raylan wasn’t actually the primary focus; instead, he was a big part of an ensemble cast, and shared equal billing with other characters. Raylan, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the titular marshall’s adventures.

The first thing you should know about Raylan is that it apparently covers a lot of the same ground as the TV show. I haven’t watched it yet, so I don’t know for sure how similar the two versions are. Most of the one-star reviews complain that Leonard must be “riding on the coattails” of the show’s success with this book, when I believe the actual story is that they asked him to write another book as a sort of tie-in to the show, and he gave them pages to use as they pleased.

The second thing you should know is that this is a book made to be read aloud. On the page, Leonard’s writing seems affected at first glance. Words and punctuation are missing, and it’s hard to get a sense for the rhythm without hearing it. When I switched to the audiobook, the book immediately came alive for me and was much easier to follow. In fact, Leonard’s writing began seeping into the way I spoke and wrote, which is one of the surest signs you’re dealing with a true master of the craft.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Leonard’s spare, crisp writing is in full effect throughout, Raylan is clearly one of his minor works. It doesn’t read like a full novel; instead, the story feels episodic, as if several short stories were stitched together to create a novel-length work. The book comes in three loosely defined parts. First, Raylan tangles with weed dealers who steal body parts and sell them back to the victims. Next, he works as a bodyguard for a coal company woman who works in “disagreements”. Finally, he chases down a young female card shark who may be mixed up in a bank robbery scheme.

The first section has the most tension because it feels like Raylan is in the most danger, but even still, he drawls his way through most encounters, always impeccably cool and quick on the draw. If the book had ended there it would have been an excellent novella. The real problem is that it never really feels like the disparate stories add up to much of anything. I also got the impression that the book was relying on the reader’s likely familiarity with the TV show, and the characterization suffered as a result.

It really is a shame that Raylan doesn’t quite deliver, because I enjoyed the book while I was listening to it, loved the rhythms of Leonard’s writing, and was immediately drawn to get back into reading his stuff as soon as I finished. I read the book with my book club and I don’t think any of them had ever read any of his other works, and I have to wonder if they’ll seek them out now, because most of them came away disappointed.

Ultimately, Raylan is a quick read worth checking out, but not the best place to start with Leonard’s work. If nothing else, it reminded me that Leonard is one of my personal heroes. I’m planning on reading more of his work as soon as possible (I’ve already started Bandits), and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t start writing all my stories to sound like him.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The RookPublished: January 11th 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre(s): Fantasy, Spy Thriller, Comedy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 486 pages

When the heroine of The Rook wakes up, she finds herself standing in a park in the pouring rain, surrounded by dead bodies and with no memory of her life or the events that led her to her current predicament. Luckily, the former occupant of her body, one Myfawnwy (pronounced “Miffany”) Thomas, was both meticulous and forewarned, and so she prepared for every eventuality by leaving two letters in the coat our heroine is wearing.

The first starts as follows: “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” Much of the novel unfolds as a one-sided conversation between the woman Myfawnwy used to be and the one she becomes after losing her memory. For simplicity’s sake, O’Malley refers to the latter as Myfawnwy and the former as Thomas.

Thomas lays out two options for Myfawnwy to follow: she can either assume a fake identity and hide from whoever is trying to kill her, or she can work to fit herself back into the role and identity of her “predecessor” and try to solve the mystery of her attack. Naturally, she chooses the second option, or else the novel would have wrapped up very quickly.

It turns out that Thomas is a high-level bureaucrat in a secret organization called the Checquy which devotes itself to controlling and covering up supernatural threats to the UK. She also has powers of her own, as do all upper-level members of the organization. Myfawnwy discovers those powers inadvertently when she is attacked a second time and uses them to knock out several more people at once. However, as she reads more into Thomas’ history, it becomes clear that she never quite lived up to her potential. Even though she could have been powerful, she preferred desk work to field work, and had a reputation for shyness.

The conceit of an amnesiac main character is an excellent way of introducing readers to the strange world of the Checquy. Myfawnwy’s coworkers run the gamut from her fairly normal corporate secretary to an entity called Gestalt who controls four bodies with one mind. O’Malley populates this world with strange and occasionally horrible details that live in uncomfortable proximity to each other.

Myfawnwy is also a fantastic character, frequently hilarious and always likable as she bullshits her way through departmental meetings and unexpected field work. The perspective bounces back and forth between Myfawnwy’s modern-day adventures and Thomas’ letters, which fill in backstory and handle a lot of the world-building. Myfawnwy is also surrounded by great characters in the present day, from her too-beautiful American counterpart who becomes a good friend, to the disgustingly unhinged villain who confronts her later in the book.

The Rook is commonly compared to a lot of other authors and books, but it’s definitely more than the sum of its influences. The best description I could come up with when summarizing the book for a friend was that it’s a bit like The Bourne Identity with Terry Pratchett’s sense of humor. if you’ve ever read anything by Tom Holt, I think his work is a fair comparison; he also enjoys mashing up mundane things like accounting with werewolves and vampires.

The one criticism I would make of the book is that Thomas’ letters consist almost entirely of infodumps. It makes sense for the character, and O’Malley mostly gets away with it, but I do wish the balance leaned more towards Myfawnwy learning about her world through footwork rather than reading those letters.

In any case, I loved the book, and am very excited that O’Malley plans on writing more books in the same universe. The Rook wraps of Myfawnwy’s story pretty neatly, so my guess is that future books might focus on other characters, but if he does choose to revisit this character at a later point in her life, I won’t complain.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsPublished: September 27th 2011
Publisher: Walker Books
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Horror
Format: Hardcover
Length: 215 pages

A Monster Calls is a young adult book with a deceptively simple plot – a thirteen year-old boy wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers a monster in his back yard – that reveals an unparalleled depth of emotion and storytelling prowess. Patrick Ness, working from an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, takes that simple start and builds it into a novel that I would argue is a modern masterpiece.

The first complication to the story is that the boy, Conor, lives alone with his mother, who has been sick for months. She is in and out of the hospital, trying new treatments, bald and thin but always firm in her belief that the next treatment will do the trick. Over the course of this up-and-down cycle of treatment and relapse, Conor has become withdrawn and angry. He’s bullied at school and outcast from his peers by their knowledge of his mother’s sickness.

Then one day a monster wakes him in his room at 12:07 AM. The monster comes as a walking yew tree – the very same one that watches over Conor’s house from a nearby graveyard – but it is an ancient thing, older than the tree and apart from it, taller than his house and powerful enough to knock holes in the walls. Conor, strangely enough, is unafraid, because it “isn’t the monster he was expecting”, and he’s “seen much worse” in his horrible recurring nightmares.

The monster, only momentarily taken aback, smiles its evil, leafy grin and informs Conor that it will tell him three tales and then he will return the favor with a tale of his own. Thus begins the meat of the story, and it is quite a story at that. Ness weaves together fairytales, horror, fantasy and the crushing banalities of modern life in a strange and compelling novel that packs an incredible emotional punch.

The book is illustrated throughout with stark black and white paintings that splash across the pages, bleeding into the margins and evoking just enough of the story to fill in the corners of your imagination. The monster looks like something you might find hiding in the darkest shadows at the back of a closet, and its head is a bundle of spikes that could either be twisted branches or alien spines.

As I read the last few pages of the book, I had to stop several times to get my emotions under control. In fact, the book affected me that strongly several times throughout. It’s a powerful story with an ending that lingers long after the last page is done. A Monster Calls is sold as a young adult book, but I think Ness tells a universal story here, one that could – and should – be appreciated by readers of any age. It’s an intense experience, but well worth it. Very highly recommended.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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