BOOK REVIEW: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A twelve-year-old boy, Conor, is forced into early adulthood when his mother is laid low by a terminal illness. Conor’s father is remarried and lives across the ocean in America (the book is set in England.) When Conor’s mother has to be hospitalized, Conor must go to stay with his grandmother. This is undesirable both because Conor longs for a return to normality and because his grandmother— while a fundamentally caring woman—is much more uptight and prim than Conor’s mother.

Conor has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare of late, and when the Yew tree from outside his window comes to life, the Yew tree monster is, relatively speaking, a welcome relief from the much more dire scene that confronts Conor nightly in his nightmare. The Monster informs Conor that it will tell the boy three stories over multiple nights, and when it is done Conor will be required to return the favor by telling the Monster one true story in return. The book plays out with the monster telling Conor stories as well as encouraging the boy to act out to release the building tension that threatens to destroy him. All the while, the story builds toward a moment of reckoning. The idea of repressed rage building into a monster of its own is central to this work.

The book is generally classed as “low fantasy”—a genre in which a limited supernatural element barges into an otherwise real world story. However, it can arguably be read as more psychological in nature. When the Monster visits, Conor finds evidence of his presence— e.g. leaves and berries—but to my recollection no one ever sees such evidence besides Conor, and so the reader is free to view these clues as harbingers of a descent into madness.

The book, itself, has an interesting back story. Apparently, the idea came from Siobhan Dowd, a writer of children’s / YA literature, when she had cancer. Patrick Ness was brought in after Dowd died to take her characters and premise and turn them into a book. Ness completed the book, which was made into a film a couple of years back.

I’d highly recommend this book. It builds and maintains tension throughout the story and is highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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[Spoilers for the previous books. If you haven’t read “The Hunger Games” or “Catching Fire” you might want to before reading this review.]

This book concludes “The Hunger Games” trilogy. A rebellion has been stoked in Panem, and its architects need Katniss Everdeen to keep the fires burning. But there are two problems. Problem one is that she’s healing, disoriented, and—in a manner of speaking—mourning Peeta (who is alive but in the hands of the Capitol.) The second problem is that they want her as a celebrity spokes-model, a position at which she stinks. Once she gets her feet under her, she has other ideas, ideas that will put the Mockingjay—beloved symbol of the rebellion—in mortal peril. The reluctant heroine who refuses to play on the terms of others is a recurring theme, but it unfolds on a much different field.

Where “Catching Fire” repeated and expanded upon the “gladiatorial combat and a love triangle” theme of the first book, here the games aren’t in the arena but in rebel strongholds in the Districts and in the Capitol, itself. While the love triangle angle seems moot at the book’s beginning, it does continue to play out in an intriguingly twisted fashion. The gladiatorial combat is replaced by actual war, but the gamemakers are still around to put their diabolical stamp on the proceedings.

As an ending, “Mockingjay” is satisfying in that it ties up loose ends and leaves the story at a clear conclusion. Readers will have varying feelings about how these loose ends were resolved, the pacing of those resolutions, and the emotional tone with which one is left. (War story happy endings only get so happy.) When I read “Mockingjay” I found it a tad less enjoyable than the other books, but for reasons that I’ll admit are hard to explain. Collins presents a bitter-sweet, realist conclusion, but in the shell-shocked miasma in which the reader is left, it’s hard to tell if one is satisfied or just done. I suppose the fact that it triggers an emotional response at all makes it a good ending.

I’d recommend this book, and the rest of the trilogy as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Spoiler Note: While I intend—as usual–to keep the spoilers minimal (insignificant) for the book under review, it’s hard to review it without major spoilers of the first book in the series—“The Hunger Games.” If you haven’t read that book, you may want to before you read this review.]

As a surviving / winning tribute, life should have been cake for Katniss Everdeen. She returned to her family and friends in District 12, but instead of subsistence living she has a beautiful house and more money than she can spend. Of course, winning tributes are celebrities and have to serve as mentors to future tributes—most of whom will die. Still, the rest of the year she could be happy, except that the gambit by which she managed to save Peeta (one-third of her love triangle) as well as herself in the first book (one of them should have died, per the rules of the Hunger Games), has riled President Snow. Snow intends to do everything in his power to make sure she doesn’t live out her days in fame and comfort. The President might have found it strategic to let matters lie, but each Games brings Katniss back into the spotlight. As the 75th anniversary games approach, she will be back in the public eye, both during a victory tour and the Hunger Games.

At this point, one might be wondering whether a major criticism of this book will be the same as was leveled against “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”—i.e. that it’s a fine story but essentially a repeat of the original with a bigger death star. There’s an argument that that’s an apt description, but there are also counterpoints. The first retort is “What does it matter as long as the story is enjoyable and the tension is ratcheted up?”

The other major justification is that this part is a necessary bridge between the first and the last books in two regards. For one thing, we have to see the dawn of the revolution and Katniss’s—unwitting, but significant–role in it. A couple of the most emotionally intense moments of the book involve the first sparks of rebellion before the Games even begin to be replayed. For another, the love triangle is re-intensified. The survival of Katniss and Peeta hinges on their ability to continue to act out the star-crossed lover card that saved them in the first book—obviously straining the other edge of the triangle.

I enjoyed this installment, and think Collins did a good job of giving readers enough new tension to make the story gripping despite the fact that replaying the Games is at the heart of the story. I’d recommend the book for anybody who finds dystopian fiction appealing—whether a YA or not.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At the risk of mortally offending fans of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” I’m going to introduce “The Hunger Games” as the book that launched a thousand young adult (YA) dystopias. Yes, I’m aware that Lowry’s book came out much earlier and was both a commercial and literary success. However, it came out so much earlier (i.e. 15 years earlier), and without noteworthy copycats. “Hunger Games” was immediately followed by a dystopian YA book and movie blitzkrieg. This might be a trick of timing, but I don’t think one can dismiss the Collin’s story and characters as features that spawned copies meh, bad, and ugly. (Which is to say, those who started their dystopian YA projects after reading “Hunger Games” were probably too late, but similar projects in the pipeline probably benefited enormously.)

I’m not holding all the horrible works of copycats against Collins. I think she made a tight and engaging story of a love triangle meets “The Running Man.” That’s my best summation, but to elaborate: A girl in a burgeoning relationship with a young man from her district is forced into a kill-or-be-killed futuristic version of gladiatorial games, during which she becomes attached to her fellow district tribute under the crucible of combat.

The main characters are suitably likable and flawed. Each of the main characters is in some regards a font of virtue with a tragic weakness. The lead, Katniss Everdeen, sacrifices by volunteering take her little sister’s place in the games, but she also strings along the two love interests and isn’t above the cold calculation that survival requires. Her boyfriend from back home, Gale, turns out to be even more willing to do whatever it takes. The most virtuous of the leading characters, Peeta, may lack a dark side, but he’s also comparatively milquetoast–surviving only through charisma and the kindness of others.

If the leading characters feel true in their complexity, Collins takes a calculated risk by making a host of Capitol characters that are caricatures of humanity. They are over-the-top in their shallowness and narcissism. There are exceptions, but many of these characters seem like the worst of pre-teens trapped in the lives of adults. They are obsessed with meaningless things and are numb to consequences felt by others. I’m not sure why that would appeal to readers of YA fiction, but maybe kids who read look around at the kids that don’t and see people who look a lot like these Capitol caricatures. Mere speculation.

I held off reading this series for a while, but I must admit that I enjoyed all three of the books in the series (to varying degrees.) I’d recommend “The Hunger Games” for anyone who doesn’t get too bummed out by reading dystopian fiction. It’s fast-paced and highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata

A Million Shades of GrayA Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This young adult (YA) novel is set in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the last few years of the war. The lead character, Y’tin, is an adolescent whose life ambition is to be an elephant handler, a dream which he’s well on the way to achieving and which he’d be a shoo-in for if he didn’t live in war-torn times. His life is complicated by the fact that his father has worked for the American Special Forces (as a tracker), and the war is turning in the favor of the North.

When US forces withdraw and South Vietnamese forces are overrun, Y’tin escapes into the jungle with a couple of other boys and their elephants. Almost immediately a fault line freezes out Y’tin. The three boys had been close friends in the village, but under the stress of jungle life, the other two resent that Y’tin’s father worked for US Special Forces and that Y’tin, himself, had once gone on mission with the Americans. They believe that this is what has brought the war to their village. On the other hand, they recognize that Y’tin is more gifted in jungle craft than they, especially tracking, because of the education of his father.

Because of these skills, Y’tin is chosen to go back on a mission to reconnoiter their village, and he finds it’s been bombed out and nobody is to be seen. This leaves it unclear how many of the villagers escaped versus being executed by the North Vietnamese forces—but he does know many were killed. [Incidentally, the title comes from Y’tin’s view of the jungle after seeing the remnants of his village—i.e. instead of being a million shades of green, all he can see is gray.]

Besides telling the story of Y’tin’s adventures in surviving the war, the novel pivots on Y’tin’s role as a mahout—and ultimately as a protector of the elephants. Y’tin finds himself in a position in which his dream is no longer tenable, and he must decide whether take a heroic risk to save the elephants or hold on to his dream in the face of unfavorable odds.

The book is only a little over 200 pages arranged into 14 chapters, and—as would be expected of YA fiction—is readable. The book’s strength is in building a lead character who’s interesting by virtue of his mix of worldly naiveté and jungle [local] wisdom and giving him intense challenges and dilemmas. Weakness? The strict chronological progression results in a slow start in which the author spends a chapter establishing that the lead character loves elephants without anything interesting happening. However, if one gives the book til the second chapter, things start happening.

I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction, and particularly those interested in YA fiction and stories of war.

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