A Monster Calls

Around this time last year, I mentioned that I had enjoyed the Patrick Ness book A Monster Calls. I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, but the book uses Ness’s text and beautiful black and white illustrations by Jim Kay to tell the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother is clearly dying (but won’t admit it) and who conjures a monster from a tree outside his window. The monster comes to him at night and tells him stories that ultimately help him process what is happening. I did like the book, although it was a little middle reader for my taste and I’m not a huge fan of heavily illustrated books.  But Anna and I recently saw the movie version released right before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. In fact, I liked the movie much more than the book. Why? A few factors:

The illustrations in the book were lovely, but as someone who is way more into the text, I mostly glanced at them quickly and moved on. The movie does an amazing job of recreating the pictures so the movie has the same overall feeling and some of the same specific imagery. But it’s all alive and moving and in color and really striking.

In the book, the stories that the monster tells the boy were fine, whatever, I read them, they seemed just sort of like morally-ambiguous fairy tales. But in the movie, the stories within the stories are told through colorful watercolor illustrations that you watch appear on screen. They’re just lovely and made me pay attention to the stories in a way I hadn’t in the book.

The acting is truly wonderful. Liam Neeson is the voice of the monster, and his portrayal made the monster seem less like an arbitrary tree man and more like a force of nature that cared about what happened to the boy, even if it couldn’t change anything. (Liam Neeson also appears in the movie for two seconds as a character in a photograph, which I thought added a nice layer). And Felicity Jones made the mom seem sick and in denial, which was most of what came through in the book, but also fierce and funny and real. The boy was also great, and Signourney Weaver is in there too, and the specificity of the performances added to my experience.

A warning: I am not a big movie crier, and there was much crying here. As in, you could hear everyone in the theater around us crying and Anna and I both made use of the napkins I had gotten for my popcorn. But it didn’t feel like despondent crying, more like cathartic, hopeful crying. I also saw Manchester by the Sea recently, and when it was over I remember feeling dull and heavy, even though it was a beautifully-made move. This one felt more like waking from a dream. Which is not what I want every day, but was definitely worth it in this case.

The Best of 2016

2016 was rough, I think we’ve established that. But now as we move forward into 2017, I’ve been trying to make myself remember some of the good things that did happen last year–I refuse to let an entire year go down because of a few (key, admittedly very) bad things. I’ve spent the past few months re-reading romance novels, but before that period of re-reading began, I found some great new books. Most of them I’ve already talked about here on the blog–Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, How to Build a Girl, and Bone Gap–but there were a few others I wanted to mention.

  1. Pointe by Brandy Colbert is a YA book about a ballet dancer, but it also involves a kidnapping and a teenage victim who comes back after years away. It’s a dark, sad book, maybe not for younger teens, but I found it really compelling. I especially enjoyed watching, over the course of the book, as the female protagonist worked out just how much agency she had and how she was going to use it.
  2. I’ve already raved about the memoir Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, one of my favorites books of recent years, but I was a little worried that I might not feel the same way about the author’s fiction. And while nothing could quite match my original love, Paradise Lodge was a really charming story about a British teenager in 1970s who takes a job in a nursing home. Stibbe has this very specific voice that comes across in both her fiction and non-fiction, in which even when she’s talking about some sort of crisis or disaster, everything seems like it will all work out fine. I found this very calming.
  3. If you know who I am talking about when I say “Dave Holmes, MTV VJ,” I suspect you will like his book. Party of One is a memoir, structured around music, and maybe it’s just that he and I are about the same age, but this book felt like it came directly from my subconscious.
  4. Way back in 2012 I wrote about how much I love Sharon Shinn, and I recommended a new book of hers called Troubled Waters and said I hoped was the start of a new series. And it was! There are now four books in the Elemental Blessings series, and I have enjoyed all of them. If you would like to read a fantasy romance novel with a kick-ass female main characters, these are a great option. I would recommend reading them in order, but I think my favorite was the third book, Jewelled Fire.

And with that, I am quite happy to close the book (so to speak) on 2016. I’m already starting 2017 out well, reading-wise, with my continued journey through the Lord Peter Wimsy books, and a lovely, poem-like book called The Lesser Bohemians. I have a lot of hopes and goals for 2017, and continuing to discover great new things to read and writing about them here is definitely something I plan to continue.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve said before that I sometimes find teenage boys to be an entirely different species, and in books they so often come off sounding like the teenage dirtbags that the late, lamented Toast described so well. So I love it when I find a book that makes me feel like I completely understand its teenage narrator–a book that makes a teenage boy into a real person and not some Holden Caulfield stereotype. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is SUCH as good example of this kind of book, and is a YA book that just made me happy to read.

It’s a basic story in a lot of ways–during a hot summer in the late 1980s Ari, who is sort of a loner, becomes friends with Dante. Ari’s a smart kid with a family that is loving, but has its troubles. Dante has a nice family as well, and is dealing with his own stuff. So, you know, they’re kids trying to live their lives and do the best they can. Various plot things happen over a couple of years, some of them pretty dramatic, but they book never feels like an Afterschool Special, mostly because Ari’s narration is so calm as he tries to just go along with life and figure things out. While you could say that this is a book that deals with identity issues, and trauma, and PTSD, and showing diverse communities in books, you could also say that it’s a sweet story about friendship and family and love. I don’t want to give away too much more, but I just thought it was lovely.

Also, I read the paper book rather than listening to the audio book, but apparently the audio version is narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which just seems perfect. I actually pictured him saying some of Ari’s lines as I was reading and it really worked. So if you’re an audiobook person, this books gets a little extra recommendation.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Sweet coming-of-age tale

You might also like:
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Beginning of Everything, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys cycle are other teen boy-narrated books that I have enjoyed quite a bit.

Every Heart a Doorway

I first started following Seanan McGuire on Twitter when someone linked to her hilarious series of tweets about an owl in her yard. It wasn’t until I had already seen about 100 pictures of her cats that I realized that she was an author that we’ve actually reviewed here on the site. Back in 2012 Anna thought that Rosemary and Rue was hit or miss, but I quite liked her latest, Every Heart a Doorway.

I think I was won over just by the concept: it’s a murder mystery set at a boarding school for teenagers who found doors into magical fairy realms as kids, but are now stuck back in the real world. I mean, that’s great, right?

I actually agree with what Anna said in her earlier review of McGuire’s writing:  occasionally things felt a bit forced, almost like I could see the author saying, “And now I will do this.” But this is really a small complaint. The premise is great, there were fabulous details about the various fairy realms one might wander into, and the whole story had a sense of creepiness that was delightful. The reader sees the action through the eyes of the main character, who had spent her time away in a world of the dead, and her desire for quiet and stillness infuses the book in a wonderful way.

This is just a quick little story, really like a novella, so there’s not a whole lot more to say. Except that this is well worth your time. Also, isn’t Every Heart a Doorway just the best book title? It’s like a line of poetry I want to recite over and over.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Fairy tale aftermath.

You might also like:
 The Scream movies, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or possibly Wicked? That seems like an odd selection of media, but my favorite thing about Every Heart a Doorway was how it used the tropes of fairy tales and made them part of the story, which all of those other things do (in their genres) as well. Although in tone and length, this felt an awful lot like The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Zoella’s Book Club

Recently I’ve been telling people that I should give Twitter 101 courses, because I love Twitter and I do a good job of explaining what it is and how to use it to people who are baffled by the very concept. But YouTube is like a 200-level course–I just barely understand it myself, I’m not sure I could explain a thing about it to anyone else. I’m not talking instructional videos or Carpool Karaoke, I mean vloggers and YouTube celebrities. It is a weird concept–people, just, like, talk about their lives? Online? And millions of people watch them do it? I have just started poking around the edge of YouTube, but I can see why people get hooked on watching these vlogs. One of the most famous YouTubers out there is Zoella, a twenty-something British girl who is known for make-up videos but whose empire has spread to novels, bath products, home goods, etc. I think Zoella’s adorable–her life might be a million miles apart from mine in every way, but I find her videos super entertaining and I actually find her makeup recommendations very helpful. And lots of other people do to, since more than TEN MILLION people subscribe to her YouTube channel.

What does this have to do with books? WH Smith, a British bookstore, decided to capitalize on Zoella’s popularity by having her select some books for an online book club that launched a couple of weeks ago. And the plan is clearly working–apparently sales of some of these books increased more than 1000% after they received her seal of approval. Zoella’s audience is heavily weighted towards teenaged girls, so when I checked out the book club selections I was expecting to see a pile of cheesy YA books. And they are mostly YA romance books, but they’re good ones! And the list includes a remarkable number of things that we’ve also reviewed here. Zoella’s eight books included Fangirl, All the Bright Places, and Everything, Everything Also included in the list was We Were Liars, which I never wrote about here but thought was really interesting. So, apparently our taste aligns very closely with hip young vloggers!

After seeing how many of the books on this list I loved, I tracked down The Sky Is Everywhere and I’ve got the rest of the books on my library list. If you’re interested in some sweet, sad, modern teen romance, Zoella’s list is pretty solid. Plus she does a really solid makeup tutorial.

 

 

Eligible

As I’ve said more than once before, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time and I keep a close eye on adaptations. I may not like every version of the story people cook up, but I love weighing them against each other and seeing what tiny improvements each version can make. Just recently I rewatched the Keira Knightley movie, and while I find almost everything in that version to be not quite as good as the 1995 BBC mini-series, I was reminded that the movie does a GREAT job of using clothes and houses to really play up the class differences between the Bennets and the Bingley/Darcy crowd.

Anyway, when I saw that Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book Eligible was a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, I was very interested. Sittenfeld is probably best known for her first novel Prep, about a girl at a New England boarding school. I actually thought Prep was incredibly grim and unpleasant to read, but I quite liked American Wife, which was an imagined, fictional version of Laura Bush’s journey to become a somewhat unwilling First Lady. So I went into Eligible fairly ambivalent about Sittenfeld and I’m still not sure how I feel, although   did enjoy the book.

There’s no point summarizing the plot–this is a very loyal retelling of Jane Austen’s classic story about the Bennet sisters, moved forward in time to modern-day Cincinnati. To be completely honest, I went into the book thinking that there was no way anything could live up the Lizzie Bennet Diaries–I LOVED that video adaptation of the story and I couldn’t imagine another modern telling matching up. But Eligible did win me over, at least a bit, as it went along.

There were a few things I thought it did really well:

  1. Sittenfeld really hit it dead on with loads of her cultural references as she moved the characters to the present day. For example, Jane is a yoga teacher, Darcy is a surgeon, and Kitty and Lydia are totally into CrossFit. Over and over again she would introduce a character with his or her modern identity and I would say, “Oh, of course! That makes total sense.”
  2. In the books, the Bennet sisters are in the 15-21 age range and most modern updates up that a bit to make everyone legal, but even my beloved Lizzie Bennet Diaries only puts the older girls in their late twenties. In Eligible, Jane is turning 40 and Lizzie is right behind her. Which is perfect! A huge part of the original story is the pressure the girls feel to get married, and that panic rings so much more true in the modern story when Jane and Lizzie are both approaching 40. To me, this was the one thing that Eligible has really added to the Pride and Prejudice oeuvre.
  3. Darcy and Lizzie came off pretty hot, actually, which doesn’t always happen.

But I have to admit that there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me:

  1. This is often a problem with Pride and Prejudice adaptations, but it takes the book a while to get going. If you’re Jane Austen, I’m happy to read a third of the book where people futz around before the love story kicks in. For other mere mortals, it means that I spend quite a few chapters being like, “Come on, come on . . . “
  2. I would say that 90% of the characters, plot, and structure of the book are straight from the source material. The characters have the same names, the chapters are structured the same ways, etc. So when she does make a change, it must mean something, right? There were two major places where Eligible diverged from the original and I am still not quite sure why. First, Wickham is split into two characters, which gives a whole new spin to a couple of key plot points and I can only assume that this is because we all have larger social networks today? Hmm. And second, this book proceeds a bit past where the original ends and . . .  again, I’m not sure I see the point.
  3. Lydia. Oooh, Lydia is problematic. In order for the plot to move along, Lydia has to do some fairly outrageous things. Jane Austen’s take seems to be that Lydia was, if not evil, certainly dumb and thoughtless; by the end of the book (200-year-old spoilers), Austen seems to have decided that Lydia has made her bed and now she can lie in it. In our previous discussions of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we all talked about how much we liked their take on Lydia, which made her much more sympathetic and made her actions more understandable. Sittenfeld’s Lydia is pretty much in the dumb and thoughtless mold, but the way Wickham is now handled makes the end of her story feel quite different. I don’t feel like Lydia has to be sympathetic–a big message in the story is about family loyalty, even when you might not like that family–but it was a significant enough change that it felt like Sittenfeld was trying to make a statement. And I think that statement was, even if you’re dumb and mean things might work out if you have a responsible older sister? I don’t know.

Overall, I thought Eligible was snappy and fun to read and if you’re a Jane Austen completist like I am, you’ll enjoy it. But if I am going to recommend Pride and Prejudice-inspired material to someone, this ones falls down on the list under the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bride and PrejudiceLongbourn and even Bridget Jones’s Diary.