Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Monster Calls

“Stories are wild creatures,” the monster said. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”  Indeed. “A Monster Calls” (Candlewick Press, 2011), by Patrick Ness, wrought all sorts of havoc with this reader’s emotions.
            At seven minutes after midnight, Conor O’Malley awakes from his nightmare—the nightmare, the one that began haunting him after his mother began cancer treatments—to find a monster at his bedroom window. The monster—part giant, part yew tree, ancient and wild—appears every night at 12:07. It tells Conor three stories, parables really, that overturn expectations. The good prince does a terrible thing. Innocent girls die.  Stories don’t always have happy endings. And after the third tale is told, the monster demands the most difficult thing from Conor: the truth.
            “A Monster Calls” is an extraordinary book about coming to terms with the impending death of a loved one.  Conor knows, deep down, that his mother is dying, but he is in denial, believing each new treatment to be the one that will save her. The monster guides Conor as the boy deals with a father who lives far away with his new family, his increasing isolation at school, his terrible anger, and a difficult grandmother who loves her daughter with the same kind of ferocity that Conor feels for his mother. Each character, even the bully who makes Conor’s life even more hellish, is drawn with care and compassion. The monster may be the best character of them all.
            “A Monster Calls” is also a beautiful book to look at, with illustrations by Jim Kay. Kay’s interpretation of the monster is both haunting and menacing, and the images work perfectly with the text.  
Ness, author of the terrific Chaos Walking trilogy, based “A Monster Calls” on the final story of idea of Siobhan Dowd, whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself. (I reviewed two of Dowd’s books, “Bog Child” and “Solace of the Road.” If you have not yet read anything by this amazing author, I highly recommend them.) In an author’s note, Ness writes that he felt as if Dowd had handed him a baton. “And now it’s time to hand the baton on to you,” Ness writes. “Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race. Here’s what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it. Make trouble.”
Read this book with a box of tissues.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, January 22, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

High-flying adventures in Africa

In 1936, aviatrix Beryl Markham flew solo across the Atlantic—from England to North America, a much more difficult feat than Amelia Earhart’s west-to-east 1928 trek—and became one of the most celebrated women in the world.
            “Promise the Night,” (Chronicle Books, 2011) Michaela MacColl’s latest historical novel, weaves newspaper and journal accounts from Beryl’s transatlantic flight into the story of her remarkable childhood.
            Beryl Clutterbuck was born in 1902 in England, but she moved to British East Africa (now known as Kenya) with her parents and brother when she was two years old. Living conditions there were difficult and primitive by British standards, and Beryl’s mother soon abandoned her husband and daughter to return to England with a British officer she met in Nairobi.
If life in Africa was too demanding for Clara Clutterbuck, it was heaven for the adventuresome Beryl. She explores the forests, adopts the local Nandi tribe as her substitute family, and learns to speak Swahili. She fervently wishes to join her Nandi friend, a boy named Kibii, in becoming a Nandi warrior. Taught by Kibii’s father, Arap Maina, Beryl learns to jump “higher than her head” and even takes part in a hunt for the leopard. On her father’s ranch, she and Kibii learned to break horses. (Before becoming a pilot, Beryl was the first licensed female horse trainer in British East Africa.)
Beryl rebels at every attempt to turn her into a proper young lady, even as she comes to understand the daughter of a British colonialist can never really become African. 
I received an advance review copy of “Promise the Night” believing it to be a young adult novel, but it is ideal for younger readers—say, ages 9 to 12. Younger teens would like it as well.
Older teens and adults interested in learning more about Beryl Markham should check out her remarkable memoir, “West With the Night.” I recently listened to the unabridged audio version (Blackstone Audio, 2005), read by actress Julie Harris. It is little wonder that Ernest Hemingway, who was not often in the habit of praising other writers, wrote, “[she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” Her fine prose is especially remarkable given her early dislike of reading and writing, although some have suggested that “West With the Night” was ghostwritten by her husband, a Hollywood screen writer.
No matter. Both “Promise the Night” and “West with the Night” are high-flying adventures.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, January 1 edition of The News-Gazette.