Tag Archives: Patrick Ness

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

I started re-reading Patrick Ness’ incomparable ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy earlier this week just because it has been years since I last treated myself to it, and it is one of my all-time favourite stories to boot. I began to read it before the current media focus on the ongoing refugee crisis, and before Ness himself began this incredible fundraising campaign, which has (at time of writing) made over £200,000 available to Save the Children UK in order to help the struggling refugee families. But, in light of these developments, I’m writing this review with the aim of encouraging anyone who has never read the Chaos Walking books to buy and read them – or, indeed, any of Patrick Ness’ books. He has written many. His endeavours to help the dispossessed have made the last few days bearable for me, and (I’m sure) for many others. I know of no better way to support him than by – firstly, and obviously – donating to his cause, but also buying his books, and those of the other authors who have pitched in to help. The success of his campaign has truly been an amazing thing to witness and be part of.

In any case. On with the review.

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2008) tells the story of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown. He is weeks away from turning thirteen, a birthday which will mark the moment in which he becomes a man, and – apparently – when his whole life will change. Because the newly-fledged men (who were once Todd’s contemporaries) stop speaking to him and including him in their lives once they pass their own thirteenth birthdays, he is friendless at the book’s beginning, save for his formidable, loyal, loving and clever dog, Manchee. He lives on a farm with his foster fathers, Ben and Cillian, who have raised him as their own since the deaths of his parents many years before.

The story is set in the future, where colonisers and settlers (presumably from Earth) have come to a ‘new world’ in search of a free and peaceful life, one free of discrimination. The planet they arrived on had a native population, known as the Spackle, whom Todd has been raised to believe are now extinct. The Spackle were dangerous, responsible for a virus which killed the women of Prentisstown, including Todd’s mother, and most of the men, and which caused the men who were left over to suffer with Noise, which essentially renders their every thought audible to anyone around them. Privacy is unknown. A man’s thoughts – even while he dreams – are broadcast, appearing like clouds of pictures around his head and as a ‘soundtrack’. The virus also made it possible to hear the voices of animals, so every beast, from Manchee to the livestock in the fields, are also broadcasting their thoughts, simplistic and repetitive as they might be. This means that Todd’s world is filled, edge to edge, with constant sound, the Noise making peace impossible to find, blending together to make a torrent of meaningless babble which must be aggravating, even for those who are used to living with it. Then, one day, as he explores a swamp not far from his home, Todd and Manchee come across something they’ve never known before: a patch of eerie silence, which shouldn’t exist…

As soon as Todd discovers this silence, his world changes. Ben and Cillian urge him to leave, straight away, telling him that he must reach another settlement – even though Todd has been raised to believe Prentisstown is the only settlement on his planet. In the confusion of his leaving, the men of Prentisstown attack Todd’s home, putting his fathers’ lives at risk, and he is pitched out alone into the swamp (where the crocs live) with only Manchee and a backpack, containing his late mother’s journal, to keep him on the right path. Thus begins an adventure whereby Todd finds himself meeting the most unexpected person possible, being chased by an army, and discovering why, exactly, his status as the ‘last boy’ in Prentisstown was so important.

This book is filled with brilliant characters (human and animal alike – I defy you to find a fictional dog more memorable and lovable than Manchee), and some of the most gripping, realistic – despite the literally otherworldly setting! – and emotionally affecting dialogue and set-pieces in modern fiction. It’s incredibly evocative, using slang and non-standard spelling to evoke dialect and accent, and as taut as a guitar string. The tension never lets up, the stakes never fail, and in Mayor Prentiss, Ness has created one of the most well-rounded and interesting baddies I’ve ever read. It is violent, immediate, blood-thirsty in places, and in other places it can be genuinely terrifying, because it confronts the darkest impulses in the human heart. But it also throbs with love – that between friends, between a boy and his dog, between a long-lost mother and her adored son, and that between a pair of tender foster fathers who give their all for the child they have sworn to protect. It truly is a book which promises much and delivers on it, and one which more than stands up to a re-read. It deals with issues like slavery, injustice, genocide, religious fundamentalism, sexual and gender-based inequality, colonialism, power imbalances, tyranny, and more, and all in the form of a brilliantly written, masterfully crafted tale. This is a book which tells of other worlds, ones intended to surpass and improve on our own, but which bear all the ill fruit of our own weaknesses.

YA literature is all about vampires and werewolves? I think not. Read this book, be amazed, and you’ll immediately find yourself craving its sequels. It’s a challenge, and my gauntlet is thrown!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Maze Runner’ Trilogy

This past weekend, I did a lot of reading. I received a gift of four spanking new paperbacks in the post from the lovely Lorrie, and she challenged me to read them. They weren’t, let’s say, to her taste, and she was interested to see what I thought of them.

Well. The weird thing is, I completely understand (and agree with) all the problematic issues surrounding these books, as Lorrie herself so ably pointed out – I don’t think I’ve ever rolled my eyes quite so much while reading any series of books before, including Twilight (and that’s saying something.) However, the fact remains that I read them all. Start to finish. So, there’s that.

The books form ‘The Maze Runner’ trilogy – The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure.

Image: artofwaffling.wordpress.com

Image: artofwaffling.wordpress.com

The Maze Runner, the first book in the trilogy, has won, or been nominated for, a lot of prestigious awards; it has been made into a movie, soon to be released. It has gathered a bunch of gushing review on Goodreads and has become a bestseller. It’s a big, blokey gutbuster of a novel, a story about boys left to fend for themselves, fighting against (apparently) horrendous odds to figure out a way to survive in a cruel, inexplicable world. The second novel picks up where the first leaves off, almost to the second; our heroes are flung into a burning world, expected to trek through a desert landscape filled with enemies in order to reach a promised ‘safe haven’. The third brings us into the ‘real world’, a world ravaged by environmental change and disease, where the heroes (or, those who are left, at least) learn that trust can be betrayed and that those who think they’re acting ‘for the greater good’ are sometimes the most evil of all.

I should have loved every word. Sadly, the words were the main problem I had with these books.

Let me start by saying this: the basic idea behind the trilogy is solid enough, in general terms. It’s a typical ‘something dreadful happens in the world, so the government – naturally – starts human experiments on kids in order to try to solve the problem’; I’ve seen this formula before, and while it’s completely illogical and utterly unrealistic, it is compelling. The Maze Runner, book 1, introduces us to most of our major players when Thomas, the ‘hero’, finds himself in the Glade, a strange enclosure full of kids like himself. The Glade is surrounded by high walls which move at sunset to seal the kids in. Outside these walls is a Maze, which the kids are pretty sure they have to solve in order to be allowed to leave – the only problem is, it’s full of creatures called Grievers, which are like giant slugs, complete with razors and spikes and all manner of other weapons. Of course.

The plot of the first book is contrived to the point that I just gave up caring after a while, and just went with the flow. There’s no logic in Thomas (and Teresa – a girl who mysteriously arrives in the Glade the day after Thomas does) working out the secret of the Maze; there’s no logic in the kids (all of whom are supposed to be geniuses) failing to figure out a way to fight the Grievers until Thomas arrives. They’ve been seeking a way to fight them for two years, when all they needed to give it a go was there, in the Glade, for the taking. I had it figured out straight away, and I’m hardly a grizzled survivalist. There’s no logic whatsoever in the ending. The book is full of telling instead of showing – and, worse still, telling and showing – and there are so many examples of pointless conversations, all needlessly saying the same thing, that I can’t even list them all here. There’s very little characterisation – you could swap any of the boys for any of the others, and nobody would even notice – and Thomas’ actions and reactions are so unnatural and mechanical that I began to wonder if he was a cyborg instead of a human being. I hated the ‘role’ that Teresa, the only girl, is given; she’s basically a placeholder, or a plot device. This annoyed me.

The second and third books also display these flaws. The ‘telling and showing’ thing made me grit my teeth over and over; the characters reminded me of Thunderbird puppets every time they had to have an emotional reaction to something. The plot was filled with coincidences and ‘dei ex machinae’, or whatever the plural of ‘deus ex machina’ is, and this all irritated me. In The Scorch Trials, for instance,characters show up out of the blue just to tell the kids something important, or give them a ‘clue’, not once but repeatedly. Then, they vanish and never appear again. That was almost too much for me.

But – for some strange reason – I didn’t give up reading.

The second and third books also up the ante with regard to the death-rate; teenagers die, in a variety of gruesome ways, all over the place. However, the strange thing is the reader isn’t really encouraged to care overmuch about these deaths. They’re narrated in a rather detached way. The deaths in The Hunger Games, for instance, to which this series is endlessly compared, affected me far more than the deaths here. Loads is left unexplained at the end of the series, too – not in a ‘work it out yourself’ way, or a ‘life goes on’ way, but just in an ‘infuriating loose ends not tied up’ way, and – as I mentioned already – the whole reason behind the torments the teenagers have been put through is ridiculous.

But I still read it all.

I can’t really explain why I kept going. It wasn’t for love of the characters (except maybe for Minho, who I enjoyed reading – he seemed to have more personality than the others, but that’s not saying a lot); it certainly wasn’t for love of the books’ use of language and imagery (at one point, lightning is described as being ‘like huge bars of light’). I think it was curiosity, and a need to find out whether the book would end the way I thought it would (it did, pretty much) that kept me from giving up. The story is action-packed, and despite all the waffling it does move along at a pretty fast clip, particularly in book three. The first book is poorly paced, I think (too slow for the first two-thirds, and then far too much plot is crammed into the final third), but the other books improve on this a little. Some of the things I didn’t like about book one, including the treatment of female characters, did improve as the series progressed (though not much), and the events of the last book are satisfyingly twisty and unpredictable, though sometimes I wondered if plot twists were being shoehorned in just for effect.

The Maze Runner and its sequels have been extremely successful, and – of course – that’s fantastic. Anything that encourages vast amounts of people to read and immerse themselves in a fictional world is brilliant, as far as I’m concerned. It does worry me a little that the flaws, as I see them, in these books have been swallowed wholesale by their devoted audience, but I hope that the enjoyment the story has clearly brought to so many will encourage them to keep reading.

The series is billed as an essential read for anyone who loved The Hunger Games, but I feel the latter series is far superior. I also think that Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy is better than Maze Runner, in almost every way, and should appeal equally well to teenage boys. Having said that, The Maze Runner is an action-packed, gory and muscle-bound read, and if you don’t care too much about the niceties of language and characterisation it should suit you very well.

Has anyone else tried this series? Am I on the right or wrong track with my thoughts?

The Gladers standing in one of the Doors, which closes at night to protect them from the Grievers. Image: cinemablend.com

The Gladers standing in one of the Doors, which closes at night to protect them from the Grievers – still from the upcoming movie of ‘The Maze Runner’ (Twentieth Century Fox)
Image: cinemablend.com

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘More Than This’

Right.

For today’s book review post, I’m going to attempt the impossible. It’s something you should definitely not try at home; I’m a trained professional, and all that.

Step back! I know what I'm doing. I think. Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

Step back! I know what I’m doing. I think.
Image: heritagefightgeardisplays.wordpress.com, picture by Phil Buckley

I’m going to try to write a book review without giving away any pertinent details about the story, because the book I’m reviewing is the sort of tale that you just can’t spoil. Pretty much anything you say about what happens in it may, possibly, ruin someone else’s enjoyment, and that would be A Very Bad Thing.

The book is this one, right here:

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Image: jenryland.blogspot.com

Patrick Ness is an author who gets my blood pumping. I adored his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, so much so that I simply couldn’t wait for the third book to be published in paperback, and I had to buy it in hardback; normally, I hate having two-thirds of a trilogy in one format, and the last book in another, but I made an exception for this one. As well as that, I loved his ‘A Monster Calls’ more than I can express in words. It touched my heart in ways that no other book has ever done, or ever will. ‘Chaos Walking’ and ‘A Monster Calls’ are works of genius – I don’t think that’s overstating the case – and so it might not be a surprise to learn I expected great things of ‘More Than This’.

I’m still not sure, really, whether this book lived up to those expectations, exceeded them, or did none of the above. Reading it has put me in a spin, and I suppose that’s the point behind it. My reaction is, probably, what the author was aiming for; if so, then he achieves his writerly goals in spades.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the protagonist of this book, a seventeen-year-old boy, drowns within the first three pages. The whole point of the story is that we are reading about what happens to him after that. The description of his death is shocking and brutal – we are left in no doubt that he suffers, albeit briefly, before the cruel sea dashes him against some rocks, causing him an unsurvivably grievous injury. The opening chapter is typical of the book, employing sparse and beautiful language, with powerful and gripping imagery and characterisation. The chapters about the boy are written in the present tense, which gives them a chilling immediacy and makes the reader feel as though they are taking each step of his journey with him.

For, of course, there is a journey to be taken.

The boy wakes up in a place familiar to him, but also shockingly unfamiliar. As he puts together where he is, and why he has ended up there, we learn about his life and family, his past, and what he has suffered up to this point. The author handles all this – the boy’s thought processes, the setting, the ways in which he struggles to figure out what’s happening, the fear and isolation and crushing loneliness that start to afflict him – with sensitivity and skill, and he creates a truly sympathetic character in his protagonist. The boy wonders if he is in hell, or if he is being punished; as his story is told, we learn that he has spent many years punishing himself for something that happened when he was a child, and for a while I wondered whether this ‘hell’ was of his own making, an extension of the suffering he’d imposed upon himself all through his life.

Whenever the boy falls asleep in this weird world, he relives sections of his life. We meet his parents, his younger brother, his schoolmates. We learn of his love for one of his friends, and their tender relationship. These episodes do not feel like dreams; the boy is literally reliving these moments, and they cause him great pain. At the heart of his sorrow and grief, and his feelings of loss, the reader knows something dark and disturbing is lurking; we know there is a huge, heartrending secret – one too painful for the boy to even admit to – waiting to be uncovered.

I really can’t say much more than this about the plot. Any further detail would destroy the mystery of the book and take away from its central strength – in other words, the unknowable vacuum around which it is built. What I can do is tell you how the book made me feel.

A bit like this, sort of... Image: rgbstock.com

A bit like this, sort of…
Image: rgbstock.com

This is a thoughtful and philosophical novel. It has a teenager as its protagonist, sure, and most of the other characters we meet are also teenagers or children, but… it’s not, in so many ways, a ‘typical’ YA book. It’s a story about life, about fear, about the unknowability of another person’s mind, about hurt and loss and pain and love, and about friendship. It asks huge questions – why are we here? What’s the point of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? – and the answers it offers ask more questions than they solve. This idea, that everything we find out about ourselves or the world actually causes more problems than it explains, is a central theme in the book. Despite its subject matter, it is suffused with positivity, especially toward the end, and – like so many books I love – it shows the power of friendship and self-sacrifice, and how important the connections between people are.

Having said that, I really did feel that the book built up to a crescendo that never really happened. I was crushingly disappointed by the end, but perhaps that’s a personal thing. There were so many things I wished to have explained – and I’m not talking about ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ and ‘What happens after we die?’ because, of course, Patrick Ness knows as much about those things as I do, or as anyone does – but details within the story world, images and characters created in the book, and which could have been explained a bit more clearly. There was one image in particular, a feature of the landscape in this strange ‘other’ place, that I was convinced was full of meaning but which was left unexplored; I found that annoying.

Then, maybe what the author wants is for each reader to come to their own conclusion. If so, then that’s fine – I just wish he’d given us slightly more to go on.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that it might upset you if you’ve been bereaved, or if you’re particularly sensitive to reading about the sorts of thing that go in within abusive families. There are some heartrending scenes in this book, sure, and so it won’t suit everyone. However, if you want to read a book which will make you think, and ponder the reality around you, and stimulate your capacity to wonder, then maybe this is the book for you. Just be prepared to be frustrated by it, too.

The most memorable line in it, for me, is this:

Know who you are, and go in swinging.

This is excellent life advice, I think. Believe in yourself, and accept no lies. If I take nothing but this away from ‘More Than This’, then I’ll be happy.

Happy weekend! May you read well.