A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I love reading Young Adult (YA) fiction, but these books sometimes make me so disgusted that I want to throw them across the room. Yes, there are a million elements that work together to make a book extraordinarily good (or bad), but for me, what draws me or repels me is usually the use of emotion. And it seems that YA books seem to portray emotion either very well or very poorly. If complex human emotions are replaced with melodrama—poorly-justified teenage angst—it makes me want to throw up a little bit. But every so often, there is a YA book that, in the simplest of language, tells a story that leaves me gutted—that turns me into a snotty mess and gives me a new appreciation for the unanswered questions and the hard truths and gray areas of life that youth (and adults) wrestle with as they discover who they are or want to be.
A Monster Calls is the rare kind of book that I’ll read more than once. The kind that I’ll remember long after I’ve stopped reading. The kind in which I feel like the characters are real, their problems complex, their emotions justified. It’s a book in which right and wrong are blurred and the truth is scary and the monsters in our life aren’t always what we expect them to be. It’s a book in which the stories we’re told aren’t always the fairy tales we want and their endings aren’t always fair, but they are valuable nonetheless.
I had a conversation with a writer-friend of mine recently in which he argued that complexity of thought and emotion required complexity of language. I disagreed. Complexity of life is the reason we need stories—because some of life’s realities are impossible to express with words. There are ideas that only a story can convey. That story can be told in simple language, but if it serves its purpose, it changes you because it has allowed you to live and experience a whole lifetime of hope and fear and pain and joy in the hours it has taken you to read it. It allows you to understand life in a way that can only be achieved by experience, not explanation.
In this book, Conor (the protagonist) has a mom with cancer, a dad who lives with his new wife and baby in another country, a bully at school that won’t leave him alone, and a grandmother who doesn’t understand him. There is a monster that “comes walking” and visits him at night and tells him stories with infuriating endings that don’t make any sense. But the book isn’t really about any of those things. It’s about truth and how we deal with that truth in our own lives.
THIS book is an example of why I want to be an author. It’s an example of why I keep picking up books and spending hours reading them when so often I finish them frustrated and disappointed. I spend hours reading, and I pick up book after book constantly searching for stories like this one.
Yes, this book was written for youth, but if a YA book is worth much of anything, even with teen characters and teen struggles, there will be a take-away message for all ages. And this book is one of those YA books. Everyone should read this book. Everyone. It really is that good.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
The Boys in the Boat was sitting in my Kindle queue for several months before I finally (grudgingly) picked it up. My reading-list is a mile long, and my time is precious. I purchased this book because of so many rave reviews I had read, many of them by readers whose opinions I really trusted. But at the same time, this little voice in the back of my head kept saying, “Really, Lonna? You want to spend your time on this one? How interesting can a book about rowing actually be? You don’t even know or care about that sport?”
But, oh my goodness. Was I ever wrong. The sport of rowing is the element that holds together the stories of eight boys who dare to chase a dream against all odds, but the book is less about the sport and more about the boys themselves, the things they had to endure, and the work they put forth to achieve a goal.
The story summary from Goodreads says it so succinctly:
The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936. . . . it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism. . . . The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant.
There were so many fascinating things about this book: The time period and history. The vivid imagery of the effects that the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl had on American families. The grit and resolution of Joe Rantz whose father abandoned him when he was just a teen. The cultural differences between youth in the thirties and youth today. The rivalry between the schools in the East and the West. The decision to go ahead with the 1936 Olympics despite the movement to boycott them. So many components of this book kept me turning pages and asking questions and always learning something new.
In a chat with the instructor of one of my online classes, she suggested that sometimes our expectations of a book will alter our evaluation of it. She said that the more we expect to like a book, the more likely we are to be disappointed if it doesn’t blow us away. When we expect to be awestruck, we’ll be disappointed when we are not, even if the book really is quite good. Perhaps.
And perhaps it works the other way, too. If we expect not to like a book, but we read it and are pleasantly surprised, we give it higher ratings than if we started reading it without any expectations at all. Maybe.
It might be that my low expectations of Boys in the Boat affected my evaluation of it in the end, but I don’t think so. This book is inspiring. It’s fascinating and excellently written. As any good non-fiction book, it teaches and informs but also pulls you into the story. I’ll be reading more from this author.