Book review: Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness

Honestly, Patrick Ness couldn’t have ended the Chaos Walking trilogy in a more perfect way.

The first two books in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, stand out for their inventiveness, their fierce pace, and their vivid characters. Monsters of Men meets their standard, then ups the stakes, then ups them again, and then again. There are a billion points in the story where I didn’t think Ness could ratchet up the tension any more – and then he does.

Avoid spoilers, if you can. I’m not giving anything away, so, vague summary ahead: Monsters of Men is about young people coming into power, guided by those who are in power already (and who, in most cases, have been corrupted by it). Our heroes Todd and Viola are mostly back together again, in the sense that they share many more scenes than they did in Ask and find ways to communicate even when they’re apart, but they’re still constantly buffeted and battered by the competing forces of Mistress Coyle and Mayor Prentiss.

Who, by the way, is the strongest and most difficult character. Is he really the villain of this story, or is he its hero? Ness doesn’t answer that question (and nor should he), instead crafting a character who is at once charismatic, paternal, untrustworthy and chilling. Of all the characters in Chaos Walking, the Mayor will stay with me the longest.

(And maybe Manchee. Love that dog.)

Kudos to Ness for avoiding the drippy sentiment that often plagues finales (Deathly Hallows, anyone?), but he does cheat a few times: a lot of the support characters feel stand-in-ish, and a couple of the plot twists seem like they’ve been thrown in for shock value rather than to enhance the story. (Particularly the very final twist, which came thisclose to ruining the whole series for me. Ultimately, though, Ness turns it into a very satisfying conclusion.)

I’ve been lucky with the series: I only started reading it in the month leading up to Monster‘s release, meaning I didn’t have to wait a year between instalments like everyone else. I literally read all three entries one after the other. So I’m not sure what the feeling is in the Chaos Walking fanbase – but I have a feeling they’ll like the final book as much as I did.


50 more interesting Wikipedia articles

See: #30

  1. Kaiju
  2. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo
  3. Megatherium
  4. Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper
  5. Typographical personification, or Typo fairy
  6. Dogcow
  7. Titivillus
  8. Remote viewing
  9. Phantom cat
  10. Elemental
  11. Francis Walsingham
  12. Lissajous curve
  13. Old Man of the Mountain
  14. Sampo
  15. Magatama
  16. Lists of unsolved problems
  17. Luminiferous aether
  18. Kitsune
  19. List of eponymous laws
  20. List of common misconceptions
  21. Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office
  22. List of unusual deaths
  23. Lost lands
  24. Lost city
  25. Novikov self-consistency principle
  26. List of cognitive biases
  27. Blue hole
  28. List of legendary creatures
  29. Galatea of the Spheres
  30. Death (personification)
  31. Danvers State Hospital
  32. Japanese holdout
  33. Canary trap
  34. Mongolian Death Worm
  35. Enochian
  36. John Dee
  37. Baphomet
  38. List of magical terms and traditions
  39. Affair of the Poisons (L’affaire des poisons)
  40. Aleister Crowley
  41. Behemoth
  42. Pow-wow (folk magic)
  43. Psionics
  44. Water cure (torture)
  45. Unicursal hexagram
  46. Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
  47. Hierarchy of angels
  48. Demonology
  49. Malleus Maleficarum
  50. Geomancy

Click here to read part 1 of this series, 50 interesting Wikipedia articles, and part 3, Another 50 interesting Wikipedia articles.


Book review: The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness

I finished reading The Ask and the Answer about a day after I started, because it’s one of those books that doesn’t like to be put down once you pick it up.

About two-thirds through Ask I thought, “I am enjoying the shit out of this book, but it’s not as good as The Knife of Never Letting Go, because it’s the second entry in a trilogy, and second entries in trilogies are by nature the weakest”.

Then I got into the finale and ohmigod. I took it back. This book could not have ended on a more heart-pounding note, or a more intense cliffhanger, without being sold with a safety warning. Our heroes Todd and Viola evolve so powerfully during the story that the contrast between their characters at the beginning of the book and their characters at the end is as sharp as a slap to the face on a winter morning – and yet their growth feels totally unforced and organic. Superbly played, Ness.

If you haven’t read Knife, skip over this non-spoilery-I-hope plot summary: so, Todd and Viola are separated (meaning that Ask is told from the first-person perspective of both, an interesting change from book one) and each come under the guidance of powerful leaders who seek to pull them apart. War, totalitarianism and terrorism ensue, along with some utterly fascinating good vs. evil stuff – this is one of those rare books where you’ll find yourself siding, actually siding, with the bad guys. Partly because pretty much everyone is one of the bad guys, even (occasionally) Todd and Viola.

If there’s one problem with this book, it’s that my Australian twang ruins the alliteration of its title. The Arrrrrsk and the Annnnnswer. Stupid accent.

I cannot wait to read book three, Monsters of Men. Thank god it comes out in less than a month. Unless it really sucks (unlikely), Chaos Walking is destined to become one of my very favourite trilogies.


Book review: The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness

To quote Nuttymadam, this is an amazing book.

And really one of those books that spits in the face of the (stupid) idea that books about kids are just for kids. Sure, the story told in Knife is an exciting adventure – but it’s also complex, and mature, and a lot bleaker than you’d expect if you didn’t know a lot of about so-called young adult literature.

It’s also a story I’ll shy away from saying too much about, since half the joy of reading it is unravelling it yourself. Basic premise: it’s the tale of Todd Hewitt, a boy fast approaching the birthday that will make him a man. All his life Todd has resided in Prentisstown, a place ravaged by the Noise: a germ that broadcasts the thoughts of men to everyone around them. And it only affects men – all the women in Prentisstown are dead.

You’d think that there couldn’t be any secrets in a world where men hear each other’s thoughts, but very early on Todd discovers this isn’t so – everyone has been lying to him, even his loving guardians Ben and Cillian (a gay couple whose homosexuality is only cleverly alluded to), and these lies propel Todd out of his hometown with a vicious enemy on his heels.

The sheer momentum of The Knife of Never Letting Go is even more unrelenting than that of The Hunger Games; every time I put this book down I felt a restless impatience till I opened it up again, and even while reading it I frequently had to resist the urge to skip ahead to the next page. But Knife has an extra depth reminiscent of His Dark Materials, not to mention some scenes that are genuinely traumatic – after one bit I literally had to put the book down for a while (and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know which bit I mean without having to be told).

Todd has a vivid, memorable voice overflowing with ain’ts and (intentional) mispellings, though Ness also excels at writing support characters – the best of these is Todd’s talking, pooing dog Manchee, though even people who only appear for a couple of pages (such as Hildy, and the mayor of Prentisstown) are deftly drawn.

Knife is the first entry in the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I reckon I’ve started at exactly the right time – by the time I’ve finished with book two, The Ask and the Answer, it won’t be long to the release of book three, Monsters of Men.


The secret of Poo Monster

“Poo Monster” is something only a few people, at least non-internet people, seem to know about. Most respond to him with a blank stare, but when you meet another aficionado it’s like encountering someone who gets a really good inside joke.

Poo Monster is actually known as Domo, or Domo-kun/Domokun, and he comes from Japan. It isn’t really shocking that Domo-kun has Japanese origins – what other country would have a TV station whose mascot looks like a giant, toothy brick of, well, poo?

“Domo” is a Japanese word which basically translates to “very” (hence “domo arigato, Mr Roboto”, while “-kun” is a suffix used to address male children or teenagers. Here’s a sampling of what Wikipedia has to say about the nature of Domo-kun:

Domo, the main character, is described as “a strange creature that hatched from an egg,” with a large, sawtoothed mouth that is locked wide open. Domo’s favorite food is Japanese-style meat and potato stew, and he has a strong dislike for apples, because of an unexplained mystery in his DNA. Domo can only communicate via producing a low-pitched noise which sounds somewhat like his own name, but other characters appear to understand him. Domo is known to pass gas repeatedly when nervous or upset.

And here he is hatching from said egg (I wonder what his parents look like? Theory: perhaps they’re some breed of unforeseen, unsanctioned-by-Nintendo Pokemon!) and meeting a clever old rabbit named Usajji:

A pal of mine and I became enamoured with Poo Monster shortly after his introduction to the West, via that “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten” meme that depicted voracious Domo-kun chasing after innocent kitties (an image which is apparently at odds with his kindly, childlike Japanese reputation). (Interesting sidenote: according to that link, “in 2006, Nickelodeon licensed Domo-kun from NHK and began work on a Domo-kun series”. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN AMAZEBALLS.)

For years we had no idea where Domo-kun came from or what he was, so we dubbed him Poo Monster. (Another similarly enamoured pal knew him as “Poo Biscuit”, demonstrating we weren’t the only ones who notes the fecal resemblance). The day we finally identified him as Domo-kun was a most frabjous one.

And clearly my friends and I aren’t the only ones with a Poo Monster obsession. A quick search reveals an endless amount of Domo-kun kitsch – I have a set of Domo post-its in my desk drawer at work (they’re way too special to ever actually use), while my Poo Biscuit pal has an awesome Domo change purse.


(Note: Domo-kun is not to be confused with Doraemon, the robot cat from the future.)


I think I’m going to like these two…

The new season of Doctor Who = made of awesome. At least judging by episode one.

I mostly agree with io9’s verdict (notably the “David who?” bit):

The episode lives and dies based on Matt Smith’s and Karen Gillan’s performances. And they’re both captivating. Smith’s hyperactive, joyful Doctor is already firmly established in my mind as THE Doctor. He gets some defining “fuck yeah” moments towards the end of the episode which seal the deal, if anybody was still doubtful, and his final speech to the Atraxi – very clearly recalling Tennant’s speech to the Sycorax in “The Christmas Invasion” – puts him squarely in the proud tradition of Doctors, defending the Earth.

Where io9 and I disagree, though, is that reviewess Charlie Jane Anders found the story a little “meh”, especially compared to the season one opener ‘Rose’. I liked the story – Doctor Who is at its best when it’s rampantly silly and implausible, and juuuuust managing to avoid falling into a nonsensical abyss. And ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was very silly indeed. (Fish custard? Hello!)


Likeable characters who kind of aren’t, actually

I’m sure there’s got to be plenty of characters who fit into this category: on first reading/viewing, they seem like bang-up guys (or ladies), but a few re-reads/views later you start to realise that they actually kind of aren’t. Three examples off the top of my head…

Ariel, The Little Mermaid. After bragging to Flounder about all the cool shit she has stashed in her cave, Ariel laments “But who cares? No big deal. I want more.” Jeez, Ariel – you’re already a beautiful mermaid princess whose father dotes on her. What more could you possibly want, you spoiled bitch? (This also kind of applies to Simba, though at least he’s meant to sound bratty when he sings ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’.)

Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the intrepid trio visits the home of their schoolchum Luna, who up till this point has seemed like a spacey but innocent weirdo. But when they stumble into her bedroom, they discover “ceiling portraits of [Harry], Luna, Ron, Hermione, Neville and Ginny entwined with the word ‘Friends'”. Cue creepy stalker music. (This is nothing against Evanna Lynch, who is brill.)

The parents, The Parent Trap. So here’s the deal. Nick and Elizabeth (Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson, RIP) hook up, have identical twin daughters, then endure a break-up so painful they can never see each other again. Each returns to their respective country – America and England – each taking a daughter with them. And they both agree never to let the twins see each other, nor tell them about the other’s existence. That is horrible. And we’re meant to root for these abusive chumps to get back together?! No wonder Lindsay Lohan is so fucked-up. (For the record: I love The Parent Trap. But, wow, the titular parents are jerks.)


Book review: Word of Honour and Time of Trial, Michael Pryor

The Laws of Magic series continues to check all the right boxes: Cracking – check. Inventive – check. Intriguing (in the best sense of the word, the one that implies spies and politics and conspiracies) – check. In Word of Honour, junior magician Aubrey Fitzwilliam and his pals save the capital of the great nation of Albion, their universe’s incarnation of England, from magical distruction; in Time of Trial, they travel to Holmland – that is, Germany – in an attempt to avert war.

Time is the better of the two, because the stakes are higher: war is close, Holmland is dangerous, and the romantic tension between Aubrey and Caroline is more electric than ever. (Seriously, if they don’t at least share a chaste kiss in the next instalment, I will die.)

These are good books, though I do have one complaint. And it’s a biggie.

The villain of the piece – who I won’t name, because it’d spoil the end of Blaze of Glory, though I will refer to him as “he”, which isn’t really a spoiler since almost all of Laws of Magic’s major characters are men ((Note: that’s not the say the series has no strong female charaters, because it does, just that most of the major characters have penises. Which fits the books’ early-20th century setting.)) – is not a formidable enough opponent for Aubrey, our protagonist. I don’t mean that in the sense that the villain isn’t powerful; we’re constantly reminded of his power. I mean that he’s not a compelling villain.

In Word of Honour the villain runs around concocting plots intended to spark a world war, basically as a means to securing his own power. (His motives are revealed in more detail in Blaze, though again, I don’t want to spoilt it.) But he’s a villain because we’re told he’s a villain – he doesn’t really do anything especially villainous. And even when he does appear on the page, he’s a bit two-dimensional. “Evil and smug cackle, I have you in the clutches of my nefarious plan now,” etc.

In Time of Trial Michael Pryor attempts to rectify this by expounding on the villain’s backstory, revealing details about his family and background. Though it’s still unsatisfying – who is this guy? Why is he like this? How come he doesn’t just kill Aubrey? I’ve read all four books in the series so far and I don’t really have a sense of the bad guy. He’s just “the bad guy” to me, and I want him to be more. (In Pryor’s defence, I have the same beef with Lord of the Rings. Sauron = zzzzz.)


Book review: White Teeth, Zadie Smith

White Teeth was published when Zadie Smith was 25. 25! She wrote this brilliantly when she was only 25! That’s younger than I am now several years older than I am now! Worse still, she has such a loose, easy, vibrant style that if she told you that she’d written the whole book down in a single effortless draft, you’d believe her. (Bitch!)

But seriously: White Teeth is a great book. There’s a reason it won scads of awards upon its release in 2000. It’d been hovering on my I-Really-Must-Get-Around-To-Reading-This list for years, and I’m pleased I did – especially given it’s not usually the sort of book my young adult-loving self would normally get into.

It’s a tricky book to sum up succinctly, so I’m stealing a synopsis:

At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith.

That doesn’t really do it justice. The plot is sprawling, both geographically and historically; there’s characters I liked (Archie, Irie, Niece of Shame), characters I hated (Samad – why anyone would want to be friends with him is beyond me); and Smith gets across a real sense of a thriving multicultural city, and what a slippery term “multicultural” actually is.

I read most of White Teeth in airports and on planes on my way back from New Zealand. If you’re looking for a book you can disappear into for hours-long stretches, this is perfect stuff.