Thursday, 17 March 2011

Moonlighting Strangers, Who Just Met On The Way

 It's hard for me to write on this blog, because the running joke is that for every book we've read we could just put "Pete thought it was shit".

I have to admit, I didn't enjoy Tom Sawyer. I might even have used the word "shit" to describe it. Twice. Not like, "it's shit shit", meaning it's double shit, or perhaps that it was low-quality dung. I was trying to say "it's not very good" in a situation where brevity was of the essence. And I did it twice.

(Mainly because it's hard to say "I felt that the limitations of 19th century literature made this a difficult book to enjoy for somebody who likes challenging 20th and 21st century literature, although the language used was pretty interesting" in an SMS message, but also because I thought the book was shit.)

I've been watching a lot of the classic 1980's TV show, Moonlighting, recently. It's got a really good reputation, although everybody says that it goes downhill when the two main characters get it on. Cybil Shepard is amazingly hot in it, and although Bruce Willis doesn't do anything for me, I can tell that he's a lot better looking as a skinny young guy with hair than in his current incarnation as a sort of pink Ben Grimm.

But the thing about Moonlighting is that it's a really old TV show. It's about 25 years old, and it's the little things that really stand out. Sometimes the main characters aren't in focus in a shot - unthinkable in a contemporary show. The plots are weird, shambling things, held together by the snappy one liners and sexual tension. Up until midway through series two, there is only one other recurring character besides the two leads.

Compare that to Lost, the recently finished confuse-a-thon that ran on Channel 4 and Sky for the past few years, and Moonlighting starts to look like an am-dram production from BATS.

In the same way, Tom Sawyer is a very different beast to the books being written now. We expect a book to tell us one story, straight through from the start to the end. I guess 19th century readers, picking up the early editions of Mark Twain's new book in 1876, would have expected as much a peek into the life of somebody else as a story that grabs them.

But I'm not that reader. And if I don't like classic literature like Tom Sawyer, it's because I approach a novel in a slightly different mindset to somebody alive in 1876. Maybe I just watch too much TV.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go

If something bad can happen, Patrick Ness will make sure it happens tenfold. Any moments of safety and hope are ultimately turned upside-down by certain events in ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ making it a harrowing reading experience.

Those unfamiliar with the story; here’s a brief synopsis – I don’t want to give too much away (part cribbed from Wikipedia):

Part of the Chaos Walking trilogy, ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ tells the story of Todd Hewitt, the only boy in the fictional Prentisstown, located on New World. To start with he is oblivious to Prentisstown’s history; believing that all the women have died as a result of a germ released by the Spackle, a native species to New World. The germ has a side effect however, all the remaining men in Prentisstown can hear each others thoughts, described in the book as ‘Noise’. Todd manages to locate an area in the swamp where Noise doesn’t seem to exist – an area of quiet. Aided by his faithful companion; a dog named Manchee, he is pursued by an insane preacher, discovers a mute girl from a crashed settlers ship and a whole load of trouble and heartbreak.

The general concensus from the group was a positive one, many of us praising the likable (and at times terrifying) characters and tense, bleak outlook. Here's what a few of us thought: 


I had a big problem with this book – I couldn’t put it down. As someone who reads primarily in their lunch break being late back to work was a frequent occurrence. Patrick Ness has the ability to create strong, engaging characters that will affect you – their vulnerability is laid bare on almost every page; save for perhaps one – who seems to exist in the realm of magnificent bastard. Ness essentially creates a crapshack world; piling an immense amount of hardship, struggle and violence upon his main character, Todd Hewitt, who for the most part, just wants to live a normal life – or as normal a life he can on New World, where everyone (including animals) can hear your thoughts.

Before you go thinking this sounds like a depressing slog - it's far from it. Despite the adversity the main character suffers, there's always a glimmer of hope and respite, whether it be in the form of a new character, eager to help the weary travellers, or an idea of salvation - a sanctuary from what's following them. Ness knows how to build tension and believe me, there are several scenes where your heart will be racing. At the end of one particular chapter I had to put the book down (contradicting my opening line here) and do something else just so I could take in what had happened.

What is appealing about Ness's style is the way the book is written like a lost journal, with certain words misspelled from Todd's point of view, ('preparashuns' for example - this is how he hears and thinks it is spelled) yet still make sense to the reader. His companion, Viola, who he discovers in the swamp, is more educated in her speech patterns and mannerisms, due to being from a different society all together, having crash-landed on New World.

In the book feeling like an audio log, or missing journal we have Todd speaking directly to the reader; what Todd sees and experiences - we see and experience and to someone who is an avid first-person shooter fan, this style of writing greatly appealed to me. This essentially, painted a very vivid picture in my mind of the whole escape that Todd and Viola embark upon - an escape from Prentisstown - an escape from Aaron (a character that will make you the reader, howl at in both anger and fear) and an escape from their old lives.


One of my most annoying habits is my inability to shut up about books I have particularly loved. I will say right now that this is a very special book, or rather, that this is a very special series because now that I have read them all I find it impossible to talk about one without the others.

I stumbled across the Chaos Walking series while working as an intern at Walker Books. I had heard good things about them so, when I started The Knife of Never Letting Go, I expected a good read. I left my work experiance adamant on getting this read at our book club. My annoying need to talk was going into overdrive.

The first book is all about flight and as it was so swiftly read I felt like I was running alongside Todd and Viola as they tried to outrun the Mayor and his men. Noise is used brilliantly by Ness to demonstrate how difficult it is for Todd to hide anything let alone remain undiscovered by an impending army. As a result the relationship between Todd and Viola is even more touching as he accepts her silence, just as, she accepts the harsh reality of hearing every one of his thoughts.

I won't mention the plot of the other two as I don't want to ruin it for anyone but, I will say, the two other parts of the trilogy The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men were read just as greedily. Desperate to find out what was going to happen to Todd and Viola I missed my stop on the tube, on one occasion, due to my total absorption; I also found myself cancelling plans with friends a couple of times to feed my new addiction. Definitely a rarity for me.

The only thing that saddens me is that some people (our own Derry, Pete and Si included) would never gravitate towards the Young Adult section of a book shop. Patrick Ness has, quite rightly, won major awards (including the Guardian prize for children's fiction) for Chaos Walking. Monsters of Men is, only the second Y.A. novel, nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award which is a huge accomplishment. The book snobs are missing out on a truly beautiful piece of writing which is far superior to all the Twilight-esque series out there.

Despite its demographic the reader is subjected to all the cruelty of the world in which Todd has had to exist. This is what I adore about Patrick Ness. He does not patronise his readers or water down what he is trying to say which is what often makes a lot of Y.A fiction so unappealling. The result is harsh but refreshing. Anyone can read these books: it is a series about two teenagers it is not written exclusively for teenagers.

I have not read a series (of any genre, I might add), in a long time, as absorbing or as heartbreaking as these books. When I finished the final book at 3 o' clock in the morning I was a blubbering mess but, also, so sad that they were over. The characters and the story stayed with me for a long time after, and, because of that, I will be the first person in line to pick up a copy of Patrick's new book A Monster Calls when it comes out in May.

If you want to experience the wonders and horrors of New World, click here.