A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I read a wonderful review of The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness over at Annabel’s House of Books and I asked if it was YA(Young Adult) fiction, a genre I admit to being a little reluctant to read, not because there aren’t excellent books, but because part of the joy for me in reading is to be exposed to and learn, uncommon new words, adding to my private lexicon, words that would seem pretentious in teen fiction.


There are always exceptions however, recently I loved Margarita Engle’s novel-in-verse The Wild Book and when a book sounds like it has qualities that intrigue me, a review by any blogger on my reading wavelength is sufficient for it to lodge in my mind and be called off a shelf when I spot it.  Annabel replied telling me that this was Ness’ first adult novel and recommended his YA trilogy Chaos Walking for a thought-provoking dystopian adventure and described A Monster Calls as phenomenal. That one lodged itself immediately in my mind.

On Saturday I went looking for the original version (French) of Ru by Kim Thuy at the library after reading an excellent interview by BookDragon only to discover that all copies were out.

A Monster CallsNaturally I couldn’t leave without a quick glance at the English language bookshelves and there it was, the beautiful hardback, fully illustrated copy of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. I picked it up and headed for the exit, so as not to be tempted by more, since I have too much to read already, but as I left, my eye caught the display shelf where I spotted Quelques Minutes Apres Minuit, a familiar book cover in the same colours, yes, the same book with its French title and cover. As you can see, I brought them both home.

The idea for A Monster Calls came from the writer Siobhan Dowd, who was unable to complete the book tragically due to a terminal illness. Patrick Ness was asked to write the story, a remarkable challenge that somehow he managed to achieve without, ironically, the shadow of expectation or any other writerly monster hanging over or haunting him.

Conor O’Malley is thirteen-years-old and lives with his mother; his parents are divorced and his father remarried and now lives in America with his wife and baby daughter. Conor’s mother is in the latter stages of a terminal illness and Conor is coping with doing more things on his own, while becoming distant from his school-friends and attracting the attention of a school bully. On top of all this, his life is complicated by the nightly appearance of a tree monster, who doesn’t really scare him, as he tells it, he’s seen worse.

The monster wants something from him and Conor can’t or won’t offer it and yet he won’t be left alone until he does.

It is as if the extraordinary circumstance that brought this book about, invoked something magical that inspired Patrick Ness beyond what he might otherwise be capable of, because the book transcends the usual storytelling and creates a dialogue someplace between a brutal reality that is, and the unwanted but unstoppable future that will be, where an apparition takes on the role of enticing the traumatised teenager towards that excruciating path he must follow.

The entrance to the wonderful Mejanes Library in Aix-en-Provence

The entrance to the wonderful Mejanes Library in Aix-en-Provence

It is a breathtakingly raw journey that the author maps out, navigated with the extraordinary insight that only a vivid, courageous and mature imagination could channel.

It will leave you in awe.


A rare 5 stars from me.

Recommended for all ages.

Save The Rhinoceros #WorldRhinoDay

Today is World Rhino Day and to both learn more about the problem and to support the cause, we went to visit Wanza, Bela and Rimbo at Zoo Le Barben, our local zoo.

Wanza and Bela are the two females and Rimbo is the male and as well as visiting all the other animals in the zoo, we got to listen to the park biologist specialising in animal behaviour and learned about all the peculiarities of our local rhino friends. And my son asked what age he needed to be to get a job there. Only eight years to go! I am absolutely certain he will work with wildlife, he has been obsessed with animals since a very young age.

Population in Decline


The rhinoceros is said to have been around for 50 million years. Between the 19th and 20th centuries the population halved from a million to 500,000. Today there are only 29,000 left in the wild and a report on the news today mentions that 637 have already been killed for poaching purposes this year (compared to 668 for the whole of 2012).

What Are The Threats to the Rhino?

Data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2013)

Data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2013)

Poaching for Traditional Chinese Medicine – it is said to be an antidote for poison, to cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits, sadly increasingly popular in Asia.

Habitat Loss – The clearance of land for human settlement and agricultural production has contributed to the loss of habitat as has deforestation. These countries have lost their rhino populations altogether: Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan in Africa; and Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sarawak in Asia.

Political Conflict – in war zones or where there is political instability, it has become easier for the poachers to kill rhinos and other endangered species e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Nepal.

Meet Wanza, Bela and Rimbo

Here are our local rhinos at Zoo Le Barben, near Solon de Provence.  Wanza and Bela are the two females who always stay in close proximity to each other and ape each others movements, while Rimbo stays a metre or two away and when the girls move, he walks around the perimeter marking his territory and checking that everything is as it should be, by sniffing and close inspection, as they can’t see very far.

We were fortunate to spend an hour listening to one of the park biologists, specialising in animal behaviour of large mammals, thanks to her, we now know a lot more about these magnificent creatures.

And Meet the New Baby Giraffe Djao

I couldn’t finish without celebrating the arrival of the new baby giraffe born on June 4th, one of the highlights of our visit, after the rhinos.

To support the rhino population from extinction, go and visit your nearest rhino, sign the petition to tell EU politicians to stop the rhino trade or click on Get Involved to find out how you can help.

Further Reading:

How To Get Involved

The Rhino Resource Centre

Save The Rhino

Sign The Petition – to suspend trade in rhino products!


Two boys who now know a lot more about the threat of species extinction and are interested to help save them

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I promised myself to read this in summer, after a series of other seasonal reads like Susan Hill’s In the Springtime of the Year,  Tove Jansson’s A Winter Bookand Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I seem to have skipped autumn, so perhaps that will next, maybe Irene Nemirovsky’s Snow in Autumn or Albert Camus’ Fall.

The Summer BookThe Summer Book is a novel that reads more like non-fiction, an invocation of the spirit of its author Tove Jansson, who like the Grandmother and Sophia the grand-daughter in her book, spent all her summers on the small family island off the coast of Finland, doing just the kind of things young Sophia does and eventually feeling the constraints of the older woman, so that she herself comes of age (at 77) and no longer has the strength nor confidence to brace the unpredictable sea after a storm destroys their boat, she sensibly retires to the mainland for the rest of her days.

Esther Freud writes a captivating foreword, including sharing parts of her own visit to the island to meet the real life Sophia, who is Tove Jansson’s niece. She visits both the island of Jansson’s childhood and Klovharun, a place of pilgrimage today (see the video below), the island she later moved to with her partner when their own island became too crowded with relatives and friends.  Freud ponders:

“What kind of person could live here? Someone so fuelled by their imagination, so stimulated by the sea, so richly creative that they could find solace and inspiration in what to others might seem a barren rock.”

This short video clip helps us imagine just what it might be like.  As for me, I could well imagine living like this for the summer.  And you?

In the book, we meet Sophia, who has prematurely lost her mother and so with her father will spend spring and summer on the island with her grandmother. While the father is present, whenever he is mentioned, even when in the same room, he is working or busy and so given background status, though in reality on such a small island, his existence would no doubt be more noticeable, however in the story he is a reassuring but not interfering presence, just like the island itself.

Sophia on the island with her grandmother (Tove's mother) in 1968

Sophia on the island with her grandmother (Tove’s mother) in 1968

The pages turn like days of summer, governed by the moods of the elements, the creatures that inhabit its shores and the occasional visitor. Underneath or implicit within all that passes is the perplexity of death, that absence, prematurely confronted by a young girl and sensitively explained by her older companion. The chapter entitled Playing Venice is especially poignant, the loss of the hand-made palace necessitates Grandmother staying up all night to replace it, Sophia unable to cope with another loss of something so special and close to her heart, even if it is only a small sculpture.

In both the chapter Berenice, which is about Sophia’s friend who comes to stay for a while and The Cat, Sophia has to deal with the paradox of really wanting something, then discovers she no longer does and finally must learn to appreciate both her friend and the cat, just as they are.

“If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her that I understand how awful it is. Here you come, head-long into a tight group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them more compact and self-assured.

An island can be dreadful for someone from the outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are hard as rock from repetition, and as the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Like A Winter Book, this is not a volume to be rushed, it is best savoured and enjoyed slowly, it reminds us of the joy of simple things, that there is value even in those things that sometimes irritate us and above all that we ought to respect and pay attention to natures elements. This is one you’ll want to gift to another or even read again. A literary gem.

Further Reading:

A Biographical Essay on Tove Jansson

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes

Completely off the wall, a sliver of magic realism, a stunningly original voice, Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is the best work of fiction I have read so far this year.

Arthur BraxtonRight from the beginning it hooked me and I couldn’t wait to get back to it every time I put it down, because I could not guess what the author was going to do next and somehow she made me very interested to want to know.

I’m still not quite sure how she managed that, but at a guess I would say it is a combination of an incredible imagination and a very close observance of reality. That might sound hypocritical, and that those two things should really negate each other, however she uses a sprinkle of magic realism firmly rooted in the mundane world, just as Eowyn Ivey did in The Snow Child, making the reader question whether they are reading fantasy or realistic fiction without alienating them in the process.

The protagonist Arthur Braxton can’t quite make out what is going on either and we are right there with him, going back for more to try and make the unexplained logical – and to find out more about that girl in the pool.

Arthur Braxton lives in a town in the North of England, so if you have never been there or known any young people from up that way, be warned about the vernacular and remember he is a teenager, so many of the things he says and does are appropriate to his age and the area he comes from. I don’t know whether that makes him authentic, but it makes his voice unique and his story compelling to read.

Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths, Manchester

Arthur’s Mum left he and his father for another bloke and neither of them have heard from her since, although she continues to support them financially, so they’re not making a fuss, on the contrary they are keeping a very low profile. Arthur’s Dad isn’t taking it all very well, so Arthur is parenting himself and almost at his wit’s end when he is drawn towards the old abandoned swimming baths, fenced off and due for demolition. And what he finds there keeps drawing him back repeatedly. If you choose to read the book, you’ll also be intrigued to follow him and find out.

“And that’s why I’m now pushing a shopping trolley, with my dad in it, up the hill and away from the sea front in the twatting rain. Dad’s huffing and puffing, like he’s a fucked-up steam train, and I don’t know why ’cause it’s me breaking my back trying to get the fucker up the hill. The wind’s not helping, the rain’s not helping and mainly I’m wondering what the fuck I was thinking. I mean, like owt can cure my dad. I’ve told him I’m taking him to his doctor’s appointment, he has to have a review every couple of months to see if he’s still ill. Usually the doctor takes one look at him and then, no shit, Sherlock, says that Dad’s unfit for work. Dad never even has to speak, which mainly pisses me off, ’cause I can’t remember the last time I heard him talk. I miss his voice.”

I am happy to know there is a bit of a backlist, that Caroline Smailes has written other novels and though some deal with dark subjects, her writing has an allure and originality that I am keen to explore further.

At the end of the book, the author mentions that the inspiration for this novel started with a place – Victoria Baths in Manchester, opened in 1906 and a proud icon of that city and its people. The council decided to close it in 1993 and a campaign to prevent its closure ‘Friends of Victoria Baths’ became a charitable trust and managed to save and restore the building, a venue all the public can visit today, though it does not look like any swimming takes place there.

Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths

Looking at their website today, I discovered serendipitously that this weekend 13 – 15 September 2013 the pool is open and for the first time in many years, full of water to mark the 10th anniversary since the Victoria Baths won the BBC Restoration Project.  Since then more than £5m has been spent restoring the front of the building, stained glass windows and the roof of the gala pool.

A well-known synchronised swimming group Aquabatix entertained the supportive crowd with a spectacular performance Arthur Braxton would have been proud of! Learn more at www.victoriabaths.org.uk

An Interesting Fact: The pools were divided up for first class males, second class males and females. Men in the first class pool had the pleasure of swimming in the water first before it would be drained into the other two pools.


The Magic of Water

Note: Thank you The Friday Project, an imprint of Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

IshiguroI find Kazuo Ishiguro unpredictable, which could be why I am always intrigued to read his work, I loved his recent collection of short stories Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, yet I could not finish and had to abandon The Unconsoled and sadly I feel ambivalent about Never Let Me Go, though I do want to see how it was put to film.

It is not a book to share much about the plot, as virtually anything said might spoil the reading experience, but it is effectively a coming of age story centred around the character of Kathy, from her teenage into young adult years, from the last year she and others lived in a boarding school until the early days of her first job as a carer.  She looks back and analyses that time in an effort to understand the significance of minor details and events in their lives and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy.

I think my ambivalence stems from what seemed like restraint from delving into the depths of the characters, which could be a consequence of both the plot and the narrative form, however in my opinion, this constituted a weakness and I remained far too conscious of this lack all the way through reading. The repetitive nature of the narrative style also contributed to this and I found it annoying, it was a tool that could have intrigued, but when it didn’t succeed to do that for this reader, it became frustrating.

It is telling that I did not highlight any paragraphs or phrases as I read and that it took two weeks to read it. As you can see from the photo above, taken at the airport in Marseille, I finally finished it during a two-hour flight!

Just Dive In - My early morning dip at Sausset-les-Pins this summer

Just Dive In – My early morning dip at Sausset-les-Pins this summer

However, do not let me put you off. I recommend if you are a fan of Ishiguro that you just dive in and read it without referring to any reviews and remember that the majority of readers who have already read this book, rate it highly. I am an anomaly. I am looking forward to his next work and still have fond memories of that short story collection and am reassured in the knowledge that he is capable of work that is much more my kind of thing.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Cleaner of ChartresI could not miss the opportunity to read Salley Vickers new book set in the region of Beauce in central France and the well-known town of Chartres with its famous cathedral, its mysterious labyrinth (which has inspired many authors to pen stories) and an intriguing blurb of the redemptive power of love and community in the famous French town.

Agnès is found as a baby wrapped in a basket by a peasant farmer, the only clue to the parentage of the young nursling, a single turquoise earring lying in the bottom of the basket. The farmer, unsure what to do with the infant, but knowing it beyond his capability to take care of a newborn, deposits her at a convent, leaving the nuns to take care of her. Which, in their own way they do, though it does not prevent her from being judged and misunderstood by the pious community, even though it might be inferred that it was they who made her vulnerable to the events that would follow.

“Agnès is the saint to whom young women pray for husbands, and, since Jean Dupère, who had found the baby, presumed the foundling’s mother had none, he named the anonymous woman’s daughter after the saint.”


The labyrinth of Chartres

The story is narrated simultaneously during two different time periods in Agnès’ life, as a young girl during her various stays in mental health institutions and as an adult in the town of Chartres, where she lives an independent life cleaning the still famous Notre-Dame cathedral as well as various other local villagers homes, characters who bring the pages to life with their flaws, foibles and fantasies, whom Vickers just manages not to let fall into becoming cliché.

There is an underlying sadness to the story, as it seems that Agnes attracts bad luck and as a reader, we can’t help wishing for a lucky break or that people around her could just be kinder or more observant of who she is as a person and not to judge people on how they look or what has been said of them.  Like Deborah Batterman’s character Charlotte in her excellent short story, Crazy Charlotte, Vicker’s shows the potential destructive power of that evil tongue, community gossip.

“Agnès had no clear idea why she had fled to the crypt, but for her, unlike Father Bernard, it was the very opposite of the haunt of the diabolical. On the contrary, it had always seemed to her a hallowed place. Old and still and unjudging.  Unjudging was what she most craved.”

Chartres CathedralWhile The Cleaner of Chartres is no comedy, Vickers depiction of a French town/village reminded me a little of Julia Stuart’s delightful book The Matchmaker of Perigord, a fabulous light read that also excels in depicting the essence of local French villagers. Some of the most enjoyable moments in reading are in the simple narration of everyday life, the interactions between two people, in particular where those meetings bring about a small positive change. So many of Agnès’ interactions have the potential for this, the fact that so few of them eventuate, makes them all the sweeter when they do.

Overall, a pleasant read, although I was a little disappointed with the ending, which I felt should have revealed more than it did.

Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2013

The Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced today and looks like an interesting and diverse offer, with two previous nominees*, four fabulous women writers and stories that will transport us to many far reaches of the world.

One of the judges, Robert Macfarlane had this to say:

‘Global in its reach, this exceptional shortlist demonstrates the vitality and range of the contemporary novel at its finest. These six superb works of fiction take us from gold-rush New Zealand to revolutionary Calcutta, from modern-day Japan to the Holy Land of the Gospels, and from Zimbabwe to the deep English countryside. World-spanning in their concerns, and ambitious in their techniques, they remind us of the possibilities and power of the novel as a form.’

The shortlist comprises:


NoViolet Bulawayo We Need New Names                  my review here

Eleanor Catton The Luminaries

Jim Crace Harvest

Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland

Ruth Ozeki A Tale for the Time Being

Colm Tóibín The Testament of Mary

I have only read Bulawayo and I’m happy to see her on the list and I’m also ecstatic to see a fellow New Zealander make the list. I can’t help but hope that Eleanor Catton wins and I’m really looking forward to reading her novel The Luminaries, which has had some fantastic reviews.

The judges have one month to re-read the shortlist and the winner will be announced on 15 October 2013 at a ceremony at London’s Guildhall.

So have you read any from the list and any guesses for a winner?

*Colm Tóibín was previously shortlisted for The Blackwater Lightship in 1999 and The Master in 2004 while Jim Crace was shortlisted in 1997 for Quarantine.

A Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan’s Extraordinary Journey

Kunsang Dolma might have had a more ordinary life, if it hadn’t been her turn to be the family representative at the annual ten-day prayer session at their local village temple when she was 15 years old. An event peripheral to that obligation changed the path she was on, which would have been an arranged marriage to a local boy and raising children to help with the farm work. For those of us reading it however, this is no ordinary life, but an insight into an ancient culture and one courageous woman who survives its harshness, revels in its deep, spiritual wonders and travels outside all that she knows to become the wife of an American citizen.

A Hundred Thousand White StonesThe consequence of that event sets her on the path towards becoming a Buddhist nun, something she had previously considered but had been rejected by her parents, so she and a friend decided to run away from their village to ensure it happened, without parental consent.

While she doesn’t remain a nun all her life, ironically the second major turning point in her life that moved her away from being a nun towards marriage and a life in America was not dissimilar to that which motivated her action towards pursuing a monastic life in the beginning. This is a true story, however I am reminded of all those turning points in the life of the fictitious character Ursula’s in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the significant power that one event can have to alter the direction of a young woman’s life.

Tibetan farmersKunsang shares her upbringing with a quiet, practical, honest voice and it is a childhood and adolescence we see as difficult, though in the context of where she lived, a small Tibetan village, it was quite like many other villagers and something she now looks back on with appreciation and an incessant longing, having left it all behind. It is in leaving a difficult way of life and family behind us, in making it no longer attainable that the deepest yearning for that which was willingly fled, is often felt.

Her parents married at 15 which is not uncommon, however they were unable to conceive until they were 28 years old, something that came as a relief as being farmers, children are essential to their survival as future workers. Kunsang was the youngest of 8 children and by the time she was born, there were sufficient children to manage the farm work; it was this fact that enabled her to have an education.

At the time, there was no birth control, so after thirteen years without a child, it looked like they definitely weren’t going be able to have any children, which are essential to help with work on the farm. My father’s sister already had two kids and felt sorry for my parents’ situation, so when she was pregnant a third time she told my father, “Look, this is my third child. I’m going to give him to you.” The baby was twenty-two days old when my parents took him home. After that, my mother started to have her own babies. My parents always thought that my adopted brother Yula had brought them good luck.

Tibet mapKunsang eventually makes a pilgrimage to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama and during her time here she meets her future husband, narrating the heart-breaking, tedious administrative process they must overcome to be together and the struggles she will face even when they succeed. It is a moving story of a life we can hardly imagine and a journey that crosses many boundaries most of us will never have to traverse, to hike over terrain while risking one’s life, to encounter a revered spiritual leader, create a way to support oneself financially in a foreign country alone and to raise your children in yet another country which will become their home, but never yours.

CIMG3772Reading stories like Kunsang’s is not just an eye-opener into another culture and way of life and another way of dealing with life’s issues, it invites us to practise empathy and patience in the way we interact with foreigners in our own country. Kindness and compassion are there in abundance if we choose to offer them to others and it is stories like Kunsang’s that motivate us to want to extend it.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.