Third Book Syndrome

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Book: Half Lost
Author: Sally Green
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Published On: 31st March 2016
Other Books by Sally Green: Half Bad, Half Wild.

Blurb: The Alliance is losing the war, and their most critical weapon, seventeen-year-old witch Nathan Brynn, is losing his mind. Nathan’s tally of kills is rising, and yet he’s no closer to ending the tyrannical rule of the Council of White Witches in England. Nor is Nathan any closer to his personal goal: getting revenge on Annalise, the girl he once loved before she committed an unthinkable crime. An amulet protected by the extremely powerful witch Ledger could be the tool Nathan needs to save himself and the Alliance, but this amulet is not so easily acquired. And lately Nathan has started to suffer from visions: a vision of a golden moment when he dies, and of an endless line of Hunters, impossible to overcome. Gabriel, his closest companion, urges Nathan to run away with him, to start a peaceful life together. But even Gabriel’s love may not be enough to save Nathan from this war, or from the person he has become.

The third book in a trilogy is always a tricky one to master. Originally, I believed the second book to be the definer in whether a series sinks or swims, but in recent years that’s switched to the third book.

Given how much I adored Half Wild, you can understand how I approached Half Lost with both excitement and trepidation. The books so far have been so good, so gripping, and the end of Half Wild had me squealing incoherently. Would Half Lost live up to my hopeful expectations?

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Allegiant: Contains Spoilers!

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I recently wrote a gust blog post here about Allegiant, the final instalment of the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. But there are a few things I couldn’t really cover there in the interests of keeping it spoiler-free, yet I thought were absolutely necessary to discuss. So here is my Allegiant review, ‘spoilers edition’.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.

I discuss the ending of Allegiant and it WILL be spoiled for you if you read on.

I found Allegiant problematic for a lot of reasons, as discussed in my spoiler-free review. The pace and tempo lacked due to the events of the plot and didn’t pick back up the level of the previous two books. Tris and Tobias fell more into melodramatic than in previous books, which I personally wasn’t keen on – although that could just be my personal taste. The dual perspective irritated me within the first thirty pages, as I didn’t see how Tobias’ narrative added to the story; it felt like an author indulgence which the editor (or whoever else was reading the manuscript) didn’t flag as needing changing. The fact that the book jacket has to describe it as a “riveting dual perspective” rang alarm bells for me. Other books that do the dual perspective well, such as the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, don’t need to make a song and dance about it. It’s just how the book is written, it adds to the story, and it is easy to argue its corner when readers might question the decision to write the novel(s) as such. Allegiant, for me, can’t really stand up to criticism of the dual narrative as it doesn’t really work.

But most fundamentally of all, what annoyed me about Allegiant was the ending. I can think of a list of adjectives to describe it: stupid, unnecessary, pointless, and that’s just getting me started. This trilogy is Tris’ story so not only to take away from her narrative but to kill her off at the end was an unfathomable decision. I appreciate that trilogies – or any novel, for that matter – don’t need to keep their cast intact at the end, and a few books spring to mind where killing off an important character has worked fantastically well in a horribly gut-wrenching way. And if Roth had managed to kill Tris like that, I might not object to it so much. But, like much of the action in Allegiant, it appears to just ‘happen’ with little foregrounding or reasoning. I needed to be far more invested in the novel’s cast to get that feeling of losing a character where you feel like the bottom has just sunk out of your stomach.

This is where I think the dual narrative didn’t help Roth – we are unable to become more invested in Tris because we lose time with her to see Tobias’ perspective on things. And, like I’ve already said in my other review, her and Tobias’ voices are written in a way which makes them almost indistinguishable. Less critical readers than myself might argue that she writes the name of the character at the top of each chapter, so why was I struggling? I would respond with: the voices shouldn’t be so similar that distinguishing the two is a problem in the first place! As a result of losing time with Tris, the perplexing ending left no emotional significance for me. My response very much went from “oh” to “hang on, what was the point in that?” to “WTF, seriously?”.

I thought Tris was a great main character, but I didn’t feel even a little bit of emotion when she died. My response was entirely from a structural and narrative point of view, which I think says a lot in itself.

I’ll mention Tobias briefly, seeing as Roth does commit half of the book’s narrative to him. I liked him as a character in the first two books, and had no reason to change this going in to Allegiant. I liked the scene where they find out about who is a GD and who isn’t, and Tobias’ response to that – although I think it could have been capitalised on further in terms of emotions for the reader, like the unwinding scene in Shusterman’s Unwind. I also liked the bit with his mother, and he says he has been chosen. The significance to him was clear, and that wasn’t something we could have got from Tris’ point of view. However, I don’t feel like I learnt any more from having Tobias’ voice narrating than I would have done if I had seen him through Tris’ eyes. I appreciate that only having Tris would make the story after her death non-existent, but I saw no reason why we couldn’t have Tris all the way through then an abrupt change to Tobias afterwards. Or, have no afterwards at all!

In her blog post that discusses the ending of Allegiant, Roth says that she went with this because it was Tris’ ending, Tris’ sacrifice, and that it fitted in with what her (Tris’) parents did and what happens in dystopias re: gritty, horrible things happen, and the body count goes up. I appreciate that is what Roth has chosen and I am glad she has blogged about it as it has shown us her writerly perspective on things. But I personally do not understand her authorial choices and while I know Roth has given us all a why, it is not a why that I find understandable as a reader.

As Roth herself says: “If your explanations and intentions are not clear to the reader, buried inside the text, that isn’t the reader’s fault, it’s the author’s.” Understanding the principle is a great beginning. Applying it is another matter entirely, and it is this that I think fundamentally fails in Allegiant.

I will remember how much I enjoyed Divergent and Insurgent – I own both of them and I am sure I will read them again – but in terms of Allegiant, I think it is best forgotten. It was a real shame to see the trilogy end as it did, but at least we have the first two books still there for us.

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The Hits, Part 2

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In this post I’m bringing you my October reads: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo, Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien, and Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Siege and Storm is the sequel to Shadow and Bone, which was published in the UK as The Gathering Dark. I borrowed the first book from the library and liked it – the fantasy element was well worked and the two main characters, Alina and Mal, were intriguing. So when I spotted the second on another library trip, I had to pick it up. It carries on from where the last left off: Alina has been living with the Grisha, but the events of The Gathering Dark have left her on the run with Mal away from the evil that has risen from within the Grisha Palace.

The story is much improved for having Mal around some more. While Alina’s time with the Grisha in The Gathering Dark was good, for me it missed the opportunity to capitalise on the orphan learning how to use her powers, something that I’ve seen executed brilliantly in one of my favourite book series, The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon. As a result, Alina and Mal escaping that sphere and going on the run livens the narrative up for me. Alina is very much alone with the Grisha, and misses Mal greatly; by bringing him into the narrative there is more focus on driving events forward rather than reflecting on what Alina misses.

It is also, of course, the second book in a trilogy, which automatically gives it the challenge of that awkward in-between place. It is inevitably tied to the books either side of it, and badly done can be filler rather than an engaging novel of its own. The Grisha trilogy, however, doesn’t seem like something for three separate books. Its story carries on, and happens to be split in to three. In some respects it would be stronger with three distinct plots of its own, rather than one that just moves steadily onwards, but it is executed pretty well and has me interested in reading the final book if it appears in my local library.

The next book I read was Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien. This tells the story of Gaia, a sixteen year old midwife, who serves the women living outside the Enclave. The Enclave is the settlement inside the wall, and who take a “quota” of babies from outside the wall to bring in to their gene pool. One night Gaia’s parents disappear, and she has to go into the Enclave to find them.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. While it can easily be marketed as dystopian, to me it is good solid YA fantasy adventure. Gaia is a compelling narrator, and brings the world both in and outside the Enclave to life. When she smuggles herself into the Enclave we are treated to her careful and determined exploration of its contents and why they are so desperate to advance babies from the outside. Its sequel, Prized, carries on with the same strengths, and the claustrophobia of one small settlement with rigid laws sees Gaia work from within a system and trying to break out.

Her dealings with Leon, a guard inside the Enclave, are well constructed and never has huge overtones of “here is the boy there must be romantic interest!”. The two characters stand equally well on their own, and neither becomes weaker for meeting the other. The initially awkward acquaintance develops well, and O’Brien never lets it overpower the story arc. Gaia is never lessened for meeting other characters. She remains strong and determined and it is one of the main things I love about this book. I am just gutted that the third book is only available in the UK as an ebook.

Finally, I read Unwind by Neal Shusterman. This particular read was a recommendation from a tutor and one I’m glad I came across. The premise is that there was a war between pro-life and pro-choice campaigners, and as a result they created the rules of Unwinds – children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen can be “unwound” and their parts be used elsewhere, meaning they haven’t technically died.

It is a controversial topic and one that creates a strong dystopia from the outset. The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev all have varying stories from their different social backgrounds, but all have one thing in common: they are going to be Unwound. Connor and Risa are determined to escape but Lev has been brought up by devoutly religious parents who conceived him as a “tithe”, a child born to be unwound. I found Risa and Connor stronger characters than Lev, but then again the reader is exposed more to them. The on-the-run narrative is hardly a new one but Shusterman makes it work well. The only problem I had with Unwind was that I always felt the characters never quite got into top gear. They were always good, but I wanted them to be pushed further and to really grab me by the scruff of the neck and pull me into their story.

I also read Unwind as a stand-alone novel, and as such it works well. It is part of a trilogy though – what YA books aren’t? – and I’m not sure I would pick up a sequel. As one book, it is contained and works effectively. The scene of the unwinding, for example, is especially powerful. But I’m not sure where Shusterman can go from the conclusion of Unwind. It is a good read, but I don’t think I’ll be going any further.

Recommendation: Birthmarked, by Caragh O’Brien

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Siege and Storm: 7/10

Birthmarked: 9/10

Unwind: 6/10

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The Gathering Dark: 6/10

Prized: 9/10

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The Hits, Part 1

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I’m taking a rare free day to bring you ‘The Hits’ of what I’ve been reading recently. I’m still updating my reads and recommendations on my twitter feed where you can find me if I’m not able to blog super-regularly.

In this post I’m bringing you my September reads: Wonder by R.J Palacio, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Two of these were recommendations from young adults, and I’m grateful for the suggestions!

Wonder is a story about August, a young boy who was born with facial disfigurements that have required multiple surgeries and meant he has been homeschooled for all of his life. But now he is about to try school for the first time.

The story has a wonderful pace, and the alteration of narrators throughout works, despite my initial misgivings – August’s voice is compelling and interesting and I didn’t really want to leave it behind. However, we are introduced to other characters and their perspective on August, which parallels well with August’s own narration. The only voice I was unsure of was Justin’s, but every other voice arguably has a place in the text.

Surviving school in your adolescent years is hardly new territory, but Palacio makes it shine with August as her lead character. It offers a fresh perspective as well as discussing problems such as feeling lonely, being bullied, and the usual arduous task of being a teenager – though the latter is largely through the eyes of August’s older sister, Viola. I was struck by not only the book’s warmth but its heart; this is a book that should be read by eleven year olds, fresh in their first year of secondary school and trying to find a foothold at the bottom of a new pecking order.

Another ‘coming-of-age story’, but for a slightly older age group, is The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. Again, the voice of the lead character is very strong, except Charlie writes in letters to an anonymous friend. I was apprehensive of this form, but Chbosky makes it work effectively – after all, Charlie is the wallflower, always observing and rarely sharing. Something about his voice is very compelling, and the combination of that and plot really keeps you hooked.

His negotiations of friendships is interesting; he participates, but it is a clear there are louder and more outgoing characters who could easily have stolen the limelight of the plot if it wasn’t for Charlie. By choosing Charlie as narrator it bridges the gap between the reader and the plot; you, the reader, are observing just as Charlie is. You see these teenagers growing up and how they are electing to spend their adolescence, and dealing with all the issues that brings. And as the plot tides over, Charlie has recurrent reflections on the loss of his aunt on his birthday. Chbosky wraps Charlie’s narrative together with great skill, tying together the end of the year and everything that that brings for the characters.

Finally, Code Name Verity. I picked up this book as I had heard it was good and know it was shortlisted for the Carnegie. It tells the story of a British spy, Verity, who has been captured after her plane crash-landed in Nazi-occupied France. She has agreed to co-operate with them so she won’t be tortured, even though it means, in her words: “I AM A COWARD.” She writes about everything she knows about the British war effort, through the eyes of her friend Maddie, a female trainee pilot.

Verity has a lovely tone. She is Scottish, basically aristocracy, with a cheek that gets her into frequent spats and trouble with her minder, Engel, and the officer she deals with, von Linden. She keeps this tone throughout, even if it does mean she gets into trouble with Engel and von Linden. It retains humour in the narrative which, given the subject matter, is probably needed to keep it from becoming too bleak. The plot works well as it hops between Verity and Maddie’s stories, and moves up another gear when Maddie ‘proper’ arrives to tell her story. I think the finale is well-executed, but perhaps missed the punch it could have had. Regardless, it is a well-worked YA novel and I can see how it was shortlisted for the Carnegie.

Recommendation: All are great, but I’d choose Wonder by R.J Palacio.

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Wonder: 9/10

Perks: 8/10

Code Name Verity: 7/10

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The Chemical Garden Trilogy

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This series was one I discovered rifling through shelves in the bookshop, before reserving the ones with potential from my local library. The setup is this: in the future, there is a virus that means all men die at twenty-five and all women die at twenty. This has created a world where girls are Gathered and sold as wives to rich men or to brothels in the many scarlet districts.

Our main character, Rhine, is Gathered and her heterochromia (different coloured eyes) makes her distinct enough to be sold to a rich man’s son – Linden – as one of three wives. They are swiftly married in one large ceremony and trapped inside Linden and his father’s mansion.

Rhine is determined to escape, something that threads across all three books in the series. But the atmosphere of the mansion is given its comforts at the same time: watching the relationships develop between the wives is one of the few cheerful glimmers in a house which is essentially a prison. In the second book, we see more of these relationships as well as of Gabriel, an attendant Rhine grows close to in Wither.

I enjoyed the series enough to keep reading – I liked Rhine and her determination and desperate searching for hope even when there doesn’t seem to be any left. But while no character felt very predictable, few other characters leapt from the page. Resident villain Vaughn, whilst threatening, does not feel completely terrifying, even when his experiments come to light. DeStefano also drops one of the main characters for a long stretch in Sever, and while this is understandable within the plot, Rhine does not seem to really miss them and so we don’t either. It makes what was an engaging dynamic in Fever vanish, which is a disappointment.

The premise was attention-grabbing and I skated through Wither at speed. They’re not challenging books to read, which is part of their charm, and so my brain didn’t have to work hard to get through them. I would definitely give this as a reason why I chose to finish the series – it was little effort to read them all and satisfy my curiosity.

DeStefano’s use of first person for Rhine works really well, and allows us to feel as trapped in that mansion as she is. Rhine is a keen observer of others and so we are able to paint a picture of the day-to-day life of the house without difficulty. The same goes for the carnival in Fever. It’s not the most vivid description I have ever read, but it does the job very effectively and without really drawing too much attention to itself as you go through the pages. As well as that, the characters we meet at the carnival make a welcome and interesting recurrence in Sever that distracts us from too formulaic a conclusion to this YA trilogy.

On the Waterstones blurb it reads: The Handmaid’s Tale for a new generation. But I’m not quite sure what has led this person to this conclusion, as beyond its trading young girls as commodities I don’t really see any other connection. However, if it subsequently gets unsuspecting YA readers reaching for The Handmaid’s Tale, I certainly won’t complain.

An entertaining easy-read trilogy, worth picking up from your local library.

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Wither: 7/10

Fever: 7/10

Sever: 6.5/10

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A Little Bit Of Gaiman

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I’ve always meant to read some Neil Gaiman – his style sounds right up my street and I’d enjoyed his Doctor Who episodes. I also watched Coraline with my housemates a year or so ago and really liked it. It was fantastical and scary and everything I’d been told Gaiman’s writing was like – even if the screenplay wasn’t his own work. And so I picked up a copy of Coraline, shortly followed by The Graveyard Book, both the editions with Chris Riddell’s illustrations.

When I started reading Coraline I imagined only the film adaptation, but the further I read and the more of Riddell’s accompanying illustrations I saw, the more independent it became in my mind. It became my own. I was able to re-experience the plot without being restricted by my experience of the film. Coraline herself is a wonderful character and one that appealed to my ten-year-old self; grown-ups are boring, and she wants to explore this house she has found herself in. She thinks herself older than her age – what child doesn’t? – and spends her time exploring the area around her house.

Gaiman imbues a sense of mysticism and otherworldliness in his setting, drawing you in and making the unusual seem perfectly normal. This is also true of The Graveyard Book, with Bod and his home in the graveyard. In Coraline, however, it is the inside which seems more curious. Coraline is fascinated by a passageway that was bricked up but now is clear, leading her to the realm of the Other Mother and Other Father who replicate her real parents, but with buttons for eyes: buttons they want to sew onto Coraline’s eyes. It is this kind of detail that I really liked. I can imagine reading this when I was much younger and being completely terrified, in the best kind of way. Coraline is determined and plucky and things I want a heroine to be. She will not be cowed by this chilling Other Mother who is hunting her down.

I followed Coraline with The Graveyard Book, about a boy called Bod Owens (short for Nobody) who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts. The setting is once again Gaiman’s forte: within the first few chapters I had gone from my spot on the sofa and I was in the graveyard with Bod, exploring its grounds, and talking to all the different ghosts. And the plot paces out excellently, too. We open with ‘the man Jack’, who has come to Bod’s house and killed his parents and sister. Luckily, Bod is a natural explorer and has escaped his crib and makes it safely into the graveyard. And then we meet the ghosts of the graveyard, all discussing what to do about Bod. As a reader you don’t even hesitate to think: ‘but they’re ghosts’. It is simply the obvious.

The story of Bod’s survival churns on as the book progresses, and meanwhile Gaiman uses the opportunity to show us through Bod’s everyday life. His education at the hands of various graveyard residents, meeting another child, and his relationship with Silas. Mr and Mrs Owens are his adopted, ghostly parents; Silas is his guardian. I loved the character of Silas. He is that dark, knowledgeable figure who comes and goes, never quite tells the whole story, and who is endlessly fascinating to a young child like Bod – or indeed, like any of us. It seems a fairly standard fantasy character, but somehow Silas doesn’t seem the stereotypical dark mysterious mentor. Gaiman manages to avoid that pitfall, and I’m still not sure how. He just sort of… does. It’s definitely a feature of his writing, as no other book comes to mind that is so very fantastical and other, yet is so straightforward to the reader.

My only regret with this first foray into Neil Gaiman’s works is that I was not younger when I first read them. I think there is a certain element to both of these books that needs you to be a child when you read them. But that hasn’t stopped me from ordering them both for my bookshelves – I’m pretty sure these are books I’m going to be re-reading in future, particularly The Graveyard Book.

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Coraline: 8/10

The Graveyard Book: 8.5/10

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Talking Terminal

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I can’t review these books without discussing their endings!

As a reader, I tend to avoid obviously difficult subjects, both in YA and elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t have picked up Stolen if I hadn’t been recommended it by a friend. The blurbs never scream “happy ever after” to me and while I’m fine without a neatly tied everyone-survives ending, topics like illness (in this case, cancer) tell me that this book is unlikely to end with the illness gone away and all characters surviving. As Hazel says about her favourite novel: “It’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck.”

But saying that, I am now going to talk about The Fault In Our Stars (TFioS) by John Green and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (based on an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) which both address this challenging subject. TFioS is told from the point of view of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl who is suffering from incurable lung cancer. A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is the story of Conor and how he copes with his mother’s terminal cancer.

Hazel opens TFioS by attending Support Group, as her mother has decided she is depressed. Hazel disagrees, but goes anyway. It is here that she meets our other protagonist, Augustus Waters. He is a seventeen-year-old boy in remission after losing one of his legs. He is easy-going, confident, and enjoys finding symbolism and metaphor in pretty much everything. The two swap book recommendations: Hazel’s favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, for Augustus’ book based on a videogame with “a sentence to corpse ratio of nearly 1:1”. Thankfully, Augustus is not as formulaic as his book recommendation would suggest.

The thing I love the most about TFioS (and at the time of writing I’ve read it four times and listened to the audiobook twice) is Hazel’s narrative. For so much of the book you think of cancer as a side-effect of the plot; it doesn’t get in your way. And it means you get more room to enjoy Hazel’s character, her sense of humour, her interests, her view on the world and the people she meets in it. She is very well-read, yet enjoys sitting in for day-long marathons of ANTM. Most importantly, she is not daunted by Augustus. Hazel is very much her own person.

It is this narrative that makes the highs and lows of the novel feel even more heightened. John Green does a wonderful job of creating these carefully orchestrated crescendos, then suddenly tugs you down into something softer, quieter, and inevitably more painful. It is his own reminder that while you can believe in the illusion of health that Hazel (and predominantly Augustus) creates, you are only fooling yourself. It is, after all, an illusion.

The ending is what makes Hazel even more brilliant to me: she understands that the wheels keep turning and she has to keep going, even while dealing with her grief. We know she will not ever live a long and ‘normal’ life, but she closes this chapter of her life with Augustus knowing she will carry on, for however long that will be. It is that optimism, shining through the bleakness, that makes this such a wonderful conclusion to the story. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, but Green does not leave you in total darkness.

A Monster Calls feels considerably darker as a story, and in many ways it is. This is not only because of Jim Kay’s brilliant illustrations, but because the focus is on Conor and the monster. The monster arrives every night just after midnight, waking Conor up from the nightmare he has had since his mum started a fresh bout of treatments. Finding out what the nightmare is forms the climax of the story, but in between visits from the monster we see how Conor manages day-to-day. His parents have separated and his father now lives in America; he lives with his mother and is occasionally visited by his grandma, who he makes no secret of loathing.

Conor drifts through school, and Ness makes the readers feel how he is fading. He is becoming his mother’s illness. Picked on by bullies, unable and unwilling to stand up for himself, you watch him continually self-destruct and become more and more isolated. As this happens during the day, the monster visits him during the night. He is told three stories by the monster, who insists that after these tales are told, Conor will tell him his story: the truth about what happens in his nightmare.

The story is beautifully told, and feels horribly real. It feels so real that it is impossible to distance yourself from it, and the ending will likely have you in tears. It is crafted in such a way that when Conor finally reveals happens in his nightmare, we can understand completely. He has been consistently beating himself up, letting others beat him up, because he can’t shake the guilt of what he feels. It is also made clear he doesn’t ever vent and has nobody really to talk to, which only increases his guilt. This isolation is completely understandable from our external perspective, but we see how it eats him up. When he finally lets go, it is a great weight that has lifted from both Conor and the readers’ shoulders.

While I may not frequent books that discuss subjects like terminal cancer, both TFioS and A Monster Calls are brilliantly worked (and also two of my favourite books). Neither are truly about cancer. TFioS is about first love, and A Monster Calls about the importance of letting your feelings go. Both are brilliantly crafted, and the sort of books that you are determined everyone should read. And therefore I hope you now go away and (re)read them. They are both truly excellent books.

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For all things TFioS (FAQ) : http://onlyifyoufinishedtfios.tumblr.com/

VIDEO: Patrick Ness talking about A Monster Calls

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TFIOS: 9/10

A Monster Calls: 10/10