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July/August 2012
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, Candlewick Press, 2011, $16.99.

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson, Morrow, 2011, $35.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, Doubleday, 2011, $26.95.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, Bond Street Books, 2011, $30.50.

PATRICK Ness is the author of a trilogy that starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go. It's as tense and complex a book as you'll find on adult genre shelves, but it's a young adult novel. I've had one irate customer come into the store after buying (and reading) it because it was in the YA section and it was far too dark a book for young adults.

A Monster Calls was begun by Siobhan Dowd, who had, as Ness says in his introduction, "the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time." He was approached to finish what she had started before her death.

I've never read Dowd's work, so I can't say whether this book bears any similarity to what she would have written. But I am deeply grateful that she at least started something, because had she not, Ness would never have written this book.

Conor is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives with his mother. His father lives in a different country with his new family and a wife who clearly feels threatened when he visits his old one. Conor's mother has cancer; the book starts with Conor taking care of his mother after what's obviously a round of chemotherapy. Conor's grandmother doesn't approve of this arrangement; she feels that Conor is a child, and as a child, shouldn't be forced to take care of someone else. Conor, in his turn, resents his grandmother's frequent intrusions into his house—his grandmother, in Conor's opinion, isn't a real grandmother; she hates to cook and she works all the time.

At 205 pages of largish type and profuse black and white illustrations, Monster is not a long book. It is also not a book replete with action; it has a slow, almost distant quality to it, which exactly matches Conor's interaction with the world. He has difficulty with bullies at school, he has difficulties at home, and he has nightmares that make sleep terrifying.

But he also has a monster: A large walking tree that comes to his window one night. The monster tells Conor that he will visit three times, and each time he will tell Conor a story. The fourth time he visits, Conor will tell him a story, and if the story is not true, Conor will die. This is not exactly what Conor needs, as he's dealing with so much.


It's also exactly what Conor needs. The Monster's stories confuse Conor; they're not, in Conor's opinion, like stories at all—they make no sense, they're pointless, and worse, they bleed over into the real world in ways that cause Conor extreme difficulty.

I really don't know how this will read for someone in the YA age range. I don't know if they'll catch the things that seem obvious to me. I don't know if it will be instantly and utterly clear to them that Conor's mother is dying of terminal cancer—because it is clear. Clear, as well, is the social void that opens up between children engulfed in tragedy and children who are not and who have no simple or easy way of approaching someone who is.

There is no way not to see where this book is going.

I want to say so much about this book. The prose is minimal but every word carries weight. The illustrations add tone and texture to the experience. The story deals with cancer, but it's not pretty, and although the book is a fantasy, it is painfully honest, painfully—and beautifully—true.

I want it to be read. I want people who feel an impatience at the lack of obvious dramatic event to keep reading, to trust the author.

I can be moved to tears—not easily, but it happens. I have never, ever cried the way I cried while reading this one. It's the type of book that breaks your heart and at the same time puts it back together; it leaves spaces for the truth of grief, of loss, of fear—it never denies them and there is no sugar coating—but it gives a more complicated gift in its wake.


In REAMDE, Neal Stephenson's newest novel, there is very, very little that's SFnal. This is a geek thriller.

Richard Forthrast is a man with an extremely checkered past that includes money laundering and a decade playing WoW (World of Warcraft, the massively multi-player online role-playing game). He has gone on to create his own variant on an MMO, one in which in-game gold has a legal, real-world value. The gold farmers that have long been both used and suppressed are welcome in the world of T'Rain.

The game has become insanely popular and Richard Forthrast is a very wealthy man.

His family, however, is not well-off. And once a year, he heads to the family Thanksgiving get-together in Iowa, sliding out of the trappings of obvious wealth. There, he spends time with his brother, a Vietnam vet, his brother's wife, his father, his various cousins and their offspring.

In the hands of a different writer, the discomfort Richard feels going home would outweigh everything else. In Stephenson's hands, the reunion is a snapshot of an extended family, good and bad; they care for and about each other, respecting, or at least ignoring, their differences.

Richard's niece, Zula, came to America as a refugee. Originally adopted by Richard's sister, she's taken in by his brother John when her mother dies. Of all of the extended family, she's the only one who, when unemployed, goes to work for Richard (in part because she's the only one he offers work). She is young, smart, well-organized, and decisive. He likes her and always has.

However, he's not keen on Peter, her boyfriend, but invites them both up to his ski-resort for a weekend. Peter loves snowboarding. Zula doesn't—and doesn't ski—but she's got her laptop and works while Peter disappears.

Peter (who is aware of Richard's early life) uses his considerable computer security skills to steal credit card numbers from an unnamed retail site. He has a buyer for them, a man named Wallace who decides he wants to meet Peter at the ski resort. Peter has a DVD with the information; it's his only copy. The buyer has a laptop that doesn't have a DVD reader, so Peter borrows a USB key from Richard.

The deal is made and Wallace pays Peter in cash. The cash has to cross the border. Because Peter is nervous about the border crossing, and Zula is not an idiot, the events come out on the drive back. Understandably Zula is furious and that ends that relationship.

Unfortunately, when she goes to Peter's place to get a few of her things back, Wallace is there. He has picked up a computer virus from a file disguised as a ReadMe file (thus the book's title). The virus locks down all of the documents on Wallace's drive—which would include the stolen credit card numbers—with instructions on how to get the unlock code: drop a thousand gold pieces somewhere in T'Rain. One thousand gold pieces is about seventy-three U.S. dollars, and a highly nervous Wallace is willing to pay it, but in the computer game, that's not easily accomplished.

Zula and Wallace spend hours attempting to get past bandits in order to deliver that file to a Russian by a certain time.

Unfortunately, they can't get the gold to where it has to be left, and they therefore can't access the file, which make the Russian suspicious enough to head down to Seattle in a private jet with his "security agents."

He decides it's personal with the hacker responsible for the ReadMe virus, so he will go to China to kill him. But not alone. Peter and Zula are kidnapped, with a stopover to pick up a Hungarian colleague. Then they're off to China, where they pick up a native guide and get to work.

And then things get complicated.

Even if I don't like characters Stephenson's created, I nonetheless find them engaging, and I read him in large part for his characters and the particular ways in which they process information and interact with the world. Of his novels, this has easily the most structurally solid ending. In feel, it's closest to Cryptonomicon, although all of the action takes place in the present, where information travels quickly, and cellphones and wifi are ubiquitous. I enjoyed it greatly, and I frequently laughed out loud at his descriptions or his dialogue; it read like a much shorter book. But.

There's one plot twist I did not see coming. It caused me to stop reading and say, "Seriously?" and not in a good way, because at this point, the book almost stops being about gold-farmers, game economics, and insane Russians, and heads into more conventional thriller territory. I won't describe it for fear of spoiling too much, but I'll say it stretched my very elastic suspension-of-disbelief limits to a point where, had everything else not been Stephenson-level, I would have stopped, period.

But if you can accept that one element, the rest of the book works.


The Night Circus is almost without flaw. I'm astonished that it's a first novel. It is not a grand, sweeping story with enormous ambition; at heart, it's a smaller story, but every element shines.

The book starts in the late 1800s. Celia Bowen is the daughter of a renowned stage magician, and it's clear from almost the first page that there is far more to Prospero's "stage" tricks than sleight of hand or misdirection. At five years of age Celia is dumped on a father who knew nothing about her existence until she arrived with a note pinned to her coat. His real name is Hector Bowen, and he sees potential for something amusing in this daughter—but never more than that.

The amusement, however, requires the acceptance of a colleague of Hector's—a man called Alexander, no last name given. Hector asks Alexander if he's up to another challenge, another competition. Alexander, with some initial reservations, accepts. Celia, at six years of age, is given a silver ring by Alexander, and it burns its way into her finger, whereupon it vanishes, leaving a scar that never fades.

Alexander then embarks upon a search for a student of his own, and he finds a nameless boy at an orphanage. The boy chooses the name Marco Alisdair. Marco is to be Alexander's entrant in this challenge, and as Alexander is not the one to lay down the challenge, he is free to make the first move at a time of his own choosing—and in a venue of his choosing as well.

There follows a period in which both of these young children are trained in their arts as they grow. Both are aware that they are to enter into a contest with a single opponent; neither are aware of what the contest entails, or of how a winner is to be chosen.

But the venue has to be built. The man who builds it, Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, is a man with a vision. He has dabbled in all of the theatrical arts, and has just now turned his restless imagination toward the creation of a Circus. A circus that will be unlike any circus before it, that will have a certain style, a certain élan, that will captivate audiences everywhere.

With Marco as his assistant, he enlists the aid of people whom he feels will lend critically important skills to the design of this dream. That includes Alexander. And so the circus is designed, performers are found, and the venue is almost complete. Celia Bowen auditions for the role of Illusionist, and she is without rival. The competition is about to begin in earnest.

All of this is accurate, but none of it captures the feel of the book. There's a hushed excitement when the circus is just in its inception and people begin their planning; there's a sense that something truly magical is about to open its doors. That hint of wonder, mystery and budding anticipation permeates every word Morgenstern writes about La Cirque du Reves.

We see the circus through the eyes of those who work in its many tents, and we also see it through the eyes of people who will never perform. It exists as the third character; it lives, moves, and breathes. Celia Bowen loves the Circus, and its marvels; when Marco makes his first move, in the context of the venue, he creates a new tent, a new exhibit. It's a challenge, and Celia responds by enlisting an engineer whose work she embellishes (with her magic) to create the merry-go-round. Back and forth, these two weave and create; each tent is like a letter—a letter, not email, not something that travels instantly, or even in a matter of days—but something that will take weeks or even months before it reaches its intended destination.

The Circus is like a dream.

But not all people can give their lives over to a single dream, and it's in the human reactions, interactions, and confusion that the darker shadows come to light, but they're necessary, and just as perfect.

It has been a long time since I've read something that is so steeped in a sense of wonder and mystery; I felt, turning pages, very like a child who was seeing the Circus for the first time.


1Q84 is my first foray into the work of Haruki Murakami. Possibly because I read a lot of sf and fantasy, I didn't really enjoy it. I did, however, finish it, and it clocks in at 925 pages.

I understand that it is considered a "literary" work, and I have no issues with that. I possibly had higher expectations going in, which is not the fault of the novel. But the book skirts the territory between magic realism and sf, and it fails to fall into either category. There is too much causality to the events, but not enough sense.

The book opens with Masami Aomame, a woman who is almost thirty. Late for an important appointment, she takes the odd suggestion of a cab driver and exits his cab on the freeway, where she takes a set of emergency stairs to the ground below, which is very close to a train station. I admit that reading this, I was relatively certain that she was on her way to kill someone, although there's nothing to indicate that's the case. (She was.) For some reason, her sections are always headed with her family name, Aomame—and given that she was essentially disowned by her family when she was eleven, it's an odd choice.

Tengo Kawana works as a cram school math teacher, and writes on the side. He has not yet had anything published under his own name, but an editor at a magazine has taken an interest in shaping his work. Tengo's sections are always under his personal name, not his family name. He has been plagued by an image of his mother having her breasts sucked by a man who was not his father for as long as he can remember. Sometimes, the image will overtake him and he will freeze up. He is not certain why this image is so visceral, because there are no extant photographs of his mother, who in theory died before he turned two. When he recovers from the latest "episode," he is, however, arguing in favor of a manuscript that's been submitted to a New Novelists contest for which he is serving as screener. The manuscript, titled Air Chrysalis, is written by a seventeen-year-old girl. It is rough, with severe grammatical deficiencies, but he couldn't put it down, and he feels that this girl has a vital and unique imagination.

The man he is trying to convince of this is Komatsu, an editor. Komatsu agrees that the book is unique and seriously flawed; but he disagrees that the author has another book in her; he feels she does not, because he's had decades of experience. (He is right in pretty much all of his assumptions about her attitude toward writing.) But he sees a big opportunity—if a shady one—in all of this, and proposes to have Tengo ghostwrite the book from the ground up, preserving the story.

Aomame, in the meantime, makes her way to her appointment, where she does, in fact, kill a man. She notices that the police are carrying semi-automatics and wearing strange uniforms. This is the first detail she notices that implies that her descent from the highway has changed something, and she decides that this world she is in is not 1984, but 1Q84 (Q being question). She hits a library where she reads the paper she's read every day for a decade, and she finds a strong point of divergence: a gun battle between revolutionaries and the police, which led to the change of armaments.

Tengo decides, with misgivings, to rewrite the novel after meeting the author. She is a very unusual girl who speaks in a flat, uninflected way and has a piercing gaze when she chooses to look at anything. He then has to speak to the man who is her unofficial guardian. He is unofficial because the girl, Fuka-Eri, arrived at his home at the age of ten, leaving a commune helmed by his best friend, who thereafter responds to no phone calls, letters, etc. This girl was living in the commune which eventually split in two—and one of the factions started a gun battle with the police. So. Tengo and Aomame are living in the same world.

The novel takes hundreds of pages to reach this point. I don't mind hundreds of pages, but I find the language flat and mechanical throughout; it's as if the entire book has been translated in a highly literal way, which doesn't work well for fiction. There's an almost clinical quality to every sentence. The clinical quality, mixed with the passivity of the characters, makes it very hard to engage with the book on an emotional level—at all.

Which would be fine, as it's intellectually engaging, were it not, in the end, a love story between two emotionally stunted, distant people, with a bunch of weird bits thrown in. I understand that 1Q84 is in essence a world created by and for emotionally isolated and lonely people. I understand that there's a metaphor in the way the worlds exist, overlap, and turn. But…it's a repetitive work, and because the language is off-balance, there's no hypnotic quality to the repetition; instead of something dreamlike and mysterious, the book descends into tedium.

Which would also be fine if the intellectual engagement had a payoff, but it doesn't. I feel it's not a book that will work for most readers.

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