Book Review: Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 9 and up

(Be it known that I read an ARC of Monstrous and a few details may have changed since publication.)

It’s been a while since I reviewed any children’s books, and that’s just not natural. Speaking of unnatural things… Kymera, the patchwork girl-creature in Monstrous, thinks she is a monster: not human but not any one beast, feared by the people of Byre for her predatory instincts and frightening abilities. Only Kymera’s father understands her. After all, he’s the one who made her – reanimated from different body parts – and gave her a mission to rescue girls in the nearby city from the clutches of a dangerous wizard. A sickness rages through the city, infecting only young girls, who the wizard then kidnaps for his own nefarious purposes. But Kymera and her father want to stop him – after all, the wizard killed the human Kymera once was. Now she’s unrecognizable and has lost nearly all memories of her previous life. With her father’s knowledge of science and her special skills, they intend to bring the sick girls to the safety of Belladoma. Kymera’s stinging tail, her wings, and her animal senses keep her safe, but they also prevent her from befriending any human other than her father. They have a happy life in the forest, but a girl needs friends as well as family.

Feeling like one of the locked-up princesses in her beloved fairy tales, Kymera starts to dawdle on her night-time rescue missions to Byre. She meets Ren, a boy who is also out after curfew. With her abnormalities hidden away under a cloak, Kym and Ren slowly become friends. She learns about Bryre and the evil that troubles it. But as she discovers more about the people who live in the city she wants to protect, doubts and hidden memories start to trouble her mind. It might take more to defeat the wizard than the rescue of his victims. Kymera might have to battle the threat herself, even if it means exposing her true nature to the boy who trusted her.

Monstrous draws on a variety of fairy-tale themes, and is obviously influenced by classics like Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the characters and story are very much their own creature. There’s no shortage of fantasy stories set in vaguely-Germanic worlds, but I’ll admit to being a sucker for palaces and dark forests and dragons. Especially dragons, and Monstrous has a great one.

While there’s nothing groundbreaking about the world Connolly has created here, it was easy to settle amongst the surroundings – like flopping into a comfortable bed of pine needles on a sunny afternoon. (I’m really sick of Winter. Can you tell? Lots of this book takes place out-of-doors, and it made me ache for the sight of anything green and growing.) Each chapter is marked by how many days have passed since Kymera first comes into being, whether you want to call it “waking up,” or “being born.” We learn about her world at the rate she does, and her voice adds a degree of wonder to even the most recognizable landmarks of children’s fantasy fiction. The beginning of the book could have been animated by Disney, with the rose garden and the half-dog-half-bird who flies around causing mischief.

“A yapping brown dog with sparrow wings skids to a landing by Father’s plush armchair. Pippa. He calls her a sperrier. I call her delicious.” (Quoted from the ARC.)

As the days pass and Kymera learns more about her purpose, the comforting ambiance disappears. Different concerns work themselves into Kym’s conscious thought and, therefore, into the narrative. The use of first-person present-tense means that her realizations are instant and emotionally charged. When she tries to reason her way out of a paradox and the logic just doesn’t add up to what she’d expect, the thought process is right there. On one hand, this means that a reader will feel strong sympathy for this girl who thinks she’s something horrifying, who wants to help people but doesn’t know if she’s doing it right.

On the other hand, the style made for a very slow first half of the novel. The build-up to Kymera’s Big Realization included so many nuanced hints that jump out as clues on the page but are clouded in the narrator’s mind by her innocence. The day-by-day chapter structure provided almost repetitive details about Kymera’s developing awareness, and indeed certain sentiments were echoed almost verbatim from one chapter to another. Her explorations of the city and her concept of right and wrong are important to the story, yes, but the cycle of fly-fraternize-rescue-lie got predictable after a while. One of the big twists – the catalyzing event of Monstrous‘s action – was also predictable, but I find that the story didn’t suffer so much because of that. Betrayal of some sort is inherent in both fairy tales and the classic novels I saw reflected in Connolly’s writing.

Once the slow-burn beginning finally lights a fire under Kymera’s tail, things get exciting fast. The second half of Monstrous was a great deal of fun, and made the slight slog worthwhile. Kym gets to meet new characters, puzzle over fantasy-world diplomacy, and finally put her sharp claws to good use! The adventure gathers speed all the way to an emotional ending that was different than what I expected. So, in the end, Monstrous turned out to be a hybrid of one slow emotional journey of understanding and a lively adventure. The balance was a little off, but the story was sound and the characters really grew on me.

I recommend Monstrous for strong readers aged ten and up. It’s a rather long book (432 pages) and requires some dedication before the pace picks up. The darkness and moral ambiguity reminded me of The Thickety, which I also recommended with some reservations. Kids who have devoured their fairy-tales, or who require awesome dragons in their reading experiences, will enjoy Monstrous. (Readers of that description should also read Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons!) By the end, I felt like I had known Kym for my whole life. From her beginning as a cobbled-together creation made from dangerous creatures, she becomes as brave and kind a heroine as any from her library of fairy-tales.

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3 New Books I Recommend This Month

Happy February! I hope you all have tolerable months, or that at least all your troubles will be confined to the mere 27 days left stretching ahead of us, and thus over soon.

“February is the shortest month of the year, so if you are having a miserable month, try to schedule it for February.” – Lemony Snicket

There are a ton of exciting books on the horizon for this spring, and I can’t wait to see them on the shelves at my bookshop.  Prepare yourselves to have hardcovers lobbed at your heads.  (Can we really count February as early spring?  It’s more the depths of an unfeeling, cheerless winter, just with blessed daylight past four in the afternoon.  Whenever the sun can get through the gathering snowclouds…)   I get so focused on new and wonderful children’s books every season, sometimes I feel like the books for grown-ups don’t get nearly enough celebration.  So here are three non-children’s books that will be released into the world this month, and I’ll be recommending them right and left.  Loading them into cannons and aiming at likely readers.  I’ll volley  them at certain teens, too, because age barriers are for the unimaginative.  And anyway, each of these books feature young people in some context or another, struggling against forgetful families; ocean storms; or chess pieces made from butter.

(A note: the copies I read of Of Things Gone Astray and Get In Trouble were advanced reader’s editions, and some details may have changed before publication.)

thingsgoneastrayI read Of Things Gone Astray many months ago – before the Christmas craziness and in a much more peaceful frame of mind – so the magic of it has had some time to settle.  Several characters, seemingly with little to no connections to one another, wake up one morning to discover that they’ve lost something important to them.  Their sense of direction, or the keys on their piano, or the front of their house, or their connection with their child.  I think my little blurb for HarperCollins sums up my thoughts.  The book takes place in London, and oh boy do you wish you were in England as you read it.  Very charming, very thoughtful, and wonderfully strange; you need many cups of tea and a sunny armchair for this reading experience.

The elements of magical realism in Of Things Gone Astray are enchanting but mostly subdued.  It was fun to see how each different character tried to cope with the sudden, inexplicable losses.  Some get flustered.  Some turn into trees. Some bake cake in case of tea-time visitors. I’ll be recommending this book to people who don’t usually go for a touch of fantasy in their stories, as the all-too-feasible personal dilemmas that drive the intertwined plot appear in every recognizable corner of every day life.

I’ve been a fan of Kelly Link’s writing for a while.  Her collection Magic For Beginners delighted me beyond measure from the first story (“The Faery Handbag,” which is actually set in a thrift shop I used to frequent), and her stories for young adults in Pretty Monsters are pretty indeed.  And pretty twisted, too.  Get In Trouble will come out on February 10th, so get ready for some of the weirdest short stories to ever parade in front of your eyes.  And good luck turning your gaze away, because they’re mesmerizing in their oddity.

Short story collections are usually a little hit-or-miss in their quality, so naturally there are a few pieces in Get In Trouble that stand out as the best, and one or two with which I had trouble connecting.  A few of my favorites: “The Summer People,” opens the book and appealed instantly to my creepy-faery-story loving self, with its strange house and enticing illusions.  “Secret Identity” is a new twist on the Superhero genre, poking fun at themed conventions and involving the aforementioned butter chess set.  “Valley Of The Girls” features a cast of spoiled young people hanging out in the lavish pyramids, built early for their eventual afterlives.  Take Bret Easton Ellis’s reprehensible characters and stick them in futuristic ancient Egypt (yes I understand the paradox there), and you’ll get a taste of this opulent, satirically awkward, and inventive story.  “The New Boyfriend” was about teenaged girls and ghosts and secrets.  I would have read a whole novel based on that short story.  If Kelly Link and Maggie Stiefvater ever got together to collaborate, I feel like those unnerving events would come true just from sheer force of those ladies’ awesome powers. Finally, “Two Houses” is a layered cross-section of tales, each one so quick to drag you down you forget what brought you to such a scene in the first place.  Dreamlike; horrifying; tragic; and set in space, I’ve carried the after-effects of that story with me ever since I finished reading Get In Trouble.

There’s so much here that’s worth re-reading.  This collection might be a hard sell to people who don’t find themselves drawn to the wackier side of magical realism (unlike Of Things Gone Astray, which even staunch realists might enjoy), but I’m going to keep recommending it anyway.

source: goodreads

And now we’ve come to We Are Pirates.  This book has simultaneously ruined my year and entertained me to no end.  The premise sunk me into the pits of despair, but the writing perfectly put my own thoughts onto paper in sentences that were a damned joy to read.  This book is my sworn enemy, but I wish it had been around when I was a teenager, because it is exactly what I needed back then.

Here’s the dilemma: Daniel Handler has written a modern pirate story almost exactly like the modern pirate story I was writing.  The main character is a restless and disenchanted fourteen-year-old girl. Same.  The rag-tag crew of scallywags against the world steal a rigged-out ship and fail spectacularly to sail it into the distance. Same. Their chosen victims refuse to prepare to be boarded. Check mark in the ledger for stuff being the same.  Even the boots and coat our heroine Gwen sports during her life of small crimes are spot-on.  They quote from classic works of pirate fiction all over the place!  So many references, even, that I’m sure to have missed some.  I know that in the acknowledgements, Mr. Handler mentions Captain Blood and A High Wind In Jamaica specifically.  The latter of those is my bloody staff pick at the bookshop, by Jove!  My own 3/4 of a drafted novel is full of those very same references, trying to capture the very same sentiment. That sentiment being: Life is a mess and adults have no clue what they’re doing.  Piracy might be the only tolerable option.

I suppose there’s a sort of welcome commiseration to be found in the knowledge that one of my favorite authors dwells on the same anachronistic notions of violent, salty glory as me.  In a way, he has put teenaged Sarah’s troubles into words.  But only, if only, We Are Pirates had been released a decade ago, I might not have labored so hard on my own documentation of that same zeal for the old stories, and the craving for a knife in the hand and the wind at one’s back.

To stop whining on about my own misfortune: We Are Pirates is actually an adult book (mine will someday be for middle-schoolers) and deals with some other more mature themes than ransacking the “high seas” of San Francisco.   Half the book focuses on Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, who is having – if possible – an even harder time navigating the fraught waters of radio production, extra-marital affairs, and parenthood.  There’s that constant theme of grown-ups refusing to take young people seriously until it might be too late: a.k.a. my favorite subject for all fiction.

I don’t honestly know how many other people will react to We Are Pirates as enthusiastically as I did.  I ought to challenge Daniel Handler to a duel for sneaking thoughts out of my head while I was sleeping, but at the same time I was pleased as a pufferfish to read a story I could relate to so strongly. (Gwen’s chapters were far more interesting than Phil’s, to me.)  None the less, I feel it my duty as a fellow buccaneer to recommend We Are Pirates to people this February, in the hopes that at least now fewer customers might ask that tiresome question: “Why are you dressed as Charles II?” when I’m wearing my captain-y boots and coat on a Friday.  The answer should be obvious.

Finally, A Bonus Book I Haven’t Read Yet:

Neil Gaiman’s new collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is out this month.  I haven’t had a chance to look at a copy yet, but rest assured that any and all plans will be cancelled the first day I see it on the shelves.  If you have lunch plans with me that afternoon, or expect entertaining conversation in the evening, sorry but I’ll be reading.  And I’m not even that sorry, because if you’re friends with me, you’ll probably be reading too.