The House that Spoke – by Zuni Chopra

The House that Spoke Rating:

Synopsis2Fourteen-year-old Zoon Razdan is witty, intelligent and deeply perceptive. She also has a deep connection with magic. She was born into it.

The house that she lives in is fantastical—life thrums through its wooden walls—and she can talk to everything in it, from the armchair and the fireplace to the books, pipes and portraits!

But Zoon doesn’t know that her beloved house once contained a terrible force of darkness that was accidentally let out by one of its previous owners. And when the darkness returns, more powerful and malevolent than ever, it is up to her to take her rightful place as the Guardian of the house and subsequently, Kashmir.

My reviewIn her debut novel, the author, Zuni Chopra, doesn’t just make a house speak, she makes the Kashmir valley sing with ferocity – of yearning for its glorious past and longing for a present that stills its beauty as an untarnished snapshot. The prose in this book is absolutely gorgeous. The author infuses magic and personality into everything around Zoon, be it the house she has grown up in (which, quite literally, holds magic) or the valley that makes up her entire world. So whether it is a fireplace being possessive about his fresh stock of logs, or a wise-sounding armchair maintaining order among bickering bookshelves, you just buy into her imagination of the house and what it stands for.

I loved the fact that the author didn’t write this book from any political standpoint. She also steers clear of demonizing any country, religion or military institution. The book is deeply allegorical, and through the idea of Zoon being a “Guardian” of her house, the author explores what it means to call a geographical area your home, and to what extent is it your duty to guard it. The “villain” of this story is basically the manifestation of all things vile and sinister plaguing the valley, and I loved how the book conveys the idea of securing your home, purging or keeping “evil” at bay, before expanding the same to your town or city.

This was magical realism at its whimsical best, the kind where even “non-magical” mundane moments are elevated to something else. There is humor in everyday observations; my favorite was probably the one where walking across a floor of people in sleeping bags was likened to navigating through fat bed bugs. The only criticism I can make is this – there were times when I felt the writing was too wordy. It got better as the book progressed but I did struggle with the initial chapters – especially with too many sentences like this:

“Instantly, every man on the doorstep felt suffused with a cosy, quiet calm – not a heated, eerie sort of silence, but the calm that wafts like pure cotton around one’s healing heart”

There are a few passages that are set in 16th/18th century to give some context about the history of the house and its magical origins. However, such parts are kept to a minimal in the book, thereby avoiding info-dump and slowing down the present-day plot. Moreover, the theme of this book is such that it doesn’t really need a fleshed out background to convey ideas effectively. However, I did feel that we didn’t get to know Zoon’s mom as much as we should have. I wasn’t sure about how much she was privy to regarding the house’s history. I didn’t connect to her and to her and Zoon’s relationship as much as I should have through most of the book. The last few pages did make up a bit for it though..

In contrast, Zoon’s grandma had a much more compelling presence and relevance to the story, and with Zoon’s new-found friend Altaf, and some neighboring families completing the secondary cast of characters, there are enough human stories to keep us invested in their lives.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough; especially since this is a recently released book with not much buzz in the blogging community… Do check it out, it is a precious little gem of a novel!

 

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A Monster Calls – By Patrick Ness, Jim Kay (Illustrator), Siobhan Dowd(Conception)

Rating:

Buy Links:

Kindle         Hardcover        Paperback

Synopsis:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

My Review:

This will probably be more of a gush-fest than a coherent review, because I think I would never be able to justifiably express just how wonderful this book is.  I went into this book with a vague idea of the cover synopsis, and gosh, I didn’t expect a less-than-200-pages book to pack in so much, and to feel so COMPLETE and fulfilling by the time I flip the last page. Patrick Ness is a fabbbb writer, with a gift to elevate a simple story with terrific storytelling and to convey deceptively plain truths in a way that just creeps upon you while reading and before you know it, it is in your face, and you feel like it is something you have always known but didn’t want to see.

In today’s times when there is a lot of forced effort to use the tried-and-tested plot devices and narrative styles for the nth time just to make the writing look “smart” (series of letters, diary entries and “To-do-list”  in YA fiction, past/present alternating chapters in psych thrillers…) – even when it is not really needed or doesn’t add anything – Ness uses metaphors through tales, monsters of the mind and illustrations to build a novel that shows you just how difficult and complicated the process of dealing with grief can be. And he does it in a way that never feels manipulative or dishonest.

In the past year or so, Conor has had to grow up and wizen up beyond his thirteen years of age. Or at least he tries to, so that he can ease some of his mom’s burden at home. As it is just the two of them and his mom has been physically weakened due to the long and exhausting cancer treatments. At school he is fed up with everyone seeing him as the kid-with-the-cancer-mom – his classmates keeping a distance from him and the teachers tip-toeing around him and treating him with kid gloves. The only people who want to talk to him? – His ex-best friend Lily, but he is giving her the silent treatment because he blames her for his situation at school. And oh, there is the school bully Harry, who is only interesting in punching Conor, tripping him over and hurting him. Strangely though, Conor never backs down or defend him. He, in fact, welcomes it – being pummeled. But why? Just what is it that he blames himself for? Is it related to the nightmare that has plagued him every night for the past year? What is the horrifying truth that he doesn’t want to confront or talk about to anyone?

Well, one day that nightmare is succeeded by a new one, one with a tree-monster (a yew tree to be more specific and the monster that the book derives its title from).  With him, he brings the promise of narrating three stories and after that; it would be Conor’s turn to narrate a fourth one – His story. The truth … about the nightmare.

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 

There were so many great moments in this book and what made them stand out is that you don’t really expect it to turn out the way it does. Conor has never liked his grandma and I guess one of the reasons he dislikes her even further after every visit, is because she is a ominous reminder that his mom is getting weaker, and no matter how bravely he tries to go about his everyday life, he is a kid and after a point he can’t really take care of the household, himself and his mom on his own. So Conor hates it when his grandma visits them and tries to have THE TALK with him about his future. There is a point in the story where Conor does something destructive (in more ways than literal) and just when you think and anticipate that his grandma has had enough, she reacts in a way that leaves a lump in your throat.

Then there is Conor’s time spent in school – he hates being “not seen” by his classmates, he hates the “special privileges” being given to him by his teachers.  Lily is the only one who among his friends who tries to reach out to him and not take his spurning to heart. Because as her mom says, they need to make “allowances” because of what he is going through.  I loved Lily, for being decent and wise and…. just when I was thinking “Oh no, she has given up on him..” , she surprised me again ❤ ❤ ❤

Ness doesn’t approach anything in a typical way that we are used to seeing. Heck, even Harry, the bully, proves to be more than a usual schoolyard, “all-brawn” idiot, when he figures out how to hit Conor in a way that affects him the hardest. The most refreshing thing about Ness’s approach is that he knows when to leave or cut short dramatic scenes instead of milking it. The impact it leaves on you lingers on long after you have read that page or chapter. And oh, how do I even begin gushing about how awesome the illustrations are? And each of the monster’s stories? Each of them is brilliant and ends with Conor fuming over the moral ambiguities of their conclusions. It plays into and complements Conor’s dilemma and confusions so well – over his nightmare when he is asleep and the nightmare of his mom’s deteriorating health when he is awake.

So is this book a fairytale? Psychological drama? Horror? Middle-grade fiction? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  It covers themes everyone can relate to; themes that are heavy but handled with a lot of compassion by a brilliant author.  GO.READ.IT