A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness; illustrations by Jim Kay; Candlewick Press, $16.99 205 pages. Ages 10 and up.
The terrifying cover image of a giant lurching toward a house in the darkness might seem to reference Halloween, but truly, what monster could be more terrifying for a child, or for anyone, than to have cancer coming to call for a dear one? Yes, cancer is the monster in this harrowing, unforgettable tale of grief, loss and letting go from the author of the "Chaos Walking" trilogy. It was inspired by the final story idea of gifted writer Siobhan Dowd (author of "Bog Child" and "The London Eye Mystery"), who died from cancer at 47 before she could write it herself. Ness skillfully weaves the gritty daytime reality of 13-year-old Conor's life, as he deals with his mother's cancer, a bully at school and his poor relationship with his grandmother, with a dream world of nightly visitations from a monster who will force Conor to confront the most painful truth of all -- the truth about how he feels about his mother and her illness. The story is lifted to another dimension entirely by Kay's ominous black and white illustrations, which use interesting textures to achieve an almost photographic negative effect.
-- Jean Westmoore
London Calling by James Craig; Soho, pages ($25).
As the title of "London Calling" suggests, the Clash should be the soundtrack for this close to pitch-perfect debut introducing Inspector John Carlyle. The crimes in this novel are brutish and brutal with connections to the British upper class and "an ultra-exclusive Cambridge University fraternity" notorious "for its hard drinking and bad behaviour."
James Craig counters the visceral nature of the crimes with Carlyle's sense of irony and glib point of view. Disdainful of authority and sarcastic to his soul, Carlyle is "notoriously uninterested" in society's "irrelevant crap," and he's indifferent to the lives of his colleagues. The exception is his sergeant, Joseph Szyskowski, who is "irredeemably Polish" with a "sense of detachment" and "fatalism" almost equal to Carlyle's. Szyskowski describes their investigation as "'Brideshead Revisited' meets 'Friday the 13th.' " Enough said.
-- McClatchy Newspapers
Ethan Allen: His Life and Times by Willard Sterne Randall; W.W. Norton, 619 pages, ($35)
Randall, a biographer of Thomas Jefferson and Benedict Arnold, takes great pains to paint a multidimensional (and far from flattering) portrait of lesser-known founding father Ethan Allen, intimating that he was as much a terrorist, turncoat and narcissist as rebel patriot.
Randall is quick to acknowledge the Allen of legend, describing him as "part Davy Crockett, part Paul Bunyan and two parts Jack Daniel's." His book hits on all the requisite tales of the Ethan Allen story. We're told how he represented Bennington, Vt., landowners against the hated "Yorkers," organized a ragtag militia known as the Green Mountain Boys and had a crucial role in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga.
To explain Allen's well-known contempt for authority and his attitude toward religion, Randall spends some time focusing on his early years. Born in Litchfield, Conn., in 1738, Allen grew up amid a religious revival that bitterly divided towns throughout New England. His decision to get a smallpox vaccination -- banned at the time -- made him a pariah, a string of failed business endeavors left him strapped for cash, and his move to what was then known as the New Hampshire Grants was an act of desperation.
The actual raid on Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, is covered in just a handful of pages. The author details the way Allen was perceived in the aftermath of Ticonderoga by everyone from his Bennington contemporaries (not well) to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (much better), and he makes a pretty strong argument that Allen's actions could just as easily have been motivated by greed, revenge or a sense of inflated self-importance.
-- Los Angeles Times