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Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

*The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking (Book One)* by Patrick Ness- young adult book review  
The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking (Book One)
by Patrick Ness
Grades 7+ 496 pages Candlewick July 2009 Paperback    

The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book of the "Chaos Walking" trilogy, is fantastic. Todd Hewitt lives in Prentisstown, the last town, full of all the world's got left: men. Men whose lives were forever changed by the war with the Spackle, a war that ended with a germ that killed all women and left behind Noise.

Noise is everywhere - the thoughts of men, overlapping, every dream and memory and hope and lie broadcast in every other man's head. There's no escaping it. Animals, too, talk and are heard. Todd lives in Prentisstown with his dog, Manchee, and his guardians, Ben and Cillian, as the last boy. In one month, he becomes a man. One day, that's like any other day, he and Manchee visit the swamp. There they find something, and everything changes.

They find silence.

It's hard to describe this book properly; it's better going in if you know as little as Todd does. Todd is on the verge of becoming man from boy, but it goes deeper than that. The themes explored in this book are of the adult world storming in on a quiet, innocent youth, the rush of knowledge and power and expectations to suddenly shift from the person you are to the person other adults want you to be and how overwhelming it can all seem.

That is all packed into a beautifully built fundamentalist, dystopian world. It's never just about that theme of growing up and losing your innocence; it's in a package that's entertaining as a story but all too true to life. In a town of all men, the women lost to them, it's interesting to watch how the feminine has become so otherworldly or structured in a certain way. Women's mystery is part of Todd's past and the future that he gets thrown into from a childhood he's already resenting, one month away from the time he won't have to be a boy anymore.

The Knife of Never Letting Go explores how when people fear the mystery of something, they can easily demonize it. In our patriarchal world, we do this to woman all the time. Social structures like the media sexualize them and others demonize them for the very sexuality they were previously admiring. This is one of the more interesting aspects of this book, after the Noise.

The book's typography reflects the Noise Todd hears; different men have different fonts. It's not regular text - the looping scrawls and the neat typewriter print and the jagged lettering represent the Noise of men. The way the Noise is set apart lends a singular air to the story, enriching it with the personalities of the characters to really good effect (and not always the shiny happy kind). It doesn't encroach on ease of reading. It's just the right amount of difference to make the Noise seem like this tangible thing that Todd can never, ever escape from without distracting the eye.

The story is tense and it's violent and it's full of suspense and moments that are basically like a fist to the cheekbone and another to the right kidney at the same time. Events tumble down as you read and they do not stop. This book is that bully in primary school who will jump an unsuspecting kid right after class and beat him and laugh the whole while; the kid who will taunt and taunt and taunt until someone else cracks and the violence spills over like a flood.

There are bullies and monsters in this book, terrible events and despair, and hope is so fleeting and you can't latch on, here one moment and gone the next; its departure leaves you reeling. It's an adventure and a coming-of-age story, wrapped up in a package with traits that may surprise and shock.

It's easy to love the characters, so easy, and then to be horrified and covering your eyes only to uncover them to read further. This isn't an easy story at all. Some stories are meant to break your heart over and over, throughout the journey and to the end and past that end. If there's one part of this book that feels true to the story, to the world Ness has built, it is the end, even though it leaves you staggering. In a lot of ways, the end moment - the end of the path Todd finds - that moment from his perspective would be stretched out, unending. This feeling Ness leaves the reader with, since the book is advertised as a trilogy, is really, really effective storytelling.

Many parts of this story charmed me. Manchee, in particular, even though Todd claims at the beginning that animals don't have much to say, is a lovely character. Watching Todd's relationships evolve is fascinating, especially with Manchee. Todd's chagrin at a dog he didn't want and how that changes as the story carries on is well done. Manchee brings much-appreciated humor - and heartache - to this story.

Ness takes a risk in writing out the dialect. Most of the time the narrative is clear, but other times words are spelled incorrectly - creachers, direckshuns, and partikalar, just to name a few. Language is a funny thing, and the way Todd uses this misspelling... is this how he learned them? Are they wrong to him, or is that what the word looks like to the men of Prentisstown? Is it possible the mispellings came to him through his Noise? Uneducated men passing down mispelled words to an uneducated boy? It's all done very purposefully, not just to carry across the dialect, which the dialogue and narrative do just fine. Todd's voice makes this book:
Men lie, and they lie to theirselves most of all.

In for an instance, I've never seen a woman or a Spackle in the flesh, obviously. I've seen 'em both in vids, of course, before they were outlawed, and I see them all the time in the Noise of men cuz because what else do men think about except sex and enemies? But the spacks are bigger and meaner looking in the Noise than in the vids, ain't they? And Noise women have lighter hair and bigger chests and wear less clothes and are a lot freer with their affecshuns than in the vids, too. So the thing to remember, the thing that's most important of all that I might say here in this telling of things is that Noise ain't truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there's a difference twixt those two things so big that it could ruddy well kill you if you don't watch out.
Patrick Ness's fascinating world and characters will slip in under your heart and stay there long after the book has been finished and set aside. The next book in this series is The Ask and the Answer, and it promises to be just as exciting as the first installment in this series.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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