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REVIEW: A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd...

Dear Mr. Ness,

I feel like quite the scrooge because while I liked your YA novel, A Monster Calls, I didn’t love it the way everyone else I’ve seen reviewing it seems to have done. The book has a powerful and moving story of how it came to be. The idea behind it was the brainchild of author and activist Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer before she could execute her vision. Instead, you wrote the book.

A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan DowdThe book centers on Conor O’Malley, a thirteen year old boy whose mother is suffering from cancer. Conor and his mother live in the UK, but his parents are divorced, and his dad, remarried and father to a new baby, now lives in America. Conor has a grandmother who sometimes comes to visit, but she is atypical of grandmothers in ways that irritate Conor. For the most part, it is just Conor and his mum and that’s the way Conor likes it.

But the treatments his mum promised would work don’t seem to be helping her. She is getting frailer, but keeps promising Conor that the next treatment will make her better. Conor feeds himself and does the dishes so that she won’t have to. Meanwhile, things at school are bad for Conor. He is being bullied and whispered about thanks to his one-time best friend, Lily, who told everyone about Conor’s mum.

As the book begins, a monster comes to visit Conor seven minutes after midnight. Conor doesn’t believe in monsters, which are for babies, yet the monster seems perfectly real and very frightening. It resembles a yew tree that grows behind Conor’s house, a yew tree whose berries are poisonous. A tree Conor’s mother is fascinated with.

Conor is antagonistic to the monster, but as frightening as the monster is, it doesn’t frighten Conor because its presence is preferable to the recurring nightmare Conor suffers from. But the monster makes a promise to Conor. Conor will be afraid of it, “before the end.”

When Conor wakes up the next morning, he believes the monster’s visitation was just a dream – until he discovers yew tree leaves all over his bedroom floor. He cleans them up so that his mum won’t see them. Later that day, Conor feeds himself breakfast and has an encounter with the school’s three bullies, which he welcomes. When Lily tries to put a stop to it, Conor gets angry.

The monster comes to see Conor again that night. This time, the monster promises that he will tell Conor three true stories, and then he will demand Conor’s story from him. Conor isn’t afraid of the monster’s stories, but the monster’s insistence on hearing Conor’s true story terrifies him.

”Stories,” the monster tells Conor, “are the wildest things of all.” “Stories chase and bite and hunt.” The monster has come walking because Conor called him, and the stories he will tell Conor are the stories of the earlier times he was called and came walking. If Conor doesn’t tell the monster the fourth tale, the truth that terrifies him, the monster will eat Conor alive.

Conor wakes, believing the monster’s visitation was a dream, to find his floor covered in poisonous yew tree berries.

As time passes, things at home and school become even more difficult, and the monster continues visiting. It begins to tell the first story, one that makes no sense to Conor since to his thinking there is not much justice in it. And then things go from bad to worse, and Conor’s mum tells him his dad is coming for a visit and that Conor will have to stay with his grandmother for a few days while his mother goes to the hospital.

What will happen to Conor at school, at his grandmother’s house, and when his largely absent father comes to visit? What will happen to Conor’s mum in the hospital? And what is the yew tree monster’s role in the story? Has he come to destroy or to heal, and if so, whom?

As mentioned before, I like this story but did not love it. I liked the imaginative way that reality and fantasy were woven together and I especially liked the way the theme of dealing with the possibility of a loved one’s death was tackled head on. I liked the realism of Conor’s reactions, the way he hated the special treatment he got from authority figures, for example, and I loved the last cathartic fifth or so of the book.

But on the whole, I didn’t love the book, and here are the reasons why. First, I am an adult who enjoys a lot of YA, but this book read younger than most of the YA I read. I think that may have been a combination of the short and simple sentences and some of Conor’s thought processes. There was also a timeless quality to the story which is something I often find appealing but one downside was that we never see Conor doing the things boys his age do, like playing videogames or listening to his ipod.

The result of all of the above was that I feel this book was not written to cross over to older teens and adults, the way say, books like Jellicoe Road or The Hunger Games are. Of course, a lot of adults are loving this book, so I may be off my rocker to feel this way, but speaking from my own adult perspective (the only one I can bring to a book), it didn’t read to me as if it were aimed at me.

Additionally, the characters didn’t feel engaging to me. What I mean by this is that to the degree that I was engaged by the book, it was the situations portrayed that engaged me, but not the people. I never got a good sense of what Conor had been like before his mother got sick. I didn’t know who he was outside of his experience as a boy whose mother suffered from cancer.

The same was true of the other characters. Conor’s mother seemed defined by her cancer, Conor’s father was defined by his emotional absence from Conor’s life. Lily wanted to be Conor’s friend, but who was she outside of that? Were the bullies anything more than bullies? Everyone seemed defined by his or her role in the story, but didn’t seem to have a life outside of it.

Also, the plot felt mostly predictable. While I didn’t know the exact nature of Conor’s nightmare, the one he had to tell the monster about, I knew whether or not he would tell it and I knew whether his mother would live or die. There were minor things I did not guess at or expect but I could see exactly where the book was heading when it came to the big things that mattered most and since this is a short book, I felt a little cheated of surprises.

Another issue is that after finishing the book, I still don’t know if the monster was real or something Conor imagined. There were times Conor saw the monster but other people were present and did not. Were the monster’s actions Conor’s actions? And if so, how did the leaves and berries get into the house?

I know that I’m being literal by asking these questions. In the end, this is a fable about coping with the very scary possibility of losing a loved one, and therefore the answer is that I can choose to view the monster as something Conor imagined without viewing Conor as delusional or psychotic. But this inconsistency still niggled at me.

As mentioned earlier, the final 20% of this book rocked. A Monster Calls went from being only mildly interesting to me to breaking my heart and putting it back together. There was such an impressive truthfulness to the way the issues at the center of the book, the truth of Conor’s nightmare, were handled. It made for an extraordinarily powerful denouement.

I did love that part but still, I am torn about the book overall, and weighing the first 80% that didn’t do as much for me as I expected (probably due partly to sky-high expectations after all the book’s great press and award nominations) with the last 20%, I give A Monster Calls a C+.

Understand, this is me as an adult grading a book for young people. Some adults are calling it a classic, and from my point of view, it is a great book to give to a child who has to face death. I think that the eleven year old me would have been deeply moved by this book. Still, it is not, for the adult me, a classic like some books I read at age eleven which I still love to pieces to this day.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

14 Comments

  1. Mary Beth
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 15:10:42

    I love this book, start to finish. I didn’t feel like it was aimed at me, an adult, either, but that didn’t bother me. I like how you put this: “There was also a timeless quality to the story which is something I often find appealing but one downside was that we never see Conor doing the things boys his age do, like playing videogames or listening to his ipod.” The difference is, I guess, that I saw that not as a downside, but a plus. The lack of characters’ background and the timelessness made the story and characters more universal and powerful to me.

    I should also add that I thought the illustrations were fabulous and added a lot to the overall tone and experience of reading the book. I’m reading more and more on my Kindle, but I read this book in hard copy. The thicker pages were a textile pleasure and the art just sucked me in.

    ReplyReply

  2. Janine
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 15:20:55

    @Mary Beth: I read it on the kindle, which probably took something away. As for the timelessness of the story — on one level it did work but on another it made it more difficult for me to see Conor as a real teen. But the bigger problem was what I said about how I didn’t get a sense of him outside of his experience as a boy whose mother had cancer. He wasn’t 100% real to me.

    Despite what I said about how the book didn’t feel aimed at me, I also felt that the author had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager to some degree, too.

    Still, I think you are in the majority and I’m unusual in my reaction. I would love to know how kids respond to this book but it is clear that most adults who review it are giving it raves.

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  3. LG
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 17:13:24

    Are you sure A Monster Calls isn’t a middle grade children’s book, rather than YA? Middle grade books aim for a younger audience, so that may be why it read younger to you.

    ReplyReply

  4. LG
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 17:25:27

    I went looking for an answer to my own question, and it seems like people are talking about it as a “middle grades and up” book.

    This isn’t one I’ve read – your review of it makes me think a little of some of Neil Gaiman’s works. It sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I could read it. The cancer aspect might be too upsetting for me, I think.

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  5. Jan
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 19:46:51

    From your description I’m reminded of the Shinn book you don’t like, and which I love, the Shape-changer’s Wife. It sounds to me like this is written in that style of fantasy, slightly detached and from a distance, which not only gives a sense of timelessness and mythic quality but also lets people, especially children, approach difficult subjects more easily. Yes/No?

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  6. Janine
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 23:01:14

    @LG: I wondered the same thing since it read like Middle Grade to me, but I think I saw it listed as YA on Amazon, which is why I labeled it that way.

    @Jan: What a good memory you have! I didn’t love that Shinn book but I didn’t hate it either. I would say A Monster Calls is a bit darker, since it’s set partly in the real world and deals with cancer and the threat of death/losing a parent. But I did feel somewhat detached for the first 80%, and I do think it would make it easier for kids to approach this difficult subject. So yeah, I agree the two books have something in common, though I wouldn’t have put them together if you hadn’t suggested this.

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  7. CD
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 17:52:48

    “It sounds to me like this is written in that style of fantasy, slightly detached and from a distance, which not only gives a sense of timelessness and mythic quality but also lets people, especially children, approach difficult subjects more easily.”

    I had the same reaction from just reading your review. And like LG, that your review reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s work with characters that are meant to work more as archetypes rather than actual people, and therefore more universal and timeless.

    I’ve never heard of this book before but it’s made me very curious to read it. Thanks for posting such a review even for a book that didn’t work for you personally.

    ReplyReply

  8. Janine
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 18:56:57

    @CD: You’re welcome. I try to convey what did and didn’t work for me well enough so that even those with different tastes can get an idea of whether it will work for them. If you do read it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

    ReplyReply

  9. What Janine is Reading in February and March 2012
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  10. Gigi
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 21:31:14

    I totally disagree with you. I am an older teen and I loved this book! I easily connected with Connor. The fact that he wasn’t doing the almost clishe things adults think teens do was refreshing. I have recommended this to all my friends and family.

    ReplyReply

  11. Janine
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 21:43:53

    Fair enough. I think most people disagree with me on this one! I based my assessment of teen activities on my teenage nephews, actually. I’m glad you loved the book.

    ReplyReply

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  14. yaren
    Aug 23, 2013 @ 02:05:22

    I just recently finished reading this book; I love the meaning behind it and the way it has been written. I like the way they have made the monster a very wise character. I enjoyed it loads
    and would read it again.

    ReplyReply

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