A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsPublished: September 27th 2011
Publisher: Walker Books
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Horror
Format: Hardcover
Length: 215 pages

A Monster Calls is a young adult book with a deceptively simple plot – a thirteen year-old boy wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers a monster in his back yard – that reveals an unparalleled depth of emotion and storytelling prowess. Patrick Ness, working from an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, takes that simple start and builds it into a novel that I would argue is a modern masterpiece.

The first complication to the story is that the boy, Conor, lives alone with his mother, who has been sick for months. She is in and out of the hospital, trying new treatments, bald and thin but always firm in her belief that the next treatment will do the trick. Over the course of this up-and-down cycle of treatment and relapse, Conor has become withdrawn and angry. He’s bullied at school and outcast from his peers by their knowledge of his mother’s sickness.

Then one day a monster wakes him in his room at 12:07 AM. The monster comes as a walking yew tree – the very same one that watches over Conor’s house from a nearby graveyard – but it is an ancient thing, older than the tree and apart from it, taller than his house and powerful enough to knock holes in the walls. Conor, strangely enough, is unafraid, because it “isn’t the monster he was expecting”, and he’s “seen much worse” in his horrible recurring nightmares.

The monster, only momentarily taken aback, smiles its evil, leafy grin and informs Conor that it will tell him three tales and then he will return the favor with a tale of his own. Thus begins the meat of the story, and it is quite a story at that. Ness weaves together fairytales, horror, fantasy and the crushing banalities of modern life in a strange and compelling novel that packs an incredible emotional punch.

The book is illustrated throughout with stark black and white paintings that splash across the pages, bleeding into the margins and evoking just enough of the story to fill in the corners of your imagination. The monster looks like something you might find hiding in the darkest shadows at the back of a closet, and its head is a bundle of spikes that could either be twisted branches or alien spines.

As I read the last few pages of the book, I had to stop several times to get my emotions under control. In fact, the book affected me that strongly several times throughout. It’s a powerful story with an ending that lingers long after the last page is done. A Monster Calls is sold as a young adult book, but I think Ness tells a universal story here, one that could – and should – be appreciated by readers of any age. It’s an intense experience, but well worth it. Very highly recommended.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Young Adult: Just Another “Dumbed-Down” Genre

Harry PotterRecently while thoroughly frittering away an evening online, I decided to respond to a commenter who was doing a bit of trolling with some admittedly low-hanging fruit. The thread was over at io9, which actually has what I consider the rare comments section worth reading, and it was on their post about essential SF&F reads of 2013 (my own list is in the pipeline!).

The commenter’s complaint was related to the inclusion of a number of young adult books in the list. As they saw it this was clear proof of “a decline in reading comprehension and vocabulary”. Yes, I should know better than to try and respond to that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was of course tempted to point out the irony of complaining about a “dumbed-down” genre on a post (and site) devoted to science fiction and fantasy, but I reserved that bit of snark for Twitter instead.

Unfortunately, this kind of opinion doesn’t just appear in comments sections, it’s also propagated by professional critics, as my friend Kiersi noted in her recent discussion of criticism directed at the “new adult” genre. This particular criticism seems to rely largely on the assumption that young adult writers aren’t doing anything but churning out simplistic hack-job trilogies intended for a quick turnaround as the next summer blockbuster. That just because a book is intended for teens means it can’t or won’t address weighty themes. Or that the writing will be childish and simplistic.

The Catcher in the RyeWhen did simplicity and readability become such a crime? Hemingway would surely disagree. The Catcher in the Rye – possibly the ultimate prototypical young adult novel – stands the test of time because the writing is simple, straightforward and clean. Holden thinks and talks like a teenager of his time, and if that book was published today, it would be marketed as young adult, no question about it.

I’d also argue that some of the best writing I’ve read recently was in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought the book had some pacing issues near the end, but Taylor’s prose was so drop-dead gorgeous that I still consider the book a five-star read. In fact, it easily outshone the writing in some of the “adult” books I’ve read recently.

The thing I find strangest about the argument against reading young adult fiction is that its proponents seem to believe there isn’t inherent value in reading just for the sake of it. The only response I received from the comment’s originator was a petulant dismissal of my “‘at least they’re reading something’ argument”. It boggles the mind.

The Bad BeginningSee, I know from personal experience that reading lots of young adult fiction is part of what helped me get back in the habit of reading in general. A few years ago, when I first set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks, some of the very first books I read were A Series of Unfortunate Events, which aren’t even young adult books because they’re pitched at children, not teenagers. I also listened to a lot of audiobooks, which I’m sure is another literary no-no (Tim Curry reads the Unfortunate Events books, which are marvelous). However, once I was in the swing of things, I decided it was time to challenge myself, and picked up the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.

I don’t think I would have been mentally prepared to tackle a 1400+ page classic novel if I hadn’t already reminded myself that reading is fun, and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. I feel certain that there are people who got back into the habit of reading thanks to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or some other YA series, and once they remembered how much fun it was to read, they decided to keep doing it. Maybe they only read YA books now, but who cares? How can reading for fun ever be a bad thing? I don’t care what you’re reading as long as you just keep doing it.

People who argue otherwise are assholes.

That’s all I’ve got to say about that.