Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: A Monster Calls

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

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Candlewick Press, U.S., 15 September 2011
204 Pages
Middlegrade Horror
5 Stars
Barnes & Noble; Book Depository; Goodreads

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.

Finally.  FINALLY I am writing a review on A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness.  I read this back in August for #AYearAThon, but I waited to do a review on it until I got a physical copy.  (Looking at the art on my Nook just wasn't cutting it.)  And then life happened.

However, I just reread it, and I am ready to express my feels.

I love this book.  Like, this is one of my favorite books of this year love.  No.  This is one of my favorite middlegrade books of all time type love.

The story is about Conor, a 13-year old whose mother has cancer and whose father has moved to America, where he has a new family.  At home he's become accustomed to taking care of himself and his mother, and at school he's become a pariah - the kid whose mom is dying.

 In the midst of all this, a monster calls outside his window one night.  Whether dreamed or real, he tells Conor that he's come to tell him three stories, and at the end of them, Conor must tell him the truth.

Going into this, I didn't know what to expect.  To be honest, I wasn't looking for much from it because it's a middlegrade book, and I'm too old to relate to most of them.  However, I quickly realized that this is so much more than a kid's book.

It's really about learning to deal with loss and anger.  It's about those awful truths that live inside of us.  It's about how stories can heal, or they can kill.  And it's about the contradictory nature of humans.

Conor is such a full, real character that is relatable no matter what the age of the reader.  Anyone who has felt isolate or misunderstood or numb or suffered the loss of someone will find pieces of themselves in Conor.  He is a good person who loves his mom and is mature for his age.  But he's also angry, fearful, selfish, spiteful, and immature at times.  And all the while he's trying to reconcile these different parts of himself as he faces his mother's sickness.  This portrait of a person trying to digest tragedy is so achingly true and beautiful.

Throughout the book, he interacts with a bully who has singled him out to be a victim.  While I believe that bullying is an important topic to address in literature, I couldn't help but groan when this first came up.  I thought that it was just one more crappy thing to dump into this kid's life to make him a sympathetic character.  As I read on, though, his relationship with the bully, Harry, became one of the most important windows of insight to what was going on inside of Conor.

In hindsight, as I consider why Harry was brought into the story and what he helped reveal, I realize that Ness had a variety of cliche ways to make this revelation, but he chose to use a relevant topic in an unusual way, and I really appreciate his choice.

The monster, though important, isn't a full character.  He's more of a catalyst for all of the changes that occur within Conor.  Additionally, he's also a picture of the monster within.  One can even question whether the monster is real or if he's just another side of Conor the whole time.

When the monster first tells Conor that he's arrived to tell stories, Conor is unimpressed and questions what kind of nightmare a story can be.  Later, he asks what importance a story can have.  The monster tells him that a stories are the wildest things of all but that they can also be the most important things if they contain truth.  Then he proceeds to tell Conor stories with characters who have very contradictory natures to show how two opposing beliefs can both be true at times.

This is one of the most important themes in the book.  Toward the end of the book, the monster tells Conor that the "mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary," all the while punishing you for believing both.  So, he tells Conor, it's not important what a person thinks but only what he does.

I have a difficult time fully accepting this statement.  In some cases this is true because we all have thoughts and fears that we are ashamed of, especially when in the midst of a trial.  Yet, it's when we press forward despite our thoughts that our true character is shown.

However, there are times when thoughts are much more indicative of the heart than any outward signs.  Adjusting one's behavior to appear to be a good person doesn't necessarily make someone into such.  While I understand why this claim is integral and powerful within the context of the story, it doesn't always apply.

The writing is really superb.  The pacing is perfect, and I just got sucked into the story.  I've read it twice now, and both times I went through it in one sitting.  It was just so easy to want to keep going since I didn't get hung up on any plot failures or out of place dialogue.  The whole story just flowed.

Honestly, this book would not be the same without the graphic art.  I love the style of the illustrations because they take on the qualities of nightmares. They obviously have the darkness, but they are also lacking detail, which is exactly how most dreams are, especially when grasped at upon waking.  They are very creepy but extremely beautiful, and I would probably hang some of them up in my house if they were available in large prints.

Even though this is a middlegrade book, I don't think that preteens would get as much out of it as older teens or adults.  I wouldn't recommend it to children either.

I really can't think of one bad thing to say about this book.  It made me think about people and suffering and loss, as well as the power of stories.  It made me cry!  I give it an unreserved 5 stars.