Tag Archives: Siobhan Dowd

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

I have a slight superstition that the first book you read in a New Year will reflect the reading year you have ahead (I also have a resolution I can’t be reading a book as one year goes into another unless a short story/essay collection, don’t ask me why or where this has come from, not a clue). So there is a fair amount of pressure on which ever book I choose first so I plumped for a book I had meant to read all year after my Mum and little sister gushed about it. In fact I got it from the library not long after but someone else reserved it before I’d managed to read it but when Edward Hogan made it one of his books of the year I ordered it in again. Oh I should mention what the book is shouldn’t I? It was ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness and it was utterly superb.

Walker Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 215 pages, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay, borrowed from the library

The basic premise, though to say basic almost sounds cheapening to this book and I don’t mean it to, of ‘A Monster Calls’ is that Conor O’Malley is a thirteen year old boy who starts to be visited by a monster as his mother is dying of cancer. On top of what is happening with his mother Conor is still going to school where he is being bullied and has fallen out with his best friend after she tells everyone about his mum, he is coming to terms with the fact his father now lives in another country and has a new child with a new wife, he is also having to come to terms with the fact that one day he will have to live with his grandma who he doesn’t have the best of relations with. He feels alone, and this is when a monster, in the form of a yew tree but much scarier, comes to call.

I can almost imagine people either thinking ‘I can’t read that it’s too sad’ or maybe that this is an emotionally manipulative book (both possibly flashed through my mind when my mother recommended I read this) ignore either of those thoughts and pick this book up because what Patrick Ness has done here. I should mention here that ‘A Monster Calls’ was an original idea by Siobhan Down who sadly never completed this novel as she died of breast cancer in 2009. I don’t know how much she had written and I don’t want to get into that debate and take anything away from Ness. I can say that I think if Dowd had been able to see what he had done with her idea she would be very proud indeed. There is a sense of collaboration with this novel not only with Dowd and Ness but with the illustrations throughout by Jim Kay. All monotone and brooding, they seem to perfectly match in internal turmoil which Conor has in his head. They also add to the fact that this book is an object of utter beauty, even the story is told on pages with images around the borders, speaking of story…

I don’t think I have yet read a piece of fiction which seems to encapsulate the entire breadth in which cancer can affect people and not just those in the eye of the storm it creates. Ness looks at the full spectrum of emotions for all those involved, from Conor, his mother and grandmother to those on the periphery such as Conor’s teachers. He takes these feeling and reactions, condenses them and then makes them readable, effecting, emotional and compelling in just over 200 pages. The monster itself is also an incredible character being utterly evil in many ways and yet having hints of goodness amongst the chaos he creates so that you are never quite sure if he is friend or foe. This adds yet another dynamic to the book. He also has a way of summing up certain things in just a line somewhere thrown in which initially says a lot and then leaves an idea growing and formulating in you and has you thinking about it for days.

“Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.”

I admit from the start I thought that the monster was a metaphor for cancer, especially as yew trees are used in creating some cancer treatments, however as the book I realised Ness had done something much more remarkable and addressed a feeling anyone who witnesses the decline of a loved one with a terminal illness feels no matter what your age. I won’t say what because it would spoil things and lessen the effect but I can say having been there when my Granddad (who I called Bongy, long story) was dying four years ago at a mere 68 I felt all the above of and I wasn’t 13, I was 25 and cared for him through that period. It might be this very factor that makes the book hit home, and left me quite an emotional wreck by the end, but I think anyone regardless of their experience with dying or cancer will get much out of this book indeed.

I can see why ‘A Monster Calls’ appealed both to my mother (aged 46), my sister (aged 13), and Ed (aged 30) and I am so pleased they told me to read it. I don’t say this often about a book, but I do believe ‘A Monster Calls’ is nothing short of a modern masterpiece, so read it if you haven’t already. What a way to start a years reading.


Filed under Books of 2012, Patrick Ness, Review, Walker Books

Evie Wyld & Edward Hogan’s Books of 2011

I always love it when people you know are on a wave length with the books they love that you have read, it means they might know lots of books you haven’t read but really should. You might remember that I mentioned how a short review Evie Wyld did on Open Book led me to reading ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan, which has become one of my favourite reads of the year. Well after I tweeted about it Evie and I were then emailing about other bookish bits and bobs, as she works in an independent bookshop which I am most envious of, at the same time I was also emailing Ed about Derbyshire (as we are both from there and I had just finished his wonderful second novel and wanted to say wow) and we started discussing books of the year and then I thought why not get both of them to tell me their top five books that I could share with all of you? I think they are two of the literary worlds Bright Young Things and, though it makes me feel slightly sick and hate them just a little that they are only two years older than me and such creative geniuses, I thought it would be interesting to see what two authors of the future (and present, but you know what I mean) have read and loved this year. So that is what I am going to do today…

So, ladies first and Evie’s five books of 2011…

The Devil all the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

It’s not often you read a book in which the author has successfully balanced darkness and comedy so cleverly. There’s something compelling about an author who can write about the worst things imaginable, with such an extraordinarily poor and bleak landscape as their backdrop and still manage to get out of it a bouncy and colourful voice which is utterly compelling. Its set in rural Ohio and West Virginia, and it’s drunken and violent and unsettling – a dream.

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

There are sentences so beautiful in A Storm at the Door that you reread them over and over wondering how Block’s brain works. It’s a kind of imagined memoir of his American grandparents. His grandfather spent much of his life in an asylum in Boston. It’s tough and manic and extraordinary, dotted with occasional photographs of the couple, which is a touch I love. You could say it’s an interesting examination of truth in memoir, and the thin line between fact and fiction, but more than that it is a beautifully written book.

A Taste of Chlorine by Bastien Vivès

A graphic novel that takes place almost entirely in a swimming pool. There are pages with practically no words but just the acutely observed sensation of being in a public swimming pool – the light and the movement, the strange isolation. It’s a love story about a man who starts swimming to treat his bad back, and who meets a woman in the pool. Not a lot that you can see really happens, but a lot is sensed. I reread this about once a month.

Waterline by Ross Raisin

I’m baffled as to why Waterline hasn’t been on heaps of prize lists. In the book shop when I recommend it to customers, sometimes they’ll say it sounds too sad, but sad things happen in novels, because they’re about life. Rant over, this is a fabulous book and it’s a devastatingly good book to follow God’s Own Country. Waterline is a journey between Glaswegian shipyards, Australia and London, and it’s about death and guilt and sadness, but it’s also written by Ross Raisin, which means the writing is exceptional and darkly funny even in its most crippling sad bits.

The Vintage and the Gleaning by Jeremy Chambers

The story is of an old sheep shearer who has spent his life filled to the gills with alcohol, and who has just been told that if he drinks again, his stomach will rupture and he will kill himself. He works on a vineyard in South Australia now, and the drinking culture there is just as heavy as that of the shearers, the suspicion of non-drinkers just as tough. The dialogue in this book is the thing that stunned me. Chambers gives the voice enough space that seemingly banal conversations become beautifully funny and meaningful. There’s a story repeated over and over about a dog stealing an ice cream that made me happier than any other storyline this year, possibly ever.

So now to the lovely Edward and his five books of 2011…

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

My book of the year.  It’s about a 19-year-old girl growing up in a Mennonite community in Mexico.  Irma is a brilliant character; she’s funny and forgiving and has a huge capacity for love.  Her hard life is invigorated by the arrival of a Mexican film crew.  Toews herself starred in a film about Mennonites, and she warmly satirises the process here. She’s great at writing about kindness (which is rare), and Irma Voth is funny in that way which makes you laugh, then keel over, then weep with sadness.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd)

A shockingly original and powerful monster story about a boy, Conor, dealing with the impending death of his mother.  It has the ancient power of a parable, but contains all the subtleties and complications of Conor’s grief.  I’ve no idea how Patrick Ness managed it.  The hardback is beautifully illustrated by Jim Kay.

Waterline by Ross Raisin

With the dominant political party and half of the media demonising everyone without a job, the country needs this book!  It charts the fall of Mick Little, a former worker at the Glasgow shipyards, into poverty and homelessness.  Raisin isn’t sentimental about the underworld of the homeless, he shows you how it works in well-researched detail, and presents Mick – with compassion – in all his humanity.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories

Ghost stories are usually very political, so it’s fascinating to read these tales written by women over the last 150 years or so. Of course, there are the masters of the craft, like May Sinclair, but the contemporary writers hold their own, too. A.S. Byatt’s story is very moving, and Penelope Lively has a subversive story about a middle class woman who is held hostage in her home by a spectral black dog prowling in the garden.

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

I’m only halfway through this sort of fictionalised biography of Jesus’ bezzie mate, but already it’s a remarkable book. Without being patronising or arrogant, Beard shows you how fiction can not only ‘fill in the gaps’ of history, but also revise it, take issue with it. It’s so confident, and also funny. ‘What was Jesus really like?’ one admirer asks Lazarus. ‘Slow at climbing,’ he replies.

So there we have it! What do you think of the selection of books that they have chosen? I haven’t read any of these so in all likelihood the ones I haven’t will now be on my radar. I think I am going to have to read the Ross Raisin book after seeing them both recommending ‘Waterline’, I was told by lots of people I should read that but the boats on the cover put me off. Have you read any of them, or the authors who have made the suggestions novels (my grammar and waffle killer seem to have vanished today sorry)? I would love to hear your thoughts. My top books of 2011 will be appearing on Saturday (when I will be asking to hear what yours are), though if you are gasping for a taster listen to the latest episode of The Readers here.


Filed under Books of 2011, Edward Hogan, Evie Wyld