A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Monster-calls_shadow“Are you crying, Mom?”

My daughter was settled in at the foot of my bed playing on her iPhone and I was  reading the last few pages of Patrick Ness’s remarkable novel, A Monster Calls.

And, yeah, I was crying. Hard by the end of it.

Damn you, Patrick Ness.

Siobhan Dowd is credited for the idea for A Monster Calls, but sadly Ms. Dowd died  – at the age of 47 – before she ever had the chance to see her idea through to the end. As Ness acknowledges in his Author’s Note, “the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas. Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.”

A Monster Calls is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives with his mom in a little house in a little town in England. His parents are divorced and his dad now lives in the States with his new wife and a baby daughter. Conor rarely sees him.

Conor’s mom is ill. Readers will figure out early on that she has cancer and that Conor is doing his level best to cope, with varying degrees of success.  Then the monster shows up “just after midnight. As they do.”

Conor isn’t particularly afraid of this monster. Despite its “great and terrible face”, Conor tells the monster he’s “seen worse.” And even though he claims not to be frightened of the monster, the monster replies that he will be “before the end.”

The monster continues to visit at night with stories that make no sense to Conor. The monster also claims that there will come a time for the fourth tale – that is Conor’s story. Conor knows what the monster is talking about: a recurring nightmare which terrifies him and which he insists he will not be sharing. In the meantime, his mother grows weaker, his grandmother steps in to help out (much to Conor’s dismay) and his father visits from America – a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

The monster drives Conor to action, but also to irrefutable truths. The monster says,” Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

Conor’s truth is one that he is unwilling to face, but which comes barrelling towards him anyway. And as a reader, I have to say, I was unprepared for its impact.

A Monster Calls reminded me a little bit of John Connolly’s brilliant novel The Book of Lost Things. Connolly’s story is also about a boy on a journey from innocence to experience. You should definitely check it out.

As for A Monster Calls – I cannot recommend it highly enough.




Master of the Delta – Thomas H. Cook

masterofthedeltaI always say Thomas H. Cook is a mystery writer and he is…but I think he is also so much more than that. Master of the Delta is my 8th outing with Cook and it didn’t disappoint, even though some of the themes were familiar. The novel has the propulsive energy of a mystery, a book with a thread of whodunit twined with a ribbon of ‘is this going to end like I think it’s going to end?’ And of course – nothing is ever quite what it seems. But Cook operates on another level and this is where I think he excels.

Master of the Delta is Jack Branch’s story. Branch is a twenty-three year old teacher who has returned to his hometown to teach at Lakeland High School. Branch has had a priviledged upbringing: he grew up at Great Oaks, one of the town’s massive plantation homes.  It is 1954.

As a boy I’d sat with my father on just such a veranda, evenings that despite all that has happened since still hold a storied beauty for me. There was something calm and sure about them, and it would never have occurred to me that anything might shatter the sheer stability of it all, a father much admired, a son who seemed to please him, a family name everywhere revered and to which no act of dishonour had ever been ascribed.

Branch is a fussy young man – no, fussy isn’t the right word. He’s cocky. He believes his own hype. I don’t mean to say that he is without merit, but his youthful arrogance is partly to blame for events that haunt him for the rest of his life.

And that’s one of the cool things about Master of the Delta (and Cook’s novels in general). Cook always manages to weave past and present together seamlessly so Branch’s story is told as it unfolds, but also from the vantage point of Branch as a much older man – someone who is, from this vantage point at least, able to see his own character flaws.

Branch is teaching a course on evil through the ages and he discovers that one of his students, Eddie Miller, is the son of Luke Miller, the Coed Killer – a man who had killed a local girl and subsequently been killed in jail. Branch encourages Eddie to write a paper about his father. He feels it will help Eddie get out from under the weight of his awful heritage. So Eddie starts to research the father he barely remembers, but when this research reaches into his own life, Branch’s age and inexperience begin to show.

Really, Master of the Delta is a book about fathers and sons, about the part luck plays in how our lives turn out, about kindness and cruelty.  It is a book that has something to say about teachers and books and as a teacher who loves books, I enjoyed that. I truly believe Cook is a masterful observor of human life – our weaknesses and our strengths.  He might wrap it all up in a mystery, but I can’t think of anyone who does it better than he does.

Falling Under – Danielle Younge-Ullman

fallingunderMara, the twenty-something narrator of Danielle Younge-Ullman’s debut novel, Falling Under,  is a hot mess.  An artist who can barely leave the house except to have violent sex with a guy called Erik, Mara is clearly suffering from the cumulative effects of a troubled childhood, a stalled career and a tragic love affair.

Love always starts out well. There’s the chemistry, the lust, the gushy, dizzy, cuddly, branch-eating phase, the wonder, the miracle of togetherness. And then familiarity creeps in, followed by disappointment, disillusionment, fear. Inevitably there is silence, screaming, betrayal, the wrenching ugly truth when you look at each other and know that your love has turned to disgust, despair, boredom, hate.  All happiness gone, all rotten, all rotting.

Good times.

Younge-Ullman employs two narrative perspectives in the novel. When Mara is reliving her childhood, her parents’ messy divorce and its fallout, she speaks in the second person: “When you reach out to touch your shiny new bike, Mommy might start yelling at Daddy about how dare he spend their money and how you’re only five and what do you  need a new bike for anyway?”  The second person works really well here because Mara’s childhood, although not abusive per se, scars her emotionally and clearly hinders her ability to form healthy attachments to people as she grows up.  The second person narration is both intensely personal and somehow distancing at the same time.

The rest of the novel is first person narration and Mara’s black humour, self-doubt and neurosis is on full display. The reader will traipse though Mara’s life, often unwillingly, as she negotiates the thorny relationship with her mom, her co-dependent relationship with her dad and, miraculously, a new relationship with Hugo. But none of it is easy for Mara. She just doesn’t have the skills. She is sure, as was Chicken Little, that the sky is about to fall.

He would never understand how being happy makes you sad. How the happier you are the more you know the sky is about to explode into tiny, sparkling shards of glass that will pick up speed as they fall to the earth and slice right through you leaving your skin with little holes in it, leaving your heart bleeding.

Mara is, despite her quirks, a likable character. And Falling Under is a good book. But I can’t say that I finished it feeling wholly satisfied. Was it really necessary to make all the dangling and complicated threads of Mara’s life into a beautiful cat’s cradle in the end? Maybe – but given her problems, I wouldn’t have minded a little less happily-ever-after.

In the Woods – Tana French

in the woodsWhen Tana French’s first novel In the Woods was published in 2007, critics and mystery lovers went wild. The book was an Edgar Award winner (no small feat for a debut novelist) and for a while everyone was talking about it. It’s been on my TBR list for ages…and I finally picked up a copy at the library book sale this year.

In the Woods is Rob Ryan’s story. Ryan is a Murder detective in Dublin, Ireland. He and his partner, the spunky Cassie Maddox, have been given the task of determining who killed twelve-year-old Katy Devlin and left her body in Knocknaree Woods. As with all good police procedurals, In the Woods offers readers plenty of red herrings and plot twists – all of it anchored by the relationship between Ryan and Maddox.

But there’s more.

In 1984, three other children went missing in Knocknaree. Two of the children were never found. Ryan was the third.

When I was found I was wearing blue denim shorts, a white cotton T-shirt, white cotton socks and white lace-up running shoes. The shoes were heavily bloodstained, the socks less heavily. Later analysis of the staining pattern showed that the blood had soaked through the shoes from the inside outwards; it had soaked through the socks, in lesser concentrations,  from the outside in. The implication was that the shoes had been removed and blood had spilled into them; some time later, when it had begun to coagulate, the shoes had been replaced on my feet, thus transferring blood to the socks. The T-shirt showed four parallel tears, between three and five inches in length, running diagonally across the back from the mid-left shoulder blade to the right back ribs.

Ryan doesn’t remember a thing. Nothing from the moment he left the house with the friends to go into the woods – where they had played all the time – until he was found and being examined in the hospital.

So when he has to return to Knocknaree, it opens the proverbial can of worms. Are there any parallels between the Devlin case and his own? Will he finally remember what happened all those years ago?

The Devlin case is interesting and as Maddox and Ryan knock on doors, ask questions and try to piece together who would have killed Katy, Ryan also wrestles with his own complicated past. All of it makes for page-turning goodness.

And the icing on the cake: Tana French can write. I mean, a great mystery doesn’t really depend on stellar writing to be entertaining and fun to read, but French gives you more bang for the buck: a compelling mystery times two, characters who are complicated and human, and writing which forces you to slow down.

As you know, I am a huge fan of Thomas H. Cook – a mystery writer who cares about the writing, too. I’d definitely stick French in that category and I look forward to reading more of her work.