Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Right from the foreword and first chapters of A Monster Calls, it’s clear that the novel is not so much about the tree monster pictured on the wonderful front cover, as the destructive influence of cancer. The central theme is all the more pertinent as Siobhan Dowd, the author credited with the inception of A Monster Calls, tragically died from the disease long before she could finish the book.

Whilst two of Dowd’s completed novels were published posthumously (Bog Child and Solace of the Road), A Monster Calls needed a champion to see it through to publication, and so Patrick Ness, author of the award winning Chaos Walking series, agreed to take the reins and finish the novel.

The book begins with Conor O’Malley, teenage son to a single mother battling cancer, awakening from a recurring nightmare to find an ancient and well-versed monster at his bedroom window. The monster eventually threatens to eat Conor alive if he doesn’t divulge the secrets of his nightmare – the details of which Conor has vowed never to tell another living soul. Crucially, though, Conor is not in the least bit frightened of his visitor.

Conor’s lack of fear might seem slightly odd, but it’s a powerful mechanism for showing just how dire the thirteen-year-old’s circumstances are. His life is on the verge of being destroyed and the daily horror of his mother’s illness far outweighs anything the monster can threaten to do. Conor’s situation becomes even more harrowing as the development of his mother’s cancer and the effects of her chemotherapy are seen through his eyes and memories. During these intimate moments, Ness conveys the emotions involved with a suitably deft touch, and it should be noted that Conor’s thoughts infiltrate the descriptive aspect of the prose exquisitely, flavouring the lyrical text without ever saturating it.

A non-illustrated version of A Monster Calls exists but Jim Kay’s artwork is a fine addition to the book, forging a dark and moody atmosphere to accompany the excellent writing. The larger illustrations (often double-page spreads) mostly involve the monster or scenes from his stories, and this only adds to the anticipation of his arrival. Whilst it’s possible older readers might be skeptical of a fully illustrated book, it’s worth remembering that prominent authors such as Philip Pullman have been vocal about the merits of illustration, and the interplay between artwork and text here is wonderful. To put it simply, the illustrated version of A Monster Calls is unmissable.

A Monster Calls is available through Amazon UK now.

January 25, 2015Leave a comment

The end of us

From the mighty Torosaurus (pictured) to the itty-bitty Tobias’ caddisfly, 98% of all species ever to have existed on Earth are now extinct. Whilst it seems unthinkable that humanity is no different to our doomed predecessors, our days are probably numbered too. So, how might humanity meet its end? Let me count the ways …

Firstly, and this isn’t so bad, humans may just evolve into something else. You might think that, with all of our medicine and technology, there is no longer any driving force (selection pressure) for the process, but scientists are still recording subtle changes in human biology such as the lengthening of the female reproductive period. There are also arguments that advanced civilisation is accelerating evolution by allowing a huge global population. Amongst other things, this large population means it’s more likely that some of us may be able to adapt to any dramatic changes in our future environment. Realistically, however, a group of humans truly evolving into something else would require interbreeding between different regions to cease for tens of thousands of years, so it seems pretty unlikely.

Another potential conclusion could come in the form of an asteroid strike. It’s a widely accepted that the sudden demise of the dinosaurs was due to such an impact. Scientists believe a 10 – 15km space rock struck the Earth at Chicxulub on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at the end of the Cretaceous period. It’s thought that the resultant dust cloud plunged the planet into darkness and caused a lengthy, global winter killing off the dinosaurs as well as many other creatures. If such an asteroid was found to be on collision course for the Earth any time soon, there really wouldn’t be much we could do about it.

A global pandemic might finish us off.  In the past, outbreaks such as the Black Death have resulted in the demise of millions. Any disease that was going to level humanity would have to be pretty special though because, in a given population, there are usually some individuals who display a natural immunity.

From nuclear war to extreme climate change, there really are many other hypothetical scenarios that would result in a human free world. There might be a sense that we humans can always rely on our ingenuity save ourselves, but sadly there is one event that would be completely unavoidable. The so-called Big Crunch; the theoretical end of the entire universe. The reverse of the Big Bang, Big Crunch theory proposes that eventually the expansion of the universe will stop and the universe will begin to re-collapse on itself. This would obliterate absolutely everything (yes, even cockroaches) and possibly result in another Big Bang. There truly would be no escape.

Read my thoughts on post-apocalyptic fiction here.

January 18, 20152 Comments

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Maths. For so many school-goers, such a difficult subject to get to grips with. If only there was a way to make it more exciting. Maybe with laser beams? Or explosions? Or, even better, what if your geometric diagrams came to life to do battle with those of other students?

Well, in New York Times-bestselling author Brandon Sanderson’s novel, The Rithmatist, battle is exactly what does occur in the classrooms of Armedius Academy. Unfortunately for the book’s protagonist, Joel, however, he’s strictly forbidden from studying the magical, mathematical art  he finds so alluring.

Joel is the son of a lowly, deceased chalk-maker, and is only granted attendance to the prestigious Academy because his father and the principal were such close friends. Sadly, attendance is not enough to allow Joel into the exclusive Rithmatic lectures he so desperately wants to be a part of. Rithmatists (magical individuals who can bring chalk diagrams and monster-like chalklings to life) are few and far between and their art is a closely guarded secret.

Joel is a bright young thing, though, and, through his messenger duties, he sneaks his way into many a lecture on the Rithmatic campus. With his keen mind and well-honed mathematical ability, he eventually manages to work himself into the good books of an elderly Rithmatic professor, and even earns himself the chance to be the man’s assistant over the summer break.

Sanderson has created a fine magical world and the Rithmatic system, which is fairly complicated, is transmitted impressively through short, intermittent textbook-style explanations. With the existence of magic not being hidden from the masses (as in Harry Potter), the book also offers a fascinating account of the social implications of magicians interacting with muggles. Prejudice and jealously all rear their ugly heads and this aspect of the story is surely the novel’s greatest strength.

The actual Rithmatic duels are also wonderfully exciting, despite, at their core, consisting of two individuals doodling on the ground. There is, however, the odd problem. The resemblance of the snide Professor Nalizar to Professor Snape is difficult to ignore, and many of the book’s relationships develop in a predictable manner.

The Rithmatist is available through Amazon UK now.

January 11, 20152 Comments

Cover Reveal: Garden by Jane Yates

I’m excited to be part of the cover reveal for the upcoming novel, Garden by Jane Yates, published by Autumn Orchard. I’ve reviewed another of Jane’s works, Paradox Child, on this site previously, and I must say I’m very much looking forward to her latest offering! So, below is the book’s cover, as well as a blurb.

Inspired by the classic novel The Secret Garden, Jane Yates introduces us to a steampunk world of bio-domes, robots and mysteries. Eleven-year-old Aberdeen is so used to being by herself that all she has to fill her thoughts are stories of mighty dragons and grand castles. Aberdeen’s world is soon thrown into disarray however; her parents murdered.

Having no choice, Aberdeen is sent to live with her uncle back on Earth where her fascination into her new surroundings begin to take hold. Untrusting of new people at first, it isn’t long before Aberdeen comes across 3 other children, and taking a risk, befriends them as she tries to adjust to her new home. And yet, along with Maisy, Peter and Lenard, Aberdeen comes across a riddle – a set of clues to reveal the hiding place of a lost manuscript. A manuscript that forces more questions than answers.

Oh, and there’s Frank too, Peter’s robot dog, who completes this special circle of friendship.

Garden is a journey of self-discovery, of trials and friendship. With adventure boundless, Jane Yates follows up her acclaimed Paradox Child trilogy with a new tale for young fans of steampunk and science fiction.

Garden is available to pre-order from Amazon UK now.

Follow Jane on Twitter here.

January 5, 20152 Comments