Article published on December 30, 2016.
Read On reading group are based in Banchory on Royal Deeside and agreed to read and discuss A Monster Calls for us – read on (sorry!) to find out what they thought, including individual reviews at the end of Anna MacKay’s account of what happened. And below that is some background information about Read On and its members and a link to the Discussion Guide to the book from publisher Walker Books but without further ado here’s Anna:
“Welcome to our book group! Nine of our members attended on a dark and windy night to discuss this book and when we found out everyone had read the book we already sensed that this book was going to be ‘special’ and give us lots to talk about.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness tells the story of 13 year old Conor O ‘Malley who lives with his mother who is receiving treatment for cancer which this time doesn’t seem to be working as well as previous treatments. Connor dreams the same dream at the same time every night but one night the nightmare takes the shape of the yew tree which Connor can see in the graveyard from his bedroom window. The tree grows to monstrous proportions as it appears at his bedroom window and offers to tell Connor three stories in exchange for Conor’s story where he will tell the truth.
Conor’s father arrives from America where he has started a new life with his partner and baby and Conor’s Grandmother comes to stay while her daughter is in hospital but Conor increasingly feels alone and invisible as the adults around him seem incapable of putting Conor’s needs first. Even at school the bullies decide to stop tormenting Conor and shun him instead. As his sense of physical and emotional isolation increases Conor turns to the monster in his dreams and instead of fearing it he doesn’t want it to leave him.
The book group felt that Conor’s emotions were well described and his character, on the cusp of adulthood, was developed well by Ness. The harsh reality of his life is weaved amongst the fantasy of the fairy tales which the tree tells and as Connor learns to accept that life is full of hope and despair the stories’ themes of princes and castles changes to ones with more serious and sinister undertones.
The characters of Conor’s father and grandmother and, to some extent his mother, were less well developed. Some book group members felt this was where the book failed as we are not even told their first names and learn little about their dynamics with each other. On reflection we decided that perhaps that this was intentional as this was Conor’s story and there was no need to ‘flesh’ out the other characters. On a superficial level this novel is a ‘simple’ read which is part of its charm. At the other extreme Conor’s relationship with the monster is gripping and develops well taking unexpected turns as the story is told. Like Conor, we waited each night with him for the tree to arrive. The stories the tree tells are more than fairytales. They start to show Conor that life is not black and white or good and bad but if you look closely you will understand why people behave the way they do even if you do not agree with their actions. Life is not always kind to those who live it. Conor’s father, who seems the most remote character in Conor’s life, is the one who Conor tries to explain the visits from the tree to while his father tries to explain to Conor that his mother’s treatment this time may not have the result he wants and reiterates what Conor is learning from the monster.
‘Son,’ his father said, leaning forward. ‘Stories don’t always have happy endings.’ However boy and father falter in their attempts to talk about their circumstances and although they come close to telling the truth neither of them have the courage to do so.
The adults with the ‘best of intentions’ fail to help Conor. The monster takes on this role and through his stories and climaxing with Connor’s evocative and heart-breaking story is by his side as he leads him through the stages of – denial, anger, bargaining, grief and finally, the most traumatic of all for Conor – acceptance as he acknowledged the truth of his thoughts.
The book is not without its lighter moments with Conor’s sarcastic remarks to his Grandmother and the the tree and his father’s use of Americanisms and his new found accent lighten the mood in this dark tale.
Although this is a young adult book it also connected with the adults in the reading group. The inability of the adults in the story to talk to Conor about his mother’s deteriorating health resonated with some of the book group and it evoked memories of their ‘rite to passage’ into adulthood and how they and those around them coped with death and family member’s grief. It is as if death, which was ‘part of life’ years ago has become a taboo subject especially when talking to children. This led to a long and interesting discussion about how to help children cope with grief and how the book group members dealt with their experiences and are still trying to process and deal with them today.
The character of the monstrous yew tree was an enigmatic character. The book group felt that it really did not matter whether it was a figment of Conor’s imagination or ‘real’ as it was such a central and, in a way, believable character in the story. Its power and wisdom and undercurrents of menace emanated throughout the story. The yew tree with its history of use as a healing drug (in fact it is a derivative of the yew tree which is being used in Conor’s mother’s final hope of delaying the cancer’s progression) and its association with graveyards and death was an inspired choice of monster by Ness. The book group discussion then digressed onto us talking about the folk lore of yew trees and its medicinal uses throughout the centuries and many of the group sought out more information online about this ancient tree.
The use of illustrations in the ‘Special Collector’s Edition’ which the book group were given to review did not detract from story line. Instead the black and white illustrations enhance the reader’s imagination. Jim Kay’s fantastic drawings have a way of ‘pulling you into the story’ and are, the book group agreed, quite intense. By not having facial details on any of the pictures it allowed the reader’s imagination to conjure up their own pictures in their mind’s eye of the unfolding events and characters.
The additional information about the making of the film shows that the story line will be given more depth and some of the additional small details to the story will only enhance what is already such a powerful story.
Although this book is aimed at young adults the members of our book group could not stop talking about the range of feelings the story triggered in them. A couple of our book group gave the book to their children to read and they too found the novel compelling, sad and wonderful! It is not often a novel can transcend the age barriers and be relevant to all as each age group related to the story on their own level.
Many of the group admitted to crying at the end of the story which, in our opinion, is the best endorsement any book can have and we gave it a resounding ten out of ten for a book group read as well as a personal read.”
Anna MacKay 10/10
Individual comments from group members:
I enjoyed the book a lot – my initial reaction was one of sadness for Conor – lack of support – the nightmares – the anger and disbelief at the power of his anger – all very believable – no attempt to sugarcoat the emotional turmoil.
Something else I found very true to life was that adults don’t have all the answers and the realisation of this is hard for children. Similarly, adults don’t always handle things well.
The grandmother, mother and father are all well drawn. The monster I think represents real fear and emotional turmoil – it is real to Conor. The loneliness and isolation is so hard felt because he believes no-one can understand how he feels and the one person who has been there for him all his life he knows deep down he is losing.
The betrayal by Lily was hard to take because it was right at the beginning before he had come to terms with what was happening, I think. He may also have been struggling with being close to anyone to avoid being hurt.
The guilt Conor felt at not wanting his mum to die but equally wanting her to die just so there was an end is understandable and rational to an adult but confusing to a child. I felt the stories were perhaps relating to Conor’s frustration and anger – no one was talking to him so his mind was in overdrive and the nightmare was so awful that it resulted in his release of frustration through violence.
He wanted punishment – stop him and give him normality in his life.
Choice of yew tree – symbol of transcendence of death – uses in medicine chemotherapy. Similar to stories – not usual ending. Interesting that the original idea came from an author who had cancer. Illustrations brilliant.
As I have no contact with teenagers I read this book from an adult perspective and it resonated sharply. It triggers memories of loss and anticipated loss. The monster and black rages illustrated so well the frustration, anger, fear and at the same time a longing for the worst to happen so it can be over.
It was realistic in the portrayal of the father son relationship now complicated by a second marriage — divided loyalties and the feeling of abandonment by the boy.
Teenage years are difficult, emotional and confused. This book would help anyone in a similar situation to feel such emotions are ok. Other people have them too.
I really enjoyed the book it was a quick and compelling read. I really felt for Conor as he had so many issues to deal with in his life and nobody to support him. A lot to deal with on young shoulders. The illustrations in the book were amazing.
I enjoyed this book but unlike some of the book group I was disappointed with the ending. I was expecting an exciting, never-thought-of-that ending but instead got exactly what I was expecting – a son grieving for his dying mother who felt guilty about wanting her to die to end her pain. I could not understand what was so poignant about this – surely this is what we all have thought and experienced about pain and dying? Perhaps if I had been a young adult reading this it would have resonated more with me but as an adult I accepted long ago that life can be cruel and unfair and there are some thoughts which are better kept to yourself as you cope with life.
Despite this the idea of the monster as a guide and mentor was ingenious and the stories told were interesting and it was a novel way of exploring how families cope with death but emotionally I just did not connect with the characters and instead of empathy towards Conor’s mother and his family I was frustrated and angry with them for putting their needs first and not talking to Connor about what was happening.
I thought that this was a great book – full of feeling, suggestion taking the reader on an emotional rollercoaster with Conor as he tries to cope with his mother’s illness.
He struggles with his his feelings alone, doesn’t get on with his grandmother, father is abroad, feels betrayed by his oldest friend plus he can’t confide in his ill mother.
The imagination as a powerful thing. In this story the monster is conjured up to help explain Conors feelings and behaviours – especially the violence at school and at his grandmother’s house.
One of the things that struck me was the need for adults to be open and honest with children. Often we are trying to protect them by shielding them from the truth. However children are capable of reading lots of the signs and nuances of a situation and will often know what is happening despite not being told. There were numerous references to Conor ”going to have” ”the talk” which then didn’t actually happen. Conor therefore had to deal with what he correctly deduced without anybody giving him the opportunity to discuss in full or express his feelings – probably a major reason why he had such angry outbursts – one with devastating consequences for the boy he beat up.
”If you speak the truth you will be able to face whatever comes” the monster whispers in his ear as the mother is dying. The need to acknowledge one’s feelings. Conor finds a common ground with his grandmother before his mother dies and knows that she will love and care for him.
-loved the drama
– felt his pain
-monster brought comfort in the end
-Conor had to confront his mixed emotions
-wanting his mum to stay alive
-wanting her to die and end the pain – his and hers
-lots of tears!
This book is absolutely fabulous. I liked absolutely everything, I think that the actual story is just so touching in some parts. Like the fact that Conor did not know that he called for the monster to help him rather than for it to help his mum.
When I started the book I almost instantly knew that his mum was going to die from cancer. I really like the fact that Conor was not at all scared of the monster at 12:07 every night it came. Every time I started reading this book I got stuck to it and that means that it is a really good book.
One of the best parts of the book is the pictures. It has lot of detail and emotions in the pictures.
I really like the first story the monster tells, the one about the prince and his Step Grandmother who was a witch. The prince wanted to marry a poor farmer’s daughter, he ran away with her and went to sleep under the yew tree with her. Then when he woke up she was dead.
I really liked the fact that the monster added in the fact that the prince actually killed her by stabbing her when she went to sleep. That’s when the yew tree helped the Step Grandmother who was blamed for the killing by taking her away to a country far, far away so that she didn’t get burnt to death. Another part of this book that I like is at the end when Conor went back to the yew tree and got angry because he let his mother go. When he went to hospital he told the truth.
I think overall this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
A monster arrives in a sick boy’s garden and tells him three tales in which to heal the boy. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness involves several phases of emotional grief. Conor experiences depression during his life and feels the sad need for punishment and pain from the bully Harry, and his teachers at school. Conor battles against the acceptance of his mothers death using denial to make himself believe she will live. Ness paints a continuous story of pain and emotion to try and emulate its likeness to a real life story.
This book also shows how an illness can hurt and take away surrounding people’s lives. Half of the story was about Conor’s nightmare of deliberately letting his mother go just to end both of their pain. Conor’s mum was so ill it hurt Conor and he was grieving before she died.
It was a very emotional book to read and conveyed many concepts.
Paton age 14
About Read On reading group
We meet monthly in a lovely and warm church room on Banchory High Street. (We have recently changed to this venue as we used to meet in our local art barn but we had to bring scarves, gloves and warm drinks along with our books!)
We deliberately try to read all genres of book over the reading year from Young Adult to fantasy to factual and fiction. We were lucky enough to be able to invite a local author from Aberdeen University to come one month and explain why he chose to write short stories and another month we wanted to try something different so instead of reviewing a book decided to try and read out loud a short play – Liz Lochead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off – interesting but not something we rushed into trying again!
One constant is that one book we read a year has to be out at the cinema or on DVD so we can compare the two so A Monster Calls is ideal and many of our group have family who would be interested in reading the book too.
We are a core group of about ten females (although we have 16 members on our email list as some members can not attend on the chosen night but want to still feel part of the group and keep up with our reading choice) . We range from Mums with teenage children to us ‘maturer members’ with grandchildren who are still young at heart! We all responded to an advert which one our members placed asking for members to join a new book group so we did not know each other and it is amazing that what was a group of strangers can share and find out about each other by listening to their views on the chosen books.
At the end of the evening we each say whether we would award gold, silver, bronze or ‘good attempt’ to the books we read – we have still to find out which book will be awarded our reading group’s gold medal for this year – could it be A Monster Calls?!
Download the Discussion Guide for your own reading group.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Walker Books, October 2016 pbk
A Special Collector’s Edition is also available, which tells the story behind the book and the film
A Monster Calls is released in UK cinemas on 1st January, 2017 starring Liam Neeson and Lewis MacDougall