Ever since his mother got sick, Conor has been dreaming about a monster. The same nightmare, night after night.
And then, one night, a different monster comes to him.
While he's still awake.
The monster is going to tell Conor three stories.
And then, whether he wants to or not, Conor is going to tell the monster a fourth story. Not just any story, but the truth. His truth.
Oh, Patrick Ness. You jerk.
I don't really mean that, of course.
But I have the flu. So I already feel terrible.
And then I read A Monster Calls and it made me cry so hard that I got a bloody nose.
I knew I was in trouble when I teared up just opening it: my last Siobhan Dowd book, and only partly hers, at that.
I knew I was in trouble when I was in tears after reading the Author's Note:
I felt — and feel — as if I've been handed a baton like a particularly fine writer had given me her story and said, "Go. Run with it. Make trouble." So that's what I tried to do. Along the way, I had only a single guideline: to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. No other criteria could really matter.
I knew I was in trouble when seeing the dedication — For Siobhan — set me off again.
But that was nothing.
Because I hadn't even hit the actual story yet.
Every line of Patrick Ness' beautiful, deceptively simple prose Tells The Truth. The truth about the isolation of grief, about the anger that comes out of loss, the truth about guilt, and about how knowledge and logic have absolutely nothing to do with emotion.
A Monster Calls isn't a fable that features Everyman Characters To Make A Point: It's a story about people. Conor isn't just a stand-in for any random person experiencing heartbreak. He's a real, three-dimensional boy, with a real, three-dimensional life. His grandmother is a real person, as is his mother and his mostly-absent father and the people at school and everyone else in the book.
And, for that matter, the monster isn't just a mechanism for passing on platitudes: It's a true Wild Thing. Inhuman and eternal, but empathetic, like Marcus Zusak's Death.
Then there are the illustrations by Jim Kay, which are... well:
Katelyn Berkley, a depressed fifteen-year-old, is electrocuted in her own bathtub.
Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?
Enter twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan. The three were good friends when they were younger, but have grown apart in recent years. The Ryans are daughters of a famous true crime author and have secret paranormal abilities that fall into the general ESP realm. (They share intense emotions, there's some precognition, but mostly they sense things, both deliberately—by going into a trance or touching objects—and inadvertently.)
Something feels wrong about Katelyn's death, and the Ryan twins are determined to discover the truth.
Envy is Gregg Olsen's first YA novel: He's written fiction for the adult market, but is best known for his true crime books. The storyline itself is Ripped From the Headlines—which is clearly a selling point, as the author is known for true crime and the flap copy specifically trumpets the phrase—and, along with the paranormal aspects and the mystery, features cyberbullying and cutting. So the book will clearly have an audience.
And, at the moment, it is enjoying 5-star status at Amazon. But it doesn't look to me like many of the reviewers read much YA. Because within only a few pages, Envy's narrative voice kicks into the older-and-wiser-and-somewhat-condescending-adult mode that John Grisham uses in the Theodore Boone series:
There was a time when Hayley and Taylor Ryan might have been in the grouping closest to the Berkleys' front door. Though they were no longer that close, the twins had grown up with Katelyn. As it often seems to be, middle school became the great divider. What had once been a deep bond shared by three girls had been shattered by jealousy and the petty gossip that predictably turns friends into enemies. (7)
While occasionally humorous, the dialogue tends towards the unbelievable:
"Do you think she was depressed? I read somewhere that suicide rates are highest at Christmas."
Taylor shook her head. "Depressed? How would I know?"
"You have a better pulse on the social scene than I do," Hayley said matter-of-factly. (7)
The adults—and more specifically, the adult women—are mostly alcoholics, shut-ins, or immoral, selfish and/or grasping. Except for the Ryan's parents, of course, who are perfect:
Valerie was a stunning blonde with brown eyes and delicate features. In elementary school, Taylor always thought her mom was the prettiest one in Port Gamble. Over time, she learned that her mother was also smart and accomplished—and that a person's true character is more important than how she or he looks. (11)
Kevin and Valerie shared a deep love of words. Whenever the twins were lying on the thick, powder-blue Oriental carpet in the parlor playing Scrabble, it brought a smile to both parents. They could see that their daughters were engrossed in a different version of the game but in a day of video-this and Internet-that, they didn't say a single word about how they played. (76)
I gave Olsen points for not glossing over the more gritty details of life or crime—unlike Grisham's Theo, the Ryan twins don't live in Pleasantville—but, at the same time, those details don't give Envy a ring of truth: Instead, those details make it come off as lurid. And it feels like the narrator is giving the audience what he thinks we want (the gorey details) while regularly chiding us about it.
As in Theodore Boone, the truth behind Katelyn's death is prosaically realistic. But the twist at the end was such a bizarre shock that I'm kind of curious about what will happen next: The girls' reaction to the Big Surprise was so out-of-character that I'd like to know if anything will come of it, or if they'll just continue to be relieved about surviving their Close Call. But I'm thinking that I'll skip reading the sequel and just read a few reviews to see What Happens Next.
The grittiness and the paranormal/crime storyline might make it a good pick for fans of Laurie Faria Stolarz or Lisa McMann's Wake books.