Good evening, fellow readers! Tonight, I’ve got a special treat for you. It’s my first-ever review of a book I received free for the select purpose of writing a review. You may be used to my old format of rambling my way through my impressions of the book. This will continue, but I’ll also give a brief biography of the author at the bottom. I’ll also give links to pages where you can purchase the book. In that way, it’s slightly like an advertisement, but it’s the least I can do to show my appreciation for the free book. And, as much as I like reading books, I love sharing the works of up-and-coming authors! This will be the only time I give this so-called disclaimer. From now on, I’ll assume you can figure it out for yourself. Author bio + links to purchase = I got a free copy. Anyway, on to the book!
Welcome to Silvershine! This city, on a little island in between New Zealand and Australia, is pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. It has its own television programs, its own car manufacturers, its own smartphone factories. It also has its own secrets. You see, a vast wall cuts Silvershine in half. North Silvershine is an idyllic city with safe neighborhoods where kids often run off to play Monster Tag at night. South Silvershine, on the other hand, is cloaked in a dense yellow fog that corrodes metal and destroys any technology that’s exposed to it. Monsters lurk within the fog, peering out through a hole in the wall, and North Silvershine’s residents wonder when the monsters will come through.
This middle-grade book follows twelve-year-old Zach Morgenstern, an utterly ordinary boy who goes through life trying to coast his way through class and earn the affections of his teenage crush. But when his parents decide to adopt a child–who turns out to be a monster that escaped from the other side of the Wall–Zach’s world is turned upside down. He doesn’t want a new brother, especially a monster brother. But when children start disappearing, it’s up to Zach and Monster-boy (whose name is Morton) to find the children and save the day.
Monster Boy has a little bit of everything to draw in pre-teen and early-teen readers: a city literally shrouded with mystery, kidnappings, monsters, family drama, and likeable and detestable characters. It reminded me a bit of a book series I was drawn to as a kid, My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville. In both, you have inquisitive teens solving problems shrouded in mystery, with a helping of family life on the side. Monster Boy takes place in a world that mirrors our own, and the way people treat Morton, the outsider, reflects a lot on what happens in our world.
One of my favorite things about this book was the characters. Each one was unique, which is hard to do in a middle-grade book without making over-the-top crazy characteristics. Morton, the monster, was shy and withdrawn, every bit the gentleman just trying to survive in his new environment. Zach acted, instead of like a traditional protagonist, much like any single teenage child would. Any other protagonist would welcome Morton, if grudgingly, with open arms. Zach? He threw the bed sheets for his new brother’s bed out the window and snapped the tail off a model plane out of spite. Yet as time passed, Zach started to see the good that his parents saw in Morton. There’s also Ryder, a happy-go lucky character who, though not the smartest in the bunch, is loyal to the end; and Lex, a girl very on top of her newspaper journaling game and ready to get the next big scoop.
I also really enjoyed the mystery aspect. I like what I call “slice of life” stories, which follow the characters in their every-day activities–in Zach and Morton’s case, this is the adoption of Morton and his assimilation into Zach’s home and school–and this is done well. However, I feel like the book really took off when it got to the mystery. It came up gradually, taking over the “slice of life” bit by bit until it was all-encompassing and it was down to Zach, Morton, and company to solve the mystery and save the day. It made me giddy when I realized that a brief mention here and there early in the book was important later on. Plus, the action really picks up around here, which will graduate reluctant readers to avid partakers of the written word.
And let’s have a round of applause for Zach’s parents! Too often in middle-grade fiction the parents are either absent or rotten. Zach’s parents are neither. Instead, they are the picture of loving, caring people just trying to make the world a better place for one individual they’ve accepted into their family. This is hard to do in middle-grade fiction. After all, the protagonists are usually too young to be able to solve things by themselves if parents are involved (plus, parents usually get in the way). Here, Ruth Fox is a genius at having parents that are involved in their children’s lives, which then makes it so Zach and Morton have to be creative to slip out of the house without their parents’ knowledge.
One thing that did bug me happened near the beginning of the book. Zach’s parents explain to him that they are nearly out of money, so they have decided to adopt a child. Perhaps adoption works differently in Australia (where the author is from) and the United States. Here, adoptions cost thousands of dollars, and the parents who choose to adopt do so because they are financially secure and want to open their hearts and homes to someone in need. Perhaps adoption in Australia is more like fostering here in the States: parents receive a monthly stipend to care for the foster child. However, in the book it is obvious that Morton is here to stay. Ms. Cutter, the orphanage administrator, constantly checks in on the Morgensterns to see if Morton’s living arrangements are adequate, or whether she will take Morton away again. I’m not sure if that happens with adoptions here in the U.S., but I’m pretty sure it happens with fostering. A simple edit would have taken care of that, but maybe I’m reading too much into this. It is a middle-grade book, after all. Weird things happen in middle-grade books all the time, and I never bat an eye. I should probably let it go.
I’d recommend Monster Boy: Lair of the Grelgoroth to children and young teens ages nine to thirteen. It is a bit long for a middle-grade book and starts a little slowly, but the payoff at the end is worth it. If your child enjoys books about the dramas of school and home life, as well as mystery with a fantasy/horror twist, they’ll enjoy this book. If they want tons of action from the get-go, however, they will probably be too bored by the setup to get to the “good part.” The book is fairly clean (there are children in peril, and two villains get killed) with no graphic violence (very little violence at all), no language, and no questionable material. The children are relatable and smart, and they use their brains more than their brawn to get out of sticky situations. All in all, I would give Monster Boy four out of five stars. (Wow! Am I starting a star system? Should I?)
—About the Author—
Ruth Fox, author and illustrator, originally self-published Monster Boy in 2014. After the story of Zach and Morton evolved into a four-book series, she decided to take a stab once more at traditional publishing. Monster Boy found a home at WiDo Publishing. Her previous works include The City of Silver Light and Across the Bridge of Ice, the first two books in The Bridges trilogy, as well as the comic book Outbreak (artwork by Conan Sinclair).
Ruth lives in Australia with her husband, her cat, and an ever-expanding library of books. In her spare time, she loves to cook and play computer games very badly. Ruth completed a Bachelor of Arts/Diploma of Arts in Professional Writing and Editing in 2006.