Sunday, 29 September 2013

Half-Sick of Shadows - David Logan

When Edward Pike and his sister Sophia were five years old, Sophia made a promise to their severe and intimidating father that she would never abandon her mother, and never leave home. And so, she never does, inferring something terrible must happen if she ever breaks her word. Even when the memory of the promise has faded, Sophia will not leave the Manse (which is a misnomer; there is no church for miles, although the house backs onto a graveyard); not to go to the next village, or to school, or visiting. At five, perhaps that is little sacrifice. As far as the twins are concerned, the Manse is the world, and the family are its people. But soon, the twins are parted when Edward is sent to boarding school. Here, he excels academically, if not socially, but the thought of Sophia and her self-imposed "curse" is never far from his mind.

What struck me most about Half-Sick of Shadows was that time does not seem to fit properly. Edward's childhood memories of the Manse read rather like a country childhood at some point in the early twentieth century. The Manse is vividly brought to life as a grim, gloomy stone house, freezing cold with no electricity and no plumbing; an isolated place miles from anywhere. Progress does come as Edward grows up, with the building of a motorway, colour television and popular culture references - but even these contain curious anachronisms, not quite fitting into a single time. Decades seem to pass in the space of ten or fifteen years of Edward's life, and I'm not convinced they can be entirely explained by the Manse being horribly old-fashioned.
"As a child, I never knew whether the world lay east, west, north or south of the Manse; I only knew that the Manse never seemed to me like part of it."
Half Sick of Shadows was the joint winner of the Terry Pratchett prize or, to give its full title, the Terry Pratchett "Anywhere but here, Anywhen but now" prize. That seems to describe the Manse's setting perfectly: it is a world that is not quite the world we know, although I would be hard pressed to explain exactly why. Pratchett even drops hints (or outright spoilers) in his foreword that David Logan's novel is indeed set in an alternative universe - though "the people on an alternate Earth don't know that they are; after all, you don't." 

And then you remember the strange encounter of the very first chapter, in which Edward meets a man in a so-called time machine, and wonder how you could forget such a fantastical scene which doesn't seem to lead anywhere in this brooding story about childhood, family, home, and the loss of innocence. The event lingers as a shadowy memory, another example of something uncanny about Edward's world, but as you read about his ordinary life, his family, his schooldays and aspirations and everyday struggles, like him, you almost forget.
"The mystery of the stranger and his time machine puzzled me for as long as the memory of it lasted, which, when you're stupidly young, isn't long. I'd more or less forgotten about it by strawberry jam on toast and sweet tea time."
Half-Sick of Shadows defies genre classification, containing some elements of science fiction and horror, but not enough of either to describe it accurately. The story's potential overflows out of the 363 pages which make up the novel. Whole chapters, perhaps even more volumes, could be filled with the subplots and almost-unanswered questions. Logan divides Edward's life into three segments: "Before Alf," "The Alf Years" and "Alf Unleashed" - Alf being Edward's mysterious schoolfellow that only he seems able to see, and who might or might not be exactly real. As far as the narrative is concerned, Alf is the defining feature of Edward's childhood and youth, but Edward himself does not seem to notice him until the final section, when his role in Edward's life is revealed.

I felt that the novel was let down a little by its final hundred pages or so. The story seemed to get a little carried away, as Edward and his family get embroiled deeper and deeper in too many macabre plot turns, which were rushed through at top speed. It was all a bit too much. Aside from that quibble, Half-Sick of Shadows is a gothic masterpiece: shifting, shadowy, unsettling and occasionally shocking. It is beautifully written, poignant and poetic, and really captures a child's understanding of the world, which, though it may not be informed by the necessary knowledge to be quite accurate, is logical in its own way, and makes perfect sense to the perceiver.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman
The Earth Hums In B Flat - Mari Strachan

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A-Z bookish survey

I've seen this questionnaire doing the rounds on several blogs lately, and couldn't resist having a go myself. I personally "borrowed" it from Susan, Laura and Sarah, but it originated from Jamie the Perpetual Page Turner. And now it's my turn:

Author you’ve read the most books from: In my lifetime, almost certainly Enid Blyton. Her books take up most of a crate under my spare bed: Famous Five, Malory Towers, Secret Seven, etc. etc. As a teen or adult - probably Terry Pratchett, though I haven't even read all of the Discworld series.

Best Sequel Ever: Um... most of my favourite books are stand-alones, or series which I love equally. Perhaps Catching Fire.

Currently Reading: Quiet by Susan Cain and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. One is a psychology book about introverted people and how we are going to stealthily take over the world, and the other is a thriller about a time-travelling serial killer.

Drink of Choice While Reading: Coffee, in a big mug, though lately I've been switching to tea as an attempt to cut down on caffeine.

E-reader or Physical Book? Physical book all the way. I can see the uses of e-readers, but I can't love them.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: You think anyone would have dated me at high school? Maybe Neville Longbottom?

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Everyone was telling me to read it, but I wasn't convinced... till I started reading it.

Hidden Gem Book: Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. A book I picked up because I liked the cover; it just happened to be the book I needed to read at that time.

Important Moment in your Reading Life: Being given a copy of Anne of Green Gables for my eighth birthday. Anne Shirley was the first person I encountered in a book who just seemed to get what it was like to be me: to be scatty and accident-prone and living more in the world of the imagination than reality.

Just Finished: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - though "just" is stretching it a bit. I've been on my current books for a while.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read: Romance (except occasionally), misery memoirs, any of those books with black and grey covers.

Longest Book You’ve Read: Les Miserables or Gone with the Wind.

Major book hangover because of: A Tale of Two Cities. First time I read it, I was in a coffee shop, and then I went into Borders (RIP) and just wandered around in a daze.

Number of Bookcases You Own: 3: One small, one big, one fancy one with glass doors. (Plus all the books that are packed into cupboards, boxes, piles and wherever else I can stash them.)

 One Book You Have Read Multiple Times: Lord of the Rings.

Preferred Place To Read: In bed!

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" - Dumbledore.

Reading RegretSo far I have been unable to get into the Gormanghast stories, though I keep the book on my shelf in hope that one day I'll manage it.

Series You Started And Need To Finish(all books are out in series): Probably the Sherlock Holmes books - I've read them all except the last one or maybe two.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Unapologetic Fangirl For: Neil Gaiman!

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others: I may or may not have done a Gollum impression when I opened up a box at work to see Mr Gaiman's latest kids' book: Fortunately the Milk. Also, I love Cecelia Ahern (my exception to my fluff aversion) and am very much looking forward to her new book, despite its title How to Fall in Love.

Worst Bookish Habit: Reading in the bath.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book: Pink by Lili Wilkinson

Your latest book purchase: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge: Days fourteen and fifteen

Day 14: What are your deal breakers?

What will make me put a book straight back on the shelf without a second glance?

  • Stories about adultery/affairs. Especially if the book is from the point of view of the person having the affair. I'd find it very difficult to respect such a protagonist or have any sympathy for them.
  • Narrators describing their appearance in the mirror. "I stare into the glass, and a twenty-something year old woman looks back at me, her brown straight hair framing a round face with an overlarge nose, and eyes that were somewhere between blue and grey." Bleugh! No one thinks like that. It's lazy writing, and it shows that the first thing the writer wants you to know about your heroine (and it's always a woman) is every last detail of what she looks like, because that's the most important thing about a female lead. Don't ever do that. Ever.
  • Telling, not showing. I have a thing called the "Danielle Steel test," where I pick up a book, open it at random, and see how far I can read without wanting to hurl it across the room. Generally this is due to descriptions such as: "Jane thought that Kevin was being very unfair." "Sarah might not show it but really she was very fond of her sister." "James wished he could control his temper." Show me, then. Make me believe it.
  • Multi-volume novels. Trilogies are in vogue at the moment, particularly in the teen fantasy genre, but I wonder how many are necessary, and how many could, with a bit of editing, be condensed into a single book. If I begin a story, I want to see it through to the end - but if I'm not sure whether I'll like it or not, and if I have to wait three years to reach the end, I'll think twice about whether I'm prepared to commit to the story. I'd prefer series which are one book = one story; related and in order, sure, but which work as stand-alone novels. This one is a difficult thing to categorise, though, because there are some really engrossing series out there, which are worth the years of commitment. (Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Hunger Games.) But if I've read a hundred books since the last installment of the Fairypocolypse Chronicles, will I still care enough to carry on with book 2?
  • Books with grey and black minimalist covers, usually featuring ribbons, jewellery, rippling fabric or the like.  You know the ones. It's not prudishness on my part - it's boredom. Less is more.

Day 15: Who are your book blogging mentors?

Anna, Ginger and Smash have been very influential when I found myself becoming involved in the book blogging community, in particular as adult readers of YA fiction. They have run some great regular features, discussion posts and memes, and inspired me to think up new ideas for the blog aside from just the book reviews. (I hadn't actually visited Smash Attack Reads in a while: it now appears to be a collaborative blog with not one but FOUR fantastic bloggers.) Meanwhile, Ellie and Hanna have a more informal approach to blogging, with eclectic mixtures of book reviews and personal posts, which have encouraged me to be more relaxed about blogging even if I don't feel inspired to write a structured review. Rants and reading-journal-format posts also make great blogging. And I've only recently started following Laura and Sarah, whose reviews have inspired me to want to take out my credit card and buy ALL the books.
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