Tag Archives: ya

Book – “Red Shift” by Alan Garner (1973)

Back when I was in secondary school, I tore through Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. Red Shift, along with its immediate predecessor, The Owl Service, was tougher stuff altogether. His earlier novels were full-blown fantasy of a particularly intense and mythic kind. Back then, they left one feeling that the reality of the world could at any moment be torn away. Nowadays, I’d understand that as a visceral sense of the sacred, the wildness and the connectedness inherent in the world around us and within ourselves, and the power that stories and words have over us. The power that almost anything has to become, and wield power as, a myth.

Red Shift confronts that wildness and connectedness head on, without recourse to fantasy but through the interlocked stories of three couples dominated by the myths of their own times. The first couple, a Roman deserter in early Roman Britain and a tribal ‘corn goddess’ survive through capitulation to the mythic discourse shaping their world. At the time of the civil war, conflicting political myths bring nothing but death to a village in the same part of Cheshire and the couple there are nearly destroyed in the process. In the ‘modern’ Cheshire of the early seventies, two teenagers struggle with discourses of science and class – contributing myths of our own time – and ultimately break up. All of this is held together by a sacred axe passed from age to age and a mysteriously sacred landscape.

As was becoming typical of Garner, all this is communicated through intense, elliptical dialog and starkly visionary evocations of time and place (and the reality is that he’s always thought this way). It’s hard to believe Red Shift was written for a teenage audience and it suggests that YA fiction hasn’t exactly progressed in the last few years in comparison. Mind you, most fiction suffers in comparison with Garner.

Some things about Red Shift sting a lot more today than they did then. The smothering nature of modern-day Tom’s family  is both poignant and horrifying and uncomfortably reminiscent of my own awkward relationships with my father and mother. The incessant jargon and in-jokes and the atrocities committed by the gang of deserting Roman squaddies (survivors of the lost Ninth legion?) are a little too obviously paralleled on American actions in Vietnam but the violence is economically and brutally evoked.

It’s not an easy read but those of you who remembered Garner from your childhoods and felt bemused by Boneland‘s challenging ‘completion’ of the Brisingamen trilogy may find it a bridging work that helps you make a little more sense of his most recent novel (which I loved, by the way).

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Treasure Island

It’s been a while. Blame it on moving house, school holidays, work, lethargy…

Anyway, it’s Friday and there’s time for a few quick notes about a book I just read.

Anyone who hasn’t read Treasure Island yet, seriously needs to do so. Robert Louis Stevenson is a lean, fierce writer (by 19th century standards, anyway) and Treasure Island is probably the most violent children’s book of its time. Even by today’s standards, it’s pretty brutal and morally ambiguous. It’s also pacy, vivid and utterly trimmed of narrative fat.

The major barrier, of course, is that the reader has by this time read or seen all of this pirate malarkey a million times over. But until you’ve experienced Stevenson’s Long John Silver, you haven’t tapped into the piratical mother-lode. The one-legged Silver is clever, brave, physically dangerous and charming – an anti-hero of the highest order. And yet, he has his own peculiar integrity. He’s wonderfully loyal to his black inn-keeping wife and consistently and whole-heartedly supports whoever the strongest party is at any given time, whether it be himself or the treasure hunters.

I mentioned violence. Silver brings down a man with a throw of his crutch and knifes him to death. Jim Hawkins, the hero (probably about twelve or thirteen), blows away a pirate with single shot pistols and and tips another dead body into the sea after him. Brains are blown out. Chests opened. Twenty-five men (unfortunately, the equal opportunities agenda Stevenson follows so faithfully with Long John Silver doesn’t extend to women) are gradually whittled down to eight (three of whom are marooned to starve to death and/or go mad) via blade, musket ball or marlin spike.

Eventually (spoiler alert!), the establishment, in the form of the squire, the doctor, the innkeeper’s boy and honest ship’s captain, get the upper hand and sail away with seven hundred thousand in doubloons and other currencies. Silver slips off one night, never to face justice in this world – an image of the winners’ unacknowledged bad consciences, perhaps.

Ultimately, Treasure Island is a Reservoir Dogs for its time with no moral to the story beyond the edge that clean living and an education gives you when stealing treasure from pirates. Finders, keepers; losers, weepers, you might say.


The First Five Pages Of Shaper

…are up at Adventures In YA and Children’s Publishing. Available here, embarrassing typos and all. I’ll be responding to the long, very kindly and constructive critique already left by editor Susan Sipal (she nailed each and every one of the bloody typos – that’ll teach me not to use a laptop to proof read instead of printing it out) later when I’m home from work.

Meanwhile, if any regular readers want a taste of what I’ve been making all this fuss about,  now’s your chance to tackle the first five 1250 words. Which may well be all you need.