Review: Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

Author: David Almond
Title: Half a Creature from the Sea
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2015 (USA)
Publisher: Candlewick
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade historical/fantasy short stories
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, caught my attention
Read If You: Don’t usually read short stories; like the atmosphere of small town England ~1960s
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

This is a collection of dark, powerful and moving short stories from master storyteller David Almond, inspired by his childhood in the north-east of England. It features coming of age stories on the theme of closeness to home, deftly interwoven with illuminating autobiographical pieces on the inspirations behind the fiction. It is [features] black and white vignette illustrations. It comes from the author of the internationally award-winning Skellig.

I last read a short story collection years ago, I suppose. I only read such collections when an author I adore publishes one. Why did I pick up Half a Creature from the Sea? This sentence from the NetGalley description sold it for me: “Set in the northern English Tyneside country of the author’s childhood, these eight short stories by the incomparable David Almond evoke gritty realities and ineffable longings, experiences both ordinary and magical.” Seaside English setting + childhood memories + touches of magic = I want to try it! This book publishes in US in the fall, but since it’s already available in the UK, I’m publishing my review now.

The collection contains only eight stories. This also appealed to me – hopefully there would be few mediocre stories to wade through in hopes of running into the goods ones, as I hear tends to be the case with story collections. GoodReads says it’s 240 pages, but in Kindle-speak it’s only ‘Loc 1522’.  Eight stories was a perfect number for me. I breezed through the collection and didn’t find any story lesser than its companion. Each story has it own charm.

Almond’s own childhood heavily influenced these stories. A few pages of explanation prefaces each story, describing the story’s basis in Almond’s reality and sometimes how it became fictionalized. This telling doesn’t spoil the stories. Almond’s prose still flows clearly in these passages. Understanding the truths in the stories made them all the more vivid for me. I appreciated a bit where he mentions having rewritten one story many times, and will probably continuing doing so in the future. That’s not something you can do easily with novels.

“That’s the strange thing about writing stories – you put in something imaginary to make the whole thing seem more real.” (21%)

Another aspect of the stories I really enjoyed was the role of the Catholic church in the lives of the young boys. I haven’t read a lot of children’s literature where the children are so engaged in a real world religion. In that area, at that time, Catholicism was just a natural, integral part of their lives. I grew up in a church, but my experience differed greatly from the ones in the stories. I liked reading about how the church influenced the boy’s lives, and how their opinions changed and developed.

“Our duties to retain the faith and to please and obey God were much more important than our duty to love and to care for our fellow creatures.” (32%)

Although part of the reason I picked up this book was the mention of magical experiences, these play less of a role in the stories than I expected. Often the ‘magic’ is a minor part, a background note to the characters themselves. I didn’t even mind, though, because the stories are sweet enough without fantasy. The prose, too, is lovely. Almond writes the perspective of a young child well.

Perhaps by now you’re wondering the target age of this book. It appears to be marketed as middle-grade. Candlewick’s website says 7 to 9 years old (which I actually think could be too young) and the protagonists are all 10- or 11-years-old, but to me the atmosphere moves the stories beyond that level. Penguin RandomHouse’s website says young adult and Kirkus Review suggests 13-18, but certainly 14 is ‘too old’. Maybe this is one of those books you can enjoy as child, forgot about as a teen, and return to to find something new when you’re older. The Ocean at the End of the Lane gave me a similar vibe, albeit with a a lot more darkness. I don’t think 10-year-old me would have liked Half a Creature from the Sea so much, because A) I never read short stories (are they common in middle grade nowadays?) and B) there wasn’t a lot of fantasy, just touches here and there. I didn’t come to appreciate slice-of-life until my late teens. Regardless, I think this is a great book. Read it yourself, then pass it on to a young thoughtful reader or one who likes all things British.

The Bottom Line: Perhaps you’re not one much for short stories, but the description appeals to you. Give it a go, and maybe you’ll be wondering, like I am, why you don’t read more short stories!